February 2020 Book Reviews

This month’s book review feels a little different than normal because while I normally try to vary the types of books I read, this month I read a lot of heavier novels. Novels that made me think. Novels that made me have to take time to process. Novels that stayed with me after I turned the last page and I won’t soon forget about. I feel like I limped across the finish line for February. My brain is exhausted!

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These reviews are just my thoughts written out, and I had a lot of them. Some thoughts I’m not sure I did a great job of putting into words. It feels a little scattered and word vomit-y, but that’s a pretty accurate depiction of how I feel after this marathon of reading so here we go!

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

“Our only chance at dismantling racial injustice is being more curious about its origins than we are worried about our comfort.”

More than any other book I read this month (and possibly ever), this memoir deeply challenged me. It is a fast, but powerful read. Austin Channing Brown writes poignantly about her experiences as a black woman in the largely white communities and organizations she’s been involved in throughout her life. She writes in a way that made me pause to think so many times.  It made me put a mirror up to myself and really look. It often made me uncomfortable. It made me realize I need to be uncomfortable because I am all too guilty of, as Brown puts it, trying to “live comfortably in ignorance of America’s racial history” and that extends to present day. Our country’s history of slavery and racism hurts my heart to think about. I can’t grasp it, I can’t understand it. So I often choose to not think about it, because it’s easier. But the fact is, it really happened. And racism, though it looks different than it did 200 years ago, still exists. It even exists in “nice” white people. This book helped to open my eyes to the lenses I use to view society.  I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never really realized how much white culture is embedded into American society – our workplaces, our school curriculum, etc and how this affects my way of thinking.  I have a lot to think about and process as I move forward to figure out where I go from here and how I live differently. I think this quote from the book speaks directly to my feelings: “I don’t know what to do with that I’ve learned . . . I can’t fix your pain, and I can’t take it away, but I can see it. And I can work for the rest of my life to make sure your children don’t have to experience the pain of racism . . . Doing nothing is no longer an option for me.” I highly, highly recommend this book.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Full disclosure: I was on the waiting list for this book for months. And anytime I’m on the waiting list for that long, my expectations for the book significantly rise. If this many people want to read it, it has to be amazing right? So I think I kind of unfairly expected a lot from this one and after the first few chapters, I wasn’t sure it was going to live up to the hype.  I kept going though and eventually this book really grew on me and I enjoyed reading it. This book revolves around the Dutch House, a very unique, grand estate in Pennsylvania (I wish it was real so I could visit it!), and is told through the perspective of Danny, a boy who spent his childhood there with his sister and father. What’s interesting about this book is that even though the narration throughout the decades is always Danny’s, the timelines shift back and forth, and there are a lot of spoilers/foreshadowing throughout. At times, that made me sad because I already knew what was going to happen even though I didn’t know how it was going to happen, but overall this narration really worked. It is more character-driven than plot-driven and it focuses on things like what motivates people to act the way they do and the close (maybe too close?) relationship between Danny and his sister Maeve. I had a lot to think about after finishing it – forgiveness, family bonds, regret, how our past experiences shape us. It’s described as a dark fairy tale and I completely agree with that label. I would say overall, I enjoyed it, but I wish I hadn’t had such high expectations going into it. (And as a complete side note: normally I prefer reading the physical book, but I found out that Tom Hanks narrated the audiobook and I wish I had gone that route instead. I think I would have loved it so much more!) 

A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum

“But what had her grandparents expected when they came to this country? That their children and grandchildren would be fully Arab, too? That their culture would remain untouched? It wasn’t her fault she wasn’t Arab enough. She had lived her entire life straddled between two cultures. She was neither Arab nor American. She belonged nowhere. She didn’t know who she was.” (p.28)

This novel is told through the stories of three women related women: Isra, a Palestinian woman who moved to New York after her arranged marriage, her daughter Deya, and her mother-in-law Fareeda. The perspectives and timelines change depending on the chapter’s narrator, but I found the book surprisingly easy to follow along with.  The stories of Muslim immigrants living in Brooklyn and trying to keep their culture alive in a completely different country was about the farthest thing from my personal experience and I was really fascinated by how each woman chose to navigate her strict, oppressive, and conservative culture and family life. I know these stories do not portray what life is like for every Palestinian immigrant family, but it definitely broadened my worldview (even though it is a work of fiction). And the fact that it was told through three related women with different, yet similar experiences was interesting. I will say – Isra’s story was pretty repetitive and got hard for me to focus on. At the same time, I think the monotony was kind of the point of her story line and drove home her feelings and perspective to the reader. Deya’s story was the easiest to fly through and I always looked forward to her chapters. And when Fareeda’s story got brought in, much needed perspective was gained. Overall, this was a deep, complex novel and gave me so much to think about and process! This one will stay with me a long time.

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

I read this around Valentine’s Day and it was the perfect choice for a fun, engaging read not only for the holiday, but also to lighten up my reading load this month. Tiffy and Leon are flatmates . . . but due to opposite work schedules, they never need to be in the flat at the same time and or even meet each other. They start to leave each other notes around the apartment about house-related things and gradually develop a friendship of sorts as they start to share more and more of their lives with one another through these notes. Then one day, they unexpectedly meet, and their views towards one another dramatically shift. I seriously loved this book. It was cute, it was sweet, it had depth, it had likable characters, and it had a unique premise. I love a book where I can really root for the characters and this makes you just want the best for everyone. It was romantic but not cheesy or overly steamy. It just struck the perfect balance for me and I didn’t want it to end. I highly recommend it if you’re craving a fun read!

Beartown by Fredrick Backman

” …many of the best things people do for each other occur precisely because of loyalty. The only problem is that many of the very worst things we do to each other occur because of the same thing.”

Where to even begin with this one. I have so many thoughts and feelings about this and I’m going to try to do it justice. In simplest terms, this book is about life in a hockey town. Backman’s style is so unique and his writing is incredible, but what makes it a fascinating book also makes it a difficult one to get through. From the very first sentence, you know something horrible is going to happen. So there is always this sense of pervasive sadness and foreboding as you read. The narration keeps switching, sometimes from one sentence to another, and there are a ton of perspectives (I stopped counting when I got to 20 different people). It is extremely character-driven and as such, is very slow. Like, it took 112 pages to get through one. single. day. in the lives of these characters. And it’s a long book at 400+ pages! I even took to my Instagram stories and talked about how I wanted to stop reading even though I wasn’t even quite halfway through.

Instead of quitting, I took a little break and started reading another book for a while. I came back to Beartown to give it one more effort. After reading about 40 more pages, things started to shift for me. Suddenly, I had a grasp on all the characters. I was invested in their lives. I had my favorites, I had my least favorites. I was intrigued. I was frustrated. I had to see how it all played out. It made me feel a lot of emotions and I wanted to personally talk to so many of these characters – some I wanted to hug and others I wanted to smack in the face. I can honestly say the last 1/3 of the book flew by. And I absolutely cannot believe I am saying this, but it’s possible that I might want to read the sequel. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just running on the adrenaline of finishing, but I enjoyed the last part enough for it to at least make up for not liking the first part. That being said, would I recommend it? I’m honestly not sure. It’s a unique style of writing that is not for everyone, but for the right reader, it’s fantastic.

Whew – we made it! I think I’m going to need some lighter reads for March, so if you have any good suggestions, send them my way!

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