Friday, February 27, 2015

Review of Boy In the Twilight by Yu Hua

Yu Hua’s Boy in the Twilight: Stories of the Hidden China is a collection of stories translated from Chinese. Until I read this book, I was unfamiliar with this author, and, truthfully, any knowledge of modern China other than what I see on the news.

My feelings about this book have changed somewhat since I finished it.  It helped to discuss it in my book club, where my questions transitioned from “Why is this book so awful to read?” to “What does all the violence and treachery represent?”

I found the stories to be disturbing. There is an assortment of un-powerful people trying to assert power over even weaker people.  Bullies are everywhere, in the form of gangs of young men tormenting disabled people, shrewish women taking freedom away from husbands, regular commuters jockeying violently for a place on crowded buses home, corrupt corporations rewarding workers unfairly…and on and on. The reading experience, for me, was unpleasant.

After some time and reflection, I have to admit that the stories do make me curious to find out more about how this author is received in China. He has quite a bibliography – five novels, six story collections, and three essay collections – and he has won a host of prizes.  In what ways do people resonate with the ideas that his stories consider? What other reading would I need to do to better sink into and understand the post-Cultural Revolution experiences he portrays? And the title – “Stories of the Hidden China?” Hidden from whom? (And one of our book club members asked if the English version of the title was actually created by the author….)

Of course, the internet carries some answers. Here’s an interesting interview with the author (with some commentary on Chinese censorship of books).  Here’s an older article about the author from 2009, and a newer New York Times column he wrote about modern Chinese life.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review of Cold Killing by Luke Delaney

Cold Killing by Luke Delaney is a very readable police procedural. The main detective, Sean Corrigan, is assigned to a case where the killer seems too smart, too calculating. Corrigan starts to make connections with cases that don’t seem similar at all, and his task is to prove that a seemingly unrelated set of crimes are, in fact, committed by the same person. The problem is that his belief about the true nature of these connected crimes comes from some deep intuition and psychological kinship with killers, and that’s a difficult kind of “evidence” to talk about or use.

I love me a good mystery/thriller, and I particularly enjoy novels with a forensic element. This book benefits from the fact that the author is a real police officer, so presumably much of the investigative detail is true-to-life.

However, there is one element of this novel that drives me crazy, and I’m increasingly seeing this element in the thrillers I read. In addition to experiencing the novel through the eyes of the detective, we also experience it through the eyes of the killer. The author claims that this book is a bit more “cat-and-mouse” than “who-dunnit.” And it turns out that I prefer a who-dunnit.

A big issue with the approach of living in the head of the killer is that the book is a lot more gruesome and violent than most of the books I enjoy. When we walk with the detective, we might see the after-effects of the crime. When we walk with the killer, we have to live through the crime itself.

This is the first in a series featuring this detective. I don’t think I’ll continue, but I would definitely recommend this book to people whose idea of a beach read involves ice picks and splatter.

You can read an interview with Luke Delaney here.

Monday, February 23, 2015

What I'm Reading, Back-At-It Edition

I fell off the blogging train, and I fell hard.   Actually, I fell off the reading train altogether. There was a confluence of events – midterms to grade, midwinter break for the kids, visiting the
inlaws – all of it stepped in the way of my normal activity. I guess that’s OK – I’ve only been at this for a few months, and this was my first blogging hiccup.

In the last week and a half, I read two books. The first was Cold Killing by Luke Delaney (review forthcoming). This was a thriller, but a long one – over 400 pages. I chose this because I wanted something easy and quick. And it was an easy read, but a bloody one. I found that I couldn’t read it at night.
So before bed, I read Small Victories by Anne Lamott (review forthcoming). This was typical Lamott -- shortish essays about how difficult and magical it is to be human. But here’s the thing: I enjoy Anne Lamott’s writing when I take small bites. If I try to swallow her collections in a single gulp, they come off as too saccharine for me. So I ended up going slowly with that one, too.

In light of the fact that I’m getting back on my reading feet, I’m not going to make any big promises. I do have to finish Boy in the Twilight: Stories of the Hidden China by Yu Hua for my book club this Wednesday. I also hope to start something from my TBR pile. My intention is to read one book from that pile every month, so that I can successfully complete my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge.  And look – February is almost over. 

So, onward!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

You Read Me Like A Book, Valentine

I still have so many papers to grade. One of the many ways that I have dodged this task is to think about Valentine’s Day. You internetters are so creative and give me so many opportunities to think about how best to celebrate a bookish holiday.

First off, wouldn’t it be perfect to have a great Valentine cocktail with your special someone? You can pick a great recipe from Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails With a Literary Twist by Tim Federle. My pick would be, “”Are You There God, It’s Me, Margarita.”

I would also enjoy a fun book-themed Valentine, like this one (from buzzfeed):

I was intrigued by the update at the very bottom of the referring article (“one valentine was removed due to questionable content”). That sounds like one I need to see!

Speaking of questionable content, there are a bunch of naughty ones in this article. Hemingway! Tolkein! I’m blushing. 

I’m not sure how I’d feel if I received a Fifty Shades of Grey teddy bear, however. 

And if you hate this holiday, there are options for you as well. Check out Knit Your Own Boyfriend by Carol Meldrum:

Here's a description:

The knitted boyfriend won't make a mess or steal the remote, and he comes with the right clothes for every occasion. Knit Your Own Boyfriend offers a wide selection of 13 eligible types: hipster, artist, rock star, doctor, skater, outdoorsman, and more. 

Whatever your feelings about Valentines Day, may good chocolate accompany your reading in the week ahead.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Review of The Sleepwalker's Guide To Dancing By Mira Jacob

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob blew me away. I had heard it was good, but I actually checked this book out of the library several times before tackling it. It’s long (500 pages), and it’s a debut novel. The mix of these two qualities often yields a less-than-ideal reading experience.

But, wow. I was captivated. This is a story about an Indian-American family that settles in New Mexico. They have ties to a large, complicated extended family in India, and they are simultaneously drawn back “home” and drawn to an increasing sense of themselves as Americans. What results is a book about dislocation (and maybe, ultimately, about belonging).

The main character is the daughter/granddaughter in the family, and we alternate between her adult life in Seattle in the 1990s and her adolescence in New Mexico in the 1980s. The daughter receives a call from her mother saying that her father is acting strangely. In particular, he is talking to his own mother at night, though his mother died years ago. The mystery of what is going on with the father opens up a story of ghosts of all kinds, including the ghosts of homeland and identity and the ghosts of unresolved expectations.

This is the kind of book that I seek out – a big family drama that’s both easy to read and full of ideas to consider. In so many ways, this is my ideal “beach book” or “summer read.” I know that most people would choose something sandy or silly or light, but I gravitate toward really compelling books that draw me in with complicated characters and leave me full at the end. (I suppose it's a little early in the year to be thinking about summer, but I can dream, can't I?)

The author’s description of her own family suggests that there are a lot of autobiographical dimensions to this novel. You can read an interesting article about her real family here.

Monday, February 9, 2015

What I'm Reading, Midterm Edition

It’s midterm time in my world. For all you students out there, please know that the only thing worse than writing midterm papers is having to read them. Just kidding. You all are brilliant, and your writing amazes me. *Cough*

The one bloggy thing I achieved this week was the creation of The Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge Bingo Game.  My intent is to read more broadly in 2015, and this game is my way of cultivating this goal without turning it into a grim responsibility. Please check it out, and join me if you’re interested.

I did finish two books. The first was 100 Essays I Don't Have Time To Write by Sarah Ruhl, which, as I mentioned last week, is very different than I expected. I’ve decided to re-read this short book with a different eye and a different set of expectations. I’ll wait to write a review until I’ve tried again.

The other book I finished was The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob, and holy wow! I loved it all the way through. This book is over 500 pages long, so it took me the better part of the week to finish (and even then, I didn’t want it to end). I’ll get a review up soon.

I also just started Cold Killing by Luke Delaney. I’m at the part where there’s blood all over the place. 
In addition to reading student papers, my intent is to read two books this week. 

The first is Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. This is one of those books that I see people reading everywhere I go, which, of course, makes me wonder what the fuss is all about.

Goodreads calls it “a captivating story of two very different women who build an unexpected friendship: a 91-year-old woman with a hidden past as an orphan-train rider and the teenage girl whose own troubled adolescence leads her to seek answers to questions no one has ever thought to ask.

I also plan to read Boy in the Twilight: Stories of the Hidden China by Yu Hua. My book club is reading this one for this month’s discussion. I’m not much of a short story reader, so I’m eager to see how I like this collection.  I’m also interested to see how we structure a discussion about multiple stories.

Here’s the description from Goodreads:

With sharp language and a keen eye, Yu Hua explores the line between cruelty and warmth on which modern China is—precariously, joyfully—balanced. Taken together, these stories form a timely snapshot of a nation lit with the deep feeling and ready humor that characterize its people.

Next Monday is a holiday, so someone will need to remind me that it's actually Monday. Until then, happy reading!

(It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Journey)

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge Bingo

Last month, I told you about my desire to read more broadly. In particular, I want to push myself to read books by authors from different backgrounds and about different cultures and experiences. I want to do this because I feel that I am a voracious reader but a narrow one. I also feel like I will grow as a person if I “travel” more extensively with people and to places beyond my own experience.

I listen to a bunch of book podcasts, and I remembered hearing on the Books on the Nightstand podcast about a summer reading bingo game the hosts created last year. I have decided to borrow their idea and use the bingo format for my own challenge. Welcome to the Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge Bingo game!

Here’s what I did: I made a bingo card with some broad diversity-related categories. My personal goal is to read books that fill as many rows as possible. You, of course, can decide to fill just one, or several, or all. You can even change the categories if you want because bookish bingo anarchy is just fine. You are free to bingo as you see fit.

An important side note: this project is a creative way for me to challenge myself. I will decide for myself what terms like “non-Western,” “disability,” “of color,” and “classic” mean. You might have different definitions, and that’s great. Use them!

Here’s the card that I printed:

You can print your own card here.

The directions for the Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge Bingo game were supplied by the online bingo game-making site. Here they are: When you get five blocks horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, stand up and shout “Blogtastic!” Or play as a drinking game and for every block you mark off, take a sip, and finish your drink each time you get five blocks in a row.

(Drinking Bingo photo courtesy of Amazon, where you can purchase your books and real drinking bingo game equipment with a single click! Classy!)

I did not make up these directions, but I totally support them. However, if you want to have tea instead, or shout something else, again, that’s up to you.

I would LOVE it if you would join me. Please just let me know by leaving a comment. We’ll do a check-in in July to check our progress, and then do a wrap-up in December. Happy reading!

Monday, February 2, 2015

What I'm Reading, Groovy Tote Bag Edition

Hello blogosophere! Monday is winding down, and I’m just now getting to my “It’s Monday!” post. Better late than never, I hope.

Last week I posted two reviews, one for The Martian by Andy Weir and one for Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. The Martian gave me the opportunity to think about hype and my reading habits, and Brown Girl Dreaming made me think about the whole idea of novels or memoirs in verse.

I’m almost done with 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write by Sarah Ruhl, and hopefully I’ll get a review of that up soon. But right now I’m not clear on what I’m going to say in that review. I’m really struggling with this tiny book. I thought it would be an easy, breezy book of essays about a random assortment of things, but now I think that this is a very specific set of musings geared toward people in the theater (which I am not). I have a recurring dream in which I missed class all semester. When I try to get there during the final week, I can’t find the room. And once I do, I can’t understand a thing that’s going on, and the exam is tomorrow. Also, I am naked. I am feeling all of those things as I read this book, except the naked part.

[Do you ever read books where you feel like you are out of your element? Or not the right audience? I’d love to hear about it.]

I did not have time to start The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing last week, so it reemerges on this week’s pile (see last week for a description). I am also adding Cold Killing by Luke Delaney, which showed up on my library shelf (even though I don’t remember requesting it). I haven’t read a police procedural in a while, so I am looking forward to some creepy time later this week. You can read the Goodreads description here

Check out my groovy new bookish bag! This kind of thing makes me so happy. The artist is Sarah Olnos at teconlene design and illustration.

(It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Journey)

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Review of Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir in verse, aimed at a middle grade or young adult audience. In it, Jacqueline Woodson tells the story of her own life, wrapped in the story of her family and the story of the struggle for civil rights in America.

I really liked this book, which is both a universal portrait of growing up (sibling rivalry, friendship drama) and a portrait of an African American girl growing up at a particular time with a particular set of hopes and aspirations. The memoir covers Woodson’s family life preceding her birth in the mid-1960s up until she is around eleven years old. There are themes about place and belonging (being from the north vs. being from the south); there are themes about protest and resistance; there are themes about finding one’s own skills and aptitudes; and there are themes about community and continuity.

I read a recent New York Times review in which the reviewer wonders why Woodson gives the book the title Brown Girl Dreaming instead of just Girl Dreaming. I found that the magic of this story involved Woodson discovering her own strength and identity as an African American girl. And the idea of finding herself as a person of color with a story worth telling is certainly the anchor of the memoir. In a small vignette about a trip to the library, she writes:

If someone had taken
that book out of my hand
said, You’re too old for this
I’d never have believed
that someone who looked like me
could be in the pages of the book
that someone like me
had a story

Woodson won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for this book, and there was quite a scandal (by bookish standards, anyway) when emcee Daniel Handler made a racist joke while announcing her award. The incident raised questions about the ongoing struggle surrounding diversity in publishing, and, perhaps, the ongoing difficulty we have talking about race meaningfully. Woodson wrote this elegant editorial in the New York Times following the award ceremony.

I was intrigued by the author’s decision to write the book in verse. I have only read two books in verse before: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, which won the Newbery Medal in 2013, and Jane: A Murder by Maggie Nelson, which combines poetry, prose, and primary source material. I enjoyed them both. But when I saw that Brown Girl Dreaming was written in verse, I wondered at first if kids would gravitate to the form, or if this would be one of those books that teachers love but kids ignore. Then, when Woodson mentioned finding a volume of Langston Hughes as a child, I realized that writing poetry about her life as an African American was intended to be part of a larger tradition. And while I thought Woodson's storytelling was masterful, I would love for my poet friends to weigh in and discuss whether Woodson’s poetry is good poetry.