Tuesday, March 7, 2017

2017 Reading Challenge: January and February

So I had my January update all ready to go at the beginning of February, and it even got published for about a hot second until I realized there were some weird font and formatting issues that I hadn't realized were there. And then I didn't have time to fix them and then I forgot about it and now here we are.  So I'm just going to combine January and February and hope that I'm more on top of things when it comes to updating about my March books. I just finished one that I can't wait to talk about!

I'm not going to review/discuss every book I read this year, because (1) ain't nobody got time for that, (2) y'all don't really care that much anyway, and (3) I just don't really want to. That being said, I do want to pick out a few notable books each month and expound upon them, because (1) I like talking about books, (2) I like sharing my opinion about things, and (3) I just want to. So without further ado, here are some of my January  and February reads.

Please note that all plot summaries are from Goodreads.


I got off to a really good start in January, mostly because I didn't start school until January 17, so I had plenty of free time to get reading done. The structure of my list motivated me to read some books I've been meaning to read but haven't gotten around to and to read books that I might not otherwise have picked up. This isn't to say that I didn't also read several books that didn't meet any list requirements that I chose simply because I wanted to read them. I definitely did that, and I felt oddly guilty about that at first. But then I realized how ridiculous that guilt was—this is supposed to be fun. So no more guilt about reading things I want to read, even if they don't meet any challenge requirements or aren't "serious literature," whatever that means. 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons. 

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb's effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave. 

The journey starts in the "colored" ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, her small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo. Today are stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, East Baltimore children and grandchildren live in obscurity, see no profits, and feel violated. The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of. 


This book falls into two categories: the actual medical nonfiction category for the challenge and the not official but really accurate "I would have never read this if it weren't for this challenge" category. My brilliant med school bound roommate recommended it, and I'm glad I had enough smarts to take her up on that recommendation. 

What I loved the most about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the way the author seamlessly wove together three stories: the discovery, use, and development of HeLa, the life of Henrietta Lacks and her family, and the author's own journey to learn about the woman who unknowingly contributed so much to medical advancements.  This integration of multiple topics kept the story fresh and interesting. As a non-medically minded person, too much scientific jargon would have lost appeal to me, but balancing it with narrative about Henrietta and her family ensured that I stayed engaged throughout. Henrietta Lacks accomplished what I personally believe should be the aim of all nonfiction: It made me learn, it made me feel, and it made me think.

Also, as a semi-interesting side note, I had never heard of this book before my roommate recommended it, and now I swear it's everywhere. I've seen it in two of the bookstores I've gone to in the last few weeks (one of which was a used bookstore that has a very random selection), and it's popping up on TBR lists I've perused. Maybe it was always there, but I just didn't notice, because I didn't have any connection to it? Who knows. 

READ IF: You are interested in the process and ethics of medical advancement or you like books that have you saying, "Wow, I never stopped to think about the people behind X, Y, or Z."

And I Darken

No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwlya likes it that way. Ever since she and her gentle younger brother, Radu, were wrenched from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman courts, Lada has known that being ruthless is the key to survival. She and Radu are doomed to act as pawns in a vicious game, an unseen sword hovering over thier every move. For the lineage that makes them special also makes them targets. 

Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Radu longs only for a place where he feels safe. And when they meet Mehmed, the defiant and lonely son of the sultan, Radu feels that he's made a true friend—and Lada wonders if she's finally found someone worthy of her passion.

But Mehmed is heir to the very empire that Lada has sworn to fight against—and that Radu now considers home. Together, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed form a toxic triangle that strains the bonds of love and loyalty to the breaking point. 


First, in full disclosure, I technically started this book in 2016. That being said, I only read about 50 pages of it in December, and seeing as it's 475 pages, I feel very comfortable counting it as a 2017 read. 

I have a lot of mixed feelins about And I Darken. Overall, I'd say I liked it. It's an alternate history, and I'm very fascinated by that genre lately. I have always loved historical fiction, so I think it's natural that I like the idea of taking something in history and re-imagining it—in this case, that author asked, "What if Vlad the Impaler had been female?" and wrote a story that answers that question. 

Lada is a confusing main character, because in some ways I want to be her biggest champion and in others, I can't stand her. I love that she is independent and has a highly developed sense of self, even at a young age. She knows who she is, and she isn't going to let anybody tell her not to be that perosn. I especially admire this about her given that she is living during a time and in a culture in which women had no power, no respect, and no dignity. 

All that being said, Lada is also kind of a terrible human being. She is ruthless, bloodthirsty, and selfish. She constantly mistreats the people who love her (and who she loves, even if she can't admit it) and is angered when anybody tries to call her out on her self-serving ways. 

This book definitely has its dark moments, but I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of time dedicated to exploring the intricacies of familial and platonic love. The relationships are complicated and rich, and it's definitely one of the most admirable aspects of the story. 

READ IF: You enjoy complex characters and relationships and don't mind being occasionally disappointed in the decisions those characters make.

All the Light We Cannot See

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of the neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure's reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum's most valuable and dangerous jewel. 

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure's converge. 


Clearly I was a little late on the All the Light We Cannot See bandwagon. I tried to listen to it as an audiobook soon after it was released, but it was so confusing, because it jumps back and forth in time, and I eventually gave up. DO NOT TRY TO LISTEN TO THIS BOOK.

Anyway. I wanted to LOVE this book. Like gushing, weeping, tell-everybody-about-it-until-they-tell-me-to-shut up love. And it had everything in its arsenal for me to go all heart-eye emoji on it. It's set during WWII, which is one of my favorite time periods for historical fiction. It offers fresh and varied perspectives on life during the war. It offers a plucky, brace, intelligent female main character and a scrappy, inventive, nuanced male main character. The writing is something to droll over. 

But even with all that, I didn't LOVE it. I definitely liked it. And I think I probably loved it a quiet, understated sort of way. But because I was hoping for a big, all encompassing LOVE, I was left a tiny bit disappointed. There's no doubting that this book is a masterpiece. And from a very academic, logical perspective, I am fully in awe of its beauty and style and the simplicity with which such a big story was told. But it just didn't make me feel very much. As anybody who has met for for 26 seconds or more can attest, I emote a lot. I am a very feelings oriented person, and as a result, I like books that I emotionally connect with. But as much as I loved the characters and the story being told, I just wasn't able to become truly, completely emotionally involved. 

All that being said, I'd still wholeheartedly recommend it, because I'm confusing and strange like that. It's definitely worth reading. The prose is phenomenal. It's like the textual equivalent of an intricately decorated wedding cake or the most colorful sunset you've ever seen. The relationships are solid, the characters are interesting, and the story itself is layered and simply all at the same time. This book is definitely deserving of its Pulitzer Prize.

READ IF: You're a glutton for beautiful prose and love alternate perspectives on historical events. 


I didn't get to read quite as much in February as I did January, which I attribute to four factors: 1) school was in full swing, 2) work was in full swing, 3) I was a hot mess for most of the month, and 4) I had three fewer days to work with. So all in all a less productive reading month. And the hot mess part meant that a lot of what I did read was what is comfortable and soothing and easy, which in my case translates to fluffy, relatively lighthearted contemporary YA fiction. There was a time in my not-so-distant past that I'd be embarrassed by/ashamed of this, but I'm definitely over that now. One of these days I'm going to write about the benefits of reading YA/the unnecessary stigma surrounding the genre/why it's 100 percent okay for adults to enjoy it. So please hold for that. In the meantime, some February reads. 

The Handmaid's Tale

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the COmmander and his wife once a day to walk to the food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lives and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now. 


I don't quite know how to write about how much I loved this book. I think that it's hard to put into words, because I loved the book for what it is and what it says, and I have no ability to translate that into words. I also should have written my review/thoughts immediately after finishing it, when my thoughts and feelings were fresh and swirling around me. The best antidote for my failings is just for everybody to go read it so that they know what I'm talking about. 

Thanks to our current social and political atmosphere and the stage in life in which I find myself, I've been thinking a lot about my femininity, feminism, and general status as a woman. This was the perfect time to read this book. The writing is beautiful and thought-provoking, even while being syntactically simple and subtle. The message is cautionary and empowering. The stream of consciousness manner invites you into the brain, heart, and memories of a character whose proper name you don't ever learn, whose agency has been revoked, and whose existence as anything other than a breeder has been all but stripped away. It's haunting and wonderful and terrible and important. 

Just go read it. 

READ IF: You want to read a book that has a message that is relevant to modern society. 

My Life Next Door

The Garretts are everything the Reeds are not. Loud, messy, affectionate. And every day from her rooftop perch, Samantha Reed wishes she was one of them ... until one summer evening, Jase Garret climbs up next to her and changes everything. 

As the two fall fiercely for each other, stumbling through the awkwardness and awesomeness of first love, Jase's family embraces Samantha—even as she keeps him a secret from her own. Then something unthinkable happens, and the bottom drops out of Samantha's world. She's suddenly faces with an impossible decision. Which perfect family will save her? Or is it time she saved herself?


My Life Next Door was one of the fluffy, feel-good books I picked up to distract myself from the craziness that went down in February, and it did not disappoint. It's an easy, enjoyable read, and sometimes that's all I want/can handle. 

I'm a sucker for fluff books, but I also love good plot lines, compelling themes, and developed characters. So it's always a treat when all of those things are found in one novel. The protagonist, Samantha, is flawed in a very relatable way, and I love how the story is driven mainly by her journey to figure out the different ways that romantic, familial, and platonic love intertwine and play a role in her life. Yes, this is a book about two teenagers who are all twitterpated with one another, but its also very much about letting go of prejudice, acknowledging your faults and those of the people you love, and standing up for what's right when doing so is difficult. 

Also, as the third of six children, I love love love Huntley Fitzpatrick's portrayal of a large family. The male protagonist (Jase) is the third of eight children, and the entire family's interactions alternately amused me and melted my heart. It's so refreshing to read a contemporary novel that portrays (large) family life and relationships in such a positive manner.

READ IF: you want an easy to read book that explores the complexity of the relationships that make up your life. 

Into the Wild

In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters. How McCandless came to die is the unforgettable story of Into the Wild.

Immediately after graduating from college in 1991, McCandless had roamed through the West and Southwest on a vision quest like those made by his heroes Jack London and John Muir. In the Mojave Desert he abandoned his car, stripped it of its license plates, and burned all of his cash. He would give himself a new name, Alexander Supertramp, and , unencumbered by money and belongings, he would be free to wallow in the raw, unfiltered experiences that nature presented. Craving a blank spot on the map, McCandless simply threw the maps away. Leaving behind his desperate parents and sister, he vanished into the wild.


I chose Into the Wild to fulfill my True Adventure category, and started with low expectations. I had to read Into Thin Air for a summer assignment in high school and didn't quite care for it (sorry Mrs. Y!), but that could be attributed to a lot of things, including, but not limited to the fact that I was even less prone to read nonfiction then as I am now, the decreased enjoyment of reading when it's an assignment, and the location in which I read most of it (at the home of the three terrors children I nannied that summer). 

Based on my initial skepticism, I'm happy to report that overall I liked Into the Wild. I've always had a fascination for tragic stories with lots of unanswered questions (let's not talk about what that says about me as a person, please), so I was immediately compelled by Chris and the vagabond existence that ultimately led to his demise. Chris and I have exactly zero things in common personality/lifestyle wise, but that actually made him even more interesting to read about. The depth and breadth of research Krakauer put into piecing together as much of the last few years of Chris's life was impressive and demonstrated how important it was to him to tell Chris's story. And despite my adolescent apprehension regarding Krakaeur's work, I now recognize the artistry that is his writing—his word choice is impeccable, his descriptions are lively and vivid, and his storytelling is enthralling.

I could have done with fewer side notes about the parallels between Krakauer's life and Chris's; I personally didn't feel they added much to the story, and they generally distracted from what I actually wanted to read about: Chris McCandless's nomadic journey. Also I found a pretty egregious subject-verb disagreement toward the end of the book ("the seeds definitely contains"), which I naturally found very bothersome and obtrusive.

READ IF: You want to go on a wild adventure from the safety of your own home. 

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