Reading Roundup: November 2020

The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne by Elsa Hart

I thought I would love this book more than I did, since it's both a mystery and historical fiction (and features two female characters as the protagonists). The plot was well-paced and I was surprised at the end, but the book was still slow-going and a little boring. The ending seemed to set up a sequel, or perhaps the start of a series, with the same characters. If that does happen, I will probably read it, but I won't be waiting anxiously for it to arrive.

Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center

This was a nice little romance for a quiet Saturday afternoon. I don't know much about the world of firefighting and I learned a lot about it, plus I felt like both the leads were realistically drawn and fit together well. My main quibble with the book is that it uses unresolved major trauma as the underlying base for the main character's 'quirks', and that trauma is easily resolved by falling in love with the right person. This is the second book I've read this year with this as a plot device and it really bothers me.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Backman has a very particular style, and as long as you know what you're getting into and accept it, you will enjoy his books. This one was, as the title says, rather anxiety-provoking in the beginning. I started reading it during a week when I wasn't really in the mood for quirkiness. However, I put it down for a bit and came back when I was ready, and enjoyed it immensely. His strong point is characterization, and after spending so much time with the characters I feel like I know them well (and miss them a bit--hopefully there will be a sequel).

The Searcher by Tana French

I look forward eagerly to every new book by French, and I was excited to get this one from the library as soon as it was published. The reviews I had read were mixed, which helped me temper my expectations a bit. This is not a typical mystery or thriller where every chapter brings a new twist that propels the action forward. Not much happens during the first half of the book, and when things do happen, they are mostly low-key. However, the types of things that happen (avoiding spoilers) are terrifyingly real in their own way. French's books all focus on intimate violence--violence that affects families, friends, and other close social circles. How do you go on living with people once you've seen their dark side? She always asks the question, yet never answers it.

We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence by Becky Cooper

This book is both an investigation into a crime and a memoir about investigating the past. In those respects, it reminded me a bit of I'll Be Gone in the Dark, although this book itself quite different from that one. Although it is quite long and dense, it's easy to read (concisely written, paced well, includes just enough detail) and I got through it quite quickly. It gave me a lot to think about--how we tell stories, how we remember things, what gets told and what gets forgotten. One of the better books I've read this year.

The Tree at the Center by Kathryn Knight Sonntag

Do you have to share the experiences of the poet to truly appreciate her poetry? Or does good poetry convey experiences in a way that a reader can understand and empathize with them? I thought about these questions a lot as a I read this collection, since I've never felt a particular yearning for a Heavenly Mother nor have I experienced labor and childbirth. And yet, the images in these poems are vivid enough that I could feel and see along with the writer. I loved her focus on nature and on the concrete sensations of the world around us.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam 

This book had a lot of potential--it just felt too short and ended rather abruptly. Also, while I enjoyed the vagueness about the catastrophe that befalls the characters, I would have liked just a bit more specificity. It's hard to become invested in a story if the details are too sparse.

The End of the Day by Bill Clegg

I pick a lot of books based on reviews, and I'd read positive reviews of this book in several different places that I trust. It was a little slow to get started, but I kept going and finished it, all the while hoping it would get better. This wasn't a badly written book in any way. However, I struggled to ever connect with the characters and to really care about their problems. The central conflict in the book arises from unchecked privilege, and even to the end the main character remains oblivious to her privilege and the damage she caused. That was an unsatisfying way to end things.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

One aspect of Wilkerson's previous book that I remember liking is her skill as a storyteller. This book doesn't contain the same kinds of narratives, but it still is easy to read and very persuasive. I think her argument that America's race problem is actually a caste problem is very convincing, and she includes a number of personal and historical anecdotes to support it. I loved this book, but would also like a follow-up that fleshes things out even further and probes more deeply into how caste affects America today. This was a great book, but felt a bit like it was just an introduction and I want to explore her ideas more fully.

Movies

Rebecca

The reviews I'd read all panned this as being rather dull, and they were right. Hitchcock already did a great job with this story and I don't think it needs to get remade. I don't regret watching it, but it wasn't very memorable.  

For Sama

Unlike the previous one, this movie was just as good as all the reviews I've read about it. It's an important film in the sense of what it took to make it and what it portrays. That doesn't mean it's not a hard film to watch (especially if you are sensitive to children being injured). The ongoing war in Syria has fallen off my radar a bit, as I'm sure it has for many people, and films like this are a reminder that it is still happening and there are still people in the world that need help.

Thor

I honestly thought this movie was a little boring. I didn't really love the storyline with the scientist who becomes massively ditzy when confronted with a handsome alien, and it took me about half the movie to realize that it was the main plot and not a brief intro. My kids assure me that other Thor movies are better, so we will have to see if they are right. 

Iron Man 3

This movie was a lot of fun and much better than I expected. It had a nice meaty storyline with a bunch of interesting conflicts going on. Plus Robert Downey Jr. gives his character a lot of nuance and realistically portrays growth throughout the story. Iron Man is still not my favorite superhero, but I do like his movies quite a lot.

Invisible Life

I had hoped that the ending of this movie would be different, but I knew better than to expect a happy resolution so I was not disappointed. I have been trying to reignite my desire to watch movies, especially more challenging ones like this, and I think this helped (spoiler alert--life in December got weird and I didn't watch many movies).

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