Saturday, February 20, 2016

Book Review: Mormon Feminism by Brooks, Steenblik and Wheelwright

Title: Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings
Editors: Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik and Hannah Wheelwright
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Personal Copy
We often think of our Mormon foremothers as women who crossed the plains with babies strapped to their backs, or who made the desert blossom as a rose working alongside their sister wives. We know our history is full of strong and faithful women, certainly, but we might not be as well versed in their roles as suffragists (women in the Utah territory won the right to vote in 1870, which was earlier than anywhere else in the nation) and as physicians and midwives. In other words, Mormon feminist history is essentially as old as Mormon history.
Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings, edited by Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik and Hannah Wheelwright and published by Oxford University Press, delves deeply into the Mormon Feminism of the last fifty years-- spanning the time period from the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment to President Benson's "To the Mothers in Zion" talk to present-day concerns over expanding women's official roles in the LDS Church.
In the last few months since Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings has been published, I've been delighted to see it on the shelves of bookstores all over Utah. This widespread availability of the book seems to reflect what Brooks as to say about the intended audience in her introduction: "This book is for anyone who wants to go deeper than the headlines and understand what it means to be a Mormon feminist. This book is for Mormon men and women who have questions about gender dynamics within Mormonism. Maybe you have wrestled about these questions personally. Maybe you have witnessed a friend or relative struggle with these questions, or have heard about Mormon feminist activism and want to understand it better. Maybe you are not Mormon but are curious about how contemporary Mormons live our vibrant and demanding faith and reconcile ourselves to its challenges. . . ."
The breadth of the intended audience is reflected in the wide range of authors included in Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings-- more than forty women. Voices include church leaders like Chieko Okazaki (former member of the General Relief Society Presidency), activists like Kate Kelly, bloggers like Lisa Butterworth (founder of Feminist Mormon Housewives), scholars like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Claudia Bushman, beloved poets like Carol Lynn Pearson, and many other women all across the spectrum of the Mormon experience. The collection also includes women of color and voices that extend beyond just American feminism.
The editors of Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings should be praised not just for the breadth of their collection, but for the many extras that enhance the reading of the book. Brooks's introduction provides a nice overview to the history of Mormon feminism, especially in relation to mainstream feminist movements at work during the last fifty years. The editors do a nice job of scaffolding the pieces with introductions to the significant time periods, and with commentary and context on each piece included in the collection. I teach a Mormon Literature course, and this is a text I will definitely consider adding to my syllabus in the future, but I think it's accessible enough for a casual reader and would also be a fantastic book for book groups. The editors have added a fabulous Study Group Guide full of thoughtful discussion questions at the end of the book, ready made for book groups. They also list Selected Readings by Topic so readers can pick and choose what they want to read without delving into the book from beginning to end.
I'm one of those people who likes to read a book from beginning to end, and this book was engaging and instructive for readers like me, too. While I felt fairly well-versed in Mormon feminism when I started reading, I felt that I learned a lot and view of people who can be included in the umbrella of a Mormon feminist was expanded and broadened. Reading Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings made me feel grateful for both the more recent foremothers who carry the feminist banner, as well as for the Mormon feminists with whom I brush shoulders from day to day.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Book Review: Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Title: Be Frank with Me
Author: Julia Claiborne Johnson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: A little bit of sex but a pretty clean read

M. M. Banning sprung to fame in the 1970s when her only novel topped the bestseller charts. But the adulation was too much for Mimi, and she retreated to a mansion in Bel-Air, and never published another book. More than thirty years later, she's taken in by a Ponzi scheme and her publisher sends Alice to keep tabs on Mimi and help care for Frank, Mimi's nine-year-old son so Mimi can write another bestseller.

While Be Frank with Me is fascinating on many levels (who hasn't wondered what the rest of Harper Lee's life has been like, for example?), it's Alice's relationship with Frank that is at the heart of the book. Although Frank is never labeled with anything, he seems to have Asperger's (he doesn't enjoy other kids, is obsessed with vintage clothes and old movies, doesn't sleep at night, and is comforted by tight pressure). While Mimi (who is unusual and difficult herself) adores Frank, she's also a little wary of him. But I loved watching Alice fall in love with Frank as the novel progressed. Also, there's a lovely twist at the end of the novel that is exactly the opposite of what I was expecting.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Book Review: A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman

Title: A Man Called Ove
Author: Frederik Backman
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: a clean read with a couple of bad words

Ove doesn't have anything left to live for. His dear wife, Sonia, died six months ago. He was just let go from the job he held for almost forty years. And he's always been grumpy by nature. He's just about to pull the plug on his life when the new neighbors, a young couple with two daughters, run their U-Haul into his mailbox. Over the next few weeks, Ove's suicide attempts are thwarted again and again as he makes friends, adopts a cat, saves a man from an oncoming train, and brings couples together, all against his will.

If you want a funny, feel-good book that isn't cheesy, A Man Called Ove might just be the book for you. Backman's Ove is so curmudgeonly that it's lovely to watch both his transformation and learn about his back story (in alternating chapters). Of course the book is a little Pollyannaish, but everyone needs a happy story from time to time. Besides, I've read so many dark and depressing Swedish books (hello Stieg Larsson) that it was really nice to read something light and Swedish for a change.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Book Review: Hold Still by Sally Mann

Title: Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs
Author: Sally Mann
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: suicide, murder, sexual predation

I didn't know anything about Sally Mann when I picked up Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, all I knew was that the book had been nominated for the National Book Award. I soon learned that Mann is a photographer who originally rose to fame in the 90s, when she published Immediate Family, a book of photographs of her children engaged in all of the intimate moments of growing up with children (sick, naked, vomiting-- she didn't shrink from capturing any of these moments. And the result is not Instagram but art. In Hold Still, Mann's story is all over the place-- she delves back into the distant past of her Southern relatives and the less distant past of the murder-suicide of her in-laws. She writes about racism and the long trip she took around the south with a photo lab in the back of her station wagon.

Just like you'd expect from the subtitle, Hold Still is full of Mann's photographs. And when I looked at them, my initial response was not often positive. These are pictures that demand your attention. They're shadowed and often sort of spectral, and after looking at them for a while, I often grew to appreciate them. I felt the same way about the memoir. The narrative thread of the story isn't immediately apparent, but after reading the book for a while, you realize you're enjoying yourself so much you really don't care. It's a little weird, but it works.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Book Review: The Lake House by Kate Morton

Title: The Lake House
Author: Kate Morton
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: A pretty darn clean read

When Sadie Sparrow is placed on administrative leave from her police job (basically for becoming overly involved in the family of one of the cases she was investigating), she retreats to her newly-retired grandfather's home in Western England. Even though she's supposed to be relaxing and regrouping, her mind cannot rest, and soon she finds herself investigating the decades-old disappearance of a baby boy from an estate in town. She reaches out to Alice Edevane, the sister of the lost boy, who was sixteen when her brother disappears and is now a reclusive, cranky writer in her eighties. Alice and her sister have never talked about their brother's disappearance, and both always carried the weight of their own culpability. In The Lake House, Morton manages to marry the strains of guilt, responsibility and familial love of all kinds.

The Lake House is a remarkable book. There are many books that I get to the end of and think, "I could have written that." The Lake House has such a complicated story, and Morton manages to bring back tiny threads from early in the story that become prominent as everything comes to light. I was delighted to guess the mystery right with about 100 pages left to go, and even though some people might say that the way Morton ties together some of the threads are implausible, I prefer to see them as lovely and serendipitous.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Title: When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Hard Copy
Content Alert: a pretty clean read. There are a handful of swear words, but don't let that hold you back from reading this beautiful book.

When Paul Kalanthi was thirty-six, just a year from completing his training as a neurosurgeon, and just on the verge of finally achieving adulthood, he was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. In When Breath Becomes Air, Kalanthi looks back on his life, especially on his training in medicine and literature, and how those two fields informed his approach to his disease, and, ultimately to his death.

A few years ago, I read a short piece by Kalanthi published in The New York Times. If you've read this blog for a long time, you probably know that I love literature about medicine, and this piece, and this story, really hit home for me, because, like Ed and I a few years earlier, Kalanthi was poised at the beginning of a life he'd spent half a lifetime preparing for. It felt so unfair, and I really admired the poetry of his language and the pathos I felt while reading. When Breath Becomes Air manages to retain the beauty in the language of that shorter piece, while providing a more extended meditation of life. This is a fabulous book for any reader, whether confronting your mortality or not.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Book Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Title: The Heart Goes Last
Author: Margaret Atwood
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: sex, language

At a time in a dystopian near future, the Earth has fallen to ruin. Like many of their peers, Charmaine and Stan, who formerly had steady jobs (she had a college degree and worked in a nursing home), now live in their car, surviving on donuts, never knowing when their next shower will be. When they learn about Consilience, a utopian development, their desire for stability overrides any concern they might have about the place, even though part of the condition of living there is that they voluntarily surrender themselves to a prison every other month. Soon they find themselves involved in all sorts of entanglements (romantic and more nefarious), until they wonder if life on the inside is all it's cracked up to be.

Before I read The Heart Goes Last, I would have told you that I loved Atwood's realistic fiction (The Blind Assassin is one of my all-time favorite books), but was less a fan of her speculative fiction (yes, I appreciated The Handmaid's Tale, and I think it is one of the best book club/literature seminar books because it's so much fun to discuss, but it's not where I'd naturally gravitate). This book is dark, funny, and profoundly weird. It's also really memorable. While the experience reading it wasn't as enjoyable for me as some of Atwood's other novels, I'm still glad I read it, and would love the chance to talk with other people about Atwood's purposes for creating this story.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Book Review: Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

Title: Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things
Author: Jenny Lawson
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: frank conversations about mental health

In Furiously Happy, Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, writes frankly about her mental health challenges, which include anxiety, depression, and a host of related issues.

Okay, okay, I know I'm going to draw some ire here, so I'm taking a deep breath and forging ahead. I'm not a regular reader of Lawson's blog. I never read her first memoir, Let's Pretend This Never Happened. I have never had some of the mental health problems that Lawson has had. So I'm not her target audience. But this book kept coming up in every "Recommended for You" feed, and I bought it. I was reading Brene Brown's Daring Greatly at the same time, and in that book, Brown talks about vulnerability and about how sharing too much too soon with people whose trust you haven't earned can backfire. And that's exactly what this book was for me. I think that for some people, those with whom Lawson has established a rapport over years, this book would be fabulous, but for me, it felt like too much, too soon. The details of all of her fights with her husband, Victor, the incredibly detailed conversations she had with herself, which are things her regular readers would probably love, just annoyed me. So this book would be fabulous in the right hands, but her willingness to put everything out on the table was too much too soon for this reader.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Book Review: Styled by Emily Henderson

Title: Styled: Secrets for Arranging Rooms, from Tabletops to Bookshelves
Author: Emily Henderson
Enjoyment Rating: **** (3.5)
Source: Hard Copy

Like many of you, my Instagram feed is full of lives that look much prettier than mine. They eat better food, their counters never have any crumbs on them, and there's no clutter anywhere in their homes. For the most part, these are people who make their careers in social media, so most of the time, I'm able to remember that the rest of their house probably doesn't look perfect, and I'm able not to hate them. One of the people I follow most eagerly is stylist/interior designer Emily Henderson, whose rooms always look effortlessly cool. So when I discovered that she had a new book coming out, Styled, I bought it right away.  In Styled Henderson focuses not so much on the big pieces in a room, but more about how to accessorize a room. It reminds me a lot, actually, of a clothing stylist picking out jewelry. And while I'm not much of a jewelry kind of girl, now that Rose and Eli aren't in danger of breaking any accessory in the house, I figured it might be time to get some advice on how to move away from minimalism.

There are some parts of the book (like the "what's your style" quiz) that seemed kind of pointless, but the book was mostly useful. There are lots of pictures of Henderson's own home (which I love, from a purely voyeuristic point of view) as well as photos of projects she's worked on, and she talks about how to decorate shelves and tabletops so they reflect your own personal style. After reading the book, I took about 600 books to Savers and cleared out enough shelf space to do some styling of my own. It was a pretty fun experience, and I feel like the pointers she gave are good, if you are eager to increase your knicknack count.

Book Review: Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

Title: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
Author: Brene Brown
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Audible
Content Alert: some mild language

I absolutely adored Brene Brown's Rising Strong when I read it a few months ago. Even though Rising Strong works well as a stand-alone book, I still got the sense that I was missing part of the story because I hadn't read Daring Greatly (because you have to dare greatly before you can rise strong). I had loved listening to Rising Strong so much, mostly because Brene Brown narrated it perfectly. She was telling her own story and I could hear the vulnerability in her voice when she wanted to show vulnerability, I laughed along with her jokes, and felt kind of like a girlfriend by the time I got to the end of that book. I was SO disappointed to discover that Brown did not narrate Daring Greatly. And to make matters worse, the narrator's voice was so flat. She sounded bored the entire time. A really great audiobook can greatly enhance the word on the printed page. A really bad audiobook can ruin it. And unfortunately, the narration ruined Daring Greatly for me. I knew the information was important for me personally as a parent, a leader, and just a good adult, but I never wanted to listen to this book. I gritted my teeth and got through it, but the things that would have seemed a little endearing had Brown narrated the book herself (like the way she constantly refers to her earlier works) annoyed me in this version. I feel that the book is at least a solid 3-star book on the printed page, but I can't give the audiobook more than two stars.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Book Review: Missoula by Jon Krakauer

Title: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
Author: Jon Krakauer
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Hard copy
Content Alert: Language, sex, sexual abuse, violence

Remember when I said that Jonathan Franzen's Purity was too deep and depressing to be good beach reading? Instead, on the advice of my husband who had just plowed through this entire book in two days of kiddie pool duty, I picked up Jon Krakauer's Missoula, which is, as the subtitle suggests, about a series of date rape cases that took place on or near the University of Montana campus between 2008 and 2012. Krakauer lays out the stats that at least 110,000 women are raped in the United States each year, most by acquaintances, and most of the time, when victims actually do report the crimes, they, and not the perpetrators, become the object of suspicion. This is definitely true in the cases Krakauer profiles, none of which has a clear or wholly satisfying conclusion for the alleged victims.

I went to college in a place where I honestly never saw drinking. I also never knew anyone who admitted to having premarital sex. I know that doesn't mean that it didn't happen at BYU, but I think it does mean that cases like the ones Krakauer profiles in Missoula were both less frequent (alcohol played a role in all of the cases he examines) and less likely to be openly discussed. So this book was shocking in a lot of ways. As I prepare to send my kids off to college, I think this is a book that all of them (boys and girls) should read.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Book Review: Home is Burning by Dan Marshall

Title: Home is Burning: A Memoir
Author: Dan Marshall
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: So. Much. Swearing. Some sex. Some illegal drug use. And a sad, slow decline ending in the death of the author's father.

Dan Marshall was a twenty-five-year-old Berkeley grad, living in LA, with a sweet job and a hot girlfriend when his father, Bob, a marathon runner who had never been sick a day in his life, was diagnosed with ALS. To complicate matters, Dan's mom, Debi, had been living with stage-four lung cancer for more than a dozen years, and she'd had a relapse and needed more chemo. So Dan and his brother Greg moved back home to take care of their parents. Home is Burning is the account of Dan's year living at home in Salt Lake City, taking care of his parents.

I would imagine that if I lived in New York or Los Angeles, seeing my city through the eyes of authors and filmmakers would become commonplace. But Salt Lake City is not a popular setting for books and movies. And when it does appear in film (like in High School Musical, it's often masquerading as someplace else). For me, the fact that Home is Burning takes place in Salt Lake made it so much more enjoyable. I could not, in good conscience, give this book a higher rating, because it seemed to operate only on the emotional levels of shock and sadness, but I really enjoyed reading it. The high school Marshall attended is Olympus, my kids' rival high school. They walk in the same canyon where I run trails, and they even stop and get drinks at Shivers, where I'm a frequent visitor at the drive-thru. At one point, Marshall named his street, and you'd better believe I opened Google Maps on my phone and, like a true creeper, found out where the street was. Turns out I run within half a block of his house at least three times a week. So the fact that the book takes place in my backyard was novel and thoroughly enjoyable. Not quite as enjoyable was the fact that Marshall is constantly referring to the damn Mormons or the f&^%ing Mormons. I know that part of his bravado was intended to show his fallibility as a character, but the fact that Marshall and his family seemed to hate the Mormons so much for I'm not sure what other than being squeaky clean Mormons got at the heart of one of the biggest tensions here in our city. I think that also made this book more important and significant as a local reader, even if it was less easy to brush off the comments because I recognize how it plays out in our city from day to day.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Book Review: Humans of New York Stories by Brandon Stanton

Title: Humans of New York: Stories
Author: Brandon Stanton
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Hard Copy
Content Alert: a pretty clean read, but the stories really run the spectrum

Remember back in the day before smartphones when people used to keep a stack of magazines in the bathroom for a little toilet reading? In my house we even had a book called The Bathroom Book, with bite-sized little tidbits, short enough for a potty break. It's kind of ironic that Brandon Stanton's The Humans of New York phenomenon started on Instagram (which has definitively won the bathroom reading battle, if there was one), because Humans of New York: Stories, would be the best back of the toilet book ever.

Stanton's book is his Instagram account in published form. My sense is that Stanton walks around New York and asks people if he can take their picture, then asks them a few questions, and picks a snippet from that short interview to post along with the picture. With 4.7 million followers, the account is insanely popular (and whoa, all the judgy jerks on the internet who used to hang out on message boards now comment on HONY), and I'm always impressed with the way Stanton manages to get something interesting and profound of the people he talks with. There seems to be a light attempt at some thematic arrangements in the book, but mostly, the pictures and stories speak for themselves. Even though I'd read most of the stories individually when they came out on Instagram, there was a power to reading them together in the book.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Book Review: Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Title: Circling the Sun
Author: Paula McLain
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: sex

Based on the life of real-life aviatrix Beryl Markham, Circling the Sun opens with her pioneering trip across the Atlantic from Europe to North America (the hard way, where the winds weren't favorable), yet the book isn't about her career in aviation at all. Rather, the book focuses on the early years of her life, growing up in Kenya with her father (after her mother returned to England with her brother), carving out a career as a successful jockey, and negotiating romantic and business relationships with men.

McLain has a lovely command of the English language (she has an MFA in poetry, and it shows), and uses it to show the conflicts within Beryl-- her restlessness, her desire to be free like the Kipsigis boy she grew up with, and wild like the horses she struggles to tame. The story also makes Kenya come alive and thrum with romance (Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa, appears in Circling the Sun as the third point in a love triangle with Beryl and Denys Finch-Hatton). I wonder if McLain romanticizes Markham at all-- she seems entirely sympathetic to some difficult choices she makes (particularly leaving her only child with his grandparents) and seems to gloss over an affair she had with Prince Henry during the period. All in all, an interesting, if somewhat simplified portrayal of someone who appears to have been an even more interesting and complex person in real life.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Book Review: Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter

Title: Pretty Girls
Author: Karin Slaughter
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: sex, language, violence-- this is a book for grown-ups

It's been twenty years since Claire and Julia's sister Lydia vanished without a trace after leaving a bar near the University of Georgia, where she was a student. In that time, Claire has gone on to marry a man who became a tech millionaire, and Lydia spent time in and out of rehab, on welfare, and raising her daughter as a single mom. The sisters don't talk at all, until Claire's husband, Paul, is murdered before her eyes in an Atlanta alleyway. After the funeral (wake cut short by a break-in), Claire reaches out to Lydia to help her get a sense of her situation, and soon they're back on the trail of finding Julia. The book is incredibly dark, with lots of scary scenes (Paul may have been involved in making rape and torture videos marketed on the dark internet), and some truly evil characters.

It's been a few weeks since I finished reading Pretty Girls. Sometimes I think it's lazy of me to let some time elapse after finishing a book before reviewing it, but often that time helps me see how much I remember a book. I figure that if I can't remember a book after only three weeks have passed, it probably wasn't all that good, even if I found it engrossing in the moment, and that's the case with Pretty Girls. At the time, I couldn't wait to see what really happened to Paul, and if Claire and Lydia could escape with their lives, but weeks later, all I remember is the discomfort I felt when I Slaughter described the places where the torture of women took place.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Book Review: The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati

Title: The Gilded Hour
Author: Sara Donati
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: violence, sexual violence, lots of talking about sex (but not a lot of sex itself)

When Dr. Anna Savard gets called from her New York home to vaccinate Italian orphans one morning in 1883, she can't foresee the many ways her life will change as a result of that day. First, she meets Rosa and her brothers and sisters, and Anna promises them that she will try to make sure they aren't separated. Then she meets Jack, a detective with the New York Police Department. While the young family and Jack enrich Anna's personal life, her professional life, along with that of her cousin, Dr. Sophie Savard, is under attack due to their involvement with a young mother who had been under their care and died after receiving an abortion. Donati uses this story to highlight the lack of family planning options available to women at this time, and to the evils of the Comstock laws, a series of anti-vice laws. Sophie, who is of mixed-race, also figures prominently in the book, especially as she prepares to marry her childhood love, the scion of a wealthy New York family, and travel to Switzerland with him so he can receive treatment for tuberculosis.

Some of my very favorite books ever (Caleb Carr's The Alienist, Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni) have taken place in the same NYC Donati uses as her setting. It's a place of swishing skirts, menacing shadows, wealth, poverty, and danger. Typically, I am also a huge fan of books with medical subjects, and of books that really get into a world I'm interested in. Readers of The Gilded Hour know about everything from the style of dress that was popular at the time, to home decorating trends, to what foods were popular in Italian immigrant families, to birth control methods. I loved that aspect of the book, as well as the character development-- Jack and Anna's relationship was so smart and measured and romantic, I wanted to live in it. In the second half of the book, Donati introduces the idea of a serial murderer performing abortions in a way that will kill the women who seek them, and while this story was engrossing, the fact that this part of the narrative (along with several others) doesn't have a clear resolution, weakens the reading experience for me, even though I knew from the outset that this was going to be the first book of a series. At 700+ pages, at least tie up the murder mystery, please.

I'm now interested in Donati's Wilderness books. The covers looks SO much like historical romance novels, which makes me a little less interested in reading them than if they were historical novels with romantic subplots, which is how I would characterize The Gilded Hour.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Book Review: Hold Me Closer by David Levithan

Title: Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story
Author: David Levithan
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: language, conversations about sex

If you read David Levithan and John Green's novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson, you probably remember Tiny Cooper, the enormous gay football player who loves musical theater almost as much as he loves both Will Graysons (one platonically, the other romantically). The most heartfelt parts of WG, WG come during the production of Hold Me Closer, Tiny Cooper's life in musical theater format. If you ever wanted the script for the entire play, Levithan has now provided that for your reading pleasure.

Okay, so I know a forty-year-old woman is not David Levithan's target audience. I get that. I also get that when kids become caught up in the world of a story, they want as much of that story as possible. That's why my kids will spend their hard-earned allowance on the Gods and Monsters supplement to the Rick Riordan books. But this is the second Levithan book in a row I've read that I expected to advance a story I really enjoyed (the other being Another Day) that basically just recapped the story from another perspective. This might work for a fifteen-year-old fanboy, but it doesn't work for his mother. In fact, it just feels lazy.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Book Review: The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty

Title: The Last Anniversary
Author: Liane Moriarty
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: swearing (a pretty clean read)

Three years after Sophie Honeywell broke Thomas Gordon's heart, he calls her out of the blue and wants to meet. She knows he isn't eager to get back together, since he and his wife recently had a baby, but the truth is even more shocking than that situation would be-- Thomas's elderly aunt Connie died, and left her her home on Scribbly Gum Island (on the Hawkesbury River near Sydney, Australia). Aunt Connie and her sister Rose became famous in the 1930s, when they reported making a visit to their only neighbor on the island, to discover that the couple had disappeared without a trace, leaving their infant daughter behind. Connie and Rose named the baby Enigma and raised her as their own. Moving to the home of the Munro Baby Mystery complicates Sophie's boring, ordered life, and brings her right into the hearts of Connie's family.

Like many of Moriarty's books, The Last Anniversary centers on domestic dramas. Sophie worries that she should have settled for Thomas, because she's 39 and her biological clock is ticking. Thomas's sister Grace seems to have it all, including a crippling case of postpartum depression. Parents squabble with their children, and secrets come out. And, eventually, the Munro Baby Mystery is solved. I figured out the mystery about halfway through and enjoyed watching it tumble out. Moriarty does a lovely job managing many characters and serious themes with a lightness that works, but in this case, some of the near misses of the story (particularly Grace's story) made me squirm as a reader, and I'm not sure how Moriarty's resolution to Sophie's childlessness plays to today's audience, since the book was published ten years ago. A picky aside-- the chronology of the story doesn't seem to work here. If Enigma is 74, it seems unlikely that her grandchildren would be nearly 40.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Book Review: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Title: Between the World and Me
Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: swearing

I pay for an Audible account that gives me two book credits per month. In that month, I'll probably run about 250 miles, much of it by myself, and I use the books to keep myself entertained. So I tend to shop for long books. Alexander Hamilton, at more than thirty hours, was a good buy. I was loath to spend the money on Ta-Nehisi Coatses's book, Between the World and Me, since it's only 3 1/2 hours long. But within a couple of days of each other, I heard that the book won a National Book Award, and I heard an extended interview with Coates about his newfound success on This American Life, and I knew I had to part with the credit and listen to the book.

Between the World and Me, which is written as a letter from the author to his (then) fourteen-year-old son, Samori, was eye-opening. It's a book written by a black man about my own age, to his son, who is the same age as my oldest son, and while we grew up within a few hundred miles of each other, studied the same things in college and have worked at writing as a career, our worldviews could not be more different. And Coates would say that this is because he's a black man and I am a white woman. He writes poetically, emotionally, sparely about the experiences of his life. Of his loving father hitting him with a belt. Of being a teenager in Baltimore. Of having college friends shot and killed by the police for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He writes of fear and hatred. And the book left me feeling unsettled and fearful myself, finding my privilege uncomfortable and conspicuous. It's a book I'm glad I read and perspective I'm glad I understand a bit more, but not an easy read. If you read it, don't forget to listen to the This American Life piece. They stand as interesting counterpoints to each other-- showing the complexity that lies within each of us.

Book Review: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Book Review: My Name is Lucy Barton
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: a pretty clean read with some oblique references to violence

When Lucy Barton was a young mother living in New York in the 1980s, she developed a mysterious infection after an appendectomy, requiring a long hospital stay. Barton's mother, from whom she had been estranged, came to stay at the hospital with her daughter. That visit provides the central action for this spare book, in which the narrator looks back from the present to that moment and to the more distant past in order to help make sense of their relationship.

Of all the relationships I've known, the mother-daughter relationships in my life have been the most complicated. Now that I'm in my forties and have gone through the transitions from adulation to indignation to separation to judgment and finally, I hope to some grace in how I see my own mother, I'm starting to see the patterns repeat with my daughters. In this week that they spend together, Lucy seems to try to work on that reconciliation to peace with a mother whose way of life she escaped without ever wanting to look back.

My Name is Lucy Barton is a strange little book, without a lot of plot-driven action. It's the kind of book to read slowly, and I would say it's also the kind of book an author can only write when she has made it. The writing is spare, and often feels a little disjointed unless you do the work of making the connections with the narrator. I loved that Barton was an author herself, and her interactions with another established author provided some interesting conversations about creating character and narrative voice. But ultimately, this is a book about mothers and daughters, and learning to make peace with the place we come from, even if it's not a place we would have chosen on our own.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Book Review: The Short Drop by Matthew Fitzsimmons

Title: The Short Drop
Author: Matthew Fitzsimmons
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: violence, incest, sexual abuse, swearing

Gibson Vaughn, ex-con, ex-Marine, and hacker extraordinaire is experiencing life on the skids. He's lost his job and his family when a powerful man from his distant past hires him to look into the decade-old disappearance of Suzanne Lombard, the girl who was like a sister to him growing up and whose father is the current vice-president.

When Vaughn accepts the job, the body count commences. If you're looking for an adrenaline rush, The Short Drop is a book with lots of plot twists, an enemy who is always ten steps ahead of the game, and violence that seems senseless at times. It's the kind of book that I read quickly and enjoyed at the time, but that I hardly remember a month later. I wish that Vaughn's character had been developed more. Most of the story hearkens back to the time when Suzanne disappeared (which happened shortly before Vaughn's father's apparent suicide) and Fitzsimmons does a nice job delving into the questions of the past, but I was curious about what motivated Vaughn in the present. I read that The Short Drop is to be the first book in a series. I hope that readers will continue to see Vaughn grow, and I know that Fitzsimmons has lots of adventures planned for the future.