February 2017 Reads

And here are the books I read in February.

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel is about parenting and how choices you make in raising your child have long-lasting effects. In this case, the fifth child of Rosie and Penn decides when in kindergarten that he wants to wear girls clothes. So they let him wear them to school where the school decides he must use the bathroom next to the nurses office since he “identifies as a girl.” And the story goes on from there. While I understand more about how parents might end up with a “transgender” child and the challenges they face, I still am not convinced that identifying children at such a young age as transgender is really the best way to handle this. When I was a kid and I played football and built forts with the boys during recess, no one made me start using a different bathroom and rename myself with a boy’s name. Girls are encouraged to do boys things like play with Legos, wrestle and join the military. Maybe we need to likewise let our boys “be anything they want to be.” The issue is by no means settled. This was the February main selection for the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club. More on this topic with the next selection…

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and a February book flight selection in the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club. This book was the story of someone who was actually intersex – in this case, someone with XY chromosomes and sexual organs that appeared to be female as an infant but developed modified male aspects at puberty. Birth defects are real, and obviously the sexual organs are not exempt from that. I listened to the audiobook version of this read by Kristoffer Tabori which was excellent. The story covers three generations and is very well written and plausible. I enjoyed it both as a story as well as exploration of a very delicate issue in today’s society. It really brought out the humanity of the main character and his/her family as this issue came to a head. If you want to develop empathy by walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, this book is a great choice.

George by Alex Gino is a book written for a grade 4-6 audience about a kid who “comes out” as transgender. Someone mentioned it in the discussion of the two books above so I grabbed it from the library and listened to the audio in one day. “Coming out” with a different viewpoint from that of your parents or those around you is nothing new, really. Since we homeschool and I know what books my kids read and understand, I found the style and reading level of this book very interesting.

The Mothers by Brit Bennet was the other February book flight selection in the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club. This umbrella theme of this book is about the mothers of a black church and how they look out for everyone. The specific story tells how a girl gets pregnant, has an abortion and what happens from there. The father of the child is the pastor’s son and his parents gave him money for the abortion. Everything is kept quiet, yet it is a secret that does not refrain from influencing how things go from there. The first half doesn’t seem to be very plot-driven, but second half has with twists and turns I wasn’t expecting. I love the umbrella theme of the book. The specific discussion of abortion and it’s ramifications was also good. Lots of good fodder for thought here.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte was the Well Read Mom selection for February. I listened to the audio version narrated by Juliet Stevenson which is outstanding. I had read this on my own in college and enjoyed it, but I enjoyed it all over again with this reading. This time, it was a story about crazy neighbors and staying away (or not) and what you tell your children about why you are staying away (or not). Of course, it’s also a love story and a tragedy. Fascinating on so many levels.

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers was the book featured in the Circe Institute Close Reads Podcast in January and February. I love this podcast because it has two English teachers who argue about good books. When I was in school, if your essay didn’t reflect your English teacher’s opinion, you were graded accordingly (or so it seemed); thus I find this podcast endlessly fascinating since they are always disagreeing with each other. I am not into mysteries per se and thus likely would not have read this save for the podcast. With this book, I would read the next portion and feel sort of lost. Then Angelina would say something on the podcast about how Sayers just throws you into the story and just like Lord Whimsy would be if he were starting a new job at a new company, you have all these facts thrown at you that you have to sort out. And then I didn’t feel so silly for feeling so lost. (Have I mentioned that I just love this podcast?) While there were times I had my doubts as I was reading the book, Murder Must Advertise turned out to be a very good read and well worth my time. Next up: Everything Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor (one story per week). I’m looking forward to it.

Columbine by David Cullen was my nonfiction read during January and February. This book has been touted as a very well-researched take on what happened, including setting right various false narratives spread by the media in the days after the event occurred. While I remember what happened, I didn’t really follow the media about it at the time so there was very little that was different from what I already knew. That said, it was a well-written account of two boys who did something horrible – what led up to it and how they carried it out. In my reading queue is Sue Klebold’s book as a follow-up to this (she is the mother of one of the boys who carried out the attack).

What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell is a winner of the National Book Award and my first venture into the YA (young adult) genre. It’s a coming-of-age story. Rather simple. Eye opening in terms of the reading level (grades 9+). The YA genre probably won’t become a favorite of mine. That said, the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club has a YA book as one of its book flight selections in March so I will be giving the genre another chance.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is free audiobook for Amazon Prime members on Audible, a newly discovered feature with several more titles I want to read. Really, the title of this book says it all. The father is Asian, the mother American; women’s rights also drives the narrative. It all comes together with various family dynamics revolving around the unspoken. The narration is well-done but slow – by the end I was listening at 1.5 speed in order to finish it before the end of the month. Initially I only gave it three stars, but today I changed it to four. Good book.

In other news, I finished several books with the children this month. I read aloud every morning when we begin school. We also listen to audiobooks in the car.

Daniel Boone by James Daughtery is a John Newberry Award winner I checked out from the library. This book was an especially fun read since we go to Kentucky to visit family and are thus familiar with the setting. I now have a new list of places I want to visit next time we are in Kentucky.

Gone Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright is a good book on the backlist of a favorite author. The kids loved it and we are now reading its sequel – Return to Gone Away Lake.

Shaking the Nickel Bush by Ralph Moody is book number six in the Little Britches series which we started listening to last fall. We listened to this series a couple years ago but Caroline was too young to remember much of it. I could read this series over and over again as I did the Little House books when I was a kid. Great series, especially for boys.

On the docket for March:

The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis – Well Read Mom

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline – Modern Mrs. Darcy (MMD) book club main selection

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes – MMD book flight selection

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon – MMD book flight selection

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley – MMD book flight selection

Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor – new Close Reads selection

And several others, I hope.

January 2017 Reads

Wendel Berry speaking at the Circe Institute Regional Conference in Louisville, KY, January 20, 2017

Yes, I got to see Wendell Berry do a reading. [Swoon!] I’ve read Hannah Coulter and Jayber Crow by him, the latter which was discussed on Close Reads. It was a great evening!

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith — I read this soon after I graduated from college and absolutely loved it. One of those books where you wish all books were like this. So when I saw it as the January selection for the Well Read Mom, I wondered if I could possibly love it as much again as I did the first time. I started out pacing myself to read it over the course of the month, but it was so wonderful I could stop reading and finished it in the middle of the month. I loved it just as much the second time as I did the first. Highly recommended.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles — This was the main selection for January in the Modern Mrs. Darcy (MMD) book club. I would give it two stars. It is historical fiction, which I struggle with. I would much rather read about another time and place by someone who lived it or knew those who lived it. This book had several inaccuracies that made me question much of the plausibility of the book. For instance,  someone was singing “It Is Well With My Soul” in backwoods Texas a couple years before the song was written on the Atlantic Ocean. Ugh. However, at the back of the book, the author said it was based on another book which I read and very much enjoyed, namely…

The Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier by Scott Zesch — This is a very well researched book about kids who were abducted by Indians on the Texas frontier. Their stories are known because they returned, in varying degrees, to white society. The book gives a history of relations with the Indians of that region going back to the 1820’s including the debate surrounding whether or not to negotiate with the Indians for captives. It describes life in Indian society for the white captives and helps explain why they resisted returning to white society. If you enjoy history, this is a great read.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger — This was a flight pairing along with News of the World as part of the MMD book club. One of the chapters explored heavily the issue of Indian captives not wanting to return to white society. This article is a thoughtful response to the book and sums up my reservations about it well.  I think The Captured lent far more light on the subject than this book. That said, this book was very thought provoking and great fodder for discussion.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty — This was the other flight pairing for January in the MMD book club. I listened to this as an audiobook – all 36 hours of it. Great book. One that will stick with me for a long time. After reading this, I feel like I know what it was like to live in the late mid-1800s in Texas and beyond. It will likely be one of my favorite books for the year.

Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott (Agatha Christie) — I found this book through Gretchen Rubin’s book club and listened to the audio version on Overdrive. It was written by Agatha Christie who took a pen name when she wrote books outside her usual genre. Joan, the main character, gets stranded on her return journey and has nothing to do for a few days and ends up re-thinking much of her life, seeing it in a very different light. Ironically, it reminded me of reading a book everyone else “gets” while missing what is obvious to everyone else (aka how I feel when I read a mystery). Great read. Highly recommended.

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson — This was one of the January selections for Book of the Month Club. I haven’t joined but was thinking about it so I decided to read one of the selections to see what I thought. This was the story of several teenagers going through school. Bad things happen to them, but there was never any exploration of the consequences or what came of it — there were all sorts of things that could have been explored but were just left on the table unopened. I did not like it at all and probably won’t be reading any more Book of the Month Club selections unless they are recommended to me otherwise. When one is accustomed to reading the classics – books that are so good they’ve remained in print, it is difficult to find contemporary fiction that measures up.

War by Sebastian Junger — I picked this up after reading Tribe. It is a first-hand account through the eyes of a journalist on the front lines in Afghanistan. I read a comment about this book somewhere that being on the front lines and observing isn’t the same as being on the front lines and fighting, to which I wholeheartedly agree. This book definitely gives a piece of the picture of what it’s like serving in the US military in Afghanistan, but I don’t automatically assume that everyone who served over there (and I know several who served there and in Iraq) had experiences similar to this. The writing style is rather scatterbrained – jumping from this to that and only sticking loosely to the storyline. Three stars, if that.

Honorable mention: Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers — This is the current selection for the Close Reads podcast from the Circe Institute. I’m only four chapters into it, and it is not something I would ever pick up and read on my own. However, I love and adore this podcast – listening English teachers discuss, argue and debate good books. The third episode covering chapters 5-8 is already up, but I became obsessed with listening to Lonesome Dove so haven’t listened to the second episode yet. So far I’m about as lost as poor Joan in Absent in the Spring, but that’s just another reason why I love Close Reads.

On the docket for February:

  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte [Well Read Mom] – this is actually a re-read but I plan to listen to the audio version narrated by Juliet Stevenson which should be excellent
  • This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel [MMD February main selection]
  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides [MMD February flight pairing]
  • The Mothers by Brit Bennet [MMD February flight pairing]
  • and several others, hopefully

November 2016 Reads

Recently I tallied up the number of books I’ve read so far this year. Currently the total is 46, not including the 14 books I’ve read aloud or listened to with my kids as free-reads. I have a friend who posts her reads each month, a post I eagerly anticipate and always enjoy (see her November reads here). I’ve decided to revive my blog and begin doing the same.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky – This was the summer selection for the Well Read Mom. I belong to a local group – we discussed this the first week of September. I had a crazy summer and had only listened to 6 of the 37 hours of the audio version of this book at the beginning of August when we were originally supposed to discuss it, but then we postponed it a month so I felt I ought to at least try to finish it (I am the leader of the group so I sort of have an obligation, you know). I finished all but the last 4 hours before we met in September. Last summer we read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy which I thoroughly enjoyed, but this one, not so much. I don’t like reading under pressure, which happened with this book and may well have colored my opinion of it. This month I got it back out and finally listened to those last 4 hours so I could say I finished it. My reading nightmare experience aside, The Brothers Karamazov is a family drama complete with a who-done-it and a lengthy trial. I think Tolstoy got tired of writing it at the end – it just seemed to drop without much resolution. Anna Karenina was far more satisfying throughout. Bottom line: If you want to read a challenging Russian novel, I’d go with Anna Karenina.

All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior – This book is about modern parenting. As in, the intense version. I have friends who parent like this and the mere thought of it makes me tired. In fact, reading this book about how intensely people parent their children was exhausting, which is probably why it got set aside when I started it earlier this year. I tend to be more like the dads in this book, who are fairly pragmatic about what they will and will not do for their kids. That said, I really enjoyed the chapter on adolescence, especially the point about how parents who have their own hobbies find these years far smoother than those who have invested all their time and effort in their kids. When you have a life outside parenting, the occasional “failure” when your kid does something dumb is far less daunting when you have other things that make you happy. All the more reason to read good books…

Working Stiff by Judy Melinek MD – This was a fascinating memoir about a doctor doing autopsies in New York City, including the casualties of 9/11. I didn’t realize that autopsies aren’t limited to what the doctor sees of the body lying on the table – sometimes that information must be paired with evidence collected at the scene to make the final determination of the cause of death. Having worked in quality assurance in some form or other since graduating from college, I found it intriguing how the final answer – murder, suicide, natural causes or unknown – can be pivotal, either to an investigation or to the families looking for answers.

No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness by Michelle Segar – As the title says, this book is more about motivation than specific fitness routines. One one hand, the author argues that physical activity can be beneficial even if it is just taking a short walk when you have a few minutes. No formal workout required. That takes a lot of the pressure off. At the same time, the ideas discussed in this book don’t just apply to physical fitness. If your job or lifestyle requires a lot of self-motivation as mine does, this book is a goldmine of strategies to keep you going. That said, I have a completely different attitude toward exercise after reading this book. I’ve been going for more walks, too.

Rising Strong by Brene Brown – I’ve read this book sporadically a chapter at a time over the past year. For some reason, every time I pick it up, it has major eye-openers for whatever I’m facing at the moment. They say each of her books builds on the ideas of the last. Since this is her most recent book, I don’t know if I will go back and read others. This book was very powerful. It completely reframed how I see things, helping me to let them go and move on. If you want to be completely unsettled by having to seriously rethink how you perceive something, this book is for you. I may re-read it just for the exercise of gaining fresh perspective.

The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah – This novel is about the resistance movement in France during World War II. This fall I read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr which was okay. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read another novel set in France during World War II with all the horrors that go along with it. This book was completely different – very engaging. I checked it out from the library so I had a deadline, but that was no issue as I finished reading it long before it was due. After this ravishing success, I’m seriously considering Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. That is, when I’m up for another war novel.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman – Last April we moved to a new neighborhood after living in the same house for 14 years. This book was described as a feel-good book about grumpy neighbors which I thought my help smooth the bumps of adjusting to a new neighborhood. No grandiose insights, but I did enjoy the story.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (audio version read by the author) – I’ve read several books to get a better understanding of the black experience and history of racism over the last couple of years. Some that stand out include The Color Purple by Alice Walker, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Mudbound by Hillary Jordan. But alas! I was told when I cited them during an online discussion about race that if I really wanted to be informed, I needed to read non-fiction – specifically, this book. It was in my library, and the issue was especially hot in our recent election, so I got it out and began reading. There were so many ironies in this book between his description of his life and what he believes it is like to be a white person and what I’ve seen and experienced as a white person. For instance, Cub Scouts. My boys have both been in Cub Scouts since they were old enough to join and I will say two things: 1) boys are full of energy and the pictures you see of Cub Scouts don’t reflect the chaos that happens in real life, and 2) working with other adults to plan activities and agreeing on how things should be run can sometimes be, well, to borrow a certain phrase, all joy and no fun. As a kid, I always thought “Thou shalt not covet” to be an easy commandment to follow. As an adult, I’ve learned it can sometimes be one of the hardest, one that causes intense pain. Looking at what you think other people have and experience and comparing it to your own is a sure recipe for misery. This book is full of misery. Three and a half hours of it. I think this book is an important read because it expresses what so many feel. That said, I do not think it is the last word on the subject or that it provides any real answers for the racism today. Brene Brown’s Rising Strong is a fitting counterpoint.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – I had previously purchased this when it was featured on Modern Mrs. Darcy‘s daily Kindle Deals. Then I saw she had selected it for her Book Club. A gothic novel sounded like something I should have read in October but I decided November wasn’t too late. The first half of this book is rather slow, and many people give up. At the halfway point, there is a pivotal moment and the rest of the novel is absolutely gripping. I reached that turning point the day before Thanksgiving and had to put it down in order to get all the holiday preparations done. I finished it that evening, and I ever so enjoyed it! I watched the movie version by Alfred Hitchcock that weekend, which is also excellent (and sticks very closely to the book, unlike most movies based on a book).