Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Review: What Are We Doing Here?

What Are We Doing Here? What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not a lightweight read, as Robinson is an academic first, one who happens to write novels. Most of these essays are speeches Robinson gave at universities between 2015 and 2017, on themes of religion, politics, holiness, humanism, etc. She was clearly on a John Edwards, Calvinism, and Cromwell kick because several of the essays reference these characters, as well as looking at the true history of America and its "Puritan roots." While I believe Robinson understands something deep about humanity, I personally prefer the experience of her perspective of it in her fiction than in her essays, but there was is one favorite that I feel everyone should read, one that I luckily found myself reading on Presidents' Day. It's called "A Proof, a Test, an Instruction," and looks at Obama's presidency from a different perspective. It can be a balm for people weary of 45. I also think it's interesting to note that it is one of the few written for print rather than a speech, and I think it is in more of a type of essay I enjoy reading - it has more personal reflection to balance the scholarship and points she is trying to make than the rest of them.

So this won't be for everyone, but if you are interested in religion and theology, in examining current events through a historical Calvinist lens, or want to delve deep into her thinking, this will be the book for you. I saw her speak a few years ago at the university where I work, and her quiet command of her topics is really something.

Thanks to the publisher for providing access to this title through Edelweiss. It came out today, February 20th, 2018.

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review: White Houses

White Houses White Houses by Amy Bloom
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was really looking forward to this book. I'm a longtime fan of Amy Bloom, and like how she writes somewhat quirky people inside relationships.

I like the idea of reading the untold story of the unknown (but open secret) lesbian lover of one of the greatest first ladies we've ever had in the United States.

But I think the author's lack of experience in writing historical fiction does not serve her well here. The pieces of the story are interesting but yet it is somehow not very well told.

It may still be worth reading for some - the relationship between Lorena and Eleanor definitely has some fire in it, and I liked imagining Eleanor through Lorena's eyes. At times I felt like I lacked some crucial details about the historical context that I wasn't getting from the book itself, things that would have helped me better understand the story. There are also some unfavorable comments about FDR, alongside some insights into his appeal, also coming from Lorena's perspective. Her childhood and circus past were... well, they were something else. At times it felt exaggerated and difficult to read as historical fiction. I'm not sure if it's because of the actual facts of the story being that extreme or if it's the writing, but I feel as if I'd have to read some biography of both Lorena and Eleanor to truly understand it all.

Thanks to the publisher for providing access to this title through NetGalley. The book came out this past Tuesday, February 13, 2018.

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Review: Virgin

Virgin Virgin by Analicia Sotelo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was hooked from the first poem, "Do You Speak Virgin?" from this impressive debut collection by Analicia Sotelo.

My favorites included:
"Ariadne's Guide to Getting a Man"
"My Mother & the Parable of the Lemons"
"My English Victorian Dating Troubles."

What I like about them - the way they feel youthful, but not naive. The way the poet's voice knows her inexperience but moves through the world deliberately masking her understanding of it so other women feel safe, and she herself is safer (but not from love.) The way there are slight elements of Mexican culture, the way someone who grows up in another country still has some cultural references from their background. The division of poems into sections like "Myths" and "Parables." The characters that have already started to recur in her memory, her dreams, and now her poems. Great stuff.

I had an eARC from Milkweed... Virgin comes out February 20!

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Review: The Undressing: Poems

The Undressing: Poems The Undressing: Poems by Li-Young Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can't say enough about how much I liked this poetry collection, in fact reading some of them aloud made me sob my eyes out. That's how deep and emotionally affecting they are, but not in an Instagram poetry way. This is the real stuff.

The poems are about desire, belonging, and family. My favorites are "Love Succeeding" and "Sandalwood," but the longer title poem is pretty unforgettable.

I need to go back and read his earlier work!

I had an eARC from the publisher and the title is out February 20, 2018.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Reading Envy 110: The Accidental Love Episode

Casey Stepaniuk, aka the Canadian Lesbrarian, makes her first official visit to the Reading Envy Pub, and brings books she's read and liked recently. Discussions include Vancouver Island, bisexual representation, and YA characters that we want to empathize with! We ended up talking about relationships and love a lot in many of our book picks, so happy valentines day, accidentally.

Download or listen via this link: Reading Envy 110: The Accidental Love Episode

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I am scheduling guests for the second half of 2018! If you are interested in appearing on the podcast: FAQ

Books Discussed:

 

Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai
Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro
Republic of Dirt: A Return to Woefield Farm by Susan Juby
The Dry by Jane Harper
In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan
White Tears by Hari Kunzru


Other Mentions: 

Out On The Shelves on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog
All I Did Was Shoot My Man by Walter Mosley
I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro
The Change Room by Karen Connolly
The Alice Series by Susan Juby - Alice, I Think is the first book
Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen
Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison
Home to Woefield by Susan Juby
Tournament of Books
Wrong to Need You by Alisha Rai
To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This by Mandy Len Catron
How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays by Mandy Len Catron
Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis
 
Related Episodes:

Episode 107 - Reading Goals 2018

Stalk us online:

Casey's blog,  Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian
Casey's articles on Book Riot
Casey on Twitter
Casey at Goodreads 
Jenny at Goodreads
Jenny on Twitter
Jenny is @readingenvy on Instagram and Litsy

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Review: A Town Like Alice

A Town Like Alice A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This month's bookclub pick, A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute, starts in England with an aging attorney setting up a trust. Most of the story follows Jean Paget, who spent most of World War II in Malaya as a prisoner of the Japanese. The journey after the war is the best part. It's a slow journey to get there, but paid off. Warning - there are some racist comments in here that seem a bit harsh even in 1950.

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Saturday, February 10, 2018

Review: An American Marriage

An American Marriage An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked but didn't love this story of a marriage in the newly crowned Oprah Book Club pick (I had started it the day before it was announced!)

Liked - the setting (Atlanta for the most part) and how the characters are products of the complex class system of Atlanta neighborhoods, ideas of the "people you come from" and what that means or doesn't mean, the realistic portrayal of a marriage and what happens when a major challenge comes along, the look at black incarceration and the question of justice.

How much does a marriage commitment mean? What if you are likely not to even see your spouse for 12 years? What is the expectation of the spouse left behind? It was easy to feel compassion towards all sides.

Less than liked - while I'm usually a fan of letters, I felt the narrative ended up feeling lopsided, resorting to letters and multiple points of view when I'm not sure it needed to. Maybe one but not both. The underlying issues are almost too subtle and mainly come across in conversations, but I mean, one character spends half the book in prison! There are also a few too many overly convenient coincidences.

This is my first book by this author and I would absolutely read another. I can't even think of the last non-dystopian novel I've read that is set in Atlanta. And I agree with Oprah that this makes a good book club novel, because there is a lot to discuss.

Quotes about marriage:

"Marriage is between two people. There is no studio audience."

(hmm, the other one I marked is a spoiler so never mind.)

Quotes about incarceration:

"That's your fate as a black man. Carried by six or judged by twelve."

"You know what they say: if you go five miles outside of Atlanta proper, you end up in Georgia. You know what else they say? What do you call a black man with a PhD? The same thing you call one driving a high-end SUV." (this comes after a discussion about how all black men with expensive cars in the south are treated like drug dealers by the police)

The publisher provided a copy for review through NetGalley, which I appreciate. I also bought it for myself because of the strong reviews, from Book of the Month. Since I read the actual book, I'm quoting from that and not the review copy. Available 6 February 2018.

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Review: The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories by Denis Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This posthumous story collection by Denis Johnson is my first time reading him, but it won't be the last. Most of the people who have more experience in the group where we are discussing this prefer collections like Jesus' Son, but I'll have to wait to weigh in on the comparison.

I chose the audio for this collection because of the narrators, so I will discuss both the story and the narrator. Overall, the stories are manly manly stories, but often about lessons learned, lives lived, endings and ghosts. That should be no surprise since the author passed away before these were published. But I do wonder if all his other writing reads as masculine. It's practically Cormac McCarthy in here.

"The Largesse of the Sea Maiden," read by Nick Offerman (text available online via The New Yorker)
Absolutely about an older man looking back at his life, navigating his present without always being 100% sure of his reality. Some painful-funny moments stand out, like not being sure which ex-wife is on the phone, or telling a co-worker's son to tell him hello even after they've had the conversation about his passing. Nick Offerman is always good, and a believable voice for this story.

"The Starlight on Idaho," read by Michael Shannon (text available online via The Harvard Advocate)
This is my second favorite story, from the point of view of someone who has checked into "Starlight Addiction Recovery Center," told entirely through his letters to others. The audiobook narrator really brought this one to life, through the dry-miserable wit of Michael Shannon. It ranges in tone from sane reflection to batshit crazy conversations with Satan. I loved it. And the themes of isolation and regret start to feel thematic as they are present here as well.

"Strangler Bob," read by Dermot Mulroney (text available from The New Yorker)
Set in a jail, a man known as Strangler Bob proves particularly prophetic to a man serving a far shorter sentence. No real comment on the narration except I wasn't thinking about him, so he must have gotten out of the way.

"Triumph Over the Grave," read by Will Patton
This is absolutely the best story of the collection, about an aging writer in the desert, but it veers into the magical or horrific or ghostly, depending on how you read it. The narration feels most strongly like it is the author, and with the way the story ends, I just don't understand how this wasn't the last story in the collection. Will Patton is excellent and I would be shocked if he wasn't somehow funneling the voice of Johnson.

"Doppelgänger, Poltergeist" read by Liev Schreiber
Well, this was a strange one about a man obsessed with Elvis, also about the twin towers somehow. The weakest story, but I did like hearing Liev Schreiber as narrator, and I hope he does something else at some point.

I listened to this after its publication date (mid-January 2018) but through a copy provided by the publisher through the Volumes app.

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Review: Love

Love Love by Hanne Ørstavik
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For such a short work, this is a challenge to read. The story of a mother and son in the coldest time of year in the coldest region of Norway, the narrative moves between Vibeke and Jon, even though they are not in the same location as the story goes on. My reading process went something like read two-three paragraphs, then backtrack one to pick up the alternate character to figure out what is going on. I'm not sure I always understood where I was. Is this translation or in the original work? That is uncertain.

There are elements of deep foreboding and danger, but because of the strange (unique?) writing style, sometimes I couldn't tell if what I thought I was understanding were really going on. For instance at one point I'm pretty sure Jon is in the trailer? home? of a couple who are child sexual predators but then he's not kept there. And he gets in the car with a stranger.

Part of my other confusion is the beginning of the novel, when Jon is at home waiting for Vibeke to come home, I read him as an older man, possibly her father or someone she worked for as a nurse or aide, that I was pretty confused when I understood him to be eight.

There's a night circus (does this really happen in the cold or was this another imagined thing?) and Vibeke herself is making some bad choices by going off alone with what we here in the USA would negatively call a carny. She also ends up in possible danger, but her attitude doesn't make it seem so. She is smoking, and smiling, and seems up for whatever, forgetting that she has a child at home. So is this night a binging of singleness amidst the stress of parenting a child alone? Or is it something else entirely.

So I end the book completely unsure of what I read or what I got out of it. I didn't mind having to work hard, but I am not sure what the answers are.

Thanks to the publisher, the marvelous Archipelago Press, for providing early access to this title through Edelweiss. It is available 13 February 2018.

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Sunday, February 4, 2018

Review: The Bookworm

The Bookworm The Bookworm by Mitch Silver
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are multiple story lines in this novel but I really was only interested in one - Lara the "bookworm," who does research in a Russian archive and is handed these mysterious recordings discovered near a dead body in London. She is uniquely positioned because she is from Russia but studied overseas, and now teaches English. Her brother is an interesting character with ties to the oil industry in Alaska and Russia, and his life is in danger at some point. But along the way there are a lot of minor characters coming and going in the present-day, and some of them prove to be more important than others. Just a few too many, especially on the Russian side.

Then there are the historical story lines like this very convoluted conspiracy involving Hitler, the Russian front, a young JFK, as told on the recordings by Noel Coward, that are somehow connected to the present day dealings between Russia and the "west." I think it gets confusing, not to mention far-fetched.

I just think, in general, that the author is trying to do too much. There are also a lot of super contemporary references, but the perspective of the main characters should feel Russian and I often had to remind myself that they weren't Americans. Then I'd feel like I was rooting for the wrong people. Not the American president who is lying to the American people about the oil deals with Russia but for the Russian scholar who might uncover a secret that would make the world hate America. But wait, I'm American... it's a strange phenomenon, and I rather enjoyed having my head messed with in that way. It's possibly stranger coming from an American author.

Thanks to the publisher for providing early access to this title, which comes out on February 6.

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Review: Origin

Origin Origin by Dan Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Really 3.5 stars - you don't read Dan Brown for great literature, but a quick read with conspiracy theories, obscure religious sects, art, and symbols. There are many internet rabbit holes a person could go down if she wanted to.

This time around, the setting is Spain, with a discovery made by an Elon Musk type tech master. The discovery is supposed to change everything for the world's religions, so he meets with three religious leaders before making the announcement, as a courtesy. This puts him in danger, and of course Robert Langdon ends up at the center of all the action, forced by events outside his control to go on a big adventure/escape/pursuit with the closest intelligent and beautiful woman, this time the director of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. She also happens to be engaged to the prince of Spain, and is it possible all of this is connected to the royal family and the church?

As far as character development goes, it is minimal. Back story of some characters is only used to make the reader question if they are good or evil, and there are only two camps. The plot actually wasn't of much interest to me, but I liked reading about the art and the various places of intrigue around Barcelona and other regions of Spain. Sometimes that's enough in a book like this.

Thanks to the publisher for providing access to the audiobook, although I got to it kind of late. The narrator did a great job.

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