September Reading Wrap Up

It doesn’t seem it should have taken so long to post my September wrap up considering I only finished 6 titles. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I read so little. I did not crack the spine of a book for two weeks. But I’ve learned I need to ride out these slumps (and I was listening to a good audio, so there’s that.) I did complete a Dusting Off The Bookshelf challenge — see below.

By the numbers: 6 books, 5 reviews on Goodreads, 4 reviews on alenaslife, 1 oldie from my shelf – #dustingoffmybookshelf, 1 from my 2014 personal challenge (poetry, non-fiction, foreign locale), 1 audio, 0 set-aside

September ReadsFrom most to least favorite:

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, Mira Jacob ~ Already Reviewed

My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff ~ Already Reviewed

The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields ~ Already Reviewed #DustingOffMyBookshelf

The Free, Willy Vlautin ~ Already Reviewed

Landline, Rainbow Rowell

I just couldn’t ever really get past the gimmick that drives the plot of this book. Plus the fact that the protagonist’s name is Georgie McCool. It was all trying too hard for me.

“You don’t know when you’re twenty-three.
You don’t know what it really means to crawl into someone else’s life and stay there. You can’t see all the ways you’re going to get tangled, how you’re going to bond skin to skin. How the idea of separating will feel in five years, in ten – in fifteen. When Georgie thought about divorce now, she imagined lying side by side with Neal on two operating tables while a team of doctors tried to unthread their vascular systems.
She didn’t know at twenty-three.”

Beatrice & Virgil: A Novel, Yann Martel (audiobook)

Even though the writing is superb, I was uncomfortable the entire time I listened to this (thankfully) short book. In the beginning, I was concerned that it was taking far too long to get to the story. Then 1/3 of the way in, I was so disturbed by the often gruesome content. And then, the end. I don’t have the words to describe the insane, awful, gut-punching ending. I wanted to like it. I didn’t.

“Life and death live and die in exactly the same place, the body…to ignore death is to ignore life.”

My September Photo Collage is comprised of book covers uploaded from Goodreads.

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Very Glad I Read: The Stone Diaries

The Stone DiariesA true case of better late than never, I am so glad I finally read this book. It’s both epic and humble, quiet and bold, a true masterpiece in both content and style.

We meet Daisy the moment she is born in 1905 and follow her life until it ends sometime in the 1990’s. The book reads almost like an in-depth memoir, except that other perspectives (or versions of Daisy’s story) keep breaking into the narrative. Shields also chooses the third person, even when we are reading Daisy’s thoughts, which keeps just the right amount of distance between the reader and the characters.

Without being any sort of feminist track, the book is very much a woman’s story of the 20th century. For the most part Daisy takes the “traditional” path, but that doesn’t mean her life is without drama. “Orphaned” at birth, shuffled from Canada to the United States, widowed early and long-lived, Daisy faces each phase of her life searching to fill the void of her inner loneliness.

“We accept, as a cosmic joke, the separate ways of men and women, their different levels of foolishness…Men, it seemed to me in those days, were uniquely honored by their stories that erupted in their lives, whereas women were more likely to be smothered by theirs.”

Shields has such a light writing hand, I felt more like I was peeking in on Daisy’s life even though I was fully immersed in every thought and action. That’s a tricky balance and Shields handles it beautifully.

“In the middle of writing a check she forgets the month, then the year. She’s gaga, a loon, she’s sprung a leak, her brain matter is falling out like the gray fluff from mailing envelopes, it’s getting all over her furniture.”

This is my second Shields novel, and again I am reminded how sad it is that her life was cut far too short by cancer.

Read alikes:

Olive Kitteridge

Unless

Cover image uploaded from Goodreads

Dusting off the Bookshelf – September edition

I did it! I followed through with my August challenge and read one of the many titles lingering on my To-Read shelf.

Loved, loved, loved The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews! So now I’m ready to tackle another title for September. Each month I will choose a few from the middle or bottom of the list (meaning they’ve been sitting and waiting patiently for over a year), determined to read at least one per month. If I can read even more than one, all the better. Any advice or guidance you can offer would be much appreciated.

My September is actually off to a good oldie start, as I’m deep in The Stone Diaries, which I’ve wanted to read ever since discovering Carol Shields through Unless.

Many thanks to Chels & a BookIt’s All About Books and  Books & Cleverness for their never-ending inspiration.

For September 2014, my choices are:

How the Garcia GirlsHow the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez. Added to my shelf June, 2011 (published in 1991). Alvarez is one of those authors I know I should have read but haven’t. Not sure why…it’s just never come to pass. I’m also not sure if I should start with this one or with In the Time of the Butterflies (also on my bookshelf).

Goodreads describes it: Uprooted from their family home in the Dominican Republic, the four Garcia sisters – Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia – arrive in New York City in 1960 to find a life far different from the genteel existence of maids, manicures, and extended family they left behind. What they have lost – and what they find – is revealed in the fifteen interconnected stories that make up this exquisite novel from one of the premier novelists of our time.

The God of Small ThingsThe God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Added to my shelf August, 2011 (published in 1997). Everyone, and I mean everyone, assumes I have already read this modern classic, but I have not. I need to.

Goodreads describes it: The year is 1969. In the state of Kerala, on the southernmost tip of India, fraternal twins Esthappen and Rahel fashion a childhood for themselves in the shade of the wreck that is their family. Their lonely, lovely mother, Ammu, (who loves by night the man her children love by day), fled an abusive marriage to live with their blind grandmother, Mammachi (who plays Handel on her violin), their beloved uncle Chacko (Rhodes scholar, pickle baron, radical Marxist, bottom-pincher), and their enemy, Baby Kochamma (ex-nun and incumbent grandaunt). When Chacko’s English ex-wife brings their daughter for a Christmas visit, the twins learn that Things Can Change in a Day. That lives can twist into new, ugly shapes, even cease forever, beside their river….

The Art of FieldingThe Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. Added to my shelf in September, 2011 (published in 2011). I love baseball. I love good writing. This seems like a natural.

Goodreads describes it: At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended…Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth, The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment—to oneself and to others.

Any advice about what I should choose for September?

 

*All cover images uploaded from Goodreads

W…W…W…Wednesday

Wednesday is back again. Gee it feels like just a week ago when I was working on this particular Q & A. Feel free to 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? I just started Molly Ringwald‘s short story collection, When It Happens to You. It was a very impulsive choice when I saw it on the shelf at the library. I’ve only read the first story, but it’s pretty good so far. For my audio choice I needed an author whose name starts with “M” for a book group challenge. I was hoping for Kate Morton but couldn’t find anything, so I settled on Laura Moriarty‘s The Chaperone. It’s gotten mixed reviews, but I’m pleased to listen to Elizabeth Montgomery reading the novel.

What did you recently finish reading? Over the weekend I finished Sebastian Barry‘s On Canaan’s Side, which is just a terrific novel. Thoughtful, intelligent and evocative.  Also finished Dennis Lehane‘s Live by Night on audio. Great escape into Prohibition era gangster-controlled Tampa.

What do you think you’ll read next? Now that I’ve met my 90-book goal for 2012, I feel like the pressure is off my reading choices. I haven’t put anything on hold, but I may try Telegraph Avenue next. I also want to read Stone Diaries since Carol Shields made my Best of 2012 reading list.

What are your W…W…W… titles?

My Favorite Books – 2012

I know. I know. Everyone and their brother has a “Best of” list at this time of year, but this tradition of mine predates blogging. This is just a more convenient way to share.

Readers should keep in mind that I don’t limit myself to books released in 2012. Although I try to keep up with what’s new and hot, I’m just as likely to pick up an unread classic or finally get around to reading something I’ve had on my list for months (or years). So you’ll find a mix of old and new.

And, I just couldn’t decide which book to cut from the list, so here you have my Top 11!

Tell the Wolves I'm HomeTell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is everything I love in a book – a thoughtful, socially awkward young narrator coming of age at a particularly dramatic historical moment. June Elbus is 14 years-old in 1986 when her beloved uncle dies of AIDS.  June is caught between childish games of imagination and the harsh realities of death, fear and discrimination. Struggling with the love-hate relationship between herself and her 16 year-old talented and popular sister, feeling orphaned by her busy-at-work parents and full of teenage self-loathing, she still comes across as tender and sympathetic. Read more…

Extremely LoudExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safron Foer

Brilliant. Devastating.  Can a book be described in two words? Probably not, but 2,000 will not be enough to convey the depth and intelligence of this masterpiece. Certainly, it’s a 9/11 book. The main storyline revolves around Oskar, a 9 year-old boy on a quest for closure after his father’s death on that horrible day. But the book is more than that. Read more…

book cover from Goodreads

book cover from Goodreads

A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash

Wiley Cash did not so much ease me into the disturbing world of his novel, as grip me by the throat and pull me along. Within the first few pages I knew to be very afraid of the charismatic, snake-handling, strong-arming Carson Chambliss. I knew someone had died. I knew children were involved. And I felt the heart-wrenching isolation of the people in this Appalachian community through the eyes of Adelaide, an elderly midwife. In fact, as the novel opens, Adelaide is about to step into Chambliss’ church and meet him face to face. Read more…

cover image from Goodreads

cover image from Goodreads

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I find it difficult to review this book without giving the whole thing away. Any spoilers would ruin this brilliantly crafted novel by literary “It Girl” Gillian Flynn. So let me say instead that Flynn has forced me to completely re-examine my belief that I’m not a fan of thrillers. What starts out as a straightforward premise – woman goes missing on her 5th wedding anniversary; husband is primary suspect – twists and turns in so many directions that I was left guessing, often. Read more…

The Rules of CivilityRules of Civility by Amor Towles

I cannot possibly write a review that reflects the intelligence and sophistication of this book. Integrating art, photography and literature into his portrait of 1938 New York, Amor Towles also tells a great story about the choices made by one young woman — Kate/Katey/Katherine Kontent, and her friends. Kate is smart, funny, unpredictable and determined, all qualities that make a fine heroine. But she’s also imperfect, which makes her infinitely more interesting. Read more…

sense of an endingThe Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending is further proof that my favorite books are not those that are driven by plot, or even by character, but instead, are books whose language transports me. I don’t mean to imply that nothing happens or that I didn’t care about the characters, but they aren’t the critical elements in my 5 star rating for this book. What elevates Julian Barnes to 5 star status is the way he makes me think. Read more…

Cover image from Goodreads

Cover image from Goodreads

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

Raw.
To love Girlchild as much as I did, you have to be willing to understand “raw.” Several times while I was reading this book, my husband looked at my face and asked me what was wrong. (I was alternating between tears brimming over and horror leaving my mouth agape.) Rory Dawn suffers neglect, mistreatment and abuse at the hands of those trusted to care for her. Growing up in a Nevada trailer park outside Reno, Rory clings to her tattered copy of the Girl Scouts Handbook as the only set of rules that use “honor” and “obey” as positive edicts. Read more…

This is Where I leave youThis is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

I can’t remember the last time a book made me laugh out loud, but this one did. It also made me blush, got me a little choked up at times, and introduced me to another author whose work I will actively seek. Forced to take part in a traditional Jewish 7-day shiva for his father, Judd Foxman ping-pongs between his hilariously dysfunctional siblings, his larger than life newly widowed mother, and the agony of his failed marriage. Read more…

Beautiful RuinsBeautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins defies easy categorization. A little bit mystery, a little romance, a little historical fiction, even a little Hollywood. Jess Walters does a fantastic job of blending all these components into something smart, entertaining and lovely. What I really loved is the way Walters carried me away to another world, another time. He puts me squarely inside the minds of his characters so that I’m on the journey with them. The characters themselves are the beautiful ruins of this novel. Read more…

unlessUnless by Carol Shields

Although Carol Shields’ novel has a tragic background, it doesn’t focus on a traditional story. Instead, we meet Reta Winters, whose 19 year-old daughter has chosen to sit on a busy corner in Toronto wearing a sign that reads only, “Goodness.”  Reta does not take dramatic action to retrieve her daughter. She does not yell or pull her hair. Instead, she thinks and she writes. This kind of passive first-person storytelling will not work for all readers, but I loved Reta from page one. Read more…

anatomy of a disappearanceAnatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar

How does an author write about something/someone who no longer exists? In Matar’s case, with incredible beauty and delicacy. He words seem not so much written, as poured gently. Matar provides a touching story of a boy whose father disappears. We assume it’s a political kidnapping based on the few clues the author provides, but we don’t get all the answers — exactly Matar’s point. He wisely tells a story without depending on plot points. Read more…

Honorable Mentions: Sacre Bleu, Horoscopes for the Dead, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, The Fault in Our Stars, Zeitoun, Stone Arabia, The Homecoming of Samuel Lake, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Astray, One Last Thing Before I Go

Living in the world of “Unless”

Cover of "Unless"

Cover of Unless

Although Carol Shields’ novel Unless has a tragic background, it doesn’t focus on a traditional story. Instead, we meet Reta Winters, whose 19 year-old daughter has chosen to sit on a busy corner in Toronto wearing a sign that reads only, “Goodness.”  Reta does not take dramatic action to retrieve her daughter. She does not yell or pull her hair. Instead, she thinks and she writes.

This kind of passive first-person storytelling will not work for all readers, but I loved Reta from page one.

Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.

I immediately understood the way she thinks, the way she views the fragile nature of happiness and the manner in which she tries to understand her own family crisis. All of this occurs while the world keeps spinning. Her two other daughters still need care. She still meets friends for coffee. She still has sex with her husband. What should she do with life once her taken-for-granted happiness had been smashed?

Shields enfolded me in the language of Reta’s thoughts. She did it so completely that I wanted to reach out and hug her. I want Reta for my friend. I want to hear more about how we continue to live with tragedy.

We had failed in our effort to live a happy life. Never mind our careful arrangements, we were about to be defeated. This despite the sweet burnt-tomato smell of lasagna rising from the oven.

I recently read an interview (http://www.shelf-awareness.com/readers-issue.html?issue=85#m1689) with Jessica Maria Tuccelli, whose first novel is about to be published. She remarked , “I enjoy writers whose love of language is boldly apparent.” Carol Shields was just that kind of writer. She used language to its best advantage and I was thrilled to live in that world for a few days.

Unless is the worry word of the English language. It flies like a moth around the ear, you hardly hear it, and yet everything depends on its breathy presence. Unless — that’s the little subjective mineral you carry along in your pocket crease. It’s always there, or else not there.

I was very sorry to learn Carol Shields died shortly after Unless was published. I have not yet read her Pulitzer Prize winning book Stone Diaries, but I will.