Friday, November 10, 2017

October (and the first week of November) Retrospective

1) What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum - This is the 50th book I've read this year. It was a story about a teenaged boy with Asperger's and a teenaged girl whose father had recently died in a car accident and how they became friends. I kind of like Julie Buxbaum's YA books. This one left me with a few questions just because I don't know enough about Asperger's- how realistic was this?

2) It Ain't All About the Cookin' by Paula Deen - This is one my mother-in-law sent me for my birthday last year. I used to quite enjoy Paula's cooking show on Food Network so I think that is what made her think of me when she came across this one. Now that Paula is sequestered to some obscure television shopping network and has quit putting on her cutesy Southern persona, she comes across more to me like a tacky chain smoker. Which is a terrible thing to say, but I kind of always knew she was a little different than the Food Network producers wanted her to come across. It's kinda like how I never see people's new hair color when they dye it, I just see their natural color with the distractingly obvious fake color on top. Anyway, in this book, she exposes herself with pretty much no holds barred. I guess to some that is admirable, and it is inarguably gutsy, but it just kinda grossed me out. I know I put myself out there in days gone by, and it's hard to feel like the return on that is sometimes "Eww, yuck!" But we know the risks when we share these things. Not everyone should be trusted with our most secret thoughts and words and deeds. I'm sure she has other secrets anyway. There was still a bit of fake color on top, so to speak, the cliche Southern dialect it was written in being the most prominent among them. As a Southerner, I have to say, nobody talks like that. Or maybe the more important thing to say to Paula is that you don't have to talk like that as a Southerner to be distinguished as a Southerner. It's like watching the Beverly Hillbillies. I was talking to some coworkers about that show recently and they said they had always enjoyed that show. As a Southerner, I never much appreciated that show because I didn't get it- we didn't eat possum and we didn't call swimming pools "cement ponds." Similarly, most of the wording in this book is so over the top it's absolutely annoying. People love to think Southerners are simple and unintelligent and it bothers me when Southerners not only perpetuate this idea but propagate it in order to capitalize on it.

3) Dear Carolina by Kristy Woodson Harvey - I am not sure how I heard of this book, but it had been on my library list for a while. Coming right after the Paula Deen book was unfortunate timing for reading this one which also made heavy use of cliched Southern dialect. What was maybe slightly more forgivable is that an uneducated character who had been raised by and among other uneducated people was the one using it- but I still don't buy it. There was also an inordinate amount of absurd similes peppered throughout the novel. These figures of speech are supposedly most common in the South, but many of the ones here were contrived and even distracting (I had to stop and go back and read again to figure out the gist), and there were just way too many of them. Furthermore, I just dreaded reading this one. It took at least three times as long as any other book to read because I just didn't want to read it. It was painfully slow and uneventful for the first half. I thought about quitting, but I already had it formatted and on the list for this post and I just couldn't give it up because of that. Memo to myself: don't put books on my blog, even as a draft, until I'm sure I really do want to read them! 

4) Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks- What?! I love Tom Hanks. George got this for me on Tuesday the 17th and I couldn't wait to be done with Paula and move on to Tom. But then my library hold came ready and Tom had to wait a little longer. I hated my library hold so much (see above) that I went ahead and started this one while I was reading the other, just to give myself something enjoyable to read. And it was indeed enjoyable! Reading a book of short stories doesn't go quite as quickly as reading a novel because the plot doesn't carry you along and compel you to keep picking the book up to see what happens next. So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that it took me as long as it did to read this one. But you know, there was no need to rush anyway, no more than one rushes through a piece of dark chocolate or a warm bath. Hanks is so pleasant and his voice so familiar and warm that we may all have been able to figure out they were his stories even without his name on the cover. Ok, that may be a little bit of a stretch, but readers will definitely recognize him and everything they love about him as they read. 

Sunday, October 08, 2017

September (and the first week of October) Retrospective

1) Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout - This is the final selection (well, for me, I didn't read them in order- just in the order the library could get them to me) from the Modern Mrs. Darcy Minimalist Summer Reading Guide. Ugh. I read comments on MMD's blog where people said they didn't like My Name is Lucy Barton because it was ick and dark and sad but that they did like this one. Well, I liked My Name is Lucy Barton okay because I thought it was somewhat redemptive. However, this is a collection of short stories from Lucy Barton's world, and the one short story with Lucy in it seemed to undo the redemptive nature of the first book! It would seem that Strout's take on mankind is that people are mostly gross and sad and depraved but oh well-- that for the most part it is what it is, but every now and then something good-ish happens and that means "anything is possible." To me, this was a hopeless book. And I can't do hopeless right now. And it seems that's where our culture is and has been in regard to art-- the books and the films that win prizes are largely depressing and overly realistic in the darkest way. Meanwhile, anything cheerful and redemptive has been sequestered to Hallmark Channel and chick lit booklists and therefore neglected by the most intelligent writers. Can good literature and film not also be happy? It can! We know it can! If no one else has proved it, Jane Austen certainly has. And Austen is uber popular! So can we please stop this dark, depressing trend in modern writing?!

2) To Wager Her Heart by Tamera Alexander - Well, I love me some cheesy historical fiction set in the South- especially Nashville. This is the last of the Belle Meade Plantation novels. And this is Christian chick lit for sure- not exactly what I am asking for in terms of smart, artful writing, but a relief to read after so many downers lately! It does always bug me a little that Alexander's heroines always have very modern sensibilities. They're light years ahead of their time in regard to feminism and civil rights in a heavy handed way. To me, this is almost judgmental (and certainly not empathetic) of the real life women who lived in the setting she is actually writing about because I don't think that they all were so removed from the culture and time they were living in-- nor are we today-- but that also doesn't mean that they were all hateful and ignorant and harsh as our modern perspective would sometimes have us interpret them. Anyway, I can see why, as a modern Southern woman, she wants to get it right for her heroines. And I'm excited that she's announced a new three book series set in Franklin, the first one being a Christmas book! It comes out next month, but I think I will wait to read it until Thanksgiving- something fun for the car ride to Michigan!

3) The Identicals by Elin Hilderbrand - This was my last summer reading selection from Modern Mrs. Darcy's Summer Reading Guide and I got it in just before Autumnal Equinox. Phew! ;) I generally don't like Hidlerbrand. It's been a frustrating discovery because I really enjoyed the first book I read of hers (The Blue Bistro). It wasn't perfect, but the beachy setting and the foodie descriptions won me over. What I have realized after reading several others by Hilderbrand is that I hate her characters. They're not lovable or even likable most of the time. But this book was a little better- the unlovable characters were becoming more lovable. It was redemptive, and I love redemptive stories. The story seemed a little unfinished- maybe she'll write more about Tabitha and Harper in the future? Incidentally, Tabitha and Harper are very unlike names for identical twins. The kind of person who names their daughter Tabitha does not seem like the same kind of person who names their daughter Harper. Right?

4) Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen - This was another book off the Modern Mrs. Darcy books about endearingly quirky families list. She has recommended this author at least one other time before. I read The Sugar Queen by Allen last year. I didn't actually even realize it was the same author until I started feeling the weird magical realism vibe and thought "hey, this reminds me of that other book." This one was set in the South without feeling like the South. But the author did, in fact, grow up in North Carolina, so I guess my South is just different from hers. To me, the South is deeply religious, and none of the characters in this book seemed to have a shred of religion. Well sure, we all worship something, and we all believe in something, but these characters were rather godless. That's not to say that they weren't likable. But they weren't familiar or relatable. Though I did appreciate that the elderly aunt needed to go to the store for some "Cokecola." But I'm getting to the point in my reading life where I am tired of things that seem hopeless, and even weary of hope coming from a false source. Often times, books will place hope in people changing or growing closer to friends or family- while they may not be cognitive of the Source of growth and of good friends and family, I am, and I can make the jump. But this book had its hope resting in a magical apple tree and in an "uptight" character throwing caution to the wind and shacking up. Nice. (Insert eye rolling emoji here). I guess "magic" just isn't really for me.

5) Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart - This was also off the MMD books about endearingly quirky families list. It was based on actual events that took place in New Jersey and New York in the nineteen teens. It was well done and I liked the author's style. And I liked the characters. But the story wasn't my favorite. It wasn't bad though- it was just a little slow. There are two more books about the main character in this one and I may give them a try down the road- the same good writing with the same "endearingly quirky" characters in a faster paced story could be pretty good.

6) Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley - This one is about a dog with cancer. So right away I'm like "no thanks." I hate animal books. I have always hated animal books. I don't want to get all emotional about a fictional animal- it makes me feel ridiculous and a little bit out of control. I always felt so embarrassed crying at Lassie movies as a kid. Also, our culture is deeply entrenched in its own out of control state over animals. As a mother, even as a former child, I find the idea of pets being called people's "babies" or "children" absurd and even offensive. People need to realize that pets aren't people. It's okay to love them- it's great to love them! But they aren't the same as a child. They just aren't. And when I started this book about a single man who considers his dog his baby, I kind of knew it wasn't going to be for me. But I have this dumb commitment to this list (the MMD books about endearingly quirky families) so I decided to stay with it, at least for a little while. In reading, I  was able to appreciate that people can learn so much from having a pet, the same way I have learned a lot from marriage and parenthood. So while pets aren't people, the connection to and love for one's pet is very special and very real (and I know this from loving my own pets as well).  I did read the whole book and I cried my eyes out when Lily died (of course she did- it's an animal book). There were some good insights and I liked the writing style; but, in the end, it's exactly what I thought, and didn't want, it to be. A final thought: the fact that a book about a guy and his dog makes a list of books about "families" is highly annoying to me- though not the book's fault, but more toward an ongoing issue I have with Modern Mrs. Darcy. 

7) Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis - Oh how I loved these movies when I was a kid! I am not sure if I could ever choose between Auntie Mame with Rosalind Russell or Mame with Lucille Ball. I loved them both. And the book is exactly the same.  So I might recommend this to someone who hadn't seen the movie, but since the movie is such delight with all the vivid costumes and set designs and fun musical numbers, I'd rather see the movie. I think I'll have to watch it with my girls soon! 

8) Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson - This is the last from Modern Mrs. Darcy's 15 Books About Endearingly Quirky Families list! Hurray! Hurray! I'm officially done with MMD! But I did like this one. I didn't love the ending, but I have lowered my standards significantly in terms of what to expect when it comes to recommendations from this source. It is easy to tell from this month's retrospective that I was just ready to be done with this list and put Modern Mrs. Darcy officially behind me. Why have I wasted so much time listening to someone I don't know or really know anything about about what I should read? I'm so happy to be relieved of the idea that she may have a great recommendation for me that I absolutely can't miss. If it's really great, I'll hear about it some other way. This was a book about a bit of a Harper Lee type who has an eccentric (endearingly quirky) ten year old son. When the author finds herself swindled out of much of her fortune and needing to write something new for the first time in decades to keep her family fed, she has to rely on outside help to take care of her son. The book is written in the caretaker's voice from her perspective. 

Sunday, September 03, 2017

August Retrospective

1) The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene - My brother-in-law is a big fan of Graham Greene. I read Brighton Rock a few years ago because of the many references to the characters in the book in the Morrissey song "Now My Heart is Full." I didn't particularly like Brighton Rock, but I have since seen Greene's work pop up in the Rabbit Room Store and I generally admire the selections curated by the folks at Rabbit Room. So because my brother-in-law knows I read Brighton Rock, he keeps asking me what other Greene I have read. I decided I'd better get on the stick! The Power and the Glory is the selection I am most certain Rabbit Room has given their stamp of approval to, so that's the one I chose. It's the kind of book I would like to discuss with other people. There's definitely something there, I would just be interested in hashing through what that is.

2) Beartown by Fredrik Backman - This is another selection from Modern Mrs. Darcy's Minimalist Summer Reading Guide. I read A Man Called Ove and liked it okay so I figured it couldn't hurt to give the author another try. But I don't recommend this one. While it is very well written, and one feels the author has tremendous empathy and insight with all of his characters, it's such a downer. It's dark and heavy and tragic in a frighteningly realistic way. I couldn't wait for it to be over. But again, Backman struck me many times as being a very gifted writer- I will look forward to reading something else of his again.

3) The Greenglass House by Kate Milford- This selection is another from Modern Mrs. Darcy's list that came out in May: 15 Books About Endearingly Quirky Families. So far the list has mostly been a fail for me. And I'm feeling very similarly about her summer reading guides. Basically, we're about to break up with Modern Mrs. Darcy unless something changes drastically over the next month while I finish her recommendations from my list. Look at the cover of this book. What a fantastic cover! My husband and children all remarked on how much they loved the cover. And the idea for the book is also one that draws you in right away: The Greenglass House is an inn owned and occupied by the Pine family. Milo Pine is an only child and is very much looking forward to a nice relaxing Christmas break at home when an unexpected guest arrives at the inn. Within the space of an afternoon, four more guests arrive at the inn! Why are they all here? None of them will say. And mysterious things start happening... So, you can see this should be a great book. But it's not. It felt slow and uneventful, even though things were moving along. Was it a problem with the writing or what? I just didn't care about the characters or the mystery.  I kept looking ahead to see how many more pages were left.

4) The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen Flynn - This selection is from Modern Mrs. Darcy's Summer Reading Guide in the History section. She called it "a Jane Austen time travel novel that's actually good." I had no idea Jane Austen time travel novels were even a thing! But naturally, I was intrigued! Well, let me stop you right there. It's not good. It's actually pretty awful. The writing is embarrassingly bad and crass in multiple places. It goes from mediocre Austen fan fiction to grocery store rack romance novel on quite a few occasions. And if one can get past this and go along with the story anyway (heck, we already went along with the whole time travel premise and overlooked the ridiculous portrait of Austen as some sort of modern, only nominally religious figure trapped in a time she has no real connection to- though both of these things could have been done and have been done much worse), the ending is unsatisfying to say the least. As the Roots would say, "Do not read, do not read, do not read this book, this book."

5) The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson - This one is also from the Modern Mrs. Darcy Minimalist Summer Reading Guide. By the time I got to this book, I was good and ready to break up with Modern Mrs. Darcy once and for all. But I was unaware that I was going to be treated to a story set in the South. I am so homesick at this point that the cliche descriptions of sweet tea, cornbread, and biscuits completely won me over. Reading the way the townspeople and church community interacted with one another was like listening to an old song I hadn't heard in years. It wasn't the best book I have ever read or anything, but it was refreshing and most certainly the best book I read this month. I will look forward to picking up more of Jackson's work to read in the future.

Monday, July 31, 2017

May, June, and July Retrospective

So, none of these were a home run for me. They were all somewhere in the "no thanks" to "yeah, I guess I kinda liked that" range. I really need a home run! But plenty of these made it to the bases! I just want to love a book soon. Three months is a long time to report on all at once so I really felt the tension building of "maybe the next one... maybe the next one." I will go back to monthly reporting after this, and maybe it won't seem so much like the pressure to find a winner is building.

1) The One in a Million Boy by Monica Wood - I struggled to enjoy this one because not a lot happened and I found the main character, who I am pretty sure I was supposed to like, not very likable. And not that much happens. However, I find that when I tell people about it, they want to read it! So, I guess it's just me.

2) Peace Like a River by Leif Enger - I liked this one. It also lacks action except at the beginning and the end. Or at least it feels kind of quiet and slow somehow. Most of the story is snowy, rural days in North Dakota. It felt more like a boy book and I am pretty sure George would like it even more than I did. I was going to keep it out from the library for him to read after me, but his book stack is so tall right now, I decided he might enjoy it more in the winter anyway.

3) I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith - This was from Modern Mrs. Darcy's list of endearingly quirky families. I didn't find them as endearing as I wanted to though. Most of the characters seemed extremely selfish to me. Reading something like this that people generally think is wonderful and feeling more or less meh about it makes me feel like something is wrong with me. What am I missing here?

4) Every Wild Heart by Meg Donohue - This was from Modern Mrs. Darcy's Summer Reading Guide from the "Beachy Reads" section. It was a quick, cheesy read. But it was also a bit disturbing. Also, and I have said this before, I really hate when the cover of a book makes no sense with the book. The cover of this book has a little girl who looks to be about five or six on a step ladder kissing her mom. The book is about a fourteen year old girl and her horse and her creepy friend and her mom. So why the cover? Anyway, it seemed like maybe the book was supposed to be for teens except that it follows the mom quite a bit. Basically, it was a bad Hallmark movie. It bugs me that Modern Mrs. Darcy is not more discriminating with this category. She has another on that list this year by Jenny Colgan who wrote the dumbest book I have ever read. And I have read a lot of dumb books. And the reason I read it was because Modern Mrs. Darcy recommend it! I was trying to read two from each category this year, so I do have one more from the list, but if it turns out to be just as bad, I may have to discount her completely when it comes to what is fun to read.

5) Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham - This was also from Modern Mrs. Darcy's Summer Reading Guide, and a selection from her Minimalist Summer Reading Guide. It was good. Reading about racism and cruelty is always hard, but this one managed to do it in a way that had you want to keep reading. Instead of detailed portraits of villains (which it is not without), there were more portraits of people we could love and cheer for.

6) Meet the Austins by Madeleine L'Engle - This one is also from the endearingly quirky families list. Originally published in 1960, it had the feel of a book written in 1960 and I really liked that about it. The Austins are a sweet family and it made me a little sad to think that so few families are anything like them anymore. I loved their picnic packing, stargazing, record listening, deep thinking ways.
And I just realized, upon looking for the picture for this post, that there are more books about them! Hurray!

7) A Room With a View by E.M. Forster - This one was from the endearingly quirky families list as well. And not a lot happens here either. That seems to be a theme for me lately. But it doesn't always bother me. I enjoyed this book in spite of it being a very short and simple story. There was a lot of big thinking going on that I'm sure I missed because I didn't take the time to think too much about the ins and outs of what was going on in turn of the century England- how the culture was shifting and what Forster thought of religious and political climate himself. I am sure that one of my English professors could have droned on for hours about all of that, but I didn't miss the extra insights or commentaries.

8) The Dry by Jane Harper - This one was from the Minimalist Summer Reading Guide. I drank up the first 200 pages in less than 24 hours. And then I hit page 220 or thereabouts and had the mystery solved and still had 120 pages to go. The "unraveling" of the mystery turns out to be stuff one could never have figured out on one's own. We end up with information that the characters in the book could never obtain because we get flashbacks, written in italics as all of the flashbacks in the book, of private moments from the lives of people who have died- so the living characters in the book who are trying to unravel the mysteries will never have the information we do as the reader. It's very unsatisfying. And more than that, it feels like cheating on the part of the author. Furthermore, the explanations for what actually happened are pretty unbelievable. I started out liking this a lot, but the ending (or last third of the book) ruined it.

9) My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout - I read this one because it involves "the world" in which a book on the Minimalist Summer Reading Guide is written. It was a quick read for sure. It was a little sad though. Or really, a lot sad. I liked Lucy's tone though- she wasn't out of touch with her pain, but she also wasn't stuck in it. Overall, I guess it's not one I'd recommend, just because it's got some super sad things in it and is not redemptive, but it's not one I am annoyed about being recommended to me, because it had a real feeling to it and I think it was just well done for what it was.

10) Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead - This is a kids' book, but I really enjoyed it. I read it cover to cover in the car on the way to Atlanta and, as soon as I was done, passed it back to the back seat for August to read. It was a good story with an interesting twist at the end. I have only read one other of Stead's but it had a twist at the end as well. This is the one I've liked best on the list thus far.

11) The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson - This one was from the endearingly quirky families list but I would take issue with the the word "endearing" here, and even "quirky" is a bit of an understatement. Buster Fang was endearing. Buster's parents were not. Buster's parents were off the charts awful- though I was on the fence about this at first. And Buster's parents lack of being endearing meant that his sister Annie was pretty messed up to the point where she really couldn't be characterized as endearing either. Modern Mrs. Darcy says readers either love this one or hate this one, but I neither loved it nor hated it. It was very interesting and very original, I thought. And it was somewhat redemptive. So I did like it. It was just also heavy and sad. And I guess I just don't really love heavy, sad stories.

12) The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett - This one took a while to get into, but I enjoyed it. It was from the Modern Mrs. Darcy Summer Reading Guide. The female lead, Bethany, was not very likable for me. She wasn't awful, she just wasn't someone I could be friends with- very snarky and opinionated and proud. Ugh, I kind of hated her. I was supposed to like her though. The author liked her. The other characters adored her. But she ruined it for me. The male lead, Arthur, was endearing to me, and she was always finding fault with him. He wasn't perfect by any means, but he was our hero, and he was easy to root for. The story was a historic British religious mystery involving antique books, liturgical worship services, and a group of friends who gathered to read and drink wine, and that was a really fun combination for me- lots of elements I can appreciate.

13) The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman - This is one that George loves and has had all of our kids read. It's okay. It's a cool idea, but it's kinda creepy. It's a good story though. It's about a little boy who is orphaned on the night his parents are both murdered.  His ghost parents ask the (no longer living) inhabitants of the graveyard down the street to care of and protect him, and so he grows up alone in a graveyard. So it's just also kind of sad. So I tend to understand more why August doesn't like it than why George does like it so much. However, I have a friend who loves Halloween who also loves to read with her grandkids and I am definitely going to recommend it to her- though it has nothing to do with Halloween, it has much to do with the stuff of Halloween.

14) Hourglass by Dani Shapiro - This is just a memoir about marriage. It had some big picture thoughts but it didn't bowl me over. It came to me highly recommended, and I liked it just fine, but I wouldn't really pass on the recommendation. I finished it about a week ago and I already remember very very little about it. I will say that the world needs more honest, redemptive, positive looks at marriage, so it may be a good thing that this is out there.

15) The Door Before by N.D. Wilson - This was Wilson's newest book that united the worlds of Ashtown Burials and 100 Cupboards. It would've been really fun to see the worlds collide if I remembered anything about the other books. Unfortunately, I have a terrible memory for details from what I've read. But this felt like it belonged and I am glad he wrote a prequel- I just feel like I need to go back and reread the others now!

16) When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon- Again with a distracting cover! This one actually comes very close except for the frequent mention of the main character's very curly, even unruly curly, hair. And the girl in the picture has straight hair. Come on, people! Still, this one was a fun read. It was a modern day teen rom com about Indian Americans. It was a little familiar with the whole "my first generation immigrant parents want me to do things the way they did in the culture from which they came, but I am a modern American and want to do things the modern American way but I don't want to disrespect my parents" thing. So, it's definitely a story we already know, but it was fun to read it in this particular setting with these particular characters. And maybe I should leave it at that. But I have to say, this strong female lead who is all about sass and career and ambition and opinions is kind of heavy handed for me. It feels like criticism. What is wrong with being traditionally feminine?  What is wrong being sensitive and wanting to get married and not having an interest in a high powered career? Is that character boring to people? Or maybe people don't think she exists anymore? Because I'm kind of sick of this other character I keep seeing everywhere. Cranking out the same career driven, doesn't need a man, awesome at everything and beautiful too, if only she could just make time for love leading lady is what every Hallmark movie and every YA romance and every Disney Princess retelling is about. Granted, I could've used a little more of that growing up, but I'm begging now for a whole lot less!

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