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As of my "maternity leave," here are the stats of the past year: 74 books reviewed 9 guest posts 4 independent bookstores 3 d...

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Invention of Wings: A Novel

Sue Monk Kidd's earlier novels were positively lovely, so when I had the opportunity to pick up her latest, The Invention of Wings, I didn't hesitate to do so and enjoy every minute.

Sarah Grimke is a young, genteel woman in the 19th century south. Her family is of wealthy plantation-owning breed, which means they own slaves. On her eleventh birthday she is given her own slave--Handful, called "Hetty." Sarah is horrified at the notion of slavery, let alone her own slave, and sets out to free Hetty. Only her mother will not allow it. Instead, Sarah forms a bond with Hetty that will last for a lifetime. Over the intervening years, each girl faces hardship, heartbreak, and difficulties that are unique to each of their positions in this unique place and time--coming out the other side stronger, braver, and wiser.

Surprisingly enough, I was familiar with the Grimke sisters story from several years back. It's a long story as to my interest, involving wanting to write a play which obviously never panned out. However, it was very interesting to read this fictionalized account of the sisters. I find their lives and the conviction and with which they fought so passionately to be incredibly inspiring and very moving.

I enjoy Kidd's writing, although at times I feel that it falls into a very formalized pattern. It may have just been this book, seeing as how the time period would have been very straightlaced and writing would be in a more classical fashion than contemporary writing. I thoroughly enjoyed the toggling back-and-forth between Handful's and Sarah's stories. I thought it brought forth a beautiful juxtaposition between those with privilege and those who make that privilege possible, that between those who have the power and those who find their own power. I cared very much about each of these women throughout their lives. My heart broke for Sarah when she could not free Handful as a child, and I strongly felt the rift between them in their teenage years. This is a beautiful story that was about more than the practice of slavery and our horrible past; it was about friendship, conviction, and what happens when you stand up for that what you believe regardless of the consequences.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

You Are One of Them: A Novel

I wasn't quite sure of what I was getting into when I picked up Elliott Holt's You Are One of Them, I only knew that it came highly recommended. Now I am the one highly recommending it.

Sarah and Jennifer are best friends in the early '80's; Jennifer was the All-American girl (last name Jones!) while Sarah is the shy, smart young lady from a broken home who is obsessed with Russia. 10-year-old Sarah comes up with the idea to write a letter to Soviet premier Andropov asking for peace between their countries. Jennifer writes one too, and her father sends them. Only Jennifer's letter is answered; she suddenly becomes the international poster child for a Cold War peace. When Sarah discovers the ultimate betrayal of her best friend, she struggles with the meaning of the action even after Jennifer's untimely death in a plane crash the following year. Ten years later, Sarah takes a pilgrimage to Russia to find answers to questions she may not even be sure she has.

I was beyond pleasantly surprised with this novel; I felt that I couldn't let it go after I finished. The story is told from Sarah's perspective of an adult looking back and telling her story which I found to be incredibly empathic even though I have not been through this type of betrayal. However, we all remember what it was like to be a middle schooler and the fluctuations of friendships that sometimes left us all alone. It was Sarah's recalling this childhood incident that helped me feel that I knew her character well. I remember what it was like to care deeply about a subject and a cause and to have that desire to do something. The betrayal of her best friend was almost too much to bear--it cost Sarah more than just acknowledgement, it cost her trust and long-lasting happiness.

The prose of this novel is really beautiful, honest and earnest toward telling Sarah's story with pathos, love, and care. I enjoyed the second part of the novel when Sarah actually goes to Russia to seek answers to questions about her friendship with Jennifer, about her friend's untimely death, and why this couldn't be her. I loved living in this book in the time I spent with it, and I believe you will, too.

Hard copy on right.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma

I was sold on the title, and you will be, too: Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson.

Janie Ryan was not an expected baby, and the hardships she endures throughout childhood would knock others to their knees. Her mother takes up with Tony Hogan when she is just a kid, but Tony is less-than-kind to her mother, and in order to get Janie out of protective care, she must agree to leave him. As Janie grows and her mother drags her throughout Ireland and the U.K., she moves through hardships, a step-father, a new sister, poverty, and growing up a Ryan. She learns that we are who we are because of where we come.

I was expecting, based on the title, a book that was satirical in nature and funny overall. I was pleasantly surprised to find an earnest story told through the eyes of Janie and her childhood as the daughter of a woman who loved a man, got knocked up, and tried her best to do everything she could to be a good mum. Janie's childhood was far from easy and it shows. Her mother left her home after Janie's birth, and as much as she didn't want to admit it, Janie's mother was poor.

The bulk of the book is Janie's middle childhood, dragged around the country of her birth and forced to live a childhood of volatility, poverty, and instability. I loved the early sequences in the book that were told from Janie-as-baby perspective; since no one remembers what it was like to be an infant, it was beautiful to read an account of how we might perceive our experiences when we are too young to truly process them.

It's hard not to feel for Janie and to want to reach out and slap her mother. You want to believe that she is doing the best she can, yet it can be hard to watch the experience of abuse without wanting to know why she doesn't just leave Tony without the threat of losing her child. It is hard to understand, yet it's an easy trap in which to fall.

Regardless of how you feel, it's a beautiful story that traces Janie through the early stages of adulthood, examining how a young woman becomes who she is and how she seeks to define herself though her identification with her past and her hopes for the future.

Hard copy for purchase below. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Why Are You So Sad?: A Novel

If you had the privilege of picking up Jason Porter's Why Are You So Sad?, you might discover a debut novel that is so clear in its own wit and heart that it would bowl you over.

Raymond has a lovely job, a lovely wife, and is absolutely miserable. One night, while lying awake in bed, he realizes that he must determine why everyone is so sad in order to save them. He creates an anonymous survey to collect data with such questions as, "What do you see when you look in the mirror?", and "Are you the person you want to be?" With data he can solve these problems and make the world happy again. That is, if only his wife will let him.

Porter's writing style reminded me of some that I adore, such as Gary Shteyngart (whose recently released memoir is a forthcoming post on this blog) and Adam Ross; it was earnest and full of heart. Raymond is such a sad case, yet I wanted to find him, wrap my arms around him, and hold him still until he could feel not-so-sad himself. He was satirical yet so genuine; his development as a character was just so honest. I loved it.

The whole premise of the book was one part silly (as in funny-silly, not stupid-silly), two parts an honest reflection of who we are and what we've become as a society. Raymond designs funny furniture that is sold in an Ikea-like store, things that we would never buy yet people do. His boss is a bombastic, self-obsessed jerk and his co-workers would rather put on a facade than be who they actually are. I saw this as a representation of the crap we all feel like we need to live. At a baby shower recently I was struck by just how much junk we all feel we need to live; what we really need is simply a roof over our heads, healthy food to eat, and a good book into which to dive. I felt this was a morality tale of sorts; in a very entertaining way, Porter dives into the materialism that has driven American happiness for so many generations and has led us to believe that the more money we make, the more like gods we will be.

None of this has made Raymond happy. But if he can find the root, he can find the solution. Whether he does or not is for me to know, and you to find out.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right:

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Before We Met: A Novel

I love a good novel of intrigue, so I picked up Lucie Whitehouse's Before We Met one snowy afternoon this week. Intrigued, I was. 

Hannah lives a blissful life. Her new marriage to Mark is going gangbusters, she is on the hunt for a new job after uprooting herself from New York City in order to join her husband in London, where he runs a software company he started right out of school. Everything is perfect until one weekend when Mark doesn't come home from a business trip. He calls almost 48 hours after his expected return, but it unsettles Hannah. She starts digging, suspecting him of having an affair. Only what Hannah uncovers is far worse--it will tear her new life apart in ways she can't even imagine.

I was pleasantly surprised by this intriguing ditty. I sat down to read it and just couldn't stop. I was in it to win it. Whitehouse has spun a tale that find yourself needing to push through to get the answers you are looking for. At first I thought it was just another scorned-woman tale, so I was happily taken aback when things just weren't adding up.

I will say, though, this book makes me think twice about ever getting married. How truly do you actually know someone? Like, really truly absolutely? This is what was rolling through my mind as I read this story, because it turns out that Hannah never really knew her husband. Not everything he told her was a lie; there was a grain of truth in most of what he said. However, he was so completely over his head in his lies that it seems even he didn't know who he was or what the truth could be.

I loved the intrigue and being dragged along by a string in this story. It wasn't heart pounding, which I liked most about the story. It was more curiosity (following the breadcrumbs, if you will), the same curiosity that pulled Hannah into the web of lies she would soon uncover, destroying the life she so effortlessly lived.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Bad Idea I'm About to Do

I read a list some time ago about the funniest memoirs around, and Chris Gethard's A Bad Idea I'm About to Do was on there. I can't remember where or when I read it, but I'm certainly glad I did for this reading experience.

Chris Gethard is a comedian, and there is much that is funny about his life. In this memoir, he explores, among other things, his time at Rutgers and how losing his AIM account drove him to the brink of madness; the time that he had the most satisfying colonic of his life; and finally breaking down and admitting that he is bipolar. No matter the embarrassment level or lack of humor in the situation, Gethard will find it and milk it--for your enjoyment.

It's hard to pick a favorite story, because several of them made me laugh out loud so hard I would have shot milk out of my nose if I actually drank milk. So funny, in fact, I would have drank milk just to shoot it out of my nose, that's how funny these stories were. It's a toss up between the time some kid at Princeton AIM-bombed him and he lost his account so he drove to Princeton to threaten him with this fellow Rutgers nerd-cronies and the time he tried to outrun a cop on side streets in New Jersey. Oh, and the colonic. That was quite hilarious. And anything with his mother. Ok, ok, never mind, I won't try to chose a favorite. They were all great. You should just see for yourself.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, January 17, 2014

What We've Lost Is Nothing: A Novel

We have all, at one time or another, felt our privacy be violated. That is what drew me to the Rachel Louise Snyder's What We've Lost is Nothing.

A series of break-in's occur all across Ilios Lane in the suburbs of Chicago. A myriad of items were stolen, a few from some and more from others. All the residents are on edge, and all are dealing with losing their sense of safety and security. The 24 hours following the robberies find tensions at their highest. Is it the punk kids who live across the street, or does one resident suspect them because of their ethnicity? Does one family's daughter have anything to do with it--or was she simply skipping school in teenage rebellion? Why did the neighbor across the street lie about being out of town? Will the uncertainty eat at the residents?

This was an interesting book, and one that had a big desire to explore race relations in a neighborhood that purposefully sought out a diverse population. Peppered with narrative, emails, and conversations, this novel explores what happens when we lose our sense of comfort and safety, and the lengths to which we will go to protect our families from threats, real or perceived. This novel wanted to dive deep into these topics, but I felt it only touched the surface of its desire. There is a storyline with the young daughter who skipped school the day of the robberies and was home when the intruders were there; I wish that Snyder had developed the character more along the lines of how this event affected her and less on the relationship she has with the school "bad boy." I felt the exploration was right there with her interaction with her best friend, a young girl of Cambodian descent that lives across the street with her immigrant parents, but I would have liked it to be more integrated with the story and less about the relationship.

There was a lesson to be learned from this novel. "What we've lost is nothing," becomes the refrain of the neighbors when they finally accept that it's just stuff, that no one was hurt and that makes them lucky. It is a notion to take with us as we move through our lives. Some of us have more than others, and some of us have less than that. If our worldview takes in the notion that losing possessions is much more palatable than losing our lives, we might be able to find peace in what we do.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Kids These Days: A Novel

Yeah. Right. Seriously, though, what's up with them? Kids These Days by Drew Perry.

Walter and Alice, after finding out they are pregnant and Walter getting laid off, move to Florida upon the promise of family close by. They have a place to live and Alice's brother-in-law, Mid, hires Walter on. Only it's not a real job--Walter is supposed to drive around and "check in" on things. Before long this seemingly ideal job starts raising eyebrows--IRS agents trying to shakedown Mid, a pot operation running out of the back of the pizza place, a stolen ice machine, and a teenage daughter running off with a 19 year old. In the midst of this, Walter is scared out of his mind to become a father.

I found myself having a very good time with this book. It is narrated in first person by Walter, and I found it strangely easy to relate to his fear of the upcoming change. It ran as an undercurrent to everything that was happening in this story, whether he was in the passenger seat of a yellow Camaro running from the cops or on a boat to an obscure island location to pick up his runaway niece. Everything informed Walter's fear of the unknown and very near future.

Then there's Mid. We have all met someone like Mid. He's a business man with his fingers in so many pots that it seems legitimate until you get a bit closer. You realize that he is just the same hustler you see on the corner only in a better shirt and nicer shoes. When the fire comes on, however, Mid bolts from the kitchen because he can't stand the heat. In true hustler fashion, I might say.

I found this book to be entertaining and enjoyable for my commuting time. It also helps to imagine being someplace warmer than here, as New York City in the winter is bordering on unbearable. I was able to sit back and live vicariously in this crazy Florida world that Perry has created that seems unbelievable until you look a little more closely and realize--you know these people.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Monday, January 13, 2014

In the Blood: A Novel

Lisa Unger's In the Blood sounded intriguing, so I picked it up. I was knocked off my feet just a few pages in and was addicted right away.

Lana has a secret. One held so deep down inside that it transforms her as a person, so much so that at times she is unclear about what is the truth and what is a lie. When she takes a job as a babysitter during her college days for a troubled boy, Luke, who is a student at the local school for difficult children. Before she knows it, Lana is mixed up in a sinister scavenger hunt designed by Luke that will lead her to face her demons and find that there are even more than she could ever imagine.

Lana plays chess often with Luke, and the chess board is a perfect metaphor for this story. It is a calculated game of smarts, where you never really know who is winning until someone calls "check." Even then it's not the end--can you outrun your opponent? For some there is a fine line between fact and fiction, but this story isn't one of them. Lana is clearly hiding her past to not be defined by it, but living a lie is ultimately what owns her in the end.

I was completely taken aback when I put the puzzle pieces together; all of the sudden down became up and left became right. I absolutely loved that about this book--that you are following along on what seems to be a clear storyline until you ultimately realize you aren't. Nothing is as it seems. Unger pulls away layers of the story like an onion, just waiting until you think you are with her to reveal one more piece of the story that it turns out you desperately need to know. Lana feels that the Matryoshka dolls, the Russian nesting dolls, are the perfect metaphor for her own life. She is right. They are also the perfect metaphor for this intricately woven thriller.

At one point I felt as though this story was a little fantastical, far from reality. There is no way this could happen. But then again, truth is stranger than fiction. Either way, I realized as I was racing through the book that I didn't much care about realism, that I was enjoying the spiderweb of a story too much to be concerned about how real this could be. There was enough realism in the desire to move away and start over with a new identity. Haven't we all, at one point or another, wanted this? And in the end, aren't we all hiding pieces of ourselves?

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Promise Land: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture

I couldn't resist the subtitle! This is Promise Land: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro.

Jessica grew up in the world of self-help. Her father is a psychologist and self-help writer, and her mother died when she was young, making her childhood all about being in touch with her feelings and working through the hard stuff. As a journalist, she decides to seek out what makes people so attracted to the self-help industry and what makes some self-help writers successful while others work years for naught. Her journey takes her to a seminar on The Rules and how to rope (and keep) a man; a camp where she finds herself mentally strong enough to walk on coals; and on a search to find out what The Secret helps you accomplish.

I was initially attracted to this book because I have always found the self-help genre fascinating. Who reads this stuff, and for things like The Rules and The Secret, who actually buys into it? More than quite a few people, obviously, as these are bestsellers and have been for years. I love Lamb-Shapiro's framework in this book; she approaches all of these chapters with a bit of hesitancy and more than enough skepticism for us both. I appreciate her candidness on both her initial feelings and the process through which she found that, occasionally, a little self-help never hurt anyone. I particularly loved her exploration of the vision board with a friend--where you put everything you want on a board and manifest it.

This treatise made me strongly consider how I feel about "authors" who view their success as a business rather than as a service. ("Authors," not writers, as Lamb-Shapiro says, because not every "author" actually writes their self-help advice in anthologies with which you might be familiar, yet they are still billed as the "author.") I have never bought into things like The Rules or The Secret, but then again I am one who doesn't believe in wallowing in what I don't have. I am single? Well, let me rock the &$#@ out of being single. I will just go on a two week trip to France this summer. I am not wealthy? Not a problem. I will just pinch my pennies in one area of my life so that I can have that new dress. I am a believer in the power of positive thinking, but I do not believe that my thoughts will manifest, for instance, a subway train. You know one will come eventually, right?

I will be the first to admit that I loved the Chicken Soup for the Soul series as a kid. After all, who doesn't love uplifting stories? I had my fair share of these books on my shelf. They fit perfectly in the self-help cubby hole, and this book had me thinking critically as to why I was so attracted to them in my pre-teen years. It wasn't that I needed so much self-help, I think, as it was about my identity search and my seeking out of a positive future that would one day come through. I realize now, especially after Lamb-Shapiro's book, that it is all staged, hokey, and formulaic. But it served its purpose at the time as I am sure it serves a purpose now in many lives around the world. So, at the end of the day, it's not about whether or not it is empirically based, comes from a genuine place, or matters in the larger sense of the world. If it works for you, even as a placebo--rock on.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

If Only You People Could Follow Directions: A Memoir

I read the title of Jessica Hendry Nelson's memoir, If Only You People Could Follow Directions and I was sold. Because I feel this way all the time.

Putting together a series of essays to tell her story, Jessica Hendry Nelson tells the tale of her mother, her brother Eric, and herself. Her addict father dies when she is young, her brother becomes an addict himself when he is only just a child, and her mother is driven to find ways to keep her children out of harm's way. Jessica finds the drive to go off to school, let her best friend go when he becomes a danger to himself, and to push herself in ways she has never been driven by others before. Ultimately, though, it's family that brings us back.

I really enjoyed the format of this book; Nelson took each relationship and explored it in depth within the confines of a chapter. It was so easy to understand her care and her frustration with those who were throwing their lives away; what I felt was so outstanding about Nelson's writing is that you can feel the fog she has placed over this history in order to protect herself from such personal pain that could be so overwhelming if she would let it. I think each of us can understand that fog, that sheen that we put over the past because if we had to go through that level of hurt again we might just not make it.

I particularly loved Nelson's essay on her grandmother and how complicated her relationship was with this matriarch. I find it so interesting how families are made and how tenuous these relationships can be; I felt Nelson really explored that in describing how much she loves her grandmother yet how frustrated she could be with her. Family is complicated, y'all. We all know that. At the end of the day it's really just about the love, isn't it?

Hard copy below:

Monday, January 6, 2014

Unremarried Widow: A Memoir

I jumped at the chance to read this memoir--and I... This is Artis Henderson's Unremarried Widow.

Artis never imagined she would end up here, married to the Army and living in Texas, madly in love with her soul mate. She always thought she would marry later in life after traveling the world and becoming a writer. Miles, though, changed her life. When he deploys to Iraq less than a year into their marriage, she moves home to Florida to be with her family. She never expected that he would be killed in action and she would become what the military terms an "unremarried widow"--at age 26.

This. Book. Killed. Me. I cried. Aloud. I was laying in bed, absorbed in the story, and I found myself in the deepest depths of grief when word came that Miles had been killed. I knew it would come--it's the premise of the book, for crying out loud. But I loved Miles, and I loved Artis, and I loved their relationship so much it hurt. I was rooting for them and for Miles to live even though I knew that it just wasn't possible. If I just think right, though, maybe he won't go away. I can change the events of the past, right?!?

Henderson is a beautiful writer whose pathos runs down to the depths of the ocean. She is so human in her writing and so purposeful in her prose that reading her work has the soothing feel of lying in a hammock on a warm spring day. She bares it all for us--fights, loving moments, pain--and in the process she makes herself raw and real, allowing the reader (i.e., ME) to relate to her on such a deeply and intensely personal level that when she hurts, we hurt. When she rejoices, we rejoice. When she heals, we heal.

This book is beyond affecting, and the joy that comes out of the pain will make you feel alive. This book was a gift to us from Artis Henderson, and I feel honored to have been let into the fold of readership of a tale that holds such love, heartbreak, and healing.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Bingo's Run: A Novel

I will admit, I was a bit skeptical when I picked up Bingo's Run, James Levine's novel. I was beyond surprised at how badly I needed this storytelling and the beauty of finding care.

Bingo is the greatest drug runner the slums of Kenya has ever seen. He runs "white" all over the place and holds the records for the most runs ever done in a day. He calls himself a growth retard; others call him, "meejit." One night his boss gives him a very important run--only when Bingo decides to disobey, he finds himself witness to a life-changing event. He is sent away to an orphanage for safe-keeping only to find himself suddenly being adopted by a wealthy American woman who he believes is trying to rob him of millions.

In truth, I giggle when I read that description because it is so outrageous to read, yet so believable on the page. First of all, I both loved and hated Bingo. More love than hate, and not "hate" exactly. I was frustrated with Bingo at times because I wanted him to take advantage of what was being handed to him. He believes the worst in people, and rightfully so. It's not as though his life has shown him that people are inherently good. His mother was murdered before his very eyes--by the man who would become his boss, no less. Bingo is a complicated boy and I was rooting for him so hard.

I found myself laughing aloud at times and wholly moved at others. I wavered on whether or not I though Mrs. Steele, the wealthy American woman, was actually trying to steal Bingo's (not so much) millions, and I ultimately wanted Bingo to go to America and start and new life and be grateful he wasn't dead, dammit. I loved the story arc; I loved following it through until the very end, laughing and loving and excited. I particularly love that at the end, the moral of the story is that we are all hustlers in one or another--trying to make it through, day by day, minute by minute. However, if we choose to let love into our lives, we can hustle together.

What a great lesson to embrace.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons from Extraordinary Lives

I picked up a copy of Katie Couric's The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons from Extraordinary Lives at the internship I ran from this summer, and I read it over the holidays this year.

This book of collected essays offer the best advice given to them by such luminaries as Maya Angelou and Jimmy Carter, such successes as Mario Batali and Meryl Streep, and such insightful people such as Gloria Steinem and Whoopie Goldberg. Each essay is short and sweet, giving readers the opportunity to take in advice that others who have been so successful have been given and have taken to heart.

Honestly, I picked this up as a fluff read to kill some time while I was home over the holidays. I ended up being knocked off my feet by the book. I found it to be incredibly moving and intelligently insightful. I found myself busting out my highlighter and dogearing pages in order to come back to the advice. I nodded in agreement to advice I have (thankfully) already heeded, and I made a mental note of the advice I still need to follow.

I left it at home for my mom to read with the strict instructions to put it right back on my night table when she finished. Ok, it's technically the guest room night table seeing as how I live several thousand miles away, but the point is that I am keeping this book around. I was so pleasantly surprised with the heart and the thought that was put into each essay. I will come back to this book time and again when I need a reminder that I can get there--just take my time and push on forward.

Kindle version on the left, hard copy on the right.