Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

In a word: Sophisticated.

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This is a book that I just KEPT seeing everywhere. The author, Amor Towles, just released his second novel (A Gentleman in Moscow) in September (I am currently about halfway through it–so far, so good!), so his name has been floating around all of the blogs, podcasts, and Instagram accounts that I rely on to keep me relevant in the book world. Also, my friend Marci raved about Katey and Tinker and Eve. When I would hear Rules of Civility described, it was usually something along the lines of “like Gatsby, but not really.”

It is a similar world to Gatsby, but I like Rules of Civility WAY more. I loved the glamorous ‘high society’ New York characters, the elaborate parties, the witty banter, the chance encounters, the thoughtful asides. Rules is definitely more about the characters than the plot, but the characters were so interesting that anytime they DID anything, it was usually pretty fun to read about.

The thing that makes this book a stand out (in my opinion, of course) is not the setting or the characters, but the writing. It amazes me that this is Towles’s first novel. I kept a pad of sticky notes with me while I read so I could mark memorable passages, and I ended up with a very bookmarked final product! I can’t wait to finish reading his second book. I also think this is definitely one that would be worth re-reading.

Check out some of my favorite quotes below:

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“It is a lovely oddity of human nature that a person is more inclined to interrupt two people in conversation than one person alone with a book.”

“If we only fell in love with people who were perfect for us…then there wouldn’t be so much fuss about love in the first place.”

“Uncompromising purpose and the search for eternal truth have an unquestionable sex appeal for the young and high-minded; but when a person loses the ability to take pleasure in the mundane–in the cigarette on the stoop or the gingersnap in the bath–she had probably put herself in unnecessary danger.”

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These Is My Words (Nancy Turner)

In a word: Endearing

The exact copy of the book I read has gotten lost, and I can’t even find a pic of it online. So you’ll have to take my word for it that it was UG-LY. When this book was placed into my hands, I did judge that book by its cover, and it did not bode well:

  1. Grammar  in the title: bad
  2. Cover: homely
  3. Author: unknown
  4. Setting: Arizona
  5. Format: Diary

Due to all of the above, I would never have picked up this book except that the person who gave me the book was my mother. She recommended it, and what’s more, she expected me to read it.  I am a dutiful daughter, so I took the plunge, imagining that I’d take one for the team and then return to all of the more interesting titles on my TBR list.

(My mom has great taste in books, so I don’t know why I was so reluctant to trust her.)

(This is a much more attractive copy of the book than the one I read.)

That unpromising cover does give you a true preview in some ways: this is the diary of a young pioneer girl as she moves with her family into the truly wild west of Arizona territory. The unpolished grammar and spelling does take some getting used to, but it improves as the narrator matures. But despite this, and all of my other misgivings, it didn’t take me long to warm up to the characters and the story–I was curious, then invested, then totally engrossed. I finished the book within 24 hours, and I remorselessly neglected my home and family responsibilities until I got to the end.

A plot summary doesn’t do justice to the charm of this book. If you know anything about pioneer life, or if you ever played Oregon Trail, you can make pretty good guesses: snake bites, Indian raids, cattle thieves, natural disasters, etc.– all exciting, but par for the course.

What makes this book exceptional is the scrappy, determined narrator and her leading man, who might have just nudged his way into my Top Ten Literary Crushes list. Oh, Captain Jack: pass me the smelling salts! (No spoilers here, but his line “Mustache!” might be my favorite part in the whole book.)

This is one of those rare, sweet books that you can gobble down in a day but that will stick in your mind for much, much longer.

***

Here are some favorite quotes from the book, thanks to Leslie, who had the good sense to read this with a pencil in her hand:

“Childbirth is not an enemy you can fight or conquer or outrun, it takes you and tears you apart from the inside out and you have to just submit to it. I never understood why a girl would choose to be an old maid, but now I do.”

“Any other man ever comes around me better be carrying a pistol with one more bullet than I’ve got or I’ll have the last word.”

“A friendly silence can speak between two who will walk together a long way.”

“I know all these people are so busy because they love each other and me. We are a noisy crowd of love.”

“Mostly I just raise my children and cook and clean, flirt with Jack and enjoy his company, and read aloud the books he give me for silly holidays he makes up. Like, Oh, here’s a gift for The Third Tuesday in October, didn’t you know that’s a holiday?Well I bought you a book. He is amazing.”

“Well I hope I’m not that cantankerous. No. There’s a difference between strong coffee and bitter medicine.”

Sarah is strong coffee indeed! Her inspiring, endearing tale might be just what you need to wake up your reading life this holiday season.

September Recap

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The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (Historical Fiction)

LOVED. The Invention of Wings was a really beautiful story that is based on the true story of the Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two sisters who were activists for Civil rights and women’s rights in the 1820s and 30s. The book also tells the fictional story of Handful, a slave girl who was given to Sarah on her 11th birthday. This story is beautiful and heartbreaking, telling the stories of two girls who have hopes and dreams of rising above the lives they are born into.

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin (Fiction)

I was sadly not very impressed by this one. I saw it in the library and grabbed it because I love Steve Martin (yes, the actor), but it was not my favorite. An Object of Beauty follows Lacey, a young up-and-comer in the art world in New York. There are many, many descriptions of famous paintings and artists (which I don’t have a lot of knowledge about), and also, Lacey was a terrible person. I don’t always have to love characters I’m reading about, but there was not enough in the book for me to like to get past a very unlikable main character. I read to the end of the book, but it was definitely not one I would ever pick up again.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (Fiction)

This was my book club choice this month, and it was SO fun. A quirky, socially incompetent genetics professor comes up with “The Wife Project”, a survey that will find him a suitable partner. Around the same time, he meets Rosie, a wild, unpredictable girl enters his life. The both find that there are things to learn from the other and (SPOILER ALERT) find love in very unexpected ways!

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin (audio-celebrity memoir)

I have always had a really warm spot in my heart for Steve Martin, but I have realized that that is actually more about George Banks and less about the actual person of Steve. I still did enjoy this audio book, but it was not quite as good as I had built it up in my mind. I do not really know much about the world of stand-up comedy, so it was interesting to hear about Steve Martin’s journey from Disney World to magic shows to stand up to acting.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (Nonfiction)

One of my friends called this “an uncomfortably great read” and I think that is the perfect description. I never would have picked up a book about cadavers, but my good friend told me that it was super interesting and worth reading. For a book about dead bodies, it is surprisingly upbeat. Mary Roach does a great job of presenting facts and stories in an accurate, but not overly gruesome way. She explores the history of cadaver use in medical study as well as other fields. It was FASCINATING. This book is definitely not for the faint of heart or for the squeamish, but I learned so much! If you are into biology or science history, I think this could be a good book for you.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (Classic)

I am putting this book into the unfortunate “Overrated Classics” category. I’m sorry if you love this book, but I thought it was SO BORING. I think I could have enjoyed an abridged version of this book because each chapter seemed like about 15% plot and 85% descriptions of sea creatures. I suppose that may be interesting to someone interested in ocean life, but for me it was soooo hard to get through.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown (YA-dystopian fiction)

This is my favorite fun (if you can call a book about training teenagers the tactics of war “fun”) I’ve read in a while. I love a good dystopian story, and this one did not disappoint. It has a Hunger Games-y feel, but it may be a little bit darker. It has been a long time since I’ve read HG, but from what I remember, this one seems to have a lot more killing and violence. BUT. I loved. it. I will probably do a full review once I finish the last book of the trilogy. Red Rising is about a society that has a strict color caste system; each color has a specific place and role in their world, some more glamorous than others. A rebel group rises up from the lowColors and tries to infiltrate the system from the inside. It is dramatic and gripping and interesting and just so good!

Snapshot: my reading life today


Just finished: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. This one took me a little while to get into, but I ended up enjoying it very much! The plot sounds like a thriller: Deep in South America, an opera performance in the Vice President’s house becomes a hostage situation when terrorists swarm in through the air ducts during the encore. But despite this alarming premise, this is actually a slow-moving, character-driven kind of novel. I don’t mean any of those things in a negative way; the characters are interesting and endearing, and the interactions between the hostages (most of whom do not speak a common language) and between the terrorists and the hostages are surprising, touching, and sometimes funny. After the leisurely pace of most of the book, I thought the ending was startlingly abrupt, but it was satisfying nonetheless.

Currently reading: I literally just finished Bel Canto last night, so I haven’t picked up another title yet. I’m torn on what direction to go next- I need some motivation around my house, so I’m thinking about rereading The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. But I also have a pretty large stack of fiction waiting for me by my favorite chair (see photo above), ranging from a Maisie Dobbs mystery to the more serious The Kitchen House to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (I feel super ambivalent about reading this at all- haven’t made up my mind yet.).  So, we’ll see. I’ll have this question settled by later in the day, though!

On the Kindle: I’m totally out of the habit of reading digital books, which is partly great because I’m on a crusade to be on my phone less. But it’s also frustrating, because I keep buying ebooks on sale that I really do want to read! So I have kind of a large queue building up. I recently started The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language, and it IS interesting and accessible. But it’s not the kind of story that keeps pulling me back like a magnet, so it’s slow going.

On Audio: I’m listening to Sense and Sensibility, and, ya’ll: Marianne is about to kill this one for me. She drives me CRAZY, and Willoughby isn’t even on the scene yet.

Recent and Notable: Earlier this fall I read The End of the Affair. I started it on Audible because Colin Firth was the narrator. But I couldn’t follow the plot (my problem, not Colin’s), so I switched to a hard copy that I’d picked up for pennies at a used book sale. This book was interesting, but not at all what I thought I was getting into! Yes, it’s about an affair between a man (the narrator) and a woman (his married neighbor). But it’s just as much about the friendship that develops between the narrator and the the woman’s husband years after the affair concludes. And even more than either of those, it’s kind of a heavy Catholic-conversion story (I didn’t see that coming). So, as a whole, this was interesting, but not very emotionally engaging or satisfying for me.

Quotable: 

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” -Graham Greene, The End of the Affair

Any recommendations about what I should bump to the top of my reading list? What are YOU reading right now?

 

A Jane Austen Roundup

I just completed a tour de Jane Austen today; here are some short thoughts about her stories and characters, followed by my ranking of favorites:

(Note: This post originally ran on my other blog five years ago after I read the full Jane Austen canon for the first time. I’ve updated it to reflect my thoughts in light of a few recent re-reads.)

1.  There is a reason why Pride and Prejudice is the best-known and best-loved of Austen’s novels.  It’s Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy.  Oh, wait, that’s not where I was going with that.  P&P is actually far and away the best of the six novels, mostly because Elizabeth Bennet is the spunkiest, most likable heroine of all.  She has a sense of humor, she knows and speaks her mind, and she grows as a character between the beginning and end of the novel.  What a concept!

2.  Speaking of speaking one’s mind: I’ll be the first to agree that totally unfiltered twenty-first century Americans could learn from the tact and decorum of the many genteel characters to grace Austen’s pages.  But if some of these heroines would occasionally express their mental turmoil in actual, audible words to the pertinent party, these novels would be a lot shorter. (I AM LOOKING AT YOU, ANNE ELLIOT, AND YOU TOO, CAPTAIN WENTWORTH even though you are not a heroine.)

3.  Some friends and I recently completed a rousing discussion of the “Which Jane Austen character are you?” question and the group decided that my Austen double was Mrs. Weston from Emma.  But of course I’d much rather be a heroine than a supporting character, so I am revising my match to be Elinor from Sense and Sensibility.  She’s quiet, passive to a fault, dutiful, emotionally reserved, and family-centered.  Plus, she gets to marry Edward Ferrars, who was chosen as Stephen’s match, so how perfect is that?

Lastly, my preferences, in order:

1.  Pride and Prejudice.  The central characters in this book are more complex and dynamic than any other leading couples.  The supporting characters (Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins in particular) are funny and quirky without making me CRAZY.

2.  Emma.  It’s possible that my judgment is impaired by the fact that I cannot even deal with Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley, but I truly did enjoy this book on its own merit.  Emma is a very silly heroine, but I love her anyway; and her ability to receive correction and admit her faults is admirable. I listened to an audio version of this one not too long ago, and I was delighted to discover character details and subtle foreshadowing that I had missed in my first reading. (This is the mark of a classic, you’ll remember: when a book becomes more amazing, not less, the more times you read it!)

3.  Northanger Abbey.  Surprise!  This was one I had never read before.  The characters are not very interesting or well-developed, but I loved the tongue-in-cheek narrator and the fact that this novel doesn’t take itself too seriously.

4.  Sense and Sensibility.  Despite my self-identification with Elinor, the story moves a little slow.  Plus, Marianne is super annoying and Willoughby just WON’T GO AWAY.

5.  Persuasion. This is my most recent read, and I may be posting some longer thoughts and quotes as a separate review. But here is the short version: this book was better than I remembered, and I very much enjoyed reading it. But I do still stand by the complaints I raised here, and since I have NOT recently read Northanger Abbey or Sense & Sensibility, I can’t say if I would rank these titles differently. I’ll have to read them again soon and get back to you!

6.  Mansfield Park.
My first time through, choices 5 and 6 were in competition for last place; both Fanny Price and Anne Elliot have the spunk and zest of warm milk.  The only way I can comprehend that men fall in love with them is that they are surrounded by other characters that are completely uninteresting, unlikeable, and/or already married (not that that stopped Mr. Crawford from running off with Mrs. Rushworth!  What a scandal!).

All in all, any time with Jane Austen is time  well spent.  I’d love to hear about YOUR favorite Janes!

Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie)

In a word: Surprising

After I finished  Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star, I decided that I needed to read a classic for a little mental palate cleanse. I settled on Peter Pan, which I had picked up for a steal at the same book sale as Darcy. My kids have been ob-sessed with the Disney cartoon of Peter Pan, so I had been planning to preview the original J.M. Barrie novel as a possible family read-aloud for this year.

I’d never read it before; the Peter Pan story never really captured my imagination because I was always that kid who couldn’t wait to grow up. (It wasn’t until I was an adult that the idea of childhood appealed to me!)

Barrie’s Peter Pan did not rock my world, but I was entertained by it, and I definitely enjoyed the way it kept catching me off guard. The narrator is cheeky and wry, and is as entertaining as any of the actual characters. The book is definitely funnier than I expected. At the same time, it’s darker than I would have guessed; Neverland is a creepy place full of real villains and danger.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

One day when [Wendy] was two years old…Mrs. Darling put her hand over her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this forever!’ This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.

Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for the next morning.

‘No, no,’ Mr. Darling always said, ‘I am responsible for it all. I, George Darling, did it. Mea culpa, mea culpa.’ He had had a classical education.

Every boy had adventures to tell; but perhaps the biggest adventure of all was that they were several hours late for bed. This so inflated them that they did various dodgy things to get staying up still longer, such as demanding bandages, but Wendy…cried ‘To bed, to bed,’ in a voice that had to be obeyed.

The difference between [Peter] and the other boys at such a time was that they knew it was make-believe, while to him make-believe and true were exactly the same thing. This sometimes troubled them, as when they had to make believe that they had had their dinners.

So, yes, all very charming, wouldn’t you agree? But then there are little passages   like this…

The boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers according as they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out; but at this time there were six of them.

[The eyes of Jas. Hook] were of the blue of the forget-me-not, and of a profound melancholy, save when he was plunging his hook into you, at which time two red spots appeared in them and lit them up horribly….

Undoubtedly the grimmest part of him was his iron claw. Let us now kill a pirate, to show Hook’s method. Skylights will do. As they pass, Skylights lurches clumsily against him, ruffling his lace collar; the hook shoots forth, there is a tearing sound and one screech, then the body is kicked aside, and the pirates pass on. He has not even taken the cigars from his mouth.

After a time [Peter] fell asleep, and some unsteady fairies had to climb over him on their way home from an orgy. Any of the other boys obstructing the fairy path at night they would have mischiefed, but they just tweaked Peter’s nose and passed on.

So at the end of the day, this was a worthwhile read, although it’s not one I’ll revisit again. I do think that I’ll hold off on reading it to my kids; I have a child with a vivid imagination who would surely never drift off to her own Neverland if I filled her mind with Pan right before bedtime!

August Recap

Wrapped up my “Summer Reading” with some fun August reads!

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1.The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan (Foodie Fiction)

This was a delightful little novel. I did a full review here. It was engaging, a little cheesy (in a good way), and fun. It was a great summer or weekend read–bonus points if you have a fondness for Paris or chocolate.

2.The Storied Life of A.J. Fickry by Gabrielle Zevin (Bookish Fiction)

I really enjoyed this one! A.J. Fickry is a quirky, widower who owns a book store on an island whose life is turned upside down when a baby is left in his store with a note and an Elmo doll. Surprisingly, he decides to keep the child; unsurprisingly, he then turns into a big softy. I love books about books, so all of the conversations and recommendations that A.J. has throughout the books were very enjoyable.

3. Persuasion by Jane Austen (Classic)

Stop 3 in my tour de Jane. I was interested to see how much I enjoyed Persuasion because, unlike Pride and Prejudice and Emma, I was not familiar with the story or the characters. Verdict: Jane Austen is a genius forever and I love her. Persuasion was definitely very good, but it did not surpass my first two Austen loves. I found the characters a little bit uninteresting, and the conflict in this story was not as compelling as the others. Also, Anne’s sisters are the worst.

4. We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman (Fiction)

I think I must have heard someone mention this book at some point, but I had no idea what it was when I got the notification from the library that it was ready for pick-up. I decided to just jump right in, which was a fun exercise! This book was pretty medium for me. It felt agenda-pushy and overall kind of meh. It was about as good as a movie I picked on Netflix-entertaining for the moment, but not something I’ll probably think about again.

5. Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling (non ficion/memoir/celebrity book)-Audio!

I actually own this book in hard copy, but when I saw it available at the library on audio, I grabbed it. I read Why Not Me? in one day when I first got it, so there were definitely some stories and quotes that I had forgotten about since then. Why Not Me? is definitely enjoyable, but I far prefer Mindy’s first book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?. There are definitely some great quotes and essays, though, including “I will leave you with one last piece of advice, which is: If you’ve got it, flaunt it. And if you don’t got it? Flaunt it. ’Cause what are we even doing here if we’re not flaunting it?”

6. The Rise of the Nones by James Emery White (Christian Nonfiction)

The Admissions team at my school chose this as our Summer reading book, and it was very good! White explores the rise of the religiously non-affiliated in our culture, and he gives really practical tips on how Christians can best reach that ever-growing demographic.

7. Castaways of the Flying Dutchman by Brian Jacques (YA)

I was approaching the end of the month and still had not chosen my YA book yet, so I enlisted the help of a 6th grade boy who I babysit. He started with some obvious recommendations (Harry Potter, Wingfeather Saga), but when I had read most of the ones he suggested, he finally landed on this one. Jacques is best known for his Redwall series (fighting mouse, I think?), but Sage told me that this one was better. It tells the story of a young boy and his dog who escape from a cursed ship and are granted immortality and telecommunication between each other. It was enjoyable–definitely different than what I would normally pick up, but I did like it! I am not the intended audience for this book, but I think that it is perfect for young readers. It has adventure and a great story, and it does it without bad language or inappropriate content.