reading recap: november 2017

I had a wonderful “vacation”… from my semi-permanent “vacation”… in Wisconsin the whole month of November! I spent a lot of time with family and friends, drove all over the Midwest and Wisconsin, saw some great shows (and not-so-great Packer games), and was just reminded yet again how much I love it there and it’s where I truly belong. Sigh. Anyway, as usual on my trips, I didn’t read much, so here’s a monthly recap and mini-reviews post all in one!

It has been too long since I had any nice, day-long drives all to myself, and I downloaded two for my drives in November back home. First up was Michael Finkel’s True Story, a non-fiction about his disgraceful fabrication in his The New York Times story about child slavery in Africa’s cocoa colonies, which resulted in his embarrassing firing. But then, he discovers an American man in Mexico, Christian Longo, has stolen his (Finkel’s) identity in order to escape suspicion of the murder of his entire family. It was an interesting listen, especially the dialogues and cat-and-mouse interplay between these two narcissists and how they are sort of similar (the different levels of gravity to their separate errors notwithstanding). Fans of true crime will like it. I think Finkel may have redeemed himself… if not with True Story, then perhaps with his recent The Stranger in the Woods (review coming soon!). I fell asleep when I tried to watch the movie, so I’m going to give it another try soon. [Listened to audiobook in November 2017.]

Patient H.M. by Luke Dittrich chronicles the medical and personal histories of Henry Gustave Molaison, the eponymous patient referred to by his initials in medical research to protect his identity, and whose status as H.M. revolutionized our understanding of the brain. After a serious bike accident when he was a child, Henry later developed seizures as a teen. After drugs and other standard treatments didn’t work, Dr. William Beecher gave Henry, then 27 in 1953, a lobotomy, after which his behavior and memory drastically changed, transforming him into the prime human test subject for brain study. This book also covers Beecher’s life and career and the history and controversy of lobotomy procedures. I learned a lot about the brain, memory, and lobotomies from Patient H.M.—it’s easy to understand with minimal technical medical jargon—and the lives of Henry and Beecher were equally sad, shocking, and fascinating. Like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, treatment and understanding of patients in mental health facilities of the 1950s was horrific, and the human rights issues surrounding Henry’s situation are staggering. It’s an eye-opening look for non-medical and non-sciencey people like me at the sometimes uncomfortable and ugly side of medical progress. Sometimes Dittrich goes off on familial tangents (Dr. Beecher was his grandfather), but overall this is an awesome book in the vein of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. [Listened to audiobook in November 2017.]

This might seem strange to include with a couple of non-fictions, or to review at all, but I did read it cover-to-cover last month! I bought Girl Power: 5-Minute Stories as a gift for my 3-year-old niece, for her baptism in Madison last month. It is a collection of ten short, newer children’s stories focusing on smart, fearless, determined, interesting, fun girls. It caught my eye because I wanted to get my niece the first story as its stand-alone book version, I Like Myself, but this collection was an even better choice. I also enjoyed Flora’s Very Windy DayPrincess in TrainingElla Sarah Gets Dressed, and Wow, It Sure is Good to Be You! I identified with some of these stories, of course, and wished I had these growing up! I loved how diverse the collection is, too, with girls of different ethnicities, ages, families, adventures, and more. [Read in November 2017.]

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find me

Find Me by Laura van den Berg caught my eye on several “anticipated for 2015” lists earlier in the year, so I thought I’d give it a shot. From Goodreads:

Joy has no one. She spends her days working the graveyard shift at a grocery store outside Boston and nursing an addiction to cough syrup, an attempt to suppress her troubled past. But when a sickness that begins with memory loss and ends with death sweeps the country, Joy, for the first time in her life, seems to have an advantage: she is immune. When Joy’s immunity gains her admittance to a hospital in rural Kansas, she sees a chance to escape her bleak existence. There she submits to peculiar treatments and follows seemingly arbitrary rules, forming cautious bonds with other patients—including her roommate, whom she turns to in the night for comfort, and twin boys who are digging a secret tunnel. As winter descends, the hospital’s fragile order breaks down and Joy breaks free, embarking on a journey from Kansas to Florida, where she believes she can find her birth mother, the woman who abandoned her as a child. On the road in a devastated America, she encounters mysterious companions, cities turned strange, and one very eerie house. As Joy closes in on Florida, she must confront her own damaged memory and the secrets she has been keeping from herself.

I half liked it, half “huh?” with Find Me. The premise is intriguing and full of potential, if not exactly original (plague post-apocalyptic stories are everywhere these days). I was gripped by the whole first half of the book, while Joy was in the hospital and her flashbacks to life before/during the memory sickness outbreak.

Then the second half of the book came along. Hmm. It started off well—and I’m sure I’m biased here—with Joy leaving the hospital and taking a bus to Kansas City, my town! Kudos to van den Berg for obviously extensive research into the book’s real-life locales. She was spot on with the Kansas City descriptions:

In Kansas City, we pass an empty square and a bronze statue of a winged horse. (159)

I decide to get off on Seventh Street. … A block down, there’s a motel called the Walnut. (159–60)

I ask No Name what he knows about Kansas City and he tells me this place is nicknamed the City of Fountains because there are hundreds of fountains. The cowboy boot was invented here. Kansas City is home to one of the world’s largest roller coasters. (164)

This is all pretty much right on! Must be referring to the statues outside City Hall on 12th Street (Wikipedia image) for the winged horse; there’s the Walnut Tower Apartments building at Walnut and 7th Streets (not a motel, but you know, I understand the use of artistic license here). Yes, City of Fountains; yes, the roller coaster (located at Worlds of Fun). The cowboy boot invention was new to me, so I looked it up—apparently just outside of KC in Olathe is where this style was started, among other nearby places. Nice!

After that, the book started to aimlessly drift into a very dreamlike state for me… kind of like Joy on her cross-country bus trip. Things just seemed to happen, like, I don’t recall buildup of tension or action leading up to an event or change, it just was all of a sudden. Maybe I wasn’t reading as carefully as I should have, but my interest waned. The last third is especially trippy and surreal. The more I think about it, the more I can see that Joy is an unreliable narrator, which is a feature I enjoy in books, but perhaps Joy is just a little too young for me to be enthralled by her journey (she’s just 19—this hinges on YA, or maybe more accurately the “New Adult” genre).

It’s a little hard to talk about Find Me without giving away spoilers! Maybe it would have worked better as a short story or novella. But I think it’s a worthwhile read if you enjoy a great premise, beautiful writing, and a thought-provoking meditation on memory and its reliability.

Read from May 11 to 17, 2015.

booking through thursday: memory reset

If you could magically reset things so that you had the chance to read a favorite book/series again for the first time, which would you choose and why? Since tastes change, do you think it would have the same affect on you, reading it now, as it did when you read it the first time? Would you love it just as much? Would you risk it?

When Netflix first was becoming popular and I signed up for it, of course there were tons of old kids TV shows on there that I remembered LOVING when I was younger. I thought it would be fun taking a trip town memory lane and re-watch some of them. Yeah… not so much. Just terrible! But with books, the experience may be different… especially if your memory is completely erased.

For me, some of the books I consider “favorites” I read so long ago, it might well be like reading again for the first time if I decide to go back. Here are a few I can think of that I’ve only read once more recently but consider favorites:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale … Margaret Atwood
  • I Know This Much is True … Wally Lamb
  • In Cold Blood … Truman Capote
  • My Life in France … Julia Child
  • The Road … Cormac McCarthy

I remember the feelings I had reading them, but not every detail of the plot, not every character. So I think it would be okay to go back. I suspect I’d still love all of these; it hasn’t been too too long. Although there are a couple on my Goodreads “favorites” shelf that I’m wondering why I put them on there—not entirely sure they still deserve that status: Water for Elephants by Sara Green and The Time-Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Not that they were bad—I definitely remember enjoying them a lot, but I’m not sure they have stayed with me much. I don’t feel like I would necessarily like to re-read them someday, unlike the rest in the list above.

I think the books that I might have the most different feelings about if I went back to them afresh are things I read as a kid, like the V.C. Andrews: Flowers in the Attic series, stuff by Roald Dahl and Michael Crichton (again, good—some favorites as a kid, but now? I don’t know. Not as into fantasy and sci-fi as I used to be), and a few I loved in high school:

  • All Quiet on the Western Front … Erich Maria Remarque
  • Death Be Not Proud … John Gunther
  • The Jungle … Upton Sinclair
  • To Kill a Mockingbird … Harper Lee
  • The Lord of the Flies … William Golding

These five listed particularly blew me away at that time in my life, and I felt so strongly about them that I’d worry I’d lose that feeling going back. Maybe it’s been too long since I read them…

How about you—would you go back to read a favorite book for the first time again?