Tuesday, April 4, 2017

What I Read In March

March turned out to be a great month for books!  I was getting a bit burned out on podcasts, so I decided to pick back up my Audible listens during my commute. 

(NOTE: The book descriptions and photos below are taken from Amazon.)

I began with the one that was on many 'Best Of 2016' lists and that I was quite interested in listening to:
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance

From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class.

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.

The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.

But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

 A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.

I want to be very clear in saying that though ALL of this family's story is NOT my family's story...there were things that hit very, very close to home for me as I listened.  I was absolutely transfixed from the moment that the author called his grandparents, Mammaw and Pappaw.  Though he thinks it is not said outside of Appalachian families -- that is what we called both sets of my grandparents until we started school and learned the slightly more proper Grandma and Grandpa.  The more I listened the more I wondered if perhaps I wasn't more like them than different.  While it's true that I was born and raised in Arkansas, we were from the Delta and timber lands of the southeast and did not consider ourselves hillbillies.  (Rednecks, yes.  but Jim's family came from the Arkansas hills -- not mine. ;-)  I shed more than a few tears as I listened to this over the course of a few days.  I recognized members of my family of origin and thought processes that I carry around still to this day.  I finally realized how some of my personality traits were born as coping mechanisms in childhood and the effect they have on my relationships still today. 

During last year's election this book was touted as one that you should read if you wanted to understand better why so many people from this demographic voted Republican.  I didn't find that answer, nor did I find any way that someone could come to that conclusion from this book...but I found it very thought provoking, sometimes hard to listen to, and very revealing of some of my own thought processes.  I did, however, see how listening to this story contradicts part of the 'white privilege' stereotype by revealing how poverty affects several generations no matter the hue of the skin. Maybe, just maybe I am too close to the subject matter to see it more objectively.

(7 hours)

My second Audible listen has been waiting for quite awhile.  I downloaded it so that I could listen before the HBO limited series aired, but then got caught up in other things -- totally forgetting about it until the episodes were stacking up on my DVR.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Sometimes it’s the little lies that turn out to be the most lethal... A murder…a tragic accident…or just parents behaving badly?  
What’s indisputable is that someone is dead. But who did what? Big Little Lies follows three women, each at a crossroads:

Madeline is a force to be reckoned with. She’s funny and biting, passionate, she remembers everything and forgives no one. Her ex-husband and his yogi new wife have moved into her beloved beachside community, and their daughter is in the same kindergarten class as Madeline’s youngest (how is this possible?). And to top it all off, Madeline’s teenage daughter seems to be choosing Madeline’s ex-husband over her. (How. Is. This. Possible?).

Celeste is the kind of beautiful woman who makes the world stop and stare. While she may seem a bit flustered at times, who wouldn’t be, with those rambunctious twin boys? Now that the boys are starting school, Celeste and her husband look set to become the king and queen of the school parent body. But royalty often comes at a price, and Celeste is grappling with how much more she is willing to pay.

New to town, single mom Jane is so young that another mother mistakes her for the nanny. Jane is sad beyond her years and harbors secret doubts about her son. But why? While Madeline and Celeste soon take Jane under their wing, none of them realizes how the arrival of Jane and her inscrutable little boy will affect them all.

Big Little Lies is a brilliant take on ex-husbands and second wives, mothers and daughters, schoolyard scandal, and the dangerous little lies we tell ourselves just to survive.

I loved, loved, loved listening to this one!  We know from the beginning that someone has died at a school fundraising event...we just don't know who is dead or who is responsible.  The story unfolds from the day of Kindergarten orientation to the time of the murder. Interspersed throughout the events leading up to the murder are snippets of the police interviews with the witnesses from that fateful fundraiser.  Seeing the varying viewpoints of eyewitnesses (whether arrived at innocently or because of resentments or prejudices) blew me away. 

The story begins when a child accuses another classmate of choking her while the teacher is not looking.  The accused child is quickly labeled a 'Bully' yet...several of the outraged parents (from both sides) could be guilty of bullying in their own grownup, finessed ways. Then their are the lies, who is telling them and why.  There are big ones and little ones and little ones that become huge ones. 

The friendships in this book are worth the time it took to listen.  Madeline has just turned 40 and her last child is starting school while her first born is entering her teenaged angst years.  Madeline is spunky and a mini-tornado of activity.  (I just loved when she said something about looking tired all of the time and then looking in the mirror one day to realize that this is just the way she looks now.)  If you have daughters you may recognize the shift that comes in your life when you realize that you are losing your youthful appearance just as your daughter is coming into her own.  It's tough!  Her best friend is Celeste, beautiful, rich, perfect, with the most romantic husband in the whole town.  Everyone stops and stares at Celeste -- men and women alike.  But Celeste is often distracted and dreamy, never recognizing how others perceive her.  Then we meet Jane, a much younger single mom, new to town, struggling to make ends meet and quite skittish.  Jane seems to always be haunted by something from her past that keeps her on edge and creates deep concern for her son, Ziggy.  When Madeline takes Jane under her wing, you just know that something is about to happen that will take poor Jane out of her comfort zone.

I spent most of the book wondering who was dead.  Was it Jane?  Was it Madeline?  Was it Celeste? Was it Renata, the overbearing mother with the super successful career?  Or was it one of their men?
It had me changing my mind with each passing hour and kept me guessing right up until the end.

I thought Caroline Lee, the narrator, did an impressive job on this one.  Okay, so I was a bit in awe of her Australian accent...but she made every character (and there are lots of them) come alive for me. This is one of those rare audiobooks that make you want to take the long way home and then sit in the driveway until the chapter is completed.

I started watching the series just before I finished the book but I'm a little 'meh' with the changes.  I know that some things have to be shortened or rearranged.  I am three episodes in and I'm missing Pirriwee Public.  The change from a beach town in Australia to Monterrey, CA just loses some of the flavor of it for me.  The acting is superb!  And though I envisioned some of the characters a bit differently (like I just knew that Nicole Kidman would be Madeline, not Reese Witherspoon), the actresses do an especially good job of conveying the personalities of their characters.  We will see if I make it all the way through the series or not.

(16 hours -- I listened to the majority of the book on 1.5 speed so that I could finish it in a week.)

I picked up this next title because I had heard through several podcasts that it reads a little like short stories but with the common thread of a certain character.  One reason that drew me is that I am eleven weeks into a thirteen week Bible study and I don't have a lot of time for reading at night.  I wanted something to help me relax, but that was not so involved that if I were away from it for a few days that I might lose some of the story.  This really hit the spot.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest: A Novel by J. Ryan Stradal

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is a novel about a young woman with a once-in-a-generation palate who becomes the iconic chef behind the country’s most coveted dinner reservation. It was selected as a best book of the year by Amazon, BookPage, LibraryReads, and NPR.

When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva’s journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that’s a testament to her spirit and resilience.

Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal’s startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity. By turns quirky, hilarious, and vividly sensory, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an unexpected mother-daughter story about the bittersweet nature of life—its missed opportunities and its joyful surprises. It marks the entry of a brilliant new talent.

I finished this one sitting on the deck at the creek. The chapters were told from different points of view of people whose lives had intersected with Eva.  Some were life changing for her, some were life changing for them. Some were relationships that lasted for years and some were chance encounters that seemed totally unmemorable until the end.  It appeared that the author was going to tie up the story in a neat little bow...but, thankfully, he didn't.  It left us wondering about some of the characters we met through Eva...and about Eva herself.  Which is a much more realistic conclusion to the middle of a story about someone's life.

(320 pages)

I finished up March by listening to:
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past.

The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it's been more useful in communicating grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.

Now 18 and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what's been missing in her life, and when she's forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it's worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

This one has been on my radar for awhile...but when a friend told me over dinner that she was reading it for one of her book clubs and that it really had her thinking, I downloaded it as soon as I possibly could possibly get to it!

It's still stewing in my head.  We have two nieces who came into our family through the foster care system.  With them in mind, it hurt my heart to read parts of Victoria's story and for the most part I just wanted to sweep her up into my arms and tell her that everything was going to be alright.  But I have to admit that at the end I wanted to crawl through the Bluetooth system on my vehicle and strangle her.  I texted with my friend about the things happening near the end of the book and, though she agreed with me and had similar feelings to mine, she shared that her book club kept insisting to her that Victoria really didn't know any better.  I'm not sure I agree with that...and so, it keeps on stewing around in my head.

I enjoyed the listen.  Learned a lot about the language of flowers and about the compassion needed to help someone who has been so deeply hurt by abandonment.  I pray that our nieces never suffer the severe insecurity and distrust of even those that love them so dearly that Victoria did.  Though I was frustrated most of the last hour and a half of the book, I felt the ending was much like the ending of Kitchens of the Great Midwest -- realistic and not tied up in TOO neat of a bow, though, nevertheless, there is a bow.

(11 hours)

I finally finished the Dietrich Bonhoffer book Life Together and started this one in preparation for the next New Members Orientation at church:
Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus by Jonathan Leeman

Why should you join a church?

Becoming a member of a church is an important, and often neglected, part of the Christian life. Yet the trend these days is one of shunning the practice of organized religion and showing a distaste or fear of commitment, especially of institutions.

Jonathan Leeman addresses these issues with a straightforward explanation of what church membership is and why it’s important. Giving the local church its proper due, Leeman has built a compelling case for committing to the local body.

Still reading!

Do you have any good books to recommend for April?  After all, there are ONLY 50 books in my 'What Should I Read Next' recommendation board on Pinterest to choose from!  LOL!

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