Category Archives: Reviews

Book reviews, including recaps, analysis, and MVP, my pick for favorite character.

Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

IMG_4277.jpgRecap:  Enzo is prepared to die. He believes in reincarnation and believes that in his next life, he will come back as a human. For now, he’s stuck as a dog. Enzo is the teller, the narrator of this story, but it’s not really his story to tell. He tells the story of his owner, Denny, an amateur race car driving living in Seattle — a special man with whom he has a special relationship; after all, he is the man’s best friend.

Enzo begins to feel shafted when Denny meets and starts to date Eve. Their relationship is intense and fast-moving, and Enzo is unsure about whether or not to trust her. But over time, they grow on each other. Ultimately, Eve and Denny have a child together. Eve starts to see Enzo as the protector of the family, a joy for little Zoe to have around the home. This leads to a level of trust between Eve and Enzo that not even Eve and Denny match; when Eve begins to get sick, Enzo senses it and because he’s a dog, there’s little he can do to help.

What follows sends shockwaves through it all. All this happens while Denny’s racing career starts to move into high gear. Enzo the dog witnesses the story of ultimate love so he can be there as support and learn what humanity is really all about.

Analysis: After years of being told “OH MY GOD, I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU HAVEN’T READ THAT YET,” I finally did and I must admit it was much different than I had expected but I loved it all the same. The novel had much more of a plot — and a dark one at that — which I hadn’t expected. Frankly, I anticipated a simple “man and dog love each other” story, but Art of Racing is much more than that.

There are few things I love more than a title that can picked apart seemingly letter by letter and analyzed in a million ways. The Art of Racing in the Rain is one such title. There’s the literal analysis: it’s a story about a race car driving who — living in Seattle — really is quite good at racing in the rain, a skill that allows him to do well in competition no matter the weather. But the deeper meaning is that there is an art, a skill to dealing with the horrific things life throws us. Denny faces it all here: love, loss, betrayal, failure, contempt. From Denny, Enzo learns the literal art of car racing in the rain; Denny talks to Enzo about racing all the time. But from Enzo, Denny learns the figurative art of racing in the rain: what’s important, who matters and who doesn’t. That lesson allows him to succeed in spite of tragedy. The lessons and skills about race car driving offered in this novel are paralleled to real life lessons in a thread throughout the entire book, not just its title.

MVP: Enzo, obviously. He is wiser than we humans expect dogs to be. For everything we’ll ever know as humans, there are two things we won’t: what happens when we die and what dogs are thinking. Enzo offers us both and teaches us more about life than we think we know too.

Get The Art of Racing in the Rain in paperback for $9.25. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $10.74. 

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Review: On Becoming Fearless

fearlessRecap: A few weeks ago, I was about to embark on a new journey and decided  Arianna Huffington’s book On Becoming Fearless was the perfect book for that moment. I was scared. I was about to start a new job in a new city more than 1,000 miles away from home. I was moving up professionally, and I was overcome with anxiety. I wasn’t sleeping well, eating well,  exercising much. Quite frankly, I fell out of my routine. I thought now’s the time to work on becoming fearless.

Huffington’s book is part memoir, part self-help (mostly self-help). It’s similar in structure to Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B in that way, except Huffington’s book didn’t stem from a single traumatic event, but from a series of events and lessons learned over the course of her life. Certain moments in her past have made Huffington a somewhat controversial figure; she is disliked by many, but at the end of the day she is an incredibly successful woman. Typically a woman doesn’t achieve status like hers without going through her fair share of hardship. She uses that in this book as a force for education, so we may learn how to be fearless about our bodies, fearless in love, in parenting, at work, about money, about aging and illness and death, about leadership and speaking out, about changing the world.

In between chapters, there are sprinklings of stories written by other successful women and the lessons they’ve learned on each of these topics.

Analysis: As I expected, it was exactly the kind of book I needed in that moment. I enjoyed the stories, which made their case for the lessons they tried to prove. But unfortunately, having read it only about a month ago now, I can’t recall many specific pieces of advice that Huffington delivers. Yes, there are the obvious things: sleep more, meditate, eat better, exercise — essentially take care of yourself because your mind and body will both thank you. But some of the tactics for remaining fearless have escaped my mind. But maybe that’s really all it is: the mind. Having the right mindset, the right attitude.

Fundamentally geared more toward women, the book makes the case for “owning” whatever it is you’re battling or going through. Recognizing your worth and daring to prove it to others — or better yet, yourself. There are sections I read that don’t yet apply to me. For instance, the chapter about motherhood. I found it interesting, but know there will come a time in my life several years down the when I’ll have a strong desire to re-read this book and remind myself of the mindset of becoming fearless. Because what do we have to lose? If there’s anyone who’s fearless, it’s Arianna Huffington and like her or not, we could all stand to learn something from her about becoming fearless.

Get On Becoming Fearless in paperback now for $11.94.

Or on your Kindle for $9.99.

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Review: One More Time

carolburnettRecap: Carol Burnett is one of the truly great comedic icons and badass females of her generation and of our time. I was first introduced to her as Miss Hannigan from the original movie version of “Annie,” one of my favorite movies to watch growing up. She was perfect as Miss Hannigan — a villain who was more pathetic than evil, who was hilarious in her awkward gawkiness and who I was glad to see have a happy ending because you knew she wasn’t really a bad person at heart, just a desperate one. Having finally gotten around to reading her memoir from the 1980’s, I’ve come to learn that Carol Burnett was really not that different from the character she played in “Annie.”

She grew up under pretty horrible circumstances, though she didn’t realize as much until she was older. Her parents divorced at a young age and she lived with her grandma since her mother couldn’t properly take care of herself, let alone another person. When her grandmother and she finally moved to Hollywood from Texas, where her parents were already living separately, Carol started to standout as the tall, funny girl with the imaginative mind. When her illegitimate half-sister was born, she took her under her wing as though she were her own. She cared for her while focusing on her schoolwork and a potential career in journalism.

But as we all well know, things changed, and one taste on the stage had her itching to act forever. Her drive, devotion and ambition led her to UCLA and acting troups across California. A performance, a nice man and a lot of luck helped her earn enough money to go to New York and embark on the career she always wanted. But even that wasn’t as easy as she dreamed.

Analysis: Carol Burnett is a living, breathing rags-to-riches story. Yes, some of her story involved some extremely generous business men who were able to help her financially or give her references. But Burnett defined making her own luck. If not for her whipping personality, spunk and obvious natural talent and work ethic, she wouldn’t have had guts to ask for help or to keep in touch with the right people who would help her along the way.

It was amazing to read about her childhood and realize the hardship she had to overcome. Lots of “mommy issues” and lots of “daddy issues” could have been enough to break anyone. Not Carol. The entertainment industry itself is enough to break people. Not Carol. Her positivity and determination are to be admired, let alone her comedic chops. While she often talks about her many fears, it’s obvious that she’s also fearless.

Her story is more unbelievable than I could have imagined, and her writing exquisite. That’s not always the case with “celebrity” memoirs. But the truth is she was always a storyteller of some kind — acting out scenes, telling stories. Writing is another way to do that, and she’s obviously very good at it. (It’s no surprise she initially wanted to be a journalist — she has the chops.)

The updated version of her memoir, which I eventually read after accidentally leaving my first copy on a plane (whoops!) was even better because of the epilogue it includes at the end. The epilogue was added years later and tells the story of some of the additional tragedy she dealt with in her adult life. While sad, it’s an important section of the book that makes a point of showing no matter how successful you are, no matter how hard you’ve worked or where you’ve come from, we’re all people and we’re all going to have hard time to work through. Like Carol, we’ve got no choice but to keep going. One more time.

Get One More Time in paperback now for $14.53.

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Review: Notorious R.B.G.

RBGRecap: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is only the second woman to ever rule on the U.S. Supreme Court, and she made it to the top with good reason. As a hardworking Jewish girl from New York, she grew up in a time when women weren’t expected to have careers, but she decided she wanted more out of life than a husband.

Notorious R.B.G. started as a Tumblr page  whose creators then turned it into a book. The near coffee table-sized book details RBG’s rise to the Supreme Court — including her years in college and law school — as well as the feminist qualities that allowed her to build a career and a family simultaneously when women didn’t typically do that. The book includes photos, doodles and annotated Supreme Court decisions, more or less mixing biography with history book. It’s an interesting read for anyone who may want to learn more about law, the Supreme Court or just feminist badassery. For all those reasons, Notorious RBG totally worked for me.

Analysis: Okay, so maybe this book was given to me as a gift with me not having very much care for the Notorious RBG. And maybe this book was given to me even though I was clueless about the fact that Ruth Bader Ginsberg had famously became an internet sensation several years ago. But I was still intrigued, if for no other reason than RBG and I share two letters in our monogram (I was LBG before I got married) and she was a small, Jewish woman — like me. So I read it and was naively astounded to learn how truly prolific this feminist woman is. What she has done for our country’s judicial system, people fighting for their rights and women around the country and world is incredible. She is a true force to be reckoned with.

The writing style itself was nothing special. Some of the sections — though cleverly sectioned and titled based on Notorious B.I.G. lyrics — skipped around with the timeline of her life, and at points I found that confusing. A more linear timeline may have worked a bit better. Some of the explanations of the court cases also could have been simplified — though to be fair, details of court cases sometimes make my head spin, so maybe that’s just a personal issue? But mostly, it was funny, inspiring, easy to follow and transforming.

As women, we could all use someone like RBG to look up to. Now with my understanding and knowledge of her life and work, I can’t wait to read and follow the rest of her court decisions, dissents, and career.

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Review: Strangers

strangersRecap: In the epistolary novel that takes place in the late 1980’s, a man named Adrian and woman named Harri write to each other about a brief night of lovemaking they once had and how that affects them and doesn’t affect now 15 years later. For Adrian, it was a memorable night in the ocean with a beautiful woman. For Harri, it was a one-night-stand that served as nothing but a way to get back at her boyfriend with whom she was fighting. More than a decade has passed, but when they run into each other in the airport, it’s all Adrian needs to feel empowered to reach out to Harri and start a real relationship.

But what is this relationship? Are they friends? Lovers? The title may be Strangers, and once it begins, it may feel that way, but as time goes on, “strangers” doesn’t feel quite like the right word.

Their letters to each other are often aggressive — aggressively honest. They talk about their kids and stepkids, their spouses, what makes them happy and what doesn’t. They talk about their past and their future, their regrets and dreams, their childhood and death. Will they meet again? The story seems to build to that in several moments until major twists throw the story off course and take it in a new, dark direction.

Analysis: When I first started reading this story and realized that these pen pal letters stemmed from a chance run-in in the airport from a former one-night-stand, all I could think was who’s crazy enough to do this? And Adrian is a little nuts, but the way his relationship with Harri develops over the course of these months of writing letters is beautiful. They begin to form so much love between, even while there’s still so much angst. They are both wounded. Because misery loves company, those wounds bring them closer. After a while, is it fair to call them strangers? Maybe not. But in the end, everyone is a stranger who’s not him or herself.

I think this may have been the only epistolary novel I’ve ever read, and I wasn’t sure how it would work. But it was extremely compelling with so much depth in their stream of consciousness writing.

MVP: Harri. Though her letters were to Adrian were often mean, it was clear that she really did have feelings for him. More importantly, she was very self-assured and knew what she liked and didn’t like. She had been through a lot, and despite some serious anxiety and depression, she was strong.

Get Strangers on your Kindle for $7.99. 

Or get it in paperback for $22.99.

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Review: How to Love the Empty Air

two books.jpgRecap: Like many women, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz has a special relationship with her mother. Her mother is a her best friend, her support system, and her biggest fan. So when her mom passes away, it throws her into an unexpected spiral. She is overwhelmed with grief, and when you are a writer, there’s nowhere to channel that grief but the page.

So tells the story of Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s collection of poetry, weaving us through the close bond she has with her mother, the death of her mother and the grieving process, all as she herself gets married. It’s a time in her life that includes the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, resulting in some altogether beautiful poetry and imagery — though much of it is sad.

Analysis: I’m not one to typically read poetry, nor do I consider myself necessarily good at analyzing, interpreting or understanding it. But because the poetry was about a woman who lost her mother around the time she got married, I knew I’d be able to relate. I lost my dad shortly after getting married. So much of her poetry so deeply resonated with me. It moved me to tears. It brought me chills. I was able to relate in every aspect of her mother’s illness, her mother’s passing, the months she spent mourning the loss, the comfort of her husband. But it wasn’t just that.

I was also able to connect with her professional ambition and desire to do good work and succeed. One of her poems brought me to tears when I read part of it to my husband:

“New York City, I want to return to you a better woman,/a better writer. Return to you so clean, you won’t even/recognize me, so glorious, you’ll dim your lights, so damn/grown that maybe, just maybe, I can look you in the eye.”

It’s a feeling most any woman can relate to — the need to succeed, to prove yourself, to better yourself, to shine.

It also helped that the poetry  Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz writes is free-form. Much of it feels less like poetry and more like storytelling. The book overall tells a complete story even though it’s several dozen poems. I was so impressed, and the book so changed my thoughts on poetry that I now want to reach much more of it, particularly O’Keefe Aptowicz’s works.

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Review: The Last Dropout

last dropoutRecap: Whatever you think the national dropout rate for high school is, it’s probably worse. Whatever you’ve read the national dropout rate for high school is, it’s likely worse. The truth is we don’t have very accurate data on it since most high schools try to highlight the more positive statistics and shuffle the bad stats underneath. Some schools don’t even include ninth grade dropouts in their numbers, even though ninth grade is clearly part of high school.

This undeniable crisis is highlighted in The Last Dropout. The book focuses on the national nonprofit organization Communities in Schools (CIS), which was developed to help school-aged children and ensure they don’t drop out of school. CIS primarily works in urban areas where dropout rates are typically worse and resources typically less available. Rather than acting as a resource in and of itself, CIS acts as an intermediary party that connects school districts with outside resources that could benefit students. For instance, it connects school with local doctors and dentists to ensure students are getting proper healthcare and dental care; that would allow them to better focus on schoolwork because they wouldn’t have to stress about their health. It also connects students with organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters to ensure students have mentors who can guide them if they don’t receive that attention at home.

The Last Dropout documents the history of CIS, how it works and its successes.

Analysis: I received this book from a viewer (I’m a local TV anchor) a while ago and never read it. I was never sure why they felt compelled to send it to me, and there was no note included in the package. I let it sit on my shelf for a long time, thinking I’ll get to it eventually because it seems interesting. But by the time I finally picked it up, I thought I’d just have to power through this.

I was wrong! The book hooked me from the beginning with anecdotes about the children who have been helped by the CIS mission. The book is written by one of the co-founders of CIS, who is so passionate about the mission, it reels you in. The story of how he developed the nonprofit is fascinating. Latter sections of the book were a little meatier. Parts of it lost me with lots of education jargon, and the author’s sometimes repetitive explanation of CIS’s mission. But of course, he’s proud of his work and the organization, and based on what I’ve learned from the book, I can’t blame him.

The book is now 10 years old, and I’d love to know how CIS has grown over the years and how many more children have succeeded because of it. The Last Dropout opened my eyes to a systemic problem I was never really aware of before, and I’ve already recommended it to some of my teacher friends.

Get The Last Dropout in paperback now for $8.35. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $1.99.

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