a blog by Ellen Davies

Let’s talk about books!

Let’s talk about books!

Re-Reading 

You guys, it’s summer! I should be chewing through books! But I’m not, most likely because I’ve been re-reading my favorites (example: Eligible, below). How do you feel about revisiting books? Some people don’t ever re-read, but I find that I get more out of it. I tend to be a fast reader, which can be a good thing, but it also means that sometimes I’m reading fast to find out what happens, and I need to go back later and read it slowly to savor the language.


Hungry Heart

by Jennifer Weiner. One of my favorite writers, have I mentioned that before? Her books inspire me to write. And I found her memoir to be entertaining and inspiring.

 


Eligible

by Curtis Sittenfeld. I love this book, and I’ve read it three times. It’s a modern re-telling of Pride and Prejudice, set in Cincinnati. But don’t let that scare you away–this book is so clever and funny. Sittenfeld deals with all the same issues as did Austen, including issues of class, education, money, yet throws in a few modern ones as well, like homosexuality and transgenders. The five (unmarried) Bennett sisters are Jane: a yoga instructor trying to get pregnant via AI; Liz: a magazine editor who lives in New York and involved with a married man; Mary, reclusive, unemployed, and working on her third masters degree; Kitty, unemployed and into Crossfit and doing whatever Lydia tells her to do; and Lydia, also unemployed and dating her Crossfit instructor. The title of the book comes from the name of the reality show Eligible, where everyone learned of Chip Bingley, who was the star of a previous season. He’s an ER doctor who went to Harvard Medical School with a guy named Fitzwilliam Cornelius Darcy, who also happens to work at the renowned stroke clinic in town.



Swing Time

by Zadie Smith. I struggled a little with this book. The main character is never named, and that bugged me. Smith’s writing can be subtle at times, so if you aren’t reading closely, you might miss something. The main character is mixed race, and she is never mentioned by name because the whole novel is about identity. She doesn’t really make any decisions for herself because she works as a personal assistant to a big pop star (named Aimee, but I kept picturing Madonna). Her time is not her own. She is at the mercy of Aimee’s whims and needs. Therefore she is whoever Aimee wants her to be. Her mother never saw her as a person because she was too busy educating herself and pontificating on the challenges of their race. Two men fall in love with her, but she doesn’t return the feelings, probably because the person they love is not really her. Her best friend (or frenemy, really) is a talented dancer named Tracey. While the main character seems content to let Tracey be, and doesn’t have much jealousy towards her (regarding her stage career), Tracey keeps pulling her friend back down. Almost as if she can’t be successful because Tracey wants to remind her that “that’s not who you are.”

 


Born A Crime

by Trevor Noah. This is Trevor’s story of growing up under apartheid in South Africa as the son of a German/Swiss father and a Xhosa mother. The title refers to how it was a crime for the races to mix, so he was, essentially, born a crime. I thought I knew about apartheid, but this well-written memoir really opened my eyes. I had no idea about how the many different African tribes were encouraged (by the white rulers) to turn against each other, so they couldn’t unite to throw off their oppression. This is just one of the many facts I learned about it. Trevor’s story is captivating, and I find it hard to put this down. But he’s not only telling his story, but also his mother’s story, and what an amazing woman she is–independent, stubborn, smart, determined. Trevor is a good writer and at times the stories are hilarious, but this isn’t a comedy book. It’s about how he managed to become a comedian despite his upbringing.

 


My Name is Lucy Barton

by Elizabeth Strout. I love her books. I love how her writing style is so spare, so elegantly simple. She says so much in so few words. We learn about Lucy’s childhood from just a few selected memories, like the truck, and the snake, for instance. This book is about a troubled relationship between a mother and a daughter, and how much we still love even after we’ve been hurt.


The Nix

by Nathan Hill. This book starts off slow–the main character is addicted to online gaming, unable to write his novel, hating his job. He’s such a loser that it’s hard to keep reading. But then we learn about the Nix, the Norwegian house spirit that represents the thing you love the most, and also the thing that will destroy you. The book unfolds slowly, introducing us to Samuel’s mother, the woman who abandoned him as a child, who is now all over social media as the former 60’s radical once arrested for prostitution who threw a handful of rocks at a far-right conservative running for president. Prompted by his agent, Samuel decides to write a scathing tell-all book about her, and then slowly begins to learn her story. But the book is so much more than that–600 pages that takes us from one character to the next, including former hippies protesting the 1968 Democratic convention, video game addicts, college students who justify plagiarism, musical prodigies, and more.


Small Great Things

by Jodi Picoult. Another book club selection. And I had a really hard time reading it, because on of the main characters is a white supremist. An angry, spiteful, revengeful white supremist, that is, who directs all his hatred towards the African-American nurse who cares for his wife and newborn baby. He demands that the black nurse not touch his baby. Then something happens to the baby, and… well, let’s just say that there are a lot of people in this country with the same mindset as this character, and they helped elect Trump, and they scare me. But I kept reading, and the story got more and more compelling. I get annoyed with Picoult’s writing style, however. She ends each chapter with a cliffhanger, and then begins the next chapter with, “When I was four years old, I had a favorite yellow dress…” and you just want to scream at her to get on with the story! Stop telling me about the stupid yellow dress, what happens next? This is why I don’t read many Jodi Picoult books. She’s a good writer and hugely successful, and she is eager to take on difficult subjects and put them in a legal setting. In the end, I really liked this one.


Only Love Is Real

by Brian Weiss. This is a book about past lives. Weiss does past life regression therapy, where he hypnotizes patients (with their consent) and they revisit past lives. I am just now starting to wrap my head around the whole idea of past lives. I did a past life meditation with Bree as part of Soul Sculpt, and I didn’t get anywhere with it. But I’m curious to know more. Not because I want to get stuck in the past, but because sometimes it can help you figure out the present.


Sisi: Empress on Her Own

by Allison Pataki. This is the March book club selection: an historical novel about the life of Empress Elizabeth, known as Sisi. She was married to the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, Franz Joseph, of the Habsburgs. Stuart and I toured the Hofburg when we were in Vienna a few years ago, and I remembered the stories about Sisi. She is the one who was so afraid of losing her beauty that she slept in a leather face mask filled with raw veal to prevent wrinkles. Yeah, that sounds weird, but is it any worse than Botox? Anyway, this book is entertaining, and I learned about her life. I got used to the flowery romantic language, but at times it is tedious. If you like historical fiction, this is a good one.


Anne Frank: The Biography

by Melissa Muller. This book was published in 1998, and I read it several years ago. I pulled it out to re-read, because in April Stuart and I are going to visit the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. The early chapters tell about the reasons why Otto Frank wanted to move his family out of Germany. And it sounds chillingly like the United States today. A demagoguge gains power, even though most of the country thinks he will never win, because his views are so extreme. This person starts blaming an ethnic group for all the problems in the country. It makes my blood run cold, and I’m only a few chapters into the book.


Miller’s Valley

by Anna Quindlen. Guess what–I’m actually joining a book club! Finally! This is the book for the upcoming meeting. It is the kind of book I really love: a story that completely draws you in, and makes you want to keep reading until the end (even if that means staying up all night). A small town, a family farm, a young woman coming of age, and the government men who want to build a dam and flood the valley. Add in a ne’er-do-well brother, a crazy aunt who doesn’t leave the house, a pregnant teenager, and hopes for a better life.


Why Not Me?

by Mindy Kaling. Love this woman. She is whip-smart, and her humor is razor sharp.


Daughter of Empire: My Life as a Mountbatten

by Pamela Hicks. This is a memoir written by a cousin of Philip Mountbatten (the husband of Queen Elizabeth). Pamela Mountbatten Hicks has had a fascinating life, and she’s a great writer. I learned about this book while watching The Crown on Netflix. Pamela Hicks was a bridesmaid to the Princess Elizabeth, and she was a lady in waiting when Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip toured Africa in 1952. It was on that trip that King George VI died, and thus Elizabeth became queen. I’m kind of an anglophile, so I’m always interested in learning about England, history, and the royal family. But the real meat of her story is about what happened right after WWII, when Pamela’s father was named Viceroy of India. Her parents were the ones who orchestrated India’s independence. Now that’s a fascinating story.


Today Will Be Different

by Maria Semple. I enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette, so I was happy to see another novel from her. This novel follows Eleanor Flood through a very full day of her life, as she is determined to deal with her life in a different way. She is a flighty mess, and rather annoying. But then we start to figure out why she acts that way, and I wonder why it took so long (a third of the book!) to learn it. I didn’t much like this book. I felt like Semple took the easy way out by switching narrators at the end. Suddenly we get a section from Eleanor’s husband? And that’s supposed to explain everything? It doesn’t. Meh. (Also, I discovered that this will be a TV movie starring Julia Roberts. That actress is on my IRL [irrational hate list] so I’m not thrilled about it.)

   


The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

by Denise Kiernan. This is probably the fourth time I’ve read this book. I am fascinated by the story of the Oak Ridge secret community and its role in the war. I grew up just down the road, and I never knew anything about this. They enriched “tubealloy” in the massive factories in Oak Ridge. The story is amazing because all the people came together for a common goal: to win the war. They didn’t mind that they weren’t given all the information. They knew how to keep secrets and work hard. They didn’t ask questions about “tubealloy,” because if they did, they would be fired immediately. They trusted that whatever it was, it would end the war swiftly. I can’t imagine something like this happening today. Of course it’s not perfect–the African Americans were treated poorly, for example. The Clinton Engineering Works hired mostly young women, because young women took direction easily and did what they were told. But despite this, it is a fascinating read.


Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. I enjoyed her book Truly, Madly, Guilty, and I wanted to read some more of her books. Then I heard that Big Little Lies is going to be a big HBO movie/series, starring Reese Witherspoon, so I jumped on this one. I liked it. It takes a little patience to get into it, because there are so many characters, and everyone is alluding so something that happened and the reader doesn’t know anything yet. But once you hit your stride, it’s a compelling who-done-it with a twist. It also shows us the dark side of marriage, and what we hide from the world. I’m looking forward to the series.


When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. I gave this to Stuart for Christmas. He loved it. I am about halfway through, savoring it. Kalanithi writes like a poet. This is his story. He became a neurosurgeon, then was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. It is beautifully written. He writes an amazing letter to his infant daughter a few months before he dies. I have to quote it here, because it is so beautiful:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.


Home Front and The Nightengale

by Kristin Hannah. *UPDATE: This is a great book. It’s sad, but it unflinchingly tells the story of how deployments and PTSD and devastating injuries affect soldiers and their families.* I loved The Nightengale, so I wanted to read other books by the same author. I am about 45% of the way through (thanks to Kindle I know stats like that) and so far it is compelling, but feels contrived. It feels a little too heavy, a little too forced. However, I felt that way about The Nightengale the first time I read it. I actually hated it, if we’re being honest. Then I re-read it a few months later, and I was amazed at how good it was. But enough about The Nightengale. Home Front is about a family. The mother grew up with abandonment issues. She joined the Army, then the National Guard. She and her husband have two daughters. Then she is deployed, and she feels like she’s abandoning her daughters, just what she swore she would never do. Her husband, a lawyer, is struggling to balance work and family responsibilities while she’s gone. The daughters are acting out. Hilarity ensues! Kidding! Just wanted to see if you read this far.

     

 


The New Yorker. I haven’t started a new book yet because I want to catch up on my New Yorkers. Ha ha, that’s a joke. No one ever gets caught up. The magazine just keeps coming, week after week, relentlessly.


Hungry Heart by Jennifer Weiner. She is one of my favorite fiction authors (All Fall Down, In Her Shoes, etc.) and now she has published a book of essays. Or you could call it a memoir. I love her writing because it always inspires me to write. I love her voice–she writes like you two are best friends and you’re talking over coffee. Or wine. She has a great sense of humor. Last December, Rebecca and I saw her and Lisa Scottolini at an event called Radio Times Live, and she signed a book for me. I was starstruck. Afterwards I almost cried because I so badly wanted to be her–be a writer. I’m getting there.


The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. This book is science fiction, which usually isn’t my thing, but I started reading it before I knew that, and then I was hooked. It’s about a minister sent to be a missionary to a very strange new land. I liked it. One thing I really liked is how the author gradually reveals where the missionary is going. At first I thought he was just going to Florida, but that isn’t the final destination. The main character can be a little too full of himself, and his ego is part of the story.


Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. I was really disappointed with this book. I kept waiting to be swept away by the story, and it never happened. Her other books, most notably Bel Canto and State of Wonder, were captivating. But this one seemed so flat to me. Did you read it and like it? Help me appreciate it! The point of the story seemed to be a family tragedy that someone exploits, and how the family members react to it. But I was more interested in how the family reacted to the tragedy itself–and it seemed like they all just outgrew it. A young man dies, accidentally, and his siblings and cousins agree to lie about it and everyone moves on.


Writing From the Heart by Nancy Slonim Aronie. I re-read this in preparation for my writing-and-yoga workshop. This is a fun book about writing, and Nancy’s voice is engaging and funny.


Yoga Beyond the Mat by Alanna Kaivalya. I finished this last week, but I’m still digesting it. This is a really deep book about how to use the principles of yoga for your spiritual journey. This is not about yoga asana, which are not spiritually fulfilling by themselves. If you think yoga is all about arm balances and wrapping your leg behind your head, then maybe you aren’t ready to learn how yoga can take you much further. It’s full of practices to expand your spiritual self.


Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I have told everyone I’m reading this, but really it’s just sitting there, accusingly. When I do finally get back to it, I’m sure I’ll get the total silent treatment.