Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Synopsis:

8857310Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d’état of the missionaries’ sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode “Aloha ‘Oe” serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

Review:

Like I said in my review of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States Vowell is the definition of my audiobook wheelhouse.  Funny but substantive non-fiction with public radio roots?  Always, all the time please.  This is the third book of hers I’ve listened to but sadly, it’s my least favorite.

I’ve spent the past few days trying to figure out why.  The problem may be me – I didn’t know much about Hawaiian history and didn’t have mental scaffolding to hang the narrative on.  I don’t think that’s everything, though, as Vowell isn’t at her best.  While there are some personal stories they aren’t as funny or interesting as in Assassination Vacation.  The history is outlined and gentle fun is poked, but it lacks the oomph of previous efforts.

Thinking about it, maybe Vowell is pulling her punches out of respect to Hawaiian culture.  It’s much easier to lampoon your own, and the last thing a marginalized people need is more skewering.  So in that sense, yea!  I’ll take a drop in laughs for that if I must.

Beyond the content this is my least favorite audiobook of hers so far.  It’s not Vowell’s fault, she’s as lovely as ever, but the supporting cast is large and each person only gets a few lines.  And despite the large cast it sounded like there was only one woman voice actor doing several roles, which confused my wandering attention.

All in all… enh.  Not awful, but I expected much better.

Radio Silence by Alyssa Cole (Off the Grid #1)

Synopsis:

23500162Arden Highmore was living your average postgrad life in Rochester, New York, when someone flipped the “off” switch on the world. No cell phones, no power, no running water—and no one knows why. All she and her roommate, John, know for sure is that they have to get out, stat. His family’s cabin near the Canadian border seemed like the safest choice.

When scavengers attack, it’s John’s ridiculously handsome brother, Gabriel, who comes to the rescue. He saves Arden’s life, so he can’t be all bad…but he’s also a controlling jerk who treats her like an idiot. Now their parents are missing and it seems John, Gabriel, their kid sister, Maggie, and Arden are the only people left alive who aren’t bloodthirsty maniacs.

No one knows when—or if—the lights will come back on and, in the midst of all that, Arden and Gabriel are finding that there’s a fine line indeed between love and hate. How long can they expect to last in this terrifying new world, be it together or apart?

Review:

Mixed feelings about this one – it’s alright but not what it says on the tin.

I like how the first chapter hits the ground running.  Our apocalypse is introduced (cause unknown) and Arden and roommate John have to make their way to safety.  They get ambushed and there’s a fight scene that pulled me into the story immediately.  We meet the hero Gabriel, John’s brother. They make their way to the cabin and hang out.

For a loooooong time.

Food stocks are secure, there’s a generator if they really need it, boards are on the windows.  All they need to do is wait for… something?… to happen.  The apocalypse/romantic suspense vibe is replaced with a snowbound romance plot, with the unwelcome addition of Gabriel’s siblings thrown in. So we go from “fight all.the.things the world is ending, ahh!” to “let’s talk about our family relationship issues, shall we? It seems the world might be ending.”

Which would be fine, normally.  Cole shows the friction between characters to great effect and their relationships are thought out.  But the plot evolves in such a way that the mysterious Big Bad turns out to be not much at all, and the questions I had on page one were left unanswered.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some great stuff in here.  A romance that is both interracial and intercultural, believable inner lives for the characters, and that great first chapter.  I was hoping the action-plus-romance would continue, but no luck there. Ah, well. I’m interested in reading Cole again – I see she has a civil rights era romance, ooo – but I’ll pass on the rest of this series.

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

Translated by George Bird

Synopsis:

11125891Aspiring writer Viktor Zolotaryov leads a down-and-out life in poverty-and-violence-wracked Kiev—he’s out of work and his only friend is a penguin, Misha, that he rescued when the local zoo started getting rid of animals. Even more nerve-wracking: a local mobster has taken a shine to Misha and wants to keep borrowing him for events.

But Viktor thinks he’s finally caught a break when he lands a well-paying job at the Kiev newspaper writing “living obituaries” of local dignitaries—articles to be filed for use when the time comes.

The only thing is, it seems the time always comes as soon as Viktor writes the article. Slowly understanding that his own life may be in jeopardy, Viktor also realizes that the only thing that might be keeping him alive is his penguin.

Review:

Viktor is doing alright – his apartment is nothing special but he shares it with Misha, his penguin (long story). He just landed a job writing obits for famous people, so when they die there will be copy waiting and ready. The articles end up sitting in a drawer at the newspaper office but the money keeps Viktor in food and Misha in fish, so it can’t be all bad.

One day, however, an obit subject dies, having plummeted from a sixth story window. Then another, and another. Viktor is left to wonder what he got into, and if it’s even worth trying to find his way out.

I love this book – serious writing that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Along with the “what the…” moments are tidbits that are just absurd enough to be plausible in post-Soviet Kiev. The plot hums along at a steady pace, helped along by short chapters that go down like potato chips, one after the other. There are some nice insights, too:

The cafe was empty and quiet – an ambience suitable for dreaming, or conversely, for recalling the past.

The characters are fleshed out wonderfully and feel like real people, right down to Misha the penguin. I love that there’s another man named Misha that gets referred to as Misha-non-penguin. It’s a little joke that isn’t overplayed, wonderful restraint that applies throughout the novel, even with all the crazy.

George Bird does a wonderful job translating from the Russian. I especially like how he handles the flowery obits, such as this one for an opera singer:

The voice is a sign of life. It may grow in strength, break off, be lost, sink to a barely audible whisper. In the chorus of our lives the individual voice is not easily distinguished, but where, suddenly, it falls silent, there comes an awareness of the finitude of any sound, of any life.

The book ends on a cliffhanger with several plot threads hanging but that’s the only bad thing I can say. I was transported to another world and look forward to seeing what happens.

War Diaries: 1939-1945 by Astrid Lindgren

Translated by Sarah Death
UK title: A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-1945

Synopsis:

29771643Before she became internationally known for her Pippi Longstocking books, Astrid Lindgren was an aspiring author living in Stockholm with her family at the outbreak of the Second World War. The diaries she kept throughout the hostilities offer a civilian’s, a mother’s, and an aspiring writer’s unique account of the devastating conflict. She emerges as a morally courageous critic of violence and war, as well as a deeply sensitive and astute observer of world affairs. We hear her thoughts about rationing, blackouts, the Soviet invasion of Finland, and the nature of evil, as well as of her personal heartbreaks, financial struggles, and trials as a mother and writer.

Illustrated with family photographs, newspaper clippings, and facsimile pages, Lindgren’s diaries provide an intensely personal and vivid account of Europe during the war.

Review:

I’m not a World War II buff but when I do read about the period I like learning about everyday people and what it was like to live at the time.  Troop movements, negotiations between allies? Enh. But give me diaries and letters by those on the homefront and I am there.

Lindgren’s account is a very specific and detailed view of the war from neutral Sweden, a fact that helps it transcend narratives I’ve read before. Instead of being stuck in London for the Blitz or tied to a German account of of the fighting we get to peek at all sides from a relatively safe Scandinavian perch.  She pasted in newspaper articles about the war and fills in the spaces with information about Lindgren’s own life – making do with rations, working censoring letters, listing what her children received for Christmas.

The specificity takes us back to that scary time but she still pulls back and looks at things with a wider lens.  These parts stuck with me the most as I write this in November 2016 as global political balance seems to be deteriorating by the day. “One dreads opening the newspaper each day,” Lindgren writes, and I can’t help but agree with her.

As long as you’re only reading about it in the paper you can sort of avoid believing it, but when you read in a letter that ‘both Jacques’s children were killed in the occupation of Luxembourg’ or something like that, it suddenly brings it home, quite terrifyingly. Poor human race: when I read their letters I’m staggered by the amount of sickness and distress, grief, unemployment, poverty and despair that can be fitted into this wretched earth.

It’s a wonderful, intensely readable look at World War II from a unique perspective.  A hearty recommend, especially for fans of diaries and homefront history.

Thanks to Yale University Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

The Dare and the Doctor by Kate Noble (Winner Takes All #3)

Synopsis:

30103788Dr. Rhys Gray and Miss Margaret Babcock are friends—strictly friends. But over the course of the year, as they exchange dozens of letters, they share personal details that put them on the path to something more. When Dr. Gray helps Margaret realize her dearest dream and she comes to his defense in the uproar that follows, it seems that their connection cannot be denied. But will their relationship stand the scruples of society and jealous intendeds, or are they destined to be only friends, and nothing more?

Review:

It should have been the perfect time for me to read this novel – I just finished a spate of heavy non-fiction and dearly needed some romance in my reading life.  But try as I might, I kept getting pulled out of the story.

First, the good:

  • The plot has some nice twists and turns to it.
  • The book starts off with letters, yea!  Not enough to call it epistolary, but I like it all the same.
  • The heroine is unconventional (super tall, not super pretty) but the hero loves her just the way she is.
  • The pose on the cover is from a scene in the book and is fitting.  Even the fact that she’s not wearing a corset is explained, woah.

And now, the not-so-good:

  • I never felt like I was in the Regency.  The language is a little too modern, societal customs and expectations are bent a little too much, and I found a medical tidbit that, while not wrong, is unlikely.  It felt like a wallpaper romance when I prefer something more of the period.  (For more about wallpaper romances check out this article at Smart Bitches Trashy Books, where I totally agree with Candy.)
  • Noble made her chops as a TV writer and it shows.  There were a ton of scenes that are meant to be seen, not read.  We meet Rhys’ large extended family in a whirlwind, with each person passing through the foyer of the home.  It would be perfect on TV – you could see the trouble making 12-year old bounding up the stairs, the sister too engrossed in her book to noticed Rhys has arrived, and so on. But on the page it’s a tangled lump of spaghetti, with no means or end.  Here’s another example: Margaret’s friend is with her on the second floor, telling her about the suitors that are being turned away at the door.

“Oh!  There’s one!” Sylvia cried.  “He’s wearing a gray coat and hat.  And . . . he’s knocking . . . and the butler is telling him you are not receiving today.”  She pushed closer to the window, her nose almost touching.  “He’s taking off the hat . . . decently good looking, although his chin in a little weak.”

If I make a rectangle with my fingers all director-like I can see it – how the shot would be framed, how good it would look.  But it wasn’t satisfying on the page.

  • Because of the above I started skimming parts, and I didn’t feel like I missed anything.  Eep.
  • While there were seeds of conflict it didn’t drive the story until the very very end.

So despite having the outward appearance of being just what I needed, The Dare and the Doctor… wasn’t.

Thanks to Pocket Books and NetGalley for providing a review copy.


You may also enjoy:

8150083  What Happens in London by Julia Quinn

Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

Synopsis:

3973532Between life and death, dreaming and waking, at the train stop beyond the end of the world is the city of Palimpsest. To get there is a miracle, a mystery, a gift, and a curse—a voyage permitted only to those who’ve always believed there’s another world than the one that meets the eye. Those fated to make the passage are marked forever by a map of that wondrous city tattooed on their flesh after a single orgasmic night. To this kingdom of ghost trains, lion-priests, living kanji, and cream-filled canals come four travelers: Oleg, a New York locksmith; the beekeeper November; Ludovico, a binder of rare books; and a young Japanese woman named Sei. They’ve each lost something important—a wife, a lover, a sister, a direction in life—and what they will find in Palimpsest is more than they could ever imagine.

Review:

I love setting-driven novels. It sounds absurd – a place providing the thrust for a book? – but think The Night Circus. That was my first love, Palimpsest is my second.

The titular place is kind of like an STD and is passed from one person to another in just the way you’d expect, and you visit in your dreams.

“The frog pushes them out of her shop like a mother urging her children toward the coach on their first day of school: Never fear, my darlings! All these horrors are yours to survive!”

Images are placed before us: places I’d love to visit, places I’d rather never see, normal moments made beautiful for being what they are.

“She often felt that she chased the ideal cup of coffee in her mind from table to table… Every morning she pulled a delicate cup from its brass hook and filled it, hoping that it would be dark and deep and secret as a forest, and each morning it cooled too fast, had too much milk, stained the cup, made her nervous.”

We follow four characters as they make their away around and grapple with the world before them. If you demand a plot and answers as you read you’ll be annoyed and disappointed. But if you’re like me and revel in exploring a magical landscape you’ll love every word.

Valente adds just enough of the real world to ground the entire experience but the sections set in Japan ended up bothering me a lot. She’s obviously going for fact in her descriptions and while some parts are accurate (the Golden Pavilion was really burned down by a monk) others are way off base (the Silver Pavilion never got coated in silver leaf and the monks would never let it tarnish if it were). I could make a huge list but suffice it to say I got cross more than I would have liked.

The writing is worth it, though. My review isn’t doing the book justice so if you like The Night Circus get thee to Palimpsest, stat.


You may also enjoy:

11337018   The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Synopsis:

22032533“Pink is my favorite color. I used to say my favorite color was black to be cool, but it is pink—all shades of pink. If I have an accessory, it is probably pink. I read Vogue, and I’m not doing it ironically, though it might seem that way. I once live-tweeted the September issue.”

In these funny and insightful essays, Roxane Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman (Sweet Valley High) of color (The Help) while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years (Girls, Django in Chains) and commenting on the state of feminism today (abortion, Chris Brown). The portrait that emerges is not only one of an incredibly insightful woman continually growing to understand herself and our society, but also one of our culture.

Bad Feminist is a sharp, funny, and spot-on look at the ways in which the culture we consume becomes who we are, and an inspiring call-to-arms of all the ways we still need to do better.

Review:

Feminism is made out to be an ideal – there’s one way to do it, and if you deviate you’re bad at it.  Gay does a wonderful job pointing out that we can be less than perfect, dare I say even human?, and still believe and work for equality for all.

I highlighted passage after passage because her writing is full of truth and things I need to remind myself.

If you and your friend(s) are in the same field and you can collaborate or help each other, do this without shame. It’s nor your fault your friends are awesome. Men invented nepotism and practically live by it. Its okay for women to do it too.

Bwahahahaha.

I appreciate Gay’s message – no one is perfect, but we can all work to make things better.  Not just for women either, but for people of all colors and economic status and sexual orientations, too.  The informal writing style is easy to connect with

Many essays focus on pop culture and I’m afraid that even though the book is only a couple years old I was lost at times.  This is completely my fault – I’ve been living on the other side of the world for seven years now and I’m out of touch with the movies and music of my homeland.  I worry, though, that this timeliness will make the essays weaken with time as references are forgotten and societal moments pass.

There’s a lot to love here, and people newer to feminist thought will learn a lot of interesting and useful stuff.  While I have quotes that I’ll cherish forever I don’t think I’ll ever reread the book in full. And that’s fine – Gay has another book of essays on the horizon.

Marrying Winterborne by Lisa Kleypas (The Ravenels #2)

Synopsis:

26242354Savage ambition has brought common-born Rhys Winterborne vast wealth and success. In business and beyond, Rhys gets exactly what he wants. And from the moment he meets the shy, aristocratic Lady Helen Ravenel, he is determined to possess her. If he must take her virtue to ensure she marries him, so much the better…

Helen has had little contact with the glittering, cynical world of London society. Yet Rhys’s determined seduction awakens an intense mutual passion. Helen’s gentle upbringing belies a stubborn conviction that only she can tame her unruly husband. As Rhys’s enemies conspire against them, Helen must trust him with her darkest secret. The risks are unthinkable… the reward, a lifetime of incomparable bliss. And it all begins with… marrying Mr. Winterborne.

Review:

I’ve read and loved Kleypas’ work in the past but this book fell flat for me.  Soggy pancake flat.

First, though, the good:

  • The writing is on par with the rest of her work, and I can’t find any fault with the words themselves.
  • There was enough information to jog my memory about the couple, who had a lot of goings on in the first book of the series.  It could probably even be read alone.
  • Rhys is romantic, the sex scenes are hot, and if you’re into period detail it’s here (“each glove is so delicate, it can be enclosed in the shell of a walnut”).
  • The secondary characters are fleshed out wonderfully, especially the women working for Winterborne.  I want them to get their own books, too.

The not-so-good:

  • The whole plot revolves around a secret Helen has, one she finds out maybe a quarter of the way through the novel.  Everyone says not to tell Rhys – he would never forgive her!  Don’t throw away your chance at marriage!  But the reader knows he will forgive her on the spot.  And he does.  So angst yes, conflict not so much.
  • Likewise there’s a plot twist near the end that was meant to raise the stakes but only raised my hackles instead.
  • Rhys has no faults as far as I can see.  Yes, he’s common born, but that lets him be progressive and alpha and endearing to modern readers.  He’s rich so Helen’s family is happy about the marriage.  Winterborne is also loving and protective, hates the people you would expect him to hate, and takes care of the people he loves.  He’s perfect… and pretty boring.
  • There isn’t anything wrong with Helen, either.  She’s dreadfully shy to start but it’s more of a feature than a bug.

So while the beginning was enjoyable I had to force myself to finish the last half of the book.  Weak conflict, a flawless hero and heroine… not much reason to read.  Le sigh.  I’ll still read the next book at some point, though, because Pandora.

PhDeath by James Carse

Synopsis:

9781623160661_1eb3ePhDeath is a fast-paced thriller set in a major university in a major city on a square. The faculty finds itself in deadly intellectual combat with the anonymous Puzzler. Along with teams of US Military Intelligence and the city’s top detective and aided by the Puzzle Master of The New York Times, their collective brains are no match for the Puzzler’s perverse talents. Carse, Emeritus Professor himself at a premier university in a major city on a square shows no mercy in his creation of the seemingly omniscient Puzzler, who through a sequence of atrocities beginning and ending with the academic year, turns up one hidden pocket of moral rot after another: flawed research, unabashed venality, ideological rigidity, pornographic obsessions, undue political and corporate influence, subtle schemes of blackmail, the penetration of national and foreign intelligence agencies, brazen violation of copyrights, even the production and sale of addictive drugs.

Review:

The jacket copy calls this a thriller but I’d say it’s a mystery.  There’s been a string of murders at an elite university and the police, Feds, and a committee of professors are on the case.  Each death is preceded by a ten part puzzle from the murderer, hinting at the next victim.

The good:

  • Several of the murders are creative and spectacular in a fun way.
  • Puzzles!  You’ll probably be able to figure out a couple parts as you go, and some are quite interestingly put together.
  • The Puzzle Master of the New York Times does indeed make an appearance, and it’s glorious.
  • The scene where the Puzzler is unmasked is amazing.  I was thrown for a loop – it’s a double reveal and I was blindsided on both counts.  I went “Wait… what?  HOW?” before flipping back to see how I possibly could have missed it.  Well done.
  • Whys and wherefores are fully explained in detail once the criminal is identified.  Only one detail I was curious about wasn’t expounded upon, which is pretty good.

The not-so-good:

  • The number ten is big in this book so each of the ten puzzles has ten parts.  All ten clues have a similar theme, so once you figure out the first few you can almost skip the rest, as the method has become clear.  However each part is painstakingly covered with answers and reasoning given, even for an arithmetic puzzle.  Judicious skimming helped me get through.
  • Looking for a breezy mystery?  This isn’t it.  If you like this sort of thing you’ll call it cerebral, but it veers towards “lecture about dead white guy philosopher” too much for me.  Here and there it’s interesting, but in other places it goes on too long.

Go in to PhDeath knowing it’s a philosophizing mystery.  Enjoy the crazy deaths, skim over clues that don’t interest  you, and watch out for that reveal – it’s a doozy.

The Shelf by Phyllis Rose

Synopsis:

18490539Hoping to explore the “real ground of literature,” Phyllis Rose reads her way through a somewhat randomly chosen shelf of fiction, from LEQ to LES.

The shelf has everything Rose could wish for—a classic she has not read, a remarkable variety of authors, and a range of literary styles. The early nineteenth-century Russian classic A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov is spine by spine with The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. Stories of French Canadian farmers sit beside those about aristocratic Austrians. California detective novels abut a picaresque novel from the seventeenth century. There are several novels by a wonderful, funny, contemporary novelist who has turned to raising dogs because of the tepid response to her work.

In The Shelf, Rose investigates the books on her shelf with exuberance, candor, and wit while pondering the many questions her experiment raises and measuring her discoveries against her own inner shelf—those texts that accompany us through life. “Fairly sure that no one in the history of the world has read exactly this series of novels,” she sustains a sense of excitement as she creates a refreshingly original and generous portrait of the literary enterprise.

Review:

Fear not, this is not a stunt memoir. Rose does read through a shelf at the library but it’s not as extreme as the title suggests as there’s no time limit, no angst when titles on the shelf change, and no diatribe about doing things right or wrong.  The shelf is a device, a way to hang interesting conversations about reading and the literary world together.

I like what she has to say.  While choosing a shelf she talks about how most of us have our reading chosen for us, be it by teachers and bestseller lists or award panels and librarians.  The fact that only three of the eleven writers on the shelf are women opens my favorite chapter about women and fiction.  She delves into how libraries decide what to keep and what to toss, and how opinions of books change (or not) over time and distance.  If you are a bookish person (I’m going to guess you are) Rose is speaking to you.

Refreshingly she doesn’t put down particular ways of reading.  Physical books are fine, but the text can be too small and the pages can crumble as you turn them, interfering with your enjoyment.

The ideal of translation as a pane of glass becomes embodied when you read on a Kindle or a Nook. Nothing comes between you and the text, certainly no object remind you distressingly of age and decay.

All of us who are unable to read physical books (audiobooks for the win) or have something going on that makes it a painful proposition (like my sad wrists) wholeheartedly agree.

Wide-ranging and packed with insight, The Shelf is a welcome addition to any “books about books” shelf.