while the city sleeps

Halfway through March and we are in the middle of moving. My husband and I have a ton of boxes, everything is going all right, it’s just a bit sad and annoying. We weren’t quite ready to leave the house yet, but our lease ends March 31 and our landlord wants to sell. I get it, but… bummer! The worst part about this is that we aren’t 100% sure we’re staying in KC next year—we might move for jobs in a different city (haven’t heard back yet, of course). So, timing is just really, really horrible. We’ve found temporary situations for us and our stuff for now until we find out for certain whether we’re staying or moving away at the end of the summer. We’re really fortunate to have wonderful friends and family who offered to help out!

Anyway, in the midst of all this moving drama I kind of can’t believe I was able to finish one of my reading challenges. The Kansas City Public Library‘s annual Adult Winter Reading Program requires reading five books in about a ten-week period early in the year. Each year the theme changes, and the library has a suggested list of books, events, and discussions to engage the program participants even more. This year’s theme is While the City Sleeps (“…the interplay of light and dark, the shadows of the human soul and the brightness of the human spirit.”). After you read your five books and turn in your form, you get a sweet limited edition bistro mug! Looking forward to curling up with a great book and some hot tea or coffee in this baby!

The five books I read for the program (click on images to read my reviews):

They were all very different, but fit with the theme nicely. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach explored what happens to the body after death, from gross to silly to admirable. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking explains the special and important (though often misunderstood) qualities of introverts and how their temperaments complement extroverts. The Devil and Miss Prym by Paulo Coelho is a morality tale of a young woman in a small village who is given an impossible proposal by a mysterious visitor. The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman is about a young infertile couple who live on a remote Australian island and work the lighthouse, and their discovery of a rowboat that washes ashore one day carrying a baby girl. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn is a murder-mystery set in Kansas City about a disturbed woman trying to get to the bottom of what happened the night of the brutal massacre of her family.

Stiff was the only book on the library’s suggested reading list—I even attended my first book group discussion event about Stiff at the library a couple weeks ago. There were other titles on the suggested list that interested me, but I wanted to knock down my TBR a bit more so I decided to go with books I already had. I like the balance of fiction (3) to non-fiction (2) on my list, which was just a happy accident. All were great books—I can’t say that even one was bad. I can wholeheartedly recommend all of these, but I did really love Quiet and The Light Between Oceans especially, though.

So, despite the craziness of packing and moving and weirdly feeling like I’m getting nowhere with that (even though obviously we are making progress), I’m happy to feel like I accomplished something this month with completing this challenge! Thanks, KC Library 🙂

dark places

This morning I finished reading Dark Places by Gillian Flynn—my fifth book for the KC Library’s While the City Sleeps program, completing the five-book challenge! I’ll head up to the library sometime this week to claim my prize: a sweet coffee mug meant to hold nice hot drinks while reading. 🙂

Dark Places is Flynn’s sophomore effort, between her debut Sharp Objects and last year’s Gone Girl (click titles to read my reviews). I read the three out of chronological order, but it’s clear that Flynn’s writing became progressively stronger with each novel, and the characters and their lives more dark and twisted. For the record, Gone Girl is my favorite of the trio.

Dark Places focuses on the tragic murders of the Day family of (fictional) Kinnakee, Kansas. In the wee hours of a cold mid-1980s January morning, seven-year-old Libby Day’s mother and two sisters were brutally murdered in their farmhouse. Libby escapes, and later her damning testimony pins the crime on her brother Ben, sending him to prison. Nearly twenty-five years later, Libby still is deeply scarred emotionally, wallowing in a self-loathing internal anguish, and realizes her memory (and testimony) of that night might not be as solid as she thought. Desperate for money, Libby takes up a local true-crime enthusiast group on its offer for cash in exchange for information about her family’s killings. She embarks on an investigative journey to discover what really happened the night of the murders, finding people from her past, bringing to light long-buried memories, and finding her life in danger once again.

Another thriller featuring a disturbed female lead, Dark Places took me a bit longer to read than the other two Flynn books, but was still a suspenseful page-turner. Flynn has a sharp yet straightforward prose style with hard-edged language and bold adjectives, which I enjoyed in this and her other books. She likes to create believably ugly, harsh worlds of violence and other unpleasantness for her darkly troubled female characters. The alternating narrative viewpoints from chapter to chapter moved the story along quickly, with each chapter on the short side making it easy to allow myself to think just one more, just one more. Our protagonist Libby, the only character depicted in first-person (the rest in third), is angry and pathetic, but not entirely unlikable or unsympathetic. Her brother Ben and mother Patty are the other most prominent characters, receive flashback chapters focused on their actions and activities over the course of that fateful day. The tension buildup was well done, with elements of drugs, sex, Satan worshiping, poverty,

Dark Places ultimately boils down to a whodunit murder-mystery, and Flynn gave the readers enough new information at just the right pacing to make you question what you thought you had figured out. The ending was satisfying and believable for me. I had my suspicions on how the crime went down and who was guilty, but I wasn’t quite there, for which I’m glad. I was guessing all the way to the end! This book’s setting in the Kansas City area added an extra layer of enjoyment for me, too. I understand why she chose some of the bleakest, more rundown areas—Dark Places is also a story of stark, desperate poverty—I found the locations to be fitting, especially the West Bottoms for the Kill Club meetings.

Dark Places was my fifth read of five books total for the 2013 KC Library Adult Winter Reading Program: While the City Sleeps, hosted by the Kansas City Public Library. Challenge completed!

Read from February 28 to March 9, 2013.

quiet

My fourth pick for the KC Public Library’s While the City Sleeps reading program was Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I wanted to read this one for a few reasons, but mostly because for a long time I’ve felt like I’m in the middle—sometimes I feel like I’m super extroverted, and other times I’m much more of an introvert. And it’s not about being around different people or in different situations… like, how people say “showing different sides of yourself” or whatever. I always feel like I’m being myself and not “performing” or putting out a false personality in any situation. I always knew I wasn’t shy, but as a kid there were plenty of times I would be just fine alone in my room, having some quiet downtime after a busy, fun school day (and I did always like school and had fun there). I just couldn’t figure out how I could be both; is that a real thing?

Quiet answered that for me, and explained a lot more. I wouldn’t quite say this is a definitive, super scientific textbook tome or anything, but it is an enjoyable, fairly quick read to get you thinking about the subject of introversion and its perception in American society. Susan Cain divides Quiet into three parts—first, it discusses the “extrovert ideal” in the business world, and how introverts (and their talents and strong points) can easily be overlooked in this current societal model. I never knew there was a connection between business workplace environments and the modern classroom setup! The second part examines biological and scientific studies in determining personality traits/behaviors in introverts and extroverts—testing babies’ reactions to objects, chemical processes in the brains, etc. The third part asks if other cultures have the same extrovert ideal as the US, and the final part talks about introversion in work, family, and romantic relationships. Most other reviews of the book I read online were positive, but a few said that it has an “us-versus-them” attitude, but I didn’t get that at all. In fact, Quiet has several mentions of how the world needs both introverts and extroverts, and says how they can effectively and productively work, play, and live together! As an extrovert reading Quiet I didn’t feel like the author was saying introversion is better than extroversion, or vice versa.

I recognized many of the introverted traits in myself, but mostly I discovered a phrase that could describe my personality better than my conflicted description above: I think I might be a “sensitive” or “introverted” extrovert. I feel comfortable in large crowds (from a big loud family) and I’m not intimidated about performing or speaking on stage in front of people (I’m a musician), I like parties, I like going out, I like a large circle of friends. But on the other hand, I’m happy partaking in solitary activities too like reading (duh!), writing, working on my music, I enjoy my own company for long stretches of time, etc. I’m also fine with going out by myself—as a performing arts critic occasionally I prefer it to attending a concert I’m reviewing with a plus-one.

After reading Quiet, I took a variation on the Myers-Briggs personality type quiz online and got ENFJ: Extravert, iNtuition, Feeling, Judging. Seems pretty accurate! My husband is definitely an introvert, as are a number of close and extended family members. Now I get why I have felt so personally hurt when my husband shuts his office door, even though we’re not spending time together at that moment! I think that Quiet more than anything else upholds introversion as totally normal, reinforces that quietness is NOT a personality flaw, and celebrates it for all its positive qualities.

Quiet was my fourth read of five books total for the 2013 KC Library Adult Winter Reading Program: While the City Sleeps, hosted by the Kansas City Public Library.

Read from February 16 to 25, 2013.

stiff

My third pick for the KC Public Library’s While the City Sleeps reading program was Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. I listened to the audiobook of her Bonk about sex last summer, so I knew already her kind of delightfully weird mind and irreverent writing style. The copy of Stiff I got for free, passed through a friend already finished with it.

Roach manages to take the awkward, uncomfortable, and often (ahem) grave subject of what happens to our bodies after death and make it less so using facts, investigative reporting, and a good, necessary dose of humor for the average non-medical layperson to the subject. She examines donating bodies to science and medical education, embalming, forensics, spends time at the human decay research facility in Knoxville, Tennessee, observes the collision/injury testing labs at Wayne State University, and even travels to China to investigate urban myths of modern cannibalism. The history in Stiff is quite fascinating—especially past examples of medicinal remedy quackery using prepared body parts for all sorts of ailments.  Many parts of the book clicked in my memory—I saw a documentary on television once about the Knoxville decay center and when she mentioned plasticization in one chapter I remembered that several years ago I went to the Bodies Revealed exhibit when it made its way through Kansas City. I thought the exhibit was equally fascinating and disconcerting. Later I heard something about it that the bodies may not have been willingly donated, but just taken from prisons. Can of controversial worms!

Though I am not too easily squeamish and skeeved out by disturbing matters in books or television, I can’t say that I felt compelled to read Stiff during my lunch breaks… some descriptions were… not gory necessarily… “vivid” might be the right word. Like the chapters on decomposition and human head transplants; while completely amazing, scientifically speaking, weren’t exactly appetite builders. I’m also so glad this didn’t include and scratch-n-sniff stickers… ha! 😉

I thought this might be a more emotionally difficult book to read, but Roach did a great job keeping it light and the medical jargon to a minimum. This book isn’t about death or the act of dying or the emotional impact for left-behind mourners, but about what happens to a cadaver when it is free of human life force, and all the possible (and often scientifically/educationally beneficial) uses for it. She does talk about experiments that were undertaken in the past to see if the physical location of the spirit could be discovered, and a study using cadavers to figure out where exactly on his body Jesus was nailed to the cross (palm, wrist, etc.), but that’s about as religious or spiritual as it gets. (Her next book published after this one, Spook in 2005, takes a scientific look at the human soul and afterlife, and I have it down on my ever-growing to-be-read list!)

I was especially interested, though, in the final chapter that included ecological disposal of remains, specifically for composting and fertilization, pioneered by a biologist in Sweden. I really love the concept that we come from the earth and should respectfully return to it, to nurture it and a new living thing (a tree, for example). I guess I always thought that’s eventually what would happen anyway, even embalmed and placed in a coffin, but I learned it doesn’t really work that way, there’s more to it than that. Stiff was published ten years ago and I’d be interested to find out what advances have been made on this composting process. As I am not a particularly religious person, this option is something I would absolutely consider for my own body after death.

Stiff was my third read of five books total for the 2013 KC Library Adult Winter Reading Program: While the City Sleeps, hosted by the Kansas City Public Library.

Read from February 9 to 16, 2013.

the devil and miss prym

I have had Paulo Coelho’s The Devil and Miss Prym on my bookcase for more than ten years—I remember buying it new before I went off to college—and it only ended up taking me two days to read. (DERP!) When I signed up for my reading challenges this year, I knew The Devil and Miss Prym would be included on one of them, and the themes fit perfectly with the KC Public Library’s While the City Sleeps program.

One day, a stranger arrives in the sleepy village of Viscos after having buried eleven gold bars in the neighboring forest. The stranger meets Chantal Prym, the hotel bartender, and tells her that he will give the townspeople the gold bars but only on one condition: that they murder one of their fellow citizens. Chantal is beside herself and weighs her options and the consequences of each. Eventually, the residents are presented with the stranger’s proposal, and make their fateful decision.

The Devil and Miss Prym is simple yet intricate fable about a man who seeks answers about good versus evil in human nature; a woman internally conflicted with boredom, temptation, and right versus wrong; and a society faced with a complicated moral dilemma. The gold bars would mean prosperity and growth for the community, but is the cost of a human life—one of their lifelong neighbors and friends—really worth it? Who should they chose? Why is that life expendable? What will happen to the people and the town afterwards, in their hearts and souls?

The Devil and Miss Prym is full of stories, from character histories to town legends, and philosophical discussions of religion and spirituality. I enjoy Coelho’s toned-down narrative style, and it was effective with a complex, profound themes such as this. I felt sorry for Chantal, all of a sudden having the unenviable responsibility of basically saving the town from itself, but I was cheering for her by the end. This short book is memorable for its well-developed characters and highly thought-provoking subject matter.

I have read two other Coelho books, The Alchemist and By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept. From what I remember of it—I read them soooo long ago—I felt more strongly about The Alchemist, but I have to admit I sadly can’t recall anything about By the River Piedra.

The Devil and Miss Prym was my second read of five books total for the 2013 KC Library Adult Winter Reading Program: While the City Sleeps, hosted by the Kansas City Public Library.

Read from January 16 to 17, 2013.

the light between oceans

I bought M. L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans a few months ago to round out an Amazon order for free shipping, and just finally got to it this week. It was the only book I was able to read completely during Bout of Books 6.0. Even though it’s not on the Kansas City Public Library’s suggested reading list for its Adult Winter Reading Program, I thought The Light Between Oceans would fit nicely with the 2013 theme, While the City Sleeps—playing on contrasts of light and dark, day and night—for obvious reasons!

Set shortly after World War I, The Light Between Oceans is about a young couple who live alone on the remote Janus Island off the southwest coast of Australia. Tom, a war veteran, runs the lighthouse and his wife Isabel busies herself with housework while planning the start of their family. Every six months Ralph and Bluey arrive by boat with supplies, and the newlyweds are granted leave to the mainland once every three years. After multiple miscarriages, Isabel is beside herself with grief. One day, two weeks they experience a devastating late-term stillbirth, Tom and Isabel discover a small boat that washed ashore carrying a dead man and a living two-month-old baby girl. Despite his better judgement, Isabel convinces Tom they should keep the baby and raise her as their own. They think their prayers have been answered until a visit to family in Port Partaguese on the mainland a few years later revels a woman who has lost her husband and infant daughter not long ago…

I really enjoyed The Light Between Oceans. It poses questions of nature vs. nurture, right and wrong—what may feel right for one person causes pain to another—who are we to judge, etc. It examines the consequences of actions taken with all the best intentions, presenting a moral dilemma that had me thinking about it even when I wasn’t reading.

The main characters are all fleshed out well. Tom is stoic and complex—a “strong, silent” type of man, and Isabel is full of youthful enthusiasm and brightness. Her personality is a perfect complement for Tom’s. Other characters include Lucy (the baby girl), the two men who regularly bring supplies to the island, Isabel’s parents, and the family of Hannah, Lucy’s biological mother. Everyone is put into impossible situations, and I felt sympathy for each. I understand why Isabel so desperately wanted to keep the mystery baby. It is clear that Hannah deserves justice and explanations. But the solution isn’t always so simple or black-and-white—there are many complicated emotions involved, and each outcome is potentially heartbreaking. Tom is the best character. His inner struggles with loyalty to his wife, duty to protect, genuine love for the child, and instinct to set things right is genuinely affecting.

I loved the author’s illustrative yet lyrical writing style. She made Janus Island come alive for me in her beautifully rendered and vivid descriptions of the lighthouse, the living quarters, gardens, shoreline, cliffs, air, sea, stars, etc. I also was not completely sure what the outcome would be until I finally reached the end of the book—there are several paths it could have taken, all I could have believed, and I did feel satisfied with the ending. Only once in a while did I feel there was slight repetition in the story, or a conversation between characters that dragged for me a bit, but overall it’s a lovely, heartrending novel.

The Light Between Oceans was my first read of five books total for the 2013 KC Library Adult Winter Reading Program: While the City Sleeps, hosted by the Kansas City Public Library.

Read from January 7 to 12, 2013.