Tag Archives: Labor Day


My first book of 2016 was Under The Influence by Joyce Maynard, and it was a good start to my reading year. I’ve read another book by Maynard before – Labor Day (reviewed here) – and am a big fan.

Under the Influence is about a woman named Helen in her late 30s. She had a rough childhood with emotionally distant parents, and ends up marrying a man who she thought she loved and who provides her with the sense of family she never had growing up. They have a son, Oliver, who is four years old when Helen’s husband announces that he is leaving her for another woman. To deal with her sadness and loneliness, Helen turns to drinking at night after Oliver was in bed and develops a dependence on alcohol. One night, when Oliver wakes up in pain from appendicitis, she drives him to the hospital and is pulled over for drunk driving. Ultimately, she loses custody of Oliver because of the DUI, and her life just craters.

I had a hard time reading the first third of the book because it was so sad. Helen’s loss of her son, with whom she had been incredibly close, was devastating. I am not a particularly emotional reader, but boy did this part of the book affect me.

When Helen is at her most lonely and vulnerable, she meets a charismatic couple named Ava and Swift, and this friendship is really the crux of the novel. Ava and Swift are wealthy, social and generous, and they take Helen under their wing and provide her with the sense of belonging that she so desperately needs. While she doesn’t have her son back, her life slowly starts improving.

As I read Under The Influence, I started to develop a sense of unease that intensified throughout the novel. What was Swift and Ava’s motivation as far as Helen was concerned? What would they eventually expect from her in exchange for their generosity? And what was their relationship really like? The novel evolved from its very sad start into a suspenseful thriller that had me turning the pages very quickly, eager (but also sort of dreading) its resolution.

Maynard is an excellent storyteller. She’s also quite skilled at creating deeply flawed but utterly compelling and sympathetic characters like Helen, who have made some bad, but credible, decisions. I read an uncorrected proof of Under The Influence and noticed some repetitive writing and a few factual inconsistencies that will likely be fixed in the final version, but overall I thought the book was very well-written.

I hope the rest of my 2016 reads are as good as this one was!

Note: Under The Influence comes out at the end of February. I’ll post a reminder!

Depressing-o-Meter: Any book that I have trouble reading because it’s so sad deserves a high rating here. 8 out of 10.

Six Furlough Fiction Reads

I live in DC, and I have a lot of friends who are furloughed thanks to the federal budget impasse. I am sure that some of you guys are getting restless at home with all the unexpected downtime. (Once your closets are cleaned out and you’ve gone to the gym, what are you supposed to do with your time?) While I hope for everyone’s sake that the furlough ends soon, in case it extends another week or two, here are some books to consider picking up while you’re at home. They aren’t terribly long, so you should be able to finish one or two before you go back to work, and they are engrossing enough to keep your mind off the annoying situation on Capitol Hill keeping you from work.

Six Furlough Fiction Reads

1. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. This one just came out, and I just started it, so I don’t have a review yet to link to. But Lahiri’s other books are wonderful (The Namesake is my favorite), and this one is also supposed to be great. Check out Swapna’s review at S.Krishna’s Books. She is an East Asian fiction expert, so she knows of which she blogs. If you haven’t read The Namesake yet, that’s another great furlough read. You could even make a whole day of it and rent the movie afterwards – here’s my take on Book vs. Movie: The Namesake.

2. Labor Day by Joyce Maynard. This isn’t Maynard’s latest novel, but I really liked it and think it’d make an excellent furlough read. It’s about a long weekend, told through the eyes of a 13 year-old boy whose mother has taken in a fugitive. Labor Day is sad and haunting but memorable. Bonus: it’s being made into a movie with Kate Winslet due out at the end of the year. Hopefully it will NOT be a furlough movie.

3. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. I loved this book (as have millions of others). If you missed it in 2010, it’s the story of an immigrant girl from Hong Kong who toils away in a New York City sweatshop while trying to learn English and ultimately get accepted to college.  Girl in Translation is heartbreaking and eye-opening, and would be a good book to get your mind off your own problems.

4. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. I read this one last fall, and it has really stayed with me. It’s about a dystopian world in which the earth’s rotation has slowed down. The Age of Miracles is one of the most creative books I’ve ever read. Walker’s depiction of the gradual changes brought on by the slowdown, and the ways in which people reacted to those changes, was both realistic and totally original. It’s a stressful read, but again, it will take your mind off the furlough.

5. Anything by Jennifer Haigh, but in particular The Condition and Baker Towers. I love everything this woman has ever written, but if you’re just starting out with Haigh, try those first. They are deeply involving and moving novels that suck you in with measured prose and perfectly paced storytelling.

6.  Finally, you can read a debut novel BY a furloughed government worker, Michael Landweber. We is his highly creative book about a fortysomething who finds that he can go back in time into the mind of his seven-year self, thus presenting the opportunity to prevent a terrible event that befell his sister. It’s a quick, exhilarating read by a promising new writer.

So while you’re passing the hours at home trying not to check your Blackberry (yes, Blackberry – this is the government), give these books a try. And then let me know what you thought.


LABOR DAY by Joyce Maynard

It’s only fitting that I just finished Labor Day, by Joyce Maynard, today, the week before Labor Day weekend. It was a really good book and I am glad that I brought it with me on vacation.

Labor Day is about a five day period in the life of Henry, a thirteen year-old boy living in New Hampshire with a depressed, agoraphobic mother named Adele. His father has a new family and takes him out once a week for dinner. But Henry is lonely and burdened by the responsibility of taking care of his mother, who depends on him for companionship. One day, when Henry has convinced her to take him shopping for school clothes, a man approaches them and says that he needs their help. It turns out that the man is Frank, an escaped convict who needs someone to take him in and hide him from the police. To his great surprise, Adele agrees.

Labor Day is told from the perspective of a thirteen year-old boy, so the narration is rather simple. But the themes he tackles – love, sex, parenthood, miscarriages, death of a baby, loneliness – are not simple at all. Henry’s observations of his mother’s relationship with Frank, combined with his own budding feelings about girls, are powerful and poignant. The book is sad, even haunting at times. But it’s a deeply moving and memorable read. I especially enjoyed the last chapter, where a thirty-one year-old Henry looks back on that summer and the paths his life took from there. The sentences grew more sophisticated and complex in that section of the book – like their narrator – a literary tweak that I appreciated as I read.

I loved this passage, in which Henry’s father describes Adele: “She was in love with love. She couldn’t do anything partway. She felt everything so deeply, it was like the world was too much for her. Any time she’d hear a story about some kid who had cancer, or an old man whose wife died, or his dog even, it was like it happened to her. It was like she was missing the outer layer of skin that allows people to get through the day without bleeding all the time. The world got to be too much for her. Me, I’d just as soon stay a little bit numb.”

This Amazon link has an essay by Joyce Maynard about the different obsessions in her life that explain how she created Labor Day. I always enjoy reading about how authors decide what to write about, and how much is taken from their own experience.

This was my first Joyce Maynard novel, and it definitely won’t be my last. Highly recommended.

[This book came from a used book sale. I just saw what I spent on it it – $3 – which means I grossly underpaid for the pleasure of reading and owning this book.]

Labor Day Post: NICKEL AND DIMED by Barbara Ehrenreich and GIG by John Bowe and Marisa Bowe

In honor of Labor Day, I thought I would write today about two of my favorite books that discuss the American worker: Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich, and Gig, by John Bowe and Marisa Bowe.

Nickel and Dimed, I can honestly say, changed my life.  The book is about a few months that Ehrenreich spent living on minimum wage.  She went to three American cities and got low-paying jobs (waitress, maid, etc.) and tried to get by solely on the money she made at those jobs.  Her matter-of-fact narration, combined with meticulous detail about her finances, the sheer physical labor of the jobs she took, and the lifestyle she was forced to adopt on minimum wage, make for an eye-opening, sobering, and unforgettable read.  When the book came out in 2001, Ehrenreich got some criticism for not spending enough time offering solutions to the nation’s poverty problem. I didn’t share that criticism — if her goal was simply to make readers aware of how inadequate minimum wage is, she accomplished it in spades.  This book has stayed with me for a long, long time, and I highly recommend it.  [Note for TV fans: Morgan Spurlock accomplished the same thing in his first episode of Season I of “30 Days” – he and his girlfriend lived off of minimum wage for 30 days.  Worth a rental on DVD if you haven’t seen it already.]

Gig Gig is a modern-day (2000) version of Studs Terkel’s famous book, Working.  It is basically a collection of short essays based on interviews with people doing all sorts of jobs, from a steel worker to a Wal-Mart greeter to a corporate lawyer.  It’s the type of book that you have to read in spurts; otherwise, the essays tend to run into each other and lose their staying power.  But if you’ve ever wondered about how other people earn a living, it’s really a fascinating read.

Finally, I apologize for the slow pace of posts these last few days – I am now using dial-up (dial-up!) from the beach, so everything is slower this week.