Friday, January 04, 2019

Lying (Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty)

My first book read in 2019, Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, fulfills both book 1 read in week 1 of the 52 Books Read in 52 Weeks Challenge and one of the challenges on the 2019 Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge list: "a book in the backlist of a favorite author".  I don't know that Liane Moriarty fully qualifies as a favorite author as I have only read one other book of hers, Nine Perfect StrangersFind that review here. However, one of the libraries in our county-wide system discarded their large print version of Big Little Lies so I snatched it up for a mere couple of dollars. Moriarty wrote it before Nine Perfect Strangers so I was set to meet the backlist challenge.

Note: I had to look up to see what a backlist is (it's a list of books an author has written before the one you are currently reading, and it is usually at the front of the current book). I thought maybe it was other book titles by other authors that the author one is reading mentions within his or her book, if that makes sense.

I was prepared for a well-written story as most reviewers of Nine Perfect Strangers felt it did not match the greatness of this book Big Little Lies. It was excellent, four stars excellent; however, I can't write that it was better than Nine Perfect Strangers. The books are different from one another.

I wasn't quite prepared for the seriousness of Big Little Lies. Moriarty's humor and satire come through but there are some deep issues dealing with abuse in Big Little Lies. CAVEAT: the situations could spark emotions in readers who have had to deal with these issues although I also hope that if someone is going through the same issues that this might encourage them to seek help.

I can imagine that someone who reads Big Little Lies first and then follows up with Moriarty's next book might have expected something just as serious as they read Nine Perfect Strangers, but Moriarty mixed it up a bit. Her satirical take on modern life is in both books, but is more prevalent in the later book. It will all boil down to a matter of taste. I liked both books. I gave away Nine Perfect Strangers to my son because I thought he would enjoy the health spa improvement satire in it, but I don't see me giving him Big Little Lies because Moriarty gets more into the heads of her female characters in this book. Not that males can't read a book heavy with female characters. Heavens! Females have read books heavy in male characters for years!

Big Little Lies would make a great book discussion group read (there's even a so-called book discussion group in the story although mostly they gossip). CAVEAT: Moriarty occasionally drops the "F" word and other like terms. When this happens I tend to remember something I read 20 or more years ago. An Australian writer (like Moriarty but not Moriarty) stated that Americans had such clean speech but horrible morals whereas research showed Australians with high morals and colorful speech.

I can't go into much more without revealing plot spoilers. Yes, there is a mystery to be solved and I enjoyed how Moriarty set up the book. For my friends who hate ambiguous endings, you will like this book because it is not ambiguous. In spite of some fairly shallow conversations, the people are complex. I read 675 pages in three days, but it was large print. Still it's not a small book and it is easy to stay interested in the story and read it quickly.

---My real life section of the blog as it relates to this book. The children. The children see and they do what mom and dad model. It can be cute, but it can also be horrible when it deals with these situations. Our family did not, but no one gets off free of missing the mark in this book. Gossip and pettiness is framed humorously, but those "big little lies" come back to haunt you. 

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Wrap Up of 52 Books in 52 Weeks

As a first timer last year in the 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge, I did not realize that there was a end-of-the-year wrap up until I saw a friend's post. Now that I know, here is mine (complete with a picture of my many bookmarks and a gift mug from a friend)!

Did you reach your reading goal or did you decide to just meander about and follow  rabbit trails and end up getting lost in the enjoyment of reading?  

I didn't have any goal other than to reach 52 books in the year. It turns out that I easily read 52 books in less than 52 weeks; however, reviewing them and writing about them was more challenging. It was also disheartening when Google changed up their algorithms in October so that I had less folks reading the blog. Not that I write to gain lots of readers, but it helps to have some readers. I was encouraged and content to have 70-100 and did not need more. A change of algorithms meant less exposure, and I'm not interested in adding ads. So, there you have it: if you read my blog minus the ads, thank you!

Where did your armchair travels take you?  Which countries and time periods did you journey through? 

France, Burundi, South Africa (twice), UK (twice), Mexico, and Russia were the countries I "traveled" to outside of my own which made up the majority of the rest of the books when they were not non-fiction or fantasy.  

Which books stayed with you the longest?  Did you set any aside to read again at some point and savor the story all over again?

I'll be dipping back into a number of non-fiction books: Joyful Journey; the Barefoot/Shoes series by Sharon Garlough Brown (actually fiction involving non-fiction...hard to explain); The End of Alzheimer's; Braving the Wilderness; Becoming Dallas Willard; The Crossroads of Should and Must; Blue Zones Solution; The Plant Paradox; Spiritual Direction; 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do; The World According to Mr. Rogers; The Art of Listening in a Healing Way; Leadership and Self-Deception; Donald Hall's two books; maybe Soul Keeping. So, that looks like about all of my non-fiction books. 

This made me realize I read a LOT of non-fiction this past year, and I never used to read any non-fiction (except textbooks forced upon me by teachers). The one fiction book I would re-read would be The Gentleman in Moscow.  Surprisingly, a book that I only gave 3 stars to kept coming back to mind: Calypso (also non-fiction). I was mad at Sedaris over the turtles. I probably needed to give his book 4 stars if it was going to keep coming back to my mind like that (and not because of the turtles). The non-fiction books definitely made an impact and bits and pieces have stayed with me. Goodness, only 16 of my 54 books were true fiction. Add 6 more that were fictionalized true stories, and that is still less than half. 

Did you discover any new to you authors or genres? 

Let's look at this in a different way: the only author I was familiar with was Gary Moon who wrote Becoming Dallas Willard. Every single other author was new to me! Wow. 

Which books intrigued or entertained, made you laugh, cry, dance or sing?

Again, I need to look at that question in the opposite direction. Which book did NOT make me feel any of those things listed? I can't recall what Evensong was about, and the Shelf Life I recall as mostly feeling like authors being forced to write a story which included a book he or she had read and I didn't like any of the stories until a couple at the end. 

Share your favorite titles, covers, quotes and of course, your reading lists. 

Forgive me if I don't list all the books here. Scroll down through my blog list on the right and all the book titles are listed in the titles of each blog post reviewing each book. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Traveling (And We're Off by Dana Schwartz)

52 books in 52 weeks. Actually, I have read a lot more but failed to record / review them as I went along. I'll finish with a rare 2 star book. I suppose I could give it 3 stars; however, I am lacking in 2 star book reviews so I'll go with the 2 stars.

What I will give the author credit for is so accurately portraying her seventeen-year-old protagonist. Schwartz captures the character of that age (of many, not all) so well that it is painful and/or annoying to read. I'm not writing this as just someone past that age. A number of my former students have come back and said they were sorry for being such...teenagers. AND, it's not just the teenager, the mom is equally annoying, and the relationship is equally painful to read.

At this point, my daughter to whom I gifted the book is asking, "Why? Why would you gift me with this book?" Um, I'm hoping she thinks our journey to Italy together (granted, thankfully, she was 25 and not 17) was better than this mom and daughter's journey to Ireland.

I did not read any reviews before getting the book. I needed to pick something and the blurb caught my attention: traveling to Ireland. I still shudder at the realness of the book. I wonder if seventeen year olds would get something out of it...or helicopter moms with issues...or family members before they travel together. My guess is that their focus would be on the dysfunctionality of the other person rather than themselves. 

Improving (Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty)

This is not an advertisement for Book of the Month club. It just happens to be the only picture I took that included Liane Moriarty's Nine Perfect Strangers before I gave it away at Christmastime. As a fictional story, I liked the book. In fact, when other reviewers stated this was not as good as her other books, I became excited about reading Big Little Lies which I had just picked up. Now I may have overly high expectations of that novel. 

However, since this was my first Moriarty book, perhaps, I enjoyed a taste of her wry observations on modern life. Others felt those same observations were lacking, and maybe once I read Big Little Lies, I too will think Nine Perfect Strangers isn't so perfect. Parts of it are corny and silly, yet, at the time, I was looking for something light to read. This fit. I didn't think about the treatment of minor characters or anything that might have come up in a literature class. 

As for Book of the Month? Well, you need to know that if you get a gift subscription for someone and you get a free book for doing so, with the caveat that you are also buying what you think is only one book, you are also signing up for a month-to-month subscription. I did not realize that until I saw 3 monthly charges on my charge card. Thankfully, it all gets credited to your account (you don't lose your money with no books) so I had a few months credit to use. The books all have current publication dates, no oldies but goodies here. 

Strengthening (13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do by Amy Morin)

Move over, Brené Brown, Amy Morin's in town! Before you turn away because you think "mentally strong" has something to do with intelligence or IQ, let me assure you that it does not.

"Developing mental strength is about improving your ability to regulate your emotions, manage your thoughts, and behave in a positive manner, despite your circumstances" (Morin 9).

Don't get me wrong. I appreciate Brown's work, but Morin offers even more...this is how I started off writing this blog review back in October.

Then, I read some Goodreads reviews which made me question my high rating. So I shelved my review to think about it some more. In the meantime, I lost the book among my piles of books. At least that fits my method of organization. I don't think I gave it away because I liked it and wanted to refer back to it. Mostly I recall thinking as I read the reviews that it seemed unfair of people to dislike the book just because Morin read her book and she has a high pitched voice. Unfair, but I suppose authors need to take note to get someone else to read their books if their voices are going to stand in the way of the message. Sigh. Others felt Morin was not understanding of deep hurts. I did not get that feeling from the book. I felt strengthened by her research that stated strong people don't let hurtful people turn them into victims.

Since I can't find the book, I can't include other favorite quotes, but I liked the book well enough that I bought her 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don't Do. I have not finished it, but, so far, I like it just as much as I liked the first one which was a lot. 

Adopting (Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate)

Not actually my forty-ninth book in the 52 books in 52 Weeks reading challenge since I have read 52 and beyond; however, I'm slow in posting reviews and this one needs to go back to the library. It was a chosen-for-me book by the library discussion group I attend, and I liked it. I started it the day it was passed out to us and finished it the very next day.

My ratings of 3 and 4 stars are starting to slide together. I can't say that this is a beach read or an entertaining read since the subject is so horrific and horrifically true at that: a woman who steals children (even responsible for the deaths of children) and adopts out the "cute" ones, and then...but, maybe that last part would be considered a spoiler so I won't write it in. It's an historical story set side by side with a fictional story that some reviewers had issues with. With such horrible facts, a little fictional romance breaks the darkness.

I did not actually know this 1930s and 40s account (before my time), but I did remember reading about Joan Crawford's adoption of her children (Mommie Dearest exposed the tragic consequences of Crawford's lack of love for those children), and I wondered if Crawford adopted from this place. It turns out she did along with other well known movie stars and political figures. For those who want all the horror and none of the light fiction, journalist Barbara Bisantz Raymond wrote a non-fiction book.

As an easily read historical novel that made me aware of a heartbreaking story, the book was good, four stars good. Generally, a four star book for me is one that I might buy; it might have quotes I want to remember, and this one does not. So in that line of thinking, I understand someone who would give it three stars.

---My real life section of the blog---One of my siblings is adopted (and usually everyone thinks it is the blonde-haired one since the other six of us (yes, six) are brunettes (or at least we used to be); however, the one with blonde hair has our mother's genes for hair. This sib found the birth mom and was not stolen from her. Good relationships abounded, but that's because of who are mother is. She has the gift of being friends with birth mothers and the wives of her ex-husband and the ex-wife of our stepdad. As long as you don't harm her family, biological, adopted (formally or informally), she will make you feel at home in her presence. I don't know what we would have done if we had found out the adopted sibling was stolen. As far as we are concerned that sibling is stuck with us forever!

💕💕💕 My spiritual formation section of the blog 💕💕💕Just putting this out there, I think the word "adoption" is possibly a human word in scriptures, yet, a human word where God loves us as much as--no, make that "more than", we love our adopted sibling. In God's language, I am thinking that everyone is God's biological kid and God loves us as much as -- no, make that "more than" -- my mom loves each and everyone of her family members. This is God that I want to find and know. 💕

Monday, November 05, 2018

Ascending (A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles)

"Ascending" is an odd choice of gerund for this particular book, especially since the main character descends in social stature as he is confined to a hotel in Moscow, never to step foot outside of its doors in house arrest. However, this gentleman Count Alexander Rostov ascends up the stairs to unused servant quarters in the attic. Rostov also ascends a ladder of growth in what really matters in life when much is taken from you. Much, but not all. Furthermore, the chapter titles start with 'A' and "Ascending" is one of the chapters.

A Gentleman in Moscow has a high rating on Goodreads (4.36 stars), and mine is not going to change that rating. Of the 52 books I have read this year (while this is only my 48th review this year, I have already read all 52), this one wins as my favorite fiction. The criticisms from those who did not give it 4-5 stars ranged from "too much historical fiction" to "not enough historical fiction" (so those cancel each other out in my mind), "too charming and like a fairy tale" (valid, but that's one reason I was drawn to the book), and "needs a quiet place to be read" (I indeed had a wonderful quiet place to read this book).

In a lovely vacation rental near the beach, where activities such as beach walks, puzzle building, craft making, eating, and conversing were happening, I had a comfy chair to sit in and read. It helps that I love Russia, Russian literature, charming vocabulary, lots of conversation, literary allusions, and gentle action with enough sad parts to keep it real.

This was a library discussion book (in which every member loved the book -- highly unusual), but I ended up buying my own copy. Whether one buys the book to read or borrows it from the library, it does make for a great discussion group book. It has been a couple of months since our group discussed this book so I will comment on discussion questions I could glean from my bookmarks.

Page 29: What is it that keeps us going? Revenge, goals, practicalities?
Pages 86-87: (a hard one to explain, but definitely discussable): What does it mean to be out of step with one's times (or in step)? What of poetry? What of the written word?
Pages 109-110: Is there value in marking time? "...if attentiveness should be measured in minutes and discipline measured in hours, then indomitability must be measured in years. Or, if philosophical investigations are not to your taste, then let us simply agree that the wise man celebrates what he can."
Page 121: If you found a tree and ate of its fruits which enabled you to start your life anew, would you?

At this point, I'm going to say "and many more" because the book is a hefty 462 pages long. Towles breaks it up into 5 books in one, but I felt each "book" moved seamlessly into the next. There are plenty of characters that also move in and out of the story just like in Russian stories. I thought I would get lost, but I didn't. Unlike Russian stories, Towles gave most of his characters only one name. The book would make an excellent movie or even series. The characters are all ages, and charming little stories are within the main story. I even learned some games to play while waiting for dinner in a restaurant! The ending is surprising, in a good way. 

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Surviving (Born a Crime by Trevor Noah)

I confess I did not know who Trevor Noah is (Jon Stewart's replacement on The Daily Show) because I don't watch television at 11 pm. I also did not choose this book to read but I read it for a local library discussion group (a group which I am leading so reading the book definitely will help with that). I do agree with the 4 star rating of my friends. It's listed under biography, but it is autobiographical. Trevor writes stories of his life growing up in South Africa when it was a crime for a white Swiss-German father and a black Xhosa mother to conceive a child. It would be best to go into a reading of this book knowing that the format is set up for individual stories rather than a seamless narrative.

If you're looking for sappy, romantic, or humorous view of South Africa, this is not the book to read. As an adolescent, the book cover states that Trevor was "mischievous".  That's one way to put it. Other reviewers found him to be a mouthy, smart-aleck brat. Let's say that he does not sugar coat his adolescence and he probably gave his mother a lot of gray hairs, but he survived under some truly dysfunctional circumstances both in his culture and in his family life. There is both swearing in this book (Trevor's and others) and faith in God (his mother's). There are poor choices, survival choices, funny choices (but not really as many as you might think coming from a comedian. A one point I was fed up with Trevor's sass and antics, but by that point I had learned so much that I did not know about South Africa that I hung on. It was important to me to walk in Trevor's shoes. There is both a shocking scene involving a boy named Hitler that will be incredibly thought-provoking and an equally miraculous scene involving his mother that is nothing short of amazing.

This book is a fast read and an excellent choice for discussion groups. I won't be buying the book new, but if I were to see a used copy for sale, I probably would buy it.  I also heard that the audio book is fantastic. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Losing and Living (A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety by Donald Hall)

I read this final book of Donald Hall's close on the heels of his Essays After Eighty (You can find that review here.) However, I did not want to review two growing old books, one after the other, especially one with a title about losses. At the time that I read the book, I still had all of my aunts and uncles and both parents alive (and I'm not a child). I have seen that they have had to live through the losses of loved ones and the loss of health, but they have continued to live. This book is about living even as it is also about losing, and there is much to be learned from Hall's story. Not to mention, as I have come to realize, there is much to learn from Hall's writing. He remained a master writer to the very end (he died in June of this year), no wonder as he continued to revise to extraordinary lengths. In his first essay "You Are Old," he writes: "You are old when an essay of reminiscence takes eighty-four drafts." However, he is comparing that number to the numbers he mentioned when he was younger -- up to sixty! Clearly, he hones his craft more than the rest of us.

Because Hall writes from the vantage point of nearing ninety, "he feels free to reveal...several vivid examples of 'the worst thing I ever did' which is different from someone trying to keep an untarnished image of him or herself. However, be prepared for an entire essay (only two paragraphs, one half of a page) dedicated to the F- word. It is on page 181 of a 216 page book. Some will get the book for that essay alone and others will want to burn the book. I wouldn't go that far. I both bought the book and also dislike that particular essay. I don't want obscene words in my head that will come out at random sometime in the future if I fall into my father's stage of Alzheimer's or have a stroke and the only words I remember are obscene. It may sound funny on paper or in a movie, but in real life, it's not humorous at all.

Here are the great parts: amazing writing, writing of images that make this book (and his Essays After Eighty) required reading for some medical students. Hall captures so incredibly well what aging can look like that medical students are asked to read the book so that they will have some understanding of their older patients, some understanding of what the ailments of growing older feel like. His essay "Solitude Double Solitude" is nothing short of amazing (I'm running our of superlatives for Hall's writing) and his final sentence was gut-wrenching.

A surprising element of reading this book happened as Hall recounted his life with various poet-peers. These were poets who were famous in their day, and some I had never even heard of. Hall didn't expect to be remembered for too long either, and I think, perhaps, his prose will outlast his poetry! Nonetheless, I read these chapters at the same time that I was pondering legacy. Not many people will have their names remembered for years upon years, but each person matters. Each person brings something to the world of living, whether it be for ill or good.

Hall's final essay "Tree Day" is the perfect essay to end on, a perfect transition from one generation to the next. I do recommend the book. 

Monday, October 08, 2018

Raining (Rain of Gold by Victor Villaseñor)

This book was recommended to me by a family member, and she is right: the story is very good. I borrowed it from the library, and while I won't be buying it new, if I ever saw it on sale or at a used book shop, I would immediately buy it.

The story itself and the real people are fascinating. An added benefit was the amount of history (history in Mexico as well as prohibition history in the US) I learned. Most of the reviewers give this book a high rating. Of the two I saw who disliked the book, one person couldn't stand the mothers and thought they were evil. What?! The mothers are the life of the story not to mention the life of their families! Another reviewer mentioned the dialogue and writing style, specifically mentioning about "true love". 99.9 percent of us do not talk like characters in a television show. We're not witty or eloquent. The way the book is written made me believe the story as the non-fiction it is. This isn't to say that the dialogue is boring. While Villaseñor's family members sometimes repeat themselves, they have plenty of interesting, raucous, thought-provoking conversations.

The story also opens up the reader's eyes to what it can take to survive (and it isn't pretty). The reader also has to be willing to read dialogue that includes not only cuss words but also words of faith which these families have in plenty.

Most book discussion groups don't take on such large size books (562 pages), but lots of good topics of discussion in this book: what happens when a precious metal like gold is discovered, immigration (used to cost an adult Mexican 10 cents to get across the border and 5 cents for a child), how people treat each other, racial inequality, family dynamics, education. I enjoyed reading the author's notes at the end: which family members helped with the story, who remembered what differently.

Quotes that could also be used in a discussion group: "Blood is blood, but justice is justice. And Don Pio never let blood blind his eyes to justice" (127).
"Remember to respect a fallen star takes much more dignity than to admire the rising sun" (175).
"Oh, mi hijita, you woman of such little faith! God respects my honesty that I admit that I lie. He's a hundred thousand years tired of people preaching the truth in His home, but then lying to all the world once they get away from the shadow of His domain!" (377).

Since a number of my family members and friends are Hispanic (and I knew some of the areas mentioned in the book), I wondered if their extended family members knew or where a part of any of the families mentioned in this book. I can think of at least one family member who would be intrigued with reading this book.

💕💕💕 When I was in college the second time around, I took a foundational education course, and we did an activity where we all had color dots on our foreheads. We did not know which dot was on our own forehead but we could see everyone else's dot. We had instructions on how to treat classmates according to their dots. Ignore the blues. Be friends with the yellows. In an Exceptional Child class, we had to have some change which would make it more difficult for us to go out shopping and interact with people (broken leg, deafness, blindness). We all understand to some extent what it is like to be the not-popular student (unless you've always been the popular one). If we already have something genetic that hinders our interaction, we know how that feels, but many of the adults in my class did not. These are activities that can only be approached cautiously in a classroom; however, in a homeschooling community, we could even practice within limits what it would be like to be poor, even be a slave. Of course, it's not real, right? We know we will go back to being a free person, but anything that doesn't cause harm but will help open one's eyes to at least start understanding what it is like to be an outsider is a benefit to a child's empathy for others. Reading stories, traveling to other countries, helpful, as long as one does not take on an attitude of "I'm so important; I'm helping the downtrodden and unfortunate" as though others have less intelligence or knowledge or wisdom than we do. The families in this book, Rain of Gold, are smart, resourceful, wise, and hardworking. They just did not have money.

---Diving into the stream of social justice is a transformative practice. How to do it with humility takes thought and a tender heart. Still worth pursuing even if we're not at the point of humility yet. Being a genuine person to the people one meets as one shops at a store in a section of town where one does not normally shop might be a good start. I'm not to the point where I could go to the scariest parts of metropolitan cities, but any of the areas in my own county would be safe so I have no excuse. Also, if I was living back in my former home area, I would think going one section of town over from my own would be a good start.