Anxious People

img_7587Book: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Date Read: February 1 to 7, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

After finishing A Man Called Ove, I knew that Fredrik Backman was an author that I was not done with. I was super excited when I learned that he had a new book coming in 2020, and even more so when I won this advance reader’s edition in a giveaway on Instagram. This was a giveaway copy from the original recipient after the release of the book, and not sent to me from the publisher. I chose it for the February prompt for the Unread Shelf Project: a book you got for free. Most of the books I have gotten for free have been gifts, so this one and only book I have ever won seemed like a perfect creative twist for the prompt.

This is a story that could be about numerous things: a town, a robbery, a father and son, a divorce, a bridge, a couple (or several couples), a hostage situation, a second chance. In the end, it was about all but not quite any one of these. It reminded me of the term “sonder”—defined as a feeling of realizing that every person who passes through our lives, however briefly, has a life as complex as our own. To me, it is a sentiment that makes me feel both small and significant. An unusual sort of connection to the world at large, and one that I think we all could use just a bit more of in our lives.

Backman certainly knows how to spin a beautiful, although sometimes meandering, narrative. There are a few parallel storylines going on, each with seemingly spurious connections that all come together nicely in the end. There is enough information shared to pique the reader’s interest and generate some ideas of where things are headed, before another string is woven in to complicate and sometimes challenge our thinking. It reminded me somewhat of the tendency for conversation or thoughts wander. The type of journey where you begin by talking about where you would like to go to dinner, but somehow end up in a debate over whether it was 2 or 3 summers ago when you bought a particular lawn chair—there were logical connections along the way, but it takes a bit of effort to track them back.

One of the things that I found most intriguing is how Backman starts with a cast of characters who are not particularly likeable, but uses that to as an asset to the story rather than a hindrance. There are some glimpses of potential good qualities, but nothing that outright makes you want to root for them. Each one of them comes with their own agenda, challenges, and anxieties, but they all have something to offer, and somehow manage to make the story better for all of their flaws.

Along the way, I definitely found myself generating ideas about the overall picture, just as the police officers were trying to put together the pieces of the situation. I found myself needing to revise quite a bit—often as a result of assumptions that I had made about the information given thus far. I think that is part of the beauty of this story, its ability to challenge the reader while still keeping interest and staying true to life. There are twists that are not really twists, and coincidences that seem too convenient until you realize that perhaps in a small town they are not.

Circling back around to my comments on sonder, to me, this was a story about our connections to the people around us. A commentary on how we impact one another, whether we realize it or not. Even the best of us are sometimes unsure, anxious, lonely, or idiots—that is part of being human. After the year of uncertainties and anxieties that we have all experienced in some way, this story is a comfort to me.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Ahh. A feeling of connectedness without having to leave home. Sounds perfect. 4 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for February

  • Books Read: 5
  • Books Acquired: 4
  • Total Unread Books: 268

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

img_7578Book: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Date Read: December 20 to 26, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I had been eyeing this book for quite awhile before finally picking it up at one of my local stores. Despite hearing the title and seeing a few different renditions of the cover, I did not know much about the premise when I started. Based on the cover art for one edition, a house made of burnt matches, I suspected that fire would play a role in the story. Other than that, I was mostly drawn in by the title, and the belief that I would discover that Eleanor Oliphant was not actually completely fine.

To start, I have to say that I found this story to be both hysterical and quite moving, with the perfect balance between humor and sadness. I found my feelings about Eleanor changing pretty quickly as I read, although not always in a positive way. Upon a first impression, she is not particularly likable. She is rigid, rude, and very quick to judge others. She is very certain of the “rightness” in how she lives, although her view of the world does not fit into the norm defined by everyone else. I suppose you could argue, in a way, that she is “completely fine”—the version of completely fine that is constantly teetering on the edge of disaster.

As the layers of Eleanor’s life begin to slowly peel back, her awkwardness shifts from off-putting to endearing. Although we do not see the full picture of Eleanor’s background, there is enough revealed to allow the reader to begin to sympathize with her. She is certainly misguided and unaware of social expectations—although she does her best with her ill-conceived interpretations of social skills. She knows that she does not quite fit in, and many of her efforts to do so lead down the path of hilarity. At the same time, it becomes clear that the surface of Eleanor’s perfectly organized life is hiding some deep issues.

My favorite thing about this book was that it was absolutely not a romance. Although she would not admit it, Eleanor is profoundly lonely. She creates a romance in her head with who she imagines could be the perfect partner, without realizing that she is also quietly cultivating some much more real connections. When she reaches a breaking point and heads into a downward spiral, it is these friendships that help to set her on a course toward recovery. I loved that the author did not seek to “cure” or “fix” Eleanor’s problems by throwing her into a romantic relationship. Her experience is much more true to real life, and the bumpy ride that many find themselves on.

Boris’s Thoughts: “See? Who needs romance? All of Eleanor’s problems start to get better when she gets a cat. This is clear proof that cats fix everything. 4 paws.”

Where the Crawdads Sing

img_7456Book: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Date Read: January 1 to 9, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

This was my pick for the first Unread Shelf Project prompt of the year: a book with high expectations. I thought through quite a few different ways to interpret this, and decided that I would use some data from Goodreads to narrow things down. This was the highest rated book on my to read list that has been rated by over 1 million people. I felt that this gave an endorsement both for the popularity of the book, and a general consensus on quality. In addition to that, this is a book that was given to me as a gift and came highly recommended.

Despite the hype, I actually knew very little about this one going into it. In fact, I was a couple chapters in before I even decided to read the description on the inside jacket. Overall, I really enjoyed the layers to this story; although it took me a little bit to really get into it. Once I was hooked though, I could not get enough of the story. I admit I was a little put off by the time jumps in the first part of the book, created by the dual storyline. Kya’s childhood was so much more interesting to me than the murder-mystery set up happening so many years later. Of course I realized that all would eventually become relevant, but it was occasionally frustrating to be pulled away from the more engrossing part of the narrative.

I mentioned enjoying the layers of the story, which I think was the most appealing aspect of this novel for me. There is so much here to consider: love, tragedy, discrimination, trauma, coming of age, loss, judgment, and a great appreciation for the natural world. To pinpoint any one cause of Kya’s eccentricities or her ostracization would be difficult, but examining her past, it is easy to see why she developed a fear of the outside world and the behavior patterns that went along with this. It was curious to me that the main source of Kya’s peculiarities was a fear of those in town, whose own prejudices led them to fear her as well.

While I have seen this elsewhere as a criticism of the book, I appreciated the details included in the naturalistic elements of Kya’s relationship to her home. It was obvious that the author has impressive knowledge on the subject, and helped in building the fascinating juxtaposition within Kya’s own character—the bits of truth in the town’s view of her life, contrasted with the accomplishments far beyond what anyone would suspect from her. Even later when the detectives from town see her collections, they do not understand them, assuming there is some element of madness in her work. I suppose this plays even further into the “fear of the unknown” element between Kya and the town.

Minka’s Thoughts: “I think I understand this girl. I, too, am fascinated by birds. 3 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for January

  • Books Read: 2
  • Books Acquired: 0
  • Total Unread Books: 269

Just Mercy

img_7112Book: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Date Read: November 15 to 30, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I heard about this book some time during the last school year, at one of our district PBIS Meetings (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports). Each school has their own systems in place to support behavior proactively—teaching expectations, building community, and reinforcing those expectations throughout the school. A few times throughout the year, the coaches from all of the elementary schools gather to share ideas, successes, and get input on our practices. An additional focus in the last few years has been equity.

Equity. Not to be confused with equality. The idea of equity goes beyond the idea of everyone getting the same thing, to the recognition that individual circumstances matter in what is needed to create an equal outcome. Not everyone needs the same thing to have the same potential outcomes. Representation matters. When it comes to literature, many often characterize this by saying that children who are minorities need to see characters that look like themselves. This falls short. Diversity in reading is important for everyone—not just the people who fit in a particular category.

Bryan Stevenson tells the story of working on the case of Walter McMillian: a man who has been sentenced to death for murder, but maintains his claim of innocence. As the circumstances that lead to Walter’s arrest and imprisonment are laid out, the reader has an interesting view of the justice system: how things fall into place in an investigation, how individual circumstances impact progress, and how many opportunities there are for things to go wrong.

Walter’s story is told interspersed with many others: specific cases of executions, sentences for life imprisonment, and statistics of crimes and punishments that readers will find shocking. This was an excellent read; an important read; also one that will intermittently turn your stomach and/or bring you to tears. There is injustice and redemption, progress and frustration, and so many places where we can do better as a society.

While we would like to think that our justice system follows the adage that “justice is blind,” there is clear evidence that it is not. Perhaps in light of this, we should consider things differently. Maybe justice should not be blind: background and circumstances matter. If we strive for equity, we need to acknowledge that there are differences in how our system treats individuals, and adjust accordingly.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Books that cause tears really put a lot of pressure on us lap cats. 2 paws.”

Interested in supporting the work discussed in this book? Find more information and donate to the Equal Justice Initiative at: http://www.eji.org

Annihilation

img_7041Book: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Date Read: December 1 to 8, 2020

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

For December, the Unread Shelf Project asks you to read the shortest book on your shelf. It’s really the perfect fit for this time of year, when everyone seems to be going just a little crazy to fit in their holiday plans along with wrapping up their goals for the year. While I am often somewhat rigid when it comes to metrics and data, I interpret this one a little loosely: anything under 200 pages counts as my shortest books. There are quite a few of them—mostly Shakespeare, as I am that person who gets the complete works of Shakespeare and then individually lists all plays as things to read (making Shakespeare both the shortest and longest books on my list!). In the end, of course, I did not go with Shakespeare: I picked this one up at one of my local independent bookshops, when I went in for a gift and had to leave with something for myself too.

Annihilation is a little outside my normal reading spectrum, as a mystery and science fiction combo. While I do enjoy both, I do not read too heavily in either genre. The story is a slow build without much direct action, but much time put into building the world of Area X. This fits with the context of the novel—it is written as a journal belonging to a biologist, who is part of an expedition to an area reported to have had experienced an “environmental disaster.” Early on, her reports suggest that there is more going on than meets the eye, although this is never quite defined.

Each member of the expedition has a different area of expertise, which they are defined by rather than named: the Psychologist, the Anthropologist, the Surveyor, and the Biologist. While they have been given general orders as a group, each seems to have their own slightly varying agenda. The expedition quickly devolves, as each of the members is impacted by their surroundings and begin to follow their own paths. The biologist’s journal paints an eerie picture of the landscape, as she tries to make sense of her surroundings and describe things that she does not seem to understand herself.

While the concept here is definitely interesting, this book left me wanting more than it was willing to give. It was an enjoyable read, although a little unsettling in places. The style allows for the reader to start piecing some things together, and there’s definitely a ton of room for speculation. However, the ending is left too open for my liking. Of course, this is the first book in a series, so there may be some of what I was looking for in the other books; though I am not sure that I am invested enough in the story to continue.

Boris’s Thoughts: “All that strange wildlife, and not cats? Ridiculous. 1 paw.”

Unread Shelf Progress for December

  • Books Read: 5
  • Books Acquired: 8
  • Total Unread Books: 271

Shakespeare for Squirrels

img_6788Book: Shakespeare for Squirrels by Christopher Moore

Date Read: November 5 to 15, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

As an intro for this book, I am going to repeat the same sentiment that I had for last year’s November prompt from The Unread Shelf Project: I have no idea what my favorite genre is. This year I enlisted a friend to talk me through figuring it out, but we both ended up a little stumped. As it turns out, apparently my favorite genre is “fiction;” which seems too nonspecific for the prompt, and also means about 90% of the books currently on my to read shelf. We decided that an acceptable adjustment would be to choose a book by a favorite author, leading to books from Christopher Moore meeting prompts in two different months of 2020! It seems fitting for such a wacky year.

If you have been around Books On My Cat for awhile, you may know that this is the third book from Moore that I have written about. In the past, I described his writing as “a unique combination of humor, intelligence, and absurdity,” and commented on his masterful ability to create new life while building from a well-known source material. Both of these hold true in Shakespeare for Squirrels, and I continue to marvel at the research, time, and thought put into a work so riddled with penis jokes.

This is the third book that features Pocket, the fool in the court of King Lear, who readers first met in Fool. After the downfall of Lear and some shenanigans in Venice, Pocket finds himself on the shore of Greece amid goblins, fairies, and manipulative royals. The main feature here follows along with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but also draws upon other aspects from the full spectrum of Shakespeare canon. He keeps many stylistic elements true to the work of Shakespeare, with some modernizations and creative curses thrown in for good measure.

Having not read the original work, I am not as familiar with particular play, and so find it difficult to point to specific links in the stories. However, the framework is definitely there, and my limited knowledge of the play did not lessen my enjoyment of this new take. I really enjoyed the “play within a play” aspect put together in “Act 3” of the novel, which served to pull together several individual lines running throughout the book. With some luck and a little fairy magic, Pocket makes it through to the end only a bit worse for wear, and ready to head off in the direction of his next adventure.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I may not know Shakespeare, but I know squirrels; and this is definitely squirrelly. 4 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for November

  • Books Read: 3
  • Books Acquired: 2
  • Total Unread Books: 268

The Count of Monte Cristo

img_6428Book: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Date Read: February 26 to October 28, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I stretched the rules a little bit for the October challenge for the Unread Shelf Project, by starting the book early. I knew that there was no way that I was going to tackle a 1200+ page book in a single month, especially during the early months of a school year. Although I started the book back in February, I was rather slow about getting into things. I read only a few chapters each month, with the goal of getting myself in a good place to finish the book during October as a book that scares/intimidates me. With the exception of the complete works of Shakespeare, The Count of Monte Cristo was the longest book on my to read list (including several volumes that contain multiple novels). Coincidentally, I timed my reading perfectly: this novel could easily be divided into two general “sections,” and I reached the faster paced second section just as October was starting.

Despite the length, this was not a novel of wasted words. This was a very complex and intricate story, with a long build up. The style was descriptive without becoming burdensome. Each character was given a moment of importance, with few added in to be mere filler. While some parts of the beginning section seemed to move a bit slowly, there were details included that became important reference points later. I was surprised to discover in chapter 63 that there were references to seemingly minor events as far back as the sixth chapter, their significance finally coming to light with time.

Prior to reading, I had some vague notions of the story, knowing that it was famous for a prison escape. While this is obviously an important aspect of the story, I would say that the more intriguing part of the story comes later, after many layers are unfurled. It is written with an air of mystery, giving the reader many opportunities for wonderings and predictions, making the length seem a bit less overwhelming. Edmond Dantes is identified early on as our leading man, but there is still some uncertainty of his exact role in events moving in to the later chapters. It is not until chapter 82 that it is revealed that a single man is playing multiple parts, and several chapters further before it is confirmed with certainty that titular Count is Edmond Dantes.

While vengeance seems the driving force through most of the novel, I think there is a complexity in this that could be easily overlooked. Dantes is certainly seeking retribution, but sees himself acting as an agent of providence rather than vengeance—he is not directly bringing the demise of his enemies, but linking the pieces together so that they bring down themselves. At the same time, he attempts to give redemption to others, and to spare those who exist in the circle of his enemies but whom he views as innocent. With few exceptions, it seems that he has foreseen and planned for every possibility.

As a final thought on this bookish endeavor, I want to share something that I learned: translation matters. I realize that this must seem fairly obvious to many, but it is the first time that I have experienced a clear example. I started this as an ebook, which I found for free due to the age of the story. A few chapters in, I was not particularly impressed, and was surprised that others had been so excited about such mediocre writing. After checking some reviews, I noticed that a few mentioned a particular translation: the unabridged version translated by Robin Buss. I ordered this translation (available through Penguin Classics), and it truly made a world of a difference. I do not know that I would have carried this to completion based on my original version—especially disheartening considering how much I enjoyed reading.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I must say, I like this count’s style. I approve. 4 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for October

  • Books Read: 1
  • Books Acquired: 6
  • Total Unread Books: 269

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

img_5275Book: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

Date Read: July 13 to 21, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

This book was gifted to me earlier this year. My friend told me that she knows it is not the kind of book that I would normally choose for myself, but that it was cute, fun, and light—something that we could all use a little more of this year. I always feel just a slight pressure to move gifted books up on my to read list, but I try to balance that with the commitments I have made to the books already waiting on my shelves. The timing worked out for this one, since I really needed something easy after a couple heavier reads earlier this summer.

Nina works in a bookstore and is comfortable living alone with her cat. She has a routine that she likes to stick to, although perhaps a little more strictly than most. She values the things that she has planned into her life, and is reluctant to make changes. I think she is a character that all true bookworms can relate to on some level, despite her unusual background raised in hotel rooms and then by a nanny in place of her mother.

This is a romantic comedy in the form of a book. Is that its own genre? I am not well versed in this area. I usually think of romantic comedies as movies, and am more familiar with the generic “romance novel.” I am not sure this quite hits the mark there either. So after my rambling, I’m sticking with romantic comedy. The main plot is a dual storyline that fits well with the genre: Nina sees the potential for a relationship with a guy from a rival trivia team, but things get complicated when she also learns that her absent father has died and included her in his will… also connecting her to a complicated network of brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews that she never knew existed. Things get messy.

It is also a book for bookworms, full of bookish references and other nerdy tidbits. There is definitely an element of predictability, but I felt the author was at least clever and a bit tongue-in-cheek about it: near the middle of the book a character even suggests how the story is going to end, saying “that’s how it happens in the movies.”

Waxman pokes fun at the trendiness of Nina’s neighborhood, full of hipsters and activists, with their competing specialty ice cream shops and quirky stores. It is the sort of joke that I appreciate and make myself—even though I know that it probably applies to me as well! One of the reviews included with my copy of the book refers to Waxman as a “modern day Jane Austen,” which I find very intriguing. Although I have added Austen onto my to read list, I have never actually read any of her work. Drawing a parallel between these authors makes me wonder if it is time for me to give Austen a chance.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Cute, fun, and light—just like me! Also stars a cat! 4 paws!”

Good Omens

Book: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Date Read: August 3 to 24, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

Another month complete for 2020’s Unread Shelf Project! August was the month for buddy reading, and I did the best I could: my buddy, who chose the book, also finished it the day that I started it. I suppose I should have known better than to buddy read something with someone who aims for 100+ pages per day. For us, it was more so an easy way to choose our next book rather than an opportunity to read and discuss—although we did manage to get a bit of that in. My reading buddy is the only person that I know personally who has “to read” list longer than mine, so I suppose this one was good for both of us. We even got the cats in on this one, with her boy Rahl reading alongside Boris!

Where to begin? This is a book that I very much enjoyed, and definitely will be putting on my shelf to revisit one day. Oddly enough, these are often the very books that I have the hardest time articulating my feelings on. Good Omens was full of moments hilarity, but also included some poignant social commentary. Although originally published 30 years ago, much of the themes have held up over the years—perhaps this is more of a sad reflection on the state of the world than a compliment to the book. I especially liked the accusations of the aliens that humans could be charged with being “a dominant species while under the influence of impulse-driven consumerism.” And of course, on a day-to-day basis I cannot be sure that the apocalypse won’t be brought on by bureaucratic incompetence.

Continuing on perhaps a deeper level of the book, I also really enjoyed the discussion of good and evil as opposing sides. While it is certainly not a black and white issue, I think the point of the contrast is important—early in the book Crowley puts it well when he says that heaven and hell are merely “sides in the great cosmic chess game.” The truth behind real good and evil comes from within humanity.

I have always had a fascination with religion as a construct, although I do not specifically align myself to any particular set of beliefs. I know some of many religions, although am admittedly most familiar with the tenets of Christianity. I appreciated the inclusion of true bits of religion, along with some humorous twists. I thought the inclusion of the horsemen of the apocalypse as semi-human characters was interesting, especially the replacement of Pestilence with Pollution after too many advances in medicine.

Overall, I was very much impressed with the writing here. I have read a few works by Gaiman, but am not at all familiar with Pratchett. Having some experience with one of the authors’ writing, I thought it would be obvious which parts seemed “different,” but it was so seamless that I would never suspect that this was a co-authored book. The edition that I have includes some information on the writing process, which sounds like the authors mostly were having some fun and being silly most of the time. I suppose this is an appropriate place to comment on the humor, which I must admit sometimes evaded me. It is not too surprising that, as an American reader, I would feel like I do not quite get all of the jokes—however there is something that I appreciate about what I consider the British style of humor.

Boris’s Thoughts: “This is all a bit ridiculous, don’t you think? Obviously cats would have a much larger role in the end of time. 2 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for August

  • Books Read: 1
  • Books Acquired: 4
  • Total Unread Books: 263

Everything Is Illuminated

img_4360Book: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Date Read: May 17 to June 9, 2020

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

I have been sitting in front of my keyboard for several minutes thinking about how exactly I would like to start this review, but nothing quite feels right. I suppose I should say that I really wanted to like this book. In some ways I did, but it is sitting heavier with me than I was expecting. Parts of this were beautifully crafted; other parts were cleverly crafted. It all comes together into something that is sometimes tragically beautiful and sometimes irritatingly painful to read.

The premise of the story, as indicated in the back cover summary, is that this is the story of a young man who is visiting Europe, hoping to find the woman who he believes saved his grandfather from the Nazis. This is a vast oversimplification. There are actually three different stories here, told in an alternating fashion between characters: Jonathan, the young American searching for the past, writes the story of his grandfather’s town and his family’s past; Alex, the young man who served as his guide and Ukrainian translator, writes letters to Jonathan to tell of his family, also sending along his own writings about their journey.

Through each of these stories we are given glimpses into the past, both charming and horrifying. The story of Jonathan’s family ends with a chance escape, but we hear the heartbreaking fate of his town through the woman they encounter while searching for the long forgotten town. We also hear first hand the experience of Alex’s grandfather, who still felt the misfortune of the Nazi invasion despite not being one of the targeted Jewish people. His guilt in the aftermath felt a bit close to home with the current state of affairs. These two stories of the past have a somewhat listless ending. While the stories draw to a definite end, there is no satisfaction for finding their conclusion. The story of Alex’s family has a more satisfying, although still tragic, ending with Alex giving up his dreams for what he knows to be the right thing for his family.

I had a hard time getting into this book, partially because the style of some sections were difficult to read. I understand the use of the broken English for parts of the story, but I felt like it was overdone. It was an important aspect of the story for some things to be written like this, but it was often unnecessarily crude. While the structure of the novel was unique and often interesting, there was an underlying feeling that the author might be trying a bit too hard to come off as clever.

Despite my personal qualms with the style, the themes of truth, responsibility, and tragedy here are undeniable and well handled. We are faced with the responsibility of each individual in their place in history, as well as their responsibility in relaying their stories to future generations. Alex writes to Jonathan that he hates him for not allowing some happiness for his grandfather in his story. When viewing the past, is it the responsibility of the writer to tell the story exactly as it was, or perhaps how it should have been?

Boris’s Thoughts: “This is quite depressing for having such a cheerful cover. Deception. I like that. 4 paws.”