Reviews

I’m Still Wondering

State of WonderState of Wonder by Ann Patchett was released in 2011, and since then it has steadily gained in popularity. It’s one of those books you see on the Target book shelf, so you know it’s a popular read. =) In it, Patchett tells a story of white coat scientists who find themselves in the Amazon experiencing science in ways they never thought they would. The science part is that they are in pharmaceuticals, trying to develop a drug that will allow women of any age and stage of life to become fertile again. The bark that a certain tribe eats in the Amazon is the basis of the miracle drug. The company that the main character, Marina Singh, works for sends her colleague, Anders Eckman, to the site of the bark’s growth and tribal use to track down the elusive and brilliant Dr. Annika Swenson. They then receive a letter informing them that Anders has died. Marina is nominated to find out what really happened to Anders and also to find Dr. Swenson and nail down a release date for the drug she has been working on for years. Marina’s journey from the frozen tundra of Michigan to the Amazon takes Marina (and the readers) to a world that is totally new. At least it was for me, as I’ve never been to the Amazon.

The beginning of this book was a little slow, and didn’t really pick up until Marina leaves Michigan. Then, it kind of stalls in the city where she first starts her search for Dr. Swenson. But when she finally gets to the location of the research, it becomes fascinating. The tribal people and the land they live in is understandably scary and new to Marina, but also strangely inviting. She finds herself coming out of the straight laced researcher and into a more adventurous woman. And she sees first hand what the work she does in a lab can do for, or to, real people.

The book raises the interesting question of what society would be like if women could decide at what point in their lives they want to bear children. Would women wait until their careers are completely fulfilled? Until they find the perfect partner in parenting? Until they feel mature enough themselves to parent children? If there were no bounds to fertility, when would women choose to have children? What would life be like for children if the majority of, parents started parenting in say, their 50s?

Though Marina seemed a bit of a watery character, I liked her alright. Dr. Swenson, on the other hand, was very complex. She was cold and had a wry sense of humor (maybe kind of like Dr. House on the TV show? Or Doc Martin for you Brits?) She emotionally disconnected herself from the women she was doctoring in the Amazon, had doctored in the States, and could affect through her drug development. She doesn’t seem to care much about anything. But by the end we see that her not caring actually hides a person who may care a great deal, but only about herself. Is she a villain or not? That’s the question I was left with.

Some readers were miffed by the scientific inaccuracies in the book. I am not and have never been in the medical field, so maybe that’s why it doesn’t bother me that a novel doesn’t read like Gray’s Anatomy.  I wasn’t reading it to learn how to properly perform a C-section, or to make sure of how long an Ob-gyn residency is. If I were reading a book that was based on my profession, maybe I would be a little bit more upset about inaccuracies. The ones in this book didn’t upset me that much, but there’s your fair warning: don’t read this novel as factual.

I liked most of the book. I didn’t like the ending. The actions of the characters at the end were very disappointing. I know it sounds immature and harsh and real reviewers don’t say this, but I found myself saying at one point in the last ten pages “well that was dumb.” But leave off the last ten to fifteen pages, and it’s an intriguing book. The proof of that is in the fact that I still find myself wondering about it.

Everyday Life, Parenting, Reading, Reviews

Camping With Kids

My family and I spent this past weekend camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We had a great time splashing in cold mountain streams, hiking on little trails near our campsite, taking long walks to the bath house, and sleeping on our sleeping bags side by side in our tent. I didn’t carry my camera with me much, but I did take lots of mental pictures that I hope to carry always: three tired heads sleeping on their pillows in the early dawn light; my son cuddled in a hammock with an uncle or aunt (my kids have lots of great uncles and aunts); the warmth of campfire reflecting on happy, tired faces; and my four-year-old, usually very girly daughter in her pink jeans, pink shoes, and pink shirt intently learning to swing a baseball bat. Turns out she’s pretty coordinated and is crazy about baseball now, thanks to some really thoughtful friends who brought a new toy for our children. My son kind of tries to hit the ball with a golf-like swing, but he’ll get it right someday. Or maybe he’ll just stick to golf.

Image
The kids and I enjoying the icy cold stream near our campsite.

We had a lot of fun even if we didn’t sit around the campfire relaxing nearly as much as we used to before we had children. I always take lots of books with me when I go to the mountains. I took three books with me on this trip, but I only read a quarter of one. But here’s what I did read quite a lot of before we left:

The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids: How to Plan Memorable Family Adventures and Connect Kids to Nature
The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids

Laugh if you will. I am the type of person who always find a book to read on whatever topic I feel unprepared for. Childbirth? Read at least five different books on it. Parenting? Still reading books, and I’ve lost count on how many I’ve read so far. Preparing for job interviews? Two books (they didn’t help much). Cooking for children? Three books. You see? I buy into the theory that knowledge is power. So, yes, I read a book on how to camp with kids. And it was fairly helpful. I probably would have thought of a lot of the tips without reading that book (for instance, keep your children away from open fires), but there were some helpful hints. One of the ideas was to take some monster truck toys with you so your children can make trails at the campsite or on hikes. That idea was genius. I will probably read The Guide again when my children are older and I can do more of the games and activities suggested in the book. It’s a great book if you’re like me, and need a book to prepare you for life’s major hurdles, such as camping with children in the mountains.

We also love the book We’re Going to the Mountains by Steve Kemp. My husband and I bought it on a trip to Ashevillle, NC when our daughter was just a baby. Both of our children love that it’s a poem with pictures. It’s so lyrical, it’s one of those books that’s easy to memorize after you’ve read it a few times. We recited bits of it several times throughout our trip. I like how it sets some expectations for small children of what people usually do when they go to the mountains. The illustrations are gorgeous, too. I’ve only seen it sold at Mast General Stores, or Amazon, but if you’re going to camp with children, I highly recommend getting a copy somehow.

And Goldilocks and the Three Bears is a fun one to read in the mountains. It kind of takes the fear out of the fact that there may be bears around. This is my favorite version of the story because it’s the one my family had when I was little. My parents now have it in their living room for the grandkids to read when they come over, and I still think that this version has the cutest Baby Bear ever. Jan Brett has done a version that is breathtaking visually, but may be a bit too wordy for very young readers/listeners.

So that’s what I learned about camping with children. What books and ideas have been your favorite when camping with kids? We had a great time and plan to go again, so bring on all the suggestions you can think of!

Reading, Reviews

June Reading

How’s your summer reading going? Just as promised, my list is already not really a list anymore. I read The Light Between Oceans and really enjoyed it. I wrote about it in this post. I started The Homecoming of Samuel Lake but I don’t think I’m going to keep reading it. It’s one of those Southern Lit books that has characters in it who make me want to wring their collective neck. Oh, the backwoods, stubborn men that are so often featured in Southern Literature. They just make me mad. And I don’t read books to get mad. Who needs another reason to get mad? So I’ll give it another few pages later on today but then it’s probably going back to the library. 

The Fault in Our StarsI didn’t have The Fault In Our Stars by John Green on my original summer reading list, but I picked it up because Barnes and Noble basically hit me over the head with posters and displays that told me it was the only book that absolutely had to be read this summer. And that all the cool people are reading it. I don’t aspire to be a cool person, but I’d like to stay “relevant.” (On a side note, I really don’t like the word “relevant.” It’s overused so much, it hardly has a real meaning anymore. Oh the irony.) I’ve got to say, for a book featuring so many sentences that start with “Kind of” and “It was, like, you know…” it was pretty, like, deep. It was a strange combination of “teenager” talk and impossibly hard questions and circumstances.

The book is about Hazel, who is living with cancer. Her diagnosis is and always has been terminal, but her treatments are working miraculously well and she just keeps on living. The life she’s living is more of a half-life, however, until she meets Augustus Waters. He is witty and gorgeous and the book becomes a story of young love with the “interesting” twist of cancer.

At this point in the review, you’re probably wondering, “Why would I put myself through reading this book?” That is a very valid question. I read the book, because, you know, relevancy. Really, I do feel a burden to read the books that are shaping the minds of my generation and the generations younger than me. I would like to think that I could have a conversation with a teenager and actually have something to talk about. But I’m not sure this book will help me with that.  Here’s what I learned: teenagers are inherently and unavoidably self-centered. I was no exception. In fact, considering how I behaved in my teenage years when my grandmother and dad had cancer, I was exceptionally self-centered, even by teenage standards. The teens in The Fault In Our Stars are not exceptions either, cancer or no. Yes, they feel sorry for themselves. Yes, they feel separate from healthy kids. Mostly, they are struggling with the fact that they are young and haven’t done anything worth doing yet and they are awash in wanting their lives to have some kind of meaning. You learn through the book that each character has some ideal that keeps him or her fighting for life on earth. They feel if they don’t attain their one important goal, their lives won’t mean anything. One character’s ideal is that everybody deserves true love. He fights on because he wants to experience that one true love. Another’s ideal is that everybody has got to die, but it should be for a worthy, heroic reason, and cancer just doesn’t cut it. And Hazel’s is that the universe deserves to be  noticed and she is on the planet to notice it. Yeah, that one is a bit vague. I think it has something to do with the human need to worship. So each main character is figuring out how to reconcile their lives with cancer to the ideas they have on why they should live.

It was a very thoughtful book, but also confusing. There are no absolutes. Most of the characters think there is Something (God) and that there is Somewhere they go after they die. Or maybe they just haunt the earth. They’re not really sure. That sort of uncertainty is depressing to me.

If you liked My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Piccoult, you’ll appreciate The Fault In Our Stars. I can’t deny that it is a fairly heart wrenching story that has some pretty funny parts. But heart wrenching cancer stories are just too much for me. I didn’t really give myself up to be emotionally involved with the story or liking or relating to the characters. That’s a reflection on me, not the characters. I haven’t had cancer, but it’s hit pretty close to home so far in my life, just as it has for many people. Cancer is our black plague, our cholera, or “consumption” (tuberculosis in the 1800s). No one is untouched by it, but it’s a hard topic to address. Still, I know many people think The Fault In Our Stars is the best book of the summer.

Next up on my list is The Wednesday Sisters. I’m about 30 pages in and so far, it seems pretty similar to The Help in theme and setting. I’m not saying it’s anywhere near as awesome as The Help. But I think there’s potential. I’ll let you know in a few days. =)

Happy Reading!

Reading, Reviews

A Glimpse Into Pain and Why It Matters

There are times when I feel I’m not fit to claim the label “intellectual” because I honestly want every book I read to end happily. Books that end tragically, that make me cry, they are often strangely beautiful and stirring, but I don’t go in for “tear jerkers” as a rule. I live a very happy life and I am so thankful for this moment in which I can honestly say that. But I know that books or movies that open a window into someone else’s life and pain also open windows in my heart to simply feel, whether its through my own story or someone else’s. We all can attest to the fact that days pass by and string into apathy if we let them, if we don’t actively seek out the joy existing inside or the pain that needs healing in the people around us.

HousekeepingThe truth is, I can easily become the person who will judge instead of try to understand. I first realized that about myself when I read Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. It’s the story of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, whose mother is gone and who are raised by various family members in a rather haphazard fashion. They finally end up with their Aunt Sylvie, who has a history of transience. I had to look up “transience,” but I learned through the book it basically means that she often chose to be homeless. The book was a hard read for me, a woman who was raised in a cheery and loving home and who is very much a homebody. How much I learned, though! I saw into the struggle of “housekeeping” in a person’s mind who is unsettled about so many things. I learned that when I see a homeless person in my city, it’s not a given that they are suffering from addictions or poverty, but that they could be suffering something much harder to define. Kindness of heart and of actions should not be so hard to muster for people I don’t understand, yet it’s true that’s easier now I have some understanding of a mindset totally foreign to me. Someone once told my husband “There’s plenty of work to be had if you want it. No one has to be homeless if they don’t want to.” I had no idea how he could say that until I read Housekeeping. On top of the amount of insight I gained, the novel is a classic in its stark beauty and detail. It was bleak, it was at times depressing, but it is an important book to me.

The Language of FlowersI found the same insights in the more recent The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. I wasn’t expecting to be so confronted with a person’s inner turmoil in a book about flowers. The book is centered on Victoria Jones, an orphan who has aged out of the foster care system and is thrust into the world utterly alone. Her past is all pain that she doesn’t want to confront, but the future demands it. The wording of each chapter and the acute descriptions of childhood pain and loss and the pangs that never seem to end afterwards completely engrossed me even when I wanted to stop reading. My heart was broken for children born to mothers with the capacity to love who haven’t the capacity to act on that love due to the wounds still unhealed on their hearts. I know I’m bordering on gushy metaphysical hodgepodge, but I’m not sure how to explain this book without telling too much. The Language of the Flowers is one of the many books and experiences that led me to reflect on the blessings I have and what I’m supposed to do with them. I can’t say I’ve gotten very far with that question, but it’s one that I’m still working on and that was brought to the forefront of my mind by this book.

The Light Between OceansAnd just today, I finished The Light Between Oceans. The premise of the book is that a couple, Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, who live on a lonely lighthouse island off the coast of Western Australia, are longing for the family they can’t seem to have when one day a baby blows up onto their shore. They keep her, and their decision that they think will bring healing only adds links in a long chain of devastation. That description sounds totally hopeless, but there is a hopeful tone in the book, just as you would expect in a story centered on a lighthouse. I was conflicted about who to relate to in this book the whole time I was reading it. Of course, I’d never sympathize with kidnappers. Never, ever. But can I try to understand a mind unhinged by pain? Well, I guess I can try. The hero of the book, Tom, certainly did. His ability to forgive is humbling. In the end, I can and can’t relate to everyone in this book. But I can say that the words of Plato (or Ian MacLaren? The jury is still out), “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle” came to mind many times as I read the book. I enjoyed this book more than the other two I’ve mentioned in this post. It was more adventurous and less focused on the psychology of the characters, though that did make up a good part of the book. Stedman’s characters go through hard times, and I found them to be often infuriating and always endearing.  She created a world on Janus Rock, the lighthouse post, that will be alive in my mind for a long time yet. I want to visit there, if it actually does exist. =)

There are some books that aren’t entirely “fun” to read but that grip you with ideas and the people the book creates and make you cry or laugh or just sit and contemplate “What if? What if that were me?” I want everyone to be happy (hang being intellectual!) and I would choose all books to end at least mostly happy, but there are some books who mix the bitter and the sweet to show the reality of what life is for some people. I wish that I had the courage or even the awareness to look people in the face and try to understand what life is like for them more often. These books I’ve mentioned are a few of the books that, though fiction, have pushed me into attempting to put myself in the shoes of people who seem wholly different from me. I could think of more, but I’d love to hear which books have done the same for you.

Reading, Reviews

If The Hunger Games Left Them Hungry

We were catching up over coffee at a bookstore when my friend from before the dawn of my clear memories pointed to a book display and said, “Have you read The Hunger Games?”

“No,” I responded.

“I’m buying it for you right now.”

I was pretty surprised. Growing up, I was the bookworm of the two of us, but here my friend was practically forcing a book on me. So I asked her, “When did you become such a reader?

“You mean such a nerd.”

“Okay, when did you become a nerd like me?”

And she told me she first started to love reading when she picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The Harry Potter books are her favorite and she also loves The Hunger Games.

So I read The Hunger Games. And then I read the two sequels because who can stop at the first book? And while the series ended on a gory and startling note that made me wonder what the point was for Katniss, I have to admit they were gripping, addictive books. The truth is, that’s what the majority of young readers are looking for in books. It’s got to be fun and enthralling to compete with all the other media available. And I can’t deny that I enjoy being so completely caught up in a book/series, as well.

But I also can’t deny that when I look at book display geared towards young adult girls, I cringe a little, because here’s what most of the books consist of : zombies, vampires, werewolves, witches and wizards, and all kind of “paranormal” characters. Aliens seem almost tame  in comparison. I’m pretty sure that fifteen years ago when I was a young teenager devouring books, that wasn’t the case. And I’m not saying that all these books are bad. But I can’t believe that a complete immersion into this “paranormal” literature is good for anyone, young or old.

However, I know how important it is for teenagers (and everybody) to be reading something. It may seem like a victory to pick any book over movies, magazines, or games. I can’t speak much towards the teenage boy audience, but if you have (or if you are) a teenager girl, here are some books that I think are just as fun but not as dark.

Princess of the Midnight Ball (Princess #1)Princess of Glass (Princess #2)Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George is a fun re-write of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and Princess of Glass was just as good.  I love reading fairy tales to my four-year-old daughter, but when you read them as an adult, you realize just how many plot holes there are. Last November I picked up a few novels that re-wrote some fairy tales, and thought they were so fun and inventive, even though they were based on stories from long ago. What’s especially nice about Jessica Day George is that her books are “safe” for girls who are ready to read longer books but aren’t ready for darker themes.  I think they’re fun for anyone who, like me, is a bit of a little girl at heart who loves fairy tales still. I haven’t read the third book in the series, but I hope to sometime when I’m in the mood for something light and simply fun.

Spindle's EndAlong the fairy tale retelling lines, Robin McKinley is my favorite fairy tale novelist. I read her book, Beauty, for the first time last winter and just loved it. Her more recent book, The Spindle’s End, is also a great yarn. The ending is a little crazy, but that’s how it goes with fantasy literature, I’ve discovered. But what’s even better than McKinley’s fairy tales are her novels The Blue Sword (Damar, #1)The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. The Blue Sword is one of my favorite books, as of last October. It begins with Harry Crewe, a girl who has moved far from her native England to live near her brother after her father’s death. She is tall and strong in spirit and body, but she doesn’t know just how set apart she is until she comes in contact with the Hillfolk. Their legends become her reality as she learns more than she ever thought she’d want to know about Damar and its people. The Hero and the Crown is the prequel to The Blue Sword, and tells how the Blue Sword became a symbol and a legend in itself.  I appreciated the strong heroines who were also genuine and noble. I read Graceling by Kristen Cashores and wasn’t all that impressed by the characters; though they were kind of  intriguing they were also rather one-dimensional. The sexual tensions in that book were a bit much for a good Young Adult book, too. But I think girls who enjoy the heroines like the one in Graceling will like The Blue Sword a lot. Unfortunately, it’s not available on Kindles, but most libraries have it. If you decide to read Robin McKinley, I don’t recommend Chalice.  I haven’t read Sunshine as it’s about vampires and I’m not into vampires, but if that’s your thing, you may enjoy it

ArenaArena by Karen Hancock came out in 2002 but the story line is very similar to that of The Hunger Games. The main character, Callie, signs up for what she thinks is a psychology experiment but turns out to be very real and very dangerous. With a few friends (or enemies?) and some cryptic words, Callie tries to figure her way through the Arena to survive and maybe even thrive.

Classic Fun

While the above books are fun, these are really the ones I loved as a girl that played a part in shaping my reading tastes and my worldviews. The plots aren’t as action-packed as the first books I listed, but the stories and characters are timeless.

Emily of New Moon (Emily of New Moon, #1)Emily of New Moon is an oft-ignored series by L. M. Montgomery, but some of my friends have told me that Emily is actually more easy to relate to than Anne in Anne of Green Gables. I will always love Anne the best, but I think the Emily books are wonderful, too. If you enjoyed the Anne of Green Gables series, you should definitely read Emily of New Moon.

A Girl of the LimberlostGene Stratton Porter’s Girl of the Limberlost is about a girl who lives in the swamp with her mother. Her mother is a blighted woman inside and can’t seem to remember how to love her bright, ambitious daughter, Elnora. Elnora fights to give herself an education and to become a lady despite her harsh setting, while her mother learns to let go of the past. The book has been made into films several times, most recently by Wonderworks in 1990, but this is definitely a case where a movie can’t do the book justice. If I recall correctly, the movie leaves out the entire second half of the book. I loved the movie when I was a little girl, and one day at a family friend’s house, I found the book on her bookshelf. She found me reading it a little while later and gave me her 1944 copy on the spot. It sits in a place of honor on my bookshelf now.

Jacob Have I LovedJacob Have I Loved is by the same author as Bridge to Terabithia, but it doesn’t end up on the required reading list nearly as much. It’s a powerful story about sisters and finding an identity you can live with. This book makes me want to live on the coast and learn how to dig for clams. But hey, I always want to live on the coast. =)

Every list for kids and teenagers includes The Chronicles of Narnia. And so does this one. They’re a must read for every reader. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

I hope you’re able to find some great books this summer that will engage your imagination and give you a love of reading all kinds of books.

Reading, Reviews

The Secret Keeper

The Secret KeeperI finished The Secret Keeper and now I would like to pick it up and read it again, cover to cover, in one sitting.  Kate Morton not only paints pictures with her words, she pulls you into the room with her characters and even pulls you into the characters themselves. At least that’s what happened to me while I read this book. There’s one scene in particular set in London during the blitz that I really do think made me feel the floor of the crumbling boarding house shake. You must read this book.  I think it’s Morton’s best work yet.

I’m not sure how to summarize the book; it’s so hard to give any details without giving this twisty plot away. The novel is set in England, mostly, and shifts between WWII, 1961, and 2011. There is also a brief chapter set in…well, I can’t tell you. Just like in The Forgotten GardenThe Secret Keeper begins with a daughter searching for answers about her family. Sixteen-year-old Laurel has a lovely family life, though she doesn’t always appreciate it, but when she’s on the brink of plunging into adulthood, she witnesses her mother commit a crime. The crime is completely out of characters and makes no sense to her. Laurel moves on with her life, but the past stays lodged in her mind until she finally decides to seek answers about her mother’s life.

I’m always a bit wary of the type of novel where the plot is unraveled by a present day character discovering the truth through digging up the past. The first book I read that used that format was The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. Written in 1951, it’s a great detective story, but not necessarily a great work of literature. However, Kate Morton is masterful with this format–she knows how to keep the plot moving and seamless enough to keep her readers engaged through the changes in characters, settings, and times. I thoroughly enjoyed how the story line describes each character more fully as the plot thickens so that by the end of the book, you feel as if you really know them (if you’ve read more than one of my posts, you know character development means a lot to me).

Of all the characters in this book, Laurel’s mother is my favorite, and is also now one of my favorite literary heroines. She is the kind of mother I want to be: she plays with her children imaginatively, creates a home for them full of beauty and harmony (to the extent possible in a five-child family), and has a loving relationship with her husband/Laurel’s father. She has an inner strength that inspires and comforts her children. The historical journey Laurel goes on to discover her mother’s roots calls her mother’s entire character into question. Laurel doesn’t know what to think or how to feel about who her mother really is. She asks the question, “Who was my mother before she became my mother?” That question still resonates in my mind. How do mothers stay true to themselves while giving of themselves? Is that possible or even important? The struggle to maintain my identity while becoming the best mother I can possibly be baffles me at times. I used to be athletic, studious, organized…well, all I can say is (1) I stay in shape as best I can, (2) please don’t look in my closets, and (3) I put sleep above studying anything most days.  But I want my children to know who I am beyond their  own personal servant and the prince at every pretend ball. Okay, sometimes I get to be the fairy godmother. But she’s not exactly someone I identify with either. =)

The theme of mother-daughter relationships is very central to Kate Morton’s work. I’d love to sit down with her and ask her why she writes about it so often and what she hopes her readers gain from the relationships in her books. If nothing else, The Secret Keeper (I keep wanting to type The Secret Garden), made me think through setting some clear goals about what my children need to know about me. Even if it seems they don’t care now, it seems like grown daughters crave an anchor in who their mother was at all stages of life, not just the mothering one. I have a way better foundation for that than Laurel did, but there are still questions I should probably ask my mom now that I never thought to ask when I was younger. Kids forget that moms and dads are real people, too. =)

So make haste to grab The Secret Keeper and read it for fun or for perspective on parenting and mother-daughter relationships. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

By the way, if you’re a fan of Kate Morton you may also enjoy The Thirteenth Tale by Dianne Setterfield. It’s a bit darker, but it’s similar in settings and style.

Happy summer reading!

Reading, Reviews

Bookish or Nookish?

Image from Lemuria Bookstore Blog

When the e-reader began to gain popularity, I was firmly staked in the “paper books are the only real books!” camp. As I wrote in a previous post, the crinkly pages of an old book are therapeutic to me, and the crispness of a freshly made book is delightful, as well. Just let me step foot in a used bookstore and I’m nearly transported to my own version of heaven. How could holding an electronic device compare? I was sure I voiced this deeply felt opinion to those closest to me. Didn’t I?

You can imagine my surprise when my husband presented me with a Nook on an ordinary summer day (not my birthday, or anniversary, just a dry summer day). Maybe he felt guilty that we were moving our family out of our house and temporarily into his parents’ house (which, by the way, was 25 minutes from the closest library and 45 minutes from a decent library) when our youngest was six weeks old. Or maybe (likely) he just loves me and thought I would enjoy an e-reader. I love books and his field is technology, so really, how could he resist? But here’s the thought that popped into my mind: “Holy cow, my husband doesn’t really know me.” Oh, but I was wrong.

I started figuring out the Nook. I downloaded my first book, which I think was either Book of A Thousand Days (enjoyable YA summer read) or The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (not at all my piece of cake).  And I had to admit, the ease of getting a book from the library’s downloadable website without loading up my 2-year-old and infant in the car and actually going to the library was a definite plus. I love going to the library and taking my children with me has been a regular outing of ours since they were infants, but there are days when you just know taking a baby to the library isn’t a good idea. You know, the squallish days. Also, I tend to read big books like Little Dorrit and Les Miserables, so it’s no small thing that holding an e-reader while nursing a baby is way easier than actually holding Dickens. No, not the man, the volume. Speaking of Dickens, the best part of an e-reader, the one that really sealed my fate as an e-reader owner, was that I could download A Tale of Two CitiesWives and  Daughters, or any number of classics from Project Gutenberg and always have them at my fingertips wherever I am. Plus, I can just look stuff up when I’m curious about it without ever actually putting the book down. Oh yes, I’m sold. I have the Kindle app on my iPhone and I use my Nook for about 30-40% of my reading.

Here are some books I’ve enjoyed on my Nook recently.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I don’t read very much French literature beyond Victor Hugo and (Gustave Flaubert in college), but I must say, The Elegance of the Hedgehog has made  me wonder what other French authors I’m missing out on. Muriel Barbery’s writing is stunning. Her characters are intriguing and likable if you keep reading past the prickly beginning. There are so many metaphors and images and symbols to ponder–it’s a rich book. It’s a bit short on the gripping plot side, so if that’s what you read for, this book may not be for you. Also, the parts narrated by the child character, while some of my favorite, were a bit of a stretch. It’s hard to write from a child’s perspective when you aren’t a child anymore and you aren’t writing for children. But if you love literature mixed with philosophy and beautiful wordsmithery, pick this book up. Or download it. Whatever.

Digging to AmericaDigging to America was my first Anne Tyler book. I have since read two others. It amazes me how her books can be so simple on the surface but ask so many deep questions. This one actually seemed to have a happier tone than the other two I’ve read. I have often thought about adoption and how I feel about it (mostly gung-ho), and this book is a searching comparison of two adopting families and the hard parts and good parts of international adoption. Even if adoption isn’t something you think about often, it is a great read, because, well, it’s Anne Tyler. I don’t see eye to eye with her when it comes to theology in some of her books, but I do enjoy her talent as a writer.

The Book ThiefAnd there’s The Book Thief. My husband read this one, as well, and we both were impressed with the unique narration and syntax. The words were just words, but they were arranged and chosen so carefully. This was the first in a long line of World War II novels set in Germany that I read in the last year. It set me on the trail of finding out what Germans endured during the war. Before this book, I’d read mostly French and English viewpoints. Also, I’d be interested to know what an atheist thinks about the narrator of the book, the Angel of Death. It was strange to me that the angel was the narrator but God was not often mentioned.

I still prefer paper books, but my husband proved he knows me better than I know myself when he gave me an e-reader. Words are words and I am truly an American word lover. If I can access them more easily and quickly on an e-reader, I’m going to do so. However, when I decide to buy a book, I pick the paper every time. =)

Reading, Reviews

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

When I see a book win a bunch of awards and garner lots of attention, I say, “hmm…I guess I’d better read that one.” Sometimes that works out great and I’m left thinking, “wow, they were right…that was a really awesome book.” But, if I’m honest, most of the time, it doesn’t work out great for me. After I read a new and critically acclaimed book, I’m usually glad I read it on an intellectual level, but something about the book doesn’t sit well with me. It’s like, in recent decades, critics only praise books that leave the reader feeling unsettled or disturbed. That’s what happened when I read Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize winner Empire Falls, and that’s what happened last night when I finished Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. I can tell it’s a brilliant novel, just like Empire Falls was, but judging it on a “would I recommend it to a friend” level, I’m not sure how I feel about it. Did I like it? Did I hate it? Would I have read it if I had really known what it was about? To try it describe it or give a brief summary that accurately portrays the novel as a whole is impossible (which is the mark of a masterpiece, I think). And, whether I actually like the book or not, it is a critically acclaimed, well-written, startlingly honest book. And I don’t mean startlingly honest in a be-as-crude-as-you-want, uncensored kind of way, but in the honest realizations the main character makes throughout that she is willing to stare in the face.

Tell the Wolves I'm HomeThe book is set in the late 1980s and is narrated by  June Elbus, a fourteen-year-old girl who considers herself totally average on every level, except for the fact that her best friend is her extraordinary Uncle Finn. He is her godfather, as well, and  the only person June thinks can see beyond her average persona and who cares enough to show her how to be extraordinary. Well that sounds innocent enough, but it’s quite problematic, mainly because Uncle Finn is diagnosed with AIDS. I’m in my twenties, so I don’t really remember anything about the panic and fear surrounding AIDS when it was first recognized. I watched a documentary about it in history class in college, but that’s about all I know. So that’s what I thought this book would be like: a more personal representation about what it was like to live with that fear and panic and all the unknowns except for that one, unavoidable fact: if you had AIDS, you were going to die. Of course, that is what the book is about on one level, but then again, it’s not. It’s about forbidden love in a time when almost everything is permissible, and about how one’s thoughts can shock oneself but that doesn’t make them go away,  and it’s about sisters who love each other fiercely but can’t seem to get back to where they were when they were each other’s best friends (note: I have sisters, and there were parts of this book that just made me want to bawl). I probably haven’t even scratched the surface of all the themes. The book is also heavy in imagery and symbolism and parts of it have a medieval feel, believe it or not, which is definitely intentional. So much of the fear the characters in the book have of the unknown AIDS seems medieval to me, almost thirty years later.

I have a new understanding of that era and the people involved, so on that level, I’m glad I read Tell the Wolves I’m Home. The disturbing parts were in the thoughts that Jane had about her uncle, and the descriptions of her uncle’s magnetism, and also in the absolute hopelessness of it all. Here’s an example from the middle of the book:

“It seemed like life was a sort of narrowing tunnel. Right when you were born, the tunnel was huge. You could be anything. Then, like, the absolute second after you were born, the tunnel narrowed down to about half the size. You were a boy, and already it was certain you wouldn’t be a mother and it was likely you wouldn’t become a manicurist or a kindergarten teacher. Then you started to grow up and everything you did closed the tunnel some more. You broke your arm climbing a tree and you ruled out being a baseball pitcher. You failed every math test you ever took and you canceled any hope of being a scientist. Like that. On and through the years until you were stuck. You’d become a baker or a librarian or a bartender. Or an accountant. And there you were. I figured that on the day you died, the tunnel would be so narrow, you’d have squeezed yourself in with so many choices, that you just got squashed.”

June’s hopelessness about the meaning of life and the purpose of everything and why she should even live is her defining trait, in my mind.  And, on a side note, I had a hard time believing a fourteen-year-old was thinking like that. Half the time I was reading, I felt like I was listening to a fourteen-year-old talk, but the other half, I was listening to a fifty-year-old, disillusioned soul. I’m not really sure when June is supposed to be narrating this…if she’s a fourteen-year-old narrator or if she’s looking back from a long time ahead…but I do know that there is no hope in this book. When it comes to a book about AIDS, I guess that shouldn’t surprise me. AIDS was bewildering, it was condemning, it was and is a huge stigma. This book challenged me to think through what I believe and how that fits with what began in the 1980s and what is still happening today. I think, if you let it, it will do the same for you.

And if you’re wondering what I believe, I’m not like June. She claimed there is not a God because AIDS was proof that God could not exist. But I do believe in God. I believe in God who “so loved the world.” I don’t have all the answers, but I have that much. So I guess that’s why Tell the Wolves I’m Home left me feeling so sad. It’s well written, it’s beautiful, and it is for sure thought provoking and challenging, but without a meaning or purpose for life, the story is incomplete. Many, many books are like that–I’m not at all saying every good book should point you to true significance in this world. But this particular book that was so centered on the question “what is the point of all this?” and “why is there all this suffering?” felt empty without an answer, any answer, for readers to contemplate and think on as they mull over the book. There was a hole in the heart of the book to me.

Maybe that’s just me? Maybe June did find an answer she could live with in your reading of the book? If you read it, I’d love to hear what you think.

Reading, Reviews

A Few Great Mid-century Midwestern Books

Most of the posts I’ve written so far have focused on recently released literature (well, at least released in the last five years).  While I like to read new releases and be one of the first to discover great books, most of the books I really love have been around for 50-100 years. Or more. Just that smell of old pages between hardback covers makes me smile deep down inside.  Last fall, I read two great books written in the mid-1900s and set in the mid-west: Heat Lightning by Helen Hull and Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker.

photo Heat Lightning follows the journey of Amy Norton, a 35-year-old wife and mother of two, as she travels from her home in New York to visit her family and hometown in the midwest.  She is basically having a mid-life crisis.  Her kids are old enough to be independent (during the book, they’re at summer camp) and her husband has been distant and is camping while she travels. At the beginning of the book, you meet the Westovers, Amy’s family, who live in the small town where Amy grew up. I felt like I knew them as soon as they were introduced. Helen Hull did character descriptions and development so well.  Forgive me for throwing Downton Abbey into this post that really has nothing to do with Downton Abbey, but if you’re a fan of that show, Madame Westover will remind you of Dowager Countess. She is the book’s best character. As the plot moves forward, the Westovers and their endearing characters and family relationships becoming the heart of the book.  However, a careful reader can see Amy’s spirit returning as she figures her past and present out at the same time.

Rachel of the Book Snob blog wrote that Heat Lightning “certainly should be a classic of ordinary American life.” Now, take into consideration that she is British. =) But I enjoy her book reviews and share some of her book tastes, which is why I decided I had to read Heat Lightning. The only publisher currently releasing it is Persephone, but I got mine used on Amazon.   There are several themes, all well developed, but all very subtle. You could miss them completely if you’re just reading the book for its plot, which is, frankly, not exactly gripping (and that’s fine by me).  One theme pointed out in the Persephone edition’s preface by Patricia McClelland Miller is “how can women flourish when they are expected to make most of the adjustments in situations which really require the efforts of both men and women?” I don’t know if I noticed that theme as much as I noticed the theme of reconciling your childhood home with the home you set out to make with your husband and children.  However, I can think back on the number of couples introduced throughout the book and the life transitions each couple was navigating, and I think I’d like to re-read the book and focus on how Hull presents the husband-wife relationship. All in all, the book is both realistic and favorable when presenting marriage relationships. It kind of reminded me of Ilyrian Spring by Ann Bridge.

The theme that permeates almost all midwestern literature is that of town versus country. The characters are firmly planted in the farmland or rural town where they are born, but dream of something that they think must be greater (the city). Or they’ve been to the city but realize it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and there’s a part of them that will never be at home unless they’re in the rural setting they came from. The town vs. country debate is a part of Heat Lightning, but it is more central to the plot in Winter Wheat. 

Winter WheatEllen Webb is a girl on the cusp of something totally new and great to her: college in a big city. That is, if the winter wheat crop is good. She has lived on a wheat farm in Montana her whole life with her East Coast father and Russian mother. Her parents met in World War II and they don’t seem to have much in common from Ellen’s perspective. Their relationship is the crux of the book. Ellen tries to reconcile her identity and the direction of her life through her parents’ relationship. She wants to discover that her parents truly love one another, but the more Ellen learns, the more discouraged she feels about love in general and the love that created her. Also, Ellen has a hard time figuring out where she really comes from. She longs to understand and appreciate her roots, but she only knows Montana. I enjoyed following Ellen’s perspective as it went through different seasons of being completely attached to detached to her home and her family. She loves them, she hates them, she wants to understand them, she wants to get away from them.  Along with the importance of figuring out where you’re really from,  the responsibility of a girl to make her own way in the world in the post-war culture is a very prominent idea. Mildred Walker gave Ellen Webb a strong voice and character. Even when Ellen is troubled and directionless, I just knew she would fight her way through to be strong and ready to reach for a life she wants to live. The tone of the book was kind of lonely, as there are so few characters that really play into the plot or have much dialogue. I’ve never been to Montana, but I think the loneliness of the story and the setting are key to the book’s themes.

I enjoyed both of these books, but I liked Heat Lightning the best out of the two. Hull’s thoughtful, tender writing is beautiful and I can’t wait to find another one of her books.

The Magic of Ordinary DaysAnd if you’re not into “older” books but think a novel set in the midwest in the 1930s or 40s sounds like just the kind of book you want to read, check out Ann Howard Creel’s The Magic of Ordinary Days. Written in 2001 and made into a Hallmark movie in 2005, I think it’s a beautiful book. It also explores themes like the loneliness and simplicity of mid-western farming and the importance of relationships that are built and tried by hardships and how they hold up or break down. I have already read it twice and will probably read it again someday.

Happy reading!

Reading, Reviews

Coastal Reads

I don’t travel a whole lot (much less than I would like), but when I do, I love to have a book with me that’s set in the place I am visiting.  When I was in London several years ago, I was reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.  The feel of stepping into a place that has been set in a famous book and has been there for over a hundred years is surreal.  More often, though, my reading happens when I’m not traveling, but firmly set at home.  That’s why I love a book that describes a place so well, I can imagine being there.  There are some places I am dying to go see because I’ve read books about them.  In the past few months, I’ve read a couple of books set on two coasts that are now calling my name.

The Violets of MarchThe first coastal call came from The Violets of March by Sarah Jio.  Set on Bainbridge Island in Washington’s Pugent Sound, it’s one of those books that sucks you right into the setting.  I enjoyed how Jio described the area so vividly without going on and on about it.  She has the rare gift of weaving the setting into the plot seamlessly.  How many times have you read a book and gotten sick of all the descriptions?  I wouldn’t worry about that if you’re thinking of reading this book.   The plot started out a little shaky:  a 30-something woman dealing with a washed up marriage is living in New York but is forced to go back to her roots.  Sweet Home Alabama, anyone?  Thankfully, the plot is much more exciting than the kind of book that deals only with past emotions.  Yes, there’s some emotional baggage the main character, Emily, is working through, but there’s also a mystery to unravel.   And I love a well written mystery. I’m of the opinion they’re pretty rare.  Sometimes the tone reminds me of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, though it’s not quite so dark.   I’d recommend The Violets of March to just about anyone.

 

The next coastal book I read brought me back home to the East Coast.  Moon Over Edisto by Beth Webb Hart is about a woman who Moon Over Edistolives in New York City, is about to get married, and has to return to her hometown, Edisto, to take care of her family in a crisis.  Wait…am I getting these two books confused?  Because, hello Sweet Home Alabama again.  No, they’re different books, but I’m now realizing the starting premises of these books are fairly similar. However, Moon Over Edisto doesn’t turn into a mystery to be solved, but a story of how to forgive and the freedom and healing forgiveness brings.   The setting is very intertwined with the plot, as two main characters are artists.  A lot of the scenery is built on the description of what artworks these two characters are creating.   I wish I owned the real paintings and not just descriptions of their art, because it sounds beautiful.  Though I’ve lived in South Carolina my whole life and visit the coast often, I’ve never been to Edisto.  I know, it’s sad.  After reading this book, I realize even more it’s a problem that must be remedied soon.

 

I can’t embrace travel literature–I need a good plot and intriguing characters to keep me reading–but I think mental travel is one of reading’s greatest qualities.  And even if you’re not looking for a book to take you to a new place, these two books are pretty good light reads apart from their settings.  I’d love to hear what you think if you decide to pick one up!