I've read some really good books lately, my darling reader friends, and I can't wait to talk your ear off about them. I'm usually quite stingy with 5 star reviews, but I'm flinging them around like confetti lately. I think these are my most long-winded reviews yet. I'm sorry, it's just that I REALLY, REALLY LIKE BOOKS. Cancel your plans for the next two hours, buckle up, and read.
Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman--4 stars: 4 years ago, everyone I knew was reading this book. I was the furtherest thing from being ready for kids, so I didn't give it much of a thought. As usual, I'm late to the party on what books are trendy, much like I am with everything else. When I got pregnant, I did the opposite of most women great with child and shunned all parenting books. WAY TOO STRESSFUL. I removed every single one off my "to-read" list on Goodreads, because I would feel anxious just knowing they existed and wanted to tell me how to live my life. This one was eliminated, too. Even reading a blog post about baby-led weaning/sleep training/baby "must-haves" would make me break out in a cold sweat. Sarah eventually persuaded me to read this, and I'm glad I did. I spent much of my college career studying the French language and French culture, so I already had a vested interest in this book. After a year of motherhood, I'm no longer terrified of listening to different parenting theories. But honestly, this isn't really a parenting book at all. Druckerman is an American expat raising her kids in Paris. She noticed the French children behaved much differently than those with an American upbringing, so she researched the differences. It was fascinating. Though I take these things with a grain of salt, everything Druckerman said about American parenting seemed very accurate, and I was surprised to see that my instincts had me doing some things that aligned with the French point of view. There were things I passionately agreed with (sleep training!) and things I vehemently disagreed with (the French don't breastfeed!). It made me really think about how I handle certain things with Gracie and also how grateful I am that I'm raising her in the US. Mostly I found it very funny, lighthearted, and encouraging, but there were a few moments I caught myself wondering if I was ruining my child for life.
For fans of: France, parenting books, feeling like you're probably doing everything wrong, daydreaming about cheese and baguettes
Is It Just Me? by Miranda Hart--5 stars: I had never heard of Miranda Hart until she showed up on Call the Midwife as Chummy. I love Chummy so much my friend crocheted a doll of her for me (ok, it's for Gracie, but whatever). She had her own sit-com in the UK called Miranda (which I've watched on youtube and it made me weep with laughter) and is more or less their Tina Fey. She tends toward the more slapstick, awkward, and silly sense of humor, like a mix between Michael Scott and Leslie Knope. She's just the most hysterical person ever, though I will mention that I read the book while down with a gnarly cold and under the influence of powerful cough medicine. I love that her book isn't the typical celebrity memoir. She talks very little of her fame and how she got famous, but rather shares her thoughts on things like why getting a haircut is stressful, vacations, hobbies, and what it's like to work in an office. She tells all her hilariously embarrassing stories, like the time she picked up a 42-year-old dwarf (her words, not mine, I have no clue what the PC term is these days) without looking, thinking it was her 5-year-old cousin. The amount of embarrassing things that have happened to her is astonishing. In other words, I've finally found my soulmate. I read it all in Chummy's voice (she's much like Chummy in real life) which made it one of the most delightful books I've ever read. I'm afraid I will now be permanently reading and thinking in a British accent. Part of the book is a conversation she has with her 18-year-old self which is sometimes tiresome but many times amusing. The humor and writing style probably won't be for everyone, but it was perfect for me. A word of warning for my fellow ignorant Americans: some of the British slang and references went over my head and I found myself googling some of the people she mentioned, but it didn't take away from the book at all. I laughed, I cried, I didn't want it to end. I think I'm going to buy a copy of it just so I can read a chapter whenever I'm in a bad mood.
Update: I was proofreading this last night and got so nostalgic over this book that James and I watched an episode of Miranda on youtube. Both of us were howling and crying from laughter. I laughed so hard I threw my head back and bonked it on the headboard. Worth it.
For fans of: Miranda Hart, Call the Midwife, silly humor, laughing so hard you wake up your husband and cat
The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw 1939-45 by Wladyslaw Szpilman--5 stars: I was such a mess after finishing this book one night that I rolled James over in bed and made him listen to me talk about it. "Oh, isn't that a movie? I've seen it several times," he said. As usual, I'm the last to know about these things. Szpilman wrote this true account of his experience right after WWII ended. Szpilman was a classical pianist and made his living playing on Polish radio and in cafes. He was a Jew living in Warsaw, which got the brunt of Hitler's malice. He wrote about trying to survive in the Warsaw ghetto after the Nazis built a wall around it, watching his family and loved ones be deported to concentration camps as the Germans emptied out the ghetto, and all the ways he barely evaded death. By some miracle, he stayed alive hiding in the ghetto for 6 years as all other Jews were murdered or deported, and a German officer eventually saved his life. This book was incredible. Just like Night by Elie Wiesel, it's hard to read at times, but a very powerful and important story and worth the cringing and tears. Update: I watched the movie after I finished the book and it was so well done. Not a cheerful movie by any means, but very powerful.
For fans of: WWII, crying, holocaust memoirs, music
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan--5 stars: Confession: I was terrified to read this book. I was intrigued by this true story, but I kept a wide berth whenever I saw it on the library shelf, concerned it was contagious and I would wind up in a psych ward after reading it. My curiosity finally got the best of me, and I nabbed it. I started reading as soon as I got home and didn't stop until Gracie woke up from her nap, and then I finished it that night once she was in bed. Susannah led a perfectly normal, healthy life as a journalist in NYC until she started having strange hallucinations, headaches, and eventually seizures. Her neurologist didn't seem concerned and told her she just needed to stop drinking, even though she barely drank. Her personality changed, she became hostile and violent, and she was eventually hospitalized. World-renowned doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong with her, and her condition was quickly deteriorating. In the nick of time, a doctor diagnosed her with a rare and deadly autoimmune disorder that had only been discovered about two years earlier. She remembers almost none of her month of hospitalization and psychosis, but through videos and charts and interviews she pieces it all back together to write this. This book reads like a fiction thriller and I was completely absorbed. For the week after I finished this book, I was constantly checking myself to make sure I really did hear or see something and that it wasn't a hallucination. Reading this while watching my grandma suffer from brain cancer was difficult and unnerving, and it's made me question every headache I've had since. Maybe stay away if you're a crazy hypochondriac, but read it if you can. It's fascinating, I promise. Our brains are insane--sometimes literally.
For fans of: psychological thrillers, fast-paced stories, medical mysteries, questioning your sanity at all times, stress
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys--4.5 stars: This book was gripping. 15-year-old Lina and her family in Lithuania were arrested by the Soviets and deported to Siberia. They were on a train for weeks, worked in labor camps as slaves, and were forced to figure out how to survive winters above the Arctic Circle. This book was eye-opening. I never knew that Stalin deported much of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia and treated them like the Germans did the Jews for no reason other than he was viciously evil. The book is fiction, but it's heavily based on a part of history many people don't know about. When I picked this up from the library and saw that it was labeled YA, I was tempted to put it back on the shelf. This is probably scandalous to admit to my fellow readers, but I don't like most YA/coming-of-age stories. They're just not for me. I'm so far removed from that phase of life, and I don't want to revisit it through a book. However, this book did not strike me as young adult fiction. The chapters are very short and succinct and the book moves quickly, but the subject matter is incredibly heavy. It's a long book, but I was able to read it in about 2 days. This is one of those stories that's going to stay with me for a long time.
For fans of: WWII novels, historical fiction, ignoring all adult responsibilities to stay in bed and read
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson--4 stars: I have a huge writer crush on Erik Larson. His ability to write historical nonfiction is incredible. He gives so much context to every event and paints a very vivid picture of what life at that time was like. I also have an obsession with maritime disasters. In 4th grade, I begged my mom for a children's book on the Titanic from the school book fair. She bought it for me, and it became one of my favorite books. It's already in Gracie's room! I've watched all the movies and documentaries and read the books and did a huge research project on the Titanic in school. The Lusitania sank in May 1915, just slightly a year after the Titanic. Those nefarious German submarines sank anything and everything they could, even a huge steamship full of a record number of women and children. The point of view bounces among the passengers on the ship, the German submarine captain, and the government. There's also a little romance featuring President Woodrow Wilson. Even though we all know the boat sank, my heart was pounding as I was reading and trying to figure out how it would all play out. My only complaint about Larson is that sometimes he gives a few too many details, making his books fairly dense and slow to read, but they are always worth it. I've been googling things about WWI ever since I finished the book, and I've also made a pact with myself to never go near a boat or submarine. Ever. I realize that German submarines are no longer a threat, but I will not be swayed on this.
For fans of: giving yourself a fear of water, WWI, the Titanic, historical nonfiction
I realized after I wrote all this that I also read The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck and Hidden Places by Lynn Austin. Both dealt with the Depression and both were good. After having a crazy dream one night in which the plot of all the war books converged and I found myself to be a Lithuanian living in Warsaw running down the street while chased by a submarine and subsequently woke up screaming, I figured it was time for something a little more...encouraging? I decided to start the Mark of the Lion series by Francine Rivers, but as soon as I opened the book, Salt to the Sea was finally available from the library, which I've been on the waitlist for. It looks like I'll have to endure a few more nights of running from the Soviets and/or Nazis.
What are you reading? Tell me.