Books

Books Read in March 2015

I read 15 books in March, which brings my 2015 total to 37.

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended (I didn’t have any in the top category this month).

Recommended

The Three

1) The Three, Sarah Lotz

Description: The world is stunned when four commuter planes crash within hours of each other on different continents. Facing global panic, officials are under pressure to find the causes. With terrorist attacks and environmental factors ruled out, there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between the crashes, except that in three of the four air disasters a child survivor is found in the wreckage. Dubbed ‘The Three’ by the international press, the children all exhibit disturbing behavioral problems. They are forced to go into hiding, but as the children’s behavior becomes increasingly disturbing, even their guardians begin to question their miraculous survival.

The format of this book threw me off a bit at first. It’s fiction but reads like nonfiction; it’s a book within a book; it’s packed with interviews and personal accounts from people involved in some way with the four plane crashes. The author does a fantastic job of seamlessly transitioning between characters and voices, and also creating suspense. There are a lot of questions left unresolved at the end but I was content with how the story played out.

2) The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker

Description: On an ordinary Saturday in a California suburb, Julia awakes to discover that something has happened to the rotation of the earth. The days and nights are growing longer and longer; gravity is affected; the birds, the tides, human behavior, and cosmic rhythms are thrown into disarray. In a world that seems filled with danger and loss, Julia also must face surprising developments in herself, and in her personal world—divisions widening between her parents, strange behavior by her friends, the pain and vulnerability of first love, a growing sense of isolation, and a surprising, rebellious new strength.

I normally steer away from books with child narrators (I prefer to read from an adult’s perspective), but this one was worth it. The author did an excellent job describing what could happen if a single day stretched to 30 hours long…three days long…and beyond.

An attempt to restore normalcy by living according to the 24-hour clock meant an entire day could be spent in the dark. Some people refused to live by the 24-hour clock and found themselves ostracized because of it. Books like this can be a little freaky, forcing you to consider how you’d handle living in such an environment. I hope I never have to find out.

3) Mudbound, Hillary Jordan

Description: It is 1946, and city-bred Laura McAllan is trying to raise her children on her husband’s Mississippi Delta farm—a place she finds foreign and frightening. In the midst of the family’s struggles, two young men return from the war to work the land. Jamie McAllan, Laura’s brother-in-law, is everything her husband is not—charming, handsome, and haunted by his memories of combat. Ronsel Jackson, eldest son of the black sharecroppers who live on the McAllan farm, has come home with the shine of a war hero. It is the unlikely friendship of these brothers-in-arms that drives this powerful novel to its inexorable conclusion.

This is how Laura’s husband told her he was taking her out of the city where they had lived together for six years: “Honey, by the way, I bought a farm in Mississippi. We’ll be moving there in two weeks.” What?! I understand things were different for women in our not-so-distant past, but my opinion of her husband plummeted when this happened (and sank further when his attitude toward his sharecroppers surfaced). I liked how the main characters rotated telling their stories by switching off chapters of the book – it was nice having the story build from multiple perspectives.

4) Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, Marilyn Johnson

Description: This is a look at the lives of contemporary archaeologists as they sweat under the sun for clues to the puzzle of our past. Johnson digs and drinks alongside them, chases them through the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and even Machu Picchu, and excavates their lives. What drives these archaeologists is not the money (meager) or the jobs (scarce) or the working conditions (dangerous), but their passion for the stories that would otherwise be buried and lost.

I didn’t love this book as much as other bloggers did – I enjoyed the first half more so than the second – but I admired the author for bringing shine to a dusty profession. My only experience previous with archaeology was an elective 101-level class in college, so it was interesting to learn how modern archaeologists make a living (or don’t make a living, as the job is rated one of the worst majors you can choose if you want to work in the field and make a decent wage).

There are people who love archaeology so much – even if they literally live in poverty and/or go months or years unemployed – they can’t fathom doing anything else. The field is full of passionate people we never hear about unless there’s a major discovery. I’m not patient enough to spend hours on my knees in the dirt, uncovering artifacts layer by layer (and more often than not, having nothing to show for it), but they probably wouldn’t want my desk job either.

5) Ruby, Cynthia Bond

Description: Ephram Jennings has never forgotten the beautiful girl running through the piney woods of Liberty, their small East Texas town. Young Ruby has suffered beyond imagining, so as soon as she can, she flees suffocating Liberty for the bright pull of 1950s New York. When a telegram from her cousin forces her to return home, Ruby finds herself reliving the devastating violence of her girlhood and struggling to survive her memories of the town’s dark past. Meanwhile, Ephram must choose between loyalty to the sister who raised him and the chance for a life with the woman he has loved since he was a boy.

This book is kind of a love story, but it’s not typical and it’s certainly not polite. Don’t read this book if you’re easily offended or squeamish about rape. I thought certain parts were disturbing (other bloggers have described it as brutal), but the author isn’t overly graphic in her descriptions so I didn’t find the disturbing parts to be excessive. Although Ruby experienced horrible things from childhood through her present, I found it difficult to see her as a sympathetic character.

6) The Wife, Meg Wolitzer

Description: The moment Joan Castleman decides to leave her husband, they are 35000 feet above the ocean on a flight to Helsinki. Joan’s husband, Joseph, is one of America’s preeminent novelists, about to receive a prestigious international award, and Joan, who has spent forty years subjugating her own literary talents to fan the flames of his career, has finally decided to stop. Wolitzer flashes back to 1950s Smith College and Greenwich Village and follows the course of the marriage that has brought the couple to this breaking point—one that results in a shocking revelation.

It was slightly disappointing that I guessed this book’s ending far in advance (did I inadvertently read about it somewhere, or was the truth as obvious to others as it was to me?), but I still enjoyed it.

7) California, Edan Lepucki

Description: The world Cal and Frida have always known is gone, and they’ve left the crumbling city of Los Angeles far behind them. They now live in a shack in the wilderness, working side-by-side to make their days tolerable in the face of hardship and isolation. But the tentative existence they’ve built for themselves is thrown into doubt when Frida finds out she’s pregnant. Terrified of the unknown and unsure of their ability to raise a child alone, they set out for the nearest settlement, a guarded and paranoid community with dark secrets. These people can offer them security, but Cal and Frida soon realize this community poses dangers of its own.

I can’t help it – I like books about survival in post-apocalyptic worlds. It makes me realize I pretty much have zero skills which would be useful if our society collapsed. I live in a city and work at a computer all day. When I’m not at my computer I have my smartphone nearby. Maybe one day these stories will inspire me to gain some useful knowledge of my own.

8) Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

Description: In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given all his savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a moose hunter. How McCandless came to die is the unforgettable story.

Chris McCandless was a brilliant, stubborn guy who made some stupid decisions (I lost some respect for him when I discovered he called himself Alexander Supertramp). Krakauer wrote a compelling tale of Chris’ life, his experiences in Alaska, and the people he met along the way (some of whom he affected quite deeply). The book is interspersed with stories about other solo adventurers – including the author – who shunned societal normal and headed off into the wilderness by themselves.

9) Bad Feminist: Essays, Roxane Gay

Description: In these funny and insightful essays, Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman, of color, while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years and commenting on the state of feminism today. The portrait that emerges is not only one of an incredibly insightful woman continually growing to understand herself and our society, but also one of our culture.

While I’m not usually a fan of essays, I had heard good things about this collection. I didn’t like ALL of them (particularly the section on movies), but I liked most of the others. I would say this book is best read while you’re also reading something else (or if you read more slowly than I do, it’s something you could pick up every few days and read a few essays at a time). Otherwise they can start to seem a bit overwhelming. Since I recently mentioned the Sweet Valley Twins series, I particularly enjoyed her essay on the Sweet Valley High series.

10) It Was Me All Along: A Memoir, Andie Mitchell

Description: All her life, Andie had eaten lustily and mindlessly. Food was her babysitter, her best friend, her confidant, and provided a refuge from her fractured family. But when she stepped on the scale on her 20th birthday and it registered a shocking 268 pounds, she knew she had to change the way she thought about food and herself.

I’m drawn to books about food, weight, and eating disorders because all of those things have affected my life. Andie’s issue was food addiction (something I don’t have experience with), but the issue of disordered eating is one that many people can relate to.

11) A Mountain of Crumbs, Elena Gorokhova

Description: Born with a desire to explore the world beyond her borders, Elena finds her passion in the complexity of the English language—but in the Soviet Union of the 1960s such a passion verges on the subversive. Elena is controlled by the state the same way she is controlled by her mother, a mirror image of her motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave. In the battle between a strong-willed daughter and her authoritarian mother, the daughter, in the end, must break free and leave in order to survive.

It took me way longer than usual to read this book, but it wasn’t because I disliked it. Unlike the e-books I tend to read more quickly on my smartphone, this was a physical book I would pick up at home, reading a few pages or a chapter at a time. I started reading it in early February and didn’t finish for over a month.

I enjoyed reading about the author’s experience growing up in 1960’s-70’s Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) under Communism. She attended English-speaking schools but once found herself ridiculed by a teacher when, for a writing competition, she chose to review an American play rather than a Russian writer. She knew so many people who wanted to travel outside of Russia, but most foreign travel was banned because authorities knew citizens would likely not return. Elena found a way out when she married an American in her early 20s (an experience she writes about in a follow-up memoir, Russian Tattoo).

Okay

12) The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown

Description: Three sisters have returned to their childhood home, reuniting the eccentric Andreas family. Their father–a professor of Shakespeare who speaks almost exclusively in verse–named them after the Bard’s heroines. It’s a lot to live up to. The sisters have a hard time communicating with their parents and their lovers, but especially with one another. What do the sibling shave in common? Only that none has found life to be what was expected; and now, faced with their parents’ frailty and their own personal disappointments, not even a book can solve what ails them.

This wasn’t a horrible book but it had too many clichés for me to rate it more highly. You know the drill when there are three sisters: the oldest is the responsible one, the middle one rebels, the youngest is flighty and spoiled (this one decides to return home after years of aimless wandering once she accidentally becomes pregnant – this isn’t a spoiler, it comes up in the first chapter). I also cringed in embarrassment for the author when the middle sister used this line: “[W]e just can’t be as perfect as you are, Rose.” One sibling accusing the other of thinking she’s perfect? Yes, it happens, but come on. Be more original.

The other annoying part was their Shakespearean professor father spoke almost entirely in quotes from Shakespeare’s works. I didn’t find this believable, and if someone I know did this in real life, I would be unspeakably annoyed.

13) Almost Famous Women, Megan Mayhew Bergman

Description: The characters in Mayhew Bergman’s stories are defined by their creative impulses, fierce independence, and sometimes reckless decisions. This book offers an elegant and intimate look at artists who desired recognition. The world wasn’t always kind to the women who star in these stories, but now they receive the attention they deserve.

I was under the assumption this book was nonfiction before I started reading it, but it turns out the author selected real-life women and created fictional accounts to bring their stories to life. It wasn’t until I looked up the women in the first story (conjoined twins) that I realized some facts had been fabricated. It’s certainly okay for an author to take this route, but I would have liked it better if the stories had focused on actual real-life events.

Several stories were included which were only a few pages long; they didn’t seem to fit in well with the rest of the book and I questioned their inclusion.

14) All Good Things: From Paris to Tahiti, Life and Longing, Sarah Turnbull

Description: Having shared her story in her bestselling memoir, Almost French, Turnbull seemed to have more than her fair share of dreams come true. While Sarah went on to carve out an idyllic life in Paris with her husband, Frederic, there was still one dream she was beginning to fear might be impossible — starting a family. Then out of the blue an opportunity to embark on another adventure offered a new beginning. Leaving behind life in the world’s most romantic and beautiful city was never going to be easy. But it helps when your destination is another paradise on earth: Tahiti.

Given my love of travel memoirs, I expected to like this one more than I did. I guess moving to tropical Tahiti doesn’t interest me as much as the author’s first book about living in Paris. Sarah mainly fills her days swimming in a lagoon, researching a novel she never ends up writing, in-depth descriptions of her underwater scuba diving adventures, and her efforts to conceive a child through IVF.

Not Recommended

15) The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

Description: The Romans have long since departed and Britain is steadily declining into ruin. Axl and Beatrice, a couple of elderly Britons, decide that now is the time for them to set off across this troubled land of mist to find the son they have not seen for years. They know they will face many hazards—some strange and otherworldly—but they cannot foresee how their journey will reveal to them the dark and forgotten corners of their love for each other. Nor can they foresee that they will be joined on their journey by a Saxon warrior, his orphan charge, and a knight—each of them lost in some way to his own past, but drawn inexorably toward the comfort, and the burden, of the fullness of a life’s memories.

I didn’t like this book. While I do like historical fiction, I don’t care for fanciful lands with ogres and dragons. I read it only because the author is well known and the book received a fair amount of press, which enforces an important lesson: don’t bother reading a book if you don’t like the sound of the story.

I kept pressing on even though I could tell from the beginning I wasn’t going to like it — the author repeats himself a lot, the conversations weren’t substantive, and I felt like ripping my hair out in annoyance every time the old guy called his wife “princess” (which was…a LOT).

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6 Comments

  • Reply Anya April 1, 2015 at 7:55 am

    I’m impressed! How do you find the time to read 15 books?!

    • Reply Zandria April 1, 2015 at 8:27 pm

      Lots of reasons! I read most books on my smartphone, so I can pull it out and read pretty much any time. While I brush my teeth, stand in line at the grocery store, commuting to work on the bus, etc. My husband works late most weeknights, and I don’t have any kids. Also I watch 1-2 hours of TV per WEEK, which leaves a lot of time for reading. 🙂

  • Reply Leah April 3, 2015 at 12:04 am

    I like Into Thin Air even better than Into the Wild. Definitely check that out.

    • Reply Zandria April 3, 2015 at 4:56 pm

      I will move it farther up my to-read list. 🙂

  • Reply Mari April 10, 2015 at 9:12 pm

    I read The Wife and guessed the twist/surprise very early on too. Still liked it ok. Thanks for such detailed and helpful reviews and recommendations.

    • Reply Zandria April 11, 2015 at 4:50 pm

      You’re very welcome, Mari! Thank you for the feedback. I’m glad you find the reviews helpful.

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