Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Book Log: October 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.

47) 10/17: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story by Donald Miller
This was an audiobook listen. I had read Blue Like Jazz early in 2006 (I remember because I brought it along as airport reading when Eric was checking out grad schools). The book had been interesting but nothing special for the first half or so, but it took a turn for the better during our travels. I wasn't sure if it was because airplanes make me more introspective and reflective, but when reading it again in a group setting a couple years later, my experience was the same.

This book of his was closely tied to his experiences after writing Blue Like Jazz. The story follows him working with a couple individuals to make a movie of that book. As they undergo the project and work on the screenplay, he spends a lot of time learning about what makes a good story. And this leads him to reflect on how those same steps can lead to living a better life (thus the subtitle).

I remember once reading an article about a man who had to regularly change his work password. He decided to become intentional about selecting a password, making it be a phrase of a goal he hoped to accomplish. The act of repeatedly typing it in helped it to be on his mind and did, in fact, help him to change in most instances (here's the piece, if you're curious). This came to mind as I listened to Miller's book - with his regular research on what makes a good story, he began to look at his life and see what changes he could make to improve his life.

48) 10/20: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
This was the selection for my neighborhood book group this month. This book was just released last month, but you may recognize the author from Bel Canto. I haven't read any of her other works, but I keep adding various titles to my wishlist as different people rave about them (most recently, State of Wonder and Truth & Beauty have been mentioned favorably, and after hearing excerpts from an essay of hers at the book club, I've now added her book of essays This is the Story of a Happy Marriage to my list).

The story begins at a gathering to celebrate a child's christening and an impulsive act between two adults there. Then we learn a couple years have gone by, and that action led to the dissolution of two marriages and the six children affected regularly cross paths.

The book jumps around in the timeline and we hear from several different characters. I'm always impressed by authors who can get me so invested in a character's storyline, only to jump into similar depth and interest for another character in the following chapter, and Patchett is gifted at this. Without going into specifics, one storyline is very meta.

There's much time spent with the six children, both in their youth and adulthood and as a unit as well as individuals, and since I was one of five siblings, it was interesting to read about each of the book's characters and reflect on the relationships that I and my siblings all have had with each other through the years.

Patchett admits this is an autobiographical novel (excerpt taken from her essay, cited above):

I loved my father, and I wished for him every minute of life that his body could afford him. He did not want to die. Still, after he did, I wrote with an openness I had not previously known. I was 51 years old. I wrote about California and divorce and police officers, second marriages and stepchildren. I wrote about people who were like my family and nothing like my family. It was time to pull down the fences and let my story go wherever it wanted to go. I had been a good daughter, and my father had been a good father. He had helped me in every in every way he knew how. I will miss his advice, even the advice that had irritated me. His death marked my growth as a writer, but if I were able to choose -- the book or my father -- I would have him back.

I delved into reading several interviews with Ann Patchett after I finished, and in one of them I learned she dedicated this book to her stepfather; she had this to say:

The book is dedicated to my stepfather, who was always my champion, always the person who wanted me to be a writer. He was the person who sent me to college. He believed in me unquestioningly from hello. He was also a person who was heavily armed and made a lot of bad choices, but he used to say to me when I was 10 years old, "Someday I'm going to open up one of your books and the dedication is going to say, 'To Mike Glasscock.'"
I could never dedicate a book to him while my father was alive. But my father died, and the first thing I did was dedicate a book to my stepfather. When I got the galleys, I drove to North Carolina and gave one to him, and he just sobbed. You want to know what's good about being a writer? That's what's good about being a writer.

49) 10/23: Chocolat by Joanne Harris
I appear to have become a joiner this year, several of which activities require reading (my neighborhood book club, a couple different book studies, and this event).

There's a local cinema that does monthly Book and a Movie events (they screen a movie made from a book, then there's a brief discussion afterwards). I had been wanting to check it out for months, but this is the first one that worked with my schedule. While reading the book is not a requirement beforehand, I thought it wouldn't hurt (and hey, I like to read).

I had seen this movie years ago, and I had essentially no memory of it. As I read the book, I kept asking myself, "Was this in the movie, too?!" In short, probably not. First I'll cover my impressions of the book, then I'll make a quick statement on the movie.

The book reflects on the search for community and belonging and even what true religion is. There's also a powerful reflection on the importance of staying and facing your fears instead of running away (there's a compelling case made that if you run, you'll never truly face your fears and will forever let them control you and cloud your judgment; if you face them, they're never as powerful as you initially believe).

I found the book much more compelling than the movie. The movie is quite forgettable. The changes made for a less powerful movie, in my estimation. The book is told from two different viewpoints, one the chocolatier and the other the priest. In the movie, while there is a priest, the antagonist is switched to the role of mayor, and much was sacrificed by this decision. Plus, altering the timeline of events led to a less cohesive whole. And the relationships Vianne the chocolatier built steadily with the townspeople in the book weren't as clearly conveyed on the screen.

50) 10/31: Dear Hank Williams by Kimberly Willis Holt

This was a pleasant read, but nothing first. Much in the vein of Dear Mr Henshaw and other young adult epistolary books, the protagonist doesn't even really need a response from the recipient - the act of writing helps them develop and mature, both in their technique and in life. As someone who processes by writing, these types of books resonate with me. I appreciated reading Tate's letters, but it wasn't until the climax that I was bowled over. I didn't see it coming and it added a new depth to the book (maybe others would be more astute). I had read this on my Kindle, so I was able to do a couple word searches once finished to better appreciate how the author pulled it off.

I taught a year of seventh-grade English forever ago, and I was reflecting on how much fun this book would be to discuss when students finished it, were I still teaching. The payoff is at the end, although it's no chore to read up until the twist.

51) 10/31: Still Alice by Lisa Genova
This is the Book and a Movie selection for November - I've learned these books are in high demand at the library, so as soon as I heard of the decision, I was able to nab a copy before the holds list was created, even as I don't yet know if I will be able to attend.

I started reading this book shortly after it was published in 2009, and I actually got about halfway through it before I set it aside because it seemed a little too real and depressing; the protagonist develops early-onset Alzheimer's Disease, and we follow her through the diagnosis and her steadily decreasing mental acuity.

The author did her research and clearly conveyed how Alzheimer's can present. The perspective plays out in a clever way - Alice may not realize what she's doing, but we grow anxious as we understand what's truly happening. I was able to detach my emotions more this go-around, but diseases that affect the brain seem especially heartbreaking for all involved, and the reactions of her family are certainly believable.

There's an account in the book that resonated with me; this is after informing her colleagues of her diagnosis and her need to step aside from teaching responsibilities and travel demands, and what followed after their expressions of regret that she is suffering with Alzheimer's:

Then they left her alone as quickly as possible. They were politely kind to her when they ran into her, but they didn't run into her very often. This was largely because of their busy schedules and Alice's now rather empty one. But a not so insignificant reason was because they chose not to. Facing her meant facing her mental frailty and the unavoidable thought that, in the blink of an eye, it could happen to them. Facing her was scary. So for the most part, except for meetings and seminars, they didn't.

This stood out to me as accurately conveying the natural responses for many when faced with grief. I can so easily call to mind the early days of returning to work after losing Katherine. My boss insisted I start with three half days, knowing better than I how emotionally draining it would be. The department was large and I knew many of the members of it, so when I returned, the days were a blend of resuming work responsibilities as well as frequent tears as others shared their condolences and hugs. Yet there were some that were caught off guard with my return and didn't know how to talk or act around me. I didn't hold it against them, but it was telling to see some quickly turn around in the hall to avoid crossing paths, or act very stilted and forced, ignoring the elephant in the room and trying to leave as soon as possible. Those were not frequent occurrences, but it cemented in me how important it is to acknowledge loss instead of dancing around the obvious.