Book Review: The Interestings

July 9, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

Released April, 2013
481 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary

Jules Jacobson becomes best friends with five teenagers at a summer camp for the arts in the 1970’s, remaining friends despite completely different experiences in adulthood.

My Thoughts

The Interestings was one of Amazon’s “Best Books of the Month” for April and I have had hits and misses from this list. Thankfully, this one was a hit for me, despite getting mixed reviews from Amazon readers. I have a lot to say about The Interestings, so buckle up!

This is a character-driven, coming of age story with a strong sense of time and place (Nixon 70’s, AIDS era 80’s, NYC, etc). The book begins when the central characters (Jules, Ethan, Jonah, Cathy, and the brother/sister duo of Ash and Goodman Wolf) meet at Spirit-in-the-Woods summer camp for the arts. During this section, the characters actually annoyed me and I didn’t think I was going to like the book because of it. They struck me as trying too hard to be “artsy” and “different” and they also had the Dawson’s Creek way of talking about things that are way above the heads of your average teenager.

However, the characters do mature and become more likable in adulthood and I ended up being completely invested in them as the book went on. I particularly loved Dennis, who becomes a central character later in the book, as he was the opposite of everything that initially annoyed me about the central characters. He provides the “outsider view” and has such a reasonable, normal perspective on the sometimes ridiculous goings on of the “camp crowd”.

Jules’ narration is also fantastic – she offers funny, spot-on commentary of people and situations and is incredibly honest; matter of factly describing things people probably think, but would never dare say aloud.

The Wolf family itself is a compelling, if not totally likable character – they are outgoing and social and have that inexplicable quality that draws others into their orbit, but they also have internal demons and flawed relationships with each other. It’s perfect that all the kids call the Wolf’s NYC apartment The Labyrinth.

After the first summer at camp, the story flashes forward to present day (around 2009) and you actually find out where some of the characters ended up in life…keep in mind, this is very early in the book. I was worried this would take the suspense out of the story, but I was actually dying to find out the details of how they ended up where they did. With other characters, Wolitzer gradually releases bits of information like teasers. I actually loved this combination and I think it created a good amount of suspense in a book that is not a typical “page turner” story.

The adulthood portion of the book deals with themes that many childhood friendships face. How do you maintain closeness despite growing in different directions and having different priorities (family, career, level of success, etc)? How do you handle lifestyle differences when friends end up at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum? Can a friendship survive the emotions associated with that (jealousy, guilt, awkwardness)? How does the addition of a spouse change your relationship with your friends? I’m currently in the early stages of settling into adulthood (many peers have families, are settling into career choices, and are figuring out how they want to live their lives) and found these themes incredibly relatable.

Finally, the writing flowed and soothed…almost (but not quite!) as well as John Irving’s or Pat Conroy’s. The combination of great writing, fantastic characters, and relatable themes makes The Interestings a book that I always looked forward to picking up again – not because I just had to know what happens next, but because I always looked forward to sinking back into these people’s world. The Interestings is going on my Book Club Recommendations and 2013 Summer Reading lists.

Book Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

July 8, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkBilly Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: A Novel
by Ben Fountain, Fiction (Released May, 2012)

Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: Billy Lynn and his fellow members of Bravo Company return from Iraq as heros for their performance in the battle of Al-Ansakar Canal – and are taken on a “victory tour” culminating in a VIP visit to a Dallas Cowboys game at Texas Stadium.
My Thoughts: This book was a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times Notable Book of 2012, so I had high expectations going in. I was annoyed with the beginning, but the book eventually grew on me. Initially, Billy and his Company come across as petulant, crass, and incredibly immature and Fountain’s writing style bothered me (very stream of consciousness). But, once Fountain starts interspersing memories of the battle in Iraq and the Company’s family visits with their experiences at the Cowboys game, I saw a broader purpose in the things that had annoyed me. The Company showed outward disdain for shallow people doing shallow jobs back in the States (i.e. almost everyone they met), but it hit me that it must truly seem that way to someone who was yanked from an intense war experience and plopped down at an NFL football game full of glamour, sparkles, and shallow conversations with strangers who pretend to understand what the Company went through. While I don’t think this book warranted its National Book Award nomination and it does lack a true plot (rather, it is a portrayal of an experience), it is an eye-opening read that makes you think and is going on my Books for Guys List.

Book Review: Back to Blood

June 27, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

Back to BloodBack to Blood: A Novel
by Tom Wolfe, Fiction (Released October, 2012)
Bottom Line: Read it.

Summary: A Cuban cop and his hometown girlfriend become entwined in the racial dynamics, local politics, and high rolling society scene of present-day Miami.
My Thoughts: I liked Back to Blood a lot, but I didn’t love it as much as some of Wolfe’s others. Among Wolfe books, it was far better than I Am Charlotte Simmons, not as good as Bonfire of the Vanities (but, Bonfire is on my All-Time Favorites List, so is a bit hard to match) or The Right Stuff, and about on par with A Man In FullBack to Blood is typical Tom Wolfe – both in the writing style (which is over the top at times with all the repeating repeating repeating repeating words) and in his satirical skewering of social phenomena. In Back to Blood, his poison pen focuses on cigarette boats (and their owners), the high end art world (particularly Art Basel Miami, the contemporary art show), TV doctors (“shloctors”), and reality TV. This book is a true caricature of a city – but is a little light on plot. However, Wolfe included a billionaire art collector and his psychiatrist, Russian oligarchs, and a Haitian brother and sister to what I described in the summary to spice things up. I personally didn’t mind the slim plot because I enjoyed learning about the political and racial dynamics in Miami, found the city caricature fascinating, and thought his character development was exceptional. Back to Blood would make a great holiday gift for Tom Wolfe fans (see Holiday Gift Ideas List) and selection for your book club (see Book Club Recommendations List).

Book Review: An Economist Gets Lunch

June 26, 2013 Books to Skip, Cooking / Food, Nonfiction 0

Economist Gets LunchAn Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies
by Tyler Cowen, Nonfiction – Cooking/Food (Released April, 2012)
Bottom Line: Skip it.

Summary: A quirky look at food bargains and dining out (particularly ethnic food) through an economic lens.
My Thoughts:
 AEGL is basically like Freakonomics for foodies – it takes a contrary approach to finding delicious, authentic, and cheap food. There are some great nuggets (especially for eating in foreign countries), but I read the best tidbits in the online review before I read the book. In fact, the helpful “tips” could have fit in a magazine article. The rest of the book goes deep into how Prohibition and WWII hurt the U.S. dining scene (interesting), barbecue (somewhat interesting), Chinese food (less interesting), and how to eat “green” (completely off topic).

Book Review: Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy

June 25, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

50 Shades of GreyFifty Shades of Grey Trilogy
by E.L. James, Fiction (Released June, 2011)
Bottom Line: Read them.
Summary: A scandalous and non-tradtional love story where innocent Ana Steele and billionaire mogul Christian Grey navigate two disparate sets of relationship needs.
My Thoughts: Wow, is this thing racy! This is the kind of book that makes me thankful for my Kindle. But, the sex scenes really are central to the story. Although Fifty Shades could be written better and the language (but not the content!) seems adolescent at times, James keeps you hooked wondering why Christian is the way he is and what his true feelings are for Ana. The second book in the trilogy (Fifty Shades Darker) is very similar to Fifty Shades of Grey, but gets a bit more positive despite the title. However, the sex scenes start to feel like they take up too much of the book without serving a purpose in the story. This whole trilogy reminds me of The Hunger Games in that the first book is fantastic, each book gets successively less interesting, and the third book feels forced. In Fifty Shades Freed, the plot is weak and the sex scenes are definitely no longer central to the story (but still get a lot of airtime!). That being said, I felt like I had to finish it it just to see how the story ends.

Book Review: Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls

June 23, 2013 Books to Skip, Memoirs, Nonfiction 0

Let's Explore Diabetes with OwlsLet’s Explore Diabetes with Owls
by David Sedaris, Nonfiction – Memoir (Released April, 2013)
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Summary: Sedaris’ latest collection of essays on experiences from his life, as well as a few fictional short stories told in voices that are clearly not Sedaris’.
My Thoughts: I have to preface all my comments with the fact that this is the first Sedaris book I have ever read (I know that’s kind of amazing since I write a book blog, but it is what it is!). Many of the reviews I read on Amazon referred to Sedaris as the “leading humorist in America”. I thought some of his essays were funny, but “leading humorist in America”?? I definitely wouldn’t go that far. I thought this book was a bit hit and miss…like a restaurant where your appetizer and dessert are delicious, but the entree is just so-so. I thought his pieces with a humorous take on the minutiae of daily life were enjoyable and relatable, if not laugh out loud hilarious like people claimed. I particularly liked his essays on his life growing up in Raleigh (“Attaboy”, about wimpy parenting styles today compared to when he grew up, and “Memory Laps”, about dueling country clubs in Raleigh and the summer league swim team), the trash situation in the English countryside (“Rubbish”), and the disgusting hygiene habits in China (which I also read about during the 2008 Beijing Olympics). However, I think he and his editor made a huge error with this book. He includes six fictional short stories that students could use in some sort of speech/debate competition called “Forensics”. I guess he was doing this as a charitable donation of some kind, but they do not fit in with the rest of the book at all and are frankly awful. Although he does warn the reader in the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, the individual stories are not called out specifically when you get to them and they’re randomly scattered throughout the book. Each time I started one, I shook my head in confusion before remembering why the story made no sense and it seemed the narrator was a woman or some other character that clearly wasn’t Sedaris. The other thing that bothered me was the book is heavily loaded with politics. I just didn’t expect that in a book that was billed to be a collection of humorous essays about daily life and I have no idea if his other books contain as much politics as this one did. Needless to say, it rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t hate this book, but I definitely don’t think it lives up to all I’d been hearing about David Sedaris. Maybe I just picked the wrong book of his and I should give Me Talk Pretty One Day a shot at some point.

Book Review: The World According to Garp

June 21, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

World According to Garp

The World According to Garp
by John Irving, Fiction (Released 1978)
Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: T.S. Garp, a boy who was raised by his feminist mother, grows up to face horrific events in his life as a parent and writer.
My Thoughts: As I read Garp, I was struck by the connections to Irving’s life (Garp’s background of being raised without a father, his interest in wrestling, and his career as a fiction writer), causing me to wonder how much of this “fiction” is autobiographical.  This adds another dimension to an already fantastic story.  If you liked A Prayer for Owen Meany, you will love this one too. This is one of my All-Time Favorites and is also on my Time to Kill List.

Book Review: Nineteen Minutes

June 20, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

Nineteen MinutesNineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
Released March, 2007
438 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased


The story of a Columbine-esque school shooting told from the perspectives of various characters’ involved (the shooter and his mother, the high school jock, the judge presiding over the trial, and the shooter’s former childhood friend).

My Thoughts

Although Nineteen Minutes is a typical Jodi Picoult novel centered around a moral dilemma, I think it’s her best one. She makes you question what initially seems black and white and feel for characters you never thought you would. This is an especially interesting read since the documentary “Bully” has been in the news so much. This is one of my All-Time Favorites and is also on my Book Club Recommendations List.

Book Review: This Side of Paradise

June 18, 2013 Books to Skip, Classics, Fiction 0

This Side of ParadiseThis Side of Paradise
by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Fiction 
(Released March, 1920)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Summary: The coming of age story of Amory Blaine and his wealthy Princeton cronies in the 1920’s.
My Thoughts: I recently read and absolutely loved Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, a fictional story about her marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald told from Zelda’s perspective. It covered the periods when Scott (as he is called in Z) was writing This Side of Paradise (his first novel) and I learned that it was the most commercially successful of all his books at the time of publication. Let me tell you, there is a reason people still read The Great Gatsby and you never hear much about this one. It was truly awful! I have no idea how it was ever more commercially successful upon release than Gatsby. There is no real plot, which is to be expected from a coming of age story, but you need fantastic characters and a strong sense of time and place to make this kind of book work (in my opinion). Paradise has neither. It portrays high-brow college life for men in the 1920’s, but I never got a true sense of that world. The characters, especially Amory, are completely dislikable…pretentious twits, actually. And none stood out in my head – I actually can’t remember a single character’s name other than Amory’s and his mother’s. The whole novel is completely frivolous and silly, but is written in overly stilted and serious language that strives too hard…a bizarre combination. It was painful to read, I tuned out large sections, and I couldn’t wait to be finished with it. To be honest, there is no way I would have finished it if I didn’t plan to write about it here.

Book Review: The Language of Flowers

June 15, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

Language of FlowersThe Language of Flowers: A Novel
by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Fiction (Released August, 2011)
Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary:  Victoria, a teenage girl who has grown up in the foster care system, uses flowers to adjust to the outside world after she is emancipated on her eighteenth birthday.
My Thoughts: This is one of those books where the title and the book’s description on Amazon (or whatever source you use) really do a horrible job making you want to read the book…even though it’s really good (a la 11/22/63 and The Fault in our Stars). A good friend of mine recommended Flowers to me and she told me to completely ignore the description and just trust her – and she was right! You don’t have to be especially interested in flowers to enjoy the story – as someone who used only white tulips at her wedding mainly because they were easy and cheap, I clearly don’t have much interest in flowers! This is really a book about a lost soul who mistrusts the world trying to find meaning in her life. It’s also a love story – both romantic love and motherly love. I wouldn’t call this book a Page Turner, but it is definitely suspenseful and I couldn’t wait to find out what fallout had happened between Elizabeth (one of Victoria’s previous foster mothers), Catherine (Elizabeth’s estranged sister), and Victoria. Flowers and the language of flowers (a Victorian way of communicating emotions through flowers) really just surround the deeper themes. And, I even found myself becoming a bit interested in the language of flowers – it was kind of cool finding out what emotions various kinds of flowers represent (one of my favorite flowers, hydrangea, means “dispassion” – bad choice apparently!!). There were moments when I got incredibly frustrated with Victoria and her inexplicable actions (I don’t want to spoil the story, so I won’t elaborate much here), but I guess this is to be expected from a character coming out of the foster care system who mistrusts the world. This one is going on my Book Club Recommendations List.