Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Best of the Bunch: September 2015

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

I was very generous with 5-star ratings this month (or I just read a lot of great books!). Of the 17 books I read in September, four earned a 5-star review from me:

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

I recommend all of these books, but if I had to pick, I'd say the best of the bunch was...

This book was incredibly well crafted. It's told from the (third-person limited) perspective of a woman with early-onset Alzheimer's. Each chapter is one month over the course of about two years, so we can see the rapid progression of her disease. Different people in her life handle her memory loss differently, and there's rarely a "right" answer to anything. The book raises moral questions about family obligations, the option of suicide, and whether to get tested for the gene or risk passing it on to children. What made this a top book for me was that there were so many layers to this book — the plot, the structure, the questions it raises — but the writing appears effortless and easy to read. I definitely recommend picking this one up.

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, September 21, 2015

Top Ten Books on My Fall TBR List

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

As I've mentioned before, I have a very long to-read list (currently at 346 books), but I've moved books into the top 100 or so based on my goals for the year so that I have a rough idea of what to pick up next. Here are some of the books I'm hoping to get to this fall.

1. The Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith
This is part of my goal to read other holy books this year, which so far has only encompassed the Tao Te Ching. Conveniently, there were Mormons handing out copies of this outside the musical The Book of Mormon when we saw it last fall, so I got one then.

2. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Like most of the books on this list, this was a recommendation from a friend. I feel like Calvino's book If on a winter's night a traveler (which I also have yet to read) is more well known, but this one has higher ratings and was personally recommended, so I'll probably start with it.

3. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
Another recommendation from a friend, a long time ago, as well as a frequent flyer on lists of classic books everyone should read. It's beyond time I picked this one up.

4. Murder with Peacocks by Donna Andrews
This one I heard about from a blogger friend and it seems like a fun read (another goal for this year), so I'm looking forward to it.

5. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
This is one of those classic children's books that I had never heard of until recently. I got it on audiobook for baby Gregory and me to listen to, but it's so long I think I'll probably just listen to it myself.

6. The Sublime Quran trans. by Laleh Bakhtiar
I read about this translation, the first by a woman, in another book I read recently, and it seemed like a good option for tackling one of the major holy books I want to read this year.

7. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
Another one that is supposed to be a fun read and was a recommendation, from someone in one of my book clubs. Now that I think about it, maybe I classify all mysteries as fun reads...

8. The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley
This nonfiction book about disaster preparedness was recommended to me a few years ago by a friend, and it seems timely now with the recent buzz about the pending Cascadia earthquake.

9. Watchmen by Alan Moore
This is the last of the graphic novels I added to my TBR list after making that a goal for this year. My husband sees this as definitive proof that I'm branching out in my reading this year.

10. Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El-Saadawi
Another recommendation from a friend, possibly during my year of reading diversely last year. I had never heard of it before (or since), but it's just over 100 pages, so I don't have any reason not to give it a try.

What's on your list of books to read this fall? (or spring, if you're in the southern hemisphere?)

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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

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 Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman: This was enjoyable enough to revisit, but honestly you're better off just watching the movie, since it hewed very closely to the original book. In the book, though, there were too many chapters devoted to Goldman's supposed experiences abridging the "original" Princess Bride, a conceit which got old quickly.

Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater: This was an enjoyable reread of a children's classic. I was surprised at how practical much of it was, with the discussions about money and the logistics of keeping a penguin comfortable in a non-Antarctic climate. A lot of it is still ridiculous, certainly, but overall it was fun. I definitely recommend this one on audio, as there are a lot of bonus sound effects and music to complement the story.

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey: My favorite read of August. For a Highly Sensitive Person who generally dislikes zombies, post-apocalyptic fiction, and anything classified as "horror," I couldn't believe how much I loved this book, which should tell you how well-written it is.

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid: This is an incredibly honest book about a very small Caribbean island (Antigua) — what it's like to be a tourist there, what it was like to grow up there, what it's like to live there now, and what beauty and poverty are everlasting there. Kincaid does not mince words when talking about slavery or corruption, but neither does she divide people into stark categories of good and bad; she asks important questions about where we go from here.

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga: I wanted to like this Zimbabwean classic more than I did. This book has the seeds for a number of interesting stories, but it never fully commits to any of them. I liked the questions that were raised by the story about patriarchy, colonial oppression, and family loyalty, but the main character never seems to really come to any conclusions about herself or her life, and I was left not knowing what to take away from the book.

Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman: In this children's book, a father goes to the corner store to buy milk for his children's breakfast. When he gets back and they ask what took him so long, he tells them a ridiculous and hilarious tale that includes alien abductions, pirates, and time-traveling dinosaur professors. I did not expect to find this so hilarious, but it had me laughing out loud and shaking my head at the ridiculousness throughout.

The Science of Mom: A Research-Based Guide to Your Baby's First Year by Alice Callahan: This refreshingly evidence-based book was written by a scientist and mother who heard all the conflicting theories about parenting and just wanted to know what the scientific literature said. Where the research is clear, she takes a strong stance; where it is mixed, she explains benefits and risk factors and leaves the reader to decide.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert: I enjoyed this classic more than I expected, though this seems like the kind of book that would be more rewarding to ponder, discuss, and analyze than it necessarily is to read. I'm not sure I'd rush to recommend it to the average reader, but for anyone who wants to study the art of writing there is a lot of wealth within this novel.

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf: This was slow to get into but ultimately rewarding. Woolf makes a compelling argument about the links between women's historical oppression and the lack of genius-level writing by women up to the present (1928). Both for its historical snapshot and for the aspects that still ring true today, this is worth a read.

A General Theory of Love by Dr. Thomas Lewis, Dr. Fari Amini, and Dr. Richard Lannon: I wouldn't have finished this book except that someone recommended and lent it to me. From the overblown prose and convoluted logic to the many attempted applications to parenting that were just way off base, this was a super irritating read.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova: This is a masterfully crafted novel told from the perspective of a woman with early-onset Alzheimer's. After seeing it recommended for so long, I'm glad I finally picked it up; it definitely lived up to the hype.

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan: This fascinating memoir shows the best and worst of the medical profession as Cahalan's family seeks to get a diagnosis for her sudden psychosis that turns out to be the result of a rare autoimmune disorder. This is worth a read, both for the sheer interest factor as well as the information about preventing misdiagnoses.

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid: This coming-of-age story is told in loosely connected vignettes — so loosely that the events of one chapter don't always match up with those of another. I liked a lot of the real-life descriptions but got lost in the amount of storytelling through dreams and symbolism. It was a good, short read, but not one I'd go out of my way to recommend.

Split by Swati Avasthi: This is solid YA contribution about the impact of living with an abusive father — and the aftermath of getting out. It would be a good book for both teenagers who have experienced abuse and those who haven't but want to better understand those who have. It's a comprehensive (at times too much so) look at the scary world of domestic violence.

Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman: I liked this story of a Holocaust survivor told in graphic novel format by his son, interspersed with illustrations of their strained relationship at the end of the father's life. It didn't pack the emotional punch for me that it has for many — perhaps because I knew too much about the Holocaust to be surprised by anything, and perhaps because I got overwhelmed by the various details of people and place — but I'd still recommend it.

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

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Monday, September 14, 2015

Top Ten Good Books You've Never Heard Of

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

This week is a freebie! I decided to figure out which of the books I'd read had few (under 1,000) ratings on Goodreads and recommend some of them to you.

1. Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever
A few years ago I went to an excellent conference for female professionals that focused solely around the concepts in this book, with Sara Laschever as the keynote speaker. The main idea is that women tend to be socialized not to ask for things, while men are much more likely to ask — about a higher salary, an open position, or better service at a hotel. This not only explains a large part of the wage gap but also leads to women missing out on all kinds of things they could get if they just learned to ask. Through real-life stories and exercises, the authors illustrate how to make "asking" a part of your life.

2. The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives by Shankar Vedantam
I learned about this book after reading an excerpt that was being shared as an online article, about transgender professionals who learned firsthand about gender discrimination when comparing their experiences before and after transitioning. This book is a good crash course in the concepts that are explored in much greater depth in the classic Thinking, Fast and Slow. One of the best takeaways for me was why I shouldn't judge people of color who see racism in innocuous situations.

3. I Had Brain Surgery, What's Your Excuse? by Suzy Becker
I ran across this book when I was volunteering as a shelf reader at the library, and the fun cover and title caught my eye. The author is a cartoonist and humorist, so this memoir of her experience needing and recovering from brain surgery was both funny and enlightening, accompanied by great illustrations.

4. In the Presence of Mystery: An Introduction to the Story of Human Religiousness by Michael H. Barnes
I had the great fortune to have Dr. Barnes as a professor of religion in college, and this book, which was the course's textbook, was incredibly readable and absolutely fascinating. Previously my understanding of religion had come primarily from my own Catholic upbringing with some knowledge of other Christian traditions and a very slight understanding of Judaism and Islam. This book covers a far broader range of world religions and uses these examples to explore the fundamentals of religious belief and practice.

5. Jesus, Mo and Cheese Puffs by Lisa Boucher
I had the opportunity to see this book in its early stages as Boucher's editor and totally loved this quirky story of an older couple taking a road trip to California and getting pulled into the lives of colorful characters at the small towns they stop at along the way. I helped her land a literary agent who unfortunately wanted to gut the book because she didn't believe a story could be told from more than one character's perspective (WTF?), so Boucher eventually gave up and self-published. This is a heartwarming and fun book that's worth a read.

6. Letters Between a Catholic and an Evangelical: From Debate to Dialogue on the Issues That Separate Us by Fr. John R. Waiss and James G. McCarthy
I went through a phase in late high school and early college of buying a lot of Christian nonfiction, and this is one of the better ones that ended up in my collection. The authors are friends and both very well-versed in theology, so they try to determine whether they can settle the religious disagreements between their traditions. (Spoiler: They can't.) What struck me most from reading this was that the things that divide Catholics and evangelicals are so... tiny, and yet ultimately fundamental to each's beliefs. I learned a lot, and the friendly tone made this a "safe" way to understand these theological differences.

7. Room for One More by Anna Perrott Rose
This is the book that first got me thinking about adoption, back in high school. It's a true story of the author's experiences taking in and ultimately adopting several foster children, in addition to her own biological children. Her stories are interspersed with reflections on parenting that I found fascinating as a teenager (particularly with the 1930s/40s backdrop). I think I bought this at a used book sale and was surprised it wasn't more widely known.

8. The Science of Mom: A Research-Based Guide to Your Baby's First Year by Alice Callahan
This is a relatively new book that will probably gain more readers over time, but I picked it up soon after it came out because of how much I like the author's blog of the same name. Callahan dives right into the most hot-button areas of parenting, from vaccinations to breastfeeding to co-sleeping, and distills the available evidence from research studies into a readable format. So much of what's out there is parenting theory, so it was refreshing to read a review of the research literature instead.

9. Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction by J. David Kuo
This was a recommendation from my mom. Kuo went into politics because he thought it was the best way to live out his faith and change the world for the better. What he found was politicians learning how to pay lip service to faith in order to attract voters, while having no actual interest in the areas their religious constituents were most concerned with. Having a firsthand account was both an interesting and depressing way to have my thoughts about politics confirmed.

10. Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen by David Hilfilker
If there is any book on this list that I could choose to make popular, it would be this one. This book, assigned reading in college, was my wake-up call about all of the beliefs I never realized I had about poverty, welfare, and the "inner city." The author cuts through any politics to provide facts and figures about the history of public assistance programs and what has worked in other parts of the world to lift people out of poverty. At 158 pages, there's no excuse not to read it.

What books have I probably never heard of that you would recommend?

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