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How is your reading coming along these days? We’ve had such a gorgeous fall here in the Midwest, and that’s translated into more reading time for me. How so? Well, I treated myself to a camping rocker from REI in September. As we’re not a camping people, the rocker has taken up residence in my garage. On the many mild and sunny afternoons and balmy early evenings, I’ve pulled my rocker out to the driveway and read. I set a goal of reading 80 books this year, and I’m thrilled to see that I’ve hit that goal with a month and a half left to go in 2016!
This year I’d like to share a few posts in December reviewing my Best Books of 2016, and so I’m going to wrap up my monthly reviews with this post and share December Must Reads after the first of the year. One more quick aside before I delve into the reviews …
If you read and loved A Man Called Ove as much as I did, I highly recommend the movie. They did an absolutely wonderful job with it, and I think readers will be pleased. Makes me want to read the book again! Ove and his motley crew of neighbors are some of my favorite characters of all time. FYI: the movie is in Swedish, so be prepared for subtitles.
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
This was my pick for the MMD Reading Challenge in the category of “A book published before you were born.” Published in 1969, Slaughterhouse Five was Vonnegut’s unique way of sharing his experience as a witness to the bombing of Dresden during WWII. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war, as is the character of Billy Pilgrim. Unlike Billy Pilgrim, I don’t imagine Vonnegut experienced time travel or was captured by aliens. After my previous experience with science fiction (Sleeping Giants) and my tendency to not enjoy the “classics” as much as I enjoy contemporary fiction, I was hesitant to pick up Slaughterhouse Five. But I’m a slave to my Reading Challenge picks, and I also felt quite guilty as a Hoosier not ever having read anything by Indianapolis native Vonnegut. I found myself thoroughly enjoying the novel. It was clever, witty and felt quite modern.
The Girls by Emma Cline
I almost chose this as my Book of the Month Club selection in July, changing my mind at the last minute. I had a feeling it would be one of those books I either loved or hated. Instead, I’d put it solidly in the category of good. I found myself eager to read the story of young Evie each night, but wasn’t mesmerized or wowed. Set in California at the tail end of the 60s, Evie is lost, looking for companionship, and longing to be known. Her parents are newly divorced and consumed with their new found freedom. A rift between Evie and her girlhood friend leaves Evie open and vulnerable. When she sees the girls from the ranch outside of town, Evie is immediately curious and attracted. After just a few visits to the ranch, spending time with the group’s leaders Suzanne and Russell, Evie is hooked. Without anyone to notice her girlish edges begin to harden, Evie edges toward a path of darkness and danger. I enjoyed the writing, especially Cline’s observations about girls, their power, and their shortcomings. And a warning: there are some hard parts in this book, including graphic descriptions of sex and murder. If you enjoy coming-of age stories with less violence and more hopeful endings, I’d pick up How to Build a Girl instead. If fiction based on true crime is in your wheelhouse (The Girls is based loosely on the Manson murders), then don’t miss this one.
Grit by Angela Duckworth
Do you believe that the secret to great achievement is talent, and that some people are just destined for greatness while the rest of us slog along? Or is it possible that talent is only one part of the equation, and that effort, skill, passion and perseverance are far greater predictors of what one can achieve? These are a few of the questions that Angela Duckworth explores in Grit. I was initially curious to read Duckworth’s book out of a desire to nurture grit in my own kids. And while I learned a great deal about what grit is and how to foster passion and perseverance in my children, I was even more inspired to rethink my own attitude towards work and living a grittier life. We all have the potential to do meaningful, interesting and powerful things, according to Duckworth’s research. What we do with that potential is something entirely different. I love non-fiction that reads like fiction, and through Duckworth’s highly readable research and anecdotes, I felt like I was reading a personal journey through self-discovery as opposed to a dry book about how to be more successful. I found myself sharing snippets of the book often, both with Mike and the kids, which is a sign that a book is a game-changer for me. This book will stay with me for a long time, and I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t benefit from reading it.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
In the modern day, we like to think nothing short of a nuclear war could end the world as we know it. But in Emily St. John Mandel’s beautiful and haunting book, all it takes is a fast-moving virus. The Georgian Flu explodes around the world, killing anyone who contracts it within 48 hours. Highly contagious, it wipes out 99% of the world’s population. The few survivors suddenly find themselves in a world without transportation, communication, or electricity. Entire cities are deserted, leaving behind only corpses and the remains of a world that doesn’t exist anymore. Twenty years later, a troupe of artists, actors and musicians known as The Traveling Symphony wander from outpost to outpost, entertaining the survivors and trying to bring beauty into a bleak world. Welcomed by most, they are disturbed and frightened to come across a violent and controlling prophet who seeks to end their existence. As they travel to escape the prophet and bring missing Symphony members back to the safety of the fold, the author weaves together the past and the present to reveal the things that connect us even as the world falls apart around us.
The dystopian/post-apocalyptic genre doesn’t appeal to everyone, but if you’ve written them off as not for you I would encourage you to give Station Eleven a chance. I like to think of it as dystopian for the discerning reader. I was riveted from beginning to end.
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Like many of you, I went through the same arc of emotions when Lee’s highly anticipated novel came out. I was giddy with excitement while ambivalent about whether she wanted us to actually read the book. And then came the feedback from other trusted readers: not good, a book they hated, don’t bother. Several times I saw it on my library’s bookshelf and passed it by. Two things convinced me to pick it up finally: it was my book club’s pick for December and I found out the audiobook is narrated by Reese Witherspoon. I don’t know if it was my extremely low expectations, Reese’s magical voice, or a combination of both, but I truly enjoyed it. I wasn’t expecting it to be on the level of To Kill A Mockingbird, and I was prepared for Atticus to let me down. I think knowing those things allowed me to appreciate the novel for what it is: a chance to revisit a place and characters that I love and the sweet pleasure of a little more time with Harper Lee. I strongly feel that Witherspoon’s voice enhances the reading experience a great deal, so if you’ve been putting it off due to poor feedback I encourage you to give the audiobook a try. Personally, I found the characters’ struggles and flaws as they aged believable and thought-provoking (although I do wish Lee had explored Scout’s adult relationship with Calpurnia more deeply). I’m really looking forward to discussing this book with other readers. (And if you want a great insight into the reclusive Lee, definitely pick up The Mockingbird Next Door.)
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Mysterious, nuanced, sad and relatable … those are just a few of the words that come to mind after finishing When You Reach Me. I read this aloud to Eli, and we both found ourselves wanting to read just one more chapter to get us closer to figuring out the many mysteries in Miranda’s life. Will her mom win the $20,000 Pyramid? What’s up with the Laughing Man? Why does her best friend, Sal, suddenly want nothing to do with her? And most troubling, who is leaving letters for Miranda and what will happen if she ignores them? I remember Elena trying to read this one on her own in 4th or 5th grade and declaring it “too creepy” to finish. It does have a dark side, but when read aloud and given the opportunity for discussion I think it’s perfectly appropriate for 3rd grade and up (although Eli did groan at the mention of kissing).
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
I’m a big Sarah Vowell fan, dating back to her early days on This American Life. I’m not a huge history buff, but Vowell has a way of making the past fun to revisit. In this title, Vowell takes a deeper look at Revolutionary War icon the Marquis de Lafayette. This has been on my TBR list for over a year, but my recent obsession with Hamilton finally convinced me to pick it up. We all know that what we learned in school about history is never the whole story, but I’m still amazed at how much I assumed I knew about the Revolution that is completely false. Vowell takes a deeper look at the people, including Lafayette, George Washington, John Adams and many other movers and shakers of the Revolution (yes, that includes Alexander Hamilton). Her researched insight, mixed with her wry humor, pop culture references and restrained snark, make for a fun read. I absolutely love Vowell’s voice (if you’ve never heard it before, listen to a sample somewhere), so the audio version is a must. Warning: not everyone feels the same way.
The Optimistic Child by Martin E. P. Seligman
This is an extremely niche book, so I won’t give it a lot of space. As a decidedly optimistic person, my son’s temperament can give me fits. Eli is prone to complaining, and we sometimes tease him that his Eeyore is showing. So I was intrigued by a book that promised to help kids fight pessimism and problem-solve instead of complain. It’s a bit dated in parts and somewhat of a dry read, but quite helpful. It includes a detailed questionnaire for kids to help determine their level of pessimism, followed by a treasure trove of exercises and useful advice to help them navigate difficult situations.
The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny
The third book in Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series. I don’t believe you need to read them in order, as I think they’d all stand alone well. However you’ll miss some great character development and some subtle backstories if you read them out of order. In this installment, a well-loved woman who returned to Three Pines to reunite with an old friend is literally scared to death during a seance. Freak accident? Or had someone finally had enough of the Madeline Favreau that could do no wrong? This was probably my least favorite of the series so far, but that only means it took me 4 days to read it instead of 2!
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
As in Sarah Vowell’s book, Salt to the Sea taught me about yet another historical event I knew little about. In this historical fiction novel for young adults, we learn about the terrible tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Arranged by the Germans, the ship was to be salvation for over 9000 German refugees fleeing the Soviet army. Instead it was sunk by Russian torpedo, resulting in the largest loss of life in a single ship history. And I’d never even heard of it. Told in alternating viewpoints as several characters make their way to the ship, it’s a riveting and heartbreaking story. It came highly recommended and I now know why.
The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks
The classic from your childhood … or at least mine. #iamold I read this aloud to Eli. I think it stands the test of time, Eli thought it was just okay. I’m not sure it would hold his interest if he read it himself, but it worked well as a read aloud.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
Billed as “the funniest book you’ll ever read about death,” this is no Fault in Our Stars. But that’s okay. Even though Andrews handles teens with cancer in a completely different way than John Green, he’s able to do the same magical thing as Green: write realistic, relatable teenagers. It’s good, entertaining YA. (Although I’d wait on recommending it to tweens, there’s lots of swearing and talk about sex and drugs.)
The Girl You Left Behind by JoJo Moyes
This sat on my nightstand for months before I finally made myself pick it up. Fun fact: I’m great at reading library books, horrible at reading books others pass on to me to read “when you get the chance.” So much so that I made a category in my monthly reading log for “Books I Already Own or Have Been Loaned to Me.” I’ve enjoyed other books by JoJo Moyes (Me Before You and After You), and was surprised to find myself struggling with the story of a French woman, Sophie Lefevre, struggling to keep her family safe during the German occupation of World War I. A portrait of Sophie, painted by her husband, ties the story together between past and present. It took me 130 pages or so until the story clicked for me, and from that point on I enjoyed it. Don’t let the war as a backdrop turn you off if you feel as if you’re over that story line right now. Love, letting go, and the question of who art really belongs to are much stronger themes here.
Didn’t Like and/or Couldn’t Finish
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi: This was my selection for “A book that was banned at some point” in the MMD Reading Challenge. Persepolis is Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. I enjoy graphic novels (Can We Talk About Something More Pleasant is one of my favorite books of all-time), and I appreciate the depth of pain and emotion in Satrapi’s novel, but it wasn’t the right book for me.
Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton: I’m a big fan of Glennon Doyle Melton’s popular blog, Momastery. She’s a phenomenal blogger and a wonderfully motivating speaker, but I didn’t find that it translated well in book form. I’ll still read her first book, Carry On Warrior, because I like her so much as a person, but I won’t be pushing this book into lots of hands.
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonsson: I so wanted to love this book. I kept feeling like I’d get hooked in the next chapter, or I’d fall in love with a character when they were developed just a teensy bit more. And then the book was over. I do wonder if listening to the book (if it was done well with the accents) would have enhanced my reading experience enough to push it from just okay to a must read.
Since She Went Away by David Bell: I tolerated this one for book club. It wasn’t a slog – I got through it rather quickly, and was curious to see how the mystery/crime thriller played out. But I figured it out before it ended and I rolled my eyes a lot.
The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky: An advanced reader copy from Netgalley, this title is getting lots of attention – as in on lists of best books of 2016. I finished it, but it annoyed me the entire time.
What have you been reading and loving lately?