Monthly Archives: December 2013

2013 Reading Year in Review

Happy New Year, EDIWTB readers! I hope you all have a wonderful 2014. I had a good 2013. Some changes on the job front, but otherwise things were pretty steady.

As far as reading, it was an OK year. I wasn’t blown away by a lot of what I read. Some of the books I chose didn’t live up to expectations based on reviews or prior books by the same author.  But I also read some debut fiction that I found pretty exciting. Maybe I am just pickier than I used to be? Grumpier? My resolution for 2014 is to be even more selective about what I read so that I don’t waste time with books I don’t love.

In terms of volume, unfortunately I didn’t match my recent watershed reading year of 2011, when I read 54 books. In 2012, I managed to get in 47 books, which I was happy about considering I had a baby and started a new job. In 2013, I hoped to split the difference and reach 50 books. I only made it to 49. So my goal for 2014 is once again to make it to 50.

[Once again, I know there are a lot of book bloggers out there reading this and saying, “50 books? Seriously?” I wish I read as fast as you all do!!]

Here are my standout reads from 2012:

Best debut novel goes to Elliott Holt’s You Are One of Them.

Most addictive read goes to The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison.

For the last two years, I have tracked the Depressing Themes of the books I read, and the lists have been impressive. Here are the depressing subjects covered by the books I read in 2013: facial disfigurement (twice), being a widower, 9/11, home invasion, death of a baby (twice), paraplegia, euthanasia, family dysfunction, AIDS, the entire plot of The Little Bride, the entire plot of Little Bee (UGH!), obesity (twice), adolescent friendship, dead best friends, early widowhood, dead sister, breast cancer, death by parasomnia, infertility, thwarted adoption, kids in jail/on drugs, killing people while on a lifeboat, and abandonment of child (back-to-back reads!).  Again, I say it: sheesh.

The breakdown:

  • 47 fiction, 2 non-fiction
  • 16 repeat authors during 2013: Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Strout, Jennifer Haigh, Curtis Sittenfeld, Lionel Shriver, Ian McEwan, Mark Haddon, Jennifer Close, J. Courtney Sullivan, Terry McMillan, Liane Moriarty, Jhumpa Lahiri, Maggie O’Farrell, Meg Wolitzer, Caroline Leavitt and Susanna Daniel.
  • 14 audiobooks
  • 9 male authors, 40 female author
  • Book that disappointed me most: Little Bee by Chris Cleave.

Here’s to a great year of reading in 2014! And let me know what your reading highlights were this year.  What was the best book you read in 2013?


I am in my 40s, with three kids and a busy life that revolves around logistics and work and making sure that the little people that depend on me are generally clothed and fed and prepared for their days, whether that includes homework or potty training or birthday presents for their friends or any number of other activities and obligations that fill up my to-do list. What I really don’t do these days is analyze the romantic relationship in my life ad nauseam, either in my head or with my friends. (Not that I even see my friends anymore.)

But there was a time in my life when I did analyze the romantic relationship in my life ad nauseam, both in my head and with my friends, and when I wasn’t doing that, I was analyzing their romantic relationships. I sure wish that I had read The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. back then – it might have made things a bit clearer. (But probably only a bit.)

Adelle Waldman’s debut novel is about the romantic exploits of Nate, a late twentysomething freelance writer living in Brooklyn with his first novel on the way. Nate is Ivy-educated, doesn’t have a TV, reads philosophy and has close female friends.  He’s generally considered a “nice guy” by his friends. And yet, when it comes to women, he’s frustratingly inconsistent and, honestly, what we would have called an a–hole back in the day. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. focuses mostly on one of Nate’s doomed relationships: five months with Hannah, another writer who Nate really likes in the beginning, and then gradually becomes unhappy with. Waldman skillfully infiltrates the male psyche to reveal the reasons – or lack thereof- for Nate’s disenchantment with Hannah. She’s smart, she’s not hysterical, she’s fit, his friends like her, the sex is good – so what is it? Why does Nate start pulling back and slowly driving her crazy with his inconsistent affections and moody aggressiveness?

Nate isn’t really sure, and at the end of book, neither was I. But I certainly enjoyed the glimpse into his private thoughts, and the insights that 1) sometimes what men want out of relationships doesn’t really make sense; and 2) men don’t really care to spend the time figuring out what they want or why things didn’t work out. There is such a telling moment at the end of the book when Hannah writes Nate a very long, analytical, ponderous email about the demise of their relationship and possible ways that it could have been saved – to which Nate doesn’t even respond – which is followed by Nate’s admission that he barely thought about Hannah after they broke up.

This book should be required reading for women in their 20s, if for no other reason than to save hours of emotional analysis and discussion, retreading of tired relationship battles and theories, because sometimes there just isn’t a good reason for why men act as they do.

Waldman’s writing is sharp and insightful and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.  Lots of entertaining observations here about Brooklyn and hipsters and the NY literary scene. I especially liked this passage, in which Nate describes a young woman that one of his friends has just started dating:

Suddenly, Nate felt a bit sorry for her. She was pretty, self-possessed, and intelligent enough, but she was fresh out of school and repeating opinions that were no doubt fashionable there. In time, she would catch the tone of New York. Her schoolmarmishness was provincial. Here it was all about the counterintuitive. She’d learn. Besides, being pretty, self-possessed, and intelligent enough would go a long way, and if she wasn’t well-connected before she started dating Mark, she would be now.

I started The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. on audio, and only listened to 1 or 2 CDs before it made more sense for me to read it instead. The audio was very good, with narration by Nick Podehl that was basically perfect other than his female voices, which were insultingly girly and exaggerated. He did make me laugh out loud several times in the short time I listened to him, so if you like audiobooks, give this one a try. I was sad that I missed out. (Just be forwarned about the women.)

I am surprised that this book has gotten such mixed reviews – there is a lot of hate for it out there. I definitely enjoyed it and am glad I picked it up.

THE LOWLAND by Jhumpa Lahiri

I have to thank the EDIWTB readers who commented on this post and urged me to keep reading The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. I picked it back up last week and finished it today. It was not my favorite Jhumpa Lahiri, but it is still very good.

The Lowland is about two brothers – Subhash and Udayan – who were born 15 months apart in India. Subhash was the conventional, obedient son who moved to American in his 20s to study oceanography. Udayan, the younger brother, got involved with an anti-establishment movement called the Naxalite movement in the late 60s. He maintained a double life – living with his parents and wife, Gauri, and teaching science at a high school, but was secretly involved with the movement, including being an accessory to the murder of an Indian policeman. Ultimately, Udayan is killed by the police, in front of his wife and parents.

Subhash returns to India when his brother is killed, where duty compels him to marry his widowed sister-in-law and bring her to America. The Lowland further explores this notion of duty – Subhash’s duty to Gauri, Gauri’s to Subhash, and the consequences of their keeping secret the circumstances under which they married.

Like Lahiri’s earlier work, The Lowland is told in a quiet, understated manner. Her characters may be flawed, but they are human and deeply sympathetic. The book is fused with sadness, as these characters experience heartbreak and loneliness for years on end. For the first time, though, I found some imperfections in Lahiri’s writing. Her characters already well-established, there was no need for passages at the end of the book that restated her characters’ histories (over and over). The Lowland needed a good edit. (Maybe that’s what happens when you’re a Pulitzer Prize winner – people assume your work doesn’t need editing?)

I enjoyed The Lowland and was moved by the story and characters. Lahiri propels the plot forward with subtle twists and moves among her characters seamlessly, offering different perspectives of the same events that enhance the richness of the novel. In the end, The Lowland was not my favorite Lahiri – it left me a little cold. But a not-favorite Lahiri is still a wonderful read. I recommend it and it was a great book to finish off 2013 (unless I fit in another book by next Tuesday).


First, I want to announce the winner of the Stella Bain giveaway. Congratulations to Anna from Diary of an Eccentric, who won a copy of Anita Shreve’s latest novel. Thank you to everyone who entered – this was a very popular giveaway!

Second, happy Christmas break! If you’re anything like me, you’re enjoying a slightly less hurried pace, fewer things at home that need to get done (like homework), and the joy of having two weeks off from making lunches. I pack my 9 year-olds’ lunches every morning, and it is one tasks that I don’t look forward to. I have a hard time coming up with creative, healthy foods to pack day after day, and I end up always resorting to the same tired lunches, which has to be pretty boring for my kids. I try to get a protein and a fruit in every day to balance out the carbs, and I am mindful of sugar, but I’m sure the nutritional value of the lunches I pack could be improved.

To the rescue… J.M. Hirsch’s Beating the Lunch Box Blues. Hirsch is the national food editor for the AP and blogs at Lunch Box Blues, where he chronicles the lunches he packs for his son. Beating the Lunch Box Blues is full of ideas for lunches that are definitely better than the lunches I pack, but not out of the realm of the possible. Hirsch describes the book as “a cookbook-meets-flipbook approach to thinking about lunch, allowing you to page through fresh, healthy ideas for awesome, affordable meals”.  He opens with a few ideas to save time – making too much dinner so that leftovers can be packed the next day, trusting crazy ideas like pretzel sandwiches, embracing the thermos, and involving the kids in the whole process.

What follows is like an annotated Pinterest board of lunches that you can peruse and try based on your own aptitude and your kids’ tastes and special dietary needs. I love that some of the lunches are things you might not think to pack in a lunchbox – steamed dumplings, couscous and veggies, tortillas with cheese and corn, shrimp cocktail, or cucumber sandwiches. Hirsch doesn’t bother with recipes – he assumes people know how to make the few-ingredient dishes he features – but he does include beautiful photos that provide guidance about what to pair the lunches with and how to pack them.

The proof is in the pudding: my daughter went through the book and put a post-it on every page that had an idea she liked. Here is what it looks like now:


If, like me, you’re slogging through the mid-year lunch rut, I *highly* recommend picking up a copy of Beating the Lunch Box Blues. It is totally worth it. (You’ll probably even be inspired to pack these lunches for yourself.)

Thank you Simon & Schuster for the review copy of Beating the Lunch Box Blues!

IS THIS TOMORROW by Caroline Leavitt

Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt is domestic fiction masquerading as a missing child mystery set in the 1950s. Ava Lark, a woman in her 30s living in Waltham, Massachusetts, has many things going against her: she’s divorced, Jewish, has a son, works outside the home, and (gasp!) is dating. The 50s were not kind to women in her position: her neighbors shun her, men are leery of committing to her because of her son and lingering custody battle, and she is always tight on money and very dependent on lose her job as a typist. Ava’s son, Lewis, seeks out the friendship of the only other kids in the neighborhood with a single mom: Rose and Jimmy, whose father is dead. Jimmy and Lewis become best friends, while Rose, who is a few years older than the boys, serves as their third Musketeer while harboring a secret crush on Lewis.

One day, Jimmy disappears. He is there one minute – hanging around Ava’s house even though Lewis wasn’t home yet – and gone the next. His disappearance profoundly affects Ava, Lewis and Rose, who struggle for the next decade to make sense of what happened to Jimmy and deal with the huge void left in their lives. Ava unsuccessfully tries to maintain her friendship with Jimmy’s mother, Dot, while avoiding suspicion about her connection to the disappearance. Lewis becomes an ambition-less loner who shies away from opening up to others. And Rose, who is left with the responsibility of comforting and taking care of her mother, becomes so obsessed with Jimmy’s disappearance that she is unable to move on and form new relationships.

Ultimately, Is This Tomorrow is about disconnection and isolation, and how secrets held for years can have terrible implications for those kept in the dark. Rose’s love for Lewis was thwarted because her mother did not approve of them staying in communication after Rose moved away. A misunderstanding involving Lewis’ father ends up having far-reaching implications that can never be fixed. And the truth about where most of the characters were on the night Jimmy disappeared, when revealed, shows how terribly these lives were altered by impulsive, unplanned actions.

[Phew – I was really trying to avoid spoilers there!]

So here’s what I liked about Is This Tomorrow: the depiction of the 50s, the simplicity of Leavitt’s writing, the way that five characters’ lives were so seamlessly integrated throughout the book, and the fact that I had no idea how the book was going to end.

Here’s what I didn’t like as much: all of the coincidences that took place on the night of the mystery (totally unnecessary), the actual resolution itself (which seemed unrealistic), and the frustrating passivity of some of the characters. I get that it took place in the pre-Internet era, when people could move away and not be found, but I was frustrated by how easily Lewis and Rose accepted their separation from each other without trying to change it. Ava, too, was very frustrating. I understand that as a woman she was limited in what she could do to take control of her life, but she played the victim so frequently that I wanted to shake her out of it.

In the end, though, Is This Tomorrow kept me reading at a time when I have been very distracted and unable to commit to a book. It was hard to put down and I found it a pleasure to read/listen to it. I mostly listened to Is This Tomorrow on audio, and overall I enjoyed the narration by Xe Sands. She has a calm voice that was the perfect translator of Leavitt’s even, measured writing. My one complaint was that her narration of the male characters, especially the teenage boys, didn’t feel accurate. They sounded sort of stoned a lot of the time, as did Ava’s boyfriend Jake, which was distracting and not always true to the text. Ava’s voice often had a desperate tinge to it, which was probably intentional but was occasionally annoying. Overall, though, the audio was very good and I recommend it.

Is This Tomorrow was my second Caroline Leavitt novel – I read Pictures of You a few years ago – and I would definitely read more from her!

Giveaway: STELLA BAIN by Anita Shreve

Stella Bain by Anita Shreve
It has been a week since I last posted, and I don’t even have a review to post today. For some reason, my reading has stalled. I have been busy, with the holidays and a job search and my daughters in the Nutcracker, and haven’t had much time to read. I’ve also been working on the Facebook page for Bloggers Recommend, which is taking up some of my book-related time. (If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the Bloggers Recommend newsletter and follow the Facebook page. Lots of great book recommendations there from great bloggers.)

I have also had trouble getting into my next read. I picked up Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland a few months ago, read about 20 pages, and put it down. I have done the same with Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, which hasn’t grabbed me either. I am listening to Caroline Leavitt’s Is This Tomorrow on audio, and have found myself picking up the paperback and reading that instead of a different book. I need a pageturner to help me keep reading front and center during this very distracting time of year. Any suggestions?

One I might bump up the TBR list is Stella Bain by Anita Shreve, an author I’ve long enjoyed. I was recently offered a review copy of Stella Bain, her latest novel. Her publicist describes it as “a spare and elegant historical novel set during World War I. When Stella, a nurse’s aid working near the front, is wounded on a French battlefield, a British surgeon takes her in. It is an epic story about love and the meaning of memory, set against the haunting backdrop of a war that destroyed an entire generation.” I’ve enjoyed Shreve’s contemporary fiction, and was intrigued by the historical setting. I am looking forward to reading it.

I was also offered a copy of Stella Bain to give away to an EDIWTB reader. If you’re interested in winning a copy, leave me a comment below and I will pick a name at random next Sunday, December 21. Good luck!

WONDER by R. J. Palacio

What can I say about R. J. Palacio’s Wonder that hasn’t already been written about this beloved book? Not much, but I will try.

Wonder was this month’s pick for our Mother-Daughter Book Club. I chose it because my daughter absolutely loved it, and the buzz around it has been tremendous (which usually makes me shy away from a book, but I resisted this time). I didn’t expect that *I* would enjoy reading it as much as I did, since I don’t read much YA or middle grade fiction other than for this book club.

Wonder is the story of fifth-grader August Pullman, who has a terribly disfigured face due to a rare craniofacial genetic abnormality. He describes himself in the beginning of the book by saying, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” August is a smart kid who has been homeschooled by his protective parents. They decide that it is time to send him to school, despite their fears about how he will be treated by his classmates. When the book opens, August is meeting some pre-selected kids from his class whom the principal thinks will be nice to him and help ease the transition to school.

August is a funny, sensitive kid who just wants to be accepted – or even ignored – by the people around him, instead of causing them to shrink away in horror. He is acutely, painfully aware of the effect he has on people. Otherwise, he’s just a normal kid facing the usual ups and downs of growing up. That is partly what makes Wonder so powerful – August could be any of us inside; he’s just different on the surface. In addition to August’s, the book is told from the perspective of some other characters – August’s sister Olivia, her boyfriend Justin and friend Miranda, and two of August’s friends, Summer and Jack. I liked hearing their points of view, which not only rounded out August as a character by getting outside of his head, but also reinforced the book’s theme that everyone has problems and insecurities, and that being kind to those around you can help ease their burdens, whatever they are.

There are a lot of really sad points in the book, particularly when August’s dog dies, when he overhears very hurtful comments made by his best friend, and when he is bullied by older kids while on a school retreat. But Wonder is ultimately an uplifting story. Whether or not the acceptance of his classmates that August enjoys at the end of the book is realistic, it makes for a great message about how to treat other people.

There’s a lot of loneliness in Wonder – not just August’s, but among the other main characters too. I found the most poignant moments to be when they connected, when they really understood each other. So maybe the message of the book isn’t just to be kind, but to empathetic, to put yourself in others’ shoes and try to understand what it’s like to be them. What a great message for kids (of any age).

I liked the writing a lot. I am not sure that the dialogue (internal and spoken) was accurate for fifth graders – it seemed a bit advanced to me – but I’ve read reviews that said that it didn’t seem sophisticated enough, so there you are.

So I am adding my voice to the chorus of fans of this touching book. Highly recommended.

THE LIFEBOAT by Charlotte Rogan

Have you ever forced yourself through a book that you didn’t enjoy, but you still wanted to finish? Maybe you were curious about the ending, or maybe you thought it was Good For You, or the reviews were really promising and you thought you might be missing something? That’s how I felt about The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan.

The Lifeboat takes place in the 20s, about two years after the sinking of the Titanic. Grace Winter and her husband Henry elope to London, after he decides to marry her instead of his wealthy fiancee. Grace, a young woman from a disgraced family, knows that Henry’s family will not approve of her, and she urges him to tell them about their marriage while they are en route back to Boston on an ocean liner. Soon after, the ship sinks, and Grace finds herself crammed into an over-capacity lifeboat, while Henry remains on the ship to meet an uncertain fate.

The Lifeboat is about the period of time when Grace was at sea, and then a subsequent trial (after she was rescued) for crimes allegedly committed onboard the lifeboat. There were power struggles among the 38 people on the boat, who faced difficult ethical questions about the price of survival and when it is acceptable to sacrifice lives for the sake of others. The situation brought out the worst, basest impulses of the people on the boat, as they tried to align themselves with the people they thought held the power, only to shift cruelly when the tides changed.

So… I didn’t love The Lifeboat. It was *very* stressful to read. I kept putting myself in the shoes of the people on the boat, which made me very anxious and depressed. The writing is good, and the book is intriguing and engrossing. But I just didn’t like the process of reading it. I also found it difficult to really understand Grace. Her relationship with Henry remained shadowy to the end, and I didn’t get a good enough sense of what she really felt about him or why Grace was worth the sacrifices Henry made for her. I also had trouble keeping the minor characters separate in my mind. I wanted to care more about them, and feel something when they lived or died, but instead I mostly felt detached and disconnected from them.

The Lifeboat had an intriguing premise, but I think it was ultimately not successful, and it was stressful to read.