Shelf Life: Summer 2015


For the last three months books have been my constant companions and my escape. I’ve read more lately than any other quarter of My Shelf Life to date. I blame long rehearsals, sleepless nights and just a general longing to get away. What’s crazy is that I only read 1.5 books in May during all of our crazy travels, which means I’ve read 14.5 in the last eight weeks. That’s a lot — even for me.

I found new favorites, haunting mysteries, sincere confessions, scientific nail biters, telling realities and, as expected, some duds. I hope you find some titles you’re interested in exploring!

But, first…looking ahead…I’m ready to slow down on the reading for the next few months. (Fall is always my lowest  book count of the year anyway.) I want to focus on some other things, get out of the pages a bit and soak up my favorite time of year.

1. The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert

There are two types of people in this world:

People who love cilantro v. those that say it tastes like dish soap
People who pronounce “bagel” correctly v. up-state new yorkers
People who love Elizabeth Gilbert v. people who think she’s 100% crap

Case in point: Did you read her Eat, Pray, Love?  I didn’t — and you know why? Because people would. not. stop. arguing. about it. I didn’t even want to see for myself. “Omg, she totally epitomizes the free woman in her adventures” v. “wow, she’s a selfish slut.” Yes, that’s actually a popular argument when it comes to her best-selling, autobiographical tale.

And then there’s this. Her fiction. Fiction they are turning into a PBS show. Fiction that my friend Nicoleen highly-recommended. Fiction I decided to read.

As a book about early botanists, its content sometimes got a little too Euphoric for me (apparently I’m not keen on people that study plants or other people), but the difference lies in Gilbert’s incredible characters. I loved her strong, yet vulnerable Alma and can’t wait to see her come to life in the show. I finished the book while stranded in the DFW airport and I think my misery there seeped to the reading experience because I was definitely ready for its 500 pages to be over, but I really did enjoy the first 450 or so.

Lesson learned: Trust your friends…unless they live in upstate New York or don’t eat cilantro.

2. All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

As much as I dislike reading books set in the Civil War, I love reading about World War II twice as much. This book–the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction–is absolutely a work of art. Doerr’s ten-year endeavor is worth the wait in every vibrant metaphor. I actually had a hard time making any head way on this book in the beginning because I found the writing so comforting and, ironically, his war-torn world so warm and inviting. It would literally lull me to sleep. But as its ending looms and his characters–a curious French blind girl and a brave white-haired boy reluctantly born from the Nazi Youth–careen towards an inevitable junction, you cannot put it down, you don’t want to blink. It is an incredible tour de force and the closest thing to The Book Thief that I’ve ever read. Do not miss this stunning story with its timeless moral: “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”

3. The Scorch Trials, James Dashner

This is book two in the Maze Runner series — soon to be a movie. I typically like the second books of trilogies best. Lord of the Rings. Hunger Games, Divergent. There’s less background, more action, the antes are upped, the stakes are higher, and they usually have a killer cliffhanger or two. I certainly liked this better than the first Maze book, but it’s not the best writing…shocker, I know. Sometimes, though, I like to slip into books like these–to be all consumed by someone’s wildly imaginative world rather than the flow of dialogue. This series is a poor man’s Hunger Games, but it’s still better than Twilight…so there’s that.

4. We Were Liars, E. Lockhart

“Read it for the twist.” “You won’t believe the ending.” Everyone’s been rav-ing about this one. Ms. Lockhart spins a haunting tale of a privileged family who summer together on an island of Massachusetts. A picture-perfect family harboring some shocking secrets. This was the quintessential summer read: amazing story and characters, short chapters and only a little over 200 pages. If it takes you longer than 24 hours to read this, I’ll be shocked…but not as shocked as you’ll be by the ending. Read up!

5. Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule, Jennifer Chiaverini

I’m a glutton for punishment. I really hate reading books set during the civil war–opposite of my love of books set during WWII. But I feel its my duty to give my favorite authors the benefit of the doubt. I tried this three times last year—three books by my dear Ms. Chiaverini, all set in the Civil War. Only one was bearable. All of them are linked, so why not keep going with the fourth? Pros: it’s interesting to read about the key players during this time. Con: It’s all too easy to veer away from these players and focus too deeply into nitty gritty details of the war that take the plot far and wide from, you know, the characters in the title of the book. So, with that, I release myself from any obligation to read her books.

6. Where They Found Her, Kimberly McCreight

I first experienced McCreight’s writing with her Reconstructing Amelia almost two years ago. I, thankfully, was able to go back on this blog and read my thoughts on it. It was a little refresher on how depressing I found it, but her second novel was an absolute thriller. It starts with the discovery of a dead infant and leads to an unraveling of a picturesque town. I haven’t read this much of a nail-biter in a loooong time. Her plot was meticulously thought out, even though I can’t stand how weak she insists on writing her females. If you like a quick-read mystery, this is a great choice.

7. Annoying, Joe Palca & Flora Lichtman

I consider myself a pretty annoyed/irritable person at times. (I hate many sounds, especially chewing and clicking.) So when I heard about this I wanted to check it out. For the most part this was not what I had in mind with its slew of words about mice and cells and skunks. But, there were several interesting takeaways, especially when discussing why we get annoyed in our closest relationships:

* Typically what attracts us to our partners is what will eventually annoy us most. (Independence, sense of humor, etc.) ‘Why do strengths become weaknesses and endearing qualities, irritants?”

* There’s a test called “The Annoying Inventory” which measures if you’re irritable, arrogant or picky. No surprise: I’m irritable.

* I learned new words like “lingerringer” which one remote culture uses to describe an annoyance that builds from a series of minor but unwanted events. I love this. Bring back “lingerringer.”

So if you find yourself easily losing your cool, you might want to pick this up and see what’s happening in your brain and body to elicit those responses. And then take a deep breath and try to stay calm.

8. Mosquitoland, David Arnold

I almost didn’t read this, thinking I didn’t need to read another YA-centric novel right now. But it kept popping up…in EW, in book lists, online. I’ve never been so glad to cave to peer pressure. This story and its heroine, Mim Malone, will stay with me a long time. Mim’s hasty flee for home carries her through a slew of hilarious/tragic/heartbreaking/heart-lifting adventures and a crazy cast of vibrant characters. I really loved every page, but that’s because I absolutely loved Arnold’s writing. This is his first novel, but I’ll be reading whatever he writes next. I’m telling you guys…YA lit. It’s where it’s at.

9. Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum

I’m 33 and don’t have kids, unless you count the 10-year-old fur ball who is and will always be my baby. The fact that I’m a social outlier on this point does not go unnoticed by me or anyone else….ever. Especially living in Utah when your uterus is a common topic among strangers. I wasn’t the type of girl to dream of being a mom when I was little and in my 20s I wanted to see the world and play my horn. #done. But it wasn’t until a diagnosis slammed a door in our faces before we reached our first wedding anniversary that I started dwelling off and on on the topic, mainly what our future would look like and what regrets we might have. This book is not written by those who faced the same issues as me and Joe, but it’s women (and men!) who made the conscious choice to not have children. There are honest essays on abortions, adults who hate kids, and 60-year-olds who feel like they dodged a bullet. It was fascinating, though frequently heartbreaking as many recounted the painful childhoods that led them away from making any repeat mistakes with families of their own. The fact is, it’s very difficult to be in my position whether by choice or by nature’s hand and faced with the “immense, unrelenting, and all-pervasive pressure to have children.” This was a comforting read to remember that being childless, or “childfree” as some proudly call it, does not mean your life lacks meaning or purpose. It’s a good read, whether you’re single, married, a parent, an aunt/uncle or just curious. A few sections–from different authors–to share:

* “I will never regret not having children. What I regret is that I live in a world where in spite of everything, that decision is still not quite okay.”

* “Selfishness and generosity are not relegated to particular life choices, and if generosity is a worthy life goal perhaps our task is to choose the path that for us creates its best opportunity.”

* “There is nothing compared to the suffocating societal pressure that women who don’t want children are subjected to. At worst, we’re considered selfish or immature; women who don’t want children are regarded as unnatural, traitors to their sex, if not the species. Men who don’t want kids get a dismissive eye roll, but the reaction to women who don’t want them is more like: What’s wrong with you?

10. Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin

This is my third Gretchen Rubin book. I’m not a huge fan of self-help books, but I do enjoy reading scientific/psychological non-fiction here and there, especially about how to be happier in my day-to-day life. While her second book delved into more happiness at home, this dealt with habits–both good and bad. How to form them, how to keep them, how to break them and understanding your approach to them based on your personality. This was already something that interested me from when I read The Power of Habit almost two years ago. Here’s what I learned about myself: Out of Rubin’s Four Personality Tendencies I’m an Obliger; I’m also an Abstainer, I’m a Lark, and I’m a Finisher. That won’t make much sense until you read the book, but all the more reason to do so. Rubin can grate on my nerves–I can tell we would never….ever…in a million years…be friends, but she makes some good points. And I certainly have a few habits to revisit and reshape. If you’re looking to change up some habits of your own, she encourages everyone to start with “habits that most directly strengthen self-control.” Ones that “serve as the Foundation for forming other good habits:” sleep, move, eat and drink right, and unclutter. Unclutter!! Check! (I’m currently Kondo’ing my life.) These foundation habits will likely seep into your other habits and make you life better in ways you don’t imagine.

11. The Martian, Andy Weir

Andy Weir — a self-described lifelong space nerd — took an incredible ten years to complete this harrowing tale of an astronaut left on Mars after his crew thinks he’s dead. As someone not inclined to delve into scientific specifics, I was a little worried when starting this book, but it quickly turned into the incredible page-turner people have been raving about for months. I’d say it’s out of this world…but I’m not that ridiculous. ….okay, maybe I am. It’s so good that Joe started reading it while I was still knee-deep in it. Like, the same copy that we’d pass back and forth. If that’s not a solid enough recommendation, I don’t know what else I can say! Read it before the movie comes out (Matt Damon!) this October. (Thanks, Amy, for another solid recommendation!)

12. Grey, E. L. James

Full Disclosure: I read all three of the 50 Shades books. And it was so strange to read the same story again, just told from someone else’s perspective. For those that have read the earlier books, I can confirm that her writing has not gotten any better, but if E.L. was smart, she would have led with this version. Christian’s tale includes glimpses of his haunted childhood past that informs his domineering present. You realize this in her later books from Ana’s point of view, but I think it might have explained more to the haters that just assumed he was a power- and control-hungry jerk. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not condoning the character’s behavior…but, I read a lot. I read about different kinds of people and situations and times in history…and, to me, this is just a story. Reading about WWII doesn’t mean I’m pro-Hitler any more than reading this kind of book makes me pro-BDSM. No judgement zone. At least with this one you don’t have to muscle through entire paragraphs dedicated to Ana arguing with her “inner goddess” or looking up at Christian “through her eyelashes.” What? No.

13. To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee

From America’s trash to America’s triumph. I’ve never been so happy to revisit my friends in Maycomb. I haven’t read this since high school and it was so comforting to pick up my familiar paperback. I couldn’t put it down, even though I wanted to make it last forever. It took me less than two days and I was brought to tears more than once. So many life lessons within its pages that apply today as much as they did in 1960. One of my favorite passages:

Scout: Naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.
Jem: That’s what I thought too,…If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other?

Food for thought. And reading for the soul.

14. Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee

Despite lackluster reviews (that I refuse to read), Harper Lee’s “new” novel spoke directly to my heart. I was so grateful I reread To Kill A Mockingbird right before I got this. Maycomb was vibrantly alive in my mind and my heart when this picked up < 20 years later. Harper does reuse some material and change the outcome of others, but I loved seeing Scout as an even-more-independent adult and so closely identified with her feeling out of place when returning to Alabama. Her endless trips to the past to revisit the home and relationships she misses. Oh yes, it’s all too real. I couldn’t get enough of this and, controversy or no controversy, I’m glad this gem was uncovered for us to enjoy again and again.

15. The Man Who Ate the World, Jay Rayner

Despite all of my friends’ recommendations, I’ve never watched Top Chef  or Top Chef Masters. But when it comes to books, I typically take the recommendation bait. Fellow foodies Chris and Chilali lent me this book months ago and it was a fun way to round out three months of ridiculously-heavy book consumption. I love reading about food, and Jay Rayner’s (Top Chef Masters and restaurant critic for The London Observer)  search for the world’s perfect meal saw some unbelievable courses in Las Vegas, Moscow, Dubai, Tokyo, New York, London and, finally, Paris. Quite literally a total trip. Though it did not make me want to jump on a plane and follow suit, it did allow me to reminisce on the incredible meal Joe and I recently shared in Honolulu. As a vegetarian, I was not impressed with Jay’s repeated use of “gelatinous” and “slippery” in his descriptors. Or the fact that everything fancy has to be in jelly or foam form and I had to stifle a few gags here are there — especially when eating in Tokyo. But it was fun to be along for his indulgent ride, like the gourmet version of Super Size Me.

16. Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that at 33 years of age I still had yet to read an Agatha Christie novel. I was looking for a quick, engaging, suspenseful mystery and knew where I had to go. I’ve had a copy of this book since I lived in Baltimore, it’s a British copy from 1953 with an ad for engagement rings on the back. It’s falling apart, but the character just added to the throw-back nature of the story — which is ingenious. I could not put it down, not even in the pit when I was about to play. Well done, Ms. Christie.

Next up in the queue:

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt (Guys! I’m reading this RIGHT NOW! #finally)
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
Freedom – Jonathan Franzen
Luckiest Girl Alive – Jessica Knoll
The Death Cure – James Dashner
Career of Evil – Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
Why Not Me? – Mindy Kaling
The Nightingale – Kristin Hannah
Orphan Train – Christina Baker Klein
After Alice – Gregory Maguire
Girl in the Spider’s Web – David Lagercrantz
Mrs. Hemingway – Naomi Wood


2 thoughts on “Shelf Life: Summer 2015

  1. Loved your comments. Just read The Girl on the Train – one weird book! Want to read the WWII one you read. Gotta go to the library! Love you.

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