February Books of the Month

February feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? I know it was a busy month for me because my calendar is packed with book club meetings, dinner plans with friends, and an introduction to quilting class on Sundays. Yet, from the vantage point of mid-March, it feels unimaginably footloose and fancy free. What did I do when I could go and do whatever I wanted?

Well, what I did was read an astonishing 17 books during this month thanks in large part an overcommitment to new book clubs. My ladies-only, dinner-focused Meetup group is trying to expand out to new activities such as a book club. I was also encouraged by my new manager at work to join one of the seven book clubs at work in order to meet more people in our 6,000+ organization.

So, that meant two reading commitments on top of one for my Colorado-based book club, one for my online feminist-focused book club, and two for the quarterly online meeting with friends from my book club back in Boston. And then there were my own reading plans to slot in such as reading one Persephone a month and preparing travel plans to Canada and Alaska (both likely to be cancelled). Busy reading month, for sure!

1. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward — This could have — and probably should have — been a short story. As much as I loved Ward’s descriptive writing, the characters in this novel needed to more dimensions to them. The only one who felt multifaceted was the father of one of her three narrators, but that was largely do with how the legacy of racism complicated his family dynamics rather than the character himself. I struggled with the female narrator, in part because the audiobook gave her a slow, nasally speech that grated on my nerves. (Fiction — audiobook. Read by Kevin Harrison Jr, Rutina Wesley, and Chris Chalk. Simon & Schuster Audio, 2017. 8 hours, 22 minutes. Library copy. Book club selection.Winner of the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction.)

2. Home Fires by Kamila Shamsie — What does it mean to be a citizen of a country? When can someone be stripped of their citizenship? Is there only one way to be British? Shamsie’s excellent novel posses those questions through the stories of three siblings — fraternal twins and the older sister who raised them — and a father-son duo of Pakistani heritage. The male twin leaves Britain to join the media arm of ISIS, re-inflaming the suspicion surrounding his family after their father was suspected of being a jihadi and died on his way to Guantanamo Bay. His sisters have to face how culpable they are; the father-son duo from the same area have to face how being accepted into Westminster required (seemingly) rejecting their history and heritage. It is a fascinating, nuanced tale that proves there are no easy answers when family and country entwine. Yet, for me, the more stunning aspect of this novel was its question of how males and females are asked to faced consequences differently. I must have quoted this passage in at least six different conversations after reading this book. (Fiction — Kindle edition. Riverhead Books, 2017. 288 pgs. Library copy. Book club selection. Winner of the 2018 Women’s Price for Fiction.)

3. Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery — As lovely as it was to be able to return to Avonlea with Anne, the second book in Montgomery’s series is likely to end up at the bottom of my ranking. Anne, who showed such progression in maturity in the previous novel, seems to have regressed back into some of her more childish flights of fancy in this one. New secondary characters are added, but all are caricatures, especially the perennially bad Davy Keith and the unbelievably sweet Paul Irving. The key message in this book seems to be that contact with Anne will magically solve all problems and turn the grouchiest person into the kindest. Not very realistic or interesting. (Fiction — audiobook. Read by Shelly Frasier. Tantor Media, 2008. 9 hours. Library copy. #46 on my Classics Club list.)

4. This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption Are Ruining the American West by Christopher Ketcham — I admit, I read this book solely because of the scathing review it was given in one of my favorite news publications, High Country News. The HCN reviewer made several good points about the flaws with Ketcham’s book, and even I, a Texas-East Coast transplant to the Mountain West, found myself wanting to scream “You aren’t even from here!” at Ketcham. Especially when he dedicated the third part of his book to eviscerating the nonprofit, wilderness advocacy group that my deceased mother dedicated the last five or six years of her life to. But, through all the rage Ketcham expressed towards the people who live on this land, I thought he made some very good points about how the three Cs of his subheading — and the Mormon Church, as he sees it — have exploited, destroyed, and undermined conservation efforts in the American West. Some of his critiques of conservation groups reminded me of the book I read on climate change by Naomi Klein last month, This Changes Everything(Nonfiction — print. Viking, 2019. 432 pgs. Library copy.)

5. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde — Considered of a revolutionary voice in black and intersectional feminism, this collection of Lorde’s writings includes her most famous essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, as well as her examinations of homophobia, classism, and non-intersectional feminism. As ground breaking as her “Master’s Tools” essay was, the essays examining her role as mother to a straight, black son while she is in a mixed-race, lesbian relationship were the most talked about in my book club’s discussions on Lorde’s writings. As this is an anthology, I do wish there had be a bit more context added to her essays and critiques, particularly those that criticized other works. I found it difficult to fully react to her writings when I lacked the background. (Nonfiction — Kindle edition. Crossing Press, 2012. First published 1984. 192 pgs. Purchased. Book club selection.)

6. Lonely Planet’s Cruise Ports Alaska by Brendan Sainsbury, Catherine Bodry, Adam Darlin, John Lee, and Becky Ohlsen — I erroneously assumed cruises were all-inclusive and was, therefore, taken aback to learn I’m responsible for planning the itinerary for my port excursions. I spotted this book for sale at the local bookstore, but am now glad that I was able to borrow it from the library as I didn’t find it very helpful. The cruise I plan(ned?) to take is only visiting a fraction of the ports covering in this book — plus one not covered at all (Victoria, BC) — so I skipped around quite a bit. For those on the visit list covered by this book, the information could have easily be conveyed in a short, bulleted list rather than drawn out chapters. Much of the background information included in each chapter was already covered in the introductory chapter. The chapter on the history of Native Alaskans was the only stellar chapter in the book — very detailed, very unflinching about their dispossession. (Nonfiction — Kindle edition. Lonely Planet, 2018. 292 pgs. Library copy.)

7. Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit by Steven Higashide — Life in Boston turned me into a bit of a bus snob. Even with all its antiquated switches and rusting trains, the Orange Line subway was the faster, more reliable way for me to commute to and from work than the #39 bus. Colorado’s public transit, though, is weighted towards busses (especially where I live), and I quickly learned I’d either have get over my snobbery or accept driving everywhere. Higashide’s book went a long way towards destroying my negative notions towards buses from my Boston experience. It’s not that busses are bad; it’s that Boston’s bus system was poorly constructed with no designated bus lines, single door boarding, and stops located right before stoplights, which slows down the bus and leads to the stack up that so frustrated my (few) bus-based commutes. The regional transit system in Colorado has done the exact opposite, making the Flatiron Flyer and some of the local Denver buses a real joy to ride (and certainly easier than finding parking). Higashide’s book also tipped me off to the existence of FlexRide, a dial-for-a-ride system in Colorado that covers my neighborhood and eliminates my 45 minute walk to catch the bus to the airport. Short read, but very impactful as it certainly helped me become a better transit user and advocate. (Nonfiction — Kindle edition. Island Press, 2019. 180 pgs. Library copy.)

8. The Ultimate Instant Pot Healthy Cookbook: 150 Deliciously Simple Recipes for Your Electric Pressure Cooker by Coco Morante — Tried five recipes — spinach and pea risotto (not creamy enough), hard boiled eggs (too runny), banana oatmeal (first serving great, but didn’t refrigerate well), chicken chickpea carrot plov (great mixed in a salad), and garden patch jambalaya (just the right amount of spice) — and only really enjoyed the last two recipes listed above. Too bad they were the first two I made; otherwise, my impression of this cookbook might have improved instead of declined over time. (Nonfiction — print. Crown Books, 2019. 288 pgs. Library copy.)

9. Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino — I so wanted to like this collection of essays. The first one dealing with our shared generation’s relationship with the Internet was so well-written and thought-provoking. But the collection quickly lost my interest as it turned into a series of college essays with Tolentino summarizing secondary sources on events like the founding of Facebook or the fraud behind the Fyre Festival and documenting prevailing thoughts on feminism, cancel culture, and the like. The one essay that truly felt new, that captured her individual voice was her examination of her one season stint on an MTV reality/competition show. I ended up skipping my book club’s meeting on this one because of how frustrating and unremarkable I found it. So glad the library came through with a copy before I was forced to splurge on it. (Nonfiction — print. Random House, 2019. 303 pgs. Library copy. Book club selection.)

10. The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn — This is hard one to review without giving away too much of the plot, but I will say that it was the perfect introductory novel into the mystery book club sponsored by my employer, even if it was more psychological thriller than mystery. We had a great discussion, particularly around the pathological liar accusations leveled against the author (Finn is a pseudonym). It was interesting to see how quickly members pieced together the mystery; I was one of the first and it didn’t really click for me until the last 75 or so pages. We also all agreed that the book wasn’t a page turner until page 309. Once we reached that point, none of us could put the book down.  (Fiction — print. William Morrow, 2018. 429 pgs. Library copy. Book club selection.)

11. Anaconda: Golden Flower, Haiti, 1490 by Edwidge Danticat — As I’ve mentioned before, I was a huge fan of The Royal Diaries series and read as many of them as I could find at my public library. Danticat’s edition to the series was published long after I had outgrown the series, hence why I only picked it up after my online book club decided to take a trip down memory lane with the series. Given the year in the subheading, I had a general notion about what the book would focus on, but I was surprised when the bulk was spent setting the stage for the arrival of the Spaniards in present-day Haiti rather than about their interactions with Anaconda and her people. The focus was on Taíno culture, much of it speculative on Danticat’s part due to lack of (non-racist) primary sources, was far more informative than from others I’ve read in the series, but I found it a rather slow read that ended just as the story started to pick up steam. (Fiction — print. Scholastic, 2005. 187 pgs. Library copy. Book club selection.)

12. The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery — I clearly picked the wrong animal-focused organization to volunteer with when I lived in Boston! I had no idea the aquarium let their volunteers interact with the animals in their care as intimately as Montgomery did. This was a light yet informative read about octopuses — no, the plural is not octopi — focusing largely on their intelligence and social dynamics. Begs the question if keeping them in captivity is cruel, especially given their short lifespans. Definitely eager to read more by Montgomery after finishing this point. (Nonfiction — print. Atria Books, 2015. 261 pgs. Library copy. Book club selection.)

13. Shamed by Linda Costillo — Goodreads’ recommendation algorithm finally nailed my reading preferences, suggesting this murder mystery featuring a female, formerly Amish detective named Kate Burkholder. The only aspect it didn’t make clear is that this is the eleventh novel in Castillo’s series. Thankfully, the novel stands alone, and I didn’t feel like I was missing out on important aspects of Kate’s character by jumping ahead. Even better, the novel kept me guessing as I raced through it. Definitely eager to track down the other ten books in this series. (Fiction — print. Minotaur Books, 2019. 294 pgs. Library copy.)

14. Missoula: Rape and Justice in a College Town by Jon Krakauer — Rough read. I’ve wanted to read this one since it was published because of (a) my connection to another Montana college town and (b) my mom’s five-star review of the book. I’d give Krakaeur’s book a slightly lower rating than my mom did. I didn’t find it nearly as engaging as some of his other works, and I’m still asking myself why he wrote the book rather than the female journalist who covered the story in real time. Yet, the book presents an unflinching account of the epidemic of rape in America and how law enforcement covers up the crime that humanizes the horrifying statistics repeated in the media. (Nonfiction — Kindle edition. Anchor, 2015. 418 pgs. Library copy. Book club selection.)

15. To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski — Finally, a book where the little wife waits patiently at home for her husband to return from war! Deborah Robertson is a housewife with a young son who promises her husband that she will remain faithful to him while he is stationed in Egypt — a promise that lasts only until she lands a job in London and agrees to share a flat with an old chum. She quickly becomes one of those characters whom a reader could easily hate, especially as her logic defies reason. Yet, Laski presents her unapologetically without a heavy-handed dose of morality that I found it difficult to do anything but like her, flaws and all. The preface by historian Juliet Gardiner helps contextualize the novel, pointing out the double standard for Deborah and her husband and explaining why Laski would chose to publish this under the pseudonym, Sarah Russell. (Fiction — print. Persphone Books, 2009. First published 1946. 224 pgs. Purchased.)

16. Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery — The third book in Montgomery’s series covers Anne’s four years of college at Redmond College in Kingsport, Nova Scotia (a fictionalized version of Dalhousie University in Halifax). Accompanied by four familiar faces, the book focuses primarily on Anne’s budding friendships with Philippa Gordon and Roy Gardner. Philippa — or, Phil, as Anne sometimes calls her — and Roy show Anne how much of a folly idealized romances can be with Phil being the only character willing to call out Anne on his mistakes. Anne is supposed to be the heroine of this series, but Phil really stole the show with this one and I greatly enjoyed her addition to Anne’s world, even as I mourned the loss of other familiar favorites like Marilla and Diana Berry.  (Fiction — audiobook. Read by Susan O’Malley. Blackstone Audio, 2001. First published 1915. 7 hours, 49 minutes. Library copy. #47 on my Classics Club list.)

17. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin — I was about three-fourths of the way through this book when Thomas Friedman published a column in The New York Times calling for the Democrats to follow Abraham Lincoln’s lead by nominating one person to the presidency while promising positions in the cabinet to the rest of the candidates. His idea of the so-called “team of rivals” sounded great on paper, but Goodwin’s biography of Lincoln and his team of rivals makes it clear that the Lincoln administration was plagued by infighting and jealousy. Salmon Chase, after all, tendered his resignation four times as a way to bully Lincoln into following his edicts! And not one of the (now former) candidates for the Democratic nomination seems to hold the wisdom, grace, intellect, and ability to turn the other cheek that Lincoln possessed. Goodwin’s book makes his remarkable character and his difficult presidency accessible and informative while dispelling the myths that sound him to this day. (Nonfiction — audiobook. Read by Richard Thomas. Simon & Schuster Audio, 2005. 41 hours, 32 minutes. Gift from a coworker.)

So, there are the 17 books I read in February — nine nonfiction and eight fiction books. My favorite of the month was To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski, followed closely by Home Fires by Kamila Shamsie, Better Buses, Better Cities by Steven Higashide, and Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I’m currently hunkered down in Montana, taking advantage of the company offered by my dad and his eighth-month-old puppy as I work from home for the foreseeable future. With the libraries closed, my reading has slowed down some, but I’m still moving forward with my plans to finish L. M. Montgomery’s series by June.

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