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

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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.


February Reads

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Lucky Boy, by Shanthi Sekaran. It’s hard to offer a plot summary without giving too much away. In the broadest terms, the story is about two mothers and less about the (lucky) boy they both fiercely love. Soli, an undocumented teenage girl from Mexico, gives birth after she is in the United States. Kavya wants desperately to be a mother but has been unable to get pregnant. When Soli is detained by immigration officials, her son, Ignacio, is placed in foster care with Kavya and her husband. The story is incredibly timely, and it is heartbreaking. The characters are so well-developed, and I would guess that whatever ideas you might have about the situation hypothetically, you would be hard-pressed to choose a “right” side. The story–all too real–was such a good one. Highly recommended.

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi. This would easily make my (as-yet-still-hypothetical) top 5 books of all time list (I really will give it some thought and come up with an actual list). The story begins with half sisters in Ghana (who don’t know each other) in the eighteenth century. One sister is married to a white British general and lives in the “castle.” The other sister is brutally held in the dungeon of the same castle before being sold into slavery in America. The novel then proceeds to alternate between Ghana and the United States, with one chapter telling the story of each subsequent generation (seven generations, fourteen stories in all). Each chapter was as rich as a full novel. Some of the stories are devastating (I have never cried so hard reading a book as I did over one of the chapters), and all of them left me with a strange mix of wanting to know more but also eager to see what story the next generation would hold. Beautifully written, this debut (!) novel took my breath away.

The Seven Good Years, by Etgar Keret. I kept this one on my list though I couldn’t remember why. In the end I’m glad I did. It made me think, made me laugh out loud in a couple of places, and made me curious to seek out more of Keret’s writing. I don’t know that I would press this book into your hands as a must-read, but it is a solid and enjoyable memoir.

The Wangs vs. the World, by Jade Chang. Yeah, I should probably count this as DNF. If I do say I read it, I’m using the word “read” very generously–even “skimmed” might be pushing it. I could probably fake my way through a class discussion but not an essay test on the book. This wasn’t the book for me. Not my humor, didn’t like any of the characters, was bored by most of the storylines.

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield. I read this for book club and had such mixed feelings about it. On the one hand there were some parts where the subject matter probably would have been a deal breaker for me and another section where the far-fetched-ness of the story would have been another exit point. On the other hand, though, there were times I was so caught up in the story that I didn’t want to put it down and was glad that I pushed through after all. Overall, I would say I liked it, didn’t love it. I won’t rave about it, but I also won’t rant about it. How’s that? We haven’t met for book club yet, and I’ll be interested to hear what the others thought of it.

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese (narrated by Sunil Malhotra). So good. So, so good. This novel has all the epic sweep and complicated family relationships that I love without being over the top. The medical descriptions were often vivid (and I’m guessing they will stick with me a long time). I listened to this as an audio book, and there were a couple times I was driving and almost had to pull over because I was squirming so much. I would recommend this one without reservation for the storyline, but if you’re squeamish, you might want to pick up the paper copy so you can skim. Ha.

This month I abandoned several books. I can think of three, but it seems like there were more. News of the World, by Paulette Jiles, I had to return to the library because I ran out of time, and there were holds on it. I might return to it. I read the first chapter of Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, by Lindy West, and then texted a friend who had just finished it to see if the whole book was more of the same. I think I’ll pass–it’s one of those it’s-not-you-it’s-me situations. I could probably make it through, but with literally sixty books on my current to-read list, I just wasn’t that into it. And same with Mosquitoland, by David Arnold. I listened to the audiobook version for a chapter or so and then checked out some reviews to feel out if I wanted to continue. When several reviews said, “Good if you like John Green,” I decided to be done.


January Reads

January books

The One-in-a-Million Boy, by Monica Wood. This is a charming book, but I think for me it suffered from overhype. I mean I liked it (more than a little, less than a lot), but I didn’t looooooove it the way I thought I would based on multiple recommendations. The story is about a friendship between a quirky 11-year-old boy and a 104-year-old woman he does chores for; it has plenty of twists beyond that (not like suspenseful twists, but pieces that make the story more interesting than just that). I kind of felt like, “Yeah, ok, I get it” halfway through, and while I’m not sorry I finished it, there was nothing particularly driving me toward the end.

Moonglow, by Michael Chabon. One thing about me as a reader is that I retain all the feeling of a book and so few of the details. What I can say about this book is that I really enjoyed reading it beginning to end. The thing is, though, I read a plot summary to refresh my memory about this book, and I found it almost unrecognizable. Is that really the book I read? Ha. I do now want to pick up more books by Chabon (especially The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which is the one book that both Jason and I owned a copy of when we married and combined our book collections and which neither of us has actually read). Chabon can write, and I was taken with his characters (it’s a fictionalized memoir, and from an interview, it seems that there is very little actual memoir and almost entirely fiction), even if I can’t so much remember the plot. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. This book was creepy and fascinating as you quickly realize the narrator is not quite right. Someone has poisoned the family (it only takes a few pages to figure out who), and two sisters and their elderly uncle live in the aftermath. It’s not so much a whodunit mystery unfolding as it is an exploration of mental illness.

Pax, by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klaassen. I picked this book up to read with Simon, and he hasn’t quite finished yet. The story is about a boy, Peter, and his fox, Pax, separated by war and making their way back to each other. The chapters alternate between the boy’s perspective and the fox’s; both are equally engaging. There are some situations in each story that seem unbelievable, but all is forgiven because it’s such a compelling (if predictable) story altogether. The illustrations are simply beautiful.

Circling the Sun, by Paula McClain (narrated by Katharine McEwan). I have such mixed feelings about this book, which is set in colonial Kenya and is the story of Beryl Markham, who was abandoned by her mother as a child and who as an adult ran with the crowd featured in Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. I listened to this as an audio book, and the narrator was particularly good. My mixed feelings are because at times I was frankly bored, but then other times I was completely caught up in the story and characters. Markham has written a memoir that in the opinion of some is better than Out of Africa. I may pick up that memoir someday, but I fear I’ll have a weird sense of believing McClain’s portrayal so entirely that I may not believe Markham herself.

The Beautiful Mystery and How the Light Gets In, by Louise Penny. These were actually two of my favorites in a series that I have adored so far (and I’ve not really been much of a series reader since Janette Oke in my middle school years; and just to clarify, these are nothing like those, but I do have a nostalgic fondness for Oke). The Beautiful Mystery (#8) is set in a secluded monastery; one of the monks is found murdered, and the culprit can only be one of their own. As for the mystery itself, this was probably my favorite of the series. The surrounding stories (the continued arch of the main characters) was not my favorite in this one, but after reading the next book in the series as well, I can appreciate why the characters acted as they did. Then How the Light Gets In (#9) is my favorite of the series so far. So many of the storylines came together and in fact resolved in such a way that this could easily have been the last book in the series and I would have sighed a contented sigh (don’t get me wrong, I’m glad there are three more and another coming out this fall). I don’t remember much about the particular plot of this one (remember that thing I said about the feeling of a book), but it hit all the right notes I have come to expect from Penny.

Everything You Ever Wanted, by Jillian Lauren. This is a memoir that I almost tossed in the great Goodreads purge of 2016. A friend, though, left a review that said she has asked her friends and family to read it for a glimpse of her own life with foster care and adoption. It was indeed an enjoyable (if that’s possible) read about a hard topic–the author has insightful things to say about her experiences with infertility and adoption of a child who had experienced early trauma.

Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson (narrated by Robin Miles). I read this book in one sitting in December, and because it was our book club pick for January, I listened to the audio version to refresh my memory (I was on hold for both the hard copy and the audio, and the audio was available first). I have to say I enjoyed reading the physical book more than listening. The narrator was better than okay but somehow not my very favorite. I did pick up so much more from listening than I did reading the first time, and I’m not sure if that was format or familiarity–probably a bit of both. A plot description doesn’t do this novel justice. I read one review that said, “This gorgeous novel is a poem. It is a love letter to black girlhood.” This is one that has stayed with me since my first reading and continues to play at the corners of my mind.

Swing Time, by Zadie Smith. I loved the first third or so of this book so much. And I liked the rest of it a whole lot too. It’s a novel that alternates times and storylines, and I think when it came down to it, I just found one of the storylines more interesting than the other (not always the same one). I happened to catch a snippet of the author being interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air (I didn’t even know it was her at first, but I guessed by the conversation that it might be, then let out a little squeal when Terry Gross confirmed with “in case you’re just joining us…”). That interview made a fan of me, and now I’m a little starry-eyed; in fact, if I talked to you in person in the last couple of weeks, it’s likely that I mentioned the interview–so many ideas that I wanted to talk about. I even made Jason listen to the podcast. I read White Teeth in grad school and remember zero about it, but this book made me want to read more from Smith.

Two-Part Invention, by Madeline L’Engle. This is the fourth in L’Engle’s Crosswalk Journals series of memoirs, and it is the story of her courtship and forty-year marriage to Hugh Franklin. It is so lovely, and full of goodness. Reading this one felt like sitting down to coffee with a treasured mentor and friend. Spoiler warning (but it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise): When Hugh died of cancer in the penultimate chapter, I cried so hard Jason came from the other room to check on me. I may never recover.

This month I also abandoned two audio books–Lab  Girl, by Hope Jahren, and Columbine, by Dave Cullen–both because of the narration. I plan to pick them up in hard copy sometime because I really would like to finish them both.