Siege and Storm

Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

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This series is the kind of thing that makes me want to fangirl all over the place. I loved the dreamy/nightmarish Russian-inspired setting, and the way magic works in this fantastic realm. Mal and Alina’s romance in Shadow and Bone was so sweet, and compared to the way they act in this book, innocent. But in a second book of a trilogy, things have to get complicated. Mal and Alina are clearly made to be together, but they’re bad at communicating, and their circumstances pull them apart. There are petty jealousies and new inequalities of rank. It’s sad to see people who love each other hurt each other, not in spite of their love but because of it. Mal acts both idiotically and with stubborn honor; Alina doesn’t work hard enough to keep him close to her, mostly because she doesn’t quite understand that that is where he wants to be. I love that this heroine has considerable lust for power and darkness within her, in addition to her sarcastic, prickly personality and inferiority complex–she’s not sunshine and roses even though her power is literally summoning light. In this book, Alina and Mal spend a lot of time in the royal palace, and a new character is a very romantic figure–a second-born prince, rumored to be a bastard, who has been away from the capital inventing flying machines while disguised as a privateer. I was afraid he would turn the story into a love triangle, but thankfully Alina is never really tempted by his (and his brother’s) pragmatic proposals.  Though the tone is often incredibly dark, there are also many funny moments. Like many #2’s in trilogies, the ending seems like it’s as bad as it can be–an explosion of violence, the heroine willingly handing herself over to the villain to save her friends. But you know it’s only going to get worse. I can’t wait to pick up the finale.

Meh.

I read a lot of books. I’m never going to have time to review all of them fully. To be honest, I just don’t have much to say about some of them. They weren’t so great I want to tell everyone how awesome they are, and weren’t so terrible I want to spew bile all over them. They were just…meh. Maybe I just don’t get them. I’m fully prepared to own my lack of response as my own deficiency, especially because the list includes a couple “classics.” I want to cross some books off my “to review” list, so here are a few that qualify for this one-word noncommittal description:

The Fountain of St. James Place by Sena Jeter Naslund

The Poison Principle by Gail Bell

Wayward Girls, Wicked Women: An Anthology of Subversive Stories by Angela Carter

Howard’s End by E.M.Forster

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Still Life by Louise Penny

I could probably add more to this list, but I guess I’m holding out hope that if I think enough about these other books, I’ll be able to come up with more than a shrug. We’ll see.

I’ve posted almost every weekday since my return to the blog, but I know I can’t keep that pace up forever. My goal for now is to post at least weekly. So if there’s nothing new here tomorrow, don’t give up on me! There should be more within a week.

The Nest

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

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This novel is about four grown siblings who have been expecting to receive and split a large trust fund, but one of them, through addiction and irresponsibility, blows through most of the money his siblings have been planning to use to keep their homes and businesses, and to send their children to college. Narration bounces between the siblings and several other characters, each one interesting and three-dimensional. It’s a large cast, composed of the four siblings, their partners, former partners, children, business associates, and victims.

The characters are all very privileged, and that’s part of the point. They feel entitled to continue lifestyles they can no longer fund independently. The story asks what happens when privileged people are on the brink of losing their advantages. How low will they go to keep what they have? Sweeney examines the corrosive potential of wealth to damage relationships. At the end, the siblings let go of the things they thought they had to cling to, from homes to marriages to their views of each other and themselves, and somehow manage to survive. The book is tragicomic and affirming, a fun read.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke

200px-jonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell_coverThis doorstopper fantasy is one of the most fun books I’ve read in a while. It tells of two men’s quest to “bring magic back to England” in the early 1800s. Mr. Norrell, a retiring, bookish magician wants to bring the practice of magic to prominence and respectability, but he has to make a bargain with a fairy to cement a relationship with a member of Parliament, securing his influence. The havoc the fairy wreaks in the lives of that MP’s wife and servant, stealing their health and sleep, forms a major subplot. Every time the poor victims try to tell anyone of their plight, they speak nonsense or tell a fairy story.

Jonathan Strange, a very Romantic figure, becomes Norrell’s apprentice. They use magic to help the English generals and admirals in the Napoleonic Wars, conjuring storms, building roads, and even raising the dead. Strange and Norell eventually disagree, causing a rift in the new magical community. Norrell wants to keep all magic under his personal control, especially the books of magic, while Strange wants to explore the dangerous roads into fairyland. Long, impressively detailed footnotes fill in encyclopedic details, making the novel feel like a history book, but it’s a history in which fairy tales are considered primary documents. The creepy fairy world and its history are a huge highlight. Clarke has created an alternative history in which northern England was ruled for centuries by a fairy king named John Uskglass, and in which magic, not Nelson and Wellington, beat Napoleon. The writing approximates English novels of that period, with the wit typical of Austen and Dickens. I thought it was hilarious, fearful, and wondrous.

Southern Festival of Books 2016 Recap

I spent Saturday morning and afternoon at the Southern Festival of Books in downtown Nashville. I arrived at the downtown library at 9, unloaded the stroller and wheeled the baby to the auditorium for the early book talk. I didn’t know that it was sponsored by the Nashville chapter of the Women’s National Book Association, an organization I’m glad to have learned about. There were little muffins and coffee cakes on the way in. I parked the stroller in the hall and found a seat in the back, on the aisle, near a door, with the baby on my lap. Curtis Sittenfeld, Adam Haslett, Danielle Dutton, and Yaa Gyasi sat in a row in comfy chairs on the stage, interviewed by a local host. Each read an excerpt from their books. Questions concentrated on their writing processes, which I actually don’t find all that interesting. It’s kind of a repetitive question that comes up at every author talk I ever go to. But it was interesting and heartening to learn that Dutton’s book took her 10 years to write, and Gyasi’s took her 7. I had heard of Dutton, but not of Haslett; now both of their books are added to my long list of books to read. Luckily I’ve become comfortable nursing in public. I fed the baby during the talk, but when he was finished, he thrashed around and hit his head on the arm of my chair, making him cry. I got up and ran out the door quickly–my strategic seating decision minimized disruption. I calmed him and went back inside. He slept through the second half.

When the talk was over, I hustled the stroller up the hill to the Legislative Pavillion where the rest of the festival was. I found the ramp and the big tent from Parnassus Books with all the books from all the authors. I picked three, limited by budget, and knowing I couldn’t count on having time to get more than that many books signed. I got Sittenfeld’s Eligible, and the new books from Lauren Oliver and Beth Revis. Then I had to figure out how to get up to the signing colonnade with the stroller. I had to go into the building on the ground floor, through a hall to an elevator, then up. I met Sittenfeld, and told her I’m from Cincinnati, where her book is set. Then I rushed back inside and down the elevator to the room where Lauren Oliver’s talk would be. It was a very full room. Oliver was presenting with Kendare Blake, a small, funny woman whose YA books seem dark and gory, in a good way. Oliver’s disciplined, prolific writing schedule awes me. She writes as many as 3 books at a time, at least 500 words a day on each. No wonder she has so many novels. I also found out that her first book, Before I Fall, will be a movie in the spring. After I went back to the elevator, up to the colonnade, and got in line with the baby, I saw that Oliver actually had one of the longest signing lines I saw all day. (J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, had perhaps the longest.) The baby smiled at people in line. Oliver actually remembered me from two years ago, or at least she said she did.

I had a break then; Beth Revis’s talk didn’t start for almost 2 hours. I went back down the elevator and outside. I walked to the food trucks and got chicken tacos. That area was really crowded and hard to navigate with the stroller. I realized I couldn’t carry the plate of tacos while wheeling the stroller, so I sat down there on a curb and ate. Then the baby was fussy so I fed him too. He liked playing with my empty water bottle. Then I took my time going back to the door to get to the elevator, glancing at booths, picking up a couple brochures and wishing I could spend lots of money on cute book accessories. When I got back inside, it was still early; another talk was going on in the room, so I went to the bathroom. There was no changing table for the baby, so I changed him in the stroller. I sat in a chair and nursed him again, and he fell right asleep. Someone helped me wheel the stroller to park it in the anteroom. The room was mostly empty and there were 10 minutes to kill. I spotted two girls I’d met before at another book event and talked to them a while, exchanging contact info. Revis’s talk was mostly a prepared speech about the ‘origin story’ for her new book, A World Without You. I think she presented it that way so that she didn’t get too emotional. She said that it was inspired by the life of her brother, who passed away from complications of mental illness and addiction. That’s the kind of connection I like to learn about at a book talk. She also said that her son was born the day after she turned the book in to her publisher (and he’s now a year and a half old). Another elevator to the colonnade, then back down and out, down the hill to the library, and $11 to the parking garage (!).

All that is to say:

1) Book festivals rock. The people I meet there are so friendly and cool and alive with a spark that makes them unique. They are passionately interested in their quirky little niche, proudly letting their freak flag fly, and that is a beautiful thing.

2) Navigating crowds and multi-floor events with a stroller is exhausting. I truly feel for disabled people who have to deal with that every day and don’t ever have the option to leave the baby at home.

3) Tennessee’s state government building is not set up to be very easily accessible for the disabled or for women with children. But they made as many accommodations as they could and were very friendly about opening doors and pushing elevator buttons.

4) People like seeing babies, so even though I felt like I was taking up too much space and potentially disrupting things, I felt very welcome. That was a huge relief, because I was afraid parenthood would stop me from enjoying events like this.

5) I am super lucky to have such a chill baby who is so friendly in crowds and doesn’t throw tantrums when I need him to be quiet.

6) I got introduced to some authors I’m now interested in learning more about, including Haslett and Blake.

7) I have 3 more signed books to read!

Homegoing

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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This novel begins with two sisters in Africa in the late 1700s. One marries a British slave ship captain, and the other is captured and enslaved. Later chapters follow their descendants, traveling from Fanti villages to Ashanti villages to the Gold Coast, from Georgia, to Baltimore, to an Alabama coal mine, to Harlem. Gyasi is deeply concerned with the complicity and cooperation of Africans in selling members of competing tribes into slavery; she treats it like an original sin that reverberates throughout the generations of her characters on that side of the Atlantic. A few images recur and link the families across time and space: fire, water, a necklace, beating, chasing, hiding in trees. The chapters read like linked short stories. While some are heartbreaking, others are hopeful, especially toward the book’s end. I found each character compelling and each story fascinating.

2016 Southern Festival of Books

As in past years, I’m excited to go to the Southern Festival of Books this weekend! I’ll have a baby in tow this time, so I’m not sure how many events we’ll make it to, but these are the authors I’m hoping to see:

Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing, to be reviewed here soon

Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Prep and Eligible, which have been on my “books to read” list for a long time

Lauren Oliver, author of the Delirium trilogy, Before I Fall, Panic, Rooms, and Vanishing Girls

Beth Revis, author of the Across the Universe trilogy

Gayle Forman, author of If I Stay and Where She Went

Maggie Stiefvater, author of Lament, Ballad, the Shiver trilogy, Sinner, and The Raven Cycle

Books on Home Decor

As I wrote last year, my family recently moved into a new house. With all the other changes in our family, it took us a long time to settle in. We wanted to take the opportunity to make our home more comfortable, functional, and attractive while everything’s in flux. So I did some reading about home decorating and organization.

However, I think I am naturally a horrible audience for these kinds of books. I have such a lack of interest or talent in these matters that small suggestions sound like mandates to me. I get overwhelmed and end up making mental lists of reasons why none of the suggestions will work for me. It’s hard for me to see any of this kind of material as ‘inspirational’ because it always seems primarily ‘aspirational’–all of it seems covered in assumptions about money and class. And if it’s not about money and class, then it’s about portraying an image of your family as together and happy and fun-loving in a facebook-photo, surface-y way. Every once in a while I find an idea that I like because it might actually make things run more smoothly or conveniently, or it’s a way to make an unattractive thing look better with little effort. But mostly reading this kind of material just makes me feel inadequate, poor, baffled, and frustrated.

I’m totally willing to own this reaction as a flaw in my own character rather than a problem with the genre or with any particular book. For the most part. Here are reviews of two books on the topic.

First I read:

Life’s Too Short to Fold Fitted Sheets: Your Ultimate Guide to Domestic Liberation by Lisa Quinn

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Of course I loved the title of this book. I was excited about the idea of liberating myself domestically by eschewing stupid chores as pointless and oppressive. I liked Quinn’s ideas about overcoming perfectionism, but found them hard to apply because she and I set our standards in such different places. When she talks about lowering her personal standards, she still ends up placing them somewhere that feels unreachable for me, so it actually ended up feeling disempowering, although I know the opposite was intended.

When Quinn suggested caviar as a pantry staple, she lost me for good.

And then I read this book:

Design Mom: How to Live with Kids: A Room-by-room Guide by Gabrielle Stanley Blair

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This book was suggested to me by A Practical Wedding, a blog community I like and trust. They said it was approachable and realistic, even when I pressed them that my idea of approachable and realistic is usually very different from that of someone who’s writing a book about home decor. So the fact that my reaction to this book was somewhat similar to the one I had to the first one tells me the problem is me, not the book.

My favorite suggestions were the ones that focused on function and convenience. Blair likes flexibility, durability, and fun stuff on the walls. She suggests which kinds of rugs, sofas, chairs, tables, floors stand up best to the messes of kids. This is useful if you’re building a house from scratch or buying all your furniture new all at once, but may be frustrating to read if you’re already locked into something that’s less than ideal.

Blair’s explanations for for her principles and ideas sometimes felt short and lacking nuance to me. Little things bugged me about the assumptions behind her suggestions. She said a dining room is pointless, assuming that all kitchens are big enough to hold a table, when fewer than half the homes we looked at while house-hunting had eat-in kitchens. She has a whole section on the living room and another one on the family room, and another section on what she called “the family office,” which means her book is meant for people whose houses are big enough to include dedicated rooms for these three functions (our old house wasn’t). She had a page about how she doesn’t allow any merchandised character clothing or decor in her house without explaining why this is important. She blithely dismissed problems that may come from siblings sharing rooms as no big deal, which seemed nonsensical to me based on my childhood experience.

I don’t claim to have much taste, but the pictured rooms didn’t appeal much to me personally. I guess this particular shabby-chic hipster-with-kids aesthetic isn’t my thing. Blair also has a thing for what she calls “industrial chic” and that’s also very much not me.

People who like this genre and already don’t feel overwhelmed and attacked by the mere suggestion of improving their space will probably like this book. One interesting aspect of the book is its asides on parenting tips, giving ideas for things like movie nights, one-on-one check-ins with each child, and chores.

Career of Evil

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

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This is the third Cormoran Strike mystery, penned by JK Rowling under her pseudonym. It begins with a severed leg delivered to Robin, Strike’s assistant. Strike identifies three men from his past who might want to hurt his reputation this way, and most of the book concerns investigating them, and flashbacks to their original crimes. Third-person narration alternates between Strike, Robin, and the killer, which makes for some pretty chilling passages. As I speculated earlier, the death of Strike’s mother did come up again, although this novel doesn’t completely resolve that plotline. Robin’s impending wedding creates another source of drama and tension between her and Strike. The final twist was just right–not so far out of the blue that it seemed impossible, but clever enough that I didn’t guess it. I was intrigued throughout. Robin and Strike are compelling characters, and their relationship develops a lot in this volume. It was a thoroughly enjoyable mystery I’d recommend to anyone who likes that genre.

What Keeps a Mom from Writing

Does parenting–specifically, mothering–make writing impossible? Are writing and mothering inherently opposed activities that a single person cannot do in the same day, year, lifetime? A lot of people have a lot of opinions about these questions, as they are sure to do with anything that relates to mothers, and some of them even have relevant experiences.

While I was pregnant with my second child, I read an essay on the topic that I found most discouraging. It was called, “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid.” It’s full of examples of successful writer-moms who had a single child, and how that child fit nicely within their careers. I can see why it would be easier to have just one kid. My three-year-old requires so much less attention than when he was a baby. If he were my only kid and I could look forward to increasing independence and decreasing demands on my time and attention, it would indeed make it easier to write. But damn, that’s depressing.

Kim Brooks, in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom,” theorizes that because art is about disturbing easy, complacent sensibilities, while parenting is about offering comfort, mothers find it hard to switch gears and their creative pursuits often suffer. I was interested in her view and found it kind of interesting and persuasive, but this is far from my personal experience. The problem Brooks describes is not my problem. The writing I do must not be literary enough, or avant garde enough, or whatever, for this to be an issue for me. Writing doesn’t unsettle me or make me a disturbing presence in the lives of my children. The habit of soothing my children might make my writing bland and boring–but hey, that might have been the case even if I’d been childless, and boring writing is better than no writing at all, which has been more my problem.

By far my favorite response to this question was “Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid” by Rufi Thorpe. This is one of those things I read and related to so hard that I wished I’d been the one to write it. I love that Thorpe finds hope in the idea that a lot of male writers who had children but neglected them were assholes, and they may have been still better writers had they been psychologically healthy adults, attentive parents renewed by their children. Thorpe locates the problem in the necessarily self-centered nature of an artist vs. a mother’s other-focused generosity. She makes her desire to be a mother who writes into something subversive and revolutionary:

“If Kim Brooks worries that the job of art is to unsettle and the job of a mother is to soothe, perhaps there is no more unsettling solution than to insist she can do both, that there is, in fact, no conflict there, that motherhood itself is dark and uncharted and frightening.”

One of the most exciting and reassuring things I’ve read recently is this excerpt from a biography of Shirley Jackson. Jackson, author of many creepy stories like “The Lottery” and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, seems to exemplify Thorpe’s assertion that motherhood can be fuel for profoundly unsettling literature. No one can deny that Jackson was a writer whose work is subversive and disturbing, and her biographer asserts that it was absolutely rooted in her role as a mother. Jackson viewed children honestly, unromantically, refusing to idealize them, and that’s what made her work so fascinating. What’s even more remarkable (and infuriating) is that she wrote her books in the 50’s and 60’s, with zero childcare support from her husband, whose expectations of her were typical of that period. Like Julianna Baggott, another prolific writer who has four children, Jackson would constantly think of her stories while doing the routine work of housekeeping. That’s a trick I need to learn.

When my first child was only a little older than my second is now, I wrote something about how I didn’t have any time to write, and how I resented the implication that my lack of time meant I wasn’t dedicated. It all still rings true. Another issue for me is still confidence–and whenever I step away from writing for a while, no matter the reason, my confidence takes another hit, and it’s that much harder to get back to it.

This is what keeps me from writing lately. It’s small practical things like the fact that the baby wants to nap on me, (he wakes up if I put him down), so I only have one hand free, if that, which is enough to scroll through facebook, but not enough to type anything longer than a tweet. It’s the way the easily bored baby fusses if I sit down while holding him; he wants me to either focus on him, talking and singing, or walk around and around the house, or put him in front of a screen. It’s the constant interruptions from the toddler, a terrible conversationalist who whines, “I want mommy talk to me.” It’s the tiredness that hits me so heavily and suddenly as soon as both boys are asleep, and I know I’ll have to wake up twice to nurse and make an early start to get myself ready for school in the morning. It’s the way the grocery list and the litany of chores left undone too long crowd my essay ideas out of my brain before they even make it to a Post-it note. It’s the free time that only comes in fifteen-minute chunks, while I keep an ear listening for a baby to wake and start crying.

As hard as it is to find the time and energy to write while pregnant or caring for a baby, I need to recommit myself to it once again because I know it’s important. I think something would be lost if mothers stopped writing while they’re in the thick of it, because memory changes things and softens the hard edges of these extraordinary years. Taking care of babies and toddlers is an intense experience, and it makes for a full, busy, tiring, wonderful life, but if that life doesn’t get recorded while it’s happening, then there can be no complete and truthful record of it.