1. Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (audio) - It might be somewhat controversial to call this book a 'fantasy' but I would argue that it most certainly is as it explores the possibilities of a life that is lived over and over and over again. This is one of my all time favorite books, and I'd heard good things about the audio. I thought it would be nice to revisit it before the new book was released this month. I still love it, and I still am excited by Atkinson's writing!
2. God In Ruins, Kate Atkinson - It's been a while since I've been this excited about a new release. As in....I was so excited that I canceled my pre-order on Amazon so that I could run to town and buy a hardback copy the day it was released rather than have to wait a few days. Curiously enough, I then didn't start it right away. When I did get to it, I fell head over heels in love with Atkinson's writing, as I usually do. My one mistake was in reading the Kirkus review, which compared the novel to a very well-known short story. It wasn't a spoiler, per se, but it did give away (I felt) a lot of what Atkinson was really going for...and that did spoil the experience for me a bit. At the very least, it took away the urgency of finishing the book. I decided at that point to get the audio from the library and finish it that way. Despite all of that, I was ultimately both devastated and deeply satisfied by the end. Love how Atkinson plays with time, and love this family of characters - even the ones I want to kick in the pants!
3. Singer from the Sea, Sheri S. Tepper - A confession. During college I read and fell in love with Tepper's Beauty. That is, I fell in love with it until a friend of mine told me about running randomly into the author on an airplane, where she had to sit through Tepper's religious views for the entire flight, including an explanation of how the entire book is based on those views. (It's been 20 years...I could be misremembering the details of the story. I just know that I was devastated when my friend shared with me how closely the plot mirrored a specific religious agenda...it was just too blatant.) I haven't read Tepper since. But then this book popped up for sale, and I thought I'd give it a try. So here's the thing. The themes in this book are absolutely not in any way childish, and yet the overall tone of the book reads very young in a really strange way. The characters often feel very two-dimensional, the emotional shifts tend to be too swift and too emphatic for belief, and the whole thing feels kind of cartoonish....despite the fact that Tepper is very much a feminist/political writer with big things to say. I enjoyed it...but felt that it lacked subtlety and nuance. I'm not likely to read any more Tepper.
4. God Help the Child, Toni Morrison (audio, read by the author) - Morrison's Beloved made a huge impact on me as it was required reading in multiple classes my freshman year in college. And yet curiously enough, I've not read much of her since. (seems to be a minor theme this month....) I adored her recent interview with Terri Gross on Fresh Air, and snagged the book when I happened upon it during a digital library browse. It's a real treat to listen to Morrison read her own work. Truth...I didn't finish it. It was very enjoyable to spend a morning being wrapped up in Morrisson's voice and her characters...but one morning was enough for me.
5. The Witch of Duva, Little Knife, and The Too-Clever Fox, Leigh Bardugo - Altogether I'm counting these three short stories as a book. Bardugo is the author of the brilliant Grisha trilogy, and in those books she references folk tales....which she then very nicely provided for the readers in the form of these three tales. They are absolutely lovely. Bardugo's world in inspired by Russian and Slavic myth and culture, and these all read as if they could be real fairy tales from those world. It was a lovely way to spend an evening!
6. Whatever...Love is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves, Maria Bello - Bello made waves with an essay she wrote a year or two ago for the New York Time's Modern Love column. In that essay, Coming Out as a Modern Family, she explored the fact that her family does not fit into traditional molds and is difficult to label. It was a beautiful essay, and one which truly made me think about the constructs for family. She extended that essay into this book, which is neither memoir or book of essays, even though it contains elements of both. At the start of each chapter Bello asks "Am I...." and then explores the question. I really enjoyed it, and I hope that it starts some conversations.
7. The Teenage Brain, Dr. Frances E. Jensen (audio) - I had heard an interview with Jensen some time ago on NPR's Fresh Air, and must say that this is a must- read book for all parents. (No, it is ot a parenting book, which I despise. It is a science book that offers some guidance on how to use the knowledge contained in it. Very different beasts. There will be a few changes in our household based on what I learned. Some of it confirmed things I already knew or had suspected, some of it was all-new information, and all of it was fascinating.
8. We All Looked Up, Tommy Wallach (audio) - I actually learned about this one when I happened across an article on the Huff Post books page by the author. File this under "Glad I read it, also glad I didn't pay for it." Also, I'm glad I listened to it as it used four different readers for the four main voices. While part of annoyed at the exact point where it ended, I also thought it was fitting. I have one big quibble about a death I thought was a tad gratuitous....but it is an apocalyptical type novel, and death is to be expected. I thought it did a really splendid job of describing the inner landscapes of the main characters - even while I also thought that Wallach's idea of who teens are may be a bit skewed from reality.
9. A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara - I've wanted to read this book every since Books on the Nightstand devoted an entire episode to it. (That's unheard of, but the podcasters felt it was that important of a book. I didn't rush to buy it, though, being somewhat nervous of the fact that all of the reviewers have ben very upfront about it not being a "happy" book. In fact, it is generally described as being pretty tough to get through at times, and it has a reputation for leaving readers rather emotionally wrung out/drained. But then a good friend of mine posted on FB that she'd just finished it - also because of the BOTNS recommendation - so I knew it was time to try. (The friend in question isn't one of my regular reading /book friends, and so it really caught my attention when she posted.)
This is an important book, and it was a profound reading experience - one which I think I will be processing for quite a while.
From a comment I wrote on FB when I posted about finishing it, "I went into it having listened to the BOTNS episode that they devoted only to this book (which doesn't happen). They didn't give any spoilers, but were very clear that the book goes to some very dark places. The thing is, though, that it doesn't leave you entirely without hope and light. I can't read Ian McEwan because his books make me feel like shooting myself because they are so darn awful. This...this was entirely something else. It does leave you rather emotionally wrung out, and I agree that you should be prepared for the fact that things will bad...but there are moments of grace that definitely make it worth the journey.
I occasionally had trouble following the timeline. Yanigahara plays with the way the entire story unfolds a little bit, and it can be confusing. It plays out over the course of almost four decades, and at times I lost track. I wish it had been a bit clearer, but at the same time I understand why it was done.
I also had a quibble with how often all of the friends were listed. It felt at times unnecessary to name everyone AGAIN, but at the end of the book I had an a-ha moment and realized why it had been done.
I give props to Yanigahara, who reportedly went to bat to keep her book as long as it was when the editors wanted to cut it. It's a long, and slowish read, but I can't imagine it being any shorter. It would lose so much.
For years now, I've wondered about my English degree. What, exactly, did I gain from it? Whenever I ponder that question, I always wind up with two words - empathy and compassion. When you are a reader - especially a reader who truly is able to live, think, and feel within a book - you learn so much about people. It's really hard to read books like this and come out the other end the same as you were when you went in, and that's a good thing.
10. Long Black Curl, Alex Bledsoe - Another pre-order which showed up in my digital library a few days before the end of the month. (You might remember that I reread the first two novels recently in preparation for this one.) Truth be told, I was disappointed. I love Bledsoe's Tufa novels, but this was clearly a big step below the first two. While it was still engrossing enough to read straight through in one day, it felt at times more like a short story that was going on too long than a fully developed novel, and I thought it lacked a lot of the special spark that made the first two so wonderful. I will say that it was a good palate cleanser after the Yanagihara book. Having also read all of Bledsoe's other series, I know that he - just like other writers - has his high and low points, and that he does have the potential to regain the magic if he chooses to revisit the Tufa. I will continue to read him hoping that happens. ( It did leave me with a gem. There is a band who's done an album of songs inspired by the Tufa books...and I will most definitely be checking that out!)
Unfinished: The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison - Snagged it from the library because it was listed on many of the best of 2014 book lists. Not sure what I expected since I had a tendency to skim over/ignore the description of it on those lists, though. (Silly me.) Honestly? I felt it was a bit much - rather too something, and so I didn't make it even 1/4 of the way through the book before I gave it up. Trying too hard? Maybe. Overwraught? Perhaps. In its earnestness it lost some honesty for me.