Mini Reviews of Recent Reads: November 2019
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It has been a fantastic month for reading! In addition to the books I’m reviewing today–all of which were winners except one–I am in the middle of a couple of excellent books for Nonfiction November–an absolute must-read oral history of 9/11 and an unexpectedly delightful memoir of a scientist.
If you missed the earlier Nonfiction November posts, you may want to check out mine below, as well as other bloggers who are linking up throughout the month.
Nonfiction November is a great time to get recommendations for nonfiction books–especially if, like me, you don’t always make the time for nonfiction.
- Fiction and Nonfiction Books about Friendships
- Fiction and Nonfiction Pairing: Books about Trees
- Nonfiction in 2019
In addition to Nonfiction November, this is always a busy time with the holidays coming up, and you may be ready to start thinking about decorating.
If you need a little bookish inspiration, check out some of my favorite literary Christmas decorations. Get them now so you’re ready for your post-Thanksgiving decorating!
On to the reviews!
The Dearly Beloved: A Novel
The Dearly Beloved follows two couples in 1960s Greenwich Village who are chosen to jointly steward a Presbyterian church. Hailing from different backgrounds and harboring differing beliefs and motivations, the book follows the four over decades of friendship and changing times.
I expected this book to be like Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety, and there were similarities--it's a great choice if you like that book. This one was focused more on the individual faiths--or lack thereof--of each character. The intersections and divergences were fascinating, and unavoidable for the characters (even those who strongly resisted any notion of faith) as they lived life orbiting the church.
Despite the focus on faith, this was not a religious book. The writing was excellent, and I think it's one that could be read multiple times for a greater appreciation of the depths of the characters.
More info →
The Overstory: A Novel
This 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner absolutely blew me away. Powers constructs a novel that begins with a series of seemingly disconnected stories, each grounded by a tree, and some of them stretching back more than a century.
The "understory" finally lands us on a number of central characters: the researcher shunned for her notion of trees communicating; the artist whose family documented a changing tree for decades; the college slacker who turns activist following a near-death experience; the veteran who finds solace only in the solitude of outdoors; the engineer mourning the loss of the only tree visible from her office; the psychologist curious about what drives extreme activists; and the creator of virtual worlds, felled by a tree as a child and compelled to make a more perfect place to exist.
These disparate characters come together in a larger-than-life narrative that becomes a call to activism, a meditation on our place in the world, and an awe-stricken view into the complex and impressive lives and resilience of trees.
This book will not be for everyone; it's a slow read that requires patience. But for those who find Powers' style resonates, it is truly an impressive feat of literature. I follow the Now Read This Book Club on Facebook, which has also been reading The Overstory this month, and the feed has been filled with beautiful photos and stories of meaningful and amazing trees. This book seems to inspire such reflection; you can read my own "tree story" in my post on Fiction and Nonfiction Books About Trees.More info →
Harry's Trees is an entirely different type of book about trees, but it's no less magical. When 34-year-old Harry's wife is unexpectedly killed, the Forest Service employee retreats to the trees to grieve and atone for his role in her death. There, he meets a young girl and a mother who are also grieving the loss of their father and husband. The girl, Oriana, is guided by her belief in magic and fairy tales, and is convinced that she and Harry have a mission. Only by completing it will they be pulled up from the depths of their grief.
My reading tastes don't generally veer toward magic or fairy tales, but Cohen's lilting writing style drew me in. The fairy tale structure of the book was somewhat heavy handed, but it was also grounded in a healthy amount of skepticism and reality that made it work. This was a much lighter, faster read following The Overstory and I found it to be an uplifting delight.
Related: 11 Poignant Books About Grief and LossMore info →
Say Say Say: A novel
Say Say Say follows a 20-something artist-turned-caregiver who takes a job in the home of a couple, caring for Jill, who suffered a brain injury in an accident. Jill's husband, Bryn, is attentive and loving, but burned out by the duties and realities of this new life with Jill. In her caregiving position, Ella is brought closely, intensely, almost claustrophobically into the lives of Jill and Bryn, causing her to examine her own role and feelings.
This meditation on the strange intimacy and separateness of the caregiver role was interesting, but it was internally focused and offered almost no plot, which made for challenging listening. It probably would have worked better for me in print instead of audio.More info →
Miracle Creek: A Novel
Miracle Creek takes us into a courtroom following a devastating accident: a hyperbaric chamber holding a number of patients--including children-- being treated for various conditions, exploded. Two people were killed. The mother of a dead boy is accused of causing the explosion. Miracle Creek takes the reader through each of the people tied to the accident and the events leading up to it, untangling secrets, lies, and the complexities of families.
This is truly a page-turner of a book, and while long, it held up in audio format. It was initially a little difficult to keep track of all of the characters, but they eventually sorted out and I couldn't stop listening. The author interview at the end, in which Kim recounts her own experience with hyperbaric chambers and as an immigrant, is also excellent.More info →
Things You Save in a Fire: A Novel
Firefighter Cassie Hanwell is a rising star in her Austin firehouse, but an incident that puts her career in jeopardy, as well as her mother's request to move to Boston to help care for her, have her starting over at an unfamiliar boys club. Determined to prove herself, she finds only one ally in another new firefighter, a rookie that she finds herself thinking about more and more.
Any book by Katherine Center is now going on my auto-LISTEN pile. Her books (How to Walk Away is the other one I've listened to) strike exactly the right smart-but-light note that I love in my audiobook listening. Therese Plummer's excellent narration take Center's books up a notch--I'm not sure if I would have rated either one as highly if I'd read them in print.More info →
What books have been getting you through fall?
I’m in the middle of The Dearly Beloved right now and can’t resist the comparison to Crossing to Safety, especially as up to the point I’ve read (about 25% in), the structure has been exactly the same—one of the main characters is dead/dying right at the beginning, then you dive into the backstory of the the four characters right after that. I AM enjoying it though, and I’ve been thankful the writing has been so solid—Crossing to Safety is a favorite book of mine, so if this hadn’t been written so well, I wouldn’t have been able to get through much of it!
I hadn’t heard anything about this year’s Pulitzer prize winner, and it sounds fascinating. I don’t seem to have the attention span at the moment for longer books, but this looks like one I’ll want to read in the future!
Hello! I am so happy to be back in place where I can check out my favorite bloggers. You have had some great reading this month! I loved Dearly Beloved. Did you read Ask Again, Yes? Because, for some reason, they feel the same in some way. Maybe just because both are beautifully written complex explorations of touchy subjects?
I’ve lucked out as well and had a great reading month despite all the chaos of moving. I loved The Starless Sea and Lillian Boxfish Went for a Walk. It started my backlist reading for the rest of the year, which is always a fun time.
So glad to have you back, Catherine! I hope things start to settle down for you–I know it’s been a crazy time! I did read Ask Again, Yes, and it was excellent. Some of the dark themes were tough for me so I didn’t like it as well as some others this year, but it was done really well.
Lillian Boxfish has been on my radar among a number of “quirky” books that I should try out–so glad to hear you loved it! I’m looking forward to a few backlist books next months as well. I need to pick up some that have been sitting on my shelves for far too long!
Looks like you had a good reading month! I just finished I Miss You When I Blink and am about to start The Huntress.