Recap: A reflection on loss and grief, The Magnanimous Heart dives into meditation as a means of not necessarily coping with it all, but embracing it all as part of the process of life. The self-help book explains that the “magnanimous heart” is a heart of freedom, liberation, acceptance and balance. By explaining the “constant squeeze” of suffering that we all feel, author Narayan Helen Liebenson offers suggestions and concepts for stepping into feelings of “enoughness.”
She makes the case for not trying to “fix” anything but to accept and approach each moment exactly as it is and to recognize that our thoughts are mere thoughts, not truths or facts.
She explains the difference between psychological questions and meditative questions and encourages asking yourself those meditative questions and learning to just sit in it, even though the answers may not come.
The real freedom, she explains, comes when we relax the grasping, the “constant squeeze” for perfection or more or whatever that unattainable thing may be for you. It comes when we recognize “enoughness,” allow it and accept it.
Analysis: As a practitioner of meditation for several years and a deeper dive over the last year, I had been looking forward to reading this book for quite some time. After my father died a few years back, the title resonated with me. I ultimately enjoyed the book and found it incredibly insightful but it’s more difficult to say I found it useful.
Liebenson writes in a very abstract, greater concept kind of way with too few anecdotes to make me feel connected to her. I had to read sentences sometimes three and four times just to understand the point. And then once she made it, she often repeated it.
I loved everything she wrote and appreciated her explanations of why meditation can be helpful. But with a few weeks hindsight, I already can’t think of a specific tangible tidbit she offered for me to use to either improve my life or my daily practice …other than keep practicing.
But alas, maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe if I had been practicing meditation more consciously, my mind would have been sharp enough to have remembered more of her book.
I couldn’t let the new year (and decade!) begin without my favorite blog edition…my top picks of 2019! Fair warning: this year life really took hold. Suffice to say, I didn’t read nearly as much as I usually do or would like to. But I read enough to select my 10 favorites! This is a list of the best books I personally read, not necessarily books that were released in 2019. For a list of those, here you go. At the bottom, I’ve also included the complete list of books I read this year.
10. Before We Were Yours – This historical fiction novel showcases the awful beginnings of child adoptions in the United States. Its time jumps and changing narrators add suspense to the story of little Rill, who does everything she can to keep her family in tact when Tennessee Children’s Home Society (a real place in an otherwise made-up story) does everything it can to disrupt that for money.
9. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – It’s the anti-self-help self-help book. The book that tells you it’s not a self-help book and it’s going to tell you all the opposite things from a regular self-help book. And that’s kind of true. Which is why it’s so effective. A lot of my takeaways from this massive bestseller is that author Mark Manson relies on a lot of Buddhist methodology to explain how best to live your life – with the understanding that life is suffering and once we accept that, things can start to be a little better. Prepare for some foul language and real talk truths.
8. Not That Kind of Girl – Writer/director/actress Lena Dunham shares her life in this messy memoir made up of short stories and essays, unveiling the depths of her anxieties, neuroses and mental health issues as well as just being honest about what it is to be a girl and woman in the modern world. Some stories are sad, some are hilarious riots, but all are well-told, vulnerable, and bluntly honest.
7. How to Read Literature Like a Professor – This how-to for making literally any book better is divided into themes and symbols to explain what matters in a story and what it means. Chapters focus on anything and everything from the significance of ill characters in books to Bible references to food and sex and seasons. Most of the examples were from books and literature I haven’t read BUT the writer explains everything so well that it’s not only changed how I understand and appreciate books, it also applies to TV, film and pretty much any creative medium. A true game-changer.
6. Wherever You Go, There You Are – Author Jon Kabat-Zinn book on the power of meditation is a simplistic, effective how-to for those who have been meditating for years and those looking to start a regular practice. He’s science-based, but instead of constantly throwing facts, studies and research at the reader, he shared personal anecdotes and understandable metaphors to make meditation manageable.
5. Mistress of the Ritz – Melanie Benjamin does it again, choosing real people in history whose stories have remain mostly untold and telling them, with her own fictionalized dialogue and writing. This one is set in 1940’s Paris during WWII. It tells the story of a real couple, Claude and Blanche Auzello, who lets their marriage waiver as they focus on saving Jews during the Holocaust.
4. The Storyteller’s Secret – This fictional tale about love and love lost starts after modern-day Jaya has another miscarriage and separates from her husband. On a search for connection and answers to life’s questions, she travels to her family’s native India. During the course of the book, her story and her grandmother’s intertwine in a beautiful, heartbreaking and heartwarming way.
3. The Light We Lost – I went back and forth on where to rank this one because I loved it so much. The romance of two young people in NYC during 9/11 continues over the next 13 years. It is gripping, tragic, romantic, sexy. I can’t remember the last time I wanted to finish a book and simultaneously not want it to end so badly.
2. The Girls in the Picture – I was halfway (or more?) through this book before I realized this wasn’t only historical fiction about the beginning of the film industry in America in the early 1900s. It was also historical fiction about a real actress and female screenwriter who were friends. This film story that’s really about friendship and feminism detail the lives and careers of Frances Marion and Mary Pickford in a way that’s fun and dramatic.
1. The Four Agreements – Simple, but not easy. This big-time bestselling nonfiction quick read give you the basics everyone can and should follow to live a better, happier life. There are four agreements you must make with yourself. They sound simple enough, but life makes it really hard to make them easy. This book details the how and why. Once you read it, it is truly life-changing.
BOOKS I’VE READ 2019
The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Peronsal Freedom – Miguel Ruiz
One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories – B.J. Novak
The Storyteller’s Secret – Sejal Badani
Goodbye, Vitamin – Rachel Khong
The Girls in the Picture – Melanie Benjamin
Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life – Jon Kabat-Zinn
The Light We Lost – Jill Santopolo
Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” – Lena Dunham
Stinky Tofu: A Comedic Novel – Ross Henry Nodell
Mistress of the Ritz – Melanie Benjamin
Then She Was Gone – Lisa Jewell
Unqualified – Anna Faris
Before We Were Yours – Lisa Wingate
The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life – Mark Manson
How To Read Literature Like A Professor – Thomas C. Foster
Recap: Actress Anna Faris is unqualified to write this book about relationships and relationship advice. There’s no denying that. She’ll tell you that right off the top. Hell, it’s in the title. But she doesn’t care what you think. So she’s doing it anyway. Why? Well, in all honestly it’s at least in some part because her very successful podcast of the same name has garnered such a massive following that she knows she now has the ability to write a book that will sell. But on a less meta and more compassion wavelength, Faris is the kind of woman who battles insecurity like the rest of us and yet overcomes it – at least on the surface level – with a strong sense of “I-don’t-give-a-s***.” It’s taken her until her 30s and 40s – and admittedly so – to care less about what other people think and more about what’s best for her and her family.
That’s what Unqualified is really all about – a mix of stories and anecdotes from her life and the lessons they have taught her. She details the ways her relationships have changed her as a person and the ways fame has tried to do the same. Seventy-percent memoir and 30-percent self-help, Unqualified is a very honest glance into the world of a famous – but not super, uber iconic status famous – person who truly strives to be a better person everyday for her family, her fans and herself.
Analysis: Is Unqualified the best written memoir I’ve ever read? Absolutely not. Faris is not a writer. She is an actress and podcaster. She writes like she talks. As a broadcast journalist, I do the same, but in the beginning of her book I had a hard time taking her seriously because of the lackadaisical manner in which she writes. Here’s the thing: stick it out. It’s worth it.
If you’ve ever listened to Faris’s podcast, some of the anecdotes and things about her will be a little redundant. (We know this, Anna. We’ve heard it before.) But when it comes to her relationships with her exes and even friendships, she gets more honest and real than I ever expect out of a memoir, particularly a celebrity memoir. Was Chris Pratt okay with this? Was her first ex-husband? I’m sure she had clearance, but I was so flabbergasted with her realness, I couldn’t help but wonder.
That honesty is what works here. Faris does not pretend to be a perfect person. (Unqualified, remember?) But she writes what she knows, what she’s learned and hopes that for someone out there who may or may not even realize they need it, her book offers help. For me, it did; by showing me that we are always evolving and there is always room for acceptance and kindness.
Recap: The location is a hospital in the South. The time is the 1930s. The twins delivered did not fare well. The parents are destroyed.
And now here we are, in present day, following the life of Avery Stafford. The 30-something lawyer is used to living in the limelight of her father and his long political reign. But now he is sick, and she is forced to prepare to take his spot in politics as he also deals with an ongoing scandal involving nursing homes. In visiting her grandmother at one, Avery meets another elderly woman who is completely taken with her. A misplaced bracelet and a curious family photo forces Avery to return to the woman as she itches to learn more about her and whether this woman is somehow connected to her own family.
Now we are back to the 1930s, and Rill Foss is left in charge of her brother and sisters after their parents rushed to the hospital. Living on the river in Tennessee, they are now orphans as their parents never return. They are scooped up and taken in by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, and they face every form of abuse: verbal, physical, sexual. Living in a constant state of fear, Rill feels compelled to take care of her siblings, but there’s only so much a 12-year-old girl can do.
The stories of Rill and Avery intertwine more and more throughout Before We Were Yours in a beautiful and mysterious way, but it’s the fact that this historical fiction novel is based on true events from the real horrors of adoption in the 1930s that make this book so haunting.
Analysis: One of the characters we come to know in the book is the woman who run’s the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, Georgia Tann. But Georgia Tann was a real woman, known for having made adoption in the United States an industry and for charging families an exorbitant amount of money for adopting children. These children were bought and sold, practically as a form of slavery and treated traumatically in the process.
Author Lisa Wingate tells this story through the lens of a little girl during the time and through the eyes of a present-day woman who, like many of us, had no idea any of this was happening in the 1930s.
Despite the horrors, Wingate does an excellent job of keeping the reader invested in the characters, curious about what happens next and still manages to offer hope through the love we see shine through her characters. Before We Were Yours takes a bit of time to get into, but once you start to put together the pieces of the puzzle and realize that Rill and Avery and the old woman she meets are all connected, the journey to get there is worth every word.
MVP: Rill. She has been through so much and has been forced to grow up very fast at a very young age. She has no choice. But she does it with vigor and comes out on the other side.
Recap: Laurel Mack has been struggling for a long time. Her daughter went missing at the age of 15 and was never found. It was the kind of tragedy that destroyed her marriage and broke her relationship with her other children too, as they remained just that: “other.” So when she meets a nice man, the first who has taken interest in her in quite some time, she is flustered, flattered and fairly fixated on him.
Very quickly she meets his daughter, Poppy. Laurel can’t seem to get Poppy out of her mind. Poppy and her daughter, Ellie, look so much alike that Laurel finds herself consumed with the disappearance of Ellie once again. She doesn’t want to let her family in on it since they’ve finally reached a point in which they’re getting along well again after so many years of grief, pain and awkwardness.
So she sets out for answers by herself, and what she learns leaves her astonished.
Analysis: Holy, Gone Girl vibes. This twisty thriller was a page-turner, but offered a different determination than Gone Girl did for me (and yes, Gone Girl has become my go-to book of comparison for all modern-day, female-written and female-driven thriller novels); where Gone Girl‘s twists captured me by complete surprised, I’ve now come to expect the shocking surprises. Instead of desperately trying to learn what happened in Then She Was Gone, I found myself powering through to figure out if my theories were rights.
As it turns out, it was. And therein lies the problem for me. As much as I enjoyed this book – and I really did! – the foreshadowing was anything but subtle. Several friends who read the book along with me also figured out at least some aspect of the mystery. And while it’s fun to play to detective, I think it’s more fun to be completely blown away. Without giving away any spoilers, my prediction of what led up to the book’s ending was definitely off. Some of the story lines played out a lot creepier and weirder than I expected.
What really made the story for me were the alternating characters narrating, as my favorite novels do. The book goes back and forth between present day and the time of Ellie Mack’s disappearance, offering us many more breadcrumbs as to what may have happened to Ellie.
MVP: Ellie Mack. Though we know less about her than some of the other characters, we learn enough to know that despite what she’s been through, despite her age, compared to the other characters, she might be the only one to have a good head on her shoulders.
Recap: The year is 1940. The place is Paris, France at the Ritz Hotel, one of the most beautiful, extravagant and famous hotels in the world. Claude and Blanche are at odds with each other and the world. Fear envelops both of them as the war takes its firm grip on more and more of Europe. For so long, they lived a life of luxury living at the Ritz with Claude as the hotel manager and Blanche, his wife, gossiping among the wildly famous authors and artists who stayed there. Their marriage was never as strong as the confidence they portrayed separately.
The Nazis are taking over the hotel. Claude no longer runs the place. He must bend to the ways of the Germans and bow before their boldness. Blanche is in fear everyday, wondering what comes next while simultaneously loathing her adulterous husband. So she spends time with her friends, people like Lily, who Claude has come to vehemently dislike over the years.
Out of fear and anger and a need to do something – anything – to fight for her future, Blanche takes her own steps toward battling back against the Nazis, not knowing that her husband is doing the something similar. The lies increase in number but they also stem from good intention and a desire to better their lives.
Analysis: After reading another Melanie Benjamin book so recently, I was thrilled to start Mistress of the Ritz. I had already become familiar with Benjamin’s style of rotating narrators, strong female characters, historical fiction and varying timelines. But when I started Mistress, I was surprised to find this one wasn’t so female-driven. One of the narrators was a man. Would I like this partially-male centric novel as much? Especially when Blanche and Claude were so at odds with each other, so unlikeable initially and so spiteful? It took a few chapters, but yes.
Once Benjamin outlines some of the backstory between Blanche and Claude – their whirlwind meet-cute and wedding, their crazy honeymoon shenanigans and the ongoing issues between them – we start to understand why they are the way they are. And when the story takes a turn, offering solace to both of them via fending off Nazis, the true beauty of their personalities and relationship come to life.
Once again, Melanie Benjamin finds an already incredible TRUE story (Blanche and Claude Auzello were, in fact, real people who used the Ritz to assist the resistance against the Nazis) and finds a way of making it modern and relatable through her depth of characters and their relationships with each other. This is a story that’s 80 years old and not well known, and with the sentiment of a strong women finding her voice in the midst of turmoil, it Mistress reads as 2019 as anything.
MVP: Blanche. Not the most likeable initially, she uses her innate skills, talent and personality to find power in the most troubling times. Her growth and character development are a thing of beauty.
Recap: Can you really blame Lucy? It’s not entirely her “fault” she fell obsessively in love with Gabe. It was an impressionable age, an impressionable time, an impressionable place and period in history even. New York City, September 11, 2001. A chance meeting in class at Columbia followed by a tragedy at a level the city had never seen before. Lucy and Gabe ran together, watched the city go up in smoke and kissed. They needed a glimmer of hope and found it in each other. They needed to believe this wasn’t the end and that while everything broke around them, they could still find something fresh, beautiful and new. And yet. Gabe had a girlfriend. Or an ex who kept them from really exploring the relationship until more than a year later.
By then, they’d considered it a sign. And they were off and running, falling madly, deeply in love with each other in only the way people can when they’re under the age of 25 — romantic to the point of cheesy and incredibly lustful.
Which is why when they break up, Lucy defines break. She falls apart into a million pieces, unable to function or move on. September 11th inspired Gabe to travel to the Middle East and find work as a photojournalist. It was the only thing he felt he could do in response to the terror attacks of that dreaded day. But Lucy couldn’t bring herself to go, and Gabe couldn’t stay.
Lucy eventually finds solace, comfort and ease in Darren. They marry. They build a life together. But Gabe is always there, even when he’s not. The years pass and the more she thinks about him, the more confused Lucy becomes about what Gabe means to her and if their love was ever real at all.
Analysis: From page one, Lucy takes the reader full-throttle into the depths of her heart and mind. She speaks in the second person to “you,” an unusual choice. We don’t immediately know who “you” is but very quickly learn it’s a guy (insert heart-eyes-smiley emoji here). It takes the entire book to find out why she’s speaking in the second person to him, and when we finally do, it’s shocking and desperately sad. But in its completely depressive state, we — and Lucy – finally realize who means what to her. It’s a formatting and narrative decision that really pays off in the end, and throughout the book. Author Jill Santopolo does an excellent job of foreshadowing and dropping just enough hints and clues to force me to turn the page.
The book less has a plot than it really just follows Lucy throughout 13 years of her life, but it’s compellingly written and has unexpected twists and turns, even though that seems like something appropriate for murder mysteries. I felt so in tune with who Lucy was and what she struggled with that I simply devoured the book. Her feelings of first love are nostalgic and relatable for any reader. Each person I know who has read this book has said the same thing: “it’s sad, but it is the most honest portrayal of first love I’ve seen in a book” and THAT is powerful.
MVP: Lucy. She’s complicated, and I didn’t always agree with her decisions or actions, but she’s also like anyone else: just trying to figure it out along the way and doing the best she can given the circumstances and curveballs thrown her way.