October Reads

Goodbye for Now, by Laurie Frankel. Last month I read another book by this author and knew five or ten pages in that I would be tracking down more. The premise of this one is that Sam, a computer programmer who works for an online dating site, creates an algorithm so effective that the company loses money because when people find the love of their lives on the first try, they don’t need to keep coming back. Because of this, he gets fired but not before he uses the algorithm to find his own soul mate, Meredith. Early in the dating relationship, Meredith’s grandmother dies, and Sam accidentally/on purpose creates an algorithm that simulates e-mail and video chats to allow Meredith to have one last conversation with her grandmother. They go on to create a business based on helping people through their grief, and of course there are all kinds of unforeseen quirks and consequences. I am so taken with Frankel’s writing, the way she creates characters and especially her ability to complexify (yep) an idea in such fascinating ways. Although I did cry (but not for the reason I expected I might) and although this book is predicated on death as part of life, this was a light (but not fluffy, maybe in the sense of uplifting?) read. Loved it. 

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold. Jason has been telling me for a while that I would like this fantasy novel, and he was right (he always does a very good job of vetting things and knowing which ones I will like and which ones I should pass on, whether movies, television shows, or books). This is a great story with likable characters. It definitely has elements of fantasy novel–medieval setting, kingdoms at war, political intrigue and betrayals, magic, and of course the eponymous curse, but I think my liking it so much has more to do with the characters and plot than with the genre-specific elements, if that makes sense.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, by Candace Millard (narrated by Paul Michael). I listened to this one as an audiobook. I was completely caught up in the story of James Garfield’s presidency and assassination. I was frustrated to the point of tears at how he suffered for months after he was shot because of the prevailing (non)wisdom of medicine at the time–antiseptic techniques were just becoming known and not widely accepted in the United States at the time. This one is well written and engaging.

The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. I feel like I heard about this one from several sources, but I finally picked it up because it came so highly recommended by my kids’ elementary school librarian. It is the story of Ada, a ten-year-old girl with a club foot, who leaves London with her younger brother Jamie when the children were evacuated from London in World War II. Ada and Jamie are taken in by Susan Smith, a single woman who never wanted children and who is grieving a loss of her own. Although the overall story arc may be somewhat predictable, I was so struck by the descriptions of how painful it was for Ada, who had never known anything but abuse, to be treated with kindness. This story and these characters will stick with me for a long time. (A sequel did just come out this past month as well. I’m not sure whether I want to read it or not. I’m satisfied with the ending of this book and, as with many sequels, am kind of nervous about messing with that.)

Glass Houses, by Louise Penny. This was one of my favorites in the Inspector Gamache series. Can I leave it at that?

Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri. This short story collection was our book club pick for the month. I loved it. These stories are so well written and such a good example of the genre. One of the many ways that Lahiri is masterful is that she knows just where to stop the story–these stories each left me wanting just a little more but also glad that they weren’t too neatly wrapped up. The collection as a whole is melancholy and quiet. I loved it. Oh wait, I already said that.

In the Woods, by Tana French. This is the first in the Dublin Murder Squad series; I had previously read the second but skipped this one because I had heard (or read?) that this one was too creepy. I don’t know, I think I actually liked this one better than the second (though it’s hard to say because I liked them both very much but loved neither). I enjoyed the relationship between the two protagonists and was less interested in the murder they were investigating. (I will also say that I was unsatisfied with the ending to the point that I wonder if I missed something.) These are definitely more gritty than, say, Louise Penny’s novels, which is not a bad thing. I personally need to take gritty in very small doses, but I will read more Tana French in the future.

A Letter of Mary, by Laurie R. King (narrated by Jenny Sterlin). I really liked the first two books in this series about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, but unless someone can convince me that this one was an exception, I’m probably done with the series. I don’t know if it is because I listened to this as an audiobook, but the pacing of this one was so different. I literally fell asleep once and missed a half hour or so and didn’t even care. I was regularly bored, didn’t quite buy the central mystery (and definitely didn’t buy the twist), rolled my eyes at a literary illusion I maybe should have loved, and got really angry at this female author for allowing her (married but undercover) protagonist to actually apologize for spurning the unwanted advances of her employer. So disappointing.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. I read a book by this author earlier in the year, and while that one did turn me around in the end, I wasn’t necessarily looking to read another (chick lit really isn’t my genre, and this did nothing to change my mind). I will say that Reid can really write, which is why I did finish the book even when I could tell a third of the way in or so that this book wasn’t for me. As it turns out the “glamorous and scandalous” life of a classic film star, even a fictional one, begins to bore me pretty quickly. And I have a very low tolerance for unlikeable characters, especially when they are protagonists. I don’t recommend this one.


September Reads

Oh, what a month! For those who may not have heard the story, I spent a great majority of my time in September (visiting) in the hospital. A short version is this*: on September 11, a Monday, my dad had a heart catheterization that showed he had 90 percent blockage in his main left artery and four other places of 80 to 90 percent blockage; he was taken by ambulance to UNMC in Omaha (now called Nebraska Medicine). He had a quadruple bypass that Wednesday. Meanwhile, my mom had been having episodes of near syncope (blacking out) since August 9 (I remember because it was my birthday when she had the first one). The episodes had at first been weeks and then several days apart, but the week that my dad was having heart surgery, she began to have episodes once a day and they were becoming (even more) alarming. As my dad was leaving the ICU on Thursday, I took my mom to the ER and she was admitted later that night. Friday was a full day of tests in which they ruled out, or as much as they could, a neurological cause. Friday as we were getting ready for bed (I was sleeping in the chair in her room), she had another episode. Since she was on the heart monitor, they could see that she had ventricular standstill, which means the top of her heart kept pumping but the bottom said, “Nah,” in this case for sixteen seconds. We had cardiologists in her room until midnight that night, but at that time they thought they could delay putting in a pacemaker until Monday. But at 6:30 on Saturday morning, we were awakened by a surgeon that said this was an emergency, and he put in a pacemaker that morning. (We had decided to let my dad sleep the night before, and I hadn’t even gotten a chance to update him on what they had found before they wheeled her away.) So my parents spent Saturday night both recovering from heart surgeries on the same floor of the hospital, their rooms on the same side but opposite ends of a long hallway. Even after forty-seven years of marriage, I think they took the whole doing-everything-together  to a ridiculous extreme. Then! to top it all off, my dad came home on a Tuesday (my mom had been dismissed on Sunday) but had shortness of breath and what seemed like anxiety attacks all week. He was readmitted the following Sunday with blood clots in his legs and lungs and then was finally discharged again Saturday. *This short version leaves out all the people who cared for my parents, who saved their lives with sharp thinking and skill, who prayed for us and cared for us in meals and childcare and encouragement; it leaves out all the instances of providence–I mean, I know it’s a wild story, but it’s even wilder in the details; it leaves out all the feels, and you better believe I had ALL the feels; and it leaves out how incredibly grateful I am that in spite of the intensity of this month the end of the story is that both of my parents are living, recovering. It could have been so different.

With all of the time I spent in waiting rooms and hospital rooms in September, you might think I would have had an extraordinary reading month. I assumed I would. I did not. I’m okay with that.

This Is How It Always Is, by Laurie Frankel. This book absolutely took my breath away. It is the story of a family, and it is beautiful and complicated and heartwarming and heartbreaking and all the things.  I have been typing and deleting for a long while here, and just thinking about this book, these characters, makes me want to cry and read it again and talk to everyone about it. So maybe just read it. The thing I love about Frankel’s writing is that her characters are so fully developed–they ask hard questions and have conflicting feelings and live in the unresolved. I just finished another of her books (Goodbye for Now), and I am absolutely awed by her ability to take a situation and explore all the ins and outs and questions and doubts without it ever becoming boring or absurd or manipulative. Through these characters (that I totally fell in love with), she articulates and so aptly describes so many emotions and things that just wouldn’t have occurred to me but that I’m richer for thinking/feeling about.

The New City Catechism: 52 Questions and Answers for Our Hearts and Minds. We are learning this catechism as a family. The kids particularly love the songs (questions and short answers) available in the children’s mode on the app.

Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie. I picked this up to read before I see the new movie version coming out (already out?). It was a delightful read. I liked it better than the only other Agatha Christie I had read (And Then There Were None), and I suspect it will not be my last Hercule Poirot novel.

Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, by Anne Bogel. I, of course, heard of this book through the author’s excellent podcast, What Should I Read Next? This book is not what I was expecting, and I’m not sure this was the author/podcaster’s fault, but I have talked to two other people who thought the same thing I did. I (we) thought that Reading People would be about people who read. Alas, no. It is about how to read people, an overview of personality tests and how to use them to improve self understanding and relationships. I was about four chapters into the book before I realized what the title actually meant. This was not the right book for me at this time since I’m a little personality tested out after the last couple of months loving the enneagram. This doesn’t mean it was a bad book; I just don’t have much of an opinion and don’t want to damn it with faint praise.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,  by Isabel Wilkerson. This is the book I toted around with me to six floors of UNMC and read in five and fifteen minute spurts for three weeks. It. is. excellent. It tells the story of almost six million black citizens who moved from the South to northern and western cities in search of a better life. This migration spanned decades–from 1915 to 1970. Wilkerson tells the story through three main people, but she includes details and stories from hundreds of personal interviews. The stories are brutal and infuriating and heartbreaking, but there is beauty and strength and dignity along the way as well. All the stars.

Emily of New Moon, by L. M. Montgomery. This was our book club selection for the month, and it was just okay. I think I probably would have enjoyed it more as a twelve-year-old girl than I did as an adult. It had its moments, but I don’t think it will be particularly memorable.


August Reads

August

I had such high hopes that the stack of books I snapped a photo of near the beginning of the month would match the list of books I finished this month. Alas, close but not quite. Also, I’m just going to admit that I would rather be reading right now (I am in the middle of a book that is so, so good, but as it is September 1, it’ll go on the September list).

One True Loves, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. The plot of this book has been described as like that Tom Hanks movie with the volleyball…I’m blanking…except the first love comes back before the wedding. Emma is married to her high school sweetheart, but on their first anniversary, he goes missing and is presumed dead. She falls in love again, and just as she is about to marry, her husband shows up alive, and everyone’s life is thrown into uncertainty. (Castaway is the movie!) So what I learned about myself with this book is that I used to be a sucker for this plot, but it’s a little like high school movies with a makeover and a prom: they still do hold some nostalgic appeal, but they are not really my bread-and-butter genre for enjoyment any more. In many ways this book was better than I expected it to be. I did actually buy both relationships both before and after the disappearance/reappearance. Although ultimately the resolution was probably predictable, I bought into the complications enough to believe that there was not one inevitable end. All in all, a good summer read. (I did also just remember that this book was too long and bogged down occasionally with weirdly mundane details–like driving: he looked both ways, eased into traffic, checked his rearview mirror blah blah blah. But that was not my overall impression once I got rolling with the story.)

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann. This book is exactly the kind of nonfiction/history book I love. It tells a larger story about the exploration of the Amazon through many smaller stories–in this case an explorer who went missing (not the first to go missing in the Amazon, but perhaps the most surprising as he seemed to be the most prepared/likely to succeed) and then dozens, maybe hundreds, of people who subsequently went missing trying to unravel the mystery of his disappearance (and also to find the Lost City he was searching for in the first place). It’s intriguing and mysterious and pretty suspenseful all through (though you have to figure the journalist who wrote the book survived his own journey into the Amazon, you know, since he wrote the book and all). The book is fairly lengthy (400 pages), but it reads like an adventure story.

To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings, by John O’Donohue. This beautiful book was given to me a couple of years ago for my birthday, and I try to read it each year during my birthday month. Everything about it refreshed my spirit this year–the gentleness of the writing, the beauty of the reflections (not just the blessings themselves but also O’Donohue’s thoughts about the nature and purpose of blessings), the focus on eternity. This book is such a contrast to the screaming, combative rhetoric that we are assaulted with every day with social media and any sort of news or current events intake. Reading this book, I felt like I could breathe.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, Samin Nosrat. This book will go on my Christmas list. I can’t say that I’ve ever read a cookbook cover to cover before this, but the first half was more like a (conversational and engaging) textbook for a cooking class. The idea is that if you understand the elements of cooking (salt, fat, acid, heat), you will  be able to troubleshoot and improvise and all-around up your cooking game. I am thoroughly fascinated by talking about cooking. I don’t know that I will ever want to memorize and master the elements, but I do enjoy cooking and I love to talk about it/think about it/visit a deeper understanding once in a while. We did get to try several of the recipes (all good), but the reason I would like to own this book is simply to have as reference.

The Passage, by Justin Cronin. Hoo boy, this was a long one. I mean, it started off really well. I just couldn’t sustain interest for 766 pages. I did finish it, but it was a slog for at least half of that. Apparently, it did get a lot of attention. And it’s a good post-apocalyptic suspense novel if you like that sort of thing. It’s not my go-to genre, but I’d recommend Station Eleven (which I actually liked a whole lot) or even The Book of Strange New Things (both of which this one reminded me of for different reasons, though Station Eleven is a more obvious connection) before this one. And if you can unravel that sentence, good on you!

The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery, by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. After the clunker of a book I read last month on the Enneagram, I still had some time before our book club to give the Enneagram another shot. If you’ve talked to me in person over the last month, I apologize for boring you YET AGAIN. But if you’ve talked to me, you probably know that I first thought I was a 2, then became convinced I was a 4, but (surprise!) even more recently, I’m thinking I am actually a 6. I can’t seem to stop talking about the Enneagram–I am on what you might call a kick. I don’t know how long it will last, but in the meantime, I really am finding it helpful, especially in our marriage and in other relationships. So this book was much more accessible and useful. It gives an overview and some insight on how to know what your number is, but the best thing about it is that it is full of stories–anecdotes–that help illustrate these concepts with real people. A friend also pointed me to a podcast (with the authors of this book) that was by far the most helpful explanation of this whole thing (even though I still didn’t get my number right until later): The Liturgists Podcast (episode 37).

Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk. This book is such a gem. It’s heroine is a young girl (I think she’s maybe 11), and I think so often having a young protagonist lands the book in the YA category. I read a few reviews that thought that this was miscategorized as YA since it deals with some pretty heavy subject matter (set in or just after WW2 and the antagonist is a brutal bully). I can see the point, that just because the main character is young doesn’t mean it is appropriate for middle grades. On the other hand, I do think young readers can handle hard topics. In any case, the writing is lovely, the characters are complex, the story is compelling (and somehow never went over the top for me, even though it does take some pretty dramatic turns). The book is sad and real and full of heart. I loved it.

The Little French Bistro, by Nina George. I went back and forth on how much I liked and/or cared about this book, and in the end it won me over. I think some of the plot points could have been boring in their predictability (woman unhappy with her life sets out somewhat accidentally and finds a new one and along the way meets a bunch of quirky characters that sometime parallel and often contrast her experiences all leading to a happy ending for all). But it was (much) better than that. I don’t have many deep thoughts about this book, but it’s solidly in the I-liked-it-and-I’m-glad-I-read-it column.


July Reads

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We were out of town for almost half of July, and I got almost zero reading time on any of our adventures. (This reminds me that I should also try and post some pics from said adventures.) Still, with the inclusion of a couple of books that were started earlier and a couple more that were either super short or super fast (or both), I managed to knock out a good number of books this month. I am learning a lot about my reading habits and preferences this year as I have been keeping track. I have decided to cut two kinds books out of my life: this won’t be a surprise if you’ve been following along with my review blurbs this year. :)

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. This book was exactly up my alley. In fact, if I were ever to write a book (no plans), this is the only format that I think would ever work for me. It is a collection of random memories and thoughts, often in list form–organized alphabetically, of course. In many places the book reminds me of when I was a kid and would pretend that my life and thoughts were being recorded for broadcast (Truman Show style). I mean, there are so many thoughts in here–quirky fleeting and/or recurring thoughts–that would never make it into a traditional memoir but that are just so thoroughly delightful in their ordinariness. The subtitle (tagline?) is “I have not survived against all odds. I have not lived to tell. I have not witnessed the extraordinary. This is my story.” I loved the creative format and even found it potentially inspiring for future projects. This book probably isn’t for everyone, but it really resonated with me, like someone else was in my head–a template for how but not what happens in my pretty little head.

The Paper Magician, by Charlie N. Holberg. When I pull up Goodreads there is sometimes a quote (by I forget whom) that says something like “I have without fail enjoyed the books I have read while I’m convalescing.” I am the opposite. This book is not getting a fair shake because I was getting sick while I was reading it and the whole experience is tainted. I think I might have liked this book as a summer read–light, not terribly profound but creative and entertaining.

The Magnolia Story, by Chip and Joanna Gaines. Ok, so, celebrity memoirs is one of the categories of books that I am giving up on. I like Fixer Upper a lot. I like Chip and Joanna as they are portrayed on the HG show and how they seem to actually be in real life. I thought the book was kind of like watching an episode of the show–sweet, inspiring (in another life). The book didn’t (as some other celebrity memoirs have) make me like the Gainses any less. But the thing is I just. don’t. care. Meh. Seriously, I got kind of bored even writing up this five-sentence review. Done.

My Life in France, by Julia Child. For whatever reason, this book doesn’t count as a celebrity memoir. This was our book club pick this month, and I was glad to finally have read it after having it on my list for years. I knew a little about Julia Child from watching clips of her PBS show and, well, because she’s a household name. I was caught up and often amused by her personality and take on the world–so different from mine. I was intrigued by her descriptions of food (chicken that just tastes so “chicken-y”) and of France (one town her husband, Paul, described as “bouillabaisse of a city”). I wish I had gotten the edition with photographs to read, but even without photos, I finished this 400-page book with ease.

The Listening Life, by Adam S. McHugh. This was our book discussion group pick for the summer. A group of women from church met over six weeks to discuss. I really liked this book. I feared that maybe it would be full of obvious stuff, that I would get the gist by reading chapter titles. There was some of that, but there were also some profound insights that hopefully have changed me. The subtitle “Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction” is a concept that, fittingly, is worthy of giving ongoing attention to, and I believe I will be returning to many of the thoughts and nuggets from our group’s discussion.

Some Writer: The Story of E. B. White, by Melissa Sweet. This is another book that was just right for me. It’s found in the children’s biography section. The illustrations are multimedia collages, and both the story and artwork are engaging and delightful. I want to read (or in some cases re-read) everything by E. B. White, and I also want to seek out other books by Melissa Sweet.

A Monstrous Regiment of Women, by Laurie R. King. This was the second in a (I think pretty well-known) series. I read The Beekeeper’s Apprentice quite a while ago and have been meaning to continue. I really enjoy this reimagining of Sherlock Holmes. In this series Mary Russell is Holmes’s apprentice and the focus is her (not him). This was a good mystery–probably not memorable to me in the longterm, but I definitely enjoy this world and will continue with other books in the series.

The Rosie Project, by Graeme Samson. This one won me over. The story of a geneticist with Asperberger’s who goes about finding a wife in a rigid scientific manner but is predictably upended by real life, I was afraid the formula would define the book. And, yeah, it was predictable, but it was also surprisingly charming. I liked it.

Raven Black, by Ann Cleeves. I picked this up because someone else was reading it and said that the television series based on it is really good. I haven’t had a chance yet to check out Shetland, but I will. (I hear the adaptation is pretty loose, but I’m guessing from the description that it won’t bother me and that I’ll like it. I’m not a purist in such matters.) I read a review that said this is a thriller, not a mystery, and I think that’s the perfect description. There is a murder to be solved, but it’s not like the author drops so many clues that you are trying to figure it out. That said, it’s not a bunch of misdirects either–all to say, I was engaged and found the ending satisfying, surprising but not shocking because it was well-supported. Another book I liked.

The Enneagram, by Karen Webb. Ok, so my book club is trying something different this month. We are talking about the topic of the Enneagram and each seeking out our own book to find out more about it. I took a few online tests and talked to a friend (all point to 2). This book is not my favorite and I’ll be seeking another book out to learn more. It seems like this is meant to be an introduction, but without the other information I’ve read, I’d be (even more) lost. Side note: we Jason is apparently a 5, and we read an online description of how 2s and 5s relate that had us howling at its accuracy. I am truly interested in finding out more, but this book just didn’t do it for me.

**Oh! And the other type of book I’m giving up on is harder to boil down: no more thriller-type books where the premise intrigues me but I can tell by reviews and/or slight spoilers that it’s going to push all my hate-it buttons. For example, I made the mistake of reading I Found You, by Lisa Jewell, but I have since dodged this bullet by passing on Do Not Become Alarmed, by Maile Maloy. I’ll do a little more soul searching and try to articulate more precisely what I mean by this kind of book, if only for my own sake.


June Reads

June was a great reading month, both in the sense that I read a lot of books and in that I really enjoyed everything I read.

A few weeks ago, I jumped in a Year of Reading Greatly challenge. The goal is 100 books in a year (so about 2 per week) starting July 1. I had been on track to be ahead of my goal of 60 books in 2017 and had been toying with the idea of trying to hit 100 anyway, so a mid-year start and upping my goal sounded just right to me. If you’d like to keep up with what I’m reading weekly, I’ll be posting on Instagram on my mrsopusreads account with the hashtag yearofreadinggreatly.

Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon (read by Davina Porter). This was a 32-hour audio book (listened to on 1.25 and 1.5 speed, so a few less hours than that), and I first started listening in March, though I didn’t get serious about it until toward the end of May. The story begins with an English couple on holiday in Scotland in (I think it’s) 1945. Claire walks through a circle of ancient standing stones (like Stone Henge, I imagine) and finds herself suddenly in 1743. I loved so much about this book: great story, great characters, well researched and well written. The narrator, too, was outstanding. However, I don’t know that I’ll be picking up the others in the series (I believe there are 8) any time soon. As much as I truly was caught up in the story and invested in (both loving and hating) the characters, there was just so. much. sex. If they ever make the book equivalent of a edited-for-tv version, I’m in (and I did see that there is an actual tv series, but I haven’t seen any of it).

Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty. This one sat on my shelf forever. I started maybe a chapter or two, and it didn’t really grab me. But once I finally got going, I liked this one a lot. I was skeptical of the premise: the story follows three mothers of kindergartners in the months leading up to a murder at a PTO fundraiser. I was afraid it was going to be too The Real Housewives of Midtown Elementary-y, but I was pleasantly surprised both by the humor and the seriousness in the book (apart from the death that is the central plot point, Moriarty takes on issues like bullying and domestic abuse). I will say the book was too long by about 150 pages–blah blah mommy wars blah blah–and I was periodically annoyed by the structure, specifically that part of the mystery was figuring out not only how and why someone was killed but also who was killed. In the end, I suppose it would have fallen a bit flat if I had known the victim’s identity, but it grated on me while I was reading. 

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett. I dragged my feet reading this book because I kept reading/hearing mixed reviews. I was also a bit put off by the plot description (a kiss at a party leading to the dissolution of two marriages). I wish now that I had simply read “Ann Patchett” and known that it would be okay. This book is actually one of my favorites of the year so far.

Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. This has been on my shelf for quite a while, and I finally picked it up one morning and read it all in one gulp. I had such a nostalgic reaction to the narrator’s perspective. Creech did a great job of capturing the way a child experiences and processes a story. Although the narrator was a little older, I was reminded of my fourth-grade adventures with Jennifer Fletcher–creating intrigue and mystery out of a neighbor’s creepy and possibly nefarious yard (when in reality it was probably just junky).

The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. This is a collection of short stories, and of course some were more my favorite than others. I like to read short stories now and again, and this was a good read. I would be interested in picking up his novel The Sympathizer sometime (I believe it won the Pulitzer for fiction).

A Great Reckoning, by Louise Penny. The twelfth (and most recent) installation in the Inspector Gamache series. I liked this one quite a bit. I thought in particular that the connection made between a corrupt and brutal law enforcement academy and the kind of (corrupt and brutal) officers that result in such training was insightful.

Messy Beautiful Friendship, by Christine Hoover. This was a solid book by a Christian author about female friendships. I didn’t necessarily find anything groundbreaking, but one chapter in particular spoke to a situation I’m in and was helpful. I think this would be an excellent book to discuss if you could find a safe group to discuss it with, and I think it would be a significant help and balm if you read it in a season of life and friendship where it hits the spot (and there are many such seasons of life and friendship). I’m glad to have read it.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver (read by the author). I enjoyed this book if for no other reason than it was a good story. Kingsolver and her family spent a year eating only food they could grow themselves or obtain locally (with a couple of specific exceptions like coffee and spices). I enjoyed the rhythm of the book (by seasons, of course) and found much of the information about food production and distribution as well as about certain plants and how they grow interesting and engaging. I did find myself discouraged at points, wanting to make changes based on what I was hearing but feeling overwhelmed at knowing where to start and/or how to make changes that would actually make any difference. (My favorite listening stint was as I was cleaning mulberries we got from a friend’s tree.)

My Mrs. Brown, by William Norwich. I was nervous that I wasn’t liking this book–the premise of which is a woman in her sixties who works as a cleaning lady at a hair salon gets in her head that she will save for and buy a $7,000 Oscar de la Renta dress. I thought it was going down the road of too far-fetched, too cute, too over-the-top. But then about halfway through or so I found myself thinking the coincidences and quirky characters struck just the right note after all. I don’t know why exactly I make this connection, but I just have an intuitive sense that if you like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, you’ll like this too. It has the same feel to me.

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid (read by the author). I read the first and last chapter of this book but mostly listened to the audio version read by the author. This book is so, so good. So good. It tells the story of a young couple, Saeed and Nadia, living in an unnamed country that is on the brink of a civil war. Not long after they meet, they step through a door (a magical realism element of the book that serves as a way to move characters physically but which is neither distracting nor explored in-depth as a metaphor) and become refugees and immigrants first in Greece, then in London, and finally in the United States. It is an engaging and timely story plotwise, but what I really loved about the book–and what I just can’t get over–is how well the author describes the complex and conflicting emotions and interactions, the ways that what we think and feel is so often disconnected from what we say and do and then how that subsequently affects and shapes human relationships. So often he just nails the (often heartbreaking) ways we miss each other emotionally because we are self-protective or lazy or exhausted; we have a flash of tenderness but act instead on the current annoyance; we fear someone is not as attached as we are and protect ourselves with aloofness we don’t feel;  and so on. I didn’t want the book to end. And when it did, I didn’t really want to read anything else for a while so it could continue to resonate through me.

We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie. I happened to pick up this book(let) in the half hour before watching Wonder Woman in the theater. It couldn’t have been more fitting. This immediately sounded like truth in that someone was giving voice to things that I’ve felt but not been able to name. The booklet (52 pages) is based on a Ted Talk that I haven’t watched but plan to soon.


May Reads

Mayreads

Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch. I read this in two sittings and made Jason read it too. Then I recommended it to my book club as a fast summer read, not intending to make it our pick to discuss for the month, but we did end up with it for our May book. This book is part mystery, part thriller, part sci-fi, and even though there was plenty to discuss, ultimately a light read. The basic premise is that the main character goes out for a drink, leaving his wife and fifteen-year-old son at home, gets (abducted and) knocked unconscious on the way home and when he wakes up to a world where his wife and son don’t seem to exist. Twists and unthought-of things abound, even after the basic reveal of what is happening comes about a third of the way through the book. It reminded me–not in plot or subject, but in a if-you-like-that-kind-of-thing kind of way–of The Martian, by Andy Weir.

I Found You, by Lisa Jewell. Ugh. I was sucked in by wanting to know what happened/why/who was who in this book. (From the publisher’s description: “Two decades of secrets, a missing husband, and a man with no memory.”) I actually really enjoyed the first third, or maybe half, of the book. But then when things started to be revealed, it pushed all my hate-it buttons–situations that start out innocent enough and spiral way out of control probably being the main offender here.  I am often drawn to books with seemingly separate storylines that inevitably overlap at some point. Too often, though, the overlap is a groan (too obvious, too far-fetched). This one, for my tastes, was both too obvious and too far-fetched. I think other people could like this book, but it was not. for. me.

American Born Chinese,  by Gene Luen Yang. I picked up this graphic novel at a Little Free Library. This book also has three separate and seemingly unrelated storylines, but the way they come together is unpredictable and really well done. (I think, actually, they wouldn’t have even had to come together and I would have still enjoyed each story separately.) The artwork is colorful and simple, and the themes are rich and complex (racial identity and stereotypes, adolescent angst).

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. I had heard about this novel on a couple of different podcasts and had heard that the audio version was helpful in understanding what is happening. I put both the book and the audiobook on hold at the library, and they became available within a day of one another. And boy am I glad. The novel is in such a unique format, like nothing I’ve ever read before, and it took both the audio and print version for me to get how the format worked. The novel all takes place in one night, a few days after Abraham Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son, Willie, died. It is told through newspaper and book clips (I’ve been meaning to look up if these are actual sources or fiction as well) and then also through the voices of the ghosts who are in a sort of purgatory (some newly arrived, some long dead, almost all not realizing they are dead). To give you an idea, the audio version has 166 different narrators (some quite well known).  I didn’t love this book, but I did really, really like it and would recommend it if only for the experience of reading something completely different.

The Nature of the Beast, by Louise Penny. Um, this is another in the Inspector Gamache series, which I really like so much, and I don’t know what more to say about it. It was a good one–not the best of the bunch, not the worst.

A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine L’Engle. The second installment of the Wrinkle in Time Quintet. I really enjoyed it and look forward to my kids reading this series with me. I probably didn’t like this one quite as well as the first, but I will definitely keep reading the series.

Dreamland Burning, by Jennifer Latham. I loved this YA novel. It is in two parts. In present-day Tulsa, Oklahoma, seventeen-year-old Rowan finds a body on her family’s property. In alternating chapters, we hear the story of Will Tillman (also seventeen) in 1921. Even though both stories are given equal time, the main story is what happened in 1921 (Will is telling his story as Rowan is also uncovering Will’s story). The story centers on the racial climate (think Jim Crow laws and the KKK) in Tulsa. The book is a good blend of mystery and historical fiction, and I recommend it.

Abandoned this month:

Ill Will, by Dan Chaon. Oh my goodness. I am so glad I put this one down. I got about two chapters in and realized I already hated all the storylines (see my above rant about situations spiraling out of control). I should have known from the flap description. I actually went online looking for spoilers, and that was even more confirmation that I would have haaaated this one.

The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I read probably forty pages of this before I had to return it to the library. I do actually plan to return to it someday, so the only reason I put it on my abandoned list is because it happens to be in the photo. This month just wasn’t the right time for this book for me.


The Amazing Stinko

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Today was Simon’s last day of third grade and Ian’s last day of first grade. That also means it was the last day that it was just me and Clara at home. After today I have to admit that my baby is a kindergartner.

Clara and I celebrated today with a quick trip to Omaha to visit the Lauritzen Gardens. On display is a giant flower that stinks like rotting meat when it blooms. The Amazing Stinko is not blooming (which, thankfully, means it’s also not stinking), but it was worth the trip and we found lots of other “GO-juss” flowers as well.


April Reads

Time and Again, by Jack Finney. I read about this novel in Stephen King’s acknowledgments section for 11-22-63 (a novel that was one of my favorite reads last year). King said he had been influenced Finney’s concept of time travel.  For the first third or so, I was completely taken in. I read several passages out loud to Jason because I couldn’t stop myself. I found the book creative and thought-provoking. But then, abruptly at the halfway mark, I had my fill of the incredibly detailed descriptions of New York in the 1800s. I didn’t think I was going to finish, actually, but after a hiatus of four or five weeks, I picked it up again. And, what do you know, I read the second half in only about three more sittings. I was absolutely fascinated by the ending. I keep wanting to talk with someone who has read it or doesn’t mind never reading the book (not sure it would be worth it if the ending couldn’t be a surprise; the ending is not one that changes your perception of the whole book, but it is one that I’m glad was unspoiled). I wouldn’t press this into your hands and say you must read it, but I’m glad I did.

Moshi Moshi, by Banana Yoshimoto. Kitchen has been on my to-read list for a while, but I found this one on the shelf at the library one day and picked it up instead. I very much liked (almost loved) this book. The premise of the story is that Yoshie’s father has died in an apparent suicide pact with an unknown woman and Yoshie and her mom are figuring out how to continue on. I imagine if this were an American novel if it would be plot-driven, fast-paced, and focused on untangling the mystery. But it’s a Japanese novel, and it was none of those things. Reading it made me remember what it felt like to visit Japan.

I Hate Everyone Except You, by Clinton Kelly. Honestly, I think I should probably stop reading memoirs by celebrities (whose personas) I am fond of. Parts of this book were funny, and the snarky tone didn’t shock me, as I had read that Kelly was “a little bit cruder and quite a bit meaner” than what you would guess from watching What Not to Wear (I think I saw every episode; I got hooked when I was in the hospital on bedrest waiting for Simon to be born). But overall I just didn’t like the book that much, which was disappointing.

The Mothers, by Brit Bennett. I love the cover art on this one, but the description didn’t grab me, and I passed it by at the library a few times before I finally decided to pick it up. I loved so much about this book–likeable characters, well-written throughout and often truly beautiful writing, engaging story. I wish there had actually been more of the Mothers (the older women in the church community) who framed the story, as their voices were my favorites. I won’t complain (much) that the Mothers’ influence–or sometimes lack of–as a conceit was just a half a hair too subtle; I’d take too subtle over heavy-handed any day. Highly recommend.

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang. This is one of those books I can see is good, and I can see how others might love it. It was not for me. The story, on its surface, is of a Korean woman who has a dream and subsequently gives up all meat. It is told in three parts from different points of view (none of them the woman, Yeong-hye’s). The novel is complex and dark, and, like I said, there is much to recommend here, but it was not my favorite.

Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis. I put this on my list of books I wanted to re-read this year, and I picked it up one day when I was frankly too lazy to go upstairs and get another book. I remember liking this book when I read it for a class in college, but, as is typical of my reading life, I didn’t remember the details, just the general feeling that I liked reading it. Now that it’s fresh in my mind again, I affirm my assessment. This was a pleasure to read. A retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, it is a rich story with complex characters. On this reading, I kept thinking that I’d be interested to see how this could be adapted for film (but I’d be glad I’d read the book first).

Half-Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls. This was our book club selection this month, and I admit to dragging my feet in wanting to read it. I think my hesitation was because I read The Glass Castle (when we were visiting Japan, actually, so eight years ago) and found it hard and heavy. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this “real-life novel.” (Walls calls it a real-life novel because it is told as if it is a memoir written by her grandmother, and though the stories are true in the sense that they are faithful retellings of the stories she heard directly from her grandmother and mother, the details and dialogue are necessarily fictional.) The chapters are short and the stories engaging, an easy read.

Abandoned this month:

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown. This book was a victim of its own message. I liked it fine, but I just didn’t want to spend more time reading it. Honestly, I probably would have made it through had I used a bookmark. I spent too much time re-reading to find my place, which is on me.

A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power, by Paul Fischer. I heard about this book a while ago on NPR, and by the time I finally got around to checking it out from the library, I had lost interest.

 

 


Aslan on the Move

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This weekend, Clara had her second dance recital with Studio 139. This year’s recital was Aslan on the Move, and the dancers–as flowers, bees and ladybugs, a river, red birds, and sunshine–told the story of the coming of spring (based on C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, of course). As you can see, the costumes and the dancers were knock-you-out adorable, but more than that, the morning had the distinct ring of worship. I am so thankful for this opportunity that Clara has to learn the skill and creativity of dance. I love the joy that it gives her to dance and us to watch. This year she looked so big that Jason almost didn’t recognize her.

 


March Reads

I keep meaning to make other posts, but it keeps being the end of the month already and time to post the month’s books!

The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well, by Meik Wiking. One of the statistics in this delightful little book is the number of people who think hygee (pronounced hoo-ga) is translatable. Of course, I can’t say for sure, but my sense is probably not. This book, though, puts enough words to the concept that I think a non-Dane can get the gist. I first heard of the concept of hygge following the thread of a friend who is/was trying to combat SAD and looked to how Nordic cultures make it through long, dark winters. This book is almost a coffee-table guide (though small), with short definitions and examples. I think I’m naturally bent toward all things hygge (think hunker down and get warm and cozy and comfortable surrounded by good friends and slow, lingering pursuits), so I found this more life affirming than life changing.

The Princess Diarist, by Carrie Fisher (read by Carrie Fisher and Billie Lourde). I listened to this one, and it was good to hear Carrie Fisher’s familiar voice. I liked the book, but didn’t love it. Honestly, it made me sad, not because of Fisher’s recent death (though that makes me sad too), but because of the angst and pain of nineteen-year-old Carrie (the actual diary entries are read by Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourde). The book is largely (though not only) about Fisher’s (apparently-well-known-but-news-to-me) affair with Harrison Ford during the filming of Star Wars. At one point, Fisher reflects, “I loved him, and he let me.” That kind of relationship is one of my most hated plot lines, and it’s only worse when it’s a true story.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill (read by Christina Moore). I loved this middle-grade read so, so much. I want people to read it (or listen to it), so we can talk. I find it hard to talk about without giving away too much of the plot–because when the mysteries begin to be revealed, that’s all the stuff I want to talk about. This book is imaginative and thoughtful and lovely. The little dragon (I can’t remember his name) who fits in your pocket but thinks he is enormous and doesn’t want to scare anyone is one of my favorite minor characters of all time–and he has my favorite line in the book. I will be listening to this again.

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. I really did like this book. The subject, of course, is hard and heavy. It took me a while to get into, and I think it was probably because I had just finished Homegoing and maybe that story was still resonating in me. I think this book deserves all the attention and accolades that it is getting.

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. I started this book forever ago and only got about 30 pages into it before setting it aside. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested but that I own the book and my library holds and other things came along and distracted me. But when I finally did pick it up again, I read all 512 (well, 482) pages in about three giant gulps. In fact, one night I read past midnight only to wake up at 4 am to finish the book by 6 am. It was a little (big) gem. I get the impression from reading a few reviews that people either love it or hate it. I loved it.

Wonder, by R. J. Palacio. This was our book club book this month, and it was simply fantastic. The book is told in several different voices and centers on ten-year-old August. Auggie was born with a facial deformity (he says, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse), and for fifth grade he is going to attend a school for the first time. Palacio does such a good job with each of the voices–whether a middle schooler or a teenager, male or female, each of the characters is well done. The story is sweet (heartwarming even) but not saccharine. All of the characters have flaws, and each new point of view adds something important–and human–to the story. I can’t wait to read this with Simon (nine years old); it’s such a good–and broadly applicable–story that explores empathy (or lack of it) and kindness (and lack of it) without being the least bit heavy-handed.

The Long Way Home, by Louise Penny. This tenth book in the Inspector Gamache series was a miss for me. It was easily my least favorite of the series so far (well, maybe not easily, The Brutal Telling, number 5, was also not my favorite). The mystery was not a murder but a disappearance. I wasn’t bothered by that changeup, but the mystery seemed a little thin and the scenes repetitive. And then the end? We can talk if you’ve read it, and I won’t give a spoiler here but I hated it. Still, I think this series is great and will, of course, continue to read.