September 2017 Reads

September is one of the busiest months of my year. It didn’t seem to slow down my reading, though. I listened to Dan Harris interview Gretchen Rubin on his podcast 10% Happier (September 13) where he commented in passing that he meditates for 2 hours a day. Not all at once, of course. He laughed and mentioned the saying, “If you don’t have time to meditate for 20 minutes, then you need to meditate for an hour.” I’ve never been one to meditate – I think I lasted no more than 30 seconds the few times I’ve tried it. However, books, I believe, serve me as meditation serves him.

Parnassus on Wheels | Christopher Morley This book was a hoot. The plot was fast paced with great twists and turns. If you’re tired of the daily grind and want to escape, it’s the perfect remedy. Written in 1917 shortly before the 19th Amendment was passed allowing women to vote, it’s a charming tale of a woman who drops everything to buy a traveling bookstore and the adventures that follow. If you love books, this one is not to miss.

A Gentleman in Moscow | Amor Towles This was the MMD book club selection for September 2016 and the 2017 One Book One Lincoln selection. A gentleman is sentenced to life in a luxury hotel – if he steps outside, he will be shot. Early in the book someone asks him about his plight and he says it is a question of whether one resigns or reconciles himself to his fate. He chose the latter, and the tale of interesting things that happened over the years makes for a very engaging read.

Jude the Obscure | Thomas Hardy One of the hosts of the Close Reads podcast was debating what to read while on a vacation in Aruba and chose this book, so I decided to read it as well. I feared it would be a slog but found it to be quite otherwise. It is rather depressing, filled with cycle after cycle of painful hesitation and bad choices. Yet I know people who have made poor choices and then tried to make better choices and only caused themselves more grief just like the characters in this book. For me, it was a gripping tale of woe. Ironically, the Close Reads podcast host hated it so much he quit before finishing it. I found that rather amusing.

Crossing to Safety | Wallace Stegner This was the MMD book club selection for September 2017. At the book discussion, Anne said she had two groups of people emailing her about the book – those who hated the characters and didn’t understand why she thought it was such a great book and those who loved it and were utterly distressed at seeing others bash it in the book club forum. For me, this book brought out all the feelings. It is the story of the friendship between two couples where one has money and the other seemingly has nothing to offer but somehow the friendship works and stands the test of time. Those who hated the book thought that one of the wives was terribly overbearing toward her husband; however, in light of Gretchen Rubin’s latest book, The Four Tendencies, I thought he was an Obliger who saw in his wife great ideas that he wouldn’t otherwise follow through on, though he occasionally lapsed into Obliger rebellion, writing poems when he was supposed to be writing things to publish that would help him get tenure.

The Four Tendencies | Gretchen Rubin I loved Gretchen’s book Better Than Before on habits where she first presented the idea of the four tendencies so I pre-ordered this months ago and have been anxiously awaiting its arrival. Gretchen defines two types of expectations – outer and inner – and categorizes people by how they respond to each. Upholders do well with both, Rebels hate both, Questioners follow inner expectations but struggle with outer, and Obligers follow outer expectations but struggle with inner. She describes not only the pros and cons of each type but how they interact with each other as well. Gretchen mentioned on her blog that her publisher had her remove many of the anecdotes and how difficult that was for her; in my opinion, the book had good information but felt stripped down and read more like an encyclopedia due to overzealous editing. Still a good read well worth your time.

Out of the Dust | Karen Hesse This won the 1998 Newberry medal which is awarded to children’s literature. It was okay. The story is set in the dust bowl years of the Depression and is written in freestyle poetry. I read so much history and classic literature that I often struggle with historical fiction and modern children’s books. Historical fiction imposes todays notions on the people of yesterday, and today’s children’s books seem simple and almost mind-numbing at times. If my kids find this book and want to read it, I won’t object, but it’s not one I will seek out and recommend.

Still Alice | Lisa Genova This novel tells the story of a woman with early onset Alzheimers. It’s told in third person but is limited to the point of view of Alice, a Harvard professor and mother of three children, who notices the symptoms in herself, wonders what they are and then learns her diagnosis without telling anyone in her family. The book follows her life as she tells her family, lives with the disease, steps back from her job, and then no longer knows her children. It is heartbreaking and so very well done. My grandmother and both of her parents died of Alzheimers (though not early onset) so I may be dealing with this myself at some point, either with a parent or myself. This is a must-read if you know anyone affected by Alzheimers. I listened to the audio version which was excellent.

Reading People | Anne Bogel Yes – that’s Anne Bogel of the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog and book club and the What Should I Read Next podcast of which I so often speak. Reading People is a survey of various personality theories from introvert/extravert to MTBI to enneagram. If you’ve heard of these things but aren’t sure if you really want to take the time to delve deeper (that would be the whole enneagram thing for me), Anne has gives a friendly, chatty overview of what they are and her experience with them. I’m still not sure if I want to read a book about the enneagram, but I think I have figured out my type, and I will say her description of what it’s like to learn your enneagram type was right on (it’s not fun but can be really helpful). If nothing else, I now have a better idea of what people are talking about when these things are referred to in conversation.

The Asshole Survival Guide | Robert I. Sutton Another new release this month, this book was so worth the wait. The a-word in the title may turn you off, but while the term is used throughout the book, that’s as far as it goes (aka it’s not the Howard Stern show when it comes to language). While focusing mainly on the workplace, Sutton has chapters on the various options when it comes to dealing with that person who drives you crazy – from leaving to reframing to dishing it right back to them – and the possible outcomes of each strategy. I checked this out from the library but may end up purchasing it as the advice is excellent and I have a feeling I’ll be returning to it again and again.

Father Elijah | Michael D. O’Brien This book was a Modern Mrs. Darcy book club community pick, and another book in the same series, Strangers and Sojourners, is the January 2018 selection for the Well Read Mom. It is a thriller and apocalyptic novel that follows the pattern of Elijah and King Ahab in the Bible with Elijah being a Catholic priest sent as a representative from the papacy to the Ahab of the story – a charismatic leader trying to unite Europe and bring in a new age. It felt like an average movie – little depth, mostly plot, lots of twists. It was okay. I hope I like Strangers and Sojourners better, but I won’t hold my breath.

Emma | Jane Austen I listened to the audio version of this read by one of my favorite narrators – Juliet Stevenson. But even Juliet Stevenson couldn’t make me like this Jane Austen novel as much as I like Pride and Prejudice. It’s classic Jane Austen with lots of matchmaking, but Pride and Prejudice pits pride against prejudice whereas Emma is just a one woman trying – and perpetually failing – to set up successful matches between her friends. Even Sense and Sensibility was better than this, though it took a solid second place to Pride and Prejudice which I’ve read more than once and will most certainly read again.

Gilead | Marilynne Robinson This book has long been on my must-read-someday list; I finally got the push I needed when the Close Reads podcast did a series on it and the Well Read Mom selected it for September 2017. Reverend Ames is growing old and writes a letter with anecdotes and advice for his young son (born late in age) who will likely grow up without him. He tells family stories as well as the story of a fellow parson in town whose son is currently in town and spending a lot of time at the Ames home. Like Housekeeping the story builds slowly and it isn’t until you get to the last 20 pages that it all begins to fit together. I listened to the audio version narrated by Tim Jerome – I would literally sit outside on our deck and just listen as though I were listening to an old man reminisce about his life. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I have every intention of reading Home and Lila by Robinson as well. Soon.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s | Truman Capote It reminded me of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, and perhaps even Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. Told from the perspective of a neighbor, the novella focuses on Holly, a young woman trying to live a glamorous life during the World War II era. I listened to the audio version all in one day which made for a delightful rabbit trail at the end of the month. I liked it well enough that I intend to watch the movie when I get a chance.

The Professor’s House | Willa Cather This is a very character-driven story about a professor in his fifties who upgrades to a new house but continues to rent the old just so he can finish writing his book in his old story, or so he says. His two daughters are grown and married but still live in town and are close to his wife while he quietly fades from the family scene. A very moving portrait of a man in the later chapters of life. I read O Pioneers! and My Antonia several years ago, but I loved Cather even more when I read Shadows on a Rock more recently. This book took my love of Cather to a whole new level. I’ll be re-reading O Pioneers! next month as it is the October 2018 selection for the Well Read Mom – it will be interesting to see if my opinion of it changes.

Now for school related selections:

Tree of Freedom | Rebecca Caudill This was our first read aloud for the new school year. Set around the time of the American Revolution, the Venable family travels from North Caroline to Kentucky to start a new life. But life isn’t necessarily easier – there are Indians, a man called Frohawk who claims rights to their land, and the unknown future of the colonies as they struggle against British rule. A great portrait of life on the frontier when the frontier was still in the woods and hadn’t reached the prairie yet.

And books I’m pre-reading for Ambleside Year 9.

The Colonial Experience | Clarence B. Carson This is one of the history options for Year 9 – a choice would need to be made between this and Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People. Carson is far more theoretical. For instance, he defines mercantilism over several pages and then lists general examples of it during the 18th century whereas Johnson spends most of his time telling engaging stories and then adeptly ties them together into a related thread. One one hand, Carson is more abstract than Johnson; on the other hand, Johnson occasionally throws in offhand comments in passing based on assumptions that I didn’t necessarily agree with. I didn’t like Carson well enough to use his work instead of Johnson so will likely stick with Johnson from this point forward.

Washington: The Indispensable Man |  James Thomas Flexner Ambleside lists several options for biographies of George Washington. I chose this one because it received a Pulitzer Prize citation and National Book Award for its concluding installment and was said to be the most balanced by Washington biography enthusiasts. That said, it was tiresome to read, and I really struggled to get through it. It seemed to portray Washington as a bumbling idiot who was only successful by the occasional stroke of luck. I think if it were an autobiography, it would have been fine because I would have viewed it as written by a humble man who underestimated his role in history. But as a biography, it seemed to be overly negative. Yes, making mistakes is part of the story and shouldn’t be ignored, but life is more than just mistakes and dumb luck. After 392 pages of this, I’m rather burned out on George Washington right now. But I may read another biography of him at some point just for perspective and as an alternate option.

Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Having just read James Daughtery’s Poor Richard aloud for year 4, the first part of this book was nothing new and only emphasized the quality of Daughtery’s work. Franklin’s autobiography only goes through the middle of his life, leaving out his important work as a representative of the United States overseas after the Declaration of Independence, which Daughtery covers so well. Franklin’s version gets a bit tedious with his work for education and science – a good example of how time and distance lend perspective and make for a better story. So while this was good, I wouldn’t put it at the top of the list of biographies for a student to read in year 9, especially if they’ve already read Daughtery’s biography in year 4.

The Problem of Pain | C. S. Lewis I loved this book when I read it in college (on my own time, not for class). I wholly believe in the importance and quality of this work, but the problem of pain isn’t a pressing issue for me at the moment so I struggled to care about what Lewis was trying to say. Despite my lack of enthusiasm, I still think it’s definitely a not-to-miss selection for high school students sorting through and defining their philosophy of life.

Isaac Bickerstaff, physician and astrologer |  Richard Steele This little journal-style piece about Mr. Bickerstaff read to me like something someone might have written when the invention of the printing press was still fairly new and they were trying to figure out what to do with its potential. It talks about daily life during 18th century England and probably wouldn’t be notable except that it was one of the few things published then that has been preserved over the centuries. Generally lacking in plot as a whole, the little vignettes were interesting none the less.