Sunday, December 29, 2019

Maybe You Should Talk To Someone

Maybe You Should Talk To Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb (2019)

When Lori Gottlieb was blindsided by a breakup, she started seeing a therapist named Wendell to help her work through her feelings. A therapist herself, she shares her experience of being in therapy as well as the stories of some of her own patients (disguised, of course, for their privacy.)

Getting the perspective of both therapist and patient made for an excellent read, especially if you're not familiar with the inner workings on therapy. It was interesting to see Gottlieb fall into the same traps as her patients, and to see her therapist help her in ways she recognized as they were happening. Her self-awareness during the process made it all the more educational.

I really liked the stories about her patients. I'm trying not to overthink which parts are real and how the real stories are different, but at any rate they are all great character studies. One is a young newlywed named Julie who is dying of cancer and trying to make the most of the time she has left, while rejecting the uber-positive cancer culture. John is an asshole Hollywood writer who Lori finds very difficult to empathize with at first, but it turns out he's keeping a major tragedy a secret from her and it is only after he is willing to talk about it than any real growth can occur. He was probably the most interesting character. An older woman named Rita is - I'm pretty sure - the person I'm going to end up being someday. She is alone and bitter and feels that she has nothing to look forward to. She has kids, but they are estranged, and she just pushes people away and now that she is old she is isolated and unhappy. All of these people experienced positive growth through their therapy, and it was fascinating to hear the conversations that made them able to change their lives for the better.

There was also a patient she made no headway with and she stopped seeing, which kept it real. This situation highlighted the ways that therapy doesn't work for everyone, and how it only works if you actually keep an open mind and do the work. I'm glad she included this story, or else I would have been skeptical because it all went so much better for the other patients.

This was a lot of book. It was over 400 pages which seems excessive and I started to feel very eager to be done with it, while still dying to know how things turned out for everybody. Mostly it just made me want to see a therapist, since it resulted in major positive life changes for everyone in the book.

To be honest, this book was only vaguely on my radar - it's very popular and I keep seeing it around at the library but I didn't really intend to read it. But one day I saw an available copy and impulsively grabbed it, and I'm very glad I did. It was such an interesting look at the way our views of the world and people around us, and everything that goes on in our heads, affect our lives. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

It Takes Two to Tumble

It Takes Two to Tumble (Seducing the Sedgwicks #1) by Cat Sebastian (2017)

Captain Phillip Dacre has been away at sea for 2 years, but wants to make his visit home as short as possible. His wife is dead, his children running wild, and he's basically a stranger in his own home. Ben Sedgwick, the vicar, has been enlisted to to take care of the three hellions after they drove away every governess or tutor to be found. He has a way with them, it turns out, and now it looks like he might have a way with their stern father as well.

Phillip is all about order and following commands, and when he sees the way Ben indulges his children's whims, he doesn't approve. But he soon sees that Ben just knows how to engage them and direct their energies in less destructive ways. He also can't help but see how attractive Ben is.

Ben is also not blind to Phillip's charms. Although he's a vicar he's unconcerned about this sort of sin because he interprets the Bible in his own way. His worry is that Phillip will just be leaving again soon and will be gone for who knows how long. Other unrelated worries also start to plague Ben, regarding his family history and how it may affect his present and future.

Everything about this story was pretty charming. I liked the personalities of both the men and was definitely rooting for them. The problems with the kids gave them something to focus on and bond over, while still keeping things fairly light-hearted. They both had interesting histories too. Phillip was clearly mourning and Ben thought at first it was for his dead wife, but it was actually for a man aboard his ship. Ben has a tense relationship with his father, whose lifestyle we'd probably describe as Bohemian these days. It was a strange childhood, living with his father who essentially had two wives, and Ben isn't quite over it.

It wasn't too hard for them to come together, and I'd say the conflict is mostly about them trying to figure out what their relationship will be. Phillip assumed it would be purely physical, because that's all he thought possible, but he became so fond of Ben right away. He also worked hard at his relationship with his kids, which made him reluctant to leave again for his ship. Of course they eventually worked it all out and I found everything to be quite satisfying. I've heard of Cat Sebastian for years but had never read any of her books, and now I'm glad that I finally picked one up!

Monday, December 23, 2019

2019 TBR Pile Challenge Wrap-Up

It is the end of the year, and time to look back at my reading challenge for this year. My original post is here, but I'll copy and paste the list here if you don't want to click through.

Here is my list, with links to reviews and the dates I finished reading the books.

1. Nefarious Twit by Tony McMillen (failed in 4/19)
2. Shattering Glass by Gail Giles (finished 1/18/19)
3. Version Control by Dexter Palmer (finished 8/11/19)
4. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (finished 3/17/19)
5. We Are All Shipwrecks by Kelly Grey Carlisle (finished 5/18/19)
6. Caroline: Little House Revisited by Sarah Miller (finished 2/19/19)
7. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (finished 2/3/19)
8. Red Sister by Mark Lawrence
9. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser (finished 3/10/19)
10. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (finished 5/28/19)
11. Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright (admitted defeat 2/17/19)
12. Paradox Bound by Peter Clines (finished 4/28/19)

My two alternates:

1. The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson (finished 8/24/19)
2. My One and Only by Kristan Higgins (finished 7/4/19)

It was quite successful in that I finished 12 books, but technically unsuccessful in that one of them was actually published a couple of days too late to qualify (they were supposed to be published before 2018, but The Wolves of Winter was published on January 2, 2018. Whoops.)

There were two that I just couldn't get through, but luckily that's why there are alternates. All the others I not only finished, but liked, which is a great success. It's hard to pick favorites, but there were two that I gave 5 stars to: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Caroline: Little House Revisited. And now I'm going back changing my rating for Version Control from 4 to 5 stars, because I don't think I've stopped thinking or talking about it since I finished it back in August. It was a very strong list, other than the ones I couldn't finish. I really liked and would recommend every other book I read.

The person who runs the challenge won't be doing it in 2020 as he's focusing on other projects. There have been other years when he didn't do this challenge and I just did it on my own, and I considered that for 2020. But I don't actually have a ton of books languishing on my To Read list that I'm still super interested in. So I probably will be prioritizing some of those but I won't do a formal challenge.

I hope you've all had a great reading year!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney (2017)

It's New Year's Eve of 1984, and Lillian Boxfish is setting out for a walk that will take her all over New York, meeting new people as she visits places where significant milestones took place and thinking back over her life. She's in her 80s now (and yes, she still loves to walk everywhere), and in her youth she was the highest paid woman in advertising. She wrote ad copy in the form of poems, and also published some books of poetry. She got married, and then divorced. She had a son who is trying to get her to move to Maine, but she loves New York with all her heart, even after a subway vigilante attack that still has everyone in the city on edge.

This meandering story was nostalgic, but Lillian is anything but stuck in the past. In fact, her past has some pretty dark episodes she'd like to forget. No, even in her eighties she is interested in meeting people and will strike up a conversation with anyone: a photographer in a park, a clerk in a bodega, a teenager who is currently mugging her. She's truly interested in other people. She also admits to liking rap music, which makes sense since she's a poet but she does lament that other people her age aren't interested in it. During the course of the evening she has dinner with complete strangers, attends a party with a friend who is in her thirties, and of course walks miles and miles. I was dying to know what she wears for shoes, to be honest.

Lillian was not a marriage-and-family kind of woman. She never planned to become a wife or mother, but wanted to focus on her own career and interests, which really set her apart from other women of her time. But when she fell madly in love with a coworker from another department at Macy's she didn't hesitate to marry him. She resented having to give up her job, but she kept freelancing, which worked out pretty well. At any rate, when the marriage fell apart, she never remarried and was very content to stay alone. She really knew herself and wasn't afraid to live her life the way she wanted to, regardless of what other people might think.

I liked how open-minded Lillian is, while still having opinions. She was once invited onto a tv show with some younger women in advertising, where they basically insulted how advertising was done in her day. Lillian said she thought advertising was "to communicate and persuade, but now it seems like you just prod at a brain stem to get someone to buy a thing without even knowing why." I think she's onto something. I also sympathized with her displeasure when she visited a bar to find that they had installed a tv. And it isn't that she doesn't like tv, it's that she highly values being social. She is opinionated without being a curmudgeon. I also like that she walks everywhere because I do a lot of walking myself.

Despite not really being in the mood for this book when I started it, I did end up enjoying it. I had just finished Henry, Himself and two books about older people looking back over their lives is a bit much, but that was the book I had available at the time. It was pretty fun and enjoyable.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Bride Test

The Bride Test by Helen Hoang (2019), narrated by Emily Woo Zeller

Khai isn't interested in relationships. He's content with his house and his job and his daily routine. His very specific routine that is set up exactly the way he likes, in his life that is also set up the exact way that he likes. Esme cleans bathrooms in Vietnam, trying to help support her family, including her little girl who she is raising alone. A chance encounter offers her an irresistible deal: she is to travel to America to meet a potential husband and if it works out, she gets to stay in America and make a better life for herself and her family. She just has to convince the guy - who happens to be Khai - to marry her.

Khai's mom has made the arrangements and moves Esme into Khai's home. Esme is nervous because she wants Khai to actually fall for her. She doesn't want to bring her daughter into an unhappy family situation. She also hasn't told Khai (or his mom) that she has a daughter. She also has another motive for coming to California - she doesn't know her own father, but the scant information she has about him includes time spent at the University of California at Berkeley. If she finds her father, she has an alternate path to citizenship and won't need to marry Khai.

Esme and Khai become attracted to each other pretty early on, but of course there are obstacles. The primary one is that Khai is autistic - communication between them isn't great, Esme doesn't know anything about autism, and Khai is convinced that he is not able to feel love and therefore can't give Esme what she deserves. It is a deliciously painful setup.

There are some very sweet and sexy moments. The one that stands out most to me is when Esme offers to cut Khai's hair for him. Because he has sensory issues, he explains in detail how she has to touch him - firmly, no light touches, pull his hair very taut - and they proceed to experiment a bit, Khai showing Esme how to touch and his hair and face. She is nervous of doing something wrong at first, but then becomes more confident as she touches his face and hair. There's nothing explicitly sexual in this scene, but it was very sexy and very memorable.

It's funny too. Khai's brother Quan helps him out a lot with advice over the course of the novel. At one point he is giving Khai much-needed advice about sex, but Khai is skeptical. When Quan tells him about the clitoris, Khai thinks: "It doesn't even sound real. For all he knew it was an urban myth like the chupacabra or Roswell aliens." I almost died laughing.

This book was a delight the whole way through, and I have to give a major shoutout to the narrator, Emily Woo Zeller, who did the male voices so well that at one point I checked to see if there was also a male narrator. I couldn't reconcile the male voices with her female voice. I liked this even better than Helen Hoang's first book, The Kiss Quotient. She's got a third one coming out, but not until 2021. It's going to be a painful wait, especially because it's about Khai's brother Quan, who I love a lot and I'm so glad he's getting his own book!

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Henry, Himself

Henry, Himself by Stewart O'Nan (2019)

Henry Maxwell's wife was the star of O'Nan's book Emily, Alone which took place after Henry's death. Now we get a close-up of their life together that focuses on Henry. There's no real plot here, it's just a detailed year in Henry's life, beginning in the winter and ending early the following year. They go to their summer place in Chautauqua, along with their kids and grandkids, and see them all again at various holidays. In between, we get their day-to-day life at home, all their chores and routines and everyday life with their long-lived dog Rufus.

It's not worry-free, though. Their daughter Margaret, who has battled substance abuse, is having a rough time in her marriage, and Emily has a tense relationship with their son Kenny's wife. Henry's doctor is ill too, so Henry has to reschedule a needed appointment and go to another doctor, all the while worrying about Dr. Runco, who is around his own age and who he has been seeing for decades.

I was struck by how busy Henry was all the time, all the little tasks and chores he had to do around the house. To some extent, he probably should have hired people to do some of the household repairs as he was almost 75 and installing a new mailbox himself was a bit too much. But it also made me feel better about how busy I feel, because I work full time and find household chores overwhelming most of the time. Henry is retired and all the requirements of life still keep him pretty busy.

It's strange to read it knowing that he will die and leave Emily a widow, and I spent some time trying to remember if his cause of death was ever mentioned in Emily, Alone. It doesn't matter though; he spends enough time thinking about his own mortality, I don't need to rush him along. Life changes are a common theme in the novel, as Henry thinks about family traditions and how they may change and who may be absent in the future. People die, grandchildren grow up; it's bittersweet.

As with most of O'Nan's books that I've read, the beauty is in the details. I don't know why it's so wonderful to hear every single mundane detail of life, but it is somehow very affirming as a human being. I've really enjoyed several of his books, though I think the last I tried to read was West of Sunset, which I abandoned 70 pages in. Now I realize that his book with the highest rating on Goodreads is A Prayer for the Dying, which I haven't read, so that's going on my list to read next.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Death by Dumpling

Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien (2018)

After dramatically quitting her job, Lane Lee finds herself waiting tables at Ho-Lee Noodle House, her parents' restaurant in Asia Village. One day she makes a delivery of dumplings to Mr. Feng, owner of the plaza, and later he is found dead. Everyone at Ho-Lee Noodle House knew about his shrimp allergy and there's no way they'd make such a deadly mistake. All eyes point to Ho-Lee's cook, Peter, but Lana knows he would never intentionally kill anyone. As the investigation heats up, Lana and her roommate Megan decide to do some investigating of their own.

I heard about this on the Get Booked podcast from Book Riot, a podcast that I really didn't need to know about because it is only informing me about more and more books that I need to read. But I heard this episode at the perfect time - I had gone from Midnight in Chernobyl to Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen and needed a light, fun palate cleanser.

Lana was in a bad place when the story opens, having come through a bad breakup from which she has clearly not yet recovered, plus more recently quitting her job. We never get details about the old job or why she quit, just that it was sudden and dramatic and working in a restaurant is a big change from whatever she was doing. She was 27 but felt younger to me, a little naive. But I liked how she made this murder case into a project, determined to find out who killed this person she liked so much. She was so organized, and would write out all the facts in her notebook to lay it all out and make sure she had everything right before going any further. She also made sure her list of suspects was thorough and logical, even if it meant including people she liked and wanted to think wouldn't murder anyone. She really cared about all of the people involved. She was a fun character too; she harbored a deep and abiding love for doughnuts. And once after the murder when the press tried to get her attention she pretended she couldn't speak English. There's also a minor romance plotline going on in the background too, which I quite liked.

The writing isn't perfect. The dialogue has plenty of moments that don't feel natural, and there were even a few errors that a proofreader should have caught. But when all was said and done, those are pretty insignificant. Chien has created a great storyline with interesting characters and enough red herrings that I was kept guessing throughout the novel. It's a fun, quick read!

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Mary Toft

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer

There's a story from the 18th century about a woman named Mary Toft, who gave birth to 17 dead rabbits, confounding the medical community. In this novel, Dexter Palmer has taken that story and added a rich cast of characters and created a narrative that makes readers think about the nature of truth, and all the ways in which we deceive ourselves and others.

It begins in the town of Godalming, England with a kid named Zachary, brought by his mother to Dr. John Howard, who treats his tonsil abscess so successfully that Zachary is inspired to pursue medicine himself and becomes Dr. Howard's apprentice. He begins learning the trade, and then observes a case which confounds even the experienced Dr. Howard: they are called to the house of a woman in labor, and she gives birth to a mass of rabbit parts. Then, a week later, she does so again. And again every few days. Out of desperation, Dr. Howard writes to some medical colleagues in London, and here the story begins to spread and take on a life of its own.

Along the way, Zachary meets Anne, an intriguing young woman with a port-wine birthmark across most of her face, who travels with her father's "curiosity show." It's basically a freakshow when Zachary goes to see it in Godalming, a parade of people with unfortunate and shocking conditions. Zachary and John Howard watch it together and then discuss which people were real and which were hoaxes. Later, when they are in London, Zachary sees a darker version of this show, one which features shocking animal cruelty and reveals a very disturbing desire among London's very wealthy.

This book contains a lot of fodder for thought and discussion about human nature. It questions the very nature of truth, and suggests that if enough people believe something, then it becomes true, and illustrates the power of groups to influence how we think and act. One character presents the idea that humanity is a finite resource that some people try to take from other to make themselves more human and, in so doing, make those others less so (think slavery.) It is clear that at least some of the doctors thought themselves more human than poor Mary Toft, a subject of curiosity and awe to them, but not an actual person with feelings, whose welfare they cared about.

It's easy to forget while reading this that the same author wrote Version Control, because they are so very different from each other. But it's clear that Dexter Palmer is an incredibly talented and creative writer, one whose books I will continue to anticipate.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Midnight in Chernobyl

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham (2019)

I was on the cusp of 13 when the disaster at Chernobyl occurred so I was completely unaware of it until probably years later, and even then I didn't know much about it. But I heard a lot about this book recently and was further inspired to read it after Baba Dunja's Last Love, a novel that took place with the Chernobyl disaster as a backdrop.

Higginbotham has put together a detailed account of the time leading up to the disaster, how things went wrong, and the aftermath. It was fascinating and stressful to watch it all unfold, even though I knew it ended in disaster. It's so hard to watch that train wreck coming.

I appreciate that we didn't get the entire history of the Soviet Union or of nuclear energy before getting to the real story. Too many nonfiction books dump far more background information than needed, and though I did get a little bit bogged down in the explanation of how the reactors work, that was tough because of my poor understanding of science, not because it was unnecessary. There was enough story here to not have to pad it. This might be a good time to mention that the book isn't as daunting as it first appears; although it's over 500 pages, the main part of the book is 372 pages, with the rest being the afterward, notes, and even an index (how I love an index in any nonfiction book!) There were SO many people in this story it was hard to keep them straight, but there's a helpful list of everyone in the front of the book, which I also appreciate.

What most surprised me about how this disaster went down was that even though there was an explosion, it wasn't especially dramatic. Nobody knew how bad it was just after, so people were still going about their business in the nearby town of Pripyat for quite a while before being evacuated. Although radiation traveled quickly to Scandinavia and other areas, you do need special equipment to detect it, so it wasn't always obvious right away. Of course, the government cover-up didn't help, but there was a real lack of information and poor communication also. The seriousness of the situation wasn't known until later, and the consequences definitely weren't dealt with for far longer than they should have. I couldn't believe how long they debated where or not to evacuate people who lived in the area. And even then, people were willing to still work at the plant to try and get the other reactors back up and running. I actually have questions about this still, because I don't quite understand how people were going to work here every day when nearby Pripyat had been permanently evacuated because of the danger.

I was also surprised to learn how many other disasters had occurred before Chernobyl. This, too, was covered up as part of maintaining the illusion of Soviet superiority when it came to nuclear power. They just kept blaming it on operator error and continuing on with other nuclear projects, though eventually they had to admit there were serious problems with the design of the type of reactor they were building. (There were human errors as well, to be sure.) But Chernobyl was a larger disaster that was impossible to keep secret, and it resulted in a legal trial and changes to the way reactors were built.

I thought Adam Higginbotham did a great job of giving us a full picture of this disaster and the circumstances surrounding it, without getting bogged down in too much extraneous detail. For a nonfiction book about a well-known historical event about which we all know the ending, it was quite a page-turner.