Category Archives: Non-Fiction

I AM, I AM, I AM by Maggie O’Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell is an exquisite collection of essays about 17 brushes with death by the Irish author Maggie O’Farrell. From the medical – a c-section gone wrong, a brain infection – to near-drownings while on vacation and narrowly escaped violence at the hands of others, O’Farrell has faced a lot of physical adversity and danger over the course of her life. A life lived on the razor edge of death made O’Farrell less, rather than more, risk-adverse, pushing her to embrace mortality, almost daring it to stop her as she sought out adventures and experiences, often ill-advised, that her body may not have been able to handle.

Some chapters are more successful than others; the chapter about an AIDS test ends rather vaguely, for example, and detracts slightly from the overall collection. But there are others in which danger is so clearly present that I found myself rattled and anxious, even knowing, of course, that O’Farrell is alive and well. How frequently have we all been in situations where our safety was in grave danger, most likely without even knowing it? Life is a daily, ongoing miracle that we so often take for granted and think about only fleetingly, yet many of us could likely fill 17 chapters with our own harrowing brushes with disaster. I finished this book feeling grateful and lucky.

I enjoyed I Am, I Am, I Am quite a bit as I read it, but my feelings about it changed when I got to the last chapter, which is about O’Farrell’s daughter. Without spoiling the book, it wasn’t until that last chapter, when risk and worry were upended and transposed, that I really understood why O’Farrell wrote it: her ever-present, unwavering and never lessening fear and vigilance caused by her daughter’s auto-immune disorder. As a parent, I found this chapter the most harrowing of all.

I Am, I Am, I Am is definitely worth a read. If you’ve read any of O’Farrell’s novels (see here for reviews of Instructions For A Heatwave and The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox), then you know already what a beautiful writer she is. Her writing about her own personal experiences is even more meaningful and moving.

I listened to I Am, I Am, I Am on audio. It was narrated by Daisy Donovan, who did a great job conveying the intensity of this personal narrative. (I was a little surprised that it wasn’t narrated by O’Farrell herself, and I supposed I just pretended it was O’Farrell reading it as I listened.) I highly recommend the audiobook, which breathlessly and urgently conveyed the gravity of the subject.

BACHELOR NATION by Amy Kaufman

I am a fan of the Bachelor franchise. I have been since the beginning. I’ve watched almost all the seasons – maybe missed 4 or 5 along the day – and it’s definitely one of my top guilty pleasures. It’s mindless, yes, and predictable and ridiculous too, but I do love watching it.

So I jumped at the chance to read and review Bachelor Nation: Inside The World Of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure by Amy Kaufman. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the franchise, compiled with lots of research about the show and how it works. Kaufman starts with a history of dating shows, which is a little dry, but then explores how the Bachelor franchise got started and why it’s so popular. Kaufman explains how the producers manipulate interviews and dates to create drama, and how people on the show are pressured to act certain ways and say certain things for the cameras. She covers the double standard for men and women on the show and gets a bit into the details of what it’s like to live in the mansion.

I didn’t learn anything earth-shattering, but Kaufman did answer some of the questions I’ve amassed over time. I wish she had gone into more detail about the daily lives of the contestants and what it’s like for the couples when the cameras stop rolling. Many of her sources were other books, articles or blogs, and I wanted more first-person accounts and interviews. I feel like I never have enough detail when it comes to The Bachelor!

If you’re a hardcore Bachelor fan who follows the podcasts and blogs about the show, then you’ll probably find that Bachelor Nation doesn’t have a lot of new material. If you’re a casual fan who hasn’t spent a lot of time learning about the show, then you’ll find this book to be a fun read. If you don’t know or care about the show, then definitely don’t pick this one up.

A BEAUTIFUL, TERRIBLE THING by Jen Waite

A few weeks ago, I said that I was done reading popcorn thrillers about sociopathic husbands. So what did I do next? Picked up a memoir about a sociopathic husband. SMH.

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing is the story of the demise of Jen Waite’s marriage to a charming Argentinian man named Marco. She married him after a frenzied period of dating and enjoyed 5 blissful years with him before everything fell apart. A few weeks after she gave birth to their daughter Louisa, she found a strange email on his computer that suggested that he was seeing someone else. He denied it repeatedly, but it came out over the next few months that Marco was cheating on Jen with another woman (and that there had been others).

The cheating was bad enough, but hardest for Jen was Marco’s coldness and lack of empathy. He claimed to be “sick” and “numb” and “unable to feel” anything about what he had done. After a lot of internet research and therapy, though, she concluded that he was a sociopath who had tricked her for years into believing that he loved her, but who cast her off when he decided he was ready to move on due to his own need for attention and adoration.

I guess I’m glad I read A Beautiful, Terrible Thing… ??? In the end, yes, Marco was awful and Jen’s pain was very intense, but did I need to read a whole book about it? I was more interested in the analysis of sociopaths and the identification of their patterns than the timeline of the revelations about Marco’s infidelity. Waite is a good writer, so it’s not like the book wasn’t written well. It’s just a somewhat familiar story and in the end I didn’t really grow that much for having read it. There is a lot of talk about not giving too much of yourself to another person or being so invested in their happiness, but if Marco hadn’t been a sociopathic monster, I don’t think Waite would be advising against either. (That’s what marriage is, right?)

You probably know by now whether this book is for you or not.

 

HAPPINESS by Heather Harpham

Vacation read #4 was Heather Harpham’s memoir Happiness, which I grabbed on an impulse from my 2017 Book Expo box the night before we left. Harpham, a writer living in New York, meets and falls in love with an author named Brian. They have a strong, passionate relationship that is leading toward permanence, except for one issue they can’t resolve: Heather wants kids and Brian doesn’t. When they accidentally become pregnant, the decision of what to do – and how it will impact their relationship – becomes too much for them to survive. Heather moves home to California to have the baby, leaving Brian in New York.

Their daughter Gracie is born outside San Francisco, and from the start it’s apparent that she is suffering from a mysterious blood disorder. Within the first few weeks of her life, Gracie received a blood transfusion, a procedure she requires every three to four weeks to help get oxygen to her body. Heather handles Gracie’s condition and treatments solo, with help of her mother and some longtime friends, bearing the emotional and physical burden of caring for a sick infant. Brian finally flies out to California to meet his daughter a few months later, and he slowly backs his way into fatherhood.

Ultimately, Heather and Brian reconcile, and are then faced with the question of whether to have another child who might be a genetic match to provide bone marrow for Gracie. Given their history, this is a complicated question, but one that is quickly answered when Heather becomes unexpectedly pregnant with their son, Gabe. From there they must decide whether to transplant his marrow into Gracie, and where, and how they will get through it, emotionally and professionally.

I enjoyed Happiness. Even though I knew how it would end, I felt the suspense and stress of Gracie’s treatments and procedures and was eager to hear how it all worked out. Harpham does a really good job of letting the reader into the head of the parent of a sick child. She’s honest and genuine, sharing her innermost thoughts while Gracie was hospitalized, including the guilt she felt about neglecting her young son, her ambivalence toward her partner, and the conflicting emotions conjured by watching other parents enduring the same awful experiences in the hospital. I felt great empathy for her and for Gracie.

Happiness was a compelling read and I’m glad I included it on my travels.

CAN’T HELP MYSELF by Meredith Goldstein

I am a sucker for advice columns. I read several on a regular basis – Carolyn Hax, Ask Amy, Dear Prudence – so when I learned that there was a book coming out by Boston Globe advice columnist Meredith Goldstein, author of the “Love Letters” column, I knew I wanted to check it out. (Goldstein also wrote the novel The Singles, which I reviewed here.)

Can’t Help Myself: Lessons & Confessions From A Modern Advice Columnist is about Goldstein’s column: how she started it, the types of letters she gets and her interactions with her readers. But it’s also about Goldstein’s own life – her relationships with men and the people close to her. The “Love Letters” column addresses her readers’ relationship quandaries, covering everything from one night stands and overdue marriage proposals to work spouses and online dating. Goldstein divides the book into themes about love lives while threading her own personal narrative throughout. We learn about the guy who got away, her very close relationship with a colleague, and her mom’s cancer diagnosis.

Can’t Help Myself is a quick and interesting read. Goldstein is funny and deeply honest, so I really got a sense of who she was. I almost always agreed with the advice she gave out to her readers, even while she had trouble following it in her own life. I do wish she had spent more time behind the scenes. I wanted to hear more about how she picked the letters and trends she has noticed in 9 years of writing her column. Goldstein always seemed so sure of her answers; I’d like to have heard about the times when she just didn’t know what to advise. More focus on the role and responsibility of the advice columnist would have given Can’t Help Myself more heft.

I liked the reader letters spread throughout the book, and have, of course, now subscribed to “Love Letters” updates.

This is a fun book if you’re an advice column junkie, but in the end I wanted a little more detail and analysis.

2018 Summer Reading List

It’s June, which means it’s time for the annual EDIWTB crowdsourced reading list. Thanks to my readers and Facebook friends for submitting their favorite reads from the last year. I always like this list because there are many books on it that I’d probably not read on my own, and therefore would not include on the blog. You’re getting a much more well-rounded list than I’d come up with myself.

Here’s what the crowd came up with. I’ve put ** next to those that were recommended by more than one person. When it’s a book I’ve read too, I’ve included a link to my EDIWTB review.

**The Nix by Nathan Hill

**Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

**Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (reviewed here)

**The Power by Naomi Alderman

**American Fire by Monica Hesse

**The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

News Of The World by Paulette Giles

Hunger by Roxanne Gay

Brotopia by Emily Chang

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Bad Blood: Secrets And Lies In A Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

Young Jane Young, Gabrielle Zevin

**The Leavers by Lisa Ko (reviewed here)

**The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

**Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (reviewed here)

**This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel (reviewed here)

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (reviewed here)

Unabrow by Una LaMarche

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (reviewed here)

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld (reviewed here)

**Saints For All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan

Star Of The North by D. B. John

Mrs. by Caitlyn Macy

Only Child by Rhiannon Navin

Between Me And You by Allison Winn Scotch,

We Were The Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

**A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles

**Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Circling The Sun by Paula McClain

March by Geraldine Brooks

The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey

Time Of The Locust by Morowa Yejide

A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

The Black Penguin by Andrew Evans

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

**Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (reviewed here)

Summit Lake by Charlie Donlea

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (reviewed here)

Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky 

The Lost Girls by Heather Young

**The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy

The Wife by Alafair Burke

A Closed And Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

The Genius Plague by David Walton

The Great Quake by Henry Fountain

Vacationland by John Hodgman

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein (reviewed here)

Vintage Hughes by Langston Hughes

My Last Continent by Midge Raymond

Educated by Tara Westover

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer (reviewed here)

Silver Girl by Leslie Pietrzyk

White Houses by Amy Bloom

Gateway to the Moon by Mary Morris

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

**The Twelve Lives Of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (reviewed here)

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I Liked My Life by Abby Fabiaschi (reviewed here)

The Two Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman (reviewed here)

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty (reviewed here)

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Circe by Madeline Miller

The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Calypso, David Sedaris

The High Season by Judy Blundell

The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

 

NOMADLAND by Jessica Bruder

Nomadland by Jessica Bruder looks at a relatively invisible American demographic: a mobile workforce, made up mostly of people in their 60s and 70s, who live out of vans and cars and follow low-wage seasonal employment opportunities around the country because they can’t afford homes. I wasn’t aware of this demographic before I read about Nomadland, and once I read the book’s synopsis I knew I wanted to get hold of it.

In Nomadland, Bruder looks a range of employers and job opportunities that have attracted nomad workers, including: Amazon, who hires hundreds of workers (“Camper Force”) at warehouses across the country to handle holiday season order fulfillment; national parks who hire “camp hosts” to staff campgrounds over the summer; amusement parks; the sugar beet industry, who needs seasonal harvesters; and more. These employers hire nomad workers who descend on their locations, setting up temporary mobile home communities while the work is still paying. When the work dries up, the vans pull out and the communities disappear. The work is usually tedious, physically taxing and low paying, but the workers come anyway. They need the money.

In addition to looking at the jobs, Bruder spends a lot of time on the nomads’ way of life. Where do they shower? Park? How do they get mail?  Bruder did an incredible amount of research for Nomadland, including getting her own van and spending time on the road with her subjects. She even took a job at Amazon as part of Camper Force to truly understand the experience of nomadic work. The result is a very thorough and empathetic view of the challenges of this type of lifestyle.

Bruder focused on one nomad – a woman named Linda – throughout Nomadland to lend the book a narrative structure. Linda went from a national park in California to a casino to an Amazon warehouse in search of income. The depiction of Linda’s story really captures the dichotomy of the nomadic lifestyle. On one hand, Linda enjoys an untethered existence, free to come and go as she wants, while still enjoying the benefits of a vibrant community of friends. Without rent to pay, she is unshackled from some of the financial stress that her peers share. Yes, she lives on a tight budget, heading to Mexico for cheap medical treatment and postponing needed repairs on her van, but she is debt-free and able to support herself. But Linda’s story is emblematic of so many Americans whose fortunes were decimated by the 2008 financial crisis. They lost jobs, savings, retirement plans, and the comfort of knowing that their needs would be covered into old age. Faced with financial uncertainty, they take to the road because they tave no other options. And while living on the road may sound romantic, it’s also hard in many, many ways.

Nomadland was a fascinating book. There were a few places where Bruder veered off course a little and I found myself losing focus. The chapters focusing on Linda were the easiest to follow, but some of the other nomads’ stories tended to ramble a little. That said, I still found this to be an interesting and disturbing read. Of the many casualties of the financial crisis, these older Americans without good options are among the saddest.

I listened to Nomadland on audio. It was narrated by my friend Karen White, who gave it just the gravity it needed. Her precise delivery, verging on alarmed, conveyed the substance and urgency of the topic, yet she handled the book’s wry and humorous moments just as well.