My library request for My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout came in right after I finished The Burgess Boys. It was interesting reading the same author back-to-back; her writing has a certain intense tone and subdued atmosphere to it. This short novel is another examination of family and our complex bonds within it. Lucy Barton reflects back on her life – focusing on a long stay she had in the hospital, her childhood, her children, her later years in life – but all jumbled together, not in any chronological order. And it’s not a narrator recounting what actually happened, it’s Lucy recounting what she remembers. It’s very lifelike, as if you’re having a conversation with her and she talks about what comes to mind as the conversation goes, and circles back to different stories later on. She’s a woman scarred by her past who’s just looking for simple, pure human connection. Lucy struggles through this assortment of painful memories, trying to sort out who she is, how these experiences have shaped her. In the end, she grasps – or at least is closer to grasping – what it means to be Lucy Barton. Certainly not fast-paced, but beautifully introspective and well-written.
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout is a beautifully written novel about the Burgess family. Bob has lived in the shadow of his older brother, Jim, his entire life. They both became lawyers and both escaped the small town in Maine where they grew up for New York City. But one day their sister Susan calls them back home to help get her son Zachary out of trouble. This crisis brings the siblings face-to-face with their true selves they’ve been running from all these years. Wonderfully written, Strout delves into how regret affects us, where home is truly found, and how people are capable of change. Her characters are incredibly complex and lifelike, and by the end of the novel you empathize with their struggles. I look forward to reading another novel by Strout I picked up at the library.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss might be the nerdiest book I’ve ever read, but I enjoyed it. It is what it sounds like: Truss discusses various punctuation, though in a witty, British way, looking at its utility, importance, and change over time. She also throws in many examples of humorous errors and shows how punctuation is so important to meaning and clarity. It was a fun little book, though you’d have to have specific taste to enjoy it. (Also, the first book I’ve read on a Kindle in a while. I so love tangible books, but I got sucked into Kindle deals; when a book on my wish list is only a dollar for the Kindle version, it’s hard to resist.)
This book has been on my shelf for years. For some reason, I finally picked it up. Howards End by E. M. Forster is a novel that reminded me a lot of Jane Austen; though set about a century later than her novels, it’s still during the time in England when there were strict social classes accompanied by their own mores – and, of course, there’s a woman being courted and wed. The novel is about three families of different social classes whose lives become intertwined: the Schlegel sisters and brother; the Wilcox family; and the Bast couple. The Schlegels lives off of their inheritance, while the Wilcoxes, the father and his two grown sons, have found wealth through business. The Basts are poor, struggling to get by even on a clerk’s wage. As the interactions between these families grow, their worldviews collide, causing friction and strife. It wasn’t a fast-paced novel by any means, and tended to get philosophical at times. However, it did keep me interested and wondering how the story would play out, and the characters were expertly drawn.
I enjoyed Kate Milford’s other novel so much I decided to try another. Thankfully my library had her first novel, The Boneshaker. This middle-grade novel is about Natalie, a thirteen-year-old that lives in Arcane, Missouri in the early twentieth century. One day a traveling medicine show rolls into town and sets up shop. Natalie can tell from the beginning there’s something suspicious about the man, Dr. Limberleg, that runs the show, so she begins to investigate the fair and the strange men that work it. Eventually, she begins to realize there is something sinister and much larger than their little town going on with Limberleg and his associates. The Boneshaker is an intriguing mystery though it does get a little weird and maybe too scary for young kids. It reminded me a lot of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes about another child confronting an evil circus. It was a fun read overall; I enjoy Milford’s skillful writing, wonderful world-building, and engaging plots.
I started this book at the end of 2017 – it took me six months to get through it, but I finally did. I began it during my winter slump, and it just wasn’t til June that it piqued my interest again. I’m glad I didn’t give up on it – some books just have to be at the right time. The Well of Lost Plots is book three in Jasper Fforde’s imaginative literature-based Thursday Next Series. This book takes place entirely inside the fictional world. Thursday has escaped to the Well of Lost Plots, where unpublished novels reside, for some respite. But things aren’t as quiet as she’d hoped, and she has to help Jurisfiction save the manufacturing and crafting of fiction. Full of literary allusions and wry wit, this one was a bit slower than the first two – probably one reason it took me a while to get interested in it. But in a series of seven books, there’s bound to be a low point or two. I look forward to reading the next in line.
Rules of Civility is Amor Towles’ first novel, and the second I’ve read. He is a wonderful writer, the likes of which is hard to find in contemporary fiction. The novel chronicles a particularly eventful year in the life of Katherine Kontent that set the direction of her future. Katey came from a working-class family in New York City and works in a secretarial pool for a law firm. While celebrating New Years Eve in 1937, Katey and her friend, Eve, have a chance encounter with Tinker Grey, a charming man from the upper echelons of New York, and through association with him they are brought into this life of high society. Katey lives the next year navigating the social circles of her own status and those she meets through Tinker, while figuring out what kind of woman she wants to be in this socially stratified city. The characters are so life-like, seen at their best and worst, that they’re not all loveable, though immensly relatable. It’s a sad story at times of the mistakes we make and the hard truths we learn throughout life, thought not without hope. It reminded me a lot of The Great Gatsby (a favorite) and Fitzgerald’s sharp commentary of the New York upper class. A really great read and I look forward to Towles writing more novels.
Greenglass House by Kate Milford is a really fun children’s mystery. Milo lives with his parents, the Pines, at Greenglass House, an inn decorated with beautiful stained glass and popular with the smuggler’s coming through Nagspeake. Usually, business is slow around Christmas and Milo and his parents have the whole house to themselves. But this year, new guests keep arriving one after another, each one with a strange connection to the house, changing the Pines’ holiday from quiet to chaotic. Problems really start to arise once items go missing. Milo and his friend, Meddy, decide they are going to delve into each guest’s past in order to discover the thief and untangle the mysterious connections surrounding the house. It’s a really engaging story in a creative setting. The novel looks at themes of adoption, identity, and history. I enjoyed Milford’s writing, and look forward to reading some of her other novels.
I didn’t pick up The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg at first because it sounded like a self-help book. But after hearing a guest talk about it on my favorite book podcast, I realized it’s more in the vein of The Shallows (though not as good) looking at the science and how our brain works with regard to habits, the actions we do without thinking. Duhigg walks through the neuroscience of how habits are formed, how they’re changed, and how some habits can cause a ripple effect on the others in our lives, looking at the habits of individuals, organizations, and societies. The anecdotes he uses to explain habits in these three spheres were so very interesting. The most fascinating was how marketing for large organizations manipulate buyers’ spending habits in order to get them to buy more. He lost me a little some on the habits of societies – it seems a bit simplistic to dwindle down the cause of the Civil Rights Movement to habits, which he does admit himself though to even attempt it seems far-fetched. His last chapter briefly poses a question of ethics (are people responsible for habits they’re not in control of?), and I would have appreciated him delving into that more. It does get a little self-helpy at the end, plus an Appendix that discusses how to apply the principles of habits to change your own. Overall, it was a very compelling book. It’s always enjoyable to understand more of how our complex brains work.
I picked up The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin on our last vacation when we were wandering downtown and came upon a bookstore going out of business. (Yay for close-out sales. Boo for less bookstores.) This novel had been on my wish list because it’s about a bookstore owner with lots of literary references. After the death of his wife, A. J.’s life and business are spiraling out of control. But some chance encounters set his life on a new course. It was an easy and enjoyable read for vacation, though for the sake of moving along quickly I thought some of the plot wasn’t quite fleshed out. But I appreciated the characters and the literary references woven in.