Friday, April 01, 2016

Book Log: March 2016

My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

11) 3/3: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
I enjoy young adult literature - this interest began in a YA lit class in college, as I was introduced to a lot of the good literature that exists for students, but teaching reinforced my interest, and now as a mother with constantly evolving demands for my time, it is refreshing to complete a book in short order. I will sometimes peruse lists of award-winning books to guide my selections, and while I got this recommendation from an English teacher friend, it also happened to be the recipient of the 2010 Newbery Medal.

I originally read this book in 2012 and recalled really enjoying it, so I revisited it. It held up well. Take a child obsessed with A Wrinkle in Time, add in chapter titles that double as categories for The $20,000 Pyramid (which factors into the storyline of this book set in the late '70s), and a little science-fiction/fantasy dynamic with mysterious notes, and see everything culminate.

This was a favorite passage of mine:

Mom says each of us has a veil between ourselves and the rest of the world, like a bride wears on her wedding day, except this kind of veil is invisible. We walk around happily with these invisible veils hanging down over our faces. The world is kind of blurry, and we like it that way.
But sometimes our veils are pushed away for a few moments, like there's a wind blowing it from our faces. And when the veil lifts, we can see the world as it really is, just for those few seconds before it settles down again. We see all the beauty, and cruelty, and sadness, and love. But mostly we are happy not to.

12) 3/4: The Best American Short Stories 2011, edited by Geraldine Brooks
I enjoy short stories. I was reflecting on this, trying to pinpoint a time when my interest in them began. We certainly read them in school growing up, and there were some great ones we read as examples in my fiction writing class. But my love of them grew even more after I started having children. My reading habits changed, as my opportunities to read decreased. There was an uptick in my YA lit and short story consumption, as those genres could be completed in shorter amounts of time.

This collection had some intriguing selections. I think there was only one or two that I had absolutely no interest in and it was a trial to complete, although there were others that were interesting to read but ended up falling flat.

13) 3/7: Rising Strong by Brene Brown
This book came out in 2015, around the time I started seeing Brene's name come up frequently and her TED talks regularly shared on social media.

She champions vulnerability, and in this book, she examines why we need to own our stories instead of living in the shame, real or imagined. She frames her Rising Strong process in the stages of The Reckoning, The Rumble, and The Revolution. I particularly enjoyed the stories from her own life and those she has encountered through her workshops.

One useful phrase I appreciated was, "The story I'm telling myself is..." It's not a new concept (I'm familiar with the benefit of saying something akin to "What I'm feeling is..." to try to deflate a situation), but I think it's an effective tool. She also recommends people writing SFDs (the PG version is Stormy First Drafts) to get out what you're feeling. This resonated with me - I process my feelings by writing; if I'm out of sorts, it's best that I find a time to write down the situation, and often when I'm done I've learned something about myself and what is really the issue.

14) 3/8: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
This was a fast, enjoyable read. It centers on a dour bookstore owner. When the story opens, he is a grieving widower. The book shows his transformation as he responds to loss in his personal life and an unusual bequest found in his store. We also see his impact on those around him, often through the lens of related stories and books.

Each chapter includes a story story review from the protagonist's point of view - I found myself making note of the ones that I hadn't read, and when I finished this book, I found several of the short stories online to read. It's clear the author is a bibliophile, so a bookstore protagonist was a natural fit for her.

15) 3/16: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
This is one I listened to via audiobook; it was yet another recommendation from a friend (clearly my MO is already established - if a friend is excited enough about a book to recommend it, I'll give it at least a glance). I was curious about the book after looking at a sample, and the audiobook version was the only one the Overdrive library had.

Baseball is at the forefront of the book, with several of the primary characters playing on a college team; one is a hotshot shortstop who revives the mediocre team, but his success and his quest for perfection come to a head. There's this sense of everyone trying to find themselves, even if what is fulfilling to them runs contrary to what others would expect/want for them.

This one was back and forth for me - at one point I considered just setting it aside instead of finishing it, but there was just enough curiosity about what would happen to the various characters that I found the time to finish.

16) 3/23: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
I loved To Kill a Mockingbird when I encountered it in school. When I learned of this sequel/prequel, I had mixed feelings. Certainly the rumors that the rights to publish it were perhaps secured when Harper Lee wasn't in her right mind are enough to cast a big shadow. Even without that big stumbling block, you have this remarkable debut novel - how can you follow that up?

I held myself a bit aloof from it; I knew it would portray one particularly beloved character in a poor light, and I wasn't sure I was ready for that image to be tarnished.

 Here we find grown-up Jean Louise returning home for a visit, viewing all the changes that have transpired since she last was there. Her childhood home is now an ice-cream shop. The racial mood in town is very tense (her visit to Calpurnia was devastating). She struggles to fit in, feeling that her single life in NYC has made her unsuitable for returning home and making small chat with other women about their young children, husbands, and the like.

How do you respond when you learn people you revere end up being human with human failings? Can you hold yourself above the fray, or do you recognize your own shortcomings as well? What is your responsibility to those you see as wrong?

The flashbacks were often choppy to me. They were interesting, and they helped round out the characters she was crossing paths with, but they lacked some finesse as far as entering and leaving these memories.

17) 3/25: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
This was a young adult novel (but as the setting includes a woman being held by the Gestapo, with the torture that one can expect in such a scenario, it would probably be best to wait until high school -- maybe late middle school -- to introduce this to a student, unless you have strong reason to suspect they would be mature enough earlier).

The book covers the relationship of two good friends, one a female pilot and the other a female spy. It's well researched, but I admit that after reading The Nightingale last month, which also covers covert activities in Nazi-occupied France, it pales in comparison. It could be an appropriate introduction to a younger audience, though.

18) 3/28: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
I listened to the audiobook of this one; I had a long trip with the girls to and from Iowa this month, so this was my listening when they were sleeping or engaged enough not to need me.

It was an okay listen. I felt like it could have been shortened (the print version comes in at 538 pages). I was most interested to see (hear?) how the author carried out the characters' storylines, since time is linear for Claire and Henry's experience is more fluid. We encounter several scenarios on two occasions, once from each perspective. You often gain some new understanding, but apparently not enough to erase my aforementioned feeling of tediousness.

I'll forever remember this book as being what introduced 5-year-old Brennan to her first swear word (and I was assuming schoolkids would offer that introduction...).  During our car trip, I was listening to the beginning of the story while she was coloring. In the story, six-year-old Claire calls her brother an a**hole with no warning, he calls her one back, and even though I was quickly trying to pause the story, Brennan pipes up, "What does a**hole mean?" The short of it was, I told her she can always ask us the meaning of words without getting into trouble, but using those words against others would result in serious consequences.

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