I read a lot on my trip, just not in the typical way… That is to say, I listened to a lot of audio books, as I drove an awful lot of miles. It was soothing, and easy, except when driving in city traffic, then I found myself unable to concentrate on both the road and the book.
That said, here is a partial list of books that I have read and not-yet-reviewed from the last six months…
The Awakening, by Kate Chopin
The Awakening was written in 1899, and is considered to be one of the first novels to deal with women’s issues and feminism openly. The main character, Edna, finds herself bored and unsatisfied in her role as a wife and mother, and longs for something more. Eventually, he begins an affair with a man who is known for his dalliances with several women, and also falls in love with a younger man who understands that they cannot be together. The novel explores Edna’s mental health, her examination of her role as a mother, and her feelings for the men in her life. She strains against societal expectations while seeking her own happiness. It is remarkable that this was written over 100 years ago, and it was certainly controversial at that time, for its depictions of female sexuality, her defiance of gender norms, and the depiction of depression and mental health issues. Unfortunately, Chopin was ostracized after its release, and had trouble finding a market for her stories after this novel’s publication.
I thought it was excellent. The novel is raw and real, and you can imagine yourself as Edna, trying to find her place in a world where she feels she doesn’t belong. The themes still resonate today. 5 Stars.
Code Girls, by Liza Mundy
This is a book about the women hired by the Army and the Navy during World War II to break the codes that the Axis enemies were using to transmit coded messages. There were several encryption machines in use by the Axis powers, so the ranks of women employees grew through time in an attempt to read the messages that Germany, Japan and other Axis powers were sending. The book depicts the recruitment of the women from colleges and schools where they were teachers, their training, and their work, including the need for absolute secrecy. Mundy does an excellent job of telling their stories, relying on interviews with many of the women, as well as from source documents at the time. It is a little known piece of World War II, but these women were geniuses, and truly gave their time and talents to the country in an attempt to win the war. 5 stars.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I read this in high school, and decided to give it another read. I remember it being “deeper” then, I suppose because my high school English teacher wanted us to find the symbolism in the work. The failure of the American dream, the divide and disconnect between the wealthy and the rest of us, the playground mentality of the wealthy without regard for the consequences. Don’t get me wrong, it is still an excellent novel, still full of the moral bankruptcy that I remember from the first time around. It is also incredibly sad. Gatsby, the Buchanans and their friend Jordan Baker, for all their money and privilege, are still unable to find any sort of happiness or sustainable meaning in their lives. They drift from day to day with no regard for how their actions affect anyone, but not even finding any joy for themselves. For sure, money can’t buy you happiness, but I think I could definitely do a better job of it than they do. 4 stars.
The Life We Bury, by Allen Eskens
This novel was an unexpectedly good read. It follows the story of a college student, who on a project for his English class to interview an elderly person, finds himself meeting with a dying man who was tried and convicted for the rape and murder of a 14 year old girl 30 years before. The young man becomes convinced that the elderly man is innocent, and it becomes a race against time to try to clear the man’s name before his cancer takes his life. It is a fascinating psychological examination of the human condition, as well as stoking the aspirations of every armchair, cold-case sleuth. There are several interesting plot twists and turns, and I was interested even before it got to be more of a thriller. Honestly, without giving away the plot, I would have been more than happy had it just continued on its original, quiet path. Either way, still very worth the read. 5 stars.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel, by Heather O’Neill
Two children grow up in a cold, cruel orphanage in the freezing winters of Montreal, and establish a connection that will last through time. There is a fair amount of suspension of disbelief that must occur to enjoy this novel, but I did enjoy it. It’s also not for the faint of heart, as Rose and Pierrot go through every possible hardship that one person could possibly face in their attempts to find themselves, scrape by, and find a bit of joy in this world. I will warn you now – it is not an uplifting book. Child abuse, prostitution, drugs, gang violence, pornography, child loss, street fighting… You name it, this novel covers it. Impossibly, this historical novel (although I have trouble with the “historical” label -see above suspension of disbelief) still held my interest. 4 stars.
We’re Going to Need More Wine, by Gabrielle Union
I didn’t know much at all about Gabrielle Union before I chose this book; she’s black, and she’s an actor – that about sums up what I knew. She is fascinating though! Growing up in a middle class and almost exclusively white community in California, and spending summers back home in an impoverished Midwest community shaped this woman into an incredibly thoughtful, intelligent, tough and funny woman. She dishes about her insecurities about being black, having skin that was darker than is considered “beautiful”, her teenage crushes, her efforts to mentor black youth now, and her opinions on Hollywood and the cut-throat games that people play – she relates all her anecdotes in a way that is both raw and very real. She is also incredibly honest about her experience being raped and almost murdered while working at a Payless ShoeSource; it takes a lot of courage to tell her story, and I applaud her for it. Just be aware, she drops the F-Bomb – a lot. And since I was driving while listening, I never got to listen with wine… 4 stars.