2021 Reading List: Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Even before you read this review, you know Liane Moriarty will never disappoint.

Nine Perfect Strangers, by Liane Moriarty, has a lot more going on than you might think at first glance. The book is about nine people who book a 10-day retreat at a health resort in order to transform their lives. It is actually a bit of a misnomer because not all nine people are strangers to each other. There is a married couple and a family of three. So obviously they are not strangers to each other. But on second thought, maybe they are…

The story is told from the point of view of all of the characters, but seemed to focus most on Frances. Frances is a romance novelist who had recently fallen for, ironically, an internet romance scam. Maybe it would have been better if she’d lost all her money and been more destitute, but Moriarty made it sound like she was so insanely rich that losing a ton of money didn’t even matter for her. Frances has two ex-husbands, no children, a gaggle of friends, an estranged family. She had just read a critical review of her recent book and decided that she needed this cleanse at the resort to start over.

We learn about the rest of the characters in similar chapter by chapter fashion. Tony is an ex-football star, Lars is a gay divorce lawyer, Ben and Jessica are a young married couple who recently won the lottery but are struggling with their marriage, Carmel is a recently divorced mother of four who thinks she’s fat, Heather and Napoleon are there with their daughter, Zoe, and they are grappling with the grief of their son’s (her twin’s) suicide three years ago.

They are all there for different reasons, but being at a health resort, they all believe the ultimate outcome will be that they are refreshed, rejuvenated, healthier, and perhaps thinner. But the reviews of this resort are mixed, the guests just don’t know why. We learn early on to be skeptical of this place when Frances’ friend warns that the director, Masha, has some unconventional techniques. And Frances’ massage therapist warns her not to do anything she is uncomfortable with.

I was hoping for a little more drama amongst the guests, but their challenges and struggles are fairly straightforward. They are all going through different seasons in life and trying to figure out what that means for them, how to cope, and how they are going to move forward. Nothing sinister is going on in any of their backgrounds, like I suspected.

The true crazy one turns out to be Masha. I felt sorry for her innocent assistant, Yao, and all of the resort’s staff, ignorant of what was happening right under their noses. I felt sorry for Masha, who couldn’t find a healthy and normal way to cope with the terrors of her past.

This book takes you deep into the character’s lives, and their normal human struggles. Death, grief, love, jealousy, money, vanity, weight, drugs, marriage and divorce. It covers everything. And it makes you wonder, what would it take to truly transform your life? Is it as simple as a week at a health resort? 10 days without your phone and alcohol? Losing weight? A meetup with a stranger? Confronting death itself?

What would make you realize you need a change and turn your life around? Is the answer that simple?

Rereading The Book of Joy, Three Years Later

In 2017 I loved The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams so much that I now own my own copy.

The last time I was looking for joy, I was traveling in Greece. It seems funny to me now that at a time when, looking back, my life seemed pretty easy and wonderful, I felt that I was lacking true joy. After rereading that post I wrote three years ago, I think I was actually looking for a personal escape. I was working at a company I loved, doing a job I loved, but I felt stressed and overworked. I wanted to feel happier in the career choices I’d made. I wanted to know that I didn’t make the wrong choices and that I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I just needed to shift my attitude and my perspective and then I’d feel more joyful about my daily life.

And it’s true – a lot of what the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop say truly boils down to an attitude adjustment. Telling yourself to find joy and be grateful. Reminding yourself that everyone is struggling and your struggles are not unique, meditating about the people around you and wishing them happiness which will in turn bring you more happiness. These things aren’t true changes that you need to make in your life. They are mental shifts.

It was also easy to feel more joyful after vacationing in Greece. I took a break from my phone and the internet, I observed a new culture and world around me, I relaxed, exercised, and drank ouzo. I was full of joy.

But now. After the year we’ve had I felt like another dive into The Book of Joy was warranted. I am feeling lonely, sad, self-centered, and stuck. My grandparents just died. When I picked up this book, I was looking for meaning and purpose beyond my day to day activities. If my grandparents were able to live their lives in meaningful ways that made such a difference to so many around them (as I’d come to realize at their funerals), then what could I do to give my life that same sense of purpose and fulfillment?

It’s amazing how you can read a book more than once and take away different messages each time. Different chords ring true, different phrases stand out, and different chapters make more sense. Last time, I unknowingly focused on anything related to internal happiness. My own joy.

What I took from the book this time was its focus on others. You can’t just find happiness within yourself. You can’t just will it to happen with an attitude adjustment. You actually have to go live a purposeful life. And the way to do that is to actually focus on others. Life is meaningful in relation to the people around you. The people you help, the people you go through stuff with, the people you love. Your life’s meaning comes from what you do for others. Focusing on others take the focus off yourself. You forget your own troubles but you find such joy in making others happy that your troubles aren’t important.

It’s been difficult to do this in a pandemic. How can we focus on being kind to others when we can’t see their face under the mask? How can we practice compassion when we’re holed up in our own homes? It makes sense that I’ve turned inward, focusing more on myself. But perhaps it’s because of this pandemic that we should be turning even more to others. Helping each other, supporting each other, talking to each other. It’s just so difficult.

I rarely reread books, but this one was worth it. It was worth the reminder right now that even though it feels like we are all living in our own little Covid-bubbles, we are actually all still connected. Even though we feel isolated and we’re struggling, there are others who are struggling as well. Even though it’s difficult, we will get through this by focusing on the greater community, the world around us, and helping others.

2021 Reading List: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Maybe it was just coincidence that the first book I finished in 2021 was a book about a dystopian replacement of the United States, right when we are watching extreme displays of anarchy play out in real life at the U.S. Congress. Crazy. Appalling. So wrong. I could go on, but this isn’t about politics today. This is just my book review.

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood, is a sequel to her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which I read in 2019. Then, like now, I marveled at a book that is written to be wholly fictional and unrealistic and yet is so believable that it may actually happen. I remember thinking that The Handmaid’s Tale was a well-written book but kind of boring in terms of action and plotline. The Testaments, on the other hand, was the opposite. There was a lot going on in this book, and Atwood pretty much required you to read The Handmaid’s Tale first so that you know the background and context of this Gileadean world.

Despite being written some 35 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, the connection to the characters and the life they live is seamless.

The book is set about 15 years after the time of the The Handmaid’s Tale, and follows the experiences and accounts of three women, who are, inevitably, connected.

The first, a young girl, Agnes, the daughter of a Commander. Then another young girl, Daisy, who lives in Canada with her parents who run a thrift shop. Lastly, Aunt Lydia, one of the founding Aunts of Gilead, the one who is in charge.

Throughout the book, you realize that everything about their lives is based on lies and deceit. Agnes’ parents were not her real parents. She gets a step-mother, Paula, who had lied about the way her previous husband had died. She gets out of an arranged betrothal by lying and saying she had a calling to become an Aunt. Daisy’s parents aren’t her real parents. They are involved in a secret organization that smuggles girls and women out of Gilead to safety. Daisy had actually been smuggled out of Gilead herself when she was a baby and everyone in Gilead is looking for her. She must lie and deceive in order to sneak back in to Gilead with the hope that she can be a messenger to reveal the crimes of Gilead and bring about its destruction. Lydia’s entire life is built on lies, eavesdropping on every conversation in order to use what’s said and play the right hand. She says she is the founder and is committed to the success of Gilead but she’s actually plotting its demise and has been since she was captured.

Once again, I am surprised by how little time passed between the coup that resulted in the founding of Gilead, and the current events of the book. I had commented that in The Handmaid’s Tale it seemed that only 3 or 4 years had passed – Offred remembered her previous life, her husband, her child, as if it had happened so recently. And now reading The Testaments, I realize that if Aunt Lydia founded Gilead and she had already been considered old then and she is still alive to run the place, then we are only talking about 20 years of Gilead.

So there are women who remember the old ways. There may only be one generation of children who’ve been brought up completely engrained in this dystopian culture. And yet everyone acts like, this is the world, this is the way it is. It’s amazing how they forgot. It’s amazing how they could have adapted to this life of lies, brainwashed into thinking that Gilead is a better place than the world before.

Violence keeps them there. A violent and oppressive system that Lydia herself came up with and devised the rules for. The lack of power keeps women from rebelling. Killing their own citizens keeps them from running away. Fear for their lives and the lives of people they know and love keeps them quiet and subdued.

When you boil it all down, any society could become like this. Take away the power, change the rules, resort to fear and violence to contain the disorderly, and you have a system that is completely dysfunctional and morally wrong. But those with the power might say, whose morals? Everyone thinks their own worldview and way of life is the correct one. That’s why they’re living it. We all think everyone else is wrong, had made the wrong decision. The most extremists will fight, kill, overthrow, and condemn those who don’t believe what they believe or do what they say is right. The most extreme will spread lies, convince others to join them, incite insurrection, all in the name of what they think is fair and just. They think their world is better than reality and they will stop at nothing to control everyone around them and contain them in it.

I know I said I wouldn’t get political, but I leave you with this. Is the world we actually live in today much different from this fictional futuristic society?

2020 Reading List: Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

It shouldn’t surprise you, but this book is about three women. More specifically, three women and how they experience their own sexuality. One woman, Maggie, had a secret affair with her teacher when she was 17 years old. One woman, Lina, has a sex-less, presumably love-less marriage so she has an affair with a married man. The third woman, Sloane, has sex with other men and women while her husband watches or participates and she mostly enjoys it.

This book, Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, is real, raw account of these women’s lives. I loved the way it was written; it felt unbiased and yet it was emotional and relatable. Relatable in the feelings and desires of these women, not necessarily lifestyle. It didn’t glorify or condone any lifestyle or decision but it also didn’t cast judgment or blame on anyone. It was an exploration of the real needs and wants of women that are so often ignored. Continue reading

2020 Reading List: Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis

Once again, I picked this book to read because I needed something light and fun. I needed to get my mind off the coronavirus, the quarantine and isolation, the illnesses and deaths reported in the news. I needed an escape. I figured that since I liked Rachel Hollis’ book, Girl, Wash Your Face so much, I would also enjoy this one in a time of worldwide crisis. Continue reading

2020 Reading List: The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

A few days before I had my baby I decided I needed a light, fun book to read to take my mind off the stress and discomfort of being past my due date. I had The Kiss Quotient, by Helen Hoang on my wish list in the library’s ebook portal; I think it was recommended to me by a friend years ago. It sounded fun and light so I thought, Why not? Continue reading

2020 Reading List: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

This book was a pick for our office book club, and coincidentally it fits in with Black History Month. Not intentional, I swear, but a nice little nod to an important societal recognition.

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones, was likely placed on our list because it received so many awards and accolades and made it’s mark on lists like Oprah’s Book Club. With a resume like that, it’s bound to be good, right?

This book is about a young couple, Celestial and Roy, married just over a year, who are about to figure out their next steps together (job? babies?) when Roy is caught in the wrong place at the wrong time – or as they say in the book – wrong place, wrong race. Roy is misidentified as the man who assaulted a woman at a hotel they were staying at. Of course he didn’t do it, his alibi is that he was with his wife all night, but apparently that’s not enough. Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Celestial is left on the outside to figure out how to go on with her husband in jail. She turns to her childhood friend, Andre, and as the years go on, her marriage breaks down and her bond with Andre is strengthened. But Roy gets out of jail early and expects to return to his wife and his life.

After reading this book, at first I thought that it wasn’t very universal. The title would have you believe that the story could be some kind of representation of marriages everywhere, some relatable universal theme. But I thought that the disintegration of a marriage because of wrongful incarceration did not seem very universal. Continue reading

2020 Reading List: Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

I feel like I haven’t read a good thriller lately, so I was ready for this suspenseful page-turner.

Behind Closed Doors, by B.A. Paris is about a couple who is, seemingly, perfect. They have the perfect house, cook the perfect food for their guests, and live the perfect traditional life of not-so-recent newlyweds. That’s what Jack wants everyone to see. A husband doting on his loving, beautiful wife. Continue reading

2020 Reading List: Becoming by Michelle Obama

I have always admired the Obama family, particularly Michelle Obama. Throughout her time in the First Lady spotlight, she seemed to exude a certain presence, grace, compassion, and strength that is often lost or buried in mainstream celebrities. To me, their family seemed to be a solid representation of what a First Family should be.

I’m not here to be political or to force my opinions on anyone. I read Becoming, by Michelle Obama, because I wanted to hear about her life in her own words. I wanted a larger glimpse into the life of this First Lady who represented so many other things. I was not disappointed, and I think, whatever your political stance is, you won’t be either. Continue reading

2019 Reading List: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

This was supposed to be one of the “best books of 2018” and it was on lists for the O Magazine and Newsweek. I say “supposed to be” because I was just not a fan.

Maybe I missed something. I found Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver to be tedious and slow and disconnected. It was boring. I kept waiting for the plot to thicken, for something interesting to actually happen.  But the only thing that happened was the house kept falling apart and no one, in either time period, was able to actually fix it.

Maybe I missed some deeper meaning. Maybe there were parallels I was supposed to draw, metaphors to decipher, or allegories to interpret. But I didn’t catch them. Maybe because I would read two pages before drifting off, so it took me weeks longer than usual to finish the book.

If I missed the point of this book, then so be it. I don’t have to like everything. Continue reading