Saturday, February 03, 2024

Everything I Read in January, 2024


1. Owls and Other Fantasies by Mary Oliver - Last year, I deliberately began the year with a volume of Mary Oliver's poems and a book by Thich Nhat Hanh because I consider both writers "uppers". They always make my spirits soar. So, I returned to Oliver, this year. Owls and Other Fantasies is a mix of poetry and essays and her essays are every bit as poetic as her poems. I persist in saying that Mary Oliver was at her best when she wrote about nature and this is definitely a nature-focused book, so it became an instant favorite. Great way to start a new year!!

2. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by R. A. Dick - The old black and white movie The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was a childhood favorite of mine, so when I saw a friend's Instagram post saying she was rereading the book and then planning to watch the movie, I was excited. There was a book? I had no idea! I ordered both the book and movie and planned to do the same as friend Robin. The story is about a widow in England. Her husband left her fairly poor so she and the children have been living with her in-laws. But, Lucy Muir is tired of being told what to do and when to do it. She longs to be independent and live by the sea. After finding a reasonably-priced and furnished home, she moves in. It's haunted by the ghost of a seaman, Captain Gregg, but Lucy and Captain Gregg come to an understanding and there she stays. A story of determination and a uniquely lovely romance with an absolutely perfect ending. Bonus: husband loved the movie! 

3. The Unteachables by Gordon Korman - Mr. Kermit is marking time till he can take early retirement in June. Ever since he was blamed for a scandal early in his career, he's lost interest in teaching. Now, he's been put in charge of SCS-8, a group of middle school misfits known as "The Unteachables". All he cares about is getting through the school year. But, as he gets to know his students and spots injustice, he steps up to fight for his students. In response, they step up for him, learn to work together, become friends, and set out to right a decades-old wrong that's turned into a cruel power move on the part of the superintendent. Hilarious storytelling, wonderful characterization, and a surprisingly moving ending. I'm such a sap. I laughed, I cried. I loved this middle grade story. 

4. The Art of Living by Thich Nhat Hanh - A guide for living, as the title says, The Art of Living is about living with mindfulness in every part of your life, whether it's walking, eating, breathing, brushing your teeth, or anything else you do. Mindfulness is a pretty easy concept, just about being aware of the fact that you're alive, taking the time to appreciate the sun beating down upon your shoulders or the taste of your food, etc. Some of the basic principles of Buddhism are a little harder to understand, but I particularly liked the way Hanh describes what he calls "interbeing," which is simply the fact that everything is interconnected. If our planet suffers, we suffer. If we take care of Earth, we thrive. That kind of thing. I need more of this. You don't have to be a Buddhist to appreciate the way the spiritual principles can enhance your life and make you more compassionate, relaxed, and connected. 

5. In a Flash by Donna Jo Napoli - Simona and Carolina are young Italians girls, aged 8 and 5. When their father gets a job in the Italian Embassy in Tokyo, in 1940, he thinks they'll be safer in Japan than Italy as war rages in Europe. They miss their Nonna, but the girls go to a Japanese school where they quickly learn to adapt, although they'll always be considered foreigners. But, a year into their stay, Japan attacks the United States. As the war continues, food becomes scarce, attacks come closer to their home, and being foreigners becomes even more dangerous. When they're separated from their father, will the girls manage to survive and will they ever be reunited with their beloved Papá? For a middle grade book, this was quite long (nearly 400 pages) and very educational, as well as quite a rollercoaster ride. I don't want to spoil it for anyone but I will say that In a Flash is very gripping, at times, and I really enjoyed it. 

6. Cats in Hats by Jo Clark - I struggled to figure out how to define this book (in my head) after finishing but eventually decided "humor" works. Along with illustrations of cats in silly headgear are descriptions that are often quite funny. I love the illustrations. Every one of the cats looks slightly irritated, which is fitting from the perspective of a cat owner whose kitties are literally paralyzed with horror if I dress them up (I no longer try; it was too upsetting to them). I have particular favorites of the illustrations but my absolute favorite is the cat in a bunny hat. 

7. I Hope This Finds You Well by Kate Baer - In this second volume of poetry by the wildly popular author of What Kind of Woman, Baer uses news articles, letters/emails, and other documents, many negative about her personally, and turns them into blackout poetry with her usual focus on feminism and being who you choose to be, unbent by the dictates of others. 

8. Before Your Memory Fades (Before the Coffee Gets Cold #3) by Toshikazu Kawaguchi - The third in the series of stories about a café from which people can time travel takes place in a different city but the strict rules for time traveling are the same. Nagare has traveled to his mother's café to keep it open while she's in the United States. There is a table with a ghost, just like the one in Tokyo. The change of location allows for descriptions of the changing seasons shown through the window, which looks down onto a bay. There are four interconnected stories in Before Your Memory Fades, each with someone who desires to see someone in the future or past. The stories are consistently heartwarming and I've loved every one of the books, so far. 

9. Siam by Lily Tuck - My latest stationary bike read, the story of a newlywed couple living in Thailand in the 1960s. James is in the military. His new wife Claire entertains herself by learning Thai history, taking lessons in the language, and obsessing over the disappearance of a wealthy silk merchant. I found Claire annoying, although I appreciated her curiosity about the country and language. James was wrapped up in himself and the servants were inscrutable. At times I enjoyed Siam for the author's descriptive power but eventually I grew tired of the characters and I found the ending very disappointing. TW: There's a very disturbing rape scene. 

10. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. - An epic sci-fi novel about a post-apocalyptic Earth told in three parts, beginning with 600 years after nuclear apocalypse has wiped out most of the population, left about a third with genetic mutation, and led to the eradication of knowledge. An abbey has been built from the rubble and the monks are the few who worked to save any scraps of knowledge they could find and hide. It's a dark age but some documents are found in a fallout shelter and the monks are continuing to study and copy old documents in the hope that understanding will return. In the second part, knowledge is growing, the population has rebounded, but nation states have formed and war is brewing. It's basically the beginning of the Industrial Age. In the third section, knowledge has caught up and surpassed the pre-apocalyptic science, new planets are being inhabited, and it's a new nuclear age but a rocket has been fired. Was it deliberate or accidental? Will negotiations prevent a second nuclear annihilation? Seriously, epic. Just so much to discuss. I fortunately have been able to read A Canticle for Leibowitz while my husband listened to the radio play, so I've had someone to talk to about it. I definitely recommend it for group reading or buddy reads.  

11. Once Upon a Tim by Stuart Gibbs - For a palate cleanser after reading about nuclear annihilation, I turned to one of my favorite middle grade authors. Once Upon a Tim is for the younger end of the middle grade spectrum, heavily illustrated and with "IQ BOOSTER" notes in which Gibbs uses an above-level word and then defines it. The story is about a peasant named Tim who decides to become a knight, along with his best friend Belinda, when a princess is kidnapped by a skinx. The dashing prince is actually a coward, so he recruits the two children and the village idiot to help him rescue Princess Grace. But, in order to save her, they'll have to go through the Forest of Doom, over the River of Doom, across the Chasm of Doom, and into the lair of the skinx. Very adventurous and funny, as are all of Gibbs' books. He's a favorite for good reason. 

12. Juliàn is a Mermaid by Jessica Love - A frequently-banned picture book for ages 2-6, this title popped up when I was scrolling through the Hoopla offerings. Unfortunately, it was only available in audio format, so I didn't get to see the illustrations. Juliàn has a passion for mermaids and dresses up as one, using ferns for a headdress and a curtain for his tail. It's probably banned because he puts on lipstick (that's just a guess), but it's the story of a little boy who finds something he likes and plays dress-up. I flipped through some reviews and one says it has beautiful watercolor illustrations of New York. I'll check the children's section, next time I'm at my library. I loved the story so I'd like to see the illustrations.

13. Silence by Thich Nhat Hanh - Another new favorite from the Buddhist monk, Silence is not just about being quiet. It's also about calming the hamster wheel inside your head, how learning to shut off outside noise to meditate, sitting or walking quietly, turning off social media and TV, all can help you learn to be present and really appreciate life. I can think of a lot of friends who I'm sure would enjoy this title. My son has been very stressed and when I told him about how it helps you quiet your mind so you can relax, he said, "Oh, I need that!" Side note: I had a great deal of trouble silencing my Energizer Bunny brain when I started reading but I gradually improved at focusing on the book. So, it really does work for me. 

14. Shubeik Lubeik by Deena Mohamed - What a fascinating book! This graphic novel imagines a world in which wishes are a commodity, there are three classes of wishes (3rd class wishes often go wrong), and each class of wishes has very strict rules and regulations for their use. Shokry has inherited three 1st class wishes. He's been trying to sell them from his kiosk in Cairo for years, but has had no luck. Eventually, Aziza finds out about his wishes for sale and because they're expensive, she works for years saving the money to buy one. Things go horribly wrong when she goes to register her wish. Years later, Nour buys a wish and goes into therapy to learn how to use it properly to help with their depression. Finally, Shokry wants to give the last wish to a friend but she's adamantly opposed to taking it or having someone use it on her and she tells her story. Where the final wish eventually goes is a hoot. I bought this book for group discussion and the discussion was a good one, a surprising but excellent choice. 

15. The Labyrinth of Doom by Stuart Gibbs (Once Upon a Tim #2) - I decided to go ahead and read the only other book I have in the Once Upon a Tim series (there are two more out there, but I don't have copies of either) in case I decide to pass them on together, soon, which seems likely. Tim and Belinda, aka "Bull" are now being trained in knighthood as employees of Princess Grace. When one of the knights working as a sentry falls asleep on the job and Princess Grace makes the mistake of buying poisoned apples from a vendor who shouldn't have been allowed in, she is once again kidnapped and this time placed in a dangerous labyrinth. Tim and Bull must rescue her. Another exciting adventure. I confess that the endings of both books felt a little like a cop-out (too easy) but after all the danger and humor . . . eh, whatever. Definitely a series I'd like to continue. These are for the younger middle grade crowd with lots of illustrations. 

16. Faraway Places by Tom Spanbauer - Everything goes wrong during the summer of the Chinook on Jacob's family's Idaho farm in Faraway Places. Jacob is a lanky teenager (near as I can tell). His father has told him to stay out of the river and there are some forbidden places on the farm, as well. But, it's a hot summer, so Jake starts going to the river to cool off. While there, he witnesses a murder, and that's just the beginning. A bleak, brutal, but compelling story that's well written but unsettling and sometimes very disturbing or offensive. This was my most recent stationary bike read. I can't say I enjoyed it but there was definitely something magnetic about Spanbauer's writing that kept the pages turning. 

Not pictured in either photo is Juliàn is a Mermaid because it was a Hoopla audio. 

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