February was a shorter month, but there was no shortage of reading taking place. I even managed to read one more book than I did last month. Halfway through the month I realized that everything I’d read had been written by a man. I made sure to mix it up a little and the last two books are by women. (Diversity, yo.)
1. Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden (non-fiction)
Short version: The true account of Shin, who was born and raised in a North Korean prison camp, his escape, and how he has dealt with transitioning to life in the Western world.
The verdict: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s hard to gush about a book that is dark and ugly, and horrifically true. The things Shin endured are almost unfathomable, but almost even more frustrating than the torture he survived is knowing that others continue to live that way, and they are faced with the world’s indifference. I feel almost a sense of duty when I read a book like this to bear witness to someone else’s reality. It was hard, but it was also eye opening and important.
2. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (epistolary fiction)
Short version: Told through letters, the adorable residents of the fictional Island of Nollop begin banning the use of certain letters as they fall from the founder’s statue.
The verdict: 5 out of 5 stars. I thought the concept of the book was clever, and the execution was spot on. The English teacher in me appreciated the uniqueness of the idea, the wit, and the difficulty level (the author had to omit more and more letters from the book as the story went on). It was something sweet to lighten my reading load between emotionally heavy non-fiction novels.
3. The Time of Our Lives: A Conversation about America; Who we are, where we’ve been, and where we need to go now, to recapture the American Dream by Tom Brokaw (non-fiction)
Short version: As the longest subtitle of all time suggests, Brokaw reflects on where our country has been, where we are headed, and how we can continue (or in some cases, change course) for the better.
The Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars. Years in the biz have given Brokaw a keen sense of observation, eloquence, and even some really good ideas. While this isn’t the kind of book that I was dying to keep reading, I really appreciated his perspective on things. It was kind of like having a long chat with a grandparent. Even though I didn’t agree with everything (he was mostly fair but a few aspects were too sentimental even for me), I had to give him props for knowing what he was talking about and saying it so well. Unless you are particularly interested in the topic, however, you can probably pass on this one.
4. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green & David Levithan (YA fiction)
Short version: Two Chicago suburbanites both named Will Grayson are struggling through high school and figuring things out, when their lives intersect following a chance meeting.
The verdict: 3.5 out of 5 stars. I like John Green’s style. I’m drawn to his slightly off-beat, always introspective characters. The analogies, the symbolism, the fun, oh my! (The best line is when one of the characters gets food poisoning but declares it “awesome poisoning.” As in, he’s just too awesome.) But the plot? No. Just no. The meeting of the characters was almost unnecessary and pointless. The ending wasn’t fully realized. It read to me like a draft. As in, some things needed to be edited out to streamline what the real story was. A fun read, but definitely not a re-read.
5. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (Memoir)
Short version: Joan chronicles her life in the year after her husband dies of a heart attack.
The verdict: 3 out of 5 stars. I’ve never read anything else by Didion, nor did I know what the book was about when I picked it up. (Sometimes I like going into a book blind.) She is clearly very intelligent and a very talented writer. It seems like what she is saying is on the surface, but there are layers in all of it. She has an interesting style of repeitition, which I thought was effective and I really enjoyed. But was I itching to read this book? Was I eager to pick it up after I put it down? No. I even had to force myself to get through the end. I can see how writing it was necessary for her, but I didn’t fell compelled to read it. On the topic of loss, I much prefer What Remains and The End of Your Life Book Club, both of which I read last year. This one had a feeling of hopelessness throughout. Again, I can see why she wrote it, but I didn’t enjoy reading it.
6. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (YA fiction)
Short version: Typically a-typical story of high school love, conflicts, being on the outside, major family drama, and self discovery.
The verdict: 4 our of 5 stars. I love the main characters. They both have hard outer shells and soft, squishly, loveable insides. (The peripheral characters, particularly Parks’ mom, are also really well-developed and interesting.) The romance was a slow build, which I thought was more realistic than most of the love stories where it’s meet-bam!-in love. They are also dealing with some very real, very difficult issues. Some of the things that happen to Eleanor are painful to read, but in that I-can’t-look-away kind of way. The tough situations and layered characters would make this a good YA book club choice. (When I finished, I so wanted to have a big long discussion about this book with someone.)
Total # of books read so far this year: 11
Total # of pages read so far this year: 3,574