I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
Description: Set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, this is a story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
I really liked this book set in a world 20 years after a devastating flu wiped out over 99% of the world’s population (I enjoy reading about people who survive in extraordinary circumstances, even if it’s fictional). I preferred the part of the story set in present time more so than the flashbacks — but those were good, too. One review I read thought the story ended rather abruptly (there was at least one large unresolved issue) and hypothesized there might be a sequel on the way. I hope so.
Still Alice, Lisa Genova
Description: Alice Howland is proud of the life she worked so hard to build. At fifty years old, she’s a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a world-renowned expert in linguistics with a successful husband and three grown children. When she becomes increasingly disoriented and forgetful, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease changes her life forever.
This book was unsettling. I don’t have a great memory, so now every time I forget something I’ll be thinking about the possibility of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
The story is very well done. You will cringe for Alice. You will feel sorrow when she tells her children about her diagnosis (along with the news they’ll have a 50% chance of contracting the disease themselves). You will wish she’d followed through on her suicide plan before her condition advanced so far she forgot she was supposed to do it (okay, maybe that’s just me). Alice seemed to degenerate so quickly; her condition was obvious within a matter of months.
I don’t usually go searching for movies based on books I’ve read, but the cinematic version of this particular story is definitely on my to-watch list.
Mambo in Chinatown, Jean Kwok
Description: Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. When she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down.
When I started reading this book, I assumed the story was set in the early 1900s: A Chinese woman in her early 20s, working as a dishwasher in a restaurant where her father is a noodle maker, living together in a tiny apartment with a younger sibling.
It wasn’t until she made references to certain technologies (like cell phones) that I realized it was set in the modern age. That part of the story definitely surprised me – people who live in NYC’s Chinatown but remain so insulated from the outside world. (The main character had a friend named Zan, which I’ve never come across in a book before, so I thought that was pretty neat.)
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin
Description: A.J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. He lives alone, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. But when a mysterious package appears at the bookstore, its unexpected arrival gives Fikry the chance to make his life over.
This story about a bookstore owner is delightful. It’s about a crotchety man who falls in love, but it’s not at all typical. I also liked how the ending surprised me – at first I thought it would be sad, but there’s another twist and it ends happily after all.
The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
Description: The enigmatic Winter has spent six decades creating various outlandish life histories for herself — all of them inventions that have brought her fame and fortune but have kept her violent and tragic past a secret. Now old and ailing, she at last wants to tell the truth about her extraordinary life. She summons biographer Margaret Lea, a young woman for whom the secret of her own birth, hidden by those who loved her most, remains an ever-present pain. Struck by a curious parallel between Miss Winter’s story and her own, Margaret takes on the commission.
I rated this book one of my favorite fiction reads of 2007…and eight years later, I forgot all about it and read it again. On the bright side, I enjoyed it just as much the second time!
Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy
Description: This powerful memoir is about the premium we put on beauty and on a woman’s face in particular. It took Lucy twenty years of living with a distorted self-image and more than thirty reconstructive procedures before she could come to terms with her appearance after childhood cancer and surgery that left her jaw disfigured.
Is life easier now for kids who get cancer in their face than when the author went through it in the 1970s? I have no idea, but I sure hope so. Have treatment methods evolved so patients no longer have to do chemotherapy and radiation for two-and-a-half years? Because that’s what Lucy did. Is plastic surgery less likely to revert back to its original state? Because that’s what happened to Lucy over the course of multiple reconstructive jaw surgeries. Lucy would have surgery to fix the shape of her jaw and a year later it would look like nothing had been done. It’s amazing she kept trying after so many disappointments.
This is the moving portrayal of a girl who didn’t think she deserved to be loved because she was so ugly. Someone who was mercilessly teased in school. From the first paragraph of chapter 12: “I put all my effort into looking at the world as openly, unbiasedly, and honestly as possible, but I could not recognize my own self as a part of this world. I took great pains to infuse a sense of grace and meaning into everything I saw, but I could not apply those values to myself.”
The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton
Description: In 1686, 18-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office. Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist—an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways.
While this book is called The Miniaturist, the actual miniaturist in the story was not fleshed out in a satisfactory way. We learn who the miniaturist is, but not why the character does what it does or what their motivations are. There were many questions regarding the miniaturist which remain unresolved.
Having said that, the story was well written. I was impressed at the amount of research involved for the author; I learned a lot about Amsterdam in the late 1600s that I didn’t know before (I have a soft spot for Amsterdam because I spent five months there on a study abroad program in college).
Burial Rites, Hannah Kent
Description: Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, this is the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, who is charged with the brutal murder of her former master and sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.
Just like with The Miniaturist, I was impressed with the author’s research and knowledge when it came to writing this story. Since I’ve just started getting back into fiction after a long break, I’ve come to realize I really like fiction based on true events, and as well as historical fiction.
The description of Agnes’ treatment while in prison was horrific, but it got better once she was transferred to live with a family while awaiting her execution. I assumed there was more to the murders than her accusers cared to acknowledge, and indeed, Agnes’ story comes out slowly over the course of the book.
Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry, Helaine Olen
Description: Journalist and former financial columnist Olen goes behind the curtain of the personal finance industry to expose the myths, contradictions, and outright lies it has perpetuated. She shows how an industry that started as a response to the Great Depression morphed into a behemoth that thrives by selling us products and services that offer little if any help.
I had this on my to-read list for a while; I made note of it when Olen was a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in February 2013. There were some interesting tidbits (she has quite a bit to say about Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey, most of it derogatory), but I wasn’t fully engaged. I couldn’t read it late in the evening because the dense subject matter had a tendency to put me to sleep.
Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, Laurie Colwin
Description: From veal scallops sautéed on a hot plate in her studio apartment to home-baked bread that is both easy and delicious, Colwin imparts her hard-earned secrets in this collection of essays. She advocates for simple dishes made from fresh, organic ingredients, and counsels that even in the worst-case scenario, there is always an elegant solution: dining out.
My friend RA loved this book, but I couldn’t get into it. I like food memoirs but I’m generally not a fan of essay collections. I need to learn to embrace this preference and stick to genres I know I like.
The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman’s Romp Through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis, Tara Austen Weaver
Description: Growing up in a vegetarian family, Tara never thought she’d stray. But as an adult, she found herself in poor health and a doctor ordered her to eat meat. As she navigates through this confusing new world she’s tempted to give up and go back to eating tempeh. The more she learns about meat and how it’s produced, and the effects eating it has on the human body and the planet, the less she feels she knows.
There were some entertaining parts to this book (horrible food the author has been served at dinner parties) and also informative (like her visit to a local/organic beef operation), but most of it didn’t do a good job holding my attention.
At the end of the book, the type of food she decides she will eat going forward was…not what I expected. This book was published in 2010 and I have a feeling she didn’t find her choice sustainable over the long term (I did a Google search but wasn’t able to verify this one way or the other).
The Sound of Paper, Julia Cameron
Description: Cameron delves deep into the heart of the personal struggles that all artists experience. What can we do when we face our keyboard or canvas with nothing but a cold emptiness? How can we begin to carve out our creation when our vision and drive are clouded by life’s uncertainties? In other words, how can we begin the difficult work of being an artist?
I’ve previously read and enjoyed The Artist’s Way (another book by this author), but The Sound of Paper was a struggle to get through. Most of the essays didn’t inspire me and only a few of the writing prompts were something I could see myself using. I was looking for a book about writing but this one also addressed music, and the creative process in general, so that could have been a factor. I’ve read recommendations from people who liked this book, but it wasn’t for me.