Books I've Been Meaning to Read for Ages

When I set my goals for the year, getting around to reading the books I've been "meaning to read" was high on my list. I thought it might be fun to solicit some feedback on my pile - so if you have a recommendation for what I should (or should not) read next, holler! 

The first book I'll address on my list is the one I couldn't track down for the picture above, and that's A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I avoided this book like the plague because, even though people looooooove it, it just sounds so heavy and I don't know if I can handle the terrible abuse the main character apparently suffers - especially for 800+ pages. However, I have heard The Heart's Invisible Furies is reminiscent of this book for many readers, so I may just cave. Because John Boyne's latest is an ABSOLUTE TREASURE.

Another chunkster, the Pulitzer winning Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry has come up several times on the What Should I Read Next podcast with guests that I share similar taste in reading. I recall the miniseries being a pretty big deal in my youth, and I think it would be fun to read something completely different from my usual contemporary fiction.

A room with a View by E.M. Forster has been on my pile since June, and given that it's a rather slim volume, I should be able to check that one off my list easily!

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath always makes me think of the defining film of my youth, Heathers, as it's Cliff's Notes are sitting on the table in the first Heather's bedroom upon her demise. And the buzz around Maggie O'Farrell's current memoir (also on my TBR) has rekindled my interest in finally reading this classic, as the title I Am, I Am, I Am is taken from a quote in The Bell Jar.

The Remains of the Day is one of my favorite books, and yet I have not read another novel by Ishiguro. Never Let Me Go seems to rise to the top of most recommended titles, so I'm hoping it lives up to the former.

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy can be filed under 'classic novel that wouldn't have been assigned reading and sounds rather fun and romantic.' Plus the most recent film version looks lovely, but I reading the book first is always preferable.

Years ago, I remember reading that I Capture the Castle was one of J.K. Rowling's favorite books and put it on my TBR. In the years that I have consistently moved it down the queue, I continue to hear raves about this book and am determined to get it read this year!

I try my best to keep up with great children's literature, and somehow I missed catching The Golden Compass train - see also: Percy Jackson. Are there any others I should catch up on? I did start The Mysterious Benedict Society series with my son, and would definitely recommend!

Last, but not least, I have been meaning to read another Barbara Kingsolver. The Poisonwood Bible is one of my all time favorites, and I also loved Prodigal Summer and The Bean Trees. But, it's been at least a decade since I reacquainted myself with this beloved author and I really want to read Flight Behavior. I scored this copy for ONE DOLLAR on the books for sale shelf at the library!!


Laura and Emma by Kate Greathead

Laura & Emma by Kate Greathead
Publisher: Simon and Schuster (March 13, 2018)
Description from the publisher
A tender, witty debut novel about a single mother raising her daughter among the upper crust of New York City society in the late twentieth century from a nine-time Moth StorySLAM champion.
Laura hails from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, born into old money, drifting aimlessly into her early thirties. One weekend in 1981 she meets Jefferson. The two sleep together. He vanishes. And Laura realizes she’s pregnant.
Enter: Emma.
Despite her progressive values, Laura raises Emma by herself in the same blue-blood world of private schools and summer homes she grew up in, buoyed by a host of indelible characters, including her eccentric mother, who informs her society friends and Emma herself that she was fathered by a Swedish sperm donor; her brother, whose childhood stutter reappears in the presence of their forbidding father; an exceptionally kind male pediatrician; and her overbearing best friend, whose life has followed the Park Avenue script in every way except for childbearing. Meanwhile, the apple falls far from the tree with Emma, who begins to question her environment in a way her mother never could.
Told in vignettes that mine the profound from the mundane, with meditations on everything from sex and death to insomnia and the catharsis of crying on the subway, a textured portrait emerges of a woman struggling to understand herself, her daughter, and the changing landscape of New York City in the eighties and nineties. Laura & Emma is an acutely insightful exploration of class and family warfare from a new author whose offbeat sensibility, understated wit, and stylish prose celebrate the comedy and pathos that make us human.

Going into this book, I must admit that I was wary because I'm not usually a fan of introspective female narratives. Instead, I found myself glued to the pages of this deep dive into a fascinating life of a square peg in the round hole of wealthy New York society. 
Each chapter covers a year, starting with the fateful year of 1981 when Laura becomes pregnant with Emma. The chapters are then broken into small vignettes, that are addictive as candy. Greathead has amazingly astute observations of things that can seem insignificant, but paint such a detailed portrait of life. Stories of her misguided friendship with the pediatrician, her best friend, her upper crust WASP caricature of a mother, dates gone wrong, sister in law dynamics, school mom drama, and preteen drama all struck a chord. When Emma is excited about her new school but isn't responding to the adults with the right level of enthusiasm:
"One of the more exhausting aspects of getting older was having to act like an adult. Pretending to like people you couldn't stand, speaking for the sake of filling a silence, smiling when you felt like crying."
These episodes are witty, funny, fraught with tension and quite sad, in equal measure. Laura's privilege blinds her to any real self awareness, or awareness of the lives of others, which makes for so many quirky moments that can go in unexpected ways. One might find her infuriating, but I couldn't help but root for her to triumph in the end. 
"Life hadn't required Laura to navigate unknown territory on her own, and on the few occasions over the years when she had taken the initiative to do so had all been very empowering."
The author's uncanny ability to convey authentic dialogue and such genuine details about life reminds me a great deal of Curtis Sittenfeld's writing, one of my all time favorite authorsThe prose on the agony and ecstasy of motherhood and adolescence rings so true. If you enjoy character driven, fly on the wall, hypnotically written episodic stories, I would HIGHLY recommend Laura and Emma. 
Many thanks to Simon and Schuster for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review!


The Last Equation of Isaac Severy by Nova Jacobs (A NetGalley Review)

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy by Nova Jacobs
Publisher: Touchstone (March 6, 2018)
Description from the Publisher:
The Family Fang meets The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry in this literary mystery about a struggling bookseller whose recently deceased grandfather, a famed mathematician, left behind a dangerous equation for her to track down—and protect—before others can get their hands on it.
Just days after mathematician and family patriarch Isaac Severy dies of an apparent suicide, his adopted granddaughter Hazel, owner of a struggling Seattle bookstore, receives a letter from him by mail. In it, Isaac alludes to a secretive organization that is after his final bombshell equation, and he charges Hazel with safely delivering it to a trusted colleague. But first, she must find where the equation is hidden.
While in Los Angeles for Isaac’s funeral, Hazel realizes she’s not the only one searching for his life’s work, and that the equation’s implications have potentially disastrous consequences for the extended Severy family, a group of dysfunctional geniuses unmoored by the sudden death of their patriarch.
As agents of an enigmatic company shadow Isaac’s favorite son—a theoretical physicist—and a long-lost cousin mysteriously reappears in Los Angeles, the equation slips further from Hazel’s grasp. She must unravel a series of maddening clues hidden by Isaac inside one of her favorite novels, drawing her ever closer to his mathematical treasure. But when her efforts fall short, she is forced to enlist the help of those with questionable motives.

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy is an entertaining read, especially if you are a fan of plot driven mysteries and piecing together a puzzle of a book. It took awhile for me to get my bearings in this novel, as there are a few meandering plot lines and a LOT of characters to get to know in the Severy orbit - maybe a tad too many. (I still had to take a moment to place the name of one of the characters while reading the last pages of the book!) But, of the characters that stood out, I quickly became engrossed in their (somewhat terrible and shocking) secrets and their fates. 
The story might have appealed to my family drama loving heart, and been better served overall by fleshing out these standout characters more, and earlier in the book. Just as I was getting to really figure them out, the story was wrapping up. There was a lot to uncover about familial bonds, blended families, infidelity, abuse and how it affected these people who felt very real. I definitely see this potential in Jacobs' writing and look forward to her future work. 
As for the mystery, I loved the geeky science espionage in the last third of the book and BURNED through the pages to find out what the secret of Isaac's Equation was - nothing I ever would have guessed, and it was thoroughly thought provoking. 
Many thanks to Touchstone and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review!

This is the second month in a row that I've picked a NetGalley ARC to review that has popped up as a Book of the Month pick! (Last month being The Philosopher's Flight.) I have read quite a few galleys over the years that ended up being selections - if you are thinking about joining, here are my reviews (in addition to the above two) that you can check out and perhaps add as a free book if you decide to sign up using my referral link
Artemis by Andy Weir
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
The Girls by Emma Cline
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (a favorite book of 2016)


Books I Read in February

Far from the Tree by Robin Benway
This was the National Book Award winner for YA last year and it is so deserving of all of the accolades! This story of three separately adopted siblings, that find each other in their teens is a smart and powerful story about family. There is so much to unpack: nature vs nurture, fostering and adoption, teen pregnancy, and racial bias to name a few. Like much YA, it was a little heavy on teen melodrama (especially in Maya's case with regards to fighting with her girlfriend) which felt odd at times against the backdrop of the terribly sad and difficult path these three children were on. I do have a vague recollection of a little melodrama at that age, and it probably appeals to the teens reading it! Though, I think Benway did an exceptional job of fully fleshing out the parents in the story, making it appealing for older audiences. It's great food for thought on raising kids and the kind of parents we want to be.

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel
This book was INSANELY fascinating, and good on audio - thanks for the rec Tara! You would think that the discovery of someone who had been living in the woods for nearly three decades, who only had one brush with human contact, deserved to be major headline news. Alas, since I live on the opposite side of the country, I do not remember hearing anything about this man and it is so unbelievable the confluence of several unique situations that made his hermit life, so close and yet so removed from civilization, possible. The author also deftly weaves in themes on human nature and solitude that had me thinking about how much solitude I lack in my life, but also how much humans need social bonds.

You can read my review here!

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce
This was a charming story about love, music, friendship, and being open to change, to the many twists and turns our lives can take. Frank (owner of the music shop who lives for his records and doesn't need love in is life) is an underdog worth rooting for, and his supporting cast of characters are a delight. It felt like a mash up of Empire Records and Four Weddings and a Funeral. At first I was worried it was going to be a little snobbish on the music front, with lots of obscure artists I've never heard of - yet, I knew most of the works Joyce chose to write about and her descriptions of the music was just so spot on. It's a wistful, slightly melancholy, and a little cheesy - well, the ending is A LOT cheesy. But, I'll forgive that slightly ridiculous denouement for the mostly awesome remaining 95% of the book.

Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman
Absolutely stunning. You know those books that you’re not sure if you love it, and then you look up and realize you completely forgot the world around you (and were slightly peeved to not find yourself in a sleepy Italian village)? The writing in this coming of age story is just sublime, and although I felt it a little too slow and verbose with the pretty words in the beginning, it completely stole my heart in the final pages. Fair warning, it can get rather sexually explicit and almost cringe-worthy with the feeling of being invasive on the character's intimacy. But the ride is worth it. Life is messy and painful, but we only get one and we should live it truthfully.
"How you live your life is your business. But remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. Most of us can’t help but live as though we’ve got two lives to live, one is the mockup, the other the finished version, and then there are all those versions in between. But there’s only one, and before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now there’s sorrow. I don’t envy the pain. But I envy you the pain."

I had put off this book for awhile, since it often is compared to A Man Called Ove, and I was in the minority in not loving that book. But, I came around after so many glowing reviews and I'm glad I did. As with Ove, it's certainly a "curmudgeon that sees the light" kind of story. Yet I found Honeyman's take much more compelling and humorous, even though it is tempered with great sadness. Perhaps it's because the specifics of Eleanor's unfathomable circumstances are not really revealed until, literally, the last three pages of the book. It's a gut punch, and I have a thing for gut punch endings. Some of her idiosyncrasies didn't necessarily make sense (surely she'd learn about some of the basic ways of the world after going to university?) and could turn a reader off of her character, but I was completely Team Eleanor. 


The Philosopher's Flight by Tom Miller (A Netgalley Review)

The Philosopher's Flight by Tom Miller
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (February 13, 2018)
Description from the publisher:

Eighteen-year-old Robert Weekes is a practitioner of empirical philosophy—an arcane, female-dominated branch of science used to summon the wind, shape clouds of smoke, heal the injured, and even fly. Though he dreams of fighting in the Great War as the first male in the elite US Sigilry Corps Rescue and Evacuation Service—a team of flying medics—Robert is resigned to mixing batches of philosophical chemicals and keeping the books for the family business in rural Montana, where his mother, a former soldier and vigilante, aids the locals.

When a deadly accident puts his philosophical abilities to the test, Robert rises to the occasion and wins a scholarship to study at Radcliffe College, an all-women’s school. At Radcliffe, Robert hones his skills and strives to win the respect of his classmates, a host of formidable, unruly women. 
Robert falls hard for Danielle Hardin, a disillusioned young war hero turned political radical. However, Danielle’s activism and Robert’s recklessness attract the attention of the same fanatical anti-philosophical group that Robert’s mother fought years before. With their lives in mounting danger, Robert and Danielle band together with a team of unlikely heroes to fight for Robert’s place among the next generation of empirical philosophers—and for philosophy’s very survival against the men who would destroy it.

First, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised to see this as a Book of the Month pick for February, as it's a little different and a lot of fun! I was on a streak of books that were dark in tone recently, and the description of this story sounded like the perfect reprieve. 
Robert's character quickly wormed his way into my heart and is an underdog worth rooting for - in a world of magic dominated by women, this sole male prodigy is humble and quite obviously in a situation that would apply mainly to women or minorities in the real world. Miller holds a mirror to many familiar situations and really made me think about how things might be different if it were a 'woman's world.' Much of the book reads like a campus novel, where Robert has to manage ridicule, derision and perform twice as well as the women to get half the credit. Imagine! 
I was also won over by the world building and the amount of detail that the author imbues into this story. The way society is impacted by 'empirical philosophers' affects how we approach medicine, war, travel, the economy, and of course, politics: there is a thinly veiled comparison to white nationalists in the so called 'trenchers' who are radically against this practice dominated by women. And although it touches on many layered and heavy subjects (sexism, racism, class, civil rights), the tone is very light and it's a quick read with something for everyone: humor, action and adventure, family and friendship, and romance. 
If I had one complaint, I think that Miller tried to pack in a bit too much. There are so many sub plots and I would have liked him to pay closer attention to one, rather than a little bit to several. Since it's the beginning of a series, however, I think it sets the stage nicely for more in depth narratives.
I've seen this novel compared to The Magicians, which I didn't love - so, if that's holding you back, I'd still give this novel a try. I think they are similar in that it's a year at a magical school, mainly setting the stage for future stories. Yet the tone of The Philosopher's Flight is so much brighter and it also appeals to those who enjoy historical fiction.
Many thanks to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review!
And, if you use my referral link for Book of the Month, you can get this book, or another of your choosing for FREE when you sign up!


Books I Read in January

What Happened by Hillary Clinton
Even though I purchased the book and got to shake Hillary's hand as I picked up my signed copy (!!!), I listened to this one on audio, which was enjoyable. Well, as much as re-living the 2016 election can be enjoyable. It adds more to the text, I think, when read by the author. Most of the accounts and facts are things I remember reading in the news (by actual journalists) so it felt slightly rehashed. I am glad I took it all in, and listening to her read what would have been her acceptance speech was so lovely and gut wrenching at the same time. Which, pretty much sums it up.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

Well this was a rather melancholy read. I burned through it in nearly a day, as the main character's stint of staying alone in her dorm over Christmas break is a simultaneously alluring adventure and terrifyingly isolated situation. Why she isn't actually able to go home is vaguely laid out, but not entirely clear - she had no other family after her grandfather died. At first, it kept me turning the pages. Then it became kind of frustrating that there is CLEARLY something keeping this poor girl from returning home, even with her closest friend to stay with her family. It should have been revealed much earlier, and honestly, I didn't think it made a lot of sense to be that level of distraught over THE BIG SECRET SHE IS KEEPING. Alas, YA novels are about big melodramatic moments, and overall I thought it was a sweet and well written book.

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
I thought that I read Anne when I was young, maybe around age 10, but all that is left in my memory are images of the amazing TV adaptation starring Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla. This is one that I have been meaning to read/re-read for ages, and as part of my goals for the year, I'm making more of an effort to get to these books. And oh my goodness, I loved every minute of it! We all know Anne stands the test of time, and now I think it's not just because of the wonderful storytelling, but because the viewpoints of the adults are just as easy to connect with as the children's. Laughing and crying with Anne is just as much fun, maybe more fun, as an adult than it was to swoon with her as a child. 

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

I am heading off to Nashville next week and I thought it would be the perfect time to get in a new Patchett book, especially a collection of personal essays. State of Wonder is an all time favorite, I loved Commonwealth, and she has become one of my favorite authors. This was another excellent read, full of her pitch perfect writing on subjects close to her heart. My favorites were 'The Getaway Car' about becoming a writer, 'The Wall' which is her story about trying out for the LA Police Academy and scaling said wall. It is less about her physical prowess, although impressive, and more about her father - a longtime LAPD officer. And, the title story about the relationship with her husband and getting married after 11 years of dating. Oh, and, 'The Right to Read' - her convocation speech at Clemson University is a MUST. I just love her.

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
I received a complimentary review copy of this book as part of the Little, Brown and Company ambassador program, and was dubious at first, despite loving Ivey's debut novel The Snow Child. It's a fictitious account of a late 1800s exploration into Alaska, told through letters and journal entries of Colonel Forrester and his pregnant wife left behind in Washington state, as well as present day letters between the great nephew who inherited these journals and the museum curator to whom he sent them. Before I knew it, I was entranced by the story in the same way the men in the present have become. It is stark, visceral and mysterious, while also being lyrical and otherworldly - much like The Snow Child. I highly recommend it, and give it a good 100 pages to get your bearings among the many pieces of the narrative.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
I was certainly taken in by the creepy atmosphere and mystery of this novel. I do have a soft spot for a good sci-fi yarn. But, usually, they are very plot driven stories. Once I finished, I still don't know what really even happened in this book! I honestly can't describe it, other than a band of scientists go into a secret government program to explore Area X (or do they?) to find out more about it? Maybe? I am VERY curious about how it will translate to the big screen later this month. On one hand, I wanted more plot and resolution in my reading experience. On the other, I think I'd be annoyed if they add it to the film and prefer integrity of the book in my viewing experience! It's not a novel I'll recommend widely, but it does make for great dinner table conversation with my husband - it'd be a great book club or buddy read pick, for sure. There is a lot to contemplate, and it will stay with me for a long time.


January Monthly Meal Wrap Up

This month was ALL ABOUT the Half Baked Harvest Cookbook by Teghan Gerard, of the excellent blog with the same name. This is the most appealing and most flagged recipes of any cookbook I've had in recent memory. 

We've tackled two dinner recipes this month, since I tend to only have the gumption to introduce a new recipe into rotation every week or two. Both were quite tasty and I have at least two more that we will try soon - her mac n' cheese recipe and a pasta sauce that calls for a CUP of olive oil. Yes, please.
First up, we made the Caprese Quinoa Bake.
This dish was super simple and a great make-ahead meal, of which I am a fan. I would reduce the amount of quinoa by about a half cup in the future, to give it a little more creaminess.
Most recently, we tried the Slow Cooker Butter Chicken - yet another easy and make-ahead meal.
I have a 'thing' about attempting Indian food at home. It's just never the same. Now, I'm not saying this was quite at restaurant quality, but it was delicious and definitely going into the regular rotation.
I also put together one of her refrigerated overnight oats recipes, the Pecan Banana Bread, which I'd also give a thumbs up!
We also tried a new General Tso's chicken stir fry recipe, via Delish, which was indeed delicious.
Also worth noting, the new slaw/salad kits at Trader Joe's are SO GOOD. 
An easy lunch option, and a good way to eat your veggies.
Next month, I will be eating my way through NASHVILLE and oversharing everything I eat there, and hopefully some equally delicious new at-home recipes!