This year I’m supposed to be doing an alphabet reading challenge, where I read through the entire alphabet by author’s last name. It’s an interesting challenge because it has forced me to look for books in an unconventional way (but I have discovered it’s really easy to find authors I want to read whose last names start with L, P, and R…and some other letters are eluding me).
I’ve focused mainly on fiction (big surprise), and I’ve also realized that almost every book I read in the first half of the year was written by a female author!
The Address by Fiona Davis.
I was initially excited about this book, because I love considering the ways a building or structure changes, and I sometimes wonder if I missed my calling as a decorator. This book seemed to promise quirky little details about how your surroundings create your experience. And yet…it really went off the rails for me about halfway through. The present-day plotline felt very lackluster; the nineteenth-century story, which seemed to be building toward something for a while, suddenly took a left turn and never quite recovered. While the kinds of events in this book did really happen, I had a hard time believing them (or caring about the characters) in The Address.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. (Audible)
I thought this book was absolutely brilliant (and Tom Hanks’ narration certainly didn’t hurt!). Honestly, not much happens in this novel except that the siblings grow up—which also means that everything happens. They grow up, them against the world, and the shared bond of their childhood experiences in and after living in the Dutch House continues to overshadow everything else. This story felt both somewhat improbable and completely realistic at the same time, just the way the coincidences and events that shape everyone’s lives have to fit together exactly perfectly for them to end up where they do.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb.
Lori Gottlieb is so personable in this memoir, sharing what goes on behind the scenes in a therapist’s world. We see, slowly, how many of our emotional loops are choices, even when it feels impossible to do the hard work to move forward. We see how therapists have real feelings about their patients behind the professional demeanor, how people are made to build meaningful connections, even in contrived circumstances. This book reminded me that some of the times when I have felt most whole were when I was talking to someone—even a friend—about the places I felt stuck, about the hard events I didn’t know how to process alone. I was worried, when I started this memoir, that it would either be a slam book or else a sensational grab for attention, but when I closed the back cover, I felt encouraged and more peaceful having read it.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.
This novel was fantastic. I was so skeptical at first…a sequel, 30+ years after the original? I thought maybe the only reason Margaret Atwood wrote this book was peer pressure, that there might not have been a story to tell (like the Gilmore Girls reboot. Ugh. Don’t get me started). But I was wrong. This novel picked up many years after The Handmaid’s Tale left off, and it followed three different characters, building toward the question: how did Gilead fall? Well thought out, and beautifully written.
Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson. (Audible)
This was an honestly sweet story about a very quirky (likely neuro-atypical) little boy, his novelist mother, and the twenty-something who ends up taking care of them both for several months. It had elements of coming-of-age, as well as redemption. I loved getting to know this weird family as they slowly opened their arms to accept a newcomer. An entertaining, easy read.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin.
It took me a while to settle into the writing style, which I would describe as LOTR (cue my burning hatred), but once I found the rhythm, I was surprised to enjoy this story quite a lot! The wizard, Ged, grows from a boy to a reckless young man who makes a mistake that literally haunts him. As he tries to flee from the shadow that follows him, he finally realizes that the only way to get rid of the darkness is to confront it. Along the way, he grows in wisdom and resourcefulness, but he still requires help and wise counsel. I wonder what will happen in the next installment of the Earthsea series?
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. (Audible)
The topic of grit is interesting, but this book honestly started to feel a bit repetitive. (Maybe I was just discouraged to find that I cannot be considered gritty if I like to try new things rather than pursuing one single thing ’til the end of time.) I was looking for ideas about perseverance, and I did learn about how to build perseverance/grit in my kiddos. The personal stories about people who were willing to suffer all kinds of failure in the name of a goal were inspirational, but I honestly left this book wondering whether I even want to be gritty, or whether plain old stubborn will do.
The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman. (Audible)
This book revealed to me that…I am NOT a millenial. (No big surprise.) I found myself far more annoyed by the childish attitude of the main character than charmed by her sudden discovery of connections and family. Leaving aside whether the story is even remotely believable, I just drifted along, more eager for the book to be over than for Nina Hill to find resolution or love.
How to Walk Away by Katherine Center. (Audible)
This was such a sweet story. I really liked the narrator, Margaret, who becomes partially paralyzed at the beginning of the book after a small plane accident. The rest of the book follows her recovery, which encompasses not just physical therapy, but also mending her relationship with her sister and falling in love. Perhaps some parts were overdone, but I enjoyed the ride, right down to the happily-ever-after epilogue.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. (Audible)
If you read only one book this year, let it be The Ten Thousand Doors of January. This fantasy novel is on the shortlist for the 2020 Hugo Award, and I definitely think it should win. The story follows a young woman named January who slowly discovers that doors and words have special power. She is caught in the crossfire of a group who wants to gobble up power and maintain status quo (which has huge implications in our current racially-charged culture), and she is desperate to find out the truth. This book has…everything. It has mystery and other worlds and beautiful language and history and honor and valor and a little bit of love. Go. Read. It.
Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl. (Audible)
Well, anything by Ruth Reichl is bound to be both captivating and delicious. I loved listening to her narration—she sounds like a favorite grandma mixed in with a best friend—and the story of how she gave Gourmet Magazine new life, weathering all kinds of different personalities and expectations, only to have it summarily torn away, was an easy one to get absorbed in. This wasn’t exactly a story about food, although there was food, and there were recipes; it was actually a story about knowing yourself, and about how to hold on to who you are when a lot of money and power fall into your lap. Reichl is a beautiful writer (it’s easy to see how she became so successful), and there are nuggets of wisdom throughout.
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brené Brown.
I wanted to jump on the Brené Brown bandwagon, because everyone I know raves about her. This book was good, in that I did learn a lot about vulnerability, and how people might try to protect themselves, and why baring your soul (or, at the very least, learning to look at your own soul) can be more productive than trying to shield it. I enjoyed all the anecdotes along the way. But I did find that the book was much more focused on professional leadership than on family—and as a stay-at-home mom, I hoped for more clear family applications. This isn’t the sort of book that calls my name, but I can see why it’s important to change the narrative on shame and vulnerability in our culture.
No Baggage: A Minimalist Tale of Love and Wandering by Clara Benson.
From the title, I thought I would learn about, well…minimalism. Minimalism is something which fascinates me, something I want to get closer to as time goes on. But this was something else. It was the story of one single adventure, a crazy scheme in which two people essentially aren’t allowed to change clothes or have any toothpaste for a month in Europe. The rules of the game were arbitrary and…while I admire Clara for playing…I couldn’t figure out any application of this little story that would bring light to my life. It felt like she believed everyone who thought differently from her or her idol, Jeff, was an unenlightened idiot. As far as glimpses into someone else’s story go, this one certainly showed me something I would never do: make absolutely no plans about where to be or what to do in Europe, and bring nothing with me, not even a novel.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean. (Audible)
A fascinating history on libraries and librarians in the U.S., intermixed with the story of the giant L.A. library fire in 1986, an unsolved calamity. Very interesting, if a bit confusing as it jumped around the timeline and from subtopic to subtopic. This book succeeded in convincing me that I do not want to be a librarian, because librarians are actually social workers, researchers, and event planners rather than men and women who spend time sharing books with the public.
At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen. (Audible)
Lively little story about a socialite who goes with her husband and his best friend to Scotland to search for the Loch Ness monster around the time of the second World War. The husband is a bit of a monster himself, and the socialite must learn to stand up for herself and find happiness in a strange, new place. It is refreshing to read a historical novel that is not about the war! This story was fast-paced and full of thrilling moments.
These High, Green Hills by Jan Karon.
I am slowly making my way through the Mitford series, and this is book #3. Enjoyable as ever, with very short scenes and a wide cast of characters for Father Tim to interact with. This story centered more on his new marriage to Cynthia than on his pastoral pursuits, but it featured many relationships stuck in hard places and many people who need direction. I love the slower pace of these stories and the life depicted in them!
A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans.
Very thought-provoking. Rachel Held Evans decides to comb the Bible and spend a year experimenting with twelve(ish) things the Bible says women must do or be. She points out that the Bible, while it is God’s word, is also a history book, and that modern Christian culture believes a “Biblical woman” is something like a 50s housewife, when actually the women who lived in ancient (Biblical) times had a much different life and perspective. It was pretty funny to watch her trying to develop skills she never had before, and working up her nerve to do something that she knew would look a little crazy. She consulted modern Jewish practice to try to understand what the Bible says about women, which is interesting; my favorite thing was her new practice of noting all the ways she and her friends embody valor (eshet chayil!). I loved that she pointed out the ways Jesus was a feminist. I am probably more conservative than she was, but she gave me a lot to think about.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. (Audible)
It was so refreshing to read a WWII story set outside of Europe. This story featured star-crossed pre-teens, one who was Chinese (Henry) and one Japanese (Keiko), getting to know each other at a time when Japanese people were the victims of a lot of fear, resentment, and hatred. I really enjoyed learning a different side of the wartime story, and understanding the Japanese internment camps, another dark time in U.S. history when people were targeted because of their appearance. The story was ultimately uplifting, but in the middle, it was hard to swallow the narrow-minded views of midcentury U.S. culture.
Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith.
This story follows a young girl named Annie, who moves west and marries her sweetheart, Carl. The first year of their marriage proves that love is not all you need: you also need money. Annie was very innocent, with the kind of simplicity that firmly roots her in the past. It was very difficult to relate to her; this story aimed for the sweetness of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but missed (in part because it was hard to understand why she loved Carl, who was self-absorbed and careless with her emotions). I did enjoy getting wrapped up in pre-Depression small-town America.
Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic: A Comedian’s Guide to Life on the Spectrum by Michael McCreary.
I wanted to like this book, but I also wanted it to give me insight into what my friends and family on the spectrum may experience. Ultimately, I think Michael McCreary is just too young and green to be writing a memoir or trying to offer instructions/insight about the wider experience of people on the autism spectrum. His childhood stories interested me more than his career as a comedian (was writing this story a ploy to get more gigs as a comedian?…the title led me to believe it aimed to be funny, but it didn’t deliver). I have enjoyed other books about the autism spectrum significantly more, such as Born on a Blue Day and Look Me in the Eye.
Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok. (Audible)
Very compelling story following a Chinese family and their secrets. At the beginning of the book, Amy discovers that her sister Sylvie, who had been visiting family in the Netherlands, is missing. As we get to know Sylvie, her mother, and Amy through flashbacks into Sylvie and Amy’s childhood as well as the weeks before Sylvie disappeared, we slowly learn how complicated family can be, and how love is easily misunderstood. My heart hurt with every character as the mystery unfolded.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. (Audible)
This story asks white readers to examine the privilege and subtle expectations that still govern how we interact with black people. I really struggled with whether or not I identified with Alix, who had hired Emira as her nanny and initially seemed well-intentioned…but ultimately tried to use Emira to prove herself and reshape her character. This book asked questions like: who knows best? How can we help each other (and should we try)? How are we irrevocably shaped by past decisions and experiences? Are good intentions enough? I really loved this story (and the narration was excellent), though it often made me uncomfortable.
My Sister’s Keeper by Jodie Picoult.
The last ten pages of this book absolutely ruined the entire story for me. I read the whole book in about two days: it was simple, easy prose and a fascinating plot that really raised a lot of interesting questions for me about family, medical ethics, and personal rights. I was absolutely engrossed and basically wanted to spend every single minute reading. But when I read the last ten pages, I got so frustrated that I genuinely wished I hadn’t read the book at all. What a waste. (And if YOU read this book, I highly recommend you stop reading as soon as the court case concludes.)
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. (Audible)
This novel followed a blended family from the moment the two parents came together, through several decades until the children were grown with families of their own. It was certainly not a feel-good story, but I did think Ann Patchett did a lovely job of highlighting how one event can shape a family. The characters felt like real, flawed people who were doing their best. I was scared when they were scared and outraged when they were outraged. Well written, but it didn’t deeply suck me in the way The Dutch House did.
How It All Began by Penelope Lively.
It was a little hard to get into this book, since the story started with several seemingly unconnected characters whose lives intersected unexpectedly…but then diverged again. I enjoyed the premise: that we cannot know what far-reaching effects a single action can have. I especially liked Marion’s story and Charlotte’s story, but it felt like all of the characters held themselves a bit aloof throughout. Not a thrilling story, but nice.
Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center. (Audible)
I decided to listen to this book after I finished How to Walk Away. The main character, Cassie, felt unrealistic (her skill and perfection were, perhaps, overdone a bit), but the story was entertaining. The romantic relationship that developed was sweet, and the twist at the end had me racing for the finish. Altogether pleasant if surface-level story that had me rooting for Cassie to be recognized professionally, and to get out of her own head and try relating to others.
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple. (Audible)
I loved the way this story started: with a habitually overwhelmed, unhappy stay-at-home mom, a woman who is struggling to do better in all of her roles. The whole story takes place on one crazy day, and in typical Maria Semple style, there is a family mystery to solve and a mom who needs to pursue a professional, creative project. This novel lacked the charm of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? but it was a fairly amusing story, and Kathleen Wilhoite’s narration was excellent.
How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease by Michael Greger.
Oh boy, do I ever love reading about nutrition. (That was serious, not tongue-in-cheek.) I found this book completely fascinating as Dr. Greger discussed foods that can boost immune responses and increase blood flow. It did, in fact, inspire me to return completely to my vegetarian roots and to try incorporating more plant-based meals into my diet. Some chapters felt like a bit of a stretch, but I think the interesting thing about nutrition is that research is revealing more connections all the time. If you care about what you eat, you should read this book!
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen. (Audible)
Anna Quindlen approached old(er) age with a dry, sharp humor. I am still on the younger side in my mid-30s, but I appreciated the look forward into the early 60s, into not wanting to feel discarded or like there is nothing ahead, into the joy of knowing myself well and being less dependent on stuff and recognition to show me my true north. I did often have the sense that she was looking down her nose as she imparted the lessons of a lifetime, and I wished the tone had been a bit less instructive, but she certainly gave me a lot to think about.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Very intriguing mystery that asks: why have we forgotten our past? Why do we approach our present as if we have learned nothing? Do the mistakes we have made and things we have witnessed make us who we are, and can we have meaningful connections without a shared history? I confess that the end left me confused and unsettled—I wish it felt less like a deluded choice to continue in ignorance, even after learning the truth. I loved the scenery of this novel, and the questions behind it are still haunting me.
The Victory Garden by Rhys Bowen. (Audible)
A very sweet story about a privileged girl who joins the Women’s Land Army in World War I, and ultimately must find her way, completely alone, after the war concludes. Some aspects of this story were very realistic: a girl finds herself pregnant, alone and unmarried, and is afraid to return to her family…but some aspects were almost like a ghost story: she somehow finds herself living the same life as the woman who inhabited her broken-down cottage a century earlier. I enjoyed the main character and her willingness to try new things, even though it seemed like good things just continued to fall into her lap to save her. The backdrop of World War I was understated, but I definitely learned a few details about British life during the Great War that I had never known!
I’d love for you to share what you are reading with me! You can leave a comment or tag me on social media #savoredgracebookclub or #readingwithsavoredgrace.
(Especially if you have any uncommon-letter author book suggestions! You guys…X? Anyone?)