Tag Archives: books

Summer Reading 2015 Edition

Now that we’re more than a whole week into fall, I thought it might be time to talk about my summer reading [insert eye roll at myself]. It was another busy summer — but whose wasn’t? I managed to uncover a few gems in spite of that, and even, which I’m frankly quite proud of, read a non-narrative nonfiction book!! Why don’t we begin there?

gut_coverGut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ, by Giulia Enders. I’m honestly still a little surprised by the fact that I managed to read all the way through a non-narrative nonfiction book and — even more surprising — wave it enthusiastically in the faces of other people because I enjoyed it so much. I give all the credit to the author’s clear enthusiasm for her topic, which comes right off the page. For a piece of non-narrative nonfiction to hold my interest longer than an average essay or news article is saying something. And while I suppose that my enjoyment could just be indicative of my own navel-gazing tendencies, I still found this discussion of the digestive tract both engaging and fascinating.

 

pigeon_english_coverPigeon English, by Stephen Kelman. I confess I picked this book for its awesome cover. Based on the true story of the murder of Damilola Taylor, Pigeon English is told through the voice of Harrison Opoku, a Ghanian immigrant in London with his mother and older sister. When a boy who lives on their council estate is murdered, Harri decides to investigate, enlisting the help of his friend Dean, whose expertise comes from watching the American television show CSI. Kelman created such a delightful voice for Harri! It was impossible not to love him. This book is a portrait of innocence in a gritty urban environment where children lose their innocence quickly; it broke my heart a little. Harri’s voice, and his sense of wonder and joy, were a delight, which is why I hate to talk about nits with this book. But in the interest of full and fair disclosure, Kelman includes occasional snippets told in the voice of a certain pigeon that Harri has befriended, and I truly think the book would have been better without these. It’s a small part of the book, though.

wrath_dawn_coverThe Wrath and the Dawn, by Renée Ahdieh. This is a re-imagining of the legend of Scheherazade, the storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights. As in the legend, the caliph of Khorasan takes a new wife each night, only to have her executed the next morning. When this fate befalls her best friend, Shahrzad volunteers to marry the caliph, secretly vowing revenge, only to encounter in the caliph something completely unexpected. When I was investigating the book before reading it, I saw a bunch of gushing reviews from very young-looking girls on Goodreads, and I admit I was leery about the book because of this. May this not be the last time I prove the fangirls correct: this is young adult romance done right, and love is not too strong a word to describe my feelings for this book. In what I think is the first time ever in my reading career, I pre-ordered the second book before even finishing the first.

What about you? What were your standout reads of the summer?

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How I Decided to Give Hardy Another Try

“It was like Middlemarch with LESS JOY,” I found myself saying to my sister the other day. She had asked me about Thomas Hardy, who I was supposed to read in a Victorian Lit class I took.

You’ll notice the “supposed to read” there. I never actually finished the book that was assigned (Jude the Obscure). (I didn’t do very well in that class.)

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Penguin classic, cover illustration by Coralie Bickford-Smith / image via Goodreads

She was asking, not, as I thought, because of references to Hardy in another book the both of us had just read (Love, Nina — which was a delight and you should probably go read it immediately), but because there is a new adaptation of one of Hardy’s novels coming out as a movie: Far From the Madding Crowd. Notably not Jude the Obscure. There also hasn’t yet been a Penguin clothbound classic with a cover illustrated by Coralie Bickford-Smith for Jude the Obscure. If there were, the illustration could easily be teardrops (as emblematic of poor decisions) falling from clock faces. (Seriously, go check out the plot summary!)

Anyway — so my sister is currently reading Far From the Madding Crowd, which apparently is described by someone, somewhere as the “happy Hardy”. And this of the author about whom The Guardian has a guide-to-grimness infographic: Bleakness Is My Weakness! I thought to myself, why not?

I’ve also been in a period of wordlessness — blame the thousand extraneous circumstances conspiring to bring one down (bleakness is also my weakness?) — and sometimes what it takes for me to get out of that funk is a book that makes me think about the language, in the context of its usage (to understand as I read) but also on a larger scale, to lament its loss in phrases like “point of espial”.

So here we are. Far From the Madding Crowd. Time alone will tell if this will become my next Middlemarch. Happily, it’s not as long.

Notable Reads of 2014

I decided I had to call this post “notable reads” of the year because I so rarely catch a book on the year it’s released, and “best of 2014” seemed to have a different connotation in my head. Without further ado, here are my standout reads of 2014.

076Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. I loved this book. And I really wasn’t sure when I started it that I would! By the end, it had pulled me in, heart and soul. It made a big splash the year it was published (2012), and Nancy Pearl recommended it as a best-of-the-year that year, so in all likelihood you’ve already heard about it, so I’ll be brief. It’s the story of an English spy captured by the Nazis in World War II — but really it’s a story about friendship, love and friendship. I cried so hard as I finished reading it that my pajama sleeves no longer sufficed as stand-ins for kleenex and I had to get out of bed (twice) for the real thing to mop up all my tears. (I can be real here about crying while reading in bed and the lengths to which I will go not to leave the warm cocoon, right?) It was the sort of book that, immediately upon finishing, I wanted to call a friend and cry about together.

The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak. I’ll be honest: unlike the rest of the world, I did not love this book. So why is it in my notable reads of 2014?  It was a great story — it was a fresh perspective on World War II (told from a non-Nazi perspective inside Germany) — I’m not likely to forget it in a hurry.

A FUNNY STORY ABOUT MY READING OF THE BOOK THIEF:

  • I started it in January.
  • This summer I begged a friend “JUST TELL ME WHO DIES! I KNOW SOMEONE MUST DIE!”
  • She told me who died.
  • When I picked the book up again, quite literally the next page held the same information (who was going to die).
  • I finished it on New Year’s Eve, shut in the bathroom at my parents’ house, holding tissues to my eyes.

So, yes, this book essentially took me all year to read, off and on. My biggest objections were the writing style and the really heavy-handed foreshadowing (which somehow still didn’t prepare me for the ending — which was likely the author’s intent). More than anything else, the constant narratorial interjection of bullet lists (I tried to be clever and imitate it above) felt very “interrupted” and choppy. By the end, I’d decided it was its own kind of lyricism, but perhaps not exactly to my taste and better suited to an oratory style of storytelling than a written one. In spite of those small issues I had with the book: such a beautiful, sad story.

thewheelspinsThe Wheel Spins, by Ethel Lina White. Did you catch The Lady Vanishes on PBS a while back? This is the book that movie was based on, and it was every bit as stylish, and had every ounce of the period glamour and romance, and — what’s more — stronger characterization and excellent writing. I have great admiration for authors who can give a complete sense of character with just a few lines, like this: “Their formal bow, when Iris squeezed by them, was conditional recognition before the final fade-out. ‘We’ll speak to you during the journey,’ it seemed to say, ‘but at Victoria we become strangers.'” In case you aren’t familiar with the TV movie, this psychological thriller follows Iris, a young socialite, as she travels home from Europe to England on the train. She is helped by a kind stranger who suddenly disappears, leaving no trace and whom everyone denies having seen.

Also on my list of notable reads for 2014 are Never Have I Ever, by Katie Heaney, and The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley. I’ve already talked about both of them, but they’re definitely worth checking out if they pique your interest.

And now it’s your turn! What stands out from your 2014 reading? Please share! I’m always looking for books to add to my To-Be-Read pile!

My Summer So Far, In Reading

My summer has been crazy. I have been on the go so much I’ve hardly had time to think. I actually did the math, and in a span of exactly 30 days, I was in 9 distinct airports and took off and landed no less than 23 times. The novelization of my life might refer to this epic thirty-day-period as “Two Weddings and a Baby Shower”, with an afterword entitled “Four Time Zones Apart: Vacation and Work Travel With 24 Hours Between”.

But on the bright side, with all that airport and airplane time, I read six books!

Before the Air Travel Extravaganza, I was working on a post to let you all know ahead of time the reasons for my absence, but the post was scrapped, mostly because I was afraid that my real and actual joy at being able to do all of these things and go all of these places — for and with people I love — would be overshadowed by my melodramatic dread of the attendant exhaustion (and the huge life changes that each trip represented to me).

And I’m glad I scrapped it. “Kill your darlings” is what people who know say about writing, and in this case my darlings were allusions to Robert Frost poems. Thankfulness is a much better use of my time (when compared to melodramatic dread, not allusions to Robert Frost — poetry is never a waste of time).

Let’s talk instead about those six books: here’s what I read, in no particular order, and typically random!

nfrol_coverNo Fond Return of Love, by Barbara Pym. How I would have loved to have actually known Barbara Pym. I like to think that she and I would have been great friends, if only because I see something of myself in each one of her heroines, who one imagines must each have something of her in them, too. While this particular book of hers was not (in my opinion) quite at the same level as Excellent Women or Jane and Prudence, it still offered such little gems of perfect expression as “the rather perfunctory tone in which social invitations not meant to be accepted are sometimes issued, and to which the only suitable reply is a murmur.” For me, reading one of her books is like reading a long, storied letter from a friend with whom I entirely sympathize.

therook_coverThe Rook, by Daniel O’Malley. A woman wakes up in the rain in a London park, surrounded by dead people, with no recollection of who she is. She soon discovers that she is a high-ranking member of a secret organization in the British government tasked with keeping supernatural forces in check, and that she has extra-special supernatural powers of her own. If you’re not already intrigued, then my raving about wry writing (which reminded me of watching recent Doctor Who) probably won’t convince you to read this super-fun book (first in a planned series). A few hallmarks of a first novel were outweighed by the novel’s being refreshingly without so many of the characteristics that seem to plague so much of recent science fiction/fantasy: there was no annoying romantic triangle (or romance of any kind), and there WAS a confident heroine getting stuff done — on her own, to boot. MORE LIKE THIS PLEASE.

deathofbees_coverThe Death of Bees, by Lisa O’Donnell. The story of two sisters, Marnie and Nelly, opens with Marnie’s confession: “Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.” Set in urban Glasgow, it’s the story of Marnie and Nelly just trying to get by keeping the secret of their parents’ deaths until Marnie’s next birthday, when she’ll be legally old enough to take care of Nelly herself. Keeping that secret proves harder and harder as neighbors, authorities, and their parents’ drug dealers start asking questions. This is not The Boxcar Children: there is a hefty bit of Glaswegian grit in this story. While it might not be quite urban fiction, it certainly had similar themes and content. Somehow it still managed sweetness, though — if you can get past the grit and you enjoy coming-of-age stories, this book may be for you.

tntysm_coverThe Next Time You See Me, by Holly Goddard Jones. “Lives of quiet desperation” is what springs to mind when I think of this book. The story is told from multiple points of view: a young girl, a loner, finds a dead body in the woods and keeps it a secret; a schoolteacher’s wild older sister has gone missing; an older man works in a local factory; each of their lives and the lives of others in their small Kentucky town will converge as the search for the missing sister escalates. Really more of a slow-burn character study than a true mystery or thriller, each of the characters was finely drawn and even sympathetic — but it doesn’t shy away from or understate their sadness and hopelessness, and while I’m not sorry I read it, I would probably never read it again.

habits_coverHabits of the House, by Fay Weldon. Fay Weldon was the author of the original “Upstairs Downstairs” — and because I love both period dramas and comedies of manners, I confess I had high hopes for this particular book. But I found it disappointing, and I’m having a hard time pinpointing why. At the end of 1899, the Earl of Dilberne and his family stand on the brink of total financial ruin. Their only hope is to secure a lucrative marriage for their son, who is only interested in keeping his mistress happy and his automobile in working order. Maybe I found it dissatisfying because almost every character was portrayed as having few (if any) redeeming virtues; and although I actually rather liked the American heiress the Dilberne family targeted, I could only picture a future of disappointment for her married to the future Earl of Dilberne. It is entirely possible, however, that I was just tired.

never_coverNever Have I Ever: my life (so far) without a date, by Katie Heaney. I decided to read this book after discovering the author’s contributions to The Hairpin, a series called Reading Between The Texts, in which Katie and her friends analyze text message conversations they’ve had with boys (it is seriously one of the funniest things on the Internets and if you’ve been single at all in this century you can probably relate to these conversations). I believe I can say unequivocally that if you enjoy those analyses, you’ll enjoy Ms. Heaney’s book. There were so many times reading the book I laughed out loud and felt like Ms. Heaney and I should be really good friends because we have so much in common, except she’s funnier.

So my list began and ended with an author I should like to call a friend. What about you? Has your summer been as out-of-control crazy as mine? What have you been reading?

The End of the Affair

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image via Audible.com

I came across The End of the Affair somewhat accidentally: that is, I knew of Graham Greene’s books but have always had other novels I wanted to read more. Then one recent afternoon I stumbled across an article on the internet about books this particular person had read but would rather have listened to on audiobook (because the audiobooks were so good), including Greene’s The End of the Affair as narrated by Colin Firth.

Now, I am one of those people who would listen to a proper English actor’s voice reading almost anything: I’m even trying to figure out how to convert this clip of Tom Hiddleston reciting the “Once more unto the breach!” monologue from Henry V into an audio file compatible with iTunes so that I can play it in my half-marathon playlist, in part because I recite this particular monologue to myself and my hapless running partner whenever I really have to talk myself into continuing to run, and partly because I like having my reading life follow me into other areas of my life (like running), and really let’s-be-honest mostly partly because it’s Tom Hiddleston [swoon], and he reads Shakespeare so well!

This audiobook seemed like the perfect solution for me right now, as in addition to a spate of recent long drives, I am very painstakingly trying to knit a baby hat for my future nephew, these being things impossible to do while also reading. I have the hardest time picking out audiobooks, because somehow I need to believe that I will want to listen to the audiobook again in order to justify the cost (rather than books I buy that I may never read again without any guilt or thought whatsoever), and my library’s selection of audiobooks leaves quite a few titles to be desired.

But I digress.

The End of the Affair left me with very mixed emotions. As you’d guess, this is the story of two people who were lovers, Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles, whose affair stops abruptly. It’s the story of two people who fell in love, whose affair falls apart, and these two people and their search for God.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I wanted to talk about this book, so I turned to Goodreads to get an idea of what other people have already said about it. My perusal of reviews there was by no means comprehensive but it does seem like a frequent theme among those who loved it was that they read it just as a relationship they were in was ending or had ended, and how it helped them through that time.

This was not true of me. I found the novel’s theology problematic, not in the sense of it detracting from the novel’s success but the very real and acute sense that the novelist’s idea of who and what God is fundamentally differs from the God I know. What I thought Greene did — and did expertly — was sharpen the emotions driving Maurice, particularly, as he examines how the human emotions of love and hate are not so far removed from each other; or how hating something or someone doesn’t necessarily lessen one’s desire for that thing or person.

Maurice was not an easy character for me to like, but — and I think this is Greene’s particular success — that doesn’t mean I didn’t recognize myself in him:

Grief and disappointment are like hate: they make men ugly with self-pity and bitterness. And how selfish they make us too.

In The End of the Affair, Greene takes up a very human sort of story with very human characters, and listening to it, it was impossible for me not to feel that Greene followed Hemingway’s school of thought about writing: “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”