August 2018 books

August 2018 books

The Night DiaryThe Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I kind of hated myself the first third of this book because I kept thinking, "...this is boring." Isn't that awful? I am always telling my kids that nothing is really boring (it's my least favorite word to hear from them during the summer, for sure) and here I was, thinking it to myself about a lovely book.

Well, things picked up eventually and I was genuinely moved by this book. And I think there are kids out there who would read it and get something out of it. But I think the format (epistolary) and the time period (1947, but without a lot of context clues in the book that show it) make this a tricky one for kids to get into.

Still, a worthy read and probably just the thing for certain kids.

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Hello, UniverseHello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This might be this generation's The Egypt Game - just as compelling, but a bit lighter.

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Unearthed (Unearthed, #1)Unearthed by Amie Kaufman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Space explorer Indiana Jones stuff. Surprisingly not my cup of tea!

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The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War IIThe Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"We left for the front at the age of eighteen or twenty and came back at twenty or twenty-four. First there was joy, but then fear: what were we going to do in civilian life? There was a fear of peaceful life...My girlfriends had managed to finish various institutes, but what about us? Unfit for anything, without any professions. All we knew was war, all we could do was war. I wanted to get rid of the war as quickly as possible. I hastily remade my uniform coat into a regular coat; I changed the buttons. Sold the tarpaulin boots at a market and bought a pair of shoes. When I put on a dress for the first time, I flooded myself with tears. I didn't recognize myself in the mirror. We had spent four years in trousers. There was no one I could tell that I had been wounded, that I had a concussion. Try telling it, and who will give you a job then, who will marry you? We were silent as fish. We never acknowledged to anybody that we had been at the front."

I was so wrecked by this book. Where every other book you've read about war looks away, skims, obscures, glosses over, this book just stares, unflinchingly. There is very little of chronology or cartology here, no need for time or place or specific fronts or battles. There is just war. And women: their pre-war dreams, their war realities, their post-war difficulties. Their periods, their clothes, their hair, their pregnancies, their children, their romantic relationships. They were snipers, gunners, nurses, sappers (de-miners), partisans, refugees, prisoners. Just more than 300 pages of Russiann/Soviet women talking about their experiences. I couldn't tear myself away!

This book gets added to the (actually) quite short list of books I've read during church, and the even shorter list of books where I didn't even feel bad about it. Simply astounding.

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Call Me American: A MemoirCall Me American: A Memoir by Abdi Nor Iftin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Abdi's Golden Ticket" is one of my favorite episodes of This American Life, so it was a treat to read this memoir and learn more about his amazing story. I have a major soft spot for immigration paperwork dramas, especially ones that turn out well...and especially ones that started out as a TAL episode, apparently (see also: 1001 Nights in Iraq. Abdi is a gifted storyteller and his story is gripping.

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We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from SyriaWe Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Pearlman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Everything we've experienced has killed us. We check the news every second. This person is still alive; this person was killed...

"I swear, in Syria nobody used to ask whether you're a Muslim or a Christian. We had no idea what religion our friends were.

"But none of that matters anymore. If I died this second, I wouldn't care. Because I've reached a point in my life where I hate everything. I am disgusted by humanity. We're basically the living dead. Sometimes I joke to Munir that someone should gather all of us Syrians in one place and kill us so we can be done with this whole thing already. Then we'll all go to heaven and leave Bashar al-Assad to rule over an empty country."


The introduction and the second half of this book are what make it worth reading. The first half was weak, in my opinion. It didn't properly convey a sense of the Before, so by the time we get to the After, it's (strangely) not as tragic as it should be. Even though it is very tragic! But there is not as much of a sense of loss as I think there should be, since we are never shown in the book how Syrians lived their day-to-day lives before the war. Instead, there is story after story about the surveillance state and the pervasive corruption that existed in the 80s, 90s, and 00s. I would have liked to read more about the rich cultural and religious pluralism that existed in Syria despite the corruption and surveillance during those years. It was a beautiful thing and I experienced it myself. There is a tendency with faraway wars to think that "those people" have always lived "like that" and they're used to it or don't appreciate peace the way "we" would. So a bit more humanizing of the Syrian experience in the first half would have been nice, to show that before the war they went out for ice cream and wanted the best schooling for their kids and went to see grandparents on the weekend just like "we" do. The loss of these normal experiences is lamented in the second half of the book, but we never get to read about it first-hand.

The second half of the book (from the time of the civil war on) is captivating in the worst way. It is still so hard to believe that these things actually happened, and are still happening. Hearing it in the everyman's voice makes it that much more visceral and immediate - these are real people living and dying. The author's work throughout the book (but especially in the second half) is just extraordinary and the perspective this book gives the reader is so valuable.

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Origin (Robert Langdon, #5)Origin by Dan Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Juuuust this side of three stars. I didn't actively dislike it and I looked forward to reading it each night, but at the same time it was weirdly uncompelling and I didn't mind putting it down every night, either. Part of the problem was with the pacing. There's this video at the crux of everything and my naive self thought we'd read what was in the video and THEN our hero would need to go on the run. But that's not how it plays out, and the plot suffers for it.

Plus, a controversial video being at the heart of the story means there are a ton of chapters describing stuff that is happening on screen. You know, lots of "the camera zooms out to reveal Edmond holding a chrome sphere, while in the background a projected map displays every earthquake happening this instant" or whatever. It makes things a little more distant and a little less captivating.

Still, not the dumbest Robert Langdon book there is, and that's saying something!

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August 31st, outsourced

Favorite uncle

Favorite uncle