Sunday, April 19, 2015

Thank you!

You were right. Yep, I feel pretty confident in predicting (projecting?) that you, dear reader, probably read The Rosie Project and then wrote a blog post or a tweet or something about how cute it was. When I saw that, I made a little mental note. And you were totally right!

I was at a book swap event* and spotted this being put out onto the Romance table, and immediately I thought, That's that book my dear internet friend -- yes, her/him -- said was adorable! Gotta grab that one! So thank you for that recommendation, because it was adorable. I read the whole thing today, start to finish, breakfast to dinner. I thought it was like having a really good burger and fries and beer at the end of a long day. There might not be anything especially innovative or surprising about that, but it's so satisfying.

A photo posted by Julie (@jfount2) on

* The book swap was quite interesting. I can't help myself, I am always interested in how things get organized and I've been thinking about the concept of book swaps lately since at least three have appeared on my radar this month. The one I went to was totally free (*fist pump*). People arrived with their books (the organizers requested a maximum of 15). They dropped the books off at the front table. The organizers then assembled stacks of same-genre books and carried them out to the genre tables as rapidly as they could. Us patrons milled around in an addicting loop examining the tables. It was all extremely simple, and devilishly hard to leave because there were new books being put out constantly and what if. In this case, the leftover books were going to be donated to Open Books, Everyone's Favorite Book-Selling Chicago Literacy Organization. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the books (although of course there were some clunkers being offloaded too). I brought eight and left with five, which I was quite pleased about.

As so often is the case, the ending of The Rosie Project was less fun than the rest of the book, but that was ok. The best parts were the "Don is oblivious" parts so the conclusion was bound to be a little underwhelming. I mean:
'You want to share a taxi?' asked Rosie.
It seemed a sensible use of fossil fuel.
Adorbs. I saw the ending coming from a mile away but it was fine; just because you know that burger and fries are going to be awesome doesn't make them any less awesome.

I was sort of intrigued by the little author interview in the back of my edition, where Simsion reveals that the book is actually the product of many years chasing a passion for screenwriting. I have to admit, that's not the kind of thing I expect someone to admit to: a kind of Plan B success. Or Plan C, I guess, since Simsion had a career in IT that he quit for film. I feel like this little anecdote will be useful in the future.

Oh, and I scored 61 on the questionnaire (also in the back of my edition).

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A good old-fashioned murderbook

I have to admit that when I hear the word "academic" used with a negative connotation, it makes me feel a little downhearted. I get that not everyone enjoys school things, but I have always enjoyed school things and even when a subject seems narrow or uninteresting to me, I enjoy enough niche things to appreciate other people's interest. And then all my close college friends went to grad school (I think 50% of the people at my 21st birthday have now finished their PhDs), and my own department is so friendly that I've had remarkably little exposure to conniving, petty, self-important types. Plus, a lot of grad students develop awesome hobbies and side projects in grad school (not me, I'm lame). When I think "academics" I think adorably nerdy people who are about as intimidating as a muppet.

And when I think "academic books" my heart warms, because what is better than an academic book? Academic books have a clearly defined focus, they delve deeply into their subjects, and they provide you with all the information you need to judge them -- or if they don't, then there's your assessment right there. But I appreciate that for plenty of people none of this is true, and alas, "academic", which is a rather accurate descriptor for me, is not a positive for the general public.

All of this is a long lead-in to an excellent book that strikes a happy medium between academic and general interest. The University of Chicago Press has clearly pulled out the stops to make Blood Runs Green: The Murder that Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago accessible for the general book-reading public. It's very reasonably priced, for one thing, and has a catchy title. It has maps, illustrations, a cast of characters, and a glossary. There are no superscript footnotes, and the technical parts of the introduction (historiography, methodology) have been pulled out and placed in a separate section at the end. It starts with an attention-grabbing introduction and carries on from there. Very easy to read. At the same time, it's well researched and all those important citations are there as endnotes, formatted in a gratifyingly efficient way for those of us who like that kind of thing. Seriously, I hate endnotes but these are very easy to use.

The book itself, as the subtitle suggests, tells the story of a sensational murder that took place in Chicago in the late nineteenth century. It's very much a narratively-driven book: it introduces the players, describes the victim's disappearance, the discovery of the body, investigation, and trial, before concluding with some considerations about the legacy and impact of the case. Now, murders are fairly interesting in themselves, but this was a case of a member of a secret Irish republican society being bumped off by his rivals within the group, so the story encompasses terrorism and financial misdeeds as well as nationalism and racism. Oh! And also the interplay of the press and the justice system. There's a lot here, is what I'm saying, but it's all straightforward and readable. If you like historical murder things -- and I know you do -- you'll like this.

(PS. I am delighted to find I already have a tag for "murder".)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Hewers of wood, drawers of water, and inspectors of prisons

I have a long relationship with the cover of this book (Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey).

Gosh, I love that cover art. The red ink, the handwritten title! Every time I went into a Waterstones I would end up picking it up and considering it, but it's a chunky book to have to fit in your suitcase, not to mention the price of hardcovers; and then the description just didn't seem all that interesting. "An irrepressibly funny portrait of the impossible friendship between a master and a servant." The heart wants what it wants, and the heart likes the cover art way better than that description. But sometimes fate intervenes: I found a copy of the UK hardcover at the Newberry book sale over the summer priced at only $2 ("...that must be a mistake!" said the checkout volunteer as I mentally willed her to just finish the transaction) and obviously.

This was a very enjoyable book in the end, although it gets off to a slow start. The story is told from the perspective of Olivier, the French aristocrat, and Parrot, his multi-talented servant/secretary, in alternating chapters. Parrot is pretty clearly the "main" character here in terms of development/mystery/conflict/interest, although, fittingly for the society they're living in, Olivier's chapters provide the real start-to-finish timeline for the novel as well as the engine for the plot in the novel's present. The book starts out with each character narrating his childhood; you then get Olivier narrating up to the "present"; then Parrot comes into the story, and we find out about his intervening years as we go along.

Parrot's life in particular is shaped by a whole slew of historical forces, and I recognized a lot of the things Carey was playing with in terms of the movement of people and ideas. I feel like there's a more sophisticated reference to make here than Forrest Gump, but let's don't stand on ceremony; Parrot's life story at times feels a bit Gumpian, not because he crosses paths with famous people and events but just because of the sheer number of settings he goes through. He's also blessed by his author with intelligence and skills that make him an equal with Olivier. It's not just "a master and his servant" in other words, but rather more a story of how this guy ends up as a servant as one odd episode in a life full of odd episodes; odd episodes that are nevertheless all firmly within the experience of the working class at this time. I felt aware of all this as I read, but I was still moved by the pathos of his situation.

The inside flap of my copy describes the book as "an improvisation on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville" and although that description made me skeptical at first, in the end I was totally on board. Somehow Carey manages to strike the right tone of being historically inspired but not quite claiming to be historical fiction, if you follow. Describing it as an "improvisation" is actually perfect: it's pulling out the really fascinating aspects of Tocqueville's life and world and blowing them up so you can get inside and really look at them. As you know(?), I often approach historical fiction with a heavy dose of skepticism, but this book seems like a good example of how fiction can be a means of interpreting and commenting on a particular time and place. Plus it's just plain fun to read (once you get past the childhood chapters, those are slightly rough going although key to the character development).

Now: a final note; an extremely mild observation. This book seems like an example of something else, the diversity problem in publishing, as it was apparently shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. Now, I don't know how those awards work and I have even less clue what else was eligible in 2010, but while I enjoyed this book and thought it was really masterfully written I have a hard time seeing it as major-award-worthy. This isn't to take anything away from the book or its author whatsoever, and I've already noted that it succeeds at something I don't often see books succeeding at; but just, when I think about the whole world of UK publishing and English-language writing... it just strikes me as a data point that would, on its own, support the notion that the publishing industry favors established white guys writing about white guys. I will leave the strong criticism to people who actually have a clue about the real world. If I'd read this in 2010 it might have made it onto my shortlist of best books published in that year, but as we all know I only ever read two books a year that were actually published in that year so that's not a particularly high honor.

If there are awards for cover art though, I'm behind it all the way.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Getting real about Lent (sorry, not a book post)

I have not one, not two, but three books to write up for you (Parrot and Olivier in America, Youth Without God, and a Don Camillo collection) -- but I wanted to write up something about Lent so I'm going to go ahead and do that first. Sorry. I do fully intend to write those three up soon, before I totally forget what I had to say about them, so please excuse this digression and we'll be back to our contractual obligations soon.

Right, so. Lent.

I have an abysmal track record when it comes to Lent. As a kid, my family always attended (and not infrequently was in charge of) Friday Stations & Soup nights during Lent, but I had little notion of "giving something up" until I got to high school. Then, it seemed to be mostly a matter of making a big fuss anytime someone (probably me) dared to eat something chocolate during Lent. UGGGGGGH, DON'T EAT THAT IN FRONT OF ME, I CAN'T EAT CHOCOLATE CUZ IT'S LENT, UGGGGH!!!! Between religion class and school Masses I was pretty much aware of the degree to which these various girls did not actually believe in Christianity/Catholicism (Ed. according to them! this is not just me being judgey!), so the whole "giving something up" practice just seemed illogical, hypocritical, and/or superstitious. My Lenten problem was only heightened in college, where the Catholic center seemed to agree with my view on "giving something up" but didn't seem to have much to offer in terms of making sense of Lent. The approved view was something along the lines of "doing something nice extra" but it was nothing on the scale of or with the same tone as those childhood Stations & Soup nights and so it wasn't at all clear what we were doing differently from any other forty days of the year. Really, it's only been in the last five years or so that I've not only gained an intellectual understanding of Lent but also begun to spiritually understand it (that is, understanding it from a more organic place).

Still, even in these last five years, I've struggled to effectively do anything for Lent, because as it turns out I have very little will-power when it comes to small day-to-day choices. A priest once described sacrifices as "practicing saying no to yourself" which really turned a light on for me... which then made it clear how infrequently I really succeed in saying no to myself. Those girls who mechanically gave up chocolate for Lent were actually doing something I would find at least as difficult to do for any reason. It's one of the major recurring spiritual lessons of my life, really, that being perhaps a more intellectually inclined person doesn't let you shortcut around the basic training you get from practices like saying rosaries or novenas or "giving something up". I definitely grew up in an environment that valued, say, meditation over vocal prayer, and being in the top ten of my class academically made me think I was on some kind of spiritual AP track too and shouldn't have to "bother" with the "basics"; but what I've found is that I make more progress in the former when I pay humble attention to the latter. Anyway.

With that lengthy bit of background, I have hopes for this year. I want to try, and to succeed or fail as it may be, with as little fudging of the goal posts as possible. This blog post is part of that, as I tend to sort of throw together a Lent plan on Fat Tuesday and then retrospectively tweak it. So here I am, putting it all in complete sentences on the public internet.

As our friend Count Fosco would say: "Behold -- the programme!"


As I mentioned above, this is a hard one for me, and I am aiming high this year. No snacking. I am a big-time stress eater, and I know it's a spiritual problem for me and not just a diet or budget problem. It's stress, but it's also boredom and escapism. I know from long experience at this point that when I let myself get into a habit of lots of extra treats and snacks during the day and in the evening, it's a sign that I'm not dealing with what I need to be dealing with. This has certainly occurred to me as a possible Lenten sacrifice before, but I've avoided it out of either pride ("giving up snacks? boring") or cowardice ("too hard, I'll never be able to do it"). This year, though, I'm taking aim. I'll probably want to complain about it like those girls in high school, and if it's super hard, it's super hard. As a corollary: I will be focusing on eating three proper meals in the day (except the big fasting days obvs) in order to counteract the drifting.


This devotional site sort of came out of the blue for me; I had never heard of it, and I think it's new, except I haven't seen anything announcing its newness. I just saw a retweet and when I clicked through liked what I found. Anyway, I ordered their Lenten journal (you can get it as a digital download) and I'm going to give the prayer journaling a try. I already have a few "extra" prayers and novenas going on for various intentions so there's that too; but praying with scripture is something I'm a bit lazy about so I want to make an effort to stay on track with it this Lent.


The funny thing about the three parts of Lenten sacrifices is how very bad I am at all three of them. I guess that's, like, the human condition but there you go. Anyway, I think what I need this Lent is to be more hands-on. Some years I feel like what I need is to put a crowbar in my wallet and give some money away, but this year I think I need to actually perform some service. One of the young adult groups I attend does a monthly Saturday mission helping with a parish food bank, and so I am tentatively planning to participate in one of those Saturdays (I haven't seen the dates yet, so assuming that works out). Otherwise, I am "challenging" myself to participate in some other service day (there's always a few during Lent). Again with the pride: I tend to think that I, in my specialness, don't need some kind of National Honor Society-style pre-packaged service day, but that's ridiculous.

So there you go: an actual three-point plan for Lent, formulated nearly a week in advance of Ash Wednesday. *makes pumping iron gesture*

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

In which the Polar Vortex forces me to write a post

I think I would have to rank The Way We Live Now among my favorite book titles ever. It's maybe not a particularly original phrase but something about the rhythm of it appeals to me. It's evocative and immediate; as soon as you read the phrase it conjures up something of the change we all have to deal with in our own lives. Maybe that's just me. Anyway, not only is it a nice little string of words, it also fits the book perfectly and even lends a little focus to a fairly wide-ranging plot.

Y'all know I love some Trollope. Apparently this is one of the books that gets singled out as his "masterpiece" and I can see that. There's a lot going on, but the book never gets lost in the weeds or bogged down (or other landscape metaphors). Even as I was reading I was impressed by the way the different elements unfolded, and pleased to find that there were no over-the-top satirical digressions like some others of his books (yaaaaaay).

At the center of the book is change, and particularly change around the relationship between money, honor, and social acceptance. The sinister Augustus Melmotte is making unheard of sums of money, and he has a daughter who will presumably be the heir to all this. Although he, his Jewish wife (yes, it goes there, or skirts close), and the mousey daughter are completely uncouth, various impecunious nobles and members of respectable society start cosying up and/or scheming to become part of his business or to marry the daughter. Melmotte is making his money through -- brace yourselves -- SPECULATION

which obviously makes everything worse. Trollope's big point is that there's no there there, both in terms of the money (that's not really a spoiler, is it?) and in terms of Melmotte's social acceptance. People don't really want to associate with him, but the fact that other people apparently are willing to tolerate him (for his ££££) makes them willing to go along too. Here, this passage captures the line of thinking at the heart of the novel nicely:
There is money going. There must be money where there is all this buying and selling of shares. Where does your uncle get the money with which he is living like a prince at San Francisco? Where does Fisker get the money with which he is speculating in New York? Where does Melmotte get the money which makes him the richest man in the world? Why should not you get it as well as the others?
Trollope obviously has a problem with Melmotte as a foreigner, and the book certainly leaves the door open to anti-semitism, at the very least. It's interesting that Melmotte himself is not Jewish, but his wife, who basically does and says nothing, is Jewish; and also that in an episode in which a young lady decides to marry an old rich Jewish guy for the material advantages and gets rejected by her parents for doing so, it's the Jewish financier who comes off best of all. So while Melmotte's cosmopolitan background and association with, yes, Jewish moneylenders, are all very sinister, Trollope seems to be pretty deliberate in trying to make his book not about evil Jews corrupting everything. Certainly he's not up to modern post-Holocaust levels of decency and sensitivity, but he does also seem to be trying, in the context of his own time and contemporary developments, to align himself on the progressive, open-minded end of things. And in this book, it's actually America that is the most consistent source of sketchiness and danger. Anyway, just as important is the fact that the "respectable" English characters do not cover themselves in glory. There's lots of shameless conniving around cash-grab marriage matches; the young heirs to respectable positions are pissing away their inheritance and youth gambling and corrupting young working women; and of course everyone's primarily concerned with what everyone else thinks of them.

Well, that's what Trollope's concerned with, but it's an entertaining book because the characters are interesting. Trollope does his thing with the romantic pairings, showing how love is both a natural phenomenon that can't be helped or created, but also something that can be influenced by circumstances and even rational considerations. I just like the way he writes these things; it's not just overwhelming romantic love that wins the day, but rather a combination of (irrational) affection and (rational) admiration that lead to a happy pairing. Trollope likes giving counter-examples, where people are attracted to each other or respect each other but the match just doesn't work because the other half of the equation is missing, and while the mother or the lover or someone else might urge the girl (it's usually the girl) to go through with it anyway, Trollope upholds the ideal that both things ought to be there. Well -- he upholds it for the middle class at least. Ruby Ruggles has affection and romance confused (due to reading novels, bad girl), but I don't think she ever had much affection for whats-his-face the miller.

A surprise awesome character in this book is Dolly Longstaffe -- Dolly, short for Adolphus, he's a dude and yes that threw me for... a while. If we're keeping a list of proto-Bertie-Woosters, he goes right on there, not least he becomes the one who sets the ball rolling for the great unraveling in the final third of the novel. He starts out as a kind of nothing background character and, thanks in no small part to his own clueless bullheadedness, becomes a kind of hero in the end by sticking to his guns and refusing to play the game(s).

FINALLY, I come to the thing that prompted me to actually sit down and write this. Hilariously (to me), one of the great modern social evils Trollope wanted to expose in this book was the evil of authors and reviewers colluding to promote books. That's right: threats to the social order, new forms of financial trickery, and FALLACIOUS BOOK REVIEWING, oh noes! So in service of this very important theme one of the main characters is Lady Carbury, who is seeking literary fame. (There is a lot to be said about Lady Carbury, and how she is a much more sympathetic character than Trollope means her to be, and how his solution is for her to just support a male writer, but dammit this post is already too long.) At one point she starts writing a novel and she names the main character Cordinga, "selected by Lady Carbury as never having been heard before either in the world of fact or in that of fiction." Which I was reminded of when I read Alice's post about Carmilla, because I was all "that's not a real name, silly Victorian authors."

UGH FINE I will make brief comments about Lady Carbury. If you read her plot as "Trollope is offended by no-talent people who only write for the sake of getting attention, and who are willing to game the system to get that attention," it's like, ok T, you're kind of an elitist dick, but if you're seriously bothered by this, fine, whatever. But the fact that she's a woman, and her failings as an author seem characteristically feminine -- well. And then he gives her this super-sympathetic backstory, where she's had a really shitty life, including an abusive marriage, and so she has set her cap at literary fame to redeem her life now that she's a widow. So while she behaves really awfully to her children, it's hard to see her literary aspirations as anything other than mildly humorous, and certainly not as a point against her. Again, as an individual character who doesn't have any particular love or talent for writing, it kind of works for her to end up settling to enjoy the literary scene through a social connection to it rather than as a celebrated author -- but that's not actually it, is it: it's that her proper role in the end is as wife and hostess. Mmhm.

Anyway. As usual, I did really like this book even though Trollope is like, Dead White Guy Number One. I read it over Christmas and even though it's a big ol' Victorian novel I happily picked it up whenever I got a chance.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

#Minithon (updated with thrilling conclusion)

I feel the need to record my mini-participation in today's Mini Readathon.
Click for other, more awesome posts
I woke up this morning at about 7am, mostly because my head is full of Sinus Death. And then I had breakfast of sausage links (mini-er than normal grilling sausages), pills (small things, obvs), and coffee (first rule of Minithon is that the coffee is never mini).

My mini reading material of choice this morning was comic books because those have a mini word count. And because when you are feeling a bit beat up and lazy, no one understands better than Hawkeye.

Someone else put this on the internet, for the record
My other reading material today is the London Review of Books, issues of which are piling up on my couch. Although it is printed on satisfyingly large paper, the LRB is in fact made up of reviews and essays, both of which are pretty mini, so there.

And just to amplify the mininess of the day, I actually am probably not doing much reading this afternoon because I promised a friend to help with childcare at an event she's hosting today, so there's further smallness for you. Mini on, fellow mini-ers.

I read volumes 1 and 2 of Hawkeye and loved them all over again. Because, boomerang. Then I went and did my babysitting thing, which took me up to the end of the official Minithon time frame, but I ended up reading about a half of an LRB anyway. I'm a doctor, not a timekeeper! (No, really, I'm a doctor now, Alice isn't just trolling me in some inscrutable, vaguely complimentary way.) And then I watched 30 Rock and knitted. Well done, Minithonners! Let's all drink little airline bottles of booze in celebration.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Haven't we had enough voting this week? -or- Waiting for Goodreads to send my dang sticker

I don't really use Goodreads. I like the scanning of barcodes part (who wouldn't; except probably someone who spends their working days doing that anyway) and I like the idea of having this automagically generated report of what I've read. Furthermore it can be fun and rewarding to enter my page progress. But I don't write reviews, I hate doing stars, I don't really add people as friends, and it's a lot less cool to log in and see what I've abandoned or stalled out on. (Is there a good way to "finish" a book in the sense of quitting it? I haven't played around with it much, but Goodread's interface seems kind of inflexible compared to my usual patterns of reading, which involve a lot of not-reading.)

However, in addition to being a place where people can apparently carry on utterly pointless feuds, Goodreads is a place where you can click on buttons to vote for Book(s) Of The Year. I saw some chatter on Twitter that one book I definitely support had been nominated so I dusted off my log-in and cast my vote. Then I started looking for other books to vote for. When I didn't see any other books I've read as nominees I started thinking up write-in candidates.

And that's more or less when I realized how little I read in the year it's been published. There are a few things, notably Pioneer Girl, that I've read and liked and which qualify. One book, I really wanted to vote for it but the site wouldn't let me. Since I live in a pig sty studio apartment it was sitting in arm's reach, and I checked the publication date: 2014! Or no, wait, 2012; the US hardback came out in 2013 and the paperback in 2014. So fine, you win, Goodreads.

Since academics are slow, and since this is the centenary year, I think The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 still qualifies as a new book, though. It certainly qualifies as a book you should read. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you want one book to read for the centenary, this is it. That's not a very original opinion; this book has gotten a lot of praise. July 1914 is a quicker, pacier read (and has bigger type), and is essentially narrative, whereas Clark goes broader and deeper, exploring various factors and facets of the prewar world in a more explicitly analytical way. If you are really getting serious about the topic (reading two books qualifies), I strongly recommend getting hold of the review essay by John Deak published in the June 2014 Journal of Modern History titled "The Great War and the Forgotten Realm: the Habsburg Monarchy and the First World War." Most academic libraries, I dare say, have some sort of public provision if you want it, and Deak's review of Austrian history and historiography is invaluable.

Anyway, back to the book. The first chapter of The Sleepwalkers is an overview of Serbian politics in the nineteenth century, which is such an amazing, mindblowing, perfect choice I can, indeed, hardly even. Chapter two then deals with Austria-Hungary and its internal politics. Clark sets the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary front and center, takes it seriously, and is never too eager to sweep it aside in favor of great-power conflicts that must obviously be the real truth. One of the simple but excellent insights here is the way Clark chooses to make an analogy between the Serbian nationalists of the 1910s and modern terrorist organizations. That kind of thing can be tenuous, and at any rate it's liable to become dated, but in this case it's convincing and moreover an extremely effective way to quickly get the reader into the scene. The second section, chapters three through six, treats the international political situation not simply as a matter of international relations or the interaction of policy but a messy tangle of individuals often working at cross-purposes. This is a theme that will resonate with the July 1914 book, but Clark goes into much more detail, focusing country by country with subheadings like "Who Governed in St Petersburg?" and "Who Governed in Paris?" This section deals with a lot of different themes and theories that appear in "1914" literature, so you get wonderful little passages like "A Crisis of Masculinity?" (Side note: Christopher Clark must be superhuman, for all that he's able to cover in this book.) Finally, in the third section, we get back to the July crisis proper. This section covers familiar ground but is able to draw on all the consideration of the preceding 360 pages to really supercharge the narrative.

Guys, I'm fawning over this book, which is so uncool and gets one nowhere in one's career, but whatevs. It's amazing the level of research here and even more amazing how effortlessly it's put across. I put this in my suitcase when I went to Rome this summer, even though it takes up a significant amount of space, simply because I couldn't put it down. It's a long book, I know, but if you like reading history I guarantee you will love this, and however far you get into it you will get a lot out of it.