Playing Catch-up, pt. 1

I’ve been putting this off for way too long… There has been so much going on, mostly of the draining-my-will-to-live(-much-less-write-book-reviews) variety. My Goodreads book challenge says I’m “3 books behind,” but when I count them, I’m like, “wait wait no!! I’m actually five boos ahead, I’m just 8 reviews behind.” Usually I write reviews of a book before I allow myself to read another one and it feels weird when i don’t; thus I’ve been dragging my heels even on fun reads. It’s gone on long enough… so here is a run down.

Title: Sex, Drugs and Sea Slime
Author: Ellen Prager
Genre: Nonfiction / biology

Rating: did not finish

Goodreads | Powell’s

Despite the promising title, I didn’t actually finish this book. I’m kind of surprised that it was put out by University of Chicago Press. Like, it’s all factual I’m sure, but… the writing is very repetitive and none of the information has stayed with me. Basically, she’ll take a sea creature, tell you what it looks like, any distinguishing features/behaviors that it has, tell you how it mates, and bring up some use that modern medicine has found for it. Over and over. It’s just uninspired. Peter selected it for me to read aloud to him from a long list of books because he loves loves loves the sea and after the first couple chapters he wanted to read something else. That’s how boring it is. Sorry Ellen D: It seems like a really interesting subject and clever at times but it was just not, um, gripping enough.

Title: Faithful Place
Author: Tana French
Genre: Mystery / thriller

Rating: 4 / 5

Goodreads | Powell’s

I finished this book four months ago (that’s how behind I am on reviews). But it is a testament to Tana French that I am able to remember it so well. I really do love her books. Although this was my least favorite of them so far, the story was actually more…I don’t know, riveting to me than the other two I’ve read. The writing was perhaps less beautiful than the first two, but it makes sense considering the narrator.

Actually the narrator is probably the only thing I have any problem with. Frank’s narration is peppered all over with casual misogyny that I somehow think we’re supposed to find charming or honest instead of just kinda gross. I mean I know we’re supposed to think Frank is kind of dark, uncouth, and kinda skeezy, but ultimately he’s written so that we root for him. And it’s true plenty of people who make misogynist or sexist comments are likeable people, “sexist” is never the entire sum of a person. But I am just not feeling that that is the “point” of what French was going for here. Maybe I’m underestimating her, but that whole issue seems unexamined to me. All her books have one throwaway line that seem to disparage feminism. In the first book, it was from the mind of the narrator; but he was such a tool anyway, who cares? In the second book when it came from Cassie, I was like, well that’s unfortunate but I guess even illicit-abortion-seeking, casual-sex-having, only-woman-in-an-all-male-sexist-squad-environment people are just people; they don’t have to be and often are not spokespeople for any sort of “cause.” Plenty of thoughtful and kind people have reasons for not being feminist or liking feminism, ranging from misguided to perfectly valid. But by the third book, I am sensing a pattern. This time it was in the mouth of Carmel, one of the most likeable characters in the book, who assures us that “I never had use for any of that carry-on. I like a good sturdy bra.” And I was like, wait what? What does one have to do with the other? Most women feminist wear bras. Many who do not wear bras are not particularly concerned with feminism. Bras don’t really play any integral role in feminism. And maybe she’s just supposed to represent some kind of “uneducated” viewpoint, but 1) I don’t think that was French’s intent, and 2) if it was, it does a disservice to Carmel because she’s much more than that. But, Frank’s narration, combined with this history of throwaway lines, were basically the only thing in the book that made me :\ Also, so far all victims in the books have been female, even though males are more likely to be the victims of murder. Although one could argue that since these books do have a strong character/relationship/family driven plot and mystery, and since women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence/murders, it makes sense for the types of book French goes for. Anyway, it’s some shade of unfortunate that all her victims thus far are young, pretty, standout females. That said, her books have so much awesome stuff in them (writing, plots, character development, psychological stuff) and show the realistic struggles and triumphs of women and treats women as human–complex actors with tons of cunning and agency as well as human faults.

Overall it was a great story that I raced to finish. It kept me in a higher state of suspense than The Likeness or In the Woods but I just don’t love it as enthusiastically as the other two. Still really good, still recommended, and I still plan on reading the rest of her books.

Title: Delusions of Gender
Author: Cordelia Fine
Genre: Nonfiction / biology / gender studies

Rating: 5 / 5

Goodreads | Powell’s

I really like this book and think everyone should read it. It wasn’t an entirely even read; the middle didn’t seem as strong as the great start and great finish. Based on that, I wouldn’t usually give a book a “perfect rating,” but considering what Fine is tackling here, and how well of a job she does, it is easily forgiven. Unfortunately I’m not aware of many other books that do what this one aims to, which is to look at purported “biological differences” between men and women’s behavior and brains.

By this point I’ve taken a few classes devoted to gender and society, besides spending lots of my free time learning about gender and sexism. So this book wasn’t exactly breaking new ground for me, but even though I study this stuff, I still learned a lot of new things. The most important takeaway for me was probably the dubiousness of fMRI research. The thing that’s so great about it is that it’s jam-packed full of studies. It is extensively researched. It’s a quick read. And it’s also funny. Sometimes it’s so full of the information that I wish the author had devoted more time into breaking things down. Some parts seemed rushed and I would have loved it if she’d just taken a few extra pages to really hammer it home why a certain experimental method can’t show what researchers purport.

Although it wasn’t solid gold the entire time, I would wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone for the information in it, the studies she goes over, the perspective, and the humor. We live in a society where the media as well as sometimes researchers themselves will push spurious ideas about the “science” behind “gender differences” on the public, and it has very real, very detrimental effects.

Title: The Maid’s Version
Author: Daniel Woodrell
Genre: Historical fiction

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Goodreads | Powell’s

What’s the literary equivalent of “shabby-chic”? Folksy-belletristic? Grungy-eloquent? Whatever it is, that sums up the book for me. I was going to rate the book  more highly when I finished it, but two months on it doesn’t seem to have left much of an impression… I can definitely see the appeal, though. It’s somewhat haunting, the prose is nice. The story is somewhat ambitious, I suppose–a family epic, the story of an entire town–despite the short length. I’m not sure what it was, but something about it didn’t quite work for me. Maybe something in the tone? Some subtle but serious difference in values or something? I actually have no idea; I kept my usual tally in the back of the book but have long since turned it back into the library, so I’m just going on my none-too-developed thoughts and worn out memories here. If you’re interested in the book I’d give it a shot. I’m not sorry I read it; it’s a solid little book.

Title: ‘Til the Well Runs Dry
Author: Lauren Francis-Sharma
Genre: Fiction / historical fiction

Rating: 4 / 5

Goodreads | Powell’s

I think this book would have pretty wide appeal. This is a book that works on several layers and it can be enjoyed on all of them. The story by itself is solid and engaging, weaving in magical realist elements. The writing itself is not particularly challenging. But Lauren Francis-Sharma also has a lot to say about gender, race, the dynamics of abuse, and her family’s homeland, Trinidad. She weaves this part of the story in with subtlety. Overall it was a satisfying read.

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