Book Reviews

A Reading List

I read very little while in the hospital itself, as drugs and doctors and illness really destroyed my attention span. Once I got to the peace of my house (and especially my shaded patio), that changed. Here’s a quick rundown of the books I’ve recently read (July through mid-October), excluding all the magazines and newspapers and poetry:

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina GeorgeThe Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George – I read this late in my hospital stay when I was more lucid and able to embrace it. (I even ended up recommending it to one of my nurses.) This touching story tells of a Parisian bookseller who drives his bookstore barge (!) down the Seine and other French rivers, searching for himself and a lost love. Monsieur Perdu (“Lost” as a surname) “prescribes” books to people, seeking to help them sort through their lives with books as balms – such a brilliant (and French) message. I loved the odes to books and reading: “Reading – an endless journey; a long, indeed never-ending journey that made one more temperate as well as more loving and kind.” “With all due respect, what you read is more important in the long term than the man you marry.” “A book is both medic and medicine at once. It makes a diagnosis as well as offering therapy. Putting the right novels to the appropriate ailments: that’s how I sell books.”

The book was prescribed to me at exactly the right moment, as I was just starting to wrap my head and heart around grief and loss: “Sometimes you’re swimming in unwept tears and you’ll go under if you store them up inside.”

3 weeks after losing my daughter, the lines that I re-read multiple times because they rang so true: “Do you know that there’s a halfway world between each ending and each new beginning? It’s called the hurting time, Jean Perdu. It’s a bog; it’s where your dreams and worries and forgotten plans gather. Your steps are heavier during that time. Don’t underestimate the transition, Jeanno, between farewell and new departure. Give yourself the time you need. Some thresholds are too wide to be taken in one stride.”

But George reminds us, “Books can do many things, but not everything. We have to live the important things, not read them.”

I’ll re-read this again at some point and probably find something new within. Highly recommend.

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth StroutMy Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout – Lucy Barton spends weeks in a hospital, contemplating her life and relationships as her mostly-estranged mother comes to sit quietly by her bedside. Sparse, quiet, yet roaring with introspection, this book gives you just enough to chew on, leaving you to fill in the gaps yourself. (It reminds me of Alice Munro’s short stories in that aspect.) I found a lot of familiar feelings, and could empathize with Lucy’s stay. I tore through this, looking for answers and finding nothing concrete, but it left me thinking for days.

Commonwealth by Ann PatchettCommonwealth – Ann Patchett – I love Ann Patchett’s writing, so this had been on my list for ages. Commonwealth didn’t disappoint, with complicated, messy characters who are woven together by secrets and choices. I loved how 50 years of history gave Patchett plenty of room to examine how those choices shape the lives of six children caught up in their parents’ divorces.

The River at the Center of the World by Simon WinchesterThe River at the Center of the World – Simon Winchester – Through a trip up the Yangtze River, from Shanghai to the innermost reaches of China, Winchester explores how the river shaped China and its people. His discussion of the river’s history and integral part of China’s development was fascinating, especially as he was writing this in the 1990s as the 3 Gorges Dam was being discussed.

The Distant Land of My Father by Bo CaldwellThe Distant Land of My Father – Bo Caldwell – I downloaded this for Kindle while I was in the hospital, and read it over a couple of weeks, in fits and starts, which isn’t really a fair shot. The topic was great: an American raised in Shanghai (Anna) flees to California during the Japanese occupation, while her father stays behind. Anna spends her life trying to understand her father’s choice to stay behind, and his captivation with Shanghai. I spend a week in Shanghai several years ago, and I found it captivating even then.

The Valley of Amazement by Amy TanThe Valley of Amazement – Amy Tan – I somehow read a lot of books about China all at once. I’ve always enjoyed Amy Tan’s writing, especially her memoir The Opposite of Fate, but this was not one of her best. She heavily researched her subject matter – Chinese courtesan life in Shanghai – but at times it felt like she was really struggling to pay off that research rather than tightening up plot arcs and removing repetition.  

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieAmericanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Sometimes we read to fill blind spots in our knowledge. After seeing this Nigerian novel on so many “best of” lists, I saw it at the library and grabbed it. What a ride! From a fascinatingly unique perspective, Adichie explores how Nigerian emigrants fare in the US vs the UK, and how they view (and experience) race and racism in both places. And then what happens when Nigerians return home after years abroad, and how they reinsert into what was once their home society. But at its core, Americanah is also a beautifully told love story wrapped around Nigerian history.

The Girl on the Train by Paula HawkinsThe Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins – As a girl who rides a train nearly every day, I’ve seen this book carried by dozens of commuters. It’s a well-told mystery that swept me into its web. It also reassured me that commuters do as I do – noting the people and places you see daily, and making up little stories about who they are and how they live their lives.

The Night Circus by Erin MorgensternThe Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern – Lush and beautiful and descriptive, this was a fun read, unlike anything else I’ve read. It felt so dream-like with just enough reality to keep it moving. Morgenstern creates a truly unique world that I loved visiting.

Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things by Amy DickinsonStrangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home – Amy Dickinson – I enjoyed Dickinson’s previous memoir (The Mighty Queens of Freeville), and this continues the story, exploring her romance with a local man in a tiny town in upstate New York. But this book took a turn to the dark, examining how one can and should grieve loved ones (in this case, Dickinson’s parents). Wrapping these grieving lessons in wry humor and humanity, this was heartfelt, nakedly honest, and wonderful.

Pattern Recognition by William GibsonPattern Recognition – William Gibson – Funny how a book set in 2002 can feel so current and yet so dated. But the themes in “Pattern Recognition” – viral marketing, a shrinking world, international espionage – all resonate and hold up. And Cayce is a fascinating character with a lot of depth.

Paris Time Capsule by Ella CareyParis Time Capsule – Ella Carey – The premise here is far-fetched (a New Yorker finds out she’s inherited a Paris apartment from a woman she’s never met), but losing a couple days to the story was enjoyable.

They Call Me Naughty Lola by David  RoseThey Call Me Naughty Lola – David Rose – Fast and frothy, stuffed with British humo(u)r and cultural references from the late 90s and early 2000s. This collection of personal ads from the London Review of Books makes for a fun read, but it would be better to just pick it up and read a handful at a time than read straight through.

Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna QuindlenStill Life with Bread Crumbs – Anna Quindlen – I’d never read any Quindlen, but this was a nice, quick escape to the mountains where a New York-based photographer seeks to weather a big inflection point. The writing was lovely and engaging and inspired me to read another by Quindlen.

One True Thing by Anna QuindlenOne True Thing – Anna Quindlen – Somehow I kept reading books about sick people and dying. But this one struck me. Ellen steps out of her own life for a while to take care of her ailing mother, and then is accused of a mercy killing – leaving her to examine how her mother really lived.

Time Is a River by Mary Alice MonroeTime is a River – Mary Alice Monroe – This was fluffy and predictable, but a nice read about finding oneself after a divorce. This was a more Southern Still Life with Bread Crumbs.

3110Assassination VacationSarah Vowell – I finally read a book for my book club! Vowell is a master of quirky history, relating the little-known stories of the assassinations of James Garfield and William McKinley. (She also covered Abraham Lincoln, whoever he was.) While I really enjoyed all the interesting tidbits and factoids (I’m assuming they’re fact-based, despite no cited sources), I wish there was a bit more structure or tying back to a broader theme beyond, “places where morbid things happened,” as much as I enjoyed it.

Up Next…

I’ve also devoted significant time to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and I’m about halfway through. But it’s too large to carry on the train (and I’ve learned Kindle can’t handle Wallace’s footnotes-within-footnotes), so that will take a while longer. I’ll also dig into next month’s book club book, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. 

What have you read lately that you recommend?

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