Books read in February 2019

Short month, not too many books. But a few! I’m currently working through The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs which, while interesting, isn’t exactly a quick read. More on that one in March. Here’s what I read in February.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

After the Georgia Flu kills off 99 percent of humanity, survivors band together to form new communities in a world beset by violence. Mandel makes this broad premise more readable by centering the narrative around an actor, Arthur Leander, who dies of a heart attack while performing King Lear in the days before the pandemic sweeps through civilization. Characters who knew him are later tied together, for better or for worse, as they struggle to survive. I had mixed feelings about this book. It was incredibly well-written. The plot was inventive and intricately constructed, down to the final showdown between the two characters with access to the Station Eleven comic book that gives this book its name. Post-pandemic life is envisioned in plausible detail; I’m not sure if events would play out that way, but they certainly could. I also realized, reading it, that I just don’t like dystopian books. I had to keep forcing myself to read for, say, a half hour, and then I let myself go do something else. I’m afraid this says more about me than the quality of the book, but there we go. If you like dystopian books, you will probably love this one.

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

I started reading this classic fantasy story with my older boys a few months ago, but we got bogged down, partly because of the pace, and partly because it’s pretty dark, (not unlike Station Eleven that way!). A band of dwarves and a hobbit go on a quest for treasure, which they know will involve a perilous journey and taking the treasure back from an ill-tempered dragon. Tolkien’s language is taut and enchanting, and the escapes are clever; on the other hand, the dwarves are almost eaten multiple times by goblins, giant spiders, etc. After all this violence, the end turns, somewhat unexpectedly, into more of a meditation on the fallen nature of man, as gaining treasure sometimes leads to worse outcomes than not having treasure. I’m glad I read The Hobbit, since it’s such a cultural touchpoint, but I probably wouldn’t re-read it. So readers can let me know if Lord of the Rings is more or less the same.

Alienated America, by Tim Carney

I enjoy Tim Carney’s writings in the Washington Examiner, and I follow him on Twitter. In this book, Carney, who writes gratefully about his own tight-knit community supporting him during a child’s illness, attempts to understand why, in certain places, Pres. Trump’s primary campaign announcement that “The American Dream is dead” was so appealing. He finds that the communities where Trump did best in the Republican primaries tended to be the ones with the lowest levels of civic engagement and — crucial to his thesis — the lowest rates of church attendance. He writes that alienation happens when people are cut off from the civic institutions that support families and help people live the good life. There are definitely places in America where civic engagement is high. They tend to be extremely wealthy or have very active religious communities. The latter is more accessible than real estate in Chevy Chase or Alexandria, which is why he thinks that increased secularization is problematic. It’s not because of any particular beliefs, but because of how people in tight-knit faith communities act toward each other and their neighbors. Carney is at his best when he’s actually reporting — visiting small towns, talking with people whose family members have died of overdoses, camping out as part of Occupy Wall Street, etc. I finished this book wishing for a bit more of those scenes, and a bit less of the sociology, which while interesting, got repetitive. I’d add this to Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West (which I read last month) if any readers are looking for a list of books by non-Trump supporting conservatives trying to understand what happened in 2016.

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I’d read this mostly charming children’s story, about an unhappy orphan who comes alive after discovering a secret garden on her uncle’s Yorkshire estate, many years ago. I found my old copy, complete with my name and 6th grade teacher’s name written inside the front cover! It’s a quick read, and a heartwarming tale, though it drags by about two-thirds in, when the major conflict is over, and the characters keep remarking (in somewhat hard-to-read Yorkshire dialect) about just how much everything has changed. Nonetheless, it was a good book to tear through on a weekend when the late February weather was just a bit warmer than usual, and a walk with the stroller through a nearby retirement community revealed many trees starting to bud. Gardens are indeed magical places. This (probably more so than The Hobbit) might be a good one to read aloud with kids.

What are you reading these days?

18 thoughts on “Books read in February 2019

  1. I don’t think of myself as a person who likes dystopian novels, but I am still thinking about Station Eleven, a few years after I read it.

    I resolved in December that I would clean off my Kindle– finish the books I had purchased with good intentions and then allowed to languish. It hasn’t been very good for my motivation to read, though.

    Maybe a better resolution would be to figure out my library’s electronic borrowing system, even though it’s not very user-friendly. I feel less guilt about ditching books I didn’t buy. I suppose that’s the sunk-cost fallacy in action right there, but I feel guilty anyway when I buy a book and then scamper off to greener pastures.

    1. @Jamie- I’ve pretty much abandoned a lot of the books on my Kindle. I read the funniest thing about someone deleting all the books they hadn’t read to clean out the Kindle and I just wondered…why? I haven’t figured out the library thing but I probably should.

    2. Yes agreed on thinking about Station Eleven for years! I just re-checked it out of the library to read it again. It’s a beautiful book and there are so many small vignettes about the nature of humanity and hope that really have stuck with me.

  2. I can’t believe you read the secret garden this month- so did I! It was automatically loaded on my nook by Barnes and noble and on a post-conference flight I reminded myself why I had loved the movie and the book as a child. Now I’m looking forward to reading it to my kids someday!

    1. @Riley- so glad you enjoyed it! I might try digging up a few more novels from childhood over the next few months. I read all of Anne of Green Gables many years ago, so maybe that’s on the list. Little House on the Prairie. I need some read aloud stuff for my daughter as I’m getting tired of Magic Treehouse.

  3. I suggest watching The Lord of the rings movies before you read the books. Stuart Little would be a perfect read aloud for all your children.

    1. @Haley- while I would probably love the New Zealand scenery, I think watching characters almost get eaten by goblins/spiders would be worse than reading about it!

      1. My husband loves Lord of the Rings and re-reads it almost every year. I read it once just so I could see what the big deal is. It is long series and fantasy is not my thing. I enjoyed the movies much more and I think you might enjoy them. There’s not too much scary stuff and the visuals are wonderful. (LOTR was better than The Hobbit movies in my opinion)

  4. The Death and Life’s of Great American Cities is FANTASTIC! Who knew there was so much to say about sidewalks, huh?

    If you’re interested in more modern takes on similar issues, “Walkable City” and “Walkable City Rules” by Jeff Speck are both really solid. And if you’re interested in an fun but odd book that ranges from city planning to home planning, A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander is quirky and thought-provoking.

  5. I just started reading Little House in the Big Woods with my 7 year old. It’s one of my favorites from childhood. I loved The Secret Garden, too. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is also on my re-read list since I heard someone on a podcast mention it recently.

  6. I’ve always loved The Hobbit, so I was kind of surprised you didn’t like it. I can tell you it’s MUCH more accessible than The Lord of the Rings. LOTR is much darker and the language denser, so you probably ought to steer clear.

  7. Since you like Jonah Goldberg’s book and now Tim Carney’s, you’d enjoy Jonah’s podcast “The Remnant,” episode #89, in which he has Carney as a guest. Best of both worlds! (to coin a phrase)

  8. I absolutely love the Overdrive app (connected through your local library) for ebooks and audiobooks. Our family uses it constantly. You should definitely check it out.
    My seven year old received “Charlotte’s Web” for her birthday and I’ve been reading it aloud to her and her older sisters (12, 11, and 9). I remembered enjoying as a child and also reading it when my first kids were little. It is even better now reading it with older kids. The storyline has such beautiful details I overlooked the first few times.
    I’ll definitely be reading “Alientated America”–thanks for the recommendation.

  9. If you liked “The Secret Garden” try “A Little Princess” which is by far my favourite of the Frances Hodgson Burnett books. I read it to both my daughters (now 18 and 14). You could also try E Nesbit. Great stories from the turn of the 20th century although some of the words and phrasing can be a bit tricky for younger kids. So much humour and imagination.

    Completely different and for older children, try Philip Pullman and Kate O’Hearn.

    If you weren’t sure about “The Hobbit” you probably won’t like TLOTR, although I know you like long books and fantasy so on that basis you should like it. It is one of my favourite books ever; but then remember I like Jane Austen! But please don’t watch the films first unless you just want to watch something that has the same name as a literary masterpiece and, possibly, some passing resemblance to the same names of the characters and roughly the same story. And as for the films of “The Hobbit” they are absolutely nothing like what in my view is a children’s classic. Nice scenery – shame about the rest!

  10. Great list, Laura! I’m reading “The Diary of a Bookseller” by Shaun Bythell. It was recommended on the #AmWriting podcast, which I also listen to in addition to Best of Both Worlds. Have preordered your new book and look forward to reading it later this month!

  11. I read a good number of classics to my kids last year. At 7 years old my son loved Pollyanna and even liked the sequel. My 11 year old daughter really liked secret garden and my son too. We couldn’t make it through treasure island. They both tolerated The Little Lame Prince which I remember loving as a kid but liking it less this time. Right now I’m reading them Call of the Wild.
    Kipling’s Just so Stories are our go to reads for when traveling.
    Not a classic, but the Tuesdays at the Castle series were absolutely fantastic to read and both kids enjoyed listening to all 5 books in the series.

  12. I’ve never been able to get through the Hobbit, either as a child or as an adult. My husband and two boys love/d it. Lord of the Rings is a different animal–I’ve read it maybe three times. It’s not my favorite book by far, but it’s much easier to take than The Hobbit, even though it’s four times the length.

    I read The Secret Garden repeatedly as a child. Have you read A Little Princess? The modern movies have updated and sentimentalized it too much (and it’s already a bit sentimental), but you might want to take a look.

    Coincidentally, I’m listening to Station Eleven on my “library thing” (the Libby app) now!

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