Category Archives: Books, Reviews, and Reading

Truth in Advertising

cover image via Goodreads

cover image via Goodreads

I’d like to open this post with a disclaimer. (Truth in blogging.)

Disclaimer: My copy of Truth in Advertising, by John Kenney, was provided to me by First Reads. (I entered a giveaway on Goodreads.) However, these opinions are entirely my own and I’d like to think that getting it for free had no influence on my opinions’ development.

I didn’t love it. I started it, felt very unpersuaded generally to continue reading, and set it aside for a few weeks. But if getting it for free did influence me in any way, I did feel more obligated to read it than if I’d paid money for it. (Is that weird?) Anyway, the other day I picked it up and started it again.

The book opens with the story of how the main character, Finbar Dolan, once fabricated an entire paper in high school. The teacher loved the paper (didn’t notice it was completely false) and gave him an A. Cut to the next scene, which opens with Finbar on set at a commercial shoot, and the only reason I can think of that we even got the story about the made-up school paper is that Kenney is trying to make it seem like the obvious career choice for anyone who told believable lies in their papers for school is that of advertising. If you, like me, indulged in an inner eye roll at that, well, you’ve come to the right review. The backstory about the fabricated paper was, to me, completely unnecessary and only predisposed me to dislike Finbar.

In these opening scenes, we also learn that Finbar and his family are estranged, about which the author feeds us this cliché: “Some families grow closer. Others are Irish.” This was the first in a long succession of clichés, as shortly thereafter, Finbar walks through an outline of all the major characters he works with (bolded headings and everything), and it’s all the stock stereotypes you’ve come to expect inhabiting a story about advertising: the gay creative director who looks like he stepped out of an Armani ad, the serious female producer who isn’t “nice”, and frankly it’s even boring listing them out for you.

Maybe it was the rapid succession of stereotypes forced down my throat in the first fifty pages, but tactics like these just leave me cold. I know stereotypes exist because so often there’s a degree of truth in them – but it reads like lazy characterization to me. Anyway, it was at this point the first time that I stopped reading. The second time through, it was at this point that I skipped ahead: first to the end, and then back to the middle to start reading again. Because parts of the book were worth reading.

So Finbar works in advertising, and he doesn’t speak to his family. His mother died when he was young, not long after their abusive father left them. The four children were left on their own and despite their early closeness, they no longer speak to each other. There are a number of flashbacks throughout the book, to fill in Finbar’s family history. We soon discover that Finbar’s father is dying in a hospital, alone, and Finbar’s decision to go sit with his father as he’s dying becomes the catalyst for him to finally decide what it is he really wants out of life. It was only after Finbar made a few halting steps outside his emotional paralysis that I was able to connect with this book at all.

It’s entirely possible that this book just came to me at the wrong time — that I’m being too hard on it. I might just be fresh out of patience with the Man-Boy’s Struggle to discover What Matters Most in Life. Thankfully, I don’t think Kenney intends to glorify that struggle. I think instead he’s showing us the humor and pathos inside and around that struggle: that he was ultimately successful (even with me, see aforementioned lack of patience) is a singular triumph.

Reading Resolutions Revisited

Happy New Year! The time when so many of us resolve anew to Do Better in whatever ways we feel we need to! While I’m always hesitant to set goals like “lose 10 pounds!” (losing weight is really, really hard!), I do try to make the New Year mark a return to reformed eating. The holiday season (which I define as the week of Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve) is a time of guiltless indulgence on my part, in which I eat sugar and other things that are not necessarily good for me with some degree of abandon and almost zero feelings of guilt.

So today at work I brought one of my typical “reformed eating” lunches: Greek yogurt, grapes, and a portion of crackers. I am a very picky eater: the only brand of Greek yogurt I can stomach is Liberté, and if I’m eating yogurt for lunch I prefer Greek because it’s more filling than other types of yogurt. As it happened, when I was at the grocery store, the only Liberté yogurt they had was labeled “Méditerranée”. “How different could it be,” I thought to myself, and put two in my cart without further review.

005

Look at my grown up lunch!

Today, I walked back from the fridge to my desk feeling so proud of my responsible and adult-y ways, with my baggy of grapes and container of yogurt. Running high on not having to do the Dance of the Microwaves with all the other people crowded into the tiny kitchen on our floor, I admittedly thought things like “Maybe I will lose five pounds without even trying!”

I popped out to the Liberté web site as I stirred my yogurt to find out the difference between Méditerranée and Greek yogurt. Whereupon I discovered that my “healthy” yogurt lunch was actually made with whole milk (gag) and contained 37% (probably more) of my daily allotment of saturated fat. So, in other words, pretty different from their fat-free Greek yogurt (which also has about half as many calories as this Méditerranée stuff).

As my mother and her mother would remind me, “Pride goeth before a fall.”

On the other hand, the Liberté Méditerranée lime yogurt was absolutely delicious.

The same optimism which inspired me to try the Mediterranean yogurt leads me to make my 2014 reading resolutions, in spite of the fact that I only achieved approximately half of 2013’s resolutions. Which half, you wonder?

I read some nonfiction last year, but nothing that jumped out to me as something my brother-in-law might enjoy. (In the spirit of New Year’s optimism, I award myself partial credit for this one.) I finished Middlemarch in literally the final moments before my thirtieth birthday. (Double points, because it’s Middlemarch.) I read one book originally written in a language other than English (Danish), translated into English (it wasn’t quite blog-worthy; still, full credit awarded). And if my grand plans for a long-distance book club never got off the ground, well, I think maybe that’s on Life, and not on me, so I awarded myself partial credit for this one too (I came up with a list of books we ought to read).

Starting fresh for 2014…should I bite off another classic to try my patience (and yours)? Should I resolve to finally commit to reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell?

According to my Goodreads profile, I read approximately 30 books in 2013, which frankly seems low. I feel as though I must have read more than 30 and simply failed to log them, but in reality, that’s probably true. I certainly started more than 30 books in 2013. So, in 2014, I’m going to try to finish more than 30 books. I’ve certainly got enough material: my electronic stack of books to be read (these are books I’ve already purchased) is nearly forty titles long, and that doesn’t even touch on the list of books I want to read (100+) or the physical books at my bedside, which stare in judgy disappointment at me whenever I choose to re-read Mary Stewart or Georgette Heyer on a quiet evening rather than try something new. Like Nick Hornby once said in the delightful column he wrote for The Believer about the books he bought and the books he actually read in a month, my book-buying policy is almost always “ludicrously optimistic”. So let’s shoot for 40 books read in 2014: at least two originally written in a language other than English and one straight up nonfiction non-memoir book.

I’m also planning to train for (and run in) a half marathon in 2014. And generally to Do Better, which is really more of a daily resolution for me, but it bears repeating.

Here’s to ludicrous optimism! Happy 2014!

007

This Year in Reading 2013

I’m probably not the only book blogger who ends up reading many more books than she actually blogs about, at least I hope I’m not. Most often it’s because I don’t always anything to say that I think the Internet wants to read after I finish a book. Partly because of that, and partly because I thought it would be fun, I thought I might wrap up this year in reading in the perennial tradition of the internet and the end of the year: with a best-of list.

Best Discoveries:

cover image via Goodreads

cover image via Goodreads

I am always looking for authors whose writing style echoes Mary Stewart, and this year, I found someone who actually comes really close! Susanna Kearsley writes delightful books: history, mystery, and romance combine with light paranormal elements to make for really enjoyable reading. I started with The Shadowy Horses (my favorite so far), and I still daydream about Eyemouth, Scotland. If light paranormal elements (clairvoyance, etc.) aren’t your cup of tea, you might try Every Secret Thing, which was published under a pseudonym (Emma Cole) – every bit as good as her other books, but without the fantastical elements that may not be to everyone’s taste.

cover image via Goodreads

cover image via Goodreads

I’ve yet to outgrow my liking for books where the right girl meets the right guy and then after going through a few requisite troubles and misunderstandings, they’re well on their way to the proverbial happy-ever-after. There are times when, frankly, nothing else will do but that sort of story, but it’s harder than you might think to find a story like that that isn’t plagued by shoddy writing or besmirched by either the trappings of the romance novel (“bodice ripping”) or extensive bad language, or both. Which is why, when I discovered Hester Browne’s books this year, I was overjoyed. I started with The Runaway Princess, but Swept Off Her Feet is my favorite so far.

Best Reads of the Year:

jane_prudence

via Goodreads

Jane and Prudence, by Barbara Pym. Oh, how I love Barbara Pym! I’m not sure anyone does social satire better than she does. Who else delivers us such gems like this one, about an awkward social visit: “She had been feeling that things were pretty desperate if one found oneself talking about and almost quoting Matthew Arnold to comparative strangers, though anything was better than having to pretend you had winter and summer curtains when you had just curtains.” Jane and Prudence is another example of Barbara Pym at her best. I loved it fiercely.

The Tortoise and the Hare, by Elizabeth Jenkins. I wrote about this book months ago, but I’m still thinking about it, and it was truly some of the finest writing and characterization I’ve read all year. Highly recommended, in spite of its bleakness.

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker. I’ve also already written about this one, and recently, but…have you read it yet? You should really read it.

Best Surprise: Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey. This was my best – and biggest – surprise read of the year, because it wasn’t a book I thought I’d enjoy as much as I did, and I certainly didn’t expect to connect with or care about the characters as much as I did.

Greatest Reading Feat: Middlemarch. Enough said.

Best generally bookish thing(s): Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing tops the list, followed closely by Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Henry V in the BBC’s Hollow Crown miniseries. If you didn’t see it when it aired on PBS in the US, well, stream it on Amazon as instantly as possible. Both of these were too good to miss.

So tell me: what tops your list of best books and/or best general bookishness for 2013?

One Hundred

This is my one-hundredth post.

009It seemed like an occasion to be marked, celebrated with a post more noteworthy than a marginally funny story about a bizarre concert I went to recently or more thanks to all of you who continue to visit in spite of my irregular posting and wildly variable post quality.

I spent a lot of time trawling the internets for ideas for a hundredth post, which of course, obviously, led to much comparing my blog to other people’s blogs and a lot of writerly insecurity and general paralysis that this post had to be better. It’s also dark November, and I’ve been reading Housekeeping again, which, well, it’s not always good for me: it’s so full of loneliness and loss and it’s so, so beautiful. It just sometimes leaves me feeling without, too full of feels to feel. (I think I can safely say that’s a phrase Marilynne Robinson would never dream of writing.)

But if anything productive came out of all that blog comparison, I realized I haven’t given you much grounding information on who I am, and my reading tastes (favorite authors and so on). After all, why should you come to my little book blog at all, if not to find out about books you might be interested in reading yourself, general bookishness, and the occasional somewhat funny story about things that have happened to me? If authenticity is something to strive for, and I believe it is, then maybe now is the time to remedy that.

I tried to do just that with the following, in one hundred words or less, but it’s closer to two hundred (they all seemed necessary):

I love books that make me laugh, books that make me cry, books that keep me up reading in the night, and books that make me think. My ideal dinner party of authors, living or dead, would first of all involve enough of them so that I wouldn’t be expected to contribute heavily to the conversation, and would at least include: Harper Lee, C. S. Lewis, Jane Austen, Barbara Pym, Marilynne Robinson, Lady Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Shakespeare. In my mind, Harper Lee and Barbara Pym would immediately corner Jane Austen like the fangirls they were; Dorothy L. Sayers, C. S. Lewis, and Marilynne Robinson would enjoy some intellectual conversation about Christianity; and after I’d effusively told Lady Mary Stewart how I’ve read This Rough Magic almost to shreds and can quote from it at length (it’s the one book I own whose broken spine is caused by me), she would find Shakespeare endlessly interesting. As would we all.

I would be happiest floating between their conversations, refilling plates and glasses and basking in the general glow of greatness.

What about you? Who is invited to your ideal dinner party of authors?

The Age of Miracles

theageofmiracles

cover image via Goodreads

“Later, I would come to think of those first days as the time when we learned as a species that we had worried over the wrong things: the hole in the ozone layer, the melting of the ice caps, West Nile and swine flu and killer bees. But I guess it never is what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different — unimagined, unprepared for, unknown.” — Karen Thompson Walker

I would be hard pressed to name a better book among my recent reads than Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles. When I finished it, my breath was caught behind a giant lump in my throat and I was for once thankful that the Josh Duhamel lookalike seated next to me on the plane I happened to be on was oblivious to what I was doing or whether I was, in fact, trying not to cry. (And that’s not a spoiler, because what makes me cry is a perfect ending: a story that knows when it’s told and ends in just the right way, with the right words.)

The Age of Miracles is the story of twelve-year-old Julia. She plays soccer, along with her best friend Hanna, and the last time that Hanna slept over at Julia’s house before a soccer game, the world started to end. That morning, before the soccer game, scientists announced on television that the rotation of the earth on its axis had begun to slow, perceptibly, and that just as there was no known cause, there was as yet no known solution.

And what comes after that? A beautifully-written, keenly observed story about growing up: the friendships that fall apart, the first loves, the loss, and the countless disappointments, against the backdrop of an impending catastrophe, in some ways not that different from the changing, uncertain world you and I grew up in.

“It was that time of life: talents were rising to the surface, weaknesses were beginning to show through, we were finding out what kinds of people we would be. Some would turn out beautiful, some funny, some shy. Some would be smart, others smarter. The chubby ones would likely always be chubby. The beloved, I sensed, would be beloved for life. And I worried that loneliness might work that way, too.”

There are so many examples of Karen Thompson Walker’s prose that I could share with you to try to incite you to read this book, but I’d be cheating you of the distinct pleasure of discovering it as you read, and a collection of quotes doth not a blog post make (generally speaking). Just…read this book. If there were some hallmarks of the first novel, if the foreshadowing felt, at times, a little heavy-handed, I ended up forgiving it.