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Movie vs. Book: Wonder

Auggie Pullman is a wonder. The fact that he’s made it to his tenth birthday is a wonder. The fact that he agrees to go school starting in fifth grade is a wonder. That’s because Auggie was born with a number of different medical conditions, resulting in severe deformities in his face. Countless surgeries have helped improve the way he hears, sees, eats and looks, but his face still looks unlike most other 10-year-olds. Until now, he’s been homeschooled by his mom, and he is brilliant. But ultimately his parents decide it’s time to acclimate him to other kids his age, so they enroll him in private school.

The transition is anything but easy. The children claim he has “The Plague” and avoid touching him. They compare him to movie characters who have had their faces badly burned in fires. He is bullied and frankly, psychologically tormented. But because of an orientation that introduces him to a few kids, he finds a friend in Jack Will. Jack Will and a girl named Summer become his two friends in a sea of bullies, until he overhears something one day that makes him think it’s all been a lie.

The book varies in narrators, going back and forth between Auggie, Auggie’s older sister Via, Jack Will, Summer and several others. Each of them are going through a tough time, mostly because of the drama that comes with being close to Auggie. But they love him despite it all. That loves forces them to stand up for him to everyone else.

Wonder is a beautiful young adult novel about friendship, love, kindness, and character over looks, and the movie follows the story closely bringing along with it the emotional impact that book left on my heart. Yes, both the book and movie are tearjerkers. And yes, as per usual, the movie eliminates some things. It cuts out one of Via’s friends entirely. It also decreases the number of narrators (the book has a few sections narrated by some tertiary characters as well) and removes the book’s epilogue. But none of these changes affect the story in any way or the intention behind any of the characters and their actions.

While reading the book, I wondered (see what I did there??) how the movie would pull it off. After all, the book revolves around mostly 10-year-old boys and girls. Would casting agents be able to find as many young actors as was needed for this story? But they did! Jacob Tremblay plays the perfect Auggie and with Julie Roberts and Owen Wilson playing his parents, there’s a good balance of emotion and humor.

It’s also fair to say both the book and movie should not be read and seen by just children or young adults, but by adults too. After all, we could also use a good lesson in how wondrous kindness can be.

Get Wonder in hardcover for $10.19. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $9.99.

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Movie vs. Book: Julie and Julia

Recap: As her 30th birthday becomes frighteningly close, Julie Powell realizes she’s unhappy with her life. She has a wonderful husband who she’s been with since high school, but her job leaves her unfulfilled, she and her husband live in a tiny apartment and she has a condition which will likely make it extremely difficult to have children. Doctors continue to push her to have children before turning 30 since that would be her best chance for success, but she’s not ready for kids yet. Her dissatisfaction with her life leads to a fairly irrational decision. She likes to cook, so she will cook….the entire first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julie Child.

She gives herself a one-year deadline, which sounds feasible until you realize that’s 524 recipes she has to cook in 365 days, and most of them are obscenely difficult and…well…French. They include killing, cutting and cooking lobster, boning ducks and hours and hours of stewing in ovens and stovetops. The challenge is beyond difficult. She has no choice but to employ the help of her husband to buy groceries and meat. She invites friends over to enjoy the food. She keeps a blog which suddenly has readers she feels she must entertain and please. The media picks up on her blog, and Julie’s Julie/Julia Project blows up across the nation. All this happens as her friends deal with the trials and tribulations of love and lust and while Julie’s own marriage takes a backseat to her goal.

Each chapter is also interspersed with bits and pieces about the life and love of Julie Child. Her loves — like Julie — are both cooking and her husband. Much like Julia Child learning to cook at age 37, Julie is also on a search to find herself and does after quite a bit of time and hard work.

Analysis: The movie Julie and Julia is a decent adaptation of the book, cutting back and forth between Julie (Amy Adams) and Julia (Meryl Streep) as they find themselves through food. The movie includes much more of Julia Child’s story as she works to publish her first cookbook. (Right from the start, the movie acknowledges it’s sharing the stories of two different books : Julie Powell’s Julie and Juliand Julia Child’s My Life in France.) Because the movie has more Julia, it therefore has less Julie than in the book. Her fertility issues are not mentioned in the movie, nor are the side characters (Julie’s friends) and their crazy love lives. Those cuts help to make the movie a little more upbeat and uplifting and better parallel the journey of both Julie and Julia.

The best parts about both the movie and memoir are how funny they are — Meryl Streep portrays Julia Child impeccably, and Amy Adams is great at bringing Julie’s frustration, rage, determination and humor to life. Both also end in a more moving way than you might expect, but the movie’s end pales in comparison to the book’s final pages. Powell’s powerful writing about Julia Child’s death and what she ultimately learned through this journey moved me to tears and made clear that this challenge was about much more than just cooking and writing about it; it’s about the journey we all find ourselves on, and sometimes you just need to force yourself to take the first step.

Get Julie and Julia in paperback now for just $3.35.

Or get it on your Kindle for $7.99.

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Review: Damned Good

51cm3a39uul-_sx311_bo1204203200_Recap: The Rookie has one goal and one goal only: to be the best at poker. He studies. He practices. He takes good care of himself. He sleeps. He eats right. He wants to crush the best of the best at their own game. He does it until he doesn’t. This poker novella follows the Rookie and his friend the Kid as he takes down other players and finally crumbles in a massive loss.

Analysis: But the story is about much more than just poker. It becomes clear through layered writing and metaphors that the Rookie is using his poker to find himself, to perfect himself as not just a player but as a person. That’s all well and good until he ultimately crashes, which lends himself to feeling like a failure in every respect.

The writing of Damned Good is pretty damned good itself. With flowery details, the words give off an almost sonic poetic vibe, as though you can hear the novella being read to you. While it does incorporate a good amount of poker jargon, it’s remains easy to follow even for those unfamiliar with the game.

The fact of the matter is the book is relatable to anyone who’s been through something intense, dramatic and shift-causing.

MVP: The Rookie. As much as he’s able to keep it together is as much as he’s unable to do so. The Rookie is all of us at our core — hard on ourselves and striving for the best.

Get Damned Good now for free on Amazon

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Review: In the Studio with Michael Jackson

81goiajvzasRecap: He’s a Grammy Award winner. He’s worked with Quincy Jones. And you’ve probably never heard of it. Bruce Swedien is an audio engineer who’s worked in the music business for almost 60 years, and he was the primary sound engineer on Michael Jackson’s records from 1978 to 2001. When I found this book inside a more arts-oriented local bookstore, I thought Oh my God, I MUST read this. As a big Michael Jackson fan, I knew I would appreciate it. And appreciate it, I did. From the anecdotes about the star (they recorded him on a dance floor so MJ could dance while singing and the sound of his feet would remain on the record to make it feel more “Michael) to the photos (handwritten thank you notes and editing suggestions from the icon himself!), this book is chock full of fun information that would entertain any Michael Jackson fan.

The second half of the book focuses more closely on audio engineering and therefore would likely be most appreciated by those who work in that field. For anyone else — myself included — it was too technical for me to understand and not explained well enough in layman’s terms. That’s not to say the book got worse as I continued to read it, but it certainly became more textbook-like in its approach.

Anaylsis: As I already mentioned, I loved the little anecdotes about Michael Jackson and everything that went into making his big albums, including “Thriller.” I made it a point to listen to the tracks as I read the sections of the book that discussed them in detail. It heightened my awareness of the layering and production of the music and proved how complex and highly-skilled Michael Jackson and his team really were.

The book, however, was terribly written. It didn’t seem as though it was ever formally edited. There were grammatical errors as well as whole sections copied and pasted directly — appearing word for word in several different parts of the book. It was clear that Swedien wrote most of it himself, which is fine, but he is certainly more geared to audio engineering than writing. Parts of it were hard to get through for these reasons and because of the engineering jargon used that was above my head and never fully or well explained.

Get In the Studio with Michael Jackson in paperback for $16.97. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $19.99.

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Lara’s Top Picks of 2017

booksWelcome to my seventh edition of “Top Picks!” Easily one of my favorite blog posts of the year, this is where I explain which were my ten favorite books I read this year. Again, this has nothing to do with what year they came out. In fact, I’m pretty sure none of the books I read this year were published in 2017. For a list of the best books published this year, check out The New York Times annual Notable Books list. For now, here are the best books I read this year (followed by the complete list of all the books I read this year).

10. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. With the hype over the TV series, it was finally time to read the bestselling YA novel that had been on my “to-read” list for a couple of years, and the book is much better than the series. It is more streamlined, focusing on a girl who — before she commits suicide — records audiotapes on which she describes why and who led her to the decision of taking her own life. It is haunting, but telling in the way it discusses depression, high school, human interactions, and how one seemingly small act can have big impacts. Buy it now.

9. Best Day Ever by Kaira Rouda. This Gone Girl-esque story about a man trying to kill his wife is chilling, but the format is what makes it stand out from other similar novels. Written completely from the husband’s perspective until the epilogue, the book has a scary way of showing how a sociopath is one kind of person on the outside and a completely different person on the inside.  Buy it now.

8. When the Future Comes Too Soon by Selina Siak Chin Yoke. This WWII-era novel shows the war from a viewpoint we don’t usually get in novels: that of a Malayan woman whose town has been bombed. The story is one of heartbreaking family drama and female power, detailing how the war affects her husband’s health, her marriage, and the new relationships she forms. Buy it now.

7. All the Best People by Sonja Yoerg. This powerful story about four women from the same family is all about relationships. Going back and forth between character and time period, it shows that no matter the age or era, we are all struggling to find answers and understand each other. Buy it now.

6. Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick. In this hilarious memoir, Anna Kendrick gives us an honest glimpse into her awkward and yet, extremely successful career. She’s only 32 years old, but she reminds us just how much she’s accomplished in those years and why a memoir for such a young actress is warranted. She’s got the stories to back it all up. Buy it now.

5. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. The book — and the HBO series — are worth the hype. This female-driven novel is more than just women’s fiction. It’s a murder mystery. It’s an honest portrayal of domestic abuse. It’s a solid representation of fierce women building each other up instead of taking each other down. Buy it now. 

4. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. This book and Hulu series are also worth the hype. (Gosh, looks like there’s a running theme here…) This bestselling novel has won a plethora of awards for a reason. The feminist novel is set in a dystopian future in which the world population has decreased because of problems with reproduction. The handmaids are essentially trapped in a men-run world, forced into rape and abuse. But with every incident comes more incentive to try and get out. Buy it now. 

3. Lord of the Flies by William Golding. The ultimate classic tale of what happens when a bunch of kids are trapped on a deserted island is as relevant as ever. The only thing better than the plot and characters are the layers and layers of metaphor and symbolism. The book explains pretty much all we know and understand about the roots of evil and human nature. Buy it now.

2. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. It hurts me to make this #2 because it just as easily could have been my number one pick for the year. This memoir penned by a dying doctor in his 30’s is the most honest portrayal of death and the search for the meaning of life that I have ever come across. This book will make you cry, but it will also make you think. I finished it two weeks ago, and I already want to re-read it with a highlighter so I can save my favorite quotes. Thank you, Paul, for leaving this beautiful piece of work for us before you left our world. Buy it now

1. A Race Like No Other by Liz Robbins. You don’t have to be a runner, nor do you need to be a New York to appreciate this nonfiction book about the magic that is the New York City Marathon. Year after year, it is one of the most challenging feats for anyone to overcome. It is painful. It is crazy. But it is awe-inspiring and stunning. It is captured beautifully by this sports journalist who follows the elite athletes who run it to win, the addicts who run it to prove something to themselves and their families, the sick who run it to show they are still strong and the charitable to run it for the greater good. Nothing will change your life like a marathon, and this book explains why. Buy it now.

BOOKS I’VE READ 2017

Scrappy Little Nobody – Anna Kendrick

The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty

Walk Into Silence – Susan McBride

Modern Romance – Aziz Ansari

All the Best People – Sonja Yoerg

True Colors – Kristin Hannah

The Lord of the Flies – William Golding

Fame Junkies – Jake Halpern

Valley of the Dolls – Jacqueline Susann

Can’t Buy Forever – Susan Laffoon

When the Future Comes Too Soon – Selina Siak Chin Yoke

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

That Crazy Perfect Someday – Michael Mazza

A Race Like No Other – Liz Robbins

Best Day Ever – Kaira Rouda

And Then I Am Gone: A Walk with Thoreau – Mathias B. Freese

Thirteen Reasons Why – Jay Asher

When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

The Bookworm – Mitch Silver

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Review: When Breath Becomes Air

41ozmb3iwvl-_sx348_bo1204203200_Recap: Paul Kalanithi is on the up-and-up. He is an aspiring neuroscientist with big dreams of performing difficult surgeries, saving lives and eventually writing a book in his later years. With degrees in medicine and literature, he has his whole life mapped out. But his marriage is failing. And with his graduation from residency within his grasp, he begins to experience fatigue and horrific back pain. As a doctor, he knows this can only mean one thing: cancer.

After lots of tests, doctors and people in disbelief, it turns out he is right. Kalanithi has a rare form of cancer, at the age of 36. He goes into treatment. He strengthens his relationship with his wife. He fights it. He gets better. And then he gets worse. He knows the end is near. And suddenly he must fast forward his life plans. But by how much? How much time does he have left? He ultimately learns there’s no way of knowing, and he has no choice but to accept that. But as his life comes to an end, he writes this beautiful, touching memoir. Kalanithi now lives on forever in his words and leaves the most important lessons he’s learned for all of us.

Analysis: I purchased this book in the final days of my father’s life. At the time, I was desperate to understand — medically — what was happening to him. He had Alzheimer’s and was unconscious, so I knew he had  little, if any, logical brain activity. But his breaths were fewer and fewer each minute, and his skin had begun the mottling process. I was suddenly hearing terms I’d never heard before and wanted to know everything about them. Ultimately, the hospice nurses encouraged my mother and I to leave my father’s side and not come back. I wondered if she was trying to imply that maybe he was holding on simply because we were in the room with him. Or maybe she just didn’t want us to see all the other horrible — and gross bodily things — that happen when a person dies. So we left, and my husband and I visited what has always been one of my favorite places in my hometown:  Barnes and Noble. I purchased this book along with a self-help book. I was seeking answers that day.

My dad died two days after that. And yet, I didn’t begin reading When Breath Becomes Air until five months later. Mostly I was busy and wasn’t reading very much at all. But when I went away on a short vacation five months later, I knew this was a book I could knock out in just a few days. (I am not a fast reader.) Retrospectively, I wonder if I waited to read it because I subconsciously knew I needed time to digest my father’s death before reading about Paul Kalanithi’s death. Or maybe I was jealous of the way Paul passed away — not jealous of his age or his condition but of his ability to process his oncoming death in a way that my father mentally could not.

Either way, this book helped me process not just my father’s death, but death in general, which was something I desperately needed. After reading this book, I have accepted that ultimately we all face death and never know when it will hit us. In the way mortality often does, this memoir reaffirms the necessity  of living life to the fullest and cherishing each day. But it also tells us that it is okay if certain dreams aren’t achieved in our lifetime. It’s not what we do that’s important, but who we do it with and how we lived — in more general terms. Though he spends most of his life seeking the meaning of life and death, Paul Kalanithi doesn’t find his answer until his end. But he does the most heavenly, generous thing of all: he gives us all a glimpse into what he learned, in the hopes that we will all live more fully. So I will do that — for Paul and for my dad.

Get When Breath Becomes Air in hardcover for $17.50.

Or on your Kindle for $12.99.

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Show vs. Book: The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has gone down in history as one of the most feminist novels of all time, earning the author several literary awards in the 1980’s when it was first published. But its debut this summer as a streaming series on Hulu has made the story shockingly relative in Trump’s America. Its themes about a male-dominated misogynist society are eye-opening as every other week it seems more Harvey Weinstein’s and Kevin Spacey’s are coming out of the woodwork.

The book tells the story of Offred, a handmaid who, in a dystopian future, has been forced to serve a family as little more than a mechanism for reproduction after widespread sterility has caused the world population to drop. Essentially raped monthly in the hopes of becoming pregnant, Offred does all she can to not only stay alive but stay sane as she wonders whatever happened to her husband and daughter. The story takes us through flashbacks of her former life as she works to find a way out of this chilling world.

Haunting is the best way to describe Offred’s tale, and that is upheld in the television series. Everything from its cold lighting and cinematography to the many close-ups of Offred’s (Elizabeth Moss’s) face as she is raped, locked in her room, or given opportunities to leave her Commander’s home exemplify the bitterness of this lonely, foreign world.

Turning the 300+ page novel into ten episodes of television allows for more detail and more story, and that’s exactly what the series offers. We learn Offred’s name “from before,” which is a detail never revealed in the novel. We learn exactly what happens to some of Offred’s other handmaid friends, including Ofglen, which — because the book is written strictly from Offred’s perspective is — is also not part of the book. The series also added meetings the Offred’s Commander has with Mexican government officials about adopting the same policies to boost reproduction. There is also an entire episode that shows us where Offred’s husband from her “former life” is now and how he got there.

Where I’m normally upset with how much liberty a show or film takes with a novel, it feels okay here. Maybe it’s because the detail given in the novel is so sparse, it’s simply a given that story would have to be added. Maybe it’s because the show matches the book so well in tone that all feels right with this adaptation. Or maybe it’s because the show is just so well executed with its writing, directing and acting. Whatever the case, the show does an excellent job of using the book as a jumping off point, season one ending exactly where the novel does. The rest of the series moving forward will now be entirely new, unread story and I’m okay with that, as I’m sure Margaret Atwood would be as well.

Get The Handmaid’s Tale in paperback now for $9.99.

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