Scrappy Little Nobody

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PLOT– In her memoir, Scrappy Little Nobody, actress Anna Kendrick follows her career from a child star on Broadway to breaking into Hollywood with hit movies, like Pitch Perfect and Into the Woods.

LIKE– Memoirs, especially light memoirs, are my go-to plane travel reading. I’m a fan of Anna Kendrick’s films and she’s a low-key celebrity, not one that is making tabloid headlines, so even though she’s only in her early thirties, I was curious to read about her career and personal life.

I had no idea that Kendrick was a former Broadway actress or that she had been nominated for both a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for her role in High Society. I love musicals and the crazy thing is, if this had occurred in the mid 90’s, as opposed to the late 90’s, I would have known Kendrick from her theatre roles, rather than film. In high school, I was absolutely obsessed with all things theatre and I knew all about everything that was happening on Broadway. I still love theatre, but the obsession waned as other things, like college, got pushed to the forefront. Although, I do remember the production of High Society, the specifics like cast and awards, were not on my radar. I loved reading about her experience on Broadway. especially how her family supported her dreams, even though it meant a lot of sacrifice and wasn’t even financially rewarding. Also, that Kendrick had to sacrifice a normal childhood to chase her dreams and that hanging out with other Broadway kids, is a bizarre experience.

Her Broadway success didn’t automatically translate to film offers. She went the indy route, making a musical film called Camp, I’ve never heard of Camp, but apparently, it has a cult following and Kendrick is often approached by fans of the film. It went to Sundance: Kendrick recounts a crazy trip, where the kids of the film, mostly unknown talent, descended on the Utah ski town and went wild. A repeating theme of Scrappy Little Nobody, is the years of work ( or lean times of no work), that Kendrick had to put in, before she became well-known. Every time she seemed on the verge of having a breakthrough, it wouldn’t happen.

Twilight, where she had a small part as a non-vampire friend of Bella (Kristen Stewart) was a big budget film that gave her enough money to last through the lean times. Even Up in the Air, a critically acclaimed film in which she received an Oscar nomination, didn’t provide enough income or job offers to sustain her. Kendrick recalls her rather unglamorous trip to the Oscars and feeling pressured into buying expensive shoes just to give the appearance of living a rich and glamorous life-style. Until recently, Kendrick shared a small, no-frills apartment with roommates, even during her trip to the Academy Awards.

In Scrappy Little Nobody, Kendrick comes across as a very down-to-earth, funny, and slightly-awkward thirty-something. She shares advice from George Clooney, who cautioned her not to count on fame or fortune in the film industry. Although Clooney is arguably a mega-star, it’s easy to remember that so many actors do have fleeting careers, or they may luck out with steady work, but not obtain the level of fame or money, that the public imagines.

DISLIKE– Nothing. Scrappy Little Nobody is entertaining and inspirational.

RECOMMEND– Yes, if you’re a fan of Broadway or Kendrick. Scrappy Little Nobody is a good pick for people needing inspiration or for a young person looking to break into show business. Kendrick may still be young, but she has had some incredible opportunities and she gives common sense advice based on her rather normal life.

Once in a Blue Moon Lodge

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Thank You to the University of Minnesota Press for providing me with an advanced copy of Lorna Landvik’s novel, Once in a Blue Moon Lodge, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Set in both Minnesota and Norway, spanning decades, Lorna Landvik’s latest novel, Once in a Blue Moon Lodge, continues the story of Patty Jane and her family. Patty Jane’s daughter, Nora, finds herself falling in love with a Norwegian doctor, just as she discovers that she’s pregnant with triples from a one-night stand. Ione, Patty Jane’s mother, visits Norway to see her dying cousin and rekindles a romance with a boyfriend from her youth. Patty Jane has shut down her salon and is enjoying retired life with her long-time boyfriend. She also has a new venture, helping Nora start her lakeside lodge, including the reboot of Patty Jane’s popular   learning series, where locals attend such things as lectures, concerts, and dance classes.

LIKE– I’ve been a longtime fan of Landvik’s writing and I’ve enjoyed her previous novels. There is a sweetness to her storytelling, that I compare to something akin to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. Both are filled with relatable, likable characters, and they each balance the heartbreak and joys of life.

My favorite part of Once in a Blue Moon Lodge, was the flashbacks to Ione’s childhood in Norway. This was the storyline that packed the biggest punch with regard to drama and mystery. I also enjoyed the setting of Norway. I have distant relatives in Norway, that like the characters in Landvik’s novels, immigrated and ended up settling in Minnesota. Her characters, their gentle humor and world view, feel like home to me. It’s this aspect that probably draws me towards Landvik’s novels the most.

Landvik peppers her story with Norwegian words and phrases. “Uff Da” is a phrase that my mom used all of the time, but I was surprised by how many Norwegian words were similar or flat out the same, as ones that I know from being around my Swedish step-children. I’ve never been great with learning foreign languages, so it was exciting to make those connections.

DISLIKEOnce in a Blue Moon Lodge is not as compelling as Landvik’s previous novels. I was unevenly interested in the various plots. For example, Silvia and Harry’s courtship and Broadway musical aspirations/success felt forced. I wasn’t very interested in the triplets. I thought about why this might be the case and I suspect that it had to do with the glut of plot lines and characters. There was so much going on, that I didn’t have a chance to invest deeply in any one character or plot. I would have rather had less and felt more. My focus waning, I actually set Once in a Blue Moon Lodge, aside, and finished another book, before going back to Landvik.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. Yes, if you’ve read Landvik’s other books and need to find out what happens with her beloved characters. However, if this is your first time reading Landvik, I’d like to direct you to Patty Jane’s House of Curl instead. Read Landvik, but don’t start with this one!

The Dead Inside

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Thank You to Sourcebooks Fire for providing me with an advanced copy of Cyndy Etler’s memoir, The Dead Inside, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In her memoir, The Dead Inside, Cyndy Etler recounts her time spent in a Straight Incorporated facility during the late 80’s. Straight Incorporated was a highly controversial treatment program to get troubled kids clean from drugs. The program preyed on the drug paranoia of the 1980’s ( Just Say No) and some of the kids, like Etler, were placed in the program, despite not having addiction problems.

LIKE- In efforts to write a fair review, I need to be upfront and admit that upon requesting The Dead Inside from Netgalley, I did not realize that it was a memoir aimed at young adults. I do not often read YA literature ( occasionally, but rarely) and I don’t think that I’ve read a YA memoir, since I was a young adult. That said, at nearly forty years old, I’m not the target audience for Etler’s memoir.

I requested this, thinking it was an adult aimed memoir and I was interested in Etler’s traumatic experience in a cult-like immersive therapy situation. I had heard of Straight Incorporated, as its controversy has popped up in many news stories, but I was interested in a deeper look, which drew me to Etler’s memoir. Her story is upsetting and outrageous. She is very candid with regard to sharing the intimate details of her profoundly disturbing experience.

At the end of the advanced readers copy, there is a note that the final version will have a mini biography about Straight Incorporated. I think this will improve The Dead Inside, as I felt that the program needed a stronger explanation to compliment Etler’s experiences. I hope that it will include info on what the parent’s were told to manipulate them to keep their kids enrolled in the program. What was Straight Incorporated sales pitch to Etler’s parents? It must have been very slick, as it’s hard to imagine parents allowing their children to be away from them for months, even years, with little contact.

DISLIKE– To be fair, I’m unsure if my major dislike has more to do with it being written for young adults, or YA aside, I didn’t connect with Etler’s writing? I felt like I was reading a teleplay for an ABC After School Special from the 80’s. It was very melodramatic throughout. The problem with this, is almost immediately, I didn’t trust Etler. I thought that she was an unreliable narrator, which given this is a memoir, made me feel a little guilty. Even with the terrible things that happened to her at Straight Incorporated, I never wavered from thinking that she wasn’t as innocent as she was claiming. I can believe that her drug use was a new thing and not likely to escalate, however, she had major attitude towards her mom and a desperate desire to be accepted by the kids in the bad part of town. She was definitely looking for rebellion and I can understand her mother’s fear. Etler was running away from home, heading on the path for bigger trouble.

Etler mentions problems with her step-father and alludes to abuse, including sexual abuse. She mentions her mother turning a blind eye and she thinks that her mother sent her into the program to get her out of the way, more than to help her. I believe the abuse, but going back to the unreliable narrator situation, I didn’t believe this about Etler’s mother. Etler’s family situation should have been more at the heart of the story, but I felt muddled regarding their dynamic. I didn’t have a good grasp on why Etler was acting out or how things escalated to having her sent to the program. I wish this had been a larger portion of her memoir for clarity.

The sensationalism of Straight Incorporated is the primary focus of The Dead Inside. As such, I felt removed from the emotion of Etler’s experience because the outrageous and often unbelievable techniques from the program, took center stage. Assuming all of this is true, it’s shocking and horrific. I couldn’t shake Etler as an unreliable narrator, so some of the crazier antics, I had trouble believing happened.

But my main issue with The Dead Inside, is the lack of reflection or purpose. Etler sums up her adult life by mentioning that she now helps troubled kids, which is wonderful, but this quick summation doesn’t offer much introspection. I think it would have been a stronger read, if she had added more of her adult perspective, including how her experience has impacted the kids she helps now. The shock value aspect could have been used more sparingly for greater impact.

Again, I do not have experience with YA memoirs, so I’m not sure if this is the norm for the genre, but Etler writes in a manner that is youthful: filled with slang and bad language. The vibe is “adults just don’t get me.” It felt disingenuous. It was cringe worthy in many parts and I can’t think of any teenager that I know who would respond to this narrative. I’m a little younger than Etler and looking back, I can’t imagine this appealing to me as a teen.

RECOMMEND– No, however I could be off the mark with my assessment of the YA memoir. I think Etler has both a fascinating and disturbing story to share, but The Dead Inside did not work for me.

How to Make a French Family

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Thank You to Sourcebooks for providing me with an advanced copy of Samantha Verant’s memoir, How to Make a French Family, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In her early thirties, Samantha Verant found herself divorced, working as a dog walker, and living at home with her parents in California. Thinking about her past, she decides to send an apology letter to Jean-Luc, a Frenchman whom she had met in her late teens while traveling in Europe. Verant had promised to stay in touch with Jean-Luc, but failed to keep her promise. Now, nearly two decades later, she discovers that Jean-Luc is a widower with two teenage children, Max and Elvire. Jean-Luc and Verant quickly fall back in love, marrying a year later. Verant’s memoir captures the joys and frustrations of moving to a foreign country and becoming a step-mother to two French teenagers.

LIKE– I’ve read many “fish-out-of-water” memoirs about living in foreign country, but Verant’s unique details make How to Make a French Family, compelling. Verant is not only living in a foreign country, but she is now the step-mother to two French chidren. As a American step-mother to two Swedish children ( and a former dog walker, divorcee and Californian), I could relate to Verant. We still live in the United States, and only have the children on holidays, but it’s not out of the question that we could one day move to Europe. I admire Verant, as she is both tough and brave following her new destiny in France. Luckily, Max and Elvire are accepting of Verant, and normal teenage issues aside, they accept her as part of their family.

Verant is in her late 30’s/early 40’s, when she decides to try for a baby with Jean-Luc. Verant suffers multiple miscarriages, but the support of her French family, allows her to embrace the idea of her current family being enough. Although Max and Elvire were happy about the prospect of a new sibling, both time and the loss of the babies, gave them the courage to express to Verant that they feared she would not view them the same as a child of her own. Verant came from a blended family. and was very close to her own step-father, so this was the last thing that she wanted Max and Elvire to think. This frank dialogue and love, is what I liked most about Verant’s family.

If you’re a Francophile or simply curious about French culture, Verant peppers her story with her American perspective of living in a foreign country. She certainly has some frustrations and mishaps, but most of her writing reveals an affinity for her new home.

Food is a huge part of French culture and Verant includes the recipes for all of the meals mentioned in, How to Make a French Family. Do not read on an empty stomach!

DISLIKE– Nothing. Verant’s memoir is entertaining and it will warm your heart.

RECOMMEND– Yes! How to Make a French Family is proof that your life can shift course when you least expect it. Verant has a beautiful life to share, and it will certainly make you want to visit southern France.

 

Can Books Save Lives?

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I was walking around in the cultural district of downtown Portland, and discovered this on an electrical box. It was across the street from my apartment in the South Park Blocks.  Wise words.

Nine years ago, when my mom was cancer riddled, and just a few weeks from dying, I spent long days in the hospital with her, reading. The author that saved my life the most during this immensely difficult time, was Laurie Notaro. I read her “Idiot Girl” series aloud to Mom, and we laughed. We laughed, a lot. It gave us a break from everything else happening and created happy memories during a dark time. I’m so grateful to Notaro and to the power of a story well-told.

What books or authors have saved your life?

The Yellow Envelope

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Thank You to Sourcebooks for providing me with an advanced copy of Kim Dinan’s memoir, The Yellow Envelope, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – On paper, Kim Dinan’s life looked great. She lived in Portland, Oregon. and had a loving husband, a stable career, and was a homeowner. Essentially, Kim and her husband, Brian, were building a very good life. However, Kim longed for a different type of life. Kim convinced Brian that they needed to travel the world. He agreed to sell their home, car, and possessions to fund their travels, as long as they took a year leave of absence from work, rather than flat out quitting their jobs.

A few days before heading out on their adventure, Kim and Brian are given are surprise by their close friends, Michelle and Glenn. They are presented with a yellow envelope containing a thousand dollars, and instructions to give the money away as they see fit. They are not to stress over it, or over-think these acts of generosity, only to follow their hearts and spread a little kindness during their travels. How will the yellow envelope impact their trip? How will travel shape their lives and change their marriage?

LIKE– The concept of The Yellow Envelope is beautiful. I love the idea of how little random acts of kindness can make a big difference. Late in her memoir, Dinan tells a story about when she was in her early 20’s and working for AmeriCorps, picking up used furniture for minimum wage. She was poor and just scraping by financially, when at one of the jobs, Dinan was tipped ten dollars. The act of kindness, specifically that she was appreciated, is what stuck with Dinan. It’s in this spirit that she hopes, the yellow envelope money was received. The thousand dollars was spread out among many people, organizations, even to help feed starving animals, so none of it was an earth shattering amount given at one time, however, maybe these small acts were enough to affect change. Perhaps the intent and act of spreading kindness is enough? I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that I live in a world where people would feel inspired to commit small acts of kindness, and not feel that they couldn’t give, because it wouldn’t be “enough.”

I like that Dinan didn’t edit out her discomfort. There were many times, especially early in her travels, that she did not give away money, because of her own discomfort. For example, they meet an elderly couple who do not speak English, but who are in desperate need for new shoes. They contemplate giving money or leaving shoes at the couple’s house, even anonymously, but ultimately they cave to their own feelings of this being an awkward situation. Dinan and her husband often worry about how their gift will be perceived, although as they grow more accustomed to travel and foreign situations, this fear lessens. They focus more on their intent and less on how it could be misconstrued.

Dinan speaks about her own issues with accepting kindness. In India, she enters a rickshaw competition with two other women, and they find that their rickshaw, affectionally named “Sunny,” has a lot of mechanical problems. At one point, they ended up needing shelter late at night, in a remote area, and a man takes them in. He gives them shelter and food, even though he is clearly very poor and his sharing is taking away from his family. At another point, a man goes out of his way to get a much needed part for their rickshaw. These are strangers, and although Dinan is unfamiliar with their culture’s customs, she must accept the help. She must accept the idea that generosity between strangers can exist, and that kindness is a cross-cultural concept.

The Yellow Envelope is the right mix of travelogue and personal introspective. Beyond the cultural discomforts involved with travel and the addition of the yellow envelope, Dinan also speaks to her personal problems, including a crisis in her marriage. Through much of her memoir, I wasn’t sure if her marriage would survive the year of travel. Was getting out of their element a good idea? Dinan’s memoir is beautifully written and deeply affecting.

DISLIKE– Nothing. The Yellow Envelope is a fabulous read.

RECOMMEND- Yes! If you have wanderlust, or are feeling like you need to make a dramatic change to your life, The Yellow Envelope is a must read. My heart felt warmer from having this reading experience, which with the current political climate, is a feeling that I think a lot of people could use right now. The Yellow Envelope is a reminder that kindness is still in abundance in the world and that different cultures have different concepts of what should be valued. It’s an eye opening read.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

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Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advanced copy of Hannah Tinti’s novel, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Samuel Hawley is an outlaw, who has spent many years moving across the United States with his daughter, Loo. Now that Loo is a teenager, Samuel feels that he can make an honest living as a fisherman, and he settles in the same New England town as Loo’s maternal grandmother, Mabel. Loo’s mother, Lily, died in a lake accident when Loo was an infant, and Mabel believes that Samuel had hand in her daughter’s death. Was Samuel responsible? Can a man who has committed so many crimes, really be safe from his past coming back to haunt him?

LIKE– Tinti is the co-founder of One Story, one of my favorite monthly magazines ( check it out, it’s awesome), and I had the pleasure of taking an online writing class with her last month. It was fabulous!

Tinti has an interesting way of framing The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley. She has given Samuel a body riddled with scars from bullets wounds, and she alternates chapters between the present and the past, using the past chapters to explain the ways in which Samuel has been shot. In the past, we learn about Samuel’s life of crime, his associates, and how he met Lily. As the story unfolds, we learn the truth about Lily’s death, and how it impacts the trajectory of the story. In the present, we see Loo growing into a teenager and trying to figure out details about her mother, through both her grandmother and living in her mother’s hometown. This structure created a solid framework for pacing the mysteries of the novel and keeping the suspense.

In addition to a strong structure, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, has memorable characters. I was most intrigued by Lily and her relationship with Samuel. The chapter in which they meet, was the most intense, gripping chapter of the novel. It was cinematic. Speaking of cinematic, Tinti writes in a grand way, with beautiful imagery and sweeping landscapes. For example, there is a dramatic scene on a glacier in Alaska. Having recently visited a glacier in Alaska, I can tell you, that Tinti captured that amazing environment, including the details of the sounds a glacier makes, which is what was most memorable for me.

DISLIKE– There were a few places where I felt my suspension of disbelief was tested; for example, there are two separate scenes with a whale that didn’t work for me. It seemed too outrageous for the tone of the story.

Although I love idea of this outlaw who can survive whatever comes his way, it became a little much to have so many bullet wounds that were patched up. In one chapter he shoots his own foot by accident, which leads to a memorable experience taking a young Loo trick-or-treating, but otherwise, doesn’t seem to advance the story.

RECOMMEND– Yes. Tinti is an imaginative writer that takes readers to unexpected places.  I was able to empathize and connect with all of her main characters. If you can let a few things slide, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is worthy read. It’s suspenseful and engaging.

American Housewife

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I was browsing in Powell’s City of Books, when Helen Ellis’ short story collection, American Housewife, leaped off of the shelf, demanding to be read. Just take a minute to admire the awesome cover. It looks just like a photograph of my mom from the 50’s. if my mom had cotton candy hair. Those glasses, that tangerine sweater-set, the enormous curlers = if a book can be judged by its cover ( and I like to judge), I know that Ellis’ stories are going to take me on a fun ride.

PLOT American Housewife is Helen Ellis’ collection of short stories, all involving the title subject. What defines an American housewife? Ellis’ housewives are smart, snarky, and occasionally highly disturbed.

LIKE– Ellis is a fabulous writer with a gift for crafting unique sentences. For example, here is a sentence regarding the discovery of a new independent bookstore, that absolutely delighted me: from How to Be a Patron of the Arts =

It’s like you’ve found a unicorn grazing next to the dry cleaner that a friend told you could get cat barf out of cashmere.

It made me laugh-out-loud-

For five minutes-

In an airport.

Ellis fills all of her stories with this type of humor. There wasn’t a single clunker in the collection, but there were standouts. Here are the ones that I thought were stellar.

What I Do All Day – A less than three page laundry list of the activities that the narrator does in her typical day as a housewife. It’s hilarious, but what I admired most is Ellis’ pacing, and the way her story builds to the climax of forced dinner party conversation. As an American housewife myself, I found the idea of justifying my day to be extremely relatable.

Dumpster Diving with the Stars – The narrator, a not-quite-famous writer, goes on a reality show that involves dumpster diving and challenges akin to Antiques Roadshow. I loved all of the pop-culture references, including John Lithgow as a contestant. The title rocks, and makes me wonder if a show like this has ever been pitched. Yes, is the likely answer.

The Fitter – The narrator’s husband is a famous bra fitter, with women angling to make him their next husband, while his wife is near death, after first having a mastectomy. Although there is humor in this story, it was very dark, and the emotional pain of the narrator was palpable. The ending was very much a surprise.

My Novel is Brought to you by the Good People at Tampax – A cautionary tale of an author who signs a contract with Tampax to endorse their products in her novel, and then faces a combination of writer’s block and procrastination. She learns that Tampax will not accept excuses, and that not just her writing, but basically her life, is theirs, until she fulfills her contractural obligation. This made me feel paranoid about my own writing schedule. Miley Cyrus and Paula Deen make appearances as poster-children for reinvention.

DISLIKE– Nothing. American Housewife is a highly-entertaining collection by a gifted writer.

RECOMMEND– YES!!! Helen Ellis is a treasure, and I will be on alert for more of her stories. I can’t recommend this author or American Housewife, enough. A fabulous story collection!

The Polygamist’s Daughter

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Thank You to Tyndale House Publishers for providing me with an advanced copy of Anna LeBaron’s memoir, The Polygamist’s Daughter, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In her memoir, The Polygamist’s Daughter, Anna LeBaron recounts her dysfunctional and disruptive past, as a child born to Fundamentalist Mormon cult leader, Ervil LeBaron.

LIKE– I requested LeBaron’s memoir on NetGalley, because I find memoirs of cults, specifically Fundamentalist Mormon groups, to be fascinating. As an only child raised by a single mother, the idea of having multiple parents and dozens of siblings is mind boggling; a completely foreign concept to me.

LeBaron faced many hardships as a child. When she was still in elementary school, she was taken to Mexico to live with other cult members, away from both of her parents. She faced extreme poverty and hunger. LeBaron and the other children were moved frequently, disrupting  their education, which was a mix of home schooling and public education. As soon as they were able, the children were put to work, including manual labor and selling food on the streets. She was forced to fend for herself at a young age and her childhood is heartbreaking.

The Polygamist’s Daughter takes an even darker turn when LeBaron becomes a teenager,  living with her sister and brother-in-law. This period is the first time in her life where she feels love and stability. Beyond his death, Ervil, orders the deaths of several former cult members, including LeBaron’s brother-in-law. During the hit on her brother-in-law, LeBaron’s sister was also killed, leaving all of their children without parents. At the time, LeBaron was college-aged and just beginning to branch out on her own, but she felt a responsibility to help the kids in the aftermath of their parent’s deaths. Although her nieces and nephews were ultimately adopted by a family friend, this situation deeply impacted LeBaron’s life. LeBaron was left with hatred towards her deceased father, and very mixed emotions towards her mother, who would not leave the cult.

DISLIKE– LeBaron’s life is intense and fascinating, but her writing lacks finesse. Many places were repetitive, or similar to a child telling a story, where they don’t know how to edit out the less relevant or interesting details. This made the memoir uneven with regard to pacing and my level of engagement. The Polygamist’s Daughter would be stronger with sharper editing, or perhaps if it had been co-written.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. There are many memoirs on growing up in polygamist cults and I don’t think LeBaron’s is dissimilar to other books on the market. However, if the subject is of interest to you, The Polygamist’s Daughter, is a quick read. It’s impossible to not feel sympathy for LeBaron and the other children of this cult.