Grit by Angela Duckworth

Grit by Angela Duckworth

Duckworth, Angela 05.2018
Cover image shown with permission by Scribner from Simon & Schuster

This book was recommended to me by a fellow librarian friend while we were working at a conference a few months ago. While I had heard about the book, I’ve often found self-help books to be hit-or-miss and am reluctant to read them. With her recommendation I decided to try it out.

This book starts out discussing the tendency in American culture to prioritize talent and “genius”. We believe in the value of hard work, but when someone is labeled as special, the narrative that they will be successful automatically starts playing. However, what about people (like myself), who haven’t been labeled a “genius”? Are we destined to a life of second-rate happiness? And what about those early prodigies that end up fizzling-out after all of their talent is overtaken by the pressures of success or the first encounter with disappointment?

Duckworth’s research demonstrates that innate talent isn’t the main driver of success, in fact in some cases it is quite the opposite. Often those to whom understanding and brilliance comes easily are not prepared for the moments of failure that inevitably come. At the same time, people who develop the habit of working hard in spite of repeated disappointment discover the value of Grit, and are more likely to finesse skills that take 1,000s of hours to master. Additionally, Duckworth underscores the importance of following your passion, as it is the innate love of something that will inspire you to get up and work at it, rather than chasing a dream that never was your first love.

I found this book really inspiring, and it did speak to me as the mantra of never giving up is an important theme in my own life. Of course, there are unfortunate aspects of our society such as nepotism, institutional racism and sexism, that will continue to block even the most hard-working of us from landing deserved successes, and this has been one of the criticism of the book. However, I want to point out that barriers like those may not spell the end for someone who has Grit, and I think that was Duckworth’s point. That it is people who can find the strength to keep going in spite of the odds that are more likely to ultimately find success, and that, I think that is something we can all believe in.

I read this as an audiobook (read by the author) and found it really easy to listen to, which is a strength in a researched-based non-fiction title. This is a great book to recommend to a student, someone early or at a turning point in their career, or a parent, as she gave lots of advice for how to instill grit in your child (hint: don’t tell them they are a genius!) This book has helped me re-focus on my own goals and create strategies on how I can achieve them, and I’ll leave you with this quote that personally resonated with me:

…there are no shortcuts to excellence. Developing real expertise, figuring out really hard problems, it all takes time―longer than most people imagine….you’ve got to apply those skills and produce goods or services that are valuable to people….Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it…it’s doing what you love, but not just falling in love―staying in love.

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

Published on: May 3rd, 2016

I read this as: an audiobook from Overdrive

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Gyasi, Yaa 2018.05
Cover image provided with permission from Penguin Random House

This is one of the more unique stories I’ve read in a long time. Not only in its monumental telling of two families divided by an ocean and spanning many generations, but also in its endeavor to look through one of the most painful events in history, American slavery, including its causes and ramifications, and find the lives that made up this heartbreaking history. Many chapters of this novel were indeed difficult to read, but Gyasi did an unbelievable job weaving each character’s story with the next, steadily building to its final outcome.

First we meet Effia and Esi, two separated sisters growing up along the Gold Coast of Africa during the late 1700’s. Effia is married off to a white slave trader and begins raising her family in a castle, while, unbeknownst to her, Esi is trapped in the castle’s dungeon and eventually sold off to be a slave in the new-born United States. What follows is a story from each generation of their descendants as one family is thrown into slavery, and the other must face the conflicts of the Fante and Ashanti wars in pre-named Ghana. Telling this sweeping story was quite an undertaking for Gyassi to take on, I was surprised to learn this was her first novel, as it has the craftsmanship of an extremely practiced author.

Each chapter of this book is a new character, vacillating back and forth between the families. Every character experiences some aspect of the suffering brought upon the world by slavery and war. This novel is epic in its depiction of slavery’s history through so many different lenses, and I personally enjoyed the variation of characters, as the story seeks to create a greater narrative. I would recommend this book for readers interested in African-American and African history, those wanting to learn more about the injustices not only of slavery, but also of the Jim Crow era, or anyone interested in reading complex, haunting historical fiction.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Published on: June 7, 2016

I read this as: an audiobook from Overdrive

Happiness by Heather Harpham

Happiness by Heather Harpham

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Cover image provided with permission from Henry Holt & Co.

When I reflect on this book, I think of one word: Grace. It’s a story where many things go wrong, but then there are moments of miraculous blessings. Where people are given second chances after making poor decisions, and some are given the ultimate gift of life after looking death right in the eye. Unfortunately, it’s a story where the unthinkable happens, the death of children-innocents-and it reminds me of the lyrics from Hamilton, after Alexander’s son is killed:

There are moments that the words don’t reach

There is a Grace too powerful to name

We push away what we can never understand

We push away the unimaginable

Ultimately, I consider the grace with which Harpham weaves several stories that tell how she became the mother of a very sick little girl, how she fought for her with all her might, and how through a great deal of suffering and countless moments of despair, she found happiness, in spite of everything stacked against that outcome.

This book is a memoir in which Harpham deftly describes how she became pregnant with her daughter, Gracie, how this strained her relationship with Gracie’s father, Brian; a man who although loving her deeply, was terrified of parenthood and walked away from their relationship during the pregnancy (the worst I know, but Harpham tells the story so beautifully and with such clarity that you almost see where he’s coming from. Almost.) Once Gracie is born, it’s clear that she is sick, she must undergo regular blood transfusions to keep her alive. What follows is a beautiful story of hope, love, strength, heartbreak and resiliency as this little clan goes through setbacks and surprises to make Gracie well.

What I really loved about this story is Harpham’s ability to understand other people, to forgive and connect with them in a way many of us simply are not capable of.  She’s able to see her own pain, her own unlucky hand, and still find goodness and offer kindness to others. While the book’s title is Happiness, so hopefully it doesn’t spoil anything to say it has a happy ending, she points out that going through this experience doesn’t make her immune to future sadness. I find that a very brave way to look at the world.

This is a great book for someone looking for a very moving story, who is not afraid to cry a good deal while reading it. Harpham’s writing is seriously top-notch and she is a gifted story-teller, I could not put this one down because I had to know what was happening in this little world, to this family and the people who surrounded them. If you are looking for a book about family, grit, and love, this one is for you.

Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After by Heather Harpham

Published on: August 1, 2017

I read this as: a library book

 

The Gates by John Connolly

The Gates by John Connolly

A few years ago I read John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things and absolutely loved it, it’s a title I recommend to library customers all the time. I was thinking about re-reading it a few weeks ago, when I thought ‘why haven’t I tried to read anything else by him?” So I decided to check-out “The Gates” on audiobook.

What a sweet, adorable, and hilarious book based on a young boy defending Earth from Satan and his demons. One evening Samuel Johnson stumbles upon his neighbors summoning the devil, an act they try upon out of pure boredom. It all works out, you see, because the Hadron Collider over in Switzerland has accidentally released a God-particle at the exact same moment as the summoning, creating a lot of chaos as finally the gates of Hell are open to the world. Who hasn’t been there before, am I right?

Samuel and his friends team up with Nurd, a demon who doesn’t particularly want to be a demon, as they attempt to fight back against the ensuing evil army. Connolly writes these characters with lots of affection, I loved their relationships with each other and how they treated and cared for one another in the face of certain doom.

This is a great book for both adults and young adults, although the jokes about hell and demons may not appeal to a devoutly religious person, so just be forewarned. I would definitely recommend it to Douglas Adams or Kurt Vonnegut lovers, and readers who enjoy a humorous take on very serious subject. The book is also the first of a series, so definitely something to try out if you’re looking to fall in love with Samuel and his heroic dog, Boswell. Lastly, I highly recommend the audio-book version, the actor Johnathan Cake did an amazing job and truly brought these characters to life with his talent and skill.

The Gates by John Connolly

Published on: September 27, 2009

I read this as: an Audiobook from Hoopla

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam

Alam, Rumaan 2018.02This book was not what I thought it was going to be at all. It started almost as a superficial take on motherhood (it’s hard y’all!), but turns into this beautiful dissertation  on the happenstance of life, family, and race relations in America.

What I like about this book is that the characters are flawed in very real ways, weaknesses that we can see in ourselves if we really look closely. Rebecca, the protagonist, is an optimist, which sometimes prevents her from seeing the truth; she acts selfishly at times, yet she does so out of love; she tries not to see herself as a “White hero”, but she takes secret pride and shame from her role as one. It also speaks a lot of truth about race relations in America: some scenes were uncomfortable, yet were so real they took me back to moments when I realized a person of color was being treated differently that I was, a white female.

This is not a plot-driven novel, but I enjoyed every moment reading it as the characters were so well developed I kept reading to see if they came out okay. Alam does a brilliant job of writing about women, I don’t think I could describe breast-feeding as accurately as he writes, and I have actually breast-fed! I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in motherhood, family, adoption, and American race relations.

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam

Publication date: May 8, 2018

I read this as: Edelweiss ARC

Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Lippman, Laura 2018.04
Cover image provided with permission from HarperCollins

Polly and Adam are drawn toward each other like magnets, despite each of them knowing it’s a very bad idea. Polly has abandoned her family and is running away from (or  perhaps towards?) something, what it is isn’t exactly clear. Adam has secrets too, his boss has sent him to investigate Polly, but why, exactly? The story progresses in a search to answer questions that only seem to lead to more questions, the suspense slowly building to one inevitable outcome.

Set in 1995 Delaware, this book has a noir appeal to it, Polly’s aesthetic is vintage and the restaurant that both Polly and Adam begin working in has a 1950s nostalgia flair. The writing style is also very sparse, reminding me of The Maltese Falcon and other compelling mysteries of that era. The story has many layers to it that must be slowly peeled back until the truth is discovered, the secrets of the past complicating the future, or as one character puts it:

Some people are like rabbit holes, and you can fall a long, long way if you go too far.

Sunburn is spellbinding story that kept me coming back to solve the riddles of Polly’s past and to see what violent ends awaited the people around her. It was clear that the book wasn’t going to end well for someone, the question is who that person is and by what means. Lippman is masterful in building the plot and slowly leaking the details, by the end everything is clear and the story has a resolution, even if it’s not exactly what you were hoping for. I would recommend this for lovers of a femme-fatale noir mysteries, or someone who enjoys a good suspense novel that keeps you guessing until the very last moment.

Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Published on: February 20, 2018

I read this as: A library book

 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

EleanorOliphant
Cover image provided with permission from Penguin Random House Canada

From the outside Eleanor appears to be okay, maybe even completely fine. Sure, she is socially awkward, has no verbal filter, is unable to be anything but completely literal, and her closest friend is a plant, but none of this seems to really bother Eleanor, as she puts it:

“If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.”

Once we start digging through the layers of Eleanor, we begin to see that she is far from fine. However, as the shroud of her heartbreaking past and the mystery around it begins to fall, Eleanor learns about herself and develops meaningful relationships. She meets Raymond, her office IT guy, and through her friendship with him she saves Sammy, an older man who falls in the street. Even though Raymond and Sammy are a little confused by Eleanor initially, they see the kindness in her and open their friendship and families to her, giving Eleanor a chance to experience loving relationships, perhaps for the first time.

This book is about trauma, but even with everything stacked against her, Eleanor is a true heroine; she is brave, kind, someone you simply cannot stop rooting for. Despite the sad parts, Eleanor is unwittingly hilarious, I loved the depictions of her experiencing something for the first time, such as dancing in public:

“I found myself not thinking about anything, sort of like how the vodka worked, but different, because I was with people and I was singing. YMCA! YMCA! Arms in the air, mimicking the letters – what a marvelous idea! Who knew dancing could be so logical?

During the next free-form jigging section, I started to wonder why the band was singing about, presumably, the Young Men’s Christian Association, but then, from my very limited exposure to popular music, people did seem to sing about umbrellas and fire-starting and Emily Brontë novels, so, I supposed, why not a gender and faith-based youth organization?”

I DIED.

This novel was so endearing, funny, and sweet, I loved it from start to finish. Learning about Eleanor opens us up to understanding people who are different, even if they are off-putting and strange, and in this way the book reminded me a lot of A Man Called Ove. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys quirky and like-able characters, character-driven story-lines, or someone who enjoys cheering for the under-dog.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Published: May 9, 2017

I read this as: A library book

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Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

EroticStoriesForPunjabiWidows_
Cover image provided with permission from HarperCollins

I keep telling people how much I enjoyed this book and I get uncomfortable, embarrassed looks in return based on the title. If you also feel a little shy because of the first two words of the book’s name, don’t worry you are not alone! However that’s not worth skipping out just because of the title, I absolutely loved it.

Nikki, the modern daughter of Indian immigrants to London, has become a little lost in her search of what exactly she wants to do with her life. She picks up a side job in what she assumes will be teaching creative writing to women in the local Sikh community of Southall. However when she begins working with the women she realizes:

  1. Their idea of creative writing is much more “creative” than anything she could’ve ever imagined (see: the title).
  2. The women who attend her class are for the most part, illiterate.

Although at first she is a bit patronizing of her students, as she learns more about them Nikki’s relationships with these women grows, in many ways hilariously, but also with a twist of heart-warming friendship. On top of the amazingly original premise of the book, it also contains a mystery and a love-story. And in case you were wondering, yes, there really are erotic stories in the novel, albeit not an extreme amount, but if that is 100% not your thing then it’s better to be forewarned.

Jaswal’s book is beautiful in its first-person account of life as an immigrant, and a first-generation children trying to navigate life on a completely different path from their parents. The book made me think of the sacrifices mothers and fathers often make for their children so that they can have better opportunities, and how children struggle with meeting the expectations their hard-working, ever-sacrificing parents have for them:

“You waste everything because you’ve always had everything.”

This was Reese Witherspoon’s bookclub pick for March 2018, and I couldn’t agree with her more; I found this story thoroughly delightful from start to finish and would would recommend this to a reader looking for a fun, open-hearted, plot-driven story that’s fast-paced and has something for everyone: a love, mystery, friendship, personal growth, and yes, erotica.

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Publication Date: June 13th, 2017

I read this as: A library book (hardback)

What You Don’t know about Charlie Outlaw by Leah Stewart 

What You Don’t know about Charlie Outlaw by Leah Stewart 

Stewart, Leah 2018.03
Cover image included with permission from G.P. Putnam & Sons

Charlie Outlaw is a television celebrity who has problems. He’s said some extremely honest (and therefore embarrassing) things in an interview, angering the showrunner, his fans, and most of all his girlfriend Josie Lamar, who ends up dumping him over it all. Charlie decides to escape by going on a vacation on a far-away tiny island when he finds that he has real, serious problems, namely that he is kidnapped, unsure if he will ever make it out alive.

The book ensues with parallel narration, going back and forth between Charlie and Josie as they remember their past together and the current situations they both are in. Josie is also a celebrity, although her peak has come and gone, as she was the star of a huge cult show 20 years ago (I imagined her as Sarah Michelle Gellar from Buffy). This book has so many interesting insights on being a celebrity, from interreacting with fans, auditioning, the costs (literal costs, such as how much publicist and stylists charge), and the stress of fame, that I was convinced that Stewart was perhaps a celebrity I had never heard of. Turns out she’s not, but she did extensive research on sets, watching auditions, and interviewing casts and crew, but she could have fooled me. I loved learning about the insights of being an actor, the sincerity and practice of it all, as well as the techniques actors used to fulfill different role types. I have always been aware that acting is difficult, but I had never really considered how it is done or what that experience would be like, and putting myself “in the actor’s chair” was the best part of the novel for me. Stewart is also very good at thinking through emotions, showing the complex way each person feels and how that drives their decision making and reactions.

The story-line is very much character driven, so it’s good that both Charlie and Josie are extremely likeable and sympathetic, their back-stories tying into their current situation as they recall the highs and lows of their relationship. At first the book reminded me a lot of Maria Semple’s books, but then with the kidnapping the story-line turns, well a bit dark at points. While the take on celebrity is novel and very fresh, the story itself moves a bit slowly, doing a thorough job of really fleshing out the characters and their relationships with each other. I would recommend this to someone looking for a new take on a love story, with interesting, realistic, insightful and sympathetic characters, and definitely someone interested in life in Hollywood.

What You Don’t Know About Charlie OutlawWhat You Don’t Know About Charlie Outlaw by Leah Stewart

Published on: March 27, 2018

I read this as: A NetGalley ARC

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Hannah, Kristin 2018.03
Cover image provided with permission from St. Martin’s Press

Leni Allbright, her mother Cora and father Ernt move to Alaska in 1974 after Ernt is bestowed a piece of land from his fellow Vietnam POW soldier who died in combat. The war has broken Ernt, who drinks heavily and is unable to control his violent outbursts and nightmares from undiagnosed PTSD. The family hopes that a change in scenery and wide open spaces will help him to heal before his anger is taken too far. When they arrive they are little prepared for the wild weather, and Leni begins to truly understand toxicity of her parents relationship. The local community is a great source of support and Leni finds roots and strength outside of her family. While her love of the wild land grows, the bonds of her family become more strained and dangerous, building to a breaking point and leaving devastation in its wake.

The description of Alaska, America’s last frontier with its mountains, water, animals, weather and sunshine (and lack thereof) were all beautifully done in this novel. The experience of living on the land, with its dangers and highs, really gave me the experience of what living in Alaska might be like; Hannah has first-hand knowledge, her family having lived there during the 1980s. Hannah is known for her engaging and heartbreaking prose, and this story hits on every mark, including a star-crossed love in the form of Matthew, the Sam to Leni’s Frodo, who hails from an affluent Alaskan family Ernt despises. Their friendship and eventual romance does not exactly help curb the danger Leni’s father poses, continually giving the reader the feeling of this cannot end well.

If you’ve read the Nightingale or Firefly Lane (Hannah’s most popular previous works), and are concerned that this will have as sad an ending as those two, don’t worry. While The Great Alone is heartbreaking and tear-inducing, its ending was hopeful, having many wrongs made finally right. This story includes a lot of domestic violence that was painful and angering to read about, but it also puts you in these people’s shoes, and reminds you that nothing is as easy or as clear-cut as it might seem from the outside. The characters were engaging, flawed, and interesting, combining with the beautiful descriptions these are truly the highlights of the book. I would recommend as a compelling family drama set in a beautiful and artfully described landscape, building slowly to create an emotionally powerful story that ultimately ends with a happy outcome.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Published on: February 6, 2018

I read this as: Hardback borrowed from a friend