You are currently browsing the monthly archive for May 2017.

I keep saying I won’t do this to myself, but I keep doing it, and I can’t seem to stop.

It’s still May, technically, so it’s not too out of date to talk about March and April, right? Dude, whatever, it’s my blog, and if you’re still reading, it must be because I can do no wrong in your sight. (I don’t actually think that’s why you’re reading.)

Highbrow

Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes (translated by Jamie Bulloch)
This book caught my eye because I’d seen the film based on it streaming on Netflix. Not the whole film, just some of it. My husband is fond of playing random things on Netflix when it’s late at night and one really ought to go to bed, but is this actually a comedy about Hitler? How can you not check that out? Yes, it’s a comedy about Hitler. Well, it’s a satire, technically (albeit a funny one). The setup is that Hitler didn’t really die in his bunker, but that’s the last thing he remembers, being in the bunker, but somehow he’s woken up and it’s present-day Germany. He is very confused, not to mention disappointed to learn what has become of his beloved Deutschland. On the other hand, he’s very impressed with the new technology, and particularly with the new media. A new career in showbiz falls into his lap when people assume he’s an actor doing some high-concept comedy routine with his insistence that he really is Der Führer. A spot on TV leads to an internet sensation. People are outraged and appalled; a few think he makes a great deal of sense. Everyone is paying attention, though, which is precisely what Hitler wants. Did I enable Hitler by enjoying this book? That’s what I wonder. 4/5 stars

The Round House by Louise Erdrich
This coming of age novel centers on thirteen-year-old Joe, a Native American boy living on a reservation in South Dakota. After his mother is raped, she is so traumatized that she won’t speak of what happened or tell who the guilty party is, not even to her husband, a tribal court judge. Joe determines to find the rapist himself, with some help from his three friends, so he can be brought to justice. The story is not about finding out who committed the crime but how his mother’s trauma affects his family and how Joe’s quest to protect his mother changes him forever. Like most novels about reservation life, it’s depressing AF. Just kidding. Actually, for a sad story (sorry, SPOILER ALERT), it is not as depressing as it should be. It makes for a good book club discussion. 4/5 stars

The Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington
I actually don’t know if this book counts as “highbrow” or not. It’s a love story, and for all I know, it’s a pretentious woman’s Nicholas Sparks novel, but it’s about religion as much as it’s about love. Rebecca has just let her mother-in-law apartment (downstairs) to Michael, who has just left the priesthood after spending 20 years in a monastery. Michael has had a crisis of faith but is still a believer. Rebecca is (naturally) a lapsed Catholic. You might say they are both bitter about God, but that would be oversimplifying the case; you might say their respective relationships with the divine are complicated. Anyway, they become friends, and then they fall in love, and then things get really complicated for everyone. I quite enjoyed this book, and I understand there’s a sequel, but I’m undecided as to whether or not I want to read it. I kind of liked the ending as it was. 4.5/5 stars

Non-fiction

First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies by Katie Andersen Brower
The subtitle sort of says it all. I applaud the author’s decision to organize the book thematically rather than chronologically, which can be so tedious. It covers the various first ladies’ relationships to their husbands, to their children, to the press, to the nation, etc. Very interesting and humanizing, no political axes to grind; I liked all of the First Ladies better after reading this. Includes an afterword speculating on what type of First Lady Melania Trump might be, which only made me think, “Poor Hillary.” 4/5 stars

Divided We Stand: The Battle over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics by Marjorie J. Spruill
I have mixed feelings about this meticulously researched book. It is exhaustive; in fact, I can’t imagine the author could have left anything out. It’s not my cup of tea, style-wise; it managed to be interesting and tedious, often at the same time. It covers mostly the period between 1972-1980. The final chapter gives a broad overview of the last 30+ years and comes off more partisan, but by then I was so glad to be almost done that I couldn’t be bothered to care. I did think it was worth reading, as it explains how the ERA-era (ha, see what I did there) women’s movement spurred the culture wars that changed both major political parties and led to the current polarization. Lessons learned: Phyllis Schlafly was an impressive woman and also a real piece of work. Betty Friedan was a little less impressive, but equally a real piece of work. I think it would have been a fantastic long article; full-length book wore out its welcome (for me). Your mileage may vary, depending on your tolerance for minutiae.

TL;DR version: The ERA started out as a mainstream, bipartisan issue; it was this close to passing until feminists got together in a big conference and started championing more controversial issues, such as abortion rights, lesbian rights, and government-funded childcare. In their quest to represent the interests of all women, they inadvertently prompted a backlash from conservative women, who feared a loss of American culture’s traditional religious values as well as the loss of traditional protections for women. (See, even the TL;DR version is long.) 3.5/5 stars

Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration–And How to Achieve Real Reform by John Pfaff
As some of you may know, criminal justice reform is an issue close to my heart. Why? I don’t know. Probably because I’m an anti-government wackjob. This is one of the books I would make everyone in America read if I could make everyone in America read five books. (I’m afraid I can’t pick just one.) This goes double if you’ve read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which was an important book in terms of bringing people’s attention to the racial disparities in sentencing (and prosecution), but which side-stepped the issue of violent crime in favor of what Pfaff calls “The Standard Story,” which is that the dramatic increase in incarceration was a direct result of the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs led directly to an increase in federal prisoners, but federal prisoners are a small percentage of the overall prison population, which is composed primarily of people who have been convicted of violent crimes.

Pfaff’s alternative to The Standard Story is that mass incarceration coincided with a massive increase in prosecutions, which coincided not with the substantial increase in violent crime of the ’60s and ’70s but actually took off just as the violent crime rate was decreasing. Prosecutors enjoy almost unlimited discretion with very little oversight or transparency; until this changes, meaningful reform will be impossible. Also, Americans need to decide what trade-offs they are willing to make for marginal decreases in crime. This is a very readable book (not as much math as Mark A.R. Kleinman’s When Brute Force Fails , another great book on this subject) and mostly non-partisan (which makes sense because putting too many people in jail is a bipartisan pastime).  5/5 stars

Hey, how have you all been?

I’ve been okay. I haven’t been doing much, really. I was sick for two whole weeks in April, and that sucked, but I’m better now. After I stopped being sick, I went to Europe for two whole weeks with my husband, because it’s our 20th anniversary this year, and we decided to go to foreign countries where I don’t hate the food. Ha ha, just kidding, Japan. (I don’t really hate your food, at least not all of it.) I will now say nice things about food in Japan: 1) Hiroshima-style okinomiyaki is the best. 2) The Japanese are much better than Americans at making salad. It’s true! 3) Japanese curry is delicious and I could eat it several times a week, probably, because I actually think I did do this while I was there. 4) The Japanese have much more interesting snack foods than we have. 5) You can get legit food at Japanese 7-Elevens. They make the American 7-Eleven dining experience look like…well, you already know what it looks like. 6) Japan sells a really good breakfast cereal I can’t remember the name of and I kind of miss it. (I can’t get it at the Asian market here. Sad face.) 7) The Japanese make pretty good sandwiches. 8) Japan sells better bread at their grocery stores than we sell here.

I’m still not a fan of miso, sushi, sashimi, seaweed, or the chewier sea creatures.

So should I tell you about my European vacation? It wasn’t super-European. I mean, we went to Paris for a few days, but then the rest of the time we were in London and Scotland, and I never know if the UK really “counts” as Europe. They seem to hold themselves apart a little. I don’t know. They don’t have the same money. But while I’m on the subject of money, can I just say (for the billionth time) that other countries’ money is so much prettier than U.S. money? Is there some reason we can’t use more color on our paper currency? I mean, come on. And when is Harriet Tubman going on the money, and are we really going to replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 because that seems like bullcrap, and even if they end up sharing, that also seems like bullcrap, and anyway, Andrew Jackson being on the money is bullcrap in the first place because what a jerk. But now I’m getting off topic.

Not that I was ever really on topic in the first place, but I’m going to try now.

Europe!

It was a super-long day of flying because first we had to go from Portland to Atlanta, and then we had the transatlantic flight to Paris, but I did not sleep at all on either of these flights. I did not have a big problem with jet lag. I never really knew what time it was the whole time I was over there. It was like being in another dimension or something. (I don’t actually know what it’s like to be in another dimension.)

In Paris I saw the Eiffel Tower (naturally), the Louvre, Montmartre, Notre Dame, and the Catacombs. The Catacombs were cool, but also kind of creepy. The bread in France is delicious. All of the food I ate in France was delicious. I did not eat anything non-delicious there. I also did not learn any new French, unfortunately, although I think my pronunciation may be slightly less awful now. (Slightly.) French cab drivers are a lot like Japanese cab drivers. It would be so easy to get hit by a cab or a bus in France. But I did not get hit by either, gentle readers. (But if I had, I understand the medical care is free over there, so maybe that’s why they’re so lackadaiscal about stuff like traffic laws.) This is not a slur on French cab drivers (or the Japanese cab drivers). IT’S JUST DIFFERENT, THAT’S ALL. Another thing about France (or Paris, anyway) is that all the women are thin. I saw maybe one overweight French woman while I was there, and honestly, I don’t even know that she was actually French. She could have just been speaking French and hailing from some other country. I’m a terrible French-speaker, so if she had an accent, how would I have known?

In London I saw Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theatre, the British Museum (which was cool, but would have been cooler if I hadn’t been to the Louvre three days before, so my advice, if you go to the British Museum, is to not see the Louvre first, or at least let the memory of the Louvre fade from your mind before embarking on a trip to any other museum), the Churchill War Rooms, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, and Wicked at the Apollo Victoria. I had never seen Wicked before–indeed, I knew almost nothing of Wicked, except that I read the book it was based on, and I might have heard one of the songs once. I liked it a lot. Romeo and Juliet at the Globe was really good, too. I was told we should get groundling tickets, but I thought that sounded like the opposite of what I should do because I’m too old to stand for two hours, especially in the rain. (For the record, it did not rain the night we were there, but it could have, and I am not any more inclined toward gambling than I am toward standing.) We went to an evening service at Westminster Abbey, which made me want to become an Anglican, or at least an Episcopalian. (Thirty-five minutes, start to finish. I FIND YOUR IDEAS INTRIGUING AND WISH TO SUBSCRIBE TO YOUR NEWSLETTER.)

In Edinburgh we went on a ghost tour and ate a lot of pub food. We also rented a car and drove out to see some old castles. Well, my husband drove. You could not have paid me to drive. I was not, frankly, super excited about riding in a car driven by someone who is not used to driving on the other side of the road, and there were some harrowing moments on our automobile journeys, but no injuries or fatalities to people or vehicles, and taking public transit would have turned a 40 minute trip into a 2-hour trip, so all in all I would say it was worth it. THE CASTLES IN SCOTLAND ARE AWESOME. We saw Edinburgh Castle in Edinburgh, of course, but that’s more of a museum. My favorite castle that we saw was Tantallon Castle in North Berwick. It’s on the coast, and it might be the most arresting scenery I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m going to share a picture with you.

 

 

 

 

That’s a view from the top. It’s pretty, but you know what? IT LOOKS LIKE CRAP COMPARED TO HOW BEAUTIFUL EVERYTHING WAS IN PERSON. So I’m afraid you’ll have to use your imagination.

Also while in Scotland, we toured St. Giles Cathedral, hiked up to Arthur’s Seat (it was super-windy and I forgot my ponytail, so my hair is like Bride of Frankenstein in all the pictures), and visited the Scottish Parliament. I had never thought about Scotland having a Parliament or not before this visit because I’m an ignorant American, but it’s only been around since 1999…which actually makes me feel even stupider for not being cognizant of its existence, but whatever. It’s a very weird-looking building from the outside, but quite nice inside. Actually, the building looks best from the aerial view; too bad most people won’t see it from that angle.

And then we flew home. In my opinion, two weeks was exactly the right amount of time to be gone. By the time we got home, I had actually started to miss the kids.

Well, that’s my vacation in a nutshell. If 1,300 words qualifies as a nutshell. I suppose for two weeks in Europe, that’s kind of a nutshell. And only one picture! That’s a nutshell indeed.

Wow, can’t believe it took me two months to finish this edition. Actually, I can. I’d just forget the whole thing, but I hate being incomplete! (Though not so much that I can’t stand a couple of months being incomplete. But I know that when I’m on my deathbed, I’ll be desperate to catch up on my blogging. That’s who I am.)

Romance

Apparently I didn’t read a lot of romance novels during this sextile, which is good because this won’t take long.

My Fair Princess by Vanessa Kelly
I don’t usually care for the “foreign princess allowed to run wild all her life agrees to be tamed by proper English lord” trope, but this was a pretty cute story. Gillian Dryden was raised free-range-style by her scandalous mother in Italy, but now that her beloved royal Italian step-father has been murdered by bandits, Mom insists on returning to England so Gillian can get a proper British husband, as befits her station, and also to keep her safe. Is Gillian really a princess in this scenario, or are we just defining “princess” loosely for the sake of a gimmick? (This is #1 in the Improper Princesses series.) Whatever. Anyway, Charles Penley, the Duke of something or other, is charged with turning her into a proper debutante. I don’t remember why. Maybe they’re cousins? Something like that. It’s a big challenge because Gillian picked up some pretty bad habits in Italy, such as riding astride and punching people (and sometimes shooting them). Charles really doesn’t think he can handle it, especially since he’s inexplicably attracted to the minx.

The story is actually better than it ought to be. The only annoying thing  is that the author had a habit of ending each chapter on a mini-cliffhnger and then beginning the next chapter several hours or days later, resolving the previous mini-cliffhanger in a mini-flashback, like “oh, by the way, in case you were wondering about that cliff, it was actually NBD”–an odd narrative strategy, but in her defense, I did keep reading. Well, there were also those couple of times when the supposedly-smart heroine made pretty dumb choices for the convenience of moving the plot forward, but I guess we’re supposed to expect no better of a girl raised by Sicilians. (Do Sicilians ever read these stories?) 3/5 stars

It Happened One Wedding by Julie James
I don’t usually go for contemporary romances, as you know–well, you know, anyway, that whenever I review a contemporary romance, I always begin by saying that I don’t usually go for contemporary romances. But I liked this one, mainly because the heroine was not neurotic. I always appreciate a career girl who doesn’t think she’s Bridget Jones. Sidney Sinclair has sworn off commitment-phobic men. Unfortunately, she finds herself thrust into the company of a very hot commitment-phobic man, FBI agent Vaughn Roberts, who is the best man in her sister’s wedding; since Sidney is the maid of honor, this means she and Vaughn are forced to spend a lot of time together, and you know how it is when two very hot people are forced to spend time together. I know! It’s totally unavoidable. So Sidney takes her BFF’s advice (not great advice, IMO, for real life, but this isn’t real life, so whatever) to not let her search for Mr. Right keep her from enjoying Mr. Right Now. Yeah, it sounds sleazy when you put it like that.

But I found it an amusing read anyway. Again, I can’t stress how much credit I give contemporary authors for creating non-neurotic female characters. Worth a whole extra star in my book, frankly. The hot playboy magically converted to monogamy because he falls in love  is pure science fiction, of course, but then again, maybe a non-neurotic woman in 2017 is too. 3.5/5 stars

Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer
In addition to “I don’t usually go for contemporary romances,” something I always say is “I freaking love Georgette Heyer.” This book is not an exception to that rule. It’s not my favorite Georgette Heyer, but even fair-to-middling Georgette Heyer is better than 90% of what’s out there, kids. Judith Tavener and her younger brother have come to London to enjoy the season, but they have to deal with the constraints of the guardian their late father appointed in his will, Lord Worth–a gentleman previously unknown to them but with whom they get off to an awkward start. Lord Worth is a typical Heyer hero–charming and roguish and invariably smarter than everyone surrounding him–but Judith thinks he’s an imperious jerk and doesn’t appreciate him having veto power over all of her suitors, nor his disdain for her long-lost cousins, whose names I can’t remember, but one of them clearly has the hots for her. (The younger one, thank goodness.) As does Lord Worth, but you probably could have guessed that.

Lord Worth is pretty high-handed, as it happens, and not super-forthcoming about his motivations, but Judith is also stubborn and kind of dim when it comes to other people’s motivations, so it’s a wash, IMO. I don’t read Heyer for the politics. I enjoyed the characters and the dialogue, and the Beau Brummel cameo was a nice touch. 4/5 stars

Truly by Ruthie Knox
Another contemporary romance, better than it ought to have been. May Fredericks hates New York. She only moved there to be with her (famous) football-player boyfriend, and after she has a very public falling out with him, she decides to run away to Wisconsin (I think) and not look back. Unfortunately, being the innocent Midwestern hick she is, she totes forgets to take, like, her purse or her wallet or any cash with her, and since she doesn’t want to risk running into any press or her boyfriend’s handlers or publicists or whatever by going back to her apartment, she decides to just sit in a bar and depend on the kindness of strangers. Yeah, it sounds stupid when you put it that way.

Actually, it is stupid, and the sort of thing that would usually turn me off, so I don’t even remember why I finished reading this book, except I must have been bored, and aside from the totally asinine premise, it wasn’t badly written. Plus there was a hot and grumpy New Yorker named Ben who takes pity on poor May because he’s trying to make an effort to be nicer to people (long story–too long for this review, anyway) and also because he might secretly actually be nice, and he made a nice foil for dumbass May, who really wasn’t quite as annoying as I make her sound, but in retrospect, seriously, what an idiot. And while I wouldn’t call this heroine neurotic, exactly, she does have a couple of hangups, body image being one of them. I always have mixed feelings about heroines with body image problems. On the one hand, I get it, all women have body image problems, unless they’re like Wonder Woman or something, and this is a legit issue, blah blah, and some men legit prefer women with meat on their bones, obviously, but only in romance novels are these dudes invariably super-hot and super-fit themselves. I get that it’s science fiction, but come on. DOUBLE STANDARD MUCH? Anyway, it still kind of a cute story about fishes out of water and country mice-city mice relationships and not annoying all the time. 3/5 stars

 

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