reading challenges

In January, I decided to join two reading challenges in order to finally motivate myself to read the books I’ve had sitting around unread on my shelves for years. For the first six months, I was totally rocking both challenges with a pace of about one book (per challenge) per month. Then in July, I read ahead in one challenge and fell behind in the other. Since then I’ve been at an impasse with both of them…

Now that it’s September, I’m starting to feel like I’m not going to finish either challenge. I admit to switching up some of my selections for the Eclectic Reader, but several of the remaining books on my TBR Pile Challenge just don’t appeal to me anymore. And I have bought a bunch more books through the year that I am much more looking forward to reading (including some I got as Christmas gifts I haven’t even read yet…)

I have a bit of a competitive streak (especially with myself), that’s why the idea of quitting the challenges like this is hard to digest. I think I could possibly finish the Eclectic Reader—only four books to go on that, though I am only halfway through the TBR Pile list. And now that the school year/concert season has started back up, my leisure time for reading has dwindled significantly.

I want to keep going—I’m really enjoying being a part of the challenges and the online book community involved! But the stalling out has put me in a slump; I’ve lost steam on them. Sigh.

under the banner of heaven

Time for another 2013 TBR Pile Challenge book! Reading one per month has been working really well for me, and also for the Eclectic Reader Challenge.

I can’t remember when or where I got my copy of Under the Banner of Heaven. I’m pretty sure I purchased it, and I know I chose it because I had already read and loved Into the Wild and Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. I am certain that I’ve had this book on my shelves since before I met my husband in 2006 and hadn’t read it yet… yikes!

Part exposé, part true crime, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith opens with the grisly 1984 murder of a young mother and her 15-month-old baby daughter at the hands of two of her brothers-in-law, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who were instructed by God to kill them. Krakauer investigates the murders and delves deep into the religion that the Laffertys follow, Mormonism—specifically Mormon Fundamentalism.

Another fascinating piece of investigative journalistic narrative from Jon Krakauer, this one in the vein of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and a little bit like Erik Larsen’s books such as The Devil in the White City. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a fascinating religion with a rich and mysterious history, and Krakauer does an admirably meticulous job recounting details of important figureheads and key events since its founding. I found his writing to be observant, informative, and relatively free of subjectivism. I didn’t know much about Mormonism before reading Under the Banner of Heaven, and nothing about Mormon Fundamentalists or the other myriad sects, so this was a very illuminating book for me. I had only heard about Mormons when they came up in  national news, like when occasionally women and children flee isolated community compounds and be interviewed later, Elizabeth Smart’s disappearance in 2002, and more recently Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012.

Krakauer weaves the story of the Lafferty family with that of the history of the religion throughout the book, so here and there the chapters felt a bit disjointed. Also, due to the polygamous practices of the Mormon Fundamentalists, there are so many people involved—family trees are enormous and convoluted—that sometimes it was cumbersome to keep track of everyone. Overall though, it was a worthwhile book and I learned a lot. I was outraged at the treatment of women and children—rapes, mental and physical abuse, indentured servitude, pedophilia, incest, and so on. The American history aspect is incredible, too—just how young the religion is and how far it’s expanded in just two short centuries.

Side note: when Nick and I were in New York City in April we wanted to see the South Park creators’ show The Book of Mormon on Broadway, but the tickets were too expensive. Shoot! Hopefully a touring company will come through Kansas City eventually.

Under the Banner of Heaven was my sixth read of twelve books total for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader.

Read from June 6 to 13, 2013.

in defense of food

In anticipation of Michael Pollan‘s visit to Kansas City on Friday this week to discuss his new book Cooked, I figured I had better knock his In Defense of Food off my TBR before the event!

I have read two of Pollan’s books before: The Omnivore’s Dilemma (published 2006, read in 2008) and Food Rules (published in 2009, read in 2010). I’m a little out-of-order and a couple years behind on them, but still they’re good, worthwhile reads.

Much of the information in In Defense of Food is also in Food Rules, just more expanded upon with citations. The middle section was pretty bleak, laying out exactly all the problems with American food and eating habits from so-called “reductionist” science (where scientists and researchers just try to identify and isolate one nutrient and its effects rather than the whole food itself), of course processed foods, and the dissolving of the traditional family meal. But it is eye-opening to read about how everything really is connected—soil, sun, natural chemicals, flavors, etc.—and how certain nutrients or components in one food effect the others. Pollan’s writing style is accessible, too, without too much scientific jargon. A problem, though (that he acknowledges) is that people of only certain high enough income levels are likely to be able to follow his advice. Sad.

I can’t speak for all the scientific evidence, exactly, as neither Pollan nor I are scientists. But I do appreciate that he gives you a lot to think about as far as being more aware of what you’re buying and putting into your body. His mantra “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” is a great starting point to healthier eating. Looking forward to reading Cooked later on and hearing Pollan speak on Friday here in Kansas City!

In Defense of Food was my fifth read of twelve books total for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader.

Read from May 1 to 5, 2013.


Well, I made it through March and all the nonsense of packing and moving everything… and totally made the wrong book choice during that stupid-busy insanity. It took me almost a full month to read Atonement. Boo!

Atonement by Ian McEwan is a historical fiction surrounding one misunderstood event and the devastating consequences that followed. In 1935 precocious and self-absorbed 13-year-old Briony Tallis, youngest child of an aristocratic British family, witnesses a private flirtation between her older sister Cecelia and Robbie Turner, son of one of the family’s employees. Briony misconstrues this adult act and accuses Robbie of something that sends him to prison and effects the course of the family’s life for decades after.

Atonement is another book I’ve had on my shelves for years, bought with the best intentions long ago but never cracked… perfect for my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge! Unfortunately, I picked the absolute worst month to try to read this. Atonement, for me, was extremely slow to start and hard to get into. Nearly all the action in Part I (and much of Parts II and III) is internal and a good amount angsty. It was hard for me to feel any forward motion for much of Part I, and it took around 130 pages to finally pick up the pace and grab me, but sadly with lots of chaos and little time that comes with moving, it was tough to stay invested and intrigued by the story. I hate to say it but f this hadn’t been on my TBR (because I really want to complete this challenge) I would have probably put it down within the first 60 pages.

Of course, that’s not to say it is a bad book. The prose is superb (if quite dense). Every sentence is purposeful and lyrical, and McEwan paints a vivid landscape in which his characters exist. I will admit I pushed through to the end not only because of the TBR challenge, but also because of all the hype; I had to find out if the ending was really worth it as much as I had heard/read it is… while I wasn’t completely blown away, overall I’d say yes, it is worth it, although not in the way I expected (which is probably good, I guess!). No spoilers here, but I am still thinking about the ending days after I finished. Pretty crafty, McEwan! So that is saying something, and I really did like the parts taking place during the war (Robbie as soldier, Briony as nurse). Still, I’m not certain if my lack of connection with the characters and trouble investing in the story were symptoms of what was happening in my life when I tried to read Atonement or just how I would have felt about it anyway if I had read it under normal circumstances.

Atonement was my fourth read of twelve books total for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader.

Read from March 9 to April 7, 2013.

isaac’s storm

Inspired by the big snow storms that barreled through Kansas City last week, I decided to read Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson. This one has been on my TBR for not too terribly long, but what better time to read it than holed up at home on a couple of snow days off from work!

Isaac’s Storm is a historical non-fiction about the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which struck the coastal Texas island town and claimed the lives of an estimated 8,000 people. Also part biography, Larson connects the storm to Galveston’s chief meteorologist at the time, Isaac Cline, and lays out the early developments in weather forecasting in the United States.

This book attracted my attention because I had previously read Larson’s The Devil in the White City in 2011 and really enjoyed learning about a strikingly interesting element in the midst of a notably historical event. While Isaac’s Storm was written before The Devil in the White City, it is certainly still in that vein. Isaac’s Storm started off a bit slow for me, but once I reached the account of the storm it was very difficult to put down. Larson recreated the confusion, terror, and grim devastation of that fateful day with evocative, breathtaking detail.

I was floored by the audacity of bureaucratic competition and communication sabotage between American and Caribbean weather departments, when it was becoming clear that storms like this were wild, dangerous, and not often so predictable. While he did seem a quite brilliant man, Isaac’s arrogance and egoism (as well as his brother Joseph’s) is mind boggling—that he would later praise himself for his actions (or at least what he told people he did) during the crisis! I couldn’t believe, after so many deaths, he didn’t seem to take much responsibility for his lackadaisical forecasts of the storm. The last few pages are staggeringly affecting—when Larson discusses how the public has pretty much forgotten that hurricanes can be profoundly fatal on a massive scale. A mere five years after this book was published, Hurricane Katrina took New Orleans.

I would recommend this book if you like history, American history, science, weather phenomena, and Erik Larson’s other books. I’m definitely marking down his books that I haven’t read yet on my to-read list!

Isaac’s Storm was my third read of twelve books total for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader.

Read from February 25 to 28, 2013.

the lost city of z

Well, it’s been a pretty insane week, so I couldn’t quite get this book post done. Basically, the reality of my husband finishing his doctorate in May has finally hit and decisions need making, but we’re still playing the waiting game on job hunting, etc. etc. Nothing catastrophic, just time and attention consuming. And trying to stay excited and optimistic!

The Lost City of Z by David Grann caught my attention because I really love non-fiction adventure stories, especially those involving harrowing survival against natural elements. In the early twentieth century, veteran British explorer Percy Fawcett resolved to find proof of the ancient civilization and its fabled city which he dubbed Z. In 1925 Fawcett, his son Jack, and Jack’s friend Raleigh ventured deep into the Amazonian forests in Brazil, and vanished shortly after. His disappearance was considered one of the greatest mysteries of the twentieth century, inspiring countless more expeditions vowing to find the lost party, all failing and many vanishing themselves. Author of The Lost City of Z David Grann also trekked into the Amazon, following newly uncovered clues from Fawcett’s private diaries.

The Lost City of Z reads like a fast-paced adventure novel, but is densely packed with a biography and more historical information on several topics than I would have guessed (map making and exploration of the world in general, native South American peoples, religion, eugenics, etc.). The level of research is astounding, however in a few spots I felt bogged down by the details and the story dragged. The descriptions of life in the Amazon are simply gut wrenching. Between the parasites, poisonous plants and insects, stifling heat and humidity, treacherous untamed wilderness, and constant threat of starvation and disease (not to mention possible abduction and slaughter by natives), it is incredible to me that so many people still had the ambition and desire to go out there. I was moved by some of the native tribes, most of whom were shown to be just as civilized as the Europeans (oftentimes more). It’s a fantastic true story of adventure, danger, mystery, tenacity, and discovery that I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in the Amazon, historical social anthropology, and/or archaeology.

The Lost City of Z was my second read of twelve books total for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader.

**Note about this TBR Pile Challenge and the Eclectic Challenge—I am finding that I love them because they’re helping me get around to reading these great books I’ve neglected for a long time, but hating the challenges a little too because the truth is in my face now, that I’ve been neglecting these lovely books for so long! Grrr. 😉

Read from January 26 to 30, 2013.