Reads in Review / 2018

Welcome to Reads in Review, the yearly blog post from someone who loves to read but manages to actually read very few books. Nevertheless, I will share my three favorites with you. I know! You’re welcome!

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Educated by Tara Westover. My “couldn’t put it down” book of the year. I smiled, I cried, I shook my head in disbelief multiple times. I read a non-fiction book like this with a doubting mind – surely, SURELY, this can’t all be true – so I’m trusting Random House’s fact checker on this. But still? It’s unbelievable. Tara was raised in a large family in the mountains of Idaho, without a birth certificate or a formal education, spending her days helping her herbalist midwife mother and preparing for the Days of Abomination. The stories of her childhood are heartwarming, heartbreaking, and violent, and as so many sides of this story surface, you are continually surprised and increasingly afraid for her. Finally, she decides to follow in the footsteps of one older brother and educate herself enough to take the ACT and apply to college, a move dismissed by her father as “whoring after man’s knowledge and not God’s.” What follows is a journey away from home and back again, so many times, until she realizes she has to make a choice.

All my father’s stories were about our mountain, our valley, our jagged little patch of Idaho. He never told me what do to if I left the mountain, if I crossed oceans and continents and found myself in strange terrain, where I could no longer search the horizon for the Princess. He never told me how I’d know when it was time to come home.

Prologue, Educated

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. Not long ago, I saw a comment on social media about people who call out racism and privilege, and how to react if it happens to you. The gist? Be thankful. You have been viewed as someone who will do better when they know better, someone who didn’t intend the hurt caused by words or actions. This is how I read Oluo’s entire book. She takes the time she certainly doesn’t owe us, and she calls out, explains, and she’s not shy about telling us what’s at risk if we don’t listen. She probably wondered why, in 2018, she’d need to cover some of these topics at all, but she does so with that hope – that expectation – that we WILL do better. This isn’t just a book about how to call out racism and privilege, though it is about that; it’s about how to look at ourselves, our history, our privilege, our society, our government, and our fellow humans in a critical, change-focused way. It’s absolutely worth a read.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Hello, 1984. I’m sorry it took me so long to read this beautiful little book you gave us. I loved that each chapter, be it one paragraph or four pages, was its own story, and it fit seamlessly into the thread running from beginning to end. It’s what I imagine to be a perfect example of novella-in-flash. This is the way Cisneros intended it, as she says in the preface: “…people who are busy working for a living deserve beautiful little stories, because they don’t have much time and are often tired. She has in mind a book that can be opened at any page and will still make sense to the reader…”

The imagery and sense of culture is so vivid, and the small things come to life in her words. A character’s laughter is “not the shy ice cream bells’ giggle of Rachel and Lucy’s family, but all of a sudden and surprised like a pile of dishes breaking,” and another sees “that wide puffy cloud that looks like your face when you wake up after falling asleep with all your clothes on.” At 110 pages, it’s a fast read and I loved it.

“Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.”

“Marin,” The House on Mango Street

I will try not to regret time spent on predictable thrillers or a promising, character-driven story that ended in with a flash mob in a mall, of all things? (Why?) And apparently the eternal struggle to make reading a priority and not a luxury shall continue into 2019. What was your most worth-it read of the year?

Reads in Review / 2017

I am almost never the person reading the latest book. I am often the person buying, reserving, admiring, and Goodreadsing the newest book, but I am almost never reading it. Six, eighteen months later? I’m reading it. So the books I read in 2017 were a good mix of old and new. I read some so-so books and one I wish I hadn’t, but for the most part it was a good year. My top five for 2017 are:

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. I do like a book where seemingly different storylines, seemingly unattached people, somehow connect. The paths of the Richardson family, of Mia Warren and her daugher Pearl, and of the McColloughs and their newly adopted child all intersect in messy and heartbreaking ways. As usual, I had trouble jumping right into a story, but after two orthodontist-waiting-room reading sessions, I was hooked and stayed that way throughout.

Hunger by Roxane Gay. My only novel-length non-fiction read of the year. I wrote about it here and while it wasn’t an easy read, I do felt like it had a lasting impact on me. The chapters were of varying lengths, their order non-linear; something about the way it was all organized did make it easier to push through, small pieces, brief glimpses at a time. It’s a luxury that the author allows us that was not allowed her. I finished the book grateful for her honesty.

The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord. This is a YA book and the second book I read by this author. Lord is funny and honest on Twitter, and her novel The Start of Me and You was believable and witty. This book was heavier, as the main character Lucy struggles with her mother’s recurring cancer and how that shakes the foundation of her life: her faith. As her mother gets sick again, she is faced with questions for God and wrestles with how the seemingly unshakeable faith of her parents fits into it all. Some of the scenes at camp seemed cliché, but I never went so summer camp so what do I know? The questioning of faith in the face of pain, the realization that life is fragile and parents are real people, the discovery of community at just the right time – those are explored realistically by Lord and I ate it up.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty. Alice loses consciousness at the gym and wakes up with no memory of the last ten years of her life. Her happy marriage has dissolved, she doesn’t really know or understand her children, and can’t figure out what’s up with her sister. I read this on recommendation from a friend, who said it left her thinking long after. At first, it seemed like a lighter novel but as I watched Alice piece everything back together, I did start to think: Would 29-year old me recognize the life that 39-year old me is living? What if I could peek at 49-year old me . . . would I know that person and her motivations, her interests, her relationships? The answer is probably no on many accounts, as it was with Alice. Life moves so quickly (like sand through the hourglass, eh?) and it’s hard to see the long-term effects of little decisions when you make them; it made this book a really interesting one.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. This is not a book I’d usually pick up, but it was one that kept appearing – on friends’ bookshelves, in bookish articles and posts, in calls to “please make it a movie!” on the internet, and – with its alluring cover – on the shelves at Target. The premise seemed interesting enough, so I decided to go for it even though magical realism isn’t necessarily my bag. I was immediately pulled into the story, knowing how it was supposed to end and eager to see how they’d avoid the inevitable. The characters were colorful and fascinating – and many – and the twists and turns and descriptions felt like I was very much in the maze of attractions and tents at the night circus. I’m not sure I loved the ending, but maybe it’s because it came too soon.

I’m picking from my large stock of unread books to cultivate a to-read list for 2018 – it’s anyone’s guess how many of them will end up on next year’s list. I’m hoping to tackle The Miniaturist, The Hate You Give, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, and a few short story collections. Catch ya on the flip!


Reading Response: Hunger

Roxane Gay says that writing Hunger was the most difficult thing she’s ever done. I was absolutely floored by what this must have taken – this willingness to share herself and her journey with us. She is vulnerable, and honest, and real. This book brought me to tears time after time; I was sad for her, glad for her, scared for her, heartbroken for her, empowered by her, encouraged by her.

When Roxane Gay was 12 years old, she endured life-altering violent trauma. That is her story to tell, and she does. What came after was a battle with herself and the outside world, an attempt to insulate and protect herself from future hurt. While that came in the form of overeating and disordered eating, it has also manifested itself in every relationship she’s had. But I didn’t walk away from this book with pity for Roxane – though her struggle has been unimaginable; I closed the book and felt. . .hopeful. For her, for myself, for anyone who might read her book and open their eyes a bit wider.

In her story, you may see a part of someone you know. Maybe yourself. Her experiences won’t be identical to ours, of course, but her challenges, her experiences, her struggles are shared with such a raw, blunt honesty that I will never forget them.

I always wonder what healing really looks like–in body, in spirit. I’m attracted to the idea that the mind, the soul, can heal as neatly as bones. That if they are properly set for a given period of time, they will regain their original strength. Healing is not that simple. It never is.


Reads in Review / 2016

Right now, we need the escape and the lessons that all kinds of stories can give us – and we really, really need the creative souls writing them. Here are my five favorite books from 2016! (Wow, that was a very Academy Awards presenter-y intro.)

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt :: My favorite of the year. June is 14 when her beloved uncle dies and it’s only after his death that she begins to piece together his life. Along for the journey is Toby, her uncle’s longtime partner whose existence is a surprise to June. The two travel their grief together and the story is sad, happy, uncomfortable, upsetting, and hopeful. June’s coming-of-age, a secondary story line, was also sweet and real. This book made me cry but I was never sorry about it.

Unequal Affections by Lara S. Ormiston :: This book takes the reader back into the world of Pride & Prejudice to ask, “What if Elizabeth had accepted Darcy’s first proposal?” It’s fan fiction in its highest form; Ormiston is faithful to the characters, the language, and the general Austenishness of the original and I really enjoyed it.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett :: Seventeen-year old Nadia has just lost her mother and, within the first few chapters, becomes pregnant. The story that follows is often hard to read – heartbreak on so many levels – but the writing is so good. I was completely absorbed. It also has a beautiful cover – and I am a sucker for a beautiful cover.

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild :: Life isn’t going well for Annie when she picks up an old painting at a second-hand shop. She soon starts to realize that the painting itself is more historically significant – and valuable – than she could have imagined. An unexpected point-of-view comes from the painting itself and its journey through time and ownership, which I was skeptical of at first. But I thought it worked. Rothschild has an admirable and intimidatingly thorough knowledge of art history, which lead to me skimming some parts, but the story continually brought me back.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld :: Oh look, another Pride & Prejudice reboot. I like P&P, okay? This book was fun and I think Sittenfeld did a great job modernizing the characters. For example, the Bennet girls are still all rather spoiled and privileged, in a modern way, but only two have the kind of redeeming value that makes you root for them. I mean, of course there’s also Mary. She’s fine. I wish her the best.

Please note how I optimistically titled this post with the year, supposing I will do this again twelve months from now. Time will tell, I guess. Now go read something!

Reading Response: Tell the Wolves I’m Home

The first tttwihime I saw this book, I was in Target. I grocery shop for six people and sometimes I like to reward myself for that by sneaking a book into my cart. Not every time, but sometimes.

This cover? How could I not pick it up? It’s beautiful. Then I read the blurb on the back and I hesitated. Picking books is a process for me, and I wasn’t sure it was was ideal (emotionally-speaking) at the time. Fourteen-year old June has just lost her uncle, the person who understands her most in the world, to AIDS. It’s 1987 and her family is making every attempt not to discuss the disease and what it means; that includes the man outside the funeral home who is not allowed to attend. I put the book back on the shelf.

I kept thinking about it, though. I looked at it again a few weeks later; a few weeks after that I bought it. It went to live with its unread friends on the top of my bookshelf until I read Elizabeth Naranjo’s Reading Challenge update, where she called it her favorite novel of the challenge so far. The next day I picked up and and began to read.

The book is Carol Rifka Brunt’s debut novel. I mention that now because you won’t believe it after reading the book. The writing is so beautiful. I was completely absorbed–well, as absorbed as a mother with four children home for the summer can possibly be. The subject matter is heavy. The overarching story line isn’t happy, but there is happiness to be found within it. June struggles with the loss of her uncle, the relationship with her sister, and the realization that her parents have secrets, too. There is redemption and revelation and I thought it was perfectly presented from the vantage point of a fourteen-year old girl. I used to be one, so I feel qualified to say that.

There are some definite moments of discomfort for the reader, mostly the result of the sometimes awkward friendship forged by June and Toby. None of the characters are perfect, but for the most part, you can see their motivations. I felt like I understood June so well. She is on the cusp of something–growing up–and is struggling. She’s got a foot in both worlds, not feeling she belongs in either one. There is scene where she goes into the woods to play like she used to, but she finds she can’t anymore. I remember this feeling; I see my daughters feeling this.

I tried to pretend I was in the Middle Ages, but it didn’t work. Not the way it used to. Every time I got close, I’d think of something Toby said. Or a Trivial Pursuit question. Or a snatch of a lyric from a South Pacific song. It was like my brain had actually changed. Like some part of it, my favorite part, had died off.

Although the author didn’t intend the novel to be June’s coming-of-age story, it can’t help but be. It’s more than that, though. It’s the story of a friendship–one that’s built from grief and loneliness but becomes beautiful and heartbreaking. It was a tough story told amazingly well by Brunt, and I’m so glad I read it.

Reading Response: Eligible

eligibleThe last month of school is not a good reading season for me. Life pulls me in more directions, mentally and physically, than usual. Reading is hard. Movies are sometimes easier. I stared two different books in May but couldn’t continue, due to no fault on the book’s part. They are still on my TBR pile. It wasn’t them, it was me.

But then, the glorious day came. School was out! We celebrated with friends, we went out to eat, we visited the park. . .and five days later I hesitantly cracked a book. I don’t like being a book quitter. I wanted it to stick this time. The book was Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld, and it stuck.

I love Pride & Prejudice. I like the book, I like the miniseries, I like the movie. I was pretty sure I’d like this version, provided the modernized plot wasn’t too overdone or convoluted, and I was really happy with how Curtis handled the story. All of the major players are present: the Bennets, the Lucases, Bingley, Darcy (still bearing the name Fitzwilliam, bless him), and Caroline. George Wickham is there, too, in an interesting way; he was split into two different characters, Jasper Wick and Ham Ryan (get it? get it?) and fulfilled most of his Wickhamish duties in this retelling, in a different way.

Elizabeth is a 38-year old writer living in New York City when her father has a heart attack. She and Jane, a yoga teacher also in NYC, fly back to their hometown of Cincinnati to tend to their father, their basketcase mother, and their three spoiled sisters. Well, to be fair, all of the Bennet girls have been spoiled to some extent, but Jane and Lizzy have at least learned how to be decent people in the wake of it. Lizzy is imperfect but likeable. At a party at the Lucases’, they meet Fitzwilliam Darcy (just call him Darcy) and his friend Chip Bingley, both doctor acquaintances of Dr. Lucas. And things progress much as you’d expect, but in a new way. Curtis’ writing is fun and light and she tells the story well. It’s a long book, but many of the chapters are short, which I liked a lot.

And there are some twists. Lydia’s scandalous marriage is not scandalous in the same way as Austen wrote it, and the family’s reactions get a little sketchy and nerve-wracking at times. Bingley is the former star of a Bachelor-type dating show called Eligible, and is kinda still finding himself. He seems a bit wishy-washy, but isn’t he in Austen’s version as well? Darcy and Liz’s relationship follows a similar track but feels new.

I’d definitely recommend Eligible to Austen fans and those who have never read the original. I thought it was entertaining and well-written. And it got me out of my Reading Slump! Look out, TBR pile. I’m back.

Reading Response: The Love that Split the World

Two things pro51hdo1g8aSL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_mpted me to pick up Emily Henry’s The Love that Split the World. First, I heard that Lionsgate had picked up the film rights. Yes, I know that not every book optioned for film is a good book, but it piqued my curiosity, okay? Secondly, that cover. I don’t judge books by their cover, but I will pick up a book because of a beautiful one.

Once I was finished, I tweeted that I’d only stopped reading to sleep and switch my laundry around. That wasn’t entirely true; I also fixed food for myself and my offspring. Aside from that nonsense, I was reading. It was definitely hard to put down. The mystery begins to build immediately, and along the way you suspect things and then they’re wrong, then you suspect things and you might be right–but wait! What about that thing that happened a few chapters ago? How will that work out? Et cetera.

It’s hard to talk too much about the plot without giving things away, and this book is probably best read knowing very little. Natalie is visited for years by a “spirit” she calls Grandmother. Grandmother tells Natalie story after story: Native American folklore and Bible stories, and encourages Natalie to remember them. One night, as Natalie is preparing to graduate from high school, Grandmother visits again and tells her, “Three months to save him, Natalie.” Grandmother stresses the importance of the stories, but Nat doesn’t know who to save, or how, or even why, and she’s not sure she’ll ever see Grandmother again. Immediately after, she meets Beau, a student at her high school–or is he?–and she starts to see “wrong things”; the places she’s known all her life seem to have more than one version.

As the explanation for what was happening started to unfold, I’ll admit it was hard at times to keep up. I don’t read books with magical/fantastical elements to them very often, so that might be why these parts slowed me down. They didn’t affect how I felt about the story, though. I was left guessing until the conclusion, although I had a lot of feelings about how it all would shake out. In the end, his book lived up to its intriguing cover, and I’ll definitely keep an eye out for Emily’s next book.

Crying at the Movies

The movie based on Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You has been getting a lot of press lately. I read the book and loved it as much as you can love a book like that. Which is to say: I was crying but not mad I read it. It was a page turner and I recommend it to friends with a big fat asterisk. That said, I’m undecided about the movie. Will I see it? Will I hate myself for it?

I’ve also been horrified by the Facebook comments I’ve seen from acquaintances who obviously have not read the book: “This movie looks so cute!” “Check this out, I can’t wait to see this!” I’m not the kind of person to condescendingly insist you read a book before you see the movie, but please lordy read the book first. Good? Yep. Cute? Not entirely.

Getting a bit less traction (at least in my neck of the Internet) is the movie made from the book Light Between Oceans. How did I not know this was happening? This was a stellar book which I was thankful a friend lent to me–and I was not a bit angry at her when it made me cry. The movie looks equally moving, but very good! The trailer is here.

Will I be in the theater when these movies hit? Oh, probably. I’ll call my sister or a friend who has read the book, and we’ll skip the mascara and be there, purses shoved full of Kleenex.


Reading Response: The Life Intended

I knew athelifeintendedbout a quarter of the way through The Life Intended by Kristin Harmel that it was going to make me cry. But I was too far in to turn back. The central character, Kate, begins to have vivid dreams of her husband Patrick and their life together–a life that never happened because Patrick died twelve years earlier. Kate is naturally troubled by the dreams but finds comfort in them, compared to a reality where she still feels unsettled. Most surprising, though, is the appearance of a daughter, Hannah, who doesn’t exist in the real world.

If you read the reviews on Goodreads, you’ll see many saying that what would usually be an end-of-book reveal becomes obvious early on, and I’d agree. But I felt invested enough to continue, and wanted to know how it would all play out. Not everyone would feel that way, though, and that will be a major factor in whether I recommend this book. It’s entirely possible that the author meant it this way, that it was planned for us to suspect how things would end, and just stay along for the ride. It’s maybe not how I would have preferred to find out, but it didn’t ruin the book for me.

I liked the characters and enjoyed the subplots of Kate’s career (music therapy), how the appearance of a hard-of-hearing character launched her into learning ASL, and how she began to merge the two. It really just scratched the surface, of course, but I thought it was different and interesting.  I loved Kate’s relationship with Patrick’s mother, Joan; it was well done and realistic. There were some fantastical elements but for me, they didn’t distract from the story.

Did I cry? Maybe a little. Am I sorry I read it? Not at all.




“Too many unread books at home,” I sing-song to myself, even as I pull the paperback from the store shelf. “Don’t do it,” I plead, as the book makes its slow-motion arc into my shopping basket. “I don’t need this,” I think, as the cashier runs the back cover over the price scanner. And then, at last, it’s mine.

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