4.10.2018

The Magnificent Esme Wells by Adrienne Sharp (ARC Review)

The Magnificent Esme Wells by Adrienne Sharp
Publisher: Harper Books (April 10, 2018)
Description from the publisher:
Esme Silver has always taken care of her charming ne’er-do-well father, Ike Silver, a small-time crook with dreams of making it big with Bugsy Siegel. Devoted to her daddy, Esme is often his "date" at the racetrack, where she amiably fetches the hot dogs while keeping an eye to the ground for any cast-off tickets that may be winners.
In awe of her mother, Dina Wells, Esme is more than happy to be the foil who gets the beautiful Dina into meetings and screen tests with some of Hollywood’s greats. When Ike gets an opportunity to move to Vegas—and, in what could at last be his big break, to help the man she knows as "Benny" open the Flamingo Hotel—life takes an unexpected turn for Esme. A stunner like her mother, the young girl catches the attention of Nate Stein, one of the Strip’s most powerful men.
Narrated by the twenty-year-old Esme, The Magnificent Esme Wells moves between pre–WWII Hollywood and postwar Las Vegas—a golden age when Jewish gangsters and movie moguls were often indistinguishable in looks and behavior. Esme’s voice—sharp, observant, and with a quiet, mordant wit—chronicles the rise and fall and further fall of her complicated parents, as well as her own painful reckoning with love and life. A coming-of-age story with a tinge of noir, and a tale that illuminates the promise and perils of the American dream and its dreamers, The Magnificent Esme Wells is immersive, moving, and compelling.

I feel that I should preface this review with a full disclosure that I have a great amount of love and nostalgia for Las Vegas. I first traveled there with my mom for my 21st birthday many years ago (over two decades, gah) and going once or twice a year thereafter for at least ten years. I remember visiting several of the hotels featured in the novel, most which no longer exist. It's not high on my travel priority list anymore, but I think on it fondly and love most things associated with the City of Lights. 

Esme is a powerful narrator with a distinct voice. Sharp renders her with such strength and courage, while being one of the most tragic characters I've read in a long time. A dual timeline is employed to great effect, slowly gathering tension towards the conclusion of her mother's story in Hollywood during Esme's childhood, and the conclusion of her own story in Las Vegas as a young woman. I found myself more engaged with Esme as an adult in Vegas. Although I am a fan of old Hollywood historical fiction (see also: Beautiful Ruins, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and films like L.A. Confidential), the Hollywood storyline is centered around Esme's parents and upbringing which are both deplorable. The early part of the novel focuses heavily on this period, so it took awhile to warm up. Once things turn more towards her coming of age, and the crises Esme faces during the fascinating coming of age of Las Vegas, I began turning the pages in rapid succession, desperate to learn of her fate. 

"I didn't know yet how these men were protective of little girls but preyed upon them when they grew up. But you couldn't stop growing up. The transition from girlhood to womanhood turned on a pivot. One day you were a child and then, all at once, you weren't."

Esme's narration feels almost as if she is an outside observer to her own life. One could take that as detachment, but I thought that it lent even more empathy towards her character because she was clearly not in control of her life for much of the novel. And many of the circumstances in which she had to bear witness were so tragic that her detachment can be seen as a defense mechanism, the most pivotal of which is disclosed near the end of the novel and it brought tears to my eyes.  Overall, it was darker than I had anticipated, yet a mesmerizing read.

Many thanks to the great people at Harper Books for sending me an advance copy in exchange for my honest review!




4.03.2018

Books I Read in March



Dark Money by Jane Mayer
Ughhhh. Just. Ugh. This was so scarily eye opening about where, and how, money has been spent over the last forty or so years to push the far right agenda, despite the majority of Americans polling progressive. Campaign financing barely factors into this massive web of tax shelters, secrecy, infiltrating universities and think tanks full of 'alternative facts' in an attempt to shift our culture by those who have wealth beyond imagining. I felt quite ill listening this one on audio. And although it was a little dry, all citizens should be aware of the actions of these people and the effects on our society (mainly the Kochs, but now I know even more about Betsy DeVos, which is gross).

Laura & Emma by Kate Greathead
You can read my full (favorable!) review here.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser
This was just ADORABLE. It felt like a well written, literary version of The Goonies, but set in NYC with a troupe of adorable siblings in lieu of a gang of best friends. No pirates either, just a mysterious and grumpy landlord who lives upstairs, never leaves his home and decides to terminate the Vanderbeeker's lease. Glaser creates a vivid picture of the 141st street neighborhood and it's inhabitants. It comes together with a lot of poignancy and heart. I also think it'd be a great read to please a lot of ages, as there's something for everyone with the characters ranging in age from toddler to teen.

This Must Be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell
O'Farrell's memoir I Am, I Am, I Am is on my 'to be read' list, but I wanted to check out her fiction first - and I'm glad I did. This novel was completely up my alley, like a puzzle to piece together: full of family drama, with multiple narrators and settings, that jumps around in time. The short version is that it is a romance between Daniel, who is divorced and estranged from his children, and Claudette who is a former movie star who escaped to anonymity in rural Ireland. Yet it is a complex tapestry of the lives of their children, exes, friends, siblings, and parents. Each character has his or her own compelling story that leads to Daniel and Claudette. It did get rather confusing at points, and I'd have to stop and gather myself to remember who was who. But I loved threading the story lines together and seeing the full and beautiful picture come together in the end. This was lovely, and I can't wait to read all of her work. 

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
This was another audiobook and, though I am picky about audio, it was a perfect choice for listening. I love when books are read by the author, and you can hear the tears as well as laughter in Jahren's voice as she conveys her gorgeous prose. Not what I was expecting for a nonfiction work about a scientist. Alas, her use of plants as metaphor for the human experience is a wonder: from Sitka trees, cacti, creeping vines and moss. I feel as if I can relate to them all, and especially her sidekick Bill. Their dry humor and witty banter, from her point of view, is a delight and a beautiful tribute to their friendship. And, yes, I also learned about the struggles of the science community and about the science of plants. I really do feel the urge to plant a tree as soon as possible. 

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
I picked up a signed copy of this one when visiting Parnassus books in Nashville, so it will always have a special place in my heart! It starts off with a terrible incident that rips the two main character's marriage apart and then goes into a slow burn of introspection on their relationship, family and upbringing as their lives diverge. Then the last third or so of the book builds to a near heart stopping conclusion. Seriously, I was so stressed to see how things would conclude between Roy and Celestial. It's an emotionally heavy story about the realities of love and marriage that had me absolutely captivated.

3.29.2018

Monthly Meal Wrap Up - February and March (with lots of love for new Trader Joe's products)

It has been quite awhile since I checked in on the meal front! Y'all, I'm just having a hard time finding stuff worth writing home about. I've tried a few new cookbooks and one or two new recipes in the last two months, but nothing that we'll be adding to the regular rotation. With the exception of this recipe I found from Delish for Goddess Bowls - SO GOOD. 

I was getting real tired of stir fry sauces for chicken/veggies/rice and this was a perfect way to change things up. However... 
This new product from Trader Joe's is deeeeelicious and perfect to throw over rice with some snow peas and chicken for an easy and tasty dinner.
They are on FIRE with awesome new products right now. Seriously, it's not just my bias of having a big brother who is a longtime TJ's Captain. (Related: my favorite TJs items can be found here and here.) They have really stepped up with healthier options for the grab and go salads. I mean, they are usually tasty - but often have a leeeetle too much saturated fat in the dressings and such for my liking. This corn and quinoa salad is light, refreshing AND satisfying.
But the new Banh Mi noodle bowl has MY WHOLE HEART. I literally texted my brother pleading with him to make sure they never ever discontinue it - I limit myself to two a week for lunch, for now...
Oh, hey, yeah - I had that trip to Nashville for some girl time last month!
Not too many pictures of my food were taken, but I can vouch for the lovely cocktails and gnocchi at Jonathan Waxman's Adele's 
and the best thing I ate in Nashville was the whipped feta with honey and pita bread at Butcher and Bee.
ZOMG. It tasted heavenly. I might try and replicate - will report back.
Locally, I had a few fun coffee adventures: finally checking out the Starbucks Roastery, where I tried the tasty Shakerato Bianco (which was basically espresso on ice served with a wee pitcher of sweet cream) 
and the 85 Degree Bakery's sea salt coffee. Drooooool. 
I'm really thankful that cold coffee season is almost in full swing, since I think that's my preferred delivery method. Also coming up in soon? The first family spring break vacation! Hopefully will have some fun new food finds to share from sunny San Diego.

3.22.2018

Books I've Been Meaning to Read for Ages

When I set my goals for the year, getting around to reading the books I've been "meaning to read" was high on my list. I thought it might be fun to solicit some feedback on my pile - so if you have a recommendation for what I should (or should not) read next, holler! 

The first book I'll address on my list is the one I couldn't track down for the picture above, and that's A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I avoided this book like the plague because, even though people looooooove it, it just sounds so heavy and I don't know if I can handle the terrible abuse the main character apparently suffers - especially for 800+ pages. However, I have heard The Heart's Invisible Furies is reminiscent of this book for many readers, so I may just cave. Because John Boyne's latest is an ABSOLUTE TREASURE.

Another chunkster, the Pulitzer winning Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry has come up several times on the What Should I Read Next podcast with guests that I share similar taste in reading. I recall the miniseries being a pretty big deal in my youth, and I think it would be fun to read something completely different from my usual contemporary fiction.

A room with a View by E.M. Forster has been on my pile since June, and given that it's a rather slim volume, I should be able to check that one off my list easily!

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath always makes me think of the defining film of my youth, Heathers, as it's Cliff's Notes are sitting on the table in the first Heather's bedroom upon her demise. And the buzz around Maggie O'Farrell's current memoir (also on my TBR) has rekindled my interest in finally reading this classic, as the title I Am, I Am, I Am is taken from a quote in The Bell Jar.

The Remains of the Day is one of my favorite books, and yet I have not read another novel by Ishiguro. Never Let Me Go seems to rise to the top of most recommended titles, so I'm hoping it lives up to the former.

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy can be filed under 'classic novel that wouldn't have been assigned reading and sounds rather fun and romantic.' Plus the most recent film version looks lovely, but I reading the book first is always preferable.

Years ago, I remember reading that I Capture the Castle was one of J.K. Rowling's favorite books and put it on my TBR. In the years that I have consistently moved it down the queue, I continue to hear raves about this book and am determined to get it read this year!

I try my best to keep up with great children's literature, and somehow I missed catching The Golden Compass train - see also: Percy Jackson. Are there any others I should catch up on? I did start The Mysterious Benedict Society series with my son, and would definitely recommend!

Last, but not least, I have been meaning to read another Barbara Kingsolver. The Poisonwood Bible is one of my all time favorites, and I also loved Prodigal Summer and The Bean Trees. But, it's been at least a decade since I reacquainted myself with this beloved author and I really want to read Flight Behavior. I scored this copy for ONE DOLLAR on the books for sale shelf at the library!!












3.13.2018

Laura and Emma by Kate Greathead

Laura & Emma by Kate Greathead
Publisher: Simon and Schuster (March 13, 2018)
Description from the publisher
A tender, witty debut novel about a single mother raising her daughter among the upper crust of New York City society in the late twentieth century from a nine-time Moth StorySLAM champion.
Laura hails from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, born into old money, drifting aimlessly into her early thirties. One weekend in 1981 she meets Jefferson. The two sleep together. He vanishes. And Laura realizes she’s pregnant.
Enter: Emma.
Despite her progressive values, Laura raises Emma by herself in the same blue-blood world of private schools and summer homes she grew up in, buoyed by a host of indelible characters, including her eccentric mother, who informs her society friends and Emma herself that she was fathered by a Swedish sperm donor; her brother, whose childhood stutter reappears in the presence of their forbidding father; an exceptionally kind male pediatrician; and her overbearing best friend, whose life has followed the Park Avenue script in every way except for childbearing. Meanwhile, the apple falls far from the tree with Emma, who begins to question her environment in a way her mother never could.
Told in vignettes that mine the profound from the mundane, with meditations on everything from sex and death to insomnia and the catharsis of crying on the subway, a textured portrait emerges of a woman struggling to understand herself, her daughter, and the changing landscape of New York City in the eighties and nineties. Laura & Emma is an acutely insightful exploration of class and family warfare from a new author whose offbeat sensibility, understated wit, and stylish prose celebrate the comedy and pathos that make us human.

Going into this book, I must admit that I was wary because I'm not usually a fan of introspective female narratives. Instead, I found myself glued to the pages of this deep dive into a fascinating life of a square peg in the round hole of wealthy New York society. 
Each chapter covers a year, starting with the fateful year of 1981 when Laura becomes pregnant with Emma. The chapters are then broken into small vignettes, that are addictive as candy. Greathead has amazingly astute observations of things that can seem insignificant, but paint such a detailed portrait of life. Stories of her misguided friendship with the pediatrician, her best friend, her upper crust WASP caricature of a mother, dates gone wrong, sister in law dynamics, school mom drama, and preteen drama all struck a chord. When Emma is excited about her new school but isn't responding to the adults with the right level of enthusiasm:
"One of the more exhausting aspects of getting older was having to act like an adult. Pretending to like people you couldn't stand, speaking for the sake of filling a silence, smiling when you felt like crying."
These episodes are witty, funny, fraught with tension and quite sad, in equal measure. Laura's privilege blinds her to any real self awareness, or awareness of the lives of others, which makes for so many quirky moments that can go in unexpected ways. One might find her infuriating, but I couldn't help but root for her to triumph in the end. 
"Life hadn't required Laura to navigate unknown territory on her own, and on the few occasions over the years when she had taken the initiative to do so had all been very empowering."
The author's uncanny ability to convey authentic dialogue and such genuine details about life reminds me a great deal of Curtis Sittenfeld's writing, one of my all time favorite authorsThe prose on the agony and ecstasy of motherhood and adolescence rings so true. If you enjoy character driven, fly on the wall, hypnotically written episodic stories, I would HIGHLY recommend Laura and Emma. 
Many thanks to Simon and Schuster for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review!

3.06.2018

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy by Nova Jacobs (A NetGalley Review)

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy by Nova Jacobs
Publisher: Touchstone (March 6, 2018)
Description from the Publisher:
The Family Fang meets The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry in this literary mystery about a struggling bookseller whose recently deceased grandfather, a famed mathematician, left behind a dangerous equation for her to track down—and protect—before others can get their hands on it.
Just days after mathematician and family patriarch Isaac Severy dies of an apparent suicide, his adopted granddaughter Hazel, owner of a struggling Seattle bookstore, receives a letter from him by mail. In it, Isaac alludes to a secretive organization that is after his final bombshell equation, and he charges Hazel with safely delivering it to a trusted colleague. But first, she must find where the equation is hidden.
While in Los Angeles for Isaac’s funeral, Hazel realizes she’s not the only one searching for his life’s work, and that the equation’s implications have potentially disastrous consequences for the extended Severy family, a group of dysfunctional geniuses unmoored by the sudden death of their patriarch.
As agents of an enigmatic company shadow Isaac’s favorite son—a theoretical physicist—and a long-lost cousin mysteriously reappears in Los Angeles, the equation slips further from Hazel’s grasp. She must unravel a series of maddening clues hidden by Isaac inside one of her favorite novels, drawing her ever closer to his mathematical treasure. But when her efforts fall short, she is forced to enlist the help of those with questionable motives.

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy is an entertaining read, especially if you are a fan of plot driven mysteries and piecing together a puzzle of a book. It took awhile for me to get my bearings in this novel, as there are a few meandering plot lines and a LOT of characters to get to know in the Severy orbit - maybe a tad too many. (I still had to take a moment to place the name of one of the characters while reading the last pages of the book!) But, of the characters that stood out, I quickly became engrossed in their (somewhat terrible and shocking) secrets and their fates. 
The story might have appealed to my family drama loving heart, and been better served overall by fleshing out these standout characters more, and earlier in the book. Just as I was getting to really figure them out, the story was wrapping up. There was a lot to uncover about familial bonds, blended families, infidelity, abuse and how it affected these people who felt very real. I definitely see this potential in Jacobs' writing and look forward to her future work. 
As for the mystery, I loved the geeky science espionage in the last third of the book and BURNED through the pages to find out what the secret of Isaac's Equation was - nothing I ever would have guessed, and it was thoroughly thought provoking. 
Many thanks to Touchstone and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review!

This is the second month in a row that I've picked a NetGalley ARC to review that has popped up as a Book of the Month pick! (Last month being The Philosopher's Flight.) I have read quite a few galleys over the years that ended up being selections - if you are thinking about joining, here are my reviews (in addition to the above two) that you can check out and perhaps add as a free book if you decide to sign up using my referral link
Artemis by Andy Weir
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
The Girls by Emma Cline
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (a favorite book of 2016)

3.02.2018

Books I Read in February


Far from the Tree by Robin Benway
This was the National Book Award winner for YA last year and it is so deserving of all of the accolades! This story of three separately adopted siblings, that find each other in their teens is a smart and powerful story about family. There is so much to unpack: nature vs nurture, fostering and adoption, teen pregnancy, and racial bias to name a few. Like much YA, it was a little heavy on teen melodrama (especially in Maya's case with regards to fighting with her girlfriend) which felt odd at times against the backdrop of the terribly sad and difficult path these three children were on. I do have a vague recollection of a little melodrama at that age, and it probably appeals to the teens reading it! Though, I think Benway did an exceptional job of fully fleshing out the parents in the story, making it appealing for older audiences. It's great food for thought on raising kids and the kind of parents we want to be.

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel
This book was INSANELY fascinating, and good on audio - thanks for the rec Tara! You would think that the discovery of someone who had been living in the woods for nearly three decades, who only had one brush with human contact, deserved to be major headline news. Alas, since I live on the opposite side of the country, I do not remember hearing anything about this man and it is so unbelievable the confluence of several unique situations that made his hermit life, so close and yet so removed from civilization, possible. The author also deftly weaves in themes on human nature and solitude that had me thinking about how much solitude I lack in my life, but also how much humans need social bonds.

You can read my review here!

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce
This was a charming story about love, music, friendship, and being open to change, to the many twists and turns our lives can take. Frank (owner of the music shop who lives for his records and doesn't need love in is life) is an underdog worth rooting for, and his supporting cast of characters are a delight. It felt like a mash up of Empire Records and Four Weddings and a Funeral. At first I was worried it was going to be a little snobbish on the music front, with lots of obscure artists I've never heard of - yet, I knew most of the works Joyce chose to write about and her descriptions of the music was just so spot on. It's a wistful, slightly melancholy, and a little cheesy - well, the ending is A LOT cheesy. But, I'll forgive that slightly ridiculous denouement for the mostly awesome remaining 95% of the book.

Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman
Absolutely stunning. You know those books that you’re not sure if you love it, and then you look up and realize you completely forgot the world around you (and were slightly peeved to not find yourself in a sleepy Italian village)? The writing in this coming of age story is just sublime, and although I felt it a little too slow and verbose with the pretty words in the beginning, it completely stole my heart in the final pages. Fair warning, it can get rather sexually explicit and almost cringe-worthy with the feeling of being invasive on the character's intimacy. But the ride is worth it. Life is messy and painful, but we only get one and we should live it truthfully.
"How you live your life is your business. But remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. Most of us can’t help but live as though we’ve got two lives to live, one is the mockup, the other the finished version, and then there are all those versions in between. But there’s only one, and before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now there’s sorrow. I don’t envy the pain. But I envy you the pain."

I had put off this book for awhile, since it often is compared to A Man Called Ove, and I was in the minority in not loving that book. But, I came around after so many glowing reviews and I'm glad I did. As with Ove, it's certainly a "curmudgeon that sees the light" kind of story. Yet I found Honeyman's take much more compelling and humorous, even though it is tempered with great sadness. Perhaps it's because the specifics of Eleanor's unfathomable circumstances are not really revealed until, literally, the last three pages of the book. It's a gut punch, and I have a thing for gut punch endings. Some of her idiosyncrasies didn't necessarily make sense (surely she'd learn about some of the basic ways of the world after going to university?) and could turn a reader off of her character, but I was completely Team Eleanor.