Review: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

If We Were Villains: A Novel by [Rio, M. L.]

Elevator Pitch: Oliver Marks has served ten years in prison for a crime he confessed to committing. On his first day out, the only thing the lead detective on the case wants to know is the truth. To get there, Oliver has to take him back to Dellecher Classical Conservatory, the liberal arts college where ten years ago he and six theater classmates lived and breathe Shakespeare–onstage and off.

My Tagline: Hamlet meets The Secret History by Donna Tartt meets a troupe of teen stage actors from a summer theatre camp in Peoria.lived and breathed Shakespeare–onstage and off.

My Opinion: I love seeing a really good Shakespeare performance, and this book felt like one at times. It’s full of murder, jealousy, hubris, sex, intrigue, and fate. The seven students who function as our main characters are pretentious as all get out, but it works here. I assume that college wannabe Shakespearean actors are occasionally, if not always, insufferable. And rest assured, almost all of them have redeeming qualities. They are just young and naive.

My favorite part was the dialogue. Every student speaks in a sort of pidgin language that’s one part millennial college student a two parts obsessive Shakespeare worshiper. The characters are creative in how they deploy Shakespearean lines, and the author takes some wonderful creative liberties that really work.

Verdict: If you like Shakespeare, a good tragedy, and college students, you’ll love it as much as I did. 

 

Review: The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine

Elevator Pitch: Amber Patterson is sick of being a nobody, so she decides to get rich the the old-fashioned way: by marrying a super-rich dude. The only problem is that Jackson Parrish is already married to a beautiful and accomplished woman, Daphne, whom he adores. That doesn’t deter Amber, though. She insinuates herself into Daphne’s life, becomes her very best friend, and begins to rip at the fabric of Daphne’s perfect marriage. But like any psychological thriller, all is not what it seems.

Let’s be best friends while I work on stealing your husband with my super sex skillz. –Amber Patterson (I’m paraphrasing, of course)

My Tagline:  Lifetime’s Mother May I Sleep with Danger (starring the American film treasure, Tori Spelling) meets a stack of airport thrillers for sale at a garage sale.

My Opinion: I have really mixed opinions about this book. On the one hand, I read it in big gulps without ever once losing interest. It’s fast-paced and well-plotted. Even after I figured out the twist fairly early on, I kept reading to see how it would unspool. Plus, I love unreliable and unlikable narrators. The more I dislike a character, the happier I am. (I’ve decided that’s because I like being in the vicinity of hot messes, but I don’t have the patience for it in real life.) I also admire the authors–two sisters–for being able to craft a cohesive narrative while writing together. That’s tough to do.

On the other hand, it’s a pretty corny book. Most of the characters are deeply one-dimensional. The evil ones have few or no redeeming qualities; the good characters are too saintly. The authors use shorthand to convey “good” and “evil” in ways that just feels simplistic. (An evil character is an atheist; a dumb character is overweight; a snooty character has designer clothes, etc.)

The writing in general is a little wooden at times. The dialogue doesn’t always feel believable, nor do the character’s motivation. For instance, Amber spends an incredible amount of time working toward stealing Jackson. Given how smart she is and how fast she learns, she could have been a real estate mogul herself. Why waste her talent trying to steal someone’s middle-aged husband, no matter how hot he is?

There were other aspects of the plot that I found deeply problematic, but I’d have to give away the twist to talk about those. So I’ll just say that the comeuppance some characters get delivers a problematic message (even though I’m quite sure it’s an unintentional message).

But in spite of everything I just said, I enjoyed reading the book. It didn’t make me smarter or a better person, but it was the equivalent of having a huge snack with no nutritional value right before dinner. Totally enjoyable in the moment, but not something you can do every day.

Verdict: Read it if you need a distraction and don’t want to tax your brain. Best read with a bowl of popcorn nearby.

Review: The Family Next Door by Sally Hepworth and The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy

Elevator Pitch: Both books are about mothers who are facing difficult (even tragic) events related to their children, their marriages, and their friendships. Both books feature strong, smart women of means who are grappling with what it means to embrace their identities as mothers without losing themselves. While Hepworth’s book is set in laid-back Melbourne, Australia, and Molloy’s is set in upscale Brooklyn, both authors present characters who are so obsessed with the way they think they ought to be that they fail to see what they’ve become.The Family Next Door

My Tagline: All of Liane Moriarty’s books meets a dash of Desperate Housewives meets all of Slate’s coverage of parenting with privilege.

My Opinion: I don’t want to say too much about plot because I think the less you know the better. Both books are heavily plot-driven, but that’s not a criticism on my part. I kept reading because I wanted to know what happened.

The Perfect MotherBoth books are solidly written and structured, with the authors moving back and forth among characters’ perspectives. While both books are about young(ish) mothers, none of them are cardboard cut-outs. All of the characters in both books were finely drawn enough that I didn’t mix any of them up–even though I read the books one after the other.

Hepworth’s book is more thoughtful in that she dives deeper into her characters’ psychological profiles. Because of that, the characters’ behaviors and motivations make more sense. There were times in Molloy’s book that I felt like characters were making decisions because those decisions moved the plot along. I also found the pacing of Molloy’s book a little too slow.

The characters–in both books–are pulled in multiple directions as they try to be everything to everyone. They are also sleep-deprived, anxious, overwhelmed, and confused. I imagine that’s exactly what it feels like to be a new mother. (I’m a nonparent who is far too lazy and far too interested in sleeping and reading to attend to a baby’s needs. Part of the reason I like books like these two is that I get to read about motherhood without having to actually do any of the dirty work.)

Both books present a kind of competitive parenting in certain subcultures that’s deeply performative and self-absorbed. Both books give shape to that, and both authors are sympathetic. Rightfully so. Kids are hard, especially for these women who have complicated lives and deep secrets. Hepworth does a better job of unpacking the unfair cultural expectations of motherhood. Molloy’s feels more banal.

Verdict: I found both books readable and enjoyable, though I like Hepworth’s book much better. I’d recommend it if you’ve blown through Liane Moriarty and want another fix.

Molloy’s felt a little too “beach read” to me, and maybe my mistake was that I didn’t read it on the beach. If you want a quick whodunnit read, this is your book.

Review: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

Elevator Pitch: A bookish girl, Greer Kadetsky, heads off to college and discovers all of the ways the world is sympathetic to men (especially rich white men), often at the expense of women. After meeting Faith Frank, a famous feminist in the vein of Gloria Steinem, Greer devote herself to feminist cause. Greer’s exciting new life upends all of her plans, including her plans with her high school boyfriend Cory, who has an awakening of his own.

My Tagline:  Hmm, this is tough because the novel is really quite original. I’d say The Feminine Mystique meets Lean In meets Backlash (with a teeny-tiny dash of The Devil Wears Prada–but just the good parts).

My Opinion: Every once in a while, you come across a book that says things you’ve felt and thought but that you’ve never been able to give voice to. Or that you’ve struggled to arrange in any coherent way. Wolitzer is one of those authors who keenly says all the things you didn’t even know you wanted to say.

The novel itself takes on problems with white feminism and calls out lack of intersectionality. But it also reckons with what that means in a world that’s financed (largely) by old white dudes who, if they even support women’s causes, are far more interested in charismatic and conventionally attractive white women figureheads.

I know some readers were bored or frustrated by the plot. It’s definitely not a plot-driven book, though I think it’s compelling enough. I felt like Cory’s story was muddied Greer’s at times, and I was more interested in her and her relationship with Faith than I was with him. He might have needed his own book, actually.

What kept me reading was the characters, especially Greer. She’s a stand-in for millennial (or post-millennial?) feminists, and I really wanted to see how she would square second-wave feminist with her own views. Ultimately, I think Greer’s conclusion is a little depressing and doesn’t leave a ton of hope for major structural changes, nor does it offer much hope for intersectionality. But I think it’s a pretty realistic portrait of what feminism actually looks like now–and why we need to keep talking about these issues.

Wolitzer points out all the ways that the world is made for men. Here are some of my favorites:

Referring to badly behaved men: “How could men like this even hold their heads up? Yet they did”  (277). [Seriously. How do some of the dudes of this world not just die of embarrassment??]

Describing a meeting with men and a woman: “Faith, when she spoke, was perceived as smart and articulate too, but the men felt free to cut in and interrupt her” (282). [Yup.]

Discussing why women are so hard on ourselves: “Faith thought, it’s not that I’m so hard on myself exactly, it’s that I’ve learned to adopt the views of men as if they were my own” (284). [Yup.]

Talking about feminism in general: “She was reminded by older activists that the vanguard had to be extreme so that the more moderate people could take up the cause and be accepted” (287). [I’d never thought of it this way before.]

Describing privileged men: “Men like him romped through the world, and it wouldn’t be possible to take away his sense of freedom or security” (300). [I’d like to romp.]

Writing about the things men “let” women do: “Men give women the power that they themselves don’t want” (325). [So true. ]

Questioning what it means to be a “good” girl: “Good girls could go far, but they could rarely go the distance. They could rarely be great” (352). [Definitely. Being a “good girl” is not a goal.]

Verdict: Definitely read it if you are interested in feminism. It would make a great high school or college graduation gift, in fact.

If you loved Wolitzer’s other books, I think you’ll like this one too. My favorite remains The Wife.

Review: Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Luckiest Girl AliveElevator Pitch: Ani FaNelli has a secret, but she’s not going to let that stop her from getting the life of luxury she wants. She’s going to marry a blue blooded New Yorker, continue working at a glamorous women’s magazine, carry designer handbags, and make you so jealous of her perfect life that you’ll want to weep. But what if her past collides with her present?

My Tagline: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson meets Sex and the City 

Genre: I’m going to call it contemporary fiction. I found it on a psychological thriller list, and I don’t think that’s a good fit. It’s definitely not cotton candy, either. So let’s just call it fiction.

My Opinion: It’s hard to find novels that deal responsibly and authentically with issues surrounding consent. I love that Knoll isn’t afraid to write a character who is angry, oftentimes unlikable, and brutally honest with readers about who she is (even if she isn’t honest with anyone else in her life).

While it isn’t a YA novel, I think it gets at important issues in ways that are more complex, more nuanced, and more mature than you might find in YA lit. It would pair well with Speak.

Verdict: Buy it. You’ll want to give it to someone else in your life,  preferably a mature young adult reader.

Review: Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

Smarter Faster
Why yes, I would like to be smarter.

I read Charles Duhigg’s previous book, The Power of Habit, last year, and I loved it enough that I decided to use it for a class I’m teaching next semester. I ran across Duhigg’s latest book on the New Nonfiction shelf at my local library, and I read it in two days. Then I wished that I’d take more time with it. I’m definitely going to buy it because I’ll need to re-read it to really apply the lessons.

Books and articles about productivity are my absolute favorite nonfiction sub-genre. I can’t explain why, but I’ll read absolutely anything about productivity. Like, if you told me you wrote an article explaining how to increase production of flibbetynibbets at the flibbettynibbet factory in the city of Flula Forgunberg, I would be like, “I don’t know what those things are, but I must read your article immediately! Send it to me!”

Elevator Pitch
Stop screwing around and get stuff done. But don’t just get any old stuff done. Get the right stuff done. And know the difference between busy (my resting state) and productive (my unicorn state).

Reasons to Read It

Engaging narratives. Duhigg is a master at finding a story about some person or case that perfectly illustrates the point of each chapter. He has a way of taking what could be really dry research and turning it into propulsive narratives that keep you turning the pages. I particularly like his technique of interspersing narrative with research to keep the chapters balanced.

Applicable recommendations. I’m productive at times, I guess. I mean, it’s all relative. I’m more productive than, say, a cat. But I’m certainly not a Charles Duhigg who writes incredible books while holding down a full-time job as a reporter. (Yeah, I write books and have a job, but I’m not nearly as good at either as Duhigg is.)

What I loved about each chapter of this book is that Duhigg provides clear, evidence-based strategies that anyone can emply to move away from busy and toward productive. From a very clear chapter on what makes teams successful (hint: It’s not at all what you’d expect) to techniques for being more innovative and creative, Duhigg demonstrates exactly how to meaningful engage in work. I particularly loved his appendixes where he showed how he applied these techniques himself.

Reasons to Give It the Side-Eye

No side-eye from me on this one, but I do have one quibble: There’s just so much to take away from the book that if you asked me to talk about how I am planning to apply all of these things in my daily life, I’d be overwhelmed. That’s not a flaw in the book, though. I think it’s just the nature of these kinds of books. They provide so much information, but it’s up to the reader/student to figure out how to make it work. Still, if Duhigg is taking suggestions, I’d love to read a follow-up book—a memoir—of sorts where he applies all of these things in everything he does all day long.

What I Learned (or Re-learned)

I have bad habits. Every time I read about focus, I’m reminded what terrible habits I have when it comes to focus. I regularly do 84 things at once. I keep multiple inboxes open while I’m working, along with at least one IM window. I frequently interrupt my thinking to answer texts and phone calls. And on top of that, I have an episode of Seinfeld running in the background right this very moment! I simultaneously have no idea why George is upset, nor what I intended to say in this sentence. I’m a walking recipe for disaster. Duhigg should use me as a cautionary tale.

This book, once again, reminded me that I’m never going to be particularly innovative or creative if I can’t learn to focus. And that chaotic jumping from task to task is precisely why I feel totally overwhelmed all the time.

Successful people say no. I really appreciated Duhigg’s anecdote about really successful people (like writer and surgeon Atul Gawande) who prioritize key projects and outcomes and then make decisions based on those goals. I say yes too much, which just means that my own outcomes get pushed to the bottom of the list. Or I end up doing them when I’m supposed to be resting or spending time with loved ones. I’m getting better, but Duhigg reminded me that prioritizing should be paramount in anyone’s life.

Teamwork is hard, but not impossible. I teach classes where collaboration is required. I’ve watched teams soar to success and I’ve watched teams implode. I’ve driven myself bananas trying to figure out how to “fix” failing teams and how to “bottle” the process of good teams. Duhigg presents the research that confirms an important point: Team norms are the determining criteria for success.

Of course! Of course it’s the team norms! But I never thought about that until reading this book. It doesn’t matter who is on the team (assuming that you don’t have a team of monkeys whom you want to writeHamlet, The Sequel). What matters is the way they agree to act on the team itself. They can all be buttholes in real life. That’s fine. They just have to act in a mutually agreeable way while on the team.

Know why you do things. I’m terrible about doing whatever task will allow me to check the greatest number of items off of my to-do list. I frequently fall prey to believing that’s a good use of my time. In reality, I send a lot of email and make a lot of calls that probably don’t lead to any strategic goals.

Once I started asking myself why I was doing certain things, I found that I frequently had no answer. I don’t know. I’m just doing it! Now I think carefully about what my end goals are and how the day-to-day tasks lead to those end goals. I’m not cured of my to-do-ness yet, but I’m getting better.

Worth Reading?
Definitely. Buy it. You’ll want to write in the margins.

Review: The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy by Chris Bailey

Producitvity Project
Go on vacation; read productivity manual. Yeah, that’s me in a nutshell.

I love projects. I love productivity books. And I love the kind of “stunt journalism” that requires writers to do crazy things in the service of writing about it.

Elevator Pitch
The opposite of lazy is not busy. In fact, lazy and busy are quite often synonymous states of being.

Reasons to Read It
I loved that Bailey provided useful tips for productivity in every single chapter. I did some of the challenges he included at the end of each chapter, and I found them quite instructive.

Some reviewers on Goodreads felt that the information he provided was too simple; in contrast, I thought the simplicity of his suggestions made them all the more effective. He’s quite clear that being productive is not that hard. You just have to set goals that lead to bigger goals. But if it were simple, everyone would do it. The complex part is why we don’t just sit down and do it. And the reason for every person is different. 

My reasons for not being as productive as I would like are pretty simple (and kind of embarrassing):

I conflate feeling chaotic and overwhelmed and constantly pulled in a million directions with feelings of accomplishment. That is, if I feel shattered at the end of the day, I feel like I accomplished something. That’s not necessarily true. In fact, it’s often a damned dirty lie that I tell myself. Bailey reminded me that when you slow down, focus, and become more measured, your limbic system goes nuts. Your poor little brain feels underwhelmed. It searches for something flashy to stimulate it. And it tries to convince you that you must be very lazy because how else could you feel so calm? Using your attention and energy wisely is quite frankly such an unusual experience that we don’t know what to make of it.

I assume that taking a break is for quitters. I’ve convinced myself that the best way to do anything is to power through it like a bulldozer, no matter how exhausted my brain is. Yeah, that’s totally wrong. And I know it’s wrong. Productivity is a marathon, not a sprint (though occasionally everyone needs to sprint). This book reminded me that prioritizing regular breaks with focused work sessions is good. It’s not being a wimp.

Ironically, I read the book while I was on vacation. When I started working again this week, I was far more productive than I have been in the past few weeks. The vacation helped me build up energy. And that energy helped me be more focused in my work. And that allowed me to finish things faster. I was tempted to work on vacation, but I didn’t. The experience showed me that I need regular work/writing holidays. My seven-day-a-week work habit is actually costing me time and valuable energy.

Finally, I really appreciated Bailey’s advice to prioritize personal goals, even if it means setting firm boundaries that other people won’t like. That’s something I’ve struggled with a lot at work.  Recently I’ve noticed that my friends with kids are masterful at saying no because they simply have no choice. They have to be home at a certain time, so they can’t stay late for one more meeting. They have to watch kids at certain times of the day, so they can’t check in on email every five seconds. But guess what? They aren’t less productive than I am. They are often more productive. That’s because they have to meet their goals in specified and focused time periods. I just need to learn how to say, “Yeah, I can’t attend one more meeting. I have to go home and eat Fritos while I watch baby monkey videos.” But when I’m not doing that, I need to be focused and fully attentive in regular, measured, and short periods of intense work.

Reasons to Give It the Side-Eye

I know some reviewers scoffed at Bailey because his “conditions” for conducting and applying his productivity research were pretty cushy. He was a recent college grad with no kids and no major responsibilities outside of his productivity work. I understand that critique. I think Bailey gets it too.

I think maybe that’s part of his point: You have to balance your responsibilities with your personal and professional goals to accomplish what you want to get done. You just have to figure out what matters to you. If you have six kids—but you also want to design a model for cold fusion and write a novel in Russian—you are probably going to be able to devote less time, attention, and energy to either your kids or your cold fusion project. And obviously some people have far more resources to balance their lives.

But the critics’ points do stand: It’s easier to be productive when you are privileged.

Worth Reading?
Yes, if only to be reminded that you are probably doing it wrong. After reading the book, I moved back to doing 20-minute writing sessions (followed by a 5-minute break) in 5 or 6 reps. I did more in 3 hours today than I did all of last week. And what I did is actually real stuff—not just fake to-do items. That alone is worth the time it took me to read the book.