Friday, November 18, 2011

The Wonder Boys

Wonder BoysWonder Boys by Michael Chabon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I have a sort of literary crush on Michael Chabon. The first novel I read of his was Kavalier and Clay and loved it. Then I read most of this subsequent novels and thought he was amazing. But stepping back in time...well, let's just say this novel hints at the great writer Chabon is about to become--you can even see the evolution of ideas for his future novels--but he's not quite there yet. His main characters are interesting, but not likeable. The plot is far fetched but entertaining. And in the end his main character learns...that he should not smoke so much pot. The thing I really missed was the way Chabon commands the English language to tell a story that is entirely its own universe. That gift is only nascent here. I did like the observations about authors, how they have doppelgangers that give them something to write about but are their own worst enemy, and how authors go through their life and nights sleepwalking, living out the stories in their heads.



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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Gilead

GileadGilead by Marilynne Robinson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


As I was carrying this book around forever trying to finish it, I told everyone it was eh, ok. It was a story without much of a plot, just a lot of ruminations about religion, faith, forgiveness, and it was murder to get through. But then I finished it and I thought there were a few good quotes that I wanted to re-read, and I ended up reading the whole thing again. The whole thing. It isn't a book that excites you, it definitely is not a page turner, but the letter by a dying priest to his young son born in his old age is full of gems of wisdom. The themes of the prodigal son resonate throughout--what it means to be a son in need of forgiveness, what it means to be a loving father, what it means to be the righteous son feeling unjustly looked over. In the end, it culminates into a beautiful story of what it means to love and to live. If you can barely get through it the first time, read it again.



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Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This was a great telling of the story of Henrietta Lacks, who went to Johns Hopkins for cervical cancer treatment and while there had her cells biopsied. Her cancer cells became a perpetually growing medium, a boon to medical research forever after. Skloot explains how her cells became immortal, how they helped science, and the story behind the woman who died while her cells lived on. There are a hundred issues that the story raises, questions of black rights, of rights of patients over their own tissues, of how experiementing on humans became regulated. Skloot touches on all these, but I wish she could have devlved in even deeper. Toward the end, Skloot inserts herself too much for my taste and talks about her relationship with Deborah, Henrietta's daughter. That material is for Skloots memoir--give us more of those fascinating cells!



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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Peace Like a River

Peace Like a RiverPeace Like a River by Leif Enger

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


This was a book club read, and although I wouldn't have chosen it I didn't hate it. I liked that it reminded me of all the miracles that happen all around us, we just have to take notice of them. I even liked that though the father could heal his enemies and walk on air and even greater miracles, he could not make his son, Davy, think like he did. That the ability of choice is so sacred not even the most holy among us can bend our will to theirs. I did not like that the father found his spirituality and then promptly stopped going to college to become a doctor and instead became a janitor--why do "good" people feel like they must be poor? Wouldn't he have been more useful as a dr.? I didn't like that the father's headaches were never addressed. Did the miracles have a physical effect or was it just to show that he wouldn't/couldn't use the power on himself? And I didn't like the way it ended, that Davy went from being a great older brother to a fugitive that wouldn't turn himself in, that the climax fell flat, and that Rueben ended up marrying his "sister". Sorry, but that was wierd.



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Thursday, October 13, 2011

One Day

One DayOne Day by David Nicholls

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I heard the book was amazing and the movie was a dissappointment. But I watched the movie after I read the book,and thought the movie was a fair adapatation of the novel....I just think the novel wasn't as good as it was touted to be. It follows the lives and loves of Emma and Dexter by checking in on them the same day each year. The characters are richly drawn, believeable, though not usually likeable. Their friendship goes through ups and downs, though honestly I couldn't see how they helped each other. They get together after Dex finally gets sober and Em finally gets some sense of who she is,though they make these breakthroughs without eachother. The ending is emotional, but a little too neat in some ways. What else was the author going to do with them? A fun, fine end of summer read. Full of nostalgia (for someone my age, anyway).



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Monday, October 10, 2011

Bel Canto

Bel CantoBel Canto by Ann Patchett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Imagine one of the worst senarios you could be in....being taken as hostages in a foreign land by terrorists, then throw in a translator, a piano, and an opera singer and instead of being a story of terror and fear, it becomes a story of hope, love, art, and what it means to be friends, enemies, lovers, family. Through their experience the hostages and terrorists question what they really need to be happpy and how maybe the things they valued in their former life did not fulfill them like they thought it did. In the interview with Patchett, she confesses that she did not love opera when she started this book, but through her research she grew to have a passion for it. And thank goodness. I don't think this book would have worked if Panchett weren't able to translate the strong feelings for song and music her characters had as well as she did. Her descriptions of the music were some of the most beautiful passagess in th book. It made me want to go to an opera, or at least listen to classical radio. There are parts that drag a bit in the middle, and some of the events tend to challenge the believeable, but it is a beautiful book, and definitely one that makes you think and feel.



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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Freedom

FreedomFreedom by Jonathan Franzen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I read this in one weekend, although it's almost 600 pages long. Mainly because I flew cross country in the same weekend and had 12 hours to kill on planes and airports. I felt like I was immersed in the family drama of the Berglands and when I surfaced, I felt like I'd lived a few lifetimes. This is mainly due to Franzen's wonderful writing, that draws you and makes you care for (almost) all his characters. The novel is (not surprisingly) about Freedom--what it really means to be free, the sacrifices we make in the name in freedom, and how we may not really want the freedom we're all so desperate for. At one point, the husband, Walter, meets up with his homeless, alcoholic brother, Mitch, who spends his days fishing--he has no responsibility, no cares--"I'm only good at taking care of me," he declares. Walter replies, "You're a free man." "That I am." And yet, who would envy a drunk by the river?

The only character I didn't care for was the son, Joey. His chapters were filled with more post-adolescent sexual angst than I cared to know about. Besides, I never quite understood what changed him from selfish and self-serving to being the great husband/son he became. There is a bit too much ranting, and most of the characters go through a period of depression which can be depressing to read, but all in all it is a believeable, interesting family drama.



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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Gods Behaving Badly

Gods Behaving BadlyGods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Yes, Alyssa, you told me not to read this book, but after reading all of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson novels with my kids, I was itching to read a grown-up retelling of Greek gods in the modern day. Besides, with kids named after Greek gods how could I not read it?

Yes, the gods are very naughty and their lives are so miserable and boring it makes you rethink what being a god actually means. But it was a light, funny read--I laughed out loud serveral times--and at the core is a love story so sweet and pure you just have to root for them. I'll admit that the gods complaining about how decrepit their house is, and how boring their lives are can be a more than a little boring and redundant to the reader. But in the end, there is a hero, a battle (sort of), and a happily ever after--so it's all good.



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Life as We Knew It

Life As We Knew It (Last Survivors, #1)Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This was a recommended book for my upcoming 7th grader. It's the diary of a 16-year-old that chronicles her life before and after an astroid hits the moon and knocks it closer to earth. Tsunamis and earthquakes and volcanos begin to ravage the earth. Miranda, her brothers Matt and Jon, and her Mom must deal with one catastrophe after another. My daughter and I had a great discussion about what Miranda cared and worried about before the moon was struck, and what she cared and worried about after enduring so much. We also talked about the different ways her friends handled the situation: running away, becoming religious (and the ways religion could comfort us, and how we could turn religion around and think of bad things as God's punishment). I couldn't help but focus on "Mom" and how she had the forsight and determination to stockpile food, chop wood, conserve resources--preparing for the worst. (Next time you have to teach a self-reliance class and are looking for a new way to approach it, just assign this book--it makes you realize that even if you think you have enough food, you probably don't). I thought the characters were well-developed, and althought the situation was far out, the reaction to the situation was very real. In the end, there is a (somewhat) happy ending that was a little contrived but that's why we like our YA books.



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Nothing But the Truth

Nothing but the TruthNothing but the Truth by Avi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I'm bribing my kids to read their recommended books for the summer from school by promising them lunch out if they read one. The idea was to get them to read their books and having a discussion while enjoying lunch out. My soon-to-be 8th grader opted for $5 instead, but he still had to disscuss it with me. It was an fast, easy read with "documents" and discussions in transcript form--no internal dialouge, no adverbs to describe how the person said something. What was interesting was how much information a conversation or letter could convey even without these descriptors. And it was a great book to use to discuss what the "truth" was, and how individual circumstances could change the "truth" people saw. It was also insightful to discuss "rules" and "rights" with my teen, and I was surprised by where his sympathies lay. This is such an easy read and yet has a lot of discussion points, I would recommend it for a teen book club.



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Friday, July 22, 2011

Throne of Fire

The Throne of Fire (Kane Chronicles, #2)The Throne of Fire by Rick Riordan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


I have to admit I like the Greek gods best...That being said, this is a fine adventure taken by Sadie and Carter to reawaken Ra to help annhilate Apophis, the god of Chaos and prevent the end of the world. Its mythology can be a little dense sometimes and Sadie's love triangle between a boy who is dying and the god of death, not to mention Carter's obsession with an Egyptian magician, seem a little beyond their 13 and 14 years--but maybe I just don't remember what it's like to be young. I will say that my kids struggled to make it through this book without getting distracted by other books--they said the chapters were too long. Honestly, I think Riordan could have done better by beefing up the mythology, enriching the language alot, adding older heros and marketing it to adults.



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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Room

RoomRoom by Emma Donoghue

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The premise doesn't sound inviting--a woman kidnapped and held prisoner for 7 years in an 11 x 11 room, who bore her kidnapper's child and raised him as best she could in her circumstances. But it is told from her 5 year old son's point of view, which not only makes it palatable, but fascinating. The book sucks you immediately into this other worldly setting, and you are amazed at the courage and strength of Ma. The climax comes early in the book, and it is so good, I was racing home from dropping the kids off to finish it. The latter part of the book lags a bit, and there are some inconsistencies, but all in all this is a book I would highly reccommend--great for a book club read.



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Monday, June 27, 2011

The Lonely Polgamist

The Lonely PolygamistThe Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


My curiousity about modern polygamy peaked about 3 years ago, and I thought the discussion/creative plot-lines with this genre were pretty much exhausted, so I wasn't inclined to pick this book up. Even when it was on best-of lists last year, I didn't bite. But then my BSU alumni magazine came out and a quick browse showed Brady Udall and his much lauded book...I didn't look close enough to realize that Udall teaches at BSU--I thought he had graduated from BSU and so I ran right out to see what a product of my alma matar could produce.

Turns out, it is a pretty good family drama. Although I could never fully sympathize with Golden Richards, the patriarch of this little tribe--he is too passive, too timid, and phlegmatic to really be someone to root for--he probably isn't too different from people we actually know.

The opening scene has Golden arriving home from a long drive, needing desperately to pee, but unable to find an unoccupied bathroom in a house with 3 wives and 27 children. Normally, I roll my eyes at the shock-value authors use to describe bodily functions in the first chapter--which seems to becoming a trend--but this was actually one of the funniest scenes in the book.

The rest of the book is told alternately from a wife's, a child's, and Golden's point of view. Perhaps the most sympathetic (and fully realized) character is the child Rusty, who is misunderstood and only craves a little love from anyone who has time to give it. I couldn't help wondering if Udall doesn't resent growing up in a big family (he dedicated his book to his 8 brothers and sisters)for while he treats the religion with a sort of sympathetic objectivity, he drives the point home again and again that a family that size cannot meet the emotional needs of anyone. Love can only be so big...

Explosions, both literal and figurative, play prominent roles in the plots and I can almost make the connection (because there obviously is one) but if it's beyond the illustration of the volatility of man, I haven't quite worked it out yet.



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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

These Is My Words

These Is My WordsThese Is My Words by Nancy E. Turner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


This is a great feel-good book--great for a beach read. Our book club read it, otherwise not sure I would have. I think had she changed the title, it could have been a bigger hit than it was. No one really wants to read a book that starts out with bad grammer. Turner did do a good job with the diary format, writing things that really would be in a diary, using references to things that go unexplained (but not annoyingly so) and skipping months and years when things get busy. Only toward the end, did I feel like it was contrived (she conviently starts up again after 4 years, only to have a major event happen 12 days later). The characters are enjoyable, but kind of one-dimensional, and their attitudes, thoughts, actions, just a little too modern to be believeable. Still, a fun, inspiring love story.



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Catch-22

Catch-22Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is one of those books that I can't believe I haven't read yet. There was an anniversary issue for sale at Costco, so I quickly remedied that. It wasn't what I thought it was...for some reason I thought it was a WWII thriller with spies (no idea where I got that notion)...It is about WWII but falls more into satrical comedy. The first few chapters made me feel completely lost--What are they talking about? and Why is this novel so great? I kept thinking as I read about an air force pilot that was in love with a chaplain? may or may not have a liver condition, had a friend who kept falling on his face, and signed his name as Washington Irving...Fast forward to the middle and the end--loved it. Loved it. Loved it. I loved the tongue in cheek, the exaggeration, the way it was almost monotonously repetitive only to go to the juggular with a quick slice of an airplane's propellar--so that you were as shocked as the characters in the book. I loved how Yossarian gets under your skin and you love him despite his failings. I love how pieces of Snowden's haunting tale are revealed bit by bit. I love how everything in the novel loops around and around (read the first chapters at the end, and it makes perfect sense). The last walk Yossarian takes in Rome is brillantly, shockingly written. I even liked the ending--I loved how despite how desperate it all seems at the end, plodding, apple-cheeked Orr gives them all hope. I admit that I thought some parts were a little too long--Milo's chapters in particular (we get it, big business will do anything for money)and I never did quite get why the opening line " It was love at first sight..The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him" is quoted as a great first line, or what it had to do with the rest of the book. And the edition I had boasted of critical essays and reviews, and I wished they were a little more insightful. Definitely a classic.



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Monday, May 16, 2011

The Things They Carried

The Things They CarriedThe Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is a collection of stories and essays about the Vietnam war and about writing. I loved the titular story. I read it in an anthology in college and it has always stuck with me. It is a list of the things soldiers carrry, physically, emotionally, psychologically, yet it tells a story as it goes along. The rest of the war stories elaborate on things alluded to in "The Things They Carried", but somehow by elaborating the stories are not as poignant or shocking as they were when told in passing--except for "Speaking of Courage" which is less about the war and more about the soldier dealing with the aftermath.

Interspersed between these stories are essays about how to write fiction from experience--which was interesting and insightful. Although I couldn't help wanting to know what EXACTLY was truth and what was made up, and the essays only muddied the waters. But that is the whole point..."I want you tho know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth", he says in "Good Form".

Its a great read especially to understand one soldier's point of view, and to understand the writing process and it was a great introduction to Catch-22, which I happened to read next.



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Monday, April 4, 2011

Water for Elephants

Water for ElephantsWater for Elephants by Sara Gruen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


If I were to build a case that the ending can make or break a book, I would put this in the "make" pile (and Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry in the "break" pile). My feelings for this book evolved from, nice story, lots of cliches-- (burly, old drunk man that looks out for him and says things like "Well, well, what have we here?"; beautiful woman married to maniacal boss; virginal youth left orphaned and penniless to make his way in the world, where everything is new and awesome/horrible; sympathetic animal who is smarter than she seems)-- to very satisfied at the end, mainly because the ending was the perfect ending to this circus adventure. There WAS a lot of unneccesary sexual references, esp. at the beginning and Gruen could take some cues from (dare I say this) Myers (!) to create some sexual chemistry because I never quite believed they were soulmates. All in all a fun read.



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Friday, April 1, 2011

Little Bee

Little BeeLittle Bee by Chris Cleave

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


This book has all the trappings of a Very Important Book-- a girl from Africa, a morally ambiguous situation, Immigration Reformation, love and marriage, family and career, etc. But from the entreaty on the back cover not to discuss the plot twists, to the just-a-little-too-much analogies and internal dialouges, to the slightly too stereo-typical characters complete with symbolic quirks, this book is just too self-conscious to really be effective. Just like actors who try too hard keep jarring you out of scenes of an otherwise good movie (or perhaps a better analogy would be a director using too many flashy techniques), the descriptions, dialogue, and even parts of the plot keep screaming at you how very impossible this situation is, instead of subtly showing you. Truthfully, the plot twists aren't all THAT surprising--and the ending you can see a mile away. It did provide some good what would you do? conversations with the hubby though, and since the immigration issues in this country are something I get pretty passionate about, I thought it did make some good points. Cleave is a very good writer; he should just stop trying so hard.



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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Matched

Matched (Matched, #1)Matched by Ally Condie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


When my book club picked this book, I admit I rolled my eyes. "A Hunger Games copycat" I thought. And reading the first page, my skeptisim grew. It is set in a world where everything is controlled by the Society, it is narrated by a female in first-person present-tense, and there was a preoccupation of what she was wearing to a banquet to find out who her statstically ideal Match will be. But I quickly fell in love with Cassia. Unlike Kat, she feels her life is perfect in the ultra-controlled world and it is only when there is a glitch with her Match, when she begins to question the infallibility of the Society, and some gentle prods from her grandfather, scheduled to pass away later that week, that she begins to wake up and dream of something more.

There are no red-eyed mutants or wilderness survival skills on display here, but perhaps more poignantly, Matched describes the survival of the human will, of the desire to create,of the beauty of the unpredictableness of nature. Is it bad that I cried as much at the loss of a poem or a tree in this book as I did for the death of Rue in Hunger Games? And Condie is a beautiful writer. Yes, Cassia can be naive, but her thoughts run deep and clear and she describes things like a poet would. It was a joy to read. I am only mad that it is another trilogy and I got in early enough I will have to wait to find out what happens to these characters.

On another note, I am curious about the trend of these YA books I've read over the years. It seems as if the boys in YA fantasy novels are always in a reality they don't like--being bullied, not smart, etc. --and then they find out they are wizards, demigods, the Chosen One. While girls tend to be in a hard world and they simply learn to cope with it. It doesn't hurt that usually more than one boy likes them. I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with this. I simply wonder if boys tend to dream of being suddenly saved by circumstances that then makes them braver, stronger, smarter than they feel they are. And, alternatively, do girls feel they are already brave, strong, beautiful, only no one recognizes it because of their unfair circumstances? Or would they not believe that they are heros in disguise? And is this a reflection of society or do these tales shape our images of ourselves?



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Monday, February 28, 2011

Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3)Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Katniss moves out of the realms of the Games and into the global arena where war is being fought to take control of Panem. She is chosen as the symbol of the revolution, though it is interesting that she does so rather begrudgingly and not all that passionately. Her motives are mostly her own, and she doesn't seem to care much about how the new Panem will be run, as long as Snow is not in charge, and her circle of friends and family are safe. But then, she is what, 19? 20? And are the majority of us really so different?

Katniss also gets hurt a lot, and spends a lot of time in hospital, so the action isn't as nonstop as the other two books. But I liked the ending, and I thought she ended up with who was right for her. These books tell a dark tale about an imperfect hero that is a clever allegory for today's issues. And there is enough hopefulness and sweetness that it is an unlifting, satisfying read.



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Monday, January 31, 2011

Catching Fire

Catching Fire (The Hunger Games, #2)Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I must admit I was caught off guard by the twists and turns in the second novel in the Hunger Game series. Huger Games was so good, I thought, how could it get any better? But I was pleasantly surprised. Not as good as the first, I grant you, but definitely a great read.



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Elsewhere

ElsewhereElsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


In a Q&A at the end of the book, Gabrielle Zevin cheekily admits that she doesn't really think about an afterlife. She thinks that would be shocking since this book is about the afterlife. But really, I don't think the readers will be shocked that she didn't think about what she was writing.

An afterlife where you grow younger instead of older, and you may never get reunited with the people you love, or if you do they may be 12 and you may be 45 is creepy. And even if you do meet up with the one you love, you grow young together--(still creepy). That's the main premise behind elsewhere, although even the details don't really make sense. There are creepy love triangles, and the dead grieve over the living more than the living grieve over the dead. In fact, no one seems particuarly happy or well-adjusted in this book. If that's Zevin's idea of heaven, no wonder she doesn't want to think about it. I don't want to either.



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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I was a little leary about the Hunger Games since it seemed to be the new Twilight, and I think everyone knows what a dissappointment that was to me. But I loved Katniss, Peeta, and Rue. I loved the way Collins chose to narrate it with a stream-of-conscience first person POV. It was perfect, keeping you in the middle of action, and you felt as trapped and desperate as Katniss did. First-person past-tense wouldn't have had the immediacy, and third-person would have made the reader feel as voyeristic as the rest of the Capitol citizens watching the Games. The plot was fantastic, yet believeable and the relationships were beautifully done. Excellent!



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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Olive Kitteridge

Olive KitteridgeOlive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I loved getting to know Olive Kitteridge and the rest of the folks in Crosby, Maine. These are a collection of short stories, each one revolving around someone from Crosby and Olive is sometimes the main character; other times she just pokes her head in. She is flawed, yes, and at first I didn't like her, but like most people the more you get to know them, the more you understand, sympathize with, and then finally grow to love them. I loved the format: the short stories allowed you to jump years, perspectives without having lags or gaps in the narrative. With themes from aging to parenting to love and grieving, this is a great read.



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