Featured Post

Happy 6th Birthday, SPR!

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

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Guest Blogger Charlotte: The Giving Tree

The Giving Tree has been inescapable throughout my childhood, I see it on every bookshelf, bookstore, and library I pass, but I hadn’t bothered to pick it up until now.  You know that one bestseller that’s been around forever, and that everyone has seen and you’ve heard so much about that you feel like you’ve seen it without actually having seen it? Yea, that’s my relationship with The Giving Tree. Okay, wow, I now see why this book is on almost every bookshelf in America. And, I’ve got to say, for a couple of hundred words, this story is surprisingly heavy and meaningful.

I know we’re all used to children’s books with a single or maybe a couple of lessons or morals woven into the story with a nice, neat payout at the end. This kind of story is satisfying to the mind and perfect for helping with sleep. That said, The Giving Tree is not this kind of book and should probably not be read as a bedtime story.

And that’s the exactly what’s so great about it! This book makes you think. It tugs at your heartstrings in lots of different directions. Shel Silverstein is a true artist and The Giving Tree is possibly his most thought provoking work. The book is at most a five-minute read and, again, packed with layers and layers of meaning. I’ve gotten far less out of five-hundred-pagers I was stuck with for a week.

The story is about a boy and the special relationship he has with his favorite tree. The tree is a girl. He loves the tree, visits her every day, and does with her all of the things boys usually do with trees. The tree loves the boy too and is increasingly sad as the boy grows up and his visits to the tree become less frequent. When the boy does visit and needs something, the tree provides. The tree sacrifices for the boy. First her apples, then her branches, and finally her trunk, leaving nothing but an old stump. Still, when the boy returns the tree is overjoyed, and gives her all to please him. The story ends with the boy, now an old man, desiring only to spend the rest of his days resting near the stump. The tree warmly welcomes him back.

There are so many ways to interpret this story. It’s also clear to me that my interpretation of the story will change as my perspective changes. The meaning of this story depends totally on the lens through which you view it. And that’s what makes it great! I’m sure I’ll read it again in five years and see it in a whole new light.

I did have a few immediate thoughts when I closed the book. For me the story brought clarity to the concept of unconditional love and I was immediately thankful for my wonderful family and all they do for me. And all the things we do for each other. It’s an intense feeling to know that my family would sacrifice for me in the same way the tree sacrificed for the boy.

I also thought about the tree and how she seems to depend on the boy for her happiness. The entire time the tree is only trying to please the boy so he would stay, however, as soon as he leaves (pun intended) she is instantly saddened. This reminded me to be responsible for my own happiness and to not let my sense of self get wrapped up in anyone else. I don’t want to end up with just my stump.

It’s important to remember to climb trees and take naps outside in the shade. The boy in the story lost his innocence and imagination, which I think was ultimately a source of his trouble. In life you don’t need every single thing available because in the end it won’t make you happy.

The Giving Tree is certainly food for thought. The story will undoubtedly leave you feeling good about the people around you.

Take five minutes and read this book.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Today Will Be Different: A Novel

You know we all loved Where'd You Go, Bernadette. It was one of those books that was so worth the hype and the praise that I still can't get over it. So at BEA this year, I jumped in line for the book signing of her latest, only to discover that it was a print from the book. Imagine my surprise when, a few months later, this gem landed in my mailbox. I screamed with joy in my apartment lobby, and my boyfriend was terribly confused at my excitement. I had forgotten that the publisher had promised to send galleys when they were ready. This, my friends, is Maria Semple's Today Will Be Different.

Eleanor promises that today will be different. She will be more patient, she will dress up, she will make all of her appointments, and she may even initiate sex with her husband. Today will be the day she has it all together, she swears. That is, until her poetry lesson doesn't go as well as expected, she has to pick up her faking-sick son Timby from school, she steals a fellow mom's keys, her husband has told his office they are all on vacation and are suprised to see her when she stops in, and a ghost of her old life shows up and reminds her of the biggest loss in her life. A raucous good time, no?

Of course I will own up to the fact that I love Maria Semple wholeheartedly and that love runs deep. Bernadette was a lovely, astounding book that I couldn't put down, but Today was so much better. I don't say that lightly – this book entranced me and gripped me in a way that surpassed the incredible nature of Bernadette. This book owned me totally and completely – I only wanted to finish whatever I was doing that to be able to get back to this book.

Semple has a way of telling the most crazy and meandering story in a way that feels entirely realistic and completely plausible. She writes her protagonists as people whose readers can not only relate to but also understand as if she were telling her own story. Life is complicated – it's ridiculous and it's confusing and it's wonderful and it's something that you have to learn to figure out every day. No two days will be the same, but surely, when every day each and every one of us wakes up we hope today will, in fact, be different. The protagonist of the story is no different, one who promises she will be patient and will love her has been more and will dress up, and will be the best. Lo and behold, life doesn't have that planned for her today. Today is different than any other day, and you have to read this book to understand why.

I couldn't put this book down, and if you are to read it for yourself, you will certainly understand why. The pain of not being close to the one family member you hoped that you would always be is difficult to accept but vital to doing in order to make today different. Accepting the day in stride and pushing forward nothing is wrong is a big piece of being human, but Semple takes it to another level. I certainly don't have my own husband to lead me to follow a new path, but I did find myself laughing and entirely entranced with this work. Semple has the ability to insert love in the hardest hearted person to make him or her giggle. Her wit, her timing, and her aplomb is simply to die for, and I can't wait another three years to get my hands on her next book.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Reputations: A Novel

I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked up this book at the Expo this year. I was told it was scary, and I noticed it was on the shorter side, so I said, "Why not?" This is Juan Gabriel Vasquez's Reputations.

Javier Mallarino is a famous political caricaturist for the incredibly popular independent paper and Columbia. On his multi-decade anniversary of his tenure, he receives an award for his indispensable work to the nation and his people. He also spends a great deal of time reminiscing on his professional and personal life. On the night of his award, a young woman comes to visit him under the guise of an interview, and her surprise visit opens old wounds, events that happened 20 something years ago when he was newly divorced and the girl was young. These were events that forever changed her life, and the reemergence will forever affect his.

Who have we become even when we forget about the events, willfully or unwittingly, that shaped us? This beautiful novella explore the question of how our past shapes us, and how willing we are to forget about it. The event in question occurred when his daughter and her friend were very young, and the aftermath saw the suicide of a famous politician and be forever implanted distrust in the young woman. And even though it's something that Javier doesn't think about very often, it ultimately brought out some of his most stating work. I found the interactions between Javier and the young woman to be incredibly interesting, particularly in light of Javier's relationship with his ex-wife. It's a complicated web for such a short piece of work, but very interesting.

I realize that this is the work of an international writer, and this they may very well be my American sensibility, but I felt a dissatisfaction at the ending. We never really get a resolution to the young woman's crisis that originally brought her to Javier's doorstep, and with my love of murder and mayhem in mind, I very much wanted the confrontation that needed to happen. Trying to be as vague as possible while still giving you my feelings on the book, because I definitely do not want to spoil the surprise and the intrigue that comes as the gift of reaching the middle of this novella. The ending not withstanding, I found the prose to be beautiful and luxurious. It's a book that I thoroughly enjoye, and I would absolutely recommend for a quiet weekend day on the veranda with a glass of wine.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Not My Mother's Kitchen: Rediscovering Italian-American Cooking Through Stories and Recipes

This was an unexpected pick-up this year, as I wasn't planning on taking home from Chicago more than my very specific list. However, I couldn't resist this one, as my Italian roots were calling my name.

I had originally picked up this book thinking that it would be a quick read of recipes and I can pass it onto one of my beloved family members. That flew out the window about 10 pages into the book. I quickly realize how important this but was going to be to me and to my kitchen. This is more than just recipes; it's a combination of parentage that expands and entire country, several regions, an individual households. It's a recognition of a culture that has a way of doing things that respects the individual differences. It has an abundance of garlic and onions, but it also visits cuisines that include meat, pizza (as plebeian as it is), pasta, and drinks. there is wine for sure, but don't forget the aperitif or the digestif.

There are more recipes and I can possibly name that I flagged before I put this back on my bookshelf. I found myself completely reveling in the stories, the history, and the food. I was hungry at a much more importantly strong level than I normally am, and that's saying something. Before I even finish the book, I ordered supplies from one of the resources in the back of the book, and I can't wait to get started this very weekend on some of the recipes in the book. Of course, I'm Italian, so I just take recipes the general outline or a good idea and make it my own. I'm looking forward to this process and creating some of these dishes my own.

Here's a picture of my hasty order:

Yeah. I'm sold. I am madly in love with this book and I will never go back. I will be gifting this book for years to come. Thank you, Robert, for putting a piece of my heart in writing and giving me and my generation a definitive book of Italian cooking of our own. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Girl in Pieces: A Novel

Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow fell in to my lap at Book Expo this year. It looked like it could be an interesting read, so I picked it up without much thought and added it to the queue.

Fresh off the street, Charlie is currently in rehab for self harm. What she went through to get there was too harrowing to speak of. With virtually no parents to speak of, she depended on the protection of her friends on the street. Now that she is being released from rehab through no fault of her own, she must learn to make a life on the outside that resembles something productive, and safe, even if it's not happy. She gets on the bus to Tucson where an old friend lives, and she sets up life as a dishwasher in a local coffee shop, meeting new characters, fighting off old demons, and learning how to fend for herself in this scary world.

I was pleasantly surprised at how interested I was in this book from the beginning. Glasgow does a really marvelous job of describing rehab in an empathetic and human light, one that really helps us buy in to Charlie's story early on. Granted, we are in Charlie's head, so that helps, but she teases us with enough information to get us coming back. Her fellow patients called her Silent Sue, and the name is very befitting. I was incredibly intrigued by the character and what she had gone through to get where it is that the book started. I was not expecting her to be released from rehab so suddenly and unexpectedly; it was an abrupt change in the story that, looking back, I realize is very realistic and it was an excellent story choice.

There were times toward the middle of the book where I felt pieces of the story were not entirely necessary, but overall the book read quickly and I was sold on the character and the story choices. I was particularly taken by the character of Linus. I don't want to say much about her, because you should read this book for yourself in order to thoroughly enjoy it. She was a minor character for sure, but one I related to probably on an adult to adult basis. She was an excellent torch bearer and rock for the story, which would often go in and out of emotions including hopeful and despair. When, for example, an old friend from rehab comes to visit, Charlie's life is turned on its head, and I found myself really angry at the entire situation. That for me is the sign of a good story, to have such intense emotions about it. Getting angry at a story is usually a sign that I care, which means that ultimately I felt this was a good book.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counter Intuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

Disclaimer: Based on the title of this book, it won't surprise you that this post contains a lot of foul language. Like a LOT. If you are offended by that, you should probably skip this post. Yes Mom, that most likely means you.

Mark Manson, the author if this here The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, had a widely shared article recently that you most likely read. It was a lead up to this sucker, of which I have been highly recommending to just about everyone I know since reading it cover to cover on the lane home from BEA. Now it's my turn to try to peddle it to you, dear reader. That is, if you made it past the disclaimer.

We aren't meant to be happy all of the time. That's right. You read that correctly. Read it again: We aren't meant to be happy all of the time. However, we are constantly bombarded with ideas that we are supposed to medicate and talk our way out of bad days, bad weeks, bad years. Instead, sometimes things are just supposed to be shifty. We have to get through the bad to enjoy the good. Most things worth having in life are worth wading through the muck for. My PhD for example, or my relationship with the World's Greatest Boyfriend (WGB). (I really do have that boyfriend. More on that soon.) Life isn't supposed to be a bag of roses and Cadbury eggs. We are supposed to LIVE IT, and that means we take the shitty with the amazing.

One thing that Manson talks about early on is how we don't want to put the work into relationships anymore for the longtime payoff. Relationships take work, and anyone who tells you otherwise is just lying (and wanting you to think their life is perfect -- that's another discussion). This hit home, because this was a point of conversation with my best friend and me as if late. Suffering in a relationship -- manipulation, emotional abuse, control -- is NOT GOOD. But work and hard stuff -- now THAT is what gives you the payoff. WGB and I went through this. (Another disclaimer: This is my side if the story. While I know he agrees with me, his side is his to tell.) WGB and I have been friends for more than a decade, good friends for more a year, we spent the entire last fall pretending we weren't dating. Then in the spring I basically told him to out up or shut up, and we came to a bit of a standstill. He had to choose a direction, and it was a bit iffy there for a few days. To his credit, he made up his mind pretty quickly, but I wasn't ready to hear the verdict. The three days between putting my foot down and deciding it give this a go were three of the saddest, worrisome, and hardest of my life. I was heartbroken. Nothing scared me more than losing him, but I knew that if I didn't risk it, I wouldn't get the reward, which was him loving me back. (And dear readers, it's the greatest reward on the face of the planet, even though he drives me absolutely nuts sometimes.)

I loved this man, long before we ever said that to each other, but I knew that if we didn't do the work, and we didn't go through this, then what was lying on the other side just wouldn't matter. The story obviously has a happy ending -- but we work on it constantly. We talk about feelings and hopes and dreams and order tacos and watch Star Wars and talk some more. We are willing to put in the work for the longneck payoff go being a unit. I'm do thankful everyday for this man who wants to work as hard as I do at this.

In the fourth chapter, Manson talks in detail about suffering, and specifically about the difference in suffering for good values and suffering for bad values. Bad values are those that are based on things out of your control: fame, money, popularity, pleasure. These values are so dependent on other people and other factors outside of your control. He specifically tells the story of Pete Best, kicked out of the Beatles and replaces by Ringo Star right before they recorded their first album,  later in life, Best gave an interview and said it was for the best (pun unintended) -- he was much happier than he would have been in the band. He reoriented his values, and he was happier in the long run for it. This was something I got.

I have failed a lot in life -- all of us have, and what we have chosen to do with that failure is what counts. I have been laid off twice (really, it was because it's damned hard to fire someone in this state), and I left the theatre after the second one because I just didn't give the amount of fucks that I should have for continuing to work in the field. I changed my priorities -- I changed what I gave a fuck about. And I'm certainly happier for it in my own long-run.

Basically what I saying is that this book is psychologist approved. {Wink, wink.}

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Ann Rule's Dead by Sunset

Ann Rule, how I love thee. This is Dead by Sunset: The True-Crime Classic of Marriage, Murder, and the Man Who Got Anything--and Anyone--He Wanted... Oh Ann, writer of my beloved murder and mayhem real-life stories. How thankful I am for you, for providing me with superb vacation reads. This was another one of my Japan books, and I was in it to win it.

Brad was a handsome, caring, and loving man -- until you crossed him. Them he became ruthless, vindictive, and abusive. That is -- if anyone believes you. Just months into his third marriage, Brad convinces his pregnant wife's best friend, Cheryl, to run off with him and marry him. She does, and it becomes the mistake that ultimately takes her life. Just a short year into the marriage, Cheryl realizes that Brad can't hold a job, contribute to the family, or remain faithful. She tries to stick it out through the years, giving birth to three beautiful boys, but ultimately she can't make it work. Not long after their divorce, Cheryl's body is found destroyed in a horrible car wreck. Was this an accident, or something more sinister?

You know the drill.

To say that I was consumed by this book for days might be a slight understatement. I certainly didn't INTEND to get lost in the thirty year old world of Brad and Cheryl, but I also won't say that I didn't like it. (That was a purposeful use of double negatives, btw.) I am fascinated by psychopathy, because as often as we use the word in conversation, the reality is that psychopaths (used interchangeably with sociopaths, even though some might argue that they are different things) are fairly rare. Brad, however, would definitely be categorized as one. As I read the book, I found myself often wondering how woman after woman after woman could keep falling for this guy and AGREEING to marry him (!!!) been though they were his third, fourth, fifth wives. If a man has that many "psycho" exes who are "horrible people," how could you not see the neon red flag that says there is ONE common denominator in all of these cases -- and it's Brad.

Nonetheless, it happened and these women lived their nightmare and most barely got out alive. Cheryl didn't. My mind reeled with the lengths this man went to in order to harass, make fearful, and drive to paranoia the women who had the gall to leave him, even when he no longer wanted to be with them. It was the audacity they had to not allow him to be in control that almost cost them their lives, while costing them their savings and their piece of mind. Ultimately Brad was convicted of Cheryl's murder, which I don't consider much of a spoiler because if you have ever read an Ann Rule book then you know that she is a thorough, detailed writer that has the whole story before going to print. What I love about reading her books are the details and the 10,000-piece puzzle that you do slowly and methodically so that when you finish, and step back, there is an intricate and colorful picture that emerges, telling the whole story.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Leave Me: A Novel

Gayle Forman's most famous book, If I Stay, has made an appearance on this blog before, and while I was at Book Expo this year, I heard she was releasing her first adult novel, Leave Me. I happily waited in line for it and enjoyed it on my way to Dallas to meet the boyfriend's family. (It went well, thank you!)

Maribeth's life is fine -- it's wonderful, even. Her college-sweetheart-cum-husband works in his beloved music industry, her twin son and daughter are in Pre-K at a lush private school in their TriBeCa neighborhood, and she is working as an editor at a lush celebrity magazine. Maribeth is juggling all parts of her life smoothly until the day she has a heart attack. (Turns out it wasn't indigestion.) She must learn to take care of herself, but that is hard when her husband treats work as a top priority, her children are too young to realize the gravity of it all, and her mother is there to "help." (Spoiler: She isn't much.) Maribeth picks up and leaves with cash in hand and no specific place in mind. She somehow ends up in the exact place she needs to be to find herself -- both figuratively and literally.

This novel surprised me, as I figured that I would enjoy but I wasn't aware the degree to which I would find myself melting into the story. It felt like a big, comfortable armchair, and when I sat down in it I didn't want to find the will, the energy, or the motivation to get up out of it. Life was better in it. As this story went on, I found myself just sinking deeper and deeper into it until I didn't know who I was without it. Really. The writing is incredible, and the story is one that any person, but specifically any woman, would understand. Having just finished the forthcoming Maria Semple book, I was expecting more wit (and that is a fault of my having read it first!), so I was pleasantly surprised at the earnestness and honesty that Forman puts forth on the page.

I speak to my students in my development classes about the "second shift" when we talk about gender development, and how that shapes students' perceptions of the sexes. The second shift, for those of you hearing it for the first time, is the shift of "work" that women do when they get home after a day that consists of working for pay. This shift, however, is unpaid, but needs to get done. It's the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry, the childcare, the pet care, and the general household needs that just have to get done. This second shift is more often than not done by women, and my household is certainly no exception. This is what Maribeth is dealing with -- she can't take care of her job, take care of her household, and take care of herself. While I don't know if I could go to the extreme of leaving as she does, her story certainly lends itself to the full belief that this was the only way to go. I understood her choice and it was a superb read to follow her through her journey that ultimately ended in her searching out her birth parents.

Finding ourselves is a surprisingly difficult thing to do, and there is a reason why self-search is often done at a young age, but then needs to be repeated as we age. There's just so little time for it as we grow older. I loved the relationship between Maribeth and her husband Jason. When she leaves, she doesn't hear from him, and in a very real, very honest, and very human moment, Maribeth sends off a regrettable (and snarky) email to him. It is to his testament of what a good, loyal man he is that he deals with it, and in turn Maribeth, in a way that pushes this story forward in a way that endears both him and her to the reader. Their email exchanges melted my heart and warmed my soul. They were so real, so honest, and they embodied what this whole story meant to tell. That when you find yourself, then you can move forward.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Sweetbitter: A Novel

The biggest novel to hit the shelves in July was Stephanie Danler's Sweetbitter. I requested it immediately from the library and sped through it one afternoon before classes began for the fall. 

A young girl moved to New York City to find herself. She has no idea what she wants to do if she wants to be, so she sets out to find a job. Any job. She ends up being immediately hired at a café just off of Union Square, and she finds out it's because she has that extra 51%. What is that, you wonder? It's the untouchable, untrainable, mystical sense that we sometimes call charisma. Over the course of the year, Tess loves and loses, learns all about food and wine, and poems her skills as a back waiter and human being. This coming of age tale is not just about finding yourself, but finding yourself in the restaurant business.

The very first thing that I feel I need to say is that Danler is a superb writer. I found her prose to be incredibly on point and addicting in and of itself. The way that she crafts a story and strings her words together makes her a supremely compelling writer. That being said, I will be the first to tell you that I didn't particularly like this story. However, not liking the story doesn't take away from Danler's talent as a novelist. In fact, I found myself saying that I am very much looking forward to her second book. Just because I wasn't a fan of this story doesn't mean that I can't adore her ability.

My roommate wanted to know how I felt about this book after I finished it, and she was the first one that I texted. The way that I explained it to her was that it reminds me of the show Girls. I hated Girls, but I thought it was a wonderfully outstanding piece of work. It was well written, well directed, well produced, and well acted. It was, objectively speaking, an outstanding television show that deserves the critical accolades it received. It was incredible to watch something come together that was really that well done. I hated the show. I hated the whinyness, and I felt that it may have been a generational thing. Well I enjoy a good coming-of-age story, I felt that the television show was full of whiny women who needed to get their shit together and stop relying on mommy and daddy. My feelings towards this book or somewhat similar, just without the reliance on her parents. I wanted to reach into the book and smack her for her idiotic choices, and I felt no sympathy whatsoever for Tess when she ultimately got involved with a bad guy who would break her heart. (This isn't a spoiler because you see it coming a mile away. It's not even meant to be a surprise by the writer. She literally foreshadows it. I mean, literally. She tells you it's going to happen.)

I get the idea that we all have to make stupid mistakes in our early 20's and learn from them. God knows I made more than my fair share of mistakes. I just wanted to protagonist to be a little bit stronger. The relationship between her and her mean girl co-worker was interesting, and I felt myself waiting the entire novel for the other shoe to drop. This was by far the most interesting relationship in the book, because when it finally did drop, it was incredibly interesting and anti-climactic in one of the most interesting ways I found a novel recently. Usually "anti-climactic" is an insult, but in this case it really worked with the story and I mean it as a high compliment. The author is truly a talent that I feel will produce some additional amazing work, and even though I wasn't a fan of the story, I certainly feel like she deserves all the praise she received with this novel was released last month. I am anxiously awaiting her sophomore novel.