Saturday, January 10, 2015

Reading Roundup: 2014

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

 I read at total of 74 books this year; this is 14 less than I read in in 2013. I actually feel good about the number going down a bit--I work full-time and I'm in school so I don't have as much free time any more. I still should be doing other things besides reading, but finding balance in my life is still a work in progress. I did read the Whitney finalists for all the adult fiction categories this year, which accounts for 20 of the fiction books (there were 25 finalists, but I had already read some of the books in 2013).

I read 61 fiction books and 13 nonfiction books, which seems to be about average for most years for me. I like nonfiction, but that usually means reading books that are dense and need more than a few hours to read. 60 of the books I read were written by women and 14 were written by men; this ratio has gone up and down for me over the years, but generally has been dominated by women. I don't consciously seek out women authors, but apparently I have a bias in this area.

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

Fiction
Mile 21 by Sarah Dunster
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Love Letters of the Angels of Death by Jennifer Quist
Longbourn by Jo Baker
My Name is Resolute by Nancy Turner
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
One Plus One by JoJo Moyes
The Martian by Andy Weir
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

 Nonfiction
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sarah Corbett
My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
This is How We Grow by Christina Hibbert

I usually say something about movies that I watched, but this year I only saw 4. That's the lowest total I've ever had, probably at any point in my life. The only time I made it to the theater all year was to watch The Lego Movie with the kids (not included in the 4 I counted), and it was probably the best movie I watched. I did watch the last two seasons of Downton Abbey on DVD, as well as at least 2 seasons of Call the Midwife and I love both shows.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Reading Roundup: November and December 2014

Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

This was our book club for November, and I thought some parts of it were better than others. I'm not a huge fan of Little Women and I don't know a lot about Louisa May Alcott. I thought the book was most interesting when it discussed Alcott's mother, Abigail, and her life as a woman in early America. The parts about Louisa's life didn't feel as focused to me and if often seemed that the author was making assumptions about what the readers already knew about Alcott. Also, Bronson Alcott mostly seems like a horrible, selfish person in this book, so it might be good to read a biography of him some time to get a little more balance.

Painting Kisses by Melanie Jacobson

I've loved everything I've read so far by Jacobson, but this was not as good as some of her other books. One of the things I like about her writing is that she writes about contemporary LDS single adults in a way that is very insightful and realistic. This book is still a romance, and set in Salt Lake, but the characters are not LDS. The book was a fun, escapist read and perfect for a sick day I spent at home. But in the end I really wanted more from it--I felt like the book could easily had another 50 pages or so that would have added more depth to the story. I loved the characters but felt that the plot was a little thin and rushed.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

After reading a fluffy romance, I decided to spend some time with literary fiction from Ireland. I've heard Toibin's name for a while but never read anything by him. Then I saw this on the new books display at the library and thought I'd give it a try. It's a beautiful novel--a deep, slow character study more than an action-focused book. I don't know much about Ireland in the 1960s and found myself turning to Wikipedia more than once to get a bit of context, but the political and social background really weren't that necessary to enjoying the book. if you are in the mood for a slow, dense novel, this is the book for you.

A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

There is a lot I could say about this book--easily an entire blog post. At first I didn't want to read it, simply because I have a four-year-old daughter and also because I have a few friends that have lost children. Dead or dying children are not something I like to read about. However, I read enough reviews of the book that I became intrigued by it and decided to check it out after it crossed my desk at work. On the one hand, I was frustrated by the fact that the novelist managed to reduce an entire ward (and stake) to a few of the most ridiculous characters. Yes, there are Mormons that are that weird, but usually there are plenty of others to balance them out. I understand that authors have to limit the number of characters in a book for many reasons but I still didn't like it. It didn't really strike me as deliberately anti-Mormon; instead, I mostly didn't like it because it felt like the worst kind of contemporary fiction where every character in a novel is some kind of freak or oddball (I'm looking at you, Jonathan Safran Foer and Brady Udall). I get tired of books like that. However, despite the many things I found uncomfortable about the book and the characters, I admired the author's skill in constructing the story. The ending was beautiful and I loved the way the many different threads of stories came together; I ended the book on a positive note, but still violently disliked some aspects of it.

Millstone City by S.P. Bailey

I bought this book last year but never got around to reading it. It was a pretty well-written little thriller that read quickly and easily. I think it could have been a bit deeper in terms of characterization, but as an example of the genre it wasn't too bad. I'm still sad about the death of one character that I really liked. 

Love and Other Unknown Variables by Shannon Lee Alexander

This was an ARC I picked up at ALA and decided to read when I ran out of library books. It wasn't too bad--fairly standard teen fiction with a tragic manic-pixie-dream girl as the love interest. I thought some of the tension between math and art felt a little forced, but I thought the protagonist was one of the more realistic teenage boys I've met in fiction.

What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman

Readers of my book reviews will probably have noticed by now that I have a weakness for contemporary 'women's fiction' (such a tricky term), particularly books that involve some kind of mystery about the past, family drama, and possibly some romance. This book fits that description, with a plot that alternates between a teen in the 1990s and a mental hospital in the 1920s. The historical story was pretty melodramatic, completely with fairly one-dimensional villains, but it was still a fun read.

The Bishop's Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison

This is another book that I could easily write an entire blog post about. It was heavily hyped at ALA this summer and I didn't manage to get an ARC before they ran out. I finally managed to get a copy to read and am afraid that I was a little disappointed. Perhaps I expected something different; I've read quite a bit of Harrison's writing and have particularly liked her non-fiction. This book was promoted as a mystery, and based on the blurbs I expected a faster pace and a bit more excitement. The plot meandered a bit and both of the big mysteries in the book (there are two) seemed to be resolved rather quickly and mostly without much actual help from the protagonist--characters suddenly and conveniently supplied explanations for both of the mysteries. The book is really more of a character study, but the characterization was the part that I struggled with the most. It mostly consisted of a lot of explanation and not a lot of action. I know what Linda thinks about a lot of things (and what she says the Church thinks about a lot of things), but I didn't see her actually doing very much. I felt that the amount of explaining done by her character was annoying and I was still left with a vague feel for who she really was. Despite the fact that I'm also a Mormon women living in Utah, I found this book surprisingly opaque.


Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Earlier this year I read Rowell's novel Fangirl and fell in love with it. This book is different from Fangirl in some ways; for one thing, the story is much less dense and is told in a more straightforward manner. It's a fairly simple story of awkward teenagers finding love and acceptance with each other, but Rowell's writing creates characters that are far from stereotypical. This was another book that left me wanting more at the end because the world the author created was so engrossing.

My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel

It's a good thing I read this memoir while I was on a relaxing vacation because otherwise I don't think I could have handled it very well. Compared to Stossel, my struggles with anxiety have been fairly mild, but I still sometimes had a hard time reading about his life because it made me feel so anxious in sympathy with him. This was a very interesting book--some parts were actually pretty funny (his various attempts at curing his emetophobia for example) and other parts were much more poignant. Reading about the evolution of both Stossel's personal mental health treatment as well as larger societal trends was really interesting and made me reflect on similar experiences I have had.

City of Brick and Shadow by Tim Wirkus

I ended up reading this book just a few weeks after Millstone City, which I guess was good because it made the inevitable comparison fairly easy to do. Although the books share a similar plot--Mormon missionaries run into trouble with gangsters in Brazil--they are quite different. Wirkus mentions Borges as one of his influences and it really shows; despite the fact that this book is written in English, the style feels like much of the contemporary Spanish literature that I have read. The writing is beautiful, with many little details that I am still ruminating about several weeks after finishing the book.

Movies

Pitch Perfect

I know I'm about two years behind the zeitgeist on this, but at least I finally got around to seeing it. It had its funny moments, I thought the acting was great, and the music was fun. However, the plot wasn't very strong (not surprising) and it couldn't seem to figure out whether it was trying to be a girl-power movie, a romantic comedy, or a gross-out comedy (not my favorite--ew). I don't have a strong desire to watch it again, despite the fact that I really liked Rebel Wilson and Anna Kendrick.

While You Were Sleeping

It's been a long time since I last saw this movie and I thought it was time to revisit it. Despite the fact that it's nearly twenty years old it has held up pretty well. The plot is kind of thin and I found myself cringing during some parts, but Sandra Bullock is delightful. I think this is one of her best movies.  

Thursday, January 01, 2015

The Year is Dying in the Night

Today didn't feel very much like New Year's Eve to me. I had to go to work--this year they changed the paid holidays to the 1st and 2nd to give everyone a four-day weekend. There weren't very many people at work and not a lot to do and I ended up leaving early in order to go to the grocery store and check out some movies at the public library before it closed. We got back from our vacation on Monday night and my brain is still adjusting after being gone for a week, especially since the weather here turned bitterly cold and snowy while we were away. 

According to many articles I've seen around the internet, 2014 was kind of a crappy year. Outrage on the internet, Ebola, crazy weather, unrest and protests all over the world, airplane disasters, and so on. I get it--I don't feel like 2014 was my best year either. It feels like the year flew by before I had a chance to even catch my breath and get my feet under me. I spent a lot of time doing homework and not much else. No promotions at work, no dates, no game show appearances.Several good friends from my neighborhood moved away. Not much changed in my life and I didn't make much progress on any of the goals that I set.

However, there were some positives to the year. No one got seriously ill, the house didn't need major repairs, and I didn't flunk out of my classes or lose my job. S-Boogie got braces, went to several fun camps this summer, and started sixth grade. Little Dude got baptized, started third grade, built a million Lego creations, and started piano lessons. P-Bibby finally figured out potty training, started a music class, is learning how to read quite a few words, can tell hilarious jokes, and loves her daycare/preschool. Today at work I had to write up my accomplishments from the year and I realized that I did a lot professionally and that I love my job. And we just spent a week in Hawaii for Christmas, so what do I have to complain about? 

The biggest stress for me this year was school. When I started my program last fall, my plan was to take as many classes as I could and get through the program as quickly as possible--the quick and painful method. However, after a year of intense classes I have realized that this is not the best approach. I've spent most of my free time doing homework and still ended up behind and not getting as much out of each class as I probably should. Realistically, there isn't much benefit at this point of finishing the program more quickly. If an opportunity comes up to move to a different position at work, the fact that I'm halfway through my degree is just as valid as if I had it finished. I think that during the last little while I have found it very difficult to plan my life more than short-term. I have a hard time relaxing and believing that there will be time to get things done and that I can just enjoy the present moment. I've been living in my house for five years now and in my current job for more than eighteen months and I finally feel like I'm learning how to settle in and be satisfied with where I'm at.

So, next year I'm still going to do school, but only one class a semester. Graduation will be about two years out. I'm hoping, though, that those years will have other things in them besides just school and stress. With the change in the year and the break in the semester I have right now, I feel an itch to change. To declutter my house and get rid of excess stuff. To start getting into healthier habits and taking better care of myself. During the last few months (while I wasn't blogging), I did end up spending time working with a therapist at the school's clinic. We had a lot of good sessions, and by December decided that I was ready to try taking care of myself; at this point, I've worked out a lot of my bad thinking patterns and learned some new healthy habits. The scary thing is that now it's up to me to determine how I feel. I know what I need to do but doing it is hard. I've already stayed up past midnight to write this post and I know I shouldn't do that. 

In my mind I have some ideas for 2015 goals, but I haven't set any just yet. Right now my main goal is for movement: physical, spiritual, emotional. I want to end 2015 in a different place from where I am right now. Hopefully I can make that happen. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Reading Roundup: September and October 2014

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

It's been a few years since I last read this book and I was craving something more serious after my last fluffy book binge. The more I read Stegner, the more I love his writing. It was also interesting to re-read this book after being divorced--it's a book about marriage and relationships, and I felt like I noticed different things this time around.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Another excellent book about marriages, although written in a very different style from Stegner. I felt like this book combined the best aspects of the two books by Moriarty that I've read previously. It had the hilarious social satire of What Alice Forgot along with the gripping mystery of The Husband's Secret (but without the awkward ending). Sure, the ending of this book was just a bit too tidy, but overall I thought it was really well-done.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

I've had this book on my list for years and never got around to reading it. I feel bad that I hesitated for so long--I loved the historical mystery aspects of it, and found the story to be just creepy enough to scare me without preventing me from reading further.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

This book was hilarious--it's completely over-the-top ridiculous and a lot of fun to read. It probably helps that I lived in Seattle for a few years and recognized some of the particularly bizarre characters that present themselves, but I think it would still be hilarious even if you've never lived in the Pacific Northwest. 

A Long Time Gone by Karen White

Despite a slow start and some confusion in keeping straight the many different characters, I did finally get into this book and enjoyed it quite a lot. The mystery wasn't hard to figure out and there were a lot of stereotypes (a wise old black woman, cranky teenaged stepdaughter, evil ex-husband, nice old flame who is still available, etc), but it was a fun read once I decided to put up all those things.

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

This book is long and dense, and parts of it were more interesting to me than others were. The main thing I realized as I read it was that I thought I knew a fair amount about cancer and its treatment, and I didn't really know anything at all. Even though Mukherjee is generally good at describing complex concepts in simple terms, there were a still a few sections of the book I felt I didn't understand as well as others. This is still a book I would recommend to anyone looking for a good nonfiction read.

This is How We Grow by Christina Hibbert

I thought this was the perfect book for me at this point in my life, but at the same time I could see how someone else might not get as much out of it. I loved reading about how Dr. Hibbert changed and grew after major trauma in her life, and many of the things she went through mirrored things that I am working on right now. However, the book is a fairly personal, journal-style book that has been lightly edited and sometimes gets bogged down in personal minutiae. She also has a fairly high level of privilege in her life, with a large supportive family, flexible work schedule, and apparently a fairly high income--sometimes that made it hard to relate to some parts of the book. I still really enjoyed it and found it very useful, but it might not be as applicable to other readers.

Before We Met by Lucie Whitehouse

This book has been compared to Gone Girl in a number of reviews that I've read, and while I think that it has similar themes, it really doesn't compare in the style of writing at all. It's a fairly straightforward suspense book where someone's fairly simple life rapidly falls apart into terror. I thought it was a quick read and it certainly kept me guessing, but the ending felt rushed and the main character wasn't really fleshed out enough for me to totally root for her. The book felt like it could have used a bit more narrative padding and better pacing.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Reading Roundup: August 2014

The Martian by Andy Weir

I don't normally read a lot of science fiction, but this book was recommended to me by several people I trust and I thought the premise was intriguing. It was quite a lot of fun to read and rather suspenseful; nice to read something a little out of my usual comfort zone and enjoy it.

Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti

This was our book club pick for the month and I honestly didn't think it was all that exciting. The writing style was a bit dry and it was hard to get into the first few chapters. I think I also didn't enjoy it that much because I've never had strong feelings about the Mona Lisa, and the book didn't do much to convince me that I should.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

This was a book that I'd read many good things about, but didn't really care for much at all. I'm usually more willing to suspend disbelief for a plot when the characters are sympathetic, but the main character in this book really wasn't. I had a hard time suspending my disbelief to like her or even relate to her, and the plot was kind of crazy too. 

Hidden by Catherine McKenzie

I read this book and the next three books all within a week--I had some time off before my classes started again and thought it would be fun to binge a little on fluffy reading. I enjoyed this book more than I expected too; the plot is fairly typical domestic fiction about a troubled marriage, but the characters were complex. It has the kind of alternating narrative structure that sometimes can be annoying, but that worked well for this book by adding a bit of suspense as the story works its way deeper into the lives of the main characters.

That Summer by Lauren Willig

This book was fun and fluffy, if you're willing to go along with the idea of someone inheriting a house that just happens to have a rare painting linked to a historic mystery hidden the attic. Oh, and a handsome art historian just happens to come along to save the day and fall in love with the protagonist. It's the kind of book that makes for great escapist fiction and adds a veneer of respectability by including some historical intrigue to go along with the contemporary romance.

One Plus One by JoJo Moyes

This book was also fun and romantic, while managing to be much less fluffy. The plot is a bit absurd, but the characters are sweet and relatable and they all learn valuable lessons in the end. I also felt like Moyes really got the romance right in this book--the main characters are flawed and make mistakes, but they own up to their mistakes and act like grownups. They actually have to negotiate around a lot of issues and the author is not afraid to address some things, like class and money differences, that tend to get glossed over in other books.

China Dolls by Lisa See

I've had mixed experiences with books by Lisa See--some are wonderful and some are not so great. This book was a bit of a dud--the idea for the plot and the historic setting had the potential to be really fascinating. But the novel is told in alternating points-of-view from the three main characters and, unfortunately, none of them has a distinct voice. I had a hard time keeping them straight and remembering who was who. There also was not a clear story arc or sense of conflict and resolution--a lot of stuff happened over a number of years, but too often it felt like the book was just moving through events and ticking things off a list, rather than propelling the story or the characters forward.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Mental Health Day

I took the day off work today--I've had a few sick days saved up for a while and thought it would be good to use one. I had planned on taking the afternoon off, since I had a phone appointment with the counseling center at noon and the kids had their back-to-school thing this afternoon (it used to be back-to-school night, but now for some reason it's in the afternoon). Then when I got up this morning, I just didn't feel like going in to work for only a few hours. So I got dressed and went to the temple instead; it was nice to be there and I felt good afterwards. Then I came home and had my phone appointment with the counseling center on campus--they will call in a few weeks and set up an appointment with me. I get to be some grad student's project for the semester, but at least it is cheap and easy to get to since it is on campus. I think things will be OK--I'm also going to work on getting more sleep and taking better care of myself too.

This afternoon I had a few free hours while the kids were busy, so I cleaned the house and finished reading a book I started last night. I also had another book that I started on Saturday night and finished Sunday evening. I realized a few months ago that I tend to read instead of doing pretty much anything else, including exercising, sleeping, and cleaning my house. I think it is time to cut back a little. But then last week I had four library holds come in at once, and I have a week until my new semester starts, so I'm letting myself have one more binge. Then I'm going to start making a list of interesting books to read sometime rather than putting them on hold at the library right away. I can handle it; I didn't read 'fun' stuff for quite a while when I was in school before. I've gotten a glimpse at next semester's classes and it's going to be a busy few months. 

The kids are all starting school tomorrow--P.Bibby is the most excited and has been counting down for weeks. I hope she has a good time at her new preschool and that it is a positive experience for her. She's the one I'm most worried about, just because the whole experience is so new. Little Dude and S-Boogie are excited to get back to school too; it was weird to me to visit S-Boogie's class and realize that I recognize most of the other kids and that she has gone to the same school for first through sixth grades. That was not my elementary experience at all (I went to three different schools). I think we will all be glad to get back into a good routine again. 

And something funny to end--tonight when we were trying to say family prayer I was a bit annoyed because it was late since Little Dude had been stubborn about getting in the shower. I was grumpy and trying to get everyone to be reverent when P.Bibby suddenly curled her hands up in front of her and started stumbling around saying "I'm a zombie!" It was so funny--I've never seen her do that before! We all just burst out laughing, and it was probably irreverent but Little Dude wondered what zombie family prayer would be like ("we are thankful for these brains, please bless them to nourish us"). Nothing like a good laugh to get everyone relaxed and happy again, even if we were a bit late to bed.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Reading Roundup: July 2014

Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

I picked up this book because it sounded like a good, escapist read for vacation. It got a bit too melodramatic for my taste, especially since none of the main characters were very likeable and I didn't feel like I cared about what happened to them. It wasn't bad, but I just wasn't expecting it to get quite so gothic in the end.

Beautiful Unbroken by Mary Jane Nealon

Nealon is a poet as well as a nurse, and this really shows in her writing. This memoir was beautiful and touching and made me think a lot about my life and what choices I have made. At the same time, sometimes I feel a bit disconnected when I read about women who have no children--the choices I can make or will make are constrained in different ways. I still enjoyed the book and thought she had some great insights about grief and compassion. 

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

I picked up this book solely based on the high number of positive recommendations I've received from people. The topic didn't sound hugely interesting to me, and I've had a hard time explaining to people why it is so good. It really was one of the best books I've read this year--it's a story of achievement, but it's not highly suspenseful or sensationalistic at all. I think one of the things that makes it such a good book is the way the writing delves into both the characters and the setting so thoroughly.

The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood

I picked this book up for free at ALA and thought it was only somewhat mediocre. First of all there were a number of little errors that just bugged me (like there are no fireflies in California). Second, the main characters seemed more like caricatures than real people, and I didn't care much for any of them. It was also fairly easy to figure out the central mystery of the book fairly early on. Not the worst book I've read this year, but certainly not the best.

All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior

This is the book I can't stop telling people about. I really want to discuss it with someone else because it is a book about ideas and observations. Even though it is a book about parents, it is not a parenting book. Instead, it is a conversation about trends in the way middle-class families work today and why so many parents seem to struggle with certain issues. Not everything in the book corresponded with my experience, but it still gave me a lot to think about. 

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

 This was a beautiful book, both the story itself and the writing. It's also the kind of book that builds slowly and carefully, until suddenly you realize that all the pieces of the story are coming together in a magical way. I love reading books that bring the beauty and power of writing to the forefront, while still telling a compelling story.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

This book was so much fun to read. Definitely different from most of my usual fare, and bit gory in parts, but still a great read for a summertime Saturday. It made me feel grateful that I'm not living on an eighteenth-century sailing ship.