Night School: A Reader for Grownups by Zsófia Bán

translated by Jim Tucker

43388135Zsófia Ban’s Night School: A Reader for Adults uses a textbook format to build an encyclopedia of life—subject by subject, from self-help to geography to chemistry to French. With subtle irony, Ban’s collection of “lectures” guides readers through the importance and uses of the power of Nohoo (or “know-how”), tells of the travels of young Flaubert to Egypt with his friend Maxime, and includes a missive from Laika the dog minutes before being blasted off into space, never to be seen again. A wildly clever book that makes our all-too-familiar world appear simultaneously foreign and untamed, and brings together lust, taboos, and the absurd in order to teach us the art of living.

Review:

Content warnings for short references to child abuse and sexual abuse.

I picked up this book because I love the premise – an encyclopedia of life, a reader for grownups, built up through 21 short stories. Textbook-esque questions and observations are strewn throughout, and while some are funny or just weird others are poignant and made me think.

WHAT is the meaning of allegro, ma non troppo? AND HOW DO WE KNOW when allegro is too troppo?

CALCULATE how many angels can fit on the head of a pin if each angel is approximately 45mm and faithless.

WRITE AN ESSAY on this topic: If you had the choice, which of your favorite authors would you choose not to meet?

The stories fall into several loose types. Several look at the history of Eastern Europe (Bán is Hungarian) with a dystopian bent. Some are character studies, or an experimental narrative idea that’s spun out. Others examine an aspect of a famous person’s life – how the wickedly wonderful subject of Manet’s Olympia got the artist to do the painting in the first place. Laika the dog’s thoughts before she is blasted into space, never to return. (“This recording is for you, Soviet children, so you can write its message on a sky full of meteors and stardust: THESE PEOPLE ARE ALL GALACTIC LIARS.”)

My favorite is an examination of Newton that is free-wheeling and hard to describe. I both laughed and stared into the middle distance, lost in thought. What if instead of watching an apple fall he saw a boulder careening down a mountainside? Or simply threw a ball into the air hundreds of times to watch it rise, slow, hang for an inexplicable moment, then drop? Neither of these is as romantic as an apple falling, and the latter is hard work. Would we have the same thoughts about Newton if he came up with his theory about gravity in one of these other ways?

Other little bits struck a chord, like how people make unthinking exclamations in their native language. When I was in study abroad all of my classmates were multi-lingual, and we would joke that the best way to figure out someone’s mother tongue is to punch them and see what language they swear at you in. (Not recommended, obvs.)

I didn’t understand everything Bán was getting at, but I don’t think that’s the point. Some stories are a wash of images with a thread of plot, and I enjoyed drawing connections and going where she led me. That being said, some things I were over my head. For example, one story is an email correspondence among characters from Dangerous Liaisons. I haven’t read the book and was so lost that I ended up moving on to the next piece.

Overall, though, I loved spending time with this collection. It’s odd, subversively feminist, and made me look at certain aspects of life in a new light. I took forever to get through the book because I only read one story at a time, often on a long stretch of my commute, and let it rattle around my head for a day or two. Perfect for any fan of weird and wonderful short stories.

Thanks to Open Letter and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Fit by Rebekah Weatherspoon (Fit #1)

21801485Violet Ryan loves the delicious food she gets to eat on the reality shows she produces for The Food Channel. What she hates is her expanding waistline. Determined to drop the pounds, Violet hatches a plan to kick start a fitness regimen. She knows she needs a new approach and possibly a new trainer—one with a lighter touch.

Grant Gibson has always managed to mix business with pleasure, but now this trainer by day, and Dominant by night, is bored. Even though he owns one of L.A.’s hottest private gyms, his personal life is sorely lacking. He’s in no hurry to take a new lover under his wing. Not until the voluptuous Violet falls into his lap.

She may be wary of his unorthodox approach of using sexual gratification as a reward, but even before her initial weigh-in Violet can’t seem to stay away from the sexy fitness god. She may have to let Grant show her there’s more than one way to get in shape…

Review:

The perfect one-sitting read for an insomniac night.

The good:

  • Yea for interracial relationships written by a Queer woman of color! Violet is Chinese-American and Grant is white.
  • Violet is fat and is aiming to get fit, not skinny. She wants some of the weight to come off, of course, but being healthy comes first, not getting down to a certain dress size.
  • Grant makes a big blunder when they first meet and the way Violet handles it is real and funny.
  • Without getting spoilery, I like that Grant acknowledges that there are good and bad reasons to miss a workout. Once in a lifetime experience? Sure. Third girls’ night out of the week? Maybe not.
  • The BDSM is gentle and fun and full of consent. Yea happy D/s!
  • I’m a fan of Weatherspoon’s writing and I wasn’t let down.
  • The story fits the page length and there’s even a small B-plot, which is a hard thing to do when the book is only 80 pages. It works out great.

The not-so-good:

  • The beginning was info dumpy but soon forgiven.

I’m so glad I had this on my e-reader – time to pick up the next book in the series for my next insomniac emergency!

Set Me Up by Kat Alexis

20104544Indigo Larsen can finally live her dreams of exploring the world. Her first stop is Ireland, where on a dare she accepts the Tongue of Truth liquor. The sex that follows is passionate and more exotic than anything she’s ever imagined. Waking up the next morning `on Aedan Ciaran’s naked lap with his hard cock inside her is more than disconcerting. Convinced the liquor is the cause of her predicament, Indigo tries to leave.What’s a leprechaun to do? Why, bring out all the luck he can find in hopes of loving his way into Indigo’s heart.

Review:

Sometimes in the mood for something completely off the wall and I hunt down the most out-there erotic romance I can find. An American who falls in love with a guy who turns out to be a leprechaun? Sure!

Thank goodness it’s short, though. A woman heads to Ireland to stretch her wings and accepts a drink from a bartender at a pub. The next thing she knows she’s having sex with that bartender and it’s amazing.

Yea great se but where was her choice in this, and what’s with the sudden fated mate stuff? Taking away the heroine’s agency, strike one. Meh sex scenes where orgasm quantity beats all else, strike two. The idea of a sexy, handsome (and tall, thank you) leprechaun is interesting, but the execution is not there. 1.5 stars because it didn’t outright piss me off and the writing was only half awful. And who doesn’t want to have sex on a rainbow?

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

FifthRisk.inddWhat are the consequences if the people given control over our government have no idea how it works? Across all departments, similar stories were playing out: Trump appointees were few and far between; those that did show up were shockingly uninformed about the functions of their new workplace. Some even threw away the briefing books that had been prepared for them.

Michael Lewis takes us into the engine rooms of a government under attack by its own leaders. In Agriculture the funding of vital programs like food stamps and school lunches is being slashed. The Commerce Department may not have enough staff to conduct the 2020 Census properly. Over at Energy it’s not clear there will be enough inspectors to track and locate black market uranium before terrorists do.

If there are dangerous fools in this book, there are also heroes, unsung, of course.  Michael Lewis finds them, and he asks them what keeps them up at night.

Review:

This is my first book by Michael Lewis but by all rights it shouldn’t be, considering that he’s written Moneyball and The Big Short. Here he looks at how three government agencies have transitioned from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.

…it didn’t go well. Surprise, surprise.

In a book slim enough to feel like three extended essays Lewis goes over the highly varied missions of three federal agencies, what they normally do, and how that’s all been turned upside down by the incoming administration. Remember the news stories about the Trump transition being anemic and ill-planned? We see all of that in its full glory.

But it’s more than tales of woe. Lewis also highlights former administrators and the work they did fixing government. You’ve probably never heard of them, but they’ve kept the rusty wheels of bureaucracy turning with smarts and a dedication to public service. It’s inspiring how many people work for the government with this sense of duty.

And the potential disasters that keep them up at night can be truly frightening – misjudging North Korea and inadvertently starting a war, nuclear waste flowing into a major river due to poor storage. Others “merely” bode poorly for our long term prospects, like the lack of funding for cutting-edge scientific research.

Other than these facts, what struck me most is Lewis’ assured and slightly casual writing style. It never felt academic and always welcomed me back to the page.

At the same time, I can’t say I’m blown away. It’s an interesting and well-written book but it will fade from memory all too soon, which is a shame considering the subject area.