I started off my reading year with a bang and managed to finish 20 books in January. If that sounds like a lot that’s because…it is. I have an infant, so I am up all hours of the night breastfeeding and listening to audiobooks to try to stay awake and not drop the baby. I was still on maternity leave until January 14th, but our helper had already started working, so I wasn’t doing the full load of childcare and housework on my own. I went back to work for a week and a half in the middle of January, but then was back on holiday break for the Chinese New Year holiday from January 24th. And then coronavirus hit and everything shut down, so there was nowhere to go and nothing to do even if I wanted to. All of that to say, if you want to get a lot of reading done, just shut down a whole city!
Regular schools here are closed until March 2nd. Although I am going in to work at my center, we will not have face-to-face classes until March, so I’m hoping to put my downtime to good use and get a lot of reading done in February too!
Here’s what I read this month, grouped by star-ratings. Side note: I don’t know if I’m getting more generous in my old age or if I just really picked good books this month, but the majority were 4 and 5 star books for me.
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.
It’s been several years since I read Olive Kitteridge and now I want to reread it. Olive, Again is Elizabeth Strout at her best. This follows her typical format, reading more like linked stories than a traditional novel. She continues the story of Olive Kitteridge, a widow and retired school teacher living a quiet life in Crosby, Maine, while weaving in stories from the members of her community. Olive is no-nonsense and even a bit prickly at times, but ultimately she is looking for what we all want – connection, community, and meaning in our lives. I think I liked this even more than the first one.
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Quietly beautiful, this short novel reads almost like a long short-story. Addie Moore and Louis Waters have been neighbors for years without knowing each other especially well, but they have some things in common: their children are grown, their spouses have passed away, and they are lonely. When Addie comes to Louis with an unconventional proposal, he decides to take a chance. This was a moving book about the desire to be seen and the courage it takes to let ourselves be known. I read it overlapping with Olive, Again and thought the two made great companions.
Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano
A new release based on a true event about a 12-year-old boy who is the sole survivor of a commercial plane crash. The narrative alternates between following characters on the plane in the moments leading up to the crash and moving forward with Edward through the years following the crash. The premise is sad, of course, but the overall effect is earnest and hopeful.
The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali
In 1953, Roya and Bahman meet and fall in love in Tehran. As the political situation grows tenser, their only method of communication is hiding letters inside the pages of books in stationery shop which are passed on by the sympathetic shop owner, Mr. Fakhri until one day, Bahman disappears altogether. Sixty years later, Roya and Bahman are reunited in the US having built separate lives, only to learn that they were wrong about what really happened so many years ago.
Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
This book is intense, but so provocative and necessary. I keep trying to write a blurb for it, but I don’t think I can do any better than whoever wrote the Goodreads summary, so I’m borrowing that. “In Heavy, Laymon writes eloquently and honestly about growing up a hard-headed black son to a complicated and brilliant black mother in Jackson, Mississippi. From his early experiences of sexual violence, to his suspension from college, to his trek to New York as a young college professor, Laymon charts his complex relationship with his mother, grandmother, anorexia, obesity, sex, writing, and ultimately gambling. By attempting to name secrets and lies he and his mother spent a lifetime avoiding, Laymon asks himself, his mother, his nation, and us to confront the terrifying possibility that few in this nation actually know how to responsibly love, and even fewer want to live under the weight of actually becoming free.”
Lit by Mary Karr
This was one from my backlist that I’m so pleased to have finally made a priority. Karr’s talent as a writer and storyteller shines through in the story of her struggle for sobriety, her journey into motherhood, and her reluctant faith.
The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware. I’ve been a little “meh” with Ware’s other books, but I’m kind of a sucker for creepy nanny stories. Also smart houses, which are objectively always creepy. This definitely has some (I assume intentional) Turn of the Screw vibes.
No Happy Endings by Nora McInerny
I actually saw part of Nora McInerny’s TED talk about a week before picking up this book. I didn’t even realize it was the same person until I recognized some of the details of her story. In the TED talk she spoke about how foolish it is to expect people to “move on” from grief. McInerny lost her father, her husband, and a pregnancy all within a few weeks of each other. Her memoir is by turns funny, sarcastic, achingly raw, and above all honest. It doesn’t paint her as a hero or as a martyr, just as deeply human. It is an example of the kind of vulnerability the world desperately needs.
Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell
I read Maggie O’Farrell’s nonfiction book I Am, I Am, I Am in 2018 and have been wanting to read her fiction ever since. This is a common enough story -adult children come together at the family home for the first time in years, in this case, to deal with the sudden disappearance of their farther. O’Farrell portrays each family member with wit, warmth, and grace that draws you straight in to the story.
Summer of ’69 by Elin Hilderbrand
Look, Elin Hilderbrand is the queen of the summer beach read. This is her first foray into a more historical setting and I thought it was one of her best. The four Levin children navigate a summer full of personal crises, political tensions, and social unrest.
The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey
I do not read zombie books or watch zombie movies or shows. But this was great. Every day, Melanie gets strapped into her wheelchair and wheeled to school where she learns about the world from her beloved teacher Miss Justineau. And when school is over, she and the other children are strapped back into their wheelchairs and brought back to their cells with loaded guns trained on them all the while. Melanie is the brightest of the bunch, but she still can’t understand what everyone is so afraid of.
A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi
Sixteen-year-old Shirin has developed a tough exterior. As a young Muslim girl in post-9/11 America, she has come to expect people to be racist, ignorant, rude, and even dangerous. She copes by distancing herself from others and working on her breakdancing. When she meets Ocean James, she has no interest in letting down her guard. It turns out the only thing more terrifying than people who are intentionally cruel is someone who genuinely wants to know her.
The Most Fun We Ever Had by Clarie Lombardo
These kinds of books are my jam. A multi-generational family saga about the Sorenson family: Marilyn and David, who remain wildly in love after 40 years of marriage, and their four adult daughters, each with their own struggles and victories. From Goodreads: “As the novel moves through the tumultuous year following the arrival of Jonah Bendt—given up by one of the daughters in a closed adoption fifteen years before—we are shown the rich and varied tapestry of the Sorensons’ past: years marred by adolescence, infidelity, and resentment, but also the transcendent moments of joy that make everything else worthwhile.”
Truly, Devious by Maureen Johnson
Other than the Charlotte Holmes series, I don’t think I’ve ever read a specifically YA mystery. Ellingham Academy is a boarding school for the brightest and the best. Each student has their own special niche. Stevie Bell’s passion is solving crimes, specifically the unsolved historical kidnapping of founder Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter by someone who called himself ‘Devious.’. As Stevie investigates the mystery, Truly Devious returns and claims a new victim. This is the first in a series, so more to check out in the future.
The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell
This was so creepy and I was really into it. On her 25th birthday, Libby Jones inherits a house from the birth parents she never knew. The house has been abandoned for twenty-five years, ever since the day police arrived to investigate reports of a crying and found ten-month-old Libby alone in her room while down in the kitchen were three dead bodies. The four teenagers who lived in the house were never found. Libby is determined to find out about her past and what really happened in the house.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. This book felt weighty and important more than it was enjoyable. It tells a multi-generational story of a family in India. It is part family tragedy, part love story, part examination of intricate family relationships, and part indictment of society, particularly of the caste system. I found the storyline a bit difficult to follow because of the jumps back and forth in the timeline. Without spoiling anything I will say that I understood the symbolic significance of the ending, but I still didn’t like it.
A Window Opens by Elizabeth Egan. Alice Pearse is just your average woman trying to have it all-a husband, kids, friends, and a meaningful career, in this modern world. This was delightful in it’s relatability, but precisely for that reason it will probably not age well. An especially fun read if you like books about people who love books.
Pretty Baby by Mary Kubica. Pretty standard psychological/domestic thriller.
Notes From a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi. I don’t watch Top Chef so I wasn’t familiar with Onwuachi before reading this, but I’m all about chef memoirs. My main criticisms are just that, as it says on the cover, he is a young chef. He doesn’t have a ton of experience in the kitchen or the restaurant industry and he comes off as arrogant at times in the book given how little experience and training he actually has.
Treasuring Christ When Your Hands are Full by Gloria Furman. I am sure this book would mean a lot to some people, it just wasn’t for me.
Pros: This book is not a self-help book. It is chock-full of Scripture and theological truths and every page is pointing to the message of the gospel.
Cons: I could not relate to the author at all and it was a dry read.
I knew this book was not for me when the author told a story from her own life where her washing machine broke and she let out a cry of frustration (not a curse, mind you, just a frustrated noise) that brought her children running. And she immediately repented of her sin in being short-tempered and thanked God for the opportunity to model repentance in front of her children thereby pointing them to eternity.
Look, Gloria, you and I, we’re not the same thing. Being convicted for losing your temper? Sure. But then you took it a step too far. I’m not saying she’s wrong in her feelings and thoughts at all. I’m saying I found her to be extremely difficult to relate to.
Mainly, I just didn’t feel like this lived up to the title. It’s not a bad book. I think it might mean a lot to holier women than I. It just wasn’t for me.
Have you read any of these? Do tell! I love talking about books almost as much as I love reading them. Also, don’t forget that you can follow me on Goodreads!