November 2017 Reads

The Secret History | Donna Tartt was the kind of book that makes you make time for reading. A young man from California goes to a private New England college and becomes part of a close-knit group of students where something bad happens. He’s a part of the group but not a part of the group. He sees or learns of things that happen and is used as an accessory by the members of the group, yet he isn’t exactly directly involved. A fascinating tale of being close to a situation but at the same time, looking in from the outside. This was the first book I’ve read by Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch is so big it looks intimidating, okay?) – it will not be the last. Donna Tartt is now ranked among the authors whose work I cannot wait to get back to.

Murder on the Orient Express | Agatha Christie was a re-read for me; at the same time, it wasn’t a re-read as I could not remember who did it. Once I got to the end, I realized why I couldn’t remember. I read it along with the Close Reads podcast, including the watching/discussion of the movie. For what it is, it is well-written. That said, I prefer more character driven books. Mysteries make me feel like I ought to be taking notes and watching for otherwise irrelevant details that turn out to be big clues – too much like school and definitely not relaxing. Given a choice between an Agatha Christie mystery and Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott (Christie’s pen name) which I read last January, I much prefer the latter.

Emily of New Moon | L.M. Montgomergy was the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club pick for November. Written by the same author as Anne of Green Gables (a series which I love and adore), this seemed to be written earlier in her career when she hadn’t yet polished her skills as a writer. It took me forever to get into it, though I did sort of get on a roll toward the end. I even began the next one in the series after about a ten-day break – it is about the same, but it is what it is and it makes for good reading right before going to sleep (doesn’t keep you up but isn’t boring either). There is lots of journaling written as part of the story – as in, cringe-worthy journaling, which may be why I didn’t enjoy it so much. Emily is an aspiring author and poet, which may make it sort of autobiographical. We’ll just say, the series is growing on me, though I doubt I will never love it more than Anne.

Homegoing | Yaa Gyasi was my Thanksgiving weekend read. Actually, I began it Thanksgiving morning and finished it that evening – it was that good. We  hosted Thanksgiving and I did all the cooking; I do as much prep as possible on Wednesday so I can just hang out with everyone else on Thursday and take it easy. This was the perfect book for that day in so many ways. There are two main threads – one in America and one in Africa – and it alternates between the two as it follows the generations from when Europeans began the slave trade through today. It is a very thoughtful, honest and yet even-handed look at African-American history and the challenges each generation faced as well as what happened to those who were left behind. If you are interested at all in race issues today and want a good dose of historical perspective, this is an excellent place to start. Highly – no, strongly – recommended.

Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times | Jennifer Worth has been my iPhone book for several months. That is, it’s the book I have on my phone that I can read when stuck somewhere and completely bored by my surroundings. It has to be interesting but not engrossing. Something I can pick up and put down at will. This book fit the bill perfectly. It’s the story of a young midwife learning and practicing her trade among the workhouses in post-war London. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of Charles Dickens in the desperate circumstances in which people are living. It may have taken me several months to read this, but I started the second book in the series the moment I finished this one.

Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone | Brene Brown was described by Laura Tremaine of the Sorta Awesome as a timely book in terms of how we interact on social media. It isn’t specifically about social media and falls more under the larger banner of discussing controversial topics with grace and honesty. So many political reflections books are written by professors or authors who are extremely liberal (think Anne Lamott) and don’t necessarily appeal to those on both sides of the spectrum. Brown, surprisingly, manages that aspect quite well. I borrowed this from the library, but may purchase it at some point as it is a book worth reading and re-reading. Well done.

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds | Alan Jacobs followed on the heels of Braving the Wilderness. I so loved Jacobs Reading in an Age of Distraction that I pre-ordered this as soon as I heard it was coming out. It was not to disappoint, though it is far more scholarly. We are all so sure of our opinions, but in reality, our opinions are a lot less sound than we think. It’s easy to follow the people who say things we like to hear and avoid those who don’t and believe we are very rational in doing so, but that’s not really thinking. Another book very deserving of a re-read – the first read simply doesn’t do it justice.

Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter | Scott Adams was a glorious book. Adams doesn’t like Donald Trump, yet he predicted Trumps win of the 2016 election long before it happened and was in a small minority of those who dared to do so. You don’t have to like Trump to enjoy this book. In fact, if you don’t like Trump, it may well serve as balm to the soul, for both liberals and conservatives. Adams believes Trump is a Master Persuader and tells the story of the 2016 Presidential campaign through that lens, explaining the things Trump did that worked so well in his favor even though most people didn’t understand what was really going on and were “outraged” by it. There have been many books written about conservatives by liberals attempting to understand the thinking of those on the other side. This one actually nails it, I think. It doesn’t even try to explain conservatives – it does explain Trump. Well worth reading if you’re still digesting the 2016 election and its implications.

Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It | Gary Taubes was read (re-read, actually) on an impulse after I set one simple health goal for November and experienced dramatic results. My goal was just to drink lots of water. A couple years ago Steve and I did Whole30 – Steve completed it, I failed, following it mostly but adding back in my beloved chai tea lattes. While I’ve moved increasingly toward a low-carb high-protein diet since then, drinking more water finally released my addiction to the chai tea lattes, and I’ve now taken Taubes prescription for eating to a whole new level. Taubes is reminiscent of Michael Pollan who describes the nutrition industry’s follies in his work, especially In Defense of Food. How research is done and what we try to prove [or, how we think and how we persuade without bothering with the facts…] is a topic with a wide field for application. Taubes isn’t cheesy like so many diet books promising revolutionary results. His book is a very thought-provoking review of nutritional science and how we’ve gotten to where we are today. Shane Parrish of the Farnham Street blog did an interview with Taubes in a recent podcast which is also well worth checking out (especially if you’re not sure you want to read the book but want the gist of what Taubes has to say).

Teaching from Rest: A Homeschooler’s Guide to Unshakeable Peace | Sarah Mackenzie was another re-read. I signed up for the Read Aloud Revival Book Club earlier this month when it opened up briefly, thinking my kids might enjoy that like I enjoy Modern Mrs. Darcy’s book club. Mackenzie did a seminar in mid-November for homeschooling moms based on this book. It’s one of those little books that one can return to time and again and find themselves refreshed and rejuvenated. Well worth that hour or two of your time.

The Mysterious Howling | Maryrose Wood was the November selection for the Read Aloud Revival Book Club. I listened to the audio version with the kids when we drove out to Grand Island for a class at the Stuhr Museum early in November. The premise of the story is a English governess traveling to her first job interview where she is hired without meeting the children. Well, the children turn out to have been discovered by the master of the house as he was out hunting – they were raised by wolves and know everything of hunting and surviving in the wild but nothing of talking or acting civilized. If you a mother and that setup for a story doesn’t make you laugh out loud (don’t all children act like animals sometimes?), your completely lack a sense of humor. Sarah Mackenzie interviewed the author as part of the book club. While the kids enjoyed the book, Caroline was fascinated by the author discussion and started writing her own book the next day. Brings a smile to my face and warms my heart.

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator | Ronald Dahl was another silly read-aloud I did with the kids this month. We read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory earlier this year. I didn’t read these books as a kid, and honestly, I am not sure I would have liked them if I did (I was the one who was always accused of being too serious). That said, my children’s enjoyment of these stories makes me enjoy them, too.

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch | Jean Lee Latham was our other read-aloud this month. It tells the story of Nat Bowditch who didn’t get a chance to go to Harvard as he so desired but whose skill at mathematics and ability to do complex computations changed the world of navigation (and got him an honorary degree from Harvard). It is one of the Free Reads for Ambleside Year 5 and a Newberry Award Winner. My goal is to read more Newberry Award Winners with the kids in the coming year.

The Vicar of Wakefield | Oliver Goldsmith is one of the literature selections in Ambleside Year 9. Supposedly Charles Dickens took this book with him everywhere and it served as the inspiration for his career. The story is of the vicar of Wakefield whose fortunes go south and all sorts of disasters befall him and his family. A Job story, of sorts, including the return of prosperity at the very end, though not quite as dramatic. The story was good in its own right, but it was even more fascinating as a backdrop to Dickens work, which I love. At the moment, I’m [re-]reading Oliver Twist with Joey (one of the literature selections in Ambleside Year 5), making the ties between the two authors even more keen.

Rob Roy | Sir Walter Scott is one of the free reads for Ambleside Year 9. It is the third book I’ve read by Sir Walter Scott. Supposedly Charlotte Mason read and re-read Scotts works every night before going to bed. They are not light reading, but I can see how they would be interesting each time you went through them. These books are not for the faint-of-heart, but if you want serious historical fiction, Scott has a lot to offer. Frank Osbaldistone doesn’t want to learn his father’s business so his father sends him to live with his uncle in northern England where he trades places with one of his cousins. That cousin ends up doing a very bad turn toward Frank’s father, and Rob Roy, who is considered the Scottish Robin Hood, helps Frank set things right again. The story includes lots of adventures and even a bit of romance. You may have seen the movie – I haven’t, so the story was new to me. This won’t be the last of Scott’s works I read, but it may be a while before I pick one up again.