reading recap: march 2017

I had another prolific month of reading! It’s really nice to be back in a groove after so many blah months. I’m trying to catch up on books I’ve had forever and not buy new ones, and I’m doing okay with that, better than in the past. My audiobook reading has skyrocketed, though. Without a regular 8-to-5 I have tons of time to listen at home and on bus/subway rides. These ten books makes my 2017 total 27 already—more than halfway to my Goodreads goal of 50 for the year, so I may raise that soon enough!

  • Americanah … Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Stranger in the Woods (audio) … Michael Finkel, read by Mark Bramhall
  • When Breath Becomes Air … Paul Kalanithi
  • The Last One (win) … Alexandra Oliva
  • Psycho (audio) … Robert Bloch, read by Paul Michael Garcia
  • Brown Girl Dreaming (audio) … Jacqueline Woodson, read by author
  • Get in Trouble: Stories … Kelly Link
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (audio) … Ken Kesey, read by Tom Parker
  • Hidden Figures (ebook) … Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Mom & Me & Mom (audio) … Maya Angelou, read by author

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestWhen Breath Becomes Air, and The Stranger in the Woods were my favorites read in March. I loved Americanah, but I finished right before Adichie’s controversial interview comments came out, so I’m still sort of reconciling my feelings about it in retrospect. There were some really great stories in Get in Trouble, too, and Psycho was fabulous. I really wanted Hidden Figures to live up to all the grand hype, but for me it fell flat. The parts about the women themselves and their lives were excellent, but you have to wade through lots of textbook-like technical chapters that bored me. I still want to see the movie, though.

Okay. I think if I’m going to be getting through this volume of books (or close to it) each month, I’m going to have to get back into individual posts. It’ll be good for me, another project to keep me occupied!

monthly recap image

authority

Last week I drove to Wisconsin for my family reunion and decided on Authority by Jeff VanderMeer first, to listen to on the way up there. From Goodreads:

For thirty years, a secret agency called the Southern Reach has monitored expeditions into Area X—a remote and lush terrain mysteriously sequestered from civilization. After the twelfth expedition, the Southern Reach is in disarray, and John Rodriguez (aka “Control”) is the team’s newly appointed head. From a series of interrogations, a cache of hidden notes, and more than two hundred hours of profoundly troubling video footage, the secrets of Area X begin to reveal themselves—and what they expose pushes Control to confront disturbing truths about both himself and the agency he’s promised to serve.

I read Annihilation last year and thought it was great—a mind-bending and gripping slim fantastical sci-fi novel that sparked my imagination and kept me turning pages. Authority wasn’t quite on the same level, but I was compelled enough to listen all the way through. The characters in this one weren’t as intriguing as the expedition members in Annihilation. In general, I’d say Authority was long on words and short on action, especially in the middle section. The audiobook version I listened to was narrated well, by Bronson Pinchot (Cousin Balki from Perfect Strangers, for all you TGIF early 90s kids!)

I like that VanderMeer doesn’t go with white males in this trilogy—from the women in the first book to a Latino character as the protagonist in this one. In Authority, you start to wonder more about Area X’s wider effects on humans: physical, emotional, psychological? The interviews between Control and the biologist were great, and that ending! No spoilers, but it was a nail-biter and a good cliffhanger setting up the next installment, Acceptance (which I have, hoping to get to it by the end of the summer).

Authority is not a stand-alone novel the way Annihilation is. This second book is a slow, creeping mystery and (hopefully) a good bridge between the first and last volumes. I wanted this to be as good as Annihilation, but I still can’t wait to dig into Acceptance soon to find out what Area X is really all about.

Listened to audiobook on July 8, 2015.

annihilation

I mentioned in an earlier post that my husband has been asking about messed up dystopian novels (“ones where everyone dies or everything is destroyed,” he says) so I’ve been on the hunt for something along those lines for him. In my search I came across Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer a number of times. From Goodreads:

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer. This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself. They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.

I picked this up from the library for Nick to give it a shot, and I ended up reading it in just a few days. The futuristic Annihilation is a pretty slim volume—just under 200 pages—but VanderMeer manages to create a vivid, curious, and terrifying portrait of Area X. Was it a radioactive or nuclear disaster? Aliens? We don’t learn the reason for Area X being how it is, only that it’s screwing with everyone who goes there. Who’s trustworthy and who’s not? What is the purpose of their mission—is it really to collect biological samples and survey the land, or something else they’re not privy to?

Annihilation is hard to exactly fit into a specific category. Sci-fi absolutely, but a weird sci-fi. Eerie fantasy could be in there a little too, horror, mystery, psychological thriller, dystopian fiction. I wouldn’t say the dialogue is profound, and the prose is super visually evocative, so I’ll say for this one that I’d be eager to see what a filmmaker could do with this story. It dragged in the middle for me just a bit, but the ending was super gripping and near impossible to put down until I finished. My imagination went wild with Annihilation—it is a mind-bending, enigmatic, and intense, especially at the end. It was really unsettling (in a good way).

I am intrigued enough to continue the series! I hear the second book (out last month, and the final installment is released this November—brilliant move by the author and publishers to put out all three within 12 months, I think!) is very different from this first one.

Read from May 17 to 22, 2014.

the pine barrens

This month’s selection for the Stranger Than Fiction book group at the Kansas City Public Library was The Pine Barrens John McPhee, which I finished just in time for the meeting last weekend. From Goodreads:

Most people think of New Jersey as a suburban-industrial corridor that runs between New York and Philadelphia. Yet in the low center of the state is a near wilderness, larger than most national parks, which has been known since the seventeenth century as the Pine Barrens. The term refers to the predominant trees in the vast forests that cover the area and to the quality of the soils below, which are too sandy and acid to be good for farming. On all sides, however, developments of one kind or another have gradually moved in, so that now the central and integral forest is reduced to about a thousand square miles. Although New Jersey has the heaviest population density of any state, huge segments of the Pine Barrens remain uninhabited. The few people who dwell in the region, the “Pineys,” are little known and often misunderstood. Here McPhee uses his uncanny skills as a journalist to explore the history of the region and describe the people—and their distinctive folklore—who call it home.

I admit, this was my first thought when I heard we were reading a book titled The Pine Barrens in my library book group:

Ha! Well, even though it wasn’t about New Jersey mobsters, I still enjoyed the book 😉 and if it weren’t for this Sopranos episode, I probably would have been “most people” described at the top of the blurb up there. So I knew there was this wooded area, but I learned a lot about it from The Pine Barrens, more than you think in just 157 pages.

The Pine Barrens was first published in the late 1960s, so the information is from the late eighteenth century up to then. It would be interesting to read some updates (I had time for only a little internet searching after reading this book), and while the drawings were nice and added to the “vibe” of the book, the inclusion of a map or something more detailed would have been great, too. Of course, now, you can find all that on the internet. Once in a while the narrative tends to ramble a bit and I found myself slightly bored in a few spots.

Anyway, I loved learning about the people of the Pine Barrens and their folklore the best. The Jersey Devil and witches? Awesome. There are stories of families, nature, agriculture, food, forest fires, visitors to the Pines welcome and unwelcome, and more (and there may have been a mention of mobsters in the woods 🙂 ). I loved the sense of pride the natives to the area had, and their intimate relationship with the woods.

It took me about two (short) chapters to really get into the book, but I’m so glad I stuck with it. We had a great discussion in the book group, and I enjoyed learning more about McPhee and his writing process—he’s a careful craftsman with his writing and it shows. The Pine Barrens is a quietly thoughtful portrait of a special place in the United States, one worth protecting and preserving.

Read from November 16 to 23, 2013.