Saturday, July 12, 2014

Book Review: Riding the Bus with My Sister

This was our book club pick for June, selected by me because I absolutely adored Rachel Simon's Story of Beautiful Girl. Riding the Bus with My Sister is Simon's story of a year she spent reconnecting with her sister, a mentally challenged woman who spends her days, well,  riding the bus.

As the story opens, Simon is moved by guilt and obligation to visit her sister Beth, who lives alone in mid-sized town in Pennsylvania, a couple hours away from Simon. They are both in their late 30s and have left behind a difficult and at times dangerous childhood. Their parents, though divorced, clung to one family mantra: Beth will never be institutionalized.

Simon and her siblings see Beth's life as wasteful and depressing. All day, every day, Beth hops on one bus after another, riding around the city and, as they see it, annoying people. They want her to get a job or volunteer—to do something. But riding the buses is Beth's world, and when Rachel visits her sister, she is issued a challenge: ride the bus with Beth for one year.

At first Rachel, a dedicated workaholic, balks: she doesn't have time for this nonsense. But something nudges her to say yes, and so she heads over to Beth's one day each month to spend 12 hours riding the buses. And in the course of the year, Rachel discovers who her sister really is—and finds out a lot about herself, as well.

The story alternates between vignettes of the bus drivers—men and women whom Beth has carefully selected as the most caring, sensitive people; flashbacks from Beth and Rachel's tumultuous childhood; Rachel's own adult life; and Rachel's discovery of who Beth really is.

It's all done beautifully and with great honesty. I loved every part of this book, although I had to devour it quickly in order to have it read in time for our book club discussion. This was a fantastic choice for our book club, although our discussion was rather limited as we conducted it in a noisy restaurant! I'm going to spend this evening watching the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie based on the book—and then I'm hoping I can find more books written by Rachel Simon!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Sunday Salon: Mid-Year Review

Books Read and Reviewed January—June

Books Read But Not Yet Reviewed
The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)
Blessings (Anna Quindlen)
Skylight Confessions (Alice Hoffman)

Best Books So Far
Sadly, nothing so far has been knock-my-socks-off amazing. But I must say I really loved the last four books—the ones I haven't yet reviewed and Lee Smith's Last Girls a whole lot. Well, and of course, The Book Thief—but that is a multiple re-read.

Book Club Books
Labor Day (Joyce Maynard)--(January)
Winter Wheat (February)
Girls of Atomic City (Denise Kiernan)-- (March)
Jane Eyre (April)
And...I think we missed a month. I didn't re-read Winter Wheat or Jane Eyre, but I did bring a paper on Jane Eyre that I had written in college!

Movies From Books
Labor Day (book club outing)
The Fault in Our Stars (I actually haven't read the book, but I've been assured it's close)
The Book Thief (Watched with my World Lit class. A good movie but very disappointing after reading the book)
Great Expectations (loved the Masterpiece Classic on Netflix. Really fabulous.)

Added to TBR List
  1. 41 False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm
    Alena by Rachel Pastan  
  2. Americanah by Chimanda Adichie
  3. The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy   
  4. Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story by Diane Setterfield
  5. Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior
  6. The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez 
  7. China Dolls by Lisa See
  8. Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee
  9. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (The World As Home) by Janisse Ray
  10. Glow by Jessica Maria Tuccelli
  11.  The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  12. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  13. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
  14. Guests on Earth  by Lee Smith 
  15. The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons 
  16. In My Father's Country by Saima Wahab 
  17. The Invention of Wings by  Sue Monk Kidd 
  18. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
  19.  The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian 
  20. Long Man by Amy Greene 
  21. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. 
  22. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton 
  23. Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills
  24. The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley
  25. The Plague of Doves  by Louise Erdrich
  26. A Prayer Journal by Flannery O'Connor 
  27. Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah 
  28. The Rest of the Story by Phan Thi Kim Phuc
  29. Snow by Orhan Pamuk 
  30. Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen
  31. Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren F. Winner     
  32. A Thousand Mornings: Poems by Mary Oliver 
  33. The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan 
 Yeah, that kind of makes me dizzy. Why have I added so many books already this year, and read so few? 

I just noticed that on my mid-year post from 2013, I posted all kind of literary pictures from our trip to Paris. No such excitement this year! But I am most excited about read Amy Greene's The Long Man.

And that's it so far for 2014!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Book Review: The Last Summer (of You and Me)

Author Ann Brashares is the creator of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, that fabulously fluffy teen series about a pair of jeans circulated among four best friends that does wonderful things for all of them. The Last Summer (of You and Me) is her first novel for adults, and it is definitely a beach read, bordering on a fluffy teen read and definitely a coming-of-age story.

The story mostly takes place on Fire Island (off the Northeast coast somewhere), and I'm always a little envious of great island stories—families who take the ferry over to some island every summer to their fabulous beach house. I mean, I live in Tennessee, so of course this all sounds terribly exotic and dramatic. And beachy. Who are these people?

Still, because I grew up in New York and had lots of friends with summer cottages on the lake, I get it, at a certain level. Anyway, the story is about next-door-neighbors on the island: two sisters and the boy-next-door. It's not what you think: the sisters don't fight over the boy. It's a more complicated relationship among the three, and I think it all made sense in the end. I think. It wasn't all terribly clear, and I was really more drawn into the story of Alice and Paul and not so much the story of Alice's sister, Riley, who lacked any depth but had a rather major role.

While not a perfect book and certainly not a literary masterpiece, this is definitely perfect when you are in the mood for something kinda sappy, pretty sweet, and a little sad.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Book Review: The Last Girls

 I've had The Last Girls on my TBR list forever, and I grabbed a nice hardback copy at a used book store's "bargain books" aisle a couple of weeks ago.

Lee Smith never disappoints. She's a southern writer who never succumbs to southern clichés, who paints characters with such vivid details that I think I know the person in real life.

So, this novel made me kinda jealous that I never thought of doing this in a million years. I like adventure, theoretically now anyway but certainly in reality when I was 22. In her real life, Lee Smith and a dozen of her friends took a raft trip down the Mississippi River, Huckleberry Finn-style, upon their college graduation. How amazing is that? They really did it!

This fictionalized account takes the trip a step further: 35 years later, the women reunite and take the same trip, except this time on a steamboat, so that they can sprinkle the ashes of Baby Ballou into the river. Baby had been the wildest one in the bunch, and the friends all assume she committed suicide at the end. But who was Baby, really?

The novel focuses on five of the women, reflecting on who they were back in college and who they are now. I really loved this because I am often amazed at how little I think I know my best girlfriends from college now, 25 years later, even though we've kept vaguely in touch and claimed to be absolute soulmates back then and for a decade after. But really, we were still in the early stages of formation back then, figuring out who we were and who we were to become.

Smith's characters might be a bit typecast: the lonely librarian, the mysterious romance writer, the unhappy rich southern belle, the wild Sylvia Plath-like girl, but I didn't care at all. I love stories that wrap up nicely and have hopeful endings, and I especially love how Smith takes unformed college girls and shoots them 35 years into their future. This was a perfect summer read, and I need to go back and see if I've missed any of Smith's other novels.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ever-Growing TBR List (2014)




*Indicates books added in 2014

*41 False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm
* Alena by Rachel Pastan
An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor
* Americanah by Adichie.
Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg.
Aprons on a Clothesline by T. DePree
Arctic Dreams
by Barry Lopez
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker
Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead: The Frank Meeink Story as Told by Jody M. Roy, Ph.D. (reviewed at Musings of a Bookish Kitty)
*The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy 
Barefoot in Baghdad by Manal M. Omar (reviewed at Bookworm's Dinner)
Before the Storm by Diane Chamberlain
The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (read and reviewed 3/14)
Behind the Burqa by Sulima and Hala (reviewed by Semicolon)
* Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story by Diane Setterfield.
Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio
Blood Hollow by W. Krueger
Blood of Flowers
by A. Amirrezvani
Blood Work
by M Connelly
* Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior.
Book of a Thousand Days by S. Hale (reviewed on Semicolon and Maw Books)
Book of Lost Things by J. Connelly
* The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
Bootletter’s Daughter by M. Maron
Born on a Blue Day by D. Tammet (reviewed on Sam’s Book Blog)
* China Dolls by Lisa See
*Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee. 
Clair de Lune by Jetta Carleton (read and reviewed 1/14)
Close Your Eyes by Amanda Eye Ward
Coming Up for Air by Patti Callahan Henry
Commoner by J.B. Schwarz
Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
A Country Doctor’s Casebook by R. MacDonald
The Dawning of the Day: A Jerusalem Tale by Haim Sabato
Departed, The by K. Mackel
Digging to America by Anne Tyler
Dinner with a Perfect Stranger by D. Gregory
Dough: A Memoir by Mort Zachter (reviewed by Lisa at 5 Minutes for Books)
Dry Grass of August by Anna Jean Mayhew (read and reviewed 3/14) 
* Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (The World As Home) by Janisse Ray.
Every Last One by Anna Quindlen (Reviewed at S. Krishna's Books)
Executioner's Song by Mailer
Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad by Waris Darie (reviewed at Maw Books)
Far to Go by Alison Pick (Reviewed by Kristina at The Book Keeper)
Family Nobody Wanted by Doss
Fatal Vision by J. McGinnis
Father, Mother, God: My Journey Out of Christian Science by Lucia Greenhouse
First Wife by Emily Barr (recommended by Fleur Fisher)
Flowers by D. Gilb
Fortune Cookie Chronicles by J. Lee
Franklin and Lucy by Joseph Persico
Gentle Rain by Deborah Smith (reviewed by Leah at Good Reads)
Ghost Map
by S. Jackson
Ghost Moth by Michele Forbes 
Ghost Writer, The by J. Harwood
The Girl in the Italian Bakery by Kenneth Tingle
The Girls by Lori Lansens
Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel
Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton
* Glow by Jessica Maria Tuccelli:
* The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
* Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
* The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
* Guests on Earth  by Lee Smith
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
Hava: The Story of Eve by Tosca Lee
The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent (reviewed by Gautami at Reading Room)
High House, The
by James Stoddard
Hiroshima
by John Hershey
Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow by Susan C. Bartoletti (reviewed by Natasha at Maw Books)
Hot Zone by R. Preston (reviewed by Semicolon)
* The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons
How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen (mentioned by The Magic Lasso)
Human Cargo by C. Moorehead
A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams.
I Am Scout by Charles J. Shields (reviewed by Becky)
In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason
*In My Father's Country by Saima Wahab 
Introverts in the Church by Adam McHugh
* The Invention of Wings by  Sue Monk Kidd
Iris and Ruby by Rosie Thomas
Ishmael
by E. Southwark
Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me
by Ian Morgan Cron (reviewed at Rachel Held Evans)
Keeping the House by E. Baker
Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones (reviewed by Bookeywookey)
Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger (reviewed at Thoughts of Joy)
The Last Girls by Lee Smith (read and reviewed here 6/14)
Last Storyteller by D. Noble
Leave it to Claire
by T. Bateman
Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading by Maureen Corrigan (reviewed by Literary Feline)
Left To Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza (reviewed at Maw Books and Just a Reading Fool)
Liar’s Diary by P. Francis (reviewed by Semicolon)
Life Among Savages
by Shirley Jackson (reviewed at Dwell in Possibility)
Life Is So Good
by R. Glaubman
* The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
* The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian.
Little Altars Everywhere by R. Wells
Living End
by L. Samson
Look Me in the Eye
by John Elder Robison
A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka (reviewed at The Lost Entwife)
*Long Man by Amy Greene
Lost Children of Wilder by N. Bernstein
Love Anthony by Lisa Genova
Loving Frank by N. Horan
* The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.
* The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Mad Girls in Love by M. West
Man without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut
Many Sleepless Nights
by Lee Gutkind
Mariner's Compass
by E. Fowler
The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok
Mercy Falls by WK Krueger
Minding the South
by J. Reed
* Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills
Moloka’I by A. Brennert
Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway (Reviewed at The Bluestocking Society)
Murder in the Name of Honor by Rana Husseini (Reviewed at Reading Through Life)
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (Reviewed by Reading to Know)
Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian
The Ninth Wife by Amy Stolls
Not without My Daughter
by B. Mahmoody
* The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley
Papua New Guinea: Notes from a Spinning Planet by M. Carlson (reviewed by Clean Reads)
Perfect Example by John Porcellino (reviewed at The Hidden Side of the Leaf)
* The Plague of Doves  by Louise Erdrich.
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin (reviewed at Reader Buzz)
Prairie Tale by Melissa Gilbert
* A Prayer Journal by Flannery O'Connor
Promise Not To Tell by Jennifer McMahon (reviewed at Missy's Book Nook)
Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett
Property by Valerie Martin (reviewed by The Magic Lasso)
Quaker Summer
by Lisa Samson
Quilter’s Apprentice
by J. Chiaverini
The Quilt Walk by Sandra Dallas
* Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah
Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson
Reading Lolita in Tehran by
Azar Nafisi
Refuge on Crescent Hill by Melanie Dobson (Reviewed at Reading to Know)
The Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson
* The Rest of the Story by Phan Thi Kim Phuc.
Riding the Bus with My Sister by Rachel Simon (read and reviewed 7/14)
Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen
Rises the Night
by C. Gleason
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books by Lynne Schwartz (reviewed on Shelf Life)
Rumspringa
by Shactman
Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens
Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall
Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins (reviewed by Just a Reading Fool)
Same Kind of Different As Me
by Ron Hall and Denver Moore (recommended by Stray Thoughts)
Saving Levi Left to Die
by Lisa Bently
Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins (Reviewed by Word Lily)
Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian (Reviewed at In the Pages)Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks by Greg Bottoms (Reviewed by Sage)
Seven Loves by Trueblood
She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel
Slaves, Women & Homosexuals by William J. Webb 
* Snow by Orhan Pamuk
 So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
The Soldier's Wife by Margaret Leroy (reviewed at Polishing Mud Balls)
Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill
Someone Named Eva by Joan M. Wolf (reviewed at Maw Books)
Some Girls by Jillian Lauren (reviewed by Book Club Classics)
Song of the Cuckoo Bird by Amulya Malladi
Song Yet Sung
by James McBride
Songs for the Missing by Stewart O'Nan
Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford
Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture by Donna Partow
* Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen
* Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren F. Winner:
Stillwater by William Weld
Stoner
by John Williams (suggested by JoAnn at Every Day Matters)
The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump by Sandra Hempel
Summer Crossing by Truman Capote (reviewed by CaribousMom)
Summerland
by M. Cabon
Teahouse Fire, The
by Ellis Avery
Stones Cry Out
by M Szymusiak
Testament of Youth
by Vera Brittain (recommended at Musings)
There Are No Children Here
by A. Kotlowitz
Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself
by Alan Alda
This Boy's Life
by Tobias Wolff
Thousand Years of Good Prayers
by Yiyun Li
The Threadbare Heart
by Jenny Nash (reviewed at Maw Books)
Three Cups of Tea
by G. Mortenson
The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum
Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres
* A Thousand Mornings: Poems by Mary Oliver
Time Between by Mary Duenas
To My Senses by A. Weis (reviewed by J. Kaye)
Tomorrow, the River by D. Gray
Translator: A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur
by D. Hari (reviewed by CaribousMom and Maw Books)
Trauma and Ghost Town by P. McGrath
Unbearable Lightness of Being by Kundera
Uprising by Margaret Haddix (reviewed by Semicolon)
Undress me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman (reviewed by Book Zombie)
* The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
Very Valentine by Adriana Trigiani
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
Well and the Mine, The by Gin Phillips (reviewed by Semicolon)
Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
What I Though I Knew by Alice Eve Cohen
What Is What by D. Eggers (reviewed at Maw Books)
What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage
What Peace There May Be by Susanna Brarlow
What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn (Reviewed at Big A, Little A)
When I Lay My Isaac Down by C. Kent
When She Woke by Hillary Jordan (read and reviewed 1/14
When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewalt
Wherever you Go by Joan Leegant (reviewed by Bibliophiliac)
Whistling in the Dark by L. Kagen
Who Killed My Daughter by Lois Duncan (Reviewed at Nonfiction Lover)
Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah
Winter Seeking by V. Wright
Winter Walk
by L. Cox
Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (recommended at Rebecca Reads)
Women of the Silk by G. Tsuriyama
Year of Living Biblically
by AJ Jacobs (reviewed by Andi Lit)
Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes  
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls  by Anton Disclafani.

Book Review: Sycamore Row

I usually give John Grisham a hard time. In fact, I began the review of the last book of his that I read with "Somebody, please, stop me next time I say I'm going to read the newest John Grisham novel! Why do I keep doing this to myself?"

Don't get me wrong: I admire John Grisham greatly. He is fantastic at what he does. It's just that so many of his books sound exactly the same, and, as I said in my last review, feature "bad dialogue and stereotypical characters." Lawsuit, courtroom, big scandal.

But guess what? I loved Sycamore Row. Honestly, I started reading it because I finished a book and didn't have another one to read. I absolutely loved A Time to Kill, Grisham's first book. Sycamore Row brings back Jake Brigance and Clanton, Mississippi. This takes place several years after the Carl Lee Hailey trial in A Time to Kill. Jake is a struggling small-town lawyer, trying to put his finances back in order after that famous trial. Nothing big ever really happens, until Seth Hubbard commits suicide.

Hubbard was an enigmatic man, reported as being unknowable and cold-hearted. His grown children have nothing to do with him until his death. The kids knew he was rich but had no idea exactly how many millions he was worth. To their utter shock, his handwritten will leaves almost everything to his black housekeeper and specifically demands that his children and grandchildren get nothing.

Jake Brigance, who never heard of Seth Hubbard until his death, is named as the lawyer for his estate in a letter mailed by Seth right before his death. And the legal battle is on between the estate of Seth Hubbard and his greedy, unpleasant children.

Here is why this book was different for me that many of Grisham's formulaic lawyer books: I think Grisham really cared about this book. I think he loves Jake Brigance and took his time in doing right by Jake. It's been 25 years since A Time to Kill.  He's written a lot of law novels in that time period that follow a formula and wrap up nicely, and a couple that are really excellent (A Painted House, The Innocent Man). I think that Grisham's writing is at its best when Grisham is passionate about his subject or the characters. I think all that in-between stuff is just fluff, just a way to fulfill contracts and make a great salary. But his artistry? Those gems come just often enough to keep me coming back. Because when Grisham is good, he's really, really good.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Book Review: Burial Rites

Hannah Kent's Burial Rites is an amazing debut novel. Set in Iceland in the early 1800s, it tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. The prevailing mood throughout the book is cold, lonely, and despairing, yet Kent has a gift of weaving bits of warmth and compassion throughout the sad story.

The Jonsson family is forced to take Agnes, an accused murderess, into their home until her execution. The family—parents and two daughters in their early 20s—is horrified that they must provide food and housing for her. The mother is afraid that her daughters will somehow become tainted—or worse— by their proximity to Agnes.

But as the weeks pass, that fear and repulsion turns to a grudging appreciation and even respect for Agnes. She works hard on the Jonsson's farm, never complaining or shirking her duties. Eventually, her life's story comes out in bits and pieces as she talks to the parish priest, a young man she chose specifically because he once helped her cross a stream and showed true compassion. Agnes's life, according to her narrative, had been a cold and lonely one, abandoned by her single mother at a young age and forced to be a servant throughout farms in Iceland. In her 30s she falls in love with Natan, the man whom she is accused of murdering. But did she murder for money or for love—or did she even murder him?

Kent is a mesmerizing storyteller. I am sure I have never read a novel before that takes place in Iceland, so that in itself was fascinating. What a cold, horrible way of life—yet Kent manages to create a spark of life into this dismal landscape. I found myself feeling so terribly hopeless for Agnes, holding out hope that someone might believe her innocence, even though I knew the outcome of the story.

I highly recommend this book. It's a fascinating piece of history, a glimpse into Iceland in the 1800s, and a really well written story.