Friday, July 29, 2016

Weekend reads and feeling very busy...

My weekend read is Mary Robinette Kowal's new historical fantasy, Ghost Talkers. This one is set during World War I, and features the British Army's Spirit Corps, a group of mediums who debrief those who die in action in hopes of using that intel to help their troops. I'm totally smitten already and wish I could just read this rainy day rather than work!

Life has been pretty busy otherwise: lots of things to do on weekends, which is both lovely and tiring; and both my wife and I have had hectic work lives. I'm also doing some writing in hopes of getting into a nine-month writing intensive, so if things go well, it seems like the busy won't end! But that's not always bad, right?

What are you reading this weekend?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Book Review: Grace Without God by Katherine Ozment

Title: Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age
Author: Katherine Ozment

First line: One night five years ago, I heard a strange noise outside the window of our brick row house near Boston.

Review: I've got a lot of complicated feelings about this book, and reviewing it requires a little coming out and disclosure.

I work for the Unitarian Universalist Association, the national office for the denomination. I'm married to a former seminarian. And until a few months ago, neither of us were members of a church because we both struggled with religion, religious organizations, and our own personal faith beliefs (but we've spent a decade searching for a church home).

Ozment's book immediately intrigued me because of the title (and subtitle): I know we're in a historical era of "spiritual-but-not-religious" and "nones", or people who identify as having no religion, and my wife and I are among those many.

From the subtitle, I had hoped this book would help me wrestle with the conflict I experience of yearning for some kind of faith community while resisting religion, but the "search" in this book is more about Ozment's personal journey toward finding meaning and purpose and belonging for her family.

The book's narrative style is Salon and Vanity Fair-ish interviews with thinkers -- mostly professors -- about religion ("He wore glasses and had thinning gray hair, and he reclined on a tan chenille couch in his art-filled living room, his shoes off and his pale blue golf shirt open at the collar.", p100) combined with reportage about Ozment's own experience at a religious or spiritual worship gathering.

She shares tidbits about coming up against the results of her family's lack of spiritual home -- children who don't know what the Golden Rule is or that an angel isn't a woman doing yoga -- and the attempts she and her husband have made to create a kind of spiritual community for their family. These admissions all resonated with me, as my wife and I have tried to create a faith home, of sorts, out of our circle of friends, especially now that we have a child, and our attempts haven't always been successful.

However, not all parts of this book worked for me. I will confess I bristled at Ozment's articulation of Unitarian Universalism (especially her insultingly flip description that it is a "well established 'religious lite'" option) but I'm going to refrain from evangelizing because it's not really appropriate. (But please don't let her opinion of UUism put you off checking out your local UU church!) I also found myself bored by the summary of studies about the state of spirituality in the US, likely because the research and articles she cites are ones I've used at work. I suspect others who aren't so immersed in the topic will find it new and interesting. And finally, I found Ozment made firm rulings about the various spiritual and religious services she attended in a way that seemed to imply the reader wouldn't like it either, which disappointed and frustrated me. I had to remind myself this wasn't a workbook for finding a faith home, but really a memoir of one woman's journey.

In the end, it seems Ozment and her husband decided to embrace their religious culture anyway -- a decision that echoes my own. Two months ago, my wife and I decided to formally join our local UU church; it fits me theologically and the church is minutes from our new house. My wife loves the diverse congregation and lovely group of children that our son can grow up with. We've decided to split time between that church and a local Quaker meeting, because that fits my wife's theology more, and we appreciate the Quaker values of pacifism and witness. We celebrate Christmas because our families do, even if we don't identify as Christians, and we are honored to celebrate holidays that speak to our friends. Rather than feel guilty for some of this picking-and-choosing, we enjoy having those cultural connections that remind us we're part of something bigger, deeper, longer, and older than us.

For those readers, however, who were hoping for a more secular end, I wonder if this book will satisfy. Despite her warm embrace of and sympathy toward atheists and those who reject religion, ultimately she returns to the traditions of religion (even if she avoids the theology). I'm not sure she offers a good alternative, either.

Ozment has a robust resources section that includes a kind of spiritual self-interview as well as a very long bibliography sorted by topic.

A timely book that takes on the heavy topic of religion in a light manner, this is an easy heavy read (if that makes sense!). While not a book that wholly worked for me, it is one that speaks to a hunger that so many of us are experiencing. In a time when talking about religion -- especially during this election season -- can be so fraught, it was refreshing to read about faith removed from moral judgment.

Genre: Non-Fiction (Religion / American Culture / Parenting / Theology / Self Help)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Wave (6/21/2016)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Reading Challenges: Read Harder!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Book Review: Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Glamour in Glass
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal

First line: There are few things in this world that can simultaneously delight and dismay in the same manner as a formal dinner party.

Review: This second book in Kowal's Glamourist series returns to the Regency world she created in Shades of Milk and Honey (my review here), but Kowal departs from the strongly Austen-y feel of the first to a more standard paranormal historical feel -- a development I welcome!

Jane and her new husband find themselves in Belgium for their honeymoon, and they use the time to study some of the Continental glamour techniques and skills, as well as experimenting with the use of glass in glamour work. But Napoleon escapes Elba and suddenly they're at the front lines of battle. Unhesitating in their support of the British army, their loyalty to country and their skill in glamour make them targets.

As with the first book, I think heightened expectation set me up for disappointment, for while I liked this one more than Shades of Milk and Honey, I wasn't in swoons as I imagined I would. Once again, I yearned for more -- more detail, more character depth, more exploration of the world and its mores, that kind of thing. Kowal evokes warm intimacy, real sexual chemistry, and devoted friendship between Jane and Vincent, but it's done in quick brushstrokes that didn't satisfy me.

There was also a huge plot element I found problematic, but can't really discuss without spoiling it, so check out my GoodReads review if you want all the spoiler-y deets.

In rereading this review, I can see I'm damning with faint praise -- which isn't my intention. (I'm hooked enough that I'm starting the fourth book!) It's fluffy, Regency-ish fun, in which artists use magic, there are no love triangles, and we follow a couple through their new marriage (which is refreshing!).

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Regency / 19th Century / Magic / Napoleon / Marriage / Pregnancy / Espionage)
Publisher/Publication Date: Tor Books (4/10/2012)
Source: My public library
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Book Review: American Housewife by Helen Ellis

Title: American Housewife
Author: Helen Ellis

First line: "Is this too dressy?" is Southern Lady code for: I look fabulous and it would be in your best interest to tell me so., from "Southern Lady Code"

Review: When I came across this line -- I fix myself a hot chocolate because it is a gateway drug to reading. -- in the first story, I knew it was love.

Ellis' collection of short stories are brisk, funny, and snarky. They go down dangerously easy and you may, like me, embarrass yourself then with some snirking, snickering, and outright laughter when in public. And like a lovely, boozy Sunday brunch with friends, I have no regrets.

The stories all focus on a certain type of married American woman, Southern and/or upper class and/or wedded to more than just a man. They're all an exaggeration, too, pushed to the point of ludicrousness, and yet, still painfully familiar.

My favorite stories included 'The Wainscoting War', which details the quick unraveling of civility between two neighbors in a posh co-op; 'Dumpster Diving With the Stars', in which an author is a contestant on an antiques-hunting reality show with a Playboy bunny, John Lithgow, Scientologist actors, and Mario Batali. (It is uh-mah-zing.); and 'My Novel Is Brought To You By The Good People At Tampax', which is just what it sounds like, only so dystopian I died of joy.

So, in summary, get this and a wine spritzer (or a bloody Mary!) and settle in for some fun this summer.

Genre: Fiction (Short Stories / Contemporary / Marriage / Housewife )
Publisher/Publication Date: Doubleday (1/12/2016)
Source: My public library

Monday, July 11, 2016

Book Review: Mata Hari's Last Dance by Michelle Moran

Title: Mata Hari's Last Dance
Author: Michelle Moran

First line: We don't take a horse-drawn cab to his office.

Review: I read this book -- on the slim side at 272 pages -- on the flights to-and-from my work conference at the end of June.

A first person biographical novel of the infamous dancer-slash-spy, this splashy story has it all: winsome heroine, Paris, love affairs, rags-to-riches, a tearjerker of an end.

My only complaint is that I just wanted more; and given the many inaccuracies and mysteries about the woman known as Mata Hari, I'm surprised Moran didn't go deeper (or, hell, longer!) with her story. Instead, it feels like she stuck with the outline of events known for sure, and what's there is good -- it just didn't feel quite like enough.

Margaretha "M'greet" Zelle MacLeod's story begins as she's reinvented herself in Paris as Mata Hari, an Indian dancer trained at ancient temples. Discovered at a seedy bar by a lawyer who becomes her agent, in a way, M'greet charms and scandalizes Parisian society with her exotic, modern dance, done in the nearly nude.

Barred from ever repeating a performance, M'greet invents more and more shocking dances, earning a string of wealthy lovers in the process. Slowly, through her friendship with her lawyer, we learn a tiny bit about her childhood and marriage, but most of the novel depicts the events leading up to her trial during World War I as a German spy.

M'greet's end genuinely made me teary, and it speaks to Moran's skill that she could evoke such emotions in such a short page span. Which makes me even more excited for her other books -- I own about three of them -- and they're bumping up on my TBR now.

A perfect weekend read for this summer (or, say, a Read-a-thon!).

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 20th Century / World War I / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Mata Hari / World War I / Espionage)
Publisher/Publication Date: Touchstone (7/19/2016)
Source: NetGalley
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Books DNF'd so far in 2016

I started this post expecting a longer list, but it turns out I've only DNF'd two books this year so far! (There are a few more unfinished, but I might pick them up again, so am not considering them DNFs. Arbitrary, perhaps, but there ya go!) Anyway, my thoughts on what I'm not going to finish reading. What have you DNF'd this year?

Ingrid Betancourt, The Blue Line

Basically, it's like Isabel Allende meets Susanna Kearsley -- South American history and politics with a little supernatural romance-y-ness. I really really wanted to like this one, being partial to Betancourt, but it was just a little too ... I can't put my finger on it ... emotionless? Stiff? The flipping between the past and present -- always something I'm "eh" on anyway -- was tiresome to me -- artificially stretched the tension.

Kiersten White, And I Darken

Loved the idea of what-if-Vlad-was-female but didn't "see" it in what was unfolding. Got about 10% in and just had to DNF -- it was comprehensively boring, if such a thing is possible. Anyway, life is too short blah blah. I admit that every time I see the cover or read the premise I think I want to try again, and then I remember the impenetrable wall of text that was each page. But lots of other bloggers I trust loved this one, so maybe listen to them?