Words for Nerds

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

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JUST RIP MY HEART OUT WHY DON’T YOU???

World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, many with something to hide.Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the “Wilhelm Gustloff.” Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer to safety.

Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people adults and children alike aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.

I initially picked this up because it involved the Wilhelm Gustloff which is one of the worst maritime disasters in history (9,000 died), yet very few people are actually aware that it happened. Time has a worthwhile article on this novel and the ship if you are interested in learning more.

It took me a bit to feel anchored to the characters as there are four narrators and I wasn’t sure which one was which for a while. I typically struggle with these types of narrative choices, but I thought it all came together exceptionally well. I was quite stressed during the latter half of the book because I knew what was coming, but it unfolded in an unhurried way. I had a hard time putting the novel down and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys WWII historical fiction.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah

I really enjoyed this story and the characters. Event though it was almost 600 pages, I wouldn’t have been sad for 600 more. There are a lot of issues she touched on and some of them did not get explored as much as I would have liked, but I still really enjoyed it. At times it was a kind of all over the place and rambling, but I found it thoughtful and lovely. I pretty much always enjoy an immigration story and reading about people navigating a new land.

As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are fleeing the country if they can. Ifemelu–beautiful, self-assured–departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze–the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor–had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Fifteen years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion–for their homeland and for each other–they will face the toughest decisions of their lives. Fearless, gripping, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story of love and expectation set in today’s globalized world.

Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø

Cockroaches (Harry Hole, #2)

I don’t know if it was because so many other things were going on in the real world at the time, but I never really got into the story and it was a labor to finish it. I blame the Nazis.

When the Norwegian ambassador to Thailand is found dead in a Bangkok brothel, Inspector Harry Hole is dispatched from Oslo to help hush up the case.

But once he arrives Harry discovers that this case is about much more than one random murder. There is something else, something more pervasive, scrabbling around behind the scenes. Or, put another way, for every cockroach you see in your hotel room, there are hundreds behind the walls. Surrounded by round-the-clock traffic noise, Harry wanders the streets of Bangkok lined with go-go bars, temples, opium dens, and tourist traps, trying to piece together the story of the ambassador’s death even though no one asked him to, and no one wants him to—not even Harry himself.

Words for Nerds

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

This was a quick and easy read for the summer, but I wasn’t in love with it. It has an unexpected development between two characters which was lovely, but I never truly cared about anyone in the story. The characters seems to talk at each other instead of with each other which is always leaves a hollow feeling. I wanted to love it because so many people recommended it, but I never had that moment where I hated to put it down at night.

In this entrancing novel “that speaks to the Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor in us all” (Kirkus Reviews), a legendary film actress reflects on her relentless rise to the top and the risks she took, the loves she lost, and the long-held secrets the public could never imagine.

Aging and reclusive Hollywood movie icon Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now?

Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband has left her, and her professional life is going nowhere. Regardless of why Evelyn has selected her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career.

Summoned to Evelyn’s luxurious apartment, Monique listens in fascination as the actress tells her story. From making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the ‘80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way, Evelyn unspools a tale of ruthless ambition, unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love. Monique begins to feel a very real connection to the legendary star, but as Evelyn’s story near its conclusion, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

The Women in the Castle

A brief synopsis:

Set at the end of World War II, in a crumbling Bavarian castle that once played host to all of German high society, a powerful and propulsive story of three widows whose lives and fates become intertwined—an affecting, shocking, and ultimately redemptive novel from the author of the New York Times Notable Book The Hazards of Good Breeding

Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once grand castle of her husband’s ancestors, an imposing stone fortress now fallen into ruin following years of war. The widow of a resistor murdered in the failed July, 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.

I enjoyed this novel quite a bit and I wish it had been longer with the characters better fleshed out. Even though I enjoyed it over all, I struggled to feel connected to the women and the ending felt flat. I wish there had been an actual climax or sense of urgency established at any point in the novel. Post-war Europe was such a nightmare for people, and I never truly felt that sense of desperation.

The Bat by Jo Nesbø

The Bat (Harry Hole, #1)

A few years ago when we were in France I saw an advertisement for the Inspector Harry Hole series and I couldn’t handle the absurdity of that name. It is apparently pronounced something similar to “Harry Holey,” but that is still RIDICULOUS. Anyway, I had not thought much about it until one of my students started haranguing me to read the series a few months ago. I was resistant, but he finally convinced me with the new trailer for The Snowman with Michael Fassbender.

 

Michael Fassbender ALWAYS gets my attention. Well played, student. He told me to start with the first of the series, but to be patient because the first two were his least favorite. I appreciated him tempering my expectations because I was not disappointed by The Bat. It was interesting, but not memorable. I felt like it was trying too hard to make a relationship relevant for the sake of a plot point and a lot of the story telling was stilted by the translation. It seemed like too much unnecessarily meandering coupled with other parts that were so erratically paced that I didn’t realize something significant had even transpired until pages later.

Words for Nerds

When I last wrote one of these I totally forgot to include Rich People Problems! THE HORROR. I’ve finished a couple more books over the last few weeks, so here you go!

Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan

Rich People Problems (Crazy Rich Asians, #3)

Just in case you recently arrived from the moon, it should be obvious by now that I LOVE the Crazy Rich Asians series and that I am SO EXCITED for the movie. I loved this book almost as much as Crazy Rich Asians and it was just as charming, funny, and ridiculous. I’m so thankful to not live under the shadow of extreme wealth (I wouldn’t mind some moderate wealth), but it was fun to dive into that world for a while. I really don’t want theses stories to end, but I am excited to see what Kwan writes about next.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

“This is a memoir of (my) body because, more often than not, stories of bodies like mine are ignored or dismissed or derided. People see bodies like mine and make their assumptions. They think they know the why of my body. They do not.”

This was a difficult and uncomfortable read. I’ve never weighed 500 pounds. I’ve never had trouble fitting in a chair or getting through a doorway. I don’t know what that feels like, but I do remember what it’s like to eat to hide yourself from people. And to feel defined by a body that doesn’t look or work the way you believe it should. It was unflinching and honest, and I appreciated how often she acknowledged the privileges and opportunities that she has had despite the truly terrible things she has lived through.

The entire book felt like a dear friend confessing their ugliest and hardest truths. I couldn’t put it down and it has certainly caused me to reevaluate if I am doing things to make people like Roxane feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. And if I truly spend enough time ensuring that activities with my friends are inclusive and considerate of their size and ability. There were parts that felt overly repetitive, and it certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I thought it was a worthy read.

 

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

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I shouldn’t have read this and I don’t know why I did (oh yeah, Heather brought a bag of books to let us borrow) because I did not enjoy The Girl on the Train at all.

A single mother turns up dead at the bottom of the river that runs through town. Earlier in the summer, a vulnerable teenage girl met the same fate. They are not the first women lost to these dark waters, but their deaths disturb the river and its history, dredging up secrets long submerged.

Left behind is a lonely fifteen-year-old girl. Parentless and friendless, she now finds herself in the care of her mother’s sister, a fearful stranger who has been dragged back to the place she deliberately ran from—a place to which she vowed she’d never return.

With the same propulsive writing and acute understanding of human instincts that captivated millions of readers around the world in her explosive debut thriller, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins delivers an urgent, twisting, deeply satisfying read that hinges on the deceptiveness of emotion and memory, as well as the devastating ways that the past can reach a long arm into the present.

I initially read something somewhere about it in which they used the term “troublesome women” and I thought that could be an interesting tale (especially now that we are living in the time of truly troublesome women – Hillary Clinton, Maxine Waters, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and apparently Mika Brzezinski). If only these lades would shut their mouths and go back home, bake some cookies, and focus on being pretty. AS GOD AND THE GOP INTENDED.

Anyway, this book made me appreciate The Girl on the Train because at least I could feel something for the main character. There were so many narrators in this book that I often lost track, I never grew to care about any of them, and they were all so boring. I never felt suspense over the drownings, the story itself was unnecessarily convoluted, and the ending was painfully unexciting. As I’ve said before, it takes a painfully obvious set up for me to solve the mystery before it is revealed.

Words for Nerds

I finished three pretty darn enjoyable novels over the past couple of months which is always a treat.

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If We Were Villians: A Novel by M.L. Rio
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I downloaded this without reading what it was about because it was suggested to me my by Amazon. And, in the famous words of Brian Fantana, “60% of the time it works every time.” I’m a sucker for suggestion and an intriguing cover image. An actual synopsis in case you are interested:

On the day Oliver Marks is released from jail, the man who put him there is waiting at the door. Detective Colborne wants to know the truth, and after ten years, Oliver is finally ready to tell it.

Ten years ago: Oliver is one of seven young Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a place of keen ambition and fierce competition. In this secluded world of firelight and leather-bound books, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue, extra. But in their fourth and final year, the balance of power begins to shift, good-natured rivalries turn ugly, and on opening night real violence invades the students’ world of make believe. In the morning, the fourth-years find themselves facing their very own tragedy, and their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves that they are innocent.

I was initially a bit irked because there is a lot of Shakespearean dialogue from the young actors because they quote him to each other ad nauseam. I was never involved in or had interest in theatre because I would cease to exist if I had to get on a stage in front of others and pretend to be a character. I would just give up living before doing that, so theatre never appealed to me at all. The only Shakespeare I like is if it is in a movie about Queen Elizabeth I or involves a young Leo DiCaprio. Despite my lack of appreciation for this art form, I grew accustomed to their language and enjoyed the mystery. At the end, I am really glad I never pursued theater because good grief that sounds emotionally exhausting. The main characters can be pretty annoying (highly entitled and pretentious), but it kept my interest and the conclusion was satisfying.

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A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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Several of you suggested this novel when I last posted about books, so I took your advice and ordered it. I was completely delighted by this novel. I took me about a quarter of the way into it to get the pacing and start to truly appreciate what a gem it is. It was a charming novel and a complete pleasure to read.

With his breakout debut novel, Rules of Civility, Amor Towles established himself as a master of absorbing, sophisticated fiction, bringing late 1930s Manhattan to life with splendid atmosphere and a flawless command of style.

A Gentleman in Moscow immerses us in another elegantly drawn era with the story of Count Alexander Rostov. When, in 1922, he is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery.

Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.

Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

Prisoner of Night and Fog (Prisoner of Night and Fog, #1)

Synopsis:

In 1930s Munich, danger lurks behind dark corners, and secrets are buried deep within the city. But Gretchen Müller, who grew up in the National Socialist Party under the wing of her “uncle” Dolf, has been shielded from that side of society ever since her father traded his life for Dolf’s, and Gretchen is his favorite, his pet.

Uncle Dolf is none other than Adolf Hitler. And Gretchen follows his every command.

Until she meets a fearless and handsome young Jewish reporter named Daniel Cohen. Gretchen should despise Daniel, yet she can’t stop herself from listening to his story: that her father, the adored Nazi martyr, was actually murdered by an unknown comrade. She also can’t help the fierce attraction brewing between them, despite everything she’s been taught to believe about Jews.

As Gretchen investigates the very people she’s always considered friends, she must decide where her loyalties lie. Will she choose the safety of her former life as a Nazi darling, or will she dare to dig up the truth—even if it could get her and Daniel killed?

From debut author Anne Blankman comes this harrowing and evocative story about an ordinary girl faced with the extraordinary decision to give up everything she’s ever believed . . . and to trust her own heart instead.

There was little chance I wouldn’t enjoy this story as it takes place during one of the historical periods I most often read about and in a city I love. The story kept my attention, but the main character never felt “real” to me. Her evolution happened too quickly and I felt like a lot of the story felt rushed. I didn’t feel as strongly connected to or invested in the story as I would have liked, but I still enjoyed it overall. It was a fascinating glimpse into a fictionalized account of pre-war Germany (and what it might have been like to be close to Hitler). I had totally forgotten about the suspicious death of Geli Raubal – Hitler’s [likely without consent] lover who was also his niece (ew).

Words for Nerds

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give

This novel was casually suggested to me by a colleague, and I honestly had no idea what it was about or what to expect. I was NOT READY for what I was read. I am not going to describe the plot because I don’t want any preconceived notions or biases to deter you from giving this story a chance. All I will say is that it was beautiful, poignant, funny, harrowing, and heartbreaking. It made me think, it made me cry, and it made me really examine how I consider specific viewpoints and experiences. I can’t recommend it enough, and I highly encourage you to read it with your teenage kids if you have them. Starr is a fantastically written and fleshed-out protagonist, and it was so easy to connect to her despite the fact that we have very different life experiences. PLEASE READ IT.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad

I struggled a bit with this novel. Overall, I thought it was beautifully written and the descriptions in many scenes were so vivid that I had to put the book down. The summary:

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

I didn’t feel like I was ever able to really connect to the characters as much as I should have, and a lot of the writing felt like it was fancy for the sake of being fancy. I didn’t connect with Cora, and several of the other characters I like were poorly developed.

I didn’t care for a lot of the historical liberties the book took – specifically because we are living in a time where people are trying to rewrite and revise history. The conversations lately regarding the removal of the Confederate monuments in New Orleans specifically dredging up these feelings of how it “wasn’t about slavery” and how the Confederacy was “a way of life.” That way of life and the financial success of the South was built on slave labor. There is no way around that fact. Additionally, in what other scenario are the leaders who lost a war still touted and recognized as heroes? Sure, many of them were extraordinary leaders and brilliant military tacticians, but they still lost a war. We don’t see statues of Hitler or George III hanging about? ANYWAY, I struggle with anything that lessens the actual historical facts surrounding the horrendous treatment and experiences of Black people in this country. And the actual Underground Railroad as a real railroad just felt silly.

In conclusion, I recommend reading Roots and skipping The Underground Railroad.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale by [Atwood, Margaret]

I last read this in high school (I think) and at the time I thought, “Oh wow, this is INSANE. What a crazy alternate universe.”

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I watched the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu last night and I am THRILLED so far. Re-reading the novel at this age and in the time of Trump, Pence, and Sessions was horrifying. I read an interesting article recently, “The Handmaid’s Tale Is A Warning to Conservative Women.

So, there’s a ton to digest, consider, and debate regarding this tale. I hope that a lot of women will watch it and we can have meaningful conversations about feminism and our rights. At the end of the day, I just want us to have the same choices and opportunities as men. I want each of us to have autonomy over the choices we make in our lives and for our bodies. If you haven’t read the book, then GET ON IT. And please, dear Lord, if you think that Gilead is a great idea, then feel free to not share that thought with me.