The Lola Quartet

img_3865Book: The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel

Date Read: April 1 to 8, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

April’s prompt for The Unread Shelf Project was to read your most recently acquired book. Unlike some of the other prompts, this one was fairly easy and straightforward for me! At the beginning of March, I spent a couple days in Ann Arbor for work picked up this book (and one other) at the Literati Bookstore there. Since I read the other book at the end of March, I was left with The Lola Quartet as my clear choice!

This book was super intriguing, and I feel like I was able to really fly through it. The main story starts with Gavin, a reporter in New York whose life seems to be slowly unraveling. A slow downward trend starts to spiral out of control after a trip back to his hometown, when his sister shows him a picture of a girl named Chloe who bears a strong resemblance to their family—and happens to share the last name of his high school girlfriend. Gavin becomes obsessed with the idea of tracking down his old girlfriend Anna, and finding out about his possible daughter. This leads down an intricate rabbit hole of events, with simultaneous storylines: Gavin’s search for Anna in the present, and the story behind Anna’s disappearance beginning back when they were in high school. Anna’s story is twofold: the story of what happened 10 years ago, melding into a personal crisis for her in the present.

This is the second book I have read from Emily St. John Mandel, and I have to say that I love her writing style. While the main plot of the book centers on Gavin, she weaves in multiple story lines to bring the reader along. Throughout the book, the reader seems to be only a step or two ahead of Gavin in piecing together what happened. There is some perspective shifting, telling pieces of the story as it centers around multiple characters at different points in time. At some point, almost every character gets their time in the spotlight, shifting the dynamic of the book so that each feels like a “main character” for a moment. The reader is able to see how the action of each person impacts the others, and ultimately the outcome of the story.

At the end, each of the stories culminate in the present: Gavin tracks down Anna, where he is finally able to put together the final pieces of the puzzle. Anna has been involved in multiple criminal acts, which ultimately led to a death. While Gavin initially views himself as outside of Anna’s problems and the crisis that played out in the present, he realizes that he played an unintentional role: his sister taking the photo of Chloe was the impetus for the string of events. He grapples with what is the “right thing” to do with his knowledge, possibly with the realization that if he had been more upfront about his own actions, he could have altered the outcome.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Too much thinking for me to follow this one. 2 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for April

  • Books Read: 4
  • Books Acquired: 0
  • Total Unread Books: 255

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

img_3594Book: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Date Read: March 1 to March 18, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

For March, the Unread Shelf Project challenged everyone to read the book that has been on your shelf the longest. Technically, I did the same last month, when I chose a book that was gifted to me, but also at the “bottom of my pile.” I suppose now is a perfect time to give that a little more context. I joined Goodreads some time in 2010, but only listed books that I had recently read. On January 1, 2o11, I decided to add my list of books to read, which was already quite hefty at that point in time. I added them all to my online to read list within the next couple days, in approximate alphabetical order. This is the bottom of my stack. I no longer have any idea what order I actually obtained these in, so I do not prioritize further. I try to make a point to choose at least a few books specifically from that group every year. There are currently 45 books still remaining from those that I initially added.

When I browsed through the list, I decided on Maya Angelou for a few different reasons. It seemed appropriate for the time of year, as we are transitioning from Black History Month to Women’s’ History Month. Maya Angelou is an author that I know immediately by name, but one that I had never read up to this point. I also have a peculiar and nostalgic back-story to go along with my particular copy: I quite literally found it in an abandoned building. For several years, my primary friend group consisted of a few photographers and other interesting characters that spent a good amount of our free time in urban exploration. We all lived near Detroit, and visited many sites around the city that were no longer in use: churches, schools, apartments, hotels, hospitals, and of course, the well known Michigan Central Station. While we had a fairly strict policy of making as little impact as possible, we did collect a few treasures along the way (no breaking in, no vandalism, and nothing else that could be considered destructive of the spaces). However, the number of unused and forgotten books found inside the old Cass Tech High School hurt my soul, and I had to give at least a few of them a new home. My soul still aches to think of all that remained inside that school when it was torn down in July 2011.

I know this seems a long introduction with little connection to the book that I am supposed to be writing about. However, something about my memories of that time fit too perfectly with my feelings reading this book, and I could not let the opportunity to share my story pass by. While the overall story of Maya Angelou’s early life is intriguing, this book is about her the journey. Born in California, Maya and her brother were sent to live with their grandmother in rural Arkansas. They were raised there, then brought to St. Louis to live with their mother, returned to Arkansas, and eventually returned again to their mother’s care in California. While the places are not essential, the experiences in each of these locations shaped her character and spirit. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a memoir told in snippets; each chapter captures a memory or a moment in time. While any one of these moments might not seem significant in the grand scheme, each is an important piece of the puzzle that has shaped the life of this woman. The story is told beautifully from the perspective of a child, but tempered with honesty and perspective gained from reflecting as an adult. Angelou’s language is vivid, but not graphic, as she tackles her experiences of discrimination, violence, rape, and others.

Boris’s Thoughts: “So… where is this bird? I’m confused. 2 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for March

  • Books Read: 5 (plus 1 started)
  • Books Acquired: 3
  • Total Unread Books: 260

The October Country

img_2499Date Read: October 19 to December 1, 2019

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I read The October Country a few months back as a sort of reward for myself— if you have been following along, you may recall that in October I was challenged to read a book that scares me, and chose the lowest rated book on my to read shelf, which I had been putting off for quite some time. (I wrote about that here, if you’re interested.) I planned on reading this one next, as a sort of carrot for myself: finish the book I was less excited about so that I could move on to one that I was excited to read. Coincidentally, this was also a good fit for the November Unread Shelf challenge, a book from your favorite genre. I have a tough time defining a favorite genre, but I think this was a good fit for that.

This collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury turned out to be that perfect reward. Although it took me longer than I had hoped to finish, it was well worth the time spent. The October Country is introduced as a sort propensity for darkness that exists within us. A place that is not inherently evil, but perhaps a little creepy with the potential for wickedness. Despite an overwhelming sense of spookiness, I would not classify anything in this book as outright horror.

Rather than go for an upfront scare, these stories leave one with a feeling of uneasiness. Many of the endings are at least a tad ambiguous, leaving the level of horror up to the imagination of the reader. Some ease in with some creepiness, but end with a sense of sadness—a man left with a shattered self, an average person born into a family of immortals, a glimmer of hope with a grave consequence.

One story that particularly stood out to me was The Next in Line, which I am positive relates to the fact that I have visited the location of the story in the recent past. I have very clear memories of walking through the cemetery, and looking down the spiral staircase into the crypt. The Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato looks very different now than the room described in the story, but having seen them for myself, the thought of being haunted by the faces encountered there is by no means a stretch of the imagination.

Boris’s thoughts: “It’s always all about the spooky with you, isn’t it? 3 paws.”

Book: The October Country by Ray Bradbury

Balance and Book Collections

img_2593I have been struggling some with balance lately– particularly the balance between life, work, and leisure. I suppose it is the season where everyone feels like there is not enough time in the day to get everything done. I have definitely been feeling that, but I also partially blame the two large trees in my yard… who knew raking could take so much time from the day??

While I am not beating myself up for it, the need to focus on other things has cut into my reading time. I have still been trying to read a bit every day, but I have not been finishing books at my normal pace. I am definitely behind on my goal for books read this year, and am not quite finished with the book that I was planning to post about today! I had hoped the collection of Halloween themed books I had shared throughout October would help me to catch up, but alas here I am, behind again. Rather than skip this week, I thought I would share something a little different.

Last spring when I was traveling, I posted about a small collection of books I’ve collected from the different countries I’ve visited. (You can read about that here, if you’d like.) Similar to that collection, I have also slowly been accumulating books from the US states that I have been to. I cannot quite pinpoint when this collection truly began. The first book I remember seeking out was The Art Forger, when I was in Boston in June of 2018. However, I had at least 2 of these books prior to that, although not exactly intentionally. My intention with this collection is to gather books from each state that also related to that state, whether that is because of a local author or setting/content of the book itself.

Since this is a fairly recent collection that I have started, it does not reflect the number of states that I have actually visited; that number is between 24 and 30, depending on how you count (24 truly visited, 4 borders crossed but not explored, 2 only in airports). I have been making an effort to add on books as I have revisited the states around me, and hope that I can start to catch up to reflect the places that I have been! Anyone else reading a collector of books? How do you differentiate a collection versus other books you have accumulated?

For anyone interested, here is the list of those I have so far:

  • Alaska: Travels in Alaska by John Muir
  • Indiana: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Kentucky: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
  • Louisiana: Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
  • Massachusetts: The Art Forger by Barbara Shapiro
  • Michigan: Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides
  • Wisconsin: A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan

A Man Called Ove

img_1921Date Read: August 8 to 31, 2019

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

This was my book for The Unread Shelf Project prompt for August: a book voted for you to read by Bookstagram. Since I do not have a large following, I decided that it was easier do this as a poll with two options. It was actually my first ever Instagram poll! I only had 6 participants, but enough to give a slight majority to this grumpy old man. I loved this book, so I am happy that it turned out as it did!

To those around him, Ove appears to be just a cranky old man. They aren’t wrong—he is one of the most cantankerous characters I have ever read. However, as the back cover states, there is more to Ove than meets the eye. Of course there is; we would not have much of a story otherwise. We meet Ove shortly after the death of his wife, Sonja, although this is not entirely clear in the first few chapters. He has been struggling to cope with the loss, as he views Sonja as the bright spot in an otherwise bleak existence. Throughout the novel, we jump back and forth between past and present, allowing us to see how the story of Ove’s youth, and Sonja, has influenced his attitudes: strong principles, irritability, and all. Sonja certainly brought out the best in him, and continues to do so even after her passing. Whenever faced with doing something that is inconvenient, but the right thing to do, he considers what Sonja would say to him when he joins her in the afterlife—whether that decision is about caring for a stray cat or taking in a youth who was kicked out of his home.

The two main themes that stood out here for me were Ove’s ability to find new purpose in life through his connection to others, as well as what Backman calls “time optimism”—the tendency we all have to assume that there will always be enough time with other people, until suddenly that time runs out. It’s a funny concept to think about, because I think it is a characteristic that we all share, to an extent. I know I am guilty of time optimism still, despite having several experiences to call on of time run out. I would like to say that it is something I am working on—and it is—but I think it is something hardwired in us that we may only be able to escape temporarily.

In addition to falling in love with the story of Ove, there were some literary devices the author used here that I really enjoyed. The first, and the most apparent, is the liberal use of ridiculous and hilarious similes. Things like when Ove “nods irritably, like someone squeezing an avocado and finding it overly ripe.” I can see why some readers might think the similes are overdone—but I love it. Second, and a bit subtler, is the change in narration that coincides with Ove’s shifting attitudes. At the beginning of the novel, Ove refers to nearly everyone around him by a nickname, oftentimes a rude one. His new neighbors are the Pregnant One and the Lanky One, and their children are referred to only by their ages. There is a full cast of characters in the neighborhood who have all earned Ove’s contempt. Gradually, as Ove begins to soften toward some of these characters, he begins to refer to them by their proper names; beginning with Parvaneh, the pregnant one who pushes his buttons but also pushes him to be better.

Boris’s thoughts: “He was kind of a jerk to that cat… but I’m not sure I can blame him. I think I relate more to the man than the cat. 3 paws.”

Lovecraft Country

img_1914Date Read: July 24 to August 8, 2019

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

This was definitely an interesting read, although I wanted to enjoy this book so much more than I did. I suspect that part of the problem may be my lack of background knowledge—I have never read anything by H.P. Lovecraft, and my reading of classic science fiction is admittedly lacking. However, I am not fully convinced this would have made a drastic difference in my feelings on the book, although it may have at least increased my appreciation of what Ruff was doing here.

Lovecraft Country falls somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories, chronicling the lives of an extended African American family living in 1950s Chicago. Each chapter is written as a story centered on a different member of the family, each of them connecting to the main narrative. It includes horrors of two primary varieties: elements of classic horror fiction inspired by Lovecraft and others; the perhaps even more terrifying daily horrors of racism in America. The stories of the struggles encountered in their everyday lives, as well as their research for the “Safe Negro Travel Guide,” paints a picture of that period in American history that many may not realize existed—a bit scary considering that time is not so far back in our history. I am a generally well-read and well-informed person, and this is a perspective of America that I have never had to face myself. Although I know that side of our past exists, I have not previously encountered it in the perspective taken here. Perhaps that is my own fault.

I wish I could find more to say about this book, especially considering my unusually low (for me) rating. (You’re right, three stars is not a bad rating; however, if you have read any of my previous reviews, you know that I tend to give 4-5 stars to most of what I read. I really cannot help myself; I love books too much). With the style of the book I mentioned—the chapters that feel more like individual stories—I felt like there was something missing somewhere. There is some resolution to the overall narrative, but it feels like there is something lacking, although I cannot quite put my finger on what that is. Perhaps there could be more to the story from here? Perhaps something more is needed to fill in the gaps between each of these tales? I am not sure, but it left me feeling a bit unenthused.

Boris’s thoughts: “Curious. You lost me after that scary dog in the second story though. No thank you. 1 paw.”

Shout

img_1034Date Read: July 18 to 22, 2019

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I went to a small high school. There were two English teachers in the school my freshman year, and by the time I graduated that had only increased to three. We had no library, just the small collection of books each teacher had in their classroom. By my junior year, I had read them all. One of the teachers started bringing in books from home for me to read, and that was when I discovered Laurie Halse Anderson. I was so taken with her story and her writing that I bought up her other novels as soon as I saw them, without even taking the time to read the description on the back cover. It was this practice that led me to scoop up her latest book without realizing what it was—which I am considering serendipitous, as I would have likely passed on this incredible work because I thought it was “not my style.”

Shout is a novel-length memoir, told through a series of poems. Although each poem as its own subject, and there is variety in style, they combine to form a loose narrative. I was impressed with how Anderson was able to convey her troubled childhood without judgment. She acknowledges the hardships of her family life, but does not condemn her family nor ask for sympathy. The poems are divided into three sections, labeled simply: One, Two, and Three. One, which covers more than half of the book, deals with her early life into her early writing career, ending with Speak, her first successful novel (and the book that I had originally discovered back in high school). Two gets more involved in life as an author, and as a speaker. Dealing with the unexpected success, but also the controversy surrounding sexual assault and speaking about it in schools. Three was a bit less organized, but had some reflections and other pieces that did not quite fit into the rest narrative.

Overall, I was really impressed with this book. I usually am not a fan of poetry, but something about these poems really drew me in. The story was captivating and I found myself enjoying it much more than I had expected when I started.

Boris’s thoughts: “I think poetry just goes over my head. It was hard enough to learn to read human, how am I supposed to understand this? 2 paws.”