This week I joined in the Bout of Books readathon. It was also my birthday week, although I had plenty to accomplish, I allowed myself a great deal of leeway for reading. It was my gift to myself. As you can see, I read a rather ridiculous amount, and I’ll likely finish another book today. This week I read incredible books that range across the spectrum of style, content and story-line. It’s been a truly great adventure and only whetted my appetite for reading. However, by the end of the week, I missed my non-fiction reading too. So my reading will be a bit more balanced in the weeks to come, and a bit less as I tend to read non-fiction more slowly.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Years ago I read Hosseini’s Kite Runner, which was beautiful and horrible all at the same time. I want to say I loved the story, except I didn’t always love the story. I was often repulsed by the events and yet the story unfolds with such tenderness and unexpected beauty that I loved it all the same. A Thousand Splendid Suns reproduces the same magic a second time.
Miriam and Laila are born a generation apart, but their lives become cruelly intertwined in the war torn streets of Kabul, Afghanistan. Spanning decades of history, from the cruel regime of the 60’s and 70’s to the despot warlords of the 80’s and early 90’s, these two unlikely heroines embody what it means to love, lose, survive, and even hope in an oppressive and militaristic society. By the end of the novel, I was barely breathing. I had to remind myself to slow down and read all the words in an effort to discover what happened next. Harrowing and haunting, this is a story of feminism and friendship where such things should not be. It’s beautiful and wonderful, and I am the better for having experienced this book.
You can expect to see a review of Hosseini’s third book, And the Mountains Echoed very soon.
After reading A Thousand Splendid Suns, I needed to step away and read something completely different, something with a guaranteed happy ending. Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler is a retelling of Shakespeare’s classic, Taming of the Shrew. It’s not typical of Tyler’s style or story-lines, but it is exactly what I needed after being emotionally ruined by my previous book.
Including a fake marriage to extend green card status, PETA saving laboratory mice, a sharply, brilliant preschool teacher, this story ultimately realizes family should be a launching pad, not a lifelong behavior template.
I might not have enjoyed this story as much if I were looking for more nuanced Tyler, but when I needed a light-hearted, familiar love story, this book delivered.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I put this book on hold based on a podcast recommendation. Whatever I expected, this book wasn’t it. In fact, I can’t think of another book I’ve read constructed quite like this one. Snippets of news, press releases, diaries, memoirs, internal dialogue, ghosts, vice, heaven and hell, death, grief, and redemption all rolled up together in an extraordinary way.
Based on the death of Willie Lincoln, President Lincoln’s son, of typhoid fever during the early days of the Civil War, the study of Lincoln’s grief is deeply moving. But it’s not the only story being told here. The residents of the Bardo, a Buddhist concept of the space between death and rebirth into a new life, also have stories to tell and truths to reveal. Understanding the things which hold us to this earth, regret, unfinished work, inability to let go, greed, avarice, lust and making peace with our identity are also important themes in this story.
As much as I loved this book (the more I reflect, the more I realize how complex and wonderful it is), it is one I will recommend only occasionally. It’s not easily accessible nor meant for reading quickly without attention to constantly changing details. But, for the reader who is willing to invest time and attention, it’s an exquisitely wrought exploration of humanity and eternity.
Many, many years ago, I read and loved Jeanette’s memoir, The Glass Castle. Even though it was harsh and terrible at times. It was also beautiful and hopeful. It’s a story of accepting where we’ve come from and our inability to change the people we love.
Half Broke Horses is not a memoir but a “true-life novel” of Jeanette’s grandmother, Lily. When Lily was fifteen years old, during WW1, she rode her horse 500 miles from Texas to Arizona to accept her first teaching position.
Lily is harsh, wild, crazy, intelligent, beautiful and a stark realist. From teaching hard-scrabble western children to selling bootleg liquor out her backdoor during prohibition, her determination and intelligence inspire me. Her audacity makes me want to stand in a chair and cheer. I love the Wild West anyway, and reading the story of this true pioneer woman is the most fun I’ve had this month.
Last year I read the book, One in a Million Boy. Since then, I recommend it to everyone who will listen and people who aren’t so interested too. Its understated beauty and simplicity are perfect. A Man Called Ove is the first I’ve read since to capture that feeling of simple, beautiful goodness.
Ove’s story is one of loss and grief, how when we’re broken, love mends us. It’s about community, and family, and being angry at the world, about losing and finding home again without ever leaving the living room. I laughed, aloud, which I don’t do frequently with books. I cried aloud, too. Even when it’s predictable, it’s OK because the predictability is so right, setting things exactly as they should be. I’ll read this again and again for how it’s beauty touches my soul as a very good book should do.