Tag: Dysfunctional Childhoods

The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich: An Emotionally Gut-Wrenching True Crime / Memoir Mash-Up

May 18, 2017 Memoirs 6

The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-LesnevichNonfiction – Memoir / True Crime
Released May 16, 2017
336 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (published by Flatiron Books)

Headline

Though not perfect, The Fact of a Body is a thoroughly unique, complex, and emotionally gut-wrenching mash-up of true crime story and dysfunctional childhood memoir.

Plot Summary

Marzano-Lesnevich interweaves the painful story of her upbringing in an abusive family with the true story of the murder of a five year-old boy by a sex offender (Ricky Langley).

Why I Read It

A mash-up of a dysfunctional childhood memoir with true crime literally couldn’t be any farther up my alley. Plus, Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You (my review), called it a “marvel.”

Major Themes

Crime, Mental Illness, Pedophilia, Childhood Trauma, Abuse, Family Secrets

What I Loved

  • This memoir / true crime mash-up is totally unique and was mostly (see below) successful for me. Marzano-Lesnevich interweaves the true story of the murder of five year old Jeremy Guillory by convicted sex offender Ricky Langley (and Langley’s childhood and coming of age) with the story of her own family and childhood, which resembles Ricky’s in surprising ways.
  • The farther I read, the more sense it made to meld these two stories into one book.
  • Marzano-Lesnevich’s exploration of the making of a sex offender is frightening and heart-breaking all at the same time. And, the juxtaposition of reading about the perpetrator of a sex crime alongside the victim of a sex crime gives this story incredible depth and nuance…and certainly brought up some complex feelings for me.
  • By the end of the book, I was just heart-broken about all of it and surprisingly emotionally gutted.

What I Didn’t Like

  • The Fact of a Body has been compared to In Cold Blood, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Serial, and Making A Murderer. For me, the Serial and Making A Murderer comparisons were unfounded and misleading. Serial and Making A Murderer focused heavily on “is or isn’t the suspect actually guilty?” And, that’s not what The Fact of a Body does at all. Rather, you know who the perpetrator is right away and there is never any question of his guilt. The Fact of a Body is more an exploration into the psyche of a killer and sex offender…a la In Cold Blood.
  • Initially, I found the writing style and structure a bit tedious. The shifts between Ricky/Jeremy and Marzano-Lesnevich’s childhood were jumpy and Marzano-Lesnevich injected her own opinions/speculation into the Ricky/Jeremy story with statements like “he must have been thinking X” or “maybe he does Y,” which I found annoying. However, either I eventually got used to the style or things smoothed out farther into the book, because it bothered me much less by the end.

A Defining Quote

But how could I fight for what I believed when as soon as a crime was personal to me, my feelings changed? Every crime was personal to someone.

Good for People Who Like…

True Crime, dysfunctional childhood memoirs, dysfunctional families, emotional gut-wrenchers

Other Books You May Like

Another true crime book focusing on the psyche of a killer:
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

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Five New Books You Can Read in a Weekend

March 21, 2017 Book Lists 38

New Books You Can Read in a Weekend


I’ve been on a short books kick recently and get really excited when I find tiny books that still pack a serious punch. The books on this list are all relatively new releases and are under 300 pages…short enough for you to read in a relatively plan-free weekend.

Five New Books You Can Read in a Weekend

A Separation, Katie MitamuraA Separation by Katie Kitamura
Fiction (Released February 7, 2017)
240 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Riverhead) 

A Separation has catastrophically been described as a “whodunit” (by Elle Magazine) and “the literary Gone Girl of 2017″ (by The Millions). It is NOT either of those things. It is, however, a gorgeously dark rumination on a troubled marriage. It’s most definitely a “style” book (i.e. don’t look for a fast-moving plot), but I immediately adored the narrator’s voice and tone. Kitamura, through the wife’s perspective, creates emotional tension that propels the story (much like Tender, one of my 2016 favorites). This book is not for everyone. But, try the first few pages…if the writing connects with you, then you should probably keep reading! 

What would be irrational would be to remain in this state of indecision, neither in nor out of the marriage, neither with nor free of this man. The sooner I was able to deliver myself from this situation the better, I could not remain beholden to two separate and antagonistic sets of expectation […]

All Grown Up, Jami AttenbergAll Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
Fiction (Released March 7, 2017)
208 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 

All Grown Up is a raw, compact story of a young woman (Andrea) trying to find her way in the world, but it’s taking longer than society says it should. Attenberg uses little snapshots of Andrea’s life to share her struggles with being single in New York City (a situation I could relate to from years ago) and provide “yes, that’s exactly how it is” commentary on how society treats single ladies in their thirties. Andrea’s floundering is frustrating, but also relatable and endearing. What really made All Grown Up for me was the unexpectedly funny writing. It’s snarky and filled with the type of dry, morbid humor that’s not for everyone, but is for me. All Grown Up tackles the quarter-life crisis theme in a brutally honest rather than grating way (I’m looking at you, The Futures) and is one of my favorite books of 2017 so far!

People architect new lives all the time. I know this because I never see them again once they find these new lives. They have children or they move to new cities or even just to new neighborhoods or you hate their spouse or their spouse hates you or they start working the night shift or they start training for a marathon or they stop going to bars or they start going to therapy or they realize they don’t like you anymore or they die. It happens constantly. It’s just me. I haven’t built anything new. I’m the one getting left behind.

The Roanoke Girls, Amy EngelThe Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel
Fiction (Released March 7, 2017)
276 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Crown) 

The Roanoke Girls features quite possibly the most dysfunctional (although, supremely F’d up is probably more accurate) family I’ve ever encountered in fiction. It’s the kind of book that I was slightly embarrassed to be reading, but was completely unable to put down. The extent to which Engel pushed the premise of this book is preposterous (think The Flowers in the Attic on steroids mixed with a bit of Sweet Home Alabama) and the characters’ decision-making is frustrating, but I was impressed with the writing and was even able to tolerate a bit of a love story (which is rare for me). It’s a fast, if not demented and twisted, read and would make a great vacation accessory.

I’ve been back in this house for less than an hour, and already I feel like I’m losing my mind, the Roanoke reality slithering into place. Where a tornado is a bit of wind or a missing woman is simply out having fun.

The Rules Do Not Apply, Ariel LevyThe Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released March 14, 2017)
224 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Random House) 

I immediately fell for the writing in this searing memoir of self-examination by a current New Yorker staff writer (also a native of my current town). Levy takes a brutally raw and honest look at her life including love, massive loss, and bad decisions. Her style is rambling – covering topics from crafting her career as a professional writer to gardening to covering the Caster Semenya story (the South African runner who was gender-tested at the 2009 Berlin World Championships) to her views on marriage in general and gay marriage specifically (she’s a lesbian) to infidelity to Mike Huckabee to late-in-life pregnancy – but it flows seamlessly. It’s a risky thing to market a book as “for readers of Cheryl Strayed” and, while I’m not putting Levy on equal footing with the giant, the comparison is not unfounded.

People have been telling me since I was a little girl that I was too fervent, too forceful, too much. I thought I had harnessed the power of my own strength and greed and love in a life that could contain it. But it has exploded.

Woman Next Door, Yewande OmotosoThe Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso
Fiction (Released February 7, 2017)
288 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Picador) 

The Woman Next Door was a fantastic surprise for me…and it’s likely to end up on my Underrated Gems of 2017 list. It’s like Grumpy Old Men crossed with Desperate Housewives set in South Africa and involving race. The story kicks off with snarky humor before taking a more contemplative turn. Two next door neighbors (Marion and Hortensia) can’t stand each other and are constantly plotting how to figuratively take the other one down, yet The Woman Next Door ends up being a story about friendship and regret and a lesson in how you never really know what’s going on in someone else’s life. Plus, the writing shines!

It wasn’t like Marion to give away such easy points but, while she was being generous, it was Hortensia’s aim to collect. Their rivalry was infamous enough for the other committee women to hang back and watch the show. It was known that the two women shared hedge and hatred and they pruned both with a vim that belied their ages.

What great books have you read in a weekend?

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Mini Reviews: Generation Chef by Karen Stabiner and Before the Wind by Jim Lynch

December 8, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 15

Can a mini review include not one, not two, but three quotes, thus making it look more like a full length review?! Yes, I’m going with it. There’s no other choice when the writing is as glorious as Jim Lynch’s in Before the Wind.

Generation Chef, Karen StabinerGeneration Chef by Karen Stabiner
Nonfiction – Cooking / Food (Released September 13, 2016)
288 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Avery Books)

Plot Summary: Journalist Karen Stabiner follows young chef Jonah Miller as he opens his first New York City restaurant, the East Village Spanish spot, Huertas.

My Thoughts: Generation Chef‘s look into a new restaurant’s first year of life is equal parts food and business book. I particularly loved getting a behind the scenes look at the ups and downs of an entrepreneurial restaurant venture. Running a new restaurant clearly takes courage and a steady hand and I was frighteningly nervous for Miller and his team as they approached each new milestone (applying for a liquor license, awaiting a New York Times review, etc). I realized how much I respect people who run small businesses and I’m fairly certain I couldn’t pull it off without an emotional breakdown.

Specific to the restaurant business, Generation Chef highlighted how hard a new restaurant has to work to get noticed amidst the NYC clutter. Stabiner provides illuminating color about the frenzied restaurant environment of the early 2000’s and the impact of social media. She also compares Miller and Huertas’ story with that of other famous chefs including David Chang, Stephanie Izard, April Bloomfield, and Gavin Kaysen. Generation Chef reminded me of Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter, minus all the drugs and sexual angst, and is a great choice for people interested in the business side of opening a new restaurant. Plus, it made an appearance on my 2016 Books That Make Perfect Holiday Gifts List!

Before the Wind, Jim LynchBefore the Wind by Jim Lynch
Fiction (Released April 19, 2016)
306 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Knopf)

Plot Summary: Josh Johannssen and his somewhat estranged family, a sailing dynasty, reunite in an attempt to win the Pacific Northwest’s prestigious Swiftsure race.

My Thoughts: Behind the Wind is 100% up my alley and I have no idea why I’d never heard of it until Catherine at Gilmore Guide shoved it into my hands recently. It plops the dysfunctional family element of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth into a sailing environment with brilliant results.

For years, sailing bound us. We were racers, builders and cruisers. It was our family business, our sport, our drug of choice. Yet eventually, sailing blew us apart, too.

Within the first five pages, Lynch delves into the psyche of sailors and boaters in general and his writing about sailing is filled with “yes, that’s exactly how it is” moments. 

Sailboats attract the loons and geniuses among us, the romantics whose boats represent some outlaw image of themselves. We fall for these things, but what we’re slow to grasp is that it’s not the boats but rather those inexplicable moments on the water when time slows.

His sense of humor sparkles when making fun of sailing (i.e. a hilarious rant about the ridiculous sailing lingo) and when describing his family’s quirks (of which there are many), but a genuine love for both shines through it all.

Nobody forgets meeting my father. Loud, tall and meaty, he invades your space and claims the right-of-way. There is nothing moderate about him. A leader and a lout, a gentleman and an ass, he never concedes a weakness, admits a sickness or says he loves anybody. Yet the flip side is that when you please him, your body temperature climbs a degree or two.

As with many books I love, the suspense lies in what ends up happening to these characters. The questions of what made Josh’s sailing prodigy sister (Ruby) abandon the sport, what shady antics are most of the family members up to now, and what incident figuratively blew up the family decades ago drove the novel’s suspense. Lynch does go on sailing tangents fairly often, but I found them interesting because he adopts the tone of the rare tour guide that uses dry humor to make something you’re not that interested in come alive. Before the Wind is an underrated gem that you should read immediately if you’re a fan of dysfunctional family stories…and, I can’t wait to read more of Lynch’s work.

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Nonfiction November 2016: Be the Expert…Dysfunctional Childhood Memoirs

November 22, 2016 Book Lists 25

Nonfiction November 2016
This week’s Nonfiction November (hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey, Lory at Emerald City Book Review, Rachel at Hibernator’s Library, Julz at Julz Reads, and me) topic is Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert:

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Hop on over to Julz Reads to link up your posts!

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I love books about dysfunctional families. And, lucky for me, there’s a plethora of those in the world of fiction. But, turns out heartbreaking childhoods, for better or for worse, lend themselves to fantastic memoirs as well. Here are some of my favorites…

Dysfunctional Childhood Memoirs

Dysfunctional Childhood Memoirs

A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs
An abusive and emotionally distant father.

All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
Extreme poverty in the deep South, an alcoholic and volatile father, and a mother trying to hold her family together through it all.

Darling Days by iO Tillett Wright
Wright’s tough upbringing on New York City’s Lower East Side in the late 80’s/early 90’s…including poverty, her parents’s addictions, and her struggle with gender identity and sexuality.

Fiction Ruined My Family by Jeanne Darst
An alcoholic mother and a father forever trying to publish the “Great American Novel” at the expense of providing for his children…and Darst’s struggle not to repeat her parents’s mistakes in adulthood.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
Growing up poor in Appalachia with an erratic mother plus social analysis of the Appalachian poor’s struggle to achieve upward mobility.

Hungry Heart by Jennifer Weiner
Overcoming body image issues and managing life with an erratic father.

Still Points North by Leigh Newman
Navigating Newman’s parents’s divorce and disparate lifestyles.

The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy
Reflections on rebuilding a relationship with literature’s most famous abusive father.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
A vibrant, yet destructively alcoholic father and an eccentric mother averse to domestic stability.

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Alcohol & Advil: The Mothers and Hungry Heart

October 25, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 17

Alcohol and Advil Literary Style
Welcome back to Alcohol & Advil, where I pair a book likely to cause a “reading hangover” (i.e. the alcohol) with a recovery book (i.e. the Advil)! For me, the “alcohol” is usually a book that I either absolutely loved or one that punched me in the gut in an emotionally depleting way…and, in this case, it’s the former.

The Alcohol

The Mothers, Brit BennettThe Mothers by Brit Bennett
Fiction (Released October 11, 2016)
288 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Riverhead Books)

Plot Summary: While seventeen year-old Nadia Turner is mourning the shocking loss of her mother, she starts a relationship with Luke Sheppard, her pastor’s son, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy.

My Thoughts: The Mothers was one of the most hyped books and the big debut novel of this Fall (author Brit Bennet is only 25 years old and was named to the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35). And, it completely lived up to the hype! The first page is one of the best first pages I’ve ever read and I highlighted three passages before moving on to Page 2. I could immediately tell that Bennett’s writing was my kind of writing (which I will try to clearly articulate in an upcoming post) and the tone and style reminded me a bit of Ann Patchett’s in Commonwealth.

Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.

What I loved most about the actual story is that it takes on a number of serious topics, but none of them dominate the book. It’s about a young girl trying to make sense of her mother’s death and being left with a father who has withdrawn into his own grief. It’s about a teenager’s relationship to her church…and the feelings that come along with doing things the church likely wouldn’t approve of. It’s about the ongoing repercussions of those actions. It’s about friendship. It’s about race (the story takes place in a black community in California). It’s about the aftermath of trauma. Bennett handles all this in a subtle way…it’s there, a part of Nadia’s life, impacting her feelings and decisions, but life goes on. For me, this rang true to how life really happens. The Mothers will no doubt make my Best Books of 2016 List and would also make a fantastic book club selection.

The Advil

Hungry Heart, Jennifer WeinerHungry Heart by Jennifer Weiner
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released October 11, 2016)
432 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Atria Books) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: Bestselling author Jennifer Weiner’s memoir-style essay collection about her childhood, writing, her struggle with her weight, marriage, and motherhood…and the Bachelor/ette.

My Thoughts: You probably know Jennifer Weiner from her bestselling novels Good in Bed and In Her Shoes or her hilarious and pointed live-tweeting of the Bachelor/ette shows. But, her memoir reminded me that there is far more to this lady than enlivening my Twitter feed on Monday nights. Hungry Heart is an incredibly relatable memoir about a girl gradually growing comfortable in her own skin. After reading about her childhood (which includes a horrific father and adjusting to her mother starting to date women at age 54), I came to respect her determination, work ethic, and ability to recover from her father’s abandonment. She worked her tail off to become the writer she is and was never swept up in the glamour of the “writer’s life.” This memoir also confirmed my belief that she is an author who should host a podcast and I can see her dispensing Dear Sugar-style advice to women as successfully as Cheryl Strayed. Though the book was overly long and a bit repetitive towards the end, it was the perfect mix of light-hearted humor and real-life struggle to help me adequately recover from The Mothers!

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Two Winning Novels about Dysfunctional Families: Commonwealth and All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

October 18, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 22

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, Ann PatchettCommonwealth 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, Bryn GreenwoodAll 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.

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