Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Book Log: March 2017

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. This is my second year doing this; here is a page containing the 2016 posts (or here is a list of all 2016 books, without the commentary on each one).

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: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I listened to an audio version of this story via CraftLit. Herland was unfamiliar to me before, but you may recognize the author from "The Yellow Wallpaper" fame.

Imagine a feminist utopia that three men stumble upon, and you have the premise for Herland. Being written in 1915, before women had the right to vote, leads to some interesting conversations and scenarios. Not my favorite by any stretch (and at times dull), but I don't regret listening to it.




12) 3/3: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
This was a tome to get through, and I admit it felt like a slog. I have several friends who enjoy the Outlander series and I was able to nab a Kindle deal for the first seven books in the series (amounting to nearly 8,000 pages) for a whopping $1.99, so I picked it up.

I was trying to pinpoint my meh attitude. I knew the basic premise going into the story (woman suddenly finds herself 200 years in the past, and there's a love triangle of sorts).

Much of the issue might be due to the setting; I'm not against historical fiction, but I have limited interest in 18th century Scotland. There are slow-moving sections, which doesn't help when I'm not invested (I adore classics, so slow-moving is not necessarily a turn-off, but I didn't find the writing or story gripping enough to keep my interest when plot slowed). Add the regular violence, both of a physical and sexual nature, and I find myself not sold on continuing past this book. We'll see if setting the series aside makes me curious to find out what happens with the principal characters, but I'm not yet convinced I'm returning. This series has been made into a popular television series, and I can't decide whether watching episodes would make me more or less likely to get invested in the books (a moot point now, as I don't have access to the cable channel).

13) 3/21: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
This was our March book club pick. I had been hearing murmurings of it the last few months and knew there was a fantastical component, but for those who believed it to be strict historical fiction (as it is often wrongly described as), they had very negative impressions of the book when the book deviated from traditional historical accounts.

However, going into the book I knew there were some liberties taken with the traditional accounts of the underground railroad, and so I wasn't expecting everything to align with true accounts. We primarily follow Cora, a black slave, as she decides to escape north; the states handle slavery differently, so we see her in different geographical locations - some safer, some far more dangerous - as she weighs the benefits of staying versus the opportunities further ahead.

I appreciated the book as a story, even if the periodic asides could be confusing to me when the author would highlight one of the characters by giving additional backstory (the final aside got me in the feels and was the most important and poignant of them all, though). It's been a well-received book when it comes to being honored with awards - it had been an Oprah book selection (for what that's worth) and was a National Book Award winner, and it was also recently announced as winning a Pulitzer.

14) 3/24: Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson
I read Peace, Locomotion last year, only realizing afterwards that it was a sequel to this (see my reflection in the December 2016 book log). I relished Peace, Locomotion, but since that book filled in the gaps to this one, I felt like this didn't connect with me as much as the sequel had, even though it's still a solid book. I'd be interested to hear how someone who reads them in the published order responds to them, though.

I still found several passages that spoke to me - there's a constant theme of loss, grief, and finding peace. We see Lonnie wrestling with the death of parents, the separation from his sister, and even his observations about war after witnessing his foster mother struggle with a son overseas.

15) 3/27: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This is a timely book, just published, and it's an exceptional debut novel. The title is a nod to Tupac's definition of Thug Life, which I'll let one of the characters explain: "The Hate U - the letter U - Give Little Infants F***s Everybody. T-H-U-G-L-I-F-E. Meaning what society gives us as youth, it bites them in the ass when we wild out."

Starr is a black teenager, living in a black neighborhood but attending school in a white neighborhood. Early on she happens to be the only witness when a black friend of hers is shot and killed by a white police officer.

This book was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the author has an agenda to humanize the victims of similar police shootings, but Thomas tries to keep it from being too one-sided by balancing out that even though there's much anger in Starr's neighborhood, her uncle is a cop and she attends a white school and is dating someone who happens to be white, so various reactions and perspectives are given some time to be shared, even though it's through the lens of the teenage protagonist and people on the extremes of either side aren't portrayed well.

Thomas touches on systemic racism, the legal process and investigation after such a shooting, and some of the visceral reactions people of color experience as they process grief, especially when the system seems to continually take advantage of them and justice isn't served.

This could be a great conversation starter, as it mimics many conversations and reactions after police shootings (Does dirt in the victim's past somehow excuse their wrongful death? Does rioting discredit the cause of minorities? When do you stay in a dangerous neighborhood to try to improve it? Can you ever leave without feeling guilty for those you've left behind? etc).

Friday, March 03, 2017

Book Log: February 2017

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. This is my second year doing this; here is a page containing the 2016 posts (or here is a list of all 2016 books, without the commentary on each one).

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.

10) 2/27: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
Our family spent much of February with the plague (or, rather, a rotating cycle of various illnesses), so while I wasn't sick the entire month, tending to family meant reading time decreased. I certainly read, but with several in-progress books being longer in length, it meant progress was made across the board, but only one book was completed.

Hillbilly Elegy, released in mid 2016, was the February selection for our book club. In it, J.D. Vance describes his life, as well as the lives of his extended family, in Kentucky and southern Ohio. His hillbilly life is one that we don't often encounter (a culture of systemic poverty, violence, devotion to family at the exclusion of outsiders, and so on). Vance details how he changed the trajectory of his life.

I found myself highlighting frequently throughout the book, as it raises a lot of questions. Vance admits he doesn't have easy answers. Education alone can't solve the problem, for instance, when so many students experience regular trauma at home that keeps them in a flight-or-fight mentality, making the ability to focus and succeed in school that much more difficult.

Two main things stood out to me: first, the importance of having someone in your corner that believes in you and can walk you through experiences that are foreign to you is instrumental to you believing you have worth as well as helping you to see options available to you. Second, we see many instances of unhealthy relationships; in Vance's experience, the healthy marriages/families happened when they married an outsider. When so many in your group deal with struggles through physical and verbal abuse, alcoholism, and abandonment, marrying someone with a different background can upset the typical system as you learn there is another way to live, which leads to healthy exchanges and relationships.

Vance discusses how freeing it was to learn he had choices in his life - that led to one of the most touching points of our book club (I asked my friend if I could share here, and she graciously agreed). One friend opened up about her family life growing up, how her mother struggled with depression and her father was abusive. How she couldn't relate to friends talking about how they would fight with siblings, since she and her siblings banded together. Hearing her share of that time in her life, as well as learning how she thrived later in spite of those beginnings was powerful and a reminder of the resilience of the human spirit (one example of what was instrumental to her was the nurturing attention from a mother she nannied for, which gave her confidence in her self-worth and intelligence; furthermore, when she herself became a parent, she decided she wanted to do everything in her power to interrupt the cycle she lived through and therefore invested in two years of parenting classes to give herself the best opportunity for change)

I've been reflecting more and more on how powerful it is to open up about our life experiences, to be vulnerable in sharing what we've survived, and in so doing, let others know that they're not alone in similar struggles, that there is hope. This revelation only reinforced that - I know I for one felt honored to have this small glimpse into her struggle and resulting triumph over hardship. Our stories are powerful.

All this to say, Hillbilly Elegy was a thought-provoking book, and a reflective insight into a way of life and a culture that I didn't have previous exposure to.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Book Log: January 2017

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. This is my second year doing this; here is a page containing the 2016 posts (or here is a list of all 2016 books, without the commentary on each one).

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.

1) 1/5: Chicken with Plums by Maryjane Satrapi
A friend from my neighborhood book club sent me home with this book after our last meeting. It's a graphic novel (my first?), so it's a relatively quick read. The author is Iranian, and the story follows a skilled tar player.

There are flashbacks (and scenes that take place in the future) as the protagonist is waiting to die. We gradually learn why he feels depressed and why he has lost his ability to play as well as how suffering can actually be channeled into the creation of great masterpieces. The ending is very bittersweet.




2) 1/5: Same Kind of Different as Me: A modern-day slave, an international art dealer, and the unlikely woman who bound them together by Ron Hall and Denver Moore with Lynn Vincent
I don't recall where I first heard of this book. It was late in 2016, and a library copy was available, so I picked it up. Now I see repeated mentions of it and key positioning in the bookstore, likely due to the fact that a movie of it is coming out this year.

It's a non-fiction work, and the narrative switches between Ron and Denver. They both started life in lower-class situations; Ron, who is white, became quite wealthy and he and his wife started volunteering at a homeless shelter. Denver, a black man who grew up sharecropping, ended up homeless, and their paths cross at the shelter.

Ron's wife is the one who brought them together initially and encouraged their friendship. A true friendship does develop between the two men. There are some moving insights and it raises some interesting questions and reflections on faith, but I don't think this is one that will stick with me.

3) 1/7: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling
I read this script very quickly. Having read the original seven-volume series (by the last 2-3 books, I was waiting for them in bookstores at midnight), I wasn't sure what to make of this play when I learned of its publication, but after talking with my youngest sister after she had read it, I added it to my list.

I wasn't surprised at who the "cursed child" was, but it reminded me how much enjoyment I derived from the Harry Potter stories. The Tri-Wizard Tournament is revisited because of the plot circumstances, further making me want to reread the books. I didn't anticipate how excited I would get in the story-line (I may have dreamed of using a time-turner in my own life while reading this). If you enjoyed the series and don't mind reading a script, I think you'd enjoy this.

4) 1/11: This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
I have decided I really enjoy reading Ann Patchett; her writing style is one I find very natural and easy to read. You may recall I read her book Commonwealth a couple months ago (see my reflections on it within this post), which had me searching out other works of hers.

This book is a representative collection of essays over her decades of writing. They range on a large number of topics (detailing her writing process, describing early book tours, ending her first marriage, marrying again, applying for the police academy, opening a bookstore, encountering protests when her memoir on friendship is chosen as a college freshmen-wide read, and on and on). They offer a comprehensive picture of her non-fiction work.


5) 1/13: My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
The genres of books I read might give others whiplash - going from screenplays to essays to literature to young adult and middle readers. It's not for the faint of heart, but it's how I find rhythm in my days - when my time is constrained and mental ability is at a minimum, I am drawn to simpler works, and as my mind wants to be challenged, I delve into a meatier piece.

This book was a simple read, not as much because I felt overwhelmed but more so because some friends with first graders recommended it for our young ones. It is a simple read of a boy describing an adventure his father went on to rescue a dragon.

The author illustrated the book; I read it on my Kindle Paperwhite, but I suspect they're more engaging in a physical book. My rule of thumb is to default to reading on my Kindle unless it's a cookbook, craft book, or children's book. As I was just investigating this title for its potential, though, I jumped on the electronic library copy.

It's a pleasant read, and as I learned it's the first in a trilogy, expect to see me make quick work of them (the books can be bought individually or in a volume together). My reading daughter is obsessed with the Boxcar Children, but if I can wrench her away, perhaps I'll show her this title. I think she'll enjoy Elmer's industriousness in outsmarting the dangerous animals he encounters, and I suspect her toddler sister will enjoy the story as well, especially with the frequent illustrations.

6) 1/13: Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace
I'm embarrassed to admit how long it took me to read this volume. I bought it late in 2012 at my youngest sister's recommendation. The first couple chapters charmed me, but I set it aside unfinished with visions of reading it aloud to Brennan; as she was only two at the time, I knew I needed to wait. As she got to the point where we began reading chapter books to her, I did begin this one. She enjoyed it, but then she was introduced to the Little House books, and those took precedence.

As she is caught up in all-things Boxcar Children, I decided I would just read this title without her. It's a pleasant, somewhat meandering read about friendship between two girls and all the imaginative play they enjoy. There are some author illustrations throughout.

This book was originally published in 1940. The internet tells me this book began as semi-autobiographical bedtime stories told to the author's daughter that were based on the author's childhood and, later, her journals (thanks, Wikipedia!). There are quite a few of these semi-autobiographical books in the series, so expect more mentions of them throughout the year.

Knowing this book is based on childhood reflections helps me make more sense of it. The sorts of details you have of a childhood memory are in contrast to how you could write about an imaginary adventure two young girls have. But the ways these two girls process the death of a young sibling, for instance, gives a greater insight to how these little girls processed loss.

7) 1/14: Elmer and the Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
After finishing My Father's Dragon, I continued on to the second volume. The first book described the dragon's rescue, and now Elmer needs to return home. The grateful baby dragon offers to fly him home; a storm forces them ashore an island, where some shenanigans take place, but Elmer is able to make it home in time for his father's birthday.

It's hard to reflect on this one without mention of My Father's Dragon - there is a distinct story within these pages, but it picks up immediately where the first book ends, so that I find them a natural pairing (who wants to read about the end of a journey without also reading what brought them there in the first place?).



8) 1/23: Staggerford by Jon Hassler
This was the January book club read; it was actually my recommendation. I first encountered this book during my first year teaching; Hassler is Minnesotan and the Minnesota high school I taught at used this novel in the College Prep Writing class.

This book covers one week in the life of Miles Pruitt. Take a middle-aged English teacher feeling in a bit of a rut, add in the elderly friend Agatha McGee whose house he lives in, as well as interactions with students, colleagues and administrators, and some walks down memory lane, and it all makes for an engaging read.

When I taught, even before students approached this book, we assigned a "What I Wish" paper assignment, to mimic the assignment given to the students in the book. There were few parameters, as it was a low pressure way for students to share something they wish for, however flippant or serious, and for us to learn about their interests and writing skill in the process.

Two "What I Wish" essays that were submitted still stand out for me after more than a decade removed from teaching.

One was a bittersweet reflection done by a boy whose grandmother lived in their house for a couple years before she died. It was a touching tribute to inter-generational living, as well as a heartfelt reflection to processing her death in their house and all he lost with her passing.

The second essay, the one that I recall most vividly, was by a student who wrote achingly about the current estrangement from her beloved older sister; the sister had become pregnant and moved in with her boyfriend, writing off her family in the process. Her essay was raw in its pain, and in my first semester of teaching, I didn't know exactly how to provide comfort.

After assigning a grade, I wrote a postscript, something to the effect of how I couldn't fully understand her own situation, but I could empathize; how I also had a sister become suddenly pregnant after high school, and although it created a temporary rift, having a child was the best thing for her - the transformation was astounding, relationships were repaired, and I wished my experience might offer her some measure of hope for future restoration in her own family.

I handed the papers back and never heard a word from that student about my personal comment. Fast-forward to parent-teacher conferences, though, and while sitting down with her parents, the mother reached out her hand to grab mine. Her daughter had shared the postscript with her mother, and when she did so, they dissolved in hopeful tears that their situation would, too, work out in time. We teared up again at conferences as we relived similar pains, and I was forever grateful I didn't ignore the urge to write that personal note.

So now you know my personal feelings surrounding this book as I encountered it with my students. I've been wanting to revisit this book, but I worried my nostalgia surrounding this book made me view it in a different lens, perhaps making it better than it really is. I need not have worried. Everyone in my book group spoke of how well they enjoyed it and how well Hassler wrote, and while I remembered the bare skeleton of the book, enough specifics had faded, making me relish it again.

Throughout the book, Miles is working through his own students' "What I Wish" essays, facing his own tension as he reads through weighty stories:
No wonder the briefcase was so heavy, thought Miles. He should have known better than to collect all 114 papers at one time. The wrongs and losses and near misses of 114 people, when packed together in one briefcase, took on the heaviness and solidity of rock. So it wasn't the poor penmanship after all that made reading these papers so difficult. Nor was it the futility of trying to teach English grammar. It was the way these papers teased him off the road of hope into the gulch of despair.
This reflection has gone on long enough, but the book held up to another reading, and it has made me want to dig out another one of his books that I picked up at a library sale so that I might visit it sooner rather than later.

9) 1/26: The Dragons of Blueland by Ruth Stiles Gannett
This was the conclusion to the My Father's Dragon trilogy; they're short reads, so it was natural to fit them in close together.

In this book, the dragon, on his way to being reunited with family, learns they are about to be captured. He asks Elmer for help, knowing he can't coordinate a rescue on his own. A sweet conclusion to the trilogy.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Books Read in 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'm sharing mine for 2016 here.

2016 was filled with some exceptional reads. I've noted which ones were especially powerful by bolding the entry below, and I've tried to select them from a variety of genres (young adult, memoir, non-fiction, fiction, poetry).

I wrote about my completed books each month throughout the year, so if you want to read my thoughts about a specific title, visit the links for the appropriate month.

January Book Log
1) 1/12: Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
2) 1/14: A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy
3) 1/23: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
4) 1/24: A Week in Summer by Maeve Binchy
5) 1/28: The Awakening and Selected Short Stories by Kate Chopin

February Book Log
6) 2/4: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
7) 2/5: crazy love by Francis Chan (along with workbook living crazy love by Francis Chan)
8) 2/6: Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale
9) 2/15: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
10) 2/24: A Mystical Heart: 52 Weeks in the Presence of God by Edwina Gateley

March Book Log
11) 3/3: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
12) 3/4: The Best American Short Stories 2011, edited by Geraldine Brooks
13) 3/7: Rising Strong by Brene Brown
14) 3/8: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
15) 3/16: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
16) 3/23: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
17) 3/25: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
18) 3/28: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

April Book Log
19) 4/3: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
20) 4/4: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
21) 4/11: Tara Road by Maeve Binchy
22) 4/18: The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall
23) 4/24: The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall
24) 4/25: Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
25) 4/28: Dear Mr Henshaw by Beverly Cleary

May Book Log
26) 5/16: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
27) 5/22: Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson
28) 5/22: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
29) 5/24: The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall
30) 5/29: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

June Book Log
31) 6/7: Quiet Strength by Tony Dungy
32) 6/17: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
33) 6/29: Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber

July Book Log
34) 7/3: The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall
35) 7/25: The Little Way of Ruthie Leming by Rod Dreher
36) 7/27: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
37) 7/30: Eggs by Jerry Spinelli

August Book Log
38) 8/8: Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber
39) 8/20: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
40) 8/29: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

September Book Log
41) 9/4: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
42) 9/11: The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens
43) 9/14: Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair by Anne Lamott
44) 9/20: Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy
45) 9/21: The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton
46) 9/30: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

October Book Log
47) 10/17: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story by Donald Miller
48) 10/20: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
49) 12/23: Chocolat by Joanne Harris
50) 10/31: Dear Hank Williams by Kimberly Willis Holt
51) 10/31: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

November Book Log
52: 11/14: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

December Book Log
53) 12/4: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Blackman
54) 12/8: Don't Want to Miss a Thing by Jill Mansell
55) 12/11: The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew -- Three Women Search for Understanding by Ranya Idilby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner
56) 12/25: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
57) 12/26: Peace, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson
58) 12/31: Between the World and Me by Ta-Neshi Coates

Monday, January 02, 2017

Book Log: December 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.

53) 12/4: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Blackman
This was published in Swedish, then translated into English. In it we meet Ove and discover he is a widower. The chapters build - there's some repetition as information is slowly meted out to reveal what happened to his wife, beginning with their courtship and concluding with her passing.

Ove grew up learning the importance of good character and has become a curmudgeon who likes routine and dislikes human interaction. As a widower, he is lost and struggles to find meaning, believing that his wife was the worthy, loveable one, and he should have been the one to die. The separation from her is too overwhelming that he is considering ways to hasten his death.

Neighbors force him to get involved, often due to their ineptness, and the world is constantly foiling his plans. We see Ove's heart gradually soften.

This was an easy read, although it started slow for me (not necessarily any fault of its own - I kept putting it on the back burner as other things took precedence, and I'm the first to admit books that start gradually can grow into powerful stories; this was certainly true to my experience with Empire Falls, when at first I made myself continue because of a rousing recommendation, and by the end, I hated to pull myself away).

54) 12/8: Don't Want to Miss a Thing by Jill Mansell
This was a palate cleanser between some more thought-provoking books (what a pretentious way to spin chick lit!). Jill Mansell was a British author I'd heard mentioned before, well-known for her women's fiction.

This is a simple story centered around a free-spirited uncle becoming a guardian when his single sister passes away. He removes himself from his old life and retreats to a quiet village. In the village we see relationships begin and play out among a handful of members on a variety of levels (parents and children, spouses, etc).

Will it be receiving accolades and awards right and left? No, but it falls into that beach-read chick-lit if you're just looking for something quick and undemanding.

55) 12/11: The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, a Jew -- Three Women Search for Understanding by Ranya Idilby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner

This was the December book club selection. In short, after 9/11, three women, representing three different faiths, start meeting regularly, first under the guise of writing a children's book detailing the stories their faiths all have in common, and then it evolves into deep friendships with probing conversations and self-examination.

At one point during our discussion someone made the comment that Gilead (last month's read) was more thought-provoking theologically, and this one isn't mind-blowing in its contents, but it does a good job showing how three women with differing beliefs, through regular meetings, find ways to share similarities and differences in their faiths as well as ways to appreciate ways they are similar and different.

I will say that, although I had a library copy, I also ended up checking out the audiobook version since I was running out of time to read due to other responsibilities, and the majority of the book was listened to. I don't recommend the audiobook, since I found myself multitasking and sometimes forgetting which individual was writing at any given time, and it was stilted when there were dictated conversations within the chapters as the reader would announce each name, followed by their line, and they would engage back and forth. I'm not sure there's a smooth way to get around this, but one way could have been to employ three different readers, one for each woman writing the book.

56) 12/25: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
You've grown accustomed to how I come at these summaries with tangents. How I first discovered Elizabeth Gaskell is a particularly amusing one to me.

I taught for two years after graduating college. One day during my second year, I found a coupon good for one free Barnes & Noble Classic in my work mailbox. I do love books, but I also love bargains. I dutifully took my coupon to the bookstore and began trying to narrow down my choices. I already owned several yet-unread B&N Classics, so my aim was to select one that I hadn't yet read while also capitalizing on my free title -- the biggest bang for my non-existent buck, if you will. One hefty book I was drawn to was Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. I hadn't read any of her work before, but I was amused by the first paragraph:

To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room—a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o'clock struck, when she wakened of herself "as sure as clockwork," and left the household very little peace afterwards. It was a June morning, and early as it was, the room was full of sunny warmth and light. 

So purchase it I did.

Now I'm not one to want to know much about a movie or book before beginning it; if it comes recommended by a trusted friend, I will look into it with no background needed. The initial paragraph was enough to charm me, and when I could find time away from teaching responsibilities, I truly enjoyed retreating to read it.

I knew how many pages were in the book, and as I grew invested in the culmination of everything, I found myself staying up exceedingly late one night to finish. I was reading in bed, growing increasingly confused as to how Gaskell would be able to bring closure to everything in the dwindling pages. I finished one of the final chapters, only to turn to the next page to read something to the effect of, "And that was as far as Gaskell got before she died."

WHAT?!?! I wanted to wake up Eric next to me to complain about having read hundreds of pages -- having stayed up late to finish -- only to find NO ENDING.

It was clear that there were only a couple more chapters that were going to be written, and in the last few pages, the editor summarized how Gaskell had told friends she was going to finish it. This does give a measure of closure. However, I was not prepared for the abrupt shift.  Imagine watching a great movie, getting invested in the storyline and characters, only to have a friend turn it off and say, "Aren't you loving it so far? I'm just going to summarize how it ends, okay?" No, not okay. Turn the frickin' movie back on!!

And had I allowed myself to read the back of the book at anytime previous, I would have seen that the summary began with something akin to, "Gaskell's unfinished work Wives and Daughters, ..." This had been published serially, and she passed away before the completion. But I sure didn't expect a volume of this size to be unfinished.

Anyway, in spite of that jarring introduction to Gaskell, I did enjoy her style and I then read North and South shortly afterwards. This revisiting of it was due to the CraftLit podcast.

North and South gets its title from the North and South of England. The primary character has spent much of her life in the idyllic south of England, when circumstances have her relocated with her parents to the industrial north. Margaret is a strong protagonist; Heather Ordover from CraftLit admits she feels like the story could have been called Pride and Prejudice given the personalities at play and the strong opinions held (and, you know, if there hadn't already been a book with that title published a few decades earlier). Slowly Margaret thaws and gains new insight to the worth of her new home of Milton.

For a happily ever after story there's certainly a lot of death, but I still appreciated it.

57) 12/26: Peace, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson
I first encountered Jacqueline Woodson through her autobiographical poetry book Brown Girl Dreaming, which received the National Book Award and was a Newbery Honor winner. It was a beautiful collection of poems, and I've been waiting to return to her work. Her poetry book, as well as this one, are geared towards middle grade/young adult readers.

In this book we meet Lonnie Collins Motion, or Locomotion. He and his sister are orphaned and in separate foster home settings. He is writing this series of letters to his sister, to act as the "rememberer" and put stories of his parents on paper so that they're not forgotten; through the letters, we see him process his grief and become confident in his writing skills (there's minimal poetry in this book, but we read often about how he thinks of himself as a poet; only now as I added the Amazon links did I learn that this book is actually a sequel to Locomotion, a book told through Lonnie's poems).

This book sees Locomotion come to peace with where he and his sister are situated (both of them are in good homes, even as they miss each other). There's also some talk of PTSD when Lonnie interacts with someone who has returned home after losing a leg due to an IED.

58) 12/31: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I feel an obligation to read works that portray worlds and realities different than my own, be they different in time, location, time, or circumstance. This may look like reading books by authors who herald from other countries (Jhumpa Lahiri, Khaled Hosseini, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez are three I've enjoyed). This might look like reading classics like Les Miserables or something by Charles Dickens. And this might look like reading books from people whose experiences in America are so different from my own (Just Mercy and Evicted are two powerful ones that I read this year that fall in this category; Hillbilly Elegy is on my 2017 reading list).

This is a book that falls in that last category.

The author recently published a piece called "My President Was Black" in The Atlantic.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a black man, writes Between the World and Me as a letter to his son. In it, he discusses what it has been like to be a black man living in America, as well as his experiences when he has been abroad, and also ways in which his life is already noticeably different than his son's life. There's an undercurrent of anger and frustration (well, I guess it's pretty blatant) about ways in which his life has been lessened because of how he has to be constantly aware of how he is perceived, how he has been taught to carry himself one way on the street to not seem to be an easy target, carry himself another way not to seem a threat to whites. He describes how the streets and schools both fail black people. And he reflects on the death of a black man he went to college with who was trailed and then shot and killed by police when he was mistaken for someone else.

This is an important read. I found myself marking up my Kindle copy with large passages I wanted to reflect further on. I mentioned above that there's this feeling of anger and even helplessness, but I feel that he finds some encouragement for his son as he concludes.

If you read this and you are white, you need to be prepared to absorb his anger without getting offended - this is his heartfelt account of what his life has been like as a black man.  You may not agree with it all, but you have to understand this is his experience. I know when I feel threatened, fight or flight tendencies creep in, but it's important to read this as it is without trying to return fire or disregard it. That anyone has these experiences should break us all.