Tag Archives: 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge

HOME IS BURNING by Dan Marshall

I have found that some pandemic reads are too light, while some are just too heavy. Others, for whatever other reason, just don’t fit the bill. From what I’ve learned from talking to my friends and those who follow my blog and Bookstagram, we readers today are a picky and fickle bunch. I am not sure what drove me to read Home Is Burning this month, other than that it was on my list of 7 Backlist Books I Want To Read, and I’ve been enjoying memoirs lately. It’s about Dan Marshall’s year taking care of his father, who was dying of ALS, and while it sounds super depressing, it’s also very funny at times.

Why I picked it up: Home Is Burning has been on my shelves for years (it came out in 2015). I don’t even remember where I got it. It thought it might hit the weird reading spot I am in right now. And, I was able to get it on audio via Scribd, which sealed the deal.

Dan Marshall was living the dream – working in LA in his early 20s, seeing his long-distance girlfriend regularly – when his father finally got an explanation for some strange symptoms he’d been having. He was diagnosed with ALS, a crushing blow for a family man who ran marathons and took care of his wife, Dan’s mother, who was in treatment for a second bout of cancer. Despite having three siblings living near or with his parents in Utah, Dan and his brother Greg made the difficult decision to move back home so that they could care for their father full-time. Home Is Burning chronicles the year after Dan returned to Utah, when his father’s condition deteriorated and Dan had to contend with the loss of his father as well as that of his job, home and girlfriend.

The Marshall family, made up of Dan’s parents, two sisters and a brother, was a close one, with his father the source of financial and emotional support for all of his children. Watching his father deteriorate was horrific for everyone, especially Dan, who took on the lion’s share of his father’s physical care. He chronicles the ways they adapted the house to accommodate the wheelchair, the difficult decision to intubate his father so that he could breathe and receive nutrition, and his father’s ultimate decision to end his life by going off the respirator. He’s quite honest about his own shortcomings as a son and a caretaker, and he admits that he was quite hard on his poor mother, who was undergoing chemo while all this was going on. This is all heavy, sad stuff, but Dan is so entertaining and honest that I actually wanted to keep returning to Home Is Burning, even though I knew what was going to happen. He’s really funny. The book is also full of sex and profanity (be warned!), so even at the most touching and poignant moments, there’s always a funny line coming out of Dan’s mouth. There isn’t much here about the nature of loss and how to survive it – Dan’s not the most introspective guy – but it was memorable and thought-provoking and even entertaining.

I listened to Home Is Burning on audio. It’s narrated by Dan himself, and I couldn’t imagine it any other way. You know how you can tell when an author is reading his or her book, rather than a professional narrator? You can tell here. But it’s totally worth it for the personal perspective (because this is a highly personal book) – and for his imitations, particularly of his family’s housekeeper.

Home Is Burning was Book #26 of 2020 and fulfilled the Book Sitting 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.

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.

UNCANNY VALLEY by Anna Wiener

Anna Wiener was a twentysomething living in Brooklyn in the 2010s and working in publishing when, on a whim, she applied to work for a tech startup in the e-book space. After a few months there, she decided to move to San Francisco and try her luck in the promised land of tech. Uncanny Valley is Wiener’s memoir about working at two startups in San Francisco and her take on the digital economy and what it’s like to experience it from the inside.

Why I picked it: I love memoirs, and I work for a tech startup so I figured I’d recognize some of what she describes. I am fascinated – always have been – with anything Internet-related, so this was a no-brainer.

Off the bat: Wiener is a beautiful writer. What I would give to have her talent! She writes so eloquently about San Francisco, her colleagues, the work she did – she made it poetic. About SF: “The city, trapped in nostalgia for its own mythology, stuck in a hallucination of a halcyon past, had not quite caught up to the newfound momentum of tech’s dark triad: capital, power, and a bland, overcorrected heterosexual masculinity.” About a cabinet secretary: “I wondered what it was like to lead a life of public service – climbing the ladder, accumulating credentials, walking the thinnest lines, probably owning a tuxedo – only to find himself catering to the growing power of Silicon Valley, with its baby tyrants, all the one-hit wonders who had dropped out of school and become their own bosses and thought they knew how the world worked.”

So I thought the first half of this book was brilliant. Wiener depicted so well the culture shock in the tech world, her vacillation between wanting to belong and questioning the value of her work, and the occasional absurdity of the digital economy. She also raises legitimate questions about privacy and the amount of personal information available to employees at all levels of the companies she worked for, a data analytics startup and an open source sharing site (unnamed, but it’s Github). I relished every page, nodding in recognition at times, eagerly absorbing information at others.

The second half of the book took a turn, though, and became somewhat meandering and lost its purpose. Wiener has general complaints about how women are treated in tech, but she doesn’t base them in her own experience beyond a few limited examples. She is restless in her customer success manager role, far removed from and considered less important than her developer colleagues’, but she doesn’t seem to have a sense for what she’d rather be doing. She’s sort of along for the ride. Aside from Weiner’s high-level doomsday warnings about the dangers posed by “the social network everyone hates” and the monetization of data and erosion of privacy, it’s hard to get at her agenda.

So Uncanny Valley was a mixed bag for me. I *loved* a lot of it, but in the end was left a bit empty. On balance, though, I’d recommend picking it up.

Uncanny Valley was Book #2 of 2020 and also satisfied the Non-Fiction category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.