Books For a Time of Personal Distancing.

Book Recommendations for Coronavirus

I mean, they’re not books about personal distancing, because what we all need right now is the feeling of community, even while we’re preparing to avoid community. But I’ve read a bunch of books since my last book report, and for such a time as this, thankyouverymuchcoronavirus, we all need a healthy stack of books (or five) for our time of forced snuggle-up-in-bed-and-wait-it-outness.

Also, I don’t know about you, but I need some serious escapism between my bouts of corona-research.

(As a side note, I’ve been pointedly ignoring the Coronavirus until Wednesday, at which point I started researching heartily to try and sift the hype from the reality, and for 36 hours I couldn’t decide which was closer to the truth, that truth that was surely somewhere in the vast murky middle. But yesterday, I finally decided that despite my generalizer persistent optimism, I’m starting to believe the Clear and Present Danger, and regardless, the best thing we could all do is follow the social distancing protocol as best as we can (I’m not stopping my whole life but being wise and cutting out what I can) and hope that we all laugh heartily about this in a year when it comes back up on our Timehop. I’d much rather remember fondly all of our silliness than the alternative. And, plus, the introvert side of me is super cool with the idea of a forced couple weeks of cuddling up in bed, on the couch, and in the armchair and reading. But that’s just my opinion and I do not claim to be an expert. Read my further thoughts here.)

So let’s read, shall we?

Fiction:

Once Upon a River – I read this book before The Thirteenth Tale, not realizing that raving fans of The Thirteenth Tale were disappointed by Once Upon a River. I’m glad I read this book first, because I found it to be intriguing and delightful, weaving a unique story that very much feels like it is carrying you down a magical river of words. It’s a great mystery to escape into.

 

 

 

The Thirteenth Tale – So THEN I got her first book, which was so impressive as a first book that it created a bidding war between quite a number of publishers.

It. Was. Spectacular.

It was so good that I wanted to immediately go back and reread it to figure out “How tha heck did she just do that??”

In fact, it may warrant a Corona-induced second read.

Wildwood – My positive review of this book is apparently quite questionable. I loved this book, but Ali has not loved it, and I had another friend who also didn’t love it. Also, I didn’t like the two sequels nearly as much. BUT the first book was magical and lovely and meaningful and fun and deep. It had traces of Narnia, but with a few beautiful deep thoughts and lessons in it. The book is also magically illustrated. I felt like the tone of the book was happy and magical, but Ali felt it was dreary and depressing (though she hasn’t finished it and I’m hoping she changes her mind.) If you’ve read this book, I need to know if you’re #TeamAli or #TeamRachel.

A Gentleman in Moscow – This might be the perfect Coronavirus book, because it’s long and slow and a drawn out tale of an entire life. The first section, though fine, did not draw me in. But by the end, I was fully committed, and since finishing it, I have sorely missed The Count and his life under house arrest (except it was actually “really fancy hotel arrest”) in communist Russia. It’s upbeat and optimistic in a dark time. It tells tales of a time and place that I really know very little about, starting with the Bolshevik revolution in the 1920s and going through the 1950s. But it’s a very vague retelling of events, as if you, too, were under house arrest and removed from the action.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kate Milford’s Books – I went on a serious Kate Milford bender in the fall and winter. I had read Greenglass House a couple years ago and enjoyed it, but didn’t read the rest of her books right away. Then I got one, then two, and before I knew it I had hungrily read every book she’d ever written (except for the one that only had 50 copies and is impossible to find.)

(Except that there’s one copy on Thriftbooks for over $100 and I’m all like “uh, no. ThriftBooks. I love you but no.)

(By the way do you know about ThriftBooks? It’s the most amazing thing for my bookbuying addiction. Or worst thing. Depending on how you look at it. It’s like having access to the world’s thrift store books without having to sift through dusty copies of outdated cookbooks to find what you want. And you earn points for buying books and get a free book every now and then. Which is super sweet of them.)

But back to Kate. Her books are unique – they happen over many different time periods and settings, yet they all weave together in a beautiful, complex, thought-provoking way. Some are more magical than others, and there is a LOT going on in all of them. She’s the opposite sort of writer from JK Rowling, who is a preparer – you know if JK describes some new setting or piece of magic at the beginning of the book, it’s going to play into the end of the book. Meanwhile, Kate just jumps into her worlds with zero explanation, all the while turning and waving at you and yelling “Keep up! You’ll get it in a minute I promise.” If you like a complex world with many strings, you will love her books.

It’s a bit confusing to figure out what order to read them in, since they happen across many time periods, but here’s my input:

    • Read Greenglass House first. Important context: Nagspeake is a fictional sovereign city on the eastern coast of the United States, of whom all industry (and government) is controlled by the evil Deacon and Morvengarde, who have a monopoly on all the things. So naturally, smuggling is a must.
    • Don’t read The Left-Handed Fate before Bluecrowne, and maybe read both of these before The Thief Knot, though not required.
    • Don’t read The Thief Knot before Ghosts of Greenglass House.
    • Expect The Broken Lands and The Boneshaker to be very different, yet connected, to the rest of the books. These have some violence in them – I wouldn’t recommend Broken Lands for sensitive children.
    • Don’t miss the fact that some of the other books are just part of the role-playing-game (i.e. a legend) by the time history arrives to the present, which is when Greenglass House occurs.

There Will Be Stars – This was a random find at Ollie’s (by the way – Ollie’s has amazing book deals and a shockingly good selection of even new releases), and I knew nothing about the author or the book. It was quirky, a little rough around the edges, but created an eerie, interesting world and scenario that definitely pulled me in and made me think. I’ve only read one Stephen King book ever (11/22/63 – the one about JFK), but this book reminded me of it in some ethereal way.

 

 

 

Nonfiction:
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – This is one of the most engrossing and fascinating nonfiction books I’ve ever read. It tells the story of the first ever human tissue ever grown in a lab and the story of the woman the cells came from, the effect on her family, and the fact that 70 years later, her cells are still being grown and used in laboratories all over the world. Although she never knew nor gave permission for her cells to be taken or grown, they were in the atom bomb, went to the moon, helped cure polio, make vaccines, and have been reproduced and grown so much that Henrietta Lacks’ cells on this earth right now is estimated to weigh 50 million metric tons. There’s a LOT more to the story, and the easy to understand scientific explanations and implications are woven beautifully in with Henrietta’s story, then with her children’s stories as they had to grapple with the fact that their mother was “saved and grown” without her permission or knowledge, and without their knowledge for over 20 years.

I Am Malala – I read the young adult version of this book first (a lot of my reading is to fill my kid’s literature choice shelves – they each have a shelf full of “quality literature” – both fiction and nonfiction – to pick from for their school reading), and upon finishing it, immediately ordered the adult version, which I haven’t read yet. Malala is a Pakistani young lady who, in 2012, when she was fifteen years old and on the school bus, was shot in the face by The Taliban. They targeted her because of her stand for girl’s rights to education in opposition to The Taliban. Her story is gripping and eye-opening to how the Taliban can come in and control entire regions out of fear and terror. But ultimately her story is one of optimism and change and the impact of one person on an entire nation. Malala was the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and continues to work for peace and freedom.
Two Miserable Presidents – Another read for the kid’s bookshelves, this book is full of fun, weird, bizarre facts about the Civil War. In the introduction, the author Steve Sheinkin admits to being a frustrated textbook writer, because all of his interesting facts always get cut. So he’s been saving them and has now released a series sharing real history, but also all of the fantastic stories that give history its depth and interest. The book does a good job of explaining both side’s perspectives on the war, how the war came about, and describes all of the complicated issues that often get glossed over. Noah has also read the book and really enjoyed it.

 

King Leopold’s Ghost – This book is engrossing, insane, unsettling, and eye-opening on so many levels. It tells about the atrocities of King Leopold II of Belgium, who lived between 1825-1909, and his calculated, cold, and extraordinarily propaganda-coated takeover of a giant swath of Africa. While he was charming America and all of Europe, who gave him accolades for his charity and goodness, he terrorizes and tortures millions of Africans, steals all of their resources, forces them into slavery, and ultimately kills an estimated 10 million Africans. Unsettlingly, the premise for going into the continent was that these Africans, who supposedly practiced cannibalism and such, needed to be “civilized” so that they could advance as a people. What happened instead was that the Belgians “in charge” went on a power trip of hatefulness and cruelty and became the savages against the people they went to “help.” The book is not as horrific as it sounds (though in fact the events are indeed horrific), and it’s a good reminder that unchecked power breeds the worst of evil and savagery.

 

What I didn’t enjoy – the books in my Bottom Shelf. It has hereby been titled The Bottom Shelf because if we run out of toilet paper…well, these will be the books that get used first.

 

 

 

 
When Life Gives You Lululemons – This book was annoying. It tried to be gossipy and catty, but it just achieved whiny and awkward.

A Series of Unfortunate Events – I read the first two books of these (more kid shelf research) and found them to be way too train-wrecky and anxiety-inducing for me. I suppose the title should have been a clue, but somehow assumed the hype around them would make me like them. Nope.

Alex and Eliza – This is a dumb fictionalization of the story of Alexander Hamilton. It veers too far away from the actual story, is ripe with coincidences, and was disappointing.

I Capture the Castle – I found this book on a list of “happy reads” – and oh my goodness – WHO were those people and how were they so sad that this book made them happy. The first half was fine and fun, but then it spiraled into a horrific simpering pity party and depression and ended horribly. I was angry when I finished it.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper – This book had promise (I usually love endearing old men books), but it was too “easy”, too coincidental, didn’t dig into characters enough, and just had too little depth.

That’s it – for now. Thankfully, though I haven’t stockpiled toilet paper, I have accidentally stockpiled large amounts of unread books. So you know where to find me for the next month – reading and inventorying toilet paper squares, wondering when I have to break out The Bottom Shelf.

What do you plan on reading?

Let’s Curl Up With A Good Book.

2019 book recs

So I’ve been reading a lot in the past few years. But the last time I told y’all about my favorite books was February of 2018. Since that post, I’ve read 131 books. Ergo, I clearly have a backlog of amazing books (and also a few awful ones. Should I list the books I didn’t enjoy? I feel like I should) to share with you. You can find a list of all the books I’ve read and my ratings over at GoodReads (I think you’ll have to friend request me), but for the sake of this post, I narrowed down my recommendations to my top 12 books (or series) out of the 131. 

But first, the best ones. 

The only book I’ve read twice in less than a year: 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. 

 

I read this book last year on vacation and had to finish it at perilous risk of no sleep (which was followed up by the hotel fire alarm going off twice in the middle of the night, so that was just great) and so, 10 months later, I went back and read it again – slower this time, since the suspense wasn’t killing me. I enjoyed it just as much the second time around. I love a book that is written in a happy tone, regardless of the circumstances going up and down in the book. This book has some darker themes, but the overall feel of the book, from the very first page, puts you in a light, happy mindset. I thoroughly enjoyed the characters and the storyline, and it gave a thoughtful, original approach to several issues.

The books I had to read because I got into the television series but the books were better:

The Poldark Series.

Have you watched Poldark on Amazon Prime yet? It’s a really fantastic show for those of you who enjoyed Downton Abbey, or who just like a good British drama. It happens right after the US War for Independence and is about a British soldier who comes home, defeated, and trying to put his life back together. But the books are funny and delightful in a way that the show totally misses out on. The show is fantastic too, and I recommend both. I like how authentic the peek at the late 1700s is – it’s not overglamorized or over-makeuped. (Let’s pretend that’s a word.) Caution: the books were written quite a while ago and many of their covers are atrociously ugly. Don’t let them scare you away.

Engrossing, Beautiful Fiction:

The Night Circus.

This book was lovely. It built a world that I could visualize and desperately wanted to enter into. The buildup of the story is slow, but it is created with such purpose and beauty that you don’t want it to be an iota faster. If you want to sink into a lovely fantasy world and just stay there for a while, this is the book for you.

 

 

The Only Non-Fiction, Non-Memoir Book I’ve Finished in a Long Time:

The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith.

If you’ve ever found yourself feeling like you’re going backwards in your faith, or find yourself thinking differently than you used to, or wondering why everyone in their 30s is going through a Mid-Life Belief Crisis, this book is so enlightening. It explains a general framework that we go through during our life as our viewpoints, perspectives, understanding of others, and maturity levels change. I have recommended this book to so many people. It’s crazy expensive, but there are a few used copies floating around.

 


The Book That Got Me Hooked on Memoirs:

The Fox Hunt.

If I were to have to choose one book to command you to READ THIS ONE BOOK ON THIS LIST, The Fox Hunt would be my choice. This was a serendipitous random book buying in the airport before getting on a flight. There were only 10 book choices at the kiosk, I was desperate for a new book, and I picked this one up. It had me riveted the entire flight and I wished my flight had lasted longer because I didn’t want to quit reading for a second. Such a fabulous, beautiful, important story about how a man, who grew up in a country torn apart by religious civil war and completely brainwashed into hating all other religions, was rescued from that war by friends on the internet from three different religions. He captures the essence of respect for other people’s humanity and not “othering” others just because that’s what you’ve been taught. But besides the deeper meaning, the story itself will have you on the edge of your seat.

A Fun, Happy, Quirky, Funny  Read:

Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions.

I rarely find fiction funny. But this book was definitely a laugh out loud book. I love the witty, snarky, busybody, indecent character of Auntie Poldi, I adore her determination for solving mysteries for herself, and I can’t wait to read her sequels.

 

 

A Series Worth Delving Into:

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.

These books are a delight. The slow, comforting voice they’re written in combined with the exotic setting of Botswana will let you experience a world that you’ve never quite imagined before. They will take you on a calm, relaxed journey through a beautiful country and culture while solving mysteries and learning about life.

 

 

A Book That Reads Like a Tell-All Blog:

Educated.

 This book fascinated and horrified me, but I was also shocked that it was written (and also that she was very brave to write it.) Because as soon as I finished the book, I stalked down all the people in it on Facebook – it took all of five minutes – and matched up their “fake” names with their real names. I felt so creepy (okay I am creepy) as I looked at the real pictures and Facebook statuses of this family that were absolutely bashed in a 20-something year old’s memoir. But wow it was a good book.

 

The Books My Husband Won’t Let Me Tell You About:

Sometimes I read books and tell Chris about them and he’s like “uh yeah don’t blog about that because I don’t want those people coming after you.” (The first one of these commands came after I read a couple insider tell-all books about a certain cult that a certain Top Gun movie star is involved in – those books were craaaazypants.) The two I read this time were so fascinating but also horrifying. They read like post-apocalyptic fiction, and you totally start subconsciously assuming it is fiction, then you remember that it’s real stuff that really happens in this world, in a country that gets mentioned in the news quite a bit. But I guess for a complete list of Banned-To-Blog-About-Books, you’ll have to email me.

A Book That Will Make You Feel All The Things:

All of Me.

This is an autobiography from a woman who has Disassocitive Identity Disorder (formerly called Multiple Personality Disorder.) She has a very severe, “gold standard” case where her personalities never overlap, never have the same memories, never interact with each other. So for 40 years, she lived with life gaps and memory gaps and didn’t understand why she was being blamed for things she didn’t do. It took her doctors years to convince her that she had multiple personalities – and this is just the main personality’s story – the doctors had to convince each personality separately (and some still do not believe that other personalities share a body with them.) Her story is a hard one to read, one that will blow your mind, one that will give you hope for humanity and healing, and one that will make you really mad at parts of humanity. But mainly it will blow you away – especially the second half.

Gossipy, Funny, Lighthearted Trilogy:

Crazy Rich Asians.

First of all: The movie was so dumb. Thank goodness I had read the trilogy before it came out. I made it halfway through the movie and turned it off. But the books were a fun ride through the insanely rich lifestyles of Singapore and China, and the footnotes were the best part.

 

 

You Must Read If You Live In Birmingham:

Fried Green Tomatoes and the Whistle Stop Cafe.

Yeah I should’ve read this years ago but I didn’t. It was such a fun trip into a Birmingham that existed before I was born, and had so much old Birmingham landmarkery and history in it. It was just a fun read (the movie cuts out all of the Birmingham-specific lore.)

(I also enjoyed her book “The Whole Town’s Talking” last year but it confused me because I kept waiting on the plot and there isn’t really one. So go into it more as a winding tale about a town over many generations and it’s quite enjoyable.)

 

A Book I REALLY should have read a long time ago:

Prince Borghese’s Trail.

This book is about the 1996 road rally that spanned 10,000 miles in 45 days, traveling from Beijing to Paris. My dad rebuilt two 1950 Fords for this race and navigated one of them across the most crazy roads in the world. His team came in second place. The lady that wrote the book was a good friend of my dad’s on the race, and he gets referenced and quoted a lot. I read this book in the month following my Dad’s death – it was bittersweet. In one way, it felt like I’d discovered a journal of my dad’s, and it gave me a piece of him that I didn’t have when he was alive. In the other way, I regretted not having read it while he was alive so that I could discuss various aspects of their adventure with him. But at any rate, the book is an interesting chronicle about a bizarrely unique experience. The first couple chapters have way too much technical “car talk” in them, but once they head across the world, it gets really fantastic.

Books I didn’t enjoy:

The Great Alone. I really thought I would love this since it had rave reviews and I enjoyed The Nightingale. But I did not. It was one tragedy after another and so much sad. Blech.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Holy Crap this book was depressing. But what really bugged me about it was its complete lack of realism. The kid was old enough to understand things. It’s like he originally wrote a book about a three year old but then the publisher said the kid should be nine, and he made him nine without making any changes to his level of intellect or understanding. 

Dead End in Norvelt. It always makes me sad when I don’t like Newbery books. This was one of them.

The Wangs Vs. The World. Hands down the worst book I’ve ever made myself finish. The kind that makes you mad at yourself that you finished it.

Raymie Nightengale. Weird, depressing, and fell flat.

The Selection Series: The first book was excellent. The second and third books went downhill fast. It’s YA, but got way too graphic in book three, which made me super irritated. 

Books I Couldn’t Finish:

I have never allowed myself to not finish fiction books (yet somehow I’m allowed to not finish non-fiction books), but I had two last year – both, interestingly, were heavily pushed to me by Amazon. So I’ve decided to not believe Amazon’s book recommendations ever again. They were Matchmaking for Beginners (HATED the main character so hard) and The Paper Magician (so cliche and cheesy.)  Now that I think about it, The Wangs Vs. The World was an Amazon recommendation, too. DANG YOU AMAZON. 

So. What have you loved, hated, or not finished this year? Do we line up in our book tastes?

Summer Reading For Rebels.

Guilty Confession: I don’t hate the library, per se, but I might believe that the library hates me.

Our branch is always crowded and loud and I struggle mightily to find the books we’re looking for. I used to try and do the right, the expected, the moral thing, and take my children to the library regularly. But then I realized that we could just go to the Scholastic Warehouse Sale twice a year, stock up on books for super cheap, and never have to enter the doors of the place that so overwhelms me.

…Except for the summertime, when my kids absolutely expect to participate in the Summer Reading Program.

Okay maybe I do hate the library. Or actually maybe it’s my own laziness.

Summer Reading Programs are great. Really. But oh my goodness they’re so much work with the app changing every year and the tracking type changing and also papers that you have to bring in and you have to come every week or it doesn’t count and the suspicious looks that the librarian gives me if Ali reads too many pages.

The last couple of summers we’ve started out with good intentions, but it doesn’t take long for us to fall off the radar of those weekly check-in visits and then sometime in October the kids say “Hey, whatever happened to our Summer Reading? Do we have any more rewards we can get?”

(Okay clearly it’s my fault and not the library’s. But you gotta work with what you got.)

So this year I decided to do my own Summer Reading Program.

No Libraries Needed!

Less Paperwork!!

No Suspicious Librarians!!!

No App Passwords that you don’t remember from last year, only to find out that they’re using a new app!

AND the kids are responsible for all their own paperwork and no one will complain about their handwriting!!

It’s going swimmingly well, so I decided to share it here, with the thought that some of you may already find yourself flagging in your library visits and needing a new way to motivate your poor libraryless children.

It’s simple, it’s been quite motivating, and it’s given the kids some summer structure, which is something they’re always craving.

Here were my steps in implementation:

1. I suspended allowance for the summer – they normally get $5 a week.

2. I replaced it with Mom’s Summer Reading Program, giving them the opportunity to earn up to $10 a week.

3. I made a simple tracking spreadsheet that included…

A. What they had to accomplish every day to earn their alotted iPad time (this doesn’t really have to do with Summer Reading but ya gotta stay on top of chores somehow)

B. The tracking area for their books and pages read.

4. I explained the system to them:

A. Ali, 12 years old and about to go into 7th grade, gets $1 for every 50 pages she reads, with a max of $10 a week. BUT rollover pages are allowed, and I encouraged getting ahead for weeks like when we’re on vacation and they’ll read less, or when they’re going to day camp and will be too exhausted to read.

Do It Yourself Summer Reading Form

B. Noah, 8 years old and about to go into 3rd grade, gets $1 for every 25 pages he reads, with a max of $10 a week, and rollover allowed.

Do It Yourself Summer Reading Form2

C. Every Monday morning, they present their Reading Logs to me for me to check their math and pay out their totals. So far, they’ve each gotten $10 every week.

It’s that simple. But they’re OBSESSED with it. And reading a ton. And keeping up with their own paperwork. And not begging me to take them to the library constantly. And have yet to tell me that they’re bored.

(And Noah can be reading as many books at once as he wants without having to finish the books to get his summer reading credit. The kid has a short book attention span.)

Reading Log IMG_9445

So if you’d like our Summer Reading Log to enact your own Personal Summer Reading Program, click here to download it and give it a try.