Saturday, March 6, 2021

Wrap Up: February 2021


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Reviews Of Books I Read In February


The first book I finished in February was an excellent one! Ada Blackjack: A True Story Of Survival In The Arctic by Jennifer Niven is about an Inuit woman in the 1920s who joined a team of Arctic explorers because they needed a seamstress/maid/cook for their expedition. Things went badly wrong in the Arctic. When a rescue ship finally reached the stranded explorers (two years after they left civilization), Ada was the only explorer still alive. I have massive respect for Ada. She didn’t know how to hunt or build shelters, but she figured it out real quick. Calling this book Ada Blackjack is slightly inaccurate because it’s about the entire expedition. For long stretches of the book, Ada fades into the background while the author focuses on the other explorers, their families, and the men who organized the expedition but didn’t go on it. I was kind of disappointed by the shifts in focus, but I understand why they happened. Ada rarely talked about her experiences in the Arctic. Other people never shut up about their theories of what went wrong. The author is just working with the information that’s available.

I loved the first half of the book. It’s a harrowing survival story. Even though I knew the outcome, I couldn’t put it down. The second half drags a little. It’s about all the backstabbing and finger-pointing that happened after the expedition failed. The pettiness is not as compelling as the survival story. Despite my complaints, I highly recommend this book if you’re interested in historical expeditions. I wish more people knew about Ada. I’d never heard of her.



Since I liked Ada Blackjack so much, I continued with the nonfiction books. I read Talking To Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s mostly about lying and why we’re so terrible at knowing when someone is lying to us. The author talks about how we “Default to truth” because we need to trust each other to keep society functioning. Some people (such as police officers) learn to “Default to distrust,” which is why cops sometimes shoot people who don’t have weapons. The case studies the author discusses are fascinating, and I liked learning about them, but the book feels too surface-level. I think it needed to be longer and have a stronger conclusion. I wish the author had talked more about how people could apply the lessons in the book to their own boring lives. I’ll most likely never interrogate a Cuban spy or have sex with a drunken stranger at a party. I just don’t do those things. I’m profoundly boring! I suspect most people are profoundly boring. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was supposed to take away from this book except “You can’t always judge strangers by their body language.” That seems like common sense. The information in the book is attention-grabbing, but my reaction to finishing it was, “Um . . . okay? So?”



Continuing with the nonfiction! (Can you tell that reading more nonfiction was one of my 2021 goals?) I read American Fire: Love, Arson, And Life In A Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse. This is a true crime book set in rural Virginia. It’s about a five-month arson spree that stretched the resources of a small county to their breaking point. A boyfriend/girlfriend duo set 67 buildings on fire before they were caught. For me, this book was exceedingly average. I don’t know if that’s my fault or the book’s! Between TV shows, podcasts, and books, I consume an unhealthy amount of true crime content. If I wasn’t obsessed with crime junk, I probably would have appreciated the book more. It was interesting to see the different methods the police department and the citizens used to catch the arsonists. The backstory of the arsonists and the struggling rural county is captivating. Since I consume so much true crime, I don’t think this book will stick with me. It’s just another crime story. I think it would have been more memorable if the arsonists had talked about their crimes. The boyfriend talked to the cops a little, but the girlfriend insisted she wasn’t involved. Since the arsonists wouldn’t talk, we don’t learn much about the psychology behind their actions. If you’re new to true crime, this book would be a good place to start. It’s a fast-paced read, and nobody died in the fires, so you don’t have to read about violence. If you read a lot of true crime, this book might get lost in your brain’s crime swamp.



A low point of my reading month was Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood. I’m so disappointed, people! Margaret Atwood wrote some of my all-time-favorite books, but I don’t understand her newer stuff. I haven’t enjoyed any of her recent work. We just don’t have a similar sense of humor. Hag-Seed is about Felix, a play director who is forced out of his job by his coworkers. He gets a new job teaching Shakespeare to prisoners. Then he comes up with a stupidly complicated plan to get revenge on his former coworkers. He manipulates the prisoners into carrying out the plan. Felix is a great character. He’s arrogant, and over-dramatic, and complicated, and insane. I enjoyed reading about him and the prisoners, but I couldn’t get into the plot or the writing style. The book is part lecture on Shakespeare, part idiotic slapstick comedy. I was just bored and confused.



Luckily, my next read was brilliant! It was a short story collection called How To Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer. These stories are bleak and oddly fascinating. Have you ever read a plot twist that horrified you so much that you set the book down and backed away slowly? Yeah, that feeling sums up these stories! They’re all coming-of-age tales about girls or young women. The main characters either do something horrible or have something horrible happen to them. The stories are beautifully written and surprising. They come together in ways I didn’t see coming. I didn’t always know how the author would tie the disparate themes and plot threads together, but almost all of the stories ended perfectly. I will definitely reread this collection. I think it’s the kind of book you can read a dozen times and notice something new with each reread. The characters are complicated; the plots are intricate. My only complaint is that the main characters are too similar. They’re morally gray, depressed, slightly na├»ve, often Jewish young women. By the end of the book, they all felt like the same person to me. Still, it’s an excellent collection. If you can handle bleak, shocking stories, I recommend it.



Then I finished A Great And Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray. Someone needs to tell me if I should continue with this series. I found the book entertaining, but I’m not sure if I liked it enough to read the next one. It’s young adult historical fantasy about girls at a proper English boarding school. One of the girls discovers that she can open a portal to another world and bring back temporary magical powers. I love the humor and the complicated relationships between the main characters. The “frenemies” girl group reminds me of the slightly abusive friendships I had when I was a teenager. I like that the story is about teenagers discovering how powerful they can be. I was less interested in the fantasy realm. I know the fantasy world will become more developed as the series progresses, but in the first book, it’s shallow and generic. There’s an evil force and a “chose one” girl who has to stop it. I’ve seen these tropes before. Whenever the girls were in the fantasy realm, I was impatiently waiting for them to go back to the boarding school because that setting was more developed. So . . . I don’t know. It’s a funny, escapist book that I read quickly, but I’m not sure if I want to read the next one. Someone should tell me what to do!



My favorite book of February was There There by Tommy Orange. If you’re on the fence about reading this book, get off the fence! It’s excellent. It’s a hard book to summarize because it doesn’t have a plot, but I understand the hype. The writing is stunning and the characters are very real. A few of the characters are a little too real. One of them is a failed writer who doesn’t know what to do with his life and spends way too much time eating junk food and screwing around on the Internet. Yeah . . . that’s how I spent all of 2018.

I guess I’d call the book a composite novel? Or character sketches? Or maybe a loosely connected batch of essays and short stories? I don’t know. It has a similar structure to The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. It focuses on an event called The Big Oakland Powwow. Each chapter stars a different Native American character who is attending the powwow. I promise it’s not as boring as I just made it sound. I was very attached to the characters, which made the ending devastating. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this book. I have a feeling it’ll stay with me for the rest of my life. My only complaint is that it has too many characters. I sometimes had a hard time keeping the plotlines straight. That’s a small complaint. Please read this novel! It lives up to the hype.



There There might have given me a book hangover because I couldn’t get interested in An Ember In The Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. I read most of it and didn’t care about the plot or characters. It’s a young adult fantasy novel about the son of an evil military commander and a spy girl who is trying to rescue her imprisoned brother. Everything about this book is bland! The characters don’t have much personality and are indistinguishable from one another. The world is a generic YA fantasy world (abusive government + young people fighting against it + unrealistic fight scenes). I’ve given up on the book for now. I might pick it up again when There There leaves my mind.



My final book of the month was The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I was surprised by how funny it is. I may have snort-laughed while listening to the audiobook on a run. That’s awkward. Good thing I run through icy fields in the middle of nowhere. Anyway, The Help is about upper-class southern white women and their black maids. One of the white women is writing a book about the experiences of the maids. The city is thrown into chaos when the maids start talking to the author and airing everybody’s dirty laundry. Kathryn Stockett is a very talented writer. I love that her characters have distinct voices and huge personalities. I could set the book down in the middle of a chapter, pick it up hours later, and instantly know whose point-of-view I was reading. That’s not the case with most books. The 1960s Mississippi setting is well-developed. The book has a lot of humor, but it doesn’t gloss over the turbulent relationships between the maids and their employers. Even when you’re laughing, you’re aware of the tension crackling beneath the surface. You know something could go wrong for the characters at any second.

I think the author is sometimes heavy handed about the lessons she wants the reader to take from the book. Even when I agree with the morals of a book, I get pulled out of the story when I feel like the author is preaching at me. While reading The Help, I was very aware that I was reading a white author’s musings on racial issues in the 1960s. The book has a white savior plotline. I kept wondering how different the book would have been if a black woman had written the black characters. Maybe the author got everything right, and the book would be exactly the same. I have no idea. I just know I got pulled out of the story a few times because I was thinking about morals and the authenticity of the characters who were preaching at me.







Best Books Of February

1. There There by Tommy Orange

2. Ada Blackjack: A True Story Of Survival In The Arctic by Jennifer Niven

3. How To Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer







Most-Viewed February Blog Posts

1. Can’t Wait Wednesday: February 2021 Book Releases

2. Discussion: Do These Books Deserve 5 Stars?

3. Top Ten Tuesday: Old Books That Don’t Suck







February Bestsellers


Here are the books that people bought on Amazon or Book Depository last month after seeing me rave about them on this blog. (Don’t worry, the link-tracking robots only tell me which books people are buying, not who is buying them. That would be creepy.)


1. Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

2. Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

3. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman







February Life Snapshots

Baby Brooklyn turned 2 in February! She had two cakes because I really like cake. So, here are some sweet, sweet cake photos from her birthday.

Cake for me and Brooklyn; large amounts of alcohol for everybody else. That big blue box you can kind of see in the background is a slide she got for her birthday. Where are we going to put a slide? I DON'T KNOW!

She didn't succeed in licking the cake, but she did try.





All The Things!


Distance I’ve run so far in 2021 = 122.88 miles (197 km)

Number of unread books on my to-be-read shelf = 48 books

I’m currently reading = The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey







What did you do in February?


  1. I can't believe Brooklyn is already two! She's growing up so fast!

  2. Two cakes sound awesome! That's an idea for my kid's birthday next week... :) Happy birthday to her!

    I cannot believe you've run 122 miles this year! That's amazing. I wonder what you'll hit by the end of the year?!

  3. Love the pictures! A slide is such a fun gift. Is it a backyard slide? I the kid had one of those climbing cubes with a slide. My kid owned the house. There was only room for her things.

  4. Looks like you read a nice variety of books in February! I really liked the Help when I read it a couple of years ago.

    I know what you mean about consuming a large quantity of one type of genre, things start to run together and don't stand out as much.

    Have a great March!

  5. Good February reading! There There and the Help are both good, but in such different ways. I agree that the Help could have used some black woman infusion.

  6. Great reads for February. I've read and enjoyed The Help and am determined to read THere There. Have a great reading month in March

  7. Aww, a very happy belated birthday to Brooklyn!!
    Lol at her attempting to lick the cake.

    Hope The Snow Child is going well for you. I love the prose in that book!

  8. I could never really get myself to pick up those books by Libba Bray. With settings like that I need to be sold on the fantasy side and it doesn't sound like I would.

  9. February was pretty much about the reading for me and plunging back into the joys of horror!

  10. I read A Great and Terrible Beauty years ago and I don't think I ever finished the series. The fact that I can't remember means it didn't leave a huge impression if I did. I hope you have a good March!

  11. Baby Brookyln is TWO?! Since when?! I remember when she was just born still DD: I really loved the help when I read it and found it really entertaining. But yes, it does have that white saviour trope. The film is also good for that one and made me laugh even more! Hmm duly noted about hagseed. I guess as a long time author your writing style changes a lot :/ I need to read there there!

  12. I now really want to read The Help--finding a talented writer like this is always a joy. I know our library used book nook has a few copies in stock for $1 and that way I can take my time reading without worrying about due dates. Happy late birthday to Brooklyn! She is so adorable. Hagseed is one I remember people recommending because of the author, but it's not even on my radar. There There sounds powerful and I've never heard of it before reading your post.