Tag: Memoirs

January Read It, Skip It: Grist Mill Road, Tell Me More, The Immortalists, Anatomy of a Scandal

January 18, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 23

Grist Mill Road, Tell Me More, The Immortalists, Anatomy of a Scandal


You may be familiar with my Read It, Skip It posts where I normally cover two books. I’m trying something different this month by rounding up all my January releases into one big Read It, Skip It post. What could give you a clearer picture of the January releases than that?!

Plus, if you’re thinking about tracking your reading this year, check out my “Rock Your Reading” Tracker! It automatically compiles all your reading stats into pretty Summary Charts and enables you choose better books by helping you track your recommendation sources.

This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link).

Read These

Grist Mill Road by Christopher J YatesGrist Mill Road by Christopher J. Yates
Fiction (Released January 9, 2018)
352 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Publisher: Picador)

Plot Summary: Two and a half decades after Patrick, Hannah, and Matthew were involved in a childhood crime in their hometown of Roseborn, NY, they meet again in New York City and have to grapple with what happened years ago.

My Thoughts: Yates’ debut novel, Black Chalk, was one of my favorite books of 2014 and I had high expectations for his sophomore effort. Though Grist Mill Road wasn’t perfect and I didn’t love it as much as Black Chalk, I couldn’t put it down. It’s the kind of book I could’ve read in one sitting if I had the time. It’s part coming of age story (reminiscent of My Sunshine Away) and part psychological thriller, while managing to remain literary (well…until the overly thriller-y ending). The opening Prologue reveals the big “what” of the story and will take your breath away, but the intensity doesn’t let up as you start to learn the “how” and “why.” I do wish Matthew’s backstory had been introduced earlier in the book and that certain storylines hadn’t been told in letter format. Nevertheless, Grist Mill Road is a solid choice if you like dark, twisty, literary thrillers about extremely complicated friendships (a la If We Were Villains).

That there must have been a thousand and one different ways I could have saved her that day. But what did I do? I did nothing.

Tell Me More by Kelly CorriganTell Me More by Kelly Corrigan
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released January 9, 2018)
256 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Random House)

Plot Summary: Corrigan’s memoir is organized around the “12 hardest things she’s learning to say,” including “No,” “I don’t know,” and “I Was Wrong.”

My Thoughts: I absolutely adored (it’s my favorite 2018 release I’ve read so far!) this memoir that spoke to me in a “yes, that’s exactly how it is” way. She kicks things off with an essay that will touch the conflicted hearts of overtaxed moms everywhere and moves on to cover many big life issues (marriage, motherhood, illness, religion, friendship, grief, and loss) in a relatable and irreverently funny way. And, the second to last essay might even make you cry. Corrigan is a welcome addition to my “women who get women” club (current members include Anna Quindlen, Ann Patchett, and Cheryl Strayed) and I’d highly recommend Tell Me More to anyone who loved Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake or This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

What Will didn’t point out, because he wanted me to arrive there on my own, was that his brand of acceptance wasn’t grim compromise or gritted-teeth tolerance. He was not suggesting that we roll over, but rather that we keep rolling, onward.

Skip These

The Immortalists by Chloe BenjaminThe Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Fiction (Released January 9, 2018)
352 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Putnam)

Plot Summary: When a psychic in 1969 NYC tells the four Gold children the dates of their respective deaths, the information drives their choices for the rest of their lives.

My Thoughts: I’m definitely in the minority in not loving this debut novel. It’s getting lots of attention from the bookish media and love from some bloggers I normally agree with (Ann Marie at Lit Wit Wine Dine and Renee at It’s Book Talk). The beginning felt like The Rules of Magic: 1960’s/70’s NYC, a bit of magic, and young siblings trying to slide things by their parents. From that point on, the story is told in sections, one focusing on each of the four Gold children’s lives. These were hit and miss…I was engrossed in some parts (Simon’s and parts of Daniel’s) and kept tuning out during others (Klara’s and Varya’s). I didn’t care much about the sibling in the final section because he/she had been virtually absent for much of the book. That being said, the writing was great, so I would consider reading whatever Chloe Benjamin does next.

For so long, he hated the woman, too. How, he wondered, could she give such a terrible fortune to a child? But now he thinks of her differently, like a second mother or a god, she who showed him the door and said: Go.

Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah VaughanAnatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan
Fiction (Release Date January 23, 2018)
400 Pages
Affiliate Link: Pre-Order from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Atria Books)

Plot Summary: When charismatic politician James is accused of a serious crime, his wife (Sophie) is forced to confront who he might be under his smooth veneer while the prosecutor (Kate) wrestles with her own past.

My Thoughts: Anatomy of a Scandal is a timely book (privilege, abuse of power, scandal, ego) and got a fair amount of pre-publication hype. While I expected the story to be fascinating, the telling of it fell flat. It reads easily, but is predictable and lacks subtlety and nuance in the serious issues it addresses. Every character is a cliche. By the second half, I was skimming just to see what would happen (nothing particularly interesting did).

She feels like laughing. James will be fine because he is the right type, he has done nothing illegal, and he has the prime minister’s patronage. She glances past him to the bookshelves on which Hilary Mantel’s pair of Cromwell novels sit: stories of an era in which a mercurial king’s favour was everything. More than four centuries have passed, and yet, in Tom’s party, there is still a flavor of life at court.

What are some of your favorite January 2018 releases?

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Nonfiction November 2017 Mini Reviews and New Additions to my TBR

November 28, 2017 Blogger Events 16

Nonfiction November 2017


Another Nonfiction November (hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey, Lory at Emerald City Book Review, Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness, Julz at Julz Reads, and me) is in the books! And, it was a good one. I read/listened to eight books and only two were stinkers (and, I was shocked about one of them).

I usually use Nonfiction November to create my Nonfiction TBR for the coming year and I found some great books to get that started!

This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link).

2017 Nonfiction November Mini Reviews

After the Eclipse by Sarah PerryAfter the Eclipse by Sarah Perry
Nonfiction – True Crime/Memoir (Released September 26, 2017)
371 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Plot Summary: Perry’s mother was murdered when she was 12 years old…and Perry was in the house when it happened. Years later, she tries to find out who her mother was and who killed her.

My Thoughts: After the Eclipse is part true crime with a little The Glass Castle thrown in. Sarah grew up poor with an absentee father and had a close bond with her mother. The publisher’s blurb says the book is about Sarah getting to learn more about her mother following her death, but I thought it was more about finding peace in the aftermath of the murder and closure (i.e. finding out who killed her). It’s an incredibly powerful story with multiple eye-widening moments, but the story dragged a bit through the middle (between the murder and its immediate aftermath and finally finding the killer).

Black Dahlia Red Rose Black Dahlia, Red Rose by Piu Marie Eatwell
Nonfiction – True Crime / Investigative Journalism (Released October 10, 2017)
368 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Liveright)

Plot Summary: Eatwell investigates the famous and still unsolved 1947 Black Dahlia murder (young, aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short was found virtually bisected on a residential sidewalk in Los Angeles) and poses a theory about who the murderer was based on evidence that was suppressed at the time.

My Thoughts: The Black Dahlia murder occurred during a time when Los Angeles was rampant with corruption (including in the LAPD) and gangsters. And, this vivid setting and culture is very much a part of the murder and the book, making Black Dahlia, Red Rose feel like more than just a true crime “genre” book. The case itself is fascinating, as is the corruption that went on at the time and the re-examination of the evidence now…but, I did get bogged down in details a bit through the middle when the focus turned to corruption in the LAPD. If you liked In Cold Blood or American Fire, I think you’ll like this one!

Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie SpenceDear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released September 26, 2017)
256 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Flatiron Books)

Plot Summary: Spence, a public librarian, shares her “love letters and break-up notes” to her favorite books, as well as musings and rants about various aspects of her reading life…plus, a whole section of book recommendation lists.

My Thoughts: I recently tried reading My Life with Bob (the New York Times Book Review editor’s memoir of her reading life) and DNF’d it during the first half because it talked too much about esoteric books and got intellectually snobby one too many times. Dear Fahrenheit 451 is the anti-My Life with Bob! You’ve probably heard of most of the books she discusses and even read a few…and there’s no intellectual snobbery here. Spence is relatable, funny, and often snarky. The chapters are short and it’s a great book to pick up when you need something light and easy. Also – it will explode your TBR list…consider yourself warned.

Forty AutumnsForty Autumns by Nina Millner by Nina Willner
Nonfiction – History/Memoir (Released October 4, 2016)
416 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: William Morrow)

Plot Summary: Willner, an ex-U.S. intelligence officer covering East Germany, tells the true story of her family being separated by the Berlin Wall and their experience living in Communist East Germany.

My Thoughts: Forty Autumns was my favorite book of Nonfiction November! It’s a look at communism and East Germany through the lens of one family’s experience. I learned a ton about life behind the Iron Curtain (a topic I’ve been fascinated with ever since seeing the East German women’s swim team dominate the 1988 Seoul Olympics) and the gut-wrenching fear and oppression the East Germans faced. I recently paired it with Georgia Hunter’s novel, We Were the Lucky Ones, in a Fiction / Nonfiction Pairing post. They’re similar stories about families fractured by war and an oppressive regime, just different countries and different wars. Like Hunter’s novel, Forty Autumns is highly readable despite it’s serious topic and touches the emotional heart-strings while giving you a history lesson.

How Reading Changed My Life by Anna QuindlenHow Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released January 1, 1998)
96 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.

Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Ballantine Books)

Plot Summary: Quindlen’s thoughts on her reading life and books she’s loved.

My Thoughts: This memoir was kind of all over the place and didn’t feel much like the Anna Quindlen I know and love. Some parts (personal memories of growing up a bookworm) were warm and relatable (typical Quindlen), while others read like an academic term paper. The silver lining is that it’s chock full of amazing, famous quotes about books and reading. I never thought I’d be recommending you skip an Anna Quindlen, but I am.

Strangers in their Own Land by Arlie Russell HochschildStrangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild
Nonfiction – Politics (Released August 16, 2016)
351 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: New Press)

Plot Summary: Liberal sociologist Hochschild went deep into Louisiana Bayou country to get to know some of the people who politically identify with the Tea Party.

My Thoughts: I’m really glad I read Strangers in Their Own Land, but it was different than I expected. It does delve into the reasons these particular people support the Tea Party (and hate the idea of government intervention and support, though they theoretically could benefit from it), but a large chunk of the book is about the environmental pollution of this area of Louisiana. The environmental piece was interesting reading, but I thought was a bit overdone given it was somewhat of a tangent. A logical “next book” if you liked Hillbilly Elegy.

Happiness Project by Gretchen RubinThe Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
Nonfiction – Life Improvement (Released December 29, 2009)
301 Pages (Audio: 10 hours, 15 minutes)
Bottom Line: Read it / Listen to it
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Harper)

Plot Summary: Rubin dedicated a year of her life to focusing on the things that matter…thus her “Happiness Project.”

My Thoughts: The Happiness Project is a relatable exploration of figuring out what makes you happy and how to focus on those things in your daily life (her motto is basically sleep, workout, declutter…in my words). It’s filled with actionable, manageable, common sense tips that are easy to integrate into your life, but that we often forget to focus on (i.e. get more sleep). Plus, she throws in memorable quotes to keep you on track (i.e. “sleep is the new sex”, “take pleasure in an atmosphere of growth”). Sometimes she comes across as a “happiness bully” (her words) and I think she could drive me nuts to have as a friend, but overall it’s a great tool to help you hit reset on on your life.

UnbelievableUnbelievable by Katy Tur by Katy Tur
Nonfiction – Politics (Released September 12, 2017)
301 Pages (Audio: 7 hours, 46 minutes)
Bottom Line: Skip it

Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Dey Street Books)

Plot Summary: NBC News Correspondent Tur’s behind the scenes look at what it was like to cover Donald Trump’s political campaign.

My Thoughts: I’m always interested in the behind-the-scenes dirt from political campaigns…from either party…and you’d think the dirt from the Trump campaign would be exceptionally entertaining (maybe not the right word, but close enough). But, funnily enough, I don’t feel like I learned anything new from this book. Maybe because so much has already been reported by the media along the way or tweeted about by Trump himself, but I felt like Unbelievable was a re-hash of things I already knew…except maybe getting a better appreciation for the perpetual exhaustion of those involved in political campaigns.

New Nonfiction to My TBR

And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts (November 1, 1987)
Recommended by Melissa Firman…this one caught my eye because she paired it with The Heart’s Invisible Furies (my review) in her fiction / nonfiction book pairings.

Shilts tells the heroic stories of individuals in science and politics, public health and the gay community, who struggled to alert the nation to the enormity of the danger it faced.

Ghettoside by Jill Leovy (January 25, 2015)
Recommended by Kazan at Always Doing (via my comments section).

Ghettoside is a fast-paced narrative of a devastating crime, an intimate portrait of detectives and a community bonded in tragedy, and a surprising new lens into the great subject of murder in America–why it happens and how the plague of killings might yet be stopped.

Grocery by Michael Ruhlman (May 16, 2017)
Recommended by Joann at Lakeside Musing.

Cookbook author and food writer Ruhlman explores the evolution of the American grocery store and how it has affected what we eat. The author uses two of his Midwestern hometown grocery chains, Heinen’s and Fazio’s, and his memories of his father’s love of food and grocery shopping as the foundation for this engaging narrative.

The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan (March 5, 2013)
Recommended by Tara at Running N Reading.

The incredible story of the young women of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who unwittingly played a crucial role in one of the most significant moments in U.S. history (the Manhattan Project).

On Writing by Stephen King (June 27, 2017)
Recommended by my friend and author of the fantastic book We Were the Lucky Ones, Georgia Hunter (along with a number of other people in the comments section of my Books about Reading and Writing post).

On Writing begins with King’s childhood and his uncannily early focus on writing to tell a story. King next turns to the basic tools of his trade and culminates with a profoundly moving account of how King’s overwhelming need to write spurred him toward recovery.

What was your favorite read and top TBR add of Nonfiction November?

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Nonfiction November 2017: Be the Expert…Books about the Reading and Writing Life

November 14, 2017 Book Lists 30

Nonfiction November 2017


Today’s Nonfiction November (hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey, Lory at Emerald City Book Review, Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness, Julz at Julz Reads, and me) topic is fiction/nonfiction book pairings:

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).

It’s not surprising that some of my very favorite authors (Pat Conroy, Anna Quindlen, Ann Patchett) have books on this list. What bookworm doesn’t want to delve into the reading and writing life of their favorite authors…and snag some great book recommendations as a bonus?! There’s something comforting about reading your favorite author’s thoughts about how reading fits into their lives…and realizing they’re echoing your own.

This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link).

books about the reading and writing life

Books about the Reading and Writing Life That I Love

A Lowcountry Heart by Pat Conroy (my review)
A collection of Pat Conroy’s writings on books, reading, writing, and life (including letters addressed to his readers)…and his final book published (posthumously). Plus, you get his unfiltered thoughts on various books and authors (he loved Game of Thrones…not Infinite Jest).

Books for Living by Will Schwalbe (my review)
Schwalbe’s collection of essays featuring individual books and how they impacted his life…ranging from serious classics to dark thrillers to children’s books. I added a couple books discussed here to my TBR!

Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence
A librarian’s letters to the books in her life…both the ones she loves and the ones she hates. And, tons of recommendation lists. PS – it’s really funny.

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen (my review)
This memoir/essay collection is about much more than the reading and writing life, but both are covered extensively. Anna Quindlen has a grounded, practical outlook and just gets life. Listening to this on audio felt a bit like a therapy session.

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy
Are you surprised Conroy is popping up again? Here he talks about his reading life and the books and people that shaped it.

The Getaway Car by Ann Patchett
A very slim memoir in which one of my favorite authors counsels aspiring writers that the key to the castle is simply putting in the work. Not such a bad piece of advice for life in general.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (my review)
Like Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, this essay collection covers lots more than just reading and writing. The Getaway Car is included in this collection and you get to hear the story behind Parnassus Books among other goodies.

What I Talk about When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami
Yep, this memoir is about running. But, it’s also about writing and the two are inextricably linked for Murakami.

Books about the Reading and Writing Life That Are On My TBR

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
I think this is Lamott’s version of Patchett’s The Getaway Car and Quindlen’s Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. I’m hoping to fit it in this month.

What are your favorite books about reading and/or writing?

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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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A Lowcountry Heart: An Homage to Pat Conroy

November 25, 2016 Nonfiction 8

A Lowcountry Heart, Pat ConroyNonfiction – Memoir/Essays
Released October 25, 2016
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it…if you’re a Pat Conroy fan.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Nan A. Talese) via NetGalley

Summary

A collection of Pat Conroy’s writing on a range of topics (including letters to readers and thoughts on reading, writing, and beloved friends and family) and his most popular speeches and interviews.

My Thoughts

If you read this blog regularly, you know I’m a huge Conroy fan and will gobble up pretty much anything he writes. I’ll even forgive him the occasional divergences into over-the-top writing. So, after his death earlier this year, I was thrilled to hear we’d get one last collection of Conroy nonfiction. This entire book feels like an homage to Conroy, his career, and the most important people in his life…even though most of the pieces are written by Conroy himself. You feel like you’re reading his final words and thoughts…though he couldn’t have known that when he was writing these pieces.

As I was reading, I kept marveling at the new things I was learning about Conroy…despite having already read everything there is to read about his life. Here are some of my favorites.

On South Carolina…

South Carolina is not a state; it is a cult.

On sports…

Sports can teach you everything you need to know about yourself.

On literary taste (no fantasy, dystopian, or sci-fi for him, except Margaret Atwood and George R.R. Martin)…

Literary taste is the defining thing in all of us. It is as unpredictable as it is fascinating.

On promoting his books (and I suspect this is rare for authors)…

I got out to sell books and it has become one of the greatest things about being a writer during my lifetime. No writer should turn down the chance of meeting the readers of his work.

On specific books and authors…

Yes to The World According to Garp by John Irving, Ann Patchett, Anne Rivers Siddons, Leo Tolstoy, Richard Russo, Jonathan Franzen, Serena by Ron Rash
No to Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Martin Amis

On writing style…

Tim never liked anything I wrote. As an English teacher, he insisted the prose be spare, unadorned, unflashy, but hard-hitting and severe. From the beginning of my career in Beaufort, Tim found my writing overcaffeinated, pretentious, and blowsy.

On the Citadel’s plebe system…

It let me know exactly the kind of man I wanted to become. It made me ache to be a contributing citizen in whatever society I found myself in, to live out a life I could be proud of, and always to measure up to what I took to be the highest ideals of a Citadel man – or, now, a Citadel woman.

A primer for his most famous novels…

In The Great Santini, it was – why did I hate my father? In The Lords of Discipline – why I hated the plebe system. In The Prince of Tides – why did my sister go crazy?

On My Losing Season…

It might be the best book I will ever write.

On the first line of The Lords of Discipline (“I wear the ring.”)…

I think it is the best line I have ever written and best English sentence I am capable of writing. I love that phrase; I love that sentence.

On his career overall…

Though I wish I’d written a lot more, been bolder with my talent, more forgiving of my weaknesses, I’ve managed to draw a magic audience into my circle. They come to my signings to tell me stories, their stories. The ones that have hurt them and made their nights long and their lives harder.

A Lowcountry Heart is a book for Conroy fans and feels almost like a commemorative artifact. It has a gift-y feel, so would make a perfect holiday gift for Conroy fans this Christmas/whatever you celebrate.

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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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Read One, Skip One: Hillbilly Elegy and Cruel Beautiful World

October 11, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 18

Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. VanceHillbilly 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, Caroline LeavittCruel 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.

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Alcohol & Advil: Mudbound and Dinner with Edward

July 14, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 19

Alcohol and Advil Literary Style
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) is back! Chalk up the long hiatus to a lack of books that left me sufficiently hungover to warrant a post. 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, both.

The Alcohol

Mudbound, Hillary JordanMudbound by Hillary Jordan
Southern Fiction (Released March 4, 2008)
354 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Algonquin)

Plot Summary: Shortly after Laura McAllen’s husband (Henry) moves their family to an isolated farm in the Mississippi Delta, her brother-in-law (Jamie) and the son of one of their tenant families (Ronsel Jackson) return from fighting in World War II to the Jim Crow era South.

My Thoughts: This award-winning 2008 debut reminiscent of Pat Conroy (the story itself more than the writing style), begins with a city girl trying to adjust to a spartan life of backbreaking farm work and becomes unputdownable by the end. A sense of foreboding hangs over everything and I could feel the tension…in Laura and Henry’s marriage, between the McAllens and the Jacksons, between Laura and her hateful father-in-law (Pappy), and within Jamie and Ronsel upon their returns from World War II. Something was definitely going to blow. The writing is simple and down-to-earth…with a cadence that takes you right to the Deep South.

When I think of the farm, I think of mud. Lining my husband’s fingernails and encrusting the children’s knees and hair. Sucking at my feet like a greedy newborn on the breast. Marching in boot-shaped patches across the plank floors of the house. There was no defeating it. The mud coated everything. I dreamed in brown.

Mudbound is centered around the themes of racism and women’s role in a marriage. There is a keen perspective of what it was like for a black war hero, having been celebrated abroad, to return home to be treated like a lessor class of human:

Ronsel

I never thought I’d miss it so much. I don’t mean Nazi Germany, you’d have to be crazy to miss a place like that. I mean who I was when I was over there. There I was a liberator, a hero. In Mississippi I was just another nigger pushing a plow. And the longer I stayed, the more that’s all I was.

And what it was like for a wife to have little say in the direction of her life, to be expected to defer to her husband always, and to serve her father-in-law as if she were his employee. These themes lead to some barbaric events that are not for the faint of heart. Mudbound is the best piece of Southern fiction I’ve read all year and one of the best I’ve ever read and would be a great choice for fans of Pat Conroy.

The Advil

Dinner with Edward, Isabel VincentDinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released May 24, 2016)
224 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Algonquin)

Plot Summary: As a favor to her friend, Valerie, Isabel begins having dinner with Valerie’s elderly father, which turns into far more than just dinner and far more than just helping out Valerie.

My Thoughts: New York Post reporter Isabel Vincent’s memoir was a perfect follow-up to the brutality of Mudbound because it was completely different, it was short, it was sweet and hopeful…and because it focused on food, an innocuous and comforting topic. It’s a weird mix of food memoir and self-help book, with a splash of New York City history (particularly about Roosevelt Island, where Isabel and Edward live), but it miraculously works.

When Isabel shows up for her first dinner with Edward, she’s working herself to death and her marriage is in trouble, while Edward is trying to recover from the death of his beloved wife, Paula. One dinner turns into many, which then turn into a rescuing of the soul for both Isabel and Edward. It turns out Edward is a true gourmande, creating elaborate, multi-course feasts and imparting his culinary wisdom to Isabel (and me – I’ve already tried his trick for fluffy scrambled eggs!) in the process. Dinner with Edward combines the comforting feeling of Our Souls at Night with the delectable food focus of Sweetbitter…and is going on my 2016 Summer Reading, Cooking/Food Books, and Great Books Under 300 Pages lists.

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Inspirational Nonfiction: Home is Burning & The Three-Year Swim Club

November 19, 2015 Nonfiction 20

These reviews are part of Nonfiction November hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey, Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness, Becca at I’m Lost in Books, and Leslie at Regular Rumination.

Nonfiction November 2015


Though these books feel completely different or couldn’t have more different subject matters, they are both incredibly inspiring stories in their own ways.

Home is Burning, Dan MarshallHome is Burning by Dan Marshall
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released October 20, 2015)
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary: Dan Marshall is twenty-five and living a stress-free life in L.A. when he’s called home to help care for his ALS-stricken father (Bob) while his mother (Debi) undergoes chemo for her own advanced non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

My Thoughts: Home is Burning is inspiring, sad, funny, raw, and honest…I laughed (a lot) and cried (some). It’s full of life lessons and, thanks to Bob Marshall, is a blueprint for how to get the most out of the time you have left. Bob was an avid marathoner and chose to compete in the Boston Marathon despite his ALS diagnosis, finishing in just over six hours at a time when he couldn’t even tie his own shoes. It’s also full of F bombs, crass and inappropriate humor, drinking, and jabs at the Marshalls’ Mormon neighbors (they are a rare non-Mormon family in their Salt Lake City neighborhood). If any of this is likely to offend you, steer clear of this book!

Dan is upfront about his privilege (he regularly refers to himself as a “rich, white asshole”). He has no problem saying selfish-sounding things about the impact of his parents’ illnesses on his own life that I’m sure others’ in similar situations think, but never actually say. His openness about the emotions that go along with seeing your parents in such vulnerable situations and giving up your life to become a “caregiver” make this a must read for anyone finding themselves in a “caregiver” role. And, the entire book is a gigantic lesson in putting on your big boy/girl pants.

The Three-Year Swim ClubThe Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway
Nonfiction – Sports (Released October 27, 2015)
402 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it…if you’re interested in swimming and/or the Olympics.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary: The true story of a Hawaiian sugar plantation elementary school teacher (Soichi Sakamoto) who trained (starting in an irrigation ditch!) a group of mostly Japanese-American children to swim for the Olympics in the late 1930’s/40’s.

My Thoughts: When I heard about this book at BEA, I immediately jumped on it…as I was a swimmer growing up (and was not familiar with this story) and love all things Olympics. Coming from that perspective, I enjoyed this book for the most part. I loved getting to nerd out with swimming and the Olympics – the political machinations behind the Olympic bidding process, 1930’s training techniques, and the differences in the 1930’s version of the sport (i.e. butterfly seemed to be missing and distances were 110, 220 rather than today’s 100, 200). If this stuff sounds like boring minutia, you should probably skip this one.

I was completely invested in the fates of Sakamoto and his underdog swimmers during the first half of the book. Can they become national players? Will the females be allowed to attend Nationals? Will his stars make the Olympic team? Then, World War II hit, changing the story’s direction. It hit the pause button on the swimming suspense and shuffled the people I’d been rooting for. This is obviously how real life played out, but it made for an odd story arc and dulled my emotions.

The Three-Year Swim Club lacked the intense emotional impact that made The Boys in the Boat such a widespread success, but would be a great choice for people interested in swimming and/or the Olympics.

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