Say It With Me: D’aww

Girls Like Me by Lola St.Vil

Reading Challenge: A book of poetry

This reading challenge item was a little bit of a cop-out. I don’t dislike poetry, per se, but I like to read things with plots. This is a book composed of poetry, and poetic text messages, but it’s essentially a teen novel in poetry. So sue me, this appealed more than a collection of Yeats, and I’ve suffered enough recently.

This was a sweet little book, and I liked it a lot. There were no huge surprises, nothing wildly original in terms of characters or plot – in fact, I think one of the major plot contrivances is taken right out of a Hillary Duff movie – but it was sweet. I teared up in some places, but it was a rough day at work so I probably would have teared up reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” I appreciated, you have no idea how much, that our heroine never lost weight. One of my long list of literary pet peeves is the heroine who loses weight as she gains confidence, gets her life in order, and gets a guy, as if those things are all impossible over a size 12. I think the worst is when this particular trope is found in teen fiction, when girls are already getting bombarded with horrible body image messages. But I liked that although Shay’s cruel schoolmates had a lot to say about her weight, the book wasn’t fully focused on it, either. She had other things going on, as people of any size tend to do.

I liked her friends, too, and her text messages with her love interest were cute. I do have to question the way the 15 year-olds talked about sex. Not in a pearl-clutching “oh no the teens are thinking about the sex” kind of way, but more the “wow, are kids these days really that confident? Discussing sex frankly with the person they’re attracted to without any apparent hesitation?” I mean, that shit can be challenging as an adult. I’m pretty sure if a boy had tried to talk sex to me when I was fifteen (spoiler alert to my memoirs: this did not in fact happen) my response would have been to get bright red, stutter out a few monosyllables, and run away.

Although the love story was adorable, the strongest parts of the book were the ones that related to Shay’s grief. Both of her parents have left: her mother by choice, her father not. The poems on that topic were the strongest, and definitely the parts where I got a little teary.

Recommended pairing: How about a Crabbie’s ginger beer for this one? Like a kid’s drink, but not.



Well-Behaved Women

Wedding Season by Katie Fforde

Reading Challenge: A book that takes place on an island

Here’s a thing you may not know about me: beneath my cynical exterior lies a core of molten cheese. I love getting flowers. I get more into Christmas with each passing year. I know most of the major fairy tales by heart. And I’m a sucker for a good love story.

There’s a catch, though. It has to be a good love story.

After reading several Good Books in a row, I needed a break. Especially after my last one I needed something with a lot less testosterone. And I figured, hey, something that takes place in the UK qualifies as something that takes place on an island. Give me something quick and easy to read, too. Oh hey, this one’s about weddings! Weddings are such good fodder for fiction. I don’t really love chick lit, but at least it’s usually a quick read and emotionally involving.

Once again, I chose poorly. Spoiler alerts because this book pissed me off too much for discretion.

Wedding Season started off like your typical chick lit. I checked off the normal items from chick lit bingo early on: Overworked, Underappreciated Heroine Great at Her Job but Hopeless at Communication in Personal Life, Bizarrely Bossy Love Interest, Makeover, Fairy Godmother, Convenient Plot Device (who COULD rent that empty cottage? Goodness!). This book offered three heroines, Sarah (the wedding planner), Elsa (the dressmaker) and Bron (the hairdresser who also makes great cakes). In addition to their poor communication skills, all three were notable for being mindbogglingly passive. People could talk them into pretty much anything because they couldn’t figure out how to say no politely. I’m kind of amazed none of them turned drug mule at any point in this book.

Speaking of substances, there was a stunning amount of alcohol consumed in this book, usually after token protests. I’m a social drinker and like a beer with my dinner, but I could feel my liver curling up and whimpering as I read about yet another bottle of champagne being consumed.

Plot contrivances abounded: Sarah, the wedding planner (distinguished from the other two by being labeled “bossy,” although she very rarely did anything bossy), stops her love interest from clearing up her (spoiler alert: mistaken!) perception that he is engaged, and her totally-looks-like-Hugh-Grant-have-I-mentioned-that? love interest actually lets her. Bron, who starts the book in a shitty relationship, the depiction of which was the most realistic piece of the book, decides to leave her awful boyfriend, and in spite of the fact that we’ve already seen how awful he is, she has to walk in on him in bed with another woman just to establish that it’s okay for her to walk out on him. Elsa (distinguished from the other two by virtue of being actually even more passive than the others) attends a costume ball and just has to win the costume contest even though she hates being the center of attention and totally didn’t want to win. If there were a passivity Olympics, these ladies would take home the gold, silver and bronze by miles.

Now, I realize there are probably people out there who are really curious about how wedding prep logistical problems could be solved. But I would think even the most avid DIY-er would find the amount of that contained in this book to be excessive. By the time we got a 3.5-page scene of bulk baking supply shopping, I was wondering if this book even had editors. It could easily have been half the length without a single important scene getting cut. The focus of many of the scenes also appeared to be off. At the ball, Elsa’s love interest gets called away for a crisis, where a drunk man gashed his arm badly and Love Interest Guy was guaranteed to be sober and so should be the one who decides whether a trip to A and E (that’s the ER for us Americans) is warranted. Instead of focusing on the guy with the bleeding arm and Love Interest Guy’s capability in a crisis, a bunch of characters stand around discussing who should drive what car and who needs to go where. I’m surprised Bleeding Man didn’t bleed out during this tedium.

You can probably tell already that I didn’t care for this book, and didn’t from the beginning. But Mr. Drinking-and-Ink wants me to mention that my reading of the last hundred pages was liberally peppered with outbursts of “No! No! No! No! No!” Although the first 300 pages were bad, the last 100 truly were worse. Bossy Sarah decides that the one place to NOT be bossy is when her pregnant sister wants to drink alcohol. Extra-passive Elsa thinks about how other people making her do things she didn’t want to do has made her so much more confident. And Bron, who up until this point had been the least insufferable of the three, decides it’s perfectly okay to start undressing a sleeping man.

That last one may seem like not a big deal, but the way it’s presented, it actually is. Having decided that her love interest is not attracted to her, she finds him sleeping and gets in bed with him. Then she unbuttons his shirt and caresses his chest for a bit. She considers undoing his pants but decides not to. I mean, luckily enough he wakes up significantly later, notices his undone shirt, and turns out to be into it. But THAT ISN’T OKAY. THAT IS FUCKING CREEPY. Imagine if she were the one asleep and he’d been the one who got in bed and decided to take her top off and touch her for a bit. PEOPLE WHO ARE ASLEEP CAN’T CONSENT THIS IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE. It doesn’t make your heroine a “modern woman” if following 404 pages of doing absolutely nothing she decides to start fondling a sleeping man on page 405. I don’t know exactly what it makes her, but a “modern woman” it does not.

Generally speaking, though, Sarah, Bron and Elsa made your average Dickens heroine look like Xena, Warrior Princess in comparison. I was amazed they managed to walk around so easily when none of them possessed a spine.

So it turns out even people with a core of molten cheese have standards. And this book did not meet them.

Recommended pairing: Ugh. Tea. Coffee. Lemonade. Anything but alcohol.





I’m Afraid of Americans

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Reading Challenge: A book that’s becoming a movie this year

Fun trivia fact about your blogger hostess: a large chunk of this book was read while listening to Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” on loop. I’m currently obsessed with that song (my obsessions are rarely if ever timely), but it did occur to me while listening that in spite of a shared overarching theme the song actually doesn’t suit this book that well. Setting aside the David Bowie choice of my title, the Dire Straits song that actually matches the book is definitely “Money for Nothing.”dire-straights-money-for-nothing

This is the most American book I have ever read.

That is, a certain type of America. The “money for nothing and the chicks for free” mentality-type American. The Texas guns-and-Jesus-and-‘Murica type American. The kind of America that commodifies young women into their body parts and praises young men at war without understanding or providing them with anything they actually need when they get home. Football. Spectacle. Thanksgiving. America.

The book takes place more or less over a single Thanksgiving day in the early days of Iraq Part II (with flashbacks) from the perspective of 19 year-old war hero Billy Lynn. I was dying to say the stream-of-consciousness and the single-day thing reminded me of Virginia Woolf, but damn it, I haven’t read any. Someone who has can enlighten me.

Anyway, Billy and his Bravo squad are part of a victory tour before returning overseas, after their heroics in battle were captured by a news crew and garnered medals. Everyone at the stadium wants a piece of them (that commodification again) and nobody really stops to consider what they might actually need. Their stumbles from one stop to another are picaresque, hilarious and tragic, and get repetitive after a while (on purpose, one can only assume) before getting to the actual halftime show. That’s definitely the best chapter of the book, which I don’t want to spoil for you (although it looks like the trailer for the movie coming out this year might have sort of already done that, but if you haven’t read the book you might not see everything that’s going on there).

You know what? It’s a good book. This reading challenge is getting me to read a lot of good books. But this is also the latest in a series of books I admire without really loving. Once again, well done, full marks, but just not my book.

Recommended pairing: God, they drink so much in this book, I kind of want to recommend a soda. But you know what? This book is full of people talking about how cold it is at 34 degrees. How about a Harpoon Winter Warmer to warm your toesies, little babies?


But You Wouldn’t Want to Live There

The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud

Reading Challenge: A book and its prequel (part two)

As I noticed when I read the first book of the Bartimaeus trilogy, Jonathan Stroud’s world of Bartimaeus is very dark. It’s grim and gory and most of the magicians are nasty, nasty people. The few non-magicians we meet are powerless and come across as passive or just furiously helpless. The world is well-done, but I doubt there are kids out there wishing they actually inhabited it, the way an earlier set of readers waited for their Hogwarts letters.

The Ring of Solomon finds Bartimaeus back in Israel in the days of King Solomon (who has a powerful ring, natch). His human captors are jostling for power, and he’s trying just as hard to circumvent them as ever. The strength of The Ring of Solomon is in its narrator, just as it was in The Amulet of Samarkand. Bartimaeus is hugely entertaining, inventive, never dull, and uses footnotes to great advantage. The weakness, as was also the case with book one, was that there were chapters in the third person rather than from Bartimaeus’ perspective. They suffered in comparison. Granted, Asmira was less wildly unlikable than the sulky Nathaniel of The Amulet of Samarkand, but I found her boring and her character arc predictable. And again, she wasn’t Bartimaeus.

There lies the reason I’m not going to read the other two books in the series. If they had the same sparkling narration throughout I would be able to put up with the nastiness of the world and most of the human characters, but because they don’t, it’s just not for me. Well-constructed world, though, and they’re not bad books. Just not for me. They might be for you, though. Especially if you’re the kind of person who will laugh aloud reading a footnote about flatulent unicorns.

Recommended pairing: I’m going to stick with the shandies, which I recommended for The Amulet of Samarkand. This time around I’m going to suggest you have a Leinenkugel. The grapefruit one is quite good.

Now and Then, Then and Now

The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat

Reading Challenge: A book about a culture you’re unfamiliar with

There are plenty of cultures out there I’m unfamiliar with. I don’t know a heck of a lot about Mongolia, for example, or Cote d’Ivoire, or Estonia. I also don’t claim to be an expert on countries with more name recognition in the U.S., such as Korea, or Venezuela, or Poland. Heck, sometimes large swaths of the U.S. confuse me (mostly the South). But I knew pretty early on that I wanted to read about Haiti. I have a very limited knowledge set about Haiti: I know people from there, have worked with patients and families with Haitian background. I know that centuries of racism have affected not only Haiti, but Haitians in the neighboring Dominican Republic. I know: slave rebellion. Duvalier. Earthquake. Also Hurricane Matthew, and P.S., here’s some information about donating in the wake of that devastation.

So as you can see, I don’t know that much about Haiti. I decided to read The Dew Breaker partly because it was the only Edwidge Danticat not on Oprah’s book list and that’s another item I have to find a book for. I was also intrigued by the plot.

This is a Good Book, the kind that’s got Literary Merit (but not in a pretentious way). The format threw me for a while: I got distracted trying to figure out who these people were and how they were connected to the father in the first story. By “The Book of Miracles” I was feeling slightly more comfortable, and the connection between that one and the subsequent “Night Talkers,” one of my favorites of the stories, was a little more obvious. My other favorite story was “The Funeral Singer;” unlike the slightly mythical quality of the rest of the book, the friendship between the three women felt utterly real.

This was a Good Book, for sure, and I’d recommend it for people who like Good Books. I read it quickly enough. The characters seemed real. But I didn’t love it. I blame the format, mostly: I don’t do well with short stories. As soon as I would get invested in a character, his or her story would end, and I’d be jumping right in with another stranger. But well-written, gosh, yes, and beautiful, and harrowing. And yes, you will learn things about Haiti that you didn’t know before.

Recommended pairing: Rum, the featured drink of choice in at least two of the stories.


Vermont Strong

Borderlines by Archer Mayor

Reading Challenge: A book set in your home state

This was another reading challenge category that stumped me for a long time. Books set in Vermont are not impossible to come by, but if you’re not into Chris Bohjalian or nature writing, your options are limited. Howard Frank Mosher is a great choice, but I have to be in the right mood for him, and I haven’t been so far this year (and it’s October). I’ve been saying Jodi Picoult is Nicholas Sparks for literary types for years without ever reading any of her books, and I had the opportunity to find out if I was being fair or not, but after reading the blurbs I just couldn’t bring myself to crack those colorful covers. Gradually, my search narrowed to Vermont’s preeminent mystery writer, Archer Mayor. I’d read Open Season years ago, so it made sense to move on to book two.

Well, first I tried book 22, but the exposition at the beginning drove me nuts. By going back to book 2, I reasoned, I’d be able to avoid that. There’s only so much to expound on if you’re only two books into a series. It was the right choice.

Borderlines is a good mystery. It’s also a good Vermont book. I would love for someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time in Vermont to read it and tell me if they get the same sense of place that I do. Through the eyes of Joe Gunther, his down-to-earth police detective, Archer Mayor’s fictional Northeast Kingdom town of Gannet comes alive. The descriptions in this book are great: crisp and to the point, not a lot of flowery prose or metaphor (I might also appreciate this so much because of the last book I read, the exact opposite). The characters of Gannet are well-drawn and realistic, although by the end I wished we’d gotten to see the members of the Natural Order fleshed out a bit better. The law enforcement, both people and procedures, comes across as grounded, too. There are several taut action set pieces in here and for my money they all work. I read the opening scene while waiting for an overworked barista on Newbury Street to come up with my drink, surrounded by students and their parents on a warm fall day, and in those few pages I was suddenly in the clammy November woods with Joe, the deer, and the unknown hunter. I actually cannot think of another opening scene that did a better or more efficient job establishing atmosphere, mood and theme for a novel.

Joe himself reminds me of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, albeit a low-key and largely less rebellious version. Both men are aging and have a wry self-knowledge that permeates their perspective. Both are determined investigators and both are refreshingly aware of the foibles of masculinity. Joe Gunther is more cautious and only veers off in his own direction towards the end, in one of those nail-biting set pieces, this one taking place in a granite quarry like this one:


Even knowing Joe would survive the encounter (25 books in the series and counting follow this one) I hardly breathed during the scene.

There were a couple of elements that did fall flat in this book. As I mentioned, the tension between the well-drawn townspeople and the barely sketched Natural Order suffered from the flatness of the latter characters. We were told about sexual abuse in the Natural Order and everybody seemed weirdly unconcerned about it. Joe gets on a conference call with two “experts” that’s absolutely the worst scene in the book: the genial anthropology professor had nothing to offer (her description of why the Natural Order wasn’t all that bad for a cult made no sense) and the forensic psychologist’s mindblowingly wrong characterization of “borderlines,” people with borderline personality disorder (get it? It’s the title!), approached throw-the-book-against-the-wall for me. Of all the fictional tropes that piss me off, the one where an expert stands up in a procedural book, TV show or movie and starts expounding on a DSM diagnosis in a pathologizing “crazy murderer” kind of way makes me particularly angry. This one didn’t amount to much of anything in the end, and this book came out in 1990, two years before Trauma and Recovery, so I have to guess Archer Mayor actually did do some research before throwing it in. It wasn’t totally his fault, it was the state of the science at the time.

I didn’t really read this for the mystery, though. I read it for the Vermontyness. There, the book delivered in spades. From the descriptions to the stoic characters to the references to the non-seasons of Vermont and “flatlanders,” this book was beginning-to-end real Vermont. Real good book, too.

Suggested pairing: I want to send you out for a Catamount amber. It’s indelibly in my brain as a Vermont beer, THE Vermont beer, being one of the few I ever saw my dad drink when I was growing up (my mom referred to beer as “dirty dishwater” at the time, so she abstained). Catamount was one of the first microbreweries in New England, and you can read a bit more about it here. However, it closed in 2000. In good news Vermont is still full of great breweries. If you’re not actually in Vermont you may have trouble finding the famous Heady Topper, the up-and-coming Sip of Sunshine, or the reliable Switchback. I was going to send you for an Otter Creek Copper Ale but I just checked their website and I don’t see it.

Long Trail Ale, folks, or Magic Hat #9. You can find them, and they’re Vermont beers, and you can’t go wrong.