Friday, July 1, 2016

Book Review: Fates and Furies

Don't worry about spoilers. I don't care enough to include any.

Fates and Furies - Lauren Groff

Plot: The book is split into two parts, Fates and Furies. Fates follows Lancelot (ugh) Satterwhite from birth to death, with the largest chunk of the story taking place over the course of his 30-ish-year marriage to Mathilde. Furies does the same thing with Mathilde, though much less linearly.

Thoughts: First, a little story. For some reason I feel like I've written this anecdote on the blog before, but I can't find it so here it is (possibly) again. When I was in high school, I took a class called Peace Studies. One of the things that Mr. Vennell, our teacher, stressed was that when we didn't like something (like a book or a movie), we should say "I didn't like it" or "I didn't think it was good" - but not "That movie is bad." I've always really appreciated that rule because it's true that opinions vary and art can be good and can be enjoyed by other people without me liking it. 

That being said -  this book is bad. So, so, so bad. But it's critically-acclaimed, it was Amazon's 2015 Book of the Year, and it was President Obama's favorite book of the year - AND I DON'T KNOW WHY. 

The smug pretension of the writing kills me. KILLS ME. Her main characters are called Lancelot and Mathilde. Please. And we can't just call Lancelot's mother Mom or Ma or even Mother - it's Muvva. WHY?!? There are all kinds of little bracketed asides [you know, cause just writing a normal sentence is too plebeian]. 

It's almost physically painful to read the dialogue because it's so stilted and unrealistic. It's kind of like if robots performed scenes out of Dawson's Creek. And then there are the plays. Lancelot becomes an insufferable, famous playwright and we're subjected to portions of his works. 

My grade: F-

Who would I recommend it to: A prisoner who is stuck in solitary confinement and, in the very truest sense of the phrase, has absolutely nothing else to do with their time. It would help if the person is in prison for a really terrible, violent crime so that I don't feel bad that they have to suffer through this book. 

P.S. If you want to read a funny, much more insightful and detailed review of this terrible book, check out this one on Goodreads. Here's a preview: "To the contrary, Fates and Furies is the antithesis of a literary masterpiece. The only expectation it defies is that of one expecting to read good literature. It is dazzling only in its level of insipid ludicrousness." Bahahaha!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

On Student Loans

The main goal of our tiny living experiment is to pay off our debt, which mostly consists of student loans. I wanted to talk about paying down our loans because I think everyone has different experiences and it probably largely depends on who holds your note. 

Chris's student loan is with ACS. They are a notoriously terrible company that people just can't get away from because they buy loans from more reputable banks (this is what happened to us). So you could refinance to get away from ACS, only to end up right back with them when they buy your note. 

For years, we've been paying the minimum payment on the loan because we trusted that the payment was structured such that we could pay it of before we were 100. But once we dove into our pay off plan and I started using the Snowball system, I wanted to make sure that all the extra money we were paying was going toward principal and not just pre-paying interest for the next 60 months. 

Here's a concrete example of how much ACS sucks: when we decided to make this loan the first one we paid off, we called ACS to make sure that extra payments went to principal. We got a customer service representative who spoke very poor English (not knocking him because he obviously speaks at least two languages, which is at least one more than me, but I am knocking ACS for employing customer service agents who can't serve customers). He may not have understood our question, but he straight up told us that all extra payments would be applied to principal. Uh, no. It turns out that ACS doesn't accept principal-only payments. 

So, I did some research and found this blogger who had encountered the same problem and had developed a pretty smart (and actually very simple) solution:
So let’s say your payment is due on the 15th, you make your usual monthly payment. On the 16th, call them and make the additional payment. Because no interest has really accrued in the one day since your monthly payment, every penny you send will go towards principal. I have done this and it works.
Yes, it does work. Interest is accruing daily; in our case, it's about $7.50 per day. You'll get the most bang for your payment if you make it on a day when no interest has been allowed to accrue, or maybe only a day's worth has accrued. 

I've been using this method for the last 6 months and it's actually amazing. In 2015, only 22% of what I paid to ACS went to principal. 78% went toward interest!!
78% went toward interest!!

Using the new method, 76% of what I've paid this year has gone to principal and only 24% has gone to interest. The great thing about this is that the amount of interest accruing each day will go down as the principal gets smaller. 

I don't know how other loan companies structure their payment plans. I hope most of them aren't shady as hell like ACS, but it's worth looking into if you have student loans that you feel like you're never going to pay off. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Book Review: Career of Evil

Note: This thing is filled with spoilers. Proceed with caution.

Career of Evil - Robert Galbraith (Cormoran Strike #3)

For background on the Cormoran Strike novels and my thoughts on the first and second books in the series, check out this post and this post.

Plot: A severed leg is sent through the "post" (I just love British words for things) to Robin at the office she shares with Strike. It is a woman's right leg, severed at the exact same location that Strike's is and there is a note in the box containing Blue Oyster Cult song lyrics. The lyrics are meaningful to Strike because his mother had them tattooed on her abdomen. Based on the brutality and sheer lunacy of someone cutting off a person's leg and sending it through the mail, coupled with their knowledge of the tattoo, Strike narrows the suspects down to three people from his past: his stepfather and two men he arrested while a member of the British military police. 

Thoughts: This book is much grittier than the previous two and does not start out slowly like they did. It opens with the stalker/killer following Robin through the streets of London and thinking hateful thoughts about Strike. So, yeah, that's another thing -- while the narrative is third-person like the other books, this one has chapters sprinkled in where the narrative focuses on the thoughts of the killer. I don't love this for two reasons: I don't always like POV changes because they can be really jarring but, more importantly, his chapters are so dark and creepy. Kind of makes me wonder what other disturbing things are rattling around in old JKR's head.

Ok, that sounded negative, but overall I was enthralled by this book. It was extremely engaging and the mystery was set up such that I kept changing my mind as to which of the three guys was going to turn out to be the killer. I also considered strongly that it would be none of them, but some other person that we hadn't heard much about. 

As with The Silkworm, I "read" this book via audiobook and cannot recommend that route enough. Robert Glenister is just a really talented narrator. 

Favorite part(s):

1.The mystery! I changed my mind about 100 times when it came to choosing who did it. [SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER -- TURN BACK NOW IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW THE KILLER!] I knew pretty strongly that Kelsey's sister was "It," but I also thought Strike would have recognized Ray as DL when they met face to face.

2. I really, really liked getting to know Robin more and learning about her back story. I was underwhelmed when she [SPOILER] decided to go back to Matthew, but I guess that leaves more dramatic plot options for the future. 

3. Strike and Robin's travels through England and Scotland were cool. I spent a lot of time looking places up on Google Earth as I read. I also loved all the different accents. Those Barrow-in-Furness accents were not easy to understand. Of course my man RG nailed them. 

4. Shanker's involvement in everything. He's not a good guy, but he helps both Robin and Strike to do-the-right-thing, as it were (of course he's got to be paid but -- baby steps). I also love how blindly loyal and protective he is. 

5. [SPOILER] Strike rushing to the wedding and then crashing around and making a scene cause he's a big bull in a china shop. 

Least favorite part(s):

1. [SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER -- TURN BACK NOW IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW THE KILLER!] Maybe it's just because I've never experienced something like this, but I have a hard time understanding how Strike didn't recognize Ray as DL when they met face to face.

2. In the first scene when the killer is following Robin, he is thinking about Strike and calls him "Cormoran" in his head. But the original label on the leg box was addressed to "Cameron." Obviously, the killer knows his real name, so why the incorrect name on the address?

3. As usual, Matthew is a bottom-feeding asshole and I hate him. When he erased Strike's message...

4. Just the generally disturbing plot elements. So much violence or the allusion to it, especially sexual violence and child abuse. That is always hard to read. I think the great storytelling makes it worth it, but it's still tough. 

5. What's up with Strike being such a weirdo misogynist? Robin's not an anomaly for being hard-working, nice, cool, and sane, but he acts like shes the only woman he's ever met who is. He's particularly hard on his sister. I hope JKR gets more into the background of his misogyny in future books. 

My grade: A

Who would I recommend it to: Mystery-lovers who can get over the creepy inner monologue of a serial killer. 

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Review: The Silkworm

Note: This thing is filled with spoilers. Proceed with caution.

The Silkworm - Robert Galbraith (Cormoran Strike #2)

For background on the Cormoran Strike novels and my thoughts on the first book in the series, check out this post

Plot: Cormoran Strike is approached by Leonora Quine to find her husband, Owen, who has been missing for 10 days. Owen Quine is a struggling author, prone to disappearing to fancy hotels for periods of time while his wife and special needs daughter are left at home, wondering where he is. In his attempts to track down Quine, Strike stumbles upon the writer's dismembered body in a gruesome, ritualistic murder scene. Leonora is the Met's main suspect, and Strike sets out to prove her innocence.

Thoughts: Like The Cuckoo's Calling, this book starts out slowly. It took me awhile to get into it. The story is really intricate, something I think JKR excels at executing. The mystery was a bit anti-climactic. You knew there were only a finite number of suspects and it turned out to be one of the main options,so there just wasn't much of a surprise. I have to pat myself on the back here though because [SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER -- TURN BACK NOW IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW THE KILLER!] Elizabeth Tassel's cough always seemed to me to be a very likely side-affect of having breathed in strong acid, which she did when she was destroying evidence.

The book within the book (Bombyx Mori) was a gross, but imaginative. I was a little confused by it at first, but I listened to most of the story a second time and it made more sense once I saw how the pieces came together in the end.

Speaking of listening: I "read" this book via Audible. Wow, this series is definitely one you should listen to (as opposed to reading regularly, which is how I did The Cuckoo's Calling). The guy who narrates them is called Robert Glenister and he is great. I love how he does Cormoran, but he even manages to do women's voices really well (so many male narrators butcher women's voices). I actually scrolled through Audible just looking for other books he's read to see if there was something that peaked my interest, cause I could listen to him all day.

Favorite part(s):

1. Robin turning out to be a kick-ass driver. I really like Robin and I want all the success for her.

2. Nina. I don't know if she was intended to really be a positive character, but I just loved her and thought she was really cool. Maybe she'll come back in a future book, though she didn't seem too thrilled with Cormoran (rightly so) at the end.

3. Cormoran getting some quality time with his brother Al, and seeing how jealous Al was that Cormoran is successful with almost no help from their wealthy father. Logically, Cormoran should be the one jealous of Al and the luxury in which he he grew up, but I love that the tables were turned.

Least favorite part(s):

1. [SPOILER] The fact that Tasssel fed Quine's intestines to her dog. Just writing that out (and then reading back through the chapter near the beginning when Strike goes to her office and the dog has thrown up everywhere) makes me queasy.

2. The taxi scene at the end. Dumb.

3. Basically anything involving Matthew. He is the worst. Especially when he told Cormoran that he dated Robin in high school because he didn't have other options. Gross. I hate him.

4. [SPOILER] The side plot of Matthew's mother's death. It made absolutely no sense that Robin didn't go down to Yorkshire for the whole week with him. I felt like Matthew had every right to be annoyed with her and I don't like feeling sympathetic toward him.

My grade: A-

Who would I recommend it to: Mystery-lovers, anglophiles, and people interested in the dramatic behind-the-scenes of the publishing world.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Book Review: The Nightingale

Note: I've got major spoilers in here. I'll call them out before you get there, but just be aware.

The Nightingale - Kristin Hannah

Plot: [SPOILER] Two French sisters work with the French resistance during World War II in very different ways: one by shepherding fallen Allied airman over the Pyrenees and back to safety, and the other by saving and hiding nineteen Jewish children in her home and in a convent orphanage while a sadistic German soldier is billeted with her family.

Thoughts: Oh, The Nightingale. This book was a hard read because the subject matter was so heavy, but it was excellent. I've read a lot of books about World War II (it seems like that's all we read in high school) and have seen many of the movies, but this story was different to me for two reasons: 1. the focus was on the women who were left behind when the men went off to fight and 2. the main characters weren't people that we typically think of as victims of the Nazi regime (Jews, communists, gays, mentally impaired), but their lives were most definitely destroyed (either temporarily or permanently) by the Nazis.

I am the first to admit that I don't usually think much about the people left behind in the occupied countries and what their lives must have been like. This book illustrates how very, very hard their lives were. [SPOILERS from here on] It also reminded me that women were so important to the fight.

Isabelle is the obvious heroine and I really did love her, but I think Viann is the more interesting character because she made so many mistakes (like giving a list of Jews and communists to the German soldier billeted with her because he told her it was simply "clerical" information). She was incredibly naive, and she was also terrified. On a personal level, I relate much more to Viann than someone like Isabelle who is automatically brave and heroic and unstoppable.

After all her mistakes and hemming and hawing, Viann takes a stand and does the right thing; she felt redeemed to me and that made the whole book. She didn't give into her fear and guilt and failure. She just tried to make things right. She risked her life and her sanity to save her own daughter, her friends' children, and children she didn't even know. She nursed her dying sister. She forgave her absentee father. She lived her whole life keeping a terrible secret from her husband and son to protect them from pain.

I have to admit that I didn't expect Isabelle to die. She seemed so unbreakable to me, and for at least the first half of the book, I though she was the old lady narrating the 1995 chapters. I hate that the Nazis ultimately broke a person that was so forceful and larger than life, but it's probably the most realistic way the author could have closed out Isabelle's story. I found it very unbelievable that Gaeton would have survived the war, but that scene was a sweet, romantic touch.

Favorite part: I loved so many parts. Julian's letter to the girls was really beautiful. And when Isabelle describes the unparalleled pride she felt sending her first telegraph to Paul saying, "The Nightingale has flown," I felt proud for her. The end was lovely, especially when Viann and Ari see each other. Admittedly though, I cried for hours afterward and had a "sadness hangover" (got that from Renee :-)) for days.

Least favorite part: I hated the scene with Beck panicking and terrifying Viann because of the missing airman (I could write a whole essay about my conflicted thoughts on Beck). The fact that Isabelle and Viann killed him felt like a mercy in a way because it probably wouldn't have been so quick if the Nazis had done it. He also seemed like an ok person that did not agree with the Nazi agenda and his death prevented him from having to be a part of that regime as it grew worse and worse. And then the airman died anyway and it was such a punch in the gut because it was like all of those dominoes fell for no reason.

Just about every scene with Von Richter was horrifying. Worse than anything though, were the scenes when Isabelle is tortured by the Nazis and those where she is travelling to and is in the concentration camp. I had a couple sleepless nights filled with nightmares because of these parts. Every time I see a movie or read a book about World War II, I feel so scared of what humans can do to each other.

My grade: A

Who would I recommend it to: Everyone.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Book Review: The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith

: A young supermodel allegedly commits suicide by jumping off her balcony in a wealthy neighborhood in London. Cormoran Strike, an ex-military police officer turned private eye (and the estranged son of a famous Mick Jagger-like rock star) investigates the case on behalf of the model's bereaved brother, who believes she was murdered.

Thoughts: I liked this book. It's a murder mystery that takes place in London - oh, and it's written by J.K. Rowling (under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith); it's got a lot going for it. I enjoyed both of the main characters, Strike and his "girl Friday," Robin Ellacott. I think JKR is really great at writing dialogue and I think she's funny. Both of these skills are on display in this book. But it's dark-ish (not anywhere approaching, say, this Gillian Flynn horror though).

The ending is just a tad silly, but I have to say I did not see it coming. And it does employ a classic JKR deus ex machina plot device. However, the book is super engaging and I felt myself looking forward to reading time each night.

As a side note - very often when I'm reading a book, I try to cast it in my head to make the characters come alive more for me. I can't always think of a perfect actor for every character, but I know the perfect Cormoran Strike: Chris O'Dowd. BBC is turning this into a series and I'm afraid I simply will not be able to watch it if CO'D doesn't play Strike, because he is just so perfect for the role.

Favorite part: I loved the scene where Strike goes to visit Guy Some. Their dialogue was so natural and fluid and funny at times. JKR is so great at writing different voices.

I also loved the scene with Robin and Cormoran in the clothing store. I felt second-hand pride for Robin as she realized that she really has a knack for this profession.

Least favorite part: The reveal of the killer. I really don't want to give anything away here because I do think the killer is one that most people wouldn't guess, but the explanation just seemed a little silly and unlikely.

My grade: B+

Who would I recommend it to: Anglophiles who appreciate snappy, witty dialogue and a good mystery.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Book Review: Devil in the White City

Note: I've got very minor spoilers in here. I'll call them out before you get there, but just be aware.

The Devil in the White City - Erik Larson

: A non-fiction account of the planning, development, building, and execution of the 1898 World's Colombian Fair in Chicago, interspersed with the true story of Herman Mudgett (aka H.H. Holmes), America's first documented serial killer and contemporary resident of Chicago

Thoughts: I chose this book because it's apparently a must-read if you're involved in the planning / architecture / engineering fields (I'm in transportation planning) and it was a bit misrepresented to me as an exciting murder mystery. I love mysteries; this book is not one. It is almost entirely focused on the minutiae of the politics and logistics of the Fair, which actually is a complex and exceptional - but dry - story.

The portions of the book about Holmes were extremely peripheral. I don't know this for sure, but I would estimate that the Fair-focused chapters outnumbered the Holmes-centered chapters 2:1. I read a review by someone else who said (I'm paraphrasing) he had the feeling that Erik Larson really wanted to write a book about the World's Fair, but knew the subject was basically a snooze-fest, so he ham-fisted Holmes's story into the narrative to make the plot sound more exciting. That is an accurate assessment, and it is so clear that the portions about the Fair are what Larson is really interested in.

It's not a bad book and I did enjoy it for what I learned from it, but it's not light reading. I actually listened to the audio version and this probably was the only reason I was able to finish the book. The guy who read it has a really good narrative voice and I was a captive audience when driving, running, and walking my dogs. This meant I couldn't really make excuses for not finishing it, like I almost certainly would have done if I had been reading the text version. Overall, I'm glad I read it, but I wasn't chomping at the bit to get back to it each day.

Favorite part: I was pretty excited to learn about Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture and designer of many, many famous public and private parks. He was from Boston and he designed Forest Park in Springfield, Massachusetts! Growing up in western Mass, I always heard that Forest Park was pretty glorious in its heyday, and I just think it's so cool that it was designed by the creative mind behind Central Park and the landscape architect of the 1898 World's Fair.

Least favorite part: The parts about Carter Harrison and Patrick Prendergast only seemed related to the rest of the story by the thinnest thread and I don't think they really needed to be in there.

[SPOILER] Also, one of the few scenes in the book where Larson takes some creative license and imagines how one of Holmes's killings went down happened when Holmes killed his wife's sister. Reading about her terror at realizing what was happening was heartbreaking.

My grade: B-

Who would I recommend it to: Urban planning and/or architecture nerds, or Chicago history enthusiasts.