Book Report: January Round-Up

January has been a cold month here in Minnesota, but I have been content to stay inside and read.

Such good books. My intention was to select one or two favorite fiction titles and one or two nonfiction titles, but I could not decide which books not to mention.

Fiction

  • The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. I love books set in a bookstore, and any book written by Erdrich calls to me, so this was a winning combination. Erdrich’s actual bookstore in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books, is one of my favorites and the fictional representation of the store is just as appealing. The basic plot is that one of the employees is haunted by a customer who has died, but that is far too simplistic a description. The book is set during the pandemic and also refers to the murder of George Floyd and the days following that. I am so grateful for Erdrich’s ongoing elucidation of indigenous history, culture, and current realities.
  • Celine by Peter Heller. I read his more recent book The River and liked it, but didn’t love it. However, a favorite bookseller recommended this book to me, and the main character, a 68 year-old woman who is a private investigator, is intriguing. At first I was confused by lots of names and places and wasn’t sure where the focus was going to be, but Celine, who comes from an “old” family, wears Armani scarves when she tracks her prey, uses guns comfortably, and is married to Peter, a “Mainer” who doesn’t drive, kept me turning the pages. I hope Heller writes another book about these two. The story itself–searching for a young woman’s father who supposedly was killed by a bear in Yellowstone–is well done, too.
  • Songbirds by Christy Lefteri. Set in current times in Cyprus, where a maid, originally from Sri Lanka disappears. She has fallen in love with a man who poaches song birds and sells them to restaurants as forbidden and exotic treats. That’s disturbing enough, as it is, but even more so is the indentured servant conditions of the maids and that the main character, Nisha, is not the only one.
  • Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout. I loved this book. William and Lucy Barton were once married and had two daughters, now grown. Lucy’s second husband has died and William’s current wife leaves him. William asks Lucy to help him confront a missing piece of his life story. Lucy, by the way, is a successful writer, but feels invisible and inadequate. Ah, the mysteries of marriage and relationships and as Strout (Lucy) says, “how we lived our lives on top of this.” After reading this book, I re-read the earlier one My Name is Lucy Barton and discovered I liked it much more the second time around.
  • The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan. Think The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Not as chilling, perhaps, at least not on the surface, but…. Frida, a divorced mom with a young child, has a “bad day” and makes a mistake for which she is sentenced to a training school for mothers. There is a right way and a wrong way. One way. In the school she is assigned to a robotic doll to practice the right way. Ripe for a movie, I am guessing.
  • The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. Set in a retirement community in the UK, a “gang” of residents meet to solve unsolved murders and, of course, get involved in a real murder (or more than one). Interesting characters with interesting backgrounds (Elizabeth was former secret service), and I am eager to read the next book in the series. I assume there will be more after #2.
  • The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina. This is my “wild card” of the month–a book I just happened upon. I knew nothing about it, but the summary sounded intriguing, and it was one of those books that just felt right. The plot is based on the true story of a tsunami in Japan in 2011. People who have lost loved ones come to talk to them in a disconnected phone booth at the site of the tsunami. Two of those are Yui, whose daughter and mother died, and Takeshi whose wife died. Such a beautiful story of the rhythms of grief and re-entry into life and love.
  • Mrs March by Virginian Feito. This is the least favorite novel I read this month, but I finished it. (I discarded a few others along the way.) Mrs March is married to a successful novelist, and she has many emotional problems. I got tired of the grinding perspective of her paranoia, but still there was some nice writing.

Nonfiction

  • The Inner Work of Age, Shifting from Role to Soul by Connie Zweig. I read this book slowly during my morning meditation time. Zweig’s main message is to become an Elder, which means doing the necessary inner soul work, becoming who we were created to be and embracing the hidden spiritual gifts of age. She doesn’t ignore the challenges; for example, life-changing illness, but instead urges each of us to become aware of our own shadow–the obstacle(s) that prevent our own authenticity. So much here. I added many quotes in my journal and used many of the reflection questions at the end of each chapter. This is a book to move us beyond being elderly and instead, to live our elderhood with awareness.
  • Wife/Daughter/Self, A Memoir in Essays by Beth Kephart. I have loved Kephart’s books on writing and this book gave me insight into who she is as writer and teacher, but much more beyond that. Each section was divided into snatches, short pieces, but the book didn’t feel disconnected. I did think, however, that the section on “wife” was the strongest. The book made me think about how roles change or even end, but the self remains.
  • In the Country of Women by Susan Straight. Straight is a white woman who was married to a black man from the neighborhood where she grew up. They had three daughters and even after they divorced they remained connected in healthy ways. Plus, she was very connected to his large and complicated family. I couldn’t always keep every one straight and how they were related to one another, but the weaving of the stories, the texture of the connections, like the braiding of hair, which she mentioned often, were memorable. This was an unexpected gift.
  • 16 Ways to Create Devotional Writing to Renew the Spirit and Refresh the Soul by David J. Sluka. A book to keep on my shelf for the day, if that comes, when I decide to write devotions for women elders.

It is already February 3, and I have read….sorry, you have to wait till my February Round-Up.

An Invitation: What were your favorite January reads? I would love to know.

2 thoughts on “Book Report: January Round-Up

  1. I loved Oh William. The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World looks and sounds intriguing. Am going to have to look up some of your books!

    My favorite January fiction book was The Floor of the Sky by Pamela Carter Joern. Non-fiction was, believe it or not, Rachael Ray’s new book, This Must be the Place: Dispatches & Food from the Homefront. It was part essay, part cookbook.

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