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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, February 27, 2015

After I'm Gone: A Novel

I need to read more of Laura Lippman's books because she is one ridiculously good storyteller. This is After I'm Gone

Felix Brewer and his wife, Bambi, live the life. Felix's business, whatever that is, is going well and as long as Bambi doesn't know the details she is fine with it. That is, until Felix disappears one night to avoid jail time. He is never heard from again -- until his mistress, Julie, is summoned to join him. Julie is found murdered years after. A detective picks up the cold case 26 years later on a hunt to find out what happened to the mistress. As he digs deeper, he finds a devastated and bitter family that shows no love lost for their patriarch's dead mistress. Is one of them the killer?

It's hard not to be a lover of books and NOT be a Lippman fan. She has such an incredible way with her nuanced characterization and fluid storytelling that it just carries me away on a sea of prose. She creates such honestly real characters, so much so that they are people that I feel like I know. Whether it's the long-suffering wife, or it's the wronged mistress, I can identify with each and everyone of them. When they go to battle with one another, it's frighteningly real and heartbreakingly truthful. Did the wife killed the mistress? You will find out, but you'll have to read all the way to the end.

That's the thing about the end of Lippman's books. You think you may know what happened, but the truth is you have no actual idea. The end will surprise you, even if it doesn't shock you. It's so carefully thought through and well written that you feel like you end up thanking her even as you get no real conclusion. Each and every moment of the story is so wonderful and on point.

For purchase below.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

We Are Pirates: A Novel

The title is just simply fantastic: We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler. 

It's a modern day piracy. A group of people are in the San Francisco Bay terrorizing the area. On that ship is Gwen, a teenager lost in her own youth who has pulled together a team of misfits just like her. Her father, Phil, a radio producer, must get her back home. Not, of course, before chaos ensues as he seeks to make what he hopes is the biggest show sale of his career. They are both lost in their own ways, and they both must find what satisfies that itch for adventure. 

Such an interesting novel. I'm not sure what I was expecting going in, but I ended up getting a witty, bright, and nuanced comedy that was at times completely absurd. My favorite character was the secretary, someone whom you couldn't quite tell if she was hitting on the boss or if she was getting the short end of the stick. The scene where she books her and her Phil's plane tickets on a super cheap airline was so absurd that I couldn't help guffawing out loud. We've all been there, where we feel like we are living in a farce at the airport. The scene just completely embodied everything that we've all felt while traveling. It was positively delightful.

The relationships throughout the book were so interesting. Gwen's with her alter ego was some parts hilarious but some parts completely and honestly relevant. Don't we all wish that we could be somebody better than ourselves? Even if it's only at certain times? We want to be bolder, we want to be stronger, we want to be cooler, we want to be… The opening scene involving petty theft was entertaining but still so raw. Going overboard was her way of dealing with the absurdity that is adolescence. 

Overall this was an entertaining novel, and it made my train rides this past week thoroughly enjoyable.

For purchase below.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America

You may remember Linda Tirado's infamous essay from 2013. It is the kick-off of her book, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America

What does it mean to be poor? Not the straightforward definition, but the real, day-to-day experience of those who are living, quite literally, hand to mouth. If at all. People working and living with a genuine fear that they will not be able to pay rent next month. Poverty is the daily life of so many in America, and getting by day to day, and making choices along the way, spurs quite a bit of judgement from anyone in a better position. Linda Tirado takes on these judgments and addresses them all, explaining why things may seem the way they do and making connections as to how those living in poverty have both the same and different needs of their better-off counterparts. 

I had a feeling that this book speaking to people like me – people who are aware of the plight of the working class, who understand what it means to worry about paying rent the next month. I have a feeling that some of my wealthier friends would not pick up something like this, and even if they do, they'll probably put it down after the first chapter. It makes people angry to feel they are losing that feeling of superiority. Power dynamics of always been something that fascinate me, and the power dynamics between the haves and the have-nots are no different. People always seek out ways to feel as though they are better off in life than others, and this book embodies that. Not in the way that Linda feels superior to others, but in the myriad of ways she points that others feel superior to her, a self-declared poor person. She points out so many ways in which she is just like every other human being on earth – sex happens whether you're rich or poor, it's desired whether you're rich or poor, you still have to feed your children with you're rich or poor, and the need for transportation doesn't change whether you're rich or poor. Rather, ways in which you exist within these confines differs.

I was particularly struck by a chapter in which she discusses how rare it is for poor people to waste. She is a self-declared non-environmentalist, but it's only because she doesn't have time or resources for it. Not in the sense that she doesn't care, but rather doesn't have the time to care. She says, which I agree with, the people who have less waste less simply by virtue of not having. I fall into her category of "rich," but only because I have savings. A quarter isn't a miracle to me, but often a dollar is. One wouldn't guess that by looking at me, or even walking into my home. But many things she points out exists for those of us whom you would never guess.

It's worth listening to Linda for the 150 pages or so that she explains these things to you. At times she comes across as defensive, but I can understand that. She has spent her life without health care while others look at her and say, "Just take care of yourself." She's been told to pick herself up at by her bootstraps, but it's difficult to do when you're working two jobs and walking round-trip 20 miles to make it there. We all saw this story floating around Facebook, and so many posts were focused on, "What a great worker! I want to work with somebody like this! Such dedication!" These ideas rather than examining the systemic issues that face the lower income classes just simply regarding transportation that is reliable and affordable. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you should probably pick up his book. It's meant for someone like you.

For purchase below. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Landline: A Novel

There are books that just sit in my queue forever and a half and then I get them and wonder what on earth my problem is that I didn't pick them up earlier. This book, Landline by Rainbow Rowell, is exactly that type of book.

Georgie is a successful sitcom writer with a husband, Neal, her college sweetheart, and two beautiful young daughters. When Georgie and her writing partner get a call from a wealthy television network owner asking for a new show as a midseason replacement, Georgie opts to skip Christmas with Neal and the family in Nebraska and stay behind in Los Angeles to write the scripts. Neal is furious and refuses to pick up his cell the whole time he is gone. However, when Georgie calls him at his parents from her childhood bedroom on the landline, he picks up. Soon Georgie realizes that something is off -- she is talking to 1998 Neal! The only other time they were separated and fighting was the holidays senior year when their relationship was on the line. Georgie soon finds herself wondering if it was all meant to be. Can she save her relationship by going all the way back almost two decades? 

Real talk: I loved this book. Adored it. Couldn't put it down then couldn't wait to pick it up again. I was shockingly involved in the story and I loved it. It was a bit of fantasy without being fantasy, it was a bit of a love story without being at all schmaltzy, and it was a bit of a madcap comedy while still being heartfelt.

I adored Georgie, the main character. She is such a successful woman who appears to be holding it together on the outside while still being a flawed person as we all are. She feels deep down that she isn't a good mother, she can't remember the last time she bought new clothes, and she knows how often she makes her husband mad with her career. Not in the anti-feminist "women shouldn't have jobs" way, but in the "I'm sorry I couldn't make it to our daughter's birthday party I was really engrossed in my writing" way. It's easy to relate as a working woman and the exhaustion that comes with having the job you always wanted -- you have to work to keep it. Georgie and her writing partner, Seth, have been best friends since college, even before Neal came along, and this causes some tension in the relationship. Everything about Georgie and her family and friends was real. All the way down to her daughter's belief that she is a cat. [I actually know a friend in a similar situation.]

Now for what to do when you pick up your high school phone plugged into the wall and find yourself talking to your husband from 14 years ago. I am not quite sure what I would do in this circumstance. It was fun to sit and think on, especially deciding who I would want to talk to from 1998. My high school sweetheart? Nah, I'm happy with the way things turned out. He has a lovely wife and the family he always wanted (and frankly, I didn't). My high school best friend? No, thanks, we haven't spoken in years and that's probably for the best. My future life partner when he was in high school? Now that's an idea worth exploring.

All of this to say that I was blown away by how much I found myself nose-to-page with this book. I wish it hadn't taken me as long as it did for me to finally check it out from the library, but I also believe we find these things when we need them. I needed Georgie in my life this week, and I'm glad she found her way to me. 

For purchase below. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Dept. of Speculation: A Novel

Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation had been on my radar all year, but there were these pesky library fines I had to pay before I could request new books. It's a long story involving an involuntary move. But good news, folks--I finally got it!

Life is what happens when you aren't paying attention. Marriage is harder than it looks. As the wife watches her marriage crumble and her husband admits he is having an affair, her world collapses around her. It was all so wonderful--what happened? The once sent love letters to each other postmarked Dept. of Speculation, as what on earth is ever the truth? Was the marriage real? Was it the child? The bedbugs? Or was it her?

This was a doozy of a book, and I mean that in a wonderful way. It was, in my opinion, well worthy of the hype it brought about in a literary community. It's the story of a divorce that has led to broken hearts and broken lives, and mostly they belong to the narrator. She's a writer, and a teacher, and the mother, and a wife – one who barely understands what has led her husband to find a new girlfriend. Sure, things were not perfect, but are they ever? What justifies a man straying from his marriage bed? Is it ever justifiable? As our protagonist reels from the pain, will she make decisions that will affect her forever, or will she be able to stand the pain? These are all questions that are explored through this book in a very upfront and honest way.

I really enjoyed this book, and I think it was because I enjoyed the relationships in the book as much land with the story. I would easily argue that the story is about the relationships, and it goes be on the relationship between husband and wife. It's also about the wife's relationship with her best friend, and her relationship that is never quite consummated with her husband's girlfriend. The scene where she just needs to speak with the girlfriend, rightfully so, made me angry for the wife, as I felt she had every reason to speak to the woman who willingly aided in breaking up her marriage. It's a raw tale for sure, but one worth reading.

For purchase below.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Foxcatcher: The True Story of My Brother's Murder, John du Pont's Madness, and the Quest for Olympic Gold

I saw the movie recently and decided it would be worth picking up Mark Schultz's memoir of his experiences, Foxcatcher: The True Story of My Brother's Murder, John du Pont's Madness, and the Quest for Olympic Gold.

In the early days of 1996, Dave Schultz is shot to death in the driveway of his own home. He was a wrestling world champion and Olympic gold medalist, and he was heading up Team Foxcatcher on the grounds of the infamous du Pont compound in Pennsylvania. His killer, John du Pont, had for years been a drug addict and unstable. He lured in Dave's brother, Mark, first, and Dave and his family soon followed. It would be that fateful decision that would ultimately take Dave's life.

You may not know this, but November through February of each year (although I realize it spreads years), it's Oscar season. This is an exciting time in my home, as I love films and I love the Oscars and I see every movie. Foxcatcher stars Channing Tatum, Steve Carrell, and Mark Ruffalo, and it was getting such good critical reviews that I went to see it almost immediately. I was so blown away by the creepiness of it all that I picked up the book right away.

It's written by Mark Schultz, the wrestler who originally became involved with John du Pont and his brother, Dave, killed by John. It's a full portrait of a pair of brothers who were best friends and competitors on the mat. It was clear throughout this whole book how much Mark adored his slightly older brother Dave, and the long ranging affects the Dave's murder has had on Mark. It's a devastating story really, one that seems almost inevitable looking back. John du Pont was one crazy man, and reading Mark's account as well as doing some side research, it seems that there was really nothing that anyone could have done to stop him from committing violent acts against those on his own property. The signs were there, but I guess if you donate enough money to the police don't turn their backs on just about anything.

There was a lot of technical wrestling know-how in this book, and the bulk of the first half is really focused on Mark's wrestling accomplishments. It wasn't necessarily my bag of tea, so I was able to skim a good bunch of this and really just focus on when he talked about his relationship with his brother and the events leading up to the murder. The most interesting parts of this book were what led Mark to become involved with du Pont, and the relationship between the madman and his minions. It's a frightening story of what extreme wealth and shelter from the world can do to a man. There's a big secret that explains so much about who du Pont is that he reveals to Mark towards the end of their time together that explains so much. You have to read for yourself to find out what that is.

For purchase below.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin: A Memoir

Surprise! A memoir by a Mormon! I probably shocked your pants off. Kidding. This is Nicole Hardy's Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin

Nicole Hardy is raised by two loving, adoring parents alongside her brother in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. She is a Mormon. She is raised to believe that if she keeps herself pure in all ways, including sexually, she will have eternal life with her family. She believes, and she follows, and she is determined to do it right. As she grows older and uses her teaching degree, she searches for the right husband but no one seems to want her -- a fun, feisty, creative woman who is not sure she even wants children. As Nicole moves through her twenties she quits her teaching job, pursues her career as a writer, and quits her job to move to Grand Cayman. She begins to love herself for who she is, with or without a marriage and motherhood, and the pillars of her belief system begin to make way for an expanded definition of what she can accomplish. She begins to dig deep about what she believes now, as a late thirtysomething who loves life as it is. 

I think we all know why I started this book, but I became so engrossed and finished it for a far different reason. Hardy is not just a fantastic writer, but she is willing to bare her entire soul for her readers so that they can begin to understand her life. Her faith is so much more than something that she was born into; it's the rock on which she founded her life, and the decision to move away from something that meant so much to her and grounded her every day being hurt like no other. Hardy does a brilliant job of making her reader understand why she chose to be such a devout Mormon. At a later point in the book, when somebody tries to give her a compliment by telling her how proud they were that she had moved away from the indoctrination of her childhood, I as the reader understood why she was bothered by that comment. She never thought indoctrinated; she felt home. She felt it was always her choice, and she chose what she believed was the truth. It was the moment in the book that solidified what I came to know about Hardy over the course of her memoir – that she was who she became because of her faith.

Hardy also treated this memoir in the same way I imagine she would treat her fiction. She was a character in her own story, although she was one that was so full and developed and had a gorgeous character arc. I got to know her over these pages, and I absolutely feel like I know her. In fact, the moment that she chooses to leave her church, found myself tearing up for her. She provides her reader with a piece of work that is so real and honest that it feels as though you're living with her and her life. What I loved the most about her story, though, was that she doesn't negate what she grew up believing -- she celebrates it and uses it to inform who she is now. There is no bitterness, only love. I think that's pretty awesome. 

I am only left with one question. What ever became of James?

That being said, I highly recommend this memoir to anyone and everyone who can get their hands on it. I'm only sorry that it took me many months to get to this book in my queue. I wish I picked it up much earlier, because it was an outstanding piece of work that I thoroughly enjoyed,  and it's one that will sit with me for sometime.

For purchase below. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

This has been on my list for a while, and since I wanted to see the movie the other weekend, I picked up Cheryl Strayed's Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Cheryl is having a real rough go of it. Her mom died young after cancer ravaged her body. Her family dissipated after that. In order to cope, she habitually cheated on her husband and then got hooked on heroin. Life was a mess, and one day she saw a book on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. So she did it. With no preparation. But she had to do it to become the woman her mother raised her to be. On the way she learns more about herself than she ever could have imagined.

You know how sometimes there are books that are wildly popular, either by word-of-mouth or because some talk show host puts them in her book club? And you know how sometimes you will read those books and it turns out they're actually worth the hype? This was one of them. I would also say that I easily can argue that Gone Girl was as well, but this post is about while and how could the book Wild truly is. (Although I'm not comparing the two books, because they are absolutely not similar. Except there is a great interview with the two of them together worth your time to read.)

I am already a big fan of Cheryl Strayed, and Dear Sugar is both incredibly entertaining and heartbreaking at the same time. I think she is one hell of a writer and her willingness to leave everything on the table for her readers is something that causes the great respect deep down in my heart. I don't know what took me so long to pick up this book, they may have very well been the hype surrounding it. When I knew it was being turned into a movie, I decided to wait until I was ready to see the film. Normally it wouldn't be in such a rush, because while the book was phenomenal, it's not like there's a whole lot of nailbiting action that happens. However, with the filming on the Pacific Crest Trail, I would like to see those expanses on the screen.

That being said, the crux of the book is really not about the action but about the soul-searching that happens. I love that this was not a technical know-how book. There's nothing in this book that will give you survival tips for going on a 90 day trail hike yourself. What it will give you, however, is the story of a broken woman who needs this trip, and all of her inexperience and unpreparedness, to get back to the person she was always meant to be. Her life has fallen apart – her mother has died, her marriage is falling apart, and she's made such horrible life choices that she makes your shut-in neighbor look like Miss America. This trip isn't about a hiker who is taking her dream trip. It's about a woman who needs to be torn completely down in order to build herself back up. And it's written by looking a woman ten years past who knows that this was her last desperate attempt at making herself.

It's a splendidly beautiful book that will make you turn inward and examine what you believe about yourself. Could you do something like this? I don't know if I could, but I do hope that if I ever find myself in the same situation that Cheryl did that I would be willing to take such drastic measures to pull myself back together.

For purchase below.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Guest Blogger - Our Wild and Precious Lives: A Novel

Hi there!

This month I decided to read the—somehow under the radar—novel by A.G. Russo, Our Wild and Precious Lives.

Russo is new to me and I didn’t know what to expect, and with the book receiving little to no fanfare there was no way I could prepare myself mentally for what was about to take place (more on that later). I will say, however, that my first impression was that this was going to be mostly a history book disguised as a YA novel. But the book ends up in a far different and better place, with the bonus of educating me about a time in our history from a perspective that wasn’t my history teacher’s lecture. As the book went on I grew especially attached to Melly, the main character, feeling like I needed to jump into the pages and save the day when she was in trouble. But be advised that this didn’t happen to me until about half way through, so stick with it! The book definitely takes a sharp turn towards amazingness near the end.

The story opens in 1960 and the McCarron family is on a plane to Germany. The father, Sergeant Major Jim McCarron has orders to report to Wertheim in West Germany. Sergeant Major is a war hero and veteran of WWII and the Korean War, and he’s brought his battle scars home with him, both emotional and physical. Even when he’s off-duty Jim is always at war with himself and others, barking at his family like they’re part of his platoon. He drinks night after night to ease the pain, but that doesn’t stop him from beating his son Tom for almost no reason and constantly degrading his wife Lina, and their daughter Melly. He’s such a malicious and scary character that I was actually surprised by the level of complexity that’s revealed at the end of the book, when it becomes clear he actually might have a heart, like the Grinch.

Melly’s favorite artist is the French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. She says he’s her favorite because there’s joy in his paintings despite his circumstance, and I feel like that’s kind of what this book is about. It’s about a group of friends, all army brats, responding to adversity and heartbreaking hardship in a super touching and refreshingly ordinary way. They’re trying to have a life while their parents, the army, and the state of the world is constantly demolishing everything they know.

Melly is tough, speaks her mind and is quite sassy if I do say so myself. She does this in spite of the fact that her mother, Lina, insists on the opposite and adopts a strategy of appeasement with the Sergeant Major in order to keep the peace at home. Melly’s brother Tom, like Lina, does everything he can to avoid confrontation. It’s clear that Melly sort of gets how dysfunctional her family life is and has a thick skin in order to cope, but somehow still maintains a strong sense of self. Melly questions everything, sort of in the sense of wanting to seek a greater truth than just what is presented to her. That’s why I love her. She’s determined to experience the joy and happiness she feels she deserves, despite her circumstances.

There are so many levels to this book, and the story is incredible. But what is important to know is that it starts off kind of slow and there’s a lot of time spent setting up Jim’s character (like all of chapter twelve which I enjoyed but could live without), when I feel like the beyond-Notebook-sadness-level ending could have used more ink. Speaking of the end, I cried for probably half an hour after I finished this book. I didn’t see the end coming at all and all of the relationships and interactions that seemed pointless earlier on really came full circle and took me on a seriously emotional rollercoaster. This is one of those books that someone tries to tell you about, fails, gives up, and then says trust me just read it. So that’s what I’m saying to you, trust me just read it!

~ Charlotte — Book Chameleon

For purchase below.

Monday, February 2, 2015

On Immunity: An Inoculation

I really adore Eula Biss, so at Book Expo this year when I saw she had a new book coming out, on vaccines no less, I ran to get an autographed copy. Like, ran through the expo. It was heaven. So here we are with On Immunity: An Inoculation

Eula Biss was about to become a new mother and she begins to wonder -- why do we vaccinate, and why is there an anti-vaccinate movement for something that seems so logical? Is there anything legitimate to their claims? Through her research into these questions, Biss examines what it is we fear and why -- not just through inoculation, but in life. She examines the history of vaccinations, references in literature, other ways that literature represents a historical fear of the unknown, and she talks with many in her life, including her oncologist father, to get down to the roots of why we vaccinate and why some are desperately fearful of the process. 

We as humans are so out of control of so much that affects our health and well being that this fear overwhelms so many, leading to people desiring to take control (when in fact, they are doing anything but) in any way possible. It's the crux of the anti-vaxxer movement -- the desire for an of illusion control. What Biss finally realized at the end of her search was that no matter how hard you try, you can't protect your child from everything. Whether it's chemicals in the crib mattress or bleach in cleaning solution at work, you can only do what you can do and then you must relinquish control.

This book was astounding, and I have been recommending it left and right. It is absolutely a call for vaccination, but in an incredibly intelligent way that may very well reach the anti-vaxxers (who happen to fit a profile of highly educated, older mothers with high income). This book is well-researched, well-reasoned, and clearly personal for Biss. She opens up about her own struggles with control over the environment in raising her son, and she even discusses a moment where she calls her husband in tears because they need to replace the mattress right away. Her conversations with her father are a light in the dark, as he is reasonable and honest with his daughter.

The last big point to come out of this book is that we are not alone, and that, contrary to the American ethos of every-man-for-himself, we are dependent upon each other for our health. Our bodies and our immune systems are dependent on every single other person around us, regardless of your beliefs in your own abilities to build yourself a robust immune system. The interconnectedness of it all was oddly comforting to me. I have always been confused by this (very American) mentality of me-me-me-me, as together we fight bigger, better, and stronger. I loved this book for addressing this mentality and exploring what that means in the realm of vaccinations.

For purchase below.