ALONE TOGETHER: LOVE, GRIEF AND COMFORT IN THE TIME OF COVID-19 by Jennifer Haupt

This year has been something, right?

I am constantly reminded that we are all going through the same experience. While some people have clearly been more negatively impacted by the pandemic than others, and some deal with it more close up than others, we are all dealing with some variation of the same stress and anxiety. And we’re dealing with it in isolation. But one way of connecting, of course, is through art, and it’s no surprise that this pandemic has inspired a spate of writing that, nine months in, underscores the universal nature of the losses brought on by covid-19. One of those books is Alone Together: Love, Grief And Comfort In The Time Of Covid-19, a collection of essays and poetry written by a range of literary voices and edited by Jennifer Haupt.

Why I picked it up: I wanted to hear how people more eloquent than I were dealing with the pandemic. When I was offered a chance to review Alone Together, I gladly took it.

Alone Together‘s essays and poetry are grouped into three main categories: Grieve, Comfort and Connect. They cover the deaths of close relatives, the strain this year has put on relationships, what it’s like to be Black during the pandemic. Essays are short and readable, with something familiar in almost every one of them. I recognized some of the 90 contributors to this collection – Jean Kwok, Pam Houston, Dani Shapiro, Garth Stein, Andrew Dubus III, Caroline Leavitt – but there are many new-to-me writers in here as well. And best of all, the proceeds from the book go to The Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which supports independent booksellers impacted by the pandemic.

Alone Together was this month’s blow-dry book (the book I read, slowly but steadily, while I dry my hair each morning). It was the perfect book to pick up for ten minutes or so and then put down until the next day. I could read an essay or two and immerse myself in that writer’s unique perspective and experience before taking a break and picking the book up again the next day. I recommend Alone Together for anyone feeling isolated and eager to feel part of humanity again. Yes, this situation is awful, but we’re in this together. That sounds trite and clichéd, nine months in, but it’s really true. I’ve found that the best thing to come out of this year has been the feeling of connection I’ve found, often in surprising places, and Alone Together certainly helped reinforce that feeling.

Alone Together was the 62nd book of 2020.

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES by L. M. Montgomery

Anne Shirley of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne Of Green Gables is an iconic character from children’s literature, like Ramona or Eloise or Harriet. She’s an orphan living on Prince Edward Island in the 1870s who is adopted by middle-aged siblings, Marilla and Matthew, who thought they were getting a boy to help on their farm when they reached out to the orphanage. Instead, they get a dreamy, chatty redheaded girl who gets herself into no end of trouble but endears herself to everyone who meets her. I *may* have read Anne Of Green Gables when I was younger, but if I did, I don’t remember it. So reading it this year was like reading it anew.

Why I picked it up: Nicole and I are both reading Anne Of Green Gables for a Readerly Report podcast episode about iconic childhood reads to be recorded in early 2021.

Anne Of Green Gables is about Anne’s life after she is adopted by Marilla and Matthew. When she arrives, she is emotional and flighty and completely un-self-aware, but she’s kind and loving and very appreciative of the physical and natural beauty in Avonlea. She begs not to be sent back to the orphanage once she learns that she was supposed to be a boy. Marilla relents, and soon, she and Matthew grow to care deeply about Anne. As Anne matures, she becomes less self-absorbed. She develops a deep friendship with Diana, a girl down the road, and she applies herself to her studies, earning a scholarship to study to become a teacher. She also grows less self-conscious of her red hair and freckles, becoming more confident and comfortable in her skin.

So does Anne Of Green Gables hold up? It’s a sweet old-fashioned story in which nothing really bad happens, and a kind, optimistic girl gets what she wants and deserves. If I had read it as a child (and maybe I did?) I probably would have liked it a lot. Reading it now, as an adult living through a pandemic with so much going wrong around us, it felt quaint and maybe a little dull, but uplifting. Anne is a reminder that there is still good in the world.

I listened to Anne Of Green Gables on audio. There are lots of versions of this book in print and audio. The one I listened to, narrated by Megan Follows, was pretty good, though she performed Anne’s early voice using a falsetto that was a little grating. As Anne matured, the narrator made her voice lower and more tolerable.

Anne Of Green Gables was book #61 of 2020.

GOOD TALK by Mira Jacob

Books about race got a lot of attention this year, but one that deserves to be included as recommended reading on the topic actually came out in 2018: Mira Jacob’s Good Talk: A Memoir In Conversations. Good Talk, a graphic memoir about conversations Jacob had with her young son about his identity as the son of an Indian mother and Jewish father, packs a lot in. Set in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, Jacob talks about race from a lot of perspectives: being one of a handful of Indian students in her white Albuquerque high school; her Indian family’s prejudices; being brown in America post-9/11; dating in NYC; marrying into a Jewish family; Black Lives Matter; publishing her first novel; and much more.

Why I picked it up: Nicole and I discussed Good Talk on a recent Readerly podcast, and when I saw it in the window of my local library, I jumped at the chance to check it out.

I love how honest this book was, how Jacob takes complicated questions about race and asks them in such a compelling and simple way. How can her in-laws, who love her and her son so deeply, be comfortable voting for Trump? Why is it OK for men to tell her they want to be with her because she’s exotic? Is her son in danger from police or white people because he’s brown? Is it fair to ask her to change the description of her book to make it more palatable to white people? Jacob doesn’t have the answers to these questions, but at least she’s raising them and having the conversation.

I like the format of graphic memoirs quite a bit – they are often extremely creative in how they are presented. I liked the style of this one a lot. The main characters stay the same – drawn cartoon-like – but the backgrounds, which are real photographs, change to give context for time and place. Having the characters’ images stay the same provides some nice consistency throughout the book.

Good Talk is a quick and thoughtful read, and definitely worth the time.

Good Talk was book #60 of 2020.

BIG GIRL, SMALL TOWN by Michelle Gallen

A few months ago, I was invited to join a blog tour for an upcoming debut novel, Big Girl, Small Town, by Irish author Michelle Gallen. It was pitched as a “bleakly and uproariously funny” book about a young woman living in Northern Ireland with a dead-end job in a fish-and-chips takeout restaurant, a newly-murdered grandmother, an alcoholic mother and a missing father. She’s also most likely autistic. Uproariously funny? Um, no. But still a worthwhile read.

Why I picked it up: As noted above, I was invited to join the blog tour for Big Girl, Small Town in September. I usually like Algonquin titles and thought the book sounded intriguing.

Majella O’Neill grew up in the small Irish town of Aghybogey. An only child, she lives with her mother, but her father disappeared several years before after the murder of his brother during the Troubles. Her mother is an alcoholic who drinks herself to sleep every night while Majella works the night shift at the Salt n’ Battered shop, serving a parade of regulars and looking forward to climbing into bed with her dinner in the wee hours and watching DVDs of Dallas. When the book opens, Majella’s grandmother has just been brutally murdered, attacked in her rural home, and the police are trying to find a suspect.

Majella’s life is one of routine and repetition, which brings her great comfort. She lists what she likes in the beginning of the book (cleaning, her father, her grandmother, eating, sex, painkillers) and what she doesn’t (small talk, physical contact, noise, sweating, make-up and jokes) and lives her life in pursuit of the former and avoiding the latter.

Big Girl, Small Town is a deeply sad book. Majella isn’t appreciated by those around her, despite the kindnesses she doles out to her customers and the stoic support she provides her mother. She has been abandoned by the one person she loved to be with and her life seems very small. Her inability to connect emotionally with others makes for a pretty lonely existence, and it’s clear that she has bottled years of grief without properly processing it.

So why should you read Big Girl, Small Town? First, it is a fantastically detailed portrait of this small Irish town and the people in it. Second, Gallen allows Majella to grow and change just enough during the week when the book takes place that you have hope for her by the end that her life will improve. You feel deep empathy for Majella as she goes about her day, cleaning up after her mother and the people who come into her shop, and small triumphs like her buying a new duvet cover or standing up for herself in a pub become quite rewarding for the reader.

I am glad I read Big Girl, Small Town. It wasn’t exactly a page-turner for me, especially given all the detail and the Irish vernacular, but it was a worthwhile and memorable read. If you especially enjoy books with Irish settings and/or characters like Eleanor Oliphant, give this one a try.

Big Girl, Small Town was book #59 of 2020.

HEATING AND COOLING by Beth Ann Fennelly

Beth Ann Fennelly’s moving Heating and Cooling, a collection of “52 micro memoirs”, gives readers little glimpses into the author’s life that, when taken collectively, yield a rich picture of her relationships with her husband and family. The chapters are short – some as short as a few sentences – but each one packs a punch. Fennelly, a poet, conveys deep emotion and meaning in just a few words, making you want to reread each mini-memoir to commit it to memory.

Why I picked it up: I can’t remember where I learned about Heating and Cooling, but as soon I did I went to the library website to request it. It didn’t disappoint.

Fennelly covers a lot of ground in her short book: her mother’s breast cancer, her sister’s surprise and premature death, raising three kids, her deep love for her husband. She also offers tantalizing glimpses of friendships lost, boyfriends kissed, fallible parents and unruly houses. So while Heating And Cooling may not be a long memoir full of detail, it’s beautifully written – poignant, wry, and sometimes very funny. Highly recommended.

Heating and Cooling was book #58 of 2020.

28 SUMMERS by Elin Hilderbrand

I’d never read anything by Elin Hilderbrand before this month. I’ve seen her books all over the place, with gauzy, breezy covers suggesting beachy summer reads about sisters and lost loves, and I never really had any interest. (Clearly I was needlessly dismissive.) This all changed when I read the plot of 28 Summers – two people have a “Same Time, Next Year” relationship that stretches over 28 summers on Nantucket – and decided I had to read it (and recruited three of my best friends to read it with me). 28 Summers ended up being one of my favorite reads of the year.

Why I picked it up: Couldn’t resist the description.

Mallory Blessing is in her early 20s, living an unfulfilling life in Manhattan, when her aunt dies and leaves her a slightly rundown house in Nantucket. She quits her job and moves to the island with no plans other than to slowly rehab the house and build a life for herself there. A few months later, her brother Cooper arrives for a bachelor weekend with a few friends in tow, one of them a college roommate named Jake with whom Mallory had always felt a connection, despite never having met him in person. When she meets him, the connection is there, but Jake is already in a relationship with a longtime girlfriend.

And so Jake and Mallory embark on once- a-year relationship, seeing each other for three nights every Labor Day weekend, no matter what else is going on in their lives. (28 Summers is based on the classic movie Same Time, Next Year.) The years go by, bringing life changes for both of them. Their relationship deepens despite the complications outside them, and keeping it a secret becomes more and more challenging.

Each chapter in 28 Summers represents a different year. I love how Hilderbrand opens the chapters with a list of the current events, trends, pop culture moments and songs from that year, giving some historical and political context to Jake and Mallory’s lives. I also appreciated that not every chapter focused on Labor Day weekend. Some were about other characters and other times of the year, as events transpired that affected Jake and Mallory in different ways. I loved the little details, the fact that no one was a saint or a villain, and the way the relationship lived in the characters’ minds so vibrantly. Basically, I loved this book!

28 Summers is going to be a top 5 book for me this year. A very unexpected surprise.

28 Summers was book #57 of 2020.

THE WORKS: ANATOMY OF A CITY by Kate Ascher

I always have what I call a “blowdry book” going – same as what other people might call a “slow and steady read”. It’s a book that you read a few pages of a day and stretch out over a month or so, rather than one you read in chunks in a week. I read my blowdry book when I am styling my hair in the morning, and it’s usually about 8-10 minutes of (generally) focused reading. My blowdry book for November was The Works: Anatomy Of A City by Kate Ascher, an exploration of the systems and infrastructure that keep New York City going.

Why I picked it up: I’ve always been fascinated by how big cities – and in particular, New York City – work. How do all of those people get clean water in those huge high rises? Where does all the trash go? How do trains operate without hitting each other? When I learned about The Works, I knew I had to read it.

In The Works, Ascher goes methodically through New York’s urban infrastructure: plumbing, electricity, transportation (the subway!), trash collection, traffic control and more, explaining how it developed and how it works today. I learned about power stations and transformers and how electricity has to be stepped down each stage of the way so that it’s at a manageable level when it reaches homes. I learned about how mail gets to destinations in New York City, including the history of the pneumatic tube network that used to send letters in cylinders through pressurized pipes that connected 23 post across the city. (!) Ascher, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, goes into the science behind all of these systems, explaining how water main leaks can be detected and how bridges are built. She is remarkably well-rounded, and each section of the book is treated with equal depth and detail.

The Works was published in 2005, and some parts are outdated. In particular, the section on communications was written before the explosion in smartphone usage and is clearly not accurate today. (There’s two whole pages on pay phones, for example.) I would love to know whether Ascher might be planning an update to The Works, as she also references a lot of huge public works projects that are probably finished by now.

The Works was a fascinating read. I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in what you can’t see behind your walls or under your streets. New York City is a miracle to me, and I loved getting a glimpse at how it’s possible.

The Works was book #56 of 2020.

THE GIVER OF STARS by Jojo Moyes

Ok, I finished Jojo Moyes’ The Giver Of Stars about a week and a half ago and I am just now getting to review it. November has been crazy. Between the election and work and a rambunctious, distracting foster dog who’s been with us the last four days, my reading and blogging have ground to a halt. So much for my strong year-end reading pace. Hopefully December won’t be so busy. But on to the book. With most Jojo Moyes books, you know exactly what you’re going to get. And with The Giver Of Stars, I got it.

Why I picked it up: I had the print at home and the audio was available on Scribd, and I was in the mood for some dependable Moyes storytelling.

The Giver Of Stars is about a group of traveling women librarians in Western Kentucky in the 1930s who brought books via horseback to people in remote regions of Appalachia. Alice, one of the librarians, has come to America from England to marry a man she thinks will give her a better, more exciting life, but she finds herself trapped in a small town with a man who doesn’t love her and his oppressive father. Margery, the leader of the group, is a fiercely independent feminist yet also deeply in love with a man who wants her to marry him. Three other women round out the group.

Jojo Moyes’ books are engrossing and well-paced, and some are totally predictable. You know what’s going to happen from page 1, and while there might be a small surprise or two, that’s pretty much how things play out. I enjoyed the history lesson in The Giver Of Stars, even if the characters weren’t terribly deep or dimensional. There is a lot of historical interesting detail and an unnecessary murder trial which I could have done without. But overall it was a good read during a time when I was having trouble focusing.

There is a plagiarism scandal around The Giver Of Stars. If I had the time, I’d read Kim Michele Richardson’s The Book Woman Of Troublesome Creek, but now that I’ve read one book about the Pack Horse Library Project, I doubt I’ll pick up another. I feel a little guilty that I may have read the wrong one. 🙁

I listened to The Giver Of Stars on audio. It was narrated by the always dependable Julia Whelan, who did a great job (I think?) with the accents. I highly recommend the audio, which kept me focused and involved with the story.

The Giver Of Stars was the 55th book of 2020.

THE BOYS’ CLUB by Erica Katz

So, I used to be a lawyer. I was once a first-year associate at a big law firm, wearing a suit, trying to learn a whole new language, putting in long hours and feeling insecure about where I stood among the other associates. That was a lifetime ago – I left law 16 years ago and have been happily employed ever since in jobs that are a better fit. But I do remember those days. So when The Boys’ Club, Erica Katz’s fictionalized account of a young woman’s first year at at a big law firm in New York hit the book scene this summer, I knew I wanted to read it.

Why I picked it up: See above.

Alex Vogel, a recent Harvard Law School graduate, joins Klasko and Fitch, a top New York law firm as a first-year associate. She is excited to start her legal career and anxious about the process of picking a practice group. She’s been told to avoid the Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) group, which is known for being the most intense and working its associates the hardest. But she’s also drawn to its high octane, fraternity-esque nature, and gets sucked in when one of the partners asks her to work on a deal. From then on, Alex becomes completely immersed in her work, pulling all nighters and then partying with her colleagues (and clients) to prove that she’s one of the boys and worthy of a spot on the team.

What follows is a fast-paced story that careens from coke-fueled nights, office affairs and high-stakes deals to the strain Alex’s job causes in her personal relationships. Alex also endures sexism and harassment, which she mostly stays quiet about to protect her tenuous standing in the group. As a protagonist, Alex can be annoying – she’s arrogant and materialistic, and she makes a number of really bad decisions. But the story is fun and the pages fly by. As for the ending: it’s disappointing, unrealistic and kind of bizarre, sorry to say. I think the author intended The Boys’ Club to be a feminist statement, but I’m not sure it worked in that regard.

Overall, I had fun reading The Boys’ Club. It ultimately bore little resemblance to my own experience as a lawyer in a big firm (thankfully), and it certainly doesn’t portray BigLaw in a flattering light. If you enjoy getting an action-packed glimpse of someone else’s profession (or maybe your own), however distorted, you may enjoy this one.

The Boys’ Club was the 54th book of 2020.

October Blog Updates

Hi Everyday I Write The Book Blog fans!

Thank you for reading my blog and being part of the EDIWTB community of book lovers!

A few updates from me:

  1. I changed over to a new service for email subscriptions. If you’d like to get an email whenever I post a new review, please use the link at the top right of the blog (“Subscribe to this blog!”) and enter your name and email. You will get an email whenever I post something new. If you were already subscribed via the old service, you may get two emails whenever there is a new post for a short time. Once I know the new service is working well, I’ll deactivate the old one and you’ll go back to receiving one email.
  2. We’re almost to November! Crazy. The EDIWTB 2020 Reading Challenge has only two months to go. I am working on new categories for 2021 – stay tuned and I’ll reveal them in December!
  3. Are you tuning in to The Readerly Report podcast? Nicole and I are back to posting every week and we’ve had some great episodes lately (our favorite campus novels, celebrity book clubs and more). Please subscribe to the podcast wherever you listen to podcasts, and if you can take a moment to review and rate the show, that would be great!
  4. I’d love to connect with you on Instagram – I have a bookstagram account there at https://www.instagram.com/gweiswasser/. Lots of pics of my dog Lucky with whatever I’ve been reading.
  5. I set a reading goal of 60 books for 2020. I am already at 54, so it looks like I’ll easily reach that goal. Thank you, pandemic. Maybe I can get to 70?

Thanks again for reading, and stay in touch!