Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

“We wear clothes, and speak, and create civilizations, and believe we are more than wolves. But inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are.” 

The setting is war-torn Chechnya in 2004. Explosions and disappearances are a way of life. After watching the Russian feds arrest his friend and set his house on fire, Akhmed is relieved to find his friend’s 8-year old daughter Havaa hiding in the woods and knows he must take her to a safe place. Sonya, a talented and overworked surgeon who is Constellationhaunted by the disappearance of her sister, agrees to take in Havaa in exchange for Akhmed’s help at the hospital. Meanwhile, someone is still looking for Havaa.

The heart of the plot takes place over only 5 days, but the whole story unfolds through various character perspectives and flashbacks throughout the previous ten years. At first the setting distracted me from everything else. I knew next to nothing about the Chechen wars and paused in between chapters to do some research and get a better understanding of the history. I was shocked to learn how much of the historical context of the novel is true, but it helped me grasp what the characters were facing and trying to endure.

The book gracefully dives head first into the strength and resilience that people are capable of when duty and dignity calls for it while highlighting the lasting effects of traumatic experience.  The story comes full circle, intertwining together the fates of the characters, materializing meaning in unexpected ways. While there is some hopeful resolution, there also remains a sense of emptiness and loss, which solidifies the book’s powerful impact.

In this book war is life. It’s a haunting story that transported me to a place I’m thankful I’ve never actually been, but it’s important to have exposure to perspectives and experiences different from your own to see what the world for others can be like. This book provided that for me, and it still left me hopeful.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Book Review: American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis

“The only thing with less character than Chardonnay is wainscoting.” 

A Manhattan housewife lures in and befriends the doormen at her building, but her motive is not what you think. A woman provides a “relocation” service for pageant girls. A writer stands her ground while competing on a reality TV show. From book club secrets to life advice from cats, this collection of twelve stories is darkly comedic yet also steeped in truth.

AmericanHousewifeThe book satirizes the dark side of the feminine mind and the interplay of catty and manipulative relationships. It also emphasizes the strength and intelligence of the female characters as well, ringing the bell of truth at times. I found myself smiling and shaking my head, relating to them and laughing in part at the silliness of myself. I chuckled aloud a few times but then felt slightly disturbed at other times. The characters are witty, sassy, and sinister.

The title led me to think that all of the stories are related to the lives of women who do not work, but that is not the case. Some are housewives, some are writers, and some are undefined, creating a wider range of topics and themes. Also, not all of the stories are plot based. Some of them are written as simple advice or commentary, and I think the piece called Take It From Cats is the best.

However, I much prefer the plot driven stories. My favorites are Dumpster Diving with the Stars, Dead Doormen, and My Novel Is Brought to You By the Good People at Tampax. I loved the incessant and ludicrous procrastination of the character in the last story!

The stories are strange and creative and all very different.  It is a great collection that has something for everyone.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Book Review: One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

“The law of probability combined with the law of large numbers states that to beat the odds, sometimes you have to repeat an event an increasing number of times in order to get you to the outcome you desire. The more you do, the closer you get. Or… basically, sometimes you just have to keep going.”

Ed is a software company mogul accused of insider trading, suspended from work, and OnePlusOnewho is avoiding facing his family. Jess is a single mom working two jobs and struggling to provide for her daughter Tanzie, stepson Nicky, and giant dog Norman. When Tanzie, a child highly gifted in math, has a chance to compete in an elite math competition and potentially win enough money to secure a place at a respected private school, Jess will do what it takes to make it happen. Her world collides with Ed’s through a few chance encounters, and Ed suddenly finds himself invested in helping Jess and her kids (and Norman) make it to the math competition, which is just a road trip away. Shenanigans ensue, secrets are revealed, and bonds are forged and strengthened.

Jojo Moyes is a talented writer who creates interesting and memorable characters. This book is no different. Although for me it didn’t quite have the emotional impact as some of her other books, this one is still a rollercoaster ride as the characters struggle to overcome personal challenges. None of them are perfect, and that’s what makes them so relatable yet also unique.

I’m a sucker for the dog in any story, especially a lovable one like Norman who plays a part in the family dynamics and in the plot. I love Jess’s supermom character. Her desperation to provide sometimes propels her forward without thinking her decisions all the way through, but her heart is always in the right place. She is the guiding force for her kids Tanzie and Nicky and is an easy character to root for, even when she’s kicking in the side of someone else’s car. Ed, who is much more selfish, is less likable, but he grew on me through redemptive interactions with Jess and her family. All of the characters learn, grow, and change, which makes for a satisfying read.

This book explores the concepts of family support systems, unconditional love, honesty, and forgiveness. The bullying plot line is a hard and frustrating one, as it should be, but it emphasizes the important themes of leaning to be true to oneself, regardless of the opinions of others. It’s a great story complete with fun, laughs, tears, and drama, and it’s another great book by Jojo Moyes.

4 out of 5 stars

The Unseen World by Liz Moore: A Book Review

“Only humans can hurt one another, Ada thought; only humans falter and betray one another with a stunning, fearsome frequency… She would fail other people throughout her life, inevitably, even those she loved best.” 

Ada’s father David is the most important thing to her. For thirteen years David has beenUnseenWorld her teacher, her best friend, her guide. Ada’s life has revolved entirely around him and his work in his computer science lab, so when David begins to forget things and disappear for hours at a time, Ada’s world as she knows it rapidly changes. As David’s mind disintegrates, Ada must navigate the coming years without him. Life grows more complicated as she moves in with her father’s long time friend, and evidence surfaces that David may not be the person she thinks he is.

I think the experience of admiring and idolizing a parent and then gradually realizing that parents are fallible human beings is something to which everyone can relate.   The reverence with which Ada views her father is so powerful that it’s easy to feel the confusion, frustration, and protectiveness that Ada feels when her father’s health begins to decline.  The relationship between father and daughter is the foundation of the story, and the author does a wonderful job of portraying some of the complexities of that relationship.

The characters are clearly written and consistent, their actions aligning with their personalities so the interpersonal dynamics work well and were convincing. The last third of the book felt a less cohesive for me during the jumps in time back and forth to Ada’s adulthood. I didn’t connect as strongly to the older Ada as I did to the younger one, but perhaps that that’s because we spend less time with her in her adulthood than in her youth.

Still, I liked this book much more than I anticipated. The pacing was consistent through most of the book, and the cryptology as well as the mystery surrounding David’s history and eccentricity kept me interested. As the beginning of the story unfolded, I had so many questions about Ada and her upbringing. I felt like I was slowly turning these small corners, each one revealing another piece of the puzzle, which kept me wanting to keep going along with Ada as things began to unravel.

4 out of 5 stars

 

The Art of Choosing “Good” Books

A friend recently messaged me with a question. He had grown frustrated with reading because he found that most of the books he was picking up weren’t fulfilling or satisfying. Even if he managed to read one all the way through to the end, he was left wanting. He messaged me and asked, “How do you pick out good books?”

It’s a valid question. Picking a good book can be harder than it seems. After all, “good book” is a relative term. It all depends on our personal preferences and on what we believe qualifies a book as worthy of that classification. The truth is that there is no guarantee the next book we read will live up to our expectations, but we can improve our odds by refining our choices and being open to possibility.

Whether you’re an avid reader or are just getting started, here are a few tips on choosing a “good” book to read next.

Think about what you like (and don’t like).
What aspects of your recent reads have been unsatisfying? What are you craving that you aren’t getting? Do you like historical fiction or thrillers or family dramas? Do you prefer fast-paced plots or stories with lots of description? Knowing what you like or what you do not like will make it easier to choose books that you’ll have an enjoyable experience reading. It will also make it easier for you to request recommendations if you can share your preferences with others.

If you haven’t figured out yet what you do and don’t like, don’t worry! The more you read, the closer you’ll get to that answer. Plus, it means you have a wider variety of books to choose from, more so than those who are set in their reading ways. In the meantime, think about what sounds interesting and go with it.

Be honest about your reading mood.  
Maybe you already have a bunch of books lined up to read, but none of them are hitting the mark for you. Are you choosing books that align with your reading mood? Are you reading a serious novel when you’d rather read something lighthearted?

For me, deciphering what I’m interested in reading from book to book is challenging. Sometimes I have to take a break between books to think about what I’m really in the mood to read next. Otherwise, I risk reading something that doesn’t keep my full attention, and I miss out on a good experience.

If you feel like reading something dark and somber, do it! If you’re in the mood for a cozy mystery, go for it! Don’t force yourself to read something that you aren’t committed to fully. Think about it and be honest with yourself about your reading mood, and you’ll enjoy your “good” book choices much more.

Browse at the bookstore.  
Have you been reading only e-books or listening to audiobooks? Maybe you are too removed from the books you are reading and simply need to feel more engaged. Hold the books in your hands. Read the synopses. Admire the creative covers. What speaks to you? Make a connection with the next book you are going to read.

Browsing the endless shelves of books can be daunting, which is why I love going to Barnes and Noble and browsing the display tables. The selections are based on things like “New in Paperback,” “New and Noteworthy Fiction,” and “Recommended Reading.” I discover all sorts of great books of all different genres at those tables. There is also a section reserved for bestsellers, and though there is still no guarantee, a bestseller is a solid indicator that lots of other people anticipate this book to be a “good” one.

Get recommendations from the pros.  
Are you looking for something specific and having a tough time finding it? Maybe you read a really amazing book and you’ve struggled to read anything since then that compares. I struggled to find good books that aligned with what I like to read until I started listening to the Book Riot podcasts. “Get Booked” is a book recommendation podcast based on questions submitted by listeners. “All the Books,” which is about weekly new releases, is another good one. Now my list of books to read has around 200 titles! The show runners read most of the books they recommend and thus suggest only the ones they think are “good.”

Also, if you haven’t already, join Goodreads.com. The network of readers there is vast. You can read user reviews and find out the most popular books on the site. You can also input your reading preferences and the site will give you book recommendations based on your favorites!

Ask friends and family for suggestions.  
If you aren’t sure what you like or are simply stuck in a reading rut, ask your friends and family for suggestions. In my experience readers love to give book recommendations, myself included. Tell them about what you liked and didn’t like about your recent reading choices. Find out what books they like and why or ask if they have any favorite authors. Be open to their suggestions, and if any of the books sound interesting, give them a try!

There are so many “good,” great, amazing books out there! Thinking about what you like, seeking out recommendations, and choosing books with subject matter and genres that truly capture your attention are the keys to ensuring a more exciting and fulfilling reading experience.

Happy reading!

Book Review: A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Cline

“I want each day to last forever . . . It’s a peculiar kind of dissatisfaction, a bittersweet nostalgia for a moment not yet past.

Inspired by the true story of famous painter Andrew Wyeth and the muse for his PieceofWorldpainting “Christina’s World,” this work of historical fiction ventures into the life of Christina herself. Struck by a degenerative disease at a young age that continued to worsen as time progressed, Christina spent most of her days on her family’s farm, struggling through the hardships of her physical challenges and the relationship challenges in both her personal and familial life. By the end of the story, one has a complete and insightful picture of the woman who became the subject of a piece of art that now hangs in MOMA in New York.

My favorite parts of this book are the ones that describe the simplicity of the sweeping landscape beside the ocean. It conjured images of Maine in my mind, though it’s a place I have never been. I loved the imagery of Christina and her mom venturing to the shore and collecting shells. The Hawthorne farm sounds like the foundation of a peaceful existence, though Christina’s struggles and the family hardships bring one back to a more realistic view of things.

Christina’s defiance of her condition as well as her strength to manage on her own are courageous. Her physical degeneration clearly takes a toll on her mentally and emotionally as well, though I came to realize that gradually, just as I imagine Christina realized it herself. She is determined not to let it affect her but it does anyway. While she wants so much for people to see past her ailment and see her for who she is, she struggles with the exact same thing.

It’s a beautiful but also tragic tale in many ways. I’m not sure I could have moved on so easily from the same missed opportunities in life. The end of Christina’s story however is a loving and satisfying one when she finally gets the thing in life she has always truly wanted. It’s a lovely and wistful book.

4 out of 5 stars

Book Nerd: An Epiphany + Reading Recommendations

Stories are powerful. They teach us new things, show us different perspectives, help us to see the world in a new light. Reading has become a big part of my life over the past year, more so than ever before, and it has been a positive influence on me. That’s why I felt a momentary sense of loss when I had an epiphany:

I’ll never have enough time in this life to read all of the books that I want. It’s a never-ending list with which I’ll never be able to keep up.

Thus, I realized I have to be wiser about my book choices. Being forced to whittle down my list of books and focus more on what I really want to read the most is helping me learn more about the types of stories I truly like, and I’m learning more about myself in the process. I even deleted some titles off my list (gasp!), knowing deep down that they aren’t stories that are meant for me, and that’s okay.

That said, I am happy to say I’ve read some amazing books so far this year! Here are my five favorites, all of which I highly recommend:

Lab Girl by Hope JahrenLabGirl

“Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.”

I didn’t know what to expect from this memoir/autobiography, but I definitely didn’t expect to fall in love with it. Jahren’s whimsical telling of the lives of plants corresponds beautifully with the stories of her own life as a scientist, a woman, a friend, and a mother. The deep connection she has with her life-long friend and lab partner is one that is rare and truly special. Her writing is poetic and emotionally charged. This book was so much more that I hoped for and won my heart completely. It is wondrous and captivating.

The Girls by Emma ClineTheGirls

“I waited to be told what was good about me. […] All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you- the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.”

It’s the late 1960’s, and a lonely 14-year old girl becomes mesmerized by an older girl and her free lifestyle that turns out to be a dangerous path in disguise. The cult and thriller aspects of this book are captivating, but what makes this book worth reading is the author’s exploration of the complex web of both female and male relationships and early interactions that shape who we are and who we become. It is dark and candid interpretation of the female coming-of-age experience that I found insightful and led me to reflect on some of my own experiences and interpretations of them.

Rebecca by Daphne du MaurierRebecca

“If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.”

Originally published in 1938, this is a classic and a gothic thriller. A young woman (whose first name we never learn) marries an older widower and moves with him to his enormous estate where she is haunted by the memory of her husband’s first wife as she struggles to live up to her new role under the watchful eyes of her husband, servants, and socialites. But things aren’t always what they seem. This is an eerie tale from the first sentence to the last and a satisfying read as the heroine overcomes the challenges of her new life.

Paris for One and Other Stories by Jojo MoyesParisForOne

“You don’t ever do something just because it makes you feel good?” The assistant shrugs. “Mademoiselle, you need to spend more time in Paris.”

Stood up by her flaky boyfriend, Nell ends up on a weekend trip in Paris alone. She is fraught with fear and anxiety from being in an unfamiliar city by herself until a chance encounter pushes her to live a little, to be a little adventurous, to try new things. It’s a story about both finding yourself and falling in love. This is a well-written, fun, humorous, and lovely novella plus eight additional women-centric and love focused short stories to follow. It’s great for a mood boost and a little extra reflection on relationships.

Behold the Dreamers – Imbolo MbueBeholdtheDreamers

“Who is it not easy for?” “For you, for your father, for every child, every parent, for everybody. It’s just not easy, this life here in this world.”

This is the story of an immigrant family from Cameroon living in Harlem and struggling to achieve the American dream. Jende is ecstatic when he lands a job as a driver an executive at Lehman Brothers. The lives of their wives and children also intertwine, but when the financial crash happens in 2008, things begin to fall apart fast. This book gave me a new perspective of what it might be like to struggle as an immigrant in the U.S. I really loved the parts in which Jende talks about his home country and culture. It made me feel grateful for all that I have. Also, the audiobook is amazing.

What have you read this year so far that you’ve really liked and recommend?