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Review: The Storyteller’s Secret

Recap: It’s after Jaya’s third miscarriage that her marriage falls apart. A journalist in New York, she is at a loss. She no longer has her husband to turn to for support, and her relationship with her mother has always been difficult, lacking love and support. It’s around this time that Jaya learns the grandfather she never knew is dying. He lives in India, where her parents were born, but her mother has no interest in returning home to see her father. Confused and alone, desperately seeking comfort and support in her family, Jaya decides to visit India, to get away from her own problems and to meet her grandfather and learn why he sent her mother away to America many years ago.

By the time she arrives, he has already passed. Inside her mother’s childhood home, she instead finds Ravi, her mother and grandmother’s servant. Ravi welcomes Jaya instantly and over the course of several weeks shows Ravi around India and tells her about her grandparents. It’s a long saga about love, secrets and finding one’s own path. It’s a story that even Jaya’s mother knows nothing about. It’s a story that changes her perception of her life, world and family forever. In looking to the past, Jaya is able to better understand her present and re-shape her future.

Analysis: In its simplest form, the plot of The Storyteller’s Secret sounds like the start of Eat, Pray, Love: woman’s life falls apart, woman sets out on journey across the world, woman finds herself. But Secret also adds the element of the past. The story also changes time periods and storytellers, switching back and forth between Jaya and her grandmother, Amisha, decades earlier. It gives the story an extra layer of depth and mystery that the read is dying to uncover. I found I could not put this book down, desperately wanting to know what happened in Jaya’s family history and how it affected her today.

The title of the book is a reference to so much storytelling that’s happening here: the narration from both Jaya and Amish, the story of Jaya’s past as told to her by Ravi, and the storytelling that Jaya does as a journalist and that her grandmother used to do as a writer and writing teacher. The parallels between Jaya and her unknown grandmother are beautiful and help to deepen the bond between Jaya and her mother. The story is moving in its statements about different cultures and especially womanhood: relationships between women, the strength of women and the sacrifices they make for their families.

The Storyteller’s Secret is a powerful, unstoppable read that makes you laugh, cry, think and feel. A truly excellent story.

MVP: Ravi. While the women are the focus of this book, Ravi may be the real star, the glue that binds together the woman of generations past and present, telling the stories that Amisha is unable to tell in her death. His generosity and love knows no bounds.

Get The Storyteller’s Secret in paperback now for $8.97.

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Review: Goodbye, Vitamin

Recap: As her father further declines into the world of Alzheimer’s, Ruth decides it’s time to come home and help her mother take care of him. She recently broke up with her boyfriend, Joel. She has no real attachment to her job. And unlike her younger brother, she doesn’t have the devastating memories from the years when her father abused alcohol and cheated on their mom. With nothing keeping her away, she heads home.


But when her father is let go from his job because of his health, she becomes determined to keep him as active as possible. Teaming up with one of his TA’s, they help her father continue to hold classes sneaking around empty rooms on campus or having off-campus “field trips.” The jig can only last for so long, but she is looking for something. She needs something for both her father and herself as his brain gets worse and worse.


Her story is documented like a diary or journal. and every so often her father hands her notes from his old journal. The notes detail memories of her as a child, memories that he is quickly losing and ones that she doesn’t recall, memories of happier times. Together Ruth and her father hold onto the past in bits while making new memories in the present and dreading the future and what the disease will likely bring.


Analysis: The format of this book is what really moves the story along. The use of dated journal entries helps to show just how quickly Alzheimer’s Disease progresses. The juxtaposition of the journal entries and notes from Ruth’s dad are a beautiful way of showing how the two of them are desperately trying to hold onto the memories her father is losing. Toward the end, she stops referring to her father as her father, and starts referring to him as “you.” It’s a clear distinction in the writing, showing that she has now started to keep notes for him so he can remember the times they’re spending together as adults.

As eloquent as the formatting is, much of the book is odd and quirky. There are some weird sections about things that happen to her that don’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the book, like when she meets a truck driver or how she tries to avoid the mailman for fear they would have an awkward conversation. I found myself reading these sections and thinking Okay, why do I care about this? At a certain point, I interpreted it this way: all roads lead back to Ruth’s dad. Once I started reading these sections through the lens of “this is how her father must feel when he talks to a stranger” or “this is an weird habit, like something her father might do in his current state,” I found a lot more meaning in these sections.


MVP: Ruth. She wasn’t always the most likable and she’s certainly one of the weirder main characters I’ve followed in a book, but the effort she makes to make her dad more comfortable with the progression of his disease is not only respectable, it’s inspiring.

Get Goodbye, Vitamin in paperback for $8.98.

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Review: One More Thing

Recap: When a book opens with a story about a tortoise and a hare, I first have to wonder if I’m reading a copy of Aesop’s Fables. But when the story turned into a version in which the hare loses and then demands a rematch against the tortoise, I knew we were no longer in Aesop’s territory. Thanks, B.J. Novak. The comedian and actor, best known for his role in The Office dives into his funny, sarcastic, sometimes dark and then surprisingly poignant mind with this collection of short stories that made me laugh and think. 


The content of many of the stories seemed random: in “Dark Matter,” a guy visiting a planetarium; in “Walking on Eggshells,” a woman set on having sex with Tony Robbins; in “MONSTER: The Roller Coaster,” a focus group selecting the name of a roller coaster. Despite the premises, they often had strong, affecting messages at the end about what matters most to us as people, about whether it’s worth it to be in a relationship that may not serve you, about things not turning out the way we expect them to. 
With some of the longer short stories, including the one from which the book got its title “Sophia,” I came to expect something poignant at the end. In the case of “Sophia,” I didn’t ever get it. 


Some stories, like “The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela,” were just plain funny, an opportunity for Novak to show off his comedic writing skills. Others were simple plays on words like “If I Had a Nickel” and “If You Love Something,” good for a nice chuckle.

Analysis: As someone who’d never actually read a book of short stories, I didn’t know what to expect and wasn’t particularly excited to read it. I doubted I would enjoy it without a central story powerful enough to keep me flipping through the pages. But color me shocked when I found that I really, truly enjoyed it. Sure, some stories were better than others. Some had me scratching my head (and not in a thoughtful way, more in a what-the-hell-was-that kind of way). But I caught myself laughing several times and stopping to think about some of the stories before going on to read the next ones. I also found that because some of the stories were so short, I was able to fly through the book. How Novak came up with some of the crazy, weird, and creatively thoughtful stories is impressive and delightful.

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Review: The Four Agreements

Recap: Be impeccable with your word. Don’t take anything personally. Don’t make assumptions. Always do your best. These are the four agreements, the four promises that Toltec master Don Miguel Ruiz says will change your life, offer you personal freedom and make you a happier person with less suffering in this highly recommended self-help book. The agreements are simultaneously simple and difficult: simple in the sense that they appear to be common sense. Of course, if we always do our best, we will be happy. Of course, if we are impeccable with our words or stop assuming or don’t take things personally, we’ll be happy. DUH! But life isn’t quite so easy, and neither is making these changes. It’s one thing to promise to make these agreements; it’s another to actually follow through with them.

Analysis: Before Ruiz can make the case for the four agreements, he first must make the case for why we all have an often insatiable desire to be happy. He does this well, by explaining that we spend our lives raised by our parents, taught their lessons, experiencing the world and society around us and essentially accepting everything that’s thrown our way to be “true.” But it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s up to us to decide whether we want to follow societal norms. It’s up to us to decide whether we want to fit in with the crowd or stand out in our own greatness. He explains that if we opt to not care what other people think. to do what makes us happy and to keep a positive outlook, we can be and remain happy. He explains that most of the suffering we each experience in life is self-induced.

For example, maybe someone cuts you off in traffic and you become enraged. You honk at them and start waving your arms and yelling in the car. The other driver sees you and starts yelling back or gives you the finger. The rest of the drive, you spend gripping your wheel, fuming. We’ve all been there. But what if, when that person cuts us off, we don’t take it personally? What if we realize that person is probably in a massive rush for some reason? What if we realize that their actions had everything to do with them and absolutely nothing to do with us? Then we’d just merrily continue driving to our destination, completely at ease. So why do we so often go down the first path? It’s because we’re causing our own suffering. We have the power to change this. We have the power to recognize that what other people do has nothing to do with us. We have the power to take a positive approach and fill the world with joy instead of anger. It will make you feel better and the others around you feel better too.

The concepts are easy. The actions are hard. But they are also worth it. Because we all want ease and joy. Ruiz’s book is at times a little heady and very spiritual, so it might be a bit much for some. But if you really want to improve your life and yourself, this is a book that will single-handedly get you there.

Get The Four Agreements in paperback for $7.49.

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Review: The Day the World Came To Town

911Recap: Seventeen years later, no one needs a book to tell them what happened on 9/11. But they might want to read one if it involves an aspect of that horrific tragedy that few know about, like the thousands of people who wound up stranded in Gander, Newfoundland in the days after the attacks. If you don’t know where Newfoundland is, you wouldn’t be alone. Author and journalist Jim DeFede takes care of that for us, describing the province, its people and the way they took in and treated the passengers who were flying to or over the United States when the attacks happened. As the planes were diverted to Canada, a small town became a town of many more thousands and opened its arms in their time of need.

The panic and chaos that ensued could have been much worse, but the truth it didn’t thanks to the helping hands of those living in Newfoundland. Families there invited these passengers — literal strangers — into their homes for a nice, hot shower. They offered them hand-me-down baby strollers. They showed them to the nearest bars, malls and stores. They cooked for them, clothed them, cared for their animals, ordered their prescriptions. Newfoundland essentially adopted the passengers who were so desperate to get home and so depressed over the recent events.

Analysis: Made famous more recently by the musical Come From AwayThe Day the World Came to Town is a beautiful take on the generosity of strangers, made even more beautiful by the fact that it’s a true story. A journalist at heart, author Jim DeFede does an incredible job of digging into every possible angle and acquiring hundreds of interviews to gather information for the book. The book is not flowery or eloquently written. As only a journalist would, it’s written very matter-of-factly. But it works. The content is so touching, the words don’t need to be.

The stories are woven in such a way, you are bound to connect with at least one of its characters — er, PEOPLE — whether it’s the New York state trooper who wishes he were home to help, the new parents that just adopted their daughter from overseas, the young professionals who rely on drinks and new friendships to get them through the pain or the woman whose firefighter son may or may not have died in the towers.

The Day the World Came to Town is one of those rare books that both taught me something AND made me feel. I truly cannot say enough good things about it.

Get The Day the World Came to Town in paperback for $13.59. 

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Review: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

lonely hunterRecap: As a deaf man in 1930’s Georgia, John Singer is grateful to have his one friend, Spiros. But when Spiros, who’s also deaf, also becomes mentally ill and is moved to an asylum, Singer is on his own. He moves into a room in a house filled with a family and several other renters. His world widens as he is befriended by the young daughter who lives in the house, Mick, a black doctor, Dr. Copeland, an alcoholic labor activist, Jake and a local bar owner, Biff.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter sets the format for what so many books, movie, and TV shows have come to do since: weave together the stories of several different people who are each connected somehow. (Think Love Actually.) But this is not actually a story about love. It’s about loneliness. Each person is reaching out, in search of a friend who will hear them. There is a lot of directed irony in that the only person Mick, Dr. Copeland, Jake and Biff can find who will listen to them and their problems is a deaf man who literally cannot hear anything they’re saying.

Analysis: With a fairly windy plot, I found The Heart is a Lonely Hunter difficult to get into. But as the story deepens and more hardships are thrown at the characters, it becomes easier to find yourself somewhere in the story.

Lonely Hunter is absolutely not a bad book, but it’s certainly a sad one. Each of the characters is an outcast, trying to figure out where they belong. They struggle  with their loneliness and lofty goals. Spoiler alert: the loneliness defines them so much that none of them actually achieves their goals. It’s a haunting tale that makes me particularly disappointed when I realized none of the characters really grew from what they went through. Each of them wallows so much, they wind up being just as miserable at the end of the book as they are in the beginning.

But this is not a bad decision. It’s a real one. It’s one seen everyday if you simply look around and talk to people. There are many lessons to be learned from Lonely Hunter.

MVP: Portia. Though a more minor character in the book, she not only serves as a maid to Mick and her family and is Dr. Copeland’s daughter. She is the only truly strong, empowered character in the book only more emphasized by the fact that she’s a black woman in the 1930’s working as a maid to a white family. She is dealt with hardship too, but she rises above and tries to help all those around her rise too.

Get The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in paperback for $10.61.

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Movie vs. Book: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

There’s nothing like a sweet teen romance, especially when it involves the uncool girl getting the cool guy. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before fits this trope in a romantic, whimsical way while still remaining current and modern. Lara Jean, the hopeless romantic, always likes the boys she can’t have. To move on from them, she writes them letters that she has no intention of sending and hides them in a hat box in her bedroom. But when she upsets her little sister, her sister mails the letters, leading to the completely horrifying moment — especially for a 16-year-old girl — when all of your crushes past and present realize you’re in love with them.

In Lara Jean’s case, one of those boys includes the most popular guy in school, Peter Kavinsky. One of the others is her next door neighbor, Josh, who also just so happened to have broken up with her older sister after two years of dating. And so enters the love triangle.

In an unexpected twist, Lara Jean and Peter Kavinksy decide to fake date each other in order to make their “real” crushes jealous. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is essentially the plot of the 1990’s teen movie, Drive Me Crazy.

The movie version of To All the Boys (available on Netflix) follows the storyline of the book fairly well. But of course it makes a few changes — some for obvious dramatic flair and others that were surprising. For instance, in the book Lara Jean and Josh kiss, and when Lara Jean’s sister finds out, it results in a huge blowout. But the two never kiss in the movie. Maybe producers felt it was too harsh of her to have kissed her sister’s ex-boyfriend. Or maybe they thought it was a more streamlined story to document just one relationship and not a love triangle with a third party. Whatever the reason, it seemed odd to leave out the kiss since in the book, that really heightened the stakes.

The bigger change comes at the end of the movie. In both the book and the movie, a rumor circulates that Lara Jean and Peter Kavinsky had sex on an overnight school ski trip. In both, it’s enough to shatter their fake-not-so-fake relationship. This takes Lara Jean on a journey to self-discovery in the novel, which ends more or less unresolved. The final pages are the beginning of another letter she starts to write to Peter Kavinsky. The book is obviously left open-ended to make way for the next novel in the series.

But in the movie, they up the ante. Not only is there a rumor that the two had sex; there’s also a “sex tape” that’s being shared among students at the school. The choice is understandable: it’s dramatic, forces Lara Jean to more quickly decide what she wants to do and leads to a happy, definitive ending. But it still felt like a bit much. Sure, explicit videos being shared among high school students is a modern problem that does, in fact, happen. But for a story that feels so innocent up until this moment, this movie felt out of place.

The good news, there are more books in the series and Netflix has already announced plans to make a second movie as well, so the story’s not done yet (and neither are my reviews of them).

Get To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before in paperback for $8.79. 

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