Category Archives: Reviews

Incremental Book List

2017 My Incremental Book List

I signed up for the Goodreads Reading Challenge again this year—resolving to read at least 50 books—the same number as last year. I’m a reader who likes to take her time, so a goal of 50 books means I have to stay on task. This year I plan to be more intentional in the selection of the books I read, and to that end, I’ve decided to do my reading from incremental lists – to select 10 books at a time, mostly from books that are already in my Kindle or on my shelves (each one a promise I, at some point, made to myself, or a book that was given to me as gift by someone who chose it especially for me).

Over the course of 2017, I will read 50 books from 5 Lists selected 10 at a time.

List #1 – To be read January through the middle of March (in no particular order)

  • A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
  • Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell
  • This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein
  • The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
  • The Getaway Car by Ann Patchett
  • All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
  • Captive of the Delawares by Evelyn Nevin
  • Upstream by Mary Oliver
  • The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd
  • The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

To me, every book (or poem, or essay, or short story) is a conversation with the author, and I can’t wait to get started.

Welcome 2017!

2016 Books

2016 Books I Won’t Forget

2016 was an amazing year for reading (I read more than 50 titles—a few of those were novellas and stand alone short stories). I enjoyed so many worthy and thoughtful books—my 2016 books came to me as selected reads from my book club, through my friends on Goodreads, as gifts from people who know me well, and a few titles practically called out to me from the shelves of my favorite book store.

Below is a synopsis of 2016’s keepers that will join the list of my all-time favorites (in no particular order).

As It Is In Heaven by Niall Williams
As It Is In Heaven is a beautiful mystical novel brimming with ravishing prose about a widowed and dying father’s love and hopes for his son. Stephen, his quiet unassuming school teacher son’s world is transformed by a chance encounter and his subsequent pursuit of a lovely Italian violinist. (Or, perhaps there is no such thing as chance, only kismet.) The book is a tour de force that captures the landscapes of Ireland and Venice—and the human heart. I fell in love with William’s characters and his seamless use of magical realism. This book goes right to the top of my list of favorite novels—sometimes I cried just because the prose is so exquisite.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
A perceptive and humane book about the challenges faced by the aging and terminally ill as they suffer the ravages and indignities that come with physical and mental decline. Gawande, a physician, lays out compelling research about what matters most at the end of life and examines some of the ways our modern medical culture complicates, degrades, and often preempts the meaning and joy possible in the last years, months and days of a patient’s life.
I found myself highlighting passage after passage, but the section that I’ll especially want to remember and call upon for myself and the important people in my life when needed, deals with the “breakpoint discussion – a series of (thoughtful – my word) conversations to sort out when a patient is ready to switch from fighting for time to fighting for the other things that people value,”—things like spending the time that remains with loved ones, savoring experiences—often celebrating the small things in life that have gone un-rejoiced, the things that are frequently taken for granted until our life’s time horizon begins collapsing inward.
Dr.Gawande presents a masterful thesis, filled with research, history and personal observation, but it was the stories of real people that made it meaningful for me. Often sad, frequently eloquent, and always insightful, Being Mortal uncovers the medical/human disconnect and goes right to the heart of what it means to be fully human.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Road is a spare, poetic and perfect novel about the love of a father for his child in a destroyed world. Another elegant signature McCarthy masterpiece, this one haunted me for days after I read the last page. To my mind, The Road is his best yet.

Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo
Nobody’s Fool is a quiet, funny, sly book that both entertains and touches the reader’s heart, at least it touched mine. I read this book to my husband a chapter or two at a time in the evenings, and oh, didn’t we look forward to spending our hour with the citizens of small town, economically crumbling, and ever hopeful Bath, New York. Richard Russo’s characters are drawn with such skill and grace, I couldn’t help but love and root for every single one of them. I don’t believe there’s a writer out there who can top Russo’s dialogue. I laughed, I worried, I cheered, and was oh so sorry when I finished the last page. And then I promised myself I’d read every book Russo has ever written. He’s that good!

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood
A sweet quirky Boy Scout with a compulsion to count and an obsession for world records takes on odd jobs for Miss Ona Vitkus, an elderly—104 years old Lithuanian immigrant, as a way to earn a merit badge. And then he becomes her friend. Suffice it to say that the reader is in for a tender original tale that is one of the finest books I’ve read this year (or maybe ever). The One-in-a-Million Boy is an entertaining and touching read, and to my mind, Monica Wood doesn’t hit a wrong note. I love this book, and I’ll be sharing it with my book club and my friends and family, in fact, anyone who will listen to me.

Now, on to 2017 – I’m stacking my “to read” books under the table next to my desk and collecting selected e-books on my Kindle. These much anticipated reads will be the subject of my next blog.

Being Mortal

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande – A Review

Being Mortal is a perceptive and humane book about the challenges faced by the aging and terminally ill as they suffer the ravages and indignities that come with physical and mental decline. Gawande, a physician, lays out compelling research about what matters most at the end of life and examines some of the ways our modern medical culture complicates, degrades, and often preempts the meaning and joy possible in the last years, months and days of a patient’s life.

I found myself highlighting passage after passage, but the section that I’ll especially want to remember and call upon for myself and the important people in my life when needed, deals with the “breakpoint discussion – a series of (thoughtful – my word) conversations to sort out when a patient is ready to switch from fighting for time to fighting for the other things that people value,”—things like spending the time that remains with loved ones, savoring experiences—often celebrating the small things in life that have gone un-rejoiced, the things that are frequently taken for granted until our life’s time horizon begins collapsing inward.

Dr. Gawande presents a masterful thesis, filled with research, history and personal observation, but it was the stories of real people that made it meaningful for me. Often sad, frequently eloquent, and always insightful, Being Mortal uncovers the medical/human disconnect and goes right to the heart of what it means to be fully human.

Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt – A Review

It’s 1851, the Gold Rush era, and hired gunslingers, Eli and Charlie Sisters are headed to California with instructions from their morally suspect boss, the Commodore, to kill Herman Kermit Warm. In classic picaresque style, the brothers are in for a series of adventures. Eli, our introspective and sometimes tenderhearted narrator, has some serious qualms about the lifestyle he and his brother have embarked upon. Charlie is selfish, single minded and ruthless, and more often than not, fails to appreciate Eli’s loyalty, which, through a series of very entertaining trials is seriously tested. The Sisters Brothers is a quirky and compelling read.

Big Magic

Big Magic; Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Big Magic; Creative Living Beyond Fear is a joyful proclamation that says – no, insists, that you can and should say yes to your creative self. Gilbert gives perspective and encouragement in myriad ways and quashes myths about the necessity of sacrifice and suffering for art’s sake – especially recommended for those downhearted days (or weeks, or months) when one’s vision is paralyzed by panic and the work refuses to be pried loose. Mostly, I resonated to Gilbert’s message (to go with the flow, trust creativity, work hard, and not take yourself or your work too seriously), but I also believe that to create something of consequence often requires a personal investment to match, and while I agree that curiosity leads the way to creative vision, I also believe it is desire (often red-hot passionate desire), and yes, sometimes sacrifice, that is the furnace where that longed-for outcome (a painting, or novel, or quilt, or treatise, etc.) gets forged.

Finding Erin Campbell

“Finding Erin Campbell” Review

Finding Erin Campbell is a novel by Kathy Cunningham.

We don’t really know who we are until we are tested.
Erin Campbell is a good person. Everyone who knows her (her teachers, her friends, her parents) would tell you that she isn’t the type of girl who would tell a lie. She’s smart and nice and kind; she’d never hurt anyone—but everything Erin Campbell and the people who love her take for granted about Erin is up for grabs when, in one thoughtless moment, she slams the front fender of her car into an eight-year-old boy riding a blue bicycle and she decides to flee the scene. First she’s panicked and then she’s wallowing in remorse, and every decision she makes is fraught with dire and unpredictable consequences. This is a story about a young woman’s struggle to take responsibility for her actions against the protective instincts of parents and friends, and a prejudicial justice system that does its best to stack the odds to favor achieving white children who come from well-to-do families.
Finding Erin Campbell is a fast moving and affecting page-turner. Kathy Cunningham has given us believable three-dimensional characters, especially Erin, whose voice is pitch-perfect. I was right there with Erin from first page to last, seeing the world through her eyes—and sometimes, it can be a scary sad world.
This is a book I’ll send to my daughters, recommend to my book club, and encourage my friends to read.

You can see all my reviews on Amazon.

Our Souls at Night

“Our Souls at Night” Review

Kent Haruf returns to Holt, Colorado, the setting of two of his earlier novels, the acclaimed Plainsong and its follow-up, Eventide. This time Haruf brings us into the lives of Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both aging long-time residents of this small provincial town. Both are lonely and widowed and living alone in the homes they shared with their spouses and where they raised their children (who now have lives of their own in distant towns). Addie and Louis have been long-time neighbors. They’ve watched the trajectory of each other’s lives over the years from a distance, but they aren’t personally close—until one day when Addie Moore knocks on Louis Waters’ door and makes a proposition; she’s lonely, she says, and she expects he is too, especially at night. She asks him if he might want to come over to her house some nights and sleep with her—for pillow-talk and companionship, not sex. And so begins, tentative at first, a kind of late-in-life courtship and a growing bond of support and caring between them. Their relationship begins to blossom and Louis helps Addie, when her son, Gene, whose marriage and job are both in a downward spiral, asks her if he can leave Jamie, her six-year-old grandson, with her for the summer. We watch Louis, Addie and Jamie’s lives take on new purpose and hope as their relationships deepen. But Holt is a small town, there’s gossip to contend with, and not everyone approves of their relationship.
Our Souls at Night is an elegant and tender book populated with memorable characters I really cared about. I wanted to give this review 5 stars but the ending let me down. No spoilers here, but I felt the Addie I came to know and love over the first two-thirds of the book would have handled the challenges thrown at her with more courage and independence.

You can see all my reviews on Amazon.

2014 reading list

Putting My 2014 Reading List to Bed

At the beginning of every January I ponder the books I’ve read cover-to-cover over the course of the last twelve months and ask myself some questions:
• Out of all the bazillion books in the universe – why did I choose this particular book?
• What did the book promise in the way it was marketed (cover, blurb, hype) and the first few pages? And did it deliver?
• Am I glad I spent those few hours, days, weeks—or months in the company of these characters/ideas and why?
• Would I recommend this book?
• Will I search out other books this author has written?
• Would I read it again? And will it remain on my bookshelf or in my e-reader to treasure  and return to: (1) because I love the writing or (2) when I need inspiration?

Next, I look for patterns among the year’s collection of books:
• Were there clusters of genres or topics?
• Did I read more than one book by an author or put other books by them on my Amazon Wish List?
• What do my book choices and my reactions to them tell me about myself and the year that just ended?
• Were there surprises?

Finally, and best of all, I give myself permission to begin the bones of a booklist for a new year – bones, I say, because who knows what books I’ll cross paths with or what I’ll feel like reading week after next.

Some highlights from my 2014 fiction book list :

Last Friends & Old FILTH – Jane Gardam (together with The Man with the Wooden Hat – a book I read in 2013 ) comprise Jane Gardam’s brilliant trilogy centered on the life, friends, lovers, and nemesis of Raj Orphan and celebrated judge and barrister, Sir Edward Feathers (aka FILTH – Failed In London Try Hong Kong). I fell in love with Gardam’s writing and her characters, and got a sobering glimpse of British Colonialism in the process. These books, individually and as a set, will stay on my book shelf and be recommended to my friends.

Splendors & Glooms – Laura Amy Schlitz. This is a treasure of a book that begs to be read aloud. Gather your children or grandchildren—or anyone who loves a good story. The characters are engaging and memorable, the plot is original, and the suspense is palpable. Great read! Please read my extended review here.

Me Before You & The Last Letter from Your Lover – JoJo Moyes
I thought these two books are compulsively readable. Me Before You tackles the tough topic of assisted suicide and is populated with unforgettable characters and an affecting love story – highly recommended. The Last Letter from Your Lover is light in comparison, more of a romantic diversion, not stellar, but an enjoyable page turner.

Flight Behavior – Barbara Kingsolver
A novel that takes on important and depressing problems – poverty in Appalachia, climate change, tipping points, the accumulation of losses, and the potential for change (both personal and global). I rooted for the protagonist, Dellarobia Turnbow, to the bitter end.  Flight Behavior is a good but not great book like some of Kingsolver’s earlier novels, including  The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven. I admire Barbara Kingsolver. I was ambivalent about this novel.

The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert
What if a contemporary of Charles Darwin’s, just as brilliant and passionate and scientifically perceptive, was a woman? This is a very engaging novel full of lively characters and not just a little botany. It was one of the high points on my 2014 reading list. Please read my extended review here.

The Fault in Our Stars – John Green
This is a sweet tearjerker about cancer stricken teens.  I read it to see what all the hype was about (a best selling YA novel and a movie to boot). The characters (Hazel and Augustus) are engaging and likeable but I felt the quest that holds the novel together was less convincing.

Orphan Train – Christina Baker Kline
This novel is about a chance coming together of two women, one elderly and one a troubled teen on the verge of becoming a legal adult. Molly Ayer gets a community service assignment to help ninety-one year old Vivian Daly clean out her attic. As they sort through trunks and boxes of memorabilia, they share stories and learn that they aren’t so different. Both have been alone in the world and often at the mercy of others. When she was a child, Vivian was one of the hundreds of orphans put on trains and sent west to uncertain futures. The story Vivian tells is absolutely riveting. For me, it was the most vibrant part of the novel. I learned about a reprehensible part of American history that was totally unfamiliar to me. I enjoyed this book until the final chapters. I didn’t believe what happened and it left me feeling that Vivian’s character was inconsistent and, in the end, unbelievable.

Foster – Claire Keegan
Almost too slight to be a novella, this gem of a book is small, perfect and brilliant. It’s the story of a young child, a girl named Leanbh, one of a passel of children from a poor Irish family whose mother is pregnant yet again. Leanbh is sent to live with an aunt and uncle she barely knows for an indeterminate time. The story is told in first person through Leanbh’s eyes. The writing is spare, the effect is fresh and honest. This is truly a rare and beautiful book.

All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
This novel is a stunning achievement. The way Doerr brings the strands of the plot together and paces the novel is faultless. I know that many readers had trouble with the shifting timeline but I thought it worked. I was right there with Werner and Jutta, Marie Laure and Madame Manec, Frederick, Von Rumple, and the rest, each of them described with such telling detail. I read the book and then read it again. I have one wish though—that the author had ended the book sooner, and without resolution. I long to have Werner and Marie Laure’s futures left open to possibility.

We are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Jane Fowler
This book is about an important topic (no spoilers here), it’s ingeniously written, and I absolutely understand why the characters are so messed up. But despite all that, Rosemary and Harlow and Lowell drove me crazy. I would avoid them if I ran into them in a restaurant and I didn’t want them hanging around in my head. This book is worthy in every respect, just not my cup of tea.

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
I’m a huge fan of Donna Tartt. The Little Friend is one of my all time favorite novels,  perfect in every way, so I was really looking forward to The Goldfinch. I’m sorry to say that, at least for me, it didn’t live up to it’s predecessors. True, the characters were almost Dickensian (young Theo, Andy Barbour, Hobie, and Pippa) but over time (and the book is a strapping 771 pages long, so there is lots of time), I found Theo and his friends less and less sympathetic and I felt the book rambled unnecessarily.  I’ve read the reviews and I know that many astute readers loved it and there was much to love. It won the Pulitzer. Congrats to Donna Tartt!

Reading in the Dark – Seamus Deane
Deane has constructed a novel of short discrete vignettes whose every word is so painstakingly chosen that the result reads like poetry. Set in Ireland in the 1940s and 50s when children were raised to be “seen and not heard,” and where “little pictures have big ears,” the young narrator tries to understand the world by observing the adults around him. The melancholy soul of Ireland is palpable here. Death, ghosts, and tragedy are made mythic by the power of secrets, lies, and a devastating national history. A rare achievement, always exquisite, but past the middle of the book the crystalized prose became an effort to read.

Eleanor & Park – Rainbow Rowell
Here’s a book about falling in love for the first time, about connecting with another person who really “gets” who you are on a deep level, about a perceptive and abiding friendship that makes an otherwise friendless world bearable, and about having to grow up in a world that’s sometimes hostile. Eleanor & Park rings true on every level – a book that’s nuanced and captures the earnestness of young love so expertly that reading it just might cause you to summon some tender memories of your own.

I read other novels this year, but these are the ones that stood out for me.

And in the spirit of a fun factoid or a P.S.—I note that the novels I read in 2014 were crowded with orphans and a preponderance of heroines had red hair. What’s that about?

Housekeeping

“Housekeeping” Review

by Marilynn Robinson

A Review_________________________________________

I first read Housekeeping more than twenty years ago. Since then I’ve come back to it more times than I can count, often just to take it off the shelf and open it at random or peruse the highlighted passages, and each time, without fail, I am stricken by the poetry of the language, by the child Ruthie and her strangely warped and beautiful ponderings, by the nameless lake and the perennially deluged town of Fingerbone. The novel is a series of mesmerizing images suffused with the longing of motherless girls subjected to the well-intentioned but inept parenting of their Aunt Sylvie. Housekeeping is a modern masterpiece. If you resonate to Barber’s Adagio for Strings and find yourself haunting the impressionist paintings every time you go to an art the museum, it’s likely that Housekeeping by Marilynn Robinson will shimmer for you too.

You can see all my reviews on Amazon.

The Signature of All Things

“The Signature of All Things” Review

by Elizabeth Gilbert

A  Book Review_____________________________________

Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things is a sweeping novel, both literary and historical, that tells an engaging story and gives the reader a window into the philosophy, the state of feminism, and the progress of scientific thought on botany and the natural world during the late 18th and early 19th centuries (at precisely the aha moment in history when the theory of evolution was coming into consciousness).

The book opens with a short prologue that tells about the birth of Alma Whittaker on January 5th, 1800. Here Gilbert recounts the blessings Alma receives from those in her household on the day she was born. I found these blessings and the descriptions of their givers to be a tender, compelling, and a prescient beginning.

Part One, the first four chapters, belongs to Alma’s father, Henry Whittaker – a hardscrabble, intelligent, and ambitious opportunist who becomes a gifted botanist and wily entrepreneur. These four chapters (some of the best in the book) provide the context for the unique package of traits, aptitudes, and possibilities that shape Alma’s life and the choices she makes.

In Part Two, Alma takes center stage. She leads a privileged but, in many ways, isolated life in the confines of White Acre, her father’s elegant Philadelphia estate, and under the vigilant tutelage of her highly educated and prudent Dutch mother. We learn in the very first paragraph, that Alma Whittaker is not an attractive child. She “looked precisely like Henry: ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose. . . Henry’s face was far better suited to a grown man than to a little girl.” This fact barely registers with Alma in the small universe of White Acre where she is loved, doted on and adored until, when she is nine, her family adopts another daughter, a child in dire straits, close to Alma’s age, who is dainty, blonde and arrestingly beautiful.

Alma grows into a brilliant and sexually frustrated woman with a deep longing for a man who can share her passions. She channels her frustration, desires, and her razor-sharp intellect into botany, discovering that she has a particular respect and proclivity for mosses. Then, unexpectedly and past her prime, she meets Ambrose Pike, a gifted lithographer of orchids. In him, Alma believes she has finally found her soul-mate. But, what Alma perceives so clearly about the complexities of relationships in the plant world often confounds her in the behavior of people.

After her father’s death, nursing regrets and looking for answers, Alma sets off for Tahiti on a journey of self-discovery, a journey that, for the reader, is definitely worth the trip.

For readers who enjoy classic novels in the spirit of George Elliott’s Middlemarch and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, this one is highly recommended.

You can see all my reviews on Amazon.