THE AUTHENTICITY PROJECT by Clare Pooley

I had a terrible reading month in April – only three books, and one was an audiobook. I am surrounded by books I really want to read and am yet paralyzed by pandemic stress, anxiety, exhaustion and the ever-present temptation of the iPhone. I did make it through a book this week, finishing at the end of April – The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley, a lighthearted novel about what happens when people stop being polite… and start getting real. (Bonus points if you get that reference.)

Why I picked it up: The Authenticity Project came out in February and started making the rounds on roundups and book-swapping sites. I was drawn in by the premise and the cheery cover.

Julian Jessop, a septuagenarian artist in England, decides one day to leave a journal in which he has confessed his deepest secrets – that he is desperately lonely and was a bad husband to his late wife – in the middle of a cafe. The book is picked up by Monica, the cafe’s owner, who reads Julian’s story and adds her own tale of woe. The book passes into more hands, with each new recipient privately laying bare their biggest fears and insecurities. Ultimately, these characters find their way to each other, forming a motley crew of people who find that they can help each other and meet some of each other’s needs.

Yet some dishonestly persists even after the characters share their notebook confessionals, and The Authenticity Project addresses the difficulty of coming clean to people you care about, especially when your relationship with them is built on a lie. Everyone’s hiding something here, and the question is how and when their lies will be exposed.

This is a cute premise, but The Authenticity Project was just okay for me. It’s too cute, and while I was curious to see how things ended up, it was all too light and breezy. I felt like it was written with the adapted-for-Netflix movie already in mind, down to the cute stray dog who comes into Julian’s life and the happy rom com ending. (Though there were some loose ends that never tied up, which surprised and kind of annoyed me.)

Lighter fare isn’t doing it for me during this pandemic, and The Authenticity Project sadly fell into that category.

The Authenticity Project was Book #18 of 2020.

THE OFFICE by Andy Greene

I am reading in fits and starts these days. Most books don’t stick very well, which means that I end up slowly getting through them while wishing I was reading something else. Such is life during pandemic. One book that stuck, though, was The Office: The Untold Story Of The Greatest Sitcom Of The 2000s by Andy Greene. This oral history of one of my favorite sitcoms was entertaining all the way through.

The Office was a sitcom on NBC that aired from 2005 to 2013. Set in the Scranton branch office of a failing paper company, its motley crew of characters combined with single camera setup and a documentary-style production to create must-see-TV in an era when most people time-shifted or ultimately downloaded shows. I watched it when it aired, and then watched it again when my daughters discovered it a few years ago on Netflix, just as many of their Gen Z friends have. It’s a very, very funny show that made Steve Carell, John Krasinski and Rainn Wilson, among others, household names and earned trademarks like “That’s what she said”, The Dundies and Jim and Pam’s first kiss well-deserved spots in TV history.

The Office (the book) is an oral history of the show, told through the perspectives of its creator, Greg Daniels and many of the show’s writers, cast and crew. Starting with the ill-advised decision to recreate the hit British version of the show in the U.S., The Office chronicles the show’s early days when ratings and budgets were low and runs through the nine seasons in which it aired. Greene devotes individual chapters to a few seminal episodes as well, sprinkling in the backstory behind “Diversity Day”, “Casino Night”, “Dinner Party”, “Niagara” and others of The Office‘s most memorable episodes. You’ll learn a lot about the creative process behind the show, the history of its brilliant casting and the legacy it left on television.

You probably already know whether you want to read this book. If you’ve never seen the show, or watched only a few episodes, The Office shouldn’t be on your TBR. But if you watched the whole run (even the dreadful James Spader era), cried when the wedding guests danced down the aisle to “Forever” at Jim and Pam’s wedding, gasped when Michael Scott reappeared in the finale and can’t resist your own well-placed “That’s what she said,” then this is the book for you. Things are pretty dark right now, but The Office provided 14 hours, 20 minutes of escapist entertainment for me at a time I really needed it.

I listened to The Office on audio, which I think is the way to do it. It’s an oral history (the people reading the parts aren’t actually the actual cast and crew) and I liked that I could recognize the different contributors by the narrators’ voices. Plus, Therese Plummer performs the Jenna Fischer sections – score! So if you’re thinking about picking up The Office, give strong consideration to the audiobook.

I’ll finish this post with a list of my favorite Office episodes:

  1. Niagara
  2. The Injury
  3. Basketball
  4. Casino Night
  5. Stress Relief

The Office was Book #17 of 2020.

8 Awesome Books About The 80s

This pandemic has made me nostalgic. Something about quarantine has made me – and clearly other people I know – reach out to old friends and set up Zoom reunions to get back in touch. Seems like we’re all casting back to easier and happier times. If you find yourself in a similarly nostalgic mood… here are my favorite books about my favorite decade, the 80s. Pick up one of these and take a trip back to a really different time.

  1. VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave: Oral history of MTV’s early days told by Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter, Mark Goodman and Martha Quinn. From my review: “Give it a try – it’s a light but surprisingly engrossing read about a unique time at the intersection of television and music. MTV will never again be what it once was, nor will the music industry, but VJ: The Unplugged Adventures at least memorializes those bygone days.”
  2. Not Dead Yet by Phil Collins. Memoir of Collins’ life, from childhood through his Genesis and solo careers. From my review: “I thoroughly enjoyed Not Dead Yet, especially the behind-the-scenes look at the music, the bands and the touring. I am addicted to 80s nostalgia, and Not Dead Yet did not disappoint. If you were even a casual Genesis or Phil fan, I think you’ll enjoy this book.”
  3. Don’t You Forget About Me by Jancee Dunn. Woman in late thirties returns home to parents’ house in this funny novel about the dangers of romanticizing high school in the 80s. From my review: “Dunn is an entertaining writer, and the book was perfectly paced. I laughed out loud several times while reading it, and didn’t want to put it down.”
  4. You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried by Susannah Gora. Detailed, juicy and insightful chronicle of the making of the great teen 80s movies. From my review: “It’s definitely a trip down memory lane, but also a compelling look at a decade of filmmaking that transformed a genre and made a permanent impact on the directors and actors we watch today.”
  5. In The Pleasure Groove by John Taylor. Memoir by Taylor, the bass player for Duran Duran who is thankfully on the other side of a bout with coronavirus. From my review: “Despite my familiarity with this fact pattern, it felt fresh and even suspenseful in Taylor’s words. I don’t know who partnered on this book with him, but it’s smart, well-written and very funny at times. Taylor is pretty honest about his flaws, especially when it comes to his drug use and self-centeredness throughout his addiction, but he is also grateful for – and even a little bit in awe of – all that Duran Duran achieved as a band and the experiences he had.”
  6. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. This is a beautifully written book about Chicago in the mid-80s and how AIDS ravaged the gay community there. It is not a light read, but it is an excellent one. From my review: The Great Believers is about friendship and loyalty, and how our devotion to one person or cause can have consequences in other parts of our lives. It’s a long book, one that requires attention and thought. It took me a long time to get through it, but it was an immersive and very satisfying read.”
  7. Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein. I never reviewed this book, but I love it. From Amazon: “Mad World is a highly entertaining oral history that celebrates the New Wave music phenomenon of the 1980s via new interviews with 35 of the most notable artists of the period. Each chapter begins with a discussion of their most popular song but leads to stories of their history and place in the scene”.
  8. Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies (and Why We Don’t Learn Them from Movies Anymore) by Hadley Freeman. I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s on my TBR and I will get to it at some point soon. It’s about “how the changes between movies in the 80s and movies today say so much about society’s expectations of women, young people and art.”

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.

7 Books I Could Not Put Down

I have no attention span these days. Part of the problem is that I am multitasking on steroids, rotating with alarming speed between doing my job and parenting and running a house, while also functioning under a steady moderate to high level of anxiety. Not the most conducive circumstances for reading. Yet, reading is what I crave. So it is taking a special group of books to hold my attention now. Here are some of the books from past reading years that I simply could not put down. Maybe they will grab your attention in these remarkable days as well.

In no particular order:

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve (historical fiction, literally the most addictive read ever)

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes (smart romance)

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (bittersweet, start of a trilogy)

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (literary fiction about race in modern America)

The Wife Between Us by Sarah Pekkanen and Greer Hendricks (psychological thriller)

Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (juggernaut Southern novel)

The Risen by Ron Rash (brothers with an old secret)

Stay safe and happy reading.

8 Excellent Memoirs

Here’s another quarantine reading list for you: my favorite memoirs. A good memoir can be incredibly enriching, transporting readers into another life through personal perspective and storytelling. And we could all use some transporting right now.

Becoming by Michelle Obama – the mother of all memoirs
Open by Andre Agassi – I still think about this book, years after I read it
Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen – long but entertaining the whole way
Unremarried Widow by Artis Henderson – memoir of a military widow
Maid by Stephanie Land – necessary perspective on low-wage jobs
Inheritance by Dani Shapiro – midlife DNA surprise
Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson – heartbreaking memoir about loss of son
The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan – sandwich generation + cancer

Perhaps one of these memoirs will give you some hours of escape.

FOLLOWERS by Megan Angelo

Followers, Megan Angelo’s new novel, is split between the late 2010s and 2050. In late 2010s, Floss and Orla are roommates in New York City who test the limits of influencer culture and social media, leaving destruction in their wake as America faces a reckoning over its dependence on devices and oversharing of private, personal information. In 2050, Floss’ daughter Marlow lives in a Truman Show-esque community in California where her entire life is watched by millions of followers while an entertainment network, motivated solely by sponsor dollars, choreographs her every move.

Why I Picked It Up: I was intrigued by the storyline and suggested Followers for my book club. I got it from the library in both print and audio and listened to almost the whole book on audio.

There’s a lot of good in Followers. Angelo has written a creative, interesting dystopian story, imagining two worlds that don’t feel too far from where we are now. The cost of fame can be steep, as can the cost of pouring attention onto undeserving reality stars and relying on phones for connection and fulfillment. I didn’t love it in the end, though. It’s longer than it needed to be, and it really slowed through the middle (though it picked up in the last third). It could definitely have been shorter and tighter. Also, Angelo jumped right into the story with little explanation, which I found disorienting. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, who was who, etc. Followers is not an uplifting book; it’s dark and angry, without a lot of joy.

There is also the issue of timing, which isn’t the author’s fault. Followers is a cautionary tale about the price of ambition and fame and the dangers of dependence on technology and social media. It was a timely book… until about a month ago. I am not in a social media-bashing mood at the moment. Social media has become a lifeline for so many, a source of information and connection in a time of isolation and loneliness. Perhaps if I have read this earlier it would have lended on more receptive ears, but it didn’t rile me up at this difficult time.

I listened to Followers on audio. The narrator, Jayme Mattler, did a nice job with these characters, from vapid Aston to Kardashian-esque Floss and ambitious Orla. Her delivery was precise and urgent, a perfect fit for the tone of the book.

Followers was Book #15 of 2020.

SEPARATION ANXIETY by Laura Zigman

In Laura Zigman’s new novel Separation Anxiety, 50-year old Judy has nailed the trifecta of disappointment: her marriage is failing, her writing career is stalled, and her teenage son won’t talk to her anymore. She’s completely adrift in a bewildering stage of life, when “life eventually takes away everyone and everything we love and leaves us bereft”. Insecure and anxious, Judy turns to the one creature in her house she can count on for affection: her dog. She randomly puts the dog in a never-used baby sling stashed away in her basement and becomes immediately dependent on the dog’s physical presence to keep her calm, a move that only further alienates her family and raises eyebrows at her son’s school.

Why I picked it up: I read a number of Laura Zigman’s books (Her, Animal Husbandry) a long time ago, pre-blogging, and loved them. I was excited by a new Zigman novel and intrigued by her take on middle age.

Zigman’s books are funny and wry and observant, and Separation Anxiety is no exception. But there is a depressing stream that runs throughout the book, making it melancholy and ultimately less hopeful than her earlier works. Judy makes a number of questionable decisions, particularly where her estranged husband is concerned, and while I often nodded in recognition throughout the book, in the end I didn’t connect with Judy as much as I’d hoped. So while I liked Zigman’s lampooning of Montessori schools and meal kits and wellness websites, the darker side of Separation Anxiety was harder to get through.

Perhaps it’s the time we are in now. I find it harder than usual to be sympathetic to characters simply going through the challenges of new life stages, given what’s going on around us. Maybe if I had read Separation Anxiety a few weeks earlier, I would have felt differently. But now, as our collective anxiety has been raised by a real and very dangerous threat, Judy’s loneliness and lack of professional clarity seem almost old-fashioned. (How has the world changed so quickly?)

Separation Anxiety was Book #14 of 2020.

10 Light Books For Heavy Minds

Sometimes you need light reading to take your mind off whatever’s going on. This is one of those times! Here are 10 books I liked that are entertaining and relatively light while still satisfying and worth your time.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice)

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne (will they won’t they among feuding coworkers)

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan (middle aged mom meets tech workplace)

The Book Of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir (will teenager escape her fundamentalist reality TV family? NOTE there are some dark/heavy themes here, so it’s not really a light read, but it’s a fast one)

Lost And Found by Carolyn Parkhurst (literary fiction meets “The Amazing Race”)

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (man with Asperger’s seeks wife)

One Day In December by Josie Silver (soul mates kept apart by fate)

Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper by Hilary Liftin (Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes marriage imagined in fiction)

This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper (dsyfunctional family)

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead (WASPs behaving badly)

Stay safe and happy reading.

DARLING ROSE GOLD by Stephanie Wrobel

Munchausen’s Syndrome – where a person seeks to get attention by inducing or feigning an illness in another person (usually a child) – is a fascinating premise for a novel. There is a lot to unpack on both sides, especially once the abuse has been uncovered and brought out into the open. That’s the story behind Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel, a novel about Patty Watts, who for years starved her daughter Rose Gold and claimed she had “chromosomal defects”.

Why I picked it up: I was invited by Berkley/Penguin to participate in a blog tour for Darling Rose Gold, which came out on March 17. I received an advance review copy of the book in exchange for this post.

Patty raised Rose Gold as a single mother, so Rose Gold had little defense against her mother’s poisoning and endless trips to doctors for feeding tubes and tests. She grew up using a wheelchair and being homeschooled to avoid taunting and bullying from classmates. Finally, she caught on to what her mother was doing and accused her of child abuse. Patty stood trial, with Rose Gold testifying, and received a five-year prison sentence. Patty is now free, having done her time, and… is invited by Rose Gold to come live with her and her new baby, Adam. It seems strange that Rose Gold would welcome her mother into her home, an early clue that Rose Gold has an agenda of her own.

Darling Rose Gold is twisty and surprising. Wrobel gives us glimpses into each woman’s motivations, delving into the complex feelings they have about each other. Is there forgiveness on either side? Love? Or are they just out to get each other? Rose Gold seems sympathetic given what she’s been through, but… what kind of a person is she?

If you need some escapist fiction right now that will have you turning pages, Darling Rose Gold fits the bill. There are some holes in the story, but it’s a psychological thriller that has nothing to do with contagion or dystopia or home confinement, so it’s got that going for it (which is nice). This was a fast read for me at a time when my ability to concentrate is severely limited.

Darling Rose Gold was Book #13 of 2020.