What I Read | August 2016

From a Russian classic to a dragon-centric fantasy to inspirational non-fiction…my reading tastes were diverse this month!

theidiotThe Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I started this in July at the request of one of my new friends.  It’s her favorite novel of all time, and while I can’t claim that for myself, I was really impressed with it.  I’ve always felt scared of the dense Russian novels, but I found The Idiot to be a quick read for 700+ pages of stories and psychological analyses.  It did take me a while to acclimate myself to upper class Russian society in the 1800s, but there was enough common humanity to keep to me going.  It’s also pretty depressing, so fair warning.

Harry_Potter_and_the_Cursed_Child_Special_Rehearsal_Edition_Book_CoverHarry Potter and the Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling

I loved this!  It in no way compares to the novels, but I never wanted it to.  The screenplay is a quick way to jump back into the world of Harry Potter, and I so enjoyed watching Harry struggle once more (he can save the world, but he doesn’t know how to parent a child – seems accurate).  I also loved Draco getting more development and the adorable relationship between Albus and Scorpius.  Perhaps it really is HP fanfiction, but I love HP fanfiction, so that is not an insult in the slightest to my mind.

220px-HmsdragonHis Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

After reading this alt-history novel about dragons during the Napoleonic War, I am 100% that dragons are cats with wings.  Obviously, this means I am SUPER into a story about the intense bond between human and dragon, though I felt this first novel was more interesting for the potential it showed for future stories than its own entertainment value.

ThroneofjadeThrone of Jade by Naomi Novik

Speaking of future stories…this is the second Temeraire novel, and as I suspected, it was even better than the first!  This book follows Laurence and Temeraire on a long sea voyage to China, and it’s basically just one long “you two shouldn’t be together” “YES WE SHOULD” argument, which is exactly the sort of quasi-romantic co-dependent relationship I’m easily invested in.  Can’t wait to read more!

6415185Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire by Lars Brownsworth

Wow.  This non-fiction book about the history of the Byzantine Empire was SO engrossing, mostly because it is person centered rather than date centered.  I totally fell in love with General Belisarius and want to read even more about his life.  I also fell in love with the Byzantine Empire itself, to the point that I actually started crying when it finally fell and the Roman empire came to an official end (1,000 after its western counterpart).

710391The Story of My Life by Casanova

I was so excited about Casanova’s memoir.  It was super entertaining, and I really enjoyed reading about a sex-positive guy who seemed to be shameless in a really healthy way…until I got to a part where he participated in a gang rape and assured his readers that the woman really liked it.  At that point I felt physically ill for days, because I genuinely felt so betrayed.  I couldn’t read any more, and I don’t really care to find out what he did after that, because I doubt it was “felt remorse.”

34352-1Salt of the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as Sepetys’s other YA novels, but it was still a quick and interesting read.  She follows four people (with their own perspective and voice) to the harrowing voyage of the ship Wilhelm Gustloff…a true event that deserves for more attention than it usually gets.  I was mostly impressed, however, by how she showed that for many people in Germany/Prussia/Poland/etc, neither the Axis or Allied powers were good guys.  Death, rape, and property possession was inevitable, no matter which side won.

prototypPrototype by Jonathan Martin

I’ve already written a couple blog posts based on how inspired I was by this non-fiction Christian book.  It’s a fantastic reminder that transformation only comes when we are totally confident in God’s deep love for us.  I especially loved the way he described living in God’s love – that it’s found in those moments when we feel most free and creative, not when we’re hunkered in a room reading our Bibles (well, maybe it is for you, but not me).  It’s a very encouraging and uplifting book that I highly recommend to anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of God.

Did you read anything this month that was especially amazing (or especially awful)?  Leave a comment below and let me know!

Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

year-of-yes-9781476777092_hrWhat better way to kick off another year of book reviews than with Rhimes’ empowering, encouraging semi-memoir Year of Yes?  Reading it definitely inspired me to jump more fully into life (aka the things that scare me).

Rhimes is obviously a phenomenal writer (she’s the brains and pen behind TV shows Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder), and her talent translates to book form very easily.  Because she so often writes dialogue, her prose is intimate, repetitive (in a good way), and conversational.  This book is a long letter from her to each reader, sharing what she’s learned and hoping you, yes you, will join her in a year of YES.   Continue reading

Dinner with Persephone by Patricia Storace

51bQ2iwdmPLA travel memoir about a woman who lives in Athens for a year?  How could I pass that up?

Fortunately, if I ever write a memoir about MY year in Athens, it will be distinctly different in feel and tone.  Storace is almost to poetic in her language for my taste – instead of describing where she’s going or who she’s hanging out with, she jumps over the details in order to describe general trends and observations.  Which are totally interesting, don’t get me wrong.  But it doesn’t actually feel like a travel memoir.  Instead, it’s something more like an emotional evaluation of Greece – past, present, and future.   Continue reading

Sand in My Bra edited by Jennifer L. Leo

366190Female travelers of the world will love this compilation of travel essays from 28 women headed into hilarious, dangerous, and awkward situations all over the world.  Although some of the essays are generic travel stories, most are distinctly female, and it made me aware of how infrequently I read about women adventurers.  There are stories about accepting imperfect bodies simply by being on a beach overseas, and horror stories of period catastrophes, and a lot of unironic adoration of being female.

I mean, that’s pretty much it.  If you like traveling and you like women, then you will probably like the majority of these essays.  But hey, here’s a quote to entice you just a little bit more:

This is the heart of travel.  This is why we do it.  This is why we are so willing to strap our fragile bodies into metal capsules and fly thousands of miles with hundreds of strangers endlessly exhaling new viruses into our airspace, drink water from dubious sources, eat food virulent with unknown flora and fauna, put up with impossible travel companions, lost luggage, and the legions of mule-like bureaucrats who manage to win positions of petty power in every city and village on earth.  We do it because we love this beautiful dangerous planet and we want to know it personally and, on balance, the pluses far outweigh the minuses, right?

Continue reading

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

mindy-kaling-why-not-meMindy’s second book is even better than her first!  Why Not Me? is less a memoir and more a series of essays about her life right now.  I’m happy to learn about her past, but I’ll be honest – I’m more interested in her life as a 30-something professional woman stumbling through love and work and being a role model.  And those topics are made infinitely better because of her hilarious sense of humor.

What I love most about Mindy is that she’s honest – she doesn’t try to downplay the perks of being famous (in fact, she revels in them), but she also freely owns up to its downsides.  It is so refreshing to read about how to be beautiful: fake hair, spray tans, tailored clothing, technological gadgets, bra tricks, good lighting, facial masks, and knowing how to pose for pictures with your arms akimbo.  No nonsense about eating right and glowing skin.  Hollywood beauty is all about hard work, and Mindy does wonders for boosting people’s body images by getting honest.

I also loved her candid enjoyment of sex scenes (“You get to crawl around in a bed with another person you either a) already know well or b) are getting to know better in the most cozy and intimate way possible.  Yes, it’s true that an entire room of people is watching you when you shoot a sex scene.  To that, I say: the more, the merrier!  Most of those people are artists whose job it is to make sure your physical imperfections are cloaked in mysterious shadows.  By the end of the shooting day, you’ll wish there were more people there.”) and the essay about her and B.J. Novak being “soup snakes.”  THOSE TWO.  When will they work it out?   Continue reading

Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther

514iqc7VMnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I am often drawn to books about people who grew up in conservative Christian circles who wind up abandoning their faith because of the pain in their past (like Jesus Land).  I want to understand how the faith that so empowers me has hurt other people so badly.  And I want to know how God’s people too often lead others away from God instead of toward him.  Many such spiritual memoirs end with the author swearing off religion, but in Girl at the End of the World, despite a childhood of emotional, spiritual, and physical abuse, Elizabeth finds her way back to faith, not through the fundamentalist religion of her past, but through the mystery-embracing truths of Catholicism.

Then I realize: She isn’t just Jesus’s mother.  She is the mother of our Lord and Savior.  Mary is important.

I touch my tender belly and think of the twins growing inside me.  I’m not just a mother either.  I am important.

The thought breaks over me like the rising dawn of a new day: What if God is pursuing me through the gentle love of His Son’s mother? What if, knowing that all the masculine roads to God are blocked for me, Jesus has sent His mother to lead me back to Him?

The granddaugher of the founders of The Assembly, Elizabeth grew up in a religious cult.  She writes about the pain of her childhood and the intense anxiety it provoked with raw honesty that absolutely draws the reader in.  She isn’t hesitant to expose herself, her family, or her faith, and because of that, her story is a beautiful portrayal of brokenness and hope.   Continue reading

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

I loved this book far more than I anticipated.  I like memoirs written by comedians, so I knew I would pick up Aziz’s when it came out.  I love him in Parks & Recreation, and his stand up on Netflix is some of the smartest, most modern, most feminist comedy I’ve seen.  I knew his book would be funny.  I did not expect it to be so smart!  He’s an insightful guy, but teamed up with Eric Klinenberg, sociologist, this book is everything my humor-loving sociology-major heart could want.

I found it fascinating to look back at courtships of yesteryear (aka 30 or 40 years ago) and compare them to my struggles as a single with an iPhone.  So much has changed with the advent of the Internet and phone apps that allow us to check out singles all over the world.  In an especially effective analogy, Ansari likens dating to a hallway.  Men and women used to enter a hallway with four or five doorways–they peeked through a couple, found one that wasn’t too horrible, and walked through.  Now, singles stand in a hallway with millions of doorways.  This enormity of options means that we are more likely to find someone who aligns closely with our interests, values, and personality.  But it also means that we are often paralyzed, terrified to walk through any doorway for fear that the next one down will be better.

Ansari hilariously describes and analyzes the frustrations of modern dating.  I appreciated his honest assessment of the good and the bad, and I really appreciated how he managed to find humor in it all.  I finished the book both thankful and horrified to be in the dating world at this time in world history.  But at least now I have the tools to understand what I’m going through and hopefully wade through the complications a little more effectively.

81IWfWiI1vLBook Jacket

At some point, every one of us embarks on a journey to find love.  We meet people, date, get into and out of relationships, all with the hope of finding someone with whom we share a deep connection.  This seems standard now, but it’s wildly different from what people did even just decades ago.  Single people today have more romantic options than at any point in human history.  With technology, our ability to connect with and sort through these options is staggering.  Just a few years ago, in 2010, 10% of single Americans said they met their significant other online.  Three years later, in 2013, that number was up to 35%.  We are truly in a new world.  What’s the good in all this change?  What’s the bad?  Why are so many people frustrated?

Some of our problems are unique to our time:  “Why did this guy just text me an emoji of a pizza?”  “Should I go out with this girl even though she listed Combos as one of her favorite food snacks?  Combos?!”  “My girlfriend just got a message from some dude named Nathan.  Who’s Nathan?  Did he just send her a picture of his penis?  Should I check just to be sure?”

But the transformation of our romantic lives can’t be explained by technology alone.  In a short period of time, the whole culture of finding love has changed dramatically.  A few decades ago people would find a decent person who lived in their neighborhood.  Their families would meet and, after deciding neither party seemed like a murderer, they would get married and soon have a kid–all by the time they were twenty-four.  Today, people marry later than ever and spend years of their lives on a quest to find the perfect person, a soul mate.

For years, Aziz Ansari has been aiming his comic insight at modern romance, but for Modern Romance, the book, he decided to take things to another level.  He teamed up with NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg and designed a massive research project, including hundreds of interviews and focus groups conducted everywhere from Tokyo to Buenos Aires to Wichita.  They analyzed behavioral data and surveys and created their own online research forum on Reddit, which drew thousands of messages.  They enlisted the world’s leading social scientists, including Andrew Cherlin, Eli Finkel, Helen Fisher, Sheena Iyengar, Barry Schwartz, Sherry Turkle, and Robb Willer.  The result is Modern Romance, a marriage of cutting-edge social science and razor-sharp humor to form an assessment of our new romantic world that is as funny as it is groundbreaking.

Release Date:  June 2015