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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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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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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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Show vs. Book: 1984

19841984 on Broadway: We are Big Brother

by Samantha Holle

It was a humid, sweltering day in September, and the clocks were striking three. It was time for the Sunday matinee of 1984.

In case you evaded reading it in high school, 1984 is the story of Winston Smith, an average Joe living in a not-so-average world: after tremendous world-wide territorial battles, Earth has been split into three superstates that are perpetually at one another’s throats. Winston lives in Oceania (what used to be London) and works at a government agency called the Ministry of Truth. His job is to literally rewrite history: when a person has been “unpersoned” — erased from society for going against the government — it is Winston’s job to go back into the files of history and remove any mention of this person’s name. The goal is to keep up the idea that Big Brother, the entity which governs and controls everything in Oceania, is never wrong, is never defied, and always comes up victorious.

But when we meet Winston, he is growing tired of this life. He has seen proof in his work that people who were labeled “government enemies” were not where they were said to be nor were they doing the illegal acts for which they were vaporized. Winston hates Big Brother and the society that lives for war, destruction, and the beating down of the human spirit.

Then he meets Julia, a coworker who, on the outside, doesn’t seem to be Winston’s type: She is a diligent worker at the MiniTruth (as the Ministry of Truth is called in the new vernacular, Newspeak). She screams the loudest and with the most vigor during the Two Minutes Hate, a daily event in which everyone watches a televised murder of an enemy of the state by government officials. It comes as a complete surprise to Winston when Julia quietly reveals that she, too, hates Big Brother and wants to defy the government by feeling love and experiencing freedom.

But there are no secrets in Oceania. Television screens can watch you as you watch them. Neighbors listen at keyholes for any sounds of dissent. People throw one another to the wolves to save themselves. And Winston and Julia soon find themselves biting off far more than they can chew when they get involved in the underground resistance movement called The Brotherhood. Their relationship — and their secret opinions of Big Brother — become more than an act of rebellion. Soon they have to decide which is preferable: a difficult life of defiance and secrecy, or an easy life of love for only Big Brother.

The novel has recently gained popularity, and it’s not hard to see why: Phrases like “fake news” and “alternative facts” pervade our conversations. People communicate via screen more frequently than they communicate in person, and the concept of handheld devices monitoring one’s actions and locations is now a definitive reality. There is little room for intelligent conversation between people of differing opinions, as the ability to argue without screaming has almost entirely disappeared. In these times, it seems every day has a little bit of a Two-Minutes Hate.

It is a dark thought: are we living in the world Orwell imagined almost 70 years ago?

That is the question that Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan pose to their audiences through their stage adaptation of the novel. The two brought Orwell’s 1948 publication to life  in 2013 in the UK; the play was brought to the Big Apple for previews this past May. Just a little over a month later, it began to make serious headlines because people began to fall ill as they watched, especially during the extreme torture scenes at the end.

As an English teacher who has read the novel twice, I went into the play fully aware of this. How bad could it be if I already know that what I’m going to see is disturbing?

The answer to that question: no number of articles about the play or my understanding of the book could’ve prepared me for it. I left the theater uneasy, nauseous, and dizzy. It wasn’t the strobe lights and sound effects, or the fake blood, or the electrocution scene, or the revelation about what really happens when a dissenter is brought into room 101. It was the way some things hit close to home: the bastardization of the English language in order to reduce meaning (and thus kill meaningful conversation), the discomfort between people of varying opinions, the confusion of trying to balance what one feels is right and what everyone else is doing. Yes, 1984 takes place in a dystopian future, but there are present day elements. The lines between the fictional content and our reality blur.

Content and nausea aside, what made this play stand out from any I’d seen previously was the incorporation of media. The production utilizes overhead projectors and hand-held video cameras to capture action that the audience cannot see from their seats: Winston’s diary entries are projected onto a screen above his head as he writes; Julia and Winston’s secret trysts are recorded off stage in a secret room and played on this same screen. This allows the audience to feel like Big Brother in that we have access to people’s privacy, but it also creates sympathy for those being watched.

Ultimately, the novel comes to life in disturbing vividness on Broadway. There is no better indicator of this play’s construction of confusion than the opening scene: Winston is writing in his diary, questioning if the year is actually 1984 or if that’s just what he’s been told. He is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a group who are discussing “the book” and that the act of writing it is, in and of itself, a small act of rebellion. The group explains that without the book, we’d have no way of knowing how bad the past really was and how to avoid these mistakes in the future. It is, at first, unclear about whether or not they are talking about Winston’s diary. Later, the audience comes to understand that this group was the resistance, and they were discussing the book of Emmanuel Goldstein, public enemy number one of Big Brother and leader of the Brotherhood.

However, is it such a stretch to imagine that they might have been talking about Orwell’s book?

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Limited Series vs. Book: Big Little Lies, “Serious Mothering”

 

The tension between mommies and daddies builds in this second episode of the limited serious version of Big Little Lies, as we get deeper insight into Madeline’s marriage and Celeste’s. We see fewer flashes of police activity alluding to the horrible incident that eventually happens and instead more flashes of graphic and violent sex, as well as the now-recurring images of Jane running down the beach in a blue dress.

Another incident in school happens in this second episode, with the girls daring Jane’s son, Ziggy, and Regina’s daughter, Amabella, to kiss. Though it’s hard to say since we never actually see it. Instead, we only witness the buildup to and aftermath of the “kiss,” much in the same way the show refers to the murder that makes up the main plot of this story.

The kiss that the children are “pushed” to do in class is not part of the book, Big Little Lies. It seems the writers have added this incident as a device to further build tension between all the parents of the children involved. The writers divide the couples even further when, in the episode, Celeste and Madeline attend the same yoga class as Madeline’s ex-husband Nathan and his new wife, Bonnie. Then we learn that Bonnie has helped Madeline and Nathan’s teenage daughter to get birth control pills, pushing Madeline to hate Bonnie even more — and rightfully so! As a stepmom, she absolutely does not have the right to help the teen get birth control when her birth mother is still an active part of her life. This is yet another plot point added to the series that is not part of the book. Yet another thing the series adds in this episode is Madeline’s ex-husband and current husband meeting up for a little “chat,” which quickly turns into a heated exchange.

All of this is an attempt to show the motivations each adult has for one another and adds to the suspense of who’s been murdered and who’s the murderer. All that’s well and good, but it also strays from the book and, in my opinion, just further drags out the story that’s already full of suspense and intrigue. These added scenes and scenarios also make Madeline far less likeable from the way she comes across in the book. Yes, she’s a little nutty in the book, but we still like her.

The show does a good job, however, of foreshadowing some of the big moments to come, including the introduction of Harry Hippo — yes, he actually matters in this story! — and finally we see how abusive Celeste and her husband’s relationship really is. However, her openness about it with Madeline at the bar is a complete 180 from the book.

So far, the show continues to keep in line with basic plot points, and while I see why it’s adding what it’s adding, I don’t know how necessary it really is.

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Lara’s Top Picks of 2016

booksIt’s the end of the year, so you know what that means. It’s time for my top book picks of 2016! As always, this is NOT — I repeat, NOT — a list of my favorite books that came out this year. This is a list of my favorite books I read this year, regardless of what year they came out. (And as always, for those of you who want to read a list of the best books that came out this year, I recommend the New York Times’ Notable Books of 2016 list.) That said, there are probably more “new” books on this list than in years past and several books by some of my favorite authors. It’s also worth noting that I struggled picking between my #1 and #2 choices, as they’re both equally fantastic. It’s also the first year my list has included a play! (Any guesses which mega bestseller that might be?) As always, below my top picks list is a list of ALL the books I read this year — a year I happened to slack. Don’t judge me! Read on for some great book suggestions to follow you into 2017, which will hopefully be another great year of books!

10. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. Oprah Winfrey picked this read as an Oprah’s Book Club book back in 2005 as a nonfiction memoir about addiction and getting clean, and instead it became controversial after it was determined that the author embellished much of what he had written, but it’s still a gripping read. I believed the narrator’s struggle and enjoyed it with the mindset that it was fiction or “enhanced” nonfiction. Buy it now.

9. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by Kim BarkerIn this actual memoir, Kim Barker delves into the world of journalism in the Middle East. The book feels more like a compilation of vignettes of her experiences that include everything from getting interviews with Middle Eastern warlords to partying hard with other foreign correspondents in a very real depiction. Buy it now.

8. Meet the Regulars by Joshua D. FischerAlso a compilation book, this one profiles random New Yorkers and the bars/coffee shops/restaurants/hangouts they frequent. It works for NYC-lovers who may just be looking for foodie recommendations, but it also works as a subtle study on people, why they like what they like and why they do what they do. Buy it now.

7. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Tiffany and Jack ThorneIt was not the greatest of the Harry Potter stories; in fact, I found it fairly repetitive and cyclicle from the original novels, but it holds its own and is just plain nice to once again connect with the characters we know and love — and their offspring. Buy it now.

6. The Tumbling Turner Sisters by Juliette Fay. A little bit Water for Elephants and a little bit Little Women, this new historical fiction novel (one of my favorite genres) explores a family of strong women performing as a traveling tumbling act as a means to an end during the early 1900s. It debuted at exactly the right time – a year in which strong females became a focal point. Buy it now.

5. The Tenth Circle by Jodi PicoultThough the ending wasn’t my favorite, I read this story about a rape victim and the death of her alleged rapist on vacation and couldn’t put it down. Its parallels with Dante’s Inferno add another layer of interest making this a page turner in true Jodi Picoult fashion. Buy it now.

4. The Hopefuls by Jennifer CloseIn an election year, this book about how demanding, exhausting, scandalous and ridiculous a political campaign can be was a perfect fit. The novel follows two young couples as one husband runs for political office, and the other husband — who can’t quite hack it as a politician — runs his “friend’s” campaign instead. Buy it now.

3.  Me Before You by Jojo MoyesA young woman is hired to care for a paraplegic who wants nothing more than to end his life. While controversial, the book is also insanely romantic and delves into paralysis in a way other mainstream books haven’t seemed to conquer. In the end, it’s a book about finding yourself and deciding what you want from life. Buy it now.

2. Year of Yes by Shonda RhimesThis memoir/self-help book is everything you could want from both a memoir AND a self-help book. Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder creator/producer/writer Shonda Rhimes writes about her behind-the-scenes experiences working on these shows and the benefits she reaps as a show creator, but also details her hesitance and how forcing herself to say “yes” to everything changed her life. Truly inspiring. Buy it now.

1. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. Two sisters separate in France during WWII, where the Holocaust is gaining momentum. One sister cares for her family, while the other works to save as many people as she can. But the story’s back-and-forth persepective between the sisters as well as the time jump between WWII and modern-day U.S. — where only one sister has survived — makes the saga breathtaking, tear-inducing, and monumentally profound. Buy it now.

A Million Little Pieces – James Frey

Revenge Wears Prada – Lauren Weisberger

The Nightingale – Kristin Hannah

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – Kim Barker

Allegiant – Veronica Roth

Baggage – S.G. Redling

Year of Yes – Shonda Rhimes

Ragtime – E.L. Doctorow

The Tumbling Turner Sisters – Juliette Fay

Me Before You – Jojo Moyes

Sunsets of Tulum -Raymond Avery Bartlett

The Tenth Circle – Jodi Picoult

Meet the Regulars – Joshua D. Fischer

The Hopefuls – Jennifer Close

The End of the Age of Innocence – Alan Price

All the Summer Girls – Meg Donohue

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

Losing It – Emma Rathbone

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