Books: June-July 2017

Eight books in two months. Six fiction (including one YA), one creative/motivational, and one feminist manifesto. Seven female authors, one male; one Nigerian and one Swede.

What are you reading?

BeartownBeartown by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Backman’s fans will come to Beartown expecting Ove and Britt-Marie, but they will not be found here. Beartown itself will remind readers of Borg, the town in which Britt-Marie discovered a love for soccer through her unexpected affection for those who played it, but in Beartown Backman has diverged from his old, odd characters to focus on a youth hockey team coming of age under pressure of a town that has all its hopes pinned to them.

Despite Backman’s clever writing and insight into human nature at its worst (and occasionally, best) I almost put this one down. Be warned: for those sensitive to the politics that rage around the issue of rape, this is not the book for you. The story is nuanced but for me the end didn’t justify the means.

“Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.
“So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe–comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy. There are many ways of doing that, but none is easier than taking her name away from her” (273).

The Pull of The MoonThe Pull of The Moon by Elizabeth Berg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A 50-year-old woman leaves husband and grown daughter behind as she drives away from her life. Except, she doesn’t. Oh, she drives. But she keeps her loved ones with her as she writes letters to him and journals for herself. She calls her daughter once, and writes about that, too. As she moves forward in the present, she reflects on the past, another way of moving into the future. And while it may outwardly look like she’s running (driving) away from her life, she’s truly reconnecting with herself in order to return to it, renewed, more fully whole than ever before.

In Wild, Cheryl Strayed hiked herself into the woman her mother raised her to be. In Moon, Nan drives herself into the woman she wants to be. I wonder if any woman of a certain age could read this book and not recognize something of herself.

It’s so humiliating, she told me. It’s like you’re being punished for something and you’ve no idea what you’ve done wrong except age. She didn’t really hear what she said, she didn’t hear the natural acceptance in her voice of the idea that aging is a crime. But I did. And when I heard it in her, I saw it in me” (104-105).

“And now, in my own stillness, I hear something. ‘Where have you been?’ my inside body whispers to my outside one. Its sense of outrage is present, but dulled by the grief of abandonment. ‘I had ideas. There were things to do. Where did you go?’
“What can I answer? Oh, I had some errands to run. I had a few things to do. I needed to get married and have a child and go underground for twenty-five years, be pleasantly suffocated. I meant to come back. But the bread crumbs got blown away.” (125)

The Most Dangerous Place on EarthThe Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“I hate careless people,” declares Jordan in The Great Gatsby, quoted by Calista in her first paper for Miss Nicoll’s Mill Valley High School junior English class.

Every character in this novel is careless. All of them: students, parents, teachers, administrators. Even the ones who begin with a care deal with them carelessly: drugs, alcohol, parties, escapism, suicide.

Johnson’s writing style is crisp, with clearly-developed characters. Set in an affluent San Francisco Bay neighborhood, anyone who lives in an affluent neighborhood knows people just like these: the sporty pretty boy; the beautiful and introverted loner; the too-smart-for-school kid who takes his smarts to the street; the too-sensitive special needs kid; the popular A-student who can’t scratch the surface; the parents (all of them), abusive in their attention and neglect; the idealistic young teacher; the jaded administrator.

The problem is, her characters are all stereotypes, and Johnson puts each into worst-case scenarios. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, because they are recognizable. I so wanted this book to take a new look, a different angle, provide new insight. Sadly, no. And here’s the real catch: in any one class, in one mesh of overlapping friend-groups in one high school graduating class, you won’t have this many significant tragedies.

By the last few chapters, I just felt depressed. Who wants to spend novel-length time with careless, contemptible people? I’m certain that was to Johnson’s point, that money has the power to hide the warts and sins, but she took it too far. Her writing style commends her (hence the two stars), but this story doesn’t.

The MuseThe Muse by Jessie Burton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A unique take on the “Haves and Have Nots: Wealth, Power, Talent” theme, set alternately in London in the late-60’s and Spain in the late-30’s. Odelle, a young woman from the Caribbean, moves with her best friend to London. She has no wealth or power, but she has talent, makes some good decisions, and in the process makes life-changing connections. Her friend shows her a spectacular painting which belonged to his late mother that he might want to sell at auction, and this moment connects them to the story set in Spain in the 30’s. Teresa has nothing but her wits; her brother Isaac wields some power but lacks talent; the daughter of their new employer, Olive, has wealth and talent but no power beyond the relationship she dangerously winds around the siblings.

Initially this book felt a little slow, but then I read the entire second half in a day. I just wish I could also have seen the paintings, because Burton did such a beautiful job describing them that I know they would be breathtaking.

“This is what she taught me: you have to be ready in order to be lucky. You have to put your pieces into play” (p5).

Writers may relate: “I knew it was true that I had stalled again on my writing. For once, I was too caught up with actually living my life to stop and turn it into words. People like Lawrie–who never wrote a single line of prose, as far as I knew–seemed to want those who did to walk around with a pad and pencil hanging round their neck, jotting down the whole thing, turning it into a book for their own pleasure” (364-365).

The NestThe Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Over the last year, The Nest kept popping into view. I’d pick it up, reread the book jacket, and put it back down. Dysfunctional family? I have my own, which is more than enough. Thanks, but no thanks. But when my neighbor shoved it in my hands, saying she’d just finished and really enjoyed it, and I had to read it before returning it to the library, I gave in.

So glad I did! This is not my family. Thankfully. But I totally relate to each one in all their mess and love them the more for it. Start to finish, I found this a completely satisfying–and entirely too quick–read. One of my favorite things about it was its structure, batting back and forth between the four siblings, but then also between everyone who over the period of this year intersects with them: spouses and children, of course, but also coworkers and friends and neighbors and enemies. What seemed at first like diversions actually intensified my desire to keep reading, because who knew what would happen next?

The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your PassionThe Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion by Elle Luna
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my new favorite book for anyone creative, anyone who longs to tap into their creativity, or anyone feeling at a crossroad in life. Through words written and painted, through paintings and photographs, through quotes from some of history’s greats, Luna nudges us to find our unique Must, to dialogue with the Shoulds holding us back, face our fears, and take one new action to honor our calling TODAY.

“All too often, we feel that we are not living the fullness of our lives because we are not expressing the fullness of our gifts” (ix).

Swimming LessonsSwimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“What could go wrong?” the characters ask each other, repeatedly.

When careless people rush in, without honest and caring communication, a lot can go terribly wrong. Several lives filled to the brim with heartache can be the consequences.

Fuller’s writing is precise and beautiful. She gives us a story in which not a lot happens while emotions seethe beneath the surface as each character moves forward through the mistakes they and those before them have made.

So much can go wrong. And yet, life does goes on.

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen SuggestionsDear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Quick, thought-provoking read. To me, most of it seems common sense, except I know her fifteen suggestions are not ‘common’ enough. I wish all new parents, all middle schoolers, and all high school seniors (three critically life-changing junctures) could read and discuss this book–how society could be different!

Suggestion #1: Be a full person. How many women lose themselves in motherhood, signing their kids up and carting them from one activity to another while forgetting that their own life is worth something, too.
Suggestion #5: Teach her to read. Parents, teach all your kids to read, and help them read widely. If you don’t like to read, find something you will like to read. Reading is essential!

And so many of the other suggestions stem from here: reading gives one words, language, and ability to question, to consider the significance of assumptions that show up in our language, to communicate with ourselves, others, the world.

Words matter. They help shape our worldview. We need to talk with our children, to help them understand their lives and their place in the world. This book can help to lead the discussion.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Thankful Thursday – Summer Quiet

Kids are at camp this week. I should be tearing it up, cleaning all the nooks and crannies, (re)organizing, school prepping.

But I’m not. I’m working (mostly from home). I’m exercising and reading. I’m procrastinating on the shoulds. I’m enjoying time with my Guy and myself.

I’m thankful for the sunflowers Tween chose at the market last week, still hanging on this week and adding a sunny burst of joy to our kitchen.

I’m thankful for OPI nail polish, and especially my new OPI Red purchased on sale at TJ Maxx. It’s a delicious raspberry red, perfect for summer (the Amazon link makes it look way more orange-red).

I’m thankful for my rose bushes, and the magical appearance they take on covered in morning dew drops.

I’m thankful for new-to-me books feeding my soul:
The Broken Way, by Ann Voskamp, teaching me to be the GIFT (Give It Forward Today)
With, by Skye Jethani, asking me to ponder anew my view of God and how I live my relationship with Him

And Guy, loving our family through service and taking advantage of the hot weather to steam the year out of our sand-colored carpets. Life is good!

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Overwhelmed

I received a rejection slip! Of course I’m disappointed, but here’s the catch: all creative ventures involve risk. I took a risk. It didn’t pan out the way I’d hoped, but I took it nonetheless. I am creating, and putting my work out there, and it’s a step in the right direction. This post just didn’t meet their needs at this time, which also means I get to post it here instead. Create, and recreate, and all good. What are you creating, and how’s it going?

Bristling like an electrical storm, Teen blustered into the house—door slamming behind him—and tossed his gangly body onto the couch beside his dad. “Hey, did you know the wage gap is a myth? That women get paid less than men for the same work is just not a thing!
 
We stared in response, so he kept spouting facts he’d heard in a video on social media. He thrust his phone in his dad’s face, insisting he watch it, too.
 
Parents want their kids to think critically. At eighteen years old and soon off to college, it is good for him to take account of the world and wrestle with his place in it. But a two-minute video by some guy not much older than he is cannot be his only information source.
 
I left the room, returning armed with a book—Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, by Brigid Schulte (2014: Sarah Crichton Books, Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York). Earlier that afternoon I had finished the section on Work.
 
Schulte offers solid reporting and not by any definition a feminist manifesto. Yet as I read one story after another, I felt affirmed and discouraged that sexism—in the workplace as one societal microcosm—still runs rampant. My kid may be right, that women and men with comparable education, experience and skills receive comparable pay for comparable work. But nothing is ever that simple.
 
For example, researchers at Cornell University put together four nearly identical resumes: half with male names and half with female; half signaling parenthood through PTA involvement and half indicating childlessness through charitable volunteerism. Nearly 200 college students ranked fathers as “best worker,” more employable and promotable and better management training candidates than men without children, while mothers ranked at bottom, considered significantly less competent, intelligent and committed than women without children (79). To test this “motherhood penalty” and “fatherhood bonus,” they confirmed their research by submitting resumes to entry and mid-level positions and found that fathers were called back at a higher rate than nonfathers, while mothers received half the offers of nonmothers (80).
 
As I tried to explain ‘my side’ to my ever-argumentative child (oh, the responsibility of speaking on behalf of the women he will encounter in life, begging him to trade grace for an arrogant hard line), he asked, “But Mom, when have women had it better?”
 
To which I replied, “Maybe they haven’t. But, Son, look at me. I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”
 
Over a post-yoga iced tea with a girlfriend, I relayed this story. She gave up her hard-earned career to be a full-time stay-at-home mom who employs her work skills as PTA president. I have cobbled together full-time motherhood with part-time employment plus freelance writing. We each have made choices that feel sacrificial. Even at our best, we both feel we will never be able to do it all well.
 
Schulte defines overwhelm as “a product of lack of control and unpredictability and the anxiety that both produce” (280). Who can calculate how many factors in a women’s life fall into “lack of control and unpredictability”? On any given day, I can only control so much: what time I get out of bed; how I fuel and move my body; the ways in which I interact with others; the work or home projects I tackle before the interruptions come. Because the interruptions come, hard and fast, predictably unpredictable: sick kids; forgotten lunches, forms, homework; overlooked deadlines, and immediately-required answers; bad news, local and global, or worse, from loved ones.
 
No wonder we feel overwhelmed! So how to squelch the rampant anxiety? Schulte includes pages of suggestions in the “Do One Thing” appendix—working smarter, not harder; time chunking; practicing gratitude; remembering that play, too, can be useful. For those too overwhelmed to read a book on feeling overwhelmed, this appendix alone is worth perusing.
 
Thankfully, my friend and I have found our way to a straight path. Exercise and togetherness. Swapping stories and encouragement. Expressing gratitude that, though we may not do it all as well as if we only did some, we have opportunities that others have not. Cherishing the truly precious moments in the mess of parenting (that an eighteen-year-old wants to spend an evening discussing real-life issues with his parents is not to be taken lightly!).
 
And taking time to read good books.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Thankful Thursday – Reading April-May 2017

Reading has always been one of my favorite recreational activities. I read to lose and find myself in stories of people like me in situations unlike any I’ve ever–or will ever–encounter. I read to explore the world, different cultures far and near. I read to find our common humanity, our shared emotion in vastly different experiences. I read to learn new intricacies and ways of being in the world. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Lily and the OctopusLily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A highly original man-and-dog love story. This book is funny and crazy and adventurous and oh so sad while also hopeful. I look forward to another book from this author.

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to ForgetBlackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Searingly honest, in parts painfully so. And therein lies the point: alcoholism is painful, a pain-inducing response to a painful set of inclinations based in biology, experience, and one’s personal psychological and physical response to it. This could have been fiction, and the tragedy is that it was not. And yet, thankfully, there is hope. There has to be hope. Always.

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong PeopleAccidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I ❤ this book! I am not Lutheran nor high-church liturgical. I do not swear like a sailor and I do not have tattoos. Nor am I brave or vulnerable enough to write as she does in this gorgeous book about God’s grace showing up in very ordinary people (though I aspire to vulnerably write of grace in the ordinary).

Nadia is simultaneously irreverent and reverent. She is refreshingly honest, mostly about her own faults and mistakes and sins and how those are the very cracks through which God shows up with His soldering iron to repair and redeem and make something new and better. Again and again and again, she points to grace.

We don’t agree on every point. Her theology may be more progressive than mine. But she loves Jesus and she loves His church. And, without force, with grace, she continually directs people–and herself–to Jesus, who loves without bounds and forgives without reservation.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I heard about this book when I heard Oprah was involved in a movie version for HBO. The movie is out this week so I rushed to finish it (sadly, while I love Oprah, I didn’t love the movie). Although I am not a scientist (or even a scientist at heart), this book contains threads from so many genres: epic multi-generational family drama, sci fi, ethics, philosophy, biology, tragedy, quest, even coming-of-age. Skloot first heard about HeLa cells–and that they came from a black woman–when she was a 16yo non-traditional high school student taking a community college biology class. She devoted much of the next ten years to seeking out the whole story: of the cells and the woman from whom they came, their significance to scientific progress, and of her family over generations. The story kept me turning pages and the science, explained in a very readable way, didn’t sink me. For so many reasons, this is an important story. Read this book, and then read more about the Lacks family.

The MothersThe Mothers by Brit Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This might be putting it on a little strong, but here it is: if Shakespeare had been a contemporary young black woman from SoCal, he might have written this book. The Mothers, the old church women who gossip and pray in turn, function as Macbeth’s witches. They narrate the interweaving story of three young people, and see into their future and past with little to say about the present. Bennett portrays with aching accuracy love’s power to create, destroy, and significantly alter the course of life.

Dreams of Joy (Shanghai Girls #2)Dreams of Joy by Lisa See
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s been a long time since I read Shanghai Girls and this book didn’t adequately reacquaint me with the story fast enough. I spent too many early chapters guessing at Joy’s motivation for drastic actions. It picked up after awhile and then offered a storied picture of China under Mao Tse Tung that frankly terrified me for the world in which we currently live. It holds together as a mother-daughter story, the end satisfies, but I still didn’t love the book.

The Best of Adam SharpThe Best of Adam Sharp by Graeme Simsion
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A radical departure from the Rosie books, this one is a long, melancholy song to lost love, chances, and youth. “Lost love belongs in a three-minute song [or, in this case, a book], pulling back feelings from a time when they came unbidden, recalling the infatuation, the walking on sunshine that cannot last and the pain of its loss, whether through parting or the passage of time, remind us that we are emotional beings” (287).

I didn’t love it. Too much IT-talk, and too many references to songs I don’t know. Yes, I could have looked them up but then I’d be reading this book for another month. And the week in France seemed to me like a big, crazy stretch though it did lead to some–at that point in the story–surprising psychological revelations.

Maybe my favorite detail came in learning that Adam’s dad referred to him as A sharp, the less-common musical name for B flat. And perhaps that uncommonness led to Adam’s willingness to take a leap that made me uncomfortable from its first suggestion.

SiracusaSiracusa by Delia Ephron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Four adults and a 10-year-old girl vacation together in Italy. Bound by marriage and parenthood and the past, they don’t share much love for one another. Told by each adult in turn, the story reveals deep rifts, dysfunction, pain, evil.

Ephron gives full-bodied life to her characters and uses their different voices to subtly nuance each conversation, each situation. I think I know these people, but I don’t like any of them. I can imagine them in my social circles, even imagine shared vacations, and I never want to see them again. Siracusa itself–foreign, beautiful, run-down, winding-lose-your-way streets–works as a metaphor for the twisted and twisting relationships. The story feels like the careful steps of a woman in heels walking on ancient cobblestone: slow, unbalanced, tense, lovely, painful.

“Marriage. With whom do you want to take the journey?…Do you want to take it with someone who knows you, even intuits your secrets, or from whom you can remain hidden By that last standard, which choice did I make? I’m still unsure. And why do most of us want marriage? Crave it for status or for stability that is an illusion. Marriage can’t protect you from heartbreak or the random cruelties and unfairnesses life deals out. It’s as if we’re chicks pecking our way out of our shells, growing into big birds splendid with feathers, and then piece by piece, we put the shells back together, reencasing ourselves, leaving perhaps an eyehold, minimal exposure. Having pecked our way out to live, we work our way back to survive. Deluded, of course. Shells crack easily.” (81)

“…suppose you see the corner of a building at sunset and one side is beige and the other flamingo pink when both are in fact the same drab red brick? And a second later the vision is gone because the earth has moved infinitesimally. Was what you saw reality? Is there always more than one?” (189)

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Thankful Thursday – Winter 17 Reading

What I’ve read so far in 2017: an odd smattering of Christian non-fiction, memoir, historical novel, Newbery Award winner, and fiction. The winner out of this bunch: hands-down it’s A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. I didn’t think I would like it. In the end, I didn’t. I loved it!

Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of LivingPresent Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living by Shauna Niequist
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

[Note: This review is longer than my usual b/c I wrote it for our church women’s group newsletter]

Shauna Niequist thought she had built her perfect life. Until she admitted the exhausted ache in her body and soul, and that she would consider handing it all over to the first person who thought they could handle it.

She wanted more, more, more out of life, and she wanted to be recognized as terrifically capable, worshipping for a time at the altars of productivity, capability, busyness, distraction. Sound familiar? We want the best life has to offer, and we want to make a contribution to the world. And yet, we also know that quite often, less is more. It’s one thing to want to make your mark and another to believe that mark proves your right to take up space on the planet.

Tired of being tired, burned out on busy and hearing others express the same complaints—longing for connection, meaning, depth, but settling for busy—Niequist began making changes. She reminds us of the simple truth, easily forgotten, that our choices determine what will fill our minutes, hours, days and years. “…you can’t have yes without no. Another way to say it: if you’re not careful with your yeses, you start to say no to some very important things without even realizing it.”

She practiced saying no in order to make her yeses count. She stopped should-ing on herself: “Of course I can. If I can, then I have to. They need me. They need me to be responsible, and tough. I should. Warning, warning, warning. The words tough, responsible, and should have never led me to life and wholeness” (117). She cleaned out her closet and her calendar. She spent more time playing basketball with her kids. She learned to be okay with uncomfortable silence and to rest in God’s unconditional love.

Present Over Perfect is not a how-to manual, but one woman’s story of reprioritizing her body and soul and finding love: “…the love I was looking for all along is never found in the hustle. You can’t prove it or earn it or compete for it. You can just make space for it, listen for it, travel all the way down to the depth of your soul, into the rhythmic beating of your very own heart, where the very spirit of God has made his home, and that’s where you’ll find it.”

The SpyThe Spy by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Before this book I had read nothing by Coelho and knew nothing about Mata Hari. Well, I knew her name, and knew she was “notorious.” This is a fast read but I expected more from an author so well-respected. Maybe I need to brush up on WWI history (um, yes). The sad–and in these days, scary–thing is how this woman, for nothing more than being an independent and captivating woman at a time when that could be seen as scandalous, was betrayed to death by those who had been her friends and lovers. She was sacrificed as entertainment, a distraction from the hell the world had become. Which frankly terrifies me in this country at this moment in history. What are we needlessly sacrificing to distract ourselves from what is truly happening around us?

A quote: “Liars, what little I know of them, are people who seek popularity and recognition. Even when faced with truth, they always find a way to escape, coldly repeating what had just been said or blaming the accuser of speaking untruths.”

Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and WritingHungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing by Jennifer Weiner
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Jennifer Weiner’s books tend to be light, funny, emotional, sharp and satisfying like a spiked cup of dark hot chocolate. This memoir in essays has some of that but not enough. She’s a good storyteller, so each story kept me reading. It was interesting to see how much of her personal life and experiences she has mined for her fiction, and to see how a “regular girl” became a novelist. But sometimes it felt like TMI; I’m not sure her half-brother will appreciate the sordid details of his birth being published before he’s even old enough to read. Overall I wish she and her editor had done another few sweeps over the content.

Britt-Marie Was HereBritt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d hear the fuss about A Man Called Ove, but a curmudgeonly old man didn’t sound like my cuppa tea. A fussy old woman doesn’t, either, but I grabbed this book nonetheless. Backman’s a master at creating character and reveals Britt-Marie’s backstory by way of explaining her eccentricities while also moving her forward, out of her comfort zone and into our hearts. This could have had several endings but the ending he landed on is perfectly satisfying. Now to go pick up Ove…!

Quotes:
“Sometimes it’s easier to go on living, not even knowing who you are, when at least you know precisely where you are while you go on not knowing” (p125).

“All passion is childish. It’s banal and naive. It’s nothing we learn; it’s instinctive, and so it overwhelms us. Overturns us. It bears us away in a flood. All other emotions belong to the earth, but passion inhabits the universe.
“That is the reason why passion is worth something, not for what it gives us but for what it demands that we risk. Our dignity. The puzzlement of others and their condescending, shaking heads.
“Britt-Marie yells out loud when Ben scores that goal. The soles of her feet are catapulted off the floor of the sports hall. Most people are not blessed with that sort of thing in the month of January. The universe.
“You have to love soccer for that” (p262).

A Man Called OveA Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh my…!

Ove looks and acts like “the archetypal grumpy old sod,” which generally means I’d steer clear. But this book demonstrates once again that grumpy people may be grumpy for a reason, and likely if you can get behind that grumpy exterior, they are so much more.

“Love is a strange thing. It takes you by surprise” (p 326). As does the beauty of this book, about death, life, and love. Without Sonja, Ove has lost his focus. “Every human being needs to know what she’s fighting for. That was what they said. And she fought for what was good. For the children she never had. And Ove fought for her. Because that was the only thing in this world he really knew” (p 205). Parvaneh moves her family in next door and, despite his efforts to remain aloof, she also moves them into Ove’s life and eventually his overly-large heart. Parvaneh throws open Ove’s door and restores to him a good life worth fighting for.

I read Britt-Marie first and thought I liked it better. Until I discovered my face wet with tears at an ending I knew was coming and was, of course, perfectly on target and still so loving and sad.

Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving FaithOut of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith by Sarah Bessey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Smart and engaging, Bessey takes us on a journey through her evolving theology. Because–truth–we all have ideas and beliefs that change over time, with experience and study and lots of prayer.

One of my favorite quotes: “I wasn’t created to be used. We were not saved, set free, rescued, and redeemed to be used. We aren’t here to work and earn our way; we aren’t pew fodder or a cog. We aren’t here to prove how worthy we are for the saving. There isn’t anything left to earn. God won’t use us up….
“God does not want to use you: God wants to be with you because He loves you.” (p219)

Modern LoversModern Lovers by Emma Straub
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Although from p1 the writing was fine, it took a while to connect with this book. The more I read the answer presented itself: it hit a little too close to home.

Love young and old(er), and three too-entwined relationships: Andrew and Elizabeth, Zoe and Jane, and their kids, Ruby (Zoe/Jane’s daughter) and Harry (Andrew/Elizabeth’s son), all falling in and out and back in love and friendship in all life’s relational complexities. The older set are firmly mid-life, 47-55yo, while the kids are 17-18.

I, myself, am in the “pushing 50” demographic while my son is ready to take on his future at 18. Too close…

Like I said, the book is fine. Entertaining, I guess, but nothing over the moon special.

SisterlandSisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book engaged me enough to read it quickly. But in the end, I don’t know how to feel about it. I have sisters and the complicated sisterly dynamic rang true. The marriage dynamic, too, really the whole messy-and-hard-but-mostly-good family thing was right on. And the ESP twist on things made this story just interesting enough. But I absolutely hated the ‘earthquake’–unlike real earthquakes it seemed completely avoidable–and I felt like Sittenfeld threw in the race issue just to make an obvious move. I loved loved loved Eligible, but this one leaves me saying, “meh…”

The Girl Who Drank the MoonThe Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book glimmers with similarities to other greats that came before:
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Considering those all won the Newbery Medal, really, it’s no surprise that this one has, too. It sucked me in with beauty and truth. But in the end, I felt like I’d missed the key moment, the surprise, The Thing that makes good books fantastic. I truly enjoyed it and have passed it on to my family and will buy it for everyone for Christmas, but it doesn’t quite measure up to my all-time favorites.

The Lost GirlsThe Lost Girls by Heather Young
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nearing her death, Lucy writes the story of her family during the summer of 1935 when she, the middle of three daughters, turned twelve; the summer ended in tragedy when six-year-old Emily went missing, never to be found. Lucy leaves the journal for her grand-niece Justine, along with her family’s Minnesota lake house, the escape hatch Justine needs for herself and her daughters.

The chapters alternate between Lucy’s first person narration and third person narration of Justine’s experience, traveling back to the lake house she visited with her mother only once, when Justine was nine.

These two women transported me to a lake house summer. They carried me along in their respective dramas and didn’t give away the end until it was time. But by then the end was just too twisted, too sad. I felt sick at how characters made choices with long-reaching consequences throughout generations. I kept waking in the night with the sadness of the story weighing on my mind. I guess for some that could be a sign of a good book but, in the end, this book was not my cuppa tea.

Life and Other Near-Death ExperiencesLife and Other Near-Death Experiences by Camille Pagán
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dealt a crappy hand in childhood, Libby seemed to recover well. She is all for kittens and rainbows and looking to the bright side. People like her. She then gets, in one day, a painful one-two punch, the worst news followed by news just as devastating in different ways. What to do next? Take off for the tropics, of course.

This is not a great book but it is a highly readable and–given the serious subject matter–a surprisingly light and fun book. I truly enjoyed the story. I’d like to be friends with Libby, or at least to think I might respond with just an ounce or two of her optimism. I definitely look forward to more from Pagan.

One Book Short

book-1014197_960_720Teen has a numbers quirk: they have to be even. The stereo and TV can’t be set to 9 or 11, but to 8 or 10. He’s thrilled that his birth date contains all even numbers, and irked by his rugby bag: #733.

So I won’t bother to tell him that, as of this moment, I’ve read 49 books in 2016. I might still squeeze in one more, but not in time to also blog about it. So as far we are concerned, 49 it is.

49 tops the even 30 I read in 2015, and blows away the 9-13 read by the “average” American (Pew Research Center, January 2014). I guess I could wow Teen with my page count: those 49 books contained 15,662 pages, with an average length of 326. My shortest book was also even: Gratitude by Oliver Sacks, 64 pages; my longest book, odd: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, at 531. Among Goodreads readers, the most popular book I read this year is the new Harry Potter play, The Cursed Child, while the least popular was I Dare Me by Lu Ann Cahn; and the highest rated book (for good reason!) is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.

My go-to genre: literature/fiction at 25 (favs this year: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave, Euphoria by Lily King, and Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld). Young adult comes close at 13 (favs: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven and The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson). I read more than my usual of non-fiction (two completely different, life-changing favs: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and Small Move, Big Change by Caroline L. Arnold). Surprisingly, I only read one book on faith/religion but it’s a practical book on prayer (Fervent by Priscilla Shirer), and not surprisingly, only one book of short stories which I gave up on (What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi – smart, just not for me).

I’ve summarized my 2016 reading in four posts: March 4, March 31, May 26, and September 29. Below are the books I’ve read in the last few months.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and RedemptionJust Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A year ago my teenage son read Just Mercy as extra credit for his high school Social Studies class. This year he read Kafka and Camus for an English class unit on existentialism. As I took up Just Mercy this month, I thought they might be of the same genre: how can it be that we live in a country founded on freedom and still incarcerate–on death row, no less–a hard-working, well-respected man with no evidence beyond skin color and fear? He might as well have woken up a bug. That might have been a better life.

Stevenson’s passion for justice and mercy for those who have been treated with less dignity than the very least of these, combined with his gift of storytelling, has opened my eyes to an aspect of America I wish didn’t exist. In this election year, I feel a new weight of responsibility to research the candidates and measures on the ballot. The headlines and bullet points cannot reveal the whole picture. Those without a voice rely on those of us who do to sing a better, more accurate song of freedom.

A God in RuinsA God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a companion piece to Life After Life, this book was not what I’d hoped. I was initially glad we weren’t flipping through lives and time again as we did in Ursula’s story, but to the contrary, Teddy’s story plods along in a rather unexciting way. Even the war scenes felt mostly, surprisingly, slow. Had I not already invested hours reading the first book, I would have given up on the several hundred pages of this one.

Until the last gut-wrenching chapter.

If you haven’t read or didn’t like Life After Life, I won’t recommend this to you. If you read/like LAL, hang in there with this one.

Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice (The Austen Project, #4)Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

LOVE! After many years, I reread one of Jane Austen’s books while on vacation. Still great, of course, but I have changed and I couldn’t love it the way I had. It felt (I know, writing these words might be sacrilege to some…) trite, superficial.

This book, though…? This book made Austen’s characters and stories real in such a great way. I honestly couldn’t put it down and finished it in less than 24 hours, including time off to sleep. I loaned it to a friend who did the same thing. We both grinned goofy-ridiculous grins because the book is goofy-ridiculous grin worthy. So. Much. Fun!

Everyone Brave is ForgivenEveryone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn’t particularly want to read another WW2 book, but Cleave’s Little Bee remains one of the most compelling books I’ve read. I’m so glad I gave this one a chance, as it has cemented Cleave among my favorite authors. His writing is so fresh–personal, vivid, funny, poignant. His characters become real people you’d like to know (or not). The story is so specifically focused that you almost don’t notice the war, but then, you also get new and horrifying details about the war. I’d recommend this book to just about any reader.

Today Will Be DifferentToday Will Be Different by Maria Semple
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One weird day, and 50 years of Eleanor’s life.

She begins the day with a set of resolutions to become a better, more productive, healthier human being. (Don’t we all do that some days, even beyond our January determination?) She doesn’t achieve most of what she sets out to do/be. It’s too pie-in-the-sky to think sheer will power can override years of dysfunctional habit. But through flashbacks, we learn some of the Big Why’s that led to Eleanor’s current state of peculiarity. And through odd events that pile up one after another, she comes to new insights and revelations.

“Today” may have been as strange as any previous day in her life, but I believe in hope that Eleanor’s tomorrow will be different.

SweetbitterSweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I worked as a restaurant hostess for one short college-years summer, and that was more than enough restaurant work for me.

It was also enough to conjure specific memories–sights, smells, personalities, stress–while reading Sweetbitter. I didn’t like restaurant work, and I didn’t like this book.

The writing was fine–specific, clever. But I am not a “bright lights, big city” kinda gal, while Tess claims the day she moved to New York was the day of her real birth. She longs for Big City adventure, and yet it seemed that her world got smaller and then smaller still. She repeatedly made stupid choices she could have avoided – ones she knew she should have avoided. That’s not very interesting.

And the Big Betrayal she experiences just didn’t seem that big to me. She chose awful “friends” who hurt her. But everyone, including Tess, is so clearly awful that it didn’t seem surprising or even all that bad.

Honestly, this book was enough to make me want to avoid going to restaurants–the facade, the pretension, the dirt. I think I’ll cook at home.

Northanger Abbey (The Austen Project, #2)Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Confession: I have never read Austen’s original Northanger Abbey. But this book was entirely uneven… Sometimes it felt Austen-formal, others it revealed its updating. Maybe the fault is mine, that I’m not familiar with how Brits currently view social strata, influencing their behavior/attitudes. That aside, vampires? I wasn’t sure if the author was joking or serious. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, an update of Pride & Prejudice was fantastic; McDermid’s attempt at Northanger Abbey wasn’t.

Small Great ThingsSmall Great Things by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book for two reasons: someone gave me a gift certificate and a recommendation, and I’ve been reading about racial injustice. Some of it was difficult to read, the violence of white supremacy, for example, but also the implication that I might be more racist than I admit. Indeed, Picoult says as much in her afterword: “I was writing to my own community–white people–who can’t recognize racism in themselves.” In the end, I’m glad I stuck with it. Not because it’s a fantastic book (it’s okay, kept me guessing) but because it offered me different views on race in the US. And for the many who are more inclined to popular fiction than nonfiction sociology, this book will serve a good purpose.

September 2016 Books

I'll Give You the SunI’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jandy Nelson has written two great books; I’ve devoured both and eagerly anticipate whatever she’ll release next. Her writing is amazing! Both books deal with themes of family, death, love, and art. In other words, life.

JudeandNoah are twins; both serve as narrators, Noah at age 14 and Jude at age 16, with chapters jumping between voices/ages. They’ve suffered a tragedy which they deal with in their own ways, eventually discovering the courage to tell the truth and live more truthfully.

Sculptor/mentor Guillermo: “You will see with your hands, I promise you. Now I contradict myself. Picasso he do too. He say pull out your brain, yes, he also say, ‘Painting is a blind man’s profession’ and ‘To draw you must close your eyes and sing.’ And Michelangelo, he say he sculpts with his brains, not his eyes. Yes. Everything is true at once. Life is contradiction. We take in every lesson. We find what works. Okay, now, pick up the charcoal and draw” (p. 197).

Noah: “…most of the time, I feel like I’m undercover.”
Jude: “Me too. Or maybe a person is just made up of a lot of people. Maybe we’re accumulating these new selves all the time.” Hauling them in as we make choices, good and bad, as we screw up, step up, lose our minds, find our minds, fall apart, fall in love, as we grieve, grow, retreat from the world, dive into the world, as we make things, as we break things.”
Noah: He grins. “Each new self standing on the last one’s shoulders until we’re these wobbly people poles?”
Jude: I die of delight. “Yes, exactly! We’re all just wobbly people poles!” (p. 354)

First Comes LoveFirst Comes Love by Emily Giffin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Sometimes a fluff book is just what I need, although this was fluff on serious subjects: what grief does to individuals within and family as a whole. It reminded me of Jennifer Weiner’s In Her Shoes, with two very different sisters-one flying by the seat of her pants, the other a frustrated lawyer-taking turns to narrate how they each try to move forward from family crisis. The story got progressively better and didn’t have the exact ending I expected, but I don’t expect to be mulling this one over for long.

Fates and FuriesFates and Furies by Lauren Groff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow.

Golden Child weds Model Girl (alternately, Devil Girl, though he never knows). His fate/her fury a perfect match of the gods.

Groff writes these characters so larger than life they are god-like and yet so completely flawed that they are simultaneously truly human. Extraordinary, and so ordinary. We admire them, we know them, we are them. We don’t ever want to be them.

This novel could have been shorter, one-sided, and it still would have been remarkable. But in its fullness it tells the story of a marriage, nay, the stories of a marriage, the two lives become one, in such fullness that it’s breathtaking.

Truly Madly GuiltyTruly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really liked Big Little Lies. Three Wishes was okay. I hear What Alice Forgot is terrific. I didn’t like Truly Madly Guilty.

One of the least guilty characters in this book describes herself as “deplorable,” and I thought, “That’s ALL of them!” The characters read like unlikable caricatures. The writing is overblown, especially at the beginning, where the ploy of moving chapter by chapter from “The Night of the Barbecue” to current day is meant to build suspense and succeeds only in being super annoying.

Well, except, I kept reading to find out what unimaginable thing happened at the barbecue…

And it’s kind of predictable, as are the character’s responses to it. I hoped for some honest soul-searching and healthy relational confrontation but didn’t find it.

DreamologyDreamology by Lucy Keating
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This isn’t a deep, discover yourself book. It’s a light and innocent YA version of a chick flick.

Sleeping Beauty, aka Alice (aptly named because she prefers Wonderland), has dreamed nightly of her prince, Max, since she was a child. When she starts a new school, she is shocked to find Max for real, the guy of her dreams in the flesh.

How is this possible? Of course it’s not, but that’s part of the fun.