Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan (2013)

In this funny collection of essays, comedian Jim Gaffigan tells stories about his life as a husband and father of five young children. His stories will be familiar to those of you who watch his Netflix comedy specials (which I highly recommend, as they are family friendly for those 10 and up) as some of the essays are part of his act. That is not to say they are still not laugh-out-loud funny and worth reading, especially if you are or have ever raised children.

The essays in the collection discuss Gaffigan’s own childhood as the youngest of six children raised by taciturn and strict father in Indiana, his marriage to his wife, and their quick start to building their family of five. He adds his signature “how did a lazy guy who hates people end up here” voice to recollections about having their children at home and what it is like to have a large family and live in NYC.

Although he pokes fun at how exhausting and outrageous it can be to raise young children, his love for them and his wife comes through loud and clear. The collection was a short, easy read (or listen) and a nice cheerful way to pass a cold, snowy day.

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Radiant Shimmering Light by Sarah Selecky (2018)

In this thought-provoking novel, Sarah Selecky shines a light — equally scathing, mocking, and sincere — on the newest trends in “women’s wellness.” She analyzes the power and folly of social media driven, pseudo-spiritual lifestyles that demand from its (mostly female) followers slavish attention to living pure and a religious devotion on ones image.

In Radiant, our narrator Lilian Quick is a struggling artist living in Toronto who leans on social-media savvy, self-help gurus to guide her towards a better life. Despite being a believer in trendy diets and mantra-chanting, she still finds her business and personal relationships stalled out. Enter Lilian’s cousin, Eleven, a mega-star in the self-help industry, a woman making millions selling women a lifestyle brand that is one part feminism, ten parts consumerism.

Under the guise of empowerment, Eleven is asking women to invest massive amounts of money to adopt her pre-approved, quasi-Hasidic ways of living. She promises unimaginable returns of wealth, success, and happiness to followers who use her products and follow her prescribed routines. Followers will eat pure (vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free, non-toxic,) live pure (high-end organic clothes, pricey meditation-based exercise) and those who comply will be rewarded with enlightenment. In reality, these practices and purchases have nothing to do with personal growth or happiness, and Eleven’s lifestyle is, in fact, an almost comically oppressive way to live.

Eleven invites Lilian to work for her company and become a student of her self-empowerment program, The Ascendency, promising it will transform her into the highest version of herself. Lilian agrees and whole-heartedly embraces all the tenements of Eleven’s brand. Immediately, Lilian changes how she does almost everything in her life so that she is in sync with the company and its messages. Although she presents the “Path” to her followers as flexible and self-expressive, Eleven actually controls everything her acolytes (including Lilian) do: their ways of eating, drinking, socializing, relaxing, and thinking now must conform.

The deception lies in the masking of the true intentions of the program: the things being promoted seem natural and pure, making it difficult for followers to see that they are being manipulated to spend money on things they do not need and, in fact, do not work. Eleven’s Ascendency purports to be a revolutionary way of thinking. In fact it delivers the same culture messages women have been hearing for centuries: be thin, be beautiful, be youthful, be subservient…completely change yourself in order to conform.

The wonderfully crafted tension in this book is that women do (and should) want things such as passion, creativity, solitude, and spirituality. Women should support one another and should take risks and disregard the expectations of others. However, the Ascendency model offers its followers a grotesque commodification of wellness, one which is especially manipulative of women. Only when she bucks the program does Lilian see the “light.”

 

 

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (2012)

the age of miracles

Unlike many of its counter-parts, The Age of Miracles, is a dystopian science-fiction story that does not contain any sudden, dramatic events that change the lives of the characters in the story overnight.  The change that leads to the unraveling of society is this novel — called The Slowing — is so small, so gradual, so invisible, that no one even notices when it begins and even after it is detected, many refuse to believe it is real.

Our narrator is eleven year old Julia who catalogs all of the catastrophic global events that unfold during the two years of the story, as well as her own smaller personal problems. Even though The Slowing is happening on a massive global — even galaxy-wide — scale, Julia is still a adolescent girl who must experience them at the same time she must grapple with everyday problems with loneliness, bullying, and first crushes.

The phenomenon of The Slowing is the, at first, imperceptible slowing of the earth in its rotation. When scientists first recognize that is it taking a few seconds longer for the earth to turn from one day to the next, the problem is so small it seem inconsequential. The problem promptly picks up speed and within a few weeks the days are 30 minutes longer; then in just a few more weeks the days are hours longer than the previous 24. The Slowing is causes problems at first that seem manageable: how to sync up clocks with the new, longer days so that businesses and governments can run as usual. As the problem (and the length of days) grow, all living things on earth struggle to adapt. Crops and plants struggle with rising hours of sunlight (and the higher temperatures this brings) and the cold of the longer nights. Birds fall from the sky as the increasing effects of gravity make flying impossible. And people — who are delicately in tune with the day/night cycles, the tides, the seasons, and the weather — begin to suffer from illnesses caused by being out of sync.

The stress of these global problems begins to effect everyone on earth, including Julia and her parents, as well as their neighbors and friends. Cults spring up, religious groups move to large communities in rural areas, and small groups who are trying to live in sync with the new length of the day/night begin to split off from their “on clock” counterparts: all of these create “us” versus “them” tensions.

Julia calmly reports on the problems in her own house and those she witnesses outside the window. She sees her mother struggle with symptoms of strange illnesses, sees her best friend withdraw to a Mormons-only community, and her parents turn on a neighbor who refuses to stay ” on clock.” All of these massive and complex problems do not prevent the smaller problems of puberty and adolescence that also plague her as she and her parents try to continue to live a normal life…while they can.

The Age of Miracles surprised me with how riveting it remained throughout given its slow, deliberate, unhurried pace. It proved to be unique in every way and a delight to read.

Watching You by Lisa Jewell (2018)

watching you l jewell

In this captivating thriller, a cast of characters living in a idyllic community in Bristol, England find themselves at the center of what seems, at the outset, a series of unconnected events but become a twisting and complicated set of mysteries that will entangle them all with a murder.

At the center of the story is a Tom Fitzwilliam, a national hero of school reform and currently the principal of a once-failing school in Bristol. Charismatic, handsome, and dynamic, Tom is practically worshiped for his ability to turn around struggling schools…and he is actually worshiped by women who cannot help but find themselves attracted to him. For years his work has meant that he, his wife, and their teenage son have moved from town to town, repairing schools and charming women.

The most recent woman to fall under his spell is his neighbor, Josephine Mullen, a gorgeous newlywed who is distracting herself from doubts about her hasty marriage with fantasies about Tom.

Another neighbor, Frankie, is also obsessed with Tom. Frankie is a schizophrenic woman who lives in town and who is convinced Tom is a criminal who is stalking her to keep her from revealing his secrets. Although her ranting is largely ignored, her teenage daughter Jenna cannot help but feel that there might be a thread of truth to her mother’s stories.

While Joey is starting a dangerous flirtation with Tom; Jenna is busy digging into Tom’s past to see if he can be connected to troubling incidents in each of the towns he has lived in. To complicate matters for Tom, his teenage son is also suspicious of his father and begins his own investigation and his wife is becoming jealous of the time he spends at “work.”

Piece by piece, several mysteries linked to Tom — some decades old — come to light and just as the characters in the book are trying to work them all out, a murder raises the stakes on solving them.

My Best Books of 2018!

Happy New Year! Of the more than seventy-five books I read and reviewed this calendar year, these eleven are truly outstanding and worth recommending one more time. Below is the list of my favorites from 2018 (in order by the date I first read and reviewed them,) with a small summary to give you a taste of the book. Enjoy!

Hourglass – Dani Shapiro has found a niche in writing that I think of as micro-memoirs, each book exploring stories about one slice of her life. This beautiful, brief memoir is about marriage: not the heady reckless days of being newlyweds, nor about looking back from a distance at the long years of children and grandchildren, but rather about the middle years of a marriage. The years of a marriage that are marked by mortgages, teenagers, and adult responsibilities; the years when routines speed up time and parents grow frail, the years when a couple must work to recall the wild love of their early days and work to keep their bond strong so they can reach those golden years. Hourglass — told in a Virginia Woolf-esque style — a is spectacular exploration of the special, fragile time that marks middle marriage and how rewarding and challenging a time it can be for a couple. https://wp.me/p6N6mT-32O

The Uncoupling — This eight-year-old novel is not one of Meg Wolitzer’s better known books, but I found it to be a gem and one of her best! The women of Stellar Plains, New Jersey are preoccupied with sex: how much they are having, who they are having it with, whether they are enjoying it, and what to do to get more. The intimate lives of the women in town are heading for a shake-up when the high school drama teacher selects the Greek play, Lysistrata, casting a spell and causing a cold wind to blow into the bedrooms of every woman in the story, leading them all to embrace celibacy. Wolitzer tells her tale with laugh-out loud humor as well as deep insight into the social forces that influence who a woman sleeps with and why. The book sheds a light on the various paths to sexual fulfillment women follow and attempts to remove the shame women feel about their bodies and their sexual appetites. https://wp.me/p6N6mT-33i

The Future Home of the Living God -Louise Erdrich’s novel, Future Home of the Living God, is an ecstatic, psychedelic, feminist masterpiece: one that tells stories about the raw power of women, of mothers, of the continuance of life against all odds: and it is about the inevitable, horrific ways that men in power will dirty and corrupt lives in an effort to control the uncontrollable. A series of huge and irreversible environmental disasters have set into motion massive global changes; whether or not human-kind can survive those changes is unknown. As governments crumble and people devolve into violence and chaos, the call to round up all pregnant women and detain them against their will is is growing louder. Cedar Hawk Songmaker, a young Ojibwe woman living in Minneapolis, sees the world crumbling and is unsure where to turn: towards her white, adoptive parents or to her biological Native parents on their reservation in Northern Minnesota? Who can best protect her during these uncertain times, and who can best protect her unborn baby from a government that wants to take it for their own experimentation? https://wp.me/p6N6mT-33s

An American Marriage – Celestial Davenport and Roy Hamilton are newlyweds, living in Atlanta’s African-American upper-class and on the cusp of an exciting life. While their marriage is passionate, it is also not always solid: Roy struggles to let go of his playboy past, and Celestial resists starting a family, worried if Roy strays she will end up a single mother…a stereotype she refuses to become.While visiting Roy’s small Louisiana home town, Roy is accused of the raping a white woman, found guilty, and sentenced to 12-years in prison. Now his wife must decide if she can face a different stereotype: being a black woman whose husband is in jail?  Jones has crafted a beautiful, haunting, complex tale that explores the challenges of modern African-American’s in America face as well as the challenges of a marriage tested before it is ready. A truly outstanding novel, as gorgeous as it is eye-opening. https://wp.me/p6N6mT-33H

Ink and Bone – Loosely connected to several other books by Lisa Unger that take place in The Hollows in Upstate New York, Ink and Bone stands out as one of her most thrilling. 21-year-old Finley is a psychic with a deep connection to the dead, missing, or those in grave danger. She moves in with her grandmother in The Hollows because she is desperate understand and learn to control her gifts. She needs her grandmother to teach her to interpret what her “visitors” need from her so she can help them. In recent years, two child abduction cases have happened on the outskirts of The Hollows: the police have been unable to solve either case or definitively link the two cases together. When the mother of one of the missing girls returns to The Hollows to continue the search for her daughter, she draws Finley into the case as well. https://wp.me/p6N6mT-33S

Calypso — This latest set of autobiographical essays by humorist David Sedaris was so engaging that I read it four times this year! As in all of his recent writing, Calypso discusses Sedaris’ home, his partner, his family, his writing, and his travels. This collection of essays focuses heavily on the recent suicide of one of his sisters and its impact on the rest of the family. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and thoughtful, Sedaris’ stories examine the uniqueness of his family, of their relationships (sometimes strained) to one another, and the undeniable strength they draw from their shared experiences. He writes, “though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost faith in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else. Ours is the only club I’ve ever wanted to be a member of, the only one I couldn’t imagine quitting.” https://wp.me/p6N6mT-35I

Give Me Your Hand — Megan Abbott is a master story-teller whose works I find thrilling to delve into. She has an unparalleled skill in drawing you into the secret, inner world of her characters and showing you things you never imagined lurking just below the surface. Abbott’s newest novel, once again, explores the intricacies of female relationships and the ways in which they teeter, precariously, between competition, compassion, and cruelty. Her stunning prose, her crystal clear insight into the minds of girls and women, and her willingness to stretch her plot lines into dark and twisted places all mean that her works are not to be missed. Two girls who were locked into an dark and intensely competitive relationship as teens meet again as professional women, when they both are applying for a prestigious place on a research team. Suddenly there are threats of sabotage in every conversation; of challenge in every action; and the knowledge that both women will stop at nothing to win puts them on a path to destruction. https://wp.me/p6N6mT-363

The Penderwicks at Last – The first four books in the The Penderwicks series , stand as some of my favorite all-time works of children’s literature. In The Penderwicks at Last, Birdsall once again takes us into the loving embrace of the Penderwick family — quirky but utterly devoted to one another — and let’s us peek into the lives of the siblings we have come to know and love over the series. Almost 12-years after the fourth book, we find The Penderwicks preparing for another amazing summer, this year they will host the first wedding of one of the six Penderwick children: Rosalind! Told from the point of view of the YAP (youngest available Penderwick) Lydia, the book follows the preparations that the entire family undergoes as they plan for — and cook for, design dresses for, write music for — the big event! Of course, plans change, problems arise, crises complicate the plans for the wedding…but the Penderwicks are more than up for the challenge! Funny, tender, and filled with mad-cap adventures , this is the perfect ending to the series. https://wp.me/p6N6mT-36k

Lethal White – The Cormoran Strike series, of which Lethal White is the fourth book, are among the best mystery fiction written in the last ten years. Galbraith is a master story-teller and consistently writes intelligent and complex novels that thrill to the last page. Our heroes, Robin Ellacort and Cormoran Strike, are back for their fourth adventure in Lethal White. Across the nearly 700-pages of the book, our two private investigators will link several seemingly unconnected events — the murder of a child, a Cabinet Minister being blackmailed, a communist activist/petty criminal’s activities, powerful men sexually harassing young workers, the vicious infighting of a once-wealthy family — in order to solve not only the crimes their clients have tasked them with, but also all of the intertwined mysteries that appear along the way. An astonishingly complex web connects all of the people Robin and Strike are investigating, linking the entire group intricately together. Never fear, Galbraith is a deft and skilled writer who leads readers along, making sure the threads of each story remain clear and distinct. He lets us thrill in following our hero and heroine as they solve the mysteries…the ones they are investigating and the ones complicating their friendship. https://wp.me/p6N6mT-36B

Kingdom of the Blind – Few mystery writers can so delicately balance multiple complex story-lines (some stretching over several books) as well as Penny. In the 14th book of the series, Kingdom, she skillfully unravels three mysteries in one outstanding novel. Readers will find Gamache trying to understand the will of a dead Baroness and the subsequent murder of one of her heirs, all while working to keep a shipment of deadly carfentanyl off the streets. Here’s hoping she has another novel in the series for fans in 2019! https://wp.me/p6N6mT-37W

Becoming – Our former first lady’s autobiography tells about her experiences from childhood through the present, sharing both triumphs and missteps and imparting the wisdom she has acquired alone the way. Her intelligence, humor, dedication to public service, and love of family shine through on every page. (An added bonus: the book also doubles a love story of epic proportions!) If you did not already love her, you will be smitten when you finish Becoming. It was a delight to read, and I finished it in awe of the amazing woman Michelle Obama is, a true American treasure. Becoming paints the picture of an ordinary American who took the opportunities she had been given and used them to accomplished extraordinary things. https://wp.me/p6N6mT-385

 

The Adults by Caroline Hulse (2018)

Claire and Matt are a divorced couple sharing custody of their seven-year-old daughter, Scarlett. Sensing that their daughter is not handling their divorce well and that she will soon be too old for fancy Christmas celebrations, Claire and Matt decided to book a week at a cabin in the country for the holiday. Both of them are in new, live-in relationships and flippantly decide that everyone should attend together and share a cabin. They are “adults” after all, they argue, and surely everyone should be able to handle one week without making a fuss. That assumption turns out to be a horrible miscalculation.

Before the trip even begins, things go wrong. Matt’s new girlfriend Alex is told about the trip at the last minute and Matt decides to hide some specific (and ultimately, important) details from her. This ensures that, from the get go, Alex is in the dark and out of step with Matt, Claire, and Scarlett. Claire’s new partner Patrick is strong-armed into coming, rather than spending time with his own children, and finds himself made to feel like butt of the joke more often than he would (or anyone, really) would like.

As if the awkwardness of the situation wasn’t bad enough, Matt and Claire both want to recreate some of their earlier Christmas memories with Scarlett; many of which don’t include Alex or Patrick, making them feel even more like outsiders. The final nail in the coffin is Scarlett’s cruel behavior towards Alex and Patrick.

When you put four adults who are growing more and more angry with one another in a too small cabin with nothing to do and plenty of alcohol, you create a tinderbox. Civilized conversations become shouting matches, family outings become bar brawls, and trips to Santa become the time to reveal dirty secrets.

The Adults is reminiscent of Lianne Moriarty novels, although her characters are a bit difficult to like and their behavior leaving readers wondering why in the world didn’t they just go home? That said, dysfunctional families behaving badly at Christmas are always good for a laugh.

Of Blood and Bone by Nora Roberts (2018)

Chronicles of The One series, Book #2. Book #1 reviewed here https://wp.me/p6N6mT-32W

blood bone n roberts

In this sequel to Nora Robert’s Year One — both part of her fantasy series the Chronicles of The One — readers return to post-apocalyptic America. Of Blood and Bone takes place twelve years after the Doom as killed most people on earth, revealing the presence of magical beings living alongside humans. Survivors have returned to living off the land, scavenging for the few supplies left after the outbreak, and protecting what precious resources are left. To make their situation even more precarious, the survivors have splintered into factions — communities of magical and non-magical beings who coexist; religious extremists who want to exterminate magical people; dark magical beings who want to kill humans and peaceful magical people; a violent gang that kills all non-members for sport; and a brutal “government” that wants to experiment on magical beings — which are all engaged in a violent war with one another.

Hope has been placed in a prophecy that tells of the coming of a warrior, a woman and witch who will be called The One, who will unite all of the peaceful people of the world to overthrow their enemies and start the rebuilding of civilization. The One is Fallon Swift, a girl born in the first year after the Doom. Now a teenager, Fallon leaves her home and family to travel with her protector and teacher to study for more than two years to become a warrior. Using magic and might, she slowly works to gain the broad set of skills she will need to fight her enemies.

Once she is deemed ready, she sets out to build her army one person at a time. Hindered by her age and her sex, she must painstaking convince survivors she is The One and she is capable of leading them to battle…and to victory. With her family now at her side and her growing army of survivors ready to fight for a better world, she returns to New Hope the town established in book one, Year One, to ask the men and women there to join her as she prepares to take on the world.

Roberts has written an engaging fantasy novel that has elements you world expect from the genre: magic, drama, intrigue, mystery, and even romance. It seems worth sticking with the series to see how Fallow Swift and her army fairs in the battle of good verses evil.