Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Podcast Roundup July 2020

30 for 30 podcasts are amazing, especially their limited series.  I've really enjoyed the limited podcasts on the yoga guru Bikram and the basketball team owner Donald Sterling - there's excellent reporting going on. Their most recent mini-series called Heavy Medals discusses the influence of Bela and Martha Karolyi on gymnastics.  It starts all the way back when they met in Romania and married, coached the Romanian athletes, then fled to the US, and their successive success with the Team USA.

The historical information early on was super riveting.  I really thought the interviews with former Romanian athletes were fascinating, especially since it's not something I really know about.  I wish the ending episodes had talked a bit more about what the future of American women's gymnastics looks like without the Karolyis in it, but overall this was quite strong.

Clotheshorse is a podcast about the fashion industry - why things cost what the do, how things are made, and why it's important. Hosted by Amanda Lee McCarty, this podcast touches on fast fashion, dumb satin bows on undergarments, and how what we're wearing is polluting the world and killing Mother Earth.  McCarty's main argument seems to be that we vote with our dollars, so if we want there to be a world left for our kids, we need to use those dollars wisely when purchasing clothing.  As someone who thinks endlessly about the clothes I wear, I'm finding this fascinating. Also, it's new, so there isn't a giant intimidating back catalog to go through.

Reveal always does such excellent reporting, and, equally important, excellent storytelling.  This last month brought me so much awesome Reveal content that I can hardly contain myself. The episode called "And Old Hate Goes Viral" is all about the disgusting consequences of a president who says racist things. As Trump calls it the "Chinese virus," Asian Americans suffer the consequences of getting spit and coughed on, yelled at, and otherwise harassed. I sort of knew that this was happening, in theory, but to hear firsthand accounts was horrifying.  

Reveal is also in the middle of a limited series called American Rehab that is all about how a type of drug treatment has taken over. From early days of drug treatment to "work therapy" in 2020, this series is eye-opening and shocking.
The Indicator does short stories about the economy. The episode "How Rural Texas Hospitals are Fighting Covid-19" really touched me. It was mostly an interview with the man who runs TORCH, the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals and, at one point the interviewer asked him if it would be better if smaller hospitals closed and consolidated  resources to larger hospitals and the guy was explaining that would cost lives since so many people live hours away from large cities. Rural lives aren't worth less. And man did I feel that sentence.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Fool's Errand by Robin Hobb

The Farseer Trilogy

Fool's Errand by Robin Hobb is the first book in the Tawny Man trilogy and the seventh book in The Realm of the Elderlings epic world. You could skip the Liveship Traders trilogy, but if you didn't read The Farseer trilogy, this novel would be hard to follow.

This book picks up fifteen years after the ending of Assassin's Quest.  Fitz has settled comfortably into a cottage on the banks of a stream with a foundling boy he has taken under his care, Hap.  Starling the minstrel occasionally visits him.  He and Nighteyes, the wolf he is bonded to, are growing older and are ready to live the rest of their lives peacefully feeding chickens, thatching the roof, and tending to the garden.  Fitz goes by the name Tom Badgerlock and no one ever mistakes him for the bastard son of an estranged Farseer prince.

But, as it happens, Fitz's old mentor Chade comes to visit him and it sets off a series of unfortunate events.  Fitz is forced to go on a mission to find the wayward Prince Dutiful who has either been kidnapped or run away from home.  Fitz and Nighteyes are not in the prime conditions of their lives and we see as the journey slowly breaks them down.

This is not a book with a lot of levity.  Much like Assassin's Quest, the only real levity comes from our wolf friend, Nighteyes.

Hap is speaking:
"It isn't that I don't like it here with you and Nighteyes. It's just that..." He floundered for a moment. "Have you ever felt as if you could actually feel time flowing away from you? As if life were passing you by and you were caught in a backwater with the dead fish and old sticks?"

You can be the dead fish. I'll be the old stick.  [This is a thought Nighteyes has.] (pages 214-215)

I audibly chuckled.

This is really a story about a man and his wolf, though. Yes, of course we have to rescue Prince Dutiful and we have to bridge from Fitz living a crofter's life to being back at Buckkeep Castle, but at its heart, this novel is about how we treat our pets as they get older and how we deal with the emotional backlash.  Fitz and Nighteyes have the type of relationship you would expect from a couple that had been together for a couple of decades and that relationship is heartwarming and, in the end, devastating.  

Since I read this book in July 2020, I think it cut closer to home than I would have expected.  I rely so much on Zelda the Cat and Hannah the Dog to get through my days. The excitement that Hannah shows by prancing and jumping around when we first come down and say good morning, the purrs and cuddles that Zelda shares with me when I sit on the couch for my hour of television watching in the evening, and the day-to-day joy of having pets when there's not much else in the way of joy is something I do not underestimate.  May Hannah and Zelda live long lives.

I don't think Hobb's writing is for everyone. It took over 200 pages for us to leave Tom's cottage and another 100 before we figured out what our real mission was. That's not for everyone. But if you're content to sit back and watch the world and the characters develop, the plot will eventually come. It's definitely not a plot-driven series, but I like the world of the Six Duchies and I like Fitz, Nighteyes, Chade, and the Fool, although I think Prince Dutiful is a little snot.  It's a comforting place to be.  And I'll take all the comfort I can these days.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

As soon as I finished Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, I texted Bestest Friend and my sister-in-law and demanded that they put it on their reading lists.  I liked just about everything about it from the writing to the themes to the characterizations. As I write this, it only has a 3.84 rating on Goodreads and I think that is unfair. The book is simply smarter than the reviewers.

Basically, it tells the story of two women. Emira Tucker babysits for Alix Chamberlain.  Emira is black and Alix is white and one night, Emira takes one of the Chamberlain kids to a grocery store where the security guard thinks Emira is kidnapping the child.  The rest of the novel is fallout from that event.

Characters: Alix and Emira are such complicated figures. Emira has like three selves: the Emira who is sweet and patient with the children, the one who is professional and interacts with white people, and the Emira who hangs out with her friends.  Alix is a "woke" white woman trying to make what she thinks are good decisions for Emira without actually consulting Emira.  They are not perfect, but they each do what they think is the best, but the outcomes aren't always what they thought would happen.  These are complicated women and Reid's character development is spot-on.

Writing about how white people frequently try to do things to help black people and end up making things worse is kind of a tricky thing to do without making white people seem to lack any emotional competency, being preachy, or ignoring a point of view, but Reid straddles the line and makes it look easy.

Writing: Reid writes in a breezy style that makes you think you're going to be reading a sort of tell-all from the nanny's point of view at first, but it quickly sinks into questions about race, class, and the use of technology in 2020 America.  I was surprised at how quickly I was invested in the story and how quickly I finished the novel.  I was also surprised at how grim I found the ending - I definitely want a follow-up to know how Emira and Alix's oldest daughter are doing in twenty years.  There are a number of criticisms on Goodreads about how bad the dialogue is, but I just can't agree with those criticisms. Reid writes like how people talk!  That's good writing, even if it's jolting when the rest of the novel is written in perfect grammar.

Nitpicks: The ending undid a lot of work in creating the character of Alix - it made her a flat-out villain instead of a well-meaning woman who just doesn't know how much she's screwing up other people's lives.  The secondary characters were hardly developed at all, including Alix's husband and Emira's friends, but I actually think that's probably okay since it would have added unnecessary length to the volume.  

I would strongly recommend this one. In the United States in 2020, we deserve it to one another to support artists of color, especially when they're aiming their message straight to us.  Listen and amplify their voices.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Secrets of a Summer Night by Lisa Kleypas

First up, Secrets of a Summer Night is quite possibly the most dull title that has ever titled and I read a lot of romance novels. It's forgettable, not really related to the novel itself, and doesn't even complete the alliteration.  But it's the first book in The Wallflowers series, which is apparently beloved in the romance novel world, so I dove in despite my misgivings over the lame title.

Four single women who are left at the side of a ballroom, ignored, and they make a pact to help one another find a member of the peerage to marry.  This is the first of their tales.

Heroine:  Ugh. I really hated her. She felt entitled to marry a member of the noble class and when she finally marries a  mere commoner with tons of money who takes care of her and her family, she gets pissy because she's not invited to the balls. To paraphrase Ron Weasley, she needs to sort out her priorities.

Hero:  Uncommunicative alpha male. Not really my style. 

Conflict: She wants a peer; he's a commoner. Her mom is getting raped repeatedly and to fix the problem, the hero sends the mom a vacation.  (I'm barfing here.)

Romance: I mean, I guess. The hero really does seem to love the heroine and does all sorts of nice things for her. The heroine's motivations and feelings are a bit more obscure, but she certainly doesn't ACT like she even likes the hero, let alone love him.

Plot: I thought the plot was believable for the most part and that the characters reacted in ways that real people would. On the other hand, I think that there were quite a number of historical inaccuracies about how young single women would be treated during the time period, but I'm willing to let most historical nitpicks go when I'm reading historical romance novels.

Writing: Kleypas writes clearly and competently. It's not gorgeous prose, but it's easy to read and the pages turn quickly.

Happily ever after:  Yes.  It's obvious that we'll need to follow-up with the other Wallflowers and that this is the first book in a planned series.

A perfectly acceptable, readable book. I don't think I understand the hype that this series gets, so maybe it'll get better in subsequent books.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Unfollow by Megan Phelps Roper

Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Topeka, Kansas is best known for its picketing of LGBTQ+ events and soldiers' funerals.  They hold signs that say things like "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."  It's a cult of personality, originally formed by patriarch Fred Phelps and members of his family. After Phelps died, the church changed its message to be slightly less confrontational and more positive in tone with signs like "Thank God for Everything" and "Christ Our Salvation," but they're still out there protesting events and spreading hate.  The Southern Poverty Law Center designates WBC as a hate group.

Megan Phelps - Roper is the granddaughter of Fred Phelps. Her memoir, Unfollow, tells the tale of her growing up in the cult church, her slow path to disillusionment, and her eventual parting from the church, which also meant estrangement from much of her family.  One of my book club partners recommended this book to me and I was suspicious because I'm of the opinion that most people shouldn't write memoirs, but I found Phelps-Roper to be a compelling writer.  Her story is interesting and, for all the faults of the Phelphs family, they do emphasize education, so her writing is flawless.

I'm on record here as saying I'm essentially areligious. I don't really think about religion in any real substantive way and when people cite God or the Bible as reasons for something, I'm sometimes jolted into a reality where religion matters.  So it's interesting to read about someone whose experience is exactly the opposite - where religion comes first and secular influences are the things that jolt you out of that religious mindset.

I was absolutely fascinated by reading about how brainwashed Phelps-Roper was from her earliest memories. But it was even more interesting to read about how she dealt with her teenage rebellions and pushback against the church. She was able to really talk herself out of some important questions and her parents, particularly her mother, were smart to acknowledge the importance of those questions while having rebuttals.  It's a real-life example of groupthink and a strange sort of linguistic hermeneutics, wherein the members of the WBC think their interpretation of the Bible is the only correct interpretation.

A big strength of the book was the development of the relationships.  Phelps-Roper had a complicated relationship with her parents, particularly her mother.  Her mother was pretty abusive, but also was a mentor.  It's rare that you're able to see a well-written narrative account of how abusers can also be people we love. The relationships among the eleven children in the family was also interesting to read about.  I mean, the relationship between siblings closest in age to you and those farthest away must be quite different and Phelps-Roper does write about how she was resentful of having to be a babsitter as one of the oldest children, especially as a teenager, but how she grew to really enjoy time with her siblings as she got older.

I thought the book lost a lot of luster in the last third. The first six chapters are absolutely riveting. But once you hit chapter seven and Phelps-Roper and her sister have left their family home and church, it's sort of boring.  I was a bit surprised by this because I would have thought that the reintegration story would have been a powerful story, sort of like stories of released convicts who are trying to get their lives back (another shoutout to the amazing podcast Supervision).  

Instead, it was basically just Phelps-Roper attempting to come to understanding about what form of religion she was going to follow and a really boring love story.  I wish the last three chapters had been condensed into one, but hey, when was the last time I didn't think a book should be shorter?  I'd recommend the book for sure, but would warn people that it doesn't exactly stick the landing.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Assassin's Quest by Robin Hobb

The Farseer Trilogy
Assassin's Apprentice

The third book in the Farseer trilogy picks up right where we last left FitzChivalry and boy is he in for a rough go of it in this novel.  Fitz is on a journey to find King Verity who is currently being usurped by his brother Regal who has taken on the mantle of kind.  Verity had left to find help from an ancient race called the Elderlings because Verity's kingdom is being attacked by Red Raiders and the Elderlings will supposedly be a big help in stopping them.  However, since Verity has been gone, everything has really turned out badly for the Six Duchies and so Fitz needs to go get Verity, brink  him back, and everything will end happily ever after.

What I liked: 
1) The development of Fitz's wolf sidekick, Nighteyes. Nighteyes saves Fitz's rear on a number of occasions and is, all things considered, the all-star of the novel.  As a matter of fact, the only quote I marked from the book is a quotes from the wolf.   Fitz is explaining to Nighteyes that he HAS to go on a mission and that he just can't leave it alone.  Nighteyes responds: I am the same about porcupines.  

That might be the only bit of levity in the book.

2)  Fitz never learns: I think some people think of Fitz as a character who never grows because he makes the same mistakes over and over again. I think this is actually a product of Hobb writing realistic characters AND that Fitz is an unwilling hero in all of this and his reluctance to fight/assassinate/battle is a results of that unwillingness.  I think this is actually one of the most clever things Hobb does, even if she does get some criticism for it.

3) The reveal of the Elderlings at the end of the book is absolutely wonderful. I don't want to give spoilers, but it was something I actually gasped out loud at.

4) Hobb's prose is beautiful. She has built a complex world and now it's her playground. She writes it and you see it and it's not overwrought and it's not written for second graders. It's exactly right.

What I didn't like:
1) The first book in the trilogy was 150,510 words and came in at 448 pages.  The second book came in at 254,765 words and 688 pages.  This book 326,830 words and 757 pages*. There were so many bits of plot that I thought could have been abbreviate or cut out, especially since a lot of the middle of the book was exactly the same thing (Fitz gets caught and injured, Nighteyes saves him, someone else nurses Fitz back to health).  It didn't need to be that long.

2) Hobb is an interesting writer because she writes some female characters really well and just sort of relies on stereotypes for others. Because Fitz cuts ties with his old life in this book, there are lots of new characters and, to be honest, none of the new characters are worth learning about.  

But, overall this was a worthy ending to an excellent series. I'm going to go ahead and dive in to the rest of Hobb's work in this extended world.  I've already read The Liveship Trilogy and I might do a reread at some point, but I'm going to move on next to the Tawny Man trilogy.  I'm super excited about where this goes.

*Data obtained from Reading Length

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

In The Bone Season, Samantha Shannon introduces us to 2059 London where clairvoyants are organized into crime syndicates and are committing crimes just by existing.  Paige is a dreamwalker and we're following her along, learning about her relationships with the other people in her syndicate and her father when she is kidnapped and taken to Oxford, a secret city where clairvoyants are kept as slaves for the powerful race of Rephaites.  We follow Paige as she tries to escape to return to her London crew.

Did you find that confusing?  Well, imagine that, along with a confusing hierarchy of clairvoyant types, strange, undefined slang terms, and more characters than a Tolstoy novel.  I really wanted to like this book. I wanted the world-building to immerse me. I wanted Paige to be a character I could really root for. I wanted Shannon to create a story I wanted to continue reading and would be sad to leave.  

Well, I didn't get what I wanted.

The first third of the book was just an exposition dump with tons of place, people, and ideas just thrown at the reader.  There was no attempt to ground us in any of the information, but it was just spit at us. I'd read the "next JK Rowling" comparisons and was hoping for something like the Diagon Alley scene when Harry was introduced to the magical world, but instead I got endless inner monologues about things that were never relevant and weren't particularly interesting.   I thought Paige was going to be a cool, independent woman until I found out that nearly every time she was in trouble she would rely on someone else to get her out of the pickle.  I was on page 410 when a really terrible thing happened that meant, even if I'd been on the fence about reading the next book in the series, I definitely wasn't going to read it now.  

All in all, this was not a great reading experience.  Thumbs down from me.