Posted by: Jeanie F | August 31, 2018

Picking Favorites

 

Has one of your kids ever asked you, “Which of us do you love best?” Impossible question to answer, when you love them all, all of the time (except that time when Sherry put the tack in front of Everett’s chair because he cut the hair off her favorite doll, and you had to rush him to the ER for a tetanus shot . . ).  Every year I try to cull through my posts and choose the book that is my “favorite,” a tough job because I love so many, even the ones that don’t always meet all of my standards. Most books, even the greatest, often come with a flaw or two. We can overlook them when, for the most part, the writing is good, the plot engaging, the characters well-drawn, and we close the covers after the final page with a sense of satisfaction.

I realized recently that I have kept a list of my “favorite” books for many years (you can find the list here). When I went back to look it over, I was surprised to find that I still agreed with most (although not all) of the choices I made for my favorite book each year. I had stopped after 2014 (maybe because, at the time, I felt like nothing could ever be better than We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which I so loved), so I decided it’s time to update.

Here are the 2015 – 2017 winners, linked to the full review:

2015: Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

What I said about it:

Cormac McCarthy is never what you would call a pleasant or enjoyable read. If you decide to read a McCarthy novel you know you are about to take a walk on the dark side of life. Child of God, McCarthy’s third novel, is a dark tale: shocking, disturbing, revolting. It is also lyrical, poetic, humorous (okay, sick humor, but still . . .). When you read McCarthy you are going to encounter some of the most beautiful writing you’ve ever read, telling you one of the most horrific stories you have ever heard.

I know this doesn’t sound like a stellar endorsement, and I wouldn’t recommend it for the squeamish, but it IS amazing, engrossing, and incredibly well written.

2016: Plainsong by Kent Haruf

What I said about it:

 It was such a joy to reread this wonderful book, to revisit the McPheron brothers and Victoria Roubideaux, to admire Maggie Jones strength and Tom Guthrie’s strong character. I almost literally devoured the book, so happy to be reading great writing about characters I loved treating each other with kindness and respect, coping with problems in human ways, trying again and again to get it right.

2017: A Tie!

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

What I said about The Underground Railroad:

Colson Whitehead, author of this disturbing novel, has done his homework, combing through the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s for background information. He does not spare his readers the harsh truth.

What I said about Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine:

I’m writing this post on my iPad while on vacation in Maui, so forgive me if the formatting comes out a little weird and the review short, but I really couldn’t wait to tell you that you should read this book.

First of all, it is a great vacation book in that it is funny and quirky and light. But it is also much, much more than that. It is heartbreaking, human, and transformational.

Posted by: Jeanie F | July 6, 2018

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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“People like us in situations like this become hashtags, but they rarely get justice. I think we all wait for that one time though, that one time when it ends right.”

 

Starr Carter is a sixteen-year old black girl who lives her life split between two worlds – Garden Heights and Williamson High School. Garden Heights is the low income area where she lives. Here she thinks of herself as “Garden Heights Starr.” She tells us, “My nana likes to say that spring brings love. Spring in Garden Heights doesn’t always bring love, but it promises babies in the winter.”

Willliamson High School is the prep school she attends. At Williamson, she is “Williamson Starr,” and one of only a handful of black students. Of her high school experience, Starr tells us, “. . . at Williamson I don’t have to ‘play it cool’ – I’m cool by default because I’m one of the only black kids there. . . Funny how it works with white kids though. It’s dope to be black until it’s hard to be black.”

She adapts herself to each environment, keeping her personae, as well as her friends and family, separate. Her mother is a nurse, her father, an ex-convict, owns a grocery store in Garden Heights. Her Uncle Carlos lives in a gated community. Her boyfriend, Chris, is white, as are many of her friends from school. It’s easy to understand the fine balance she works to maintain in her highly disparate worlds.

The story opens with Starr and her friend, Khalil, fleeing a party in Garden Heights when shooting breaks out. They believe that the shots come from a “King Lord,” the local gang who is at war with the “Garden Disciples,” another neighborhood gang. As they drive away, Khalil is stopped by a policeman, ostensibly because one of Khalil’s taillights is broken. In a scene that is terrifying and, probably, all too common, Kahlil is killed. His death soon becomes a national headline, and Starr is the only witness.

The remainder of the plot centers around Starr’s role in – and the impact on her life of – this event.

The voice, Starr’s first person POV, is colloquial, direct, and honest. The characters are ones we worry about and cheer for. The story is topical and important.

This novel has, rightfully, received many literary awards including Coretta Scott King Honor Book, William C. Morris Award, and being longlisted for the National Book Award. There are important lessons here, not only about race and justice, but about finding your voice and making it heard.

My hope is that it will become high school required reading.

****UPDATE: On July 7, 2018, the South Carolina Police Union has demanded that The Hate U Give be removed from high school reading lists, claiming that the book is “almost an indoctrination of distrust of police.”

Grade: A

Posted by: Jeanie F | May 7, 2018

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Book Review :: Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green

I have to admit that it took me a little while to really appreciate the beauty of this book. I was initially put off by what seemed like, on one hand, an overly precocious narrator (“I was eating a peanut butter and honey sandwich and drinking a Dr Pepper. To be honest, I find the whole process of masticating plants and animals and then shoving them down my esophagus kind of disgusting…) and, at the same time, an overly adolescent voice and consciousness. I know this sounds contradictory but, the point is, it took me some time to break through the superficial to get to the heart of a touching story. I almost missed it, but a friend assured me it would get better, so I kept going. Glad I did.

The first thing you need to know is that this is not an easy read. It is the story of Aza, a teenage girl, who is trying to manage her life while suffering debilitating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Her disorder (from which, by the way, the author John Green also suffers) forces her to spend enormous amounts of energy dealing with her fear of contracting “C. diff”, clostridium difficile, a type of bacteria that causes severe colitis. She obsesses over the myriad bacteria that thrive inside of her, the microbes breeding, and the levels of sanitation she can – or can’t – control. At times her concern about the ecosystem thriving within her body is so severe that she resorts to drinking hand sanitizer to try to control it.

Against this background, Aza is trying to live a teenage life. She hangs out with her BFF, Daisy, who shows very un-adolescent tolerance for Aza’s idiosyncrasies. She begins a sweet romance with Davis, a wealthy boy whose father has mysteriously vanished from his life, leaving Davis and his brother to cope alone. Except for the servants. She experiences the usual adolescent traumas (a friend’s perfidy, uncertainty about her growing relationship with Davis, the Internet), but it is all colored and complicated by the OCD, which makes what should be normal adolescent angst far more difficult.

In one of the more poignant moments, Aza finds that she can’t kiss Davis because of her paralyzing fear of what his microbes might do to her when they enter her body. Davis, a sweet and patient young man, is willing to wait, thinking she’ll be ready when she knows him better. But Aza knows time isn’t the issue. “I’m not gonna un-have this,” she tells him and we, the readers, are hit in the face with her future.

I’m not going to spoil the ending for you except to say it’s pretty perfect for the story. Not in an unrealistic happy-ever-after way, also not in a dark and terrible way. In just the right way.

And you’ll have to read the book to figure out what the title means.

Grade: A

 

Posted by: Jeanie F | February 21, 2018

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Image result for news of the world by paulette jiles

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on this site – but not because I haven’t been reading. I’ve read a few books I’ve liked, a few that were just okay, one or two that were pretty bad. But when I finished reading News of the World, I knew I had to share it with you. It is one of those great surprises that we encounter from time to time – a book that we love from the beginning to the end.

The story takes place in post Civil War Texas (an added bonus for me, as I spent my childhood in Texas and was familiar with many of the locations, as well as a little of the history). Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an elderly widower, makes a living by travelling to far-flung towns and reading newspaper stories to the residents, who receive little information about the world outside their own town or area.

In his travels, he is asked to take on the responsibility of returning Johanna, a young girl, kidnapped at an early age by a tribe of Kiowa Indians, to her family. From there, the story unfolds: the adventures of traveling in often dangerous territory, the adventure of building a relationship between a 70-year old man and a 10-year old girl who remembers nothing of her pre-abduction life, and the adventure inherent on the vast Texas plain.

The story captured me from the beginning. The author, Paulette Jiles, was a poet before she became a novelist, and her facility with language goes a long way to bringing the Texas plains and the hardship of crossing them to life.

There is also plenty of adventure – raging rivers, bad guys, bad weather – but there is more than an abundance of heart in the lovely tale of old man/young, traumatized girl and the relationship they build. There is also a vast cultural gap that must be overcome, for her rearing by the Kiowa left her unfamiliar with the ways of cities and towns through which they traveled. This leads to some discomfort, but also some gentle humor. For example, at one point the captain must explain to Johanna, who has plans to scalp a white man who menaces them, that this “is considered very impolite” and simply isn’t done.

This book is charming, heart-warming, and still manages to be a page-turning adventure. I encourage you to pick up a copy – I feel certain you’ll be glad you did.

Grade: A

Posted by: Jeanie F | October 10, 2017

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine By Gail Honeyman

I’m writing this post on my iPad while on vacation in Maui, so forgive me if the formatting comes out a little weird and the review short, but I really couldn’t wait to tell you that you should read this book.

First of all, it is a great vacation book in that it is funny and quirky and light. But it is also much, much more than that. It is heartbreaking, human, and transformational.

If this sounds paradoxical, that’s probably because it is.

The heroine, Eleanor, is an oddball. As you first get to know her, you can understand why her office mates make fun of her behind her back.

However, as you learn her story you will understand her background and be in awe of her courage and fortitude.

As you watch her transformation, you will cheer her on and, ultimately, fall in love with her.

From a purely literary point of view, the author, Gail Honeyman, has made some interesting and excellent choices about her portrayal of Eleanor – her language, habits, etc. – as well as how she has rolled out the information that the reader needs. Well done, Ms. Honeyman!

Do yourself a favor and get your hands on a copy of this book. There aren’t many books that would inspire me to write a blogpost while on a Hawaiian vacation, but this is definitely one of them.

Grade: A

 

 

 

Posted by: Jeanie F | September 20, 2017

A Question for Readers

Are you in a book club? I am – a great book club with wonderful people. So . . . if you happen to be one of those people, please know that what I’m about to say doesn’t apply to any of the books that you, personally, have recommended.

But here’s my question, and it applies even if you’re not in a book club:

When do you know it’s time to pull the plug?

For me, there are two separate considerations:

  1. Is it a book club book or, otherwise, a book recommended by someone whose opinion I respect and value, or
  2. Is it just something I picked up somewhere, perhaps seduced by an enticing blurb on the cover and a quick flip through some pages?

Generally speaking, if it’s the second situation, I feel pretty comfortable putting it down, but I know a number of people who feel compelled to finish every book they begin. Are you one of them? If so, what’s your rationale (not that you need an actual rationale – just why do you keep reading?)? Do you have a page limit (“If I don’t like it by page ___ , I’ll quit”) or are you an optimist (“I know this will get better soon”) or are you just NOT A QUITTER (emphasis intended)? Whichever you are, I respect your persistence in the face of hardship!

I am not generally in the above category. As I say in my blog heading, I believe life’s too short to read bad books. BUT – what if it’s a book club book?

I happen to be in “the best darn book club in Southern California,” and that is not hyperbole. We have been reading together since 1995 and have read some truly amazing books! A small sample of our favorites includes:

The Angle of Repose (Wallace Stegner)

The Giant’s House (Elizabeth McCraken – if you’ve never heard of this gem, I recommend you look it up)

Lambs of God (Marele Day – see recommendation above, if you haven’t read this)

The Known World (Edward P. Jones)

Well, I can tell that I can go on indefinitely with this, so instead, if you’re interested in finding out what our favorites have been, go to our website, Literary Lite Book Club.  Look at the titles with stars next to them on the page titled “Our Reading List”.

But now I have to admit – we’ve had a few that haven’t worked out as well as we hoped, which bring me to the question above. Just how much of an obligation do you believe one has when one is a member of a book club?

  • Do you read the whole thing because there is an obligation to the group?
  • Do you skim the entire book, just to have the main ideas?
  • Do you read a certain number of pages or to a certain time limit and then, if it just isn’t working, stop and be prepared to explain your problems with the book? If so, what’s your stopping point?
  • Do you stop and look up reviews so you can fool your group into believing you’ve read it (not that I would ever do that)?
  • Or do you have another, creative, way of handling this thorny situation.

It’s inevitable that, if you belong to a group for a long time (like, say, twenty-two years or so), it’s bound to happen. Here’s your chance to come clean – what do you do when you just can’t make it work for you?*

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