Watching X-Files with no lights on

Happy Sunday, y’all! I’m so envious of all the people getting excited for fall — we won’t be seeing that here in Florida for another month or two — but at least I can buy all the pumpkin spice everything and pretend. Next step: blast the air conditioning and throw on a sweater and six blankets to read under?

This week I’ve been…

Reading
This has been a much better reading week for me than past weeks, although it got off to a bumpy start. After reading The Stone Sky, I wanted something that required very little in the way of thinky thoughts, so I scoured my library stash and was thrilled to find the first two books in the new teen X-Files book series. As a huge fan of Dana Scully, I decided to read the second book of the series, Scully’s book, Devil’s Advocate, first, and boy. That was a mistake. I should have run away when the first line of the book was, “‘I want to believe,’ said Dana Scully,” but I wanted to believe that the book was better than that. It is not. I made it through about sixty pages of Dana having supernatural visions and going to new age crystal shops on purpose and some really terrible writing, too, and then I decided that life is too short for that.

Agent of ChaosI did still want my X-Files fix, though, so I grabbed the other book, Agent of Chaos. It was much better written, probably helped by the fact that it’s easier to write a book where Mulder believes a bunch of weird crap, although there was a LOT of weird crap that I wasn’t quite up for believing. In this one, Mulder gets caught up in a murder investigation, as teenagers in YA books are wont to do, and to solve it involves reading a fantasy novel and going to a new age crystal shop (yup, the same one!) and believing crazy people and being helped by shadowy figures and the Cigarette Smoking Man and totally hating on Pa Mulder, like, the entire time. It definitely fit my “no thinking” reading mood, as every little bit was painstakingly explained, and it wasn’t terrible, but I wouldn’t really recommend it.

The Underground RailroadOver the weekend I powered through my book club book for Tuesday, The Underground Railroad, which was a little disappointing when I found out that the book wasn’t really about the fact of its premise, that the Underground Railroad was a literal underground railroad. I had been pretty excited about that, but the railroad makes precious few appearances in the book. Its effects relative to a figurative underground railroad are definitely felt in the way that slavery and antislavery movements are presented in the book, though. Everything is just a touch different, at least, but it’s all still awful, as we see through the eyes of our runaway protagonist. I thought Whitehead did a great job of making everyone seem reasonable in their own heads even as they were completely unreasonable in reality, and I am very much looking forward to talking with lots of Southern people about this book on Tuesday.

Listening
Toward the end of the week I finally caught up on my podcasts, which had piled up over vacation and post-Irma busy-ness, so I was finally able to pick up an audiobook again. Of course, all my audiobook holds had long come and gone and been put on hold a second time, so I had to poke around a bit in my various libraries before I found Wild waiting for me as an acceptable substitute. I’m about a third of the way through so far, and I am already torn between a desire to grab my hiking shoes and make for the Appalachian Trail (she did the Pacific Crest Trail, but that’s kind of far for me…), a desire to hug my husband super tight and never let go, and a desire to punch cancer right in its stupid face. Is there a way to do all three of these things at once?

Playing
Scott and I stopped at GameStop yesterday to re-up his PowerUp Rewards in preparation for me buying all the used games for my Switch, and I’ve already put his account to good use in buying Mario Kart 8, which is absolutely delightful. I’m only a couple of Grand Prix in but I’m loving the art style and all of the cars and scooters I can make Toadette drive. It’s a little tough making the absurdly tiny Joy Cons work, but I have faith I’ll get the hang of it. Now I just need more people to come play with me, as it turns out my husband is not nearly as into adorable racing games as I am. Who’s in?

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Making a Fresh Start

Guys, it’s been so long since I looked at this blog that WordPress forgot my login credentials! It’s only been six weeks, but it does feel like a lifetime, partly because I’ve been avoiding writing anything. I’ve been writing about every book I’ve read for about nine years in this space, and so when I see the forty books sitting unreviewed in my Goodreads list it gives me a tiny panic attack. And then all of you lovely people are like, “Hey, where’d you go, tell me about ALL THE BOOKS” and I am like “I want to, but.”

So I’m making a change around here and taking a page out of my very own book from RIPs past. I’ll be stopping in here every week or two with an update on things I’m reading, watching, listening to, playing, and generally thinking about. If there’s a book that I feel very strongly about, you might see a full-length review here and there. But not this week!

What have I been up to for the past couple of weeks? Well…

Thinking
It’s been a weird couple of weeks for me, as I went on a much-needed vacation to my hometown to see parents and friends, and then spent most of the week that I was in Ohio watching news coverage of the hurricane headed straight toward my current state of Florida. First it looked like it would miss the state, then miss my city, then smack my city in the face, then maybe miss my city, then probably miss my city, then maybe miss it…. My husband and I ended up getting two extra days of vacation as both of our jobs were closed for the storm and its aftermath, and we were very lucky to come home to a fully intact house (albeit with no power for a day and no internet for five). My husband’s family members were not so lucky, and we spent a little time this weekend helping clean up his grandmother’s house. And now there’s another hurricane coming up the exact route, so, yay?

Reading
With all these weather shenanigans it’s been a tough time for reading! I wanted to read all the books on vacation, and I even had this grand plan to check out a book from my hometown library that I couldn’t figure out how to easily get at home, read it, and return it before I left. I did the first and last parts, but when I realized I wasn’t going to get to do the second, I decided it would make more sense to buy it from my favorite tiny used book store. I did get a few pages into A Race Anthology before I came home, but not enough yet to know if it was worth my $10.80.

Another book I didn’t read on vacation was The Stone Sky, the third book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, but I did manage to finally finish it this weekend! I say manage, because I was unfortunately not as completely into this book as I was the first two. It was good, and I’m glad I read it, as it ties up all the loose plotlines pretty effectively, but it’s kind of Maddaddam-y in that it’s a bit too slow and plodding to be really exciting.

Listening
Speaking of slow and plodding, the husband and I failed to listen to The Dark Forest, the sequel to The Three-Body Problem, on our road trip. Guys, it is so dense and convoluted and we listened to it for two hours that felt like eleven and we got maybe two minutes of information out of it. So we abandoned ship and listened to a super weird book called All Our Wrong Todays instead. I picked it to listen to because it promised time travel, but it turned out that time travel didn’t really have anything to do with the story except to set it in motion. It’s actually a lot more about identity and a surprising amount about gender politics, and I do want to give a little content warning that there is a brief scene of sexual violence that comes out of nowhere and then longer scenes of people talking about that scene, so, you know. FYI. I seriously just came here for the time travel. But even though it dives headlong into some Tough Topics, it does it with some awesome snark, so overall we ended up with the impression that it was a pretty funny book. Hence, super weird.

In podcast-land, I’ve got a new obsession with the ladies of What’s Good Games, a show that my podcast player recommended to me a couple weeks ago. When I saw it I was like, “Ooh! Lady gamers. Oh, those episodes are all like two hours long. Well, I’ll listen to one and see if I like it.” Eighteen episodes later, I’m all caught up and eagerly awaiting next week’s episode, and also I maybe bought a Nintendo Switch because they kept talking about how awesome Breath of the Wild is.

Playing
Oh my goodness, Breath of the Wild is super good, guys. I’m like, not very far into it because I have a very short attention span, but I am super enjoying it when I do sit down to play it. I don’t think I’ve played more than an hour or two of any other Zelda game, so I don’t know how this one stacks up, historically, but I will tell you that it’s probably the prettiest one I’ve ever seen.

These last couple of weeks I’ve been mostly playing all the Two Dots on my phone because it’s a good distraction, but my mother got me into a crazy complicated Farmville-esque game called Township that is one of those games where you make things so you can make other things so you can sell those things and make new things, forever, and everything takes a certain amount of time to make and my phone is constantly telling me that my crops are ready to harvest or my train returned to the station or whatever. I’ll probably be sick of it in another week or two, when it gets too hard, but for now it’s good brain candy.

Well, this has gone on far longer than I was expecting… um, how are you guys doing?

The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey

The WanderersI have so many things I want to say about this book, but I’m finding it hard to phrase any of those things in ways that won’t give away, you know, all the things I have things to say about. So let me give you a little plot summary up top, and then if you’re intrigued you can go read the book and come back to this.

PLOT SUMMARY: We follow along as three astronauts are selected for a potential future Mars mission, of which the first part is a real-time simulation in the Utah desert. We get to see this simulation mission from the eyes of the astronauts and certain of their family members, and we get to learn not only how the mission works practically but also physically and emotionally for all of these characters. There’s an older American woman who’s a bit past her prime and knows it, along with her daughter who doesn’t really know how to exist outside of her mother’s shadow; a Russian man who’s decided to go through a divorce at the same time as this simulation mission and his son who’s using this time in America to explore his sexual identity; and a young (for an astronaut) Japanese man who seems pretty normal, although he and his wife, some kind of bigwig in companion robotics, have a very strange and superficial relationship.

Kinda cool, right? I thought so! If you think so, stop here. Seriously, stop. Here’s a recommendation for you, so you don’t even have to scroll to the bottom:

Recommendation: For sci-fi fans who like a little existential crisis in their narratives.

Okay, but, seriously. Spoilers ahead!

SPOILERS: Okay, so, the plot up there really is the basic plot of the story, but there’s also this really really weird subplot that had my brain breaking for most of the book. Pretty early on the author starts dropping hints that there’s something weird about this simulation mission. Everything feels really… real. Exceptionally real. Too real. But it’s only hints here and there until near the end, when she kind of drops the act and has one of the characters be like, hey, are we actually secretly in space right now?

Which, of course not, because why would you secretly send astronauts to Mars and not even tell the astronauts they’re going? Why would you secretly send astronauts to Mars for them to stay like two days and then come back? Why would you bother to create an elaborate Mars simulation to put on top of ACTUAL MARS?

But, on the other hand, you could, right? And if you did, wouldn’t that look exactly like this?

SPOILERS WITHIN SPOILERS: You know that movie A Beautiful Mind? I thought this book would end up like that movie, where I was totally on board with the weird government spying shenanigans (or whatever, it’s been a while) and then the movie was like, psych! He’s got a mental illness!, and then I was like, whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat.

SERIOUSLY ALL THE SPOILERS WHY ARE YOU READING THIS IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS: Except that this book never gets to a whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat. It leaves you hanging. And so instead of being able to be like, oh, book, look how you tricked me, I am now, weeks later, still coming up with conspiracy theories about how they totally did go to Mars, but now they’re dead, or that they totally didn’t go to Mars but this whole thing was an incredibly elaborate psychological experiment about the effects of simulations on humans, or that Mars isn’t even a planet and scientists have been lying to us this whole time. I DON’T KNOW ANYMORE.

I kind of love that the book starts out like it’s going to explore the themes of what’s real and what’s fake and what’s performance and whether we can tell the difference between any of that, even our own realities and such, through the various characters we meet and their inner and outer dramas… and then it’s like eff it, let’s get completely literal here. It’s a serious hit-or-miss move, and I can imagine that it’s going to miss for a lot of people, but it hit me square in the existential feels.

But seriously. Is Mars real? Asking for a friend.

Weekend Shorts: Science Ladies on Audio

I’ve been meaning to throw this post together for ages, but it turns out that I am super embarrassed by my complete inability to separate two of these books in my brain and thus have had an almost complete inability to tell y’all about them. But the time has finally come to admit to my failures, mention to you some really awesome books, and promise myself not to make silly mistakes in the future.

What books have I got permanently confused?

Rise of the Rocket Girls, by Nathalia Holt
and
Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
Rise of the Rocket GirlsHidden FiguresYou see, what had happened was, I really wanted to listen to Hidden Figures, but it had a miles-long holds list. Then I remembered that there also existed Rise of the Rocket Girls, with a slightly shorter holds list, so I waited patiently for that. And then, immediately after finishing it, Hidden Figures came in. And so I listened to two books about a large cast of women working as computers for various parts of the space program back to back. This was fine, as far as listening to things goes, but terrible if you want to tell other people what you think.

Aside from my own mistakes, part of it is also that these books do have large casts of characters, and so even while listening to each of them I found myself being like, wait, who is this? Do I know her? Is she new? Ah, whatever, I’ll figure it out later.

Both books are interesting looks into history at long-ignored people who did important things, both look at these women’s lives both at work and at home, and both talk of how white dudes totally didn’t want these jobs until they totally did and how that affected the work. If I could go back and listen to just one, I’d pick Hidden Figures as it is a little more tightly written and easier to follow, but they’re both quite good.

And now, books I’m not confusing for other books:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksI have no idea why this book took me so long to get around to. If you’ve also been putting it off, you should definitely check it out.

There are two stories packed into this book: one about the cancer cells from Henrietta Lacks that became both immortal and hugely important to science, and one about Henrietta Lacks’s family and how they live in the shadow of these cells but reap essentially no benefit from them. For most of the book, I think Skloot does a good job of combining these two stories to give a broader picture of the health care industry, medical ethics, science as a calling vs. science as a money-making industry, and of course race and class and the huge disparity in healthcare based on those things.

Toward the end I felt like the family story went a little off the rails and I found myself checking my audiobook timer to see how much was left a little too often, but the vast majority of the book was solid, and solidly awesome. Very much recommend.

Word by Word, by Kory Stamper
Word by WordThis doesn’t exactly fit the science (SCIENCE!) theme I’m going for, being a book about dictionaries, but this is my blog and I say it’s close enough!

Stamper is a lexicographer (which certainly sounds science-y) for Merriam-Webster and in this book she takes the reader through the process of writing a dictionary, which is SO HARD, guys. She writes about defining words like “that”, choosing which words go into which versions of the dictionary, dealing with people who are upset about certain words and definitions, dealing with the fact that words won’t stop changing, and about the intricate nuances of the dictionary’s style guide, among other scintillating (yeah, kind of, actually) topics.

I loved the heck out of this book, and I even got my husband to tear his focus away from the internet while I listened to it on a road trip, so even if you’re not the nerdiest word nerd that ever loved words I think you’ll find some good stuff in this book.

The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henríquez

The Book of Unknown AmericansFor some reason the universe didn’t want me to be able to talk to my book club about this book — we managed to get rained out two weeks in a row and for my neighborhood’s sake I didn’t want to try for a third. I was a little disappointed that I wouldn’t get to talk about it, but then I remembered that I still have you guys! Yay!

This book has so many of the things I love in it, including multiple narrators, gorgeous writing, quirky characters, a peek into a culture I don’t know a lot about, and teens rebelling pretty tamely against their parents. It also has a thing I hate in it, which is plot points that wouldn’t have happened if people would just TALK to each other, but the book recognizes and points out this fact and so I ended up liking even that part!

The narrators here are people in a small Hispanic neighborhood in Delaware. The main characters we meet are from a family that moved to the neighborhood from Mexico so that their brain-damaged daughter could attend a special-needs school that the mother hopes will bring her daughter back to normal, or as normal as possible. We also meet their close neighbors, a family from Panama with a son who at first dislikes but eventually takes an interest in the aforementioned daughter, and a few of the other neighbors from various countries.

The plot focuses on the two kids, Mayor and Maribel, and how Mayor comes to like and then like like Maribel as he gets to know her past her extreme shyness and mental problems. But of course making friends can’t be easy, and both sets of parents end up having issues with the friendship in addition to and as a proxy to the issues they’re having in their own lives.

It’s a hard book to describe without giving a lot away — this is the kind of book that isn’t spoilable, exactly, but in which not knowing things definitely makes the reading more interesting. But trust me that it’s worth the read if you’re looking for a book that will remind you how fallible humans are and that will make you a little bit sad when you’re done with it.

Recommendation: If you like Everything I Never Told You, this is not a terrible way to pass the time until Ng’s next book. (In September! I cannot wait!)

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High CastleConfession time: I watched the first two episodes of the Amazon version of this book back when it first came out, and then a few months back I thought I would start it up again, since I’d be reading the book for book club. Ten minutes into the episode, I realized I had pulled up episode three of the second season instead of the first. Ten minutes of watching, just slightly baffled, not sure why the show seemed so off.

As you may guess, that’s kind of how I feel about this book. Part of this is because the book and the show are not the same at all, except for the very basic premise, and part of it is because the book does such weird things with that premise that I could barely keep up with what was going on.

The basic premise: that the Axis powers won World War II, and Germany and Japan have divided up the United States, east and west, respectively.

In the book, we stay on the Japanese side of the States, where lots of things are going on. There’s a guy who sells pre-war American merchandise to wealthy Japanese collectors, and who wants very badly to sell nice things to one couple, and also maybe sleep with the wife? Then there’s another dude who works in a factory that makes counterfeit collectible merchandise, and he leverages his knowledge of that illicit fact to start a business creating fancy post-war American jewelry, which is not in any sort of demand but he hopes it could be. Then there’s yet another dude who is some sort of German spy type fellow who wants to make a deal with some high-powered Japanese, but when his Japanese contact is held up he has to decide between making some potential waves or losing the deal entirely.

Also, meanwhile, in a DMZ area between the two halves of the States, there’s a chick who gets involved with a dude who is a little obsessed with this book that everyone else in this book is also obsessed with, in which that author posits what would have happened in a world where the Allied powers won the war, which is not what actually happened in our world but is not a terrible approximation of what could have happened, I guess? And so they go to meet the author, but weird things happen, and weirder things happen when the woman arrives, and this whole plotline is so strange, I can’t even.

This book, the one I read, is far more interesting academically than entertainingly. I like what Dick does with the ideas of class and race and what it’s like to live as a second-class citizen in what used to be your own dang country. I also like how he uses the I Ching to talk about ideas of destiny versus free will. There’s a lot of thinky thoughts to have while reading this book. But as a story, as something with a beginning and middle and an end and a plot and characters and all that? Eh. It’s all right. It kind of makes me want to go watch the show, which takes a much more story-focused tack from that basic premise, but then I remember those ten minutes and I’m like, eh.

Recommendation: Eh. Unless it’s for book club, in which case there’s a lot of good stuff to talk about and it gets a solid “Yeah.”

Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley

Before the FallI was pretty interested in this book when I first heard about it, as it’s by Noah Hawley who is responsible for the excellent TV series Fargo (and the weird series Legion, but I watched that well after reading this book). The holds list was surprisingly long for what I thought was a fairly obscure book, so I decided to leave it alone and just grab my library’s copy when it finally came back for good.

And, honestly, that kind of sums up my feelings about this book. Pretty good, wouldn’t wait in a long line to read it.

I liked a lot of things about this book, and I think (for better or worse) that my favorite bit is the premise. A private jet crashes on the way from Martha’s Vineyard to the mainland and two people survive — the young son of a fabulously wealthy Rupert Murdoch type, and some random dude who was invited by the Murdoch type’s wife to join them. These two are left to grapple with life after a harrowing incident that is compounded by the kid’s dad’s celebrity. How did this happen? Does it have to do with [insert scandal here]? Who’s this schmuck who just so happened to save this kid’s life? INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW AND WE WONT STOP ASKING ‘TIL YOU TELL US. That sort of thing.

And for that, the book does take an interesting look at the world of pundit-based news and the 24-hour news cycle and the public’s seemingly unending need to know things that literally no one actually wants to know. This is where the book is very good.

The other part, the part with the answering of the questions… it’s all right. I like the way Hawley looks through all of the characters’ points of view, even the ones who end up dead, and connects all their lives together to get them on the plane. But, and this is kind of a spoiler, so feel free to skip to the next paragraph, he spends all this time building up the characters and their backstories and then the big whodunit reveal is not any of those people we’ve spent time getting to know. I mean, I’m glad none of them are plane crash causers, but… seriously?

My other problem with the book, and I will grant that others probably see this as a benefit, is that the book is written very visually. You could copy and paste most of this book straight into a film script with no problems. It’s kind of cool in small doses — I did enjoy a scene in which a dude in the bathroom uses the soap dispenser (hand dryer? Something like that) — but after a while I was like, come on dude, let’s just get on with the story!

But let me be clear that overall I quite enjoyed this book. The writing is great, the characters are interesting, and Hawley knows how to keep you turning pages. It just, for me, had just enough issues to leave me wanting to have read something very slightly different.

Recommendation: If you like Hawley’s stuff, you’ll certainly like this. Unless you only like Legion. This is nothing like Legion.