Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

I just finished a book with which I fell so completely in love, I want to FORCE everyone to read it immediately.

Of course, in my intense desire to expose everyone to this perfectly wonderful book, I am fearful that maybe you won’t, in fact, like it. Which wouldn’t make me like you less, I promise; I know books of all things are highly subjective, and you might find the style irritating or disjointed or you might find the subject matter maudlin or disturbing.

But I still feel this strong, nay, irresistible urge to COMPEL you to read it, and then get all your friends and family members to read it as well.

Am I putting too much pressure on it? I’m putting too much pressure on it.

Eh, you may like it, you may not. Whatever.

Let me see if I can pinpoint, for myself, why I liked it so immensely. And maybe that will help you determine whether you think you might like it.

The book in question is “The Friend” by Sigrid Nunez.

the friend

Image from amazon.com

And, by the way, Sigrid Nunez is nearly 70 years old, which I find appealing as well. (You don’t necessarily hear a lot of buzz about older authors.) (Her protagonist in this book is also older; I envisioned the protagonist as a stand-in for Sigrid, although who knows.) She didn’t publish her first book until she was 44! She is a critically acclaimed author, and I am deeply embarrassed that I haven’t read her work until now. I feel an urgent need to read ALL her books now, in quick succession.

This particular book won the National Book Award in 2018, if that makes any difference to you.

Do I need to include a trigger warning here? Probably. The book deals, in large part, with suicide. So if that is a problematic topic for you, I sadly recommend against reading the book. (I can’t remember any specific, upsetting descriptions of the death, but I suppose I could have forgotten them.)

But its larger themes are more philosophical: Grief, and its forms. Love, and its actors, and its varying forms. Growing old, and what that means, and its inevitable conclusion. Writing, and what it means to be a writer, and the changing view of writing/writers. Those are the big ones.

More specifically, there is a woman whose mentor dies, and who – unexpectedly, without warning her or asking her – leaves her his dog. Not just any dog, but a giant Great Dane. (She lives in a tiny pets-free rent-controlled apartment in New York City.)

From the get-go, I was skeptical of the book. While I don’t dislike dogs, I certainly don’t love them. I didn’t want to read a book about a dog. I didn’t want to read a sad book about someone losing her friend. I opened it with great reluctance. I was soothed to find that the protagonist prefers cats to dogs as I do.

Also, the book is (sort of) epistolary. It’s written in the second person, directed at the mentor she’s lost to suicide. That’s unusual enough that it could be distracting or annoying or tiresome.

Some things I loved about the book:

  • The style is unlike anything I’ve read before. Some reviewers refer to it as “stream of consciousness,” which I get. But I sort of think of “stream of consciousness” as a semi-derogatory way to describe someone’s prose (I don’t know why). I think of it as a Joyce-ian, Molly-Bloom-ian type of style, with long voluminous paragraphs and few sentences and winding, difficult-to-untangle threads of thought. (Maybe that’s why I think of it as derogatory; I did NOT enjoy Ulysses.) This book is NOT like that. I thought of it more as reading someone’s diary: there are discrete paragraphs, often unrelated or related only in that way that thoughts link to one another in your brain. Sometimes it feels like you are reading her notes, as she researches a particular subject: Here she is, going through her research about (for example — may not actually appear in the book) student/professor affairs; there is a paragraph about an author who had a famously disastrous affair with a student; there is a summary of the changing cultural attitude toward student/teacher relationships; there is a literary quote about the lawlessness of the heart; there is a paragraph about university regulations around fraternizing with students; there is an anecdote from her personal life about someone she knew who had an affair with a student. I can see how this might sound unappealing; there is no singular narrative that flows from beginning to end. I mean, there is, but you get all these ebbs and flows as she interjects and retreats. But I found it wholly appealing – a very fresh and interesting way to approach telling a story. And she does it so deftly that I felt as though I was riding around in her brain with her. The little intuitive leaps made sense and even when she turned away completely from something, it felt… right, and understandable. Nothing ever felt disjointed or incoherent, each thought became simply a new tiny wave breaking on the shore and then melting back into the larger narrative sea.


  • The prose is so clean and well-written. She has a very spare writing style, nothing extraneous, every word chosen precisely and with reason. Which is not to say that there isn’t a great deal of beauty in her words – on the contrary, her writing is lovely and evocative. I found myself rereading some sentences many times, marveling at their clarity and simplicity.


  • The subject matter is so heavy, yet she treats it so lightly. No, that’s not right. Maybe, she treats it with such a light hand. She seems so comfortable with the inevitability of the subjects of aging and death and grief… and she writes around the topics with such depth and breadth… that the gravitas isn’t pulling you under with each new sentence.


  • Related: she has a great sense of humor. You’ll be talking about aging and then suddenly you’re talking about poop. But not in a jarring way. In a charming, amusing way. (Oh clod I am not doing this justice at all. I should just stop talking.) There’s this one point where she relates a conversation with a friend. The friend wonders if she’s ever considered finding a therapist; she thinks the friend is talking about a therapist for the dog; the friend is not. It’s gentle humor, but helps keep the book light.


  • The book is meticulously researched. As I was reading, I was certain that any subject she raises in the book has been thoroughly and comprehensively researched. She’s read all the literature related to suicide or dogs or whatever. She’s got all the relevant quotes. She’s dug into the pertinent scientific journals. She’s read related news articles. She’s combed through Wikipedia. You know this only because she pulls out the best tidbits to share – again, kind of like you might scrawl off a particularly juicy detail about, I don’t know, a work project, in your diary – and they are fascinating. But it is clear that they are the gems she plucked out and shined up, and that there are truckloads of dirt clods that she left behind. It’s impressive and, frankly, kind of awe-inspiring.


  • She handles the central relationships of the book with such care. Basically, you’ve got a woman and her dead mentor. And you’ve a got a woman and her dead mentor’s dog. And, really, you’ve got a woman coming to terms with herself without her dead friend. Each of these relationships is drawn with such tremendous compassion and thoughtfulness and grace (this seems like the wrong word, but I keep coming back to it) that I was wholly drawn in, wholly won over.


  • Lurking in the background is that this book is about a writer, writing. Writing figures into the overarching narrative as kind of a linking force and maybe even a personal imperative. The protagonist is a writer, her mentor is a writer; their writing brought them together, kept them together. And she’s figuring out how writing fits in to her grieving process.


Perhaps you should know, before you read it, that I finished reading, closed the book, and wept like a child. Great body-shaking sobs that I could not control or suppress. And yet I welcomed the tears, because they were so well-earned.

Have I managed to make it sound dull and off-putting? Possibly. Hopefully I have not done more harm than good in recommending it to you.

Well, I think you’d be best off just reading the book. I loved it. I wish I could read it again for the first time. I look forward to returning to it again. And then again. I am so very glad I read it.

If you read it, let me know, will you?

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I did not think of it quickly enough to add to Friday’s post, but I am IN LOVE with this workout video:

Shape: Best-Ever Hollywood Workout


Shape best ever Hollywood

Photo from amazon.com. Every time I put this in my DVD player – EVERY TIME – I think about Paul Hollywood, of Great British Baking Show fame. I think I might prefer a Paul Hollywood exercise video. Especially if it involved cake.

I really hate going to the gym. Likewise, I hate exercise classes of any type. If I’m going to exercise, I’m going to do it in my own home where no one can hear me huffing and grunting or see how inflexible I am.

It took me… nearly 40 years to figure to this out, but my library has a lot of exercise videos that you can just… CHECK OUT! For FREE! So for the past six months or so, I have been adding two or three of them to my pile of books every time I go to the library. Some of them, as you may imagine, are terrible. Others are so good I plan on buying them.

The Shape: Best-Ever Hollywood Workout is my current favorite. It has lots of benefits:

  1. The “star” or “host” or “exercise guru” or whatever you want to call him is Gunnar Peterson, and he is not annoying at all. Some of the stars of these videos make me want to turn off the video. They can be too peppy or too aggressive. Jillian Michaels, for instance, is constantly reminding you that you have to WORK to see results. Don’t just sit there and eat ice cream while she’s working out. You have to DO THE EXERCISES. You want your abs to look like this backup exerciser right here? Well, you have to WORK to get them. Rock hard abs aren’t FREE. Sigh. It’s true and a good reminder and all that but it annoys the crap out of me. I’m DOING THE VIDEO, all right? Lay off me! Gunnar Peterson doesn’t really do any reminders like that. He basically says, “Do this exercise” and then he does some counting down to the last rep and then he moves on to the next exercise. Once in a while he’ll say, “Great job” or “Don’t let your arms gets sloppy” or something along those lines. That’s it.
  2. It has OPTIONS. There are two 20-minute workouts for the whole body and two 10-minute “targeted” workouts (one for your arms, one for your buns and thighs). I like to have options. It gets boring to do the same thing over and over, and so this allows me to rotate things.
  3. It’s FAST. You can do a whole workout in 20 minutes! Or 10 minutes, if you want to! And even in 20 minutes, I get my heart rate up and my muscles are noticeably sore the next day. I feel like it’s a worthwhile 20 minutes. And if you have 30 minutes, you can do one of the 20-minute workouts and then one of the 10-minute ones.
  4. It doesn’t really require special equipment. You can use hand weights, if you want. But usually one of the two backup exercisers isn’t using weights at all. You can use a yoga mat, if you want. Depends on how hard your floor is. But that’s really it. No exercise bands or balls or whatever else the kids are using these days.
  5. The exercises go by really quickly. If I’m doing a plank, I get to the point where I don’t think I can hold it much longer and it’s over. I’ve tried (vaguely, lazily) to count how many repetitions of each exercise you do, and it’s not many. Maybe 10, tops? It’s doable, is what I’m saying. So if there’s something you hate, you can get through it pretty quickly.
  6. It’s fairly low impact. I have bad knees, so I steer clear of anything high impact. One of the workouts has a small section of jumps, but it’s very fast and hasn’t bothered my knees at all. And you can skip it if you aren’t interested.
  7. There’s an option for “customizing” your workout – i.e., you go to a menu of all four workouts, and you can select which ones you want to do. And then they will play automatically. I feel like this should be #20 on the list, because it’s not really that great. I mean, it prevents you from having to press a couple of buttons on your remote, that’s all. But it’s a nice idea, I guess. I still end up fast forwarding through the cool-down of the first session and the warm-up of the second session. There’s only so much warming-up and cooling-down I can handle.


  1. This is a DVD, from 2010, which is nearly a DECADE ago. So if you don’t have a DVD player or a PlayStation that can play it, you are out of luck.
  2. Somehow, even though it’s a DVD, it’s still $14.98, which seems like a lot for a piece of near-defunct technology. I am still going to buy it, though. But maybe you could get it used, or check it out from your library. Or, for all I know, it exists in the ether in some digital form that you can access for free.

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We use a lot of citrus around here – I like lemony flavored dinners and limey flavored drinks – but our current juicer wasn’t really cutting it for me.


Here it is:

Old juicer

I searched Amazon, Sur la Table, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Target, and couldn’t find this for sale anywhere, so maybe I’m not alone in thinking this could be improved upon.

I mean, it’s FINE, but it tends to get seeds in the food and it requires some elbow grease to extract juice, so it’s not PERFECT.

So the last time my husband and I were at Sur la Table (for a hot! date!), I asked if we could look at the juicers and see if there were any better options.

I was thinking of something like this, where you can use gravity to aid in the juice extraction process.

Glass juicer

Glass Citrus Juicer, $12.00 (photo from Sur la Table)

But instead, during the course of our hot! date!, we got to see THIS juicer in action.

Juicer 2

And lo! it was amazing!

So even though it was $14.99, we bought it. And it is my new favorite thing EVER.

It’s SO easy to use.

But! It is also non-intuitive to use!

If I had bought it on sight rather than after seeing a demonstration, I would never have guessed how to use it properly. And the website is no help. There are multiple photos, including a somewhat disturbing one of juice falling from the juicer, but not ONE showing how you put the fruit into the juicer.

I would have put the cut lemon or lime into the bowl of the juicer with the rind nestled down in the little bowl all snug, and the pulp facing up. So that when I squeezed the arms of the juicer together, they all fit together in a nice nested fashion, and that the emptied-of-juice lemon ended up looking like a little empty bowl at the end.


Instead, you put the lemon in round side UP, and pulp side DOWN. Like so!

Juicer 4

I do know this is a lime and not a lemon. Also, it’s not a FULL lime. There are limits to what I will do for a post.

At the end, you have an inside-out lemon. And lots of delicious juice.

A real live chef showed us this method, so I am choosing to believe that this is The Best and Proper Way to use it. Although I haven’t tried it the other way. So perhaps it works equally well if you put the lemon in round side down.

It is – and I am not being compensated at ALL for this opinion (call me, Sur la Table) – FULLY worth the $14.99. In fact, I plan to buy one for each family member at Christmas. Okay, I also now see that there is a very similar version on Amazon for $8.95. Whatever. I don’t regret a thing.

Perhaps you do not use lemons and limes as frequently as I do. I still recommend this tool because it is AWESOME.

Juicer 1

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One of my husband’s favorite pastimes is wandering through bookstore stacks (or library stacks – he isn’t picky) and adding to the enormous running list of books he needs to read. Sometimes he buys a book right then and there; other times he waits a few days to order online. But he buys multiple books a month. (It’s one of the [many] reasons I love him.)

If I’m with him – and I will state right here for the record that while I LOVE to read and I ADORE buying new books, I HATE browsing through bookstores/libraries – he’ll inevitably hand me a book and direct me to read the back cover.

I don’t like reading the back cover. More often than not, the person who read the copy seems to not have read the book at all. (I just finished a book where the cover copy MISSPELLED the name of a character in the book.) (Deep breaths. We will all get through this.) But even if the person who wrote the cover copy DID read the book, even LOVED the book, well, it’s just too small a space to always convey a book’s awesomeness.

Of course, there is always the misleading cover copy, the kind that tricks you into believing a book will be crazy good… when it is NOT GOOD AT ALL. (Cough cough, Voluntary Madness, My Sister’s Keeper, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter cough.)

That was a long-winded way of telling you that I don’t put much stock in cover copy. If a book woos me with a beautiful title (which is how I judge a book, while my husband literally picks up books based on their covers), I will read a page or two. Sometimes I will flip to a random page and read a few paragraphs. If I’m not won over by these methods, I’m not buying.

Gah, that’s scary. As someone who would like to WRITE and PUBLISH a novel someday, it is pretty terrifying that a reader takes so little time to discard a book from her list of possibilities.

Anyway, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht was one of the books my husband pulled off the shelf at some point last year. First point against it: It’s got one of those “The [Something] Wife” titles that are far too popular these days. Second point against it: The cover copy was kind of boring. Third point against it: The cover is a mainly black field, topped by the bottom half of a slinking tiger. As in, nothing to write home about.

I did the old flip-open-and-read-a-passage-at-random thing, but I handed it back to my husband. Not for me.

But after it started appearing on all sorts of “Best of 2011” lists… When it made the list of finalists for the National Book Award… And won the Orange Prize… My husband decided I should read it.

So he bought it for me for Christmas.

And I had to read it. For one thing, my dear beloved husband had purchased it for me as a gift. So I had to at least TRY it. For another, I’d managed to fly all the way to Florida for a WEEK without a SINGLE BOOK in my possession.


This is the book I want to write.

There. Is that enough to make you buy it?

Because I can’t give it higher praise.

Now, I’m not saying it’s the best book I’ve read EVER. (In fact, I’d give the same high praise to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. And The History of Love. And The Time Traveler’s Wife. Everything Is Illuminated. Lolita. Song of Solomon. Love in the Time of Cholera.)

But it’s up there.

Mini-NO-SPOILER-plot summary:

This story is about Natalia, who is either a med student or a resident or a fairly-new physician, I didn’t pay attention to the details. She and a friend/fellow doctor are journeying across the border to inoculate some orphans who are living at a monastery.

The book is only slightly about that journey. It’s more about other types of journeying. Primarily the journeys that Natalia and her grandfather make in search of answers.

Natalia has a very close bond with her grandfather, and the book is, in part, about their relationship. Like any love, theirs is not a straight line. It has hooks and crags and peaks and valleys.

The book is also about love, in a global sense. Love between parent and child, grandfather and granddaughter. Love between spouses. Love from afar. Love of ritual. Love of countrymen. Love of humanity.

And, perhaps even more so, this book is about the opposite of love: pain.

The pain of love, unrequited and realized. The pain of disrespect. The pain of abuse. The pain of escape. The pain of life. The pain of fear. The pain of knowledge. The pain of uncertainty. The pain of an ending. The pain of war. The pain of peace. The pain of loss. The pain of discovery.

It’s also about mythology, and the role it plays in our lives and behavior and thought-processes. In fact, the bleak reality of the book – which takes place in an unnamed war-torn area of Eastern Europe – is off-set by legend and superstition, both of which are so important a part of the characters’ lives that they become real in their own way: A man becomes a bear. A tiger becomes a husband. Death becomes a human being.

But these wild, fantastical elements are not absurd in the way of much magical realism, nor do they seem out of place or artificial. They are woven so tightly into the fabric of the book’s world that they are almost indistinguishable from fact.

It’s about all of these things and about that single thing we all have in common: death.

So much in this world is horrible. There’s heartbreak and war and murder and indifference and illness and cruelty. And all the struggling just leads us closer to the day when Death will reach out his hand and guide us into his home.

But there’s beauty, too. In the most unexpected places: the brush of tiger fur against skin; a childhood book tucked inside your pocket; boot-legged music played on a car stereo.

And there’s love. Complicated, inexplicable, tangled-up love.

This is the story I want to write.

Should you read it? You know, I recognize that every person reading this post right now has her own idea of what The Perfect Book is. Maybe you won’t think this book is perfect. Maybe you won’t like it one bit. If you don’t, I promise I won’t love you any less.

But oh, Internet.

The prose is lovely, vivid. This is the kind of story told to children in hushed voices as they’re drifting off to sleep. The kind of tale that comes alive in the brain, as real as if you were watching it happen in person.

And it was satisfying in the way only a great book can be. For instance, the plot is twisty and full of mysteries. But there ARE answers. Some, at least. Or at least semi-answers that are complete enough that you can fill in the rest for yourself.

The themes are universal, which means – I think – you will relate to the main characters and their journeys. But even though this is a love story, a death story, a story of loss like so many, many stories are and have been and will be, it plays out in a truly fresh, interesting way.

Will this help persuade you? I got to the end and I wanted to start right over and read it through again. I read every word in the book, from the author bio to the reader questions to the (overall dull, although at times very interesting) conversation between Obreht and Jennifer Egan of Goon Squad fame. I recommended it to my book club – just so I could talk about it with someone, anyone! And I have been thinking about it non-stop since reading the first chapter on Christmas Day.

Now, the book isn’t perfect. I have unanswered questions. I see loose threads wafting in the breeze made by the cover falling shut. Perhaps Obreht intended them to float there, unfinished. Perhaps she couldn’t find a way to do so without tying too neat a bow on the whole thing. Perhaps she recognized that loose ends are part of life.  In any event, I wasn’t frustrated by the loose ends. I didn’t feel let down, the way I did after reading, say, Life of Pi. I felt glad to have read it. And certain that I would read it again.

It’s a great book, Internet. Beautifully written, beautifully told.

Give it a try, won’t you?


Anybody else read this book? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. Warning: May contain spoilers.

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My husband borrowed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson as a book on tape from our local library. The first time we listened to it, I fell asleep in the middle of the prologue. Being the sweetheart that he is, my husband turned off the CD so we could try again at a later date.

Second try: I fell asleep in the middle of the prologue.

Third try: Just kidding. there was no third try. My husband returned it to the library.

Then my book club chose it as our April read. So I went to Costco and bought the paperback.

For the first two weeks, I couldn’t get past the first 20 pages. Even though I skipped the stupid prologue I’d heard twice.

“This is an international bestseller, nay, a phenomenal international SENSATION,” I chided myself. “Why don’t you like it?”

I consoled myself with the fact that I did not like The Da Vinci Code either. Nor have I ever cracked a book by Danielle Steel or The Dude Whose Sappy Best-Sellers Become Blockbuster Movies That Make Chicks Cry.

Then I talked to my friend and co-book club member who said she hated it for 100 pages. And then she couldn’t put it down.

So I kept at it.

For 62 pages, I could only go for one to two pages until I fell asleep from sheer boredom.

But once I hit that sixty-third page, it became one of those books that I read until three o’clock in the morning every night.

Mini-plot summary: One of the great things about this book is that the plot is deliciously complex. You’ve got a financial conspiracy. A bizarre genius with a convoluted past. A disgraced reporter with revenge on his mind. An unsolved disappearance. A crazy, effed-up family – whose members largely live on a single island outside Stockholm. A sadistic lawyer. An Australian sheep farm. Blond wigs. Money laundering. Computer hacking. Animal cruelty. Murder. Rape. Incest. Open-faced sandwiches.

All wrapped up in one shiny, blood-chilling, heart-racing, amazing story.

I am a sucker for great character development. The two main characters? I grew to care about them, root for them to succeed, fear for their safety. Especially the odd, brilliant, fiercely-independent Lisbeth Salander. She’s like a socially-stunted Jason Bourne, and I love her.

Now that I have a little distance from the book, I realize it wasn’t perfect. There were a couple instances of foreshadowing that seemed needless and even forced… like the author thought that point needed something foreboding to set the mood, but maybe was running late for a hot date and asked his little brother to “just put something in.” Then there were a few loose ends that were tied up just a little too neatly. One big aspect of the plot was kind of glossed over. And a couple of characters seemed like they weren’t addressed as fully as they needed to be. (I’m hoping the sequels delve deeper into what happens with them.)

And yet? I don’t care.

That’s how much I loved Salander.

I mourn the loss of Steig Larsson, because I can’t imagine that three books will be enough Lisbeth Salander for me.

Should you read it? I say, give it a go! And if you hate the first 100 pages? Just keep reading. It WILL get better. And better and better and better. (That’s right – this book is 600ish pages.)

I bought the sequel (The Girl Who Played with Fire) before I’d gotten halfway through this book. I started it the second I ended Dragon Tattoo (at 1:17 a.m. on Sunday night). And I’ll be sure to report back.


Anybody else read this book? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. Warning: May contain spoilers.

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Some books just hit you. Deep down in the gut, like someone’s rammed into you head first.

This book is one of those. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Mini-plot summary: Sixteen-year-old Little Bee meets Sarah and her husband Andrew on a beach in Nigeria. What happens there changes all of their lives. Two years later, Little Bee is released from a detention center outside of London. She goes to find Andrew and Sarah, arriving at their home in time for another life-changing event.

And that’s all I am going to tell you about the plot, because I don’t want to give anything away.

But, like I said, I can’t stop thinking about this book. So I want to tell you something about it. Something that will make you go out and buy it/borrow it right this instant.

So let’s start with the writing.

I’m a writing snob, I admit it. I have very distinct thoughts about style and pacing and flow. There are some books I just refuse to read because the writing grates on me. Either it’s too clichéd or too simplistic… Or it’s too self-conscious and overly-wrought. I think nothing bugs me more than writing that’s trying too hard to be literary or clever or beautiful.

Anyway, from the very first sentence, Little Bee is beautifully written. Some of the imagery is what I would describe as poetic. Which is not to say that it’s flowery or anything. I just think it’s extremely evocative. It shows you the world of this book in a new and utterly fresh (and utterly charming) manner.

Let me quote from the book, one of the most beautiful and romantic passages I’ve ever read:

“Whenever I need to stop and remind myself how much I once loved Andrew, I only need to think about this. That the ocean covers seven tenths of the earth’s surface, and yet my husband could make me not notice it. That is how big he was for me.”

This makes my heart ache, it is so apt and yet so freshly described.

Anyway. The writing. The beautifully-crafted phrases, the imagery, the metaphor. These alone are worth reading Little Bee.

But then there are the characters.

It’s a book of few characters. Really, the story is Sarah’s and Little Bee’s story. The others (Andrew, Lawrence, Batman, Clarissa) are sort of just along for the ride. Important in that they are responsible for a lot of what happens to Sarah and Little Bee throughout the novel. But it’s not really about them.

Sarah and Little Bee take turns narrating the novel, chapter by chapter. Which I know has become a little over-used of late, and no longer carries the power it had in Ulysses and As I Lay Dying or even in Everything Is Illuminated. But it works really well in Little Bee. Sarah and Little Bee come from different worlds. And you get to see how their lives join from both sides.

Sarah Summers: Sarah irritates me a little. She’s such a first world person, with first world problems and the first world belief that she can – and indeed is entitled to – fix everything. But I think what irritates me most is that she is so real. I could be Sarah, in the situation she found herself in. I hope I would be as brave as she is. As determined. I suspect I would be just as stupid, just as short-sighted, just as over-confident in my chances of making a difference.

Little Bee: This teenager is wise beyond her years. She’s seen and done things that no one should ever have to see or do, especially not a sixteen-year-old. She is funny and kind and surprisingly fierce (and not in a Christian Siriano way – but in a feisty little bulldog sort of way).

Batman: Yes, I said that Batman was a character in this book. That’s Sarah’s little boy, Charlie. He’s four. He wears his Batman costume at all times, except while bathing. He is the most realistic little boy, with his stubbornness and his sweetness and his complete inability to understand the world in any way except his own.

Andrew O’Rourke: Oh Andrew. I hate you and yet I understand why you did what you did.

And finally, there’s the plot.

This plot is the stuff of action movies. I think it would make for a super blockbuster film.

But it’s not pretty stuff, the things that happen in this book. It’s torturous. I could feel myself tensing up at certain points, knowing what would happen, not wanting to read on, willing it not to happen. Spoiler Alert: It happened anyway.

(Side Note: I’m not saying that the plot was in any way predictable. It was surprising and entirely captivating.)

There’s so much to think about once you’ve read this book…

* The horrors that exist in the world. The way that we first worlders are so oblivious to what’s really happening.

* What it means to be a woman. How vulnerable a state that can be. How strong it can make you.

* The difference between right and wrong. How something can be wrong for you and your family but can still be right and necessary and good. How something can be wrong and still be justifiable. How something can be legal and “just” and still be so wrong.

* What it is to be a family.

* What it is to be afraid. How fear affects us. How we protect ourselves, and how we strive to protect others.

* How impossible and necessary and difficult and critical it is to do something, even if it goes horribly horribly wrong.

Should you read it? Yes, yes God yes.

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I have not read Running with Scissors. There was a huge furor about this book a couple of years ago. I believe it may have even become a movie.

But even though I never read this book, it put the author – Augusten Burroughs – on my radar.

Now, I think it’s necessary to tell you that I do NOT choose books by their covers. (My husband does that.) Instead, I choose a book by its title.

So when I saw A Wolf at the Table on a “Noteworthy Paperbacks” display at Barnes & Noble, I was intrigued. (I have a thing about wolves.)

Spoiler Alert: This book has nothing to do with wolves.

It’s a memoir – the prequel to Running with Scissors – a genre which I have recently come to enjoy. What can I say? I love the little voyeuristic thrill of peeking inside someone’s life.

I am torn about how to describe this book to you. Hence the stall tactics of the previous six paragraphs.

Mini plot summary: Augusten Burroughs gives a first-person account of his extremely dysfunctional upbringing. He grew up with a mother who was abused, psychologically fragile, and who constantly retreated to her safe little bubble of art…. A brother who was emotionally or physically absent… and a father who was at best a neglectful and disinterested parent, at worst, a psychotic alcoholic on the verge of murder.

The story was chilling. Captivating. If you can’t stand for pets to die in books, don’t read this one.

The sick relationship between Augusten’s parents was one of those things you can’t help gawking at. After physical and psychological abuse, I wondered over and over, why does this woman stay with her husband? How can she allow her two sons to live in this atmosphere? Yes, she left on occasion. But she always returned. The classic abuse cycle, right?

The things Augusten’s father did were… unthinkable.

But then again… The story is told from the point of view of a child. A child who doesn’t have all the facts. A child who doesn’t fully understand the things he sees and hears. And – while he portrays his father as someone who is always on the edge of killing – the end of the book raises the possibility that perhaps young Augusten misread or overdramatized the extent of his father’s homicidal tendencies. This is supported in part by Augusten’s mother’s failure to see or believe or react properly to the father’s misdeeds.

But then again, again… Augusten’s brother leaves home at a young age, ostensibly to get away from the unhealthy atmosphere. And he teaches Augusten how to shoot a gun, presumably to ensure that Augusten can protect himself against their father.

My big issue with this book is that it’s entirely plot-driven. The prose wasn’t horrible or anything. It was okay. But the entire meat of the book is the plot. I suppose that’s fine. I mean, I read the book pretty quickly. I was interested until the last page. But I like writing for its beauty, too. You can have both. See: anything by Jonathan Safran Foer, Audrey Niffenegger, Vladimir Nabokov, or Jhumpa Lahiri.

Also, I think Augusten takes some liberties with the plot that were unsatisfying. There’s a particular scene at Martha’s Vineyard where he pretty much invents a scene… and you don’t find out until afterward that it was a fantasy. Which seems like cheating to me. Writers – of memoirs and non fiction – should be able to make the truth sing. They shouldn’t need to bolster it with fiction or fantasy.

The other thing… I guess my hope for memoirists is that they take the bad in their lives and turn it into something. I didn’t get that sense with this book. Yes, I know that there’s another book out there, another chapter of Augusten’s life that he wrote about. So perhaps he redeems himself in that one. But in A Wolf at the Table, I never felt like Augusten was able to transcend the horrible things that happened to him. He remained broken, somehow, even after the people who murdered his childhood were dead and gone. Maybe this is an honest portrayal of life. Maybe you can’t always make something good out of the horrible. Maybe once you are broken, you stay broken.

But I guess, to me, if you write about your life, you are hoping to find that good side. You feel like you have something to share with others, something that will teach them something about life or pain or themselves. I didn’t learn anything about myself or life from this book, other than the well-known fact that life is hard for some. Atrocious, even. That unthinkable things happen in this world. That an innocent child can be irreparably damaged by others, even by the very people who are supposed to love and protect him.

I guess my disappointment here is my own fault. I am an idealist, a romantic. I want to believe that good – even if it is a tiny silver – can come out of horror and evil. The only good that came of Augusten’s horrible childhood is that his mother finally finally rescued him. But the rescue was temporary. Small. And she removed Augusten to a place that held even more horrors.

Maybe the good that we’re supposed to find is survival. That you can live in the worst conditions – unfathomable conditions, really – and still survive. This is the message of many Holocaust books, after all. But somehow, it doesn’t resonate here – not for me.

Should you read this book? It was a page turner, that’s for sure. So sure, go ahead and pick it up. But don’t expect it to make your list of Best Written Books of All Time.

Now I’m going to pick up Running with Scissors.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this book, if you’ve read it. Have at it in the comments – but beware that there may be spoilers.

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