Jun 29, 2017

June Book Reviews




June started with a plethora of fantastic reads and then ended with a fizzle of so-so reads.
My favorite two books in June were News of the World and Some Kind of Happiness


News of the World by Paulette Jiles ★★★★
An endearing novel set in post-Cival War era that reads like an old western film about an aging man who travels around reading the news for Texans in a time long before the worldwide web made news universally accessible. He accepts a request to deliver a young girl (recently rescued from being kidnapped by Kiowa Indians near Dallas) to distant relatives she's never met near San Antonio, Texas. The treacherous road ahead is filled with the adventures you'd expect in a classic John Wayne movie, specifically True Grit.  I found it fascinating and heartbreaking that it was somewhat common during early settlements in Texas for kids to be kidnapped by Kiowa Indians after their parents were killed and if the children were returned to their families and culture, they deeply struggled with re-integration into their society. Captivating plot, endearing characters, and intriguing Texas history!



A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (audiobook) ★★★★
The book starts with Count Alexander Rostov sentenced by a Bolshevik courtroom to house arrest in the luxurious Metropol Hotel in Moscow in 1922 for poetry that was deemed against their government. The exquisitely written novel follows the decades of his residence in the swanky hotel, the captivating people who either work or visit the hotel who change his life (including a precocious girl, a moody chef, and a glamorous actress), and tumultuous Russian history that I had known very little about. His resilience, wit, and overall gentlemanly character made it an overall charming tale, but at 462 pages (nearly 18 hours on audiobook!!), it understandably seemed to drag at certain spots. And though it wasn't described in detail or a big part of the story, I wasn't a fan of how sex was approached in casual, no-strings-attached manner.




Finally Focused: The Breakthrough Natural Treatment Plan for ADHD That Restores Attention, Minimizes Hyperactivity, and Helps Eliminate Drug Side Effects by  James M. Greenblatt, MD ★★★★
Wow, quite the title, but very worth the read! Dr. Greenblatt has worked with thousands of children and adults struggling to cope with ADHD symptoms and this book is a summary of his treatment plan. He provides a plethora of  research along with anecdotal evidence for his Plus-Minus Treatment Plan, which entails adding certain things (such as magnesium, zinc, digestive enzymes, omega-3s, regular exercise, and mindfulness) and removing things that cause or worsen ADHD symptoms (such as eating foods the child is allergic or sensitive to, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sleep issues). Though he believes most cases of ADHD can be naturally treated, he is definitely not opposed to certain ADHD medications and discusses the safest ways to incorporate these medications when needed -- and how to minimize the horrible side effects. As a pediatric nurse practitioner as well as an adult who has struggled with some symptoms of ADHD and also as a person who is interested in natural ways to deal with health issues, I found this book informative, practical, easy-to-understand, and written by someone who obviously cares about children and adults with ADHD. Dr. Greenblatt has written this book to empower families to learn about alternative ways to treat symptoms of ADHD and to give them questions and tools to bring with them to doctor visits.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review, which I have provided here.



The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness by Joel ben Izzy ★★★★
A talented storyteller has lost his voice, literally and figuratively speaking (pun intended). Part memoir and part enchanting parables from around the world, this small but powerful book is meant to read slowly and savor. Difficult subject matter (cancer, death) make it a somewhat heavy read but Joel's journey towards happiness despite difficult circumstances is powerfully written in a whimsical storytelling style.






A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle (audiobook) ★★★★
This is the fourth book in the Austin Family Chronicles and my first of the series, but since I heard the books could be stand-alone, I figured I'd give it a try  after I read a recent glowing review.  I am quickly becoming a L'Engle fan after reading A Wrinkle In Time, A Wind in the Door, and Walking on Water in the past year. This YA book tackles the difficult themes of death and grieving while the Austin family are taking a summer vacation at the small island where their grandfather lives (who is now very ill). Teenage Vicky finds herself at the center of attention of three guys, each with their own grieving. Overall, a sad book but L'Engle approaches these themes with wisdom and thoughtful storytelling in a raw and vulnerable tone that I was not expecting but fit well for the story.  I am now interested in reading (or listening) to previous Austin Family Chronicles books.





Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand ★★★★

A brave YA that looks into the sensitive themes of mental illness in a middle-grade girl named Finley who is spending the summer with the relatives she's never met before so that her parents can work on their marriage and decide whether they're going to divorce. She retreats from her "blue days" when she is overwhelmed with anxious thoughts and sadness and into her imaginative world of Everwood, a forest kingdom she's created in her notebook to escape her sometimes dark reality. At her grandparents' farm, the woods near their home look exactly like her beloved Everwood and with the help of her cousins, she sets out to save the dying forest. Switching from her real life to her Everwood storyline, we see the struggle she has in dealing with anxiety and depression in ways that both hurt and help her. Legrand did a phenomenal job expressing Finley's symptoms in a way that made the reader understand the depth of her melancholy. Finley wonders “How can the world look so perfect when I feel so broken?”  And another favorite quote is “If I am a puzzle, this is the moment in which I find the first corner piece. There is still a lot of work to do; I still have a thousand pieces of myself to fit into place. But everyone knows you're supposed to find the corners first. They are the beginning.”  I think this would be a great book to pick up if you know someone battling depression or anxiety and you want to understand what they may be experiencing a bit more. As one who has struggled through anxiety in past years, I could relate and appreciate  so much about Finley's journey.


A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline (audiobook) ★★★★
Kline's Orphan Train was a tough but great read, so I was excited to read her next book, which is told from the perspective of Christina Olson, the muse of American artist Andrew Wyeth's famous painting, Christina's World. Confined to her house her whole life due to painful debilitating illness affecting her  muscles and bones (making walking and using her hands excruciatingly painful), Christina suffered heartbreak and disappointments prior to meeting Andrew Wyeth in her later years. He was inspired by her quiet life on the farm and spent countless hours painting landscapes on the property, eventually turning to paint her. This story was loosely based on facts, weaved with a good dose of fiction as well. I enjoy fictional stories that read like a memoir of an aging person (my favorites are Gilead by Marilyn Robinson and Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry) but this one fell a bit short for me. There was so much bitterness Christina held onto throughout this story and it made me sad and wonder how much of that was true for the real-life Christina Olson. There were quite a few instances when she was not likable because of hurtful things she said to others from that deep-seeded bitterness and though this was somewhat understandable with her trying circumstances, it was hard to listen to the story without many glimmers of hope or redemption. Overall a well-written story about a life filled with sadness, pain, and hurt. (Be aware: there is a sensual scene that's brief but pretty descriptive).


The Course Of Love by Alain de Botton (audiobook) ★★
I am not sure the last time I liked and disliked a book so much. There were multiple times I wanted to give up on it and now that I finished it, I can't say I am too glad I did. First, what I liked about it: This is a completely  genre-bending book with a marriage of fiction, philosophy, and psychology. You are like a fly on the wall, watching Rabih and Kirsten's relationship start and continue through the years with numerous highs and lows that are inevitable in long-term relationships, with thought-provoking commentary in between the course of the plot. A lot of the philosophical and psychological commentary was really good, and primarily the reason I stuck it out. Here is one example: “Marriage: a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully omitted to investigate.” (how true!) and another: “Few in this world are ever simply nasty; those who hurt us are themselves in pain. The appropriate response is hence never cynicism nor aggression but, at the rare moments one can manage it, always love.”  HERE is a quote page for more quotes, many of which I liked for their raw truth. The reasons I didn't like the book included the chapters on sex, which I thought were overtly descriptive. I tend to stay away from sensual scenes/plots so this was disturbing, especially since the author seemed to praise casual, noncommittal sex as well as (this is not a spoiler) the author taking a laissez faire approach to adultery where he almost normalizes it. I could have done without these chapters (if interested, these chapters are Sex and Love, Sex and Censorship, Sex and Parenthood, and Adultery Love Rat). Lastly, there were a far too many crude references to sex with the f-word and the husband called his wife a really derogatory name at one point in an argument that was offensive to me as a woman.  Basically, this book covers how love is not always the romantic, la vie on rose experience, but rather filled with disappointments and hardships on the course of love. While there were some wise reflections, there was not a lot of redemption or grace in the pages of the overall plot.  I am fully aware that love and marriage are not perfect and will fail us at some point if we are convinced it is the way to our joy or fulfillment. Our   spouses, no matter how good and kind they are, will at some time say or do things that are hurtful, whether they are devout Christian atheist, or any other religion.  Marriage is made of two imperfect, sinful people, so eventually marriage will get messy and ugly. But what I am learning in our marriage and through the foundation of my Christian faith, is our need as husband and wife to constantly go to the source of Love (God Himself) to give us love for one another when it is hard, to forgive and extend grace when we are hurt. Intentionally loving each other selflessly brings us closer to one another and shoots down innate selfish desires. Transparency and honesty when we are hurt are healthy and healing ways to communicate emotions; the alternative is harboring bitterness and anger that can breed all sorts of divisive walls distancing a couple.  And to be committed to one another through all life seasons because we are on the same team.  This is an honest yet much less melancholy approach than what was in the pages of The Course of Love, where lack of communication, bitterness, and dishonesty threatened to tear them apart. So in some respect, although  I hesitate to recommend this book because of the above deterrents, I suppose I am glad I finished it because it challenged me to see areas where I could grow and choose to love rather than hold a prideful, white-knuckle grip to what I perceive as my needs, rights, and expectations in our marriage.


A Homemade Year: The Blessings of Cooking, Crafting, and Coming Together by Jerusalem Jackson Greer ★★
Following the Christian liturgical year, Jerusalem shares her family traditions  and spiritual practices (including crafts, delicious-sounding recipes, and get-togethers) that are a modern and personalized twist on the traditional Christian holidays and feasts while also weaving memoir essays corresponding to each of the specific days. She is honest and vulnerable, offering plenty reflections to process and pray about, while also sharing lighthearted anecdotes about her Southern Baptist childhood. Traditionally, the liturgical calendar is most notably observed by Catholic and Anglican Christians, but thanks to  Protestant authors such as Jerusalem as well as Kathleen Norris (author of The Cloister Walk and The Quotidian Mysteries, among many others), Protestant Christians are becoming more familiar with the liturgical seasons. Lent and Advent are the most recognized, both of which I have been observing the past few years and they've helped prepare my heart and mind for Christmas and Easter. In A Homemade Year, Jerusalem's examples of observing the liturgical calendar is not stuffy or rigid; she is pretty casual in her approach while also being intentional about the heart behind these days and seasons. It's not a how-to guide but in her own words in the preface she explains the book is meant to be "a jumping-point from which you discover new and creative ways to experience the rhythm of God's story in your home, creating joy and lasting memories in the most ordinary days." I liked it but wished there was more background history on the liturgical calendar and at times felt like it was hard to connect her reflective thoughts with the actual holiday she was writing about. Though the recipes looked delicious in the photos, none were gluten-free so I wasn't too interested in those and the crafts were cute but nothing caught my eye as something I'd want to make. If you like Christian authors who write raw, reflective essays, such as Shauna Niequist, Anne Lamott, Kathleen Norris, then I think you'd appreciate Jerusalem's voice.


How To Bake 𝛑: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics by Eugenia Cheng ★★
After reading last month's The Housekeeper and the Professor, which included a lot of math themes, I thought I'd be ready for a book that had been on my Goodreads TBR for awhile. Cheng does a commendable job with making mathematics, specifically a branch called category theory, approachable through everyday examples such as cooking, the domes of London's St. Paul Cathedral, and running the Chicago marathon. The book is divided (pun intended) in two parts: the first looking at math as a whole and the second taking a magnifying glass at category theory, which Cheng defines as "the mathematics of mathematics" or making mathematics easy by  studying the reasoning that holds mathematics together. She looks at different ways that category theorists look at math, such as the context, relationships, structure, and sameness. She approaches math in a more  applicable way than what I remember learning in high school and obviously has a lot of passion for math since she's spent her adult life teaching as well as remaining a lifelong student of mathematics. She's a nerd but she's also spunky and entertaining in her writing. She was really good at explaining different math problems and ideas, which is saying a lot since math has never been my forté,  Yet, it was still somewhat hard to stay engaged and I did a lot of skimming the last quarter of the book because there is just so much math I can take before my eyes start glazing over. If you geek out about math, Cheng is probably speaking your love language and you should give it a try.

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Books I Stopped in June

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. 
The tone was too imperious/ arrogant, there were a few sensual scenes that bothered me, and other than her love for words and books, she was not likable, so it was not worth continuing for me.

A Room With a View by E. M. Forster 
I wanted to read this before our trip to Italy in October since it is set there, but the audiobook and overall plot was hard to stay interested in. I may return to it later but at this point, I am not in the mood to listen to long dialogues of  rich English people on holiday. I had enough of that for a while after Enchanted April.

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What did YOU read in June? Anything you recommend? Have you read any of these books?

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Elle Alice