Mini-reviews: Books about which I have little to say

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
Published by Crown

If you’re not familiar with The Martian, you must have been living under a rock these past few months. EVERYONE has been raving about this book and I now understand why. Basically, it’s about this guy, Mark Watney, whose mission to Mars was aborted after a huge sandstorm occurred, which caused his crew to believe he died, so they had to leave him there. Except he didn’t die, so he has to figure out how to survive on Mars all by himself for quite a long time. While the scienc-y stuff wasn’t the easiest for me to navigate, the technicalities of it aren’t necessary for understanding the novel, so I was able to skim a lot of those parts. And there’s a point at which NASA figures out Mark is still alive, and that’s when the book really picks up speed and goes from interesting/good to great. Mark is hilarious, super sarcastic and totally makes the novel. I really enjoyed this one and I totally see what all the fuss is about.

Believers: A Journey into Evangelical AmericaBelievers: A Journey Into Evangelical America by Jeffrey L. Sheler
Published by Viking Adult

I don’t really know why I read this book. I guess it’s because I can’t resist any kind of book about any kind of faith, and I’m even more intrigued when I see a different perspective on my own faith than my perspective (which is kind of the case with Believers). The book was mostly good, well-researched, but I’m uncertain as to what exactly Sheler’s point was. I guess he wanted to figure out what Evangelical Christians are all about? It seemed to me like he was looking for generalizations, looking to find out what exactly motivates and inspires and pushes Evangelicals but what he discovered, instead, is that (shocker) Evangelical Christians are a diverse group with tons of different kinds of people in the mix. The conclusion kind of felt like he was saying “gosh, Evangelicals are people too. I didn’t expect that.” But I liked learning more about groups of Christians I was somewhat unfamiliar with – Wheaton College scholars, Focus on the Family (not personally a fan, but interesting to learn more about them nonetheless), Saddleback Church (where my in-laws are members, actually), and more. So, overall, interesting to me but not particularly enlightening.

The Lonely PolygamistThe Lonely Polygamist by Bradley Udall
Published by W. W. Norton and Company

I really did not like this book. I started reading it in audio but it was SO LONG and taking forever that I read the second half in print, and I didn’t enjoy the novel in either format. The book is about (obviously) a polygamist named Golden Richards, who has four wives and twenty-eight children. It’s told from three alternating points of view: Golden’s, his fourth wife, Trish’s, and one of his sons, Rusty’s. Despite the complicated family dynamics and tons of tragedy and even some comedy, I just did not get why I’d heard such great things about this novel. It seemed monotonous, over dramatic, and mostly the people within its pages were just plain miserable. And while the ending was heartbreaking, because I couldn’t bring myself to care about these characters, I wasn’t too emotionally affected by it. I don’t know – this one just wasn’t my thing.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

This is the Story of a Happy MarriageThis is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
Published by Harper

From the publisher:

The New York Times bestselling author of State of WonderRun, and Bel Canto creates a resonant portrait of a life in this collection of writings on love, friendship, work, and art.

“The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living.”

So begins This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, an examination of the things Ann Patchett is fully committed to—the art and craft of writing, the depths of friendship, an elderly dog, and one spectacular nun. Writing nonfiction, which started off as a means of keeping her insufficiently lucrative fiction afloat, evolved over time to be its own kind of art, the art of telling the truth as opposed to the art of making things up. Bringing her narrative gifts to bear on her own life, Patchett uses insight and compassion to turn very personal experiences into stories that will resonate with every reader.

These essays twine to create both a portrait of life and a philosophy of life. Obstacles that at first appear insurmountable—scaling a six-foot wall in order to join the Los Angeles Police Department, opening an independent bookstore, and sitting down to write a novel—are eventually mastered with quiet tenacity and a sheer force of will. The actual happy marriage, which was the one thing she felt she wasn’t capable of, ultimately proves to be a metaphor as well as a fact: Patchett has devoted her life to the people and ideals she loves the most.

I don’t even know what to say about this gorgeous book of essays. First, I will say that Patchett was already one of my favorite authors (Bel Canto being one of my favorite books ever), but having now experienced her nonfiction as well as her fiction, she cemented her place as one of my favorites. I also closed this book and immediately had the urge to buy her entire backlist, as I wanted to experience more of her beautiful words and, in the case of her nonfiction, more of her life experiences.

There’s so much to love in this collection. Her musings on so many aspects of life will speak to just about every reader out there. She has something for everyone here – she talks about building and owning a business, the love she has for her dog, the time she spent as a caregiver for her grandmother, the mistakes she’s made in her career and in her personal life, triumphs in both her career and personal life, and the craft of writing itself, plus more. Patchett is a wise person but also a very real person, someone I connected to and wanted to keep getting to know even after I finished the book.

If you are a fan of Ann Patchett’s, you MUST read this book. If you are not, read it and become a fan. :)

 

The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris

The Cloister WalkThe Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris
Published by Riverhead Trade

To summarize this beautiful book is not an easy thing to do, but basically it is the fragmented diary of sorts of Katheen Norris, a woman who spent ten years as a Benedictine oblate and another two years living at a Benedictine monastery. In The Cloister Walk, she muses on just about every aspect of faith you can imagine and delivers for the reader a perfect balance of education, beautiful writing, and her own observations and opinions about the faith and her experiences within said faith. The style is rather disjointed and, at first glance, seems disorganized, but when I allowed myself to sink into the book, the writing style and organizational layout of the book felt absolutely right, somehow.

The Cloister Walk is not a book that’s easily explained or understood until you actually experience it. The book is truly an experience – each chapter provides a new and unique perspective on some aspect of religion, usually pertaining to Catholicism but not always. She comes at the faith as a lapsed Protestant filled with doubt, so her observations and ideas are incredibly refreshing for those seeped in the faith for years and years – she’s bound to see things differently than someone who’s always been a believer.

This book is just really quiet, contemplative, reflective, just a beautiful piece of nonfiction. Norris is a gorgeous writer and I loved thinking through the many thoughts and discussions she posed to the reader. Highly recommended.

Mini-reviews on Monday

The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in IranThe Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran by Hooman Majd
Published by Doubleday

Brief publisher’s summary:

With U.S.–Iran relations at a thirty-year low, Iranian-American writer Hooman Majd dared to take his young family on a year-long sojourn in Tehran. The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay traces their domestic adventures and closely tracks the political drama of a terrible year for Iran’s government.

I’m always interested in learning more about Iran because I have an uncle who is from there, in fact he came to the US in the late ’70’s for college and ended up staying here, building a career, becoming a citizen, marrying my aunt, etc. However, if I’m being honest, books that are solidly in the history section of nonfiction are sometimes intimidating and oftentimes can bore me. So a book like this, a memoir of a family’s time spent in Iran, with snippets of history peppered throughout, is a perfect balance for me. I learned a LOT about Iranian history, politics, and society in general while also getting to know this courageous and interesting family.

What I most loved about this book is that while Majd was open with the reader and explained much of what was scary and nonsensical about Iranian society and the political structure, much more of his narrative was focused on what he loves about his country of origin. There is so much to love about the Iranians we meet in this book, so much positivity and light and love and it made me so happy to see Majd choose to spend more time on those things than on the negatives. His portrayal of life there and observations of how the country really operates was such a balanced, honest picture of things that it made me immediately close the book and do more research on Iran and the country’s history. I enjoy nonfiction books the most when I learn something while being entertained, and The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay was the perfect mix of both.

Grin and Bear It: How to Be Happy No Matter What Reality Throws Your WayGrin and Bear It: How to be Happy No Matter What Reality Throws Your Way by Jenni Pulos with Laura Morton
Published by St. Martin’s Press

If you don’t watch the Bravo TV show Flipping Out, you probably have no idea who Jenni Pulos is. But if you DO watch the show, like me, you probably love Jenni Pulos (like me). So honestly, this book is only for that second group (in my opinion, of course).

If you are already a Pulos fan, this is a fun, quick romp through her life experiences, disappointments, drama, and lessons she’s learned along the way. It’s also a tiny peek into the real truth about her relationship with Jeff Lewis (hint: it’s a true friendship). I mostly read the book because I was interested in hearing from her point of view what really happened with her very public breakup from her ex-husband, and I was treated to a play-by-play of the drama in her own words. So that was fun. I felt for her deeply, of course, but it was nice to hear how she’d gotten through that heartache and moved on to bigger and better things.

Other than that, the advice she shares is kind of obvious stuff – at least to me – and the book overall is kind of silly. But I’m not going to lie, I enjoyed it, and I think if you love Jenni Pulos, you will too.

The Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No Religion by Martin Thielen

The Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No ReligionThe Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No Religion by Martin Thielen
Published by Westminster John Knox Press
Review copy provided by NetGalley

From the publisher:

If you think the only logical response to bad Christianity is to leave the church completely, this book is for you. In an effort to help those who’ve been hurt by or turned off by negative religion, Martin Thielen explains that there is an alternative to abandoning religion: good religion. Thielen uses personal stories to illustrate the dangers of religion that is judgmental, anti-intellectual, and legalistic. While addressing the growth of the new atheism movement and the “Nones” (people [who] have no religious affiliation), this book argues that leaving religion is not practical, not helpful, and not necessary. Thielen provides counterparts to the characteristics of bad religion, explaining that good religion is grace-filled, promotes love and forgiveness, and is inclusive and hope-filled. Perfect for individual, group, or congregational study, a Leader’s Guide and a Worship and Outreach Kit are also available to further the discussion and increase community involvement.

There’s definitely an audience for this book, but unfortunately I am not that audience. Someone who is already a believer, goes to church, reads the Bible, and prays on a regular basis is not exactly the kind of person that this book was written for. BUT I can see the value in the book, so let me tell you who I think should read it.

Let’s face it, Christians do thing sometimes in the name of religion that are just wrong. Christians can be judgmental, even hateful, towards those who don’t share their beliefs. Christians can be exclusionary and shun people who don’t fit the mold of what is “good” and “right”. For those who feel that religion is not for them because of the Christians I just mentioned, this is a great book to read. I personally know a lot of people who have been hurt or just disgusted by what someone has called “Christianity” and have decided to turn away from God altogether. This book is for those people – to show them that just because they have witnessed bad religion, they don’t need to go to the other extreme and choose to practice no religion at all.

Instead, the author lays out a case for what he calls good religion. A Christianity that isn’t judgmental, anti-anything really, and is all about the message of Jesus – that we should love God and love others, pure and simple. And along the way, you know, follow Him, read the Bible, do good works and all of that.

I kind of went through this myself when I first started coming to church with my husband before we got married, and I was able to reconcile this “bad religion” with the fact that the religion I practiced wasn’t that way. The God I prayed to, the Jesus I believe in, isn’t hateful or all about money or anything that turns people away from church. I think that this book would be a wonderful choice for anyone still working through those questions. It sort of sums up why this kind of Christianity isn’t how it should be, and how to find the kind of good religion that most people crave.

I liked this book, and even though I wasn’t the target audience for it, I can certainly see why it would be useful and helpful for those seeking a better experience with Christianity.

Mini-review binge

Tell the Wolves I'm HomeTell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
Published by Random House

June Elbus is fourteen years old in 1987 when her beloved uncle Finn dies of AIDS. Her family can barely speak of the reason for his death, and they definitely don’t talk about the man they believe killed him by giving him the disease, his long-time partner Toby. When June begins a secret friendship with Toby, she learns of this whole other life that Finn had, a life he kept her completely out of, his life with Toby.

You guys, this book is everything. Heartbreaking, unflinchingly honest, great characters, perfect writing, EVERYTHING. I loved it and I need you to read it. I just wanted to reach through the pages and give this girl some love. So, so sad but so beautiful too. Please read it.

House of BathoryHouse of Bathory by Linda Lafferty
Published by Amazon Publishing

Elizabeth Bathory, a countess in the early 1600’s, ruled a castle in Slovakia, and rumor has it that she tortured and killed hundreds of young women, after which she would bathe in their blood to preserve her youth. Four hundred years later, Betsy Plath, a psychologist, is working with difficult teen Daisy Hart, when the two of them discover ties from the legend of Bathory to their own lives.

This book is why I love being in book clubs. I never would have picked this up on my own, it is totally not my thing, but I really, really liked it. The plot was intense and unique and, especially in the second half, like a thrill ride that I didn’t want to put down. My only complaint would be that the writing is far from perfect, but honestly I was so captivated by the craziness and the characters that I didn’t really care about the writing.

Eating AnimalsEating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
Published by Little, Brown and Company

This book is by far the most compelling and well-written case against eating animals that I’ve ever read. I’ve always gone back and forth between wanting to go vegetarian and loving meat and Eating Animals might just have pushed me over the edge. Although I can’t quite get there all the way (I still eat seafood, eggs, and some dairy products), I haven’t eaten red meat, pork, or turkey since I started reading this book, and I’ve only had chicken a handful of times. I have to say, if you don’t want to question your meat-eating, I wouldn’t pick this one up, because it’s just that good, and it will force you to at least consider cutting down your meat consumption. But if you’re at all concerned about where your food comes from and the truth about how we treat animals at factory farms, Eating Animals is a must-read.

VirtuosityVirtuosity by Jessica Martinez
Published by Simon Pulse
Review copy received at SIBA 2012

Carmen is a teen prodigy, a violinist who is thisclose to winning the prestigious Guarneri competition. She decides one day to scope out her competition, Jeremy, and while she finds him arrogant and obnoxious, she can’t help falling for him a little, too. When the urge to be with Jeremy gets in the way of her competitive drive to win, she has to make an incredibly difficult choice.

I really liked this one and it’s stayed with me even though it’s been a while since I finished reading it. I felt deeply for Carmen, as the pressure her family and peers put on her to be the best became suffocating to the point that she had to take anti-anxiety medicine just to get through a violin lesson, let alone her performances. When she grew close with Jeremy, I rooted for them to figure out a way to be together, despite their circumstances. This really was a sweet YA novel that had some tough subjects wrapped up in that sweetness.

Mini-reviews of Recent NetGalley finds: Glitter and Glue, Above, and The Haven

Glitter and GlueGlitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan
Published by Ballantine Books
Review copy received from NetGalley

This quote, from the publisher’s summary, I think sums up the book extremely well.

This is a book about the difference between travel and life experience, stepping out and stepping up, fathers and mothers. But mostly it’s about who you admire and why, and how that changes over time.

While this memoir is sort of about Corrigan’s relationship with her mother (the “glue” to her father’s “glitter”), it’s about so much more than that. Corrigan details a summer she spent as a nanny for an Australian family who had just lost their mother to cancer, and how this experience brought her so much closer to her own mother than she had ever thought possible – as she was basically a stand-in mother to these two children. It’s about how having her own children enriched her life in ways beyond her wildest dreams and how the experience of raising her girls put into perspective just how important her own mother had been for her entire life. Glitter and Glue is a short book but was so emotionally affecting for me. I absolutely loved this one and cannot possibly more highly recommend it. It’s beautifully written and so unflinchingly honest, a must-read for anyone who has a mother or is a mother – whether these relationships are fantastic or horrific, I think you will find something of value in this gorgeous book.

AboveAbove by Isla Morley
Published by Gallery Books
Review copy provided by NetGalley

At sixteen years old, Blythe is kidnapped from a community event in her hometown of Eudora, Kansas, by Dobbs, who’d been watching her for years. Dobbs is a survivalist and takes Blythe to an abandoned missile silo, where he believes the two of them will wait out the apocalypse and repopulate the earth afterwords. Years pass, she becomes a mother, and yet she never gives up on her dream of going above the missile silo and home to her family.

Let me just tell you that this novel turned out to be a lot different from I was expecting – and that’s a good thing. The first half of the book is exactly what the summary describes – Blythe and Dobbs together in this missile silo, him going up every few weeks for supplies and such, her trapped in this awful place, all the while trying to make a life for her son despite their total lack of anything resembling freedom. It even dragged on a bit for me in the middle, because I couldn’t possibly imagine what ELSE could happen to them – I got it, she was bored, she was taking care of her son, now what? Well, that “now what” piece is what is so amazing about this novel. The middle completely changes the game and what follows is an entirely different novel. Above is truly an incredible piece of fiction and while it wasn’t exactly the PERFECT book for me, it blew me away and so surprised me that I must recommend it.

The HavenThe Haven by Carol Lynch Williams
Published by St. Martin’s Giffin
Review copy provided by NetGalley

Put simply, The Haven is about teens living at this hospital, where everything about their lives is closely monitored – their sleep, food intake, exercise, education, everything. They also take a Tonic several times a day that eliminates, or at least protects against, the Disease that they are in danger of getting. Shiloh is different from the rest of the kids there, as she has memories she’s not supposed to have. These memories lead her down a path of trying to understand why they are there, and if there’s a possibility to escape.

Here’s the issue I have with this book: it feels like a total copycat of a VERY popular and extremely well-written adult book I love. If I tell you which book, it will spoil the entire premise of The Haven, so email me if you want to know. Even though this novel is well-written, the characters are unique and I liked them a lot, I couldn’t get past the fact that it felt like a watered-down version of a book I’d already read and loved. So maybe this would be better for teens, or for those adults who haven’t already seen this story play out in another novel, but for me that too-obvious connection sort of ruined the whole thing.