I didn’t necessarily expect to really really like an epic poem/novel in free verse about rival werewolf gangs/packs in Los Angeles, but I really really liked Sharp Teeth. It starts with a nod to a Homeric invocation of the muse, but modern, and slips in at least one nod to “rosy-fingered dawn” that I caught, but mostly the style is its own, and it works. The book starts with Anthony, a guy who’s looking for a job and finds one as a dogcatcher at the city pound. (You can read the beginning of the book on the NPR website.) Then we switch to Lark and his pack, Lark and a bunch of guys and a woman, and then Lark sends the woman (whose name we never learn: I read in a comment on a Goodreads review that Barlow meant this to feel mythic; I found it mildly annoying) to meet the new dogcatcher. She’s not sure why: she just knows Lark has plans.

Meanwhile, odd things are happening at the pound, and also meanwhile, Lark is trying to figure out what’s going on with two other packs in the area, and also meanwhile, two guys from Lark’s pack are sent off to Pasadena to play bridge (which is somehow also part of Lark’s plan). Things happen. Lark finds himself in a potentially dangerous situation; Lark decides on an interesting way to wait it out. (I like Lark a lot.) We see those two other packs, and so, eventually, do Lark and the woman (who, by the way, has started dating Anthony: a dogcatcher and a werewolf, yes). There’s also a police officer named Peabody who starts out looking into what’s going on at the pound, and ends up looking into rather a lot more, and part of what he’s looking into is tied up with the story of one of the other packs. There’s vengeance and betrayal and desperation and violence and loyalty and love and a little bit of humor, and it shouldn’t necessarily work, but somehow, it totally does.

My personal rule for the TBR Triple Dog Dare is basically just: no library books. If it’s on my shelves, it’s fair game. This means that I’m fine with re-reading things during the time of the Dare, especially if I think that after a re-read, I might decide to give a book away and free up some shelf space.

Which brings me to The Book of the City of Ladies, which was written in 1405, and which I acquired and read for some class in college on medieval literature. I’ve moved it with me to four different apartments over the course of the almost-twelve years since I graduated, but I hadn’t felt compelled to re-read it until now. Christine’s a proto-feminist, and that’s pretty excellent. And for something written 600+ years ago, it’s surprisingly readable, though I’m not sure how much of it’s the style of Earl Jeffrey Richards’s translation and how much is the style of the book itself. But having re-read it now, I’m probably going to set my copy free.

But, anyway, the book. At the start, Christine-as-narrator talks about how she’s been feeling lousy about having been born a woman rather than a man, because all these male authors (including great philosophers and such) say bad things about women in their books, and surely they can’t all be mistaken, right? At which point three ladies, who turn out to be Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, appear to her in a vision, and tell her that they’ll help her to build a “City of Ladies,” which will be constructed of examples proving those slandering male authors wrong.

Some of the arguments that Christine makes through her three ladies are really great, including a passage near the beginning of the book where Reason explains that some older men say bad things about women because:

they are pained when they see that their ‘good times’ have now passed them by, and it seems to them that the young, who are now what they once were, are on top of the world. They do not know how to overcome their sadness except by attacking women, hoping to make women less attractive to other men. (Section I.8.5)

Reason argues that men and women have “wholly similar souls” (I.9.2), and that women can be brave, and also that there have been plenty of great women rulers, proving that women can handle law and government just fine, thanks. She also argues that women can learn things just as well as men can, if you have a culture that educates daughters and not just sons, and that if women know less than men, it’s because “they are not involved in many different things, but stay at home, where it is enough for them to run the household, and there is nothing which so instructs a reasonable creature as the exercise and experience of many different things” (I.27.1). In Rectitude’s portion of the book, there’s a whole section refuting the claim that “women want to be raped,” and yeah, it’s alarming that this is still relevant, all these centuries later. And then Justice wraps things up by talking about various female saints and martyrs. Christine is clearly writing in a very different time, and her values may differ from those of a 21st-century feminist, especially a non-religious one like me, but still, I’m glad I re-read this. (I was an English major/history minor in college, and that meant a lot of reading, and reading a lot of things at once, and writing a whole lot of papers. My memories of many of those things I read in college are fairly dim, and it’s nice to re-read some of them now, when I read only one book at a time, without any looming deadlines.)

Also: there’s one section of the book whose title is this, which is kind of the best thing ever: “How the strong Hercules and Theseus, his companion, went from Greece with a large army and fleet to the Amazons, and how the two maidens, Menalippe and Hippolyta, beat them, horses and all, into a heap” (I.18).

At the start of Getting the Girl, Cameron Wolfe is alone and lonely: he’s never had a girlfriend, and he doesn’t really have any friends outside his family. His best friend is his older brother Rube, and he’s friendly with his oldest brother, Steve, as well, but he’s also overshadowed by them: he’s not a footballer like Steve, or popular with girls like Rube is. Rube has a new girlfriend every few weeks; at the start of the book he’s with his latest, Octavia. They don’t last long, which is no surprise because Rube’s relationships never last long, but what is surprising is that she then shows an interest in Cameron, who’s busy mooning in front of the house of a girl who’s never been into him. So it seems like Cameron has a shot with a girl, which is new. What’s also new is that Cameron has just started writing: it’s this secret thing he does, when words come to him: he writes and keeps what he’s written all folded up in his pocket. Cameron’s family lives in Sydney, and I’d call him a flâneur except that the connotations of that word maybe don’t fit with his working-class teenagerdom. But he walks through the city and he sees the city and he writes about the city, and about himself, and his writing gives him a moment of connection with Octavia.

Despite the title, though, the book isn’t really about Cam’s relationship with Octavia: it’s more about his relationship with Rube (who is none too pleased when he finds out that Cam and Octavia are seeing one another) and with himself, with his identity as a striver/underdog/outsider. I don’t read very many books with teen boys as narrators/protagonists, and I don’t know what else I’ve read that has brotherhood at its center like this book does. Cameron’s first-person narration means we don’t fully get a sense of Octavia as a person, because he doesn’t have a full sense of her as a person (yet), and I sort of wanted more of her, but at the same time the way the book focused on Cam and Rube and Steve (and their sister Sarah, a little) felt right. Cam’s descriptions of Rube are particularly satisfying, things like:

My brother never really had to say or do anything. He just had to stand somewhere or scratch himself or even trip up a gutter and a girl would like him. (5)

Or this: “The cold night air seemed to get out of his way as he walked through it” (229).

I also appreciated the lists in this book (things Cam is thinking about after getting a haircut; ways Cam and Rube show their love for their neighbor’s ridiculous Pomeranian, Miffy). Also, this description of Miffy (and everything else about Miffy, really):

Miffy got fur balls a lot, which made sense, since that dog seemed to be made up of ninety percent fur; a couple percent flesh; a few percent bones; and one or two percent barking, whingeing, and carrying on. Mostly fur, though. Worse than a cat. (105)

Side note: this book was originally published in Australia as When Dogs Cry, and while I actually like the US title slightly better, I really dislike the cover of the edition I read. This Australian cover is maybe a tiny bit better, but guys, that’s not a Pomeranian. The winner, as far as I’m concerned? Totally the cover of the Dutch translation.

Deirdre, the sixteen-year-old narrator of Lament, plays the harp, and plays it very well. But she has an overbearing mother and a major case of stage fright, and she feels pretty much invisible at school: she has a best friend, James, who’s also a musician, but that’s basically it. But the summer between her sophomore and junior years, all her normal high school concerns become the least of her worries: some truly weird stuff begins happening, starting with the appearance in her life of a gorgeous boy named Luke, who she somehow dreamed about the night before meeting him at a music competition. She’s drawn to him, but she doesn’t know what he’s really doing in her life—and why he knew about her before having met her.

Lament is too plot-driven for me to want to say much about it, but there are faeries, and while Luke isn’t one, he’s a part of their world. And Deirdre, it turns out, can see them—and, indeed, has other paranormal abilities of her own. Meanwhile, with Luke, Deirdre’s discovering her own desires—often in terms of wanting to make out with Luke whenever possible, but also in terms of wanting to be her own person, instead of letting her mom or grandma or aunt tell her what to do, which she’s always just sort of accepted in the past.

A lot of people on Goodreads seem to have had issues with the instalove/lust between Deirdre and Luke, but that didn’t particularly bother me. I mean, I’m reading a paranormal YA romance; I’m partly reading it for the kissing, and if the chemistry feels believable, I can go with it. Some people also seem to really dislike Deirdre as a narrator/character, but again, I didn’t have that problem: I like how she goes from passivity to deciding things for herself, and I like her moments of humor and practicality, like:

What I needed to do was prioritize. If you took out the supernatural homicidal bits, this was just a problem like any other I’d faced: a super-hard school project, a tune that refused to be tamed, a musical technique that twisted my fingers. I’d tackled all those before by breaking them down into little bits. (311)

I don’t know if I’ll read the sequel, but I enjoyed Lament: it was a pleasing book to start reading in a coffee shop on Saturday, get sucked into on a train ride home from Philadelphia on Sunday, and curl up and finish on a cold and wintry holiday Monday when I didn’t particularly want to be anywhere other than my couch.

At the start of The Golden Globe, our narrator, Kenneth Valentine, aka Sparky, aka various aliases, is in a production of Romeo and Juliet somewhere out past Pluto. He’s playing Mercutio; the actress playing Juliet is indisposed. He convinces the director to let him play Juliet and Mercutio for this performance, which works out nicely: when a private detective appears between scenes, looking for Kenneth Valentine, Sparky’s in costume as Juliet, and the detective doesn’t think for a second that the apparently female person he’s talking to might in fact be the person he’s looking for. So Sparky leaves as soon as he can, making his way to Pluto, where he undertakes various legal and illegal activities (he’s a con-man, as well as being an actor) to make some money, until he hears that a very famous director is coming out of retirement to direct a production of King Lear. This director is a friend of his, and she promises him the starring role, but the production is on the moon—Earth’s moon, I mean—and he’s not sure he can get there in time. And oh, also, it becomes apparent that the private detective isn’t the only person looking for him.

So the book ends up being the tale of Sparky’s trek across the solar system, accompanied by his genetically-modified Bichon Frise, Toby, interspersed with flashbacks/dreams in which we get the story of Sparky’s childhood, interspersed with other things, like reviews of the long-running hit television show that’s the whole reason Kenneth is also called Sparky, and bits of gossip columns about the moon’s version of Hollywood, and so on. We hear about Sparky’s difficult/abusive father, and how he ended up on television to begin with, and, eventually, why he left the moon and made his way elsewhere. Though the cover of the book proclaims that this is “A Science Fiction Novel,” it’s not super-heavy on space-invaders or artificial intelligence or the logistics of space travel or how human civilization looks on various planets, though it does have bits of all those things. I liked the balance of theatre jokes and other jokes and action and world-building in this book, and I especially liked Toby (I am perhaps biased, having had a Bichon companion of my own—see below). But, I mean, how could I not be amused by this?

You don’t know what terror is until you’ve heard a Bichon growling. After you’ve heard it, you still don’t have a clue. Back in the park, I’m sure all the squirrels in earshot were helpless with laughter. (41)

Bright Lines is more of a sprawling family novel than what I usually read, and I think that fact hindered my enjoyment of it in some places: I wanted it to be more tightly focused on a single character than it is. Instead, we get bits and pieces focused on the various inhabitants of a Clinton Hill brownstone: Anwar and Hashi Saleem, who moved to the US after the Bangladesh Liberation War, plus their daughter Charu, who’s 18 and about to start college, plus their niece Ella, who’s now a college sophomore but who moved to Brooklyn with them as a child after her parents’ murder (and who starts going by El over the course of the book, as he realizes he identifies as male), plus Maya, one of Charu’s friends who has run away from her overbearing father (who’s an Islamic cleric and doesn’t want her to go to college), plus Ramona Espinal, a nurse who lives in the top-floor apartment that Anwar rents out.

The first section of the book is all Brooklyn summertime, Atlantic Avenue in June, the garden of the Saleems’ brownstone at night, Ella and Charu and Maya riding their bikes to Jacob Riis Park to go to the beach, or going to a Bushwick warehouse party together. (It’s also Hashi in her salon and Anwar in his shop and Anwar smoking pot with his friends after hours, but I wanted more of the kids.) In the second part of the book, the action jumps forward a few months and moves to Bangladesh, where Anwar and Hashi and Charu and El are visiting Hashi’s remaining family (her father and much-younger brother), after which we get an epilogue in Brooklyn focusing on El and Maya and Charu, which is probably my favorite part of the book, maybe because really I would have liked a whole book just about El and Maya. That said, I couldn’t help admiring the way the different strands of all the book’s stories (the different characters, and Brooklyn and Bangladesh, and past and present) were woven together.

In Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, one of the title characters is best friends with a guy named Tiny Cooper, who’s a self-described “loud and spectacular” gay football player who has written a musical about his life (1). This is that musical: as the title page puts it, it’s “A musical in novel form/Or, A novel in musical form.” Which is to say, it’s mostly in song, though there are some spoken lines and also some prose passages, the best of which are in the form of the stage directions. The plot covers Tiny’s life from birth to age sixteen, and includes things like him coming out (first to himself, then to his parents and his best friend and the football team, who all already know) and a “Parade of Ex-Boyfriends,” all explaining why things didn’t work out—”Ex-Boyfriend #1: You’re too clingy. Ex-Boyfriend #2: “You’re too sing-y” (85). I probably would have liked this book more if I were more musically inclined and/or liked musical theatre more. I couldn’t always imagine how the songs were meant to sound, and I got some of the musical theatre jokes/references, but definitely not all of them. E.g. I was amused that the song for Tiny Cooper’s birth is “a big, lively, belty number—because, let’s face it, if Elphaba got to sing “Defying Gravity” at the start of Wicked, she’d be much, much happier throughout the entire show” (9). And I got the Rent jokes. But I’ve never seen/heard Damn Yankees or South Pacific or various other shows mentioned. But even so, this was a fun read, and Tiny is a pretty excellent character.

Read Harder 2015, etc.

December 29th, 2015

I generally like my reading to be directed by my whims, so I didn’t fully commit to the Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge. But I did think it looked interesting, so I decided that for 2015 I would track my reading against the challenge categories and see what I was (and wasn’t) reading on my own, perhaps with an eye to further diversifying my reading choices in the future. At this point in the year, I might read another book before the start of 2016, but given what I have checked out from the library at the moment, I doubt I’m going to be ticking any new boxes on this list. So, here goes.

Things I didn’t read in 2015:
– A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25
– A book that takes place in Asia
– A book by an author from Africa
– A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture (Native Americans, Aboriginals, etc.)
– A sci-fi novel (the closest was probably Speak by Louisa Hall, but I’m not sure I’d count it).
– A romance novel
– An audiobook
– A collection of poetry
– A book published before 1850

Hm, so: left to my own devices, I’m not that great with geographical diversity or genre diversity, and I skew towards middle-aged (or older) contemporary authors. And I’ve actually never read an audiobook—I generally can’t even manage podcasts, honestly. I really strongly prefer reading things to hearing them.

Things I did read in 2015:
– A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65: I think I read five books that might fit this category, but the most obvious (because it’s explicitly about aging) is Pondlife by Al Alvarez.

– A collection of short stories: The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam.

– A book published by an indie press: I think I read twelve of them over the course of the year, but let’s say Ten Walks/Two Talks by Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch (Ugly Duckling Presse).

– A book by or about someone that identifies as LGBTQ: I think I read six books that fit this category; the most recent (and probably my favorite!) was Dryland by Sara Jaffe.

– A book by a person whose gender is different from your own: I read 27 books by men this year. 10:04 by Ben Lerner was probably my favorite.

– A microhistory: I think three books I read could count for this, but let’s say Photobooth: A Biography by Meags Fitzgerald.

– A YA novel: I read six of them. My favorite this year was definitely Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

– A National Book Award, Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall (which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2005).

– A book that is a retelling of a classic story (fairytale, Shakespearian play, classic novel, etc.): can I count Oreo by Fran Ross here, as a retelling of the Theseus myth? I think I can.

– A book that someone else has recommended to you: six that my boyfriend recommended, one that a friend recommended, and one that my mom recommended. Most recent was the recommendation from my mom, which was Shadow Castle by Marian Cockrell.

– A book that was originally published in another language: I read two: An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec, translated by Marc Lowenthal and Of Walking in Ice by Werner Herzog, translated by Martje Herzog and Alan Greenberg.

– A graphic novel, a graphic memoir or a collection of comics of any kind: I read six books that could fit this category, my favorite of which was El Deafo by Cece Bell.

– A book that you would consider a guilty pleasure (Read, and then realize that good entertainment is nothing to feel guilty over): Waistcoats & Weaponry by Gail Carriger.

– A book published this year: eighteen of them, most recently The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks.

– A self-improvement book (can be traditionally or non-traditionally considered “self-improvement”): Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin, and perhaps also The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere by Pico Iyer.

And yes, Book Riot has already put together the 2016 Read Harder Challenge, which I may approach in the same spirit as this year’s. (I also kind of feel like maybe I should carry over the 2015 challenge categories for the ones I didn’t do in 2015.) Meanwhile, though it’s not a challenge, I feel I should also mention that I’m signed up for James’s TBR Triple Dog Dare again for 2016, meaning that between January 1 and April 1, I’ll be trying to read exclusively books I already own. Surely some of the books I already own will tick some of the categories on Book Riot’s 2016 list!

A sheep that has been hefted has “become accustomed and attached to an area of upland pasture,” to quote from the definition near the start of this book, but that definition clearly applies, in a way, to James Rebanks as well. The Lake District is his home and his family’s home; he grew up watching his grandfather and father raise sheep on a farm by the fells, and now he raises sheep on that same farm (and tweets about it). In The Shepherd’s Life, Rebanks takes us through the seasons from a shepherd’s perspective, but this isn’t just about his life now: he also writes about how he ended up where he did, from leaving school at fifteen to attending Oxford to farming and working as an advisor to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

At the start of the book, I had a hard time getting into it: it felt like the prose didn’t always flow, and I sometimes had a hard time picturing some of the minutiae of shepherding, even though Rebanks describes them in some detail (e.g. exactly how you hold a sheep when you’re clipping it). But as the book continued, I started to enjoy it more. I liked the black-and-white photos of sheep and sheepdogs and fields, and I liked the descriptions of the landscape of the farm and the fells in different seasons—the hay meadows in summer, the fields at lambing time, and passages like this, from “Autumn”:

Sunlight lay like smoke in the hollows, resting, before it made the long afternoon trek up the fell sides. The lichened stones shone silver in the thinning light. The hedges flecked with the blood red spots of rosehips. The chimneys of the farmhouses marked again by the first whispers of wood smoke. (153)

Not that life on a working farm is all loveliness. There is so much uncertainty and chance for disaster—the part of the book where Rebanks describes the foot-and-mouth-disease epidemic in 2001 nearly made me cry.

My mom remembered having read Shadow Castle when she was a kid, and was tickled to see it back in print, so I got it for her for Mother’s Day, and then borrowed it when I was visiting her for Christmas. I was bothered by a line or two of casual racism (e.g. “This was a very long time ago, and there were no people in this country but primitive Indians” (18)) but other than that, this was a pleasing book to read over the course of two very rainy December days. It’s a fun series of stories, and I like Olive Bailey’s sweet illustrations, perhaps especially the ones at the start of each chapter, like this:

When the book opens, we meet Lucy, who is nine, and who ordinarily hangs out in the woods around the home where she lives with her grandmother, befriending squirrels and rabbits and generally amusing herself. But one day she goes into a deeper part of the woods and starts following a little white dog, who eventually leads her to a tunnel into the mountainside, and then through the tunnel into an enchanted valley where there’s a castle. There Lucy meets the dog’s owner, a man who introduces himself as Michael and proceeds to take her inside the castle, which is inhabited only by “dust and shadows” (12). The shadows, it turns out, are cast by former inhabitants of the castle who now are in Fairyland, and Michael tells Lucy a series of stories about them all, starting with the tale of a fairy prince named Mika who travels the world and rescues (then marries) a beautiful captive princess named Gloria. Mika and Gloria have twins named Robin and Meira, and we hear their stories, too. There are fairies and magic and goblins and a vegetarian dragon and a witch and a djinn, and Lucy listens in rapt attention to all of it for the whole day, before having to dash off home again, but not before Michael gives her his dog and a magical ring and tells her she can come back to the enchanted valley whenever she wants to.

I wish there were a sequel to this in which Lucy would go back into the enchanted valley and actually have some bigger adventures of her own—I’d like her to have more of a chance to be an active character, as opposed to just listening. In the very beginning of the book, she’s a bit nervous as she’s following the little white dog through the forest, but she steels herself to keep going like this:

Lucy shivered and went on again. “This is an adventure,” she thought. “You can’t have an adventure if you stop in the middle.” Besides, she didn’t want to lose the little dog. (5)

I think Lucy’s got sufficient independence and pluck to be a proper heroine on her own, and I wish she’d gotten the chance to be, but I still liked Shadow Castle, even though it wasn’t Lucy’s story.