Tag Archives: nonfiction

Review: The Magnanimous Heart

Recap: A reflection on loss and grief, The Magnanimous Heart dives into meditation as a means of not necessarily coping with it all, but embracing it all as part of the process of life. The self-help book explains that the “magnanimous heart” is a heart of freedom, liberation, acceptance and balance. By explaining the “constant squeeze” of suffering that we all feel, author Narayan Helen Liebenson offers suggestions and concepts for stepping into feelings of “enoughness.” 

She makes the case for not trying to “fix” anything but to accept and approach each moment exactly as it is and to recognize that our thoughts are mere thoughts, not truths or facts. 

She explains the difference between psychological questions and meditative questions and encourages asking yourself those meditative questions and learning to just sit in it, even though the answers may not come. 

The real freedom, she explains, comes when we relax the grasping, the “constant squeeze” for perfection or more or whatever that unattainable thing may be for you. It comes when we recognize “enoughness,” allow it and accept it. 

Analysis: As a practitioner of meditation for several years and a deeper dive over the last year, I had been looking forward to reading this book for quite some time. After my father died a few years back, the title resonated with me. I ultimately enjoyed the book and found it incredibly insightful but it’s more difficult to say I found it useful. 

Liebenson writes in a very abstract, greater concept kind of way with too few anecdotes to make me feel connected to her. I had to read sentences sometimes three and four times just to understand the point. And then once she made it, she often repeated it.

I loved everything she wrote and appreciated her explanations of why meditation can be helpful. But with a few weeks hindsight, I already can’t think of a specific tangible tidbit she offered for me to use to either improve my life or my daily practice …other than keep practicing. 

But alas, maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe if I had been practicing meditation more consciously, my mind would have been sharp enough to have remembered more of her book.

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Lara's Top Picks of 2019

I couldn’t let the new year (and decade!) begin without my favorite blog edition…my top picks of 2019! Fair warning: this year life really took hold. Suffice to say, I didn’t read nearly as much as I usually do or would like to. But I read enough to select my 10 favorites! This is a list of the best books I personally read, not necessarily books that were released in 2019. For a list of those, here you go.  At the bottom, I’ve also included the complete list of books I read this year.


10. Before We Were Yours – This historical fiction novel showcases the awful beginnings of child adoptions in the United States. Its time jumps and changing narrators add suspense to the story of little Rill, who does everything she can to keep her family in tact when Tennessee Children’s Home Society (a real place in an otherwise made-up story) does everything it can to disrupt that for money.

9. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – It’s the anti-self-help self-help book. The book that tells you it’s not a self-help book and it’s going to tell you all the opposite things from a regular self-help book. And that’s kind of true. Which is why it’s so effective. A lot of my takeaways from this massive bestseller is that author Mark Manson relies on a lot of Buddhist methodology to explain how best to live your life – with the understanding that life is suffering and once we accept that, things can start to be a little better. Prepare for some foul language and real talk truths.

8. Not That Kind of Girl – Writer/director/actress Lena Dunham shares her life in this messy memoir made up of short stories and essays, unveiling the depths of her anxieties, neuroses and mental health issues as well as just being honest about what it is to be a girl and woman in the modern world. Some stories are sad, some are hilarious riots, but all are well-told, vulnerable, and bluntly honest.

7. How to Read Literature Like a Professor – This how-to for making literally any book better is divided into themes and symbols to explain what matters in a story and what it means. Chapters focus on anything and everything from the significance of ill characters in books to Bible references to food and sex and seasons. Most of the examples were from books and literature I haven’t read BUT the writer explains everything so well that it’s not only changed how I understand and appreciate books, it also applies to TV, film and pretty much any creative medium. A true game-changer.

6. Wherever You Go, There You Are – Author Jon Kabat-Zinn book on the power of meditation is a simplistic, effective how-to for those who have been meditating for years and those looking to start a regular practice. He’s science-based, but instead of constantly throwing facts, studies and research at the reader, he shared personal anecdotes and understandable metaphors to make meditation manageable. 

5. Mistress of the Ritz – Melanie Benjamin does it again, choosing real people in history whose stories have remain mostly untold and telling them, with her own fictionalized dialogue and writing. This one is set in 1940’s Paris during WWII. It tells the story of a real couple, Claude and Blanche Auzello, who lets their marriage waiver as they focus on saving Jews during the Holocaust.

4. The Storyteller’s Secret – This fictional tale about love and love lost starts after modern-day Jaya has another miscarriage and separates from her husband. On a search for connection and answers to life’s questions, she travels to her family’s native India. During the course of the book, her story and her grandmother’s intertwine in a beautiful, heartbreaking and heartwarming way.

3. The Light We Lost – I went back and forth on where to rank this one because I loved it so much. The romance of two young people in NYC during 9/11 continues over the next 13 years. It is gripping, tragic, romantic, sexy. I can’t remember the last time I wanted to finish a book and simultaneously not want it to end so badly.

2. The Girls in the Picture – I was halfway (or more?) through this book before I realized this wasn’t only historical fiction about the beginning of the film industry in America in the early 1900s. It was also historical fiction about a real actress and female screenwriter who were friends. This film story that’s really about friendship and feminism detail the lives and careers of Frances Marion and Mary Pickford in a way that’s fun and dramatic.

1. The Four Agreements – Simple, but not easy. This big-time bestselling nonfiction quick read give you the basics everyone can and should follow to live a better, happier life. There are four agreements you must make with yourself. They sound simple enough, but life makes it really hard to make them easy. This book details the how and why. Once you read it, it is truly life-changing.

BOOKS I’VE READ 2019

The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Peronsal Freedom – Miguel Ruiz

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories – B.J. Novak

The Storyteller’s Secret – Sejal Badani

Goodbye, Vitamin – Rachel Khong

The Girls in the Picture – Melanie Benjamin

Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life – Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Light We Lost – Jill Santopolo

Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” – Lena Dunham

Stinky Tofu: A Comedic Novel – Ross Henry Nodell

Mistress of the Ritz – Melanie Benjamin

Then She Was Gone – Lisa Jewell

Unqualified – Anna Faris

Before We Were Yours – Lisa Wingate

The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life – Mark Manson

How To Read Literature Like A Professor – Thomas C. Foster

Dead If You Don’t – Peter James

Dietland – Sarai Walker

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Review: Unqualified

Recap: Actress Anna Faris is unqualified to write this book about relationships and relationship advice. There’s no denying that. She’ll tell you that right off the top. Hell, it’s in the title. But she doesn’t care what you think. So she’s doing it anyway. Why? Well, in all honestly it’s at least in some part because her very successful podcast of the same name has garnered such a massive following that she knows she now has the ability to write a book that will sell. But on a less meta and more compassion wavelength, Faris is the kind of woman who battles insecurity like the rest of us and yet overcomes it – at least on the surface level – with a strong sense of “I-don’t-give-a-s***.” It’s taken her until her 30s and 40s – and admittedly so – to care less about what other people think and more about what’s best for her and her family.

That’s what Unqualified is really all about – a mix of stories and anecdotes from her life and the lessons they have taught her. She details the ways her relationships have changed her as a person and the ways fame has tried to do the same. Seventy-percent memoir and 30-percent self-help, Unqualified is a very honest glance into the world of a famous – but not super, uber iconic status famous – person who truly strives to be a better person everyday for her family, her fans and herself.

Analysis: Is Unqualified the best written memoir I’ve ever read? Absolutely not. Faris is not a writer. She is an actress and podcaster. She writes like she talks. As a broadcast journalist, I do the same, but in the beginning of her book I had a hard time taking her seriously because of the lackadaisical manner in which she writes. Here’s the thing: stick it out. It’s worth it.

If you’ve ever listened to Faris’s podcast, some of the anecdotes and things about her will be a little redundant. (We know this, Anna. We’ve heard it before.) But when it comes to her relationships with her exes and even friendships, she gets more honest and real than I ever expect out of a memoir, particularly a celebrity memoir. Was Chris Pratt okay with this? Was her first ex-husband? I’m sure she had clearance, but I was so flabbergasted with her realness, I couldn’t help but wonder.

That honesty is what works here. Faris does not pretend to be a perfect person. (Unqualified, remember?) But she writes what she knows, what she’s learned and hopes that for someone out there who may or may not even realize they need it, her book offers help. For me, it did; by showing me that we are always evolving and there is always room for acceptance and kindness.

Get Unqualified in paperback for $7.99.

Or on your Kindle for $4.99.

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Review: Not That Kind of Girl

Recap: Lena Dunham is a woman who has something to say. Like her or not, she uses her platform to proudly proclaim her thoughts and opinions and is willing to use any medium available to do it. Her book of essays is no exception. After years of fictionalizing semi-autobiographical vignettes of women in their twenties on her TV show Girls, she put her pen to the page in this more honestly revealing look at her life to date. She acknowledges that she is young and has so much more to go, and reading her book five years after publication proves as much. In some ways, it’s dated already. Since publication, Dunham and her long-term boyfriend, who is openly written about in several essays, broke up. She also had several major medical emergencies and surgeries and became clean and sober. Her life proves that much of what you think you know in your twenties gets flipped on its head by the time you turn 30.

But as “dated” as the book is in terms of the plot twists of her personal life is how timeless the book is at the same time. She writes openly about losing her virginity, sexual assault, falling in love, falling out of love, breakup with guys, breakups with friends, the power of female friendship, the seemingly always difficult relationship women have with food and their bodies and her experiences with drugs, alcohol, family and the professional working world. Hers is a book and a story and a life that’s relatable for any woman. They’re experiences that, good or bad, that little girls and young women will continue to have for years to come, no matter what generation they fall into.

That may be what makes her book so powerful. This is not some celebrity memoir, dripping with scandal and salacious details of behind-the-scenes hookups and drug problems. Nor is it an opportunity to use her name to announce a political or social do-gooder platform. It’s also not a self-help book, pronouncing herself the knower of all things. It’s simply her story, her life as a person, a woman and nothing else.

Analysis: It’s her honesty that makes the book work, but also her writing. Her simultaneously self-deprecating and ostentatiously prideful humor seeps into every chapter in a way that made me laugh and sometimes shout “Yes! Exactly!” But in darker moments and depictions of assault and disordered eating, my heart hurt. She writes in a matter-of-fact way, not meant to incur sympathy. I respect that.

The book was divided by large sections: Love & Sex, Body, Friendship, Work and Big Picture. Each essay is placed in whatever chapter it fits best thematically. There’s no timeline. Everything’s out of order. Some stories are from college, some as young as when she was two years old. I found myself wondering if she wrote the book all at once or if she pulled from journal entries and essays she wrote in real-time throughout her life. They were just so detailed, it was impressive to me that she would still recall certain nuggets of information and deep emotions from 10, 15, even 20 years earlier.

Some essays were so brief, I was left to wonder what their significance was. But all together, it was a well-structured mess of stories paralleling the well-structured mess she tends to portray on TV, in movies, on red carpets and Instagram: the honest, well-structured mess so many of us are and try to hide, but Lena Dunham does not.

Get Not That Kind of Girl in paperback now for $9.89.

Or on your Kindle for $6.99.

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Review: Wherever You Go There You Are

Recap: Being present. Being mindful. Less time aimlessly scrolling on your phone. These are all things you hear more people talking about these days. Aspirations as many realize how harmful, depressing and unproductive we can be around our phones. But saying that we’re going to do all this is different from actually doing it. The art of mindfulness is less an art and more a conscientious practice — a workout for your brain that develops over time through a lot of hard work. Typically mindfulness starts with meditation. 


I started meditating a few years ago during a tough time in my life and loved the little bits of time it gave me each day to simply relax. But after a while, my meditation practice plateaued, so I went on a five-day silent meditation retreat to really get my engines revving. And boy, did it work. I left refreshed and inspired, with a new outlook and shift in perspective on life. I had bought Wherever You Go, There You Are a while ago but never read it, so I finallyread it after my retreat in the hopes it would keep my meditation glow going. It did. Wherever You Go is the perfect book to not only explain what meditation is and why and how it can be so good for you –so cleansing, so nourishing — but it also explains explicitly how to do it. So many fear meditation because it can seem too “hippie-dippie” or “woo-woo.” Or they worry they won’t be able to do it, that it’ll hurt to sit still for so long, that they won’t be good at it and that their minds will race.

Newsflash: that’s kind of the point: to see how much your mind races and learn what that really means about you and your feelings and emotions. It can be powerful, and this book helps you to understand its value so you can put it in motion.

Analysis: Author Jon Kabat-Zinn is one of the best and brightest in the world of meditation. He’s science-based, so some of his writing can be a little heady. But his metaphors really work, like the mountain meditation. He explains that we should imagine ourselves as mountains, sitting tall with dignity, but still as various weather patterns and chaos happen around us. Some of the quotes and passages he pulled from other great meditators and literature also helped me better understand the power of meditation. Lines like “It turns out we have plenty of time, if we are willing to hold any moments at all in awareness” were a complete and utter revelation to me. Exactly! Yes! This is meditation’s value. But Kabat-Zinn’s ability to word it in such an understandable, simplistic way was incredibly helpful.

And then there was his honesty. He writes about how much he hates washing dishes or how he runs at rapid fire speed up the stairs only to catch himself and wonder “what’s the rush?” These were just what I needed halfway through the book when I thought “this guy is pretty enlightened and I will never be as ‘good’ a meditator as him” — though rightfully so, there’s no such thing as a “good” meditator anyway. But they showed that he has moments during which he lacks mindfulness too. We all do. We are not all walking Buddhas. And so it’s okay if you’re not mindful. Just catch yourself. Without judgement. And keep going in the moment. Wherever you go, there you are.

Get Wherever You Go There You Are in paperback for $8.40.

Or on your Kindle for $9.99.

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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.

Or on your Kindle for $4.02.

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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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