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

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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!

Waisted

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Randy Susan Meyers’ novel. Waisted, in exchange for an honest review.

Weight gain has been a life-long struggle for Alice. However, she met her husband, Clancy, when she was going through an tough time in her life, which resulted in weight loss. Now, over the years, which included giving birth, the pounds have piled back on and Clancy feels that his wife is not the woman that he married. Through this strain in their relationship, Alice runs off to participate in a weight loss reality show called “Waisted.” She does not tell Clancy until she has left for the show, because Clancy is in the documentary film industry and “Waisted” is being produced by his biggest rival.

During the filming of “Waisted,” Alice becomes fast-friends with her roommate and fellow contestant, Daphne. Daphne has a supportive husband, but she has a negative body image from her overbearing mother. Daphne has even tried bulimia to keep the pounds off.

From the first day of filming it is clear that “Waisted” is not the show that was originally pitched to the contestants. Rather than a wellness retreat, “Waisted” is more of a hardcore bootcamp. The women are stripped of their possessions, including phone access, and are made to wear unflattering jumpsuits. They are belittled, starved, and exercised to exhaustion. When they are given amphetamines to push their weight loss goals to unsafe levels, the women seek to find out the truth about the production and what they discover is shocking.

Meyers tackles heavy themes of self-love, body acceptance, and family dynamics. I found her overall message to be positive and uplifting. I especially like a scene in the novel where Daphne, a make-up artist by trade, helps an disadvantaged teenager build her self-confidence, by giving her skin care and make-up tips to cover extreme acne. I liked how it showed that it is okay to both love yourself and acceptable to use fashion or make-up: the two don’t have to be separate. Earlier in the story, Daphne hides behind her make-up, using her skills to create a distraction from her body, highlighting features like her beautiful eyes. However, as soon as Daphne lets go worrying about her body, her make-up becomes part of her self-expression, rather than a shield.

Alice and Daphne are two strong, female protagonists and the story is structured to alternate between their lives at home and their time on “Waisted.” The weight issues aside, I think many women will find aspects of these character’s lives and emotions to be relatable. I was rooting for these characters to succeed, especially Alice dealing with her emotionally abusive husband. I found Daphne’s desperation, including the use of pills and bulimia, to be heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, the plot for Waisted is very messy. An exciting story opportunity was missed with the reality show aspect. “Waisted” is quite horrific and we learn that the aim of the show is to expose the extremes that women will go to in the name of weight loss. Its purpose is to be shocking and not to actually help these women meet their goals. The concept of this could have made a potentially intriguing story, especially holding a mirror to the way our society gobbles up these types of shows. I have no doubt that if a real version of “Waisted” aired on American television, it would be both a sensation and crucified. People would not admit to enjoying it, but they would secretly watch it and the ratings would be high. We live in a time where it is both still socially acceptable to shame fat people and one where we promote the idea of having a positive body image. I think things will shift towards being more body positive, but we are not there quite yet. Meyer had a real opportunity to play with the larger societal impact of a show like “Waisted” and that would have been intriguing.

Unfortunately, the women’s participation in “Waisted” fizzles. They leave the show and make efforts to expose the producers, but there is not a truly satisfying conclusion to this issue. I was let-down. I felt like the story was heading in the direction of making a real statement against the reality television production, but the plot meandered and focused more on the individual relationships that the main characters have with their families. This was important too of course, especially in the area of character development and growth, but it was far less interesting than the fallout from “Waisted.”

Waisted is strong in character development, but weak in plot. Often, I can overlook weak plots if the characters are great, but in this case, I can’t overlook the missed opportunities in the storyline. Although Waisted tackles important and sensitive topics, it only skims the surface and goes for cliches. For this reason, I can’t recommend it.

The Farm

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Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Joanne Ramos’ novel, The Farm, in exchange for an honest review.

Jane Reyes is in a desperate situation. She is a young Filipino immigrant who has recently left her cheating husband and is trying to raise her baby, Amalia. Jane’s older cousin, Evelyn, who is affectionately known as “Ate”, has made a lucrative living as a live-in nanny for wealthy American couples. Ate guides Jane in the ways of working with both babies and their high-maintenance parents, but financially Jane is still struggling. Ate tells her about an opportunity to work as a surrogate for “Golden Acres”.

Golden Acres is the premier surrogacy center, offering wealthy clients carefully selected surrogates, young women that are not only healthy, but who are also attractive, with many holding upper-education degrees. The financial rewards are irresistible and Jane will spend the pregnancy in luxury accommodations with top-of-the-line nutrition and care. The only hitch, is she will be separated from Amalia, who will live in Ate’s care. Jane decides that it is the right move for the future of her family, yet she quickly realizes that Golden Acres, isn’t what it seems.

The Farm is a solid drama, filled with themes of family ties and economic disparity. Jane is a woman who will do anything to secure the future for her daughter. She spends most of the story blinded by her own goals and angry at Ate, who is also struggling to secure a future for her children, including an adult disabled son who lives in the Philippines. Perhaps it’s a case of lashing out at those who you love the most, because Jane is pissed off at Ate, not understanding Ate’s motives until late in the story. However, Jane is not upset by Reagan, a fellow surrogate whom Jane befriends at Golden Oaks.

Reagan is the polar opposite of Jane. She is college educated and dreams of becoming a photographer. Reagan is motivated by both money and altruism. Jane needs the money for her family. yet Reagan needs the money to come out from under the control of her family, specifically so she won’t be beholden to her father as she pursues an MFA. Being a surrogate is not social acceptable in Reagan’s world, so she justifies the act, by focusing on the family that she is helping. At Golden Oaks, Reagan meets women, who like Jane, are from an economically disadvantaged background and its affects her profoundly. This is likely the first time in her life that Reagan has been truly been confronted by her privilege. Compared to Jane, Reagan’s reasons for wanting the surrogacy payout, seem frivolous, yet Jane doesn’t harbor resentment. Jane saves all of her resentment for Ate., a woman as desperate as she is.

This tension between the characters brought a complex dynamic to the story. I also liked how Ramos played with the morality issues of Golden Oaks, such as having certain surrogates (primarily caucasian/beautiful/educated) as premium choices and stickiness of acknowledging that these traits being more desirable is not social acceptable. Mae Yu, the intense founder of Golden Oaks, is constantly having to balance the business of surrogacy, with the human impact = surrogates, would-be-parents (clients) and the unborn babies. One situation has a surrogate who is Catholic, needing to be put under while a doctor aborts her baby. Golden Oaks knew that the surrogate would have a moral objection to the situation, yet with a genetic abnormality, the decision of the client is to abort and implant again. The surrogate’s feelings are eliminated from the equation.

The surrogates may be treated well, but this only extends to as long as they are compliant and do everything in their power to take care of the client’s baby, including following strict dietary and activities rules. The surrogates are often kept in the dark about their clients identity and the staff at Golden Oaks likes to manipulate the surrogates to keep them in line, including doling out rewards or punishments. Several times Jane is given the opportunity to have time with Amalia, promises that are taken away, when Jane acts against protocol. The stakes are raised, when the surrogates learn that one of them is carrying the baby of an extraordinarily wealthy family, a family that plans to pay out a big bonus after the birth. No one knows who is carrying this baby, but the rumor spreads like wildfire, causing a disruption amongst the surrogates.

The Farm is told through several points of view and I’m still not sure if this was effective. Jane’s POV is shown the most and she is our protagonist. It works well to have Mae’s POV, as it provides a glimpse into how Golden Oaks works and the issues involved. It distracted me and brought down the pacing, to have Reagan and Ate’s, POV. I think it would have been a stronger narrative to flip-flop between Jane and Mae, giving Mae a bigger voice in the story. I didn’t have enough of Mae’s story, to connect with her and it left me feeling conflicted. Not only was I conflicted, but I was mildly dissatisfied with the ending.

Overall, The Farm is an intriguing story and great morality tale for modern times. It tackles heavy social issues and would be a great pick for a book club.

Not That I Could Tell

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Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of Jessica Strawser’s novel, Not That I Could Tell,in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Yellow Springs, an idyllic suburb in Ohio, is rocked to its core when Kristen and her two young twins, go missing. Kristen is in the middle of a divorce and her soon-to-be ex-husband, Paul, is devastated by their disappearance. He had been living in an apartment, but he moves back into the house that he shared with Kristen during the investigation. Not everyone in the neighborhood is convinced that Paul, a respected doctor, is as innocent as he appears. The neighbors try to figure out what has happened to their dear friend. Can the police or Kristen’s friends solve the mystery before something else goes wrong?

LIKE– I loved Desperate Housewives and although Not That I Could Tell is quite a bit more serious, it had shades of the show. In particular, it had similarities with the various personalities in the neighborhood and mystery element of the story. Also, how sprinkled throughout the novel are short chapters written by Kristen, which reminded me of Desperate Housewives narrator, Mary Alice.

I liked the mystery elements of the story. Strawser does a great job at building the suspense, especially when she builds to the climatic moment in the story. I was gripped and glued to the page.

I loved the character of Hallie, a neighborhood pre-teen, who takes it upon herself to be a amateur sleuth. I wasn’t quite sure how her story arc would play-out and it was a wonderful surprise. She adds a lot of conflict to the story, sending it in a wild direction.

The magic in Not That I Could Tell is in the friendships between the women. Strawser has vividly imagined her neighborhood and its inhabitants. I appreciate that she included Izzy, a single woman without children. Izzy is in a different place in her life, but she easily finds friendship with her neighbors. Not That I Could Tell celebrates all types of families and relationships.

DISLIKE– The ultimate outcome of the story was predictable. I appreciate that Strawser tackles a difficult and sensitive subject matter with care, but I was hoping for a more unexpected ending. I think with the way that Strawser peppered the narrative with Kristen’s chapters, I was hoping for a Gone Girl-esque twist that never arrived.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Not That I Could Tellis a solid page-turn that speaks to an important issue. You’ll love the neighborhood and friendships that Strawser has created.

The Party

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Thank You to Gallery, Threshold, and Pocket Books for providing me with an advance copy of Robyn Harding’s novel, The Party, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Kim and Jeff Sanders are doing everything possible to raise their children right. Despite their Silicon Valley wealth, they throw a simple sleepover for their daughter Hannah’s Sweet Sixteen. Hannah has invited over a few friends and the girls are going to have pizza and watch PG-13 movies in the basement. Hannah’s parents have been very clear with the rules = No drinking, no drugs, and no boys.

Hannah’s parents trust the girls and go to bed. They are awoken in the middle of the night to learn that one of the teenagers in their care has fallen through a glass coffee table, and is seriously hurt. This accident will change the Sander’s family forever.

LIKEThe Party is a page-turner. Harding does a fabulous job at teasing out information that kept me turning the page. For example, early in the story we learn that Jeff’s younger colleague has turned him on to microdosing LSD, a new trend in Silicon Valley that is supposed to foster alertness and creativity. This is something that Jeff has done a handful of times and although he does not have a drug problem and this has nothing to do with the accident that occurred at the birthday party, this decision will continue to haunt him. The Party is filled with little decisions, seemingly innocuous decisions, that will have a negative impact. It’s about the fine line between perceptions and the truth. It will make you consider your own decisions. It’s quite maddening!

Harding’s characters are rich and memorable. A large chunk of The Party deals with popularity and bullying, both with teenagers and adults. It’s cynical, but also rings true. A theme of The Party is kindness, which seems to be in short supply with many of the characters.

The Party is reminiscent of one of my favorite films, American Beauty, with regard to tone and themes.

DISLIKE– I’m torn about the ending. Although I felt it was a realistic scenario, it didn’t sit well that an accident turned into a punishment/reward scenario. The very last scene was a shock. It made me want to shake the character involved. Was nothing learned?

RECOMMEND– Yes! The Party is fast-paced and thought-provoking. This is my first time reading Harding and I will definitely check-out her other novels.

The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness

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Thank You to Perseus Books Group, PublicAffairs Books, and Nation Books; for providing me with an advanced copy of Jill Filipovic’s The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Can American women truly find happiness? Jill Filipovic explores the issue of happiness and feminism, looking at the history of the United States, statistics, and personal stories.

LIKE– I was raised by a strong, single mom, and from birth, I was always told that I can do/be anything I want. I never felt like being female limited my possibilities. That said, I’m not blind to the fact that things are not equal. I guess I chalked things up to we’ve come a long way, but there is still further to go and it takes time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, et… I’m an optimist. However reading The H-Spot was eye-opening. Filipovic made me realize that maybe I should reconsider my optimism, by showing me ways that the system has been stacked against women.

For example, Filipovic talks about the expectation that women will give up their last names when they marry. I’ve been married twice. The first time, I kept my maiden name and it bothered family members/friends: I got heat for my decision. The second time, I took my husband’s name. I’m proud to have my husband’s last name, but it’s the societal expectation that is troublesome. She explains that the burden is on women alone, and when surveyed, it became clear that most men, would not even entertain the idea of taking their wives last name, and many would be upset if she didn’t take his. To take this further, Filipovic links the last name to identity and power, something that a woman is pressured to give up. This idea of a lost identity is something that I had never given much thought, but in retrospect, I believe it is why I was reluctant to change my name in my first marriage.

Filipovic put it in terms of a power play, men get to keep the power, while women are expected to sacrifice. The same thing happens when it comes to careers and children. Yes, there are stay-at-home dads, but more frequently, the woman is expected to give up her career or take the time away to be at home. The worst of the situation is when there is a lack of support from the community, including other women. The decisions that women make, often pit them against other women: working mothers vs stay at home moms, those who breastfeed and those who don’t, mom’s vs childless women, et…the support system is flawed, making security and happiness hard to come by.

I liked how Filipovic balanced the content of her book, not just relying on history or personal stories, but blending the two. This made her exploration feel more comprehensive. I was most interested in the latter chapters, those dealing with subjects like fertility and body image. I wish that she had included even more interviews and personal stories. As she mentions, it’s impossible to write a book that is exhaustive on this subject, but Filipovic does a solid job at hitting the main points.

DISLIKE– I was unevenly interested in the chapters, especially the early chapters. I’ve taken several college level women’s history courses, so the history was very familiar: I wasn’t learning anything new, it was more of a refresher. However, to someone who hasn’t had the exposure, the history should be enlightening and interesting.

RECOMMEND– Yes. The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness is a must-read for women. Filipovic’s honest exploration of modern feminism is a worthy read.

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.

 

The Rules Do Not Apply

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Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advanced copy of Ariel Levy’s memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- In her memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, journalist Ariel Levy explores love and loss, in her relationships, career, and path to motherhood. She learns the hard truth that life is a series of trade-offs and that the conventional concept of “having it all,” is a myth.

LIKE– I vividly remember the final lecture of a Western Civilization class that I took at Pasadena City College, when I was in my early-twenties: The male professor, an self-proclaimed feminist, who would later be caught in several scandals and removed from his position, gave a piece of advice, that in way I’ve forgotten, was tenuously related to the lecture; he said that time is limited and that fertility did not last forever. He was speaking primarily to the females in the class, urging us, as we focused on our education and careers, to consider that the time frame for fertility is limited. I’m not quite sure what prompted this advice, but I remember the urgency in his tone. He was middle-aged, and in hind-sight, I’m guessing a recent personal predicament influenced his words. I’ve never wanted children, but that advice has stayed with me, especially as I near forty, still not wanting children, but realizing that the window of opportunity may already be shut. This idea is at the forefront of Levy’s memoir.

Levy’s road to motherhood is not clear. She is in an unstable marriage with Lucy, an older woman, who is an alcoholic. As Levy tries to strengthen her marriage, she is tempted through reconnecting with former lovers. Her writing career has always been important, and one that sends her on assignments around the world. Lucy’s alcoholism isn’t the only instability, as Lucy has sunk their savings into starting a solar panel company. Levy is in her late-thirties when she finally decides that she wants to be a mother, and they have a close friend who is happy to not only donate sperm, but to help out financially, and be another adult figure in their child’s life. Levy easily becomes pregnant, and her life seems to be heading towards stability and happiness, until tragedy strikes. Levy delivers her child prematurely, alone in a hotel room, while on assignment in Mongolia. The baby is born alive, but dies about fifteen minutes later, as Levy is rushed to the hospital. It’s crushing, even more so that she had minutes where she held her living child.

The title, The Rules Do Not Apply, are about all of the conventional things that as a child (or even into adulthood), you expect will happen. You expect to graduate from college and land a great job. You expect to fall in love and have a family. You expect that your parents will live long enough to see those grandchildren. You expect that hard work and being a good person should grant these rewards. However, as Levy points out, this has not been the case for her, and it has not been the case for many of her friends. Life simply does not work like that for most people. Conventionality is a myth.

Levy’s thoughts are poignant and her personal story is compelling. She has a knack for phrasing and writes beautifully. She weaves her story with the stories of people that she profiles in her reporting, making her memoir global and expansive. I can’t imagine any reader would be left unaffected by this emotional and thought provoking memoir.

DISLIKE– Nothing. The Rules Do Not Apply is powerful and riveting.

RECOMMEND– Yes! The Rules Do Not Apply is a must-read memoir. I’m certain that Levy’s story will be a bestseller and generate a lot of buzz. Read it and be part of the conversation!