Monday, August 29, 2016

The Gratitude Diaries (Janice Kaplan)

A few years ago, I watched a really inspirational TED talk delivered by Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast.  In this talk, Steindl-Rast says that we have it all wrong in our constant desire to obtain happiness.  If we want to be happy (and who doesn’t?), we need to be grateful -- it’s as simple as that.

In Janice Kaplan’s The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life, the author sets out on a quest to not only research gratefulness but to also actually “be” grateful.  Instead of focusing on negativity throughout the day, she would turn all her attention to being grateful for the people in her life and the things she had.  This book is so relatable to a large percentage of the population; I found myself nodding my head in agreement and understanding quite a few times.  I also liked how the author interviewed a wide range of people, including those who stayed grateful in the face of tragedy and hardship.

I would put The Gratitude Diaries right up there with Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project to lift your spirits when you’re down.  It’s well researched and inspirational, and for many, will be life-changing.


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Rachel Joyce)

Wow, I’m not quite sure how I feel about Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.  On the one hand, the premise of the book made no sense to me, and on the other hand, I found myself cheering Harold on all the way.

Harold and Maureen are an older married couple who barely know each other anymore.  They’re existing together but live very plainly and solemnly.  One day, Harold receives a letter from someone he used to work with, Queenie Hennessy.  The news isn’t good -- she’s in hospice and just wanted to say goodbye. Harold intends to write her a reply and starts to walk to the mailbox but instead, takes off on a 600-mile walk to see her in person.  Along the way, he meets a whole parade of characters, including a group of pilgrims (which makes the book very reminiscent of Forrest Gump).

Here was my big problem with this plotline -- first, if someone was dying in hospice, you would need to see them urgently, so why would you walk 600 miles instead of getting into a car? I get that this was supposed to be a pilgrimage, but that bordered on the ridiculous. Also, Joyce does reveal why Harold feels the need to urgently walk to Queenie, but she doesn’t do so until the end.  I kept thinking how horrible I’d feel if my husband took off on a long journey without telling me to see another woman.  But again, Joyce does give a good reason.

There’s lots of schmaltz in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, but there’s also lots of heart.  I’m still going to give it just an average rating though -- it didn’t blow me away.


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Dinner Party (Brenda Janowitz)

Don’t let the title confuse you -- Brenda Janowitz’s The Dinner Party only features an actual “dinner party” for half of the novel.  The other half is all about the repercussions of the drama-filled evening, where the amount of secret-keeping borders on the ridiculous.

Sylvia Gold is having the Passover Seder at her house, which she knows will be attended by two of her three children and their significant others -- Sarah and Joe and Becca and Henry.  Sylvia doesn’t think that Joe is good enough for Sarah. He has just taken over his father’s mechanic shop, and Sylvia wants more for her daughter.  To make matters worse, Joe’s overbearing mother, Valentina, will also be at the meal.  Henry is Becca’s new boyfriend, and he is a member of the Rothschilds, a very important bank-controlling family.  Sylvia whips herself into a frenzy making sure that everything is perfect for the dinner since Henry’s parents will also be attending.

During the meal, there are surprise guests, and the secrets come out fast and furious.  It’s like one giant episode of Days of Our Lives.  The night ends with Sylvia being infuriated with her children, and the reader can see the ending coming from a mile away.

There are books like Cutting for Stone and Middlesex that are multi-layered and thought provoking.  The Dinner Party isn’t one of those books, but it really wasn’t meant to be.  However, the plot and writing are filled with clichés that don’t need to be in any book, even a chick lit novel.  Your time is probably better spent elsewhere.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Unlocking Worlds: A Reading Companion for Book Lovers (Sally Allen)

Books about books are some of my favorite reads, and this compilation by Sally Allen is no different.  Unlocking Worlds: A Reading Companion for Book Lovers is a must for those who spend their days at the library and have their E-readers well stocked with the latest finds.

This is the perfect selection to peruse while you’re reading other books on the side. It’s organized such that you don’t even have to start at the beginning – you can just page through and see what interests you that day. The author’s recommendations are broken into topic lists such as “Novels & Memoirs About the Reading Life” and “Novels About the American Experience.” What I liked most about Allen’s work is that she doesn’t pigeonhole.  For example, Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall is classified as young adult novel, but it’s in the “Novels That Play With Time & Space” list. One only needs to look to the Twilight, Harry Potter, and Hunger Games series to know that grown adults read “young adult” a lot.

Unlocking Worlds isn’t all lists, however. Allen also includes well-written chapters about the joy of reading itself, such as “Let Reading Change You” and “The Reader and Her Book.” But literary lovers will adore the book as a whole and maybe even get some new recommendations for their TBR list.


Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The First Congress (Fergus M. Bordewich)

Fergus M. Bordewich’s The First Congress details the initial two year period of American government after the ratification of the Constitution in 1788.  The book is rapidly paced and chronicles the work that The Founding Fathers undertook in creating, framing, and shaping the three branches of American government.

Given the political gridlock that dominates 2016’s politick, the amount of legislation and debate that the 95 Senators and Representatives undertook is breathtaking -- establishing a national capital city, a national bank, and the judiciary; approving George Washington’s first cabinet appointments; and developing a framework to repay debts incurred during the American Revolution.  This was all accomplished in an era without political parties, with some of the legislators undertaking their own political evolutions during the first two years in response to their shifting thinking or adjusting to the will of their constituents.

Bordewich gives considerable depth to the emerging relationship between Congress and the Presidency and the internal debates that made up the First Congress.  Many of those debates are still raging today with regards to the role of the federal government versus that of the states and various other interpretations of the Constitution.  He also spends time discussing the role of the first lobbyists and how their “taking up petitions” created the divisions that would ultimately lead to partisanship and increasing divides in our country in subsequent decades.

Any civics student, historian, or aspiring politician should read this book as it hearkens back to an era where our elected officials were able to accomplish much in a short amount of time.