This little piece is kind of like a journal entry from about two months ago. So it’s not really breaking news about my current situation with my baby and my job. It took doctor’s orders to get me to give Cogan formula in the end. Reducing his bottles during the day had increased his nighttime feedings, and we are still trying to reverse that mistake for the sake of our sleep and sanity. By now, Cogan has had soy formula mixed with pumped milk, and he didn’t seem to be able to tell the difference. He’s also had lots of solids; I think avocados are his favorite. And he’s teething; I just felt the fourth little point. My pumping has improved too, thanks to a pumping bra, though not quite enough to keep up with his demand. I’m in a much better mental place about all of it, but I did need to bring in an expert in order to realize that the only thing worse than giving him formula was not giving him formula. Perfectionism dies hard, but it can be killed, thank God.
Horns by Joe Hill
In this novel, a young man wakes up one day with horns on his head, and discovers he has a strange effect on people. They confide their darkest desires to him, and he can persuade them to do things. Iggy Parrish’s girlfriend was raped and murdered a year ago, and he’s still the prime suspect. Though he was never charged, his life has been ruined. The mystery of this murder and Iggy’s revenge form most of the book’s plot. From the opening with the horns, things get more and more fantastic, until the end, which I’m still puzzling over.
This book was fun to read, naughty and raunchy at times. There are lots of puns and jokes on horns, along with all of the “devilish” imagery you can think of: a pitchfork, snakes, fire, a restaurant called “The Pit,” fun stuff like that sprinkled all around.
The villain is a complete misogynist, a really nasty, twisted person, who even as a teenager says some of the most disgusting stuff about women I’ve ever read. He really believes in the virgin/whore dichotomy. It’s implied at one point that he had a brain injury that may have caused his behavior. He works as an aide to a Republican congressman, and at one point he says he wants to be the next Karl Rove, which made me chuckle.
The theology or philosophy behind Horns was unusual and definitely not conservative. It seemed similar to the ideas from His Dark Materials, in which the Fall was a good thing and religion is a lie. Near the middle of the book, as he takes on his devil persona, Iggy preaches a sermon to a pile of snakes in which he says that women are more worthy of worship than God. His language is too earthy for this statement to be about putting women on a pedestal. He says that God condemned his girlfriend for breaking up with him and wanting to be with other men, and he in turn condemns God for abandoning her, which may show that he has forgiven her, and accepts her freedom.
I’m looking forward to the movie starring Daniel Radcliff.
The Gift of the Magi and Other Short Stories by O. Henry
I mostly remember “The Gift of the Magi” from its Sesame Street retelling. Burt sold his paper clip collection to give Ernie a soap dish for his rubber ducky, and Ernie sold his rubber ducky to buy Burt a box for his paper clips. So sweet.
That one story was all I knew of O. Henry until reading this little collection. It was really interesting to see the kind of stories that were enormously popular a century ago. There were several cases where it seemed like the humor didn’t translate or the style seemed overdone, but mostly I could see the appeal. A few of the stories seemed clichéd to me, but it’s not unlikely that I got that feeling because this story was the original source of the cliché. I didn’t know that crime was such a theme of O. Henry’s stories. There were a couple pieces about someone recently released from prison, and what he does next. Several of them were about one person outsmarting another, with a signature twist at the end.
One story was set in Nashville and went on about how it was such a boring, sleepy little town. That was kind of hilarious to me, but I guess the setting was pre-Grand Ole Opry, etc. That story was kind of problematic in other ways because of its portrayal of African-Americans as cheats and former slave owners as deserving the loyalty of their recently freed slaves.
Things That Are: Essays by Amy Leach
This little volume contains essays about the natural world that are really wonderful, as in full of wonder. Leach chose every word carefully and playfully. She toys whimsically with words, for example, the names of several flowers that contain the word “love.” Her gorgeous language lulled me into a meditative mood as I read. The research behind this little collection was pretty impressive. I learned quite a bit about lots of different animals and plants: lizards and lilies, caterpillars and pandas. But Leach also takes outer space as her subject in several of the essays, so that her writing is both a microscope and a telescope zooming all the way in on insects and all the way out to the stars.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
I will have to say one thing for sure–this book is hard to put down. It kept me interested, to say the least. It was so sick and twisted–I was like a rubbernecker, I couldn’t look away. There are several big surprises, and I’m finding it impossible to write about the book at all without including spoilers. So you’ve been warned.
It was absolutely chilling to watch a marriage go from perfect to adulterous to mutually murderous to coerced. I found myself agreeing with some of Amy’s diatribes, especially her rant about the ‘cool girl.’ And that taught me something kind of scary about myself. Because as horrifying a monster as she undoubtedly is, there is a sense that Amy is a product of her family and her society. The kernel of truth in her nastiest, most cynical pronouncements about men and relationships comes from real inequality that I’ve experienced just as much as Amy has, and so I could have the same horrible, self-righteous urges she has.
Amy’s capacity to scheme and plot and cold-bloodedly execute her plan makes her the smartest villain I’ve read about in a while. She’s right that this is why she succeeds where others fail. A good plot like the one she concocts does need months and months of preparation and groundwork, and very few people would have the chilly resolve necessary. Her plan was truly masterful, and even after a few last-minute changes. My favorite touch was the clues that could be read in two ways by two audiences, Nick and the cops. She wins in the end, but Nick is able to redeem himself through regaining a sense of his own goodness. And Amy’s victory is hollow, of course. It seems like Nick might even be able to love her again someday, but she will always know that she forced that love out of him. Though it seems like sincere affection matters less to her than her definition of ‘winning.’ I liked the complexity of this ending.
Though by the end he’s clearly the ‘good guy,’ Nick is a jerk, to be as nice about it as possible. Once he revealed his affair, I had a hard time sympathizing with him. From beginning to end, I never felt like I saw quite enough sincere contrition from him, but only attempts to save his own hide through faking remorse. He was honest about how sleazy his affair was, and how cowardly it was as a marriage exit plan, but he still acted entitled to it. When I heard Ben Affleck was playing him in the movie, I thought that was inspired casting, entirely appropriate based on the description–a guy so good-looking you just know he’s a smug asshole.
I would have appreciated it if one character had spoken up and said how horrible it is for a woman to fake being raped, how disrespectful it is toward real rape victims who have to deal with people doubting their charges for this very reason. Or if Amy had noted that she had to make a point of fabricating incontrovertible physical evidence because she knows how much scrutiny rape victims face. Something to put her actual faked rape in the context of real rape victims constantly being accused of making up their trauma.
Allegiant by Veronica Roth
This post has spoilers. You’ve been warned.
This book feels very different from the other two in the trilogy. Tris and her friends leave Chicago and learn that their entire society and its faction system was part of a huge experiment. The perspective zooms back to take in an entire ravaged nation instead of only one city. This disorienting narrative move catches the reader almost as much off guard as it does the characters. Not only do characters discover that the world is much bigger than they thought, but their lives were built on fictions whose purpose was only to keep people from killing each other while they breed their genes back to health. The stuff about damaged DNA and ‘clean’ DNA is interesting as speculative fiction, though the moral issues brought up seemed disconnected from the ones that the earlier books dealt with. It was always clear to me that Tris’s society must have emerged out of the rubble of some catastrophe, and that it did not arise naturally but was planned deliberately by some authority, and Allegiant explains what happened to give rise to the faction system.
The faction system was probably the most interesting thing about the world of the Divergent series, so it was kind of a disappointment to spend the novel away from Chicago. Though none of the characters are living in a factioned society anymore, Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, and Amity aren’t gone from the book. They still inform Tris’s worldview and choices. I found it really interesting how the characters go through a period of mourning for the faction system when they hear that it was based on a lie. It gave meaning to their lives, and it continues to do so even as they rebuild.
Most of the other people I know who read the book were disappointed in the ending. Tris dies in a successful attempt to prevent the bad guys from destroying the memories of everyone in Chicago, wiping their memories instead. The main character dies; that doesn’t happen in many books, especially when she’s a first person narrator. For that reason it may feel to some of those readers like Roth broke an unspoken deal that authors have with their readers. This death didn’t bother me as much as it did many other readers. I liked Tris and thought her death was sad, even tragic and heartbreaking, but she was leading a revolution, and she was brave enough not to spare herself the hardest job. She would not have been herself if she had let anyone else make that sacrifice instead, and no one else would have been able to succeed in that doomed mission. Because of her death it’s not a traditional happy ending, but it is a happy ending for the entire faction society and even the whole country, because Tris’s sacrifice prevents disaster and allows others to someday prove that the whole ‘damaged DNA’ thing is a crock. Tris would be the first to say that these outcomes are more important than her life. She’s both Dauntless and Abnegation to the core.
I feel like I’ve spent this entire review just defending Roth against those who didn’t like the trilogy’s ending. That’s not really fair; I enjoyed the experience of reading the book (and the previous two) too much for that. I’d recommend the trilogy to anyone who likes YA dystopia.
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Alina Starkov is one of the most endearing narrators I’ve read in a long time. She’s hilarious in the most wry, self-deprecating way, and Her story is kind of hard to explain, but it’s amazing. Alina and Mal grow up together in an orphanage, but are separated when Alina shows an unusual talent. She is Grisha, one of a magical elite, so she must go and train in a palace, under the supervision of the Darkling, the most powerful and inscrutable of the Grisha. Alina is not just any Grisha, though. She’s a Sun Summoner who has the power to destroy the Shadow Fold, a treacherous blighted area full of terrifying volcra. The novel tells about her training and the choice she makes when she realizes the true implications of her power and the Darkling’s desires. The setting feels Russian because of the names and a few specific words.
This is also a touching and passionate love story. In the beginning of the book I was slightly annoyed by the unrequited love Alina had for Mal. It seemed to be an Eponine/Marius situation, which I always find problematic. It is surely poignant to have a lovable, compelling female character in love with her oblivious best friend, while he pursues either many women or one prettier, higher-class one. (“Little he knows, little he sees…”) However, the fact that he completely overlooks his closest confidante as a romantic prospect shows that he’s not only not worth loving, he’s not even worth it as a friend. When Mal turned up again later in the book, it seemed clear that this wasn’t really what was happening, but only Alina’s flawed perception. I loved how we got to see this couple spend time together, their hilarious rapport and private jokes. I really believed that they knew each other and were in love. So often portrayals of falling in love are about getting to know someone new, but this one was about Alina realizing she is loved by the person who knows her better than anyone. Because they were old friends their love was not about discovery, but it was a flowering of something that was already there, and that was unique and fun to watch. It was also heartbreaking in the moments when they came so close to being separated forever.
I enjoyed this book more than most I’ve read recently. The world Bardugo has created here has a unique flavor, and it was delicious to get immersed in it and just roll around for a while. I can’t wait to read the next two books in the trilogy (third one out in June), and there’s a movie deal too.