Books: What I Read in March

Oops, sorry my round-up of what I read in March is so late! April really got away from me. In March, I read a few new-to-me books and revisited a couple by one of my favorite authors.
what I read

The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah

I read The Nightingale for one of my book clubs. It’s the story of two sisters living in occupied France during WWII. The sisters are different from each other in many ways. The older sister, Vianne, is married, lives in the countryside and has a daughter. The younger, Isabelle, is kicked out of school and sent back to her father in Paris. She’s impulsive and impetuous, traits some argue work against her. Both sisters end up helping the Allies, but in different ways. Isabelle leads fallen pilots back to safety across the Pyrenees while Vianne helps protect the children of Jewish families, who would otherwise be taken off to the camps.

At first, I found the book to be slow going, but things picked up and it became an engaging read around the time that Isabelle starts leading her rescue missions. The novel really shows what life was like during the occupation, depicting the challenging choices the sisters (particularly Vianne) need to make to survive.

 

Numero Zero by Umberto Eco

Numero Zero was the first book by Umberto Eco I’ve ever read. It was for my other book club, and was chosen because of Eco’s recent passing. A short novel, Numero Zero delves deep into (and pokes fun at) the political scandals plaguing Italy in the early 1990s. An erstwhile ghostwriter, Colonna, lands an assignment as an editor for a newspaper in development called  Domani (“tomorrow” in Italian). The mission of the paper is to focus on the stories of tomorrow and to blackmail certain people in power.

During his tenure as editor, Colonna meets a number of other losers, including Bragadaccio, who claims to have discovered a political scandal involving Mussolini, and a young woman who wants to do serious reporting but keeps getting stuck on the celebrity beat.

Although I really didn’t know anything about Italian politics (aside from those weird parties Berlusconi had a few years ago), the book was a fun read. I was expecting something dense and difficult to get into and instead found the opposite.

 

Amnesia Moon by Jonathan Lethem

I was staring at my bookshelf one day in March when I glanced on Amnesia Moon, the second novel by Jonathan Lethem, who’s one of my favorite writers. “Did I even like this book?” I asked myself, “or am I just keeping it because it’s Lethem?” To figure that out, I decided to re-read it. Consensus: I didn’t really like it, but it’s not a bad novel.

Very clearly inspired by the works of Philip K. Dick, the novel is set in a post-apocolyptic world. No one really knows what happened, except that something clearly did. There’s a before and after in the characters’ lives, the tricky thing is figuring what the before was. The main character starts out being a person named Chaos, but as the story unfolds and he travels across the country, accompanied by a mutant child named Melinda, he realizes that his  name is actually Everett Moon.

Each of the towns Moon and Melinda visit have some weird thing going on. One town is covered in a green mist that keeps the residents from seeing clearly. Another is governed by a powerful elite and ruled by luck — residents are judged based on how lucky they are – the lower your luck, the worse off you are.
Amnesia Moon is very much an early work, and it shows a writer still developing his voice. I’m not a super fan of PKD (OK, I’m not a fan at all), and I’m pretty sure that’s why the novel didn’t resonate with me the first time I read it (there are so many parallels and similarities with PKD’s stories in the novel, it’s almost like an author learning to write by imitation), or the second time through, for that matter.

As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem

As She Climbed Across the Table was the first novel I ever read by Lethem, for my senior seminar class in Magic Realism back in college. Is it magic realism or science fiction? was one of the questions we focused on while reading the book. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, as the story is a compelling one.

Philip Engstrand is a professor of anthropology at a college in California.  His girlfriend is Alice Coombs, a particle physicist, also at the same college. At the start of the book, Alice’s department has a major breakthrough, creating a void that eventually becomes known as the Lack. Lack starts eating things, sending them who-knows-where. But, it (he?) only eats certain things, rejecting others. Alice and several other scientists (plus a resident Derrida stand-in) all try to make sense of Lack, to figure out what it (he?) wants.

Philip is left to try to pick up his life after the appearance of Lack. Alice is strangely drawn to the void, altering their relationship forever. In short, the novel is a story of a guy who gets the girl, then loses her, then tries to do what he can to win her back.

It’s a spoof on science and modern academia. But, it’s also your classic romantic comedy, with the guy being a bumbling fool who thinks he’s lost the girl, only to have a (sort of) happy ending.

What I Read: February 2016 Books

Plants, self-improvement, a book about WW2. What do those have in common? They were all themes in the books I read in February. Let’s take a look:

 

book reviews for February 2016

The Cabaret of Plants by Richard Mabey

In another life, I might have been a botanist. Or a horticulturist. I really love plants, and eagerly wait for gardening season to begin each year. So it’s no surprise that I found The Cabaret of Plants by Richard Mabey to be a joy of the book. In it, Mabey, a British writer known for focusing on the connections between the natural world and human culture, reflects on the role a variety of plants species have played in human experience. Examining species such as the yew tree, ginseng, and orchids, Mabey notes that although humans have tried to make sense of these plants, in many ways, their meaning and very way of being is perhaps beyond our ability to comprehend. A number of the plants in the book, from the yew tree, which is able to split and change its pattern of growth after hundreds of years, to the orchids that exist completely beneath the soil, demonstrate that point perfectly.

I particularly liked the point Mabey made, when describing people’s obsession with the beneficial properties of ginseng, that it’s common for people to assume that plants have these compounds for the benefits of humans, when in fact, the plants are just looking out for themselves. How anthropocentric to assume that because something exists in nature, it exists for our sake. That the chemicals in certain plants can help or heal humans is really just a coincidence.

 

book reviews for February 2016

Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

OK, so Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin both annoyed me and made me feel like I can take on the world. Rubin, who also wrote a book called the Happiness Project (which I couldn’t read more than a chapter of), looks at how we develop habits and what we can do if we want to change certain habits.

She’s really big into separating people into categories. For example, at the start of the book, she describes four tendencies people have: to be Upholders, or those who do things for themselves and to please others, Obligers, those who get things done for others, but struggle to commit to their own projects, Questioners, those who question outside expectations, but can meet their own goals, and Rebels, those who question everything. Figuring out your tendency is meant to help you figure out the best way to launch a new, better-you habit.

Reading this, I got the sense that Rubin is like that friend of yours who’s always trying new things or trying to improve some area of life nd who wants everyone to go along with her. I get it, I’m also always setting goals for myself or trying little projects to put an end to bad habits. But, I dunno, it’s kind of annoying to spend some 200 pages reading about all that. At the end, did I pick up any tips or walk away with a better sense of  how to improve myself? I dunno. Maybe. But, I think I just walked away rolling my eyes.

 

book reviews for February 2016

Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes

In Better than Before, Rubin mentions how she read Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes and managed to get down to her lowest weight ever. I shouldn’t read them because they are triggering, but any time I hear about a new nutrition or diet book, I want to read it. Vegan Before 6, It Starts with Food, name another book about food and I’ve probably read it. So, I checked this one out from the library.

Taubes’ big argument is that we get fat because of carbohydrates. He’s got a lot of science to back him up (actual studies in humans and rats), which makes me feel more confident about his argument than the argument in other books, which seem to rely on equal parts “feeling,” pseudoscience, and some belief that everything people did hundreds of years ago was somehow “better.”

What I didn’t like about the book was that Taubes insists it’s not a diet plan. Yet, at the end, we find a diet plan, which includes instructions such as “don’t eat more than two servings of pickles a day.”

Instructions such as that make me sad. Plus, I’m a vegetarian, and have no interest in eating meat, and it’s pretty difficult to avoid carbs on a veggie diet. So, while I appreciate reading the research and will work cutting down on sugar and starches, I’m not going to stop eating bread. Or start limiting my pickle consumption.

 

book reviews for February 2016

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Finally, some fiction. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson is a companion or follow-up (not really a sequel) to Life After Life. The novel explores the impact World War II had on Britain, by zeroing in on the life of Teddy, a fighter pilot in the war, and the brother of Life After Life’s lead character Ursula. Teddy’s experience in the war is reflected in and contrasted with the experience of his only daughter, Viola, who I’d describe as damaged and selfish, and in the experience of his two grandchildren, Bertie and Sunny, who are also damaged, but not nearly as annoying as their mother.

While Life After Life played fast and loose with narrative structure, stopping and restarting characters’ lives, A God in Ruins has one continuous arc. It jumps back and forth in time, taking us from the 1920s to 2012 in the space of just a few paragraphs, sometimes, but its characters don’t get a do-over or restart, a chance to make things better, the way they did in the first book.

Books: What I Read in January

Well, when it comes to books, my year is off to a great start. I read three fantastic novels in January and two social science/pop anthropology/sociology books last month. Let’s review:

Primates of Park Avenue

 

I put Primates of Park Avenue (written by Wednesday Martin) on my holds list at the library when it first came out, nearly a year ago. The book was so popular, it took until the end of December for a copy to become available. Was it worth the wait?

Eh, kinda. The press for the book and excerpts I read from it before reading the whole thing definitely tried to make it seem like some sort of salacious tell-all. But, it wasn’t really. It was one woman’s experience living in a culture that was strange to her, at least at first. Sure, there were some moments were the tone of the book was like “oh no, she didn’t!” But in all, I thought it was a pretty level-headed assessment of what life is like up on the Upper East Side.

The Coldest Winter Ever

The Coldest Winter Ever was a book club pick. It’s not a book I would have chosen to read on my own, but I’m glad that I got to read it. The Winter in the title refers to the narrator and main character in the book, as well as to the challenges she faces in her life when her father, formerly a big drug dealer in the projects in Brooklyn, ends up arrested. The feds seize everything Winter and her family own, from their home to their designer clothing. Her sisters end up in foster care, her mother ends up breaking down. But, Winter remains strong through it all.

Reading the book, I wondered if it was a criticism and commentary on the drug dealing life or a criticism of the forces that act against that life. Winter’s father might have been doing bad things, but he was providing for his family. It’s only when the feds step in and take everything that the world starts to crumble around her.

 

The Heart Goes Last

The Heart Goes Last is the latest novel by Margaret Atwood. I picked it up when she was at the Free Library in October and only just a chance to read it. The world of the novel is one similar to our own, except that the great recession has destroyed more people’s homes and livelihoods.  Tired of living in their car, Stan and Charmaigne decide to move into the Poistron Project, which is half prison, half housing development They alternate between living in a normal house and living in the prison month after month. Their needs are taken care of, so what could go wrong?

Everything of course, and the novel gets progressively darker as it goes on. But, since it’s a Margaret Atwood story, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The story looks at the darkest depths that people can sink to while also reassuring us that there’s good in humanity.

The First Bad Man

Miranda July is a quirky strange woman, so it’s no surprise that her novel The First Bad Man is a quirky strange novel. It starts off in the office of a doctor who prescribes color to treat symptoms and falls down a rabbit hole of weirdness from there. There’s violence and strange sex and more violence, and some ideas that will deeply disturb people. I’ll say that I  enjoyed the book, and that there’s a chance you will either absolutely hate it or love it.

 

Modern Romance

I love Aziz Ansari, but I actually didn’t think I was going to read Modern Romance. I’ve been in a relationship for more than 11 years; I have no idea what the kids do in the dating field these days. I heard there’s something called Tinder.
But, the book appeals to more than just people who are single and frustrated with what dating apps hath wrought. It’s also insanely funny. I read it on a train to NYC, sitting across the aisle from a business-y looking guy, who was on his phone the entire, conducting important business, and I had to hold in my laughter.

Although the title is Modern Romance and the book is meant to look at the dating lives of a very distinct group of people (middle class 20 and 30somethings, though I wonder what they used to define middle class and if upper middle class or privileged, but not super wealthy might be a better term. Anyway.), I found that it was also relevant for modern relationships in general to some degree. Who hasn’t worried that their friends hated them or if they’d said something horribly wrong when it took more than an hour for someone to respond to a text message?

If you’ve seen Aziz’s stand up or watched his show Master of None, be warned that there is some repetition in the book. You’ll hear about that girl that never texted him back (which was a story line in Master of None) and he talks about food a lot. But, you’ll also get a lot of funny stories and an insightful look into what people who are single and dating are thinking and going through these days.

Cold Mountain

Maybe including Cold Mountain here isn’t fair, because I only read about 10 pages before deciding that I just didn’t want to read it and there was no point in continuing. It’s the One Book, One Philadelphia pick for the year and one of my book clubs is reading it, so I thought I’d give it a try.

The language is very pretty, but it’s set in the Civil War and I just couldn’t care about it. So I stopped and returned it to the library right away, so that someone else can enjoy it.

Goals for 2016

It’s January 20, well past the time of making new year’s resolutions. Actually, it’s pretty much right around the time when people realize that they haven’t kept theirs or that they just can’t face drinking another glass of weird juice or dealing with the hassle of going to the gym and that maybe it’s time to table the resolution or try again next year. I’m not much one for making resolutions, which is why just getting around to writing about my goals for the year near the end of January.  Here are a few of the big ones I plan on tackling this year.

capsule_wardrobe_winter2016

Shop Less

Honey, you’ve got a blog that’s got shopping in its name, I can hear you thinking. How are you going to shop less? Well, as it turns out, I’ve kinda let the shopping get out of control in recent years. Not “I’ve got credit card debt now” levels of out of control, but out of control in terms of buying stuff I didn’t really like or that didn’t really fit, in large part because it was 40% off of at (fill in name of store here).

Shopping less is so far proving not to be that big of an deal, but it is January, which kinda doldrum season for the stores, so we’ll have to wait and see how things go in February and March. Having a capsule wardrobe definitely helps keep the urge to shop at bay, as I keep telling myself that I have all that I need.

When it comes to actually planning out future wardrobe needs, I’m giving myself limits. My style hasn’t really changed over the years, but I have been able to refine what I like more and what I want from clothing, and that has helped me to reduce the urge to buy items “just because.”

Doing a major closet and house purge last year also helped me see that I never use what I buy, quickly tire of it, or just don’t like it that much. For example, although I used to think that I liked cotton button front shirts, I’ve realized that I hate the time it takes to iron them and that it’s difficult for me to get one that fits right off-the-rack.

I’ve also become more focused on quality, which means I’d rather spend more on a better constructed garment than less on one that literally falls apart. Focusing on other financial goals, such as paying off my student loans (more on that below) and saving up to travel to Paris for a month will also help me not shop so much. One of my goals last year was to unsubscribe from all of the sales emails I got on a daily (or sometimes even multiple times a day) basis. I did that bit by bit over the year, and it not only did it mean fewer emails for me to open or just delete each day, it also meant fewer siren songs of “40% off! One day only!” Out of sight, out of mind really does hold true when it comes to sales.

 

books_goal_2016

Read About the Same

Last year, I set a goal to read 50 books. I read 45. But, I’m not disappointed in myself, because some of those books were big or dense and took a while to really read. I’ll still track what I read this year, but I’m not going to focus so much on a number. Instead, I’d like to focus on “quality over quantity” (as my dad used to say when looking over my remedial handwriting assignments. Yeah, I needed extra practice learning cursive. Talk about wasted effort). Pictured above are a few of the books I’d like to read or re-read this year. Some of them are pretty big or just dense, so I just won’t be able breeze through them. As with last year, I’m  hoping to use the library or re-read titles I already own, instead of buying new ones.

Here are some of the titles I hope to read (or re-read) in 2016:

Pay More Towards My Student Loans

This is a blog about shopping (and sewing). But, I still thought it worth mentioning that one of my goals for the year is to really focus on paying down my student loans.  I’ll keep it short, because you probably don’t want to hear about money nonsense.

I’m 33. I finished undergrad almost 11 years ago and got my masters 8 years ago. I put my big grad school loan on an income based repayment plan a few years ago, and while that was helpful in lean times, it is pretty much the same thing as throwing that money into a black hole, since the amount I pay monthly on the plan doesn’t chip away at the principal.

Ugh. Maybe I regret that decision, but there’s no time for that — I’m in the situation I’m in and I’d like to fix it. I’ve read lots of people’s stories of paying off their loans in 1, 2, or 3 years. I won’t be going for anything that dramatic. My goal is to pay off the tiny bit that’s left on the undergrad loan by the end of March and to focus on paying off my grad school loan (which is much bigger) within four or five years.

Books: What I Read in December

Sad news: I didn’t achieve my goal of reading 50 books in 2015. I got to 45, which isn’t bad, but isn’t quite the mark I was going for. After not really getting through many books in November, thanks to play reading season, I picked things up again in December and read six. Having two five hour flights to Iceland, plus about five hours on the train from Philly to JFK airport each way kind of helped with that. Without further ado, here’s  what I read in the last month of 2015.

Shopaholic Takes Manhattan and Shopaholic Ties the Knot

I’d admit it. There’s no shame. I enjoy the “Shopaholic” series. On my way to and from Iceland, I tore through both Shopaholic Takes Manhattan and Shopaholic Ties the Knot. In case you’re not familiar with the series, it follows the adventures of Rebecca Bloomwood, a Londoner with a shopping problem. In the first book in the series, Becky’s a personal finance writer who’s deep in debt thanks to her impulsive purchases. By book two, she’s got a spot on a TV show and is invited to head to Manhattan with her boyfriend, who runs his own PR firm. By book three, her boyfriend, Luke has proposed to her, and she faces the conundrum of having a big blow out wedding at the Plaza hotel in  NYC or a quiet home wedding back at her parents’ house in England. Thing is, she doesn’t make the decision in time and both weddings end up being planned.

That might not sound that interesting, but it’s all pretty hilarious. Becky gets into what you can only describe as “scrapes” because she doesn’t say “no” or make the right decisions when she should. Her situations are pretty ridiculous, and sure, the series isn’t very realistic, but that’s not really the point. Maybe I’m weird, but I see the whole thing as comedic gold. It’s wild and over-the-top and pretty great airplane and train reading.

Wonder by RJ Palacio

I read Wonder for one of my book clubs. It’s the story of a 10-year-old boy, Auggie, who has a severe facial deformity. At the start of the book, his parents have decided to enroll him in school for the first time and he’s quite nervous about it. The book takes place over the course of Auggie’s first year at school, showing how he adjusts and how his classmates adjust to him.

Wonder’s target audience is younger readers, but I was surprised by the sophistication and depth of the characters throughout the book. Although the first part of the story is from Auggie’s perspective, narration changes throughout the book, and we get to hear the story from a variety of characters, from Auggie’s older sister Olivia to some of the friends he makes at school. Even smaller characters, such as Via’s new boyfriend and her once-best friend, get a section.

Admittedly, the message of the book is a little heavy  handed (be kind to others), and there were points when I was like, OK, I get it. But, it was still a good read and if it helps kids and teens understand why they shouldn’t bully kids who are different from them, then all the better.

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

I know some people are way into Nick Hornby. I’m not really one of them, but I did love High Fidelity and About a Boy (the book versions, though the  movies were good too). Funny Girl has a different feel from either of those two novels. For one, it’s a historical work, set mainly in the 1960s. For another, it’s not really a first person point-of-view. There’s a weird distance between the narrator of the story and the characters, which feels strange. At first I thought it was because so many of Hornby’s leads are male and here he is writing about a woman, but no. Because although you might think based on the title that the focus of the book would be on that woman, Sophie Straw, a comedienne from Blackpool who ends up getting her own TV show pretty much right after moving to London, well you’d be wrong.

Sure, Sophie figures prominently in the book. A lot of it is about her. It’s a lot of telling though, not really showing. OK, so she’s pretty and has a big chest, but how is she funny? The book also focuses a lot on the writers who create the show she ends up starring in. I felt that their story (being two gay men in a time when being gay was illegal) overshadowed hers quite a bit. Let’s not even get into the guys Sophie ends up with, including her failing leading man co-star Clive and the sort of drippy but all around OK guy producer she ends up marrying. It felt as though in trying to highlight each character’s challenges and struggles Hornby ended up shortchanging each of them.

All this is to say that if you love Hornby’s other books, Funny Girl might be a bit of a change. I’m not sure if it’s a bad change or not, or if the book is weaker than it could have been. It just felt that way.

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

Here are a few things I though while reading Gold Fame Citrus: This feels like Margaret Atwood.  And wow, I want to write like this.

The book is set in the near future, after California and the west have given way to drought and a “dune sea” replaces much of the land as we know it today. Luv, a former child model and piece of living propaganda, lives in the desert with her boyfriend, Ray. They’ve shacked up in the abandoned home of a starlet, making use of her discarded evening wear and Hermes scarves. At one point, they find a toddler at a rave and that’s where things get weird.

The couple decide to travel east, abandoning the drought ravaged West. Things go wrong, they get separated and Luz and baby end up at the camp of a cultish group, led by a strange dowser, with whom Luz begins an affair.

Gold Fame Citrus (the title refers to the three things that led people to seek their fortunes out west  originally) is a great piece of dystopian fiction. Watkin’s created a weird, gripping and believable world. Sure, parts of it feel overwritten and I’m not quite able to visualize what a dune sea is (may be it sort of looks like an expanse of sand that shifts from time to time, swallowing up things without a care?), but it was book that I pretty much couldn’t put down from start to finish.

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

Speaking of Margaret Atwood, I spent the last week of December reading The Robber Bride. It’s described as a reversal of the Grimm tale of the Robber Bridegroom. A woman, Zenia, seduces, discards and for the most part destroys the partners/husbands of three college friends over the course of several decades. The novel looks at the three women’s pasts, the role Zenia played in their lives, and how she got to their men.

Who is Zenia? The answer varies based on which of the characters you ask. She’s a former prisoner of war, a former prostitute, or a cancer survivor. She fakes her death at least once. That she uses and discards men isn’t up for question, but whether that makes her a malevolent figure or not might be. In her mind, she was doing Charis, Tony and Karen a favor, but they don’t see it as such.

One of things I love about Atwood’s work is that going into a story you’re never sure if you’re getting something speculative or something more realistic. Sure, the story of Zenia is a bit out there, and there are some other worldly elements, thanks to Charis, who’s all into auras and such. But, feels psychologically realistic. The characters live in Toronto, much of the action takes places in the 1990s at a restaurant, much of their pain is believable and real. The premise might come from a fairy tale but it’s fully plausible.

What Else Did I Read in 2015?

Here’s everything I read last year:

Books: What I Read This November

Oh, wow. November really got away from me. It’s going to look like I didn’t read that much this month (just 2.5 books), but really, I was drowning in scripts from a few of theater festivals I read for, so that took up much of my reading time (I lost count, but I think I read somewhere around 50 plays last month). While there weren’t that many books this month and I had to return one to the library before I could get through it, I’d recommend each of them. Even the one I didn’t finish.

After You by Jojo Moyes

Me Before You was one of those books that I didn’t think I’d be that into when I started reading it, but people in my book club really recommended it and raved about it, so I read it. And loved it. And cried so, so much while reading it. It was a perfect, sad but uplifting story with fantastic characters. Given what happens in that book, I assumed that would be the end of things and the end of the story. So, I was pretty surprised when I found out that the author, Jojo Moyes, was writing a sequel, titled, fittingly, After You. Since some sequels have proven not to live up to the grandness of their predecessors (I’m looking at you, Broadchurch, season 2 and the second season of True Detective), I was a bit nervous that After You would be a let down.

The novel picks up where Me Before You left off, and I really can’t say  much about its plot without ruining the major story of the first book, except that we find the main character, Louisa, trying to put her life back together after the events of the prior novel. Things aren’t go so well for her – she has a crappy job at an airport bar, she’s basically just treading water in life, and then she falls off a roof. From there, everything changes for her, mostly for the better, but there are some rough patches in there.

After You nicely gives the reader a bit of closure for Louisa. The end of Me Before You had a sense of finality, but there was also a bit of uncertainty about whether or not she’d be able to actually live her life as she had promised. I didn’t cry as much at this one as I did at its predecessor, but there were still a few tears. I found myself drawn into the story and characters, just as I was the first time around.

 

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

I’ve joined another book club, and Fun Home, graphic memoir, is the book of the month for December. Written by Alison Bechdel, it recalls her childhood, growing up with a closeted father who was very particular about design and aesthetics  and who tended to have outbursts of anger and frustration towards his children. At the time that Alison comes out to her parents, she also learns that her father is gay and that he’s been having relationships with younger men (often, his students at the high school where he taught), for years. Shortly after that, her father is hit by a truck and dies.

There’s a sense of swirling in the book. Although it’s a memoir, it doesn’t start at year one of Alison’s life and move forward from there. Instead, it moves backwards and forwards, circling back to her father’s death, wondering if he killed himself or if it was really an accident, tying bits of her father’s life to the literature he loved so much.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

A Brief History of Seven Killings is my half book for the month. It’s nearly 700 pages long and I just couldn’t finish it before I had to return it to the library. I wish I had, but I can’t be a person who doesn’t return books on time. That’s just not fair and not how the system is meant to work.

A Brief History . . ., which won the Booker Prize this year, starts off with the events surrounding the 1976 attack on Bob Marley at his home in Jamaica and goes off from there. The story is told from the perspective of at least a dozen different characters  and is broken up into many small chapters, which helps make the book flow. James does a fantastic job of giving each character his or her own distinct voice, too, using varying patterns of speech and dialect with each person.

Since the story does have some basis in reality, and follows events that actually occurred in what was a confusing and jumbled time in Jamaican history, it does get a bit difficult to follow who is who and what’s going on. But, it’s very informative. Although I only got about a third of the way into the book, I felt like I learned a lot about what was happening in Jamaica in the 70s, with the political battles, the gang wars, and the CIA and US sticking their noses in.

I hope that I’m able to check the book out again, when my plate is less full and actually get to finish reading it before I have to return it.

Books: What I’ve Read This October

Since my seasonal book review round-ups were getting pretty lengthy, and it was difficult to remember what I wanted to say about books I read three months ago, I’ve decided, for the last quarter of the year, to do things on a monthly basis. There will be fewer books, but I hope to be able to go a bit more in depth in my reviews. Here’s what I read this October:

Never Never Part 1

By: Colleen Hoover and Tarryn Fisher

Never Never, part 1 is the first book in a trilogy of novellas. I believe it’s written by two indie authors who regularly work together and, judging from the book’s reviews on Amazon, have a massive following. I read it for my book club and would not have read it or even heard of it if not for that.

The very plot driven book centers on a high school aged couple, Charlie and Silas, who both lose their memory at the same time. Over the course of the day, they piece back together who they are and what their lives are.

Because this is part one of a three part series, it ends on a major cliffhanger. There’s a big reveal, and a character in peril, and then we’re supposed to buy book two to find out what happens next.

Although it was a quick, page turning (or whatever it is when you read on a Kindle) read, I was didn’t find the plot or the character development compelling enough to purchase and read the next book. If you’re a fan of a cliffhangers, mysteries, and teen romance, I’d recommend it. But, it wasn’t the book for me.

Lucky Alan and Other Short Stories

By: Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem is definitely one of my top five favorite writers, so I was thrilled to find his latest collection of short stories, Lucky Alan, on the library shelf. The book contains nine occasionally experiemental, occasionally absurd stories.

I think my favorite was “King of Sentences.” In it, two aspiring writers, who work at a bookshop and are very much that person, decide to track down their still-living favorite author. He’s none too thrilled to see them and ends up tricking them, leaving them naked and without recourse in a hotel room.

My least favorite is a story I’ve actually read a few times (it appeared in Harper’s many years ago – actually, most of these stories have been published somewhere or another before). “The Dreaming Jaw, the Salivating Ear” imagines a blog as a piece of land, complete with a blogger going to battle to protect her land, er blog. Creative and all that, but just doesn’t really do it for me.

 

Purity

By: Jonathan Franzen

(Warning: Spoilers. I guess.)

I was complaining to my friend the other day that it doesn’t seem likely that I’ll reach my goal of 50 books by the end of the year (I’m on #37 right now). “Well, you read big books,” she pointed out. And I guess that’s true, if you count Purity as a big book (it’s 563 pages in hardcover).

Where to even begin with Purity. It’s similar in structure to other Franzen novels, in that it’s divided into sections and each section focuses on one character. Pip, nee Purity, a recently graduated young woman, gets three sections. Andreas Wolf, a character who’s very similar to Julian Assange, gets one, Tom Aberrant, a journalist and Pip’s (unknown to her at first dad), gets one (written in 1st person), and Leila, Tom’s girlfriend, gets one.

One major character notably doesn’t get her own section and that is Penelope, nee Anabel, Tom’s former wife and Pip’s mother. Anabel is an artist, a feminist, and based on the book’s descriptions of her, mentally ill. She and Tom ultimately couldn’t live together. Anabel also couldn’t live with the fact that she’s heir to a fortune. She disappears, changing her name and giving birth to Pip, without telling Tom about their daughter.

There has been some criticism of Franzen’s treatment of Anabel, and perhaps of women in general (some of it thoughtful and nuanced, some of it that makes you wonder if people actually read Franzen’s books). While Pip is a well-developed young woman, perhaps the opposite of her mother, Anabel/Penelope is a dramatic, over-the-top feminist. She won’t let Tom pee standing up. She will only have sex on the three days when the moon is full each month. She can’t bear being the daughter of a billionaire. In creating her, Franzen conflates feminism with mental instability, and that has (rightly) pissed some people off.

But, Anabel and her flaws aside, the book is fantastic. Pip might be the character around which event revolve, but the action that gets the ball rolling and without which Pip would have never met Tom and found out about her background, is a murder in East Germany just before the wall fell.

Andreas Wolf, of the Sunlight Project, murders a young woman’s abusive stepfather. In covering up and destroying the evidence of the murder, he becomes a spokesperson for those against the Stasi, leading to his future career in charge of the Sunlight Project, an organization that, like its rival WikiLeaks, reveals top secret documents and information. While concealing the evidence of the murder, he gets help from Tom, who’s in East Germany with his dying mother.

Pip begins interning with Wolf and ends up in a weird (I’m going to say “icky”) sexual relationship with him. She then ends up in Denver, working with Tom’s investigative journalism outfit. All along, it turns out Wolf has been pulling the strings in an attempt to get revenge on his former accomplice.

Murder. Missing fathers. Mistaken identity. It all sounds so over-the-top, so mystery-film-noir-of-the-week. And yet. Purity ends up being a pretty good look at our world today. Beyond the murder and identity confusion, the heart of the story is Pip herself, a young woman who’s just trying to figure it all out.

Books: What I’ve Read This Summer

Another season is over, which means it’s time for another book round-up. I might start doing these monthly, since it’s a bit challenging to write capsule reviews of about 12-13 books at once. At any rate, here we go . . .

July

Look at Me by Jennifer Egan (novel)

I love Jennifer Egan. She writes innovative and challenging novels, and Look at Me is no exception. The main focus of the story is Charlotte, a model whose face is completely transformed after a car accident and reconstructive surgery. Although Charlotte tells most of the story, the narrative also jumps back and forth to the point of view of other characters. It challenges you to think about the way things look versus the way they really are.

An interesting bit about the novel is that it was written well before 9/11, but features a character planning some massive terrorist attack. Although the comparison wasn’t Egan’s intent and she had no way to know what was going to happen when she wrote the novel, it’s impossible to read it today without immediately leaping to 9/11 and making those comparisons. But, she has a note in the back asking you not to do that, so try not to.

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

Since I just confessed my love for Jennifer Egan, it might go without saying that I do not love Dean Koontz. Odd Thomas was the first novel I’ve read by him and it will be the last. Sure, it’s a plot-based, fast-moving thriller, and despite the fact that I hated it, I couldn’t put it down. But, ugh. It was like being lectured by an old man, through the voice of a clueless 20-year-old character. So many things bothered me about the book; it’s not even worth going into it. In case you’re wondering why I read it — it was a pick for book club.

Absurdistan: A Novel by Gary Shteyngart

I first read Absurdistan in 2006, when it was first published. I remembered it as being an epic tale of adventure, starring an obese Russian man who ends up in the middle Absurdistan when he’s denied re-entry to the US. During his time there, Absurdistan breaks out into a civil war and things get weird. The novel felt less gigantic on second read but much more satirical. Maybe I was too dumb to catch it as a 20-something?

Like Egan, Shteyngart is one of my favorite writers. He’s self-effacing (there’s a character based on him in the book) and very funny.

Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

I’m not single, in the sense that I have a partner, but I don’t ever plan on getting married, and for that reason, Kate Bolick’s Spinster resonated with me. It’s part memoir and part biography of some of the single ladies who have inspired or influenced Bolick (she calls them “awakeners,” which I have to admit, I find corny). The writers she profiles include Charlotte Perkins  Gilman, Edith Wharton, Neith Boyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Maeve Brennan. It’s worth a read, even if you’re not a spinster or don’t plan on going through life unattached.

August

The Buried Giant: A novel by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant is Kazuo Ishiguro’s fantasy/Arthurian novel. It’s about an older couple journeying to find their son while a strange mist coats the land that makes it hard to remember things. Before reading the book, I saw Ishiguro speak about it at the Free Library, and all people were going on about was how there’s a dragon in the book. Some man was really flipping offended about the dragon.

Although it has all the trappings of a fantasy novel, the book is still very literary. Along with the theme of memory, there’s the question of the value of love. There’s a tale of a couple who need to cross a river, but the boat can only fit one at a time. Only couples who can prove their love is true can travel together. The concept of the promise of undying love is found in another Ishiguro novel, Never Let Me Go, in which two clones hope to escape the death that is pretty much guaranteed them because they truly love each other. As in that novel, there’s the hope that love can conquer all, but not the guarantee.

The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel by Garth Stein

Here’s another book club read. The Art of Racing in the Rain is written from the point of view of a dog on the last day of his life. I had to wonder about the narrator choice, since it limited the writer’s choices and made the narration so very simplistic. The book is somewhat heartbreaking, and not only because you know the dog is going to die. Denny, Enzo’s owner, has been dealt a rough hand (things get better for him, though). His wife’s family is awful, his wife’s cousin accuses him of rape, and he has to fight a custody battle to get his daughter back from  his late wife’s parents.

Although it seems like such as simple and wholesome book, it’s actually been banned in some schools, because of the rape accusation part. I also took issue with that part. There are so many instances of women being raped in real life where they are not believed or where they have to really fight to be listened to that to have a character crying wolf about rape in the book felt irresponsible to me.

Oreo by Fran Ross

I first heard about Oreo, which was published back in the 1970s, on NPR this summer. There’s a new edition of the book out, with an introduction by Danzy Senna, who wrote Caucasia, which is one of my favorite books. Oreo the book is one of those “forgotten classics” that resurfaces every decade or so (the version I read was actually published about 10 or so years ago, and didn’t have Senna’s intro).

Oreo is the nickname of Christine Clark, the daughter of a black mother and a Jewish father, who lives in Philly in the ’70s. Yeah, you’re going to think her nickname is Oreo because she’s black and white. But, that’s not it. Her grandma wanted to call her Oriole, but everyone heard “Oreo,” so that stuck.

The book’s a picaresque, meaning that Oreo is a scrappy hero who goes off on an adventure.  It’s modeled after one of the great Greek hero stories –that of Theseus, who sets off to find his father after years of living with just his mother. Ross even provides a handy guide at the end so you can see how Oreo’s story overlaps with that of Theseus.

In the intro to my copy of Oreo, the writer suggests that the reason the book didn’t do well when published (it was Fran Ross’ only novel, although she was a writer for a short-lived Richard Pryor sitcom) was that it was ahead of its time. Its intense satire and identity themes were just too much for an audience to take back then. I think that’s probably true, and for that reason, I really hope it finds its audience today. The world needs more stories featuring strong female characters who aren’t going to take it.

The Joy of Less by Francine Jay

In case you didn’t notice, I’m going through a bit of a minimalism phase right now. I tore through The Joy of Less pretty quickly and would recommend it to anyone looking for a guide to cutting back and cutting the clutter. I’d particularly recommend it to people who find Marie Kondo and her Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up to be a bit too much.

Jay  has her own method of decluttering which she calls “streamline.” (It stands for Start over, Trash/Treasure/Transfer, Reason for each item, Everything in its place, All surfaces clear, Modules, Limits, If one comes in—one goes out, Narrow it down, and Everyday maintenance.) Unlike Kondo, she recommends taking a room by room approach to clearing out, and she walks you through tidying up each room in your home.

The part of the book that I think I got the most from was this piece of advice: Enjoy things without owning them. I’m beginning to learn that I can appreciate the idea of an item or looking at pictures of items more as much as (if not more than) owning those items.

Stuffocation by James Wallman

Stuffocation continues the own less, do more theme. In it, James Wallman describes different methods of living that people have tried to get more out of life. He talks about the minimalists, who love counting how little they own, he talks about Thoroeau, who spent all that time in the woods, only to get bored of it and return, and he talks about a family who’s given it all up to live the rustic life, encountering plenty of challenges along the way.

His ultimate argument is that, in this era of over-consumption (what he calls stuffocation), investing in experiences is becoming more valuable and more enjoyable than investing in stuff. I agree, and I think we’re really starting to see a shift away from the stuff-filled life, at least among many people.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

I think I first read about the Dud Avocado in Vogue about two years ago. At the time, I thought, that seems like a great read. But, then I forgot about it until I saw a copy on the shelf at a used bookstore this summer.

Similar to Oreo, the Dud Avocado is a book that keeps coming back into the public’s mind. It gets republished every so often and a new stream of think pieces and critiques are written about it. The story is about a young woman who travels to Paris, has adventures, learns about herself and the world around her, and comes home more mature. It’s a quick and enjoyable read and it’s part of the reason why I’m studying French right now.

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids ed. Meghan Daum

Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed is a collection of essays written by childless (or child-free) writers about their choice not to have children. While some of the essays are exactly what you’d expect — women and men describing terrible childhoods — a number of them make pretty sharp arguments. My favorite essay in the book was written by Lionel Shriver. In “Be Here Now Means Be Gone Later,” she focuses on the fact that her generation’s focus on “me” and living for pleasure has the very real consequence of leading to the decline of specific (European/white) cultures. It’s a contrarian point of view and I think she argued it well, even though I don’t agree with her point.

I also really enjoyed the argument behind “Maternal Instincts,” in which writer Laura Kipnis points out that the so-called maternal instinct women are supposed to have innately is actually a social construct that came about with the Industrial Revolution.

There are many reasons why a person wouldn’t want kids and many reasons why people want them. The book helps shine a light on what it’s like to be in the no kids camp and lets people see that it’s more than being one of the three adjectives in the book’s title.

Books: What I’ve Read This Past Spring

I’m still on track to get to my goal of reading 50 books by the end of the year, and here’s a round of up the books I’ve read this past quarter/season. Although I’m starting to wonder about the virtue of choosing quantity over quality when it comes to reading. Should I be aiming for X amount of books or should I be aiming for really challenging reads? Some books are super quick reads, but they’re the written equivalent of a milk chocolate bar, satisfying and sweet, but don’t really do much for you in the end. I think this list is a fair balance of high and low reads, some candy mixed in with more mentally nutritious stuff.

April

Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl is pretty much the fictional version of her memoir How to Be a Woman. Here we have a young woman from a poor family in the West Midlands who goes about reinventing herself after a big embarrassment on local TV. Our lead character, Johanna, renames herself Dolly Wilde and sets out to be a rock n roll journalist in London. She gets a gig, starts writing, and quickly loses sight of who she really is, lost in all the sex and anger and Mad Dog that goes with being a teenager at any time and particularly goes with being a teenager who wants to escape herself.

 

April was a bit of a feministy reading month for me. Next up was Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, her memoir.  Another short, fun read, but also a bit of a dark one, or at least darker than the other funny women memoirs I’ve read. By which I mean, Poehler talks about drugs and sex and also a bit about taking charge of your life. I momentarily turned into a bitchier person after reading this book, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

 

Will people ever stop writing stories about missing kids? Will I ever stop reading novels and watching television shows about them? Remember Me Like This has a bit of a different ending compared to most child’s gone missing stories, in that the story focuses on the aftermath when the kid reappears after several years. Will the family seek revenge or let the law do its job? Is the impact of the son’s return worse than if he had stayed gone?

Another way that Remember Me Like This stood out from similar stories is that it was a lot more clinical and cold feeling. It felt more journalistic in style, as though the author were presenting the facts instead of creating a story.

 

More feministy stuff. Bad Feminist is an amazing book. I’m so glad that Roxane Gay shares my love of Sweet Valley High, even while recognizing that it’s bad stuff, and that she also read the terrible Sweet Valley Confidential. I’m so glad she loves Scrabble and that she plays in tournaments. I’m also glad that she’s able to write deeply nuanced essays on the more serious things in life just as well as she’s able to write thoughtful essays on pop culture crap. The book is probably the most genuine thing I will read all year.

 

 

I felt that what I was reading April was a little too light-hearted (feminism and missing kids aside), so I finally read the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I have nothing to add to what’s been said about the book before, but it was a worthwhile read and I learned a lot about medical ethics from it.

May

 

If April’s reading was light hearted, May’s was anything but. I started out with Elephant Company, about James Williams, aka Elephant Bill, who trained elephants in colonial Burma in the early 20th century. I know, I didn’t really want to read it either, but it was a book club selection, so I figured, why not?

The book surprised me and was actually pretty engaging. Elephants are magnificent creatures and I feel glad to have read it just to learn more about them. I could take or leave the bit about traveling across Burma during World War II, but I feel that way about any “war” section of a book.

 

I owe a lot of my political thinking to reading Naomi Klein at a young age. I enjoy her work, but that doesn’t mean that This Changes Everything was an enjoyable read. Instead, it’s a walk-through of missed opportunities and frustration at government actions that undermine any good work that has been done, seemingly, to fight climate change and destruction. It is a challenging and at times frustrating read, but it ends on a positive note. Klein argues that the people are starting to shift the tide and take action to keep climate change from being as terrible as it could be. There’s a lot of work to be done, but she gives us  hope.

 

Yeah, this is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic, season 10, volume 1. I guess the series is getting a little played out at this point, but I’ll probably keep reading them. Dracula returns in this one, Xander gets to do his sad slave to Dracula bit, Dawn (who was nearly erased when magic went away (spoilers, by the way)), doesn’t remember loving Xander, and now some vampires can go out and about in the sunlight. What will we do? Read the rest of season 10, I guess.

 

There are a lot of great books that were published when I was in college that I completely missed. We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of them. (Look at Me, which I just finished reading, was another). The book is told in letters from a wife to her husband after their son does something absolutely terrible. She’s using the letters to trace their story together. It’s not so much that she needs to make sense of what her son (Kevin) has done, but to prove to her husband that she was right about him all along. At least, that’s how I read it. Some argue that she’s working her way through blame or that she feels really guilty about how her role as a parent led to Kevin’s violence. It’s an in-depth look at what can happen when a person who doesn’t want children has them and has to deal with the fact that she doesn’t love her child the way she’s supposed to.

June

After all that gloom and doom in May, I started off June with a bit of post-modern historical fiction, in the form of the novel Viper Wine. Featuring historical characters and a lot of anachronism, the novel focuses on Venetia Stanley, who was once a great beauty. At the start of the story, she’s in her early 30’s, fat from having children, and feeling less than her best. In an attempt to regain her magic, she seeks out a potion, called viper wine, which does make her more youthful looking and prettier, but at a high cost.

Although the book was an enjoyable read, I’m not sure that the anachronisms (Venetia’s husband, an alchemist, is able to reach forward in time, and regularly  hears snatches of pop songs, for example) really did much to help it. It felt a little too pedantic and as though the author was trying  a bit too hard to make a connection between the often out-there things women did for beauty back then (belladonna in the eyes, snails, viper wine), and the things women do for beauty today (Botox, fat dissolving shots, and vampire facelifts). The characters might be based on people who really lived, but they did end up feeling a bit flat and undeveloped.

 

The Girl on the Train is one of those books you can’t really discuss in depth without giving away some of the plot. I can’t really get into a discussion about the depth of character here or how the author really played with your perceptions of things without telling you all who did it. So, I won’t. But, know this: my first thought when reading this was that all of the women characters were over the top, female stereotypes, which annoyed me. But, in the end, I think that was part of the point, to demonstrate the way they were played and manipulated by someone throughout the book.

 

I really like Ian McEwan’s books, and Sweet Tooth is no exception. This was the second time I’ve read it. Like some of his other works, there’s a twist at the end that plays with your perception of who is telling the story. The book is narrated by Serena Frome, a just-graduated-from-university (Cambridge) young woman who is recruited to MI-5 in the 1970s. She doesn’t expect much from the job, as back then, women didn’t really get to do much, but soon finds herself running an agent, in the form of a talented young writer (who seems to write stories that bear a lot of similarity to McEwan’s early work) the ministry wants to use to promote anti-Communist ideas, all while not appearing to have any role in at all. It’s a pretty clever book.

Books: What I’ve Read This Winter

At the beginning of the year, I read that the fiction librarian at the Free Library read something like 300 books last year. That’s a pretty impressive number — nearly a book a day — and it inspired me to see my own reading goal for the year — 50 books. I’ve been keeping track on  a list and figured it might be worth it to do a quarterly review/round up of what I’ve read, both to keep track and to help it sink in better. So, here’s a quick list and review of the books I’ve read between January and March (there are 11, so I’m a little behind if I hope to make it to 50 by the end of the year):

January

Leaving the Sea: Stories; Ben Marcus

Ben Marcus is one of my favorite writers. The first thing I ever read by him was an essay in Harper’s magazine in 2005 and it was amazing. A little cranky, but amazing. His work is challenging, but not off-putting. The stories in Leaving the Sea feature characters (men) who find themselves in increasingly absurd situations, rejected by their loved ones or left floundering about in life. As the stories progress in the book, the style becomes more and more experimental. While the first two are fairly realistic, the last few are better described as explorations of the ways language works (or fails to work).

Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir; Alan Cumming

I’m not really a memoirs person (which is weird to say, since there are three on this list), but this was a great read. Cumming recounts his fraught relationship with his abusive father, who tells him that he’s not his actual father. It’s a sad story, but it’s also a hopeful one, as he’s able to forgive his dad. Although memoirs aren’t really my thing, it was interesting to get to read the life experience of one of my favorite actors.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing; Marie Kando

Yeah, I’m counting this one. It was short and fluffy, but I read it twice. You can read a bit more about my experience with it here and here.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A novel; Haruki Murakami

Compared to 1Q84, his last novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki felt very lightweight. That’s not to say it was no good, it just felt so much simpler, as the plot wasn’t involved or twisty turny.  Tsukuru Tazaki was abandoned by his group of friends in college, and  years later sets out to find out why. I’d say it’s a light, worthwhile read, but the portrayal of women and the rape discussion in the book did make me feel a little weird, and those aren’t usually things I say  about Murakami.

The Unconsoled; Kazuo Ishiguro

I got to see Kazuo Ishiguro at the Free Library a couple of weeks ago, and in preparation for seeing him, I read the Unconsoled in January (and in February — it took me a long time to get through it). The novel is from 1995, right after the Remains of the Day. It’s a bit of a trip, but I’m not sure it was a trip that went anywhere. And that’s OK. The main character, Ryder, is a pianist who goes to a town to put on a concert. But, lots of stuff happens to him during his stay there, and it’s not clear why or how or what. . .  here’s an understatement: Ryder is one of the most unreliable narrators in existence. Apparently, I’m not the only person to struggle with the book, nor am I the only one to think it’s worth a read, even if it makes you tear your hair out.

Now I See You: A Memoir; Nicole C. Kear

Here’s another memoir, which I read for a book club I’m in. Kear has a retinal disorder that caused her to slowly lose her sight over a period of years. The book isn’t some sappy survivor story, but instead focuses on her  refusal to accept her worsening blindness or to tell others about it. Part of that involves living as much as she can before things go dark, part of it living in frustration as she can’t  do the things she once could.

February

How to be both: A novel; Ali Smith

I picked up How to Be Both at the London Review of Books bookshop when I was in England last September, but didn’t get around to reading it until February of this year (when I bought it in the UK, it hadn’t been published in the US yet).  The novel features two stories, one set in the modern day and the other set in the 15th century. Dual story aside, what makes the novel unique is that different versions of the book feature the stories in a different order. The copy I got had the 15th century story first, then the modern one. I have to wonder if that affected what I thought of it, as I found the story of the painter in the Renaissance to be harder to get into than the story of George, the girl in modern day who’s dealing with the loss of her mother.

A Drunken Dream and Other Stories; Moto Hagio

Whether A Drunken Dream and Other Stories belongs on this list depends on your thoughts about whether  manga/graphic novels count as a literary experience, or not. I say yes, so here it is. The book is a collection of short stories, created by Moto Hagio, who is is responsible for turning the shojo, or girl’s comics, from a genre that was mostly stories that men thought were relevant to girls, to a genre that fully explored the experience of being a girl. Some of the stories in the book, such as “Girl on Porch with Puppy” seem so simple at first, but are really deep. The collection was my first time reading shojo or any type of manga, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has no idea about it, but wants to.

March

The History of the Kings of Britain; Geoffrey of Monmouth

I love ancient history books. Not the stuff written today, but the stuff written hundreds or thousands of years ago, which we read today and have to think “hmm, was this real?” Herodotus’ Histories is an example, The History of the Kings of Britain is another. It spans early British history, from the time of Brutus, the great grandson of Aeneas, to a few hundred years after the death of Arthur (who, according to this version, didn’t die at the hands of Mordred). Merlin’s a character in the book, and there’s a whole section dedicated to his prophecies. Written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century, in Latin, the book is apparently based on an older history books which is conveniently,  no longer available. Did this stuff really  happen? I guess it really doesn’t matter, but as someone who’s in the Arthurian legend, it was worth a read to see the more historically minded side of things.

How to Be a Woman; Caitlin Moran

I read How to Be a Woman a few years ago, when it first came out. After The History. . . I needed something a little light to read before jumping into the next book on this list, so I decided to re-read it. How to Be a Woman is both a memoir and an outline of Moran’s feminist views. That makes it sound really boring, when it’s anything but. It made me laugh a lot, while thinking about common women’s issues.

All the Light We Cannot See; Anthony Doerr

Try getting this one out from the library — you’ll be on the hold list for months. I was, so I ended up breaking down and buying it, so that I could read it in time for book club. It was totally worth it, as the book was great. It takes place during World War II, mostly in the occupied port city of Saint Malo. It’s kind of a love story, but not really. It’s a story about people making it through a terrible period in history, doing what they need to do, even, as is the case of the German boy who ends up fighting for the Nazis, they don’t necessarily agree with what is going on. Marie-Laure, one of the main characters, is a blind girl who’s left in the city of Saint Malo after her father is arrested by the Germans. Werner, a German orphan who proves to be incredibly gifted in science and mechanics, is the other main character.

There’s a lot that goes on in the book (as there should be, it’s over 500 pages long), but what stands out about it is the structure. Divided into several parts, each part is full of short, short chapters and each chapter jumps from one character to another. Although long, the way the book is structured makes it a quick read.