Reading: Sept-Oct 2018

I read exactly the same number of books (seven) in two months of my busy season than I did in my slow-speed summer, opposite reactions to bad news. This summer, I felt too stunned to read much. Summer came and went and, other than our trips, I’m not sure what I did. This fall, I escaped inside books. A couple were light and fluffy; a few were for young readers, though that doesn’t mean fluffy; three were written by the same author; one was exceedingly excellent.

Surprise MeSurprise Me by Sophie Kinsella
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Dan and Sylvie have a physical on their tenth anniversary, the doctor tells them that, due to increasing lifespans and their overall good health, they can plan to enjoy another 68 years of marriage. Which sends them into a tailspin of dread over how they will possibly maintain a marriage for so long…

This one took me a while because I’d have quite the opposite response. When I said YES to “til death do us part,” I truly hoped it would be forever and then some.

But true to Kinsella’s style, they have more than a few LOL comic moments and eventually the story becomes bigger than the immediate crisis and, in the end, they grow as individuals and as a couple. Yay, them!

I'll Be Your Blue SkyI’ll Be Your Blue Sky by Marisa de los Santos
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Clare meets an old woman, Edith, who speaks such gently piercing truth that she calls off her wedding with only hours to go. Weeks later, Clare discovers that Edith has died and left her a house, a place of her own. Thus begins Clare’s adventure into unraveling the mystery of Edith’s life even as she discovers her way back to her own true home.

de los Santos is an excellent writer, and occasionally I read and reread a beautiful turn of phrase. But I found myself working too hard to recall her characters’ relationships in her previous books, Love Walked In and Belong to Me. And then when the big reveal happened in this book, again, I slowly pieced things together although the characters made it sound obvious. Maybe if you read the trilogy altogether it would work better.

Connect the StarsConnect the Stars by Marisa de los Santos
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The book jacket explains, “Sometimes you have to get lost to find yourself.” And this book beautifully illustrates that point in exquisite detail.

Audrey and Aaron are both middle school misfits. But then, just about every middle schooler I’ve ever met is a misfit during that time of life. It’s kind of the whole point. Anyway, they each find themselves on a journey through the desert and into belonging as The Fearless Foursome (alongside Kate and Louis).

They have an adventure I would never have undertaken at their age, nor would I knowingly send my kids on such an adventure. But then, that’s the point of adventure, right? If you knew, you might not go. No one intends to truly get lost. Yet that’s the very point of discovery.

I love Marisa de los Santos even more for providing me with a book I can put in the hands of my own middle school child. A book about family, friendship, the instructional power of the wilderness, forgiveness, and self-appreciation.

“‘If the four and a half billion years the Earth has existed were compressed into a single twenty-four hour day,’ said Aaron, very, very quietly, ‘humans would have appeared one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight.
“All that time, without us.
“A shiver went from my heels to the top of my head.
“Who cares if people lie? I thought. This–right here–is why the word ‘awesome’ was made.” (179)

All We Ever WantedAll We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book, like our current cultural/political climate, sits uncomfortably. While very readable, I wasn’t expecting to read a story that could have been ripped from today’s headlines.

The One-in-a-Million BoyThe One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not a perfect book. It meanders like the mind of an old woman recalling her 104 years of life in the company of an unusual Boy Scout. But it is a charming book, with characters unique and human, the best and worst of themselves on display as they bump into and around one another like pin balls. In the end, it’s a reminder that life can be hard and sweet and we need others with whom to share it fully.

“But certain [people], they move in and make themselves at home and start flapping their arms in the story you make of your life. They have a wingspan” (p199).

Saving Lucas BiggsSaving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love that books for young readers can take on serious issues and make them understandable and engaging. No smut, just great story. This one takes on corporate corruption and its effects on individuals and families over generations; fracking; murder and the death penalty; bravery and fear; love, friendship and family. All in one entertaining package.

Another one I’m passing on to my 14yo!

“…sure, the past matters–but the present? The present is here and here and here, a sky full of light, a path under your feet, your hair lifted by wind, the smell of flowers, green grass, red rocks, all of it tumbling toward summer, and all of it yours. All you have to do is set fear aside and stretch out your hand” (278).

Blood Water PaintBlood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are a woman who reads, get your hands on this book. Do not let the verse intimidate you. It’s not difficult poetry, just carefully chosen words to convey the thoughtful reflections of a woman who prefers self-expression through paint over words.

This beautifully written book is art about art. The layers of women’s stories, the use of different writing styles to convey different voices, the truth it tells about what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world, and an extraordinary woman in anyone’s world, all compelling.

One Book Short

book-1014197_960_720Teen has a numbers quirk: they have to be even. The stereo and TV can’t be set to 9 or 11, but to 8 or 10. He’s thrilled that his birth date contains all even numbers, and irked by his rugby bag: #733.

So I won’t bother to tell him that, as of this moment, I’ve read 49 books in 2016. I might still squeeze in one more, but not in time to also blog about it. So as far we are concerned, 49 it is.

49 tops the even 30 I read in 2015, and blows away the 9-13 read by the “average” American (Pew Research Center, January 2014). I guess I could wow Teen with my page count: those 49 books contained 15,662 pages, with an average length of 326. My shortest book was also even: Gratitude by Oliver Sacks, 64 pages; my longest book, odd: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, at 531. Among Goodreads readers, the most popular book I read this year is the new Harry Potter play, The Cursed Child, while the least popular was I Dare Me by Lu Ann Cahn; and the highest rated book (for good reason!) is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.

My go-to genre: literature/fiction at 25 (favs this year: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave, Euphoria by Lily King, and Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld). Young adult comes close at 13 (favs: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven and The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson). I read more than my usual of non-fiction (two completely different, life-changing favs: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and Small Move, Big Change by Caroline L. Arnold). Surprisingly, I only read one book on faith/religion but it’s a practical book on prayer (Fervent by Priscilla Shirer), and not surprisingly, only one book of short stories which I gave up on (What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi – smart, just not for me).

I’ve summarized my 2016 reading in four posts: March 4, March 31, May 26, and September 29. Below are the books I’ve read in the last few months.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and RedemptionJust Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A year ago my teenage son read Just Mercy as extra credit for his high school Social Studies class. This year he read Kafka and Camus for an English class unit on existentialism. As I took up Just Mercy this month, I thought they might be of the same genre: how can it be that we live in a country founded on freedom and still incarcerate–on death row, no less–a hard-working, well-respected man with no evidence beyond skin color and fear? He might as well have woken up a bug. That might have been a better life.

Stevenson’s passion for justice and mercy for those who have been treated with less dignity than the very least of these, combined with his gift of storytelling, has opened my eyes to an aspect of America I wish didn’t exist. In this election year, I feel a new weight of responsibility to research the candidates and measures on the ballot. The headlines and bullet points cannot reveal the whole picture. Those without a voice rely on those of us who do to sing a better, more accurate song of freedom.

A God in RuinsA God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a companion piece to Life After Life, this book was not what I’d hoped. I was initially glad we weren’t flipping through lives and time again as we did in Ursula’s story, but to the contrary, Teddy’s story plods along in a rather unexciting way. Even the war scenes felt mostly, surprisingly, slow. Had I not already invested hours reading the first book, I would have given up on the several hundred pages of this one.

Until the last gut-wrenching chapter.

If you haven’t read or didn’t like Life After Life, I won’t recommend this to you. If you read/like LAL, hang in there with this one.

Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice (The Austen Project, #4)Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

LOVE! After many years, I reread one of Jane Austen’s books while on vacation. Still great, of course, but I have changed and I couldn’t love it the way I had. It felt (I know, writing these words might be sacrilege to some…) trite, superficial.

This book, though…? This book made Austen’s characters and stories real in such a great way. I honestly couldn’t put it down and finished it in less than 24 hours, including time off to sleep. I loaned it to a friend who did the same thing. We both grinned goofy-ridiculous grins because the book is goofy-ridiculous grin worthy. So. Much. Fun!

Everyone Brave is ForgivenEveryone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn’t particularly want to read another WW2 book, but Cleave’s Little Bee remains one of the most compelling books I’ve read. I’m so glad I gave this one a chance, as it has cemented Cleave among my favorite authors. His writing is so fresh–personal, vivid, funny, poignant. His characters become real people you’d like to know (or not). The story is so specifically focused that you almost don’t notice the war, but then, you also get new and horrifying details about the war. I’d recommend this book to just about any reader.

Today Will Be DifferentToday Will Be Different by Maria Semple
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One weird day, and 50 years of Eleanor’s life.

She begins the day with a set of resolutions to become a better, more productive, healthier human being. (Don’t we all do that some days, even beyond our January determination?) She doesn’t achieve most of what she sets out to do/be. It’s too pie-in-the-sky to think sheer will power can override years of dysfunctional habit. But through flashbacks, we learn some of the Big Why’s that led to Eleanor’s current state of peculiarity. And through odd events that pile up one after another, she comes to new insights and revelations.

“Today” may have been as strange as any previous day in her life, but I believe in hope that Eleanor’s tomorrow will be different.

SweetbitterSweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I worked as a restaurant hostess for one short college-years summer, and that was more than enough restaurant work for me.

It was also enough to conjure specific memories–sights, smells, personalities, stress–while reading Sweetbitter. I didn’t like restaurant work, and I didn’t like this book.

The writing was fine–specific, clever. But I am not a “bright lights, big city” kinda gal, while Tess claims the day she moved to New York was the day of her real birth. She longs for Big City adventure, and yet it seemed that her world got smaller and then smaller still. She repeatedly made stupid choices she could have avoided – ones she knew she should have avoided. That’s not very interesting.

And the Big Betrayal she experiences just didn’t seem that big to me. She chose awful “friends” who hurt her. But everyone, including Tess, is so clearly awful that it didn’t seem surprising or even all that bad.

Honestly, this book was enough to make me want to avoid going to restaurants–the facade, the pretension, the dirt. I think I’ll cook at home.

Northanger Abbey (The Austen Project, #2)Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Confession: I have never read Austen’s original Northanger Abbey. But this book was entirely uneven… Sometimes it felt Austen-formal, others it revealed its updating. Maybe the fault is mine, that I’m not familiar with how Brits currently view social strata, influencing their behavior/attitudes. That aside, vampires? I wasn’t sure if the author was joking or serious. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, an update of Pride & Prejudice was fantastic; McDermid’s attempt at Northanger Abbey wasn’t.

Small Great ThingsSmall Great Things by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book for two reasons: someone gave me a gift certificate and a recommendation, and I’ve been reading about racial injustice. Some of it was difficult to read, the violence of white supremacy, for example, but also the implication that I might be more racist than I admit. Indeed, Picoult says as much in her afterword: “I was writing to my own community–white people–who can’t recognize racism in themselves.” In the end, I’m glad I stuck with it. Not because it’s a fantastic book (it’s okay, kept me guessing) but because it offered me different views on race in the US. And for the many who are more inclined to popular fiction than nonfiction sociology, this book will serve a good purpose.

Thankful Thursday – Books!

I read 30 books in 2015. Not a lot, but more than two a month. So far in 2016, I’ve upped the ante, closer to one a week. I may not keep it up, but it’s been fun so far. I keep my library queue updated as I hear about books I want to read, which makes it like a game of library roulette – I read what I get, and I set reading goals based on due dates and which books are more likely in demand and so unlikely to be renewable. Just last week my neighbor popped over and found me in my pj’s too late in the morning, because I just had to get to the end of a book. She loaned me the library book she’d just finished, with four days left to read it. Done! And wouldn’t you know it? The day I returned it, my queue provided my next book to take its place.

Another coincidence that made me chuckle: the first four books came in young adult-adult pairs of two, one pair on death and another on female friendships.

So here you go, the low-down on what I’ve read so far in 2016.

All the Bright PlacesAll the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I almost stopped reading after one chapter – the subject matter is raw – and I’m so glad I didn’t. This book is beautiful, with beautifully-drawn characters, people I feel I know, struggling in the wake of tragedy and the daily tragedy called High School. For those who liked Paper Towns and Eleanor & Park, this book might be even better.

Ordinary GraceOrdinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A middle-aged man recounts his thirteen summer as son of a Methodist minister in a small Minnesota farming town, the summer death stripped him of childhood and forced him to face life as a young man. The book feels slow and almost dreamlike in its reflection but superb in capturing the superlatives that make up ordinary life: doubt, faith, friendship, family, anger, fear, joy, beauty, love. It portrays what it looks like to live faith, which necessarily includes doubt, without being preachy even during the few snippets of sermon. The story points to grace which leads to hope.

“In your dark night, I urge you to hold to your faith, to embrace hope, and to bear your love before you like a burning candle, for I promise that it will light your way.
“And whether you believe in miracles or not, I can guarantee that you will experience one. It may no be the miracle you’ve prayed for. God probably won’t undo what’s been done. This miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see again the startling beauty of the day” (195).

Big Little LiesBig Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Without the raving of friends I might not have picked up this book, but I’m glad I did. I know these characters, and if you’re a parent with kids in grade school, you do, too. They made me laugh and made me want to stomp on their toes and/or hug them. The bitchy, controlling parents who believe their kid can do no wrong. The meek who get trampled for listening to and believing their kid. The life of the party and the parent-organizer. And oh, the issues: gossip, manipulation, parent v. parent v. administration. It’s all real, frustratingly so.

But it’s really about friendship, family, and parenting in a cultural environment that doesn’t always prioritize the right things. And in the end, it does a good job of revealing that exteriors and reality don’t always match up. We all need more compassion. As the book says, “It could happen to any of us.”

Goodbye StrangerGoodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Stead has mastered the thoughts and voices of middle school girls. So spot on and surprisingly smart. In fact, it’s evident that Stead loves her characters, refreshing as culture tends to look down on middle schoolers. The story broke my heart in all the right ways and handed it back fully restored. It’s not a great book, but if you like early adolescents, or if you want an inside peek into their complex inner lives, this is a good book. If you haven’t read Stead’s When You Reach Me, do so quickly. It is amazing.

I Dare Me: How I Rebooted and Recharged My Life by Doing Something New Every DayI Dare Me: How I Rebooted and Recharged My Life by Doing Something New Every Day by Lu Ann Cahn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really liked this book. A wowza-successful middle aged woman decides to try something for the first time every day of the year, and in so doing “unsticks” her life. Some of her Firsts seem drastic – New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge or riding a mechanical bull; others are wacky – eating a scorpion; some are playful – hula hooping; some are ordinary – trying a new restaurant or recipe; some are life-changing – she learns new skills and takes risk that may eventually pay off in her career. The overall take-away is to open your eyes to see the invitations – and say YES! – to live a full, creative, exuberant, playful life.

The Sword of Summer (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, #1)The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While my guys have read just about every Rick Riordan on the market, this was my first. Tween and I needed a new read-aloud, and as this series is based on Norse mythology (my heritage), we dove in headlong. Surprise, surprise, I liked it! There may have been too many characters considering my woeful Norse myth-knowledge, but it was fun. Just right for a read-aloud with a middle grade reader boy.

Finding AudreyFinding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Different from Kinsella’s other books, while maintaining her style, makes this foray engaging in new ways. I related a little too much to the mom freaked out by her teenage son’s gaming habits. She made me feel better about myself, actually, until I realize she’s got way more on her hands than I want. Poor Audrey is making her way through her “broken” brain’s reaction to tragic events, and her family is doing their best along with her. I don’t know enough about how teenage brains heal, so this effort may be a little too romantic and unrealistic. Still, it was sweet.

Who Do You LoveWho Do You Love by Jennifer Weiner
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was a very readable down-to-earth love story, beginning with Rachel and Andy as children and following each one as they weave in and out of each other’s lives through middle age. It was good, not great. I much prefer Good in Bed and In Her Shoes, but if you’re looking for a light, don’t have to think too much love story, this is it.

When Organizing Isn't Enough: Shed Your Stuff, Change Your LifeWhen Organizing Isn’t Enough: Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life by Julie Morgenstern
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Because I constantly fight with clutter, I constantly pick up organizing books. This one is different and at first I thought it wasn’t for me, as it really has to do with people moving through life transitions: change of employment or relationship status, for example. The paradigm is this: Separate the treasures; Heave the trash; Embrace your identity; and Drive yourself forward = SHED. Of course those 4 steps can apply to anyone at any point. They’re broader than just Stuff as well, because you can apply the paradigm to mental and emotional clutter as well as physical. I mostly skimmed the book, but there’s some good stuff in there you won’t find in your average organizational book.

Three WishesThree Wishes by Liane Moriarty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book fell into my hands courtesy of my neighbor and I had four days to read it before it was due at the library. It’s an easy read, so I devoured it like birthday cake. It looks light and fluffy, but is surprisingly rich as it follows triplets from their 34th birthday celebration back in time to before their conception and through life as these look-alikes live out their individual identities.

Our families assign us roles we live out:
Lyn – driven, achiever, martyr
Cat – dramatic, funny, bitch
Gemma – forgetful, drifter, surprisingly smart but unfocused
And yet we have the power to make different decisions, ones that may seem out of character to others but drive us forward in new and better directions.