Books I read in July

As I get near the end of the PopSugar 2019 Reading Challenge (only about 5 to go, though I may pick additional books for a few categories), I’m down to the categories that are hardest to find books to fit. Some that I have picked have been disappointing, but a few were excellent, the sort that justify this kind of reading challenge that gets me to read books I otherwise would not have known about, much less chosen to read.

It took me a while to decide on a reread of a favorite book. To be considered a favorite, to me that means a book I have read multiple times (otherwise it’s just a book I liked a lot). I don’t often reread books, partly because I have to have forgotten enough to not finding it somewhat boring to reread, but mostly because there are so many good books I haven’t yet read so I prefer spending my time on those. In the last few years, I have reread several of my favorites (usually for one of these reading challenges), so I had to find one I hadn’t reread recently. I finally settled on Heidi by Johanna Spyri, which was one of my favorites as a child but which I had not read since then (nor had I kept the copy I had back then, a prize for reading the most books in third grade). I remembered the overall story, but was surprised to see how much I had forgotten, and yet how readily I recognized not only the details but also at least an echo of the feelings I had when reading as a child. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it as much if I had read it the first time as an adult – the moralizing seems somewhat heavy-handed and Heidi seems unrealistically cheerful and well-behaved – but as a reread of a childhood favorite it was still very enjoyable as an adult.

Finding a “choose-your-own-adventure” book was even harder, especially as most of the options available at the library were from the children’s section. I finally heard about Romeo and/or Juliet: A Chooseable-Path Adventure by Ryan North, which turned out to be available at the local library. Initially, I found it very funny, but each path I followed ended so quickly that I felt I hadn’t gotten to read more than a fraction of the book, even having backed up to take other paths numerous times. (My sons both enjoyed it, though, and it’s always a plus to find something we can enjoy together.) I decided to also read one of those books from the children’s section, and chose Irish Immigrants in America : An Interactive History Adventure by Elizabeth Raum. I finished it just as quickly, because it’s so short, but I was able to easily find and follow all the paths available, so felt I had actually read the whole book. It is primarily educational rather than entertaining, but it is an entertaining way to get education on what it was like to be an Irish immigrant during the Irish Potato Famine.

I also had trouble finding a LitRPG book, in large part because the term LitRPG is fairly new and there was nothing in the library catalog using that term. I found an online discussion of possibilities for this category among other people doing the same reading challenge, and the most promising looked like Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, which was available from the library (and, I found out while I was reading it, also a book my husband owns). This was a really fun book to read, even though there were lots of references to popular culture (movies, videogames, music, etc.) that I did not recognize. (There were a number I did recognize, although I have never cared for most popular movies, videogames, or music.) I can’t imagine wanting to spend hours on end in a videogame, however realistic the experience is (today’s virtual reality is just a step toward what is described in the book, which is truly immersive), but I enjoyed following the character’s progress in the game (and in life).

I had already read the diary of Anne Frank for a book with at least one million ratings on Goodreads, but I decided to read another in that category, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. I’m not sure what I had thought it would be about (which had made me reluctant to read it), but it was very different, and I really enjoyed it. I liked the story of the young Jacob better than the old Jacob, but it was also very interesting to see his perspective on life in a nursing home, especially having recently read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.

Another book I read this month that has at least one million ratings on Goodreads – a quick read since it’s generally shelved under children’s books – was The Giver by Lois Lowry. My younger son had read it in middle school, but I had never read it as it was written long after I finished school. I’ve read very mixed reviews of it (perhaps why I had not read it previously), but I found it a very absorbing story with thought-provoking ideas, and I can see why it is often included in the school curriculum. Compared to other dystopian novels, it offers little to no explanation as to how society ended up in the situation it does, and given the apparent factors mentioned in the book, I don’t think it would have ended up that way. But I see it more as a fable. “What would life be like if society were this way?” There may be other or better ways to bring up the issues it raises, but I thought it was a well-told story and I am glad I did finally read it.

A friend on goodreads.com had written a very positive review of The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir, so I decided to read it, and decided it was a good fit for a book you think should be turned into a movie. Since the family at the center of the novel has been the subject of a reality TV series for years, I think the story would lend itself particularly well to being actually acted out on camera. And it is a gripping story, dealing with reality vs appearances, the tension between love for family and the need to tell the truth even when it will hurt people, and the ways that different ways (some good, some bad) that mothers and daughters deal with the challenges in their lives.

It surprised me that it was not easier to find a book to fit the prompt “a book with ‘love’ in the title,” at least if I didn’t want to read either romances or children’s picture books. (Not that I mind reading children’s picture books, but not for this reading challenge.) I had come across one possibility that would have required using interlibrary loan, but then I found A Theory of Love by Margaret Bradham Thornton in the New Books section of our library. It looked promising, based on the blurbs on the cover. But I have to admit, I didn’t find it all that interesting to read. The questions it deals with are good, about love and relationships and what holds them together. But the story, like the characters’ marriage, just drifted. I finished it in two days, but that was because it was the only book I took along on a weekend away from home.

I had previously considered reading Gork, the Teenage Dragon, by Gabe Hudson, for the prompt last year of a book that takes place on another planet. Finally I decided to read it this year for a book featuring an extinct or imaginary creature. There are a lot of very enjoyable books about dragons, but this was not one of them. It’s not awful, but it’s not all that good either, despite the blurbs on the cover. Obviously people’s sense of humor varies greatly, and no doubt some people find this very funny, but the (attempts at) humor got tiresome after a chapter or two. It’s not a bad story but drags on too long for what happens in it, and how many times do you want to hear a teenage male tell about how eager he is to claim the female he wants to reproduce with?

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo wasn’t for the reading challenge, just an interesting book I picked for listening to during my commute. It’s written for children, which I have found is often a good choice for reading books about war, unless you really want to be immersed in depictions of its horrors. This book is told from the perspective of a horse during WWI, and depicts its experiences of people and events on both sides of the war in France. It clearly points out the senseless destruction of war, and how there are good people on both sides, but isn’t preachy about it. I found the historical aspects interesting, because I don’t know a lot about WWI, and had not realize how much horses were still used in warfare back then. I don’t know how effectively the book uses the perspective of the horse (it is told in first person), since I have not been around horses much at all, and it doesn’t seem to “get into” the mind of a horse as much as some books do with a narrator who is a dog, but it was interesting and enjoyable to read, despite the serious subject matter.

I was looking for books on time travel when I came across Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality by Ronald Mallett. I wasn’t expecting to find anything in the non-fiction section, other than perhaps books about time travel books and movies. The idea that a physicist had an actual idea to build a time machine surprised me, but it was more the story of his life that interested me. My own son wants to be a physicist, so it was very interesting to see what motivated Mallett to take the challenging academic classes required, and the process of becoming a working physicist.

A more lighthearted but ultimately less enjoyable book was So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel by Phil Hornshaw and Nick Hurwitch. It’s supposed to be very funny but perhaps the authors tried too hard. The humor works for the first chapter or two, then it gets tiresome. I got it (used, fortunately) in part because I had recently been thinking that it would be fun to write a book in which novels and movies depicting time travel were treated as actual history, and when I saw that this book does that same thing, I thought it would be fascinating. But it doesn’t go into all that much depth on any of those fictional accounts, and that part of the book is a fairly small part anyway.

One of the books on my to-be-read list is Seeking Allah, finding Jesus : a devout Muslim encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi. When I saw his book No God but One: Allah or Jesus?: A Former Muslim Investigates the Evidence for Islam and Christianity for sale at Goodwill, I decided to go ahead and read that first. I found it fascinating to read what arguments Muslims typically make to demonstrate that Islam is superior to Christianity, and Qureshi’s explanations both for and against each. Unlike other books I have read, either by Christians trying to explain Islam and its shortcomings, or by Muslims showing how good Islam is, this is able to fairly present both sides, because Qureshi used to use these arguments himself when trying to disprove Christianity. Of course, one might still argue that he is biased, having now become a Christian, but I still feel that I understand these arguments better than before. I was particularly interested in his discussion of the difference between how Christians view the Bible and how Muslims view the Koran. Both Christians and Muslims tend to assume that the Bible and the Koran have roughly similar roles in the two religions, but Qureshi shows that this is not the case. It also helps me understand why, each time I have picked up a Koran (translated into English, of course) in a library or bookstore, and tried to read a bit of it, I have been so quickly given up. It’s simply not written to be read the same way as the Bible.

I noticed Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw in the college library when I was looking for a copy of Heidi (both part of the “curriculum” bookshelf in the college library, for students of childhood education, so they are fairly near each other), and was intrigued by the title. I had read a number of Cleary’s books as a child and enjoyed them. This one, having been written when I was older, I had never seen before. It consists entirely of letters and diary entries by a boy, Leigh Botts, who enjoys Mr. Henshaw’s books and decides to write to him. I was initially annoyed by the fact that we never see Mr. Henshaw’s replies, only learning a little about them in Leigh’s subsequent letters back to him. But over the course of the book, as Leigh’s writing improves, we learn a lot about his life, his family, and his hopes and fears.

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff revolves around life on a circus train, but it is very different from Water for Elephants. Here the circus owner is saving lives at the risk of his own, rather than destroying people’s lives for his own benefit. I would have thought a circus an unlikely place of refuge for Jews on the run from the Nazis, but apparently there really was a circus that did just that during WWII. The story is told from two points of view, one a teenage girl caring for a Jewish baby she stole off a train full of dead and dying babies bound for a concentration camp, the other a Jewish woman from a rival circus family. Sometimes I felt pretty annoyed at both of them (but more often the teenager) for their attitudes and actions, but on the whole it is a well-told story of love, loss, courage, and survival (though not for everyone).

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