Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Recent Reads

I think it's time for another reading round-up!  Here are some of the books I've read this year to date.

Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande.  This got rave reviews, but when I first heard what it was about, I didn't think I would want to read it.  Essentially an exploration of what it means to die with grace and dignity,  (no, it's not about euthanasia), the book is about us and our loved ones as we grow old, and frail, and weak, of losing autonomy and responsibility, as our arteries and muscles, and those of our loved ones, calcify and deteriorate.  I read this while on safari in Africa, and for a few days my brain was abuzz with thoughts of death and birth and the cycle of life (making Michael groan and call me "so morbid" - to which I say, so what? Death is a good reminder of life).  The book was not an easy read, but it asks very important questions that every individual in today's modern society should consider.   Advancements in medicine and technology have vastly changed our expectations of what is possible in the face of illness, disease and old age, but in doing so, it has also completely muddled our ability to realize a finite end.

Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo.  This book also got rave reviews and she has a bit of a cult following.  Apparently she is booked out months in advance for her organizing and consulting services.  I've also spoken to many friends who have read her book, are reading her book, or have implemented her advice in cleaning out their closets and living space.  After reading her book, the biggest thing that resonates with me is her question, "does this item bring you joy"?  I think the book is not all about tidying and organizing (though it is very much about that too) as it is about living with purpose and discernment, so that you only buy and surround yourself with the things that most matter to you.  Capsule wardrobes have been a big thing of late, but one thing I've learned from living in Hong Kong is that you really need less than you think.

The Big Short, by Michael Lewis.  I've heard the movie is very good, and I do intend to sit down and watch it at some point.  I thought Lewis did a good job explaining the unique and weird circumstances leading up to the financial crisis of 2008, and a select group of the players who were weird enough, or lucky enough, to spot something no one else seemed to be noticing.  The thing I will most remember from this story is how two young college graduates turned barely $100,000 in a Charles Schwab brokerage account into nearly $120 million dollars.  Now that is a phenomenal rate of return.   I hope they're retired and never doing anything else again, because they will never beat that record!  If that isn't a testament to how crazy financial instruments and derivatives really are, then how about the fact that the financial world seems content to continue blithely making derivatives derived from derivatives?  It really does not inspire confidence, but bravo to Lewis for writing about, and continuing to write about, all of the deficiencies in our financial system.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J Stradahl.  This is a fun, whimsical, easy and entertaining read, though overall I found the plot, and especially the relationships, not particularly well developed.  I liked it for the descriptions of food, and the vivid imagery conjured from some of the scenes (including a story involving explosively spicy chili, in particular) will not be forgotten soon.  I also loved the description of heirloom tomatoes, which made me wish I could get to a pretentious hippie organic farmer's market in California asap.  However, I thought the author struggled a bit with the characters, particularly of the mother.

The Good Girl, by Mary Kubick.  Not very good, in my opinion - oversimplified characters that are either all good or all bad, strong, or weak, and as a result of such shallow character development, I found the story rather unbelievable.  It is a strange mix of a story where you want to keep reading to find out what happens, and yet at the same time you wonder why you are continuing, because you don't ever believe you will care about outcome.  Like many novels of a certain persuasion targeting a certain audience, this one features a female character and contains a twist at the end, but… let's just say the twist left me wanting.  As in, it took me a second to process the twist.  And after I processed the twist, my reaction was, "that's it...?"  And so of course the book is getting made into a movie.  Oh, Hollywood.  

It's What I Do, by Lindsay Addario.  This is a pretty fascinating firsthand account of a photojournalist's memoir relating her experiences shooting in all parts of the world during times of conflict.  She has spent time working and living in some of the most dangerous parts of the world, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya…the story also recounts her personal experiences in times of particular danger, including when she and a few other fellow journalists were kidnapped in Libya.  I particularly liked it because she works in a profession that is very short of women, and her experiences and the unique challenges that she faces shows a kind of life shaped by a profession that very few people have the chance to experience.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett.  I loved this book.  I picked it up not realizing it was actually a collection of short stories and essays, but they are, and they are all wonderful.  Patchett has received a lot of recognition and renown for her novels, some of which, I have to admit, are a bit too fantastical for me.  However, there is no doubt that she is a beautiful writer, and I personally think that nowhere does her skill and voice come out better than when she recounts personal, real relationships.  From stories about her divorce and subsequent re-marriage, to the Catholic nun who was her teacher in grade school, to her deep and abiding love for her dog - each and every essay is an intimate peek into her life but also a lovely example of cogent, compelling writing.

Then Came You, by Jennifer Weiner.  Hmmm.  I read this book in one or two sittings, and was pretty hooked for most of it.  It examines the intersecting lives of three women, an egg donor, a surrogate, and the woman who will adopt the ultimate baby.  The book explores what happens when things don't go as planned in a situation where so many separate, unconnected parties are involved in making a baby.  It raises a lot of thought-provoking issues for this day and age.  However, despite all that, and despite wanting to like the book, I thought it felt a little bit two-dimensional.  I'm not sure why, but then again, I don't think this is the kind of novel that requires you to spend a lot of time delving into character development.  Read it and move on.

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzer.  I finally got around to reading a Jonathan Franzer book.  This is a whopper of a novel, but it went by really quickly.  I was surprised by how quickly I delved into the story and how much I wanted to learn more, to understand the characters, to find out what happens in their lives.  At times the narration is a little too over-the-top and I found it difficult to keep my focus or my sympathies with the character. Patty and Walter and Richard and Joey… every character tries your patience with their utter lack of self-awareness or their self-aggrandizing stream of consciousness, until you want to pick them up and shake them.  But at the same time, you recognize that these are their foibles that make them pathetic and confused and uncertain, and endearing and imperfect and human.

I also went through a Jo Jo Moyes streak, reading Ship of Brides, Windfallen, Silver Bay and After You (the sequel to Me Before You), which I found satisfying to varying degrees.  I believe this leaves only her book, Honeymoon in Paris, for me to read before I can claim to have read her entire oeuvre.

In Summary --

My Current Read:
Hold Still, by Sally Mann.  A memoir, full of very good, beautiful, dramatic, elegiac, poetic writing that makes you yearn and desire and hope and feel all the (life) things.

My Next Big Daunting Read:
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara.

My Next Less Daunting Read:
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood.

My Next Fluff Read:
???  Any suggestions?

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