Fates and Furies

“Great swaths of her life were white space to her husband. What she did not tell him balanced neatly with what she did. Still, there are untruths made of words and untruths made of silences, and Mathilde had only ever lied to Lotto in what she never said.” (Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff)

Fates and Furies CoverMy policy of ‘just say no to bestsellers’ kept me away from this book until I read this review from the NYT. A book told in two parts? I imagined unreliable narrators, characters recreated in the last few pages, a need to completely re-write the book in my head (like Sweet Tooth, or Confederacy of Dunces). While the first few chapters stunned me with the freshness of the writing, the book as a whole didn’t add up to anything meaningful. All of Groff’s literary contortions keep the reader in suspense, but rarely add depth or insight.

Though Fates and Furies wants to portray itself an honest account of a marriage, it ends up being more a story of two lives, the intersection of which is muddy at best. While Groff portrays the characters of the husband and wife deeply, she glosses over their interactions and shared lives. They both hide themselves from the other and are revealed only to the reader, only on the page. One gets the sense of not a ‘great love’, as it is often called, but instead of a great separation, where the romance plays out only in their minds.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 390
Ending: The wife’s reflections on the marriage at the end of her life
Incidental Learning: New York, Play writing
Further Reading: This book reminded me of The Marriage PlotBrilliant writing, brilliant beginning, but at the end, not amounting to much.

Booklion Birthday Awards: Year 6

When I first began this blog, I thought I was attempting to convince other people to read brilliant books. But, after years of purposefully not promoting the blog, of not mentioning it to friends, of not talking about it even with family – in short, of not using the blog to convince anyone of anything – I realize that sharing books can’t be the actual reason I write here.

After six years, I don’t feel like my reading is complete unless I write. A book someone else has written is not over for me until I write two paragraphs about it afterward. Like a small, personal, post script. A way to figure out, at least partially, what I thought. I now read with the practice of filing away vague thoughts and feelings to analyze later in front of the screen. If I didn’t make those fleeting thoughts concrete, I fear they might just fall away, forgotten. I can hardly distinguish books in my memory before I started this blog. Now, I have my opinions quantified and on-hand if ever I need them.

More even than a thinking tool, this blog is a diary told in the guise of reading experiences. It is a memory enhancement device that I reread periodically, perusing the emotions and lessons of this or that time through the tone I use in each piece. You probably wouldn’t be able to pick out specific life events by reading entries (since I systematically delete what has to do with my personal life), but they serve as a reminder to me. My posts are coded pieces that link each book to myself at that time, because you can never read (or write) without bringing yourself to the page.

I’m not going to lie anymore. This blog is clearly not for the reader; it’s for me. Part thinking tool, motivational technique, diary, writing practice. If you do choose to read a book after stopping by, you are more than welcome to it. But be aware that my recommendations are colored with personal experiences, and the reviews are far from unbiased.
So, here’s my reflection on the past year of reading, in the form of categories and awards:

Most Recommended: Neapolitan Quartet by Elaina Ferrante 

Most Enjoyable reading experience: Purity by Franzen 

Personal Favorite Post: Marry Me by Dan Rhodes

Most Humorous: The Martian by Weir

Most Earnest: the life changing magic of tidying up by Kondo

The Art and Craft of Tea

“Although this book is dedicated to capital “T” tea and takes a hard-line stance on what should and should not be considered tea, the one exception I make is Ethiopian tea, which is technically a tisane and not a tea (it does not use leaves from the Camellia sinesis plant).” (The Art and Craft of Tea by Joseph Wesley Uhl)

41k0ozehcbl-_sx258_bo1204203200_There are few acts more comforting than reading a book of gathered and sorted facts about one’s favorite subject. With each new tea book I read, I’m reminded of childhood’s obsession with accumulating the names of things: dinosaurs, star wars characters, rocks. Knowing these names is inherently meaningless in and of itself, but being able to recite them in your mind, recounting something stable at any time, relaxes. Similarly, at this point I don’t really need to read another book that tells me about the various categories of tea or the growing regions of China, but seeing them down on the page, accompanied by gorgeous pictures and a modern page layout, reminds me of all the other times I’ve found comfort and beauty in the subject.

This particular tea book’s virtues lie in the recipes found at the end. The author not only describes how various countries brew their traditional cup of tea (Persian Rose Tea sounds particularly intriguing), but also delves into modern mixes involving fruit, fresh herbs, and alcohol. I also appreciated the shortened, albeit obligatory, outlining of tea’s history, and the authors repeated insistence that one cannot call a tisane tea.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 160 coffee-table book sized pages. Probably not meant to be read cover to cover, but I recommend it anyway.
Ending: An index. Quite proper to the subject.
Incidental Learning: While you may expect to learn a lot about tea, you’ll also pick up some interesting details about the craft cocktail scene in Detroit.
Further Reading: More Tea books! I particularly love The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo, although that book is less about the facts of tea than its art. I’d also recommend

Morning Star

“This is always how the story would end,” he says to me. “Not with your screams. Not with your rage. But with your silence.” (Morning Star by Pierce Brown)

Morning Star CoverBrown delivers the third book of the Red Rising trilogy most fans were hoping for. It’s epic, shocking, and full of emotion and humor. It wraps up all plot lines without being too tidy and reveals a hopeful future for the characters we’ve grown to love. Though an excellent read, something kept nagging me throughout. A phrase repeated itself in my head, even though I couldn’t quite pinpoint the source of it at first: I’m being treated like the enemy instead of the hero.

Brown repeatedly uses the technique of jumping over large swaths of time so that the reader is just as surprised as the enemy when the Darrow’s ingenious scheme to win this or that war is revealed. While this method might serve to increase our suspense and delight, it comes at a major price. Ultimately, we get to be on less intimate terms with our beloved hero than we’re used to in a first person fantasy. We don’t get to hear Darrow’s thoughts when he’s planning; we don’t get to see the back and forth arguments, the worries and the fears. We, in short, are forced to pass over much of that lovely character development we readers yearn for so much. And, in the end, it feels less like we won a war and more like we just experienced a wonderful trick.

Recommended Action: Buy – Borrow Now Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 515
Ending: Hopeful and tricky
Further Reading: Between the second and third book of this trilogy, I read the very intimate Tawny Man trilogy by Hobb. If you leave this trilogy and you’re looking for something a little more character-oriented, Hobb wouldn’t be a bad place to go.

The Happiest Baby on the Block

“I believe that once our ancestors began living in villages and cities, they forgot that, since the Stone Age, babies were almost constantly jiggled and wiggled as their moms walked up and down the mountains… modern parents began to mistakenly think that babies were so fragile they could only tolerate quiet sounds and gentle motions.” (The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp)

The Happiest Baby on the Block CoverOf the parenting books I’ve recently breezed through, this one seems the most practical. If the technique does do as promised, calm any crying infant, then it was well worth the few hours put into reading it. However, the author could have made his points much more succinctly. He intersperses practical advice with pseudo-science justifications for why to use his method. Apparently, one should use the cuddle cure not because it works, but  because it mimics the way ‘cave men’ used to care for their young. Personally, I’ll believe a theory if it works in practice, not because of some hyped up historical pedigree.

In spite of its potential applications, the book does lack a certain panache as a reading experience. The author uses so many exclamation marks, casual sentences, and long-winded emoting that I had to check three times to make sure I wasn’t actually reading a series of social media posts written by a teenaged girl. Perhaps he uses the style for relatability, but I’d like to hope that most moms are reading with an adult level of emotional intelligence. Yet, for its failings as a reading experience, this book has the potential to be a life-changing force in a person’s life if read at the exact right time.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 267 pages
Ending: A New Parents’ survival guide appendix
Incidental Learning: breast feeding, pacifier training
Further Reading: If you don’t have a few hours to throw away on this book, I’d recommend just reading some articles or watching a video on the cuddle cure.

Brain Rules for Baby

“You may think that grown-ups create children. The reality is that children create grown-ups. They become their own person, and so do you. Children give so much more than they take.” (Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina)

Brain Rules for Baby CoverMost nonfiction books published in the U.S. could do with shedding a good 150-200 pages. Think of it like a literary diet. By removing the extra verbal baggage, we could have healthier, more efficient informational books. Instead, we’ve ended up laden with nice, thick looking 300-400 page books so overwritten that their main point is lost in all of the extras. Brain Rules for Baby is no exception to this modern trend. John Medina splashes metaphors, anecdotes, and general fatherly good humor around every sentence in an attempt to make the research more palatable. Personally, I’d rather save a few hours of reading time by taking the research and resulting practical tips on their own, without any of this wordy hand holding.

In spite of his gregariousness, Medina does end up imparting a few important-sounding lessons to parents. Many of the main points seem a bit common sense (explain rules and punishments, model behavior, etc), but a few other points involving emotional intelligence are more rare. He conveys wisdom on how parents can work on themselves, and their relationships, as well as addressing the needs of their children.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now –  Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 294 pages
Ending: summary of the practical tips in the book
Incidental Learning: Relationships, emotional intelligence
Further Reading: I’ve only read two informational books whose page length precisely matches the subject matter: information doesn’t want to be free and the life-changing magic of tidying up.

Fortune Smiles

“Cancer is the worst way for a fictional wife to die.”
(Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson)

Fortune Smiles I’ve always been attracted to the idea of award winners. The Pulitzer Prize! The National Book Award! And now, ALA’s Carnegie Medal! How wonderful, how noble, to have a trained group of people pre-brand a book as a perfect read. This year, I tried to make my way through some of these newly-minted prestigious titles only to find that those I could slog through weren’t worth it and most couldn’t even carry my goodwill through the first chapters. I closed this year’s Carnegie winning The Sympathizer in disgust when it used ‘vaginal’ as a modifier for darkness. Sure, I can see that some darknesses might be vaginal – but, after the 15th useless adjective that page, my mind couldn’t stop screaming ‘Phony!’, ‘Phony!’.

Fortune Smiles, the 2015 National Book Award winner, seemed a departure from this disappointing streak of award winners. The first few stories reminded me of George Saunders’ Tenth of December for their futuristic, imaginative settings and brilliant writing. Yet, after fifty or so pages, I found myself turning the pages more to see the numbers go up than through any true curiosity about what came next. Does forced reading indicate forced writing? I can’t be sure, but the word ‘forced’ is the one that will always be associated with this book in my mind.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 320 pgs
Ending: All short stories end at the point the character or situation reveals itself
Incidental Learning: Germany, North Korea vs. South Korea
Further Reading: Just read Tenth of December – whether or not you’ve read this one first.