Author Archives: gayle

SECONDHAND by Adam Minter

Have you spent any of the pandemic cleaning out your home? Have you gotten rid of clothes, furniture, electronics or (gasp!) books? If so, have you wondered what happens after the truck comes for them, or you take them Goodwill or another donation site? Wonder no more: Adam Minter’s Secondhand: Travels In The New Global Garage Sale is a fascinating look at the circuitous route that our secondhand stuff takes after it leaves our possession.

Why I picked it up: I am kind of obsessed with recycling. I love the idea of things having multiple lives and purposes and avoiding landfills. As soon as I learned about Secondhand, I knew I had to read it.

In Secondhand, Minter, a business journalist, starts by explaining why so much stuff is discarded: we don’t expect our stuff to last long; kids don’t want their aging parents’ stuff; some societies view regular upgrades as a sign of status; manufacturers make it hard to repair electronics, appliances and cars; and more. The result of all of this casting away of things is a huge amount of hard goods that get transported from country to country, from cars and refrigerators to laptops and clothes. They may enter the “global garage sale” via Goodwill in the U.S., or a used bookstore in Japan, or a massive clothing sorting facility in Canada… and then they are on their way to Africa or east Asia or even to a rag manufacturing company in the U.S. with plants around the country. While there is a lot that ends up in landfills, there is also a complex, dynamic economy of companies and markets – legal or not – that find new homes and uses for a broad range of things.

While the book is scary on many levels – overconsumption, storage facilities, disposable culture – there is a lot of positive news in here. First, the interconnected network of buyers and sellers and secondary markets is a testament to human ingenuity and the efficiency of a good market. There are a lot of people who spend a lot of time preventing things from ending up in landfills. Second, Minter’s message is that people can help prevent landfills from getting fuller by investing in quality products and garments that have a longer expected life than many of the “disposable” items we buy today. If you buy something that lasts, you’ll either keep it longer or you’ll find a willing buyer more easily. Third, more countries are passing legislation making it harder for companies to keep their products out of repair shops. That means making it illegal for Apple to degrade their batteries or change their screws so that independent repair shops cannot open their phones.

There’s a lot more to this book than what I’ve summarized. If you’re interested in recycling and reducing waste – go pick up Secondhand! It’s well-researched and conversational in tone, and it will change how you think about buying and donating and consumption overall.

Secondhand was Book #48 of 2020.

BIG SUMMER by Jennifer Weiner

You know that feeling when you think a book is going to be a certain way, and then you start it, and it turns out to be something different? You keep expecting – and maybe wanting – the book to conform to the genre you set out to read, and it doesn’t, and you sort of end up… blaming the book, however unfair that is? That’s what happened to me with Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner. It started out as I expected – kind of light fiction about a woman coming to grips with a friend who treated her terribly in high school but years later comes back into her life, asking her to be a bridesmaid in her wedding. About a third of the way in, Big Summer turns into a mystery/thriller – an entirely different type of book – and I’m not sure I ever fully recovered.

Why I picked it up: I haven’t read Jennifer Weiner in a very long time. I swapped for Big Summer a few months ago, and when I found it on audio on Scribd, I decided to go for it. It seemed like a good, light pandemic read.

Big Summer‘s protagonist is Daphne Berg, a plus-sized Instagram influencer. Daphne achieved notoriety when she was filmed telling off her high school friend Drue Cavanaugh, a rich, beautiful mean girl who humiliated her at a bar during college. Daphne finally told Drue off after years of being her poorer, heavy sidekick and enduring all of the pain and thoughtlessness inflicted by Drue. Years later, Drue tries to get back into Daphne’s life, apologizing for her behavior in high school and convincing her to be in Drue’s upcoming wedding extravaganza.

There’s a lot in that first third – Daphne’s self-esteem, her relationships with her family and roommate, how she recovered from the terrible high school years and why she stuck with Drue as long as she did. There’s also social media culture and body positivity and comeuppance. I liked that third quite a bit – it had some heft and poignancy and was an engrossing read.

Then something dramatic and unexpected happens, and Big Summer turns into a thriller and Daphne into a detective. What felt realistic and grounded in detail suddenly sped up and became faster-paced, less realistic and… an entirely different book. It was still engrossing and I still took the audio into the shower, but it was a lot less filling. And I have to admit that I felt a little resentful. So just know what you’re getting into if you decide to pick up Big Summer.

I listened to Big Summer on audio. It’s narrated by actress Danielle Macdonald, who I didn’t realize until right now is someone I’ve seen before in movies. (I guess that’s why she looks a lot like what I thought Daphne looks like!) She did a pretty good job. There are some weird pronunciations in the audio, which now makes sense because Macdonald is Australian. This is also her first audiobook. Here’s a Facebook Live recording of Weiner and Macdonald in conversation about the writing and recording process.

Big Summer was the 47th book of 2020.

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyasi

Like 2020, its year of publication, Yaa Gyasi’s latest novel Transcendent Kingdom is a swirl of issues and emotions. The book covers a lot of ground – racism, religion, addiction, science, depression and more – but never feels weighted down. Instead, it ricochets from topic to topic, decade to decade, taking readers through the narrative of a troubled Ghanaian immigrant family and how it was affected by these larger forces.

Why I picked it up: I read and enjoyed Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing (reviewed here), and buzz for Transcendent Kingdom was off the charts. It was an easy pick for my September BOTM.

Gifty grows up in Alabama, the daughter of Ghanaian parents (Ma and the Chin Chin Man). She adores her older brother Nana, and is an observant, thoughtful, religious girl who follows the rules and does what is expected of her. The family suffers two losses before Gifty turns 12: her father returns to Ghana, leaving his wife and two children in America, and her brother dies of an overdose after becoming addicted to opioids and then heroin following a basketball injury. These two traumas profoundly affect both Gifty and her mother, sending the latter into a deep depression and the former on a decades-long quest to reconcile her religious faith with her need to understand the science of addiction and whether humans can be prevented from falling prey to its clutches.

Gifty herself best describes the tension inherent within her:

This is something I would never say in a lecture or a presentation or, God forbid, a paper, but at a certain point, science fails. Questions become guesses become philosophical ideas about how something should probably, maybe, be. I grew up around people who were distrustful of science, who thought of it as a cunning trick to rob them of their faith, and I have been educated around scientists and laypeople alike who talk about religion as though it were a comfort blanket for the dumb and the weak, a way to extol the virtues of a God more improbable than our own human existence. But this tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false.

Transcendent Kingdom goes back and forth between Gifty’s lonely childhood in Alabama, her confusing undergraduate years at Harvard and her present job as a neuroscientist at Stanford. Decades later, Gifty is still trying to connect with her deeply withdrawn mother, while her research on mice is her own way of making peace with what happened to her brother and whether it could have been prevented.

For a rather short book (265 pages), there is a lot going on. While Homegoing was told in a linear format, tracing 300 years in the lives of two half-sisters and their descendants, Transcendent Kingdom practically floats from issue to issue, touching down long enough to ground Gifty’s search for meaning and understanding before moving on to another dimension of her family’s pain. Gifty talks about being a black female scientist, institutional racism, her difficulty in making friends and opening up to men, her anger at her father and her frustration with her mother, yet the book never feels preachy or dramatic. It is quite the opposite: compelling and deeply moving.

I listened to Transcendent Kingdom on audio. The narrator, Bahni Turpin, was excellent (her Ma was unforgettable), but I’d recommend doing this one in print. Given the meandering nature of Transcendent Kingdom, the audio version is a little disorienting. I was often unsure of where I was in the timeline of the narrative, and without the visual cues of paragraph breaks, it was sometimes hard to recover. This is not at all the fault of the talented narrator, but simply the reality of reading via audiobook vs print.

Transcendent Kingdom was book #46 of 2020.

WITH OR WITHOUT YOU by Caroline Leavitt

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go to sleep and wake up as a different person… with a different personality, with memory loss, with new talents? That’s the premise of Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel, With Or Without You. Stella and Simon have been together a long time. He’s an already-peaked musician who’s been given one more shot at trying to revive his career, and she’s a nurse who’s frustrated that they are still childless and living in a small apartment in Manhattan. After Stella takes a prescription pill handed to her by Simon after they’ve had a fight, she ends up in a coma. When she wakes up a few months later, she’s very different – she has artistic skills she never had before, she no longer wants to be a nurse, and she does not feel connected to Simon the way she once did. With Or Without You explores the changes in their relationship brought on by her coma and how they each deal with them.

Why I picked it up: I’ve read and enjoyed other books by Leavitt (Cruel Beautiful World, Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You) and thought the premise of With Or Without You was intriguing.

Unlike Leavitt’s earlier books, I had a hard time with With Or Without You. Again, the premise is interesting, but the storytelling was problematic. I thought Leavitt did a lot more telling than showing – explaining repeatedly how her characters were feeling rather than showing the reader through their actions. The dialogue felt unnatural, with whole swaths of serious relationship issues covered in a perfunctory conversation. I enjoyed the process of these characters identifying what was important to them and learning how to live in a way that felt true to who they were, but the relationships fell flat.

Leavitt actually lived through being in a coma, an experience she has written about before both autobiographically and through fiction. Perhaps the experience was too intensely personal and traumatic for her to serve as the context for her novel? In the end, getting through With Or Without You took me longer than it should have and I had a hard time feeling invested. Her earlier books, which deal a lot with love and loneliness, were more compelling.

Most reviews of With Or Without You are very positive, so please give it a read if the premise appeals to you. Or give one of Leavitt’s earlier novels a try instead.

With Or Without You was Book #45 of 2020.

THE GOLDEN CAGE by Camilla Läckberg

The horrible husband/emotionally abused wife fact pattern is pretty common in domestic thrillers these days, and Camilla Läckberg’s The Golden Cage squarely fits the bill. Faye is a woman in her early 30s married to Jack, a successful businessman. They live in Stockholm with their young daughter. Faye, once a promising business student, helped Jack launch his company but now stays home, at his insistence. When she discovers that Jack has been having an affair and wants a divorce, she first laments the loss of her old life, but then vows revenge. The Golden Cage is about Faye’s rediscovery of her confidence and business instincts and her campaign to take down her ex-husband.

Why I picked it up: Sometimes I just can’t resist a thriller. I was in a bit of a reading slump and needed a jumpstart, and The Golden Cage seemed like it might do the trick. (It did.)

I read The Golden Cage in 2 days, which is really unlike me, as I am a slow reader. I had a hard time putting it down. It’s dark, sexy and fast-paced, and Läckberg knows how to keep a story going. I needed to know how Faye was going to get the best of Jack. That said, there were some things that didn’t sit right with me. (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) Faye does some pretty unconscionable things in the book, which makes her a lot less sympathetic in the end. I was rooting for her, but also horrified by her at the same time. It was also hard to reconcile Married Faye with Wronged Faye, as the former was such a doormat compared with the latter. And finally, her path to financial success post-divorce was dubious.

That said, The Golden Cage was a good palate-cleaner and got me back into reading mode and able to finish another book that I had been stalled in for a week or so.

The Golden Cage was book #44 of 2020.

I’M FINE AND NEITHER ARE YOU by Camille Pagán

In Camille Pagán’s novel I’m Fine And Neither Are You, Penelope Ruiz-Kar and her husband Sanjay live in the Midwest, have been married for 11 years, and are kind of… stuck. Penelope is the breadwinner, supporting their family of four by working in development for a medical school while Sanjay does freelance writing. She’s tired, frustrated and resentful. When she learns some secrets about her best friend Jenny that completely change how she had viewed Jenny’s perfect-seeming life, Penelope is driven to make some changes in her own.

Why I picked it up: I really enjoyed Pagán’s novel Forever Is The Worst Long Time (review here) and found the title to this one irresistible! I’ve had a 2019 ARC of I’m Fine And Neither Are You in the house for a while (I don’t remember where I got it) and thought I’d give it a try. (FYI – Camille Pagán was a guest on The Readerly Report podcast with me earlier this summer and we talked about her awesome titles!)

Penelope is a pretty relatable person. Like many women juggling family, marriage and career, she has a lot on her mind, but she isn’t always good about sharing it. And when she does, she feels guilty. But over the course of the book, she grows more confident and less afraid to tell the people in her life what she wants from them. There isn’t a lot of action here; the relationships in the book are what change over time. I’m Fine And Neither Are You is the opposite of escapist fiction; sometimes, I had to put it down because it all felt a little too familiar. Also, the book sometimes pinballs quickly between grief and snarky humor, which took some getting used to. But Penelope and Sanjay are multidimensional, interesting characters facing realistic challenges. Pagán has a great sense for how people communicate, and her books rarely strike a false note.

I listened to I’m Fine And Neither Are You on audio, and I wish I had gone with the print. The narrator, Amy McFadden, has a chirpy voice that seemed out of sync with the book and annoyed me as I listened.

I’m Fine And Neither Are You was book #43 of 2020.

HIS ONLY WIFE by Peace Adzo Medie

His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie is a novel set in Ghana about Afi, a young woman who enters into an arranged marriage with Eli, a man who is in love with someone else. Afi has been selected by Eli’s domineering mother to lure him away from the other woman – an unenviable position, for sure – and has to make the best of it when she arrives in Accra to assume her position as Eli’s wife. His Only Wife follows Afi’s transformation in Accra from a timid, insecure girl into a confident, ambitious woman.

Why I picked it up: His Only Wife was promoted during one of the buzz panels at Book Expo this year, and I was invited to participate in a blog tour for the book by Algonquin.

His Only Wife is an interesting read. Most of the characters are in untenable situations, and while I wanted to dislike at least a few of them, Medie complicated things enough that there really were no villains. Afi is a compelling character, stubborn at times but faithful to herself and unwilling to settle for less than what she deserves. I enjoyed learning about Ghanaian culture, especially the contrast between Afi’s small town, Ho, and her life of luxury in Accra. I was also invested in the story and, by the end, eager to see how Afi’s life would turn out. I read His Only Wife while on vacation a few weeks ago, and it really stuck out in my mind. It’s one of the books I remember best from the stack.

His Only Wife has a smart female character, a good feminist message and an interesting setting. All positives in my book!

His Only Wife was Book #42 of 2020.

PLAINSONG by Kent Haruf

There is a moment in Kent Haruf’s novel Plainsong when one character, a high school teacher, tells a teenage student, “These are crazy times, I sometimes believe these must be the craziest times ever.” I bookmarked that quote, because I think NOW really are the craziest times, and that the beauty of human connection that unfolds in Plainsong is even more reassuring than ever. This deceptively simple novel about interwoven small town lives in fictional Holt, Colorado was my final vacation read, and one of my favorite books I’ve read this year.

Why I picked it up: I’ve had Plainsong on my TBR ever since I read Our Souls At Night last year, which I also loved. Plainsong is #1 in a trilogy, which means I have two more Holt novels in my future!

In Holt, three separate storylines emerge in Plainsong. Victoria Roubideaux is a high school student who has gotten pregnant by an older boy who doesn’t live in town. She confides in a teacher, Maggie Jones, after she is kicked out of her house by her mother. Maggie approaches two older bachelor brothers, the McPherons – farmers who live outside town – and asks if they will take Victoria in, which they reluctantly agree to do. Meanwhile, another teacher at the school, Tom Guthrie, is dealing with a mentally ill wife and two small sons, Bobby and Ike. When his wife decides to leave Holt and move to Denver, Tom is left as a single father. Plainsong cycles through this triangle of character groups, braiding them tighter until they intersect at the end.

I loved Plainsong. Haruf is a master storyteller, using quiet spare writing that gives meaning and import to every sentence. The little details throughout lend immediacy and intimacy to the story, while the book itself is sweet and hopeful without feeling preachy, saccharine or out of tune. Bad things happen, characters become hurt or scared, and they do bad things to each other. But there is redemption for each one, and hope that their lives will become better. I also loved the interactions between Maggie, Victoria, Ike, Bobby and the McPheron brothers. They each had something to offer the others, which was ultimately what made the book so rewarding.

I am definitely reading #2 and #3 in the Plainsong trilogy.

I read Plainsong mostly in print, but I switched to audio when I returned home from vacation. The audio is fantastic too. It’s narrated by Tom Stechschulte, and with the exception of a few of the female voices, he was just perfect. His delivery greatly added to my enjoyment of the book. He could take a single word and imbue it with so much meaning that I often rewound and replayed just to experience it again.

Plainsong was book #41 of 2020.

THE FLATSHARE by Beth O’Leary

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary follows the typical romance fact pattern – take two people who seem to be a mismatch, keep them apart as long as possible while building up tension between them, let them hook up, throw a wrench into their romance, and then give them a happy ending. (I didn’t spoil anything there, did I?) The Flatshare is particularly creative in how it keeps its protagonists apart, leading to a cute and clever book that is nonetheless pretty light.

Why I picked it up: My book club wanted something light and romantic for August, and The Flatshare had been on my TBR for a while.

Tiffy is a book editor in London who has just been dumped by her boyfriend. She is in need of a cheap apartment, immediately. She finds a strange offer – Leon, a hospice nurse who works nights and weekends, is renting out his apartment for the hours he isn’t there. His flatmate will have the place when he’s not there, thus ensuring that the two never meet. Tiffy moves in, and eventually the two start communicating via post-it notes around the apartment. And – surprise! – they start to become friends, and maybe more, even though they’ve never met face to face.

The Flatshare is a cute story about two people who are very different but find themselves dependent on each other in surprising ways. Tiffy is loud and fun and dresses in kooky outfits; Leon is restrained and quiet but has a heart of gold. Tiffy’s ex-boyfriend reappears in the book, triggering memories of emotional and psychological abuse, which adds a more serious undercurrent that doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the book. (But it does throw more obstacles into Tiffy and Leon’s path to bliss.) Overall, The Flatshare is a cute read, good for a vacation or mental escape. It’s also very British – understated and sarcastic.

I listened to The Flatshare on audio, which I liked. The narrator for Leon’s chapters – Kwaku Fortune- is a little hard to understand at first, but Tiffy’s narrator – Carrie Hope Fletcher- is bright and clear and very easy to follow. If you want to pick this book up, I’d recommend the audio, which makes the story more immediate and evocative.

The Flatshare was book #40 of 2020.

HAPPY AND YOU KNOW IT by Laura Hankin

Happy And You Know It by Laura Hankin takes the Upper East Side mothers-behaving-badly trope and turns it into something deeper, exposing what happens when a playgroup of Instagram-perfect moms starts to crack at the surface, revealing the weaknesses within. There are a few twists and turns along the way that make Happy And You Know It darker and deeper than I expected.

Why I picked it up: I’d read good things about Happy And You Know It and thought I’d give it a try.

Whitney, Amara, Gwen and some other minor characters are moms of babies and toddlers living in New York City. Whitney has a big following on Instagram, where she posts carefully curated pictures chronicling her life as a mom to her daughter, Hope. The playgroup hires a struggling professional musician named Claire to come each week to sing to the babies, and Claire slowly becomes part of the group. As her friendships with the women grows deeper, she uncovers some secrets about them that of course, eventually come out, causing deep fissures among the women that can’t be smoothed over.

Happy And You Know It is funny and incisive, and at first faithfully follows the satire route. But Hankin fills in the backstories of each of the women, giving them more dimension and heft and providing insight about motherhood, marriage and friendships. “Women had to grapple with a choice that men never did while remaining uncomplaining and generous so that they didn’t nag their husbands straight into the arms of less complicated lovers. And now moms weren’t even allowed to acknowledge how much work it all was anymore.”

I read Happy And You Know It quickly and had a hard time putting it down. It’s a great beach read, or good for anytime when you want a nice escape that will suck you in quickly (like during a pandemic). Looking forward to more from Laura Hankin!

Happy And You Know It was book #39 of 2020.