I recently joined Litsy (a relatively new app that’s like a cross between Instagram and Goodreads) and originally thought, since Litsy is image-centric, that my preference for e-reading would make me more of a lurker than a poster (who wants to see a million pictures of my kindle?!). But, I’ve enjoyed it far more than I ever thought I would!
Now that I know I like it, I’ve been pondering how it might fit into my overall reviewing strategy and would love to hear what others are doing. I want to avoid just duplicating what I’m doing on the blog and other social media. But, what niches will Litsy help me (and you) fill? Here’s what I’ve been doing and thinking…
Dysfunctional families are one of my favorite topics to read about in fiction…and I was lucky enough to come across two winners this Fall.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett Fiction (Released September 13, 2016) 336 Pages Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Harper)
Plot Summary: An ill fated christening party is the catalyst that ruins the Keating and Cousins marriages…and creates a blended family trying to navigate their new world.
My Thoughts: Commonwealth is a simply and perfectly told story of a cobbled together family…and is one of my favorite books of 2016 so far! Every member of the blended Keating/Cousins family behaves dreadfully, but I was somewhat sympathetic towards all of them. The four Cousins children and two Keating girls are impressively creative in their antics, but I rooted for them because their parents are so completely uninterested in and overwhelmed by them. And, it wasn’t their fault that their parents selfishly created this impossible situation. But, I also sympathized with the parents because their children’s united hatred of them resulted in an incredible amount of tormenting.
The Cousins children and the Keating children smiled up with beatific forgiveness. They had done everything they had ever wanted to do, they had had the most wonderful day, and no one even knew they were gone.
There is nothing grand about this story, no bells and whistles in the plot or the writing. But Ann Patchett can really tell a story…one that is beautiful and satisfying and reflects the mess of real life without resorting to tricks. She releases information about her characters in drips and drabs (similar to Did You Ever Have A Family) and describes scenes of mundane life that perfectly illustrate her characters:
When their father took the girls to the alley behind the grocery store at six o’clock in the morning with their racquets and fresh cans of tennis balls, Caroline would have as many as twenty-seven consecutive hits without missing. Thwack, thwack, thwack, into the blank wall that was the back of the A&P, her long arms intuitively graceful in their swing. Franny’s personal best was three consecutive hits, and that had only happened once. But the real difference between Caroline and Franny was that Caroline cared. She cared about the law and tennis and her grades in classes she didn’t even like. She cared what their father said about their mother, what he said about everything. Franny just wanted to go back to the car and read Agatha Christie.
Commonwealth is a book that I enjoyed every minute of reading. I couldn’t wait for my next opportunity to read and I didn’t want it to end.
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood Fiction (Released August 9, 2016) 352 Pages Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books)
Plot Summary: After Wavy, the daughter of a meth dealer father and addict mother, witnesses Kellen’s (one of Wavy’s father’s “employees”) motorcycle accident, he takes her under his wing, leading to an unlikely relationship.
My Thoughts: I was all over the place with my feelings about All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, but I ended up in an emotionally invested and somewhat surprising (to me) place. I immediately loved the voice of Amy, Wavy’s cousin, and the storyline of Wavy’s integration into her extended family’s normal way of life the first of many times she stayed with them. Then, I became thoroughly creeped out by the story’s direction once Wavy returns to her parents at the ranch (her home and the site of her father’s meth cooking business). My discomfort with a specific theme of the story began to make me actually dislike the entire book. I kept saying to myself “please tell me this isn’t going there.”
But, by the halfway point, Greenwood completely brought me around again. She sold me on her creepy storyline (to the tune of 4 stars instead of the 2.5/3 stars I was considering)! I’ve read many books that started off well only to fall off a cliff later on, but it’s rare that I find one that does the opposite (Fates and Furies is the last one I can think of). Greenwood wrote in a way that demanded my sympathy for and understanding of these characters, despite my initial misgivings. Plus, the story’s action picked up considerably in the second half. Because All the Ugly and Wonderful Things addresses a controversial topic likely to spark strong feelings one way or another, it would make an excellent book club selection.
Before last week, I was confident Commonwealth had locked up my “big Fall fiction” top spot. Then this week, The Mothers hit me in the face, so I’m thrilled to have more than one Fall fiction standout! Since finishing The Mothers, I’ve had some distractions come up at home, so I switched gears to light nonfiction. Big lesson learned this year = pay close attention to my reading moods!
I finished reading…
The Mothers by Brit Bennett (October 11, 2016) Just fantastic. Exactly my kind of writing style, which I’m trying to figure out how to coherently describe. Review to come. Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
I’m currently reading…
Hungry Heart by Jennifer Weiner (October 11, 2016) I started Weiner’s memoir-style essay collection last week, then put it down to read The Mothers when it came out. I’m back at it and about 20% through…and it’s the perfect book for my current mood.
I tried, but wasn’t feeling…
The Eastern Shore by Ward Just (October 18, 2016) After not finding much evidence of the story in the publisher’s blurb (or why the book is called The Eastern Shore, which is what attracted me to it) by the 30% mark, I decided to put this one down.
Upcoming reading plans…
We’ll see what I’m in the mood for, but maybe this…
When people ask me for book recommendations, I find myself recommending the same books over and over again…especially when I’m not overly familiar with the requester’s reading taste. The books on this list are versatile, in that they’re likely to appeal to a broad range of readers, and are some of the most frequently purchased books through my Amazon affiliate links.
If you’re new to asking me for recommendations, these are probably the first books I’ll shove into your hands!
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed Advice columns that are wise, non-judgmental, and completely necessary…
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D.Vance Nonfiction – Memoir (Released June 28, 2016) 272 Pages Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Harper)
Plot Summary: Vance’s hybrid memoir of his childhood growing up poor in an Ohio town (Middletown) / social analysis of the plight of poor Appalachians.
My Thoughts: Before reading Hillbilly Elegy, I’d heard it compared to Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle (which I loved) and I agree that the memoir portion does bear some resemblance. But, Vance takes Hillbilly Elegy to the next level (5 star level for me!) by seamlessly blending in social analysis of why the poor, white working class is failing to achieve upward mobility. This blend of life story and social analysis is tough to execute well (I’m looking at you, The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts) and Vance made it work. Vance’s social analysis is brave and articulates hard-to-swallow truths, even about his own family, which make this book almost a plea to his fellow hillbillies to take some responsibility for their lives.
But this book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.
Through a combination of hard work, a supportive grandmother, a clear vision, a driving ambition to “get out”, and a bit of luck, Vance served in the military, then graduated from Ohio State and Yale Law School (a rarity for folks from his town). His success enables him to portray the difficulties (i.e. countless unwritten social rules) working class people that do make it face as they try to assimilate into the white collar world. Hillbilly Elegy is the perfect combination of entertaining story (including Mamaw, a fantastic trash-talking grandma with a heart of gold who Vance credits with saving his life) and commentary on a specific segment of the population that has become more visible in this election…making it a great discussion starter for book clubs.
Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt Historical Fiction (Released October 4, 2016) 352 Pages Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (Algonquin Books) via NetGalley
Plot Summary: When sixteen year-old Lucy runs away with an older man in the early 1970’s, the family she left behind tries to piece together what happened while her new life doesn’t turn out quite how she imagined.
My Thoughts: Amid September’s back to school chaos (see my review of A Gentleman in Moscow), I craved reading that didn’t require too much concentration and Cruel Beautiful World fits that bill. Upon reading this first line, I thought Cruel Beautiful World would hit the spot perfectly:
Lucy runs away with her high school teacher, William, on a Friday, the last day of school, a June morning shiny with heat.
Though I wasn’t highlighting much (i.e. the writing wasn’t making a huge impression), the first half of the book was decently entertaining, if not particularly memorable. However, the ending included a couple eyeroll-inducing surprises and one that I saw coming a mile away, turning my mild enjoyment into annoyance. And, Lucy’s so-called obsession with news of the Manson murders felt forced and unnecessary…like Leavitt just needed some vehicle to highlight that the book is set in the early 1970’s because the time period didn’t shine through the story otherwise.
I’m fully back into the swing of Fall fiction and have finally found books I’m enjoying! And, it was perfect timing because I had a fantastic weekend trip with grad school girl friends in Atlanta (Plan B after Hurricane Matthew eliminated Charleston). Though I didn’t read much while in Atlanta, I did have two solo plane flights, so I got some good reading in then. I never thought there would be a time when I’d look forward to air travel, but flying without your toddlers is pretty awesome if you love to read.
I finished reading…
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (September 13, 2016) Yep, this one is one of my favorite books of the year. Review to come. Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
The Eastern Shore by Ward Just (October 18, 2016) I had to read this slim little novel solely because of its title…as my husband and I got married on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I’m only 30% in so far, but I’m not feeling particularly hopeful.
Back in January of 2015, I posted a SPOILER discussion of The Girl on the Train (see bottom of this post for original discussion), which hadn’t yet become the runaway hit it is now. It’s since become far and away my most viewed post ever and sparked some fascinating discussion in the comments section.
Did Megan ever have an affair with Kamal?
One theory from the comments section in particular caught my attention and I suspect the movie (coming out tomorrow) could put this question to rest. Some commenters believe that Megan never had an affair with Kamal (her therapist), rather that the scenes with Kamal were cleverly written to make the reader think she was having an affair with him, while avoiding actual hard evidence. And, that Megan is actually referring to Tom (who she calls “him”) when she discusses the affair, rather than Kamal. Let’s take a look at part of the comment thread from my original post:
Christy: I’m hoping to get some answers here! First, were all those scenes between Megan and her lover, set up to make the reader assume it was Kamal, really with Tom? And Kamal only really kissed her once, and that was the kiss Rachel saw?
Karen: The reason I doubted Megan was having an affair with Kamal is that he would then be a possible father to her baby. Only Scott and Tom were mentioned. I thought it was an oversight by the author until I reread a few Megan sections.
Liz: I just reread and it’s quite clear on a second read that she was having the affair with Tom, not Kamal. She always says “he” when referring to Tom but refers to Kamal by name. And she tries it on with Kamal, but he firmly says “No, this is just transference, what you’re feeling” indicating that he had put a stop to her actions before they became physical.
Lindsay: I agree with this, but the only question I still have is who did Rachel see Megan kiss from the train? You’d think that she’d recognize Tom.
Donna: But she was kissing him, right? And Rachel saw that – unless it was another dark skinned man- and there were hints she was serial in her affairs. I listened also and thought Kamal did have an affair which bothered me. Now I have to find out.
But then Hugh comes in on the opposite side: What? Megan said that she went to Kamal’s flat and it was a mess. He touched her lower back, told her he’d have to refer her to another psychiatrist. She barged into his office and tried to fool around and he responded as if they had previously been intimate. I didn’t find that part up for grabs at all!
And then back to Liz: I just reread the book again and all the times she is having the affair a name is never mentioned. It’s very cleverly interwoven… the scenes where she calls Kamal by his name but then refers to her mystery man she’s having an affair with only as “him”. When Kamal says he can’t be her therapist anymore it’s directly AFTER she tried it on with him, but he put a stop to it immediately, explaining it as transference. The way that it is written makes it very unclear in a way that manipulates the reader in a very clever way.
The kiss she saw was the one time Kamal kisses her, after she finishes telling him her story about her baby with Tom when she comes to her house. It’s not passionate, but more than a therapist. V clever red herring.
Navid: Megan did not have an affair with Dr. Kamal. Megan met *him* on page 47 at Swan which Tom reiterates on page 298. This is one of the best twists of the book that changed my whole perspective and people saying the ending was predictable; I am quite certain most people missed this important piece of info that goes on to show Megan was not as flawed as we think her to be. She only had one affair that she felt guilty about and it also makes Dr. Kamal’S claims of not having an affair and subsequent lack of evidence an accurate description from the author. The author is a pure genius in making is believe it was Kamal. Kudos to her.
CS (on the audio version, which may answer the question!): I listened to the audiobook version of this, and they gave Kamal an exotic, middle eastern-sounding accent. When she’s talking to the man in the hotel that she’s having an affair with (the one who keeps insisting “we can’t do this again”) he simply has a British accent. Because of that, I knew the man in the hotel wasn’t Kamal, but I didn’t suspect into toward the end it could be Tom. I thought it was the red-haired man!
How will The Girl on the Train movie interpret Megan’s affair?
Which actor (Justin Theroux as Tom or Edgar Ramirez as Kamal) will appear in scenes showing Megan’s affair? Or, will it remain ambiguous? The trailer doesn’t answer many questions. There are two scenes of Megan in close situations with men, neither one of which clearly shows the man’s face:
Scene 1: Megan making out with someone at the 58 second mark. Based on the shorter haircut on the side, my best guess is that it’s Justin Theroux as Tom. Scene 2: Megan hugging the waist of someone at the 1:28 mark. The longer hair on the top of the man’s head leaves me thinking this is Edgar Ramirez as Kamal, but again I can’t be sure. Plus, this scene is just a hug…nothing truly steamy.
So, after watching the trailer…I wonder if the entire movie will leave the question of Megan’s affair open after all. I guess we’ll all find out tomorrow.
If you’ve seen the movie by the time you’re reading this post…please leave your thoughts in the comments section!
Original Post (1/28/15)
If you have not read The Girl on the Train and are planning to (or are planning to see the movie), do not read any further. There are SPOILERS in this post. Check out my spoiler free review instead!
What was your take on Rachel and her many issues?
Delving into Rachel’s issues was my favorite part of the book. She is pathetic on the surface, but has more complexity than meets the eye. Sometimes I wanted to shake her and say, “really, you can’t resist G&T’s out of a CAN?!! Pull yourself together!”. Those sound disgusting, incidentally. But, she ends up showing grit, courage, and tenacity (corkscrew to the neck?!)…and the way Hawkins let it play out made the change in her completely believable.
I was fascinated with her alcoholic blackouts and the pure trauma they caused in her life. The thing that struck me most about this was how vulnerable the blackouts made her. And, how this vulnerability coupled with her shame about each of these incidents caused her to believe the worst of herself. She was ripe for the pickings, shall we say.
I liked how Hawkins explained how she got like this and tied her downward spiral to her infertility struggle, which seemed like a very realistic scenario to me. This also made me sympathize with her more than I would with your average alcoholic.
But, Rachel’s issues weren’t just booze related. She seemed be trying to fill the purposelessness of her life, which caused her to go to extreme lengths to matter…to anyone, about anything. Viewed from this angle, she seemed like an obsessive, stalkerish attention-whore.
But, you can also look at her behavior as that of an innately sweet girl who possibly did something horrible (or saw something horrible) while blacked out. And the guilt associated with that drove her to extreme lengths to try to make it right.
What exactly is Tom?
Something is clearly wrong in his head, but what is it? Is he a sociopath? Does he have anger issues? He’s not just a guy who killed his mistress in a fit of rage over her threats to expose her pregnancy…he was manipulating and abusing Rachel prior to Megan. I kind of want a diagnosis for him!
He actually reminded me of a guy a friend of mine dated long ago. Not the murderous inclinations (obviously!), but the ability to convince his girlfriend that she had mental problems and needed to be in therapy when he was the one that was completely screwed up (liar, cheater, etc). Just like Tom turned the tables on Rachel and exacerbated her drunken spiral.
Hawkins gave us next to nothing about Tom. We know he “lied about everything, all the time”. Other than that, we know he wasn’t in the Army like he said and his fallout from his parents played out differently than he said. But, what else do we really know? Not much! Why is he this sociopathic? Why does he lie all the time? What is his background? I want to know more!
Is Scott the only sane person in this whole mess?
Though he was innocent in all this and was understandably not his normal self given he had just lost his wife, learned he was essentially married to a stranger, and was a murder suspect, I thought he had some issues of his own.
He showed violent tendencies toward Rachel and Megan when he was angry. Why? I needed some sort of explanation for this behavior once it was confirmed that he wasn’t the killer.
Did anyone see the end coming?
I was fairly certain Scott hadn’t killed Megan, as that would have been way too obvious.
For a very brief time, I thought maybe Anna was the killer (because of Rachel’s feelings of fear around her). A female killer would have been different and kind of interesting!
But, when Anna said, “He’s a really good liar”, I was pretty sure it was Tom. And, once Scott learned that Megan’s baby wasn’t his, I knew for sure. I understand Hawkins had to lay a little groundwork so the ending didn’t seem too random, but did she give away too much, too early? She sure didn’t surprise me…and I’m usually not that great at guessing endings.
Let’s talk! What did you think about all the sordid details?!
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) topic is All About The Villains. As I was running through my list of notorious literary villains, I realized A) that it’s rare to find a book without a single villain and B) many of said villains were terrible to their own families. A few of my favorite villains also didn’t make it onto this list because casting them as villains would spoil the entire book.
The Burroughs Family from Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich Murderous, vengeful, law-breaking.
The Cousins’s from Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (Parents) Philanderer, completely uninterested in their children.
Things are finally starting to calm down on the back-to-school chaos front and we’re getting settled into the new routine…which has freed up some extra mental space for reading!
Last week, I got back into buzzy Fall fiction…and it’s working for me! I’ve also been enjoying Litsy (follow me at sarahsbookshelves) and think it will be a great place for me to “review” audiobooks, which I don’t currently review here or on Goodreads.
I finished reading…
Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt (October 4, 2016) Last week, I said I thought this book would end up not being especially memorable…and that is exactly how it ended up.
I’m currently reading…
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (September 13, 2016) This novel is as fantastic as everyone has been saying! I’m almost finished and am confident it will be among my favorite books of the year. Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
I gotta tell ya, I’m thrilled September is over! While September weather is my favorite, all this back-to-school rigamarole is definitely not. I know I sound like a broken record, but it did impact my reading.
September was the month of nonfiction for me! And I’m shocked since I was so excited for all the Fall fiction coming out in September. I read two 5 star memoirs in a row (When Breath Becomes Air, Hillbilly Elegy) and thoroughly enjoyed Originals on audio. The only nonfiction that didn’t work for me was The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts.
I joined Litsy and like it far more than I thought I would. Plus, I think it’s going to be a great place for me to review audiobooks, which I don’t currently review on my blog or on Goodreads. Follow me at sarahsbookshelves!
Best Book(s) of the Month
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (June 28, 2016) Nonfiction – Memoir, 272 Pages Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (January 19, 2016) Nonfiction – Memoir, 208 Pages Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon