First Thirteen Books of 2013, Part II

Now that spring is gracing us with abundant sunshine and warm breezes, I have been taking advantage of the rocking chair on our porch. It is my new favorite reading spot. I invited my cat to sit outside with me while I read, but when a school bus passed by she freaked out, fluffed up her tail, and dashed back inside. The term scaredy-cat is apt.

Here are the rest of the books I’ve read so far this year:

7. The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

This is a story about story-telling, one that leaves the reader uncertain which version is true. It is an enjoyable and thought-provoking page turner. This is Jansma’s first novel, and it attracted a lot of attention. I heard a piece on NPR about it and then came across it at the local library. The characters reminded me of the trio from Looking for Alaska, a young adult novel by John Green.

8. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I have never read anything else by this author, but I really enjoyed the movie version of The Remains of the Day. This is a poignant story of friendship and love that endures despite painful conflict and breaches of trust. Although nothing shockingly sad happens, I cried at the end. It took me awhile to realize that this novel is set in an alternate reality and has a dystopian element. It is eerie how Ishiguro drops hints and lets the mystery unfold.

9. Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

I have neither read anything else by McEwan, nor have I seen the movie version of Atonement, but somehow this connection caused me to grab this book of the New Arrivals shelf. Serena is a math major with a love of literature. Always looking for romance, she falls in love with a married professor who refers her to MI5, and her life is never the same. I was eager to see what happened to the characters, but ultimately felt dissatisfied with this book. I can’t quite decide why.

10. The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Set in the same fictional Mine community as Strout’s Amy and Isabelle, The Burgess Boys depicts a family under pressure. When their nephew throws a pig’s head into the local mosque, the Burgess boys swoop in to try to help diffuse the situation. As they deal with the family crisis, tensions that stem from a childhood tragedy are confronted, and each of the three siblings must face the impacts on their current relationships. Strout is a master at creating characters who are flawed and real and feel like people from every day life.

11. Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

I have been a fan of Kingsolver since I read The Poisonwood Bible (although I am also skeptical of anything endorsed by Oprah’s book club), but I never got around to reading all her novels. She reliably provides rich characters and settings while exploring the concepts of home and family. The protagonist of this novel, Codi, lost her mother at age three and her daughter at age fifteen. These losses shaped her life. She drifted from place to place, longing for love, but not feeling she deserved it. When she returns to her hometown to care for her ailing father, she slowly discovers what it means to belong.

12. The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I never jumped on the bandwagon when the book or the movie came out several years ago. I enjoyed reading it, and in fact read the entire thing on one lazy Saturday. There are loveable characters and evil characters and a plot with abundant entertainment value (hence the movie), but The Help does not have the substance of an enduring classic.

I feel like we readers should be cautious. It is convenient from the vantage point of the 21st century to see all that was wrong with the Mississippi of the 1960s. Of course forcing a black maid to use a separate restroom in the garage is de-humanizing and wrong. It would be so easy to close the book and breathe a sigh of relief that things aren’t like that anymore, and to be complacent about the many inequalities that threaten our society today.

13. L’Empire des Loups (The Empire of Wolves) by Jean-Christophe Grange

Although I normally stay away from crime mysteries/thrillers, a coworker lent me this French novel. Again, it was a good motivation for language practice. It’s easy to avoid conjugating verbs in a workbook for thirty minutes, but I actually worked on reading this novel well beyond the time I allotted myself every day. It seemed to be an average quality book for its genre. I don’t think I’ll be watching the film version any time soon, because I really can’t handle violence in movies.

Question of the Day: Where is your favorite reading spot?

First Thirteen Books of 2013: Part I

I think I must be in heaven, because I have a job where I get paid to go to the library.

One of my jobs right now is to mentor Christine (not her real name), a young woman with autism. I really enjoy spending time with her. Christine is an enthusiastic, positive person with many talents. We are about the same age, and we have a lot in common: we both enjoy music and drama, we both watch Jeopardy, and we both get really excited about reading and going to the library. Many of Christine’s activities are held at local libraries, and so far we’ve made multiple trips to three different branches.

Christine strides through the children’s section with purpose. In under five minutes, she can assemble a pile of books that strike her fancy. I’m not quite sure what her decision-making process is, but I can choose books just as swiftly. Although I have a reading list saved somewhere on my computer, this year I’ve mostly just been perusing the shelves and making impulse check-outs.

I’ve also been keeping track of the books I’ve read in a book journal (thanks to my Kalamazoo book club for the going away gift!). This has been a useful tool for reflection. I often consume books quickly, closing one and opening the next one with barely a pause for breath. In the end, I don’t know that I fully appreciate or remember what I’ve read.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, really. Reading is supposed to be fun, and not every book I pick up has to be a great literary classic. Literary junk food is okay in small doses. But I like journaling and making lists (probably to the point where it’s a borderline compulsion), so here is a summary of what I’ve read so far this year, with links to Amazon if you want more information:

1. The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer

Imagine if, while traveling down the Nile, French novelist Gustav Flaubert met Florence Nightingale, the famous nurse and statistician, and they struck up a friendship. The personality contrasts are obvious: Flaubert was a womanizer and party boy, and Nightingale was a proper English lady–even if she did disregard nineteenth century gender roles. Yet they each possessed sharp intellects and abundant creativity. Shomer brings these great figures to life in her novel. I mis-read the dust jacket and thought that the entire novel was based on a true story. Alas, although Flaubert and Nightingale were in Egypt at the same time, there is no evidence that they met or were friends. This nearly broke my heart.

2. Scarlett Si Possible by Katherine Pancol

I am proud to say that I read this novel entirely in French! I picked up a copy at the airport in Paris in May 2012, started reading it last summer, and finally finished it in January. It is the story of four young women who move to Paris amid the social upheaval of the last 1960s. I would categorize it as fairly light “chick lit,” which is great for language practice. I kept Google Translate open on my laptop while I read, but I tried to only use it for particularly difficult sentences.

3. The Queen’s Daughter by Susan Coventry

I have a deep love for young adult historical fiction. Basically, when I was a teenager I would read anything that had a girl in an old-fashioned dress on the cover. (Okay, I’ll admit it: I still do.) My mom picked this book for a $1 and passed it along to me. It is the story of princess Joan, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine. As a teenager, Joan was shipped off to marry the Norman KingĀ  of Sicily, where she learned just how difficult the life of a queen can be. Joan’s husband constructed the cathedral at Monreale, which I was lucky enough to visit last spring. This is not an award-winning piece of literature, but will appeal to fans of the genre.

4. Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett

I have been obsessed with Tudor England since about the sixth grade. So when I came across a novel about the adopted daughter of Sir Thomas More, I snatched it off the shelf. The protagonist, Meg, belonged to one of the greatest humanist households in Europe at a time when religious extremism was tearing nations apart. As society (and her father) grapples with these changes, Meg must assert her own views while attempting to keep her family safe.

5. Ashenden by Elizabeth Wilhide

This novel details the history of an English manor house and the lives of the people who built, occupied, and cared for it. If you like Downton Abbey, you would enjoy Ashenden.

6. The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas

The beautiful cover art made me pick this book up, and the setting in India motivated me to check it out. When her father dies, Mair finds her grandmother’s shawl and travels to India to trace its history. The story flashes back from the present day to WWII. I preferred the character of Mair’s grandmother to Mair herself.

Questions of the Day: How do you decide what to read? What books have you read so far this year that you would recommend?