Emily M. DeArdo


summer reading

Thoughts on The Great American Read

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Let's talk books!

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Summer is a great time to talk about books, but this year it's especially so, because PBS has come out with the The Great American Read. It's an eight-part series on PBS that talks about the "100 best" American books--but this is where it gets confusing, because it's not 100 books by Americans, and it's not the most influential books--it's 100 "best-loved novels (as chosen in a national survey)." 

So, here are my thoughts: 

  • I've read 54 of them. I've linked to the list above. Obviously, I am thrilled Pride and Prejudice is here--go America!--but I'm shocked that there's no Shakespeare. There aren't any plays at all. BOOOOO. 
  • Some of the books I love, some are meh, some I hate, and some I would never, ever read (DaVinci Code, looking at you). If you're curious, my love list is: Anne of Green Gables, The Giver, P&P , Book Thief, Narnia, Rebecca, Charlotte's Web, Grapes of Wrath, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, 80% of Jane Eyre, Little Women, Memoirs of a Geisha, Outlander, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sun Also Rises, and Wuthering Heights.
  • Books on the list I hate: 100 Years of Solitude, Moby-Dick, The Lovely Bones
  • Some of these are clearly "hot" books that people are currently reading or have been popular: Twilight, Ready, Player One, Fifty Shades of Grey. These are not books that will last, I'm willing to bet. 
  • I would like it very much if everyone would read 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale and then write papers about the two. And then realize that we do not live in the world of Handmaid's Tale. (Hulu, looking at you....)
  • There are books on this list that I need to read: Catch-22, War and Peace, Call of the Wild, and Crime and Punishment. (Well, I have to finish Crime and Punishment.) I gave up on Don Quioxte because the book itself is Quixotic. :-P
  • Conversely, books I will never touch with a 39 and a half foot pole: DaVinci Code, Fifty Shades, Left Behind --because it is vehemently anti-Catholic-- and The Shack.
  • No Henry James, Edith Wharton, or Nathaniel Hawthorne? I think The Scarlet Letter is MUCH better than Moby-Dick, personally.  

How about you? Which of these have you read? Do you have a favorite? Any you're meaning to read? 

Summer Reading: August

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Here's the last installment of the 2016 Summer Reading Wrap--but I'll keep doing these. I'll just need to come up with a new image. :) 

(I generally only include new books in this, unless I re-read a book that I really liked and want to recommend.) 

  • The Winthrop Woman, by Anya Seton: Historical fiction. This one started off well: Elizabeth Winthrop is the troublesome niece of John Winthrop, one of the leading figures in the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (now the state of Massachusetts). Elizabeth isn't really "troublesome" in a 21st century sense, but certainly, for her time, she was, and especially when considered in the light of her Puritan uncle, who insisted on proper behavior at all times from anyone connected with his family.
    The novel starts when Elizabeth is a child in England, and I really enjoyed this section. Once she arrived in the New World, though, it lost momentum and became pretty tedious. The story essentially became, Elizabeth gets married; Elizabeth has children; Elizabeth does Something Shameful--Or Is Seen as Shameful by her Dour Neighbors--; Elizabeth Flees; Elizabeth's husband dies/goes crazy; cycle starts again. I had to force myself to finish this, and there was a lot of skimming as I neared the end. 
  • Present Over Perfect, by Shauna Niequest: I didn't realize, at first, that this was a series of essays. I thought it would be a little more cohesive. So that colored my first reading of the book. I'm re-reading it now, though, and knowing that it's essays, and not just one big manuscript, is helpful. The title sums up the premise: Niequest says that we don't need to be perfect people; we need to be present to the people in our lives, and stop worrying so much about making sure everything is....perfect. It's a good premise and she writes about it well. 
  • Cannery Row, John Steinbeck: Since flying over Steinbeck Country (Salinas, CA) in April on the way to Los Angeles, I knew I wanted to read this. Salinas is gorgeous (at least, what I saw of it was). Cannery Row focuses on the people in Monterey, California, during the Great Depressions. It's a series of stories, essentially--there's no overarching theme. But the people of Cannery Row are funny, very human, and sometimes heartbreakingly earnest. One of his better works, I think. 
  • The Sign of Jonah, Thomas Merton: I'd read The Seven Storey Mountain, but that's all the Merton I've read, probably because I'd heard he was a bit "odd"--his Asian visits and dabbling in Asian spiritual practices, etc.--and more political than religious. But this was a big change. The Sign of Jonah  details five years in his early life at Gethsemani Abbey, and in it, his love of prayer, of saying the Mass, and of solitude is tremendously evident. It's full of rich insights and it's great spiritual reading. This is a side of Merton I'd never really heard about, and it was great to discover it by accident. (Thanks, Goodreads Recommendations!)
  • On the Other Side of Fear, Hallie Lord: Full disclosure: I love Hallie. I really do. I was lucky enough to meet her, and be interviewed by her, at the 2015 Edel Gathering, and she is a sweet, sweet lady. So I was already pre-disposed to love her book. 
    But it's good on its own merits. Hallie writes about learning to trust in God, and how that's harder than it actually sounds--and how fear keeps us from peace. We have to learn to trust and rest in God. It's a short book, but a really good one, and reading it is just like having a cup of coffee with Hallie. It's a keeper!




Uninvited, Lysa Terkeurst:  (Wow, I did a lot of spiritual/religious reading this month....) Uninvited discusses one of the things all women deal with: Rejection. Starting at a very young age, we know if we're in the "cool" crowd or not--who plays with us at recess? Who invited us to her birthday party? As we grow up, this doesn't change, it just takes different forms. Rejection happens to us all the time. So, how do we deal with it? 

Terkeurst does a great job writing about this incredibly painful phenomenon, and the tendency to take rejection as a personal statement on your worth.  She also talks about something that I've noticed is pretty true, but very few women discuss, because it's not pretty: desperately wanting something other women have. "We all desperately want something that we see the Lord giving to other women. We see Him blessing them in the very areas He's withholding from us," she writes. "We look at them, and we feel set aside." Man, is that ever true. I've felt that way, on and off, since I was about seventeen. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with a friend of mine and her sister about this very topic. "Why," I said, "has God given me talents and desires if He doesn't want me to use them, or have these good things?" 

I underlined a lot of this book. There are sticky notes poking out of it like porcupine quills. I actually finished this book right before a week in my life that was pretty hard, and I'm convinced that reading this, and having these truths in mind, helped soften that week, in the ways it could be softened. I highly recommend this. 

  • Beach Music, Pat Conroy: I'm a big Pat Conroy fan. Since reading The Great Santini last summer (I picked it up when I was in Charleston), I've read almost all of his books, and I'm sort of sad about that, since he died earlier this year, and that means no more new Pat Conroy books. 
    Beach Music is typical Conroy, in that autobiographical elements form a large part of the story's base; in this case, it's the death of his mother from leukemia, which, in Beach Music, is the catalyst that gets the protagonist Jack McCall to come back to South Carolina, from his refuge in Italy. Jack took his daughter, Lila, to Italy after his wife, Shyla, committed suicide, and he's sworn that he wants nothing to do with anything in South Carolina. 

    Like all of his novels, the dark side of it is balanced with a huge helping of humor, here provided by Jack's brothers and some of his mother's more amusing antics. If you're new to Conroy, I highly recommend him--time with his novels is always time well spent. Do NOT base your opinion of his novels on the movies. Prince of Tides, for example, is a much, much, much richer book than the movie would lead you to believe. 

Summer Reading: July

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 What I read in July: 

  • The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas, by Madeline L'Engle. This very short story is part of the Austin series L'Engle wrote, which includes A Ring of Endless Light and Troubling a Star. (Ring is one of my favorite books ever). In this piece, seven year old Vicky has been selected to be the angel in the Christmas pageant, and her family is also awaiting the birth of their new baby. You don't have to have read the other books in the series to like this one, and it would be a great read-aloud for families with small kids. 
  • The Queen of the Big Time, by Adrianna Trigiani. This has been out for awhile, but I've only just read it. I like most of Trigiani's books, which are based in the Italian-American communities of America. She writes well, and she writes about what she knows. Her books usually feature some sort of conflict between family/tradition/duty and the main character's desire to live her own life. This one is no exception.

    In this novel, Nella Cestelluca wants more for her life than just working on her family's farm--she wants to go to college and become a teacher. She's also fallen in love with the most handsome man in town. But of course, things don't go exactly the way Nella thought they would. 

    I liked a lot of the book, but I thought that Nella was a bit one-dimensional. I wanted more about her, her relationships, and her thought process. Instead, the book jumps around a lot in time, and we only get brief pieces of Nella's relationship with her husband and her children, which can lead to abrupt moments that don't really fit the story. 
  • The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip and Carol Zaleski. If you're a fan of CS Lewis or JRR Tolkien-or both--you'll love this look at the lives of the Inklings. Two of them are not as well know as Lewis or Tolkien ( Owen Barfield and Charles Williams), and you may, like me, be tempted to skim their sections. But the Zaleskis have done an amazing job here, especially in bringing new light to Lewis and Tolkien. 
  • The Seven Secrets of Divine Mercy, by Vince Flynn. I picked this up because Jennifer Fulwiler recommended it, and I'm glad I did. Flynn unpacks the popular Divine Mercy devotion and shows us how very rich it is. You don't have to have read St. Faustina's Diary before you've read this, but if you haven't read it, read it after. 
  • The Childrens Act, by Ian McEwan. McEwan and I just don't get along. I wish we did. But his writing style is not my cup of tea. That being said, I gave this novel, about a judge who has to decide whether or not to force a Jehovah's Witness teenager to have a blood transfusion, a whirl. 
    The beginning was very good, but the end petered out and made me frustrated. I didn't understand why we needed the whole affair storyline, or the stalker patient. It was just a mess. 
  • Forgetting Time, Susan Guskin. Another novel that started well but ended...oddly. In this one, a mother is worried that her son is having delusions--he keeps talking about a life he had before this one, and another family. With the help of a scientist, the mother tries to see if her son's delusions could be possibly be true. Again, worked well in the beginning, but then petered out. 
  • The Madwoman Upstairs, Catherine Lowell. I loved this novel, even though I don't love the Brontes. If you've read Possession,by A.S. Byatt, then this is a very similiar book. Here's the publisher's synopsis: 
    Samantha Whipple is used to stirring up speculation wherever she goes. Since her father’s untimely death, she is the presumed heir to a long-rumored trove of diaries, paintings, letters, and early novel drafts passed down from the Brontë family—a hidden fortune never revealed to anyone outside of the family, but endlessly speculated about by Brontë scholars and fanatics. Samantha, however, has never seen this alleged estate and for all she knows, it’s just as fictional as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.

    But everything changes when Samantha enrolls at Oxford University and long lost objects from her past begin rematerializing in her life, beginning with an old novel annotated in her father’s handwriting. With the help of a handsome but inscrutable professor, Samantha plunges into a vast literary mystery and an untold family legacy, one that can only be solved by repurposing the tools of literature and decoding the clues hidden within the Brontës’ own novels.

    A very, very enjoyable novel. I gulped it down in one sitting. 

  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie. This is Rushdie's version of The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland, and it works amazingly well. Haroun has to save his father, a renowned storyteller who has recently lost the gift of storytelling--with disastrous results. A trip to a strange planet reveals that it's not just his father who is in danger--it's the entire Sea of Stories itself. 
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by JK Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne. Yes, Harry Potter is back. In case you've been under a rock, this is written as a play, not a story--the show opened in London on July 30th. I like reading plays, so this was easy for me, but if you're not used to it, it may take awhile for you to get in the groove. 

    Anyway, in this edition, Harry is 40, has three children (James, Albus, and Lily--last seen at the very end of Deathly Hallows), is the Head of Magical Law Enforcement--and is having problems with Albus. And his scar is hurting again. Could the problems he's having with his son be connected to the rumors that Voldemort may be returning? 

    It's a well-written story, and it fits in well with the 7 book series. And it's interesting to see how Harry, Ron, Hermione, and some of our other favorites have changes in the ensuing 19 years. I'm not going to say anything else, because, spoilers. But it's well worth reading if you're a Potter fan. 

Summer Reading: What I Read in June

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How's your summer reading going? Are you looking for some new titles? Never fear! Here's my list of books I read in June, and my notes on them. 

The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera: Elizabeth recommended this one to me, and I'm shocked that I hadn't read it early. I'd actually never heard of it before. It's Cranford-like. Miss Prim takes up the post of librarian in a private house, owned by the "man in the wing chair" and run as a school for his nieces and nephews. Miss Prim finds him odd--but the whole town is odd, as well. Odd in the best way possible! 

El Deafo, by Cece Bell: A graphic novel/memoir that details the author's life as hearing-impaired child. After a bout of menningitis, she lost her hearing, and was fitted with hearing aids. At first, she attended a school that was for hard of hearing students, but after her family moved to Virginia, she had to adapt to a hearing school, and making new friends. 
I adored this. A lot of it spoke to my experience of hearing loss, and I loved the illustrated guide to reading lips: 

"Shouting is not good!" TRUTH. 

A Family of Saints by Fr. Stephane-Joseph Piat O.F.M.: A biography of the Martin family (the family of St. Therese), with particular emphasis on her parents, Zelie and Louis. If you're a devotee of St. Therese, you need to read this. 

4 Signs of a Dynamic Catholic by Matthew Kelly: I received this book for free at Edel last year; it was part of our gift bag. And it started out pretty well. I was thinking, of, it's going to be one of those books that helps deepen the reader's spiritual life. Well, no. Not really. It started that way, but then it ended up like Forming Intentional Disciples; this whole idea that we need to "evangelize" by telling "Fallen-away Catholics" the Gospel because they haven't heard it (I call b/s on that one. I just do. I know plenty of fallen-away Catholics who "heard" the Gospel. The problem was, in their families, that didn't have much emphasis on anything); we need RENEW, and we need Small Groups, and and and......and somehow it misses the point that all the programs in the world, and all the flash-whizbang stuff, isn't going to help if people aren't catechized well. 
Basically, I get really annoyed at books like this that say we need to have flashier programs and more stuff like that--what people need is good catechesis and reverent Mass. For starters, anyway. But I digress. Onward!

Vinegar Girl: Anne Tyler's take on The Taming of the Shrew is excellently done. 

 Outlander Kitchen by Theresa Carle-Sanders: If you've followed the blog, you'll love the book; if you haven't followed the blog and love Outlander, then you NEED this book! 

Love and Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch: YA novel about a girl who is shipped off to Italy to live with her father after her mother dies of cancer. But why did her mother want her to live with a man she's never met? And is he really her father? You'll want to go to Italy after you read this. 


Finding True Happiness by Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ: The first of Father Robert Spitzer's happiness quartet. Jen Fulwiler described this book as "meaty", and it is, but it's also definitely worth reading. I'm about to start the second volume in the series. 

Surrender!:The Life Changing Power of Doing God's Will, by Fr. Larry Richards: A book that does tell you how to deepen your spiritual life, and is funny as a bonus. 

Rocket Ships and God by Rocco Martino: If you like math and science, this is a good book for you. Otherwise the math details might be overwhelming! :) 

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan: This is the second McEwan book I've read, the first being On Chesil Beach. And I guess I just can't get into him. He writes well--some of his sentences are like music--but his characters seem so flat to me. The book revolves around Fiona, a family court judge, who has to decide whether or not to allow a hospital to give a blood transfusion to a pediatric patient, who is a Jehovah's Witness. I think one the disappointing things about this book is how lightly faith is handled--and how in the end, it has no power over its players. That bothered me a bit. 


What books did you read in June? What would you recommend? Tell me in the comments. 

Summer Reading: June

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As Olaf likes to say, it's.....


(In case, you know, you need an audio refresher. :-P)

Anyway, one of the best parts of summer is the summer reading lists that are everywhere. I've already looked at three so far and I've compiled a list of books that I can't wait to read (and in fact, I've already started some of them). So I thought I'd share my list with you! Some of these I've already finished and I've put my review in, and some are still waiting to be read. 

I love Chris Cleave. I had the great opportunity to meet him when he was in Columbus on book tour for Gold, his last book, and he is such a lovely person--and a fantastic writer. If you haven't read his other books (Gold, Little Bee, and Incendiary) get on that now. 

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is set in London in 1939, just as World War II is beginning. Mary North is the daughter of an MP, and instead of finishing finishing school, she races back to London to help the war effort--to be assigned as a teacher. Not exactly what she had in mind. 

Tom works for the education ministry, and when Mary comes to him asking for a new position, he falls head over heels in love with her. Problem is--his roommate and best friend, Alistair, does too.

The novel is based on the lives of Cleave's grandparents, and like all his novels, the writing is beautiful and the characters engaging.It was unputdownable. Highly recommend it, even if you think you're sick of WWII novels. This one is different. 


This is part of the Jane Austen project, where contemporary authors "reimagine" Jane's work. In Eligible, the story is set in Cincinnati, Darcy is a neurosurgeon, and Bingley was a contestant on a Bachelor-like series called Eligible, which everyone watches but no one will admit to. Lydia and Kitty are Paleo Crossfitters, Jane is a yoga teacher, Lizzy is a magazine writer, and Mary....well, no one really knows what Mary does. I've just started this one. 

I've always loved memoir, and I've been wanting to read this for awhile; I think Ginny Sheller suggested it back in the day. Ohio's biggest industry is farming, and I had a friend in high school whose parents ran a large farming operation--pigs, cows, soybeans/corn. We would go pick corn to have with our dinners in the summer. So I've always been fascinated by stories about farming and the people who do it. 

Kimball writes engagingly about her transformation from a SoHo, quasi-hipster writer to a full-fledged farm wife. Some parts are definitely a little squirm inducing--I could not be a farmer--and it will make you hungry. 

I know this book has been out forever, but I haven't read it yet--and since a sequel (I guess a sequel?) is coming out this summer (it's already out, actually), I figure I should read this one. Here's what Amazon says about it: 

Orphaned during her passage from Ireland, young, white Lavinia arrives on the steps of the kitchen house and is placed, as an indentured servant, under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate slave daughter. Lavinia learns to cook, clean, and serve food, while guided by the quiet strength and love of her new family.

In time, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, caring for the master’s opium-addicted wife and befriending his dangerous yet protective son. She attempts to straddle the worlds of the kitchen and big house, but her skin color will forever set her apart from Belle and the other slaves.

Through the unique eyes of Lavinia and Belle, Grissom’s debut novel unfolds in a heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful story of class, race, dignity, deep-buried secrets, and familial bonds

So, if Kitchen House is good, then I'll be reading: 

I realize the name of this one might make some of you freak out. No, I'm not becoming a pantheist or a polytheist, guys! This story is very Joy Luck Club, except it follows three generations of one family, living in Kolkata, California, and Houston. The writing is elegant, and the three strands of stories are woven together for a satisfying conclusion. 


The Accidental Empress and Sisi: Empress on Her Own, by Alison Pataki

Together, these novels trace the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who, at 15, married Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria- Hungary, in the last years of the Habsburg Empire. She's "accidental" because her sister Helene was supposed to marry the Emperor, not impulsive, artistic 15 year old Sisi. And after her marriage has already taken place, Sisi begins to realize she may have made a huge mistake. The books are compulsively readable, dripping with great characters, and most of it is taken directly from the historical record. 



What's on your summer reading list?