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.

Books – The Recent Round-Up

Even though May might just be my favorite month – days slightly brighter and longer and birds and flowers singing and springing – the end of school year seems always to twist me up and set me spinning. Not enough time! Too much to do! You have a what project that requires what supplies and you left it to now? Yeesh!

So I’ve been reading but not posting about reading – one too many steps in a busy season. And I’ve picked up a few books and set them back down again, trying to maintain my year’s goal to put myself in the way of beauty; some books create worlds I can’t inhabit right now, though another time, perhaps.

Let’s start with the novels:

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ishiguro’s voice reads like a graceful whisper, punctuated by the secrets his characters tell, overhear, and discern, dropped like bombs. The full-bodied characters are people you know: the energetic and sensitive boy with a big temper, the every-girl who knows how to calm the boy, the ring leader who manipulates them all. This book is simultaneously a beautiful homage to the human being and a cautionary tale against scientific progress that cares for some at the painful expense of others.

The Hobbit (Middle-Earth Universe)The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first read this book when I was 9 or 10 years old. I’m not sure why I read it – it wasn’t assigned for school, but maybe it was in the classroom? Maybe a teacher or librarian recommended it? Fantasy/sci fi have never been my standard fair. Still, scenes and themes from this book have continued to resonate in my mind and heart throughout my lifetime: an honorable, hard-earned quest, companionship, Bilbo and Gollum and Precious, power and humility…

As an adult I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy – before the brilliant movies were released. The Hobbit movies are a great disappointment in comparison, but I enjoyed rereading the book with my own child, now just past the age I was when I first read it.

I relate to Bilbo’s reaction to Gandalf’s suggestion of an adventure: “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them.” Though he reluctantly agrees to leave the comforts of home, he often longs to be back in his cozy hobbit hole; except that adventure as a whole changes him so that when he eventually returns, he doesn’t mind that the townspeople consider him odd.

My own adventures, however reluctantly undertaken, have changed me enough that I might somewhat-less-reluctantly venture forth again.

And now for non-fiction:

And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings (Genesis, #1)And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings by Madeleine L’Engle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At least my second reading of this book, I am taken by her descriptions of the world – the wild and beautiful and dangerous natural world; and the world occupied by humans so full of both good and evil and still image their Creator God. L’Engle reminds me to maintain wonder, in spite of the so prevalent brokenness that is our context, and to let wonder move me to prayer.

“When I look at the galaxies on a clear night—when I look at the incredible brilliance of creation, and think that this is what God is like, then, instead of feeling intimidated and diminished by it, I am enlarged—I rejoice that I am part of it, I, you, all of us—part of this glory” (82).

Late, Lost, and Unprepared: A Parents' Guide to Helping Children with Executive FunctioningLate, Lost, and Unprepared: A Parents’ Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning by Joyce Cooper-Kahn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up this book after reading an article on twice-exceptional kids that referenced the book. Two twice-exceptional kids and no educator or doctor had mentioned the term “executive functioning”: “…a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.” The executive functions include inhibition, mental/emotional flexibility, emotional control, initiation, working memory, planning/organization, and self-monitoring.

The book is clearly laid out, explaining challenges and providing real-life examples and practical how-to-help tips. Reading as a parent of two very different kids with different strengths and weaknesses, I have lots to digest; reading at the end of school year was not the best timing and I’ll need to review it all again in August as we begin a new year’s regimen.

The gift of this book lies in its practicality and hope: “…we believe that our children’s best hope for the future may lay in the discovery of some strength that blossoms into an island of competence, and perhaps even becomes a continent of possibilities for personal satisfaction and job success. After all, people thrive when they build a life around their strengths. There are many different paths to success, even though this is sometimes hard to keep in perspective during the school years” (202).