I read only two books this month. It's a little crazy, as it's a long month and we were home a lot with snow. But, in the end, I only finished two. A third, Ginny Moon, I nearly finished but returned to the library because I found it too upsetting. I wrote more about that earlier in the month.
Onward and upward, the two books I read this month couldn't be more different. One is a steamy romance, first self-published online and now a phenomenon, and the second a book from a successful blogger about what it means to pursue just about anything, even minimalism, simplicity and the good life (however that is defined).
I'll begin there.
Chasing Slow (Erin Loechner)
Loechner is the author of the popular blog Design for Mankind. I'd never heard of either Loechner or her blog before reading Chasing Slow, and to be fair, her blog isn't really something I'd read on the regular. I'm not drawn to design blogs or decorating blogs in general, and though I haven't perused the entire thing, I think Design for Mankind runs toward these themes.
I heard about Chasing Slow on another minimalism website, but I can't recall which one. I know. I'm full of useful information.
Moving on. I put this book on my Amazon wishlist, and my son bought it for me for Christmas. He was so excited to see me open it and wanted me to read it right away, so I did. Every time he saw me reading it, he smiled, so I have a lot of warm, fuzzy memories of reading this book.
The book is a sort of linear exploration of Loechner's pursuit of just about everything we all try to pursue at some point in life: love, a career, a home, social acceptance, money, value and worth. She starts out young and in love and married, moving cross-country to LA to be with her husband, a successful filmmaker. I don't give away details of the story, but Loechner sort of traces their journey, to LA, from LA and then, once back in the midwest, through the many stops and starts that happen even in one small town: with in-laws, in marriage, with businesses, without businesses, etc.
There were parts of this book that resonated so much with me I cried. One night, while reading, I put the book down, got out of the bath and went to each of my kids' rooms and just cuddled with them, even though they were asleep. Loechner writes with a lot of heart and vulnerability, and when a person delivers that in such an authentic way, it's hard not to absorb the words (and lessons) offered. I felt, reading her book, not that I was learning something new but that what I already knew inside me was coming to the front of my mind. Nothing she writes about is necessarily original or ground-breaking, but her style and voice make reading her book feel a lot like sitting across from your best friend on a sofa, mid-day, and admitting your biggest fears and failures and dreams and knowing that the other person is listening.
I took a lot away from this book. I was reminded that pursuing minimalism or simplicity is, on some level, the same as pursuing anything else (wealth, physical perfection, love): it's still a pursuit. There is still tension and failure and expectation. I've often wondered if minimalism is the latest fad diet; are we trying to perfect imperfection?
This books speaks to that, and when I finished I felt better about my life right now, in this moment, rather than looking so much to the future or living so often in the past.
That said, I think this book could have been about 1/3 shorter. Loechner rambles. She repeats phrases, I am assuming for affect, which pulled me out of the 'story' and sometimes irritated me. I felt her writing was sometimes overly dramatic, but I also think that's the nature of the beast. When we write about things close to our hearts, especially our own experiences, it's difficult to be objective and to keep it clean and neat.
Hemingway didn't write about his failure to stick to one glass of absinthe or the expression in Hadley's eyes when he left her.
So, in the end, though the writing sometimes frustrated me and I wanted Loechner to give up on the dramatic expressions, italicized and repeated throughout, those are small potatoes. She writes with heart and character and vulnerability about a subject many of us are experiencing in the moment. So, perhaps italicized phrases are the least of it. I'll also add there are some loose threads in this book, stories she doesn't finish and details I think she owes the reader, having brought them up to begin with.
All said, I feel like keeping this book and re-reading it again, maybe altogether or in chunks. Her message resonates, and I felt that in a book that could have been prescriptive and written on-high, she kept it level and grounded and kind.
Verdict: 3.5 stars out of 5
A Pound of Flesh (Sophie Jackson)
I picked this book up at Barnes & Noble in Arizona about a year ago. It was on an end-cap, and I saw the little bit on the front cover about 4.5 million people having read it online. Also, I liked the cover design. Like wine, I often buy books for the label.
I didn't have high hopes for this book. I couldn't get through Fifty Shades of Grey; though I tried three separate times. I was curious, though, what could possibly intrigue 4.5 million readers.
The story, a solid romance, is a total cliche. A young English teacher takes a job in a prison, where the inmates treat her with deference and respect even if they can't muster the same for each other.
The prison warden is an antagonist, written straight out of a movie. There are a few other antagonists as well, all of them pretty classic in nature.
The hero is an inmate, covered in tattoos, encased in a hard physical and emotional shell.
The heroine has a past of her own, from which she is quite literally running, that makes her tough on the outside but vulnerable and soft on the inside.
See....the two have so much in common to begin with.
I won't go further with the plot, as doing so would give it away. But...it was fun. I read it in the bath, spending hours there flipping pages. There were times it was a bit too cliche, but then there'd be some little tidbit that threw me for a loop or surprised me.
The author is English, so there are moments when she doesn't quite get the American vibe she's going for, but those moments are few and far between.
The characters are pretty lovable. There is good tension, but it never really feels over-the-top.
It's everything a romance should be: vulnerability, sympathetic characters, clear conflict, tons of emotion, some steamy sex scenes, more tension, a black moment and then a final, rewarding wrap up.
The thing that makes this book compelling for me is that the heroine is smart. In Fifty Shades of Grey, I could never get past that woman tripping over herself all the time and biting her lip. Seriously. I just kind of felt incensed by the fact that she was such a clueless Bambi. I'm happy to say Sophie Jackson has given her heroine more intellect, independence and wit.
That said, Jackson didn't give her so much intellect to completely avoid poor choices, however, which is what makes it interesting.
Verdict: 4 stars out of 5 (if you like romance)
I know there is much debate about what makes 'good writing.' I think about this often. I have favorite authors who are beloved in the literary world, and I do think their writing is above and beyond. It is the writing itself that makes their work so utterly compelling. But there are other kinds of writing, and I think what makes it good or not might just be summed up by one thing: does it make the reader want to turn the page?
Because what good is technically fabulous writing if not a soul wants to read it?
I've got a few books going already for February. I was a bit thrown off with the snow days, as I didn't listen to Audible while the kids were home. And I went to the library and got a big stack of books and read about a chapter of each.
Sigh. I'm so easily distracted.
I hope everyone is reading something engrossing. If you've read either of these books, I'd love to hear what you thought. If anyone wants my copy of A Pound of Flesh, drop me a line. I'll ship it out.