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.

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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.