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A Reading Vocation

"I Must Read, Read, and Read. It is my Vocation." - Thomas Merton

This is where I chronicle my reading life.  I also blog about writing at Lacey's Late-night Editing.

 

Book 31/100: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

All the Bright Places - Jennifer Niven

This is one of those books that inspires complicated feelings. Is it possible to write a book about teens and suicide that doesn't inspire complicated feelings? I've certainly never read one -- but it's something writers need to keep writing about, and that we need to keep talking about.

My biggest qualm with YA suicide books is that I always fear they run the risk of romanticizing the issue, and that is particularly true when the suicide is contextualized within a romantic relationship as it is here. And so what made me most uncomfortable about this book was that Finch and Violet's suicide attempt in the same place on the same day was essentially reduced to a "meet-cute" (this isn't a spoiler, it's the opening chapter.) And the road-trippy aspects of the story also made the whole thing seem kind of fun and sweet and exciting rather than truly harrowing. The book didn't make me cry, which considering the subject matter seems like a bit of a fail.

At the same time, the things that I can be most critical about in this book can also be interpreted as some of its greatest strengths. Dealing with mental illness does not mean your entire existence is bleak, or that there aren't moments of beauty and adventure and wonder. It doesn't mean that life doesn't continue to unfold around you. I thought that Niven handled Finch's mental illness in a way that was believable and nuanced. I was less impressed by her depiction of Violet. Violet was damaged in her own way, still grieving the loss of her sister, but I kept feeling distracted by the fact that her parents didn't seem to be grieving along with her. In some ways they seemed too "perfect" and "together" for parents who had gone through the tragedy of losing a child, but at the same time it was nice to see some responsible, competent adults in a YA book.

My book club spent a lot of time dissecting how things could have been different if this or that circumstance might have been changed, and although the book loses points for not tugging at my heartstrings the way it maybe should have, it gets those points back again by being the kind of book you keep chewing on for quite a while after the final page has been read.

Goodreads Author Question: Summer Reading List

HypnoBirthing: The Mongan Method: A natural approach to a safe, easier, more comfortable birthing (3rd Edition) - Marie F. Mongan How to Raise a Family on Less Than Two Incomes: The Complete Guide to Managing Your Money Better So You Can Spend More Time with Your Kids - Denise Topolnicki 365 Ways to Live Cheap: Your Everyday Guide to Saving Money - Trent Hamm The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding - La Leche League International, Gwen Gotsch The Nursing Mother's Companion - Kathleen Huggins Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype - Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Goodreads asked Lacey Louwagie: What books are on your summer reading list this year?

 

Well ... I'm expecting my first child in July, so my summer reading list is basically a crash course in parenting and domesticity. The stack consists of "Hypnobirthing" by Marie Mongan; "How to Raise a Family on Less Than Two Incomes" by Denise M. Topolnicki; "365 Ways to Live Cheap" by Trent Hamm; "The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding" by La Leche League; "The Nursing Mother's Companion" by Kathleen Huggins; etc. A lot of these I'll use for reference and probably not read cover-to-cover. I'm also hoping to finish "Women Who Run With the Wolves" by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (which I've been reading slowly over the last couple months) and hopefully throw in some graphic novels for a break. And the audiobooks I listen to always end up being the "wild card" in my reading life!

Book 30/100: Zoe in Wonderland by Brenda Woods

Zoe in WonderlandZoe in Wonderland by Brenda Woods
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fun, sweet coming-of-age book about a daydreaming loner whose interest in the world beyond her mind is just beginning to be awakened. Well-drawn secondary characters, especially Zoe's next-door neighbor, and deals eloquently with some tough topics (cancer, financial instability, senility) without feeling too heavy.

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SPOILER ALERT!

Book 29/100: Son by Lois Lowry

Son - Lois Lowry

Sigh ... Lowry, why did you keep writing sequels to a book that never needed any sequels?

I found Gathering Blue to be somewhat lackluster, Messenger to be pretty awful ... and for a while, I thought this one might actually be different. Maybe not different enough to redeem the whole series, but at least different enough to justify its existence.

That's because the first section of the book takes place in the same community as The Giver, and this society remains equally fascinating through another character's experience of it. It follows the experiences of Gabriel's birthmother, Claire, and shows another side of the community that is still familiar to us. For the most part, the worldbuilding in the original book is one of its strongest, most enduring qualities -- few of us will forget our first exposure to it, which was, for many in my generation, our introduction to dystopia --and the first part of this book brings us back to that well-wrought world. This book would have been stronger if Lowry had published it as a novella or short story and scrapped everything that happens after Claire leaves the community ... but that did not happen.

The other communities are far less developed than the original one, and Claire sort of muddles her way through them for a few years, dragging the reader along for a far less interesting ride than what we thought we were in for in the beginning. Also, the book gets a little bit too "magical" without any explanation. I think that's my major bone of contention with this series, the sort of unevenness between the groundedness of Jonas's community, where almost everything makes sense even if it is horrifying, and the random, unexplained "powers" and magical realism running rampant in the rest of the world. (I did reread "The Giver" recently and realize that there is a touch of this unexplained magical realism there as well, but because it is a less prominent part of the story, it's less irritating.) Also, it wasn't just the random magical-ish things that lacked explanation -- there were also major plot points that didn't seem to make sense. [Like, why was it imperative that Gabriel go after the Trademaster? Why was that designated his "job" all of a sudden? Jonas was so insistent upon it, but it seemed mostly just a convenient way to resolve the story, or to make it seem like the various threads were meant to tie together all along when really it felt like they were still unraveling.]

It also felt like the book "tried too hard" to tie together all the sequels that shouldn't have been written in the first place, and the connections just weren't strong enough to make wading through all the separate stories that got us to that point worth it. I have a lot of respect for Lowry as a writer, and I wish she hadn't wasted so much of her time and mine spinning additional stories that never really needed to be told.

Book 28/100: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler
I never knew when I picked this book up that the identity of Fern was supposed to be a "twist" -- the review I read that piqued my interest gave it away, and that's what made me want to read the book. Ironically, I probably would not have picked it up had I not known the "twist" beforehand!

But I am glad that I did pick it up. I hadn't realized that this was written by the same person who wrote The Jane Austen Book Club, which I found to be a bit too cutesy and not particularly enjoyable, and at first knowing that put me off a bit. However, I found this book to be much more substantial and introspective, and demonstrative of Fowler's growth as a writer in tone and themes.

This book was less about the experience of living with Fern than I expected, and more about the way her short time with the Cooke family impacted them for decades even after she disappeared. The narrator was only five when Fern disappeared from her family, so she perhaps had the most difficulty truly making sense of what had happened and why. Her social interactions remained awkward and she felt isolated throughout most of her life, always compensating for unusual formative years and the impact Fern had on them. Unable to see the "big picture," she also blamed herself for Fern's disappearance, which was reinforced by her brother's interpretation of events.

Fern, brother Lowell, Rosemary (the narrator), and her friend Harlow are incredibly vivid characters -- the rest of the characters less so, to the extent that I sometimes had trouble keeping track of them or remembering who was who. The non-linear storytelling style can also take some getting used to, and because the book is very reflective in nature, there is a lot that is conveyed in summary and memory rather than in direct action. The narrative style seemed appropriate to the storyteller and the story she was attempting to convey, and the book's powerful themes about family, the importance of formative experiences, the response to grief, the isolation of an unconventional childhood, activism and animal rights more than made up for its minor weaknesses. It's the type of book that will make you want to read more about the subject matter, which always counts as a win for me even if it places further strain on my massive TBR list. Ever-expanding intellectual curiosity is fun, if a bit overwhelming. :)
 
 
 
SPOILER ALERT!

Book 27/100: Winter by Marissa Meyer

Winter (The Lunar Chronicles) - Marissa Meyer

I gave this book four stars just as I did all the other books in the series, but I enjoyed the other three more.

I liked how the earlier books had the luxury of focusing in on their titular characters' story; as each new character was added while previous storylines were also continued, that sense of intimacy was lost. I felt like I didn't get to "know" Winter as well as I got to know the previous characters in their stories, and because there was so much to wrap up, this book just felt like it had a lot going on -- maybe too much sometimes.

In general, things seemed to go a little too smoothly for our protagonists, especially as it related to the revolution. I mean, I get that Levana's subjects had been displeased for years, but everyone seemed to jump on board with Cinder and the gang a little too easily, in too short a time, especially since she showed up without much plan for how she was going to pull everything off. It felt like Meyer knew this was her last book, so she had to wrap it up, whether the timing was right nor not -- the revolution itself could have lasted for a whole book series.

Also, it really annoyed me when Cinder abdicated at the end -- I felt like it was a total cop-out, just because she didn't "want" to be Queen, when all along she knew she was doing it because it was her duty -- not to mention that those who don't want power often make the best leaders. And it just seems way too soon for the subjugated people of Luna to be ready to transition to a whole new style of government.


I also found my mind wandering a lot more often during this book than with the others in the series.

So, with all this criticism, why still four stars? Well, I really do find these books consistently fun to read. I love the characters, especially the female leads and their diversity. I like the way Meyer maintains a "magical" feel to her books within the sci-fi setting, and the way she manages to stay pretty close to the source material of the individual fairy tales despite all the world-building stuff of her own she has going on. I wouldn't say that I found the conclusion of the series disappointing, necessarily, just a little bogged down. I would still totally recommend the series, and I will continue to read ancillary stories set in this world (still need to pick up Stars Above and Wires and Nerve, Volume 1) and explore Meyer's other writing.

Book 26/100: New Mom, New Woman by Rachel Egan

New Mom, New WomanNew Mom, New Woman by Rachel Egan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book disappeared from my Goodreads shelves for some reason, and I didn't notice until I was reminded of it when I opened my Kindle and saw my recently completed reads. This wasn't the best book, but I still want credit for reading it, especially since I am behind on my reading challenge for the year!

The main point of this book is to tell new parents to go easy on themselves in the upheaval that is new parenthood, to take some time to determine their priorities and to use those to create a "new normal." The idea is to keep women from inadvertently falling into the martyr role, where their entire lives become consumed with caring for others to the point of neglecting themselves -- not just in the intense months and years of early childhood, but throughout their parenting journey.

The book is full of exercises to that end that seem as if they could be really helpful. Unfortunately, I read an ARC on my Kindle, and the book was not properly formatted for that medium. So I had to guess at what many of the exercises, charts, and images were supposed to look like based on context because they came out all screwed up. It's a pet peeve of mine when publishers put out electronic ARCs that have shoddy formatting -- it really does affect the reading experience and it makes it harder to look favorably on a book.

Rachel Egan is a coach for new moms, and I imagine working one-on-one with her in that capacity would be enormously helpful. The book might be a good stand-in for those who are not comfortable with or cannot afford formal coaching, but the ebook version should be avoided to get the most benefit out of the exercises. Even if the formatting is fixed on the final version (which it better be if people are going to pay money for it), there are a lot of places where the book asks you to answer questions, make notes, circle things, etc. -- all of which seem a lot easier with a physical copy. Unfortunately, because of the yucky ebook formatting, I probably won't use this much once I'm actually dealing with these issues after my baby's arrival.

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Book 25/100: My Story by Elizabeth Smart

My Story - Elizabeth  Smart, Chris Stewart

Like many of these, "I went through something harrowing" memoirs, this isn't something you read because you want great writing. The writing here is stilted and oftentimes repetitive, and I'm willing to be forgiving of that because it's important to tell the stories of regular, non-writer people who have been through extraordinary experiences, in as close to their own words as possible.

With that said, much of the storytelling in this recounting of the tale seemed to come from someone whose perception of the world had been stunted at the moment of her trauma -- not an unusual phenomenon, but one that Smart does not seem to acknowledge at all. She keeps referring to how she was "just a little girl" and "so innocent," which seems disingenuous to me since most teenagers don't actually think of themselves in those terms. She also seemed to hold on to a lot of very black-and-white thinking -- her captor, Mitchell, was "pure evil," while her family was seemingly perfect, nothing but loving and good all the time. There were also moments when she came across as somewhat self-righteous, but at the same time, I think it's the prerogative of a trauma survivor to hold onto some self-righteousness. It was clear that her faith in God and her beliefs about purity were deeply embedded parts of her psyche when she was kidnapped, so although it sometimes comes across as saccharine, I also felt that if this was true to her own experience of coping with the ordeal, it was appropriate to include.

I think that some people might be disappointed by how modest Smart was about the sexual stuff that took place while she was kidnapped -- she never goes into detail about the things that Mitchell did to her, made her do, or even the pornographic images he made her look at. I would say to those that are disappointed by the lack of detail in this regard should ask themselves why they are reading a book like this in the first place -- someone else's sexual exploitation should never be up for any onlooker to gawk at, and readers of this book are not "entitled" to peer in to every aspect of Smart's private hell. Instead, she went into great detail on many of the other aspects of living as a captive -- periods of starvation, conversations she had with her captors, stories they told her, all of which conveyed a clear enough picture of the desperation and hardship of her situation.

Although she insists again and again that she never developed any sort of feelings for her captives, it is interesting how Mitchell had brainwashed both Smart and his wife into total dependence on him. At one point he disappears for a week, and they go hungry during that time rather than venture into town on their own in search of food, even though nothing is really stopping them. (While Mitchell was around, he forbid them from going out in public, but he had such a hold on them that even while he was gone they obeyed this edict despite the fact that it could have literally killed them.)

The times when Smart comes close to being recognized or rescued only to remain in captivity are heartbreaking, and a good reminder to the rest of us to speak up or push back when she encounter something that seems "just not right." One of the best parts of this story, though, is that Smart plays a critical role in "saving herself" in the end. I wish all kidnapping stories could have endings that involve family reunions.

Book 24/100: The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury

The Forbidden Wish - Jessica Khoury

3.5

There are so few "Aladdin" retellings out there, and so this wasn't quite the retelling I wanted it to be.

What I would like is a retelling that really delves into the potential historical and cultural setting of the original tale, sticking fairly close to the bones of the story because that hasn't really been done yet. I feel like after a few rich, close-to-original retellings have been published, that's when you can start doing funky things with a story, and "Aladdin" just isn't at that point yet. So, after getting over my disappointment that this retelling was not particularly true to the original, I tried to enjoy it on its own merits.

But my enjoyment ended up being somewhat uneven. It takes place in a vaguely Middle-Eastern fantasy world that borrows more from current YA tropes than from the original tale or the historical or cultural context in which it is based. There is a love triangle, of course, mostly focused on Aladdin and the genie, who is female. The love story didn't particularly grab me, which is the driving force in the book -- I was more interested in the princess and her struggles to come into her own amidst political turmoil and being constantly undermined by her power-hungry uncle and hounded by her cousin, who was also her betrothed. The tale also seemed to owe just as much to Disney's rendition of "Aladdin" as to the original tale, both in its description of Aladdin's appearance and personality and in its emphasis on the importance of freedom to a genie and the role a master's wish can play in granting that desire.

So while I know I shouldn't hold too much against this book for not being the "Aladdin" story I wanted it to be, I also feel like it probably wouldn't have particularly interested me if it were not billed as an "Aladdin" retelling -- and its relationship to the original tale was thin enough that it could have just been a story about a genie who falls for her human master.

Book 23/100: Parents Need to Eat Too by Debbie Koenig

Parents Need to Eat Too: Nap-Friendly Recipes, One-Handed Meals, and Time-Saving Kitchen Tricks for New Parents - Debbie Koenig

I asked my IRL and Goodreads friend who has a lot of cookbooks on her GR list how she decided that a cookbook had been "read" -- did she read it cover to cover? She said her criteria was that she had looked through the whole thing and cooked at least one recipe from it. Those seemed like sensible criteria to me, so I shall adopt them as my own when reviewing cookbooks.

Although I did not read every single word in this cookbook, I did page through all the recipes (diligently page-flagging the MANY I want to try), read a lot of the tips and anecdotes and sidebars, and cooked two recipes from it over the weekend (which both earned a "very good" rating -- my recipe rating system is "average" (realistically, something I will never bother cooking again), "good," "very good," and "excellent.")

I honestly love this cookbook for so many reasons. I think the best cookbooks should inspire you to want to cook what you find in their pages immediately, and make you feel excited about the many culinary possibilities that lay before you. This cookbook does just that, and it has the added advantage of being full of time-saving tips and a variety of recipes that truly are quick and easy without being too bland or predictable. Although it is not a vegetarian cookbook, it is not overly meat-heavy, either -- even skipping over the meat recipes, I found plenty of meal ideas. It's organized in a way that makes it easy to find what you want based on your own style of cooking, and I learned some important general cooking tips from the various notes and sidebars. There are no photos of the food, which I prefer -- photos tend to intimidate rather than inspire me. It's just all information, all the time, and it's almost all good.

With all this praise, it may be puzzling that I gave this book four stars instead of five. It lost one star due to its "big batch" (i.e., freezer cooking) chapter being somewhat disappointing. As a veteran freezer cooker (it's how my household has been eating since 2013), I disagreed with some of her tips and thought she left some important methods and overall techniques out. It's clear this is not her particular area of expertise, which is OK -- she does provide additional resources for those who find the idea appealing after an initial introduction.

Overall, though, I expect to use this cookbook a LOT in the coming months, and I'm looking forward to it!

Book 22/100: Beyond the Sling by Mayim Bialik

Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way - Mayim Bialik, Jay Gordon

It's hard to review a book like this without sounding like I'm passing judgment on Bialik's parenting choices, which I don't really want to do -- I'm sure her kids, like most of us, will turn out more-or-less fine.

I don't know a ton about attachment parenting, but I knew that attachment parents did a lot of things I plan to do, like baby-wearing, exclusive breastfeeding, sleeping with baby in the same room, etc. And after reading about attachment parenting apart from Bialik's book, I still basically agree with its tenets. But Bialik's interpretation of it just takes it too far for my tastes, and throws in a bunch of stuff that just made her lose credibility in my eyes (like "elimination communication" and being anti-vax and generally anti-medical intervention in general).

I feel a little bit like Bialik's interpretation of attachment parenting principles is akin to fundamentalists' interpretation of Biblical principles -- they might feel like they are doing it "better" than everyone else, but really their extremism is mostly in service of their own feelings of righteousness. I can get behind responding to a child's needs in an intuitive way, but I was very uncomfortable with Bialik's interpretation that this essentially meant a parent could NEVER be away from her children. I cringed when I learned that she had only been out with her husband without her children three times in five years -- and I was not surprised to find out that they divorced a couple years after this book was published. In many ways, her interpretation of the parenting style seemed to be more about parental dependence on the children rather than the other way around. Not to mention that it deprived her children of relationships with other nurturing adults and the opportunity to build a wider support network -- far from being a hardship, I always considered it a treat to get attention from non-parental adults (babysitters, Grandma, aunts) when my own parents went out on dates or to do other things that didn't revolve around being parents.

So even though I hope to take a more balanced approach to parenting than Bialik seems to do, I still found the book helpful because my own responses to her ideas helped solidify my own parenting values.

Book 21/100: Odd and the Frost Giants

Odd and the Frost Giants - Neil Gaiman, Mark Buckingham

This is one of those reviews I've been putting off because I don't have much intelligent to say about this book. It's a fun, warm, and charming read -- a rather sweet take on the Norse gods and one young boy's interactions with them.

Book 20/100: Amy Spangler's Breastfeeding - a Parents' Guide

— feeling baby
Amy Spangler's Breastfeeding: A Parent's Guide - Amy K. Spangler

A good beginner's guide to breastfeeding -- it's short and broken into clear sections with illustrations and bulleted text, so it's not intimidating but still packed with really good information. It gets a bit repetitive if you read it straight through (which I did), but I can see why certain bits of important information were repeated often since most people who read this will skip around to the sections that are relevant to them, so the most crucial info needs to be in pretty much all those sections. Would definitely recommend to those who are put off by massive breastfeeding tomes like The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding but who are still interested in practical info and tips on nursing a baby.

— feeling love
YES!!!! Thirty free audiobooks, two every week, from now through the summer. I freakin' LOVE this program. Even if you aren't a big YA or audiobook fan, check out their roster of titles -- there is a huge variety and did I mention, um, FREE? Give it a try; I don't think you'll regret it.

AudioBook SYNC

Reblogged from JL's Bibliomania:

Do you like YA? Do you like Audiobooks? Do you like free stuff?

 

Audiobook SYNC is starting up for the summer!

Book 19/100: Feed by M.T. Anderson

Feed - M.T. Anderson

This seminal teen dystopia has been on my TBR forever (maybe since it was published?) and thanks to my book club I finally got it checked off!

I always find it a little refreshing to read "old school" teen dystopias, before the formula of singular teen who realizes the evil of "the system" and vows to overthrow it in three books came along. The best dystopias are always about social commentary, not movie franchising rights, and this one has a lot relevant to say in the realm of social commentary.

This was published in the early 2000s, after the Internet had become ubiquitous and right on the edge of web 2.0 when everyone became content creators. The way that technology has totally infiltrated everyone's life and the way that advertisers "feed" into everything people do is, of course, quite prescient, although perhaps what is missing is the ability for humans to interact back and create content in a way that goes beyond their purchasing power. Still, I can't help but think of this book when I noticed that every third post on my Facebook feed these days is an ad ... usually one that is disturbingly on-target.

Titus is not a very likeable character, and he is so enmeshed in the system that he doesn't see its pitfalls. His love interest, Violet, is somewhat outside the system and so calls it into question a bit more, but she fortunately stops just short of being a manic pixie dream girl. Although Titus's behavior, especially his inability to connect with her on a real, meaningful level when she needs him to, is incredibly frustrating, I also found it to be totally spot-on believable for someone who had grown up in this culture with these values.

I really wanted to know more about the larger society in which Titus lived, but because he was so wrapped up in his own pursuit of entertainment, distraction, and consumerism, we only got glimpses of these things as they stayed on the periphery of his consciousness. Still, a chilling and powerful cautionary tale that is made stronger by not having a single character beat us over the head with how "wrong" the society is. Thanks, M.T. Anderson, for delivering a dystopia that invites the reader to think for herself.

Book 18/100: Of Mice & Magic by Ursula Vernon

Hamster Princess: Of Mice and Magic - Ursula Vernon

Just as much fun as Harriet the Invincible.

I recently re-read the 12 Dancing Princess (which this story retells), and was struck by how, even though the story is named for the titular women, all of whom presumably have their own lives, the story really revolves around the guy who creeps on them trying to figure out where they go at night. The story is about him, not the cursed princesses.

In Vernon's version, Harriet stands in for the gardener who saves the day -- so while she still takes center stage, at least a story ostensibly about 12 women doesn't inadvertently end up being about one man. Also, the princesses in the story are given some real "page-time" and personalities and desires of their own, all of which are improvements over the original. Prose is funny and smart and artwork is charming.