The list – Books for the Christmas List

I am a notorious last minute shopper.  In my childless days, I prided myself on getting all my Christmas shopping done in one day. And that day was Christmas Eve.  Now that I have children I am a bit more proactive but I still enjoy waiting until at least the latter half of December to get started.

imagesBooks are always my favorite gift to get (and maybe new Hunter boots *hint, hint to the husband*).  So, for my fellow procrastinators here is a bit of help for your holiday shopping lists.

  1. General Fiction:
    • “Fates and Furies” by Lauren Groff: The story is told from two sides of a marriage. It is about the versions of ourselves we show each other and the pieces we keep hidden.  It is extremely well written and one of my favorites of the year.
    • “The Lake House” by Kate Morton: Morton keeps doing what she does well,  a bit of a story of the past with the present trying to make sense of what has happened.  This book is fun and a lighter read than “Fates and Furies.”
    • “Everything I never Told You” by Celeste Ng: I reviewed this one before but it is worth restating that this is an amazing book.
    • “We are not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas: A heartbreaking story about Alzheimers but well worth the read…and the tears.
  2. Love story:
    • “A Desparate Fortune” by Susannah Kearsley – I love this author. I heard her speak earlier this year and she is funny, smart and very down to earth.  This book is not completely a love story – there is some mystery to it – but it has all of the elements of romance that Kearsley does so well and it is set in Wales. So what is not to love?
  3. Mystery
    • Start someone on the Louise Penny Detective Gamache series.  I can’t say enough about how great this series is.
    • “The Winter People” by Jennifer McMahon: This book scared me to death. The end was a little predictable but it is still was very fun.
    • “The Weight of Blood” by Laura McHugh: This was a page turner for me and the narrator, sixteen year old Lucy, was one of my favorite characters in my reading this year.
  4. Science Fiction
    • “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel: Another post-apoclyptic book but well done. The author does a great job of tying all the characters in the book together. Though as some have noted the end is a bit abrupt.
  5. Memoirs/Non-fiction
    • “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson:  This is tough read because it is so shocking. Stevenson is an attorney working on appeals for death row inmates. The stories of how easily African -American males can end up on death row is harrowing. But this book is an important read for everyone.
    • “Furiously Happy” by Jenny Lawson: This book is not for the easily offended but it is amazingly hilarious. Lawson talks about her struggles with mental illness and physical hurtles as well as the inevitable zombie apocalypse and the use of taxodomery in daily life.  I listened to this on audible.com and the author’s reading of this book made me cry I laughed so hard.

Alright my friends, good luck with your last minute shopping. I will likely see you out and about.

And have a Happy, Happy Christmas!

Unknown

December 20, 2015 at 10:22 am 2 comments

The Courage to Plant your Feet – “Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League” by Jonathan Odell

This author is just good.  He is a great storyteller and his writing is well suited for the story.  But his writing goes deeper than that – you can see in his writing that this author has a story all his own.  I really liked his book “The Healing” and was happy to come across this book at my favorite local book store The Book Loft (little plug for the independent bookstore).

516bMIYk55L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Don’t be fooled by the summary, this is a story you think you have read before, but it just isn’t.  Is the late 1940s and Hazel is a poor, white trash Southerner.  She is plain and stooped and doomed to be a farmer’s wife.  But convinced she is destined for more, Hazel teaches herself how to stand up straight, how to apply make-up, how to do her hair just so.  And so she becomes the desirable woman that Floyd is looking for when he walks into local Dairy Barn Diner.  Floyd sweeps Hazel off her feet.  They marry and move to Delta, Mississippi where, through the power of positive thinking, he is going to make all of their dreams come true.  By the 1950s, Hazel has two children, a house bigger than she ever dreamed, and a hole inside of her that she just can’t seem to fill.  And so, she drives around town and all over the countryside with her two boys in the back and a flask of whiskey in her lap.

By the time, Vida is hired as the housekeeper, Hazel has lost one son to an unfortunate jump off the porch and has been hospitalized multiple times for nervous breakdowns.  And while Hazel’s story is a sad one, it pales in comparison to Vida’s, which is not unlike the story of many Southern black women growing up in the 1940s and 50s.  She is a woman who was raped by the white sheriff, lost her son (who looked too much like the sheriff), and then lost her home.  Because of this, Vida has replaced her sense of self and her security (what little there was) with a quiet but deep-seeded rage.  It is an interesting parallel. While one woman, Hazel, is trying to fill a void that is slowing killing her, the other is trying to find an outlet for her rage that she is willing to let destroy her as long as she gets revenge.

The way Vida and Hazel’s lives intersect is not an unusual story, black housekeeper working for a sad rich, white lady, but their need for each other is what makes the story more interesting than others of its ilk.   The white woman doesn’t save the black woman here.  Or really vice versa. But they do help each other accomplish what they need to in order to fill those holes in themselves that were slowly and methodically destroying them.  That combination makes the story powerful and worthy of telling.

As in “The Healing,” Odell spends a lot of time with his female characters.  And, not even just for a male writer, he excels at it.  I recently heard Gillian Flyn (author of “Gone Girl”) speak and she said that sometimes when writing from the female prospective, male authors really push it. And then you are stuck with some ridiculous line like “and then I got my period” so you can feel like the male author really knows women.  But Odell does not need to rely on the triteness of this kind of writing, because quite frankly he is skilled – and that, perhaps sadly, is refreshing.

The topic is a tough one. Let’s be honest here, how much whining can a rich white woman do – particularly in the presence of such extreme racism in the 1950s South?  But somehow, because of the way Hazel pulls out of her slump to help the black women in her community, the reader can feel okay about Hazel’s hardships.  And as always, Odell’s afterward is key to the story.  We haven’t heard enough about women in the Civil Rights movement. Great numbers of women boycotted buses, suffered beatings and rapes and police dogs.  They linked arms and walked to demeaning jobs in white households, sometimes just to spy on their employers to forward the equality movement.  They have stories and those stories are important.  As Odell so insightfully points out, Mrs. Parks, on the day that she refused to move on that bus, “showed a million women where to plant their feet.”   And they did, time and time again.  I can only hope, when the time comes, we all have the courage to do the same.

As for Jonathan Odell, I just hope he keeps writing.

November 8, 2015 at 1:21 pm Leave a comment

Why is a Raven like a writing desk* – “Mrs. Poe” by Lynn Cullen

One of our favorite American writers gone wrong is Edgar Allan Poe.  His stories are haunting but maybe equally as
interesting is his bizarre marriage to his 13-year-old cousin and his death which is surrounded by urban legends of drunkenness, being found homeless in the street, etc.  “Mrs. Poe” is Cullen’s historical fiction novel about Poe’s affair with the little known poet Frances Osgood.  It all should be the formula for a pretty intriguing book.  But somehow Cullen is deftly able to skirt the intrigue and make this book a mundane and strangely redundant story.

mrs-poeIn 1845, Poe had become quite popular with his publishing of “The Raven.”  His wife, Virginia, was suffering from declining health as she and Poe made the rounds of the literary circles in New York City.  Like the Poes, Frances Osgood spent many evenings socializing in parlors with Whitman, Atwood and a whole other host of literary giants when she finally met Poe.  Frances and Poe seemed to have an immediate connection.  While Frances is married, her husband is a well-known philandering artist. She is lonely and destitute, hoping to publish some of her work.    She and Poe form a fast friendship which quickly grows into more.

There are clandestine meetings where gloves are left behind, whispers in crowded rooms, jealous spouses, gossiping neighbors.  And then there are more clandestine meetings, more rumors, love poems exchanged, societal gossip, some weird behavior by Poe’s wife, etc.  If you read the first one hundred pages of this book, you really can either read those pages again or read the second 200 pages because it is really all the same.  I hope I don’t ruin anything by sharing that they all do die at some point, so the cycle does end…eventually.

I am not trying to diminish  the research and work Cullen must have put into this book, but truly it is baffling how she has made her characters so predictably repetitive and mundane.  I have a young adolescent crush on Poe. He was one of the first writers I read that really scared me.  And the man himself has always been a bit of a puzzle.   But this book is just more of a curiosity then an insight into who Poe was.  I guess sometimes the riddle of the writer is best left alone.

*The unanswered riddle from “Alice in Wonderland”

October 21, 2015 at 12:44 pm 2 comments

America’s Favorite Pastime – “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach

UnknownI don’t enjoy watching baseball.  But I get the nostalgia of it. If you love baseball it is likely someone special took you to your first game and you sat shoulder to shoulder, squinting into the sun, just watching together. There was the smell of peanuts and popcorn, blue skies, the crack of the ball. It is a pastime that is greatly loved.  I have avoided this book because I just didn’t want to read a book about baseball, sorry to all the baseball fans.  But just like the movie “Field of Dreams” really isn’t about baseball, neither is this book.  I am just still trying to figure out what it really is about so pardon the fumbling here.

This is novel is set at fictitious Westish College, a small school on Lake Michigan.  Henry is a talented sophomore short stop, who is being scouted for the draft. He has been training with Mike, the Westish baseball team leader, to get better and bigger and faster.  Henry is graceful and agile and destined for baseball greatness. But then he throws that one ball that hits his friend Owen in the head.  And in a cloud of self-doubt and second guessing, he loses whatever baseball magic he had.

Every description of this novel, makes it sound like it is this bad throw that changes everyone’s lives. The school president, his daughter, Mike and Owen all are thrown in upheaval because of this one throw.  But to me it is not really the pivotal moment and I think that is a lazy way to talk about this book.

The novel, to me, is more about how we have certainty at points of our life and that is nice.  But really that is not how we find ourselves.  At times in our lives , we are sure we are in love or clear on our path to success or certain that our future is set. But when that all falls apart what do we do? That is the measure of greatness.  And every character in this novel, finds themselves at a crossroads and has to decide what next. So yes, there is the bad throw, but there is also the bad marriage, the crossing of boundaries that leads to bad decisions and consequences, the hiding of the truth which isolates. For each character they have their own bad throw that lands them somewhere dark and alone.

Harbach is a talented writer.  Sadly, parts of this novel dragged for me even with the brilliant writing.   What I find most intriguing about this novel, as I think about it, is that Harbach combined America’s favorite pastime, baseball with each character’s journey of self-absorbed doubt and introspection – the finding yourself that the talk shows all claim is so important.  I think with this combination Harbach is hitting on something else. Americans love these personal stories of finding ourselves through adversity.  In truth this is our other favorite American pastime.  Peanuts, cracker jacks and finding ourselves. It’s a home run every time.

October 12, 2015 at 12:50 pm 2 comments

Sometimes all you can do is just eat the cherry cobbler – “Redeployment” by Phil Klay

This collection of short stories is bitterly heartbreaking, comical, insightful, and some of the stories are simply amazing.  Phil Klay served in Iraq for 13 months as a Public Affairs Officer and his writing is beautiful.  Don’t get me wrong here, it is rough, harsh, and descriptive in a way that makes you wince, but it is beautiful.  Not to grandstand, but this is a book that everyone, particularly Americans, should read.

The stories begin with a marine returning home to his wife after a tour in Iraqi.  His long anticipated return is awkward and not exactly what he had been looking forward to:

“Getting back feels like your first breath after nearly drowning. Even if it hurts, it’s good.”

They had been thumbs_military_policemen_on_security_patrol_outside_tq_-_shooting dogs in Iraq for sport and the soldier returns to his beloved dog who is old and sick.  It is awful to think of shooting dogs, so this book was a rough start for me, but there is an important point Klay is making.  This is who the soldier becomes. The man, who has a dog that he loves and misses and cares for at home, can put that piece of himself or herself away and think of dogs as target practice.

And the stories take you through all these pieces of being a soldier – the mundane day to day tours, the house raids, the mind-numbing administrative positions, the frustratingly stupid foreign politics, etc.  Klay doesn’t miss the ridiculous either, the all Iraq needs is baseball or widow beekeepers to recover moments are in there and they are head-shakingly funny.   But most compelling for me is how we place these people in extraordinary situations, with guns and death and nightmares in the making, and then we expect them to be able to handle the “normal.”   Once you go through this experience a simple trip to the mall with crowds of people takes on a whole different meaning of awareness.

The story that really seemed to the best example of that expectation of normal  was early on in the book. After a raid on a Iraqi home, after cleaning off the blood of Iraqis and fellow soldiers, the men sit down in the mess hall to dinner with their choice of any kind of cobbler.  For one young kid this was the first time he had killed anyone and he just sits there staring.  The other guys get him cherry cobbler, it is supposed to be the best, and hand him a spoon.

It is the best illustration that there are these moments in life where all you can do is keep going, even if that means you are just committing to do a small everyday thing.  Because really, if you think about it, we were told we were fighting this war to hold onto the small everyday things that make our lives meaningful.  Even things as simple as cobbler.

“Maybe you didn’t understand American foreign policy or why we were at war. Maybe you never will. But it doesn’t matter. You held up your hand and said, “I’m willing to die for these worthless civilians.” 

August 30, 2015 at 9:21 am 3 comments

Disappointment can be so…well…disappointing – “Second Life” by S.J. Watson

I will start off by tipping my hat to S.J. Watson’s first book “Before I go to Sleep.”  It was a great suspense.  That makes this review all the more painful for me because I was very excited for Watson’s new book.  And I understand that sometimes that sophomore effort can be so hard, particularly when the first book was so successful.  But honestly, does this Unknownpoor author have no one in his life who, over a morning cup of coffee, would say to him “don’t publish this…no seriously it is bad. Cream in your coffee?”

Julia has a sorted past.  But like all heroines (not sure this is really the right word for her), she has come out stronger and a better person.  She is married to a lifelong friend. She has adopted her sister’s (Kate) son because Kate was unable to take care of him.  She is taking pictures again.  Julia has it together.  Until she receives a call that Kate has been murdered in a dark Parisian alley.  Then things start to unravel for Julia.

In an attempt to piece together who murdered her sister, Julia begins logging into a dating website Kate used for casual hook-ups. Not a couple days into her research, Julia meets someone online.  They begin talking, and one thing leads to another and Julia’s shunning her perfect life for hotel hook-ups.  But what about Kate’s murder and solving the mystery you say? Well sure she is doing that kind of too, but mostly she is hooking up with one guy she met online.  And poor Julia, she wants to stop but she can’t. Did I mention she is a recovering addict?  So, what is a girl to do really? Like all books with this type of storyline, there is always the tension that the husband will find out, that the son will hate her, that her whole life will crash but of course she having such a great time.  Life is no picnic when your sister is murdered and you start having an affair.

The themes and twists and turns in this book have been written before – hundreds of times.  The predictability of the story is painful at best and maddening at worst.  And Julia is so terribly unlikeable. She makes so many stupid decisions that you really are kind of relieved when there are consequences – it just seems fair.

Maybe Watson was on a tight deadline and just had to churn something out. Maybe he had some personal problem that affected his writing so severely that this is where he ended up. Or maybe, and I don’t like this one but still, “Before I go to Sleep” was it for him and it is all downhill from here.  But regardless, he has his work cut-out for him in the writing of  his third  book.

Oh, and, Mr. Watson, perhaps the next book could not end in a silly cliff-hanger. Please. Cream in your coffee?

August 9, 2015 at 9:49 pm 6 comments

The best find of the Summer – “Bittersweet” by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

18339743I am going to go far out on a limb, dangerously so, and say this is by far my favorite summer read.  I bought this book because I happened to read the description and it took place in Vermont. I was headed to Vermont for vacation so it seemed like a good match.

Mabel is the stereotypical nerd – frumpy, uncomfortable in her skin, insecure (you get the picture).  Her first semester in college she finds herself rooming with Genevra (Ev) Winslow.  Ev comes from a long line of the rich, the beautiful, the moneyed.  In short, she is everything Mabel is not.  Oddly, after months of Ev’s disdain, the girls bond and Ev invites Mabel to come summer at her family’s compound in Vermont.  Eager to avoid returning home, Mabel agrees and off they go to the beautiful, idyllic Lake Champlain and the Winslow’s blue blood summer estate “Winloch.”

Winloch has one main dining hall where all the different branches of the family gather to eat.  Otherwise, the property has cottages for the various Winslows to stay in. They are named after the local vegetation “Queen Anne’s Lace,” Goldenrod”, etc.  Ev and Mabel are placed in “Bittersweet” which is to be a part of Ev’s inheritance.  There is swimming, picnics, plays, tennis (of course), boating and other manner of blue blood summer sports. It is everything Mabel never knew she wanted. Of course, nothing is that perfect.  Mabel runs into Ev’s eccentric Aunt Indo who insinuates that there are family secrets to be discovered and assigns Mabel a research project.  This leads her to discover some ugly truths about the Winslow family and about her friendship with Ev.

This book is highly predicable, so I am not claiming it is original.  But the setting and the characters make it fun. And even though Mabel is drab and a bit stereotypical you can’t help but want her to succeed.  So I guess I am saying this book is a blast, with the caveat that it is not going to amaze you with its new ideas or inventive storyline.  Sometimes, this is just the kind of book you need to read.  That and really who doesn’t wish for an invitation to a place like Winloch?

 

Other summer reads that have been fun but not as good as this one:

  • “Natchez Burning” by Greg Iles
  • “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” by Fanny Flagg (yes, even if you saw the movie you should read it)
  • “Silver Bay” by Jojo Moyes (not as good as her other books but a fun, light read) 

August 1, 2015 at 3:52 pm Leave a comment

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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