My Summer Reading List

Summer Reading List

Ah, summertime and the living is easy.  School got out really late in Washington this year, so my summer has just begun.  Lazy days of laying in my hammock (and later, on the beach in Kauai!) while reading await.

To me, a good summer of reading takes some balance: something funny, something thought-provoking, something entertaining. Here’s what I’m planning on (or have already read!) this summer:

Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo

Status: Reading it now

Why I’m reading it: I admire Russo’s style and his insightful perspective on small-town America.  His book Empire Falls, which won the Pulitzer in 2002, is one of my favorite books.

Synopsis: The novel follows the goings-on in an upstate New York town called North Bath.  Several characters are on loan from a previous Russo novel, Nobody’s Fool, which was his first critically-acclaimed book.  I’m not very far into the book, so I can’t tell you much more than that!

 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Status: Finished it!

Why I read it: I was late to the party on this one!  The Goldfinch was a best-seller and Pulitzer winner in 2014.  I wanted to see what all the buzz had been about!

Synopsis: Theodore Decker is in a tragic explosion at an art museum that kills his mother. In shock and under strange circumstances, he leaves the museum with Carel Fabritius’ painting The Goldfinch tucked in his backpack.  He’s afraid to return the painting for fear of prosecution, but the painting changes the course of his life.  Not only is this book beautifully written, it’s a page-turner.  At over 700 pages, it better be!

 

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Status: Haven’t started it!

Why I want to read it: They say not to judge a book by its cover, but this cover is gorgeous.  I have to admit, it drew me in.  I also enjoy a We Were the Mulvaneys-style family drama, which this book promises!

Synopsis: “The Nest,” the Plumb family’s trust fund is put at risk by a sibling’s reckless behavior.  Family drama ensues.

 

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes

Status: Finished it (in less than 24 hours)!

Why I read it: Part of the novel takes place in the San Juan Islands at the same time period (1890s) as my MiL, Ashley Sweeney’s, novel Eliza Waite.  The author is local to me!

Synopsis: When her great aunt passes away, Inara takes over her family’s estate on Orcas Island, determined to turn it into a boutique hotel.  She finds a silk sleeve embroidered in a Chinese style under the stairs and her quest to find out the origin of the sleeve uncovers family secrets.  The present-day story is augmented with chapters that tell the story of Mei Lein, the Chinese-American woman who embroidered the sleeve.  This book is not artfully written, but it is a very engaging story.

 

I’m a Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson

Status: Started it.

Why I want to read it: Bryson makes me laugh, often out loud!

Synopsis: After living in England for 20 years, Bryson returns to the United States.  They say you can’t go home, and Bryson finds this to be rather true.  The book is a collections of columns he wrote about the quirks of modern American society.  Because there isn’t an overall plot, it is easy to read this book in installments, rather than all at once.

 

The Girls by Emma Cline

Status: Haven’t started yet

Why I want to read it: I read a review of it in Time and since then, it seems to keep popping up in different publications.

Synopsis: A vulnerable girl gets sucked into a Charles Mansonesque cult.  It looks dark but intriguing.

 

O Pioneers by Willa Cather

Status: Started it (on audiobook)

Why I want to read it: What is a summer reading list without a classic?  Besides, a couple of my former students who took AP Language said it was their favorite book they read this year.

Synopsis: The book follows the story of Swedish-American pioneer family in the early 1900s as they struggle to work the land after their patriarch’s death.  The protagonist, Alexandra, has grit.  I like her.

 

Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper by Hillary Liftin

Status: Haven’t started it

Why I want to read it: Every summer reading list needs a fluffy book.  The one will be perfect for lazy days on Kauai!

Synopsis: Lizzie Pepper is a movie star who wants to write her memoir.  This book is her fictional memoir.  The author, Hillary Liftin, was a ghostwriter to the stars, so it’s got to be juicy!

 

I’m sure I’ll pick up some other books along the way as well, but this is a start!

What’s on your summer reading list?

Katrina

 

 

 

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A Writer in the Family: An Interview with Ashley Sweeney about her New Novel, Eliza Waite

Ashley

It’s not every day you have a published author in the family.  Oh wait!  It will be every day, now that Ashley E. Sweeney, my mother-in-law, has published her first novel, Eliza Waite, with She Writes Press! The book, which has been 8 years in the making, hit stores on Monday.

Eliza Waite is the story of a woman homesteading on Cypress Island (in Washington’s San Juan Islands) at the turn of the 19th century.  Having lost her austere minister husband and young son to smallpox, Eliza feels a sense of connectedness to the island, preferring to stay after all other residents flee.  After a series of events open new possibilities and tear old wounds, Eliza — true to her pioneering spirit — determines to reinvent herself, venturing to Skagway, Alaska to open a cafe for miners. There, she finds baked goods and brothels, friends and old foes, happiness and healing. The book is peppered with real historical characters as well as authentic pioneer recipes.

Because of my proximity to the author, I can’t give the book an unbiased review; however, I did catch up with Ashley to interview her about her writing process and literary influences.

KG – Eliza is a complicated character. How did you get into her mind and encourage her to give up her secrets?

AES –Eliza grew as a character as I delved into her persona and psyche. This process took several years in real time. In that magical phenomenon that takes place as an author writes a novel, I allowed Eliza to grow in her own way, at her own pace. I count it a privilege that I was able to conjure a character and then let her take over. And some of her secrets surprised me!
KG – As early reviewers have observed, setting, both time and place, play an integral role in the novel. Why did you choose the setting? What were you hoping to achieve?

AES – Setting can be considered a character in novel writing. I spent much time and effort creating the atmosphere in Part One while Eliza lives on Cypress Island. I lingered in some scenes in Part One longer than others to allow the reader into the story. Part One evokes loneliness, and readers and reviewers have commented that they feel immersed in the scenes and feel the wind, the cold, and the desperation that the setting educes. I felt that Part Two would not be nearly as effective without the pain, grief, and desolation of Part One, and I hope I am successful in that assumption. Part Two is much more chaotic, just as Skagway was as a lawless boomtown filled with every conceivable fortune hunter and con artist. The setting in Part Two is therefore noisier, dirtier, and riotous.
KG – Eliza is heavily influenced by authors of her time like Kate Chopin. Who are your literary influences?

AES – My heroine—literary or otherwise—is Amelia Earhardt. Earhardt said that “the most difficult thing is the decision to act; the rest is mere tenacity.” I see that quote come alive in the character of Eliza Waite. Eliza’s decision to leave Cypress Island to join the hordes traveling north to the Klondike is nothing short of fool hearted bravery; but how she succeeds is step by step, or, as another literary influence of mine, Anne Lamott, quoted, “bird by bird.” It’s the putting one foot in front of the other that propels Eliza away from grief and toward happiness; away from failure and toward success. As for authors I admire: Geraldine Brooks, Sue Monk Kidd, Tracy Chevalier, Louise Erdrich.

KG – What do you hope readers take away from Eliza’s story?

AES – My hope is that readers will find the courage from somewhere deep inside to make life-changing decisions—no matter how great or how formidable—and move toward the life that they can only imagine.

KG – I’ve said since I first read the manuscript a year ago that Eliza Waite would make a great movie. Who would be your pick to play the title role?

AES – Hands down, Saorise Ronan. The “Brooklyn” actress has everything I see in Eliza—shy but feisty, and the ability to grow as a character. Ronan’s transformation in “Brooklyn” from a demure teen to a confident young woman mirrors Eliza’s trajectory from an unlovely widow to an enterprising and mature woman. I would also love to see Helen Bonham Carter play the role of Pearly, although a dear friend of mine said she would covet that part! In my dreams, Steiner would be played by Jude Law and Burns would be played by Daniel Radcliffe. Nice.

You can purchase Eliza Waite at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or several independent booksellers, such as Village Books.  (Ashley will even be doing a reading and meet-and-greet there on May 25th!)  Better yet, you can request that your library purchase it and spread the love!

Happy reading,

Katrina

 

The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson: A Review

The 100 Year Old Man

If this book was food, it would be a raspberry jelly doughnut.  It’s pure sugar, pure fun, with only a trace of real fruit.

With that said, it’s certainly a delicious raspberry jelly doughnut!  The story centers around Allan Karlsson, a centenarian, who on the morning of his 100th birthday party, decides he would rather be anywhere than in the old folks’ home to which he has been confined for the last few months.

Allan decides to flee to wherever a 50 crown bus trip can take him, but at the station, he agrees to watch a young punk’s suitcase while the kid, as he delicately describes, “takes a dump.”  While the punky kid is relieving himself, the bus arrives and Allan — for reasons he doesn’t even fully understand — boards the bus with the suitcase.

This unleashes a massive manhunt for the 100-year-old man and the suitcase itself.  The present-day chapters are punctuated with flashbacks of Allan’s storied 100 years.  It turns out that our centenarian is somewhat of a picaresque hero with a life that reads like a mashup of Forrest Gump and How to Win Friends and Influence People mixed together with a stick of dynamite.

Allan has chugged vodka with the likes of Joseph Stalin and Harry Truman.  He has conquered the Himalayas and saved Winston Churchill from an assassination attempt.

At first, I was a little disoriented by the reference to famous historical figures because the first one doesn’t appear until about a 1/5 of the way into the book.  However, by the time the second or third world leader showed up, I had accepted their presence as intentionally silly and  implausible. They no longer bothered me; in fact, I waited in anticipation to find out who Allan would meet next.

The best thing about the novel is the very dry, very dark sense of humor.  Take this bit of dialogue between Allan and one of his companions for example:

— The bad news is that when we were well and truly pissed last night, we forgot to turn off the fan in the freezer room.

— And? Said Allan

— And…the guy inside must be dead cold — or cold dead — by now.

With a worried look, Allan scratched his neck while he decided to let news of this carelessness spoil the day.

— Oh dear, he said.  But I must say that you’ve got these eggs just right, not too hard and not too runny.

I might be a terrible person, but to me, this is hilarious.

The rest of the book is satirical in its treatment of politics and of people who take themselves too seriously.  Let’s face it: too many people take themselves too seriously, and it would be nice to squish a raspberry jelly-filled doughnut in their faces.  With the utmost propriety, of course.

This is that jelly-filled doughnut.

Katrina

PS – When researching for this review, I found out that it is a movie.  For what it’s worth, the movie looks terrible.  Read the book.

 

The Three Year Swim Club: A Review

The Three Year Swim Club: A Book Review

When I decided to start a book club in 2016, I knew the first book had to hook everyone.  It had to be inspirational, captivating, edifying.  The Three Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway seemed to have it all: true story, inspiring teacher, underdog achievements — all set within the backdrop of Hawaii and WWII.  How could I go wrong?

Unfortunately, I was sadly mistaken.

The Three Year Swim Club (or 3YSC, as the book refers to they eponymous swim team) centers around the coaching career of Soichi Sakomoto, a Japanese-American schoolteacher who not only taught some of Hawaii’s most underprivileged kids to swim but took them to compete nationally and internationally amidst a climate rife with racism and a world on the brink of war.  They broke athletic and racial boundaries.  The story is incredible yet true.

However, a week into “assigning” the book to the fledgling group, I was already apologizing for my choice.  Why did it take a week?  Simple.  I hadn’t started it until Day 3.

There are a couple of problems with the book: first, the structure of the plot jumps around between characters and events with too much “lag time” in between.  For example, one of the early scenes of the book features Sakomoto’s best swimmers (whom we have not yet met) competing against 5-time-Olympic medalist Duke Kahanamoku in Oahu’s Natatorium.  It’s an interesting scene with all the elements that create suspense and interest in a good underdog sports story.  The problem is that not only do we not know yet who the main characters will be (and thus don’t know fully who to “follow”), Checkoway drops that plot line abruptly and does not pick it up again for chapters.  It’s a flash forward that doesn’t work because we’re not yet invested enough in any of the characters, so it’s nearly impossible to appreciate the significance of the moment.

These frequent shifts in time and focus can work, but there are so many of them in the 3YSC that it takes too much effort to keep track.  I found myself wanting to hone in on a couple of characters: Keo Nakama, Halo Hirose, Bill Smith and Sakomoto himself.  Instead, Checkoway jumps between these four characters and a host of others, telling their backstories without successfully knitting them into the main plot.

The second issue is more pressing, and — by my estimation — caused by the first. The 3YSC is bogged down in historical detail and not infused with enough humanity.  As Checkoway would have it, Sakomoto married the love of his life, essentially abandoned her in favor of becoming a workaholic, and somehow their marriage comes out totally unscathed.  Checkoway hints at a bit of potential strife, but of all the characters we get to know, Mary Sakomoto is not one of them.  Mary plays an integral role in helping the 3YSC achieve its goals, but we never hear her internal monologue.  Was she acting out of love?  Duty?  Patriotism?  Inquiring minds want to know!

Because Checkoway jumps around so much, we don’t get to see deeply into each character’s emotions; rather, we know about their backstory.  To me, it’s a classic example of telling rather than showing.  Granted, Checkoway has to work off newspaper clippings and interviews with the few surviving members of the 3YSC, so it is possible she was unable to make reasonable inferences about characters’ emotions.  It’s still disappointing.

What’s confusing to me about the 3YSC is its favorable ratings and reviews online.  People are comparing it to Unbroken and The Boys in the Boat, both books I enjoyed.  But in Unbroken, I left Louis Zamperini and his story, beautifully told by Laura Hillenbrand, knowing more about what it means to be human.  I felt empathy for him that I didn’t feel for the characters in the 3YSC, even though I think I was supposed to care.

Alas, our newly birth book club started with a dud, but next month’s book is already better.  Join us if you’d like!  We’re reading A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

Happy reading,

Katrina