Some April Reads

Every time Sunday rolls around, I have this niggling thought that I should be writing a blog post, and somehow it’s slipped anyway. So here I will do a quick fly-by of the books I’ve read so far in April. When the month began I was still in a bit of a hangover from A Little Life, so the next book I turned to on my kindle needed to be something very different that would be a brain-cleanser.

Not to recommend this as great literature, but The Great Zoo of China certainly was a change of pace. Think Jurassic Park, but with dragons. What could possibly go wrong! “No, no, we’ve thought of everything — it’s completely safe.” I was only surprised at how soon it really picked up the adrenaline rush (at around 25%) and wondered how the author could sustain it for 300 more pages. I expected bloodshed but thought it was perhaps a bit too much, and I could have done without the constant profanity, but it definitely held my attention and was a very quick read. The main character wasn’t realistic, but I was rooting for her anyway. (I also wanted to like the dragons, but few of them turned out to be sympathetic creatures.) I did enjoy what seemed to be realistic traits and habits for imaginary creatures (or are they… ?)

My audiobook during this time had been An Unnecessary Woman, a quiet and thoughtful read about a Lebanese woman who has devoted much of her life to translating great works of literature into Arabic, only to box each one up and set it aside when she’s done with it. I really enjoyed this one, and may very well put it in my “re-read someday” stack.

I wouldn’t have picked up my next book had it not been for a new book club meeting at our local public library, led by an English professor, with the sole topic of books nominated for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. The Thing Around Your Neckwas a series of short stories each dealing in some way with the Nigerian experience. Some were told from the perspective of people living there, others of expats but each touched in some way upon modern day Nigeria. I loved them, and the book club meeting, and hope it continues for a long while.

A friend of mine wanted to read Stephen King’s The Running Man and I got through it but found it far too bleak to enjoy. And again, why all the cursing? Even in a broken world I just don’t want to hear that much.

The Sparrow and its sequel Children of God were  thought-provoking and  well done. I kept being reminded of a book I reviewed earlier this year, but found these two to be even better. I’ll admit I was hesitant about reading the sequel, afraid it would disappoint but it did not. I often feel that a series could be just as “finished” if it stopped at the first book. I felt that way about The Hunger Games, for example, and that’s probably true here as well, but the second one was satisfying.

Because I love thoroughly science-y books, I devoured Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from the title, but brought back memories of when I was a teenager and on visits to my grandparents would often accompany my grandfather when he’d be called out at night to perform an autopsy. This book was full of the details that make it real and was well written. I found the chapter on 9/11 particularly disturbing, but I do highly recommend this one.

Not a one of these books apply to any of my book challenges for 2015.


Other March Reading

A quick run-down on other books I’ve finished this month but hadn’t yet blogged…

3/23/15 Only Time Will Tell (Clifton Chronicles Book 1)by Jeffrey Archer. The author can always be counted on to tell a good story and keep it moving. Like so many of his other books, this one begins with an underprivileged but bright young person and follows them as they rise into the circles of the rich and famous. There are  four more books already published in this series, and I look forward to seeing Harry Clifton traverse the 20th century.

I finished The NIV Bible in 90 Daysand enjoyed this quick trip through the entire Bible. Now for some deeper reading of it during the rest of the year.

As the end of March loomed, I realized I hadn’t yet read anything for my literary birthday challenge (anything by a dead author who was born during this calendar month) so I found The Inspector-Generalby Nikolai Gogol. This is a comedy of misunderstandings in a small Russian village where absolutely everyone in office (major or minor) is corrupt. The rumor starts that someone is here from the government to inspect how they are performing their jobs and everyone tries to outdo the others in impressing the young man they are certain holds their fate in his hands. It was an amusing, quick read and will meet not only the literary birthday challenge but another task in the Read Harder challenge as well as one in the Back to the Classics challenge.

Finally, I finished the book I had begun before picking up A Little Life and becoming lost in it. A Separate Peaceis set at a boys’ academy just at the outset of WW2 and captures the last of their innocence before their world changes. Not what I expected, but a good read for time and place. This will also count toward the classics challenge as my choice for 20th century classic.

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.