Plot Twist: A Book Review of Lane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies”

Book Review
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I did not want to like this book. I really did not want to like this book. 

When the TV series aired on HBO, I saw the commercial previews and promptly put the whole spectacle in a mental recycle bin labeled Bachelorette / Kardashian. I figured it would be pretty, pink, vacuous, and reinforce stereotypes about race, class, and gender that I wanted to neither encourage nor engage with.

At some point, however, I heard the book referred to as one of the great feminist stories of our time. A tale that could hold up and reflect the ideals of the #metoo movement. This intrigued me, and I decided to see if Lane Moriarty moved past Sophie Kinsella territory and invited intersectional feminism to the conversation. Could this novel include commentary about the complexity of womanhood today? One that brought multiple voices and perspectives to the table?

“The whole purpose of intersectional feminism is to listen to different kinds of feminists – not just ones like yourself.”

International Women’s Development Agency

At first, I felt my worst fears were confirmed. Not only were the main characters white, but they were also all rich as well. In fact, the only tension in character development seemed to be the strain between blue and white collar folks in the small coastal town where the novel is set (come to find out, the TV show is set in Monterey, California which is a stone’s throw from where I live in Santa Cruz). While this is a life situation I can identify with, I could not see how such a milquetoast tableau could support a tale about anything but white feminism.

But then the plot began to thicken like a good roux, darkening and deepening in complexity and flavor, and I was hooked.

To write more in detail would require spoilers, but the bottom line is that the near absence of race and class turns out to be crucial to the story. The narrative does eventually while weaving the plot threads together in the denouement, transcend the trappings of rich white society. As Kadia Blagrove wrote for Jezebel, 

“But in the end, Big Little Lies did a great job of making unlikely characters feel familiar by using their enormous wealth and status as a simple backdrop, rather than a focal point, to their internal lives.”

By removing most class and race differences between the main characters, Moriarty shows that the terrible events of the story could happen to anyone. Not just rich or poor, white or brown, suburban or urban. ANYONE. That forceful point, combined with a suspenseful plot and original narrative style that draws the reader in and makes it hard to put the book down, made this a five star read for me.

How Did I Get Here: A Book Review of Lisa Brennan-Job’s Memoir “Small Fry”

Book Review
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Author: Lisa Brennan-Jobs
Publication Date: September 2018
Genre: Autobiography
(Audiobook format)

“What I wanted, what I felt owed, was some clear place in the hierarchy of those he loved.” 

In her well-written memoir, Lisa Brennan-Jobs jobs tells the story of growing up as Apple computer mogul Steve Jobs’ oldest daughter. Hers is a complicated tale of divorce, estrangement, and desperate attempts to gain the affection of an extremely confusing and complicated man — her father.

Brennan-Jobs is an excellent writer. Her prose is descriptive and compelling and draws the reader into a world of her memory. She strings together gorgeous vignettes, bringing her childhood growing up in the Bay area to vivid life. The challenge I found with the book is that Brennan-Jobs’ narrative does not draw the reader forward with much force or interest.

Fans who idolize Steve Jobs, perhaps already knowing that he was kind of jerk, will appreciate this glimpse into his life. For myself, a reader who is interested in memoir more than Macintosh, it was uncomfortable to see the cold, inconsistent relationship he had with his oldest child. Young Lisa’s interactions with her father are harsh and upsetting. The author is clear and concise about the way she hurt her mother trying to win her father’s approval. I admire her honest assessment of the complicated feelings and craving for acceptance and approval that motivated her as a child and teen growing up in such an unstable environment. That way a moody and distant Steve treats his daughter is both terrifying and fascinating, yet there is an overwhelming feeling of Lisa’s ultimate privilege that makes it difficult for the average reader to engage with her struggles.

Many of us have craved better clothes, a nicer car, and more of our parents’ love. The only thing that distinguishes our narrative from Lisa’s is that her father happens to be extremely famous and powerful. But throughout her story, Lisa fails to draw a strong connection between her experience and the experience of the outer world. The human element is overshadowed by the complicated decadence and idiosyncrasies of extreme success and wealth. The most interesting bit of her story some toward the end of her story as she muses on the connection between her father’s genius and his propensity to be cruel and cutting with the slightest provocation:

“When people speak and write about my fatehr;s meanness, they sometimes assume the meanness is linked the genius. That to have one is to get closer to the other. But the way I saw his create was the best part of him: sensitive, collaborative, fun.”

Overall, Small Fry contains some excellent descriptive prose and deserves consideration for that fact alone. Despite the rather flat narrative, the writing is descriptive and engaging. I should add did not like the narration of this audio book version, I felt the narrator had awkward intonation and paused at some strange time in certain sentences and parts of the story putting the emphasis in the wrong place. You may therefore enjoy reading the book more in the paper or eBook format.

Food Ritual: A Book Review of “The Eating Instinct” by Virginia Sole Smith

Book Review
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Author: Virginia Sole-Smith
Publication Date: November 2018
Genre: Non-Fiction, Science, Food Culture

Health food. Junk food. Comfort food. Fast food. Whole food. 

America today is steeped in food culture, and eating has become a national obsession. Each of us possesses a particular set of eating habits that stem from a combination of nature and nurture. But for many folks, eating is a difficult and emotionally fraught necessity. You may be vegan, paleo, fast-food addicted, or a conflicted clean-eater. Yet, regardless of the factors that inform your food choices, have you ever stopped to ask yourself, “How did I learn to eat?” Virginia Sole-Smith’s book “The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America” takes a fascinating deep dive into how Americans eat and the myriad of ways that modern life and culture impact our ability to simply nourish our bodies with food.

When her daughter is born with a medical condition that impacts her ability to eat like an “average” infant Sole-Smith is plunged into a nightmare world of hospitals, feeding tubes, and guilt that she cannot nourish her daughter in any traditional way. Forced to question the very concept of how to feed her child, and pummeled from every side by confusing and baffling information, Sole-Smith must consider the basic act of learning to eat in a completely new light. Teaching her daughter to eat opens up a journey to understand why our food culture has deviated so far from the seemingly simple model of eating when we are hungry, and stopping when we are full. 

Sole-Smith dedicates each chapter to a different eating behavior including extremely “picky” eaters, folks who have chosen weight loss surgery or those who are obsessed with eating only healthy, clean foods. Sole-Smith treats her interview subjects with compassion and respect. She is careful to not favor one way of eating over another and instead presents her interview findings in relation to a review of the current scientific literature. Most importantly, Sole-Smith asks important and revealing questions about where we are, how we got here and where we might go from here. What if we could approach eating differently?

“Without judgement. Without guilt. Without ranking picky eaters as somehow less that adventurous eaters, corner stores as less than farmers markets, meat eaters as less than vegetarians, fat as less than thin?” p.238

In her research, Sole-Smith begins to unravel some of the onion skin layers contained in the existing scientific landscape in regards to how we eat, and she does not shy away from the complexity or contradiction of the research. Her conclusions reveal a dense network of competing studies and recommendations. I particularly liked the discussion of “experts” in the area of wellness and nutrition. In dealing with a chapter about clean eating, Sole-Smith interviews a nutritionist, Christy, who discusses her own history of restrictive eating even while she was a practicing nutritionist. As Sole-Smith points out,

“Nutrition has become a permanently unsolvable Rubik’s Cube. And so we read more books, pin more blog posts, buy more products and sign up for more classes and consultations. And we don’t realize how many of the so-called experts guiding us through this new and constantly changing landscape are exactly where Christy once was– fighting their own battles with food.” p.43

This is an endlessly fascinating topic for me, as I have struggled with diet and body image issues from a young age. I was overweight, I lost a lot of weight. Some weight has come back. But regardless of any of my eating habits at any given time, there has always been the underlying question: why is eating so hard? Why must I spend so much emotional any intellectual energy thinking about what I’m going to consume to fuel my body?

But how do we learn honor our hunger? To eat to nourish our bodies instead of for a myriad of other reasons? Sole-Smith makes it clear that the answer is highly individual, and is tied to a complex array of issues that we must examine and consider for ourselves.

“Recognizing ourselves as capable eaters means identifying the factors that caused us to lose that identity in the first place– the particular mix of biology, psychology, socioeconomic positioning, and life experience that is different for everyone.” p. 239

I recommend this read for anyone who has ever had a challenging relationship with food, not as another set of recommendations for how to behave but as a tool for deeper understanding of why we struggle so much with food in the first place. I enjoyed how Sole-Smith synthesized the many ideas I have collected in my own research about eating and nutrition. After reading this book, I am one step closer to being able to throw away any diet, toss my scale, and accept and love my body (and myself) for what I can do and how I feel, instead of how I appear physically to the outside world. Overall, it seems that the key to a better relationship with food may be a kinder, more gentle relationship to ourselves.

The Character of Place: A Book Review of “The Printed Letter Bookshop” by Katherine Reay

Book Review
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“Blood might be thicker than water, but both were thinner than money.” Madeline, p.13

The Printed Letter Bookshop by Katherine Reay is a compelling narrative about three women drawn together over the fate of a beloved local independent bookstore. The story is divided into chapters, each focusing on one of the three women: Madeline, Janet, or Claire. Each chapter is further divided into sections that are written from the point of view of each woman.

I enjoyed this book and found several elements that contributed to making it a solid read. Each woman has a distinct personality and a well-developed character. The author does an excellent job using intricate and key details such as clothing choices, hairstyles, or favorite foods to bring each character to life. One of the central themes of the book is community and how a community develops around place and location. There are many descriptions of locations, architecture, or interior design that illustrate and enhance this theme. When Madeline describes the partners at her law firm, for example, she does so by details their preferences in interior design style. And when the three women experience an anxious moment in the story, entering a familiar restaurant has a tangible effect on their well-being:

“they were assailed with the scents of truffles, olive oil, stew, wine, and spices upon pushing through Mirabella’s revolving door. Claire felt everything tight within her unwind. Janet’s and Madeline’s expressions implied the same was happening for them.” Claire, p. 85

Throughout the novel, the character development is enhanced by the places they inhabit. Perhaps this is because the bookshop itself – a central character in the community – plays such an integral role in the story.

Another central theme of the novel is how we experience challenging situations in life, primarily failure in all its various forms. There are many interesting twists and turns in the plot, enough to keep the reader guessing and to allow for many challenging situations for each character. In working through these problems, the women learn about themselves, their relationships, and the role of shame and forgiveness in dealing with the past. Ultimately, we are asked to consider not only what happens to us in life as a series of events, but the choices we make in response to these experiences.

“…it often isn’t the events that haunt us…it is the choices we make within those events we carry all our days.” Claire, p. 129

As a female reader in her 40s, I could identify with many aspects of the main character’s lives and this contributed to my enjoyment of the book. If you are an avid reader, you will enjoy the many references to classic books both old and new tucked throughout the story. The plot had me invested enough to come to tears at least once. Overall I would recommend as a pleasurable read with fun, dynamic characters and engaging descriptive writing that draws the reader into a story about how we deal with the very real ups and downs presented to us as we journey through life.

Universal Truths: A Book Review of Paulo Cohelo’s “The Alchemist”

Book Review

“Life really is generous to those who pursue their destiny…” The Alchemist, p. 176

It’s one of the oldest stories ever told. A boy must embark on a journey full of danger and mystery. Along the way, he learns about the world and himself, and if he is very fortunate he gets a girl and a treasure to boot.

Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist is a classic hero’s quest in which the protagonist, an Anatolian shepherd in this case, checks all of the boxes on his epic adventure to find his destiny. The fact that Coehlo relies heavily on gender and ethnic stereotypes to tell the boy’s tale speaks to the over twenty years that have passed since Coehlo wrote “O Alquimista” in his native Portuguese. These narrow depictions of gender and ethnicity are some of the elements that make “The Alchemist” familiar and accessible to western audiences. Readers are able to connect key parts of the story to their existing understanding of the world, therefore gaining greater benefit from a new perspective on life as introduced in the book. In many ways, this is how fable functions. We, as readers, recognize the archetypes of the story and they become familiar. Our interest turns instead to the surprising developments of the narrative; those moments that may teach us an important lesson about life.

The lesson to be found here, despite the stale package, is a valuable one. It was interesting to read this text, a classic in new age literature, after studying the Law of Attraction, reincarnation, Tarot, astrology, and other esoteric arts. All of these attempts to explain the human experience point to the same message and say the same thing in different ways. Coehlo does an excellent job of weaving these truths into the familiar narrative framework of the hero’s quest, creating an instant and enduring classic in the process. Some of the universal truths I recognized in this fable include:

  • The concept that our eternal soul enters our human body with a purpose in mind. A common belief is that the soul chooses this purpose or that it is assigned by a higher power based on what was learned in past lives and what lessons and experiences need to be worked on in the next life. This is how the soul evolves and gets closer to divine knowledge, or to God.

“The closer one gets to realizing his destiny, the more that destiny becomes his true meaning for being.” p. 75

  • The soul’s purpose is our greatest desire, and when we are engaged in a quest to fulfill that purpose we are most aligned with our higher selves and are therefore experiencing a meaningful life. When we are acting in alignment with our desire, the universe conspires to help us.

“When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person realize his dream.” p. 120

  • How do we know that we are moving in the direction of our soul’s purpose? We will see signs, signals, or omens. This may be a feeling that things are “right” or seeing angel numbers like 11:11 throughout our daily lives. We might meet a key person at just the right time, or miss an opportunity that seemed perfect but would actually have spelled disaster in the long run.

“There is no such thing as coincidence.” p. 75

  • We can speak to our higher selves, or our soul, to gain information about our destiny. This is done through meditation and an elevated state of mindfulness, and by being in the present moment where we are able to understanding the Language of the World and the Soul of the World.

“But the boy was already used to the Language of the World, and he could feel the vibrations of peace throughout the tent.” p. 112

“…people, looking at what was occurring around them, could find a means of penetration into the Soul of the World.” p. 106

  • There is no need to be afraid of discomfort or death because they are part of your soul’s journey and the goals of your higher self in terms of evolution. There is no way to fail because you are learning valuable lessons on your soul’s journey, and this is just one lifetime of many where you will learn from experience. Being able to enjoy life is being able to enjoy the experience of being alive right now, in this moment.

“Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living right now.” p. 89

“The Alchemist” is a fable, and as such its greatest value lies in looking beyond the means by which the story is told toward the universal truths that Coehlo clearly depicts. Although he limits these truths to the experience of men, it is to be understood that they apply to all humans across time. As a women, I am used to digging through patriarchal frameworks to see what kernel of truth might apply to my life as a woman. There is much to be found here if you are able to see past an allegorical narrative where women are only made complete by the hope that their man will return from across the desert, or complex socioeconomic relationships are represented by “tribal wars.” For while these portrayals are limiting in their depiction of women and cultural diversity, they are overall positive representations and serve a purpose in the tale. These tried and true characters breathe life into Coehlo’s interpretation of the universal laws of human existence.