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2016 TBR Pile Challenge: Finishing on an UGH

With nine days left in 2016 (thank God), I managed to finish my 2016 TBR Pile Challenge.

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I really didn’t think it was going to happen, especially back when I still had two mammoth books to get through: 11/22/63 (at 1080 pages) and I Am Pilgrim (785).

But last month I managed to get through 11/22/63 with a nudge from Buried in Print. And now I’ve managed to finish Terry Hayes’ I Am Pilgrim.

Sadly, not with the same result. I loved 11/22/63. I Am Pilgrim started strong for me but soon became incredibly problematic.

I’m warning you now: this is not going to be an upbeat Christmas time joy post.

The Plot

A woman is found in a New York City hotel room with her throat slashed. Her teeth have been removed, her remains left in acid and the room sprayed down with hospital grade antiseptic, guaranteeing that no trace will be left behind. This discovery sets our narrator on a path to finding a man who doesn’t want to be found, who is also bent on the destruction of the Western world.

I’m paraphrasing but you get the gist.

What I Liked

The assassin promised to be a woman who, in the beginning, sounded pretty badass. I was set for an equal battle of wits across the world.

What I Didn’t Like

Everything else?

Let’s begin with the treatment of women in the novel. Every. Single. Female. character in this book is beautiful. Sometimes she’s “achingly beautiful”, “exotic”, has incredible legs, a great ass or “her boobs were straining against a tight blouse.” Even the one woman who might be his intellectual equal, a harassed Turkish police officer, turns out to be incredibly gorgeous when he sees her without her hijab on.

UGH. It’s as though Hayes is trying to show us that he thinks all women are incredible but it comes across as condescending and patronizing. When you don’t have any female characters in main roles, when they are relegated to the status of pawns or things you want to have sex with, you’re missing the point.

Our main character is also vaguely racist? He makes a lot of offhand comments that are meant to show himself as superior, that he sees everyone as equal but again…missing it. When he’s talking about Saudi Arabian intelligence officers, who he is counting on to help him, he reminds readers that his colleague had referred to them all as “garbage wrapped in skin”, when he describes a horrific technique he’s using against a target he tells us it’s not his idea, that the Japanese came up with it and of course for them, “it was sport”, like the Japanese are just naturally cruel.

This goes hand in hand with the fact that the story’s villain is (surprise!) a Muslim man intent on destroying the West. It might have felt less racist if our narrator wasn’t the one telling the Saracen’s story (Saracen is what he calls him).

OH. There’s a little boy who has Down syndrome in the story. One character says about him “he IS Down syndrome?” (my emphasis). NO. NOOOOOO. That’s NOT HOW YOU SAY THAT. 

There’s a lot of other stuff about this book that I had a hard time with (how he ends up being super conveniently independently wealthy, how the white man saves the world again, how we’re subjected to memories that have no bearing on the story but I guess were meant to try and make him seem to have depth, or how we’re always TOLD exactly how people are feeling rather than shown, just to name a couple more) but mostly, reading this book right now, it feels irresponsible.

Part of the problem in educating yourself on certain things is that you can’t enjoy things the way you used to. Two years ago, I’m not sure that this book would have irritated me like it has done now. But now, on top of the state of the world, this book will solidify a lot of dangerous stereotypes that people already hold.

Usually, if I read a book and it’s not for me, I don’t go out of my way to prevent other people from reading it. I usually say that it wasn’t for me, but that there are still things about it that were solid.

If people ask me about I Am Pilgrim, I’m going to recommend they just not.

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2016 TBR Pile Challenge: 11/22/63

Last month I was whining lamenting the fact that I didn’t think I would finish the Unofficial 2016 TBR Pile Challenge. I had three options left, and needed to read two of them. Two of them, 11/22/63 and I Am Pilgrim were quite lengthy and I’ve been trying to find a copy of My Cousin Rachel all year.

But then, Buried in Print was like I will read 11/22/63 with you!

And I can’t ever say no to that.

Plus, I was feeling like taking a break from the non-fiction business.

I am SO glad that you made me read this. I loved it. Plus, it’s literally been on my list for FIVE years (it was the first on my TBR but one) and now I’ve finally read it.

11-22-63

So for the couple of you that haven’t read Stephen King’s 11/22/63, here’s the gist of it: There’s some kind of time portal at the back of Al’s Diner and Al had been using it to go back to prevent the assassination of JFK. But when he gets sick and realizes he won’t be able to finish the job, he asks his friend Jake to do it. When you walk through the portal, it’s September 1958 and every time you walk back through the portal, everything resets to September 1958.

My version of the book had 1080 pages and I finished it in three days. This book was compelling, interesting, funny, nostalgic, wonderful.

Jake, aka George Amberson, kind of falls in love with the world as it was. He sees the late 1950s, early 1960s as this kind of simple, idyllic paradise, where people are more honest and trusting. But of course, it’s also way more racist and sexist. People are not tolerant of those who are different in any way. At times I was annoyed at this view of the past as better than now. For many people, the past was dangerous. If you were not straight, cis-gendered, white and hopefully male, life was kind of a rough go.

The whole time Jake/George was in the past, I was dying to see what the modern world would look like once he had changed this one watershed moment. His friend Al was convinced that Vietnam, the shooting deaths of RFK and Martin Luther King Jr happened because JFK was shot. He envisioned a better world where JFK lived.

Well. George Wallace ended up becoming president after JFK, so.

I couldn’t help but be struck by some of the parallels in this new modern world and what we’re seeing now. In a world where JFK had lived, people felt like he wasn’t speaking for them, they felt left out and looked for an alternative that felt closer to home. In Jake’s new modern world, earthquakes are a regular occurrence, and Maine is now a part of Canada, annexed when problems with nuclear fallout became too big to handle.

This part was like a punch in the gut I did not see coming:

“Bill Clinton’s president?”

“Gosh, no. He was a shoo-in for the ’04 nomination, but he died of a heart attack at the convention. His wife stepped in. She’s president.”

11/22/63 strikes me as an incredibly appropriate book to have read right now. The whole thing seems to be telling us that the past can’t be changed. That it’s not productive to dwell on what could have been. That we need to look forward and change what we can control.

That’s a message that I found great comfort in.

 

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2016 TBR Pile Challenge: Matriarch

We’re getting pretty close to the end of the year! Which means holidays, darker days, lots of eating scheduled, and that I’m running out of time to complete the Unofficial 2016 TBR Pile Challenge.

I’m not quite throwing in the towel, but I’m starting to resign myself to the fact that it might not happen this year.

But the year isn’t quite over, so I dug into Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsor by Anne Edwards.

So Queen Mary was the real deal. She was born a Princess, but was one of those impoverished relatives who spent her youth putting off creditors and relying on other, more well-off relatives for extended visits.

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At some point, Queen Victoria decided that lovely, clever, dignified Princess May (she was born Victoria Mary Augusta Louisa Olga Pauline Claudine Agnes but was called May after the month of her birth) would be the perfect wife for second-heir Prince Eddy (eldest son of heir Bertie, who would become King Edward VII). But then Eddy had to go and die (he was an odd duck, a possible homosexual and rumoured to have been Jack the Ripper) and after a suitable period of mourning, her “affections” were transferred to Prince Eddy’s younger brother, Prince George (who would go on to become King George V).

Here’s the number one thing I learned about Queen Mary: she believed in the power of Monarchy. She was dignified, a core of strength for her family during some dark days and she revered the position of Monarch.

“Queen Mary had lived her life with dedication to the principle of Monarchy, and she died as she had lived, as her Sovereign’s most devoted subject.”

Seriously – Queen Mary is the reason Queen Elizabeth II is as dedicated as she is. She was the role model for duty before everything else. Also, early pictures of Princess May show a remarkable resemblance to QEII, and now to Princess Charlotte.

She wasn’t a warm mother and most of her children had a distant relationship with her. But everyone agrees that in any capacity (as Princess May, Princess of Wales, Queen Consort or Queen Mother) she was always the very personification of dignity. She loved to dress well and because of her incredibly regal bearing, she was able to wear an insane amount of jewels (ropes of pearls, diamond necklaces stacked all up her neck, tiaras, jewelled stomachers, bracelets, rings and any number of jewel encrusted orders) and look just right.

Queen Mary’s life covered an incredible amount of history: born in the Victorian era, she lived through the reigns of Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and George VI. She died just before the coronation of her granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II.

And while Anne Edwards’ book is very thorough and clearly well researched, the whole time I couldn’t help but think “but this is Queen Mary’s book.”

A lot of this book looks at the reigns and troubles of the men in her life: her father-in-law, husband and later, her sons. And while there’s no way to tell Queen Mary’s story without also talking about the wars, relationships with various Royal relatives (she never got over the fact that they weren’t able to save their cousin Tsar Nicholas II and his family), and her son’s Abdication, their stories aren’t hers. I found myself frustrated  by all the time spent talking about the education of her sons , their loves and travels.

I wanted Queen Mary only.

That said, I’m glad to have finally read this book. It’d been on my list for ages.

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2016 TBR Pile Challenge: Bellweather Rhapsody

September really does feel like a chance to get things right again, doesn’t it? Which is why it seems like a great time to try and catch up on the Unofficial 2016 TBR Pile Challenge!

I read Thunderstruck earlier this month and then put a hold on Bellweather Rhapsody at the library. It was ready for me the same day and I started it right away.

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Kate Racculia’s Bellweather Rhapsody is awesome. It starts on November 13, 1982 when Millie is an unwilling 12-year-old bridesmaid in her sister’s wedding. After photos, she wanders off in the hotel and finds herself outside room 712 which is where she witnesses the murder-suicide of a bride and groom on their wedding day.

Fifteen years later, Rabbit and Alice Hatmaker are at the same hotel for the Statewide music festival, an opportunity for gifted highschool students to make music and perform. Rabbit is thinking about using the weekend to tell his twin that he’s gay; Alice sees the weekend, her second year at Statewide, as a chance to shine even brighter. On the first night, Alice’s roommate, a celebrated and famous teenaged flautist and daughter of the interim director of the festival (the most terrifying woman ever), disappears from room 712.

I was genuinely delighted to find that the disappearance/mystery aspect of this book was secondary to the character development. Racculia’s characters are bananas – in the best possible way. Rabbit and Alice are a great one-two punch of siblinghood: Alice refers to herself as the “bad twin”, the one that is loud and will totally cut you if you mess with her brother, Rabbit is more staid, the one focused on his music who is terrified about coming out and what the next phase of his life will look like. Then there is Viola, the interim director who inspires fear in all who meet her and has left a string of misery in her wake; Natalie, the Hatmakers’ chaperone, reeling from an event in the not-too-distant past, still coming to terms with the role of music in her own life; the eccentric conductor Fisher, intent on pushing the kids to greatness while grappling with his own genius; and Hastings, the concierge still running things at the Bellweather despite plummeting guest rates and a hotel that is visibly crumbling around him.

These characters are all struggling with ideas of identity and their place in the world. For most of them, their talent is a platform for greatness but it’s also a burden as they try to reach their potential. For the adults, that decision about whether to pursue their talent or not, has already been made and now they have to make peace with that. This book was unexpectedly moving as the mystery moves off centre stage, giving the characters the space to work through their demons.

But Racculia doesn’t forget about the mystery that she teased you with and all is revealed in a most satisfying way. The full ramifications of what happened aren’t felt until years later but the payoff meant a few tears from this reader.

If you haven’t already had the pleasure of reading Bellweather Rhapsody and you love eccentric characters, pop culture references and a dash of mystery, I’d recommend this to you!

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2016 TBR Pile Challenge: Thunderstruck

OK. It’s September. Time to get back to it.

I would like to tell you that I had an incredibly relaxing bit of time off and that I feel refreshed and ready for whatever this next season brings. But the last bit of summer was insane, filled with celebrations and out of town guests and oh so much drinking.

Time to dry out and get back to real life.

Which means back to reading and blogging about the things that I read.

In order to keep up with the Unofficial 2016 TBR Pile Challenge, I’ve been making sure to read at least one of the books on my list each month. Except in August. So this month I will try to read two, knowing all the while that I made the mistake that Jennine @ My Life in Books warned me about by keeping TWO massive books on the list until the later part of the challenge.

I wanted a sure thing so the next book I picked from the list was Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck.

I have long been a fan of Erik Larson’s and I was excited to get to read another of his superb books – I almost wrote novels there. It’s easy to forget that Larson is actually writing non-fiction.

thunderstruck

Thunderstruck tells two stories as they come together in an exciting conclusion. One is the story of Guglielmo Marconi and his work to perfect his invention of wireless communication. The other is the story of Hawley Harvey Chippen, the kindest, gentlest of men who almost got away with the perfect crime.

I will freely admit that this one was more of a challenge for me to get into that Larson’s other books. It reminded me a bit of The Devil in the White City where you are reading the story of the set up of the World’s Fair but all you really want to read about is North America’s first serial killer. Plus, the science behind wireless communication is mostly well over my head.

But.

I stuck with it and was well rewarded. Part of what got me through those early sections were Larson’s tantalizing hints of what was to come. Larson constantly draws your attention to look out for things later. And Larson also has a way of inserting himself into his narrative with wry comments about things like the fact that Marconi wasn’t well-versed in how to understand people, or the improbable name of a boarder (May Pole).

While reading this book, it struck me how much it intersected with his other work. There is the talk of coming conflict with the Germans (which sets up In the Garden of Beasts), talk of the Lusitania (Dead Wake), and murder (The Devil in the White City). If there had been more storms perhaps he could have hit Isaac’s Storm as well.

In the end I was amply rewarded for my time spent with this book. I was totally delighted with the way the whole thing came together and am left wondering what tale Larson has in mind to tell us next. As per his twitter, he may have nailed it down.

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2016 TBR Pile Challenge: Half of a Yellow Sun

I’ve not been having the greatest luck with my TBR Pile Challenge this year. Oh, I’ve stayed on track and managed to read at least a book a month, but it feels like I haven’t fallen in love with any of the books in a while.

I did love The Book of Unknown Americans and The Mathematician’s Shiva and In Triumph’s Wake was a revelation…but there was also The Little Book, The Slap and The Grapes of Wrath debacle. The Custom of the Country was only so-so for me.

I really wanted a win.

And at first, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun seemed like it would end up in the disappointment column.

I’m happy to report that, after a rocky start, I loved Half of a Yellow Sun.

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Half of a Yellow Sun tells the story of the Biafran War that took place from 1967-1970 and the people that were affected by it. Ugwu, a 13 year old when we first meet him, goes to work as the house-boy of a professor at Nsukka University, Odenigbo. Soon, Odenigbo’s girlfriend, Olanna comes to live with them. Olanna is the beautiful daughter of an Igbo chief, whose twin sister Kainene takes up with an English man, Richard. Richard, Olanna and Ugwu are our storytellers, but through them we keep up with Odenigbo’s revolutionary politics and Kainene’s business interests.

I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know anything about the Biafran War. Reading Half of a Yellow Sun made me realize how little I knew about any African history, aside from anything that affected European politics. Adichie’s family lived through this war – her grandfathers didn’t survive it. The stories that she tells in this book are based on the experiences of real people.

When I first started reading this, I read in fits and starts; 10 pages here, 13 pages there. I loved Americanah so much – it grabbed me from the very first page – and I was afraid that this one just wasn’t going to live up to it.

But it did. Once I devoted some proper time to this book (and if you decide to read it, I would recommend that you have some time to really get into this one) I fell in love. Adichie’s vivid depictions of a people torn apart by war, of the lives that they led and then lost, of the ways that Ugwu, Olanna, Richard, Kainene and Odenigbo have to figure out how to survive in this new reality, of the love that they have for the idea of an independent Biafra, to be able to exist as an example of free African government, are intense.

This book taught me a lot – mostly about how much more I have to learn. I have a rabbit hole waiting for me right now on the actual history and politics of the Biafran War. If I wasn’t already a huge fan of Adichie’s, I would be now.

PS Half of a Yellow Sun is also a movie.

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2016 TBR Pile Challenge: The Little Book

Sometime last year, I started reading Selden Edwards’ The Lost Prince. A few pages in, it became clear to me that this was actually the second book in a series. It wasn’t the kind of book that worked as a standalone so I needed to read the first book.

The Little Book was the first book. As an impetus to actually get it read, I put it on my 2016 TBR Pile list.

Remember when I walked away from The Grapes of Wrath?

And then I had so much trouble with The Slap?

The Little Book was more of the same but I couldn’t walk away from it because I thought I had put The Lost Prince down as one of my alternates for the challenge. Turns out, I didn’t. The Little Book WAS one of the alternates and so I didn’t actually have to finish this book but I thought that I did and so I did. Even worse, really.

little book

The Little Book starts out so promising. Wheeler Burden’s mother tells readers that her son, a modern era rockstar, somehow went back in time to Vienna in 1897. His actions there changed the future of his entire family. This is that story.

Awesome, right?

The Little Book was all over the place. One chapter you’re in Vienna with Wheeler, the next you’re back in Wheeler’s childhood, or at his Boston boarding school in the middle of the 20th century. Then you’re reading about his father’s life during WWII. I don’t mind jumping around like that normally, but something about the way this was done rubbed me the wrong way.

There were also a number of scenes that made no sense to me – why were they included? Like when Wheeler wanders into a closed off area of a museum and runs into a mourning Empress Elisabeth starting at a portrait of her dead son. Or why Wheeler has a wooden Frisbee made at all. Literally the only reason is so that he and his dad can play with it in the park in 1897.

Oh yeah, he meets his dad, a fellow time traveller in Vienna.

I think the thing that most bothered me is when Wheeler makes the decision to sleep with his grandmother.

Yeah. That’s a thing that happens. His grandmother in 1897 who turns out not to actually be his grandmother by blood. But if you grew up knowing a person as your grandmother, she is your grandmother and you don’t sleep with her.

My quarrel isn’t with the writing of this book. Edwards has carefully crafted a novel – I think it says in the Afterword that it took him 30 years to piece it together. It’s impeccably researched as well – Vienna comes to life in all its intellectual glory. It reminded me a bit of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

But the narrative arc, the lack of any real plot (yeah there’s time travel but to what end? Everything is so accidental), and the seriously poor judgment of some of it’s characters…this one frustrated the hell out of me.