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!

The Girl You Left Behind (JoJoMoyes)

In a word: Feel-good

The Girl You Left Behind

If you follow us on Instagram you may remember that I almost didn’t even finish this one. But I am so glad I did!

The first quarter of the book set up the back story in this enjoyable past/present mystery. The story of two sisters holding down the home front in German-occupied France felt SO reminiscent of The Nightingale that I thought it might be better to try it again later. But as I kept reading, I found myself caught up in the other half of the narrative: the modern-day story of sweet and sad Liv, stumbling into a new love four years after the tragic death of her husband.

There’s a lot to like about this book. Moyes is a good storyteller, and her writing is clear and uncomplicated. For bluffer history nerds like myself, the historical setting was interesting. And while I am in the minority, at least according to Goodreads and Amazon reviews, I also enjoyed the modern-day story, which revolves around the mystery of a painting: a portrait by a lesser-known Impressionist, once hung in a French hotel, taken to France after the war, now in the possession of a British architect who bought it on a sidewalk in Spain.

Now, I said that this book will appeal to history bluffs, not serious scholars, and I kind of think the same is true of semi-literary readers as well. The plot and characters would not hold up under intense scrutiny, and I suspect the historical details would not fare much better. So if you have high standards in either of these areas, you may pooh-pooh this selection. But if you’re able to enjoy a story without asking too many questions, this may be right up your alley.

Many of the issues in the story are serious– World War I in the past and a tragic widow in the present, not to mention morally complex themes like wartime infidelity and post-war reparations. Nevertheless, I’m categorizing this as a beach read– somehow it just doesn’t feel that heavy when it’s all said and done, thanks in part to a very satisfying ending. (A bit too neat? Perhaps. But like I said before, don’t ask too many questions.)

Eleanor & Park (Rainbow Rowell)

In [two] word[s]: Totes adorbs

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When I first started this book, I was not charmed. I found it annoying, overdramatic, and a little abrasive (This is often my first impression of high schoolers, so I should not have been surprised, given the two teenaged narrators.). But I was trapped in a rocking chair with a sleeping baby and nothing to read but my Kindle app, so I kept going… and I fell in love.

This story is just the cutest. The narration flips back and forth between the two main characters, giving us two insights into the events that are unfolding. Both protagonists are misfits in their own way: she’s the new kid, overweight and badly dressed, he’s half-Korean and nerdy. They share a seat on the bus. Although they don’t speak at first, they slowly bond over comic books and mix tapes. As their relationship develops, the sexual tension becomes the school bus in the room every time they’re together.

Somehow this novel manages to be sweet and overblown in all the right ways without being melodramatic or saccharine. Part of it is the matter-of-fact perspective of the characters themselves (there is no narrator to bog the story down with commentary or description). Part of it is the harsh setting: this sweet love story unfolds between characters who deal with abuse, poverty, bullying, and clueless parents.

I devoured this story and reached the ending in less than 24 hours. I hadn’t been watching my progress bar and was totally unprepared for the story to be over. I texted Leslie: “DROP EVERYTHING. BUY THIS BOOK AND READ IT TODAY. TELL ME WHAT DOES THE POSTCARD SAY???”

~~~

from Leslie:

As I’ve stated before, I am very easily persuaded into reading things. I had read a book by Rainbow Rowell before (Fangirl-also a really fun read), so I was eager to try out Eleanor & Park. I completely agree with Lindsey’s assessment-it was a perfect YA book. Completely dramatic, but also adorable. I also read it in about 24 hours and immediately called Lindsey to chat about it.

After the abrupt ending, I did a little searching on Rainbow Rowell’s website, and I thought this quote was a perfect summary of why I loved the way she closed out the story:

I mean, I know it’s not really an ending; there aren’t wedding bells and sunsets. This isn’t the end for these two people. It’s just where we leave them.

But they’re 17 years old.

And I don’t believe that 17-year-olds get happy endings. They get beginnings.

Morningside Heights (Cheryl Mendelson)

In a word: charming

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An artsy New York City neighborhood. A cast of characters: a husband and wife trying to maintain their standard of living as their family grows and expenses rise. Their friend, a socially awkward biologist in need of a career breakthrough. Their other friend, a successful scholar and writer worried she’s missed her chance for marriage and children. A neighborhood priest, good-intentioned but full of his own doubts.

Mostly this book just pulls back the curtain and lets you watch these people as they go about their lives. There’s a plot, of sorts, but it’s only a gentle velvet rope, nudging the meandering story along toward the inevitable happy ending.

Although this is a modern novel about liberal, urban characters, this book has an old-fashioned feel. The writing is pleasant and un-ironic, without any harshness or snark. The characters are funny and quirky, but portrayed sympathetically and gently. At the center of the story is the character Anne Braithwaite, who personifies the novel itself with her sometimes naive, but ultimately vindicated optimism.

Throughout the novel, you’ll encounter clever characterization and wry cultural commentary. This was one of my favorite paragraphs, written from the perspective of one of the many minor characters populating the novel:

Jonathan had few romantic aspirations. He only wished that in the ordinary cyclical course of things life would turn more Victorian, with the bachelorhood or spinsterhood of anyone over the age of thirty accepted as a permanent state unless or until the spinster or bachelor chose to surprise the world and take a mate. As things were, people who were unmated but middle-aged, or nearly so, were still in the game. There was no repose, no ease available to someone like him, who would always have ended up a bachelor. Women who had turned forty, as Jonathan himself had, were always looking him up and down as if he were some prime pig, trying to gauge his marital potential and hoping for an invitation to the movies, insisting that he carry the ball in some unduly prolonged version of the mating game. Dating and getting fixed up, dieting, people over fifty still sucking in their stomachs and wearing come-on clothes–it was all insanity. It had been far better when women past their twenties were simply not marriageable, and left men like him alone.

Reading plot-driven books is like hopping on a roller coaster or a race car; this is much more like people watching from a cafe table on a busy New York street.* But if you’re a reader who finds a leisurely pace appealing, grab a cup of coffee and snuggle up with this one.

(I realize that sipping coffee in a sidewalk cafe is more Paris than New York City, but work with me here. Just imagine that such an opportunity exists, complete with the ability to hear the inner thoughts of the colorful cast of characters who chance to pass by.)

Light of the World (Elizabeth Alexander)

In a word: Breathtaking

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This book was a jewel. I read the whole thing in a day (which I never do). I cried through almost the whole thing (which I REALLY never do).

(A side note about the crying: I was seriously worried about myself after I kept my composure through the end of Me Before You, a book with the ending that had everyone else I know curled up on the floor in the fetal position. Dry-eyed, I finished the book on the evening of February 14, and announced to Stephen, “It’s official. I don’t have a heart.” He graciously responded, “It’s one of the many things I love about you.” Happy Valentine’s Day, right?

But I feel vindicated. I’ve been wanting to have a visceral reaction to a book ever since I learned from the What Should I Read Next podcast that it’s the thing to do while reading, and now I can join the club.)

So, on to the book. This is the story of a marriage cut short by the sudden death of the husband just after his fiftieth birthday. His death occurs in the first few pages, and the rest of the narrative alternates between the blissful past and the anguished present. (Although time moves forward in the “present,” and you walk with the author through her healing process, ending in a place of strength and hope.)

An Ivy League professor of literature, the author delivered a poem at President Obama’s first inauguration. Here, her poet’s voice is evident in her prose. Each chapter is a snapshot of a moment, and I loved Alexander’s reverent attention to detail. It feels like this book is a response to the inevitable blurring of memories that occurs after a person dies; it’s like each page is crystallizing the everyday details of courtship, marriage, family life, early grief that might otherwise be forgotten.

(I wish now that I had held onto the book long enough to write down a few perfect quotes to illustrate my point here. But I was in such a hurry for Leslie to read it, I passed it along before I made any notes. So…you’ll just have to take my word for it.)

I highly recommend this touching tribute to an extraordinary man and an inspiring love.

Pilgrim’s Inn (Elizabeth Goudge)

In a word: Refreshing

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I didn’t love everything about this book. I’ll start with that, because I want your last thoughts of this book to be the good ones.

  1. Character-driven. This is not, in itself, a bad thing. But it does mean that no matter how much I enjoy a book while I’m reading it, I have to make myself keep picking it up to read all the way to the end–especially if I’m reading a more fast-paced book at the same time.
  2. Mystical qualities of settings and symbols. Again, this is not always a deal-breaker, but in this case it did not enhance the story for me.
  3. Precocious child characters. I’m realizing this is a pretty constant literary pet peeve of mine. And the little five year old girl, Josephine, was nicknamed Jose´, which I just couldn’t get over.

Despite these three tiny complaints (and all matters of preference, not legitimate criticism), I am glad that I read this book, and I’ll probably read the other two in the series. First of all, the writing was delightful, as you already know from the commonplace post. I actually kept a stack of sticky notes in the front cover of the book because I ended up wanting to mark a passage almost every time I picked up the book (and it was a borrowed copy, so I couldn’t make pencil marks or fold down corners!).

Other than the aforementioned precocious twins, the characters were likable and often surprisingly complex. My favorite character was Nadine, because her theme was one that is crucial in real life but that basically never shows up in books or movies: It is possible to talk back to your feelings, do the right thing even if you don’t want to, and still find happily ever after.

It seems like a truth universally acknowledged by every storyteller that once you fall in love with someone (this can happen in mere seconds), then that person has a claim to your heart that can never be revoked or overruled. It doesn’t matter if twenty years go by, if one or both of you marry other people, if you discover that the other person is actually an ogre, or if you have otherwise incompatible values and lifestyles.

It’s very important to my personal happiness that this “truth” is not actually true, and so I found Nadine’s story particularly inspiring. She was in love with someone who was not her husband. In any other story, this would have meant the end of her marriage. But, no! Nadine discovered that feelings can be reasoned with, and she turns her back on the affair, releases her lover to find happiness elsewhere, and ultimately, she finds contentment and peace in duty and faithfulness. Similarly, she thinks of herself as ill-suited to motherhood. And, yes, she does hire some good help. But she also learns to embrace her family and her home, and to find joy in living the life that she has been given.

You are not a slave to your feelings.
You are not limited by your natural temperament and weaknesses.
People can change and grow.
Joy and fulfillment can be found on the other side of duty and commitment.

These are themes worth celebrating!