Also Read in September

Also read in September

It’s hard to believe that I only posted one book review on my blog in September. I guess life got in the way. I was reading though. Here’s a round-up of my September titles…

Playing with Matches

By Carolyn Wall, 3 stars

There were moments I loved this book, but on the whole I was underwhelmed. The story felt fractured and, while that might have been an intentional author choice, it prevented me from feeling close enough to the characters. I just couldn’t get why people were doing the things they did. I really loved the southern setting, the language, and Clea as a little girl, painfully drawn back again and again to her whore of mother. But once Clea grows up and returns to the scene, the book was disjointed. I got the metaphor of the approaching hurricane, but the storm itself was anticlimactic. For this style of book I much prefer Jayne Phillip’s Lark and Termite.

My heart feels like some rickety place. Like there’s nowhere safe to put my feet. It has something to do, I think, with the way my houses keep falling down.”

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

By J.K. Rowling, 4 stars

Finally finished listening to this one with my boys. Once again, I am so impressed by this series. I love how we each get something different out of these books. My oldest son (11) really gets the humor and some of the layers of interpretation. My youngest (7) just gets wrapped up in the action and drama. There’s nothing more rewarding than hearing, “I can’t wait to get back in the car to find out what happens next in the story.” I can’t add much more than has already been said by reviewers world-wide. I’m just glad to be on the bandwagon.

“Oh well… I’d just been thinking, if you had died, you’d have been welcome to share my toilet.”

One Amazing Thing

By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, 3 stars

Easy, interesting read — almost a short story format as several people share one amazing story from their lives while trapped by an earthquake. I think the individual stories worked better than the book as a whole, which almost became trapped in its own format. I was especially intrigues by Mr. Pritchett’s childhood story which was such a contrast to the adult character as portrayed in the current-day narrative. While the book didn’t hold together well enough for me, I will watch this author for the future. She did make me ask myself  what story I would tell.

She had always been this way: interested-quite unnecessarily, some would say-in the secrets of strangers. When flying, she always chose a window seat so that when the plane took off or landed, she could look down on the tiny houses and imagine the lives of the people who inhabited them.”

Songs Without Words

By Ann Packer, 2 stars

GROAN! I should have given up on this book after 2 disks, but I had no other audio books in the car so I kept listening. Then, by the time i picked up my next book, I was half way in and felt the need to finish.
The three main characters in this book are all lost and faltering. Depression, suicide, despair kind of bad. That wouldn’t normally bother me in a book except that Packer worked through it at such a slow, plodding pace. I am a big Dive From Clausen’s Pier fan, so I’ll try her work again, but if this had been the first book by her I’d ever read, I’d stay far away. But here’s where the second star comes in…she writes people thoughtfully and compellingly. I like her characters. That’s why I couldn’t give up on the book. I needed to know. And, in fairness, I read this during a very sad time in my own life which may have tinted further my view of this book.

Sorry – no quotes – unless you want me to go into the multi-sentence description of picking up a telephone to check voicemail…

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W…W…W…Wednesday

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve done this particular style post, but upon special request, I return with a book-themed play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading? • What did you recently finish reading? • What do you think you’ll read next?

What are you currently reading?We Need to Talk About Kevin” by Lionel Shriver. My Goodreads book club does an “Off the Shelf” challenge each month and this one has been on my to-read list for a long time. If it weren’t for the challenge I’m positive I would have stopped reading 50 pages in. This book is DARK, horrifying and speaks to all of my worst fears about motherhood. I am taking it very slowly. On a brighter note, I’m also listening to “The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag” by Alan Bradley. This is the second book in the Flavia de Luce series and it’s a book that makes me smile, charming protagonist and engaging narrator.

What did you recently finish reading? “One Amazing Thing” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Another book club selection. It was fine, not great, but fine. Finished listening to “Songs Without Words” by Ann Packer, which was painful, overwritten and over-acted in the audio version. I’m still surprised I stuck through with this one until the end.

What do you think you’ll read next? I have a whole stack of titles just staring at me waiting to be opened and read. I’m leaning toward, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” based on the strong reviews from people I know.

What are your W…W…W… titles?

Monday Quote – Autumn

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”
―    Albert Camus

I’m so glad autumn, my favorite season, is here. I took some time this weekend to go through my closet, packing away summer tops and capris to make room for a few sweaters, some long-sleeves, and, best of all, some boots.

I am not really a fashionista, but I do like fall fashion – boots, scarves and cardigans that I’ve missed wearing. But it’s not all about the clothes. I associate fall with some of my favorite memories.

Yes, I was one of those geeky kids that loved the start of a new school year. Sure, I liked back-to-school shopping, but now I’ve come to realize that what I really liked was the newness, the fresh start. And, even though I now understand that school technically starts in summer, that sense of renewal is definitely a fall feeling for me.

Fall has the best weather in Chicago. Spring here is so wet (and usually so cold). It’s no fun to be outdoors when the ground is freezing and wet. Summer is really hot and muggy, making me feel constantly sticky and craving air-conditioning. Winter…well Chicago winters are just no one’s favorite season. It’s just plan cold (and snowy, and windy, and icy). But fall…fall is crisp and fresh. Temps in the 50s and 60s are exactly in my comfort zone.

Best of all, when I think I fall, I think of some of my favorite family memories. My wedding, despite its November date, occurred on the perfect fall day. I vividly remember the mild temperature and leaves crunching under my white shoes.

For as long as I’ve known my husband, we’ve gone apple picking each fall, tramping through the orchard in all kinds of weather, eating fruit right off the tree. In fact, this year is likely to be the first time we don’t honor this tradition. The summer drought has left slim pickings (literally). That, combined with our new fall soccer schedule, may prevent our annual trip.

Our house and our neighborhood look beautiful in autumn. Fall begins our holiday decorating months. We break out the scarecrows, corn stalks and mums. I light candles and cover our mantle in gourds and leaves. My sons and I walk down the block gathering leaves of all different shapes, colors and sizes. Our outdoor chimney gets going on the weekends, providing the scent and fall and a great evening gathering spot.

And, there’s football, which I’ve always loved watching. I just love Sunday afternoon Bears games, the boys and I all in our “comfy cozy” clothes, comfort food in the oven. I am just so grateful for my many blessings on these days.

What’s your favorite thing about autumn?

Preparing for Banned Books Week

First of all, credit goes to lifeofabookjunky.tumblr.com for the excellent image, which I found, unsurprisingly on Pinterest.

Here’s the thing. I can do this. I can read until I feel better. That is my right and my privilege. I can pick up any book, of any style, in any format and read to laugh, or to cry, or to escape, or to wonder. That means a lot to me this week as I grieve and it should mean a lot to everyone, every day.

Next week is Banned Books Week (http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/) and the internet is all aflutter with images, displays and lists of banned or censored books. I don’t use my blog to push politics or draw people into debate, but censorship (especially of books) is another matter. This issue is my particular soapbox, so up I climb.

I’ve never intentionally set out to read books that others have tried to censor, but a quick glance at the American Library Association’s list (http://www.ala.org/advocacy/banned/frequentlychallenged/challengedclassics) of most frequently banned books shows that my reading taste must just veer toward the controversial. I’ve read most of the top 20, including such shocking titles as Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Color Purple.

It is no exaggeration to say that my life would be radically altered had I not read the above mentioned books.

Of Mice and Men is the first work of fiction I truly devoured. As a freshman in Mrs. Kirtley’s English class, I pulled apart, outlined, questioned, considered and reassembled this amazing piece of American literature. Steinbeck taught me that fiction could be socially responsible, that fiction could take me deep inside a stranger’s soul and teach me about history. Steinbeck showed me the glory of good writing.

To Kill a Mockingbird. Who can possibly take exception to this book? Scout Finch taught me all about smart young female narrators. (How did that change my life? Well, since I was smart young girl, I could identify.) Seriously, I believe I learned more about courage and integrity from Scout and Atticus than I did from any person I had ever met in real life.

The Color Purple was my first foray into African-American literature, and certainly if I had never read Walker, I would have never read Toni Morrison. The Color Purple opened up a world I knew nothing about and triggered a desire in me to learn more about our own country’s complicated history.

I could go on (and on and on), but I’ll stop here. Instead, I’m going to take a closer look at that list and see what other “illicit” titles I might want to investigate. If the rest of the titles are anything like the top ten, crazy people out there are trying to squash the best books around.

I leave you with some other great images from Pinterest and ask you to consider a “Banned Book” for your next reading choice.

Goodbye Dad

This week I said goodbye to my father. Too soon.

Diagnosed with ALS just 18 months ago, he lived the end of his life with amazing grace, but the last few months were truly terrible. As he lost his ability to move and ultimately to communicate, each goodbye grew more painful. The man I knew as my dad became lost. He wouldn’t – doesn’t—want me to wallow in sadness, and yet I need to honor that time in the journey.

I am, in fact, not sure of what I want to say, or how to say what I feel today, the day we laid him to rest. My thoughts are a jumble of euphemisms – he fought the good fight; he showed courage under fire; he was at peace; he’s in a better place.

As I’ve greeted friends, family and strangers offering condolences this week, I’ve nodded and agreed with heartfelt variations of all of the above. My dad touched so many lives in unique and meaningful ways. I love that people wanted to share their experiences with me. And I love that he was loved by so many people. I will always be grateful for the way that people gave a piece of my dad back to me through their stories, their prayers, their hugs, and just their presence in my life.

This entire experience, diagnosis through death, has left me amazed.

My dad amazed me. For all of his many amazing attributes, my father was never a patient man. But, as ALS stole the abilities to walk, to move, to eat and to drink, he remained calm, unhurried. He found a peace within himself that I had never witnessed. (He would doubtless tell me that it was the spirit of the Lord holding him still, holding him up.) He sincerely found each day a blessing.

His wife Jane amazes me. Married to my dad for 27 years, Jane has been the model of courage and conviction. She honored my father’s wishes to the very end, taking on the responsibility for his care so he could stay in his home. She opened her doors to friends and family at any hour and gave everything she had to make his world better. I’ve come to know her so much better through this experience and am so proud to have her as a stepmother and as my friend.

My brother amazes me. My “little” brother stood taller than his 6’2” in the face of ALS. He never turned his back, or shied away from any need my father had – physical, emotional or otherwise. My dad trusted him more than anyone other than Jane and he more than lived up to that trust. The way he stepped in, and stepped up, constantly inspired me. I’ve always seen the boy in my brother. I now recognize the man and I could not be more proud to call myself his sister.

My dad’s parish family amazes me. At St. Thomas of Villanova, my father found his passion. I told many people this week that he found more joy and fulfillment in his few years of volunteering there than he did in the 30 years of his “career.” His parish was a true gift in his final years, a period I will always think of as the happiest time in his life. They surrounded our family with love and prayer and faith. They took care of little details and kept us fed and transported people and pictures and flowers. They are the definition of community.  What would this have been had we not been carried along by Father Tom and Connie and Leo and all of the STV family?

We took this journey together and, although I come out on the other side saddened, my life will be better for the people I’ve come to know and for the true love I witnessed.

High school graduation

 

Monday Quote: I’m a little bit Liza

English: Liza Minnelli at The Heart Truth Fash...

“I feel myself trying to be charming, and then I realize I’m obviously trying to be charming, and then I try to be even more charming to make up for the fake charm, and then I’ve basically turned into Liza Minnelli: I’m dancing in tights and sequins, begging you to love me. There’s a bowler and jazz hands and lots of teeth.”
―    Gillian Flynn,    Gone Girl

Now we all know how much I loved Gone Girl (along with millions of other people), but that’s not why I chose this quote. I also don’t think I try to be particularly charming, but I sometimes I recognize that Liza Minnelli moment. I actually get caught up in the moment of just trying to be me.

During lunch with my coworkers last week, one of my new friends asked me what these “good reads” were that kept showing up on Facebook. So I explained the beauty of Goodreads, which led to another discussion of, “How do manage to read so many books?” which somehow led to, “And you have a blog?” As I tried to explain myself, and my penchant for sharing life’s moments with the virtual world, I felt the glare of the spotlight.

First of all I became the center of attention. This is a place I used to love. I literally grew up on stage. I can hold my own in the spotlight, but it’s no longer a position I seek. And I wondered in that moment how the conversation became about me? All of these people read. They all have families and most have on-line identities.

Then I started to feel a little defensive. As they asked me how I managed to keep up with all these things, the implied question seemed to be, “Why?” Why do I maintain so many threads of conversation? Am I trying to hard? Should I let something go? (I’m sure Liza has asked herself versions of these questions many times.)

In the end I laughed off the questions with a general, “I know. I’m just crazy.” (Deflection is another of my great skills.)

Once I was out of the spotlight, I realized that I am a little crazy — for imagining a spotlight where there was just inquiry.  I am so grateful that my new friends are interested in me, that we can chat and laugh at lunch. It’s just been so long since I’ve let new people into my life that I forgot for a minute how to do it.

All of this happened in the space of 5 minutes. It left me a little winded.  Poor Liza. This is her whole life.

Jonathan Tropper – a review and a meeting

Jonathan Tropper has rescued loser middle-aged white men as lead characters for me. After basically writing off any more books about whiny men (The Ask, Freedom, A Hologram for the King), my last two Tropper reads have reminded me that these men are not without redemption.

His latest novel, One Last Thing Before I Go, tells the story of Silver. (Silver has a last name, but no one used it. Everyone, including his daughter, just calls him Silver. Not Gold, not Bronze, just middle of the road Silver.) Still reeling from his days as a one-hit-wonder drummer in the Bent Daisies, Silver’s life is a downward spiral of divorce, drink and the occasional one night stand. Then his estranged daughter shows up pregnant.

Amidst all of this and driving the plot forward, Silver discovers he is “living” with a torn aorta that’s causing strokes and mini blood clots to swirl around. This condition causes him to speak all of his thoughts out loud, much to the chagrin of the people he’s with. No filter. He declines the life-saving surgery, leading to the book’s many scenes of friends, family and foes trying to convince him to save his own life.

If this all sounds a bit contrived, it is. But in Tropper’s hands it’s also brilliant and funny and heartbreaking. Once again, his characters are so complex and lifelike that I can’t help but root for them. Far-fetched scenarios seemed completely believable because Tropper invests those moments with sincerity and a great deal of wit.

He always felt this way around distressed women, that there’s something they’re waiting for him to say, and if he could figure out what that is, he could soothe the thing in them that needs to be soothed…he always believed that if, just once, someone had given him this vital piece of information, his entire life would have shaken out differently.”

This book is, quite simply, a great read – one of those novels I never want to put down. And, I certainly didn’t want it to end. But, once it did, I gave a rare “Hooray” for an author choosing a brave, smart ending that trusts his readers to figure the rest out on our own. Loved it.

Full disclosure: I read this book a week after meeting the author at a book reading. I’d been following @jtropper on Twitter and saw that he was going to be at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville so my mom and I made the last-minute decision to go see him.

Not being the type of person who normally does things like that, I did not know what to expect. What I found was exactly the man I would have expected to write This is Where I Leave You. Tropper is smart and funny, somewhat foul-mouthed, brutally honest and adoring of his family. He was self-deprecating at times, but unafraid to state his opinions.

He skewered Random House, admitting he basically found working with them so intolerable that he paid the publishing house to get out of writing another book for them. (He is now published by Dutton, a seemingly much happier arrangement.) He also admits he wrote his first book Plan B, just to prove he could follow a formula and get a book published. He definitely does not recommend it – and wishes instead that he could “unwrite” Plan B.

I just did not expect an author trying to sell his books to be so forthright about the industry. I should have. Tropper speaks the way he writes. I would go see him again in a heartbeat.