Quarterly Book Report: Fall 2015

This past fall was a bit of a rough time for me, and I escaped into books with abandon. I got way behind on podcasts and local news on the radio because every time I was in the car, I was listening to a book on Audible. But there are definitely worse vices than reading, so I'm not apologizing for having eight books to report!

Lily King

"I've always been able to see the savageness beneath the veneer of society. It's not so very far beneath the surface, no matter where you go."

Delving into the emotional strife of three anthropologists battling their own demons as well as each others’, King’s historical novel set in 1930s New Guinea gave insight into a time and place that had been previously unknown - unthought of, even - by me. I was intrigued by the particularities of their lives - the trunks of books carried by boat onto remote islands, the tiny incestuous circle of fellow anthropologists, the divorcing from “traditional” society, and the drive for notoriety and that one big discovery. But I also found the triangle of behavior between the three main characters deeply disturbing, and not in a way that felt titillating and made me want to read more. Rather, I plodded through, hoping that each reading session might reveal some hidden meaning. But in the end, the book, ironically, left me feeling empty and sad. 

The Miseducation of Cameron Post*
Emily M. Danforth

"I still didn't have any of the right words. 'It's more like maybe I do know and I'm still confused too, at the same time. Does that make sense? I mean, it's like how you noticed this thing about me tonight, you saw it, and you already knew it - it's there. But that doesn't mean it's not confusing or whatever.'"

When Cameron, a middle school girl in rural Montana in the mid-90s, kisses her best girl friend the night that her parents die in a car crash, those two events - her secret shame and her parents’ death - become so inextricably linked in her head and her heart that she must spend the next half a decade - and perhaps longer - trying to pull them apart. One of the must frustrating elements of the book is one of Danforth’s biggest strengths: inhabiting the confused, ashamed, and grief-stricken mind of a teenager. I found myself begging her to be rational, to say what she thinks, to stand up to people who were harming her. But I was forced to remember my own teenage self, my own inability to know, much less say aloud, what I needed. Cameron’s eventual expulsion to a gay conversion camp is heartbreaking but also holds a place of compassion for those who believe they’re doing the right thing. A compelling young adult novel. Note: I enjoyed this book in spite of the narration on audible - the narrator's tone sounded like a high class 40 year old rather than a middle school/high school kid. 

Ask the Passengers*
A.S. King

"Look, this is a loan. I don't know if love is something I'll run out of one day. I don't know if I should be giving it to all you guys or not. Today, I feel like I should have kept some for myself for days when no one else loves me."

I wanted to love this book, and I did appreciate the concept - a young girl attempting to come to terms with not only her sexuality but also her feeling of teenage isolation talks to the passengers on the planes flying overhead in an attempt to find connection in the world. But, as much as I wanted that idea to take off, I thought the dialogue was often stilted or didn't ring true, and the plot felt forced. While King worked to develop the emotional life of her main character, the others in the book were archetypes of family villains or high school mean kids. Unless you’re a despondent teenager looking for an LGBT book, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Why Not Me?*
Mindy Kaling

"When you are entitled, you are the most insufferable person ever. If you are entitled and hardworking, which I am, you are still pretty insufferable, but at least you somewhat earned your entitled behavior." 

I love Mindy Kaling, so when I didn’t love her first book, I was a bit disappointed. When Why Not Me? Came out, I decided to listen on Audible so that I’d hear the book in her voice and perhaps increase my enjoyment. While I wish this one had been a bit longer, I absolutely enjoyed it more than her first book. Some of my greater appreciation was due, I’m sure, to listening to her reading it. But I think Kaling opened up a bit more in her second book, with essays that touched closer to her personal life and emotions. There were a few sections that really struck me. She talks about her body image issues in a way that made me want to pull over on the side of the road (I was listening while driving) and applaud and then cry. The section on her alter ego’s life in New York City as a teacher that’s just trying to make friends was so delightful I wished it were its own audiobook. And her final bit on confidence really got me thinking about how I want to spend my time (spoiler alert: working hard at the things I want to feel confident in).

Her Royal Spyness*
Rhys Bowen

"Of course, I was more than a little curious to know why I was being summoned.... In truth, I felt as Anne Boleyn must have done when Henry VIII asked her to drop in for a flagon of ale, and not to wear anything with a high neckline."

It’s 1932, and Lady Georgiana, 34th in line to the English throne, must find some way to support herself now that meager times have forced her brother to cut off her allowance. Enter a dead body, a dashing young Irishman, and demands from the queen, and you’ve got yourself a smart little murder mystery, a la Sherlock Holmes meets Murder She Wrote meets Downton Abbey. Bowen creates a world of vibrant and memorable characters that I could see as I read. Mysteries have not traditionally been my genre of choice, but I got a hankering to read some in the historical/chick lit vein. This one captured my interest, completely held my attention, and often had me laughing at the characters’ delightful turn of phrase. I will note that I listened to this one on Audible, and the narrator is FAN-FREAKING-TASTIC. If you are able to listen, do it.

Rainbow Rowell

"'What's the plan?' she asked. He grinned. 'My plan is to do things that make you want to hang out with me again tomorrow. What's your plan?' 'I'm going to try not to make an ass of myself.' He grinned. 'So we're all set.'"

Oh Rainbow Rowell. I feel as though I should be ashamed, at least a little bit, of how deeply I fall in love with the questioning glances and the hand-holding and the impossibly perfect young loves in Rowell’s books, but I’m not. She knows exactly what she’s doing, and she does it perfectly. I was initially put-off with Cath's (the main character) hatred for…well, for all things. But, page by page, Rowell pulls the reader into Cath’s inner world, that confusing first-year-of-college world, so that you begin to understand why she hides her fears and insecurities behind a mask of indifference and judgment. And in comes Levi, all tall and gangly and as perfect as any 21 year old boy has ever been, and even a grown lesbian can’t help herself from swooning. I can’t give any bigger recommendation than to say that I listened to the second half of this book twice. Just because I wanted to hear it again.

Shine On, Bright & Dangerous Object
Laurie Colwin

"We discussed these things in short takes, over a long time. But the rest of the time we put our hands over our eyes, with only a space between our fingers to see the other. Both of those stances, we felt, were right. We would have been silly if we had not been so serious, so dedicated to caution, so careful to see if we were right, since we both felt our position to be risky and assailable."

More a beautiful character study than a plot-driven novel, Shine On is worth reading simply for hours spent with Colwin’s exquisite descriptions of the physical and emotional world. Her words hold the appeal of an earlier literary style where prose flowed more like poetry, and I found myself highlighting (on my Kindle) passages every other page. Through the internal journey the main character takes in the months following the sudden death of her husband and her young widowhood, Colwin shares the depths of marriage and what draws us to another person. That being said, the descriptions did start to wear on me as I began to want more plot and action and fewer epiphanies over the nature of love. Her language is gorgeous, and had the ratio of action to description been switched, I’d probably count this among my favorite books.

Killing and Dying
Adriane Tomine

"I had not thought ahead to that moment somehow. Standing there alone, I wanted to be invisible, to evaporate."

I should begin by saying that I’ve never read a graphic novel or graphic short stories, and this seemed like a big leap into the genre.  The stories were dark, filled with characters who, for the most part, seemed to embody the worst of human nature and the human experience. And, if any of my above reviews didn’t make it clear, I’m mostly in a not-dark place in my literary desires at the moment. Also, I had to remind myself to focus on the pictures, since my inclination was to just rush through the words, so I’m sure I didn’t absorb the full impact of the book. 

*Listened on Audible

p.s. Check here for my other 2015 book reports:
Winter 2015
Spring 2015
Summer 2015

Quarterly Book Report: October 2015

The last few months have been busy with work and life and visitors and mini-vacations where I wanted to read a lot but barely picked up a book. I'm also partway through about 5 different books that I can't seem to finish (probably because I won't just focus on one of them).

So this book report covers just four books. Though I should say that two of them were a combined 1600 pages (or 70 hours, if you listened to them like I did). 

Marilynne Robinson

"People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that's true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives."

This quiet story of an elderly preacher's coming to terms with his life and the lives of his fathers - from the Civil War to the twentieth century - is told with such intimacy that it can be painful in its beauty. John Ames's voice is warm and humble and one of the most resounding tributes to a life of honest faith I've ever encountered. This is one to be read slowly, letting each word sink into your head and your heart.  

The Name of the Wind*
Patrick Rothfuss

"To deem us simply enemies is to lose the true flavor of our relationship. It was more like the two of us entered into a business partnership in order to more efficiently pursue our mutual interest of hating each other."

Patrick Rothfuss's debut novel about Kvothe, a young boy who grows to be a legend, is compelling and beautifully written. The book is fantasy, and there is magic at the heart of it, but I hesitate to call it fantasy, knowing that there are those who write the genre off automatically. I am not generally drawn to it myself, but after having the book recommended to me by two of my favorite people, I gave it a try. This book is not truly fantastical (though totally cool if that's your thing). It reads like historical fiction from another civilization - one very similar to ours but with a different set of rules. 

I had minor quibbles with Rothfuss as I read, but on the whole, this book devoured me. That's right. It devoured me, not the other way around. I couldn't think of anything else. All I wanted was to get back to the story. I fell in love with this world and these characters. I highly recommend it.

The Wise Man's Fear*
Patrick Rothfuss

"It had flaws, but what does that matter when it comes to matters of the heart? We love what we love. Reason does not enter into it. In many ways, unwise love is the truest love. Anyone can love a thing because. That's as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them too. That is rare and pure and perfect."

I'd barely finished the last sentence of The Name of the Wind before I was downloading A Wise Man's Fear. Much of my thoughts on Rothfuss's first book carry through to his second, though I thought it was slow at times and wasn't quite as strong on the plot front. Of course, because the books are part of a trilogy, there was absolutely no way I wasn't going to read it. Be forewarned: the third book is not out yet. You can cry with me. 

All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr

"It strikes Werner just then as wondrously futile to build splendid buildings, to make music, to sing songs, to print huge books full of colorful birds in the face of the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world - what pretensions humans have!"

Doerr's story of Parisian Marie-Laure and German orphan Werner during World War II is exquisite and masterful and heartbreaking. The structure of the novel - jumping back and forth through time and from the perspectives of three different characters - had me applauding Doerr's skill (and wishing I had a little of it) while I read. The suspense of a particular moment, carried across chapters where we learn bits and pieces of the past, was perfection. And his portrayal of the ultimate tragedy of war took my breath away. If it weren't so painful, I'd read the book again just for it's beauty.

*Listened on Audible.com

p.s. You can check out my other book reports here. 

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Quarterly Book Report: July 2015

These last three months were tough for reading, in part because I got stuck on a couple books that I still haven't finished and in part because garden season began. Sadly, I finished only three books since March, though I'm partially through a few others. And the ones I did complete - all audiobooks. Sigh. 

Do you do that? Get stuck on a book? I'll get a little bit bossy with myself  - "You can start that book after you finish this one, but not any sooner!" - as if I'm in need of strict parenting about my leisure reading habits. And I'm desperate for a good escapist novel, so I've got to either make it through these books or let it go! 

For now, here's what I "read" April - June. 

I Can't Complain: (all too) personal essays*
Elinor Lipman

"Perhaps I live in an overly frank family. My husband has an expression that I call 'evaluative.' His features rearrange themselves into something that is part squint, part frown, a look I've seen on the faces of judges at the Westminster Dog Show. Occasionally he undergoes a moment of delicacy before blurting out what the offense is, but most often he diagnoses and prescribes without much soul-searching. My son will say, 'Ma? You're not planning to wear those pants outside the house, are you?' Not now, I won't."

It took me a couple of essays to get into this simple little collection by Elinor Lipman, with some of the early essays in the collection feeling a bit dated (they're reprinted from pieces she's written throughout her career). But by the end, I was completely in love and wanted to take her out to lunch. Her witty and matter-of-fact take on culture, marriage, and friendship were refreshing and often had me laughing out loud. And on a couple rare occasions, I was wiping back tears. When it ended, I missed her. 

Bad Feminist*
Roxanne Gay

"We need to stop playing Privilege or Oppression Olympics because we'll never get anywhere until we find more effective ways of talking through difference. We should be able to say, 'This is my truth,' and have that truth stand without a hundred clamoring voices shouting, giving the impression that multiple truths cannot exist."

I had a love-hate relationship with Gay's book of essays on feminism and her relationship to it. For starters, I went in with the wrong expectations. The title and a few things I'd read about the book gave me the impression that I'd be cozying up to another How to Be a Woman - a funny take on the journey of being a modern-day feminist. But she actually takes books like that to task for demanding that feminism always be funny in order to be swallowed. There are some amusing moments in Bad Feminist, but it is, for the most part, a very serious book about serious issues. Many of the essays are lengthy academic pieces of literary criticism, and in many I found myself zoning out a bit (not the fault of the book but of my atrophied lit crit muscles). I liked best the pieces where she delved into her own personal experiences. I'm glad I read the collection because it gave me insight I wouldn't otherwise have - into the life of a black female academic grappling with her place in the world and our society's handling of race and gender from that perspective. I found myself arguing with her often, which I think told me as much (or more) about myself as it did about her. 

Where'd You Go, Bernadette*
Maria Semple

"Those East Coast kids are a different breed, on a fast track to nowhere. Your friends in Seattle are Canadian in their niceness. None of you has a cell phone. The girls wear hoodies and big cotton underpants and walk around with tangled hair and smiling, adorned backpacks. Do you know how absolutely exotic it is that you haven't been corrupted by fashion and pop culture? A month ago I mentioned Ben Stiller, and do you know how you responded? 'Who's that?' I loved you all over again."

I read a ton of great reviews of this one from some of my favorite bloggers, and I was prepared to really love this quirky novel about a teenage girl's search for her mom who suddenly goes missing from their Seattle home. While it kept my interest, I wasn't head over heels. The writing and the characters were fun and unique, but I was bugged by some character choices that seemed not understandable or believable to me. Each person in the book behaved at times in ways that were incomprehensible but were not really addressed by others in the book, something that is arguably not a flaw but bothered me nonetheless. On the other hand, I adored the epistolary style and the frame of the main character's detective work. The book is told from the viewpoint of Bee Branch, a 15-year old girl, and all information is revealed through the documents (most emails and letters) she is combing through on the search for her mother. It was original, and it totally worked.

*Listened on Audible

p.s. April's Quarterly Book Report

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