Wow, time flies when you're so busy you can't think. I'm finally back--hopefully for good. Another hellish stretch of work has hit me hard. But I can't blame my absence completely on work exhaustion. I've got a new obsession: Ninja Warrior. The Girl and I watch that show nearly every night, and now it's her dream to travel to Japan and take a shot at the obstacle course from hell. They have a men's competition, which is our favorite because...well, there are some hot muscled men on that show, and they take the competition so seriously (training 300 days a year on a fishing boat or building a replica course in their backyard), while the women's show is more like a wet t-shirt contest. I mean, how on earth are you going to complete a strenuous obstacle course wearing a tutu, butterfly wings, or a thong!
In the spirit of Dawn's recent post about celebrity crushes, I'll come clean. So what if I'm eagerly anticipating the Ninja Warrior marathon on May 18 so I can see Makoto Nagano??? (Okay, Serena, you can stop rolling your eyes now! And btw, I've already set the Tivo!) The guy clears a course 90 some people couldn't come near completing, and he does it without breaking a sweat. Oh, and he's not bad on the eyes.
Anyway, now that I need a cold shower, I'll continue with my review of the books I read last year. Serena won't let me give up on it, even though it feels as though I won't finish until next year. (Seriously, though, there's only one more recap post after this one, I promise!)
Once again, here's my oh-so-(not)creative rating system, and then we'll be on our way:
**** Wish I’d written it myself
*** Made the commute fly by
** Worth considering
* I can’t recommend it, but that’s just me
And as usual, if you're worried about spoilers, you might want to skip over certain books.
31. The Yada Yada Prayer Group Gets Rolling by Neta Jackson ***
32. The Yada Yada Prayer Group Gets Decked Out by Neta Jackson ***
The seven books that make up this popular Christian chick-lit series by Neta Jackson (these are the last two) chronicle a group of diverse women who meet at a Christian women's conference when they are assigned to the same prayer group. Despite their cultural differences, the women become best friends who support one another through a series of good and bad events. The books are told from the point of view of Jodi Baxter, a third-grade teacher and mother of two teenagers who tries hard to live the Christian life but must continually reminder herself that she's not the one in control. Jackson has created a diverse cast of characters, and we can find a bit of ourselves in each of them: Florida, a former drug addict who fought to get her daughter out of foster care, keep her son out of a gang, and hold her marriage together; Avis, an elementary school principal coping wither her daughter's abusive relationship and HIV diagnosis; Chanda, a Jamaican immigrant who won the lottery and fought breast cancer; Dolores, a nurse and mother who tries to support her husband with his employment struggles; Ruth, who discovers she's pregnant with twins in her 50s; Nony, who must cope with her husband's long recovery from a beating by white supremicists and is pulled to minister in South Africa; Hoshi, whose Japanese parents disapprove of her conversion to Christianity; Stu, a social worker struggling with a past abortion; Yo-Yo, an ex-con raising her younger brothers and doing her best to keep them away from a bad crowd; Edesa, who is studying to be a social worker and falls in love with Jodi's son; and Becky, an ex-con who is released from prison into the custody of Stu and turns her life around to get her son back. Jackson covers a wide range of controversial topics throughout the series and uses them as learning experiences for both the characters and readers. Most importantly, prayer is the focal point of the novels. I loved how Jackson brought these very different characters together in a very real way; she didn't sugar-coat anything, thrusting them into real-life struggles, showing them make mistakes, and giving us a glimpse of God's love for us sinners through them. The Yada Yada series showed me the importance of connecting with people who share your faith. They hold you accountable, they point you in the direction of the Lord, they hold you up when you can't stand, and they pray for you when you don't have the words. Faith fills in the gaps caused by race, income, etc. When I closed the last book, I was happy that each character was where they should be but sad that we wouldn't be there to watch them survive their next battle.
33. Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult ****
You can read my original review here.
34. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling ***
You can read my original review here.
Weeks after finishing the last installment of the Harry Potter series, Bethany and I traded emails about the loose ends and inconsistencies Rowling left behind. I still wonder what happened to the Dursleys, and I still can't see Snape being a good guy. Even as I ponder this book months after its release, I'm wanting more. Rowling created an unbelievable world filled with believable characters and fostered a love of reading in people of all ages. But I still wonder if the last book was rushed. On the other hand, I wonder if the world Rowling created was simply too complicated to sort it out clearly. Overall, I was satisfied with the ending. At the very least, it paved the way for some very interesting discussions on the structure of the magical government and how children idolize their parents despite glaring faults. I hope Rowling revisits these characters someday, and by introducing us to Harry and Ginny's, Ron and Hermione's, and Draco's children at the very end, she gave herself plenty of story starters.
35. Matilda by Roald Dahl ***
I read this with The Girl. You can read about our discussions here.
36. Marley and Me by John Grogan ***
My husband selected the Marley and Me audio book from the library to occupy our time on the long drive from Maryland to Connecticut and back last August. At first I was disappointed because I'm not a big audio book fan--I love the feel and smell of an actual book, and I'd already packed a book for the trip. My husband slipped the first CD in, and I was determined to ignore it and read my own book. But I'll be the first to admit I was hooked from the start. (I'm a sucker for animal stories. Back when I was studying to be a vet, James Herriot was my hero.) In Marley and Me, Grogan doesn't tell a cutesy story about his beloved Marley--he bares it all. From Marley's house-destroying antics to devouring everything in sight (jewelry, a pregnancy test) to the time he almost gave Marley up for good, Grogan simply tells the truth. I laughed so hard I cried at the funny stories, and I sobbed like a baby as Marley aged, declined, and eventually died. Although Grogan tells his story along with Marley's, as they are completely entwined, this was a different kind of memoir. It's the story Marley would've told if he had the words about how dogs and people truly can forge friendships that last forever and about how much joy an animal can bring into the world.
37. The Lying Tongue by Andrew Wilson ***
You can read my original review here.
38. Mr. Thundermug by Cornelius Medvei ****
This honestly is one of the best books I've ever read. Mr. Thundermug tells the tale of a baboon and his family. However, Mr. Thundermug is no ordinary baboon--he thinks like a human and can put his thoughts into words. Although he can't read (at first), Mr. Thundermug has a good grasp of the English language. He and his wife and two children--all three of whom are ordinary baboons--arrive in an unnamed city and take up residence in a vacant building. No one knows where the baboon family came from, though there is an allusion to a zoologist who studied a baboon colony before his disappearance and indicates the possibility that humans and baboons were cross-bred. Just as Mr. Thundermug forges a close relationship with a local teacher, Angela Young, who teaches him to read and write, city officials begin to take notice of the Thundermugs. They take steps to evict them and ultimately send Mr. Thundermug to prison for animal cruelty, given that his children sleep in the tub. He eventually is forced to visit his family in the zoo. Mr. Thundermug is a very short novel, and it's amazing that Medvei packed a critique of modern society into just a few pages. By the end of the book, I was outraged at the treatment of Mr. Thundermug, then realized he symbolizes anyone who has been discriminated against because of race, sex, gender, income, language, weight, disability, religion, etc. I think Medvei chose to write about baboons because most people have a soft spot for animals, and it's obvious to the reader that Mr. Thundermug could easily contribute to society if people would stop seeing him only as a baboon. It makes you think about how various groups of people are mistreated in today's society and how not enough is being done to ensure equality.
39. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath ***
Sylvia Plath has always fascinated me, how she had so much (her writing, her children) yet was tormented by depression and/or bipolar disorder and was driven to suicide. The story of how she sealed off her children's room before she stuck her head in the gas oven shows how someone can be pulled in two different directions--she was torn between her love for her kids and her desire for death. It's sad to think about the poems and the novels that would've been written had she made a different choice. The Bell Jar, Plath's only novel, chronicles the downward spiral of Esther Greenwood when she travels from suburban Massachusetts to New York City for a summer magazine internship. Esther falls into a depression when she no longer has academics to keep her busy and her application for a renowned writing course is rejected. She can't be satisfied with a stereotypical female profession or motherhood, and things seem really bad when Esther stands on the roof of her hotel and lets her clothes fly away into the breeze, like she was letting part of herself go. Esther ultimately tries to commit suicide and spends time in a mental hospital where electroshock therapy helps her escape the bell jar that had trapped her. We never find out for sure whether she is released--an abrupt end to the book similar to the abrupt end to Plath's life. While some people call Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook the ultimate feminist novel, I think The Bell Jar is more deserving of that designation. With the free-spirited Doreen, one of the girls Esther befriends during the internship, Plath pushes the boundaries of how women were supposed to act, as she did with Esther's quest to lose her virginity. Esther's discontent with the career options available to her is another example. Although women still have some ground to make up, barriers standing in Esther's way in the realm of sex and career have largely been pushed aside. I'm sure it's not the same for everyone, but I personally don't feel held back by my decision to get married and become a mother. When I took all those Women's Studies courses in college, they made it seem like being a wife and mother would be such a burden, but if anything, I believe these roles have made me a better person. I wonder what Plath would think about women in today's society and where Esther Greenwood would fit in.
40. All Will Be Revealed by Robert Anthony Siegel **
Augustus Auerbach, the main character of All Will Be Revealed, is a disabled man living in New York City in the late 1800s who strikes it rich in the porn industry. He doesn't associate with people outside his mansion, and he cares little for the men who write to him with their sob stories of porn addiction. When the baby of his most popular model dies, she is crazy with grief and takes Auerbach with her to a seance so that she can make contact with her dead son. The psychic is Verena Swan, whose brother-in-law Leopold encourages her to fake the ability to connect with dead relations in order to swindle people out of boatloads of cash. When Auerbach arrives, Leopold decides to target him with the alleged spirit of his mother. It appears as though Verena might actually be a psychic, with visions of the death of her husband, but her rejection of Leopold's affections puts in motion a series of events that leads to her being forcibly sent to a mental institution where one of the workers is a porn addict who'd written to Auerbach for help. Verena and Auerbach had developed a relationship prior to her being committed, and for a man unaccustomed to dealing with women without a camera in place, he manages to become the white knight speeding to Verena's rescue. (It also helps that numerous police officers, judges, reverends, and other public officials are regularly paid off by Auerbach so that his porn business is not dismantled.) Siegel created an interesting plotline and did a good job connecting the various characters throughout the novel. The characters, a pornographer and a psychic, make a unique combination. He also has a good grasp of character development, and we can see a dramatic change in Auerbach from beginning to end.
41. Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned From Judy Blume edited by Jennifer O'Connell **
This book brings together numerous essays by popular chick lit authors about how reading Judy Blume changed their lives. I don't usually read books like this, but Judy Blume rocks, plain and simple. I graduated from Beverly Cleary and the Ramona books to Judy Blume when I was about 9. Thank goodness my mom didn't pay more attention to what I was reading. If I remember correctly, I started off with Superfudge and Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. Two decades later, and I still remember Fudge's brother Peter peeing in the potted plant and Sally's worries about the Holocaust and her father dying young. Then I moved onto the infamous Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, a brilliant discussion about religious conflict within a family and a young girl's worries about getting her period for the first time. Judy Blume remembered what it was like to be on the edge of adulthood, and she is courageous enough to write the truth, censors be damned! (Though at a time when porn is just a mouse-click away, Blume's books seem very tame.) Blume doesn't sugar-coat adolescence or preach (we have our parents for that). She knew that a teenage girl forced to wear a brace to straighten her spine (Deenie) would think about how it'll get in the way of a boy's wandering hands. Judy Blume was my friend growing up; she knew what I wanted to know but couldn't ask my parents. And she became my friend again as an adult, with Summer Sisters, Wifey, and Smart Women. Blume has a wonderful grasp of people, their attachments, desires, anxieties, and her genious deserves to be recognized in a collection like this because it's true--Judy Blume did teach me everything I needed to know about being a girl. They are lessons I hope to share with my own daughter...in due time.
42. When the World Was Young by Tony Romano ***
A family saga going back to late 1950s Chicago, When the World Was Young follows Italian immigrants Agostino and Angela Rose Peccatori and their five American-born children. The family is changed forever when Agostino has an affair that produces a son, and his oldest son, Santo, develops a relationship with the young mother. Agostino is an arrogant patriarch, and Angela is a quiet, submissive wife who knows more than she lets on. Angela somehow handles the tragedy of losing a child to illness and the tragedy of a daughter's lost innocence. The family is torn apart by lies and betrayals and rebuilt again on lies and betrayals. Not since Mailey Meloy's brilliant Liars and Saints and the sequel A Family Daughter have I enjoyed a family saga so much.
43. The Quickie by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge **
In The Quickie, Lauren Stillwell is an NYPD cop who has an affair with a co-worker, seeking revenge for her husband's supposed infidelity. But all is not what it seems, of course, and Lauren thinks her act of betrayal is the reason her husband murders her lover. It actually has little to do with her affair, but we won't get into that. I'd rather pose this question: What does a cop do when she realizes her husband is a psycho murderer? In Patterson's world, the cop covers up the murder without confronting the psycho husband. When she needs to return home to hide evidence, she says she forgot she's baking cookies and needs to get home before the house burns down. When she needs to bury evidence and her co-workers wonder where she is at a time when they're about to track down the criminal believed to have killed the cop Lauren slept with, she decides she needs to do some gardening. Come on!!! I'm sorry, but if my husband turned out to be someone I didn't know, I wouldn't put myself in danger of jail time by tampering with evidence, fixing phone records to hide my affair with the deceased, framing someone for murder, or blackmailing the attorney who knows something's up. This book was a train wreck from the very beginning, and the only reason I kept on reading was the plot got funnier as it went along. The ending, when you finally learn the truth about Lauren's husband and see how his psychosis plays out and how Lauren handles the aftermath of one bad decision after another...well, you just have to read it and laugh. (If you're curious, the book reads fast. I finished it in a day and a half.)
Back with the rest of the 2007 reviews shortly!!!
Disclosure: All of the books reviewed in this post were either borrowed from the library, borrowed from a friend, or purchased by me.