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review 2018-06-13 11:01
Miles to Go
Miles to Go - Richard Paul Evans

This book continues the story from The Walk.  

 

Alan Christoffersen is on a journey, a soul searching walk across the US.  He started in Seattle after he lost everything.  His wife died, his partner stole his business, and his cars and home were repossessed.  He was thinking about giving up and ending it all but something stopped him.  Instead, he grabbed a map and figured out the farthest he could walk on land and set his sites on Key West Florida.  At the end of The Walk he was attacked by a gang and serious injured.  He ended up staying with a woman who he had helped on his walk.  He fixed her tire and she gave him her card.  He forgot all about it but when he was taken to the hospital that number was the only contact info on him.  She came to help and offered him a place to stay while he healed.  While he was there he realized he wasn't there for her to help him.  She needed help herself.  

 

After Alan was healed enough to return to his walk he saw young woman being attacked by a group of men.  He helped her and she began to walk with him.  After she finally talked about her situation his heart really went out to her.  She was an abused child put in the foster system.  She was nearly 18 and since she knew she was going to be on her own soon anyway, she ran away and was living on the streets.  She was a great girl and didn't deserve her situation.  Alan really wanted to help her.  

 

____________________________________

 

This is a great soul-searching story for both the character and the reader.  I found several little gems to add to my quote book.  I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the series and continuing the journey along with Alan.  

 

 

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review 2018-06-13 05:45
The Dark Maidens (book) story by Rikako Akiyoshi, art by Booota, translated by Kristi Fernandez
The Dark Maidens - Rikako Akiyoshi,Booota,Kristi Fernandez

The Dark Maidens is structured like a meeting of the Literature Club at St. Mary's Academy for Girls, a mission school in Japan. It begins with the current club president, Sayuri Sumikawa, opening the meeting by explaining its rules and purpose. This is both one of the club's infamous "mystery stew" meetings and also the first meeting since the club's previous president, Itsumi Shiraishi, either jumped to her death on school grounds or was pushed.

"Mystery stew" meetings are one of the club's traditions. Each member brings an ingredient to add to the stew. At some meetings only edible things are allowed, but at others, such as this one, inedible things may be added, as long as they aren't unsanitary, like bugs or shoes. Each member must eat the stew in darkness until the pot has been completely emptied. While everyone is eating the stew, members take turns telling stories. The theme, this time around, is Itsumi and her death.

I bought this knowing only that it was a mystery and that its author is a woman - my brief check for English-language reviews prior to hitting the "buy" button didn't turn up much. Happily, it turned out to be a quick and interesting read, despite its flaws.

I disliked the format, at first. Sayuri's introductory section was odd and a little awkward, as she described a room the club members she was speaking to should already know and discussed the death of her best and closest friend in what seemed to be a remarkably calm way. Readers were given no sense of what was going on in the room or how Sayuri or the other members were behaving unless Sayuri put those things into words. Fortunately, the stories the club members told were more traditionally written, and I eventually adjusted to Sayuri's parts.

The first character to tell her story was Mirei, one of the school's few scholarship students. After that came Akane, the club member who preferred baking Western-style sweets over reading, then Diana, an international student from a small village in Bulgaria, then Sonoko, a student aiming for medical school who was also Itsumi's academic rival, and then Shiyo, one of the club's first members and the author of an award-winning light novel. The book wrapped up with a story and closing remarks by Sayuri.

The first story, Mirei's, made it crystal clear that this was not going to be a book about female friendship and support. No, these girls were going to verbally tear each other to shreds - apparently in a very neat and orderly manner, since there was never any mention of outbursts and denials in the breaks between stories (I assume there were and it just wasn't included in Sayuri's text, because I cannot imagine a bunch of girls keeping silent as they're each accused of murder).

The second story added an interesting, if not terribly surprising element, as it directly contradicted the first story. From that point on, I started keeping track of details that came up in more than one story, trying to sort the truth from lies. Literally everyone in the room was lying, but what they were lying about and why wasn't always easy to figure out. Also, some stories had more truth to them than I originally assumed.

I can't say whether the translation was very accurate, but it was pretty smooth and readable. I flew through this book like it was nothing, and I appreciated the way the differing styles of some of the stories reflected the characters. For example, Shiyo's story had a very bubbly and conversational style, while Sonoko's was more detached and stiff (at least at the beginning).

As much as I enjoyed attempting to sort out the truth and lies in the girls' stories, this book definitely had a few glaring flaws. The biggest one was the mystery stew. It wasn't believable in the slightest that the club members would willingly eat the stew when they all thought that one of them was a murderer. Heck, one of them even suspected that

another club member had been poisoning Itsumi's snacks! Since the meeting was supposed to be happening in the dark, it would have been easy for the poisoner to refrain from eating, or fake eating, and wait until the soup had done its job.

(spoiler show)

 
I also had trouble believing that the girls would have been as open about some things as they were. For example, one girl shared that she'd been in love with Itsumi, while another girl admitted that she'd lied to Shiyo about having read her book. Several girls said things they had to have known that others in the group would recognize as lies. Why didn't they worry about being called out for it?

Another problem was that Akiyoshi seemed to have trouble keeping certain details straight, or perhaps hadn't thought them through very well. For example, Sayuri said that the usual rule for "mystery stew" meetings was that club members could only bring edible ingredients and that the rule had been changed for this particular meeting, and yet only a few paragraphs later it was clear that inedible items had been allowed in the past. Also, club members were supposed to eat the soup "in total darkness," and yet the room had 1-2 lit candles in it (one by Sayuri, to allow her to put ingredients in the pot, and one by the spot where members were supposed to read their stories). There was enough light for Sayuri to notice that one girl's face had paled, even after she'd left the storytelling spot - hardly "total darkness."

Despite the book's problems, I had a lot of fun with it and could see myself rereading it in the future. Next time, I think I'll start with the final two chapters and then go back to the beginning, just to see if everything really does fit together.

Extras:

Several black-and-white illustrations. One of them shows all the girls at once. When I tried to attach names to faces, I realized that there wasn't enough descriptive information in the text to do that. I know what Sayuri and Itsumi looked like, because they were both introduced with illustrations, but, as far as I can tell, most of the others were never described.

 

Rating Note:

 

I feel like I'm probably giving this too high of a rating, because, oof, some of those flaws. But I really did have a lot of fun, especially during the last couple chapters, and I decided to reflect that in my rating.

 

(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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review 2018-06-03 07:13
Pass the Kleenex -- Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Gilead Trilogy #1)
Gilead - Marilynne Robinson

In my efforts to read more classics/prizewinners in the last year, there have been some real clinkers, so I wasn't sure about this one. I'm an agnostic col-lapsed Catholic with a half-Jewish family who took a tour through every single major religion before I realized I have a tough time with organized religions. I did like the basically agnostic Universal Unitarians, but I have never liked getting dressed on Sunday mornings, so I wasn't entirely sure I'd like a book about a dying minister writing a letter to his young son.

 

Turns out a book full of religious stuff was, in a word, awesome. When I just clicked five stars, I realized I need to go back and redo all of my other stars. (In truth, I've read a handful of books that actually should count for five, but I seem to be way too generous with the 3-4 range, which makes 5 less special. Someday soon, I need to go over my ratings, create a system & fix them before I have too many books to do so here.) Anyway, this is one of those books that just killed me. It was about as bad as a talking pet that dies book in terms of how wrecked I was when I finished it. If the next book to start hadn't been also part of the trilogy, I'd not have started the next book. I would be crying in the dark with crumpled tissues all round. Instead I am crying in the light with the tissues mostly in the wastebasket.

 

Reverend John Ames, a third-generation Congregationalist minister living in the tiny fictional town of Gilead, Iowa is dying, and the whole book is his letter to his very young son who will not grow up knowing his father. Despite being about an old preacher who married a young woman in a small town in Ohio, emotionally this book hit me in a very personal way. I'm a non-believing biracial woman from the urban east coast. How does this book feel so much like it was written for me? As therapists love to say, it's the emotions that matter. The neighbor's son, Jack, also felt very familiar to me.

 

Robinson quietly hits on huge soaring themes with a gentle touch that never ever turns maudlin or flowery. In telling the story of his three generations of ministers in Iowa, there are some very funny stories and some very sad, deeply painful moments all combined with sweetness that is never sugary. (As children they baptise kittens and worry about the fact that the cats keep jumping around. Pagan cats, it turns out, are as good as Christian ones.)

 

It feels almost sacrilegious to just cite the hilarious stories but I must tell you about  the abolitionists who get a bit too tunnel-happy, causing a stranger's horse to sink through the road. These highly religious people get the horse drunk (problematic for the teetotalling stranger), tell preposterous lies to get rid of the stranger, then they have to get the horse out of the hole in the middle of town. All of this happens with an escaped slave desperately trying not "escape" from their help too "I think I'm better off doing this on my own." The whole town ends up moving a few miles away to get away from their tunnel. That story made me cry tears from laughing.

 

But what's so affecting is the warmth and decency and reasonable attitude from the highly religious Congregationalist minister John Ames, whether it's regarding his young wife and son, his years of being alone after losing his first wife and daughter, or dealing with Jack Boughton - his namesake, godson and the bane of his existence. This book is a healing book, full of reserve hiding reservoirs overflowing with humanity and most of all, loving kindness.

 

I'm pretty sure I will still feel this is an excellent book at the end of the year and next year, but if I had to defend it, I'd be at a loss. It got me in such a way that I seriously considered writing a thank you letter to Marilynne Robinson. It just is one of the most affecting books I've read lately. I'm still sort of surprised I love this book so much. It's a deceptively simple book. But man, it really packed a punch.

 

"these people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you're making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice."

 

So despite my initial qualms about religion, it was in no way patronizing, irritating,  hypocritical or any number of other things I've run into with books based on religious characters. Ames is one of the most Christlike fictional characters I've run across: a very decent man doing a very decent thing in a town full of decent, multifaceted and religious people. 

 

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review 2018-06-02 09:59
My Least Favorite DFW Read - Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men - David Foster Wallace

I've been treating myself to rereads of books and authors I love, and I just reached to the Wallace shelf the other day with my eyes closed, so this got read again, and only for the second time since I bought it because I didn't like it loads the first time. Honestly, if it wasn't written (and signed) by David Foster Wallace, I'd have given it away - not because it's oh so awful, but because it's an unending parade of toxic masculinity, which is precisely the point.

 

My penciled notes haven't all remained legible, but they are harsh. Tucked in the back of the book was an envelope with an article written by David Foster Wallace, which I just learned can still be found online, so here is DFW on Great Male Narcissists in literature.

 

There's much to love about that piece. Here's one of many paragraphs I have squared off w/ my pencil: 

 

incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous, self-pitying … and deeply alone, alone the way only a solipsist can be alone. They never belong to any sort of larger unit or community or cause. Though usually family men, they never really love anybody-and, though always heterosexual to the point of satyriasis, they especially don’t love women.

 

What Wallace castigated in his ''Great Male Narcissists" piece - he goes after John Updike, and I'd add a hard case of Philip Roth to the mix. I'm sure there are many more, but these two men pioneered then glorified and received mounds of awards for toxic masculine self-absorption with a seriousness that doesn't seem to fit the subject matter. Women are readers these days, says Wallace, and women don't like those characters. (Complete with possibly the best quote ever, that I hope came from Mary Karr, but she won't claim it now that it's famous: "penis with a thesaurus.")

 

Wallace's hideous men here seem to be clear callbacks to the characters in these most toxically male novels. (I know I keep using that word, but it's a good shorthand and I don't feel like using my thesaurus right now.) They are almost cartoonish at times, but that's probably more because they are stripped of all identifying features (names, places, other characters) and are found purely portraying the traits and habits always found in the Great Male Narcissists most famous and infamous works. Wallace strips their wives and suburban golf clubs from them, but keeps their words. Without the niceties of wealth, families, the suburbs, etc, their selves are bared purely. Once Wallace strips any of the cushion these are hideous, nearly cartoon-like egos that find themselves bared to their pathological core under the pen of David Foster Wallace.

 

"think Rabbit Angstrom as Hannibal Lecter"

(a note scribbed in my copy, apparently from the NYTimes circa 1999-2000)

 

 

 

These men really are hideous. I mean they are awful people, and people is a very kind word for these characters. So few of them have names or faces. They are simply babbling egos, many of them narcissistic others outright sociopaths The word hideous is important because it is exactly correct, yet so many of them come off as your average know-it-all at the bar it's depressing.  Structured around the "brief interviews - given places and names, but only answers" the stories are unrelentingly bleak and horrible. I can't even call them tragic because they're not complete enough to be tragic characters.

 

There's more to this collection of stories - mostly having to do with the more experimental side of Wallace and some beautiful highwire notes. Wallace was most experimental in his fiction, and his craft and  talent are on display here, but with none of the kindness, humor or zing found in all of his other work (including his political reporting and scholarly work.) 

 

My favorite story in this group is very short, and it ends with what we can assume is a suicide or a homicide-suicide. There are some amazing voices here, but I can only recommend this collection to the DFW completionist. 

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review 2018-04-23 18:23
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
The Immortalists - Chloe Benjamin

This one was entirely different than I'd imagined it would be, and that was fine. I like to be surprised. What was slightly lacking for me was why the Romani fortune teller had such an effect on these four kids. They were raised steeped in Judaism, at least by their father. They were first generation Americans, children of the Holocaust. They were intellectuals, despite the fact that the family had a background in magic. I couldn't get my head around why they were all so sure one visit with a fortune teller had power over them or why she would have knowledge about them. Whether it was real magic or not was never really examined.

 

As kids the characters were likable but as adults they were sorely lacking, and I can't just believe it's because of a prediction from childhood without a reason to suddenly believe in Romani fortune telling. I never got the reason, so while it was interesting and an OK read, it just didn't get over the top ever, nor did it dip low. It was an steady read that lovers of historical fiction (from very recent history) and family sagas will probably like. There were moments where I thought the Kabbalah (sp?) or Jewish mysticism would play more solidly into the plot, where medicine and science would prevail, where family ties might win out, but instead it was all about a date and death. I suppose the lesson, if we go with Simon, if we must have a lesson (I go looking for lessons when the story leaves me questioning I'm learning), is live life to the fullest while we can.

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