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Books Archive

Thursday

12

September 2019

0

COMMENTS

The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty

Written by , Posted in Reviews

4 Stars

Best for:
Fans of Liane Moriarty, fans of mysteries that unfold in unexpected ways, and fans of books that go a little deeper than you might expect.

In a nutshell:
Alice and Jack Munro abandoned their baby girl – named Enigma – 70 years ago. She’s now a grandmother, and one of the sisters who rescued her has died, leaving behind some unfinished business.

Worth quoting:
“If her back had ever hurt like this when she was twenty she would have been hysterical, demanding painkillers and cups of tea in bed, but she has found that nobody is especially surprised to hear you’re in pain when you’re in your eighties. You might find it astonishing, but nobody else does.”

Why I chose it:
I realized after finishing her latest book that I hadn’t read all of them, so I remedied that quickly.

Review:
I liked this one a lot. I have a vivid picture of the fictional island where most of the book takes place. I can picture the characters, and while I don’t think I relate directly to any of them, I appreciate how they are mostly well-thought-out and well built characters. They aren’t one note.

The book starts after the death of Connie, who is in her 90s and was one of two sisters who discovered baby Enigma after her parents vanished from their home on the island. Connie has left her home to her great-nephew’s ex girlfriend Sophia, so that’s weird. Much of the book focuses on Sophia, but also on Grace, who is struggling deeply with post-partum depression. I was not expecting that but I think it’s handed interestingly (though I would defer to those who have actually experienced it). In broader terms the book looks at what family means, what secrets can do to and for a family, and how we often don’t really know our partners and family.

I also like that we get the perspectives of older people in the book – people in their 70s and 90s. Rarely do we have those points of view, and as I’ve mentioned before, I appreciate exploring those experiences.

I think What Alice Forgot is still my favorite of Moriarty’s books, but this one might be a close second.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it

Saturday

7

September 2019

0

COMMENTS

Pharricide by Vincent de Swarte

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Anyone looking for something dark, evocative, and quickly read.

In a nutshell:
Lighthouse keeper Lefayen is not doing well, folks.

Worth quoting:
N/A. Not because there wasn’t anything particularly interesting or moving; I was just so caught up in reading it that I didn’t stop to underline anything.

Why I chose it:
The cover drew my attention, and then the description on the back made me want to read it.

Review:
I didn’t close this book thinking ‘what did I just read,’ although that might be the reaction some will have. A few sections are a bit … much, but overall it is an enthralling book, one that I started and finished on a three-hour train ride. It’s the perfect book for when you’re going to have a couple of hours of undivided attention, which is what you’ll want to give it, because it’s pretty short (160 pages) and you’ll want to … not STAY in this world, but see it through.

Lefayen tells the story of his time at this lighthouse (the oldest in France) via journal entries, which get increasingly erratic. Something — or things — has happened to him in the past, which we don’t necessarily learn the full extent of (or maybe we do) but which have clearly has an impact on him. He is excited to take on this particular lighthouse keeping exercise, even though it will be through the cold of winter and he will be completely alone, save occasional resupply visits.

I’m not saying anymore, but the author is a talented writer who created this small world for us to inhabit – both the tiny lighthouse and the mind of someone who is perhaps not doing so hot.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it.

Saturday

7

September 2019

0

COMMENTS

Advice for Future Corpses by Sallie Tisdale

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Those who know someone who is dying, or those who may die themselves one day.

In a nutshell:
Palliative care nurse Sallie Tisdale offers thoughts on both the reality of accepting (or at least acknowledging) one’s own mortality while also providing seriously practical suggestions and examples for what to expect.

Worth quoting:
“Our image of Grandpa at home in his own bed assumes that Grandpa likes his bed, that his house is safe and quiet, and that he really wants his relatives to take care of his most personal needs.”
“Sick people need to not be sick people all the time. They are also plumbers, parents, students, friends, chess players.”

Why I chose it:
Old habits die (heh) hard. I used to do planning related to death in my old job and I still find it interesting.

Review:
What happens as one dies? Not after, but before and during? And what can those of us who are supporting those people do (or not do) to make that experience less scary?

Tisdale’s book is not exactly a road map, and it is not really a memoir, either. She does use some stories to illustrate points (the experiences of three people she knows who have died are shared in different chapters), but this is not a book on the wisdom of those who are near death. No, instead it’s a mixture of how to confront one’s own mortality as well as observations from someone who has been with those who are dying and knows what to do (and what not to do).

The book follows essentially the path of death from illness, including chapters on what to do with the remains and what grief may be like. I think the most valuable chapter is the one on communication, full of dos and don’ts (mostly don’ts). If you haven’t been close to someone who is seriously ill, it’s likely you don’t know how you’ll react or what is appropriate to ask, say, or do, and this book provides some suggestions on that front.

At times this book had me confronting my own mortality; at other times it had me thinking about the mortality of those I love (especially those who are much older than me). I think it’s useful reading, and I’ll be keeping it around until I’ll need it.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it

Friday

30

August 2019

0

COMMENTS

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
People who like Liane Moriarty books.

In a nutshell:
Nine people arrive at a health retreat looking for change. They find a little more than that.

Worth quoting:
“The first was a woman … wearing an oversized, brand-new-looking whit t-shirt that hung almost to her knees over black leggings, the standard outfit for an average-sized woman who starts a new exercise program and thinks her perfectly normal body should be hidden.”

Why I chose it:
I have been waiting for this to come out in paperback and huzzah! It was worth the wait, as I picked it up at lunch yesterday and haven’t put it down much since.

Review:
Liane Moriarty has a formula – there are multiple characters, and while some are leads, there isn’t usually just one perspective shared. Usually these books go back and forth in time, but not this time. This time we get a fairly straightforward narrative from the perspective of a dozen characters, though Frances, a 50-something author, is the one we keep going back to.

Frances’s latest book has been rejected by her publisher, and she was scammed by an online love. She needs some change and so seeks it from a ten-day retreat that ends up including some questionable methods that increase in absurdity.

As always with Liane’s books there are things that you think you’ve got figured out and then she hits you with a curve. Her writing is engaging and her character development is strong here. I especially appreciated the way we got the sense of how people come across as compared to how they are feeling inside. I genuinely look forward to her books, and this one was worth the wait.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it

Wednesday

28

August 2019

0

COMMENTS

Childfree by Choice by Dr. Amy Blackstone

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Five Stars

Best for:
I wish everyone would read this. Parents who don’t understand why people would choose to not be parents can learn a lot about society’s misconceptions, but us childfree folks really benefit from writing that treats us as well-adjusted adults, not selfish, juvenile misanthropes.

In a nutshell:
Sociologist Blackstone looks at what it means to choose a life without children of one’s own.

Worth quoting:
I underlined something on nearly every page, and starred something especially poignant probably every three or four pages. But here are some of my favorites.

Regarding trying to get sterilized: “To feel so unheard for so many years, to be treated like a child who doesn’t know her own mind, and to be doubted by the very people who should be your advocates is demoralizing and exhausting.”

On the fact that there isn’t any evidence for such a thing as a ‘maternal instinct’: “It is much more comfortable, and comforting to others, to joke about one’s individual lack of maternal instinct than it is to suggest that it doesn’t exist.”

Discussing the definition of family: “Google the phrase ‘start a family’ and you’ll quickly discover that for many people, even today, families don’t begin until children enter the picture. This is not lost on the childfree.”

“No, we don’t all hate kids but neither should we have to justify our choice not to have them with lengthy proclamations about how much we adore them.”

Why I chose it:
I am childfree (and only met my spouse because we both selected ‘Does not want kids’ in our OK Cupid profiles) and have spent a ton of time thinking through this topic. I’m even working on a book that explores how relationships between parents and non-parents change once kids enter the picture. When I saw this book in the shop I damn near bought all the copies. Thankfully it lived up to and exceeded by expectations.

Review:
I could write a review of this book that is nearly as long as the introduction to it. Let me just say, up front, that Blackstone is both a thorough researcher AND a great writer, which keeps what could have been a dry book entertaining and interesting.

Blackstone starts the book in a place one might not expect — by acknowledging that while parenthood (and especially motherhood) is revered in US culture, there are specific groups of people who have traditionally been discouraged from having children. Basically, white middle- and upper-class women are pushed to reproduce, while people of color are judged for having children (especially more than just one or two) and experienced a history of having their reproductive rights challenged through things like forced sterilization. It’s good to center this discussion there.

She looks at pronatalism’s impact on our views of women and how by promoting the essentialness of motherhood to being a women, society then leads us to internalize the idea that women who aren’t mothers aren’t real women. This then has an effect on nearly everything, from how people are wary of women who don’t have kids to the benefits that are available to parents (such as the flexibility to leave work early to pick up a sick kid) but not non-parents (such as the flexibility to leave work early to take an ill pet to the vet). It extends to how we define family (something that really pisses me off) as only existing when a child and a parent are involved — to many people, my husband and I aren’t a family and I guess never will be since kids are not in our future.

She also focuses a lot of time on why people might make the choice not to have children, and how society views us as selfish. She compares how parents come to their own decision to have children, and points out those reasons are often just as ‘selfish,’ and concludes that we should just take that word out of rotation in this area because it serves no purpose. And of course threaded throughout is evidence of how parents and society as a whole are generally wary of non-parents and a bit judgmental about us.

Really the only area she doesn’t spent a lot of time on is how people without children can lose their friends as they become parents and their time and priorities shift, though her partner address this anecdotally in the afterword, which is written by him.

I loved this book because it made me feel seen and understood. I don’t have a ‘reason’ for not wanting children other than that I don’t want to be a parent. Much like I don’t want to be a surgeon. There’s nothing wrong with being a surgeon, and I agree society needs some, but it’s obviously not right for everyone. I wish people who look at me like I’m deficient or broken would instead realize that just as they CHOSE parenthood, I’ve CHOSEN a life without my own kids. It’s a weird feeling to know that up to three quarters of my life won’t match most of what my friends experience; this book helped me feel less alone in that.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it but also buy copies for people.

Monday

26

August 2019

0

COMMENTS

Do I Make Myself Clear? by Harold Evans

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Writing classrooms.

In a nutshell:
Longtime writer and editor Harold Evans offers lessons to improve writing.

Worth quoting:
“We are more likely to understand the argument if we know where we are heading.”
“Anything that goes wrong will always be wordier than anything that goes right.”

Why I chose it:
I’m always looking to improve my writing.

Review:
In the first few pages of this book the author speaks well of both Churchill (racist) and Kissinger (war criminal), so I did have a little trouble moving past that. I was expecting something closer to Stephen King’s ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’; instead it is closer to a good text one might find in an introductory journalism or creative writing course at University. That is, it is well-written and helpful but dry (ironic, eh?) and repetitive.

Nearly every section comes down to editing; specifically to cutting words so one communicates in the simplest way. And that is solid advice! It’s just … there are only so many ways once can reiterate the same point.

Though, to his credit, Evans does find many ways to do just that. Most chapters include sample text that he then edits to be easier to read or straightforward. I could see those samples being helpful in a classroom: offer the originals to students and have them edit them down and compare to Evans’s edits. Some chapters also include lists of phrases that are redundant, or words that are misused, which makes the book worth keeping around. I’ll add it to my writing reference stack, and look at it occasionally.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it for the reference value.

Sunday

25

August 2019

0

COMMENTS

Emerald City by Brian Birnbaum

Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

Two Stars

Best for:
I cannot recommend this to anyone.

In a nutshell:
I couldn’t really tell you. I could reproduce the description from the back of the book, but I think that’s unfair to other authors whose books can be described by their readers without resorting to that. Though according to the reviews that have already seeded Good Reads it is ‘shocking.’

Worth quoting:
Here is an example of the writing that fills each page:
“He’d sooner have gotten mad at time’s perceived acceleration over life’s void of fulfillment. An illegal fraction represented best how fucked this so-called sentience was — and yet here she was, brooding over an extemporized jest.”

Why I chose it:
This was a free advance reader copy available through the Cannonball Read. I jumped at it because it’s set in Seattle (a place I called home for 10 years as an adult) and sounded intriguing.

Review:
This is either my first or second DNF (did not finish) review for Cannonball Read. I struggled with even doing this but I think if a book is offered free for review I at least owe it to the author to be as honest as I can be without being an asshole. I don’t think the review will be getting back to the author directly, and I can’t imagine he’d agree with or enjoy my criticism, but I’m offering it anyway, because that’s what we do here.

Are you familiar with @GuyInYourMFA? I believe that this book may have been written by the people those tweets satirize. Not because of the subject matter necessarily (there seems to be a female lead who isn’t described in an absurd way, and the plot isn’t just about a white man finding himself), but because of the writing style.

When I titled this review “The Writing Got In the Way,” it’s because it is genuinely difficult to read. And not in a the capital-G Great American Novel type of way that I admittedly don’t find appealing but understand serves a purpose; but because it seems like the author is trying so hard to sound complex and intelligent that it comes across as the opposite.

Do you remember the episode of Friends where Chandler and Monica ask Joey to write a letter of recommendation to the adoption agency? And Joey is worried it doesn’t sound smart enough so he goes through and replaces nearly every word with a related (though not necessarily matching in context) word? And it ends up being completely unintelligible? This book feels like 400 pages of that letter.

Multiple adjectives are included where one (or none) would suffice. Simple concepts (such as ‘a year’) become needlessly multi-syllabic (”two solstices.”) Now I will grant that there is a type of book where “two solstices” would sound poetic and lovely as a description of the movement of time; this book isn’t that one. Also, and I’m being pedantic here, but two solstices isn’t actually a year. At its shortest, it could be six months and a day. Only from the next sentence do we learn it’s meant to signify a year. So it’s oddly flowery AND inaccurate.

I went down a bit of a rabbit hole when this book didn’t show up on Amazon and learned that Emerald City is one of three books set to be released by a new publishing house this year. A publishing house co-founded and owned by the author who claims the book represents “hyper-intelligent energy” that readers are “starved for.” Hmmm. The book is meant to be released in three weeks but still has no presence on Amazon (the above link is to the out-of-print version) or Indie Bound, so I’m not sure it’s going to make it.

However, if there is a chance that the author will publish it later, my strongest advice would be to get a brand-new, completely outside editor to cut through the unnecessary metaphors and similes. Someone who can pare this book down to the core plot to allow the characters to exist. Someone who understands that ‘intelligent’ is not synonymous with ‘uses ten words when five would work.’

I don’t write fiction so I can’t imagine how hard it must be, but it seems that the author has made it even harder for himself by writing it in this way. I just couldn’t get past the first 50 pages, and so cannot recommend this to anyone.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
I offered to return it, but it shall instead be finding new purpose in the recycling bin outside my apartment.

Thursday

22

August 2019

0

COMMENTS

Severance by Ling Ma

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Those who enjoy novels that move around in time. Those who liked Station Eleven.

In a nutshell:
The fever has taken over the world. Candace has survived it, and is now traveling with other survivors. Through chapters alternating in the past and present, we learn what Candace’s life (and the life of her immigrant parents) was like, and is like now.

Worth quoting:
“It made me wistful for the illusion of New York more than for its actuality, after having lived there for five years.”

Why I chose it:
I saw it in a few book stores and kept picking it up. Finally had to go for it.

Review:
This is a situation where I don’t want to give away too much, because I think the less you know, the more interesting the book is. I accidentally glanced at just a bit of one Cannonballer’s review in my feed and while they didn’t spoil anything, I think something they mentioned did take away from my reading of it because I couldn’t get it out of my head. So I suggest that, if you’re at all interested in reading this book, you just pick it up and read it.

The book looks at so many big ideas — capitalism, immigration, survivalism, urban living — but also smaller, relatable intimacies, such as competition at work, relationships (romantic, platonic, familial), daily life choices. Her boyfriend Jonathan starts out as a mildly interesting character, but I found Candace’s evolution of her view of him to be relatable and more interesting that Jonathan himself.

I like the style of going back and forth in time – I’m not sure this book would be as compelling were it told in a straightforward manner. But at the same time, author Ma is a talented writer, able to create a vivid picture without flowery or overly-descriptive language. I have a strong idea of what the manufacturing plant in China looks like, the hotel, Candace’s New York apartments, her office. I did live in New York for many years, so I think that may have increased my enjoyment of the book a bit, but if it were set in another major city I’m sure I would have devoured it all the same (in any case, I started this book on a Wednesday and finished it Thursday evening, and worked both of those days).

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Pass to a Friend. One has already called dibs, in fact.

Wednesday

21

August 2019

0

COMMENTS

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Five Stars

Best for:
People who enjoy quality fiction, ridiculously good writing, and are looking for something a little different in their protagonist.

In a nutshell:
Writer Arthur Less’s ex-boyfriend is getting married. Arthur Less is about to turn 50. Instead of wallowing, Arthur Less decides to accept all the literary invites he’s received and spend the summer traveling the world.

Worth quoting:
“You and me, we’ve met geniuses. And we know we’re not like them, don’t we? What is it like to go on, knowing you are not a genius, knowing you are a mediocrity? I think it’s the worst kind of hell.”

Why I chose it:
My sister was reading this over the holidays a couple of years ago. We saw it in a bookstore and she said she really enjoyed it so I picked it up.

Review:
What a fun and unexpected novel. I’ve lately been enjoying media about older adults (Grace and Frankie is a favorite) because I just don’t think — outside of endless procedurals on CBS — we have enough stories about people who aren’t in their 20s and 30s. Occasionally some 40s sneak in there, but movies like The Wife, or books like Less, are interesting explorations of parts of life we don’t often see.

Arthur Less is an author who has one ex who is a well known and highly regarded genius poet and another who is about to get married. He’s not sure what’s going on with his latest book, and he’s not sure what’s going on in the rest of his life. So when the invitation to his ex’s wedding he instead decides to go to an awards ceremony in Italy, to teach a course in Germany, to go to a writer’s retreat in India. And he learns things about himself along the way, but not the things you think.

Yes, I realize that might sound like a gay male version of Eat Pray Love but I PROMISE you it is not. It’s so much more.

But this isn’t just a well-crafted, well-plotted book. It’s a book that also has gorgeous writing that isn’t pretentious. It isn’t a challenge to read, but instead an utter pleasure. I mean, look at this sentence fragment: ‘an almond croissant is soon in his hands, covering him in buttered confetti.’ That is GORGEOUS. Gorgeous. And now I want an almond croissant.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it. Knowing how it ends, I want to read it again.

Thursday

8

August 2019

0

COMMENTS

There Are No Grown-Ups by Pamela Druckerman

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
People looking for a perfectly entertaining collection of essays about mid-life.

In a nutshell:
Author Druckerman shares what she has learned as she entered her 40s.

Worth quoting:
“As you keep looking at things, you see more and more in them.”

Why I chose it:
I finished my book and had a train ride back to the UK ahead of me. This was one of the English-language books available, and it was by an author I’d read before.

Review:
As I mentioned in a previous review, I’m turning 40 next year, so some of my book choices are focused on that reality. This book happened to fit into that trend, and it offered some interesting insights. Some of the chapters within the book are clearly repurposed versions of previous essay’s Druckerman has written, but she manages to make them mostly fit together.

On thing I appreciate about her writing is her honest self-assessment. Well, at least it seems honest (I don’t know her), as it isn’t always flattering, nor is it self-deprecating in a way that reeks of false humility. She wonders if she has any immutable characteristics; she struggles to make friends.

She isn’t totally relatable, and I don’t think I agree with all of her suggestions and advice, but some components – especially chapters 18 (’How to figure out what’s happening) and 21 (how to say no) – resonated with me. I’m definitely happy I picket it up.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it (I’ll be tossing it, but only because I got a lot of tomato juice on my copy)