What I Read: October 2018

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Oh, October. You were so cruel. You gave me very limited time to read. And when I did find the time and energy, I didn’t love most of what I read. That often happens to me when I’m too busy to really savor books, so please accept all of my opinions with the knowledge that I’m a tired and cranky old crone.

How to Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price–The perfect book for anyone who has found herself spending upward of an hour a day mindlessly watching a fashion blogger try on clothes from Target. (I mean, just for example.) If you had any doubt that your phone (and your tablet) is ruining your mind, this book will be the final nail. We all have to put the devices down more often. We are messing up our brains.

The Fact of a Body by Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich–A beautifully written braided narrative that balances the author’s memoir of her own abuse with the details of a tragic murder case. I found myself wanted more on the murder case–and a stronger take on the justice system–but that might reflect my preference for nonfiction (especially about crime) over memoir in general. I did watch Season 2 of Making a Murderer after this, and the pair make good companion pieces. 

This Could Hurt by Jillian Medoff–This is a comedy-drama set in a dysfunctional workplace that I thought would be fun, but it turned out to be a lot like working in an office: not that exciting. Ultimately, the whole thing just didn’t come together for me. I became unnecessarily (and weirdly) hung up on how much information one character’s doctor openly provided to a co-worker. (Maybe what I wanted was a comedy-drama about HIPAA.) The characters felt two-dimensional at times, especially Rosa whose boss-character swung from Michael Scott to Leslie Knope to Montgomery Burns and back again. If you work in HR, read it. I suspect it might hit closer to home.

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay–A horror story about a family (Eric, Andrew, and daughter Wen) who just want a quiet vacation on the lake. When some post-apocalyptic nutbags show up claiming that one of the family members has to kill the other to stop the world from ending, the family is understandably freaked out. I loved the suspense of not knowing how (and why) someone in the family murdering another could possibly save the world. I also liked the tension the author creates by never letting readers forget the invaders might be right or they might be totally insane. The ending didn’t pay off for me, but if you like your horror thoughtful and creepy, then this might be for you.

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler–Here’s another beautiful book by Anne Tyler. This one is about Willa Drake, a woman who has spent her whole life doing what men tell her to do. When a woman she barely knows calls on her for help, Willa leaves her home and husband in Arizona to go to Anne Tyler’s beloved Baltimore to play devoted grandmother to a child she’s never met. I loved how skillfully (and very subtly) Tyler shows all the ways that what we do in our early lives seeps out into our later lives. Willa’s triumph feels like the triumph of all women who have never been allowed to assert their independence. This book was my favorite of the month.

His Favorites by Kate Walbert–This one is about a teenage girl who makes a really stupid mistake, one that has life-altering consequences. Away at boarding school, she becomes the victim of a manipulative male teacher who targets her and a number of other “broken” girls who are too shattered and unsure of themselves to realize he is grooming them. I’ve read a lot of books lately about male predators, and this book is a fine addition to that sub-genre, but I didn’t feel like it brought anything new to the table. That said, I think it packs a huge punch in under two hundred pages. And it exactly pins down the structure that allows rape culture to thrive. (Hint: We’re living in it.)

Happy reading in November!

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: Best Day Ever by Kaira Rouda

Elevator Pitch: Crappy husband plans exciting vacation day for his hot wife with a bad digestive system. Psychological thrills ensue.Best Day Ever

My Tagline: Sleeping with the Enemy meets Anthony Weiner

My Opinion: I love a good unreliable narrator, and Paul Strom is pretty unreliable. He’s also arrogant and socially clueless, which makes him an even more interesting character. You know he’s up to something, but you’ll keep reading to find out what it is.

Paul’s wife, Mia, is wholly sympathetic. (Of course, I would think that: I too have been in a relationship a Paul Strom.) But Mia throws a few curveballs that will make you wonder if you really know her at all.

Verdict: Borrow it from the library when you have an entire weekend to read it in big gulps. Pairs well with sweatpants and slippers.