read what you want, when you want (part 1)

A popular book blogger had a post about New York Times bestsellers worth reading, saying that ‘bestseller’ doesn’t actually mean very much since a lot of not-so-good-books make it onto the list. I’m not linking to the post because this isn’t about her and I’m not even critiquing her–it just got me thinking. I am a big proponent of reading what you want, when you want. This doesn’t mean I think all books are good, or worth my time–but the operative word here is my.

I read cozy mysteries like my life depends on it. I read Patricia Cornwell and Karen Slaughter thrillers. I read Amish romances. I read fantasy and sometimes sci-fi (though the latter is rare). I also read high-brow literary works, and academic tomes, and non-fiction. (I don’t read much science, though, something I’d like to change.) Hell, I’ll even read the back of the cereal box if I have to (ie, if I’m stranded without anything else to read during breakfast).

I have a friend whose book list gives me holy envy. She goes off on reading tangents and now knows a lot about both Darwin and the Russian tsars. But just because I admire her dedication doesn’t mean I want her list, even as I’ve vowed to read more quality non-fiction as a result. Fluff fiction relaxes my hamster wheel brain more than anything else (except maybe drugs? Stoners always sound super relaxed. But cozy mysteries seem like a much more viable, safe, and legal option there).

There is so much classism and other forms of perceived moral superiority stuck under these expectations of who should read what. And to get back to the beginning of this post, bestseller lists, if nothing else, are interesting because they tell us something about the popular consciousness–if four out of the first five fiction books on the list are thriller mysteries (Grisham, Patterson, Greaney, Baldacci), and the fifth is Stephen King, that says something about the people who read books, and the books they choose to buy. Books might not be ‘worth the hype’ based on literary merit, but that there is a hype is very interesting nonetheless.

I do, however, make an exception for Twilight. And Fifty Shades of Gray. No one should be internalizing that (and I have read both, so I should know). Anything else, however? You go girl. Read whatever you want, whenever you want, and don’t let anyone shame you into thinking your tastes aren’t good enough.

to be continued…

On Hamilton, Or Why I Should Think Before I Press Play

Last week, I had a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. It was one of those days that you just have to get through, and when I went to take Josie for her afternoon walk and was looking for something to listen to, I saw the Hamilton soundtrack. I thought, “yes, this is just what I need, an upbeat soundtrack about persevering and making it and not throwing away anyone’s shot. I’ll sing along in my head and it’ll give me perspective on my own stupid problems and it’ll be great.”

Bad idea. You see, I was halfway through the musical, and you know what happens after the halfway mark? (Spoiler alert, although this shouldn’t be a spoiler for anyone who’s had to take a US History class.) Philip, Hamilton’s son, dies in a duel. And then a terribly sad song comes on (“It’s Quiet Uptown”), and I cried. I know Hamilton’s story, I knew this was coming and I still cried. And I kept walking, and then Hamilton’s own duel happens, and he dies (“The World Was Wide Enough”), and poor Eliza sings “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” and I was trying very hard to not weep while Josie wandered, oblivious, at my feet.

At least no one noticed, and I didn’t have to explain I was crying over something that happened way back in 1804.  Small mercies, I guess.

 

 

 

what I read in February and March

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Fiction

His Right Hand, by Mette Ivie Harrison. This is book number 2 in Harrison’s Linda Wallheim series. From Goodreads.com: “In the follow-up to the controversial and critically acclaimed mystery The Bishop’s Wife, Mormon housewife Linda Wallheim finds herself ruffling feathers in Draper, Utah, as she assists a murder investigation that is being derailed by transphobia within the LDS community.”

Honestly, I was a little apprehensive when I saw the premise of the book, because it centers around the life of a trans man and deals with transphobia in general, and it is really hard for straight, privileged people to get that right. Good intentions and sensitivity don’t always translate well on the page. I also kind of felt like Harrison made sure to include a paragraph or two about every difficult social or political issue the LDS Church is facing, whether or not it aided the story. But, as in the first book, she does a good job of portraying Draper, Utah, and the Mormon church more generally, as a space where people frequently get it wrong, but get back up and try again.

Mistborn: Secret History, by Brandon Sanderson. I love the Mistborn series, and this one talks about Kelsier’s legacy after his death. (Summary is intentionally vague because hell hath no fury but a nerd scorned, or spoiled.) I’m not necessarily a die-hard Kelsier fan, so I didn’t get that much out of this book. Recommended if you’re a Mistborn fan, because you’re probably a completionist, like me.

Calamity, by Brandon Sanderson. The third installment in the Reckoners series! I love this series so much.

Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend, by Kevin Kwan. Amusing read about the (imagined?) insanity that is the Asian (noveau) riche community. Crazy Rich Asians is slightly better, I felt–China Rich Girlfriend continues the story but seems more focused on cataloguing the excesses than developing characters. At the heart of each book, however, is a clear message that money does not happiness make.

Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Albertalli. Simon is 16 years old, and gay, and emailing with an anonymous, adorable boy in his school. He isn’t out, though, and when the emails fall into the wrong hands, he has to decide for himself who he wants to be. The book is half teen romance, half coming of age story, and a quick read.

(Cozy) Mysteries

Murder on the Links and The Monogram Murdersby Agatha Christie. The Monogram Murders is actually written by Sophie Hannah, in the Christie style. It’s a Poirot mystery, and although I felt Hannah’s Poirot was a little more gimmicky than the Christie version, it’s still a good mystery and recommended for Poirot fans.

Red Velvet Cupcake MurderPeach Cobbler Murder, Devil’s Food Cake Murder, and Wedding Cake Murder, by Joanne Fluke. Hannah Swensen is one of my favorite cozy mystery heroines, and the rereads were all in preparation for the latest installment, Wedding Cake Murder, in which we (gasp!) actually see a love triangle resolved. This wasn’t the best installment in the series, but definitely worth reading if you like the Swensen clan.

The Skeleton Takes a Bow and The Skeleton Haunts a House by Leigh Perry. This is a new-to-me series, in which an adjunct professor takes on mysteries–with a live, talking skeleton by her side. (I know it’s weird, but it works.) I loved them mostly for Perry’s take on the eternal quandary of being an adjunct, and felt a little nostalgic as I read it–but mostly relieved to no longer be one.

Off the Books and Played by the Book by Lucy Arlington. This series is set in Inspiration Valley, a cutesy small town with a prominent literary agency (and a sandwich shop where all the sandwiches are named after literary characters–anyone feel like a Hamlet?) and a “murder magnet” who solves mysteries on her day off. (I swear, all these hokey plots feel way less contrived when you’re reading them.)

Non-fiction

Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone), by Elizabeth Green. This is actually a really fascinating book. I read it in tandem with Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars, and where Goldstein discusses the political context of teaching (how we think about teaching, how non-profit, corporate, and government interests try to solve the US’s education problem, and how that effectively paralyzes public schools in a lot of cases), Green dives into charter schools, what teacher education programs look like, and what the ramifications are in the classroom. Recommended if you think teaching is either natural or easy, or if you want to know more about what people are doing to make the US ed system better.

As Texas Goes…: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda, by Gail Collins. I listened to this one on audiobook. It’s a little dry in places, but it’s a fascinating look at the way Texas politics, legacy, and culture influences the greater US. From education to gun rights, what happens in Texas doesn’t stay in Texas.

The Great Fitness Experiment, by Charlotte Hilton Anderson. I read Charlotte’s blog for years and loved reading about all the crazy things she tried in the name of fitness. This is basically her blog in book form, with some extras thrown in. Fun and entertaining.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick. This was a book club pick. It deals with, as the title says, ordinary lives in North Korea: six of them, to be exact. She manages to humanizes the terrible history of North Korea, which I realized I know very little about, and should rectify that.

 

on moving, and starting over (again)

For the most part, our move has been good. Our apartment/condo is really nice and actually bigger than our old house, I have an actual office now, the sun shines most days, and I’m no longer the lone foreigner in the room because here? there are so many people with complicated “where are you from” stories. I’ve been exploring the area on my bike, I found a new church, and my new library has an interlibrary loan service that gets me anything I want to read. Like I said, it’s good here.

But.

I miss my friends. I miss going to book club. I miss meeting friends for coffee. I miss having ecumenical theological conversations over lunch. I miss the community it took me more than a year to build, and it just feels so daunting to do that all over again here. Especially since I’m the trailing spouse here, and that’s such a liminal space to be in, and a directionless one at that. I do not like being directionless. Being directionless scares me. I believe in goals, and plans, and lists, and checking things off, and charging forward.

For most of my two years in Germany, I hibernated. I don’t think I even realized it until after I’d left, but I was so unhappy there. It wasn’t Germany’s fault, just a combination of circumstances, most of them mine and most of them things I’d been carrying around for years. After six months, or maybe a year in Utah, I kind of woke up and realized that whether I’d known it or not, I’d fought my way out of a depression and I was ready to start living again. And I did, and I was happy, for the most part.

And then we moved. And now we’ve been living here for three months, and I’ve made the total of one acquaintance (though a really fun one), and I have to keep reminding myself that it took me a while in Utah, too. It’ll be okay. I’ll be okay. But if you have any tips for a socially anxious introvert on how to make friends, let me know, please. This stuff is hard.

 

on this Good Friday

Gethsemane, by Mary Oliver

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move, maybe
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.
Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.

 

(another favorite Holy Week poem here.)

two years

Two years ago today, L. and I had our first date in Salt Lake City, Utah. Two years later, you can find us in Redwood City, slowly getting used to the non-winter winter (yay) and the terrible traffic (boo). Two years later,

  • Josie and Mara are still our favorites. Josie is supposed to sleep on her own bed, but more often than not, she nestles herself right in between us, and if she does it right and doesn’t move too much, we don’t kick her off. (The we in this scenario is all L., by the way. Josie doesn’t listen to me in the middle of the night.) Mara is an independent little cat, and likes to run around without supervision, in case you were wondering. She also likes to appropriate my carry on suitcase and use it as a bed, which I am less happy about.

Every day around 4PM, Josie migrates to the door and sleeps (mostly) patiently until L. comes home.

  • We have more stuffed animals than any two people should own. The newest additions to our stuffed family are two little pigs, called Bake and Grease. They go well with a larger pig, that Ikea might call Knorrig, but we call Porkupine.

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  • Breakfast is still our favorite meal, and we’ve been busy scoping out new breakfast places to replace our beloved Finn’s in Salt Lake.

At Finn’s, the day we left Utah.

  • We still like to read whenever we go out. At dinner the other night, an older couple came up to our table to comment on it, especially since L. was reading on his Kindle and I was reading an actual paper book. Was there any significance to that, they wondered? (The answer? No, not really. L. usually reads on his Kindle, and I go back and forth, depending on library availability.)
  • Since moving, people don’t laugh at the smart car any more. That is, as long as my wonderful new bike rack isn’t attached to it–then it’s fair game again.

  • We do day trips to Half Moon Bay now, instead of Cottonwood Canyon, and visit the San Mateo County Historical Museum instead of the Church History Museum, and the Cal Academy of Sciences instead of the Natural History Museum Utah, and Kepler’s Book Store instead of Sam Weller’s.


  

  • We still live less than a mile from a Mormon church, though. Some things never change.

what I read in January

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Fiction

Making Money, by Terry Pratchett. Former conman turned respectable pillar of the community Moist von Lipwig tries to run a bank. This is an old favorite of mine, and I never get tired reading about the exploits of Moist von Lipwig. (Related titles: Going Postal and Raising Steam by the same author.)

Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher. This is an epistolary novel, in which the story is told through the countless letters of recommendation a professor is asked to write one year. If you work in academia, you’ll probably find it funny. It lagged a little in the middle, but the end more than made up for it and re-humanized the characters involved, which was sorely needed.

The Lure of the Moonflower, by Lauren Willig. My dad got me started on these female-centered historical spy novels/romances, set in Napoleon France, India under colonial rule, and Georgian England. There are twelve of them, and I’ve read them all. He dropped out halfway through the series (as much as I love them, the quality is a little uneven), but gave me this one for Christmas so I could finish the series. They’re fun, reasonably historically accurate, and this one made a nice wrap up of more than ten years of Pink Carnation history.

Gatefather, by Orson Scott Card. This is the third and last installment in Card’s Mithermages series. Danny North, an incredibly powerful Gatemage, has battled the Gate Thief, and won, but now faces another great danger. (It’s very epic, if you couldn’t tell.) I really enjoyed the worldbuilding in this series, I enjoyed the (semi-subtle) Mormon overtones visible in Card’s writing, I enjoyed (if also rolled my eyes) at the way the author weaves together theology and mythology. But for a book that had such an epic premise, the ending felt kind of flat for me. Not bad, just flat. Still worth reading if you like fantasy, though.

The Bands of Mourning, by Brandon Sanderson. Bands of Mourning is set in the same universe as Sanderson’s Mistborn series, just hundreds of years later (I think. A good chunk of time, in any case). It follows The Alloy of Law and Shadows of Self, and continues the story very neatly.

I’m being very circumspect about plot so I don’t spoil anything, but I’ll say this: Sanderson writes female characters pretty well, but falls into the same traps a lot of writers do (Warbreakers, as much as I liked it, inspired much ranting in that regard). It was nice to see Steris come into her own in this book, even if the same old ‘woman doesn’t know her value/worth until male tells her (and preferably marries her)’ trope came out to play.

Divergent, by Veronica Roth. Divergent has been made into a movie, and it’s a very well-known young adult book that I had resisted reading until now. Shame on me, because my snobbish rejection wasn’t actually warranted–it’s a pretty good book. In the Divergent world, people are separated into ‘factions’ that value different things: Abnegation values selflessness, Candor values honesty, Dauntless values courage, Erudite values learning and libraries, and Amity values peacefulness. The catch is that you grow up in one faction, and then you choose whether to stay, or to join another one, at sixteen. The story revolves around one girl, Beatrice Prior, and her surprising choice.

Also, as an aside, I would probably be an Erudite. I’m too non-confrontational to be Candor, too un-athletic to be Dauntless, too selfish to be Abnegation (although I’m also a people pleaser so who knows?), and too sarcastic and prone to doom-thinking to be Amity. (In the Harry Potter world, I’m a Ravenclaw. I’m pretty sure I like following the rules too much to be Gryffindor. Although Hermione made it, so again, who knows?)

Cozy Mysteries

Gluten for Punishment, by Nancy J Parra. You know the gluten-free thing has jumped the shark when there’s a cozy mystery about it. (I was relieved to read that the protagonist hadn’t read Wheat Belly but actually had celiac.) Fun and fast read.

On Borrowed Time, by Jenn McKinlay. Another installment of the Briar Creek crime-fighting librarian!

Suspendered Sentence, by Laura Bradford. I swear, until right this second, I read the title as Suspended Sentence, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to downgrade my ranking for this book because this pun is terrible.

Anyway, it’s a cozy mystery set in Amish country in Pennsylvania. I find these books fascinating bits of Americana, because they require the people in question (the Amish) to become two-dimensional characters upon which fully modernized and technologically connected people can project a longing for simplicity and grace. Although Bradford is better than most, and her Amish actually experience and express negative emotions, like anger and jealousy. (Not to mention a murder, since it’s a cozy mystery, after all.)

Non-fiction

The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, by Kathryn Joyce. Joyce (author of the book Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement) takes on international adoption in this book, asking questions about good intentions gone awry, the potential and reality of human/child trafficking, and how to move forward and do good. It’s branded as an exposé, and although I’m skeptical of exposés, I picked it up and read it anyway. If you keep in mind that it’s not meant to be a fair-handed treatment of adoption, but rather an exploration of what happens when too many people feel the means justifies the ends, you’ll end up learning a lot.

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, by Gail Collins. The book opens with an anecdote of how a woman wasn’t allowed to pay her boss’ traffic fine because she was wearing pants. (Her husband had to go pay it so they could just go home, and was warned to keep her in line by the judge.) Collins takes us through years of change, chronicling how in just one generation, expectations of what women could or could not, should or should not do drastically changed. Collins weaves in historical research, oral histories, and popular culture in an interesting and eloquent way. It’s rather balanced (you can tell the author is mostly a fan of the changes, since she never would have got to her position as the New York Times’ first female editor of the Editorial Page without them, but she also writes about the unintended consequences along the way), and when the author criticizes the parties involved, she does so in an affirming way. I would have loved a chapter on the Internet and the way female participation online has changed public life, but I guess you can’t cover everything.

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day. This is a memoir that chronicles Day’s upbringing (weird), university career (disciplined), acting career (quirky), and various interests (nerdy). I listened to the audiobook, which I would highly recommend, as it’s read by Day herself. I loved the peeks into Day’s weird and wonderful life. I’m not a gamer (all I play is Mario Kart and Yoshi), but I’ve watched The Guild and Dr Horrible (not to mention some Supernatural) and I know enough about the culture to be intrigued. Recommended for all the nerds out there who feel like they don’t belong.