Top Five Friday: Books I’m Shocked I Liked

I’ve been a reader ever since I read Green Eggs and Ham by myself in kindergarten and thought, “This is pretty fun.” Over the years, I’ve figured out exactly what I like to read. I’ll admit I’m not the most adventurous reader, and most of the time that’s okay with me. Managing my time wisely is essential; I’m not going to spend time reading a book that’s not for me. But sometimes there’s a book that pulls me in that’s outside my literary comfort zone. Today I’m sharing five books that I picked up out of curiosity, assumed I wouldn’t like very much, but ended up enjoying immensely.

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Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Anyone who knows me well knows I’m not into the outdoors. The idea of going outside fills me with disdain. Why would I go outside when the wifi and air conditioning are inside? Nevertheless, I kept hearing buzz about Wild, so I picked it up from the library to satisfy my curiosity, intending to read a few pages. Instead, I read the entire book in one sitting, amazed at Cheryl Strayed’s gift with words. She writes beautifully. The story she tells about her life and the loss of her mom in this book is tragic, yet she displays incredible resilience which fills her story with hope. This book is so much more than a story about a woman who embarks on a really long hike. It’s the story of coming alive again, and it’s fantastic.

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Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty 

Last summer, I was sick with pneumonia for several weeks. During that time, I had zero energy and concentration, so I needed a fluffy book to join me on the couch. I chose Big Little Lies expecting fluff, but fluff I did not get. Instead, I got a novel about friendship, abuse, parenthood, deception, and how the past can haunt us no matter how beautiful things look on the outside. The pacing of this novel is pure perfection. This is another book I read in one sitting, wholly engaged by Moriarty’s well-developed characters. She’s since become one of my favorite authors.

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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Despite my passion for literature and that overpriced English degree I earned, I don’t consider myself terribly well-read when it comes to classics. Not only is Anna Karenina a classic, but it’s also a Russian classic that’s over 800 pages. I picked up a used copy of this for a great price and decided I’d give it a go, even though I was intimidated by it. As I cracked it open, I thought, “There’s no way I’m finishing this.” To my surprise, I not only finished it, but I loved it. I read the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which is excellent. I thought this book would be a real challenge, but that’s not the case at all. I’m not sure if that’s due to the translation or Tolstoy’s ability to tell a great story. I assume it’s a mix of both. If you’re intimidated by the book like I was, don’t be. Give it a chance, and I bet you’ll love it too.

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The Circle by Dave Eggers

Along with seemingly everyone else in the world, I read Dave Eggers’s memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and liked it. Since I knew I enjoyed his writing, I picked up The Circle. There’s a science-fiction/dystopian feel to this novel, qualities that made me think I might not like this one. As with all the other books listed here, I’m so glad I gave this a chance. Eggers has fascinating things to say about technology and connection. Mae, the protagonist of this novel, was an engrossing character and I was invested in her story the whole way through. The Circle is nearly 500 pages long, but I finished it in just a couple of days. If you’re interested in the ways technology and social media are shaping our lives, don’t miss this one.

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Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

In college, I took a class about the philosophy of C. S. Lewis. I’d read Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters in high school and had really liked them, so I was excited about the class. I was slightly less excited when I saw Till We Have Faces on the syllabus, though. This book retells the Cupid and Psyche myth, and I had never studied mythology. I also had zero interest in reading fantasy. To my surprise, I loved this book. It’s one of my all-time favorites. What Lewis says about love and beauty in this book is profound. I’m grateful this text was assigned to me or I probably never would have read it.


What about you? What are the books you’re surprised you liked?

Reading Recap | October 2018

Here’s a look at the books I read in October. I’m stingy with my 5-star ratings, so it’s a literary miracle that two books earned them this month. Have you read any of these? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
Rating: goldstargoldstargoldstargoldstargoldstar

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

The novel goes back and forth between time periods and two primary characters. The first is Yale, a gay man living in Chicago in the 1980s. AIDS is slowly but surely killing his friends. One of those friends was Nico whose sister is Fiona, a stand-in mother to the group. Fiona’s great-aunt has some valuable art she’d like to donate, so Fiona connects her to Yale, a development director at an art gallery.

Years later in 2015, Fiona travels to Paris to find her adult daughter who became part of a cult. She stays with an artist from the old Chicago scene while she searches for her child and is forced to face the tragedies of her life.

WHAT WAS GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

The Great Believers is a story about love, friendship, parenthood, art, and the AIDS epidemic, yet the novel never feels as if it’s trying to do too much. Makkai is a gifted storyteller who weaves together the dueling timelines so seamlessly that it looks as if it were easy.

Though Makkai focuses on Yale and Fiona, this novel is full of vibrant characters. Instead of being there to further the main stories, these characters are as interesting and well-developed as the two protagonists. Makkai’s writing is gorgeous and poetic. This book contained a lot of heartbreak, but also so much life.

WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?

Literary fiction diehards who don’t mind heavy subject matter will find a lot to love here.

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The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad #2) by Tana French
Rating: goldstargoldstargoldstargoldstargoldstar

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

Cassie Maddox is one of the detectives readers meet in Tana French’s first book, In the Woods. In The Likeness, Cassie is a little bored. She transferred out of murder into the domestic violence unit. Her work is routine, she now wears suits, and she has a sweet boyfriend. Her life is pretty safe and predictable. When a murdered woman is found who happens to look just like Cassie, she’s called to the scene. It turns out the dead woman not only looked like Cassie but was living as Lexie Madison, the identity Cassie used years before in an undercover case. Cassie is asked to go undercover yet again to try to find Lexie’s killer, and she can’t resist.

WHAT WAS GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

The thing that makes In the Woods great makes The Likeness great, too, and that’s French’s pacing. Some mystery and suspense novels have twists and turns every other page. Those books focus on plot, and the characters take a backseat. The Likeness has an exciting plot and does include twists and turns, but French takes her time in her storytelling. Several chapters can go by before there are any significant plot developments. If that sounds boring, it isn’t. French’s prose is consistently interesting, and her characters seem like real people. The tension she creates is palpable.

WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?

Fans of In the Woods will love this continuation of Cassie’s story. Mystery lovers looking for depth and great writing will enjoy this, too.

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How to Be Safe by Tom McAllister
Rating: goldstargoldstargoldstar

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

Anna Crawford is an English teacher who was suspended for an outburst at her public high school. When a shooting takes place there, Anna is one of the first suspects. She’s ruled out quickly when law enforcement realizes the shooter was someone else, but her life is turned upside down anyway. Her home was torn apart searching for evidence. Her face was on the news.  She lives in a small town, so she can’t escape people’s judgment. How to Be Safe examines a year in Anna’s life after the shooting and how it deeply affected her, even though she wasn’t there when it happened.

WHAT WAS GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

Tom McAllister uses effective, dark satire to explore a nation that profoundly loves its guns. He also shows just how damaging our quick judgment can be to innocent people.

WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?

People who are okay with unlikable and unreliable narrators will be this book’s best audience.

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Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott
Rating: goldstargoldstargoldstargoldstar

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

This is another nonfiction title from Lamott in which she sets out to write everything she knows about hope. Lamott’s usual topics are here in abundance: God, politics, addiction, and friendship.

WHAT WAS GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

What I most enjoy about Almost Everything is that Lamott genuinely wrestles with hope. It doesn’t come easily to her; she realizes joy is a choice. I appreciate that kind of honesty and found this book refreshing.

WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?

Fans of Lamott’s previous work will like this one, as well.


What did you read this October? Leave a comment and let me know!

 

So You Want to Read More Diversely

I’m a white, middle-class woman. That comes with certain privileges not given to those who don’t look or live like me. As a way to learn from different viewpoints and broaden my view of the world, diversifying my reading has been one of my primary goals over the past few years.

One of the best things about reading is that it helps develop empathy, and empathy makes us better humans. If you too are hoping to read more diversely, the books below are a good start.

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Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

The title of Trevor Noah’s book comes from the fact that his entire early existence was indeed a crime. He has a black mother and a white father whose relationship was forbidden during apartheid. Noah tells the story of his struggle to find a place as a biracial kid growing up poor in South Africa. Though this book grapples with abuse, poverty, and systemic oppression, it’s also incredibly funny. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Noah talks about how humor in dark times isn’t just necessary, but that it helps tear down barriers between people on opposite sides of an argument. If you’re an audiobook fan, that’s definitely the best way to read this book. Noah narrates and does an excellent job telling his story.

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This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins

The best word I can use to describe the essays in this collection is “fierce.” I was blown away by the honesty and vulnerability in this book, the author’s first. Jerkins in only in her mid-twenties, so her insights are especially impressive. There were sections of her book that made me uncomfortable because I didn’t want them to be true. I don’t want it to be true that black women are often ignored in the discussion and practice of feminism. I don’t want it to be true that black women will not be forgiven for the same mistakes white women make all the time. That discomfort is exactly why reading diversely is important. This book expanded what I thought I already knew and reminded me how important it is to listen.

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One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

This collection of humorous essays discusses Koul’s unique experiences growing up in an Indian family living in Canada. She wrestles with feeling out of place in her family’s traditions. I loved reading about her life, and especially like the essay in which she travels to India for a family wedding. Koul’s discussion about introducing her white boyfriend to her parents was another highlight for me. If you’re looking for a lighthearted, funny book, this is a great choice.

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The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

I’ve only read a handful of graphic novels because it’s just not a format I like that much. I thoroughly enjoyed this graphic memoir, though, and suggest it even to those of you who might not think the format is for you. Persepolis is about Satrapi’s coming of age in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. She has to navigate all the difficulties of growing up alongside great political unrest in a culture in which females aren’t fully valued. This was an engrossing, eye-opening story that I’m glad I took a chance on.

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The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

While all the other books on this list are true stories, I wanted to recommend this piece of fiction too. Henriquez tells the story of the Rivera family. They move to the United States seeking better medical care for their daughter, Mirabel, who has just suffered a terrible accident. Eventually, a romance develops between Mirabel and a boy who also lives in her family’s apartment complex, but this story is really about the struggles immigrants face as they chase after the elusive American Dream.


I realized while putting this post together that not only are all of these books worth reading, but they’re worth staring at too. How great are these covers? What books would you suggest to someone who wants to expand their literary horizons?

Books for Anxious People

Anxiety is one of the worst feelings I’ve ever experienced. If you haven’t been through it, know that it’s a grating mixture of fear, uncertainty, and unsettledness that combine to create a deep sense that something is terribly wrong, even when it isn’t. I’ve struggled with anxiety off and on for many years, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Sometimes when I’m anxious, I can’t read because my mind just won’t slow down enough for me to process anything. Other times, though, I’m able to find comfort in books. Today I’m sharing a few that have encouraged me. If you’re struggling with anxiety or know someone who is, I’d recommend checking out these titles.

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Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

When Matt Haig was twenty-four, his anxiety and depression pushed him to consider ending his life. He didn’t, and he explains some of the reasons why in this brief but powerful book. Haig engagingly discusses his struggles, able to reflect on his past with vulnerability and insight only gained in hindsight. Despite such dark subject matter, Haig’s writing is witty and joyful. This book is an excellent reminder that things get better.

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Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

I adore Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, so when I saw this book on the discard shelf at my library for only 50 cents I grabbed it immediately. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of essays by Strayed from the time she was Dear Sugar, an advice columnist for The Rumpus. The advice she gives in this book isn’t full of warm and fuzzy self-help tricks; Strayed tells the truth with a combination of fierceness, generosity, and kindness that makes this book extremely comforting for me.

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The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom
by Henri J. M. Nouwen

This little green book is one of the most beloved books I own. It’s a small collection of writings that Nouwen, a priest who dedicated the last decade of his life to helping those with special needs,  wrote to himself during periods of great loneliness and depression. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, scared, or discouraged, I always reach for this book. It’s divided up into short sections, some only a page long, so it’s perfect for flipping through until you find the words you need. No matter what my situation, I always see hope and wisdom in Nouwen’s words.

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The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown

Remember a few years ago when Brene Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability went viral? I watched it one night when I was feeling discouraged and scared about the future, and it was indeed a game-changer for me, a person who struggles with vulnerability. I quickly sought out Brown’s other work and started with The Gifts of Imperfection. In it, Brown talks about her research on shame, courage, compassion, and connection. This is one of those books that has my underlining all through it. Brown’s words helped ground me during a time when I felt so much anxiety about my future and gave me helpful strategies to take control of it.  I heartily recommend all of Brown’s other books, as well.

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The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne

In addition to struggling with anxiety, I’ve also been burdened with phobias throughout my life. The worst one has been a fear of bees and wasps that got so bad I barely wanted to leave my house in the summertime.  Thankfully, a gifted therapist helped me work through that phobia, but she did tell me I might need a “tune-up” every now and then.

That’s where this book comes in. It serves as a good reminder of how to face and conquer phobias, steps to take to minimize anxiety, and even lists and explains some of the physical symptoms of anxiety, so you know you’re not dying when panic hits. If you too deal with phobias and anxiety, I can’t recommend this workbook enough.


Are there any books you turn to in tough times? I’d love to hear about them.