READ LATELY: Book Reviews

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate: An online friend of mine spoke highly of this book as a read for her book club (hi Jules!) so I thought I’d give it a read myself. Knowing it was YA and knowing it had just won the Newberry Medal, I ordered it. What I discovered is that The One and Only Ivan is this author’s soul-stirring fictionalization of a true story. There really WAS a gorilla named Ivan who was forced to live in a pen at a SHOPPING MALL (if you want to know more, as I did, here’s a good place to start). I recently read that the author had learned of Ivan years ago in a NYT article, clipped the article out and held on to it in her “idea file”. I’m so glad she did! Where Katherine Applegate excels with this book is in walking that fine line of childhood whimsy-meets-adult-wisdom with Ivan’s thoughts as he processes life in his cage (with his friends, Bob the dog; Stella the elephant; and, eventually, little Ruby, the elephant who inspires him to change his life). This is one of those stories that, whether you have a child to read it to/with or not, it’ll tug at your heart strings. Well worth the time and investment.

Passages I Want to Remember: My life is flashing lights and pointing fingers and uninvited visitors. Inches away, humans flatten their little hands against the wall of glass that separates us. The glass says you are this and we are that and that is how it will always be. // Many days I forget what I am supposed to be. Am I a human? Am I a gorilla? Humans have so many words, more than they truly need. Still, they have no name for what I am.

Would I Recommend? If you are someone who loves a good story — no matter what shelf that story may be on in the bookstore — then yes. If you struggle with themes of animal cruelty, you may be overly saddened by this one, but, overall, it’s such a wonderful message that, in the end, I’m hopeful that won’t turn you away!

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: I had read some of Fowler before (I enjoyed her Jane Austen Book Club years ago) and I was encouraged about reading this one after spotting so many “I can’t put this book down” reviews on Amazon and GoodReads. The verdict for me? Well, let’s just say I COULD put it down. And did, many nights before I drifted off to sleep. It’s not that this book was BAD (far from it), I just found myself losing interest in the plot at times (which took off in a million directions). At its core, WAACB is about a young girl named Rosemary, her siblings (sister, Fern and brother, Lowell) and the complications of what stands for a sibling bond when animals (particularly a they relate to animal rights and cruelty) are involved. To say more might reveal a bit of a plot twist for future readers … Fowler is certainly a great writer, but the biggest weakness I had with this title of hers was her distracting use of detail. As several of us in the book club noted, there were SO many details (about Bloomington, Ind. (where Rosemary’s father was a professor); UC Davis (where Rosemary would attend college) and on the topics of psychological studies and theories) that many of us felt the story itself got a bit bogged down in all of that research (or, as one noted, “I got to wondering,’ Did this whole thing REALLY happen?’ The answer? No, it did not). A solid read, overall, just not one that blew me away is all.

Passages I Want to Remember: Language does this to our memories—simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.

Would I Recommend? As a blanket recommendation, this wouldn’t make it to the top of the list. But depending on the friend and his/her personal interests, possibly ….

After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey: With my life as a (former) journalist and fond memories of the profession (both good and bad), as soon as I heard the plot of this book, I was totally intrigued. After Visiting Friends tells the true story of a son (the author)’s attempts to uncover what really happened the night his father, Bob Hainey, a well-respected Chicago newspaperman, died mysteriously in 1970. Himself a reporter (and now around his father’s age), Michael spent nearly a decade reporting for this book. His details in it are meticulous and rich and I found myself TOTALLY sucked into the story. In the end, learning how and where Michael’s father meet his demise take a backseat to Michael’s story, a son desperate to move past this all-consuming trauma in his life and needing the answers he discovers along the way to do so. (Also, I had THE most surreal moment reading this book—in a passage where Michael talks about finding former reporter “friends” of his father, he mentions Googling (and then visiting for an interview) a Craig Klugman of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Ummmm…..I INTERVIEWED AND WAS OFFERED A JOB BY CRAIG! (I turned it down, in the end, because the move wasn’t right for us at the time, but still!) Definitely one of the craziest happenstances I’ve come across in my years as a reader!)

Passages I Want to Remember: He died and we never spoke about him. Every once in a while, I’d find the courage to ask about him. Every once in a while, the question nagging in my head—How did he die?—would become too much and I’d forget the rules and ask. // In the end, he lived on in scrapbooks. Six of them. Brittle, faded pages bound with string. Out of these fragments, over the years, I created his narrative. And my narrative.

Would I Recommend? ABSOLUTELY. Especially for anyone who likes non-fiction, true crime (there’s no real “crime” here, per say, but it reads like a whodunit), and a good work of journalism.

I write book reviews with every book I read. If you’d like to see more of my recommendations, browse the “Book Reviews” section of the blog or find me on Goodreads (where you can friend me too!)

Read Lately: Book Reviews

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Ann Fowler: I’m such a sucker for any and all things related to the Jazz Age. Which is why reading this newly released historical fiction title about Zelda Fitzgerald was RIGHT up my alley. What I knew about Zelda going into this was that she was considered zany (the original Flapper girl!) and suffered from mental illness later in life. What I learned in reading this book? Her life was so much more complicated—and incredible—than that. I also learned that her relationship with Scott was rife with complications and yet, those two seemed fated to fall in love (despite the way they almost destroyed one another in the process…As Fowler explains in her footnotes, you’re kind of either Team Zelda or Team Scott the more you read about this pair). Also, reading this made me believe life among all those ex-pats in Paris in the ’20s? A TOTAL soap opera. (Thanks in large part to ‘ol Ernest Hemingway)!

Passages I Want to Remember: “Trouble has lots of forms. There’s financial trouble and marital trouble, there’s trouble with friends and trouble with landlords and trouble with liquor and trouble with the law. Every sort of trouble I can think of, we’ve tried it out—become expert at some of it, even, so much so that I’ve come to wonder whether artists in particular seek out hard times the way flowers turn their faces to the sun.” 

Would I Recommend? Absolutely! This title started off a little slow for me (the backstory of Zelda growing up in the South) but by the time Zelda and Scott ran off to elope in NYC I was completely hooked. If you enjoyed The Paris Wife and/or Loving Frank, I think you’d enjoy this one! I found myself spending an hour post-read on Wikipedia, reading SO much more about the Fitzgeralds as a result!

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce:   Newly retired Harold Fry is an English man who lives a quiet life, haunted by ghosts from his past. But all that changes when he sets out on a 600-mile pilgrimage—on FOOT, no less—to say goodbye to a former co-worker and close friend, Queenie. His journey changes him, at the same time capturing the attention of all of England (think Forrest Gump and those classic running scenes). As the reader, you discover a few twists and turns in the plot that keep you turning those pages to the very end.

Passages I Want to Remember: “The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday” (the first line of the book–isn’t it so great?) // “Life is very different when you walk through it.”

Would I Recommend? This wasn’t a title I would have gravitated to on my own (it was our May book club pick) and for some reason, I found myself stalling a bit in certain passages, yet, overall, I was glad I read it (and it was well reviewed among all the women in my book club!) Great if you liked The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and/or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.

Grace: More Than We Deserve, Better Than We Imagined by Max Lucado: When it comes to books about the Christian faith, I find that I look for titles from authors like Donald Miller or Anne Lamott over Max Lucado or Lee Strobel.  BUT, I’ve been mulling the concept of “grace” over in my mind a lot this past year and my mother-in-law let me borrow this title as a great way to help me explore the concept. Max’s writing may be a bit fluffy or simplistic for some folks, but I found this to be a quick read and one that reenforced a lot of what I love best about my relationship with God and His Son.

Passages I Want to Remember: “To accept grace is to accept the vow to give it.” // “Saving grace saves us from our sins. Sustaining grace meets us at our point of need and equips us with courage, wisdom, and strength. It surprises us in the middle of our personal transatlantic flights with ample resources of faith. Sustaining grace promises not the absence of struggle but the presence of God.” // “Grace is the gift of feeling sure that our future, even our dying, is going to turn out more splendidly than we dare imagine.” —Lewis Smedes // “If you ever catch yourself thinking, ‘I can do whatever I want because God will forgive me,’ then grace is not happening to you … Grace creates a resolve to do good, not permission to do bad.”

Would I Recommend? Depends on the audience. For those who, like me, are interested in learning more about the concept of grace and are open-minded to Christianity, I would. For those new to this religion or more skeptical about religion in general, this could be one of those books you start but never finish.

I write book reviews with every book I read. If you’d like to see more of my recommendations, browse the “Book Reviews” section of the blog or find me on Goodreads (where you can friend me too!)




Read Lately: Book Reviews

The Secret History by Donna Tartt: Years ago, I read another book by Tartt and liked her voice. So I bought this title only to have it sit on my shelf for TEN years. It was my pick last month for my book club and was delighted to discover that all the ladies were as spell-bound by its story line as I was. The plot follows a handful of eccentric, intellectual undergrads at a small liberal arts college in New Hampshire who, under the influence of their classics professor, find themselves the perpetrators of a series of murders—first of an innocent bystander then against one of their own. It’s a totally chilling tale and Tartt weaves a narrative so compelling you can’t help but feel strong emotional ties to these characters.

Passages I Want to Remember: “We were all of us painfully aware of that metaphoric vial of nitroglycerine which Bunny carried around with him day and night, and which, from time to time, he allowed us a glimpse of, unless anyone forget it was always with him, and he had the power to dash it to the floor whenever he pleased.”

Would I Recommend? For fans of intellectual fiction (this isn’t exactly the lightest of reading material; Donna Tartt is smart and her prose reflects it). Also, this one is perfect for anyone who loves a good thriller. If your last read was Gone Girl, you’ll want to dive into this next!

Divergent and Insurgent by Veronica Roth: I admit I got sucked into tucking into these after several friends asked me “Why haven’t you read them yet?!” I’d heard they were sure to be the new YA craze in the same vein as the Hunger Game series and I can totally see how the comparisons got made. (Who knew dystopia would be the best thing to happen to young adult fiction since vampires?!) Yet, I didn’t feel the same pull to these as I did to Katniss and Peeta. The first novel held my attention quite a bit more than the second, but I absolutely loved the ending of the second book and now cannot wait for the third (and final) novel in the series to come out. Also? I’m totally curious about the movie, especially since I highly approve of its cast!

Would I Recommend? Surrrreeee, why not? They’re not perfect by any means, but these are the books you want to pick up for quick summer reads—great for the beach or a vacation with the family.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: It’s rare for me to re-read a book (there’s always too much else out there new to command my attention!) but in anticipation of the new movie, I had to pick my beloved Gatsby back up. It’s funny how different themes of a book resonate with you based on where you’re at in your life. Having just become a mother, this time I was particularly pained by how little love and affection Daisy displayed for her daughter with Tom. Given that Gatsby is one of my favorite reads of all time (I’m a big fan of Fitzgerald’s style), of course this one still holds a lot of appeal for me. And so many great passages to remember, far too many to list individually here.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio: Ohhhhh you guys! I don’t think I can fully express how much I enjoyed this novel. The story centers on August Pullman, a young boy with a face so deformed it’s prevented him from going to mainstream school. But Auggie relents to his parents’ pleas to attend middle school and what follows is a year-long journey through the school year—one full of trials and tribulations—as told by a cast of characters that includes Auggie along with his sister and classmates. The story will tug at your heart strings as it teaches you a powerful lesson about compassion and friendship.

Passages I Want to Remember: “I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives.” // “Do people look the same when they go to heaven, mommy?” “I don’t know. I don’t think so.” “Then how do people recognize each other?” “I don’t know, sweetie. They just feel it. You don’t need your eyes to love, right?”

Would I Recommend? It’s the first book I’ll tell people to read when they ask, “What should I read next?” As I was reading Wonder, I found myself thinking back to a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story I read years ago about a REAL little boy with a facial deformity named Sam. If and when you read Wonder, do yourself a favor and read this article about this kid — he truly is a real-life Auggie.

VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6 To Help You Lose Weight & Restore Your Health for Good by Mark Bittman: I started reading the newest release from Mark Bittman (the legendary New York Times food writer I’ve admired for years) not because I was necessarily wanting to lose weight but because I felt pulled in by Bittman’s personal story about how this method of eating was so beneficial to his lifelong health. I have high cholesterol (darn genetics!) and I’ve been interested in how food can help me control my blood levels, so I’ve been fascinated by this book and find myself truly enjoying the recipes I’ve tried so far. (Mark’s homemade cereal is my new favorite start to the morning!) I’m not totally vegan before 6, but I’m making small strides toward adding more healthy food to my plate, including more vegetarian dishes come dinner time. Small steps go a long way in this area of life, so don’t forget that (words typed by a former Diet Coke junkie!)

Would I Recommend? It may not be for everyone, but for anyone making healthy changes in his or her life, who enjoys cooking and incorporating real food into their diet (news flash—a daily soda ain’t allowed with this way of eating) and is interested in reaping the benefits of feeling better and having more energy, then yeah, pick it up. It’s eye-opening (Bittman doesn’t skip on facts about this nation’s poor health habits) but encouraging at the same time. (Remember, this isn’t about a diet but instead a way to eat for life!)

Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach

About the Book:  I’d heard of Dinner: A Love Story before ordering a copy but admittedly had spent zero time on Jenny Rosenstrach’s blog nor was I aware that this was a cookbook that wasn’t just pictures of food with directions on how to cook it, but a true story woven within its pages. After reading Bread & Wine earlier this spring, I felt inspired to pick this cookbook up and I’m so glad I did! I found myself totally immersed in Jenny’s life story, like remembering the days her mom went back to school and how her dad made his “signature” dish—breaded chicken cutlets—every night for the next five years. Or how she and her husband started to explore cooking in their tiny New York City apartment in their early 20s. And, perhaps most of all (given the season of life I’m in), I enjoyed reading about how Jenny managed to keep dinner time sacred in her home after the addition of her two daughters, born barely a year apart.

As I read this book, I found myself exclaiming out loud several times, “Yes!” or nodding my head in agreement with something Jenny had written (like the passage I excerpted below). Because you see, somewhere between my late 20s and the age I am now (31), I’ve become obsessed with preserving the dinner hour in my own home. I’m grateful that I was raised in a house where my mother (who stayed at home with all four of her kids) had dinner on the table every night without fail. Sometimes I was a brat about what she served (I recall a year where I felt like we ate nothing but casseroles and as an 8-year-old, tuna noodle casserole instantly made me stick out my tongue). But for the most part, my mom has been and always will be the best cook I’ve ever met. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized food is my mother’s love language — she bakes the best pies, she volunteers with funeral dinners at our church and her potato salad is legendary. So I’m lucky that I had her in the kitchen as the foundation for my love of cooking.

So now, as a working mom, I subscribe to the work philosophy that Jenny wrote about here in DALS: I never want a job that keeps me from being able to put dinner on the table for my family. I’ve become a big believer in the philosophy that if more people could just return to cooking AT HOME, with REAL INGREDIENTS, our nation would go a long way to healing its health crisis. (Apparently the incredible Michael Pollan’s new book is all about this very subject — I shared this article of his on Facebook earlier this week). There is something beautiful in the routine of coming together as a family over food and I so look forward to having those moments with Dean and any future children Nick and I might have in the years to come.

Passage(s) I Want to Remember: I was starting to shape a theory about dinner. I found that if I was eating well, there was a good chance that I was living well, too. I found that when I prioritized dinner, a lot of other things seemed to fall into place: We worked more efficiently …, we had a dedicated time and place to unload whatever was annoying us about work and everything else, and we spent less money by cooking our own food, which meant we never felt guilty about treating ourselves to dinner out on the weekend. And perhaps most important, the simple act of carving out the ritual—a delicious homemade ritual—gave every day purpose and meaning, no matter what else was going on in our lives.

Recipes I Loved: What’s fun about cooking—really cooking—is exploring recipes and learning new techniques you’d never tried before. Which is how I came to discover the beauty of an egg wash on the dough of Jenny’s YUMMY chicken pot pie (who knew it took a bit of egg white to make a crust look SO golden-y delicious?!) and also how I decided to make Jenny’s recipe from the book for curried chicken with apples. I LOVE exploring ethnic cuisine (even though it totally intimidates me; I blogged about my first attempt at making Indian food a few years ago).

Please know that while I LOVE to make food I’m not one of those people who’s particularly great at photographing it (as evidence by these crappy snaps from my phone!)

Would I Recommend? Here’s who I think this book would be perfect for: New brides (this would make a WONDERFUL shower gift), families with little kids who enjoy cooking (because Jenny is a wonderful example of how you can still make dinner (with a variety of courses) a priority despite all the families out there who may insist you have to live off chicken nuggets until your kid is a teenager); foodies (duh!); and anyone curious about a cookbook that, while it IS a cookbook, reads just as much like a wonderful memoir as a collection of delicious dishes. You can do yourself a favor first and spend some time on Jenny’s blog if you want …I didn’t have to, but in the time since, I’ve become obsessed with it and find it to be one of my daily reads!

Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist

Before I review Shauna Niequist‘s newest book, let me admit something to you: I have a pretty big girl crush on Shauna (see my reviews of her first books here and here; also, my references to her writing in this post, this post and this post). Shauna is a Christian author, one who writes honestly and transparently about so many real-life topics and issues — from finding yourself in your 20s and the values of friendship, to the trials of parenthood and the importance of family. Whereas a few people I’ve recommended her work to over the years have come away finding her to be too saccharine or prone to humble bragging, many more have told me they, too, have fallen in love with her voice just as much as I have. Every story of Shauna’s shared over the course of her three books has felt like a conversation to me, Bread & Wine being no different. Perhaps that’s why I love her so much — because, as an aspiring writer myself, I know that as easy as she may make it seem, that is no simple feat.

About the Book:  Bread & Wine is Shauna’s third collection of essays, this time focusing on her love of food and family and the dinner table. As she says, “a series of love letters centered on life around the table.” Over the course of its four parts, Shauna shares stories about a host of topics, from growing up in Michigan and the legacy of her mother’s blueberry crisp as a Sunday night ritual to her trial-by-fire turn as a chef at a culinary boot camp in her home city of Chicago. What I loved most about Bread & Wine (beside all the DELICIOUS sounding recipes for various appetizers, salads and entrees) is how well Shauna captures our relationship with food and the memories it can evoke for us. Whether it’s the way a chocolate mousse takes her back to a trip to Paris with her husband or how the preparation of a certain salad is her signal to the start of summer, Shauna’s words are a culinary trip down memory lane. They also made me think about my own food-centric memories …how sacred I’ve come to view meal times with my own family, both as a child and adult. For me, the best thing about reading Bread & Wine is that it’s introduced me to thinking about words and cookbooks and recipes in a new way. Shauna has inspired me to delve more into a world of smells and tastes between two covers (for starters, I just finished this cookbook and am in LOVE with it…more on that in a future review!) The older I get, the more I fall in love with the therapeutic ritual that is cooking and providing a wonderful meal for myself and my husband (and some day, my son). As I’ve long said, it’s my personal form of therapy and it’s books like this one that only make that love affair deepen.

Passage(s) I Want to Remember:  One thing’s for sure: If you decide to be courageous and sane, if you decide not to overspend or overcommit or overschedule, the healthy people in your life will respect those choices. And the unhealthy people in your life will freak out, because you’re making a healthy choice they’re not currently free to make. Don’t for one selcond let that stop you. Either I can be here, fully here, my imperfect, messy tired but wholly present self, or I can miss it — this moment, this conversation, this time around the table, whatever it is — because I’m trying, and failing, to be perfect, keep the house perfect, make the meal perfect, ensure the gift is perfect. But this season I’m not trying for perfect. I’m just trying to show up, every time, with honesty and attentiveness.

Recipes I REALLY Want to Try: Maple Balsamic Pork Tenderloin, Bacon-Wrapped Dates, Watermelon Feta Salad, Robin’s Super-Healthy Lentil Soup, Blueberry Crisp, Dark Chocolate Sea Salted Toffee, Basic Risotto.

One I tried and falled in love with? Annette’s Enchiladas. OMG are these SO good! They’ll now be my go-to dinner for any new parent or friend in need of a hot meal! Just check out that yummy-ness!

Would I Recommend? Most definitely! The thing I love MOST about Shauna and her books is the way she constantly reenforces this idea of “Me too! I thought I was the only one! I love that too!” type of thinking through her thoughts and words. She seems so down-to-earth and yet hip at the same time, that I would die to have her sit down at the dinner table with me. Truly. (And I’m SUPER envious of her cooking club that she writes about in the book!) I also think this book would be wonderful as an audio book, particularly if it were narrated by her. She has such a soothing, yet commanding voice — just check out the trailer for Bread & Wine to see what I mean!

I write book reviews with every book I read. If you’d like to see more of my recommendations, browse the “Book Reviews” section of the blog or find me on Goodreads (where you can friend me too!)