Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

“We and the Americans will lead the rest of this century because we are the only nations who have learned to brush the past aside instead of bowing before it.”

I am always purposeful in the first book I read when a new year starts. Not really out of any superstition that it will set the tone or the events of the upcoming year. More because I know I will create a strong connection between the cold, dark, January days and the book I picked, so I want it to be a memorable one.

Gentleman in moscowThis January, on the recommendations of not two but three Internet friends, none of whom are connected to the others in any way, I decided I’d finally read A Gentleman in Moscow. I read it through the few snowstorms we got in January, through the burgeoning stress of changes at work. Some unexpected medical issues leading to some unpleasant procedures and a vague diagnosis that’s left me unsettled. A massive sifting of my fabric stash. Cold outdoor running and hiking.

Those experiences will always, now, be connected with Count Rostov’s unfolding life in the Metropol. (As I am likely the last literary person in the United States who hadn’t read the book, I’m assuming you have and thus sparing you the summary.) But more than gadolinium, the unexpectedly inexpensive raspberries in January, visiting an estate sale for the first time, and a glut of teaching nightmares, the strongest connection this book has left me with is its ties to contemporary American politics.

Two small scenes in particular:

The first one happens early in the story. When the Count is looking down at the Assembly in the ballroom, crouching with Nina on the tiny balcony, he realizes “that, despite the Revolution, the room had barely changed at all.” Whatever the ambitious goals of the Revolution to take power away from the Czars, eliminate capitalism, and create equality between peasants and laborers (a very brief outline of a time in history I don’t know a lot about)—to get rid of wasteful things like elegance and beauty, extravagant clothes and the silliness of social posturing—the Count realizes that nothing has really changed. The details have shifted: “Of course, there is now more canvas than cashmere in the room, more gray than gold. But is the patch on the elbow really that much different from the epaulette on the shoulder?”

But the concept is the same: humans always seek out power, and what good is power if you don’t show you have it?

Or, to use the Count’ words again: “Pomp is a tenacious force.”

When I started reading this book, I quickly realized that my knowledge of Russian in the first half of the twentieth century was woefully dismal, so I did a bit of reading. Some internet searches, a middle-grade nonfiction about the time period, a rereading of a few Chekhov stories just to get inside the Russian psyche a bit. That was fresh in my mind as I worked on the book’s beginning (like the Count reading Montaigne, the start of this book was not pleasant for me, but a very slow sludge; I had to get into the unwinding rhythm and I was about to give up until Nina appeared), and then I read that bit about the tenacity of pomp.

Which really is just a statement about how hard it is to change human nature.

It made me think about the origins of the United States. Since the rise of extreme conservatism in this country, I have come to understand just how much I thought of as “learning about history” was actually “ingesting propaganda.” We hold ourselves up as the best country in the world, and yet we are a nation founded on racism (whatever Nikki Haley says) that has done terrible things throughout the world. At the same time, though, we did change something. At least, I think we did. Some of us—like Mishka with his belief that there is a pure poetry that expresses what is real—really did believe we had a country that valued equality and freedom, even if we were still working it out, because we valued equality and freedom. But maybe it was all the same? Cashmere or canvas but still covering the actual human body, or in this case the deepest, oldest thing about America: it looks like we value those things but really we value the same things humans always have, which are wealth and power and the pleasure of using those to subvert and control whoever doesn’t think like we do. (I mean: we hold up the pilgrims as examples of people who sought out religious freedom, but do you think they actually wanted a place where everyone had that? Or simply a place where they would be able to practice THEIR religion without persecution?)

The second small scene that will stay with me happens near the book’s end. The Count manages the dinner of state where Krushchev takes the head of the table. That night, the lights are exterminated throughout Moscow, only to be turned on again when the new nuclear power plant takes over. Later, we learn the significance of this, and it’s the thing that hit me the hardest. Malenkov was another politician at the dinner; he was a more progressive thinker who was worried that the nuclear arms race with America would be an apocalyptic disaster, the opposite of Krushchev’s position. Again, the Count’s explanation gets to the heart of it: “Krushchev had performed the perfect sleight of hand—switching out the threat of nuclear Armageddon for the uplifting sight of a city sparkling with nuclear power. In a stroke, the conservative hawk had cast himself as a man of the future and his progressive opponent as a reactionary.”

Conservative thinking is what created contemporary Russia.

What I took from A Gentleman in Moscow—well, I took several things from it. One was a remembering of the pleasure of reading a novel with a slow, wandering plot. I haven’t read one in a long time, and I’ve forgotten how luxurious it is: a cast of vibrant characters experiencing life itself. Even though it was the first book I started this year, I didn’t finish it until the middle of February, because I would just dip in and out of it. By the time some actual plot tension came along at the end, I almost couldn’t bear reading it, the worry was so acute. Another was a tiny feeling of hope, because even though he loses almost everything, the Count still takes courage and moves ahead, and finds that there are other experiences and people, different beauty and surprises. That little spark made me see how much I have just put my head down and tried to submerge myself in acceptance that the years of my life which were FULL of people who loved me (or, people I thought loved me) are past, and that relationships will continue to dwindle. The Count’s experiences and relationships helped me lift my head up in the smallest bit of hope. And of course, I gained and understanding. In essence, A Gentleman in Moscow is a novel that explains why Russia is the way Russia is.

But the most unexpected knowledge is that it also helped me understand why America is the way it is. However we dress and whatever our ballrooms look like, we’ve always had that mean, conservative, Puritanical part of our social DNA. We have not learned to brush aside the past but continue to bring it with us while blithely proclaiming No, it didn’t happen like that. We cover it up in different ways, we try to change it, but it’s always been there. And right now, the conservative hawks seem to be winning. I didn’t put the book down with a sense of hope that that will stop any time soon. But those two crucial bits at least helped me understand it a bit better.

My Year in Books: The 2023 Edition

Even though I read some amazing books in 2023, 2023 was not my best year for reading.

Cover collage

Demon Copperhead both blew my mind and devastated me. (So much so that I tried to cleanse my palate after I read it by reading an actual fluffy novel. I did not finish it.)

I told everyone I know (who would not get upset about a queer romance, even if embedded in a gorgeous Asian-mythology-inspired fantasy) about The Spear Cuts Through Water.

I have continued to think about Becky Chambers's books, A Psalm for The Wild Built and A Prayer for The Crown Shy. The series is e a sweet story that also rips your guts out by making you think about just how demanding and soulless American culture is, and how much of our life we lay at the altar of earning money so we can pay bills. 

I had some great audio book experiences.

But I also had two audiobooks, The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches and Gideon the Ninth, which I got three-fourths the way through and ran out of checkout time and now I'm still waiting to pick them back up. 

I read quite a few books that I expected to love but which were just OK. 

I read a lot of speculative fiction...if you add up all the age categories, about 75% of what I read was speculative. I don't necessarily think that's a problem but it is noticeable. Is speculative fiction, no matter how well-written, more about escaping reality than contemporary or non-fiction? Probably somewhat, but I'm not sure it's about escapism for me. I think I'm drawn to speculative fiction because I love thinking about how the fantastical is still applicable.

I always set a goal to read a romance novel every year. But even Susanna Hoffs couldn't get me to accomplish that; I read about 50 pages of  This Bird has Flown but that was all I could manage.

I didn't finish a single poetry book, not even the Best American Poetry which is one  of the reading goals I meet most consistently. 

I even DNF'd the library reading challenge that I created!!!

It just was one of those years I guess. 

I do still have 128 books in my "Books to Read in 2023" list though. (Literally.) 

But, at any rate, I did read some books. Thirty-six to be exact. A good chunk of those were audio rereads, but, still. I always tell library patrons (and anyone else who wonders) that audio books still count as reading, so right now I'm telling myself that. It all counts and I still love reading.

Here's to more stunning books in 2024. More poetry for sure. More focused time reading and less mindless social-media scrolling. More conversations about books with friends or random people on social media or library patrons. More author meetings. More consistency with reviewing books as soon as I finish them.

(More work on my own novel.) 

Here's my list of books I read in 2023; the purple titles have links to my reviews: 

Contemporary Fiction

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

Roses in The Mouth of A Lion by Bushra Rehman

Winterland by Rae Meadows


Historical Fiction

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Good Night, Irene by Luis Alberto Urea

In The Upper Country by Kai Thomas


Speculative Fiction

Arch-Conspirator by Veronica Roth

Fairy Tale by Stephen King

The Fellowship of The Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

The God of Endings by Jacqueline Holland

A Psalm for The Wild Built by Becky Chambers

A Prayer for the Crown Shy by Becky Chambers

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez

Starling House by Alix Harrow

Thornhedge by T. Kingfisher

Tress of The Emerald Sea by Brandon Sanderson

Vampire Weekend by Mike Chen



Brave the Wild River by Melissa L. Sevigny

Everything is Fucked: A Book about Hope by Mark Manson


Graphic Novels

But You Have Friends by Emilia McKenzie

Courage to Dream by Neal Shusterman

Tori Amos: Little Earthquakes 


Middle-Grade Fiction

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maude Montgomery

Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maude Montgomery

Iron-Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill

The Last Cuentista by Donna Barbra Higuera


YA Fiction

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Champion of Fate by Kendare Blake

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves behind Them All by Laura Ruby

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Order of The Phoenix by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling


And if you're curious, you can see other yearly reading reviews HERE

Happy reading!

Book Review: The Fellowship of The Ring (Reread)

“Faithless is he who says farewell when the road darkens,” said Gimli.

“May be,” said Elrond, “but let him not vow to walk in the dark who has not seen the nightfall.”

Here’s the story of a little Christmas miracle.

On the night of December 23, I finally gathered all of my shit together—just like, yes, literally (but not literally) and finally got my shit together—and started wrapping the Christmas presents. I got the gifts and the wrapping paper and the ribbons and the tape. But before I started, I needed something good to listen to.

Sure, I could listen to Christmas music. But I needed a good book. A good story to keep me company during my wrapping.

So I grabbed my phone to find something that might fit the feeling I had and that was available on Libby.

And juuuuuust before I tapped the icon, I got a notification from Libby that my hold was available.

Which hold?

Two towers
(This is the cover of the print books I own...the QPBC editions. They have the original, drawn-by-Tolkien maps)

Only the Andy-Serkis-narrated version of The Fellowship of The Ring, which I had been waiting for since September 20.

This isn’t, of course, my first time reading Tolkien. (It is actually the first book I wrote about on my blog, back when it felt revolutionary to just, you know. Share my very own opinions about something I read, as if I were a person whose reading opinions mattered.)

But I’ve never actually listened to an audio version.

So I immediately downloaded my checkout, and Frodo, Sam, Gandalf et al kept me company while I wrapped.

In fact, they were with me for the whole end of December. (It’s a very long audiobook.) I loved this partly because I just love these books. But also because Kaleb has also fallen in love with Tolkien (I gave him a lovely copy of the trilogy for Christmas!) so when he overheard the story he’d stop and listen a bit with me if he had time, and we’d talk about where I was in the plot and how that particular point was different from the movie.

Andy Serkis (he is the actor who played Gollum in the movies, btw) does an excellent job with this narration. The variation in his voices is simply amazing.

The story hit me in different ways in audio. The old use of the word “queer” stood out (and triggered a memory of me at about age 8 telling my mom I thought the round house someone down the street had recently built was “queer” which, in my bookish mind, meant “weird,” and her getting furious and tell me that I couldn’t ever use that word again but she wouldn’t explain why) and caused a few giggles when overheard by certain boys in my house. And for awhile I started thinking, wait, is he saying that the Ring Wraiths are actual black people? Is Tolkien racist? (I mean…as a midcentury, upper-class British man, of course, but certainly he wasn’t implying that the evil creatures were Black folks?)

But eventually, in Rivendell, Elrond explains that they don’t have a corporeal shape, but are draped in black cloth.

Plus, listening to the audio highlighted just how many songs and poems there are. (When I read the books I tend to skim those.)

Really, though, the thing that struck my interest the most on this reread is Frodo’s transition. Of course, he’s gone through some stuff already. Became an orphan, lost Bilbo, and lived with the ring. But he did in the landscape of the Shire, which is the gentle, nurturing landscape and community that buffers him. As he spends more time on the road he begins to change. He grows slower and sadder and darker. That transition really started to grow in my perceptions of Frodo. (Applying it to myself as well, of course.) The way that grief changes us in both our bodies and our minds. That long, hard journey.

Maybe because of the extra grief I’ve experienced since the last time I read these books, and the people whose leavings have made my road darker…I don’t know. That just really stood out to me.

I’m eagerly anticipating the arrival of The Two Towers. Perhaps in time for Valentine’s Day?

Book Review: Starling House by Alix Harrow

I want to laugh at him. I want to explain about people like me, about the two lists we have to make and the one list we get to keep, the everything we give up for the one thing we can’t. 

Starling house
I’ve been looking forward to reading Starling House by Alix E. Harrow for months. I’ve loved her other books, The Once and Future Witches and, especially, The 10,000 Doors of January, and had fun with her two novellas, A Spindle Splintered and A Mirror Mended (which I read in 2022 but forgot to put on my yearly list) (“had fun” meaning…yes, fun, but not as memorable as the novels.)

I expected a lot out of Starling House is what I’m saying.

It tells the story of Opal and her brother Jasper, who live in a room in a rundown hotel in a small Kentucky  coal mining town called Eden. Opal’s mother is dead, killed in a car accident involving something malicious and mysterious that caused her to drive her car into the river. Opal, who barely escaped drowning that day too, is taking care of her brother while working at the local hardware store, but as a high-school dropout in her twenties who’s always been despised by the town, this isn’t going well. 

She’s always had dreams about the Starling House, a huge old house set behind a gate near a wood on the edge of town. It was originally owned by Eleanor Starling, who wrote a book called The Underland, about a different world full of monsters. 

One day, walking home from work, Opal is compelled to stop at the gate of Starling House. When she pulls at the gate, it cuts her hand and starts up her old dreams. Eventually this leads her into Starling House and the life of Arthur Starling, the only resident.

This book reminded me of many others. The Secret Garden a bit, in that the house itself is a character, but a much more powerful and cognizant one. (This isn’t the first book with a house I’ve grown to love like a person, but it definitely has the best house. Or at least the one I am most fond of.) A bit of Beauty and the Beast, as Arthur is a bit beastly and lives in a house with an amazing library. The Hazel Wood and Middlegame because of how a book influences the story. Even a touch of Cloud Cuckoo Land or maybe When Women Were Dragons because of a fantastic librarian character. 

I was bothered by one thing in this book. Opal is a person who dropped out of high school. She loves the library. And her figuring out what is really going on at Starling House involves a fairly obtuse bit of mythology—a sixth river?—which I’d bet even the most bookish person would not put together. I needed her investment in learning, books, mythology, libraries to be MUCH more a part of her character than it was for the ah-ha leaps to make sense.

That said, I really did love this book. Not quite as much as her other books, but so much of it resonated with me. It explores how we try to bury our darkness and our damage and how, no matter what, it still comes out. And I loved Opal. Even though our darkness/damage is entirely different, I connected with Opal so hard. 

It was a perfect book for my last read of the year.

Book Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

But no peace will exist while this disease eats away at all that is good and noble in our country. Today we honor her sacrifice with a reminder that while evil exists, it does not prevail.

(Next to this in my copy of the book I wrote “this reminds me of the current trump propaganda” and I stand by that. Can’t you hear that in the racist, idiotic tones of a maga-hat-wearing insurrectionist?)

Back in August or September of 2008, when I was a brand-new librarian, when book blogs were THE WAY to find out about new books, when I was deeply invested in YA lit, one of the book bloggers I followed wrote a review of book she’d gotten as an ARC: a tale of a dystopian world where, once a year, every district had to send two teenagers to a publicized “games” wherein the last kid living was the winner.

My first response was I must read this book right now and my second was wait, is this really a YA novel?

So I talked it over with my new librarian friend, Lanell (who I much later found out was instrumental in me getting my job), who ordered all of the young adult books for the library. Her first response was, “Hmmmmm, that might be too violent for our readers.” But I convinced her to order a copy. I’d read it first and tell her what I thought.

By the time the book came in and my hold showed up on the shelf, though, it was already getting tons of buzz and it wouldn’t have mattered what my reaction to it was: all the libraries would order it.

But I still read that first library copy of The Hunger Games before anyone else.

All of which is to say: I’ve been invested in the series since the very beginning.

Ballad of songbirds and snakesBut when I read about Suzanne Collins releasing The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a prequel to the Hunger Games trilogy that tells the story of Coriolanus Snow, I was a little bit annoyed. It seemed like an apologetic to me: here’s why Snow turned out like he did. Do we really need to understand that? Is there compassion to be found for the person responsible for so much death?

So I didn’t read it.

But then, this December’s city holiday party was a ticket to see The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. And I decided I HAD to read it before I saw the movie. And since all of the library copies were checked out, I bought a copy.




Not because I need a happy book or a clean ending or don’t understand dark stories. (“Dark and twisty” is basically the genre I read, no matter the genre.) (And really: So many people hated the ending of Mockingjay because it wasn’t hopeful, but I thought it was perfect. Life doesn’t usually give us “hopeful.”)

Partly I hated it because the pacing of the last third was horrible. It felt like a draft of a story rather than a finished one: On Thursday Snow does this, and on Friday he does this, and then it’s August 24th and he does this…

Partly because I couldn’t click with any character. Snow is obviously a jerk throughout (more on that in a sec). I probably could have liked Lucy Gray but this isn’t really her story. Ditto Sejanus. Ditto Tigris. I know many readers love books with detestable characters, but I don’t.

Partly, yes, because of the ending. Not because I’m not experienced with ambiguous endings. (Ambiguous endings are, in fact, why I will forever be mad at Margaret Atwood for writing The Testaments. The ambiguous ending of The Handmaid’s Tale was perfection. Perfection that did not need a sequel. Perfection that was the whole point of the book.) Not because I need neat and tidy. But because the switch was too sudden. I mean, of course Snow was never going to head out into the wilderness with Lucy Gray. But he had at least seemed to have affection for her, and then, BAM, suddenly he’s hunting and killing her? And since we are never inside of Lucy Gray’s head we never know how she really feels at all.

But mostly because of something Suzanne Collins says in the interview that’s in the back of my copy of the book. She’s discussing her use of the quote from Frankenstein that starts the novel (“I thought of the promise of virtues which he had displayed on the opening of his existence, and the subsequent blight of all kindly feeling by the loathing and scorn which his protectors had manifested towards him.”) Of course since I read and delved deeply into Frankenstein this year, this grabbed my attention anyway. Is Snow a monster that society created? In the interview, Collins says “She [referencing Mary Shelley] seems to be saying that naturally good creatures exposed to an abusive world result in monsters.”

No, wait. So we are supposed to feel some sort of pity for Snow? Because the thing is, Sejanus is also exposed to an abusive world. So is Lucy Gray. So, for that matter, was Katniss Everdeen. Yet Snow is the one we know without doubt turns into a monster. Chooses to become one, because he doesn’t like feeling unimportant to the Capitol, really. He has a very few moments of being motivated by anything other than saving himself and his social standing…but not enough to redeem him.

So, to me, the impulse behind this book is to show readers that Snow went through some hard stuff during the war and, yes, he really did turn out awful. Here are the awful things he experienced on his journey towards true awfulness.

Except I didn’t find any understanding for why HE turned out so awful.

(Tigris, for example, did not, but as a Snow she experienced many of the same humiliations and fall from grace, and all of the horror of the war.)

It says a lot about the power of propaganda (change some of the wording and some of what is said in the Capitol could come right from the lips of maga proponents). And the devastating impact of war on individual lives even if they don’t experience the actual horrors of war. (And reading about war while the war against Palestine is raging was interesting.)

But finishing it and still not really understanding why Snow became Snow, other than he was a wealthy, entitled jerk from the beginning, which we could surmise from the other books—

I think in the end I despised it because I don’t know why it was even written in the first place. Other than going back into the world of Panem, WHY? What was the point?

I honestly wish I hadn’t read it and just continued on loving The Hunger Games like I did.

(I ended up not seeing the movie. Kendell was recuperating from a surgery and he was not doing well that day. I couldn’t leave him just for a free movie ticket. Maybe I will go see it with him in January.)

Book Review: Champion of Fate by Kendare Blake

My mother used to say that autumn children were changeable in mood, that they were wild, that they would fly away with the wind if you didn't hold them close.

Champion of fate(That quote doesn't have a whole lot to do with the story; I just really liked the concept!)

Champion of Fate by Kendare Blake was the first print book I actually finished after my October-consumed interactions with Frankenstein, a single audio book, and more than a few DNF's. 

I'd read and loved Blake's Anna Dressed in Blood and its sequel, Girl of Nightmares, so when I walked past the new YA books display one day at work and noticed this new title there, I decided to grab it. 

I started it that night and finished a few days later. Which felt like a HUGE accomplishment and a return to my actual reading habits. A feeling I needed to have to remind myself that I am, in fact, a person who does read books, rather than just checking them out, piling them up around the house, and then returning them. 

None of which really has much to do with the book itself—except for the fact that yes, I enjoyed this so much I actually finished it!

Set in a different reality, it tells the story of a group of mythical female warriors, the Aristenes. These women are nearly immortal, and their role is to find the humans who have potential destiny as heroes and then to help them fulfill that destiny. 

The main character, Reed, is orphaned as a child and nearly becomes a ritual sacrifice by the tribe that killed the rest of her family, but she (and the horse she has fallen in love with, despite his grumpiness) are rescued by Aster and Veridian, two Aristene who happen upon her. 

Eight years later, Reed has trained to become an Aristene herself but she must first complete her Hero Trial, the process of helping a person in society become the hero he or she was destined to be. If she accomplishes the task, she will finish the process of become an Aristene—the thing that has kept her focused and driven since her family was killed. If she fails, she has to return to a normal, human life. 

There were parts of this book that brought me to actual tears, especially when Reed learns the type of Aristene she will become. And the sacrifice she makes near the end. But what I really enjoyed most about it was how immersive it is. I felt a part of the action for the whole time, from Reed's loss of her mother all the way to the outcome of her Hero Trial. I also liked many of the other characters, not just Reed, with Veridian being an especial favorite. 

This is a story about female relationships, and how other women can (and do) bring happiness and fulfillment to our lives when we lose others. This was bittersweet to me, as Reed's horse's name, Silco, reminded me of a different time in my life when women did not do that for me (but could have). Which in turn lead me to poke at my current loneliness, and the ways that, rape and violence aside, it's actually women who hold the most capacity for hurting other women. 

But that's just my own little drama. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and look forward to reading the rest of the series. It reminded me a bit of The Gilded Ones by Amina Forna, so if you read and liked that one, you'll likely enjoy this one, too.

Book Review: Iron Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill

Love transforms our fragile cowardly hearts into hearts of stone, hearts of blade, hearts of hardest iron. Because love makes heroes of us all.

Iron hearted violetI stumbled upon Iron Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill one day in early November when I wanted something fun to listen to. It was on an “available now” search in Libby and I thought, well…a Kelly Barnhill story narrated by Jim Dale (who also narrated the Harry Potter audiobooks)?


And I was not disappointed.

The Violet of the title is the only daughter of a king and queen in a lovely kingdom. Violet is not traditionally “princess pretty” but she is smart, curious, adventurous. Her best friend, Demetrius, is not a prince, but he joins her on all of her adventures exploring the castle, which is seemingly limitless in what it contains. One day they are exploring and come upon a room with paintings of dragons—long missing from the land—and a book that is clearly something they shouldn’t touch, let alone read. They leave it in the room but it continues to haunt her.

I loved this book like I loved Nettle and Bone (which is a high compliment!): it is clearly a fairy tale but it isn’t a retelling of any one story. The main character is spunky and atypical and uses humor to deflect attention from the wound in her psyche. That ache is the thing that pushes her to go (widely) out of her comfort zone. She discovers people who can love her for who she is. And she becomes a stronger version of herself as the story goes on.

I read a few reviews of this book after I finished, and the negatives always said something about how the illustrations don’t match the descriptions (Violet is cute in the drawings), and that some chapters are very short. Since I listened (and haven’t looked at the print version), I obviously didn’t have that problem.

In fact, maybe because it is based in fairytale tropes, and they are a part of the oral tradition, this is a perfect book to listen to.

And I loved and adored the (good) dragon.

Book Review: Fairy Tale by Stephen King

Here is something I learned in Empis: Good people shine brighter in dark times.

This is not a book review, but a book response. I could summarize the plot (portal fantasy that interacts with The Wizard of Oz in some ways) or point out some literary tropes (good vs. evil, overcoming monsters, father/son relationships) or even point out a flaw or two (how, for example, did Bowditch manage to record the tape explaining the shed while he was in the process of having a heart attack?). But others have done that better than I have, and at some point what can you say about a book that has more than 56,000 ratings on Amazon?

All that’s left to tell are personal reactions, and I read Stephen King’s novel Fairy Tale for three personal reasons:

  1. I bought it for Nathan to read while he was recuperating from surgeries three and four last January, and since he read that actual copy of the book, I wanted to read it too.
  2. If my dad were alive, he would read it and love it.
  3. I imagined it to be a sort of alternate universe for Jake from the Dark Tower series to live in where he got a gentler story.

Fairy Tale Stephen KingAt some point Nathan put the book down unfinished, so I had to wait until the summer to read it, once he picked it back up and finished. He liked but didn’t love it, which is a fine response.

I discovered, while I read it, that my supposition was pretty close. Charlie does remind me a lot of Jake, and while he does go through a lot of weird and painful stuff, his story is more gentle than Jake’s.

But really why I am glad I read Fairy Tale is because of the second reason: My dad would have loved it.

One of the saddest things about your dad developing dementia in his early sixties is all the conversations you don’t get to have. Although my mom did the work of taking us to the library and making sure we got books as Christmas gifts, I’m a bibliophile mostly because my dad was. Like me, he just always was reading something; books were a part of who he was as much as his penchant for church shoes with his swim trunks at Lake Powell.

But I never really talked much about books with him once I was married and had kids. I think the noise of those years didn’t give space for it, or maybe our reading tastes didn’t overlap enough. (Being a librarian really stripped me of all my book-snob tendencies; I can now discuss any kind of book with any kind of reader.) And by the time my life had quieted a little and I had acquired that skill, his dementia had started.

Not all of the books I read are ones I’d have a conversation with my dad about. Probably not even many.

But Fairy Tale is. He would have read it and loved it and found some little bit of it to repeat in admiration.

Reading it with him on the edges of my brain was almost, almost like having a conversation about a book with him. It made me miss him so much and brought back all of the grief of losing him. And it made me feel closer to him, like we had an experience together, even if it all was in my head.

And that’s one of the things I love about books, and why “reader” is as core a part of my identity as anything else about me. An author wrote a book during a pandemic, and everyone who read it had an experience. My experience (along with all of the other readers’) is nothing the author imagined or intended, and yet: here we are.

I’m glad my dad taught me to love books and that we can have that connection still, even though he’s gone.

Book Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

My mother's tender caresses and my father's smile of benevolent pleasure while regarding me are my first recollections. I was their plaything and their idol and something better— their child, the innocent and helpless monster bestowed on them by Heaven.

Frankenstein cover photoI first read Frankenstein in 1997 or 1998, when I was a student at BYU. It was nothing like I had imagined based on the pop-culture images I had seen (I hadn’t then, seen a movie adaptation of the book and, I confess, I still haven’t).

It was so much better. I think that was one of the easiest essays I wrote during my college years, a feminist interpretation of the book that I’d have to dig deep into some old Zipp drives to find now.

It’s been my favorite classic ever since, but I’ve only reread it once, sometime back when my Bigs were all little and we didn’t have Kaleb yet. I think I didn’t want to revisit it because what if it had changed somehow? What if I didn’t still love it?

This year at work, I was in charge of our city-wide reading series. It had already been decided that we’d do some sort of horror in 2023, but when I got the assignment I decided that it would be Frankenstein rather than Dracula (shorter and more accessible and…well, I’ve never read Dracula and I didn’t want to create a whole month’s worth of programs without having read the book first).

I fumbled a lot of things on this, my first really big project as a programming librarian, and my coworkers had to cover a lot of my slack, but one thing I did do right was pick Frankenstein.

Turns out I’m not the only person who loves this book. We had some fantastic community-wide discussions about it.

And my fears that it wouldn’t hold up to my memory? Totally unfounded. I did have a slightly different response to it this rereading. I am so drawn to experiences in mountains, now, but I don’t think that Victor’s adventures in and around Mont Blanc (this was the second book set in those mountains I’ve read this year and now I absolutely must go and hike them) stood out for me as they did this time. My first reading highlighted the aspects of motherhood the story draws out; I think my thesis was something about how the book implicitly proves the necessities of a mother in a person’s life (a theme undoubtedly supported by the university I attended).

This reading, I was haunted by the unmade—she is, after all, nearly completely formed by Victor before he decides he should not bring her to life; at least in a made form, she existed even if she never thought, laughed, or suffered—bride of the monster. He demands that Frankenstein make her because he wants someone in the world who loves him and who he can love. But his impulse is, I think, a selfish one. And maybe it is the impulse that drives us all, in the end, to become parents. The idea that we’ll have someone small to love us, and someone who will (maybe have to?) love us all our lives.

But that leaves out entirely the monster bride’s consent. What if she had been made and then she just didn’t love the monster? What if family ties, however they are made, don’t guarantee affection? What if she was a lesbian? What if he detested her? What if she fell in love with someone else? What if she, once she understood her fate, felt only fury at the monster for dragging her into a world that would despise her, only because he was lonely?

In essence, Victor thinks some of these things and they are some of the reasons why he unmakes her form and scatters it across the moor. I think he is more motivated by his fear of damaging the world and his own life, but those considerations do at least come into his brain.

(Also, isn’t it wild that when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein humanity didn’t know the simple answer to one of Victor’s most pressing concerns, that of the monster and his bride creating a whole new monstrous tribe? That Victor could just leave out the uterus was something no one really understood then. Wild.)

And it also drove home the thing that I have learned, and continue to learn, as I parent my adult children. The thing that Victor never could learn (although I do mostly believe that Elizabeth could have learned this): a parent’s job is to love his or her child for who that child is, not for who the parent imagined, hoped, or even thought he or she created the child to be.

(I actually really despise Victor quite a bit.)

At this writing, my little city read of Frankenstein has been finished for two months. But I still feel haunted by that idea: why did I become a parent? Did I fully consider my children’s consent? Can anyone ever really do that anyway?

And I just think it’s amazing that, more than 200 years later, Frankenstein still holds up to some intense questioning and it still sparks great discussions.

Book Review: Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Cloud cuckoo land

Stories are the threads that bind us all together.

This summer I participated in a challenge to read a long book. I decided I needed to own whatever long book I read—so as to be thoroughly invested in it, and for underlining and annotating. After much sifting through booklists and my own TBR, I chose Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. I had read and loved All the Light We Cannot See but I had heard this newer one was confusing and dull.

But those rumors could not have been more wrong: I loved and adored Cloud Cuckoo Land (even while acknowledging why not everyone would love it).

The book tells three different stories: Anna’s, which is set in Constantinople just as it falls to the Ottoman Empire; Zeno’s, which is set in the second half of the 20th century as he becomes an orphan, survives the Korean War, and returns to figure out a life in a small town in northern Idaho, and Konstance’s, set some years forward in humanity’s history on a space ship carrying the remnants of humanity to a new planet on a journey that will take generations.

Uniting these stories is an even older tale, Cloud Cuckoo Land, the story of Aethon, who sees a performance of Aristophanes’s The Birds and thinks that the fictional place is a real one, and so sets out on a journey to find it; and also the story of Aethon’s story being told to a sick niece in order to keep her alive.

While I enjoyed reading the three different stories, what makes this book masterful is the way Aethon’s story connects them all.

In other words, it is a book about books and reading and libraries as well as the fear and injury and loss and devastation of being human, but it is mostly a book about stories. About how we read and reread them through time, and different things they mean to different generations. How they heal us and add light to that dreary painfulness of being human. How they, in essence, save us.

It's a book to be experienced; read, instead of read about, so I will just say this:

I loved it and think anyone who loves thoughtful books that span much of human time without plodding or bogging down will also love it.