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.


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.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

I went into  this bookknowing that it was about the building of the Burma Railway by Australian POWs, and that it had won the Man Booker prize for 2014, but it wasn’t anything like I expected. First of all, I didn’t buy the “great romance” that was supposed to be the driving force for the main character, and I saw no reason for it to consume so many pages in the early parts of the book. Because I didn’t care about that, it took me a while to get into the book. It consists of scenes cobbled together and while clearly this was an artistic choice, it wasn’t always an easy read

I have read a lot of books set during the 2nd world war, so I was expecting the brutality and senseless nature of many losses, but what set this one apart for me were the longitudinal aspects: seeing the aftermath of the war on its various participants and their families, in the glimpses and recollections of the post-war years. The sections relating to the Japanese guards helped me to understand some of the attitudes that influenced many of their behaviors in war.

Parts of it were compelling reading, but it wasn’t a page-turner in the classic sense except for a couple of memorable places. The scenes of the hero’s family trying to outwalk a huge fire near the end of the book will haunt me.

What a fun way to begin February

During the many years I was a single mom, my daughter and I enjoyed watching and watching and re-watching many animal-themed movies. One of our favorites was Babe, 1995, about a pig that learned to manage sheep simply by being polite. I didn’t know there was a corresponding book until I found this one on Audible a few weeks ago. This morning I began listening to it while I folded laundry, loaded the dishwasher and found other chores around the house. What a delight it was. The movie and book track so closely that most of the dialogue matches up, and it was a terrific walk down memory lane.

For the uninitiated, Babe is a piglet that comes to live at the Hoggett farm after Farmer H wis a prize at the local fair. He is adopted by the Hoggetts’ sheepdog and goes on to prove his worth (and intelligence) in working with sheep. The key, of course, is good manners.

I’m counting this one as my audiobook for the Read Harder challenge.

Reading about reading

I love books about books, and The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Sharedhad been sitting on my TBR pile for a very long time. I have a passing acquaintance with the author’s mother, and I had held off reading this for some time due to her discomfort with some of the material included. However, in the end I couldn’t resist, as a love of books is one of the traits which most defines me, and I find it irresistible when others write about the same love.

When she was nine years old, the author, “Alice Ozma” and her father began a streak of reading aloud every single day which went on to last for thirteen years. This book isn’t so much about the books they shared as is it about the relationship between the two of them and I found it touching and genuine to see the struggles of this single father raising his daughter through the tricky pre-teen and teen years. Through it all, a shared love of books bonded them together and gave them a focus that kept them going.

The writing often seems like it’s in a young teenage voice, but the author wasn’t too many years past that when she published this memoir. Some embarrassing editing mistakes marred my enjoyment at times but overall I really enjoyed this book. 3.5 stars.

This will count toward my Read Harder Challenge as a book written by someone under the age of 25.

Three more reads last week

i followed up my trail adventure with three more books last week, beginning with the reliably pleasant The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Caféfrom the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. Precious Ramotswe always uses her common sense to sort out whatever challenge is put before her, and her considerable tact with both employees and clients. This is the first time in several books (for the series) that I have read rather than listened to the story. Because the author has the characters speaking slowly and repetitively, using my eyes allowed me to speed through passages that would have taken much longer if I had listened to them. That was a good choice. I am counting this one in my Read Harder challenge as a book written by an African author. McCall Smith was born in what is now called Zimbabwe. 3.5 stars.

Next I finished a classic play, A Doll’s Houseby Henrik Ibsen. I don’t know why I don’t read more plays; it works quite well on the page. I enjoyed this one all the more because Nora’s dilemma was on the leading edge of beginning awareness of women’s rights. She rebels against the completely fake role which she is expected to carry out, and by the end of this short read she has decided to figure out who she is and what she wants to do, regardless of society’s expectations. Good for her. I’m counting this on toward my Back to the Classics challenge, for which one requirement was to read a play. I enjoyed it so much I will seek out more to read in the future. 4 stars.

And finally, I finished off a real guilty pleasure, Home of the Braised by Julie Hyzy. This series of mysteries centered around the White House chef don’t rely on plausibility to hold a reader’s interest. However, I love reading about how kitchens are run, and at least some idea of how the white house meal prep is done. Ollie Paras is a likable character, whether or not I believe the story arcs concerning her.  3.5 stars.

Two more January reads

Following the recommendations of several friends, I chose to read Winter Garden, by Kristin Hannah, which spoke to the privations and hardships of Leningrad during World War II in the historical fiction portion of its storyline. I’ll admit I’m a huge WW2 junkie, particularly in fiction, and have read more about Western Europe than about Russia during those years, so I appreciated the chance to explore more in this area. Unlike several of my friends, I didn’t feel a huge disconnect between the modern-day portions of the story and the older ones, nor did I greatly prefer the historical portions. In fact, I thought the author effectively handled the results of life-changing events on a person’s psyche. In this case, that meant that the mother (who lived through the Leningrad siege) was unable to give her daughters any form of motherly love as they were growing up. It was painful reading about that, and yet it all knit together very well by the end. Where I took a  bit away from my final rating was the  excessive melodrama. The story itself was serious enough; the author didn’t have to tweak it so hard to make sure we got the point. I’ll try and avoid spoilers, so let’s just say that I took points off in two areas: the implausible ending, and the fact that this was written as a romance, where each person had to have a happy ending. Then again, I’m not a reader of romances…

The second book that I just finished was an always enjoyable romp with Flavia de Luce in As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust  as she is involved in yet another murder case, at the tender age of what? 12? This wasn’t my favorite  book in the series so far, though there were many delightful scenes and quotes.

These two books will knock off two more categories in the “Read Harder” challenge that I’ve committed to. The first book was recommended to me by several friends, and the second was written by someone past the age of 65. Now I think I should spend some time with classics. However, I’ve gotten myself involved in two books that are definitively not, so we shall see…