Here are a few books I’ve enjoyed over the past year that are worth mentioning. Most probably are not worthy a full review—or maybe I’m just getting lazy—but I have some things to say about each one.
Well, this was pretty good. I definitely expected a “poor me” type of Eat, Pray Love journey, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that she didn’t overly dramatize her personal challenges and often took a self-deprecating and humorous approach. Her journey up the Pacific Crest Trail becomes her method of healing from her mother’s death and her own divorce, and many of her stories are original, entertaining, and realistic. However, I cannot hep but wonder how she could possibly remember in depth details of this trip such as what she ate and exact words of conversations when she wrote the book more than 10 years after the trip. Strayed (a name she gave herself, and one that I can’t quite swallow) is a good writer, and I think because of that, she was able to take a somewhat mundane trip and make it worth a few hundred compelling pages. Though the movie has been out for a while now, I cannot quite imagine how this story could captivate an audience for two hours. (nonfiction/memoir)
I enjoyed learning the specifics about crew and the way oarsmen have to work in sync to such a degree that their bodies almost become one. It was especially interesting to see a group as unlikely to get to the Olympics as these University of Washington boys who were the sons of farmers and miners and laborers. They are quite the contrast to the crew teams of California and the Ivy league schools. But like many nonfiction books, I thought this was a little longer than it needed to be and it seemed to drag some. I’m not sure I needed every detail of every race (though many friends loved all the details), and I found the main character less interesting than the guy who designed and made the boats. I might have preferred the boat designer and coach as the main character. Still, it’s definitely a good and informative read. (nonfiction)
This young adult book, quite beautifully written in verse, is a story of a young black girl growing up in the 60s and 70s between North Carolina and Brooklyn, New York. It shifts back and forth between her two homes and how she never felt truly a part of either one. In the South, she had to contend with the leftover Jim Crow culture and the way her northern accent left her feeling different; in the North she felt a foreigner because of her Jehovah’s Witness religion. Each poem offers a simple but powerful moment or event from her life. I read this in about two hours sitting at the kitchen table one day. I’m not sure if this is a novel or a memoir. It reads as a memoir told in verse, but it could be a novel based on her own life. Would make a perfect beach read or a welcome break from a busy day.
This is an intriguing story about orphans in search of homes who are transported from New York to Minnesota by the Children’s Aid Foundation. The chapters alternate between Molly, an orphan living in 2011 Maine, who lives with one foster family after another and Vivian who lives in 1929-43 in Minnesota. Vivian is currently 91 when the two meet. The premise of the orphan trains is fact-based, and that made the book worth reading. It seems like such an archaic concept, but apparently there actually were trains that left New York headed for the Western prairie states where families were looking to adopt children specifically as farm hands. The story itself, however, is fiction, and unfortunately the writing is rather poor. It’s almost all set in present tense which is awkward to read. This is a good book to skim for the story, but not for the plot development or the writing style. (fiction)
The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency and Tears of a Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith
Smith is a prolific series writer, and this is just one of his many series. These books are light, fun, and well-written with great characters. Often, I cracked up. They take place in Botswana, Africa (or at least these two do, and I’m assuming the rest do as well) where Precious Ramotswe was born to a mining father who dies when she is quite young. But her father had saved enough money (cows) to give her a start in life, so she decides to use that money to open a detective agency (why not, right?), chasing down wayward husbands, insurance defrauders, and the like. She’s funny and practical and uses a lot of women’s intuition. Though she said she’d never marry after her first husband—a Jazz musician—was abusive, she eventually relents and marries kindly Mr. JLB Maketoni, a car mechanic and owner of Speedy Motors. Though I’ve only read two books so far, this is the kind of series that I’ll likely finish, picking up a book when I’m in the mood to be entertained. For someone who cranks out books quite readily, I’m impressed with the writing and the premise. My colleague listens to these on audio while she cooks. I read them while traveling.