Reading: October 2019

I live in Northern California, in the San Francisco East Bay, where fall has come to be known as “Fire Season.” High temperatures and high winds plus summer-sun-scorched grasses in lots of otherwise beautiful open space make for a terrifying combination.

As I write, the Kincade Fire has scorched more than 76,000 acres of Sonoma County, including over 100 homes, and it’s only 30% contained. There was a small fire in the next town over from us last Sunday. And, in case you missed it, we were evacuated a few weeks ago.

PG&E continued the power outages for safety and inspection. This time our power did not go out, but winds snapped a cable that took out our WiFi for most of three days. Honestly, in some ways that was worse: I’m okay with camping at home so long as I have access to information. Thankfully, the planned blackouts have come to an end. For now.

However, when it’s too windy to walk the dogs and we have no internet access distractions, I’m happy to take that time to stick my nose in a book. Reading as an easy escape was just the ticket this month!

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The DreamersThe Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I couldn’t put this one down. It’s a dream of a novel, and a nightmare, and perfectly written.

 

The Rosie Result (Don Tillman, #3)The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A satisfying conclusion to the Rosie trilogy, which I thoroughly enjoyed start to finish.

 

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative BattlesThe War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

All artists (read: every human being) faces Resistance. Resistance takes many forms, but essentially looks like inactivity due to fear. Combating Resistance = WAR! In the fight, we encounter the Muse who has been with us all along except we haven’t been paying attention.

I didn’t always like this book, but I don’t like war, either. Pressfield is right all along: resistance, war, muse. All the way through, except it’s not linear. It’s an every minute of the day battle, and one I’m committed to. Let’s do this!

“…the most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying…. We’re facing dragons too. Fire-breathing griffins of the soul, whom we must outfight and outwit to reach the treasure of our self-in-potential and to release the maiden who is God’s plan and destiny for ourselves and the answer to why we were put on the planet.” (108-109)

“Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.” (165)

PaxPax by Sara Pennypacker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Despite having spotted this in a bookstore years ago, I almost gave it up a couple chapters in as I anticipated the story would be sad. I’m glad I persevered. This isn’t a sad story, but strong, a new take on coming of age. It tells of peace and war, brokenness and health, relationships with family, people who become dear, and the world. In the end, my only complaint was that I couldn’t tell when and where it was set. But then, I recognized, that very fact makes the story even more universal: peace and war, brokenness and health, occur at all times everywhere.

“Because I am exactly where I should be, doing exactly what I should be doing. That is peace.” (102)

The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the WorldThe Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not the best written book I’ll ever read, but certainly an important read.

When people ask, “Why can’t the developing world figure out its poverty issues?” there are so many answers. (To be clear, the US has plenty of its own poverty challenges).

But maybe the best is right here: we need to empower the women.

The big issues are connected in complicated ways: health, family planning, education, agriculture/food, work (especially unpaid labor), child marriage and human trafficking. They all have root in gender inequity and potential solutions stemming from steps toward gender equity.

This book is global and specific. Gates preaches what she also puts into practice in her own life. I thought I knew a lot on this topic, and this book opened my eyes to how much I have left to learn.

EchoEcho by Pam Muñoz Ryan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Your fate is not yet sealed.
Even in the darkest night, a star will shine,
A bell will chime, a path will be revealed.

This book begins and ends as a fairy tale, just what I had been looking for. In between, it contains three stories of musically gifted young people facing extremely difficult situations. Their stories echo one another though their lives are completely different…except for the possession of one very special harmonica.

I couldn’t stop smiling through Part Four, an enchanted evening indeed.

I wobbled in the middle, because the stories seem sad. But that’s the point: you don’t see how things will end while you’re in the middle. So you need some beauty and light, and music is an excellent provider of both.

“Some of the parents are asking why the school district is paying for a music teacher during a war. But Mr. Daniels says everyone needs a little beauty and light in their lives, especially during the worst of times” (529)

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What are you reading?

2019 Reading So Far

Apparently, today is World Book Day. I didn’t know this was a thing but, as an avid reader, this seems like a good day to post about what I’ve been diving into so far in 2019.

The Clockmaker's DaughterThe Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was like a meandering dream, weaving in and out of place and time, characters familiar and strange, each drawn and returning to a beloved house along the river. It’s an ode to home, and one in particular, currently occupied by a lovely ghost.

I liked the book while between its cover but, as I shut them, I felt disappointed. Some of it was too predictable, some threads too neatly tied while others were left to dangle. I guess I felt like I simply woke up from the dream.

“He would never see her again. And yet he wished he could have told her that he’d lost his way, too. He’d lost his way, but hope still fluttered in and out of focus like a bird, singing that if he kept putting one foot in front of the other, he might just make it home” (261).

“Home…the perfunctory description accorded the building in which one currently resides, but also the warm, rounded name used to describe the place from which ultimate comfort and safety is derived” (310).

I Owe You OneI Owe You One by Sophie Kinsella
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I hit a total reading slump and needed a light bit of chick-lit to jump start me out of it. This did the trick.

I’ve read most of Kinsella’s books, with some clearly rising to the top (Can You Keep a Secret? or Remember Me?). This one feels more emotionally mature than all the others combined while still maintaining the meet-cute/rom-com strategy that clearly works for her. I appreciated the emotional growth a whole family experiences as our heroine questions her long-held beliefs and pays down her own emotional debts.

Two Steps ForwardTwo Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished this novel (based on the authors’ real-life experience) about walking the Chemin/Camino through France to Spain feeling much as I did after reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Oregon–I want to undertake a long walk!

If you know me, that probably sounds both surprising and true. I am not the fittest tool in the shed, and I am one to undertake crazy adventures for the sake of spiritual discipline.

I enjoyed the back-and-forth between female and male characters on the trail, both the main characters and the many they encounter along the way. Watching how their physical quest allowed their emotional/spiritual quest to…”unravel” isn’t quite the right word, because, though unraveling did occur, they arrived at a more enlightened place….so, whatever it did, it kept me turning pages to grow with the characters.

“The Chemin will change you…” or “The Chemin walks you…” – both were offered as predictions of what would occur. Both did. And I feel just a little like I’ve been changed as well.

Now, which of the many world-wide walks will call to me? I can’t wait to find out!

Almost Everything: Notes on HopeAlmost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As she wished her father, who wrote a lot of knowledge but not much truth, had written a book of all the truth he could pass on to her, here Lamott attempts to write down all the truth she can pass down to her grandson and niece. And, by extension, us. As such, it’s a little haphazard, hit and miss. But then, such is life, and I’m so grateful Anne keeps plugging away at her computer, butt in chair, writing shitty first drafts that eventually come to us, cleaned up but still imperfect. Who of us can hope to do more?

“That we are designed for joy is exhilarating, within reach, now or perhaps later today, after a nap, as long as we do not mistake excitement for joy. Joy is good cheer…. Joy is always a surprise, and often a decision.
“Joy is portable. Joy is a habit, and these days, it can be a radical act.” 56

“Reading and writing help us take the blinders off so we can look around and say ‘Wow,’ so we can look at life and our lives with care, and curiosity, and attention to detail, which are what will make us happy and less afraid.” 99

“…more than anything, stories hold us together. Stories teach us what is important about life, why we are here and how it is best to behave, and that inside us we have access to treasure, in memories and observations, in imagination.” 179

“‘Why?’ is rarely a useful question in the hope business.” 183

“Life is way wilder than I am comfortable with, way farther out, as we used to say, more magnificent, more deserving of awe and, I would add, more benevolent–well-meaning, kindly….
“We have all we need to come through. Against all odds, no matter what we’ve lost, no matter what messes we’ve made over time, no matter how dark the night, we offer and are offered kindness, soul, light, and food, which create breath and spaciousness, which create hope, sufficient unto the day.” 189

The Female PersuasionThe Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brilliant! A feminist manifesto in story form, this book covers just about everything related to what is to be alive and a woman at this point in history. Smart, but not hit-you-over-the-head, not at all preachy, just great storytelling.

Sea PrayerSea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I snatched this off the library’s Lucky Day shelf having heard nothing about it. I let it sit until right before it was due, intuiting that it would be a quick but painful read. It’s an illustrated poem, a letter from father to young son, but it’s not a children’s book. Even though I had not yet read the author’s statement, throughout I couldn’t help but remember the images of the 3yo boy who drowned trying to escape Syria’s war. Little Alan Kurdi was, in fact, the child the author had in mind as he wrote. This book is beautifully written and illustrated, and I can imagine a middle school or high school English or social studies teacher reading it aloud to the class to help them imagine what that life would be like, leaving everything behind and risking everything in hope of escaping the horrors that people inflict upon each other.

The Curse of the Warmbloods(Gregor the Overlander#3)The Curse of the Warmbloods by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gregor and the Marks of Secret (Underland Chronicles, #4)Gregor and the Marks of Secret by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gregor and the Code of ClawGregor and the Code of Claw by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

 

Nine Perfect StrangersNine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not at all what I expected, and far more intense. Nine strangers, all with their own backstory baggage, meet at a health resort for a ten-day restorative retreat that quickly turns more than unconventional. I enjoyed the romp, though it will make me think twice about signing up for something like this. I’ll get healthy on my own, thanks very much, minus the strangers and shamans.

Featured photo by Skitterphoto from Pexels

Thankful Thursday – Reading April-May 2017

Reading has always been one of my favorite recreational activities. I read to lose and find myself in stories of people like me in situations unlike any I’ve ever–or will ever–encounter. I read to explore the world, different cultures far and near. I read to find our common humanity, our shared emotion in vastly different experiences. I read to learn new intricacies and ways of being in the world. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Lily and the OctopusLily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A highly original man-and-dog love story. This book is funny and crazy and adventurous and oh so sad while also hopeful. I look forward to another book from this author.

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to ForgetBlackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Searingly honest, in parts painfully so. And therein lies the point: alcoholism is painful, a pain-inducing response to a painful set of inclinations based in biology, experience, and one’s personal psychological and physical response to it. This could have been fiction, and the tragedy is that it was not. And yet, thankfully, there is hope. There has to be hope. Always.

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong PeopleAccidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I ❤ this book! I am not Lutheran nor high-church liturgical. I do not swear like a sailor and I do not have tattoos. Nor am I brave or vulnerable enough to write as she does in this gorgeous book about God’s grace showing up in very ordinary people (though I aspire to vulnerably write of grace in the ordinary).

Nadia is simultaneously irreverent and reverent. She is refreshingly honest, mostly about her own faults and mistakes and sins and how those are the very cracks through which God shows up with His soldering iron to repair and redeem and make something new and better. Again and again and again, she points to grace.

We don’t agree on every point. Her theology may be more progressive than mine. But she loves Jesus and she loves His church. And, without force, with grace, she continually directs people–and herself–to Jesus, who loves without bounds and forgives without reservation.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I heard about this book when I heard Oprah was involved in a movie version for HBO. The movie is out this week so I rushed to finish it (sadly, while I love Oprah, I didn’t love the movie). Although I am not a scientist (or even a scientist at heart), this book contains threads from so many genres: epic multi-generational family drama, sci fi, ethics, philosophy, biology, tragedy, quest, even coming-of-age. Skloot first heard about HeLa cells–and that they came from a black woman–when she was a 16yo non-traditional high school student taking a community college biology class. She devoted much of the next ten years to seeking out the whole story: of the cells and the woman from whom they came, their significance to scientific progress, and of her family over generations. The story kept me turning pages and the science, explained in a very readable way, didn’t sink me. For so many reasons, this is an important story. Read this book, and then read more about the Lacks family.

The MothersThe Mothers by Brit Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This might be putting it on a little strong, but here it is: if Shakespeare had been a contemporary young black woman from SoCal, he might have written this book. The Mothers, the old church women who gossip and pray in turn, function as Macbeth’s witches. They narrate the interweaving story of three young people, and see into their future and past with little to say about the present. Bennett portrays with aching accuracy love’s power to create, destroy, and significantly alter the course of life.

Dreams of Joy (Shanghai Girls #2)Dreams of Joy by Lisa See
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s been a long time since I read Shanghai Girls and this book didn’t adequately reacquaint me with the story fast enough. I spent too many early chapters guessing at Joy’s motivation for drastic actions. It picked up after awhile and then offered a storied picture of China under Mao Tse Tung that frankly terrified me for the world in which we currently live. It holds together as a mother-daughter story, the end satisfies, but I still didn’t love the book.

The Best of Adam SharpThe Best of Adam Sharp by Graeme Simsion
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A radical departure from the Rosie books, this one is a long, melancholy song to lost love, chances, and youth. “Lost love belongs in a three-minute song [or, in this case, a book], pulling back feelings from a time when they came unbidden, recalling the infatuation, the walking on sunshine that cannot last and the pain of its loss, whether through parting or the passage of time, remind us that we are emotional beings” (287).

I didn’t love it. Too much IT-talk, and too many references to songs I don’t know. Yes, I could have looked them up but then I’d be reading this book for another month. And the week in France seemed to me like a big, crazy stretch though it did lead to some–at that point in the story–surprising psychological revelations.

Maybe my favorite detail came in learning that Adam’s dad referred to him as A sharp, the less-common musical name for B flat. And perhaps that uncommonness led to Adam’s willingness to take a leap that made me uncomfortable from its first suggestion.

SiracusaSiracusa by Delia Ephron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Four adults and a 10-year-old girl vacation together in Italy. Bound by marriage and parenthood and the past, they don’t share much love for one another. Told by each adult in turn, the story reveals deep rifts, dysfunction, pain, evil.

Ephron gives full-bodied life to her characters and uses their different voices to subtly nuance each conversation, each situation. I think I know these people, but I don’t like any of them. I can imagine them in my social circles, even imagine shared vacations, and I never want to see them again. Siracusa itself–foreign, beautiful, run-down, winding-lose-your-way streets–works as a metaphor for the twisted and twisting relationships. The story feels like the careful steps of a woman in heels walking on ancient cobblestone: slow, unbalanced, tense, lovely, painful.

“Marriage. With whom do you want to take the journey?…Do you want to take it with someone who knows you, even intuits your secrets, or from whom you can remain hidden By that last standard, which choice did I make? I’m still unsure. And why do most of us want marriage? Crave it for status or for stability that is an illusion. Marriage can’t protect you from heartbreak or the random cruelties and unfairnesses life deals out. It’s as if we’re chicks pecking our way out of our shells, growing into big birds splendid with feathers, and then piece by piece, we put the shells back together, reencasing ourselves, leaving perhaps an eyehold, minimal exposure. Having pecked our way out to live, we work our way back to survive. Deluded, of course. Shells crack easily.” (81)

“…suppose you see the corner of a building at sunset and one side is beige and the other flamingo pink when both are in fact the same drab red brick? And a second later the vision is gone because the earth has moved infinitesimally. Was what you saw reality? Is there always more than one?” (189)

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Reading Crisis and Pursuit of Virtue

One of my healthier antidotes to life’s Too Much-ness is burrowing inside the covers of a good book. Preferably while also tucked tight into my bed covers at day’s end, hot cup of tea at hand, until I can’t keep my eyes open. Just one more page, just one more, just one, just…

In addition to the books that line my full shelves, and the heaps of sideways books tucked on top, I typically have a stack of To-Read’s I can’t wait to dive into.14221295618_68c5821032_n

Recently, however, I’ve noticed a few oddities:
I’m returning too many partially-read books to the library;
I’m feeling more-than-less stressed as I read;
I’m not diving under the covers with a book at night.

What happened?

I took another look at my To-Read’s and noticed something else: no fiction.

I have books on the teenage brain and sleep disorders, language and love, spirituality, and cookbooks. I have two (count ’em, two) books, pulled on different days from different shelves and both partially read, on the topic of solitude – apparently I’m feeling a little crowded these days, in more ways than one!

All fascinating studies and good reads, I’m sure, but these days I have way too many words populating my brain. I need a literary escape.

I need peace. No kidding: one afternoon as I read a chapter from The Teenage Brain, I watched Guy and Teen play out an illustration before my eyes. I could have been reading aloud while they acted out the scene. I looked back and forth between book and boys and dropped book like a nasty bug. Interesting, yes, but too close to home in an emotionally-exposed way. I look forward to reading it eventually, when I’m feeling less… Just less.

I need beauty. My “word” for 2015: Put yourself in the way of beauty. I have dropped more than one book this year because it didn’t add beauty to my life – good writing, good story mandatory.

I need a book that contributes Inward Peace to balance Life Chaos, not sleepy-zen but peaceful beauty. I want to be whisked away to new adventures in new lands, new (or old) times. Anyone want to offer a recommendation? Better yet, anyone want to dash a quick-fix fiction loaner by my doorstep?

Here are a few recent books I’ve enjoyed:

Listen, SlowlyListen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twelve-year-old Laguna Beach girl Mia can’t wait to spend the summer at the beach with her best friend Montana and her crush, HIM. She is also Mai, Vietnamese girl, good daughter, Straight-A student, studying SAT vocabulary at Mom-Insistence. So instead of the beach, her parents ship her off to Vietnam as her grandmother’s chaperone so Ba can search for answers to the end of her husband’s life during The War. What begins as an almost prison-like sentence becomes a journey of listening, of reconciling with her heritage, of falling in love with the past, broken as it is.

I read this book aloud with my Tween and we related it to our cross-cultural experience spending a summer in Costa Rica: humidity, odd creatures, jungle, foreign food and language. And we related, too, to the experience of falling in love with a completely different way of life set in a different place.

As a reader, I am thoroughly impressed with Lai’s ability to capture a SoCal girl’s speech and culture and so gracefully walk with her through this amazing cross-cultural journey.

The Rosie Effect (Don Tillman, #2)The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few chapters in to The Rosie Project I learned it had a sequel, which I immediately put on hold at the library. Fortunately, The Rosie Effect came up on my queue just days after finishing The Rosie Project. Despite having a stack of To-Read books, it took priority.

My first response: this book contained too much stress, whereas the first had been an odd fairy tale. And yet, isn’t that just like life? What starts with wine and roses, or for Don and Rosie, jackets and balconies and so many misunderstandings, eventually has to work through some strife. Honeymoons end and the hard work of marriage begins, complicated in this case by an international move and an unintentional pregnancy.

Before I realized, I was halfway done. Today I am all done, and I’m mourning the end of this fun read. I sure hope there’s a Book 3 in the works.

Brain on Fire: My Month of MadnessBrain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An incredible true story of a young woman’s descent into madness. That Susannah Cahalan is alive and able to write a book is nothing short of a miracle – right place, time and doctors on the case. Cahalan weaves her own story along with the science to explain what was happening as she lost control of her body and her mind. Occasionally a little too smart, the science provides a counterpoint to a story that sounds unbelievable, like something out of a horror movie (The Exorcist, in fact, as so many of her symptoms were identical to the demon-possessed little girl). And yet it is a story of hope, as Cahalan’s story has provided answers to so many desperate patients and their families.

Summer Reading – Fiction

Yesterday I posted this summer’s non-fiction reads. Today, the fiction. Three just for me and two I shared with Tween, since reading aloud with my kiddo remains one of my all-time favorite activities.

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“What you could be.”
But what we become is an intersection of who we are and the times in which we live.
The unlikeliest characters, a blind girl and an orphan boy with a genius for radio, take center stage in this World War 2 novel. And from their youthful perspective, we see bright light and life worth living in one of the darkest times in history.

License to Thrill (The Genius Files, #5)License to Thrill by Dan Gutman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My least favorite of the five Genius Files books, but the author had to get the family home from their cross-country road trip. This one takes some strange twists, almost like the author ran out of new ideas, and again as he ties up loose ends and reminds us of the journey we’ve been on together. It is tongue-in-cheek funny and I’m glad to get out of the car now that the kids are home safe. However, I will say this is one of the brightest series I’ve read with my young adolescent boys and, although this wasn’t my favorite book, the series itself is worth a good read-aloud.

The Gravity of BirdsThe Gravity of Birds by Tracy Guzeman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Art, infirmity, the brokenness of families and the possibility of redemption, with just a little bit of mystery…
I almost gave up on this one, but about half-way through it kicked in. The writing was good from the beginning, but I just wasn’t sure I cared enough about the characters. Until I did. True to form, I read the last page after having read about two chapters. It spoiled some things, of course, but not everything. The book still was able to surprise me.

Story Thieves (Story Thieves, #1)Story Thieves by James Riley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tween saw this at Costco and insisted we buy it. Which made it a mandatory read-aloud. The only problem with that is I have longer reading stamina and he’s fine stopping after a couple of chapters. It took us weeks to finish the book, which after all might not be a problem because it drew out the suspense.

I give it 4 stars for Tween (personally I might give it 3, but he insists). It’s a clever story about what might happen if fictional characters ever had the power to enter the real world and thus discover that they are fictional. And what might real people face if they entered books? If you don’t think too hard about the issue of free will (which most kids won’t), it’s a fun read about the power, beauty, and danger of reading.

The Rosie Project (Don Tillman #1)The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Even though the title of this book has been popping up here and there and everywhere over the last couple of years, I had no idea what it was about. Surprising, delightful, the characters entranced me and hooked me in to their various “projects.” It’s The Big Bang Theory meets When Harry Met Sally. Loved it!