Books read in August

I feel like this month I achieved a breakthrough as a reader. I tackled a few long and extremely challenging books, and found that I could stick with a narrative for a while. I spent a lot of time reading, but I didn’t spend all my time reading. By using small bits of time, coupled with larger chunks (2-year-old’s nap, an hour before bed), I could get through some substantial stuff. I feel like reading fairly all-consuming books helped stretch time. It seems like ages ago that I was reading Grant’s memoirs during my epic (yet only one day) trip to Nashville, but it was less than a month ago. Here’s what I read:

Embattled Rebel, by James McPherson

After reading Team of Rivals last month, I wanted to know more about what was going on in the South during (and really, before) the Civil War. While this book had some interesting parts, it was more of a military history: which generals did what, and why it pleased or displeased Jefferson Davis, who is the central character. The reader learns how Davis dealt with bread riots in Richmond, but less about how the bread riots started. I’m still looking for a good write-up of what people were thinking in the Confederacy from, say, 1840-1861.

The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant

I found this book (well, books — it was originally sold as a 2-volume set) shockingly readable. Grant recounts the various battles he and other generals fought. Since this was my third book in a row on the Civil War, I was getting to know the chronology pretty well, but Grant offered a lot of first hand insight. Like at Shiloh, he recalls that he could walk across the fields on dead bodies without stepping on the ground. It’s not an emotional book, but some images are pretty shocking. I wish he’d written more about his personal life, or his presidency, but he was dying as he wrote it, and so he got down the war stuff, probably figuring (accurately) that people would most care about that. I learned a lot about the Mexican war — a topic that really never got covered in my U.S. history classes. Grant proposes that the Mexican war led inexorably to the Civil War; the territory acquired in a not-terribly-ethical manner of conquest then created its own tension over what would be slave states and what would be free.

The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni

As part of my research into business parables, I read this perennial bestseller on what makes teams work, and what makes teams fail. There are good touches, like making the new CEO who dives into a troubled company a woman who’s got a military background (plus a stint as a high school teacher pre-MBA). Other than that, the characters are what they are, though I’m realizing that’s usually not what people care about with their parables. One key take-away is that people shouldn’t strive for conflict-free teams. They should strive for teams where conflict is constructive. There are very few things that everyone will agree on, so a lack of conflict is a sign of disengagement, not that all is great.

The Getaway Car, by Ann Patchett

The bestselling novelist talks about her early writing career, and how she got into the profession. This was a short (less than 45 minutes) read, but with some fun insights. Now that she points it out, a lot of her novels do center around a group of people thrown together under strange circumstances. She freely notes that she was taken by such a story early on, and has been re-writing it ever since.

Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset

This 1124-page Nobel Prize-winning epic was originally published as 3 books (so do I get credit for 3 books on my list??) Kristin is a headstrong woman living in medieval Norway. She and her bad boy husband Erlend raise 7 sons, and encounter various hardships and triumphs. Against the backdrop of a society in the throes of change, this is also a very personal look at one woman’s life. We see how she is often torn between her father and her husband, how she hopes to keep her children close while learning she cannot control them, and her suffering over loving a man who often brings her great grief (he’s the quintessential “rebel” if you subscribe to Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies rubric). There are parts that read like a Harlequin romance novel, and one gets a little tired of Kristin’s anguish at times, and yet the characters feel real. Norway is breathtakingly described. According to various commentaries I’ve read, Undset was stunningly accurate in her depictions of medieval life, and yet she never beats you over the head with her research. If you’re looking to tackle a 1000+ page book, I’d recommend trying this one out, with the understanding that you’ll be living in medieval Norway until you’re done.

[A sociology book I’m reviewing for a major publication— more on this one when the review is published]

The Professor’s House, by Willa Cather

Since I’d read so many other books by Willa Cather, I picked this one up at the library. An aging professor has built a successful research career, and raised two daughters, and seen them successfully married, and yet he starts rebelling against his current life, particularly as he recounts one daughter’s late fiance, a man he respected and hoped she would marry. Cather weaves in the tale of this Tom Outland, who lived in the southwest (because all Cather books seem to meander there eventually!), and discovered many Indian artifacts, and how he became part of the family’s life, and how things would be different if he had lived. It was OK, definitely not my favorite Cather book. I did have a thought, while I was in the Art Institute of Chicago, looking at a Georgia O’Keefe painting, that she also always drifted back to the southwest in her art. They were somewhat of contemporaries. I wonder if anyone has written anything linking the two of them.

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

As with Kristin Lavransdatter, this was originally published as 3 books (when it was first released in Japan). Bound together, it’s another doorstopper, though I read it on the Kindle app, so weight wasn’t an issue. Two narratives — of Aomame, a young female assassin who kills men who batter women, and Tengo, a young male writer who doctors a strange manuscript and unearths many secrets — slowly wind together in a dystopian world Aomame names 1Q84. Multiple Murakami fans have told me this is not his best work. There were sloppy, repetitive parts, heavy-handed literary references, bizarrely graphic sex scenes, plus a lot of thoughts attributed to women that I’m not sure any woman has ever said or thought. That said, the narrative was compelling enough that I kept reading, wondering if maybe there was a world out there with two moons hanging over the 1984 Tokyo sky. One of the plot lines in this book is that Tengo has re-written a 17-year-old’s compelling novella (“Air Chrysalis”) to turn a decent plot into something polished. I found myself wondering if Murakami was making a sly meta reference to that in writing a book with a compelling narrative that could have used a good editor to polish it a bit more. But that’s a bit too clever by half, isn’t it?

The Founding Fish, by John McPhee

This was something of a palate cleanser after Murakami, going from the fantastical to the absolutely factual, from the sweeping to the specific. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John McPhee has spent decades shad-fishing as a hobby, and this book explores the fish, its environment, the species’ shots at survival, and the people who fish for it, including McPhee himself. I live in shad country here close to the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, and while some parts of the book felt like I was wading in deep water, I enjoyed reading about the history of Lower Merion Township and Valley Forge, albeit only the parts that relate to fishing.

If you’ve read any of these books, I welcome your thoughts. I also would love to hear what you’ve read recently that you think is worth a read (or not!)

22 thoughts on “Books read in August

  1. I started reading Haruki Murakami in a plane to Cancún. My friend took The Wind-up Bird Chronicle to the trip but she couldn’t get it, so she borrowed it to me during the flight. I liked it very much but I just read like 60 pages.

    3 years later I read your recommendation about Kafka on the shore and I loved it. So I asked my friend again the book to read it to the end. And this week just saw Tokio Blues and After Dark in a book fair in my office and I bought them.

    So thank you for this good recommendation.

  2. I read Kristen Lavransdatter when I was young, probably 14 on a trip to India. The references and themes were definitely over my head, but I decided to pick it up again after a recent trip to Sweden.

    I really like it! I’m trying to pace myself and not spend all night reading it, but it’s perfect for my jet lag early wakeups, and I finally understand what’s going on 😉

    1. @DVStudent- I could see how it would be an attractive book for a flight to India. It could have filled the time and more! It is remarkably swift paced for what it is. I never really felt too bogged down, despite the length.

    1. Not sure what happened there! What I intended to post was – how do you balance the convenience of reading on the kindle app with the downside of getting distracted by your phone? I have such bad habits that I pick up the phone to read and ‘come to’ 15 mins later, scrolling through news headlines or stuck in a Facebook vortex. I have turned back to paperbacks lately for that reason

      1. @Lily – that is definitely an issue for some people. If reading is supposed to be an escape from your phone, then by all means, get the paperback. I have been weighing a few things when deciding paperback vs. kindle. First, my house is already cluttered with books. A paperback will most likely become part of the clutter. Second, I have to remember to bring the paperback with me places (e.g. to karate class while I’m watching a kid, or waiting to pick someone up from soccer). The phone is always with me, so that’s an upside. I can better take advantage of little 5 minute spurts to read. Also, sometimes I am impatient enough to get a book that waiting 2 days for Amazon Prime shipping is not happening – I can start reading the ebook immediately. However, I do find paperbacks more relaxing. The phone can be tough on the eyes after a while, and there is always the temptation to start reading email. In general, I lean toward the Kindle app just because for me it’s a way to turn time I would have been phone scrolling into reading time. It works less in the direction that reading time then becomes phone scrolling time.

        1. If you have an iPhone, maybe you could group Facebook and news apps in a “folder” and have the Kindle app on your home page? This way you’re more likely to see the Kindle app and the others are slightly more hidden.

          1. I’ve done that on my Android phone. It’s better tan seeing the distractions right out in the open!

        2. On our anniversary, my husband bought me the Kindle Voyage, and I love it. It is very light, and since it is just for reading, I find that I can keep that in my purse and read without my phone distractions. With a baby sharing our room, it is also useful for night reading and it doesn’t have that blue light that disturbs sleep. I notice that Amazon also has come out with another e-reader that’s even lighter than the Voyage (though pricier). I find that this is a great way to always have something to read on hand when you haven’t taken your paperback with you.

      2. @Lily – this is an issue for me, as well. Here are some of the things that help me:

        1. I removed the Facebook app on my phone. Now if I want to check Facebook, I need to open the web browser and do it from there, which means I also need to log in. Having all those steps makes it annoying, so I just don’t do it very often 🙂

        2. Instagram is my other social media addiction, and I really do love it and want to keep it. (It is great inspiration for crafting.) However, I put the icon on my 2nd home screen so I have to scroll to get to it. Kindle app is in a prominent place on my initial screen so I’m more likely to see Kindle than Instagram.

        3. In general, my 1st home screen is reserved for just a handful of apps I *need* and that aren’t distracting – calendar, email, podcasts, maps, messages. I have a bunch of empty space on that screen and move the other stuff to the subsequent ones.

        1. Oh, also, I have literally turned off every single notification, sound, and banner. So I don’t know when someone responds to something on social media – I have to go check it myself. This means my focus isn’t pulled to another app while I’m reading.

  3. Thanks Laura! I really enjoy your list. If you are looking for another business parable, Lencioni’s latest book, The Ideal Team Player, is very good!

  4. I love your book posts! Kristen Lavransdatter has been on my short list for a while – your review might just make it happen this month. My recent discovery is Mari Sandoz. I read her biography Crazy Horse last month which is about the Indians in the Midwest as the railroads came in and the land began to be divided up for settlers. She spent a year researching the book in 1930, talking with many people who knew Crazy Horse personally. The book is written from the Indian perspective. Usually books about that topic are from the white man’s perspective or the perspective of today where we are told Christopher Columbus and all those who followed were evil, horrid people. Sandoz writes a very detailed chronicle of how things were without passing overt judgment on either side.

  5. I just gave my (unread) copy of the first book of the Lavransdottir trilogy to my mom – my parents are going to Norway and a handful of other countries next week. I guess I need to get it back when she’s finished!
    I can’t remember all I read this month, but I did just finish Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume, partly for fun and partly for research for my own book, and am slowly rereading Villette by Charlotte Bronte. I know there were more, but nothing stands out and I didn’t keep track!

  6. Laura, you may have previously addressed this, but are you working on multiple books at one time? If so, how do you configure this? Thanks!

    1. @Phil- sometimes. Usually it’s one at once, but if I’m reading one for work (like reviewing it) I might read it at the same time as a novel I’m reading for fun. When I’m working through a really long book (1Q84, for instance) I might read something short simultaneously, just so I have another option if I get bogged down. But mostly I’m one at a time.

  7. I always love reading your book posts! I started Kristen Lavarensdatter but just couldn’t get into it- maybe I’ll have to give it another shot. If you’re looking for more long novels, you should check out A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. It is 1350 pages and feels like a Bollywood movie in book form (in a really good way).

    Also, have you read any Wallace Stegner? I think his work seems right up your alley. I just finished The Big Rock Candy Mountain by him, which I really enjoyed, and I loved Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety.

    Lastly, have you read Truth and Beauty by Patchett? I love all her fiction but I think this memoir is my favorite of hers

  8. On the Civil War subject, what about Mary Chestnut’s Civil War by C. Vann Woodward? I haven’t read it – and it is another doorstop with over 800 pages, but I remember Ken Burns using her diaries for his PBS documentary series. She was a southerner and wrote prolifically from 1861 to 1865.

    Also, I really loved Kristin Lavransdatter, especially as someone with Scandinavian heritage. I really felt as if I were in medieval Norway.

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