Books: The Great Believers

I first heard about The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai on NPR’s Here & Now with Robin Young. I was instantly moved by Makkai’s passion for telling stories of the 1980s AIDS crisis and her commitment to conducting solid research as she wrote the novel.

I pre-ordered the book on my Kindle and immediately dove into it when it was released late last month. It is the best book I have read this year, maybe the best in a long time. The characters were relatable and the view of this piece of history both moving and educational.

While writing and researching, Makkai spent time in an abandoned hospital that had been site of an AIDS ward during the early days of the epidemic. This dedication to really feeling what her characters must have gone through is apparent in her beautiful, yet hard-to-swallow writing. In one very moving scene, Makkai has the protagonist visit his ex-boyfriend on his death bed, having gone blind and unaware that his estranged ex was there. In one last, loving move, the protagonist uses a small sponge to provide water to the dying man.

Amidst tragedy, the agony of awaiting test results, and the other events of the day, Makkai creates a story filled with hope for the future. Hope for a cure. Hope for a world where we care for one another no matter what.


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Books: The Lonely Hearts Hotel

I’m back after a bit of a blogging hiatus! If you’re in the mood for some good summer reading, I highly recommend The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill. It’s not necessarily a light, summery, beach read. It’s dark, but beautifully written.


The story centers around two orphans who meet and fall in love despite a plethora of sad circumstances in Montreal in the early 20th century. They try to make a life for themselves in the world of performing arts in the 1920s and 1930s. O’Neill creates moving dialogue and imagery.

I have loved historical fiction since I first began reading as a young child, and this booked paired a great and different love story with a trip back in time. This was the first piece I have read by O’Neill, and I’ll definitely be checking out more of her work. Pick this one up and throw it in your beach bag.


Books: The Girls

I love reading debut novels. There is something so fresh and ambitious about an author’s first piece of major published fiction. The Girls by Emma Cline was a great read. It provides a vivid and very believable account of a cult in the 1960s.

In graduate school I spent a lot of time researching on cult leadership. I have often asked how a cult leader with bad motives can secure a large following of loyal cult members. Cline’s novel gives us a detailed example of how this happens. It follows Evie, a teenage girl living in California in the 1960s. She seeks love, belonging, and someone to notice her.


Then Evie notices fascinating people in the park one afternoon. From there, she becomes involved in a group lead by a charismatic man, and soon, horrific events occur. The story of cults isn’t a new idea, but Cline’s writing makes this book stand out as something special.


Books: The Art of Mending

After enjoying the 2017 One Book South Dakota, which I wrote about here, I decided to read another OBSD selection. I read the 2004 selection, Elizabeth Berg’s The Art of Mending.


Berg’s powerful use of imagery when it comes to recalling those memories brought the story to life. She writes beautifully about everything from the sound of scissors cutting fabric at the fabric store to holidays and family vacations.

The narrator is torn between her sister and her mother when terrible allegations surface. Her struggle of wondering what to believe is detailed throughout the novel. I loved the writing and how the story is told from an unexpected point-of-view. It causes us to ask ourselves if our childhood memories are accurate, or just our own perception of what took place.


One Book South Dakota: Kitchens of the Great Midwest

I didn’t know what to expect with Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. I decided to read it simply because it was designated as the 2017 One Book South Dakota. I loved it. The author beautifully combined food, gender roles in the Midwest, and interesting characters in a quick, yet moving novel.


Food is such an important part of our culture. This book looks at how the food we eat defines us geographically, and socio-economically. It also looks at the relationships we build and what really defines a family.

One of the most moving pieces in the book features Pat Prager, a sweet church lady and unappreciated housewife who enters her bars in a fancy Minneapolis baking contest. She is shamed by the younger, more sophisticated foodies.

This is where the main character, Eva Thorvald, shines as an interesting, yet dimensional protagonist. Eva gives Pat, and Midwestern home-cooking the respect they deserve. Stradal packs a lot in this short novel, and I was hanging on every word. At the end I was torn between wanting him to pen a sequel and wanting to just leave it at what the story was for fear of ruining a good thing.


My Ranking: NPR’s Top Books of 2016

I recently finished the books off NPR’s list of the 10 best books of 2016. This reading list definitely didn’t wow me as much as this list of books I read last year. When Breath Becomes Air and The Underground Railroad were absolutely amazing so definitely make time to read those.

Now I’m going to take a little break from reading from lists and treat myself to some mindless crime fiction. Any recommendations?

Do you ever read from lists? If so, what are your favorites?


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Here are my rankings, with number one being my favorite.

10. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing

9. Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs by Robert Kanigel

8. Eleanor Roosevelt: The War Years and After, 1939-1962 by Blanche Wiesen Cook

7. Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

6. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

5. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

4. Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

3. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

2. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi


An Update on My Reading Goal: Eleanor Roosevelt: The War Years and After, 1939-1962

I have finished all the books on NPR’s list of the 10 best books of 2016. The final book I read from the list was Eleanor Roosevelt: The War Years and After, 1939-1962 by Blanche Wiesen Cook.

I started this book the morning of my scheduled C-section with my second daughter. I was in the mood to read about strong women and I have long-respected Eleanor Roosevelt. I have not read the first two volumes of this biography, which were published in 1992 and 1999, but the author does a great job of bringing us up to speed prior to diving into what is probably the most influential period in Eleanor Roosevelt’s life.

Three months later, I finally finished the book. It’s good, but it’s nearly 700 pages long. It’s well-written and details much of the amazing work Eleanor Roosevelt did. Stay tuned for my ranking of the 10 books on this list.


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Here is the updated list:

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs by Robert Kanigel

Eleanor Roosevelt: The War Years and After, 1939-1962 by Blanche Wiesen Cook