Book Review: Tomorrow Will Be Different

Tomorrow Will Be Different by Sarah McBride

Get ready for a tear-jerker. Sarah McBride came out as transgender to her family and the student body at her college right before her final year of school, in 2012. Fearing rejection and worse, she was met with love and acceptance. She then went on to be the first openly transgender intern at the White House and has had a successful career so far as a progressive activist.

Her memoir, which details her experience coming out as well as her romance and marriage with Andy, a transgender man who sadly passed away from cancer just four days after their wedding, shows that society has come pretty far, but also makes clear that’s there’s a long way to go.

McBride describes her experiences working to get equal rights bills passed in Delaware (her home state) and federally. She shines a light on the ignorance that’s prevalent about transgender people, both among people who are staunchly “against” transgender people and those who try to be allies but still end up doing hurtful things. Case in point: one legislator in Delaware, thinking he was helping to improve the equal rights bill, actually nearly added a provision that would have denied trans people their rights even more.

You’d think that the memoir would add on a sad note — after all, in the year and change since the Obama administration ended, there has been some regression when it comes to equality and a definite decline in empathy from the executive branch. But McBride remains hopeful. The equal rights movement and trans equality movement have a ways to go, but she believes that it can’t be stopped.

*I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review*

Book Review: New Boy

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

*I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.*

Imagine Shakespeare’s Othello. Now imagine Shakespeare’s Othello transformed into an 11-year-old boy named Osei, called “O.”

That’s what New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier, asks you to do. She transfers much of the action and plot of the play “Othello” to a Washington, DC elementary school playground in the early 1970s.

Desdemona becomes Dee, Iago becomes Ian, the rest of the cast turn into their six-grade classmates.

In some ways, it works. You could argue that much of the action of the play Othello is driven by childish behavior, so why not have those characters actually be children?

The jealousy that spurs much of Iago’s actions in the original Othello is there in Ian. But instead of feeling jealous for being passed over for a promotion, like Iago in the play, Ian is a calculating bully decides he can’t bear to have O, the new kid in school, become popular. His MO seems to be to put himself first, at the expense of others.

Much of the rest of the plot unfolds like the play it’s based on, with some changes. Ian manages to convince O, who’s just met Dee that day, that she has affection for another boy (in this case, Caspar, the boyfriend of Blanca), setting the wheels of jealousy and tragedy turning.

The strawberry handkerchief becomes a strawberry printed pencil case. (although, cleverly, a handkerchief does make its way into O’s backpack, seemingly just there as an Easter Egg for Shakespeare fans.) The teachers and students at O’s new school seem to fear him slightly and feel anxious around him because he is black and they are white.

I would say that the race issue feels more heightened in New Boy than it does in the play. There are some downright awkward lines commenting on O’s color from the white characters around him. Issues of identity and what it means to black in 1970s America also crop up.

Given that the novel does primarily involve 11-year-olds, the ending isn’t quite so bloody as the original tragedy. But it is still shocking, especially given the current climate of school shootings and violence on school grounds.





Book Review: Live Lagom

live lagom

Live Lagom by Anna Brones

*I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review*

From French women not getting fat to Danish people mastering the art of coziness to a certain Japanese woman getting the entire world to tidy up, it seems that all we want in the US is for someone from another country to tell us we’re doing it all wrong, then offer us a solution, usually imported from halfway around the world.

And so we end up with Live Lagom, which promises to teach us how to lead more balanced lives, just like the Swedish do. “Lagom” can be translated as “just right” or “moderate.” According to Anna Brones, it’s what what a Swedish person might say if you ask them how much coffee they want or how much food they want to eat.

So, will embracing “lagom” change your life?  I dunno. Brones’ book feels just like more of the same, given a Swedish gloss and packaged up with a lot of beautiful photos of impeccably decorated and well-lit Swedish homes. The advice she gives isn’t going to shatter anyone’s world, unless that person’s been living in a completely sealed off glass alternative world for the past decade or so.

This is all to say that, well, OK, we know we should work less and buy less and not destroy the planet. Brones tells us to do those things, which, is great I guess, but nothing we haven’t heard before. At one point, she actually tells us to switch to CFL/LED lightbulbs and my thought was “really! Like that isn’t something the entire world hasn’t been saying for years now.”

Does this book need to exist? I’m going to say no, but I do have to give props to Brones for being willing to glance at the negative side of lagom — which is that it can discourage people from striving in life. She’s also quick to note that Sweden isn’t the perfect society everyone’s always making it out to be. Just think — two of the biggest names in “fast consumption” came from Sweden (IKEA and H&M). So although it seems like she recommends that we all live lagom, she does acknowledge that not everyone, even not every one in Sweden, is doing so.


Book Review: L’appart by David Lebovitz

l'appart book review

L’appart Book Review

*I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.*

If you want a guide on what not to do when buying and renovating an apartment in Paris, David Lebovitz’s L’appart is the book for you.

I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect going into the book, I chose it because it’s about living in Paris and I’ve read Lebovitz’s blog from time to time. Would it be some boring, “and then I chose this material for my counter tops,” and “this is what I picked for the floor” story about renovation, which is kind of what I feared? Or would it be just a bit more interesting?

It was, I can assure you, the latter. Perhaps because he’s been blogging since blogging was even really a thing (1999!), Lebovitz has the friendly, conversational voice thing down pat. Reading his book is like having a one-sided discussion with a friend, during which they say maybe more than you want to hear and repeat themselves a bit.

But all in all, it was a pretty engaging read and it was pretty interesting to learn about the differences between living and buying real estate in France compared to in the US (OK, I might have lost a lot of people with that sentence). For example, to get a mortgage in France, you have to pass a medical exam, so you don’t, you know, die, while owing the bank lots of money.

There’s also a big difference when it comes to interactions between “bosses” and “staff.” One of the big mistakes Lebovitz makes is tutoyer-ing (that is, using “tu” instead of “vous”) with his contractor and the workers. There’s a social distance that exists in France because of the structure and formality of the language. By ignoring that formality, Lebovitz sets the stage for his contractor to take advantage of him, majorly.

OK, also, his contractor seemed like a connard, which is probably the main reason why he did such a bad job (spoilers, maybe, but the word “disaster” is in the subtitle of the book, so you kinda know that going in).

Since Lebovitz is primarily a cookbook writer and food blogger, there are a few recipes interspersed throughout, usually bookending chapters and serving as little set pieces for Lebovitz to make his various points. I haven’t tried any of the recipes, but a few of them, particularly the pastries, look pretty tasty.

Book Review: The Lauras

* I received this book from in exchange for my honest review.*

I can’t quite put my finger on how I feel about The Lauras, by Sara Taylor. I enjoyed the book, it was beautifully written and timely, but I felt that there wasn’t that much to it.

The Lauras

The Lauras

One night, Alex’s mom wakes them (Alex is agender, meaning they don’t identify as either a boy or a girl) up and puts them in the car, speeding off into the distance. A fight with Alex’s dad is supposedly the reason for the departure, but evidence suggests that the grand exit has been a long time coming.

Their departure is the start of a cross-country trip that takes them down to Florida, over to Texas, up to Utah, and finally into Vancouver. Along the way, Alex’s mom tells them stories of her youth, growing up in and out of foster and group homes and meeting a range of women all named Laura.

Along the way, Alex plays a long, but you can tell their heart isn’t really in the trip. They miss their father, who’s back home in Virginia. They also start going through puberty and have to deal with the discovery of sex for the first (in one instance, in a very disgusting way).

The Lauras is a classic coming of age meets road trip tale, but with a twist (the twist being the gender identity question). Although Alex’s mom does eventually make it to where she needs to go, there’s not a sense of finality to the book. Alex eventually strikes out on their own and get you get the sense that maybe one day they will find what they need. But it won’t be in this book.

Book Review: The Lesser Bohemians

Lesser Bohemians cover

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

Sometimes, the things you hear about a book color your expectations of it. I was a bit nervous going into The Lesser Bohemians because I’d heard that its prose was a bit  . . . tricky. Oh, man, I thought, what have I gotten myself into.

Well, first things first, the prose is a bit . . . tricky. It’s fairly fragmentary at first and can be jarring to read. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Reading is supposed to give Wernicke’s area a workout, after all.

The novel is a decent reflection of the inner workings of Eily’s (the main character’s) thoughts and feelings. She’s a young woman on her own for the first time, off to study drama in London (she’s from Ireland). She starts the book as a virgin . . . and she ends it very much not a virgin.

The story wasn’t particularly new or original — young woman moves away, falls in love with older man, begins a challenging relationship with that man — but the telling of the story, with its fragments and starts and stops. is. And interestingly enough, at some point during my reading of the book the jumpy jarring prose stopped being so jumpy and jarring. It was still Eily’s voice coming through, but I guess I had gotten used to her style.

Choppy prose aside, I think The Lesser Bohemians is an important book for another reason. It handles sex well. If you’re in any way squeamish about sex, and descriptions thereof, this isn’t a book for you.

But if you don’t mind the occasional (or pervasive) sex scene but are also getting tired of sex described from a male writer/male character’s perspective or want something a little more intellectually stimulating than what you’d find in a 50 Shades of Gray-type book, I can’t recommend The Lesser Bohemians highly enough.

*I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.*

Book Review: Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs


Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs

*I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review*

For Christmas last year, my partner and I decided to go to Vedge, a fancy vegan restaurant in town, for dinner, instead of giving each other physical gifts. It was at Vedge that I had Cynar, a digestif made from 13 herbs and botanicals (among them artichokes), for the first time.

The drink was both challenging and delightful and I became hooked on the concept of amaro, herbal, bitter liquors designed to be drunk at the end of the meal to help with digestion. So it was a real delight to get to read through Brad Thomas Parsons’ Amaro, which is both a love letter to and a primer on the wide world of bitters.

First off, let’s define what amaro or a digestif is. Although in the US, we might classify Campari and the like in the same group as Cynar and other amari, Parsons points out that those beverages are technically not classified as amaro in Italy, as they are typically consumed before a meal. Amaro is reserved for the big, heavy bitter drinks, like my friend Cynar, that you drink afterwards.

Along with a section on apertivo, there’s an entire section of fernet, a specific type of amaro that I really have no plans on trying soon. There’s also a section devoted to new world amaro, including a number of beverages created in the US, and lots of stories about bitter bars and amaro-devoted bartenders throughout.

Parsons really did his research here, visiting the manufacturers of some of the more well known amari, trying to wheedle the secret recipes and formulas (and there are a lot of secret formulas) out of the owners. But to no avail. Only a few people will get to know what goes into some of these beverages, ever. And I think that’s OK.

So far, I’ve enjoyed Amaro purely for the information Parsons provides. I haven’t yet had a chance to try any of the cocktail recipes included, although there are some classics, such as the Negroni. One recipe that I’m particularly intrigued by features Amaro Montenegro and orange soda. Although there are a few drinks featuring my beloved cynar, I think I’ll probably pass on making those (they contain bourbon or rye, and I’m just not a fan) and will continue to enjoy it my favorite way: straight up, with nothing added.

Book Review: David Bowie Retrospective and Coloring Book

David Bowie changed my life. I think I would be a very different person, not just in terms of my musical tastes, but also in terms of my politics and belief systems, had I not found Bowie’s music and read a biography about him during high school. So I was happy to have the opportunity to review Mel Elliot’s David Bowie Retrospective and Coloring Book.

The coloring book doesn’t just have images of Bowie’s most iconic looks (and a few lesser known looks, such as from his early days and later years). It also includes a bit of biographical information about him and his work.

The only trouble is that the content is thin at best and the pictures aren’t so great. For one thing, the book is on the small side, about 8 inches square. So the pictures are pretty small. For another, they’re not that detailed. I’m not really into the whole adult coloring book trend, and I got this book purely because I am a Bowie fan. But this is just disappointing as a coloring book because there’s really not that much to color.

While I appreciate the text that accompanies the images in the book, I feel it really leaves you wanting more. The author provides details about who designed some of Bowie’s costumes, and comments on his stylistic choices throughout the years, but the text doesn’t really do much to give you a full in-depth understanding of who Bowie was and why his alter egos and musical choices throughout the year matters.

Well, you  might argue, if the David Bowie Retrospective is for real fans, then just a blurb or two of text should suffice, since they already know all the details. But I’d almost rather that book have more or better images and less text than a few half-hearted images (seriously, there’s one picture that’s just a pair of brogues) and mediocre text.

Although it’s a disappointment as a coloring book, there is one way that I’ve found to enjoy the book. That’s using the images as transfers for embroidery. I copied one of the pictures onto fabric transfer paper and have been working on stitching up Bowie as Aladdin Sane.

David Bowie Retrospective and Coloring Book

All in all, I get the sense that the book was created as a way to cash in on fans’ sadness at Bowie’s death. That’s cynical, I know, but it’s the only way to explain why the book is just so lackluster when nothing about Bowie was.

*I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review*

Books I Read In October and November 2016

It’s play reading season for me, so I didn’t get to read as many published books as usual. Here’s what I read in October and November, including Hagseed, the Night Manager, and the Language Hoax.

The Night Manager by John Le Carré

Yes, I read the Night Manager because I watched the mini series on AMC. Since the novel was written in the early 1990s and the TV series was set in present day, I was curious to see what had been updated or changed from the book.

I can’t really say I enjoyed reading The Night Manager and there were a lot of  times when I considered abandoning the book. Le Carre’s language is … let’s just say it’s pretty flowery. Despite the fact that the novel was a thriller, it had a really slow pace.

Was it different from the TV show? Yeah, it was, a lot. The night manager of the title was the same, and the main bad guy was the same. But the chief spy, who’s a woman on TV, was a dude in the book. A sign of the times, I guess? The ending was a lot different too, and after seeing the televised version, I felt that the book’s ending was a let down.

Would I feel the same had I not seen the mini series? Maybe. I probably wouldn’t have picked up the book if I hadn’t seen the show, so there’s that.

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer

After the mild disappointment of the Night Manager, I enjoyed The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo more than I thought I would. I have a few problems with Amy Schumer’s comedy –mainly her approach to race issues and her insistance on describing herself as fat. But her memoir goes beyond her comedic persona, offering a glimpse at who she is as a person.

It’s also fairly funny while it discusses some pretty dark stuff. In one part, she describes her tendancy to black out when drinking. As part of the chapter, she recounts a relatively recent event, during which she took Ambien after drinking. She ended up eating butter “like it was guacamole” while her horrified boyfriend looked on.

I think people have a tendancy to conflate who Schumer is as a person with the characters she creates for TV and her movie. The book is a reminder that they are not one and the same, and that there’s more to Amy Schumer than her comedy.


Hagseed by Margaret Atwood

Hagseed is Margaret Atwood’s re-telling of the Tempest. Instead of simply adapting the story of Shakespeare’s play, Atwood creates a sort of story within the play. After being ousted from his role as artistic director at a theater festival, Felix finds himself living in exile in some hovel somewhere in Canada and teaching drama at a local prison. A highlight of the prisoner’s lives in the annual Shakespearean production they put on. In an interesting twist, the same people who fired Felix now have plans to shutter his prison literacy program. Felix comes up with a plan to get his revenge and convince the men to keep the program going.

Before he was fired, Felix had plans for a great production of the Tempest at the festival. Those plans were shelved, but not forgotten. Now, at the prison, he sees a chance to bring his plan for the Tempest to life, while seeking revenge on the people who fired him.

The fact that Felix is producing the Tempest while the plot of the play also parallels his life makes Hagseed a particularly fun read. It’s much more than just a straight-up adaptation or retelling. It presents the original work while also imitating and riffing on that work. There’s a lot of room for failure in that premise (I initially thought it would be very cheesy). But, Atwood pulls it off. She makes Felix a character you both feel for and feel annoyed by. Instead of simply rehashing the plot, she turns it into something else entirely.

*I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review*

The Language Hoax by John McWhorter

I took a linguistics course on Coursera recently and McWhorter’s The Language Hoax was one of the recommended, but not required readings. I’ve read other books by McWhorter and find him to be a fun read. The Language Hoax was no different.

It’s an argument against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which argues that people’s language shapes their culture. Although it’s a problematic hypothesis that leads to people occasionally making broad and inaccurate statements such as “_____ language has no color for green, thus ____ people don’t see green!” or “____ has simple grammar. Thus, ____ people are simple!,” the hypothesis has lived on. It’s often mentioned in the media (they mentioned in the movie Arrival) in a way that’s overly simplified.

McWhorter argues that it’s not language that shapes culture but rather, if anything culture that shapes language. Or more likely, a series a random of events that form language and have nothing to do with cultural preferences or the intellectual abilities of one people over another.

Take, for example, the use of the definite article. Not every language uses “the.” Does that mean languages without “the” have no sense of definiteness? Or that people who speak those languages can’t pick out one specific object from a group? No, probably not.

At the end of the book, McWhorter stresses that despite our cultural differences, we can look at language to find out what makes people more the same than different.

Book Reviews: What I Read in September 2016

Another month’s gone by! Check out the book reviews for what I read in September:

How Not to Travel the World by Lauren Juliff

I feel pretty conflicted about How Not to Travel the World by Lauren Juliff. A memoir of the year the author spent traveling around (through parts of Europe and Asia, spending a lot of time in Thailand), the book really lives up to its name. Juliff starts her big round-the-world trip off by nearly missing her flight to Croatia. Once she gets to the airport, she struggles at check-in because she doesn’t know what a “checked bag” is. When she finally gets past security, instead of dashing to her flight (she’s late, after all), she dawdles in the bookshop. From there, she has mishap after mishap, some of which are brought on by her complete lack of common sense, others of which (like nearly experiencing a tsunami in Thailand) are just due to bad luck or bad timing.

Yeah, so the book is basically what not to do when traveling 101. My main struggle with it was it didn’t feel that believable. “Really, you’re in your 20s, you live in London and you don’t know what checked luggage is?” That sort of thing. I get that the writer had lots of anxiety and that traveling around and breaking out of her shell was a struggle for her, but the whole “I didn’t realize” schtick gets old pretty quickly.

It was a quick read, and Juliff’s a pretty engaging writer, but after more than 300 pages of “oops!” I’d had enough. Small annoyances aside, the book did make me want to travel to Thailand. So I guess it didn’t entirely fail as a travel memoir, since it did incite some wanderlust.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Years ago, this guy I was going out with gave me a copy of the The Secret History by Donna Tartt, because I was a classics major. I broke up with the guy and never read the book.

Then, a few years ago, I read the Goldfinch and really liked it. So, I figured it was time to revisit the Secret History. Creepy ex boyfriend’s copy was long gone, so I picked one up at the library. I’m really glad I finally read it.

Set at a fictional liberal arts college in Vermont, the book is narrated by Richard, a transfer student from the West Coast. Since he studied ancient Greek at his old school, Richard decides to study it at his new college. The thing is, the classics students at Hampden are few (there are just five) and admission to the program is closely regulated by Julien, an eccentric professor.

Rumors swirl about the school about Julien and his students — that they worship the devil, for instance, but Richard is undeterred. He convinces Julien to accept him into the program and quickly becomes part of the group.

The Secret History is a murder mystery, but a murder mystery that’s been flipped. The murder opens the book, the next 500 or so pages are spent learning why the murder happened and the consequences of it.

More than a thriller, though, the novel takes a look at the effects of privilge on a group of young students. All five of the classics majors, save for Richard, come from cushy backgrounds. Most of them have inheritances to rely on and families to support them. No matter the consequences of their actions, there’s the sense that they will be fine.

Richard doesn’t have that same assurance. He’s cut off from his family (in part by choice, in part not). He has no financial cushion. Although he’s part of the action (he is there at the murder), he’s also outside of it, standing aside the narrator, retelling the story many years later.

When the major consequence of the murder happens, Richard is the one who stands to lose the most, since he lacks that familiar support. Yet, he’s the only who ends up pressing on with his studies, earning a degree. The novel is as much a commentary on the damage having too much wealth can do as it is on the damage of having a single professor be the sole influence over you in college.

book reviews

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

About a year ago, I saw Kazuo Ishiguro at the Free Library, when The Buried Giant had just come out. He mentioned that he had meant for The Remains of the Day to be a comedy, but few people saw it that way. I don’t know if his saying that influenced my reading of the book, but I did find it quite funny. And tragic. But also fairly funny.

James Stevens served as a butler for Lord Darlington for three decades. Now, Darlington is dead and the great house has been purchased by an American. Stevens, ever the proper butler, wonders often is he should be bantering with his new boss, since the boss is American, and don’t Americans like banter? His uncertainty and his attempts at banter are quite hilarious.

Around this time, Steven gets a letter from a former coworker, Miss Kenton, who was once a housekeeper there, but then got married and left. She seems unhappy in her letter, so Stevens gets the idea that he’ll drive out to her and see if she wants to come back and work at the house, which now has a limited staff.

Over the course of his multi-day drive across the country, he reminiscinces about his past at Darlington Hall. His remembrances about Miss Kenton are tinged with the suggestion that he was attracted to her, and she to him, but that his inaction was what led to her to go off and marry someone else. Stevens also begins to question his many decades of devotion to Darlington, who it is revealed in the flashbacks, might not have been such a great guy.

It’s not just Stevens’ love life that suffers because of his sense of propriety and his refusal to act in any way but as an exemplary butler. His relationship with his father also suffers. In one memory, Stevens leaves his father on his deathbed because he feels he needs to fufill  his duties for the day. His father dies and Stevens has no chance to say good-bye.

So, a funny book at times. But also a deeply heartbreaking book about a life lived under so much constraint that you might argue it wasn’t a life lived at all.


fates and furies book review

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies closely examines the marriage between Lancelot (“Lotto”), a successful playwright and former struggling actor and Mathilde, his wife. It’s divided into two parts, the first of which (Fates) focuses on Lancelot/Lotto. The second part (Fury) is all about Mathilde.

The pair meet in college and get married pretty quickly. Everyone thinks they’ll get divorced, but the years gone on and they don’t. It looks as though Mathilde is the quiet wife, supporting her husband while he pursues an acting career, standing by his side after he makes sit as a playwright. But there’s much more to it than that and the second part of the book rips off the facade of the first part, unveiling Mathilde and giving more of an explanation for the couple’s relationship. It’s not so much telling the story of a marriage from two different people’s point of view. It’s telling two different stories that happen to contain the same people and events that take place at the same time.

It’s not so much the story of Fates and Furies that made it such a good read. It’s Groff’s style. The words tumble on the page. We’re shown brief, terrible glimpses of the character’s past and future, all in one breath. It’s a beautifully written book, probably one of the most stylistically engaging novels I’ve read in a long time.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

*I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review*

One day, Yeong-Hye stops eating meat. She’s been having terrible dreams about murder and violence, so she gives up meat.

But it’s not as if she simply goes vegan. She stops eating most foods and wastes away. Her behavior changes too, unsettling her husband and family. At a family dinner one day, things reach a tipping point and Yeong-Hye ends up in the hospital.

Although Yeong-Hye is the title character, The Vegetarian is told from everyone’s perspective but hers. There are some brief descriptions of her violent dreams, from her own point of view, in the first part of the book, but otherwise, the action is narrated by her husband. The second part of the book is from the POV of her brother-in-law and the final part is from her sister’s point of view.

The Vegetarian is some sort of terrifying parable. When Yeong-Hye finally tries to assert herself, by first becoming vegetarian and by doing other considerably more shocking things later on, her family’s reaction is first to force her to eat meat and later to lock her up. No one gets what is going on with her. The response is either to abandon her, to take advantage of her or to have her actions call into question everything that a character once believed or thought important.

The premise of the novel might feel so strange and foreign to us that it can be easy to dismiss it. I think it’s more important not to try to define the “meaning” of the story or to really analyze what it all means, especially the ending. My first inclination was to think, oh clearly, this is a woman throwing off the shackles of society. But there’s more to it than that. Yeong-Hye isn’t just rejecting the expectations placed on her by society. She’s throwing off the expectation that she is even a human, and that is what ultimately terrifies her family and others around her.