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!

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.

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!

For Something Completely Different, Try Friday Black

Interesting stories about institutionalized racism, racism as amusement, consumerism, genetic optimization, dystopian ground-hogs day and more.

Friday Black (2018, 192 pages), a collection of stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, was recommended by one of the staff at Words here in Maplewood. The Words guy teaches at Seton Hall Prep and was so moved by the stories that he uses two of them in his English class. I took the bait and bought the book!

I recommend this book of short stories.

The stories are amazing. I took my time reading them because there was so much to think about in each one. They are other-worldly – dystopia from the point of view of a young black man. For example the stories encompass:

  • A theme park in which the white customers pay to react to the threat they perceive when confronted by a young black man in their neighborhood.
  • How the consumption and purchase of goods and clothing has become a blood sport,
  • How black youth reach the limit and unite after a jury fails to convict a white man who slaughtered five black kids.

There is violence and gory imagery throughout the book, so if you can’t deal, this book might not be for you. I’m not crazy about blood and guts in general but they are essential to these stories, plus there is a sense of underlying humor. Although the topics and settings may be other-worldly, I really connected with the family relationships that are presented throughout the book.

I plan on re-visiting this book again soon. I think these stories are ones that will reveal more upon re-reading.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez Wasn’t On My Radar…

Quick review of The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

…Should It Be On Yours?

Last Sunday evening a friend who reads a ton and who happens to be a published author (i.e. knows much more than me) offered me her copy of The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018, 212 pages). At some points in my life I’m more in tune with the NY Times reviews, news of literary awards and lists of best-of books, but now is not one of those times. So I totally hadn’t heard of the book even though it won the National Book Award for fiction in November.

(No, Rocket is not in the book but he’s cute and I needed some more visual interest.)

I found it very compelling and gobbled it up fast. Set in NYC, the narrator is mourning a very dear friend’s death by suicide. While confronting her own sorrow she is then asked to care for the dog he left behind…a Great Dane that weighs 180 pounds and is also seriously distraught over his master’s demise. And her rent-stabilized building does not allow dogs….

The dog, Apollo (the only named character in the book), and the narrator slowly grow accustomed to each other and in so doing, they both begin to heal. (Dog Lovers please note that the book is not solely focused on the dog so if you’re in it just for him you may be disappointed in spots.)

The writing style can seem quirky. Written in 12 parts with some sections written almost in snippets, it seems at times like Stream of Consciousness ramblings. However there are generally points to the streams that support the story, make a point, or inject humor. They didn’t bug me that much. Plus the entire book is slim, so if you find it annoying it’s only for 212 pages.

There are also many, many literary references. The narrator teaches writing and is an author, and her deceased friend was similarly a writer and a teacher. O’Connor, Simenon, Flaubert, Woolf, Keats, Auden, Coetzee, Ackerley, Kafka, Patterson… these are just a few of the authors whose words, works or ideas or mentioned or discussed in more detail. I knew some of them but had to look many up!

As we near the end of the book, tension mounts over the health of the aging, arthritic Apollo. There is a surprise in store for the reader which I didn’t see coming at all. It gives cause to more carefully contemplate the book title. To which friend is Nunez referring?

I recommend it! Give it a whirl! (Mine is a borrowed copy so unfortunately cannot lend out!)

How to Begin to Enjoy Elena Ferrante without Reading My Brilliant Friend.

Get a taste of Elena Ferrante by reading The Lost Daughter.

Don’t let the cover freak you out.

If you tried to get into My Brilliant Friend but just couldn’t do it, I highly recommend trying The Lost Daughter. It’s like a small dose of Elena Ferrante that you can delve into without 1,681 pages of extra intricate characters, relationships, families, feuds, and nicknames. 

The Lost Daughter is 140 pages long. It pulled me right in so I’m reading it quickly. That’s right, I haven’t finished yet. But I will soon and it will keep me on track for 52 books this year.

You can borrow it when I’m done! Or get a copy at Words, where I found mine.

UPDATE: I finished it! You really get into the narrator’s mind as she wrestles with the struggles of motherhood and sense of self.