Book Reviews: April ’20

I pretty much inhaled books in the month of April while I was home. I made reading in the mornings when I woke up, in the evenings before bed and on audiobook on daily walks and while doing chores a regular part of my at-home lifestyle. Have you spent more time doing things you enjoy while being at home?

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende. (Historical Fiction/Fiction, 2020). This newer release was recommended to me on Goodreads, so I added it to my to-read list. Luckily, I picked it up with a giant stack of library holds shortly before libraries closed to the public in Wisconsin. This novel spans most of the 20th century, following a family living through the Spanish Civil War, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to come to Chile as refugees, and then seeing members of their family resettle in Venezuela and the United States. This family encounters starvation, loss of loved ones, concentration camp-like imprisonment, political imprisonment, and countless more challenges. Despite it all, they find a way to improve their lives and serve others, and through it all, find a form of happiness. This was no ‘working hard gets you to success’ feel good tale, it shed light on particularly dark times in Spanish and Chilean history. I’ve been trying to read books set in different countries where I don’t know a great deal of their history, and this really showed me a part of history that I was unfamiliar with in countries I don’t well know. I’d highly recommend this book.

In Five Years by Rebecca Serle. (Romance/Chick Lit, 2020). A friend loaned me this book to read and it was a quick and enjoyable chick lit read. Following two best friends who are experiencing dating, wedding planning, and navigating careers – the main character has a split second peek at a scene from her future five years from now. She is shocked and disturbed by the future vision as it puts her in a precarious situation she can’t imagine herself being in. As the next five years unravel, a series of unanticipated events are faced by the main character and her best friend. I enjoyed this book because it wasn’t the classic ‘work through a problem – find the happy solution’ format of chick lit, and placed the main character in challenging situations without any happy options.

Becoming by Michelle Obama. (Non-Fiction/Biography, 2018). A friend strongly suggested that I listed to this book as the former First Lady narrates it herself. I’m so glad that I did. While it was a long book (19 hours – and my library system only rents audio books for one week at a time), her storytelling style and voice made it so pleasant to listen to. This story offered such fantastic insights into how Michelle and her future husband Barack would carve their way into spaces where they would constantly question “am I good enough?”. In a weird time for our world socially and politically, this book made me yearn for a different political time. This was one of the best biographies/autobiographies I’ve read in years.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. (Fiction/Contemporary, 2017). This book was incredibly weird, but I ended up truly enjoying it. Eleanor Oliphant is quirky, socially awkward and seems a bit off, as she doesn’t get along with her office mates, falls “in love” / partially begins stalking an amateur musician, and stays in touch regularly with her incarcerated and emotionally manipulative mother. After rescuing a man who collapsed from a heart attack with a coworker, Eleanor’s usually shut-off world opens to new relationships, friends and a realization that her coping mechanisms for dealing with her mother and troubled childhood are unhealthy and destructive. Over time, and through challenging circumstances, Eleanor starts a new chapter and even if you begin the book disliking her, it’s impossible to not be rooting her on by the end.

Tokyo Ueno Station by Miri Yu. (Fiction/Japanese Literature, 2019). I don’t remember where I heard of this book, but it was good and incredibly sad at the same time. The storyline follows a manual laborer who is now homeless and virtually forgotten by all who knew him. His story begins with his work on constructing facilities for the 1964 Olympic games in Tokyo and ends in present day, as authorities work to hide / move out of sight homeless populations in Tokyo in preparation for the 2020 (now 2021) Olympic games. This book isn’t uplifting, by any means, but it presents the interesting perspective of building cities that we can hinge national pride upon and how we ignore and sweep under the rug problems to preserve artificially positive images.

Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park by Conor Knighton. (Non-Fiction/Travel, 2020). I absolutely loved this book and am so thankful that I bought it as soon as it came out in early April. It was a feel-good read that focused on some of my favorite places to explore – America’s National Parks. It is not exactly a guidebook, but author Conor Knighton spends an entire year following a broken engagement visiting all 59 American National Parks. He weaves together a narrative with snippets of his experiences at each National Park, clustered under similar themes in each chapter. I laughed, I cried and I was wholly impressed by the diversity of beauty and history that is preserved in the American National Parks system. It is one of my husbands’ and my goals to visit all the American National Parks in our lifetime and we have 50 more to go at this rate. I’m thankful to the author for this wonderful read in a challenging time and something that made me excited to again travel later this year.

Chernobyl 01:23:40: The Incredible True Story of the World’s Worst Nuclear Disaster by Andrew Leatherbarrow. (History/Non-Fiction, 2016). I learned about Chernobyl at quite a young age by scouring through my Granddad’s copies of National Geographic. I found a copy from the late 1980s/early 1990s with a haunting photo series by Gerd Ludwig, a German-American photography who has extensively photographed Chernobyl in the decades following the nuclear disaster. It’s always been a human disaster that has loomed in the back of my head – the idea of a city and its inhabitants being permanently and irreparably harmed by a nuclear disaster – even for generations into the future. That being said, I knew little about how the accident happened or the extent that workers and residents knew or didn’t know about the disaster at the time. I listened to an audio version of this book and it was short and quite interesting. It followed the science (in as plain English as one can make nuclear science) behind the disaster, how information censorship contributed to poor decision making by the experts onsite and how PR concerns selfishly and permanently harmed residents. In short, the scientists had no idea how nuclear accidents could occur or how damaging they could be because the Soviet Union had covered up any and all reporting on accidents. They thought the technology was infallible. The system was doomed to fall victim to shortcuts, as well, as leadership were paid bonuses for cutting corners. Lastly, and most cruelly – the residents of the closed city of Pripyat (where Chernobyl nuclear plant is located) were not told that the accident had happened for a number of days when radiation was at its highest levels, and when they were told, they were not told that their departure from the City would be permanent and they were not able to take their most precious belongings. The narrative discusses how it was for the staff working at the plant, the bravery of those who would succumb to the horrific death by radiation poisoning to prevent further damage and disaster, and the recent disaster pornography status the community has attained. Through bribes, individuals are able to tour the wreckage of Pripyat and wander through abandoned buildings, around the nuclear plant and generally gawk in a place where people still work.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. (Non-Fiction/Self Help, 2016). This self help book is on a number of best seller lists and consistently came up as a recommended read. For someone who already swears a good amount, even I was taken aback by the volume of swearing in this book. It was a short read, a cynical yet approachable self help book. Most self help books make me feel like a monster for not keeping a gratitude journal. This one is refreshingly honest and self deprecating. The author breaks down the key idea that nobody will ever attain a life without problems – the best we can hope for is a life with good problems. Building on that, we need to choose for our own wellbeing what we want to stress about. Stressing about nothing or everything is impossible, but we can learn from our problems (treating them as growth opportunities) and focus our energy in growth by stressing about the things that matter the most to us. We get to choose, essentially, what we give the most f**** about. Had this book been any longer, I might have struggled to get through it, but coming in at just under 200 pages – it was the right length that it left me thinking but also feeling like I’d gotten out of it what I could expect to.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. (Fiction, 2019). Another Reese Witherspoon book club pick and another pleasant read. I listened to this book as an audiobook and finished it in one weekend. The storyline follows white, mid-30s wealthy mommy / feminist influencer Alix Chamberlain and her African American, mid-20s part-time babysitter Emira Tucker. Alix seems overwhelmed by parenting, especially her precocious three year old Briar, and obsesses over befriending her babysitter and what the younger girl thinks of her and her lifestyle. She routinely snoops through her phone and desperately wants a glimpse into Emira’s life. Emira is a post-college 20 something struggling with wanting to find a ‘real job’, but not knowing what she would want to do. She has a real connection with Alix’s daughter Briar and finds joy in spending time with her. Things turn upside down when Emira is stopped and questioned in the middle of the night at a grocery store with Briar (an emergency babysitting assignment in the middle of the night) and accused of kidnapping Briar. Alix and Emira will discover that they have a person who played a role in Alix’s younger life and in Emira’s current life that becomes a point of controversy. The book addresses privilege, race, dating, influencer culture and the strange space of womanhood in your 20s and 30s. This was a light read, though I think it is a bit more substantive than most chick lit and was a page turner.

2 thoughts on “Book Reviews: April ’20”

  1. Great list of books! I took some notes and put them on my reading bucket list. Thanks for it!


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