Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"Love Warrior": A Memoir of Rock Bottom, Redemption, Infidelities and Finding Your Spirit

Meet Basil, our new "office pug." He didn't quite understand the concept of sitting with a book, but he'll get the hang of it.  

"So even if the hot loneliness is there, and for 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn't sit for even one, that's the journey of the warrior." - Pema Chodron "When Things Fall Apart"

Avid readers of Glennon Doyle Melton's blog "Momastary" already know the ending to the story of Glennon and her husband Craig's marriage.  In Melton's latest book "Love Warrior: A Memoir" (selected as Oprah's most recent Book Club pick), she delves into her painful past to make sense of the devastation of her marriage.

I don't want to spoil too much about this book because it's worth a read.  Melton has legions of devoted fans that may have gotten hooked on her truth waterfalls from her popular blog or from her other New York Times Bestselling book "Carry On, Warrior." Melton has a way of connecting with her readers.  She's an Amy Schumer Trainwreck meets Brene Brown's power of vulnerability meets Gloria Steinham.  She's not afraid to write the whole ugly truth and she's not afraid to own her story of pain and renewal.  She's a highly sought after speaker, and her TedTalk is one of my favorite of all time.  I like that she is real and unfiltered.  That she writes like a friend telling another friend about her pain and occasionally her joy.

Unlike the collection of essays about parenting in "Carry On, Warrior" that had a charming, playful parenting bent, "Love Warrior" is serious business starting with Melton's slide into bulimia and alcoholism.  As a young girl, she finds bulimia in attempt to keep herself small and beautiful.  Even after a stint in a mental hospital, she never shakes the habit of binging and purging.  In high school and college she turns to alcohol to numb herself from intimate relationships.  It's easier to be numb than to feel deeply.

When she meets Craig with his dashing smile and his charm and good looks, she can't believe he is truly interested in her.  Their relationship is anything but simple.  After she gets pregnant and he takes her to an abortion clinic, she leaves her alone to recover while he goes out for the evening with his friends.  The second time she gets pregnant by him and she finds herself at rock bottom on the bathroom floor, she decides that she will have the baby with or without him and that she will turn her life around with or without him.

He decides to stay and marry her.  She decides that the can stay and that she will marry him.

That should be their happy ending, but when you have two people - one that only communicates and feels with his body (Craig) and one that only communicates and feels with her head (Glennon), there are bound to be issues, especially when both of them have addictions and secrets and sordid pasts, but only one of them has chosen to be real about them.

What follows after the discovery of Craig's secrets is a story of how love can pull us together and tear us apart.  How marriage can be lonely and hopeful all at the same time.  How you can marry someone and be with them for years, but never really know them and when you do get to know them how you may not want "for better or for worse" with the person you thought you married.  It's a story about finding yourself at rock bottom but finding a way back to who you were truly meant to be.

I loved so much of this book especially that Glennon has a way of writing that speaks to her reader's soul.  There were also parts of the book that felt a bit sermonized for me.  You need to be okay with all of her God and Spirit talk to fully appreciate her journey.  At times the dialogue is so stilted that it was painful.  I can only imagine that those real life conversations were just as hard between her and her husband as they tread the delicate path of finding true intimacy with each other after almost losing each other and the family unit that they built.

As she tries to heal from her brokenness Glennon finds yoga as a way to get present in her body again.  She finds God as a way to reconnect with her spirit.  She learns to breathe.  She learns that she is a warrior - a love warrior.

The first 75% of the book had me completely hooked, but at times the long sermonizing and repetition of the second half of the book felt like too much.  It's not that I think she is wallowing in her misery (because she's definitely had a hard go of it and she has so much to teach the rest of us), but I wish there could be some joy from time to time.  Yes, the story is one of hope and overcoming incredible sadness to try to reconnect with yourself and your marriage, and so that entails a bunch of questioning without a bunch of answering.  I get it.

If you are like me, by the end of this book, you are rooting for both sides of the marriage - Glennon and Craig.  You hope for them individually and hope for them together. Avid readers of Glennon's  blog, "Momastary" already know what becomes of their marriage, but I'll save that for you to find out.

Friday, September 2, 2016

'Girls on Fire': A Vicious, Seductive Look at Mean Girls at Their Worst

Hamlet does not enjoy taking photos with books.
 Our new "office pug" will be joining our family on September 11th.  We can't wait for our new baby! 

"Girls today thought they could do anything.  Girls burned bright, knew what they wanted, imagined they could take it, and it was glorious and it was terrifying." 

It's Labor Day weekend which for many of us marks the last burst of sunshine laziness that we'll revel in before the sky gets dark earlier and then we descend into the gray days of fall through winter.

When you go on your last grasp of summer fun vacations, be sure to take along a page turning book to enjoy while you bask in the September sun.

I devoured Robin Wasserman's first adult novel 'Girls on Fire' which is the latest "It Girl" in a long line of psychologically deranged thrill rides about girls with big issues: Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, The Good Girl - just to name a few of the "Girl" books I have read.

The novel takes place in the early 1990s in Battle Creek, Pennsylvania and centers around three girls: Hannah (who becomes Dex) - a non descript outcast whose loneliness draws her into an obsessive friendship, Lacey - the intriguing, Kurt Cobain worshipping, rebel, new girl, who does what she wants despite an abusive step father who she nicknames "The Bastard" (I kept imagining the girl version of Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club), and Nikki - the beyond popular, mean girl that everyone wants to please despite the fact that even her boyfriend's recent suicide hasn't softened her hard edges.

Wasserman's writing is as vicious and seductive as the girls in this book.  She captured my high school experience in the early 90s.  I had friends who worshipped Kurt Cobain.  I ate Snack Wells cookies believing they were good for me.  I thought Kirk Cameron was hot.  I remember mall dates when walking into Express to buy jeans felt grown up. I remember Benetton back packs (Nikki's dog's name is Benetton), and I remember Nancy Reagan's Just Say No campaign.  The undertones of Satanic cults were everywhere in my small rural, PA town, so much so that I chose the topic Satanism as my 9th grade term paper topic.  I remember the advent of the grunge scene. Wasserman's cultural references took me back to that uncomfortable time in my life, but to the darker side that I never succumbed to, or that never existed, or that I never knew existed.

I know teenagers are messy (and were messy), but are they this mean? Did Wasserman merely take the stereotypes of girls and present the dystopic vision of what really goes on at high school parties, or out in the woods, or in their beat up used cars, or down by the lake, or behind the closed bedroom doors?

As a high school teacher for 15 years, I know that high school girls are intense, but these girls are violent, horrifying train wrecks that I like to think are not the rule but the exception.

'Girls on Fire' never lets up.  It burns with a hungry, dark insatiability as Wasserman switches the perspective - past and present, Lacey to Dex and even throws in some thoughts from the parents who might even be sadder stereotypes than their desperate daughters.  The power of the novel comes from the suspense that builds and the "truth" of Craig's suicide as well as the fate of Nikki, Dex and Lacey. It would be cruel of me (crueler than the attitude of the girls in this book) if I revealed any of the unraveling.

Although the girls never rise about their labels nor do their character arcs give you any type of hero worth rooting for, more than likely you will find yourself caught up in the fire, burning through pages to see the inevitable, unrelenting destruction.  I was seduced and saddened.  Thrilled and let down.  Disgusted and worried.

When I closed the book at the end, I uttered one word, "Damn."

I rethought my high school experience and my obsession with the movie 'Heathers,' how I loved reading Stephen King novels, how I listened to Metallica, Joy Division, The Cocteau Twins, Kate Bush and Kurt Cobain. It reminded me that we all have a bit of darkness inside of us.  Most of us, though, know how to stay in the light.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

'Before the Fall': Suspenseful enough to make it a page turner

It's been awhile since I posted a book blog.

Just so you know, I've been reading.

Just so you know, the pictures with our new pug puppy, Basil, posing with the books, instead of our cat, Hamlet are coming.

Just so you know, I've read a bunch of good summery books that I think you would love.

As I look over my summer reading stack, the most out of my usual reading zone is 'Before the Fall' by Noah Hawley, so I want to start my summer catch up blogs with that one.  If you haven't heard of Noah Hawley, he's a big deal right now with huge accolades for his writing, executive producing, and show running of FX's Fargo.  'Before the Fall' is his 5th novel, but the first of them that I've read.

I'm not usually a suspense or mystery reader, but a good friend started reading this one and told me that it would pull me in and keep me turning the pages with good writing to boot.  The story opens like a disaster movie would.  A private chartered jet is about to take off from Martha's Vineyard on a foggy night which isn't ideal for flying, but not hazardous enough to question the safety of a short flight.  The reader is introduced to a slew of characters which are hard to keep straight in the first several chapters:

David Bateman - multimillionaire owner of a right wing news network that sounds similar to Fox News (he is the one who chartered the flight)
Maggie Bateman - David's younger, former school teacher wife
Rachel Bateman - Maggie and David's 9 year old daughter who just happened to be kidnapped when she was 2
JJ Bateman - Maggie and David's 4 year old son who is sleeping during take off

Ben Kipling - multimillionaire WallStreet dude who is good friends with David, but who is also facing possible indictment for money laundering
Sarah Kipling - the one dimensional wife of Ben who wants her husband to stop working so much

Gil - the Israeli born bodyguard of the Bateman family who has served them for 7 years since the kidnapping of Rachel

Scott Burroughs - the mysterious passenger invited last minute by Maggie Bateman, a struggling (failed?) artist who might just be getting his big break in NYC when the flight lands

A pilot who seems capable enough with his co-pilot and their strikingly beautiful, expert stewardess

16 minutes after the flight takes off, it crashes into the sea and only two people survive: Scott and JJ.  Even more amazing is that Scott swims hours in the dark with a dislocated shoulder, dragging JJ with him to save both of their lives.  This heroic act brings him into an unwelcome media frenzy that starts with praise and morphs into suspicion and conspiracy theories under the loud mouthed rhetoric of Bateman's Right Wing News Cable mogul, Bill Cunningham who has questionable morals and bends laws to get his version of truth out to his adoring fans.

The novel starts at a breathless pace capturing the tenuous moments after the crash and delirium of Scott and JJ as they desperately try to survive.  Then, the action slows down as Hawley takes readers inside the list of passenger names and gives the sordid details of their lives before the crash making each of the players a potential suspect to explain the reason for the crash.

Was it conspiracy? Was it an act of terrorism? Was there an illicit affair between would be hero, Scott and Maggie?

The backstory chapters are interspersed with chapters delving into the aftermath of the crash which might even be more dangerous than the shark infested waters that Scott Burroughs swam through in the pitch black.

Hawley shows us the ugly side of the media circus and speculation that so many of us are prone to believe after any disaster.  Sometimes random things just happen.  Random people come into our lives.  Random disasters happen even when multimillionaires are involved.

Or do they?

That is the central question of this book, and it takes until the very end for everything to unravel and the truth to be revealed.

I liked it.  I didn't love it.  I thought some parts were brilliant, but others were boring and repetitive.  Overall, though, it was suspenseful enough to make it a page turner. I'd be surprised if this one isn't made into a movie.

Monday, July 18, 2016

"When Breath Becomes Air": The Heartbreak of Cancer

*A note on the picture and my cat, Hamlet: Hamlet does not enjoy having his picture taken, nor does he enjoy having a book placed next to him while he is trying to sleep.  I miss my office pug, Loki, so very much with his happy energy.  He was always willing and excited about having his picture taken for this book blog.  Stay tuned! We are slated to get a pug puppy before the end of summer 2016.  Cute baby pug pictures will be forthcoming :)

"In a world of asynchronous communication, where we are so often buried in our screens, our gaze rooted to the rectangular objects buzzing in our hands, our attention consumed by ephemera, stop and experience this dialogue with my young departed colleague, now ageless and extant in memory.  Listen to Paul.  In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back.  Therein lies his message." quoted from the forward by Abraham Veghese in Paul Kalanithi's book "When Breath Becomes Air"

I hesitated when my good friend who always loves the same books that I do suggested that I read Paul Kalanithi's book "When Breath Becomes Air." She told me the short memoir dealt with Kalanithi's diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer when he was just about to complete his decade's worth of schooling and training and striving to become a neurosurgeon.  At the end of his journey he became a patient rather than a doctor.

Why did I hesitate?

I've been marinating in sad cancer stories for years, and I didn't know if I wanted to read another where I already knew the outcome was not favorable.  Cancer is a sad topic.  Almost everyone knows someone or has been personally affected by some sort of cancer.  My aunt died from breast cancer that came back in her lungs.  My grandmother died from pancreatic cancer.  My sister recently finished her treatments for tongue cancer (and no, she never smoked or did anything that would be considered cancer causing).  My husband's boss just finished his treatments for a rare form of leukemia.  My neighbor has cancer of the esophagus and is currently undergoing treatments.  My other neighbor's sister has brain cancer and was just told the devastating news that there is nothing else that they can try and to get her affairs in order.  My other neighbor's mother is undergoing treatment for throat cancer.  And my other neighbor just found out that her dog has cancer in his gums.

Cancer sucks.

Sometimes the signs make sense.  Behavior A caused Cancer B.  Sometimes it's the sticky finger of fate that points at an unsuspecting victim who has trouble getting up stairs, or just feels like something is off in their bodies and all of a sudden it's treatment time.

The burning away with the radiation.

 The poisoning of the body with chemotherapy.

The never ending cycle of other medicines that ward off the side effects caused by the burning and poisoning.

So, the prospect of reading the sad tale of a promising doctor whose life ended way too early at the age of 37 due to stage IV lung cancer wasn't super appealing.  I read it anyway, and just as Abraham Veghese says in the forward about the dialogue that Kalanithi presents as he wrestles with his diagnosis, the impending birth of his child, what actually gives life purpose and meaning . . . it could be anyone's story who has ever suffered from cancer or watched a love one suffer.

Being a neurosurgeon who has been on the other end of devastating diagnoses his whole professional career, his perspective goes even deeper than those with no medical background.  I know his book helped me see inside what was happening with my sister and the thoughts and feelings she must have been wrestling with as she underwent her complicated tongue surgery and subsequent 35 radiation treatments and 4 chemotherapy appointments.

The uniqueness of Kalanithi's story stems from his extraordinary writing ability and the way he presents his feelings with such unflinching honesty.

I cried.  If you read this book, there is no way not to cry.

But it's worth it to read it.

Cancer doesn't suck any less because I read this book, but the insider's perspective has helped me make sense of the process of treatment, the trial and error that needs to occur, the devastation, the ability to let go, and the hopefulness of moving on.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"A Man Called Ove": Hard on the Outside, Soft on the Inside

“Ove is fifty-nine. He drives a Saab. He’s the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s flashlight.”

We all know one curmudgeon or two in our lives.

These cantankerous individuals grumble at insignificant things that they really can't change.  Just the other day when I was at the local Jewel, I stood behind an angry older man who decided to lose his anger on the unsuspecting cashier.  He waited in line too long to buy his bottles of seltzer water and he wanted answers as to why they recently removed the self checkout aisles.  His words were condescending and rude, and he wanted very much to prove the point that he considered every employee at Jewel an idiot.

When I met the main character Ove of Swedish writer Fredrik Backman's debut novel "A Man Called Ove" I was reminded of every curmudgeon that I met while working on the farm (where they were rampant going as far as returning a quart of strawberries because they weren't juicy enough), or while I waited tables through college.  I thought of past colleagues when I was a teacher and even some family members.

Ove is the kind of man who sticks to his routine without fail.  He has black and white ideas about the types of people he likes (those who drive Saabs like he does) and those who he does not (those who are unable to back up a trailer or computer salespeople or those who drive on a on a motor vehicle prohibited street which is clearly marked or especially anyone who drives a BMW).  He walks around the neighborhood spreading more complaints than joy and everyone seems to be able to ruffle his 59 year old, cranky feathers.

But, everyone has a story to tell about how their past influenced their present day emotional status and Ove's story is one of sadness and hardship as well as love and companionship.  He grew up to be a man of principles and little compromise on his hardened belief system until he met the love of his life, Sonja, who was able to see the beautiful person that he was inside.  Their love story is full of touching moments. "People say Ove saw the world in black and white.  But she was all color.  All the color he had." Even when someone finds the perfect mate, life has a way of not turning out the way you expect it and Ove's life hardened him until his outer shell was so thick he didn't even want to go on living.

And that is where the reader meets him - when he's at the end of his rope from life's stupidity and outrage, missing Sonja's color in his life of black and white.  He would rather cease to exist than go on living.  At least that is what he believes.  When his new neighbors move in - Parvaneh (the pregnant mom), the dad (who Ove just names The Lanky One), and their two daughters - Ove's whole life begins to change.

I don't want to give away too much about this novel, because the real joy stems from the way Backman skillfully unfolds the backstory and present day story of Ove simultaneously.  At first I was irritated by Ove's unbending ways, but by the middle of the book, I couldn't wait to read more about his past and see what other circumstances would surface in the present.  Quite a few moments made me laugh out loud or smile.

And, yes.  I did shed a tear or two (maybe way more than that).  I love a good story about how even the hardest of hearts can soften (just think about how you watch The Grinch Who Stole Christmas or A Christmas Carol every single year), or how many people who seem like the grumpiest recluses are really the ones who have a history of good deeds and who are the most helpful in a crisis.

Redemption, friendship, love, a stray cat, an amazing cast of neighbors, a grumpy old man bent on ending it all, and the beauty of owning a Saab all combine to make "A Man Called Ove" one that might make you rethink your internal remarks about the crabby old men who yell at the cashiers in Jewel.  It will remind you for sure that everyone has a story to tell.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

"Chains": Another YA Historical Fiction Victory for Laurie Halse Anderson

An Important Note: It has taken me awhile to muster the courage to return to my book blog.  My loyal friend and office assistant, Loki, passed away on May 26th 2016.  I've never had a dog that I loved like Loki, and it has been so much quieter and a little less joyful now that he isn't at my feet every day while I work.

But as in all things, life goes on, and whenever I see the stack of books that I have already read, the pictures of Loki with all those books (he absolutely loved to pose with books because he always got a special treat afterwards.  I only had to hold a book and my camera and he would run to a good spot and pose) and have yet to write about, I am reminded that it's okay to move forward even if it hurts a little.


As I have mentioned before, my daughter, Raina and I have our own book club.  There are only two members (the two of us), and we try to read a variety of books that we think are worth discussing.  A few requirements:
1) the book has to be something we both want to read
2) the book has to be one that neither of us have read (or if I have read it, it was so long ago that I don't remember it)
3) the book has to be substantial enough that we have something to talk about
4) we need to go out to dinner somewhere to discuss the book

For our third selection, we chose Laurie Halse Anderson's National Book Award Finalist, "Chains." Both Raina and I read Anderson's Fever 1793 and loved it, so we thought another glimpse into early American history would be a good bet for both of us.  Raina also decided that we needed to have our discussion dinner at the local restaurant, 1776 (clever, right?). Neither of us were disappointed by the harrowing insider's perspective of slavery in 1776 that Chains depicts (or with our dinner at 1776).

The story revolves around a 13 year old slave girl named Isabel and her sister Ruth.  When their mistress dies, her will states that the girls whose mother also died are to be set free.  Unfortunately, two young slave girls don't have control over their fate in 1776, and their former mistress's nephew refuses to consider that Isabel and Ruth are not property on which he can make a profit. Dismissing the fact that Isabel is able to read and read the will herself, he sells the sisters to a very wealthy Loyalist couple, The Locktons.

To say that the girls suffer under the ownership of Mrs. Lockton would be an understatement.  She takes an instant liking to Ruth, but casts her aside thinking she is infected with the devil after she has a series of seizures.  As much as Mrs. Lockton immediately likes Ruth, she feels the same in disdain for Isabel and makes it her sole mission to inflict pain and punishment on the independent, headstrong girl.

With heart racing suspense and uncomfortable torture scenes, Laurie Halse Anderson creates the tense world of life from the perspective of a young slave girl caught in the middle of Loyalists and Patriots at the advent of the Revolutionary world.  She explores the depths of torment and imprisonment as well as lofty ideals of loyalty and freedom.

Over a sea scallop spinach salad (say that 10 times fast) and a wood fired chicken pesto pizza, Raina and I both agreed that this was a great book that taught us so much about the life of a slave girl. Both Raina and I squirmed when Isabel was publicly branded for trying to escape.  We both loved the  relationship between Isabel and Curzon which showed that even in the most dire of situations, a friend is exactly what you need.  And, we also loved that Mr. Lockton's aunt looked out for Isabel and helped her to survive.

Raina thought that many parts were a bit slow, but ultimately that she really enjoyed this book.  She also thought that it was awesome that it took her deeper into the dynamics of the start of the Revolutionary War than what she learned in Social Studies at school.  I thought it was an amazing gazing ball into a tumultuous time in US History.  What I love so much about Laurie Halse Anderson is her attention to the historical accuracy of her historical fiction.  She included quotations from actual documents from the time period that coincided with what was happening in the story.  I can't remember ever being engaged in learning about the Revolutionary War when I was in elementary school, but if I had read this book, I am sure that I would have been captivated and wanting more information.

The best part of this book is the action packed ending which really isn't an ending at all because this is only part 1 of the Seeds of American Trilogy.  Although we aren't going to choose Book 2: Forge for our next book club book (we both decided that we needed something a little bit lighter for the summer), we both will read it as well as Book 3: Ashes (out in October 2016) because we need to know what happens to Ruth, Isabel and Curzon.

We are rooting for them!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

"The Last Anniversary & The Hypnotist's Love Story": Two Liane Moriarty Snacks that Do Not Make a Meal

It's May!

In the spring, my reading style lightens a little.  I choose less of the dense "rip your beating heart from your chest" sorts of books, and lean more towards the "I know I will fly through this book, but it will have a little bit of substance" sort of books.

In honor of the switch from my heavy winter reads, I turned to tried and true Liane Moriarty whose huge sensations "Big Little Lies" and "The Husband's Secret" propelled her into the literary spotlight.  I've also read her earlier book "What Alice Forgot" which was my favorite of the three.

For spring travel I picked up two of Moriarty's older books, "The Last Anniversary" and "The Hypnotist's Love Story." Both were readable, sometimes predictable, sometimes lovable, and sometimes put-downable.  It wasn't that I struggled to get through either, but the page turning of the three aforementioned books did not occur for me in either of these books. The characters in both were good, but not great.  Both of the books had female characters that were a little bit too neurotic for me.

In "The Last Anniversary" Sophie Honeywell stars in an unlikely inheritance tale.  Although her ex-boyfriend, Thomas Gordon, did not turn out to be the love of her life, his Aunt Connie was so taken with Sophie that she willed her house on mysterious Scribbly Gum Island to her. Undaunted by the disapproval of Thomas's sister, Sophie can't wait to begin her new life in her new home.  Twists and turns ensue including postpartum depression, potential suitors, a Weight Watcher's affair (sorta), a bizarre love interest, anniversary carnival drunkenness, and the unraveling of a family mystery.  Sophie is at times likable, and other times annoying, as were the plot twists of this convoluted tale.  I read it but was not necessarily satisfied at the end.

In "The Hypnotist's Love Story" Ellen O'Farrell who helps others solve their problems through hypnotherapy can't seem to solve her own problem - finding a relationship that will last.  She blames a bit of this on her unconventional upbringing by her stern mom and her mom's two best friends.  When Ellen meets single dad Patrick, she thinks she may just have stumbled onto the love of her life.  There's only one big problem - Patrick's ex-girlfriend, Saskia, stalks him.  Oh, and another problem, he's a widower who might just still be in love with his dead wife, Colleen. At times a bit ridiculous, this book may have annoyed me a little bit more than "The Last Anniversary."  Patrick seemed adorable at times, but other times, he was miserable.  For all of Ellen's open mindedness and knowledge of the human mind and relationships, she has a hard time showing empathy for others and gets neurotic in her own relationship.  She is more concerned with the feelings of the woman stalking her boyfriend (and her), than she is in working through her problems or showing compassion for her fiancĂ©'s feelings.

Ultimately, with both of these books, I was mildly entertained while reading them.  They were quick, but they weren't very satisfying like an empty calorie snack when you just need a pick me up at 3pm.  If you haven't read any of Liane Moriarty's books, I recommend the aforementioned first, then maybe if you need a quick snack turn to these two novels.