Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Top 10 Tuesday: TBR Books Written Before I was Born

This is surprisingly challenging.. and I feel really old. I perused my Goodreads TBR list and found these books on my to-read published before I was born (1966). It's a pretty short list! In college and graduate school, I focused mainly on 20th century lit, so I don't have much of that on my TBR list. That doesn't mean I've read everything in the 20th century, of course, but I have read a LOT! And again, as an English major, I've read a heck of a lot of classics. I could definitely add some re-reads of classics or some first-time reads, but here we go:

Shirley by Charlotte Brontë. Published in 1849. This is probably the only novel by any of the sisters that I haven't read yet. A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter. First published in 1901. This is a YA novel about a young girl growing up in the early 20th century.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. Published in 1855. A young woman has to move from her comfortable, middle class home to a millworking town in the north of England.

Years of Grace by Margaret Ayers. This book won the Pulitzer in 1931. It was referenced in another novel that I can't remember now, and I immediately added it to my list. 

Sons and also A House Divided by Pearl Buck. Published in 1932 and 1935, these are sequels to The Good Earth.

They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell. Published in 1937. It tells of an American family overtaken by the epidemic of the Spanish influenza of 1918. Seems appropriate for now!

Stoner by John Williams. Published in 1965. This is the story of an ordinary man who falls in love with literature, choosing a life of academia over farming. Apparently this novel has quite a cult following.

Obviously, I lean much more toward contemporary literature these days! Perhaps I had my fill of reading and teaching classics through the decades. So many books to discover!


Linked up with Top Ten Tuesday at That Artsy Reader Girl

Monday, February 1, 2021

Books Read in January

 The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

The story: Adunni is a fourteen-year-old Nigerian girl who wants two things: her mother, who was her greatest advocate, and an education. She can't get her mother back—she has passed away—but she is determined to get an education. This, her mother told her, is how she gets a "louding voice"—how she can speak for herself and determine her own path. Adunni lives in a traditional village in Nigeria, under traditional tribal laws. When her father pulls her out of school and trades her to an old man as his third wife, her dream of an education looks impossible. She faces daily abuse, drudgery, and fear, and then tragedy strikes. She makes a bold decision that saves her life and ultimately leads her to a new one. 

My reaction: This was a perfect book with which to begin a new year. Adunni is the most wonderfully courageous young woman. She is compassionate, gutsy, curious, intelligent, and determined. The story is told through her voice, which makes this even more compelling, inviting the reader right into her world. In her words:  “I want to enter a room, and people will hear me even before I open my mouth to be speaking. I want to live in this life and help many people so that when I grow old and die, I will still be living through the people I am helping.” I loved the wide array of women introduced in this novel, each with a different voice and a different experience. Some of their voices are muffled, some completely shut, some shouting, but each one cries out in some way for understanding. Highly recommended!

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

The story: Isabel Wilkerson explores the characteristics of caste systems, the way human beings are ranked, and shows how the United States is rooted in a brutal caste system that puts Black Americans firmly at the bottom of the ladder. She compares and contrasts the U.S. caste system with that of Nazi Germany and India. As she writes, 

"Throughout human history, three caste systems have stood out. The tragically accelerated, chilling, and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany. The lingering, millennia-long caste system of India. And the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States. Each version relied on stigmatizing those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement. A caste system endures because it is often justified as divine will, originating from sacred text or the presumed laws of nature, reinforced throughout the culture and passed down through the generations." 

My reaction: I think every single American should read this book. We need to be talking about this, teaching this in our schools, and working toward demolishing the American caste system. As Wilkerson writes (italics mine), 

Americans are loath to talk about enslavement in part because what little we know about it goes against our perception of our country as a just and enlightened nation, a beacon of democracy for the world. Slavery is commonly dismissed as a “sad, dark chapter” in the country’s history. It is as if the greater the distance we can create between slavery and ourselves, the better to stave off the guilt or shame it induces. But in the same way that individuals cannot move forward, become whole and healthy, unless they examine the domestic violence they witnessed as children or the alcoholism that runs in their family, the country cannot become whole until it confronts what was not a chapter in its history, but the basis of its economic and social order. For a quarter millennium, slavery was the country. 

Wilkerson uses stories about real people —including her own experiences— to show how insidious and pervasive the caste system is in America -- how it seeps into every aspect of our lives. I highlighted about a billion passages in this book. I had to put it down sometimes and just mull over what I'd read. Wilkerson is a wonderful writer, using just the right balance of personal experiences, analysis, and research, both historical and scientific. (At one point I shouted to my husband, who has a PhD in genetics, that I was reading about telomere length and understanding perfectly!) This book is a lesson, a reprimand, a call to action, a plea, and a challenge.

"Each time a person reaches across caste and makes a connection, it helps to break the back of caste. Multiplied by millions in a given day, it becomes the flap of a butterfly wing that shifts the air and builds to a hurricane across an ocean."

The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson. 

The story: Miranda's favorite uncle dies and leaves her his independent bookstore. Well, that's the simple way to explain the book. But Miranda, now in her late 20s,  hasn't seen her uncle since she was 12-years-old, when he disappeared from her life without explanation. Her mother, his sister, won't talk about Uncle Billy. Her father just says, "Ask your mother." And the bookstore is on the opposite coast, far away from Miranda's current life as a high school history teacher. When Miranda returns for his funeral, she realizes his inheritance comes with a scavenger hunt. In order to solve the mystery of why Billy disappeared from her life, she has to follow the clues and put the whole story together: “Like Prospero, Billy wanted to tell me of his betrayal, the event that had exiled him from our family." And so the search begins, taking Miranda from person to person, event to event.

My reaction: Boy, did I ever need this one after reading Caste! This is lighthearted (mostly), warm, happy (mostly), quick read. This is a book lover's book, for sure. I love all the titles listed throughout, the literary references, the celebration of reading. And what a DREAM: to inherit a whole bookstore! Meyerson does a fantastic job immersing us in the world of bookstores—I could smell the books, feel the covers, and take comfort in the shelves. Miranda herself was a little annoying now and then, but certainly not enough to keep me from highly recommending this.

My biggest gripe: the title. I cannot remember this for the life of me! Shakespeare's The Tempest was such a prevalent theme throughout the book—Prospero Books and the name Miranda, just for starters. Why not use Prospero in the title? (Or maybe the title IS a reference from The Tempest, and I'm not getting it! "Dreamers of tomorrow and yesterday," perhaps...)  I keep getting this title mixed up with others I've read recently: The Little Paris Bookshop, The Library of Lost and Found, The Book of Lost Friends... I know—it's a petty complaint and should not stop anyone from reading this lovely book!

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

The story: Vanessa is an outcast at her boarding school. She's lonely, friendless, isolated, and 15. She's the perfect prey for a predator like her 40-something English teacher, Mr. Strane. He singles her out and grooms her carefully, telling her that she's just like him, that he's madly in love with her, that she's brilliant. He knows all the right things to say, knows exactly how to manipulate Vanessa. Over 15 years later, he still knows all the right things to say: he knows how to convince her to keep their story quiet when another young woman, and then another and another come public with accusations of being abused by Strane. "They're lying," he tells Vanessa, and she believes him. He has been telling her since she was 15 that she's special, after all. The book alternates between 15-year-old Vanessa and Vanessa in her early 30s, when the accusations are flying about Strane. It's the #metoo movement, and Vanessa claims she is NOT a victim: that she made all her own choices, willingly. How long will she keep protecting her abuser?

My reaction: Haunting. Disturbing. Unsettling. Brilliant and brave. My heart absolutely broke for Vanessa, over and over again. This book is full of triggers, so beware. It is a difficult, gut-wrenching journey. To read how a 15-year-old is brainwashed, manipulated, and degraded by an authority figure is just so heartbreaking and maddening. I was angry at her parents for treating her like a leper, for the school for not pursuing the initial report of abuse, and of course for Strane for being a despicable pedophile. But I was never angry with Vanessa, who was so deeply twisted by Strane that she could not see the truth of their "relationship." This book is not for everyone, for sure. It is raw, graphic, and so disturbing, but Russell does an incredible job of inviting the reader to explore the complexities of abuse, the thread between abuser and the abused, the voiced and the voiceless. Highly recommended but know ahead of time: this is hard stuff.

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis.

The story: Rose is a 30-ish journalist who has recently moved into the once glamorous Barbizon Hotel for Women, now luxury condos, with her partner. She becomes intrigued by the older women who live on the fourth floor of the hotel—women who are long-term tenants, now living in rent-controlled apartments. She learns that one woman fell to her death in the 1950s, another has a terrible scar on her face from some kind of altercation. Rose pitches the story to her editor and starts interviewing these women. From there, the book alternates between Rose's present day story and the story of Darby, one of the Barbizon women in the 1950s. 

My reaction. The first half of the book was great... and then it fell apart. Darby's story just took too many unrealistic turns, and Rose's story never reached much development after the first half. I mean, she thinks she is about to get engaged, and then her boyfriend leaves her for his ex-wife. Exit long time almost fiancé, enter new guy. She's over her ex really fast. And there were a lot of references to what "really" happened at her previous job, but it just seemed extraneous and distracting. Darby's 1952 story could have been so much more interesting had it been given more attention. The characters there held promise. It was as if too many stories were happening at once, and none of them made it to a satisfying conclusion. Honestly, the book just went on way too long, and the climax was like a balloon that slowly and limply deflates. 

Linked up with It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Revisited Authors I Read in 2020

The prompt for this week's Top Ten Tuesday is "New-to-Me Authors I read in 2020," but I'm going with authors I revisited in 2020—the other list would be much too long!

Here is everything I read in 2020. The authors below are repeat authors; the rest on the list were new-to-me!

The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline: I've also read Sweet Water, Desire Lines, A Piece of the WorldThe Way Life Should Be, and, of course, Orphan Train. I was surprised to peruse my blog and see how many books of Kline's I have read and enjoyed!

Persuasion by Jane Austen: A re-read for book club. I've also read Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma.

The Bean Trees
by Barbara Kingsolver: Re-read for another book club. I've read lots of Kingsolver: The Lacuna,  The Poisonwood Bible (three times), Pigs in Heaven, Prodigal Summer, Animal Dreams. There are several I have yet to read and need to add to my TBR list.

The Secrets of Love Story Bridge by Phaedra Patrick. I'd previously read The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper and loved it. The Library of Lost and Found is on my library wait list.

The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate. I've also read Before We Were Yours.

Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver. I've read many collections of Oliver's poems, including Devotions, A Thousand Mornings, Why I Wake Early, and New and Selected Poems.

Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler. I'm not sure there is anything by Anne Tyler I haven't read, beginning with The Accidental Tourist when I was 22, right after graduating from college. I've devoured every one of her books since then.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Multiple re-read.

When the Lights Go Out by Mary Kubica. I've also read The Good Girl and Every Last Lie.

You Were Always Mine by Nicole Baart. I read her Little Broken Things in 2019.

Linked up with Top Ten Tuesday at That Artsy Reader Girl

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Books I Meant to Read In 2020 but Didn’t Get To

This week's topic for Top Ten Tuesday is "Books I Meant to Read In 2020 but Didn’t Get To." I added dozens and dozens of books to my TBR shelf last year, but here are a few that I'm extra anxious to read:

First, there are two books I still need to finish reading from last year: Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi and Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad. They are both incredible books: enlightening, educational, shocking, horrifying and so important. But I had to get Stamped back to the library before finishing, and Randy and I are working through Saad's book together. Whenever we drive an hour or more to go hiking, we read a chapter of the book and discuss it. Sometimes our adult kids have been with us, and that's made for some excellent discussions.

Looking back at the books I added last year, these are the 10 that really jumped out at me:


The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein: "Essential… Rothstein persuasively debunks many contemporary myths about racial discrimination…. Only when Americans learn a common―and accurate―history of our nation’s racial divisions, he contends, will we then be able to consider steps to fulfill our legal and moral obligations. For the rest of us, still trying to work past 40 years of misinformation, there might not be a better place to start than Rothstein’s book." - Rachel M. Cohen, Slate

His Other Life: Searching for My Father, His First Wife, and Tennessee Williams by Melanie McCabe: "When Melanie McCabe's father died in 1973, she learned a startling truth about his life before he settled into a quiet suburban existence. Terrence McCabe had been married before; his first wife, Hazel, was Tennessee Williams' childhood sweetheart; and Williams wrote characters based on both of them, and their marriage, into his plays. As an adult, Melanie set off to discover the real story behind her father's former life, enlisting help from librarians, amateur genealogists, and Tennessee Williams' own writings to fill in the blanks. At the center of the investigation is the perplexing death of Hazel, who died at age 38 while living in Mexico City. Was it suicide? Was it an accident? And who was the unknown man with her when she died? Part memoir, part love story, part gripping mystery... "

A Promised Land by Barack Obama: I gave this to Randy for Christmas, and he's loving it.  Michelle Obama's Becoming was one of my favorite books last year, and I know President Obama's will be amazing, too!

A Most Beautiful Thing: The True Story of America's First All-Black High School Rowing Team by Arshay Cooper. This is my book club pick for this coming year: "The moving true story of a group of young men growing up on Chicago's West side who form the first all-black high school rowing team in the nation, and in doing so not only transform a sport, but their lives." I'm looking forward to the book and the movie!

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: "Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed."

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid: "A gripping novel about the whirlwind rise of an iconic 1970s rock group and their beautiful lead singer, revealing the mystery behind their infamous breakup."

Woman 99 by Greer Macallister: "A vivid historical thriller about a young woman whose quest to free her sister from an infamous insane asylum risks her sanity, her safety, and her life." (I was excited to see this one is free with Kindle Unlimited, so it's on my Kindle now.)

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: Going to Anne Patchett's independent bookstore, Parnassus Books, with my daughter and son-in-law was one of the last outings I had last year, back when "coronavirus" was a distant thing in faraway China....
My girl at Parnassus Books, when COVID was not part of our daily vocab

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins: “American Dirt is a literary novel with nuanced character development and arresting language; yet, its narrative hurtles forward with the intensity of a suspense tale. Its most profound achievement, though, is something I never could’ve been told…American Dirt is the novel that, for me, nails what it’s like to live in this age of anxiety, where it feels like anything can happen, at any moment.” (Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s Fresh Air). Also, Cummins is my maiden name, so I feel particularly drawn to this one. ;)

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman. I think I'm about #435 on the waiting list at the library for this one, so clearly there is a reason it's on the NYT Top 20 list. Like everyone else I loved A Man Called Ove, so I'll wait patiently for my turn to read Backman's newest!

The Guest List by Lucy Foley. "The bride – The plus one – The best man – The wedding planner – The bridesmaid – The body" ... This one sounds deliciously suspenseful and gets great reviews. I've got a while to wait: I'm #68 on the library's waiting list.

What's on your list? Have you read any of these?

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Reading (and Other) Resolutions/Hopes for a New Year

Resolutions/Hopes for 2021 

1. Finish all the half-read books started in 2019 and 2020.

2. Keep up with writing a review of every single book I read this year.

3. Re-read two classics. I think my choices will be: Richard Llewelyn's How Green Was My Valley and Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. It's been 30 years since I have read either of those. How will my perspective differ in my 50s than in my 20s? Will I still consider them two of my favorites books ever?

4. Memorize a poem. When Randy and I are hiking, we often quote fragments of poetry and immediately say, "I wish I could recite a whole poem!" My parents, who grew up in a generation where memorization was emphasized, can both recite—in their 90s— at least a few poems in their entirety. I so wish I could do this! I think I will choose Wendell Berry's "The Peace of Wild Things."

5. Read all the books for book club—on time. Our book club has been really sporadic and disorganized since COVID hit. I hope we get our feet back on the ground and find a regular meeting time again!

6. Read at least two autobiographies or memoirs. I loved the ones I read lats year: Michelle Obama's Becoming, Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, and Carole King's Natural Woman. Suggestions welcome!

7. Blog more! I'm doing better here at my reading blog; now I need to be more consistent with SmallWorld at Home! I love link-ups, so suggestions for "regular" blog link-ups are appreciated.

8. Carve out more time for reading. I primarily read my pleasure book (as opposed to newspaper articles and work-related materials) only at night, as part of my going-to-sleep ritual. I'd like to dedicate an hour each day to reading for pleasure.

9. Have more gatherings. Some of this is wishful thinking, imagining that day when we can have indoor parties again, but in the meantime, I'd love to have a a few friends over to sit around the bonfire every couple of weeks instead of just now and then.

10. Keep participating in the book blogging community regularly!

Linked up with Top Ten Tuesday at Artsy Reader Girl

Monday, January 11, 2021

It's Monday! What are you reading?

 I'm currently reading two books over here: one nonfiction, one fiction — one published, one not published.... yet!

The first is Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. I'm not quite halfway through this absolutely essential book. I say "essential" because I think everyone should read this, especially all Americans. As Wilkerson writes, 

Americans are loath to talk about enslavement in part because what little we know about it goes against our perception of our country as a just and enlightened nation, a beacon of democracy for the world. Slavery is commonly dismissed as a “sad, dark chapter” in the country’s history. It is as if the greater the distance we can create between slavery and ourselves, the better to stave off the guilt or shame it induces. But in the same way that individuals cannot move forward, become whole and healthy, unless they examine the domestic violence they witnessed as children or the alcoholism that runs in their family, the country cannot become whole until it confronts what was not a chapter in its history, but the basis of its economic and social order. For a quarter millennium, slavery was the country.

Wilkerson is a fantastic writer, and while this is an emotionally difficult read, her writing style is engaging and inviting as she explores the caste system that has shaped America. I'm reading this one slowly and taking a lot of notes. 

The second book I'm reading, also slowly, is my brother-in-law's manuscript. He's written the first and second in the series so far, and I can't wait to see them on the shelves! He's an excellent writer, and although this particular genre (mystery/amateur investigator/humor) isn't one I gravitate toward, I am thoroughly enjoying the novel. I'm also enjoying the process of working with him as a Beta reader.

That's it for now! I'll probably be working through both of these all week, maybe finishing by the weekend. I'll be choosing something rather light then! 

Linked up with It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? — a place to meet up and share what you have been, and are about to be reading over the week. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Anticipating in 2021...

Perusing the lists of new releases for the first half of 2021 made me want to forego all my daily tasks and just read. I mean, basically, that's what I want to do all day, every day. Here are some of the new releases I am looking forward to most.

Dusk, Night, Dawn by Anne Lamott: I adore Lamott and look forward to pondering some of the big questions through her thoughtful, wise, and witty lens. 

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri never disappoints. The book's premise is intriguing to me, with a theme of solitude and isolation. I have a feeling I might have to be in a certain mood to really dive into this one.

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders. Through short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, writer and Syracuse University professor explores what makes great short stories work. This is a perfect one for my writing life! 

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris.  This debut novel sounds part thriller, part social commentary. I'm probably most excited about this one!

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah. If this one is as fantastic as The Great Alone and The Nightingale, I know I'll be in for an epic journey—this time in Texas during the Great Depression.

The Children's Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin. 1888 in the Dakota Territory: a freak blizzard comes without warning just as school is dismissing for the day. I have this one downloaded on my Kindle already and can't wait to read it! 

Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson. I'm about 50/50 with Jackson: sometimes I love her, sometimes I want to throw the book across the room. This one sounds like it could go either way: a rags-to-riches story, a mother who will do anything to protect her child, a witch in the window.... We'll see!

Caul Baby by Morgan Jenkins. This debut novel sounds fresh, unique, and full of mystery. I'm looking forward to reading Hallow's story already!

If I Disappear by Eliza Jane Brazier. I do love thrillers mixed in with my heavier reads! Listening to true crime podcasts are one of my guilty pleasures, and this novel dives into the world of crime within a crime podcaster's own life. 

The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins. A new telling of the triangle of Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester, and Bertha, the wife in the attic? Yes, please. My favorite classic novel as a psychological thriller in 2021. Can't wait!


A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson. I loved Lawson's Crow Lake; she is a wonderful storyteller and a master at crafting beautiful prose. This one sounds like a journey into the heart of a family, from crisis to redemption.

What are you most looking forward to? I'm looking forward to seeing what others are anticipating on Top Ten Tuesday at Artsy Reader. I'm sure I'll be adding more to my list!