Monday, February 20, 2017

Top Ten Books I Liked More Than I Expected

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

This week's topic is books that you liked more or less than expected. I could write another full post of books I didn't like as much as I expected, but I decided this time to be positive and share books that I liked. They were easy to pick out because I tend to start my Goodreads reviews of these kinds of books with "I enjoyed this more than I expected..."

1. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I've mentioned this already a few times, but I expected this book to have dense prose and be all symbolic and philosophical, and it wasn't at all. It was very readable and ended up being my favorite read from January.

2. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
I had heard a lot of criticism of this book before reading it, so I was surprised to find that most of the criticism was unfounded. Yes, the book is targeted at a specific demographic, but Sandberg makes that very clear upfront, and for her specific audience I thought the book contained a lot of excellent advice, addressing systemic barriers while giving women practical things they could do to advance their career.

3. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
I read very little sci-fi and fantasy, and I'm an unrepentant world-building snob, so I was very surprised at how much I liked this book. My book club wasn't a huge fan, but I found the characters relatable and their dilemmas felt real.

4. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
I'm always hesitant going into 19th century classics because they can be so dry and tedious, but this one was quite enjoyable. I wouldn't say it's a favorite — it would still be more rewarding to study and analyze than simply to read — but I found it entertaining enough to keep my attention.

5. MWF Seeking BFF by Rachel Bertsche
This book kind of got panned by many reviewers as being too gimmicky, but I liked reading her reflections on the awkwardness of making friends as an adult. Maybe it just spoke to me at a particular time in my life. This book is the reason I initially decided to seek out a local book club (why had that never occurred to me before?) and since I'm now part of three, I guess I have Bertsche to thank.

6. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
I expected to hate this book based on what I knew about it, but I ended up finding it quite entertaining. It still has pretty terrible viewpoints on women and people of color, but at least for myself, Kerouac's ("Sal Paradise's") experiences were so utterly absurd that I couldn't help but find them funny.

7. Stolen by Lucy Christopher
Young adult books have been super hit or miss for me in recent years. (The majority of the "books I expected to like and didn't" fall under this genre.) I really thought this was going to turn into a YA cliché where the questionable male character ends up being an unquestioned love interest, but it didn't develop that way at all.

8. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Don't get me wrong — long sections of this novel were a slog, as you might expect from a 1300-page 19th century Russian novel. But I liked how the novel went back and forth between the war front and the home front, where the events start out separate and over time come to be more and more blended as characters at home became more affected by and involved in the war efforts. If you're not looking for the accomplishment of reading the whole unabridged version, I actually recommend the story in an abridged format.

9. Watchmen by Alan Moore
When I picked this up I had only read my first graphic novels the year before, and I hadn't read anything that explicitly dealt with comic book-type superheroes and villains. I appreciated the book's various themes, and it gave me a lot to think about. (Plus I could recognize how this year's Doctor Who Christmas special borrowed from the book's plot!)

10. The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal
I've read a lot of books in this vein that talk about how you shouldn't rely on willpower and should instead craft your environment to help you make the right choices, so I was skeptical going into this book, but McGonigal acknowledged this upfront and specified that her research was about the areas where you do still need willpower. You can set out your workout clothes the night before, get a running buddy, and incentivize yourself to complete your workout, but you still have to actually get up and out the door. I found the book helpful, practical, and applicable.

Which books surprised you for the better?

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

What I've Been Reading Lately (Quick Lit)

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's Quick Lit to bring you some short and sweet reviews of what I've read in the past month. For longer reviews, you can always find me on Goodreads.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: Wilde is talented at building suspense and heightening tension. Through Dorian Gray's life, we see that a life in pursuit of pleasure, while appealing in theory, requires a level of selfishness that will ultimately lead to being hated, paranoid, and cruel. The audio narration was well done, though I think it would be a good read in any format.

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder: Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, is a complex and fascinating figure who draws guidance from Catholic liberation theology and who focuses always on helping the patient in front of him, cost-effectiveness be damned. Our book club had a great discussion from this book.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: For some reason I expected this book to be dense and esoteric, but it wasn't — it was very readable. The book was published at a time when women were caught between the generational expectations of happy housewife and working feminist. These compounding pressures, along with a 19-year-old's typical paralysis about the future, are manifested vividly through the protagonist's mental breakdown. If you haven't read this before, it's definitely worth picking up.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: This is a mixed bag (some parts drag on way too long), but there was plenty that was funny, sweet, or clever to keep me reading. If all you know of Don Quixote is his attacks on windmills, you don't even know the first quarter of his long story!

Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas: This was a reread, and I enjoyed it almost as much the second time around, knowing everything that was going to happen (an impressive feat, since my first reading was driven mostly by suspense!). Haas wrote it very intentionally so that you misinterpret certain things without actually being lied to. This is still my go-to recommendation if you liked Gone Girl.

Five Women Wearing the Same Dress by Alan Ball: This is a sweet, if somewhat dated, play about five bridesmaids who all dislike the bride. It has the typical combination of personal revelations, sarcastic commentary on other people, and witty remarks that you would expect in an intimately staged play like this.

How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7 by Joanna Faber and Julie King: Co-authored by the daughter of one of the authors of the original How to Talk..., this was a great refresher on the parenting strategies that defuse day-to-day battles with kids and equip them to handle their emotions and solve problems as they grow older. I love that this version focuses on young children and even has a section on kids with SPD and/or autism.

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand: This book feels like the antidote to the awfulness of All the Bright Places; it handles the topic of suicide much more skillfully and does not romanticize it. It speaks honestly to the process of grief and to the emotional mess that's left in the wake of someone's suicide. It's not free from YA clichés, but overall it's well done and worth a read. (Bring tissues!)

What have you been reading this month? Share over at Modern Mrs. Darcy!

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Monday, February 13, 2017

Top Nine Literary Male-Female Friendships

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

It's a Valentine's Day theme this week, but I realized that I don't read a ton of books with romantic relationships that I'm super enthusiastic about. Last year I shared my favorite fictional couples, and I didn't want to cover the same ground. So I started thinking about non-romantic relationships between straight male and female characters, and how rare that is to find in books. I was only able to come up with nine. Here they are! Keep in mind that this list contains spoilers for some of the books pictured.

1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig
Most of the book goes back and forth between their separate stories, and I was sure they were going to end up in a clichéd romance. I was happy to see they just connected over shared interests instead. Unfortunately their friendship didn't last very long...

2. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini: Markos and Thalia
Initially fascinated by Thalia's facial deformities, Markos quickly gets over himself and becomes lifelong friends with her. She is the reason he pursues a career in plastic surgery, but he accepts her decision not to get it done herself, even if he can't quite understand it.

3. The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith: Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott
Although there's an implication that these two could pursue a romantic relationship, the most recent book ended with Robin tying the knot with her terrible fiancé. I like the two of them being able to have a strong relationship without it having to be romantic.

4. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: Hazel and Isaac
Before there was Augustus Waters, Hazel and Isaac were support-group friends, in the sense that they shared a disdain for their leader's corny remarks and bad grammar. And after Augustus, Hazel and Isaac still have each other to lean on.

5. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: Dina Dalal and Ishvar & Om Darji
Although Dina initially looks down on this uncle-nephew pair, they end up becoming great friends and even stay connected after tragedy (repeatedly) strikes the men.

6. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and Hermione Granger
Despite what Rowling has said, I'm glad that Harry and Ginny ended up together, and that Harry and Hermione could just be friends.

7. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: Katniss Everdeen and Gale Hawthorne
Obviously this pair wasn't always strictly platonic (as evidenced by Team Gale supporters), but I think Collins made the right call by not having them end up together. They supported each other well as friends, at least in the beginning.

8. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving: John Wheelwright and Katherine Keeling
I mentioned this book last week as one lacking in quality female characters, with the Rev. Keeling being the exception. I like that it's not presented as a weird thing that John's best friend as an adult is a married woman.

9. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead: Miranda and Sal
The arc of this book involves Miranda losing and then regaining Sal as her best friend, but it's never implied (that I can remember) that they are interested in each other romantically, even though other people her age end up romantically paired up.

Who are your favorite different-gender friends?

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Monday, February 6, 2017

Top Ten Books I Wish Had More Women in Them

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

This week's topic is "Top Ten Books I Wish Had (More/Less) X In Them." Looking over my previously read books, most have a balance of male and female characters. What's interesting is that the books with primarily female characters tend to be called "chick lit" (in a disparaging way), while those with primarily male characters are more likely to be labeled "classics." With that in mind, here are ten male-centric books that could have benefited from more female characters.

1. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
There is one great female character in this book, Pella, but the majority of the action revolves around Henry, Mike, Guert, and Owen. True, it's about a college (men's) baseball team, but the attention paid to the various romantic subplots as well as the explorations of depression, substance abuse, and academics make it clear that there was plenty of room for at least one other female character to play a role in this hefty novel.

2. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
OK, don't tell me there were no women involved in World War II. (Have you read Code Name Verity?) And there are a number of women in this book, but they're all described in sexual terms (except for a few who are merely pathetic and helpless), and most of them seem to be sex-crazed without any care for who they're sleeping with. If you can have a character named Major Major Major Major, you could have thrown in at least one female character who had some purpose other than prostitution.

3. A Dog's Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron
Even though this book's frequently reincarnated protagonist spends one lifetime as a female dog, the remaining incarnations are male, so the book description (and everyone in my book club discussion) refers to him as male. His closest relationship is with a boy (and later with the same boy as a man), and even as a female dog his/her owner is male, with only a brief spell spent with a woman. With so much flexibility in the plot (literally every new life is a different story!), it didn't have to lean so heavily male.

4. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
There are some female characters in this book, but they're mostly tangential, tragic characters. The narrator of the book's outer frame is Robert Walton (male), who listens to the story of Victor Frankenstein (male), which includes a long passage by Frankenstein's monster (male). Frankenstein does start to make a female monster but then tears it up. I'm kind of surprised that the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft couldn't find a way to include some active female characters; even Dracula, written by a man, has more central female characters.

5. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The majority of this book is inside the head of the perpetually anxious and/or stoned Theo, but there are some other characters with major roles: Boris, his sketchy Russian friend, and Hobie, the substitute father figure. The primary female character, Pippa, is mostly important for the space she holds in Theo's mind after he sees her briefly, not for anything she herself does during the book. Why do the two men get to alter Theo's life in active ways while Pippa only affects it by passively existing somewhere?

6. The Hobbit / The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
One of the reasons I put off reading the Lord of the Rings series for so long was that I read The Hobbit after reading David Eddings' fantasy series and found it sorely lacking in female characters in comparison. Once I did finally get around to the series, I found that there were a handful of good female characters, but they were still few and far between and mostly there to be beautiful. I think I would have liked the series much better if it had had a character like Polgara the Sorceress in a starring role.

7. How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell
I get that this is supposed to be a "boy's book," what with the dragons and the fighting and the bodily functions. But there's no reason that boys can't read about girls training dragons too. With a little more imagination I think Cowell could have made this book just as entertaining with more female characters.

8. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Pretty much the only substantial female character in this book is Jude's social worker, and she's dead when the book opens. The book focuses on four male friends from college, but in this behemoth of a novel that spans decades, we encounter lots of other characters, almost all of whom are male, from Jude's law professor to his neighbor/friend to his abusive boyfriend to the monks that raised him. The handful of female characters have minor side roles as people's wives, old college friends, and one-night stands. Surely some of them could have been written to have a more substantial role.

9. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
I love this book, but most of the main characters are male: Milo, Tock, The Humbug, King Azaz, The Mathemagician... Only the princesses (Rhyme and Reason) are female, in a stereotypically storybook way. Almost all the side characters are male, too, except for the wicked Faintly Macabre. A world as creative and fantastical as this one could certainly have more starring roles for women.

10. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
This is another book I love, but I can't deny that it's lacking in significant female characters. John's mother is really the only one with any substance, and she dies early on, so her significance ends up being more as a symbol than as a principal actor. The other female characters — Hester, Harriet (John's grandmother), the servants, Barb Wiggin — mostly exist for comic relief. John doesn't have serious life conversations with them like he has with Owen, Dan, and the Rev. Louis Merrill, which is a shame. In contrast, we hear that his best friend as an adult is the Rev. Katherine Keeling, but we rarely get to hear from her directly.

Which books would you add more female characters to?

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Monday, January 30, 2017

Best of the Bunch: January 2017

Today I'm sharing the best book I read in January.

I've had a pretty mediocre string of reading months here, as this is the third month in a row when I haven't had any 5-star reads and only one 4.5-star read. I'm starting to wonder if it's just me and the state of low-level depression I've been in since the election. In any case, here's the best thing I read this month:

For some reason I expected this book to be really dense and esoteric, and it wasn't at all. It was very readable if not always relatable. This book was published at a time when women were caught between generations, expected to uphold the housewifely and maternal duties their mothers ascribed to while also expected to fulfill their potential through school and work. These compounding pressures along with a 19-year-old's typical paralysis about the future are manifested vividly through the protagonist's mental breakdown. If you haven't read this before, it's definitely worth picking up. I think it would be great for discussion as well.

What is the best book you read this month? Let me know in comments, or write your own post and link up below!

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Monday, January 23, 2017

Top Ten Unheard-Of Books on My TBR List

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

Continuing the theme from last week, I decided to use this week's freebie to take a look at my to-read list and see which books have made it on there that are relatively unknown. These are the ten books with the fewest ratings to date, ordered by least to most ratings.

1. Shalom and the Community of Creation by Randy Woodley (33 ratings)
I got to hear Woodley speak at the Faith & Culture Writers Conference a few years ago and was very interested in his talk about how he preserves Native American traditions in his practice of Christianity. He recommended seeking out his book to learn more.

2. How to Be a Perfect Stranger by Stuart M. Matlins (130 ratings)
This was recommended on a blog I used to read and has been on my to-read list since 2013. It's a guide to religious etiquette so you know what to expect when attending a friend's religious service or when they're celebrating a religious holiday or life event.

3. 50 Women Every Christian Should Know by Michelle DeRusha (153 ratings)
I was virtually introduced to DeRusha by a mutual friend and quite enjoyed her first book, Spiritual Misfit. I read her blog while she was working on this book and thought it sounded interesting enough to pick up.

4. Damaged Goods by Dianna Anderson (175 ratings)
When I was first getting into feminism I learned a lot from Anderson's blog, and I actually contributed an interview to her book. Before it was published I ended up drifting away from her writing because it got too bitter and inflexible for my taste, and I've heard the book is much the same, but I feel like I should read it eventually.

5. The Tsar's Dwarf by Peter H. Fogtdal (179 ratings)
This was recommended by someone in one of my book clubs and I thought it sounded worth reading. I didn't realize it wasn't very well known.

6. Swimming Through Clouds by Rajdeep Paulus (240 ratings)
I'm pretty sure I found this book on the Best Fiction and Memoirs by Authors of Color list on Goodreads during my year of reading diversely. I haven't gotten my hands on a copy yet, probably because it's not very well known.

7. Things I Should Have Told My Daughter by Pearl Cleage (311 ratings)
I honestly don't remember where I originally came across this title, but I've seen it a couple times since. It seems like an interesting memoir.

8. Disunity in Christ by Christena Cleveland (334 ratings)
I love Cleveland's blog and am super excited to read this book. She talks about the intersections of race and religion in our country, which is maybe more relevant now than ever.

9. Stride Toward Freedom by Martin Luther King Jr. (348 ratings)
I'm genuinely surprised this book doesn't have more ratings. Now that I'm participating in the Injustice Boycott I'm especially interested in reading this story of the Montgomery bus boycott.

10. Mankiller by Wilma Mankiller and Michael Wallis (405 ratings)
I think this is another one I added while looking for more diverse books, and particularly some by and about Native American women. This is the autobiography of Chief Wilma Mankiller.

Which unknown books have made it into your TBR list?

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Monday, January 16, 2017

Ten Underrated Books I've Read In The Past Year

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

I've shared some of my favorite underrated books before — literally "underrated," with fewer than 1,000 ratings or 2,000 ratings on Goodreads. Here are ten books I read in the past year who have also been discovered by relatively few readers! It looks like they're mostly religious books, with a couple of parenting ones thrown in as well. I've included the number of Goodreads ratings each book has as of this writing.

1. The Church of Mercy by Pope Francis (638 ratings)
I'm kind of surprised this book has so few ratings. Either other Catholics aren't that interested in reading a compilation of the Pope's speeches/writings, or they don't use Goodreads! The selections are pretty short so they don't go too deep into any one topic, but they cover a wide range about how we live day to day, how we pray, and how we care for those most in need.

2. Dear Mister Rogers, Does It Ever Rain in Your Neighborhood? by Fred Rogers (174 ratings)
This was one of my top nonfiction reads of the year. My son has just gotten interested in watching Mister Roger's Neighborhood, and it would be fun to go back and reread this book after rewatching more episodes.

3. Friendship at the Margins by Christopher L. Heuertz and Christine D. Pohl (213 ratings)
I heard about this book through word-of-mouth recommendations from a couple different sources and finally picked it up this past year. This book is both a gentle indictment of typical mission work and an exploration of the benefits and challenges of becoming friends with people whose life circumstances are vastly different than your own.

4. Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther (1,087 ratings)
This has the most ratings on this list, but still not many. In this book, Elizabeth Esther shares her story of growing up in a fundamentalist cult, finding a way out, and learning how to heal. It definitely deserves to reach a wider audience, and I'm surprised it hasn't gained traction after the popularity of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

5. Oh Crap! Potty Training by Jamie Glowacki (822 ratings)
Another one of my top nonfiction reads of the year. This method worked well to quickly train our toddler to use the toilet. It's the #1 method I hear recommended, so I'm kind of surprised more people haven't rated it.

6. Philippine Duchesne by Catherine M. Mooney (4 ratings)
I picked up this book because I wanted to know more about the saint I'd chosen as my confirmation saint in high school. It's actually quite an interesting biography and has a great introductory chapter about saints in general. I guess, as she's not one of the more well-known saints, most people aren't seeking out a bio of her.

7. Prototype by Jonathan Martin (437 ratings)
I originally heard about this book from Rachel Held Evans, and I thought it was a great reflection on Christian identity and community blended with Martin's own memoir. Martin's thesis is that Jesus was a prototype for a new kind of human who acted out of knowledge that he was loved by God, not as a way to earn God's love.

8. The Rise and Fall of the Bible by Timothy Beal (430 ratings)
I listed Beal as one of the best new-to-me authors I read in 2016, specifically for this book. It's a nice exploration of the history of the Bible, as well as the current state of Bible publishing (which preys on people's desire for the Bible to be a straightforward answer book).

9. The Whole Life Adoption Book by Jayne E. Schooler (125 ratings)
Unlike some other adoption books I've read, this book is fairly comprehensive in its information on choosing between the different adoption processes, talking about adoption with your child at different stages of their life, and dealing with potential issues unique to (or more common with) adoptive children, such as attachment issues and birth parent searches. I'm glad our social worker recommended it.

10. With Burning Hearts by Henri Nouwen (204 ratings)
Yet another top nonfiction read of the year. (Funny how many of them were lesser-known books!) It's a beautiful reflection on the different parts of the Mass and how we are invited to participate at each stage, using as a scaffolding the story of the travelers on the road to Emmaus.

Which underrated books did you read in the past year?

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