Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

fullsizerender11

Never Let Me Go” has been on my reading list for a long time. I remember adding it to my list back when I still kept track of books that I wanted to read on the Notes app on my iPhone. But somehow, over the years, it kept slipping further and further down my list, and it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I decided to read it on a whim.

On the night that I bought it, I had plans to meet a friend for dinner after work. But dinner reservations were for that awkward time that would make me too early by going straight from the office, but not really worth it if I went home first. So naturally I stopped at a bookstore on the way to kill some time. I’m participating in a book exchange that one of my friends started, so I needed to stop there anyway to pick up a copy of “The Alchemist” to send off. I remember wandering around the bookstore aimlessly, going from the fiction section to biographies to business books, trying to find something for myself. And then I noticed “Never Let Me Go,” and I remembered how long I’ve been wanting to read it, so I grabbed it and left.

I’m rambling a little bit about why I bought it because I don’t want to go into too much detail about the book itself. The basic summary of the book is this: Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy grew up together at an exclusive boarding school in the English countryside. Now they’re adults and have reentered each others’ lives, and Kathy finds herself reflecting on and trying to understand everything about their past. That’s not much of a description, but I feel like that’s all I really knew when I started reading the book. And I think I enjoyed it so much because I didn’t know too much about it- which is why I’m trying to avoid talking about the plot here. This is one of those novels that doesn’t really have an introductory scene, it just picks up with one of the characters going about their day. You don’t really know what’s going on, or why they’re doing what they’re doing, or to some extent what they’re talking about. But you figure it out as you keep reading, and everything settles into place.

Another thing that took some getting used to was the conversational tone of the book. It’s written in Kathy’s point of view, and it’s as if she’s sitting with you and telling you a story. But it’s just like any story that a friend or family member tries to tell you; sometimes she backtracks to explain other details before starting on one topic, and at other times it feels like she’s getting ahead of herself and talking about things you don’t understand yet. But once I got used to her tone, it almost made the book seem more intimate. I felt more connected with the characters, and to everything that happened to them.

Once I started to understand the characters, and what the premise of the novel was about, it became more and more heartbreaking. And it wasn’t sad in the sense that I was crying over any particular scene (there were no tears shed, I’m not much of a crier when it comes to books). It was more of a growing sense of pity and compassion for the characters. But I don’t want to say too much about it, because I think not knowing is part of the beauty of the novel.

This book is one that I’m really trying to encourage my friends to read, mainly because I want to talk about it! But I also think it would be great for a book club; there are a lot of topics presented that would make a good discussion. When it comes to enjoying books I think some are meant to be consumed all at once, and the thrill is in reading the story as it happens. For other books, I think the pleasure is in the way they sit with you after you finished reading them. “Never Let Me Go” is definitely one of the latter, at least for me. I’m so happy that I finally decided to read it, and I can’t wait to hear what other people think.

Advertisements

Faithful by Alice Hoffman

img_5934
Faithful- the latest novel by Alice Hoffman

A few weeks ago my friend and I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by author Alice Hoffman.  (This is the same friend who recommended Girl Underwater this past spring).  Our local library regularly hosts authors for lectures, but I had never attended one before.  Though I hadn’t read any of Alice Hoffman’s books I thought it would be something different to do, and an interesting experience as well.  And it was- I took a lot away from the hour that I spent there.

She talked about how books have had an impact on her life, both as a reader and a writer.  She referenced books that were significant to her throughout her childhood and young adulthood.  One of the most memorable things that Ms. Hoffman said was that she feels that books you read in your middle school and early teenage years stay with you throughout your life, and become a part of who you are.  This is something that I completely agree with, though I’ve never thought about it before.  Looking forward, I think this is a topic that I’ll elaborate more on in a later blog post.

Much of the lecture was about Hoffman’s development as a writer, and how she came to be a successful author.  As someone who has wanted to be a writer since the time I could read and write, I enjoyed this part of the discussion.  It inspired me to focus more on my writing (which is partly why I’ve been slacking on my reading list and blog updates).

img_5935
My signed copy!

Before opening up the discussion for questions, Alice read aloud an excerpt from her latest book, Faithful.  From reading the book jacket of the signed copy I had purchased, I knew that the story was about a young woman who was struggling to move on with her life following an accident that involved her best friend.  The section that Alice read aloud from was a scene in which the main character’s mother visited her on her birthday.  It was also the first time she saw her daughter’s apartment in New York City.  The main character, Shelby, was worried about the state of her apartment and what her mom would think of her life in the city.  She had tried putting off the visit, but her mother insisted.  I almost laughed aloud; I’ve lived out this scene a number of times in my own life.  For that scene alone, I couldn’t wait to start reading the book.

The novel begins post-accident, at the height of Shelby’s depression.  It spans about ten years, mostly centering on Shelby’s personal development.  But it also examines her relationships with the important people in her life: her mother, her boyfriend, her friends.  As someone who has felt a little bit lost at different points in life, I appreciated the way that Faithful presented Shelby’s mental health.  She wasn’t perceived as whiney or ungrateful, which I’ve experienced in reading other books about young women going through a tough time.  The novel never shied away from the fact that she was in a dark place, and it provided a pretty accurate depiction of someone trying to put their life back together without having any real idea of how or what to do.  It was realistic in showing that not everything comes together all at once, and sometimes moving forward means you have to backtrack a little bit first.

I enjoyed reading about Shelby’s journey in Faithful.  It was a welcome surprise coming from a lecture that I originally signed up for just because I wanted something different to do.  And as an added bonus, it opened me up to another author whose books I plan on adding to my (ever-growing) reading list.  I’m looking forward to reading more from Alice Hoffman someday soon.

 

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

I love Harry Potter. I really do.  I could probably go into detail and devote a whole post to why it’s my favorite and what it’s meant to me over the past 17ish years, but instead I’ll try to stick to just one topic: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

cursed-child-book

I first heard of the play during what I would consider an emotionally charged time. It was almost a year ago, and I had just gotten back from a spontaneous trip to Germany for Oktoberfest.  I was still coming to terms with a rough break-up (the reason why I booked said spontaneous trip to Germany), I had recently moved to a new neighborhood and was still adjusting, and I was dealing with some serious post-travel blues.  To me, traveling is a double-edged sword.  The feeling I get when I’m experiencing something new in a place I’ve never been is exhilarating, it’s addicting.  But each vacation exposes me to people and places that inspire even more trips, and I end up coming home with a bucket list that’s much longer than when I left.  It can feel a bit discouraging when you start thinking about time and work and money, and how you’ll probably never cross off everything on your list.  So that was my state of mind when I saw a post on Facebook that J.K. Rowling had co-written a play that was a sequel to the Harry Potter series, and it was going to premiere in London the following summer.  I talked to my friend Michelle who I hadn’t seen in a while, she jumped on board to go with me, and then all of a sudden I was waking up at 5:00 AM eastern time to participate in the pre-sale, and then I got the email confirmation for the tickets and that was how the base of our London & Iceland trip was planned.

platform2
On the way to the Hogwarts Express!

 

Flash forward ten months to about one month ago, and we were on our way to London! We had planned the trip so that the play was on our last day, so we had lots of time to explore the city.  There’s a lot to do and see in London, and I think we checked off pretty much all of the major stuff.  We saw the Tower of London, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Platform 9 ¾, Abbey Road, the Globe Theatre, and a lot more.  We even managed to squeeze in a day trip to Warwick Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Oxford.  There is so much history in London (and in England in general), and I’ve added quite a few books to my reading list.  Since the trip I’ve been binge-watching The Tudors on Netflix, but I want to read about that time period too.  I’m also interested in the British monarchy in general.  And after this trip, I definitely want to clear the dust off my Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes collections.

cursed-child1
Palace Theatre

But then came the day of the play! I was super excited to see it.  I had bought the book when it came out, but I had decided not to read it until after watching the play.  My theory was that it was created to be watched, not read.  And since we ended up spending a lot of money on the tickets and trip, I wanted to experience it in the element it was intended to be.  We picked up the tickets in the morning, and there was an almost-crisis when I didn’t realize the tickets had fallen out of my bag.  Thankfully there was a very kind woman who saw it happen and picked them up for us so we were in the clear (Dear God, please bless this woman and her family).  We ate lunch in Chinatown (where I successfully ate fried rice with chopsticks) and then it was play time!

I’m not going to give anything away here, but I have to say that the play was amazing! The special effects alone were incredible; I honestly don’t know how they did it.  The music was perfect, too, it helped to really create the right atmosphere.  If you’ve read the book, you know that there is at least one scene with dementors, and I have to admit that I was legitimately (though only slightly) afraid during that part.  But overall I thought the acting was incredible, and that’s what really brought the story together.  The cast was so talented, and they did a great job of bringing these much-loved and well-known characters to life in a different format.  For me personally, the star of the show wasn’t Jamie Parker or Sam Clemmett (who play Harry and Albus respectively), but it was Anthony Boyle (who played Scorpius) that stole my heart.  He brought a lot of personality to the role, and looking back on the experience I have to say that he helped to make Scorpius my favorite character in Cursed Child.

cursed-child2

When it comes to the book itself, most of my friends had read it as soon as it was released, so they knew the story before I did. When I talked to a few of them about it, the general consensus was one of slight disappointment.  Some of the best things about the original Harry Potter series are the background descriptions and character insights, things that are lost in a screenplay.  I think they felt that it was hard to really get into the story because for the most part they were only reading the dialogue.  I read the book after I got back from my trip, and I have to admit I understand where they’re coming from.  I found myself drawing on my memories of the play when I needed help visualizing a scene, and I could see how it would be difficult to become absorbed in the story without having seen it performed first.

Regardless, I loved Cursed Child, though in a different way from the original Harry Potter series. It’s bittersweet to admit it, but I think it was a fitting end to the Harry Potter story.  Mostly, though, I’m just grateful that I had the opportunity to see the play performed live.  It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience, and it formed the base of what is now one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.  This is definitely something that I’ll be talking about for years to come.

platform-3
Including this because it’s one of my favorite pictures ever!

 

Bag of Bones by Stephen King

IMG_5422

I always feel recharged after a Stephen King novel, sort of like the mental version of the way your body feels after a good, hard workout. Stephen King novels are long and intense, full cover to cover of drama, love, fear, wit, mystery, and much more. The plotlines are addictive, and for me that means pushing aside daily activities so I can finish the book as fast as possible in epic, marathon reading sessions. Bag of Bones was no different.

My friend recommended this to me a few weeks ago after we were discussing the pros and cons of Girl on the Train. With my vacation in mind, I decided that Bag of Bones would be a good book to add to my iPad and read on the plane. I mostly prefer to read physical books, but I own both a Kindle and an iPad (both were Christmas gifts). I mostly use the Kindle when I’m in the mood for a “fluff” read and don’t want to spend extra money on a physical copy, and I really only use the iPad when traveling. The added benefit of the iPad is that it allows me to read in the dark without turning on the lights (yes, I know that is terrible for your eyes).

Anyway, I started Bag of Bones somewhere near the end of my flight from London to Reykjavik, but I didn’t become addicted until my flight back to the States from Iceland, when I actually was able to get past the first few chapters. Three days later I was so hooked that I was reading online on the Kindle Cloud Reader at work (another benefit of the Kindle). I would not recommend reading at work, but in my own defense it was the Friday before a holiday weekend and by the time I started most people had already left for the day. I finished the book later that night, while decidedly ignoring messages from my friends who wanted to celebrate the long weekend and hear about my trip (sorry friends!).

Bag of Bones is about an author who suffers from severe writer’s block and is also struggling to come to terms with his wife’s death four years prior. He moves to his old lake house in rural Maine, and begins having delusions and encounters paranormal activity within the house, and also becomes involved in a custody battle over a charming, three-year-old girl in town. The plotlines seem tangled and separate in the beginning, but I love the way Stephen King brings them together in the end. Everything is connected in some way, and I feel like there was no detail that was insignificant or didn’t matter. It’s hard to go into detail without giving too much away, so I’ll just say that this book got my heart rate pumping at times. There were a few instances where I was extremely happy to be reading in the safety of a crowded airplane and brightness of my office rather than alone in my apartment at night.

Also, I loved when King went into detail about the “writing zone,” and how it feels when you’re completely absorbed in what you’re writing. I love to write, and if I could do one thing only that’s what it would be. Over the past few years it’s been difficult to find time, and there have been many moments where I’ve been discouraged and felt like I lost the talent I used to have. But that zone, that feeling, that complete unawareness of reality- I understand it. I can still get there, and in a weird way I felt encouraged when I read those scenes.

Bag of Bones was the perfect plane read, it brought me back from my trip and now I’m ready to tackle my fall reading list. If you’re a Stephen King fan you’ve probably already read it, but if you haven’t you should go for it. Though I would recommend reading during the daytime- I at least found that comforting!

The Saga of the Volsungs

FullSizeRender(10)

It’s amazing how time can get away from you! It seems like just yesterday I sat down to create my summer reading list, but it also feels as if it’s been much longer than two months since my last post! There has been a lot going on in my life, and I’m kind of amazed at how much I’ve packed into these last two months. I’ve been on a trip to Philadelphia to visit a friend, a trip to Cleveland for work, two separate trips to visit my brother in upstate New York, I’ve celebrated the 4th of July here at home, celebrated a friend’s birthday, celebrated the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup, started rowing practice again, I sprained my wrist while hiking, attended a few retirement parties, watched as my company sold the division that I work in, congratulated three different couples on their pregnancy announcements, planned my own birthday celebration (taking place later today!), and throughout it all I’ve been finalizing details for my upcoming trip to London and Iceland. So, yeah, life has been a little crazy lately. I’ve definitely been feeling a little overwhelmed, but looking at my calendar things should slow down after my vacation, which is only two weeks away!

This trip has been in the works for almost a year, so there’s a lot of pent up excitement. I’ll be traveling with a friend to London for five days, and then to Iceland for five days. It’s funny thinking about it now, because a year ago today I was making an impromptu decision to go to Oktoberfest in Munich by myself, and that trip set the ball rolling for this upcoming vacation. Basically, I came back from Munich in the beginning of October last year and was feeling the inevitable post-travel blues. Soon after I got back, the announcement about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child came out, and since I was missing Europe like crazy I came up with the idea to see the play live in London. I enlisted my friend, Michelle, to join me, even though it had been a year since we had seen each other. She also loves to travel, and is a huge Harry Potter fan too. We bought the play tickets last October, and suddenly our “just a few days in London” turned into traveling around more and deciding to go to Iceland because it’s off the beaten track and neither of us have been there. Ten months later, here we are.

In Iceland, we’ll be renting a car and driving along the southern coast of the island. Since we know next to nothing about tourism there, I bought a guidebook a few months ago to figure out a general plan of where we should stay, what we should do, and all that fun stuff. I bought the Rough Guides to Iceland, and I think it has been generally helpful in planning, but we can’t really put it to the test until we get there. As I was flipping through the book, though, I noticed a section at the very end called “Books and Sagas.” As a reader, my interest was piqued. It provided reading recommendations for books on Icelandic history, modern literature, travel and wildlife, and the sagas.

I’ve never heard of the Icelandic sagas before. According to my guidebook, they were written anonymously between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. They cover a wide range of subjects; some are biographies of individuals, others serve as histories of the early Commonwealth, and often contain elements of folklore, Norse kings, and Viking-era adventures. In preparation for my upcoming trip, I decided to read two or three of these sagas to try to get a flavor of the culture and history of the country I’ll be visiting.

I started with The Saga of the Volsungs. According to my guidebook, this saga is said to have inspired The Lord of the Rings (which I’m a fan of) and Wagner’s Ring Cycle (which I don’t think I’ve ever heard). The description said that it more or less follows the adventures of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, and contains elements of unrequited love, greed, and vengeance. Needless to say, I was pretty excited to read this.

To be honest, I’ve never read anything quite like this before. The beginning of the saga describes Sigurd’s genealogy. He was a descendant of Odin, the Norse god of war and wisdom, and the first few chapters describe the battles and adventures of his forefathers. Then the saga goes into Sigurd’s own brave adventures: how he avenged his father’s death, slayed the dragon Fafnir, and obtained more treasure than any other man. Following this section, the saga becomes less mythical as it describes the marriages and alliances (and ultimate betrayal) of Sigurd, his wife, Gudrun, her brothers, and Brynhild, a wise and beautiful queen.

One of the things that struck me about The Saga of the Volsungs was that the prose was straight to the point. There weren’t many metaphors or overly poetic lines, and the scenes describing battles were very blunt. I realize that part of this could be due to the translation into English, but I think the overall bluntness is just one of the aspects of the sagas. While I was reading, in my mind I kept picturing Viking-era men sitting around a fire and telling this story aloud. I like that image, and if the prose was different I don’t think I would get the same picture.

Throughout the saga, I definitely picked up on elements that could have inspired Tolkien. The most obvious was a cursed ring that would bring doom to all who had it. Some names also looked familiar, and I wonder if some of the characters in The Lord of the Rings were inspired in part by Sigurd and his contemporaries. There were also a few things that reminded me of A Song of Ice and Fire, and I would be willing to bet that George R.R. Martin has read this saga as well. Namely, a pair of incestuous twins brought Jaime and Cersei Lannister to mind. Also, Iceland is often referred to as the land of ice and fire, and that was in the back of my mind as well. Overall, the themes and battles described in this saga were similar The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, and I’m tempted to re-read both series (even though that would set me way back on my reading list).

This was my first saga reading experience, and I’m glad I managed to fit it in before my trip. I’m hoping to finish a second one (Laxdaela Saga) as well, but I don’t know if I’ll have enough time. I’m glad I got a taste of the sagas, though, and the parallels between this and other fantasy series are obvious. I would recommend this to anyone who is into those types of books, or anyone who is interested in Norse mythology or Viking-era tales in general.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

IMG_3202

I was super excited to read Eligible this month. Originally, I was planning on reading it before I read The Argonauts, but I was afraid that if I pushed The Argonauts back then I would never actually read it. Like I mentioned in my previous post, The Argonauts was a struggle. And I’m not going to lie- part of the motivation pushing me through was knowing that I had Eligible waiting for me.

I guess I should start by saying that I loved Pride and Prejudice. I was in middle school when I read it for the first time. It was one of the assigned summer reading books for my older brother’s English class, and I had always loved to read, so I found myself picking it up one night when he ignored it for the umpteenth time. It’s hard to describe how I felt reading it that first time, because it seems now as if I have always known and loved the story. I’m thumbing through my copy now, and the pages are yellow and musty (don’t you love the smell of old books?!) and most of the pages have creases where I folded them down, and there are most definitely coffee stains, and the careful underlining of passages in pen made by my brother, and my handwritten notes in pencil when it was time for me to read it for school… I can’t count how many times I’ve read this book, curled up in the corner seat of my parents’ couch or in my college dorm room or first apartment. It’s like an old friend, a well-worn companion that has been with me for over twelve years now.

Needless to say, I was excited when I first heard about Eligible. I was anxious to see how Sittenfeld would modernize the story. How would the Bennets and Bingleys fit into the crazy, modern world we call the 21st century? Pride and Prejudice had always seemed timeless to me, but was it really? I was also a bit nervous- part of the appeal of Pride and Prejudice was Austen’s voice, satirical and clever yet also proper and enchanting. With a different author, there would be a different voice, and would part of the appeal of the story be lost in the change?

Well, I needn’t have worried. Eligible was as perfect as I think it possibly could be. Somehow, Sittenfeld was able to keep the witty tone that Austen had mastered. And the characters were just as dear as they always had been, just a little different. The characters are older (or at least the Bennet girls seem to be about ten years older than their Pride and Prejudice counterparts), Bingley and Darcy are doctors (Darcy’s a neurosurgeon!), and Kitty and Lydia are seemingly egocentric millennial. Eligible also managed to include many aspects of modern society, from seemingly trivial topics like the Crossfit craze and online dating to more serious subject matter like the in vitro fertilization process and transgender relationships.

One of the changes between Pride and Prejudice and Eligible was the portrayal of Lydia’s story. In Pride and Prejudice, it seemed like she never really grew up and continued to be the immature and selfish young girl throughout the whole story. In Eligible, I was happy to see that she did change throughout the novel. She definitely didn’t make a major transformation, but there were some small changes that I identified as character improvements. As I’m writing this now, though, I’m wondering if I’m reflecting on Lydia more positively in Eligible because it’s easier for me to relate to the modern version. It’s not that I identify more with Lydia; I think it’s just a matter of having a better understanding of her experiences.

Probably the most notable difference between Pride and Prejudice and Eligible (other than the time period) is the setting. Eligible takes place in present-day Cincinnati, which really sets the tone of the novel. It felt like Liz spent just as much time and effort trying to defend the city as her hometown as she did trying to stand up for her family in the eyes of Darcy and the Bingleys. Personally, I loved that aspect of the story. I’m from Pittsburgh, so I understand what it’s like to grow up and live in a former industrial city that’s not quite as glamorous as places like New York or Los Angeles. It can be annoying (and sometimes pretty infuriating) when people are quick to judge and criticize the place that I call home. It was nice to read that Liz, despite living in New York for so long, still appreciated Cincinnati for what it is, and felt the need to defend it when necessary.

IMG_2617
Pittsburgh- I can’t resist a little bit of hometown pride 🙂

Basically, I loved Eligible. I really did. I’m trying to think of a nice way to wrap this post up and summarize my thoughts, but all I can think is that I just liked this book so much. There really isn’t much more I can say other than it was absolutely great and if you liked Pride and Prejudice then you would probably like Eligible. Curtis Sittenfeld deserves a lot of credit for writing such a superb modern version. This book is definitely being added to my list of favorites, and I know that I’ll be re-reading it sometime soon.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

FullSizeRender(4)

Earlier this year, on “Galentines Day,” I went to see the movie How To Be Single with my friend Elizabeth. It was a classic girls day out- we had brunch then split a bag of extra-butter popcorn at the movie theater. Now you should know that I don’t go to the movies often (one of my exes insisted on going every week, and I’ve been mildly disinterested ever since). I also don’t watch cable TV; and my Internet time is pretty much limited to reading the news, scrolling through my Facebook news feed, and updating this blog. So when I do actually go to a movie theater, I LOVE the previews. Usually the previews are the first time that I’ve ever heard of upcoming movies. So when Elizabeth and I went to see How To Be Single, one of the first previews was for Me Before You.

I have to admit, the preview made it look great. Daenerys Targaryen (aka Emilia Clarke) as the main character, an attractive (in my opinion) male lead, set in England, and an interesting plot- I mentally added it to my Movies I Might Actually Want To See list. When I went home after How To Be Single (which I highly recommend, by the way) I googled Me Before You and learned that it was based on a novel by Jojo Moyes. I added the book to my reading list right then, and I vowed to read it before the movie hit theaters. Since the movie is going to be released at the beginning of June, I included it in my May reading list so that the story would be fresh in my mind when I go see it.

I was really excited to read Me Before You. With the movie coming out, and so much hype around it, I had kind-of-high expectations. It sounded like the perfect romance novel, and I thought I was bound to like it. Unfortunately, however, it wasn’t what I thought it would be. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the book, because I did devour it over the course of 24 hours and I still plan on seeing the movie as well as reading the sequel. I just didn’t really love it. It may be because there was so much hype; maybe I was expecting it to be a lot better than it ever really was. Or maybe it’s because for the most part I dislike mainstream contemporary romance novels. (As mentioned in a previous post, I really don’t enjoy anything by Nicholas Sparks, which is what I consider the standard for modern romance). Me Before You just wasn’t what I wanted it to be, and I wanted to like it so much.

I think one of my “issues” with the novel was that if you have any basic understanding of context clues you pretty much know the major plotlines from just the book summary and the title of the sequel. The details were well written, and for the most part I liked the characters, but it felt like I already knew what would happen, which I found kind of boring. It seemed like the climax wasn’t really a climax at all, just another chapter in the novel.   Before I read this, I think in my head I was expecting it to be a bit like My Sister’s Keeper by Jodie Picoult. My Sister’s Keeper was similar in the sense that you felt like you already knew how it would end, but then it completely throws you for a loop. The plot twist in the book (not the movie, the movie was appalling in the sense that it completely changed the plot) left me reeling, and it was one of the only books that I’ve ever shed a tear over because it was just so unexpected. I think I was waiting for something monumental like that in Me Before You, but it never happened.

One of the good things about the book was the main character, Louisa. I thought she was very likeable, but also very ordinary and normal. One thing that makes me roll my eyes is when female characters are described as ordinary but in actuality they’re super smart, or incredibly beautiful, or experience an unrealistic turn of luck, or basically anything that makes them not ordinary. Characters like that give real-life ordinary girls a bad rep, and it’s not fair. But Louisa Clark wasn’t like that; she was just ordinary, and that’s why I liked her. She never really tried to be anything but herself, and I think throughout the novel you were really able to see her grow as a character. I think Jojo Moyes did a great job in the development of her character.

Long story short, I wasn’t really impressed with Me Before You. I felt it was lacking in a lot of ways, but I’m sure I’m a minority in that camp. However, I’m still interested in reading the sequel; I made the mistake of reading the first chapter that was included in my copy and now I need to know what happens. And I’m still hoping to see the movie, as long as I can secure Elizabeth for another girl date. And even though I didn’t love the book, I know that this genre isn’t one of my favorites which is probably a major reason why I wasn’t thrilled with it. It was a relatively quick read, and it kept me company on a miserable Friday night, so I can’t say that reading it was a bad experience. It just wasn’t my cup of tea, but I’m glad I gave it a try.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

FullSizeRender(3)

On any given day, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. You can spill coffee on your bare foot in the morning, or you can rear-end someone on your way to work. You can give your job everything you have but be let go without warning for reasons outside your (and maybe your supervisor’s) control. You can enjoy a lovely midsummer dinner with your partner only to have your heart broken when they tell you they don’t love you anymore. A family member that has been crucial to your life since the day you were born can suddenly betray and abandon you, seemingly without a care. Your universe can completely upend on a sunny afternoon when you get the call that your mother, or brother, or best friend, or any loved one has been taken from this world. On any given day, anything and everything can go wrong; but it’s what you do with this fact that determines the course of your life.

Beryl Markham learned this at a young age. Abandoned by her mother at the age of four, then catapulted into an unhealthy marriage at sixteen, Beryl was a seemingly modern woman born well before her time and forced to grow up way too soon. Born in England, her family moved to Kenya when she was very young. After her mother fled back to England, she was raised by both her father and the natives that lived on his estate. She was an unconventional wild child, and as an adult she never really found a way to fit into the mold of society. She made mistakes and muddled through them the hard way, yet she always seemed to make it through with her head up. She was an admirable woman; she built a career as a successful horse trainer, she learned to fly, she became the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic from east to west, and most importantly, she lived and loved on her own terms, regardless of the cost.

It sort of amazes me that Beryl Markham was a real person. When I first heard of Circling the Sun, I don’t think I realized that the characters in the novel were actual people, and that they really did a lot of what was detailed in the book. Then, once I bought the book, I think I was confused at first as to how much was real and how much was fiction. But as I started reading, those questions faded away as I became wrapped up in the story. Beryl was a fascinating character, real-life or not. Once I finished the book and read the author’s note, I did a little bit of research on the real Beryl Markham, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that Circling the Sun truly mirrored her life (at least in the big ways). I was also very excited to learn that Beryl had written a memoir, and I’ve added that to my reading list along with Out of Africa, written by Beryl’s acquaintance Karen Blixen under a pen name. It might be a while before I make it to those books, but it will be worth it to read the true story of her life.

Simply put, Circling the Sun just really clicked with me. It’s got all the makings of a novel that I would enjoy: it’s historical fiction, there’s a romance plot, the main character is an admirable heroine, and there’s a solid bit of adventure. This book was right up my alley and I definitely enjoyed it. It was just so easy for me to get wrapped up in the story; I’m surprised at myself for waiting so long to read it. It’s been sitting on my bookshelf for a while; I originally bought it last fall before my trip to Munich. I planned on reading it on the flight back to the States, but I was too distracted by movies and games on the plane. Then in Newark airport I was way too annoyed about watching my final flight home being delayed every half hour to really enjoy it, so when I finally made it back to my apartment I put it on the coffee table to “read later.” When it sat there for a month it was moved to the bookshelf, and it’s been there until two weeks ago. I was very proactive in April about putting together my reading list for May, but I had a few delayed and missing packages that left me scrambling when it was time for a new book on May 1st. That day I noticed Circling the Sun on the bookshelf and figured it was time to give it another go. I think I finished it the next day, it was that good.

I’m just very fascinated about Kenya’s history and culture, particularly with how the British colonials were able to live in such a different environment than their home country. And I’m interested in the African wilderness- the geography, the animals, the climate, everything. The traveler in me is itching to go there, but realistically I know that it won’t happen anytime soon. A few years ago I read Love, Life, and Elephants, the memoir by Daphne Sheldrick. Her Kenya was a little bit later than Beryl’s, but when I finished Circling the Sun I found myself studying the pictures in Daphne’s memoir and comparing the maps in both books. It was such an interesting time and place in history, and it produced such amazing people. To me, that’s enough to justify visiting in person.

I really, truly enjoyed Circling the Sun. Considering my interests, I realize that I’m a little bit biased but the story was just so engrossing, and the fact that much of the novel was inspired by the real life of Beryl Markham makes it so much better. I’m still kind of kicking myself for letting it sit so long, but I’m happy I finally read it. The weather has been cool and rainy here, so I’m grateful that I had such a great book to curl up with and lose myself in. Now I just have to cross Beryl’s memoir off my reading list and figure out a way to make it to Africa to see her country for myself!

 

 

Girl Underwater by Claire Kells

FullSizeRender(1)

Girl Underwater was just what I needed this weekend. I’ve been in a funk recently; there’s a lot going on in my life and I haven’t been able to really get into what I’ve been reading. This book was the perfect cure- completely consumed within 24 hours!

Before this, I was trying to work my way through All About Love by bell hooks. It was the March book for Our Shared Shelf, Emma Watson’s feminist book club on Good Reads (of which I’m a member). But things were going slow… First it took me a while to get the book. Then, once I had it, I planned on reading it in the car on the way to my brother’s house, where my family was helping him move. That turned out to be a fail: we made the 5 hour drive after the sun went down, and I completely forgot that I would need sunlight in order to read in the car. Then my life got a little crazy: less than one week after I booked flights for an epic (but kind of expensive) adventure in London and Iceland this summer I found out my rent was going up by quite a lot. Then my car broke down on the turnpike on my way back from a work trip and I learned that I will need to buy a new one. Then I received news that there’s a chance my office could be closed or moved, but nothing is final or confirmed and no one really knows anything. Needles to say, I’ve been a little stressed out and spending a lot of my free time researching apartments, cars, and jobs. And even though I kept trying, I couldn’t get into All About Love (which actually made me stress out a little bit more because I don’t like to be behind on my reading list). I wanted to hear the message, I could tell it was meaningful, but the book is essentially an essay, and I couldn’t calm my brain down enough to focus and take it in. I needed something more engaging, and that’s where Girl Underwater came in.

Girl Underwater was recommended to me by my friend Sam around the time that I started this blog. When I bought it, I didn’t do much research other than skim the book jacket. Basically my mentality is that if a friend cares enough to recommend a book to me, then I should care enough to take the time and read it. So there was no doubt as to if I would read it, it was just a matter of when. And last week when the craziness began to feel like a little too much to handle, I set aside All About Love for another day, I threw a few clothes in a bag with Girl Underwater, and I drove out to my parents’ house to spend the night and read a book. Their house (my childhood home) is one of the coziest, most comfortable, and relaxing places I could think of, and it was the perfect setting for me to de-stress and unwind. Armed with Girl Underwater, I curled up on the couch and spent most of Friday night and Saturday afternoon reading the whole book. And it was awesome.

IMG_1273
My childhood home at Christmastime… so cozy

This is where I have to give Sam a lot of credit- this book wasn’t on my radar at all but it was exactly the kind of story I like to read. It’s a love story but not overwhelming in the romance department, definitely nothing like the Nicholas Sparks type fluff that seems to be popular. (Side note: my eleventh grade English teacher once spent half a class period talking about how Nicholas Sparks is a “fluff writer,” and I’ve referred to his books as fluff ever since). But Girl Underwater is more about the story leading up to the romance part, and it’s full of suspense and adventure. Add in an incredibly smart, strong, and brave female protagonist and I was hooked. So Sam- here’s a huge thank you for the recommendation!

Other than romance, I would categorize Girl Underwater as a coming-of-age story more than anything else. The main character, Avery, is a sophomore in college who is one of a few survivors of a plane crash in the Rocky Mountain wilderness. The novel alternates between her life post-crash and her struggle for survival in the wild with three young boys and her male teammate on her university’s swim team. I thought that the survival part of the story was pretty intense. As an avid hiker, it definitely made me more aware (or re-aware, if that’s a thing) of the dangers I put myself in every time I walk in the woods. Though I always carry a first aid kit and flashlight when I go hiking, this book served as a reminder to brush up on my survival and emergency skills, especially since hiking season is right around the corner where I live.

IMG_0369
Moraine Lake in Alberta, Canada- this is how I pictured the location where the plane crashed in Girl Underwater

Throughout the course of the novel, both in the present and in the flashbacks, you get the sense that Avery struggles with knowing and accepting herself for who she really is. Amidst all the trauma going on, much of the novel centers on Avery finding herself and becoming her own person. That’s something I found incredibly relatable, and my guess is that a lot of people would say the same thing. Looking back at my own life, I don’t think I was being my “true self” when I was 19, and it took me a few years to not only realize that, but also figure out who I am and where I want my life to go. Sometimes I think I still struggle with that, at least to some extent. It’s so easy to get caught up in everything that’s going on around you and forget to put yourself first. And it’s hard when someone you care about has different expectations for you than you do for yourself, because it can feel like you’re letting that person down by just doing what makes you happy. But Avery powered through it (as did I, and I hope millions of other young people all over the world). I think the author did a great job of weaving that coming-of-age aspect into the novel, it was heartening but not overwhelming.

All in all, Girl Underwater was a great book and I’m incredibly happy that I spent a significant portion of my weekend reading it. For someone who likes adventure and a little bit of romance in a book, this was just what I needed to get back into the regular swing of things!

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

IMG_2626

Khaled Hosseini has been on my radar for a while now. For months (years actually) I’ve had A Thousand Splendid Suns, And The Mountains Echoed, and The Kite Runner on my reading list. But my reading list is an evolving one- it’s actually a spreadsheet organized and sorted by fiction/nonfiction, genre, Amazon rating, Goodreads rating, and my own “personal rating.” I know this sounds slightly crazy, but I actually got the idea from a girl that one of my friends went on a date with once. He asked her where she would like to go out for dinner, and she sent him an Excel spreadsheet with a list of restaurants that were sorted and highlighted into a bunch of different categories. I forget if they ever went on a second date, but I was inspired to use a spreadsheet to keep track of all the books I want to read. Basically every time I add a book to my list I enter the Amazon and Goodreads rating and I score the book on a scale of 1 to 5 on how excited I am to read it. Periodically I revise the personal scores based on my interests at the time, like if I’m in the mood for a romance novel or historical fiction or something a little more intellectual. And it’s been so helpful; every time I finish a book I generally know what I’m going to read next.

So Hosseini’s books have been on my list for a while, but until recently they’ve been edged out by my always-changing personal score. Recently, however, I’ve been reading more feminist literature (partly in thanks to Emma Watson, which I’ll discuss in a later post) and I bumped A Thousand Splendid Suns up to the top because at its heart it centers around two females who are brought together through tragedy and circumstance.

And what tragedy. What circumstance. What heart-wrenching lives these women lived. What hope persisted throughout the story despite all the tragedy. A Thousand Splendid Suns made me feel on so many levels, and as I read I kept trying to categorize the relationships and themes to try to put a label on what I was feeling. In the beginning it was about daughters and mothers, and daughters and fathers, then husbands and wives, then parents again, then friends and romance, and I eventually gave up trying to put a label on everything because part of what made this story beautiful was the web of relationships and connectivity of themes and the elegant way in which everything was brought together.

I have so much respect for Hosseini as a writer. It takes real talent to weave a story like this together in such a simple yet profound way. It really is a beautiful story, full of love despite the traumatic setting. It’s always been a dream of mine to be a writer, whether it’s a short story or novel, and this book is proof that I have such a long way to go. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to develop a style like this, it’s just amazing to me.

The two main characters in the novel, Mariam and Laila, are women that I would love to meet if they existed in real life. Their capacity to endure, to hope, to protect is beyond anything I can imagine in my own life. I find them inspiring, and I feel for them. I know that this is a work of fiction, but I am sure there are real women who have lived at least parts of this story, and I send good thoughts to whoever and wherever they are.

Other than the various kinds of overwhelming love portrayed in this story, the other main emotion I felt was guilt. A Thousand Splendid Suns spans over three decades of Afghan history, and to be completely honest this was my first exposure to much of that history. Before this book, most of what I knew about Afghanistan was learned from CNN news stories that my mom started watching after 9/11, and I find that embarrassing. It makes me feel incredibly naïve and somewhat uneducated; I keep thinking back to my history classes in high school, wondering if there was a section I blocked out, but I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think I was ever taught much about Afghanistan, and I never tried to seek it out myself.

This book made me uncomfortably aware of how trivial the things are in my life that I worry about. Compared to others, and especially compared to the women in this story, I’m an incredibly privileged person to be living the life I have. Though I’m generally aware of that fact I felt that it was really thrown at me throughout the book, which I believe is a good thing. I feel more inspired to do some good in the world, to be more aware and educated about what is happening, and most importantly to be truly grateful for everything I have. Mariam and Laila had their worlds turned upside down so many times and in so many different ways, and yet they kept going. They loved, they hoped, they endured, and their unrelenting bravery in the face of hardship makes them some of the best heroines I’ve read about in some time.