Frankenstein

img_1149Book: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Date Read: October 4 to November 1, 2021

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

Of course, Boris was right last week: despite the passing of Halloween, it was not the end of the spooky books. I picked this book to read in October for the Unread Shelf Project Prompt: a book you’re secretly afraid of. I was not entirely sure how to apply the “secretly” prompt, since I do not know that I have any books that I am openly afraid of either. I picked this one because it could fit the prompt in two ways: it is a horror story, and it is one that I have been uncertain about starting due to hearing mixed reviews.

My first thoughts as I was reading were that this was not what I was expecting it to be—kind of a silly thought, since I am not really sure what I was expecting. Going in, I only knew the very basics: Frankenstein creates a monster—and Frankenstein is the creator, not the creation. Of course I have seen some pop culture variations on the story, but none in full, so I did not have much to associate with the book itself. After finishing, I would say that the horror aspect was subtler than I had expected. While horror definitely still fits, it is not the action filled, in-your-face type horror.

The “story within a story” framing added an interesting level to the story that I had not anticipated. The novel begins and ends with letters initially unrelated to the main tale, with the story of Frankenstein embedded within them as a story relayed to the letter writer. The initial story contained in the letters follows what I have discovered to be a popular trope from the time period—an adventurer seeking to journey to one of the extremes of the earth, in this case the northern pole. Captain Walton writes to his sister regarding his travels, and then begins to impart the story told by Viktor Frankenstein after picking him up as a castaway. Going beyond simply using this as an entry point for the main plot, the end of the novel loops back to connect the two stories: Viktor’s ambition in creating the monster is paralleled by Walton’s ambition to push forward on his journey, but Walton knows when to stop as his crew begins to fear for their lives on the perilous journey.

This leads in to where the true substance of the horror tale lies—who really is the “monster” in this story? In general, Viktor comes across as the villain, but there is wavering sympathy for both him and his creation woven through the story. The reader is able to feel sympathy for the monster, but it is not totally straightforward, as he clearly does perform evil acts. However, Viktor’s treatment of his creation is the driving force behind the crimes committed—and his seeming inability to recognize his own responsibility for the outcomes tips him further into the side of villain.

Boris’s Thoughts: “As usual, the human botched this one—I bet a cat companion could have solved all of their problems. 2 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for October

  • Books Read: 3
  • Books Acquired: 4
  • Total Unread Books: 282

Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness

Book: Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness by Marie Tourell Søderberg

Date Read: September 26 to 30, 2021

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

In September I was challenged to read a book that I wanted to learn something from. I debated quite a bit about which book would be the best choice—so much so that I ended up choosing the one that seemed the quickest read because I had pushed things so close to the end of the month!

I picked this up on one of the discount racks at my local bookstore, and have to admit that I was really drawn in by the cover. It is a beautiful book. It sparkles. Of course, a pretty cover is not quite enough for me. I was also intrigued by the idea of hygge. Although only vaguely familiar with the term at the time, it seemed to me the embodiment of what I love about the fall season—not that it necessarily has anything to do with the season, but that it involves the feeling that I associate with this time of year.

I am not sure that I could be called a hygge expert after reading this one, but I do at least have a bit of an idea of what it means to hygge. Hygge is about togetherness and coziness and good feelings. As I expected, it is not so much associated with the season, but many elements are fall-ish to me: soft blankets, warm lighting, hot drinks, and yummy snacks. There were certain elements of hygge that I already see embedded in my days, and others that I could probably use some more of. As is pointed out in the book, I think this is something that is valued by all, but perhaps prioritized more in some places than others. The Danish having a word for it helps to make it an embedded element in their culture.

It was interesting to me to read the other side of hygge: how some view it as something that is counter to productivity as a society. While I suppose I can see where that argument could come from, I also think it is the exact reason why valuing it is so important. Contrary to many countries around the world, I think we in the US put a little too much focus on productivity. People are afraid to do something just for the sake of enjoying it. Hobbies are turned in to hustles. Leisure is justified by outputting something in your spare time. I am guilty of it too, as evidenced by the existence of this blog—although it is mostly for myself, it is also a way for me to have something to “show” for all the reading that I do.

I suppose that is what I should take as something learned from this book, as the prompt for the month required. A reminder that life is more than productivity, and sometimes it is good to just enjoy the moment as it is.

As for the book itself, I debated about where a rating should fall. I said above, it is a quite pretty book. The interior is as aesthetically pleasing as the cover. There is a nice overview of hygge, and some practical tips for bringing more of it into your life. At the same time, it feels a little choppy and disjointed. There are quotes, stories, recipes, and interviews. Although each has something to offer to the book as a whole, there was not really a flow to how these were presented.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Snuggles and snacks? I’ve definitely got this down. 4 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for September

  • Books Read: 2
  • Books Acquired: 5
  • Total Unread Books: 281

Crenshaw

img_0425Book: Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

Date Read: August 8 to 12, 2021

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

This was my Unread Shelf Project pick for the month of August: a book bought from an independent bookstore. This was another category that was a little broad for me. For several years, I have been making a strong, pretty consistent effort to “shop local” as much as possible. It helps that I have a pretty phenomenal independent bookstore in my city. With a to read list as long as mine, it would be nearly impossible for me to determine the purchase location of all my books—but I would bet that 80% of those acquired in the past 5 years have been from independent bookstores. To make things easy though, I decided to pick from a specific collection: a book acquired from a store on my “Michigan Booksellers” tote bag (I cannot remember if I have written about this before, but have a post planned for the end of this month with more information!).

This qualifier narrowed my list down quite a bit, and I decided to pick the book that I thought would be a quick, light read. I was only half right there: quick, but definitely heavier than I had anticipated. This one definitely packs a punch. This is what I get for not revisiting the summary blurb on the back before making a decision.

Jackson is an interesting kid—a bit particular, a bit too old for his age. He is contrasted by Crenshaw, the large imaginary cat that he has not seen for several years. Jackson battles with himself over Crenshaw, while also trying to deal with some serious issues in his family: hunger, illness, and possible homelessness. There are many aspects of this book that I can praise. Jackson’s voice reads really well as a kid, albeit a kid who has had to grow up a little too fast. It is a well-written narrative that deals excellently with some really tough subject matter. Yet… I wanted something a little more from it.

I think where this fell short for me was with the character of Crenshaw. I kept hoping for something to happen with him, but for the most part, his role in the book was just to exist. While I can see that perhaps his mere existence being important is part of the point, I still think there was some missed potential for this story.

Boris’s Thoughts: “A giant imaginary cat might be nice, but not nearly as nice as a giant real cat like me. 3 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for August

  • Books Read: 4
  • Books Acquired: 2
  • Total Unread Books: 278

Winter’s End

img_9697Book: Winter’s End by John Rickards

Date Read: July 1 to 11, 2021

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

In July, the Unread Shelf Project challenged readers to own up to doing what they are told to never do: judging a book by its cover. I decided to put my own personal twist on the prompt, to read a book bought for the cover. This is a book that I bought for the cover, but not in the way that you would suspect: I bought it because it did not have a cover. I found this book in the discount section of a discount bookstore. Presumably it ended up there because it was a hardcover book that had lost its dust jacket. A plain black covered, with the title embossed on the spine in metallic red. This was many years ago—at least long enough that I did not have a smart phone or other convenient way of looking up anything about the book. Intriguing enough for me to bring it home.

As with many books, it got filed away on my shelf to read when the time was right. This month, its number was up. Despite the temptation, I refrained from looking up the book or checking reviews before reading. However, I did get a glimpse of the actual cover by adding it to my to read list on Goodreads. That all is to say: I went in to this with very few expectations. I suppose it is safe to say that it lived up to all of them. It was a quick and entertaining read, but nothing that jumped out or sets itself apart. It’s a pretty straightforward murder mystery story, with a few unusual elements. The leading man, Alex, is called back to his hometown to help the local sheriff solve an unusual case, and the clues begin to point to a larger story buried under the surface of small town life.

While the story was pretty straightforward in what I would expect from a murder mystery novel, the author did throw in some misleading trails and enough hints toward the supernatural that I wondered if there was something more to the novel than it seemed. As he revisits his hometown, Alex reminisces about his childhood, but most specifically about stories of ghosts and hauntings in the town and its surrounding woods. There are several characters that are implied to be important, who end up simply falling out of the story. I did enjoy some of these elements, especially descriptions and references to the purportedly haunted Crowhurst Inn where Alex stayed in town.

Unfortunately, none of these possibilities pan out. It really is just a murder mystery in the real world. There was one piece in particularly that had me wondering: Alex makes it a point to state that he moved on from the town when he left for college, never looking back. Initially, he talks about hoping to quickly solve the case so that he can get home to Boston. However, at several points later in the book, he refers to the Inn where he is staying as “home.” As I was reading, I wondered if this was some kind of clue, but in retrospect I wonder if it was merely a bit of careless editing.

Minka’s Thoughts: “I find hauntings more interesting than the real world as well. 2 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for July

  • Books Read: 3
  • Books Acquired: 4
  • Total Unread Books: 280

I have added it up several times, and my math does not fit from where I was last month. Not sure where the error is, but I know that this current total unread is right!

Saving Fish From Drowning

img_9415Book: Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan

Date Read: June 3 to 30, 2021

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

For June, the Unread Shelf Project prompted me to choose a book that was bought in a spending spree. I feel like about 85% of my books could probably fall into that category, so decided to refine it further as it relates to my own shelves. Although I do not remember the specific trip when I bought this book, I got it during what I consider an extended book-buying spree. I know I have talked about this before, but I spent large stretches of time at Borders Books when I was in college, coming home with at least 1-2 new books every week in certain semesters. Since I was not reading much for pleasure at that point, I amassed a huge number of books rather quickly—I am still working on tackling many of them more than 10 years later. Along with being purchased in that time frame, I know this was not a book I went in specifically looking for, but one I chose in the moment at the store.

The novel is set up with the suggestion that it is a true story—told from beyond the grave based on the “automatic writing” of a medium. The story is narrated by Bibi Chen, who planned a trip to China and Burma for a group of friends, but is now tagging along as a ghost after her sudden and mysterious death. It is an interesting concept, but I have to say that I was not really sure what to think as I was getting in to the first few chapters. Honestly, after finishing the novel I still have the same mixed feelings. There were pieces of it that were lovely, but as a whole something about it fell short for me.

Initially, I found it a bit hard to keep track of the characters. With a cast of 12, it was hard to keep introductions straight, although this did get easier as the story began to move along. One of the biggest detractors for me was the attitude of the tourists as they began their journey. Although they had signed up for a pretty intensive cultural experience, none really seemed fully committed to actually living that experience. They seemed to be falling into a put of every negative tourist stereotype possible. I frequently found myself feeling that the place described seemed incredible and made me want to visit—but that I would be thoroughly miserable if I had visited with that group of people.

That said: some of the tourists did start to grow on me as things progressed. Of course, that did not completely negate my irritation with them. The description of the novel simply talks about the disappearance of the tourists, whereas in the story it is very clear that they have essentially been kidnapped. I do not want to give too much away, but will say that the kidnapping is not a violent one, and is primarily due to an unusual set of coincidences, cultural misunderstandings, and information lost in translation. So much so that by the end of the novel, even after being rescued, not one of them ever realized that they had been kidnapped. While the narrative was interesting and included some great descriptions of aspects of Asian culture, the novel as a whole did not resonate well.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I do not approve of stories that make you want to go to faraway places. 1 paw.”

Unread Shelf Progress for June

  • Books Read: 5
  • Books Acquired: 2
  • Total Unread Books: 278

Hollow Kingdom

img_8797Book: Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton

Date Read: May 2 to 19, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

May brought on the challenge of reading a book that I bought as a new release. Surprisingly, I do not have a ton of these to choose from on my shelves. Knowing how many books are already waiting on my unread shelf, I do my best to avoid truly new releases. I usually push myself to wait for a paperback release, knowing that I can save a little money since I will likely not start reading it right away. It’s also a good way to sort out the books that I truly want to read—if I’m still interested in a new release by the time the paperback comes out, it’s worth adding to my list. Of course, there are exceptions made: usually for certain authors, and in this case for a recommendation in a local bookshop in Northern Michigan.

Hollow Kingdom is a book that took me by surprise. It is a story of the downfall of humanity, told from the perspective of a domesticated crow. The concept was intriguing to me, but a few chapters in I started to question my choice. Our narrator and hero, the crow S.T. (short for Shit Turd), starts out being pretty annoying to me. S.T. loves humanity, sharing all of the things that he learned from his owner, Big Jim. The problem? Big Jim does not seem like a particularly likable guy. The result is a crow who comes off as ignorant and pretentious—the exact qualities that he complains about in other animals. Still, there was a glimmer there of something special in the way he spoke about nature.

As I continued reading, S.T.’s brashness began to subside, making way for a beautiful and tragic description of the crumbling world as nature begins to reclaim the earth. S.T. begins to serve as a bridge in the natural world, with some surprising insights into the connectedness of nature and the role of humans in it. He learns what it means to be a part of the world as a bird, but is also able to use his knowledge of humanity to help the animal world. Through the story, S.T. slowly reveals details about Big Jim in a way that peels back the less appealing aspects of his personality for a look at the core of his humanity—a man who viewed his pets as part of his family, who loved and ended up heartbroken.

Despite the off-putting start and a few ridiculous seeming incidents, this story really hooked me and kind of punched me in the gut. By the end of the story, I was in love with S.T.’s picture of the world. This was a perfect mixture of humor and humanity for me, creating a sad and lovely story. I mean, who would have ever suspected that a book about a crow named Shit Turd could bring one to tears?

Boris’s Thoughts: “I like a bird that recognizes the significance of cats. 4 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for May

  • Books Read: 1
  • Books Acquired: 12
  • Total Unread Books: 281

I feel like for the purposes of accountability, I need to comment on my totals update. I definitely splurged this month—the result of a trip to a much-loved bookstore that I do not get to visit often. I am committing to balance for the coming months: more books read than books acquired.

The Vanishing Half

img_8761Book: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Date Read: April 18 to 27, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

For April, the Unread Shelf Project asked me to pick a book that was purchased from a used bookstore. This one is something I consider a gem of a find—I picked this up in the used section of my local bookstore only 3 months after it was released. I had seen multiple times on Bookstagram, and had already added to my mental to read list. I have been forcing myself to wait for paperback releases for many books, knowing that it does not make sense to spend the money on a hard cover that I likely will not read right away. So when I saw this at a reasonable price, I was super excited. Not only was it an unexpected find, it was in perfect condition. When I got it home, I realized that it was also signed by the author!

This turned out to be yet another amazing addition to my pretty phenomenal reading year. The book tells the story of a family over time, starting by following two twin sisters as their once inseparable paths diverge. The girls, raised in a small community of light-skinned Black people, run away to the city at sixteen where they seek to find a place for themselves. Stella finds herself in a position where she is able to get a better job and position by hiding her colored background, eventually seeing an opportunity pass over into a new life. Desiree continues to live her life as the person she had always known herself to be: beginning to come into her own in the absence of her sister. Separated for half a lifetime, their paths converge again through the lives of their daughters.

At its heart, I felt like this was a story about identity, and all the complex pieces of our lives that make up who we are. Although both girls grew up in much the same way, there were differences in their personalities and how their shared past impacted them. Desiree sees Stella’s choice to become white as a selfish one, where her sister chose the path looking for an easy life—unaware of the internal terror instilled in her from their childhood traumas that lead her to the decision. Although Stella did find something of an escape, her fears evolved along with her changing identity. Their daughters, in turn, each impacted by the circumstances of their upbringing and their relationships with their mothers.

This was a beautifully written and intricate story that had me frustrated with and feeling empathy for each character in their turn. The changes in time and perspective were well done, so that each time I began to form opinions about a character, there was a shift that allowed some greater insight into the full story. This is definitely an author I will be looking for more from in the future.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Seems twisty. Like me. See? 3 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for April

  • Books Read: 1
  • Books Acquired: 4
  • Total Unread Books: 270

The Art Forger

img_7822Book: The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

Date Read: March 1 to 18, 2021

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

In March, The Unread Shelf Project had me do some traveling, by challenging me to read a book that I got on a trip. I had plenty of options, since books are one of the things that I collect when I take trips! I currently have a book for every country that I have visited, and am working on collecting books for each state. I chose this one for this prompt because it was the first “official” book in my states collection. Although it was not the first purchased, it was the first one that I got with the intent of a collection. I picked it up on a weekend trip to Boston a few years ago.

While I did enjoy this one, it fell a little short of what I was hoping it would be. There were so many elements here that appealed to me: a little real life mystery, dual story lines, descriptive settings, and some art nerdiness. I suppose I have always fancied myself to be the creative artist type, although I never had the talent or dedication to make anything real from it. Instead, I content myself with the brilliance of others’ art. So of course, as I started reading about the specific artwork and the Gardner Museum heist, I was compelled to do a little research of my own. I was disappointed to learn that although the heist was real, the main painting that the book focuses on was not. At the end of the story, I understood the decision to write about a fictional painting—but that did not do much to ease my discontent.

Despite my personal irritation at needing to imagine myself a picture of the fictional Degas painting, there were some really intriguing elements to the novel. I liked the art history aspects, which other than the information related specifically to the made-up work were true to life. I felt like the mystery was played out well, with just enough information given in the letter flashbacks to keep things moving. The descriptive use of setting was interesting as well. Personally, I could have done without the romance storyline—it felt a bit forced, as if added in for a little more scandal and intrigue.

I do have some mixed feelings about how the ending played out: while I was mostly happy that Shapiro did not go with the obvious easy solution, I was not wholly satisfied with the ending. It seemed to wrap up a little too quickly and neatly. As I was nearing the end of the book, I was getting anxious that there were not enough pages left to reach an ending with sufficient closure. I was happy that it did not have a completely smoothed out happy ending, which would not have felt realistic given the number of problems to be resolved. I suppose I have chosen to be mostly satisfied with how things turned out: despite some foolish decisions along the way, I felt like Claire got the redemption that she deserved without it being a straightforward “win” for all involved.

Minka’s Thoughts: “There should be more fancy artwork featuring cats. Why is it always ladies bathing? I am much more elegant when I bathe. 2 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for March

  • Books Read: 1
  • Books Acquired: 1
  • Total Unread Books: 268

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

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