Thursday, May 28, 2009

My Summer Reading Recommendations

Now is the time that newspapers, bookstores and bloggers make up their lists of summer reading recommendations. Why should I be any different? (I did a mini version of this last year, too.) I took some time to go over my blog archives, search out other lists and peruse the Web to try and find what I would recommend as good summer reads. As with anything, it all comes down to taste, but I tried to pick from different genres, books of different lengths and stories of great variety.

Even so, what makes good summer reading for me may not be good summer reading for someone else. When I think of being on my deck, with a glass of ice tea and a book, I want to be reading a story that’s engaging—I mean really engaging. I don’t want for one second to question why I’m reading it. I want to feel the sun on my shoulders and be comfortable, but in the end I want to lose myself and forget where I am. In most cases, for me, this means the book will be a novel or memoir, it will be of digestible size (no 1,000-page epics) and it will centralize around characters I care about.

I’m going to refrain from listing Twilight and Harry Potter. Not because I don’t consider them “summer reads.” They are the epitome of summer reading—you fall in love with the characters, you can’t put the books down and you can read them in a day, if you want. But, I think they’re obvious choices, so I left them off. Here are some books/authors/categories I suggest, in no particular order.

As I was brainstorming for this list, I remembered two very wonderful classics that I love. The Great Gatsby and Little Women. I think I actually read these two books a bit later in life than most people, but I devoured them. While I’ve only read The Great Gatsby once, I’ve read Little Women at least three times. Both stories take you back in time and tell of the adventures of two very different groups of people. I think almost any woman/girl would fall in love with the March sisters, as well as have fun imagining a life in the roaring '20s with the likes of Gatsby. Now I want to read them again!

School Ties
There are plenty of books that center around kids in school—prep school, college life, public high school, etc.—so I’m sure there are many more where these came from. Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld (who’s gotten more press recently for American Wife), is about a 14-year-old girl who attends a prep school on scholarship. The story follows her through her time there, and discusses the cliques, the fun, the heartache and so on. While it was sad and lonely in parts, the book was a really good read.

Journalist Alexander Robbins wrote two highly engaging nonfiction works that I read and enjoyed very much: Pledged, about the secret lives of sorority girls, and The Overachievers, about those academic all-stars who nearly drown in their fight for perfection. Robbins set herself right down in the middle of these cultures and learned from the students themselves. The things she writes can be shocking, but you’ll also find yourself nodding in agreement—either because you lived it too, or you know someone who did.

I also enjoyed The Rule of Four, a story about college friends at Princeton who discover a great mystery and find themselves in great danger. It’s kind of The Da Vinci Code for the Ivy League-student set. While some of the mythology and subject matter of their studies was a bit over my head, that didn’t take away from the fun.

Go-to Authors
For fun, sweet, quirky characters in fun, sweet, quirky stories—many of which are set in fictional Minnesota towns—Minnesota author Lorna Landvik delivers nearly every time. While her most recent works haven’t been my favorites, I would recommend Patty Jane’s House of Curl, Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons and The Tall Pine Polka to any fellow (female) novel reader. Another go-to author, who I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, is Jodi Picoult. She might be obvious in the same way Twilight and Harry Potter are, and while, again, her latest books haven’t been my favorites, she nails it with My Sister’s Keeper, The Tenth Circle and Nineteen Minutes.

Choose Your Own Adventure
Heather McElhatton’s Pretty Little Mistakes is a ton of fun. It’s engaging, hilarious, something different and such a fast read, as you can set it down after each mini adventure if you like. Like my first review says, this is a book for adults, but it’s as fun as those CYOA books from when you were a kid.

Other books I’ve reviewed on this blog that could make for great summer reading: The Way Life Should Be, The Writing Class, The Thirteenth Tale, The Abstinence Teacher, and The Dive from Clausen’s Pier.

So, what about you? Any summer reading suggestions that fall into these categories or others? Since summer is here, I’d love to get a few more on my list of must-read books.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

House of Happy Endings

I'm reading Leslie Garis' memoir about her life with famous writers for grandparents and parents. I've just finished Part I, which has been mostly backstory and the lead up to Leslie's father's mental illness. While the book isn't overly engaging, it's interesting for the most part. I hope it will get more engaging as we get into the meat of the story. Here's the publisher's synopsis:
Howard Garis, creator of the famed Uncle Wiggily series, along with his wife, Lilian, were phenomenally productive writers of popular children’s series—including The Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift—from the turn of the century to the 1950s. In a large, romantic house in Amherst, Massachusetts, Leslie Garis, her two brothers, and their parents and grandparents aimed to live a life that mirrored the idyllic world the elder Garises created nonstop. But inside The Dell—where Robert Frost often sat in conversation over sherry, and stories appeared to spring from the very air—all was not right. Roger Garis’s inability to match his parents’ success in his own work as playwright, novelist, and magazine writer led to his conviction that he was a failure as father, husband, and son, and eventually deepened into mental illness characterized by raging mood swings, drug abuse, and bouts of debilitating and destructive depression. House of Happy Endings is Leslie Garis’s mesmerizing, tender, and harrowing account of coming of age in a wildly imaginative, loving, but fatally wounded family.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Question of the Day

I read this question over at Pop Culture Junkie, so I had to steal it and answer it on my blog, too.

Book Gluttony! Are your eyes bigger than your book belly? Do you have a habit of buying up books far quicker than you could possibly read them? Have you had to curb your book buying habits until you can catch up with yourself? Or are you a controlled buyer, only purchasing books when you have run out of things to read?

In the last few years I've developed a nice system. Over the course of the year, I fill my Amazon Wish List with books that I want. I only receive birthday/Christmas presents from two sets of parents and my husband, but all I ask from them are books off my list. This past holiday/birthday season, I received a total of 17 new books. It's now May and I still haven't read them all.

This doesn't mean that I don't buy books myself, however it's usually only ones that I can't wait for and want to own: i.e. Harry Potter, Twilight, It Sucked and Then I Cried, etc. So in the first five months of 2009, I think I've only purchased two books. I'm proud of that. I also have borrowed several books, which is a great way to read and save money. And once my holiday books run out, I'm going to check out the library in our new city. (We've lived here for a year, but I haven't made it to the library down the road yet.) Bills are increasing and money's getting tight, so I'm going to try my hardest to not buy too many new books for the rest of 2009. While that might mean the pickings will be slim and this blog will review quite a few more "chick lit" books (they seem to always be in great supply at the library), it's probably the best idea in the end.

So, what about you?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Those Who Save Us

* Updated May 18, see below

I'm nearly done with Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum. A novel, Those Who Save Us takes place in two different eras. It follows Anna, a 20-something German Aryan during WWII, and her young daughter Trudie as they try to survive the fallout of war. In other chapters the book follows 50-something Trudy (spelled with a 'y' in her chapters, which is interesting), a University of Minnesota professor who begins work on a "German Project": interviewing Germans who were alive during WWII to find out how they feel about what they lived through. Anna is also in the "Trudy chapters," but is then an old woman with very little to say.

You know right from the start what Trudy's problem is going to be. Her mother won't talk to her about the past, and Trudy has no idea who her father actually is. Was it the SS soldier who came around weekly for more than two years while Trudie and her mother lived alone in a small German town? Was it the American soldier who brought them to America? Or was it someone else? I laughed when Trudy's ex-husband points out that her "German Project" is her version of "therapy." Touché.

My feelings about the book change as I read it. Of course it's heartbreaking to hear the stories of the Jews and the Germans (who, while not put in concentration camps, were also starving and poor and in danger most of the time), but I think it's also an important part of history that can't really be talked about enough and should never be forgotten. However, it's disgusting and disturbing to read about Anna's relationship with the SS officer. It makes me shudder, so those chapters don't make for the most entertaining reading. But again, their relationship probably wasn't unique at that time, so maybe it's important to know about. Anna's feelings toward the officer are also very interesting; there's repulsion there, but also curiosity.

The adult Trudy frustrates me. You can tell she's a very conflicted person and often contradicts herself. Why does she want to be so alone all the time? Why is she so cold toward other people? But maybe that's what makes for a good character? The fact that she has many dimensions that bring out this reaction in me probably makes her pretty lifelike?

I'm about 100 pages from the end, and I think I can see where things are going - What relationships will form, what relationships will falther. But I think I'm still going to have some questions in the end - loose ends that won't be tied up. Sometimes I like books that leave certain things up to the reader, but when they evoke such an emotional/physical response (good or bad) like this book, it's nice when things wrap up nicely (again, whether good or bad - doesn't matter to me). (The other thing that's jarring about this book is the author never uses quotation marks. All the dialogue is in paragraph form and if you don't read carefully, you might not know what's "thought" and what's "said.")

If you're interested in WWII and enjoy historic-type novels, this is a good example of one. While it's not "happy," it's well-written, engaging and a page-turner. You just might not fall in love with the characters.

* Update, May 18. I finished the book over the weekend and while most loose ends were wrapped up, I thought they were done so rather easily and abruptly. Trudy learns the truth for which she's searching, but it seems unrealistic to the story and a bit predictable for the reader. Overall, the book was interesting and digestible, but the hang ups I talk about keep me from loving it.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Me & Emma

My friend CMS borrowed this book to me last week. She enjoyed it and she thought I might too. Me & Emma is about a pair of sisters who live with a emotionally shaken mother and an abusive stepfather. The story follows just a short period of time in the lives of this family, though there are flashbacks to the time Emma and Caroline (the narrator) spent with their father, who passed away. The parts about the abuse are quite difficult to read - how can anyone do those things to women and children? - but there are also many sweet moments of imagination and hope. Kids are pretty resilient, which is probably a good thing. The book has a bit of a twist at the end, so that was fun, too. If you're looking for a quick read about a rough-and-tumble Southern family, I'd recommend it. Here's the synopsis:

In many ways, Carrie Parker is like any other eight-year-old—playing make-believe, dreading school, dreaming of faraway places.

But even her imagination can't shut out the realities of her impoverished North Carolina home or help her protect her younger sister, Emma.

As the big sister, Carrie is determined to do anything to keep Emma safe from a life of neglect and abuse at the hands of their drunken stepfather, Richard—abuse their momma can't seem to see, let alone stop.

But after the sisters' plan to run away from home unravels, their world takes a shocking turn—and one shattering moment ultimately reveals a truth that leaves everyone reeling.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Cop's Life

A person I'm close to is going to school to become a police officer. On a recommendation from someone who also has a friend/family member who is a cop, I just finished A Cop's Life by Randy Sutton. Sutton is a Sergeant with the Las Vegas PD, and has also appeared in a couple movies and TV shows like COPS and America's Most Wanted.

The book is a compilation of vignettes from Sutton's time as a police officer. Each chapter could be its own mini episode of COPS or the "law" part of Law & Order. As with any reality TV show or memoir-type book, some editing goes in to it to keep it exciting. Nearly all his stories involve homicide, suicide, armed robbery - all the scary things police officers deal with throughout their career. There are only a few references to the boredom, the paper work or the sweet stories that every-day cops would tell you is how they spend a majority of their days. Fortunately, I realize this about the book, and I know how pretty low-crime our metro area is (especially compared to Las Vegas), or else the book could really scare me.

I also think Sutton - at least I hope so - may be a minority in the police world. He talks a bit about living alone, not being able to hold a relationship due to work, thinking about suicide (police officers have twice the death rate of civilians because of suicide risk) because of all the things he's seen and held on to, etc. I'm willing to bet that while many experiences probably stick with and turn the stomachs of police officers out there, a majority of them can function in their civilian lives and can maintain healthy relationships with their friends and families.

So, unless you're a huge cop drama fan or simply just curious, I don't know if everyone needs to read this book. If you've read other real-life cop stories that you'd recommend, please let me know. I think I'm going to next look into True Blue, The Funniest Cop Stories Ever, and Blue Blood. It's always good to get more than one perspective.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Firefly Lane

Firefly Lane is one of those girlfriend stories we've all read a hundred times: Two friends who are opposites but stay bffs all their lives through heartbreak, fights, love, marriage and tragedy. (See: Best Friends, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Summer Sisters, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan...and these are just the ones I've read that I can remember...) These stories are filled with cliches (chapters titled after hit songs of the decade) and can be quite predictable (will a man come between them? Of course.). But, I keep reading them for some reason, right? In the end, they're entertaining and fun, much like a season of Sex and the City, and are usually very quick reads.

Firefly Lane follows Tully and Kate from age 14 to their mid-40s. The story keeps to the formula. Tully is a wild child while Kate is more reserved and idealistic. Why these two girls, and then women, would stay friends through the years is really beyond me, but they do. The book alternates rather well between the characters' perspectives, though I feel the author tried to fit a few too many years into the book. Several years get glossed over and the story can feel a touch disjointed. The story is definitely overdramatic, but some real issues are discussed, too. I cared more about Kate than I did Tully, but that could be because my own personality falls on the same side as Kate. All in all, a good story and a quick read.

What other books about best friends have you read? Do you see a similar formula in those stories?