The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The rules of my 25 Book Challenge is pretty simple. Finish 25 books by my 26th birthday. There is a bit of a gray area here on books I’ve already read. I decided rereading a book counts as long as I have not read that book in the last two years, and rereading books cannot make up the majority of the 25 books for this year.

Night Circus 300This category is where The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern falls. I read it for the first time in 2012 after I moved to Kentucky, and I fell in love with this fantasy novel. The book centers around a magical competition with higher stakes than either participant realizes. The circus is simply a game board for the main characters, Celia and Marco, to make their moves, but to me, the circus is a character unto itself. It’s only open at night, and despite its literal lack of color, the amazing performers and tents give the circus a vibrant feel. There are acrobats flying through the air without a net; a cloud maze where someone could simply step off a cloud and float to the entrance; an ice garden blooming with white trees and flowers; and the clock that slowly turns itself inside out to reveal intricately designed figurines and scenes.

There are three main story lines. Celia is the daughter of famous illusionist, Prospero, and her power resides in her innate talent. Marco is an orphan adopted by the enigmatic Mr. A.H., and he is taught to use books, symbols and words to create magic that exist in someone’s mind. The first two story lines follow Celia and Marco as they train for the competition and what happens once they start competing. The third story line seems very removed at first. Bailey is a young boy who is enthralled with the circus from the first time he goes, but due to the circus’s lack of a schedule, he spends a lot of time yearning for the circus to come back. The three story lines eventually weave together in a perfect ending.

Overall, Morgenstern did an amazing job of painting a world that is both believable and magical all at once. The vignettes describing different tents are perfect for the reader to experience the circus himself, not through another character’s eyes. Despite only being in a handful of scenes together, the connection between Marco and Celia jumps off the page. Even though there are many characters to keep up with, Morgenstern introduces them slowly, and the side characters are intriguing enough to capture your imagination like the clockmaker and original rêveur Herr Friedrick Thiessen and circus owner/producer Chandresh who has a penchant for elaborate midnight dinners. On a second read, this book is still one of my favorites that I have read in recent years and would recommend it to anyone.

Next up: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

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The Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner

NextBestThing250This may be a crime, but I had never read anything by Jennifer Weiner before I came across The Next Best Thing, which is Weiner’s 10th book. Having worked in local television news production, I was immediately drawn the main character Ruth Saunders, a writer/producer in Hollywood, and this book quickly sucked me in with the witty writing and quick pace of the plot.

A quick recap of the book: Ruth and her grandmother moved across country to Hollywood as Ruth tries to break into show business. After years of working her way up the ladder and not getting too far, Ruth gets her big chance when a show based on her life with her grandmother gets picked up by a network, and then, Ruth learns the hard lesson of Hollywood compromises. With each small compromise, Ruth’s show moves further and further away from what she originally envisioned. Throw in a complicated romantic life and a healthy dose of humor, and Ruth stumbles through obstacles to find her own path in the superficial, political world of Hollywood.

While I was getting over the doldrums of a long Chicago winter, this book was a refreshing escape. Ruth is an ultimate underdog. She lives with visible scars from a childhood car accident, and in Hollywood, this immediately puts her as an outsider in a culture that values beauty above almost everything else. Ruth’s bad luck in love is also incredibly relatable as she is rejected one guy, broken up with by another and pines away for a third. Also, the making of a television show is an interesting backdrop to place characters, and it is probably a world that is foreign to most readers. The supporting cast of characters is pretty solid. I loved the Daves and their casual banter, and Ruth’s grandmother is perfectly written. She is super stylish, a professional extra and Ruth’s biggest supporter. Going into the summer, this is a perfect pool book (or beach book if you are lucky enough to be by a coast).

Next up: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Rosie Project 250I joined a book club through my sorority alumnae group. We decided, after a long, cold winter here in Chicago, to choose a light-hearted romantic book, so we settled on The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion.

The Rosie Project follows genetics professor Don Tillman as he searches for the one thing missing in his perfectly scheduled, balanced life. A wife. As he begins the Wife Project, Don creates a comprehensive and sometimes inappropriate questionnaire for women to fill out, like a way too personal online dating survey. Things don’t go very smoothly though. For a more widely known pop culture reference, Don is like Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. He is incredibly intelligent, rational and unemotional. Those qualities translate to some awkward first dates for Don. Then, he meets Rosie, and she throws him completely off balance. As Don tables the Wife Project, he starts helping Rosie try to track down her biological father. Don and Rosie go on crazy adventures to test DNA of all possible fathers. Even though Don is working on the Rosie Project, the solution to the Wife Project falls into his lap when he least expects it.

This book is an internationally bestselling romantic comedy, so it’s not exactly a brilliant find my book club. But if you are looking for a good beach book, this is it. The Rosie Project is a fun, quick read. At first, Don is hard to relate to because he is so rational and logical about everything. But in time, Don transforms into an endearing, caring character that you can’t help but get attached to. Rosie is a perfect foil to Don and not what she appears to be at first.

Also, The Rosie Project is in development to be made into a movie. So look for that in theaters in the next year or two.

Next up: The Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner

The Kissing Sailor by Lawrence Verria and George Galdorisi

KissingSailor250Next up in my Book Challenge, I wanted a bit of history lesson, and this was a nice investigation into an iconic photograph. The Kissing Sailor by Lawrence Verria and George Galdorisi look into the story behind the infamous Kissing Sailor picture that was taken as news of the end of World War II spread throughout New York. The authors look to tell the story that led up to this photo and definitively prove the identity of the sailor and the nurse.

Sounds good, right? I thought this might be a nice piece of trivia to pull out of my sleeve, but unfortunately, the book fell flat for me.

Turns out, the magazine that originally published the photo LIFE attempted to find out the identity of the sailor in 1980, but with many ages veterans coming forward with different stories, there was just not enough evidence in the photo to corroborate any man’s story.

The nurse’s identity seemed easier, when the photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt declared Edith Shain the nurse after meeting her. During their research, the authors find another woman with a more convincing claim to be the girl in the photo, but because Eisenstaedt gave his stamp of approval to Shain, she was widely accepted as the nurse.

Confused yet? Verria and Galdorisi do nothing to help you out. After laying out a great story, the authors go over the evidence of the top candidates, and this is where they lost me. For some of the men, Verria and Galdorisi dive so far into the evidence that it felt more boring than the part of jury duty where you wait around for hours watching daytime television hoping you will be called to serve or dismissed.

This book is great in theory. In fact, the story of the authors back as the most credible is very compelling. The photographer was nearly killed in World War I; the sailor barely  survived a deadly typhoon; and the woman in the photo, an Austrian Jew who lost her family to the Holocaust, almost did not make it to the United States. I understand the need to acknowledge the other candidates’ claims to be the man and woman in the photograph, but by spending so much of the book dwelling on all the red herrings, the essence of the book is lost and so is the reader.

Next up: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley

When I came up with my 25th Year Book Challenge, I wanted to fall back in love with reading, but I also wanted to learn new things. So I am mixing in some non-fiction books, and this one caught my eye when I was at the airport early browsing one of those news kiosks.

SmartestKids250The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley takes a look at the U.S. education system versus the top three international education systems: Finland, South Korea and Poland. To do this, Ripley connected with three American exchange students to give her the inside scoop on what makes those countries different than ours.

The most interesting discovery is how each country’s path to success is completely different and a lot depends on different cultural norms and history that shape their education systems. Some of the exchange students thrive while others struggle. The difference in testing, which all American students are well acquainted with, is also astonishing.

What I liked the most about this book was that Ripley balanced necessary statistics with the student anecdotes and her own personal observations. I was never bogged down or bored with numbers. Her writing style was pretty conversational, for the most part, and I sped through this book in a week flat.

Next: The Kissing Sailor by Lawrence Verria & George Galdorisi

25th Year Book Challenge

I turned 25 years old this year, and to head off the quarter-life crisis, I decided to come up with some goals for myself. As a child growing up, I enjoyed reading very much, but in the last few years, I haven’t been on my book game. So my first goal is to read 25 books before my next birthday.*

I decided to start with an author I got to know really well on a popular reality show. Carole Radziwill joined the fifth season of the Real Housewives of New York. Not much of the drama rattled her, and Carole always had a sarcastic, witty comment ready to fire off at a moment’s notice.

WhatRemainsCoverWhat Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship & Love chronicles Carole’s laid back upbringing in Suffern, N.Y., her journalistic career with ABC, her relationship with Anthony Radziwill and her friendship with John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette. On the show, Carole is easygoing and relaxed, and her writing style is the same as she tackles heavy situations like her husband’s cancer and her best friend’s sudden death.

The bookends of her memoir are notable deaths Carole has survived. It begins her recollection of the night JFK Jr.’s plane disappeared. Not too much detail is given away here, but she circles back around later. After this introduction, the rest of the novel tends to go in chronological order. Her childhood in the small town of Suffern is filled with lively, familial characters, but Carole longs for adventure outside of a small town, which draws her to New York City where she gets a job with ABC. Starting as an intern, she worked her way up to producing documentaries with Peter Jennings and covering foreign policy stories abroad.

While at ABC, Carole meets a fellow producer Anthony Radziwill, and this is where the book gets into the meat of the story. She describes Anthony’s up-and-down battle with cancer. Her role was the girlfriend and then wife who knew all details of all treatments and took care of everything. The only one she shared her worries with were her best friend Carolyn Bessette and, later, to the reader in this book.

Two things stood out to me about the book. First, as a former television producer and traditional journalist, I immediately related to Carole’s description of how she “researched” and confirmed JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were missing the night their plane crashed. Carole slipped into journalism-mode and methodically called different people and organizations to rule out other possibilities. I’ve been there, calling for comment from officials and piecing together bits of the story from different sources.

Second, Carole’s description of her husband’s death was truly heartbreaking. I won’t give it away, but I was in tears when the moment arrived. It was a truly moving description, and hats off to Carole for such an amazingly written memoir.

Next up: The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley.

*Since I started this blog almost three months after my birthday, I already have a few books under my belt and will be playing catch-up for a bit.