Books I read in May

I wondered a few times this past month whether I had too many books I was trying to read. But I just keep finding more books that sound interesting and I want to read them. So I keep reading, and enjoying them (mostly), and learning.

For the PopSugar Reading Challenge, I picked Pop by Gordon Korman for a book with “pop,” “sugar,” or “challenge” in the title. It was a very interesting story, about football and people who love to play it, but more, it was about people and their relationships, the power of friendship, and how what we see from the outside is often so different from what is really going on.

For a novel based on a true story, I chose The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. I listened to the audiobook, and only learned when reading reviews afterward that the printed book has an afterword by the author, discussing what aspects of the book are based on actual history. Some audiobooks include such material, and I am disappointed that this one did not. I enjoy historical fiction even when it is not based on actual people, but as one reason I read this book was because it was based on a real person, I would have liked to hear more about the real Louise de Bettignies. I have read a variety of books set in WWII, but very few set in WWI, and none previously from the perspective of a female spy in WWI. That story is interspersed with another story set shortly after WWII, when the spy is much older, and is persuaded to help track down someone missing since 1943. I agree with other reviewers that the WWI story is better in many ways, but I have to admit it was a relief sometimes to read the WWII chapters, where the suspense was less and the descriptions of danger and death were from the past, not the present and imminent future.

I had puzzled over what to read for a book with an item of clothing or accessory on the cover, as these did not seem to be as easy for find as I had initially expected. (I had decided, as some others doing the same reading challenge, that it would not count if the cover showed someone wearing an item of clothing, as that would include pretty much every book that has anyone on the cover.) I decided on The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks, a book I had heard of years ago and wanted to read, but somehow never got around to reading. (As it happened, the edition at our public library did not have a picture of a hat on the cover, but as other editions do, I decided it still counts.) The various chapters were mostly reprinted from earlier publications, and their length and my enjoyment of them varied quite a bit. The first chapter, which gives the book its name, is the best, but there were others that were quite interesting. It is amazing how much our brains/nervous systems do that we take for granted, and it’s only when something goes wrong that we realize how much we depend on simple things like knowing where the parts of our bodies are (and that they belong to us!) or how to recognize a face.

I had initially considered reading Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman, because it was reported as a book becoming a movie in 2019, then also read very positive reviews of the book. While reading it, I heard that the movie probably will not come out until next year, but I’m still glad I read it. It’s not quite what I imagined from the cover, in terms of how Eleanor and Raymond’s relationship would develop, but it is a great story of the importance of relationships, and of the ways that people can either cause great psychological hurt or support healing in another person, as well as the difficulty of learning to fit in, in our society, if those skills were not developed as one grows up. I couldn’t help reflecting on my own childhood and my own struggles to learn social skills as a young adult, though I certainly did not have anything as terrible happen as Eleanor did. (I read an interesting article, a few days later, that made me wonder how much of those social shortcomings have to do with a child’s natural intelligence being significantly higher than that of peers, as opposed to the effect of nurture (or lack thereof).

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak was not my first choice for a book about a family, but the one I was looking for turned out to be missing from the local library, and having read two other books by Zusak, I eagerly started this one. I found it much harder going than the other two, not only unconventional but downright confusing, as it jumped around so much in time. A lot of novels jump back and forth between two time periods for the same person, or two time periods with two different people, but this one jumps among a confusing variety of times with different people, sometimes with a brief flashback to just a short time earlier, and I found it hard to know when any given event was taking place relative to others. I also found it strange that the narrator is not the character from whose point of view most of the story is told, which seems to put the reader at more of an emotional distance from the characters. In the end I thought it finally came together into something pretty good, but it took so long to get there that I really found it hard to keep going for most of the book.

I read The gate thief by Orson Scott Card because it is the sequel to The Lost Gate, which I had read in January. I realized while reading it that either one of them would count as a book about someone with a superpower, as Danny North is a gatemage, meaning that he can make gates to transport himself or anyone else instantly to another place, as well as healing anyone who goes through a gate. (Other mages in the books have other powers.) I had previously read this book, maybe five or six years ago, not realizing it was the second book of a trilogy, but when I read it this time, I was surprised how little I remembered from having read it before. I think I enjoyed it more this time, having the background from the first book, and I’m already reading (actually near the end of) the final book in the series. I don’t think it’s as good as some of Card’s other series, but he’s a good storyteller, and his stories are good even when they’re not great.

For some categories in the PopSugar Reading Challenge, I discover as I’m reading a book that it fits one of the challenge categories. But others, like a book with a title that contains “salty,” “sweet,” “bitter,” or “spicy,” take some searching to find a book that fits, that sounds interesting, and that is available through the local library system. Sometimes they turn out to be as good as I hoped, other times not. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford is definitely one of the “as good as I hoped” books. It’s told from the point of view of a Chinese boy, Henry Lee, growing up in Seattle during WWII, and his friendship with a Japanese girl who ends up being sent with her family to an internment camp. It is also the story of Henry in 1986, remembering those long-ago years. As a boy he has a conflicted relationship with his father, who hates the Japanese. And as a man he struggles in his relationship with his son, having never learned how to have a close father-son relationship. Like many Americans, I cannot easily distinguish between Chinese and Japanese (or other Asian ethnicities), and I had never thought about the difficulties a Chinese boy might have in a relationship with a Japanese girl, considering the history of their two countries. The book is about identity, stereotyping, relationships based on family ties and on friendships, and about coming to terms with the past and its consequences.

I often don’t read a series in order, or skip some of the books, but the Chet and Bernie series by Spencer Quinn is one that I have – so far – read in order. Paw and Order is the seventh book in the series, and I picked it for the first of two books that share the same title. (There are at least five choices for a second book with that title, but I’ll go with what I can get from the library.) It was, as always, fun to read a story told from Chet’s point of view. None of us knows what it would be like to be inside a dog’s mind, but it would probably be a lot like Chet’s perspective in a number of ways. The mystery is not as good as some of the others in the series, I thought, and even the fun of Chet’s storytelling doesn’t make up completely for that, but it was still a quick and enjoyable read.

Hell Is Empty by Craig Johnson might count as a ghost story – Johnson doesn’t make it clear even at the end whether one character was actually alive or not. But I’m in the middle of another book that is definitely a ghost story, so it doesn’t really matter. It’s a good story, as all Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels are, but it did go on a bit long without a whole lot happening except more variations on Walt nearly dying (or maybe actually dying, according to the character who may or may not have been dead himself) and then miraculously surviving.

I read Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens for the local library book club. It took me quite a while to get into the story, but I enjoyed the latter part of the book. (I was surprised by other people’s comments that the first half was better.) It’s a story of a girl surviving in spite of everything and just about everyone being against her, and not only surviving but thriving in her own way. I’m not sure how realistic some of that is, as I think she would have greater psychological and social problems than she did, but it’s quite a story just the same.

I read A Life Beyond Amazing: 9 Decisions That Will Transform Your Life Today by David Jeremiah for the adult Sunday School class at church. There’s not a whole lot of Bible teaching, per se, as it’s mostly principles for living, cooperating with the Holy Spirit in producing the fruit of the Spirit, each principle illustrated by examples from people’s lives. I thought it was pretty good, but I have to admit that there is nothing particularly memorable in it. I will just have to hope that some of what I read soaked in, even if I don’t remember it specifically.

I read N or M? (Tommy & Tuppence #3) by Agatha Christie largely because it was in a volume of five stories by Christie, featuring different detectives, and I’d never even heard of Tommy and Tuppence before. I liked them, perhaps more than Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, and I would like to read the books from earlier in their lives.

I had downloaded The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G. K. Chesterton when I was looking for books in the public domain, as it’s sometimes hard to find e-audiobooks that interest me from the library, and buying them costs more than I’m willing to spend. And then I never got around to listening to this book until recently. I enjoyed Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries very much, but I was disappointed in this book. It seemed pretty interesting, starting out, but I really couldn’t figure out where it was going, even right up to the end when it was suddenly over. I realize that any book with the subtitle “A Nightmare” is going to depart from many of the usual literary conventions, but it really was hard for me to figure out what the point of it was.

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas was another book for the book club, one I read earlier in the month than I usually do (we meet the first Monday of the month, and I try not to read the book too long before the meeting as then it’s hard to remember details when we discuss it). The librarian had been very excited about it, but I didn’t enjoy it at all. It’s hard to keep the different characters straight, as it is told from the perspective of five different women, and they are not identified by name, except occasionally by other characters, and I’m not sure I ever figured out all the relationships between the different people. It’s about women’s role in society, and the limitations put on them. In the book, abortion has become illegal (with harsh penalties not only for abortion providers but for the women who seek abortions also), as has in vitro fertilization, and a law is about to take effect prohibiting single women from adopting a child. I know plenty of people who would like to see abortion become illegal, not to control women but to protect unborn children, but that perspective is pretty much ignored in the novel. I know people who distrust aspects of in vitro fertilization, because the embryo becomes a commodity rather than being treated as a human being, but I can’t say I’ve heard people talk about outlawing it. Likewise, I know many people who think it’s best for a child to have a mother and father but if there are efforts to prevent adoptions by single parents, they have been overshadowed by opposition to adoption by same-sex couples. Despite recent political victories by conservatives, I have trouble imagining these kind of measures finding widespread support. Regardless of all that, however, I just didn’t find it an engaging story. Perhaps if Zumas had stuck to only one or two of these women, it would have been less confusing and drawn me more into their characters and their stories.

I was intrigued by the premise of Dancing With a Shadow: Making Sense of God’s Silence by Daniel Schaeffer, which is to explore the idea of the silence of God using the book of Esther (one of two books of the Bible where God is not mentioned). It did not explore the idea of the silence of God as much as or in the ways I had imagined (how do we know God is really there, or that it is God whose “shadow” we see in our lives), but it has plenty of good principles for dealing with hard times in our lives. As Schaeffer says it’s not a Bible commentary, I can’t really complain that he should provide more support for some of his assumptions about Esther and Mordecai, or to allow for different perspectives – though I would have liked it if he had. It gave us plenty of food for thought at our weekly Bible study, and provides a metaphor I can return to and contemplate in trying to understand why life so often seems to look as we imagine it might if God were not present and active in our lives.

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