aslant: (elle s'amuse)
After some final scrambles to sort out a few misnumbered reviews, my 2012 total stands at 48. I'm pretty proud of that number, as it was attained in between work and parenting and a hell of a year. I read more books than that, but I think of this primarily as a way of digesting what I've read, getting my thoughts together, and only secondarily about quantity.

Most of the best books didn't fit into any themes, per se, but there were a couple obvious themes: 1) childbirth and parenting, 2) nonviolent communication and relationships, 3) British domestic service between the wars, and 4) the holocaust. You could say my class schedule this past academic year has been a bit erratic, to say the least.

Here is a list of the top 8 that stuck out when I reread through my reviews, unranked:

42. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, believe the hype
41. La Batarde, Violette Leduc a.k.a. the writer I should have written my thesis about
34 & 35. books 1 & 2 of the Kingkiller Chronicles, Patrick Rothfuss
15. Wild, Cheryl Strayed
20. You're An Animal, Viskovitz!, Alessandro Boffa, hilarious, sweet and clever like a randy Calvino
8. Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel, a.k.a. the book that might have saved my marriage
6. Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, best unintentional utopia
1. The Tiger's Wife, Tea Obrecht

There are lots more I would add to the honorable mentions list, which I don't care to list out, but these top 8 are the ones I would spend money to have on my bookshelf. That is a big endorsement these days.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
48. Mink River, Brian Doyle

This one was a surprise. I loved it, loved it, loved it. It was like a big poem river to swim in. Doyle's story, complete with Oregon coast village life, a talking crow, assorted Natives and Irishmen, looked at first like it was going to be maudlin and perhaps racist/appropriative? But instead it was rich and wonderful, and just the right amount of quirky -- a bit like David James Duncan mixed with Murakami mixed with...I dunno, someone very Irish. There are bits about The Hunger (an gorta) and lots and lots of gaelic, and Worried Man and Cedar who run the very, very unusual Department of Public Works in the tiny village and do all kinds of semi-magic (ignore the blurbs about this book, which make the DPW angle sound like the only thing, like it's some kind of Twin Peaks/Northern Exposure thing, but it's really not the main story, at all). It's slightly mystic in that the town's inhabitants are, slightly, but the reverence and the spiritualism never comes off as trite, it's just kind of...there. It's knit in with the whole style of writing and the backdrop. I can't help but love this, partially, because it's about a corner of the world I especially love, and wish I knew better. Doyle's writing is beautiful; his particular genius is in these long, parallel-construction passages where he knits together dozens of stories happening simultaneously around the town, all united around a random moment, like at one moment everyone in the village is singing at the same time, or everyone is kneeling at the same time. There are passages like this which are like long run-on poems. They were just right. I wish I'd noted down some of my favorite phrases to share with you, but this was one of those books that I just swam into and through, so if you like novels like that, I highly recommend this one. Especially if you're in the mood for visiting a damp little fish midden on the North coast and meeting an erudite gentleman crow named Moses who will eventually make you cry (maybe). Okay now I'm being deliberately evasive. If you like this review you just might like this novel, otherwise, skip it.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
45. The Fishing Fleet: Husband-hunting in the Raj, Anne de Courcy

Well, this was a nice little jaunt through a lot of English racism! Anne de Courcy has written a number of volumes about high society in the debutante era -- I picked up and discarded her 1939: The Last Season for being too boring -- here she manages to be much more interesting, if shockingly embedded in a kind of throwback racism throughout the book. When the British colonized India, there were lots of eligible men, and very few eligible women, the opposite of the situation in England, and so the 'fishing fleet' girls would take a perilous steamer journey to India to do the cool weather high society season with army captains and India Civil Service men, and the viceroys aides-de-camp, etc. the season was full of polo and hunting and balls and endless "weeks." This was apparently part of being in the army, for the British, all the horse riding and hunting was considered the only adequate preparation for war. And you were practically required to get married, as a man. Many of the fishing fleet girls would be engaged within days of arriving, so tight was the market, if they hadn't become affianced to a likely gentleman on the boat ride over. If you didn't manage to become engaged by the time your return journey came around, you were known as a 'returned empty' and were considered an old maid by 25.

It was fascinating to read about how the British empire established its home-country norms in a different climate and then clung to those norms obstinately, to the point where etiquette and points of precedence were followed more closely in the Raj for much longer than they were in England. As de Courcy points out, in England someone of low birth or career could manage to aim higher if they were especially clever or socially connected; in the Raj everything was determined by the husband's rank in the army or ICS. Anyway, the main problem with this book is that there is practically zero interrogation of the issues of race and class going on between the colonized and the colonizers, aside from a few brief passages. The author says that since caste was so embedded prior to their arrival, the British-imposed hierarchies and etiquette was "natural," to the colonized populations, which sounds like a load of colonial bullshit justification to me. You will read pages and pages about the elaborate, gemstone-encrusted turbans and aigrettes and clothes worn by the native maharajas, but only one sentence about how 'sad' it was that they held authority in name only. There are other things, too, like random society women in the narrative will write about some town "rebelling" and having to be put down, and de Courcy glances right over it; however, every name mentioned will have its little footnote about how they later went on to receive such-and-such royal honor, or ascended to some fancy leadership position. It made me want to read a real history of the Raj, to figure out how much of this is unexamined colonialist hogwash through de Courcy's blinkered gaze, and how much of it is real. However, if you want to read about the crazy history of Brits being teddibly, teddibly British in the hill country and Snooty Ooty and about the durbars, it's kind of fun. De Courcy writes touchingly of the colonialists' dilemma, where every had to send their children back to England to be educated, due to rules about citizenship; unless you had a lucky aunt to pick you up, you were basically abandoned in these (occasionally awful) schools for children of the Raj, separated from your family for years and years until you were of age and could go out to either join the army or ICS, or marry someone. Small price to pay, however, in exchange for joining the ruling elite and gaining your fortune, right? Nowhere did I read a single thing that sounded like, oh and look at the awful humiliations or racist murders that happened (though a few are mentioned). What a weird book.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
44. This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz

I am not normally a big fan of short stories, but as it turns out, I am a big fan of trying to read autobiographical details into Diaz's fiction! It is kind of nice to read his short stories, since many of the characters are the same, or so similar it doesn't matter, so you start to recognize Paloma, and Rafa who dies, and Yunior who always ends up at Rutgers eventually, etc. These are excellent stories -- mostly told by men who lament their nature as sucios while being incapable (seemingly) of living any other way, constantly cheating on women who don't deserve it. The final story, though, is what really got me. It appears to be Diaz's story of a terrible, Sisyphean attempt to get over a girlfriend, told over several years, complete with serial awful dating stories and heartbreaking revelations from girlfriends and guy friends, and he is very funnily insulting about Boston the whole time and it is a kind of Job story, I suppose. Terrible, constant heartbreak that is only vaguely illuminated at the end by the promise of yes, finally, after six or so years, he finally wrote a tiny bit of a book that he didn't hate, and went from there. This is what I was wondering about his Oscar Wao book, when does he ever write about not Dominican life, on the island or in New Jersey, but his current life, the one where he's a pulitzer-winning professor at MIT? If this is that story, it is more than enough, it is too much: it made me pity him, and if it is really his life, it made me dislike him as a person. It was a lot harder to write off the macho/sexist stuff as "just characters" because the narrator in the final story, The Cheater's Guide to Love, is pretty awful. With his friends, without his friends. I feel like I have a complicated attraction for him. For all the sexist realism he writes, though, there is still a lot of poetry, a lot of fire, and this book only made me want to read more. I am definitely putting Drown on my list. Hopefully he finishes that postapocalyptic novel from his New Yorker story soon, too.
aslant: (elle s'amuse)
42. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

If you follow Diaz in the literary sphere, you know he is a Controversial Author lately. Is he really as amazing as his Pulitzer Prize suggests? Is he a genuine nerd or does he just sprinkle in lingo like seasoning? Is he just writing chick lit but getting a pass because of a sprinkle of nerd references and Dominican flavor? (Well, this last is more a dig at his collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her, which I'm also reading right now, but it's a criticism I tried to hold in mind while reading Oscar Wao, because it's also relevant.) In short, I think he is worthy of the hype, but he's not some kind of god of writing -- his narrator got annoying sometimes, especially in the early history/exposition sections in Oscar Wao, which sound very spoken-word, sometimes to good effect but sometimes to excess, and after a while I felt like I kind of fell into his world of gender relations and wasn't that interested in critiquing them. Which is kind of awful! Because no one comes out looking good, in these books, not in love and not in lust! Also, I felt towards the end of the book that it suffered from its time ordering -- like maybe it used to be in a different order and was rearranged? Without having a substantial enough rewrite to make it flow? People getting introduced in weird order, stuff like that. For all that, this book drew me in, made me laugh, made me cover my face and read between my fingers, made me cry at the end, and the characters are genuine and genuinely well drawn. My only confusion was sometimes believing that Oscar was Diaz, and sometimes believing that Yunior was Diaz, and wondering if he was either fronting as more nerdy than he really was, or fronting as more of a player than he really was. (I still wonder this about Diaz, he seems like something of an enigma. I want to know more about what his college life was like, to learn whose experience he mirrored, if either.)

43. That's Not a Feeling, Dan Josefson

I can't recall where this book recommendation showed up, but it came in my ILL queue so hey, new book! I picked it up on Friday morning, finished it Sunday afternoon, it's a quick read. Dan Josefson's book is, allegedly, the last recipient of a David Foster Wallace blurb, and at the end of my edition there was a quick little essay interviewing someone who facilitated that connection. The story takes place at the Roaring Orchard School for Troubled Teens, and is full of darkly comic humor, following one boy's arrival (and departure and arrival and departure and arrival) and his experiences (often through multiple characters' POVs) in this surreal, possibly awful or possibly genius rehab school. There are confusing words, getting put in a wiggle, or someone's "furniture got popped" or someone is sheeted, or they have to turn in FIBs and all these other bizarro things that feel really, really real. Never answered is the main issue: are the kids really being helped? Is it all a scam? There are lots of uncomfortable moments where the kids are participating in some group "process" and it's clear the adults don't really believe in it, or maybe they do, and the kids do what they do out of a confused kind of loyalty or desire for it to simply be over, and no one knows whether the end result is real or happenstance. Like life, maybe? Yes, like life. This would be a fantastic movie in the vein of Ghost World, maybe a Wes Anderson flick, or someone willing to tell a kind of hazy upstate New York rehab school version of Virgin Suicides? It has a hazy vibe, and requires a massive mansion and a weird hand-drawn map of the school grounds (which is in the book, I love it). Yes.
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41. La Batarde, Violette Leduc

Wow. Although I'm pretty sure I read some Leduc at some point in college, I came to this remembering next to nothing about her, and was completely, solidly blown away. Her writing is absolutely amazing. This is her first volume of autobiographical nonfiction (not her first book -- her first novel, L'Asphyxie/In the Prison of Her Skin, was also autobiographical), and it follows her from her childhood, born out of wedlock, through her unhappy adolescence in a girls' boarding school, to her young adulthood working in publishing in Paris, and her war years as a somewhat hapless but successful black marketeer. But all of this is just background to the story of how and with whom Violette falls in love -- in boarding school with the luminous Isabelle, and then Hermine, a teacher, with whom she lives for many years, a ridiculously awful marriage to a strange man named Gabriel, and then later she falls in love with a gay Jewish writer, Maurice, who finally convinces her to write, while they are isolated in a Normandy village during the occupation. (Yes, somehow, I cannot avoid reading about WW2, yet again. My obsessions, let me show you them.) And much of her love life is shot through with memories of her grandmother, Fideline, who loved her in a tender way that her own mother never offered. The passages when Leduc writes about Isabelle are spellbinding, perhaps moreso because I felt she captured so perfectly that weird experience of sexual exploration, with a girl, when it's hidden and of a piece with the whole bubble of being at a school -- nearly precisely my experience in college (because for various reasons, at the gayest school in the country, I was quite closeted, and as inexperienced as Violette was at age 12 or 13, apparently). The beauty of her writing is how it has so many unexpected turns and images in it, like this, in one of her night trysts with Isabelle: A wave carried her away and she sank down into the bed, then rose up again, plunged her face toward me, and held me to her. There were roses falling from the girdle she put around me. I fastened the same girdle around her. Or this, from the book's closing passage: This August day, reader, is a rose window glowing with heat. I make you a gift of it, it is yours....I walk without flinching through the burning cathedral of the summer. My bank of wild grass is majestic and full of music. It is a fire that solitude presses against my lips. Does that capture it? No? Maybe? Anyway, amazing. The book faltered a bit, for me, in the long awful sections of her chasing Gabriel and Maurice around. She has a doggedly low opinion of herself, and although she was taken in by Simone de Beauvoir and other famous post-war writers in that circle, she never quite achieved fame as a writer. It's a shame, reading this book, because she is really something special.

I'm working on finishing the second autobiographical volume that follows this one, Mad in Pursuit, which is so far proving to be almost better. Though nothing will quite match her lyricism about her awful childhood and her early loves, I think. Sad but luminous, her writing has inspired me so much this past month. I wish I'd known her work better in college, she is a perfect match for my other favorite autobiographist, Dolores Prato. Anyway -- this book is highly, highly recommended.
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39. The Red Pyramid, Rick Riordan, adapted by Orpheus Collar
I picked this up because it was on top of the graphic novel display in the children's library -- it's an adaptation of a novel. I am a sucker for Egyptiana and this delivered, with more esoteric details about the gods than I could really keep track of, and an interesting enough magic/otherworld design. The characters weren't very deep, though maybe that just didn't translate well. The art was also a little uneven, and very obviously just a vehicle for the adapted novel text. Frequently I had the feeling I was reading a particularly pretty storyboard for the film adaptaion. But the art did have flashes of beauty, here was Sadie's encounter with the night goddess, Nut:

I'm a sucker for Nut. The story, generally, is that separated (multi-racial!) siblings Sadie and Carter Kane are the children of some bad-ass gods, and they have to save the world. There are some clumsy adolescent crushes that pop up along the way, but mainly the kids are action! heroes! and not so much actual kids. I liked this, but maybe not enough to seek out the other sequels, in novel or comic form.

40. Secrets of the Flesh: a life of Colette, Judith Thurman

This is a beautiful, long, dense biography. I offer Thurman high praise by saying she's almost as good a biographer as Hermione Lee; this is dense with so many Belle Epoque and wartime French literature and politics and art references that it was a bit dizzying. Previously, I'd only been familiar with Colette through Roxanne's costume so this was a fascinating way to get to know a fascinating woman/character/author/actress/personality. Perhaps the most shocking thing to me was her cruel childhood, and her cruelty to her young daughter, too (also a theme in another writer I'm reading concurrently, Violette Leduc). This cruelty is remarked on and studied in her literature and her biography, so it's nothing new, but it also felt strikingly opaque, to me. Sometimes, for all this book's brilliance, I wasn't entirely certain I was getting a view of a person. Colette's letters are quoted frequently, and sometimes the phrasing was just baffling to me, like I wasn't entirely certain I was hearing her considered thoughts, perhaps it was just a phrase she thought sounded good. Frustratingly, this is the same criticism often leveled at her prose, so I felt there was something missing in the biography that might have helped unlock it. But Thurman's view was quite clear on another front, that of Colette's collaboration with the Vichy regime, publishing in some of the most virulently far right publications. This was not unusual among the French literary crowd, apparently, who were not entirely convinced either way (unless they were directly persecuted) and really only switched sides to the Free French once it became clear the Germans were going to lose -- not out of conviction but out of self-preservation, Thurman and others have suggested. Thurman also suggests, as have others, that much of Colette's opacity comes down to this kind of unconcerned ego-centrism, and in some cases (i.e. Colette's judgments of the younger lesbian set, in comparison to her own turn of the century cohort) more a product of her provincialism or lack of education, not really understanding the circumstances in which others might live. She gave herself a lot of credit but could be harshly judgmental of others. For all that, she was a renowned author, and I haven't read any of her work. I'll be interested to see how it comes off, after reading this.


I'm pleased to have hit 40 books total, with only two months remaining in this year. This is probably quadruple my normal reading total in prior years -- I've never committed to the library the way I have this year, it's really fueled me.

The stack I have ongoing (a Vogue sewing guide from 1957, two Violette Leduc books, a book of essays on Dante in art and literature, Under Fire (memoir of WWI from one of Colette's contemporaries), and Kim Stafford's memoir) is probably entirely too much to complete, given that I plan to spend November writing NaNoWriMo, but I'm hopeful. I started planning ahead by deliberating culling books from the pile (I won't be finishing that biography of Beatrix Potter with the adorable illustrations on the cover, for example). I plan to keep this project ongoing in 2013, as much as possible! In the meantime, surely some reading will get done in November, since I will have to take a break from writing at some point, yes? Here's hoping.
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37. Kings of Infinite Space, by James Hynes

I wasn't sure what to think of this novel, but halfway through it turned into a "well at least let's finish it" book. I dunno, I'm very lukewarm on it. I think it was supposed to be witty -- guess what, there is highly surreal campy cultish horror hiding behind the facade of a fallen academic's dead-end job in a Texas cubicle! Complete with Fringe-esque pale men who keep showing up and doing mysterious things, and strange undergrounds that are a little too overtly Dantean, a ghost cat, excruciating Texas twang verbal tics that are overdone, too. Like the clueless boss who mixes his metaphors EVERY TIME. Or the girlfriend who always says ain't/was and then helpfully winces and corrects herself to aren't/were every time, which after a time began to seem like a lazy author's way of getting around being snobbish toward a genuine undereducated poor southern girl. Like, if she hadn't been so helpfully self-abasing, he would've been too much of a snob to fuck her, or something? Poor Callie. Luckily it was her GREATEST DREAM to read the Norton Anthology and parade around in the protagonist's buttondown oxfords. (Hey Levelland, all two of you reading this, Callie is exactly like a young Kerri Rivera, I think. Sardonic, doesn't take shit. The most fun reading this book was picturing Kerri in her place.) This was kind of a fun take on zombies, I suppose, except the excruciating realities of a cubicle job AND the awful flat hellish Texan heat were so overdone that they occasionally went right over the top of surreal into belabored. This would have been a great update on the zombie genre if Shaun of the Dead hadn't already done it with more wit and humanity, you know?

38. Broken Harbor, by Tana French

Super glad I waited for this to come in at the library rather than buy it -- I love Tana French, but this was a terrible slog, had to force myself to finish it. I guess it's all been downhill since In The Woods, in my opinion, because in that book she was clever enough to combine an old mystery, a new mystery, and a love story gone wrong (plus it stars Clive Owen, in my head); in this one, we just had a new mystery that never quite lived up to its surreal touches, and I guessed 75% of the Great Big Twist about 100 pages in advance. There were none of the layers, especially in the main character, who was so emphatically Old School Boyo Hardbitten Irish Detective that he seemed to have no inner life whatsoever. Or, I guess this one did have an old story layered into the new/current story, but it wasn't really mysterious enough, it was just This Made Me A Tough Guy. Okay, so what? The most compelling part of this story was where Detective Hardbitten almost fell into bro love with his rookie partner, except he didn't. What a disappointment. Oh also, French's characters seem to all turn out to be mysterious synesthetes, but this seems to be an authorial tick more than anything else, and it got old. People are always shaking the mysterious waft of perfume out of their nose, or being surprised by weird theatrical flashbacks. Her writing isn't awful, but what seemed deft in novel #1 becomes old hat and annoying, to me, by #4. My recommendation: go read In The Woods if you haven't, or read it again (I might), and then maybe The Likeness if you need a bit of a follow-up thrill, but in my opinion, Faithful Place and Broken Harbor are not really worth the time.
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35. The Wise Man's Fear, Patrick Rothfuss

Book two to my #34 book review, I devoured this in another three days. Now that the first blush of author-crush has worn off, and I was crushing a little less on the book in general, I found myself more attentive to whether the storytelling would hold up. In short, I'm not sure -- it's still deft, funny, frightening, made me laugh and gasp out loud like an old fashioned rube -- but if I looked at the premise of the first book, and then took a hard look at where book #2 ended, I was far from satisfied with where the plot had gone. Not because it was unpredictable, but because the driving forces of book #1 just didn't seem to develop. [Vague spoilers ahead] Where are the Amyr? We are stuck in the same "durrrr maybe they're around here somewhere" place that the first book ended on, yes? Or maybe it was given away at the beginning of this book. Either way, I want to know about: the Amyr (knights templar!), the Chandrian (mysterious evil!). Instead I got a travelogue with sidequests. Don't get me wrong, still awesome! Still highly recommended! However, as far as advancing the plot goes, it felt pretty static. Our protagonist is on his way to being even more awesome, we learned a little bit more about why he's feared and revered, but we're still not sure why his bookend storyline has him as a brokedown innkeeper with a mysterious trunk, or what to think of the other big themes. If book 1 was a bit of Harry Potter in hell, book 2 was his junior year abroad, and he came back still not really sure what he should major in. Lots of fun, but not much to show for it. Maybe I'm being too harsh here -- I still love this book a whole lot.

36. Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart

This is my reading habit in a nutshell, books that were all the rage approximately two years ago! This is your standard dystopic New York kind of novel, with occasional bonus sexism or racism or hey maybe the protagonist is just awful? It's Woody Allan but Russian, the aging self-hating Jew who magically attracts his youthful beauty, Soon-Yi Previn! Except her name is Eunice. And they are verballing and FAKing on their apparati and shopping on AssLuxury and talking about yuan-pegged dollars on their GlobalTeens accounts, all this gibberish that makes sense in the book and is ridiculous in a book review. The point is, the world collapses, and then what happens to tenuous bad-idea romances? What happens to chasing youth? What happens when the American economy collapses and corporations take over? Nothing good, but then I think I already knew that. This book was definitely poignant, with its switching POV chapters showing how Eunice kind of despises Lenny, who prostrates himself in front of her, and maybe he understands her in a few interesting ways that transcend fountain of youth chasing, but mostly they seemed like slightly awful people. Perhaps this book was more radical in 2010, before the Occupy movement, and in that sense it was also weirdly prescient, but not in an interesting way. The message was that people are awful, America is awful, corporations are awful, chasing youth will bite you in the ass, money is power, and oh also this love story goes pretty terribly. Not terribly satisfying, but also fairly clever along the way.
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33. American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld

I loved Sittenfeld's Prep but resisted this book for a long time -- needlessly, as it turns out, because it was very enjoyable. I don't know a lot about Laura Bush, but watching her qua Alice Lindgren, and George W. Bush as Charlie Blackwell, made them both a lot more likable. That is to say, made them more redeemable than the view I'd had of them before, as 1) George, stupid and rich, and 2) Laura, Stepford wife, cipher. As the reviews all say, this book is fascinating during Alice's childhood and early adulthood, especially during Charlie's courtship of Laura, which really made me like him and feel affectionate for his weird, horny, drunk character...but then the whole thing gets boring once she/they get to the White House. Furthermore, as a character I was kind of repulsed by Alice, frequently, for her "oh horrors we are privileged and other people are poor" attitude, alleviated by very occasional good deeds, and for her "I really liked housework, it was just kind of soothing, even though we were rich enough to hire servants" attitude (what the fucking fuck). This portrait of a small town working class girl who ascends to the highest privileges was perhaps just truthful, in that sense, by portraying someone who really didn't put a lot of thought toward housework, or fame. Though that was also its weakness (and the weakness of Laura as first lady), because some of the most fascinating dilemmas of the person -- a liberal pro-abortion librarian married to the GOP president? -- came down to, essentially, well I believed in supporting him so I kept it to myself. In that sense, a lot of the tragedies of her generation come down to simply not thinking very much about tragedy/complication. I know my grandmothers are like that, too. Weirdest things: wishing good old George had stayed a horny rich drunk bastard, wishing the Karl Rove character had more substance, wishing Sittenfeld had kept the Bush twins in the book (the Blackwells have only one daughter). Oh, and wishing that Laura/Alice was not quite so eye-rollingly orgasmic, in that predictably novelistic sense, where it seems she is Super Vanilla Girl who reliably, obediently comes in missionary, somehow. Whatever, Sittenfeld, fix that next time, but otherwise you write pretty damn good fan fic. Keep up the good work.

34. The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss

On [ profile] mordicai's excellent recommendation -- this book fucking rules and I have a crush on Rothfuss now. This is the first fantasy book I've read since finishing the Song of Ice and Fire series over a year ago, and it soothed a lot of my pain about Martin's books. Why? Because yes, it is really *is* possible to be a feminist author writing about a male protagonist in a not very enlightened society who is not constantly engaged in rape culture! And it's not heavy-handed! And I trusted Rothfuss as an author! You know, I didn't trust Martin because I genuinely disagreed with his character-killing choices, the further I got into it; not because I didn't want the characters to die, but because it was so sloppily done and further evidence of a so-so writer at work. With Rothfuss I was neither anticipating/dreading the plot moves nor questioning his choices. It's actually a little rare for me, when reading a book, to just fall into the prose and not rewrite the sentences in my head, but I fell full into this book. Awesome. Kvothe, the main character, is one of those I'm A Magical Genius Prodigy At Everything I Do characters, but I didn't mind it, because he held genuine mystery; in fact the book was loaded down with so many fantasy tropes (magic! the wayside inn! lonesome journeys! mysterious powers! manic pixie dreamgirls! apprentices! traveling performers! street urchins!) but Rothfuss managed to make it feel fresh, deliberate, made with careful authorial intent, and the world feels expansive and rich. Even the Hogwarts and Obi-wan Kenobi parts of the story were good, because they scratched that itch for tropes of the genre, but Rothfuss never tried to trade on familiarity, nor did he belabor his tropes or try to make them overly unique. It felt genuine. I really got caught up in this book, aside from being a good story it just gave me genuine hope for the genre, can you tell? I found bits of the book's rhymes caught in my head, too, sure sign of a novelist with a poet's soul. What's their plan, what's their plan / Chandrian, Chandrian. If you like fantasy, go get this right now.
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31. Wild Feminine, Tami Lynn Kent

This book is all about taking care of your lady parts in slightly unexpected ways! Holistic pelvic self-care, as practiced by Kent, is a pretty wide-ranging set of things you can do to take care of yourself, including but not limited to general awareness practices, guided meditations, sending ovarian energies, exploring gender identity, interacting with histories of trauma, and practicing vaginal self-massage. It is not particularly birth-focused, though her own experience is influenced by her birthing experiences, so there's that. I was interested in this for a variety of reasons, not least of which is, what the hell is going on with my scar tissue and hey, will it explode if I give birth again? I realized some time ago that I thought of my scar (from repairing a messy, deep 2nd degree tear) as a kind of locus of chaos, panic, distrust. But just like any other scar, it can benefit from massage and movement. Once I got through the super hippie woo-woo stuff, Kent's general message is that your vaginal muscles and tissues deserve (nonsexual) love just as much as any other part of the body. I'm simplifying this greatly, but even if you just pick this up for the pelvic mapping exercise, it's worth it. Also, Kent is a practitioner here in Portland, and has trained several people in pelvic care, so you can also have this done by actual gifted physical therapists. This is not some yoni cult stuff, it is holistic care based on real doctor stuff. But it also combines some pretty tuned-in energetic intuitive work as well, this is not just someone rubbing your bits and sending you on your way, since as a holistic art it is necessarily about everything. Yay vaginas!

32. Armies of Heaven: the first crusade and the quest for apocalypse, Jay Rubenstein

Rubenstein is a talented author, and this is a lot of confusing history to digest, but this book never came together as the fascinating story I wanted it to be. It was gory, bizarre, and funny by turns, while being a completely serious academic work, and it's definitely more readable than your average history tome, but I never turned to it with a "yay I can't wait to read more" feeling. Rubenstein's conceit is to stop ignoring all the millenarian/apocalyptic rhetoric around the first crusade, common for many historians -- Rubenstein talks about these crazy Christians didn't just think they were fighting for god, they genuinely believed that their actions were going to bring Jesus back to earth, and pitched their actions, words, histories, and choices of leaders based on medieval ideas of how the apocalypse was going to happen, from Biblical sources and popular interpretations. The "saracens" were literally the armies of Satan, to them, and furthermore they believed that they were becoming god's chosen people (ref. Deuteronomy, usually referring to the Jews) in this fight. They were also granted a confusing indulgence, prior to leaving, which said not that they could gain heaven instantly, but that after the crusade, if they were found to have participated with the correct motivations, they could be granted an indulgence. Others have argued that this is what led to the 12th century "rise of the individual," where suddenly the idea of what we would call psychological motivations became a part of the western dialogue; they had to try to understand why people committed horrible acts of war. Because they were not actually committing acts of war that were always familiar within western civ. Acts of war included mass rape, massacre of innocents (instead of taking prisoners), torture, cannibalism (definitely new), and things like catapulting enemies' heads over city walls, and many of these things were appropriated on the road from their enemies, or in the case of cannibalism, a necessity in periods of starvation that gradually became a tactic of deliberate intimidation for cities under siege. The descriptions of the crusading armies' mass starvation and death from plagues, constant finding of "miraculous" relics in conquered cities, various visions and dreams guiding them from one course of action to the next, these were the book's strength. You get a good sense of what the common peoples' experience was, too, because the first crusade was not just nobles on horses (especially as those were eaten for food frequently), it was a massive group of psychotic, religious, uneducated, barefoot peasants. And despite being outnumbered and not particularly cohesive as an army or smart or driven (they could have gotten to Jerusalem in maybe two years, instead of four, if they hadn't gotten greedy and/or bored along the way), they actually did conquer Jerusalem. Blood ran shin-deep, corpses were piled everywhere, all the biblical images like that, they did happen. To the severe detriment of western civilization, it has continued to inform Christian-Muslim (and Christian-Jewish) dialogues ever since. As a final note, although I don't enthusiastically recommend this to everyone, unless the subject matter is fascinating to you, I do recommend it as a bedside book, because I still enjoyed it even if I only read a half-chapter at a time, and never more than a few chapters together, because the progression is still interesting even if I didn't remember everyone's names exactly. (And PS, wow there are some weird parallels with our modern wars here, WMDs as manufactured holy relic, anyone?)
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I am home sick with Penny today, so let's get two more book reviews out of the way!

29. Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor, Rosina Harrison.

Thanks to [ profile] kore for the timely recommendation, this was a nice companion to #28, Below Stairs, though where Margaret scraped for decent employment and was desperate to escape via marriage, by contrast, Rose, who came from a similarly impoverished background, held far higher ambitions and achieved far more (the obvious answer to the obvious question is, yes, education and social capital: Margaret left school at 13 and had no connections or advice beyond "don't tell them you worked in a laundry, everyone knows laundrymaids are sluts," but Rose stayed a number of years beyond that and moreover had an unpaid apprenticeship at a tailor's shop, and Rose's parents were driven enough to make this happen financially and to give her solid advice on how to actually become a lady's maid, no mean feat for someone living in poverty). Rose goes in short time from a young lady's maid (a position which entailed being something between a seamstress, international diplomat, travel agent, nursemaid, fashion consultant, etc) to lady's maid to Lady Astor, Extremely Rich Person, which is about the highest status job in service, for one of the highest status women in Britain. Lady Astor was one of the early female MPs and had an active political life until just after WWII; she was also a pretty terrible human being to Rose, insulting, tempestuous, condescending, mean, though eventually they worked out a sort of truce where Rose would boss Nancy around as much as vice versa. They were like best friends, if your best friend was your (poorly) paid devoted servant, and like an old married pair in their cyclical rages and manipulations. For some reason Rose has this crazy blissful temperament and it never bothers her, or not much. My favorite part of this book was the more in-depth description of life between and among the Astors' various palatial residences, all the entertaining and backroom scandals and the regimented service rituals, including bits of interviews with older servants who talk about prior times that were even more formal. Also, she became closer to her employer after weathering the firebombing of Plymouth, her whole description of wartime was very intimate; she illuminated something else, too, which was how wartime improved servants' conditions not only because of labor shortages, but because the bombings forced formerly-aloof mistresses to take refuge in the belowstairs world, where their scrimping habits were more obvious, to themselves and to guests. Rose was fairly ambitious, in that her entire reason for going into service was to travel widely (which she did in spades with the Astors), and that within the restrictive norms of the times she managed to accrue substantial leeway and respect both above and below stairs; all that, however, and she apparently never received a raise from Lady Astor, despite asking, except once, and she received maybe one afternoon off per week, far less than others in service, and yet seemed to like it that way. In general there was a bit of Stockholm wafting around, but as a portrait of employment, lowerclass upward mobility, richesse, and class portraiture, this was a fantastic book and I recommend it highly.

30. Origins: How the nine months before birth shape the rest of our lives, Annie Murphy Paul

How did I come to pick up this book? I only know it showed up in my request queue at work. Paul is a decent science writer, though the conceit of each chapter being a month in her own (second) pregnancy wasn't quite as awesome as it could have been. I had one big quibble with this book: it was very quickly obvious to me that she was solidly on the OB side of the birthing spectrum, and indeed at the end has a scheduled c-section, and she wasn't that interested in looking at research that challenges this model of care, focusing more on other kinds of interactions, such as those in diet, mood, environmental chemicals, drugs, genes vs epigenetics vs nurture, etc. For someone whose metanarrative was pretty persuasive on the idea that the gestation process is more responsive, reciprocal, subtle and sensitive than we may think, where does that reciprocal sensitivity go during labor? She seemed to breeze right by the scheduled c-section, which to me said, okay, this is not a book for me, so I admit to skimming at times. Still, her review of plastics research galvanized me (pun intended?) to get rid of a bunch of plastics, be more vigilant about avoiding fire-treated pajamas, things like that. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so optimistic about a pop sci book; it is still interesting stuff, but I feel I've picked up a good deal of the same conclusions just from reading the odd research finding, over the past couple years, you know, mom media radar. And honestly, as weird as it is, I found Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's Mothers and Others a more useful primer than this, though perhaps it isn't fair to compare the two writers there. Both are writing, in some ways, about prior eras of drastically incorrect science. But most of Paul's findings (and she is summarizing, obviously, not drawing new conclusions) are in the category of stuff we mostly already know about, whereas Hrdy's stuff is more squarely outside the realm of modern western practices. In any case, yes, still a very unfair comparison, but oh well. Go read Hrdy, ignore this one, unless you are somehow still convinced that plastics are utterly safe, pollution is no big deal, vitamins are stupid, etc etc.
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27. Trio, by Dorothy Baker.

This was a follow up read since I liked Baker's Cassandra at the Wedding (book review #26) and the lesson here is...stick with the ones that NYBR has seen fit to reissue. Trio has not been reissued. It is not that great. I was interested in this one because it was the one she wrote after her Guggenheim fellowship, and it was considered "too scandalous for the times" and in its later play form was closed due to protests. The covert lesbian relationship at the heart of Trio is pretty depressingly stereotypical, like gay pulp fiction but without any sex. I'd say it was more shocking that this was considered literature than that it was considered immoral -- it's just not a great book. Older academic woman Pauline controls young grad student girl Janet in creepy, not quite believable ways, girl runs away with boy in a refutation of her sordid past, complete with a classic Chekhovian gun set-up and predictable denouement. What I did like about this was the portrayal of the confrontation between Pauline and the dean when her (spoiler alert, but you're not going to read this, are you? please don't, go read Cassandra at the Wedding instead) plagiarism is discovered. She pulls this classic delusional faculty move, the whole "I won't defend myself because the charges are absurd and if the university won't defend me then I guess we'll part ways" without actually acknowledging the dean's point that well, if it's not true, then why don't you refute the charges publically? Because of course the charges are true, except they are part of her sordid past and the gun comes out etc etc etc. Not recommended. Ah well, a quick read.

28. Below Stairs, by Margaret Powell.
This book had me laughing out loud and reading passages to anyone who would listen -- it is a hilarious, salty, old school confessional about life in British domestic service. It was apparently Julian Fellowes' inspiration for Downton Abbey, though I far prefer Gosford Park (I watch it maybe three or four times a year), and there were lots of points where I saw echoes of his plot points. Margaret, born 1907, went into service at age 13, and her descriptions of a life of poverty in the 1910s were almost more fascinating to me than when she went to work -- things like parents sending their kids to sunday school only so they could stay home and have sex for the afternoon, or about her typical day at age 7: her mother went to work before dawn as a charwoman, then Margaret would serve breakfast to her younger siblings and deliver two of them to a day nursery, then go to school with some of the other kids, rush home to cook lunch for the family (everyone returned to eat it), rush back to school, then come home and make tea (they were frequently on the edge of starvation). She is surprisingly, hilariously frank about matters of sex and "snaffling a permanent young man" and throughout her stories you hear her early feminist consciousness and class criticisms -- she was employed during an era when domestic service changed drastically in favor of the workers, due to supply and demand of the working population and the ebb of fortunes of the upper class. I found it an excellent companion to Victorians at Home, another favorite of mine, since you can still see the remnants of Victorian life in the 1900s. I am fascinated by this era in Britain, not so much for the above stairs as the below stairs life, and if you like that then you'll love this too, probably. Don't hold me to that.


Onward! At home I'm finishing up a book about the Crusades, and have another few nonfictions in the interlibrary loan queue. Here's hoping I get to those sometime before November.
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25. Babylon By Bus, Ray Lemoine and Jeff Neumann
This was a lot of fun. A lot of depression and a lot of fun. Ray and Jeff are these two Boston asshole kids who sell Yankees Suck tshirts, and then give it up to take a bus into Iraq semi-illegally (after the "liberation" but right before things got really really bad) and got jobs and did some good in the world, mainly because they didn't give a shit about rules, and also they took a lot of drugs along the way. Sadly, or perhaps not, this is the most helpful guide to the development of the Iraq conflict, post-2004, that I've seen so far -- not that I've been looking, but I didn't pick it up expecting to learn so much. And about Israel, too, along the way. It's a sobering but hilarious read, definitely gonzo style warzone romping and a kind of outsider's-insider view of how war media live and the occupation government worked (or not) and the rest of it; they run with semi-famous journalists and filmmakers and humanitarians, some of whom are killed. I kind of wanted to read a follow-up, can they also explain to me what's happened since they left? But then perhaps that's the whole point -- no more asshole Red Sox rats trying to help/occupy/bungle. Highly entertaining and not stupid at all, they are actually highly educated liberal assholes, but not in a flaunting-it kind of way (though some of their background research does show through a little baldly in some of the exposition, it wasn't too overt) and they are mildly aware of their own privilege and assholeishness throughout, and they have a healthy respect for nuance, and for people who get things done, and have lived through more than most American kids my/our age have, that's for sure. Highly recommended, very quick read.
{ETA: this is another book found through an old This American Life episode.}

26. Cassandra at the Wedding, Dorothy Baker
I picked this up from a NYBR review (it's their reprint edition) and was surprised, pleased, taken in. A short novel of tight, closely-observed narration by a crypto-lesbian twin in the 1960s. Apparently I didn't read the review very closely because I totally missed the whole lesbian thing until I got into it, and so it was pleasantly shocking to read between the lines and realize what the narrator was saying/not saying, though her coded words and very oblique references could probably have gone over the head of a blinkered reader, I'm sure. But this was part of the fun! It's also a sad and weird novel, almost of a piece with the Bell Jar; if I could go back in time I'd tell myself at 16 to read this along with the Bell Jar, I suppose. It's a nice companion to that kind of claustrophobic dissociative first-person depressed youth early-feminist vibe. When I finished it I was kind of despondent (a night's sleep was helpful) because it was hard to come out of it, wanting more. Highly recommended -- stylish early 1960s, alcohol-soaked, unreliable narrator, interesting character studies. I really wanted this to be a film, maybe in the vein of the Virgin Suicides or even Picnic at Hanging Rock. That kind of dreamy, sun-soaked, surreal vibe. Looking online, seems like someone is planning to make a modern update -- it would have been fantastic with those old 60s movie voices, though; if done right it could be a real style maker, like Mad Men gone off the rails. In a way I suppose it kind of has been updated for modern times -- it would be hard to beat Rachel Getting Married, to which it has more than a few passing similarities.
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21. Vera: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov, Stacy Schiff

Schiff is fast becoming my second favorite biographist (no one will ever surpass Hermione Lee!), I loved her Cleopatra and Vera was no disappointment. In Schiff's analysis and storytelling, Vera emerges from her self-imposed self-effacing disguise, mostly, but retains a hell of a lot of mystery all the same. If I have one quibble it's that occasionally what Schiff reads with complexity and nuance may be cynically summed up as "occasionally Vera confused her pronouns when writing or ghostwriting letters" even though yes, I agree, it is also a fascinating study of a unique marriage and a unique intellectual pairing and yes, the pronoun confusion *is* more than confusion, it's where you see how her mind became confusingly twinned with his. What a life -- an ex-patriate from Tsarist Russia, railing against Communism her whole life, intimidating nearly everyone, deeply in love. She kept him afloat through his weird working habits and their itinerant life. I simultaneously wished to meet her and was afraid, knowing that based on her extraordinary pre-revolutionary Russia education (so intense!), and based on her attitude towards the American students she and her husband taught, they would have thought I was worse than a dilettante, even with fancy college learning. Americans just look...awfully stupid by comparison, when you've been raised quadrilingually and memorized Latin taxonomy from age 4 and can recite every poem by heart etc etc. Go read this! It is an awesome biography and she is a fascinating woman. (And now I want to go find more of Schiff's back catalogue to read, too. Though I did go to pick up Nabokov's "Ada" and it was dense and I dropped it. Many critics agreed. And in case you're interested, no, Schiff never does provide an explanation for why Nabokov wrote about Lolita-esque characters and relationships on and off for most of his writing life...but then perhaps that's because her book is mainly about Vera, not about Vladimir.)

22. Kindred, Olivia Butler

This pick was the happy result of strolling down the scifi aisle in my local library, looking for recognizable authors. This was the first book of hers I'd read, and it was excellent, and wrenching and deceptively simple: time travel and slavery and time paradoxes and unexplained things and social commentary on slavery etc. And yet all of that is unspoken subtext, really I was so engaged with the story itself the whole time -- and maybe that's her genius. (And it occurred to me, the Time Traveller's Wife ripped off this concept, in a less successful fashion, all the confusing relationships without any of the social realness of visiting the past and all its differentness.)

23. Foreskin's Lament, Shalom Auslander

This was a mostly forgettable book -- picked up after hearing a chapter on an old This American Life episode. Autobiographical musings on an orthodox Jewish childhood under a pretty epically horrible father, and later rebellions against religion, and returning to the fold, and leaving it again. The title in question comes from the overarching story he uses to frame his recollections, his wife's pregnancy and how they wrestle with whether to circumcise, what does it all meeeeeeean etc. This is a hard topic for me to read about, I won't lie, and a lot of the worst parts were totally glossed over (like the nurse who says to them "infants don't feel pain" LOLOLOLOL sob) and eventually they did circumcise but medically, not by a mohel, and it was this horrible rift with his family, super awkward etc and then no conclusion about it. I wasn't sure why I kept reading it, after a while; I wanted it to become a deeper story, and ultimately it disappointed, not just because of the painful circumcision storyline. Having so recently read Cheryl Strayed's "Wild," it was an unfortunate contrast. Auslander is occasionally hilarious, but not really out to make an interesting meaning out of his experiences, and not really funny enough to make the entire book worth it, to me. Also, it's probably pretty impossible to write a book about circumcising your baby that I will not feel horribly triggered by, so that's just me and not the book, but I don't think I'm exaggerating -- it's an okay book, not great.

24. Shtetl, Eva Hoffman

Books about Jews! It is my theme of the summer! After being less than satisfied with Hoffman's "After Such Knowledge" earlier this summer, onto her more relatable history of shtetls in general and the shtetl of Bransk in particular. Though perhaps it's more accurate to say that this is a pretty comprehensive history of "hey what the hell happened in Poland since the 1100s" with reference to the Jews but not wholly focusing on them. I remember hearing so many jokes about the Polish in the 80s/90s, what was up with that? Because didn't the Nazis hate the Polish pretty epically? Except also the Jews hate the Poles too? So who are we aligning ourselves with, exactly? Poland looms pretty large in Hoffman's individual history, as the locus of the Holocaust and of the violence and painful erasures immediately post-war, which I don't think I'd ever really grasped as part of WWII history, in school. She does a good job of pulling out the complex attitudes of modern Polish individuals in Bransk, or residents who emigrated later, many of whom express contradictory attitudes, either "The Jews were awful and took advantage of the Poles, but also, I really liked them and we always brought food to the ghetto, later" or "the Poles are all deeply anti-semitic and were/are terrible people but also we got along so well and took care of each other." None of the interviewees found contradictions in expressing these sentiments. She uses these modern interviews (published 2007) together with the historical record, and the interviews are more on the periphery. The bulk of the book is the long crazy history of Polish nationalism and the shifting economic trends that influenced anti-semitism, and how Poland kept getting split up by competing powers who never bothered to declare war (twice!), and how the political parties were in such chaos whenever they tried to reconstitute the state. What a mess. This was well written, relatable, fascinating history, and Hoffman portrays a very touching portrait of pre-war Jewish culture, in particular the sabbath experiences. Highly recommended.
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How did I forget about #14 and #15? Devoured during my early June trip to NYC, I suppose. Chronologically these are all way out of order now, back to reality-order beginning with #17.

14. The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides.
Eugenides wrote one of my top desert island books, Middlesex, and this book was not exactly bad, but definitely a disappointment in comparison. Less epic, much more annoying. I kind of hated the narrator Madeleine (who has become conflated with a girl I work with, Madeline, towards whom I occasionally feel intense jealousy) and the idea that her peregrinations around husband X or one-time lover Y could really add up to much. Did she wrestle with feminism in a convincing way? Hard to say, she's not my generation, maybe this resonates more for someone ten years older than me? The conceit is also that the book, in wrestling with the trope of the marriage plot, creates a new marriage plot...I remain unconvinced. Was pleased in the end that I only bought this in Kindle form -- not one I'd feel good about spending the full hardback price on. (ETA: upon reading the NYT review [please note I put "peregrinations" in my summary above *before* reading the review!], I'm kind of fascinated to realize I wholly missed the unsubtle DFW tribute, but mollified to read between the lines a kind of subtle damning-with-faint-praise critique...or is that just wishful thinking? Oh Michiko Kakutani.)

15. Wild, Cheryl Strayed.
Allow me to tell you my tale of woe, which is that the amazing Strayed, a.k.a. Sugar (are you reading her yet? they are not advice columns they are on another plane of awesomeness I can't even articulate very well), MOTHERFUCKING SUGAR was going to come to my bookclub in September and recently had to cancel. WOE IS ME. I am so sad. I am completely, utterly lovesick over her as a writer, and this book is amazing. Personal history, travelogue of unbelievable deprivation and naivete and luck on the Pacific Coast Trail, meditation on loss and addiction and sex and divorce, maybe this one just hit me right at the right time, but it is legitimately amazing. Even my crazy dad who only reads books about string theory gave this a go and then texted me raving about it. Go read it now, before Oprah's book club starts up again and makes you feel silly for reading it. (That is an actual thing happening. Oprah's book club was closed up, did you know that? And then she read this book and decided to start it up again?)

16. Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury
I've had this on the re-read list ever since his death. In addition to devouring pretty much any Bradbury I could get my hands on at the library, Dandelion Wine held a special place in my heart from when I read it in middle school. My re-read revealed one interesting thing: I remembered it being a series of short stories, but of course it's one continuous novel. It made me nostalgic for the analog world of the 1920s, everyone on their porches in the evenings, kids running crazy all over town. Not so much nostalgia for the racist bits and the xenophobic bits but there is magic around the edges of this book. It's pure pure summer, compared to my other favorite Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is of course pure pure autumn. Reading this in the summer is fun because it's all about dying of heat, sluggish summer heat in Illinois -- probably easier to read from early summer in Oregon, when some days it barely hits 78.

17. After Such Knowledge, Eva Hoffman.
Hoffman's memoir Lost in Translation was a big part of my comparative literature studies in autobiography in college, but this one was unknown to me until Heidi recommended it as a good counterpoint to #18 below. As one long nonfiction essay, this is a beautiful but occasionally tedious meditation about being a part of the generation born to parents who had survived the Holocaust. Hoffman's parents hid in a tiny attic space in Poland, then fled to the US soon after the war ended, but the actual facts and memories and impressions of this history are frustratingly scattered thinly throughout the text. Maybe this is somewhat like her generation's experience, where their Jewish parents' experiences were so unspoken/dark/forgotten/hidden/etc that it wasn't until much much later that many of her generation actually learned the circumstances of the survival or death of parents and relatives. A later chapter covers Hoffman's return to the village where her parents had lived, and she paints an interesting picture of the multi-cultural fabric of these small villages (another famous work of hers is on the vanished shetl communities, so this is her specialty), going into some of the weird post-facto who-sheltered-whom and who-betrayed-whom stuff that is everywhere under the surface of these return journeys. Ultimately I didn't feel incredibly enlightened by this book -- it's beautiful, it's no consolation, it's opaque. Her point, of course (not quite intentionally evoked by this opacity, in my opinion) is that there is no explanation, no reconciliation. It's much more subtle than I'm making it sound, and very well written, just not quite what I was looking for. Skip to the chapter where she goes back to Poland, honestly.

18. Patterns of Childhood, Christa Wolf.
I thought this was a re-read but as I got into the later chapters it was clear I'd never finished it the first time around (in 2004 or so?). This is Wolf's novel-that-really-a-memoir about her childhood in eastern Germany, as her father joined the SS and she joined the Hitler Youth girls, and then later to their flight from the advancing Red Army and life as displaced persons. The narrative is told in slightly confusing layers that overlay (1) her childhood memories with (2) a 1971 trip to her childhood town (formerly Germany, now Poland) with her brother, husband and daughter and also (3) the period of writing of the book, some four or five years after the 1971 trip. She refers to Nelly (pseudonym for the young Christa), and also writes in second person familiar. This book, when I read its first chapter, was tremendously important to me, it expressed something about autobiography I'd felt but never articulated: how memories cannot be separated from how they are evoked in the present time; there are also aspects of her personality that I identify with (to be good is to be obedient) which is an uncomfortable feeling, to feel similar to a child in those circumstances. (I often felt conspicuous carrying this book, which has a vaguely nazi colors and a girl saluting in the picture -- though I realized that these were symbols that only became huge in my mind because I was reading this particular book.) As a young teenager on the flight westward, they come across a man, liberated from a camp where he had been imprisoned as a communist. But that can't have been why they put you away, says Nelly's mother. Where have you all been living, he says to her. I found myself always looking for these kinds of clues -- how was it okay? Did the Wolf family really know no Jews? What about all the German people who did? How does that mindset evolve and thrive? How did propaganda work? Nothing that can be answered, maybe, but seeing their family life (albeit through the occasionally stilted translation and through the distortions of Nelly-as-child) at such an intimate level was fascinating in its own right, as were the accounts of the flight, and eventual life under the Soviets in the refugee village. As Gunther Grass wrote, the unspoken parallel in the text is that Wolf cannot really speak to the parallels between life under Nazi rule and life in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Having read his piece on all this around the time of her death, I was looking for signs of that too -- there are few traces of the GDR, only in things like papers and passes at the borders, but it's another tantalizing layer. (ETA: that is not the Gunther Grass piece I was looking for...well okay someone wrote that about Wolf, the thing about East Germany being the silent shadow in Kindheitsmuster, Patterns of Childhood. Also ETA I really really want to take German now. Trawling the stacks on campus for her books did not help this desire.)

19. Shadow Tribe: The Making of Columbia River Indian Identity, by Andrew Fisher.
My friend Se-ah-dom is the daughter of Ed Edmo, of the Shoshone Bannock tribe and a member of Celilo Village at the (drowned by the Dalles dam) Celilo Falls. Se-ah-dom and I write a lot of grants together at work that support various tribal projects, and once or twice she's mentioned this book to me. Happy to read it finally, and happy to discover her dad is one of the writer's sources, too. Fisher writes a fascinating history of the people who refused to affiliate with the various reservations in Eastern Oregon/Washington along the Columbia River, where there have been thriving fishing and trading gatherings and settlements for the last 10,000 years (at least). This book was helpful because it illuminates the process of how "tribes" were created by the War Department's Indian Office (later the Interior Dept's Bureau of Indian Affairs) with basically zero relation to actual identities -- perhaps this is no surprise, but it's especially tricky in the Pacific Northwest, where people didn't identify with many of the structures common to Natives in the east (i.e. living in "bands" that were connected hierarchically to a "tribe"), and where due to the seasonal round (salmon in the spring and fall, camas root and berries in the summer, longhouse/village life during the long wet winters) and complicated inter-familial relationships and heriditary fishing locations, you might identify according to many different names, groups, locations, indigenous tribal structures or government-imposed tribal structures. Whenever we write grants in Oregon, we always talk about "the nine Federally-recognized Tribes" but then there are other "locations with significant populations of Indians" which we include in any project requiring state-wide participation or input -- this is because many of the people who live at the (tiny) Celilo Village are not enrolled members of Tribes in Oregon, or identify as the Columbia River people more than anything else. I don't think Fisher made this history quite as comprehensive as I would've liked -- for instance unless Tribal communications were recorded in government records or newspapers, there were very few Native voices, aside from a few quotes included from people he interviewed about contemporary affairs on the river. It would have been helpful to hear from the Tribes more -- how do they tell their memories of these times? What is the narrative there? Fisher tells a great story about how the Columbia River people, unaffiliated with Federal tribes and resistant to the many efforts to disperse them, served as an important focus of resistance to colonial powers and how their existance as a "shadow tribe" is relevant even today to understand the complicated politics of Oregon and Washington tribes. Also, Fisher, get your chronological storytelling house in order...more signposting in the text? He would skip from one storyline into the next and skip in time so there was often little relation between the progression of two related (but separately told) stories.

20. You're An Animal, Viskovitz!, by Alessandro Boffa, translated from the Italian by John Casey.
This was fun! A tiny compact book, short chapters each a story about Viskovitz, in love with Ljuba, as a different animal in each chapter. And the next chapter title is always a sort of commentary on the prior chapter, like a call and response, a neat little mental puzzle to follow. Viskovitz is a snail whose progress is measures in months, a sponge, a vegetarian lion jaded by the documentary scene, a classic noir cop dog, all kinds of fun creatures. Boffa's little bio sketch says he is Russian and studied biology in Rome, which perhaps explains the encyclopedic, detailed vocabulary in the book. A fun, quick read, melancholy and hilarious and weird. Science and love and puns! Super fun. It is like $3 at Powells, or get it from the library like I did, it is so worth it.


Books! Hooray! I have another stack of them on my bookstand! Cod bless the long boring bright summer with all these lazy days at home. We're about to go camping next week, and then I have a week off after that, and a whole month of Fridays off. It's going to be glorious and I'm going to read a zillion more books, just you wait and see. Perhaps I'll even review them as I go, instead of spamming you all with six at once, ha.
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I have way way way too many books to review. I just need to bang these out. There are another several already waiting in the wings, ack. I'm not going to belabor these ones. Lightning round! Kapow!

9. The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

Is this cheating? It's a re-read but I'm still counting it because I get something new out of it every time. For instance, although I've read it five or six times, this is the first time where I was mostly certain I could distinguish between Henry and Francis. There's always Camilla and Charles and Bunny and the narrator and then...those other guys. Honestly until this rereading I wasn't sure if there were three or two of them. And it's kind of important to know who Henry is. I'm still not convinced I'm not missing a character.

10. Wildwood by Colin Meloy & Carson Ellis

Awesome alt-vision of my beloved Portland! However: disappointingly white, disappointingly and problematically ahistorical (no tribes), and occasionally just not as deep or nuanced as I would have liked it to be.

11. Crucial Conversations, by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler

This book introduces a concept that my friend Havi teaches about, the 4 questions to ask yourself when going into a difficult conversation: what do I want for me? What do I want for the other person? What do I want for our relationship? What can I do to help make that happen? I have used this as an entry process for lots of difficult conversations this year, and it is awesome. I especially loved the "shared pool of meaning" concept, the idea that two people can only participate in a conversation if they are both contributing to the pool; if there is "silence or violence" being done by one to the other, nothing is added to the pool and it goes nowhere. Yes! This! Highly recommend this book, but it's a library or skim-in-the-bookstore read. I spent an afternoon with it and felt I had what I needed.

12. One Day a Year: 1960-2000 by Christa Wolf.

This is a book I started a couple years ago and never finished; this time I picked it up halfway through and finished it. It's a dense book, 650 pages. Wolf, a writer living in East Germany when it starts, writes a narrative essay describing the events of each September 27. It is fascinating to glimpse her everyday life as a mother (her children are quite young when it begins) and also the work of an intellectual in the former German Democratic Republic, which is intimately connected to the sphere of politics in a way that was foreign to me. The conceit of the structure could be maddening, as when giant world events happen (like the dissolution of GDR!) with only passing mentions, because of course unless they are thought about or interacted with on September 27, they don't enter into the narrative--it is explicitly not a meditation on the whole year, just on the day itself. There are copious footnotes on literary and political figures mentioned (in the ridiculously wide circle of the Wolfs' acquaintance, all over Europe) but very little about historical context. Given the interesting facts of her life (in the Nazi Youth as a girl, fled the Soviet Troops from eastern Germany at the end of the war) a lot is left out or requires digging -- not an effort for the faint of heart. (I'm also re-reading her memoir Patterns of Childhood and will review that one soon.) Reading this book took even longer because I spent a lot of time going through wikipedia picking up pieces of post-WWII and East/West history that I've never had a good grasp on. Like the Berlin airdrop that my grandfather was in Berlin for? Finally figured out what that was, in the course of wikipedia'ing the background. I've never really reckoned with Germany as a part of my (distant) family history, so this helped get a few wheels turning.

13. Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave Labor Camp, by Christopher Browning.

Picked this up in the library, as long as I'm on the WWII/Shoah theme, as it's not a part of the history I was familiar with. Browning is an excellent writer, and draws this detailed account of the Jews in Starachowice camp, slaves to munitions factories, from a rich trove of testimonies provided for the trial of Walther Becker (ultimately and heartbreaking acquitted of his crimes because Germany's postwar justice system was FUCKED UP let me tell you). It covers a lot of detailed ground, beginning with the largest group of Jews who came from the same ghetto, and following the narrative through different guard regimes, investigating how official policy was interpreted or defied by camp leaders, going into the nuances of in-camp underground economies, childbirth and rape. Although the Starachowice survivors were ultimately sent to Auschwitz (from which a high number survived compared to other groups, since as tested 'workers' a selection was not performed at their arrival) and the book covers that period as well, it situates it in the much longer-term narratives of ghetto aktions and slave labor systems. Browning is very very good at going into the nuances of survivor testimonies, talking about who the survivor was speaking to (their families? the public? a german investigator for the courts?) to contextualize details given or withheld, things like that. It's the kind of nuance and sensitivity I appreciate about Hermione Lee's biographies, which is about the highest level of praise I can give a nonfiction author, if that means anything to you.

Okay. More reviews coming soon.
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6. Mothers and Others, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.

This is the book that resident human observer [ profile] mordicai has been recommending to me forever and I am so glad to have finally read it. Anyone with a passing interest in Attachment Parenting culture (positive or negative) might be fascinated, as I was, to learn more about the evolutionary psychology underpinnings of AP'ing, which are built on a chimpanzee-mother model, which is actually not relevant for humans, who, as Hrdy so brilliantly writes, are first and foremost cooperative breeders. The evidence for this is multifold and fascinating, I loved reading about hunter-gatherer lifeways and about the many things we can learn about how and why cooperative breeding works in many species. Or about grandmothers! About the benefits for women of living near their mothers! About how siblings practice mothering skills and it's beneficial to have separation between kids, maybe!

I wish I'd read this before having a baby, because it would have made me understand certain things so much better, like passing a baby around, which often made me feel guilty because wasn't I supposed to be doing kangaroo care constantly? In fact, while reading this book I had to frequently stop and process a lot of related hurt and painful memories and reflections; reading about the bonding of breast-feeding and about attachment disorganization disorder were especially big triggers. I came away understanding modern US parenting norms (particularly within AP) as, in some ways, a reactionary movement against to the previous era of destructive, attachment-denying industrial childrearing; but also that some of that reactionary spirit is important because we modern AP-positive parents are maintaining a kind of rift between ourselves and our parents, often. Whereas in some cultures, current and past, a mother could always implicitly trust her own mother (or other mothers) to help rear her child the "right" way, today as parents we often don't have that security. How horrible is it that we have to defend newborn infants from stuff like formula feeding in hospitals, or routine circumcision, or exclusive crib use, or any other thing that we don't like? Or how about my own mother, who breastfed me against her own mother's suspicious advice that I would grow up spoiled (!) and that it wasn't as nutritious as formula(!!). Parenting today is a more isolated act because postindustrial culture and the nuclear family cultivate profound isolation, in comparison to our species' roots, but we also have to cultivate further isolation from people in our "tribes" because they want to do shit to our children we don't like! How fucked up is that?

Hrdy's final hypothesis is that cooperative breeding, which creates a strong evolutionary pressure in the direction of empathetic, cooperative human beings, may be a phase that is now passing; as a species we have capacity for empathy, but it's only expressed under certain circumstances. Not in the sense of only feeling empathy when you trust others, or whatever, but in the sense of being emotionally capable of feeling empathy at all, and using it daily in order to make sense of others actions and produce greater group survival. That is a profoundly sad conclusion, to me, and a frightening one. I put the book down when I was done and felt despair for the direction of our species' evolution, and despair at what harm postindustrial life and the war of scarce resources has done to our nature. But it also gave me tremendous hope that the kinds of cooperative hyper-local cultures that are springing up in urban places and elsewhere are not just trendy, but a genuinely critical species-wide phase of learning and reconnecting that is essential if we are to survive, and if we are to keep from burning up the planet. We can't put industry back in the box, of course, but we can build structures that support little tribes, and I like that. (But you already knew I'm a big hippie! No surprise there.)

7. The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, by Suzette Haden Elgin.

This is the book I was supposed to read (as opposed to the one from last time that was the wrong book) and although it wasn't as scattered and poorly organized, it was still pretty awful. Elgin, writing from a very sexist and racist and combative 1979 culture, wants to tell you all about how to use "gentle" verbal self-defense, but ended up giving you a vision of a ridiculously snobbish and combative culture, and I had a hard time seeing how it would be useful. Her advice boils down to "don't rise to insults" and also, learn to recognize hidden insults. A sample "hidden" insult: "Even someone like you should be able to put some effort into it." See? Is that hidden at all? Do people actually talk like this? In her book, 1979 looks like a place where people are just constantly dripping with sarcasm and poorly disguised put-downs. And despite her allegedly gentle technique she's essentially concerned with winning, and with knowing a pretty cutting insult, even if you don't say it out loud. The early chapters go around her Verbal Violence Octagon, which looked (appropriately) kind of like the Dharma Initiative to me:

And the later chapters contain some rather crappy advice about learning to have a "nice" speaking voice and charisma (with the underlying assumption that somehow you'll know when you listen to recordings of yourself, if you sound awful, and you probably do, you terrible nasal-voiced lunatic you) and then the SUPER DEPRESSING FINALE of special advice for college students (you are stupid and lazy), men (you're an abusive asshole), and women (stop being so godamned sensitive all the time). Woooooww I mean I could barely read these chapters they were so dripping with anger and horrible 1970s "That's just the way things are so suck it up" advice that made me wonder, jeez lady, I'd love to send you to a good NVC workshop and also I hope your life got better later, because you sound so very sad and angry about the state of the world. And not because you're a lady! No! Just because from where I stand, in 2012, it is actually considered okay and even encouraged to make empathetic connections with fellow humans and believe that you don't have to verbally win against everyone just to live your life without being a doormat. (Are you a doormat? Elgin believes you get what you deserve and should never complain; it's your fault for being a doormat. Possibly useful advice, but horribly presented.)

Havi asked everyone in this yearlong study program to read this book, so I finished it out of respect for her request, and out of curiosity. Does this stuff really inform Havi's work? I'm not sure. The horrible verbal arguments Elgin plays out sometimes sound like how "monsters" talk (Havi-ism for internal voices of criticism) but every single conversation I read in it made me think, a really good NVC negotiator would be a really good idea right now. And I also felt very grateful that no one in my life (that I can think of) speaks to me with such awful condescension and outright manipulation. Yikes. Very intrigued to pick Havi's brain about this one, someday. I'm still only half convinced I read the right one, because Elgin wrote so many follow-ups and multi-book sequels and special topic versions of this material and it's so outdated now that I had to get it via ILL because the college library didn't have it within the 30-institution Summit collection! Yes. Anyway. Don't read this. Just agree with me that the late 1970s were a pretty sad time for a lot of people, and we're all very lucky that society today has at least a passing acquaintance with the ideas of equality and civility.


Next up! Having read Mothers and Others, it would be interesting to compare it to [ profile] handstil's recommendation, Nutureshock. Also ordering from the library Mating in Captivity: reconciling the erotic + the domestic, new recommendation from our new and frighteningly canny therapist. I don't know, I have so many books in the queue, I'm sure I'll think of something.
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maybe this is silly but i am going to try to number these all sequentially -- see my first review batch here. apologies in advance, this batch contains one book i abandoned, one book i hated and was not even the book i was supposed to read, and one book that is a qualified recommendation (better ideas than writing?). but hey -- books! reading and reviewing! not so much the pretending-they-are-all-awesome, right?

here we go!

3. The Valleys of the Assassins: and other Persian Travels, by Freya Stark.

I'm not happy that my third book of the year is Status: Abandoned but I'd rather record it and move on than mope around and pretend I'll finish it later. Because even getting two-thirds through was a hard slog, sadly. I was excited about 1930s travel in Persia/Iran with Freya Stark (whose name I kept thinking I had cribbed from Game of Thrones), bona fide fascinating gal, but instead it was dry and awful. This was not in the camp of bohemian adventure, or even colonialist misadventures, it was just straight-up uninteresting writing with the culture-clash anecdotes sprinkled too thinly to keep me interested, even in the titular Valley of the Assassins part. Even once I started skimming the interminable descriptions (she was often map-making for the RGS) it was boring, sadly, so I just stopped. The most interesting part, if you can call it that, was how it made me think about the relative value of culture. Who has a right to sell out a previous culture? In the book the locals are constantly helping her rob graves, which they are okay with because the previous cultures were not Muslim and therefore not worthy of respect, even though there was some genetic links between the older culture and the current (semi-nomadic) one. But even though she was allegedly in an untravelled (by white people) area of the Persian mountains and highlands, almost all the "interesting" graves had already been looted. So I don't recommend this book at all, really. I wanted to add this to my bookshelf of British interesting women's bios and writings but it doesn't quite fit. Maybe what I need is a book about Freya Stark. Ah well.

4. The Last Word on The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, by Suzette Haden Elgin.
It's always a bad sign when you can't even find an image of the cover of the book you've read, but oh well, I'm not recommending this one, either. This was a book recommended by Havi for those of us entering a year-long program she's running. In theory, I love the idea of gentle verbal self-defense, but this book was awful awful awful and I need to process how awful it was. First: reading dialog and descriptions of verbal abuse was very uncomfortable (hi, mom!). On the one hand I had trouble thinking about where the heck this would apply in my life, but then on the other hand I kept thinking, ugh, this is exactly what my mom sounds like. Second: it is super outdated, written in 1987 and I had a hard time translating some of its 80s-ness into modernspeak. Third: I often disagreed with the author. In the sense that I felt her points were sometimes poorly made, but also that there was invisible culture I couldn't interpret, like the Josephine Ferrero anecdote that just made no sense to me. Fourth: Very disorganized. Who is the audience for this book?

Drat and blast and fuck. In the process of writing this and looking up the book I've now discovered that I read the wrong one. Havi's picture is of one book, but her link goes to the wrong title because Elgin wrote a half-dozen different sequels and follow-ups to her original book. Okay. Listen up, imaginary personified feminist American science fiction and also nonfiction author Suzette Haden Elgin, I'm giving you one more chance to not suck. I recognize that this is pretty violent verbal language but hey. I'm trying to be okay with the fact that I wasted time reading this (and disliking it) because of someone else's mistake.

5. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, by Marshall Rosenberg.

This is another book recommended before starting Havi's program (see #4 above) and I went into it with Havi's constant reminder: don't forget to skip the problematic poetry in this book, which truly does suck. It's true. Marshall Rosenberg is a wonderful empathetic listener and a tolerable writer, but his poetry just doesn't do it for me.
Poetry aside, this book is a great, easily digested intro to the concepts and practice of NVC. If you've never run across it before, the basic idea is to listen for observations, feelings, needs, and requests, and reflect those back to the other person. I love this idea, and Rosenberg does a good job of telling lots of stories in which it is useful outside of the academic/therapy context -- such as between street gangs, within hostile work environments, or during boring meetings, or between cantankerous family members. In my own life, I feel like I haven't quite gotten the trick of applying this yet. Perhaps the most mind-blowing idea is listening to the implied-fact statements people make and then respond with language that helps the person unpack that feeling and get down to what they really want. But not in a robotic therapist way -- in a way that demonstrates compassion for what they're really saying or trying to say. This concept is deeply connected to ideas of self-compassion that I believe in -- the idea of not being able to express empathy for others until you can be compassionate towards yourself. We all have trouble being aware of our own needs, and expressing them, and this is a pretty cool system for trying to get closer to that practice.
One of the most powerful parts for me was when he describes choice/value statements. Instead of saying "I hate my job" you make a statement like "Even though I dislike my job, I choose to go because I value financial stability" or something similar. This is a pretty powerful tool for me because it asks me to identify with choices and values rather than ascribing my pain to an arbitrary awful reality, like a job I hate or a house I regret buying or whatever. His techniques also apply to full expression of our emotions, awareness of our motivations, and other related issues behind empathy and NVC communication in general. I think of this stuff as Advanced Practice -- awesome to know, hard to put into work all the time. But when I take the time to be more aware in this way, I can sense that my communication becomes gentler in general, always a good thing. A good example is how the author models the little quizzes at the end of the chapters. No answer is wrong: he says "we are not in agreement" and explains his reasoning. Oh if only every so-called expert was more aware of their language in this regard!
My end judgment: if you're at all interested in this stuff, read it. The writing is not stellar but it's serviceable. Kind of like a pop textbook, if that makes sense. Skip the poetry or send little healing thoughts to the part of you that cringes in embarrassment when you read it, and recognize that this is part of it: recognizing when it's difficult to witness others being vulnerable. And then read the actual book, and maybe you'll love it. Or at least its ideas. But if just reading this review has made you puke a little bit, move along, no harm done.


onward! i just received hrdy's mothers and others in the mail yesterday, a book has been recommending for oh about five years now. looking forward to reading that. and to using my library privileges at work, too. so many books, so few dollars. yes.


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