OK, folks, this is a long one! I realized when I started this, that I'd never written about the books I'd read during March, so this has four months worth of reading instead of just two or three. Rather than break it up more, and risk forgetting more months, I decided to just put them all into one long post.
Hopefully if you slog through the entire thing, you'll find something of interest.
Furiously Happy : A Funny Book About Horrible Things, by Jenny Lawson. This is truth in advertising - it is a funny book about horrible things! Jenny Lawson writes about her mental illness and how it affects her life and her family in an honest and mostly humorous way. So many of her stories were ones that made me laugh out loud, but were also in the laugh-instead-of-crying category.
I think this book is a worthwhile one to read for anyone suffering from mental illness, even if just a small amount. I would like to say it's worth reading for family and friends as well, but based on some of my personal experiences, I'm not convinced that it would always be helpful in making them try to understand others.
A Square Meal : A Culinary History of the Great Depression, by Jane Ziegelman. Let me start by saying that I didn't give this book 2 stars because it wasn't a good book; I gave it 2 stars because it was often a slog to read, due to the more academic nature of it. I will admit I was expecting something that was not quite so "serious," and was more readable for leisure.
Having said that, it's well-written for what it is, and and is a pretty extensive look at food, food habits, social changes, and the farm vs. city developments that all started at the end of the first World War. It discusses the changes that occurred as the population became more urban, and had less space to grow their own food. Farm life changed as well, with many modern conveniences developed to help the farm wife be more efficient. based on motion studies (some done by the Gilbreths of "Cheaper by the Dozen" fame!). It also discusses the attitudes of individuals and the government when so many people started losing their jobs after the stock market crash of 1929, as well as the sea change that people started leaving the Dust Bowl states and heading west.
I liked this book well enough, I was just hoping for something different.
Faithful Place, by Tana French. I really like Tana French's books, and I was getting ready to start reading the 5th in the series when I realized I had read 1, 2, and 4 - never the third installment! So I decided to read that before going further.
And I'm so glad I did. This is a heartbreaking story. It starts when Frank Mackey, an undercover police officer in Dublin, receives a phone call from his sister. A suitcase has been found in an abandoned house on their childhood street, Faithful Place, and it belonged to Rosie Daly, Frank's girlfriend whom everyone assumed left Dublin for Ireland as a teenager. This really hits home for Frank, as he and Rosie were planning to elope to England, and from what he could figure out, she stood him up, and left on her own.
Frank has moved on, and is now divorced with a 9-year-old daughter. After his failed meeting with Rosie to escape their families, he never went back home and is estranged from most of his difficult family, except for his sister Jackie.
The book really gets going when a body is discovered buried in the basement of the same abandoned house, and appears for all intents and purposes to be that of Rosie Daly. But who killed her? Suddenly Frank is back among his family and those he knew in high school, trying to figure out what happened and when. Then someone else close to him is found dead, and though the police are inclined to say it's suicide, Frank does not believe them.
Once again, French has created a world that is all too real, showing the power and problems of family. Does moving away and making a life for yourself make you a bad person? Does it mean you think less of those who are still in the same place? As Frank Mackey works his way through this book, he learns things that, though they might help him understand aspects of his childhood, he really didn't want to know.
You really can't go home again and hope it will be the same.
St. Patrick's Day Murder, by Leslie Meier. When Lucy Stone heads to the harbor to talk to the new harbormaster, for a newspaper story, she gets more than she could have imagined. The owner of the local dive bar, where all of the fisherman go for their cheap drinks, is found washed up, the body without a head. "Old Dan" as he was known, was not overly popular, but it's still puzzling to everyone how anyone in the town could have committed such a horrible crime.
Old Dan's brother, sister-in-law (both actors in Ireland), and young niece arrive in town at the same time, having been "hired" by the local Catholic church for their yearly St. Patrick's Day fundraising play. This year, the play is "Finian's Rainbow," and one of Lucy's friends talks her into auditioning. Ending up in the chorus, she sees first-hand how tense things become with the new director, who automatically casts his wife as the lead. When Lucy is kind enough to offer to have the young daughter over to her house with a play date for her own young daughter, she soon learns some things have been left unsaid that could affect the murder investigation.
Between the play, her family, her job, and the mystery of Old Dan's death, Lucy has a lot going on. But things seem to come to breaking point, and she is determined to figure it out.
Combining small-town life, religious conflicts, family conflicts, and a possible political scandal, this murder mystery covers a lot. But it was an enjoyable read nonetheless, and completely perfect for a time when I wanted something to read, but wasn't in the mood for anything too intense.
History of the Rain, by Niall Williams. Ruth Swain lives a quiet life in a small Irish town, Faha, in County Clare. Her family's house is along the River Shannon, and has some of the worst conditions for farming anywhere. She has a "blood disease" (leukemia?) that necessitates hospital stays, and then when she is home, staying indoors most of the time. But she is a writer, and this book is the story of her father, Virgil the poet.
It's also about her twin brother Aeney, her Mam and her Nan, and the history of Ireland. It's about words, literature, faith, and imagery. It's about the rain. The story meanders as a river might, around, over, down, but staying on course nonetheless, so the story can be told.
The History of the Rain is not the easiest book to read, but it's a good one. I had a bit of hard time getting used to the way the author told this tale, but by the time you have reached the end of the book, you know why it was told that way, and also that it could not have possibly been told in any other way.
A Murder of Magpies, by Judith Flanders. A really fun, entertaining read!
Samantha "Sam" Clair works for a publishing company in London, and as the book begins she is concentrating on two of her authors - one has sent her a new manuscript that just seems awful, and the other, Kit Lovell, has written a new book exposing a scandal in the world of high fashion. Prior to a lunch meeting with Kit and his agent, Sam gets a visit from a police officer, regarding a fatal accidet earlier in the day where a bicycle courier was killed and a book manuscript he had been set to deliver, stolen.
When Sam gets to her lunch appointment, Kit is a no-show, which is odd but not too worrisome. However, when she can't get in touch with him, she begins to worry. And when her flat is burglarized, and she is knocked out, it's clear something both serious and suspicious is happening.
Things explode from there, and soon Sam is involved in an investigation that reaches into the world of international money-laundering and other illegal activities. As the book continues she finds that not only Kit is in trouble, but someone will do anything - including getting her out of the way - to see that the book isn't published.
This is a quick read, and though some of the money-laundering stuff gets complicated, for the most-part, it's a lot of fun, with just the right amount of suspense.
The Swans of Fifth Avenue, by Melanie Benjamin. What an interesting, funny, and sad book!
Melanie Benjamin has taken us into the world of Truman Capote and his "swans" - a group of attractive, wealthy women (Babe Paley, Slim Heyward, Pamela Churchill, C.Z. Guest, etc.). When Capote is an up-and-coming writer, he meets Babe Paley and they immediately "click." Through her, he meets the other swans, and is ushered into their world, which is a heady mix of wealth, glamour, travel, and most of all, gossip. Which of course Capote soaks up like a sponge, and also encourages. The book mainly concentrates on the extremely close relationship between Capote and Babe Paley - two immensely insecure souls longing for acceptance and admiration, and still at a loss once they have it.
After Truman Capote becomes the toast of the literary world, things change as he doesn't spend as much time NYC. Encouraged by his publisher to follow-up with another book soon, he claims to be working on one, but instead is caught up in the world of fame with all of its downfalls. As a last-ditch effort, he writes a short story that he claims is an excerpt from the next book. It is a thinly disguised look at the swans and their family and friends. He reveals the intimate secrets they told him, and mocks a lot of their lifestyle. When it causes a rift, and they no longer speak to him, he begins a downward spiral. Babe Paley in particular is heartbroken, thinking he had truly been her friend an confidante, and as a result becomes rather adrift.
The swans go on, but it's not the same. They are aging in a world where youth is taking over (the '60s). As they worry about their looks, their influence, their importance, they realize that the lifestyle they have always enjoyed is no longer as important to the world at large.
This is a book about friendship, love, and wealth. It is particularly the story of two people who had the world at their fingertips and were still basically insecure and lonely. It was a really great read, and so incredibly poignant and sad that you wished all of the characters had just paid more attention to the truly important things.
Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout. This is a wonderful set of stories about people in the town of Amgash and nearby, who also appear in Strout's book "My Name Is Lucy Barton," which I have not yet read. These stories can easily stand on their own, nonetheless.
Strout has an eye for small details of small-town life. Her characters are familiar, but never boring, and never cliches. Her writing is so evocative, you feel that you can picture the people and the places that you are meeting in each story.
It's hard for me to choose a favorite one here. I do think that the final story, "Gift," is one that brings a lot of the characters and themes of the other stories into a final package, so to speak. Lucy Barton makes an appearance in one of the stories, and she is referred to in nearly every one, so I'm guessing if you have read that book, this one fleshes things out a bit more. Apparently they were written in tandem.
I had an Advanced Reader Edition, but once this book is published, I recommend it as a quick, but worthwhile, read.
No Ordinary Time : Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt : The Home Front in World War II, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Yes, it took me a LONG time to finish this book. For two reasons: 1) it was an audiobook, and I wanted to only listen to it when I actually had dedicated periods of time, because 2) there is just so much here, you have to pay close attention.
But it was worth it. I have always been intrigued by the Roosevelt family, and this was an excellent installment in their story/our history. The bulk, of course deals with FDR's time as President, and the evolution of Eleanor as a force to be reckoned with, and as a modern First Lady.
Reading/listening to this right now also provided an interesting experience. FDR was a man born of great privilege, and was not automatically sympathetic to the plight of the common man; but as he grew, as he listened to advisors and learned from Eleanor how average people lived their lives, he was able to make changes that aimed to give everyone a chance, even while growing the government and the military/industrial complex. He surrounded himself with people who were well-educated, and interested in serving. He didn't always have the opposition on board with his policies and ideas, but he was nonetheless respected by most of those who encountered him.
Then there was Eleanor, who started out as someone who was extremely shy and socially awkward, and became one of the most well-known women of the 20th and 21st centuries. She was often FDR's social conscience and had a great deal of influence over him. She became a force in society, and worked for minorities and for women at a time when most people thought she was just meddling in too many things.
It's hard to summarize the book. Therefore, I'll just say that if you are interested in U.S. history, social studies, or even personal profiles, you'll enjoy this book. Doris Kearns Goodwin has written a book that gives you an inside look at two people and their lives that is both personal and political. It is an excellent read.
Let's Pretend This Never Happened : A Mostly True Memoir, by Jenny Lawson. This book is Jenny Lawson's "memoir," and tells the story of her childhood in rural Texas, with an unusual family. Her father was a taxidermist, who was always bringing home roadkill to stuff and mount. There were always an odd assortment of live animals around the house as well, and her mother seems like a long-suffering type who just tries to keep her daughters safe, even under weird circumstances.
Even once she is older, and meets her husband Victor, her life continues in its funny and weird way, and she seems to be happy with how things have turned out. It's clear that Victor and their daughter Hailey are her lifelines, and give her a reason to keep going when her crushing depression and anxiety come to call.
I read this book after reading her second book, and though I liked it, I think I might have enjoyed it more if I had read it first. But there are still enough events and entertainment here to make it a fun read.
Murder at the Courthouse, by A. H. Gabhart. This was a good read for a time when didn't feel well enough to concentrate, but wanted to read something engaging. Mike Keane is a cop in Hidden Springs, Kentucky, a town where he grew up, and left for a while. But after a few years in Columbus, Ohio, he decided policing in a big city was not for him. Hidden Springs is a small, quiet town until the morning the body of an unknown man is found on the courthouse steps.
I liked the book, though it was nothing amazing. The mystery was good and complex enough to keep me reading, and some of the characters were interesting. In an unusual occurrence, I suspected the right person as the killer.
I don't know that I will go out of my way to read others in this series, but this was right for the time.
Women's Work : The First 20,000 Years, Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. This is one of those books that you have to read slowly and intently if you want to make it worth your while. The author uses evidence - written, material, archaelogical - to discuss why/how/when women worked with cloth in early societies (early as in B.C.), and what importance it had.
I found this book interesting especially since I was reading it for my own pleasure, so there was no pressure to remember everything and every date/place perfectly for a test or to write a paper. Instead, I was able to learn about the women of early times and the types of materials and tools they used to create fabric as well as why they were the ones primarily engaged in this activity. Barber discusses weaving and spinning and how they were practiced differently in various areas of the world, and when things began to change and why. It's an interesting study of the type of work done for so long by women in households as well as household slaves, out of necessity and also to illustrate social standing.
I learned a lot reading this book, and also now have a new respect and admiration for modern scholars who study this work using tools and methods originally developed for other things to increase our knowledge of the importance of cloth and its manufacture in ancient worlds.
The Girl in the Red Coat, by Kate Hamer. I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads giveaway.
Beth is a somewhat newly-single mom, taking care of her young daughter, Carmel. Carmel is a happy child, with a huge imagination; Beth is constantly worried of losing her, and tends to be overprotective. One day they head out together to a local festival, during which time they are briefly separated, and Beth's nightmare comes true: Carmel disappears. She disappears, even though Beth was only distracted for a moment. But how can that happen? And how can no one find her, as she was wearing a bright red coat?
The story is told by both characters. Beth questions everything about her parenting abilities and about her life. She has to figure out what to do next, how to move on. She hopes against hope that Carmel is still alive, but as the years pass, she realizes there are not guarantees.
Carmel is taken from the fair by an older man claiming to be her grandfather, when he tells her that her mother has been in an accident, and eventually, that she is dead. She ends up as one of the central characters in a bizarre religious cult, who travel across America. But she never forgets who she really is, and always hopes she will see her mother again sometime.
This book keeps you reading, because you want to see what will happen, and when. The author makes the characters seem like real people, flaws and all. You keep reading and you wonder how both Beth and Carmel manage to go on, and it makes you realize that there are people in similar situations that you may see every day and you don't even think about it. At the point where Carmel is missing for a year, what should Beth do, and how will she be able to continue? Does Carmel keep believing that the man keeping her is actually her true grandfather?
I'm actually not sure how I expected the book to end. But I will say it ends as it begins - not quite as you expected, and all of a sudden.
Moon Spinners, by Sally Goldenbaum. I will say first of all, that I really enjoy this series. I love the location, I enjoy the characters, and it's fun to read about fictional characters knitting - at least I think it is!
In this installment, a prominent woman in the community is killed when her car goes off a cliff; upon investigation, everyone finds out that the brakes on her car were tampered with, which means that someone murdered her. Rumors and suspicions fly, and a suspect is arrested. However, the Seaside Knitters are not convinced that the person in jail is the guilty party.
This mystery was well-done, in that the person murdered was not very popular, so red herrings abound. It was a fun read.
VB6 : Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health ... for Good, by Mark Bittman. I was curious about this book, and was able to borrow it from the library. I'm not necessarily interested in becoming a vegan, but wanted to see what he had to say. I think if I had never read any of his articles in the NYT, I would have given this book a higher rating. As it was, there was really nothing great and new in it that I found interesting or inspiring.
I do like the premise, but a lot of the info was not just already read in some of his articles, but things I already knew based on reading other things. The recipes were fine, but there were none that I really wanted to try - again, they were not anything different from things I've seen/tried elsewhere.
I'm glad I borrowed the book, I would have been disappointed/annoyed if I had purchased it.
Flaneuse : Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Venice, Tokyo, and London, by Lauren Elkin.
This book was disappointing. I felt it had such potential, and even the way it was set up was promising. The author wrote each chapter about one of the cities listed. Each chapter dealt with some of the historical aspects of each city, and about her relationship to it, as well as looking at the way women could/could not/had/had not been able to walk about the city freely.
I guess the author's style just didn't gel with me - there were good personal stories, some excellent feminist points being made, and I love reading about places' histories. But no matter how much I tried, the book did not keep my interest or attention.
This book filled my first square for Summer Book Bingo 2017, which was "Sub-title on the cover."
Drinking with Men : A Memoir, by Rosie Schaap. I originally decided to read this book because I was planning to take an online writing course taught be the author. Financial plans changed, so I wasn't able to take the course, but the library hold came in anyway, so I decided I might enjoy it regardless. And I did!
Rosie Schaap tells her own story, starting with the time as a teenager when she told fortunes on an Amtrak train in exchange for beers (she was underage at the time). From there, she moves on to college, post-college life, marriage, 9/11, the death of her father (sportswriter Dick Shaap), and the aftermath. With each significant part of her life, she is able to find a bar that is her second home, where she is one of regulars - and nearly always the only woman.
Schaap is not an alcoholic. She enjoys drinking, but for the most part drinks to be social, and to have a place to be with friends, not simply to get drunk. In each place, at each part of her life, she finds comfort, friendship, and conviviality at "her" local bar. Very seldom in the book does she even mention or describe what she drank - rather, she describes the place itself, and the people who frequented the place.
It's a really interesting book, and Rosie is an interesting person. In a unique fashion, this is her coming-of-age story, her journey to adulthood. I really enjoyed the book, and wish I could have taken her class (maybe next year?).
Upon finishing the book, I realized it also completed a block on my Summer Book Bingo 2017 card: "Memoir or autobiography," and that was a nice surprise.
Messenger of Truth, by Jacqueline Winspear. I realized as I was finishing this book that I've now experienced all of the Maisie Dobbs series as audiobooks. I think this is definitely a benefit, as I am now used to the readers' characterizations, but I am certain I would like these books even reading them from printed pages.
In this book, a twin sister of an up-and-coming artist employs Maisie to investigate her brother's death. It has been ruled an accident, but the sister finds it hard to believe that is the case. Maisie has been recommended by the headmistress of the school both women attended - at different times - but she agrees to take the case. It is a really interesting mystery, with shades of betrayal, jealousy, and even diamond smuggling becoming part of the plot.
Also part of this particular story is Maisie realizing that she is not interested or ready to settle down into an engagement or marriage to Andrew Dean, a young doctor that she has been involved with for a while. Though to some degree she is pained by this realization, she is also determined not to talk herself into doing something that would interfere with her career or the level of independence she enjoys.
The reader is also exposed to the impoverished life of Billy Beale, Maisie's assistant. When Billy's young daughter becomes seriously ill, and Maisie steps in to help, she is faced with the way the family and so many others in similar situations have to exist.
I really enjoyed this book. Maisie is a multifaceted woman, who is both a product of her time and someone who is not of her time. Her work is something she both values and takes very seriously, and at least at this point in the series, the solutions are neither obvious nor cut and dried.
The Secret Place, by Tana French. I remember when this book was first published, my husband read it. He said that he liked it overall, but he was disappointed because the teenage girls in the book talked just like American teenage girls.
I finished this book, and yes, I agree with him, but it made me think about how teenagers are the same in so many ways, regardless of geography.
The book takes place in a girls' private boarding school in Dublin, Ireland. It's a year after a student from the neighboring boys' school was murdered, and his body found on the grounds of the girls' school. The case is a cold one, until one of the students brings a clue to Detective Stephen Moran. He wasn't involved in the previously mentioned case, but was involved years ago with the student who hands over the clue, and trusts him.
Moran is paired with one of the original investigators of the case, Antoinette Conway. She is the sole female on the Murder Squad, and not well-liked at all. Each of them is motivated for their own reasons to solve the murder.
The book alternates between the events of the day Moran and Conway arrive to investigate at the school, and the months leading up to the student's murder. Lots of red herrings, lots of suspects, with ideas of who the murderer is constantly changing. It's a good story, and I at least kept changing my mind about the suspects as I read.
However, it did remind me all too much of high school. French captures the attitudes, worries, relationships, and traumas of that time in life expertly. So while I liked the book, I didn't really enjoy "reliving" some of my high school experiences!
This book filled another square in my 2017 Summer Book Bingo, the one for "Set in another country."
Meow If It's Murder, by T. C. LoTempio. This was a new series to me, and I enjoyed the book.
Nora Charles is a former investigative crime reporter who worked in Chicago or for years before moving back to her hometown in California. When her mother died, she decided to move back and take over Hot Bread, the sandwich shop owned and run by her mother, and a fixture in the community. It's a comfortable existence, and she enjoys reconnecting with old friends.
When Lola Grainger, a friend of her late mother, who is married to an influential man is discovered to be drowned after an apparent fall from the family's yacht, something just doesn't sit well with Nora. She remembers her mother telling her that Lola was fearful of water, and the official story doesn't mesh with that. Her old habits lead her to nose around a bit to see if she can discover what may have really happened.
In the course of the story, she adopts a cat who she names Nick, who had belonged to another investigator who mysteriously disappeared after getting a phone call from Lola Grainger's sister. But that's not all - suddenly she is in the thick of a mysterious series of events that involve the Mob and the FBI.
This book was well-written, and though it is not classic literature, there was a lot to recommend as far as character development. A few things seemed rather fantastical to me, but then again, I was reading a cozy mystery!
At the end of the book, there are recipes for two of Hot Bread's famous sandwiches, The Thin Man, and The Michael Buble Burger. As a result, this book fills in my Summer Book Bingo Square for "Contains recipes, puzzles, or patterns."
The Shattered Tree, by Charles Todd. This book was much more involved than the previous ones in this series. A wounded soldier is being treated at the field hospital where Bess Crawford is a nurse during World War I. At one point when he becomes agitated, he begins to shout in German ... but he is wearing the tattered uniform of a French soldier. She later learns he was transferred to the hospital in Rouen.
Shortly afterwards, Bess herself is injured and sent to Paris to recover. She is shocked one evening when she is convinced she sees the soldier in question in a passing taxi. This begins a dangerous and complicated series of events as she tries to determine if her eyes told her the truth, and if the soldier is actually in the French Army.
There are numerous twists, mysterious events, and characters throughout the course of the story. I liked the book, but not quite as much as those where Bess is back in England on leave for one reason or another, and the reader gets a taste of what life was like during World War I.
This book takes care of my Summer Book Bingo square, "Written under a pseudonym," as Charles Todd is a pseudonym for a mother and son writing team.
Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles. On New Year's Eve 1937, two young girls are celebrating as best they can given their humble circumstances when a young man named Tinker Grey comes into the same jazz bar and sits down at the table next to theirs. Thus begins the story of Katey, Eve, Tinker, and those around them, primarily taking place during 1938. Told from Katey's viewpoint, this book evokes the time, place, and characters in a way that almost makes you feel you were there.
As the book begins, Katey is a member of the secretarial pool at a large law firm, and by the time it ends, she is working on a new magazine at Conde Nast. In between, there are different friends, different affairs, and some shocking occurrences, all involving her circle of acquaintances.
I enjoyed this book because it didn't hesitate to make the characters flawed. It had humor and sadness that were identifiable, and it also illustrated how some friendships never die while others are extremely brief. The time period is also an interesting one, as it takes place when the U.S. was slowly coming out of the Depression, and things were starting to look up.
Another thing I enjoyed were the descriptions of New York during that time, when it was a place containing the dreams of so many from somewhere else.
This book will fill the square on my Summer Book Bingo card for "Told in the first person."
So there you go, a little bit of everything, and varying degrees of interest to me. Feel free to let me know in the comments what you think about any of these if you've read them, or what you have been reading lately. And I promise next time to review my reading more regularly! :-)
Have a good weekend!