Weekend Update

Hey there! It’s been awhile, and I still don’t have much blogging mojo. So here’s a rambling post to at least get me started again.

Personal

I saw an academic tweet the other day that now the semester’s over, everyone is scheduling a two-hour meeting. Yep. My final grades were submitted a week ago, and the May meeting season began immediately. My department is in the midst of making a major decision about our first-year prerequisites; I appreciate how collegial everyone is being about this, but it’s still a difficult conversation. Chairing our meeting last week was exhausting, and there’s another to come.

Reading

Hence, no blogging and I’m struggling to have enough attention to read. Listening is easier, but even audiobooks have only got partial attention lately. Here’s what I have enjoyed despite my distraction:

Atul Gawande, Being Mortal. I listened to this because my parents recommended it. It’s an often sobering, sometimes inspiring look at how we deal with dying (in the US, particularly, but he argues that every culture that can afford it is moving in this direction). Gawande uses anecdotes effectively to make his abstract points engaging. It made me worry about living across a continent and a border from my parents, which will make supporting them as they age harder.

Nina Stibbe, Man at the Helm. Read because of this review, which ends, “it’s not too much of a stretch to conclude that Man at the Helm, with its jauntily ­matter-of-fact social satire, wouldn’t be out of place on the same shelf as Cold Comfort Farm and I Capture the Castle.” Shut up and take my library hold. By p. 15, I’d spotted an allusion to Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minutea book of stories I loved in college and now want to read again. Stibbe’s book reminded me most of Hilary McKay’s Casson family stories, for the child’s exasperated, loving portrait of a parent thrown off course and struggling to do a half-assed job. The novel is very funny in its look at the travails of life in a judgmental 1970s English village, especially with a divorced mum with a penchant for sleeping with other people’s husbands, but it doesn’t shy away from serious subjects (money troubles, drug addiction) and is often insightful. I especially liked the fact that 9-year-old narrator Lizzie comes to realize that they don’t exactly need a man at the helm to right the family’s course, but they do need help–because everyone does to get through life. (I’d quote some, but I had to return it to the library for others to enjoy). Continue reading

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TBR Challenge: Unfinished Business, by Karyn Langhorne

This month’s theme for the TBR Challenge is Contemporary, and I pulled Karyn Langhorne’s Unfinished Business (published in 2007) from the pile because I felt it was time for a romance in my “read more authors of color” rotation. It was in there in the first place because I’m interested in politically-themed romance and because I really liked Langhorne’s A Personal Matter.

I didn’t like this one quite as much, but let’s start with the good stuff.

Left-leaning, African-American elementary-school teacher Erica Johnson and Southern conservative white senator Mark Newman meet cute when she disrupts a Senate hearing to protest cuts to a school lunch program and challenges him to explain to her fourth graders why paying for the war in Iraq is more important. This leads to a TV interview with the pair at Erica’s school, and Mark’s return challenge to her to spend a week in his (fictional) Southern state and see things from a different point of view.

They’re attracted to each other from the start, but can two such different people learn to get along? And is dating an African American woman going to kill Mark’s political career? And who’s sending the threatening notes with compromising pictures of the two, taken when they were sure no one was around? Continue reading

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Recent Reading: The Rest

Books I read recently, don’t have a ton to say about, but wanted to mention.

Ruth Saberton, Dead Romantic

Romantic British chick lit, featuring an archaeologist heroine who starts seeing ghosts and the former rock star who wrote a Christmas hit about their brief meeting years before (and his ghostly brother, who wants to reunite them). I first saw this in the “Hidden Gems” column at All About Romance (I love lists of books people think deserved more attention). Then Jayne reviewed it at Dear Author; she reads more romantic women’s fiction/chick lit type books than I do, and I find her taste a reliable guide when I’m in the mood for something light and sweet and charming like this.

In the best tradition of chick lit fluff, it also managed to say some serious and moving things about grief, loss, and coming to terms with the past (often a theme of ghost stories). I found Ellie’s friendship with Alex the ghost more developed–and more interesting–than her romance with Rafe. Rafe’s drinking problem sometimes gets depicted as alcoholism and sometimes as something more transient; either way, it was too easily resolved, and a silly Big Misunderstanding took the space that could have been occupied by a more serious conflict. But the book was charming and engaging and just what I was in the mood for when I read it. Continue reading

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Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

This is probably my favorite Trollope novel, if you can say that when you’ve only read a fraction of his prodigious output. I picked up the audiobook in a sale a couple of years ago, and I finally listened to it because listening to Anthony Powell reminded me of Trollope’s big canvas and the way his series follow characters over years, and because of the news about a new, expanded edition of The Duke’s Childrenthe last of the Palliser novelsCan You Forgive Her? is the first. I don’t think I’ll spring for the £195 Folio Society edition of The Duke’s Children; I’ll hope for Oxford, Penguin, or Broadview to bring out a classroom-priced edition. But I do now want to listen to or read the whole Palliser series, even if the final novel isn’t in the author’s preferred form (I’ve read the first three in the past).

My version of Can You Forgive Her? is read by Simon Vance, who also reads Powell’s Dance to the Music of time series. I may choose a different narrator to get the rest of my Palliser fix, because much as I like Vance, that seems like a lot of one narrator. I also own the next three books in print; this one is mysteriously missing from my Trollope shelf, so I have some shopping to do.

Although no one would mistake Trollope for a contemporary feminist, and his statements about Women as a class sometimes had me rolling my eyes, Can You Forgive Her? is very much a novel focused on questions of love, marriage, and female agency–and the role money plays in all of them. The title refers to Alice Vavasor and her vacillation between two suitors; her cousin Lady Glencora and aunt Arabella Greenow are also choosing between two men. Though the Palliser novels are usually described as Trollope’s “Parliamentary Novels,” in this story, the political fortunes of the male characters take a narrative backseat to the courtship stories–and in Lady Glencora’s case, her husband sacrifices his political ambitions (at least temporarily) to save his marriage. The novel is more about sexual/gender politics than the national kind–and it reflects on the way women’s only access to national politics at the time was through marital alliances and influence on the men in their lives. In romance genre terms, we get a second-chance at love story, a marriage of convenience/marriage in trouble story, and, well, I don’t know that Mrs. Greenow’s is a trope, but she’s a widow able to please herself and trying to decide what kind of future will please her best.

And now I’ll be spoilery, because I’m thinking anyone reading this who hasn’t read the book is unlikely to. But if you’d rather not know, stop here. Continue reading

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Signal to Noise, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Cover of Signal to Noise. The title is at the top, with an image of an audio cassette tape below.Description from the publisher’s site, because I am lazy:

Mexico City, 1988: Long before iTunes or MP3s, you said “I love you” with a mixtape. Meche, awkward and fifteen, has two equally unhip friends — Sebastian and Daniela — and a whole lot of vinyl records to keep her company. When she discovers how to cast spells using music, the future looks brighter for the trio. With help from this newfound magic, the three friends will piece together their broken families, change their status as non-entities, and maybe even find love…

Mexico City, 2009: Two decades after abandoning the metropolis, Meche returns for her estranged father’s funeral. It’s hard enough to cope with her family, but then she runs into Sebastian, and it revives memories from her childhood she thought she buried a long time ago. What really happened back then? What precipitated the bitter falling out with her father? And, is there any magic left? 

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s debut novel, Signal to Noise, is hard to categorize (pretty much every review I read talked about this). It’s got magic, so we’re somewhere in fantasy. It’s got a more-or-less contemporary setting, Mexico City in 1988/89 and 2009, but to call it “urban fantasy” would be misleading–no battling supernatural creatures here. I’d call it a descendant of Latin American magical realism, because the magic appears in a largely realistic setting, but the tone and story are quite different: Signal to Noise doesn’t deal with politics or national history, but with personal history; it doesn’t engage myth or legend. It’s really a coming of age story in which, comfortingly or distressingly, the characters don’t finish growing up until their mid-thirties, in the 2009 sections of the book. The magic is integral to Moreno-Garcia’s story, but you can imagine a slightly different version that expressed the teenagers’ struggle to gain some power and control in their lives in a straightforwardly realistic way. Continue reading

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