We’re Reading Grave Mercy

Grave Mercy, His Fair Assassin #1, Robin LaFevers

Published April 3rd 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

529 pages

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Why be the sheep, when you can be the wolf?

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart.

The last book Amanda and I read simultaneously was The Cuckoo’s Calling (which we LOVED – see here), inspired by an Amazon Daily Deal.

Looking for another book to read together, we jumped on His Fair Assassin of the Grave Mercy trilogy when it was $1.99 (we totally bought the second book at $1.99 also, before reading the first).

It took a while to sync our timing to start reading this one, but here we are!

30% in (or so)

Holly:   So far, all I keep saying is WTF is going on in this book? Like Cuckoo, I didn’t know too much about this one going on, other than it is another blasted YA trilogy (like Divergent). And, I heard it mentioned recently on the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour, described as a fun read about teenage nun assassins.

Yup.

So, WTF?

Amanda:   Who wouldn’t love a book about teenage nun assassins?  Besides clearly my sister?

H:   I’m at 23% and this shit is weird.

WTF is going on in this book and where is Comoran Strike?

A:   Ha! I’m at 24%.  I like this historical aspect, rather than a totally made up world.

H:   I don’t mind the historical, but I don’t get why the religious shit if they are just political assassins.  And is Ismae an idiot?  No questions asked?

A:   Isn’t she probably kind of an idiot?  No education, abused by her father…

H:   Well true.  But ‘here poor abused child, you will be an agent of death?’  I was down for some Dexter shit of killing bad guys, but for all we know the nuns are the bad guys!

A:   Good point! I am hoping that is coming.  Now that she can read and write.  And I am hopeful for her assassin nun friends.

H:   I am also optimistic for her friends.

And on we go.  Anyone else with an opinion on Grave Mercy so far?  Are you optimistic?  Into the killer nuns?

Click here for part 2 of our read-along!

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Reading about Marriage

Holly

When J & I announced our engagement last summer, I noticed that people presume a lot of things about weddings. So, and this is completely true, rather than immediately start shopping for a wedding dress, I wanted to read a book about wedding history and traditions. Every time I got a question about dresses or flowers or honeymooning or cake, I wondered where these expectations came from. I wanted the full background – so that I could avoid the patriarchy as much as possible in the planning. (And yes, true that the entire institution of marriage is historically steeped in patriarchy, but I am confident that my pending marriage is not, and I am indeed excited about it. So let’s put that aside.)

Anyway, I downloaded an ebook about wedding traditions months ago, but it turned out to be pretty disappointing. I could have saved $1.99 and just read Wikipedia for all that was included in there. And, it turns out that picking out flowers and dresses and cake has been pretty fun – especially cake.

However, I decided to turn my book search from “wedding” to “marriage,” and embarked on a little reading project recently. Here’s what I read – and what I found.

#1 A History of the Wife by Marilyn Yalom

history of the wife

This book was basically exactly what I was looking for – it goes through the history of (western) marriage as experienced by the wife, opening with ancient Greek and Roman wives, through medieval European history, to modern American marriages. And of course, seen overall, these thousands of years of history are full of double-standards and one-sidedness, but Yalom includes plenty of first-person narrative accounts of how women perceived their own experiences. The personal accounts really made this book for me.

As she closes out with a chapter on American wives from 1950-2000, Yalom reflects back on how wives – ie, women – of a certain generation are sometimes lumped together, and she points out that this view is not entirely fair. This statement is about contemporary views of the last few generations, though it really could be applied to every “wife” in the book – each individual is obviously not representative of her particular place in history.

As we consider these changes, it is useful to remember that a wife is not a single photo, but a series of photos as one would find in a family album. The women of the fifties were not frozen into perpetual domesticity, nor were their daughters – adults in the seventies and eighties – congealed forever in the molds of feminism and sexual freedom that were characteristic in those decades. People change with the times both with and against the currents they encounter. They change because they interact with members of the next generation, who force them to confront new values and behaviors. And most of all, they change because they themselves age and reach different development stages.”

I like this. What is important to me about my relationship and soon-to-be status of “wife,” does not have to mirror what society has deemed important about marriage. Phew – weight off the shoulders.

#2 Against Love: A Polemic by Laura Kipnis

After Yalom’s history, I turned to this trope against the idea of modern marriage. From the description, I thought this book was going to argue that evolutionarily or psychologically or culturally, humans are just not suited for long-term monogamy.

However, that was not in fact the overall point. And, I’ll add here, that I think most of her points sucked. She had four chapters – here is what they were called, followed by my interpretation:

1. Love’s Labors – the relationship-industrial-complex is just another tool in the capitalist machine.

against love

2. Domestic Gulagsbeing in a couple is suffocating, dude. You have to like, think about someone else’s feelings and shit. (Dear Laura, that is called not being an asshole, and is not limited to coupledom)

3. The Art of Loveadultery is really a way to rebel against The Man, so that’s cool.

4. And the Pursuit of Happinesslook at all the politicians who can’t keep in their pants. Must be something in the water!

I could get on board with some of the questions she raises at the beginning, about society’s expectations on marriage and relationships, but this went downhill pretty quickly. Actually, if you read the front cover, it probably starts going down from there. I saw several reviews talk about how funny this book was, but mostly it seemed angry and mean.

#3 All There Is: Love Stories from Storycorps by Dave Isay.

I had to cleanse my mind with a feel-good relationship book. This collection of (very) short stories did the trick. I didn’t know exactly how Storycorps worked until I read the description here, but basically it is an NPR project to capture people telling their own stories, which are recorded and archived and shared in various ways. All There Is  is a collection of love stories from the project.

My favorite contributor, by far, was this guy:

My wife and I were in Philadelphia, and we saw a sign that said SUCCESSFUL MARRIAGE. I will never forget it. It had six points to always say to your wife or husband, and the first one was YOU LOOK GREAT. The second one was CAN I HELP? The third one. LET’S EAT OUT. The fourth one was I WAS WRONG. And the fifth one was I AM SORRY. But the last and most important one was I LOVE YOU. That was it. There was six statements, and it said if you follow that, you’ll have a successful marriage. So we followed it, and we did have a successful marriage. If she was working out in the yard, I’d come out: “Can I help you?” And when we’d come home from work, and I knew she was tired, I’d ask her, “You want to go out to eat?” To keep her from working and cooking at the same time.

all there is

It lasted fifty-three years, two months, and five days. It’s been rough, but every morning when I wake up she’s included in my prayers, and I talk to her every night when I go to bed. She was something. One thing: If they ever let me in those pearly gates, I’m going to walk all over God’s heaven until I find that girl. And the first thing I’m going to do is ask her if she would marry me and do it all over again.” – Leroy A. Morgan

I can’t beat that, folks.

Reading Outside the Box

Holly here – you may have noticed that Amanda has been pumping out the books reviews lately! I must again point out,  in case anyone out there is feeling inadequate, that my sister reads at a super-human speed. In the meantime, I  was slogging my way through a few long books, and happy to let Amanda drive the blog, but she said something to me yesterday along the lines of:  “hey slappy – you better post something soon or else I won’t take you to this place I just heard about that serves Korean BBQ tacos on naan when you visit next month.” Clearly she knows how to motivate me – here I am.

Since Amanda and I started this blog, I’ve been reading more, but I’ve also been reading more deliberately – that is, paying attention to what sort of books I am most drawn to. And, while I am sure that I read across different genres, and a mix of fiction and non-fiction, I’ve noticed a few articles lately about diversity, or the lack thereof, in popular fiction (particularly YA).

At the same time, I was listening to the NPR TED Radio hour podcast recently, and in the episode “Identities,” novelist Elif Shafak was talking about her writing process – writing in Turkish and English, writing as a woman from the Muslim world, and navigating different cultures – and one line about the power of literary characters really struck me:

In my mid-20s, I moved to Istanbul – the city I adore. I lived in a very vibrant, diverse neighborhood where I wrote several of my novels. I was in Istanbul when the earthquake hit in 1999. When I ran out of the building at three in the morning, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks. There was the local grocer there, a grumpy old man who didn’t sell alcohol and didn’t speak to marginals. He was sitting next to a transvestite with black – long black wig and mascara running down her cheeks. I watched the man open a pack of cigarettes with trembling hands and offer one to her. And that is the image of the night of earthquake in my mind today.

A conservative grocery and a crying transvestite smoking together on the sidewalk. On the face of death and destruction, our mundane differences evaporated and we all became one, even if for a few hours. But I’ve always believed that stories do have a similar effect on us. I’m not saying that fiction has the magnitude of an earthquake, but when we are reading a good novel, we leave our small, cozy apartments behind, go out into the night alone and start getting to know people we had never met before and perhaps had even been biased against.

Yes yes yes. I think reading a book about a character who you can identify with is extremely powerful, but so it is reading a book about someone who is not like you.

So, as I keep adding to my ever-growing to-be-read pile, I want to make sure I’m seeking out reads that reflect the variety of cultural and ethnic and racial differences in the world. I grew up reading about Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, and their Pacific coast adventures seemed a world away. I’d like to think that I can do better than that now. And I’d also like to think that young readers from every country, creed, or color can find an accessible, published book with characters they can relate to as easily as I was able to.

If you too, are looking to diversify your reading, here’s a few lists to start from:

  • This post from American Indians in Children’s Literature covers a number of Young Adult books with American Indians. I’ve added If I Ever Get Out of Here to my TBR list.
  • Diversity in YA is a website that celebrates “young adult books about all kinds of diversity, from race to sexual orientation to gender identity and disability.” They’ve got a number of book lists archived here. Noughts & Crosses is one book that jumped out at me, especially because I remembered reading a review of it here.

And, just this week thanks to Cuddlebuggery’s list of Hot New Titles (of all YA releases), I added Gilded, about a Korean-American girl who suddenly moves to Seoul with her Dad. (“Then she discovers that a Korean demi-god, Haemosu, has been stealing the soul of the oldest daughter of each generation in her family for centuries. And she’s next.“) Who’s intrigued?!

Any other recommendations?

Review: Assassination Vacation

assassination vacation

Title: Assassination Vacation

Author: Sarah Vowell

Reviewed by Holly

Assassination Vacation – or Sarah Vowell’s books in general – were recommended by a friend when I was talking about my growing preference for nonfiction books, particularly nonfiction that tells a good story. I googled, and realized the Sarah Vowell has been a regular contributor to This American Life. This boded well, as did the description of Assassination Vacation on Goodreads:

“Sarah Vowell exposes the glorious conundrums of American history and culture with wit, probity, and an irreverent sense of humor. With Assassination Vacation, she takes us on a road trip like no other — a journey to the pit stops of American political murder and through the myriad ways they have been used for fun and profit, for political and cultural advantage.

From Buffalo to Alaska, Washington to the Dry Tortugas, Vowell visits locations immortalized and influenced by the spilling of politically important blood, reporting as she goes with her trademark blend of wisecracking humor, remarkable honesty, and thought-provoking criticism. We learn about the jinx that was Robert Todd Lincoln (present at the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley) and witness the politicking that went into the making of the Lincoln Memorial. The resulting narrative is much more than an entertaining and informative travelogue — it is the disturbing and fascinating story of how American death has been manipulated by popular culture, including literature, architecture, sculpture, and — the author’s favorite — historical tourism. Though the themes of loss and violence are explored and we make detours to see how the Republican Party became the Republican Party, there are all kinds of lighter diversions along the way into the lives of the three presidents and their assassins, including mummies, show tunes, mean-spirited totem poles, and a nineteenth-century biblical sex cult.”

Excellent, I thought – historical tourism with a quirky, Ira Glass-approved narrator. I was in.

When I started reading though, I didn’t take me long to realize that I was not enjoying this book. And, I had just read this post about the dilemma of reading something that you’re not digging – finish, or not? For the most part, I’m in Camp Finish. I wanted to give the book a fair shake, and I was holding out hope that it would get a little bit better.

The book is divided into 3 sections – Vowell visits sites related to the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. I was well into the Lincoln section, waiting for a chapter-break so I could put the book down for a while, when I realized that each section was a chapter, and the Lincoln “chapter” went from page 18 to 121. In and of itself, I suppose there is nothing wrong with exceedingly long chapters, but I think the reason for not breaking up the presidential sections into chunks, is that there really was no theme or ribbon or story arc to connect one incident to the next. And I don’t mean connect the Lincoln incident to Garfield, etc, but rather, to connect Vowell’s trips together. She starts Lincoln’s story while she sits in the audience of a play in Ford’s Theater, then walks over to the Library of Congress. Then next we get a history of the Surratt boardinghouse and the conspirators, followed by 3 paragraphs on the William Seward House, complete with remarks from the museum director. And suddenly next we are going to the Lincoln’s Birthday wreath ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial.

All this, and we’re about 11 pages into Lincoln’s section. Vowell jumps from one place to another and  from history to present day, and I just could not ever figure out where she was going and why. She doesn’t tell her pilgrimages in linear order, or in chronological order of the events, and she brings different friends and family members along on her trips who weave in and out of her narratives.

After reading the book, I have no idea if all of the escapades took place over 6 months or 4 years, and I would say that matters because I never really got a sense for why she was visiting all the sites she could related to the assassinations. She did hint at some interesting thoughts and perspectives, as well as throwing in some commentary on the then-presidential administration (W), but I was too distracted trying to keep up with what place she was visiting now, to really get a sense for her motivation – I mean, besides to write a book with a catchy title.

I did enjoy the Garfield (60 pages) and McKinley (50 pages) sections more than the Lincoln one, probably because I did not know very much about those presidents or those assassinations. Also, perhaps because there aren’t quite as many places to visit, Vowell had to slow down and give a bit more detail about each place she was visiting, which made these chapters much less jarring.

Parting Words – there were a few places where this book had great potential to be what I wanted it to be, instead of being a hotmess of just barely related visits to off-the-beaten-path historical sites. This is one of those places:

“And while I gave up God a long time ago, I never shook the habit of wanting to believe in something bigger and better than myself. So I replaced my creed of everlasting life with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. ‘I believe in America,’ chants the first verse of one of my sacred texts, The Godfather. Not that I’m blind to the Psych 101 implications of trading in the martyred Jesus Christ (crucified on Good Friday) for the martyred Abraham Lincoln (shot on Good Friday).”

TWO Stars

 

 

 

It’s a book! It’s a t-shirt!

Remember when I warned you on Friday that it was about to get super-nerdy in here? Sigh. It’s only going to get worse, because I’m about to talk about a t-shirt I bought, based on a book, all because I heard about it on an NPR economics podcast.

Yup.

I like listening to podcasts while I run or while I cook, and I’m particularly attached to NPR’s Planet Money podcast. They describe themselves this way:

Imagine you could call up a friend and say, “Meet me at the bar and tell me what’s going on with the economy.” Now imagine that’s actually a fun evening. That’s what we’re going for at Planet Money.

tshirttravels

When I first started listening, they had read this book, Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli, and had come up with the idea to make a Planet Money t-shirt to follow through the global process. And they talked about this idea, sporadically, every few months, without ever really reporting on any progress.

Of course, when I saw the book at a library book sale in Kansas, I had to buy it (I love bargains, if I have not already made that abundantly clear). And, I really liked this book because it made dense material readable by focusing on one particularly commodity, but more than that, because it challenged my thinking. You see, most of my social/political/economic insight comes from studying sociology, while Pietra Rivoli is a business professor. She started the book at an anti-globalization rally protesting the World Trade Organization in 1999, and begins with questioning the accuracy of a student’s speech about clothing made in sweatshops. In the first few pages, she says of the student, “my first thought was that the young women, however well-intentioned and impassioned, just didn’t ‘get’ it. She needed a book – maybe this book – to explain things. But after following my T-shirt around the world, my biases aren’t quite so biased anymore.”

Of course she discovers, as the reader will too, that the global textile industry is neither an entirely soulless void where small children labor mercilessly making designer duds for Americans, nor is it a perfectly self-regulated market based on classical economic supply and demand. It’s complicated. Along the way, she visits cotton growers, importers, exporters, laborers, and also a place where a whole lot of donated t-shirts end up, telling individual stories and putting a human face on global trade. It’s funny and sad and interesting and thought provoking.

My shirt...appropriately wrinkled like the book cover

My shirt…appropriately wrinkled like the book cover

But, you don’t have to believe me, and you don’t even have to read the book to get the stories – or, similar stories, at least. The Planet Money people finally announced this spring that they were going ahead with the t-shirt project. I was sold – along with 20,000 others, and I was really excited when I got my shirt a couple weeks ago. They’ve put together a site with all the stories about the t-shirt’s creation here, so you can listen to the whole chain of production, very similar to Pietra Rivoli’s book (she was hired as a consultant on the Planet Money t-shirt project).

I have not actually made it through all the t-shirt podcasts yet (they are on itunes, as well as on the t-shirt website), but this one about two sisters working together in Bangladesh is among my favorites. I will say there is also plenty of criticism of the story and the project, for presenting manufacturing jobs as opportunities for better lives in places like Bangladesh, without acknowledging that conditions for workers are far below what would be considered “fair” or even “passing” in the US. To that end, I would say the point of the t-shirt project, and the t-shirt book, was not to present a particular position on how the global textile industry should or shouldn’t work, but to tell the stories of the people who work in the industry. From there, of course, everyone might have a takeaway on what could be better, or different, or more efficient, or more fair. For now, I know a heck of a lot more about who made my t-shirt than I do about who made the rest of my outfit.

/End dorkiness for the day, unless anyone wants to further discuss textiles!