Category Archives: 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge

SING, UNBURIED, SING by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing came out to great acclaim in 2017, and even though I picked up an ARC at Book Expo that year, I just never got to it. Perhaps I was daunted by what I expected to be a difficult topic? It sat on my shelf until a few weeks ago, when I decided to try it in an audio/print tandem read. It helped that Ron Charles discussed how good the audiobook was when he came on The Readerly Report, and that Nicole also spoke highly of the book when she, too, finally got to it earlier this year.

Why I picked it up: I was way overdue.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is about a family living in Mississippi. Mam and Pop live with their grown daughter Leonie (their son Given is dead) and their grandchildren Jojo and Kayla. The kids’ father, Michael, is in prison but soon to be released. Leonie is black and Michael is white. Michael’s parents have never accepted Leonie as their son’s partner nor sought any relationship with their grandchildren, while Mam and Pop have basically raised Jojo and Kayla while Leonie is often off getting high. Jojo, 13, takes care of Kayla too, filling a parental void left by Leonie’s frequent absences.

When Michael’s release date approaches, Leonie decides to drive to get him from prison, along with their kids and a friend she knows from work. The road trip to and from the prison takes up much of the book. Along the way, the distance between Jojo and Leonie gets more pronounced, with Jojo increasingly frustrated at his mother’s failures as a parent and Leonie’s resentment of her children’s closeness and lack of need for her. Meanwhile, Jojo, on the precipice between boy- and adulthood, gains a clearer picture of his mother – her limitations and also the tenderness she shows to Michael.

The ride also provides Ward a vehicle to explore racism – the group gets pulled over by the police en route back from the prison, and an unannounced visit to Michael’s parents does not go well. Meanwhile, both Jojo and Leonie are haunted by ghosts along the way, with Leonie seeing her dead brother Given every time she gets high and Jojo being accompanied by the ghost of boy his age named Ritchie who served time in the same prison as Pop decades earlier. These ghosts serve as a painful reminder of the legacy of racism in Mississippi and are a grim foreboding of what Jojo will face in his life as a black man.

Ward’s writing is lyrical and sensuous. I felt like I was in the back of that hot car with the kids, experiencing their mixture of dread, curiosity, anger and the yearning for a family unit that could buffer some of the pain of growing up amidst racism and inequality. There is a lot of pain here: guilty characters trying to redeem themselves and disappointed characters trying to forgive and rebuild. The ghosts – victims of horrific acts of violence – add another layer of unease to the story. So while this is not an easy read – and arguably not the best choice for a pandemic – I am so glad I picked it up.

I listened to Sing, Unburied, Sing on audio and also read the print, probably a 50/50 split. The audio is fantastic. It is performed by Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chris Chalk and Rutina Weley, and they make the prose sound like poetry. Ron Charles (or was it his wife?) was exactly right – it’s a superb audiobook. I recommend having the print available too because there are times, especially those involving the ghosts, when it’s helpful to reinforce the audio with the print just to make sure you’re following what’s going on.

Sing, Unburied, Sing was Book #21 of 2020 and it satisfies the “Book That’s Been On My Shelf For 2+ Years” category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

INSIDE OUT by Demi Moore

One book genre that has unexpectedly been holding my attention during quarantine is what I call pop culture nonfiction. The Office was an engaging audiobook, one of the few books I finished in April, and after finishing it I turned to Demi Moore’s memoir, Inside Out. It turned out to be surprisingly interesting, and was a book I returned to eagerly whenever I had the chance. (I know I’m into a book when I bring my iPhone in the shower to get a few extra minutes of listening in. Weird?)

Inside Out is the story of Demi Moore’s chaotic childhood, entry into acting, rise to superstardom and experience as a wife and mother. As a child of the 80s, my Demi Moore consciousness was shaped by movies like St. Elmo’s Fire and About Last Night, but her bigger hits – movies like Striptease and G.I. Jane – and celebrity marriages propelled her into the echelon of highest-paid actresses and cemented her place on Hollywood’s A-list. In recent decades Moore has perhaps been best known as the mother to her three daughters with Bruce Willis, as Ashton Kutcher’s wife – and ex-wife, and for her well-publicized struggle with drugs, topics she covers with honesty in Inside Out.

Moore was born to two alcoholic parents who provided their daughter with an extremely unstable home life punctuated by frequent moves and school changes, separations and reconciliations, exposure to drugs and alcohol and a complete lack of parenting and guidance. Moore’s crazy childhood and adolescence, coupled with her complicated relationship with her troubled mother (her father committed suicide in 1980), formed the root of problems that would follow her throughout her life – alcoholism and drug addiction, lack of self-confidence, disordered eating and issues with intimacy and reliance on others. Moore is very honest in the book about her doubts about her acting ability and her attitudes about her body, exercise and dieting. She also goes deep into her relationships with the men in her life – Emilio Estevez, Willis and Kutcher, explaining what attracted her to them, what worked, and what eventually broke them up.

I found the sections about being a mother to her three daughters especially poignant, as Moore identifies parenting as the one activity and accomplishment in her life that she is most proud of. After a drug overdose in the early 2010s, she endured three years of her family not speaking to her, a very painful time for Moore. After reconciling with her daughters, she embarked on the book project, publishing Inside Out in 2019.

Moore does like to play the blame game, shifting responsibility for some of her poor decisions onto her parents, her exes, her critics, Hollywood’s expectations, etc. That got a little tiresome. But I liked a lot of what she had to say about pay equity, balancing motherhood with career and not losing your identity in your relationships.

I listened to Inside Out on audio, narrated by Moore. I couldn’t imagine hearing these words in anything other than Moore’s signature raspy voice. Great audiobook (and pretty short too, at 6.5 hours).

Inside Out was Book #20 of 2020 and satisfies the Celebrity Memoir category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

TWENTY-ONE TRUTHS ABOUT LOVE by Matthew Dicks

If you’re having trouble focusing on reading prose right now, how about reading lists instead? Matthew Dicks’ entertaining novel Twenty-One Truths About Love is exactly that: a collection of lists written by Daniel Mayrock, an insecure man in his thirties who is haunted by his wife’s dead first husband and his fear of being bankrupted by his failing bookstore. Lists are about my speed right now, so this was an easy book to get through during quarantine.

Why I Picked It Up: I’ve had Twenty-One Truths About Love on my TBR ever since it came out last year, and when my book club said they wanted a lightish read because we’re all totally stressed out, this was one of the ones I suggested.

Daniel Mayrock quit his teaching job to open a bookstore, thinking he could spend his days surrounded by beloved novels, which he’d recommend to a steady, respectful stream of passionate readers. Instead, he is faced with razor thin margins, customers with bad taste and surly employees. He watches his savings dwindle as the store becomes less and less profitable, a fact he keeps from his adored and newly pregnant wife Jill for fear of disappointing her and invoking inevitable comparisons to her successful, deceased first husband Peter.

Daniel is antisocial, generally friendless and opinionated on all kinds of topics. He’s also smart and funny, and his lists are entertaining, thoughtful and sometimes poignant. He loves his wife and his unborn child, and as he gets increasingly desperate to make (or win, or otherwise procure) money, he goes a little off the deep end. But Twenty One Truths About Love is funny throughout, and I didn’t have trouble sticking with it like I have with other books in recent weeks.

Examples of some of Daniel’s lists: “Why raspberries are a bullshit food”, 3 reasons why I am a terrible man”, “People I hate for being too accomplished”, “6 ways to annoy a child”, “Lyrics that make total sense and are the shit” etc. If those sound compelling, plus more plot-driven ones that won’t make sense in this post, then you’ll like this book.

It turns out that books in list form, when done well, are a lot of fun. Twenty-One Truths About Love is a pretty good choice for right now. Watching Daniel try to make himself into a better man without getting in his own way was a decent distraction.

Twenty-One Truths About Love was Book #16 of 2020 and satisfies the “book with the word ‘love’ in the title” category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

LONG BRIGHT RIVER by Liz Moore

Long Bright River by Liz Moore is a hybrid domestic fiction/police procedural about two sisters in Philadelphia: Mickey, a police officer, and Kacey, a drug addict who has been in and out of rehab. When the book opens, Mickey is trying to locate her sister amid a series of unsolved murders of young women in the Kensington area of Philadelphia.

Why I picked it up: I’d read very good reviews of Long Bright River since it came out in January and it was a December 2019 BOTM pick. But Sarah’s interview of Liz Moore on Sarah’s Bookshelves Live sealed the deal. I started it in audio, but brought it on a business trip this week and finished it in print.

This was a good one! In Long Bright River, Moore expertly teases out two stories – the Then and the Now. Then covers Mickey and Kacey’s childhoods and how they ended up taking such different paths in life. The daughters of an addict, they were raised by their grandmother after their mother’s death and father’s disappearance. They were given very little support as kids, and while Mickey studied hard and did well in school and Kacey turned to drugs as a teenager, their upbringing had deep ramifications for both women. In Now, Mickey, troubled by the rash of murders of similarly situated women, embarks on a desperate search to find her sister, often ignoring police protocol and putting her own career at risk.

Mickey is also the single mother of a young boy, Thomas, struggling to provide him with security and consistency but without the means to pay for proper daycare or private pre-school. She cobbles together childcare, often leaving him under less than ideal conditions while trying to find her sister. (This added a layer of tension to the book.)

Despite its 470 pages, I flew through Long Bright River. It’s incredibly suspenseful, and Moore masterfully teases out both timelines, revealing what happened little by little and and throwing in a few curveballs along the way. It’s a deeply sad book; Mickey’s loneliness and estrangement from what remains of her family and the details of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis combine for some pretty bleak reading. She made some bad decisions, but I had a lot of empathy for her (and ultimately for her sister).

The ending took the book down a notch for me, as I felt it wrapped up hastily and implausibly. Moore raced through some key scenes where I wanted a bit more dialogue and explanation, which left me a little unsatisfied. But overall I really enjoyed Long Bright River and am so glad I picked it up.

I listened to the first quarter of Long Bright River on audio before I turned to the print. It was narrated by Allyson Ryan, who was mostly businesslike and firm in her performance, like Mickey. I thought she did a good job with it. I realized early on that her voice was familiar – she was the narrator of Fleishman Is In Trouble, a very different book. Warning: if you listen to Long Bright River on audio, have the print available too, because you’re going to want to read ahead. Trust me.

Long Bright River was Book #9 of 2020. It satisfies the Recommended On A Podcast category, though I already have The Cactus League in that slot.

IN FIVE YEARS by Rebecca Serle

When Rebecca Serle’s novel In Five Years opens, NYC corporate lawyer Danielle and her banker boyfriend David get engaged, just as Dannie expected they would, the latest step in her meticulously planned life. But later that night, Dannie has a dream that takes place five years later, in which she is living (and sleeping with) a different man in a different apartment. Will that dream accurately reflect her future reality, and if so, how does she get from the present to that future?

Why I picked it up: I didn’t love Rebecca Serle’s last novel, The Dinner List, but the premise of In Five Years was irresistible and the reviews were very positive.

I really enjoyed In Five Years. It’s a quick read, because it’s pretty short and it’s hard to put down. Dannie’s life unfolds, her career skyrocketing and her relationship with David enduring… but with no actual wedding in sight. Dannie’s best friend Bella, meanwhile, falls in and out of love, taking a much more circuitous route forward than Dannie’s straight line trajectory. Dannie and Bella’s friendship plays a central role in In Five Years, highlighting the differences in how the two approach their lives but providing them with the constant presence that a deep, enduring friendship does. Bella challenges Danni to question whether she should stay on her planned track or give in to the impulses that might lead her to the future she envisioned in her dream.

In Five Years is reminiscent of a few other books I’ve read: One Day In December (girl falls in love with man who ends up being her best friend’s boyfriend); You Were There Too (man recurs in woman’s dreams); and The Immortalists, whose author Chloe Benjamin blurbed this book (siblings learn of the predicted dates of their deaths), but it still felt fresh and original. I also liked the depiction of Bella and Danni’s friendship. The plot took a few unexpected turns, which kept me quite engaged.

If you didn’t love The Dinner List, I’d recommend giving Serle another chance and picking up In Five Years. You’ll read it in like two days, and you’ll be glad you did.

In Five Years was Book #8 of 2020. It comes out on March 10.

WHEN WE WERE VIKINGS by Andrew David MacDonald

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald is a novel about siblings trying to make their way through life despite a lot of adversity. Zelda and Gert’s parents are gone – their mother, an alcoholic, died of cancer and their father disappeared when they were young. Zelda was born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, compromising her mental development and limiting her independence. She is obsessed with Vikings, and turns to Viking culture and rules to guide her throughout life.

Why I picked it up: I got When We Were Vikings as an ARC at Book Expo last year and recently started seeing reviews as its January publication day approached. I’ve seen comparisons to Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, which I enjoyed a lot.

Zelda and Gert have a lot going against them. They’re young and living on their own, having moved out of their uncle’s apartment after he started sexually abusing Zelda. Gert has dropped out of college and now deals drugs in order to support them, and Zelda, who spends her days either at the community center or seeing a therapist or hanging out at home, is dependent on Gert for everything.

When Zelda discovers that Gert is no longer attending classes, she draws inspiration from her beloved Vikings to try turn his life around while contributing more substantially to their home. She gets a job, experiments with having a boyfriend, and tries to repel the shady characters who have started invading their already fragile household, thanks to Gert’s new livelihood.

Zelda is an interesting narrator: she is articulate, engaged and compelling, but she is also naive and has poor judgment. MacDonald walks a fine line here – he has to make Zelda complex enough to feel invested in, but if she comes across as too smart, she’s not plausible as a character. For the most part, I think he did a good job achieving this balance. There were a few times when she seemed too sophisticated and used words that she wouldn’t have known, but in general MacDonald did a good job creating a consistent character.

Gert and Zelda are flawed but fundamentally good people who have been dealt some tough cards. I felt a sense of dread as the book went on, worrying about what was going to happen to them and how they would get through it. (Hint: it’s never good when a gun appears in a book.) When We Were Vikings is a touching novel and Zelda a winning protagonist. I also learned a lot about Vikings. It could have used a little more editing and the end is a bit abrupt (and unrealistic), but for a debut novel, When We Were Vikings was pretty impressive. And Macdonald did a very nice of getting into a woman’s head.

I listened to When We Were Vikings on audio. The narrator, Phoebe Strole, had a perky, upbeat delivery that at times was incongruous with what was happening in the book, but her narration gave Zelda a naivete and optimism that was entirely consistent with her character. I recommend the audio version.

When We Were Vikings was Book #6 of 2020 and satisfies the Debut Novel category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

DEAR EDWARD by Ann Napolitano

Dear Edward has one of those storylines that makes you want to pick the book up: a plane from New York to Los Angeles crashes over Colorado, killing everyone on board except for one person, a twelve year-old boy named Edward who was flying with his parents and older brother. Dear Edward follows Edward’s life after the crash, when he moves in with his aunt and uncle, and also flashes back to the hours leading up to the crash and the lives of some of the other people on the plane.

Why I picked it up: I fell for this irresistible premise once I started seeing buzz about this book everywhere. It was Read With Jenna‘s January pick as well as a BOTM selection from December. Dear Edward had also been sitting on my shelf since May, when I got it at Book Expo 2019.

I have mixed feelings about Dear Edward. On the one hand, it’s an interesting story, and there were elements that I found particularly compelling. Edward received letters from families of the people who died – hundreds of them – and I could understand that being a realistic response by their authors. After all, Edward was the last person alive to see the other passengers before they died. His sense of dislocation and emotional paralysis after the crash also made a lot of sense and was depicted well by Napolitano.

But I had a hard time connecting to Dear Edward. Napolitano glossed over huge parts of the story, simplifying them down to a conversation or even a few sentences. Edward’s grief – as well as his aunt’s – was superficially plumbed, leaving little sense of the true depth of their loss. Edward’s relationship with Shay, the girl next door who befriends him immediately upon his arrival in his new home, forms the backbone of Dear Edward, but how realistic is it that he would sleep on her bedroom floor for three years straight and not make a single other friend? For every element that rang true, there was one that left me shaking my head. In the end, I had trouble connecting emotionally to this book and found it more simplistic than its topic warranted.

I listened to Dear Edward on audio, and I wonder if that had something to do with my feelings about it. I found that when I read it in print (which I did from time to time), I liked it better. There was something about Cassandra Campbell’s narration that didn’t work for me here. I’ve listened to a lot of her books and maybe she just sounds too familiar to me at this point? When I read the book in print, I found it more substantive.

In the end, this was a 3.5 star read for me. Enough there to make it memorable but not, in the end, one of my favorites so far this year.

Dear Edward was Book #5 of 2020 and satisfies the Book With A Blue Cover category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

THE CACTUS LEAGUE by Emily Nemens

Emily Nemens’ debut novel, The Cactus League, is a book about baseball told through interconnected chapters set in Scottsdale at the beginning of spring training in 2013. Jason Goodyear, a two-time MVP outfielder for the fictional L.A. Lions who is going through a tough stretch, is a recurring character threaded through the chapters (of which there are nine, of course), but the book is told through the point of view of other characters living in varying distances from the sport.

Why I picked it: This one was a no-brainer. I am a huge baseball fan, and The Cactus League was recommended by my fave author J. Ryan Stradal when he came on The Readerly Report podcast. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that Nemens’ novel is structured like Stradal’s Kitchens Of The Great Midwest.

Warning for baseball fans: The Cactus League may take a bit of the sheen off the sport. These characters are down on their luck, for the most part, dealing with personal demons. The book opens when a late-career minor league hitting coach arrives in town for spring training to the grim discovery that his Arizona house has been looted and trashed by squatters. A hotshot sports agent is, we learn later, sick with what appears to be cancer. One of the team’s owners makes an impulsive but career-changing decision about a star outfielder after his ego is bruised. These people, some in town only during spring training and some of whom live in Scottsdale year-round, struggle with their self-worth and the prospects for their future. There is a lot of detail and atmosphere in The Cactus League, all of which add up to a richly textured depiction of this strange but revered desert ecosystem.

But spring is a period of renewal and hope. Nemens describes beautifully how the pre-season awakens in players the drive to start over with a clean slate, to erase past failures and claim their rightful lineup spot or win the title that’s escaped them through their years in the majors. For the industry hangers-on – the stadium organist, the wives, the woman selling hot dogs in the new stadium – they too express their hopes and resolutions amidst the warming sun and green grass of the newly mowed field. Will they find redemption?

The Cactus League is a rarity – a beautifully written, character-driven novel about sports. As for whether you need to be a baseball fan to enjoy it? I can’t answer that. I will say that as a baseball fan, I absolutely loved it.

The Cactus League was Book #4 of 2020 and satisfies four categories in the 2020 EDWITB Reading Challenge: Debut Novel, Book Recommended On A Blog/Podcast, Book With A Blue Cover and Book About Sports. I’ll figure out later where it goes but for now I am putting it in Book Recommended On A Blog/Podcast.

WEATHER by Jenny Offill

These are trying times for parents of young kids. How do you focus on the minutiae of child rearing when there are so many really big things to worry about? That’s the subject of Jenny Offill’s new novel, Weather. I loved her last book, Dept. of Speculation, which documented a failing marriage through short paragraphs and wry observations that verged on poetry. Weather is written in a similar style. Once again told from the point of view of a young mother, Weather takes on Trump’s America and the heightened anxiety we now live with.

Lizzie, once a graduate student full of promise, now works as a librarian at a university, with a side gig of helping a former professor answer emails about her doomsday podcast. Lizzie’s brother, an addict, is a constant worry to her as well, even after he marries and has a baby. She and her husband live in Brooklyn with their young son. Not a lot actually happens in the book – this is not for people who like plot-driven novels – but like Dept. of Speculation, Weather is full of breathtaking insight, wit and honesty. Lizzie’s mind ping pongs among the mundane and the philosophical, the personal and the universal, exploring the challenge of how to balance macro fears like climate change and impending disaster with modern life and its daily banalities.

I love, love, love Jenny Offill. I dogeared so many pages of Weather – there’s a gem of brilliance on almost every page. I often laughed – or grimaced – in recognition, and I read slowly so as to savor the experience. And if I didn’t have a bazillion other books to read, I’d probably start this one over again today.

It was a long wait for another Jenny Offill book, but it was worth it. (Actually, this doesn’t come out for another month – sorry – but you can pre-order now!)

Weather was Book #1 of 2020 and counts in the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge as a Book By An Author I Love.

2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge!

Now that 2019 is almost behind us, it’s time to announce the categories for the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge!

As I mentioned in my 2019 Reading Challenge wrap-up post, I wanted to make 2020’s categories a little more fun and less of an obligation. My hope with these is that you’ll find lots of books you want to read within these categories, without having to scrounge around for something that you don’t love and wouldn’t have read otherwise. I am also a big fan of reading your bookshelves, and hopefully you can do that more with this list than last year’s.

Here is the Google spreadsheet to keep track of your reading. If you’re new to the Challenge, just add your name to the list and you can keep track of your books here if you’d like. It’s also fun to see what other people are reading for the challenge.

HERE ARE THE CATEGORIES FOR 2020:

  1. An Epistolary Novel. This can also be a book told through texts/emails/etc. – doesn’t have to be letters.
  2. A Book That’s Been Sitting On Your Shelf For 2+ Years
  3. Pick A Book, Any Book. Close your eyes, walk up to your bookshelf, and read the first unread book you touch. (No do-overs!)
  4. A Book With The Word “Love” In The Title
  5. A Book That You Learned About From A Podcast/Blog
  6. A Celebrity Memoir
  7. A Book Involving Time Travel
  8. A Debut Novel
  9. A Book With A Blue Cover
  10. A Non-Fiction Book
  11. A Book About Sports. This can be fiction or non-fiction.
  12. A Book By An Author You Love That You Haven’t Read Yet

I am really excited about this list and hope that you are too! Please spread the word – if you have reader friends who would enjoy a fun, manageable book challenge and want to join a supportive, interesting community of readers, please send them this link.

Looking forward to kicking this off in January!