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2019-02-20 08:59 pm
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Reading: The Calculating Stars

 #bookeveryweek The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal cover The Calculating StarsI loved this book. It was a wonderfully complex story about a wonderfully complex and interesting woman. So much depth throughout! The book is an alternate history, exploring how the space race might have gone if an extinction level meteorite strike had happened in the 1950s. That part was fascinating enough (oy! the politics!), but it was secondary to the journey of the main character, Elma York, a brilliant mathematician and pilot. A young woman and wife in the fifties, Elma felt very real to me, reminding me of women like my own grandmother, women who had taken on expanded roles in World War II and resisted when society tried to shove them back into the housewife box afterwards. Elma's husband is maybe a little Marty Stu in his complete support of his wife's ambitions, but you know what? I'm okay with a little wish fulfillment in this case. Elma isn't a revolutionary on purpose. She doesn't set out to shake things up, but when the fate of the human race is at stake, there isn't time to wait for society to decide its ready for change. Elma has a great growth arc, learning to manage her anxiety and step up when the world needs her most. She learned about her own blindness about race issues on the way. The tension of trying to move forward in her ambitions while even her own internal voices were shouting her down with accusations of unladylike behavior was well portrayed. I found it an inspiring underdog story, full of realistic hope. I'll definitely be back for more of this character and this story.
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2019-02-18 08:05 pm
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Reading: The Calculating Stars AND an article from Yes Magazine

 So, I'm reading The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal right now. I think I'll be finished by tomorrow and can tell you more fully what I feel about the book then, but I love it so far. The story is juicy and complex, addressing gender politics and white privilege alongside a fantastic alternative history exploring what might have happened if a meteorite hit had made getting off the earth a matter of survival of our species. I love a book that entertains me and makes me think all at the same time. 
 
One theme in the novel is race politics. Elma, the main character, a white woman, keeps bumping up against assumptions she didn't realize she had. It's easy to be blind to some kinds of slights and attacks when you're not the target of them. You don't mean any harm, but your blindness keeps you from being any help. 
 
This article does a beautiful job painting a picture of what it's still like to live-while-black in our country, where supposedly all citizens are equal (at least under the law). And, as the author says, these are not even extreme examples. They're the ordinary every day experience of too many people. 
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2019-02-16 10:10 pm
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Reading: Fahrenheit 451

 #bookeveryweek Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. 
 
fahrenheit 451 book coverThough I've long been a fan of Mr. Bradbury's short stories, I hadn't ever read this, arguably his most famous book. I'm sorry to have to say I didn't like it that much. 
 
The ideas behind the story are familiar Bradbury territory: the dangers of reliance on technology, the de-humanization of people, the hard-won lesson, the importance of thinking for yourself. I'm a bleeding heart liberal myself, a supporter of education and considered thought, so I like the ideas. That's not the problem. 
 
But what works in short form is not as great longer for, at least not in this case. One of the things I've always appreciated about his short stories is the unapologetic and straightforward earnestness and sincerity. Especially now, when everything seems so damn ironic and cynical all the time, impressed with its own cleverness, reading Ray Bradbury can feel like a breath of fresh air. But in this book, I found that directness came off ham-fisted. Clumsy even. No subtlety. No build. 
 
In a longer work, I expected to delve deeper into the characters, but I didn't find it. Montag was a man who did things, but it was never clear to me why. Why did talking to Clarisse affect him so deeply? There was nothing in their conversation that sparkled enough to make me see what he apparently saw, nothing life-changing. He was taking some terrible risks, but even he didn't seem to understand his own motivations. 
 
I understood that Millie, Montag's wife, was supposed to illustrate what a society without books and genuine interactions could do to a person, but she was so vapid as to be only a caricature. She was a sketch only, exhibit A: cautionary tale. None of the complexity that even a shallow character needs to feel real and to be emotionally affecting. 
 
Given that the book has so few female characters (Clarisse, Millie and Millie's friends), it's sad that they are used only to illustrate a point and not explored with any depth. We don't see any civilian men painted as similarly ruined by this society, so it plays into some 1950s gender politics that just didn't age well. 
 
There are some highly quotable lines if you're looking for that kind of thing, but they feel stilted to me in the context of the story, like the characters are merely mouthpieces for the moral of the story rather than people I can care about. 
 
Sorry, Ray. I'm sorry this is the work people have heard of. It's not your best work. 
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2019-02-15 09:28 pm
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Smile A Day #46

 #smileaday Just heard from my new publisher (Falstaff Books) that we've got a narrator and are moving forward on audiobooks for my Menopausal Superhero books. Given that over half of my own reading is done in audiobook format these days, I'm so very very very excited about this!
audiobook image
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2019-02-12 09:20 pm
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Smile a Day

#smileaday Reading on a rainy day. 
 
I'm still at home with my sick youngin' and today was bleak and gray and featured a cold rain that made me glad I didn't have to venture out. I read a lot, which is just what such days are for. 

reading in the window while it rains 
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2019-02-12 09:38 am
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Reading: Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

#bookeveryweek Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse.


cover Trail of LightningMaggie Hoskie is a wonderfully complicated character at the center of an epic struggle with cosmic implications. A fast and engaging read that left me wanting more without leaving me unsatisfied with the ending of this first book in the series. I hope it continues well!


The best part:  a woman character with tragedy in her past who is realistically impacted by that and who grows through her relationships with others without finding that love is a miracle cure. Maggie is functioning in a difficult world despite her pain when the story begins and I found myself cheering for her from the get-go, hoping that she'd find her way to a better and fuller life on her own terms. Really liked a lot of the supporting characters as well.


The second best part: the mythological bits. Big Water and the Sixth World, Clan Powers, Coyote (Ma'ii), Neizghání, witches. This is not mythology I've read over and over again, so it felt fresh to me, and I really loved the way magical/mythological elements were commonplace and known to everyone without question.


The less good parts: the makeover scene (I think I'm too old for that "she cleans up so hot" moment to have the impact it might if I were actually a young adult), the wandering (I was never clear on what was guiding this journey, but they were always right about where they went next to look for a clue), and. Neizghání.  


When we finally meet Neizghání, Maggie's former mentor, "in person" he is NOT AT ALL what I was expecting based on what we'd heard about him up to that point. He seemed, well, stupid (as in un-intelligent, brutish, no subtlety) and I had trouble parsing that with Maggie's obsession with him, even given the rescue angle. I like surprises, but only when they fit in with what I do know. He didn't fit.


So, I would read more, but the story is not without its flaws.

 
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2019-02-07 09:25 pm
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Reading: Hidden Figures

 #bookeveryweek Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
 
hidden figures coverA fascinating story, but a pedestrian telling. It felt like reading a report, all facts and no heart. The women in the book still felt hidden to me afterwards. I hadn't gotten to know them as people, understand their personalities or desires. I had merely learned the facts of their lives. After reading the whole book, I couldn't tell you for sure which woman was who. 
 
I'm sad about that, because I think this is an important story and it deserved a stronger narrative than it got. There so much STORY here that was left unexplored. I hope the movie did better by the material because there's so much here to work with!
 
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2019-01-30 09:20 pm
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Reading: Roots by Alex Haley

Roots book cover Thanks to the very popular 1970s miniseries and another newer adaptation (neither of which I've yet seen) as well as the widespread popularity of the book, I knew a lot about this book before I read it. Many plot points were things I had heard talked about when I was a child, or heard referenced since in discussions or in other works. I even already knew the name of the patriarch of the family the book chronicles: Kunta Kinte. 
 
There are some truly striking characters and moving moments throughout this book. Kunta Kinte's stubborn determination to hold on to who he was in the face of kidnapping, slavery, disfigurement, and so much trauma was especially striking. The complicated relationship between Chicken George and his father/owner Tom Lea revealed deep ambiguities and contradictions among the people impacted by slavery (owners and slaves). 
 
The book is eminently readable, with a strong narrative voice and a good sense of scene. In the end, though, it could have been so much better. None of the other narratives is as striking as Kunta Kinte's. And even Kinte's story started to bog down during the part describing his life in Africa before his capture. 
 
All of the female characters are undeveloped, their traumas explored for a moment then never mentioned again (I'm thinking of Kizzy in particular, who was raped repeatedly during her first months at Tom Lea's over and over again, a fact which was never mentioned again as Lea went on to become almost sympathetic in his relationship with the son he fathered in this manner. The story doesn't say the rape stopped or it didn't. It just fails to comment at all. 
 
The long digressions into details of farming, chicken fighting, and blacksmithing detracted from the human story as they fell into minutiae. 
 
If the story had been reined in and tightened, the emotional impact could have been more intense. If the other generations' lead characters were as fully realized as Kinte and the narrative as tightly focused around one character, it would have felt less diffuse. In trying to be everything, the book missed an opportunity to be something and to be that something very well. 
 
The last three chapters, while interesting, didn't belong in the book at all. They were a complete departure in tone and narration and felt more like an epilogue or author's note about the writing of the book. I wish the book ended with "The baby boy, six weeks old, was me" and the rest had been in a separate appendix. "So, thank you" is the proper ending to an acknowledgements page, not this epic multi-generational family story. 
 
I'm still glad I read the book, but there are other books about slavery times that had a much greater impact on me.
samanthabryant: feeling purple (Default)
2019-01-17 07:06 pm
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RIP Mary Oliver

 I just learned that Mary Oliver died. She lived a long life, into her eighties, and wrote some immortal lines that will live on long beyond her sojourn on this earth. A poet could certainly do worse. Here are two of my favorites: The Summer Day, which posed one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked (Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?) and Wild Geese, which taught us all to be kinder to ourselves.

Mary Oliver The Summer Day








Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
samanthabryant: feeling purple (Default)
2019-01-14 10:54 pm
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Book Every Week: The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

 cover Prince of Tides#bookeveryweek The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. 
 
This is a book I've heard about off and on for many years, but had never gotten around to reading. The little bits I'd picked up from seeing ads for the movie had me thinking it was some kind of Nicholas Sparks romance thing (not my cup of tea). But, then my book club picked it. It wasn't a Nicholas Sparks thing, but I'm not sure what it actually was. 
 
There is some very powerful writing in this book, but it I found it really uneven and in need of a serious culling. I have a feeling it would be stronger if it were a third shorter. After a while, it felt like a kitchen-sink book: everything was in there!
 
The history of the Wingo family was tragic and bizarre, but also sublime and magical. There's a bit of a feeling of magical realism, especially concerning the tiger and the dolphin. In other ways, the book felt more realistic, exploring the strange avenues of the community: white southern children making their peace with the first ever black person to attend their school, a poor woman without connections aspiring to connect to higher society and join the Junior League, the religious grandfather who did his crucifix walk each Easter. 
 
A string of interesting stories and characters, but held together by the tenuous thread of a man telling family stories to his sister's psychiatrist, whom he eventually also had an affair with. 
 
Tom Wingo, our narrator, was interesting most of the time, but pedantic and whiny sometimes, too.  I found his voice inconsistent and his stories contradictory. That might have been the point, but it didn't feel like that, reading. It felt sloppy. 
 
Lots of people who love this one seem to love it for capturing something about The American South. I've been a Midwesterner living in the South for twelve or so years now, not nearly long enough to qualify as a Southerner. So maybe that's why it doesn't speak to me like it does to other I know. There's love and poetry in the appreciation of the countryside. There's some ambivalence, which I appreciate, since the events of the book left plenty for the characters to have mixed feelings about. 
samanthabryant: feeling purple (Default)
2019-01-07 08:53 pm
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Smile A Day #7

 #smileaday Book Club night!
 
Tonight was my First Monday Classics Book Club meeting. We were talking about The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. It's so invigorating, spending time with a group of passionate readers. No matter what we read, there is always diversity of opinion and interpretation. Sometimes the very thing I love in a book is what drove someone else crazy, and I LOVE the way we teach other about why we see things the way we do. 
 
A big point of discussion tonight was the difference it makes when and where you are in your life as you read something. When I read The Sun Also Rises at age 20 or so, as an undergraduate newly enamored of Spain and dreaming of an expatriate life, it was a very different experience than this time, as a nearing-50 woman settled with a family and career. 
 
Connecting with other readers is a light in my life. 

clubbin
samanthabryant: feeling purple (Default)
2019-01-05 06:04 pm
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Reading: Hero Status by Kristen Brand

 cover Hero Status#bookeveryweek Hero Status by Kristen Brand. 
 
As a superhero novelist myself, I'm always looking for fresh takes on the genre. I found one in this story!
 
I really enjoyed this novel's focus on David del Toro as a person, in particular as a family man in love with his wife and trying to be a good dad. Of course, this particular dad has an alter ego as the super-strong White Knight, retired superhero, and is married to a one-time super-villain with mind control abilities, but all marriages have challenges. :-)
 
Of course, since it's a superhero story, it doesn't stay a quiet domestic bliss sort of story. There's a wonderfully creepy super-villain in Dr. Sweet and lots of in-fighting based on misunderstandings and judgments about each other's morality. I loved the different takes on heroism and the cooperation and competition among heroes and with the authorities. 
 
The action sequences are innovative and exciting and the relationships and history from del Toro's past build suspense and intrigue. It's a good balance of plot and character that had me cheering for del Toro throughout. I was engaged from beginning to end and would definitely read more of this series. 

samanthabryant: feeling purple (Default)
2019-01-04 07:04 pm
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Book Every Week: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

 sun also rises cover#bookeveryweek The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.

This was a re-read for me. I read it when I was undergraduate studying Spanish and newly obsessed with all things Spain, and taken with a romantic desire to live overseas and have literary adventures. So, back then, there was a lot I loved.

Since then, Hemingway has mostly soured for me, with his toxic masculine stoic long-suffering schtick. I have to take him in small doses, so I can appreciate the art in his writing without choking on the philosophy too hard. But my classics book club took this one on, so I'm back to revisit it, twenty-some-odd years later.

My favorite thing Hemingway ever published was "Hills Like White Elephants," a short story which is a tour de force of dialogue. It works, though, because of its brevity.

That same technique of implication over statement and tone rather than interiority became annoying in this novel. Dialogue reads like a script with no viewpoint or judgment or thought about what anyone feels until there's suddenly a boiling point. A little drunkenness, harsh words, and violence, and we're back to witty repartee with nothing having changed for anyone.

I found Jake, the protagonist of this novel hard to connect to because he stood at arm's length to everything. Even himself. His passivity in his own life was annoying. The closest he comes to growth is the last line of the book (Isn't it pretty to think so?) but even that feels like a momentary epiphany that will not make any difference in the man's life. I liked him best the couple of times he was alone in his room talking about how things were harder at night and let us see how hard he worked to suppress his pain.

The novel doesn't have much plot, and is part travel-logue, part drunken banter, and part heartsick self pity. Moments in all of that are gorgeous.

Lady Brett Ashley is a hot mess of a character, and much more interesting than anyone else in the book, but if I'm supposed to be cheering for Jake, what I'm yelling is, "Run for the hills! She'll eat you alive!" I guess that means I did connect with Jake more than I thought I did, because I hoped he'd find something better for him in the long run than hopeless attachment to someone who will only bring out his own worst aspects.

Poor Robert Cohn became the demonstration of Hemingway's quite obvious anti-Semitism and it was a smack in the face each time those attitudes bubbled up to the top in the dialogue and attitudes. Cohn wasn't a Hemingway-type-man, and the plot needed him to be needy and difficult, but the implication over and over again was that Cohn was the way he was because he was Jewish and any Jewish man would have been the same. Lots of people give this a pass because of the times he lived and wrote in. I don't.

Still an affecting and interesting portrait of a lifestyle and a time. But leaves me happy to know that I'll never have to spend any time with any of these people.
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2018-12-21 08:54 pm
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Keeping a Day Book

 I recently read The Stargazer's Sister by Carrie Brown, which is a historical fiction piece about Lina Herschel, sister of William Herschel, astronomer of the Romantic period. I was fascinated as much by the description of the small, domestic aspects of Lina's life as I was by her role in her brother's discoveries and her own scientific life. (It's a quiet book about a quiet woman's quiet life, but I loved it). 

Caroline Herschel, at least as depicted in this novel, kept a Day Book. I'm so attracted to the idea of this! 

I've kept various kinds of journals throughout my life, but never something quite like this. It seems to be less about reflection and confession than it is about tracking. Caroline wrote down things like purchases and prices, task lists, major life events. 

I do a fair amount of tracking. I keep a database tracking my word count on various projects. I've used tracking apps to monitor my sleep and my exercise. There's something comforting in being able to go back and look at something like that and have "hard data" rather than faulty memory of what happened to rely on. 

So, I'm thinking of keeping an old fashioned Day Book in 2019. Part journal, part tracking artifact. If I can be consistent about it, it might make a nice, reflective habit. I could see it bringing me some brain quiet when I need it, by letting me offload. I already get a lot of comfort from different kinds of lists, and this seems like an expanded version of that. 

Some categories I'm thinking of using: 

  • Date:
  • Weather/World:
  • Schedule Notes/Goals:
  • How I feel:
  • What happened:
  • Exercise:
  • What I ate:
  • What I’m reading/watching/listening to:
samanthabryant: feeling purple (Default)
2018-12-17 08:41 pm

Reading: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

 #bookeveryweek Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. 

cover art Northanger Abbey audible production
 
I listened to this one as an Audible production, with a full cast, so that may color my opinion of the book a bit. Emma Thompson and Jane Austen were made for each other after all. It's possible I wouldn't have loved it as much if I were reading it without Emma's voice in my ear, or any of the other talented voice actors who made the production a delight. 
 
All I knew about this one going in was that it was Austen's earliest completed work, and that it poked fun at gothic novels. I was pleasantly surprised by the lively narration in the authorial voice, direct in a way that some of Austen's later work is not. Some might call that a flaw, and I do admire her subtle and dry wit in later works, but I found the direct nudge-nudge commentary hilarious. 
 
I've been reading some gothic romance myself of late. It's been a favorite escapist genre of mine from time to time across my life, and I think I might write one myself soon, so that might explain the draw for me right now. I suspect that this one would be even more biting and hilarious if I knew the Mysteries of Udolpho which was reference so much throughout, so I've added that to my soon-to-be-read pile. 
 
The machinations of our antagonists in the story were wonderful as well, though our heroine's complete and utter failure to see through the manipulations or even believe it when the evidence became overwhelming did have me a little worried. Most of Austen's heroines are smarter than that, even when they are young and inexperienced. Young Catherine was no Lizzie or Elinor, but she remained charming enough for me to continue to cheer for her and I was happy when she found her expected happily ever after.