I know I've said this before, but I feel more like myself when my reading is on track. This month, I read six books, and although my happiness may not at all be related, I kind of think good books play at least a small role.
Book: Girls in White Dresses
Girls in White Dresses -- our book club pick for January -- wasn't my favorite, but I have to give the author credit. I fully expected the book to be just another piece of "chick lit," and instead, it was filled with fairly literary short stories. Sure, they were about 20-somethings living in the big city, but I was pleasantly surprised with the writing style. I thought, too, that the back of the book was really misleading; our entire book club agreed we thought we would be reading about three best friends, and instead, each short story incorporated a different friend and relationship; by the end, most of us were confused about who we were reading about and why we should care. The characters became muddled, and I think -- maybe because I got married at 22 and never have lived in a city bigger than Birmingham -- I just couldn't relate to the characters. They seemed kind of selfish for their age, and although I thought some of their escapades and stories would make for a funny sitcom, I wasn't really enthralled as a reader. The book did garner some pretty good discussion, though, so I'm glad to have read it. Book club's good like that.
I received the entire Crosswicks Journal series for Christmas -- thank you, Mom and Dad -- and happily read A Circle of Quiet all month long. I've read and loved L'Engle before, but I'm new to the Crosswick Journals. For whatever reason, I wasn't really anticipating a look inside L'Engle's personal journals, but that's exactly how A Circle of Quiet read. It was filled to the brim with helpful truths and quiet insights, and I'm glad to have read it, mostly because I'll probably return to its pages again and again. It reminded me, of course, of Walking on Water; L'Engle is passionate about art and Christianity, and those subjects infiltrate a lot of her writing. I really, though, loved her descriptions of her small, quiet community in Crosswicks, how she and her family maneuvered church and community and gossip and friendship. I thoroughly enjoyed A Circle of Quiet, but as with other books like it, I believe it's meant to be read much more slowly than others; I savored it all month long while reading other books, and I'm glad I did. I think more sinks in that way.
My magnitude of reading this month can be partially attributed to the fact that no one buys books in January. The first days of this month were painfully slow in the store, so for the first time, I was able to read on the job. I used the opportunity to read a couple of new releases; it's sometimes hard for me to recommend anything off the bestsellers list since I often haven't had the time -- or money -- to read them myself. The Death of Bees was really great fiction; I finished it in 24 hours, but I never felt rushed. It's a well-written and intriguing book about two girls who find their parents -- "neither beloved" -- dead; they choose to bury them in their backyard, without a word to the authorities. The story of their survival and the girls' individual histories kept me flipping page after page; this is a new release I'd highly recommend.
This was another book I finished in-store; I'd been waiting to read it since it debuted last year (I had read an article about it somewhere and just never picked it up), so I'm glad to finally have it off my list. It's not a book I'd recommend for everyone -- I feel like short stories are so hit or miss, and not everyone likes them -- but I really enjoyed the entire book and Bergman's writing style. These short stories are Southern without being... Southern, if that makes sense. The stories take place in the South and incorporate Southern idiosyncrasies, but they're not filled with heavy accents or church-y themes. It's a book written by a Southerner (now Northerner) who maybe struggled a bit before falling in love with the South. I liked that. Every story also features animals as some of the main characters: how they interact and intersect with the humans in the stories. Bergman -- who I believe is married to a vet -- does an incredible job of making me care about the creation. "Housewifely Arts" is perhaps the most read story in the collection, and it might be my favorite, though I also loved "Yesterday's Whales." Actually, looking back, I appreciated and enjoyed almost all of the stories, which makes this one a must read.
I think NPR said The Language of Flowers would become a popular book club and airport read, and I can see why. It's an enjoyable, "easy" read, but I imagine it could generate a lot of discussion. The story centers around Victoria, an 18-year-old foster child about to age out of her group home. Victoria is sullen and stubborn; her only interest is in flowers and their meanings. All of the different flower types are explored in great, perhaps unnecessary, detail, but that's a relatively minor complaint. I was mostly interested in the story of Victoria and Elizabeth, the lone foster parent who seemed to care about Victoria at all. That plot line and Victoria's eventual success in the floral industry were the most compelling points of the novel. I'd recommend this if you're looking for a light, enjoyable read. (And, like I said, I think it could make a good book club pick; lots of discussion on flowers, the foster care system, and home.)
You'd think one perk of working in the book industry (managing a small town bookstore is probably a far cry from the "book industry," but bear with me) would be free books, or, at the very least, advanced copies of books. Maybe it's because I'm new at this, but we don't get very many advanced reader copies, and often? They're just not the type of book I'd normally read. (Think romance novels with Fabio on the cover.) I consider Frances and Bernard, then, to be the most wonderful exception to the rule. The book won't release until next week, but I'm telling you: It's worth every penny you'll spend, even on the hardcover version. I loved this book. I started underlining my very favorite parts, then eventually just gave up in order to read for the reading's sake. I would have loved it even if I didn't realize Carlene Bauer based her two title characters on real-life writers I love: Flannery O'Connor and Robert Lowell. (In fact, just to be clear, this is very much a work of fiction; the characters of Frances and Bernard are simply inspired by the history and friendship of Flannery and Robert; the moment you become involved in Frances' beautiful letters -- the entire book is written in letter format -- you'll see Flannery all over her.) I know a lot of readers will gush over the beautiful romance found in this book's pages, but it's really a book about the most Aristotelian of friendships, and I mean that in the best possible way. Frances and Bernard would make a lovely book to read this Valentine's season, or anytime you need to remember why letters are so much better than this email stuff we do.
A note: I'm finding a lot of reviewers online loved Frances and Bernard as I did, but were turned off by the spiritual aspects of the novel. This is silly to me for many reasons -- it's a well-known fact Flannery was Catholic -- but perhaps my biggest frustration is that spirituality is found throughout the entire book. You simply can't love this book and not love the spiritual parts; the characters write open and honestly about faith and spirit, and that's a good thing. A beautiful thing, and easily one of the things I most loved about the book.