And we’re back!

So…. You may or may not have noticed that Bethany and I haven’t been posting much on our blog lately.  Today we are having our annual board meeting at the Vacaville Panera and feeling like we don’t know how to write about books anymore and having guilt about how many books we’ve failed to write about over the past couple of years.  Well, I’m feeling guilty.  Bethany may not be.  So, without further ado, we present you with Snapshots: Book Reviews in One Sentence (or perhaps one short paragraph).


I Regret Nothing, Jen Lancaster (Read in September 2016).  This may be the last Jen Lancaster memoir I will ever read.  I don’t remember much two and a half years on, but I know that Lancaster’s books are not what they used to be.

The Awakening and other Stories, Kate Chopin (Read in November 2016).  I remember loving this short story collection with The Awakening as its anchor.  I read The Awakening back in my school days and quite enjoyed it.  The other stories in this collection were new to me (there may have been one that I had read before) and they painted a wonderful portrait of a place and a people (the South in the late nineteenth and I think early twentieth century).  Definitely recommend.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (Read in November 2016).  My husband had been after me for years to read this book so I finally did.  I liked it okay but didn’t love it.  I think it would have been more enjoyable when I was younger, before the advent of the Internet.  The technology was just too dated to be believable.  I mean, how could Ray Bradbury have known that the printed word was not going to be around for that much longer?

In Twenty Years, Allison Winn Scotch (Read in November 2016).  I read this one on my Kindle.  It’s about a group of college friends who have been varying degrees of estranged for the past twenty years, but are reunited for a week (or a weekend) in their old college town after the death of the woman who was the glue that held them together even in college.  I remember enjoying this book for what it was (a quick beach read), but don’t remember any of the characters’ names or much of the plot beyond the bare bones.

Trail of Broken Wings, Sejal Badani (Read in November 2016).  I also read this one on my Kindle, and remember very little other than there were two sisters and an abusive father.  It was sad and gripping, but I blew through it and now remember very little other than what I just said.

The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick (Read in November 2016).  Now this book I remember.  I also read it on my Kindle, and I really had a hard time with it, which really bugged me at the time because I was so excited about it.  And since the book was such a disappointment I have never gotten around to watching the show that is based on the book.  The premise is that Germany and Japan won World War II and divided up the United States between them and it seemed like a great idea.  I love speculative fiction but this one just didn’t do it for me; it just left too much out, almost like it was going to be the first in a series of novels that never came to be.

Burying the Honeysuckle Girls, Emily Carpenter  (Read in December 2016).  Another Kindle book.  My recollection of this novel is also vague.  I remember finding it entertaining and fast-paced, but not as well-written as other books I have read in the past.  The main character has a family history of all the women she is related to going crazy at a certain age, like women do in the South, and she is rapidly approaching that age.  There are plot twists and cliffhangers aplenty, definitely good for a weekend read, but if I’d written a real post about this one I think I would have ended up summarizing the plot more than I waxed philosophical about the writing or the hidden meanings in the events of the novel.  Except that men in the South seem to hate women a lot of the time.

Our Endless Numbered Days, Claire Fuller  (Read in March 2017).  An Indiespensible book.  Now this was a weird one.  Girl is kidnapped by her survivalist father and taken to a cabin in the woods.  She is told by her father that the world has ended, and that everyone is dead but them.  They live in the woods for many years, and the girl (whose name is Peggy) meets a man in the woods.  Or she hallucinates him.  And then she escapes from the cabin and goes home.  She may murder her father in the process of escaping.  Bizarre but well-written and thought provoking.  Peggy was definitely not a reliable narrator/point of view character.  I can’t remember if it was first person or third person limited.  The atrophied book blogger inside of me is very disappointed in herself.

How to Start a Fire, Lisa Lutz (Read in March 2017).  Read on Kindle.  This may have been the first book I read on Kindle that I bought for my Kindle because I couldn’t wait for it to come out in paperback and didn’t want to buy in hardcover.  Of course I didn’t read it until long after it was available in paperback.  My book buying rules are so messed up.  Also I am pretty sure it was on sale for Kindle.  I remember really enjoying this book and that it’s about a group of female friends who meet in college and then follows them into adulthood.  I think one of the women is a drunk or addict and may at some point start setting fire to buildings, either on purpose or accidentally, but that may not be accurate.  I love Lisa Lutz because of her series of mysteries about the Spellman family, and will gladly read anything she writes.  This book definitely didn’t disappoint me, I just wish I could remember more about it.

Secondhand Souls, Christopher Moore  (Read in March 2017).  I really enjoyed this book but remember wishing I had reread A Dirty Job before diving into this one.  Christopher Moore can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned, especially as long as he keeps putting out funny Sci-fi-fantasy novels that take place in San Francisco.  Secondhand Souls continues the adventures of Death Merchant Charlie Asher (in Christopher Moore’s world there is more than one Grim Reaper) and his quest to save the world from…. Someone.  I remember being so excited to read this book and then to write about it.  And then all of a sudden it was 2019 and this is all I’ve got.

The Drafter and The Operator, Kim Harrison  (Read in March – April 2017).  This Kim Harrison series does not take place in the same world as The Hollows and that is unfortunate for it.  While I enjoyed Harrison’s take on industrial espionage in the future, I kept missing Rachel, Ivy, Jenks, and the other denizens of The Hollows novels.  Peri Reed, the protagonist of these novels, is a Drafter, which means (if memory serves) that she can turn back time (only by a few minutes I think) but won’t remember what happened, so she has a partner who is supposed to fill in the gaps for her.  These novels ask the question: what happens if the partner isn’t always forthcoming with the truth?  I’ll definitely read more books in this series as Harrison writes them, but maybe not with as much excitement as if she releases another Hollows novel.

A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life, Pat Conroy  (Read in April 2017).  This was an anthology of short works by Pat Conroy – essays and things mostly, no fiction (but what that he wrote was ever really fiction).  It was released after his untimely death in March, 2016, and I wish I could tell you what I read in the pages of this collection, but I have no idea.  But I know that when I read it I felt like I was at home.

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, Vendela Vida  (Read in April 2017).  An Indiespensible read.  This was one of those books I read because I knew it would be good for me (and because I spent $39.95 on it), but I didn’t love it.  I found the conceit of writing an entire novel in the second person very annoying.  Because I don’t like being told what I would do.  I would never do most of the things the protagonist in the book does, like take off for Morocco and engage in identity theft.  But as her story unfolded I got used to the second person narration and kind of forgot about it.  But it’s the first thing I remember when I think about this book and it still annoys me.  I know it’s a good book because Bethany liked it, but I never liked those Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was a kid (I got too hung up on choosing the “right” path and it caused a large amount of stress) and this book reminded me of those.

It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis  (Read in May 2017).  This book got some attention back in early 2017, when Trump took over as the USA’s CEO, because it seemed like everything in it was going to come true.  This book is speculative fiction at its finest and documents the rise to power of a dictator in 1930’s America.  It was creepily well-done.  It took me forever to read because it was pretty slow-paced, but it was eerie how democracy was whittled away at, so slowly that many people in the novel didn’t even realize it was happening.  Definitely not a novel for the faint of heart—it takes work to get through this one.

Best Boy, Eli Gottlieb  (Read in April 2017).  An Indiespensible selection.  The protagonist is, I believe, based on the author’s older brother, who was institutionalized as a young man because that’s what people did in the sixties with people with learning disabilities.  I believe Todd Aaron has some form of Autism, though he seems pretty high functioning, and would, I’m sure, do just fine in the world these days.  This book made me sad and angry, but I definitely think it’s worth reading.

An Untamed State, Roxane Gay  (Read in June 2017).  I am pretty sure Bethany and I made up a reading challenge and this was the first book in that reading challenge.  We, as is traditional, didn’t finish the reading challenge.  Our plan was to both read one book the same each month and then talk about it on the blog.  That never happened.  I had read a ton about this book before starting it, so was excited to get into it and then write about it.  Oh well.  I really enjoyed this novel about a Haitian woman who lives in Florida with her husband and young son.  She goes home to Haiti and gets kidnapped and held for ransom, like happens all the time to the children of wealthy parents in Haiti.  It was difficult to read at times because horrible things happened to Mireille during her captivity, but Roxane Gay is an amazing writer and I am looking forward to the day I can get back to her work.

Did You Ever Have a Family, Bill Clegg  (Read in June 2017).  Another Indiespensible pick.  In this book, the protagonist’s entire family is killed in a gas explosion the night before/the morning of her daughter’s wedding.  So she does what any sensible woman would do—she picks up what’s left of her life in Connecticut and moves to a hotel on the Oregon coast.  The novel goes back and forth in time a bit, and tells the stories of the protagonist, June, and various other people both in her new family in Oregon and in the community she leaves.  I really loved this book, though it was at times like a knife to the chest.

Glass Predator, Craig Schaefer (Read in June 2017).  Kindle book.  This is a sequel to Harmony Black and Red Knight Falling, which in case you don’t remember is an urban fantasy series that I got introduced to because of Kindle Unlimited.  I’m not a member of Kindle Unlimited anymore but I did buy the sequel to this book when it was released a few months ago (editor note – this book was released in October 2017 and I bought it in November 2017.  A few months ago, indeed.), which I think means that I like this series.  I don’t specifically remember the events of Glass Predator but I think it was a good addition to the series.

Posted in Reviews by Jill, Snapshots | 1 Comment

Two Years of Reading, in Snapshots

So Jill and I are in the Vacaville Panera again, contemplating blogging. For a while, reviewing every book I read felt perfectly natural, but that has changed. But she had a great idea: let’s go back through all the books we haven’t reviewed and write one sentence about each one – whatever we remember about the book now, however many months or years later.

I thought it was a great idea – so it begins. This list covers late 2016 through September of 2017, right around the time that I started teaching full time again and my reading schedule declined. You’ll see that I gave up on the one-sentence rule after while, but I still manage to keep them brief. I’ll most more later on.

And also, here is a picture of my enormous 7-month-old kitten, otherwise known as The Reason I No Longer Knit:


Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? I loved the satire of modern-day liberal affluent parenting and progressive education; also there was something about Antarctica.

Richard Yates’ A Good School. A boarding school novel like many others; I barely remember the details.

Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned.” When I was originally planning a review of this book in early 2017, I wrote the following on the back of a receipt: “Her PARENTS had cell phones. When she was a KID.”

Blake Crouch, Dark Matter. Fun with quantum physics; I remember wondering if Crouch meant it to be a re-telling of The Odyssey (because whether or not he meant it that way, that’s what it is).

Margaret Peterson Haddix, Found. Compelling story for the preteen set, capitalizes on kids’ fears that they were secretly adopted. The dialogue is terrible.

Pat Conroy, A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life. It pains me to condense this to a single sentence, but here goes: at one point he implies that he singlehandedly brokered the peace between the U.K. and the I.R.A. while peeing at a urinal next to Gerry Adams. That is all.

Erskine Caldwell, Tobacco Road. As mortifying and compelling as God’s Little Acre, but with less beauty. I hated the human race after I read this book, but in a good way.

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower. A fantastic dystopian quest novel in which a band of survivors leaves Los Angeles after the walls around their neighborhood are breached and travels north along the California coast, building a small community with other migrants they meet on the road. A futuristic Grapes of Wrath. I seem to recall that the protagonist has magical powers of some kind, though I don’t remember what they are. Highly recommended.

Zilpha Keatley Snyder, The Egypt Game. A decent story for elementary school readers about imaginative play and female friendship. I got the impression that this book was meant to seem quite edgy when it was published in 1968 because one character is African American – and that this edginess may be the sole reason the book was written. It feels not at all edgy now.

Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. Narrative poem cycles for preteens are not usually my favorite thing, but this one was good. Excellent, actually.

Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. So in one of my alternate lives, I am a professor of evolutionary narratology, or literary Darwinism, or one of the many other names used to describe the idea that the development of fictive language (talking about things that are not strictly “real”) was of the primary factors that led human beings to evolve into their dominant role. In real life, I just read books about this topic sometimes. And this one was good.

Roxane Gay, An Untamed State. Jill and I read this book as part of a blog challenge of some kind, but then neither of us wrote about it. I remember admiring this book and being totally engrossed by it, in spite of the brutal rape and captivity scenes. Not an easy read, but a very well-written novel.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There’s a white rabbit in it, and I’m pretty sure it’s secretly about math. That is all.

John Steinbeck, The Red Pony. I read this book on the advice of an old guy I met at an alumni event at the school where my dad taught. Just stepping into his old elementary school at the age of 70-ish shot him right back in time to his fourth-grade classroom, when he was introduced to The Red Pony. On his recommendation, I read it and loved it. The long first story is perfect – an absolutely flawless example of traditional narration. The ending of the final story, and therefore the book, is odd and not very satisfying. Last year I read it with my 4thand 5thgraders, though I secretly suspected it would be over the heads of many of them. It wasn’t. They loved it, reading way ahead beyond their nightly assignments. They recommend it and so do I.

Julie Otsuka, When the Emperor Was Divine. This is a slim, spare novel about Japanese internment, told in five longish chapters, each from a different point of view. I remember admiring this book’s artistry without really liking it. It makes effective use of the strategic lacuna, as I recall.

Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I read this book in one afternoon and evening, right after I quit a job as a summer camp because the place was so poorly structured that I became overcome with anxiety that there would be some catastrophe and it would be my fault. I was mortified (though grateful) that I had done this and remained in sort of a hyper-alert anxiety state while I read this book. I liked it. It was beautiful and sad.

Scott O’Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins. A compelling imaginative retelling of the San Nicolas Island Genocide, meant for elementary school readers. Like Castaway without the volleyball.

Roxane Gay, Hunger. I read this book in one sitting – an absolutely brutal examination about how a brutal rape at age twelve led Roxane Gay both to self-loathing and also to a sort of courageous self-protection that took the form of overeating until she weighed over four hundred pounds. Gay sees her body as a fortress that no enemy will ever want to overtake again, and there is a sad but impeccable logic in this. Recommended, but don’t make any plans for the weekend while you’re reading it. You’ll want some time to yourself when you finish it.

Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev. This marks a central turning point in my reading life: it’s the first book I finished after I returned to teaching full-time. Overall this has been a positive change in my life, but it has not been great for my blogging career. My Name is Asher Lev has long been a favorite of mine, and I enjoyed reading it with my eighth graders. Even the kid who hated me liked it. I thought about doing a related art assignment where I had the kids paint pictures of their mothers being crucified like the protagonist in the novel, but I chickened out. I may or may not have actually purchased canvases for this project. And they may or may not still be in the trunk of my car.

More snapshots to come…

Posted in Reviews by Bethany, Snapshots, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of Bill Buford’s Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as a Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany


As food memoirs go, this is a good one. The premise is that New Yorker staff writer Bill Buford “accidentally” invited celebrity chef Mario Batali to a dinner party at his home in 2002 (Batali was a friend of a friend of Buford’s), and Batali staged a bit of a coup in Buford’s kitchen. This humiliating takeover prompted Buford – an ambitious but oft-frustrated home cook – to ask Batali if he could apprentice with him in the kitchen of his restaurant, Babbo. This book tells several parallel stories: that of Buford’s training both in and out of Babbo’s kitchen, of course, but also that of Batali’s education as a chef and those of the other culinary maestros that Buford learns from over the course of his self-imposed odyssey. Published in 2006, this book is also a cultural artifact of sorts, in that it showcases (and excuses) many of the problem behaviors that led to Batali’s fall from grace in the winter of 2017. If it isn’t already, I suspect that excerpts from this book will be studied in gender studies classes and in other places where people gauge the complicated relationship between gender, power, and license.

Some aspects of this book are predictable. Life in the kitchens of trendy restaurants is stressful and intense. Buford’s experiences vacillate between boredom and awkwardness at not being allowed (due to inexperience) to do much of anything and, at the other extreme, “lining up pitchers of water” (85) at the grill station, knowing he would have no relief from the nonstop seasoning, grilling, and plating of meat and fish for eight or nine hours. Chefs are screaming, swearing assholes; the people who work under them either become inured to the abuse or bide their time, waiting until it is their turn to become screaming, swearing assholes themselves.

According to Buford, Batali was less of an asshole than many chefs. He was an exacting boss – rifling through the trash and berating employees for throwing out the leaves at the ends of celery stalks, for example – but he wasn’t verbally abusive. Buford seems inclined to praise Batali for this restraint, contrasting him favorably to both Batali’s own mentor, the British chef Marco Pierre White, and to an underling named Frankie who took charge of Babbo’s kitchen when Batali moved on to a new venture. But his tone is flatly neutral when describing Batali’s obnoxious advances on waitresses: “It’s not fair I have this view all to myself when you bend over. For dessert, could you take off your blouse for the others?” (313). On the very next page, Buford refers to a medieval French king as a “philandering scumbag” (314); couldn’t he have set aside some of that level of criticism to serve up to his mentor and boss?

This book is also a travelogue. Buford wasn’t content to learn only what Batali himself could teach him; he also made multiple trips to Italy to learn from some of Batali’s early teachers and also branch out on his own; when he trains under the Dante-quoting butcher of the title, he progresses well beyond Batali’s own expertise in the preparation of meat. The travel sections of this book were some of my favorites; Buford does a great job of bringing to life the eccentric characters he met in rural Italy and detailing the minutiae of their culinary traditions. He also delves into Italian history, studying medieval cookbooks and fact-checking the lore he hears from his Italian mentors. One research question that proves especially elusive is the question of when exactly eggs were added to pasta dough. Buford never arrives at a clear answer, but following along on his research journey was quite engaging.

Buford also does an excellent job of conveying the physicality of cooking and butchering: the incredible heat of the grill station, the large, sweaty bodies crashing into each other in the tiny kitchen, the experience of thrusting one’s arm into a dead cow in order to sever one specific muscle or tendon just so, without even the benefit of seeing the darn thing. This physicality has got to be at least part of the reason that the culture of professional cooking lends itself to inappropriate talk and actions. Intimacy breeds intimacy – when one’s job requires one to spend nine or ten hours a day in a hot kitchen in constant close proximity to other hot, sweaty people, it makes sense that sooner or later, someone will try to add sex to the occasion. Since professional cooking (unlike home cooking) has historically been a male-dominated field, the result is the kind of “locker-room talk” (and worse) that pervades other subsets of our culture, including entertainment, the military, and, well, politics. I don’t excuse Batali’s behavior or Buford’s dismissal of it, but I recognize it as something that’s so ordinary as to be mundane. In some ways, the fact that Buford, as a white male who is sympathetic to Batali, documented this behavior at all is a gift. Future historians and sociologists will have no shortage of #metoo memoirs written by victims; a source like this, which condemns Batali even while trying to pay him homage, will provide a valuable alternate perspective.

Batali’s toxic masculinity is no reason not to read this book. If you enjoy well-written food memoirs – or if you just want to spend a few days in your apartment drooling over Italian food that exists only in your head, as I just did – I recommend this book highly.

Posted in Authors, Bill Buford, Fascinating Cultural Artifacts, Nonfiction - Food and Cooking, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Memoir/Biography, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of Avi’s The Button War


Summer is here and I’m reading like a maniac. At least half of the books I’ve read this month are for kids, since I just finished my first year teaching elementary and middle school (after ten years at the high school level) and still feel very behind the game in children’s literature published since 1990 or so, and I believe I’m about to do something I’ve never done once in the six years since Jill and I have been blogging: I am going to write a review of a children’s book that is 100% positive.

I hold children’s books to the same standards I hold books meant for adults. I expect them to show rather than tell, to feature well-rounded characters, to avoid weirdness for the sake of weirdness, and to avoid being didactic and moralistic. I expect their plots to emerge subtly from character and conflict and be guided but not overpowered by narrative voice. Before I started blogging, I didn’t realize what a tough customer this made me in the world of children’s books. But slowly I’ve discovered that children’s books that meet these standards are out there, and Avi’s The Button War is one of them.

This novel is set in a tiny village in Poland in the early months of World War I. The protagonist and first-person narrator is a twelve year-old boy named Patryk, and he’s part of a group of seven friends that are “nothing like a club, or a gang – more like a flock of wild goats” (2). Patryk’s community is so isolated that he doesn’t even know where the roads that leave his village go. He has been told that if you travel along one of them for a very long time, you will reach a city – but this fact holds the quality of myth. He doesn’t seem to know anyone who has visited that city or contemplate visiting it someday himself. The boys don’t even entirely agree that their village is located in Poland. Of his six friends, the one who occupies the most space in Patryk’s mental and emotional landscape is Jurek. Jurek is an orphan who lives with his older sister, who often kicks him out of the house when he misbehaves. For that reason, Jurek is semi-feral. He spends a lot of time in the woods hanging out at some ruins. We don’t know what kinds of structures these ruins used to be, but they are clearly a sign of some kind of past violence and – it soon becomes clear – a harbinger of violence to come. Jurek insists that these ruins are “his” because he is a descendant of “King Boleslaw,” whose palace Jurek believes the ruins to be. Patryk knows this story to be untrue, but he also resents it. It’s as if he knows that Jurek is a pathetic unloved kid who salvages his pride by claiming to be the descendant of a king but at the same time can’t help resenting Jurek for the little bit of pride this delusion allows him. Based on both my memory of being a kid and on my experience with kids as a teacher, this seems plausible to me. Kids have little patience with other people’s emotional defense mechanisms.

One of Patryk’s few connections with the outside world is the presence in his village of Russian soldiers. The boys accept the soldiers as part of their landscape and don’t seem to give them much thought – though Patryk notes that some of the adults in town “don’t like Russians.” One day, when the boys are hanging out near the ruins, Patryk finds a button on the ground that fell off of a Russian military uniform. Jurek insists that the button is his property because the ruins are his; Patryk will have none of it, and they both get their hackles up about this button and everyone goes home angry. Then one day, out of nowhere, the Germans bomb the local school. Patryk sees it happen. He has never seen or even heard of an airplane before, nor does he entirely know who Germans are or that a world war has begun – so this incident is enormously shocking. Not only that, but the village teacher is killed in the bombing, as is one of the boys’ classmates. In the aftermath, Jurek explores the rubble and finds the cane that the teacher used to beat the boys and declares that whichever of his friends can find the “best” military button will win the cane as a prize.

All of the boys – but especially Patryk, who is determined never to be one-upped by Jurek – get really invested in the button contest. And by invested, I mean that things get out of hand and some of them die. I won’t go into details, because this book is truly riveting and I do think readers deserve not to know too much about where things go – but the stakes are high, the button war is simply one theatre in a larger and entirely real war, and the boys are not spared. What makes this novel so heartbreaking is the fact that even once some of his friends have been killed, Patryk can’t force himself to stop caring about defeating Jurek in the button contest. He knows he should stop and has long talks with himself about how he must stop hunting for buttons, but he can’t do it. His rivalry with Jurek always wins out. One of the reviewers on the book jacket compares this novel to Lord of the Flies, and the comparison is apt. Both novels are equally compelling, though this one is for a somewhat younger audience (I will be reading it with my sixth graders this fall, and they will love it). However, it reminded me more of A Separate Peace, in which Gene remains constantly focused on his rivalry with Phineas and on what he thinks Phineas is thinking and feeling, unable to get out of his own head even as the war encroaches closer and closer to his once-safe world.

I recommend this novel to middle schoolers – especially to those dreaded “reluctant readers,” and, of course, especially to boys – though I enjoyed it in and of itself and recommend it to teenagers and adults too. If you plan to read it, clear your schedule. You won’t want to do much else until you’re through.

Posted in Authors, Avi, Fiction - Children's, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Fiction - Young Adult, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Typo of the Month Award Goes To…

… “he upholstered his pistol.” Instead of “unholstered” – get it? I don’t remember where I read it, but it was in a published source somewhere, and I laughed and laughed.

Also, it’s official. I’ve forgotten how to write book reviews. I tried so hard last weekend and I just couldn’t. But my school year is winding down and my shoulders are slowly unclenching themselves and maybe soon I will remember how such things are done.

Happy June, everyone!

Posted in Glimpses into Real Life, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Yosemite, again


Take a look, friends.  This is beautiful Hetch Hetchy, the source of the best-tasting tap water on earth.  Say what you will about the environmental impact of damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley, it sure is beautiful there.

And here is the O’Shaughnessy Dam, with a bonus rainbow.  It’s not nearly as big and impressive as the Hoover Dam, but the scenery around it can’t be beat.  But then I’m partial to all things Yosemite.  IMG_8020.JPG

Have a good week, everyone!

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A Review of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One

Ready Player One Cover Image

I didn’t time my review of this novel with the weekend of its film adaptation’s release on purpose. I started this book in December but put it down after a hundred pages for some reason, in spite of the fact that I was mostly enjoying it. I picked it up last weekend and was able to get re-invested in it quickly, but I didn’t know until two days ago that the movie was coming out yesterday. You didn’t KNOW? one of my students asked. How is it possible not to know?

Of course, on many levels this book is Not My Thing. Not My Thing at all. My reaction when I first learned of its premise years ago was something along the lines of puh-lease. A novel about a fictional video game based on the pop culture of the ‘80’s? It sounded like the sort of thing a Baby Boomer would write – or, more specifically, the sort of thing many Baby Boomers did write: all the Woodstock-worshipping, appalled-by-Nixon, I-remember-where-I-was-when-Kennedy-was-shot tripe that has been making me puke since The Wonder Years – and the idea of an author of my own generation jumping on this bandwagon was disappointing. And before I go on and explain why I really did enjoy this novel quite a lot, let me just mention one thing that no one else talks about when they talk about Ready Player One: when they say that this book revolves around ‘80’s pop culture, what they really mean is that it revolves around ‘80’s BOY pop culture. No joke: in all of this novel’s 372 pages, there is not a Cabbage Patch Kid in sight. Not a single fucking Care Bear.

Have you noticed that women don’t memorialize the ‘80’s as much as men do? Boys had Star Wars and heavy metal and Dungeons and Dragons and Knight Rider; we had Get in Shape, Girl! and Pretty Cut ‘n’ Grow and Punky Brewster. I never really thought about it until now, but the ‘80’s were kind of a shit decade to grow up in if you were in possession of Fallopian tubes. Someday when I have infinite time and resources, I might try to write a parody of Ready Player One where a female video game designer decides to create an infinitely complex virtual world based on her childhood in which players can compete for wealth and world domination, but even with those high stakes no one wants to play because doing so requires one to memorize which Strawberry Shortcake character smells like which fruit and consistently keep straight the names and personalities of the Sweet Valley Twins’ clichéd friends.

What this novel does really well, in all seriousness, is dystopian world-building. This is the reason to read this novel even if the ‘80’s video-game premise doesn’t appeal to you. There is no shortage of dystopian fiction out there, and all of it gives me an icky feeling in my stomach these days, this novel included. The protagonist, Wade Watts, is an orphan who lives in “the stacks” – a housing project in Oklahoma where RV’s and other mobile homes are stacked precariously on some scaffolding, forming a terrifying new incarnation of the high-rise. He lives with his aunt and her boyfriend, and he sleeps in the laundry room, his circumstances not too different from those of Harry Potter in the cupboard under the stairs.

The year is 2044. The U.S. economy has fallen flat, and like most people in his world, Wade spends most of his time inside the OASIS, an all-encompassing virtual-reality world that is clearly meant to have evolved from both today’s video games and today’s social media. By the time the novel starts, the OASIS has expanded to include public schools (Wade attends school using a VR headset, crouched in an abandoned pickup truck in a junkyard that he thinks of as his “hideout”) and has its own economy and currency. Wade’s real-world life is claustrophobic and smothering – and limited by the fact that he has no money and no support system – while in the OASIS people who can afford to do so jet from planet to planet on a variety of fantastical space vehicles. The creator of the OASIS was James Halliday, who embedded a contest into his VR world that was launched after he died. Whoever follows a series of clues to find the “Easter egg” Halliday hid in the OASIS will win some unfathomable amount of money and inherit control of the OASIS. Halliday is sort of a Steve Jobs figure – brilliant and bold in his designs but socially maladjusted and self-destructive in his personal life – and it amuses Halliday to force everyone who wants to be rich and powerful to study every last detail of every movie, TV show, song, and video game that he loved as a child.

This novel follows a standard “quest” narrative structure: there are three of everything, the villains are horrifically over the top and awful, and it is clear from the outset that the hero will win the contest in spite of the impossible odds he faces. There’s even a “descent-into-hell” component that takes the form of a terrifying foray into the world of corporate indentured servitude, which is how debt of more than $20,000 is handled in 2044. And as in most quests, the “real” reward is not the money and power that come from finding the stated object of the mission but some other intangible and unexpected prize that emerges from this journey; in Wade’s case, this takes the place of real-world love – a prize that seems almost impossibly rare in the world of the stacks and the OASIS.

I’ve mocked this novel more than I’ve praised it, but most of the mockery was in jest. I did enjoy this book – the characters are well-drawn, the plot manages to surprise occasionally while also adhering to form, and Cline’s vision of a dystopian near-future U.S. will intrigue you even as it gives you the willies. I recommend this book even to people like me who never played Pac-Man or D&D; this is a novel that transcends its subject matter. I suspect I missed a lot of inside jokes and private references to video games, of which I know almost nothing (I got most of the movie and TV references, I think), yet I still enjoyed the book and felt a connection to its characters.

Posted in Ernest Cline, Fiction - Dystopia, Fiction - general, Fiction - SciFi, fiction - thriller, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A PfP PSA (by Jill)

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When one is doing laundry, always double check the washer for books, especially signed first edition Indiespensible hardcover books, prior to hitting the Start button.  There was green lint from the cover on every single article of clothing in this load.

Incidentally, the book was not being stored in the washer (I don’t have that many books).  I put it in my laundry basket so save myself a trip down the hallway, and then started doing other things, and by the time I got around to starting laundry I had forgotten it was in there.  I blame early onset dementia, or possibly just being overtired from a very busy work week.

We may have more PfP PSA’s in the future if we manage to so more absolutely ridiculous things to our own books, but hopefully this will be the last picture of a washed book we post.


Posted in Glimpses into Real Life, PfP PSAs | Leave a comment

A Review of Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot (by Jill)

mr. Splitfoot cover


I had a feeling this was going to be a weird book just based on the name.  It was Indiespensible #57 from back in February of 2016, which means that I’m managing to stay less than two years behind on my Indiespensible pile.  Some day I’m going to take a month off work and refuse to leave my house and try to avoid sleeping and get some serious reading done.  But until then I’ll just keep plugging away on my piles of books.

Oh, so my feeling about the book being weird was right on.  But it was sneakily weird.  It started weird, then got less weird, then the end was super weird.  For some reason ghost stories dressed up as literary fiction rub me the wrong way.  Either be fantasy or be regular fiction, don’t try to be both, I think is my feeling.  But that’s wrong too.  Books like this one rub me the wrong way.  I’ve read, and loved, plenty of literary fantasy books before, like all of Deborah Harkness’ books, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which is, without a doubt, the best example of the modern literary ficton/fantasy genre, or if not the best, at least the first one I can think of outside of like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and that ilk.  I think it’s just books that give me the impression that they are being weird just for the sake of being weird that bug me.

This novel has two time lines: one present day told in first person by Cora, a girl who finds herself pregnant and single in her mid-twenties.  She seems an average sort of person, who loves social media and has an okay job.  The other story is told at some point in the past, probably fifteen or so years prior to the present day timeline, and tells the story of Cora’s aunt Ruth and her friend Nat.  Cora’s mom and aunt were raised in a foster home run by the Father and the Mother, who are not great people but not bad enough to warrant more of a brief mention here.  Cora’s mom ages out at eighteen and leaves her much younger sister alone at the foster home.  Explanations for why El never picks up her sister are never given.  Ruth latches onto Nat, also her age, once El leaves, and says he is her new sister.  Their relationship is close but always platonic, and a little weird.  Nat says he can talk to the dead, so he and Ruth set up a little business with the kids at the school.  Eventually they hook up with Mr. Bell, who is a con artist in town, and they make a lot of money with their little show.

Meanwhile, back in the present day, Cora is still pregnant and alone, and then her aunt Ruth shows up, and for some reason she doesn’t speak anymore.  Cora met Ruth and Nat once, when she was fourteen.  They came to visit El and left after one night.  Ruth and Cora take off in Cora’s car, but when it breaks down, they just start walking.  Somewhere.  Cora never quite knows where, but they walk for a long time, always heading somewhere, for the entirety of her pregnancy.

There’s a guy who snorts Comet and wants to marry Ruth, but his nose falls off and she loses interest.  There’s a religion called Ether, which is a hybridization of many other religions as well as a few songs from the seventies.  There are ghosts, real and imagined.  And looking back on it, some of the weirdness is charming and beautifully written.  Take this for example, wherein the author describes Cora going cold turkey off technology after the car breaks and she and Ruth start walking.  “The first two days without a phone, my insides are jumpy and nauseated, a true withdrawal.  My veins ache for information from the Internet, distractions from thought.  I’m lonely.  My neck, lungs, blood hurt like I’m getting a cold.  The world happens without me because I’m exiled with no Wi-Fi.  I wonder if my shoes have arrived yet.  Maybe Lord [that’s the boyfriend] is trying to reach me with news of his divorce.  I have a parasite of grotesque urges.  I want to push little buttons quickly.  I want information immediately.  I want to post pictures of Ruth and me smiling into the sun.  I want people to like me, like me, like me.  I want to buy things without trying them on.  I want to look at photos of drunk kids I knew back in high school.  And I want it all in my hand.  But my cyborg parts have been ripped out.  What’s the temperature?  I don’t know.  What’s the capitol of Hawaii?  I don’t know anything.  I don’t even know the automated systems in my body anymore.  I don’t know how to be hungry, how to sleep, to breathe (70).”

There are many, many beautiful and good things about this book, but there are also weird and not so good things about it.  I don’t think it’s a book for everyone, though I will admit that other than the “weird for the sake of being weird” vibe I got off and on while I was reading it, generally it was quite well-written, but folks who like pure literary fiction or pure fantasy may not be able to get into it.  And here’s one complaint: if the name of the book is going to be Mr. Splitfoot, perhaps Mr. Splitfoot should play a more prominent role.

Posted in Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Jill, Samantha Hunt | 2 Comments

A Review of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife


This review contains what the young people call “spoilers.” Read at your own risk.

 The second installment in this trilogy is my favorite, I think. In this book – which is also the shortest of the three – we learn or intuit a great deal more about why Lyra’s world is so weirdly skewed and about how the various plot lines that began in The Golden Compass fit together. The first chapter is about Will Parry, a character who is not part of The Golden Compass. Will is fourteen, and when we meet him, he is trying to persuade his piano teacher to let his senile mother live with her so he can protect a green briefcase and fight off the thugs who keep breaking into his house to try to steal it. In the opening chapter, he kills one of these intruders, meaning that the police will soon be looking for him.

It took remarkably long for me to get oriented in Will’s world. I think I read most scenes in the first two chapters two or three times. At some point, I stopped, stunned: This is the REAL world, I realized. No one has daemons. Lights are electric, not anbaric. People use cars and phones and the standard forms of technology in use in 1997, when this novel was published. At this point, I was riveted – I knew from the back of the book that Will’s story would join Lyra’s at some point, and I was extremely curious about how this would happen. I’ll fill you in – but first I need to give you a little more backstory about what happens at the end of The Golden Compass.

If you recall from my recent review of The Golden Compass, Lyra travels to the far north in the company of various “gyptians,” hot-air balloon operators, witches, and talking bears in order to rescue her friend Roger from the Gobblers. As Lyra learns, the Gobblers are not the band of outlaws she originally thought they were: they are actually an organized body that is affiliated with the mainstream church, which in Lyra’s world is all-powerful and is based on the teachings of John Calvin. The “GOB” in their name stands for “General Oblation Board,” and Lyra’s biological mother, Mrs. Coulter, is a high-ranking official within this organization. One of her many projects is an experiment about severing children from their daemons. Daemons are physical manifestation of people’s souls in animal form, so separating them from their bodies is no small or inconsequential process. The process involves putting the child and the daemon in separate cages and using a special tool that can really cut anything (more on this in a bit) to sever the ethereal bond between them. Children who have been “severed” are deeply traumatized and disoriented. When Lyra meets a severed child, she is deeply upset; the human/daemon bond in her universe is so sacred and deep that the idea of severing the two violates her world’s greatest taboo. Lord Asriel’s reason for wanting to sever one child from its daemon is not cruel in nature; he wants to access the enormous burst of power that takes place when this severing happens. The science doesn’t hold up, of course, but I picture it as sort of like the splitting of the atom (as far as I’m concerned, the science of that doesn’t hold up either, though I suspect I am mistaken).

Anyway, Lord Asriel succeeds – he severs Roger from his demon, killing him in the process – and in the process he opens a portal into another world. Lyra walks into that other world, and it is in a city called Cittàgazze in that other world that Will meets her. Cittàgazze is a weird, creepy, powerfully-imagined place inhabited only by children, and over time we learn that this world is tormented by creatures called Specters, who seem very similar to Dementors. Specters only attack adults (they feed off Dust, which is the physical manifestation of original sin), and they essentially suck out their souls, leaving the adults unable to care for anything. For that reason, children in Cittàgazze basically wander around in packs, looking for food and being kind of shell-shocked. Will, who reached Cittàgazze when he was following a cat and then saw the cat disappear into a weird “hole” in the air – a hole that seemed to him like a convenient way to escape from the thugs who were chasing him – eventually kills a man in a tower who is defending a special weapon, the “subtle knife” of the title. Because the subtle knife can only be wielded by the person who has won in in a fair fight (The wand chooses the wizard, Harry…) Will is now the rightful owner of this weapon. Two of his fingers are cut off in the fight, in precisely the way that fingers are always cut off in a battle for the subtle knife (this appears to be the price for ownership), and Will spends much of the novel bleeding profusely before being healed by a talking bear. The subtle knife can truly cut anything – meaning that it can sever bodies from daemons (and yes, Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter want it for this reason, a lot) and also cut little windows between worlds like the one that the cat led Will through. And oh yeah: there is one more thing the subtle knife can do. It can kill God.

Killing God – known in these novels as “the Authority” – is ultimately Lord Asriel’s goal. Because Lyra’s world is based on the theology of the Protestant Reformation, its God is a dictator who uses his power to repress anyone he feels threatened by. Pullman doesn’t go into a ton of detail about exactly who and what the Authority represses, but certainly the fact that women are subservient to men in this series (most women; Mrs. Coulter has found her way to significant power and influence, as a small handful of women always did in all eras of male-dominated history) is part of the injustice Lord Asriel is fighting. They also seem to be fighting God for purely philosophical reasons – they are throwing off a tyrant because throwing off a tyrant is a good thing in itself. Much of The Amber Spyglass – the next volume in the series – is a huge angel war that is sort of a follow-up to Lucifer’s rebellion against God in the far-distant past (there’s the Paradise Lost connection again).

It also becomes clear in this installment that part of the organizing principle of this fantasy series is quantum mechanics. Quantum theory says that every time a person makes a choice, they leave behind the chance to make a different choice, so the possibilities inherent in their own world become narrower, but an alternate universe is formed, and the alternative choice becomes the basis of that universe. With all the decision-making humans out and about in the world, this theory becomes an especially baffling way to contemplate infinity. It also explains some of the many differences between Lyra’s world and Will’s (which is also ours). John Calvin became pope in Lyra’s world, cementing Protestantism as the dogma of the entire Christian world and causing history to veer away from the real-world timeline we are familiar with. Along the way, while our own ancestors figured out how to harness electricity, Lyra’s developed “anbaric” power – an alternate way to provide man-made light and power. Quantum theory doesn’t explain talking bears, but overall it is satisfying as a unifying principle, and once I figured out what Pullman was going for here, I began to enjoy the series even more.

So much is compelling in this novel on an emotional level. Lyra’s puzzlement at how Will can survive without a daemon (she eventually figures out that his daemon lives inside him). Will’s reunion with his biological father, who has been a known quantity in this series since the very first chapter of The Golden Compass, though he is well hidden. The deep pathos of the children of Cittàgazze. Various witches enacting revenge plots against old lovers in the midst of everything. A new character named Mary Malone who has also devoted her life’s work to studying “Dust,” though from a perspective quite different from Lord Asriel’s. Will’s terrifically sad relationship with his mother. The never-ending host of fantasy creatures. I remain baffled as I wonder what children make of this series (I mean, if you were ten, what would you make of this sentence: “Ruta Skadi lived so beautifully in her nerves that she set off a responding thrill in the nerves of anyone close by”?  I don’t even know what to make of it myself (is it about spontaneous orgasms?), though I think I have known women like this), and I was 100% hooked throughout this novel. I am not quiet finished with The Amber Spyglass, though it too is intriguing, and I will return to tell you about it soon.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - Children's, Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Fiction - Young Adult, Philip Pullman, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment