Monthly Reads

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Besides exploring my surroundings and endlessly talking about our time here and upcoming move, I'd also like to use this space to share another part of my life that is very important to me: reading. I seem to always have a book (or two, or three) in progress and enjoy very few things in life as much as I do reading. On my old blog I used to write long, exploratory reviews of the books I'd just finished reading, whether I enjoyed the book or not. I currently share during my "Weekly Roundups" what I'm reading at the time, maybe offering a simple "really enjoying this read!" along the way, without much insight to what the book is about or why I'm enjoying (or not enjoying) it. From now on I plan on posting just once a month to share what I've been reading, what the book is about, and whether or not I'd recommend it. I keep a very up-to-date Goodreads account as well; it's my favorite way to keep a running list of what I've read and what I want to read next. I'm also open to recommendations from other readers!

That being said, here's what I read this May:

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The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
You may recognize Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the famed Eat, Pray, Love, but this novel is not a personal retrospective. This fictional story takes you back to the year 1800 and the birth of our main character, Alma, before going back even further to the 1760's to explain her father's backstory. I was so caught up in Henry Whittaker's adventurous youth that I'd completely forgotten that this wasn't a book about him! His story sets an important foundation though, because Alma's life story is a direct result of the life he is able to provide his family based on his former exploration. She is raised to be an intelligent and thoughtful woman obsessed with botany and seeking to find her own purpose in life. This leads her to publishing in scientific journals at a time when women were not thought to be intelligent enough to do so and she continues to prove the world wrong with each self-educating step she takes. Alma's life story is fascinating, heartbreaking, and empowering, leading you from Pennsylvania to Tahiti to Amsterdam and everywhere in between in her search of self, love, and the answers to life's questions. The entire book takes you through almost 150 years of the Whittaker's lives and is such an endearing and intimate story that I couldn't put it down. This was also by far one of the most well-written books I've read in years. If I could pick one beautiful and entertaining book that I believe everyone should read this year, this is it.

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Factory Man by Beth Macy
How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local - and Helped Save an American Town
I was drawn to this book for many reasons. 1) Factory Man is the true story of a family and company that was local to me when I lived in Virginia, 2) Beth Macy was a reporter for our local paper there, The Roanoke Times, and 3) I personally know some people who have had their livelihoods stripped from them by the closing of some of these local factories as a result of off-shoring to China.

I'll be honest, this was a long and laborious read. (464 pages) The first half of the book goes back to the very beginnings of this family and how they successfully started the Basset Furniture company. It's a very detailed account of the foundations of this company and can sometimes read like the "begats" of the Bible when it comes to explaining the family tree. That being said, the journalistic approach and personal accounts from living family members and people from the local community are interesting and successfully depict the importance of the industry to the lives of those small towns. Growing up in a small, rural town much like Basset, I immediately identified with the feelings of pride and community that are illustrated in this book. I also grew up driving by many of these old, closed down factories and hearing my mom reminisce about when "so-and-so worked there" or "when X place was still up and running, before all of the work went to China where it's cheaper to make." Fortunately, this book finally centers down on one family member who was determined not to see all of these factories close after trade deals with China had most companies moving offshore for cheap labor. Thankfully, the "buy local" and "buy US made" movements have been picking up in the last decade and the Vaughan-Basset furniture company is still thriving today in the mountains of Southwestern Virginia.

Even though this wasn't an entertaining book, like most reads I seek, this book may be one of the most important books that people living in our modern society can read today. If only the people living in large metropolitan areas are the only ones successful, the divide between city and suburban wealth and rural poverty will only continue to widen. What happens in these tiny towns, where the only way to make a living is to work in a struggling factory or on a farm? Someone has to remember these places and these people. Coming from one of these small towns myself, it's scary to think. With talks from the Obama administration about trade deals with more South-Asian countries, I'm now incredibly anxious and wishing someone would plop one of these books down on the President's desk in the Oval Office. Anyone making serious decisions that affect our local and nationwide economy should read this book.

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The Martian by Andy Weir
This was an exciting story that started out slowly before creeping towards its anxiety-inducing climax. The main character of this book, Mark Watney, is suddenly left behind on Mars after a storm hits their base and the rest of his team has to quickly evacuate. In their defense, they thought the guy was dead. In fact, so does everyone back on Earth. Surprise! This story is written as though you're reading Mark's log entries as he smartly tries to figure out how to survive long enough for the next batch of supplies and next mission to arrive several years later. I won't describe the storyline any more just to keep from writing spoilers of any kind!

This was definitely an entertaining read, but it was a bit difficult to get into in the beginning. There were a lot of things Mark explains in sometimes boring detail in the first couple of chapters, like "I moved twenty six rocks about three meters to the east and then took four buckets of Martian sand over to the right-hand corner of this section of my yard. Then I drove my Mars rover jeep thing like six meters to the left so I could put this rope over there..." and you get my point. No, these are not quotes from the book, I'm just writing terrible examples. After the first few chapters this sort of thing trails off quite a bit, but it's all very important to the story. This book is well done and full of what I'm sure are very factual scientific details, even if it isn't written incredibly eloquently. I've read reviews that describe this book as being like reading a really smart guy's blog, and I think they're very right. That's not to say it isn't worth reading though! It's very exciting, and the story definitely builds as you go. Plus, Ridley Scott has directed the movie starring Matt Damon which comes out this November. Read it before the movie comes out! I believe it will be a hit.