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.

Thankful Thursday – Spring 2016 Books

Lotsa reading happening over here, and it’s been a fun mix of a couple of novels, even more young adult novels, a goofy volume of poetry, and several non-fiction books.

Every Thing on ItEvery Thing on It by Shel Silverstein
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A quick-and-easy read-aloud for a poetry reading requirement, but not my favorite Shel Silverstein. Still, a couple of poems stood out: “WRITESINGTELLDRAW” and “THE RAINBOW THROWER.”

The Graveyard BookThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was my second time through this book – I read it myself years ago and this time read it aloud with Tween – and I liked it even better this time. And even more so when I read Gaiman’s acknowledgements, which begin with Rudyard Kipling and The Jungle Book. Gaiman read and reread The Jungle Book from childhood through adulthood, and that information sheds such light on what he has created. I thought parts might scare my sensitive Tween, but that was my too-rational adult brain overthinking; he took even the “scariest” bits in stride, as children perceive the world differently than adults – a perspective that helped me appreciate that life’s “scary” bits don’t have to be overwhelming, even to a sensitive mama.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond FearBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was the right book at the right time for me. Gilbert blends the right amount of play and seriousness, discipline and joy, storytelling and truth-telling. Highly recommend to anyone who desires to live beyond fear, whatever form creativity takes in your life.

Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders: A NovelHarriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders: A Novel by Julianna Baggott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my new favorites! Having allowed myself to stop reading another book, acclaimed and lovely, but not for this moment in my life, I picked up this book. Sentences in I knew I’d found a treasure. Harriet Wolf is an author and matriarch of three generations of women, all broken in their own beautiful ways. Baggott weaves together scenes from Harriet’s books with narratives told in each woman’s voice. Fantastic, moving, healing, wonder-full.

Why Not Me?Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Although I went in looking for a lighthearted laugh, some essays left me feeling I wasn’t rich, smart or hip enough to get her humor. And yet I stuck with it to the end, so that’s something. Fans of her TV work might like this more than I did. Still, I do appreciate her vision for her life, her hard work and diligence, and that she’s willing to laugh at even the crappy stuff in life.

After You (Me Before You, #2)After You by Jojo Moyes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I entered this book with some trepidation. I adored Me Before You–unlikely a story as it tells and as painful in the end–and I didn’t want this one to muck it up. It didn’t. It didn’t exceed Part 1, but it did faithfully continue Louisa’s story. It depicts the roller coaster experience of grief, specifically Louisa’s plod through the loss of Will, while intersecting her story with others who are also grieving and dealing with losses of many sorts. In the end we feel proud of Louisa for having the courage to move on in more ways than one, and we hope that we will have the same courage when it required.

Raymie NightingaleRaymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Kate DiCamillo is one of my very favorite authors. This isn’t her typical book. I liked it, but it took me a while to warm up to the story. It’s sad, mostly. But in that bleak landscape, there are whispers of DiCamillo’s usual magic, hope in the darkness or, in this case, Raymie’s soul growing larger as she learns to let go of what she expected and embrace the new people and path before her.

Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own PersonYear of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

LOVE this book! It reminded me of a mash-up of two other books I’ve read recently: I Dare Me (Lu Ann Cahn) and Why Not Me? (Mindy Kaling). But way better.

Why was I surprised that the woman who has written some of my favorite TV dialogue can write so thoughtfully, so eloquently, with the perfect balance of depth and humor? And while she does write at length about how she wrote Cristina Yang’s “Grey’s Anatomy” character because she (read: we!) need a Cristina Yang in our lives, her own voice sounds a whole heckuva lot like Bailey. And I love it.

She says YES to the things you’d expect: YES to scary invitations, YES to asking for help, YES to play and getting healthy and true friends. But also YES to hard conversations, and to NO, and even to Wonder Woman. To being a badass. Badassery is a word, people: Shonda Rhimes added it to the dictionary.

The Calder Game (Chasing Vermeer, #3)The Calder Game by Blue Balliett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Teen read this in middle school and so now Tween and I have read it aloud together. None of us have read the other two books that precede it, although that didn’t affect our enjoyment. This book intertwines art, artists, history, three uniquely gifted kids (one in math, one in language, the other as a “finder”), and a mystery that stretches from Chicago to Blenheim Palace, England. The description of the Calder retrospective in the first few chapters was so beautiful, so alluring, I could easily imagine myself there and also longed to be there.

GratitudeGratitude by Oliver Sacks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

These four short essays written in the last few years before Sacks’ death tell the life story of an extraordinary man who has made an indelible mark on the world. That we should all live so fully, think so deeply, and convey such gratitude and grace as we approach the end.

“It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can” (16). It is up to all of us to choose to live richly, for none of us truly knows how much longer we have.

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written” (20).