Last Five Books

The Silence of the Sea
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (2016 in the U.S.)

Silence of the Sea

In her sixth installment of the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir Icelandic mystery series, lawyer and oftentimes sleuth Thóra Gudmundsdóttir investigates the disappearance of a family of four and the crew traveling on what becomes a ghost ship that docks into an Icelandic harbor.

Sigurðardóttir’s writing is rock solid; the way that she builds the story from slow burn to twisted finish, withholding enough details along the way to keep you in constant, blissful suspense.  As usual, she writes with steady characterization, giving us what’s essential to illuminate the personalities and lives of the characters without tending toward verbose details that sometimes mars the flow of the story.  Sigurðardóttir’s portrayal of Thóra and how she relates to the world around her is truly the heart of each novel as she constantly evolves as the series advances.

Whether or not you’ve visited Iceland, the descriptions take you on an armchair travel to another country, and a world where you just might believe in the supernatural and that the good guy, or rather gal, exists and has your back.

You can find my longer review here.

Furiously Happy
Jenny Lawson (2015)

FuriouslyHappyCover

Jenny Lawson is mentally ill. She wants to tell you about her mental illness, or rather, mental illnesses. Plural. And she wants to tell you about everything, ranging from depression to basically what bulks out WebMD. If you’re up for it, you’re in for a roller coaster of experiences and language that may make you say to yourself, “maybe my shit’s not all that bad…”

Lawson attempts to de-stigmatize the world of mental illness (can we take a shot for every time those two words are mentioned?) by revealing her own surplus of diagnosable disorders, including but not limited to sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, phobias, and their corresponding medications and treatments. In the genre of literature on serious topics, such as death, drug abuse and wait for it, mental illness, Lawson presents her case through humor, exposing-oftentimes in the most humiliating of ways-herself, her family and husband to relate to you that a.) she lives a life of strife of the mind, but that b.) it can be possible to find a silver lining and c.) you may not be so different than her, and that’s great.

This is what can be categorized as a truly divisive book. I’ve had library patrons who absolutely hate this book and some who absolutely love it. Broken up by chapters that seem more like short stories, her anecdotes are funny, goofy, silly, raw, dirty, and sometimes self-aggrandizing and annoying. But as she says early on, if you’re part of her “tribe,” then within these pages you’ll find a spokesperson and ally. If you’re one of the lucky ones where life is peachy keen, then chances are you’ll close the book with sympathetic feelings for a large percentage of the world who grapple with some tough stuff within their own mind.

When Breath Becomes Air
Paul Kalanithi (2015)

When Breath Becomes Air

When attempting to convince people that reading a book about a thirty-something man dying of Stage IV lung cancer wasn’t depressing, I was met with looks of disbelief. Because of the author’s introspective and candid reflections about his own life and then impending death, I can assure you that the result will be well worth the read.

Sudden terrible backaches plagued New York based neurosurgeon/scientist Paul Kalanithi while working his way through residency, only to reveal through his MRI results that terminal tumors inhabited his lungs.  He then takes us back through his life as a lover of literature and by way of the work of artists and scholars, he seeks the secrets of life, death, virtue and morality. Instead of becoming the predictable English professor or writer, the classics lead him to a more direct route to discovery: practicing medicine, thereby enabling him to experience life and death through a more empirical means.

At times this book breaks your heart (especially when Paul’s wife Lucy finishes the last chapter after his passing), encourages you to reflect on your own relationships, values, life, and how you, or if you, consider your death and if you will do that with grace. Paul makes a compelling case for grace, and though most of us may not so concretely meditate on our own passing, his call to action for a life well lived is what readers will most certainly take away.

Tall Tail
Rita Mae Brown (2016)

Tall Tail

I have a serious soft spot for Rita Mae Brown and her Mrs. Murphy cat mystery series.  I just cannot resist a talking animal, especially one inhabiting the brain of the most amazing, pragmatic, gutsy and no b.s., Rita Mae Brown.

Tall Tail is the 25th in the series where Mary Minor Haristeen, or “Harry,” investigates a murder in her hometown of Crozet, Virginia when a young woman suspiciously drives into a ditch who may or may not have been dead prior to the crash.  As typical to the series, she investigates with the help of her two cats, her dog and a gaggle of other barnyard animals, who all speak among themselves to help solve murders, unbeknownst to Harry.   What’s interesting about this cog in the series is that its chapters alternate between current day Crozet, and 1700s Virginia as the happenings begin to eventually intersect between time periods.  The cast of characters is lengthy, so much so that Brown gives us a who’s who as the novel begins broken up by century, but it’s simple to follow as you get into the swing of the story.  Harry’s method of investigation mirrors the mood of the town, unconcerned and casual by way of banter with neighbors, all which serve to unfurl the truth over the course of the book.

What makes Rita Mae Brown’s cat mysteries so addictive is the way she devises her characters and locale to create an atmosphere of warmth and community.  As the series progresses, you become so familiar with these personalities that you feel as if you are intimately acquainted, whether you love them or not.  The manner in which Brown creates Crozet, Virginia is where the cozy (in the cozy mystery) presents itself as you find yourself dreaming about warm days, the Blue Ridge Mountains and expansive landscapes.

The Vegetarian
Han Kang (2016 in the U.S.)

Vegetarian

When I first read the description for this book, most reviews similarly described the novel as dark, brooding, violent, bloody, erotic, and about a vegetarian (naturally, right?).  While these elements are accurate, it’s amazing to me how easy it is to market popular appeal factors, when in all actuality the novel is so much more complex.

The novel begins with a man and his wife, told from his point of view so that we are privy to the inner dialogue concerning his banal view of life, himself and his wife.  To his astonishment, she becomes a vegetarian immediately after her first of many blood-filled dreams, and it’s only then when we hear his wife’s voice throughout the book’s entirety, when she describes her dreadful visions.  His lack of any attempt to understand his wife is troubling, and reflects the mood of their community at large throughout the novel; any non-conformity is met with hostility, thereby casting an air of extreme suspicion and ultimately ostracization.  Part two of the book focuses on the point of view of the first man’s brother-in-law, or the husband of the vegetarian’s sister, who feeds an obsessive, sexual fantasy about his sister-in-law.  Part three, the last part, is from the voice of the vegetarian’s all too responsible sister and delves into issues of obedience and freedom.

What’s so disturbing and thought provoking about this book, and thought it may sound slightly cliched, is that it keeps you in a constant state of wonder, shock and awe, and is subject to varied interpretations.  With the vegetarian woman staying central to the three main narrations, Kang makes visible the complex, sometimes perverse and obsessive nature of our own minds, and how that can be imposed upon another.  The three characters have fabricated scenarios in their owns minds about the vegetarian, whether it be ambivalence, lust, or control out of fear of societal constraints.

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The Silence of the Sea by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (U.S. Pub. Date, 2016)

Silence of the SeaEver since visiting Iceland in 2013, I can’t help but read Icelandic mysteries as a means of teleporting back to the streets of downtown Reykjavik, walking down Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur, the immensely colorful houses, hilly roads and exceptionally hip young mothers. Reading the books of my favorite Icelandic author, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir has never left me in want of a better mystery and The Silence of the Sea is one of her best to date.

In the sixth installment of the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir Icelandic mystery series, the novel opens with a luxury yacht pulling into an Icelandic harbor as the relatives of a family with two small twin girls anxiously await, only to find the vessel completely deserted. We are then taken on a deft and suspenseful journey by way of alternating chapters from the points of view of the family whose fate we have yet to learn, and lawyer turned amateur sleuth, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir.  The details of the mystery unfold bit by bit as bankruptcy, an Icelandic socialite with an elderly husband, family secrets and several possible phantoms are thrown in the mix, leaving you guessing, and thankfully clueless, until the end. If you’ve followed the series, though it’s not necessary to enjoy the story, the same cast of characters that fleshes out Thora’s family and work life returns, including her now live-in love interest, German ex-pat Matthew, her barely out of high school son with girlfriend and new baby in tow, and of course, her assistant Bella who is annoyingly forced upon Thora through a contract snafu ensuring that she comes with the building in which Thora rents to practice law.

Sigurðardóttir’s writing is rock solid; the way that she builds the story from slow burn to twisted finish, withholding enough details along the way to keep you in constant, blissful suspense, and this latest in the Gudmundsdóttir series is no exception. She writes with steady characterization, giving us what’s essential to illuminate the personalities and lives of the characters without tending toward verbose details that sometimes mar the flow of the story.  Sigurðardóttir’s portrayal of Thóra and how she relates to the world around her is truly the heart of each novel as she constantly evolves as the series advances. Thóra is different than most mystery archetypes, there are no cliches, private dick personas, or brooding, misunderstood types.  She’s someone who you want to know, or probably already have in your life: she’s a single mom who’s attempting to juggle her career as a lawyer, her two children and new grandchild while trying to maintain a sense of levity about it all, as well as some semblance of a dating life.  Another appeal of Sigurðardóttir’s writing is how she uses Iceland to set the tone, which perfectly lends itself to the mystery genre with an oftentimes supernatural presence, with its grey, cold and desolate atmosphere.

Whether or not you’ve visited Iceland, the descriptions take you on an armchair travel to another country, and a world where you just might believe in the supernatural and that the good guy, or rather gal, exists and has your back.

The Last Five Books

It’s Not Really About the Hair: The Honest Truth about Life, Love, and the Business of Beauty
by Tabatha Coffey

There are few modern day Bibles that are published today, one of them being Tim Gunn’s book, Gunn’s Golden Rules, and hairdresser, entrepreneur, TV celebrity, and really, goddess, Tabatha Coffey’s book earns a way onto the bookshelf, next Mr. Gunn’s.  Tabatha’s insight into personal growth, loving others and yourself is truly insightful.  Yes, she is a television personality and a celebrity, but unlike so many celebrities today who earn their stardom through their family lineage or their plump posteriors, Coffey has earned her recognition because she is full of sass and moxie, makes pragmatic life decisions and truly respects herself.  Her philosophy is honest, down to earth, and she preaches complete self-acceptance.  True, easier said than done, but she has the amazing gift to make it seem as if she’s holding your hand throughout the book, encouraging you to live an authentic life.

Tabatha Coffey

The American Way of Eating
by Tracie McMillan

Journalist McMillan goes undercover from west to east as she picks produce with Latino (il)legal immigrants, works at a Walmart in Detroit, and finally an Applebee’s in New York to see where our food comes from, and how it is disseminated to the public at places whose mission is to deliver mass amounts at a low cost.  What she experiences is truly eye opening; whether you are pro or con immigration, what she hears and sees firsthand regarding how immigrant workers are treated, i.e. dying from heat exposure from picking Charles Shaw aka “Two Buck Chuck” grapes, can’t help but make you feel a little queasy buying garlic from the grocery store.  Her undercover examination of where our food comes from, how it is harvested, and the costs to those who are on the front lines makes you question everything that you put in your mouth.

AmericanWayofEating

Last Rituals
by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Last Rituals is the first in a series by Icelandic writer Sigurðardóttir that pulls together mystery, witchcraft, and a little bit of lovin’.  Main character, Thora Gudmundsdóttir, is single-mother and lawyer turned amateur private investigator with two children who has been created by Sigurðardóttir with restraint and wit.  If you’ve ever been to Iceland or its capitol Reykjavik, you’ll be transported back to the chilly country as you walk the streets with Thora as she investigates murder and explores the world of Icelandic witchcraft and folklore.

Last Rituals

Manhunt: the 12 Day Hunt for Lincoln’s Killer
by James L. Swanson

Let me begin by saying that I completely abhor dates, facts and especially, lineage.  Not only do my eyes glaze over with boredom, but the thought of reading a book filled with all of these makes the thought of cleaning my toilet seem really attractive.

However, thanks to James J. Swanson’s fresh writing style, we are saved from rubber-gloved servitude this time.  Swanson gives us dates, times, historical detail and characters, but does it in a way that is written more like fiction.  And though everything in the book is 100% fact, he details what the killers most likely saw, felt and smelled.  He describes relationships and friendships, disagreements and love all with such candid detail that it feels as if you are living the story firsthand.

Manhunt

No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood
edited by Henriette Mantel

A group of women with diverse experiences share their varied stories as to why they chose, or life chose for them, not to have children.  This book wouldn’t be called food for thought, but rather feast  for the heart.  Filled with comedy, tragedy, wit and even some schadenfreude, this book left me completely satisfied from beginning to end.  The real tragedy about this book is not that all of these women haven’t had children, but that most of them have left us with a lack of further writing to latch onto now that the book is over.

No Kidding