Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Non-Fiction Round-up

 I much prefer fiction over non-fiction, but every once in awhile, I do pick up a non-fiction book.  They tend to be memoirs or books written like fiction - I'm not big on historical tomes - but here are a few I've read in recent months!

  • Girl Walks out of a Bar by Lisa F. Smith (Memoir): This book was recommended to me by a law firm partner who wondered if I'd ever encountered something like this as an associate.  The profession is certainly one that is marred by alcoholism and drug abuse, but I had no first- or even second-hand experience with it.  It never surprised me that the stress of the work could lead someone to this life, but I wondered how it could be possible to get the work done while struggling with addiction.  This book helps show the fine line between drinking and drug-use as a vehicle for enjoying a good time after working so hard and spiraling out of control.  
  • The Fact of a Body by  (True Crime):  This a non-fiction memoir/true crime book about Ricky Langley, a known child molester sentenced to death in Louisiana, and the Harvard 1L (the author) who learns about his case.  The case causes the author – herself a survivor of childhood molestation – to learn more about the defendant, as well as to delve more deeply into her own family’s history.  The author is honest about her own destructive coping mechanisms and how her experiences made it difficult for her to see Mr. Langley as someone deserving of mercy (and in turn how feeling that way made her question her worth as an attorney).  
  • How Not to Get Shot and Other Advice From White People by D.L. Hughley (humor):  While Hughley is a comedian, and he definitely puts a comic twist on the topics covered in this book - the underlying narrative is that Black lives in this country are consistently and persistently under attack.  I read this at the same time as Biased by Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt - which focuses on the need for discussions about implicit bias.  The two books cover much of the same landscape, with Eberhardt approaching it from a scientific analytical perspective, and Hughley just putting out the cold hard reality of it all.  I appreciated having both presentations simultaneously - and highly recommend both books for accessing issues that are ever-present but often difficult to find the words to talk about.

Monday, December 21, 2020

What I've Read This Week

December tends to be a solid reading month for me - with the days getting shorter and the temperatures a bit colder, I give myself permission to get in bed and read a little earlier than usual.  Here's a little of what I've been reading this past week:

I kept seeing Fredrik Backman's Anxious People on various to-read lists and at the bookstore - with a cheery bright yellow cover the title didn't quite seem to match, but I decided to check it out.  The story revolves ostensibly around a bank robbery turned hostage situation gone decidedly wrong.  The story is told through police interview with the hostages, and flashbacks to the open house where all the victims were congregated when the crime took place.  As the police attempt to home in on the robber, various threads of the story are revealed, with connections (known and unknown) between the characters made.  This book is by the same author as the also popular, A Man Called Ove, and a I found significant similarities among the characters - namely that they are concrete and often obtuse in a way that is certainly off-putting but with a bit of narrative backstory you come to understand the motivations or reasoning behind their behavior and as a result they become (or are supposed to become) endearing.  I found the characters in these books aggravating - along the lines of Eleanor Oliphant in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.  While I did find the stories themselves compelling from a plot point of view - I did want to know what was going to happen and where the characters would end up - I didn't find the journey particularly enjoyable.

Winter Counts by : A thriller/mystery that takes place on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.  An enforcer who distributes justice when the police fail to do their job, Virgil Wounded Horse is hired to ferret out who is bringing heroin to the young people on the reservation.  When his own nephew is caught up in the chaos, Virgil finds himself unsure of who to trust, and reexamining the Native beliefs he thought he was better off leaving behind.

Musical Chairs by Amy Poeppel: This type of book must have a genre named for it.  I don't know what it is, but it's among my favorites - middle-aged woman with semi-dysfuntional family (kids and parents) come together for milestone event (wedding, funeral, 50th birthday party) - old wounds are reopened and potentially healed, old misunderstandings are righted, certainly romances of some sort ensue, and many lessons are learned.  In this one, Bridget, a cellist, plans to spend a quiet summer in her country home with her writer boyfriend - only to find that he has other plans, her grown twin children are moving back in, and she has no idea where her career is going.  A fast-paced enjoyable read with charming characters.

I also got in a few very different YA/middle grade books this week:

  • Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds:  After enjoying Reynolds' Track series, I've been eager to read more by him.  This book - told in 10 separate vignettes about 10 separate kids (some intertwined by circumstance) who have to find ways to survive and thrive after the school bell rings and they are set free into a world full of distractions, dangers, and detours.  While we all may wish for carefree childhoods - these are the fears and realities kids face every day - and the courage they hold that many adults don't quite give them credit for or even realize.  I read this in one sitting - but think it is certainly worth a slower re-read.
  • Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins:  When Anna is sent to a French boarding school for her senior year of high school, she laments leaving behind her best friend and a blossoming romance...but when she meets the charmingly handsome Etienne St. Clair, she thinks maybe the City of Lights may have  bright side after all.  If only he didn't already have a girlfriend.  A standard teenage romance - this one is filled with all the sappy conversation and romantic hope a teenager craves.
  • No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen: Felix Knutsson is a middle-school kid with nowhere to lay his heavy burden.  He and his mom have been evicted from their apartment and living in their van.  As Felix distracts himself from reality with his favorite trivia game show and his beloved gerbil, he navigates friendship and hunger knowing he is always one misstep away from foster care.  Is it possible for him to lean on someone else without betraying the person he loves most?  

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Romance in the Air, Part I


I never thought of myself as someone who read romance novels - but lately I have come to think that maybe I didn't appreciate the breadth of novels that fall under the romance umbrella.  I pictured the dime-story novels with Fabio on the cover.  But, thanks to my recent shortened attention span, and a few friends who are staunch defenders of the romance genre, I've spent the past year broadening my horizons a bit and learning that a little romance is good for the soul.

A year or so ago, I discovered local writer Jasmine Guillory as part of the Read Harder Challenge.  The category was a romance by a person of color.  And so, I stumbled upon her Wedding Date series.  I read the first three, and was happy to have two more from to read recently.  In Royal Holiday, Maddie is invited to England for Christmas to work as a stylist for a royal wedding.  She invites her mother to join her, and while she's busy working away, her mother meets the royal family's private secretary whose offer to take her on a private tour of the royal grounds turns into much much more.  In Party of Two, the action returns to Los Angeles where Olivia Monroe has recently relocated to start her own law firm.  Determined to focus on her professional life, she of course finds herself tangled up with California's attractive junior senator.  Unsure if she - or their romance - can withstand the media scrutiny, Olivia is forced to confront her past and acknowldge is really important to her.  Typical romance with opposites attracting and secrets threatening to break up the romance - you know they'll find their happy ending, but getting there is full of surprises and entertainment!

After reading Taylor Jenkins Reid's most recent novels Daisy Jones & The Six and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, I was eager to go back and read her earlier novels.  Daisy and Evelyn are very different from each other, and they are both a departure from the stories Reid starting out telling, which I would place in the romance category.  I went back and started with Forvever, Interrupted, about Elsie who gets married after a whirlwind several month romance, only to have her new husband die in an accident less than two weeks later.  Elsie is left to reexamine the meaning of her relationship, in the face of a grieving mother who wonders how important someone her son never mentioned could actually have been.  This book presents the interesting premise - given that so many relationships fizzle over time, how would you know if this would have been the love of your life, or if the person was simply taken before the relationship had the chance to get to that point.  And, even assuming the relationship would have fizzled, does that diminish the value of the relationship as experienced?  While I didn't find either Elsie or her mother-in-law particularly likeable, this book did raise many questions for me about the importance of moments and the value of time.  The next Reid novel I picked up, Maybe in Another Life, was a pretty well done version of Sliding Doors - which asks the question of what would happen if at a seemingly insignificant decision-making point in your life, you made a different choice.  When Hannah returns to her hometown after feeling like she's failed in both her personal and professional life, she runs into her high school ex-boyfriend.  He asks her to come home with her.  In one version, she goes.  In the other, she says no.  I wondered throughout the book if no matter which choice Hannah made if she would end up in the same place - how much of a role fate would play - or if perhaps she could end up having her happily ever after no matter which path she chose.  With chapters alternating between her choices, I found myself staying up late into the night to finish this one and find out where Hannah ended up.  And finally, I picked up One True Loves - yet another one that focused on the idea of your one true love.  Emma marries her high school sweetheart, but shortly after their wedding, he disappears and is presumed dead.  As the years drag on, Emma slowly finds herself able to reengage wth the world, and even to fall in love again.  But what happens when she discovers that her husband is still alive?  Which true love is for real?  This book raises a lot of questions about who we are when we fall in love, and how much life events can change us, and the nature of that love when we're no longer the person we used to be.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Ta-Nahisi Coates

 Often what I love about discovering a new (to me) author is the idea of comfort - knowing what I'm in store for - if I want to read a thrilling detective story, I may return to Michael Connelly.  If I want a solid story about family, I may pick up Anne Tyler.  I love the familiarity of these types of authors.  But, what I also find amazing is authors who can write books that are significantly different from one another - novelists who write memoirs, essayists who write short stories.  I've found at times I don't like an author's work in one areas, but love them in another.  Ta-Nehisi Coates, of course, is one who seems to have the Midas touch - turning anything he publishes into gold.

Between the World and Me:  A letter from a parent to a child is always meant to impart wisdow - to warn of pitfalls that life may present, to challenge the reader to be stronger and more aware than the writer may have been in their younger years,  And yet, we know that children rarely listen to their parents.  And so a letter almost seems like a forewarning of inevitable tragedy, knowing what is to come, but also knowing that every generation must find their own way.  Between the World and Me is written as the author's letter to his own son, detailing the history of our country's exploitation of the bodies of black men and women.  Through historical narrative and memoir, Coates details his awakening to the reality of race in America, and the seeming industructible nature of the violence and inequities reinforced by White Supremacy.  
The Water Dancer: After reading the powerful, yet fairly straightforward Between the World and Me, I wasn't quite ready for Coates's fiction.  While beautifully written, I found the story a bit difficult to follow at first.  It took me about 100 pages to get into it, but I'm glad I stuck with it.  I recommend reading this one when you have a good chunk of time to set aside - to get fully immersed in the cadence of the writing and the lyrical story.  This book takes place during slavery - When Hiram Walker's mother is sold away, he loses all memory of her, but gains a mysterious power.  Years later, determined to escape bondage, he embarks on am arduous journey to save more than just himself.  Given the subject matter and the elements of magical realism, this book reminded me quite a bit of Toni Morrison's Beloved.  This book was a challenge for me - in terms of understanding and making my way through the writing.  I was happy to have read it as part of a book club - so that I could hear the variety of interpretations of he events in the novel - which parts were real, and which parts were imagined.  But, overall I was glad I picked this one up - the horrors of slavery should not be readily forgotten, and to have this narrative introduced by such a popular author, I hope, will bring many much needed discussions to the forefront.  

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

What We've Been Reading

Figuring out the best way to keep up with the books we're reading hasn't been an easy task - as my children get older, I find that I'm even more drawn to children's literature - wanting to read what they're reading, wanting to read to them, and wanting to read other middle reader books to find ones to recommend to them.  At the same time, I still have my huge stack of "adult" books to read - fiction and non-fiction, mysteries and romance - trying to keep up with what's going on in the world, but also trying to escape it.  For awhile I decided I didn't really need to "keep track" of my books in any way...but lately I've found that I kind of miss making my lists and looking back on the ones I've loved and the ones I can barely remember just a month later!  So, here's my latest attempt to stay on track, and keep up with the books we're reading (but not necessarily always finishing) this week!

Books I've Been Reading:  I'm usually reading five to six books at one time.  I try to have a non-fiction, several fiction, and a children's book going so that I can choose whatever I'm in the mood for.  This does mean that it can take me weeks or even months to finish some books because they keep falling to the bottom of the stack, but it's always been the way I like to read.  At times, I'll try to get myself to focus on just one at a time, but that never makes me happy, so I figure I'll just stick to this process!

I love a mystery, and I read an article about how because we've been sheltering in place, and  living "safer" lives that we might otherwise in normal times that many of us are seeking out our thrills in other ways.  I've found mind by reading a few psychological thrillers during this time, including:

  • Ruth Ware's The Turn of the Key, about a nanny who finds herself on trial for the murder of one of the children in her care.
  • Tana French's The Trespasser part of her Dublin Murder Squad series (which does not have to be read in order) featuring a female detection given a slam-dunk murder case that she can't quite seem to let anyone solve, and The Witch Elm, a stand-along novel about a man who suffers a debilitating injury and tries to return to his childhood stomping grounds, only to uncover a murder he seems to have been trying to forget, but can't quite seem to remember.

And after reading a slew of mysteries that I had to put away before it got dark out, I decided I needed to return to a familiar detective - one who lives firmly in the "cozy mystery" category and is best read with a cup of tea and a warm wool blanket: Jaqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series, including Birds of a Feather (#2) and Pardonable Lies (#3).

Books My Kids are Reading this Week

Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer
The Candymakers

Goddess Girls Series 

Books I'm Reading to My Kids:

Mr. Lemoncello Series by Chris Grabenstein: I started reading this series to my nine-year-old son at the beginning of his third grade school year.  I generally love books about books, and this one has the added benefit of also including a variety of fun word games and puzzles.  Mr. Lemoncello is a wacky Willy Wonka-like self-made millionaire who is famous for his board games.  Kyle Keely is one of his biggest fans.  When Mr. Lemoncello builds a fancy new library in town, he invites twelve lucky students to spend the night trying to break-out of it by solving various puzzles and riddles about books and famous authors.  We loved all the personalities in this book - as well as trying to figure out some of the puzzles along with the kids in the book.  It was filled with fun jokes, creative twists and turns, and general good times.  It was a wonderful book to share together and we eagerly read the next few in the series: Mr. Lemoncello's Library Olympics, Mr. Lemoncello's Great Library Race, & Mr. Lemoncello's All-Star Breakout Game.  Looking forward to Mr. Lemoncello and the Titanium Ticket coming out in late August!

And now, back to more reading!!  Recommendations always welcome!

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Fiction Pairs: Lauren Weisberger

Lauren WeisbergerWhen Life Gives You Lululemons & Revenge Wears Prada

When a friend loaned me When Life Gives You Lululemons, I'd never read a book by Lauren Weisberger and the title gave me pause.  I assumed it would be mindless fluff.  And, while this would be a good poolside read, it was much better written, and had a much more interesting plot than I'd originally anticipated - which just goes to show that I shouldn't always judge a book by its cover (or title).  I never read The Devil Wears Prada or watched the movie, but I did a little background reading and learned that the main character in this one, Emily, was one of the assistants to Miranda Priestly (the Glenn Close character in the movie, and most feared in the fashion industry).  Emily is now an image consultant, but she's not getting any younger, and as she starts to find herself losing clients to the younger more social media-savvy crowd, she knows she has to make some changes.  And of course, that's when a major supermodel, and wife of prominent politician, is in desperate need of some spin.  The only problem is, she's not in Emily's New York or Los Angeles, but in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Can she handle the pressure AND the suburbs??? 

I decided to keep going with another Weisberger novel - I didn't feel like going back to read the original, so just went for the next in the series, Revenge Wears Prada.  In this one, Emily joins forces with another former Priestly assistant, Andy, to start a high-end bridal magazine.  Andy finally finds herself doing what she has always wanted to do, and on her own terms, but it seems everyone around her is intent on turning this business into another Miranda nightmare.  As her wealthy husband joins forces with an ambitious Emily, Andy is forced to figure out what she really wants and what kind of businesswoman she wants to be.  I found the character of Andy a little annoying in terms of her wishy-washiness.  Even though she seemed to know all along what she wanted, and to communicate it subtly to those around her, she never seemed to actually take a stand - and she continued to let others walk all over her, even though they didn't really seem to be in a position to do so.  While I found myself becoming more invested in the characters as they appeared in multiple books, I still rushed through the end of this one - wanting to know what happened plot-wise, but finding it took a little too long to get there.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

January: Children's Literature

As always, I have trouble sometimes distinguishing between YA and Children's Literature, but I these books fit more into the Middle Reader category than in YA...so they get their own post!

Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor:  This book was listed on one of those "Top 100 Children's Books of All Time" lists.  I'd never heard of it, so I thought I'd give it a try - interesting since right now my 7-year-old daughter Clara is on a kick reading books about kids and their dogs.  The young boy in this book, Marty, happens to find a lost beagle while playing one day.  The dog appears to have been mistreated, and Marty suspects it has run away from a mean man who lives nearby.  Marty decides to hide the dog, who he names Shiloh, and to nurse him back to health.  When Marty is found out, he has to make some tough decisions about telling the truth, or protecting an innocent animal.  This book was pretty rough - I know there are a lot of children's books out there about mistreated animals, but the mean man character was so stark -  I felt like although this book could be read by 7-9 year olds in terms of difficulty, that really in terms of the sadness of the subject matter, it is better intended for 12-14 year olds.  But I may just be oversensitive with respect to animal cruelty. Marty's character was very relatable, and I'm sure many young readers would find themselves rooting for Marty, and easily putting themselves in his shoes.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry: When I was young, I read a lot of Lois Lowry books.  I was a particular fan of the Anastasia Krupnik series - which I thought of as a pretty standard everyday book about a kid growing up - nothing too series or intense.  So, I wasn't quite prepared for Number the Stars, which is about a Jewish family in Copenhagen during World War II.  When ten-year-old Ellen's family is "relocated," she goes to live with her best friend Annemarie - in an attempt to hide from the Nazis.  This was an interesting book about the realization of young children of the severity of the consequences of being Jewish - of noting difference, of what families gave up in this hope of survival, and what others did to risk their own lives.  While a difficult read, I think this is an important book for young children as an introduction to the Holocaust, and for opening up discussions about how we stand up for what we believe in.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

January - YA Reads

Brave Face by Shaun David Hutchinson: Given the cover of this book, I thought this was going to be a graphic novel - but alas, don't just a book by it's cover. This is the memoir of a young man, coping with his identity and trying to belong. The author is up front from the beginning that parts of the book could be triggering for many people - and that he intends to be as honest as he can be about his depression, self-harm, and process of coming out - to himself and to his friends and family. I found this to be an interesting approach - this recognition that in reading a book to learn about the life of another person, the reader themselves could be harmed by seeing too much of themselves in the character, or perhaps in learning that so much pain an struggle exists in this world. This book is written for YA, and accordingly I found it to be an easy relatively quick read - I myself just taking breaks when it did become too intense or sad for me. As a parent of young children, what I find so hard is knowing that children all struggle with different things, but also that they hide so much - and that part of that is the nature of growing up and learning to understand and cope with life. But, also wondering what more I can be doing as a parent, not to prevent my children from experiencing failure and pain, but from feeling like they are failures or that they will not be accepted or supported by me. I felt the saddest in this book when reading about how the author's step-father (who he kept saying he considered a father, but I wasn't sure if the step-father actually viewed him as a son) made comments or otherwise contributed to shaming the author's sexuality. When places that are supposed to be safe for children are not, I think that's the hardest to bear. What is also tough about this book is that while I think it would be comforting for many other young people to read and perhaps say "It's nice to know I'm not alone," there is no magic solution for how to survive it all in a better way.

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina:  I just loved this book.  Merci Suarez is a pretty typical sixth grader, navigating issues with friendships and family and the changes that come with growing up.  But she's also learning that sometimes things are a bit complicated when you're living in that middle space - old enough to take responsibility, but not always old enough to understand or even to be privy to all the information.  At home, her grandfather seems to be going to the doctor more often and forgetting things a little more easily, but no one seems to want to acknowledge it.  At her private school, she is one of the few students on scholarship, and she finds herself wanting to fit in, but also feeling pride in the things that set her apart.  I loved Merci's strong independent spirit - her love of her grandfather and friends - and her desire to do the right thing, even if she doesn't always know what that might be.   

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater: This YA non-fiction book is an account of an incident that happened on the 57 bus line in Oakland in 2013.  Sasha, a white agender teenager from a middle-class neighborhood was riding the bus home from their private school.  Alongside her was Richard, an African American teen from a less affluent area of Oakland coming home from his public school.  During the ride, Richard set fire to Sasha's skirt leaving them severely burned.  As a result, Richard was charged with a hate crime and faced life imprisonment.  The 57 Bus explores the backgrounds of both of these teenagers.  This book takes the time to paint a fuller picture of Richard, his background, and how he came to commit this crime in a way that calls for empathy and an understanding no crime, and no person, is a complete reflection of the worst thing they've ever done.  I applaud the book on this level - and yet, I question whether Richard would have been afforded this had the victim not been someone undervalued by society.  Is it because Sasha appeared to dress different than their gender should have allowed them to dress - is it because we want to find a way to blame Sasha for themselves for the crime, that we are interested in learning more about Sasha?  Had Richard set fire to a beautiful young white cisgender female cheerleader, might the outcome of this incident been just a little different?  I wonder these things, and because of that, I found this book in a way distasteful.  But, at the same time, I admit that because I have so much to learn about gender issues - about language and differences and everything that comes with recognizing what it means to be agender or transgender, I appreciated the education that this book provided.  While I don't necessarily want to re-read this book, I do think that it would be a good one to choose for a book club.