Friday, April 21, 2017
What's Been Worth Reading Lately (+ What Hasn't)
When I stopped reading mostly just from recommended reading lists and started reading whatever the heck I wanted, I was able to go a miraculously long time without hitting a bunch of duds in a row. Sure, I hit a few books I could have done without (The Signature of All Things, anyone?), but overall, I've been rather surprised at how long it took me to really hit a rough patch with my reading.
But I've finally done it---while the book I just finished this morning was STELLAR, there have been sooooooo many lackluster reads lately that I'm seriously tempted to go back to reading off of recommended book lists for awhile, just to have a better chance of being wowed by a book.
So, rather than do this book list as I have some in the past (with the titles broken down by what you, dear reader, might be in the mood for), I have decided to model this post after The Lady Okie blog, who does hers by ranking (with books that netted 5 stars starting out the post and then going down from there).
Although I generally like doing my book posts more the other way, I've seriously read so many disappointing novels lately that I just couldn't in good faith recommend many of them, so that's why you're getting this more unusual format for now.
But here goes---let's start with the great stuff first! (Oh, and if you want more in-depth thoughts about each of these titles, I've written reviews for them all over on my Goodreads account.)
The fact that I loved this one as much as I did might have had as much to do with timing as it did with the book itself---I read this memoir about Donald Miller's realization that to live an unforgettable life, he must be willing to go through unforgettable things (which often meant discomfort) in the hospital while anxiously waiting to hear the fate of my father-in-law, who was in the ICU for a long, long time. While the writing in this was nothing spectacular, there WERE some pretty spectacular insights in here about learning to see your life through a new lens, and I found this to be both motivating and even a little bit life-changing (which is not something I say much).
I was really surprised by how much I loved this one because on the surface, it sounds nothing like the kind of book I would normally end up adoring. For starters, it definitely has kind of a romantic "Wild West" feel threaded throughout, and if you know me at all, you will know that I am most certainly NOT a fan of Westerns. But the writing in this was so stunning and the feel of this reminded me so sharply of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (which I also loved) that I was thoroughly won over by the end. In summary, this is a book about two siblings who are caught in a difficult situation when their brother, who is wanted for murder, ends up disappearing on a horse, totally eluding local authorities. While the story is pretty good in and of itself, the real winner in this is the feeling of childhood perfectly encapsulated into prose, as well as the bonds of familial love and the unquestioning presence of miracles all around us.
My sister gave me this after I learned of my miscarriage, and I'm so glad she did---this slim volume gives an in-depth spiritual look into the loss of unborn children (through miscarriage) and stillborn infants, basing itself in the scriptures and on modern-day revelations. While written from an LDS perspective, I would think that any Christian woman who had gone through such a loss would find enormous comfort in this, which bases a lot of its doctrinal support in the Bible.
Although I liked this one pretty much from the get-go, the funny thing was that I was thinking as I read through it that it would probably be a 4-star read. That was, of course, before I read the ending, which I found so beautiful and so perfect for the story that I thought it deserved the extra star. This touching story about the friendship between an 11-year-old boy assigned by his Scout troop to help out a 104-year-old woman living alone is charming, but at the same time not at all what I expected (which turned out to be a delightful thing). Other than some rare instances of strong language in this, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book to just about anyone.
This is the kind of book where the writing style will absolutely drive you bonkers or make you fall in love with it, and since I've always been a sucker for unusual writing techniques, I liked this one from the beginning. This follows the story of the brilliant Blue Van Meer, a high school senior who has moved all over the place due to the eccentricities of her professor father, and who is now going to attend just one high school for the duration of her senior year. Used to being largely ignored, she is surprised when she is almost immediately invited into an exclusive group called the Bluebloods, although she doesn't, at first glance, seem to fit in at all. When one of her teachers ends up dead, Blue and some of the other Bluebloods seek to find out the truth, and along the way comes an ending that I absolutely did not predict in the slightest. The reviews on this one are all over the place, so be prepared to know that it's probably one that you'll love or hate. (Note: there is strong language whenever certain characters are present, as well as some minor scenes of a sexual nature.)
It's taking me an embarrassingly long time to read through The Lunar Chronicles series (of which this was the third installment), but that isn't because I haven't enjoyed them---it's because all of my holds at the library kept coming in at the same time! Anyway, while this YA series based on the merging of several fairy tales seemed super cheesy to me at first, I've been consistently delighted at the twists this series has taken, and I've found a lot of pleasure in reading something that's not meant to be brilliant or life-changing or serious---just pure entertainment. Sometimes as a reader, I really need that!
I've been a big Ruth Reichl fan since I read my very first book by her a few years back, and I found this early memoir based on her childhood experiences around cooking and eating and being in various kitchens to be especially fun. If you're a big foodie (especially if you feel a special fondness for cooking or baking at all) and haven't given Reichl a try, you're missing out.
What's almost as interesting as reading this true account of one reporter's mission to discover what happened to Chris McCandless, a recent college graduate who said he was going into the wilds of Alaska and never returned, is reading all the reviews on Goodreads about it. Whether or not you think McCandless was a fearless idealist who would stop at nothing to achieve a dream or a selfish boy from privilege who threw away everything important, one thing is for sure---this book will probably haunt you forever, as I'm pretty sure it will haunt me.
I don't often like to label a book as "important," but that was the first word that came to mind upon finishing this memoir that was written by one Harvard graduate about his childhood growing up in "Hillbilly America." While I didn't ENJOY reading this book a lot of the time (due to the strong presence of obscene language, violence, and terrible situations throughout), I felt like I came out of the reading of it at least more understanding of what people growing up in that kind of background are up against. I wished that I would have read this while I was still teaching because it made me feel like I understood some of those kids from some of the poorer, really rural areas a lot better, and I might have taken a different approach with them had I read this sooner. Although many people recommend this book because they say it explains the widespread support of Trump among certain populations of people, I thought it was important to read for many more reasons than just that.
I try to avoid giving half-star ratings, but I was too on the fence on this one to promote it to a solid four or demote it a mere 3, so at 3.5 it sits. Anthony Doerr is the author of the widely acclaimed All the Light We Cannot See (which I ADORED), and this small memoir is the story of the year he and his wife and their newborn twin sons spent in Rome, when Doerr was given a grant to go write (coincidentally, the book that would later become All the Light). While I'll always be a fan of Doerr's writing style, there were parts of this that dragged for me, especially when he got really sidetracked into some of the history of Rome and such. If you're expecting a well-paced memoir, this isn't it, but it's a fun journal-type read that still paints a vivid picture of Italy in all its beauty and history (with some delightful insight on new parenthood thrown in).
Because I'm such a big fan of Ruth Reichl (as mentioned above), that was the main reason I picked up this first work by M. F. K. Fisher (who Reichl writes about often in nearly all the books I've read by her so far). While Fisher's writing isn't as modern as Reichl's (because she was born 40 years before her), I still could clearly see Fisher's influence on Reichl and had fun reading through some Fisher's early experiences as a food writer and before. Since this was a collection of essays, it wasn't the kind of book I read through quickly, but I can still recall some of the experiences in the essays even now, months later.
I'm usually a huge fan of any books on running (especially memoirs), but this one fell a bit flat for me. Had it not been for a few polished pieces re-published in this about some of his more important races (that had been published previously in magazines and such), this would have gotten just two stars for me, probably. Although Murakami has been such a big runner for so many years and it's such a big part of his life, I didn't feel much of a passion at all coming from the memoir--it was almost like throughout, he was just reiterating, "Well, I guess I'll just keep this up as long as I can because I figure it's good for me. So there you have it."
Since this got its own post, I won't go into more detail here---I'll merely reiterate that though this was kind of fun for my geeky Potter self to dive back into the magical world of Hogwarts, I'll never consider it as part of the Harry Potter canon.
***Note on all of these titles: I definitely seem to be in the minority for these books. If you look on Goodreads, these books have high ratings by readers (especially the Ferrante), so take my reviews with a grain of salt, as it appears that almost everybody thought otherwise on these.
On the surface, this book sounded promising---the story of the trajectory of a regular marriage, without the added fanfare of unusual drama or tragedy or anything like that, mixed with bite-size philosophies on how love grows and changes and shifts throughout a relationship. So many people RAVED about this book, even going so far as to say that every couple should read this before getting married (and other such things). The fact for me was, while this book did have some useful comments on love and marriage, I found the book horrendously slow, and the mix of novel and philosophy to be a good idea in theory, but a terrible idea in practice. I also was SO ANGRY about the section of this book on adultery (and the accompanying thoughts on it in the "philosophy sections") that I almost didn't even finish this one, period. Overall, this was just slow, slow, slow, and perhaps because it didn't seem to speak much to how I personally have experienced marriage, this book didn't particularly speak to me.
This story begins in a school of sorts, where the children are each kept in their own individual cells and then wheeled in chairs to school every day, where their arms and legs are strapped in and they are unable to do much more than raise a finger. Not too far into the book, you find out what this "school" is all about, and the book's action quickly picks up from there.
Without giving away too much, this book had such a fast-paced plot and was a super original idea, but I personally had a hard time enjoying it due to the gross amount of gore and strong language and just flat-out violence throughout this. I will always prefer books not to use strong language, but there are a few times I can overlook it if I can at least see why the author made that choice. In this book, the profanity was so liberal and so unnecessary, it just made me think that the author didn't know enough other words to use in their place. I know some people really loved this one, but it was far too violent and bloody and disturbing for my taste.
I am so laughably in the minority on these books that I almost found myself second-guessing whether I had read the same book as everyone else, but I'm going to stand by my opinion, even if it is not one shared by most. This book is the second in Ferrante's Neopolitan series, which has become increasingly popular over the past several years. The series is based on the friendship of two women and follows them throughout the course of their life.
While I grant that the characters are definitely memorable and that the plot line, at times, is interesting and well-paced, I personally found almost all the characters in this book to be so absolutely unlikable that it made me not care what happened to any of them by the end. The "friendship" between the two girls is so fraught with constant tension and jealousies and one-upmanship that it hardly deserves the title of friendship, and there was so much adult content in this (violence towards women, strong language, rape, sexual scenes, abuse) that I found this book (and the one before it) to just be overall pretty depressing. Although I originally said last December that although I didn't love the first book, I planned to still finish the series (because the characters were so memorable), I think I might be calling it quits after this one.
Okay, now it's your turn! What have you been reading lately that's worth recommending (and what's not)? PLEEEEEEASE tell me what to read next so I can get out of this slump!