Monday, January 9, 2017

What I've been reading lately

Well. Here we are, 2017. I took the last two weeks of December off to have a nice, long holiday vacation, and now I'm so far behind on blog posts. I still haven't posted my Top Ten of 2016, but it's coming. Also coming is my list of 2017 Reading Goals. Stay tuned for those.

Christmas was wonderful. We had my stepson, daughter-in-law, and two grandsons over Christmas Eve for pizza and gift opening. My daughter-in-law had just finished Christmas shopping that day, and she still needed to wrap presents, so after the festivities, we retired to my bedroom to wrap everything and chat. We bought my youngest grandson an electric guitar, which he was not expecting, though he was just as enamored with his new robe (the only thing he asked for this year). After they left (about 1am) my husband and I exchanged gifts. I bought him a globe and a Swiss army knife. He spoiled me with fancy earrings (spoiled because my real gift was supposed to be my new laptop). The next day we went to Christmas festivities at my mother's with both of my big brothers, my oldest brother's girlfriend (now fiancĂ©!), and their five kids.

But when I wasn't wrapping or unwrapping gifts, eating, or traveling, I was parked on the couch reading. I finished eight books, which I'll review, finally, below.

I adored The Road to Little Dribbling. I love books about travel and England, and I love Bill Bryson, and I'm so glad that I fit this one in, even though it took all year. The book is a return to the people and cities of England that Bryson explored in Notes from a Small Island in 1995. He has a way with storytelling that no doubt stretches the truth, but it's really quite delightful--especially in audio form. I highly recommend this one. My rating: 4 stars.

Lulu Walks the Dogs is the second Lulu book from Judith Viorst. I haven't read the first, which might have been a good idea, though the plot doesn't depend on it. Lulu is a dark, spunky, snarky little girl who decides that in order to buy "the very special thing that she is ALWAYS and FOREVER going to want" she needs to make some cash. She decides to take up dog-walking. And in the process, she learns a good lesson about valuing others. I was unprepared for the quirkiness of this one. The narrator talks directly to the audience, which I kind of loved. Lulu is a total brat which kind of surprised me. I didn't love this book, but I didn't hate it either. I think the fun of the book was in how it was written. Also, Lane Smith's illustrations are wonderful. I love that cover. My rating: 3 stars.

I made the mistake of reading Julia Child's memoir My Life in France after her biography Dearie and several other books about her. By the time I got to her life in her own words, the memoir was old news, which was disappointing since so many people love that book. I feel like I ruined it for myself. But The French Chef in America made up for it. I didn't have high hopes about this one, since it didn't bear Julia's stamp, but I was surprised at just how much I loved this book. This is the follow-up story of Julia's life, picking up where My Life in France left off. It was wonderfully written, and Alex Prud'homme, Julia's nephew who co-authored My Life, judiciously stepped aside to let his subject shine. I don't find Julia's post-France years particularly interesting, but somehow this book made it not matter. It was just wonderful. If you loved My Life in France, I think you'll want to pick this one up. My rating: 4 stars. 

It's no secret I'll read pretty much anything a Fox News personality writes. And Dana Perino is one of my favorites. She's so straight that she comes off as humorless--until she talks about her baby, Jasper, a Vizsla dog with a personality. The book is a look at her life with Jasper, complete with funny stories and tons of photos. About one-half of the book is filled with Photoshopped images of Jasper in various scenes done by a very talented fan of The Five. No, the book isn't high literary, but it does what it was meant to do: show a woman's love of a goofy dog and make the reader smile. My rating: 3 stars.

What started out as a book love affair kind of petered out into a very average book about pattern and interior design. The first part of Living with Pattern, where Rebecca Atwood talked about pattern mixing and color was just wonderful, and I feel I might return to that. But the rest of the book was quite uninteresting and not very helpful. I've long wanted to find a way to incorporate pattern and texture into my home, and I thought this book would be the ticket, but I'm not completely satisfied. The main complaint I have is that the photos of designs in the book all look exactly the same. I'd call the style "bohemian," which is fine, unless that isn't your style. There's nothing for us traditional-with-a-twist home designers. My rating: 3 stars.

I've read Kao Kalia Yang's first book, The Latehomecomer, twice, and I was really excited when her second book, The Song Poet, was released earlier this year. But I kept putting it off because I knew it would be both beautiful and fraught with emotion. Yang has a way of wringing emotion out of a story without it getting sentimental or overwhelming. I just wasn't prepared for that emotional journey for much of the year since the world was ablaze with its own drama. But in an effort to clean up some of the books I dearly wanted to read in 2016, I added it to my December read list. Oh you guys, this was a beautiful book. It wasn't easy, though. Yang is a Hmong refugee of South Asia. Because Laotian men fought for the Americans in the Vietnam War, they were hunted and massacred. Those lucky ones, like Yang's family, who made it over the border to Thailand lived in refugee camps for years before being taken in by America. Most of the refugees ended up in California and the Minneapolis/St. Paul area of Minnesota. My city, two hours from Minneapolis, is home to many Hmong families, the children of whom I taught in summer English classes. As much as I loved her first book, and as important as I think it is, I think The Song Poet is even better. Yang gives you an unflinching look at the lives of her family in St. Paul, complete with poverty, racism, culture and language barriers, the weight placed on the American sons of Hmong men, the failures and successes of these families. It's heartbreaking, but it also shows that families are families. It reminded me that we all want the same things for those we love. This is a stunning book. If you're interested in the immigrant/refugee experience, this should be on your must read list. My rating: 4 stars.

I'm relatively unfamiliar with Chip and Joanna Gaines' HGTV show, Fixer Upper. I've watched several episodes with the sound off while reading, but until reading The Magnolia Story, that's about it (now I'm DVRing them). But you don't really have to be a fan of the show to enjoy this book. It's a very satisfying look at a couple and their young family who dream big and chase those dreams, who work hard, who believe in God's providence, who have a strong sense of family and integrity. If you're looking for a book about a family with traditional family values, this will make you very happy. Their story is told by Jo, with Chip chiming in periodically. She talks about how they met, their early years, having their four children, and how Chip's house flipping and her design sense led them to HGTV (even though they don't watch TV). It's funny and charming and made me smile. It was a good book to read over Christmas, when family and faith take center stage. My rating: 3 stars.

Okay, I have a confession to make. Although I gave The Boys in the Boat a five-star rating, I actually found it a little boring. I felt there was something "off" about how the story was told, like Daniel James Brown was focusing on the wrong thing. I didn't connect to it the way I wish I would have. So, I kind of wanted a do-over. Also, all year I'd wanted to read a YA version of an adult book just to see how it was done. So, to fulfill both desires, I took up The Boys in the Boat, the young reader's edition. The verdict? I was no more entranced than I was with the adult version. I still felt the book focused too much on Joe Rantz, not enough on the other boys in the boat (that is, after all, the title!) or the impending world war. As for studying the anatomy of the adult-book-turned-YA-book, I failed. I'm not sure I would have known the difference. I couldn't determine what had been cut or what had been glossed over (if anything). It was a frustrating exercise. I finished it to finish it (I actually finished it on audio while doing a jigsaw puzzle--I just couldn't read it anymore), and that's that. My rating: 3 stars.

What I've read since break ended:

I decided to start the year off with a bang and tackle some "big books I missed." First up was All the Light We Cannot See. Although I had little desire to read another book about World War II, I really wanted to tackle this one before I lost interest again. I was not disappointed. But also, I was not blown over. I think when you come to a book with as much hype as this one, you are bound to be a little underwhelmed. Few reading experiences can live up to that. You must know the story, so I won't give more than a brief recap: German boy becomes a Hitler youth soldier, blind French girl lives under siege in a French town after fleeing Paris. Also, there's a priceless French gem floating around somewhere that the Germans are anxious to possess. The plot always sounded kind of preposterous to me, and that's why I never picked it up. But I ended up enjoying the plot. I think the strength of this book is in the writing. It's really very well written. The short chapters make it a swift read for a book of its size, and the violence of war is not glorified. It's more of a homefront novel, which I was relieved to discover. I'm very glad I finally got around to reading this. My rating: 4 stars.

Another book I've tried to get excited about is The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. I tend to not enjoy books about Africa and the African experience. In college, I studied under an African professor who is currently shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature. And yet, I just couldn't enjoy African literature. I think it was just so far from my experience as an American Christian that I couldn't relate. Also, violence and suppression is rampant. I like to steer clear of that kind of writing. But I recently listened to a podcast on Modern Mrs. Darcy that convinced me to try The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency on audio. And oh how I loved it! The narrator's voice and accent are absolutely wonderful. I loved the main character, detective Mma Ramotswe. She's strong, smart, witty, and full of integrity. She loves her country of Botswana, she loves Africa, and she believes she can fix people's lives by solving crimes. The book introduces us to Mma Ramotswe, her past, her closest friends (whom I assume will show up in the subsequent 14 books in the series), and takes us through several cases, large and small. What an imagination Alexander McCall Smith must have if all of the books contain the same number of mysteries! There is a bit of violence, as to be expected in a mystery, but it's mild. One of my favorite experiences with this book was when I was starting to feel uneasy about Mma Ramotswe telling lies to further her case. While I knew why she did it and even that it was necessary to solve the crime and right a wrong, I began to fear for her integrity because I admired her so much. Not a minute later, McCall Smith addresses her dishonesty and assures us that she understands her untruthfulness and even regrets the need to lie, but that she knows it's for the best. I think this one book has made me a McCall Smith fan. In short, a wonderful book. I will be continuing with this series for sure! My rating: 4.5 stars.

What I'm reading now:

To continue with the theme of "read some big books you've missed" I picked up Where'd You Go, Bernadette (no comment) and Wonder, which will be a film later this year. I bought a copy for my grandson for Christmas, told him I'd be reading it, and if he did too, I'd take him to the movie. We'll see how that goes.

I wanted to start the year off right with a good book of poetry. I thought long and hard and chose and re-chose, and I finally settled on William Stafford's Ask Me. I believe no other poet's work has touched me quite like Stafford's did year ago. Since, I've been worried to return to his poetry and find it doesn't hold the same magic. I needn't have worried. This book is blowing me over. Even though I know many of the poems I've read so far, know some so well, in fact, that I nearly have them memorized, they are still powerful. I almost cry when I pick up this book at night for the comfort and magic it holds for me.

I'm also thoroughly enjoying Mario Batali's Big American Cookbook. I've long been looking for a cookbook that gives the best classic American recipes, and this is exactly what I've been searching for. The recipes are short and straightforward and the recipe selection is spot on.

Next up (I think):

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory
Took the Measure of the Stars


  1. Interesting thoughts on The Boys in the Boat! I loved that book (you probably remember) and actually loved that he focused on just Joe because I felt like it anchored the story and made it feel more emotional and personal. I also have wondered about the YA versions of adult books, particularly with this one since I didn't feel like there was anything in the adult version that a teenager couldn't handle, so it was nice to get your perspective. You've been reading a lot of great things lately!

    1. I feel bad even thinking bad thoughts about The Boys in the Boat because I know so many just loved it. And because I wanted so badly to love it too. I think it might be that I read it in 2014, the year I read so much fabulous narrative nonfiction that even a book that good could fall short. In the Kingdom of Ice, Seabiscuit, Unbroken, Destiny of the Republic, Five Days at Memorial, and One Summer ruined me going forward. Maybe it's not fair comparing books against other books, but it's natural, I think.

    2. It's definitely natural to hold books to the same standards as other good books. I do the same thing!