read: remarkable creatures.

Remarkable Creatures

Read for book club, I was interested in “Remarkable Creatures” because the author, Tracy Chevalier, also wrote “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” To be honest, I haven’t read that book, but I did hear an interview on NPR with Chevalier, where she spoke about “Girl” and how the idea turned into a novel. That was interesting enough to make me want to read one of her novels.

This book was … ok. I think some people would really enjoy it, but it just wasn’t my type of book. Set in a beach town in the UK, Elizabeth Philpot and her two sisters move to a small cottage in Lyme Regis after a fourth sister gets married. Their brother doesn’t have enough left for dowry for these three, so they move to the country. It’s here that Elizabeth meets Mary Anning, a girl who was struck by lightening as a child. This is significant because Mary is skilled at spotting fossils on the beach–and many believe it’s because she was struck by lightening.

The book follows Elizabeth and Mary as Mary grows up, and how finding fossils changes both of their lives. Chevalier does a fantastic job of weaving real people and real events into a fictional story. There is a note at the back of the book about who and what was real versus what she created for the sake of story. That was almost more interesting to me.

The big reason I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I think other people might is that the story centers around Mary falling in love with the wrong man. This changes her relationship with Elizabeth, and leads to the big climax of the novel. I am not one for most love stories, and I don’t really enjoy books where women with successful, happy lives nearly lose everything because of a man. Yes, I realize this is appropriate for the era of the novel. Yes, I realize it happens in life. I just don’t like reading about it.

So, if that doesn’t bother you, it’s a good book. If you aren’t interested in love stories, this might not be the novel for you.

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read: the solitude of prime numbers.

Prime Numbers

“The Solitude of Prime Numbers” is the debut novel of Italian writer Paolo Giordano. It’s wonderful. One of those books I finish and sigh, wishing I could write something as good.

There is no procrastination in this book. Giordano gets right into the meat of the story, introducing us first to Alice and then to Mattia. Both characters experience something traumatic early in life–and in chapters one and two, we witness the trauma firsthand. I was hooked immediately in this book, wanting to know how the early events affected the rest of Alice and Mattia’s lives.

The book jumps ahead in years, providing vignettes of important events as the characters grow into adults. Alice and Mattia find each other in high school, though it never struck me as a strong connection. Because the teaser on the back of the book reads in part, “Years later, a chance encounter reunites them and forces a lifetime of concealed emotion to the surface. But can two prime numbers ever find a way to be together?” I was intrigued about how these two would find their way to each other after high school.

Mattia moves out of the country to pursue his career, while Alice flounders a bit, eventually marrying a doctor she met while her mom was in the hospital.

The book easily kept me engaged until the end, even with a large break in the middle while I read 1Q84, which had shown up from the library after a long wait (I had to finish that one before the library due date, and was sad to put this book down).

My favorite part of this book? The ending felt real. It wasn’t necessarily happy or sad, but felt complete and in line with the characters. Giordano did an excellent job of creating believable, well-rounded characters, and creating a compelling plot. Overall, it was a book I didn’t want to stop reading.

read: 1Q84.

1Q84

My beat-up library copy … excuse me. Well-loved library copy.

This book is a monster at 925 pages, and every bit is fantastic. I haven’t loved a book this much in quite awhile. Haruki Murakami split 1Q84 into three different books, each a few months during the span of the story. You can buy box sets with the three divided out, but they really need to be read all at once—so you might as well get the giant book and feel that much more accomplished when reaching the end. (Spoilers below, you’ve been warned.)

Aomame is a woman who works at a health club as a personal trainer, but also moonlights as a kind of assassin for a wealthy client.

Tengo is a math teacher and aspiring novelist, who is pulled into a scheme by his editor friend.

The two knew each other as children in elementary school, where an encounter left them both wondering what happened to the other 20 years later.

Fuka-Eri ran away from a religious cult and wrote a story about her experience. Tengo rewrote the story at the request of his editor-friend, where it went on to win an award and become a best-seller.

Oh, and of course, it’s Murakami, so toss in a bunch of magical realism. Suddenly Aomame and Tengo find themselves in 1Q84, and need to make sense of their world, try and survive and try to find each other.

It’s amazing.

Chapters flip between the main characters, and something is always happening. For 925 pages. Themes crop up again and again among the characters, and random events occur, but nothing felt extremely random or out of place to me. If, however, you are not a fan of magical realism, this might be a difficult book to read.

The plot moves along, but there are also bigger things at work in the story. Religion, love, God, time … I’m writing this right after I finished the book, so I’m sure there is a lot more that will come to mind after it’s sat for awhile.

Murakami’s writing is incredibly matter-of-fact, almost like he’s reporting a story after interviewing those involved. He does, however, delve into descriptions, offering details on how each character looks, dresses and acts, as well as things happening around the characters wherever they are. The world he creates is very full and alive, and he does an excellent job of creating a movie with his descriptions.

While Tengo just lets life happen to him, Aomame takes control of her life. The two balance each other out, so it didn’t bother me that Tengo was a bit ho-hum about everything. Peppered in are other interesting characters. Even the minor ones are pretty complete. I don’t feel like anyone felt flat with the exception of one, but even that fits him exactly how it should.

I would definitely recommend this book, especially if you enjoy magical realism, Japanese literature or have liked Murakami’s other novels. Just relax, and let the novel take you where it will.

Oh—and there are Little People, and two moons in the sky. What’s not to love?

read: the orchardist.

The Orchardist

Oh boy. “The Orchardist,” by Amanda Coplin, was a book club pick, and judging from the long wait list to get it from the library, it’s really popular right now (at least in Seattle). I’m only lukewarm on this one.

It’s the story of Talmadge, a guy who has an orchard in Washington state. He came to the state with his mother and sister, but soon after arrival the children’s mother died. Then, when Talmadge and his sister were older, his sister goes out into the woods and disappears one day. Left alone, he works his orchard and really lives a pretty lonely life.

Then one day, two girls show up from the woods. Both are pregnant. Della and Jane, the two sisters, won’t come near Talmadge, but he feels the need to take care of them, and so leaves food on the porch for them to eat. Eventually they start to trust him, though they don’t really speak to him, and don’t live in the house with him. Talmadge enlists the help of his friend Caroline Middey, and they support the girls, then help them deliver their babies when the time comes.

Jane has one baby girl, Della has twins that don’t make it. Soon after this, a man from Jane and Della’s past returns, and the girls panic. Talmadge loses Jane in the ensuing events, and is left with Della, and Jane’s infant daughter.

The book then moves through Della growing older, and the scars she has from her horrible childhood; Angelene, Jane’s daughter, and her life growing up with Talmadge; and Talmadge himself, and his mission to raise Angelene and try to help Della.

The story is interesting, takes unexpected turns, and I think handles the emotions of the characters well. The descriptions in the book are lovely, and the characters are fully developed. For me, however, the problems with the book landed in technical details.

Coplin changes the point of view frequently, and often did it in the middle of paragraphs. It’s jarring–I found the POV shifts incredibly distracting and confusing. There was also a story line that drifted off into nothingness and was never resolved, despite it seemingly being really important to Talmadge at the start of the story. Again, distracting and confusing.

Overall, I finished this book and could only think, where was her editor? These were relatively simple things in the grand scheme of creating a novel. The hard parts were taken care of–pacing was good, plot was good, descriptions were good, characters were good. But it only takes those little things to totally ruin a book for me, and that’s the case with this one.

read: in cold blood.

In Cold Blood

Truman Capote‘s “In Cold Blood” was on my 2013 reading list, though I picked it up on sale and it’s been sitting on my bookshelf for quite awhile. I considered it a must-read classic, which often means I buy a copy, then don’t get around to reading it in favor of the trendy, popular books. My reading life seems quite high school.

Confession: I watched “Capote” before I read this book. I’m not sure if I liked one more than the other. They were both great, and it probably doesn’t much matter what order they’re read/watched. But this is for the book so …

Loved this book. Truman Capote’s writing is incredible. I can’t believe the amount of information he had to sort through, organize and weave into a compelling story. It’s absolutely amazing. That alone is a reason to read the book. Word of warning, however: Even though you probably know what happens in the end, it still might not be the best book to read right before falling asleep. Spoiler (sort-of-not-really): The entire story revolves around the Clutter family, all of whom are is murdered in their home in the middle of the night. I tried reading it before bed and couldn’t fall asleep. So this became a strictly daytime book.

Capote follows not only the reaction in Holcomb, where the murders happened, but also the work of the police and Kansas Bureau of Investigation as well as the murderers. The full picture is painted, from a short history of the family to the backgrounds of the murderers. His research was so thorough–I wonder how much was left out.

I think the book is a good snapshot of small town America in the late ’50s, and actually a good snapshot of of small town America today, also. Some places don’t change very fast.

My one dislike is, I think, an indication of the time when the book was written, rather than a fault of Capote. The end of the book drags out, with Capote including histories of the other inmates in the jail–something I didn’t feel was necessary to increase my understanding of the story and actually detrimental to my enjoyment. I skimmed a lot of those pages. That said, I feel like it was far more common in the past to include longer conclusions (see the final Lord of the Rings book for an extremely popular example. Have you actually read those final pages? I never have. The ring is gone, the end.) than it is today. That’s it, however. Everything else was amazing. I’m in awe of what Capote did.

read: the girls.

The Girls

“The Girls” by Lori Lansens was the latest book club book. I didn’t remember anything about it when I picked it up from the library, other than it was about conjoined twin girls. Should be interesting, right?

Should be.

I finished the book–it wasn’t terrible–pretty quickly, but I think that’s because another book came in at the library I’d been waiting a long time for. Interesting things happened to the two girls, Rose and Ruby. Their parents, Aunt Lovely and Uncle Stash, were also interesting. The story wasn’t told in an interesting way, however. Strange, right?

Rose told most of the story, her premise wanting to write her autobiography. Because, obviously, she’s never truly alone, Ruby also contributes a few chapters. The girls live outside of Toronto in a small town called Leaford, where they go to school, graduate, get a job and figure out how to live when joined at the head.

There are a few surprises and unexpected events, but early on you’re told how the story ends, and for me, already a bit bored, this made it even harder to keep reading. In addition, Rose receives something at the end of the book that is really important, and I think is supposed to be the turning point, but it isn’t something I felt like she really, really wanted. So the climax of the book fell flat for me.

I gave this one two stars on Goodreads. I wasn’t angry I took the time to finish it, so it deserved more than one star.

read: wolf hall.

Wolf Hall

This book was the suggestion of a friend, and well, that’s why I’m friends with her. “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel is fantastic. And not just because I’m a King Henry VIII junkie.

Mantel’s story follows Thomas Cromwell, a low-born in 16th century England who managed to work his way up to one of King Henry VIII’s closest advisors. I’ve read some of Philippa Gregory’s books involving this same cast of characters, I’ve read the Alison Weir book “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” and I’ve watched “The Tudors.” (Fine, the show wasn’t exactly historically accurate, but it was still good.) Anyway, none of these takes Cromwell’s viewpoint, making this the same story flipped on its head.

Also, she writes the entire thing in third-person present tense. It’s incredible. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, just know it’s really hard to do well.

This is fiction, but it seems believable, and flows well. It’s a monster of a book at more than 600 pages, but never felt slow. You learn about Cromwell’s childhood, and how that influences his behavior as an adult. You watch him work, scheme and talk his way into more and more importance in English society. This wouldn’t normally be possible for a blacksmith’s son, but Cromwell has a certain mix of intelligence, daring and luck that make it possible.

The other thing I love is getting a view of the king and all the craziness around his divorce/annulment/whatever it actually was from Katherine and marriage to Anne. Plus, it offers a look into what was going on with those who believed the bible should be in English, accesible to all, and those that remained behind Rome.

Wouldn’t have wanted to live in the 16th century, but I love reading about it. This, by the way, is the first in a trilogy about Cromwell. Time to get No. 2

read: sheepish.

Sheepish

I don’t often read memoir, but this read for my book club was funny, quick and interesting. “Sheepish: Two Women, Fifty Sheep & Enough Wool to Save the Planet,” by Catherine Friend, is her memoir about raising a small flock of sheep with her partner on a farm in Minnesota.

It’s a very quick read, probably a good vacation book. The chapters are short, and the book is divided up into five parts, though even then it’s only 255 pages long. She covers her experience with sheep, living on a farm, hitting middle age, dealing with “fiber freaks” and learning how to knit. She’s a funny writer who draws clever similarities between events.

My favorite anecdote in the novel … well, there are two. The first is when she finally realizes Elvis is dead and never coming back (decades after his death), causing an emotional meltdown. The second is when she finally succeeds at knitting socks, using wool from her own sheep, and is so proud she hoists her socked foot onto a store counter to show off.

Friend talks a lot about lambs in this book, both bringing them into the world and caring for them. Despite how hard it sounds, the lambs sound so cute it kind of makes me want to befriend some. So of course, I ended up spending far too much time on YouTube looking up videos of lambs playing. Avoid that hole. You’ll never get out.

She also talks quite a bit about the history of sheep, the history of wool and the environmental impact of both wool and other commonly used fibers. I did learn things I didn’t know, and the book might make you want to search out more wool for your wardrobe. Were I a knitter, I’d switch to wool yarn and avoid acrylic as much as possible. But I’ve tried. I am not a knitter.

Anyone interested in farming, sheep, knitting or even the environment would probably like this book. It’s a nice, quick read if you need something during an upcoming vacation.

read: the marriage plot.

The Marriage Plot

I love Jeffrey Eugenides, but it took me a long time to get to “The Marriage Plot.” I’m not sure why. I liked it a lot, but I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite of his. I’ve decided this because I actually finished it weeks ago, but it didn’t stick with me the way “Middlesex” did–so I think Middlesex takes the prize for my favorite Eugenides book thus far.

Set in the 1980s, The Marriage Plot follows three people who are just finishing college–Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus. The book follows the point of view of both Madeleine and Mitchell, but I’d say Madeleine is the center of the story. She, at different points in the book, is involved with both men, eventually staying with Leonard. But they all graduate college and, when entering the real world, discover things aren’t always what they imagined them to be. Madeleine and Leonard move to Cape Cod for Leonard’s job while Mitchell backpacks around India.

I liked Mitchell a lot. He’s a mess, he has no idea who he is, but I still like him. Probably because he decides wandering the globe is a good way to try to figure things out. It’s something I wish I would’ve done more of. Madeleine I wasn’t as fond of, she just seemed to have a sense of duty so strong it was harmful. Sometimes, girl, you just have to say no. And Leonard … he’s a necessary character, and his flaws are not his fault, but he’s a tough one to read about.

The book went quickly: I finished it in a few days. That said, my one complaint is that there aren’t chapters. There are, I believe, five sections of the book, but no chapters within the sections. Personal preference, maybe, but it’s nice to have a good stopping point when reading before bed, for example. This book doesn’t provide that, and it might be one of the reasons I finished it so fast. When there’s no chapter break, I tend to just keep reading.

I also like how this novel ended. It felt real to me, and it wasn’t the ending I sometimes think books get because that’s what a movie would require. It wasn’t happy, but it wasn’t overly sad. It was just what needed to happen for these characters. I gave this book got four out of five stars on Goodreads. Looking forward to the next Eugenides book.

read: one thousand white women: the journals of may dodd.

One Thousand White Women

My book club, like I think every book club in the country, picked Jim Fergus’ “One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd” as our latest read. After finishing it (in just a few days, it’s a quick one), I understand why it’s popular with book clubs. This book brings up a lot of topics to discuss, and I think it’s one of those books that many people really love or really hate.

Fergus is a journalist, though this is a work of fiction. But the idea came about when he learned about a peace conference in 1854 at Fort Laramie. A prominent Cheyenne chief asked for 1,000 white women from the United States Government to be brides for his warriors. The thought was that these children, because the Cheyenne are matrilineal, would belong to their mother’s tribe and thus help assimilate the Cheyenne into the white world. In real life, this didn’t happen. Fergus’ book imagines it did.

May Dodd is one of those white women who go to live with the Cheyenne. She chooses to go because she’d been placed in an insane asylum by her family and this was her way out. She ends up marrying Chief Little Wolf, and becomes his third wife. The book follows her decision to join the program, the journey out to the prairie, and what happens after the 40 women she starts traveling with are actually given to the tribe.

I thought this book was interesting–like I mentioned about, it reads quickly–and May had a definite voice. She was a complicated character, as were those around her. There is a wonderful cast of white women and Cheyenne people that Fergus does a good job of fleshing out. For the most part, I think he did a good job of portraying what life on the prairie was like, and probably got very close to what life was like for the Cheyenne during that period.

My biggest complaint with this book: it seemed like Fergus made a list of all the stereotypes of Native Americans, and then one by one, had them happen in the book. Don’t handle alcohol well, check. Kidnap and rape women, check. I understand upping the stakes, giving your character problems to overcome … but man, if it could happen to May Dodd, it happened. I felt the same way about this book as I did after watching the movie Armageddon (Yup, I’m referencing a movie from the 90s. Guess how old I am). The only thing left to go wrong in that movie was Bruce Willis breaking his thumb, somehow, before he could push the trigger button. (Sorry if that’s lost on you because you haven’t seen that movie.) It becomes a giant eye-roll.

I would say if you enjoy reading about mid 19th century America or if you enjoy Native American stories, you’ll enjoy this book. If you want an easy beach read, you’d probably enjoy this book. Fergus is a good writer, so I wouldn’t be opposed to reading another book he’s written. He creates interesting characters and does a good job of placing you in the setting and appealing to all of your senses.