So You Want to Talk About Race

By Ijeoma Oluo

So_You_Want_To_Talk_About_RaceHonestly, I did not want to read about race right now, let alone talk about it. I wanted to keep reading the historical mysteries and romances that have kept me moderately distracted during this pandemic, but they started to feel tiresome, and I knew that I couldn’t ignore this national dialogue any longer.

When faced with all the recommended readings, So You Want to Talk About Race was an easy choice, since I already follow Ijeoma Oluo on twitter and instagram, where she is very smart, funny, honest, and occasionally posts beautiful makeup demos. I’d been meaning to get to her book for longer than I like to admit.

Also, white complacency is insidious! I’ve done enough reading over the years that I’m more or less comfortable with terms like “social construct” and “intersectionality,” but this also means that I too often fall into the mental trap of thinking that I don’t need to do any of this recommended reading.

And boy, did Oluo school me fast! She writes So You Want to Talk About Race in the same accessibly conversational tone that she uses in her social media, so I’d initially thought it would be a pretty quick read. It came as a shock the first few times I had to set down the book for a day so that I could think through everything she had laid on me in the chapter I’d just read.

I can’t resist sharing a few passages that I highlighted:

From the chapter “Is it really about race?” on how our country’s economics is intrinsically connected to race:

Racism in America exists to exclude people of color from opportunity and progress so that there is more profit for others deemed superior. This profit itself is the greater promise for nonracialized people—you will get more because they exist to get less.

From “What is racism?:”

Systemic racism is a machine that runs whether we pull the levers or not, and by just letting it be, we are responsible for what it produces. We have to actually dismantle the machine if we want to make change….

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Spellbound

By Allie Therin

SpellboundI feel like this review is the complete opposite of my previous one. The writing and plotting are not terribly polished, but it is just so charming that it provided a really excellent reprieve from our current world. This is the first book in Therin’s Magic in Manhattan series, set in 1920s New York and featuring a wealthy society man, who moonlights as an investigator of magic objects, and a young ruffian from Hell’s Kitchen, who uses magic on the sly as an assistant at a small antiques shop. The two cross paths over a dangerous magic ring, and thus kicks off mystery, magic, and romance! (The romance is PG-13 at most, I’d say, with implied sex but a literary fade-to-black with every scene.)

Our two main protagonists are also surrounded by various family, friends, and even antagonists who are interesting and sympathetic characters in their own right. Therin gives the reader peeks into their lives, which adds even more charm and richness to the book. The second book, Starcrossed, came out earlier this month, and was even more delightful, so I highly recommend them both for a fun distraction!

In my attempt to limit how much money I give Amazon, I decided to buy the ebooks straight from the publisher. Somewhat to my embarrassment, these are published by a Harlequin imprint, but I persevered, which necessitated getting the Harlequin reading app on my phone. This all felt like a lot of trouble and I was grumpy, but then the app was very easy to use and having it directly on my phone was convenient, too.

The Marlowe Murders

By Laura Giebfried and Stanley R. Wells

Marlowe_MurdersWell, this novel is a fucking mess. The preview reminded me a bit of classic Agatha Christie mysteries, with a wealthy and estranged family gathered at a huge mansion on a remote island for the wake of the family matriarch. It lacked Christie’s charm, though, with every character being absurdly dislikeable, but I often find that entertaining as well. It was sort of refreshing for the protagonist—bribed/extorted by one of the family siblings into serving as a maid for the wake for mysterious reasons—to explain that everyone finds her “difficult” and for me to agree with everyone. (As a 29-year-old woman trying to get her doctorate in the 1950s, it would have been very easy to sympathize that the cards were very much stacked against her if she herself hadn’t been quite so unpleasant.)

What I found less entertaining was the glimpses of unpleasantness from the author herself. One character is overweight, which is referenced in just about every scene, and seems an especially shallow descriptor since her true defining feature, along with the other members of the family, seems to be a cartoonishly psychotic temper. If a woman is threatening me with mortal harm, her body weight is the least of my concerns. In addition to adding an ugly layer of fat phobia to an already unpleasant novel, the constant digs quickly became tiresome and clichéd.

Once the characters and scene were set and the murder committed, the plot really started to go off the rails. There’s a chapter in most mysteries where the detective is stumped and just sort of runs through wild conjectures. They usually write themselves a list to help order their thoughts and get back on track, but this protagonist seemed to just decide to go with the wild conjectures approach the whole way through. The characters all jumping from suspicion to suspicion, based solely on the newest ‘clue’ made me feel a little unmoored as well, so I guess you could say that the author created an atmosphere of sorts.

The Moral Judgments of Henry David Thoreau

By Kathryn Schulz

ThoreauAs I mentioned previously, I’m struggling with full-length novels, and even short stories seem to require a level of focus I don’t quite have in me right now. However, I ran across this five-year-old take down of Henry David Thoreau, and gleefully read the whole article in a matter of minutes. I’ve already described my love of writers dunking on other writers (and politicians), and this is up there with the best of them.

I’d heard before that Walden was much less remote than Thoreau described and that his ‘isolation’ there is the epitome of invisible women’s labor as his mother brought him food and did his laundry, but Schulz drags him point-by-point in this beautifully comprehensive and funny essay. A few choice excerpts, but I highly recommend the entire thing:

“I cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee (especially if the objection is that it erodes great civilizations; had the man not heard of the Enlightenment?), but Thoreau never met an appetite too innocuous to denounce.”

“Food was bad, drink was bad, even shelter was suspect, and Thoreau advised keeping it to a minimum.”

Judge_MathisAdditionally, a more low-brow, comfort read during this time is Samantha Irby’s semi-daily recapping of whatever Judge Mathis episode she watched on YouTube the previous day. This is basically exactly my attention span right now, a funny, rambling, mostly kind discourse on low-stakes court-room drama. I look forward to them every day, and they are one of the many little things helping me get through these times.

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts

By Kate Racculia

Tuesday_MooneyThis book deserves a better reader than I am right now. I absolutely loved Racculia’s previous novel Bellweather Rhapsody and tore through it in a few days. I loved Tuesday Mooney, too, but it took me two weeks to read because my attention span is a fruitfly at this point.

It starts a little slow with introductions of all the characters, and Racculia really excels at characters – they were all interesting, distinct, and sympathetic but also clearly flawed in their own ways that kept them from being too likeable. Five of our central protagonists are at a Boston hospital fundraiser – the titular Tuesday Mooney being a researcher for the donor relations department– when an older gentleman keels over while bidding $50k for a meet-and-greet with New Kids on the Block. (I feel like this level of detail is characteristic of Racculia, and the book continues to be a love letter to all things Boston, as well as the adventure, murder, romance, ghost story it is.)

Even though he dies in the first chapter, I count the older gentleman as one of the protagonists, because it is his post-mortem scavenger hunt that leads the rest of the story, and his own (interesting, distinct) personality is threaded through it all as well. Through the scavenger hunt, the cast of characters expands to family and friends of the deceased as well as more random hunters, and we get lovely peaks into many of their lives. It was here that I would happily sit down for an hour or so to read and feel satisfied with the story, but then turn blank-eyed to the TV afterwards, which is very much a criticism of my own coping skills and not the novel itself.

However, when the villain is revealed to both the protagonists and the reader, that’s when I really got hooked, and stayed up far too late a couple of nights. In retrospect, I realize that I like a story to have more darkness to it than the first half had, focusing on the riddle and puzzle solving. It is quite a race to the end, and in retrospect has a well-crafted pace that exponentially speeds up over the course of the book. The finale is incredibly satisfying, tying up more loose ends than I’d even quite realized Racculia had threaded (though not all of them, keeping it a bit realistic), and I plan to read this again when I’m no longer quite so hollow eyed and empty headed.

The Good Knight

By Sarah Woodbury

Good_KnightI’d downloaded the free kindle version ages ago, and just ran across it while digging through my library listlessly after two weeks in my house. Set in medieval Wales, with some king getting killed on his way to marry the daughter of another king, and only the knight who runs across the carnage afterwards can solve this crime amidst all the political scheming, with the help of the woman who loves him.

Listen, my brain has basically turned to sludge at this point. I couldn’t keep track of any of the characters because all the names were unfamiliar to me, and while it is decently written, it was not skilled enough to make me care about any of them. And yet, I still read it all the way through, when I’d had to put more critically acclaimed books down because my mind kept wandering off to nightmare news on twitter.

I do think that it helped that it was set in a sort of “primitive” time where there’s no technology of course, and also everyone seems very id-driven, simply reacting to each moment as the mood strikes them at the time. Who knew how the king would react to the death of his son-in-law-to-be? Probably badly, but maybe he’s feeling relaxed right now? As our knight protagonist points out, the assassination of a king is not an uncommon path toward inheritance in this time. The action and mystery felt very free-floating which was somewhat soothing right now.

So, I don’t know, it distracted me for a bit and it is free on amazon, and can we really ask for anything more in these times?

Red, White, and Royal Blue

By Casey McQuiston

Royal_BlueOstensibly a romance novel (the first son of the United States falls into an affair with the second prince of England), Red, White, and Royal Blue is charming enough to lure the reader into some truly heart-wrenching looks at our current political climate.

Though the politics represented here are much improved over our current situation – the first female president is facing her reelection with a conservative but politically savvy Republican opponent – it still holds a mirror to how twisted our politics have gotten: where polls, focus groups, and image are everything, having completely superseded personal ethos.

This is a lot for a supposed romance novel, but it asks how much sacrifice can be demanded of individuals for a greater societal good? Is there a tipping point where the sacrifice becomes so big that it degrades the society around it? For me, it explored how asking people to hide who they truly are – sexuality in this book, but also ethnicity, religion, gender and countless other things – is not only poisonously corrosive to the individuals but weakens our entire society.

I had been looking forward to a fluffy romance to pass the time while I self-isolate in order to avoid being an additional contagion vector (how is our world like this right now?!), and was a bit grumpy to not actually get precisely that, but it is so moving, heartfelt, and ultimately optimistic that I couldn’t stay mad.

Medallion Status

By John Hodgman

Medallion_StatusI’ve been listening to a lot of the Judge John Hodgman podcast at work, since it is very soothing. Two funny, smart hosts (Judge John Hodgman and Bailiff Jesse Thorn) adjudicate cases of very little significance. In one of my recent favorites, a husband “sues” his wife to prevent her from getting a worm-based compost bin in their apartment, and it is hilarious, hilariously gross, and charming. In this episode, as per usual, Hodgman charmingly gets at the base issue and finds a solution that leaves both parties extremely pleased, and it is so refreshing.

While mired halfway through Smoke, I put a hold on Medallion Status, figuring it would be the perfect fluffy palette cleanser. And I was 100% correct! While I know Hodgman best from his guest appearances as the deranged billionaire on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, he is most generally well known as the PC in the old Apple ads. He is the first to acknowledge that was the height of his fame, too. With the ads came more regular roles on television shows, and a gold medallion status on his airline of choice.

In Medallion Status, he reflects surprisingly poignantly on the weirdness, seductiveness, and elusiveness of even relatively minor fame. It is also so consistently funny; I was giggling out loud every few minutes in what I’m sure was a very annoying manner. His writing is so deceptively simple that over and over again I would be caught off guard with just how funny it was.

Nice Try: Stories of Best Intentions and Mixed Results

By Josh Gondelman

Nice_TryWhile I’m talking about funny, kind white men, I also have to recommend Josh Gondelman and his collection of personal stories, Nice Try. He is an incredibly funny comedian – his standup album “Physical Whisper” is one of my favorites – and is frequently referred to as the nicest guy in comedy (thus the title of his book). And he is super nice! His comedy is self-deprecating, but also wildly relatable, about trying your best to navigate increasingly complicated life while feeling like you might be missing some key tools.

The book collects stories his written for other publications and additional personal stories. In one chapter, he talks about struggling with his growing awareness of how problematic the NFL is, both physically and socially, with how love for the game was an important way to bond with his family (this also led him to co-create #agoodgame, tying points scored to donations). In another he talks about adopting a dog that may or may not have been stolen from its original owner, and figuring out what to do about that, with the same amount of maturity and savvy as any of the rest of us (i.e., none). It’s all very funny in a way that is laughing with, not at, all of us about how ridiculous life can be sometimes.

Smoke

By Dan Vyleta

SmokeThis is a tough review, because Smoke has a fascinating premise, and is certainly well written, but it took me a month to get through it and by the end, I completely hated it. I think it might just be me? Like, it wasn’t the right book for me to read at this time, and forcing myself to continue just made it worse. So, I’m stuck where I can’t really recommend it, but I can’t pan it either.

Set in an alternative Victorian era England, Smoke elaborates on the real life coal smog crisis of the time. The premise is that people’s anger and violent thoughts manifest visually as a sooty smoke emitted from the person’s body, staining their clothes and polluting the world around them. The book opens in a prep school for the children of aristocracy, where an essential lesson is to avoid all ‘smoking’ entirely. The aristocracy apparently do not ‘smoke,’ but our protagonist, Thomas, is both on the fringes of society and has poorly controlled anger.

I was initially vaguely sympathetic to Thomas, though at a bit of a distance, which I first ascribed to being old enough that it is hard to even remember the drama of the schoolroom. However, as the book progressed, I realized that I just didn’t like Thomas very much. He is angry and aloof, and it was difficult for me to get a handle on him to empathize. His best friend, Charlie, is somewhat more likeable, but no more relatable and mostly serves as a foil to Thomas.

Through a combination of coincidence and nosiness, Thomas and Charlie uncover some minor secrets about smoke, which then leads them to a wider conspiracy. The adults around them all have their own agendas regarding the smoke’s role in society, and somehow all of them rely on causing suffering to those considered expendable to a greater purpose. Any characters that don’t try to exploit those around them are written as pathetically naïve and mostly come to a bad end (all animals also come to a bad end). Vyleta does not shy away from the brutality of British colonialism, human experimentation, and extreme poverty, and it all became unrelentingly grim by the end.

It is a very…combative story, with basically everyone in conflict with each other. Even our two protagonists form a love triangle with the same girl, and reflect that it is inevitable that they will fight each other eventually. It felt very masculine, in my least favorite way, so again, it is very possible that a different reader could enjoy it. (I was curious as to who those readers would be, so I did a quick scan of the reviews on GoodReads, and they are…varied. There’s a lot of two to three stars, all starting with “this book has a great premise, but…” and a smattering of confused one and five stars wondering how anyone could either like or dislike this book. It truly is a conundrum of a novel!)

A House of Ghosts

W.C. Ryan

House_of_GhostsThis novel is a murder mystery, spy thriller, and ghost story all in one, and manages to be laugh-out-loud funny, uneasily creepy when reading late at night, and solemnly poignant about the horrors of war. Any of these is a rare achievement, but combining all together make this something really unique. Set in England during the first world war, spiritualism is on the rise, as so many young men are missing/presumed dead on the front.

The Highmount patriarch made his fortune in weapons manufacturing during the war, but has since lost both his sons. In their grief, he and his wife have retreated to their remote island estate, which is converted from an old abbey and rumored to be haunted. They plan a house party over the holidays, inviting several spiritualists to attempt to make contact with their sons.

There are the charlatans, of course, like Madam Frey, with all sorts of tricks up her sleeves. But there are also the real deal, like Kate, friend of the family and ex-fiancé to one of the Highmount boys, who can actually see ghosts, but finds it so socially embarrassing that she hides it as well as she can. And there’s spiritualist Count Orlov, who can perhaps see ghosts but may find it more convenient to fake the séances?

Add to all that, some confidential weapons designs have been discovered in the wrong hands, and three undercover personnel, who have complicated relationships to each other, are suborned into attending the house party, under a variety of subterfuges, causing even more confusion.

Of course, there is also a light romance, which is so deftly done that I had to double check that the author is male. The two protagonists have a slow growing attraction toward each other, built on mutual respect and good communication, which is also awfully rare and a very pleasant surprise in novels.