8 books in our December mini reviews
Even through the busyness of the holidays, we managed to review a few books. Some of these are ones we read a while ago but feel like we want to share - dive in and see what appeals to you to try in January. Try Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, Pretending to Dance by Diane Chamberlain, Amarillo Slim by Amarillo Slim Preston, To Night Owl From Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer or Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.
Wild, Cheryl Strayed
Published 2012, 315 pages
Strayed writes of her life-changing experience in walking the length of the Pacific Crest trail. It's an excellent book that I thoroughly enjoyed; it's very well written and well balanced between introspection about the grief over losing her mother to cancer and the rigors of walking the trail. I understand why the back story is necessary, but it got a little tiresome as she describes a definite downward spiral in her behavior. On the other hand, it takes courage to write of some of her experiences. I'm not sure I'd want to share to the world how many men I'd slept with or drugs used, etc.
I did really enjoy the trail portions of the book - and it made me realize that I could NEVER do that.....I just don't have that commitment to a challenge - and a hardship challenge at that! I found the book a revelation in the strength of a woman and her commitment to herself.
A Ladder to the Sky, John Boyne
Genre: General Fiction
Published 2018, 366 pages
Handsome Maurice Swift longs to be a writer but he has no talent so he steals book ideas from wherever or whomever he can find them. Unscrupulous and deceitful, Maurice is a terrible human with no redeeming qualities. He's all about me, me, me. He doesn't care if he hurts other people in his ambition to be a best-selling fiction writer.
Looking at other reviews of this book it appears I'm in the minority of not liking it. With a main character who grows worse as the story progresses, it's impossible to care about him and ultimately this was an unpleasant read for me. Every person that Maurice is involved with is just a means to an end, whether it's a mentor, his wife, or other literary figures. Adding to my dislike, there's also rape, murder, and racism to contend with.
Tell Me Three Things, Julie Buxbaum
Genre: YA, General Fiction
Published 2016, 328 pages
A quick YA read that I read along with the Modern Mrs Darcy book club for May this year. It was ..... ok. I thought some of the passages about a teenager dealing with the death of her mother were thoughtful and well done. Dealing with a step-family, a cross-country move, changing high schools - lots of stuff for a teenager to cope with. However, I think most of the teenage relationships were pretty cliche and stereotyped. I wonder if an average teen would be able to recognize herself in one of those characters.
The move from Chicago public school to LA private school would certainly be a shock to the system, but I thought stereotyping all the LA girls as thin and blonde and bitchy was a bit much. The text conversations with the anonymous friend SN felt real enough and led to a satisfying ending. Generally it was a quick, easy, mostly entertaining read but I was skimming it by the end.
Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
Genre: General Fiction
Award: Pulitzer Prize 2000, PEN/Hemingway 2000
Published 1999, 198 pages
I should preface my comments by admitting I'm not a huge fan of short stories.....I'd rather read a 600 page story than a 30 page one. However, this has been on my shelf for years so it was time to read it or move it along (plus it was the shortest on my shelf so fit the Unread Bookshelf challenge). All that being said, this book of short stories set in India or about Indian people was interesting but not engrossing.
I found each separate story a bit ...... sad. Not sad like someone died or lost their love, but sad as in dreary, lonely, unsettled. None of the stories were uplifting or inspiring. They were all pretty ordinary people living their ordinary lives and something disappointing or disillusioning happens and the story just...ends. One story that will stick with me is the title story, Interpreter of Maladies. Mr. Kapasi had the job of interpreting between patients and their doctor. When he described his job to a visiting American, she said, "These patients are totally dependent on you. In a way, more dependent on you than the doctor. ... You could tell the doctor that the pain felt like a burning, not straw. The patient would never know what you told the doctor, and the doctor wouldn't know that you had told the wrong thing. It's a big responsibility. ... Mr. Kapasi had never thought of his job in such complimentary terms." That woman made a big impact on his life and caused him to reevaluate his value. Other than that, each story revealed a different aspect of Indian culture, which was quite interesting; but, overall an underwhelming novel.
Pretending to Dance (#1), Diane Chamberlain
Genre: General Fiction
Published 2015, 339 pages
This is the story of 14-year-old Molly’s childhood in North Carolina, and her current life in San Diego with her husband. The chapters flip back and forth between the two times, focusing more on her childhood than her adult life. Molly’s father, Graham, has MS which is a big part of the story – his struggles, how the family deals with it, his worsening physical condition. Another big issue is that Molly has a birth mother and an adoptive mother, living in the same town and both are involved in Molly’s life.
Her teenage life was a bit boring for me – too much time was spent on her crush on a 17-year-old boy and how she yearned to be with him. It got repetitious and while possibly accurate as to how teenagers feel “first love emotions” so strongly, it did not appeal to me. These sections made this seem like a Young Adult book.
Molly and her husband are unable to have children and are in the process of trying to adopt a child which reminds Molly of her childhood and the secrets of her childhood that she is keeping from her husband. As a child Molly eventually learns the truth about why her birth mother turned her over to her father and adoptive mother. And as an adult she finally reveals to her husband, and to the reader, why she is estranged from her family and what really happened 20 years ago.
As I said, the childhood “romance” portion didn’t appeal to me, but I found Graham’s struggle with MS to be heartbreaking and I’ll admit that towards the end of the book I shed a few tears. I’ve never known anyone with a debilitating disease like that and so it’s very hard for me to truly imagine what that kind of life would be like. However, I’ve also never served in the military, killed a person, been a cop – isn’t that why we read books – to try and understand different lives and experiences? So, this book is a bit of a mixed bag for me.
Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People: Memoirs of the Greatest Gambler Who Ever Lived, Amarillo Slim Preston
Published 2003, 288 pages
What a pleasant surprise of a book! I got it as a gift from my son and thoroughly enjoyed it. I couldn't even have told you Amarillo Slim was a real person, but he's real enough! Written in a loose, conversational style, it is a quick, easy read full of amazing anecdotes. He was the kind of man who would bet on anything and there are some pretty weird bets described (but he usually had a gimmick or research done to make sure he'd win).
He was around at the early days of Vegas, before the strip and even had a hand (no pun intended :) in starting the World Poker Championship competitions. Though he started out as a pool hustler as a teenager, he became famous as a poker player and gambler extraordinaire. Sprinkled throughout with names of famous people he met and gambled with, it almost makes me wonder how one person could have accomplished all that! One of my main reading goals this year was to read more non-fiction - this book was truly a fun addition!
To Night Owl From Dogfish, Holly Goldberg Sloan & Meg Wolitzer
Genre: General Fiction, YA
Published 2019, 293 pages
This is the first book in years I would describe as 'sweet'. Not sickeningly, cloyingly sweet - just gentle, charming, adorably sweet. Two 12 year old girls living on opposite coasts discover their gay dads have met and fallen in love. They want the girls to go to the same summer camp together to meet and become friends. This is met with instant and strong dissent. But over the course of a few months of correspondence and actually meeting at camp, they discover they actually can tolerate each other and in fact become fast friends. The story is clever, engaging, insightful, and occasionally humorous.
"What animates my soul is having a friend like you. We're so different, but we're the same in the ways that matter."
I read this book for the #ReadHarder challenge category of an epistolary novel. First, I had to look up what that is. Then find one. I kept seeing this online and the library had it with no wait - there should have been a wait. This is a fun story, told entirely in correspondence (epistolary) between the two girls as they navigate friendship, their dads, and growing up but there's also correspondence between adults - the dads, grandma, mom, camp counselors, and more. I was kind of surprised but pleased to find such a realistic portrayal of pre-teen girls and raced to the end of this quick read. It's a feel-good story all the way.
"I'm thinking that maybe all stories are there to explain something. I really like reading stories with an unreliable narrator, because the person telling you what happened can't be trusted with the facts and you have to figure it out. Maybe when it's your own story, you're always going to be an unreliable narrator."
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders
Award: Booker Prize
Published 2017, 343 pages
The story is about the death of President Lincoln's young son and his burial in a Georgetown cemetery. Over the course of one night we meet various spirits as they argue, gripe, and commiserate over the soul of the young boy. Lauded as inventive, daring and an astonishing feat of imagination.
It was just weird. I couldn't like any of the oddball spirits; I didn't like the writing style; I had trouble figuring out the point of the spirits. And those footnotes? That was immensely distracting and unhelpful and, just why?
I did like the parts that focused on Lincoln and his son and his feelings of loss. Those felt real and touching; they were just too few and far between. I wanted more of that!
So, this book was not for me. If you appreciate alternate style books, 'inventive' writing styles, or over 100 spirits talking at you, maybe you'll be able to appreciate this book.