Red Star Tattoo, by Sonja Larsen

In a post on her blog, Sonja Larsen reports her husband’s response when she said she needed an explanation for why she was publishing her first book at 50:

Oh that’s not hard is it? he says. You spent 10 years trying to forget it, 10 years dealing with it and 10 years writing about it.

Reading her memoir, Red Star Tattoo: My Life as a Girl Revolutionary, I could see why it took so long to find a way to think and talk about her childhood growing up in a commune and then–as a teen independent of her parents–in a cult-like political organization, the National Labor Federation. (It’s a political science student she meets after leaving the group who helps her learn to name it as a cult). Continue reading

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June (and Early July): Mystery Madness

My blogging mantra needs to be “Never apologize, never explain.” Every now and then a post may appear.

In June, I “read” a ton of older mysteries, mostly via audiobook. I’ve hardly listened to any books this year, spending my listening time on podcasts instead, but in June my husband went to Belgium for a conference, and I needed something to distract me–I don’t sleep well when he’s away. So I checked out backlist mysteries at the library. Here’s what I read/listened to:

Continue reading

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TBR Challenge: A Marriage of Inconvenience by Susanna Fraser

June’s TBR Challenge theme is favorite trope, and mine is definitely Marriage of Convenience. I once saw someone explain its appeal as “sex with a stranger,” but for me that’s not it at all. It’s “having to find a way to live/work together.” I like the high stakes, especially in a historical, where these people are pretty much stuck together for life–if they can’t make it work, they’re going to be unhappy. Contemporary versions of this trope are typically unconvincing, at least outside of Harlequin Presents type over the top fantasies, but I find the same satisfaction in a good romantic suspense where characters are on the run and have to work together to survive.

So surely, I thought, I’d have plenty of choices in my TBR. But either I read them all right away, or I can’t remember from author-title whether a book includes the trope. Hence, Susanna Fraser’s A Marriage of Inconveniencethe only TBR book I could be sure had my favorite trope. Plus, I’ve been meaning to read her forever–this book has been languishing in my TBR for 5 years, along with other Fraser novels, even though I’m sure she’s right up my alley. Well, I was right. I enjoyed this book a lot, though as Fraser’s first, it has some flaws (it was actually the second published, but predates her debut, The Sergeant’s Ladyand I think was written first). Since this book has been out so long, my reflections will be full of spoilers.  Continue reading

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Recent Reading: Non-Fiction

I have read and listened to some amazing non-fiction in the last couple of weeks, three books by turns heart-breaking and scathing and hilarious, books with strong voices.

Voices from Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievitch

I put this on hold at the library shortly after Alexievitch won the 2015 Nobel Prize, and a lot of other people had already had the same idea. It was worth waiting for.

Alexievitch’s work is oral history, essentially a collage of voices of people she interviews with no framing from her beyond a note of the person’s name and role (scientist, party official, mother, teacher) at the end. Her art comes in selecting and arranging these voices, and, I assume, in the unheard questions which elicit them. In an afterword, she talks about how emotions are as real as facts, and her subjects often speak with great honesty about their feelings: the pain of losing loved ones, their fear of the future, their despair, their sense of betrayal by the government and disillusionment, but also their pride in being Soviet and in serving their nation. Here’s one example, from an environmental inspector on her role in preventing panic by concealing the truth about the accident’s consequences: Continue reading

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The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie

Cover of The Portable Veblen: A squirrel on a blue background. The title and author appear in speech bubbles above and below him, and he holds a speech bubble reading "a novel."The cover of Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen, baby blue, bubble-gum pink, and daffodil yellow, with a drawing of a squirrel, gives you some sense of the book’s quirky charm. (Words like “antic,” squirrely words, come to mind). Did you note the speech bubbles? Our heroine, Veblen, talks to a squirrel, and hears him talk back.

Does this make the book sound unbearably twee? I thought it avoided that, though sometimes just barely. It’s a romantic comedy, a family drama, a satire of sorts of conspicuous consumption, Big Pharma, and the military-industrial complex. It is quirky and oddball, and often very funny. But under all the oddball quirks, its depiction of two people–Veblen and her fiancé, Paul–trying to come to terms with their pasts and figure out who they are so that they can make a future together is moving and real.

Last week’s New York Times featured a piece by Alain de Botton titled “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” Partly, he says, it’s because we’re all a bit nutty–acorny? (who can resist the squirrel-related jokes?): Continue reading

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