We’re now two months into 2019 and so far it’s been a great reading year. I haven’t run into any books I seriously disliked (although I did DNF one that might have qualified this month). Most importantly, I’ve been reading a lot. I’m feeling very good about the rest of 2019 if I can get out of the slight slump I’m ending the month with.
How I Did
I finished eight books in February. If I keep up this pace, I will read 98 books in 2019, which would be far and away the most books I’ve read in a single year. I don’t feel confident I’ll keep this pace up all year long, though.
I did DNF three books in February, but I plan to revisit two of them in a different format, so only one will stay a DNF if all goes to plan.
As for my reading goals for 2019, for the second month in a row, I only finished books by female authors–which means I am looking in great shape for my goal of reading more books by female authors than male. Right now, the score stands at 15 books by women and 0 by men. Just like in January, this happened purely by accident. The book I DNF’ed that I don’t plan to pick up again was by a male author, so it doesn’t count here.
I also made some progress on my goal for LGBTQ reads because one book from February had a bisexual angle. A second one featured some gay characters, but I can’t count it since the purpose of the goal is to focus on the letters in LGBTQ that aren’t G.
What I DNF’ed
The one that I don’t plan to revisit is Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusack, which is disappointing because I loved the previous book of his that I read (The Book Thief). I found the structure irritating and couldn’t stand the prose style Zusack was using.
I had been reading an ebook of Prairie Fires and was enjoying it but I am going through a phase where I don’t do well with ebooks right now. I’m waiting for an audio to come available at my library to revisit this one. And I was listening to the audio of Toni Morrison’s Beloved but didn’t feel like the experience was giving me the deep read of that novel that I want, so I secured a paperback copy and will be reading that soon.
What I Read
Here’s my ranking of the eight books I finished in February, from worst to best:
8. The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell. I absolutely loved the first book of Sarah Vowell’s that I read, Assassination Vacation. So it was kind of disappointing that I just couldn’t really get into this story, about America’s founding as a Puritan nation and all the hypocrisies that come along with that. It’s a good book but it never really came alive for me.
7. There is No Me Without You, by Melissa Fay Greene. This is the story of a woman in Ethiopia who ends up running a home for children orphaned by or suffering from AIDS in the late 90s and early 00s. Her story is wonderful and inspiring, and Greene does a great job portraying her as a complicated person instead of sanctifying her, but it’s a little too sprawling. In trying to do too much, Greene loses focus at times. It’s the story of this woman but also of the entire recent history of Ethiopia and of AIDS itself, plus the stories of many of the children who raised in an Ethiopia devastated by disease. It’s a lot for one book to handle. Full review here.
6. Mouthful of Birds, by Samanta Schweblin. This is a great collection of stories and Samanta Schweblin is an exceedingly talented writer, but I greatly preferred her novella Fever Dream. The creepy, surreal qualities of her writing played out better when dragged out a bit for me. I still like Mouthful of Birds, but it wasn’t the experience I built it up to be. Full review here.
5. Recipe for life, by Mary Berry. I absolutely adore Mary Berry, so maybe I was predestined to love her autobiography. What I really enjoyed about it is that it feels like a conversation with her. She mentions at one point that in her early days of writing for magazines she was given the advice to write as she speaks, and she really does. This book isn’t perfect but it’s a goddamn delight and she is so charming that it doesn’t even really matter.
4. The Terrible, by Yrsa Daley-Ward. I happened to read this book and Adele back to back, and as I said in my review, I think that happenstance hurt The Terrible a bit because there were things I got from Adele that I didn’t get here–and that only really bothered me because I read them one after the other. This is still a great book memoir written in a blend of poetry and prose that is so frequently done badly. In fact, seeing it done so well here was the death knell for Bridge of Clay, which attempts a similar structure with a great deal less success. Full review here.
3. Adele, by Leila Slimani. I respond very well to Slimani’s writing style, which has her essentially writing literary fiction novels in the style of a psychological thriller. As in The Perfect Nanny, she gets at some deep notions of marriage and family and class while creating an aura of suspense and dread that compels you to keep reading. In this case, Adele seems to have everything on the outside, but she keeps seeking out sex and danger and her entire world is now threatening to come apart. Full review here.
2. Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver’s writing has always had a socially conscious bent to it, going all the way back to her first novel, The Bean Trees, which tells the story of a young woman who leaves her poor life in Kentucky only to find an unexpected family with a Native American child in Arizona. Kingsolver’s latest works have been very focused on the environment, and this one is no exception, but it also tackles so much more. It’s about displacement and the climate around the economy, healthcare, and politics in general (there’s a distinctly Trumpish candidate running for president during the events in the novel). It does this by telling the story of Willa Knox, a fifty-something woman who did everything right with her husband but nevertheless is now penniless and living in a house on the verge of collapse with her husband, father-in-law, two adult children, and her new grandson. In telling the story of Willa and the generations of her family, Unsheltered tells the story of how society is failing us in general and how we all face an uncertain future as the climate spins out of control.
There’s a second storyline about a teacher who lived in Willa’s house in the 1880s and fell victim to controversies around the teaching of evolution. I don’t think these storylines fit together all that well, but they do add to each other and point out the ways in which society has been stuck in a repetitive loop of terrible for a long time.
I did not give this book five stars because I think there are elements that don’t work all that well, but I really enjoyed the story and the points it makes and the ways in which Kingsolver shows different sides and how there are no easy answers to big questions.
1. The Gifts of the Body, by Rebecca Brown. Rebecca Brown had worked as a home care worker for AIDS patients as they prepared to die in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so this detailed and smartly constructed series of interlocked stories does an excellent job capturing the emotional toll of illness and death on the ill, their families and friends, and on those who care for them. It’s a great and very humane book. It feels impersonal at first but as you progress into the book you realize that the impersonal is a defense mechanism for the home care worker we follow, and as the story continues and emotional burnout sets in, those walls come tumbling down in a remarkably affecting manner. I added this book to my all-time favorites folder on Goodreads. Full review here.