Meg and Jo by Virginia Kantra (Fiction)

Book 2 in my happy and light series!

A warm-hearted, feel-good novel about family and relationships. It both modernizes and fills in the gaps of Alcott’s beloved Little Women. A kind of fictionalized fiction as it were. Focused primarily on the two older sisters — the titular Meg and Jo — the book delves into what is happening behind the scenes: What is Meg’s marriage like? How can the fiercely independent Jo learn to remain true to herself and still give herself in love to another human being? And what is the mostly absent Mr. March really like as a father? By the way — spoiler alert — in this version Beth is not dead (nor sick, nor recovered). The author just skipped over that realistic for the time but now unnecessary part of the story. Great!! Never particular liked that part anyway!

Easy to read, great insight into the characters, and seamless modernization that maintains the integrity of the key messages but is totally believable for today’s world. Plenty of life lessons for a variety of personalities and situations.

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on December 3rd, 2020.

Tweet Cute by Emma Lord (YA)

These days I’m in great need of light, happy, books.  This is a great one for that!

Pepper is a Nashville transplant, tagging along with her mom — the founder of the very successful “Big League Burger” franchise. Jack is the secret genius behind Weazel, the social platform with anonymous interactions which “pop” with your pal’s identity after significant chatting (pop-goes-the-weasel, get it?) and heir-apparent of his family’s deli — Girl Cheesing. Both attend the elite Stone Hall Academy, have a keen sense of snark, and are devoted to their family businesses. Both are also engaged in a Twitter war over competing grilled cheese product — and it’s gone viral.

Funny, as “cute” as advertised, well-written, and far more surprising than I expected. A fun read.

Quotes:

“Just the infinite, suffocating void of trying to navigate the world without my phone in my pocket.”
“Jack is the kind of person who fills silences. The kind of person who doesn’t necessarily command attention, but always seems to sneak it from you.”
“… wondering how someone can be so aggressively seventeen and seventy-five at the same time…”
“I’m competing for Ivy League admissions with legacies who probably descended down from the original Yale bulldog.”
“I know she went to high school in the nineties, but that does not excuse this fundamental misunderstanding of how teenage social interaction works.”
“There’s nothing quite as awkward as living in a shadow that is quite literally the same shape as yours.”

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 21st, 2020.

Strangers in their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild (Non-fiction)

Published on the eve of Trump’s election, this book represents Hochschild’s attempt to “scale the empathy wall” and understand the “deep story” of those in the Tea Party — pretty much the antithesis of her own Berkeley, California cohort. She uses the environment as what she calls a “keyhole issue” — Louisiana has one of the most polluted environments in the country, and yet the very people suffering the ill effects of the pollution are those favoring the deregulation strategies of the Republican party. Pointing out that partyism now beats race as source of divisive prejudice, her goal is to encourage democracy with the book: “A healthy democracy depends on a collective capacity to hash things out.”

Her research is mostly anecdotal — she talks in depth to individuals and draws out the “deep story” of what matters to them, how they make decisions, and what “the emotion that underlies politics” is for them. Her thesis is that people act to serve their best emotional interest, rather than their best economic interest. The deep story that emerged from her Tea Party enthusiasts was one I could understand and even identify with: a strong work ethic, adaptability to circumstances without complaint, the importance of community, and wanting to able to be proud of what they were without someone telling them they were wrong to feel that way (see quotes below). There was a deep distrust of government and a hatred for the taxes which they felt was their money “running through a liberal sympathy sieve you don’t control or agree with.” She did a brilliant job at contrasting the deep stories of the right and the left making it clear (to me) how the same set of “facts” could be interpreted so very differently.

Hochschild is clearly a liberal herself, and this leaks through in the way she interprets data and maintains certain liberal assumptions (my favorite is her assertion that tax breaks are equivalent to welfare-style handouts — I just had a long argument with a close friend on this one, but IMHO the government taking less of your money in taxes is not equivalent to taking your money and distributing it in a way over which you have no control) but she did an excellent job of beating through the stereotypes to really understand how people on the other side of that empathy wall work.

I learned a lot from this book and find myself still mulling it over weeks later. I’m including a lot of quotes that I feel show the different perspectives, many of which (from my firm, California, mostly liberal perch) were new to me. In particular, I don’t think I realized how strong (and nasty) the left’s stereotype of the right is. And — like most stereotypes — how incorrect as a description of the entire group.

Quotes:
“To many on the left, the Republican Party and Fox News seemed intent on dismantling much of the federal government, cutting help to the poor, and increasing the power and money of an already powerful and rich top 1 percent. To many on the right, that government itself was a power-amassing elite, creating bogus causes to increase its control and handing out easy money in return for loyal Democratic votes”

“We, on both sides, wrongly imagine that empathy with the “other” side brings an end to clearheaded analysis when, in truth, it’s on the other side of that bridge that the most important analysis can begin.”

“At play are “feeling rules,” left ones and right ones. The right seeks release from liberal notions of what they should feel — happy for the gay newlywed, sad at the plight of Syrian refugee, unresentful about paying taxes. The left sees prejudice. Such rules challenge the emotional core of right-wing belief.”

“Oh, liberals think that Bible-believing Southerners are ignorant, backward, rednecks, losers. They think we’re racist, sexist, homophobic, and maybe fat.”

“What image of the government was at play? Was it a nosy big brother (the Coast Guard had checked for safely vests)? Was it a mind-controlling big brother (a federal instead of state Department of Education)? A bad parent playing favorites (affirmative action)? An insistent beggar at the door (taxes)?”

“A lot of liberal commentators look down on people like me. We can’t say the ’N’ word. We wouldn’t want to — it’s demeaning. So why do liberal commentators feel so free to use the ‘R’ word [redneck]?”

“A deep story is a feels-as-if story — it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgement. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world.”

“You turn to your workplace for respect — but wages are flat and jobs insecure. So you look to other sources of honor. You get no extra points for your race. You look to gender, but if you’re a man, you get no extra points for that either. If you are straight you are proud to be a married, heterosexual male, but that pride is now seen as a potential sign of homophobia — a source of dishonor. Regional honor? Not that either. You are often disparaged for the place you call home.”

“If unfairness in Occupy is expressed in the moral vocabulary of a “fair share” of resources and a properly proportioned society, unfairness in the right’s deep story is found in the language of “makers” and “takers.” For the left, the flashpoint is up the class ladder (between the very top and the rest); for the right, it is down between the middle class and the poor.” For the left, the flashpoint is centered in the private sector; for the right, in the public sector. Ironically, both call for an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.”

“In that story, strangers step ahead of you in line, making you anxious, resentful and afraid. A president allies with the line cutters, making you feel distrustful, betrayed. A person ahead of you in line insults you as an ignorant redneck, making you feel humiliated and mad. Economically, culturally, demographically, politically, you are suddenly a stranger in your own land.”

“Whatever their family’s view of their own, however much sympathy they may have personally felt for blacks at the time, the public narrative was that the North had come to the South, as it had with soldiers in the 1860s and during Reconstruction in the 1870s, to tell Southern whites to change their way of life. History was on the side of the civil rights movement. the nation honored its leaders. Southern whites bore the mark of shame, again, even though, as one man told me, “We didn’t do those bad things.“

“Over time, new groups were added to older ones, and political and therapeutic cultures merged. Identity politics was born. Identities based on surviving cancer, rape, childhood sexual abuse, addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex work — these and more came to the media’s attention. It became a race “for the crown of thorns”…

“If a person said he or she was white, as a way of describing themselves in the manner of the Native American or black, they risked being seen as racist soldiers of the Aryan Nation. If they stood up to declare themselves proud to be male — unless they were part of a men’s group trying to unlearn traditional ways — they risked being seen as male chauvinists. If they called for recognition for their lifetime of experience, their age, they risked seeming like old fools in a culture focused on youth.”

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Literary Fiction)

Fantastic book! Jennifer Egan’s writing is extraordinary. This was an audio book — not my preferred reading mechanism, and it just about killed me not to be able to write down the many, many, (many!), amazing lines.

This story is a whole set of interlocking vignettes that rocket backwards (and sometimes forwards) in time from two main characters: Bennie and Sasha — a record executive (and former punk rocker) and his (somewhat kleptomaniac) assistant. Real in-depth characters with surprising cameos in each other’s stories, the later impact of chance meetings, and plenty of odd “where did they end ups.” The stories pan across time and space — from New York City to the high desert to unlabeled countries with genocidal generals — with music and / or the music industry playing a major or minor role.

All the tales have one thing in common — the impact of time. Every one of the characters is trying to figure out — how did I end up here? How did this happen? One thing they all agree on — “Time’s a goon.”

Jennifer Egan is the best — I have to go back and find out what else I have missed.

Writers and Lovers by Lily King (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5

A sharply observed tale of a writer’s tumultuous journey.  31-year old Casey Peabody is the very definition of a struggling writer — deep in debt from student loans, living in near-squalor, and six years into her “Great American Novel.” Her mother’s sudden and recent death coupled with a devastating breakup have left her with debilitating panic attacks and general anxiety. Making it through each day is not a done deal.

So what makes this book worth reading? For me it’s King’s writing and her ability to meticulously document every aspect of this character’s experience — both personally and as a writer. In many ways, it was hard for me to read about Casey — because we really don’t know her that well, we also live the stress of not knowing if she will be able to get through this period (I’m going to cheat and tell you that she does get through it). In other ways, though, Casey is such an appealing character — her insights and experiences as a writer are fascinating, as are her thoughts about books, teaching literature, and literary criticism. I particularly enjoyed the details of a writer’s workshop near the end — her engagement with the exercises were intriguing.

I love her writing — I felt like I was highlighting every other line. The opening paragraph was perfect — it set the stage and drew me in with just few short lines:

“I have a pact with myself not to think about money in the morning. I’m like a teenager trying not to think about sex. But I’m also trying not to think about sex. Or Luke. Or death. Which means not thinking about my mother, who died on vacation last winter. There are so many things I can’t think about in order to write in the morning.”

A few more great quotes:

“I look back on those days and it feels gluttonous, all that time and love and life ahead, no bees in my body and my mother on the other end of the line.”

“It’s like a dream, the way they transform from sloped strangers, a man with a crackled bald spot and a woman in a gold jacket, into my father and stepmother.”

“Bob chooses this moment to put his hind legs through his front legs and produce a soft tan coil of poop at the base of a Japanese lilac.”

“I didn’t much like the writers Paco did, men who wrote tender, poetic sentences that tried to hide the narcissism and misogyny of their stories.”

“I should be wary of the guy who locks in too soon. It’s a sort of premature commitulation.”

“There’s a particular feeling in your body when something goes right after a long time of things going wrong. It feels warm and sweet and loose.”

“All problems with writing and performing come from fear. Fear of exposure, fear of weakness, fear of lack of talent, fear of looking like a fool for trying, for even thinking you could write in the first place. It’s all fear. If we didn’t have fear, imagine the creativity in the world.”

“Admire me. Admire me. Admire ‘judge’ and ‘courthouse’ and ‘seven sharp.’ I don’t like myself around Adam. I don’t think he wants me to.”

“The bees in my chest stir. A few creep down the inside of my arm. One conversation can destroy my whole morning.”

“I love these geese. They make my chest tight and full and help me believe that things will be all right again, that I will pass through this time as I have passed through other times, that the vast and threatening blank ahead of me is a mere specter, that life is lighter and more playful than I’m giving it credit for.”

Thank you to Grove Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 3rd, 2020.

Last Couple Standing by Matthew Norman (General Fiction)

Mitch and Jessica are the last couple standing. When the other three couples in their set all divorce within a couple of years, suddenly their own previously happy marriage seems almost up for grabs. With infidelity at the root of most of their friend’s problems, they decide to experiment with a temporarily open marriage to see if they can forestall what feels like the inevitable. Jessica — a therapist — points out “Love is a feeling. Monogamy is a rule. One we came up with twelve-thousand years ago when we started worrying about property rights.”

While the first chapter is a kind of leaden background — explaining how all four couples got together and what went wrong in the other three — both writing and content picked up after that. Lots of humorous and interesting dialogue and plenty of non-gender conforming behavior. In fact, I really appreciated the fact that each character was an individual with his/her own ideas and standards — none of which felt stereotypical to me. Scarlett — one of Mitch’s wilder students (and simultaneously Jessica’s client — they work out of the same high school) — really throws some good curve balls at them both with her own ideas about sex, love, and the #metoo movement.

I found the book increasingly insightful and relevant and enjoyed how it portrayed a wide variety of viewpoints.

Some good quotes:
“Like we used to before the kids sucked the life out of us like vampires.”

“For Mitch, being married to a therapist had some advantages and some disadvantages. She was unfailingly reasonable. She was incredibly smart. But sometimes it felt like he was talking to a robot that had programmed to read WebMD pages aloud to him.”

“I haven’t had sex with a guy once since my divorce who hasn’t tried to come all over me.” “Same,” said Sarah. “Which is such a delight, because God knows that’s exactly what we’re hoping for.”

“How much easier would life be if, the moment you get married, you take a pill, and everyone else in the world turns plain and boring?”

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 17th, 2020.

The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead (Children’s Fiction)

10-year old Bea has largely adjusted to the big changes in her life — 2 years before her parents divorced so that her father could be the gay man he had always known himself to be. Bea alternates living with each parent day by day and weekend by weekend. Now her father and his boyfriend Jesse are getting married and Bea might be getting a sister — something she has always wanted.

While not as creative as some of Stead’s earlier books, this is a well-done dive into the experiences of a young girl struggling to understand the massive changes in her life. The book serves as an excellent template for how to handle a divorce. The eponymous “List of Things That Will Not Change” is for Bea when she finds out about the divorce — my favorite item: “We are still a family, but in a different way.” And indeed, that is how they behave.

Bea also sees a therapist — Miriam — and the advice she recollects at various points is clear and useful. I’m not a big fan of therapy, but I found this summary of the process and techniques for Bea to be excellent. This would be a useful book for both the target 8-12 year olds and their parents. If I had one small complaint about the book, it is that the focus is all on Bea and the new life of her gay father. Her mother doesn’t get to have much of a new life and although portrayed lovingly, doesn’t get a lot of air time (and she deserves some!).

Thank you to Wendy Lamb Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 7th, 2020.