Thursday, July 26, 2018

A Midsummer Night's BOOKBAGGIN IT Update!

Hi, book friends and fellow bibliophiles! Wow, it's been a while, huh? I have no excuses, other than the usual kids/life/books to finish and then another book to finish and still another book and THEN I'll update the blog... ones. So, I won't waste your time with all of those. I'll just get right to my book bag, because WHOA! That baby is really full. Like, splitting the sides of the backpack full.

This actually happened at our house a few months ago - my daughter received what is, to my mind, the coolest backpack of all time for her birthday:

Yes! Of COURSE my daughter is a musical theater kid, and of COURSE she loves Hamilton, because it is the best musical ever! Anyway, she was lucky enough to receive this backpack when she turned 11 in March. At the end of the semester, I noticed it was a victim of its own success. She had packed so many books into it that it had split along the seam.  Since I am not a seamstress and do not want to learn to be one (I'm a KNITTER; sewing is very finicky and hard!), that was the sad end of the Hamilton backpack. I had a similarly loved backpack like this once, when I was just a tiny bit older than my beautiful girl. It was from Culver Academy, where I had spent summer camp after eighth grade with my best friend, Ali, and I carried that bag around to all my freshman year classes very faithfully, especially since I had moved to a new town and was missing my best friend and Culver and all the awesomeness and hilarity and bad decisions that are summer camp. And then my backpack split along the seam, because I was a shameless toter of books, just like I am now! It was navy blue. I can still see it in my bookish mind's eye! Fare thee well, Culver backpack, and I hope you're resting somewhere beyond whatever is the equivalent of the Rainbow Bridge for well loved backpacks, and that everywhere you look, there are girls carrying books galore.

But I digress. Books! I have read many books since we last ran away together! Is there any rhyme and reason to them? Nah, not so much. Although I have binged a little on beach reads. My brain is almost at capacity these days for various reasons and so light reads have been my bread and butter avocado toast these last few months. 

I cannot, of course, regale you with details of every single book. (But I will update my Goodreads reviews over the next week or so with all of my recent reads so if you're REALLY itching for more suggestions and reviews, check here in about 10 days) So I'll just pick a few favorites and hope they're new to you and that you want to run out and find them at the library (or purchase them, of course - I spend much more on books than I do on anything else in the world besides healthcare - and that's only because I'm a cancer patient!)!


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Glitters with Magic and Love

I’ve been waiting for Circe since I closed the endpapers of The Song of Achilles. Miller has the expert’s eye and a storyteller’s touch - a female storyteller at that, which makes her remarkable among the other writers and rewriters of the classic Greek tales. 

Here, her gifts are used in telling the story of Circe, child of Helios and one of the lesser gods, the first witch of the world. She spins a tale of bravery, gullibility, fear and courage; she tells the tale of a goddess who has the heart of a mortal. I don’t want to give anything away and thus ruin Miller’s spellbinding tales, but it’s not a spoiler to say that I was astounded by the ways in which Miller was able to imbue her heroine with the same human frailties and fears as those of us mere mortals: the love of a mother, the burning shame of disgrace, the slow and fast at once finding of ones identity and center, the ways in which we all reach for more than perhaps we know, the giddyness of losing one's fear and with it, the donning of grace and gratitude.

Circe’s tales are big and bold, and they’re writ suitably large here. They also feel so familiar - even as they burn with a strange and lovely fire.  Miller deserves to be mentioned among the greats. Give yourself the beautiful gift of seeing an ancient character and story with new eyes. Miller is a marvel. 

American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The plain facts upon which American Fire sits prove that dozens and dozens of buildings, most of them abandoned, were deliberately set ablaze in and around the once bustling but now barely whispering Virginia countryside from Nov 2012 through the spring of 2013. A couple of locals wind up being at fault, as is revealed early in the narrative. 

That Hesse is able to keep readers turning pages long into the night around a story that is pretty cut and dry really speaks to her ability to tune into the beating hearts at the center of the tale: the dysfunctions of families, the unswervingly human tendency to do anything for love, the ways in which the disappearance of local power and prosperity can create a vacuum that destabilizes not just a town's economic prospects but also the local culture and collective identity. Don't be fooled: this isn't another attempt by white liberals to find out why white conservatives voted against their own interests in the fall of 2016 - or, rather, if it does go down that road, it does so in a very low-key and nuanced way, skipping the national political conversation almost entirely. What readers are treated to instead is a tale in which the writer's genuine interest in the place, people, and story creates a kind of narrative magic. It's good old-fashioned storytelling about contemporary America, in other words. No "reality" tee-vee or dystopian rabbit holes; no hyperbole or tricks. Just a journalist with her skin in the game and a town full of people who, it turns out, really have their hearts on their sleeves. 

If you wonder why journalism matters in this day and age, read this book! 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At the beginning of 2018, I realized I'd never read much in the way of historical fiction devoted to the experiences of Irish or German immigrants to the US. This gave me pause because I come mainly from German and Irish stock, so I'm slowly trying to remedy that. Sullivan's vibrant and poignant story of several post-World War II young adults who move to America in hopes of a better life offers an illuminating peek into the post-war immigrant experience in and around Boston, MA. And when read against the backdrop of the virulent and shameful anti-immigrant sentiment emanating from the current administration, Saints for All Occasions offers useful insights and surprises.

When Nora and Theresa Flynn leave their 1957 rural Irish home for the United States, they don't leave in a headlong rush due to war or economic catastrophe. Rather, Nora's fiancĂ©, Charlie Rafferty, has already moved to Massachusetts to live with family members, making the logistics of arrival and settling in relatively easy. Each girl is overwhelmed in her own way, however, with the magnitude of change their new lives represent. Nora glimpses a future in which she isn't Charlie's bride after all, and Theresa, meanwhile, gets a taste of falling in love. Will they follow the opportunities that arise? How do they reconcile the complexities of leaving home? How does their conversion from Irish to Irish-American take place, and how does it manifest within the relationships and families they foster? 

Sullivan successfully tackles all of these questions and a number of others even as she evokes the real and messy realities of Irish-American community in 20th century Boston, MA. Children are born, relationships rise and fall, and heartbreaking decisions are made that will forever change the protagonists and their futures. But as all of this unfolds, of course, the characters themselves barely mention any of it. In true Irish Catholic fashion, pain and suffering is hidden and relationships skim along even as dark and complex feelings bubble beneath the surface. This is Sullivan's true sleight of hand: her ability to give her readers a rich, rewarding, deeply felt story that also illustrates the kind of relationships and situations anyone who grew up Irish Catholic herself will recognize with ease. "Don't mention it," is the mantra of the Rafferty family, and such a mandate is upheld thanks to great force of will, fervent faith and prayers...and a lot of alcohol. As in many such families, however, these protections finally falter and then fall. But not until a family tragedy provokes unprecedented situations...

The ties that bind families to each other and those that bind people to their homes (and homelands) are on vivid and beautiful display throughout Sullivan's narrative. It is engaging, heartbreaking, irresistible, and wry creation - truly Irish Catholic to the core. 

Four stars because I did get this book a bit muddled with another Irish immigration story I read, and that irritated me to no end. But a terrific read and set in such an unexpected time (most people think of the late 19th century as the hey-day of Irish influx; situating this in the middle of the Cold War really provides new opportunities for author and reader both)! 


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Intriguing dystopian cult debut

This book exists in a tiny vacuum - is it the story of a super creepy cult living outside the boundaries of contemporary society, or is there some kind of context that somehow gives the horrific practices of this community some kind of understandable context? How long has it existed and why does it continue to flourish? Why and how does Janey make such radical mental connections — and is the only one to have ever done so? Where are all the boys the same ages as the girls who take center stage, and how are they brought up in such a way as to willingly take part in the cultural practices of the community? None of it is explained! 
At the same time, the story is beautifully written, with compelling characters and interesting plot developments. Reads more like a novella than a novel, and clearly is a freshman effort. But I’m curious to see what she does next.


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nadia Murad takes Western readers into a world few of them are aware even exists: the settlements of the Yazidi community in northern Iraq. Nadia's people live a simple subsistence lifestyle, farming and raising sheep for local trade, and worship according to the beliefs of their religion, which Nadia explains with patience and grace. She is born and comes of age in a period of war - first the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, and then the subsequent civil war and all that followed. The Syrian civil war further destabilizes her homeland...and then ISIS moves into areas nearby.

As Nadia witnesses the destruction first, of her family's sense of security, and then, of their very home and village, she remains passionate and clear-eyed about the immorality of what she sees. Nadia herself is captured by ISIS, forced into sexual slavery and kept locked away from society. But she does not lose her faith - either in her religion or in her fellow men and women. Her story of living through hellish circumstances, her successful flight to freedom, and her stubborn resilience in fighting the Islamic State even after all that they have done to destroy her and her family is riveting and instructive. Anyone who takes the time to read this will see that the ongoing problems in the Middle East cannot and are not ones that can be understood in stark terms of "good guys" and "bad guys," or "Arabs" versus "Americans" or "Muslims" versus "Christians" -- any of the hysterical and simple-minded explanations for what's amiss and how to fix it pale and fall away once you become beguiled by Nadia and her tale.

This book should be a must-read for anyone curious about the world today, skeptical of the need for American intervention abroad, and lacking understanding about geopolitics. Nadia has much to teach us, and judging from her book and her advocacy efforts, I have few doubts that her young, strong voice is here to stay. 


In addition to these intriguing works, I've also been reading a lot of Elin Hilderbrand, because it's summer and nothing says summer to me like figuring out messed up relationships while luxuriating in  New England beach town. So far, I've read The Perfect CoupleThe CastawaysSilver Girl, and The Identicals. I still have Summerland and A Summer Affair on deck. I can't help myself!

I usually devour at least one big feel-good dysfunctional family story, too - In the past, Spoonbenders, People We Hate at the Wedding, The Nest, Modern Lovers... have all fit the bill, but I haven't wandered across anything this summer yet so far. Maybe I'll check out one of the books here - or maybe you have a suggestion for me? 

In the meantime, I'm finishing the last book of Jo Walton's Thessaly series right now (I've been on a bit of Greek historical fiction bender). I can't wait to share that with you!

What are you reading to keep you cool these days?

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