Archive for the '2015 books' Category

Fall 2015 Books

Monday, November 16th, 2015

I have been meaning to write this post for weeks, and now that I finally sat down and did, I’ve ended up deleting most of it. Argh! Quit? I don’t think so. Here’s my post-summer reading.

lathe1The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin. For one of my book groups about a man living in a future dystopia who can “fix” things by dreaming. LeGuin gives good dystopia.

askingAsking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can Do About It by Kate Harding. I sought this book out after I read Jon Krakauer’s Missoula. Harding’s book is smart and provoking about how we can fix seriously broken systems and attitudes.

secrethistoryThe Secret History by Donna Tartt. I re-read this for one of my books groups. I thought it would be interesting to re-visit, as I’d read it when it came out and my memories amounted to little more than: cool secret, too long, cream cheese and marmalade sandwiches. After a second reading of this big book crammed into a small package with small font, margins, and spacing, I remember a lot more detail, but the summary is the same. Great idea, great writing, way too long for what it is, and I prefer Tana French’s homage, The Likeness, to Tartt’s original.

jekyllDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. For one of my book groups as a Halloween read. I enjoyed reading this novella again because it is different from what everyone thinks they know about the book.

nomercyNo Mercy graphic novel by Alex de Campi illustrated by Carla Speed McNeil. I’m a huge fan of McNeil’s and her Finder is one of the longest running comic series there is, and one of my favorites. Here she’s doing the art for someone else, but the result is still terrific in this story of a group of mostly pampered smart kids who go on a trip to South America and things go horribly wrong.

graveyardThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, for one of my book groups. A re-read, and one I mostly read aloud to my kids though we did get the audio book from the library and listen to Neil himself read it, which I highly recommend. There is also a bigger production but I think the author reading was quite perfect. Graveyard Book is a boy-who-lived story, reminiscent of many others, but Gaiman’s spooky spin on details makes it fresh and engaging.

And, as anyone who has visited the blog lately knows, I’ve been leading a small brave group of readers through Infinite Jest while reading a commentary, Elegant Complexity, for help in parsing its IJs many mysteries. I highly recommend the group read for Infinite Jest. We started with the 70ish pages a week schedule done by Infinite Summer groups, but slowed down to about 40, which was so much more manageable. This was my second time through IJ, and I found it rich, challenging, and enjoyable.

So, that’s it for the last few months–a mixed bag indeed: sci fi, sociology, modern literature, Victorian lit, a graphic novel, a children’s book, Infinite Jest and a commentary. Whew!

What have you read/enjoyed this fall?


Tuesday, September 29th, 2015


Sam Bohrman is a friend of mine, so my review of her book can’t be unbiased. That said, Ruby’s Misadventures with Reality is a delightful, hilarious romp of a mystery/romance, and I highly recommend it. If you like mysteries, romances, or comedies, this is a fast, fun read. Think Bridget Jones set in Kansas with The Wizard of Oz instead of Pride and Prejudice as an influence, and you’re on the right track.

Ruby O’Deare is kind of a mess. She has interfering parents, her taste in clothes far outstrips the paycheck from her not-very-fulfilling job with a Mean-Girl boss, and there’s a weird guy named Todd crashing on the couch in the apartment she shares with her friend Ming. The mystery we begin with is not typical of crime novels:

…if only she knew how she’d gotten here…Under her borrowed bathrobe, her skin was covered in fine purple grit, as if she’d run through a sprinkler and then rolled in grape-flavored Pop Rocks. Waking up at the zoning commissioner’s house covered in what she could only assume was purple sex paste with a smooshed party hat under her pillow–it just didn’t add up, not for a temp attorney who spent most nights Facebooking in front of The Bachelor.

From there, Ruby stumbles, sometimes literally in her high heels, among shady real estate deals, a suspicious death, and whether or not Noel, the cute zoning commissioner likes her.

Ruby is daffy and misguided, but is smarter than anyone–including herself–gives her credit for. Her charm and resilience in the face of her own frequent ridiculousness make her a character I cheered for even while I shook my head at her not-so-good choices.

If you are looking for realistic crime, or complex true-to life characters, you have come to the wrong book. If you’re looking for a sweet, silly escape, you’re in the right place. I look forward to the further (mis)adventures of Ruby.

ALLEGIANCE by Kermit Roosevelt

Monday, September 28th, 2015


I received a free review copy of Kermit Roosevelt’s Allegiance from his publisher, but would have sought out this book in any case. I enjoyed Roosevelt’s first novel, In the Shadow of the Law, and was intrigued by the premise of Allegiance, when I read about it.

Allegiance begins just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news. I was in New York, the Beta house at Columbia, with constitutional law books on my desk and last night’s drinks in my head.

Caswell “Cash” Harrison is just finishing law school, and feels the pull to enlist. His family and his girlfriend’s family discourage him. He’s drafted, but fails the physical, and instead is awarded a plum job as clerk to a Supreme Court justice in DC. But once in DC, he is in way over his Main-Line, privileged-white-guy head.

Cash is a noir-like protagonist, a good but rather slow guy being manipulated, but by whom? There are spies, tough guys, even a femme fatale of sorts. Just as he begins to suspect something’s wrong in the courts, someone he knows is killed. He vows to figure out who did it, but is meanwhile hampered by his own naivete, friends who might be enemies, and overlapping mysteries. Who is manipulating the court cases about Japanese internment? Is there a conspiracy among the Supreme Court clerks? Are other cases about business or land being thrown? Who might be moving against FDR in his New Deal plans?

Roosevelt, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, has a convincing and engaging way of writing about the law. His book is ambitious, reflecting deep research on legal history and the cities of Philly and DC, while weaving in a series of complex historical mysteries. Having lived in both cities, I appreciated spending time in them during a different era, and Roosevelt’s writing skillfully evoked both time and place. As I read, I wondered whether any of these were red herrings, or if they all tied together. They did, in complicated and interesting ways. I also appreciated the connections to modern discussion of race, immigration, and discrimination. Racism and fear and war continue to plague the United States, even as we think we’ve learned lessons from the past.

The vision and scope for Allegiance are impressive. While I found it didn’t quite succeed completely–the pace sometimes lagged with certain mysteries being dropped while others moved to the fore, there were rather too many squash and tennis games for me, and Cash was sometimes frustratingly clueless–I both enjoyed and admired it overall. The enormous amount of historical detail and research that went into it, as well as the insight into past legal battles over race and discrimination, make this a timely, involving read.

2015 Summer Books!

Monday, September 7th, 2015


I thought, hey, it’s been a long time since I blogged about books. Maybe I’ll do one post on all the books since I last reviewed one. Hey, maybe I can do one on summer books! The upshot of this, minus my internal back and forth, is that I haven’t reviewed a book since the last of May, which seemed like a coincidence until I realized, 1. Summer and kids home and b. new part time job at comic store. So for the purposes of this post, summer counts as June 1 to Labor Day Monday, which is today. Because I said so.

Graphic novels

SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki. A collection of the online webcomic by the artist of This One Summer. Weird, but compelling.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson. My 9 and 11you boys and I LOVED this book. A girl warrior wants to be the sidekick to a villain. But the villain isn’t so villainous, the hero isn’t so heroic, and Nimona isn’t what she seems. So good.

ODY-C v. 1 by Matt Fraction. A gender-bent space opera re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey. Bat$hit crazy, beautiful to look at, and boggling to experience.

Ms. Marvel v. 3 Crushed. I love Ms. Marvel, the awkward teen superhero, and so do my boys.

Unwritten v. 11 Apocalypse. I was worried this series would have a vague ending. Hooray! They stuck the landing! A great end to a great series, perfect for lit nerds.

The last clump of graphic novels I read in May I didn’t love. June’s batch knocked it out of the park. Loved ‘em all.

Kids and Young Adult Books

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. A terrific love story, about a teen who just happens to be gay.

Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones. My boys had balked at reading this first book in the Chrestomanci series, so I read it aloud. They LOVED it and toward the end we had to read in huge chunks as they didn’t want to stop. Diana’s books are classic, and great for fans of Harry Potter, as her books were an influence on Rowling.

Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson. Recommended to me by my 11yo son. A novel in free-verse poems about Lonnie, a foster kid separated from his sister. Lovely and moving. I followed it with

Peace, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson, which neither my son nor I loved as much–it was letters, not free verse poems.

Story of a Girl
by Sara Zarr. I read it because young adult authors Carrie Mesrobian and Chrisa Desir did a close read of an amazing long passage in it.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. This book is flat-out amazing. An artist autobiography in free-verse poetry of Woodson’s life, which started in Columbus, Ohio, then moved to South Carolina, then New York City.

Crossover by Kwame Alexander. A novel in free verse about a teen boy who plays basketball, fights with his twin brother, and struggles with his parents and their rules. I didn’t love it as much as Brown Girl Dreaming, but it probably would have more appeal to boys.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Some would argue this is an “adult” book, but on this reading, it struck me that the heroes and villains are very clear cut–there aren’t many ambiguities to this book. Racism is far more complicated than this book implies. But it is as moving, as silly and sad, as ever.

Guy in Real Life
by Steve Brezenoff. Out drinking one night, teenage Lesh literally runs into a mystery girl. Grounded by his parents, he starts playing line role-playing games, and tries to strike up a friendship at school with the girl. I have no interest in D & D type games yet I fell hard for this book. The characters are great, and there is a twist toward the end that I didn’t see coming but made perfect sense, and made me see many things in new ways. A great book to give kids about the hazards of internet life.


Remember when I used to read primarily fiction? I’ve become a memoir junkie.

Tailings by Kaethe Schweyn. I was lucky enough to hear the author read part of this aloud at a local event. It’s about her year at a religious community during and after a painful breakup, and about how she puts herself back together. There is nature, religion, and coming of age all intertwined in beautiful writing.

Baghdad Express by Joel Turnipseed. I didn’t know I knew the author of this book, but when I figured out I did, I finally read this memoir of the early Gulf War from the perspective of a young Marine and philosophy student. With meditations on time and growing up, it’s not what you’d expect from a Marine’s memoir.

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola. Hepola, an editor at, was a blackout drinker for decades before getting help. She is extraordinarily honest, sometimes funny, often tragic, in telling her story.

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. In the aftermath of her father’s death, a woman gets and trains a wild bird. This book is filled with astonishingly beautiful prose, as well as nature and history. I was enraptured.

Other Non-Fiction

Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky. The transcript of the interview over days that Lipsky did with David Foster Wallace at the end of his book tour for Infinite Jest in 1996. It’s the basis for the film The End of the Tour, which I found pretty good, though not great. Lipsky is significantly absent in the narrative, and I’m not sure who OK’d putting the afterword BEFORE the book, but whoever did should be given a smack to the head. But it was a joy reading great gouts of DFW and trying to puzzle him out.

Missoula by Jon Krakauer. A harrowing investigation into a series of rapes and accusations in a college town in Montana.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This could also have gone under memoir, as it’s written as a letter to his teenage son, but since it’s about race and the world today in all it’s messiness, I think it goes way beyond memoir. It’s not a long book, but a deep one. Everyone should read it.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. I recommended this to my parents before I read it, then they read it and kept bugging me to read it. A searching and moving look into the process of dying in the US, which does not devolve into a simplistic “should” narrative, to its immense credit.


The Girl on the Train. I raced through it and it started strong but finished weak, I thought. A great premise, about a woman who is blackout drunk witnesses a crime. But since in blackout, she can’t make long term memories, she can’t simply remember. But then, she does. Sorry, but this book’s ending really annoyed me.

Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie. For my book group, a lifetime collection of the native-American author. I’m glad I finally got around to reading him, as his voice and views are distinct and powerful.

Meadowlands, poems by Louise Gluck. This was a companion read to Homer’s Odyssey and Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, but came to me via Tailings by Kaethe Schweyn. A series of poems about the breakup of a relationship, as well as poems written from the perspective of Penelope in The Odyssey.

Ruby’s Misadventures in Reality by Samantha Bohrman. A silly, fun murder mystery and romance. It made me laugh aloud many times.

The Coincidence of Coconut Cake by Amy E. Reichert. A fast fun romance about a young chef who falls for a food critic who panned her restaurant, which kills her dream. It’s set in Milwaukee and full of delicious food and local details. I now owe my younger son a coconut cake, as he was as mesmerized by the cover cake as I was.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. If you have been in academia, you should read this book, a novel in letters, but specifically recommendation letters. At first it’s funny, but then it gets oh-so-sad, but this is an utter gem of a novel.

And that’s it for my summer reading. It was a blast and I loved so many of these books. Only one–The Girl on the Train–was truly disappointing. I finished 28 books (many of which were fast reads like graphic novels, kid books and romances, but still–lots!) How do I do it, many friends ask? My kids are older now–9 and 12 and able to take care of themselves. Also, my house is a mess and I do laundry infrequently and I do not have a full time office job.

TRUE GRIT by Charles Portis

Saturday, May 30th, 2015

Many people told me the book True Grit by Charles Portis was at least as awesome as either of the films, maybe even better.

Many people were right.

True Grit is a gem. It’s a whole book narrated by 14-year-old Mattie Ross, and Mattie is a joy and a wonder to spend time with. She’s smart, sassy, and tough.

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.

Mattie hires Rooster Cogburn because she hears he has “true grit” but it’s Mattie that astonished me with her endless reserves of awesomeness as she goes up against all the many things (and men) she does.

Mattie is a heroine for the ages, and a terrific role model for everyone, not just girls.


Friday, May 29th, 2015

I saved Five Caught in a Treacherous Plot by Enid Blyton from my childhood. I remembered loving it, and wanted to read it to my boys.

It was a fun read aloud, and enjoyable to translate some of the archaic English bits for my boys, but ultimately it was rather a lame mystery, simplistic, with stereotypical gender roles. I actually think my boys, at 9 and 11 years old, were too old for it.

It’s a bummer when I revisit something I remember loving, and find the Suck Fairy got into it.

“Clutter Free with Kids”

Friday, May 29th, 2015

I checked Clutterfree with Kids by Joshua Becker out from the library, hoping to get some insight into decluttering in an American family home, since one of my new favorite books, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, is written more for single people.

But Becker’s book is long on platitudes, and short on strategy, plus his strategies tend to be more in the kind that Kondo helpfully debunks, like doing a little bit, or one little thing, at a time.

Skip the Becker. Buy the Kondo.

“Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life” by Emily Nagoski

Friday, May 29th, 2015


I will be very clear. I think everyone should read Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski. This is a great book about female sexuality, and even if you have a good sex life, this book can and probably will make it better. It did for me.

The subtitle makes me abashed to admit reading this, because things were good in that department of the marriage. BUT, now they’re even better.

This book is a myth-busting extravaganza about all the dumb, wrong things we think about human sexuality, especially women’s sexuality. As Nagoski emphasizes, we all have the same parts, just differently organized. This book is like talking to a super smart funny friend who knows all about sex. I thought I knew about sex. Then I read this book and was embarrassed to find out all the things I thought that were wrong, or that I just hadn’t considered before.

I found out about it because my husband G. Grod read about it online. He read it first, then said I should. I started it, then went out and bought it, both so I could have our own copy (there are worksheets inside) and so the next person in the library queue could get it faster.

Four Graphic Novels, None of Which I Loved

Friday, May 29th, 2015

Thus, I might as well smush them into one post.

First, Wonder Woman: Flesh, which is volume five in the recent reboot written by Brian Azarello and illustrated awesomely by Cliff Chiang. Alas, Chiang was notably absent from most of the issues in this story, and without him it wasn’t as good. Also, one of the great things about Wonder Woman has been her feminist amazingness, which has been somewhat undermined in this storyline by making her just another of Zeus’ children.

Next, Fables: Happily Ever After, volume 21 and the penultimate one in this series. I feel at this point that it’s repeating itself, and has gone longer than it should have. Further, two of the short stories ended with characters’ fantasies of skinny hot women serving them. That’s just unacceptable, sexist, and wrong. If not for the basassery of Snow White, I would have ditched this series long ago. I will go through to the end, though, with fingers crossed for a strong finish.

Speaking of undermined basassery, I am very sad for the changes in character Jessica Jones as shone in the Marvel collection Jessica Jones: The Pulse. Jessica was a fierce heroine in her own series, Alias, but now she’s pregnant and Luke Cage’s girlfriend, and these seem to be her defining and limiting traits. The art in the first story arc was so bad I alternately wanted to laugh and cry. It improved for the final story, with them getting the original Alias band back together, but overall, this was a miss.

And finally, Phonogram: Rue Britannia by Gillen/McKelvie, which I picked up because I was enjoying their current series, The Wicked and the Divine. My appreciation of the latter has waned though. I find the art too static, and the story too reliant on magic and not enough on character development. That was true for Phonogram, and I liked it even less because rather than focusing on a pantheon of gods, as WicDiv does, it was about 90’s Britpop, which I don’t much care for. So, another miss, and a good reminder that I should probably check graphic novels out of the library rather than buying them.

So, four disappointing graphic novels in a row. I’m hoping for better things from the final collection of The Unwritten, which is on my bedside table.

THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir

Friday, May 29th, 2015

I read The Martian by Andy Weir for one of my book groups, the Twin Cities’ Books and Bars. It was on a lost of best-of lists last year, but I’d heard some grumblings from other people who’d read it that it was more math and science than an actual sci-fi book. I found it a thumping good read, with one big caveat.

I found the science in this book of fiction to be a big strength. Many sci-fi books are vague on details. Weir is obviously a giant geek, and he loads them on, going into such detail that I was convinced of his science bona fides, and unsurprised to learn he was a programmer prodigy as well as a space nerd. That said, I actually skimmed many of the detailed science sections–I trusted him to get the details, while I just read ahead to see if and how his protagonist, the immature but mostly winning smart-ass protagonist Mark Watney, would survive when he was left for dead on the surface of Mars.

My one concern with the book was a blithe disregard (ignorance?) about race and sex. The character uses the word “rape” casually, and another time insults people by saying their mothers and sisters are prostitutes.

“Lighten up,” some people at the book discussion tweeted at me when I brought this up. But no, I will not. Rape is not a casual word, and joking about prostitutes is not OK. Further, Watney is CLEARLY a Mary-Sue character, meaning a projection of the author himself, so I can’t help but read this as Weir’s own take. It perpetuates bad attitudes in the same way that Jeremy Renner’s jokes about Black Widow being a whore do. These cheap jokes marred an otherwise good book. Rape and prostitutes are not joking matters. Period. The end.


Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

I read Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea for a parent/kid book group I attend. My 5th grader had already read the book in class, but enjoyed hearing it again. My boys enjoyed it more than I did. There are several students who narrate the book, about a school year with a new, enthusiastic, and sometimes unorthodox teacher. We know a tragedy happens, and the book circles around it for a long time before we find out what happened. I didn’t feel a drive to find out though, and I was very much bothered by the book’s implication that tragedies happen for a reason we don’t understand, but that if good things come out of them, then that’s why they happened.

Ahem. Bad things happen. Good things happen. Roll with the former. Celebrate the latter.

The different kids’ voices, stories and personalities were the book’s strength. Mr. Terupt himself, though, was left a deliberate cipher, with no family and little background. Apparently the follow up book/s explain this, but it was a significant, weird void in the first book that made me speculate that he’s in witness protection and the FBI got tired of him interrupting them, so they made his new name Terupt. But I don’t care enough to read the sequel, or even read reviews of them to find out what the deal is. Not my cuppa.


Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

After reading Citizen, and alongside reading Ulysses, I needed something enjoyable, and so finally got around to picking up Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight. A friend lent it to me some time ago, and I was reminded of it during my recent adventures in KonMari clearing. So I read the book, enjoyed it, and returned it to my friend. Voila, one fewer thing in my house. Yay!

This is a murder mystery where a teen girl dies, apparently of suicide, but probably not, since that’s the mystery. It’s told in alternating bits that switch time between the single lawyer mom, and the dead Amelia. This was a fast entertaining read. I thought early on that it was obvious what would happen, and I was very wrong, so the book did surprise me. What I liked best was the complex and creepy subculture of mean rich kids in NYC. What I liked least was the mother going on about her guilt over working in a career she clearly loved and was good at. This was a fast, engaging read with little to no subtext but well plotted and strongly finished.

CITIZEN by Claudia Rankine

Friday, May 15th, 2015

When I saw Citizen by Claudia Rankine on several best-of and award lists for 2014, then found it was published by local treasure Graywolf Press, I knew I wanted to check it out. Her poems and essays on race are necessary, if painful, reading in these fraught times where racism is so ugly and present in American life.

Hey you –

All our fevered history won’t instill insight,
won’t turn a body conscious,
won’t make that look
in the eyes say yes, though there is nothing

to solve

even as each moment is an answer.

Rankine is sometimes intimidatingly intelligent. Her prose is so erudite and her vocabulary so complicated, that it demands slow, careful reading, which is perfectly suited to the difficult, eye and soul-opening race problems she documents. This small book is big and important. While it was a finalist for the National Book Award, and won the National Book Critics Circle Award, it was snubbed for consideration by the Pulitzer, an egregious oversight.

GOBLIN SECRETS by Will Alexander

Friday, May 15th, 2015

Goblin Secrets by Will Alexander had been on my kids’ shelf for a while. My 11yo, Drake, had started but abandoned it, and my 9yo Guppy was not interested, so I knew if we were going to read it I’d have to do it aloud, and by the end of the book everyone was fully engaged, and we finished in a big push one night because the boys needed to know how it ended.

This is a dark fantasy, set in a world called Zombay, with clockwork creatures, and goblin performers who are misunderstood and feared.

Our selves are rough and unrehearsed tales we tell the world.

Young Rownie, an orphan, runs away from his foster grandmother Graba to search for his older brother Rowan. He is taken in by a goblin acting troupe, but his defection causes more trouble than he’d expected.

Alexander has created a rich, complicated world. We were enthralled by it and Rownie’s adventure. An excellent read-aloud book for kids that’s satisfying for all ages.

MAN AT THE HELM by Nina Stibbe

Friday, May 15th, 2015

I loved Nina Stibbe’s debut, Love, Nina, and my husband said her first novel Man at the Helm, while much darker, had some of the same irreverent humor. Since he had it from the library, I decided to have a go.

It’s narrated by an adult woman recounting her childhood, but the point of view is sometimes too childish for an adult, and vice versa. A well-off family splinters with the father has an affair and the parents divorce.

My sister and I and our little brother were born (in that order) into a very good situation and apart from the odd new thing life was humdrum and comfortable until an evening in 1970 when my mother listened in to my father’s phone call and ended up blowing her nose on a tea towel - a thing she’d only have done in an absolute emergency.

The mother moves to an insular village, and struggles to raise her three children. The eldest daughter decides the family won’t be taken seriously without the titular man at the helm, so she enlists her younger sister, the narrator, to help find a new dad. Alas, the pickings are slim in the village, and much disaster ensues before we arrive at a happy-ish ending.

While much is laugh-out-loud funny, as was Stibbe’s previous book, much of this is terribly sad. The tone veers so wildly that it felt more accidentally unever to me than deliberately complex. Good, but…

THE PENELOPIAD by Margaret Atwood

Friday, May 15th, 2015

Margaret Atwood’s entry into the Canongate Myth series, The Penelopiad, seemed like an obvious addition to my reading list given my recent reading of Homer’s Odyssey and current reading of Joyce’s Ulysses.

From the book jacket:

In Homer’s account in The Odyssey, Penelope — wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy – is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan war after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumours, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, and keep over a hundred suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and – curiously – twelve of her maids.

In a splendid contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the telling of it to Penelope and to her twelve hanged Maids, asking: ‘What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?’.

Before I read Atwood’s book, I was curious about her contention that they killing of the maids was mysterious. It is clearly stated in the Odyssey that the maids who are killed were sleeping with the enemy, and possibly spies.

What Atwood does is simple, but brilliant: she gives a background and history to the maids, gives backstory and motivation for Penelope, and fills in the “she said” of a historical story taken for granted. It hadn’t occurred to me, I’m abashed to admit, that the supposedly treacherous maids who were sleeping with suitors might have been doing so without consent. Odysseus treated them like property, not people. Atwood, giving voice to these women, is a sort of posthumous, fictional justice.

I also appreciated the voice Atwood gives to Penelope. While Penelope appears as a strong, vocal presence in The Odyssey, she is given even more agency, even more power, in Atwood’s take.

Cleverness is a quality a man likes to have in his wife as long as she is some distance away from him. Up close, he’ll take kindness any day of the week, if there’s nothing more alluring to be had.

This is a short but powerful complement to The Odyssey.

ANNIHILATION by Jeff Van Dermeer

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015


I read Annihilation by Jeff Van Dermeer for The Morning News Tournament of Books. I’d heard good things from friends about this first book in the Southern Reach trilogy, but less good things about the trilogy overall. It was short, though, and sounded cool:

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

The twelfth expedition is also all women, so this book was automatically going to pass the Bechdel test, a sort of lowest-common-denominator of a book or movie, in which the work contains two women who are named that have a conversation that is not about men.

I loved having a smart, scientist woman narrator, and the world the author describes is mysterious and fascinating.

I leaned in closer, like a fool, like someone who had not had months of survival training or ever studied biology. Someone tricked into thinking that words should be read.

The book does a great job setting up whether our narrator is reliable, how reliable, what is going on, and is it “real” or paranormal. But it didn’t sustain the momentum to the end, which was more a whimper than a bang for me. I’m writing this less than two months after I read it, and I cannot remember much about the ending, so it did not stick with me. I will not be reading 2 and 3 in the trilogy.

YES PLEASE by Amy Poehler

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015


I listened to Yes Please by Amy Poehler via, and I recommend listening to it. Not only does the charming and funny Poehler narrate, she has great guest stars like Patrick Stewart, Kathleen Turner as her dark side, her parents, and Seth Myers.

I was expecting a light, smart, funny book with bite like Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? Yes Please is bigger than those, though, both in size and scope. It covers Poehler’s life, from childhood outside Boston to the present, including her divorce from Will Arnett and the last season of Parks & Recreation, one of the best, sweetest shows I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch. (But start with either the gay penguins episode, or season 3; it took a while to get its groove.)

It’s called Yes Please because it is the constant struggle and often the right answer. Can we figure out what we want, ask for it, and stop talking? Yes please. Is being vulnerable a power position? Yes please. Am I allowed to take up space? Yes please. Would you like to be left alone? Yes please. I love saying “yes” and I love saying “please.” Saying “yes” doesn’t mean I don’t know how to say no, and saying “please” doesn’t mean I am waiting for permission. “Yes please” sounds powerful and concise. It’s a response and a request. It is not about being a good girl; it is about being a real woman. It’s also a title I can tell my kids. I like when they say “Yes please” because most people are rude and nice manners are the secret keys to the universe.

What I didn’t know about Poehler is how much she’s done to train up young talent. Additionally, while I was expecting, and enjoyed, the SNL and celebrity anecdotes, I much more appreciated her honesty about things like the difficulty and sadness of divorce, and the frequent forays into empowered feminism in practice. That should not have been a surprise coming from one of the founders of Smart Girls and A Mighty Girl.

Some friends have commented they were disappointed that it wasn’t as funny as Bossypants, but I really enjoyed it, and appreciated how much more it had to offer. My especial favorite was her metaphor for wanting an award: wanting the pudding, and her stories about learning to not want the pudding.

Poehler is an honest, funny person, and listening to the book was like spending time with a smart, funny friend.

“The Quirks: Circus Quirkus” and “The Quirkalicious Birthday” by Erin Soderberg

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

I read all 3 of the Quirks series with my boys, 9 and 11, for a parent/kid book group we’re in, which the author, Erin Soderberg, leads. As I wrote about with the first book, Welcome to Normal, the Quirks are an odd family. Most members have a quirk, or a secret ability except for twin Molly, who is immune to the others’ quirks. the books are fast and fun to read with sweet and funny illustrations.

In Circus Quirkus, the kids are being taught circus skills in phys ed at school.

NB: here in Minnesota where I live, people say Phy Ed but I thinks that’s weird. I’m from OH, where we said PhysEd, and the z sound of the s provides a nice connector, so I’m sticking with that. Another weird fact about MN: they don’t play Duck, Duck, Goose here. They play Duck, Duck, Grey Duck.

Penelope, the Quirk twin whose imagination can come to life, continues to struggle with keeping her quirk a secret, while the whole family is worried that their nosy neighbor is seeing too much through a hole in then fence.

9yo Guppy wondered, reasonably I think, why they didn’t just patch over the hole in the fence, but hey, suspension of disbelief.

In The Quirkalicious Birthday, the twins are going to have their first ever birthday party, and tension builds as the twins argue over who to invite and what to do at the party. They also have to solve a series of clues in a scavenger hunt over the week before their birthday, each clue coming with a little gift. Both my boys found a week-long birthday celebration to be over the top, and figured out the clues long before the kids did. While this was not our favorite of the three, it did have some great stuff about sibling rivalry and individualism, and the importance of family.

Talking about the three books with the author and kids there when our group met resulted in the most animated discussion I’d seen, with the kids more interested and involved. Soderberg is a sweet and funny author, and the kids engaged with her more than they have with previous authors.

The series is better suited to younger kids depending on their reading level. They were probably too young for 11yo Drake, but he still enjoyed them. 8 and 9 is probably about the perfect age.


Saturday, March 21st, 2015

I read Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng just before its match in The Morning News Tournament of Books. I’d read great things about it, and was looking forward to it. It opens with the arresting sentence:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

which put me immediately in mind of another famous first novel about a dead girl, The Lovely Bones. Like that book, this one is about how the family deals with the aftermath, and what they do and don’t know. As you can tell from the title, it’s about what isn’t said, and it was frustrating as this conflict escalated because of the number of times a characters almost said something, or thought about hugging someone and didn’t. That wasn’t what made me want to put the book down, though. It was the author’s decision to use an omniscient narrator, and how too often, that narrator intruded. Here, the father has just read the autopsy report. He’s a historian, so he isn’t the one who flowers up the prose, that’s the narrator, who distracted me here:

He learns the color and size of each of her organs, the weight of her brain. That a white foam had bubbled up through her trachea and covered her nostrils and mouth like a lace handkerchief. That her alveoli held a thin layer of silt as fine as sugar. (p. 69)

What I appreciated about the book, though, kept me going and I’m glad I did. I liked this insight into racially mixed family in the 70’s and the silent and not-so racism they endured on a regular basis. I also appreciated the dilemma of the mother, trapped by ongoing pregnancies in a pre-pill era into abandoning her plans to be a doctor.

And in the end, when the family does start talking and hugging, it was all the more satisfying for all the lack that went before.