Posts tagged ‘Nonfiction’

Expectation is the mother of something – My year end book round-up thing

IMG_5512.jpgI read an unusually large amount of books this year (72 to be exact).  The only way I can really account for this large number is an entire Spring, Summer and Autumn of evenings on our new porch.  The space is peaceful – even with my children and dog tumbling through it.  I found that even when I have worked a long day I just needed reading time in that space. So I guess what I am saying is that I am the shallow person that needs pretty spaces while I read and if that happens then 72 books are totally within my grasp.  IMG_5515.jpg

In all of those piles of books I read this year there were great finds, disappointments and just plain ridiculousness that made me wonder how the author landed with any kind of book deal let alone was acclaimed by some list or carried some kind award winning stamp of approval.  Here is my list.

Favorite Books that made me think: 

  1.  Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and Birth of the FBI by David Grann – This book covers the history of the Osage tribe as well as their systematic murders by the white people in their community wanting their wealth.  It is a story that is shocking in and of itself, the fact that it is true is devastating.  This book made me realize how very little I know about Native American history even just in the last one hundred years but also how few books there are that cover that period of history.
  2. The Round House by Louise Edrich – I have not read anything by Edrich before and this book was beautiful, sad and compelling.  Edrich chronicles Native American life but perhaps most importantly reservation life.  The story is told through the eyes of a boy, Joe, who learns that his mother has been savagely attacked and raped.  After the crime, Joe watches his parents try to return to some normalcy while failing miserably.  Between the tribal justice system (which includes Joe’s father) and the white justice system (which does not seem to care), Joe decides that the only way he can find out who attacked his mother is by investigating the crime himself with his friends.   There are a lot of books about boys trying to solve something that has changed their lives but this book is something more.  It is a deep look at Native American culture, white culture has hindered any hope of a future and how even in the most vulnerable moments for our children parents will fail them.
  3. We Crossed the Bridge and it Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Perlman – Before we made any decisions about how to handle refugees from Syria we all should have read this book.  It is akin to where we tell a story about someone who sounds like you living through war and having to leave everything but then say but they are actually Syrian.  It is lawyers, scholars, mothers, students, it is you and I living through something harrowing and expecting the world to care.  But we didn’t.
  4. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – To me this was the best book I read this year. It is a three hundred year history of a family in Ghana that at one point splinters into tribal royalty and into slavery.  It is brilliantly written and, even though the characters change frequently, there is a connection from generation to generation that keeps the reader invested.  I absolutely loved it.

Favorite Suspense Books: 

  1.     The Dry by Jane Harper – I was hesitant to read this one because of all of the critical acclaim but Harper earned it. This is the story of Aaron Faulk coming home to a painful past in his Australian home town while wrestling with the appearance that his childhood friend has murdered his family and killed himself.
  2. The Good Daughter by Karen Slaughter – If you like suspense books you just should read Slaughter. Her books are just well done all the way around.
  3. The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg – I am new to Lackberg but her novels set in Fjallbacka, Sweden have that wonderful blend of likable characters that find themselves dealing with a murder in their small town and suspense. These character driven mystery novels have become my favorite blend in this genre.

Books that me wonder why they were considered so amazing:

  1. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead – This book was everywhere. Acclaimed, talked about, chased after.  But I really didn’t like it, didn’t find it enlightening and was really frustrated by it.  I sometimes wonder if books about such a tough topic that receive critical acclaim make it hard for readers to just be honest about how it resonated with them, instead of just nodding and saying “yes, so deep and insightful.”  Let’s just admit here and now that even the great Toni Morrison has a miss now and then and it is okay to not love everything that examines our nation’s painful past and current race relations. Just because it attempts to create a space for discourse does not render it quality or literature.
  2. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger – This book made some good points but completely lost me on some of the political points as well as completely frustrating me when tribe is used as an excuse to lose our sense of what makes a community healthy and meaningful.  We have to be smarter and better than that.
  3. The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman – I really hate to add this to the list but this book was disappointing for me.  It is meant to be prequel to Hoffman’s “Practical Magic” and that had such appeal and Reese Witherspoon loved it so there’s that. I felt a bit like these were a lot of short stories Hoffman has written that she then wove together to create a bigger story and then it became the prequel so it was marketable.

Nice Surprises that are wonderful reads:

  1. My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith – it is sunny and set in a gorgeous place, read it on a cold day when you are wishing to travel.
  2. Bruno Chief of Police by Martin Walker – it is a mystery but also such a great focus on Southern French culture and food that it was just too lovely to not enjoy. Read it when you have a good bottle of wine and cheese on hand.
  3. The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne – This is her first book and it was a compelling story of what life would be if you were born out of your mother’s captivity but still loved your father who had held her captive.  There is a level of writing here that really makes me curious to see what Dionne writes next. Read it when you want a good suspense novel with some excellent writing.
  4. Who Thought this was a Good Idea by Alyssa Mastromonaco – written by President Obama’s deputy chief of staff this book has so many funny moments but is also such a great reminder of how hard being a woman in politics is and makes you hope that the days of this type of integrity are not a thing of the past. Read it when politics are depressing you and you have a good drink in hand so you can really forget about our current woes.

Never ever pick up:   No matter who says otherwise I would beg you not to read books by Victora Aveyard (Red Queen series), B.A. Paris (I know they sound good in the descriptions but trust me), Shari Lapena (maybe the first one she wrote but otherwise no), or maybe anything else Paula Hawkins writes.

And so ends 2017. May your 2018 be filled with joy, happiness and lovely places to curl up with a good book.




December 30, 2017 at 6:34 pm Leave a comment

A little July 4th reading round-up

Maybe like me you are lucky enough to have  four days off for the July 4th holiday.   Which in my case has meant a party with lots of wonderful friends and family, some elder flower-lemonade with gin (highly recommend), and porch reading time.  Though admittedly, for this delicate flower it is a bit warm today so I am slumming in the air-conditioned house.
If you find yourself with a little reading time here is a list of some good reads that pair well with parades, fireworks and needing some alone time after all of that noise:

  1. “Since We Fell” by Dennis Lehane – This book has been on every “highly anticipated book” list I have seen so I bit and bought it.  It is a really fun suspense novel.  There is some predictability here but that really didn’t ruin the read for me.  Like many of his other books, I would not be surprised if this is already in line for a movie.  It is something that will hold your attention even while parade folks are throwing tootsie rolls at you.
  2. ” Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House” by Alyssa Mastromonaco – Alyssa was the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations in the Obama White House.  This book is also truly a blast.  Alyssa is funny and witty. Her stories about trying to find tampons in the White House, wearing jeans to meet the Queen, and a rather unfortunate IBS incident before meeting the Pope all made my life seem pretty organized and low in unfortunate moments (which is weird because I have plenty). What I also enjoyed was some of the insight into what goes into the day-to-day operations of being POTUS.  I listened to this on Audible and Alyssa reads the book so I think that made the experience even better.
  3. “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” by Sebastian Junger – Junger is an award winning journalist who spends time in this book looking at PTSD and how our lack of community is making our sense of reentry from crisis (be it war-torn areas or serving in the military) impossible to do in a psychological healthy way.  No, this is not a summer romp, but in a time where it just feels like our country is becoming more and more polarized I think our loss of community is really an important issue to start talking about.
  4. “Today Will be Different” by Maria Semple – This book made me laugh, a lot. The books starts with Eleanor proclaiming to herself that today she will do all the things she should – work-out, shower and get dressed, initiate sex with her husband, not swear, she will really get it together.  But then life, as it often does, seems to make even those simple things very, very complicated.    This is a light, fast read and honestly, has so many goofy, relatable moments.
  5. “Into the Water” by Paula Hawkins – Like “Girl on the Train,” Hawkins plays with our notion of truth and perception.  Women keep drowning in a river that runs through a small English town.  The question is why this keeps happening.  The story is told from several different prospectives which keeps it moving forward, though keeps the water just muddy enough (see what I did there) that you can’t really figure out where the story is going.  I find Hawkins to be a good story teller though her writing does belabor a bit.  Ultimately, the story makes it worthwhile.


Alright reading friends.  I wish you fun holiday times and lots of quiet reading moments as well.   I have the tough decision of what to read next from the book pile. I know, my life is so hard…and yes, there is a Philippa Gregory in the pile – don’t judge. 19720273_10154618164001367_284443779_o.jpg

July 3, 2017 at 6:15 pm Leave a comment

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 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!


December 20, 2015 at 11:22 am 2 comments

The gift that reading gives us – “The End of Your Life Book Club” by Will Schwalbe

The End of Your Life Book Club” by Will Schwalbe, Published in 2012

I cannot do justice to this beautiful book.  It was so amazing and profound that I find myself unable to really capture what made it so.  I will say if you love to read and you have experienced the wonderful connection reading gives us to the world around us and to each other you must read this book.

This is Will’s story about his mother.  In 2007, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  Her prognosis was not good.  She had a full life and Will shares a lot about his mother’s amazing work with refugee camps through-out the world as well as her end of life goal to build a library in Afghanistan. Though Will and his mother always read quite a bit, while sitting in chemotherapy one day they decide to start a book club, just the two of them.  What transpires is a beautiful series of discussions about the books they read, what the books make them feel and this leads to them sharing memories and stories about themselves.  As Will states what readers have in common is reading and so there is always something engaging to talk about.

Will’s writing is impeccable. There were things that he wrote that touched me very deeply:

” We walked together to the porch, and then Nico joined the crew so I could get a picture of Mom with all five of her grandchildren.  I’m not sure why I felt compelled at that moment to do it. I never take photographs.  Maybe I sensed that something was about to happen beyond the control of love, patience, or any of us, and this was my last chance to fix time.

But perhaps most profound for me was the connectedness that comes from reading with someone.  Even time Will spends with his mother silently reading next to her in a sterile medical waiting room enriches their relationship.  I have had a lot of those moments where I end up talking about books with people I don’t know or with people that I am extremely close to. Regardless of my relationship with the person the conversation about the book creates a connection that I may not have otherwise had. I had a beautiful friend who died from breast cancer 2 1/2 years ago.  We always talked about what we were reading and passed books back and forth. Even now, when I read something I know she would have liked I think of her. It makes me feel like she is still here. This book reminded me of that feeling.

The book was also a gentle reminder that really we are all in the end of your life book clubs. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  But between now and our last book, we have a lot to experience, people to love and, of course, a lot of reading to do.


Please check out these other reviews:

February 9, 2013 at 5:18 pm 8 comments

Everything always returns to the beginning – “Shanghai Girls” by Lisa See

Cover of "Shanghai Girls: A Novel"

Cover of Shanghai Girls: A Novel

“Shanghai Girls” by Lisa See, Published 2009

I read Lisa See’s  “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” earlier this year and I enjoyed it. But there is something about “Shanghai Girls” that resonates more for me and I really found it heart-wrenchingly beautiful.

The novel begins in 1937. May and Pearl are two sisters who are born to a fairly affluent family in Shanghai.  Very quickly into the book, May and Pearl find out that their father has gambled all of their wealth away and they must be sold as wives to an American-Chinese family.  As all of this is happening, the Japanese begin their brutal attack on China and the sisters find themselves fleeing the city.  What follows is a series of truly harrowing events that eventually land the sisters in an immigration camp outside of San Fransisco.  They have to reinvent themselves while at the same time trying to negotiate life in the U.S., a country that does not want them.  Throughout, the sisters remain together although they often cause each other a great deal of pain.

“We’re like long vines with entwined roots…We don’t necessarily share the same emotions or ways of looking at the world but i can love her just as she is. My resentments are gone – at least until the next time she hurts my feelings or I do something that irritates or frustrates her so much that she pulls away from me.”

Lisa See tries to accomplish a lot in this book. She takes the reader through the cruel attack on China by the Japanese* during WWII, the U.S. and its severe oppression of the Chinese, the immigrant’s experience in a new country, and the “Red Scare” with its ludicrous but irreparably harmful effects.  And See does a good job using this historical backdrop for the characters. But I think See is at her best as a writer when she is writing about women and their relationships.  The sisters in this book are jealous of each other, irritate each other, and are convinced that they are making more sacrifices than the other – they are all of those things that only sisters can be. But the sisters also walk broken carrying the other to safety, they laugh together, they share life-altering secrets, they are proud of the other’s greatest moments, and in the end they  dearly  love even the most broken parts of  each other.

Siblings know us from the beginning – they know our past, our present and are, whether we like or not, a driving force in our futures.  They make us crazy, they make us cry, they can hurt us like no one else can but ultimately they are the roots that keep us tethered. It is an amazing relationship that nothing can replace and this novel captures it perfectly.

*For more on Japan’s occupation of China I would suggest reading “The Rape of Nanking” by Iris Chang

For other reviews on “Shanghai Girls” check out:

Book Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See 

Book Review: Shanghai Girls 

Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

November 20, 2011 at 10:55 pm Leave a comment

Me and Hemingway go way back – “A Moveable Feast”

A Moveable Feast

Image via Wikipedia

A Moveable Feastby Ernest Hemingway, Published in 1964

I am going to admit here and now that I have always struggled with Hemingway. I know, I know this is like admitting that you are illiterate and ignorant and possibly crazy all at the same time.  If I could explain this problem of mine I feel like it would be the first step to recovering but alas, I don’t know what my problem is.  Summary: Hemingway is dry, he writes without nuance and yet with his straight forward style sometimes he spends a lot of time dancing around the point.  But I have continued to try because I have always thought that I am going to one day just wake up and get Hemingway. “A Moveable Feast” finally worked its magic.

As everyone knows this is Hemingway’s memoirs about his years in Paris in the 1920s.  What I love about these memoirs most is what they made me do.  Because of his descriptions of sitting in cafes and just writing, I started taking a lunch, once a week, out of the office, alone.  Hemingway’s reflective lifestyle (at least during this part of his life) made me want to stop a bit and just have a little time to just be – no toddler, no clients, no guilt.  And that is how I read this book, over a sandwich and a coffee for thirty minutes at a time. It was a great experience.  It was also fun to get Hemingway’s take on Hadley (his first wife). Though she makes a limited appearance, after reading “The Paris Wife” it was interesting to get his prospective. It was also amazing to hear about Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein.  Hemingway throughout seems dutifully unimpressed and yet, less arrogant than I had supposed. And as always happens to me, this book made me wish I lived in Paris. But that, my friends, is a whole other problem.

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” – Ernest 

October 23, 2011 at 9:31 pm 7 comments

Carnies are scary after all – The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, Published 2004

Administration building under construction

So in 1893 Chicago hosted the World’s Fair – I start with this fact because I am not sure I actually knew this before I read this book.  I also didn’t know I even cared about this, until I read this book.  Now, I find that I not only care but I want to know more and that is why this book is so good.

Larson details two parallel worlds, the building and eventual success of one of Chicago’s amazing achievements and the story of Dr. H.H. Holmes who used the city of Chicago, both the beautiful fair and the seedier side of the city,  to lure in and kill anywhere from 9 to 200 people. Larson does an amazing job of taking on the task of explaining the feat of building the fixtures and infrastructure of the fair buildings, sights and midway, while at the same time keeping it interesting and poignant for the reader. Shredded Wheat was first introduced at the Chicago fair (though predicted to fail as very gross food and I still agree), along with belly dancing, the first kodak camera, and juicy fruit gum.  The fair also may have inspired a little boy named Walt Disney and writer L. Frank Baum.  It also likely influenced Frank Lloyd Wright who had just started his own private architecture business.  It started what we now know as the midway, which no fair or carnival is without.  Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley lived and performed at the fair.  The fair’s architecture changed the way our cities were built. The story of the fair and the main architect, Burnham, is one of death, fire, inspiration, invention, illness and catastrophe – it is incredible.

At the same time in history, Dr. H.H. Holmes began his killing spree in Chicago, constructing his own building with a hotel, a pharmacy, apartments, oh and a crematorium for the bodies.  Larson details Holmes as best as he can but this is a difficult task.  History can only clearly chronicle the death of nine of Holmes’ victims. But there seem to be a lot of missing persons in Holmes’ life so whether it was just the nine (which includes at least four children) is hard to say.  I was surprised to find that I didn’t like this story line as much as the story line about the fair itself.  I think I wanted more explanation for Holmes’ actions which is not provided and really, how can you explain such amazing cruelty. But regardless, Holmes serves as a great reminder of how dark we can become while at the same time accomplishing the unthinkable – both good and bad.

What I found the most amazing in this tale was how connected the country seemed and how important it was to the country that the fair be successful. As the author stated “the juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck [him] as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambitions.”  But more than that, this book seems to show that we were a country of ingenuity and committment that I am just not sure still exists.  I don’t know that we are driven by simple pride in what we do, as much as we are now driven by the end result.  Even Holmes seemed to take an unnerving pride in the set-up before the kill, it is a thoroughness that is unparalleled.   I guess in this time of political grandstanding, scheming and corporate scandals maybe it just seems like we would build a cheaper version of the fair, which is really just a carnival with shoddy rides and drunken clowns.

But regardless of my depressing reflection on our country’s current state, this book is a great view of what our country can do.  And that in and of itself makes it worth reading.

(For more photographs of the fair check out this website:

July 31, 2011 at 2:20 pm 1 comment


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