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Lara’s Top Picks of 2018

20181231_144316.jpgWelcome to my eighth edition of “Top Picks!” Easily one of my favorite blog posts of the year, this is where I tell you about the ten best books I read this year. Again, this has nothing to do with what year they came out. In fact, I’m pretty sure only one of the books I read this year was published in 2018. 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. Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. After my dad passed away, this was the perfect book to help me out of my slump and come to terms with my grief. Sheryl Sandberg is not just a Facebook COO here. She is a woman navigating loss like so many of us have. If she can do it, we all can, especially with her tactile, concrete advice. Buy it now. 

9. The Lost Family by Jenna Blum. It’s a novel that spans 30 years and three generations of a Jewish family in New York and New Jersey in the years post-WWII. The patriarch lost his first family in the war and starts a new one with an aspiring model. It’s a book that I really enjoyed when I read it, but since I finished it, I simply can’t stop thinking about it. Buy it now.

8. One More Time by Carol Burnett. Both an in-depth look at the iconic comedianne’s life and a book about life lessons, One More Time is a memoir that almost feels like a self-help book. There is so much to be learned from this strong woman who overcame trauma, failure and poverty to become the icon she is today. Buy it now.

7. Cujo by Stephen King. It’s scary to think that it took me this long to read a Stephen King novel (yes, it was my first!!), but everyone told me this was one of his best and it did not disappoint. More thriller than horror, Cujo brilliantly jumps between characters I legitimately cared for while making a dog scary to me for the first time in my life. The ending is something to be both celebrated and mourned — a bittersweet juxtaposition that makes the read all the more complicated and engrossing. Buy it now.

6. 10% Happier by Dan Harris. Dan Harris single-handedly got me interested in meditation, but it took me several years to finally read his book. Both memoir and self-help (is this a common theme here?), 10% Happier makes a case for changing yoru life and through meditation — even for the skeptics — while also telling tales of the fascinating network newsman life he leads. Buy it now.

5. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. Set on reading it before seeing in the theater, I had high hopes for this one, and it surpassed them all. It was more than just a romantic story or an Asian story. It was also a funny store! So tongue-in-cheek in its prose and dialogue, it was a long book that turned into a quick read, and I’ve never been more excited to read a sequel. Buy it now.

4. Julie and Julia by Julie Powell. Julie Powell needed something in her life. She surprised herself by finding it in Julia Child’s famous cookbook. So she set her sights on cooking the entire book in a year’s time. The book details the true story of Powell achieving this crazy and kind of obnoxious goal, even while it tears much of the rest of her life to shreds. She is a hilarious writer who had me laughing out loud. But she also learns a lot about life and herself through the process, and so do we. Buy it now.

3. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. A story from the point of view of a dog, Racing is a more dramatic tale than I expected. But it’s refreshing perspective gives us hope in both dogs and humanity, proving that there is nothing more important than the bonds of friendship and family. It’s a grand story about life trapped in a doggie fiction novel in the most beautiful way. It left me breathless. Buy it now.

2. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman. After seeing the sexy movie that so deeply resonated with me in its portrayal of first love, I found myself wanting more so I picked up the book the movie was based on. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book is even better than the movie with more details, more sexiness, more teenage uncertainty and more finality. Oh, and the prose is supreme. Buy it now.

1. You Are A Badass by Jen Sincero. As I turned 30, I thought a self-help book would help me better round the corner. What I found in Badass is a swift kick in my badass that left me empowered. Jen Sincero’s real-talk and tangible tips allow for a true journey in confidence-building and goal-setting unlike I’ve ever experienced before. Buy it now.

Here’s a link to the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2018. 

BOOKS I’VE READ 2018

In the Studio with Michael Jackson – Bruce Swedien

Damned Good- J.J. DeCeglie

Wonder – R.J. Palacio

Julie and Julia – Julia Powell

A Wrinkle In Time – Madeleine L’Engle

Call Me By Your Name – Andre Aciman

Soul Witness – William Costopoulos

Option B – Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

A Load of Hooey – Bob Odenkirk

Emma – Jane Austen

Cujo – Stephen King

Ann M. Martin – Margot Becker R.

The Last Dropout – Bill Milliken

How to Love the Empty Air – Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz

Strangers – Nigel Gray

Notorious R.B.G. – Irin Carmon

One More Time – Carol Burnett

On Becoming Fearless – Arianna Huffington

The Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein

Choose Your Own Autobiography – Neil Patrick Harris

10% Happier – Dan Harris

The Gene Guillotine – Kate Preskenis

You Are a Badass – Jen Sincero

Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan

The Lost Family – Jenna Blum

Sharp Objects – Gilian Flynn

A Simple Favor – Darcy Bell

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before – Jenny Han

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers

The Day The World Came to Town – Jim DeFede

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Movie vs. Book: The Hate U Give

the hate u giveStarr Carter has to bounce back and forth between two worlds: the white world of her private school and the black world in which she lives with her black family in a predominantly black neighborhood, known for its violence and lower income housing. It’s when she’s at a party in her neighborhood that her two worlds come to a head.

She meets up with her oldest friend, Khalil, who she hasn’t seen in quite some time. After shots are fired at the party, the two escape. When Khalil drives Starr home, he’s pulled over. He’s asked to step out of the car. He complies but reaches back in the car to check on Starr and grab his hairbrush. It’s at that moment that Khalil is shot and killed by a white police officer.

Witnessing this devastating trauma is not even the first time it’s happened to Starr. When she was 10 years old, her other best friend was innocently shot and killed in a drive-by shooting.

Tension within the town escalates as the media reports that Khalil had been dealing drugs and paints the white officer in a better light. Starr speaks to investigators but her parents refuse to have her identity revealed. She also keeps the fact that she was a witness to the shooting a secret from her white friends and boyfriend, as she continues to try and separate the worlds. But ultimately, she can’t keep them separate anymore, and as her worlds collide, she grows into the woman she never knew she could be.

The movie version of The Hate U Give is excellent and follows the novel almost to a T. There are four major changes it makes — some are understandable, some are little too dramatic for an already dramatic story. First of all, in the movie Starr and Khalil kiss before he is killed. An understandable change, it helps explain the depth of their relationship and what they mean to each other, making his death all the more shocking and painful for the viewer. That said, I didn’t like that they kissed because it made Starr cheat on her actual boyfriend, something her character would never actually do.

The movie also eliminates the DeVante character: DeVante is a teen in the neighborhood who gets caught up in one of the local gangs. Starr’s father doesn’t want to see him get lost in the gang world so he takes him in and protects him from the gang leaders. He’s a beautiful parallel to Khalil and Starr’s father and what each of them could have been had they received guidance from an adult. Instead the movie folds DeVante’s character into Starr’s older brother. I loved DeVante in the book, but again, I understand the decision to cut him to shorten the length of the movie.

The other big changes come at the end of the movie as rioters are taking over the city, pushing for justice for Khalil. In the novel, Starr navigates the riots with her brother, DeVante and her boyfriend. But in the movie, the boyfriend leaves early and goes home. Maybe producers thought having a white boy in the midst of black people rioting wouldn’t be believable. But in the novel, I thought it was good to have a white person experience that, to be caught up in something that the average white person doesn’t typically see, to witness an eye-opening historic moment and also to show his love for his girlfriend by staying with her through a dangerous time.

But the biggest shock in the movie (***SPOILER ALERT***) comes when Starr’s little brother holds up a gun to the gang leader who has just burned down their father’s grocery story in the middle of the riots. Sure, it is a truly perfect image of how gun violence, racism and society impact children and rob them of their innocence. But it so shocking, dark and also completely absurd (in that if Starr’s parents were looking for her in the riots, they would NEVER bring a seven-year-old with them), it just didn’t work for me. In the book, the cops arrive and cuff the gang leader pretty quickly without any major escalation. Call that anti-climactic if you will, but I call that realistic.

The important thing to keep in mind regardless is that both the book and movie are incredibly important right now. They are so topical, so relevant, so timely, so valuable, I would highly recommend both to everyone.

Get The Hate U Give now in paperback for $7.15. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $11.99.

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Review: The Lost Family

lost familyRecap: The years during WWII were no easy feat for Peter Rashkin and his family. In New York in 1965, he has opened his own restaurant, named after his wife who was killed in the Holocaust along with their twin daughters. Peter finds comfort in food, but he also uses it as a mechanism to keep his wife alive; she, too, was a cook. It’s in his restaurant — a place more home to him than his apartment — that he meets June Bouquet, a beautiful starving model. He is astonished by her beauty and surprised to find that he feels more strongly toward her than any of the other women he’s dated in the years since his wife was murdered.

The story then jumps to New Jersey in 1975, where we follow June, who’s left the modeling industry to be Peter’s housewife and mother to their daughter Elsbeth. The whirlwind romance that brought Peter and June together is fizzling out, leaving June to seek out love and attention elsewhere. She longs for her career of yesteryear and chases after the experiences and emotions she felt ten years earlier.

Finally the story takes us to New York and New Jersey in 1985, when Elsbeth is now a teenager, becoming a woman and searching for her truth. As her parents’ relationship has worsened, so has her relationship with food. Her father constantly uses her as a guinea pig to try out new recipes, but her mother still picks at her food like she did during her modeling years. Elsbeth’s strange introductions to food lead to her own battle with her body.

Analysis: Not having initially realized the structure of this book — the ten-year time jumps and changing points of view — I initially found it a little jarring and definitely surprising. I got so lost in Peter’s story, I wasn’t ready to leave it. But once I understood this was going to be the book’s format, I absolutely loved it. Switching between the decades and characters simultaneously allowed for powerful and engaging generational and societal commentary.

I was also surprised to find that a book I wholly expected to be about the Holocaust — and much of it was — was really a story about a family and their relationship to food. Each person in this book has a completely different view about what foods means to them emotionally and physically, allowing food to serve as a metaphor for each of the characters’ relationships to each other.

The title The Lost Family can be interpreted in so many ways. It refers to Peter’s first family who he lost in the war. But it also refers to his new family, who loses themselves in their own drama. But the journey to them finding themselves makes it all worth it.

MVP: Peter. When he attempts a second shot at life with a new family, he doesn’t put in enough effort to strengthen their bond. But the difference between him and June is that he loves his daughter so deeply that she has the power to make him realize what’s missing and what he needs to do to find himself. His journey is sad and long, but uplifting in the end.

Get The Lost Family in paperback for $16.99. 

Or on your Kindle for $12.99.

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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: All the Best People

30687885Recap: There are secrets abound between four women of three different generations in a small town in Vermont. It’s 1972, and Carole is a mother to twin sons and a daughter and wife to an auto shop owner. But suddenly her days are filled with more people than just those who she lives with; she starts hearing voices, hallucinating, wondering if she’s becoming “crazy,” just like her mother was.

The book flashes back and forth between Carole, her “crazy” mother Solange, her sister Janine, and her daughter Alison. We learn how and why Solange went “crazy,” why the relationship between Carole and her sister Janine is so complicated, and why Alison is struggling to grow up in a world full of women who seem as though they haven’t quite figured things out yet.

Alison doesn’t fit in at school and instead spends time crushing on her teacher. Aunt Janine is also crushing on the same teacher, as she works to find a new husband after hers died. Carole, meanwhile, is dealing with the voices, visiting her mother, wondering if she’s suffering from the same disease. All the Best People delves into the complexity of women, their relationships with men and each other and the constant struggle they endure between heart and mind. As the story continues, secrets are revealed to the reader and ultimately each other that help explain why they are the way they are and what that means for their future.

Analysis: It’s hard to write a true “recap” of a book like this because the plot of the novel comes from these four women living their everyday lives, truggling together, yet separately. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman or maybe it’s because I have trouble keeping my attention on one storyline at all times, but books formatted like All the Best People always work for me. It always helps to get in the minds of each of the main characters. Each character in this novel is so complicated, especially Carole. The way author Sonja Yoerg writes Carole’s chapters as she gets sicker and sicker is great; the writing parallels the symptoms of the character’s disease and helps us to better understand what she’s going through.

MVP: Carole and Alison. I’ve already explained why Carole is great, but Alison is brilliant. She’s completely aware of and in tune with everything going on in the world around her, no matter how young and “naive” she is. She’s the child in this story, but it’s clear in many ways she’s smarter than the adults around her.

Get All the Best People now in paperback for $8.82. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $11.99.

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Limited Series vs. Book: Big Little Lies, “Once Bitten”

The latest installment of the Big Little Lies limited series picks up with Amabella now being bitten by one of her classmates. Once again, Renata blames the bullying on Jane’s son Ziggy, adding more stress to Jane’s life. She’s already tangled up in visiting the man who assaulted her years ago after Madeline and Celeste find him online and learn that he lives and works nearby. In this episode, we see a different side of Jane starting to come out as she takes her gun to target practice and smokes weed while she drives to her assailant. It was a trip she had planned to make with Madeline and Celeste but instead she goes it alone. We only get a glimpse into her meeting with him but never learn how it ends or if she confronts him. Instead, we just get an image of her screaming and banging the horn in her car, speeding home and getting pulled over by the cops.

Meanwhile, Madeline is having her own car troubles when she gets into a crash with her co-worker and director at the theater, Joseph. He picks up her and takes her “for a drive” to discuss their relationship. The discussion erupts when they crash in the parking lot. Joseph injuries seem serious, but he winds up coming out of it okay, and it becomes clear that the crash more or less shocked the relationship right out of them as they recede by their families for the love and support they need.

Love and support are two things Celeste certainly isn’t getting at home as she continues to navigate her murky and abusive relationship with her husband Perry. Here, again, we see her going to therapy without him. It’s probably for the best, since she finally comes clean –after some serious pushing from her therapist — just how physically abusive and harmful Perry can be.

Again, I loved this episode and how they’re slowly building the tension to the explosion that I expect the final episode will be. However, NOTHING that happens in this episode — with the exception of Celeste’s trip to the therapist — happens in the book! Because this tawdry relationship between Madeline and Joseph doesn’t exist in the book, there’s never a car crash in the novel either. And because Madeline and Celeste never tell Jane they found her assailant in the book, Jane never goes to visit him. If the show was going to add so much story to fill the time of seven episodes, why didn’t it just stick to the book and shorten the series to six episodes instead of seven? But again, the story is still well done, the acting great, and the editing –especially the audio editing int his episode– is incredible.

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Limited Series vs. Book: Big Little Lies, “When Push Comes to Shove”

The murder is still a mystery but the motivations between characters continue to build in the latest installment of Big Little Lies. Once again, the children’s teacher notices some tension between Ziggy and Amabella, encouraging Jane to take her son to a child psychologist. The psychologist determines he doesn’t have the characteristics of a bully and in fact may be getting bullied at school.

Meanwhile  Jane is starting to feel a release and a new interest in men after revealing (in the last episode) that she was raped by a man named Saxton Banks. Madeline looks up Saxton Banks online and shows a photo of him to both Jane and Celeste — a big shift from the book. In the book, Madeline and Celeste keep their knowledge of Saxton Banks to themselves without bringing it up to Jane.

Meanwhile both Celeste and Madeline and working to conquer and succumb to their troubled marriages. Celeste visits her therapist again — this time, alone — and Madeline cheats on her husband with her co-worker at the theater! Soon after, we learn that this isn’t the first time something like this has happened between them.

I have to say, having Madeline cheat on Ed is a HUGE change from the book and one of which I am NOT a fan. Madeline’s character in the book is nutty and intense, but still likable and having her make a decision like this is the very opposite from likable, especially when Ed is …pretty good. Now it makes sense why the show has put such an emphasis on this whole “Avenue Q” storyline; it was all to build to the tryst and relationship between Madeline and the director of the show. Madeline’s work is mentioned many times in the novel but is not a focal point by any means, and we certainly never learn the names of her co-workers through it. That said, I have to admit I love the following scene in which Madeline very openly tells Celeste what happened and Celeste just laughs and laughs (probably because Celeste doesn’t have the ability to be as open with Madeline, and her secrets are so much darker that Madeline’s little makeout session seems trivial to Celeste).

I’ve noticed that in these past entries, I’ve pointed out a lot of changes the show has made from the book. While I’m not a fan of shows and movies changing adaptations from the story we already know and love, I still love this limited series version of Big Little Lies. Reese Witherspoon’s acting in it is some of the best we’ve seen from her. The show has also done an excellent job at making Celeste and Jane as complicated as they are in the book, which can sometimes be hard to do onscreen when we don’t get to read their thoughts like we can in the book. The editing on the show and all of its random flashbacks and quick shots are incredible and add little pops of knowledge and feeling in a way a book simply can’t.

 

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