THE BULLFIGHTER CHECKS HER MAKEUP – Susan Orlean
The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup is a compilation of profiles. It focused a lot on “interesting” subjects — many of the people (or groups) profiled have some big thing in their lives that sets them apart, like a female bullfighter, a reportedly terrible band with a cult following, a NYC clown, although I personally thought that the most interesting profiles were the ones where the extraordinary trait was hidden in a person that most people would assume was a fairly average being. For example, there’s the Shagg sisters, whose terrible teenage band developed a cult following, and they live very normal lives after the fact. There’s also the profile of the inner life of a ten-year old boy, and “the king and supreme ruler of the African Ashanti tribespeople of the United States,” who drives a cab to provide for his family.
After reading so many profiles of people who were absolutely devoted (obsessed?) with their respective fields and interests, I started thinking about the nature of passion, as it relates to this like overwhelming, consuming pursuit of what you’re doing. I think a lot of times we’re fed this line that we need to “have it all,” something that actually seems to be an impossible task when you look at how people who are very talented live their lives. We are supposed to chase balance and this extraordinary level of success simultaneously, even though they interfere with each other, which is something I find very irritating. Maybe it seems limiting to live your life entirely around one thing (ie, the best dogsled racer in the world, the best musicians and athletes) but maybe it provides a sense of purpose? It’s overwhelming to think of that level of intensity, but to me it’s almost more overwhelming to wonder if my life is going to flow along without passion or drive.
Overall, many of the profiles were interesting, although I did kind of have trouble staying focused on reading it…I basically read the whole thing in 20 minute chunks, so it took almost two weeks.
THE SILENT SISTER – Diane Chamberlain
God I can’t fucking tell you any of the good stuff about this book without giving hints away, but it is all full of tricky twisty plot turns. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that was successfully suspenseful, but that was definitely the strongest aspect of this novel. A friend recommended it to me, essentially saying what I’m saying now, which is just “trust me you want to read this but I can’t tell you why you want to read it.” Shit Got Spooky.
The one issue I would add is that the book really did stand on its plot — the suspense and the drama of it were what kept me reading. Maybe I’m just being nitpicky, but I thought the prose itself was just eh… it was written in a very neutral, unobtrusive style, which can be nice because it’s straightforward, but it lacked character. (I feel like if I read another book by this author I wouldn’t even have a clue.) I was not [polite cough] blown away by the character development — the neutralness of the tone meant that even when Fucking Raw emotions were being discussed, they felt a little clinical and distant. Don’t get me wrong, it was a really good book, but there were a couple missed opportunities to rip my heart out and throw it on the floor, and I just really like when I consume media that destroys me emotionally.
[CW: there’s a brief, non-grahic sexual abuse mention. hope that was vague enough to not spoil suspenseful plot points but also specific enough to be helpful.]
JEWELS – A SECRET HISTORY – Victoria Finlay
I had previously read her book Color, which I think I preferred to Jewels, but it still made for an interesting read. I like Finlay’s way of looking at nonfiction subjects through the stories they tell — the personal ancedotes, the small part they play in greater historical movements, and even the pain that the search for beauty can bring into a person’s life.
The amount of suffering that comes from hunting for beauty, honestly, was my main takeaway from this book. It took me a fucking long-ass time to read, so it felt like I spent two months getting micro-doses of how terrible the gem industry has been (and will likely continue to be). It even starts out morbid; the first gem profiled was jet, which was used to signal mourning and grief for a long time. Beyond that, there’s the poverty that almost everybody who searches for gems lives/lived in…it seems like a cruel twist that the search for beauty and a better life would lead to lost potential.
I also really liked the little snippets of more science-y side of gems in this book. It definitely wasn’t a dominant thing, but every once in a while there’d be a paragraph about the chemical composition of gems or the process of making synthetic gems, and I thought that was interesting.
All in all, I’d say Jewels is worth the read, but maybe if you have a better attention span for non-fiction than I do. (I meant to publish this blog post almost two months ago, it’s just taken me so long to read the books I wanted.)
STRANGERS IN PARADISE – Terry Moore
This one was a particularly engaging read. It’s kind of gritty and violent, but it uses more than shock value to keep your interest — there’s a lot of good feelings/relationship (both romantic and platonic) type dialogue, too. I really enjoyed they way friendships were handled — in my personal opinion, they can be some of the most complex and intense types of relationships that we have.
Initially a serialized comic, I really agree with the note in the back that it holds up as a single story — there’s action and drama, but it’s cohesive. The story itself is about a girl named Katchoo with [spooky scary voice] a dark past that’s come back to haunt her in the form of a deadly former employer. Suspense! Woah!