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)

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Reading Crisis and Pursuit of Virtue

One of my healthier antidotes to life’s Too Much-ness is burrowing inside the covers of a good book. Preferably while also tucked tight into my bed covers at day’s end, hot cup of tea at hand, until I can’t keep my eyes open. Just one more page, just one more, just one, just…

In addition to the books that line my full shelves, and the heaps of sideways books tucked on top, I typically have a stack of To-Read’s I can’t wait to dive into.14221295618_68c5821032_n

Recently, however, I’ve noticed a few oddities:
I’m returning too many partially-read books to the library;
I’m feeling more-than-less stressed as I read;
I’m not diving under the covers with a book at night.

What happened?

I took another look at my To-Read’s and noticed something else: no fiction.

I have books on the teenage brain and sleep disorders, language and love, spirituality, and cookbooks. I have two (count ’em, two) books, pulled on different days from different shelves and both partially read, on the topic of solitude – apparently I’m feeling a little crowded these days, in more ways than one!

All fascinating studies and good reads, I’m sure, but these days I have way too many words populating my brain. I need a literary escape.

I need peace. No kidding: one afternoon as I read a chapter from The Teenage Brain, I watched Guy and Teen play out an illustration before my eyes. I could have been reading aloud while they acted out the scene. I looked back and forth between book and boys and dropped book like a nasty bug. Interesting, yes, but too close to home in an emotionally-exposed way. I look forward to reading it eventually, when I’m feeling less… Just less.

I need beauty. My “word” for 2015: Put yourself in the way of beauty. I have dropped more than one book this year because it didn’t add beauty to my life – good writing, good story mandatory.

I need a book that contributes Inward Peace to balance Life Chaos, not sleepy-zen but peaceful beauty. I want to be whisked away to new adventures in new lands, new (or old) times. Anyone want to offer a recommendation? Better yet, anyone want to dash a quick-fix fiction loaner by my doorstep?

Here are a few recent books I’ve enjoyed:

Listen, SlowlyListen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twelve-year-old Laguna Beach girl Mia can’t wait to spend the summer at the beach with her best friend Montana and her crush, HIM. She is also Mai, Vietnamese girl, good daughter, Straight-A student, studying SAT vocabulary at Mom-Insistence. So instead of the beach, her parents ship her off to Vietnam as her grandmother’s chaperone so Ba can search for answers to the end of her husband’s life during The War. What begins as an almost prison-like sentence becomes a journey of listening, of reconciling with her heritage, of falling in love with the past, broken as it is.

I read this book aloud with my Tween and we related it to our cross-cultural experience spending a summer in Costa Rica: humidity, odd creatures, jungle, foreign food and language. And we related, too, to the experience of falling in love with a completely different way of life set in a different place.

As a reader, I am thoroughly impressed with Lai’s ability to capture a SoCal girl’s speech and culture and so gracefully walk with her through this amazing cross-cultural journey.

The Rosie Effect (Don Tillman, #2)The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few chapters in to The Rosie Project I learned it had a sequel, which I immediately put on hold at the library. Fortunately, The Rosie Effect came up on my queue just days after finishing The Rosie Project. Despite having a stack of To-Read books, it took priority.

My first response: this book contained too much stress, whereas the first had been an odd fairy tale. And yet, isn’t that just like life? What starts with wine and roses, or for Don and Rosie, jackets and balconies and so many misunderstandings, eventually has to work through some strife. Honeymoons end and the hard work of marriage begins, complicated in this case by an international move and an unintentional pregnancy.

Before I realized, I was halfway done. Today I am all done, and I’m mourning the end of this fun read. I sure hope there’s a Book 3 in the works.

Brain on Fire: My Month of MadnessBrain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An incredible true story of a young woman’s descent into madness. That Susannah Cahalan is alive and able to write a book is nothing short of a miracle – right place, time and doctors on the case. Cahalan weaves her own story along with the science to explain what was happening as she lost control of her body and her mind. Occasionally a little too smart, the science provides a counterpoint to a story that sounds unbelievable, like something out of a horror movie (The Exorcist, in fact, as so many of her symptoms were identical to the demon-possessed little girl). And yet it is a story of hope, as Cahalan’s story has provided answers to so many desperate patients and their families.

Summer Reading – Fiction

Yesterday I posted this summer’s non-fiction reads. Today, the fiction. Three just for me and two I shared with Tween, since reading aloud with my kiddo remains one of my all-time favorite activities.

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“What you could be.”
But what we become is an intersection of who we are and the times in which we live.
The unlikeliest characters, a blind girl and an orphan boy with a genius for radio, take center stage in this World War 2 novel. And from their youthful perspective, we see bright light and life worth living in one of the darkest times in history.

License to Thrill (The Genius Files, #5)License to Thrill by Dan Gutman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My least favorite of the five Genius Files books, but the author had to get the family home from their cross-country road trip. This one takes some strange twists, almost like the author ran out of new ideas, and again as he ties up loose ends and reminds us of the journey we’ve been on together. It is tongue-in-cheek funny and I’m glad to get out of the car now that the kids are home safe. However, I will say this is one of the brightest series I’ve read with my young adolescent boys and, although this wasn’t my favorite book, the series itself is worth a good read-aloud.

The Gravity of BirdsThe Gravity of Birds by Tracy Guzeman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Art, infirmity, the brokenness of families and the possibility of redemption, with just a little bit of mystery…
I almost gave up on this one, but about half-way through it kicked in. The writing was good from the beginning, but I just wasn’t sure I cared enough about the characters. Until I did. True to form, I read the last page after having read about two chapters. It spoiled some things, of course, but not everything. The book still was able to surprise me.

Story Thieves (Story Thieves, #1)Story Thieves by James Riley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tween saw this at Costco and insisted we buy it. Which made it a mandatory read-aloud. The only problem with that is I have longer reading stamina and he’s fine stopping after a couple of chapters. It took us weeks to finish the book, which after all might not be a problem because it drew out the suspense.

I give it 4 stars for Tween (personally I might give it 3, but he insists). It’s a clever story about what might happen if fictional characters ever had the power to enter the real world and thus discover that they are fictional. And what might real people face if they entered books? If you don’t think too hard about the issue of free will (which most kids won’t), it’s a fun read about the power, beauty, and danger of reading.

The Rosie Project (Don Tillman #1)The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Even though the title of this book has been popping up here and there and everywhere over the last couple of years, I had no idea what it was about. Surprising, delightful, the characters entranced me and hooked me in to their various “projects.” It’s The Big Bang Theory meets When Harry Met Sally. Loved it!