Wednesday, December 4, 2019

An Open Book: November 2019 Reads

Happy New Liturgical Year! I hope that you are all having a peaceful start to Advent. Before we get bogged down with the chaos of travels and festivities, I thought I'd take a moment to share what I've been reading lately. From a medical thriller to Austen-inspired nonfiction to a Death Row memoir, there's a wide range of books that took me through the fall days. Make sure to head over to Carolyn Astfalk's An Open Book for more reviews!

Saving Meghan, by D.J. Palmer.
This medical thriller follows the saga of Meghan, a teenage girl who has unexplainable illnesses and health problems. After being tested time and time again, and seeing multiple specialists, some medical professionals begin speculating that this is a case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. As the various characters try to unravel secrets, the plot twists and turns as Meghan fights for her own life and wellness. This was fast-paced and really interesting, though some parts seemed a bit far-fetched and unrealistic. I enjoyed reading this book, but I did have major issues with how one person was not dealt with justly. Without giving to much away, one particular character does many horrible things, but never seems to receive disciplinary action for it, and that bugged me. Also, while physical abuse is seen as a big no-no, emotional abuse and manipulation aren't really given any kind of negative consequences in this story. So, this was fun to read but it honestly was not my favorite. 

A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz.
In this memoir, the author relates how he, an anti-Austen grad student, was required to read Emma-and his life was changed. He dives into each of Austen's six major novels individually, exploring a major theme/lesson from each novel and how it influenced him at different points of his life. From Catherine Morland and the value of learning to Emma Woodhouse and the importance of paying attention to the little things, he passionately discusses both these beloved stories and a couple of occasions from Austen's life. I thought he brought up a lot of interesting points, and I appreciated that this-while being the author's memoir-did not dive into an overly-casual tone. To be honest, I could have done without the author's ramblings about his love life (thankfully, mentions of sex were not terribly explicit), and I think it would have been nice if he had drawn in some scholarly research on Austen (the author only ever quotes Austen's letters and novels, and never mentions supporting evidence or opposing views by other scholars). Still, this was a fun read overall, but it's not the type of book I feel like re-reading; instead, it makes me want to pick Austen's novels up and re-read those!

The Printed Letter Bookshop, by Katherine Reay.
Madeleine is a big-city attorney who finds herself inheriting her recently-deceased aunt's bookshop and home in a small town. Coincidentally, Madeleine is having job-crisis at the moment, and the bookshop is in the red and in trouble of closing down. So, she decides to work with the bookshop's employees and see what she can do to help. This was a sweet story (alternating points of view between the three main female characters), with some lovely characters and themes of forgiveness, family, healing, and sacrifice woven into it. The characters grapple with what it means to be  "Proverbs 31 Woman" and how to deal with past regrets. One of the characters even explicitly quotes Pope John Paul II! However, even though this story was nice, I guess I just don't prefer inspirational Christian romances like I used to. I used to read this genre tons when I was younger, but my personal tastes have changed a bit, at least for the present moment. So, this didn't strike me in an "I love this book!" kind of way. 

In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez.
This was a fascinating historical fiction novel that winds through the stories and perspectives of four sisters in the Dominican Republic during the dictatorship of Trujillo in the 20th century. Beginning in their childhoods and leading up to-and after-their deaths, it follows their hopes, dreams, and struggles. I enjoyed this book, but in the author's afterword, she mentioned that while these are historical figures in the book, she mainly used their story as an inspiration and embellished it in places. That's fine, but I think I would have preferred it if she had drawn from actual notes these women wrote to bring into the text of the story. So, I thought this book was okay, but it wasn't my favorite approach.

Thunderhead, by Neal Shusterman.
This is the follow-up to Scythe, and I enjoyed learning more about the Thunderhead and getting to see more of the cultures within this world. -I especially was interested/amused by the Tonists, a cult focused intently on looking for the Great Tuning Fork. The main characters have somewhat disappointed me, though. When I saw the outrage towards the socially mandated gleanings that a couple of the characters had in the first book, I was hoping that the protagonists of the story would actually try to do something to end the practice of gleaning. Instead, Rowan basically goes into Punisher mode, and Scythe Anastasia seeks to do "compassionate gleanings"-which yes, are much more thoughtful than what other scythes do, but are still killings nonetheless. She is a very strong character in the way that she's trying to reform the scythedom, but it wasn't exactly what I wanted her to do. Maybe the protagonists will actually do something to rebel against institutionalized murder in the next book? As with other books by the author, I have to confess that I personally do not prefer his writing style-so at times, I read quickly and skim through parts of the text. Still, I find his plot ideas imaginative and I will read the next book because I have to see what happens-especially with the cliffhanger that Thunderhead ended on!

The Jane Austen Diet, by Bryan Kozlowski.
The author once was reading through health books while going through Austen's novels-and discovered that many modern ideas about health are actually present in Austen's classic works. In this book, he discusses a diet (way of life) that we can develop inspired by Jane Austen's characters or Jane herself-everything from eating moderately to taking lengthy strolls outside, no matter what the weather is. The extremely casual (and a bit slang-ish) tone of the book was not my favorite, and definitely grew old after the first several pages. However, this dive into health as illustrated by some of my favorite books was fun to read!

Notes from a Blue Bike, by Tsh Oxenreider.
This was a lovely collection of thoughts on education, work, and living more slowly as one embraces life's pleasures. Oxenreider draws from her experiences living overseas as she relates how she began taking steps to live counter-culturally here in America. She talks a little bit about the struggles of expat life, which I found fascinating. I did wish that she talked about the actual "blue bike" more and her adventures riding it (she really only uses this image to open and close the book), but overall I thoroughly enjoyed this. I really love the author's style and tone, and her topics were great-I especially liked her discussion of homeschooling, and how she loved it in theory but came to the realization that it wasn't what her family could handle at one point in their lives.

The Sun Does Shine, by Anthony Ray Hinton.
This was a memoir about a man who spent 30 years on Death Row for a crime he didn't commit. I was blown away by the author's transformation-how he started out on the Row filled with rage and hatred towards those who put him there, but ultimately realized that he had a choice: he could choose the path of forgiveness and love. From starting a book club on Death Row to persevering through the ridiculous and broken legal system, Hinton allowed God to change him and build bridges and community within all of those horrors. This was not an easy read, especially since the author conveys the sights, sounds, and smells of living on Death Row for three decades, just 30 feet away from the death chamber. There were at least a few times when reading this book when I broke down sobbing. Regardless of one's political affiliations or view towards the death penalty, I highly recommend reading this-it's just a spectacular book and a powerful story.

Once Upon a Quinceanera, by Julia Alvarez. 
Alvarez never had a Quinceanera-but she took a year to explore this popular celebration among her fellow Latinas and discover the origins and meaning behind it. Why do so many poor people go into debt so they can provide their daughters with a lavish, over-the-top celebration? What purpose can be found in this ritual entrance into womanhood? Intertwined with this story-where Alvarez travels the country to meet different people who are all planning this iconic party or work in the Quinceanera industry-is the author's own story of finding her place in American society. Prior to reading this, I had very limited exposure to this custom (I went to one once, but I only made it to the Mass and not the party), so I found all of this really interesting to learn about!

Roverandom, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

This was an utterly delightful fairy story about a dog who, after an unfortunate run-in with a wizard, is turned into a toy. As he tries to get back home (and back to being a "real dog") his adventures take him to a toy shop, the moon (where he meets the Man-in-the-Moon) and to the depths of the ocean. Unlike much of Tolkien's material, which was written for older audiences, this story is directed towards children and it's so fun and whimsical-while still employing Tolkien's rich grasp of language and mythology. I loved this, and I highly recommend it for kids and adults who enjoy fantasy and like getting to read phrases along the lines of "the spell...smelled like the Fifth of November and cabbage boiled over." (isn't that wonderful?)

The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, by Nancy Marie Brown.
Zooming in on the historical figure of Gudrid, a Viking woman who made 8 lengthy voyages in her life, this book details a lot of the history of Vikings and their lifestyle. Drawing from various sagas that have been passed down, the author described the research that has been conducted-and the varying viewpoints experts hold-regarding this seafaring people. I thought this book was fascinating, particularly as I learned about archaeology and the excavation process. Parts of the book were a little tougher for me to get into (probably because I'm not familiar with the Norwegian and Icelandic sagas, and there were a lot of names to keep track of) but other parts of this book I found quite enjoyable to read. 

The Art of Gathering, by Priya Parker.
This was fascinating, eye-opening, and full of wisdom. The author is a facilitator and strategic advisor, and she draws from her wealth of experience to explore how we can all create meaningful gatherings. She dives into different people she's met, gatherings she's organized, and organizations across the world who are transforming communities through being intentional about how they gather. I could have done without some of the stories and examples (for instance, the two-page segue about BDSM and a worker at a sex dungeon) and a couple parts were a little bit woo-woo (the author mentions a background in Hindu and New Age spiritualities, so that makes sense). Still, I really enjoyed this book, and I highly recommend it. It's very secular, but there is so much in here that people can apply to church gatherings, school gatherings, and just general life. I would have liked to see more about gatherings involving families (especially with young kids) but this was still a pretty great read!

Letters from Father Christmas, by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Every year (for about 20 years) a letter would arrive at the Tolkien household from Father Christmas to the children. In this collection of whimsical letters, Father Christmas speaks to the Tolkien children about life in the North Pole; particularly the antics of his friend the Polar Bear and the hordes of goblins that wreck havoc on their lives (Polar Bear, and sometimes Ilbereth the Elf would interject and offer their own views on the incidents related by Father Christmas). This was a quick but utterly delightful and imaginative read, particularly as we move towards Christmas. 

BONUS: Seasonal Picture Books We're Loving Right Now
My kids and I read books together quite frequently, and there is a small stack that we've been repeatedly going through this Advent:

The Legend of St. Nicholas, by Demi.
As we prepare to celebrate his feast on December 6, we have been reading and re-reading this as we talk about St. Nicholas' life. I love how the illustrations are done in a way that alludes to icons, as well as how Demi begins the book by giving the time and location of St. Nicholas' life. While the book includes some legends, it's nice that she also shows how any stories that have sprung up are rooted in a real historical person, who lived in a real time and place. 

The Beautiful Lady: Our Lady of Guadalupe, by Pat Mora.
Gentle illustrations peacefully depict the story of Mary's miraculous appearance to Juan Diego in Mexico, as told by a fictional grandmother to her granddaughters. While I think I'd like this book better as a straight-up retelling of Our Lady of Guadalupe (and not set as a grandma retelling the story), my preschooler loves this book and it's been a great way to prepare him for the feast on December 12. 

The Night of Las Posadas, by Tomie dePaola.
This book follows a community that having their annual Las Posadas, a tradition that recounts Mary and Joseph searching for a place to stay in Bethlehem. With lovely, simple illustrations and a sweet story, we all really enjoy this book. 

The Legend of Old Befana, by Tomie dePaola.
A delightful retelling of an Italian Christmas story, this follows a cranky old lady, named Befana, whose life is changed when she meets the 3 Wise Men as they travel to Bethlehem. It's a beautiful story, and I love how it brings in the Wise Men and helps us focus on preparation as we look to the coming of Christ.

Silent Night, by Lara Hawthorne.
The text of this book is the first couple verses of the song, "Silent Night," with simple illustrations that have been helping us really reflect on the words of the song. The members of the Holy Family (and nearly every other character in this story, in fact) are dark-skinned, which is AWESOME! (I am a little tired of Nativity books that show a Caucasian Holy Family travelling to Bethlehem). This book is simple and beautiful, and I am really enjoying it. I also love the tenderness that it shows between St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin. We will definitely be picking this one up from the library again next year!

The Spider's Gift, by Eric A. Kimmel.
This is a Ukrainian Christmas story about a poor family who discovers baby spiders in their Christmas tree. It's a sweet story with wonderful illustrations, and it touches on some Ukrainian traditions, which I think is pretty great. It's a little wordier than I'd like, but my preschooler-who is currently obsessed with spiders-seems to really enjoy this one!

Thank you so much for joining me in this literary discussion! As always, I love any recommendations you feel inclined to share-my TBR list is very lengthy, but it can never be too long, can it? ;) 


  1. I'm always impressed with how many books you read and the great variety! My children love reading the Tomie dePaola Christmas books this time of year too.

    1. Tomie dePaola's books are such a gift to our world, and I am grateful that there are so many of them!

  2. I'd love to hear more of what you learned from the gatherings book. We're trying to nurture "holy hospitality" in our family and our parish and are always needing inspiration

    1. Ellen, it's great to hear how you're striving for that in your family and parish! Some of my big takeaways from the gatherings book are 1. Keep looking for the "why" in your gathering (and how it can solve a problem in the wider culture) and make sure that your gathering serves that "why", 2. Don't be a "chill hostess" (the author gave an example of a college leadership class where the teacher sat in the front of the room and didn't do anything or give any direction to show students the importance of taking leadership andd guiding others)-giving a gathering structure, and taking the initiative to introduce guests to each other, are good things and 3. Group size and venue size really need to be thought through because of how they affect gatherings (the book gave a great breakdown of group sizes that are conducive to various types of gatherings). The author also mentioned that with some gatherings, it's OK to be selective about who you invite (if you just invite everyone to a gathering which you want to be smaller and more intimate, it's not going to work out well). There were a lot of interesting ideas in the book!