Book Club Roundup- Following Polly The Immortal Life and the Goldfinch

Lack of theme is the theme of this roundup. Whereas my last reads shared a similarity, these are as varied as they come.

First up, I read Following Polly by Karen Bergreen. This was a book club pick that I wasn’t really thrilled about, but it was better than is expected. It’s a quick and compelling read with a few fun twists and turns. It sort of fell apart towards the end for me, and there were a few loose ends that never got tied up, but overall a fun read.

Next was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. This book has been on everyone’s (myself included) list for a few years now, but it was a different book club (yep, I’m shopping around for a book club I like at the moment) that prompted me to finally download it. I find biology and the history of medical science pretty fascinating to begin with, but I think there’s something for everyone in this book regardless of scientific interest level. I will say though that it’s not for anyone with a weak stomach. There is some pretty graphic medical detail.

That said, it’s a human interest piece at heart. Two things stood out to me in The Immortal life. The first was the author’s passion. This is a subject Skloot has chased doggedly for years, and I just found that so compelling. She was only in her twenties while doing most of the research, which is both incredibly intimidating and inspiring.

The second part that stood out was the level of suspense. I never would have believed a non fiction read about human cancer cells would be a page turner, but it really was. I found myself really interested to know what happened next in both the historical and present day sections of the book.

The only gripe I have with this book is that there are points where it feels exploitative which is especially unsettling considering the entire premise of the book revolves around a family exploited by the scientific community. Still, the story is one that begs to be told, and Skloot was definitely the right person to do so.

Finally we’ve got The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I picked this one up on my own after seeing it on an Amazon book list and liking the cover. It’s the best book I’ve read in a long time. The story is fascinating and took so many unexpected turns, but, honestly, I didn’t care. I just wanted to keep reading Tartt’s words. It was one of those books that I’d sort of ration out to myself so as not to finish too quickly. I’d just go back and re-read pages just trying to take it all in. I’m already looking forward to reading the whole thing again. I loved all the characters (even the awful ones), and I was so invested in the outcome. Fantastic read. Don’t let the 700+ pages intimidate you.

Book Club Review: American Lion

Book Club Review: American Lion

I know I said I was going to combine book club reviews, but this one deserves its own post. I recently finished American Lion for the second time. The first time I read it, I dragged it out for like 6 months because I just couldn’t get into it, and I found I didn’t really get the full effect. Recently, I’ve been all riled up about the state of American politics, so it felt like a good time to try again.

American Lion by John Meacham is the comprehensive biography of our 7th president, Andrew Jackson. Jackson falls somewhere in the grey area between presidents we (think) we know everything about (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln) and Presidents we consistently fail to remember when trying to name them all (Fillmore, Harding, Tyler). Prior to reading this book, I could have told you three things about AJ, (1) they called him “Old Hickory,” (2) he very much disliked Native Americans and (3) he’s on the $20 bill.

I have a thing for 19th century American history. My two favorite periods are the antebellum period (1780s to 1860s) and the Gilded Age (1870s to 1920s). I do not at all have a visually oriented mind, so reading about the Civil War is difficult for me as I tend to get very mired in battle logistics. Anyway, I saw the author promoting this book on The Daily Show and thought this would be right up my alley.

The book chronicles Jackson’s life from pre-revolutionary America through the Battle of New Orleans to the battle with the bank and beyond. I think the biggest take-away for me was learning that Jackson basically made the American presidency what it is today. Prior to his tenure, the legislative branch was considered more powerful than the executive. Jackson disagreed with this model because, at the time, legislators were elected by representatives of the people (and, of course, by “people” I mean white, landowning males) while the popular vote mattered very much in deciding the presidency (technically the president was still elected by the Electoral College, but the “people” had much more of a say).

American Lion’s main theme is that Jackson, widowed before reaching the white house and childless throughout his life, viewed the American people as his family, and his family was his world. Often portrayed as a rough and tumble frontiersman with a short temper and a slow wit, Jackson was actually quite shrewd. He rarely took action without knowing how things would unravel. The author does a fantastic job of convincing us that all Jackson was extremely principled and all he did he did with the best interests of his country at heart.

However, if you know anything about the period, you’ll understand why this is a difficult argument to make. Jackson’s presidency was an exercise in contradictions. On one hand, he burst into Washington and broke down the aristocracies that had begun to grow at our nation’s core. He gave a voice to many Americans who had previously never had one, and he fought hard to keep our nation together while civil war was brewing. On the other hand, his actions towards “Indian Removal” were brutal and eventually resulted in the Trail of Tears. He was a slave-owner who refused to allow Americans to use the postal system to distribute abolitionist material in southern states. It would be easy to say Jackson was a product of his time, but remember that he co-existed with famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

Luckily, Meacham does not take the easy way out instead choosing to portray all sides of Jackson. He offers up the president’s most honorable speeches on preserving the union while also presenting a vicious advertisement he took out offering a bounty on the heads of his runaway slaves with extra money paid for lashes given. Even after reflecting on the book, it’s hard to say how I feel about Jackson. Clearly, he was a man of conviction which means he was able to hold the nation together mostly through his own personal will alone. It also means he was able to tell himself some convincing lies about the rights of human beings in order to make decisions the protected the style of life he and many Americans had become accustomed to.

He was a complex leader (as most probably are), and it’s hard to sum his life and legacy in an unbiased and relevant manner, but Meacham does a nice job. Life most good non-fiction works, American Lion left me with more questions than answers. I’ve compiled a list of other biographies I’d like to read after getting a glimpse of some of Jackson’s contemporaries (Nicholas Biddle, John Quincy Adams, John Marshall, William Lloyd Garrison and Henry Clay). Reading it a second time in the wake of the current political turmoil was equal parts frustrating and encouraging. The leaders of Jackson’s day were often misguided and certainly contentious, but they were passionate, and they respected each other. Meacham cited several examples of bitter political enemies praising the efforts of their foes after a good besting. Today’s leaders seem so much more hateful and motivated by greed and personal interests. It’s discouraging, yet reading American Lion reminded me that there will always be some people with the nation’s best interests at heart. We just have to elect them!

Book Club Review

I sort of dread writing these, -something about trying to capture great (or even just ok) literary works in blog format is daunting- but I like the idea of being able to look back on books I’ve read as time passes, and I forget what they’re about. In an effort to write reviews less frequently, I’m going to try and combine them. Conveniently, my last two reads (sorta) shared a common thread, so it makes for an easy combo.

In the fiction department, I recently finished Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I stumbled across it on Amazon’s Best Books of the Year So Far list, and it was just lovely. It was one of those books that permeated my entire life, and I found myself thinking about it at random intervals throughout my week. Life After Life is about a girl named Ursula who dies shortly after being born only to be born again. This cycle of death and rebirth repeats throughout Ursula’s life, but rather than travel the same life path again and again, it’s as if mini universes are created each time Ursula is reborn. Each decision she makes leads her down a different path towards a new destiny.

If it sounds as though this book is young adultish, it’s because I’m having a hard time conveying the essence. Really, this book covers some very heavy subject matter. Ursula is living in England through World Wars I and II, and Atkinson does a great job of conveying a variety of experiences and emotions associated with wartime life.

Rather than recount each life cycle from beginning to end, Life After Life zips through some phases of some lives and lingers on others, but I never found the narrative confusing (like, say, The Time Traveler’s Wife). There were so many aspects of this book that I just loved. The complexity of the female characters was wonderful to read. There were a few archetypes, but the three main characters were diverse and interesting to read about. I don’t generally enjoy reading about female leads because so many authors are myopic on the gender, but Atkinson really hits the mark.

I really enjoyed reading about World War I and II. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in that time period either, so it was fascinating to read about the World Wars especially from a Western European perspective. You don’t need very much prior knowledge on the subject to become immersed in the story.

I think my favorite part of the book though was the way Urusla’s past lives effected the present one. She couldn’t remember her past lives, but she remained connected to them. Often, when faced with a pivotal situation she had experienced in a past life, she’d experience a visceral reaction similar to Deja Vu. This was so interesting to me. When Ursula ignored her gut in favor of her more rational sense, she seemed to doomed to make the same or graver mistakes, but when she listened to herself, she avoided calamity. I think people -women especially- have a certain sense that alerts them to danger. I think so many of us are quick to ignore that sense because it’s sometimes frightening, and since it can’t be explained, it’s easier to conform to social norms than react to our instincts, but the older I get the more I’m learning to trust my gut. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not. I’d rather remove myself from a situation that feels wrong then stay in order to avoid appearing odd or offending someone’s feelings. Maybe 99% of my instincts are unfounded, but maybe they’re not. This just really resonated with me.

As far as the largest theme, the idea of reincarnations in order to figure out your mistakes and “get it right.” I’m still not sure how I feel about that. I find it both appealing and exhausting. On the one hand, who wouldn’t want another chance to undo some mistakes and relive life’s brightest moments, but on the other hand, you’d also have to relive your lowest points again and again. Plus, the idea of redoing everything until you get it perfect is daunting.

Life After Life was a great read that I’d like to pick up again at some point because it’s a book with a lot of layers worth exploring.

The next read was a non-fiction selection that I never would have opted to read had it not been for my book club. This month’s choice was Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander. It’s been a New York Times Bestseller for a long time, so I had heard of it, but I had no idea what it was about. Eben Alexander is an accomplish neurosurgeon who contracted bacterial meningitis and lapsed into a coma for 7 days. During that time, his soul went to heaven, and when he came back to his body, he knew he had to share his story with the world. I cannot even express to you how far out of my normal range of interest this book falls, so if you’re rolling your eyes, stick with me. This book is a game changer.

Because Alexander is a brain surgeon, he’s as knowledgeable as they come about what the brain is and is not capable of, and he methodically and scientifically details why his experience cannot be explained by any random neural firings. It really is a complex scientific explanation of why science exists, so I don’t want to butcher it here, but while I believe in God, I consider myself a generally skeptical person, and every time I caught myself reading and thinking, “Ok but what about this?” he would explain exactly why “this” couldn’t explain away what he’d experienced. I thought it was a beautiful and uplifting book, and I truly think no matter your thoughts on this subject, it’s worth a read, and it will expand your horizons.

So, there you have it. Death and near-death and after lives and the Afterlife. While I did not plan this intersection, it came at a good time as I’ve been thinking a lot about life and death lately. I don’t mean that in a morbid way though I’m sure it sounds that way. Again, I think I’m just growing up with so much thinking about the future lately, it’s hard to avoid thinking things allllll the way through. These two reads came at a wonderful time for me in that they both present very different views but share the idea that death is not an end point on the spectrum. Maybe there’s no spectrum at all. Maybe it’s a circle or a pendulum. That’s been pretty comforting for me.

Book Club Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

I think this might be the first book that I read solely while commuting. I may have read a page here or there before bed, but I think this was 99% read on the train.

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My latest read was Robert Galbraith’s (aka sneaky JK Rowling’s) The Cuckoo’s Calling. The only thing I didn’t like about it was the name. It doesn’t really tie into the book and just sounds sorta silly. Everything else about this book was great though. I wonder if I would have liked it as much if I hadn’t known it was JK. While the material is not at all reminiscent of the Harry Potter series, the level of detail really is. While reading this, I was reminded of why I love JK and HP so much. It takes only a few sentences to feel like you’re transported to the scene of the action. I’m not much of a visual person, so it’s really saying something when I feel like I can smell fresh roses or feel the winter chill just by reading about them.

The plot is interesting. It’s a pretty classic crime novel. Obviously, there’s some violence involved, but it’s sparingly discussed and only mildly detailed. The characters are fully fleshed and developed with distinguishable personalities and backstories. “Cuckoo,” the title character, referenced 90% of the time by her real name, Lula Landry, is a super model with suspicious circumstances surrounding her death and the days leading up to it. We never actually meet Lula though as her story ends before the book begins. The lead character is instead, Cormoran Strike, a private detective, who is definitely down on his luck, hired by Landry’s brother to investigate more fully what he believes the police have missed.

Cuckoo’s Calling’s main plot is the slow piecing together of the super model’s life, one which seems less enticing as the reader progresses. The subplot revolves around Strike and his new would-be gum-shoe assistant Robin. Rowling knows how to write female characters. Robin was fun and interesting and rarely clichéd. I really enjoyed her character. Strike also was full of depth and free of any 1920’s Pinkerton detective foibles.

The story will captivate you almost immediately and have you rushing to the end desperate to know what really happened. Rowling did a good job of tying up loose ends while definitely leaving the option open for a series.

Cuckoo’s Calling was a richly detailed and fun read with enough substance to keep it from feeling overly indulgent. Absolutely recommend.

Book Club Review: Devil in the White City

I feel like there’s this impression that people who read a lot are smarter or that reading is on a much more elevated plane of intelligence than watching TV or like pursuits. While this certainly can be true, there are some reads out there that would give the Kardashians a run for their trashy money. I guess the act of reading engages your brain in a way watching TV doesn’t. Anyway, my long-winded point is there are times when reading feels indulgent, and I worry that my brain is turning to mush as I devour page after page of Lannisters and Starks. So, I try to balance my consumption of fiction with a healthy helping of history. I have a sort of informal agreement with myself to read one non-fiction for every 2-5 fiction books.

My even longer-winded point is that I just finished Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City which covers, among a few other temporal topics, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair) as well as H.H. Holmes “murder mansion.”

I was drawn to the book because of the World’s Fair, but the murder mansion kept me reading. At first, Larson’s style bugged me because he likes to put the reader inside the head’s of the historical figures he profiles. I found it sort of presumptuous and felt like it detracted from the gravitas usually associated with non-fiction. Then I realized that was kinda stupid. Non-fiction can be informative and colorful.

I’m really fascinated by the gilded age, and I didn’t know a lot about Chicago’s history prior to the 20th century going into this book. I felt like I was able to learn a lot in an easily digestible manner. Larson did a great job of providing just enough detail about auxiliary figures that you could appreciate their significance to the story but didn’t feel bogged down by facts.

As for the murder mansion, it’s not really for the faint of heart. Larson mentions in his afterword that he used Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood as a reference for how to write crime scenes from a killer’s perspective. I haven’t read In Cold Blood, but I after reading Larson’s take on it, I don’t think I’d have the stomach. Larson alternates between putting the reader in Holme’s and his victim’s heads, and it is creepy. I couldn’t read this book before bed.

If you’re looking to get a general understanding of Chicago (and America really) at the turn of the last century while remaining totally engrossed in a true crime thriller, this is an excellent read!

Book Club Review: Daughter of Fortune

After just absolutely binging on the Game of Thrones books, I had this desire to read something a little more “classic” whatever that means. GoT is so compelling, and I do believe well crafted and written, but doesn’t feel “monumental” whatever that also means. So, I went to the library. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is probably my favorite author, and I contemplated reading Love in the Time of Cholera for probably the fifth time, but a quick Internet search led me to believe I might like Isabel Allende just as much.

Well, I didn’t like her quite as much (an admittedly tall order), but Daughter of Fortune was a beautiful book. I found myself a little confused at the start of the book. I wasn’t sure how all these characters tied together, but the writing is lovely, and I found myself actually smiling as I read certain passages. The story is sweet and flows along very naturally while covering a pretty broad geographical range.

Daughter of Fortune tells the story of Eliza’s life from an abandoned infant to a headstrong, lovesick young woman. Readers follow Eliza over sea and land as she grows and learns what it is she’s really looking for.

I loved the characters and found myself rooting for their successes and mourning their losses. After a string of books whose characters I couldn’t have cared less about, this was a refreshing change. Allende’s style is similar to Marquez in that they both utilize Magical Realism (though Marquez is more magical than realistic) and both describe the beauty and shortfalls of Latin America in a masterful way.

At 400 pages (hardcover) Daughter of Fortune a fairly quick read that I’d definitely recommend.

Book Club Review: Quiet

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So after my love affair with the Game of Thrones book ended, I needed some new reading material. I was a little over fiction-ed so I went with a non-fic pick I’d seen all over the interwebs: Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

I’ve always considered myself an introvert, so I figured this book would be like peeking into mine own soul. Imagine mine own surprise when I realized a few chapters in that I actually exhibit almost zero “introvert traits.” See, I always thought my severe aversion to the vast majority of people made me an introvert when in fact it just makes me an agoraphobic misanthrope. Go figure.

Once I got over the initial shock of discovering I’m just a rather rude extrovert (I love public speaking! I’ve never been called shy! I just don’t like many people!) I really enjoyed this book. It’s pretty clear that Susan Cain favors introverted souls and believes they’ve been grossly under-appreciated in modern history. Quiet should definitely not be approached as an objective research paper, but it’s still very educational and interesting.

This was one of those rare pieces of non-fiction that kept me reading voraciously into the night. I felt an urgency to read on, and I appreciated the the organizational flow of the book. It’s very compelling writing. If you’re a true introvert, I think this book must be like reading your personal owner’s manual. If not, it’s a great foray into how the other half (well, other 1/3-1/2) lives. I think it’s a valuable, enjoyable read.