Quarterly Book Report: April 2015

I would like there to be an extra day of the week that's devoted solely to reading. In the winter, it would be all about snuggling under blankets with a mug of tea and a weighty piece of emotional literature. In the summer, I would lounge on the back deck with lemonade and a stack of chick lit.

As it is, I try to fit a little reading in when I can. Other things get in the way, of course. More writing = less reading. More cooking = less reading. But then less tv watching = more reading. It's a balance. 

Here are the books that have kept me company over the last three months:  

Yes Please*
Amy Poehler

"Ambivalence is key. You have to care about your work but not the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but now about how good people think you are or how good people think you look. I realize this is extremely difficult. I am not saying I am particularly good at it. I'm like you. Or maybe you're better at this than I am." 

Oh, Amy. You could slide Poehler's memoir onto the shelf in the category of "funny lady books," alongside Tina Fey's Bossypants and Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman (the latter of which I adored). And there are certainly many chapters of the book devoted to funny stories about her entry into the improv world, tales of pot-fueled improv shows and late night shenanigans at SNL. Those were fun, and I gobbled up the chapters about Parks & Rec and was fascinated by the differences in how various types of television shows are filmed. But I loved this book because of the deeper moments. Amidst the humor, there is a gravity to Poehler's words, a sense of taking stock and looking back on life to better understand the choices made. Make it past the first chapter on how hard it is to write a book, and there are real gems, especially for those of us in our mid-thirties who are still trying to figure out what the hell they're doing.  

Flight Behavior
Barbara Kingsolver

β€œThis was a living flow, like a pulse through veins, with the cells bursting and renewing themselves as they went. The sudden vision filled her with strong emotions that embarrassed her, for fear of breaking into sobs as she had in front of her in-laws that day when the butterflies enveloped her. How was that even normal, to cry over insects?”

Kingsolver's prose was as beautiful as ever in this sorrowful novel about a rural community, a marriage in trouble, climate change, and a woman on the precipice of the beginning (or the end) of her own life. The descriptions of Appalachia - the people, the landscape, the churches, the views - were spot on. I quarreled with Kingsolver and with her main character Dellarobia throughout the book; I am a long-time lover of Kingsolver's work, but I do sometimes find her fiction preachy. I thought she had a prime opportunity to show the humanity and the sympathy in people we (her liberal readership) wouldn't typically connect to, and while she did a little of that, it didn't quite happen for me as much as I would have liked. When done well, it's one of my favorite things to find in a book. That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and her exquisite melding of the personal and the cultural and the political drew me in and tapped into my own unsure places. I brought it up at least twice in therapy. So there's that.

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography*
Neil Patrick Harris

"If you had known people would be calling you by your character name for the next twenty years, you might have asked for a different one. Thunderbolt Howswer, say, or Dr. Feelgood, or Baron von Sexy Ass."

I'm sad to say that I was a little underwhelmed by NPH's autobiography - sad because I'm a big NPH fan. (As in, I re-watched Doogie Howser a few years ago on Netflix.) I thought the alternative choose-your-own-adventure style was cute and was handled fairly well on the audiobook I listened to. But I was expecting NPH to be funnier. I guess that's not entirely fair since he's a comedic actor, not a comedic writer. There were some interesting parts about show business, and I loved learning about how his tv career began and what it's like for child actors and their parents. However, the chapters detailing every moment of hosting the Tony's (all 4 times) got a little boring. To be honest, I think NPH is suffering under the weight of hype and my own unrealistic expectations. It's totally not his fault. I still love you, Doogie.

The Rosie Project
Graeme Simsion

"I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem. As with so many scientific breakthroughs, the answer was obvious in retrospect. But had it not been for a series of unscheduled events, it is unlikely I would have discovered it."

I was hooked from the very first page. Don Tilliman, Simsion's socially awkward and utterly delightful main character, pulled me in with his schedules and his timetables and his ridiculous notions about other people's motivations. I loved him instantly, and all that was left to do was spend the next 319 pages laughing at his gaffs, mourning with him in his confusion, and biting my nails until all is made right. I found myself imagining the book as a movie, and I've heard one is in the works. I'm sure it won't live up to my expectations, but I'll take it if it means I get to spend a couple more hours with these characters. (I will be reading The Rosie Effect soon.)

Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers
Anne Lamott

"Praying 'Help' means that we ask that Something give us the courage to stop in our tracks, right where we are, and turn our fixation away from the Gordian knot of our problems....someplace else, anything else. Maybe this is a shift of only eight degrees, but it can be a miracle."

Though I read most books on my Kindle or listen to them on Audible, I bought a hard copy of Lamott's new book because I was sure I was going to want to underline a thousand sections and keep the words next to my bed at the ready for any emotional crisis. I thought the book was going to provide the comfort I was looking for this winter, and I was disappointed when it didn't. I'm a big Anne Lamott fan, but this one missed the mark for me. The stories rambled in a way that reduced their impact, and I found myself nodding off as I read. I'll admit that since finishing, I have noticed a willingness to offer up the simplest of prayers - most often Help - in times when I might otherwise go into a mental spiral. But the book didn't act as the balm for my soul that I anticipated. Perhaps my expectations were too high. 

Nothing Like Looking
Chris Van Hakes

"She had curly brown hair that clustered around her forehead and then vanished on the sides, clipped short, only to reappear to rest on her shoulders - tragic hair, like mine. I nodded at her; we were all just a small haircut away from a mullet."

This nerdy, angst-filled story of teenage love is just what I was looking for in these last few weeks to take my mind off troublesome things and escape into an imaginary high school world. Van Hakes knows how to string me along with a smidge of mystery and a cast of quirky, flawed characters that frustrate me just enough to ensure I keep reading until they figure things out and fall in love. In one of my favorite literary styles, Van Hakes weaves J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit throughout the novel, with 16 year olds giving impassioned arguments about who is a dwarf and who is a hobbit in their drama-filled lives. A light read that gets bonus points for reminding me how steamy those chaste high school kisses could be. 

Love At the Speed of Email

Lisa McKay 

"I have often seen refugees in airports in Africa on their way to their new lives, holding nothing but sleeping children and sealed plastic bags full of official documents. I examine them covertly while we all wait to board, trying to imagine what it is like to leave behind the only home you have ever known, perhaps forever, on the strength of nothing but the uncertain hope that there must be something better across that wide, dark oceanic threshold." 

This memoir and transcontinental love story was a light, clever read that gave an interesting glimpse into the lives and hearts of humanitarian workers. The book wasn't mind-blowing, but McKay's honesty about her experiences and her own behavior was refreshing. Though I'm normally a huge sucker for romance, the most exciting part of the book for me turned out to be McKay's work as a stress management trainer for humanitarian aid workers. If you know and love someone who does humanitarian work (as my sister does), I'd recommend it as a way to gain another perspective on what their days might entail. 

*I listened to these on Audible

p.s. The best books I read in 2014.

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