Monday, September 30, 2013

Mirrors and Siblings and Science and Love

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
(Penguin Audio, 2013)
Format: audio CDs via library (narrated by Orlagh Cassidy)

From Goodreads: "Meet the Cooke family. Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child, she never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Something happened, something so awful she has buried it in the recesses of her mind.

Now her adored older brother is a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism. And her once lively mother is a shell of her former self, her clever and imperious father now a distant, brooding man.

And Fern, Rosemary’s beloved sister, her accomplice in all their childhood mischief? Fern’s is a fate the family, in all their innocence, could never have imagined."

I enjoy Fowler's other books, but this, I felt burrow its way into my heart. Things I grooved on: sibling relationships, especially the ways Rose is constantly jealous of hers while simultaneously longing to be a part of them while simultaneously bonding with one and excluding the other; parental action/inaction and the ways adult Rose learns to reinterpret what child Rose experienced; the constant reinterpretation Rose had to do of her childhood experiences, and how each was momentous in both interpretations, and each interpretation informed the other; mirrors and language and body language and invisible friends and speaking for the silent and letting the silent speak for you.

(And speaking of letting people speak for you, how's this for a segue?) Orlagh Cassidy is a truly lovely narrator for this novel. I could see Rose's expressions in Cassidy's intonations, and was wrapped tightly in Rose's emotions as she began to see her childhood through her adult lens. I love the voice she gave to Rose.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Knowing the Score

Knowing the Score by Kat Latham
(Carina, 2013)
Format: ebook via NetGalley

From Goodreads: "Rugby player Spencer Bailey is determined to win a spot on England's World Cup team. But with a month break before the selectors start watching him, he's eager to have fun with a woman who knows the score: the relationship will end when rugby season begins. The lovely American Caitlyn Sweeney seems perfect for the role of temporary lover, since her visa will run out soon anyway.

Caitlyn works for an international disaster relief organization and can handle the world's worst crises, but she flinches from her own. Her past has left her with a fear of intimacy so deep that she has trouble getting close to anyone—until she meets sexy Spencer. His hot body and easygoing nature are too much for even her to resist.

Neither Caitlyn nor Spencer expects to fall hard for each other. But with their relationship deadline approaching, the old rules of the game seem less important than before…until past secrets surface, challenging everything they thought they knew about each other."

So I had fun with this. I ran across this debut contemporary romance at another blog (there are other book blogs? Mel's readers gasp!) and loved the teaser bit that was posted, so I was pleased when my NetGalley request was approved. 

Enough of the history. Let's talk about Spencer, and how he's a bad boy who has already reformed by the time Caitlyn meets him, but no one in his high-profile world has gotten over his youthful indiscretions. Oh, and Caitlyn, who has no idea who he is, but knows that he's overwhelming to her and that if they're going to be together, however temporarily, she will have to confront at least a couple of her demons. They both think a short-term fling will serve their needs, but of course as they begin to think more of each other's needs than their own, everything changes.

Latham's style is light and frequently made me smile. I also cried a good bit, as is my wont, during the dark moments for these characters. The book was a page-turner (a page-swiper? a thumb-tapper?) and I stayed up half the night to finish it (as is also my wont, when I'm really into something.) All in all, I'm adding Latham to my insta-read list and looking forward to learning more about rugby as her series progresses. (Did you know they throw the ball backward in rugby? Isn't that odd?)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

I am Agog! I am Aghast!

(Is Mel writing about Les Mis at last?)

Hello, fellow fans of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables - I'm back! But though it took me a really, really long narrative time to reach the point of something happening in Volume 3: Marius, it seems that pretty soon, it's probably going to turn out that there might be some actual action on the page. Let's get through:
A simple meal, a quiet life...
all a man needs.
Book Fifth - The Excellence of Misfortune

So, Marius is nobly indigent. His clothes are shoddy. He's earning an honest pittance at a publishing job. "He lived on it. How? Not so badly. We will explain." (p.453) I just bet we will. In short, he has a hovel overhead, not much in the way of clothing, eats a lot of bread, and is totally full of himself for living this life. He won't go into debt. "He even said to himself, that a creditor is worse than a master; for the master possesses only your person, a creditor possesses your dignity and can administer to it a box on the ear." (p.454)

Meanwhile, he's still crazy about his dear departed dad, and to a lesser but still freakish extent, old Thenardier who "rescued" him at Waterloo. (Remember Waterloo?) (Hi to my husband's cousin's daughter's roommate, BTW! You remember Waterloo, don't you?) Marius's grandfather is super-pouty about Marius's desertion of him in the no-good father's honor. "There are fathers who do not love their children; there exists no grandfather who does not adore his grandson." (p.455) And also, "Old men need affection as they need the sun." (p.455) So this estrangement isn't so good for Gillenormand.

Sigh. I'd love to tell you more about all this, but you see, there was that church warden who first told Marius about his father's banishment from his life. And Hugo says, "As we shall see M. Mabeuf again, later on, a few words will not be superfluous." (p.458) As if Hugo is any kind of judge about what is superfluous! Still, I give him props for these fun descriptive details:

  • "He never went out without a book under his arm, and he often returned with two." (p.458)
  • "He had... no teeth, either in his mouth or his mind...." (p.458)

Anyway, let's leave the bookish old man alone - at the moment, Marius only sees him a couple of times a month. What he loves to do almost daily is take long walks about Paris, thinking Deep Thoughts, socializing more often, observing the world, etc. (He would go out ut: broke. He can't afford a carriage, and walking gets his boots dirty, and "in a drawing-room you may be soiled everywhere except on your shoes. In order to insure a good reception there, only one irreproachable thing is asked of you; your conscious? No, your boots." (p.461))

Let's keep following Marius on his walks, shall we? You never know who he'll run across! Oh, wait. No. Hugo diverts again - back to Sad Grandpa Gillenormand. He's busy ranting about what he guesses Marius is doing with his free time. (Rabble-rousing.) "The nineteenth century is poison. The first scamp that happens along lets his beard grow like a goat's, thinks himself a real scoundrel, and abandons his old relatives. He's a Republican, he's a romantic." (p.463) (Kids these days!)

His daughter brings in the nephew she adores, Theodule, who just nods along with the rant. And even though he agrees that "Students deliberating on the National Guard,-such a thing could not be seen among the Ogibewas nor the Cadodaches! [sic] Savages who go naked, with their noodles dressed like a shuttlecock, with a club in their paws, are less of brutes than those bachelors of arts!" (p.464), Sad Grandpa doesn't decide to love him best of all. (Yes, I included that last part because: noodles dressed like a shuttlecock!)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Bailing on Summer

All you pumpkin spice latte / how cute is my new fall cardigan folk can just bite me, 'kay?

It's still in the 90s here. It'll be in the 90s here until, I guess, February? And fine, I grew up with it (it's the humidity and the heat, FYI), I don't own a lot of cardigans, and at least it's no longer in the 100s.

But the A/C at work is a bonkers anti-fun-house water torture mess.

And I’m tired of it. I’m enervated by it. I’m beginning to dread my office for the day-long, futile, vicious cycle of gently coaxing the damn thing just to have it attempt to lower the temp below 85.

Here’s what it takes to get the A/C to run:
1.      First thing in the morning, turn it on.
2.      Forget that first thing, I should have bailed it out.
3.      Grab the take-out container and bail out the overflow tray. More on this below.
4.      Listen for the tell-tale ‘whrr-chnk’ that indicates the motor has consented to operate.
5.      Empty the trash can full of water that has just been bailed out of the overflow tray.
6.      Wash my hands thoroughly and still feel like there’s slimy particle-ridden A/C water all over me.
7.      Return the trash can for the next bailing session, turn out the closet lights, sit at desk.
8.      In 22 minutes when the overflow tray is full again, repeat steps 3 through 7.

Me, bailing the overflow tray. Note the handy red
sensor ensuring that the unit stops working!
The overflow tray! Oh, the overflow tray. So you may not know this, but A/Cs work in part by dehumidifying the icky hot, humid air. So you take a boat-load of humid air and the A/C has to, like, wring out the extra moisture before it can be cooled. And where does all that hot water go? Through the drain and into the overflow tray!

(It probably has a more technical name. Whatever. It’s my evil overlord, I’ll call it what I want to.)

For reasons unknown (alchemy was involved? and also a pyre made of operating manuals?), the overflow tray for my office A/C is not at the end of some pipe leading to the outdoors where water can just wander off to become more humidity in the future, but at the end of some pipe that is 1” from the unit itself, which is in the closet of my office.

(It’s actually in the closet’s closet. Well, one of the closet’s closets. My office has a closet/file storage area, and there are two closets off of it, with A/C units and breaker boxes and storage boxes and extra rolls of carpet and a rickety old ladder and exposed wires and bats, maybe? Plus the overflow tray.) 

(Worth noting: the office raccoon never goes in there. Make of that what you will.)

(Worth noting: we have an office raccoon. Don’t get me started. It’s not a pet.)

So, due to the aforementioned heat, swamp city, ritual sacrifice confluence, every 22 minutes the overflow tray fills with liquefied humidity. And a fun feature of the overflow tray is a little sensor that shuts off the A/C motor when the overflow tray is full. Because otherwise, the pipe would keep dumping liquefied humidity on the closet’s closet’s floor, which would drip through to the office below, and ruin the stacks of books that fill it. (Also notable: my company has an office that is full of nothing but stacks of books.) (The raccoon likes it in there.)

So every 22 minutes, the A/C stops blowing cool air. So every 22 minutes someone has to bail out the overflow tray, then spend the next 18 minutes feeling like there’s micro-humidity-demons on her skin, then spend the next 4 minutes hoping someone else will come in for the next bailing session. (To be fair, I’m not the only one who bails. But I’m the one closest to the closet and therefore am the soonest to notice when it’s needed.)

Now sometimes the overflow tray has no water in it for, like, an hour. Mind you, the fan runs the whole time, so unless you’re savvy like me and notice that instead of it blowing cool air, it’s just blowing air, you might not understand what this means.

What it means is that it’s so hot in my office, and the A/C is having such trouble trying to make air cold, that the coils have frozen over. And that means I have to turn the whole system off for half an hour so it can defrost. (This is also why I shut it off overnight. That, and because it’s super awesome to come into a 90-degree office in the morning.)

Probably you can guess what happens in my humid, metal-roofed office when it’s in the 90s outside and there’s no fan blowing air, much less cool air, to the denizens.

As a super-awesome-nature-loves-me bonus, when the fan isn’t blowing, I get an increase in the reek from the decomposing rodent in the ceiling of the office kitchen (the office kitchen is also off of my office. I have 4 doors: hallway, bathroom, kitchen, closet. The climate control strategy involved in their opening and closing is a complex art.)

For those of you paying attention, that means I come in to work in the mornings to a humid, hot, stomach-turning office and spend the next several hours attempting to mitigate as many of those factors as possible. So, yes, I’d love a cute new fall cardigan. A cute new fall cardigan would mean that it’s probably not hotter than 82 outside, which would mean that I can go to work and, on the best of days, not have to go near the overflow tray at all.

But for now, the raccoon and I co-exist with the heat.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

But Are You One of Them?

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt
(Penguin, 2013)
Format: hardback via library

From Goodreads: "Sarah Zuckerman and Jennifer Jones are best friends in an upscale part of Washington, D.C., in the politically charged 1980s. Sarah is the shy, wary product of an unhappy home: her father abandoned the family to return to his native England; her agoraphobic mother is obsessed with fears of nuclear war. Jenny is an all-American girl who has seemingly perfect parents. With Cold War rhetoric reaching a fever pitch in 1982, the ten-year-old girls write letters to Soviet premier Yuri Andropov asking for peace. But only Jenny's letter receives a response, and Sarah is left behind when her friend accepts the Kremlin's invitation to visit the USSR and becomes an international media sensation. The girls' icy relationship still hasn't thawed when Jenny and her parents die tragically in a plane crash in 1985.

Ten years later, Sarah is about to graduate from college when she receives a mysterious letter from Moscow suggesting that Jenny's death might have been a hoax. She sets off to the former Soviet Union in search of the truth, but the more she delves into her personal Cold War history, the harder it is to separate facts from propaganda."

Here's what I liked about this book: 

  • Finding, then losing, a best friend in late elementary / early middle school years. The vast importance of who your friend eats lunch with, whose friendship pin she wears, whose ear may be hearing the secrets you told her during countless sleepovers. 
  • The depiction of the Cold War days, Reagan and Andropov and Star Wars and The Day After, from the point of view of a child living through it all. (You should totally watch that clip from The Day After, if only for the 80s hair and clothing. And if you were curled up on the living room sofa watching when the mushroom cloud enveloped Kansas City, I hope it doesn't cause you any flashbacks to childhood terror.)
  • Holt's facility when describing places - the amazing lyricism with which she paints Moscow in the 90s will stick with me for a long time.
Still, for all that, this is presented as a mystery: was Jenny on the crashed plane or was she not? And even at the furthest point of Sarah's investigation, I just never got around to caring overmuch about the answer. It only served to make Sarah an untrustworthy narrator and to dull the effect of the things I mentioned above. Her search through Moscow wearied me. And I don't think Holt's intent was to have her readers grousing at her narrator: "Who cares? Just drop it and get on with, well, anything else, really."

I'm trying to not let the story arc detract too much from the lovely parts of this debut novel, but instead the second half is very much getting in the way of the first half.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Carry On, Fangirls

Are you a Rainbow Rowell fangirl? If not, why not? Can it be that no matter how much I rave about her, you've yet to read her novels? Well, that's just plain silly. Here's another chance for you, though, because Fangirl has been released.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
(St. Martin's Press, also Listening Library, 2013)
Formats: I read a borrowed galley a while ago, but today I listened to the audio from Audible (narrated by Rebecca Lowman with Maxwell Caulfield)

Seriously. It's not just cause she's funny and friendly and great to stalk on Twitter that I slaver over her - Rowell is a stellar stylist, and she creates characters and stories that resonate through so many levels of my soul. (Doesn't your soul have levels?)

So, Cath and her twin Wren are headed off to their first year at college, which means not only living away from home, but away from each other. Wren has decided it's time for some independence, leaving Cath with only a taciturn roommate and the roommate's eternally cheerful boyfriend Levi for company. Well, them, and the entire Internet - Cath writes fanfic for the Simon Snow series (think Potter, but these magicians don't wear pointed hats even on formal occasions.) But Cath's devoted fan base can't help her navigate the strangeness of campus life or advise her about how to handle her twin's increasing distance from her life.

Then there's Levi, who I want to meet, so I can see if his hair really is as extraordinary and absurd as Cath says it is. Also I'd like him to make me his special secret-recipe drink at Starbucks. (None of that eggnog latte, though, ick.) Also I want to see him smile.

But back to Rowell's writing. Obviously I was in tears, both when I originally read it and again today, listening. There are moments between Cath and her father, Cath and her twin, and Cath and Levi that simply drill deep into my heart. Beyond the emotional precision, and did I mention the humor?, there are moments with language that bring me joy. (When Cath mildly tears apart another writing student for his cliche dandelion-puff scene, I grinned, but when Cath's internal monologue later uses dandelion-puff in a wholly original and compelling way, I had to pause the book to do a little happy dance.)

This is an excellent choice in audio. Caulfield's narration of the Snow / fanfic scenes is charming, and Lowman can pause so perfectly in the middle of dialogue, it brings each character to life. She felt fully as much in love with this novel as I was, and made a wonderful voice for Cath.

Read it, or listen to it, but just do your best to find this book and make it yours.

And the Mountains Echoed

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
(Penguin Audio, 2013)
Format: audio CDs via library (read by Khaled Hosseini, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Navid Negahban)

From Goodreads: "Khaled Hosseini has written a new novel about how we love, how we take care of one another, and how the choices we make resonate through generations. 

In this tale revolving around not just parents and children but brothers and sisters, cousins and caretakers, Hosseini explores the many ways in which families nurture, wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for one another; and how often we are surprised by the actions of those closest to us, at the times that matter most. 

Following its characters and the ramifications of their lives and choices and loves around the globe—from Kabul to Paris to San Francisco to the Greek island of Tinos—the story expands gradually outward, becoming more emotionally complex and powerful with each turning page."

Okay, first - well, no: first, read this, it's lovely. But second - don't get the audio. Sigh. Hosseini does a perfectly respectable job with his part of the narration, but the other two narrators - Negahaban in particular - seemed too often to be reading words instead of sentences, much less paragraphs or chapters. Emphases oddly placed, little emotional connection. I was bummed.

However! The story itself is a deep reflection on families and love, with a plethora of characters who are by turns tender and frustrating. And they feel both tender towards and frustrated by the ties that bind them to each other. War, illness, heartbreak, and poverty lead to both uplifting and devastating moments within these families. More run-of-the-mill moments produce baseness and kindness, according to the characters' true nature, but no one is devoid of tenderness. Hosseini's creations are kaleidoscopic.

I was confounded by a couple of his writerly choices. A letter which serves as a chapter-long info-dump ("As you know....") and the disappearance from the novel of the story-telling father were both misses for me. But I was still crying at the end, so, clearly this worked for me on many levels.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Mothers and Daughters and the Storylines Between Them

Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)
Format: hardback via library

From Goodreads: "Mothers and daughters ride the familial tide of joy, regret, loathing, and love in these stories of resilient and flawed women. In a battle between a teenage daughter and her mother, wheat bread and plain yogurt become weapons. An aimless college student, married to her much older professor, sneaks cigarettes while caring for their newborn son. On the eve of her husband’s fiftieth birthday, a pilfered fifth of rum, an unexpected tattoo, and rogue teenagers leave a woman questioning her place. And in a suite of stories, we follow capricious, ambitious single mother Ruby and her cautious, steadfast daughter Nora through their tumultuous life—stray men, stray cats, and psychedelic drugs—in 1970s California."

I mentioned about me and the short stories these days, right? Well, I'm still on that streak. And Serber's debut collection was immediate and open and real. Very "these people could be my neighbors." The title story in particular evoked the same "I'm not proud I thought it" feeling of gee, I'm so glad my kids are boys instead of girls I get sometimes when dining with my friends. Not that I'm unaffected by the complex and inextricably linked lines between mother and daughter - I am a daughter, after all, and one who has shared an office with her mother for the past 20 years. (Hi, mom!) (Thanks for not being like Ruby in this collection, mom!)

I particularly admire Serber's deft selection of telling details and shaping of key moments. She gave me a lot to dwell on and moments that stick clearly and vividly to my heart. I'm looking forward to reading more by her.