May Book Reviews

I did not intend to read this many books this month, nor did I mean to read so many books about different cultures. From Sierra Leone, to an American family traveling around the world, to a German aristocratic family in the countryside, a Chinese immigrant becoming accustomed to the American lifestyle, an English nurse working on a remote Scottish island,  a Southern family in crisis, and a lady detective from Botswana, I travelled worldwide in my books this month!

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah (audiobook) ★★★★
A haunting story of the violence in Sierra Leone in the 1990s when rebels attacked defenseless villages and the government army recruited child soldiers to help them fight against the rebels. This is the devastating context of Ishmael's preteen and teen years; a lost childhood due to the war. His thoughtful and well-written prose highlight the atrocities (some of which were especially difficult to hear about) he saw as he got entangled in the war, first as a gentle twelve-year old fleeing from the rebels and later as a teen entrenched in the war as a child soldier with the government army. It's a difficult but important read. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author. It was a bit hard to understand due to his accent but once I figured out the cadence and inflection of his accent, it was not an issue.

At Home In The World: Reflections on Belonging While Wandering the Globe by Tsh Oxenreider ★★★★
I have been waiting for this book for atleast one year, so I was a bit nervous that it would fall short of my long-awaited excitement. I should not have doubted Tsh for a second; it was a delightful, thoughtful, and adventurous read! Tsh (pronounced Tish) is both a vagabond and a homebody; she loves adventure as well as embracing the familiar routine of home life. Seemingly paradoxical, but it just clicks for her often mobile lifestyle. As a  mom to three kids who were all under age ten at the time, Tsh and her husband (both avid travelers) decided to take a nine-month worldwide trip several years ago. They homeschooled (and plane-schooled & train-schooled) the kids and Tsh and her husband worked wherever they found dependable wifi, so there were plenty of nonglamerous challenges along the way.   This is the travelogue as well as introspective reflections of what it means to feel at home in such a season. Starting in China, they made their way to Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Africa, Italy, France, and Croatia. If you love adventure from the comfort of your armchair, this is a book for you! Her book website has more info (and a fun travel quiz!) and her podcast (which I adore) had a recent episode with a reading of the first chapter if you want to get a feel for the book!

Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim (audiobook) ★★
I enjoyed von Arnim's more known The Enchanted April and wanted to read something else by her. This semi-autobiographical story is about Elizabeth's ode to the garden she helped tend to and develop when she and her family first moved into their countryside estate in Nassenheide, Pomerania (now part of Northern Germany). Reading as a diary with dated entries, the charming descriptions of flowers (she described tulips perfectly) where my favorite part of the book. Elizabeth, whether a caricature or a true reflection of the author (also named Elizabeth), was surprisingly selfish and  rude when it came to describing her aristocratic neighbors (she detested the high-class society) and even her own husband for whom she coined the unattractive nickname, Man of Wrath (granted, her real husband was a jerk & ended up in jail for fraud and debts). She seemed rather detached from people in general, much preferring her books and her garden. I am all for the introverted life, but she seemed to go overboard and sometimes just seemed too antisocial, even with her own young children. There were a few exchanges between her and her husband in which they discussed the customs of their countryside town and it seems he condoned corporal punishment of both servants and wives to keep them in their place. She wasn't in favor of this, but the interaction rubbed me the wrong way. She is obviously loaded (her husband was nobility and she makes many mentions of cooks, seamstresses, gardeners, traveling to London) and comes off as haughty most of the time. She was just not very likable unless she was talking about flowers. The audiobook narrator was the same as The Enchanted April, a woman who sounds like Judi Dench, which was enjoyable because her voice is perfection.

Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community by Dietrich Bonhoeffer★★★★
Christian minister, professor, author, and eventual martyr by Gestapo during WWII, Dietrich left a legacy of writing, one of which is this small collection of writings packed with timeless wisdom. He gives practical application in fostering authentic Christian community, which he experienced while in an underground seminary during Nazi years in Germany. He explains that our time with others in community is greatly benefitted if we also have time alone with the Lord. He also shares "ministries" that are essential in Christian community, including the ministries of listening (likely my favorite part of the book), helpfulness, bearing each others' burdens, and holding one's tongue. It reads vaguely like one of Apostle Paul's letter with obvious love for his community though the helpful instruction.

Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck (audiobook) ★★★★
Steinbeck, author of classics like Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath embarked on a journey across America in 1960 and wrote this travel memoir to capture his reflections and experiences. With his trusty French poodle Charley and a custom-made pickup truck camper he dubbed Rocinante (an ode to Don Quixote's horse), he ventured on his road trip to see what Americans are like, since he made a living writing about them and felt increasingly out of touch with the pulse of American people and land. Since Steinbeck never wrote an autobiography, this is as close readers will come to a self-portrait of one of American's most beloved authors during his later years. He is endearing, entertainingly witty, and introspective in this memoir, taking a more serious, somber tone in his time in the South since this was a time of racial tension with desegregation and the tumultuous events of that decade. The audiobook was read by Gary Sinise, aka Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump, and he did a phenomenal job with all the voices!

Girl in Transation by Jean Kwok (audiobook) ★★★★
I am a little embarrassed to admit I thought this was a memoir until I finished the book and looked up the author! That must mean it was written with believable details and prose, right? Kimberly Chang and her mom emigrated from Hong Kong to the slums of Brooklyn, working for mere dollars a day in a garment sweatshop run by the mom's older, bitter sister. Kim is an exceptional student. This helps broaden the horizons of their living situation, which includes a rat-infested apartment without heating or clean water access. Her struggle to balance her Buddhist Chinese culture with the American culture she is increasingly becoming a part of, is engrossing. I listened to this one in two days because I was just so intrigued. Though I had mixed feelings about the ending (and some of her choices as a teenager), I thought this was a fantastic debut novel (NOT memoir, lol) by Kwok, who grew up in a very similar background. The audiobook narrator had a whole range of Asian as well as Brooklyn accents, which made the story flow like a movie. Come to think of it, this would be an awesome movie.

Call the Nurse: True Stories of a Country Nurse on a Scottish Isle by Mary J. Macleod ★★
After tiring of the city life in London, a couple and their two young sons move to a remote Scottish island where she starts working as the district nurse... the only nurse on the island, in other words. This entails typical nursing responsibilities at the  medical clinic (run by just one physician) such as common illness and injuries. But it also entails home visits for a variety of reasons, where the reader can see how different the agrarian lifestyle of the Scottish  truly is (specifically on the group of islands called the Hebrides). From the language to the traditions to the expectations of island dwellers, this is a whole new world for this nurse and she shares many anecdotes of not only adventures as a nurse but also adventures of the Gaelic community.  It was interesting to see this different world but it seemed to trail on towards the end and I could have done without a few of the stories. And I wish there were more nurse stories for a book with 'nurse' in the title. There were more stories about her family's adjustment to the island as well as the quirky (but lovable) people who lived on the island than actual stories about nursing.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)★★★★
A brilliant mathematics professor has a near-fatal accident that leaves him with eighty-minutes of memory after the year of his accident (1975). Years later, a housekeeper is hired to care for him and the charming tale begins. Though not a math nerd in the least, I loved the way Ogawa infused math into the themes of the book. Math was a calming and familiar friend of the aging professor and it became the way he could connect in an increasingly disconnecting world around him. The housekeeper and her ten-year old son develop a friendship with the professor as they dive into the world of numbers as well as baseball.  I adored this book. The plot itself was pleasant but what stood out the most was the character development. The math professor was endearing and was full of life lessons taught through mathematics, which was very different than other fiction I have read before.

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns (audiobook) ★★★★
The small town of Cold Sassy Tree, Georgia gets rocked to its core in 1906 when, after a mere three weeks a widower, Grandpa E. Rucker Blakeslee announces his marriage to his employee Miss Love Simpson (several decades his junior) scandalizing the old-fashioned town. Told in his grandson Will Tweedy's voice, the story unfolds the ruckus that ensues as townspeople gossip, Will gets himself in all sorts of trouble as well as adventures, and as the reason for the speedy union comes to be known. This is a hilarious coming-of-age story set in a small Southern town full of charm as well as a fair share of heartbreak. The audiobook narrator was great!

The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis ★★★★
Lewis dives into the four loves: affection (storge), friendship (phileo), being "in love" (eros), and God's love/charity (agape) and the interconnectedness that they can share. It was hard to follow some of his points in regards to the first three loves and I had a few disagreements about the Eros chapter. I did appreciate how he explained how each of these loves are incomplete on their own and how they are apt to go overboard and become demanding, prideful, and manipulative when not balanced with selfless agape love. I was struggling my way through it, using a study guide to help me grapple with the chapters because Lewis is a genius that I often need help deciphering... and then I got to the last chapter. I wanted to underline every sentence in the Charity chapter! It was so good! It made all the work worthwhile and tied up some loose strings from previous chapters that I was wondering if he'd address.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith★★★★
Precious Ramotswe has just opened up her new business -- she is the first (and best!) lady detective in Botswana. She is cunning, witty, and just the right lady for uncovering secrets -- whether it means a missing boy, unfaithful husbands, or con men. Mixed into the entertaining (albeit somewhat predictable) detective cases are the musings of Precious as she looks back at her life thus far. It was a fun story and I enjoyed learning a bit about the culture of Botswana.


Currently Reading:

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Finally Focused: The Breakthrough Natural Treatment Plan for ADHD by James M. Greenblatt, MD