Passion Projects

In my last post, when I recapped the books I read in 2015, I griped a bit about the lack of titles I was really excited about. So far, 2016 is taking a different path: I absolutely loved the first two books I’ve finished this year.

Both are by famous people. Both are about creative passion. Both are about fandom. Both are incredibly inspiring.

The first is Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy by writer, director and41d3xwkzhgl-_sx331_bo1204203200_comedian, Judd Apatow. As suggested in the title, the book is a collection of conversations between Judd and a few dozen comedy legends – everyone from Steve Martin, Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart to Amy Schumer, Roseanne Barr and Sarah Silverman.

When Judd was a kid, he was a huge comedy nerd, recording Saturday Night Live on an audio cassette so he could listen to it over and over. He listened to comedy records, went to stand up shows way too young, and studied every comedian to ever appear on The Tonight Show. So when he was in high school, he volunteered to do a show for his school’s radio, interviewing comedians. He’d call up publicists and land interviews, never bothering to tell them that he was 14 years old. As such, he ended up interviewing comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Steve Allen in the early 1980s, when they were all starting out in their careers. These interview transcripts are all included in the book, as are follow up interviews with Seinfeld and Leno in the last few years.

What I love about these interviews – both the older ones and the newer ones – is the sick in the headunderlying  passion that every single person reveals. There’s a need – a deep desire – for comedy. To write the perfect bit. To tell the perfect story. To do better. To refine. To keep going up to the microphone even when you bombed the last time. It’s torture and it’s joy and a laugh makes it all worthwhile.

Some of the chapters, which are ordered alphabetically by the interviewee’s first name, are better than others, but they’re all worthwhile. If you’re a fan of comedy you need to read this book.

The second book I’ve read so far this year is Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein. I’m a big fan of Carrie Brownstein. I love Portlandia, and I just finished watching the second season of Transparent – she’s brilliant. This book, however, barely touches her acting career. It focuses on her childhood in Redmond, Washington with her anorexic mother and in-the-closet father, her obsession with music in the early 1990s in the Pacific Northwest, and her journey as a musician in Sleater-Kinney.

I don’t always love “rock memoir” books, but Carrie Brownstein can write. She is hungerextremely open and candid about the highs and lows of being in a band, the sexism they encountered on the road, the shifting dynamics between bandmates, and the love of playing and writing music.

What struck me about Brownstein’s book, like Apatow’s, is her drive to follow her passion, even to the point of sacrifice. She endures emotional and even physical pain in her musical career, but finds that those moments on stage make it worthwhile – until they don’t.

Entertainment Weekly named it one of the best books of the year. So did NPR. I’d tend to agree.

Next up: After You by JoJo Moyes (a sequel to Me Before You, which I quite liked a few years back).







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53 Books in 52 Weeks

It’s taken me longer to draft this post of my yearly book challenge than it usually does, partly because I haven’t used this blog in a year and struggled to remember how to even log in. I’ll try to rectify that this year. We’ll see.

So, by the end of 2015 I finished reading 53 books. It was my third year in committing myself to such a challenge. The first year I knocked off 50 books. It was tough, but doable. The next year I got cocky and decided I’d read a book a week, pushing my goal number to 52. Again, doable, but hard. Then, at the end of 2014 my husband goaded me on to up the number yet again to 53.

Fifty three books is a lot when you have a full time job, a family and like to occasionally watch TV or talk to people or go see a movie. Yet, by the waning days of 2015 I finished the last page on my last book and then decided to go back to the respectable, but less stressful 50 book goal for 2016.

Part of the problem with finishing 53 books in 2015 was that I didn’t read a lot of books that I LOVED. In previous years I had books like The Goldfinch and Station Eleven on my virtual shelves that got me really excited about what I was reading. This year…not so much. I read a number of good books, some were even great, but nothing blew me away.

Here’s what I can tell you. Out of 53 books:

  • 77% were written by women
  • 17% were memoirs
  • 13% were written by people famous for things other than writing books
  • 19% had the word “Girl” or “Girls” in the title

And I haven’t crunched the numbers, but it felt like a lot of the books I read this year were about illness – Huntington’s disease, ALS, mental illness, blindness, alcoholism. I also read a lot of books about war.

Again, this year, most of my books were borrowed from the Toronto Public Library and read on my Kobo.

So what was good? What sucked? Here’s my take:

  • Home is Burning by Dan Marshall. This is a memoir (one ohome is burningf the 17%) that I read about in Entertainment Weekly and that Chad really wanted me to read so I could tell him all about it. It’s a raw, profane, heartbreaking and hilarious story of a 20-something PR guy in LA who moves home to Salt Lake City to help take care of his vibrant, marathon-running dad who has been diagnosed with ALS. Oh, and his mom also has cancer. The author is honest and outspoken about his own selfishness, his guilt, his frustration and his sadness about his situation. It’s a great read and one that I’ve thought about a lot since finishing it. Oh, and in looking for a photo I just found out that it’s going to be a movie starring Miles Teller. I’m okay with that. all-the-light-we-cannot-see-9781476746586_hr
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. These were both excellent (the first won a Pulitzer Prize if you need some proof). Both deal with WW2 and both take place in France. Both focus on strong women who make dangerous choices to protect people in need. My only recommendation would be to leave some space between them so you’re struck more by their individual excellence versus their similarities (I read one book in between and it wasn’t enough space).
  • Everything is Perfect When You’re a Liar by Kelly Oxford, You’re 13609922Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day, Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling, Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin and Not that Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham. I’m bracing for the haters on this one. This year I was really attracted to reading autobiographies by people I find kind of interesting, including the four women listed above. None of these books were masterpieces, but Kelly Oxford made me laugh out loud, Felicia Day was super relatable to my nerdy side, Mindy Kaling has had a really interesting path to where she’s ended up, and Lena Dunham just kind of fascinates me. I truly don’t know anyone else who actually liked Dunham’s book, but I appreciated the unvarnished, whiny-with-no-apologies aspect to it. I also didn’t pick it up expecting it to be funny, so that probably helped. As for Primates of Park Avenue: not sure if anyone without kids would relate, but it really hit the nail on the head for me.
  • In the Unlikely Event and Summer Sisters by Judy Blume. After re-judy blume.jpgreading all of her teen and pre-teen novels with my kid, I became a bit obsessed with Judy Blume this year. When she came to Toronto to promote her new novel, In the Unlikely Event, I was first in line (okay, probably about 300th, but still). She was as perfect and smart and funny as you’d imagine her to be – that amazing aunt who gives it to you straight. The book is good, too. It pushed me straight back into that Judy Blume comfort zone I loved as a kid. To keep the glow going, I also read Summer Sisters this year. It’s pulpy and the ultimate7b74defd4f-8222-4252-9b11-0e00351f8a6b7dimg400 beach read, but it did the trick.
  • How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran and The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant. The girls in these books would never relate, but I kind of loved them both equally. Caitlin Moran’s book is about a surly teen trying to find her voice as a music writer in the late ’80s/early ’90s in the UK and is funny as hell. The Boston Girl tells the story of a Jewish Girl growing up in Boston in the early 20th century. It’s lovely.
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins,Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica luckiest-girl-alive-9781501134081_hr Knoll, Her by Harriet Lane, Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight, Disclaimer by Renee Knight, The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson, The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel, Broken Monsters by  Lauren Beukes, My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh, The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain,Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave, The Good Girl by Mary Kubica and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. These are what I’d call the twisty-turny books I read this year. Some were better than others, but all would do in a pinch on a plane ride or a Saturday nursing a cold.
  • Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont, Us by David 51bfdlb-lel-_sx329_bo1204203200_Nicholls, Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper by Hilary Liftin, Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova, The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg,  At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen and The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I’m lucky to be married to an amazing man – something each of these books reminded me of as I read them. These books show marriage at its worst, its hardest and its most frustrating. They’re all pretty good, too (especially the Julia Pierpont book).
  • Bennington Girls Are Easy by Charlotte Silver, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North, Th21412400e Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler, Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan and The First Bad Man by Miranda July. I’ll call these the “nice knowing you, but I really have no empathy for these characters” books. There are some bad choices going on in these books by some seriously self involved people. Not saying they’re not good books (except for Hausfrau which I hated), but the characters are frequently not likeable.
  • A Sudden Light by Garth Stein, A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, A furiously-happySpool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan, Funny Girl by Nick Hornby, All Together Now by Gill Hornby and Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson. These are all books I really wanted to like, but just didn’t do it for me. Most disappointing were the Jenny Lawson book (I REALLY wanted to like it) and A God in Ruins (I loved Life After Life). These weren’t necessarily bad, just not what I was hoping for or took way too long to get into. In a year when I’m trying to read 53 books a slow beginning is a definite strike. All of that said, Furiously Happy has the best cover, hands down.
  • Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer,  Bream Gives me the Hiccups and Other 20821376Stories by Jesse Eisenberg (yes, that Jesse Eisenberg), Lost & Found by Brooke Davis, A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade by Kevin Brockmeier, Number Two: More Short Tales from a Very Tall Man by Jay Onrait. These books slam you straight back, in one way or another, to the awkward years of growing up and trying to figure things out. Meg Wolitzer is always brilliant (and is here, too) and Eisenberg isn’t a bad writer – there are some real gems in this book of short stories.
  • Stranger than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 51nspfdc80l-_sx332_bo1204203200_Twentieth Century by John Higgs. This is a definite outlier. It’s a non-fiction look at themes of the twentieth century, focusing on topics like Modernism, War, Sex and Teenagers. It’s cleverly written and is like listening to your favourite university professor. Don’t take this one to the beach.

So, where does this all net out? Frankly, I’m excited. There are so many books I didn’t get to read last year that I can’t wait to dive into in 2016. I’ve already started Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy by Judd Apatow and I’m loving it so far. I’ve got Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl lined up to read next, so I guess I am going to continue on this memoir kick for a while longer. I’m also dying to read Elena Ferrante‘s Neapolitan books, and have several more queued up on my Kobo.

Knowing I’ve got at least 50 books ahead of me this year is a good thing, even if they aren’t all amazing.




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A year in books: my 52 book challenge

station eleven
In 2013 I gave myself a 50 book challenge, which I completed. It was hard. I found myself finishing up pretty close to the end of last December, stressed that I wouldn’t make the December 31st cutoff. I did, and in a moment of cockiness and euphoria after crushing my goal, decided to push myself further this year by committing to two more books in 2014. Two books: that’s nothing in the scheme of things, right?

Wrong. Fifty-two books is a book a week. That leaves no buffer. No room for accidentally choosing a boring, long book. No room for getting addicted to a podcast or a game on my phone to take up precious commuting time. No room for laziness. No room for slacking.

I’m happy to say that despite this daunting goal, I made it. In fact, I finished my books earlier this year than last year, even with two additional titles. And if all goes according to plan I’ll actually make it to 53.

How did I do it? Kind of like this:

  • I read 100% of the 52 books on my Kobo Aura
  • I borrowed probably 80% of the books from the Toronto Public Library’s Overdrive program; the rest I purchased from Kobo
  • Because I borrowed so many books from the library, the order I read everything was fairly random and relied upon the availability of titles
  • While many of the books were released in 2014, lots of them were older, so these aren’t my favourite books of the year – they’re just books I read this year
  • Forty-nine books were fiction; two were autobiographies; one was a collection of short stories
  • Fifteen books were written by men (16 if you count Robert Galbraith, who is actually J.K. Rowling)
  • My favourite books were the first and the 50th read
  • Much of my reading took place on Toronto’s subway
  • Many titles were recommended by friends (Kara – I’m looking at you!); others were recommended by critics; some were chosen just because I really liked the title or the cover

So, with that, here are the best and the worst that I read this year.

My Favourite Books (in no particular order…except for the first two)

1. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. It was the first book I read of 2014, and the best by a long shot. It seems cliched to say it Goldfinchwas my favourite book this year as it did win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but it’s just so damned good. If you haven’t read it, pick it up. You won’t regret it.

2. Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. This was the 50th book I finished, and it truly blew me away. The writing is fantastic, the post-apocalyptic story is compelling and the characters are rich. Entertainment Weekly named it the best book of the year, and I understand why. A brilliant book.

3. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Another Pulitzer Prize winner from a few years back, this one follows the crazy life story of a man in North Korea. It’s a book that’s stayed with me since reading it early this year and one that seems even more relevant now in the wake of all of the controversy surrounding The Interview. It’s heavy and often hard to stomach, but worth the work.

4. Bird Box by Josh Malerman. This one scared the bejeezus out of me. In a post-apocalyptic world people can’t look outside, because if they do and see an unknown *something* they go insane and kill themselves. This is the world in which a woman tries to survive with two small children. It’s creepy, disturbing and keeps the foot on the gas the whole way through.

5. Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia. A mystery set in an old hotel hosting a high school music festival. It’s a bit of a ghost story, a bit of a coming of age story, a bit of a mystery and a bit of a soap opera. Loved it.

6. Yes Please by Amy Poehler. God, I love Amy Poehler. She’s funny, smart, honest and utterly relatable. I’m not sure this is a work of genius, but I read it at exactly the right time and I love her for it.

7. The Confabulist by Steven Galloway. The story of the rise and fall of Harry Houdini. I found this fascinating. And I love the-confabulisthistorical fiction. And I love magic.

8. All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. I just finished this a few weeks ago, but it hasn’t left my brain. It’s a tough one – a woman desperately wants to convince her suicidal sister to want to live. It’s raw, real, unvarnished and sometimes really, really sad, but as with all of her writing it just resonates. Don’t read this if life sucks – tackle it when things are good.

9. One More Thing by B.J. Novak. Yes, that B.J. Novak. It’s a book of pretty great short stories. Not every one’s a home run, but there were enough to have me snickering to myself on the subway to make me add it to this list.

10. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. A fantastical novel about two otherworldly characters – a golem made of clay by a disgraced rabbi who practices dark Kabbalist magic, and a jinni (or genie) set free from an old copper flask. The two are set loose in 1899 New York and turn out to be some of my favourite characters that I encountered this year.

The Worst of the Lot (in no particular order)

1. Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Ugh. This was supposed to be *the* beach read of the summer. It was not. The story is self-indulgent, transparent and just kind of lame. Definitely worth skipping.

2. The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger. Holy crap I hated this book. Told entirely through correspondence, a lifeboatlawyer….actually who cares? It’s just bad. it makes Bridget Jones seem deep and eloquent. Blah.

3. The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan. A ship sinks in 2014 and a handful of survivors are stuck together on a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic. Should be good, right? Nope. Hated the characters, thought the writing was dull and couldn’t have cared less if the protagonist was thrown to the sharks. Awful.

4. How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer. Come for the discussions on astrophysics, stay for the sham psychics. Hated this.

5. Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead. I love the ballet. In fact, I went to The Nutcracker just this week. So, a book set in the world of the ballet circa the 1970s should be right  up my alley. Unfortunately this just wasn’t. Boring, badly plotted and written, this just kind of sucked. I did like the book’s cover, though. And I don’t blame the ballet.

6. Stella Bain by Anita Shreve. Oh, man. This one’s bad. A woman loses her memory in WWI and slowly tries to rebuild her past. The writing is so clunky and almost embarrassing. Bad.

7. All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. Agent Orange, bear fighting, the carnival circuit in early 1980s Ontario. Should be okay. Nah. Not so much.

8. N-W by Zadie Smith. It feels wrong to put Zadie Smith on a list of my least favourite books of the year, but I just didn’t dig this one. Skip it and read White Teeth.vanishers

9. Goodnight June by Sarah Jio. Predictable fluff. It felt like it was written for Meg Ryan circa 1992 to star in the movie adaptation.

10. The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits. I hesitate putting this on my least favourite books, but it just rubbed me the wrong way. Not terrible, but not something I’d want to read again.

The Rest (Lots of these are very good. Check them out.)

Thanks to everyone who cheered me on this year. I’m looking forward to another year of reading and debating and good storytelling.

So, what do you think: go back to 50 books next year, keep it at 52 or bump it up? I’ll decide before January 1st.


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Bringing Out the Dead

afteri'mgoneIt’s easy to find patterns if you look for them, especially in literature.

Well, I didn’t have to look too hard to find patterns in the last three books I finished. Spoiler alert: each of the books dealt with the dead or the dying, specifically dead stripper, dead girlfriend, dead mother.

After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman starts with Felix Brewer, a Baltimore Goodfella, skipping town to avoid facing prison in 1976. He leaves behind a wife, three daughters, and a stripper mistress with a heart of gold. When the mistress disappears on the tenth anniversary of Felix’s disappearance, everyone assumes she’s gone to be with him – until her body is discovered near the home of his abandoned family. The novel alternates perspective between the detective investigating the cold case 26 years later and the women Felix left behind. While some of the characters are predictable (the sad sack investigator, the spoiled daughter, the proud wife), this is a solid read for a plane ride.

snowqueenIf you’ve read The Hours by Michael Cunningham, you’ll have a good sense of the dark tone in his latest novel The Snow Queen. It’s the story of two brothers. One, miserable after his latest failed relationship, sees a light in the sky over Central Park that seems to look back at him. The other, a failed musician, tries to write a love song for his terminally ill fiancee. Both seek transcendence as they struggle with the reality of mortality – one through a newfound religion, the other through the creative release of drugs. It’s bleak, dark, haunting, and beautifully written.

Finally, I read The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits. I didn’t know what to expect when I picked this up, but it wasn’t this. Julia is a student at an institute for psychics, where she assist her mentor during her psychic regressions. When it vanishersbecomes clear that Julia is potentially even more powerful than her mentor, Madame Ackerman launches a psychic attack on her, tormenting her with the suicide of her mother and making her physically ill. As Julia recovers – in a succession of spas that cater to people being psychically attacked and people recovering from plastic surgery – she astral projects back to her mother’s youth and discovers her connection to a mysterious filmmaker/performance artist. It’s part detective novel, part comedy, and is often funny and always strange. I’m not sure I liked it at all, but I’m still thinking about it, so that’s something. Also, Lena Dunham should play Julia if this ever becomes a movie.

Next up, book number 37 for 2014: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker.


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Six more down

Well, hasn’t time flown by! I’ve not stopped reading, but some of the books I’ve read recently have made me want to give it up completely. Here’s a rundown on the latest.

bittersweetLet’s start with Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. A frumpy, lower class college freshman is invited to her wealthy roommate’s family cottage/compound for the summer where they skinny dip and wear pure white outfits and hang masterpieces on their walls. The more engrained she gets into this fabulous family, the closer she gets to understanding some shady secrets that nobody wants revealed. This has popped up on a whole bunch of “summer beach read” lists, and to be quite honest, I don’t think it’s even worth that. The characters are dumb and dull and the story takes some significant leaps. Not a fan. That said, I liked this a million times more than I did the next book I read…

The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger. This almost cost me my 52 book challenge for the year. It took everything I had to finish this piece of crap. A young, plucky lawyer (think Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde) is stuck on a high profile divorce case because the wronged wife likes her spunk. Of course, she isn’t cut out for the job at all, but then…of course she is! It’s entirely told through emails, memos, and legal documents, which is great if you want to be a lawyer or plan on getting a divorce. To me it felt largely inspired by the Bridget Jones series, but way, way worse.  I really hated this book.

After that garbage I needed to read something completely un-chick littish, so I read The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wacker. It was a good move. This book takes place circa 1899 in New York Citgolemy, and follows the incredible story of a Golem – a woman made from clay by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in Kabbalist magic – and a Jinni – a genie who is liberated from the ancient oil bottle being repaired by a tinsmith. The two, who are seen as regular people by everyone else, recognize each other for the beings that they are, and try to navigate their way through the human world. A rich, smartly conceived novel that is fantastical, but deeply rooted with great characters and a really great story. I liked this one. Thank goodness.

Next up was Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch. Last year I read The Dinner, and this was similar in that it was filled to the brim with really complicated characters, most of whom weren’t very likeable. But being unlikable just made them complicated and, honestly, real. The story is about a doctor who is a bit of a misanthrope. He treats his patients, but secretly summer housedespises them and their ailing bodies. When a famous actor/patient invites the doctor and his family to his summer house, the doctor grudgingly agrees and sets the whole family on a dangerous path. It’s psychologically complex, occasionally disturbing and really, really well written. It’s good, but I needed to cleanse my palette after this one, so I went for something light next.

goodnightGoodnight June by Sarah Jio was definitely a light read. To me, this book was written with the movie version of it in mind (not that I think it will become a movie). The pacing, characters and leaps in plot f elt more like what one might find in a romantic comedy versus a novel. A 30-something hard-edged New York banker, who specializes in foreclosing on small businesses, finds that she’s inherited her great aunt’s children’s bookstore in Seattle. Upon returning to Seattle to sell the store, she realizes that she actually wants to keep it open, especially when she discovers a stack of her great aunt’s letters to and from the author of Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown. Through the letters she draws parallels to her own life, blah blah blah. The concept is marginally cute. The execution is a little bit embarrassing. I almost couldn’t take it when Bill Gates appears in a chapter in a cameo. So lame.


Finally, I finished The Vacationers by Emma Straub. THIS is a beach read. A husband and wife on the verge of divorce, their daughter who’s on her way to college, their 30 year old son and his fitness obsessed cougar girlfriend, and the wife’s gay best friend and his husband spend two weeks together in a fabulous house on the island of Mallorca. There are lots of conflicts, conversations, great food, soul searching and realizations of what it means to be family over the two weeks. Quick, easy, not mind-numbing.

This brings me to 33 books finished out of 52. Not too shabby!

Next up: After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman.



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Three for me, three for the kid

I’m 52% through my 2014 book challenge, and apparently two books ahead of schedule with 27 out of 52 books read. Not bad, but there are no room for dry duds to pop up and slow me down.planb

I’ve read three books since my last post: one good, one meh and one great.

The good was Plan B by Jonathan Tropper. I’ve read a few of his more recent books, and this debut was as solid as the rest. A just-turned-30 year old, freshly divorced, conspires with three other old college cronies to kidnap and rehabilitate another college friend who’s become a coke head. He also happens to be a movie star. Things, obviously, don’t play out as anyone imagines, but the characters are interesting, the plot is fun and the book is full of late 90s pop culture gems.  It’s an easy read and a good intro to Tropper’s work. This Is Where I Leave You (the first book of his I read) is going to be a movie soon with Tina Fey and Jason Bateman, so there’s that.astonish-me

The meh was Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead. I really wanted this to be good. It takes place in the ballet world of the 1970s and the 1990s, focusing on a corps ballet dancer who helps a Soviet ballet star escape in the 1970s. Years later, she’s raising a son to be a dancer with her devoted husband and hiding a whole lot of secrets. Let’s just say it didn’t astonish me, though I will say it ended better than it began. It really started to hit its stride around 80% through – not nearly soon enough.

the-confabulistThe great was The Confabulist by Steven Galloway. It weaves the story of Harry Houdini’s rise to fame and the behind the scenes intrigue of his life with that of Martin Strauss, a man who can’t seem to determine which of his memories are real and which are made up. It dives into how Houdini performed some of his most famous tricks, and focuses on his determination to debunk spiritualists who prey on people’s grief for money. This book is fantastic. So well written and so intriguing. I loved it.

I’ve also read a few books with the kid. We’re a big reading family, and both Chad and I want to have a hand in her literary discovery, so every night I read a few chapters of a book with her, Chad reads a few chapters of a different book with her and then she reads on her own in bed. She’s got to have crazy dreams.

Aside from my own book challenge, I’ve read a number of “chapter books” with her lately. Here are a few.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I loved this book as a kid and was excited to find the 50th Anniversary edition at Chapters, so picked it harrietup and read it with Scarlett. It’s about an only child growing up in New York, who dreams of being a spy – and tries her spying skills out on everyone in the neighbourhood, including her friends. One day she loses her notebook, which records all of her truthful and sometimes hurtful spying activity and finds herself shunned by the friends she’s been spying on. A great, honest novel about friendship and growing up. It was one of the first books I read – probably right before I dove into Judy Blume – that didn’t sugar coat childhood. This is a great one to read with your kid as there’s lots to discuss. A gem.

We also recently read The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani. Scarlett and I watched the The-School-For-Good-And-Eviltrailer for this book a long time ago and decided this was a “must read”. It’s a pretty complex story about two friends – one beautiful, charming and princess-like, the other ugly, morose and witch-like – who are stolen away from their home in the woods to attend the School for Good and Evil, a place where all fairy tale characters get their start. The twist is that the beauty is thrown into the school for evil, while the witch-like girl is put into the school for good. Why were they switched? How can they get back to their proper spots? Will their friendship last? Unlike a lot of fairytales, this one really dives into the meaning of beauty and ugliness, good and evil, and how nothing is truly definitive. My one gripe with this – there’s a sequel. Clocking in at around 500 pages, this isn’t a quick nighttime novel, and jumping into the next one right away feels like a bit much. I think we’ll end up reading it, but we (I) need a bit of a break.

The last book we read together was Doll Bones by Holly Black, the co-creator of The Spiderwick Chronicles. This is not for the easily-scared child or one who is prone to nightmares. The book is about Zach, Poppy and Alice, three friends in dollbonesthe 10 to 12 age range who have been playing this amazing and imaginative game with old dolls and action figures, creating their own world of adventure, ruled by the bone china doll in Poppy’s mom’s china cabinet. When Zach’s dad throws his figures out because he thinks he should focus on  more age appropriate activities, their world is thrown upside down until Poppy starts having vivid dreams about the china doll and claims she’s visited by the ghost of a girl who won’t rest until the doll is buried in her empty grave. The three set off to put this spirit to rest, but nothing goes to plan. Well written, kind of disturbing, and super creepy. We both liked it.

Next up: Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris.

Next up for me and the kid: Who Could That Be at This Hour? (All the Wrong Questions) by Lemony Snicket.


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Box. Boat. Boom. Bust.

Finished up two more books in the last while: one amazing, one kind of terrible.


The first was Bird Box by Josh Malerman – a hell of a debut for the author. This is a scare-the-pants-off-you book taking place in a near, dystopian future. One day out of the blue people around the world start going crazy and killing themselves, seemingly for no reason. Quickly, it’s determined that it’s because they’re seeing an unidentified “something”. A newly pregnant woman quickly left on her own finds her way to a safe house filled with other survivors, who have covered all windows, stockpiled a pantry and have created blindfolds for whenever they need to go out their door.  The book jumps between these early days of settling into this new reality and four years later when she attempts to make her way someplace else.

It’s scary, riveting and a serious page turner. A great, fun read. Check out this book trailer for a sense of the tone.

The second was The LIfeboat by Charlotte Rogan. Truthfully, this is a bit of a dud. In the summer of 1914, a newly married young woman winds up in a lifeboat when the steamer ship she and her lifeboathusband were on sinks into the Atlantic. The book divides itself between the politics, hardships and sometimes violence on  the nearly over-capacity lifeboat and a court case back in the U.S. questioning the conduct of the lifeboat’s passengers.

This should have been good. I liked Titanic. I can get behind Edwardian-era settings. I like the idea of the cut-throat tensions between people who desperately want to survive. But this is just plodding, not to mention that the main character is detestable. If she’d thrown herself overboard it would have been a better read.

Skip the boat, pick up the box. You’ll be happy you did.

Next up: Plan B by Jonathan Tropper.


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