Monday, December 30, 2019

Movie Monday: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

The day after Christmas last week, while our adult sons were both still around, all four of us went to see Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker at one of our local recliner theaters. As "the last episode of the saga," it was fitting that we all got to see it together, since we watched the older Star Wars movies with our sons on VHS when they were young, and went to see Episode VIII, The Last Jedi, together around Christmas in 2017. We all enjoyed this fast-paced, satisfying end to a movie series that has been with us all for decades.

I'm going to go easy on plot descriptions here and just stick to the set-up to avoid any spoilers at all (so feel free to keep reading!). This final movie in the original series picks up where The Last Jedi ended. Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, is continuing her Jedi training with Leia, played by Carrie Fisher (with the help of some movie magic, since she died a couple of years ago), in a large Jedi encampment. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, who is now in charge of the Dark Side, discovers that Emperor Palpatine (older than ever) is still alive and pulling the strings behind the scenes. He has a plan and a hidden warship armada ready to take over the world. Palpatine orders Kylo to kill Rey. The Jedis get wind of what's going on with Palpatine, and Rey, along with Finn, played by John Boyega, and Poe, played by Oscar Isaac, take off together in the Millennium Falcon, along with classic Star Wars star, Chewbacca, and droids C-3PO and BB-8. They are in search of a Sith wayfinder, a hidden artifact like one that Kylo found that can lead them to Palpatine. And, from there, the race is on! Kylo is trying to kill Rey (though he has some seriously mixed feelings), Palpatine is trying to take over the world, and the Jedi are trying to save the world. Hijinks ensue. Plus lots of flying, battle scenes, and some witty droid banter.

Director J.J. Abrams and the rest of the creators have stuffed a lot into this 2+ hour movie! The action is non-stop, with quick scene switches. Don't blink or you'll miss something (and use the bathroom before the movie starts). It is classic Star Wars stuff. Though the plot sounds like it focuses on the newer characters, almost all of your old favorites make at least a brief reappearance (though, yes, many of them are dead). There are ghosts and visions and old friends--and listen carefully for Yoda. I think the only older character who didn't come back was Jar Jar Binks (for obvious reasons). That part is a lot of fun, seeing where the oldies pop up, and there are plenty of fighting and battle scenes to satisfy those who love the action and thrills of the series. It certainly kept our interest, and there are no slow moments. We all felt that it was a fun, exciting, and very satisfying conclusion to a great series that's been a part of our lives (at least my husband and I) since the 70's. This is definitely one to see on the big screen!

Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker is currently playing in theaters and should remain for longer than most, given its popularity. It will probably be release to streaming and on DVD around February/March.



Find the times and locations (and a recliner theater!) near you through Fandango:


It's Monday 12/30! What Are You Reading?

Happy Almost New Year!

I hope everyone is enjoying the holiday season with their friends and families. Last week was very busy and hectic here, but we also enjoyed some wonderful family time and a bit of friend time. Christmas Day was a series of mishaps, but we enjoyed our morning traditions and (eventually) sat down to a nice dinner together.

Christmas Dinner (a bit late!)

I was pretty wiped out after Christmas; I had gone way beyond the limits of my chronic illness! A couple of days of (mostly) resting did the trick. We also met up with some old friends for lunch (their "kids" were home for the holidays), and our son treated us and his girlfriend's family to the holiday display at a local botanical garden - pretty much the hottest ticket in town and very sweet of him to plan it all!

Trees lit up at Longwood Gardens

Decorations inside a greenhouse at Longwood Gardens

And now, here we are just a couple of days from the New Year - I love this part of the season! I love starting a new calendar (I'm still using a paper calendar), having extra time to get things caught up in this post-Christmas week. Spent all morning finally sending out a big stack of claims to our health insurance company - a dreaded (and long postponed) but very necessary job.

Now I get to tell you what we've all been reading this week! I like this job way better than messing with insurance claim forms, invoices, and receipts. Quickly approaching the end of the reading year!

I finished Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, a novel I have been wanting to read after hearing rave reviews, its appearance on every Best of 2018 list, and winning the National Book Award for Fiction. It's about a poor family in Mississippi. A black woman named Leonie, who's addicted to drugs, has two children with her white boyfriend, who's in prison, so her parents are bringing up the two mixed-race children, Jo Jo and Kayla. Chapters alternate between Jo Jo's perspective and Leonie's (with a few others interspersed), as thirteen-year-old Jo Jo tries desperately to take care of toddler Kayla. Mam and Pop, as they call their grandparents, are kind and loving but older and struggling with health problems. There is also an element of the supernatural, as several family members have unusual abilities, including seeing dead people. I'm not always a fan of that kind of mysticism woven into a novel, but this story and its characters were engrossing and powerful.

Next, I decided to try to fit in one last book I received last Christmas before I got more books this Christmas. I am reading Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, an author I have never read before (gasp!). It's a sort of day-in-the-life story set in London after WWI, with Clarissa Dalloway as the main character. My intention was to pick a short book I could finish before the end of the year, but this one is a bit slow-going. It features long sentences, long paragraphs, LOTS of semi-colons, and no chapter breaks! It's interesting, and at a bit past the halfway point, I am interested in the characters, but it is also a bit rambling for my taste. There are long passages that suddenly switch to the perspective of a minor character. So, I am enjoying it but also getting impatient with it. I know it is a beloved classic, so I am trying to give it a fair shot, but I keep getting sleepy when I try to read it!

On audio, I finished another novel I've been looking forward to (and another highly acclaimed Best of 2018 book), Census by Jesse Bell. Like Sing, Unburied, Sing, this novel also includes some sort of mystical elements and symbolism. In this story, a surgeon father who lost his wife finds out that he's dying and has about a year left. He decides to spend that time traveling all over with his adult son, who has Down syndrome, taking part in the census. This is a world similar to but different from ours, where the towns are named with letters, from A to Z, in concentric circles, and the census taker marks each citizen on the ribs with a kind of tattoo, after talking with them. The narrative is rambling and random-feeling, as the man and his son travel from town to town, and he muses about the present, the past, and all sorts of random things, like cormorants (the bird on the cover). So, it's a very unusual book--in fact downright weird at times--but I am glad I stuck with it.

Now, I am listening to Remarkables by Margaret Peterson Haddix, a recent release and middle-grade sci fi adventure. I tried to choose something short that I could fit in before the end of the year, but it is also fast-paced, which is a nice change from the other books I've been reading and listening to. A young girl named Marin moves to a new town with her family and discovers something strange going on in the woods behind her new house. She's up in a tree and sees a group of teenagers hanging out and laughing together ... and then they all suddenly disappear and later reappear. Marin is stunned and intrigued and teams up with a neighbor her age, Charlie, who knows more about what's going on but tries to warn her away. This was just what I needed right now - fast, fun, and mysterious! Haddix is always a sure bet for exciting and original middle-grade adventures.

My husband, Ken, finished reading a birthday gift I gave him, Recursion by Blake Crouch. This is one of those gift books I gave him in part because I want to read it myself! I'm happy he's read it now because it means I can read it next. We both enjoyed Crouch's last novel, Dark Matter (one of my favorite books read in 2017), and the TV shows he wrote and/or were based on his novels, including Wayward Pines and Good Behavior. Ken said that this one reminded him of Dark Matter and had the same kind of twisty, convoluted plot. He enjoyed it and read it quickly. I can't wait to read it next!


Now, Ken has started reading a new Christmas gift that our son gave him, The Raven Tower by Anne Leckie. The two of them enjoy the same kind of fantasy novels (they are also watching Game of Thrones together on DVD!), so our son had fun picking this one out for his dad (he hasn't read it yet either). I see that this is Leckie's first fantasy novel, but she has won Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke awards, so she must be a good writer! Patrick Rothfus, an author whom they both enjoy, said of this novel, "It's a delight to read something so different, so wonderful and strange." Sounds like a winner! I'm sure our son will want to borrow it after his dad finishes it - like mother, like son!


I think our son, 25, is still reading Web of Eyes by Rhett C. Bruno and Jaime Castle, book 1 in the Buried Goddess Saga series. According to its blurb, a rotten thief and a stubborn knight must work together to save a broken kingdom, which sounds like exactly the sort of plot my son likes! He's enjoying it so far, though he did wonder on Christmas day if he should switch to one of his new books that he is excited to read.



Blog posts from last week:
Books for Christmas - the books we all gave and received!

Nonfiction Review: Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe by Jane Goodall - engrossing and fascinating account of the lives of chimps

Middle-Grade Review: Stargazing by Jen Wang - a warm graphic novel about friendship

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date, so head over and check out her blog and join the Monday fun! You can also participate in a kid/teen/YA version hosted by Unleashing Readers.

You can follow me on Twitter at @SueBookByBook or on Facebook on my blog's page.   

What are you and your family reading this week?

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Middle-Grade Review: Stargazing

I'd already been hearing good reviews of Jen Wang's latest middle-grade graphic novel, Stargazing, so I was glad to have a chance to read it myself. It's a warm story of friendship but with a surprising twist.

Christine has been brought up in a traditional Chinese-American home by her loving but strict parents. She plays the violin, studies hard (including Chinese class at home), removes her shoes when she enters the house, and is generally quiet and polite. One day, she meets Moon, a girl about her age who is different from anyone she has ever met before. Moon is impulsive and outspoken and not afraid to be herself. Moon and her mother move into the guest house behind Christine's house, and the two girls begin to become friends. Moon teaches Christine how to dance and helps her paint her nails for the first time, and her mom cooks vegetarian food for Christine. Moon has some problems, though, like sometimes getting angry and getting into fights. The two girls decide to dance to a K-pop song (another new thing Moon has introduced Christine to) for the school talent show, though Christine gets a little jealous when Moon kindly invites another girl from school to join them. When something shocking happens to Moon, Christine wants to make up with her friend and apologize for her jealousy.
Sample page from Stargazing by Jen Wang

In some ways, this warm, sweet story of middle-grade friendship reminded me of similar graphic novels by Shannon Hale, Raina Telgemeier, and Jennifer and Matthew Holm. What sets it apart is its focus on the Chinese-American community, its opposites-attract friendship, and the very surprising plot twist that adds a whole other dimension to the story (don't worry--telling you there's a twist won't ruin it for you--it will still surprise you!). Jen explains in an Afterword that although the story is fictional, it is based on a nugget of truth from her own childhood. Her drawings are realistic and colorful and add an extra visual dimension to the story, as the best graphic novels do. I enjoyed Stargazing very much and look forward to more graphic novels from Jen Wang (and Lark Pien did the coloring in this one).

214 pages, First Second


Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

You can purchase Stargazing from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
 Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

Or you can order Stargazing from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Nonfiction Review: Through a Window

After reading Threatened by Eliot Schrefer, a YA novel about an African boy living among chimps, I was inspired by both the story and the bibliography to read Jane Goodall's Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe. I had never read anything by Goodall before, and her stories and observations of the chimps were engrossing and fascinating.

The Gombe of the title is a national park located along the shores of Lake Tanganyika in the African country of Tanzania. This long, narrow park is home to several different communities of chimpanzees, and Goodall's home is on the shore of the lake nearby. In the book, she looks back on both her own experiences in the region over a 30-year period (this was written in 1990, with a new foreword written in 2010) and, primarily, tells stories of the chimp community that she has watched so carefully over the years. She begins the book with a vivid description of her return to Gombe after a long absence and how this particular place--and any time spent in nature--can affect a person, as well as explaining the title of the book:
"As I stood quietly in the pale sunshine, so much a part of the rain-washed forests and the creatures that lived there, I saw for a brief moment through another window and with other vision. It is an experience that comes, unbidden, to some of us who spend time alone in nature. The air was filled with a feathered symphony, the evensong of birds. I heard new frequencies in their music and, too, in the singing of insect voices, notes so high and sweet that I was amazed. I was intensely aware of the shape, the colour, of individual leaves, the varied patterns of the veins that made each one unique. Scents were clear, easily identifiable--fermenting, over-ripe fruit; water-logged earth; cold, wet bark; the damp odour of chimpanzee hair and, yes, my own, too. And the aromatic scent of young, crushed leaves was almost overpowering. I sensed the presence of a bushback, then saw him, quietly browsing upwind, his spiralled horns dark with rain. And I was utterly filled with that peace "which passeth all understanding."

Most of the book, though, is focused on the chimp community. Goodall and her many assistants named the chimps to better keep track of them and organized the family groups by first initial - the G family, the F family, and so on. While they did this to assist with their research, it is also very helpful for the reader in keeping track of each family. This is essential because, as I learned while reading this book, family is very important to the chimpanzees. Children usually maintain a relationship with their mothers, even as adults, and siblings usually remain close companions through their entire lives. Even fathers play a role in bringing up their children and mentoring them as adolescents, and female chimps unable to have children of their own may adopt orphans. In fact, reading about the chimps' rich social lives is very much like reading about the lives of humans: births and deaths, friendships and fallings out, kindness and cruelty, and struggles for power and control. The book also contains two sections of photos, which I examined closely multiple times, to help put names to faces and marvel at the chimps' expressive looks. Finally, Goodall includes an updated foreword, some description of how research is conducted and how it has evolved along with our understanding of chimps, and her own observations of how chimps are used in research and the sanctuaries that exist to protect our closest relatives.

Goodall's descriptions and prose read more like a novel than a scientific treatise, a sort of chimp soap opera! As a reader, I got to know the chimps as individuals, rooting for them when they faced challenges, sharing in their joys, and feeling Goodall's own grief when one died or suffered. It is clear how much Goodall and the other researchers care for these chimps they've followed and gotten to know for so many years. I was fascinated by this book, from beginning to end. It definitely opened my eyes to the intricate and emotional lives of chimps, who share so much of our own DNA. Examining their lives so closely also provides some insights into human behavior. Through a Window is a remarkable book and an excellent introduction to Goodall's famous work, inspiring me to want to read more and learn more.

312 pages, Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)


Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.


I also really want to see the National Geographic documentary from 2017, Jane, now available on Amazon, starting at $2.99:

 
Listen to a sampleof the audio book, narrated by Pearl Hewitt, here and/or download it from Audible. the sample is from the first part of the book, where Goodall describes how chimp research is conducted.

You can purchase Through a Window from an independent bookstore (like I did!), either locally or online, here:
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

Or you can order Through a Window from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Books for Christmas!

As is our tradition, many of the gifts we exchanged yesterday were BOOKS! My husband, our older son, and I are all avid readers and love to give and receive books. I am exhausted today and ready to spend the next week on the couch reading my new books!

These are the books I got from my husband, son, and mom:






One of these will be my First Book of the Year!


And my husband received these books from my son and I:



And we gave these books to our son - all his favorite kind of fantasy novels. Two are continuations of series he loves, and the Terry Brooks is a new series for him to try:



Hope you are also enjoying a bookish holiday season!

Monday, December 23, 2019

It's Monday 12/23! What Are You Reading?

Happy Eve Before Christmas Eve! And Happy First Day of Hanukkah!

As is probably true for most people, this past week was a crazy flurry of activity, even more so for me after being without my laptop for a week. But we're counting down now... I'm finished with shopping, my year-end photo DVD, and holiday decorating. I even made my last run to the grocery store today for a few items (what a madhouse!). I have a few more cards to finish tonight and mail tomorrow (I will have to write Happy New Year in those), then some wrapping and cooking tomorrow, and then the fun begins! I love that week between Christmas and New Year's, when everything is finished and we can just relax and enjoy our family and some much-needed quiet time.

In December, my reading focuses on finishing last year's gifts before Christmas when I'll get a new batch! Here's what we've all been reading this past week:

I finished reading The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, a debut novel that my husband gave me for Christmas last year (or was it the year before?). The Nest is the story of a dysfunctional family, with four adult siblings. Their whole lives, they have waited to inherit the nest egg, affectionately known by them as "The Nest," that their father left for them years ago, with instructions for it to be dispersed when the youngest sibling, Melody, turns 40. With careful investment, The Nest has grown to a considerable amount as Melody's milestone birthday approaches, and they each have plans for that money. Then, oldest brother, Leo, does something really irresponsible and stupid, and their mother decides to use the money to make Leo's problem go away. I wasn't sure how I felt about this novel at first because I'm not usually a fan of stories of wealthy, upper-class families, but as I read, I realized that they really weren't wealthy (even though some of them lived that way outwardly), and each of the siblings really needed that expected income boost--for college tuition, mortgages, and other expenses that I could certainly relate to! Each of their lives and their relationships with each other are interesting, and I enjoyed seeing how things turned out for this messed-up but ultimately likable family.

I also squeezed in another graphic novel, Stargazing by Jen Wang. This one is aimed at middle-grade readers and is all about friendship, set in a Chinese-American community. Christine has been brought up very traditionally, and her parents are fairly strict (though loving) with her. When Moon moves in next door, Christine is immediately entranced by this girl who seems so different than her. Moon introduces her to nail polish and dancing, and she is impulsive and artistic. The girls become friends, amid the typical middle-school cliques, and bond in spite of their differences. Then, something completely unexpected happens that turns Christine's world (and Moon's) upside down. I enjoyed this unique story and especially the unexpected twist that sets it apart from similar books. This engaging graphic novel sends you on a rollercoaster of emotions, with an emphasis on joy and hope.

Next, I started another gift (this one from my birthday), Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, a novel I have been wanting to read after hearing rave reviews, its appearance on every Best of 2018 list, and winning the National Book Award for Fiction. So far, it's holding up to the hype. It's about a poor family in Mississippi. A black woman named Leonie, who's addicted to drugs, has two children with her white boyfriend, who's in prison, so her parents are bringing up the two mixed-race children, Jo Jo and Kayla. Chapters alternate between Jo Jo's perspective and Leonie's (with a few others interspersed), as thirteen-year-old Jo Jo tries desperately to take care of toddler Kayla. Mam and Pop, as they call their grandparents, are kind and loving but older and struggling with health problems. There is also an element of the supernatural, as several family members have unusual abilities, including seeing dead people. I'm not always a fan of that kind of mysticism woven into a novel, but this story and its characters are completely engrossing.

On audio, I have been listening to another novel I've been looking forward to (and another highly acclaimed Best of 2018 book), Census by Jesse Bell. I just realized both novels I am reading feature black birds on their covers, but the similarities don't stop there. This one also includes some sort of mystical elements and symbolism. In this novel, a surgeon father who lost his wife finds out that he's dying and has about a year left. He decides to spend that time traveling all over with his adult son, who has Down syndrome, taking part in the census. This is a world similar to but different from ours, where the towns are named with letters, from A to Z, in concentric circles, and the census taker marks each citizen on the ribs with a kind of tattoo, after talking with them. The narrative is rambling and random-feeling, as the man and his son travel from town to town, and he muses about the present, the past, and all sorts of random things, like cormorants (the bird on the cover). So, it's a very unusual book--in fact downright weird at times--but I am sticking with it.

My husband, Ken, finished reading a birthday gift I gave him, The Witch Elm by Tana French. We are both huge fans of this Irish mystery/thriller author. Ken has read almost all of her Dublin Murder Squad series, and I recently read (and loved - review at the link) The Likeness (book 2) this fall. This is an unusual one for her, as it's a stand-alone suspense novel that was on lots of Best of 2018 lists. It's about a man, Toby, who is beaten and left for dead by some thieves one night. While recovering, he moves to his family's ancestral home to care for an aging uncle. Inside a tree in the yard, a human skull is discovered, and the police are called, as Toby realizes his past may not be exactly what he always thought it was. Ken enjoyed it very much, sometimes laughing out loud! He says it's different than her series but just as good.

Now, Ken has moved onto another birthday gift, Recursion by Blake Crouch. This is one of those gift books I gave him in part because I want to read it myself! I'm happy he's picked it up because it means I can read it next. We both enjoyed Crouch's last novel, Dark Matter, and the TV shows he wrote and/or were based on his novels, including Wayward Pines and Good Behavior. In fact, Dark Matter was one of my favorite books read last year. So far, Ken says that this one is reminding him of that one and has the same kind of twisty, convoluted plot. I can't wait to read it next!

Our son, 25, hasn't been feeling well, so he's taking advantage of the extra downtime and has been reading a LOT of his favorite genre, fantasy. He finished The Mercenary Code by Emmet Moss, book 1 in The Shattering of Kingdoms series and enjoyed it. Next, he read The Owl and the Dragon by Randy Nargi, book 1 in The Bander Adventures series. He explained to me that this book is a kind of mystery/thriller but set in a fantasy world, and he enjoyed its originality and fast-paced suspense.

Next, he read Chains of Blood by ML Spencer, book 1 of The Chaos Cycle, another fantasy series, and he enjoyed this one, too. And now, he is reading Web of Eyes by Rhett C. Bruno and Jaime Castle, book 1 in the Buried Goddess Saga series. According to its blurb, a rotten thief and a stubborn knight must work together to save a broken kingdom. He's enjoying it.

Blog posts last week (trying to catch up on reviews!):
Movie Monday: Knives Out - a humorous whodunit for the whole family - fun!

Nonfiction Review: Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott - an inspirational memoir

Summary of Books Read in November - an all-nonfiction month for me!

Memoir Review: Becoming by Michelle Obama - warm, open, funny, engrossing life story of a remarkable woman

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date, so head over and check out her blog and join the Monday fun! You can also participate in a kid/teen/YA version hosted by Unleashing Readers.

You can follow me on Twitter at @SueBookByBook or on Facebook on my blog's page.   

What are you and your family reading this week?


 
Lovely winter sunset - now the days get longer!

Friday, December 20, 2019

Memoir Review: Becoming

One of the books I started during Nonfiction November and just finished this month was Becoming by Michelle Obama. I had been looking forward to this one for a long time, after hearing such great feedback, and I listened to it on audio, read by the author, as so many people suggested. I absolutely loved this warm, honest telling of how a compassionate, intelligent woman suddenly found herself living in the White House.

Michelle (I feel like I can call her that, after listening to her tell her life story in my ear for 19 hours!) begins at the beginning, with her childhood and her family, growing up on the second floor of a house on the South Side of Chicago with a loving mother, father, and older brother. They didn't have much money, but her parents worked hard, valued education, and provided a stable and loving home. She talks about her earliest memories--learning the piano from her great aunt who lived on the first floor, gathering with extended family for holidays and celebrations, attending the local elementary school--while thoughtfully also considering what things must have been like for her parents. Her father had MS, a debilitating and progressive disease, though he never complained or called attention to his disability. When Michelle had an ineffective second grade teacher, who was apathetic and unable to control or teach her class, her mother stood up for her and asked the principal to pull a group of talented children from a bunch of classes, including Michelle, together for more advanced learning with a motivated teacher.

From there, Michelle moved onto a charter high school and finally to Princeton, where her older brother was a student. She worked hard and went onto Harvard Law School and, from there, to a prestigious law firm in Chicago, where she first met Barack, a brilliant law intern who was late for his first day of work. Eventually, she realized--slowly but surely and with influence from Barack--that she didn't really enjoy practicing law and she wanted to do something that felt more valuable to her, to give back to her community. She and Barack married and began having children (not always an easy process for them), while she worked in a series of public service/community outreach jobs in the education and healthcare fields. During that same time, her husband began his political career, being elected to successively larger roles in government. Finally, she talks about what it was like, from the inside, to be a part of her husband's Presidential campaign and to live in the White House--and raise children there.

That is just the most basic outline of her life, but Michelle digs in deep in this memoir, sharing her fears and insecurities (yes, she had plenty), her thoughts and feelings, and what was happening behind the scenes in her increasingly public life. It is clear that she is an ordinary yet extraordinary woman, strong, resilient, thoughtful, and caring. Her (and Barack's) powerful need to be of service and do good in the world comes through, as does her intense love for both her family of origin and her husband and children. Believe it or not, I found the early parts of her memoir quite relatable. She's just a few years older than me, so we came of age at the same time, and I could relate to her stories of growing up, going to school, and being in college in the 70's and early 80's. Besides those obvious parallels, though, much of that feeling probably came from the way that Michelle tells her life story, with openness and authenticity. Even her stories of living in the White House are told with sincerity and humor. I enjoyed every moment of this audio book and despite its length, was sorry that it ended. It's the engrossing, warm, funny life story of an ordinary yet extraordinary woman, and I am so glad she let us into her world.

448 pages, Crown Publishing Group

Listen to a sample from the beginning of this fabulous audio book read by the author or download it from Audible.


You can purchase Becoming from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

Or you can order Becoming from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.



Thursday, December 19, 2019

Books Read in November

Bare November trees reflected in the water
My reading last month was devoted to Nonfiction November, though several of my nonfiction books were actually finished in December. Here is what I finished reading in November:



I finished a total of five books in November, all nonfiction which is highly unusual for me! Only one was audio because I started a very long audio book mid-month that went into December. Four of the books were for adults, and one was a graphic memoir for middle-grade readers. I enjoyed all of these books--each was fascinating and thought-provoking in its own way--but An Ordinary Man was my favorite of the month because it was so powerful and moving. Everyone should read it, both to understand what happened in Rwanda in the 1990's and also to let this one ordinary man who did extraordinary things restore your hope in humanity.

Progress in 2019 Reading Challenges:
This is my favorite part of my monthly summary - updating my Reading Challenges:

Mount TBR Reading Challenge - Four of my five books were from my own shelves, bringing me up to 37 for the year so far.
Monthly Motif Reading Challenge - For the first time this year, I failed at this one. Nothing I read fit the motif of Seasons, Elements, and Weather.
Back to the Classics Challenge - No classics in November.
Monthly Keyword Challenge - Another big zero for this one! 
Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2019 - Five nonfiction books added, bringing my year-to-date total to ten.
Diversity Reading Challenge - Two of my books read last month had diverse characters or themes.
Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge - I read books set in Wales, Germany, and Rwanda.
2018 Literary Escapes Challenge - I added no new states. It was mostly an international reading month.

Finally, Bookish Bingo hosted by Chapter Break - not really a challenge per se, but a fun game that I play each month. I filled in 16 squares in November:




Spaces Filled:
Lost Child - family, audio book
In the Garden of Beasts - travel, feast, party
Guts - read a physical book, in a series, cooking, free book
Hallelujah Anyway - not in a series
An Ordinary Man - police, shelf love, clean shaven, rescue, thankful

What was your favorite book read in November?   

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Nonfiction Review: Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy

When I presented my book group with a selection of nonfiction choices (all from my own TBR shelves), in honor of Nonfiction November, they chose Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott. I've enjoyed Lamott's books in the past, particularly Operating Instructions (about her experiences as a new mother), the writing classic Bird By Bird, and her novel, Rosie, so I was looking forward to reading this newer book. It is a memoir like many of her previous books, with some thought-provoking musings on mercy, kindness, and grace.

Like several of Lamott's recent memoirs, this one is about her spiritual journey. She tells stories from her own life, including her earlier struggles with sobriety and her more recent search for spiritual meaning, topics familiar to her frequent readers. She intersperses these with quotes from the Bible, concepts from a variety of faiths, and her own musings about what these things mean in the context of our current world. As always, she is brutally honest about her life and own imperfections, inviting  readers to consider their own experiences and thoughts. Here, near the beginning of the book, she contemplates how difficult it can be to not only extend mercy to others but also to herself, with that trademark candor:
"What if we know that forgiveness and mercy are what heal and restore and define us, that they actually are the fragrance that the rose leaves on the heel that crushes it? So why today is it absolutely all I can do to extend mercy to myself for wanting to nip an annoying relative's heel like a river rat? Forget extending mercy to this relative, who has so messed with me and my son--she doesn't even know she needs my mercy. She thinks she is fierce and superior, while I believe she secretly ate her first child. Horribly, she is perfectly fine. I'm the one who needs mercy--my mercy. The need for this, for my own motley mercy, underpinned most of my lifelong agitation, my separation from life and self."

As with much of Lamott's writing, this passage is so open and raw that it invites you, too, to admit to your worst feelings and moments and bring them into the light to examine them. Since I, too, have been hurt by family members in the past (and the present), that passage--and others--hit home.

Here is another example, as she considers how important mercy is, yet how difficult it can be:
"Kindness toward others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all. Do you want this, or do you want to be right? Well, can I get back to you on that?"

As you can see, along with honesty, Lamott also has a sense of humor.

I enjoyed reading this book, as I have Lamott's previous memoirs, though I found this one a bit meandering. I was OK with that and just went along for the ride, and my copy of this slim volume is filled with mini Post-Its marking passages that spoke to me or made me think, which is probably her primary purpose here. I was very disappointed to miss our book group discussion (it was the night before we left on vacation) because I had been looking forward to digging into some of the topics and issues that Lamott introduced. Our group leader told me that the book did not get very high ratings from some of our members (this is an eclectic group with varied tastes), but she said that it was an interesting discussion. I guess I will just have to copy all of these tabbed passages into my Quote Journal so I can consider them again on my own. As always, Lamott is eye-openingly candid, funny, and oh, so thought-provoking.

176 pages, Riverhead Books


Listen to a sampleof the audio book here, read by the author from the beginning of the book, and/or download it from Audible.

You can purchase Hallelujah Anyway from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
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Or you can order Hallelujah Anyway from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Movie Monday: Knives Out

With travel, vacation, and holiday preparations, my husband and I hadn't been out together in quite a while, so we invited friends out for dinner and a movie on Friday. We went to see Knives Out, a new humorous whodunit with a great cast.

The set-up is classic detective story: a well-known mystery writer named Harlen Thrombey, played by Christopher Plummer, is found dead (throat slit) in his attic office, after an evening birthday party where his entire greedy/selfish family was in attendance. Is it suicide or murder? Two police detectives and a quirky PI, played hilariously by Daniel Craig, are investigating and interviewing the family members and staff. They soon rule out suicide, but who did this gruesome deed? Each family member seems to have a motive. Daughter Linda, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, seems upset by her father's death, but her husband Richard, played by Don Johnson, had a fight with Harlen at the party over revealing his affair with the housekeeper. Their son Ransom, played by Chris Evans, had a loud argument with his grandfather the night before, and the rest of the family thinks he was cut out of his will. Harlen's son Walt, played by Michael Shannon, runs the publishing company that his father's books made prosperous ... but what if Harlen fired him the night of the party? And Joni, played as a hippie-type by Toni Collette, is Harlan's ex-daughter-in-law, but she, too seems to have had an argument with him that fateful night. Finally, at the center of this extremely dysfunctional family is Marta, played by Ana de Armas, a kind, sweet young woman who was Harlen's beloved nurse. Each family member is interviewed by the investigators, as the audience considers one suspect after another. Suspense and secrets abound!

This is a classic whodunit but with tongue firmly in cheek. Each family member is almost like a caricature of his or her type, played with relish by this outstanding team of actors. The house itself is, as one detective describes it, "like a Clue board," filled with secrets and peculiar accents, like the large sculpture of knives that serves as a backdrop for the family interviews. It's a twisty, funny romp of a mystery that kept us guessing right till the end. As one of the hosts on Pop Culture Happy Hour (a favorite podcast of mine) described it, this movie is like Murder on the Orient Express--the way it should have been done, with its all-star cast and quirky detective. All four of us enjoyed it and laughed a lot. It's just plain fun, perfect for this holiday season and a great movie for the whole family to watch together!

Knives Out is currently in theaters and is great on the big screen, since the setting, house, and people are all filled with so much personality. See it in a local recliner theater, like we did!

 
Find tickets and showtimes on Fandango.


Just watch the trailer and you'll be smiling:


It's Monday 12/16! What Are You Reading?

Best laid plans...

Yup, last week was that kind of a week! I had set Tuesday aside to finally publish my book. I had all the files ready to upload to Amazon and other platforms and the whole day set aside to work on it. I opened my laptop, and...nothing. The keyboard was locked up, and I couldn't even type in my password. So, instead, I spent the day on the phone with Apple Care, then running to the mall (the mall! Two weeks before Christmas!) to the Genius Bar at the Apple store, and finally leaving my beloved laptop with them. They called later to say they'd need to send it out to replace parts, and I'd get it back in about a week...!!

I did some quick adjusting to my plans. OK, if I can't do any writing work, at least I can get some of the holiday stuff done. Print address labels and write out cards? Address list is on the laptop. Finish shopping? My shopping and gift lists are on the laptop. Start my year-end photo books and DVD? All my recent photos are on the laptop. You get the idea - my whole LIFE is on this lovely little piece of electronics! On the plus side, they called Saturday afternoon to say it was ready, and my lovely husband braved the Saturday pre-Christmas mall crowd to pick it up for me. So, I am back in business now, though quite a bit behind on all the holiday preparations (and obviously, the book won't be published now until January).
 
The highlight of our week was decorating our Christmas tree together. By some miracle, we managed to get all five of us, including my husband's 94-year old father, together (noon on Wednesday was the only time that worked!) and enjoyed one of our favorite holiday traditions. Our tree is full of memories, with ornaments from the kids' childhoods (and mine), from our many vacations together, old family ornaments, and more. Each ornament reminds us of good times spent together or family members no longer with us, so we love going through them and putting them on the tree together.

Thank goodness for books! They are a comfort and a distraction in this hectic holiday season. Here's what we've all been reading this week:

I finished reading Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe by Jane Goodall and enjoyed it very much. This 1990 book (with a 2010 updated preface from Jane) describes her thirty years spent researching, observing, and living among the chimps in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. She alternates between sharing details of chimp research findings and studies, her own life in studying them, and (mostly) narratives of the lives of the chimps themselves, each as individual and unique as humans are. It is a fascinating book that reads sort of like a chimp soap opera! The reader gets to know the chimps as individuals and follow their lives through births, adolescence, battles for primacy among the males, and tragedies. It is clear that chimps experience joy, grief, anger, and even depression, and Jane's insights are incredible. I was inspired to read this book after reading Threatened, a YA novel about an African boy who lives among chimps in Gabon. Both are highly recommended.

I finally moved on from my Nonfiction November reading and moved back into fiction. I am reading The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, a debut novel that my husband gave me for Christmas last year (or was it the year before?). In December, my reading focuses on reading last year's gifts before Christmas when I'll get a new batch! The Nest is the story of a dysfunctional family, with four adult siblings. Their whole lives, they have waited to inherit the nest egg, affectionately known by them as "The Nest," that their father left for them years ago, with instructions for it to be dispersed when the youngest sibling, Melody, turns 40. With careful investment, The Nest has grown to a considerable amount as Melody's milestone birthday approaches, and they each have plans for that money. Then, oldest brother, Leo, does something really irresponsible and stupid, and their mother decides to use the money to make Leo's problem go away. I wasn't sure how I felt about this novel at first because I'm not usually a fan of stories of wealthy, upper-class families, but as I read, I realized that they really weren't wealthy (even though some of them lived that way outwardly), and each of the siblings really needed that expected income boost--for college tuition, mortgages, and other expenses that I could certainly relate to! Each of their lives and their relationships with each other are interesting. So, I'm enjoying it and am eager to see how things turn out for this messed-up family.

I also squeezed a graphic novel into the cracks last week! I read Are You Listening? by Tillie Walden, author of the graphic memoir, Spinning, and the graphic novel science fiction drama, On a Sunbeam. This was different than both of those. It's the fictional story of a teen girl who seems to be running away. She runs into an older woman, whom she knows from her town, who is heading out on a long roadtrip. The two pair up, and much of the story takes place in the confines of the small car and the teardrop trailer being towed behind it. Bit by bit, each of the women hesitatingly shares pieces of her story, and they each provide much-needed company to the other. Toward the end, their journey turns a bit fantastical, but at its core, it is about honesty, friendship, and healing. It was a little weird at the end, but I enjoyed it overall.

For my next audio book, I moved a novel into my iTunes Monday and was ready to upload it to my iPod Tuesday when...right, no laptop. All of my audio books (a lengthy backlog) reside on my laptop, too. Luckily, I still had a couple of nonfiction books I hadn't gotten to in November on my iPod, so I listened to a memoir I have wanted to read for many years: Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt. This award-winning writer wrote the memoir about the year following his adult daughter's unexpected death. He and his wife moved down to the DC area to help their son-in-law care for their three grandchildren. The memoir is about how the whole family copes during that difficult year and how they each begin to move forward. This is an older book, first published in 2010, so I'm not sure why it was re-released this year, but I was glad to see it since it's been on my TBR since its original release! It more than lived up to my expectations; it is warm, poignant, and yes, sad, but also very funny. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am interested in reading another memoir of his, Kayak Morning.

My husband, Ken is reading a birthday gift I gave him, The Witch Elm by Tana French. We are both huge fans of this Irish mystery/thriller author. Ken has read almost all of her Dublin Murder Squad series, and I recently read (and loved - review at the link) The Likeness (book 2) this fall. This is an unusual one for her, as it's a stand-alone suspense novel that was on lots of Best of 2018 lists. It's about a man, Toby, who is beaten and left for dead by some thieves one night. While recovering, he moves to his family's ancestral home to care for an aging uncle. Inside a tree in the yard, a human skull is discovered, and the police are called, as Toby realizes his past may not be exactly what he always thought it was. Ken is enjoying it very much, sometimes laughing out loud! He says it's different than her series but just as good.

Our son, 25, is currently reading The Mercenary Code by Emmet Moss, book 1 in The Shattering of Kingdoms series. It sounds like the kind of epic fantasy he loves, with revolutions, battles, and magic all set in an intriguing and original world. He explained to me that he won a bunch of Amazon credits playing online video games this summer ... so, of course, he's spending all those credits on books! He was visiting his girlfriend last week and traveling, so he probably didn't have much reading time.



Blog posts last week (one of the few things I could do with my old laptop!):
Nonfiction Review: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson - powerful, fascinating, and chilling

Nonfiction review: Lost Child: The True Story of a Girl Who Couldn't Ask for Help by Torey Hayden - engrossing story by a therapist who managed to reach a child abandoned by her family

Graphic Memoir Review: Guts by Raina Telgemeier - another fabulous middle-grade graphic memoir by the talented author/artist, about childhood anxiety

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date, so head over and check out her blog and join the Monday fun! You can also participate in a kid/teen/YA version hosted by Unleashing Readers.

You can follow me on Twitter at @SueBookByBook or on Facebook on my blog's page.   

What are you and your family reading this week?


Our tree, with all its memories!