Tag: book review

Media Monday: Edith Wharton, feminism, and the #MeToo movement

Media MondayThe books: The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The music: “Ísjaki” by Sigur Rós and “Intro” by The XX

The books

The Age of Innocence has been one of my favorite books since I first read it 15+ years ago. I’ve been slowly working my way through Wharton’s stories and novels, and last spring I went on a Wharton binge (I stayed at a little cabin I had to hike half a mile to, right on Lake Superior, and spent several days lying on a bunk next to a wood-burning stove just reading. It was heaven) that included Ethan Frome and The House of Mirth. Unrelated to this post, why does everyone hate Ethan Frome? It has such a wonderfully tragic ending.

Anyways. Lily Bart became one of my favorite characters, because her story is so tragic as well.

If you don’t know the plot of either of them, The Age of Innocence is about Newland Archer, who’s engaged to deceptively naive May Welland. He meets her cousin Ellen Olenska, who is *gasp* separated from her husband! This is late 19th century New York high society and that kind of thing isn’t done. Ellen doesn’t care and does what she wants, much to the horror of her family and social circle. Newland realizes that high society is stupid and vapid and that he doesn’t particularly care for them either. He falls for Ellen in part because her DGAF attitude is such a contrast to May’s sincere desire to fulfill the role society tells her she should have. He’s prepared to dump May for Ellen, but May suspects this and tells Ellen she’s pregnant. Ellen runs away to Europe, and Newland lets her go in order to be the husband society wants him to be, even though he’s emotionally dead inside.

The book/film opens with them watching Faust, which is my third favorite opera, after Carmen and Evgeny Onegin.

The House of Mirth is similar. It’s about Lily Bart, a destitute late 19th century socialite who relies on the charity of her aunt. Lily is in her twenties and therefore practically ancient, so she’s getting a lot of pressure to marry the first guy she can snag. But all the guys are boring and stupid, except for her friend Lawrence Selden. Selden kinda strings her along as she muddles her way through friendships and semi-courtships. Her love for luxury leads her to a platonic financial relationship with a married guy, whose wife gets pissed and ruins Lily’s reputation. All Lily’s high society friends abandon her, and as she sinks through the ranks she eventually finds happiness as a lowly seamstress. Selden rushes to her apartment when he realizes just how bad off she is and what a jerk friend he’s been, except she accidentally OD’ed on sleep medication.

Lily is a combination of both May and Ellen. May knows how to play the game to get what she wants, and what she wants is exactly what society tells her she should have – a wealthy husband to pop out babies with, never concerning herself with anything more than managing her household and family. Ellen, in contrast, wants to do whatever she wants, and society is holding her back with her expectations. Lily tries to be like May, pretending to want a house to manage and a family to raise, when really she’s more like Ellen in that she wants to do what she wants regardless of what society dictates. The constrast, however, is that Ellen’s rich grandmother also thinks society is stupid and gives her enough money that she can live however she wants, without a husband to depend on. Lily, unfortunately, doesn’t have this, and so she has to make her own way in the world. Lily realizes that she can either be rich or have freedom, and as the story progresses, she goes from holding on to riches at all costs, to finding pleasure in simplicity and poverty. And then she dies.

Feminism

The role of feminism is obvious. Ellen would be okay in our modern era, because she’d be able to divorce her worthless husband and become a senator or lawyer or travel writer or something. Lily, born into a gilded life, would nonetheless have been able to get an education that would allow her to support herself without relying on her worthless husband. But because of society’s restrictions, being on their own isn’t a realistic option, unless they’re willing to face the stigma that comes with it. Ellen is, and so she’s rewarded – her grandma sees how happy she is when she DGAF and gives her money to live off of. Lily, however, refuses to take the plunge by telling everyone to F off, and she ends up poor. Perhaps if she had told them to F off sooner, she would’ve gotten a happy ending like Ellen’s. Instead, it’s only when she accepts that society is stupid and she’s better off without it that she finds peace. But then it’s too late, and she dies.

#MeToo

While Lily Bart has grown to become probably my favorite Wharton character after Newland (I really despised her when I first started reading the book, and it’s only in hindsight that I realized how awesomely done her complexity was), I’m not a fan of Lawrence Selden at all. I have to wonder, how complicit was he in her death? She wasn’t sexually assaulted, but her name was dragged through the mud when she was accused of having an affair with a married guy. None of her friends stood up for her, Selden included. He was removed a bit from society, in that he went to the parties but wasn’t really part of a high society family. As such, he had a lot more freedom to DGAF than most of the other characters, yet he still had clout with them. Kinda like the cool loner kid. Yet he didn’t speak up for Lily, even though they had feelings for each other. As I’m writing this I’m trying my hardest to avoid news about Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing and sexual assault testimonies, and I can’t help but draw a parallel between Lily’s situation and his. Lily was accused of having an affair. No one spoke up to defend her innocence, even her closer friend, and she suffered because of this. Dr. Ford has spoken up about Kavanaugh’s sexual assault of her and however many other women have accused him, and no Republicans are defending her, and she and the whole damn country are suffering because of this. Maybe then Sen. Flake is the equivalent of Selden; he claims to be a champion of women’s rights, but he goes along with the status quo.

Which again comes back to the question: how complicit is Selden in Lily’s death? When we see injustices – whether it’s misogyny or bullying or maybe a coworker behaving in a harmful way – what obligation do we have to speak up? I know what my response is, but what happens when society is telling you to sit down and shut up, or you’re going to lose your status? Do you still expend your social capital, maybe risk friendships and relationships and your job, to speak out? I know what my answer is, and sadly I know what most people’s answers are. I know what Selden’s answer was, and it cost Lily her life.

The music

As you may have deduced from my rant above, the #MeToo movement, and especially every misogynist thing the current administration is doing, is a bit triggering for me. Yeah, I said triggering. The truth of the matter is, women are still at the mercy of a patriarchal society, and when we go against or speak against their norms there can be emotional consequences for it. So, the two songs for today are two that I use to calm down.

The first is by Sigur Ros, and the lyrics don’t even matter so much as the music. The chimes are great for deep breathing exercises; I’ve used them with clients as well as with myself.

The second is by The XX, a band YouTube suggested I listen to. This song is just very calming, and since it’s only 6-ish minutes long someone nicely made it into a 4 hour loop so you can listen to it forever to destress. You’re welcome.

Media Monday: Love Across Time

The book: Yesterday by Samyann

The music: “No Roots” by Alice Merton

Yesterday is a love story, with a twist.

It opens with Amanda, a young woman in Chicago, saving Mark, a cop, from a runaway L train. Despite never having met before, they feel a deep connection to each other. Amanda’s loved ones have a bad habit of dying and leaving her alone, so her impulse is to pull away from Mark. But he’s persistent, and gradually Amanda finds herself falling for him.

Sounds pretty routine, right? Well, this connection extends to a grandfather clock in the antique store next to where Amanda saved Mark. She’s as drawn to the clock as she is to him, and after she buys it, he runs forensic tests on it to try to figure out its mystery. Meanwhile, Amanda’s godmother suggests she try past life regression therapy as a way to work through her attachment issues. Through these sessions, she learns about her past life as a girl escaping the Civil War, traveling from South Carolina to Chicago, and losing some loved ones along the way.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers – but this story is both a contemporary romance and a well-researched historical romance, spanning 150 years of skillfully interwoven characters. The author does a great job of tying all the threads together at the end, making this worth the read.

The accompanying song, Alice Merton’s “No Roots,” fits Amanda. She’s trying not to put down roots or make connections, but in spite of herself she does and ends up getting hurt – which spurs her on to the next place. Only by recognizing the pattern is she able to find happiness. Also, this is just a fun song to blast on your car stereo and sing along with.

Media Monday: Australian thrillers #AtoZChallenge

A to Z Challenge 2018 AThe books: Broometime Seranade by Barry Metcalfe and Crossings by Ashley Capes

The music: “Straight Lines” by Silverchair

It’s a well-known fact that everything in Australia is trying to kill you, so why would books set there be any different?

In Crossings, wildlife ranger Lisa is puzzled when kangaroo entrails show up outside her house. She thinks it’s her abusive ex, until a bunch of people start dying. She’s busy trying to find the culprit, but she’s having a hard time focusing because her dad has dementia and needs her full attention. And then wildfires come through, along with a giant ghost kangaroo because it’s Australia and did I mention, everything – from the people to your own mind, from the weather and landscaping to giant ghost kangaroos – is trying to kill you! This book is a great mix of suspense and paranormal, with a relatable main character, a fast-moving plot, and wonderful imagery that pulls you right in.

The second book, Broometime Seranade, also features death because that’s what happens in Australia. Special Australian-equivalent-of-the-FBI/CIA agents Martin and Claire are sent to a coastal town to investigate a bunch of bodies that have been discovered in the area. As they investigate further, trying not to blow their cover and enjoying the beautiful beach, they soon discover that there are darker forces at work than just the average murderer – a foe more powerful than they can imagine, who’s laid a trap they’ve walked right into. Also, there are spiders in this book. Lots and lots of spiders that are okay with killing. Because of course.

The music I’ve picked is in keeping with the theme coming from Australia. ACDC is probably the best Australian band ever, but who can forget Silverchair? Everyone, probably, because did you know that the singer married Natalie Imbruglia, the band members are almost 40, and they released a new album in 2007? Me neither. This song is off that album. As you can see, they’ve changed a bit in the last 20 years. But in true Aussie fashion, this video seems to be the band members running from something probably trying to kill them.

Every day this month, I’m participating in the 2018 A to Z Blogging Challenge. Please take a moment to check out some of the other blogs that are participating.

Media Monday: Fairy tale noir

Media MondayThe books: The Twisted Files by Sonya M. Black

The music: “Tourniquet” by Rasputina

The Twisted Files are, as the title of this post suggests, fairy tale noir: retellings of classic fairy tales, set in a seedy world of murder and mayhem, that take the form of crimes that need to be solved by a gumshoe and his assistant who don’t always follow the rules.

The first book, The Snow White Files, introduces us to PI Brendan Hunter as he’s hired by a clan of dwarves to find a missing girl. He finds himself in the middle of a political power struggle between dwarves, sirens, and a wicked witch.

The second book, The Riding Hood Files, takes us further into this world as Brendan’s assistant, Stasia Weatherly, finds herself in a power struggle of her own – one funded by synthetic pixie dust and perpetuated by shifters.

Taken together, they’re a fast-paced and refreshing look at fairy tales every reader is familiar with, but with a twist in that the plot of the fairy tale, and it’s characters, are used to advance a very modern, arcing storyline. Black does a great job with her dark, criminal-mastermind updates.

The accompanying song, “Tourniquet,” is probably more recognizable in its original form by Marilyn Manson, but this twist makes it somehow darker, by adding a whimsical flair that makes the lyrics that much creepier.

 

2017 Book Roundup

2017goodreadslogoOne of my goals for 2017 was to read 100 books. I read 56, so just over halfway to the goal.

This list only includes books I finished. There are dozens that I started but didn’t finish (often not even the first chapter) either because they were poorly edited or didn’t hold my interest. I also didn’t include textbooks or journals that I read for school.

Here’s a breakdown of what I read:

  • 21 (38%) were either kids or young adult; the rest were adult. 10 of those were Percy Jackson books that I read with my son, and a handful more were YA books I read before taking them into work (I currently work with teens/tweens who love to read).
  • 2 (4%) were nonfiction and the rest were fiction.
  • 4 (7%) were single short stories, and 3 (5%) were short story anthologies.
  • I know the authors of 20 (36%) of the books.
  • 14 (25%) were in a series where I read at least 1 other book in the same series. 4 more were the first books in the series and the next book hasn’t been released yet, while 5 more were the first books in the series and I wasn’t impressed enough to track the next books down (or even to see if they’re out yet).
  • 4 (7%) were from Amazon’s first read program, where they offer a free ebook to Prime members.
  • 5 (8%) were translated from another language or from a non-Western country. 3 of those 5 were from the Amazon Crossings imprint, and 2 were ones I picked up in India.
  • 3 (5%) were ones I’d read previously.

Best books I read in 2017:

  • The Dirt and Stars series, books 1 and 2, by Kevin Killiany. They’re YA, about the US space program, and set in an alternative near future. I was expecting fluffy sci-fi, but instead they’re a great look at how racism permeates society and how individuals can fight back. I’m really looking forward to book 3.
  • The Boy Who Speaks in Numbers by Mike Masilamani was a beautiful tale of life inside a Sri Lankan refugee camp, told from the POV of a boy too young to realize just how horrible most of humanity can be.
  • Blood and Circuses by Aliya Smyth is a wonderfully researched vampire tale set in ancient Rome.
  • Palm Trees in the Snow by Luz Gabás tells of one family’s experiences with colonization in 1950’s Equatorial Guinea.

If you challenged yourself to read a set number of books in 2017, how did you end up doing?  What were your favorites?  Anything you particularly disliked?

Media Monday: On (not) coping with the death of a loved one

Media MondayThe story: “Find Me an Angel” by E.D. Martin

The movie: A Man Called Ove

The music: Hula” by Solstafir

A few years ago, I participated in a writing competition that tasked us to write a story based on the song “The Riddle” by 80’s British teen idol Nik Kershaw. I’d never really heard of him, but the more I listened to his stuff, the more I liked it. I decided to write a story based on each of 100+ songs he’s put out over the last few decades (I’ve currently finished about 5).

One of my favorite songs of his is “Find Me An Angel,” which inspired this week’s story. I interpreted it as a man, overcome with debilitating grief after his wife’s death, issuing a desperate plea to her to help him find relief. I entered the story in a contest on my writing critique site and although I didn’t win, I got a really positive response, so I posted it on Medium where it’s had a strong showing. Go read it.

Shortly after I posted “Find Me an Angel,” I watched a thematically-related Swedish movie, A Man Called Ove (although the trailer says it’s lighthearted, don’t be fooled – it’s a tearjerker). It’s about this cranky old Swedish guy, Ove, whoss wife recently passed away. As the movie progresses, we’re shown just how much he doted on her and what a positive influence she was on him. He decides he can’t live without her and tries to kill himself but keeps getting interrupted by people in his life needing him – including a fiery angel in the form of his new neighbor, Parvaneh. It’s also a book by Fredrik Backman, which I haven’t read yet but intend to do soon.

Finally, today’s song is “Hula” by Solstafir, which I picked for several reasons. First, the lyrics and video are about a woman (not) coping with the death of her child, which fits in with “Find Me an Angel” and A Man Called Ove. Second, the song is beautiful. And third, I’ve been trying to work as much Icelandic stuff into my life as possible as my spring break trip to Vikingland gets closer.

Taken as a whole, my story, the movie, and the song all portray different aspects of how someone reacts to grief. Do you give into it? Do you hold it inside and let yourself become bitter or empty? Or do you accept your loss and strengthen your relationships with those around you? For each of the characters, it seems to be a combination of all three.

Media Monday: When the love dies

DesolationThe book: Desolation (Mythical Madness Book 1) by A.R. DeClerck

The music: “Dying” by Hole

What happens when you’re the goddess of love, but you just ain’t feelin’ it? Why, send a half-god werewolf to save you!

Desolation is more than that, though. It’s a paranormal romance (fantasy romance?) about Vinnie, the goddess of love whose job it is to help mortals fall in love. But years on the job have taken their toll, and she’s come down with desolation – a terminal illness that causes gods and goddesses to wither away. The catch here, however, is that if she dies, love dies too.

Her sister calls on the Fates’ assassin, Gage, to save her. But in doing so, he has to face an enemy and past he’d rather forget about – the king who made him the half-werewolf he is today.

Although DeClerck says she writes “adventure romance,” there’s more to this story than just sexy people falling for each other and fighting bad guys. She addresses sacrifice (for family, for duty, for love) as well as the fundamental nature of love – is it purely chemical/biological, and even if that’s just a component, what does that mean for a relationship? Is there even a relationship?

Overall, it’s a good story (although I personally would’ve cut out the last few pages to play up the themes I mention above, but I guess that’s why I don’t write romance!)

The accompanying song, “Dying,” fits with the scene I would’ve ended the book with – the idea that love (personified, in this case) is dying. And it’s gonna fight, but sometimes that’s not enough.

As a bonus, Desolation is currently free on Amazon this week! Make sure to grab a copy, and then let me know in the comments whether you agree with my song choice.

Media Monday: Cross-cultural historical love stories

Media MondayThe books: The Lioness of Morocco by Julia Drosten and Palm Trees in the Snow by Luz Gabás

The music: “My Companjera” by Gogol Bordello

One of the perks of being an Amazon Prime person is that I get a free book each month before it’s released (yeah, like I need free books). Some of them are crap, but I’ve had good luck with the Amazon Crossing books – books that are bestsellers in another country and have been translated into English. I’m painfully aware that I read mostly American authors, so I’m trying to branch out and incorporate other cultures into what I read.

The Lioness of Morocco is a literary romance/adventure story set in Morocco in the early 19th century. It follows Sibylla, a woman who feels trapped by her time, who convinces her husband to be an agent of her father’s shipping company in Morocco. Her husband turns out to be a less-than-worthless jerkface, and Sibylla finds herself drawn to a handsome, daring French guy who actually sees her as a person. Fate has fun pushing them together and pulling them apart, in a fascinating look at life in a North African country two hundred years ago, and all the customs and culture that goes with it.

Palm Trees in the Snow, also a very literary story, is set in both present-day Spain and on a small island off the coast of Guinea in the 1950’s. Clarence is trying to find out more about her family history and in doing so, the book follows her uncle Killian and father Jacob who moved to the island mid-century to work on a Spanish cocoa plantation. Killian fell in love with Bisila, the daughter of a native foreman on the plantation, and his niece must piece together why neither men ever returned to the island after its rough transition to independence. The story focuses on the relationship between colonizer and colony, between Whites and Blacks, and it does so in a very balanced way, showing the experiences of those on both sides of the issues, both at the time and half a century later.

For both these stories, I knew next to nothing about the history detailed in colonial Morocco or Guinea. In addition to great stories, these books were also engaging history lessons.

For the music, today it’s my favorite gypsy punk band, Gogol Bordello. “My Companjera” is a song about searching – for a partner, for reliving a shared experience, for love, for answers, for whatever. And that’s the theme of both of today’s books, I think – getting out of your comfort zone to look for more to life, and finding love and adventure in the process.

And as a bonus, here’s the trailer for Palm Trees in the Snow, which is currently available on Netflix (in Spanish, with subtitles).

Media Monday: the role of violence in the Percy Jackson universe

The books: Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus (10 books in all; there are other books in this universe but I haven’t read them yet)

The music: “I’ll Follow You” by Shinedown

My son loves mythology, so of course he’s a huge fan of this series. I try to read what he’s reading so we can discuss it, so I picked up the first book after we watched the movie. And then I binge-read the first series over the course of a weekend. When he started reading the first book of the second series, I binge-read all those too.

The basic premise is that Greek gods and goddesses (and Roman god and goddesses, in the second series) have a hard time keeping it in their pants and therefore there are a ton of demigods running around – half mortal, half immortal. Monsters are attracted to them and want to kill them, so there’s a place they can go – Camp Half-Blood (Greek) and Camp Jupiter (Roman) – where they’re safe from monsters. The gods then send them on quests, which form the plots of the books.

Overall, they’re good books. From a parent perspective, they’re a good read for kids because there’s no bad language or sex (although there is a TON of violence, which I’ll get to in a bit). The characters age but don’t get all emo-whiny on us like in Harry Potter. For the most part, they use teamwork and build each other up, rather than letting divisions come between them or tear each other down with insults and backstabbing (at least the main core of characters; some of the other characters aren’t so savory).

From a reader’s perspective, the plots are solid, although they tend to get kinda monotonous over time; with ten books, some of the quests and monster fights blur together. And sometimes it feels like Riordan is scraping the barrel with some of the monsters and minor Greek and Roman personalities he digs up. But all the characters have their own unique personalities (impressive, considering how many there are) without coming across as stereotypes.

That said, I had a serious problem with how much violence there was in these books.

“Hey look, a monster.”

“Kill it!”

“Maybe we should talk first?”

“No, let’s just kill it.”

“Okay!”

Even Annabeth, who was the daughter of Athena, would trick monsters and then kill them. Aphrodite’s daughter, Piper, would use her charm on monsters and then kill them. Percy, son of Poseidon, and Jason, son of Jupiter, would just go straight for the kill. Even when the monsters showed that they could be allies (Tyson the cyclops, Bob the Titan), the protocol was to kill first and ask questions later.

When the kids were at their camps, they spent a lot of time training for war. And when on their quests and when fighting their wars, characters died, not just monsters. The main villains – the Titans and the giants – never wanted to negotiate, so the only response was only violence and fighting to stop them, which I really didn’t like. Considering how much posturing goes on with various world leaders, I think kids need books that show peaceful solutions when two sides disagree instead of fighting. They need books that show nuanced villains rather than ones that are automatically bad just because they happen to be [insert species/race/whatever].

My kid wants me to write him a series of books about a kid who time travels, solving mysteries, and I can guarantee that my main character will solve problems with his words, not his sword.

The accompanying song, “I’ll Follow You,” is about supporting someone you love, and that’s a major theme in the Percy Jackson books. There’s the obvious plot where Percy follows his girlfriend to literal Hell because he doesn’t want her to have to experience it alone, but that love the characters have for each other shines throughout the whole series. In fact, that’s one of Percy’s weaknesses – he’s too loyal to his friends. Despite the violence of the stories, this love and support for each other is a powerful message that I think kids need more of in what they read.

If you’ve read these books, what are your thoughts on them? Do you agree with my views, or did you interpret them differently? Let me know in the comments!

Media Monday: Coming of age, a la Gogol

Media MondayHarder than rocks coverThe book: Harder Than Rocks by Victor Poole

The music: The Wall by Pink Floyd

I love classic Russian literature, especially the books where you think the author’s just being silly and then BAM he hits you with some profoundness that leaves you thinking about the book for weeks.

This week’s book is one of those books.

It follows this kid Samuel, whose life kinda sucks. He decides hey, screw it, and runs away from his crappy job, crappy motel room, and crappy life. He’s hungry, of course, so when he gets invited to a party by two random guys he of course eats all the food he’s offered – and falls in love with the hostess, of course. But she turns out to be kinda crazy, so he skips out on her. And then she turns out to be really crazy and sends a hitman after him, who ends up dying in a bathroom. The sheer absurdity of the story up until this point is very Gogolesque.

But then life comes back to Samuel, and shit gets real when you find out exactly what he’s trying to run from. And this is where the real genius of the writing comes in, because Poole presents a situation so tragic yet mundane that you can’t help but think that things won’t get better for Samuel, but you’re rooting for him just the same.

No spoilers here – just a recommendation to read one of the best books I’ve read in awhile.

This book pairs well with Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I’m sure you’ve heard “Another Brick in the Wall” on the radio ad nauseum, but have you ever listened to the whole album all the way through? It’s the struggle of a kid trying to overcome life – much like Samuel in Harder Than Rocks.

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