Saturday, January 20, 2018

2017: The Year in Books

I set a goal of reading 50 books in 2017—and squeaked by at the end with exactly 50. I was terrible about doing book reviews this year, but I have been more active on Goodreads and have been publishing quick reviews there and linking them to my blog.

The Best
Here are my favorites of the year (not including rereads):
  1. 84 Charing Cross Road (Helene Hanff)
  2. Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper (Phaedra Patrick)
  3. Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
  4. My Family and Other Animals (Gerald Durrell)
  5. One-in-a-Million Boy (Monica Wood)
  6. Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Gabrielle Zevin)
  7. Winter Sea (Susanna Kearsley)
  8. Women of the Castle (Jessica Shattuck)

 Out of those, I would probably choose One-in-a-Million Boy as my absolute favorite—but these were all truly fabulous.

Book Club
Our book club choices this year were:
Where the Heart Is (Billie Letts
Shakespeare's Landlord (Charlaine Harris)
Same Kind of Different As Me (Ron Hall)
My Family and Other Animals (Gerald Durrell)
Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper (Phaedra Patrick)
Mink River (Brian Doyle)
War That Saved My Life (Kimberly Bradley) (I read this one last year and loved it)

My favorites out of this list were My Family and Other Animals and the Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper; however, at least a few book club members put down My Family after only a couple of chapters. I think the best discussion came from The War That Saved My Life. Everyone loved that one!


Here is the whole list. My star-ranking system is as follows: 5 stars--absolutely must read; 4 stars--highly recommended; 3 stars--enjoyable; 2 stars--ick; 1 star--no, no, no.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Book Review: An American Plague

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 (Newbery Honor Book)An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


As the subtitle indicates, this is, indeed the story of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 (and subsequent years) in Philadelphia. The author draws on primary sources (letters, diaries, newspaper articles) to create an overall horrifying picture of how yellow fever ravaged this then largest city in America. I was especially intrigued by how the medical community reacted to the fever—the various "cures" doctors tried—as well as by the heroics of ordinary citizens as they cared for the sick.

This is a children's book (5th grade and up), and I have to say my own kids would probably have been disappointed at the promise of a "terrifying" story. It was gruesome in parts (all that black bile—ew) but perhaps not "terrifying." Nonetheless, it is a quick and easy read, and, honestly, I didn't know much about this particular yellow fever outbreak and how it affected our newly formed country. It wasn't a riveting read, but I'm glad to have spent the afternoon delving into this bit of history.



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Saturday, January 13, 2018

Book Review: Lilac Girls

Lilac GirlsLilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


The story: This Holocaust novel is told from three perspectives: Kasia, a Polish prisoner at Ravensbrück; Caroline Ferriday, a former actress who works at the French embassy; and Herta Oberheuser, a doctor at Ravensbrück who proudly performs experiments on the prisoners. The story itself is a true one. Oberheuser was convicted of Nazi war crimes, and Ferriday was an incredible social activist. The character of Kasia is based on a group of Polish women prisoners nicknamed "The Rabbits," on whom Oberheuser performed horrible experiments.

My reaction: The real story itself is amazing. I would love to read more about Caroline Ferriday and these incredible women known as The Rabbits after reading this novel. It's a story that needs to be told and keep being told so that it never happens again. But… honestly, the whole novel was choppy and disconnected. I should have cried as I read this novel; instead, I felt as emotionally detached and perplexed at the flatness of these characters that yearned to be richly developed. Caroline was the most developed character, yet the bulk of her chapters had to do with a romance that seemed extraneous to the actual story. Oberheuser was utterly flat. And Kasia—ah, what a missed character opportunity. I suspect there was more to the novel originally—more scenes that would further character development—and the author was advised to shorten it.

I admire the research that Kelly put into the novel. According to her afterword, she spent years studying the letters of Ferriday and documents pertaining to the atrocities at Ravensbrück. She traveled to the town in Poland where many of these women came from, retraced their train ride to the camp, investigated the camp itself.

In spite of my overall feeling of disconnect, I would recommend the novel because the story itself is one that should be told and remembered, hopefully encouraging us to use our outrage to help others in whatever way we can.



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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Book Review: The Couple Next Door

The Couple Next DoorThe Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Honestly, this is one of those guilty pleasure books. It's full of plot twists, plastic characters, and things that would never happen in real life, but lately my brain seems to crave absolute, unequivocally dramatic fiction. There's a kidnapped baby, a mom with postpartum depression, multimillionaire grandparents, and a husband from the other side of the tracks. Also: a neighbor named Cynthia, sharp knives, and hidden cell phones.

I gave it 4 stars because it was exactly the book I needed at the moment, not because it's a work of literary genius. This is what I think of as an "in-between" book—a cushion between more thought-provoking books. Fun, fast, and somehow quite satisfying.



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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Books Read in May and June

May

Firefly Lane by Kristen Hannah.
The story: Kate and Tully are best friends, growing up together on Firefly Lane. Kate is average but has a fabulous family; Tully is gorgeous but has no family. Kate wants an ordinary life; Tully wants fame and fortune. They novel spans their relationship from early teens through their 40s or 50s: through first loves, college, career, lost loves, parenting, etc.
Me: Meh. I couldn't get attached to either of the main characters or even to any of the characters. There was too much backstory left untold to make some of the more potentially interesting plot lines substantive. It was predictable and embarrassingly silly at times. It's hard for me to wrap my brain around the fact that Kristen Hannah wrote The Nightingale, which was phenomenal, and also wrote this.

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline.
The story: Kline imagines the story of Anna Christina Olson, subject of the iconic painting "Christina’s World" by the  Andrew Wyeth. Olson and her brother are living by themselves in the old family farmhouse without water or electricity when Wyeth stumbles upon them and sets up his summer studio in their home. Christina's life has been a series of disappointments, from contracting a crippling disease as a little girl to losing her only love. Wyeth brings beauty and grace to Christina's world and allows her to see herself through different eyes. Wyeth's painting turns the once invisible Christina into a lasting treasure.
Me: It was hard to get into at first but I began really enjoying it about midway through. I didn’t know what was wrong with Olson— neither did she— and would have understood more had there been more detailed description as her disease began. Kline is a wonderful storyteller, and eventually I became completely immersed in Christina's world. Her own personal landscape was gray and tired, but Wyeth saw something completely different. I love that someone so ordinary could become a muse to someone so extraordinary, and thus become extraordinary herself. Highly recommended.

Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott.
I had the pleasure of hearing Anne Lamott speak recently. She was partly reading from Hallalujah Anyway and mostly just talking. She was truly wonderful. What an absolute privilege that evening was! Anyway, this memoir of sorts is Lamott's exploration of the concepts of grace and mercy. It's just a lovely book full of thought-provoking, comforting musings.
• “The hard silence between frustrated people always feels cluttered. But holy silence is spacious and inviting. You can drink it down. We offer it to ourselves when we work, rest, meditate, bike, read. When we hike by ourselves, we hear a silence still pristine with crunching leaves and birdsong. Silence can be a system of peace, which is mercy, easily offered to a friend needing quiet, harder when the person is one's own annoying self.”
• “My parents, teachers, and the culture I grew up in showed me a drawer in which to stuff my merciful nature, because mercy made me look vulnerable and foolish, and it made me less productive.”
• "Forgiveness and mercy mean that, bit by bit, you begin to outshine the resentment. You open the drawer that was shut and you take out hte precious treasures that you hid there so long ago, and with them, the person who marvels at tadpoles, who pulls for people to come clean and then have a second chance…"
It sounds trite, I know, but Lamott truly challenges me to be a better person: more compassionate, more forgiving, and more merciful.

JUNE

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.
The Story: When Gerald Durrell was 10 years old, his family (his three older siblings, all in their late teens or early 20s, and his widowed mother) left dreary England for the sunny island of Corfu. Gerry is left essentially on his own at first: free to wander the island, make friends with the locals, and explore the incredible plant and animal life. Every now and then, his family would suddenly remember Gerry and decide he needed formal education, so a occasional tutors were hired—and they learned as much from Gerry as he did from them. Durrell remembers his island days with beautiful writing, hilarious stories, and incredible detail.
Me: I loved this book. It was our June book club pick and a particular favorite of our book club member's 18-year-old son. And I can completely see why: as I was reading this book, I saw Sam, her son, on every page. Durrell was bursting with curiosity as a young boy. He simply observed the world around him, soaked in every detail, befriended everyone, watched every animal-- insects, birds, reptiles-- adopted all kinds of pets, and wreaked havoc on his more "mature" siblings. He was simply delightful, as was this memoir. I laughed a lot and really wanted to re-do by kids' childhood by living off the grid. Lovely book.

Laughing Without an Accent by Firoozeh Dumas
The story: Firoozeh Dumas came to America from Iran as a young girl, and she recounts the hilarious and poignant story of her family's experiences in America in her memoir Funny in Farsi. Laughing Without an Accent continues with more vignettes of her Iranian family and their cultural conundrums, the often confusing intersection between American and Iranian customs, and her own place as a citizen of the world at large.
 Me: I've been meaning to read this book for years, so I was excited when a former student loaned it to me. Whenever I teach World Literature, I begin with Funny in Farsi. My students almost always love this memoir-- and always ask me if I've read Laughing Without an Accent. I'm glad I can finally say I have! This collection of stories is nearly as wonderful. Dumas is a humorist but she has these moments of truth that just hit hard. At the core of her memoirs is the intense love of family but also the theme of "why can't we all just get along?" Highly recommended.

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott.
The Story: The Knox family has only one focus: getting Devon, their teenage daughter, to the Olympics. She's an incredible gymnast and perfect child, and everyone in the community is rooting for her. Well, rooting for her while seething with jealousy. And then the assistant coach's boyfriend dies in a violent accident, and everyone is a suspect. Secrets start piling up and relationships crumble, but the Knox family is determined that nothing will get in the way of Devon's success.
Me: Oh, this was good! It was all very riveting and suspenseful, with plenty of twists and turns and secrets revealed slowly. It was a quick, creepy read.

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell.
The story:  The Bird family used to be the perfect family. Lorelei was a creative, free-spirited mom to Meg, Beth, and twins Rory and Rhys. But then something happens to the Bird family. (The tragedy is revealed about midway through.) Once carefree and joyful, the tragedy leads to the demise of the family. They drift apart and then become disdainful of one other. Once best friends, even Meg and Beth refuse to speak to one another, and Lorelei dies alone, a hoarder in their once lovely home. The book shifts between the present, when the children are middle-aged, and the past, as we find out what actually happened-- and why.
Me: I liked most of the book, although a lot went on. Like, really a lot. Probably too much-- it became tangled a bit too much. But somehow it was all quite interesting, and I did get wrapped up in the characters. My biggest complaint is that the mystery finally revealed at the end of the novel was odd and didn't really fit with the rest of the novel. It was just plain weird. So... good, but not great.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick.
The story: Arthur Pepper has been a widower for one long and painful year. He goes through his days with precise and painstaking routine.  On the one year anniversary of her death, he decides he really must go through her belongings, and while sorting through her clothes, he discovers a charm bracelet that he's never seen before. He's puzzled but intrigued. Where did the bracelet come from, and why was she hiding it from him? The first charm leads him on a journey to uncover a life he never knew about—her life before she met Arthur and settled down. While he discovers who Miriam once was, he also discovers who he really is—and that there is a lot more life to live.
Me: I loved this book! It was our July book club read, and everyone agreed that it was wonderful. It's reminiscent of both A Man Called Ove and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry—two of my favorite reads last year. Like Ove and Harold, Arthur is a lost, grumpy old man who discovers incredible joy—and the incredible writing in all of these novels just makes it all incredibly delicious. Highly recommended!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Books Read in March and April


The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.
The story: Marianne, privileged widow of a Nazi resister, has survived WWII, barely intact. A key player in the resistance movement herself, she is determined to find other resisters' widows and bring them and their children to her once beautiful castle. She finds Benita and Ania, and the three women and their children become a family of sorts. But Benita and Ania turn out to have their own secrets and desires, and Marianne will have figure out how to accept that other people had choices to make that didn't necessarily align with her choices.
Me: I love WWII novels, and this one is one of the best I've read yet. It took me a while to get into it, but I am so glad I took the time to stick with it. I was reading/teaching Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief with my high school world literature class at the same time I was reading this, and I found Shattuck's novel provided incredible perspective into still another dimension of the war. Shattuck is an incredible, insightful writer. She explores various dimensions of these complicated women without ever judging their decisions and motivations or telling the reader what to think. I am amazed that, with the plethora of WWII themed books there are still fresh stories to tell, but there are—and this one certainly is. Highly recommended.


Big Little Lies by Lianne Moriarty.
The story: It's the first day of kindergarten. Jane is a young, single mom with a tragic story. Celeste, mother of twin boys, is a flawless beauty with a secret. Madeline, friend to both of them, finds that her ex-husband and his new wife just happen to have their daughter in the same kindergarten class as her youngest. Something terrible happens to a kindergarten parent, and somehow these three are involved. Moriarty tells the story through several viewpoints and does it so well that you can hardly put down this book. Another absolutely mesmerizing read from Moriarty!
Me: I read this in one day. I mean, I love Moriarty's books. All of them, so far. She's perceptive, funny, and oh so real. With every book of hers I read, I just think how does she come up with this--these plots, these characters, everything? She's fantastic. Highly recommended.


Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford.
The story: William is a 12-year-old Chinese American boy in an Seattle orphanage who discovers that his mother is, in fact, still alive. Willow Frost, his long lost mother, is a Hollywood screen star. When the two finally connect, Willow tells William her tragic story, including why she had to give him up.
Me: Blah. This was our April book club's pick, and it was just not terribly engrossing. I loved Ford's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, but this one just fell flat. It was terribly sad and stark, and yet I never really felt connected to any of the characters. We did end up having a lot to talk about at our book club meeting, but we all agreed that it was a hard book to get through.

The Tenth Circle by Jodie Picoult.
The story: Fourteen-year-old Trixie is the cherished daughter of stay-at-home Dad, Daniel, and professor mom, Laura. Everyone has secrets, of course, and when these are brought out into the open, their insulated world explodes.
Me: Just… so much drama. How much can possibly happen in one book? Nonetheless, I kept reading, even though, well, Alaska. How can a 14-year-old girl just catch a plane to Alaska and end up as part of a sled dog team? It's been a long time since I've read a Jodie Picoult novel, and it will probably be a long time until I read another one. But it was entertaining and really well written. The characters were great-- just way too much happened.

Saving Grace by Lee Smith
The story: Florida Grace is the narrator of the story. Her father, Pastor Virgil, is the fire-and-brimstone, charismatic leader of a snake-handling, signs-following church in Scrabble Creek, a mountain town in the Southern Appalachians. The family is dirt poor, relying on the goodness of the congregation mostly for food, shelter, and clothing. Florida Grace yearns to be just an ordinary kid, one without the baggage of snakes and signs and poverty. Eventually, disaster strikes and the family breaks apart, leaving Grace to find her way.
Me: I love snake-handling stories, I'll admit. I'm fascinated by the practice and the people who adhere to this belief system. Lee Smith is an absolute master of dialect and an incredibly storyteller. She knows Appalachia and avoids stereotypes, instead giving these characters rich, full inner lives. Highly recommended if you enjoy contemporary Southern literature.

Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
Multiple re-read of a book I teach for my high school World Literature Class. Review here

Prayers the Devil Answers by Sharyn McCrumb
The Story: Ellie Robbins is newly widowed, and the only way she can figure out how to survive is by taking over her husband's job—and being a woman sheriff in the 1930s in Appalachia is a hard sell. She manages to do it, nonetheless. Loosely interwoven with this story is another one of a marriage that did not end well. The two stories connect toward the end.
Me: Another bleh. I am a big fan of Sharyn McCrumb's Ballad novels; She Walks These Hills was incredible. But I actually desperately wanted to toss this novel aside unfinished. The only reason I kept reading was because I was intrigued by the beginning of the novel by a scene involving a strange mountain custom (the Dumb Supper). I kept thinking that we'd get back to that scene, but it was only loosely referred to again, and not convincingly at that.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Books Read in February


The Hypnotist’s Love Story by Liane Moriarty
The story: Ellen, a professional hypnotherapist, is in a promising new relationship with Patrick, a widower with a little boy—and, she soon discovers, a stalker. His ex-girlfriend, Saskia, just can't resist watching Patrick's every move. She follows him to dinner, the movies, and even on vacation. She can't seem to stop herself, even though she knows she's acting crazy. Told both through Ellen's and Saskia's points of view, this is another can't-put-down novel from Moriarty. (Where does she come up with these plot lines, anyway?) Ellen is a wonderful character: honest and lovable, you can't help but want everything to turn out okay for her. Saskia is complex and scary, yet also so pitiful you can't help but sympathize with her.
Me: I love Liane Moriarty. Her books feel like guilty pleasures for me, but I don't know why I feel guilty. She's an incredible write with amazing insights, and the plot lines, as I've said, are phenomenal. 


Shakespeare's Landlord by Charlaine Harris.
The story: Lily Bard is a young woman who is trying to erase her tragic past by living quietly and without forming relationships. But when she sees something suspiciously like a body being carted off to a nearby park, she can't help but look—and when she does, she discovers her landlord's corpse. As Lily tries to remain uninvolved in the murder, she becomes more and more involved with both the mystery and with the people around her.
Me: This is our book club pick for this month. I was extremely skeptical. I rarely enjoy pulp mysteries, especially ones that come in a series. But this one? I loved it. Harris is an excellent writer. She doesn't trip to be flippant, cute, or funny, which I think is what often irritates me about light mysteries. Lily is the opposite of a bumbling amateur detective. She's smart, strong, and complex. I found myself picking up the book and reading in the middle of the day, which I don't normally do because, well, real life. In fact, I loved this book so much that I've already checked out the second one in the series, Shakespeare's Champion, so that I can find out what happens to Lily next. Highly recommended! This is a very quick read at less than 200 pages.

Shakespeare's Champion by Charlaine Harris.
The story: This is #2 in series featuring Lily Bard in the tiny town of Shakespeare, Arkansas. I had to keep reading after #1 to find out what happens next in Lily's life, and I wasn't disappointed. You wonder how many murders could happen in a year in a tiny southern town, but somehow it all seems perfectly logical in a mystery book. This one deals largely with racial tensions, hate crimes, and small town life.
Me: This was another good little mystery. I didn't enjoy it as much as the first one. Lily wasn't as endearing and well developed in this one, but it was still a good read. I think my obsession with Lily Bard has probably worn its course after these two little books. I loved them, really;  but when the third one was available only in a format I don't like reading, I decided I just didn't care enough to pursue it. My book club friends assure me that #3 and #4 are excellent and that I should read them, so I may come back to them eventually.


Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez.
The story: Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu are four slave women from different plantations who meet one summer at a summer resort in the free state of Ohio. They are there because they are their masters' favorite mistresses ('wenches"), available all summer to their masters' whims and desires. They suffer constant abuse, humiliation, and mistreatment by their masters, yet these men are the fathers of their children. Each woman has her own struggles: jealous wives, fear for their children's futures, constant threat of violence, and, of course, being forced into slavery. It is in Ohio that they first hear of abolition and begin contemplate the possibility of freedom. They carefully observe free blacks at the resort and imagine a life in which their children are free. For three summers, the women meet and share their hopes and fears, and the possibility of freedom is always at the forefront of their minds. Should they try to run for freedom, or is the risk too great?
Me: This novel was enlightening to me, mostly because of the complicated relationships between slave women and their masters. I never considered that a slave woman might actually have feelings for her owner other than hatred. While three of the women are repulsed by their masters, Lizzie actually seems to love her master, Drayle, although she questions how she could possibly love a man who owns her. I don't think one could possibly read a novel about slavery that isn't tragic and heartwrenching, and this is no exception.  

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.
Multiple re-read for my literature class. I adore this book, and I always love doing my repurposed book pages with my class.
Here's my original review of the novel. I think it gets better every time I read it!