BUZZ SAW by Jesse Dougherty

Last fall, something magical happened in DC. The Washington Nationals, who had started the 2019 baseball season with the pathetic record of 19-31, beat the odds to make it to the World Series. They dispensed with formidable opponents along the way, notably the Milwaukee Brewers and the Los Angeles Dodgers, leading to a World Series against the Houston Astros, who had one of the best records in baseball and a scary lineup of ace pitchers. Buzz Saw: The Improbable Story Of How The Washington Nationals Won The World Series, written by Washington Post Nationals beat reporter Jesse Dougherty, chronicles the 2019 season from sad start to glorious finish, delving along the way into the personal histories and unlikely plays that made the Nats’ journey even more meaningful and historic.

Why I picked it up: I am a huge Nats fan, and I can’t resist any chance to relive the 2019 postseason. It was amazing!

Buzz Saw goes month by month through the baseball season, explaining how unexpected the streak was. The Nats had the oldest roster in MLB, with some players who had considered retirement before getting picked up by Washington. Some were overcoming injuries from the season before. And there were also young stars on the team, like Victor Robles and Juan Soto, who brought explosive raw talent to the Nats. As the wins piled up, the team worked to overcome its most glaring deficiency – the bullpen – trying different combinations and bringing in Daniel Hudson to offer relief to overworked starters like Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasberg.

And then, of course, came the postseason, the many elimination games, the come-from-behind wins, the heroics of Howie Kendrick and Juan Soto and the clutch pitching. Ah, it was all so good! And so unexpected. And so much fun to experience. Buzz Saw brings it all back. And in a summer without baseball until just a few weeks ago, it was a great reminder of a season that feels like a lot more than 9 months ago.

I read Buzz Saw out loud with my son, so I guess I read it and did it on audio. The narration (me) – not great. The book is well-written. I like Dougherty’s writing style a lot – lively and descriptive – but I suspect that its publication was rushed to make an Opening Day deadline (or what was supposed to be Opening Day) and it could have used another round of copy editing, as I found a lot of typos and small mistakes. Overall, though, a really fun read.

So would you care about this book if you weren’t a big Nats fan? Hard to say. If you’re a hardcore baseball fan and/or enjoy underdog stories, then you might enjoy Buzz Saw as much as I did.

Buzz Saw was Book #32 of 2020. It satisfies the Book About Sports category of the 2020 Everyday I Write The Book Reading Challenge.

CRAIGSLIST CONFESSIONAL by Helena Dea Bala

Helena Dea Bala was unhappy in her lobbying job in D.C. and, on a whim, decided to post on Craigslist soliciting confessions from strangers in an attempt to feel connection with other people and bring purpose to her life. To her surprise, the response to her ad was strong and immediate. She soon found herself setting up several meetings a week with respondents who sat down and shared their secrets with her, anonymously of course. Dea Bala eventually quit her job and moved full-time into telling these strangers’ stories on various online platforms. This summer, she released a collection called Craigslist Confessional featuring 40 of the people she has met with over the years.

Why I picked it up: These types of voyeuristic glimpses into others’ lives are right up my alley, and Craigslist Confessional came highly recommended by Sarah of Sarah’s Bookshelves.

Craigslist Confessional is an engrossing read. There are stories of mental illness, bad parenting, secrets, abuse, pain, redemption, regret and much more. The chapters are short – 5-6 pages – so it’s easy to pick up the book, read a few confessions, and put it down. The stories tend to blend together, and I didn’t leave the book with particularly distinct memories of more than a handful of the confessors, but the cumulative swirl of humanity spun by Dea Bala certainly leaves its mark. I don’t know how you could read Craigslist Confessional and not become a more empathetic person. It is a privilege to get a glimpse into people’s heads and hearts and hear them explain their feelings honestly, without fear of judgment.

I listened to Craigslist Confessional on audio and I wouldn’t recommend it. The confessions are narrated by performers, so there’s a remove between the voice and the content. Some of the intimacy of these confessions gets lost when you know, as a listener, that the people talking are not the people who experienced them. I also found some of the narrators a little robotic. So if you’re interested in Craigslist Confessional, go for reading the book over listening on audio.

Memoirs/non-fiction have been working for me during the pandemic, and Craigslist Confessional was no exception. If you’re a fan of PostSecret or advice columns or Humans of New York, you’ll like this one.

Craigslist Confessional was Book #31 of 2020.

UNTAMED by Glennon Doyle

I am new to Glennon Doyle. I never followed her parenting blog, and though I’ve long had an unread ARC of her memoir Love Warrior in the house, I didn’t really know who she was. But when her latest book, Untamed, came out earlier this year, it was hard not to notice the book all over Bookstagram and Book Of The Month and Reese’s Book Club. I was curious, so I swapped for it and read it.

Why I picked it up: Untamed isn’t usually my type of book, but I couldn’t resist the buzz.

Glennon Doyle was raised in Virginia, and during her teenage years developed bulimia and a drinking problem as ways to soothe her anxiety and stave off depression. She married young to a man with whom she partied more than she actually connected with, and amidst her substance abuse found herself pregnant with her first child. She got clean, threw herself into motherhood, and then had two more children with her husband. Doyle’s marriage was tested when her husband confessed to being unfaithful, a challenge she overcame through faith and public pronouncements of her commitment to her marriage. She wrote a book about her experience with addiction and forgiveness – Love Warrior – which was well-received and often held up as Christian guide to working through marital problems.

During the book tour for Love Warrior, though, Doyle met and fell instantly in love with someone else. That someone else – soccer player Abby Wambach – completely turned her world upside down. Could Doyle – now a symbol of the steadfast wife and mother who sacrificed everything for her family’s stability – leave her marriage to pursue her true love? Untamed is Doyle’s memoir of breaking free from expectation and finally being true to herself.

I don’t really like self-help books, and there is a lot of self-help in Untamed. I didn’t love some of the early chapters about “Knowing” and inner selves and sobriety – I found them repetitive and at times too self-centered. But as I read on, later chapters in the book really resonated with me. I liked Doyle’s messages about parenting, such as the importance of both pushing kids out of their comfort zone while also acknowledging that their knowing their limits is a form of bravery. She had some interesting, non-trite things to say about racism and what white women can actually do to help improve the situation. I also liked her wake up call – that we parents spend more time worrying about college admissions than the health of the earth they are inheriting. And her love story with Wambach is very compelling.

In the end, I was glad I read Untamed. Is it worth the hype? Possibly not, but still worth the read.

I listened to Untamed on audio, narrated by Doyle. Like many memoirs, narration by the author made it more personal and felt more genuine. Although there were a few times when I felt my mind wandering, Doyle generally did a good job of keeping me engaged and the book moving along.

Untamed was Book #30 of 2020.

IN THE DREAM HOUSE by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In The Dream House takes a look at an emotionally abusive relationship between the author and her girlfriend through short chapters about The Dream House, which is really a home of nightmares where Machado spent weekends with her girlfriend. Using references to folk literature and movies, Machado explores the nature of abusive relationships and explains why she stayed.

Why I picked it up: In The Dream House came out last fall, and the reviews were amazing. I’ve had this library copy in the house since the beginning of the pandemic, and now the dropboxes are opening up so I need to return this by the end of the month. Nothing like a deadline to get you to read a book…

I really liked In The Dream House. It’s not an easy read, so be warned. Machado’s girlfriend – loving and magnetic in the beginning, turns jealous, irrational and abusive as their relationship progresses. The author is always anxious, worried about triggering rage in her partner and afraid of the consequences. She sacrifices much of her year in graduate school commuting between Iowa and Indiana to visit the Dream House, using the hours on the trip home to recover and convince herself that the relationship is healthy. The relationship, even when over, leaves Machado scarred and gun-shy, with little perspective about what went wrong. “Clarity is an intoxicating drug, and you spent almost two years without it, believing you were losing your mind, believing you were the monster, and you want something black and white more than you’ve ever wanted anything in this world.” In the next page, she writes, “Trauma has altered my body’s DNA.”

Machado talks a lot about the nature of same-sex partner abuse, which gets less attention and is awarded less legitimacy than heterosexual partner abuse by courts and the media. In The Dream House rebukes the notion that same-sex abuse is easier to escape or avoid in the first place. Just because two partners are women doesn’t mean that one cannot be abusive or difficult to extricate from. She explores dislocation and isolation – two common features that abusers capitalize on – and gaslighting, or convincing someone that they are crazy when they react to abuse.

The Dream House is both the physical location where Machado and her girlfriend spent time together, but it is also a prison, the symbol of their relationship at its worst Each chapter of In The Dream House puts the experience in a different literary or cultural context – Dream House as the Apocalypse, Dream House as Surprise Ending, Dream House as I Love Lucy, etc. This construct gave the book variety and texture, expanding the story well beyond a chronicle of one relationship to a more universal treatise on the nature of partner abuse and its causes and effects.

Memoirs have been my most successful genres for pandemic reading, and In The Dream House did not disappoint. Highly recommended.

In The Dream House was Book #29 of 2020.

THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett

One of the Hot Books of Summer 2020 is The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, the second novel from the author of The Mothers. The Vanishing Half is about racism and identity (racial, gender), issues that have taken center stage in our national discourse this summer.

Why I picked it up: The Vanishing Half has gotten a ton of buzz (and a movie deal), and I am making a conscious effort to read and feature more BIPOC authors. It was my June BOTM pick.

Twin sisters Desiree and Stella escape their small Louisiana town in the 50s, moving to New Orleans to find more opportunity. They both have light skin, and Stella ends up moving away after getting romantically involved with her employer, a white man. Desiree, meanwhile, meets and marries a dark-skinned man and moves to DC. Stella reinvents herself as a white woman, turning her back on her sister and her old life and ending up in California. After suffering years of abuse from her husband, Desiree returns to the small town with her dark-skinned daughter Jude in tow, and while she always feels the acute loss of her twin sister, she settles in to life in her mother’s house. The Vanishing Half tracks Desiree and Stella’s lives, as well as the lives of Jude and Stella’s daughter Kennedy, whose lives intersect in Los Angeles.

I liked The Vanishing Half for the most part. The characters are complicated, Stella most of all with her denial of her blackness combined with her loneliness and longing for Desiree’s friendship. The divergent paths taken by the twins lead to parallel – yet wildly different – lives for the next generation. Both Jude and Kennedy, drawn to each other by an unspoken familial bond, pursue their own dreams and their own partners, meanwhile questioning their inscrutable mothers and scheming about how to reunite them.

The theme of disguise is threaded carefully throughout the book, from the premise of the whole town where the girls grew up to the clothes worn by Jude’s boyfriend and Stella’s white veneer. Even Kennedy’s choice of career – acting – underscores the identity issues each of the main characters experiences over the course of the book. Desiree is the least encumbered by her identity, but the stares drawn by her “blueblack” daughter and the questions raised by their contrasting appearances complicate her return to her hometown.

One complaint: the plot of The Vanishing Half depends too heavily on coincidence and symmetry to make its point. The coincidences detract from an otherwise powerful story that needed no such contrivances to hit its mark. I wish Bennett had been more trusting of the reader without manipulating the plot so blatantly. My frustration at these coincidences was blunted by the complexity of the characters, but I did find myself shaking my head at times, wondering, “Was that really necessary?”

I listened to The Vanishing Half on audio. The performance by Shayna Small was excellent. Her voice was rich and lyrical, and it really enhanced the book for me – I suspect I enjoyed it more on audio than I would have in print.

The Vanishing Half was Book #28 of 2020.

ALL ADULTS HERE by Emma Straub

Whether you will enjoy reading Emma Straub’s All Adults Here this summer will depend on whether a lighthearted, feel-good read helps you escape the pandemic for a while or instead makes you impatient due to its incongruity with what is going on around you. I suspect that this book, which came out in the beginning of May, was probably a lot easier to market before we all went into quarantine.

Why I picked it up: I enjoyed two of Straub’s other novels, The Vacationers and Modern Lovers, in particular her precise, observant writing and her depictions of modern love and parenting.

In All Adults Here, Astrid Strick, a woman in her 60s living in a bucolic town a few hours from NYC, witnesses a bus accident that kills another woman whom she knew but did not particularly like. The accident jars Strick, causing her to reexamine her choices, her parenting, and most of all whether she is living an honest life. Her three adult children – Elliot, a real estate developer living in town with his wife and twin sons; Porter, a single woman pushing 40 who has gotten pregnant on her own; and Nicky, a New Age-y former actor living in Brooklyn with his wife and teenager – have complicated relationships with Astrid, which she vows to improve.

When the book opens, Nicky’s daughter Cecelia has come to town to live with her grandmother because of an incident in her school in Brooklyn. Porter is engaging in an affair with her married high school boyfriend, and Elliot is grappling with whether to rent his empty space downtown to a big corporate store. Astrid, meanwhile, is hiding her two-year relationship with a woman.

I have to say, as I write this out, these problems all just seem small. I found All Adults Here to be a pleasant read, in that I cared enough about the characters to keep going, and everything resolved pretty well for them. But frankly, with the backdrop of what’s going on today, looking back on the book with a few days of distance, it all seems insignificant. There also isn’t that much tension or conflict in the book. There is one middle high school bully, and even she is completely defanged by the end. When I finished, I thought to myself, “So what?”

A few quotes in the book did really resonate with me. One was: “That was the problem with being part of a family: Everyone could mean well and it could still be a disaster. Love didn’t cure all, not in terms of missed communications and hurt feelings during an otherwise uneventful dinner conversation. Love couldn’t change the misread tone of a text message or a quick temper.” Unfortunately, for me the rest of the book didn’t really live up to that quote. I didn’t buy the deep-seated issues between the Stricks, and therefore found their resolutions even less meaningful.

All Adults Here was Book #27 of 2020.

HOME IS BURNING by Dan Marshall

I have found that some pandemic reads are too light, while some are just too heavy. Others, for whatever other reason, just don’t fit the bill. From what I’ve learned from talking to my friends and those who follow my blog and Bookstagram, we readers today are a picky and fickle bunch. I am not sure what drove me to read Home Is Burning this month, other than that it was on my list of 7 Backlist Books I Want To Read, and I’ve been enjoying memoirs lately. It’s about Dan Marshall’s year taking care of his father, who was dying of ALS, and while it sounds super depressing, it’s also very funny at times.

Why I picked it up: Home Is Burning has been on my shelves for years (it came out in 2015). I don’t even remember where I got it. It thought it might hit the weird reading spot I am in right now. And, I was able to get it on audio via Scribd, which sealed the deal.

Dan Marshall was living the dream – working in LA in his early 20s, seeing his long-distance girlfriend regularly – when his father finally got an explanation for some strange symptoms he’d been having. He was diagnosed with ALS, a crushing blow for a family man who ran marathons and took care of his wife, Dan’s mother, who was in treatment for a second bout of cancer. Despite having three siblings living near or with his parents in Utah, Dan and his brother Greg made the difficult decision to move back home so that they could care for their father full-time. Home Is Burning chronicles the year after Dan returned to Utah, when his father’s condition deteriorated and Dan had to contend with the loss of his father as well as that of his job, home and girlfriend.

The Marshall family, made up of Dan’s parents, two sisters and a brother, was a close one, with his father the source of financial and emotional support for all of his children. Watching his father deteriorate was horrific for everyone, especially Dan, who took on the lion’s share of his father’s physical care. He chronicles the ways they adapted the house to accommodate the wheelchair, the difficult decision to intubate his father so that he could breathe and receive nutrition, and his father’s ultimate decision to end his life by going off the respirator. He’s quite honest about his own shortcomings as a son and a caretaker, and he admits that he was quite hard on his poor mother, who was undergoing chemo while all this was going on. This is all heavy, sad stuff, but Dan is so entertaining and honest that I actually wanted to keep returning to Home Is Burning, even though I knew what was going to happen. He’s really funny. The book is also full of sex and profanity (be warned!), so even at the most touching and poignant moments, there’s always a funny line coming out of Dan’s mouth. There isn’t much here about the nature of loss and how to survive it – Dan’s not the most introspective guy – but it was memorable and thought-provoking and even entertaining.

I listened to Home Is Burning on audio. It’s narrated by Dan himself, and I couldn’t imagine it any other way. You know how you can tell when an author is reading his or her book, rather than a professional narrator? You can tell here. But it’s totally worth it for the personal perspective (because this is a highly personal book) – and for his imitations, particularly of his family’s housekeeper.

Home Is Burning was Book #26 of 2020 and fulfilled the Book Sitting On My Shelf For 2+ Years category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

TEA BY THE SEA by Donna Hemans

Donna Hemans’ novel Tea By The Sea looks at how a single decision – 23 year-old Lemworth’s taking his newborn daughter Opal away from her 18 year-old mother Plum, hours after the baby’s birth – affects Lemworth’s and Plum’s lives – and ultimately Opal’s. While Lemworth’s actions were reprehensible, he had reasons for them, however misguided, and had to live with them in the decades to come. Plum’s subsequent search for Opal, meanwhile, became the single guiding factor for her life, affecting all of her future decisions and relationships.

Why I picked it up: I was invited by Red Hen Press to join a blog tour for Tea By The Sea, and I was intrigued by the premise of the book.

Plum and Lemworth are memorable characters in heartbreaking situations. The pain Lemworth causes Plum is unforgivable, as is his subsequent treatment of Opal, a girl left without her mother. Plum’s loss of control so early in her life – taken away by Lemworth and her parents – leads to her intense need for control and agency in later years, alongside the acute and constant pain from the loss of her daughter. Hemans’ dual-tracked exploration of the ways in which both Lemworth and Plum try to move on from Lemworth’s actions in Jamaica was interesting, depicting the braiding of their subsequent paths as Plum searches for Lemworth and he consistently slips from her reach.

Hemans seamlessly shifts the action of Tea By The Sea between Jamaica, where Opal was born, and Plum’s hometown of Brooklyn, to which she returned after leaving Jamaica. I enjoyed both settings and found that the contrast between the two only highlighted Plum’s loss and the distance – emotional and physical – she felt from Opal.

Hemans also does a nice job building suspense throughout the novel. Will Plum find Opal, and when she confronts Lemworth, how will she make him pay for his actions seventeen years earlier? While the resolution wasn’t as clean or satisfying as I would have liked, I think that was intentional. There is no happy ending to this situation, given the pain suffered by so many people. The best we – and they – can hope for is a semblance of peace at the end and the possibility of rebuilding what was lost, albeit in a different form.

Tea By The Sea was Book #25 of 2020.

THE HOLDOUT by Graham Moore

The Holdout by Graham Moore is a legal thriller that goes back and forth in time between the past – ten years earlier, when a sequestered jury acquitted a teacher accused of killing his student with whom he was allegedly having a relationship, and ten years later, when the jury has reconvened on the anniversary of the trial to film a special. Maya, one of the jury members, was the sole holdout, and she eventually convinced the rest of the jury to change their verdicts to not guilty, a verdict that was questioned by everyone who had watched the trial on television. When Maya returns to her hotel room on the night of the reunion to find one of her fellow jurors dead, all eyes are on her.

Why I picked it up: The Holdout isn’t my genre – legal thriller – but it was well-received and was my book club’s May pick.

The Holdout looks back on why each member of the jury eventually chose to acquit the defendant, and how Rick, the juror found dead in the “now” section, became obsessed after the trial with finding out the truth. But who would have wanted him dead?

The Holdout has a lot going for it – jury dynamics are fascinating, and there are a number of plot twists throughout that I didn’t see coming. It turned out to be a well-timed read as well, given its treatment of race and the criminal justice system. It’s a relatively quick read, too. But The Holdout just didn’t do much for me. I don’t love thrillers and I particularly don’t love courtroom books. (There’s a reason I left the law.) There are some pretty unrealistic elements to the story, one of them being Maya’s own behavior after she was accused of the murder, and I found myself sighing at several points over how unlikely they were. And most of all, it has been almost a week since I finished The Holdout and I’ve barely thought about it since our book club discussion – never a good sign.

If you like thrillers and are looking for a beach read this summer, The Holdout might fit the bill. Otherwise, I’d pass.

The Holdout was Book #24 of 2020.

Blog tour: TEA BY THE SEA by Donna Hemans

One book that I am adding to my summer TBR: Tea By The Sea by Donna Hemans. I was lucky enough to be invited by Red Hen Press to be part of a blog tour for Tea By The Sea, and hope to get to it in the next week or two.

What it’s about: A mother’s circuitous route to finding the daughter taken from her at birth. From the publisher: “A seventeen-year-old taken from her mother at birth, an Episcopal priest with a daughter whose face he cannot bear to see, a mother weary of searching for her lost child: Tea By The Sea is their story—that of a family uniting and unraveling. To find the daughter taken from her, Plum Valentine must find the child’s father who walked out of a hospital with the day-old baby girl without explanation. Seventeen years later, weary of her unfruitful search, Plum sees an article in a community newspaper with a photo of the man for whom she has spent half her life searching. He has become an Episcopal priest. Her plan: confront him and walk away with the daughter he took from her. From Brooklyn to the island of Jamaica, Tea by the Sea traces Plum’s circuitous route to finding her daughter and how Plum’s and the priest’s love came apart.

Why I want to read it: Family drama, secrets and a long-overdue mother-daughter reunion… what’s not to like? I am also excited to read a book from a Jamaican-born author.

Would you like to read it too? I have a copy of Tea By The Sea to give away, along with a special tea blend that Hemans created just for the blog tour. (U.S. and Caribbean readers only.) If you’d like a chance to win Tea By The Sea, leave me a comment here on the blog. I’ll pick a winner at random on Friday, June 12.

Please add Tea By The Sea to your library hold list or order it from your favorite bookstore. It comes out on Tuesday, June 9.