One Interesting, One Great, One Fun, and One Disappointing

 Interesting: An Astronaut's Guide to Life On Earth by Chris Hadfield

This was a book club selection, otherwise I don't think I would have picked it up. Though I find outer space and our attempts to go there fascinating, I am always a bit skeptical about authors writing guides to life. He has learned many things that he can use in his own life, but his experiences are far from typical and what has been successful in his own life would not work for all.

The first part of the book is a little dry, with a lot of lengthy job titles and training information. Some of it was interesting, but the really good stuff comes in the second half of the book when he's actually going to space and spending time on the International Space Station. That was nothing short of amazing to read. He includes many funny stories, but the one that stuck with me was his discovery that when you shake hands in space, where there is no gravity, your whole body will move up and down with your arm. That struck me as so funny when I first read it and now I keep picturing it and still laugh. Small things...

 It's easy to get caught up in the excitement because the author's own excitement fills every page. When he's talking about space he's an enthusiastic writer with the enviable ability to make you feel like you're there floating above the earth with him. Though I found the first part slow, the second part more than made up for it. 

Great: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

What can I say? It's Dickens. I love his writing and I love the language of the period. 
His vivid story-telling puts you right there, in his time and place. He has a finely tuned sense of humor, opinions he is not shy about sharing, and a delightfully cheeky turn of phrase, as in the following:

"The Constables...were about the house for a week or two, and did pretty much what I have heard and read of like authorities doing in other such cases. They took up several obviously wrong people and they ran their heads very hard against wrong ideas, and persisted in trying to fit the circumstances to the ideas instead of trying to extract ideas from the circumstances." and "Mrs. Pocket was at home, and was in a little difficulty, on account of the baby's having been accommodated with a needle-case to keep him quiet...and more needles were missing than it could be regarded as quite wholesome for a patient of such tender years either to apply externally or to take as a tonic." 

This rags-to-riches-to-almost rags story has something in it to appeal to every reader: romance, suspense, crime, and hard won observations about friendship, family and what's really important. It's worth reading and reading again. And again.    

Fun: The Odyssey by Homer

I tried once before to get through this but lost interest somewhere in the middle. This time I listened to the audio book and it made all the difference. Maybe it was hearing the intensity in the reader's voice, I don't know, but it was fun, a word I never thought I'd use in conjunction with this book. I found it much easier to follow and to get involved in the story, a lot like listening to those old radio plays a few decades ago. The reader is an actor who makes the experience of listening an almost interactive experience, with your thoughts and emotions so affected by his that you understand him, you feel the confusion or anger or dismay he's putting into his performance.
 Like a Vulcan mind meld.....never mind. 

I could get addicted to audio books I think, though I have given up on a few when I found the reader more irritating than entertaining. This one was wonderfully narrated by Gordon Griffin who has over 800 others to his credit I was glad to find out. I think I'd listen to just about any story if he were the one to tell it. 

Disappointing: A Secret Kept by Tatiana de Rosnay

Set in Paris, it begins with Antoine Rey taking his sister Melanie for a surprise birthday trip back to their childhood vacation spot. On the way home Melanie tells Antoine she has remembered something about the night, many years ago, when their mother died. A moment later they are involved in an accident that lands her in the hospital and him sitting at her bedside hoping she'll survive. When she wakes up she can't remember her "secret" so Antoine sets out to uncover the truth, and tries to make sense of his own life in the process. A divorced father of three, he is still in love with his ex-wife and struggling to maintain relationships with his daughter and two sons. And he has only distant connections with his own father and family. 

I enjoy De Rosnay's writing but these characters did not appeal to me. It's hard to like a book when you don't like the people who inhabit the story, especially the main character. Again, it was an audio book, so I can't be sure if it was the narrator and the way he portrayed Antoine or if it was Antoine himself, but I found him dislikable, and sort of sleazy, from the beginning. An even bigger disappointment was the "secret" itself. There was quite a build up to it but it turned out to be not much of anything. It seemed hardly worth all the effort put in to discovering it, and therefore hardly worth the effort of reading. After "Sarah's Key" and "The House I Loved", I expected more.  

"The Road", "Books for Living", "Silent Night"

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

A book so well written I feel privileged to have read it. Powerful, and devastating, and beautiful. The dialogue is spare, yet achingly full of meaning and emotion. The writing is superb, the characters immediately relatable, and the pacing perfect. I was constantly torn between needing to know what was on the next page and fearing to turn that page in case something awful happened to them. 

The main character, referred to only as the man, and his young son, referred to only as the boy, are walking through the burned out, ash covered remains of America several years after a catastrophic nuclear war. Cities are flattened and empty, charred cars and bones litter the highways, and any houses or buildings left standing have been stripped of anything useful long ago. The two are heading south because it might be easier to survive in a warm climate. They forage for food and claim the odd blanket or piece of clothing found along the way for warmth, but their main concern is to avoid people. There are other survivors, and they are as desperate as the man and the boy and will kill, or worse, to take what little they have. Now the man is sick and knows his time is limited. He worries what will happen to the boy. 

I hesitated to read the book because the movie was so moving that I wasn't sure I could, or even wanted to, handle it. I decided to read just a couple of pages at a time, but once I began I found it hard to make myself stop. Sometimes the books I read from the Pulitzer Prize list make me wonder what they were thinking, but this one is completely deserving. Not that I know what makes a book worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, but I expect excellence is part of it and The Road is that and then some. So don't settle for the movie; read the book! 

Books for Living, a Reader's Guide to Life by Will Schwalbe

In a previous book, "The End of Your Life Book Club", the author wrote about the books he and his mother read and talked about while she was being treated for, and dying from, cancer. His honesty and insight impressed me, so when I heard about this new book, I was hoping for more of the same, and of course a few more titles to add to my tbr list. He came through on both fronts. Each chapter deals with a different book, explaining when and why he read it and what his life circumstances were at that time, then sharing what he took from it that helped him in his own life. His stories are real and personal, and I always find his writing comforting somehow. It's an unusually satisfying read.  

Silent Night by Stanley Weintraub

When WWI began, it was generally believed it would all be over by Christmas. Finding themselves still in the bloody trenches on opposing sides of no man's land Christmas Eve, some soldiers called an unofficial truce and joined their enemies to celebrate. It usually began with the Germans singing carols and setting up small, lit-up Christmas trees where the British could see them. A few brave souls would climb out of the trenches and take tentative steps toward the other side in hopes the British would respond in kind and not shoot them where they stood. Throughout the night they buried their dead - the bodies that had been unreachable during the fighting - shared food packages from home, drank together, exchanged small gifts, and even played soccer. Their activities were unsanctioned but most of the officers looked the other way, until day dawned again and they all went back to killing each other. Nothing like it had ever been known to happen before and there are those who saw it as a miracle of sorts, a light in a dark time, evidence that the human spirit will always arise victorious. Others saw it as a breach of discipline and a threat to the fighting spirit the soldiers needed to survive. Either way, it is a fascinating episode in history brought to light in this well researched and thought-provoking account.