I read quite a variety of books in March, most for the PopSugar reading challenge but also, as always, a few that I just enjoyed reading or read in order to learn something. One thing I am doing more this year than previously is reading more than one book for some categories of the reading challenge. Some are because I just happen to like the category (I’m always up for reading books about libraries and bookstores), and others are because when I looked for books to fit the category, I found multiple possibilities and decided to read more than one. And in at least one case, I decided after finishing the first book that it didn’t fit the category as well as I had thought, and chose to read another that would fit it better.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin was the month’s selection for the local library’s book group, but it also happens to fit “Your favorite prompt from a past POPSUGAR Reading Challenge” as it involves a bookstore or library. I had read it a few years ago and enjoyed it (and recommended it to the book club leader for one of our monthly selections), and I was happy enough to read it again. I remembered enough of it to be less moved by some of the events of the book (I’m sure I got choked up the first time around), but had forgotten enough details not to be at all bored rereading them.
I picked out Tropic of Capricorn by Simon Reeve for a book with a zodiac sign or astrology term in the title. I was pleased to have found a book that used a zodiac sign without having anything to do with astrology, and even more so by the fact that it was an interesting non-fiction book I could learn from about parts of the world, and the people who live there, that I knew very little about. I learned some history, some geography, and about some people groups that most people have never heard of, and their unfortunately vanishing way of life. Some readers object to the moralizing tone regarding two issues (treatment of minorities, and climate change), and sometimes it did get a bit annoying, but if the author feels strongly about these issues, then it makes sense for him to convey that passion to his readers.
I puzzled over what to choose for a book that has inspired a common phrase or idiom (e.g. Big Brother from 1984), as the top choices were books I had read previously (such as 1984 and Catch-22), since I mostly try to read books I have not read before. I finally picked The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, for the phrase “man behind the curtain” (even though the phrase is from the movie, not the book, since the idea clearly came from the book even if not the actual words). I had read it repeatedly as a child, but not ever since then, and had been considering reading it for a book that made me feel nostalgic (see below for what I ended up choosing for that prompt). I greatly enjoyed reading it again, and found so much to say about it that I wrote a blog post just on that, so I won’t repeat it here.
Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border by Octavio Solis had been suggested to me for an “own voices” book by the librarian at the college, but at the time it hadn’t yet made it as far as the New Books shelves, so I had picked another book for that prompt. Then I came across references to this book elsewhere, and when I found it, finally, on the New Books shelves, I decided to read a second book for the same prompt. It was certainly interesting, though I didn’t find it quite as wonderful as the blurbs on the cover described it (not an unusual experience).
Another challenging prompt was a book that takes place in a single day. I read reviews of the books that were suggested, and finally decided on Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, mostly because I remember learning about Bellow in 9th grade English but never having read anything by him, and I decided it was time to remedy that. I can’t say I enjoyed the experience, though I don’t know whether this book is typical Bellow or not. Fortunately it is a short book.
When the goal is to read a book with a plant in the title or on the cover, I guess it’s natural to judge a book by its cover. So I picked The Cactus by Sarah Haywood. Considering that I had just finished another book which I didn’t care for a great deal (Seize the Day) and put it down to not liking the main character, I found it surprising how much I enjoyed reading this book despite the main character’s obvious flaws. I wasn’t sure I liked her, but I couldn’t dislike her either. Maybe I identified with her in some aspects? Or maybe it’s just Haywood’s good writing. Anyway, I really liked this book, and as I suspected, I got to like the character more as I got to know her more, and as she found herself being changed by impending motherhood as well as changing relationships with her family and acquaintances.
I had thought Saint’s Gate by Carla Neggers would count as a book set in an abbey, cloister, monastery, vicarage, or convent, but while the murder took place in a convent, very little of the investigation did. (I suppose I could still have counted it for that prompt, but I find books with those settings naturally interesting to me as they deal with issues of faith in one way or another, so I decided to read another book. Or two or three.) This novel was moderately interesting but not great writing. I liked the mix of mystery, art, Maine setting (plus a short trip to Ireland), and the role of religion in people’s lives. But I could have done without the romance, which felt forced and formulaic, and detracted from rather than added to the story. I would have preferred more about the work of solving art theft, Viking hoards (alluded to be not really discussed), and Irish immigration to Maine.
I read These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf because it was the next month’s selection for the local library’s book club, not because it was a book told from multiple character POVs, but I quickly realized it fit that prompt quite well. (I had been trying to decide how many character POVs were needed to count as “multiple.” Technically two is multiple, but it seemed like there should be more than that. Four, I decided, was definitely multiple.) Like the previous book we had read by Gudenkauf for the book club, it was very interesting to read, but I couldn’t help thinking, after I had finished it, that the characters were less convincing than they had seemed while I was in the middle of reading it. Would people really act the way they are depicted in the novel? There are all sorts of people in the world, so … maybe. But on reflection, these seemed to fit roles assigned to them by the author more than to develop in the often contradictory ways that real people do.
Having already read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for another prompt, I decided on The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame for a book that makes you nostalgic. Like Baum’s book, I had not read it since childhood, but in this case I’m not sure I had ever actually read it myself, as opposed to having it read to me. (There probably were books besides the Pooh books, The Wind in the Willows, and stories by Saki, that my father read to my sister and me, but those are the ones I remember hearing, over and over again.) It was strange – in a nice way – to again encounter those characters and their illustrations after so many years. I can’t pin down the feelings they evoked, but it’s kind of like going into a building you haven’t visited in many years and finding everything as you remember it, even details you hadn’t consciously remembered. There were feelings attached to each character, though I couldn’t pinpoint what they were, just that they were so familiar they brought back a sense of something, I just couldn’t say what it was.
I had read something by Timothy Keller last year or the year before, so when I had the chance to get two of his books in one volume at a bargain price, I jumped at the chance. These were The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism and the much shorter The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Gospel. Both are good books, thought-provoking and with a somewhat different perspective on some things, though neither had anything really new to me. People have different reactions to Keller’s books, ranging from high praise to disdain, depending on their religious views and backgrounds, but on the whole he seems to do a good job of communicating Christian truths to people who have little knowledge of the Christian faith.
I waited a few months for a copy from the library, but I finally got to listen to an audiobook version of Louise Penny’s latest novel, Kingdom of the Blind. I enjoyed it, as I have enjoyed all of Penny’s Armand Gamache novels. The recent ones have gone in different directions than the earlier ones, and a part of me misses aspects of the earlier ones. But if she kept writing them the same way, no doubt I’d find it overly repetitive and want something different.
Having enjoyed Penny’s books so much, when I saw a book edited by Louise Penny, I eagerly checked it out of the library. But The Best American Mystery Stories 2018 are mostly not mystery stories as we usually think of them. The introduction explains that the term is used loosely, to describe any story where a crime is at the center of the story. So they are crime stories, and many do not have the characteristics that make mysteries appealing to readers like me. Most of the stories were reasonably interesting, and there was only one that I really disliked (about an elderly man losing all his money to a scam, and the only mystery to me was why the thing had to drag on page after page). But I’m not likely to read any more in the yearly series.
My last book for the month was Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor. I remember having read some of her articles in The Christian Century, back when my husband was in seminary, though I knew nothing else about her. A friend recommended the book, saying it had been very important to her at a difficult time in her life. I found it very interesting to read, though I have to admit I did not find it as impactful as my friend had. Taylor raises lots of good questions, and does not feel the need to provide all the answers. One aspect of the book I found particularly interesting was her description of moving from a big urban church to a much smaller church in a rural area, because when my husband became a pastor, we moved from the Philadelphia area to the rural Midwest. Now I have become accustomed to life in a rural area and find it preferable to the noise and crowds of the city.