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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: 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. 

Or on your Kindle for $8.99.

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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.

Or get it on your Kindle for $9.99.

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Review: Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography

nphRecap: You may recognize him as Doogie Howser. Or that other weird doctor, Dr. Horrible. To you, he may be Barney Stinson. Or a very angry Hedwig. Or he may just be the high guy from Harold and Kumar. Either way, Neil Patrick Harris has made quite the imprint on Hollywood in the past 25 years he’s been in the business. Like many other stars, he uses his celebrity here to write his own memoir, but NPH is far too cool to just run your everyday, run-of-the-mill celebrity memoir. After all, he loves magic. So he makes his memoir a little more magical by writing it in the form of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books of yesteryear. Finish a chapter, and choose between options like this: “If you need a drink to calm down, turn to page 45. If you need to wake your brain back up, turn to page 150. To continue your stage career, willkommen/bienvenue/welcomeim/au/to page 130. To attempt to relaunch your movie career, turn to page 124.”

Some chapters are silly absurdist fake short stories he’s written about his life. Some are recipes for his favorites food and cocktails. Some are magic tricks. But most are real stories from his life, including his time as a child star, the years when he was “washed up” in his twenties, his various stints in theater, his comeback into movies and television, his coming out of the closet both personally and publicly and the process he and his husband went through to have their children.

NPH has led every kind of life you can feature in an autobiography, so he gives us, the reader, the choice to read whichever one we like.

Analysis: The truth is I didn’t follow the choose your own adventure format and just read straight through the book. I think most people do — considering NPH wrote in an extra page in the book that no chapter urges you to turn to; clearly he knew people would find it because they’re lazy like me and just reading straight through. That said, the book is enjoyable either way. It zigs and zags through his life — some of it in order, some out of order. Some of the absurdist fake story chapters had me rolling my eyes thinking ‘why did I even bother to read these two pages?’ But the rest of the book more than makes up for it.

The struggles he’s faced in his career, in figuring out his sexuality and in having a family are as real as they get. NPH may appear to have it all, but it took him a long time and a lot of strife to get there. The sections about his children moved me to tears. He keeps his sense of humor throughout every page of the book, even if it’s in just the directions at the end of a chapter. His Barney Stinson silliness wreaks havoc on the book in the best way possible. This was by far the most creatively written memoir I’ve ever read and easily one of the most enjoyable, fun, and deeply moving.

Get Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography in hardcover for just $4.29.

Or on your Kindle for $12.99.

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Review: One More Time

carolburnettRecap: Carol Burnett is one of the truly great comedic icons and badass females of her generation and of our time. I was first introduced to her as Miss Hannigan from the original movie version of “Annie,” one of my favorite movies to watch growing up. She was perfect as Miss Hannigan — a villain who was more pathetic than evil, who was hilarious in her awkward gawkiness and who I was glad to see have a happy ending because you knew she wasn’t really a bad person at heart, just a desperate one. Having finally gotten around to reading her memoir from the 1980’s, I’ve come to learn that Carol Burnett was really not that different from the character she played in “Annie.”

She grew up under pretty horrible circumstances, though she didn’t realize as much until she was older. Her parents divorced at a young age and she lived with her grandma since her mother couldn’t properly take care of herself, let alone another person. When her grandmother and she finally moved to Hollywood from Texas, where her parents were already living separately, Carol started to standout as the tall, funny girl with the imaginative mind. When her illegitimate half-sister was born, she took her under her wing as though she were her own. She cared for her while focusing on her schoolwork and a potential career in journalism.

But as we all well know, things changed, and one taste on the stage had her itching to act forever. Her drive, devotion and ambition led her to UCLA and acting troups across California. A performance, a nice man and a lot of luck helped her earn enough money to go to New York and embark on the career she always wanted. But even that wasn’t as easy as she dreamed.

Analysis: Carol Burnett is a living, breathing rags-to-riches story. Yes, some of her story involved some extremely generous business men who were able to help her financially or give her references. But Burnett defined making her own luck. If not for her whipping personality, spunk and obvious natural talent and work ethic, she wouldn’t have had guts to ask for help or to keep in touch with the right people who would help her along the way.

It was amazing to read about her childhood and realize the hardship she had to overcome. Lots of “mommy issues” and lots of “daddy issues” could have been enough to break anyone. Not Carol. The entertainment industry itself is enough to break people. Not Carol. Her positivity and determination are to be admired, let alone her comedic chops. While she often talks about her many fears, it’s obvious that she’s also fearless.

Her story is more unbelievable than I could have imagined, and her writing exquisite. That’s not always the case with “celebrity” memoirs. But the truth is she was always a storyteller of some kind — acting out scenes, telling stories. Writing is another way to do that, and she’s obviously very good at it. (It’s no surprise she initially wanted to be a journalist — she has the chops.)

The updated version of her memoir, which I eventually read after accidentally leaving my first copy on a plane (whoops!) was even better because of the epilogue it includes at the end. The epilogue was added years later and tells the story of some of the additional tragedy she dealt with in her adult life. While sad, it’s an important section of the book that makes a point of showing no matter how successful you are, no matter how hard you’ve worked or where you’ve come from, we’re all people and we’re all going to have hard time to work through. Like Carol, we’ve got no choice but to keep going. One more time.

Get One More Time in paperback now for $14.53.

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