We have once again been watching the Great British Baking Show (notice my pic from December 8, 2015), and after school today we decided to have our own contest to determine Star Baker. Would you believe I legit had not just a good time baking with the kids but fun? From 4 pm until almost 7 pm, these three kids planned, baked, frosted, and presented their creations. (The challenge was sugar cookies, and they added flavors to their dough and color and flavors to their frosting. Each so creative in their own ways!) They did it all with zero fighting, and honestly they all cracked it, as Paul Hollywood would say. Jason and I were chuffed.
There are a couple of stories we like to tell that succinctly explain the difference between Jason and me. This weekend we added another. On Sunday morning, the kids all piled into our (queen-sized) bed. I was practically delirious with happiness; it filled my cup right up. Everyone agreed there’s not really enough room for all of us, and there’s where the difference came in. The solution is obvious, right? A bigger bed! Nope, Jason’s solution would be a smaller bed. Either way, the boys got a little headstart on shopping for a new one today.
Sigh. Some days are better than others; we’ll just leave it at that. I can’t tell if this was genuine rage or mugging for the camera after–both of those things happened today and in fairly rapid succession. One of Clara’s teachers told me today “she’s a very good advocate for herself.” I’m not sure how to take that, but I’ve no doubt that it’s true. In the best sense, I pray it will always be true.
We all enjoyed our hot chocolate (Italian soda/steamer/apple cider)–Uno date. We probably spent more time picking out drinks than playing Uno (and we had to keep it low-key because there were a lot of people studying), but now that the kids have decided what they’re going to order the next three times, I think we’ll have to do it again.
Every knight needs a spear. Sir Ian whittled his own. (Also, he was having trouble getting the trajectory right, and when I showed him this photo he said, “Oh! That’s why!” I don’t know what correction he thought to make, but I think we might have a future javelin thrower or mechanical engineer in the making.)
As I do every year during the December Photo Project, this morning I got sucked down the (wonderful, life-affirming, nostalgic) rabbit hole of DPP pics from years gone by. With Clara in kindergarten this year (and therefore all the kids in school), my weekdays look really different. (This is decidedly mixed–I enjoy the new rhythm but definitely miss my kids.) Seeing/remembering my pic from last year’s December 1 made me extra achey, and so I was correspondingly extra eager to pick the kids up from school today. Although I don’t usually photograph it, Clara running full-speed to greet me after school (knocking me over like a Great Dane if I’m not paying attention) is pretty typical, and it hasn’t gotten old yet.
I read a lot this month. A lot. And while I’m glad I got to read as much as I did, this end-of-the-month recap overwhelms me a little. I’m afraid most of what I have this month is the general feeling of “liked it” or “didn’t.” I’m going to try something different next month (and going forward if it works well). I will be posting these short reviews on my Instagram account (mrsopusreads) and then compiling them here as well.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. I liked this quirky protagonist quite a bit. Eleanor is structured (perhaps an understatement), socially awkward, and isolated, lonely probably without fully realizing it. In some ways her transformation (both physical and emotional) over the course of the book could be the stuff of a s0-basic-as-to-be-generic butterfly-coming-out-of-her-cocoon story, but for some reason I do think it avoids being bland. I feel like I will sooner rather than later forget the details of why I liked this book so much, but the good feeling of having liked it will cause me to recommend it anyway.
Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. If I wanted to finish this one (and I did), I had to read it faster than I would have liked to (to get it back to the library on time). The story is told from two different points of view–that of Jojo, a thirteen-year-old boy, and that of his mother, Leonie. These two, along with Jojo’s toddler sister, Kayla, and a friend of Leonie’s, take a road trip to pick up Jojo and Kayla’s father when he is released from prison. It is fitting that the plot is simple; the characters and relationships are anything but. (That’s a convoluted way of saying this is a character-driven novel.) The writing in this book is to be savored, and I kick myself for not being able to. I will be seeking out more Jesmyn Ward for sure.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King. I have been meaning to pick this up for a long time, as so many people have raved about it. It’s part memoir and part nuts-and-bolts of writing. Perhaps I simply wasn’t in the right headspace for it, or perhaps I’m not the right audience. I liked it fine, but it didn’t blow me away. (Important note, though, I’m finding that’s how I feel about a majority of books I read this month, so it could legitimately be just me or even just me today.) I do find myself wanting to read more Stephen King, though, so there’s that. (Apart from this one, I have only read 11-22-63–loved it!)
A Thousand Mornings: Poems, by Mary Oliver. Poetry is not my go-to genre. I don’t love it; I don’t dread it. I did find this collection an enjoyable way to pass an evening.
In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez. The premise of this intrigued me–it is the (true) story of four sisters who were active in speaking out against the oppressive Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Known as las Mariposas, the Butterflies, three of the four sisters were killed in an “accident” while one survives to tell their story. Honestly, I wanted to like this book better than I did. It was told from several different points of view (each of the four sisters in turn), and some worked better than others. I think somehow this fictionalized version lost (at least for me) the intensity of the lives that led to these women becoming mythic heroes. I would love to read a non-fiction account of these sisters, though.
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë. Ah, I loved this book. This was my first reading of it, and all the while I kept thinking, “No wonder so many people love this book. No wonder this is a classic.” I did know the big twist, and that may have dimmed my experience ever so slightly, simply because I was waiting, waiting, waiting for it, wondering when it would be revealed. (As a side note, I read the Penguin Classics edition with the cover art by fashion designer Ruben Toledo, and it reminded me how much it really does please me–and probably enhances the reading experience–to find a lovely edition of a book.)
Velocity, by Dean Koontz. I got in my head that I wanted to read a book whose author’s name on the cover was bigger than the title. This was a (fittingly) fast read. In terms of pace and content (though not point of view), it reminded me of the kind of tv shows Jason and I often watch (lately we’ve been on an Elementary kick, but Castle before it was horrible was similar). I wasn’t super impressed by the reveal, but it was a satisfying read for what I expected from it. I wouldn’t rule out reading more Dean Koontz, but I probably won’t seek him out either.
The Widow of Wall Street, by Randy Susan Meyers. I picked this book up from the library because I couldn’t stop thinking about its gorgeous cover. What do I say about this book? I liked it well enough to finish it for sure, but it won’t be particularly memorable. Perhaps the jacket copy gave away too much–Phoebe marries her high school boyfriend, Jake, and they live a glitzy life, but later Jake goes to prison for his Ponzi scheme and her world unravels. So, I mean Jake was just as much a money-loving, self-centered dirtbag as you would expect, and, well, that’s the story. I am not quiet about the fact that celebrities’ lives interest me only for a short while before they bore me; I don’t have much attention span for the super-rich (or their downfall) either, I guess. Even so, I fall more on the “yeah, go ahead and read it” side than the “skip it” side–either is a fine choice, I think.
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. This is the story of a young teenage girl who was in the car when her childhood best friend was fatally shot by a police officer. This book is way too current and way too infuriating and heartbreaking and raw to say that I liked reading it.
With the Kids
Betsy–Tacy, by Lucy Maud Lovelace. We picked this classic up at the library book sale, and I read it to Clara. We both liked it. Since I didn’t read this one in my own childhood, I didn’t necessarily have an affection for it, I don’t know that I would have finished it on my own, but as a read-aloud for a five-year-old it was terrific. (Also, it thrills me when Clara refers to it weeks later in random situations.)
May B., by Caroline Starr Rose. I can’t stop recommending this one. I picked it up and started reading it while I was volunteering in the kids’ school library and afterwards drove straight to the public library to check it out. It is written in verse and is the story of May, a pioneer girl in Kansas who is sent to live and work with another family for a few months. Slight spoiler (but not really), she is abandoned in the soddy and has to figure out how to survive by herself with the oncoming winter (since her parents aren’t set to fetch her until Christmas). It is beautiful and intriguing and I can’t stop thinking about it. I described it to Simon, and he said “that sounds like my kind of book,” so now he’s reading it too. Highly, highly recommended.
Rabbit Cake, by Annie Hartnett. I heard about this on the podcast From the Front Porch, where it was recommended as a good audio book because you could really “hear” the eleven-year-old protagonist’s voice. A blurb for the audio book said, “fans of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette? and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You will delight in [this book].” I did in fact like both of those books very much, and although those two books don’t have much to do with each other, I think it’s pretty accurate that this has elements of both. Although Elvis is eleven, this doesn’t really strike me as a YA novel (which is neither here nor there but a good thing in this case). I do like the way the story unfolds precisely because it is told from a younger person’s point of view; much of the humor and insight comes because of the things she doesn’t yet understand and/or her age-appropriately-immature thought patterns.
Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds, by Kara Richardson Whitely (read by the author). I believe I first heard of this one on the What Should I Read Next? podcast. I listened to this one. Despite being a journey, and up a mountain at that, I’m not sure I really registered much movement (in terms of what in fiction would be called character development). She climbed the mountain, she’d done it before once and she’d failed before once. This third time was trying to recapture some of the success and accomplishment of her previous completed attempt and erase the feelings of failure from the failed attempt. In the end, I don’t think there was a really profound lesson or mountaintop experience. And that’s fine. (Honestly, if you read this book and find that I missed the poignant lesson in it all, I will believe you but stand by my non-registering of it.) Sometimes climbing a mountain is just climbing a mountain. I did enjoy following along her thoughts and fears and self-doubt (and overcoming or at least facing the latter two) for the few days it took me to listen, but on the whole the book didn’t really elicit much of any reaction from me.
Dear Fahrenheit 451: A Librarian’s Love Letters and Break-Up Notes to the Books in Her Life, by Annie Spence. I heard about this one on a podcast (WSIRN, probably). It hit the spot. I mean, I really love to listen to people talk about books. Oh yes, I remember the podcast was WSIRN, and I know that because I remember Anne Bogel saying that this definitely does not pass the “read out loud to your grandmother” test. True. The author is snarky and quite funny. I laughed a lot. I did wish that I had the hard copy in front of me because the last quarter of the book or so is a bunch of lists of books. Since this felt somewhat like listening to a podcast, I kept thinking I need to read the show notes.
Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice after Serial, by Rabia Chaudry (read by the author). It seemed only appropriate to listen to this as an audio book. I have been captivated by this story since Serial. (And these brief thoughts assume that you are familiar with that podcast.) I’m not sure if this would be as compelling if you had not listened to Serial, but she does tell the whole story, so I think you wouldn’t be lost. However, if you did listen and still want more of the story, I’d definitely recommend this.
American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, by Monica Hesse. This was recommended by the From the Front Porch podcast as a modern comp for In Cold Blood (true confession: although I do tend to like the true crime genre, I have never read In Cold Blood. I will think about remedying that). The premise is that eighty fires were set by an arsonist in a five-month period in a rural Virginia county. The book follows the story from the point of view of both law enforcement and the arsonists and also offers some commentary on the (declining) economy and culture of the area. This is definitely more along the lines of an extended This American Life episode than a mystery. It kept my interest throughout, and I would recommend it.
Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work at the White House, by Alyssa Mastromonoco (read by the author). Sigh. Remember how I said I wasn’t going to read any more celebrity memoirs? This one was kind of sneaky. I thought I could get away with it because I was not familiar with the author and for a good part of the book I thought maybe I’d make an exception because I did enjoy the glimpses of the people I did recognize while keeping it mostly among those I didn’t. I kept getting the West Wing meets Mindy Kahling vibe (and the author is IRL friends with Mindy Kahling). In the end, though, it swung to too much of the latter and not enough of the former for me to be truly interested. (And on a side note, not a fair criticism of the book: it was very deliberately organized by topic and not chronologically–the author specifically spelled out her rationale for this. Obviously, that’s a fine choice, and perhaps if I had been reading instead of listening it may have played better for me. Listening to this as an audiobook, I was often confused since it jumps around in time so much. Neither here nor there, but just another reason this book wasn’t my favorite.)
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.