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Monday, November 12, 2018

What I Read in October

It's entirely possible that I will not hit my arbitrary reading goal for 2018. I set myself the goal of reading 52 books this year--one book a week--and my reading pace is not exactly keeping up. Between getting the creeping (and lingering...and lingering...and lingering...) crud in October, just after my husband came down with pneumonia, and my inability to turn my brain off enough to immerse myself in a book, it's been a weird month (and year), reading-wise.

I'd feel disappointed about this except for two things.

1. This is a completely made up, arbitrary, meaningless goal I have set for myself. If I don't hit my dinger, there will not be a big man named Spike from the reading goal enforcement agency to exact my punishment.

2. I'm still reading. A lot. Even if I'm not finishing books. I have abandoned a number of books that weren't working for me. In general, they weren't bad books, but I just put them down and didn't pick them back up again. Also, I tend to comfort read old favorites when I'm anxious, down, or stressed, which means I've been revisiting some literary friends and not counting them in my book total.

Still, I will try to reach my 52 book goal. 52 new-to-me books read between January 1, 2018 and December 31, 2018. Let's see how far I can get.

So without further ado, here is what I read in October:

42. Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

What an odd little book. Dr. Greta Helsing (the family dropped the van several years after emigrating to Britain) is a physician to the undead. She helps reconstruct mummy feet, proscribes anti-depressants to ghouls, and patches up vampires who have been infected with garlic.

She is good friends with several characters who are straight out of classic horror. The Ruthven and Varney are apparently the names of some of the vampires of 18th century literature. (The book makes sure to explain that their exploits were greatly exaggerated in their respective books.) Fastitocalon is a demon (with COPD), but also the name of a turtle in a Tolkien poem.

I loved the well-thought out details of this world. About how Ruthven is overwhelmed by boredom--as who wouldn't be after 400 years of life? And how Greta and Fastitocalon repeat lines from Monty Python. And how even ghoul babies get ear infections.

I can't say if I really enjoyed this book or not. I listened to it on audio, and downloaded the second book after finishing the first, but I couldn't bring myself to keep listening to the second. (However, this was in part because the narrator changed how she pronounced the name Fastitocalon from the first book to the second, and I just couldn't get over that. Is it FAS-TEE-TO-CAY-LON or FAZ-TEE-TO-CAY-LEN? Make up your mind and stick with through ALL the books!!)

Still, it was kind of the perfect read for October in preparation for Halloween.

Finished: October 5, 2018

43. Genealogy by Mae Wood

Mae is a good friend of mine, and I was really excited when she asked me to be a beta reader for her newest book. This one is a bit of a departure from her previous Pig & Barley books, and I really really really loved it.

The story is told in two parts. The first is Ali's story. She is a doctor who is facing a major life upheaval after not getting the job she wanted--which meant she couldn't move with her boyfriend to California. She has a temporary position in Saint Louis, where she grew up, while she tries to figure out her life. While helping to clean out her grandmother's house, she finds 100 year old love letters that were written to her great-grandmother Alice, for whom Ali was named--but the sender was not her great-grandfather.

Ali reads the letters from Elliott to Alice and learns more about the love story that could have been, had distance, war, and circumstances not gotten in the way. She decides to track down the descendants of the man who had loved her great-grandmother, and finds her own love story.

This book was everything. Bittersweet, romantic, fun, and some incredible examinations of what love really means. Mae really outdid herself, and that's saying a lot.

Finished: Back in August, but I forgot to include it in my August round-up because I was cramming three months together all at once and since I read it on my Kindle I didn't have the physical book to remind me that I was being a knob who had forgotten to include her good friend's tour de force of a book.

What have you read lately?

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway

When I was an anxious teenager my mother taught me that bravery had nothing to do with feeling fearless. Bravery was when you felt the fear, and did whatever it was anyway.

This lesson came when I was terrified of learning to drive. There was so much that could go wrong behind the wheel, and a part of me wanted to forgo driving altogether to avoid the possible consequences.

Mom made sure that I understood it was okay to be afraid. Fear was a rational response to the responsibilities of driving, but it did not need to be the final response. I could feel the fear, and get in the driver's seat anyway. That way, the fear did not steal my joy (and potential independence) from me.

23 years later, I can only barely remember the visceral fear I felt at becoming a driver. But I was reminded of Mom's lesson this week, now that the stakes are even higher than deciding whether or not to take her 1992 Honda Accord to Owings Mills Mall to meet my friends.


***


This past Saturday, a piece of shit anti-Semite murdered 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. This domestic terrorist shouted "All Jews must die" as he mowed down men and women who had gathered together to worship and welcome an 8-day-old baby into Jewish life.

I use the word terrorist intentionally, even though it is not the term used by the media. I use the word terrorist because this pathetic asshole wants Jews to feel terrorized.

I. Refuse. To. Be. Terrorized.

Make no mistake, I am afraid. I'm afraid for my children, my community, my country, our future. But though I cannot control how I feel about the fact that anti-Semitic violence has caused the deaths of 11 menschen, I can control what I will do. And what I will do is continue to live my life.

I will attend synagogue to worship and thank Ha Shem for the blessings in my life.

I will hold my mealy-mouthed politicians accountable for refusing to denounce the home-grown hatred that has spilled blood--in Pittsburgh and all over the country.

I will mark the holidays and seasons that connect me to thousands of years of Jews both past and future.

I will be kind, compassionate, friendly, and open.

I will teach my sons the beauty and meaning in our world.

I will hold my head high and proudly proclaim my Judaism.

I will laugh and write and draw and love and be, despite the pathetic attempts to make me cower.

I am stronger, bigger, and more loving than my momentary feelings of fright--and I know that is the essence of their hatred. They hate what they cannot control.

But terrorists cannot control me. They cannot make me change my life, my love, my faith, my hope, my kindness, or my actions, and so I will continue to do it all anyway--which is the most liberating feeling in the world.


Feel the fear and do it anyway.




Monday, October 8, 2018

What I Read: July Through September


I have not been keeping up with my What I Read posts, in part because I had a real emotional (and reading) rut in early August. Honestly, I've been getting worn down by the state of the world lately, and even running away into a good book seemed beyond my ability to focus.

Despite the national horrors of the last couple of weeks, I am finally feeling more like myself. My favorite cousin got married this past weekend, and celebrating with the whole family in an unbelievably beautiful part of Colorado has helped restore my equilibrium, even as I am simultaneously worried about everything.

I can do what I can do to put positivity into the world. I can stop to celebrate joy and embrace love. I can read and rejoice in the pleasures of the written word. So I'm picking up where I left off:

35. The Secret, Book & Scone Society by Ellery Adams

I kind of hated this one. It's been long enough since I read it that I don't remember all of the reasons why I hated it, but one of them was the way the author dealt with characters of color. For instance, the fact that June is a Black woman is highlighted over and over again in a way that shows the author sees whiteness as default. It feels like there is no excuse for this in 2018 (or 2017, when the book was originally published). There is a reason why there are sensitivity readers and it would behoove authors and publishers to make use of them.  Pop culture must lead the charge in ending whiteness as the default.


Finished: July 6, 2018

36. Lessons in French by Laura Kinsale

This is another that has become hazy in the time since I read it. But there was a hilarious portion of the story involving a bull named Hubert being hidden in a kitchen in a small English country estate. I loved that section, although I couldn't help but worry about if Hubert had to relieve himself.

Overall, this was a sweet and charming little historical romance novel, and I really was cheering for What's-Her-Name and Monsieur Whoosis to get together at the end, which of course they did.
Finished: July 11, 2018

37. The Prince of Midnight by Laura Kinsale

I so enjoyed Lessons in French that I immediately started listening to/reading another Kinsale novel. In this one, the heroine seeks out a famous highwayman to help her get revenge against a cult that killed her family. There were aspects of this book that I didn't love--specifically, there were some weird issues with consent between the hero and heroine, although it was never overtly rapey.

But the way Kinsale wrote about how the Prince of Midnight worked with animals and how that helped the heroine (whose name I can't remember) to heal from her trauma was incredible. I really loved the scene when he teaches her how to "tame" a horse that was considered unrideable through gentle communication with the animal. That scene was so good that I went back to it to re-read it several times.

I also really appreciated the details about the cult that caused her family's death. The entire cult is laughably ridiculous. For instance, all the members have to change their names to things like "Dove of Peace" and other silly-sounding religious names. The men have to spoon-feed the women at meals. There are a number of similarly weird/funny details.

The section about the cult helped me to recognize that we often don't recognize the danger of someone or something that is intentionally ridiculous. The absurdity means that reasonable people are laughing--and they assume, to their peril, that everyone else is laughing, too. But those absurdities are part of the danger since they offer protective coloration to the cult leader. When those who could do something to stop a dangerous cult leader are laughing at the cult leader, that gives him more power.

It makes me wish I had read this before 2016, quite honestly.

Finished: July 13, 2018

38. Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey

I am of several minds about this book. It was suggested as a selection for my feminist fans of romantic fiction book club, and I was the only member who finished the book, other than the woman who suggested it (who had already read it several years ago).

Carey's world building was incredible, and it definitely sucked me in. I generally have little patience for fantasy world building if it takes a long while to set up, which this book definitely did. (It was a doorstop of a novel at 900+ pages, and the action didn't really start until around halfway through). Terre D'Ange, where the characters live, is like 13th century France in an alternate universe where angels intermarried with humans. Sexuality is prized in this world, and becoming a "servant of Naamah" or courtesan is considered to be a high calling. The culture of Terre D'Ange can be summed up by their angelic founder, Elua's, commandment: love as thou wilt.

This is all very interesting stuff and I love books that force you to rethink your assumptions about things as fraught as sex work. But, and this is a big but, I did not feel like this society was nearly as progressive and sex-positive as Phedre (the main character) and possibly the author believed. (It may be that Carey didn't believe that and made Phedre naive in the first book but revealed more in the second and third in the trilogy).

For instance, one becomes a servant of Naamah at age 16, and can have one's virginity auctioned off to the highest bidder. It is entirely up to future courtesans to commit to serving Naamah and their patrons take the idea of consenting to this work very seriously. But you are "owned" by your patron until you make enough money to buy your freedom, and the choice is made at age fricking 15, which is far too young to decide something like that. That does not sound like true consent, though Phedre has no issue with it whatsoever and truly wanted to be a courtesan.

I did love seeing just how intelligent and resourceful Phedre ended up being when she gets caught up in royal intrigue and potential war. She is often underestimated because of her profession, and she uses that and her considerable brains to her advantage.

Though I kind of didn't like this book, I downed the 900 page monster in a couple of days and have been thinking about it ever since.

Finished: July 17, 2018

39. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Nikki is the young adult daughter of Indian immigrants in London, and has distanced herself from her Sikh culture. She takes a job teaching what she believes will be a creative writing course at the Sikh temple/community center, only to find that the widows who have signed up for the course do not write English at all. The widows find a book of erotic stories that Nikki purchased as a gag gift for her straight-laced sister, and want to start writing their own erotic stories. Shenanigans ensue.

I went into this believing it would simply be a light, fun read about cultures and generations clashing, but it was far more than that. There was an excellent murder mystery, a meditation on grief, and a great deal of commentary about female friendships and family bonds. I really loved this book.

Finished: August 25, 2018

40. A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole

My book club read (and loved) An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole last year, and I did not realize that she also wrote contemporary romance novels until I ran into this one due to some Twitter nastiness. Some racist asshole tweeted about this cover being propaganda for interracial relationships. (To which I say--whut? And HUH? And WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?)

I have made it a policy to buy books that receive racist pushback so that the authors who have to go through that nastiness can at least enjoy some royalties.

I am generally not a contemporary romance reader, but this one was excellent. I loved the Scottish setting and the fact that Cole really examined and took apart the tropes that you'll often find in romance novels: surly hero, Scottish fetishism, royalty + commoner, hot mess heroine. I wanted to spend more time with Portia and Tavish. They were delightful.

Finished: September 9, 2018

41. Uprooted by Naomi Novik

This is, quite frankly, the best book I've read so far this year. Agnieszka is exactly the heroine I needed. Her guiding principal is her love for her dearest friend Kasia. Their friendship is realistic, in that they harbor secret guilt, resentment, sadness, and jealousy for each other--but they also truly love one another, and that kind of female friendship is so rare in fiction that I have trouble coming up with another example.

The magic and the fantasy world building in this novel are both so well done as to seem almost inevitable. It's as if I could find the evil wood and stumble into it somewhere in our world, and as if there are witches out there like Agnieszka who I simply have not met yet.

The villains are also all realistic and understandable. Even the most heinous of the villains--an attempted rapist--is clearly motivated by his trauma, but neither the author nor Agnieszka let him off the hook despite completely understanding why he does what he does.

The love story was so compelling that I ended up falling for it even though I was trying very hard to keep on hating the love interest.

Just, go read this book. Stop whatever you're doing right now, and go read this book. It's that good.

Finished: September 11, 2018

What have you been reading?

Friday, August 31, 2018