They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy

Synopsis:

9537951The depression of the 1930s led people to desperate measures to survive. The marathon dance craze, which flourished at that time, seemed a simple way for people to earn extra money dancing the hours away for cash, for weeks at a time. But the underside of that craze was filled with a competition and violence unknown to most ballrooms.

Review:

In the back of my head I knew that they had dance marathons back in the Depression. Back in the old days equals tame, right? Nope.

Continue reading “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy”

The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer

Synopsis:

86145Susan Wise Bauer provides a welcome and encouraging antidote to the distractions of our age, electronic and otherwise. In her previous book the author provided a road map of classical education for parents wishing to home-school their children, and that book is now the premier resource for home-schoolers. In this new book, Bauer takes the same elements and techniques and adapts them to the use of adult readers who want both enjoyment and self-improvement from the time they spend reading.

The Well-Educated Mind offers brief, entertaining histories of five literary genres—fiction, autobiography, history, drama, and poetry—accompanied by detailed instructions on how to read each type. The annotated lists at the end of each chapter—ranging from Cervantes to A. S. Byatt, Herodotus to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich—preview recommended reading and encourage readers to make vital connections between ancient traditions and contemporary writing.

Review:

I think a lot of readers, myself included, have a nagging voice running through their heads – you still haven’t read War and Peace. You haven’t touched any Greek drama since high school. You always meant to study Shakespeare’s sonnets… why aren’t you doing that?

The Well-Educated Mind is a starting point for anyone interesting in tackling the “great books” of the Western canon. Bauer breaks the books into five categories – fiction, plays, history, autobiography, and poetry – and provides a mini-history and study guide for each. Twenty plus works are listed for each category, to be read in chronological order.

If you were to sit down and follow her plan to the letter it would take a long time, even for just one of the areas. You would have a notebook filled with timelines and chapter summaries and family trees. And you would know someone, preferably in the flesh, that would be doing the same thing at roughly the same time so you could discuss each work in detail and debate the finer points.

Needless to say the thought of all this gave me hives. A list of things I “ought” to read, answering questions a la middle school, the need for a friend just as crazy to join me.

Nope, not happening.

That being said I learned a lot from this book – how autobiographies evolved over time, questions to keep in mind when evaluating an argument, books I’ve never heard of that I’m now interested in. But I also felt a lot of guilt, as I’ve only read a few of the many titles she lists. Does that make me a bad reader? Am I lacking?

No, of course not. But it’s a hard feeling to shake. I self-justified – This is the sort of thing to tackle once I’m retired. I work in a science-y field so my time would be better spent reading journals than classics. And if I did read classics it would make more sense for me to read from the Eastern tradition because I live in Japan. So on, and so forth.

What I need to do is get over myself and own the fact that I will never read most of these books, and that’s okay. I will be partly read in the classics and more deeply read in romance, Japanese literature, and medical non-fiction. I will tackle the Russian greats and British poets if, and only if, the mood strikes.

And that will be enough.

Slightly Married by Mary Balogh (Bedwyn Saga #1)

Synopsis:

110295Like all the Bedwyn men, Aidan has a reputation for cool arrogance. But this proud nobleman also possesses a loyal, passionate heart—and it is this fierce loyalty that has brought Colonel Lord Aidan to Ringwood Manor to honor a dying soldier’s request. Having promised to comfort and protect the man’s sister, Aidan never expected to find a headstrong, fiercely independent woman who wants no part of his protection…nor did he expect the feelings this beguiling creature would ignite in his guarded heart. And when a relative threatens to turn Eve out of her home, Aidan gallantly makes her an offer she can’t refuse: marry him…if only to save her home. And now, as all of London breathlessly awaits the transformation of the new Lady Aidan Bedwyn, the strangest thing happens: With one touch, one searing embrace, Aidan and Eve’s “business arrangement” is about to be transformed into something slightly surprising.

Review:

While this plot should have grabbed me (marriages of convenience, how I love thee!) I had a lot of trouble getting into the book. There isn’t a large overarching conflict or a big bad, just two people that love each other but can’t bring themselves to talk about said love. Grah.

There are some awesome parts, especially when Eve heads to London, but they don’t make up for the chapters that drag. Oh, the captain has decided to stay for one more day? And yet another? Okaay.

That being said I give Balogh major brownie points for having the heroine be happy without biological children of her own. All too often a heroine’s like, “I’m fine with how things are, really,” but the epilogue reads, “I ended up pregnant! Thank god.” Eve wants kids but she’s not hinging her entire life’s happiness on them. Smart.

I won’t be running to get the next book of the series but I’ll keep it in mind for a rainy day.

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

Synopsis:

251665In the novel that won her the Booker Prize and established her international reputation, Anita Brookner finds a new vocabulary for framing the eternal question “Why love?” It tells the story of Edith Hope, who writes romance novels under a psudonym. When her life begins to resemble the plots of her own novels, however, Edith flees to Switzerland, where the quiet luxury of the Hotel du Lac promises to resore her to her senses.

But instead of peace and rest, Edith finds herself sequestered at the hotel with an assortment of love’s casualties and exiles. She also attracts the attention of a worldly man determined to release her unused capacity for mischief and pleasure. Beautifully observed, witheringly funny, Hotel du Lac is Brookner at her most stylish and potently subversive.

Review:

From the first chapter I wanted to like this book – there’s some beautiful prose in here.

It was to be supposed that beyond the grey garden… lay the vast grey lake, spreading like an anesthetic towards the invisible further shore.

Sometimes it bordered on comical:

Edith Hope, a writer of romantic fiction under a more thrusting name…

The sad thing is that I had a hard time fully connecting to the story. It all felt hollow, which may be partly intentional as Edith is feeling a bit gutted herself. The plot is very slow, nearly nonexistent, and while the characters are kind of interesting they feel like shells, too.

In my head literary fiction equals “white people sitting around talking” and sadly Hotel du Lac fits that bill. There are parts I appreciate (how Edith’s past is unspun) and parts I could have done without (yet another round of tea or coffee with so-and-so). I guess I’m rating this a big, “Hmm. Enh.”

The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin

Synopsis:

17707738A novel is a story transmitted from the novelist to the reader. It offers distraction, entertainment, and an opportunity to unwind or focus. But it can also be something more powerful—a way to learn about how to live. Read at the right moment in your life, a novel can—quite literally—change it.

The Novel Cure is a reminder of that power. To create this apothecary, the authors have trawled two thousand years of literature for novels that effectively promote happiness, health, and sanity, written by brilliant minds who knew what it meant to be human and wrote their life lessons into their fiction. Structured like a reference book, readers simply look up their ailment, be it agoraphobia, boredom, or a midlife crisis, and are given a novel to read as the antidote. Whatever your condition, the prescription is simple: a novel (or two), to be read at regular intervals and in nice long chunks until you finish. Some treatments will lead to a complete cure. Others will offer solace, showing that you’re not the first to experience these emotions.

Review:

The idea of a book curing your ills feels far fetched, I know. Don’t think of novels as a magic elixir or cure all but as a way to examine a problem from a different point of view. Conquer Flying, Fear of by reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight – see how much worse it can be? That turbulence was nothing! Feeling lonely? The gang at 28 Barbary Lane in Tales of the City will take you in as one of their own.

This book can be read equally well straight through or as the mood strikes you. Even if you aren’t suffering from the particular ailment you will still find interesting recommendations to add to your TBR.

The selection of novels covers a wide swath of literary history, from classics to more contemporary works and everything inbetween. I was pleased to see that there were a decent number of books in translation that go beyond the usual Murakami and Russian greats. I especially liked the ten best lists, including the best books for each decade of your life (from teens through 100+), the best novels for when you have a cold, and the best audiobooks for road rage. Genres are hit and miss – fantasy and sci fi are lovingly covered while horror, thrillers, mystery and romance fall by the wayside. Le sigh.

The introductions to each book go me interested in titles but I became annoyed when Berthoud and Elderkin give away major plot points and spoilers. I get that they are eager to say why the book is such a good cure for xyz ailment, but I’d rather they said “trust us” more often. I found myself skimming when they talked about titles already on my TBR just to make sure nothing was ruined for me.

As the authors point out novels are not a substitute for sound medical advice. But when you’re coping with a problem, be it mental or physical (or metaphysical), sometimes a well-chosen book is just the thing you need.

The Rogue Not Taken by Sarah MacLean (Scandal & Scoundrel #1)

Synopsis:

23617709When she finds herself the target of very public aristocratic scorn, Sophie Talbot does what she must to escape the city and its judgment—she flees on the back of a carriage, vowing never to return to London…or to society. But the carriage isn’t saving her from ruin. It’s filled with it.

Kingscote, the Marquess of Eversley, has never met a woman he couldn’t charm, a quality that results in a reputation far worse than the truth, a furious summons home, and a long, boring trip to the Scottish border. When King discovers stowaway Sophie, however, the trip becomes anything but boring.

Review:

I love MacLean but her books can be hit or miss for me. When I love them I adore them, and when they don’t work I’m left mightily disappointed. The Rogue Not Taken started off fine but by the end I was no longer on board with the couple or the situation or the… anything.

The good:

  • Banter! Lovely banter.
  • There’s fun, believable crazy. The party that opens the book has a misguided theme that makes complete sense in the time period. The way she meets Eversley is also priceless. This is what got my hopes up.
  • A long carriage ride ends up being a bottle episode… a sexy bottle episode! Yum.
  • The headlines at the beginning of each chapter are kind of cute.

The not-so-good:

  • 20+ woman borrows uniform of tween footman and everyone thinks she’s a man, even after talking, drinking, and playing cards with her. Right. Props to the hero for pointing out how stupid everyone is for not noticing, but so many people don’t notice. And she pulls it off again later. Grah.
  • I was looking forward to a fun or at least interesting rapport among the five sisters, but when they come back together near the end I wanted to strangle three of them. Kleypas’ Wallflowers this is not. I’m not even excited about reading any of their stories.
  • In fact, most of the secondary characters feel underdeveloped. They exist to chide or yell at the hero or heroine, or maybe drive a coach. Oh yeah, one character was there to be saved. But that’s it.
  • A lot of the later plot echoes what happened in a previous relationship, so you can see exactly where things are going and how “unfun” they will be.
  • I couldn’t believe that whole scene in a front of a castle in Scotland. Really? You would do that to her, on semantics? Take away a woman’s agency, piss me off.

I get that other people will love this book, but it’s just not for me. Hoping for more from the next installment.

Love Marriage by V.V. Ganeshananthan

Synopsis:

2524055The daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants who left their collapsing country and married in America, Yalini finds herself caught between the traditions of her ancestors and the lure of her own modern world. But when she is summoned to Toronto to help care for her dying uncle, Kumaran, a former member of the militant Tamil Tigers, Yalini is forced to see that violence is not a relic of the Sri Lankan past, but very much a part of her Western present.

While Kumaran’s loved ones gather around him to say goodbye, Yalini traces her family’s roots–and the conflicts facing them as ethnic Tamils–through a series of marriages. Now, as Kumaran’s death and his daughter’s politically motivated nuptials edge closer, Yalini must decide where she stands.

Review:

A lyric telling of one family’s Tamil diaspora experience. Ganeshananthan does a wonderful job following the lives of varied family members before, during, and after the 1983 “Black July” riots. There’s a family tree in the first few pages but you won’t need it – she lovingly details each person and drops hints just when you need them. Continue reading “Love Marriage by V.V. Ganeshananthan”

The Reading Year Ahead – 2016

Happy New Year!  I don’t do resolutions – I think that if there’s something you want to change in your life you should do it no matter what the calendar says.  But reading resolutions?  Those I like.  I’m going to read no matter what, so I may as well take a look at what’s going in my brain!

I’ve decided on a few changes compared with years past.

First – I’m determined to read more books by people of color.  I got better towards the end of 2015 but there’s a long way to go.

Second – I’m not going to keep track of or worry about author gender.  I read many more women than men – this is not a problem.

Third… actually, I think that’s it.  So!  What does it all boil down to?  I’m glad you asked:

Goals a la 2016

  • Have at least 20% of my reading be by an author who is a person of color or otherwise diverse (LGBTQ, people with disabilities, ethnic/religious minorities, etc.)
  • Read from more library categories than last year
  • Add at least ten titles to my ongoing Dewey list
  • Add at least five titles to my ongoing 20th Century list
  • Read at least one more book than last year

Library categories: The e-library lists genres or “subjects” for each book and I collect them as I read through the year.  I had 31 in 2014 and 33 so far in 2015, split basically evenly between fiction and non-fiction categories.

Dewey list: It’ll probably take my whole life, but I’m trying to read a non-fiction book for each Dewey Decimal number.  Currently I have 30 out of 99 divisions (groups of ten numbers) and 61 out of 908 individual sections.

20th Century list: Like the Dewey list, but for each year of the century.  I’ve read 41 out of the 100 so far.

Clear as mud?  There’s a lot of “at least”s but these are a bare minimum.  Especially the diversity… 20% feels low, so I’m hoping I can blow that number out of the water.  I’m also looking at a couple of reading challenges but haven’t settled on any particular one just yet.

What do you have planned for this year?