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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...

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Belzhar: A Novel

I picked up a review copy of this at Book Expo three years ago, and I finally cracked open Meg Wolitzer's Belzhar recently. It was a quick read (as it's Wolitzer's YA novel), but it packed a punch.

Jam isn't crazy, so she doesn't understand why she has to spend next school year at The Wooden Barn, a place for young people who have been through a hard time to "rejuvenate." What a crock. Her boyfriend died, and she is devastated. Was she just supposed to pretend like nothing happened? No one seems to understand. She's lost her friends at home and her family is unsympathetic; even her therapist doesn't seem to care. Her first semester at the Barn she is put into Special Topics in English, a selective class with only five students per semester. She doesn't know why -- she didn't apply for it. As the class begins to grow on her and she begins to grow closer to her classmates, odd things begin to happen as Jam re-experiences her time with Reeve, the lost boyfriend. Will she be able to face her own demons and move on, or will she be stuck in the past forever?

I dove into this book and didn't come up for air until I was finished. It was truly a wonderful piece of writing, one that just sucked me in and made me live in it for a few hours. Watching Jam's story unfold was like opening up a stack of porcelain Russian nesting dolls; every time I opened a new one, I had to set it down gently and turn to the next in order to get to the bottom of things. Jam keeps the details of her loss close to the vest, so when we find out what happened to Reeve I was blown away and not at all expecting to uncover the what happened to him. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and I felt the excruciating sadness that Jam experienced in my heart.

The characters in this book have all gone though some horrible things, and each is struggling with his and her mental health throughout the story. Wolitzer treats her characters with such deep respect and high regard that she removes a stigma of mental illness and replaces it with empathy and kindness. It's incredible to read, and I was thankful for such a book that does justice to young people facing such difficulties. No one is treated as crazy; everyone has a story to tell and issues to work through. There is one small thing that I would have liked to see addressed, but I can say nothing more without giving away an artery of a plot line, so let's just leave it at the wonderful book that it is. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

You Think It, I'll Say It: Stories

Curtis Sittenfeld is a darling in my eyes (her writing, I mean...I haven't actually met her, although I have no doubt she is lovely). I requested a review copy of her new book of short stories, You Think It, I'll Say It, with high hopes. I was not disappointed.

A newly single woman attends an academic conference only to make a decision that seemed like a good idea at the time. A happily married woman decides to have an affair with a family friend. A college student chooses a new friend unwisely. A new mom experiences the superiority of the perfectly coiffed pregnant goddess in her yoga class. An emotionally distant man enjoys single life save for the one secret woman he electronically communicates with about their shared love of classical music. A former magazine writer takes her new baby across the country with her to interview a celebrity, only to realize that her old dreams don't fit with her new life. A married mother despises the celebrity chef who used to sleep with her at camp years ago, who knows a secret that she longs to share with the world.

Short stories are hit and miss with me. Sometimes they miss the mark; sometimes they are absolutely everything. I have found that I particularly prefer female short story writers, and Sittenfeld fits into this mold. I was completely taken with this lot of stories and Sittenfeld's ever changing literary voice. She has a knack for finding the exact tone for her characters regardless of their age or gender, and it took practically no time for me to completely buy in to the plots of the individual stories. Reading her work was like eating a lemon cake with buttercream frosting -- it was light enough that I could eat three pieces, but rich enough that I could savor every bite while wondering how on earth something could taste so good. (This is also one of my highest complements, as this dessert combination is my life.)

There is so much I want to talk to you about each individual story, but I don't want to give you any spoilers because it's such a lovely book that you need to read it yourself. I found myself laughing out loud because Sittenfeld knows people at their basest human needs and desires, and she writes her characters and her stories to evoke this understanding. I think that's what makes her writing so accessible while still being something that you feel pleased to be given. There is a twist at the end of "The Prairie Wife," the story of the celebrity chef, that is so subtle that it was solidly brilliant. Not just good -- seamless. I found myself enraptured by "Off the Record," and the journalist who goes to interview a now-famous actress for a second time only to find herself with leaking boobs and losing the scoop. In "Volunteers Are Shining Stars," I loved the narrator although she was a terribly unlikable person. It was astounding, really, that I pulled for her even as she is jealously trying to ruin another person.

I often can't decide whether or not I like having an end to my short stories, because I love the ambiguity of a lack of ending but at the same time I want to punch someone for not knowing what happens to the characters. The most incredible part of Sittenfeld's stories was that I never got an official ending to anyone's story, but ultimately it doesn't matter because it was clear to me that I was just taking a small peek into these characters' lives for a small snippet of time. Even though I felt that I knew them deeply and intimately by the time I was halfway through their snippets, it didn't matter that I would never know what came before and what would come next. It reminds me of the question we ask in so many ways for so many reasons -- what makes today different than any other day? Sittenfeld takes just a moment from these lives and gives it to us to tell us why today is different than any other day in their lives, and their lives only. So when the stories end, they just end. I didn't feel like I needed more -- I finished very satisfied -- but by no means were ends wrapped up. Their lives would move on, and I will meet them again someday. (Right? RIGHT, CURTIS?)

Sittenfeld is one hell of a short story writer, and I would love to see more of this out of her. I love the rest of her work as well, and I may actually pull Prep now to read it earlier than I had planned, but I think this may very well be my favorite piece of her work. I'm completely blown away and in love with this collection. 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Woman in the Window: A Novel

Funny story about getting this book. At last year's Book Expo, I was super pregnant. No exaggeration -- I was 36 weeks and exhausted. I was also in a great deal of pain, as I had SPD and my pelvis was separating. I pushed through because BOOKS, but there was one  book I didn't get. I just couldn't stay another 45 minutes for the book drop. This was A.J. Finn's The Woman in the Window.

Anna Fox's life has fallen apart. She is a shut in as a result of agoraphobia, the result of a trauma she is reluctant to speak of. Her husband and young daughter have left her home, and she spends her days on a support chatroom, watching her neighbors through the window, and drinking inordinate amounts of wine. It's the only way she can cope with her PTSD. New neighbors move in across the street, and they quickly become a part of Anna's life, both through the window and in her own home. The young boy is clearly frightened, the wife is jovial and friendly, and the husband is an enigma. When Anna sees a murder in their from her window, she seeks help, only to discover that no one believes her, and the woman she saw killed does not exist outside of Anna meeting her. Is Anna's PTSD causing her to invent stories to work through her own trauma - or is something more deeply sinister occurring in her neighborhood?

It is no exaggeration to say that I whipped through this book faster than I ever imagined I could. I thought it was going to take me a few days, as it's not a short book, but I could not put it down. I found myself with my Kindle in my hand for hours at a time, grabbing a page here and a page there. When I got to the last few chapters, I threatened to stab my husband if he interrupted me one more time, because I was at the climax and I was genuinely stunned at what I was reading. This book was absolutely incredible and I highly recommend it.

When you read enough crime stories you start to be able to figure out who did it and the twists that are coming, and I was absolutely stunned that I couldn't guess what was going on in this story. It was mind-boggling in that I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out the twist. When it happened, I gasped out loud. It was crazy and completely unexpected, yet absolutely perfect for the story. I wish I could say more, but I can't because the reward in the end is well worth not knowing much more.

I also have to say that Anna has stayed with me. Finn has created a deeply empathetic character who was easy to relate to. Not just because she was a psychologist in her past life (pre-agoraphobia), but also because she was a broken woman who didn't hide her brokenness. She was able to help others through her connection to them in the online chatroom, but she couldn't help herself. She willfully ignored her psychiatrists' prescriptions and drank like a fish to cope with the result of events that were both in and out of her control. She wasn't a weak character at all; she was just broken and she recognized that she was broken. She was full and alive, and while the story was gripping, Anna was the triumph of this story.

This was a book that I couldn't recommend more, except to maybe my mother because she hates what she calls my "murder and mayhem." Everyone else, grab this one because it is outstanding. I am so glad that I was able to borrow this from the library and entertain myself over the course of a couple of days. Go ahead - treat yourself. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer

I wish that on any rating system I could give this book a million stars -- five just doesn't seem enough. Michelle McNamara's I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer is one of the most outstanding books I have ever read. 

One man is responsible for over fifty rapes, ten murders, and possibly many other crimes in California during the 1970's and 80's. At the time, investigators from several counties suspected this, and with the dawn of DNA testing it was confirmed. There were peculiarities in the reports of his crimes -- the use of a low, gravely voice, waiting to trick his victims into thinking he was gone, and most puzzling, the stalking of his neighborhoods and victims. The breadth and depth of his crimes fascinated writer McNamara, to the point that she used her insomnia to begin tracking the killer using her laptop and inborn detective skills. This definitive account of the man, his crimes, and who he could possibly be is an astounding body of work that is all encompassing and beautifully obsessive.

I am honestly just floored by what I read in this book. The first thing I have to say is what a damned shame it is that Michelle passed away at all, but that it also happened before she could finish this book or at least find out the identity of the man who took over her life for so many years. She says in the book that it doesn't matter to her who solves the case, just as long as he is caught and justice is served, and after reading the entirety of this work, it's clear that she is being honest. The depravity of the crimes that the Golden State Killer (also known as the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, and the Ransacker) was earth shattering, and the deep level of empathy that McNamara has for the victims and for the detectives working the case is palpable. This killer's work made my hair stand up on end, had me shuddering at night by myself on the couch, and crying to never be left home again. His calculating manner and his hatred for women is frightening, and to know that he is still out there, living a life, is sickening.

It's her full-scale, all-in, gung-ho love of this work that kept me up at night and invaded my dreams like injecting a serum into my brain. The disturbing details of the crime are surely enough to take over my thoughts for a while, but it's McNamara's writing that is the true gem of this book, and the biggest loss to readers everywhere. Gillian Flynn wrote the introduction, and she says that it's McNamara's writing style that makes you feel like you know her. (I'm paraphrasing, here, because I've already returned the book to the library where there are hundreds of holds waiting for it and who am I to keep this book longer than I need and keep it out of others' hands?) She, McNamara, is so personal in her work, even describing what got her hooked on true crime in her childhood. [For me it was the Polly Klaas kidnapping and murder -- not as personal as Michelle's, but stunning nonetheless.] McNamara writes for us as though she desperately needs us to have a playbook to find this man ourselves.

I understand how easy it is to go down the wormhole and not know how to get back out; I once spent twelve hours reading true crime murder cases online back when the internet was relatively new and the ability to do this was novel. McNamara, however, is in a class all by herself. I love Ann Rule, and I have a few others I think have told great stories, but I want to read every crime as told by Michelle McNamara. True Crime Diary, her blog, is a good start. 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding

I was unsure of which breastfeeding book to get when I was pregnant, and during our birth class La Leche League's The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding came highly recommended. So I got it.

Because I only bought one breastfeeding book, I can't really make a big comparison, but I can say that I found this one helpful. I really appreciated how it was organized, starting with "Nesting," which focused on why you would choose breastfeeding, through different stages such as "Birth" and "Latching and Attaching," through the first few days, weeks, and then ultimately the longer stages such as "Four to Nine Months," and the ninth month on. If you want to breastfeed into the toddler years, there's a chapter on that, too. The next section is like a FAQ (it's called "The Big Questions"), and the last portion is called "Tech Support." Once we hit our stride I forgot to go back and read the later stages, but once I did, I realized that I didn't need the book as much as I did early on in the process.

Because man, this was hard. This organization and content helped keep me calm when things really, really sucked at first. My son was often angry because he didn't want to work for his milk; he would lean his head back and open his mouth like he wanted me to just pour it in. Yeah buddy, me too, but that's not how this works. Breastfeeding is anything but easy, and if it came easy for you, right on. But most women I know didn't have a great start. I do appreciate that, for example, this book reassures you that your child is getting enough, but really, you don't ever know, so you need to monitor diaper outputs.

That being said, make sure that you go into this with a level head. There are some scare tactics in terms of the question of, "Should I or shouldn't I," and I'm always very bothered by that. I was swept up in the lactivism madness myself, and I have since taken a step back to reevaluate what the actual research shows. It's worth taking the time to critically examine your beliefs so that you don't end up feeling as though you are a horrible mother if breastfeeding doesn't work out for you or even if you don't want to do it. Recognize that some of the connections between breastfeeding and outcomes most likely don't have anything to do with the breast milk itself, but more the bonding of the mother and baby. Beware of equating breast milk consumption to the act of breastfeeding. And most importantly, give yourself a break. Your baby is going to be fine. I say that so you won't freak out when you read something like I did, which was equivalent to, "YOUR BABY MAY NOT SURVIVE AS A FULLY FORMED HUMAN IF YOU FORMULA FEED," and there is no evidence that support that.

While the authors are on point with some advice in the solid foods chapter (like avoiding baby cereal [no nutritional value!], honey [botulism!] and choking hazards [whole nuts and popcorn!]), they are very behind on the recommendations for introducing allergens, which is now the sooner the better depending on your family's history. Make sure that you are up to date on the latest AAP and WHO recommendations. I get that the advice is well meaning and it's coming from a specific perspective, and I think that it's important to understand all of the arguments for solids are, but you have to do your own close examination of the recommendations and critically analyze where the information is coming from.

I never made it to a LLL meeting, and after reading Lactivism as well as this book, I'm not sure it's the group for me, although I think if it will help you and you are down with the philosophy of the book, get your butt over there. I know they have helped countless women improve the breastfeeding practice and keep kids fed.  

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Natural Hospital Birth: The Best of Both Worlds

Cynthia Gabriel's Natural Hospital Birth: The Best of Both Worlds was part of our childbirth class for those of us giving birth in a hospital but hoping for a natural birth. This was my partner and I. Regardless of how it turned out, this book was invaluable to us as a resource.

Choosing the way you want to give birth is a long and fraught process for some women. There are those who are all about the hospital no-muss-no-fuss birth -- get me in, drug me up, and get this baby out -- and there are others who want as little medical intervention as necessary and opt for a home birth. For those who want a happy medium -- a natural birth if medically possible but in a hospital setting for safety reassurance -- it is important that you go in as prepared as possible for an experience that may seem at opposite ends of the spectrum. This book leads you through the process of preparing for a natural birth in a hospital settings written by an experienced doula.

This book was probably the most helpful out of all of the books I read to prepare for the birth of my first. I knew I wanted to be in a hospital, if only because I really love by OB and that was the only option to have her deliver my baby. I did plan for and extensively prepare for a natural birth, although I always said there was a caveat to that, and it was that I believe in modern medicine and that if I needed to have an intervention, of course I would have it. Things are much more complicated in one of New York City's busiest hospitals, and things didn't go as optimally as anyone would have liked. The issue was with the hospital policies and the staff, not with my plans, my support system, or my wonderful doctor, who went above and beyond to give me a patient-centered experience within the confines of the hospital at which she has admitting privileges. That doesn't change how important I found this book and why I highly recommend it.

Look, having a birth plan is a little silly, because these things are about as un-plannable as you can get. I loved that this book had a template for birth preferences, which I think is a much more healthy way to think about it. Of course, I had preferences, and some of them were (begrudgingly) honored, but I also realized even before we went in that you can't plan much for a birth other than to get a baby. I am a firm believer in a happy medium, and I was open to what needed to be done. I appreciated that this book was clear and to the point, and that it provided encouragement to create a list of preferences and to use it. I liked the stories in here, although I am not one to base my decisions off of others' stories.

I would highly recommend this book if you are trying to decide between the two polar opposites of birth. I completely understand the need to feel like you have control of an uncontrollable process, and anyone who has never been pregnant or given birth just doesn't understand how frightening the loss of control feels, even for those who are not control freaks. This book gives you the tools to feel slightly more in control of the process, even with the recognition that you aren't in control at all. I hope that makes sense. 

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Luckiest Girl Alive: A Novel

This was one of those books I wanted to pick up when it came out, but I was sidelined by what always feels like a million other books. When a dear friend gave me a gift card to a used book store, I ran for Jessica Knoll's Luckiest Girl Alive. 

TifAni FaNelli has done everything in her power to reinvent herself in adulthood -- taking on a shortened version of her name -- Ani, gussying up her wardrobe, writing for a popular magazine with cache, finding a wealthy fiance, and snagging a TriBeCa apartment. All of this so that she could escape her freshman year of high school at The Bradley School and the infamous person she quickly became after an incident so horrifying that it made national news. When Ani goes back home after agreeing to appear in a documentary on the crime, she must face who she was and who she has become, and neither are people she is proud of.

I wasn't sure if I had this one hyped up too much before I read it -- I did know a few of the plot points. I will say, that which I heard did not at all ruin this story for me. I read it a lot like a thriller, in that I found I couldn't put it down. I was fascinated with the character of Ani and how absolutely abhorrent she was as a human being, and how I couldn't wait to figure out what her number was. When reading about this book before I bought it, I found that people either loved or hated Ani, and I think that speaks to Knoll's ability to write a character that was genuinely dislikable, and that was the whole point. I can't speak for Knoll, as she wrote this and I didn't, but I think the whole point of Ani is that she is a shitty person and she is designed for us to hate her. She says early on in the book that she wants to turn the tide and be the tormentor rather than the tormented. (I am paraphrasing, of course.) All of the characters were interesting and half horrible, half sympathetic, and that was a fairly realistic portrayal of people in general. No one is likable or sympathetic all of the time, and there's no reason a character should be.

I found that Knoll did a bang-up job of carrying the through line through the first third of the book to keep me interested to find out how Ani ended up where she did. I was so engrossed in where the story was going that I found myself looking for reasons to go back to my book. It was intriguing and nail-biting, and the story vacillated between terribly and painfully realistic to unbelievable while still being, for me at least. completely absorbing. I got it, and while I still didn't particularly care for Ani as a person, I thought Knoll did made outstanding work of telling her story. When she got revenge, I was with her. It wasn't the way you think it will be in the story, but it does come in the end. It takes the whole book, but the Ice Queen melts, although you won't know how or why until you understand the whole story. And I can't tell you that here, because the spoilers are yours to find and not mine to give away.

There is much I want to say about this story, and much that I won't. I am in the camp that really, really enjoyed this book and I am glad that I barreled through it last weekend. I am looking forward to Knoll's newest book and seeing what she comes up with next. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Immortalists: A Novel

I had completely forgotten that I picked this up at BookExpo last year, so you can imagine how excited I was when I found Chloe Benjamin's The Immortalists on my shelf. Whee!

If you could know the exact date or your death, would you want to know? When the Gold siblings visit a mysterious woman they have heard about, they venture out from their home on the Lower East Side one hot, muggy afternoon in the 1970's. They are all affected by the news they receive that day, and it drives their lives from that point forward. Simon, the youngest, sets out to live his authentic life as a gay man in San Francisco with his older sister, Karla, who dreams of being a professional magician and taking after her namesake grandmother she never met. Daniel, the second oldest, follows a strait and narrow path, marrying young and serving in the military as a doctor after medical school Varya, the oldest, becomes a researcher focused on finding the fountain of youth. Knowing the dates of their death will either teach them how to die, or teach them how to live.

This book was stunningly beautiful and overwhelmingly devastating. I feel like I could end my post there, because that sums up this astounding piece of work from Benjamin. Her writing drew me in much like a magnet to its polar opposite; no matter if I even wanted to try to turn away, I could not. Her prose is languid and moving; it is honest and lays the story bare for her readers. It is just amazing, and I could rave all day at how beautiful these sentences were and how when put together, they created a world that was open to possibilities but not at all since their deaths were foretold to the siblings. Benjamin made me feel that the inevitable could be rewritten if I just believed hard enough.

Now for the stars of the show -- the Golds. Heading up the family is Gertie, who becomes the rock of the family when her husband, Saul, dies an early death. The older two siblings are in college and the younger two are at the end of high school, and Simon is expected to take over the family business. He is devastated by this knowledge. The last night of shiva, which is the last night the Gold siblings will ever be all together in the same room, they reveal the ages they were told they would die. It sets the story up with intrigue and hesitancy, because I then know how the book ends. Still, I hoped it might lead me down an interesting path. However, at the end of the first sibling's story, I was stabbed in the heart. I knew it was coming, but I was still devastated. HOW COULD BENJAMIN DO THIS TO ME? I was a loyal reader, and there she goes killing off my characters.

Each of the Golds has a personality all their own, and each of their stories is not just interesting, but full of depth and breadth and such love. It is clear how much Benjamin cared about these characters she wrote so carefully even when she had to kill them off -- because, after all, no one gets out of here alive. I just wanted to crawl into this book and change the trajectory of each of the Golds' lives. Even Varya, who (SPOILER!) lives the longest of her family. She has the ability to live a long, full life, and instead she chooses her path which is cold and, I would argue, quite empty. Knowing when they each will die gives them all the choice to learn to accept death or to accept life. It's both shocking and unsurprising that they are both difficult and diametrically opposed.

Would I want to know the date of my own death? Thankfully it's not an option, so I never have to choose.