For as long as I can remember, being a reader has been a strong part of my identity. My love of reading is my standard response to questions about my hobbies and appears on lists about random facts about myself. One of my favorite things is to get lost in the pages of a good story. Once my daughter came along, my identity changed and the only thing I had time to get lost in was the web of parenthood. I wanted to find my way back to the pages of a good book. I needed to reclaim the reader part of my identity. I was not sure how I could do it when I constantly felt tired and overwhelmed.
The answer came as I was trying to read some of The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukerjee while my father-in-law held the baby and Partner was working on his laptop. I kept losing my place because I could not focus. I felt so discouraged. Then, I picked up a magazine and read an article. Even though I do not remember what the article was about, I do remember feeling recharged and hopeful. I realized then that since almost all my routines and patterns had been changed since having a baby, maybe my reading should too.
I started to carve out short bits of time to read, by short bits I mean five minutes or even less. I am part of a book club, so I had the chance to see what books lend themselves more easily to this format and which do not. As I look over the list, two patterns emerge. Books with small chapters and on topics that are of interest to me lend themselves to being read in small increments. Over the past sixteen months, here are some books that are really great to read in between diaper changes or in the midst of constant chaos:
- Operating Instructions by Anne Lammott: Seems cliche to begin with a memoir about the first year of parenthood, but the book was perfect for someone looking to get back on the reading bandwagon. Her entries are short and insightful, reflecting the chaos of new parenthood. You can read a little in one setting and dive back into the story easily.
- Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins: Actually all three of the series are good for reading in short bits. However, the premise of the story is pretty disturbing. This is technically young adult, so many of the chapters are shorter by design. In spite of (or may be because of) the heightened intensity, the story goes quickly and can be digested in small bursts.
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: I did not know anything about this book before it was selected for book club; that turned out to be a good thing. The story was engaging enough to keep me reading, but also moved at a pace that lent itself to being picked up and put down quite frequently. Each chapter gives both background information and a clue about the mystery unfolding. You could stop after a few pages to digest or keep going.
- March by Geraldine Brooks: This book did require more "heavy lifting" than the others in that I had a hard time getting into it. However, I was so glad that I kept going after the first chapter because the story just took hold of me. Some books I love for the character development or for the ease with which I can enter the world, I liked this one for both those reasons and because of the way it illustrated an important social justice struggle.
In the coming year, my reading patterns and routine will change again. We are starting to let my daughter put herself to sleep which means that after I put her down, I do not engage with her for 30 minutes. The pain on my heart strings is intense as she cries, but a HUGE silver lining is the chance to get absorbed in a good story. I sense that I may have another post soon about books that are good to read when you are trying to tune out a crying child :)
On a seemingly ordinary Saturday in a California suburb, Julia and her family awake to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the earth has suddenly begun to slow. The days and nights grow longer and longer, gravity is affected, the environment is thrown into disarray. Yet as she struggles to navigate an ever-shifting landscape, Julia is also coping with the normal disasters of everyday life—the fissures in her parents’ marriage, the loss of old friends, the hopeful anguish of first love, the bizarre behavior of her grandfather who, convinced of a government conspiracy, spends his days obsessively cataloging his possessions. As Julia adjusts to the new normal, the slowing inexorably continues.
Pages: 273 (Hardcover)
Rating: 6 out of 10
Source: Checked out from the library
Date Completed: December 20, 2012
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker was the December selection for the Partners and Professors book club. I did not know much about the book, but had seen the name on several lists for good reads. The best description I have came from a fellow book clubber who said that the book is both a coming of age and an end of the world story. Julia, the narrator, goes through some typical teenage stuff including her first crush and changing relationship with her parents. The unique part of the book is that her teenage years unfold against the backdrop of the world coming to an end.
I wanted to like the book more, but found that the story dragged. There were many allusions to something grand coming at the end of the story. Unfortunately, I found that it just puttered out. I wanted more of the world coming to an end piece instead of teenage drama. Several story lines did not end well which added to my frustration. During book club we were trying to figure out why the book was on so well received and we concluded that it was an interesting premise. For me, the premise did not live up to the promise.
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.
Pages: 369 (paperback)
Rating: 8 out of 10
Source: Borrowed from a friend/Checked out from the library
Date Completed: October 28, 2012
I had been wanting to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skoot ever since I saw a segment about the story on CBS Sunday Morning. I was so excited when my book club selected it as the August selection. I had many intentions of finishing the book in time for the meeting, but I underestimated how hard it would be to find time to read with an infant. Before the book club meeting, I borrowed a copy of the book from a friend. After the meeting, I was checking the book out from the library and had to be patient as I ran out of renews and had to share with other people on the wait list.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. I like the combination of science and personal narrative. The contrast between the scientific advancement and contribution of Ms. Lacks to science with the dire conditions of her family is striking. At our book club discussion, one point of contention was whether or not the Lacks family deserved special treatment because of Ms. Lacks cells being used without her consent. The group was divided. Another criticism, by some in the book club, is that the author spent too much time on the personal narrative and it was hard to read.
My take on those two points is that the book is structured in a way to show the complexity and inequity of how advances in science are applied (or not) to various members of society. The author does a wonderful job of showing how part of someone's body (her cells) can contribute so much to advancing science while the absence of that person from her children's lives can cause so much sadness. I enjoyed reading about the family, even though it was so painful and sad at times. The book is unique in that you get your science, technical fix and also get a story. I wish that there was a happy ending, but, alas, real life does not often end neatly.
When a white servant girl violates the order of plantation society, she unleashes a tragedy that exposes the worst and best in the people she has come to call her family. Orphaned while onboard ship from Ireland, seven-year-old Lavinia arrives on the steps of a tobacco plantation where she is to live and work with the slaves of the kitchen house. Under the care of Belle, the master's illegitimate daughter, Lavinia becomes deeply bonded to her adopted family, though she is set apart from them by her white skin.
Eventually, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles opium addiction. Lavinia finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds. When she is forced to make a choice, loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are laid bare, and lives are put at risk.
Pages: 369 (paperback)
Rating: 8 out of 10
Source: Checked out from the library
Date Completed: October 28, 2012
I had not heard about The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom until it was nominated for and then selected as the November read for the Partners and Professors book club. The premise of the story was interesting, but I did not really know what to expect. For the first half of the book, I was really engrossed with the story and kept trying to find a few minutes to read. Towards the end, I felt restless and found myself "scanning" ahead to see what was coming next.
The story is told from the perspective of two women, Lavinia and Belle. The two perspectives not only moved the story forward in interesting ways, but also allowed the reader to see how Lavinia matures. The story is historical fiction and I think it did a good job of illustrating the difference between an indentured servant and a slave. Almost all of the characters were complex, but I wish we had a chance to unpack more of the complexity of some of the characters.
Katniss Everdeen, girl on fire, has survived, even though her home has been destroyed. Gale has escaped. Katniss's family is safe. Peeta has been captured by the Capitol. District 13 really does exist. There are rebels. There are new leaders. A revolution is unfolding.
It is by design that Katniss was rescued from the arena in the cruel and haunting Quarter Quell, and it is by design that she has long been part of the revolution without knowing it. District 13 has come out of the shadows and is plotting to overthrow the Capitol. Everyone, it seems, has had a hand in the carefully laid plains--except Katniss.
The success of the rebellion hinges on Katniss's willingness to be a pawn, to accept responsibility for countless lives, and to change the course of the future of Panem. To do this, she must put aside her feelings of anger and distrust. She must become the rebels' Mockingjay--no matter what the personal cost.
Pages: 390 (Hardcover)
Rating: 7 out of 10
Source: checked out from the library
Date Completed: August 2, 2012
After I read the first Hunger Games book for a book club meeting, I knew that I needed to find out what happened next. As a result, I put myself on the wait list for the next two installments and got completely sucked into the stories. You can read my reviews of The Hunger Games and Catching Fire here and here. When I started Mockingyay by Suzanne Collins I was nervous and excited about what would happen next. I wondered how things would be resolved.
While I am glad that I finished the series, I was not as excited about what would happen next. I found myself waiting to see the conclusion but mostly because I wanted it to be over. For a series which had some really great characters and plot twists, I feel bad saying something so negative. I was satisfied with some of the resolutions and others felt very far fetched. In spite of my reservations, I am glad that I got to know Katniss Everdeen and the rest of the characters. I loved her fierce loyalty and enjoyed reading along as she grappled with intense and complicated life situations.