The Best Book I’ll Read in 2015? A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life: A Novel

I don’t even know how to begin discussing this except to say that it’s books like this that make me so grateful to be a reader. It’s my first five-star (new) read of the year and it was a slam dunk for that rating. To say that it’s “about” four friends during college and afterward is to completely miss the point. Their enduring friendship is a mainstay of the book, but it’s ever so much more than that. To be honest, everything revolves around Jude St. Francis, a brilliant and sensitive man who has endured unspeakable horrors in his earlier life. But he wants to protect everyone in his life from all of that (and really, from him) by keeping everything to himself insofar as possible. We learn his backstory very gradually, and come to appreciate what a triumph his life really is, even as we see that some damage can never be fixed. His self-loathing is blind and all-consuming, although everyone who meets him sees a jewel of a person, brilliant and loving and loyal and kind and courageous and stubborn. Like attracts like, and his friends would go to the ends of the earth for him. I cried many times during this book and for most of the last 50 pages. Hanya Yanagihara has truly written a masterpiece. I am quite certain I won’t read a better book this year, and I will never forget — or get over — these characters.

A word of caution: for those who have PTSD issues regarding abuse, I’d be cautious going into this one. But while it is dark — very, very dark at times and at length — there is also great hope and humanity throughout.

Heartwrenching and oh-so-beautiful.

This one will count  toward my “Read Harder” challenge.


22 March TWO Weeks in Reading

Oops. I have been lax in my blogging and reviews… I fully intended to do this at least once a week (that is, after acknowledging that I might possibly not write a full review each time I finish a book.) And while my posts shouldn’t strictly be called reviews, because they’re usually just my impressions of a book, I do want to be consistent in documenting  my reading life.  My comments won’t be as helpful, even to myself, if I let so much time go by that my impressions are no longer fresh. That said, I’ve finished a number of books in the past fortnight.

I chose Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay on the recommendation of an author friend whose favorites I generally enjoy. I don’t read a lot of fantasy literature but I’m not averse to trying new authors occasionally. This book was beautifully written, with many lovely passages and phrases. The settings were realistic and one could easily forget that it would be considered fantasy simply because the nations described have never existed. There were parts of the book that I loved, and others that dragged. I don’t believe I’ll go on with the rest of the series because it didn’t grab me enough to feel compelled, but I did enjoy my time with this one.  Four stars.

Next up was a perfectly delightful selection for one of my book clubs (and in fact for our city’s Big Read): The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. I laughed and laughed through this, not least because I recognize so many of the traits in the person of someone I love. Don Tillman is a genetics professor who also happens to have Asperger’s. His lack of social awareness is often breathtaking, but he approaches every known problem with very (as in v-e-r-y) specific plans. When Rosie comes into his life it upsets more than his routines, it makes him begin to see the world through slightly-adjusted eyes. It’s truly a fun read, but it also worked very well in the book club setting, as there was so much to talk about. This club generally sticks very closely to its one hour allotment, but we ran far beyond that this time.  Four stars.

I had heard good things about H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and had very much enjoyed the discussion of this book on a recent “Inside The New York Times Book Review” podcast so I requested that my local public library add it to their collection and when it came in I dived right in. I’ve always loved animals of (nearly) all sorts, and the story of the author grieving the death of her father and then acquiring a baby goshawk and training her and the cross-species bonding that resulted was fascinating to me. I did not expect that so much of the book would be talking about the author T. H. White (he of The Once and Future King fame) who had also written a book about his experiences while training a goshawk. Those passages were often painful to read (the best intentions don’t always lead to the right methods) but Macdonald goes back to the accounts, and her thoughts on White’s experiences, over and over and over. I’m not sure it added to my enjoyment of this book, and this wasn’t quite as magical a read as I’d expected, but it’s still a solid four stars from me.

Although I have several books in progress, my most recent finish was for the same book club mentioned above, for our April discussion. I’d long meant to read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and this clearly was the time to do so. I can see why it’s an important book, as it was one of the earlier English accounts (in translation) to show us the rich social constructs of African cultures, with no stereotypical assumptions of colonialism, and to that extent it was successful. I can’t say I really enjoyed the stories, but I expect that our club discussion will enlarge my appreciation for this one. Right now I’d give it three stars.

None of these books will help toward any of my 2015 reading challenges, but they all add to my year in reading.

8 March The Week in Reading

In my post last week I needed a distinct change of pace to forget the disturbing themes in the last book I’d finished. I succeeded.

First I finished the audiobook I’d been listening to for a while: Reamde.Take the resources and varying interests of one billionaire, a bunch of extreme gamer nerds, a couple of national intelligence agencies, and one of the world’s most notorious terrorists, set on a collision course by a nefarious computer virus, and you have a formula for some real action once it succeeds in capturing your attention. At times I was bored, but ultimately it was a satisfying read.

For my next kindle reads I turned to two books that were  a change of pace for me, and read them more or less simultaneously. I alternated chapters until Big Little Liesdemanded my full attention. I read very little of what is generally called “chick lit” so found myself surprised at the quality of writing by this very popular author. Liane Moriarty is skilled at dialogue and getting character motivations just right. What seemed a light read eventually turned quite serious and I found it to be a thoroughly worthwhile read.

Interspersed with this, I finally got around to reading BJ Novak’s collection of short stories of which I’d heard so much when it was released last year. Yes, he’s a comic actor and his offbeat sense of humor is on full display in One More Thing: Stories and Other Storiesbut he’s also a gifted writer. He mocks and skewers hypocrisies in current culture, and at other times is quite thought provoking. Not all of the sixty plus stories are terrific, but many are and I really enjoyed the collection.

Catching up

During the past week I have finished two books that probably fit into the thriller category, but they are so very different in tone and subject matter that it seems incongruous to call them the same genre.

First, I finally read a book that had been sitting on my TBR pile for a long time (since July of 2013) and one that I included when I wrote up my post for the TBR Reading Challenge.  But while I maintained a vague recollection that Marathon Man was a thriller, possibly even of the spy variety, I didn’t remember any specifics; and I never saw the movie made from the book. So I went into it pretty much blind. For the first few chapters I really didn’t understand what was going on, or how the different characters and story lines fit together. But pretty soon it all rolled together and from then on was compelling, and a quick read.

I never enjoy scenes of violence or torture (and honestly, I didn’t need more reason to fear a dentist’s drill) but I can generally hold my mental distance. Not so with the subject for the book I finished this afternoon…

I’ve read and enjoyed three other books in the Penn Cage series by author Greg Iles, and am looking forward to book 5 to be released in April. The Devil’s Punchbowl is equally well written and I enjoy the main characters and the increasing complexity of their relationships. Everything moves along well — except (and for me this is a deal-breaker EXCEPT) that when I encounter news stories or book treatments of child abuse or — in this case — animal abuse, it makes me literally sick to my stomach. That’s all I’m going to say about that, so the review will be short, but I never need to read one more word about the kind of vicious people who think it sport to watch or promote any kind of animal fighting. It takes a particular kind of soul sickness to think that’s entertainment and it destroys my faith in humanity.

I’m not sure what I will pick up to clean out my head after this book, but it will have to be something very different. And I need to find it soon.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodieis another of those classic titles that I’d never read. What I knew from the blurbs were that Miss Brodie is a “progressive” teacher at a girls’ school, and she probably unnerved administration and parents alike. What I did not expect was to find that she was manipulative and small-minded and selfish and a great admirer of Mussolini and Hitler. I’m glad the book is more of the novella length because I was very disappointed with it.

The well-known quote from this book, “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life” certainly characterized this manipulative teacher’s philosophy. She assumed that she could get girls to do her bidding for her own selfish ends if she had simply taken them under her wing at a young age. She kept telling them (and apparently the men in her life) that she was a woman “in her prime”, as if this should be how everyone thought of her without questioning her motives or doubting her methods.

The book did portray the small-time politics of such a school, but really just showed an amoral and narcissistic woman.

I was not impressed. Three stars, for being readable, and short. And because it qualifies toward two of my reading challenges this year: Back to the Classics (I’m using it to qualify as A Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title), and the Birthday Month Reading Challenge, as Muriel Spark was born 2/1/1918.

Another week in reading

After enjoying Natchez Burning so much, I wanted to immediately go back and read the books which came before. I hesitated, wondering if they might feel amateurish by comparison but I needn’t have feared. In fact, I thought The Quiet Game (Penn Cage Book 1) was every bit as good as Natchez had been. Characters were well-drawn and plotlines believable. Greg Iles can certainly write! When I finished that book I was wiping away a tear as I went straight to the kindle storefront to download book 2.  Five stars from me.

Early on, I was enjoying Turning Angel: A Novel (Penn Cage Book 2), but overall it did not ring as true for me. Oh, I could buy the primary love affair, though my sympathies were not with Drew Elliott, Penn Cage’s childhood friend (now forty years old and a respected local physician, charged with murdering the high school senior with whom he had fallen head over heels in love.) Regardless of any unhappiness in his own life, there isn’t  justification to try to start over with a minor. But I digress, and am being judgmental, so we’ll set that aside for now. I understand that good plotlines often involve putting characters in positions where they show poor judgment. But honestly, that same criticism pertains to the part of the book that I found ultimately less persuasive; because it wasn’t just Dr. Elliot. We are expected to believe that Penn very nearly falls into the same pattern, and that’s a relationship I simply didn’t buy. No way can even a “special” 18-year-old compete with the terrific woman Penn Cage was involved with for the past several years. Not even while they’re trying to sort through issues of career and the future of their relationship. I didn’t find the dynamics convincing, though perhaps that shows that I’m a grown woman and not a man. I don’t want to think it’s really that simplistic, so I’ll call this one a weakness in the book. It won’t stop me from going on to book three in the series after being so impressed with two others in the series. Three stars, and that may be a bit too generous.

But first I simply must read something that will count toward my Literary Birthday Challenge for the month of February.

This Week in Reading

I think I shall start posting this topic on Sundays, as a natural wrap-up to the just-completed week(s), but this one is a day late by those rules. In my defense, we spent much of the past few days seeing the eight Best Picture nominees for the 2015 Oscars. Years ago I used to make a habit out of trying to see the nominees just so I could have an opinion when the Oscars rolled around, but this year Cinemark has made it very very easy by selling a pass that works out to less than $5/picture and allows one to see the nominees repeatedly if one wishes, as well as the nominations for shorts. I actually didn’t make it to the 8th film (yet) but my husband enjoyed it too. My favorites? Hard to quantify, but I suppose my two top would be The Theory of Everything (story of Stephen Hawking and his first wife) and Selma. But my pick for best actor would have to go to Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game (which I also loved.)

Needless to say, this cut considerably into my reading schedule. I did, however, finish three books in the past week and make progress on a few others. I previously gave my impressions of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which won last year’s Man Booker Prize for Richard Flanagan.

I also enjoyed Natchez Burningenough that upon finishing it, I immediately went to my public library and borrowed book one in the Penn Cage series. I haven’t quite finished that one, but was delighted to find that Greg Iles was an excellent writer even back in 1999. I’m very much looking forward to books two and three before the newest title (five) is released in April. I highly recommend this for fans of mysteries and southern fiction. The Quiet Game is where to begin.

At the same time I was reading The Burgess Boysfor one of the book clubs to which I belong. This particular one meets at my local public library and the books are chosen by the librarian who moderates the group. She has excellent taste and chooses books in a variety of genres. I’ve never yet been disappointed at a choice, but this week I didn’t quite finish the book in time and didn’t attend the meeting. The book is about an ostensible hate crime committed in a small town in Maine, and is a good study of how an event takes on legs of its own with politics, the media, and family dynamics. I consider it primarily a good example of the latter and highly recommend it as such.