2020 Reading

Reading Through the Pandemic!

Hi Friends – It’s been a crazy start to the year so I let both the reading and the blogging slip a bit. I’m back in the saddle with reading and almost back on track to get to 52 books this year. Not that I was ever worried!

Some of the books I’ve enjoyed so far in 2020…

And now that we’re required to slow down as a result of staying home due to the Corona Virus, I hope to resume sharing my reading journey with you! So far this year I’ve read these ten books:

  • Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
  • All the Water in the World by Karen Raney
  • The Topeka School by Ben Lerner **
  • The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
  • The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
  • Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano
  • Apeirogon by Colum McCann

My favorite so far has been Apeirogon by Colum McCann – but I’ll save that review for my next post.

My LEAST favorite has been The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. You might have noticed is asterisked above? That’s because although I have read some sections of the book twice, and some sections once, there are some sections of the book I could not read. It was on many Best of 2019 lists last year and even Obama put it on his list of favorite books (!) but it was overly cerebral for me with too much psychoanalysis and elements of teen age cruelty and violence. So even though I technically didn’t read every word in the book I’m putting on my list.

I also really liked The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. It’s an in-depth family story told from a male perspective. It (almost) made me want to be a writer! I have enjoyed several of Patchett’s other books and so eagerly attended a book talk she gave here in Maplewood. She was very entertaining and during her talk recommended several other authors and books….

…which is how I ended up reading J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. Ms. Patchett said that although the book was not well-reviewed when it came out, she read it recently and there has not been one week when she has not reflected on it in some way. There is a lot to think about in The Casual Vacancy but it probably could have been done with less pages. Though I did enjoy it and think it’s worth reading.

So that’s it for now…. please let me know what you have been reading lately and if you have any good recommendations!

53 Books!

I accomplished my goal of reading a book a week on average!

Hi friends, I met my challenge this past year. I’m sorry I haven’t posted reviews lately but the holiday season kinda kicked my butt!

(Currently re-reading Little Women in anticipation of the movie!)

Here are my favorite books of 2019:

Disappearing Earth has been on several best-of lists. Here’s what I thought about it: https://52-books.blog/2019/11/12/literary-thriller-try-it/

President Obama & I have similar taste! Say Nothing was on his best books list: https://52-books.blog/2019/06/10/say-nothing/

I wrote about Darnell Moore & No Ashes in the Fire twice! https://52-books.blog/2019/01/26/coming-of-age-black-free-in-america-a-memoir/ and https://52-books.blog/2019/02/03/reporting-back-i-love-the-love-that-darnell-moore-embodies/

Peter Heller was my new favorite author of the year. I think The River is my perfect novel: https://52-books.blog/2019/05/28/my-new-favorite-author/

Finally, My Year of Rest and Relaxation was so different and unexpected – I loved it: https://52-books.blog/2019/08/06/july-highlights/

Friends please comment back and let me know what your favorite 2019 reads were.

Cheers to 2020!!!

Literary Thriller – Try It!

I will be re-reading this in the near future for sure.

Disappearing Earth

A Novel by Julia Phillips

Published 2019 by Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pages.

My author-book club friend recommends a lot of books and and I’m always adding them to my To-Read List…. when I’m between books I’ll scroll through and see what to read next. I was scrolling and browsing in our local bookstore last week and ended up buying Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips.

I found out after I read it that the book has been short-listed for the National Book Award. I haven’t read others on the short-list but think this book deserves it. Here are some of the reasons why:

Compelling mystery – you’ll be presented with it when you read the inside cover so I’ll tell you anyway. Two young sisters go missing in Kamchatka, Russia. I don’t like knowing something bad is going to happen, especially to kids, so this first chapter was a little cringey. But good.

New-to-me setting – Have you ever heard of the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia? Me neither. It’s only accessible by sea or air because of the crazy mountains and volcanos. Home of indigenous people (the Even for example) and settled by western Russians. The landscape is beautifully described and is central to the story.

Strong and complex female characters – Yes there are many. Phillips provides a cast of characters so you can refer back to see who is who and how they may be related to another character. Also helpful because the names are Russian or Even.

Structure – The book proceeds in a linear timeline. Each chapter presents a character and her story – all which will pertain in some way to the central mystery. This structure allows Phillips to explore overarching themes and how they play into the book’s central drama of the missing children: female relationships, male/female relationships, indigenous versus non-indigenous, capitalism versus a traditional way of life.

To make the reading of this book even more a pleasure, Julia Phillips came to [words] bookstore tonight. She read an excerpt and I got to meet her. My friend Boo Trundle (they are in a writing group together) interviewed her… It was exciting!

Had Higher Expectations…

Sometimes you cannot wait for a book to be published.

When I love a book I usually look for other works by the same author and add them to my To-Read list and/or gobble them up as soon as I can get my hands on them. Louise Erdrich is one author I became acquainted with after reading The Round House. The other books I read by her did not disappoint.

Ever since I read Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, I could not wait for Krueger’s follow up novel, This Tender Land. I put it on my Goodreads list & even entered a contest in hopes of winning a copy. I grabbed it at Words (our local bookstore) as soon as it was in and cleared the decks for a weekend of reading.

So I’m disappointed to report that This Tender Land is not as good as Ordinary Grace (Krueger has also written a series of mystery novels.) It was too predictable and too far-fetched. Set in the 1930’s involving runaways from a home for native American children, it felt too contrived. I was disappointed. Maybe if I re-read Ordinary Grace I would think the same about that. Not sure. I think This Tender Land will appeal to a lot of readers, though, so if you like historical fiction give it a try.

I also recently read The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld. A year or two ago I LOVED The Child Finder. I thought it was suspenseful and well-written. Unfortunately though, I found The Butterfly Girl predictable and too contrived. I raced through it rather than trying to enjoy it.

The last not-as-good-as-I’d-hoped follow up is The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. Hannah also wrote the best-selling The Nightingale (and 14 other books), which was set in WW II France. The Great Alone is set in remote Alaska in the 1970s and details how a girl survives with a PTSD dad and a victimized mom. I loved the description of the setting and was eagerly buying the story for most of the book… it just got a little unbelievable about 3/4 of the way through. I sped read the last 100 pages at least!

So my take-away – I can’t always assume follow up books will be as good as I hope they will be. Still love when they are though, and makes reading a few “mehs” worth it.

Beloved – A re-reading

I needed maturity and life experience to more fully appreciate Beloved.

Given the recent passing of Toni Morrison, my book club decided to read Beloved for our September meeting. Beloved was published in 1987. Ms. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Beloved; she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. She is widely recognized as one of the best, if not the best, American writers. Her other works include The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby.

For most of us in the book club (if not all), this was a re-reading as we had read the book 20 years ago… I think I read it in the early 90’s, I would have been about 25 at the time. I believe that I was impressed with the book while I was also horrified and saddened by the story.

Reading it again now, Beloved felt like a new and unfamiliar book to me. I did not recall the beautiful and magical language. I did not recall empathizing so strongly with Sethe the main character. I did not recall the savagery of the treatment inflicted upon Sethe, her family and fellow slaves.

Obviously it was the passage of time – my growing older combined with my experience as a wife and mother, that transformed how I processed the book.

If you haven’t read Beloved and/or read it more than 10 years ago, I urge you to read/re-read it. A painful account of the horror of slavery, it is instructive for especially white Americans to feel (even temporarily as a reader) Sethe’s despair. However you will also experience the strong familial love, beauty, and strength of character that Ms. Morrison’s writing portrays.

Circe – Inland – Woman Next Door – Daisy Jones

Already missing the lazy reading days of August vacation…

3 of the books I enjoyed during the month of August.

Well summer vacation is now sadly over and we’re back to real life. I didn’t read quite as much as I usually do over the summer because I had so many things going on. These were the books I enjoyed in August.

First I read Circe by Madeline Miller for one of my book clubs (published in 2018, 391 pages). It is a novelized (is that a word?) version of the life of Circe, a minor Greek goddess. It’s hard to get into at first because you’re reading about Olympians and nymphs and their eternal lives, but gradually you get into the flow of the book. Madeline Miller has imagined the minutiae and details of Circe’s mythology, and it ends up being very interesting, and even believable.

Next up was Inland by Tea Obreht. I was eager to read this book by the author of The Tiger’s Wife. Hot off the presses (just published, 370 pages), the book is set in the late 1800’s in Arizona. It interweaves the story of Nora, a woman on the desert frontier, and Lurie, a man on the run from the law. I’m a sucker for historic western fiction and this was right up my alley. There are a few too many sub-plots but the book is still very enjoyable, although you’ll feel as parched as Nora by the end of the book.

I finished The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso while on our annual vacation at the Jersey shore (2016, 278 pages). The author has an interesting background – born in Barbados, grew up in Nigeria, lives in South Africa – and it really enhances the book. Omotoso tells the story of two Cape Town women (one white, one black) who have been neighbors for years and loathe each other. Things happen, they end up spending a lot of time together, and their relationship evolves. I especially loved Hortensia’s character and admired/enjoyed her anger and bitterness. The interweaving accounts can be hard to follow but still an enjoyable read. Very interesting on the post-apartheid culture and also a lot of insight into marriage and relationships. I think we’ll have a lot to talk about at our next book club meeting!

My final August book was Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2019, 368 pages). Highly recommend! It is a fictional account of a ’70’s band written as a series of interviews with the band members, roadies and groupies…kind of like a documentary. It’s very engaging and feels real. It’s a bummer that there’s actually no album to listen to at the end!

Hope you had a great reading summer and please let me know if you have any recommendations!!

July Highlights

Some of what I read in July….

Really enjoyed this book – a little different and it made me laugh out loud.

I haven’t been the best blogger this summer – sorry. Here is a quick catch up on what I’ve been reading.

Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane was discussed in our book club. Just published this year, I read it on my Kindle app because I didn’t expect it to be super good. But it was really good and I should have bought the book! May Attaway is a 40’ish gardener who lives at home with her dad. She’s not entirely happy, and she embarks on a quest to visit four of her formerly good friends. May grows and changes as a person as a result of her quest. I recommend!

Two book club friends mentioned My Year of Rest and Relaxation and said they had loved it, so I had to try it. (Thanks to Mame for lending me her copy.) The book is by Ottessa Mosfegh and was published in 2018 and is 287 pages long. I loved it but it’s not for everyone. It follows a year in which the narrator, a young woman in 2000/2001 NYC, is suffering from depression. She aims to spend time as much time sleeping as possible in order to cope with her life. It is dark but at times laugh out loud funny. Very different and I recommend it.

Published in 2008 and loosely based on Laura Bush’s life… really good!

I also continued my Curtis Sittenfeld spree with American Wife, which is a fictionalization of aspects of Laura Bush’s life. Published in 2008 and 555 pages long, it is the narrative of Alice Lindgren who becomes First Lady of the US in 2001. It’s a deep dive into the various relationships Alice has – specifically her best friend Dena and then her husband Charlie. It was very interesting and well written, and does offer a few twists. It’s a more fulfilling read than a typical beach paperback & worth the time!

My other book club read The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (published 2018, 421 pages). Set in both 1980’s Chicago and present day Paris, it chronicles the impact that the AIDS crisis had on a group of friends, and it’s reverberations a generation later. Very well written and beautiful. Recommend!

Say Nothing

But you’ll want to discuss this book!

Gripping story and it’s all true.

My friend and also-avid reader Alix Clyburn suggested this book to me recently. Thank you Alix!!!

Say Nothing A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe (Doubleday, 2019, 348 pages of text but 441 pages including notes and index) is amazing nonfiction that reads like fiction. It tells the intricate story of the last 50 years of the conflict in Northern Ireland also known as the Troubles. Keefe explains the Troubles in a way that is informative and not boring at all.

The book is built around the 1972 disappearance of Jean McConville, a Belfast widow and mother of 10 children. In an interweaving fashion, Keefe introduces us to all of the key figures in the era on both sides of the conflict. We meet Brendan “Darkie” Hughes, Dolours Price and her sister Marian, Frank Kitson, and of course Gerry Adams.

Keefe explains how Gerry Adams transitioned from the ruthless leader of the IRA to the smooth politician who brokered peace. I recall the bomb killing Mountbatten and the hunger strikers… do you remember Bobby Sands? Gerry Adams… I’m going to need a lot of time to ponder and learn more about him. He goes from Mr Head Honcho of the IRA to I Was Never In the IRA in about 5 minutes flat. Though I must admit I can empathize a bit with his motivations…

So what happened to Jean McConville? Although the reader can assume her fate, the excellent story telling has us hanging on through the 350 pages. The ending is satisfying though unsettling…because…Brexit?

In any case, I learned A TON from this book. I feel like I much better understand the Troubles & what has happened in the last 50 years. I highly recommend this book, you are welcome to borrow my copy!

My New Favorite Author

Thoughtful writing, page turning plots, inspiring characters.

As most people in our book club thought the last book was a total slog, we decided to read something that promised to be faster-paced. Karla suggested The River (2019, 253 pages) by Peter Heller. After quickly googling it we all agreed to read it for the next meeting.

Wow did I love it!

What’s to love? A lot:

  • Wynn and Jack are the main characters, best friends taking time off from school to leisurely canoe a river in northern Canada. They are smart, outdoorsmen, and have a beautiful friendship. Parts of their characters are revealed as the canoe trip progresses, and their relationship evolves with the story.
  • This is not just a bromance in the wilderness. This becomes a page-turning drama as things start to get challenging for Wynn and Jack. First here is a huge forest fire they discover coming their way. There are seedy drunk guys who are oblivious to the oncoming danger. Then they hear a couple fighting in the woods….
  • Peter Heller seems to be a true outdoorsman as all of the nature and camping and canoeing details appear to be impeccable, at least to this not very outdoorsy NJ gal.
  • Peter Heller is as good a writer as he is an outdoorsman. With all the action there is still time for reflection and beautiful writing.

I’m not going to tell you the ending – you’ll have to read it for yourself!

But I will tell you that I had to hustle up and read another Peter Heller novel almost immediately. Luckily we had The Dog Stars (2012, 320 pages) on hand because Greg had read it. Although he had recommended it to me I didn’t feel compelled to read it until I had finished The River.

I loved The Dog Stars also! The same excellent writing but different scenario. The main character Hig has survived a flu that has wiped out 99% of all humankind. He lives with his dog Jasper and an old crank survivalist named Bangley. They have figured out a system of living that seems to work for them – until Hig decides he needs to venture beyond their safe zone to see if others like them are out there.

Another page turner & I loved it.

Now need to find some more Peter Heller to read!!!

The Day That Went Missing: A Family’s Story

40 years later, the author documents his own inquest to how his 9 year old brother drowned, and how his family dealt with the death.

Haunting cover, haunting book.

40 years ago off the Cornwall coast while on a family holiday, two young brothers were swimming together. The boys were suddenly in over their heads, and the younger brother drowned. The Day That Went Missing (289 pages, 2018) was written by the surviving brother in an attempt to address what happened that fateful day and the way in which the family dealt with it.

As he reached middle age, Richard Beard realized he needed to confront his brother’s death and explore why he never allowed himself to grieve. For decades Nicky’s name was not mentioned in the family, which included his two parents and two other brothers as well as grandparents. Richard felt the mystery of the details of the day and his long-stifled emotions were negatively impacting his adult relationships. He decided he needed find out what exactly happened to his brother, and how his family reacted after the tragic death.

Beard embarks on his own “inquest” into Nicky’s death, interviewing surviving family members and digging into family memorabilia and history. He returns to the Cornish coast and tries to find the exact beach on which the drowning occurred. He visits the cottage the family had been staying in, and meets one of the rescuers who were dispatched that day when the call for help went out. He pores over any information he can find out about Nicky – his report cards, his letters home from boarding school -in an attempt to better know his brother.

Ultimately Beard uncovers much about his brother, his family and their dynamics, and what actually happened that day. The family’s immediate reaction to Nicky’s death is finally explored; learning of this reaction helps make sense of their decades-long avoidance of discussing Nicky.

The book is haunting and sad yet very well-written and satisfying. I read the Kindle version so unfortunately do not have to lend out!