Pop Sugar 2017 Challenge

I figured it was about time to do an update on my 2017 Pop Sugar Reading challenge.

1. A book recommended by a librarian
2. A book that’s been on your TBR list for way too long
3. A book of letters
4. An audiobook
5. A book by a person of color
6. A book with one of the four seasons in the title
7. A book that is a story within a story: The Life we Bury by Allen Eskens
8. A book with multiple authors
9. An espionage thriller
10. A book with a cat on the cover: Tea with Milk and Murder by H.Y. Hanna
11. A book by an author who uses a pseudonym
12. A bestseller from a genre you don’t normally read
13. A book by or about a person who has a disability
14. A book involving travel
15. A book with a subtitle: My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places by Mary Roach
16. A book that’s published in 2017: Between Nowhere and Lost by Alexandra Christle
17. A book involving a mythical creature: Blythewood by Carol Goodman
18. A book you’ve read before that never fails to make you smile
19. A book about food
20. A book with career advice: Bird by Bird by Anne Lemott
21. A book from a nonhuman perspective: Albert of Adelaide by Howard L. Anderson
22. A steampunk novel: Marianne and the Mad Baron by Kathryn Kohorst
23. A book with a red spine
24. A book set in the wilderness
25. A book you loved as a child: On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder
26. A book by an author from a country you’ve never visited
27. A book with a title that’s a character’s name: Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics by Chris Grabenstein
28. A novel set during wartime
29. A book with an unreliable narrator: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremble
30. A book with pictures
31. A book where the main character is a different ethnicity than you
32. A book about an interesting woman
33. A book set in two different time periods:
34. A book with a month or day of the week in the title
35. A book set in a hotel
36. A book written by someone you admire
37. A book that’s becoming a movie in 2017
38. A book set around a holiday other than Christmas
39. The first book in a series you haven’t read before A Scone to Die For by H.Y. Hanna
40. A book you bought on a trip


Review: War and Grace by Desmond McDougall

I finished War and Grace: One Woman’s Time at the Trenches by Desmond McDougall a couple of days ago, but sitting down to write a review has proved a challenge. My thoughts are still disorganized, so I’ll attempt to sort them out here.

war&graceWar and Grace is the story of Grace McDougall nee Smith, a leading figure in the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) and a woman who passed most of World War I serving near the allied battlefront. Her youngest son wrote the book and many times while reading, I was swept with nostalgia for my childhood moments of listening my grandpa tell stories about the Civil War that he heard from his who fought in it. Reading War and Grace was like overhearing another family’s history. As I process the book, I struggle to merge the family story feel with my trained historian brain. Some elements drove me bonkers, and yet, I can’t remember the last time a book spiked my curiosity the way this one has and left me totally jazzed about jumping down the rabbit hole of research.

The nitpicking critical part of my brain wanted to remove the unnecessary exclamation points and have more context. I suspect the author wrote as he talked. The prose is a bit clunky in places and prone to hyperbole, but I think that is part of why this story tapped into my nostalgia for my grandpa’s stories. As for the context, some of the individuals and places referenced may be more familiar to those who went through the British school system. I consider myself fairly well versed in European history, but I had a hard time grafting the events in War and Grace onto the overall timeline of World War I and my understanding of British involvement in the war and the military hierarchy. I’m a map girl, so I’m glad one was included so I could see the areas where FANY operated, but having a few dated maps that showed a snapshot of the battle lines would have heightened my temporal grounding. I would have loved a reference list as well since the author mentioned several published and unpublished works used to guide his storytelling, but I was left to wonder how much came through the filter of memory.

And yet, in spite of, or perhaps, because of, these shortcomings, I cannot wait to read more about this subject. I was unfamiliar with FANY and the role of women at the front lines outside of the work of the Red Cross.  Grace McDougall is a fascinating woman who should be more widely known as a feminist pioneer. Grace’s life intersected with then socio-cultural shift from the 19th to the 20th century. A strong moralist streak and deep seeded patriotism drove her to challenge the patriarchal establishment. The nature of this being Grace’s story means the reader does not get a complete picture of the obstacles she faced and how systemic they were. I want to know what other women thought of Grace and her struggle for equality. Were other people as in awe of her as I am or did they find her a nuisance? This is fascinating stuff. I need to read more about it.

If the sole measure of a book is how excited the reader feels, and how much they talk it up with anyone who will listen, then War and Grace is a 5 star. I’m going with a 4 because of the style elements.

If you are interested in World War I, or British history, or history in general, this is a worthwhile read and the paperback is fairly cheap on Amazon. My daughter wants to read it. If she does, I’ll share her thoughts.

And if anyone out there can recommend further books on the subject of FANY or women in World War I, please let me know. You’ll help me save a little bit of time researching what to read, and let me have more time reading. Thanks.




My top reads of 2012

Since the year is coming to a close, it’s time for all those top ten lists. Once again, I’m adding to the noise.  As per last year, this list does not reflect the best books released in 2012 (although there are several 2012 releases and two debut authors in my list).  I’ve limited my choices to the best books I’ve read this year.  I still haven’t picked up Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, so you won’t see it here.  I do realize that the year is not officially over yet, but I can tell my current read is not a contender. Given its length, it’s likely the last book I finish this year.  My choices are eclectic. Rather than giving you a plot review, I’ll tell you why it made my list.

10. Winter Fairy by Lola Karns (2012) – Some of you know exactly why I have to include this debut author’s book as one of my favorite reads. The characters in this holiday romance, Carson, Penelope and young Eloise stayed with me long after first meeting them.   I wish this author much success.

9. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011) – This book is tremendous fun for those of us seeped in 1980s pop culture.  The premise of a treasure hunt in  virtual reality world created by an 80’s obsessed loaner allowed Cline to incorporate song lyrics, early video games, dungeons and dragons and Ladyhawke.  It’s not deep. It’s a beach read that makes you glad you spent so much time singing New Order and Depeche Mode tunes while playing Pac-Man.

8. The Iron Queen and the Iron Knight by Julie Kagawa (both 2011) – The Iron Queen brought to an end the story of the Iron Fey from the point

Don’t judge this book by the cover!

of view of Meghan Chase, a half human, half summer fairy creature who is impervious to the iron (read technology) destroying the fairy worlds and along with it creativity and passionate emotions including love and anger.  Don’t be fooled by the Harlequin Teen publishing label and the covers. The female driven books ask if technology and creativity can co-exist.  The Iron Knight, narrated by the male fairy prince Ash, addresses the very essence of humanity.  One day, I’ll get around to writing a more in-depth review of the latter and explaining why it’s a great companion piece to Will Self’s Great Apes.

7. The Irresistable Henry House by Lisa Grunwald (2010) – Set in post-war America, Grunwald’s story of an orphan raised as a “home-economics house baby” explores the radical shifts in gender roles as both men and women adapted to the rise of feminism and changing ideas of child rearing.

6. The Rook by Daniel O’Malley (2012) – the second debut author on my list and another one I wish much success.  This book has a terrific hook. The idea of waking up in a stranger’s skin is equal parts disgusting, frightening and liberating. The clever use of letters allows the author to deliver relevant back story without it ever feeling like an “info dump” and lets the two Myfanwys be distinct characters.

5. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (orig 1992) – I feel cheated that I did not discover this series sooner because it is a whole bunch of crazy (time travel, sassy modern heroine, virginal Scotsmen) that shouldn’t work but some how does, largely due to the distinctive author voice and excellent writing skills.  I am angry at all my friends who never told me about this book. How do you live with yourselves?

4. Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason, trans. Bernard Scudder (orig 2001) –  You’ve finished Larson’s “Girl” series and Jo Nesbo’s Henry Hole mysteries so now what? Some seriously bleak Icelandic Noir.  The author captures both the desolate, haunting landscape and the interconnectedness that occurs when the national population is under 320,000.   Good news – it’s a series!

3. Your House is on Fire, Your Children are Gone by Stefan Kiesbye (2012) – The more I think about it the more I like this book.  If I did this list in January 2013 instead of now, it might make the top of the list.  I blogged about it here.

2. The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (orig 2011) – The masterful use of language reminded me of Umberto Eco. The author layered realism and magic, horror and hope to create a world worth visiting again and again.  I came away reaffirming my love of books and the transformative power of a good story.

1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (2012) – I’ve written about this book before. I debated where to put it on this list, certainly somewhere in the top five. It’s not the best book I’ve read all year.  I have enjoyed others more, but Susan Cain’s provocative book has never been far from my mind. The more I considered my list, the more I realized this is the book I’ve most passionately recommended, talked about and thought about.

Honorable mentions: Love of her Lives by Sharon Clare, Gone with a Handsomer Man by Michael Lee West, The Guinea Pig Diaries by A.J. Jacobs, Salting Roses by Lorelle Marinello and The Book of the Dead by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

For more of my reading habits, you can find me on Goodreads http://www.goodreads.com/lyratn

Shhhh – Introvert at work

Shhh – can you keep a secret? Ah forget it.  I want to shout from the rooftops how much I loved Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Book cover for QuietCan’t Stop Talking.  At a time when political discourse, health care and economic policy seems to be decided by who literally shouts the loudest while on TV, the radio, the pulpit or self-help seminar stage, Cain argues we need to rediscover the power of introverts.

Cain introduces her readers to a range of introverts who have found success by embracing who they are and granting themselves the tools necessary for introverts to succeed, including “restorative niches,” pursuit of a passion, and a safe way to express their ideas.  Some are well-known, like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates; others are people who could by your neighbor or the shy girl in the back of the second grade classroom.

Adding weight to the argument for valuing introverts, Cain synthesizes scholarly works from a variety of fields and makes them accessible to the lay reader.  I particularly enjoyed chapter 3 “When Collaboration Kills Creativity” and the discussion of the group think mentality.  As someone who does a lot of reading, I can occasionally identify when manuscripts have been overworked in an effort to appease all the members of a crit-group. The result is an inauthentic and rarely enjoyable book.  I hated doing group projects in school. When I led college level history discussion groups as a Teaching Assistant, I disliked giving those assignments.  When I had my own class, I stopped them. If I had read Quiet while still in the classroom, it would have given me the courage to stop the useless practice earlier.

In “Part Two: Your Biology, Your Self?” Cain pulled together complex debates in psychology, physiology and philosophy to address the nature versus nurture debate. As a parent and an introvert who must participate in the world outside my keyboard, I appreciated this section. In some ways, she was “preachin’ to the choir” when I read this section.  I wonder what the extroverts I know thought of this section. The fourth section offered practical tips for introverts negotiating an extrovert dominant culture.

As much as I loved this book, “Part Three: do all Cultures have an Extrovert Ideal?” tempered my enthusiasm.  I found this section which contrasted an introverted ideal Asian cultures with Western and particularly American thinking to be weak compared to the rest of the book.  Cain relied more on evidence from literature and one can be highly selective when picking and chosing proverbs.  For each saying from the west like “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” it’s easy to find a common phrase that reflects what Cain posits is an Asian ideal. However, since you catch more flies with honey, I’ll get back to the positive.

Quiet is an important book and well deserving of its place on the New York Times best seller list. For those I know who have read it, it’s sparked a number of discussion points. It’s changed the way I look at the world and that is no small feat.  The people I know who are most enthusiastic about reading this are all introverts.  I wish more extroverts could be convinced to pick up the book. Perhaps with enough general discussion, they will be forced to do so.  This is one conversation not to be left out of.

2011 Best Reads

In the spirit of top ten lists, I present to you the best books I read in 2011. Please note I did not say published in 2011. Most are recent titles and if you haven’t read them, well, maybe you should.  I’ll present a brief “honorable mention” list at the end, which will include more mass market books than the rest of the list.

10. Faithful Place  by Tana French (2010) – Another fine entry in the Dublin Murder Squad series.  Not quite as good as The Likeness, but still a terrific read. French knows how to create discomforting environments and the grungy housing development featured here is no exception.

9. Shades of Gray – Jasper Fforde (2009) – An intriguing new series from the man who brought us Nursery Crimes and Thursday Next. Set in a future world, one’s professional and personal fate is determined by one’s ability to see color.  The ability to keep track of your spoon is also useful.

8. The Book of Lost Things – John Connolly (2006) – I listened to this as an audio book and invented household chores so I could finish the story of a twelve-year-old British boy who discovers a hole between worlds when a German plane crashes into his garden during World War II. During his quest, young David encounters the Woodsman, seven dwarves and faces his nemesis, the Crooked Man.Cover for Nesbo's Snowman

7. The Snowman – Jo Nesbo – (2011 in translation) The 7th entry in the Harry Hole series provided my entree to this Norwegian series.   I can’t wait to read more. Harry is the rockingist detective in fiction.  Dude listens to Franz Ferdinand.  Nuff said.

6.  Packing for MarsMary Roach (2010) – She survives a ride in the “Vomit Comet” and asks the questions no-one else will. Sure she covers the effect of bone loss and mental health of future voyagers to Mars, but also the problem of weight of fecal matter and all with her trademark blend of humor and serious science.

5. The Box – Gunter Grass – I blogged on this book earlier this year.

4.  A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan (2010) There’s been a lot of talk in some circles about what a “Post-Modern” novel will look like.  This probably isn’t it, but with an entirely readable and understandable chapter written in Powerpoint, non-linear narrative it breaks with tradition. In case you find that off putting – don’t.  This is also a wonderfully written book with enjoyable characters and a cohesive story.

3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot (2010) A tremendous work of non-fiction, one that recognizes both and incredible life story, a woman who unknowingly changed the entire medical field, and the challenge researchers take in tracking down such stories.  Clear some time for this book. Once you start it, you won’t want to put it down, unless it is to think about medical ethics, race relations, financial benefits or any of the myriad topics brought together in this one volume.

2. The Hunger Games Trilogy – Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games – 2008, Catching Fire 2009 & Mocking Jay 2009) – This series shows how grown up Young Adult really is.  In twenty, or perhaps even ten years, these will be part of the school curriculum.  For those who argue these books where teens fight to the death to win food for their provinces are too violent for young adult, all I can say is these books are way better than Lord of the Flies, which was violent and cruel. The Hunger Games takes place in a cruel world, but Katniss, Peeta and Cinna represent different types of goodness that cannot be defeated.

Covor for Skippy Dies1. Skippy Dies – Paul Murray (2010) – I love a book that makes me laugh out loud. As the title tells you, Skippy Dies, but the joy is in the journey Murray takes his readers on as we untangle the steps that led to Skippy’s death. The boarding school boys may well be inmates at an asylum and the none of the adults will take home the Teacher of the Year prize but they all leap off the page with a joie de vivre that will make your own life a little brighter.

Happy Reading!

PS – Here’s the honorable mention list: A Man in Uniform – Kate Taylor, The Apprentice – Tess Gerritsen, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs, Bossypants – Tina Fey, and Kate Carlisle’s Bibliophile mysteries.

On Memoirs Part I

Lately, memoirs have been both in the news and on my mind. They are not a genre I eagerly seek out, and yet, I read them on a regular basis. I have not read the book at the heart of the latest controversy, Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, nor have I read the infamous James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Frey’s is somewhere in my “To Be Read” stack, but it’s not a high priority read for me.  What interests me is not the content of these books, but rather the shock and outrage following the “revelation” that some of the “facts” are not actually “factual.”

Memoirs are classified as and treated as works of non-fiction. They are not. Nor are they works of fiction, at least not entirely. they exist on a plane somewhere in between. unfortunately, many readers seem to approach a memoir with the same mentality as they would a work of history or journalism. To misappropriate Ranke, too many readers expect the memoir to tell the story of a person’s life “as it actually was.”

The problem is that human beings are inherently flawed, particularly our memories.  Consider how often you misplace your keys, or have that nagging feeling you are forgetting something important. Today I found a camera I misplaced for over a month.  Our minds take a lot of short cuts to remember day-to-day moments.

We also use these short cuts when we tell people stories. We are all story tellers, verbally constructing a memoir of sorts as we relate the events of our day or week to an interested party. We leave out the details we find unimportant or uninteresting, compressing the story to become a more coherent listening experience. If someone included all these factual events in their memoir, we would be bored silly.

Part of the memoir problem, I suspect, comes when one goes back later to fill in those details with an eye to what would make the story better, more inspiring, more powerful and ultimately allow the author to sell the book first to a publisher and later to the reading public.  What the author considers embellishment or perhaps even clarification, can be considered lies or at the very least misleading statements. When the author is caught amending what purports to be a true life story, no wonder we get mad. We’ve been deceived. The story is not as ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ as promised.

The issue of veracity in memoirs is one of the many reasons that the next memoir I intend to read is actually a novel.  The Entertainment Weekly review of Francisco Goldman’s Say her Name suggests the pressure and expectations implicit in the word “Truth” led Goldman to reject the traditional memoir category in his ode to his wife.

I have plenty more to say on memoirs and anticipate future blogs on this subject, but for now, let me know what you think.