Tag Archives: fiction

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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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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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.

Or on your Kindle for $9.99.

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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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Movie vs. Book: A Simple Favor

simple favorThe entire time I read Darcey Bell’s page-turner of a noir novel A Simple Favor, all I could think was “this is VERY Gone Girl.” And that’s not a bad thing. Were some of the plotlines a bit predictable? Yes. But the French noir tone of the book, the rotating narrators and the big twists every 50 pages or so kept me on my toes.

A Simple Favor tells the story of a widowed mother, Stephanie who meets a beautiful bombshell of a working mother named Emily. Their sons are friends at school, and they spend time together while the boys have playdates. Shortly after their friendship blossoms, Emily goes missing. Her husband Sean is the initial suspect, but has an alibi. So Stephanie spends the following weeks searching for Emily, blogging about her disappearance and requesting help from other mothers, caring for Emily’s son and eventually falling in love with Emily’s husband. She moves in on Emily’s life.

But then the boys start telling Stephanie they see Emily at school, and suddenly Stephanie is receiving phone calls from her. Emily is very much alive. Disappearing and faking her own death to earn life insurance money, Emily doesn’t really care about Stephanie or Sean. She’s a woman on a mission and she’ll do whatever it takes to accomplish that and find a better life for her and her son. Screw the husband. And screw Stephanie.

All this is pretty well-followed in the first half of the movie version. Blake Lively is the PERFECT Emily — so exquisitely beautiful, fashionable, direct, and confident. Anna Kendrick is the perfect Stephanie: kind of slutty and inherently dumb. But all the twists in the second half of the movie are a significant departure from the book. In the movie, more people are murdered. In the movie, a completely different person “wins” in the end.

The changes made for the movie deeply villainize Emily’s character, making her inherently evil, whereas in the book, Emily has a soft side. There are certain people in her life who she cares for deeply. Her character in the book is a lot more complicated, which makes her so deliciously fun to follow along. It’s easy to get down with her badassery and be swept away by her charm. The changes made for the movie also empower Stephanie’s character. She is emboldened and stands up for herself in the cat and mouse game she plays with Emily. In the book, she starts as the mouse and remains the mouse.

My guess is the changes made for the movie were meant to indulge the audience: the less complicated the characters, the easier it is to root for one over the other. And the movie does a good job of still being deliciously fun (even though the ending goes a little off the rails in its absurdity).

I prefer the book and its darkness, its open-ended finish, its complicated grey-area characters. But that said, watching Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively spar with each other is never a bad way to spend two hours.

Get A Simple Favor in paperback for $11.22.

Or on your Kindle for $10.99.

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Movie vs. Book: Crazy Rich Asians

crazy rich asiansRachel Chu is nervous. She’s about to go to Singapore for the first time with her boyfriend Nick, but this is not just some vacation. They’re visiting for his best friend’s wedding, and it will be the first time she’s meeting Nick’s family. Rachel takes some time to decide, but ultimately determines it would be a fun way to spend her summer off from teaching economics at NYU.

What she doesn’t realize is how nervous she really should be. As it turns out, Nick comes from one of the wealthiest families in Asia. He keeps this information on the down low so as not to be treated differently, but from the moment she hops the plane with him, she begins to understand his very rich reality and quickly comes to realize she may not be accepted by his family or friends.

Yes, Rachel is Chinese. But she is American-born Chinese (ABC), and to his traditional mother, ABC is essentially unacceptable. This pit-in-the-stomach, all-out sinking feeling is excellently portrayed in the movie version of Crazy Rich Asians based on the 2013 bestselling novel. The movie beautifully emphasizes all the best parts of the novel: the romance between Rachel and Nick, the drama between Rachel and Nick’s mother Eleanor, and the glitz and glamour of Singapore and the crazy rich Asians who live there.

The movie follows the book fairly closely except for the ending. The movie adds a scene in which Nick’s family and Rachel make dumplings together, offering an opportunity for Rachel and Eleanor to get to know each other better. The building of their relationship is effectively trashed when only minutes later, Eleanor tells Rachel she will “never be enough.” This scene adds a layer of indiscreet, purposeful anger between Rachel and Eleanor, which then gives Rachel a reason to show Eleanor who’s boss. This is a significant and positive change from the novel. Where Rachel remains mostly timid in the book, this scene in the movie pushes Rachel to fight for the alpha female role, positioning herself strongly against Eleanor so that she stands up for herself in a way we don’t get to witness in the book.

It then leads to a different and happier ending between Rachel and Nick and a more concretely positive relationship between Rachel and Eleanor.

As it aimed to be one of, if not the most successful rom-com in years, Crazy Rich Asians had no choice but to tidy up some of the open-endedness of the book. But the plot choices made at the end of the novel were made to set up the next book in the trilogy (China Rich Girlfriend), and that is lost in the movie. (That includes much of the storyline about Astrid, Nick’s beautiful cousin.) This matters now because the movie sequel has already been confirmed, thanks to the wild success of the first movie.

Crazy Rich Asians is everything a girl could possibly want in a romantic comedy: romance! scandal! makeover montages! a big, beautiful wedding! But it’s possible — nay, definite — that the novel has more depth to offer.

Get Crazy Rich Asians in paperback for $9.60.

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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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