Let’s Talk Secret History and Still Life

If there are two books that I read exclusively because I saw them over and over again on #bookstagram, Secret History and Still Life are them.

Secret History by Donna Tartt is a murder novel (not a murder mystery because there isn’t really a big reveal in the end) about a group of students who commit a murder and have to live the rest of their lives with that fact. The book gave me huge existential vibes because the students are part of a small select group who are studying greek mythology and the beginning of the book focuses strongly on their work. I really enjoyed this aspect and thought it brought so much depth to the book. Months after reading it, I still find myself repeating ONE quote to myself and thinking how interesting it is that I can’t clearly remember the ending, but this quote won’t seem to leave my mind.

“We think we have many desires, but in fact we have only one. What is it?”

“To live,” said Camilla.

“To live forever,” said Bunny, chin cupped in palm.

I don’t know why, but of every line in the 550 page novel, I cannot shake that line. It just rings true.

Months later I picked up Still Life by Louise Penny and was shocked at how much it brought me back to The Secret History. I expected Louise Penny’s writing to remind me of Tana French, because they are both so beloved and as a result often compared. However, Still Life gave me major existential vibes with passages like this,

“Something drove them to ask for help and to look deep inside themselves. And the catalyst was often change and loss.”

“Are they the same thing?”

“For someone not well skilled at adapting they can be”

“Loss of control?”

“That’s a huge one, of course. Most of us are great with change, as long as it was our idea. But change imposed from the outside can send some people in to a tailspin. I think Brother Albert hit it on the head. Life is loss. But out of that, as the book stresses, comes freedom. If we can accept that nothing is permanent, and change is inevitable, if we can adapt, then we’re going to be happier people.”

Overall, I found that the Still Life had more character development, longer chapters, and more existentialism than a typical thriller, and I was really pleasantly surprised with the way the book ran.

If you’ve read either of these, let me know if you agree with me!

How to Read About Conflict in Foreign Countries

This year (and it’s only been 2.5 months!) I read two books that completely blew my mind. I relearned the fundamental fact that “I don’t know what I don’t know.”

The first of those books was Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a fictional memoir about the Japanese occupation of Korea throughout the 20th century. The second was Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, a non-fiction account of “ordinary lives” in North Korea. I learned SO much.

I found out about Nothing to Envy on an Instagram post, suggesting that someone participating in the #harpiesreadtheworld reading challenge may use this for the category of Read a Book About A Country the US is in Conflict With. Which got me thinking, What do I look for in a book, if I want to learn about another country and their history?

I’ve learned through past reading experiences that when I’m reading about a place I don’t know too much about, I really love feeling like 1) the book is well researched, 2) the book is fully set in reality, and 3) I need significant context to feel like I understand the entire story.

Pachinko and Nothing to Envy squarely worked for me and while they covered both genres of fiction, and non-fiction, I learned so much from both of them.

To illustrate, some recent books that have been popular but hasn’t worked for me are Exit West by Mohsin Hamid and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Both books had moments of magical realism in them, that lost me, made me feel like I wasn’t learning because the story wasn’t real. And speaking of context, Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo and The Alice Network didn’t dive quite deep enough for me or provide me with enough information that I can feel like I really learned a lot.

So, getting back to the positives, here are books that I would recommend to get serious context in to conflict in other countries.

Happy reading – and happy learning!

The Unread Shelf Project: January/February Update!

Hi All!

I want to jump on and talk about my progress with my Unread Shelf. I set a goal in my first post to read AT LEAST the seven books I photographed, but also hopefully one per month because I have 16 unread books! Here’s a quick recap of the challenges I’ve participated in so far.

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January Challenge: Count up your books and GET READING!

In January, I read Pachinko! (Review here) I absolutely fell in love with it, and my sparked interest in East Asian history lead me to pick up Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick and The Leavers by Lisa Ko. I highly recommend all three!

February Challenge: Consider if you have any/many books on your unread shelf by a person of color and why you’ve let those books stay on your shelf. If you do, read one of those this month!

In February, I read Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo. I received this book through a Christmas book exchange from Chelsey at @hereadsshereads. I really wanted to love it, but honestly, it was a 3 star read for me.

The challenge was explicitly and intentionally not “read a book by a person of color” because that is a short term experience, and not a lesson. Instead the challenge was “consider why that book in particular has been sitting on your shelf”. If you understand your resistance to pick it up, you can try to change that and diversify your reading. After reading Stay with Me and considering this, I would say that I definitely subconsciously stay away (no pun intended) from books written by authors of color, particularly females of color.

In the past few years I’ve read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and now, Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo. My issue with the books, and this is not an insult to the author, but an observation of my own habits, is that a lot of foreign words and expressions are used and the assumption seems to be that the reader either understands them or can pick them up in context. I struggle with this and more often than not end up feeling guilty that I don’t understand the context and that it must be due to my own ignorance. It turns the book in to a less enjoyable experience for me than other books.

To counter this, I think I’ll change my tone/selections. I want to read more authors like Roxanne Gay and memoir/social justice styles than historical fictions. On my list:

Have you been participating? Let me know how you’re meeting your goals!

January/February Speed Reviews!

February was busy. My boyfriend and I spent two and a half weeks in New Zealand so preparing for, doing, and recovering from the trip took up pretty much the entire month. I got some reading done, but not many reviews. So I wanted to post my speed reviews here!

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Genre: Fiction/Magical Realism
Feel Learn Wonder Review: 2 Stars
Review: Robin Sloan is the great writer who brought us Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Book Store, which I, and so many other readers loved! I expected to be taken on a similar journey this time, but the plot and character development never got me fully immersed in magical world. It ended up feeling a bit flat and forced, which was a dissapointment after loving Mr. Penumbra’s so much! For those looking for a quick palate cleanser between heavier books, this is certainly an option, but I wouldn’t expect to be sucked in to another world as much as you were with Mr. Penumbras.

Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Feel Learn Wonder Review: 3 Stars
Review: I read this one as a the Diverse Book Club pick for their February topic of Chronic Illness. Left Neglect is a chronic illness in which your brain cannot imagine the left side of anything – your plate, the TV, your body, or even the room you’re sitting in. Imagine someone telling you to turn left, and you having to tell them that that’s impossible because there is no left. You know its not correct, but you just cannot find the left. Left Neglected follows the life of a busy working mother-of-two who suffers from this chronic brain injury following a car accident. The book is well done, and paints the picture of what it would feel like to be in the position of both the victim and the support system, but the plot lacks an overall arch. I felt like each chapter could have been a 40 minute tv show episode, and it definitely would be a show I would  tune in to each week, but it didn’t quite work for me as a book.

Hamilton The Revolution by Lin Manuel Miranda

Genre: Theatre
Feel Learn Wonder Review: 4 Stars
Review: I went to see Hamilton the Musical on broadway in January and I LOVED it! I went in totally fresh only knowing the song “My Shot” and not even really knowing what that meant. I requested Hamtilton: The Revolution and learned so much more about the characters, the cast, and little jokes Lin Manual Miranda through in to the lyrics. This book was such a great way to fully experience the show and by the end of the book, I had the soundtrack memorized!

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Feel Learn Wonder Review: 3 Stars
Review: Swimming Lessons was lent to me by a friend and that usually moves a stack to the top of my TBR since I want to return it quickly. The first half of this book really worked for me. I loved the alternating narrators and the budding love stories on both sides was making this slow burn really enjoyable. Unfortunately, in the second half I became more impatient with the slow burn, and the plot seemed to drag and not come together. The ending left me wanting more, and so I had to give this one a 3 star review.

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Genre: Nonfiction
Feel Learn Wonder Review: 5 Stars
Review: READ THIS BOOK! You may notice this is my only five star review in the batch and it would seriously be 10 stars if that was an option. I loved this book. I found the writing so well done, with a great balance of historical information and personal histories. I can’t even express to you how much I learned and how glad I am that I dug a little deeper to learn about the living conditions in North Korea. I don’t want to give too much away here, because I think some of the power of this book is being blown away page after page.