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Books #24

I hate it when you read a bunch of REALLY good books in a row and then you hit a dry patch and all of a sudden, every book you pick is a dud. I’ve read some duds lately. Bummer. But here is a list of some good ones you should check out!

 

1 ) Happiness: A Memoir: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After by Heather Harpham

I loved this book so much!

It’s a beautifully written, sweet and emotional book written by Heather Harpham about saving her daughter’s life. The book starts out about Heather and Brian, dating in New York. Both writers, Heather is also an actress of some sort. She becomes pregnant and Brian makes it clear that he doesn’t want kids.

“Maybe I’d been viewing his resistance too narrowly. Maybe Brian’s fear of being a father was not about losing his identity as a writer. Maybe he was afraid to love another human being as profoundly as one loves a child. [pg 27]”

So Heather packs up her life and moves to California to live with her mom while she’s pregnant. It’s a rough road, she’s depressed and heart broken and then this tiny baby arrives and she’s in love.

“Each forearm was a cushion of plush velvet I could rub or kiss for hours. The only thing that alarmed me was that her body now existed outside my own. Harm could come to her without passing through me first; amateur design flaw. [pg 51]”

Except Gracie, they soon discover, has a blood disorder. Her body doesn’t make red blood cells. As a newborn she is immediately shipped off to a special hospital in San Francisco and thus begins the story of trying to keep Gracie alive.

“New motherhood strips you down to the studs. Almost everything I enjoyed doing in the evenings, pre-baby, like reading books or writing emails or watching CSI or walking to the park, was now an irrelevant luxury. All I needed in this refashioned life were brownies and baby and sleep. [pg 53]”

Every 3-4 weeks Gracies goes into the hospital for blood transfusions. Heather is stressed, obviously, but has a great support system in California.

“I’d been running for the last few months, and people had begun to say, ‘Hey, you are getting your body back,’ which, though I was flattered every time, also offended me. It sounded as if my body, while pregnant, had been missing. Or on hiatus. [pg 103]”

Then Brian decides to fly out and meet the daughter he didn’t think he wanted. It’s definitely a hard read in that aspect. You feel for Heather and you dislike Brian–I mean you abandons someone like that? I don’t know…throughout the book, even though Brian redeems himself and they become a real family, I could understand the author’s anger and resentment that he wasn’t there in the beginning, or when Gracie was really sick.

They are now together and Brian flies back and forth from New York to California while they discuss whether or not to do a bone marrow transplant. Apparently the odds were not in Gracie’s favor. The specialist they see suggests they have another child and use the cord stem cells for the transplant. This was apparently early days of the procedure.

They decide no way–no more kids. What if the second kid had the same unnamed disorder? And then, you guessed it, they get pregnant accidentally. Long story short–their son is born and is a perfect match for Gracie. They bank the cord blood and wait. Wait and see…until finally they are convinced they need to do it. Gracie’s life depends on it.

“Every day prior to transplant is expressed negatively. Every day after transplant, positively. Days -10 to -1 are spent ingesting the chemo drugs. This is time before time. Day 0 is Transplant Day, ground zero, when patients reset their clock. Are made new. After transplant, time is expressed once more in positive numbers because each day forward is a gift. A bonus. These are days your child might not have been allotted. Days received as grace. [pg 221]”

They temporarily move to Durham, NC and basically live at the hospital while Gracie goes through the treatment necessary to get the transplant, and then recover from the transplant. The second half of the book is about that.

She doesn’t go into too many details about the other kids on the transplant ward, but does mention two, who pass away, and it is absolutely devastating.

“Losing a child makes time reverse direction, flow backward. To survive loss on that scale, I imagine, you have to become someone you make up, whole cloth, to impersonate you, for the rest of your life. [pg 227]”

“If what you’ve been is a mother or a father and your child is now gone, there is no word for who you are. If you lose a spouse, you’re a widow or a widower. But if you lose a child, you go on being a mother or a father. There is no word because we refuse to cede that much authority to the possibility. It is literally the indescribable pain. If we can’t call its name, it can’t come. Only it can. [pg 289]”

Thankfully Gracie is ok. The book is a roller-coaster ride of emotions but it’s never too daunting or too difficult to read. The writing style is really beautiful and often poetic. She is a very good writer and her story is important and eye opening about what happens to a relationship under intense stress, how you make life-changing decisions for your kids, how you stay strong for your kids and how you find the happiness in the little things. Beautiful book!

 

2 ) Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

What a weird, delightful little book that makes you laugh out loud the whole time…yet it’s not a comedy. I’m not even sure I can describe this book and do it justice.

Graham is married to his second wife, Audra, who was the mistress he cheated with on his first wife, Elspeth. Audra and Elspeth couldn’t be more complete opposites.

“He was thinking that maybe people weren’t meant to get married twice; it only led to comparisons. [pg 193]”

“And wasn’t that the weird thing–sorry, one of the million weird things–about marriage? That the familiarity that drove you so crazy at times–Audra had a particular three-tiered yawn that Graham thought might cause him to throw himself out the window if he heard it again–was the very thing you longed for in the end. [pg 199]”

Audra and Graham have an almost teenage son who has Asperger’s and is obsessed with origami. He joins and origami club, where the quirky and sometimes on-the-spectrum members welcome him with open arms.

“And then Graham understood that it was almost too late. He had spent so much time wishing Matthew were different, wondering how to make Matthew different, when it was actually the process of living that did it. Life forced you to cope. Life wore down all your sharp corners with its tedious grinding on, the grinding that seemed to take forever but was actually as quick as a brushfire. What Graham had to do was to love Matthew right now, right this instant–heart, get busy–before Matthew grew up and turned into someone else. [pg 245]”

Graham is the narrator of this story and there isn’t much of a story…like nothing really happens, but it’s such a good, fun read that you keep going. Audra is weird in her own right. She is a gossip and talks non-stop about everything to everyone. She encourages Graham to reach out to Elspeth and they all become friends. Odd, right?

I liked this book so much and I loved the characters and the world the author created. It felt very real. It was a good book!

 

3 ) The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson

I loved this book so much! This is the first time reading this author and the book sucked me in right away. Leia is a comic book writer/artist who hooks up with Batman at a ComicCon, so unlike her, she’d thrown away his name and phone number the next day, and then she discovers she’s pregnant.

At the same time, she gets dozens of phone calls and texts from the townspeople down in Birchville, Alabama, where her elderly grandmother, Birchie, lives. Apparently Birchie is losing her marbles. Leia goes down to Alabama to help her grandmother and put her affairs in order, clean up the old house that’s been in the family forever, and hopefully move her north to a nursing home near where Leia lives.

There is a great cast of characters, Birchie and her best friend, who is African American, Wattie, live in the house together and Leia discovers that Birchie’s health has been declining for years and Wattie has covered it up so they wouldn’t be separated.

This is a book about friendship, love, family, family secrets and racism/Southern history. There is a black church and white church in the small town and Birchie and Wattie go trade off going to one church one week, and then they go to the other church the next week–together. There seems to be quiet segregation still happening.

“My son was going to be black. Even when he was nursing in my arms, I would be a white woman with a black kid. There was no such thing as mixed-race in the South, or in America for that matter. The whole country called a mixed-race man our ‘first black president’. [pg 276]”

The story is about so much more but the story unfolds with the discovery of old bones in a trunk that Birchie and Wattie were trying to run away with. Who are those bones? Did Birchie murder someone? Will her dementia end up protecting her from spending her last days in prison?

I really loved all the characters and the story and I didn’t want it to end. I loved how everything ended (no spoilers!)

 

4 ) Act of Treason (Mitch Rapp #9) by Vince Flynn

The Mitch Rapp series has been a bit hit or miss for me lately and then I got to this book (the last one was really good, too) and it was SO good I couldn’t stop reading it.

A presidential candidate’s limo motorcade is hit with a bomb by terrorists. The nation is under attack and as a result, he seems to get the sympathy vote and is elected president. Except…there is something kind of fishy about the whole thing. Enter Mitch and the CIA to figure out who was actually behind the attack.

5 ) Body Full of Stars: Female Rage and My Passage into Motherhood by Molly Caro May

This is a very important book and I wish I had read it two years ago, when I was in the middle of the post-partum haze. I could relate to this book SO MUCH. I think it’s an injustice to women that the modern birth and pregnancy books don’t really talk about post-partum issues much. Sure, they might give you a checklist of PPD signs but they don’t talk about much of the issues that can happen…

“Because we are a culture focused on the singular act of birthing, no one tells you what comes before or after birth. Not really. How can they? It’s different for every woman. There may not be one narrative. However, there is no truth. Before and after are not times where all you do is glow. [Loc 400]”

…Like post-partum incontinence (thankful I never had this issue but the author goes into great deal of what sounded like a living hell for her peeing ALL THE TIME no matter what she did), prolapse (again, I didn’t really have this issue but I did have pelvic floor issues that I had to do PT exercises for), among other things. None of the books I read went into detail about these issues, and the pregnancy/labor class I took didn’t cover it, either. They BARELY covered breastfeeding and the issues that can cause.

“I can’t bounce (the baby). Bouncing makes my vagina “fall out”–and pee, lots of pee, oceans of urine. If I put her down, she screams a baby dinosaur scream I can’t handle yet. There is no way for me to be with her and have my hands free. [Loc 308]”

So I think this memoir is a must-read for new moms. The author talks about not being a “radiant” pregnant woman, how she felt at war with her body during the entire pregnancy because she was sick all the time. She had a fairly traumatic birth experience, as well, and that caused a lot of issues for her AND her husband.

“Little do I know this moment is the middle of the beginning of a 2 year quest for my health, a crawl across the parched desert where I will question everything I once knew about my body, about it means to heal, about the woman-mother I so wanted to become. I’m about to lose my whole sense of self. [Loc 437]”

She talks about how the arrival of their daughter changed her marriage, sometimes for the worse, but they got through it. She talked about how far away she felt from her husband and he told her that it was “hard to move toward a person who snarls.”

I highlighted A LOT of quotes from this book. I won’t share them all here. I think it’s more significant to read the book and experience the author’s journey to fully understand it. I could relate to a lot of stuff. There were definitely subjects that didn’t speak to my birth/post-partum experience, but it was an eye-opening read anyways.

 

6 ) Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

What a quirky, weird little book! Lars and Cindy live in the midwest in the 70’s and have baby Eva. Lars is a great chef and can’t wait for little Eva to be old enough to learn how to eat and cook great food. And then when Eva is a few months old, Cindy leaves them both and disappears. She just doesn’t want to be a mother.

The story of Eva is told in a unique and weird way. The beginning is told by Lars, then fast forward to Eva in her teens and she’s learning how to cook and gets her first kitchen job. Then after that, each chapter is told from a different person’s point of view–one chapter is her highschool boyfriend, another is the highschool boyfriend’s stepmom, and so on. It’s a very cool way to tell the story of Eva from all the people in her life that helped form her being.

Highly recommend, especially if you are a foodie!

Happy Reading!

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Books #7

I accomplished my reading goal for 2015! I read 150 books and my goal was 140.

Each year I’ve set a reading goal for myself because I’m pretty goal-oriented and each year the number of books I wanted to read grew. It definitely became easier to read more books once Michael got me a Kindle for Christmas a few years ago. Not having to wait for library books, or finding time to go to the library, was a huge relief in my schedule and having access to ebooks through my library (and Amazon Prime) was also helpful.

But 2016 is going to be a slightly busier year I think. 🙂 I made the goal of reading 80 books this year.

1 ) Make Me (Jack Reacher #20) by Lee Child 

Woohoo! This is a series I anxiously await every new book release. It finally came in at the library and as usual, I read it lickity-split. This time Reacher was on a train going through middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma on his way to Chicago when he decides to get off in a tiny town called Mother’s Rest. The name sparked his interest and his spontaneity. There he met Chang, who ended up being a former FBI agent, now PI, who was in Mother’s Rest looking for her partner who has disappeared. Reacher decides to help her out.

The story was a bit odd and made me slightly skeptical about the story…but the ending had such a good twist, it was worth it. The ending (no spoilers) was dark and a cool “ah ha!” moment.

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2 ) After The Storm (Kate Burkholder #7) by Linda Castillo 

This recent book starts out with a tornado ripping through the town. Chief of Police, Kate, is working around the clock to help her town recover after the storm when some long-dead remains are found. There are actually three story lines happening in this book and it seems like someone is out to kill Kate and trying their hardest to take her out.

I liked this story a lot. Each book is a little bit better than the previous one and I felt like this one in particular was really well-rounded and brought some more personal aspects to the series as one of the story lines involved Kate and her boyfriend. The ending was well-done and satisfying.

3 ) Bed by David Whitehouse

Mal Ede is an odd kid that grows into an even weirder adult but it looks like he’s finally “getting it together”. He has a girlfriend, Lou, and they live together. Then he turns 25 and something happens. He goes to bed and never gets out again. He grows into England’s fattest man. So fat that his parents have to take out walls in their house and put together multiple beds in order for him to fit.

“Morbid obesity. Morbid. No other human condition comes prepackaged with an introductory sentiment. This is because, technically at least, obesity is self-imposed. It implies that there is an alternative kind of obesity, a jolly obesity perhaps, or a merry obesity. The kind that middle-aged single people with a good sense of humor have for a brief time before they become so huge and therefore unlovable as to be classified as morbid. Whether Mal is morbid or not was difficult to tell. Selfish obesity would probably have been more suitably coined. [pg 53]”

The story is told by his younger brother, whom from childhood has been in love with Lou and pining away for her. This story is really, really odd and sometimes gross, sometimes really charming and enduring. It’s sad how codependent and enabling Mal’s family becomes but really the story is more about the younger brother learning how to live and emerge from Mal’s shadow. It was a good book and a fast read.

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4 ) Hikikomori and the Rental Sister: A Novel by Jeff Backhaus

Another odd book, but a good one.

“hikikomori, n. h?kik?’mo?ri; literally pulling inward; refers to those who withdraw from society.

Inspired by the real-life Japanese social phenomenon called hikikomori and the professional “rental sisters” hired to help”

For three years Thomas has hid in his bedroom following the tragic death of his young son. His wife is at the end of her rope. She tries to coax him out. She occasionally feeds him to try and get him out of the room but he won’t talk to her and only leaves in the middle of the night to go to a nearby Bodega to buy frozen food he keeps in his room. The grief has paralyzed him.

As a last resort, his wife hires Megumi, a young immigrant from Japan who is hiding from her own grief after her brother dies. Megumi manages to get Thomas out of the room and slowly he returns to life and faces the grief he’s been hiding from.

The book is about grief and how a married couple finds their way back to each other in a different way. It was a really touching read and I liked it a lot.

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5 )  The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck

Since I was a kid, I was fascinated with the Oregon Trail and Lewis and Clark expeditions. I guess I can blame the video game. 😉

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I heard about this book on a podcast that interviewed the author and I had to read it! It was kind of a long wait for it at the library and finally it came and I was really excited to read it. It was a “Travel Memoir” of sorts…where Rinker and his quirky brother Nick, along with Nick’s Jack Russell Olive Oyl, set out to recreate the Oregon Trail adventure in modern times–but in a covered wagon pulled by mules.

“Mules have a slightly larger cranial cavity than horses, and thus larger brains, and are more intelligent and judgmental. Mules also posses, from their donkey side, a more feral, self-preservationist nature, and intensely dislike putting themselves in danger. A mule won’t do that until it considers the next step safe, or through experience has seen the same situation a few times. [pg 36]”

Even though Rinker grew up “roughing it” with his family, riding horses and doing stuff like that, he  had unrealistic expectations of what crossing the country would be like in a covered wagon and his brother Nick picked through all the stuff he packed and threw away at least half of it before they set off on the trail. It was pretty funny.

“I had packed my Brooks Brothers bathrobe. Walking back and forth in camp every morning to carry hay to the mules, I would look so fetching in a Brooks Brothers bathrobe. And look at this! A can of Niagra Spray Starch! For ironing shirts! {pg 114]”

I loved Rinker and his brother’s interactions. Nick was probably the best “character” in the book and the dog was a great addition. The brothers faced immense challenges along the trail and tried, to the best of their ability, to recreate the Oregon Trail route. They stopped a long the way to camp and people who heard through the grapevine about their adventures invited them to stay on their farms and ranches when they needed breaks. It was fascinating reading about the trail and everything it took to do it.

“Adventure gets pretty stale after a while and you’re not much of a romantic after a month on the trail. No one would do this, day after day, unless he had to. [pg 190]”

There were parts of the book that were a little slow and dry. The author included a lot of historical information and while I am interested in the personal stories of people who did the Oregon Trail, it felt crow-barred into the book instead of flowing naturally. I wish he had found a way to include historical stories in a more creative, interesting way. That was the one flaw of the book for me.

“My habitual impatience was suspended to deal with frustration after frustration on the trail. [pg 414]”

Overall it was a good read. There was a lot of personal growth for both brothers and you grew to love the mules and the dog and the people they met along the trail.

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6 ) When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi 

Wow, what a book. It was so moving and brought up a lot of emotions for me as I read it. It was a fast read, too. Read it in about two days. A friend recommended it after reading a review on it and it immediately interested me.

“What makes life meaningful enough to go on living? [pg 71]”

Paul is a neurosurgeon, 36 years old and married to another doctor when he’s diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. He saw the signs (rapid weight loss, horrible back pain) and despite his medical training he tried to ignore the signs and then he couldn’t anymore.

“Grand illnesses are supposed to be life-clarifying. Instead, I knew I was going to die – but I’d known that before. My state of knowledge was the same, but my ability to make lunch plans had been shot to hell. The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew now many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with my family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help. What was I supposed to do with that day? [pg 161]”

“Part of the cruelty of cancer, though, is not only that it limits your time; it also limits your energy, vastly reducing the amount you can squeeze into a day. [pg 196]”

This profound memoir is about his life as a doctor, how he found neuroscience, his time at Stanford University, and how he faced the death diagnosis of his own. It’s a really eloquent book and the author draws a lot from his background in philosophy and literature (which he pursued before medical school). It’s about the struggles of marriage that got strengthened in the face of this horrible news.

“At home in bed a few weeks before he died, I asked him ‘Can you breathe okay with my head on your chest like this?’ His answer was ‘It’s the only way I know how to breathe.’ [pg217]”

It was a really hard book to read, but I’m glad I did. It brought up a lot of memories for me about people in my life I’ve lost, some to cancer, some to other things. It made me think of our friend Chad who died a few months ago from cancer–often making me think “Is this what they went through?” when the author detailed treatments he was enduring.

I loved the book, the story, Paul’s optimism and frankness faced with his diagnosis. I was bawling by the end of the book, so be prepared.

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