Tuesday, April 09, 2019

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

April's book club book was The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin. In 1969, four bored siblings in New York seek out a fortune teller who tells them the dates of their deaths.  Then we follow their stories.  I would never have read this book on my own, but I did enjoy most of it. 

I don't want to give anything away in terms of plot, but I will say that it's roughly divided into four parts, each focused on a different sibling. I think the book started off quite strongly and the first story line, focused on the youngest, was the most compelling and the one I keep going back to over and over again in my head.  By the time we got to the last sibling, I was sort of over the framing device and I felt a great deal of distance from the character, but I think that was a purposeful choice that the author made, sort of demonstrating how far removed from the other siblings this sibling was.

The themes of choice and predetermination were a fascinating subject at book club. Just the premise itself (would you want to know the date of your death?) was fodder for us to cover for quite some time.  I also really enjoyed the different family dynamics. I only have one sister, but even within our small family there's different relationships between each member of the family and I can't even imagine a family with four kids. I also liked how the relationships changed over time. I read a lot of novels in which it's clear that two characters are close in childhood and when you switch to adulthood, that relationship is essentially unchanged. Maybe that does happen in real life, but not nearly as often as a fluid relationship, I think.

Anyway, it's not a perfect book, but I did enjoy it, especially the first half. 

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Podcast Roundup March Edition

I feel like a broken record about how good the Code Switch podcast is.  It's just so good for my purposes. This will be the second semester I have done a unit in my racial politics class about sports activists.  The episode called "On the Shoulders of Giants" from Code Switch looks at three racial minorities who were athlete activists of their time - Jack Johnson, Wilma Rudolph (who I had never even heard of before), and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf - and really strips away all the BS to show that they while they stood up for what they believed, they never really were recognized or appreciated for it.

In light of the recent NFL national anthem/Colin Kaepernick controversy, I am seriously considering playing this in class to really nail the point that Kaep is not the first black athlete to try and create social change from a sports platform and he won't be the last.

I've talked about Hit Parade before. I don't always love music podcasts because, as it turns out, I don't always love music, but I do almost always love Hit Parade (there was a recent Lady Gaga ep I turned off because I noped out of Gaga a long time ago).  There was a recent episode called "The Bad Moon on the Rise Edition" that just made me so happy.  It's about how Creedance Clearwater Revival just never made it to the top spot on the Billboard Top 100, despite a succession of number two records. I mostly loved this because the snippets of CCR songs playing reminded me of driving around with my dad with "Travelin' Band," "Fortunate Son," and "Have You Ever Seen the Rain" playing. It was nostalgic and I made a vow to myself to play some old school rock music on our next road trip.

I don't listen to many daily podcasts, but I have a couple in my feed. I only download the episodes that are interesting to me. One of those dailies is Front Burner from the CBC. I like that it's focused on the Canadian POV and to an American like me, it's nice to look at things from a less polarizing place than most of our news podcasts.  There have been several episodes recently that were super interesting, including one on Michael Jackson's legacy and one on why it took so long for R. Kelly to face charges for his rampant and consistent sexual misconduct, but the episode that was a surprise hit for me was one called "Should Tech Companies Pay Us for Our Data?" that talks about the nuances of the arguments for and against tech companies that make money on huge amounts of information we give for free.  Surprise hit. I'm still weighing some of these arguments in my head weeks after I listened to the episode.
 I'm still catching up on Doughboys, which is to say, I just started the 2019 episodes so I'll be downloading them in real time soon, but the back catalog is one of my favorite places to be in the podcast world. There was a live episode with Mary Holland at the end of 2018 that, towards the end, actually had me laughing so hard that I had to put my head between my legs. The humor was crude, yes, but it was hilarious. I'm not sure this is the episode I'd suggest as a first listen, but it was simply the hardest I've laughed in months.
Much like I sometimes put Code Switch at the bottom of my list to listen to, but I usually regret it because the episodes are consistently solid, I sometimes put off The Moth episodes because they are consistently inconsistent. But the episode "Open Adoption, Tin Foil Dinosaurs, and the Imam" has four solid stories with four solid storytellers. If you've never listened to The Moth, this is a great place to start.

Monday, April 01, 2019

The Last Week of March 2019

I'm mostly writing this as a way to memorialize Spring Break 2019 in a way that later on, when I am old and have forgotten my own name, I will remember last week.

My Spring Break truly began on March 22 because I don't teach on Fridays. My husband and I drove to Chicago to go to a wake for one of my great-aunt's on my father's side of the family.  My Aunt Jan loved the color purple, her dog Violet, Virginia Slim cigarettes, red wine, and her late husband in roughly that order.  We would meet up once or twice a year when I was in Chicago and go out for dinner.  I sent her a card every month with an update about my life.  I will miss my Aunt Jan.

We came home that night and the next morning we drove to Iowa to go to my youngest niece's birthday party. She was so excited to turn five. We read Baby Monkey Private Eye (which is a brilliant book that had us all in stitches from age five to age forty five), ate pizza and ice cream, and I did some Girl Scout cookie business with my almost 10-year old niece (anyone want some GS cookies? I technically souldn't have them in our gluten free kitchen).  Then we drove an hour and a half to my father-in-law's house. 

As we got to the grocery store where we were stocking up on gluten free foods for my husband to eat, I got a text message that my grandmother on my mother's side had died.  My grandmother was 102-years old and so, while this message was not exactly unexpected, it was a bit sudden.

We drove back home the next day, packed a cooler, fixed the cat up for us to be gone a couple of days, and drove past Gary, Indiana.  Then we drove the rest of the way to Pennsylvania in time to get to the tail end of the wake for my grandmother.  My Gram was tough old bird who liked crosswords, stuffed porkchops, salt and pepper shakers, and talking about how many grandchildren she had (a hotly contested number) in roughly that order. I would send her a card every month with an update about my life. 

We went to the funeral the next day before getting back in the car and driving to the Michigan/Indiana border. We drove the rest of the way home the next day. 

Then we came home to the following.

1) The upstairs toilet leaking. This toilet must have a rubber seal that dries out if it doesn't get used every day or so because it leaked when we first moved in, too.

2) A fridge whose motor had stopped working.

Then over the weekend I felt like crap so I stayed on the couch watching Criminal Minds on Netflix and sighing over how much work I didn't over Spring Break.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

From the Corner of the Oval by Beck Dorey-Stein

From the Corner of the Oval is Beck Dorey-Stein's debut novel. It tells the story of a former teacher who, through what seems like chance and more luck than she deserves, ends up as a stenographer in the White House during the Obama administration.  She writes with a combination of hubris, candidness, and embarrassment. Dorey-Stein has a voice that is one of a kind.

I don't normally love memoirs. People's lives are generally not as interesting as they think they are.  And Dorey-Stein's life was, for the most part, incredibly normal for a 20-something. She was aimless in her career, she was the "other woman" in a relationship with a man who wanted nothing from her except sex, and she was a borderline alcoholic. She made bad decision after bad decision in a way that was not only predictable, but predictable in a way that made me want to reassure all the confident, smart, self-assure, and composed 20-somethings who are doing all the right things, but aren't getting anywhere in life, that they're okay and Dorey-Stein was just insanely lucky.  All in all, I though the parts of this book about her personal life were a terrible snoozefest. 

But, on the other hand, it was fascinating to hear about life in the Oval Office from the POV from a low-level staffer.  It was fascinating to see just how much of the life of a POTUS is determined by 20-something staffers who are suffering from frequent hangovers. It was fascinating to get a look into the planning of an international presidential visit. It was fascinating to think about how much of her life was a hurry up and wait.  Her personal life was not interesting in the least, but her professional life certainly was.

And Dorey-Stein can write. Even though I didn't really care about her personal life and I wanted to smack her repeatedly for her immature handling of just about every social interaction she had, I really was interested. I flipped through the pages, always wanting more.  Mostly I wanted more about what clothes she wore, how much she got paid, and what she packed on her trips, but in the end this is an author who was in an interesting place at an interesting time and she can write well.  I wish there were an edited volume in which all mentions of sex, booze, and cigarettes were removed, but the book does stand on its own. 

Three and a half stars out of five with the hope that Dorey-Stein does something else interesting in her 30s and writes another memoir, but figures out that life isn't all about hormones and Cape Codder cocktails.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Squint by Chad Morris & Shelly Brown

Flint is a middle-schooler with an eye condition that forces him to wear glasses, earning him the nickname Squint from his classmates, but even those glasses don't always prevent him from seeing in triple- or quadruple-vision.  Suddenly he has a new friend and he's going on new adventures and he's seeing things in a different light. Squint is the second novel from the Morris/Brown duo and it's absolutely perfection.

Both Squint and his new friend are flawed. They are quite self-obsessed in a way that makes it impossible for them to see problems other people are having or what other people are doing for them. But they are sympathetic in their flawed ways because they have hard lives with problems that people who are much older than them would struggle with.  I have maintained that junior high was a tough time in my life (maybe the toughest) and this novel really gets at why it's so hard. 

There are a lot of comparisons to Wonder by RJ Palacio, which is a novel I also really loved and I thought the comparisons were fair, although maybe it's a bit better than Wonder because the characters seem so much like real children instead of what an author wants children to be like.  If you like Wonder, you'll like this. If you aren't always sold on middle readers, this one might change your mind.  I'm going to keep my eye on the Morris & Brown collab and hope for more great reads out of them.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Wednesday Whines and Wins

Whine: Our beloved farm is closing.  The ownership structure got complicated and it became yet another small farm in Wisconsin that just can't compete with the mega-farms. There are really only two other options for vegetable CSAs in our area and one is a giant farm, so we'll be trying out a new farm this year. This CSA is much more expensive than our old one, so I'm excited to see if there's a difference in quality or quantity. I also sprung for us to a dozen eggs every other week because if there's something we eat a lot of in this house, it's eggs.

Win: I frequently find myself at our grocery store at non-peak hours. I do this mostly to avoid the people who decide that standing in the middle of the cheese aisle is a good time to catch up with Neighbor Dave and Cousin Betty despite that fact that the CHEESE aisle at a grocery store in Wisconsin is regularly as busy as the church basement after Sunday services in Alabama, but the other advantage of going at this time is the power I feel when I turn the motion-detecting lights in the refrigerator cases on by walking down the aisle.  I AM THE FORCE.

Whine: My husband signed us both up for piano lessons.  He really wants a piano for our main room downstairs and I rolled my eyes at him since neither of us plays piano. So lessons it is.  First up, playing piano is hard. Next up, we have a keyboard set up with my husband's old desktop in our office to practice and Garage Band constantly freezes and/or shuts down just as I want to start practicing. What I'm learning is that Apple products suck.

Win: Thanks to said piano lessons, I can successfully play Love Me Tender very slowly on the piano.

Whine: I just went to the periodontist and my gums are killing me. I always forget to take ibuprofen with my breakfast on periodontist days and then regret it as soon as I pay the lady $150 and walk to the car with my hand clutching my lower jaw as if that will somehow dull the ache.

Win: I can afford the dental care.

Whine: I had a doctor appointment today (my foot! still with my foot!). I was there for half an hour before I went to the desk and asked just how far behind my doctor would be and was told that it would be at least another hour. Um...no.

Win: I rescheduled for next Monday. 

Monday, March 04, 2019

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

We start Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by meeting Eleanor, a woman who holds a boring job in a boring office eating the same things every day and drinks herself into a stupor during the weekends so she can begin her boring life again the next week. She struggles in social situations, makes generally unkind, but true assessments of those around her, and frequently offends others.  We slowly get to know more about Eleanor's history as she begins a tentative friendship with the IT guy at her office. 

I was not into this character at first. She was a rude alcoholic with some mean tendencies and frankly, I'd just read The Woman in the Window and I was sort of over the unreliable addicted narrator thing. But Eleanor grew on me. I started giggling at her very honest, non-sugarcoated assessments of people and activities around her. I started rooting for her to break out of her rut and make friends. I started to care.

The writing is so good.  Honeyman creates a friendship with the reader and Eleanor. My best friend often talks about how she thought I was a complete bitch when she first met me, but our closeness grew like a terrible fungus. Honeyman replicates that very experience in this novel. At first, I was really put off by Eleanor. She was so closed off that I just didn't want to hang out with her. But gradually Honeyman let us learn more and more about Eleanor in a way that exactly replicates real life friendships. I wanted to spend time with her. When she was sad, I was sad. When she had successes, I pumped my fist in the air for her.   It took me a week to read the first third of the book and one evening on the couch, staying up past my bedtime, to finish the rest.

Thumbs way up for me. 

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