I’ve spend the first few months of 2015 catching up with some books on the best of lists for 2014 and — when I can — checking off items on the challenges I’ve taken on for the year. I’m up to three. Below are late-ish sorta-reviews on some of the books I’ve read in the first quarter.
FIVE STAR BOOKS
Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (Gregory Boyle)
Not only does God think we’re firme, it is God’s joy to have us marinate in that. (p. 24)
The first time I heard Fr. Boyle speak last year I cried. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. I’ve known about Homeboy Industries and Fr. Boyle’s work for many years but his words really hit me then. Later that day he celebrated the youth focused Mass at Congress, a religious education conference. The room was full and I cried more.
Tattoos on the Heart reminded me of his talk and homily. In most of the chapters, Fr. Boyle illustrates different elements of God’s love through stories about the homies he works with. They will make you laugh and definitely cry. Oh man, will they make you cry.
As someone who has struggled a little with my faith in recent years, reading things like “God is just too busy loving us to have any time for disappointment” (p. 28) was quite affirming.
All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)
I remember someone describing All the Light We Cannot See in a review or a forum as “the kind of book that wins awards.” No surprise that Doerr’s historical fiction novel set in Nazi Germany and occuppied France won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this week.
I was a little worried that All the Light wouldn’t live up to the hype, but it definitely did. It’s just so beautifully written.
The Turner House (Angela Flournoy)
Not a review, just some thoughts upon finishing the novel. If you want an actual review, check out what Stacia wrote at Act Four.
I’d never even heard of the word “haint” (a southern type of ghost) prior to reading The Turner House but still found Angela Flournoy’s debut novel enjoyable. Although it’s very much the story of a large black family in Detroit (formerly from the south), the dynamics, history and issues they faced were relatable. I’ve seen alcoholism in my family and more recently have seen my mom and her siblings grapple with caring for their ailing parents.
Second, this is one of those books that benefits from a reread of the first chapter or two as it could be a little a difficult to keep all the Turners straight even though the main focus is on the eldest and youngest, Cha-Cha and Lelah.
Aside – man, does 18-month old Bobbie (Lelah’s grandson) have a lot of words.
I may be a little biased since Angela Flournoy is part of the PostBourgie collective and thanks to that connection I read an ARC a few months prior to the April 14th release date.
Food: A Love Story (Jim Gaffigan)
I listened to this audiobook mainly while cleaning and commuting. I probably looked like a dork laughing to myself, but I want to THIS! almost everything Jim Gaffigan says about food.
An Untamed State (Roxane Gay)
Girl children are not safe in a world where there are men.
Mireille is visiting her parents in Port-Au-Prince with her white husband and infant son. As they leave her parents’ secured compound for a day-trip to the beach, she is kidnapped by a violent gang. The gang leaves her husband and yet-to-be weaned infant son behind. Mireille is then held for ransoms for several days and goes through the worst things you can imagine. (And more.)
Roxane Gay is an amazing writer which is both a pro and con. Mireille’s kidnappers are vicious.
Also, I can’t help but think how horrible it would be to be taken from my infant son who is still being nursed.
The Book of Unknown Americans (Christina Henríquez)
English was such a dense, tight language. So many hard letters, like miniature walls. Not open with vowels the way Spanish was. Our throats open, our mouths open, our hearts open. In English, the sounds were closed. They thudded to the floor. And yet, there was something magnificent about it. (p. 23)
Alma and Arturo leave their home, families and thriving construction business in Michoacán, Mexico to go north to Delaware. Unlike many immigrants who leave to find better economic opportunities, Alma and Arturo come for a school that will help in their daughter Maribel’s rehabilitation from a tragic accident. They move in to an apartment complex filled with various other Latino immigrants. As the novel unfolds, we learn more about the accident that caused Maribel’s head injury, her parents’ guilt over it, and their struggles to acclimate to Delaware.
The novel is narrated primarily by Alma, the protective Mexican mother, and Mayor Toro, a fifteen year old Panamian smitten by the lovely Maribel. However, interspersed with these voices are those of the other residents of the apartment complex.
Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng)
Marilyn and James seem to have a nice life in Ohio. James, a Chinese-American history professor, seeks to blend in and be liked by his peers. Marilyn, his blonde wife who once aspired to be a doctor, wants to stand out. They pass on their wishes to their three children and no one feels this more than Lydia. Then Lydia is found dead in a lake near their home.
Through the rest of the novel, James, Marilyn and their other children try to figure out what happened.
I couldn’t put this down once I started and by the time it was over I was crying.
Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free (Héctor Tobar)
I remember hearing about the miners being saved in fall 2010 and the media circus that happened afterward. I was running a lot at the time and excited by the miner who ran the marathon shortly after being saved.
What I didn’t know was everything that happened before. How and why were the miners trapped in the San José mine? What did they do to survive those first few weeks without contact with the outside world? How did the rescuers reach them? Tobar does a great job answering these questions and more considering he had quite the difficult job of telling the stories of 33 miners and their families while also deftly describing all the technical aspects of the collapse and the rescue efforts.
I listened to the audiobook. It was okay, but I would have definitely preferred an actual book. There are so many people to keep straight that I ended up downloading a photo roster of the 33 miners for reference.
Fourth of July Creek (Smith Henderson)
Smith Henderson’s novel about a social worker with issues (makes me think of Raylon Jennings from Justified) starts off a little slow. Soon you meet Pete Snow’s clients and Snow himself gets way too involved in their issues.
Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Meg Medina)
Piddy starts a new school after she and her single mom move. Things are tough for her as she soon find out a bully has it out for her. This YA-book was much better written then others. Medina’s characters are complex and there’s even some compassion shown to Yaqui, the bully. I also like how Piddy is aware of her identity as a young Latina and looks to other women in her life for guidance. I’d definitely recommend it for teens or really anyone.
Seconds (Bryan Lee O’Malley)
I read the Scott Pilgrim comics in 2010 and was eager for this graphic novel. Katie is a young restaurateur and talented chef but lately things aren’t working out for her as she’d like both in her personal and professional life. She finds that her restaurant has a house spirit that offers her mushrooms. She can write down a mistake and eat a mushroom. The mistake is erased. Katie goes a little crazy with the mushrooms and hijinks ensue.
Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood (Judith Ortiz Cofer)
Inspired by Virginia Wolfe, Judith Ortiz Cofer muses on the role of the memoir and the autobiography. Is it really just about exploring relationships with mothers? Probably. In Silent Dancing Ortiz Cofer focuses on her early life which was spent mainly in a one parent home as her father was in the navy. She goes back and forth from New Jersey to Puerto Rico and explores how this experience shaped her.
The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
I can see why it’s a modern classic, and it probably would’ve made a bigger impact on me if I was younger. But it highlights the mainstream (read: white, middle class) feminist concerns. Also, the technical aspects of the money and how women came to be second class citizens, basically chattel, are kinda hokey.
In the Woods (Tana French)
I’ve read a number of psychological thrillers recently and this was my least favorite. Rob Ryan grew up in a suburb outside of Dublin. When he was a pre-teen two of his best friends, a boy and girl, disappeared in the woods neighboring their homes. The kids were never found and Rob doesn’t remember anything of what happened that afternoon. Many years later he is a detective in Dublin and investigating a murder. The body of a young ballerina was found in the area and there some connections between the two incidents. It’s okay, but if you like neat endings and resolutions, you’ll find this frustrating.
Funny Girl (Nick Hornby)
I feel like Nick Hornby is best when his characters are obsessed with music (High Fidelity and About A Boy). In Funny Girl he goes back to pop culture, but this time it’s 1960s comedy programming on the BBC. He follows Barbara/Sophie’s rise from northern England reluctant beauty queen to comedy it girl. I really liked Barbara/Sophie and how she asserts herself in the male dominated comedy television world. However, like a lot of sitcoms, the beginning is much more fun and exciting. One thing I found interesting was Hornby’s inclusion of actual photos from the comedies that inspired his novel.
California (Edan Lepucki)
I really wanted to like this more considering it’s a dystopian novel that follows Cal and Frida, a young couple out of Los Angeles in to the forests of California trying to survive. They’re all by themselves until Frida insists on finding out what is in the beyond and they encounter a community. There are lots of secrets and big reveals, but I just wasn’t that invested in the characters or their fates. Also, I’m probably tapped out on the dystopian/post-apocalyptic novel.
What Alice Forgot (Liane Moriarty)
Alice has a head injury at spin class and wakes up to find out that she can’t remember anything that has occurred in the last ten years. This includes her marriage falling apart, her relationship with her sister devolving, having three kids and becoming super mum. The premise is interesting but Moriarty takes forever to get to the good stuff. For the marriage issue to be so huge, one would think the estranged husband would make an entrance earlier.
Jackaby (William Ritter)
I heard this was a cross between Dr. Who and Sherlock Holmes and probably didn’t enjoy it that much because I don’t get the appeal of Dr. Who.
Disgruntled (Asali Solomon)
I heard an interviews with Asali Solomon that piqued my interest. What would it be like to grow up with black (or in my case) Chicano nationalist parents? What if those parents’ actions were full of contradictions that undermined their activist leanings? Kenya goes through that and more. She’s 11 or 12 when he parents split because her dad impregnates a woman in their black nationalist group, the Seven Days. Sheila goes to live with her mom and thanks to money from her grandmother goes to a private school in the Philadelphia suburbs. It’s subtly funny and it also made me want to listen to early 90s hip hop.
The Martian (Andy Weir)
Within five minutes of starting The Martian, you know astronaut Mark Watney is fucked. He’s just been left behind on Mars as the other members of his crew evacuate in an emergency. They think he’s dead because of the bio-meter on his space suit. Mark survives and through the rest of the The Martian Andy Weir goes in to a lot of detail about the ingenious ways he continues trying to survive his hopeless situation. For instance, Mark has to figure out how to grow food in his hab on the surface of Mars and communicate with NASA. Weir gets really technical and sometimes my eyes glazed over reading about how Mark solves each arising problem. Overall, it was a fun read and I’m looking forward to the movie.
Shine, Shine, Shine (Lydia Netzer)
It was okay, but I never connected with Sunny. I found her too weird and a little annoying.
We Were Liars (E. Lockhart)
The only reason this didn’t get one star is because it was short and thus the annoying writing and plot twists didn’t make me want to throw the book (well, my iPad). I don’t know why this is so highly ranked.