A Wolf at the Table

img_5193Book: A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs

Date Read: July 1 to 12, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

A Wolf at the Table was the pick for July’s Unread Shelf Project prompt: a book voted on by Bookstagram. I wanted to choose two books that had some sort of similarity, and found an interesting pair: two memoirs written by brothers. Unfortunately for John Elder Robison, his younger brother won this one, receiving 100% of the 4 votes cast. I admit that I was hoping for a slightly better voter turnout, but I suppose I will take what I can get!

This is not my first read from Augusten Burroughs, although I believe it is the first time that I have written about him here. This book has been suggested to be a sort of prequel to his more popular Running with Scissors, which primarily focuses on his teenage years, when he was living with his mother’s psychiatrist. The bulk of A Wolf at the Table is about the time before his parents’ divorce, focusing specifically on his relationship with his father while growing up in a tumultuous household.

I think the first thing that needs to be said is that this book was not what I was expecting it to be. While both A Wolf at the Table and Running with Scissors deal with some heavy subject matter at times, this book was much darker and more serious than his debut work. While there is definitely some use of humor in places, we do not get the same level of wit or whimsical absurdity that I have come to expect from Burroughs. This may sound like a criticism, but I do not intend it to be. These are very different stories, and it makes sense that they need to be told differently. I was, however, taken a bit off guard.

Through the book, we get an in depth view of the relationship between Augusten and his father—or at least the view of this relationship from the perspective of the child. For the most part, I felt that the feelings portrayed were written realistically from the child’s perspective, which I think is impressive. We all have childhood memories and feelings associated with them, but it’s difficult to explain these as an adult in the same way that we felt them when we were children. There is so much conflict expressed here: the want of affection coupled with very real fear of a man that seems to be an enigma. Throughout, Burroughs references feelings of anger toward his father, along with his worry that these feelings are manifesting to turn him into his father. The final chapters of the book jump forward into adulthood, partially addressing the impact of his early relationship with his father on later experiences.

In the back of the edition that I have, there is a list of discussion questions. Usually I glance through things like this and move on, but one question here stood out to me. Could the “wolf” of the book’s title be read as a metaphor that extends beyond the father? Can memories become more real and terrifying than the incidents or people that inspire them? Coming from the perspective of a psychologist… Yes. Absolutely. Our memories are certainly a reflection of our experiences, but how we recall those experiences is a major part of what creates our reality. I think this dovetails nicely with one thing that always comes up in discussions of memoirs: accuracy.

This is a memoir written in the form of a novel; there are many conversations included, many of them occurring when the author was quite young. There are many places where he presumes the emotion in others. How much truth is there really in the details? To that, I would pose a counter question: How much does that matter? Regardless of the individual details, there are certain overarching patterns in behavior, clearly marking our subject as a victim of some type of abuse. If this is an accurate reflection of his memory, is the accuracy of each individual word important?

Boris’s Thoughts: “I do not like that man’s relationship with animals. Can I give no paws?”

Unread Shelf Progress for July

  • Books Read: 2
  • Books Acquired: 1
  • Total Unread Books: 260

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

img_3982Book: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Date Read: April 8 to 16, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I have seen this book all over Bookstagram for the last few months, so when I saw it in a small bookshop I decided that I needed to give it a try. I feel like this is a little outside my normal reading realm, as I am not usually a historical fiction reader. (I know this is based on a true story, but as it is not purported to be a fully accurate factual account of events, I think it should still be considered a work of fiction.) I wish I could give a good reason for my tendency to steer away from historical fiction, but I cannot quite put my finger on it. I suppose this genre just does not seem to jump out to me in the same way that others do.

That all said, I quickly found myself totally engrossed in this story. The cover declares it to be a story of “love and survival,” although I feel like those two descriptors should be reversed. No doubt this is a love story that will satisfy any romantics out there, but I personally found the survival aspects of the more intriguing. Both Lale and Gita must fight for their survival, constantly walking the line of making life bearable and endangering themselves and others.

An interesting aspect of the story is the fear associated with their positions—Lale as the Tätowierer and Gita simply as a person put to work. Despite their treatment as prisoners, they are at risk for being labeled as conspirators against their own people. Lale is reluctant to become the Tätowierer, but rationalizes this with his own survival, and the thought that he can at least try to treat new prisoners humanely as he does his work. It is an interesting perspective on difficult choices: is it realistic to think that they would refuse to work when the other option is death? Although not quite overtly stated, the guilt associated with his assigned work is the driving force in his dangerous efforts to help others in the camp.

I suppose I would be remiss to completely disregard the love story aspect of the novel, since I imagine that is what held the appeal for many readers. Of course, I cannot blame them—it is beautiful as a love story as well. While I always give an internal eye roll at the “love at first sight” trope, this definitely goes beyond that in its depth. Lale and Gita find themselves in a harrowing time and situation, forcing their relationship to develop in a nontraditional manner. There are countless obstacles at hand to separate them, and so much uncertainty in their lives that this bit of happiness seemed a saving grace for them both. The relationship was certainly against the odds—both in surviving the camps, and then locating each other afterwards when they were forced to flee independently.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Hmmm. This is different. I like it! 3 paws.”

The Da Vinci Code

img_4905Book: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Date Read: June 9 to 30, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

I admit that I am a little behind with this one. I was intrigued by the controversy when the movie came out, but that was when I was in college and not quite ready to commit to do a ton of extra reading for pleasure. So I saw the movie, and mentally shelved the book as to read. Fast forward a few years, I’m browsing deals on kindle books, and there it is: this book that I have been intending to read. Serendipity! I added it to my kindle shelf and continued to browse. That was almost 10 years ago now, and I am just now getting around to it, thanks to the June prompt from the Unread Shelf Project which told me to pick a book from a series.

Now here’s the thing: I do not own a ton of series books, and most of the ones I do own, I have already read. Despite my very lengthy to read list, I only had a couple to choose from; and I argued with myself about which of them should actually “count.” Does it still count as reading a book in a series if you have no intention of reading any of the other books in the series? Well… ultimately, with the coaxing of a friend, I decided yes. She insisted that the book was worth it, and that it worked as a standalone if I chose not to continue with the other books… and that I did not have to read the book that actually comes before it. Then she offered to lend me the rest of the series if needed. So here I am.

After all that went in to the decision to read this one, I am coming in right at the last moment to finish this within the month of June. I really feel there is no good excuse for that, since although this book is a bit lengthy, it is a relatively quick and easy read. While I will say that overall I enjoyed this read, I do find myself a bit conflicted. It’s obvious that this is written for mass appeal, and meant to be a fast paced page-turner. There are some aspects of this that feel meticulously researched; at the same time, I feel like we are getting a very surface level understanding of something that is part truth and part conspiracy theory. I enjoyed the idea of a scavenger hunt for the Holy Grail, and the concept behind the grail being Mary Magdalene. The ideas are definitely interesting, and some pieces potentially plausible, but the idea of taking this as fact is a bit far fetched.

There was one major issue here for me though: for being a novel purported to be about the sacred feminine, it is pretty anti-feminist. I imagine that much of this relates to the fact that it is a book in a series with a male protagonist, who needs to come through as the “star” of the show. At the same time, I felt myself quite frustrated with the treatment of Sophie’s character. Most obviously, Sophie is professional code breaker, and yet she needs the help of Langdon to figure out the most basic of codes left for her by her grandfather? Seems a little ridiculous. Throughout the novel, she’s primarily used as a plot device to allow for lengthy historical explanations. She could have been so much more.

As for the remainder of the series, I think I’m going to pass. I am not crazy about the trope of the brilliant leading man who continuously finds himself involved in conundrums where he is required to solve mysteries with a new beautiful woman who is obviously attracted to him. Does that seem oddly specific? Perhaps. I have no doubt that the remaining books in the series are entertaining—but I think that I will find my reading time used better elsewhere.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Are you sure this is a book? It doesn’t look like a book. It doesn’t taste like a book. Do I give paws if it’s not a book?”

Unread Shelf Progress for June

  • Books Read: 2
  • Books Acquired: 9 books, 1 found not previously counted
  • Total Unread Books: 262 books

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_2499Book: The October Country by Ray Bradbury

Date 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.”