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!

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Vacation Reading: Yours, Mine, and Ours

We went on an extended-family vacation a few weeks ago, which gave Les and I a rare but wonderful opportunity: reading together!

This meant Leslie reading out loud to me while I drove one of the vans on the way to Missouri. She timed it perfectly so that we read the final paragraphs of These Happy Golden Years as we literally pulled into the parking lot of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Mansfield.

Once we arrived at our final destination (NOT Laura’s house, sadly), we settled in to reading our own books in close proximity and then trading them back and forth as we finished.

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One of the first nights we were all together we celebrated all of our summer birthdays. Leslie and I were showered with books and book-themed gifts. (Does our family love us, or what?)

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Finally, it meant Leslie stealing one of the books that I had gotten for my birthday to read on her drive home. Just yesterday she told me that she was just going to ship me another copy from Amazon because she wasn’t going to give my original one back!

I was going to post a a detailed Vacation Reads summary, but Leslie covered almost all of my titles with her June recap! (See aforementioned book swapping.) SO…I’ll keep it simple.

Still Life by Louise Penny

I’ve never claimed to be into murder mysteries, but I’m making a happy exception for this series. These plots are interesting without being icky; much more about human nature and relationships than about the grisly details of a character’s untimely demise. Still Life is book 1 and I’ve heard the series just gets better from here!

The Knockoff by Lucy Sykes and Jo Plazza

A total change of pace, this novel set in the rapidly changing world of fashion publishing is delightfully larger-than-life. Editor Imogen has paid her dues and risen to the top of her field until she is usurped by her 26-year old former assistant who returns to Glossy magazine with an MBA. Manic catfighting ensues.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

I read this a long time ago and liked it okay, but after years of Leslie’s fangirling I decided to give it another try. She was right! I totally loved the snarky tone and the creative narrative structure.

All Good Things by Sarah Turnbull

I was excited to discover that the author of my all-time favorite memoir, Almost French, had written a follow-up companion. It’s always fun to catch up with beloved characters. But honestly, if I hadn’t already had a connection to the characters, I don’t know if this book would have captured my interest. The tone is much more melancholy (the main theme is Turnbull’s struggle with infertility and her longing for a child), and the pacing is inconsistent. For example, a description of a deep-sea dive might go on for pages, but (SPOILER!) the long-awaited baby turns one just a few pages after his birth. The strongest points of this memoir are Sarah’s struggles and successes as a foreign member of a new culture– this time in Tahiti.

 

But enough about me…what have you been reading on your summer vacation?

June Recap

June was a really fun month of reading for me. I started in a little bit of a slump, but once I got going on a couple of these, I just couldn’t stop reading!

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1. Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

The first of a long series of books following Maisie Dobbs, a detective/private investigator/boss lady in the 1920’s. She is smart and totally lovable. This first book has a lot of flashbacks to set up Maisie’s back-story, but I hear that doesn’t continue much through the rest of the series. I really enjoyed Maisie and can’t wait to continue with the series!

2. Ready Player One by Earnest Cline

Full post here. Surprisingly enjoyable dystopian YA nerd novel. Ready Player One takes place in dystopian future America and follows an eighteen year old boy who is trying to win a video game contest for the hope of a better life.

3. Still Life by Louise Penny

Louise Penny’s first Chief Inspector Gamache novel. I read a different Louise Penny book that comes later in the series before I realized that it was a series, so I finally got around to starting at the beginning. I loved it. The crazy characters, the quaint small town, the quiet confidence of Gamache–I can’t wait for my library to get me book 2!

4. Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

True confession: I did not finish this book. I had it on my kindle from the library, and I didn’t know my time would expire so quickly. I really enjoyed the parts that I did read (I highlighted and took screenshots almost every time I read), but I found it hard to pick it up and read for very long. Someday I would like to come back and finish this book, but I probably won’t right now.

5. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Beautiful memoir about Elizabeth Alexander’s husband who passed away suddenly. Alexander is a poet, so her descriptions of her Ficre (her husband) and their life together were really beautiful. Lindsey did a full review of The Light of the World here.

6. Little House on the Prairie, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder

These books are just so classic. I read these three in preparation for our trip to visit Laura and Almanzo’s house in Missouri, and I laughed and cried through them.

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All the heart eyes for Laurmanzo

7. The Knockoff by Lucy Sykes

SO FUN. This might be one of my favorite books that I’ve read this year. It takes place in the fashion world of New York City and follows a seasoned editor-in-chief of Glossy Magazine through a transition into the new world of social media. I loved all of the name-dropping of famous designers and the commentary on the bads (and goods) of our instagram-obsessed culture. It was fun, thought-provoking, and just overall very entertaining. Definitely a great summer read.

8. Lizzy and Jane by Katherine Reay

I really enjoyed this one! It is the story of two sisters (named for the Bennets) who struggle to connect after years of bitterness following their mother’s death. One is a chef, one is a stay-at-home mom battling cancer, but both have some serious emotional baggage to sort through. Even though that sounds heavy, the book is quite lighthearted and full of quotes and conversation about Jane Austen, other classic literature, and food.

9. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Marie Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is one of my favorite books. I reread it this month for my book club (I got to choose the book, so of course I picked this on), and it was just as good on my fourth read. The story is told through a series of memos, emails, flyers, and newspaper clippings, so it is really quirky. I LOVE it.

Happiness and Habits according to Gretchen Rubin

I’ve been binging on Gretchen Rubin lately: I just finished Happier at Home, and Better than Before, and I’m also listening to her podcast, Happier.

Rubin describes her primary themes as “happiness, habits, and human nature.” Rubin’s “happiness” is all about satisfaction and joy with the life you have– related more to contentment, gratitude, and purpose than irresponsibility and cheap thrills. She strives for happiness by way of improved habits– intentionally cultivating practices that will help her live more consistently with her values and priorities, instead of self-sabatoging by taking the path of least resistance.

Preach, sista!

Gretchen Rubin

What makes Rubin’s approach unique and interesting is a commitment to both authenticity and self-improvement.

On one hand, she constantly encourages self-reflection and recognition of your natural tendencies, strengths, and limitations. Her fundamental rule is Be Gretchen; she speculates that one of the main obstacles to happiness and habit-forming is when we try to become something other than we are.

But this is not the self-awareness that leads to “Oh, well, that’s just how I am.” Rubin is tireless in her quest to Be [the best] Gretchen by way of a hundred small habits that will make her happier and more satisfied in her daily life.

I love her practical, can-do approach to a happier life. So often we see ourselves as victims of the life we’ve created, and think we’d surely be happy if only…my husband was more helpful…my kids were older…my boss was more flexible…my house was bigger…etc. In contrast, Rubin is purposeful about developing happiness-improving habits squarely in the context of her real life, now.

Her happy habits never depend on someone else’s participation. They don’t require drastic changes of lifestyle. Rubin frequently cites one of her Eight Splendid Truths, “The only person I can change is myself.” Then she sets about improving her habits as they pertain to her self, family, home, and work.

Happier at Home chronicles a nine-month experiment of improved habits centering around home and family. Each chapter presents three or four specific practices in the following areas: possessions, marriage, parenthood, inner life, time, body, family, and neighborhood.

Better than Before is not a personal experiment, but an interesting how-to on habit-forming. She presents nineteen strategies for forming or maintaining habits, and examines them all in light of four basic natural “tendencies.” I had heard Rubin describe her Four Tendencies on a podcast and found the idea so interesting that I bought this book for the full explanation.

Rubin is (by her own admission) a fanatic about habit-forming. I identify with her a lot, but I do not come close to her level of intensity and personal discipline. However, these were perfect reads for the start of a new season. I am walking away with some really helpful practical tips and great enthusiasm and optimism about my own personal routines.

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.)