Mini Reviews of Recent Reads: December 2018

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While I would usually write a bit to introduce my December 2018 book reviews, below, I’m finishing this up with a sick kiddo on the couch–it’s going to be a long night. ‘Tis the season!

Hope you’re healthier as you read this and that you find some books for your own TBR–I read a lot of great ones this past month!

December 2018 Book Reviews

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship is the story of the two-decade friendship between author Ann Patchett and the late poet and author Lucy Grealy. The two women met in college and cemented their friendship in graduate school and the years that followed, as both pursued writing careers. Grealy, who in childhood battled cancer that left her without part of her lower jaw, endured ongoing health difficulties and reconstructive surgeries.

Grealy was a needy, all-consuming friend--talented, tortured, and plagued by both addiction and her need for love, even as love surrounded her. Patchett, for her part, longed to be a part of Grealy's inner circle long before she ever was, and she basked in Lucy's need for her, as well as their shared goals and talent. The two moved toward success together, and the journey must have felt magical and pre-destined, if not always healthy. As always, I love Patchett's writing, and listening to her narrate was a pleasure.

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Tell Me Three Things

Tell Me Three Things

Two years after her mother's death, Jessie is starting over at a ritzy new school in California. Her father has remarried and suddenly Jessie has a new family, a new home, and no friends. Until one day she receives an email from "Somebody/Nobody" who offers anonymous friendship and insight into the strange world of school in Los Angeles. Jessie takes solace in the friendship, all while trying to figure out who the mystery person is behind the screen name and carve out a place for herself both at home and school.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this YA audiobook. The narrator was pitch-perfect and Jessie's grief, loneliness, and frustration were relatable and sincerely written. Yes, there is some teenage angst, stereotypical characters, and romantic pining and entanglements, but the main characters were interesting and thoughtful. I've been listening to audiobooks while working out, and this struck the right note of being thoughtful without being too challenging to follow.

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And the Mountains Echoed

And the Mountains Echoed

Starting with a young boy and his beloved little sister in Afghanistan, separated abruptly and set on different paths. One is forever heartbroken, while the other has little memory of the past. Following, then, through the decades and stories of people around the world whose own pasts and choices set them on a course to influence the lives of the two children and others.

Khaled Hosseini weaves a complicated web composed of both strong and loose connections. Sometimes books such as these don't work--the reader has trouble following the connections, or individual stories are abandoned too soon. But Hosseini, as always, is masterful. While there were moments where I had to jog my memory about past characters, particularly when they appear only as glimpses in later stories, I never felt rushed through any one story. The characters are richly developed and the stories are given their space to unfold and reveal their place within the whole. I loved this book and will continue to read anything Hosseini writes.

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I Was Told There’d Be Cake: Essays

I Was Told There’d Be Cake: Essays

Sloan Crosley gives an unflinching glimpse into her fumbles through her twenties in this collection of essays--a glimpse that I am happy to relate to from the distance I have. I listened to this on audio, and it was a good light choice--undemanding, sometimes funny, other times cringe-worthy. While I didn't find this particularly memorable, it was--with the exception of a couple of the essays (one that stretched way too long and another that was a little gross)--an enjoyable listen.

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Still Alice

Still Alice

Alice leads a successful, fulfilling life as a wife, mother, and Harvard professor. Even after she starts to notice gaps in her memory and moments of disorientation, she still isn't prepared for the diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Still Alice is a rare peek into the mind of a person living with Alzheimer's--the loneliness, the fears of what's to come, the struggle to keep hold of an identity, even as it seems to be slipping away.

As someone with Alzheimer's and dementia in my family, this book was intriguing and sad. I was impressed with Lisa Genova's meticulous research and attention to detail. While I am not conversant in the medical intricacies of the disease, I was at Harvard during the same academic year covered in the story. Small details that could easily have been fudged for the story's sake (we did get feet of snow upon returning from holiday break! John Lithgow was the commencement speaker! And so on...) made me trust her attention and care of the details, and how hard she worked to get this story right. It's one that matters to many people, both those whose family members are facing the disease and those who may be facing it themselves.

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A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy

A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy

This memoir by Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold, who was one of the shooters at Columbine High School, broke my heart over and over again. In excruciating detail, Klebold walks through the day of the shooting, the days, weeks, months, and years that follow, as well as the years she spent raising and loving Dylan Klebold. She recalls him as a loving, easy child who she and her husband raised with care and with strong morals. He had many friends, and it was only after his death that Klebold learned of his depression and feelings of alienation.

Klebold is a thoughtful memoirist, and it's clear she was a thoughtful mother. The agony she felt--and still feels--in the aftermath of the shooting is palpable, and relatable to any parent who realizes they may not know their child as well as they hoped. In addition to the shooting and the details of their lives before and after (she gives a full accounting, both to set the record straight and to lay the facts bare for those who would continue to criticize every decision), Klebold delves into brain health and suicide, and the roles both played in the tragedy at Columbine. She never once excuses Dylan's actions, but she does try to understand them. This was a difficult listen, but it struck exactly the right notes, and I can only wish her peace, compassion, and purpose in her ongoing work to understand and educate.

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From the Corner of the Oval

From the Corner of the Oval

Beck Dorey-Stein was working five jobs trying to make ends meet in Washington, D.C., when she responded to a Craigslist ad for a stenographer. She lands in the the White House, where she spends the next five years as the "least important person in the room" and witness to the history of Obama's administration.

Dorey is a talented writer and she lets her twenty-something voice fly as she details the intensity of working among the world's most powerful people--who are supported by a team of very young, very ambitious, and very intense staff members. The juxtaposition of national politics and international diplomacy with the endless drama and poor decisions of Dorey-Stein's own life is stark. Her personal drama (and there is a lot) no doubt added to the intensity of her experience and I found some of it voyeuristically entertaining, but the big fascination here is the machine behind every move the president makes.

Having encountered some of the "D.C. creatures" that Dorey-Stein writes about, the culture she describes was familiar and one that I've always been glad to be outside of. However, I have found--as she did--that even inside this culture, there are many hardworking people who truly care about what they are working toward. I appreciated that she never lost sight of what a privilege it was to have a front-row seat to Obama's presidency. That she was able to write about it in a fun and juicy way made looking back on it with her all that more enjoyable.

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Belong to Me

Belong to Me

When Cornelia and her husband, Teo, move from the city to the suburbs, she is eager to make friends. Instead, she feels the weight of her neighbor Piper's ruthless judgment. Another woman, Lake, seems to be a promising friend, but her inscrutable behavior and mood changes leave Cornelia confused. But she unwittingly becomes central to both women's lives as Piper cares for her dying friend and Lake's son takes a liking to Cornelia's family.

I was a little hesitant when I started this book, because I just don't have a lot of patience for reading about the gossip and maneuvering of suburban women--yes, that's my world, but I don't find it interesting in my own life, either. And while this book did have some of that, it was presented more as something to overcome on the way to deeper relationships, rather than as a plot driver. I was surprised to find that the cattiest of all of the characters ended up being on of my favorites--but really, all of the characters here were intriguing and at least somewhat likable. The downfall, for me, was in the peak dramatic moments of the story--while I saw the "secret" almost from the beginning, it was the overhyped drama of the reveal that bugged me at the end. Before that, though, de los Santos' thoughtful writing of the characters and their growing relationships kept me reading and would prompt me to try out more of her books.

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The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale

Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: Fiction
Tag: Dystopia

While I wasn’t able to participate in Margaret Atwood Reading Month like I had hoped, I did get a chance to reread The Handmaid’s Tale. It was the third time I’ve read this book, and while my familiarity with the story made it less shocking this time around, it was no less affecting. This is the story of Offred, a woman who not so long ago was a wife, mother, and independent woman. Now she is a handmaiden, separated from her family and pressed into service for her fertility. Each month, she must submit to the Commander in hopes of becoming pregnant. This is a frightening tale of a society where women are fully oppressed and valued for little else than their ability to procreate.

Now that I’ve read the book again, I’m hoping to finally have a chance to watch the Hulu series, and I’m also looking forward to the sequel from Margaret Atwood expected in 2019.

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Did Not Finish

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

I went into this memoir hoping for an in-depth look at what it means to risk reading forbidden books in Iran, with a little discussion of the literature on the side. What I found was an in-depth look at the literature with some side discussion of what it means to be reading it in Iran. This isn't an inherently bad thing--I have read Lolita, so I appreciated some of the literary analysis of it--but it wasn't what I came for. And, not having read some of the other books that were going to be discussed further in this memoir, I felt that I wouldn't appreciate or understand some of the analysis to come. When the book would veer toward the stories of the women and life in Iran, all too soon it would swing back to literary analysis--and it wasn't always related to the unique experience of reading it while living in tyranny. I didn't finish this one.

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Have you read any of these? What did you think?

 

December 2018 book reviews, including Truth & Beauty, A Mother's Reckoning, From the Corner of the Oval, Tell Me Three Things, Still Alice, The Handmaid's Tale, Reading Lolita in Tehran, And the Mountains Echoed, Belong to Me, and I Was Told There'd Be Cake.

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