THE LAST ROMANTICS by Tara Conklin

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin was a buzzy book last spring – it as Jenna Bush’s first Read With Jenna pick – and my IRL book club picked it for our August read. It’s a family drama about four Skinner siblings – Renee, Caroline, Joe, and Fiona – whose father passes away suddenly and whose mother subsequently goes into a deep depression. During the years of the their mother’s depression – which they call The Pause – the kids (aged 4-11) are left on their own. Renee, the responsible oldest, takes on the role of the mother, getting her siblings to young adulthood while missing out on her own adolescence.

Once the siblings grow up, however, they head off into different directions. Renee is driven and focused, attending medical school and becoming a surgeon. Caroline marries her high school boyfriend and has children early, providing them the stability she missed in her own childhood. Joe, the golden boy with the once-promising baseball career, finds the allure of money and booze too hard to resist, and Fiona uses physical connections with men – which she blogs about at “The Last Romantic” – to take the place of meaningful intimacy. Joe’s sisters watch him devolve with increasing alarm, yet they are powerless to stop his decline. How they respond to him puts a strain on their relationships and permanently transforms the dynamics between them.

I loved The Last Romantics. It’s beautifully written, poetic at times, and I really got to know these four characters well. Some chapters are told from the year 2077, when Fiona is a famous poet at age 102 looking back on her life. This was an interesting construct, both unsatisfying due to very limited parsing of details about the future (hint: it doesn’t sound great) and also poignant because of Fiona’s perspective looking back on her life. Ultimately, this is a novel about love (in all forms), loyalty and loss, and the imperfect ways in which we connect with and support the people we love. [Warning: the end is reminiscent of the Six Feet Under finale. If you know what I’m talking about, then you know why I am issuing the warning.]

This was a good one! Go pick it up.

THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR by Yoko Ogawa

My second vacation read was The Housekeeper And The Professor by Yoko Ogawa, a book I learned about from the Read Between The Wines blog this summer. It’s about a woman assigned to be the housekeeper for a brilliant math professor whose short term memory only lasts for 80 minutes ever since he was injured in a car accident. He can remember complicated math theorems, but he can’t remember people he met two hours earlier. This has led to a string of short-lived housekeepers, as they grow frustrated with having to reintroduce themselves every time they get to work.

The housekeeper of the title, however, is different. She gets to know the professor and pays attention to the math he teaches her and the connections he makes between numbers. Unlike the others, she finds him fascinating, and her world begins to expand beyond her job in his little house. She also introduces him to her 10 year-old son, and the boy bonds with the professor over their shared love of baseball. Although there are limitations on where their relationship with him can progress, they become very fond of him and learn to adapt their interactions to accommodate his memory loss.

The Housekeeper And The Professor is a quiet, poignant book. These lonely characters find connection in unexpected, imperfect ways, teaching the importance of living in the moment and behaving compassionately. It’s a quick read, but a memorable one. Though you never learn the characters’ names, they form a triangle you won’t easily forget. Bonus: it takes place in Japan and there is lots of baseball!

THE OTHER’S GOLD by Elizabeth Ames

I am back from vacation! It was a great trip. Not much downtime, which means not much time for reading. I did manage to make it through four books, which of course was only half of the eight I brought with me. Sounds about right for me and vacation – I always overpack books. (Because running out of books on vacation would be awful.)

Here is one of my favorite reading spots on the trip – the balcony of our hotel in Sagres, Portugal, also known as “the end of the world”:

The first book I read was The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames. It has one of those plots I like – four friends from college and how they fare into adulthood. Margaret, Lainey, Ji-Sun and Alice meet as freshmen when they share a suite at an elite East Coast school. They come from different backgrounds, but become fast friends, enjoying an intimacy and closeness that persists through four years in the same suite.

The Other’s Gold is structured around four mistakes, one made by each of the main characters at some point in their lives. They are pretty significant mistakes, which impact the course of their lives and affect their families, and later, their friends and husbands. I don’t want to spoil anything by saying what the mistakes were, but they form the narrative structure of The Other’s Gold, allowing Ames to shift focus among the four women and delve more deeply into their individual stories.

I really enjoyed this one. It read quickly and Ames is a beautiful writer. The women were frustrating at times, and made questionable decisions, but I felt invested in their lives and friendships and wanted to see how things ended up. I liked Ames’ use of detail – never extraneous, always making me feel a part of the scene. My only complaint is that I had trouble connecting to one of the women – Lainey – throughout the book. I found her inconsistent and difficult to relate to. Maybe we are just really different, but she isn’t like anyone I have known and I didn’t find her all that credible.

The Other’s Gold is a debut novel, coming out on Tuesday. I really liked it and recommend it – makes a great end of summer read.

Vacation!

I am heading out on vacation today for almost two weeks. I am very excited. Our kids have been coming and going all summer but this is our first and only time away the five of us. We’re going to Spain and Portugal.

As always, I’m bringing too many books with me (my rule of thumb is always to bring two times as many books as you think you’ll read) but I’ve spent a while thinking about them and curating the pile. Here they are:

And Then There Were None and I’ll Give You The Sun (not in this pic) are included to satisfy the unread classic and book-to-movie-in-2019 categories of the EDIWTB 2019 Reading Challenge.

In other updates, I had the amazing chance to hang out with my favorite author, J. Ryan Stradal, when he was in DC two weeks ago. We talked baseball, books, 80s music, and more, and of course I had to share my intense love for Kitchens Of The Great Midwest. I don’t *think* Ryan thinks I am a stalker. He did ask me for a ride to his hotel, which I doubt he would have done if he’d feared being abducted. Here we are:

Nicole and I have been busy recording podcast episodes, so there won’t be any interruption while I am gone. Please keep tuning in to The Readerly Report!

Have a great two weeks everyone! If I have time, I will post reviews of what I’ve read on the trip. Otherwise, I’ll post on my return.

BAD BLOOD by John Carreyrou

I chose Bad Blood: Secrets And Lies In A Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou for the non-fiction category of the EDIWTB 2019 Reading Challenge. It’s the story of entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos, which rose to dizzying heights based on Holmes’ promise that her technology would allow an array of tests to be performed on tiny drops of blood using portable devices. The promise seemed too good to be true – and it was. Yet Holmes and Theranos managed to con investors, board members and fawning media into believing that Theranos was going to change the world.

Holmes dropped out of Stanford to pursue her dream of revolutionizing medicine through groundbreaking technology that would allow a single drop of blood to substitute for the vials that are traditionally taken from patients’ arms. A small box, which could be used anywhere – in a house, in a drugstore, in a supermarket – could perform hundreds of tests, instantly, delivering accurate results to patients and their doctors. It was an irrestistible premise, and even if the science behind it was nebulous, Holmes found willing audiences among venture capitalists, supermarket chain executives, even prominent people like George Schultz and David Boies.

Theranos’ greatest threat came from within. Employees at all ranks of the company, from the engineers in charge of the labs down to the technicians handling the tests, started having doubts about the science behind Theranos. Bad Blood chronicles in exhaustive detail how Theranos soared publicly while it was crumbling inside. Carreyrou also breaks down how Holmes managed to earn the confidence of very smart, powerful people who took Holmes’ word that the technology was sound without insisting on proof.

Bad Blood is a riveting and deeply disturbing story of arrogance and greed, thanks to brave, tenacious reporting by Carreyrou, an investigative journalist for the Wall Street Journal, who pursued the Theranos story based on a tip from a former employee even as his own newspaper was heralding Theranos’ bright future. The book reads like a newspaper article – factual and meticulous, even as the Theranos story becomes more incredulous. I didn’t find it to be as much of a page-turner as others have, perhaps because nothing really changed – the fraud continues through the book with little deviation or evolution. But in the end, it’s a well-written and compelling account of how one woman put lives at risk, destroyed careers and blew through hundreds of millions of dollars with no apparent conscience or regret.

HOW NOT TO DIE ALONE by Richard Roper

I am not sure what made me pick How Not To Die Alone by Richard Roper as my next read a week or two ago. I think it’s because I had a review copy on audio and had swapped a book for the print copy, so it was easy logistically. In retrospect, I’m not sure it was what I was in the mood for, as I’ve had a run of lighter books lately.

How Not To Die Alone is about Andrew, a man in London approaching middle age, who is (like the last book I read) an introvert stuck in a stagnant life. He works for the city doing the difficult job of going into the homes of people who have died without leaving a will or next of kin. He goes through their apartments looking for clues about who might be able to pay for – or even attend – their funerals, and when he finds none, he attends himself. It’s a grim, sad job, but Andrew has done it for a years, all while living in a dreary flat where he obsesses over his model trains and communicates online with other train enthusiasts whom he knows only by their online handles.

Andrew’s world is ripe for upending. Three things happen in short order: he suffers the loss of an estranged family member; a new female co-worker starts work in his office; and his officemates come closer and closer to discovering that Andrew’s life as they know it as a lie. For he has fabricated a wife and two children in order to fit in at work, and when his boss proposes a rotating series of dinner parties at team members’ homes, Andrew’s falsehood becomes harder and harder to maintain.

How Not To Die Alone is a cross between a dark book and a rom-com. The book is infused with loneliness – Andrew’s as well as that of the people whose homes he searches – and he’s a pretty depressed guy. But at the same time, the book takes on a lighthearted feel as Andrew bumbles his way through a crush and navigates an IRL meetup with his train friends. The constant straddling of both paths makes How Not To Die Alone, in the end, not terribly successful on either front. It was pleasant enough, but I wasn’t really compelled to return to it after having a break.

I listened to How Not To Die Alone on audio. It’s performed by acclaimed British narrator Simon Vance, and he did a good job with it. (Anything performed in a British accent is automatically good, right?) I think I enjoyed the book more on audio than I would have in print, thanks in large part to the narration. He gave Andrew the stammering, well-meaning persona that you expect him to have, while infusing the whole book with dignity and poignance (perhaps more than it deserved).

I’ve seen this book described as the male version of Eleanor Oliphant Is Fine (reviewed here). I don’t really agree. Andrew isn’t as awkward as Eleanor, and his backstory isn’t as dark. That seems like convenient marketing to me. In the end, this was just OK for me.

THE BOOKISH LIFE OF NINA HILL by Abbi Waxman

The Bookish Life Of Nina Hill is a cute book by Abbi Waxman about an introvert who works in a bookstore and, outside of scheduled book clubs and trivia nights, spends most of herher time in her L.A. apartment where she lives with her cat. When she learns suddenly that her father, whom she never knew, died and that she has a large extended family, her life is sent into a tailspin. And then when a cute boy comes on the scene, she has to decide whether she can make room in her regimented life for some spontaneity – and yet another person.

If you like light rom-coms about smart, interesting women, then you might like The Bookish Life of Nina Hill. The dialogue is snappy and clever, and there are lots of good book references throughout. The premise of inheriting a large family in one’s late twenties after living a life of solitude as the only child of a single, itinerant mother is also intriguing.

In the end, though, The Bookish Life Of Nina Hill was too light for me. I like my books darker, with more dramatic tension and a bumpier road to happiness (if it’s ever even reached). Nina’s love interest is handsome and earnest, and other than being frustrated at her keeping her distance from him, he says and does nothing objectionable. Nina didn’t even seem introverted or awkward – she had a lot of friends and a fun job. Her life was kind of ideal! There wasn’t much conflict or growth or even a glimpse of real hardship beyond a lonely childhood.

The Bookish Life Of Nina Hill has been enthusiastically received this summer, with lots of 4 and 5 star reviews on Goodreads, where readers particularly like the bookworm element of the story. For me, it was too light on drama and substance to make much of a mark.

Thank you to Berkley and Penguin Random House for inviting me to review this book as part of a larger blog tour.