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Monday, September 23, 2019

What I've Read Recently // Introduction + 10 Favorites

If you're a Regular Reader around here (and thank you, thank you if you are) then you might be aware that I am a big fan of lists. I'm working on a new list for you that I look forward to updating every month or so: What I've Read Recently. Included here will be a short synopsis (provided by the publisher, author, or Goodreads) followed by a few of my thoughts and a personal rating for each selection. If you've read any of the books listed here, let me know in the comments what YOU thought of it (no spoilers). I'm also always looking for recommendations!

For future posts, I will list and discuss the books I read in the previous month (or so) but before we get there, I wanted to do a list of ten of my All-time Favorite Books. This way, you'll have a little taste of what I enjoy and if it differs vastly from the kinds of books you enjoy reading --then you'll know in advance to just skip the post. You can assume that all of the books listed in this post are a solid 10/10 for me. ***Also, this post is longer than I anticipate the average "Recent Reads" --as I couldn't limit my "favorites" to under 10 and there's no way I could read/listen-to 10 books in one month.***

Tell the Wolves I'm Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt
From Goodreads:
In this striking literary debut, Carol Rifka Brunt unfolds a moving story of love, grief, and renewal as two lonely people become the unlikeliest of friends and find that sometimes you don't know you've lost someone until you've found them. 
1987. There's only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that's her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn's company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June's world is turned upside down. But Finn's death brings a surprise acquaintance into June's life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart. 
At Finn's funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn's apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she's not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most. 
An emotionally charged coming-of-age novel, Tell the Wolves I'm Home is a tender story of love lost and found, an unforgettable portrait of the way compassion can make us whole again.
What I thought:
This is one of those stories that I must have read at the "right time" in my life. It struck a deep chord that continues to reverberate. The book is a coming of age story that gets it exactly right. The transition between childhood and adulthood is often confusing, excruciating, and messy. June, at fourteen, is stubborn, selfish, and lacks self-confidence but she's simultaneously sincere, brave, and honest. As a protagonist, June is far from perfect --but I fell in love with her right away. To be with June through her grief and as she begins to understand herself and how she fits into her life felt like a gift.

Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles
From Goodreads:
On the last night of 1937, twenty-five-year-old Katey Kontent is in a second-rate Greenwich Village jazz bar with her boardinghouse roommate stretching three dollars as far as it will go when Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a tempered smile, happens to sit at the neighboring table. This chance encounter and its startling consequences propel Katey on a yearlong journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool toward the upper echelons of New York society and the executive suites of Condé Nast--rarefied environs where she will have little to rely upon other than a bracing wit and her own brand of cool nerve. 
Wooed in turn by a shy, principled multi-millionaire, and an irrepressible Upper East Side ne'er-do-well, befriended by a single-minded widow who is ahead of her time, and challenged by an imperious mentor, Katey experiences firsthand the poise secured by wealth and station and the failed aspirations that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her life, she begins to realize how our most promising choices inevitably lay the groundwork for our regrets.
What I thought:
I loved this piece of historical fiction set in the late 1930s NYC. I loved the characters, setting, and the writing. It's hard to decide which character I loved more: Katey or NYC. The only thing that could have made my reading of this book more enjoyable was having a martini in-hand for the duration.
The Fault in Our Stars, 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.
Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw, The Fault in Our Stars is award-winning author John Green's most ambitious and heartbreaking work yet, brilliantly exploring the funny, thrilling, and tragic business of being alive and in love.
What I thought:
The Fault in Our Stars was the first John Green book I ever read and because of it, I have read everything Green has produced. This YA novel is breathtakingly beautiful and equally heartbreaking. The writing is sharp-witted and smart. The dialogue is fantastic. The characters are lovely and original. Incredibly, and despite the subject matter, this book is also so so funny. It gave me all of the feels and if you don't want to ugly-cry in front of others, read it alone.

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters
From Goodreads:
It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned; the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa—a large, silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, and even servants—life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs. Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.
With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the “clerk class,” the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. Little do the Wrays know just how profoundly their new tenants will alter the course of Frances’s life—or, as passions mount and frustration gathers, how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.
Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize three times, Sarah Waters has earned a reputation as one of our greatest writers of historical fiction.
What I thought:
This was a carefully constructed story set in post-war London that illustrated the class distinctions between pretentious upperclass elites and the rising middle class. As historical fiction, it painted a clear and vivid picture of what it would have been like to live in that place with these characters. I was transported and captivated. The story, which I listened to, was full of twists and turns as it dealt with moral issues including guilt, shame, and forbidden love. Ultimately, it could be described as a crime drama --but it was really so much more.

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
From Goodreads:
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. 
Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.
What I thought:
Oh gosh. Where to start? After reading that this book was on the top of several critics' "top books" for the year it came out, I chose it for my bookclub. Then I read it. Then I panicked a little. We were reading it in December and planning to discuss it when we met again in January. Against the backdrop of the holidays, I found it to be a stark contrast to happiness, joyfulness, and celebration. I emailed the group with something like, "Hey... Sorry about the book selection. It's super heavy and so incredibly sad. If you haven't read it yet, maybe put if off for another time?" Seriously. This book wrecked me. I described it as, "Beautiful. Wretched. Devastating. Amazing. Heartbreaking." It is all of that and I loved it. (The club did end up reading it --for the most part. We all agreed that is was SO difficult but ultimately were glad to have experienced it.) It is definitely a book that will stay with you.

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
From Goodreads:
In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet that will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question what it means to be "human". 
What I thought:
I first read The Sparrow for my bookclub in Oregon, circa 2011. It was someone else's pick and I was rushed to finish it only an hour or so before our meeting (I'm usually not a procrastinator but the girls were six and four at the time). Solidly a sci-fi novel, it was well out of the typical genre I enjoyed. That night, we had a great discussion; however, I really hadn't had a chance to process the story. I distinctly remember rating the book a "7" that night. In the days that followed, I found that I couldn't stop thinking about the characters, what happened to them, and how they faced their challenges. Several days later, I emailed the woman who had chosen the book. I told her that if I had a chance to rate the book again, I would give it 11/10. This book deserves your time.


Harry Potter (all 7 of them), by J.K. Rowling
Adapted from Goodreads:
Harry Potter's life is miserable. His parents are dead and he's stuck with his heartless relatives, who force him to live in a tiny closet under the stairs. But his fortune changes when he receives a letter that tells him the truth about himself: he's a wizard. A mysterious visitor rescues him from his relatives and takes him to his new home, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Full of sympathetic characters, wildly imaginative situations, and countless exciting details, the series assembles an unforgettable magical world and each book follows Harry and his friends through a year at Hogwarts. As the characters get older, the plot of each book gets a little darker. By the third and fourth installment, tragic revelations, heartwarming surprises, and high-stakes magical adventures await the boy wizard in this funny and poignant series. By the last book, the stage has been beautifully set for a the satisfying ending that this series deserves.
What I thought:
This series is not just for the kids! When I hear about someone reading the HP series for the first time, I'm so unbelievably excited for them to visit the amazing world created by J.K. Rowling. I am such a fan. My girls are both SuperFans (having each read through the entire series five and seven times). I read the first and second books aloud to the kids when they were too young to read them on their own. I remember editing "scary" scenes/dialogue from the The Chamber of Secrets (book 2) to them at bedtime (which seems like such a long time ago but really isn't). The way the characters grow up over the course of the series is believable and enjoyable to witness. I absolutely loved the major narrative threads that develop and twist throughout the seven books and culminate in an ending that lives up to the series.

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
From Goodreads:
In an unnamed South American country, a world-renowned soprano sings at a birthday party in honor of a visiting Japanese industrial titan. Alas, in the opening sequence, a ragtag band of 18 terrorists enters the vice-presidential mansion through the air conditioning ducts. Their quarry is the president, who has unfortunately stayed home to watch a favorite soap opera. And thus, from the beginning, things go awry.
Among the hostages are Russian, Italian, and French diplomatic types. Swiss Red Cross negotiator Joachim Messner comes and goes, wrangling over terms and demands. Days stretch into weeks, the weeks into months. Joined by no common language except music, the 58 international hostages and their captors forge unexpected bonds. Time stands still, priorities rearrange themselves. Ultimately, of course, something has to give.
Hearing opera sung live for the first time, a young priest reflects: 
Never had he thought, never once, that such a woman existed, one who stood so close to God that God's own voice poured from her. How far she must have gone inside herself to call up that voice. It was as if the voice came from the center part of the earth and by the sheer effort and diligence of her will she had pulled it up through the dirt and rock and through the floorboards of the house, up into her feet, where it pulled through her, reaching, lifting, warmed by her, and then out of the white lily of her throat and straight to God in heaven.
What I thought:
The language in this novel is unreal. The writing is lyrical and the plot was heartbreakingly beautiful. I found this story to be compelling, dramatic, and full of grace. The lines between good and evil are blurred, as friendship, goodness, and love for others is drawn out of the people on the page. The plot was gripping and the ending was unexpected.

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
From Goodreads:
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.
Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.
But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.
What I thought:
This is one of the best YA novels I have ever come across. I listened to this book on Audible --admittedly, the narrator's inflection added a richer layer to the story. Starr's perspective is woven with youthful innocence and jaded reality and is so well done. Through the author's development, the characters are relatable and I cared about what happened to them. The story was salient for current events and I encouraged both Geneva (13 at the time) and Piper (12) to read it too.

Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
From Goodreads:
David Sedaris' move to Paris from New York inspired these hilarious pieces, including the title essay, about his attempts to learn French from a sadistic teacher who declares that every day spent with you is like having a caesarean section. His family is another inspiration. You Can't Kill the Rooster is a portrait of his brother, who talks incessant hip-hop slang to his bewildered father. And no one hones a finer fury in response to such modern annoyances as restaurant meals presented in ludicrous towers of food and cashiers with six-inch fingernails.
What I thought:
This collection of essays by American humorist, David Sedaris, was the first book of his that I read. I found the stories to be heartfelt, hysterical, and honest. I loved this book so much that a copy of it sits on our guest bedroom nightstand. You can pick up a Sedaris book and enjoy it in small doses or you can sit down and devour it in a day or two. While the stories are sometimes "laugh out-loud" funny, sometimes tragic, and often times uncomfortable, they are always enjoyable.

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