Sociable

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Thank you to Doubleday Booksfor providing me with a copy of Rebecca Harrington’s novel, Sociable, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Journalist Elinor Tomlinson is devastated when her boyfriend and fellow journalist, Mike, breaks up with her. They had been dating for four years and the break-up seems to have come from out of the blue. Elinor suspects that Mike was cheating on her with his colleague, Andrea, but no matter how much she dives into Mike’s social media, she cannot get concrete proof. In the months after the break-up, Elinor starts working at a company called Journalism.ly, where she has a knack for writing articles that go viral on social media. She starts figuring out life on her own with a new apartment and jumping back into the dating scene, but Mike is never far from her mind. Will Elinor ever understand her breakup or will she just drive herself crazy by using social media to relay to Mike that her life is fine without him?

LIKE– One of the best part of Sociableis the commentary on how men treat women in the workplace. Elinor is a talented journalist, yet the men in her life use subtle tactics to undermine her efforts. When she is dating Mike, his career and talents always shine above hers. The ending of the story has a nice nod to Elinor realizing that she is just as talented and worthy. Her superiors at Journalism.ly, are male and they constantly belittle her. One guy, who is her age and whom she went to college with, feels that he can serve as her mentor, because he has been at the company a few months longer. It’s insidious and the worst part is the men clearly don’t even realize what they are doing. It’s simply the way things between men and women have always been. I certainly recognized the behavior from my own experiences in the work place. Men can be very patronizing, even when they are the “good guys.”

Speaking of the men in Sociable; they come across as very flat characters, especially Elinor’s co-workers. When I finished the novel, I felt disappointed, especially with Peter, a coworker whom it seems might have a crush on Elinor, but where the storyline never develops. However, after giving it some thought, I’ve concluded that the point of Sociableis that Elinor allows her fixation on Mike to get in the way of her goals. The point is for Elinor to come into her own and realize that she is worthy outside of having a relationship or validation from social media. It was a little odd that so much of the Peter situation was developed without a pay-off, but the ultimate pay-off was Elinor’s self-realization.

And Elinor, oh Elinor…she’s a mess. It’s not a requirement to have a likable protagonist, but I have to confess that I wish that I had been able to like Elinor a bit more. She reminded me of a character from Lena Dunham’s series, Girls. Elinor is self-involved, not particularly nice to her friends, and neurotic. She is full of contradictions and is rather unpleasant. I felt that her situation was highly relatable, but I found myself rooting for her to succeed in her situation, not her as a person. That said, I found Sociableto be a compulsive read that I didn’t want to put down. I was locked-in and finished it in one afternoon.

I also want to mention that the same day that I sat down to read Sociable, my husband and I had a discussion about Facebook and the fake realities that people create for themselves or how they post things on social media just for attention. I found this to be very timely with regard to my reading of Sociable, especially how Elinor works hard to cultivate a perfect social media presence. In several scenes, Elinor is at party or a mixer, and she is on her phone (as are others) ignoring real social interactions, while favoring documenting a false version of the situation on their social media accounts. It’s stomach turning, because it’s what’s happening in real life all of the time. Reading Sociablehas made me step back from my own social media usage.

DISLIKE– Besides wishing that I had liked Elinor, I found it odd that the story occasionally broke the fourth wall, addressing the reader directly. It was infrequent enough to be a quirk that I found unnecessary and distracting. It always pulled me out of the story.

RECOMMEND– Yes. Sociableis a quick read that stuck in my mind for several days after I finished reading it. It reminded me so much of Girls, that I recommend it to fans of the show. Harrington is a solid writer and this is a on-point topic.

The Tao of Martha

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PLOT– Humorist Jen Lancaster makes a New Year’s resolution to live her life guided by Martha Stewart.

LIKE– I adore Jen Lancaster. She’s absolutely hilarious and she writes in a way that makes you feel like you’re her best friend and she’s telling you crazy stories about her life over margaritas. Recently, I’ve been listening to her podcast, Stories We’d Tell in Bars, which she cohosts with her friend, Gina B. It’s a great podcast and I realized that although I’ve read most of Lancaster’s non-fiction books, there were a few that I have missed.

I spotted a copy of The Tao of Martha in Bearly Used Books, our local bookstore in Big Bear Lake and I knew it was a sign. This was one that I had been missing and life has been hectic, I could use a Lancaster pick-me-up. Her writing never fails to make me laugh.

Like Lancaster, I’m a fan of Martha Stewart. I’ve read Martha Stewart Living magazine and I admire her aesthetic, although it’s not something that I have put the effort into actually implementing. I lean more towards her ideas of home organization and steer clear of anything crafty. I don’t do crafts. In her experiment, Lancaster runs the gamut of Stewart principals, including throwing the perfect party, organizing her cupboards, and creating homemade presents.

Like Lancaster, I’m not a fan of Halloween, however, I could almost get into the spirit when I read about Lancaster covering pumpkins in sparkling glitter and creating gift bags for trick or treaters. I also appreciated the chapter where Lancaster creates an impeccably organized stockpile of supplies in preparation for a disaster or Zombie apocalypse.

This story isn’t all about Martha, it’s also about Maisy, Lancaster’s beloved dog who is facing failing health. Maisy has a fierce personality and manages to live years longer than anyone expected. Midway though the Stewart experiment, Lancaster and her husband, Fletch (another great personality in Lancaster’s books) have to make the difficult decision to put Maisy down. If you’re an animal lover, the story of Maisy and their bond with her, will resonate. You will cry. Another serious issue crops up when Lancaster has a breast cancer scare. If you’re a woman, it will make you schedule that mammogram.

DISLIKE–  Nothing. The Tao of Martha is another gem from Lancaster.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Lancaster is a treasure. I recommend The Tao of Martha and all of her books. In fact, you might want to start with her first book, Bitter is the New Black, as an introduction to Lancaster and to learn how she even became writer. Her podcast is definitely worth a listen!

Gutshot

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PLOT– A collection of visceral, magical, and often horrifying short stories by Amelia Gray.

LIKE– I received Amelia Gray’s short story collection, Gutshot, as part of my Quarterly Company Literary Box. The spring 2017 box was curated by Borne author, Jeff Vandermeer and as part of his picks, Vandermeer included Gray’s collection.

I had never heard of Gray previous to her book arriving in my box, but immediately, I was drawn to the title and cover art. I packed Gutshot to take on my cruise to Alaska, but just a few pages into the first story, I realized that this was too special of a collection to read while on a distracting, family holiday. I stuck to magazines for the vacation. Now, eight months later, I finally found a distraction free afternoon and took the plunge.

Many of her stories are raw and powerful. There are few that elicited the feeling of the title: Gutshot. I felt physically moved and wounded while reading them.

Here are a few of my favorites.

A Contest- a micro-short about people competing to put on the best display of mourning for a person that they love who has died. They are told that the gods will pick the person that has experienced the most grief and that person’s loved one will come back to them. Several people are mentioned and they are all very worthy, including parents grieving over a lost child. The story simply ends with one sentence involving a character who had not been mentioned earlier in the story, a woman who opens her front door to find that her cat has returned. This had me in tears. I’ve lost so many people and pets in my life, but honestly mourning a pet is such a different type of grief.

The Lives of Ghosts – Marcy has recently lost her mother, but discovers that her mom is haunting her in the form of an enormous pimple on Marcy’s face. A pimple that talks and gives advice, including unsolicited motherly advice. This story was so completely unexpected, humorous, and ultimately heartbreaking. I found myself laughing out loud at this irreverent story.

Thank You– A hilarious story about an escalating passive-aggressive exchange of thank you notes. Thank You, as with many of Gray’s stories, increases in outrageousness, creating a fantasy situation. Very funny and relatable. I don’t think there are many women who won’t relate to this frenemy story with manners.

DISLIKE– I can’t claim to like each of Gray’s stories with equal measure; some were so bizarre that I found trouble connecting. Often her stories turned grotesque or incredibly violent, which is not something that bothers me, but I also felt that it didn’t always serve the story, like it was for shock value more than anything.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Gray is a talented writer and the stories in Gutshot are not ones that I can easily compare to another author. They might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they are certainly original. The stories that got me in my gut, I will not soon forget. I look forward to reading more stories by Gray.

Year of Yes

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PLOT– Writer and creator of several award-winning television shows (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal), Shonda Rhimes, shares how she spent a year saying yes to experiences that were outside of her comfort zone and how this quest changed her life.

LIKE– I have a confession: I’ve never seen a single episode of any of Shonda Rhimes’ hit shows. I’m well aware of who is she is, because I don’t live under a rock. Rhimes is one of the most successful show-runners on television. So, if I’m not a fan of her shows, why would I pick up her book? Year of Yes kept popping up on must-read lists and catching my eye in the book store. It’s a New York Times Bestseller and when I saw a copy on the remainders table, I grabbed it. It has been on my shelf for awhile and with the new year, it seemed like the type of book that could be inspiring.

It is inspiring! Rhimes talks about her insecurities and introverted nature, all of which caused her to turn down invitations and shy away from the lime light ( which is hard to do when you’re one of the most well-regarded women in Hollywood). During Thanksgiving 2013, Rhimes’ sister, Delorse, makes the comment that Rhimes never says yes to anything. Rhimes took this comment to heart and made the active choice to say yes in 2014, particularly to things that forced her outside of her comfort zone.

Among other things, she says yes to giving a commencement speech at her alma matter, Dartmouth. She says yes to appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live. She gives herself permissions to cut out toxic friendships and to focus on her health. Through all of this, she discovers that she actually enjoys the previously terrifying experiences,and is becoming a happier person.

Rhimes is intelligent, funny, and down-to-earth. She’s really likable and relatable. On a personal level, I connected with her childhood dreams of being a writer and how she would escape to the pantry to create stories or read. I was that kid too Shonda!

I don’t remember the exact quote, but I love a comment that Rhimes makes about her shows, how she wants to see people like herself on television, but also people who are different from her. She wants diversity in all forms.

DISLIKE– Nothing. Well, one thing…I now feel compelled to start watching Rhimes’ shows. How can I possibly take on a decade worth of Grey’s Anatomy? Where to start? Argh!

RECOMMEND– Say yes to Year of Yes. If you tend to be a bit of a introvert like me, it’s the kick in the pants that will get you to embrace new opportunities.

The Tribulations of August Barton

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Thank you to author Jennifer LeBlanc for providing me with a copy of your novella, The Tribulations of August Barton, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– It’s difficult being a college freshman and it’s even more difficult if you’re August Barton. August is an anxious young man and his anxiety issues spike when things in his life spiral out of control. His parents are getting a divorce, he is completely uncool in the eyes of his dorm roommate, and his wild-child grandmother is causing problems in her nursing home. Can August handle all of these issues and learn to enjoy his first year at college?

LIKE– This story is nuts. It’s really outlandish and unexpected in the best possible way. August’s grandmother, Gertie is the polar opposite to August’s personality. Where he is shy and nervous, she embraces life and lives loud. She is not content to spend her remaining days in a nursing home, so she runs away, implicating August in her wild adventures. She brings along an old friend and fellow former prostitute, Tunes, and they work together to have a last hurrah, while making sure that August learns to live a little. They even join August at a college party, proving that age is no barrier to a good time or popularity.

The Tribulations of August Barton has a wonderful zest for life and a theme of seizing the day.

DISLIKE– Too short, way too short. The story felt crammed in, especially for the level of wackiness. I needed more time to understand and embrace the characters. The breakneck pace was too much for a novella and underserved the story.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. I loved the characters and the spirit of The Tribulations of August Barton, but I felt I was reading a solid draft, rather than a polished story.

A Thousand Rooms

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Thank you to NetGalley and author Helen Jones for providing me with a copy of A Thousand Rooms in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- Katie has just died and she finds herself at the scene of her death without anyone to greet her or further instructions. When she thinks of something, such as the store where she purchased the snazzy new red heels that she was wearing when a car hit her, she is transported to that place. Katie begins to get the hang of transporting herself and travels to see her family and friends as they deal with her death, but she is still left wondering, if this is all there is?

Katie get an idea to travel to a convalescent hospital to be near another human when they die and she discovers that the afterlife is different for everyone. Katie learns that she can travel to different afterlife realms and soon she is gathering pieces of the puzzle to understand the meaning of her own death.

LIKE– Jones fills A Thousand Rooms with so much creativity that I kept turning the page to see what was coming next. I couldn’t anticipate where Jones was taking her story, which kept it compelling. She weaves folklore and concepts from various religions into the different rooms/realms that Katie visits. I love the idea that the afterlife can be such an individualized experience. One of my favorite small twists is when Katie thinks she is witnessing a death, but it turns out to be a conception. It’s a joyful moment. Also joyful, are the scenes when Katie is reconnecting with her grandfather in their heaven. It’s a wonderful balance after the somber scenes of Katie watching her family on earth grieving.

DISLIKE– Katie felt flat. I could easily go along with her story because it was so unexpected, but I had difficulty both imagining her physically and going along with her emotional journey. When I felt emotion, it was situational, rather than because I was connected to the protagonist. For example, having experienced profound grief, I felt emotions while reading about her parents and friends in grief, but not for the loss of Katie specifically. When Katie connects with Jason, I didn’t feel the emotions. I like the concept of their relationship and how they are kept apart, but I didn’t bond with either character.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. A Thousand Rooms is a quick read and I liked the concept of Jones’ story. My lack of connection to the characters hold me back from fully recommending A Thousand Rooms. 

Finding My Badass Self: A Year of Truths and Dares

 

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Thank you to She Writes Press for providing me with an advance copy of Sherry Stanfa-Stanley’s Finding My Badass Self: A Year of Truths and Dares, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– When Sherry Stanfa-Stanley turned fifty-two, she decided to challenge herself by facing fifty-two activities that would take her outside of her comfort zone. Finding My Badass Self: A Year of Truth and Dares documents Stanfa-Stanley’s quest to seek adventure and push her boundaries.

LIKE– Stanfa-Stanley is funny and relatable. It’s easy to root for her as she overcomes personal obstacles, like conquering her fear of heights by going zip lining and riding in a hot air balloon. I think it helps that Stanfa-Stanley is a rather normal person chasing her dreams. She’s middle-aged and not in peak shape, yet she attempts adventures. She doesn’t have a large budget for her ideas and no one is financially backing her, another element that will make readers feel empowered: If Stanfa-Stanley can achieve her goals, so can you. Get off that couch!

My favorite challenge was when Stanfa-Stanley threw a party for strangers. She asked her friends to invite someone that they knew, but someone that she had not previously met to a party that Stanfa-Stanley was hosting. The friends were not invited, only the strangers. This meant that Stanfa-Stanley was hosting a party and didn’t know who was going to knock at her door and none of the other people, knew each other. It was a grand experiment that was a huge success. I absolutely love the idea of a strangers party, especially how it lent itself to diversity in the participants. Although it happened that only women showed up ( men were invited), the women were different ages and from a variety of backgrounds. I think this is a marvelous idea for expanding your social circle. It was heart warming to learn that many of the women stayed in touch,

DISLIKE- Previous to Finding My Badass Self, I had not heard of Stanfa-Stanley. I now know that she has a blog in which readers can follow her adventures. Finding My Badass Self reads like a compilation of blog entries, which I think it might have been. I question the necessity of turning the blog entries into a book. If I was following her blog, it would be delightful to read a few entries at a time and catch up with her life, but as a book, it was tedious. I think a fix would have been to change the format and provide more introspection before moving to the next challenge. There needed to be a bridge between the entries. Not all of the challenges were equally interesting or inspiring, which also contributed to the uneven pacing.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. I’d definitely recommend checking out Stanfa-Stanley’s blog. She’s humorous and you might find the inspiration to chase one of your own dreams. I’m just not sure that Finding My Badass Self is a better recommendation than just checking out her blog.

Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002

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Thank you to Little, Brown and Company for providing me with an advance copy of David Sedaris’ latest book, Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Humorist David Sedaris shares his diary entries from the years 1977-2002.

LIKE– I’m a huge Sedaris fan and I was thrilled to be granted an ARC of Theft by Finding. I’ve seen Sedaris speak several times and at each show, he reads a handful of entries from his diary. Often, they are absolutely hilarious, especially his wry observations of fellow humans, including their conversations that he eavesdrops. I couldn’t help but hear Sedaris’ voice as I was reading Theft by Finding. If an audio version with Sedaris narrating becomes available, I highly recommend it. His tone is half of what makes the entries so funny.

Sedaris explains that the title is from a British law called “Theft by Finding,” in which a person can be punished if they find something valuable and do not turn it in. For example, you’re unlikely to get punished for keeping a pound, but if you find a wallet with a wad of cash and don’t hand it over, you’re guilty. Many of Sedaris’ diary entries involve snippets of conversation and characters that he “finds” by observing strangers. The title couldn’t be more perfect.

Artists will find hope in Sedaris’ career journey. At the start of the diary entries, in 1977, Sedaris is twenty-one. The early entries show Sedaris struggling to figure a career path and his attending art school. He works odd jobs, many involving manual labor, and like a lot of twenty-somethings, lack of money is a major issue. Even when Sedaris sells his first two books ( he earns a two book deal), he still doesn’t earn enough to completely quit his day jobs. As someone who is a late-bloomer with regard to career goals, I took heart in Sedaris’ story, especially that earning a solid living from writing didn’t happen until he was middle-age. Sedaris is a brilliant writer and his success certainly didn’t happen overnight. I’d also argue that some of his best stories come directly from that delayed success. If Sedaris had success young, he’d never have had to take a job as a Macy’s Elf and Santaland Diaries would exist. I don’t want to imagine a world without Santaland Diaries!

I was surprised by the tremendous amount of time that Sedaris has spent at IHOP!

DISLIKE– At the start of the diaries, Sedaris mentions that he envisions Theft by Finding, to be a coffee table type of book, something you’d pick up now and then, rather than read straight through. Since I had a review copy, I read it straight through. Sedaris has the right idea with his advice ( imagine, an author knowing what’s best for their own book!), reading it cover-to-cover in two days, was overwhelming. I found the more recent entries to be far more insightful and entertaining than the earlier ones, likely due to maturity and Sedaris becoming a stronger writer. It also may be that his later entries were written when he was around my current age, so I found them more relatable.

RECOMMEND– Yes. If you’re a Sedaris’ fan, Theft by Finding, is a must-read. If you’re not familiar with Sedaris, don’t make this your first pick. I’d recommend starting with Me Talk Pretty One Day or Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. I’m hoping that Sedaris will release a companion book with his Diary entries 2002-present.

Thank You for Coming to Hattiesburg: One Comedian’s Tour of Not-Quite-the-Biggest-Cities in the World

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Thank You to Gallery Books for providing me with an advanced copy of Todd Barry’s, Thank You for Coming to Hattiesburg: One Comedian’s Tour of Not-Quite-The-Biggest Cities in the World, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Comedian Todd Barry shares travel notes from his experiences playing secondary markets ( smaller cities/venues), during 2015/2016.

LIKE– Previous to reading, Thank You for Coming to Hattiesburg, I had not heard of Todd Barry. I requested a review copy of his book, because I liked the concept. I like off-the-beaten-path travel logs. I was a clueless about his sense of humor, so I went in with no expectations. I read, Thank You for Coming to Hattiesburg, last night, during my flight from California to Oregon. Would Barry be my ideal travel companion?

Yes. Todd Barry made my two hour flight seem like seconds.

It was a risk going in without a familiarity with Barry’s comedy, but I quickly discovered that we have a similar sense of humor. Barry’s quirks and annoyances, like his self-diagnosed Misophonia, had me laughing. As I was currently dealing with air travel, I commiserated with his travel issues, such as a woman trying to guilt him into giving up his aisle seat. The nerve! I enjoyed his behind the scenes perspective of being a traveling comedian, the pains and joys of being on the road. What I most loved about his travel diary, was his recommendations. Hell yes, I’m going to visit the “railroad car/ future home of a corn dog restaurant” in Oklahoma. Cape Fear Serpentarium in North Carolina, I’m coming! Barry’s love of local coffee houses and sightseeing is right up my alley.

Barry’s witty observations reminded me of one of my favorite authors, David Sedaris, who always makes me laugh until I cry, when he reads from his travel diary during his live shows. The funniest stuff comes from observing other people, things too bizarre to make up.

DISLIKE– Not so much a dislike, but a suggestion; although, Thank You for Coming to Hattiesburg, is a quick read, don’t do it in one sitting. If I had parsed it out, I would have found it more enjoyable. I felt like I rushed it. Don’t rush Barry, he deserves better.

RECOMMEND– Yes. I’m sure his fans will be delighted, but even as someone with zero familiarity with Barry, I found, Thank You for Coming to Hattiesburg, to be a highly entertaining read.