On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard

cover159167-medium

Thank you to Penguin Group Dutton for providing me with a copy of Jennifer Pastiloff’s memoir, On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard, in exchange for an honest review.

Jennifer Pastiloff has built an incredible life. She is in a loving marriage, has a beautiful child, and has created a successful career as an inspirational leader of life changing yoga retreats. However, the road to Pastiloff’s currently life was bumpy.

Pastiloff had a tumultuous childhood, which included the death of her father. She suffered from crippling self-doubt and anorexia. Her self-image issues played a role in her refusal to seek medical attention for her progressive hearing loss, an issue that caused her many years of social pain, excluding her from fully participating in conversations and feeling like people viewed her as less intelligent. She meandered through her twenties/early thirties, engaging in self-destructive activities and unable to figure out her true career path or to find a good romantic partner.

On Being Human is part memoir and part self-help book, as Pastiloff gives tips and exercises gleaned from her popular workshops for reader to try at home. Pastiloff is relatable and raw. I related to her sense of feeling lost in her twenties/early thirties. She dropped out of college and spent over a decade working as a server at a cafe. I was in a similar situation and I could relate to knowing that you have skills and dreams, but also not quite knowing how to focus on a career path. The sense of knowing that there is so much more out there for you, but also not knowing how to grab it. In a culture where we value the traditional education/career path, it can be very difficult for people who do not stick to that mold. Pastiloff filled me with encouragement and hope. I would definitely recommend On Being Human, to anyone who is feeling a little lost.

Another aspect of Pastiloff’s memoir is the idea of following your gut or inner voice. Pastiloff did not have dreams of being a yoga instructor or a motivational coach, but she listened to her intuition when the opportunities presented themselves, she took them. The first time she met her would-be husband, she wasn’t interested in him, but a decade later, her gut told her to pursue the relationship. It’s part trusting yourself and part timing, as life is ever evolving and sometimes you might need the time to grow, in order to be ready to accept an opportunity. Pastiloff in her early twenties was not ready to accept certain things and she needed the time to grow. Rather than beating herself up over these missed years, she looks at them as a time needed to develop into the person she is today.

Pastiloff experienced massive hearing loss, a condition that slowly worsened over many years. Finally, she realized that she needed to use a hearing aid, something that she had been embarrassed about to the point of choosing to miss out on hearing. It was a vanity issue. When she finally conceded to needing the hearing aids, she realized that she could not afford them. However, Pastiloff had built a community of friends and clients who wanted to help her purchase them. This community came through with several other financial emergencies. My take-away is if you show enough love to other people, especially giving it freely with no expectations, often this love will come back to you in abundance. I’ve seen this happen in my own life and in the lives of those around me. Pastiloff’s younger adult years were spent in such fear of judgement, that when she was able to push that aside, she saw the blessing of allowing other people to be part of her life. We often hear that it “takes a village” to raise a child, but I think that it applies to everyone. We all need help sometimes. We need a sense of belonging to a community.

On Being Human is a wonderful reminder of the power of humanity and of embracing life. I highly recommend it for anyone who needs a bit of a boost. I’d love to attend one of Pastiloff’s workshops and to see how her energy in person, compares to the page. It is radiant in her memoir!

Are We Really Going to Let Mum Backpack on Her Own?

cover151804-medium

Thank you to Hazel Loutsis, for providing me with a copy of her travel book, Are We Really Going to Let Mum Backpack on Her Own?: My Gap Year Traveling Solo at Sixty, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Hazel Loutsis was a single British woman approaching sixty, when she had a life-altering thought while at the dentist: rather than paying thousands of pounds for a procedure that she didn’t really need, she would spend the money on traveling the world. Loutsis put her affairs in order, bought a good backpack, and flew to India, to begin her year of adventure.

LIKE– Loutsis has an amazing adventurous spirit, embracing all of the experiences that come her way. She picks destinations that are off-the-beaten path, rarely declines trying new things, and truly gets to know the people living in the places that she visits.

I was intrigued by Loutsis style of travel. She keeps it simple, mostly staying in hostels (usually filled with college students) or in accommodations where she volunteers to earn her keep. She is easy-going when it comes to camping, long bus rides, and general discomfort. Honestly, I’m not sure that I could embrace her style of travel, yet I’m envious of the incredible experiences she had during her year abroad. It was certainly a deeper experience than the average traveler. Many times, these experiences seem to come as a reward for her experiencing discomfort, like amazing views after a grueling hike. Loutsis often favored small towns and nature, over big cities- which is also opposite to me. It was engaging to read a travel report from someone so different from myself.

My favorite part was when Loutsis decided to sleep under the stars, while on a tour of the Australian outback. She managed to sleep through Dingos raiding the camp. The Dingos stole sneakers from another woman in the group. Loutsis is told not to worry, since the Dingos don’t usually attack people!

I love travel writing, because it allows me to live vicariously through the author’s journey: Are We Really Going to Let Mum Backpack on Her Own, is no exception. Thanks to Loutsis, I have many destinations to add to my bucket list!

DISLIKEAre We Really Going to Let Mum Backpack on Her Own, is a straight-up travel journal. It was just like reading a travel diary from a friend and lacked a sense of style that is found in professional travel writing.

RECOMMEND- Maybe. I certainly admire Loutsis and I found much of her book to be enjoyable. That said, I’m not sure that it was unique among the many travel books that are on the market and certainly less polished.

Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners

cover131815-medium

Thank you to Harlequin- Hanover Square Press for providing me with a copy of Gretchen Anthony’s novel, Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- Cerise Baumgartner is pregnant with her first child and her parents are thrilled. Thrilled and very involved, especially Cerise’s over-bearing mother, Violet. Violet likes Cerise’s girlfriend, Barb, but is left feeling concerned and nosy over how the child was conceived, a personal issue that neither Barb nor Cerise is willing to disclose.

As Violet tries to interfere with her daughter’s life, she has other concerns to contend with, such as her recently retired husband, Ed, who doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. Her best friend, Eldris is also going through a crisis. Eldris’ husband, Richard, has lost his job and is acting very secretive. Their son, Kyle, who is also Cerise’s best-friend and the would be godfather to her baby, is being investigated for domestic terrorism. To top it all off, Violet is desperate to please Barb’s parents, who, at least on paper, seem to be the perfect family.

LIKEEvergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners is a delightful novel. It’s funny and has a lot of heart. I appreciated the complexity of Violet and how the truth of her character unfolds. She is quite a lot to handle early in the story, but Anthony does a fine job of teasing out the details of her inner-life and I finished the story with a very different impression of Violet. One of the overriding themes of the story is love and despite the many flaws that the characters have, there is a lot of love to be found.

I think most people have a Violet Baumgartner in their life. She is a force of nature, but also someone who is very sensitive and hides it behind her controlling behavior. She loves fiercely, but also drives people away with her take-charge attitude. I have relatives that are so similar to Violet, that it was very relatable. I could easily understand Cerise’s reaction to her mother and I’ve been in her position.

I’m a big fan of the Christmas card letter. I even save my favorites that are sent to me, certain families have a way with words. I enjoyed the way that Anthony used Violet’s Christmas card letters to give us backstory about the Baumgartner’s life. It really works well with the story. Although I finished reading Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners, in February ( on a snowy afternoon), it is definitely an ideal book to read during the Christmas season. It will put you in a holiday mood.

The disastrous dinner party scene at the end really made me laugh. I also found that Anthony had some great plot twists that I did not anticipate.

DISLIKE- Nothing to dislike. Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners is not a life-changing read, but it is a very cozy, charming story.

RECOMMEND – Yes! If you are looking for a family drama with a strong dose of comedy, Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners is a great pick. I throughly enjoyed it. It’s a feel-good story that will give you the warm fuzzies!

My Squirrel Days

cover143796-medium

Thank you to Scribner for providing me with a copy of Ellie Kemper’s memoir, My Squirrel Days, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Comedian Ellie Kemper reflects on her childhood and shares stories from her journey towards success in the entertainment industry.

LIKE– I’m a huge fan of Ellie Kemper and I was happy to see that she is just as charming and funny the page, as she is in her acting roles.

My Squirrel Days strikes a good balance of stories from Kemper’s pre-fame years to tidbits from her professional career. I think this should be required reading for anyone who is interested in getting into the arts, as Kemper shares both rejections and triumphs, but most important she reveals her tenacity. I imagine that most people think that a regular role on a hit show like The Office, might bring instant fame and wealthy, but Kemper ( although not losing sight on her fortune in landing the role) keeps it in check and shows that not everything is as easy or glamorous as it seems. It reminded me of a similar sentiment that Anna Kendrick mentions in her memoir, Scrappy Little Nobody. Wealthy and fame do not always come quickly in the entertainment industry, even when you land a great role in a hit television series or film.

I really enjoyed the chapter on Tina Fey and the behind-the-scenes of Kemper’s show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I love this quirky show and I wish that Kemper’s memoir had included even more about Kimmy.

Kemper’s writer’s voice is hilarious. She sets up early on that she was a curious and intense child, a personality trait that carried into her adulthood. She often pokes fun at her own uber-driven behavior. One chapter focuses on her Soul Cycle addiction and how she was very particular about needing a certain bike in the studio. I don’t do Soul Cycle, but as a very particular, routine person, I found myself relating to this chapter.

Her fan-girl love towards David Letterman and excitement over being a guest on his show is a delight to read. Her wacky idea to make him toast is just awesome.

DISLIKE– I hate to say this, but although I enjoyed reading Kemper’s book, I don’t feel that it is a memoir that will make a lasting impression. Even as I am writing this review, about a week after finishing her book, I needed to go back to remember details.

RECOMMEND– Yes, if you’re a fan of Kemper or breaking into the arts and needing to get a little encouragement. My Squirrel Days is a humorous, light-read that will brighten your day. Plus, gotta love anything with a squirrel on the cover!

Everything Belongs to Us

1486670300183

 

Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advanced copy of Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s novel, Everything Belongs to Us, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Set in Seoul, South Korea during the late 70’s, Everything Belongs to Us, is the story of two childhood friends from vastly different economic backgrounds. Jisun, the daughter of a successful business tycoon, is from a privileged family, and lives in a secluded mountainside mansion. Namin lives in a poor village, in a small house without running water, and her parents own a food truck, working sixteen hour days. The girls meet when Namin’s impressive test scores admit her to an elite middle school.

Fast forward to college, both women are attending South Korea’s most prestigious university. Namin’s goal is to become a doctor and her family puts all of their money and energy towards her success, seeing her as their ticket out of their hard life. Jisun’s father would like to groom her to take over his company, but she would rather disavow her wealthy upbringing. Instead, Jisun becomes involved in an activist movement, risking not only embarrassment to her family, but jail. A series of circumstances sets a course that will show each woman, that their situations are tenuous and that desire isn’t always enough.

LIKE– Wow. Just wow. Everything Belongs to Us is a dazzling debut novel that gripped me from the start and didn’t let go. I absolutely could not put it down, and as a consequence, I stayed up far past my bedtime to finish reading it. Wuertz’s strong voice, combined with sympathetic characters and a intriguing plot, kept me glued.

What surprised me the most, was how current the story felt. Admittedly, I know very little about Korea’s history during the 1970’s. However, with the exception of the factory protests (which for all I know could also be happening now), I kept forgetting that this story was set decades ago. I think it’s because the idea of college students focusing on power, social climbing and ambition, transcends decades or cultures. The idea of a lower-class family putting all of their dreams towards their child who could raise their status, is something that still happens; same as a child from a wealthy family who might want to test out a different life from the one in which she was raised. These are themes that transcend.

Power is a key theme of Everything Belongs to Us. The most gut-wrenching use of this theme, comes from Namin, when she learns that her younger brother, who has cerebral-palsy, has been sent away from Seoul, to live with their grandparents in the county. The problem is, the family is ashamed, and does not speak of Namin’s younger brother. She fears that he is dead, until as teenagers, Jisun suggests that Namin make a surprise trip to the countryside, to see if her brother is still alive. He is alive and knowing that her elderly grandparents will not be able to care for him much longer, Namin feels an even stronger pressure to finish school, and have a job where she will have the resources to help him. There is a beautiful scene where she takes him in his wheelchair to the river and as they cool their feet in the water, they dream of the fantasy home that they will one day have. Namin dreams of being wealthy, but not so much for herself, but for the power that it would give her to provide for her family. It’s a desperate and non-negotiable need for her.

In college, the girls meet Sunam, a boy from a middle-class background, who like the girls, is trying to find his place in the world. Sunam becomes Namin’s boyfriend, but their relationship declines when she becomes too busy with school and family obligations. Jisun, who is broken-hearted over an American missionary, turns her attentions to Sunam, beginning an affair with Namin’s boyfriend. Unbeknownst to both girls, Sunam is harboring a secret that would destroy both of his relationships. Wuertz’s plot is full of moral dilemmas and impossible situations. It’s suspenseful and kept me guessing until the very end.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing. Everything Belongs to Us is a fabulous debut.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Everything Belongs to Us is set in the 1970’s, but is fresh and modern. Wuertz is a masterful storyteller and I can’t wait to read her follow-up to this magnificent debut. Also, be sure to check out her author website, where she shares pictures of her family, who were inspiration for the characters in Everything Belongs to Us.