Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Book Log: May 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.

This month we hosted a near-constant stream of friends and family, so my reading was infrequent and limited. Towards the end of the month, as we entertained less and I was able to indulge in more reading time, it picked up.

26) 5/16: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
I have to admit this was an uneven book for me. I nearly abandoned it, but my lack of reading time for the month was starting to get to me, and as I was so close to finishing this one, it seemed a shame not to know how it resolved.

Major Pettigrew is the protagonist, and we see how his focus changes (from valuing things to people) as the book progresses. We see him process his brother's death, gain a new friend, and wrestle with family tensions.

Given the title, I was expecting the "last stand" to come sooner, or for the book to feel more intentional, with a specific aim, but instead there was a gradual, meandering tone. When the book shifted, it didn't seem natural. There are important themes addressed, including racial acceptance, but I could have easily dropped it midway and not missed out. It is well written, though, and I'm clearly in the minority with my impressions of the book, if you take a look at Amazon reviews.

27) 5/22: Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson
This was recommended to me by a friend and was a pleasant read. The concept was interesting: imagine a reclusive author who published one novel that took the world by storm (a la Harper Lee), and then decades later found herself nearly penniless after falling victim to a Ponzi scheme. She must publish again to survive.

Enter Alice, who works for Mimi's publisher. She is sent to the author's home, by request, to help out so the author can focus solely on writing. These duties revolve around taking care of Frank, Mimi's young son. He's a charming character, and although it isn't spelled out, he seems to fall somewhere on the autism spectrum (obsessive with fashion and movies, regularly acts out when touched, and so on).

I won't reveal anything that will give away plot, but it was engaging and was quickly finished (and that's saying something, given that it was a hardcover book and not on my Kindle; anymore, e-books are more quickly read since it's easier to tote around my Kindle in my purse than actual books crowding out everything else).

28) 5/22: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I'm not sure when I began seeing mention of this, but it has only crossed my radar in the last few years. Three years ago, my husband and I were in NYC celebrating our ten-year anniversary. We were trying to find out what to bring home for our daughter, who was then not quite three. I remember picking up a copy of this book to consider - it was an elaborate pop-up book - but I rejected it since I was trying to find a NYC-themed gift, if possible, and I hadn't even read it yet to know if it was something I wanted to own.

It's a lovely book with simple illustrations, and at one point Brennan climbed on my lap and asked me to read a few pages to her. It's not long, but it is poetic and I see myself returning to it again. I rushed reading it; there are some good nuggets in here that I'd like to savor next time.

29) 5/24: The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall
Last month I read the first couple books in this series. I'm continuing on, as it's a pleasant break from other heavier works I might find myself tackling.

This book had the sisters in two locations while their father and stepmother take their honeymoon - Rosalind, the oldest, was invited to vacation with her best friend's family. Other than at the bookends of the story, she doesn't appear for any significant length. The story centers on the three younger sisters' adventures in Maine for a couple weeks with their aunt. Skye is thrust into the OAP role (oldest acting Penderwick), and we watch her struggle with the role, as she's convinced she will be a huge failure, but as we all suspect, she rises to the occasion.

Their good friend from the first book, Jeffrey, joins them for the time, and there's a big plot point that involves him, quite a convenient revelation, nothing of the sort that tends to happen in real life. That doesn't detract from the story, but as an adult reading a book aimed for a younger audience, I found myself not completely buying into how smoothly it unrolled. All the same, I plan on reading the fourth book to conclude the series.

30) 5/29: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
Friends, this book is one of the most important books I've read in a long while. But it was excruciatingly hard to read at times.

Bryan Stevenson shares how he ended up getting involved in representing individuals on death row, and he's also made huge inroads with the treatment of juveniles. (For those of you with a pulse on other recent publications, you might find this reminiscent of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness - I am patiently waiting my turn at the library to read it.)

My heart ached and I would get so upset at some of the accounts in here (for instance, the account of the psychiatrist who faked his credentials and practiced for eight years, and yet gave testimonies about the competence of defendants that carried great weight; the case we learn about is when this "psychiatrist" failed to properly diagnose a defendant's recent brain damage after a severe car accident that led to the events that put him on trial).

Stevenson shares from many cases, but the one he spends the most time on is that of Walter McMillan, a man who was sentenced to death row even though there are so many issues with his case, not the least of which is the fact that he had numerous alibis during the time of the crime.

As these cases could feel so overwhelming and hopeless, I began to wonder how Stevenson could continue doing this, year after year. At one point, he shares how he nearly gave up and what he realized was the point of it all. It was poignant, and I found myself highlighting large passages; here's one excerpt from a large section I found powerful:
Whenever things got really bad, and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I told them that if someone tells a lie, that person is not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. I told myself that evening what I had been telling my clients for years. I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.
Several times I had to pause, maybe vent to my husband about how these things could be happening. But I would calm down and return to the book. The work done by the Equal Justice Initiative is meaningful, important, challenging work. And this book is a meaningful, important, challenging piece.