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 Backman
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.

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