Books Read in February

“Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” by Amy Chua

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids.

Unless you live under a rock, odds are you have heard of this book and its author. She’s been on everything from morning talk shows to The Colbert Report and is stirring up quite a controversy. It reminds me of the same kind of controversy that Ayelet Waldman stirred up when she wrote about her guilt at failing to replace her husband with children as the center of her passionate universe. She was branded a “bad mother” and ripped to shreds by smug, judgmental moms who, in my opinion, weren’t getting any, on Oprah. Now, “bad mother” is the worst insult we hurl at each other and ourselves. So, when moms read Chua’s memoir (and that’s what it is, not a how-to-parent tome) it would be easy to sit back and read her story through very judgey eyes but then you would miss the beauty of her story. She is not recommending the “Chinese Mother” way.   She is unraveling it. Carefully dissecting it. She is turning a very humble eye back on herself and the way she has chosen to raise her two daughters. It is an unflinching as well as compassionate eye. She acknowledges the benefits (of which there are many) of her way, as well as the dark spots (of which there are many). I highly recommend this book and when you read it, read with compassion for both Chua and yourself.

What I learned: They key to an amazaing memoir is the ability to look at yourself and the people in your life with an unflinching yet compassioante eye.

“More of This World or Maybe Another” stories by Barb Johnson

Delia has to walk past A.J. Higginbotham and his crowd to get to the gym, which is where the dance is.

We first encounter Delia in high school and these stories follow her, as well as others, throughout their lives. Complex, touching characters appear and reappear in these interconnected stories set in New Orleans. I am intrigued by the writer as much as the stories. Johnson was a carpenter in New Orleans for twenty years before receiving her MFA. It’s inspiring. She won the Glimmer train award for New Writers and is the fifth recipient of AROHO’s $50,00 Gift of Freedom.

What I learned: That an exquisite story is created by a writer with an exquisite eye for the beauty and flaws in her characters and the ability to follow them as they navigate the choppy waters of their lives.

“The Book Thief” a YA novel by Mark Zusak

First the colors.

Then the humans.

That’s usually how I see things.

Or at least, how I try.

The “I” is Death, who is narrating the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl living in Nazi Germany during the holocaust with a foster family. She steals her first book at the grave of her younger brother. Her accordian-playing foster father teaches her to read with what is only the first book she will steal in her life. This is one of the best books I have ever read and if you have followed this blog at all, you know that is saying alot. It is not just about a young girl and books or the Holocaust. Like all great books it is about that and so much more. In this case it is also about the beauty and horror of language, of stories. The power and fragility of the human spirit.

What I learned: To be bold in the choice of a narrator. And to not be afraid to include artwork within the prose.

“The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin

I’d always vaguely expected to outgrow my limitations.

I’ve always been vaguely embarrassed whenever people perused my bookshelves and saw the many self-help titles that resided there. I started hiding them in the back row, so they weren’t visible. I think I was afraid of being perceived as frivolous or ungrateful. After all, my life was lovely. What was I trying to improve? Like, Rubin, I have much to be happy about. But there is this scrim of dissatisfaction. This feeling that I am not living my fullest, most passionate life.  Unlike Rubin, I have not taken such concrete steps to address this dissatisfaction. After reading “The Happiness Project” I am tempted to embark on my own. Most of us can not tour three different countries in a year as a remedy to our unhappiness but we can learn to be happier within the context of our daily lives.

What I learned: Happiness is created out of choices. Choices made every moment of every day. (excluding depression.)

“The Life You’ve Imagined” a novel by Kristina Riggle

The taxicab exhaust curls around me like a fist.

Four friends from high school find themselves back in their hometown for various reasons. Each chapter alternates between the POV  of the four women. Anna is an attorney in Chicago who returns to her Michigan hometown after the death of a close friend and mentor. Her mother, Maeve, has never left their town, still yearning for the husband that abandoned her and her daughter, Anna. Cami, Anna’s best friend from high school, has moved back in with her alcoholic father, determined to uncover a family secret. Amy is on the verge of having the life she imagined and marrying the man of her dreams but  is haunted by who she used to be.

What I learned: Alternating points of view can create a rich tapestry for a novel.

“No One Would Listen – A True Financial Thriller” by Harry Markoplpos

On the morning of December 11, 2008, a New york real estate developer on a JetBlue flight from New york to Los Angeles was watching CNBC on the small seat-back television. A crawl across the bottom of the screen reported that Bernard Madoff, a legendary Wall Street figure and the former chairman of NASDAQ had been arrested for running the largest Ponzi scheme in history.

“Thriller’ is not an exaggeration. Even knowing the outcome, I couldn’t put the book down. I was equally fascinated, disgusted, intrigued and horrified. I have always loved behind the scene stories and this takes you way behind the scenes of the pursuit of the greatest (worst?) financial criminal, in history.

What I learned: 1. Truth is definitely stranger than fiction. 2. If it sounds too good to be true, it is. 3. That Ponzi scheme refers to an actual person, Charles Ponzi. 4. It always comes back to money.

“A Widow’s Story” a memoir by Joyce Carol Oates

February 15, 2008. Returning to our car that has been haphazardly parked–by me–on a narrow side street near the Princeton Medical Center–I see, thrust beneath a windshield wiper, what appears to be a sheet of stiff paper.

I found myself reading this memoir through three distinct prisms, which left me both dazed and a little disoriented. First, I am a reader, reading a memoir of a tragic time in the life of a writer who I have long read and admired. Her ability to ride the intense moment-to-moment thoughts that most of us left go unobserved, brings us close-up to her grief. Second, I read this as the sister of a widow. My brother-in-law died almost nine years ago  leaving my sister widowed at the absurdly young age of thirty-four with an eighteen-month-old daughter to raise. I was literally at her side her for the first three weeks and I found myself reliving some of the most intense moments as well as wondering if she had felt and thought the same feelings and thoughts as Oates had. Third, I read it, almost with one eye closed, as if I were a widow-in-waiting. What would I do if I got that same middle of the night call. If I got to the hospital moments too late? On and on, I couldn’t help but wonder how I would handle it. And I can only write “it”. Even writing the words, “death of my husband” sends a chill through me. If you’ve lost someone close to you I imagine (and at this point in my life I am lucky enough to only be able to imagine) this could bring you comfort, if only the comfort of knowing you are not alone.

What I learned: 1. She considers herself Joyce Smith and Joyce Carol Oates is merely a persona. 2. It takes tremendous courage to look unflinchingly at your own devastating loss and grief, to write of it and share it with the world. 3. Even an amazingly talented adn prolific writer has that voice of doubt eating away at her.

“Some Girls Are” a YA novel by Courtney Summers

Everyone is wasted.

I couldn’t put this book down. I picked it up to “start” reading before I went to bed and ended up staying awake until almost one in the morning to finish it. Summers reminds me of this generation’s Judy Blume. She infiltrates their lives and reveals their secrets. As a mother, it was disturbing, as a writer, I found it admirable.

What I learned: A strong voice really lets you ride the wave of the story.

“Shadow Tag” a novel by Louise Erdrich

I have two diaries now.

Irene keeps her real diary in a lock box at the bank. The other is written for her husband, knowing he will read it. Written in alternating chapters between the two diaries as well as an omniscient voice, this novel exposes the dark underbelly of a marriage and a family on the brink..

What I learned: It is possible to write characters  with deep, deep flaws without alienating the reader.

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6 thoughts on “Books Read in February

  1. I’m just getting back into some good middle grade. Yesterday I picked up Chasing Vermeer from the library. It’s a great mystery, and a really quick read. Very fun, very entertaining, and very clever. I’m also reading Dreaming Anastasia and the Heist Society.

  2. Kelly- I’ve heard good things about “Chasing Vermeer”. I’ll have to see if it’s at my library when I return my latest batch. Thanks for the suggestions:)

  3. Thanks, Kelly:)
    Jennifer- I agree!
    Katherine- You are quite welcome:) I found myself reading so many books but felt they were just slipping through my fingers. So now I take the time to briefly reflect on each one.

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