February is my favorite of all the months, and it’s not because of Valentine’s Day or President’s Day or the cold, gloomy weather or the hope of spring. It’s because of my birthday, which I happily and obnoxiously celebrate all month long. And since I take my birthday so seriously, I spent the entirety of February reading books I wanted to read, not books I felt obligated to read because of the store. Last month, all of the books I read were easy for me, smack-dab in the middle of my comfort zone. I’m okay with this, though the rest of the year I’ll be attempting to stick to my reading resolutions: diverse authors and more non-fiction titles.
The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley. This non-fiction book is a must-read for educators and parents; I’m neither, and I found The Smartest Kids in the World utterly fascinating. Journalist Amanda Ripley tackles the tough subject of American education by sending American kids to the three countries where students are supposedly smartest: Poland, Finland, and South Korea. What the students find there – and how it changes them and influences Ripley’s book – is eye-opening, and it has the power to change our own educational models if we so choose. The Smartest Kids in the World could easily be inaccessible, but instead, Ripley keeps the style informative and conversational; the book reads like a well-done documentary.
Bon Appétempt by Amelia Morris. Amelia Morris’s memoir was my pick for the February meeting of my new book club. (Hooray for bravely starting new things!) I’m a huge fan of food memoirs and food writing – The Sweet Life in Paris, Bread and Wine, Delancey – but Morris’s book fell a little flat for me. I’ll blame my less-than-stellar review on the fact that I had never read her blog of the same name. Fans of her blog will surely love her book, but the rest of us may feel a little lost. Bon Appétempt covers Morris’s growing-up years with a rather wicked stepmother, then delves into her time as a blogger devoted to attempting magazine-style recipes with not-always-magazine-worthy results. Parts of the books are funny and sweet; Morris is best when she’s writing about her husband and their relationship, and a book devoted entirely to that subject might have been better received (by me, anyway).
In Every Way by Nic Brown. I loved Nic Brown’s novel In Every Way, both because of his rich characters and his colorful depictions of North and South Carolina. The book follows 19-year-old Maria, unexpectedly pregnant with a mother dying of cancer. It’s not exactly a happy beginning, and although the book takes a turn for the better when Maria and her mother move to the sleepy, coastal town of Beaufort, conflict quickly ensues; I wondered if Maria would ever get a happy ending. In Every Way is a well-written page-turner, a quiet book with a heart for redemption.
Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm. This book might have been my favorite of the month. Unbecoming combines Bonnie and Clyde with The Art Forger; it’s an ambitious debut novel filled with suspense, mystery, and a little bit of romance. Author Rebecca Scherm navigates a variety of worlds: small town Garland, Tennessee; the bustling New York City art scene; and the tiny confines of a Parisian apartment. Every day, Grace quietly repairs antiques and re-sets gems, but in Paris, she calls herself Julie, and she spends her free time anxiously trolling the Internet, checking her hometown newspaper for details of a heist gone bad. You’re going to want to read this one.
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby. I am a Nick Hornby fan; not everyone is, and that’s okay. But if you like Nick Hornby and his quirky British comedies of characters, you’ll enjoy his latest novel, Funny Girl. I actually think it’s one of his smartest books; the novel is less concerned with romance and features a more interesting criticism of television and television writing. If you’re a fan of TV or pop culture, you’ll find Funny Girl to be especially eye-opening. Set in 1960s London – but crossing a period of several years and, ultimately, decades – the book “stars” aspiring comedic actress Sophie Straw (the “funny girl” of the book’s title) and her journey to the top, but it’s the ensemble cast who really make the story something special. This was another favorite for February.
How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis. Classics readers – particularly female classics readers – will enjoy Samantha Ellis’s thoughtful look back at the heroines who shaped her childhood. She revisits all the ladies I’ve loved (and some I haven’t): Anne Shirley, Jo March, Elizabeth Bennet, Scarlett O’Hara. And although her book is a little bit of a love letter to those characters, it’s always a fine piece of literary criticism. Her feminist worldview offers a much-needed perspective on the women of classic literature; some hold up to the scrutiny; others, not so much. I didn’t always agree with Ellis, but her book made me think, and it was funny and clever, a perfect testament to the heroines she loves.