Sunday, February 07, 2016

Reading Roundup: January 2016

Kisses in the Rain by Krista Lynne Jensen

The part of this book I enjoyed the most was the setting. It takes place on an island in Washington and the characters both work in the kitchen of a restaurant. I had a major craving to take a vacation to Puget Sound after reading this. It was an enjoyable little romance, but like too many LDS fiction books I read, it felt a bit thin and superficial to me. I wanted deeper conversations between the characters, more time spent developing and resolving the conflicts, and richer language. This book touched on some great themes, but it just didn't quite do enough with them for me.

Rising Strong by Brene Brown

I have really loved Brown's other books, so it's not a surprise that this was a hit for me. It's meant as a follow-up to Daring Greatly, so you should read that one first in order for this one to make more sense. I particularly liked her emphasis on narrative and how we see ourselves. I just need to buy a copy so I can go back and re-read some parts a few more times to get them to really sink in.

Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

A month after reading this book, I can't remember most of the details other than those about the setting. This is the first book I've read that is set in the Falkland Islands, and the author makes good use of the unique aspects of that setting to drive the story. However, I didn't feel that interested in any of the three main characters and I thought that the main conflicts in the plot were too formulaic to hold my interest.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I've been hearing about this book for nearly two years, but didn't get around to reading it until my book club picked it this month. It was a beautifully written story that really drew me in. The setting and the plot are its strongest aspects; the main characters all felt a little distant too me and I had hard time rooting for them. Also, the book jumps around in time quite a bit, so you probably want to read this in print. 

One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Asne Seierstad

This is a long book, and I took my time reading it. I also had to put it aside a few times because it was simply overwhelming. I'd seen this book mentioned on several "best of 2015" lists and thought it sounded intriguing (the English translation was published last year; it was published in Norway in 2013). This is probably one of the most powerful books I've ever read, but I would only recommend it with the caution that it is very graphic in its descriptions of a massacre of teenagers. Equally disturbing are the chapters that delve into the thinking of Breivik himself. It's not an easy read by any means. However, I was incredibly moved by Seierstad's writing--this is not a polemic and it is not an attempt to psychoanalyze Breivik, either to agree with or condemn him. Seierstad is surprisingly neutral in her assessments of perpetrator and victims; however, you can tell that she deeply loves her country and is deeply concerned about what happened.  I've read a few things that complain about the feel of the translation, but I liked the fact that it stays close to Norwegian and feels a bit rough in places. I like a book that still feels like the place and language that it came from, even when it's disconcerting at times. If you think you can handle it, I recommend this book. There is a chapter near the end that is one of the most beautiful pieces about grief that I have ever read.

The Splendour Falls by Susanna Kearsley

This was the third book I read this month that had a setting that was more interesting than the characters and the plot. I needed a quick, easy read to pass some time while waiting for a car repair and this was the perfect book for that. The plot required major suspension of disbelief, which got harder and harder to do as the book went on. 

Movies

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

This is the sort of movie that makes me feel really old, because I'm definitely not a teenager anymore. Even when I was a teen, I wasn't much like the ones in this movie. That aside, I still enjoyed it and would probably even watch it again.

The Last Five Years

If you are a hard-core fan of the musical you will probably enjoy this movie like I did. If you don't like musicals or this one in particular, this movie will probably make no sense and annoy you. Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan do a great job with the music, and the director keeps things simple in way that doesn't detract from the story, but there is no real good way to translate this musical to film. This is a pretty decent attempt, at least.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Looking Forward, Looking Back

The middle of winter is actually not a great time for starting a new year. It's too cold and dark for me to feel like I have energy to do anything new. On the other hand, we've just passed the solstice and the days are starting to get a bit longer. Plus we just had Christmas and all its decadence, so perhaps the time is right for change after all. We're two weeks into January and I'm not sure yet if I want to make any resolutions. I'm a bit behind, as evidenced by my recent attempts to catch up on book reviews. 

Christmas was quite lovely this year. My parents came to town and we had a nice dinner on Christmas Eve with my brother and his family. I woke up the next morning to fluffy white snow everywhere, and a quiet house filled with sleeping children. Unfortunately I also woke up with a sore throat and headache that only got worse as the day went on. The kids had a great morning and loved their new presents. I was actually grateful that Mr. Fob came to pick them up for more celebrating so I could rest and be miserable in quiet peace. Our New Year celebration was low-key and I put the kids to bed early after we celebrated live with New York at ten o'clock our local time. 

During the past two weeks I've been reflecting on how the past year went. I kept up our monthly meal planning and felt like that worked well for us. We also implemented a simple rotation for evening jobs and that has worked really well for everyone too. In general, I feel like last year was a good year for us as a family. My parenting is far from perfect, but right now we are working well together and I enjoy most of the time I get to have with the kids. They are also at a really fun stage right now where they are all old enough to still be kids, but not too physically dependent any more. I feel a lot more relaxed living in a house full of people who can all take care of themselves, and it makes a big difference to feel like we really can work together instead of me doing everything all the time. 

School and work were both generally good last year too. I'm glad I decided to cut back on classes because I had a lot less stress in my life and was able to enjoy the classes I did take. Now that I'm looking at just one more year until graduation, it really doesn't seem like that much longer at all. In May I'm also going to be earning some credits by spending two weeks on a study-abroad seminar in London. It's taking a lot of my funds and all my vacation time, so at this point I'm still a little hesitant about whether I made the right decision or not. I don't think I will regret it. I had an interesting year at work because my job duties got changed quite a bit as we reorganized my department. It's been an adjustment for everyone and I've struggled with a few things. In general, though, the new things I'm learning are great and I've been happy. 

One thing that did not work last year was dating. In May I decided to pay the money to sign up for Match.com for a six month period and really give it a chance. There were a lot of great guys on there and I messaged a lot of different people. No one ever wrote back. A few guys I had not written to contacted me, but none of them seemed legitimate. One guy did actually get in touch with me and we exchanged a few messages. We had tentatively set up a lunch date, but there was some miscommunication and while I was trying to sort it out he stopped responding to me. I decided not to renew my membership in November since I'm saving money for my big trip and because I just felt tired of the rejection. I had the exact same issue with dating (or rather lack thereof) in high school and college, so I'm not surprised that I'm still undateable. I might try again later this year if I feel like I can handle it, but for now I'm just going to take a break and focus on other things. 

The other thing that really didn't work last year was self-care (as evidenced by my many posts on this blog). I filled out an annual health evaluation for my health insurance, and one question asked about how many times I'd been sick enough to miss work last year. I realized that I had been pretty sick three different times, which is somewhat unusual for me. Getting more sleep and getting more exercise would probably help me avoid that this year. I also didn't go to the temple or read my scriptures as much as I wanted to. I'm going to try harder to do both those things this year. 


At the beginning of this post I said that I was unsure about making resolutions this year. However, I did make one small goal that I have been working on. I made a goal of writing something every day, either in my journal, on the blog, or somewhere else (the other day I wrote a lengthy email to a friend). So far I have done it nearly every day and it feels good. It might be a baby step, but at least I'm doing something a bit productive. I have a feeling this year is going to be interesting and I hope it's a good one.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Reading Roundup: 2015

(Previous years: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007)

 I read at total of 84 books this year; this is ten more than last year, but right around my average for the last few years.  I didn't read Whitney finalists this year for a number of reasons, but I'm considering it this year. I also set a small goal to read more older, 'classic' books, so I consciously chose about one a month to read or re-read. I think I will do that again this coming year. I tend to gravitate toward fluffier books lately, and while they are fun, I really do enjoy better-written stuff and need to remind myself of this fact when I'm tempted to escape with something mediocre.

I read 67 fiction books and 17 nonfiction books, which seems to be about average for most years for me. I like nonfiction, and think that next year I will try to read even more. I also think I might spend the next few months focusing on nonfiction about the history of England to prepare for my upcoming trip to London. 60 of the books I read were written by women and 24 were written by men; this ratio has gone up and down for me over the years, but generally has been dominated by women. I also noticed this year I had several authors that I read multiple times throughout the year--including one of my new favorites, Brandon Sanderson. I'm just going to say that I loved all his books I read this year (The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Warbreaker, and Elantris) instead of putting any on the following list.

As usual, here are some of my favorite books of the year (in no particular order):

Fiction

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
The Thieves of Summer by Linda Silletoe
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
The Children Act by Ian McEwan
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

 Nonfiction

Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn
Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski
Do No Harm by Henry Marsh
Women at Church by Neylan McBaine
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

 
Once again this has not been my year for watching movies; I always have too much homework and the kids go to bed later than they used to. I saw a few movies in the theater and watched a few at home, mostly with the kids. As far as TV shows go, I've kept up on Call the Midwife and watched the first season of Poldark as well. My favorite movies this year were ones I've watched with the kids: Song of the Sea, Cinderella, Inside Out, and Once I Was a Beehive

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Reading Roundup: December 2015

The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley

I enjoyed the last book I read by Kearsley and thought I'd try another one. This one didn't work as well for me. Once again, I felt like the historical parts of the book were the most interesting and the most well-written. The contemporary romance included a male love interest who was pretty much perfect and spent half the book convincing the whiny woman to trust herself. And of course they fell in love, which was obvious from the beginning of the book. I think this may be a sequel to another book, or at least include some of the same characters, so I might track down that one just to see if I could get a different perspective on the female protagonist because I thought she was really one-dimensional.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

This book has been listed on a number of "best nonfiction" lists, and after reading it I can understand why. Some of them are better than others, but I found myself re-reading and writing down quotes from some of my favorites. Many of the issues deal with pain and empathy, and with the act of writing itself. I love reading books like this both for the content and for the inspiration to do more non-fiction writing myself.

The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

I have never paid much attention to the British royal family and don't care much about them, but I'm a sucker for a fun and fluffy romance and this fit the bill perfectly. You might enjoy it even more if you know anything about the royals and can get the inside jokes. I still had a great time reading this book and would really like a sequel because I had a hard time saying goodbye to the characters after it ended. 

Doing No Harm by Carla Kelly

One of Kelly's strengths as a writer is her ability to create a detailed historical setting for her book and a fine set of supporting characters that are unique and memorable. This book did not disappoint in either of those aspects; the village where the action takes place really comes to life, and I feel like I learned a lot of new things about early-nineteenth-century Scotland and the plight of the Highlanders. Although the two main characters were also well-written, I didn't feel like either changed much over the course of the novel. The conflict and story arc of the book were weak compared to some of Kelly's other books. This book is quite enjoyable, as long as you aren't looking for major plot twists or gripping romance.

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

I read this book rather quickly, on my kindle, while I was sick with a bad cold; I also spent the first fifty pages feeling pretty confused because I had mixed it up with a different book that I had placed on hold. In the end, I thought it was a good read. Donnelly is another historical fiction writer that I enjoy, and this is another great YA read from her. I thought some of the characters drew a bit too much on stereotypes and I predicted all the plot twists long before they were revealed, but I can forgive that a bit in a YA book where the readers are likely just as inexperienced as the protagonist.

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

This book took a while to capture my interest and I found myself putting it aside a few times before deciding to push through. The first part of the book details a number of different people, and the preparation of the boat for the expedition, the current scientific understanding of the polar regions, and so on. It got a little tedious. Then, however, the voyagers ran into trouble and things got really interesting. I admit that I peeked on Wikipedia to find out what would happen to the explorers because I couldn't stand the suspense. Even with the ending in mind, the rest of the book was gripping and I found I could not put it down. This is a great story that has been well-written and I recommend it to anyone who likes to read about history, science, and adventure (just be patient with the first third of the book).

Lord Fenton's Folly by Josi Kilpack

I was a bit underwhelmed by Kilpack's last historical romance that I read, but this one pleasantly surprised me. Although it employs some standard tropes, like an arranged marriage and two prickly protagonists that have to learn to love each other, it still felt fresh. I liked that the events that brought the couple together took place outside their relationship and forced them to learn how to deal with challenges together. I also enjoyed the way the book alternated focus between each of the two protagonists in a way that actually moved the story forward and felt natural.

Movies

Poldark (Season 1)
 
This is actually a television show, but I watched the whole season within a few days and thought I might as well review it. The show spends a lot of time on shots of the beautiful Cornish countryside, as well as Aidan Turner brooding on cliffs looking over the ocean (I'm not complaining about either of those things). I really enjoyed it--the characters are complex and this season ended with a cliffhanger that will definitely get me tuning in to watch the next one.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Reading Roundup: November 2015

The Lake House by Kate Morton

I had been anticipating the new Kate Morton book's publication for several months, and thankfully I was not disappointed by my high expectations. The plot for this book is similar to all of Morton's books--there are family secrets to be uncovered through a narrative that moves back and forth between contemporary characters and those in the past. Although there are a number of twists along the way, eventually everything is figured out in a satisfactory way. Morton has a tendency to sometimes be a little melodramatic and to stretch the suspension of disbelief too much--and some of her books are much better than others--but I thought this was one of her better efforts. The ending requires a particularly large leap of trust, but by the time we got there I had enjoyed the book so much that I was willing to play along and just enjoy it. 

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

I had mixed feelings about this book, which I'm sure were due in part to my having read a number of reviews that simply raved about it. I enjoyed parts of it, but put it down more than once without a strong desire to come back to it. The worldbuilding was amazing and probably the strongest part of the book; the writing was also beautiful. I struggled, however, with the plot because the pacing felt uneven in parts and because there were some areas where things were under-explained and others where they were over-explained. I never really connected with either of the main characters and particularly found one of them to be rather static. Also, this is billed as YA, but I would only recommend it for older adolescents since it had some graphic sex and a lot of violence.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

This is a re-read, although the first time I read it was as a teenager so in some ways it felt like discovering the book for the first time. It also took me an entire month to finish since I kept the book in my purse and read it during lunch breaks at work and a few other times while out and about. I can still remember being surprised by how much I enjoyed this book the first time around; Dickens is not an author I have studied much in school (high school or college) and is not one I reach for very often. Yet every time I read his books I remember why they are 'classics' and why he is so well-loved and respected. This is a book that is full of great characters and interesting commentary on life. My only complaint is that Pip drives me a bit nuts by spending so much time mooning over Estella. 

The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty

Moriarty is another one of my favorite authors and I really like her ability to combine subtle social commentary with fluffy chick-lit books. This is one of her earlier books and it leans heavier on the fluffy side than the serious side, although there is an interesting subplot about depression that's realistic enough to be rather terrifying. There are a few too many characters in this book and it's trying to do too much, but I had fun reading it anyway.

Possession by A.S. Byatt

This was another re-read; I think I've read this book four or five times now and it's one of my touchstones. When I first read it, I had just finished my third year of college as an English major and spent a lot of time doing the kind of literary analysis that this book simultaneously critiques and defends. At the time, I thought the idea of using research to solve mysteries was amazing and it's what I wanted to do when I grew up. Then I did grow up and did more graduate work, and realized that life wasn't actually like that, and now I identify with all the snarky parts of the novel that mock Freudian literary criticism and those who have spent so long speaking its language that they are too self-conscious to actually feel or experience anything. I know some people find the poetry parts of this book tedious, but they are actually one of my favorite aspects of it. Even after reading the book multiple times, I am still amazed that Byatt could create an entire alternate literary universe in such a believable manner. Reading it this time I also realized that the book is also a unique look at a way of doing scholarship that has, thanks to the Internet, become completely obsolete in just 30 years. So much obsession about photocopying and index cards and such--this book would be impossible to write in today's academic world.

Women at Church by Neylan McBaine

Although I had read parts of the book previously, I had not sat and read the entire thing through until we chose it for our book club this month. It was an excellent book to read and discuss as a group, and I would recommend it to anyone. I would particularly recommend it to anyone (especially any man) who is trying to understand why Mormon women may be unhappy at church. Really, anyone in a church leadership position should read this to get a sense of the possibilities of what we can do to make church a better experience for everyone. I like books with practical advice and examples, and this book is full of them. 

Movies

Suffragette

I wanted to like this movie, but I didn't enjoy it very much (and not because it's incredibly grim and depressing). The acting was great and I had no problem with the camera work. However, the plot was a bit of a mess and the pacing was off. The fight for women's suffrage took place over a number of years, so I think it would be a challenge to figure out how to talk about it in a coherent way in one movie. It was a good decision to focus on main character, but there wasn't enough time given for her to really develop and grow, and the larger context of what was happening often wasn't very clearly explained. The climax of the movie was an event that did change things, but it didn't really affect the main character directly and the movie never showed what happened after it took place. This felt like a movie that was based on an idea rather than a story, and that never works very well.  
 
Love Actually

Shortly after watching this, I started writing a blog post comparing it to Lorna Doone shortbread cookies. They're both mass-produced, blatantly commercial products that leave a bad aftertaste upon consumption. They also both have the potential to be high-quality, and do a great job imitating other similar products that taste much better. I know all this, and yet sometimes I get a very specific craving for processed crap. I love shortbread cookies, especially good quality ones produced with real butter by a local bakery. That said, sometimes I just want some Lorna Doones, even though I know I will regret that decision. So, even though I actually hate some parts of this movie, I get a craving to watch it every now and then. At least I know exactly what I'm getting into. Also, if you didn't already think Emma Thompson was a genius, there is a part in this movie that will prove you wrong.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Hello from the Other Side

For the record, I'm not a big fan of Adele. Mr. Fob bought her first album back in 2008 and listened to it a lot, and I never really liked it. He bought an album from someone else with a similar voice at the same time, and I think I mixed them up a bit in my head, but either way I hated them both. I just found her voice to be a little too grating for me. But, I've had "Hello" stuck in my head for the past few days (along with most of the English-speaking world I'm sure). Friday would have been our fourteenth anniversary. I tried to tell myself that it didn't matter, but I was still sad. In an even weirder coincidence, that evening I ended up driving past the church where we had our wedding reception and the apartment where I lived while we were engaged (we'd planned to live there, but got into campus housing instead). It's hard to believe that fourteen years have already passed since then--some things have changed a lot and some have not.

But, really, most of the time things in my life are just fine. Friday night I got together with a group of friends that I've worked with for a long time through Segullah. They are great women and I always love hanging out with them. It's good to have friends that care about me, who listen to me, and who help me want to be a better person. 

I also just signed up for a two-week study abroad next spring in London. I'm really excited about going, even though I'm also a little nervous about committing to do something so big. It's taking up a significant portion of my savings, and I have to use almost all of my vacation time for the year as well. But, I can earn three credits in two weeks and learn all about libraries in England. The preliminary schedule looks amazing--we're touring places like the British Museum, Oxford University Press, the Imperial War Museum, the National Archives, and so on. The only other time I've traveled internationally has been my mission and that was a long time ago. I've always wanted to visit London and this seemed like the best way to do it. It's exciting to have something big to look forward to next year. 

I'm also excited about Christmas this year too. Going to Hawaii last year was super fun and a great break from the routine, but this year I'm really craving our old routines and traditions. This week I'll be hosting Thanksgiving for the first time in a few years, and the day after that I'll be getting out all our Christmas decorations and music. I only have three weeks left of this semester, with one big assignment to finish, and then I'll be free for a month. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Reading Roundup: October 2015

The Other Daughter by Lauren Willig

 Willig has become one of my favorite authors for romantic historical fiction (if you like Kate Morton, you should try Lauren Willig). Some of her other books have used a structure that alternates between the present and the past, but this one is set completely in the past (early 1920s England) and has a more straightforwardly linear structure than some of Willig's other books that I've read. It was a fun read and I enjoyed the story; the resolution to the mystery also surprised me as well. The characters all felt a little flat, however, and I would have enjoyed the book more if it had had more emotional depth.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

This was our book club read for the month, and we all agreed that it was kind of boring. On the one hand, James avoids a lot of the problems that I've seen in other homages to Austen. She stayed fairly true to the characters and the time period in which the books were set. However, the tone of the book was really flat and there wasn't much dramatic tension, or even emotion from the characters. It was also the annoying type of mystery that can't be solved until some late-stage dramatic reveal that comes out of nowhere. I didn't hate the book, and I thought some of James' little references to other Austen works were fun, but it was not a favorite.

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

The voyeur in me picked up this book solely to find out more about the mysterious tragedy mentioned in the plot summary, but it turned out to be a really great read after all. It's structured a bit like a mystery, with the root cause of that tragedy hidden at the end, but it's not really a mystery novel. Also, it's the kind of book that has chapters from many different characters, and sometimes that really doesn't work, but in this case it does. I like books like this that function like a puzzle, as we start to put together all the different moving parts and see how they all work together in the end. The payoff wasn't as big as I had hoped, but it was still a great read.

After You by JoJo Moyes 

The problem with writing a sequel is that it is nearly impossible to live up to the delightful experience of reading the first book; we already know the characters and we've already lived through some big surprises, so there's a steep hill for the author to climb. I realized in the middle of this book that it just wasn't very enjoyable because I actually liked Will a bit better than Louisa. Well, maybe not, but one of the things that made Me Before You so enjoyable was the interplay between the two characters. A sequel just doesn't work without one of those two characters to serve as a foil for the other. I know that Moyes got a lot of pressure to write a book about Louisa, and there were a number of things that I liked about the book, so it wasn't all that bad.

Always Will by Melanie Jacobson

I first loved Melanie Jacobson's books because of the way she so deftly explored the particularities of the Mormon single adult scene; I thought this added an extra layer to her romances and made them both funny and relatable to me. This book, and her previous one, have moved away from the Mormon singles scene to more generic romance between single adults who aren't Mormon, but who also don't indulge in alcohol or who have casual sex. They are also fanatically ready to get married at age 25, like the protagonist of this book. I have no idea if this is true-to-life at all or not; I live in Utah and I'm nearly 38, so it's not like I know very many non-Mormons in their twenties. It's just interesting to read a book about characters that could be Mormon, but probably aren't, and even if they are they don't talk about church at all. It was still a fun little romance and I mostly enjoyed it, although I thought it was a bit too heavy on the angsty discussions and could have used a little more action.

Key Lime Pie and Blackberry Crumble by Josi Kilpack

I have now read all of the Sadie Hoffmiller mysteries, even though things were a bit out of order. I think that the first book was really strong, and then things were somewhat uneven but generally got better from that point on. One of the things that I found interesting was that, like Jacobson, Kilpack seemed to want to create a character that would be relatable to Mormons but that wasn't actually Mormon so she could appeal to a more general audience. Blackberry Crumble included Sadie going to church and teaching Sunday School, and dealing with some gossip from her church community about her actions, but it felt a little weird to me since church-going didn't seem to be a big part of her life in the first few books in the series. It didn't come up a lot in the rest of them either. Granted, most of the books take place within a short window of time and Sadie is often some place besides her home, but this aspect of her life doesn't always seem to be as fleshed out as it could be. Key Lime Pie deals with a character from a previous book who seemed to have a bit of a personality change between that book and this one, and it just wasn't that enjoyable to me. It also seemed to need more filling out of the characters and better descriptions, since I had a hard time really caring about any of them. Blackberry Crumble was a little more fun to read and had more complex conflict so I had a better time reading it.