June Reading Round Up

What were the hits and misses of my June reading spree?

These are in the order that I finished them. The links take you to Goodreads if you want to add it to your reading list or read other reviews. **A note about my rating scale: Harry Potter and The Help are some of the few fictional books that make it to a 5 on my scale. A rating of 1 would be for a book I couldn't even finish. 

1. Little Bee, by Chris Cleave -

From the Amazon description: "We don't want to tell you too much about this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this: It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific. The story starts there, but the book doesn't. And it's what happens afterward that is most important. Once you have read it, you'll want to tell everyone about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds."

Little Bee is the story of a Nigerian girl, seeking asylum in England after escaping from the horror of the oil conflict in the Niger Delta. Although fiction, this based-in-reality topic was not something I'd had much exposure to before. I enjoyed the alternating narration between Little Bee and a recent widow in England. You will eventually learn how the two have been connected by an earlier life altering event. The ending was perhaps not my favorite, but it was likely a larger symbol for the theme of the novel.  3/5

2. Ill Will, by Dan Chaon -

From the Cover: “We are always telling a story to ourselves, about ourselves.” This is one of the little mantras Dustin Tillman likes to share with his patients, and it’s meant to be reassuring. But what if that story is a lie? " A psychologist in suburban Cleveland, Dustin is drifting through his forties when he hears the news: His adopted brother, Rusty, is being released from prison. Thirty years ago, Rusty received a life sentence for the massacre of Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle. The trial came to epitomize the 1980s hysteria over Satanic cults; despite the lack of physical evidence, the jury believed the outlandish accusations Dustin and his cousin made against Rusty. Now, after DNA analysis has overturned the conviction, Dustin braces for a reckoning.

Meanwhile, one of Dustin’s patients has been plying him with stories of the drowning deaths of a string of drunk college boys. At first Dustin dismisses his patient's suggestions that a serial killer is at work as paranoid thinking, but as the two embark on an amateur investigation, Dustin starts to believe that there’s more to the deaths than coincidence. Soon he becomes obsessed, crossing all professional boundaries—and putting his own family in harm’s way.

From one of today’s most renowned practitioners of literary suspense, Ill Will is an intimate thriller about the failures of memory and the perils of self-deception. In Dan Chaon’s nimble, chilling prose, the past looms over the present, turning each into a haunted place."

I love a good 'dark and twisty', cerebral novel . This was not one I loved. The messed up experiences of Chaon's characters, while at first interesting, never seemed to get the plot rolling toward a climax. To help convey the spaciness and disturbed nature of some of the main characters, Choan mirrored their personalities by often spacing out the text visually, or organizing several pages of text in ta able format. I appreciate the ways in which writers can break from the conventional rules of grammar and syntax in order to convey meeting (thank you AP english composition). But Choan did this so often it was tiring. A few days after finishing it, I was able to reinterpret the first half of the book in light of the resolutions that come to light in the second half. My opinion of it increased from about 2.5/5, to 3.5/5. 

3. A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman

From the Amazon description: Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon—the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.

Go buy this book right now. I'm not sure anyone can dislike this charming book about a grumpy old guy and his daily errands. I bought this for my dad for Father's Day, and he says this is the first book to which he's laughed out loud while reading! 5/5

4. Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon

From the Amazon description: The lives of three strangers interconnect in unforeseen ways–and with unexpected consequences–in acclaimed author Dan Chaon’s gripping, brilliantly written new novel.

Longing to get on with his life, Miles Cheshire nevertheless can’t stop searching for his troubled twin brother, Hayden, who has been missing for ten years. Hayden has covered his tracks skillfully, moving stealthily from place to place, managing along the way to hold down various jobs and seem, to the people he meets, entirely normal. But some version of the truth is always concealed.

A few days after graduating from high school, Lucy Lattimore sneaks away from the small town of Pompey, Ohio, with her charismatic former history teacher. They arrive in Nebraska, in the middle of nowhere, at a long-deserted motel next to a dried-up reservoir, to figure out the next move on their path to a new life. But soon Lucy begins to feel quietly uneasy.

My whole life is a lie, thinks Ryan Schuyler, who has recently learned some shocking news. In response, he walks off the Northwestern University campus, hops on a bus, and breaks loose from his existence, which suddenly seems abstract and tenuous. Presumed dead, Ryan decides to remake himself–through unconventional and precarious means.

Because Chaon was on the on best seller this for this earlier published book and I wanted to give him a chance to redeem himself from Ill Will, I gave this a shot. The plot ticked along slightly faster than Ill Will, and I liked trying to figure out how the three, seemingly unrelated narrating characters were (or would) end up intersecting. If you want to read Chaon, pick this and not Ill Will. Not as satisfying as other thrillers I've encountered, but I'd say 3.5/5 stars.

5. Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, Joby Warrick

From the Amazon Description: In a thrilling dramatic narrative, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Joby Warrick traces how the strain of militant Islam behind ISIS first arose in a remote Jordanian prison and spread with the unwitting aid of two American presidents. Drawing on unique high-level access to CIA and Jordanian sources, Warrick weaves gripping, moment-by-moment operational details with the perspectives of diplomats and spies, generals and heads of state, many of whom foresaw a menace worse than al Qaeda and tried desperately to stop it. Black Flags is a brilliant and definitive history that reveals the long arc of today’s most dangerous extremist threat.

Wow. Warrick is an excellent writer and journalist. I picked this book up to better orient myself with the state of affairs in the middle east, and to understand how and when ISIS really came to hold such power. This book in many ways reads like a piece of fiction; the story is suspenseful, the characters are intriguing, and our vision is always 20/20 when we are interpreting the past. I appreciate that Warrick can tell this story and point out the results of major decisions made by the Bush and Obama administrations and their resulting consequences (good but mostly bad), but not get in a finger pointing game. He is simply recording the cause and effect that can only be known to us afterward. Granted, he points out many cases in which perhaps these administrations had people recommending a different strategy because they saw a poor outcome looming, but there is no character assassination. I felt Warrick was an investigator, reporting to me the facts as they came to be.

 I highly recommend this book (5/5), especially if you're looking to find something in Non-fiction that holds your attention. I feel much more informed than before finishing this but still have a long way to go in my quest to understand the last 50-60 years of US Interventions and other history of the Middle East. To remedy that, I have started America's War for the Greater Middle East, and will return to a book I half finished earlier this year, No Good Men Among the Living. 

6. Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance

From the Cover: 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'll give this a 3.5/5; there is just really too much complexity in evaluating to this book to address here in a review. If you were reading this as a memoir, it's an interesting and compelling story. Reading this as an analysis of the white working class of the rust belt and Appalachia is lacking. For the record, I did not realize this book had been touted as an explanation of why people voted for Trump - I only picked it up to use my free audible subscription when I was on the road for 6 hours one day... But I did not walk away from reading this with greater insight into that area of Trump supporters. To me, this is better marketed as a story of why it is hard to break out of systemic poverty (because of culture and norms, psychology, and not least of all, finances and opportunity). Although he does not thoroughly address the matter, Vance conveys that there are no magic bullet policies or government reforms to fix such problems. 

Because I was already exposed to the systemic and enduring nature of poverty (thank you, advanced degree in psychology and a sibling who is highly involved in social justice issues), this was not ground breaking for me. I have learned that from from birth onward, those growing up in poverty fashion a lens through which they see the world and their survival in it that remains different from the lens crafted by those growing up with means. But, we must remember that stories are usually more powerful than statistics in helping us understand the real experience of those in lives different than our own, and to me, this is the value of Vance's book.  I have read many reviews that have walked away with the impression that Vance is anti-blue collar work. Perhaps it's because I listened to the author's own narration of the book instead of reading it that I did get that same message. Overall, if this topic is new to you, it's a book I would recommend. If you're looking for a much more in depth analysis, I have been referred to and will likely read, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg.

7. Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Our Children from an Over-sanitized World, by B. Brett Finlay and Marie-Claire Arrieta 

From the Amazon description: In the two hundred years since we discovered that microbes cause infectious diseases, we’ve battled to keep them at bay. But a recent explosion of scientific knowledge has led to undeniable evidence that early exposure to these organisms is beneficial to a child’s well-being. Our modern lifestyle, with its emphasis on hyper-cleanliness, is taking a toll on children’s lifelong health.

In this engaging and important book, microbiologists Brett Finlay and Marie-Claire Arrieta explain how the trillions of microbes that live in and on our bodies influence childhood development; why an imbalance of those microbes can lead to obesity, diabetes, and asthma, among other chronic conditions; and what parents can do--from conception on--to positively affect their own behaviors and those of their children. They describe how natural childbirth, breastfeeding, and solid foods influence children’s microbiota. They also offer practical advice on matters such as whether to sterilize food implements for babies, the use of antibiotics, the safety of vaccines, and why having pets is a good idea. 

Forward-thinking and revelatory, Let Them Eat Dirt is an essential book in helping us to nurture stronger, more resilient, happy, and healthy kids. 

The description above is fairly compelling and not overstated. Everyone, not just those with children, should check out this book.  First, the authors are doctors in microbiology. They refer constantly to peer reviewed research, and they are careful to say when evidence is conclusive versus or preliminary. As an expectant mom, I have already been learning about how and why vaginal birth over cesarean section, as well as breast feeding, promote better outcomes in the child throughout his or her life.  This book really help us understand why that is, and how many of the decisions we make during pregnancy, and from birth onward, can either help or hinder the diversity of a child's microbiota. That microbiota is the machinery of our guts, and is responsible for much more than just a successful trip to the restroom. This book is also an inspiring starting point for how to better develop our gut bacteria as adults (e.g., food we eat, medicines we take, exposure to the outdoors) as well as exciting research that is currently being conducted. Definitely, 5/5. 

Have you read any of these titles? If so, what did you think? I'm off to read the next pile of books for July!