I read 8 books in May, which brings my 2015 total to 60.
May was my lowest reading month so far this year. I blame it on my habit of starting books but not finishing them — I’m one of those people who have no qualms about putting a book down if it doesn’t reel me in. Sometimes I’ll be just a few pages in, other times I’ll get through a third of a book or more.
I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended. All of my books were in the two middle categories this month.
1) Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, Caitlin Doughty
Description: Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.
One doesn’t expect a 23-year-old female to seek out a job at a crematory, but that’s exactly what Caitlin did. I thought her reasons for doing so were interesting, and she remains in the business (today she’s a mortician in Los Angeles and a YouTube personality known for advocating death acceptance and the reform of Western funeral industry practices). I already didn’t like the idea of being embalmed when I die, so reading her explanation of the process and why she’s against it solidified my view.
2) The Bookseller, Cynthia Swanson
Description: The Bookseller follows a woman in the 1960s who must reconcile her reality with the tantalizing alternate world of her dreams. Convinced these dreams are simply due to her overactive imagination, Kitty enjoys her nighttime forays into this alternate world. But with each visit, the more irresistibly real the other life becomes. Can she choose which life she wants? If so, what is the cost? As the lines between her worlds begin to blur, Kitty must figure out what is real and what is imagined.
I must admit I was skeptical about how this whole dream life was going to work itself out, but I didn’t expect the twist and I thought the ending was well done.
3) Dark Places, Gillian Flynn
Description: Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” She survived and famously testified that her 15-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Twenty-five years later, the Kill Club–a secret society obsessed with notorious crimes–locates Libby and pumps her for details, hoping to discover proof which may free Ben. Libby hopes to turn a profit off her tragic history: She’ll reconnect with the players from that night and report her findings to the club–for a fee. As Libby’s search is underway, she finds herself right back where she started–on the run from a killer.
A friend recently read and recommended this book, saying she liked it better than the author’s more widely-known GONE GIRL. I agree.
Description: Kim, a native of South Korea who emigrated to the U.S. with her parents at age 13, visited North Korea several times between 2008 and 2011 before getting hired to teach English at Pyongyang University in 2011. At the time, it was the only operating university in the country – all other college students were doing forced labor. To get the job, Kim posed as a Christian missionary and hid her notes and experience as a journalist. During her six months of teaching, Kim built cautious relationships with her students and tried to give them glimpses of the world outside of North Korea, but may not have been able to get through the brainwashing the regime conducts on a daily basis.
I’ve read a few books on North Korea and I always find myself both fascinated and horrified. If you don’t know much about this country, I’d encourage you to read more. Suki had an interesting perspective, living there for months at a time and experiencing much of the same restrictions and monitoring that citizens do.
5) The Big Tiny: A Built-It Myself Memoir, Dee Williams
Description: Deciding to build an 84-sq-foot house—on her own, from the ground up—was just the beginning of building a new life. Williams can now list everything she owns on a sheet of paper, her monthly housekeeping bills amount to about $8, and it takes her approximately 10 minutes to clean the entire house. It’s left her with more time to spend with family and friends, and given her freedom to head out for adventure at a moment’s notice, or watch the clouds and sunset while drinking a beer on her (tiny) front porch. Part how-to, part memoir, this is a meditation on the benefits of slowing down, scaling back, and appreciating the truly important things in life.
I’m a big fan of minimalism and enjoy learning about people who drastically downsize their possessions. While the size of this house is smaller than I’d want (she doesn’t have a shower, running water, or a refrigerator), it’s nice to see someone living so far outside the norm and loving it.
6) The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber
Description: Peter, a devoted man of faith, is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC. His work introduces him to a native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter’s teachings—his Bible is their “book of strange new things.” But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate: typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling. Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter.
Even though the description said Peter would journey to a galaxy far away, I wasn’t picturing aliens when I read he would be ministering to a native population. Well, aliens it is! Human-like aliens with hands and feet but abnormal heads, just like you’d imagine. I’m normally not a science fiction fan so if I’d known about the aliens in advance, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up.
I had a hard time deciding on a rating for this book but ultimately decided on Okay instead of Recommended. It took me almost the entire month of May to finish; I kept getting distracted by other books and this one was long at over 500 pages (it was longer than it needed to be, in my opinion). It wasn’t a bad story though, and I can see why others might like it. Don’t dismiss it if you don’t mind aliens.
7) Yes Please, Amy Poehler
Description: A varied collection of stories, lists, poetry, photographs, mantras and advice, with chapters like “Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend,” “Plain Girl Versus the Demon” and “The Robots Will Kill Us All,” YES PLEASE will make you think as much as it will make you laugh. Honest, personal, real, righteous, and full of words to live by.
This book was entertaining at times, but overall I couldn’t put it in the Recommended category. I’ve never been a fan of books written by comedians; I’m difficult to amuse when people are trying to be funny in print. I did enjoy the parts where Amy talked about her life (childhood, rise to fame, people she’s worked with), multiple examples of bitchy behavior, and her openness about past drug use.
8) The Unraveling of Mercy Louis, Keija Parssinen
Description: In Port Sabine, TX, all eyes are on Mercy Louis, star of the championship girls’ basketball team. At the periphery of Mercy’s world floats team manager Illa Stark; like the rest of the town, Illa is spellbound by Mercy’s beauty and talent. The last day of school brings a disturbing discovery, and as summer unfolds and the police investigate, every girl becomes a suspect. When Mercy collapses on the opening night of the season, her grandmother prophesies that she is only the first to fall, and soon other girls are afflicted by the mysterious condition, sending the town into a tailspin and bringing Illa and Mercy together in an unexpected way.
The “disturbing discovery” is a central theme of the book, but I feel like readers don’t get a good explanation for it, and the author glosses over why all these girls develop this “mysterious condition” (never giving a reason for why it started or how they find themselves cured at the end).