Monday, March 11, 2019

A Few Non-Fiction Reads

Lately, I've been having trouble getting into the fiction books I've been picking up - I find my mind wandering and I can't quite keep track of the plot and all the characters.  When this happens, as it does from time to time, I find that taking a break and reading non-fiction seems to help.  Here are a few I've picked up lately to try to get myself back on track:

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo: Written by a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, this book is a three-year look into life in the poverty-ridden settlements of Mumbai.  The author delves into the lives of the people struggling to survive in unsanitary conditions, making ends barely meet as garbage sorters, negotiating amidst unending political corruption, and yet still focused on striving always toward a better life.  This book was in so many ways horrific and tragic - to know that there are people living in these conditions is inhumane to me.  But, at the same time, it is obviously a depiction of the brilliance of the human spirit.  I couldn't shake the feeling as I was reading this that it was all so exploitative and voyeuristic - that this author profited professionally by her invasion of the lives of these people.  It's hard for me to reconcile this with the knowledge that it's also important to have these stories told.

The Distance Between Us  by Reyna Grande:  Given all the debate recently about Trump's border wall, this book (and so many memoirs like it) was a timely read.  That so many people would risk so much, and give up so much in terms of their family and safety, to come to the United States, speaks volumes to me of what this country must represent in terms of hope and opportunity.  Grande's memoir begins with her father making his trek to the United States, leaving behind his wife, along with Grande and her siblings, with promises to send for them when he is financially able.  Her mother then makes the journey, leaving Grande and her siblings behind to be cared for by their grandmother - until it's time for Grande to make the journey of her own.  This book gracefully retells the challenges of living two lives  of hoping for a better future,  and of dreaming of reuniting with parents while the years pass without them.  It is the story of families torn apart under the guise of seeking a better life - and raises the question of what price we pay - or more accurately what price our children pay - when we build walls further criminalizing and separating families, rather than addressing the underlying problems of why.

Akeelah and the Bee

Akeelah and the Bee by James W. Ellison & Doug Atchison:  My second grader was interested in starting a gathering with a few folks from his class - to read a book and then watch the movie based on the book.  A book/movie club of sorts.  His best buddy chose this book as their first read.  It's technically a book based on a movie - rather than a book that a movie was made about - but they are 8-years-old and I wanted to encourage the independent spirit.  This book turned out to be a perfect selection, as spelling in the second grade seems to be quite an obsession.  Akeelah and the Bee is the story of a girl from a low-performing school in Los Angeles - a place where no one has even heard of a spelling bee, much less competed in one.  But Akeelah has a gift for spelling - and her principal is counting on her to bring some much needed positive attention to their school.  While Akeelah struggles with finding her confidence and pride, and learning that being a "smart" kid doesn't have to mean turning your back on old friends or who you thought you were.  My son and I read this book together - reading level-wise, I think this is perfectly appropriate for a second grader to read on their own.  But, I'm glad we read it together because there were so many themes to tease out - and the book lead to some wonderful discussions between us.  I'm looking forward to talking about the book with a small group of second graders, and can't wait to see the movie.  I'm also hoping to do a screening of the documentary Spellbound which explores the real world of the National Spelling Bee - one of my old favorites that I think my son will really appreciate.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Recommended Fiction

I often feel like I go through phases in my reading - times when I can't seem to find anything that I want to finish, and other times when I'm just reading one fantastic story after another.  Often I think perhaps it has to do with my mood at the time, and very much with my ability to focus.  Here are a few books that I read on vacation or times when I feel like I had a bit more ability to real.  I enjoyed them all - and recommend them - with the caveat that perhaps I was just in the right mood when I read them!

All the Light We Cannot See  by Anthony Doer:  There probably aren't many folks out there who haven't read this one - yet another novel set during WWII recommended by my mother-in-law!  In terms of plot, I felt like this was a pretty standard WWII quest for survival story.  A blind French girl flees France with one of the Museum of Natural History's most valuable jewels. A German orphan with a penchant for tinkering is enlisted to track down the resistance.  And of course their paths collide in each individual's effort to survive in the most humane way possible.  I loved the storytelling and the writing, and it was a good book for curling up with for hours at a time.

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler:  Books about books are one of my favorite genre.  This one had a bit of a creepy undertone throughout - Simon, a librarian, is the son of a circus mermaid who made her living holding her breathe for long periods under water, and yet died by drowning.  Simon's sister has run off with the circus and hasn't been in touch for years.  Simon mysteriously receives a book from an antique bookseller.  The book is inscribed with the name of his grandmother and chronicles the events of a traveling carnival.  As Simon reads the book, he becomes concerned that the women in his family are cursed, and he must determine whether and if he can save his sister.  The book has hints of the magical, which I enjoyed, along with the fantastical circus/carnival stories.  It reminded me The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern in all the good and fun ways that came with that story.

The Orchardist by Amanda Copin:  I randomly came across this book on my mother-in-law's shelf.  It had a Cold Mountain feel to it to me in terms of the cover and book jacket summary.  It centers around the life of an orchardist named Talmadge who lives on his own raising fruit.  Two young girls appear in town - desperate for food, and one very pregnant, and begin to live on his land.  The girls disrupt Talmadge's solitary and seemingly uneventful existence, and in fleeing their prior circumstance, they have brought danger along with them.  All the characters have endured tremendous hardship in their lives, grieving the loss of parents and siblings, as well as learning how to live off the land and watch out for themselves.  Watching them continue to grow and change in each other's midst was my favorite part of the overall story, but everything about this book (even the parts where you know something bad is going to happen) was truly engaging and entertaining.

Friday, January 4, 2019

A Couple YA/Juvenile Fiction Selections

I'm still trying to figure out how non-adult books are classified - obviously, there are picture books, but there is also YA (young adult) that seems to be shelved with books like Hatchett that in my opinion are YA, but seem to be read by kids more in the 8-12 rage, which I suppose is considered juvenile fiction.  I don't know, but when categorizing on my blog, I'm probably overly inclusive about what I consider YA...and I'm starting to read more chapter books intended for a slightly younger audience, so I may need to rethink my labels soon.  In the meantime, here are a few fiction reads for the younger set:

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen:  This book was written in 1986, but I never read it or even heard of it as a kid.  As an adult, many people recommended it to me - or suggested that my 7-year-old son read it.  It's the story of a young boy named Brian whose parents have recently separated.  He lives with his mother, who puts him on a prop plane to go visit his father for the summer.  She also provides him with a hatchet, which he initially finds oddly juvenile.  The plane crashes and Brian is the lone survivor.  The book follows his 50+ days surviving in the wilderness - building shelter, finding and hunting for food, repeatedly failing and learning from his mistakes.  There were some basic aspects of this book that I feel make it not quite appropriate for my 7-year-old - namely the reason for Brian's parents' divorce, which centers around an affair that Brian is aware of but keeping secret from his father.  It is a small but recurring part of the story, and not something that Brian himself fully understands, and I think was presented strangely for a reader younger than about ten or so (not that younger readers haven't themselves been children of divorce or can't understand what it means for parents to separate - I just felt the way in which the subject matter was presented was better suited to an older audience).  But, Brian's adventures and the psychological and physical struggles he endures and overcomes are inspiring - especially for my own children who have zero wilderness survival skills, I'd be interested in seeing how they react to this book in the near future.  I was recently in a bookstore and saw a five-book series by Paulsen that follows Brian after this adventure.  These seem like they could be fun - but also a bit scary - I'm keeping them on my son's to-read list perhaps for this coming summer!

Holes by Louis Sachar:  Sachar is one of my son's favorite authors - but for his Wayside Stories from Wayside School series.  Many teacher friends over the years have recommended Holes to me, but I didn't get around to reading it until just recently.  Stanley Yelnats is a young boy with rotten luck.  He's arrested for a crime he didn't commit and sent to a juvenile detention camp where he and the other inmates are forced to dig holes in the blazing heat all day.  Why are they digging and what are they looking for?  The answer brings together Stanley's incredible family history and sets him on a wild adventure.  This book is clever in its storytelling and just a fun read.  I'll be passing it along to my kids soon.

I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez:  This book is definitely YA - with some pretty complex themes about mental illness and identity.  Julia is not her parents' perfect Mexican daughter.  She can never quite do anything right.  So when her perfect older sister is killed in a freak accident, Julia is caught between needing to follow her own plan, and feeling obligated to become the daughter she believes her parents have always wanted.  As Julia navigates her own grief, she learns more about her sister's life - and realizes she wasn't as perfect as she seemed. But what does this mean for her relationship with her parents?  This was a painful read - as an adult reading YA even though I can often feel or understand the intense emotions, I feel like because of the way it's often written things seem overly-dramatic.  I can put myself back in those shoes and think about how I might have felt as a teenager, but as an adult looking back it isn't as emotional.  This book actually made me cry at points, and was quite powerful in its ability to capture the  feelings of being trapped that feel so common for so many teenagers.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Books in a Series

I have a thing for books in a series.  When the characters and story are wonderful, of course, it's nice to be able to keep going.  But, even when they aren't that great, it's really hard for me to just let go - though I was very proud of myself for just saying no to the third book in the Fifty Shades of Grey series.  So, here are a few that brought back some familiar characters and a little comfort - some much more than others:

Inferno by Dan Brown (Robert Langdon #4): Part of the series that started with The Da Vinci Code, these are always good for a quick page-turner and a little mystery - albeit always eventually quite far-fetched.  This time around, Langdon wakes in an Italian hospital with a bout of amnesia.  There is an assassin after him, and he flees with a doctor.  They are forced to solve a series of clues which take them through Florence and stretch their deepest knowledge of Dante's Inferno.  I put this one in the category of "great airplane read."  Entertaining and clever, and worth a few hours to help pass the time.

The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman (The Magician's #3): This series began with The Magicians and The Magician King - both of which I loved.  But, I find with any science-fiction/fantasy book, as the series progresses things tend to get a little out-of-hand, and so it was with this one.  One of the main characters has been cast out of their utopia, and he has to return to his beginnings to figure out what went wrong, and perhaps to strike out on a new utopia, which could mean sacrificing everything his friends are a part of.  While I didn't love this third book - it did make me want to go back and read all three again in quick succession.  I think the story lost some of its momentum between books, which I think could be regained by going back again.  Which I'm sure I will...soon.

The Days of Anna Madrigal  by Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City #9):  I love love love love love this series about friends who make their own family in San Francisco - the series started with the first six books published between 1978-1989 (which I binge read when I discovered the series in college).  It is a wonderful soap-opera set against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic with every relational combination you can think of coming together to live on Barbary Lane and share their lives (and deaths).  In 2007, Maupin published the seventh book, and then the eighth, and now finally the ninth which wonderfully brings so many of the beloved characters back to San Francisco to pay their last respects to Anna Madrigal - the one who brought them all together.  For anyone who loves this series, this is a must-read - to see where the characters end up.  And for anyone who loves soap-operas, colorful characters, and just a lot of fun - I highly recommend this series.  I hope Maupin has a secret tenth book up his sleeve!

The Secret Place by Tana French (Dublin Murder Squad #5):  The books in this series are good for anyone looking for a little creepy mystery.  While they sometimes involve characters you may have met in an earlier novel, each book is a stand-alone story and you don't have to read anything else to follow the story.  This one takes place at a girls' boarding school, as the Dublin Murder Squad re-opens an unsolved murder case.  The relationships among the students - including who actually were and were not friends and enemies - makes for a suspenseful tale full of gossip and intrigue.  I have French's next book in the series The Tresspasser  in my nightstand - I'm a little frightened to read it at night, but eager to get to it!

The Great Alone - Kristin Hannah

I had a difficult time getting into Kristin Hannah's acclaimed novel, The Nightingale.  So much so that despite so many people telling me that it was incredible, I just never finished it.  So when several more people recommended this one to me, I was skeptical to say the least.  But, I figured I'd try it out - and I'm glad I did.  This is one of the best novels I've read in quite awhile.  The Great Alone is the story of a teenage girl named Leni.  Her father has returned from Vietnam, suffering from nightmares and all the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Her mother, desperately in love with her husband is willing to do anything to appease him.  And so, the family moves to the Alaskan wilderness where the father, Ernt, is certain his family can make it out their own without any reliance on the Outside.  The family builds their community in Alaska, but Ernt's paranoia and violence isolate the family more and more.  This was a difficult read given both the actual violence, and the threat of violence always lurking, but it was a definite page-turner.  I enjoyed it so much that it might actually give me the push I need to give The Nightingale another try!

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Eligible - Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld: I'm a fan of Sittenfeld's previous novels, Prep and American Wife.  I'm also a fan of Jane Austen.  So, it made sense for me to pic up Eligible, a modern re-telling of Pride and Prejudice.  I read Pride and Prejudice years ago in college and have since seen several movie and mini-series adaptations.  I love them all.  And yet, I couldn't exactly re-tell the plot to anyone if they asked.  I know there's a bunch of sisters whose annoying mother wants to marry off, and there a rich guy named Darcy who starts out as a jerk, but basically wins over the most clever Bennett sister.  But beyond that, my memory is terrible.  So, this was a nice way to be reminded.  In this version, the semi-prominent country club attending Bennett family lives in Cleveland.  Three of the younger Bennett sisters are still living at home when Mr. Bennett suffers an injury.  Mrs. Bennett, an obsessive shopper, is too consumed with the planning of a charity luncheon to tend to her husband, and so the two older Bennett sisters, Jane and Liz return home from New York.  All sisters are unmarried, and approaching that age.  Mrs. Bennett is determined to marry off her children, and when the country's most eligible bachelor, Chip Bingley returns to town, she has the highest of hopes.  Her meddling is the most irritating, and the two youngest Bennett sisters are so annoyingly crass, it's difficult to believe that people like this actually exist.  Liz herself is so smug and determined to be right that her inability to listen to others and stop making assumptions about every situation (which definitely makes an ass of her and no one else) was incredible off-putting.  It made it quite difficult to understand why any man (or woman) would ever be interested.  And that, is the crux of my problem with this book- and maybe every 19th century Victorian romance out there.  Beyond physical attraction, these characters are all so self-centered and ridiculous that the hopes of pairing anyone up with anyone else is simply inconceivable.  And yet...I do like a seemingly happy ending - no matter how ridiculous.  This was a fast read about a dysfunctional family.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that no matter how banal or trite, Jane Austen knew how to tell a story - and any retelling of her tales is sure to please.