Happy Summer — especially in the PNW! This is reading on the deck season for us (or, in the photo above, in the hammock as the sun sets). July was an especially exciting month because I hit my annual reading goal of 100 books! This has been a massive reading year for me, but I’ve found so many great books to read that I just can’t help myself! I did a few duds this month (which you will not see below) but also my favorite fiction book of the year. What is reading if not an opportunity to take a chance and risk it all on a good story?
The Other Bennet Sister (Janice Hadlow): Ahhhh, I loved this book so much — my favorite fiction book of the year thus far! There are a lot of books in the Pride and Prejudice universe that expand on or reimagine the original tale, but Hadlow’s book is my favorite. I’ve always felt some affinity for Mary Bennet, the middle of five sisters who is more or less forgotten in the novel and is overshadowed by Jane, Elizabeth, and Lydia (though let me put this into the universe — can we get a book about Kitty Bennet too?). The first part of this book overlaps with the original P&P, giving us Mary’s perspective into some of the main events. I also really loved to connection that Hadlow imagined between Charlotte Lucas and Mary, as they might have a lot in common. The rest of the novel imagines what might happen as Mary decides what her future might be. Should she get married, and to whom? Or become a governess? Or will she be doomed to singledom, relying on her four married sisters to care for her as she ages? The magic of this book is that it feels fresh and interesting while keeping with the writing style and conventions of the original. Please write more book, Ms. Hadlow. It was delightful!
A Long Petal of the Sea (Isabel Allende): Allende is at her best when she is writing about her home in Chile, and this novel is no exception. This family epic details the lives of Victor and Roser, Spanish refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War in 1939. They are lucky enough to gain passage to Chile where they begin to build a life as a family with their son. Allende’s strengths as a writer shine here — her multifaceted characters, strong settings, and just the right amount of history and cultural context (in this case, we also get a glimpse into Pinochet’s Chile). Even though some love Allende for her magical realism, I find her more realistic novels to be the real treat!
Cat Among the Pigeons and Cards on the Table (Agatha Christie): In case it’s not obvious, I’m moving my way through Agatha Christie’s canon (and no, they haven’t all made the book blogs). Let’s start with Cat Among the Pigeons:
Moving between a Middle Eastern city on the edge of revolution and an English boarding school, this mystery intrigued me because even though it is a Poirot mystery, he doesn’t make an appearance until late in the book, meaning that we have a true third-person narration. The murder of this mystery is a games mistress killed in the new sports pavilion — but we don’t know why exactly she was killed. Christie deftly weaves together the different story threads in a creative way. It was an enjoyable one!
And now, Cards on the Table:
When is a bridge game a bad one? When it ENDS WITH A MURDER! Four bridge players are in the room with their enigmatic host who is found dead at the end of the game. The other four dinner guests, all detectives in one or another way, band together to try to solve the murder. Christie’s signature of a closed system (as in there are people trapped in a physical space) makes it more interesting to see the twists and turns of Poirot as he tries to solve the murder(s).
The Other Americans (Laila Lalami): This book, told from the perspective of many characters, details a hit-and-run accident that kills Moroccan immigrant Driss in a small Mojave Desert town. I tend to like stories told from multiple perspectives, but what made this one so interesting was the blend of cultures of the storytellers — white Americans watching their town change, Moroccan immigrants, Latin American immigrants, a Black woman what was a recent transplant from Washington D.C. — it really brought to light how we can occupy the same space and be so different. I appreciated that the characters were complex and interesting, and, at the same time, it was a lovely blend of character development and just enough mystery (who didkill Driss?). I’d recommend this book!
The Comfort Book (Matt Haig): If you haven’t heard of Matt Haig, you’re missing out (he writes nonfiction that has encouraged me in my anxiety journey, as well as my favorite fiction book of last year, The Midnight Library). Haig felt called to write something uplifting and positive during the pandemic. I’m not always a fan of these books that combine lots of little stories, quotes, etc. from authors, but I fond this one to be just that — comforting. Haig helps connect the reader to the things in life that really matter — authenticity, belief in oneself, kindness, individuality, and peace.
Open Veins of Latin America (Eduard Galeano) and On the Plain of Snakes (Paul Theroux): As my husband grew up in Latin America, I’m always looking to learn more about this region. I paired these books together in this blog because they stand much stronger together than apart (even though they are not meant to be paired). For whatever reason I find the writing style about this region to be either too dry or too embellished, and somehow these two books flirt just between these lines. First, let’s look at Open Veins, which I think is a more challenging read:
This book was really interesting and challenged my perspective about Latin America. It was given to me by my Mexican husband as a way to understand some of the history and challenges within the region, and even thought it was written almost 50 years ago, I’d recommend it as a book to learn more about the dynamics in the region.
Or, put another way, if you wonder, “Why are people from Latin America coming to the US?” you need to read this book (with some patience, mind you).
Rather than detail things chronologically, Galeano looks at different ways that countries have exploited Latin America; first Portugal and Spain, then England, the Netherlands, and Germany, and, of course, the United States. From the initial rape and pillage of natural resources (as well as actual rape and pillage) to the quest for minerals and petroleum, we start to understand how Latin America’s resources were just taken from the land, and because of this the economies of these countries suffered.
In the “modern” times (1960s), you can see Galeano’s strong socialist desires come through — but this came across as bit naive in that there were also many internal challenges to these countries, and I felt like until the epilogue he more or less gave the dictators and the elites a pass. My husband described this as the “Latin American victim mentality,” and we had several conversations about how complicated it is to unwind the many experiences, both chosen and forced upon these peoples.
I wish there were a more updated version of this book because there have been many, many developments since the 1970s, but this is a good foundational book about Latin America that I would recommend to the curious!
And now onto the book written by the White American (Theroux), On the Plain of Snakes:
I have had two false starts with Theroux, but I’m happy to say that though this was quite the thick book, I really enjoyed my third go with this author! Theroux’s book is a story primarily about the US/Mexico border as well as the smaller cities and towns (pueblos) in the poorer parts of the country — the “real Mexico,” if you will. Driving across the border he puts his safety at risk to interact with everyday people in different ways, dips into Mexican Indian and mystical cultures, pays bribes to police offices, teaches writing courses, and meets with mezcal brewers and rebels alike. He has a very engaging writing style in general. I did find the parts about other writers dragged on far longer than they needed to, as did the last part of the book about Zapatistas (a very interesting set of stories, but waaaaay too long).
If you’d like a better understanding of not only Mexico but what drives many to migrate to America, read it! I learned a lot about this complex country through this well-researched book.
The F*ck It Diet: Eating Should Be Easy (Caroline Dooner): Dooner’s book is exactly the book I needed to read right now. Due to a new medical condition (and a relapse) and who knows what else, I’m at my heaviest weight ever, which has been incredibly triggering and has exposed my mistaken beliefs and my fat biases. Dooner’s approach is focused on you as a whole person and highlights the dangers of diet culture, diet behaviors, and how popular Western culture continues to put an unachievable ideal on a pedestal. I appreciated her exercises which I’ll now use as a focus for my personal journaling. If you are tired of have a f**ked up relationship to your body and food, this is a book for you.
And that, my reading friends, is it for July! I wish you a joyous August filled with the best possible books at your fingertips!