Reading: May-June 2018

It’s the official first day of summer! My summer reading is about to commence in earnest, so I’m posting the recent round-up a little early. Two stand-outs: The Hate U Give and Educated. Completely different, both amazing.

Clara and Mr. TiffanyClara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book more than I did. Clara Driscoll, a woman working in the arts at the turn of the 20th century, is both a completely normal (in love with her work and struggling for recognition in a male-dominated profession) and unusual character. But the long descriptions of glass work were hard to follow (I wanted pictures) and sometimes tedious. Occasionally, the book became rapturously poetic, as one would expect from a woman so enamored with the natural world that she feels most alive as she turns the inspiration into something gloriously other. But in the end I wish there had been much tighter editing overall.

The Best Kind of PeopleThe Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

DNF, but made it halfway before deciding life is too short for bad books (and my reading queue too long).

School shootings and sexual harassment are all too relevant, and I hoped this book might have more to add to the conversation. That, being story, it could give us access to the questions we don’t want to have to address personally: how well do I really know those I love? What secrets might anyone be hiding? How do we balance “innocence before proven guilty” with speculation, even practicality? What if…?

But I felt like I was losing my mind. How could this book have received such glowing reviews when the writing was so clunky, so poorly edited? Maybe my copy alone had all the mistakes? Seriously, a character says he’s going home for a day but will be back tomorrow at the beginning of a conversation, and at the end says he’ll see her in a few days. Elsewhere the accusers are 14yo girls, and then the alleged events took place on the “senior ski trip” where no 14yo’s would have been present. Redundant hard-to-follow dialogue kept me wondering why that (and then that one, and that one) character would spout that at this moment…? I kept thinking: This is not how mothers and daughters talk to each other. This is not how mothers of children the same age talk to each other. This is not how sisters talk to each other. And so on.

I flipped ahead enough to figure out some critical plot points and decided I’d had enough. Bad writing leading to a bad ending is just not going to work for me.

The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Get your hands on this book and read it Right Now!

This book is an excellent example of the power of literature. Starr’s life is not mine; I have not, nor do I expect to, experience what she has been through. But having read her story, I have a better understanding of the world we share. My heart has grown bigger.

Passing the book to my 14yo son…

Bush (Kindle Single)Bush by Janice Y.K. Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Loading up my Kindle with vacation reads, I was so excited to find a new book by an author I’ve enjoyed. I had no idea it was a short story, so imagine my shock when, on the plane, shortly into our flight, this riveting tale I’d hoped to carry me through the week just…ended. Dramatically, leaving me wanting So Much More! It was unsettling in the best way short stories can be and I imagine it will stick with me for some time to come.

The WoodcutterThe Woodcutter by Kate Danley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m picky about vacation reading and this one fit the bill. The writing was solid. The plot was fun–mash up a bunch of fairy tale characters with some odd characters from mythology and Shakespeare, and let them play together in new ways. It had nothing to do with everyday life and whisked me away to the Wood and the Twelve Kingdoms in which the Woodcutter maintains peaceful balance. It wasn’t life-changing, but I didn’t need that, just a good story to read by the pool.

The Wendy ProjectThe Wendy Project by Melissa Jane Osborne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a beautiful book! This modern retelling of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is well-written and gorgeously illustrated. A quick read, this is worth your while.

Miranda and CalibanMiranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A creative retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, I wish the play were in production somewhere local right now so I could see it again through a different lens. It’s one of my favorite plays and this book did a good job filling out the characters. There were some repetitive paragraphs towards the beginning, but it gathered steam as it went.

Educated: A MemoirEducated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wish this book was a work of fiction. I shuddered throughout, imagining the violence wrought against a family because of a parent’s insanity under the guise of “faith.” Even though the story gripped me from the preface, I could only read a chapter or two at a time because of its intensity. I am so grateful that, as the author puts it, she found her way out of the junk heap, into school, and eventually into writing down her story.

“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind.” (304)

Thankful Thursday – Summer 2016 Reading

Denial wouldn’t work if I tried. It’s no use. Technically, summer may last through September 21st, but fall has arrived. This was our first year ever that 1st Day of School pictures have a distinctly gray–not blue–background. The alarm sounds too early and too cold each morning and, once again, too much homework has crowded out leisurely days of reading.

One bright spot of fall? I have a thing: I work while others work, which to me means I can read (or write or–shudder–clean), but I can’t watch TV. Which means I am reading, perhaps even more day-by-day than I did during the summer.

So here’s what I did consume June through August 2016…

The Testament of MaryThe Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Drawing loosely from and applying generous creativity to the biblical narratives of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Toibin gives us Mary’s perspective on what happened to her son. While the writing is beautifully done, this is not a book for those easily offended by creative liberty. I, however, appreciated an extremely human portrayal of this oft-deified woman – wife, mother, friend. Luke 2 lightly comments that “Mary pondered all these things in her heart” – but as a woman in a patriarchal society, we don’t hear from Mary directly in Scripture.

Toibin doesn’t give us Scripture, but he gives us a literary look into the mind and heart of one of its central figures. What would that pivotal time in history have been like for those associated with Jesus? What would the crowd shouting “Crucify him!” have looked like, have smelled like, to Mary? What experience would Mary have had of crucifixion prior to Jesus’ own death? And once he died, then what?

The ExpatriatesThe Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great book! Three American women living as expats in Hong Kong find their lives intersecting in terrible, beautiful, and meaningful ways. Lee writes eloquently about how where we’re from and where we live help to shape our identities, and rains hope on those who move forward through tragedy.

The Book of SpeculationThe Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nothing like a deadline to incite a reading binge, I found out a few chapters in that the book would be due at the library, with no possibility for renewal, in three days. So I finished it fast.

If you have significant issue with tarot cards or the supernatural, this book isn’t for you. It is for those who like an unusual mystery involving always-unusual circus performers. Similar to Water for Elephants or The Night Circus, minus the same significant love story.

Luckiest Girl AliveLuckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Not my typical reading fare, I almost gave up on this early. Ani, the narrator, is not anyone with whom I would ever spend time – she wouldn’t give me a second glance anyway. But then I wondered: how does one end up this jaded and this driven? Ani obviously had a story to tell, so I kept reading what became an all-too-true to today’s headlines story (I’ll omit which headlines to maintain the mystery).

It’s not a perfect book and could have used another editorial pass. I thought the ending was satisfying, but confusing–did she find justice and peace? Or is she an unreliable narrator (reference the first day of school Honors English class conversation regarding whether Holden Caulfield is a reliable narrator in The Catcher in the Rye) and we’ve been fed a messy stank of lies…?

BTW, this book doesn’t hold a candle to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, to which it is compared on its cover.

What Is Not Yours Is Not YoursWhat Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Did not finish. I read more than half the stories, which is the only reason I feel I can comment.

The first story, “Books & Roses,” was so so so great. I read it three times. I woke up in the night puzzling over the mystery; I fell asleep at night retelling it to myself as my own personal twisted bedtime story.

This compilation of stories, fairy tales and retellings, all turn at the twist of a key. True to fairy tale genre, they are dark, more Grimm’s than Disney for sure.

Oyeyemi is a talented writer, smart and deft. Her style reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s in Never Let Me Go, another fantastic book that left me despairingly sick. When I realized that I was avoiding my nightly reading ritual because I was truly avoiding Oyeyemi’s stories, I decided to let her go. For now.

The Sky Is EverywhereThe Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lennie’s beloved sister, Bailey, has died unexpectedly of heart issues while rehearsing to perform as Juliet in a college production. High school can be hard enough without having to deal with grief. And love, although thankfully love is more comfortably prevalent among teenagers than grief.

I love this book. Nelson is a poet and makes Lennie one as well, although Nelson’s poetry also runs through her prose in beautiful imagery and turns of phrase. The characters and story are true to life, the reality of messy family, messy grief, messy love, messy friendship.

Mess, beautiful mess, is the point. Lennie says, “As I make my way back to the table, something becomes clear: Life’s a freaking mess. In fact, I’m going to tell Sarah we need to start a new philosophical movement: messessentialism instead of existentialism: For those who revel in the essential mess that is life. Because Gram’s right, there’s not one truth ever, just a whole bunch of stories, all going on at once, in our heads, in our hearts, all getting in the way of each other. It’s all a beautiful calamitous mess. It’s like the day Mr. James took us into the woods and cried triumphantly, ‘That’s it! That’s it!’ to the dizzying cacophony of soloing instruments trying to make music together. That is it.” (p245)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Parts One and Two (Harry Potter, #8)Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Parts One and Two by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How fun to be back in Potterland! Harry & Ginny’s kids and Ron & Hermione’s kids are all off to Hogwarts while Harry and Hermione work for the Ministry of Magic. Life has never been easy for Harry et al, and Harry’s son Albus seems set on making sure it remains difficult.

As a play script, this book leaves more than usual to the imagination. However, those who have traveled with Harry from the cupboard under stairs at Privet Drive to Hogwarts to the final battle already have their imaginations fired up. It’s fast and fun and satisfying in all the right ways.

Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ironic that I had a conversation with a reader-friend and said, “So many books have been released recently about WWII. I understand the beauty-in-horror bit, but I find myself gravitating towards books that don’t involve the atrocities of war.” Meanwhile, I was already reading Life After Life and it immediately took a hard turn into WWII.

And yet… This book is again and again about life more than death. One choice leads to another, which leads to a completely different version of life. I decided to let the confusion of which decision and which version, the jumping forward and back through time, wash over me and it worked – I experienced life and more life in all its beauty and brokenness. The author claims that this book is about what it means to be British but, speaking as one who is not British, I’d say it’s more about what it means to be human.

The Tiger RisingThe Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Second time through this short, stunning book, both times as a read-aloud with Tween. The first time through, my boy was in 2nd grade, and this was the first book that touched him so deeply he wept until he couldn’t read the words on the page. This book taught him the power of literature to move us through its perspective on truth and beauty. At the time he wailed, “Why? Why are we reading this sad, sad book?” But it didn’t diminish his desire to read – even the sad books. If anything, it taught him to lovingly anticipate the heart-and-mind adventures that await him in Storyland.

Which tells you little about the book itself. Broken boy discovers broken tiger in a cage in the Florida woods. Broken boy meets broken girl and introduces her to Tiger. Together they find the courage to face their individual hurts and find healing which flows to others. A beautiful coming-of-age story by one of our favorite authors.