Friday, September 30, 2016

Book Log: September 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.

41) 9/4: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
This was the September selection for my book club. Initially it was chosen to meet the "thriller" requirement. While this book was engaging to read, I wouldn't call it a thriller, even though it's classified as such; that wasn't exactly a disappointment to me, though.

The premise, disclosed very early on, is that a private plane crashes, and there are only two survivors - a painter, unexpectedly on the plane, and a young boy.

As there is uncertainty surrounding why the plane crashed, the rest of the book is filled with flashbacks for each of the individuals on the plane, building up to the crash, as well as following the painter in the present day as he faces much speculation in the media (ah, too true, as we regularly see media fixate on tragedies beyond what seems appropriate or meaningful).

The four-year-old boy who survives stops talking after the crash (although he will open up to Scott, as the two of them forged a strong bond because of the rescue). I appreciated reflecting on this excerpt from Scott, the painter who saved the boy's life, as to why he believes the boy has shut down verbally after losing his entire family:
"The day I sobered up, I stopped talking," he says. "What was there to say? You need hope to form a thought. It takes -- I don't know -- optimism to speak, to engage in conversation. Because, really, what's the point of all this communicating? What difference does it really make what we say to each other? Or what we do, for that matter?"
This made me pause, as it feels like there's a lot of truth to this. I can even channel my hormonal teenage self, wallowing in self pity about whatever issue - those were the times I went silent. When I talk with friends or loved ones, even if it's about something inconsequential, I share because I have the belief that they are interested. Even in times when I've struggled coming to terms with the loss of my brother or my daughter, I could still find those special souls to open up to or turn to writing down my thoughts. Subconsciously, there must have been some hope that these things wouldn't always hold me down and control every moment, that I would find peace and contentment again, even joy.

All that to say, the quotation above isn't an epiphany that was pivotal in the book - it's glossed over, but I appreciated it all the same as I paused to consider it.

Now back to my overall impressions. It was no surprise to learn the author has worked on screenplays and television show scripts - the movie rights have already been secured. The book is engaging, and much as a television series (and/or a movie) has individual episodes/scenes that keep interest and move the plot forward, steadily building to the overarching culmination, so the book is structured to intentionally reveal some information while still keeping the cards close until the final moments, when it all comes together. My library had such interest in this title that they limited checkouts to only 7 days to try to get it in as many hands as quickly as possible. It's a fun read, but I don't anticipate it having staying power -- it's a blip, but an entertaining one.

42) 9/11: The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens
My toddler and I went to Iowa for a short weekend in order to attend a reception for my youngest sister and her husband and daughter while they were all here visiting from the Czech Republic. I wanted something to entertain me during the drive, so I checked out this audiobook.

First off, the reader was exceptional. Second, the premise was interesting: a man imprisoned for murdering a girl serves his sentence without complaint, only released at the end to hospice, as he is dying from cancer. The protagonist has to write someone's biography for his college class, and he ends up paired with this dying man.

There were times I had trouble suspending my disbelief. For starters, who gets to college without knowing what an opening statement is in a trial, especially with the types of shows so often on the air these days? And there were other scenes that happened because a character jumps to a false conclusion and acts unwisely. All the same, it kept me engaged while driving, so I'll give it a pass. After all, nothing exciting happens if protagonists make wise decisions all the time ("When I learned this pivotal detail, I called the police and they took care of it, apprehending the bad guy with absolutely no drama. The End").

The title was apt - I found myself reflecting on the power of secrets to control our lives as we learn about the secrets kept by the various characters and how they have dictated their life decisions. We try to hide the parts of ourselves that cripple and control us; the darkness whispers to us that our failings make us shameful, that we would be viewed differently by loved ones if only they knew, that they wouldn't care for us the same way were they to truly saw us as we are. Kept inside, they can consume us. There is power in releasing these secrets to the world, taking back the control and realizing that we all struggle, we all fail, but in sharing our stories, we are stronger. [Sidenote: Brene Brown articulates these ideas so well in Rising Strong (reviewed in my March book log).]

43) 9/14: Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair by Anne Lamott
Here was another audiobook selection, listened to while cooking, baking and cleaning. I've been wanting to read Anne Lamott for a while now, and this text is a short one, only running a couple hours long in audio format.

I don't have a lot to say (some of the issue may be my distraction while multitasking), but what really touched me was the story of the two boys, the wildfire, and the town's response.

And I jotted down this gem as well:
The world is always going to be dangerous, and people get badly banged up, but how can there be more meaning than helping one another stand up in the wind and stay warm?
44) 9/20: Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy
In high school, I had a friend who was an exceptional singer. Truly a natural, with a wide range. Beginning as a freshman, she was regularly cast in lead roles for school productions. We were all in awe of her voice. Once in a while, she would come down with a cold, compromising her natural ability. She would attempt to sing a scale, and shake her head, disappointed with the results. Those of us who heard her, though, would scoff at her -- we told her she sounded better than us on her off days than we sounded on our best.

So now let's turn to Minding Frankie and find out why my singing friend would come to mind.

I would suggest that, while Binchy is a talented author with a skill for developing various characters and interwoven storylines, this book is akin to what was produced while having a cold. There seemed to be more characters than normal; I mostly appreciated the various story lines, but I often had to pause when transitioning to remind myself who we were now following; surely one or two could have been eliminated. I'd read what I thought was the denouement, only to be surprised to learn the book wasn't wrapped up yet. I expected a more explicit epilogue for the character that plagued me most (and yes, this tedious character might have soured my enjoyment of the storyline).

All that to say, there's something relaxing about reading a book by Maeve Binchy, so while it wasn't her strongest work, it's still better than most.

We have characters who are foils of other characters, which naturally led to comparisons of how we balance responsibility and expectations of those around us and the need for meaningful human connection.

There are plenty of questions to wrestle with in this book: What should you do when you can provide help, but doing so might sacrifice too much of yourself? How can you come alongside and encourage them to face the struggle to see if they can rise to the challenge? How do you instill confidence in those who haven't demonstrated that they are reliable? How do you find the internal strength to stop being manipulated and recognize the situation as it truly is, and to bloom in spite of the struggles? When and how do you step back and admit when you've gone too far?

45) 9/21: The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton
My older sister Heather loaned me a book of Jane Hamilton's that she had read and thought I'd really enjoy. Those of you who have read even a small sampling of these book logs will notice that I default to reading e-books (they're so portable! I can read on my Paperwhite in the dark!), so you won't be surprised that I've shamefully neglected the loaned copy of The Book of Ruth. However, when I discovered that Jane Hamilton was going to be in town at a local bookstore, I put the event on my calendar.

The author was here to discuss her newest book, The Excellent Lombards. I thought it was perfect timing to pick up a signed copy for my sister's birthday.

I should note that I lost most of the month of August to a brutal sinus infection, and this book talk fell after a couple long days early on when I thought it was still a rough cold (PBS Kids was helping to raise my children for two days while I napped on the couch nearby, leading my older daughter to say, "Mom, I love when you're sick -- we get to watch SO MUCH TV!" You're welcome, kid).

Anyway. Under the false assumption that I had just turned the corner of my illness, I set out for the reading. I loved the Q&A with the author. The commentator had done her homework and asked interesting questions. I was out of my element, insofar as I hadn't yet read the book as many had and was clearly the youngest in the audience (come on, millennials, we can do better than this), and I'd even forgotten my trusty mindless knitting project, but I found Jane Hamilton engaging. She was so comfortable in her skin and, unlike other stilted readings that some authors do of their own work, Jane Hamilton had no difficulty capturing interest when reading an excerpt.

I queued up to get a book signed afterwards, sucking down lozenges so that I might have opportunity to complete an entire sentence before Jane Hamilton drew back in horror, fearing my potentially infectious state. She seemed ready to chat with me ("You're the youngest one here! How do you know about me? Where did you grow up?"), but I tried to keep it brief, knowing that the previous attendee had monopolized a fair bit of time and there were plenty more behind me.

Here's what I communicated: My older sister had initially recommended a book of hers to me (I left out the part where I hadn't yet read it). I continued to explain that when I was younger, I once gifted my older sister a book at Christmas. There happened to be a bookmark inside when she opened it. And then I did the sort of thing that only a sister would dare do...I asked if I could have it back for a little while, as that bookmark was actually marking my place. It took a moment for Heather to realize I was totally serious, and I have no doubt she was miffed at me.

I asked if Jane Hamilton could sign something like, "To Heather - Please forgive your sister for selfishly reading this book before you, yet again."

Jane Hamilton was amused and began to write. Here is what she wrote:

"For the most excellent Heather--
who is forgiven by the sister..."

Oops. She had already gotten everything switched around backwards, but it seemed ridiculous to point out Jane's error and be forced to buy TWO copies of a book so that it could be straightened out. And there was the pressing matter of the long queue behind me. So when she said, "Is this okay?", I played along, gratefully affirming the inscription, all the while wondering how to explain this to Heather.

So this is my solution. I trust Heather will get a kick out of having a signed copy of a book that suggests there has been this spat between us that is now finally forgiven, now that I have graciously forgiven HER, when truly it is I who should be begging forgiveness.

So did I read it? Indeed. Her birthday gift was delayed a couple weeks so that I could accomplish the task, but by the time you read this, the book will be happily ensconced in Heather's hands.

The Excellent Lombards has a lot of crossover to Jane Hamilton's own life (the protagonist is reminiscent of her daughter, and Jane does live on a Wisconsin apple orchard that her husband tends). The story centers around the family apple orchard and wrestles with issues of who gets to stay and who gets to leave (or, perhaps, who should stay and who should leave).

This coming-of-age piece was easy to read, and the last few chapters I finished while listening to the audiobook (I'd placed it on hold at my library once I heard of the book reading, but my copy didn't come up until recently). I wished I had avoided the audiobook - the reader has a range of voices, but after hearing Jane Hamilton read some of it, the substitute grated on me, being so different from Jane's. That likely colored my perception of the last few chapters, but I don't regret having picked up the copy to long as Heather sees fit to forgive me for my blatant disregard of protocol.

46) 9/30: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
I first read this book in high school. I returned to it as it was a selected text on the CraftLit podcast. As such, my listening was spread out over months, often while multitasking with knitting, cleaning, or food prep, which means there's strong muscle memory ("Hey, when I last mowed, this is what was going on in the story..."), but it also means my attention can be distracted.

When I first encountered this book, Newland Archer annoyed me, and that impression still remained. We see a society where things are rarely spoken outright, and people fall in line so as not to rock the boat, but in enters Countess Olenska, a family member who has left a bad marriage and intends to start over. Her unconventional life and her refusal to regret her decision make her a difficult read for the family. There's melancholy, regret, and wrestling with expectations and societal conventions throughout.

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