Monday, February 17, 2014

FDR by Jean Edward Smith

Very shortened summary from Goodreads:

One of today’s premier biographers has written a modern, comprehensive, indeed ultimate book on the epic life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In this superlative volume, Jean Edward Smith combines contemporary scholarship and a broad range of primary source material to provide an engrossing narrative of one of America’s greatest presidents.

This audiobook was about an hour shorter than the Oppenheimer beast I tackled in January but I loved it just as much (if not more?). I mentioned in my post about The Fault in Our Stars that history doesn't tend to elicit much emotion buuut this one kind of made me cry periodically. FDR was an amazing person. He did and said some incredibly inspiring things. The book described the book on Pearl Harbor then went on to talk about FDR's speech, which famously began, 
Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

And I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried. It's such an amazing moment in history. SO MUCH of this book was comprised of amazing moments in history. The preface states that the 3 most important presidents in US history were Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. Now, having read (heard) about his life, I have to agree. FDR shaped the US as we know it now. He saved it from collapse during the depression. He was BFFs with Winston Churchill (need to add him to my bio list) and was the first US president to fly in an airplane. He rose above a serious physical handicap and inspired a nation. Pretty sure he's my new hero.

Looking for Alaska by John Green

From Goodreads:

Before. Miles "Pudge" Halter's whole existence has been one big nonevent, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave the "Great Perhaps" (Fran├žois Rabelais, poet) even more. Then he heads off to the sometimes crazy, possibly unstable, and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed-up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young, who is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart.

After. Nothing is ever the same.

Well that was...unexpected.

Warning: here be spoilers. 

I was more than a little flabbergasted when Green killed off the title character halfway through the book. I thought she'd run away or they'd all get expelled after a crazy prank but DEATH never even crossed my mind. 

As always, Green includes wonderfully snappy and playful dialogue. His characters are likeable and relateable. He just sort of GETS teenagers, you know? I love that he introduced some deeper thinking in this book- what IS the labyrinth? How do we get out of it? What comes after life? Can we ever really know another person? Exceptionally deep thinking considering it's a novel geared toward high schoolers.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

From Goodreads:

Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel's story is about to be completely rewritten.

Ugh, this book. 

I've been fairly submerged in nonfiction as of late. Despite the fact that my past several reviews have been of fiction books, the fact is that I'm 20 hours into a 26 hour biography of FDR, halfway through a book about how feminine traits are becoming desirable in the workplace and a few chapters into a history of Canada. I am loving my nonfiction reading but you can't really pretend that nonfiction has much feeling. It's deeply interesting without drawing out any kind of real strong emotions.

So The Fault in Our Stars kind of blind-sided me with FEELS. TOO MANY OF THEM. Even though I closed it sort of hating the world, I also recognize that it's a fantastic book. The dialog is snappy and the main characters are loveable and flawed in a very relateable sort of way.

Also, it has to be said: I hate and love that it didn't have a happy ending. I know I've written several reviews that say something like, "I would have written a different ending but this is YA so you kind of have to do sunshine and rainbows." John Green doesn't buy into that and I kind of love him for it. Life doesn't always get wrapped up in a pretty red bow. It's messy. People break up, they die, they drift apart. I feel like he's setting more realistic expectations than, say, Stephenie Meyer. I actually had a conversation with a teenaged friend about this as soon as I finished this book and she actually said how annoyed she is about all the happy endings that get shoved at her age group. Bless her. Teenagers are smart enough to know better and I think John Green gives them credit for that.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

From Goodreads:

Matteo Alacran was not born; he was harvested with the DNA from El Patron, lord of a country called Opium. Can a boy who was bred to guarantee another’s survival find his own purpose in life? And can he ever be free?

This one won a bunch of awards so I really expected to like it more. It's not that I didn't like it. I just felt like I'd read all of it before in varying forms. Futuristic dystopian society? Been there. Socialistic overtones? Done that. Growing people for their organs? Seen it.

Granted, I just looked it up and apparently it was published in 2004. So odds are good that it was published BEFORE all the others ones I read (except Animal Farm, which totally came to mind in the scenes with the Keepers) so it may have actually been an inspiration for a lot of the others I've read over the past 10 years. I think I just read it at the wrong time. Sorry, Nancy Farmer. I spent the whole book thinking you were derivative when in fact you are probably a pioneer. Props.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

From Goodreads:

Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.

This book was a lot heavier than I was expecting but I also think it's an important one. Yes, it's about the beauty of first love and the sweet awkwardness of navigating a new relationship and I'll get to that in a second. But it's also about the victims of abuse and poverty. Park's family situation is loving and secure enough that he has the mental energy to spend a lot of time thinking happily of Eleanor. He can admit to being in love. Then we switch to Eleanor's point of view and she may be thinking about Park OR she may be carefully navigating family politics, trying to protect her siblings from their stepfather, or walking 40 minutes in the dead of winter o the store with her mother because they don't have a car. Park becomes her escape but then she can't trust the situation or any of the feelings involved because she knows how fleeting happiness can be. When you grow up with that kind of instability you come to expect it. Even create it. At the end of the book Eleanor has all but torpedoed her relationship with Park (though it does end on a hopeful note and Rowell has hinted that she may revisit the characters in another book). I know a lot of people disliked the ending since it wasn't hearts and rainbows but I loved it. I feel like Eleanor did the best she could with her situation.

While there is heavier stuff here, there's also a wonderfully sweet romance. It brought back some long buried memories and left me grinning like an idiot. Rowell obviously remembers what it was like to be a teenager and she captures it really well. Although, I do call shenanigans on Park's thoughts. No 16-year-old boy is that poetically romantic.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? By Mindy Kaling

From Goodreads:

Mindy Kaling has lived many lives: the obedient child of immigrant professionals, a timid chubster afraid of her own bike, a Ben Affleck–impersonating Off-Broadway performer and playwright, and, finally, a comedy writer and actress prone to starting fights with her friends and coworkers with the sentence “Can I just say one last thing about this, and then I swear I’ll shut up about it?” 

If you're going to read a comedian's book and they have an audio version in which they narrate their own book- do that version. Listening to Mindy Kaling prattle on about her life for 4ish hours was the most pleasant possible way to get through my Saturday cleaning. She has that hilarious neo-valley girl way of speaking that sounds like she's just having a casual conversation with you over lunch. I feel like we're BFFs now.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Wonder by RJ Palacio

From Goodreads:

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He's about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you've ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie's just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he's just like them, despite appearances?

R. J. Palacio has written a spare, warm, uplifting story that will have readers laughing one minute and wiping away tears the next. With wonderfully realistic family interactions (flawed, but loving), lively school scenes, and short chapters, Wonder is accessible to readers of all levels.

Oh this book. I laughed. I cried. I googled mandibulofacial dysostosis.

This is one I'll absolutely be having my boys read. I think the multiple viewpoints help the reader understand that everyone has things they're going through and we shouldn't judge just from what we can see. Miranda seemed like she was just turning into a stuck-up popular teenage girl but then we switch to her viewpoint and...that's not the case. 

Auggie's English teacher talks about precepts and has a new one each month for his students to think about. I feel like the precept for the book is "Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." A valuable lesson no matter what your age is!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman's Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine by Sue Monk Kidd

From Goodreads:

The acclaimed spiritual memoir from the author of The Secret Life of Bees
"I was amazed to find that I had no idea how to unfold my spiritual life in a feminine way. I was surprised and, in fact, a little terrified when I found myself in the middle of a feminist spiritual reawakening."
Sue Monk was a "conventionally religious, churchgoing woman, a traditional wife and mother" with a thriving career as a Christian writer until she began to question her role as a woman in her culture, her family, and her church. From a jarring encounter with sexism in a suburban drugstore to monastery retreats and rituals in the caves of Crete, Kidd takes readers through the fear, anger, healing, and transformation of her awakening. Retaining a meaningful connection "with the deep song of Christianity," she opens the door for traditional Christian women to discover a spirituality that speaks directly to them and provides inspiring wisdom for all who struggle to embrace their full humanity.

This book came as a recommendation from a woman I deeply admire (Aaron calls her my girl crush). She's been where I am and came out the other side full of peace and light. So when she recommended it and then I discovered that my library didn't carry it, I actually BOUGHT myself a copy. Something I do approximately...never.

I wish I could write separate reviews for each section of this book because they held varying values for me. The first section is called Awakening and I devoured it thinking, HOW DOES THIS WOMAN KNOW MY LIFE. She had words for things I experienced but couldn't articulate. She understood my difficulties, my discomfort, and my fears. It was a powerful feeling, knowing that I'm not even remotely alone. I highlighted this section all over the place, finding the words and inspiration I needed to make some hard decisions.

The second section, Initiation, took me a couple weeks to get through. There was so little about this part of her journey that I related to. I highlighted one single quote. I think that, perhaps, she had issues to work through that I didn't and that's why I didn't find the same kinship with the Initiation section. I also don't feel quite the same pull toward Goddess that she does. Especially not to the exclusion of my generally Christian understanding of deity. There has to be a happy medium.

I warily started into the third section, called Grounding. She continued to discuss things that held no resonance with me (I don't need to create my own ceremonies. I am not hippie enough for that, apparently) but I loved her discussions of the Divine Feminine. She talks about how She has manifested herself through the ages in varying religious traditions and even within the Bible (though She has been mostly scrubbed out in modern translations). There was a lot in the third section that felt eye-opening and important. I have a lot of processing to do with this section but I ultimately came out of it feeling deeply empowered. That there is power in being a woman and I have every right and responsibility to stand up for myself and my gender against that which denigrates or wounds.

The final section, Empowerment, felt a bit fluffy. I skimmed. It was sort of a rehash. I already FELT empowered, no need to beat the horse. Again, different women have different issues. She worked through her issues whereas I feel like I was already good to go.

I also couldn't help but feel her dreams were awfully convenient. How nice for her to dream in strong, clear, feminist symbols. I dream about showing up places in my underwear but I'm sure my white buffalo will show up any time.

While there was a lot that I couldn't relate to or that made me raise an eyebrow, overall this book had a hugely positive effect on me. There were specific lines or words in there that hit me like a shock to the brain. I felt strong and empowered as I read and greatly comforted that there are women who have walked this same path before.

I really wish, though, that she talked about balancing strong feminist sensibilities with Christianity. Instead, she sort of went the total opposite direction into ignoring God the Father in order to embrace the Goddess. I said this a few paragraphs up, but there has to be a happy medium. She helped me understand a LOT about myself and my experiences but she didn't lay a path I can follow. Guess I have to forge my own.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

January Reading Summary

It's possible that January 2014 was my best month ever for reading. Just for kicks and giggles, here's an amateurish little visual breakdown:

I must say that I am absurdly proud of the amount of nonfiction I read. I'm not normally a huge reader of NF but I found lots this month that interested me and I tore through them. Also, of the 10 audio books I read, only 3 were fiction. For me, the best way to get through nonfiction is to turn on an audiobook and start cleaning my house. I find history or political theory significantly more interesting when someone is reading it to me while I scrub my stove top.

If I had to choose only ONE fiction book to recommend from my January reading it would probably be The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson. It's so fantastically well written while also being entertaining and empowering.

If I had to pick ONE nonfiction book it would be Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn. That book was life-changing. I think it should be required reading.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

From Goodreads:

Under the streets of London there's a place most people could never even dream of. A city of monsters and saints, murderers and angels, knights in armour and pale girls in black velvet. This is the city of the people who have fallen between the cracks.

Richard Mayhew, a young businessman, is going to find out more than enough about this other London. A single act of kindness catapults him out of his workday existence and into a world that is at once eerily familiar and utterly bizarre. And a strange destiny awaits him down here, beneath his native city: Neverwhere.

I read Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book at some point and loved it. I also read American Gods and thought it very good. He's got such a rabid cult following that I assumed I would love just about anything he wrote. But....I didn't.

Neverwhere was just a little too dark for me, I guess. The characters were plenty engaging (seeing a publicity shot for the radio broadcast really helped me envision them) and the plot was adequately twisty but I think the biggest part of the problem is that I couldn't see myself in the world of Neverwhere I wouldn't want to. It's a dark, violent, unfriendly place and apparently I like my alternative universes a little more sunshiney. Oh well.