Reading Margaret Maron for the First Time

My first read of 2019 was a good one: Fugitive Colors by Margaret Maron, which is book 8 in her Sigrid Harald series. It’s a police procedural, though the first half of the book is mostly a dive into Sigrid’s grief during her leave of absence from the police force in New York. She’s a homicide detective, and her partner was an older artist who died in a car crash in California before the book began. Sigrid takes on the sole responsibility of being his executor, which puts her into contact with a variety of art dealers and artists, one of whom dies halfway through the book.

A few observations:

  1. This book was published in 1995, which means I knew I had only a slight chance of finding an unreliable narrator in the book. So refreshing!
  2. I was happy to read a mystery, not a thriller. There was a little less action-y peril, and that fit my reading mood.
  3. Sigrid’s quirk is her interest in puzzle rings, not opera or cryptic crosswords.
  4. I’m not sure I’ve read a book with three short prequel sections versus one. It worked well in this one.

I have at least one more Maron sitting on my shelves, and I’m enthusiastic about trying her Deborah Knott series. I’d appreciate your recommendations for other Maron books to try. Happy reading to you this new year!

fugitive colors

Startup by Doree Shafrir

startupI had high hopes when I started Startup by Doree Shafrir. It starts at a ridiculous MorningRave, a “clean living dance party” populated by all sorts of denizens of New York City’s startup scene, notably Mack, the founder of an app of questionable value, and Katja, a journalist covering the tech scene. I was expecting more satire, and instead the story was more heavy with ideas and a lot of characters who were kind of despicable at times and noble at other times.

Ultimately the characters never felt quite real to me and more representative of ideas: here’s the older journalist going off about how journalism has changed in the last ten years, here’s a young woman being sexually harassed in the supposedly-enlightened company she works for: the characters seemed more like ideas than people, if that makes sense. I’ve seen reviews talking about how readable and accurate the story was, and while I read it quickly, I just felt dissatisfied by the story. It’s a book filled with sad, disconnected people who work an awful lot, and it wasn’t my thing.

Startup by Doree Shafrir

Little Brown, April 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

This is the best memoir I’ve read this year, and it may be one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. A couple years ago I read the absolutely harrowing and heartbreaking Levy piece in the New Yorker called Thanksgiving in Mongolia, which is about her having a late miscarriage in Mongolia. This book contains that piece in part and captures her adult life as journalist and relationship leading to parenthood, and it’s unsparing and direct and doesn’t feel like it’s leaving out tons of stuff, which is my usual complaint about memoirs. The other thing this book has going for it is that she’s writing about her fairly recent past instead of her childhood, like some memoirists do.

Levy has written lots of interesting pieces, and her interview on the Longform podcast was fascinating as well. I mean, of course I’m drawn to this story because her story is absolutely terrifying but it happens every day, without people talking about it. I think it’s important in that respect because the subject is so not talked about. And it’s not couched in self-help or therapeutic journeys, though it is a part of the story. Her narrative voice is so unflinching that it’s compelling.

rules-do-not-apply

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

Random House, March 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Hello again!

I’ve hit a reading patch where either I read slowly or instead read the first half of a book quickly and then get distracted by something new so I never finish the first book. But nevertheless, I have been reading some good stuff I want to mention.

Heat by Bill Buford is part a story about working for Mario Batali as a middle-aged writer for the New Yorker and part history of Italian cooking over the centuries. Since Buford spent over a year (or maybe even over two years) working for Batali and traveling to Italy to learn more, this book is chock full of details. I’m a sucker for long digressions in very thoroughly researched books. And I’m an even bigger sucker for books/documentaries/shows about chefs at work. It seems like such a high-pressure existence, and it’s such a contrast from cooking shows, which make it look so easy. Since Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential I love to dip into chef books.

Moving from obsessive chefs I tried a book by obsessive politicians, Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls. The narrator is Beth, a writer married to a man who moves from the Obama campaign to DC to Texas to work on a statewide race advising a friend. It was a quick read with plenty of political and personal drama, and I liked it quite a bit more than Close’s debut Girls in Pretty White Dresses. This may have been my attempt to debrief after my husband’s primary race for a state house seat, which was a much smaller district than any of the campaigns in The Hopefuls. Anyway, I liked it a great deal.

Next, I read the first entry in Denise Mina’s Paddy Meehan series, Field of Blood, and plot-wise I was a little underwhelmed, but character-wise I was hooked. I hope the first book felt a little slow for me because Mina was setting the groundwork for more recurring characters.

Finally, the book I keep abandoning after 100 pages is Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage. My first attempt faltered when I felt like I didn’t have enough context to read an edition without an introduction or footnotes, and my second attempt faltered when I got bogged down in politics. Now that campaign season is over, I’ll try it again.

Hope you are finding good reads during the last few weeks of the summer. I just started Margaret Millar’s Banshee, and I’m hoping I like it as much as her earlier stuff.

Summer Reading Update

It’s almost the middle of the year, and I thought I’d post a little about my reading goals since I haven’t finished a book review post in awhile.

Long-running reading challenges

When I started checking my Countries of the World list , which I last updated over a year ago, I found I’d only added one new country in that time, Ukraine. Time to start spending some time looking for international reads. I’d love some recommendations for especially non-European books.

I also cleaned up my States in the US list, and happily I’ve finished 20 out of 50 states. It’s also amazing to me just how many books set in California and New York I read.

Summer reading

In the last month or so I find myself reading at least two books at a time, which I don’t think I’ve done often before. I’m slowly working my way through volume 1 of Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, The Path to Power, and I’m learning lots about how incredibly harsh the Texas Hill Country is, especially in the era before the interstate highway system. Emily Giffin and Dorothea Benton Frank are also keeping me entertained, and crime-wise I feel the need to dig into some older stuff because I haven’t read anything non-contemporary in awhile. In more recently-published books, I’m really enjoying Sarah Hilary’s Someone Else’s Skin.

Hope you are all having a good summer, and I welcome reading recommendations!

Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock

alice oliverToday’s posts are about the latest batch of heavy-themed books I’ve read. First up is Alice & Oliver, a brutal and engrossing read about a young mother and fashion designer diagnosed with leukemia when her daughter was about 6 months old.  I have to psych myself up to read a book like this, or, say, watch a movie like Dead Man Walking, and ultimately I’m glad I read this but I’m not sure I’d read it again. I’m not sure I could take it, you know.

Anyway, Alice & Oliver is a cancer story that goes in depth into the treatment process/ protocol about 20 years ago. The sections of the book are divided into treatment steps as well as into Alice’s meditative steps as she copes with treatment and the prospect of dying. It’s also a story about Alice and Oliver’s relationship, their history in New York City, and the status of their relationship during many months of cancer treatment. Looking back at their pasts and Oliver’s tech start-up company are the only respites from the hard stuff in their story (there’s not a lot of black comedy), but somehow it was a fast read. I was drawn to the story because I don’t know the ins and outs of aggressive cancer treatments and because the main characters were so sympathetic. And sometimes I want to read something that will make me weep, and I was definitely a mess by the end of the book.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

nestI was curious about this book because I like funny books and I like family sagas. I was expecting something funny about a family dealing with an inheritance, the Nest of the title, and the book delivered on the funny parts, but overall it abandoned the comedy and silliness, which I wasn’t expecting.

The Nest focuses on the adult siblings of the Plumb family. Leo Plumb is a writer and founder of a media conglomerate. He and his siblings live in or near New York, and their lives center on the money they stand to inherit on their sister’s 40th birthday.

First, you have to be able to be charmed by Leo, the internet millionaire who spectacularly self-destructs at the beginning of the book at a family wedding. Sweeney didn’t get me to be charmed for him, so that was strike one for me.

Second, I felt like there were a few good set-pieces in the book (every family gathering had a bit of ridiculousness), but I never felt the action ramping up. It could have been a true farce of a book with siblings acting truly manic, but it never quite got there. Taking it to an even more absurd height would have worked for me. Instead, there’s emotional heft at the very end after not much of that. It’s hard to read a section asking me to sympathize with a few characters when I’ve just finished a book where the characters were all so wrapped up in themselves. They hardly empathized with each other, which got me into the mode of not empathizing with them either.

I was expecting something funnier, based on the cover copy and what I’d read about the book elsewhere.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Ecco, March 2016

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

2015 in review

Happy new year, and thank you for visiting my blog and commenting. I’ve been posting less and reading less than in years past, but I very much appreciate your reading and all the reading suggestions you’ve shared. You’ve made my reading life very interesting, and I am very grateful.

2015 is the year I started reading lots of older crime fiction to go along with my love of Scandicrime, and I also went on a few non-crime reading jags to balance out my reading. I anticipate reading lots more Margaret Millar in 2016, not only from my collection of used books but from the new ebook editions that are coming out in the US from Syndicate Books. I’ve also started listening to nonfiction on audio so look for a little variety in upcoming posts.

2015 is also the year I shifted my reading challenges to perpetual mode (read a book from every country and every state in the US). My recordkeeping has a few gaps, but of the about 60 books I read, 11 were set in the US followed by Sweden with 7. I added Ukraine and Cambodia to my countries-of-the-world list but did not fare so well in adding American states to my reading. New York and California were the most common settings in my US reading, and I hope to add more non-coastal states to my 2016 reading.

As for 2016 challenges, I am using two challenges to help combat future reading ruts:

  1. Book Riot Read Harder Challenge– It’s a challenge covering lots of genres and some variety in time periods.
  2. Bustle Reads– It focuses on women and writers of color.

I plan on keeping the challenge categories tucked away in my bag or under my computer keyboard to have on hand when I’m looking for something new to read. I think that works a lot better than committing to a list of intended reads at the beginning of the year.

Finally, I am linking to the WordPress summary of my blog stats for the year for reference and entertainment. The continuing popularity of my Latin American Crime Fiction post makes me realize I haven’t read much if any South American books for the year.

Happy new year, all!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,300 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

voices chernobylVoices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Keith Gessen

Dalkey Archive Press, 2005

Originally published as Tchernobylskaia Moltiva, 1997

I borrowed this book from the library.

I’m one of those readers that tries to sample award-winning books/ authors from time to time, and it usually takes me several tries before I find something that I’m in the mood to read. Case in point: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, recent Booker-prize winner, was a little too disorienting for me to finish, but that’s not to say I won’t try it when my attention span is a bit longer. I was a little leery of the heaviness of Voices from Chernobyl by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, but the fact that it’s an oral history made it easy to put it away for a time to get ready to go on.

This is an oral history, and Alexievich calls it her attempt to get at the feelings behind the events. It’s harrowing, it’s enlightening about the horrible things that happen alongside acute radiation poisoning, and it’s enlightening about the government response to the fire at the reactor at Chernobyl. Also, I will say that the first story was absolutely the saddest for me. If you can make it past that, it’s not quite as emotionally raw. It’s still harrowing reading though.

Oral histories are a mixed bag for me. I’ve read some that are simply too long and detailed (Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live), I’ve read bits of some that are too dismaying (I read bits of Elena Poniatowska’s La noche de Tlatelolco  in college), but Voices from Chernobyl felt like the right length and the right sort of mix of stories. She collected stories for three years roughly ten years after the fire, and she gets stories about before, during, and looking to the future as people grieve as well as get sick with the effects of radiation exposure. It’s a little about politics, it’s a little about how to live with suffering, it’s a little about science. It’s a very affecting book, and I am eager to find what gets translated into English next.

 

 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

little lifeA Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Doubleday, March 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I read and was impressed by A Little Life, a very brutal and long story that’s been getting lots of coverage in blogs and mainstream media outlets. I tend to miss the big books, both because of size and because I’m a little leery about overly-hyped books, but I’m glad I read this one. You have to be prepared for lots of violence and repetition over the significant length of the book, though.

A Little Life begins as a story about four friends, all male, who meet in college, and who all have great ambitions in their artistic or legal careers. After an extensive opening section with the four characters finishing college and beginning their lives in New York City, the character of Jude, with a mysterious past that damaged him physically and psychically (he has a pronounced limp and is intensely reticent of his past before he began college at age 16), becomes the focus.

I’m not the first to mention that the book is a bit of a fairy tale: lots of horrible things happen to the main characters, and lots of fantastically good things happen to the characters. There isn’t much middle ground. It’s a bit odd to read a book that feels unrealistic in this way.

My biggest criticism of the book is that  it’s maddening to read such a long book that could be reduced to the subtitle: Complex PTSD, the Novel. Jude is so damaged and so unwilling to grapple with his abusive past, that his adulthood is almost more painful than what actually happened to him. I read somewhere else that Yanagihara wanted to make a point about the limits of male friendship: Jude and his friends don’t get him to grapple with his past, and it seriously stymies their lives and their friendships. That’s well and good, but using the vehicle of this lengthy novel to make that point feels a bit like overkill. I may be missing something about the art of melodrama or critics calling it the great American gay novel because of its reliance on melodrama, but I think a book half of the size could have been just as effective and make the same points about Jude and his friends.

Finally, I want to dig into my disappointment with this book a bit further. Of course part of the draw of this book is trying to understand a character like Jude who in some ways overcomes a truly horrendous childhood filled with abuse and exploitation, and I feel like a get part of the story. In the last few months I watched a documentary called Family Affair by Chico Colvard that also addressed coping with childhood abuse and trauma, and that felt more rounded an approach to the issue. I also remember being disappointed by Middlesex when Eugenides left out lots of the story about the hermaphrodite Callie as she grew up. I think both Eugenides and Yanagihara are skipping out on research or something. 

Additional pieces about this book that I found interesting include this piece in Vulture about Yanagihara’s inspirations for the novel, Garth Greenwell’s piece in The Atlantic about this novel as the great American gay novel, and finally, an ambivalent piece about the book by Lydia Kiesling in The Millions.