Summertime reading: July

Before we dive into all the books I’ve been reading, and boy have I been immersed in some good ones, I’d like to let you know that I’ll be taking a blogging break for the month of August.  I’ve got some large projects to focus on, as well as no camps scheduled for Sweet Girl, which means she gets much of my time until school begins in 4 weeks.  (Did anyone just hear trumpets?)

Already for August, I know I’ll be reading:

So let me know what you are reading.  I’ll be back in September! xoxo

Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane) Gavin De Becker

I wrote a separate post about this one and would love it if you’d read that.  De Becker’s book covers safety skills for children outside the home, warning signs of sexual abuse, how to screen baby-sitters and choose schools, and strategies for keeping teenagers safe from violence.  Highly recommend. 

The Little French Bistro by Nina George

I loved Nina George’s Little Paris Bookshop, so I thought I’d like this one.  I made it about halfway through.  I’m not sure why… I just wasn’t very interested.

I’ve gotten quite ok with abandoning a book mid-way through.  There are so many others out there I want to read!

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me by Bill Hayes

This collection of beautiful writings and observations is full of memorable encounters between Bill and New York City and Bill and the late Oliver Sacks, his partner.  There is at the same time a certain melancholy to the writing as well as a sense of amazement and gratitude for every day life.  Much of the writing is as delicate and fragile as life’s tenuous moments.  Mr. B and I got to hear neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks speak at The New Yorker Festival in New York City in 2004.  He has always been someone I’ve kept up with and enjoyed reading.Random photos of New Yorkers and Notes From a Journal, some of which are records of conversations between the two and some of which are just observations, help divide the chapters.

“I cannot take a subway without marveling at the lottery logic that brings together a random sampling of humanity for one minute or two, testing us for kindness and compatibility. Is that not what civility is?”

One thing that really struck me: Bill frequently has meaningful exchanges with random strangers that he encounters in NYC.  I have to say that not one of the people he met would be someone I, a young female, would be comfortable approaching (homeless, skateboarders, etc).  I found it fascinating that men probably don’t have nearly the amount of fear that women do on a daily basis.  What must that be like? Future blog post topic for sure!

“What is the opposite of a perfect storm? That is what this was, one of those rare moments when the world seems to shed all shyness and display every possible permutation of beauty.”

I loved this book and decided to immediately read Oliver Sacks’ Gratitude, which was a series of articles written for the NYTimes shortly before he passed away.  That review is below too.

“I was standing in the kitchen last night making dinner for the two of us and a thought came to me: This is the happiest I’ve ever been.   I stopped myself: Is that true?  I kept doing what I was doing, making dinner, sort of testing the feeling; O was talking all the while; and I thought, Yes, yes, it is true.”

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

In her 80’s, Etta decides to leave home and walk thousands of miles across Canada in order to see the ocean.  This novel is a couple years old but I hadn’t heard of it until I read about it in O Magazine (I think that’s where I saw it).  This story intertwines the present and the past, Etta’s and Otto’s separate life stories, and even adds a bit of the fantastical with a talking wolf.  It reminded me a lot of Fredrik Backman’s books (especially that one where the character undertakes a similar journey).

The characters are real and lovable, if not quirky, the journey intertwines life memories and some magical realism, on  both parts… of Etta leaving and Otto staying.  It’s a quiet book and somewhat peaceful to read.

Besides being somewhat unbelievable, there were a couple of other things about this one that bothered me.  First, Hooper uses absolutely no quotation marks, which irked me more as I read. The writing is a little bit choppy.  In addition to that, the ending of the story was strange, if completely unsettling. Overall, I’d recommend this one.

Oleander Odyssey: The Kempners of Galveston, Texas, 1854-1980s by Harold Hyman

This is a multi-generational, immigrant “rags to riches” story. “Shrub” Kempner will be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Jewish Committee in November, so I read this to get relevant material about his grandfather to help create a video about the family.  I’ve been collecting photos for a display as well.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson

This is a humorous, short guide to how to grow up.  The premise here is that there are only so many things we can care about, so we have to select our most important few values and let the rest fall away.  Manson debunks “positive thinking” in favor of honesty and acceptance of our faults, mainly conveying that it is in the suffering through our fears and anxieties is what allows us to build courage.  Stop avoiding, stop hiding, and learn how to prioritize what matters to you.  Highly recommend.

His main question: what are you willing to struggle for?

“Because happiness requires struggle. It grows from problems. Joy doesn’t just sprout out of the ground like daisies and rainbows. Real, serious, lifelong fulfillment and meaning have to be earned through the choosing and managing of our struggles.”

“The tendency toward entitlement is apparent across all of society. And I believe it’s linked to mass-media-driven exceptionalism. The problem is that the pervasiveness of technology and mass marketing is screwing up a lot of people’s expectations for themselves. The inundation of the exceptional makes people feel worse about themselves, makes them feel that they need to be more extreme, more radical, and more self-assured to get noticed or even matter.”

Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel by Priya Parmar

“I have the loose-ended feeling of looking, looking. What am I looking for? Looking for substance, looking for a moment I do not understand. Is that just how this part of life is? Do we ever have the sensation of finding, of arriving? I worry that life is always in the future and I am always here, in the preamble, straightening up the cushions so that life will go smoothly once it does begin. How does it start?”

Told from the viewpoint of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister, this novel is made up of journal entries, telegrams, and postcards.  The Bloomsbury set come to life, but in their early days.  I know it’s a novel, but it feels very much like historical fiction.  I have read many of Virginia Woolf’s novels and diaries and love learning from this additional point of view.  Highly recommend. 

“Virginia has a vibrancy about her that makes time spent with her seem inherently more valuable than time spent away from her; minutes burn brighter, words fall more steeply into meaning, and you feel you are not just alive but living. I have understood this Virginia equation all her life—but I also understand what Clive does not. There is no rational, logical, reachable Virginia lurking beneath, and eventually Virginia becomes exhausting.”

Gratitude by Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks faces aging, illness, and death in 4 essays written at the end of his life.  Sacks writes about living a meaningful life and achieving a sense of peace.  Sacks celebrates the pleasures of old age, his overwhelming feeling of appreciation for a life well lived, and reflects on his lifelong love for the periodic table of the elements and on his own mortality.  Highly recommend.  It’s a life and a book that are both too short.

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

This one just came out in March.  Lisa See explores the lives of a Chinese mother and her daughter who has been adopted by an American couple.  She tells us of a minority culture, the Akha, with their own superstitions and traditions.  So much of the book is about the art of growing and selling tea, with much of the narrative taken up with details that I luckily found interesting.  I could see how it could get to be too much for some.

As I followed Li-Yan’s life story, I was caught up in her hopes and disappointments.  I enjoyed learning of the Akha culture and watching as Li-Yan adhered to the principles while disagreeing strongly with much of it.

“Look around you… This is the mother tree.  These are the sister trees.  You may never see this place again, but it is yours by right.  Our blood is in this earth.  It has nourished these trees.  You are a part of them, and they are a part of you.”

The other side of the story is the adoption of girls from China during the “One Child” policy and the mixed feelings that causes.  It was a minor diversion from the main story, and one that didn’t add all that much, in my opinion.

Overall, I found this novel compelling. The characters are real and believable, the writing simply flows, and it’s always enjoyable to me to learn new things about the world we live in.  You only have to read the acknowledgments pages at the end of the book to realize the extent of research that went into telling this story.  See mentions over 100 sources and texts, a couple of which I hope to look into.  Highly recommend.

Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris

From his lost phase to his drug phase to his school phase to (at last!) his New York phase, this series of completely random snippets is slow-going and rather odd.  Sedaris records out-of-the-ordinary occurrences (fights, overheard conversations, things people tell him, observations).  Of course, that is part of why he is a great writer.

His observations are spot-on and humorous.  There is no story line, but each short entry is compelling in it’s own way.  What I like most about Sedaris is that he’s real (and unapologetic about being real).    Still, I would only recommend reading this one if you already know you love him.  This wouldn’t be the way to encounter his writing for the first time.

“The point is to find out who you are and to be true to that person. Because so often you can’t.”

The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve

I think I’ve read every Anita Shreve novel, so when this came out a couple of months ago, I was already on the library’s waiting list.  It tells of a housewife in 1940’s Maine who is stuck in a loveless marriage and an unfulfilling life and her desire to escape and create something new for herself, which she eventually does.  This story is full of true-to-life situations and is a vibrant, quick read.  Recommend.

“That night, after Grace has put the children to bed, she slips her slicker from a hook and walks down her front porch path to the sidewalk.  She has maybe a minute before Gene will notice her absence.  It isn’t much, but it’s everything.”

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

At the time I read this, it was #1 on the NYT hardcover nonfiction list.   It’s a straightforward, easy-to-understand introduction to the universe.  Much of the book is in casual language and accessible to the average non-science major and written with a slight hunt of a smile.  It’s definitely worth your time.

“Every one of our body’s atoms is traceable to the big bang and to the thermonuclear furnaces within high-mass stars that exploded more than five billion years ago.  We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out — and we have only just begun.”

“From a distance, our solar system looks empty. If you enclosed it within a sphere – one large enough to contain the orbit of Neptune, the outermost planet (No, it’s not Pluto. Get over it.) – then the volume occupied by the Sun all planets, and their moons would take up a little more than one-trillionth the enclosed space.”

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