Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, by Fredrik Backman

Currently, I only have a daughter, but a parent I trust recommended this book to me and told me I didn’t need a son to enjoy it. And she was right. This book is charming and lighthearted, humorous and relevant for any parent.

Backman is a total jokester, and I know a lot of people would love this book for all the small quips throughout his writing. But for me it was really the anecdotes that made me laugh – the kind of oversights and accidents that all of us sleep-deprived parents are prone to. Things like showing up to work with a toddler because we forgot to drop them at daycare, or the crazy online purchases we make in a late-night panic when our kids won’t sleep… Backman captures these moments with a perfect balance of empathy and exasperation.

This was such a quick and easy read, and was exactly what I needed in a week where I was busy and a little stressed. It’s the kind of book you can read out of order, or take long breaks from, coming back to it when you need a laugh or something that is both light-hearted and heart-warming. I don’t know any parents who wouldn’t benefit from keeping this on their side table.

The Year of the Horses, by Courtney Maum

I was really excited to receive an advanced reader copy of The Year of the Horses, a memoir by Courtney Maum that is forthcoming from TinHouse Books.

I have to admit, I was really intrigued as I started this memoir, because – at least on paper – I have a lot in common with Maum: I’m married, I’m a new mother with a young daughter, and I am an aspiring writer (not that Maum is aspiring… she’s obviously made it). Not to mention, like Maum, I’m a white and come from a good amount of privilege.

And yet, despite all these similarities between Maum and I, unfortunately I had a really hard time connecting with this novel.

Now, I don’t have a deep connection with horses and I haven’t (to my good fortune) experienced turmoil in my marriage or deep bouts of depression since having a child, so perhaps these differences contributed to my lack of engagement with the narrative. But then, I’ve certainly read narratives I had nothing in common with that I nevertheless felt deeply connected to.

Rather, I think I simply struggled to really feel the stakes, or urgency, in this novel. And at the same time, I found it difficult to really understand or sympathize with the author’s frustrations as a wife and mother, which to me often felt unwarranted or exaggerated.

All in all, while I appreciated the author’s willingness to share her personal healing journey, this wasn’t a particularly captivating story for me. Have you read The Year of the Horses? What did you think?

Gilead, Home, Lila, & Jack; Four novels by Marilynne Robinson

Okay, it’s been quite a while since my last post. That’s partly because there’s been a lot going on (Springtime! Olympics! Travel!) and partly because I held off on reviews until I finished all four of Marilynne Robinson’s novels set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. Now that I’ve finished, it’s time for a combined recap and some stack ranking.

But before I go there, it needs to be said that Robinson’s writing, across all four books, is impressive: it’s eloquent, natural, timeless, and thought-provoking. I paused more than once just to take in the loveliness of her writing.

Secondly, I loved all four books for daring to take on really big, universal themes: love, family, race, class, forgiveness, religion. Robinson’s novels seem to acknowledge, whether implicitly or explicitly, that these themes touch all of our lives in different—yet equally meaningful—ways.

Finally, I want to say that across all four books, I fell in love with with characters Robinson created. They are flawed but they feel realistic and consistent. They are relatable and complex.

But as for my ranking of the four books, here it goes:

My number one favorite was Home. This is a story primarily about siblings and that hits close to home for me. The main themes are similar to the other three books—forgiveness, empathy, love, family—but it was the siblings’ loyalty and the growth of their relationship in this story that resonated with me.

Also, in terms of both character and plot development, I thought Home was by far the most nuanced, complicated, and realistic. Our principle characters – Jack, Glory, Boughton, and John Ames – have relationships fraught with troubled, sensitive histories. Throughout the novel I felt I could consistently feel those tensions boiling just beneath the surface of things, coming to a head in convincing and interesting ways.

In a close second place I’d put Gilead. The format (a long letter from father to son) hooked me at the start and the principle themes came through so powerfully that I was committed to reading the rest of the series. Also, being the first of Marilynne Robinson’s novels that I’d read, I was in my honeymoon period here, still swooning over her easy, eloquent writing.

Third…we’ll this is hard because Lila and Jack were super close for me. But ultimately I would have put Lila in third and Jack in fourth, only because Lila is set in Gilead and features many of the same cast of characters as Home and Gilead. Like Jack, it’s really backstory to the previous novels, never coming into the present day that the first two explore.

Admittedly, I was most excited for Jack, because throughout the other three novels, he’s undeniably the most controversial character. But while Jack’s backstory was interesting and beautifully written, I didn’t feel I learned anything new about Jack, and so I was slightly less entertained by his personal history than I was of his role in Home or Gilead.

All in all, these were wonderful novels, and Marilynne Robinson’s writing proved itself timeless and skilled. I’d definitely recommend these novels – especially Home and Gilead – to anyone who doesn’t mind a character-driven novel and is looking for a lovely, subtle family story. You can find all four books on my bookshop page.

And if you’re wondering where you can find a beautiful ceramic mug like the one featured in these photos (the one that was filled with coffee as I read through each of these wonderful books), look no further than Sound Ceramics. It’s my absolute favorite, local ceramics store. Be sure to check them out!

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

I’d heard of “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy many times. I finally decided to pick it up after a recommendation from a favorite fellow Bookstagrammer, and oh, my heart. This book is so subtle and poetic, tragic and astounding. I can already tell it’s the kind I’ll be thinking about for a long time after I turn the last page.

Set in India, Roy tells the story of a tragic event that causes the unraveling of a “Touchable” (read: upper class) family in India. It’s not a happy tale, but I found it instructive and powerful on so many levels. Roy explores and challenges India’s caste-based social system, prejudices, and traditions, while also touching on broader questions around love, trauma, childhood, and power. 

If there was any drawback to this one, it might be it’s complexity. There are a lot of characters, and, coupled with a non-linear narrative and a very particular writing style, I was occasionally challenged to keep the characters, relationships, and timelines straight. By about midway through the book, I had everything figured out, but it should be acknowledged that this isn’t an easy read. It demands that the reader be patient and attentive.

As a side note: this novel was especially interesting after reading Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, which sheds a lot of light on India’s caste system and compares with our own caste system in the US (yes, we have a caste system… I’ll let Wilkerson convince you). I highly recommend Caste one as a companion to this novel. 

Most of “The God of Small Things” was read in the late evenings and early mornings, usually with a mug of tea or coffee in hand, so it feels appropriate to pair it here with one of my favorite mugs from Sound Ceramics. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out their one-of-kind wares before you cozy up with this novel. 

Three short story collections to pick up during your next coffee break

I have a confession to make: sometimes, I’m not in the mood for a novel. Sometimes, I want to sit down with a cup of coffee (preferably in a gorgeous mug from Sound Ceramics) and read something start to finish. Something short and sweet. Or, more likely, just something short and complete.

That’s when I reach for a short story collection. Over the years I’ve compiled a list of favorites, and I get so many requests for short fiction recommendations, that I thought it would be good to share out my top 3. And so, without further ado…

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, by Deesha Philyaw

I first read this collection a year ago, and since then I have often found myself thinking back to the strong female protagonists and the undeniable sense of place that Philyaw creates. This collection is a really stunning debut from Philyaw, and she immediately became one of my favorite new voices on the scene.

Delicate Edible Birds, by Lauren Groff

Like Philyaw’s collection, Groff’s features strong, complex female protagonists. However, Groff’s stories span a wider range of time and place, offering some fun variety throughout (though admittedly a little less cohesion). The title story, especially, is guaranteed to stick with you for a long time.

Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris

Sometimes you just need to laugh. Queue the ever-amusing David Sedaris. I’ve read several of his collections and this is hands down my favorite. I’m always so impressed at David Sedaris’s ability to pinpoint everyday situations and experiences, and explore them for nuggets of insight and empathy that we can all identify with (and laugh at).

I’ve partnered with Sound Ceramics to pair these spectacular collections with Mug #12, one of my very favorite of their wares, made from red stoneware and an elegant white glaze. It holds beverages 8 -12 ounces of your favorite beverage – the perfect amount for a short story. Be sure to check out this and other one-of-a-kind mugs at SoundCeramics.com.

A Sounds Ceramics Collaboration & Circe, by Madeline Miller

I’m so excited to be kicking off a collaboration with Sound Ceramics, in which we will be pairing gorgeous mugs with my latest book reviews, as well as some of my old favorites. Be sure to visit the Sound Ceramics store for more cool merchandise!

First up, a stunning mug and a stunning cover: this is Circe, by Madeline Miller. I really loved mythology and fantasy when I was young, but it’s been a while since I’ve read much of either. After reading Circe, I’m feeling like a kid again. Miller takes classic mythology and makes familiar stories more compelling (and easy to read) than ever. Ancient heroes, gods, and monsters became so much more nuanced as characters, so that I both loved and hated them. It was really hard to put this one down.

Another thing I really loved was that I felt as though I was not only reading a great story, but also learning a lot about ancient beliefs and practices. I kept researching the characters to learn more about their myths, and putting other mythological classics on my list (including Miller’s other novel, Song of Achilles, so you can bet that will be coming up soon, too).

If you’ve read this one and know of other books like it, please be sure to share in the comments below, because I just can’t wait to dive into more of this type of literature.

No One Is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood

There was so much buzz about Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, that I couldn’t wait to dive in. And now I can definitely say I understand why it received so much praise in terms of timeliness and originality. The book’s structure and subject matter both touch on things that we’ve all grown oh too familiar with: our obsession with the internet, ceaseless connectivity, ever-shorter attention spans, and our disconnectedness from one another.

And yet, for all it’s relevance and powerful messages, I admit I struggled to get through this one. The story is divided into two parts, and the first is utterly fragmented, random, and practically without plot, so that I didn’t feel invested in the protagonist (or anything, really… and perhaps to some extent that is the point).

The second part of the novel is much different than the first. A powerful plot emerges, a cast of characters is introduced, and suddenly the narrative is so compelling that I read most of it in one sitting. The story in part two, it should be said, merits a content warning (TW: terminal illness, child death) and I was utterly unprepared for how devastated I would be (especially as a new parent). And though I have to recognize the skilled writing that drew me in during this second half of the book, it was really quite difficult to get that far in this book for me.

If you’ve read this one, I’d really love to hear your thoughts, because I realize how original and relevant it was from start to finish. Did you struggle with the fragmented writing? Did you enjoy the narrative? Let me know!

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

If someone had given me a synopsis of this book before I dove in, I probably would have rolled my eyes. A global pandemic? I would have said I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime, thank you. But in fact this book completely captivated me (and I learned that Emily St. John Mandel wrote Station Eleven before Coronavirus which is irrelevant but interesting). The writing is engaging and the plot is well-crafted; Mandel keeps you constantly on the edge of your seat.

A few other things I loved about the book: references to Shakespeare and religion for me to nerd out to, a badass female protagonist, and some very complex characters.

And of course, it’s impossible to bring up this book right now without also commenting on the TV series adaptation (which I just finished). I’m not much of a TV buff in the first place, but for me the series was pretty underwhelming, mostly because I found that the plot modifications made the story somewhat less convincing. However, I know a lot of readers that have loved the series, so I’d say it’s worth giving it a shot! And definitely – DEFINITELY – give this book a shot.

The Whole Brain Child, by Daniel Seigel & Tina Payne Bryson

As you may know, I’m not particularly big on non-fiction (outside of memoir), and it has been a struggle to find many parenting books that really grab my attention. But The Whole-Brain Child was recommended to me several times, so I had to give it a shot.

The verdict? This is a fantastic book to help new parents better understand the way their child’s brain is developing in the early years, and how they can help foster that growth. In a word, invaluable.

As someone who hasn’t had any formal education around child psychology (or any psychology, really), I really appreciated how this book was able to break down complex functions of the brain so that I could grasp them. More importantly, it paired this learning with tactical, realistic ways that I could leverage that knowledge in my parenting to better help my child develop intellectually and emotionally. From little cartoon graphics to “Refrigerator sheets” for helping you put parenting techniques into practice, this book really goes the extra mile to make things realistic and accessible for parents.

I will say that a few times I felt like concepts were a little redundant, but I also think that slightly different approaches will work for different parents (and children), so I wasn’t too bothered by the overlap between sections of the book. I’ll definitely be flipping back through this one time and time again in the years to come.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith

I’m someone who really likes classics, even really long, slow ones, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, is definitely both of those things. In that sense, I have to admit that this isn’t a classic that everyone will love, but for me it was extremely enjoyable.

Smith’s novel is a coming-of-age tale about Francie, a young girl growing up just after the turn of the century. I have to admit, I haven’t read many novels from this period (so much of the American cannon seems to have come out of the 20s and after), and so I really enjoyed Smith’s insight into the period – her perspectives on class lines, religious and ethnic divides, gender inequality, etc. I was captivated by these intriguing overarching themes, as well as the details about the era (paper collars?! singing waiters?).

If you’re a patient and close reader, I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this narrative. It certainly educated me on the realities of early 20th Century struggles and trends, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

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