Historical Novels

This month our book club read A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline, in which the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting “Christina’s World” is fictionalized. The story is interesting, but I also enjoyed its depiction of both an early 1900s’ American city and farm. I’ve always enjoyed historical novels but find that I’m not reading as many as I used to. Maybe it’s because I don’t have as much patience to absorb the details (descriptions of clothing, houses, décor, day-to-day chores, etc.) that come with these books. As social media makes current events and people more accessible, I find myself easily distracted from the book I’m reading unless it has a compelling plot. But here are some historical novels I’ve recently read that kept me glued to the page:

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes. Though it really isn’t a historical novel, it was for me. It was published in 1947 and depicts the forties’ era. I loved the Los Angeles setting and the descriptions of the local streets, fashions, restaurants, and nightclubs.

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman. A very entertaining rags-to-riches immigrant story that begins in the early 1900s.

City of Palaces by Michael Nava. The first in a planned four-volume set. It focuses on pre-revolutionary Mexico City politics and families.

This is not a long list, but like I said, I no longer read many historical novels.

It is difficult to find quiet time to read without distractions. My favorite time is early morning as I drink my coffee. The house is quiet. Ironically, though, my second favorite time to read is during the TV commercial breaks of the shows I like to watch (obviously, commercials don’t interest me) or while my husband watches a movie or program that I don’t want to see. TV is very often less entertaining than books.

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March/April Reads

I read an average of three to four books a month, usually fiction. I enjoy most of the books I read, but there is the occasional dud. The dud this month was Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh, a novel that has been getting some buzz. But I found it dull, slow and disappointing. The protagonist is downright strange and completely unappealing. The promised surprise ending is a letdown. My favorite read this month was American Chica by Marie Arana. This is a well-written autobiography of a woman who experienced an unusual upbringing in her native Peru and then in the USA, her mother’s homeland. I especially liked Arana’s descriptions of feeling like an outcast in New Jersey.

Our book club selection this month was Salt to the Sea, a YA title by Ruta Sepetys. It was just an okay read for me. The story, based on a real-life event, is too simplified to reflect the drama of the historical tragedy.

Presently I’m halfway through Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. I found the opening pages intriguing, but now I’m slogging slowly through pages filled with descriptions and little dialogue. Smith is a good writer, but the plot is not enough to pull me in. I’ll finish it, though, because I’ve appreciated some of the cultural references to dance, Fred Astaire, and Jeni Legon, an African-American dancer whom I had never heard of before. I hope that eventually the plot builds to a satisfying conclusion..

Why not YA?

In recent months our book club has read two young adult novels, Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan, and Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez. In our discussions we touched on the fact that these books seem too adult and sophisticated for younger readers. Echo, in part, deals with the spread of Nazism in Germany and the Japanese internment camps in the United States. Out of Darkness is about racial discrimination at its worst. It seemed to our group, especially in regards to the Perez story, that the only prerequisite for a book to be categorized as YA is that it be about teenagers with teenaged characters.

Last week I read the excellent Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. This is a lovely coming-of-age story of a young Chinese immigrant, Kim, who struggles to adapt to her new life in Brooklyn. At the start of the novel, she is a child, but throughout most of the book she is a teenager. I couldn’t help thinking, What a good read this would be for young adults. Yet, the book was classified as adult fiction at my local library. Such a shame. Kim’s experiences with bullying, peer pressure, teenaged cliques, and everyday school challenges would easily appeal to teen readers. As an adult reader, I loved the story and appreciated the intimate look at the struggles of a young immigrant who is attempting to assimilate into American society.

I do realize that young adults who truly love to read will find books in the adult section of the public library that appeal to them. I certainly did when I was a kid. But certain gems like Girl in Translation should be made more readily available, easier to find for all YA readers.

The Best Place for Books

I don’t buy books . . . well, not usually, anyway. Occasionally I will purchase an e-book edition of a currently “hot” title because I can’t wait to read it, and it’s less expensive to buy the electronic version (though e-books, like most things, have increased in price over the years). Most books I read are borrowed from the library. As someone with a long career in libraries, I support my local library by using it. Unfortunately if I’m eager to read a new popular title, I either have to wait for it to decrease in popularity and become more available, or get on a waiting list. I don’t have the patience to sit on a waiting list; I want to read a book when I want to read it, not when the library tells me it’s my turn. So sometimes, if I don’t go ahead and buy the book–and I usually don’t–I put the title on my own personal to-read list and wait until a later date when it becomes more readily available at the library.

Sometimes I visit my local bookstore to browse and buy bargains, books reduced in price to six dollars or less. I have found some real jewels that way (e.g.The Mango Bride by Marivi Soliven and Waking Up in the Land of Glitter by Kathy Cano-Murillo). But my latest visit yielded no precious finds. I was disappointed by the lack of significant bargain books. My husband commented that this could be a sign of an improved economy. In other words, the bookstore might be doing better business and hence doesn’t have to sell as many items at a bargain price. That’s good for the bookstore, I guess, but too bad for me.

Though I enjoy browsing and occasionally buying at the bookstore, there is no better place than the library to find the kind of books I especially like to read: novels by authors of color. The bookstore is sorely lacking in fiction by diverse authors. For those novels, I rely on the library.

A Summary of My 2016 Reads

In 2016 I honored my pledge to read 52 books, one for each week of the year. It’s not a pledge I will repeat for 2017. While I certainly enjoyed most of the reads, I found myself finishing books I would ordinarily have tossed aside because of boring plots or poor writing. I continued to read such books because I didn’t want to lose the time invested toward attaining my goal. Not a good reason to spend hours with a story that isn’t satisfying! In 2017 I’ll choose my reads carefully and set aside any that I don’t want to finish, for whatever reason, because I won’t set a numerical goal.

At the end of the year, Goodreads provided a summary of the books I read: The shortest was Chicana Falsa by Michele Serros, the longest was Night Film by Marisha Pessl, and the highest rated title (on Goodreads) was Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, which was also one of my favorites of 2016.

Here are some of my own stats based on my 2016 reads:

–I read 15 books by Latino authors

–11 are written by males

–1 is by an African-American author, 4 by Asian authors

–10 are mysteries

–4 would be considered chick lit

–2 are considered classic fiction

–seven are nonfiction

–two are sci-fi and two are westerns

Nothing about this summary surprises me, but I am disappointed to realize I only read one book by an African-American. That will be the only reading goal I will set for 2017: read more books by African-American authors.

The Year’s Favorites

I reached my goal to read fifty-two books for the fifty-two weeks of the year. Hooray! Here is a list of my five favorites, in no particular order:

Being Mortal by Atal Gawande

This is a hard-hitting, detailed look at death and dying, how it affects the sufferer of illness and frailties of old age. It’s a topic most of us would prefer to avoid, but Gawande underlines the reasons we shouldn’t.

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez

A grim story of racial tensions in Texas of the 1930s, but one I couldn’t put down.

Chicana Falsa by Michele Serros

I relate to the late Michele Serros and her writings about Mexican-American cultural identity.

My Antonia by Willa Cather

A tale of the immigrant experience at the turn of the 19th century in Nebraska. It is still relevant to today’s society.

A House of My Own by Sandra Cisneros

There is no other writer like Cisneros. This memoir is written with heart, humor, and poetic sensibility.

Happy New Year, and may it bring you many happy reading experiences.

 

Change of Habit

Brave New World (Aldous Huxley) is a classic science-fiction novel that has been made into a film more than once. Also, a future adaptation is planned as a scripted series for the SyFy Channel, which I look forward to watching one day. I love sci-fi movies and TV shows but don’t read much in the genre. That might be because often the plot and science seem to predominate over characterization in sci-fi stories, at least in those few that I’ve read, including Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein) and Black Moon (Kenneth Calhoun), just to name a couple. Of course there are exceptions such as Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series, which are both rich in character as well as plot.

Brave New World impressed me because it has an interesting plot plus some solid characters with depth. Though written in the 1930s, it is relevant to today’s reader because of its theme of government vs. individualism. Just a couple of weeks ago I read another sci-fi title, Parable of the Sower (Octavia Butler). Again, this is a novel with strong characters and a story relevant to our current day. It tells of a world that has crumbled under the effects of global warming.

Given that my recent sci-fi reads have been satisfying, I might reconsider my opinion of the genre and sample more in the future.