Tag: Friendship

2 Books to Fill the Pat Conroy-Sized Hole in Your Heart: Our Prince of Scribes and The Lost Conroy

March 5, 2019 Mini Book Reviews 8

pat conroy books

 

If you’re new to this blog, Pat Conroy is my all-time favorite author. If you’ve been here awhile, you know how very much I love his work. So now that I can’t read any new work from him (he died of pancreatic cancer in 2016), I’m reading books about him.

The more I read about him, the more I realize how complex a person he was. He was beloved, but could also be cruel to those closest to him. And, that’s the dichotomy these two books really illuminate. Our Prince of Scribes focuses on the reasons people adore him and The Lost Prince delves into his dark side. Reading them more or less simultaneously was perfect for me because sometimes I needed some Conroy sunshine during the difficult portions of The Lost Prince (there are some parts that Conroy fans will find very hard to read…at least I did).

Two Books to Fill the Pat Conroy-Sized Hole in Your Heart

Our Prince of ScribesOur Prince of Scribes edited by Nicole A. Seitz
Nonfiction – Essays (Released September 15, 2018)
320 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: University of Georgia Press)

Plot Summary: A collection of essays celebrating the life and work of author Pat Conroy…written by fellow writers and people in the publishing industry.

My Thoughts: Pat Conroy was one of those larger than life personalities who owned the room the second he walked into it. He wasn’t flawless by any means, but he was never without an entertaining story to tell (sometimes of questionable truth) and he made people thankful they were in his orbit. He tirelessly mentored and championed other authors and described himself as a “blurb slut,” writing blurbs for gobs of authors just getting their start. And, that’s the general theme of these essays. Most of the essays were written by authors he championed and others who worked with him over the course of his career. They knew him in that capacity…and not nearly as well as his inner circle, one of whom you’ll hear from in the next book in this post. So, this collection is mostly a celebration of his good qualities and avoids his dark side. The essays had a sameness to them, which on the one hand showed me he had a consistent personality, but also leads me to recommend you read this collection in little snippets. My one complaint was I wish there was a short bio for each contributor at the beginning of each essay.

Every good novelist has a massive ego—it’s an essential tool for the job—but Conroy’s ego was contained in a package of sweetness, comedy, and full-Irish savagery that made him irresistible.

Lost PrinceThe Lost Prince: A Search for Pat Conroy by Michael Mewshaw
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released February 26, 2019)
288 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Counterpoint Press)

Plot Summary: Author Michael Mewshaw had a decades-long friendship with Pat Conroy until Conroy asked Mewshaw to do him a terrible favor, after which they didn’t speak for 6 years. Pat asked Michael to write about what happened, so this book is Mewshaw’s way of fulfilling Conroy’s request.

My Thoughts: Y’all know how much I love Pat Conroy (he’s my all-time favorite author), so you can imagine I was a little nervous to read a book that examined some of his flaws. But, this is a riveting story and an excellent compliment to Our Prince of Scribes. While the essays in Scribes are written mostly by people in the literary world, The Lost Prince is written by arguably one of Conroy’s closest friends (who is also an author, but their friendship goes far deeper than that). The Mewshaws lived in Rome with the Conroys (and much of the book takes place in Rome) and their families were best of friends. This story is far more intimate…and nuanced than the stories in Scribes. It shows Conroy at his best and worst…the worst being a side those in the literary world (to which Conroy gave himself entirely) didn’t see much. Mewshaw portrays Conroy as a complicated and difficult man…one that could enthrall every single person in his orbit, but also deeply hurt the people closest to him. The end of the book is riveting and horrifying and sad. It was certainly hard to read some parts (particularly Pat’s emails to his daughter, Susannah), but I’m glad I’m getting a more full picture of Conroy as a man, not just an author. That beings said, I’m very glad I was reading Our Prince of Scribes at the same time to take away some of the pain.

No sparrow ever fell in any dark forest that Pat didn’t volunteer to help. But all too often he failed to notice that the woods were on fire and his own house was in flames.

How do you feel about reading about the lives of your favorite authors?

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Two Final 2018 Winners: The Ensemble and My Sister, the Serial Killer

January 29, 2019 Mini Book Reviews 11

The Ensemble and My Sister the Serial Killer

 

You’re probably wondering why I’m posting something titled “Two Final 2018 Winners” in late January 2019! I read both these books at the very end of 2018…after I’d stopped posting book reviews for the year. But, I loved these two so much (one made my Best Books of 2018 list) that I still wanted to tell you about them! They aren’t quite an Alcohol & Advil pairing, but My Sister, the Serial Killer would make a fun follow-up to The Ensemble.

The Ensemble by Aja GabelThe Ensemble by Aja Gabel
Fiction – Literary (Released May 15, 2018)
339 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Riverhead Books)

Plot Summary: The story of the Van Ness string quartet…four elite musicians, their rise to prominence in the classical music world, and their relationships with each other.

My Thoughts: I was initially super excited to read this book right when it came out based on Annie Jones at From the Front Porch podcast‘s recommendation…then, some other readers I trusted came back with mixed reviews, so I put it off. I’m thrilled I finally made the time because I adored it! It’s one of those character-driven novels where there’s not much action, but completely pulls me in anyway. Gabel opens the book with a chapter that immediately lays out the dynamics between the members of the Quartet…and they are subtly complicated. These people clearly love each other, but you also get the feeling one could kill another in the night. And, that’s what makes this book so engrossing. It’s all about the simmering dynamics of this group and it explores the implications of having an essentially business relationship that supersedes all other relationships in their lives…even the ones that probably should come first (spouse, kids, etc). How do they manage this tension over the course of their lives? And, Gabel’s writing is just gorgeous, especially for a debut novel. If you loved The Interestings (my review), The Ensemble should be next on your list. PS – you do not have to love classical music to love this novel…I no nothing about classical music and don’t particularly care about it either.

When you were on your own, in whatever career, whatever you did affected only your own job. But with the quartet, they had to share a goal, distribute the dream between them, and trust that each of them had an appropriate sense of commitment. The commitment had a way of bleeding into their lives off stage, as well. There were so many ways to betray each other.

My Sister the Serial Killer My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Fiction (Released November 20, 2018)
226 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Doubleday)

Plot Summary: Korede, the “good” sister, does everything right and always cleans up after Ayoola, the beautiful sister, who sails through life without a care in the world…yet kills her boyfriends and manages to be their mother’s favorite.

My Thoughts: The premise of this book is ridiculous in a campy way and specific parts are preposterous, but it works! It’s a story of sibling dynamics…obviously taken to the extreme…but, the underlying point is one many people can relate to. And, it’s weirdly funny…even though people keep dying. Honestly, I picked up this book because of the fantastic title and because it’s so short…but, I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised. Despite the murderous title, this one is a fun, light read and would make a perfect palate cleanser!

“It’s because she is beautiful, you know. That’s all it is. They don’t really care about the rest of it. She gets a pass at life.”

Have you read either of these books? What did you think?

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Two Books Everyone Else Rated 5 Stars: Educated by Tara Westover and The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman

May 10, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 16

There’s a good chance you’ve heard of both of these books because many people have rated them 5 stars. And, I really liked one and liked the other decently well. But, neither was a 5 star read for me. I liked Educated a lot and can’t point to any specific flaws in it, but it just didn’t have the extra oomph to push it from 4 to 5 stars. However, I did have some specific issues with The Gunners, which kept it at 3.5 stars for me.

Educated by Tara WestoverEducated by Tara Westover
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released February 20, 2018)
352 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Random House)

Plot Summary: Westover tells her story of growing up in a survivalist Mormon family who didn’t believe in public education and her journey to break the mold by getting her PhD at Cambridge University.

My Thoughts: Imagine if you had to choose between getting an education (both the traditional kind and an education about life in general) and having a relationship with your family. That’s what happened to Tara Westover. Tara’s father insisted the whole family live “off the grid”…with no interaction with the government or modern medicine. Her journey to follow her passion for knowledge (both academic knowledge and common sense) and her battle with her family to be able to pursue an education is both heart-breaking and inspirational. I could feel Tara’s emotional tug-of-war over her own beliefs and the blood ties of her family…it was heart-wrenching. There are many parts that are hard to read…and that I’d have found totally unbelievable had this been fiction. If you liked The Glass Castle, Hillbilly Elegy (my review), and/or Under the Banner of Heaven (my reviewEducated should be next on your list!

Again I thought about the family. There was a puzzle in it, something unresolved. What is a person to do, I asked, when their obligations to their family conflict with other obligations—to friends, to society, to themselves?

The Gunners by Rebecca KauffmanThe Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman
Fiction – Literary (Released March 20, 2018)
261 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Counterpoint Press)

Plot Summary: A coed group of childhood friends (called “The Gunners”) gathers for the one of the members’ (Sally’s) funeral and tries to unravel what went wrong with their friendship group ages ago and what caused Sally to end her life.

My Thoughts: Many of my very best recommendation sources 5 star-loved The Gunners, so I was sure it would be 5 stars for me as well. Well…I liked it, but I did have some issues with it and I never considered rating it 5 stars (it’s getting 3.5 stars). I loved the story’s premise of a coed group of childhood friends coming back together in adulthood and secrets being revealed…it reminded me of Shotgun Lovesongs (my review), but Shotgun Lovesongs executed it better. The story meanders a bit in the beginning, but the story moves once the revelations begin. But, so many secrets are revealed that it felt like a game of whack-a-mole. And, I loved the characters, but the way they interacted in adulthood felt off…like the author was trying too hard. The adults tickle each other, Indian-wrestle, and tell scary stories (just like when they were kids), but all I kept thinking was “this is NOT how my childhood friends and I interact as adults…this just seems weird.” This coupled with the over-the-top whack-a-mole revealing of secrets made the story feel a bit contrived overall. For a different opinion, check out reviews at Novel Visits and Running N Reading.

“Sally taught me something about people that I never wanted to know.” Alice said, “What was that?” “That people can disappear,” Lynn said. “Right before your eyes. That you’ll never understand it and there won’t be a thing you can do about it.”

Have you read either of these popular books? What did you think?

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Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen: When a Favorite Author Stumbles

March 22, 2018 Fiction 23

Alternate Side by Anna QuindlenFiction – Literary
Released March 20, 2018
304 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Random House

Headline

I adore Anna Quindlen (both her fiction and nonfiction) and saw instances of her brilliant, trademark writing in Alternate Side, but the plot was a bit boring and I know she can do better.

Plot Summary

When a violent incident happens on Nora and Charlie Nolan’s wealthy Upper West Side block, Nora begins to see cracks in her marriage, friendships, and throughout the neighborhood.

Why I Read It

Anna Quindlen is one of my go-to authors. I’ve adored most of what I’ve read by her (Every Last OneOne True ThingMiller’s Valley and Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake) and think she just “gets” women. 

Major Themes

Marriage, New York City life, class, friendship

What I Liked

  • Alternate Side is a true New York City book. The setting stood out far more to me than any of the characters…and Quindlen brilliantly captures its quirks (and there are many).

The dirty little secret of the city was that while it was being constantly created, glittering glass and steel towers rising everywhere where once there had been parking lots, gas stations, and four-story tenements, it was simultaneously falling apart. The streets were filled with excavations and repair crews, the older buildings sheathed in scaffolding cages.

  • It’s an easy, relatively uncomplicated read (which I sometimes need and suspect you do too!).
  • The title is brilliant and will truly resonate with anyone who has lived in NYC. NYC has something called “alternate side parking” (a law that dictates which side of the street cars can park on specific days to improve traffic flow and make room for street sweepers, etc), which causes residents who park on the street to go temporarily insane every time they have to move their cars. It brings out everyone’s true colors and is sort of a microcosm of New York City B.S.
  • While the writing didn’t bowl me over like it did in Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake and Every Last One, it is quintessential Quindlen and there were numerous passages that reminded me why I love her writing…especially when she talks about women’s experiences.
     

The slightly aberrational spouse was a status symbol, too. The husband who cooked. The wife who played golf. The husband who took his children to school. The wife who ran her own business. Of course, it was chancier with the women than with the men. You couldn’t push it too far. The marathoner wife who made partner – perhaps. The wife who could benchpress her own weight and made the cover of Fortune – too emasculating. The men, on the other hand, got unlimited mileage out of performing so-called women’s tasks as long as they also had substantial disposable income and significant business cards.

What I Didn’t Like

  • Alternate Side is about a lot of things, but is also kind of about nothing. Is it about an Upper West Side neighborhood, but a somewhat boring one? Is it about a New York marriage, but a somewhat boring one? Is it about an incident in the neighborhood, which wasn’t as earth-shattering as promised? I couldn’t figure it out. An American Marriage and The Mothers were both about a lot of things, but they all gelled together into a coherent story that worked. Unfortunately, I’m not sure Alternate Side had much of a plot and what plot was there felt muddled. 
  • Some people prefer Quindlen’s nonfiction to her fiction, but I know from Every Last One and One True Thing that she can write novels where the plot and the writing shine. That didn’t happen here.
  • I think this book would have worked better as a nonfiction essay collection about life in New York City for, as Quindlen says, “New Yorkers of a certain sort”, where the “life in New York part” is intentionally the star.

A Defining Quote

There was a shadow government on the block, a shadow government that knew where all the bodies were buried, a system of mutual dependence, one group needing services, the other employment. Nora was never certain where the balance of power fell.

Good for People Who Like…

Quiet stories, social commentary, New York City books.

Try These Books Instead…

Anna Quindlen at her best:
Every Last One (Fiction, my review)

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Memoir, my review)

Two books that tackle a lot of issues, but aren’t overwhelmingly about any one of them:
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (my review)

The Mothers by Brit Bennett (my review)

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Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan: Spoiler Discussion

May 11, 2017 Discussions 21

This post is full of spoilers, so STOP READING AFTER THE FIRST SECTION if you don’t want to know the ending (or other details).

Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan SpoilerFiction – Thriller
Released May 9, 2017
384 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon 
Source: Publisher (Bloomsbury USA)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This post contains affiliate links.

I’ve been somewhat burned out of psychological thrillers lately, especially those that are billed as “the next Gone Girl and/or The Girl on the Train.” I generally find that the big twist is either entirely predictable or completely outlandish…and neither one of those situations leaves me feeling satisfied. Completely outlandish is what killed the last thriller I tried (Behind Her Eyes). I wrote a spoiler discussion with all the gory details.

So, I recently tried going international for a satisfying thriller and it worked!

Based on a True Story (a smash hit in France already) is the memoir-style story of a writer’s toxic female friendship. It begins with a titillating Prologue and continues with a creepy, Single White Female vibe that left me dying to know how things would play out. It’s incredibly emotionally tense and de Vigan’s gorgeous writing helps accomplish this.

The first half of the book lays the psychological groundwork for the more action-packed second half. Why is L interested in Delphine? What could L possibly have done to make Delphine stop writing and essentially ruin her life?

The entire time I was reading, I understood that Based on a True Story was completely messing with my head. Much of the allure comes from the “is this story true or isn’t it?” vibe that permeates the entire story, so that’s what we’ll pick apart here.

I haven’t come close to figuring out where I stand on all these questions…and that’s one of the beauties of this story! You’ll keep turning it over in your mind for awhile and it’s a book that will spark debates, making it a great choice for book club.

STOP HERE IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW SPOILERS!

Is Based on a True Story REALLY based on a true story?

I went into Based on a True Story thinking the book was, in fact, based on a true story. Aside from the obvious (the title), the publisher leads its blurb with this:

[…] a chilling work of fiction–but based on a true story–about a friendship gone terrifyingly toxic and the nature of reality.

And closes with this:

This sophisticated psychological thriller skillfully blurs the line between fact and fiction, reality and artifice. Delphine de Vigan has crafted a terrifying, insidious, meta-fictional thriller; a haunting vision of seduction and betrayal; a book which in its hungering for truth implicates the reader, too–even as it holds us in its thrall.

But, as I was reading, I started to completely question this assumption. A huge theme in the story is the idea that fictional entertainment (books, movies, TV shows) that are “based on a true story” (or marketed as such) are much more compelling for the audience than pure fiction. It’s the type of book L is trying to force Delphine to write next.

And I challenge all of us – you, me, anyone – to disentangle true from false. And in any case, it could be a literary project to write a whole book that presents itself as a true story, a book inspired by so-called real events, but in which everything, or nearly everything, is invented.

Based on a True Story is filled with these types of quotes! Are they a clue that we readers have been conned and that this is not, in fact, a true story? Is this entire book a huge indictment of the lemming-like nature of readers in general?

Based on a True Story could be pure fiction and that title could just refer to this prevailing theme in the book. But, would the publisher go so far as to mislead the public in its marketing blurb?

I’ve tried all kinds of Google searches and found very few actual news articles indicating whether this story is true or any English language in-depth interviews with de Vigan. She’s also not on Twitter. The only thing I’ve seen is a translation of a French language interview with de Vigan in Paris Match Magazine in a blog post by Susie at Novel Visits where she quoted as answering “in one form or another” when asked if there was an L. in her life.

Did Delphine imagine L?

It’s clear towards the end of the book that even Delphine herself questions whether L actually existed. When she figures out she’s been had (in a delightfully The Usual Suspects kind of way!), she tries to find tangible evidence of L’s existence in her life and she cannot find a shred.

It’s possible Delphine could have imagined L in the throes of a deep depression. But, I think the (pretty dang awesome, I might add!) ending pretty much negates this possibility.

If L didn’t exist, who submitted the “novel” in Delphine’s name to her publisher? Delphine could have written it while she was depressed, but would she really have no zero memory of it whatsoever? I guess it’s possible if you also believe she invented L entirely.

But, I’m not sure I buy that Delphine imagined L. while deeply depressed.

I see three possible interpretations of Based on a True Story.

Based on a True Story ends with The End*, the calling card L uses for her ghostwriting. This leads me to the following three interpretations of the book:

  1. Based on a True Story really is closely based on something that actually happened to de Vigan…and Based on a True Story is the actual book the very real L submitted to Delphine’s publisher under Delphine’s name. But, then, can the publisher release this book under de Vigan’s name in good conscience while knowing she didn’t actually write it?
  2. Like #1, Based on a True Story is based on some version of something that actually happened to Delphine, but Delphine really did write the book about her experience. But if this is true, then why did Delphine sign off with L’s calling card? To trick the reader? As a cheeky nod to L? This piece has me stumped.
  3. Based on a True Story is completely fiction (written by de Vigan) and the title refers to the theme I discussed above. Ending the book with L’s calling card is just a cheeky nod to her and the story. Maybe even inserted at the last minute by the publisher. But, again, why would be publisher then state it’s “based on a true story” in the marketing blurb?

I think all this ambiguity is intentional and meant to make the book more compelling…which it absolutely did for me.

As to which theory I personally subscribe to…I think it’s #2…mainly because of the quote Susie at Novel Visits found in the French language Paris Match MagazineBut, I admit I’m still questioning myself. There are holes in all three theories.

How do you feel about all the ambiguity? And, about never finding out who L really was or why she wanted to insinuate herself in Delphine’s life?

About knowing for sure if the book is based on a true story?

Part of me loves the fact that I finished the book weeks ago and am still trying to parce this all out. But, another, lazier, part of me wants the key to the castle…right now!

I’m definitely the type of reader who doesn’t mind an open or ambiguous ending…as long as it isn’t super abrupt and makes sense with the story. In this case, I think the ambiguity was intentional and well-crafted, so it doesn’t make me want to throw the book across the room.

Knowing who L really was or why she wanted to insinuate herself into Delphine’s life?

Initially, I was annoyed that this was never answered. But, now that some time has gone by, I’m much more focused on whether the story is true or not. L’s motive almost seems beside the point.

Let’s discuss! What did you think of Based on a True Story? How do you feel about all the ambiguity?

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If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio: The Dark Campus Novel I’ve Been Craving

April 27, 2017 Fiction 20

If We Were Villains, ML RioFiction – Debut
Released April 11, 2017
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (published by G.P. Putnam)

Headline

If We Were Villains is the dark campus novel I’ve been craving ever since loving Christopher J. Yates’s Black Chalk three years ago…and is one of my favorite books of 2017 so far.

Plot Summary

After spending ten years in prison, Oliver Marks is ready to tell the story of the tragedy that happened to his seven best friends and fellow Shakespeare theatre students during their fourth year at Dellecher, an intense Conservatory for the arts. 

Why I Read It

Susie at Novel Visits recommended this book and compared it to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (which I loved). Plus, I’m a complete sucker for campus novels, especially dark ones.

Major Themes

Friendship, Shakespeare, Secrets / Betrayal

What I Loved

  • If We Were Villains is a dark, sinister, Gothic campus novel jam-packed with emotional tension. The dynamics between Oliver and his group of friends are incredibly complicated and constantly shifting, resulting in nail-biting suspense. After the 20% mark, I could not put this book down!
  • The story kicks off with a Prologue that made me think A) I’m dying to know what happened to this group of friends ten years ago and B) I’m pretty sure it’s going to be really messed up.
  • Though I have mixed feelings about all the Shakespeare in this book (see “What I Didn’t Like” below), I do think the general theme contributed to much of the book’s Gothic feel and made what could be interpreted as mundane friendship dynamics feel much more sinister. I just knew that one of these people was going to become believably capable of doing something monstrous.
  • What ended up happening with the Dellecher fourth years was surprising (particularly how it went down), but absolutely made sense within the context of the story. I could see how each player ended up in the role (obligatory acting pun!) they did.

What I Didn’t Like

  • References to and excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays are incorporated throughout this book. The students pepper their own conversations with Shakespeare one-liners, discuss the plays in class, and refer to themes from the plays in their daily lives. I admit I’m not a fan of Shakespeare and find his language kind of unintelligible, so this initially annoyed me. Just before the 20% mark, I actually considered putting the book down. However, I’m so relieved I kept going. I realized that you don’t have to pay close attention to the Shakespeare excerpts or really understand them to get invested in the story. So, don’t let a wariness of Shakespeare deter you from reading this!

A Defining Quote

Actors are by nature volatile – alchemic creatures composed of incendiary elements, emotion and ego and envy. Heat them up, stir them together, and sometimes you get gold. Sometimes disaster.

Good for People Who Like…

Campus Novels, Friendship, Shakespeare, Secrets / Betrayal, Dark Stories

Other Books You May Like

More dark, sinister campus novels:
Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates
The Secret History by Donna Tartt

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Backlist Beauties: (Most of) the Best Backlist Books I Read Last Year

January 19, 2017 Book Lists 18

One of my 2016 goals was to read more backlist books since I had great success with the few I read in 2015 (50% were 4.5 or 5 star reads). As I approached 2016’s halfway mark, I realized this was the one goal where I was utterly failing to make inroads! So, to keep me honest, I decided to briefly highlight a few backlist books in an occasional “Backlist Beauties” feature.

Here’s the 2016 crop (with one missing, which was so good it’s getting it’s own mini review) and, hopefully, I’ll read enough excellent backlisters throughout 2017 to warrant more than one post!

(Most of) the Best Backlist Books I Read Last Year

Our Souls at Night, Kent HarufOur Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Fiction (Released May 26, 2015)
179 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Knopf) 

Our Souls at Night is a sweet, calm, and uncomplicated novel about two older people (Louis and Addie) who stopped caring what everyone else thought and did what they needed to do to be happy. It’s sort of like they read The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck, which I happened to be listening to while reading this book. This novel reminded me a bit of My Name is Lucy Barton, as much of the story and background on the characters is revealed through conversations between Louis and Addie.

I told you I don’t want to live like that anymore – for other people, what they think, what they believe. I don’t think it’s the way to live. It isn’t for me anyway.

Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina HenriquezThe Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
Fiction (Released June 3, 2014)
286 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Knopf) 

This powerful book about the life of immigrants living in the U.S. is initially quiet, but I couldn’t put it down towards the end. It forces the reader to see life in America through a different set of eyes. There’s lots to chew on here and it would make a fantastic book club selection.

When I walk down the street, I don’t want people to look at me and see a criminal or someone that they can spit on or beat up. I want them to see a guy who has just as much right to be here as they do, or a guy who works hard, or a guy who loves his family, or a guy who’s just trying to do the right things.

 

This is the story of a happy marriage, Ann PatchettThis is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
Nonfiction – Essays (Released December 11, 2011)
308 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Harper) 

Pat Conroy is one of the rare authors whose fiction and nonfiction I’ve truly enjoyed. Now that he’s gone, Ann Patchett might be taking his place (thanks to his recommendation in A Lowcountry Heart). She covers the gamut of topics in this essay collection: marriage (obviously), divorce, writing, book tours, opera (the only low point for me), friendship, how to be productive, and the story behind the opening of Parnassus Books. She lives an interesting, yet fairly normal life and I like her outlook on things.

What I like about the job of being a novelist, and at the same time what I find so exhausting about it, is that it’s the closest thing to being God you’re ever going to get. All of the decisions are yours. You decide when the sun comes up. You decide who gets to fall in love and who gets hit by a car. You have to make all the trees and all the leaves and then sew the leaves onto the trees. You make the entire world.

Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl StrayedTiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
Nonfiction (Released July 10, 2012)
308 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Vintage/Random House Audio) 

In this compilation of columns from her time as the Dear Sugar advice columnist for The Rumpus, Strayed blends empathy, truth, bluntness, and humor to form a perfect blend of “yes, that’s exactly how it is” observations about life and useful, non-judgmental advice about how to live it. I’m not an advice column type of person or an audiobook lover, but the audio version of this book (narrated by the author) earned 5 stars from me.

Trust yourself. It’s Sugar’s golden rule. Trusting yourself means living out what you already know to be true.

You Are An Ironman, Jacques SteinbergYou Are An Ironman by Jacques Steinberg
Nonfiction – Sports (Released September 15, 2011)
304 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Gift (Publisher: Viking) 

The intertwined stories of six amateur triathletes’ attempts to complete Ironman Arizona 2009 (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run), a race that can last as long as 17 hours. A friend gave me this book after learning I was competing in a Sprint Triathlon and I figured I’d peek at a few pages, but probably not read the whole thing. Boy, was I wrong! I teared up within the first 50 pages and was thoroughly inspired by the stories of these regular people attempting an extraordinary feat. 

The road to an Ironman truly begins with someone deciding to place one hand in front of the other in a pool, or one foot before the other on a fast-walk that might progress into a jog or a run.

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Three Favorite 2016 Summer Reads: Siracusa, The Hopefuls, and You Will Know Me

August 11, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 29

In July, I had a reading streak of absolutely perfect light reads that would be great for vacation. All these books will be going on my 2016 Summer Reading Guide.

Siracusa, Delia EphronSiracusa by Delia Ephron
Fiction (Released July 12, 2016)
304 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Blue Rider Press) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: Relationships are put to the test when two couples (and one couple’s somewhat odd daughter) vacation together in Italy.

My Thoughts: Siracusa might be my favorite vacation-type read so far this year! It’s light and fast-moving, but also smartly written. The story is told from each of the four adults’ perspectives and the writing style shifts with each voice. Going into the trip, both marriages had their own issues, with each spouse frequently mocking his/her partner. As the trip takes on a somewhat surreal quality, everyone starts acting out…refusing to hide their pent-up resentments any longer. Ephron generates suspense by dropping little hints about innocuous moments that later take on greater meaning…contributing to the feeling that things are eventually going to combust.

Beyond the story itself, the characters’ musings on everything from marriage and cheating to travel and the writer’s life allowed Ephron’s writing to shine and kicked this book a notch above other vacation reads for me.

I must have understood more than I realized, how fragile things between us were. Now I do nothing but look at things other ways, flipping them up and around, examining them, trying to understand at the very least my own obtuseness. I think, I really do torture myself with this: Surprises don’t come from people we know well, certainly not people we love. We call them surprises but they are inevitabilities. I must have been playing a role, a starring role, in an inevitability.

Siracusa is a fantastic choice if you’re heading on vacation (particularly to Italy).

The Hopefuls, Jennifer CloseThe Hopefuls by Jennifer Close
Fiction (Released July 19, 2016)
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Knopf)

Plot Summary: When young couple Matt and Beth Kelly move from New York City to Washington, D.C. for Matt’s job, they must navigate marriage and friendship in the political world.

My Thoughts: While The Hopefuls is set in the political world, it’s not a book about politics. Rather, it’s a book about marriage and friendship set against the backdrop of politics. Beth finds D.C. an odd and unwelcoming place until she and Matt meet the Dillons, another couple who will become their best friends. Beth is an accessible and relatable narrator and her witty commentary about the douche-y D.C. politicos had me chuckling. Maybe it was her pop culture references (including one about Friday Night Lights!) or her propensity to point out D.C. traits I would also find annoying or the fact that she and Matt’s time in NYC coincided with mine, but I felt like she was speaking my language. The Hopefuls also tackles themes that resonated with me: making new friends as adults (and navigating the boundaries of said friendships), the nosiness of small towns, and trying to find your footing in a new place.

Here’s what I still hate about DC: the way that nothing is permanent, the feeling that everything and everyone you know, could (and does) wash away every four or eight years. All of these important people, so ingrained in the city—you can’t imagine that this place could exist without them. But one day they’re gone and everything keeps moving just the same. Who can get their footing in a place like this? It feels like quicksand to me.

My only complaint was that the ending wrapped things up a little too nicely, yet didn’t. The question of where the characters end up was answered, but some large issues that figured prominently in the storyline and certainly should have impacted the outcome of the book were left unexplored. Despite the unsatisfying ending, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride (which, as I discussed here, is generally more important to me anyway) and highly recommend The Hopefuls as a light, relatable summer read.

You Will Know Me, Megan AbbottYou Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
Fiction (Released July 26, 2016)
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Little, Brown)

Plot Summary: A tragic accident throws fifteen year-old gymnastics prodigy Devon Knox and her family’s carefully constructed training plans into chaos. 

My Thoughts: If you’re looking for a book that you can fly through, this is it. Megan Abbott writes young girls in the most deliciously demented way (see The Fever and Dare Me) and what better world for characters like that to inhabit than elite gymnastics. Only this time Abbott throws in a pack of overly zealous parents to deepen the appeal. She choreographs a meticulously drawn world of tiny powerhouse girls, parents who push all else aside to “help” their daughters achieve “their” dreams, and families whose literal (mountains of credit card debt, multiple mortgages) and figurative fortunes ride on their daughters’ young shoulders. 

A few months later, after placing sixth on beam and bars in the Level 10 Junior Nationals in sunstruck Orlando, she was ranked first among all Level 10s in their home state. “The greatest day of our life,” Devon said, and everyone laughed at the our, except it was true, wasn’t it?

Though the central plot points weren’t entirely unexpected, Abbott’s writing style had me on the edge of my seat, frantically turning pages, even though I was fairly confident I knew how this would end. The paragraphs are short…with an almost breathless quality and I could feel the tension crackling. If you’re not getting a big enough gymnastics fix during this week’s Olympics competition or just want a page-turning beach read, You Will Know Me is your ticket.

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Alcohol & Advil: My Name is Lucy Barton and The Swans of Fifth Avenue

January 21, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 45

Alcohol and Advil Literary Style


Welcome to the second installment of my new feature, 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 books that I either absolutely loved or books that punched me in the gut in an emotionally depleting way (and sometimes both!). 

The Alcohol

My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth StroutMy Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Fiction (Released January 5, 2016)
208 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Random House) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: During a long hospital stay, Lucy Barton has a heartfelt conversation with her mother spanning topics from her difficult childhood to gossip from her hometown to her marriage and motherhood.

My Thoughts: My Name is Lucy Barton was an unexpected winner for me…in the way I felt about it and what it was actually about. I expected a story focusing on Lucy’s relationship with her mother, and it certainly covers this territory, but it felt much more about Lucy’s own life: her childhood, what it was like to grow up poor and never quite fit in, and her adult life.

This is one of those books that has all the intangibles. I’m finding a love for otherwise quiet books whose suspense lies in revealing background information about characters in tiny drips and drabs…and My Name is Lucy Barton joined Did You Ever Have A Family in doing just that. The premise didn’t grab me upon first glance, but the gorgeous writing and life lessons, particularly about marriage and motherhood, touched an emotional chord (no actual crying…but, I did tear up a few times).

Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.

My Name is Lucy Barton‘s gorgeously written hard truths give this quiet book power in a compact package…and it’s going on my Great Books Under 300 Pages List.

The Advil

Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie BenjaminThe Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
Historical Fiction (Release Date: January 26, 2016)
368 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Pre-Order from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Delacorte Press) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: A novel (wink, wink) based on the friendship between author Truman Capote and his New York City socialite “swans” (i.e. Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Marella Agnelli, Gloria Guinness, etc) and his eventual betrayal of them via the short story, “La Cote Basque, 1965”.

My Thoughts: The Swans of Fifth Avenue is one of those deliciously scandalous guilty pleasures…wealthy people behaving badly at its best…with the added bonuses of the right amount of depth and writing that strikes the perfect tone. While this book is technically fiction, the major events and timelines are real with dialogue, emotions, and details imagined by the author. 

Benjamin’s dialogue is snappy and her social commentary is devastatingly biting. The whole time I was reading, I could just picture Truman curled up at these women’s feet like a slinky cat, getting in their good graces before finally pouncing with claws out.

But, Babe, idealized and idolized, perpetually on the “Best Dressed” lists, always mentioned in columns that began, “The most beautiful women in New York,” was not desired by her own husband. Oh, yes – coveted, perhaps. Prized. Displayed, like one of his Picassos. “Mr. and Mrs. William S. Paley,” dazzling together at charity events, balls, highly sought-after at dinner parties. But Babe was not desired.

Beyond the salacious gossip, Benjamin explores friendship, marriage, loneliness, women’s identity, and what lies beneath the mask. What was it like to be so heavily focused on your outward appearance and image (umm..exhausting?!)? How do these glamorous and celebrated women deal with the fact that their husbands view them as nothing more than “glamorous concierges”? How did these women, who rarely spoke the truth,  even to each other, end up divulging so many deep, dark secrets to Truman? And, did Truman intend to betray them from the beginning? The Swans of Fifth Avenue is perfect for fans of Dominick Dunne or Vanity Fair magazine, is going on my Biogossip list.

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Sarah’s Snippets Book Review: Beneath the Bonfire by Nickolas Butler

May 14, 2015 Fiction 13

Fiction – Short StoriesBeneath the Bonfire, Nickolas Butler
Released May 5, 2015
271 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: eGalley provided by the publisher via NetGalley

Headline

Beneath the Bonfire is the first short story collection I’ve ever liked, let alone loved. It’s reminiscent of Shotgun Lovesongs, Butler’s debut novel (and one of my favorite books of last year), and is one of my favorite books of the year so far.

Plot Summary

A collection of short stories set in rural Wisconsin, many of which focus on the bond of old friends.

Major Themes

Life in the rural Midwest, the bond of old friends, male friendship, somewhat innocent trouble making, real life hardship (i.e. alcoholism, infidelity, PTSD, etc)

What I Liked Loved

  • The stories all had a similar feel, which enabled them to hang together without an obvious central theme. They were comforting with a layer of darkness running through them and clever elements of surprise.
  • If you read Shotgun Lovesongs, you know that Butler treats Wisconsin as a character and this was on display again here. As Rory from Fourth Street Review eloquently put it, “what Stephen King does for Maine, Nickolas Butler does for Wisconsin.” And, I’d add what Pat Conroy does for South Carolina. Butler included quirky Wisconsin activities (i.e. night scuba diving in a frozen lake and foraging for morel mushrooms) that gave Beneath the Bonfire charm and a particular personality.
  • When I’ve tried short story collections in the past, I generally had trouble getting invested in the characters…maybe because they just don’t stick around long enough. But, I had no problem with that here. The majority of Butler’s stories felt complete and were just the right length to allow me to get emotionally invested.
  • Beneath the Bonfire showcases the same gorgeous writing that carried Shotgun Lovesongs. Butler very well might be on his way to becoming one of my “I’ll read anything he/she writes” authors.

What I Didn’t Like

  • The second story, Rainwater, was somewhat blah for me. It was much shorter than the others and nothing much happened. It also focused on a grandfather and his grandson, which was a bit of a departure from the feel of the other stories.

A Defining Quote

They didn’t talk much to each other, too much time between them to bother filling, and it was okay because it was enough simply not to be alone.

Fascinating Fact

According to www.morelmushroomhunting.com, Midwest yellow and grey morels sell for $15 a pound. No wonder the guys in Butler’s “Morels” story were spending their time in the woods looking for these things!

Good for People Who Like…

Short stories OR want to try short stories for the first time, gorgeous writing, places as characters, stories about friendship

Other Books You May Like

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Wise Men by Stuart Nadler