Monday, March 25, 2013

last week's reading

There was a lot.

Payment in Blood, by Elizabeth George. This is the second book in the Inspector Lynley series, and the first I've read. It had one of those annoying endings in which the murderer turns out to be the one person no one suspected, because neither the reader nor the characters were given any reason to suspect him. Also, it's weird that other suspects seem to have pretty free rein to participate in the investigation. But it was a good enough weekend-afternoon read that I'll get another one out of the library. Definitely a borrow, not a buy.

How to Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran. This is one of the funniest books I have ever read, and it is incredibly wise at the same time. Moran uses memoir as an attack on misogyny and patriarchy: the first half of each chapter is about her puberty / weight / childbirth / fashion experiences, and then in the second half she expands the topic to a universal level. I laughed out loud on every page, and want every woman I know to read this. It contains very rude language, but because she's a Brit she gets away with it. Brilliant.

Dear Life, by Alice Munro. Short stories about small-town Canadian life in the middle of the twentieth century. Beautifully written and mostly quietly despairing. I found it hard to read more than one at a time, but man, she's talented.

The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe. Schwalbe's mother was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer when she was in her early seventies, and this book is a sort of biography / memoir / review of the books he read with her in the last two years of her life. He's not an astonishing writer, and his mother unfortunately comes off as one of those people who, while they may be spending their abnormal amounts of energy in doing good things (and she did, working with refugee programs all over the world), cannot understand that others don't have the energy (or, crucially, the financial ability) to do the same. She's admirable on paper, but I couldn't help often thinking of the times I've met people with abnormal amounts of energy in real life, and how they exhaust everyone around them. But when Schwalbe talks about books, and what books have meant to his family and his relationship with his mother... early on he says, "Reading isn't the opposite of doing; it's the opposite of dying," and boom! right in the feelings.

Personal digression: I was frightened to read War and Peace for so long. Not daunted, not intimidated; frightened. Because at some point in my adolescence and early adulthood, when the whips and scorns of being too thin-skinned and too idealistic and too desperate for love became overwhelming, I picked War and Peace as a sort of talisman, as something to represent a future I didn't want to miss. And I would say into the mirror, half-joking, half-terribly-serious, "You can't give up; you haven't read War and Peace yet." (I hadn't read Ulysses either at that point but, having now read them both, I made the right choice there.*)

I read W&P in 2009, when the new translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky came out and I could no longer ignore the rave reviews. And the whole time, there was always a little part of my brain (the part that wasn't swooning from how amazing it was) thinking, Honey, you are asking for it. Asking for what, I don't quite know. A piano to fall on me? The cancer? Could be. I do know that during those horrid few days when we didn't yet know if the cancer had spread or not, I mentally fidgeted through my reading list, wondering what could possibly have the force of W&P in terms of saving me. And wondering, if I picked another talisman, what I would do at the point of no return. That question still haunts me, of course, because I'm not immortal. If I continue to have a talisman book, and I get warning as to the end approaching, will picking up that book be my acceptance of the end? Will I refuse to pick it up at all, and risk missing a great book? Will I just read Our Mutual Friend over and over? (Yes.)

I don't have a talisman book right now. I am in an ALL THE BOOKS stage, and get paralyzed with bliss when I think about how many books there are to be read. And, Jacob Marley, heaven, and the Christmas season be praised for it, I am no longer twenty-one years old. It's possible I no longer have the need for a talisman book.

End personal digression. In any case, Schwalbe's book is decent, in an Oprah book club way, although I wanted more about books and less about his mother's charming habit of talking to every stranger in the oncology waiting room, because I have been that stranger, and I would have been desperately trying to find a polite way to say, "You may have noticed that I was reading a book, because I do not want to talk about my treatment or how young I am or how I really should quit my job and volunteer in Rwanda, THANKS." By the end of the book I was frankly tired of this woman, which is a horrible thing to say, but that's how I felt.

I set aside Denise Mina's Deception, which was sort of like Gone Girl, except not nearly as good. It was just unpleasant, and there's a vast difference between unpleasant and grim. When the inevitable prawn mayonnaise sandwich made its appearance (oh, Scotland), that scene was so disgusting that I just could not read any further. I am, however, deep into the last book in her Garnethill trilogy. Grim, but not vile.

On Thursday I had my mammogram. Even though I had a clear MRI two weeks before, this still made me nervous. I sat in the waiting room, the voice in my head going eeeeekk, and then the wonderful tech I had in September poked her head around the curtain and said, "Beatrice! I bet you aren't glad to see me!"

"I am incredibly glad to see you," I said.

It went as quickly as these things can go, and the pain wasn't too bad. One of the things I love about this tech is that she explains all the scans after each one is taken - I think she does it to give the boobs a rest, which I also appreciate, but the the scans are fascinating. We looked at the initial scans, and saw the little white circles of calcification, and then did the hold-for-two-minutes-death-squish, and looked at the scans again, and saw that the circles had all turned to lines, which means they are harmless. So satisfying. They do want me to come back in six months again, when my oncologist had been hopefully saying it might be time to return to a yearly screening, but we'll discuss that further when I see her in April.

I am wading into Nabokov again, which I periodically do when I'm feeling virtuous. It's almost always a disaster. I love Pale Fire, which is like nothing else he ever wrote, and have hated everything else. I read Lolita when I was Lolita's age, which has rendered horror novels superfluous for the entirety of my life. However, fifty pages into Ada, I'm... intrigued**. We shall see how the next five hundred pages go.

*The right choice for ME, Joyceans! I don't judge! (I totally judge.)

**A.S Byatt stole shamelessly from it for "Morpho Eugenia", and it's steampunk. I didn't see either of those things coming. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

a quick post

The latest reading:

Bill Bryson's African Diary, by Bill Bryson. This is a very, very slim travelogue - only about fifty pages long - about Bryson's trip to Africa with the CARE organization. It's more or less an advertisement for that organization, although it does display Bryson's humor and general haplessness. It was fine, but its brevity made it seem somewhat pointless.

Nicolas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie. After my ultimately-rewarded struggles with Massie's Catherine the Great, I decided to give his book about the last Tsar a try. It's quite good, with fascinating descriptions of Russian life at the turn of the twentieth century, and I learned a lot. The dragging part - I was prepared for there to be one - came after Nicolas abdicated and the royal family was being held prisoner; that part just went on and on until I found myself muttering, "Shoot them already." But until that point it was thoroughly engrossing and I can recommend it to anyone interested in the topic (although you will have Boney M's "Rasputin" in your head the whole time, if you are like me).

Garnethill, by Denise Mina. This is the first in Mina's trilogy about a young woman in Glasgow investigating appalling crimes and getting herself in a lot of trouble (not to mention a lot of bars). I read the second one first, and I think I liked it better, but this was quite good as well. So, so grim. I look forward to the third.

The latest in my life:

I continue to dogsit a third, small, dog. I keep trying to come up with an Austenian nickname for him (Bingley and Darcy aren't their real names), but Wickham is too mean. He's a very silly yippy dog, but he's also a cuddler, and when your own dogs are large and gangly, a lapdog is a startlingly wonderful thing. Especially in March snowstorms.

Small dog in deep March snowdrifts: boingboingboing*pee*boingboingboingboing. Last night I took him out more times than was strictly necessary because the porpoising filled me with such delight.

I have a mammogram this week. Part of my brain is convinced it will find something the MRI didn't, even though I know it works the other way around. In any case, there will be squashing. Good times!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

light reading, sometimes about dark things

I am on a bit of a mystery binge these days. It makes sense given the grimness of a New England March: when you come in from the mud and the wind and know that in your future lies six more weeks of this, one week of perfect, glorious spring, and then three and a half months of sweltering miserable humidity, it's hard not to just say, "Well, tonight I could do an hour of yoga and write a brilliant chapter of my brilliant novel*, but screw it, I'm gonna sit on my rapidly-flattening butt mainlining episodes of 'The Good Wife' and reading a mystery at the same time."

So, reading of late:

Etiquette & Espionage, by Gail Carriger. Carriger writes adorable, hilarious steampunk romances that are like candy. This book is the first of a young adult trilogy, set in the same Victorian England steampunk werewolf-and-vampire universe. It's a pretty excellent universe, and her fourteen-year-old heroine is spunky and entertaining without being twee. I laughed out loud many a time reading this, and can recommend it, along with her adult novels (Soulless is the first one).

Stephen Fry in America: Fifty States and the Man Who Set Out to See Them All, by Stephen Fry. I used this to break up the seriousness of the Denise Mina (below), but unfortunately it wasn't as entertaining as I'd hoped. The book accompanies a television series he made, which according to Netflix has the same problems as the book: not enough time spent on each state. The chapters are very perfunctory and he seems to run out of energy as he travels west. Fry lost me entirely when he visits New Mexico, as that chapter consists of:

-Viciously slamming Santa Fe based, as far as I can tell, on one turn around the Plaza which didn't even include the Palace of the Governors portal (since he says only white people are selling jewelry on the Plaza) 

-Visiting Los Alamos and raving for five pages about how fantastic it is, because who cares about bombs or nuclear runoff polluting groundwater? someone showed Fry a LAB!

-Visiting Taos and talking to a white hippie couple who lives in an earthship

He doesn't speak to one Hispanic or Native American person, or eat anything. DUDE. That is NOT how you experience New Mexico.  

Faceless Killers, by Henning Mankell. This is the first in the Kurt Wallander Swedish policeman series and I decided to check it out, even though the Masterpiece Mystery version of "Wallander" made me fall asleep. Alas, I found that the television series was pretty faithful to the book. It's all very gray and slow-moving and pessimistic. Wallander isn't an enticing character and the food sounds disgusting. I was relatively interested in the mystery's solution, but don't think I'll be reading any more of these.

Exile, by Denise Mina. Mina does for Glasgow what Ian Rankin does for Edinburgh: namely, make you never want to go there ever ever. This is the second in a trilogy (the first the library had available), and I do plan to read the others, though it was grim as balls. Our heroine is not a policewoman, but an ordinary hard-drinking messed-up young woman who investigates situations under her own initiative and power. It usually ends badly. I am glad to have discovered this author, but recommend keeping something light nearby when you need to duck out of her books.

Death and the Maiden, by Frank Tallis. The latest in a series I enjoy very much, set in pre-WWI Vienna and featuring a policeman and a psychiatrist. This one focuses heavily on government corruption and the looming events facing Europe, especially for the Jewish Austrians (the psychiatrist is Jewish, and spends some time each book hanging out with Freud). Tallis writes intelligently and compellingly, and his descriptions of pastries are deadly.

Currently reading: a book of short stories by Alice Munro. In the story I read last night there was one of those things that bothers me almost more than a dog fatality: a canine character just disappearing. I am useless for the rest of the story or book when authors do that. What happened to the dog? Okay, so the human character who was with the dog died, but did the dog? Was it lost? Given away? What happened to the dog? Damnit, Munro!


Friday, March 8, 2013

"No concerns."

The title is a quote from my oncologist, when she called with the MRI results after three days during which I was either insanely productive due to being frantic or completely frozen due to being frantic. In any case, the news is good, and I could not be more relieved. Her call came in the middle of a snowstorm with coastal flooding that had me working from home, so I was able to shout a lot once I got off the phone.

While being frantic I did finish Midnight's Children, and I know I was distracted but it started to drag heavily at the end. I am not going to argue against its cultural rank as the Booker of Bookers - it's pretty amazing - but it's too long by about 250 pages. And if you don't have access to Indian food the entire time you are reading it you will be cranky.

While Claudio's parents are out of town I am dogsitting their tiny Bichon, who likes to sit on the back of couches. My battered, dog-chewed couch cushions gradually sink under him, until the only thing holding them up is me, and when I get up for more tea he slowly rides the cushion's collapse down. It is both sad and hilarious. As a breed designed for the circus, he's adept at avoiding injury - I've never seen a dog who untangles himself from a tangled leash with such brisk facility. So it's mostly hilarious.

Anyway, off to enjoy my weekend now that I have been given the good news. May you all enjoy it as well!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

reading and waiting

The latest reading:

A Darker Domain, by Val McDermid. McDermid writes very dark, grim mysteries - the books in her Tony Hill series are so disturbing and graphic that I've never been able to re-read one. Outside that series she tends to tone it down a bit, and such was the case with this one. It was a solid procedural with an appealing heroine; nothing life-changing, and I will probably forget I've read it in a few months, but a good afternoon-with-tea read.

Before the Poison, by Peter Robinson. This was another stand-alone book by someone who usually writes a series. For the most part I enjoy Robinson's Inspector Banks books quite a bit (there's an occasional stinker but they're generally fun), but this? Blech. Our self-pitying hero has moved back to his native Yorkshire from LA, with oodles of money, and he becomes obsessed with the previous owners of the house. His love interest is an appalling human being: she's married, and tries to start an affair with the hero to hurt her husband, and when they finally do sleep together she says, "I'm so happy this isn't an affair," the basis for which statement is that she has rented - not moved into, mind, just rented - a place where she can move when she leaves the house she shares with the man to whom she is still legally married in every way. Apparently in England putting your name on a lease is all it takes to obtain a legal divorce! Who knew? (Eyeroll.) The main plot is no great feat of originality either; at one point our hero recruits a young, damaged, heavily-pierced, computer expert woman to do his research, and I just stared at the book in disbelief. Really? All the books in the world to steal from, and you're going to pick that one?

Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account, by Miklos Nyiszli. Oh, God, humanity, you are wretched.

And I didn't finish The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, by Gretchen Rubin. It wasn't terrible, or overly self-congratulatory the ways blogs-turned-books usually are. It just bored me, and when I realized that I set it aside.

Monday I had a breast MRI to follow up on September's inconclusive mammogram findings. Because I had such a terrible panic reaction to last year's MRI, I asked Berowne to drive me in so I could take an Ativan beforehand. It helped, quite a bit; in the last ten minutes I realized that all my weight was pretty much on my face, and started to get incredibly uncomfortable and the headache began to build, which is no fun when you have BANGBANGBANG going on, but the techs told me over the headphones, "Eight and a half minutes left," and I was able to hold on. Then Berowne took me out for lunch. I am dating a very nice guy.

Now we just wait for the results. Last time they kept me hanging for four days; the nurse thought this time around they'd let me know sooner. I've been plowing through a re-read of Midnight's Children, which is a pretty good distraction, but it's still going to be a tense few days. And the results could, of course, change everything. Either way, I've got a great support system. Fingers crossed.