A book set in Europe

“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”

-Marcus Zusak, “The Book Thief”

Rating: 5 stars
Days to read: 11

Sometimes the hardest books to review are the ones you loved the most. The ones where all you can say is, “stop everything immediately and go read this book, I have nothing more to add.” This book caught my eye after 2 friends rated it highly on Goodreads and both mentioned crying at the end. I don’t really cry while reading so I almost approached it as a challenge: if you’re really as good as they say you are, little book, give me your best shot. The book won.

The Book Thief is the story of a girl named Liesel who lives in a small village outside the city of Munich with a foster family starting right before World War 2. We first watch 10 year old Liesel on a train ride with her mother and brother as they travel to an orphanage where they will be given up for adoption, presumably because her mother can no longer care for them. Before they make it her brother dies on the train, and his death haunts Liesel’s nightmares for many years in her new home. It is also this event that begins her career of book thieving as she grabs a copy of a cemetery procedures book (of all things) in the snow at the funeral even though she can’t read. She and her foster father form a special bond as he is the one to console her after each and every one of her nightmares, and in those quiet early morning hours he teaches her to read. Down the street from Liesel’s foster family is a boy named Rudy. Liesel and Rudy become great friends, even if (probably because) they spend most of their time teasing and cursing at each other. How this scenario becomes incredibly endearing and heartwarming is a testament to Zusak’s prose– he is able to convey the kind of fierce love that is present between two people even when they don’t show it explicitly (see also: Liesel’s foster mother, whose generous heart becomes much more apparent later on in the story).

Liesel and her family live in a contentious time in Germany. Frequent and ostentatious demonstration of one’s allegiance to Hitler is expected to the point that any perceived weakness in this regard has serious consequences. At first her family attempts to play along even though their hearts are never truly in it, which becomes more complicated when a series of events leads Liesel’s father to hide a Jewish man (Max) in their basement. Liesel forms a strong bond with Max as well, like an older brother she never had. At one point he becomes incredibly sick, sleeping for several weeks, and Liesel reads to Max every day. When he wakes up he writes a few books for her; ‘The Word Shaker’ in particular is incredibly moving and speaks to the power of words, both those of Hitler and his rise to power, but also the words of those who stand up against him.

These characters alone are enough to capture my love for this book, but what makes the novel truly great is Zusak’s choice to tell the story through the character of Death. Death is sarcastic but not really evil. He is a result but not a cause. He does not delight in our passing, he’s just the carrier of souls. I loved his commentary about war not being “death’s best friend” as the phrase goes, but rather more like a “boss” who continually demands more. Death is particularly affected by our humanity, our best and our worst, and even seems attached to many of the characters. He has the perfect perspective for telling a story about how we live before we die. Death almost has a tenderness that belies how we normally think about and process death.. “It kills me sometimes, how people die.” I couldn’t get over this line. It’s beautiful.

I cried when Liesel cried for the last 100 pages of the book. It was a punch in the gut. In the words of George R.R. Martin, “when my characters are in danger, I want you to be afraid to turn the page (and to do that) you need to show right from the beginning that you’re playing for keeps.”

I’m worried for any book that comes after this, because I’m in a complete book hangover. There’s not a doubt in my mind this book gets 5 stars. Trust your friends when they warn you of book tears.

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A book from the library

“In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you could know if New York is in heavy boots.”

– Jonathan Safran Foer, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”

Rating: 3.5 stars
Days to read: 10

This might as well have been my freebie category, because just about every book I’ve read this year is from the library. I’ve wanted to read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as well as Everything is Illuminated (both by Foer) for a while so freebie category it was. I was aware of the high acclaim for the latter and assumed the former would be just as good, but I finished the book a bit disappointed and wondering if I was mistaken in that judgment.

Oskar is a 9 year old boy struggling with the death of his father, who was in a meeting in one of the World Trade Center buildings on 9/11. He is a precocious and challenging kid with a lot of emotion to work through, especially as he compares his grief to his mother’s, which he has trouble understanding. His grandmother lives across the street and they communicate through walkie talkies on a regular basis. After his father’s death he accidentally knocks over a vase one day, revealing a key in a little envelope labelled ‘Black’. He decides this must have been the beginning of a large scavenger hunt organized by his father (a game they used to play often) and he proceeds to go throughout the entire city trying to track down every Black in the phone book to find the lock that matches the key. Aside from the improbability of a 9 year old boy being allowed that much unsupervised free time, many of his interactions are sweet as he meets the flawed but charming individuals with the surname Black through the city, none of whom can help him figure out the right lock in all of New York City. The way Oskar sees the world is often strange and beautiful and endearing, although at times whiny and frustrating. Foer does an amazing job of making the reader feel Oskar’s panic attacks and restlessness, and over time I came to truly root for him even though I felt like my affection was often challenged (maybe this is the sign of a dynamic and realistic character).

In parallel the reader is introduced to a man, whose name we do not know, who was born in Dresden and fell in love with a girl named Anna during World War II. He loses her in the bombing of Dresden and later when he gets to New York he progressively loses his ability to speak, instead relying on a journal he keeps with him to talk (and even then, is incredibly limited in his communication). As with Oskar we hear his story in his own words, but I felt frustrated with just how slowly his character developed. Eventually we learn that this man is Oskar’s grandfather, who left his grandmother (who turns out to be Anna’s sister) many years ago but has been living with her again.

The intersection of the story plot with real history felt almost gimmicky. It was never really referenced directly but featured in repeated allusions. The only time I felt like it was a beautiful addition to the plot was Oskar’s descriptions of his dad’s last voicemails, which left me nearly in tears. The addition of the grandfather’s story felt like too much for a single narrative, they were both so out there that it felt overwhelming to try to believe in not just one but both of their stories. The joining of their stories seemed haphazard and underwhelming as well.

What felt missing from the plot was redeemed by some beautiful writing about angst and grief (especially the concept of “heavy boots”), and for this I can’t write off the book entirely. Everything is Illuminated remains on my TBR even if it has to wait until the end of the POPSUGAR Challenge (all the more reason to get it done before the end of the year!).

A satirical book

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Home sweet home..

“Mr. McIntryre,” Tierney said, putting his notepad on the desk, “now let me be candid. I don’t particularly care about Pan-Pacific.”
“You don’t?”
“To put it bluntly, another sleazy Washington lobby story is no longer front-page news.”
“Well,” Bird said, “I don’t know about ‘sleazy’, but if you say so.”
“My interest is Groepping-Sprunt.”
“Ah.”
“Specifically, a project they’re developing for the Pentagon.”
“Keeping America safe by keeping America strong. It’s on the letterhead. Under the eagle.”

-Christopher Buckley, “They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?”

Rating: 4 stars
Days to finish: 12

My first introduction to Christopher Buckley’s novels was back in college. It started with Thank You for Smoking and I devoured most of the rest of his work quickly thereafter. At one point (very briefly) I was an aspiring international relations major, and being a native of the DC area the drama of current events was something you had to converse in fluently. Buckley is the son of William Buckley Jr., founder of the National Review. He was also a speech writer for George H.W. Bush and became known outside political circles in 2008 when he endorsed Obama over the McCain/Palin ticket. Our politics are somewhat different but he came from a time where you could go have a beer with your opponent and have a productive, meaningful debate. We are now sadly past this era, and frustration with the current mode of operations is reflected in the way he treats Washington as a subject in his books, mostly by poking fun of Washington mercilessly. What sets Buckley apart is that it’s the kind of teasing you do when you still reluctantly care about things, even if they feel hopelessly awry.

In They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, Bird McIntyre is a consultant for a large defense contractor and is trying to convince Congress to buy their latest and greatest. After a rough testimony he teams up with Angel Templeton (a character who can only be described as Ann Coulter if she actually knew the names of the people she insults), a pro-war lobbyist, to manufacture a fake threat from the Chinese to bolster American sentiment that Congress needs to increase defense spending. It’s both ludicrous and true to Washington form, and has enough threads of reality to be as scary as it is funny. Rounding out the characters are Bird’s wife, Myndi, who enjoys spending Bird’s money on new horses, his brother who has no other job than to reenact Civil War history on their large plot of land in Virginia, and his mother with severe dementia.

The narrative goes back and forth between DC and China, where President Fa is trying to placate the desires of an aggressive and manipulative cabinet. In parallel both Angel Templeton and the Chinese come up with the same goal: kill the Dalai Lama (who is of rapidly deteriorating health anyway) and blame it on the other country. For the DC crew, this would show how dangerous the Chinese are and how much we need to stop them. For the Chinese, this would prevent the Dalai Lama from returning to Tibet before dying, where the Chinese can take over the reincarnation ceremony and nominate a successor much more ‘compatible’ with their plans for Tibet. Each plan only works if they aren’t caught. The highs and lows of manipulating the unwieldy beast of public perception create an amusing roller coaster for both sides.

In some ways Buckley’s books are hard to review in depth because the themes are timeless and simple: people are crazy and reality is stranger than fiction. There’s no giant stirring of emotions but the witty back and forth dialogue is enjoyable if not downright hysterical at times. If you’re an amateur political wonk, Buckley’s entire collection is well worth your time.

A YA bestseller

“When did we see each other face to face? Not until you saw into my cracks and I saw into yours. Before that we were just looking at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade, but never seeing inside. But once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out.”

-John Green, “Paper Towns”

Rating: 3 stars
Days to read: 3

It should be no surprise that one of the categories I checked off first was a YA novel (any good suggestions for ‘a book that takes place on an island’? I have a feeling this will be the last one I get to!). I loved A Fault in Our Stars in so many ways and was excited to explore the rest of John Green’s work. Teenage angst is such a universal and relatable theme but it tends to feel stale and overdone in most writers’ hands, and I felt like TFiOS captured so much without falling into many predictable character black holes that plague a lot of other YA work. In passing I’d seen trailers for the movie adaptation of Paper Towns, so I used that as a pseudo-endorsement that this might be another great story.

At the end of his senior year of high school, Quentin is taken on a wild, one night adventure with literally the girl next door, Margo Roth Spiegelman (the number of names you use for a person is correlated with your love for them, clearly), a girl with whom he has been infatuated with since childhood. There were many things I liked about Margo; she is a force to be reckoned with, she seems aware of the temporary nature of high school and its dynamics, and for the most part she rises above being motivated by the approval of her peers. Her function in the story, though, is to be a distant but dizzying mystery to Quentin (and thus, the reader), that of course in turn requires an epic obsession. After their one night adventure, Margo disappears and Quentin embarks on his own adventure to find her, sometimes enlisting his friends in various capacities and who are often nonplussed at Quentin’s devotion to solving the mystery of Margo’s disappearance.

In the end, when Quentin finds Margo through a series of both intended and unintended clues on Margo’s part, the result is anti-climatic. This is in many ways purposeful on Green’s part– Quentin has built up Margo and what might come after finding her, and he’s let down by reality. In that sense the ending is really quite fitting, but I felt frustrated by the pace that the adventure unfolded. At first when Quentin is going from clue to clue, I waited in suspense as he struggled to decipher the meaning of each clue and often went through several rounds of failed attempts before being able to continue. The final road trip felt frantic though, as if the plot just needed to be wrapped up and it was time to call it a day. Instead of building suspense I felt like I still had no idea where the plot was going, we were just going a lot quicker.

In a discussion with my little sister I brought up that one of my chief frustrations with the book is that I’ve become incredibly weary of the manic pixie dream girl. Female protagonists/main characters become relegated to some ethereal mystery status that is revered but results in extremely shallow character development. We allow ourselves to go no deeper than scratching the surface of a person, as long as that surface is really pretty and fun to think about. My sister argued that the point of this book is the deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl. Indeed, I did enjoy Green’s exploration of how the way we see each other and even ourselves is wrapped up in our ideas of each other almost more so than the actual person (for a beautiful exploration of this as it pertains to missing loved ones who have passed, read A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis). It is not until these ideas are cracked that we truly can connect with one another; almost ironically it is sharing brokenness that forges bonds. In Green’s hands this topic was beautifully done and without boring platitudes, and for me these passages were the highlight of the book, especially the imagery with cracked vessels and internal “strings” that cross within ourselves and between each other.

Would I still read another John Green novel? In a heartbeat. There’s a lot to take away from this book even if it wasn’t my favorite. It’s hard not to stay endeared to a fellow nerd.

A political memoir

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one of my favorite signed copies in my collection

“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and-perhaps-we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”

-Bryan Stevenson, “Just Mercy”

Rating: 5 stars
Days to read: 6

One of my reading weaknesses is that I rarely read non-fiction. This is possibly because I spend so much of my time in technical science literature that escaping to a fantasy world seems far more enticing when reading for fun. But to be honest, even this is at least partially an excuse. History comes much less easily to me than science, so while I read multiple newspapers daily to stay on top of current events, I rarely dive into the history and context of many of our current problems. Abolishing the death penalty is an issue I feel very strongly about, but only recently did I come to the realization that I knew very little about the history of the death penalty in this country. A good friend who is a lawyer and feels the same way about the death penalty recommended this book and I couldn’t be more thankful that this book and the work of the Equal Justice Initiative got on my radar.

Just Mercy is the story of Bryan Stevenson’s career as a lawyer for death row inmates and children sentenced to life in prison. I was both entranced with his writing as much as I often struggled to keep reading the stories of many of his clients throughout the years. Featured prominently is the case of Walter McMillian, a black man who was convicted of capital murder in Alabama even though there were multiple eye witnesses that he was miles away from the crime scene at the time of the murder. To read about the gut wrenching racism of the prosecutors and jail staff, including using police dogs and other tactics to scare the supporters of the defendant from showing up at trial, I felt sick to my stomach. It made me want to slam my book down in the middle of the coffee shop and scream, this can’t be real, can it? People can’t really treat others this way and get away with it, can they? We know on some level that they can and they do, but each individual story is heartbreaking in its own way. Of course, to be this shocked and surprised is indicative of my relative privilege being white. I get to be unaware of these issues if I chose to, because I don’t have to personally experience this reality. However, to do so perpetrates the culture that allows these wrongdoings to occur. If I’m silent then the voices that demand finding person to be punished for a crime without regard for real truth, and by extension real justice, become that much louder.

Although this book was published a couple years ago, it felt timely against the backdrop of the current presidential race. The anti-PC pendulum has swung so far that we now call being abrasive and cruel as “honesty” and “keeping it real” (can we abolish that phrase? And “haters gonna hate” while we’re at it, but I digress..). Our sense of justice is so steeped in revenge, or downright swallowed by it, that we conflate mercy with being “soft on crime”. If we are truly to consider ourselves a Christian nation as some candidates would espouse, how can we revel in how forgiving and just God is in dealing with our own sins on Sunday morning and then go cheer on candidates who propose denying that same compassionate justice to our neighbors (especially those that don’t look like us) on the talk shows Monday morning?

The first response I normally hear when I get into these kinds of conversations is something along the lines of, what you just think these people should go free and be allowed to hurt people? Or, yea let’s give these criminals a cushy life, why would they be deterred by prison! The irony of course in this is that a prevailing belief in just mercy is not being “soft” on crime. It is merely the reminder that punishments need to fit the crime, not our desire for revenge and retribution, or worse, to look good in the next election. It feels good to say what we want to do to people who cause great harm to our loved ones and members of our society. But the ways in which we either allow or disallow ourselves from going down that road shapes our culture in profound ways.

Perhaps most indicative of Stevenson’s character, and probably what has allowed him to connect with and therefore better represent many of his clients, is how he recognizes his own brokenness and need for mercy, even (maybe especially) for those who seem least deserving of it. In one of the chapters Stevenson recalls a guard who put him through a strip search (not standard operating procedure at this jail), and among other things also points out his truck in the jail parking lot with a bumper sticker that reads “if I knew it was going to be this way, I would have picked my own damn cotton.” (I have no words for this.) Later that guard is in the courtroom while Stevenson presents his client’s extremely abusive childhood in grisly detail. When the guard next sees Stevenson back at the jail, the guard stops him and asks to shake his hand, explaining that he had a rough childhood himself in foster care and didn’t think anyone had it as bad as him. Instead of dismissing the guard as forever repugnant for his previous actions, Stevenson shakes his hand. Both men are changed by Stevenson’s mercy.

I’m saving my five star ratings for the books that absolutely change me, this book completely deserves it.

A book that’s becoming a movie this year

“…so one day my mother sat me down and explained that I couldn’t become an explorer because everything in the world had already been discovered. I’d been born in the wrong century, and I felt cheated.”

-Ransom Riggs, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”

Rating: 4 stars
Days to read: 4

Part of my attraction to the POPSUGAR Book Challenge was that I tend to read heavily from two genres: young adult fiction, and sci-fi/fantasy (combine the two? I’m in book nerd heaven). The list forces me to pull from other genres, and often researching what book I want to fill a particular category has been half the fun. I started looking up movies coming out in 2016 at the end of 2015 and found a lot of really great options. Of course without trying what do I get for my first book of the year? A fantasy young adult novel. Go me. However, one thing that I loved about this book was that it avoids many of the current YA tropes. No dystopian future, no love triangle (ok, maybe a tiny bit, but no cries of TWO HANDSOME SWEET GUYS LOVE ME WHATEVER SHALL I DO BESIDES WALLOW IN INDECISIVENESS FOR 3 BOOKS?!), and no whiny over the top teenage angst. The book angels sing hallelujah.

Without realizing that this book is actually part 1 of a trilogy, I really enjoyed that Riggs takes a long time setting the scene with Jacob’s character and his world. Jacob is in many ways a quite ordinary teen but thankfully Riggs allows us to explore a part of his life that does not solely revolve around budding romantic feelings and the accompanying misadventures. He feels burdened by his seemingly ordinary life and longs for the extraordinary. For the longest time I wasn’t completely sure that the book was a fantasy novel (is his granddad crazy? Does he really see monsters?) and I think therein lies the beauty of Riggs’s storytelling. We have to learn, with Jacob, whether or not to trust his granddad’s crazy stories. Once Jacob finds a way to visit the orphanage in Wales where his grandfather grew up, I felt with his character the anxious desire to explore and discover and break from the ordinary.

At a certain point in a reader’s life you begin to feel like many stories are just versions of each other. We love those stories though, and so we keep reading and enjoy each new take. In many ways this book seemed new (see lack of YA tropes above), mostly because I really loved the time travel loop that governs the orphanage and the ongoing battle between hollowgasts and the ymbrynes. Of course, the structure of the book can be well placed within a more general narrative arc as with any fiction work, but this particular showdown between good and evil (especially the desire for power and immortality) feels fresh. I can’t wait to learn more about the hollowgasts and watch Jacob’s character transform through the adventure.

My one reservation is that I’m not sure what to make of Jacob falling in love with his grandfather’s old flame… it feels like a plot element you’d find in a Palahniuk novel (see: Rant). Throughout this first book their interactions have been fairly tame and Jacob and Emma seem to be slowly processing the complicated (understatement) feelings they have. I’m slightly wary of this subplot becoming a large portion of the narrative but hoping the main focus will remain Jacob’s development as he takes on the responsibility of a dangerous but exciting mission. The movie is scheduled for a Christmas release and although I’m happy to have imagined everything on my own first as a reader, I’m really looking forward to experiencing this world through Tim Burton’s eyes.

And pages to go before I sleep..

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I may or may not have dressed like this too..

The first book I remember truly falling in love with was Matilda by Roald Dahl.

At one point I counted that I had read it front to back over 8 times in the course of a year. As an awkward and somewhat precocious child I remember identifying especially with Matilda– feeling helpless (“I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”) but also learning to be resilient and positive (“These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”). Before I had any perspective and experience to truly understand the things I was ‘smart’ enough to learn quickly, books let me have a forest to run free in while my brain was still chaotic and developing. This of course is an ongoing process, but one of the benefits of getting older in my case is some much needed mellowing out after an angsty youth.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a highly literate home with family members I still consider to be smarter than me. I still think my mom and I are more dangerous in a book store than a shoe store. In my adult life reading started to wax and wane while I was in college. As a neuroscience major in undergrad and then pursuing my Ph.D. in graduate school, I spent (and still spend) hours each week reading highly technical primary literature, to the point where I got home and did not want to read another thing. In the last 4-5 years though I’ve discovered, somewhat paradoxically, that the more disciplined I am about reading for fun (not an oxymoron), the happier and more focused I am when I go back to my technical reading. In parallel I found the same thing with running and working out in general– I feel more energized, not less, when I get up off the couch and move. Perhaps it should not be such a surprise that taking care of your mind and your body require using them, not an overabundance of leisure (don’t worry I can still Netflix binge with the best of them).

Recently, in addition to reading more I’ve found myself wanting to write more as well. I find I process a book best when I go through the exercise of reviewing it with family and friends. After a few encouraging discussions with friends I decided to start this blog as a way of sharing what I’m reading, starting a discussion, and learning to become a better writer. This year I’ve challenged myself to complete the POPSUGAR Book Challenge (with an extra competitive element of racing against some fellow book nerd friends– you can check out my friend Juli’s blog here, and Elise’s blog here), although the larger goal is to read 40 total books over 2016. Game on.