What I Read | APRIL 2017

28092902Notes from a Big Country by Bill Bryson

Bryson, known mainly for his European travelogues, here documents his return to the USA through a series of newspaper essays.  Having tasted life in Europe, his musings about his home country are mostly exasperated.  Occasionally, usually at the prodding of his British wife, he remembers something lovely about the United States, which just goes to show that it’s easiest to love greener grass elsewhere than to love what we were given.

NorseMythology_Hardback_1473940163Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

The first creation stories were not especially amazing, and I almost lost hope for this book!  But once we dive into character-driven narratives, there is a distinct Gaiman-sparkle that elevated the book and helped the story feel more cohesive.  I’m becoming more and more interested in Norse mythology, especially because the gods seem especially unfair, and unrepentantly so.

51nBwU944QL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_We Should Hang Out Sometime by Josh Sundquist

A true memoir of one guy’s journey of Not Dating, and how this could have happened.  It’s funny, and there is meaningful growth, which is good because I spent most of the book yelling “you’re self-sabotaging!” at him until he heard me and said so himself towards the end.  The premise is even more fun because he frames each story through the lens of a scientific hypothesis to be proved or disproved.  It was fun to see that he was mostly wrong, and had to learn that we see what we want and/or fear, not what is really there.

28588459Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King

King is one of my all time favorite authors because she walks a fascinating “is this mental illness OR magic OR reality” line that she refuses to clarify.  This book in particular dealt with a subject I haven’t really seen represented before.  King confidently asserts that abuse, big or small, endured or witnessed, is traumatizing and deserves to be acknowledged, addressed, and healed.  Through the lens of a teenager girl meeting other-aged versions of herself.  Fun!

25528801Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

This book is a little more PSA-y, telling the “ideal” rape scenario in which the victim knows it’s not her fault and is believed and supported by everyone.  It’s not very realistic, but it’s very encouraging to see a future to work toward.  Secondarily, I was very impressed that Johnston made me question my cheerleader-stereotypes, and by the end I really admired the sport.

51vR3C-ZWpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

I don’t usually like books written in the form of diary entries, but Schlitz pulled the form off wonderfully.  The break between entries, and how the time in between is explained either in a rush or with embarrassment, really added to the narrative.  It’s set in the early 1900s, and the journey from country (which felt vaguely Little House on the Prairie) to city (which felt modern…ish) highlighted just how drastically technology changed people’s lives during that time period.  It was a fun read!

27230789Honestly Ben by Bill Konigberg

This is a sequel to Openly Straight, now told from Ben’s perspective.  And thank goodness, because Ben is so good!  He’s so lovely!  He’s thoughtful and deliberate, and we all need a Ben in our lives.  There was also so much good gender and sexuality talk going on in this book, with a gender fluid character who is almost immediately embraced by their all-male high school (if only!) and a main character who is something like demisexual…but not really?  I hope there’s a third book from Hannah’s perspective.

41d41DLmZwL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron

I LOVE St. Francis, so reading a fictional book about a Protestant pastor who goes to Assisi and also falls in love with the saint was right up my alley.  I mean, it’s history/travel/theology all in one!  It was actually a little heavy-handed for a novel in the way that it presented a model for how the Church could be remade, but I found it quite inspirational.  Definitely a book for the postmodern mystic/skeptic.

25665016The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork

A seriously uplifting book about four teenagers struggling with mental disorders (rage, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia) inside a mental health hospital.  I loved how they helped each other in their brokenness WITH their brokenness.  Stork’s amazing ability to write about depression and suicide attempts is apparently based on his personal experience, but his ability to write female teenagers believably is all skill.

 

 

 

 

 

What I Read | November 2016

Eight books this month, ranging from YA fantasy adventures to historical scandals in early Hollywood.  Oh, and I finally read The Little Prince, which was a LONG time coming.


anotherbrooklyn-hc-cAnother Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Woodson’s prose reads like poetry, which helps make her story more palatable.  I mean, it’s GOOD, but it is a devastating look at growing up female, black, and poor.  There is an thread of hope throughout, though, which left me feeling like the book was short and beautiful.  The main thing I took from Woodson’s novel is that I need to be more intentional about including diverse authors in my reading list.

26109391Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

The setup of this book made me assume that it would deal with its central issues of agoraphobia and panic disorders with casual flippancy, but I was so mistaken!  Everything was handled respectfully (and entertainingly, since it is, after all, a novel).  I really liked that the story revealed how messed up everyone was, whether they were diagnosable or not.  Well, except for Clark.  Just like our two main characters, I also fell in love with him.

the-little-princeThe Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery

This story has existed in the periphery of my experience for years and years, but I was never interested enough to sit down and read it.  Until this month, when I bought a cute little hardback copy on Santorini and immediately read the whole thing.  It is so sweet, so sad, and so poignant.  I love the emphasis on childish creativity and love, and how valuable it is to cling to those things even as we become adults.  I especially loved the story of the fox and how we are responsible for the things (and people) we tame.

9780142180679_ScandalsofCl-CVF.inddScandals of Classic Hollywood by Anne Helen Petersen

It is a testament to Petersen’s writing capabilities that I have almost no knowledge of classic Hollywood or the actors and actresses that dominated tabloids in the 1910s – 1950s, but I still really enjoyed this book!  That because the book is not about the people specifically; it’s a fascinating look at culture, fame, and changing societal mores.  It asks why one person’s scandal was forgiven while a similar scandal ruined someone else’s career.  I could easily imagine modern equivalents to these situations, and I found myself wishing she would write a follow-up book!

annihilation_by_jeff_vandermeerAnnihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

I bought this at the recommendation of a bookshop worker, and wow was it weird.  It was genuinely creepy because everything was OFF in this indescribable way.  I was so unnerved by it that I could only read it during the daylight hours, but I had to keep reading because it’s story was so compelling.  I had decided to buy it because I was intrigued by its cast of characters including only women, and this remained its high point for me.

unknownThe Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

I wanted this book to be about the merging of two cultures (Indian and French) and how food brings people together.  It was not about that.  It was about how an Indian prodigy chef managed to rise to fame despite his humble background.  Which, now that I phrase it that way, is a compelling story.  Unfortunately, it was not the story I expected, so I found myself increasingly uninterested.

51t5lwxhdhlMagnus Chase: The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan

I am continuously amazed at how Riordan manages to take the same formula and finds ways to make it fresh.  I am especially amazed that the way he chose to make the Magnus Chase series fresh is by ramping up his level of representation.  This book is phenomenal, boasting a five person main cast that includes a practicing Muslim woman, a formerly homeless teenage boy whose talents skew feminine, a black dwarf devoted to fashion, a deaf elf, and a transgender/genderfluid person.  I LOVE that Riordan decided to take the fantasy trope of shape-shifting and use that to explicitly talk about gender fluidity.  That is total genius.  Oh, and the plot is super fun, I love how Loki is both very evil and very victimized, I love the giants and their illusions, I love the epic wedding showdown.  More, please!

the_thread_webThe Thread by Victoria Hislop

This novel tells the history of Thessaloniki specifically, and Greece generally, through the story of one family.  It helped me SO much to piece together all the holidays I’ve seen celebrated and names I’ve heard dropped while living in Athens for a year.  Finally everything was put together in a cohesive narrative, and I understand more than ever the pride and pessimism that makes up the stereotypical Greek mindset.  A lot has happened in this country in the last century, and I enjoyed reading its history within a novel.  Great sneaking education!

The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault

51k61IaGEZL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Reading Greek mythology in Greece is such a cool experience.  The Bull from the Sea opens with Theseus returning to Attica from Crete without changing his sails from black to white, the result of which is his father, King Aigeus, leaping to his death from the cliff in Sounio.  I just went to Sounio!  It’s a real place!  With a real history!

That history bit is what makes Renault’s book so fascinating.  She does a remarkable job of interpreting myth as fact.  The supernatural elements of mythology are present in her stories, but with explanations that are easily interpreted as superstitions.  The people in this book believe in the gods and goddesses and fate, but is it real?  Or is that larger-than-normal boar simply exaggerated into mythic proportions?  And is that man the son of a god or simply extremely talented?  It’s such a fun balance, and perhaps ironically, it makes the myths seem more alive.  By setting them in a historical context and allowing for skepticism, Renault lets her readers see just how plausible the ancient stories are.

Theseus is a fascinating character.  He’s almost annoying perfect at everything…until his charmed life falls apart.  I should have expected the book to border on depressing, because all the Greek myths are fairly depressing.  They are lessons couched in stories, after all, and Theseus shows us that one can never escape one’s fate.  He knows, from the moment he sees Hippolyta (awesome Amazon warrior queen/king) that she will be his doom.  But knowing his fate, he embraces the good while it lasts, and does what he can to accept the fallout when it happens.  And wow, is the fallout depressing.  Murder and sacrifice and incest, oh my!  The Greek stories are never boring.

The one thing I found annoying was the way the narrative treated women.  To some extent, this is simply Renault being true to her source material.  And of course, Hippolyta is a force to be reckoned with.  But all the other women are stereotypes.  And Theseus himself is occasionally a hard man to idolize – he’s perfect, we’re supposed to believe, but he treats women as playthings or distractions.  They’re always around to serve HIS needs.  Basically, it’s super sexist, both because it was written in the 1960s and based on stories thousands of years old.  BUT.  Even though it’s problematic, this book is worth the read!

Mary Renault is a genius at breathing new life into old myths, and I’m definitely going to check out some of her other books!  I suggest you do the same.   Continue reading “The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault”

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

17846771I am totally in love with Oppel’s writing style.  I will probably say that at the beginning of every review of his book, because I keep thinking something will break the spell, but every single book is amazing!  He is fantastic at creating worlds that sit just this side of reality…everything is recognizable until it isn’t.  Whether it’s a sasquatch or a truly creepy hag or a painting that grants immortality – Oppel keeps us guessing about which ones are real, and which ones are imaginary.  I may be hasty in proclaiming this, but I think it’s my new favorite kind of fantasy.

In addition to the awesome overarching setting, the plot is completely fascinating.  A cross-Canada train ride full of nighttime adventures running the roofs and daytime performances with a circus troupe, every single page is exciting.  Will and Maren and Mr. Dorian are great – another one of Oppel’s talents is in creating characters that are neither good or bad, but somewhere in between.  The other circus performers are super interesting, and I wish we’d gotten even more of them.  The danger feels real, the stakes are high, and now I really want to go on another cross-country train trip of my own.  Continue reading “The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel”

Such Wicked Intent by Kenneth Oppel

13063098One of my favorite things about the first Victor Frankenstein book, This Dark Endeavor, was how its adventures and mysticism refused to be categorized as science, faith, or magic.  The events that transpired could have been the result of any of the three philosophies, and I really enjoyed wondering what was “true.”  That all changed with Such Wicked Intent.  There’s no longer any doubt that the supernatural exists, and can be tampered with.

While I’m sad at the loss of ambiguity, I’m also SO INTO the world of the dead that Oppel created.   Continue reading “Such Wicked Intent by Kenneth Oppel”

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel

this-dark-endeavor-final-coverI’ve never been hugely drawn to stories about Frankenstein or his monster, but my librarian friend Kelly suggested I read This Dark Endeavor after I admitted liking Oppel’s book The Nest.  Although I may never get into horror movies, I really enjoyed the book!

Oppel gives us Frankenstein’s origin story, and man, is it a good one.  It might have been a ridiculous task, creating a believable history for a character who will grow up to be obsessed with immortality to the extent of creating a literal monster.  But Oppel does a phenomenal job:  teenaged Victor is the twin of his two-minutes older, stronger, faster, wiser brother who also gets the girl.  Clearly we have a case of sibling rivalry, although Victor and Konrad also have a lot of affection for each other.  The more you love someone, the more you hate them!

When Konrad falls ill soon after they discover a hidden room in their mansion – a room filled with illegal alchemical formulas – Victor becomes obsessed with finding a cure for his twin’s disease…and maybe a cure for death itself.  While he’s at it, if cousin Elizabeth decides she’s in love with him instead of Konrad, well, all the better.  So many twisted motivations and emotions!

The three-part adventure retrieving alchemical ingredients is really exciting, but I loved the book most for its complex family dynamics and questions of science/faith/magic.

This Dark Endeavor stands alone, but apparently there’s a second book, so I will have to give that one a try too!   Continue reading “This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel”

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

 

Okay, this wins apenelopiad_coverll the retellings (of which I am, admittedly, just starting to read)!  I LOVED reading Penelope’s side of the story, seeing Odysseus’s cleverness from her perspective, gently allowing her unreliable narration.  Was she faithful?  Was she not?  She sure wants us to think she was, just like Odysseus wants us to think he’s a tragic hero.  They’re a perfect match for each other….which is only half the story!

Undoubtedly, the highlight of this book is the way it dissects the story of the twelve maids who were hung at Odysseus’s return.  The historical, cultural, and sexual discussions surrounding their role in the story are both fascinating and horrifying. And so clever (which is fitting, in a book about Penelope and Odysseus).  Every few chapters, the maids speak for themselves, sometimes in poetry, sometimes in song, sometimes in lecture, sometimes in a mock trial.  Their righteous indignation is so simple and powerful, right from the beginning, with their “The Chorus Line: A Rope-Jumping Rhyme”:  Continue reading “The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood”