March Reads – 2016 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge

I’m participating in the POPSUGAR reading challenge. The list includes 40 books, and my goal is to check off just one item per book. Here’s an overview of what I read in March that fit the list (blue check marks) and a couple of honorable mentions. You can also see what I’m reading right now via the Goodreads widget to the left. I’d love to hear your book recommendations—especially if they check something off this list. I’m always interested in adding to my To-Be-Read pile!

Reading Challenge

March – 2016 Reading Challenge

  • A National Book Award Winner: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is written as a letter to his son. There’s a Toni Morrison quote on the cover of this book that calls it “required reading,” and for good reason. Coates addresses race in America, from its early roots to contemporary issues right out of the newspaper, and how this construction of “race” impacts black bodies. This book makes us confront our world in a new light—a powerful read.
  • A YA Bestseller: Nicola Yoon’s quick read Everything, Everything is about a girl with a rare condition that makes her allergic to EVERYTHING. She is the quintessential “bubble girl” who isn’t allowed to leave the house and rarely gets visitors. Her world includes her mother, her nurse, her online school, and her books—that is, until a new family with a teen son moves in next door. This book is a sweet coming of age tale with a nice twist in the end.
  • A Book Translated to English: Nancy at Practically Wise recommended I read Yoko Ogawa’s book The Housekeeper and the Professor, and I found it to be a lovely story about the nature of relationships. The housekeeper (who is never named) is hired to care for an aging but brilliant math professor (also unnamed) who has a peculiar problem. After surviving a car accident, the professor’s short-term memory is devastated; his memory “resets” after 80 minutes. Although this book is a translation and involves so much math my brain hurt at times, I found it to be profound and memorable (ironic, right?).
  • A Book with a Blue Cover: Okay, so this one is a bit of a stretch since the cover of Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton is only partially blue. I actually didn’t like this book nearly as much as I thought I would. The book focuses on a woman who is recovering from a complication arising during a simple surgical procedure. While she convalesces, her mother arrives, and as the pair talk, a complicated family history unravels. I found this book too short—too underdeveloped. In the end, I didn’t care enough for any of the characters to enjoy the book.
  • A Book from the Library: If you’ve read my Challenge posts previously, I’ve mentioned that I’ve been reading books from the Michigan Notable Book list. This month, one of the books from that list that I borrowed from my local library was Adam Schuitema’s Haymaker. The book focuses on a part of my home state of Michigan that I love, the Lake Superior Shoreline in the Upper Peninsula. Schuitema depicts an isolated town where a Libertarian group decides to set up a national headquarters, moving their people and ideology into the town. Conflict arises as the outsiders and insiders negotiate to whom the town belongs. This is a great book to read during this election season—and for some great imagery of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
  • A Book That’s Guaranteed to Bring You Joy: I suppose Ruth Reichl’s book Delicious! won’t bring joy to everyone, but it’s a food book—and thinking about food definitely brings me joy! Reichl depicts the story of Billie Breslin, a young woman who gets a job at a food magazine called Delicious! mostly as a result of her impeccable palate and ability to communicate with the proprietors of New York’s food businesses. After the magazine suddenly closes, Billie is the only employee to stay on. In the big, empty building, she discovers a secret that ties the food world to the events of World War II—and she has to work through her own secrets in the process. Let me just say, this book is worth the read for the food descriptions alone. The story is interesting, but it’s the food imagery that makes it a joyful read.

 

Honorable Mentions

(I couldn’t find places to fit these in the Challenge list, but I thought they were worth including here anyway)

  • After seeing the cover of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children on a post at A Reading Writer, I had to check it out. The story begins with the photo of a girl at the moment when her home and family disappear in an explosion. That photo wins critical attention, but it also gets the attention of a writer who is going through personal challenges. When the writer ends up in the hospital, her family and friends in the artist community decide that finding the girl in the photo will help the writer recover. This brief summary does very little to capture the scope of this short (just 224 pages) book. Yuknavitch challenges ideas about war, art, death, sex, and love in a book that left my head spinning. I’m honestly not sure I enjoyed this book, but its originality will stick with me for a very long time.
  • A 2016 Michigan Notable Book winner, Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House was also a National Book Award finalist in 2015. Set in Detroit, The Turner House tells the story of the Turner family, all 13 kids and their parents, as they debate what to do with the family home—a possibly haunted house with an upside-down mortgage, stolen garage, and a lot of history. While I didn’t find this book to have enough of a clear plot for me to sink my teeth into, it was a good portrayal of the challenges facing many families with roots in Detroit.

What have you been reading this month? Anything you’d recommend that would help me check off some more items on the list?

 

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February Reads – 2016 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge

I’m participating in the POPSUGAR reading challenge. The list includes 40 books, and my goal is to check off just one item per book. Here’s  an overview of what I read in February that fit the list (green check marks). You can also see what I’m reading right now via the Goodreads widget to the left—if you have any ideas on what item a particular book could check off the list, let me know in the comments. I need all the help I can get!

February – 2016 Reading Challenge

  • A Book with a Protagonist Who Has Your Occupation: Strange Love by Lisa Lenzo is a book I picked up because it’s a 2015 Michigan Notable Book. The nine collected stories in the book focus on Annie Zito (a bus driver/writer–it’s the writer part that earned the check mark) and her daughter Marley as the two navigate the complicated world of dating. These stories would appeal to anyone who’s struggled to find his/her soulmate, and I loved reading stories set in West Michigan.
  • A Self-Improvement Book: Structuring Your Novel by K. M. Weiland is one of several writing craft books I’m working my through right now. Weiland teaches the basic concepts of novel structure without getting bogged down in technical jargon. This is a useful book for new writers and experienced ones as well.
  • A New York Times Bestseller: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff was one of the big “IT” books of 2015–and deservedly so. The language is lush, and Groff’s portrayal of a complicated marriage leaves readers wondering how much they know about their own significant other.
  • A Book Recommended by Someone You Just Met: The Good Girl by Mary Kubica was discussed in the forums of the Women’s Fiction Writer’s Association, a group I’ve just recently joined. I’d heard this book compared to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, two books I didn’t like, so I wasn’t sure I’d like it. However, I found Kubica’s story of a kidnapped woman suspenseful and a gripping read–better than the other two because I could empathize with the main character.

What have you been reading this month? Anything you’d recommend that would help me check off some more items on the list? 

Review: Freshwater Boys

Freshwater Boys Adam Schuitema

I love the opportunity to read books by Michigan authors. To that end, Adam Schuitema‘s book Freshwater Boys delivers. The settings of this collection of short stories are local west Michigan towns, and the characters remind me of the men, women, and children I meet every time I leave my front door. The first story, “New Era,” opens with his characters having breakfast at the Trailside Restaurant in New Era, a place I’ve gone for breakfast many times. As I read “Deer Run,” I found myself thinking about the last time I drove along East Beltline in Grand Rapids. To say that Schuitema has a keen sense of place is an understatement.

Freshwater Boys is a collection of eleven stories, each a close study of a moment in the lives of a different male character. Readers see young boys posturing for one another, adult men navigating relationships while maintaining a sense of self, and old men pulled by the tides of tradition.

Interestingly, although I love the role the lakes and dunes and forests of Michigan play in the book, my favorite story had little to do with Michigan. It’s a story that could have easily been set in just about any locale. “Curbside” begins with a couple returning from a vacation out west. The story begins with the main character thinking about the missed opportunities of the trip, the way expectations don’t quite line up with how things play out. Schuitema includes one of my favorite descriptions from the book when he writes, “We ruined it the first afternoon there with a huge, wildfire kind of argument that started small and accidental and consumed the rest of the day.” Anyone with a significant other can relate. After far too long in the car—far too long together—the couple pulls up to their home to find one of those roadside memorials with a cross, flowers, photos, and balloons at the curb. A neighbor informs them of an accident that occurred in front of their home while they were away. There’s something about the juxtaposition of small annoyances with this major loss that made this story poignant.

While I didn’t find myself always pulled into the stories in Freshwater Boys, I loved the opportunity to read about an area I know and love.

An Almost Great Michigan Read: Station Eleven

Station Eleven

I read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven as part of the Great Michigan Read program sponsored by the Michigan Humanities Council. The idea of the program is to get the entire state, from young adults to senior citizens, reading one book. Their mission is to make “literature more accessible and appealing while also encouraging residents to learn more about our state and individual identities.” St. John Mandel’s book has been lauded as one of the best books of 2014 by a long list of the people in the know, and she has definitely earned that praise.

I remember the first time I read a quick synopsis of Station Eleven. Three things jumped out at me: Michigan, post-apocalyptic, and traveling Shakespeare troupe and orchestra. I couldn’t imagine how those things would work in the same book, so I put it on my “must-read” list. Surprisingly, St. John Mandel manages to deftly combine these three concepts—and a multitude more—in her novel.

The book begins in Toronto in the present as Arthur Leander, an aging actor, dies on the stage during a production of King Lear. It is Arthur who ultimately connects all of the other people in the book, although that’s easy to lose sight of as the narrative zooms off in various directions. Readers are quickly carried off into a post-apocalyptic world where a flu virus has killed somewhere around 99% of the world’s population. Those who have survived, including a traveling Shakespeare troupe who lives by the motto “Survival is insufficient,” must try to put the pieces of civilization back together.

While I loved St. John Mandel’s book, I’m not sure it quite reaches the status of a “Michigan” book—or even a Midwest one, for that matter. Yes, the book is set in Michigan. The Shakespeare troupe and orchestra as well as the other characters in the novel travel along the Michigan shoreline. The book mentions cities like “New” Petoskey and Mackinaw City, and there’s even a discussion of the collapse of the Mackinac Bridge. However, those seem like convenient places pulled from a map rather than integral to the plot. The novel could have been set just about anywhere without hurting the narrative. Okay, so I’m being picky (especially since the Great Michigan Read program doesn’t require a book be set in Michigan), but I wish she’d made me feel like I was in a post-apocalyptic Michigan right along with the characters. Maybe now that she’s spent several weeks wandering the state for Great Michigan Read events, St. John Mandel’s next book really will be a “Michigan” one.

Previous GrGreat Michigan Readeat Michigan Read Titles:

2013-2014: Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg

2011-2012: Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder During the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle

2009-2010: Stealing Buddha’s Dinner: A Memoir by Bich Minh Nguyen

2007-2008: The Nick Adams Stories: Ernest Hemingway

Imagine This! Publication

IMG_2050I’m excited to announce that my short story “At a Loss” was recently published in the Imagine This!An Artprize Anthology. From the contest’s website:

Imagine This!  An ArtPrize Anthology is a collection of poems, short stories, and personal essays, along with reproductions of works displayed during ArtPrize, an international art competition held in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

This story originated from an experience one of my former students had, which led to a lifetime friendship. She met a man while riding the public bus who turned out to be deaf. She was determined to communicate with him, although she knew no sign language and he could not speak. My story went in a very different direction, but I am indebted for having been told the initial events.