Review: Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person, by Shonda Rhimes

25690958[1]I am convinced Shonda Rhimes and I are twins separated at birth.  No, really.  I may be way older than she is and we’ve got different skin colors, but those are meaningless details compared to the way I heard myself in almost everything she says in this book.  We both describe writers as professional liars, for heaven’s sake!  That has to mean something, right?

My own identification aside, I’m wildly enthusiastic about Year of Yes because it is yet another of those wonderful, hilarious, thoughtful, positive books by women that I’ve been reading over the last months. And like those books, Year of Yes made me think hard about who I am and how I inhabit space in this world.

Long story short, Rhimes hears a hard truth from her older sister: “You never say yes to anything,” and has an epiphany.  She is going to say yes to everything for a year.  Why?  Because she recognizes how small her life has become in spite of her fame.  She recognizes that she is not happy which means that something about her life is out of whack, and she badly wants to fix it.  She wants to be happy again, to enjoy who she is and what she does, to enjoy her children, her work, her friends, her family, herself.

It’s not an easy route, though her good humored account of that year and its terrors and accomplishments make it seem so.  She’s so engaging that it’s easy to see why Shonda Rhimes is one of the most influential television writers working today.  Listening to the audiobook, narrated by the author, does make me wonder how someone so open, so hilarious, so seemingly confident could think of herself as an introvert.

No, I lie.  It’s not hard to see at all.  I’m an introvert and within my chosen parameters I can be open and confident too.  You just have to be comfortable enough to stop hiding.  That’s what saying yes was about, she forced herself to stop hiding and find a comfort zone in every situation.  That’s a lesson to this introvert who needs to learn to say yes more often.

Shonda, my fellow Chicagoan and fellow introverted writer, thank you for this book.  Thank you for saying yes.  Thank you.


Review: Shadow Scale (Seraphina, #2), by Rachel Hartman

23280186[1]Upfront I have to say that much as I loved Seraphina and Tess of the Road, Shadow Scale is probably my favorite of the three. I recognize that’s a bit odd since the sophomore entry in a series is often the weakest, but in this case I think Hartman has enlarged upon not only her universe, but her themes as well, and that’s all to the good.

There’s so much to love about the Seraphina books; a heroine who doesn’t always get it right but keeps on trying, and supporting characters who are fully realized, and who clearly have a life beyond what we see in the narrative. Hartman also deals in some knotty questions about what it is to be different in different sorts of societies, what we owe to one another, and how it’s possible to be a good person while not giving up the things you need. It’s about strength, maturity, kindness, and common decency.  It’s about how reason and emotion can work in tandem to make our lives better.  It’s a surprisingly adult YA novel, not for sexual content, but for all the concerns that open up to us as we become adults.

And it’s fun.  While not as light-hearted as the first book, Shadow Scale does still have moments of humor, and deft word play that I find irresistible. Honestly, on the strength of the Seraphina books and the first (I hope) Tess book, I would read anything in this universe.  They’re that good.

Review: Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

13160619[1].jpgAs I wrote in my review of Tess of the Road, I was so enthusiastic about this universe, and writer that before I finished the book, I’d bought the first two in the series. I can report that the first of these, Seraphina, did not disappoint.

We have a universe where humans and dragons co-exist.  After a long history of warfare between them, there has been a treaty, and while each group remains ambivalent about the other, the peace has held for many years.  And then the king’s son is killed, and it looks as if a dragon did the deed, threatening the fragile peace.

In the center of all this is Seraphina, a musician, tutor to Princess Glisselda, and a half-breed; half dragon, half human.  Common knowledge says she should not exist, but Seraphina is never one to be led by what is supposed to happen.  She’s a fiercely independent woman, who keeps her secret almost more to protect her family than anything else since  relations between humans and dragons are illegal.  The dragons do not even speak Seraphina’s mother’s name, so enormous was her shame at marrying a human.

This is a very different Seraphina from the one we meet in the book about Tess, because she is the point-of-view character, and not filtered through Tess’ perceptions of her.  She was a bit of a cypher in the later book, but here she is vivid and engaging.  She’s a woman who tries hard to do the right thing, but in the end she follows her instincts rather than the letter of the law. It doesn’t always work out perfectly — her heart leads her into some spectacular muddles — but we’re with her, wishing her well. And never once did I find myself yelling “Don’t be so stupid!” at her, which is something I do far too often with protagonists.

Hartman’s writing is a delight.  Not only can she tell a story, but her use of language is creative and often hilarious.  When I met Lucian Kiggs, prince of Goredd and Seraphina’s love interest, his surname made me giggle; it’s not at all a romantic hero’s name.  And yet I think that may be one of the reasons why he is so named.  Hartman likes to play against expectations. I also got a kick out of Dame Okra Carmine.  Not that the names are over the top goofy.  They just have enough humor threaded through them that the narrative never becomes histrionic.  In fantasy that’s a fine line, and I think Hartman walks it pretty well.

I’ve already started the second book, and I look forward to watching Seraphina grow into all this amazing promise she holds.  I want to see her relationships develop now that she is allowed to be who she is.  I think she’s going to crush it.

Review: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

18143977[1]Last year, The Housemate read this and couldn’t stop raving about it.  But because she’d borrowed it from the library, I didn’t get a chance to read it then, and even when I got her a used copy for her library, I didn’t avail myself of it.  But I got the audiobook from the library last week, and now I wish I’d put everything else aside to read it when she first recommended it. Though everything in its own time, right?

For those who don’t know, the novel is (mainly) about Marie Laure Le Blanc, a young girl who was born sighted but went blind as a pre-teen.  She lives in Paris, with her father who is a locksmith at a museum of natural history, where she spends a good deal of her time, gaining an education that most children can only dream of.  When the war comes, she and her father escape Paris for St. Malo, where Marie’s great uncle lives in a big house near the sea.

There are other important characters, mainly Werner Pfennig, a young German boy whose mechanical and electrical aptitude makes him the perfect candidate for ferreting out resistance radio transmitters. From the very beginning, though we do not immediately see it, his path must cross Marie’s.

This book is so beautiful that it broke my heart.  Marie, though blind, lives in a world so rich and intense that I found myself closing my eyes as I listened to the narrator, so I could experience the things she did in much the same way. This is a fully-realized world in which everything has meaning; this is a narrative filled with the sort of detail we wish we were aware of on a day-to-day basis.  This is a book where everything has its own light whether we see it or not.  It’s a book about connections, about what is hidden, and what comes to light.  When I realized the truth of the radio broadcast Werner and his sister listened to as children, I gasped, then texted The Housemate because I had to express my shock, joy, amazement.

It’s that kind of book.  And it affected me in the same way my favorite books of 2017 did. When I finished, I wanted to run upstairs, grab the hardcover that I’d bought for Glinda, and start all over again, this time taking in the words with eyes instead of ears, know that the experience would be different, and the whole would become even greater, even richer.  I didn’t do it.  I want to wait.  I want to anticipate my next visit to this world.

I’ve seen reviews that are impatient with the book, that ask, “Is it just me?” Clearly not because there are a number of them.  And for those who express their lack of enthusiasm with examples, it’s often that they found it slow, or that there was too much that was metaphorical or symbolic.  And yes, I think all that can be said to be true, so be warned.  If what you want is a direct, action-oriented narrative where you don’t have to think too much about what it means, then this book is NOT for you. But I loved it.

Why do you like to read?

ea99b63c320252284025ebfd55a26162[1]A friend asked that today.  We were sitting in Starbucks, drinking coffee and sharing a slice of their lemon cake, and a package of madeleines, and talking about books.  I guess Glinda and I were waxing super enthusiastic about our current reading because Linda asked, “Why do you like to read?”

This is something I’ve thought about a lot lately, so I actually did have an answer handy.  In part, I said, it’s because I’m curious about the world.  I read to learn new things, and everything you can read is, I believe, educational in some way.  You just have to know what it is you’re looking to learn.  I recognized this when Karen and I were talking about the differences in our reading lists, and I remember telling her that everyone reads for different reasons, and no reason is wrong, because it’s all reading, and all reading is good.  At least in my opinion.  YMMV, but if it does, don’t tell me.

Linda asked “Is it an escape?” and I had to admit that it is.  It wasn’t always.  I didn’t need an escape when I was young, and later when I was a caregiver and most needed an escape, I couldn’t read.  I was so depressed that my concentration was shot.  What little I had was spent on the essentials, not on reading.  I wish it could have been otherwise, but there you are.  The brain is a strange place. But now  Yes, I do escape from the world by reading.  The last year has afforded me a great many reasons to want to escape, too.

But finally I said, “I read because it gives me pleasure.  Not just intellectual pleasure but actual physical pleasure.”  Something magical happens between my eyes and my brain when I read, and I will often feel almost as if I’m high on something.  I get this intense sense of happiness and peace.  I said, “Maybe it releases dopamine or something.”

I did a quick search and found an abstract of a study that suggested otherwise (as far as I could tell; sometimes those things look like: wordswordswords word I know morewords things that don’t even look like words) But I also encountered people who had the same response to reading.  Some of them attributed it to what they were reading, but some simply felt that reading high that I feel. And that made me happy, too, not because I need the validation of what it is I feel, but because I think it’s wonderful when people can have that same kind of pleasure in something.

So I thought I should ask all of you how you feel about reading.  Why do you like it?  Why do you do it?  What do you get out of it?

Talk to me, people.

Review: When Paris Sizzled: The 1920s Paris of Hemingway, Chanel, Cocteau, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, and Their Friends, by Mary McAuliffe

9781442253322_p0_v1_s1200x630[1].jpgThe years between 1850 and 1950 have long been my era of interest, a fascination that took hold of me when I was a pre-teen, and has never let go.  Rather it’s expanded as I have explored the events that informed those years, and those informed by those years.  When I saw this title pop up in Hoopla, I thought it would be perfect for me.

Nevertheless, I found it a bit of a slog. There certainly isn’t a lot of sizzling going on in this rather dry, chronological narrative of the 1920s in Paris.  Even people who had seemed exciting in other contexts felt flat and dull here.  Jean Cocteau, long an idol of mine, comes across as tiresome and silly.  Gertrude Stein feels like a footnote, and both Hemingway and James Joyce come across badly as difficult and self-absorbed, and in Hemingway’s case, a fractious, spiteful liar.

But that’s okay, really.  I understand that famous people are not saints by any stretch.  It’s the dullness that bothered me.  But eventually I began to notice that certain personalities shone in spite of the less-than-inspired structure of the narrative. Misia Sert, who is largely a footnote in studies of this era, emerged as not only important, but one of the more genuine personalities of the book, in her generosity and kindness, a woman who was with Diaghilev as he was dying, and screamed at a Catholic priest loudly, violently, and for long enough that he agreed to give the last rites to a man who was Russian Orthodox.  I had to admire that small, telling portrait.

Other figures, famous in their own right, but often relegated to supporting players, are given the spotlight to good effect here: Sylvia Beach, who owned Shakespeare and Company, and supported Joyce both artistically and financially for years, Coco Chanel, a woman of fierce independence and great generosity, Le Corbusier whose work I never cared for, but whose career shaped and was shaped by modernism.  Josephine Baker who took Paris by storm as a teenager, Francois Coty, the cosmetics king, whose fascism and anti-semitism helped shape the fascism that thrived in France in the 20s through his newspapers and political activism.  Louis Renault and André Citroën who brought the car culture to France. They and others who are not usually featured in histories of this era play major roles in this book, and that’s all to the good because McAuliffe expands our understanding of this decade by focusing more broadly than most authors do.

So in the end, and in spite of my initial feeling that When Paris Sizzled was dry and a bit slow, I feel as if it gave me a far better understanding of that moment in history than many other histories have done. If you tackle it, have patience, and you’ll be rewarded.

Review: Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman

33123849[1].jpgOnce again I began reading in mid-series, and had to step a bit to catch up.  Not a lot, Hartman is too good a writer to make her books too dependent upon what came before. She integrates all the important information in the narrative without ever sounding like she’s saying “Previously in this universe…”

Tess, whose life has been colored by an indifferent father, a fearful, fantatical mother, and her own rebellious nature manages to ruin her sister’s wedding by getting drunk, letting a secret slip, and punching a priest-in-training.  For this, and a raft of other missteps, she’s about to be forced into a religious life. But Tess has just enough rebellion left in her to slip that noose and set out on her own.

Over the course of the book we discover that she’s fleeing a past which makes her unmarriageable in the eyes of her social class.  And she’s pursuing a dream of the World Serpent, along with Pathka, a dragonlike creature called a Quigutl.  Along the way she meets a whole cast of fascinating characters, and she works through all the noise inside her head to discover who she really is as opposed to who she’s been told she is.

I liked Tess immediately, and came to care about what might happen to her. I was thrilled to see her shaking off all the guilt that had been laid on her, guilt that she had accepted as her due. I enjoyed seeing her relationship with her sisters change and grow. And when the truth of the defining event of her past comes out, I felt both grief and anger, not just for Tess, but because her story is very like that of a friend.  Seeing it laid out on the page drove home how insane it is that a girl could feel forced to take responsibility for what other people, people with power, choose to do to her.

Yes, it’s difficult to assimilate the truth of Tess’ life, but I found it worth the journey just to see her rise above it, and become Tess of the Road.  She has a long way to go still, but I’ll be with her when Hartman produces a sequel.

I really enjoyed the narrative from a purely technical point of view.  I love Hartman’s use of language. She has a clever and often sly way with words that adds layers of meaning to her story.  Her characters are complex, and adult, and she doesn’t deal in easy answers.  You have to work a bit to get the full effect of this book, and I consider that a good thing.

Before I’d read very far in Tess of the Road, I bought Serafina and Shadow Scale, and began reading the former as soon as I finished with Tess.  As always, that’s the highest praise I can give.

When the red flag goes up

redflagWhen I went out to get the mail today, I found two copies of the magazine Woman’s Day in the mailbox.  “Buh?” sez I.  I didn’t subscribe to this.  But I didn’t immediately imagine some plot to rip me off because I’m getting Architectural Digest from Levenger  because a couple of years ago I fell head-over-heels for a book bag, and gave it to myself as a gift.  To say thanks, Levenger subbed me to AD, a magazine I’m not a big fan of, but I pass the copies on to a friend’s mom, so all is well.

But I haven’t bought anything that would qualify me for a freebie like 40 issues of Woman’s Day magazine as far as I knew.  I checked with Amazon, found nothing, checked the WD website, and yeah there was the subscription, marked “paid.”  So I phoned them.

The rep was very nice. She told me that they’d gotten the order through a company called Subco, which seems to be a magazine clearinghouse.  I got their number and spoke to a rep at Subco, and was told that the subscription was from Millenium Marketing in hope of getting me interested in their product.  “What is their product?” I asked.  Magazines.

So I got Millenium’s phone number and called them.  They couldn’t have been nicer, cancelled the sub without an argument and warned me that there could be another couple arriving because the labels were pre-printed.  The rep, Stephanie, swore I would not get billed for WD, ever.

Well I’m a curious sort and I went searching for Subco and Millenium Marketing, and this is what I found.

Given that this is just a small selection of citations, it would seem that these entities aren’t what I would call, uh, reliable?  Oddly the BBB gives Subco an A+ in spite of 173 complaints, but it looks like their representatives respond to each complaint quickly, which makes me wonder exactly what’s going on here.

In any event, I informed Stephanie that if I got a bill I was going to lose my shit and she swore I wouldn’t.  So now in an attempt to be more proactive, I’ve found a couple of articles on what to do about stuff like this.

The first is from Forbes: When Magazines You Don’t Want Clog Your Mailbox  It’s a good, informative article, but if you’re in a TL;DR mood, cut to the chase and go to page three for suggestions on how to avoid stuff like this.

The second is from Sapling: How to Stop Unsolicited Magazine Subscriptions Short and to the point, it offers some options for keeping yourself off of mailing lists.  The irony is that the page is littered with ads clearly based on my browsing history.

It’s tiresome to think that someone who is going along, minding her own business can be forced to waste time dealing with this shit.  I guess that’s what they’re hoping for, that it will prove to be such an ordeal that people will simply let these things go.

Clearly they don’t appreciate how mulish I am.

Seriously, it’s getting to the point where I half expect the water running into my toilet to be carrying an advert for bowl cleaner or something.

Review: The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

27276428[1].jpgGenes and their study, have dominated scientific  research in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, as we’ve become more able to manipulate genetic information. But man’s fascination with the origins of human life, inheritance, disease, and other genetic questions is far older.  Aristotle believed that human traits were the result of nutrients from the father, that were given shape by the mother.  In the 17th century it was suggested that human sperm or ova contained tiny human beings, homunculi, which in turn contained their own tiny human beings, and so on. It wasn’t until Mendel and Darwin that we began to understand how heredity actually works.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, a cancer researcher, has reason to want answers about genes.  Mental illness, specifically schizophrenia, gallops through his family.  It is well-known that the disease has a genetic component, but the exact nature of it remains elusive.  It’s not a straightforward 1-to-1 relationship in the way that diseases such as Tay-Sachs or Huntington’s Chorea are, but rather a complex web of mutations. In exploring the history and study of genetics, Mukherjee discusses his own family history as well as the events surrounding the discovery of the structure of DNA, early eugenics movements in the United States which found their ultimate expression on the Nazi holocaust, the mapping of the human genome, and the uncomfortable and often disastrous marriage of science and commerce which often rushes toward an end (and a payday) without full understanding of what could happen.

He recounts the death of Jesse Gelsinger, an 18 year old who suffered from a genetic disease of the liver which made him unable to metabolize ammonia, a by-product of the breakdown of protein. During the investigation of his death it was learned that both the university where the study was taking place, and the lead researcher had financial interests in the research. Money isn’t the only ethical dilemma discussed here, and in fact, the field is filled with them. Mukherjee does an excellent job of discussing many, giving the reader a feel for the sheer complexity of what’s happening in genetic science.

The narrative is a wonderful combination of science, history, and personal commentary, generally well-balanced the way good science writing should be.  The subject is one that concerns us all whether we realize it or not.

So this is new: Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop


The Book Blogger Hop, as I understand it, is intended to get book bloggers talking about what they do via a weekly prompt and discussion, which is a lovely idea, I think.  It’s a way to get to know people, discover new books, and generally have some bookish fun.

This week’s question: Do you prefer to blog about (a) specific book genre(s), or do you have an eclectic blog? (submitted by Maria @ A Night’s Dream of Books)

Well, if you poke around here at all, you’ll probably have realized that my bookishness is highly eclectic, as is this blog, because I don’t limit the posts to just book posts. (Anyone not interested in my boiler issues, my cats, or what The Housemate and I are cooking can just skip over those posts.)

When people ask me what I read, I’ll generally say “everything including cereal boxes if there’s nothing else.”  I’ve been a reader since… honestly I don’t recall a time when I wasn’t reading.  My parents bought books for me before I was born, and the house was always loaded with books. My interests have always been wide-ranging, and I’ll read any sort of fiction that grabs me, and non-fiction about almost anything.  I’ve recently discovered a passion for political texts; who knew that would ever happen?

Last year I was coming off of a terrible reading slump brought about by years of untreated depression and anxiety, during which time I would read, but not often, and it was too easy to forget the pleasure I’d taken in it.  But I got treatment, and decided it was time to return to one of the things that gave me the most pleasure and comfort, and a sense that all was right in my world.  Last year I read 170 books!

They were all over the map too, and once I started blogging about them, I wrote about all of it, fiction, non-fiction, good books, bad books, so-so books, books that made me laugh, books that made me cry. They’re all here.  I read hard copy, ebooks, and audiobooks because reading is reading, though I do admit that each format is a different experience, and audiobooks took me a long time to grok. Even now I find them generally better for non-fiction, but I refuse to limit myself.

I once said to my mother, “Books are my best friends.”  I read because I love learning, I love experiencing new ideas, new worlds, and because the act of taking in words is an actual, physical pleasure to me.  When I lie in bed at night, surrounded by cats and reading until my eyes close and I drop the book, I am filled with a sense of happiness that’s hard to describe.

So do I have an eclectic blog?  Heck yeah.  The world is a big place and there are a lot of books to read and to share with other people.

Yeah, that was probably more than anyone wanted to know.

Scary Monkey Hat (4)