Archive for the '2015 books' Category


Thursday, March 19th, 2015


Up front disclosure: Kristi is a friend so I would say lovely things about Blessed Are Those Who Weep no matter what. Fortunately, she creates engaging characters and is a spinner of ripping plots, so it is easy to say good things about the book.

I received a free advance review e-copy, but I think it evaporates in 30 days, which is fine because by then I’ll have my own copy that I pre-ordered from for my Nook reader. You can also pre-order it at Amazon for your Kindle or other reader. It will be available on April 7, 2015.

Blessed Are Those Who Weep: A Gabriella Giovanni Mystery is the third in the series, after Blessed Are the Dead, and Blessed Are The Meek. This book can stand alone, but I do recommend going back to read the first two in order to better get to know the characters, because they’re one of the many joys of this ongoing series. This book is set in 2003, several months after the previous one.

Gabriella is a crime reporter for a San Francisco newspaper, and has a hot Irish cop boyfriend named Sean Donovan. The two of them are having a rough patch, though, after some recent trouble I won’t divulge. We don’t get into that, though, until after the riveting opening scene, which I could describe but will quote instead because I think it’s terrific. When I heard Kristi read this aloud recently, the noisy bar became pin-drop quiet, and throughout there were gasps of horror.

At first I think she is a doll. Sitting there so still on the floor in her pink dress, chubby legs sticking out from her diaper, big black eyes unblinking, staring at something I can’t see. A ribbon hangs loose in her hair. Something that looks like chocolate is smeared around her mouth and one cheek.

The front door is only open wide enough to frame her small body in the dim light. I can’t see the rest of the room.

“Mrs. Martin?” The words echo in the silent apartment. At my voice, the baby turns her head toward me in what seems like slow motion. Even though the apartment door was ajar when I arrived, something stops me from pushing it open more. My hand hangs in the air, frozen. The rhythmic drip of a faucet is eerily loud. And something smells funny. Off. A smell I recognize but cannot place. A smell that increases my unease.

“Are you in there Mrs. Martin? It’s Gabriella Giovanni from the Bay Herald. We spoke yesterday.”


As if my voice has flicked a switch, the child moves and talks, babbling. “Mamamama, Maaamamama.” She picks something up. Something floppy and pale and long. Something with short red fingernails. An arm.

A wave of panic rises in me as I figure out what I smell. (p. 1-2)

That baby, crawling among the dead bodies of her family, becomes a lifeline for Gabriella, who was already having a tough time emotionally before she stumbled on that crime scene. The baby’s father is in the army and deployed abroad. As Gabriella works to piece together what happened, she begins to suspect the father isn’t as far away as he seems. Those around her think she’s crazy, and given what she’s gone and going through, she might be. It’s an uphill fight for her to keep searching for answers to keep that baby safe, and one that builds until the very end. She goes up the chain of command in the military, into a sex club, a dojo, and by the end of the book has figured out how these all intersect.

One of the pleasures of this book and the ones that precede it, is that Gabriella is both endearingly and sometimes frustratingly real. This is no picture-perfect top model cruising around in her convertible, solving mysteries without breaking a nail. Gabriella, or Ella to her loved ones, stumbles in her heels, wears the wrong outfit to a crime scene, and (usually) eats baguettes and pastries with gusto. She has a day job and has to work for a living. Here, she’s also depressed and making bad personal decisions, the kind that make me want to give her a shake and yell, “Snap out of it!” She’s being passive-aggressive with her boyfriend, ducking calls from her mom, and cancelling her therapy appointments. Gabriella is realistically flawed and human, and I truly enjoy spending time with her, even when she’s in a sorry state, as she is for much of the book. As with all the books, we get to see Gabriella’s Catholic faith and symbols throughout, and spend time and eat vicariously at the bountiful table of her Italian grandmother.

I enjoyed the story as well as the characters, and tore through this book in under 24 hours. It has a tremendous need-to-know-what-happens factor, both for the baby and for Gabriella. I’m very much looking forward to the next book in the series, and to seeing what Gabriella is up to in the future.

You can pre-order the book at Amazon here
At Barnes & Noble here
And find it on Goodreads here

You can find Kristi on her website, Facebook, or Twitter.


Saturday, March 14th, 2015

Redeployment by Phil Klay was last year’s National Book Award winner, and a contender in a match next week at The Morning News Tournament of Books–it goes up against Silence Once Begun on 3/17/15, and since I am apparently the only person who liked that book, I expect Redeployment to take the match handily.

I picked up Redepoyment after I stopped in the middle of All the Light We Cannot See. After I read several disappointing books in a row, especially ones that are gushed over elsewhere, I often doubt my book compass and if I will ever love again. I immediately engaged with Redeployment and its writing, so it was good to be back in a loving mood again. The emotion, dark humor, punch-y prose and immediacy of it all were such welcome contrasts to what didn’t work for me with All the Light We Cannot See that I felt like hugging Redeployment, which is odd since it’s hardly a warm, fuzzy book.

We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.

Instead, it’s a series of stories told by various narrators in Iraq. Some are stateside, some are in Iraq, some are soldiers, many are not. The multiplicity of views of war were one of my favorite things about the book.

For me, though, the momentum ran out at about 2/3 through the book during one of the longest stories, “Psychological Operations.” I can’t tell if it’s a criticism of the book, or simply my reading experience but by this point, the drama and immediacy of war had worn off, and I just wanted it to be over, yet I was in the midst of a long story, with 3 more shortish ones to go. At 288 pages, this is not a long book, but by the end it felt like it. I feel like an immature reader, one who whines that “it was too long.” Perhaps that’s one of the powers of the book, that it immerses you so much in the cloud of war that I was nauseated and exhausted and crabby by the end, which was the tip of the negative iceberg for most characters in the book.


Friday, March 13th, 2015

I read Jenny Offill’s slim, experimental novel Dept. of Speculation in one fell swoop. Immediately upon finishing, I read it again, and admired and enjoyed it even more.

The novel is written (mostly) from the perspective of a woman who is sometimes “I”, “she,” or “the wife” depending on how difficult or painful the memory is. It’s written in tiny bite-size morsels, so many of which are perfectly condensed gems of truth that my fingers twitched to underline them. I could probably simply underline the whole book.

I borrowed it from the library, though, so I restrained myself. But when (not if) I get my own copy of this book, I can’t guarantee I won’t, even though my husband G. Grod despises marking up books. But I am so unabashedly in love with some of the sentences in this book that I want to highlight them, quote them, put them up on a pedestal. This is the book I keep mentioning to people, made my husband read before I returned it, keep quoting from, like this:

But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.

I read this one aloud to my husband:

Also she signed away the right to self-destruct years ago. The fine print on the birth certificate, her friends call it.

And this one too:

Advice for wives circa 1896: The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject. Besides the false views of human nature it will impart … it produces an indifference to the performance of domestic duties, and contempt for ordinary realities.

I could go on, but then I’d be quoting the whole book, and you should just go out and read it. Caution, though. It is weird. This is not a conventional book or easy read though you can finish in under two hours. The little bits, though, add up to a beautiful, if sometimes painful and sad, whole. I highly recommend it.

(So imagine my disappointment when Victor LaValle, an author I admire, and whose Big Machine is one of my all-time favorite Tournament of Books discoveries, picked another book over Dept. of Speculation in today’s match. Noooooo! All these books I didn’t care for win, and then the first book that comes up that I love goes down? So sad.)


Friday, March 13th, 2015

Another top-ranked contender in this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See seemed like a sure thing for me to like. It made most of last year’s Best-Of lists, was a National Book Award finalist as well as one of the New York Times 10 Best Books. It was historical fiction set in WWII, like one of my favorite books in recent years, the similarly lauded Life after Life by Kate Atkinson.

And yet. And yet. Not only did I not connect with this book, as I read more of it, I became increasingly annoyed and exasperated. It is told mostly from the alternating perspectives of Marie-Laure, a blind girl who leaves war-town Paris for the walled city of Saint-Malo, where her uncle lives, and Werner, a scrawny but brilliant German orphan whose savant-like facility with radios earns him a spot in a Nazi Youth prep school where he witnesses terrible brutality. Because, Nazis.

Scattered among the Marie and Werner chapters are some from other perspectives, including from the big bad Nazi guy who becomes obsessed with tracking down a legendary, allegedly curses diamond that Marie’s father (a museum security/lock expert) had been entrusted with.

The segments are short, so it was not a difficult book to read. Hindering me, though, we some sentences that completely threw me out of the narrative. Most critics and readers praise Doerr’s lovely prose, but sometimes for me I stumbled over what felt like “darlings”: overly crafted sentences that drew my attention to the sentence, and away from the story. For instance, after a bombing, blind Marie Laure has to make her way downstairs to the kitchen by herself:

A cookbook lies facedown in her path like a shotgunned bird. (101)

The simile felt clumsy–I had to think about it, and decided I didn’t care for it, then wondered why such a visual simile was in this section about the blind girl who couldn’t even see the book anyway, much less that it looked like a shotgunned bird. And, now that I’m thinking about it, no it didn’t, because the book would have been intact, where a shotgunned bird (as opposed to a wounded, dead, or stunned bird) would have been torn apart.

I maintain that I hate that simile even more, now.


Through three arched windows, dawn sends a sheaf of hallowed golden rays. (138)

Why hallowed? The adjective stopped me in my forward progress, wondering why it was there. I found no reason, other than it might sound pretty.

As I trudged on, I was struck by what I saw as the books complete lack of humor. The characters did love one another but they never joked, they never made humorous observations. Everyone was a serious character: the blind girl, the orphaned boy genius recruited into Nazi Youth even though he’s not evil, the evil Nazi obsessed with some object who IS evil. I didn’t connect with these characters, or find them compelling. They bored me, even as I surmised what the outcome would be for each of them.

I wondered whether to continue. As with The Paying Guests, I was not enjoying it. But did I want to finish it anyway, to see if it got better, or so I would have my own full-formed opinion of why I didn’t like it, when so many others have?

Reader, I put it down. Skipped ahead to the ending, which proved out the suspicions I’d had prior to the halfway mark–who lives, who dies, who succeeds, who fails, and what happens to the diamond.

At the Tournament of Books, All the Light We Cannot See won its first match, and is up against the similarly underwheming-to-me Paying Guests, and whichever wins will go up against David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks (which I didn’t love either.) or Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. I’m tentatively rooting for the latter, because I haven’t yet read it, I already bought it, and it’s by a non-white author who happens to live in my city. He recently wrote about how he got to Minneapolis from Jamaica for The New York Times.


Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Finally, I get to read Sarah Waters, I thought to myself when her latest, The Paying Guests, made the Morning News Tournament of Books shortlist this year, plus I had it in my library request list early enough that I could get it before the Tourney began. When I went away to a writing retreat last weekend, it was the only physical book I took with me.

Alas, I never connected with it. The novel is set in post WWI London, and about a daughter and mother whose genteel poverty forces them to take in merchant-class “paying guests” (not, gasp, lodgers) to their stately house in order to pay the bills. There is crossed loved, and forbidden romance, secrets and lies. Crime, and punishment. Yet somehow, the book never connected with me, never made me NEED to read it. I could easily have put it down, and didn’t because it was the only book I’d brought and I wanted to form my own opinion before it came up in the tourney, which is tomorrow.

The meticulous research, and even the carefully drawn characters and setting are all skilfully done. Yet I always felt a bit bored, and never cared as much as I wanted to about the characters, even when I thought I should. I do still hope to read her other books, which I’m assured by other readers are more fabulous than this one was.

THE BONE CLOCKS by David Mitchell

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

I read David Mitchell’s latest, The Bone Clocks, for one of my books groups and for the Morning News Tournament of Books. I really enjoyed and was impressed by the other books of his I’ve read, Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, so I was looking forward to it.

The beginning of the novel, featuring the narration of 15 year old Holly Sykes, drew me in immediately, and I was excited to be along for what felt like a wild ride.

Each segment was narrated by a different character as it moved forward in time. Also, for Mitchell fans, many of the characters from other books make appearances, some short, some long. The Vulture interview with Mitchell about the book contains a chart, which I enjoyed nerding out over.


Alas, I felt it blew up in the penultimate section with over-the-top bizarrity that required way too much ’splaining. Then, exhausted from having made it through that section, I hoped for a relaxing denouement (say, the savasana to a difficult yoga class) and instead got a whole new section, whole new slew of characters, whole new world, with more ’splainin’. The last section could have been a book unto itself.

I felt very tired when I got to the end of the book, rather than satisfied. Still, glad I read it and I still intend to go back and read all his books. I love the universe he’s crafting.

PAIN, PARTIES, WORK: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder was a suggestion from my friend Amy at New Century Reading because we were reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath for one of our book groups.

It was a fast, interesting companion to The Bell Jar, the fictionalized account of Plath’s summer of ‘53, in which she interned at Mademoiselle during June, followed by a suicide attempt and hospitalization.

Winder contacted the other women who interned and worked with Plath that summer, interviewing them about their experience. She also gives background on the time.

Part of her intent was to show that Plath was not just a dour depressive, but also a young woman who enjoyed dating, makeup, fashion. Beyond this, though, what I appreciated was that the other women expressed the same insecurities and feelings of having to put up a front that Plath related in her novel, and hearing from the people who inspired the characters in the novel.

That none discussed their doubts, that they assumed everyone else was just having a grand time of it and felt at ease and enjoying the ride, was perhaps the most toxic element to this particular kind of noisy loneliness.

What didn’t work for me was the format of the book. It seems to ping pong between being a biography of Plath, but sometimes written in a breezy style of a women’s magazine with highlighted text boxes and lists. Also, she uses quotes from Plath’s journals to head chapters, and the quotes are out of time with the period she discusses, and her book jumps ahead and back in time.

The parts of the book, such as the interviews with the other guest editors, were detailed and helpful. The other parts, where Winder goes out on a limb with statements like that Plath would have made a great fashion editor, or the chapter with a “dictionary” of some of Plath’s favorite things, were less successful.

I would not take this as the only biography of Plath, but as a companion to the novel, I found it illuminating.

THE BELL JAR by Sylvia Plath

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is another one of the books that I’m kicking myself for not reading earlier in life so I could have been re-reading it as I went along. It’s a thinly fictionalized account, in which bright but not wealthy Esther Greenwood goes to a magazine internship for a month, works and parties, returns to the suburbs of Connecticut, loses touch with reality, attempts suicide and is institutionalized.

Part of why I think I avoided it was a perception of it as a depressing book. While it is about depression, and there are many dark parts, I don’t think it’s so much depressing as honest. Brutally honest, at times, and with a nasty streak of racism and ignorance of privilege in it, but often funny and wise.

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.

Often dismissed as juvenilia, or an immature portrait of girlhood, I found it a fascinating work of art depicting struggles of class, sexism, and coming of age that continue to resonate all these decades later.

EL DEAFO by Cece Bell

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

El Deafo by Cece Bell was awarded a Newbery Honor this year, a rare occurrence for a graphic “novel.” It’s not really a novel, though, more a memoir in the spirit of Smile and Sisters. Like those books, this one is charmingly drawn with a winning narrator who struggles, in this case with deafness and especially her experiences in school and with friends. Both my sons and I tore through this book and enjoyed it a great deal. It’s well deserving of the Newbery Honor.


Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

I read The Quirks: Welcome to Normal by Erin Soderberg aloud to my boys, who are 9 and 11 years old. We’re part of a parent/kid book group that will be discussing the third book in the series next month. This is the first book in the series.

The Quirks have just moved to a new town, Normal, Michigan. There are three kids in the family, twins Penelope and Molly and their younger brother Finn. They live with their mom, Bree and their grandparents. Everyone in the family has a quirk. Finn is invisible, and Penelope has magic to make her imagination come to life. This causes more than a little trouble for the kids, which is why they’ve had to move so much.

The positives and negatives of each quirk (and Molly’s seeming lack of quirk) are explored, as well as the different relationships in the family. This is a short, cheerful middle grade novel with cute illustrations, silly and fun to read aloud.


Friday, February 20th, 2015

I knew I’d be reading Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni as soon as I read a review, the glowing one in Entertainment Weekly. Golems? Like in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay? Jinnis? Like in A.S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye? Religion? Myth? Sign me up.

It took me rather longer to get to this book than I’d thought, but then, loyal readers know my dance card is pretty full with far too many book groups. So when one of them chose this, then, bam, it moved to the front of the queue.

I really don’t want to summarize too much of the book. If it sounds good to you, go read it. It’s full of delights. Not just the aforementioned religion and myth, but history, mystery, romance, tragedy, villains, more. It is peopled with characters and crowded with subplots like a Dickens novel. Like Dickens, it’s dense, and sometimes the momentum lags, but I loved spending time with these characters and watching them all change and grow (or not).

On a cloudless night, inky dark, with only a rind of a moon above, the Golem and the Jinni went walking together along the Prince Street rooftops.

I found it lovely, provoking, and very rich, my esteem for it growing after I was finished with it.

Updated Post: Adam by Ariel Schrag

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

A few weeks ago I read and posted about Ariel Schrag’s Adam, one of the contenders in this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books. The book made me distinctly uncomfortable. Most of the characters were unlikeable, so it wasn’t necessarily pleasant to spend time with them. Adam is a 17yo horny boy, not especially sensitive or insightful. Unlikeable characters isn’t a deal-breaker for me, in fact it’s normally a pet peeve, because unlikeable characters can make for great books. But Adam, both the book and the character, are almost goad the reader into judgment, by being unkind in ways that are resolutely un-PC. Adam and his sister call each other ‘retards.’ One Jewish character complains about the Hasidic landlord in racist terms. Many of the members of the GLBT community (set in 2006 in the book) are shown as small minded, or mean, or ignorant, or ugly, or smelly. The last straw for me was when Adam, who had been “passing” as trans in order to date a girl who said she didn’t like cis-gendered men, basically gets away with his lie consequence free.

The book bugged me, and as I sometimes do with a book I especially don’t like, I went looking for reviews and interviews with the author, to better understand both the book and my reaction to it. And, as sometimes happened, what I learned changed how I felt about the book. Part of what bugged me about the book was how resolutely un-PC these characters were, which was even more shocking because, aside from Adam, they were GLBT and part of an already-marginalized group.

Turns, out, that was Schrag’s intent. She wanted to show the GLBT community, warts and all, pulling back the curtain on them to show that, hey, they’re just like everybody else: dumb silly jerks some of the time. Not all of the time. Some of people’s criticism of the book centers on the unlikeable, badly behaving characters. Yet there is one character that behaves consistently well throughout, and all the other characters may act badly a lot of the time, but they also behave well sometimes.

After reading the interviews and further consideration, I like Adam the book (not the character) a lot. It was funny, and sometimes brutally honest, and featured a whole cast of GLBT characters and just one straight white guy, and there just aren’t enough books with that kind of diversity out there.

It still nags me that Adam’s story arc was something of a white-male fantasy. Schrag notes in one of the interviews that some readers felt he should have been “punished” for his lie. While it is uncomfortable, I think the discomfort is part of what is unique and interesting about the novel, and once I sat with my weird feelings about the book and examined them, I appreciated the book more in retrospect.

Here, the interviews I read:

THE ODYSSEY by Homer, and a picture book, too

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015


I’ve been blogging about The Odyssey for months, but given what a big reading project it was, I feel it deserves its own recap.

Quite simply: everyone should read this book. So much of what we read and enjoy as art, so many of the myths we have internalized so completely we don’t just believe them to be true, we reflex them to be true, (HT Rebecca Goldstein, The Mind-Body Problem), are from this epic. And it is not hard to read. In fact, in Robert Fagle’s translation, and Sir Ian McKellan’s audio version of it (also available on Youtube), it’s not only accessible, but also flat-out enjoyable.

I skipped the intro, read the text, then the after-stuff, then went back to the intro, which sent me from liking to loving the book. I wish I’d used the name-pronunciation guide at the end earlier, as some wrong ones are now ingrained (I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pronouce Nausicaa properly–naw SI cay uh, apparently).

I followed my reading of Fagles’ translation by reading a version aloud to my boys, 9 and 11.


The Odyssey (Graphic Classics) retold by Gillian Cross), illustrated by Neil Packer. We read it over several nights, and my own prior reading of the original was invaluable in pointing out things of interest as we went along. Packer’s art is distinct and intriguing, not kiddy-cutesy at all, and was also a point of discussion as we went. Cross did soften the book some (e.g., said they didn’t kill ALL the suitors!) and I wished for more direct lifts of Homer’s own compelling words, but overall we had a great time reading this together.


Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball is another contender in this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books.

It’s a short, sharp hyper-modern, hyper-meta novel. It’s narrated by a character named Jesse Ball, one who has suffered a painful breakup with a woman, and who goes on to become interested (or perhaps obsessed) with an old crime case in Japan, in which an accused man refuses to speak or proclaim his innocence even in the lack of no physical proof of crime.

One has the impression that one can know life, actual life, from its simulacrums by the fact that actual life constantly deceives and reveals, and is consistent in doing so. (4)

Part of why this novel worked for me was my recent listening binge of Sarah Koenig’s exhaustive look into Adnan Syed’s old case on the podcast Serial. (I highly recommend Serial. It’s an engaging story, and pairs extremely well with jigsaw puzzles.) I found spooky reverberations between the fictional case in the book and the actual case of the podcast.

Ball the character starts by interviewing the family of the accused, Oda Sotatsu. This is followed by details from the trial and interviews with the prosecutor and a prison guard. The next section is an interview with a woman who was in some way involved with Sotatsu. The final section is an interview with a man who was involved as well. Throughout I found wonderful sentences and images:

In the front apartment a light was on and people were moving back and forth, their inaccessible lives casting off something like the light that settled on them.

I felt tempted then to believe, as I always do, that the people inside were happy, that they knew things I did not know. (171)

The reader’s picture shifts with each new bit of information as it accumulates and either expands or contradicts what went before. There is more than a little here of Rashomon’s different people telling different tales about the same thing. There is also the chill, distant, weird modernism that I experienced when I read Haruki Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle, as well as echoes of Kafka. As such, it’s not emotionally engaging. But as a novel that pushes against the conventional ideas of the novel, I found this a fascinating read, one that reminded me of a past Tournament of Books contender, HHhH.

THE WITCH’S BOY by Kelly Barnhill

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill was a selection for one of my ever-expanding book discussion groups, the one for parents and kids. At 372 pages, it was a long read-aloud, one that I didn’t quite finish before the discussion. In order to finish it, my two boys, 11 and almost 9, and I took turns while the others were eating, driving, doing a puzzle, and more, so it became a fun endeavor for the three of us.

The book starts off with sadness, so this is not light fantasy for kids. There is a dead child in the first, very short chapter. But there is also a living one, the witch’s boy of the title, Ned. This is his story, as he struggled to live with the blessing and burden that his mother bestows on him with all good intentions. The story switches among many characters, including Ned’s counterpart, Aine (pronounced ANya), the bandit king’s daughter. There are sentient stones, insubordinate magic, a good queen with bad relatives, a bad king of Duunin (pronounced duhNIN), strange legends about how scary the forest is, and much more. This book is chock full of great characters and images and ideas, and rolls along at a ripping pace through to the end, which we all three found rich and satisfying.

ADAM by Ariel Schrag

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

One of the candidates in this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books, Adam by Ariel Schrag has a grabby hook: Awkward teen boy passes as a female-to-male transsexual in order to bed the girl of his dreams. It’s a promising book that got swamped by its problems well before I even got to the end.

Adam, our titular main character, is far too much of an ass, or a seventeen year old boy, take your pick, to be rightly called a hero or protagonist. He strikes out with the girls at home, his so-called friends ignore him, and he decides to spend this summer with his sister a lesbian who isn’t out to their parents. Once in NYC, he lets himself be sucked into the orbit of his sister’s LBGT community and gets a crash course in how complicated biology, desire, sexual and gender identity are. While the book often feels info-dump-y, there aren’t many books out there featuring the trans members of the LBGT community, so I was hopeful for this one to explore rarely ventured-into territory.

Please forgive me if I get a little crude in language–the book is graphic, so talking about it kind of needs to be too. For a book about the rainbow of sexuality, everyone in it is hyper obsessed with dicks; this book is weirdly phallo-centric. For all its appearance of pushing boundaries, it seems to reinforce them, instead.

A willingness to tell a story about a marginalized and misunderstood group goes wrong when the main character, a cis-gendered white male, lies in order to get a lesbian girl, especially a girl who is so thinly characterized as to be little more than a sex object for him. And he gets away with the lie again and again! Then, to add insult to injury, the story goes to a really disturbing place: the white-male hope that all a lesbian needs is a hot throbbing dick in order to come around to the “right” team.

I feel like this is an important book to add to our awareness of the myriad ways people are different from one another. Yet the book seems to double back on its promise and become a white male’s fantasy. The world doesn’t need more of those.

Edited to add: I did some further reading and thinking on Adam, and came to some different conclusions, which I wrote about here, so don’t just read THIS post, but both.


Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

My 11yo son got Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze from his school library. After he finished, he said I should read it, too, so I did. Alas, I don’t think I liked it as much as he did.

13yo Milo is starting a new school yet again. At first he seems like a normal kid, but we slowly learn his mom died a few years ago of cancer and the ghost of her lingers, while the dad tries to deny it by getting rid of her stuff and moving around. The text is interspersed with cartoons of Milo and his feelings.

Milo’s development is sweet, the illustrations charming, and the unfolding of his memory of his Mom touching. What didn’t work for me was Milo’s voice, which sounded more like eleven than thirteen to me, and the stereotypical mean/pretty girl Milo has a crush on. Also, the subtitle was odd, given a lack of sticky notes in the book. Yes, there are notes left on his locker but they did not feel connected to Milo’s story (the brain freeze from regular slushies was less of a reach). Like the humor in the book, the subtitle didn’t quite work for me.

This said, both my 11yo and my soon-to-be-9 year old sons really enjoyed it, and there was lots to like.

ZEALOT by Reza Aslan

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

Reza Aslan’s book Zealot was already selling very well before he went on Fox News and went talking head to talking head with their “religion correspondent” who clearly hadn’t read the book, and had one question that she repeated with only minor iterations for about ten minutes: who gave you, a Muslim, the authority to write a book on Jesus?

Aslan’s responses to her singular question all hit their mark: he’s a scholar with multiple degrees, one needn’t be a practicing anything to write about anything else (e.g., men write about women, and Christians write about everyone else), he’s always been interested in the politics of the time, and more.

I finally got around to reading the book on my own. Aslan is currently a professor of writing, and the book is a well constructed page turner, with end notes for each chapter. He makes the less scholarly but more readable choice of not numbering his notes, but rather bunching them up at the end. The book is divided into three parts. The first is about Jesus as one of many claimants to the messiah mantle. The second is how that would have been treasonous in and of itself:

If one knew nothing else about Jesus of Nazareth save that he was crucified by Rome, one would know practically all that was needed to uncover who he was, what he was, and why he ended up nailed to a cross. His offense, in the eyes of Rome, is self-evident. It was etched upon a plaque and placed above his head for all to see: Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews. His crime was daring to assume kingly ambitions. (155-156)

These first two sections are the strongest, though Aslan is perhaps too ready to discard Jesus’ potential teachings of peace. After reading many reviews by many authors, there is a consensus among Biblical scholars that in the third section, Aslan oversimplified the post-crucifixion landscape into a polarized duality of Paul’s evolving religion vs. James and the Jews. While it makes for an alluring narrative, most scholars agree that it was far more complicated than that.

This book is an accessible, enjoyable foray into Biblical history. It excels when it shows, in accumulating layers, what parts of the stories we know so well are more or less likely to be true, and why. For example, the sign over his head, when I questioned myself why I believed it to be a joke and not a serious allegation of the authorities, it was due to, please forgive me, that movie they showed every year at Easter time in the 70’s when I was growing up. For any faults this book might have, what it does best is shine a light on my beliefs making me question many of the things I’d taken to be true. It’s a good starting point if you want to know more, but shouldn’t be taken, pardon the pun, as gospel.

THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

A choice for my women’s book group, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Emperor of All Maladies, a “biography” of cancer, had been on my TBR list since it was published in 2010. It was on most of the best-nonfiction lists at the end of the year. Better late than never, I suppose.

I see why this received so much acclaim. It’s huge, meticulously researched, and endnoted. it’s an exhaustive history of the disease, from ancient times through the present, and of the rocky road of treatments.

My main takeaways were that doing a book on “cancer” was perhaps too big of an undertaking for anyone, as the author makes it clear that there are SO MANY different types of cancer, and so many differing treatments, that speaking of one monolithic thing is savagely reductive. Some cancers are very treatable, others still elude solutions other than palliating the patient’s decline. I liked his paraphrase of Tolstoy’s famous line:

Normal cells are identically normal; malignant cells become unhappily malignant in unique ways. (452)

The problem with an exhaustive book, though, it that it’s also exhausting. While Mukherjee is a skilled writer, and his book often reads like a crime thriller with cancer as the villain, the sheer length and number of statistics became wearing over its 500+ pages. Also, he would also skip back in time, and not be crystal clear on the time shift, which I found confusing. A few times I tried to listen to it in an audio version while working on a jigsaw puzzle, but this didn’t work. The statistic-heavy text did not translate well as an audio experience.

I learned a lot from this book, enjoyed reading it, and was intrigued, but a narrowing of the scope and more clear timelines would have improved the reading experience for me.

What ELSE I’ve Been Reading

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015


I know what I’ll do this morning, I told myself. I’ll catch up on my book blogging. I’ve been all about the Sandman and the Odyssey, but I’m reading other things too. I’ll do a few book reviews.

HOLY CATS. I haven’t blogged about other books since December. Waitaminute… Nope. November. CRAP. Well, don’t I have a lot of catching up to do? In order, then, what I’ve finished since November:

Wuthering Heights
by Emily Bronte. Re-read, for Gods & Monsters book group. Great, dark, weird, and tight as a drum. My husband G calls it a super villain origin story. I love how difficult it is to categorize, and discuss. What is Bronte criticizing, what is she valorizing? Can a novel be great when we hate most of the characters in it, and those characters were clearly written as unlikeable?

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. For Books and Bars. Tore through it, and it changed how I think about humans as animals, and made me really uncomfortable watching Speed Racer and the chimpanzee.

Relish by Lucy Knisley. For Beer + Comics book group. Loved this comic-book memoir about food and growing up.

The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller. Re-read, this year with the focus on Emily. Fascinating deconstruction of how the poor little sick sisters have been mythologized while too often downplaying that they were righteous geniuses.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson. Beautiful. Like a poem, or a prayer.

Violent Cases and Black Orchid by Nail Gaiman and Dave McKean. Related reading for the #SandMN readalong.

Saga of the Swamp Thing and Swamp Thing: Love and Death by Alan Moore. Related reading for #SandMN. Also, amazing.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. I borrowed this from the library after a friend made fun of it, then I read it and ran out and bought my own copy plus two others as gifts. Bizarre, and while sometimes I would laugh at it, I think reading this book has actually changed my life. Or, at least my sock drawer.

Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming. Fascinating, heartbreaking story about Cumming’s tormented relationship with his father.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert O’Brien. Read aloud to the boys. This book would never be published today–it’s all backstory!

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. Smart, funny, heartbreaking essays by Gay, who writes in a way that makes her fun and interesting to hang out with. I’m glad I read this before her novel, An Untamed State, it gave me good context for that one.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. Read aloud to the kids. Interesting to read it as an adult, when making fun of poor kids whose parents run off doesn’t seem so funny. Still, some lovely and some hilarious parts.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. One of my favorite holidays re-alouds. The words are delicious in my mouth, and I just love Hyman’s illustrations.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. For The Morning News Tournament of Books. I tore through it, and was reminded of both Steven King’s The Stand and James Kunstler’s World Made by Hand series. Felt it spend far too much time on the male characters, and on female characters with the male ones. Would have preferred more of the women.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. A book full of violence with unlikeable main characters is not an easy one to recommend. But this is full of hard truths, and a moving trauma and recovery tale. Mind opening.

Ms. Marvel volume 1. A Muslim teen girl becomes a superhero. Smart, funny, engaging, and passes the Bechdel test. Can’t wait for more!

So, friends, what have you all been reading? What have you loved, loathed, or put down out of indifference?