Thursday, October 30, 2014

book review: Redeployment by Phil Klay

The backstory: Redeployment, the debut short story collection by Phil Klay, has been honored twice by the National Book Award. It's on the 2014 shortlist, and it's also a 5 Under 35 pick.

The basics: This thematic collection of short stories focuses on soldiers fighting in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Klay served in the U.S. Marine Corps and in the Iraq War.

My thoughts: There's been a surge of fiction about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in the past few years. I've read and reviewed several titles here: Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter, Unremarried Widow by Artis Henderson, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, and You Know When The Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon. Just as I've come to compare books about World War II to one another, I've also apparently reached the threshhold where stories about the Iraq and Afghanistan cause me to reflect and compare them against one another. In this sense, Phil Klay is at a disadvantage, as the bar has been set pretty high with my enjoyment of these other titles. He's also at a disadvantage because I typically prefer novels and memoirs to short stories. Still, I started this collection with excitement.

Redeployment, unsurprisingly, is not a cheery or uplifting collection. It's raw and gritty, and it's not a sentimental look at war or soldiers as heroes. Its characters are often crude and misogynistic (note: writing authentically misogynistic characters does not mean Klay himself is misogynistic.) Reading Redeployment is an uncomfortable experience. Perhaps it was more uncomfortable for me as I read some of it while holding my baby. Imagining him as a soldier in eighteen years adds a curious new layer to my reading of stories about mostly young men.

Favorite passage:  "How drunk the girl was, whether she really wanted you or whether she let you, or was scared of you, that doesn’t bother most Marines when they get laid on a Friday night. Not as far as I can tell. I doubt it bothers college frat kids, either. But walking back from Rachel’s, it started to really bother me." from "Bodies"

The verdict: Redeployment provides unflinching looks at the experiences of soldiers who fought in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Its insight is often dreary, but it isn't necessarily surprising. Despite my experience reading and watching films about these wars, the darkness in Redeployment often seeped in deeper than other have. Redeployment offers important insights and perspectives, but its stories are seldom easy to read or digest.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: March 4, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Redeployment from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Phil Klay's website and follow him on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

book review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The backstory: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is one of my book club's November picks. The other is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, which I LOVED. (My book club meets every other month and reads two books.)

The basics: A.J. Fikry is a widowed book store owner on Alice Island, a fictional Martha's Vineyard-like place. His prized possession is a valuable and rare copy of very early Poe poems has been stolen, and he is rather miserable all around.

My thoughts: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a story for book lovers. It's filled with recommendations and inside jokes:
"He wants Maya to read literary picture books if such a thing exists. And preferably modern ones. And preferably, preferably feminist ones. Nothing with princesses. It turns out that these works most definitely do exist. He is particularly fond of Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Emily Jenkins, Peter Sis, and Lane Smith." 
At times the novel gets somewhat meta, and I found these moments interesting but ultimately not as successful: "You're a good reader, and you'll probably see it coming. (Is a twist less satisfying if you know it's coming? Is a twist that you can't predict symptomatic of bad construction? These are things to consider when writing.)" There are twists in this novel, and some I saw coming. Some were satisfying, and those were often the ones I didn't see coming.

As I read, I was fascinated by this novel, but not always in a good way. I didn't get carried away by the characters. Instead, I was carried away by trying to think like Zevin: what was she trying to accomplish with this novel. There are clues, including this passage about listing an average novel among one's favorites:
"How to account for its presence when I know it is only average? The answer is this: Your dad relates to the characters. It has meaning to me. And the longer I do this (bookselling, yes, of course, but also living if that isn't too awfully sentimental), the more I believe that this is what the point of all is. To connect, my dear little nerd. Only connect."
And therein lies the problem I had when I finished this novel. I didn't connect. I enjoyed it as I read. I was curious what would happen, as well as how and when the twists I guessed were coming would come. I can't say what made me not connect, but I think that's the key difference in my lukewarm thoughts on this entertaining novel that so many have utterly adored.

Favorite passage: "The thing I find most promising about your short story is that it shows empathy. Why do people do what they do? This is the hallmark of great writing."

The verdict: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a fun, entertaining read. It's clearly an ode to the love of books, which I quite enjoyed while I read, but ultimately the story lacked depth and emotional resonance. The characters felt like characters in a story rather than real, multi-dimensional characters.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 273 pages
Publication date: April 1, 2014 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Gabrielle Zevin's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

audiobook review: The Expats by Chris Pavone

narrated by Mozhan Marno

The basics: The Expats is the story of Kate Moore, a D.C. policy analyst whose husband Dexter receives a compelling job opportunity in Luxembourg. Kate and Dexter, along with their two young boys, soon make the move to Luxembourg, where Kate joins the thriving expat community for morning coffee, but all is not what it seems in this spy novel.

My thoughts: Please ignore the basics of this book. It was quite challenging to remember what I thought was the setup early on in this novel, and I think it's most exciting to read without the knowledge of some of its secrets. Pavone has his characters start spilling secrets very early on, and the twists keep coming throughout the novel. It's clear from the beginning that The Expats is a spy novel. What isn't clear initially is who the spy is (or who the spies are.) The characters weave a complicated collection of secrets and lies, and I enjoyed every single reveal. Some I correctly guessed before the characters, but many left me surprised.

Audio thoughts: Mozhan Marno's narration was quite good. She conveyed the many complicated emotions of Kate beautifully, and she expertly added in pauses I doubt I would have had the patience for if I read in print. The audio is a little long for a book of that length, but Marno's pacing escalated the tension is this addictive thriller. Some listeners might have trouble keeping the two timelines straight, as the action jumps back and forth between the present day and the flashbacks without obvious audio markers, but I didn't have a problem with it thanks to Pavone's attention to detail.

Favorite passage:  "The joke, like most of his kisses, had become perfunctory."

The verdict: The Expats is a smart, twisty thrill ride of an adventure across Europe. Like Kate, the reader never quite knows who or what to trust. The Expats is also a surprisingly thoughtful exploration of marriage and love. That Pavone managed both in his first novel is even more exciting.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 12 hours 27 minutes (338 pages)
Publication date: March 6, 2012
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Expats from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Chris Pavone's website and like him on Facebook

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, October 20, 2014

book review: Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

The basics: Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned" is part memoir, part thematic collection of essays, part humor, part advice, and part self-help vignettes.

My thoughts: I'll start with the disclosure: I'm a huge fan of Lena Dunham. Although I know of no actual relation to her Dunhams, I still try to claim her (and I'm only a Dunham by marriage.) So it was with huge excitement that I started Not That Kind of Girl the moment I picked it up from the library. It's no secret Lena Dunham can write dialogue, but how would it transfer to prose? She can build a scene beautifully in prose too:
"On Saturdays my friends and I load into somebody's old Volvo and head to a thrift store, where we buy tchotchkes that reek of other people's lives and clothes that we believe will enhance our own. We all want to look like characters on the sitcoms of our youth, the teenagers we admired when we were still kids."
And she can still write a hilarious one-liner: "This relationship culminated in the worst trip to Los Angeles ever seen outside of a David Lynch film." There are a lot of great moments in Not That Kind of Girl, but I'm still somewhat confused by Dunham's intentions with it as a complete book. At several points she refers to the pieces as essays, and I wouldn't have labeled them as essays, but I can sort of see that. I'm more inclined to call the varied pieces in this collection vignettes. There are essays, short and long pieces, humorous pieces, serious pieces, and pieces that tell stories rather than reflect on them. The collection is arranged thematically in five parts, which made it feel somewhat disjointed. Dunham mines her childhood frequently, but it doesn't feel like memoir because it's not organized chronologically.

Dunham is intentionally poking fun at her age with the book's subtitle: "a young woman tells you what she's "learned."" Yet as amusing as I find the subtitle, I'm not convinced it reflects the book itself. There are nuggets of advice, but I didn't find this book nearly as reflective as I hoped. Dunham is a great storyteller, but I longed for more than amusing stories from this book.

Favorite passage:  "Another frequently asked question is how I am “brave” enough to reveal my body on-screen. The subtext here is definitely how I am brave enough to reveal my imperfect body, since I doubt Blake Lively would be subject to the same line of inquiry...My answer is: it’s not brave to do something that doesn’t scare you. I’d be brave to skydive. To visit a leper colony. To argue a case in the United States Supreme Court or to go to a CrossFit gym. Performing in sex scenes that I direct, exposing a flash of my weird puffy nipple, those things don’t fall into my zone of terror."

The verdict: Not That Kind of Girl is smart and funny, but it's also somewhat uneven because it tries to be so many different things. There are moments of brilliance, tales that made me cry, and sentences that had me guffawing, but there were also portions that made me wish I was re-watching Girls from the beginning instead of reading.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 290 pages
Publication date: September 30, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Not That Kind of Girl from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Follow Lena Dunham on Twitter

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday Salon: a very Iowa weekend

The Sunday Salon.comHappy Sunday! The nomadbaby and I are having a very Iowa weekend. Unfortunately, I did not get to participate in the readathon yesterday (tear!), but I hope those who did had a great time (and are doing something not related to reading today--I always needed a break the day after a readathon.) Mr. Nomadreader and I are still sometimes getting used to the idea that we have a baby. We know we have a baby, of course, as we're with him every day, and he's in our thoughts constantly, but sometimes it doesn't quite seem real, as if I'm not old enough or something enough to be a parent yet. I feel similarly about raising an Iowan. I know I live in Iowa, and I even love living in Iowa, but somehow it seems odd to me that the nomadbaby was born in Iowa and will grow up here. And yet, it's a great place to grow up. I just hope he finds his way to a different part of the country for college or some adventure.

Yesterday I had a meeting in Greene, Iowa for my very part-time job coordinating the annual convention for Iowa P.E.O. (a philanthropic educational organization.) Greene is about a two-hour drive, and most of that isn't on the interstate. After finishing my current audiobook Friday, I decided to treat myself to the new Jane Smiley novel, Some Luck, on audio. Some Luck covers thirty-three years. It's the first in a trilogy (and even better news for impatient readers like me: the second volume comes out in the spring and the third volume next fall. No waiting years in between volumes!) The trilogy covers one hundred years of an Iowa farm family in the fictional town of Denby. It begins in 1920, and each chapter covers one year on the farm through a small number of moments. I listened to an interview with Smiley on Iowa Public Radio last week that made me move Some Luck up my TBR quickly. As I drove through rural Iowa, which is astonishingly beautiful with autumn colors this time of year, listening to an Iowa family farm saga with my baby peacefully snoozing in the backseat, I realized I've never felt like more of an Iowan. I'll be squeezing in as much audiobook time as I can this week to finish this one.

Today the nomadbaby and I are enjoying a quiet morning at home cooking breakfasts and lunches for the week ahead and relaxing. This afternoon we're heading out for another very Iowa activity: the political rally. One of the most fun things about living in Iowa is the parade of politicians who come to campaign and the celebrities they bring with them. Typically the excitement is limited to the Iowa caucus and the Presidential general election, but this year there is a very tight race for one of Iowa's Senate seats. Today's treat is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a woman I admire greatly. She's here campaigning for Senate candidate Bruce Braley. Last week, I went to see Michelle Obama campaign for Braley. Hawthorne typically loves any public outing, but I'm curious how he will fare at his first political rally.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Friday, October 17, 2014

book review: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

The basics: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is a collection of unrelated short stories.

My thoughts: Hilary Mantel is an author who intimidates me. Although many rave about her two most recent novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both of which won the Booker Prize, I don't find myself as drawn to them. Still, I wanted to read Mantel, and her new collection of stories presented the perfect opportunity. The title story and book cover are audacious, and I was eager to dive in.

There is no link, thematically or otherwise, to these stories. In that sense, the collection doesn't feel like a collection. If pressed, I wouldn't even guess the same person wrote all of them. As is typical, I enjoyed some more than others. The standout story in this collection is "The Heart Fails Without Warning," which tackles anorexia by examining the perspectives of each member of a family with two daughters, one of whom is anorexic. It's haunting and beautifully written. It comes late in the collection, and as much as it moved me, it didn't seem to fit with the other stories.

Favorite passage:  "What a good thing, that time does that for us. Sprinkles us with mercies like fairy dust." [from "Comma"]

The verdict: As a collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is uneven. There are some highlights, particularly "The Heart Fails Without Warning." The title story is also an intriguing one. After reading these stories, however, I don't have a sense of who Mantel is as a writer, and I'm left with more curiosity.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: September 30, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Hilary Mantel's website and like her on Facebook

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

book review: Reunion by Hannah Pittard

The basics: Reunion is the story of Chicago screenwriter Kate Pulaski and her brother and sister. The titular reunion happens in Atlanta when their estranged father dies, leaving behind their many half-siblings and ex-stem moms. Kate is shocked her siblings want to go to the funeral, but she begrudgingly joins them.

My thoughts: Not very far into Reunion, I looked up Hannah Pittard's biography because I figured she had to be from the same part of Atlanta in which I grew up. She nails the details of geography and attitude of the city in a way only someone who shares my love/hate relationship with it can. As I read, I was simultaneously homesick for Atlanta and reminded of why I left. Kate certainly shares my ambivalence of Atlanta: "It's that it reminds me of all that is fake about the sweetness of the South."

As much as I enjoyed the setting of this novel, I would have loved it if it were set anywhere. Reunion is far from a feel-good family story. The Pulaskis are dysfunctional and realistically flawed. As close as Kate is with her siblings, each is keeping secrets. The dark humor of Kate infuses the novel's tone with some levity as they individually and collectively face many challenges and divulge secrets. Reunion is so good because of Pittard's characters and writing.

Favorite passage: "I give Atlanta a hard time and I certainly give my father's people a hard time. When it comes right down to it, though, I like being from Georgia. But it requires being somewhere else for me to appreciate how special it is. It's a bad relationship--or maybe the truest kind of relationship. Look. I'm trying to be honest. I like it best when it's not around. Because it lives in my memory, completely malleable, completely disposed to my own fantasies and imaginations. It's a cool thing to be able to say when I'm in Chicago--that I'm a Georgia peach--but when I'm here, the skin isn't so fuzzy."

The verdict: Reunion is an engaging and wise novel. Like Kate, I found humor at inappropriate times. I devoured this slim novel in twenty-four hours and loved every minute I spent with the Pulaskis and Hannah Pittard.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: October 7, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Reunion from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Hannah Pittard's website and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, October 13, 2014

book review: How to Be Both by Ali Smith

The backstory: How to Be Both is on the 2014 Booker Prize short list.

The basics: How to Be Both is told in two parts, one from the point-of-view of George, a 16-year-old Cambridge (England) girl in current time, and the other from the spirit of Francesco del Cossa, a 15th century Italian artist. Which narrative you read first depends on the book; half the copies were printed with George's narrative first.

My thoughts: A few years ago, I read my first Ali Smith novel, There But For The (my review), when it was longlisted for the Orange Prize. I didn't love it, but I was impressed with Smith and her ideas, so I was eager to see what she would do next. Before starting this book, I did something I rarely do: I looked at a professional review (I usually think reviews give too much away.) I'm so glad I knew there are two orders in which to read this novel before I started (my copy had George's narrative second.) As a reader, I couldn't help contemplating how my reaction to this novel might be different depending on which version I read. It also made me pay attention to how the two narratives would overlap, which heightened the experience of reading (and made it a little easier.)

Because The Blazing World was also longlisted for this year's Booker Prize, at times I found myself comparing the two novels, as both have an unusual structure and examine issues of gender and art, albeit in very different ways. For me (and apparently the judges, as The Blazing World did not make the short list), Smith does both better. It's audacious to publish a book in two different orders. I'm partial to the order in which I read it, but I see how it could work well with George's story first. I imagine new layers would emerge on multiple readings, particularly if the reader opts to reverse the order for a second read (I'm particularly curious to know if the judges all read it in the same order the first time, as well as if they reverse orders for subsequent readings.)

Smith's prose is remarkably wise in its observations of both its fictional world and reality, and at time it's also humorous: "Is her mother really dead? Is it an elaborate hoax? (All hoaxes, on TV and the radio and in the papers and online, are described as elaborate whether they're elaborate or not.)" How to Be Both is that rare novel that feels longer than it is because Smith does so much with it. Despite how much I adored We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, I find myself hoping How to Be Both wins instead.

Favorite passage:  "In hell there is no mystery cause in mystery there is always hope."

The verdict: How to Be Both is utterly brilliant. It's inventive, provocative, and mind-bending. The prose is beautiful and smart. The characters are richly drawn. The historical sections are beautifully imagined. I'm rooting for it to win the Booker Prize because it's original, thought-provoking and emotionally affecting.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: December 2, 2014
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy How to Be Both from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sunday Salon: Team Gale?

The Sunday Salon.com
Last week, two big things happened: I went back to work and I finally captured Hawthorne's smile on camera. I'm so very grateful this kid decided to enter the world in the middle of the week because starting back to work on a Thursday really helped me transition back to the reality of dressing professionally and waking up to an alarm. So did having this picture to stare at while I missed him during the day:

Now that I'm back at work, I feel like we're embracing our new normal. As lovely as maternity leave was, it didn't feel like real life, and I was ready to be back at work. I'm so glad to love my job because even though I miss my baby when we're apart during the day, I'm happy to be at work. I imagine the alternative would be pretty devastating. 

Speaking of Hawthorne. I named my baby Hawthorne and not one person book blogger has made a Team Gale joke? When you're a librarian and a book blogger and the person most people in real life think of as a Reader-with-a-Capital-R, choosing a first name for your son that is best associated with an author has meant most people assume Nathaniel Hawthorne is my favorite writer (he's not) and that we named our son after him (we didn't, but we do like the association.) I do love that Hawthorne's name is literary, but I am truly surprised no one mentioned the other obvious literary reference: Gale Hawthorne. I'm disappointed, y'all. (And, no, he's not named after Gale either.)


Facing my first full week back at work, I'm off to spend as much time snuggling Hawthorne as I can (and as much time reading Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham as I can while he sleeps.) It's a big week in literary awards too: Tuesday brings the Booker Prize winner (I've only managed to read half the short list, but two are five-star reads) and the National Book Award short list(s) (I've still only managed to read one of the fiction longlisted titles.) I'll weigh in on all the new developments on Twitter and eventually here, but it may not be until next weekend. Happy reading!

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

book review: Us by David Nicholls

The backstory: Us was longlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize. I also adored One Day, the last novel David Nicholls wrote.

The basics: Us is the story of Douglas, a middle-aged biochemist, his wife Connie, an artist, and their seventeen-year-old son Albie. Connie announces she thinks she wants to leave Douglas, but she isn't sure yet. They set out on a tour of Europe with Albie as a last family trip, both before he goes to college and perhaps for their marriage too. The present day unfolds in the narrative while Douglas also tells us the story of their marriage from the beginning.

My thoughts: After loving One Day, I was already excited for Us. When it made the Booker longlist (before I could get my hands on a galley), I was surprised and ecstatic. My expectations were high going into this novel, and although I didn't love it quite as much as One Day, it is a smartly crafted, well-written, thoughtful exploration of marriage. It's also a medium-paced travel adventure novel. This combination works quite well, but a few times I found the flashback scenes out of balance with the present-day narrative. Most fit perfectly, but some were so fascinating I was sad to leave them behind. A few were less interesting and slowed the over all narrative pace.

From the novel's opening pages, I was laughing and snickering. Douglas narrates a clear picture of himself, including his shortcomings. So much of what I loved about One Day was the style of observational writing Nicholls uses. It's present in Us too:
"My wife, when we first met and felt compelled to talk constantly about each other's faces and personalities and what we loved about each other and all of that routine, once told me that I had a 'perfectly fine face' and, seeing my disappointment, quickly added that I had 'really kind eyes,' whatever that meant. And it's true, I have a perfectly fine face, eyes that may well be 'kind but are also the brownest of browns, a reasonable-sized nose and the kind of smile that causes photographs to be thrown away."
While this story is told through Douglas's eyes, and he admits he does not often understand Connie or Albie, his careful observations help the reader clearly see Douglas and events from their points of view too. Douglas is a character who is so different from me (and at times so frustrating because of these differences) that I often marveled how well Nicholls could sustain his voice in this novel. In this sense, I felt the exasperation Connie and Albie sometimes felt; I felt like part of the story too.

As the ending of the novel approached, I was surprised to find myself as invested as I was. I had not thought I cared how the novel ended, but I soon found myself sobbing as I read the last vignettes. Us was a smartly constructed, enjoyable novel, but it's climax and ending elevate the rest of it.

Favorite passage: "But awe is a hard emotion to sustain for hours on end and soon it all became rather boring."

The verdict: The emotional impact of Us caught me by surprise. I enjoyed the novel throughout, even if the flashback scenes hindered momentum occasionally. Douglas was a fully realized character who was both funny and sad. He fascinated me, even as I often felt sorry for him. As well-written as it is, this novel is rather straight forward, and yet the ending had me crying for pages. I was so moved, I realized Nicholls somehow let this novel sneak up on me, for the whole truly is greater than its very good parts.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 416 pages
Publication date: October 28, 2014
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Us from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit all the tour stops, visit David Nicholl's website, and like him on Facebook, and enjoy this video about the novel:


As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday Salon: On 100 Books Read and the Year of Michael Connelly

The Sunday Salon.com
On Monday, I hit a major reading milestone for the year: I finished my 100th book. For comparison, in 2013, I only read 94 books all year. In 2012, I read 118 books, but I didn't reach 100 until the end of November. In 2011, I read 108 books and reached 100 in December. In 2010 and 2009 (the earliest year I kept good data on my reading), I didn't make it to 100. For me, 100 is momentous whenever it happens in a year, but to reach it on September 22 surprised me.

Appropriately, book 100 was The Burning Room by Michael Connelly (my review will post on its release date, November 3.) Of the 100 books I've read this year, 27 were written by Michael Connelly. I don't think I've ever read so many books by a single author in a single year. I'm not even sure there are other authors I've read that many books by. Ever. 2014 has clearly been the year of Michael Connelly.

I started my journey with Michael Connelly in February. It was Amazon pilot season, and I decided to watch the pilot of Bosch. I really liked it, and I knew I wanted to read the books before the series premiered (now slated for early 2015.) I read the first Bosch mystery, The Black Echo, in February and was hooked. Twenty-seven books later, I'm sad the journey with Connelly has ended for now. (I would say, "write faster!", but I don't want to compromise quality for speed or quantity.)

As I reflect on hitting 100 books read so early in the year, I have to think about what made this year different. The most obvious thing is the nomadbaby. I spent the first seven and a half months pregnant. I slept a lot, but I also stayed home a lot and read a lot. I was cognizant of how little time I might have to read when he arrived, and I did prioritize reading more. I joked on Twitter that I should just get pregnant every year to keep this pace up (I won't.)

I'm convinced the more obvious reason for my reading surge, however, is getting back to basics. I took away as many barriers to reading as I could by cutting way back on obligations. In 2014, I've accepted only book for review for a specific date (Us by David Nicholls--look for my review on October 7th.) When I got pregnant, I knew I wanted to cut back on reading obligations, and I did. This transition was really easy for a couple of reasons. First, I'm fortunate to get e-galleys of most new titles I want to read. When I was a newer blogger, book tours were the only way I was able to advanced reader copies. With the surge in e-galleys, the model has changed. I've also built a solid reputation as a book blogger, and when I ask a publisher for a copy, the answer is usually yes (which is AMAZING.) Of the 100 books I've read so far, 36 were review copies. I'm still reading plenty of new releases, both courtesy of publishers and the library, but I don't do it on specific days. Without this shift, there's no way I could have found the time to indulge in Connelly's entire backlist this year. Second, I gave myself permission to put down books, temporarily or permanently, if they weren't working for me. Without the obligation to review specific titles, I didn't have to force a book at any given time.

Here's why I won't go back to review obligations: this year, when I finished a book, I didn't look at my calendar to see when my next scheduled review was. Instead, I looked at my shelves, both physical and virtual, and picked the book I most wanted to read. Twenty-seven times, that choice was Michael Connelly. If a book wasn't quite hitting the spot, I could put it aside and pick it up later. As a very moody pregnant person, I put aside a lot of books.

I'm thoroughly enjoying my year of reading what I want, when I want to. This year's list is more mystery-heavy than usual, and I expect that trend will continue for the next several years. With a baby, short, easy-to-digest chapters are often a good thing. I've also read more nonfiction than usual and listened to more audiobooks than usual. I think the variety of reading, both in format and genre, helps me read more. With three months to go, I'm certain to reach my 2014 reading goal of 102 titles. I don't want to get caught up in the number, especially if it caused me to pick books for their length to inflate it. But by comparing this year against the previous five years, it clarifies a lot about my personal reading priorities, and I hope 100 in September is the new normal because I've had more fun reading this year than in most years.

Cheers to making reading (more) fun again. Cheers to reading like a reader rather than reading like a blogger!

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Friday, September 26, 2014

book review: Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott

The backstory: When I was pregnant, I found myself enjoying memoirs of pregnancy by great writers so much more than the traditional self-help pregnancy books. Several people recommended this one to me, and I opted to save it to read while on maternity leave.

The basics: When Anne Lamott finds herself thirty-something and pregnant, she decides to have the baby. His father immediately exits the picture, and she must rely on her family and friends to serve as a support system for her single parenthood.

My thoughts: First of all, I'm so glad I waited until after Hawthorne was born to read this. Lamott's son Sam was horribly fussy, and knowing how bad it could be would have been awful for me to imagine while pregnant. My baby is blessedly not very fussy (he does have his days), and I often found myself feeling sorry for Lamott in the early weeks. I'm also fortunate to have a supportive partner. I cannot imagine Lamott's version of motherhood. While it does get better as Sam gets older, I don't know if I could have endured it the way she did.

This memoir is in the form of a journal, as the subtitle suggests, and I enjoyed reading about her experiences with Sam in his early weeks while Hawthorne is so young. It was fascinating to compare notes. As this memoir went on, however, I had to face the fact that I just didn't like Anne Lamott. Her attempts at humor grated on me. Ostensibly Sam is the focus of this memoir, yet she spends more time talking about her complicated journey to Christianity and her ongoing struggle with sobriety. I found both topics grating. Over all, I found the tone to be off. Some passages read like a journal--her thoughts were often abrupt in the early weeks, which makes sense. Too often, however, it felt inauthentic to me as she shared quotes or references literature and art. I typically love such references, but Lamott sprinkles them in somewhat haphazardly and doesn't offer much commentary.

The verdict: Throughout this book, I wanted more commentary on the experiences. Instead, Lamott shares her experience and comments on sobriety, Christianity, and George Bush (the first.) Having read so many honest explorations of pregnancy and motherhood, this one simply doesn't measure up for me. Admittedly, Lamott came first, and perhaps this memoir doesn't age well in an age where honesty about motherhood is so common.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 273 pages
Publication date: April 27, 1993
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Operating Instructions from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

book review: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

The backstory: Big Little Lies is one of my book club's September selections (the other is Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead.) I've previously read two of Liane Moriarty's earlier novels, What Alice Forgot, which I quite enjoyed but apparently never reviewed here, and The Husband's Secret, which I liked, but not as much.

The basics: Set in a picturesque Sydney, Australia beach community, Big Little Lies is the story of three women, all of whom are mothers of kindergartners. Madeline, a divorced and re-married mother of two. She has definite opinions about everyone. Her best friend, Celeste, who is impossibly beautiful and a mom to five-year-old twin boys. Lastly, Jane, a new-to-town single mom who is shockingly young. The book opens on the night of a costume fundraiser at the school, when there is a mysterious death. The action soon jumps back six months to the day of kindergarten orientation, when Jane meets Celeste and Madeline.

This review contains some spoilers because I can't seem to review books I don't like without spoiling some plot points as a means of explanation.

My thoughts: What hindered my enjoyment of The Husband's Secret was how obvious the titular secret was. Given the seemingly diverse cast of narrators, I found the secret, as well as the connection between the narrators, pretty obvious. Big Little Lies was even more transparent, and it seemed so much more vapid because the characters weren't nearly as realistically formed.

This novel tries to be a mystery, but only to a point. The reader doesn't learn the identity of the dead person for quite some time, and this odd withholding of information illustrates how thin the plot itself was (and how much Moriarty tries to be clever.) Secrets, large and small, are slowly revealed, but Moriarty employs a ridiculous amount of foreshadowing along the way. This novel is far too long at 480 pages, and while there might be the crux of a good idea there, its execution was flawed.

From the moment Jane arrives in town, it's clear the secret father of her child lives there. Again, due to the overuse of foreshadowing, I found it rather obvious from quite early on, and the foreshadowing in this case was the most heavy-handed. Moriarty's treatment of serious issues as a seemingly clever plot device struck me as cheap and insensitive. Similarly, it's soon pretty obvious which person is most disliked and most likely to end up dead. Because I correctly guessed these two pivotal reveals so early on, it felt like I slogged through most of the novel with little benefit (I did guess the killer nearly as early, so Moriarty had me there, but I found the reveal totally unsatisfying to the narrative.

Lastly, each chapter ends with a few lines of dialogue from a large cast of characters, some of whom we do not meet for quite some time. Initially I found this device distracting and confusing, as so many characters were thrown at me. Soon it seemed to be an attempt at humor, but it often fell flat for me. Ultimately, I wish Moriarty had written full chapters from more points of view. It would have complicated the narrative in a good way, instead of a simplistic way.

The verdict: An interesting idea was not well executed here. The characters were caricatures. The structure attempted to build intrigue into a really thin plot. Most importantly, neither the big nor little lies were ultimately very interesting, and with weak plot and characters, there wasn't anything else left to enjoy in this novel's far too many pages.

Rating: 2 out of 5
Length: 480 pages
Publication date: July 29, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Big Little Lies from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Liane Moriarty's website and like her on Facebook.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

book review: An Age of License by Lucy Knisley

The backstory: Lucy Knisley is perhaps my favorite graphic memoirist. I've thoroughly enjoyed her first two graphic memoirs: French Milk and Relish.

The basics: In An Age of License, Knisley recounts her European book tour.

My thoughts: An Age of License is somewhat reminiscent of French Milk, as it's a travelogue and takes the form of her travel diary. While food is a frequent theme in this graphic memoir, as it is always is in Knisley's work, the emphasis here is more on life and reality. Even as Knisley enjoys her trek across Europe, there's a seriousness, and even a darkness, to this memoir.

Knisley's most recent long-term relationship recently ended. She still loves him, but she wants kids (one day), and he doesn't. As someone who didn't want kids for many years, and then was ambivalent about having kids for many more, I fully appreciate this tension. Disagreement about children trumps love. As Knisley rebounds from the end of this relationship, she tries to date again, and she writes with a frankness about love, sex, and attraction that I respect and appreciate.

Another theme in this memoir is her financial stress. As such a successful cartoonist and graphic memoirist, it's sobering to see Knisley struggle financially. Again, she writes (and draws) about her financial issues with a frankness I admire and appreciate. This trip isn't an escapist vacation travelogue of excess; Knisley doesn't leave her problems or stress behind on this journey, yet there are beautiful moments of joy, hope, and relaxation that make this memoir not be a stressful one to read.

The verdict: I adored An Age of License, as I have adored all of Knisley's work. It's fascinating to watch her grow as a writer as I continue to live vicariously through her graphic memoirs. My favorite moments of this one may be her explaining her need to write and draw about her experiences, and how that impacts those who are in her life.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 208 pages
Publication date: September 22, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy An Age of License from Amazon (no Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Lucy Knisley's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!