Monthly Archives: April 2017

I’d Die for These Books (Figuratively)

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: TODAY IS THE DAY.

9781501144349I’d Die for You has finally been released.  And if you like F. Scott Fitzgerald as much as I do, you’ve got to read this.

I’m not going to say that it’s his best writing (in my opinion, “Babylon Revisited” will always be one of the finest pieces of American literature), but it’s delightful.  This collection of short stories consists of previously unpublished works that often have the beginnings of his other writings.  While the writing itself is lovely (and very telling of his state of mind in each piece), it’s the context that makes this wonderful.

Basically, look at I’d Die for You as a Fitzgeraldian Go Set a Watchman: worthy of reading based on its own merits, but even more delightful when taken in context of its composition and its place in the author’s story.  For Fitzgerald, it’s all down to the editor of the collection, Anne Margaret Daniel, who provides insight into the stories as well as scans of draft pages and pictures from the Fitzgerald collection.  As someone who hates reading introductions first because they can spoil the work, I appreciated Daniel’s statement early on that the reader should read the story first, then go back and read the introduction just in case she includes a spoiler.

And then there are the stories.  Honestly, I don’t have a favorite from this collection because there’s so much.  Daniel has included some of the Hollywood treatments and film ideas, as well as stories that deal with more mature topics.  Instead of having a bunch of cheery jazzy love stories, there are musings on divorce, torture (in the historical story “Thumbs Up,” which might be one of my favorites), and the darker parts of society.  I mean, this isn’t to say that Fitzgerald has never dealt with serious topics, but in these stories there were definitely some moments when I was surprised by how explicit the un-jazzy bits were.

But my goodness, I loved the whole thing.

And yes, I know the whole point of this blog is to be honest, but I also say that any review is totally biased.  This is one case where I know I’m going to be biased, and biased beyond belief.  Fitzgerald is one of my favorite writers of all time, but most definitely my favorite American writer.  As I told my sister, I wouldn’t have cared if it was the worst collection of stories in the world – I think Fitzgerald’s writing alone is worth reading any number of pages, and luckily this turned out to be delightful.

12792In addition to I’d Die for You, I’ve finished Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm, and I’ve got to say that it brought me great joy.  It’s definitely the kind of book I’d recommend to high school boys who want to go out into the world and make their own way.  My dad handed this one to me because one of my Reading Challenge 2017 books was “set in the wilderness” and the fact that this guy went as a college kid to live in the wilderness for a winter… I figured it counted.

Basic idea: Pete Fromm goes into the wild for the winter to watch a river where salmon are going to be hatching.  He does this to earn some cash and to live out his dreams of being a mountain man.  He quickly realizes that being a mountain man is difficult, and that all the stories are basically lies.  It’s funny, and also has a lot of tragic moments of his understanding of civilization and nature (namely that humans wait until spring when it’s easy to march in and hunt the animals who have been a part of his world for the winter).

As a twenty-something woman, I had to tell my dad that, much as I liked it (and I really did), I can’t believe anyone would volunteer to go live in the woods for a winter when he has no experience.  And then I pointed out it must be a man-thing.  (No offense to the male population, but I can’t imagine a woman in college happily volunteering to live in a tent for five months — I’d be happy to be proven wrong if someone has done this herself, but I’m not expecting to have an overwhelming number of comments telling me I’m wrong.)  That’s why I think it’s great for the young man in your life (or if you’re like me and just want a good outdoorsy book) — this is a real man vs. nature struggle, and it’s told with great humor and writing.

So today has been a day of gloriously different reading material: the delightfully dizzying prose of Fitzgerald and the funny but poignant wilderness story of Fromm.  Both two thumbs up, both on my list of books to read again.

Because it’s Tuesday and I was having a pretty garbage day until I got my Fitzgerald, I’m going to end on a piece of Scott’s wisdom.

quote-F.-Scott-Fitzgerald-the-test-of-a-first-rate-intelligence-is-471

 

Keep testing your first-rate intelligence, and happy reading!

Tagged , , , , , ,

1 Disappointment and 1 Delight

Two more books checked off the list, and they couldn’t have been more different.  Because I like ending on a happy note, let’s start with the one that’s a solid example of literary mediocrity.

30319963Nicholas Reynolds’ Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy chronicles “Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961,” according to the subtitle.  Basically, Reynolds (who is the Museum Historian of the Central Intelligence Agency and has a military background) found some interesting papers that may connect Hemingway to Soviet spying.  Being a fan of espionage and Lost Gen writers, I had to read it.  While Reynolds presents a basic thesis that the papers he (and some other scholars) discovered suggest Hemingway may have been a Soviet spy, I’m beyond skeptical.  Much of the paperwork, when detailed, is based on Russian information curated by Russian individuals who then passed the information on to “the West.”

I’m no espionage expert, but I don’t trust any paperwork that describes a connection of a famous American with the Soviets when that paperwork is a summary of Soviet paperwork created by Soviets.  (And I’m not actually anti-Russian, but if you look at Cold War politics, it seems ridiculous to assume that the information is completely reliable.)

One of my main issues with the book is that the Soviet espionage Hemingway allegedly committed has no real evidence.  Sure, Hemingway met with Soviets, but he was also of a generation that is coming out of WWI and living during a dangerous rise of fascism that culminates in WWII and then develops into the Cold War.  Hemingway knew lots of people, and just because you communicate with someone does not mean you share their ideology.  Being anti-fascist does not immediately make you pro-communist.  Being anti-fascist makes you anti-fascist, and it’s completely understandable when you look at the historical context.

There are some interesting moments in the book about Hemingway’s career through three decades.  His return to Europe, for example, being influenced by the one and only spymaster-writer-inventor-Englishman extraordinaire Roald Dahl — that’s awesome.  Unfortunately, Reynolds limits the Dahl story to one page.  And I understand, the book is about Hemingway, not Dahl, but that’s the difference between this book and other military espionage books I’ve read.  Often, in other books, the author spends time incorporating more of the human story, whether it’s the spies involved themselves or just aspects of their lives that may or may not have influenced what happens now.  Spying is, at its core, a personal thing — especially during the 20th century, spies aren’t just machines with algorithms, but humans who place themselves in dangerous positions to gain information and in order to achieve that goal, they must form connections with other people.  Expand on the connections between people and I’m in.  That doesn’t happen here.

If I’m just looking at the history of Hemingway during this time, Reynolds does a pretty good job at relaying what’s happened.  The writing isn’t stellar, but it’s good enough.  Trying to make the connection with the Soviet spying, though, that’s where it collapses.  The Soviets only pop up on occasion and there’s just not enough there to convince me that he had any significant communication with Soviet spies.  After good chapters on Hemingway’s adventures, having really roughly established connections to the thesis about spying just brings the piece down.  Overall, if you’re interested in Hemingway during this period, you could still enjoy it.  I just think the repeated stretch to making Hemingway a sympathizer to Castro and company is less than convincing.

34117218Now, on the other side, The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry — it’s been a big hit in the UK and is coming to the US in June 2017.  And it is so worth it.  Basic plot: during late Victorian period, a newly widowed woman moves from London to small town in Essex where there have been mysterious incidents that make the inhabitants think the legendary Essex Serpent may be reappearing.  Of course, there are several characters whose lives are tangled together, and there may or may not be some romance…

The great joy of reading this novel is the writing.  Perry develops her characters beautifully, and evokes the feel of Victorian writers in her style.  I just don’t know what I can say about it other than, as a fan of Victorian lit, I loved it.  The reviews compare it to Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens (bleurgh) and Emily Brontë, and I have to agree.  There’s just something in the writing that you don’t find often in contemporary fiction, and when I can sit with a mug of tea and a book during a foggy day and feel like I’m on the Victorian moors, that’s a pretty great job.

[Just in case, this next paragraph might get a little spoiler-y, although I’m trying to avoid it, so SPOILER ALERT (?)!  …  Still with me?  …  Okay, here we go.]

The plot is also just gothic enough to make it enjoyable, and not so supernatural to make me feel like I’m being forced to believe the truth is out there.  There’s death and darkness and London streets, but there’s no witchcraft or truly inexplicable monster in the story.  One review put it really well, that it’s the same feeling about reading a book in which the Loch Ness monster is part of the plot — you already know it doesn’t exist, so it’s about what you do with it after that.  This book becomes more about the hysteria that comes about when something is a mystery, and there’s a bit about the darkness of what humans can be capable of.  More importantly (as a reader of the incredible Elizabeth Gaskell), there’s a lot of the book that reminds me of the “condition of England” novels of the time, focusing characters and chapters on how poverty affects families and what options are available to make life better.  Gaskell, who I consider a champion of the “social novel,” did a lot of the same things Perry does now, namely giving characters in low social positions names and voices and stories for other characters to interact with.  By giving the lower classes names and backgrounds, the reader is connected to their crises (because all characters should face crises) and sympathizes.  It’s brilliant, and Perry does it if not subtly, then skillfully.

[End of the potentially spoilery (?) bits.]

The only bit of The Essex Serpent that I’m not in love with is the ending.  The last 20 pages were the weakest bit of the book, mainly because I expected a neater ending, but it’s not that the conclusion was bad.  The writing stayed strong, the characters were still good, the bits of storyline that I wanted to end a certain way were satisfactory.  I’m more than willing to compromise with a novel’s okay ending if the rest of the book has been exemplary — and that was the case here.  I put the book down with utter satisfaction and have already passed it on to a coworker to take on during the next rainstorm (probably sometime in the next month).  If you like Victorian novels, or gothic-y stories, or social novels, or good writing, it’s worth the read.

There’s the update – now on to waiting for Scott’s story collection next Tuesday so I can binge-read!  Until then, happy reading!

Tagged , , , ,

Woman Power

I realized, when I looked at my nightstand stack of books last night, that I’m moving into a male-heavy reading load.  And not that it’s a bad thing, but all the books I want to work on are either written by or about men.  The exceptions were two books I finished last night and this morning and one book that’s been slowly shuffled to the bottom of the stack (The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, which I’m excited to read at some point when I’m in the mood for learning about probable reasons why I’m kind of a wreck).  Because both books I just added to the list of successful completions deal with women, I figured they’d fit well together in a post.  And so…

LAST NIGHT: What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons61NocdqVeQL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_

So this is a book that I’m happy to give five stars to.  It’s short (only about 200 pages) and filled with more snippets than chapters of a young woman’s life.  In this case, the narrator is Thandi, who struggles to find a place between black and white, American and not.  Her mother is from South Africa, and the family ties there are strong and history-full.  Not only does Thandi try to navigate the liminal spaces of race and ethnicity, but she also faces changes in relationships with friends, lovers, and parents.

Honestly, there’s not much plot, per se, but I think that’s one of the great strengths of Clemmons’ novel.  Thandi experiences lots of plot points, but it’s not as though there’s an epic journey across the planet, nor does she find herself to be some universe-saving heroine.  Instead, Thandi’s story is a discovery of herself as a woman who exists between two planes and searches for a space all her own.  The exploration of Thandi’s relationships is well-crafted, but especially poignant in the mother-daughter relationship that influences every other aspect of Thandi’s life.

The greatest strength of What We Lose is Clemmons’ writing.  Some of the blurbs for this book say that it’s “arresting and unsettling prose,” but I think it’s only unsettling because it feels real.  It’s written by a young woman writing in the style of a young woman searching for something beyond what she has.

While I’m not sure I want to go out and buy a copy of the hardcover, that’s mostly because I have an ARC from work and it’s the kind of book that I want to lend out, that I want to be passed on for others to enjoy.  It’s beautifully written and especially worth trying because it is the debut novel.  Clemmons will certainly be an author to watch.

(And I’m a little biased because she was at the conference we went to last weekend and she was completely sweet, despite the fact that the ARCs hadn’t arrived for her to give out.  Based on the rep’s picks and our brief conversation, I wanted to read it and I’m so glad I did.  You go, Zinzi!)

THIS MORNING: Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Women_who_run_w-330Lord have mercy, I finally finished this book.  This was the March/April pick for Emma Watson’s book club (Our Shared Shelf), and since I’ve only missed one book so far in the required list (The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson – sorry, Maggie) I wanted to make sure I got through this.  IT’S 500+ PAGES.  So nearly half the length of Ron Chernow’s Washington (which is on the long list of books I’m going to finish, dammit).

Here’s my issue: it’s like reading a book by Dr. Frasier Crane about the female mind, except instead of Frasier’s Freudian approach, it’s Jungian.  (Wasn’t Niles a Jungian?  I’m pretty sure he was…)  Knowing very little of Jungian psychology, I didn’t mind explanations of how the myths and tales fit into the archetypes, etc., but I mind very much when there’s a whole lot of author blah blah blah bits instead of real analysis.

2j2eggvfoway

The idea of this book (which was first published in 1992) is to help women reconnect with their “wild” side, to learn how to be her Self in spite of society’s pressures put on most of the female population.  In order to explain the pressures and how women can avoid falling into the traps, Estés chooses stories she can analyze to get her points across.

I am a literature major.  In both my undergraduate BA program and in my MA program.  The trouble I had with the book is largely because of her analysis of the stories.  It’s not that I don’t agree with some of her points, but it’s more that I find the lack of analysis to be frustrating.  Often, Estés repeats a summary of the story she literally transcribed two pages ago and then argues her point without delving too deep into the meaning.  Either that or she goes on and on and on and on about something that I really can’t believe because I don’t see evidence of her argument.

To spend 500+ pages expecting to read some of the classic fairy tales or common myths as seen by a Jungian psychoanalyst and explore the critique of such tales, only to be informed that the 500+ pages are mostly the author going on and on about her experience as a psychoanalyst, it’s kind of disappointing.  And hey, call me crazy, but I’m not 100% onboard with any sort of “psychoanalysis.”  I’m not saying it’s a bunk field — I believe psychology in general is pretty extraordinary and can be incredibly helpful — but the way Estés talks about her work with women and discovering the unconscious thoughts the women have… I’m skeptical at best.  I think there can be a lot of good work those in the psychology-related careers can do because we should care for our mental health as much as our physical.  I just don’t know that delving into the “unconscious” is a really reliable way to sell your ideas, especially because it seems that the unconscious can be manipulated.

So if you’re like me and you pick up a “bestselling” book that has accolades from about a thousand people (and probably dating to its initial publication in the 1990s) hoping that you’ll get a lot out of intense psychological analysis of the fairy tales you know and love and want to see read in a seriously feminist light, you’re going to be disappointed.  There were also a lot of parts that seemed like Estés was arguing the differences between male and female psychology that we’ve now pretty much (dis)proven with modern science.  Not that it’s really wrong, but it’s hard to take some of her arguments seriously when we have all sorts of brain studies or scientific research that makes the argument seem dated or incorrect.

Would I recommend this?  Maybe.  If you’re the kind of person who likes Jungian theory, or the kind of person who wants to read about women’s psychology, or the kind of person who finds 1990s “calls to the wild” books attractive, sure.  If you’re a woman who wants to learn to connect to her wild self, you could try it.  But if you’re anything like me, you’ll seek out the wild in this book and find yourself skimming a hell of a lot of pages trying to get to the good stuff.

This one was for you, Emma Watson.  Glad I finished it.  Now, on to my giant stack of manly man* books…

*Manly man books currently include: Electric Light by Seamus Heaney, Cricket Explained by Robert Eastaway, Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm, Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy by Nicholas Reynolds, Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow — I swear I’ll finish it someday — , A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, and Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.  I think I should get double manly man points for Good Omens, since it’s written by two men, and, like, triple for Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy because it’s by a man about Ernest Hemingway and his secret spy career.  How much manlier can you get?

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Romancing the Unusual

Two more books added to the list over the past couple of days, but I can’t say I’m giving them stellar reviews.  One is old.  One is new.  Both get three stars from me.


OLD: Black Butler, Vol. 1

9780316080842Someone somewhere on the internet described this manga series and it sounded like one I would like.  Victorian drama in which a young earl has a butler who seemingly makes anything happen.  Crazy servants.  Criminal underground.  Oh, and the butler is actually a demon who protects the boy in exchange for the boy’s soul.  I can honestly say it sounds right up my alley, but then I read it.  And it’s fine.  I wasn’t in love with the illustrations – not that they were bad, but I just wanted something more – and the story was okay, but I felt like it could have been expanded.  And I know, I know, it’s only the first volume.  I should give it more time.  But I’m not a huge fan of manga (apparently) and coming off of reading Saga it just made me want it to be a graphic novel.  Or a regular novel.  I still like the story, but I don’t think I’m going to keep reading.


NEW: Alex and Eliza by Melissa de la Cruz9781524739621

Coming out this Tuesday, Alex and Eliza is de la Cruz’s imagining of the courtship between Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler.  She says in the afterword that it was inspired by seeing Hamilton, and although it’s a fine story, you can definitely tell parts that were influenced by it.  I also have a really hard time reading teen novels anymore, and to make it a historical teen romance was tough for me to give it slack.  The fact is, we don’t have much historical evidence of how their courtship went – all we know is that it was quick – so there’s every chance that she’s got it at least partially right.  I just am picky with my history.  I want to see more period-appropriate language and avoid long paragraphs of summarized history (parts of the Alex chapters sound a lot like she read a Wikipedia article about the Chernow biography and, while I appreciate the effort, it doesn’t feel natural).  So it’s a quick read, and if you have any interest in a young Hamilton romance, it’s fine.  I mean, don’t expect any earth-shattering dialogue or moments that will make your heart flutter from the level of love these two achieve, but it’s fine.  (Also, spoiler alert, it ends at their marriage, so you don’t have to worry about the historical conclusion to their relationship.  You know, the whole I cheated on you with Maria Reynolds and there was huge fallout from that and then I ended up getting in a duel with Aaron Burr (sir) after our son died in a duel and you were at my bedside when I died from the wound I suffered at the hands of Burr (sir).  That’s not in this one.)  Maybe it’s even really good and it’s just that I’ve outgrown teen romances.  Who knows.  Either way, if you wanted to read it, you’ll probably enjoy it anyway.


OTHER BOOKS I’M GOING TO BE WORKING ON

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons – I got to meet her briefly at the NCIBA Spring Workshop this past weekend and she’s totally sweet.  Plus, the book looks pretty good.  I just started it (only about twenty pages in) but the writing is good and I’m really intrigued by what’s going to happen.

You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education by George Anders – Also got to meet this author at the Spring Workshop, and he is just delightful.  We chatted for a while about how this is the book I need in my life right now because I need to be reminded that I’m going to find something that works for me.  He was so kind and so encouraging that I’m very excited to read it.  (I swear, I will read it soon.  I just have to get through some other books first.  My stack has grown somehow…)

I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I’m putting this on the list because it comes out at the end of this month and I.  Am.  So.  Freaking.  Excited.  Anything Fitzgerald is good in my book, and the fact that these are stories that haven’t been published before – I can’t express how excited I am.  Oh, wait.  I can.

tumblr_n02sqwyPlV1r8jikao1_250

(It seems like any emotion I try to express can be done through Tom Hiddleston.  There’s a reason I love this man.)

As I try to tackle the enormous stack of books on my nightstand, I’ll try to keep updating here, although I won’t guarantee it will be timely or coherent.  Only time will tell.  Until next time, read on and support your local indie!

Tagged , , , , , ,

Speed Round

In the time since the last update with Towers Falling, I’ve finished four books.  I’ve also made progress on three more, but they’re long (Women Who Run with the Wolves, Good Omens, Washington: A Life).  So I’ve only finished four.  And here’s the quick rundown on what they were.

9781473654068#1: Walking the Americas by Levison Wood — I’m a little bit in love with this man.  And by a little bit, I mean a lot.  This is his third book based off of his third BBC series (of which I have only seen the first, Walking the Nile, thanks to iTunes making the three-episode show a whopping $3.99 to purchase), and it’s great fun.  Walking the Nile was probably still my favorite of his, mainly because it’s intense and full of descriptions of places in Africa I would like to see but am frankly too afraid to visit in person.  Walking the Himalayas was still fun, and offered more of a focus on the people Wood meets and the politics of the area than, say, the wildlife.  Walking the Americas is a nice middle ground of Nile and Himalayas because there’s obviously lots of political background (walking Central America when Donald Trump has just been elected is pretty fascinating) but there’s also some critters along the way.  Wood’s great strength with all of these books is his ability to infuse humor and history into tales of his walking adventures, and I only hope that at some point I get to see the show itself.

TenDeadComedians_72dpi#2: Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente — A disappointment for me, I’m afraid.  I was sold on the ARC we got in at work because it said this was “a darkly clever take on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and other classics of the genre.”  Now, say Agatha Christie and I’m interested, but say it’s somehow a take on ATTWN and I am in.  It’s my favorite Christie mystery and I love the variations you can get out of it.  But then… I guess I was just expecting more cleverness and more… just more.  Saying it’s “an homage to the Golden Age of Mystery and a thoroughly contemporary show-business satire” gives me high hopes.  What it felt like to me was someone who took ATTWN and put some comedians in the places of the same Christie characters and occasionally tucked in a “funny” monologue.  (I found few of the monologues funny, and since many of the jokes revolved around crude sex humor, I wasn’t particularly impressed.  Call me old-fashioned, but I love dry wit.)  I also have to say that whoever ended the blurb with “It’s also an ingeniously plotted puzzler with a twist you’ll never see coming!” should reconsider the wording.  Yeah, I was mildly surprised by the twist, but it wasn’t something I couldn’t see coming.  It was something that I considered briefly, then thought, “Nah, he wouldn’t go this direction.”  Maybe that’s the trouble with redoing ATTWN – if you’ve read the original, it’s tough to be surprised by anything because that’s the whole point of the mystery.  Disappointed, but mostly by the fact that it’s going to come out as a $20-something hardcover.  Worth considering if your local library gets a copy.

#3: Saga, Volume 7 by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan — I LOVE SAGA.  This volume comes out Tuesday and it is still so good.  Story, artwork, everything is on point in this series.  The only trouble is I devour these books and then I have to wait ages for the next installment.  Doesn’t matter, though, because I’ll keep waiting.  It’s that good.

The-Will-Saga-Lying-Cat-b

Sophie and Lying Cat from Saga

#4: The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss — Yes, that Mark Gatiss.  This is the first book in a 51nynW8O7AL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_series he’s written about one Lucifer Box, “gentleman” (to use the term very loosely), artist, and secret agent.  It’s fun and silly and is not meant to be taken seriously.  At all
.  At moments, the voice reminds me a lot of good old Bertie Wooster (except he’s actually capable) and the character names remind me often of James Bond (Miss Bella Pok, for instance, or his friend Christopher Miracle).  Basically, if you’re in the mood for something fluffy and easy to digest (and if you like Mark Gatiss), give Lucifer a try.  I don’t know if I’ll seek out the next one, but if it happened to find its way to my hands, I’d probably enjoy it just as much as this.

And there we are.  According to Goodreads, I’m currently 62% through Women Who Run with the Wolves, 17% through Good Omens, and 13% through Washington, so we’ll see how long those take.  Women is the Emma Watson Bookclub selection for March-April, so I’ll have to finish it by the end of the month, and Washington might just be hanging in there for a while.  Good Omens, which I’m fairly certain I’ve read before but I can’t actually remember, is just a nice filler for whenever I find myself incapable of serious nonfiction thought.

As always, thanks for reading this and remember to support your local indie!

Tagged , , , , ,