October 18, 2014

Readathon! [Updated]

It's bright and early and time for Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon.  Here's my stack of books:

From top to bottom:

Notes from a Small Island — This is the only travel book by Bill Bryson that I haven't read yet, and I've been saving it for a while, too sad that I won't have another one to read afterward.  But the Readathon is as good a time as any to crack this one open, I suppose.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian — This one's been on my shelf for ages, and I love Sherman Alexie during readathons.  

My Brother — I picked this one up at a library book sale recently, knowing nothing about it besides the fact that it's by Jamaica Kincaid.  It's a memoir about her brother, who died of AIDS, so I'm going to pick this one up if I feel like a heavier read in the next 24 hours.

Written in My Own Heart's Blood — I've been reading this 800-pager on and off for about a month, but keep getting distracted by other books.  Hoping the readathon is just the time to bang out the last few hundred pages.  

I'm also in the middle of an audiobook, Louisa May Alcott by Susan Cheever.  It's — you guessed it — a biography of Louisa May Alcott, and I'm about two-thirds done with it already.  

It's almost 8:00 AM, and the readathon has already posted it's opening meme:

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?

New Paltz, New York, USA.

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?

Probably Notes from a Small Island.

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?

I actually haven't planned well for snacks, but I do have a carton of Talenti double-chocolate chip gelato in the freezer...

4) Tell us a little something about yourself!

My name is Rayna, I'm 26, and this is my fourth (I think?) readathon.  I expect that most of my reading time will be conducted with my cat Edgar in my lap.

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?

I think I'm looking forward to taking a break in the afternoon and going for a walk on the local Rail Trail with my chosen audiobook. 

Happy reading, everyone! 

[Update: Sunday 10/19/14, 8:20 AM]

Whew, the readathon is over. I stayed up until about 2:30 last night, and then got up this morning around 7:15 for about an extra half hour of reading.

I ended up sticking entirely to Written in My Own Heart's Blood, which I finished just about as the clock struck 8:00 this morning.  Overall, I read 345 pages of the 822-page book, and also listened to a couple hours of Louisa May Alcott on audio (unfortunately, I didn't keep track of the exact length of listening).

I hope everyone had a great 24 hours!  I'm off to drink more caffeine and maybe pick up Notes from a Small Island...

August 22, 2014

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson

The Psychopath Test begins with a puzzling event: renowned academics around the world receive an anonymous package containing a letter and an odd, 42-page book called Being or Nothingness.  After they debate its purpose and author without much progress, one of them enlists the journalist Jon Ronson. With this mystery spurring him forward, Ronson begins an investigation into the history and current state of mental illness.  He visits prisons, attends psychiatric conferences, talks to reality television producers and scientologists, and begins to diagnose those around him.

Psychopaths in particular fascinate him.  He meets Bob Hare, the creator of the PCL, or psychopathy checklist, and learns how to apply the test. Are you superficially charming/glib?  Do you lack remorse or guilt?  Are you criminally versatile, callous, or impulsive?  Of course, Ronson assures his more nervous readers:
If you're beginning to feel worried that you may be a psychopath, if you recognize some of those traits in yourself, if you're feeling a creeping anxiety about it, that means you are not one.  [91]
Okay then.  The possible psychopaths that Ronson interviews throughout the book (including a man accused of heinous war crimes and a corporate leader with a reputation for relishing cruel, public staff terminations) certainly don't seem concerned with being labeled psychopaths.  One of them even turns Ronson's questions on their heads, declaring that traits on the checklist are necessary to achieve the American Dream.  

The Psychopath Test does look at a few other topics besides psychopathy; for instance, an entire chapter is devoted to the history of the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a staple for every modern psychiatrist) and its role in increasing childhood diagnoses of things like autism and bipolar disorder.  

But it's clear throughout the book that what really tickles Ronson's fancy is the cold-blooded, unsympathetic mind of the psychopath, and particularly the idea that they are the ones running the biggest companies and governments:
This — Bob was saying — was the straightforward solution to the greatest mystery of all:  Why is the world so unfair? Why all that savage economic injustice, those brutal wars, the everyday corporate cruelty?  The answer:  psychopaths. [...] They're the jagged rocks thrown in the still pond. [89-90]
It's a quick, entertaining read that will give you a few nice facts to pull out at parties (though watch that you don't overly offend that undiscovered psychopath sitting next to you at dinner).  Four out of five stars.

The Psychopath Test © Jon Ronson and Riverhead Books, 2011.  Ebook, 196 pages.

August 11, 2014

How to Build a Girl Readalong, Part VI: "My carriage has arrived."

Well, we've arrived at the last week of the How to Build a Girl readalong.  Once again, thank you to Emily over at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) for hosting this wonderful thing.  You can find the rest of this week's posts here.

Warning: this post will spoil the ending of the novel.  So, you know, watch out.

When we last left Johanna, she was recovering from a bout of sex gone very, hilariously wrong.  Chapter 21 opens with her finally biting the bullet and playing her father's demo for her colleagues at the magazine.  Basically, their reaction:

It's actually kind of painful to read.  And poor Johanna seems genuinely shocked at how bad her father's music sounds when she listens to it outside of her living room.

Soon after, Johanna snorts her first line of speed:
     "This is the game," I repeat.  I take a tissue, and blow my nose.
     "Oh my god — your drugs, Wilde!" Kenny says in horror — staring at my tissue.  "Don't blow out your drugs!"
     I look into the tissue, where I've just deposited the half of the line my nose didn't have time to absorb.  I look at Kenny.  It seems I have made a drug faux pas.  He stares at me.
     "Should I... eat it?"

And you know what else made me want to throw up in this section?  Tony Rich.  What a colossal asshole.  Unfortunately, it takes Johanna quite a while to realize what a horrible human being he is.  Before she works that out, she even meets his parents (who, apparently, have no problem with their grown-ass son dating a 17-year-old; no wonder he turned out shitty) and all his posh friends, who she worries are secretly judging her.

When Johanna finally comes to her senses about Tony Rich's lack of decency, she does it in style:
For I am indignant.  I am affronted by this.  My carriage has arrived, it's a high dudgeon, and I am getting into it.

After she makes the executive decision to ditch Tony Rich, she stakes out John Kite's favorite bar until he shows up.  We are then treated to this gem while they caper drunkenly around the local zoo:  
There's something very beautiful about watching a man you love dueting with a monkey.
So How to Build a Girl has a happy ending, after all  Johanna moves to London and seems headed for eternal friendship (or maybe more) with John Kite.  And it turns out that loose lips didn't sink ships this time; the Morrigans' benefits were cut because Johanna decided to drop out of school.

Moral of the story, for any children whose parents have unadvisedly allowed them to read these posts:  STAY IN SCHOOL AND DON'T WASTE DO DRUGS.

Here are my final-ish thoughts on How to Build a Girl...

If I judged my books exclusively by the number of times I embarrassingly cackled in public while reading, this novel might be in my top five books of all time.  I truly did enjoy most of it, and found parts of it painfully relatable.

And I loved the book's frankness about everything: puberty, sex, class divisions, poverty, and what's it's really like to always worry that you'll be considered a bit less than for just being a girl.  There is some deep stuff in there, mixed up with the swearing and the drugs and the awkward nymphomania.

Of course, there were also things that bothered me.  I've already discussed the lack of plausibility in Johanna's writing timeline, so I'll skip that.  My main other complaint is that Moran seems to want to use a framing device in her novel, as shown by Chapter 24 and the other random times when Johanna seems to be looking back on her teen years from the future.  I can see what she was going for, but it mostly just led to me flipping back and forth, trying to see why the tense was changing all over the place.

I also found myself in a mixture of relief and frustration that one of the continuous lines of conflict in the novel  her father's lack of musical ability and blind faith that his daughter would help him achieve success — never amounted to anything.  Sure, I'm glad he didn't kick her out of the house, but when a character is set up to be both 1) delusional and 2) erratic, you expect a little more from them on the chaos front.

All things considered, I'd give this book four out of five stars.  The readalong itself gets a million stars, because I love you ladies!  Thanks again to Emily for pulling this together and keeping us on track.  Let's do this again sometime.

I never know how to end these things, so here is a puppy floundering gently in a bowl.


How to Build a Girl will be released in September.   You can pre-order it through the wonderful Odyssey Books, or through your local bookseller.

August 4, 2014

How to Build a Girl Readalong, Part V: "I am a Pirate of Privates!"

Note: this week's readalong post will contain spoilers for chapters 16-20 of How to Build a Girl.

This section is pretty much all about Johanna/Dolly 1) being drunk, 2) having sex, and 3) writing mean reviews for fun.  It's endlessly entertaining, but not that much really happens.  So I'm going to quote some of the things I underlined, and illustrate them as I see fit.  Here goes.
The next two months I feel drunk, permanently.  Half of this is because of the instant success of my new role: that of a hell-raising gunslinger.  Trouble. [...] The other reason I feel drunk, permanently, is because I am drunk, permanently.
For in a way that feels quite unfair, the only way I can gain any qualifications at this thing — sex — that is seen as so societally important and desirable, is by being a massive slag — which is not seen as societally important and desirable.  This often makes me furious. [...] By way of shame-busting exercise, "massive slag" is a phrase I often repeat to myself, in a motivational way.  "I am a Lady Adventuress!  I am a Pirate of Privates!  I am a swashfuckler!"
In later years I find this is called "physical disconnect," and is all part and parcel of women having their sexuality mediated through men's gaze.  There is very little female narrative of what it's like to fuck and to be fucked.  I will realize that, as a seventeen-year-old girl, I couldn't really hear my voice during this sex.  I had no idea what my voice was at all.

I was going to quote the scene where Johanna/Dolly has sex with Al, but it's getting late and sometimes you have to leave a little mystery.  Suffice to say, it is possibly the most hilarious sex scene I have ever read. 

I knew this GIF would get used someday...


A big thank you to the wonderful Emily over at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and HarperCollins.  You can find the rest of this week's posts here.

How to Build a Girl will be released in September.   You can pre-order it through the wonderful Odyssey Books, or through your local bookseller.

July 28, 2014

How to Build a Girl Readalong, Part IV: First Love, Pre-Internet Fangirling, and Crushing Poverty

It's Monday, which means it's time for the weekly readalong post for Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl.  A big thank you to the wonderful Emily over at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and HarperCollins.  You can find the rest of this week's posts here.

Note: this week's post will contain spoilers for the third section of the novel.


I was not over-the-moon about last week's section, but this week really delivered.  Johanna falls in love!  Dolly Wilde is resurrected, and with red hair!  Her worst fears are realized!  There is teeth-pulling and kissing!  (Not at the same time.)  It's the 90s!  You can bring a full pint of Guinness straight from a pub and onto a plane!

You will be shocked and delighted.  

First things first:  John Kite.  When we last left Johanna, she was heading to Ireland to interview this elusive songwriting fellow.

Confession:  At the end of last week's section I googled 'John Kite' because I figured this was just one more 90s musical reference that was flying over my head.  And the first result that came up was a musician!  So Caitlin Moran has led me to listen to Cole Porter solo piano covers and wonder seriously about the musical consistency of the novel — if the editors at D&ME are so into classic broadway, why did none of them get her Annie joke??

But fortunately, John Kite turned out to be a completely fictional musician.*
John.  He was not a beautiful boy, nor a tall one.  He was round, like a barrel, in a shabby brown suit — and his hair was neither one color nor the other. His face was slightly crushed, and his hands shook a lot for a man of twenty-four — although, as he put it later, "In dog-years, my liver is sixty-eight."  He looked like Richard Burton, full of song.  [132]
Johanna is in love.  He brings her on stage while he plays a show, and the music moves her to shameless, snotty tears.  The night she meets him, she sleeps in his bathtub, covered in his motley fur coat.  When she flies back to Wolverhampton, she receives a letter from him ("Oh thank God thank God thank God, I think — I am not going to die having never received a letter." [143]) and progresses to the final stage of teenage love: she papers her bedroom wall with images of him, and writes a gushy article listing all the things she adores about him.  She says he is "more important than The Beatles." 

It's okay, Johanna, we've all been there.  But because this is the early 90s and the internet isn't A Thing yet, instead of posting it somewhere she can maybe get some commiserating comments from other sadsack teen girls in love (see: geocities, livejournal, tumblr), she sends it to be published in D&ME.  

So, after that happens, Johanna doesn't get a call from the editor of D&ME for a while, but she has more important things to worry about.  There is an investigation, and her family's benefits are cut by 11 percent, which is a huge blow to their already-desperate financial situation:
Eleven percent, by way of contrast to this utter ruin, seems ... manageable?  After all, if I cut off 11 percent of my hair, I'd barely notice.  Eleven percent isn't so bad, is it?  The difference here, however, is between the math of people on a "comfortable" income, and people who are on the very edge.  There are no investments to cash in, to tide you over this 11 percent dip  — no bonds, savings, or shares.  There are no "little luxuries" to cut back on, like going to the hairdressers, or a subscription to a magazine. [...] And there's no one we can borrow from — for one of the truths about the poor is that they tend only to know other poor people, who also couldn't afford an 11 percent dip, and can't subsidize ours.  [149-150]
I feel like this quote is too heartbreaking to follow with a GIF.  Ugh.  A lot of sad bits follow, like how some men come and take away their television, and Johanna breaks out because she's eating grilled flour cakes soaked in margarine all the time (supplemented with boiled cabbage and whatever the hell "salad cream" is).  And poor little Lupin has five of his teeth pulled because they've rotted through.

At first, when I read this part, I wanted to reach into the book and strangle Violet for informing on them.  But then I realized that, even though it was only about 100 pages ago in the book, it's been about two and half years since Johanna let slip to her nosy neighbor that they were on benefits.  So, did Violet let that little morsel simmer for an exceedingly long time, or is the British welfare department just really, horribly slow at following up on neighborhood narc tips?

I'm going to end this sobfest of a post with this last quote, in which Johanna impresses John Kite, the love of her young life, by casually smoking with him at a pub:
"You smoking now, Duchess?" he asks. 
"I thought it was time for me to get another hobby," I say with a daring air, trying to light it. 
Kite leans forward.  "It's just, most people smoke them the other way round." [183]
I cackled so loudly at that bit last night that I woke up my cat.  He was not so amused, but I was.

See you all next week!


How to Build a Girl will be released in September.   You can pre-order it through the wonderful Odyssey Books, or through your local bookseller.

*No offense to Cole Porter (or IRL John Kite — you have a lovely voice).