Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Back to School Edition

It's back to school time! While my son doesn't go back to elementary school until next week, my sister is starting her junior year of college and I've been thinking about my own college days. Like many other schools, my university had a book that all freshmen read before arriving at school. During the first few weeks, we had lectures and discussions about it and it was a good way to meet some people and get right into the work of learning. So for this week's Top Ten Tuesday, I am going to suggest books that would be excellent books for your Freshman Read!

1. The Kite Runner was the freshman read when I started at Drew University. If you haven't read it yet, it is the story of a wealthy boy named Amir and his best friend and servant Hazara.
Topics for Discussion: Changes in the Middle East in years since the book was written, family, loyalty

2. Daring Greatly is Brene Brown's manifesto on the value of being vulnerable. What better time to learn vulnerability than the posturing of college?
Topics for Discussion: The necessity (or not) of criticism, vulnerability as strength, the different ways men and women face shame and vulnerability, courage in school/work and relationships

3. The Gilded Years is historical fiction based on the true story of Anita Hemmings, the first black woman to graduate from Vassar College.
Topics: Racism, discrimination, evolution of education since 1800s

                   The Kite Runner  Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

4. We Should All Be Feminists is a tiny book, based on a TED talk.
Topics for Discussion: Definition of Feminism, what it means to be a feminist, experiences of male and female students

5. Welcome to Braggsville follows four college students who plan to stage a performance protest at a Civil War reenactment.
Topics for Discussion: Racism, class, education, hero complexes

6. Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic novel where readers experience the new world through the eyes of a traveling band of musicians and actors.
Topics for Discussion: What is essential to humanity? Do we owe anything to our fellow people? Are the humanities perks or essential for our survival?

                   We Should All Be Feminists    Welcome to Braggsville

7. How We Learn is a book I wish I had read before I went to college. It breaks down learning techniques and shows readers why certain methods work better in certain situations.
Topics for Discussion: Ways that college does and does not set students up for learning, common myths about learning

8. The Empathy Exams is one of my favorite nonfiction books. This collection of essays follows medical actors, gang members, and endurance athletes to discover how we can empathize with people whose situations are very different than ours.
Topics for Discussion: Who is deserving of empathy, what we want from the people around us during dark times, what to do when we don't understand the pain of others

9. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the true story of a woman whose cells were used to cure dozens of diseases. She had no idea that it happened.
Topics for Discussion: Ethics of medicine, poverty, ethics in journalism

10. Tiny Beautiful Things sounds like a silly pick, but it's actually perfect. It's a collection of advice columns, where Cheryl Strayed answered questions about relationships and dreams for the future.
Topics for Discussion: Pretty much anything and everything

           The Empathy Exams: Essays   The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

What books would you pick for the Freshman Read?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

It's Monday and we are in our final week of summer!

Hi there ladies and gents! How was your week? It's been a bit of a messy one around here, since our dishwasher decided to leak all over our kitchen floor. Husband was able to replace some of the tubing, so now I just have to get through the dishes that piled up in the meantime!

This is our last week before school starts up, so we will be fitting in a last round of play dates, library trips, and lazy afternoons in our little backyard pool. Then we have new sneakers to buy, along with a cartload of notesbooks, pencils, and glue sticks.

This week, I read The Appointment by Nobel Prize-winning author Herta Muller. Then I followed it up with MWF seeking BFF, a memoir about a woman looking for friends in Chicago.

            The Appointment    MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search For A New Best Friend

I'm about 40% through Jonathan Edwards. It's a big biography, but I'm getting there. My other current read is Amy Snow, a novel about an abandoned baby taken in by a wealthy family. After that, I plan to read Madeleine L'Engle's Certain Women. L'Engle is one of my favorite authors and she has a large body of work that I am slowly but surely reading my way through.

            Amy Snow     Certain Women     

What are you reading this week?


Friday, August 26, 2016

Mini-reviews: Imagine Me Gone and Father's Day

Margaret is surprised when her fiance ends up in the hospital, being treated for depression. She has to decide if she will approach the relationship with caution or jump in with her whole heart. She stays with John, and soon the two are married and the parents of three children. But life is not easy for this family: mental illness has its grip on John, as well as his son Michael. Imagine Me Gone puts readers in the shoes of John, Michael, and the people who love them and want to help them.

This is a difficult book to read, which perhaps is a testament to how accurately Haslett can write about the pain and cost of depression and anxiety. Michael's struggles in particular make the reader want to turn away, as he fills out psychological intake forms with long rambling treatises on music, prescription drugs, and reparations for slavery. Michael is endlessly needy, to the point where he incessantly calls his family and friends or bangs on their doors in the early hours of the morning. His family deals in different ways: his mother quietly pays his bills, his sister Celia neglects her own patients to counsel him, and his brother Alec tries to convince him to wean himself off drugs. Imagine Me Gone doesn't offer false hope or a saccharine conclusion; instead, it is a brutally honest look at mental illness through the eyes of people suffering and their loved ones.

Imagine Me Gone
By Adam Haslett
Little, Brown and Company May 2016
368 pages
Read via Netgalley

Harvey is six years old and her parents have just died in a car crash. Her social worker Wanda wants to find the best home for her. She considers an unorthodox solution: Harvey has an uncle. Jason has a criminal record, a leg that doesn't work, and he seems happiest when left alone to fix his motorcycle. But Wanda has been a social worker for a long time, and sometimes she just has a hunch about people who need each other. Father's Day follows Harvey and Jason in dual storylines as the six-year-old and her uncle get to know each other, and years later as Harvey prepares for a visit from Jason.

If I say that Simon Van Booy writes stories that make me believe in humanity again, it might sound trite. But it's true. He writes perfect endings for his characters after pages of beautiful writing and deep insights about what it means to be vulnerable and let someone else into your life. The alternating glimpses into past and present allow us to see the slow transition of two individuals into an unlikely family.

Father's Day
By Simon Van Booy
Harper April 2016
304 pages
From the library

Thursday, August 25, 2016

It's the End of the World As We Know It: Thoughts on Apocalyptic Novels

This post is about apocalyptic novels in general, but there will be specific discussion of Ben H. Winter's Last Policeman series and All We Have Is Now. If you plan to read them, be warned there will be spoilers ahead.

It's the setup of a million movies and a good number of books. An asteroid is heading straight for the earth and it will mean the end of everything. There is often a ragtag group of scientists or engineers (in one memorable case, they worked on an oil rig) who race against the clock to save the planet. In the nick of time, the day is saved and those unexpected heroes are celebrated.

Sometimes the story doesn't go like that. Occasionally we see the days leading up to the end through the eyes of ordinary people who have no role in trying to save humanity. In the YA novel All We Have Is Now, we follow two teens named Emerson and Vince as they decide what to do during those final days. They decide to spend their last day granting people's wishes. In The Last Policeman and the books that follow, our protagonist is Hank Palace. He has just been promoted to detective and he is eager to make his mark. But the news of the impending asteroid means that people stop going to work and society starts to disintegrate around him. In spite of this, Hank is the kind of man who does what is right. When people come to him for help, he does the best he can with what is left. In the final days, he leaves relative comfort to go find his sister and make sure she is safe and knows that she is loved.

I had vastly different reaction to All We Have Is Now and The Last Policeman series. Part of it can certainly be attributed to the different writing styles and the fact that you can cover a great deal more material in three books than you can in one. But the thing that really made me love one and feel "meh" about the other was the ending. In many of these end of the world type stories, there is a fantastic reversal at the end. No one has to die. The crisis is averted, and we are just left with the feeling that perhaps we learned something about the nature of humanity.

But what if an author follows through on that threat? What if the reader and the characters are left watching the sky change and clinging to someone's hand in that final moment? That, my friends, gives the story that came before a much different resonance. The decisions that the characters made had consequences that can't be tidily undone later on, because there is no later on. The picture that Ben H. Winters created of a man we have followed for three books looking to the sky and waiting for the end is one I will not forget any time soon.

So what are your thoughts? Is it cheating when the asteroid never actually hits? Does it lessen the impact (sorry for the pun!) when the author makes a last-minute save? What are your favorite end of the world novels?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review: Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty

It's Labor Day 1976. Fern and Edgar Keating are ready to enjoy the last bits of summer on Martha's Vineyard with their three children. But they receive news that will change everything for their family--their money is all gone. The two parents have a huge fight when Fern assumes that Edgar will abandon his dream of being a writer in order to work with his father and support their family. Each parent runs from the conflict and the pressure of finding a solution, both assuming that the children are safe with the other. Cricket, James, and Will are left to find their own way.

Ramona Ausubel is one of my favorite authors. Her novel No One Is Here Except All of Us and short story collection A Guide to Being Born are two of my favorite books, so I was willing to follow her anywhere. In fact I bought this book in hardcover before reading it, which is a unique occurrence for this girl who usually reads and then buys. It's an even greater testament to her writing because this is not the kind of book that I would usually pick up. I tend to avoid stories of sad rich people because well, they are just not that applicable to my life and I find many of their problems obnoxious. But Ramona Ausubel has achieved some sort of literary miracle here. This whole story is about people whose lives are upended when the money runs out. Not only that, but they are parents who abandon their children. And yet I was fascinated by their lives and even sympathetic to their struggles.

The reason this book works so well is that it is the story of a relationship. In much the same way that last year's juggernaut Fates and Furies carefully revealed the inner workings of a couple, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty shows how Fern and Edgar came together and how their very different families impacted the way they approached marriage and parenthood. Ausubel writes with equal grace and insight from the perspective of unfulfilled Fern, lonely Edgar, and Cricket trying to keep everything together in the absence of her parents. It's difficult to say if the writing or the characterization is the star here, but it's certain that the book is one to savor.

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty
By Ramona Ausubel
Riverhead Books June 2016
320 pages
From my shelves

Sunday, August 21, 2016

It's Monday and the countdown is on!

Hi bookish people! How are things?

I had the wonderful/terrifying realization that school starts in about two weeks. So if you need me, I will be paging through school supply lists, retroactively filling out reading logs, and discovering that every pair of pants that D owns is suddenly too short.

This week, I read two really good books. I loved Father's Day, to the point where I found my husband and said, "Hey. Do you want to hear about this book I just finished?" I also adored Jane Steele and I apologize to Lyndsay Faye for taking so long to read her book!

              Father's Day    Jane Steele 

This week, I'm reading The Appointment, which my dad wanted me to read so we could discuss it together. He is Romanian and decided to take on the project of reading all the books of Muller, a Romanian writer who has been awarded the Nobel Prize. After that, I'm going to read MWF seeking BFF, which seems like a good pick for a girl whose best friend moved clear across the country.

             The Appointment        MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search For A New Best Friend 

What are you reading this week?


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Late to the Party Review: My Name is Asher Lev

My Name is Asher Lev is a book that wastes no time getting started. Our protagonist, the Asher Lev of the title, confesses that he is the artist that everyone has been talking about. He is determined that people should know the truth. Asher is ready to stop the rumors and the gossip by telling the story of his life, his struggles with his parents, and the art that dwells in his soul and compels him to paint things that no good Jew should even think of.

Chaim Potok is wonderfully adept at writing a book that is full of everyday moments, but conveys volumes. The things that happen here are not extraordinary in themselves: a woman grieves the death of her brother, a boy wishes his father was home more, a young man becomes the apprentice of an (in)famous artist. But the writing captures every bit of emotion that goes with those moments. 

This story (like all of Chaim Potok's stories) is intensely concerned with what it means to be Jewish. Asher's parents are deeply committed to the well-being of Jews around the world, and their son misses them as they work to bring Jews out of Stalin's oppressive Russia. Their faith, and the well-being of their fellow Jewish people, is of paramount importance to them. When Asher begins exploring his gift for painting, his parents disapprove of something that is a waste of time at best, and perhaps even sacrilegious. In another author's hands, this book would show how different the reader's life is from the lives of these characters. Instead, it highlights how much people are alike.

My Name is Asher Lev is a beautifully written story about faith, family, and art. It is a universal book for every and any reader, even the one who has never been to synagogue or held a paintbrush in their hand.

My Name is Asher Lev
By Chaim Potok
A Fawcett Crest Book 1972
350 pages
From my shelves

Late to the Party Reviews are my thoughts on the books everyone else read years ago. I'm finally getting to them, so make sure to chime in and tell me about your experience with these stories!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

It's Monday and the AC is my friend

It's disgustingly hot, as you all know. I pretty much just want to sit next to my air conditioner and drink something cold. But life goes on, in spite of the heat. D was at soccer camp for a few days this week, which meant I had the opportunity to deep clean his room. I am hoping to get this house a little bit organized before school starts in September!

I read World of Trouble this week and I have a lot of thoughts. I see a blog post about apocalyptic stories in the near future. I also read The Book of Esther. That story went some places I did not expect!

            World of Trouble (The Last Policeman, #3)     The Book of Esther  

Right now, I'm reading Jonathan Edwards which is a giant biography I have had on my shelves since I got it as a college graduation gift. Because it's so big, I will be using my tried and true system of reading at least 25 pages in my giant book each day and reading something else alongside it. The more manageable book this week is Simon Van Booy's Father's Day.

             Jonathan Edwards       Father's Day

What are you reading this week?


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Books for the Theatre Nerd

In college, I was a double major in English Literature and Theatre Arts. I am that theatre nerd you remember from high school who starred in all the shows and was president of the drama club. There was one glorious summer that I spent at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center taking singing, acting, and dance classes. So I am beyond happy when I can combine my two loves and spend hours reading about the people who write and perform on Broadway and the journey that stories take from page to stage.

Many musicals you know and love draw direct inspiration from books. Lin-Manuel Miranda had the idea that would eventually become the musical Hamilton when he read the biography by Ron Chernow. Long-running musicals Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera are based on the classic novels of the same name. Even children's books can be the impetus for a musical, as we saw with Matilda and this year's Tuck Everlasting.


But maybe you don't want to read the inspiration for your favorite show. Maybe you have a performer you adore and you painstakingly save up to see them every time they appear onstage. Fear not. Many Broadway babies have written memoirs. Kristin Chenoweth wrote about her beloved voice teacher, being adopted and, of course, starring as Glinda in Wicked. Alan Cumming and Patti LuPone have written about their lives onstage and off. Neil Patrick Harris used a choose your own adventure format for his book. You can even get inside the brain of composer Stephen Sondheim in his book Finishing the Hat and its sequel.  

          A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love, and Faith in Stages     Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics, 1954-1981, With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes

Then again, maybe you are thinking bigger. Maybe you want to know about musical theatre in general. Whose crazy idea was it to break into song in the middle of a play? You can check out The American Musical Theater. Are you curious about the effect that theatre has on kids? Drama High is the book for you. Maybe you eat up stories of young actors moving to NYC with just a suitcase and a dream. Then you need to read Making It On Broadway.

                Making It on Broadway: Actors' Tales of Climbing to the Top

So there you have it, belters and tap dancers. Those are some of my favorite books about the magic of theatre and the people who make it happen. What books do you recommend?

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Mini-reviews: Sleeping Giants and Paper and Fire

Rose Franklin is a normal girl out riding her bike when the earth gives away beneath her and she falls into a giant metal hand. She wakes up in a mysterious room with walls covered with foreign carvings. Years later, Rose is grown up and she is the lead scientist investigating the room and the hand. As the pieces start to come together, Rose and her colleagues learn that the thing they have discovered could change everything for them and for the entire world.

This is a book where it's fun to go into it without a lot of knowledge. The story is told in a very unique way, as an unidentified interviewer grills each character about what has happened under their watch. While it sounds impersonal, it is actually a fascinating way to get to know each character and how they react under pressure. Neuvel is great at pulling away one layer at a time and raising the stakes with each decision the characters make. This story gives readers plenty of food for thought about power, technology, and the things we will sacrifice to reach our goals. I can't wait to see what happens in the second book.

Sleeping Giants
By Sylvain Neuvel
Del Ray April 2016
320 pages
From the library

Jess Brightwell made it through training at the Great Library, the institution that controls all of the books and knowledge in the world. But things are not going quite as he had hoped. His best friend Thomas has been killed, his friend Morgan is locked away, and Jess isn't sure who he can trust. The Library is powerful, but it may not be good. Jess will have to decide which side to fight on, because the only certain thing is that the Library does not allow opposition.

Paper and Fire has the tough job of every second book. It has to keep the plot moving, fill in some back story, and propel the characters towards the final adventure. I think this book thankfully did not succumb to the second book slog. The plot kept moving, even if the relationships felt a little surface. Best of all, Caine has imagined an incredibly rich world for Jess and his friends to journey through. Each city has its own feel and its own rules and there are people in each locale fighting to keep knowledge hidden or trying to bring it to light, all under the watchful eyes of mechanical beasts. The third book promises to take us to places that the reader has never seen before and I will definitely be along for the ride. 

Paper and Fire (The Great Library #2)
By Rachel Caine
New American Library July 2016
357 pages
Read via Netgalley

Sunday, August 7, 2016

It's Monday and we had an anniversary!

Hi bookish people. What's happening in your neck of the woods?

It's been busy around here (which is no surprise to any of you who have been here more than once). The kids had Vacation Bible School a few days this week. Husband and I went out for dinner on Friday night to the Melting Pot to celebrate being happy, old married people for nine years.

On Saturday, the whole family pitched in at a work day at the church. There was a lot of pulling ancient furniture and unused paint out of the basement. BG looked like a coal miner by the end of the morning and D may have had a slight mishap with a hammer and his head, but everyone made it home into the bathtub more or less in one piece.

This week I read Marrow Island, which turned out to be much more intense than I anticipated. Then I picked up Adam Haslett's novel Imagine Me Gone, which follows a family dealing with their father's mental illness. I also managed to finish Why Church Matters on Sunday, while waiting the stroganoff to finish cooking.

 Imagine Me Gone     

Next up on Mount TBR is World of Trouble, the final book in the Last Policeman series. Then I'll be reading The Book of Esther. 

                   World of Trouble (The Last Policeman, #3)     The Book of Esther

What are you reading this week?


Thursday, August 4, 2016

July Wrap-Up and What I'm Into

I'm pretty sure July went by in about five minutes. I feel like D just got out of school and now people are starting to talk about September! This month, we took a short jaunt to Washington, D.C., I saw Hamilton, and the kids went to Vacation Bible School. We've also been watering our church garden once a week and enjoying lots of cucumbers, zucchini, and tomatoes as a result!

She's got a necklace, her big brother's backpack, and a giant stack of books.
She's good to go! 

We read everywhere. 

So we are down to five more weeks of summer here in NJ, people. What are your favorite summer activities? What should we try to fit in before September comes calling?

What I Read/Reviewed:
I only reviewed five books this month. This summer has been good for reading, but I'm just not feeling that motivated to write reviews. All of the books that I reviewed were fiction, but I did write a post this month about getting into nonfiction! Four were for review and one was from the library. I am finding a lot of freedom these days in alternating between review books, library books, and my own books while not feeling pressure to review the books in the later categories. 


                 The Fifth Avenue Artists Society     What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours 
                   Summer Days and Summer Nights     The Gilded Years      June

Favorite posts:
I wrote about some easy ways for fiction fans to try nonfiction. I'm also jumping back into some Top Ten Tuesday posts with this one about books that made me want to learn more or try new things.

What I've Been Watching:
I've been watching the later seasons of Glee some nights but, other than that, I feel like nothing is sticking. I tried Crazy Ex Girlfriend and I've watched two episodes of Grace and Frankie, but I'm not sure I'm going to continue with either. 

What I've Been Listening To:
Next to Normal. A lot of Hamilton, obviously. And podcasts! Lately I've been enjoying What Should I Read Next, Overdue, and Book Riot's Podcast and Get Booked. I'm on the lookout for some that are not about books (I know, the horror). What are your favorite podcasts? 

What I've Been Cooking/Baking:
Dark Chocolate Cupcakes with Raspberry Buttercream Icing for a church event (picture from site)

                              Dark Chocolate Cupcakes with Raspberry Buttercream Frosting | Cooking Classy

Ricotta Berry French Toast for brinner when my sister slept over (picture from website) 

                                          French Toast Casserole with ricotta, berries, and a SUPER EASY homemade dough. no canned biscuits, no cream cheese - just beautiful, easy, real food brunch! | pinchofyum.com

Easy Chicken Burritos (adapted from a Better Homes and Gardens cookbook)
Season chicken with salt and pepper. Cook chicken breast until no longer pink. Shred chicken and put in tortillas. Then add a quick salsa made of chopped tomatoes, mango, and cilantro and a tablespoon or two of lime juice. Top with cheese and sour cream if you like and enjoy with rice! 

What were you into in the month of July? 

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