Thursday, December 1, 2016

I'll Take You There by Wally Lamb


Title: I'll Take You There
Author: Wally Lamb
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: November 22, 2016
Source: copy received from TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

I’ll Take You There centers on Felix, a film scholar who runs a Monday night movie club in what was once a vaudeville theater. One evening, while setting up a film in the projectionist booth, he’s confronted by the ghost of Lois Weber, a trailblazing motion picture director from Hollywood’s silent film era. Lois invites Felix to revisit—and in some cases relive—scenes from his past as they are projected onto the cinema’s big screen.

In these magical movies, the medium of film becomes the lens for Felix to reflect on the women who profoundly impacted his life. There’s his daughter Aliza, a Gen Y writer for New York Magazine who is trying to align her post-modern feminist beliefs with her lofty career ambitions; his sister, Frances, with whom he once shared a complicated bond of kindness and cruelty; and Verna, a fiery would-be contender for the 1951 Miss Rheingold competition, a beauty contest sponsored by a Brooklyn-based beer manufacturer that became a marketing phenomenon for two decades. At first unnerved by these ethereal apparitions, Felix comes to look forward to his encounters with Lois, who is later joined by the spirits of other celluloid muses.

Against the backdrop of a kaleidoscopic convergence of politics and pop culture, family secrets, and Hollywood iconography, Felix gains an enlightened understanding of the pressures and trials of the women closest to him, and of the feminine ideals and feminist realities that all women, of every era, must face.


My Review:

It's no secret that I am a huge Wally Lamb fan, and have been for some time.  As mentioned in previous reviews of his work, he sets all of his fiction in and around the not-so-fictional town of Three Rivers, Connecticut.  I say "not-so-fictional" because if you're a southeastern CT native (like me!), you can see that Three Rivers mirrors Norwich, CT rather closely (and Three Rivers is the name of the community college in that town).  Anyway, I always get a kick out of seeing familiar landmarks in Lamb's writing, and that paired with his talent for crafting intense family dramas has made me a long-time Lamb fan.

So, here comes his new release!  And of course I'm all over it.  To be honest, didn't even really read the description that closely.  Wally Lamb is just one of those authors where I know when I see his name on a cover, I want to read it.

In the end, I found this novel to be quite different from his other fiction work.  A few points of difference were obvious early on: this novel is quite a bit shorter than his others, so the prose is a bit more succinct, the characters less fleshed out.  Also, ghosts.  There are ghosts in this book.  Totally was not expecting the supernatural element (my fault, like I said...I should have read the description!).  While it wasn't my favorite thing about the novel, I did appreciate how Lamb used the ghosts to teach readers about an often-forgotten segment of Hollywood's history (that of its early female directors).  Even beyond the ghosts, there is quite a bit of thought-provoking history woven into this novel, and that was one of its biggest strengths.

However, the biggest difference between this book and Lamb's others, for me, was its lack of subtlety.  This is not a novel that encourages you to think very hard, which was a big disappointment for me as a reader.  The overarching themes of the novel (women's rights, feminism, etc) are hammered so hard, I had a headache by page 10.  I'm not saying that these themes aren't relevant and important (hi, talking to you, President-Elect), but I wish they had been allowed to flower within the prose more naturally.  Instead, because the novel was so much shorter than Lamb's others, I quickly wondered if that meant he had to do away with the thoughtful, more drawn-out narrative that fans of his work are likely used to, and instead fell back on this more directive writing to make sure his points got across.

Overall, this was an enlightening read, and Lamb proves that he still has his flair for historic detail and convoluted family relationships.  However, I have to admit that it's likely my least favorite of his fiction works thus far.  For me, that still means 3 stars on Goodreads though!  This may work for someone who wants to try a Lamb novel but is not ready for one of his longer tomes.

As always, much thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Wally Lamb on his website and Facebook.


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

What I Was Reading When I Wasn't Here (and, Hi!)

And Lord knows it's been a while since I've been here!

Sorry for the protracted absence, reader friends.  I told ya this was likely to happen though, what with me in school, and child in school, and toddler in full force, and making time for me + husband, and running, and this freaking election (don't even get me started), and just EVERYTHING.  All the things.  There are too many things.  So yes, I have been absent.

However, I have been reading!  I just haven't been blogging about it!  Which has been weird (since I've blogged about EVERY book I read between August 2012 and...6 weeks ago), but also very liberating.  I just fly through books when I have the time, and don't worry about how I will review them.  It's rather wonderful, in fact, even though I know that doesn't bode real well for the blog...though I'm still staunchly NOT shutting it down, for whatever that's worth.

Anyway, instead of full-on reviews, I thought I would highlight the best of what I've read lately, in a very short and sweet list...plus let you know about the one book I've been reading forever, but have yet to DNF.

The Best of What I've Read Lately (with exceedingly short descriptions):

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

RELEVANT IMMEDIATELY.  READ NOW.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

New release by a debut author, the hype in the blogosphere was justified.  Plus, I like pretty things, and the cover is a very pretty thing.

In a Dark, Dark Wood and The Woman in Cabin 10, both by Ruth Ware

Mystery and debauchery!  Lots of red herrings!

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (my first Christie!)

The queen of Mystery and Debauchery and Red Herrings!  I was not disappointed.

Why I Run by Mark Sutcliffe

Runners need to read this one.  It helped me get out of a running slump and pushed me to sign up for a marathon (again).  More on that in another post...

And...The Book I Have Been Reading Forever:

Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

I dunno guys.  I am starting to think this series is not for me.  Been at this since August?  September?  I still have 300 pages to go.  Determined to do it, but it might be a while before I think about picking up the third installment.

So, readers, catch me up...what are you reading lately?  Have you read any of the books I listed above?  What should be next on my ever-expanding TBR list?

Also, send Joe Biden memes.  All the Joe Biden memes.  #UncleJoe

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Brady Bunch Gone Bad in Commonwealth by Ann Patchett


Title: Commonwealth
Author: Ann Patchett
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: September 13, 2016
Source: copy received from TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.

Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.

When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.


My Review:

Add it to the "best of 2016" list!  Commonwealth left me enthralled from page 1.  If you've enjoyed Ann Patchett's books in the past (Bel Canto left an impression on me, making her newest novel sound all the more attractive), or if you just love a good family saga, this is your next read.

The family structure here is a bit more complex than "Brady Bunch gone bad," but I couldn't help thinking of America's favorite blended family as I read about the Keating/Cousins kids, who are pretty much the antithesis of the beloved Bradys.  The fateful christening party mentioned in the book's description is the dynamite that blows this family in so many different directions.  Patchett shows you this initial explosion, and then gives you a glimpse of how this affected each member of the family over the subsequent decades.  The story is rich with regrets and guilt that will leave you wondering--what would have happened if Bert and Beverly never met on that first day?  Would it have been for the better, or the worse?

If I had to pick one thing that makes this novel stand out, it's the fluidity as Patchett transitions between characters.  There are SO many family members in the Keating/Cousins clan that it does, admittedly, get confusing at times.  However, this made it all the more impressive that the narrative was able to move from one person to the next without requiring a designated chapter for each character (or even a page break, in many cases).  The story lasts just long enough with each family member that your interest never falters, and you end up with a captivating drama that spans generations.

I can't express enough goodness about this book!  Five stars, must read, go go go.

As always, much thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Ann Patchett on her website and Twitter.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson


Title: Be Frank With Me
Author: Julia Claiborne Johnson
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Publication Date: September 6, 2016
Source: copy received via a giveaway at Book Hooked Blog--I was then asked for an honest review through HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Reclusive literary legend M. M. “Mimi” Banning has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years, but now she’s writing her first book in decades and to ensure timely completion her publisher sends an assistant to monitor her progress.

When Alice Whitley arrives she’s put to work as a companion to Frank, the writer’s eccentric son, who has the wit of Noël Coward, the wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, and very little in common with his fellow fourth-graders. The longer she spends with the Bannings, the more Alice becomes obsessed with two questions: Who is Frank’s father? And will Mimi ever finish that book?

Full of countless only-in-Hollywood moments, Be Frank With Me is a heartwarming story of a mother and son, and the intrepid young woman who is pulled into their unforgettable world.


My Review:

I went into this book without knowing very much (thanks to my penchant for not often reading full book descriptions), but it made the blog rounds rather favorably when the hardcover came out.  I kept it on my radar, then won a copy from Julie at Book Hooked, and was prompted to move it up my to-read list when TLC ran it on tour.  I am so glad that I kicked myself into reading it sooner rather than later.  This is such a fun gem of a book, and certainly a standout debut for Johnson.

The eponymous protagonist of the novel, Frank, is absolutely the best element of this story.  While he is never given any sort of official diagnosis, I made the conjecture that Frank is somewhere on the autism spectrum.  Alice, the narrator, has quite a job ahead of her when she is thrown into Frank's rigidly-ruled world.  However, despite his penchant for monotone diatribes and precise ways of doing things, Frank comes with his own brand of humor that is made even better by his relationship with Alice.  Watching the two of them grow together in the book is both entertaining and heartwarming.

Johnson has managed to bring the perfect mix to this novel: it's emotional, yet fun.  Wise, yet lighthearted.  I haven't read anything quite like it.  If you're looking for a swift-moving story with unique characters that has a little bit of everything, Be Frank With Me is a sure bet.

As always, much thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Julia Claiborne Johnson on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

September Reads: Generation Chef, and new Herman Koch

In between all the craziness going on around my house this month, I've actually still managed to READ!  Here's the latest and greatest from 'round these parts lately:

Generation Chef by Karen Stabiner
Avery Books, 2016
copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Hey, remember how I love foodie nonfiction?  Yeah, you probably forgot, because it's been so long since I reviewed any!  But when Generation Chef was offered up to me for review, I absolutely could not resist.  Journalist Karen Stabiner shadowed up-and-coming New York City chef Jonah Miller as he embarked upon his life's dream: opening a restaurant of his own.  As Miller opened the door to his restaurant (Huertas), Stabiner bore witness to everything: the bureaucratic frustrations of real estate, investors, and liquor licenses; the continual management of both kitchen and service employees; the painstaking balance between making a menu that's true to the chef, and one that gets people in the door.  I was fully impressed by the depth of detail that she was able to include--this is one of those nonfiction books that almost reads like fiction, because so much emotion is embedded in the text.
The book stands out for another reason: Stabiner takes the story beyond Miller's journey with Huertas, and weaves in the journeys of other, more seasoned chefs, and how they did (or did not) find success.  All of these side stories compliment the central narrative perfectly, without taking away from the flow of the book.
Generation Chef will amaze you (with Miller's persistence and drive), amuse you (there's a fair amount of restaurant-style humor included), and make you incredibly hungry.  Seriously, if I didn't live 7 hours from NYC, I'd be at Huertas right now ordering nonstop pintxos.  Foodies and nonfiction fans alike will love this read!

Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch
Hogarth, 2016
copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

I am doing a bang-up terrible job of turning down ARCs lately, especially those from authors that I've enjoyed in the past.  I know Herman Koch's The Dinner was not for everyone, but I was a huge fan, and Summer House With Swimming Pool worked equally well for me.  I couldn't wait to see what Koch had in store with this latest release, Dear Mr. M, which deals with the disappearance of a high school teacher after he has an affair with one of his students.
Since this is a mini review, the short version is that I did not enjoy this one as much as Koch's other two novels.  It started off in typical Koch fashion: narrator is a creepy, possibly psychotic?, stalker-type, and the constant flashbacks make the storyline continuously more mysterious.  However, about halfway through the book, the narration switches to the girl who had the affair with her teacher, and Koch lost me.  Her story was too drawn out and lacked the suspense of the earlier section.  By the time we switched to other, more engaging narrators, it was hard for me to jump back on board and enjoy the (admittedly twisty) conclusion.  This one definitely had a whiff of the Herman Koch I remember from his first two books, but didn't pack the same punch.

What are you reading this month?

Monday, September 19, 2016

It's Been A Long Road...(4 Seasons Challenge is DONE!)


Well, you've been hearing about it since I signed up on October 1 of last year, so here it is: the FINAL phase of the Rochester 4 Seasons Challenge.  IT IS DONE!  And my leg didn't fall off!
4 Seasons mega medal!  The 4 squares are each medal I earned during the year, held together with the final piece in the middle.
For those that are just joining us, the 4SC is a challenge for runners in the Rochester area: to run the 4 Rochester half marathons in 1 calendar year.  January, April, July, and September.  All was well for me until right before the 3rd one (in July), when I started having some leg pain that ended up being a calf strain.  I was originally supposed to run the full marathon instead of the half this September, but because of the strain I pulled back to the 13.1 distance...but then still had to take almost 8 weeks off running to heal it.

Okay, you're all caught up!  The final race was the MVP Rochester half marathon yesterday (9/18).  Let's break this into 2 parts: recap, and lessons learned.

RECAP!
I went into the race having zero idea what to expect.  My husband was wondering when I might finish, and I gave him a range of 2:15 to 3:00.  When you haven't run for 8 weeks, it's real hard to guesstimate your time, even if you've run the distance many times before!

I ran 2 miles on Friday before the race, and that was the first time since the diagnosis that I had no pain while running, so fingers were crossed for a good race.

And guess what--NO PAIN!  I did the entire 13.1 miles with zero calf pain.  It was truly amazing.
Taken around mile 6.  No calf pain, but the struggle still got real there for a bit
So that was the good news, no calf pain.  The bad news is that everything else had it's own special brand of pain...haha.  Have you ever seen that running shirt that says "Everything Hurts and I'm Dying"?  Yes, that was my hamstrings/knees/right foot.  Again--I totally DO NOT recommend running 13.1 miles if you haven't run at all in 8 weeks!  But I was determined to complete this darn thing.

I started out feeling superhero-amazing (as one does at the start of a half), but around  mile 6 is when I felt how out of practice I was.  I started to get down on myself, and then mentally punched myself in the face.  Why am I getting upset about time??  I didn't even fully train for this race!!  Just have fun!  Stop worrying and enjoy yourself!

So that's what I did.  The Rochester half had a huge course change last year, so it was all new to me, and it's BEAUTIFUL!  It brings you through scenic parts of Rochester that I never even knew existed.  So it was easy to cruise through the race and enjoy the sights.  I stopped for pictures, took lots of selfies (texting my husband and friends along the way), walked when I needed to, high fived every little kid I could find.  It was a great time.
Selfie with a waterfall!  Totally necessary!
Favorite race story: this course is incredibly HILLY, and I decided early on to walk most of them, since I knew my lack of training would cause them to completely wipe me out.  However, while walking one I spotted a race photographer 3/4 of the way up the hill.  Crap, no one wants a race photo of themselves walking!  So I kicked myself into a run as best as I could.  As soon as I passed the photog, I walked and yelled, "I did that for you!  I hope you got it!"  He laughed and assured me he did.  Can't wait for that pic.  :)

My husband and kiddos were near the finish line, and when I got there, Small Fry jumped over to run the last .1 with me, which was the total highlight of the day.  I was so wrapped up in holding his hand across the finish that I didn't look at my time!  I found out later that it was 2:23:17, only 2 minutes slower than my slowest half (which was also my first, a total hot mess).  I'll take it!

Lessons Learned!
I was very excited for this 4 Seasons Challenge when I first signed up for it, but now that it's over, I have to say I took even more away from it than I originally expected.  I thought this would be a great way to test my running abilities and keep myself in shape all year long.  Yes, those things happened, but there was much more as well.

1. I learned what I want to do as a runner, vs what I think everyone else thinks I should do.
As I was training for the second race, I realized I hated the regimented speedwork and constant pace-pushing required to hit my then-goal time of under 2:00.  Furthermore, I realized I was only doing that because I felt like it was the next logical step for me--my PR is 2:05, shouldn't I break 2:00?  But then I thought, why?  If this doesn't make me happy, then why do it?  I started running more for the distance than the speed, and immediately started enjoying running more.  A simple but valuable lesson--if you love something, do it the way YOU want to, not the way you think others want you to!

2. I was forced to think of my fitness more holistically.
After getting so wrapped up in half marathon training the last few years, I think I lost sight of my larger fitness goals.  I was just running, running, running all the time.  And when that was taken away from me (with my injury), it was like I lost part of my identity.  I was totally depressed and had no idea what to do with myself.  Then I started trying new fitness areas: biking, swimming, group fitness classes, etc. and slowly realized that those were fun in their own ways too.  By the time the injury healed, I was thinking maybe...maybe?...I could do more than just run.  What a novel concept!  But a bright side of the injury is that it really forced me to look at my fitness goals beyond the next road race.

3. I'm tougher than I think.
My husband said to me after the race that he was so proud of me for completing 4SC, for a variety of reasons, but one was because I could have bowed out at any time when I hit obstacles to my training, but I never did, the whole year.  And he is right.  The opportunity to quit was always there, but I never took it.  I'm pretty proud of that, and those are exactly the sorts of lessons I hope my kids learn when they see me do stuff like this!

I could go on, but I think you probably want this post to end eventually.  The bottom line is that 4SC was an amazing experience for me.  Would I do it again?  Ummmm...get back to me about that.  But even if I move on to other challenges, I don't at all regret taking this one on!

Monday, September 12, 2016

It's time to Do Your Om Thing with Rebecca Pacheco


Title: Do Your Om Thing
Author: Rebecca Pacheco
Publisher: Harper Wave
Publication Date: March 3, 2015
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

In Do Your Om Thing, master yoga teacher and creator of the popular blog OmGal.com Rebecca Pacheco shows us that the true practice of yoga is about much more than achieving the perfect headstand or withstanding an hour-long class in a room heated to 100 degrees. "Yoga is not about performance," she tells us, "it's about practice, on your mat and in your life. If you want to get better at anything what should you do? Practice. Confidence, compassion, awareness, joy—if you want more of these—and who doesn't?—yoga offers the skills to practice them."

In her warm, personal, and often hilarious prose, Rebecca translates yogic philosophy for its twenty-first-century devotees, making ancient principles and philosophy feel accessible, relatable, and genuinely rooted in the world in which we live today. And by illuminating how the guiding principles of yoga apply to our modern lives, Rebecca shows us that the true power of a yoga practice is not physical transformation, but mental and spiritual liberation.


My Review:

Yogis, take note!  I loved this book, and I bet many other amateur yogis out there will too.  I read it at the perfect point in my yoga journey.  I've been practicing the physical aspect of yoga (asana) for almost a year now, and while that started as a way for me to cross-train with running and gain flexibility, I've now gotten to the point where I am interested in yoga in and of itself.  You hear bits and pieces about the background and philosophy of yoga in classes, but I have not yet had an instructor who really goes in-depth with any of it.  Plus, I'll be honest--some of it just sounded way too crunchy-granola for me, so I wasn't sure where to begin.

If you find you're in a similar spot with yoga, Do Your Om Thing is for you.  Pacheco leads you through all the ins and outs of yoga philosophy, with a down-to-earth voice that is totally NOT too crunchy-granola. :) The book is easy to follow, and she writes with such wisdom and clarity that I found myself wanting to head right to the mat and put my new knowledge to work.  I never thought I'd say this, but after reading the book, I'm even dying to try meditation (one part of yoga that I've always felt is beyond the abilities of my million-thoughts-at-once brain).  Honestly, there were parts of this book that felt meditative while reading them--I found Pacheco's writing to be thoughtful and calming, a perfect fit for this subject matter.

Do Your Om Thing is not strictly a yoga manual--Pacheco will make you think deeply about how you approach your self, your work, and your relationships within the framework of yoga tradition.  If you're a beginner yogi, I can't say enough good things about it!  If you're ready to learn more about yoga than how to get into Crow Pose, pick up this book ASAP.

As always, much thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Rebecca Pacheco on her websiteFacebook, and Twitter.
 
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