HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #28: The Dinner by Herman Koch

Read The Dinner. I cannot think of a way to discuss this book without giving anything away. I have already begun pleading with my reader friends to get a copy so we can discuss because I so desperately want to talk to someone about it. I read the whole thing in one sitting and it was gripping.

Basically, the book takes place over the course of one dinner, with some flashbacks included.  Two couples meet, needing to discuss something about your children.  The way the book unfolds, you learn key pieces of information slowly. It’s told from the perspective of one narrator, so you only learn the key information as it becomes necessary to his thought process.

It’s a true psychological thriller (a la Gone Girl). There are no random surprises, or surprise events thrown in just for the purpose of excitement.  Every twist and turn that you experience over the course of the dinner is surprising,  yet makes sense with the characters, and feels completely earned.

HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #27: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store by Robin Sloan

I read this book after seeing pyrajane’s review which described this book as a book about books for people who love books. And that’s exactly what this book was, and it was delightful.

Mr. Penumbra runs a mysterious bookshelf, and our protagonist Clay takes a job working the night shift at the store.  Mr. Penumbra’s requests seem a little unusual, and Clay starts to pay careful attention to the books in the store, the customers who borrow them without paying, and the peculiar tasks he’s required to do.

Ultimately, this is a mystery. It’s a worldwide network of people racing to crack a code, and to do it under their terms. You feel the tension between the old school and new school attitudes towards technology as the characters race to the finish. And Clay reminded me a tiny bit of Harry Potter.

HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #26: The Beauty Experiment by Phoebe Baker Hyde

I read this book as part of a book club I joined recently, and I believe the author is coming to our next meeting, and I’m interested to meet her in real life. The premise of this book is simple: Hyde, an expatriate living in Hong Kong with a young toddler, gives up on all makeup, beauty and fashion for a year. She cuts her hair off, tosses her lipgloss and mascara, and starts dressing in what she describes as a “mom” uniform.

Let’s start with the good in this book.  This book was actually about how Hyde was living in a foreign country, adjusting to her role as a new mother, adjusting to her life without a traditional job, and adjusting to her life with a husband who was deeply devoted to his job, and traveling extensively.  She was going through a really, really tough time in her life – and she definitely felt lost. It seemed like she felt that she had lost her identity, and she was lonely, and this experiment was a way for her to rediscover who she was (without all the trappings of beauty and makeup).

But, I didn’t enjoy this book, for a few reasons.  First, at least based on the way Phoebe described herself in the book, she wasn’t really that into beauty to begin with. She barely wore makeup, wasn’t into fashion, and basically just had long hair. So I had trouble understanding why she felt that her beauty routine was the source of her problems. This seemed like it might be a more meaningful, powerful experiment for someone who was obsessed with beauty/fashion since a young age.

And second, she didn’t really have a cohesive journey. At the end of her experiment, she was in the same place. She didn’t really seem to feel better about herself – she was still lonely, and plagued with doubt. Her thought process during the whole experiment was all over the place. She didn’t seem to know what beauty routines meant to her (or anyone else), and her problems (and her solutions to her problems) seemed unrelated to the premise of giving up her routines.

It was like she had this premise, wrote a different book, and then merged them together.

I’m at an opposite stage of my life. I’m 25, and I started teaching myself to apply makeup a month ago (thanks, YouTube andhttp://www.reddit.com/r/makeupaddiction).  I started to try to make myself more presentable with minimal makeup, taking care of my hair, tailoring my clothes so they fit properly, etc because I think it’s important to look presentable.  It’s like having neatly trimmed hair/beards and well fitting clothes for men – it’s a sign that you are competent, organized and powerful.

HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #25: Lean In by Sherly Sandberg

A million blog posts and articles have been written about this book, that discuss the underlying issues of gender and women in the workplace, that address those issues that I ever could.  As young female at the beginning of her career, this is one of the better career advice books I’ve read. To begin, this book is not: (1) written to represent All Women (2) a memoir (3) an inside look at Facebook.

So, with that out of the way, what I liked about this book is that Sandberg did two things.  First, she acknowledged the subtle gender biases against women in the workplace, and discussed how they need to change. But then, she did something more important. She acknowledged that these are not things that change over night, or within 5 years – they’ll change over the course of 50 years. It’s difficult to implement an overnight change that alters the way both men and women are socialized to expect women to behave. So, secondly, she gives concrete examples of subtle bias women might face in the workplace, and how you can use that information to your advantage to get ahead.

Advocating for change in the workplace once you have the power is important.

HelloKatieO’s Book Review #24: Serena by Ron Rash

The film based on Serena is going to be Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper’s follow up to their Oscar nominated/winning The Silver Linings Playbook, and I wanted to check it out mostly for those reasons. I follow a lot of Hollywood trade news via blogs, and when they were casting for Serena, there was a lot of buzz about how this movie provides a meaty, unique part for actresses that they rarely seen. The idea of a strong, female character was enough for me to check it out of the local library.

And the book certainly lives up to the strong, female character buzz.  Serena is beyond your typical strong female, she’s terrifying. She’s ruthless, she’s single minded in her ambition and she will stop at nothing. She feels conniving, and manipulative, and immoral, but you can’t help but read in awe as she maneuvers her way through the male dominated logging company towards her goals. And you can’t help but feel unsettled at the disturbing means she uses to get there.

This should not be a boring book. There’s political strategy, action in the form of hunting, logging and a fairly suspenseful chase at the end. There are trained eagles, snakebites, and a number of fairly creative, grisly murders that made my stomach turn. And yet, I was kind of bored.

HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #23: The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

I like to read high concept books, simply based off of their premise.  In The Brief History of the Dead, we see two parallel stories.  First, are the people living in the space between their life on Earth and whatever comes next.  They believe they only exist in the inbetween for as long as someone on earth remembers them. And second, we see a young woman, living in Antarctica, as the rest of the world dies from a plague.

The premise alone makes the book worth reading. It’s unique, and Brockmeier does a great job exploring the intricacies and logistics of how this type of passing on would actually work. And the descriptions of how people slide from their earthly life into the next are amazing, beautiful, incredibly creative.

What really struck a chord with me is the idea of trying to figure out how many people you know, or are acquainted with.  We can catalog our lives much easier with social networking, but beyond your 500 or 1,000 Facebook friends are probably 10,000 other people you’ve met at some point in your life.  

HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #22: Still Life with Elephant by Judy Reene Singer

[Spoilers abound in this post, beware]

Half of this book I hated, because it felt contrived, and didn’t add anything original to the women’s fiction genre that I truly adore.  Neelie’s husband has an affair with the chipper female co-owner of his veterinarian practice and gets her pregnant. He doesn’t even have the guts to tell Neelie himself; his mistress tells her. And then Neelie discovers that he (a) dated his mistress in vet school, which makes her feel like her marriage is null and void and (b) he had drained their accounts, mortgaged their home and basically stolen all of her money.

So, in the grand tradition of a thousand chick lit novels, Neelie must decide what to do with her marriage.  I hated this part, because Neelie was frustrating and oblivious and needed to be saved.  Ultimately, she meets a rich, handsome man who loves animals as much as she does and he saves her from the wreckage of her failed marriage and a sad tragedy in her past. Of course. I just hated that she didn’t really end up fixing her own life. Her friends, family and new lover fixed it for her.

But the other half of this book, I loved. [hint: it involves elephants!]

HelloKatieO’S #CBR5 Review #21: The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

Another selection from the Girls’ writer’s room reading list. As much as The Groupmade me think a lot about how little the way women interact with each other, and the world, has changed, I straight up enjoyed The Best of Everything much more.  Valley of the Dolls is one of my all time favorite books, definitely top 5, and I’ve easily read it 20 times.

This book had the same premise as Valley of the Dolls: a few young women all living in New York with the promise of something more – a show business career, finding love, becoming a career woman. And it takes place in around the same era. But The Best of Everything is the story of what happens to those girls if they never make it out of New York.

The stories of each character ended in a way that feels depressingly realistic. Some of the girls got their happy endings: the wedding, the baby, the man they wanted divorcing his wife. But some of the characters don’t – they’re abandoned by their lovers, screwed over by their jobs, or settling for a marriage that will surely be unsatisfactory. And most of that is by chance, or by circumstance.

HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #19: Let the Right One In by John Lindqvist

This book is dark. I haven’t seen either of the movies, but the central character at this book is a vampire, and the story spirals out to encompass those whose lives the vampire touches. Eli’s…companion, for lack of a better word, who secures food for Eli when Eli cannot. Eli’s lonely, bullied neighbor who is desperate for a connection, for a friend, and latched on to Eli. The friends of Eli’s dead victim. The friends of one of Eli’s victims who survives, transforming into a vampire herself.

What made this book special is that despite the vampires, the mystery at the core, and the violence, it tackled surprisingly human themes. The young, lonely bullied boy. The ramifications of divorce. Young love. The acceptance (or lack thereof) of homosexuals. The dangers of pedophilia.

I don’t have that much to say about the book. It was suspenseful, tense, keeping me on the edge of my seat. It ultimately left me feeling sad, for almost all of the characters in the story. It was a much more interesting take on the vampire genre that I normally read, and as such, it was refreshing.

Book Review 20: MWF Seeking BFF: My Year Long Search for a New Best Friend by Rachel Bertsche

So this book was kind of an awesome read. There is so much advice out there about all the crap you deal with in your twenties – starting a career, finding a life partner, getting married, having kids, etc. There is almost no advice about what, at least for me, is arguably the hardest – making friends. In high school and college, you’re forced to spend time with (or live with) people, and all that forced togetherness usually breeds friendships. As an adult, outside of work, there’s no forced togetherness. I’m on my own, and at a bar or happy hour, I’m much more likely to be approached by a guy than a girl looking for a friend.

The hardest part about graduating college for me was the crushing loneliness I felt when my friends scattered across the country.  Bertsche felt the same thing when she moved to Chicago with her husband. She had close girlfriends from high school and college, but they didn’t live in her city. She needed friends she could physically hang out with on the weekends, not friends who were a gHangout or phone call away.

This book doesn’t provide you with a novel blueprint for making friends. Bertsche basically repeats the same advice that I’ve heard over and over. That advice is fairly simple:

  • Ask your friends who don’t live in your city to set you up on friend dates with their friends who do.
  • Say yes to everything when people invite you, even if you don’t want to go. You never know who you’ll meet.
  • When you meet someone you think is fun, or friendly, ask for their number and offer to hang out sometime. They will NOT be weirded out, they will most likely be happy that they’ve made a new friend.
  • Follow up with people if you want to keep hanging out with them. Many people will not follow up with you, even if they want to hang out. Following up 1-2 times is to be expected, you won’t come off as creepy.
  • Join an activity, or club, or sport, or something that you like, and go alone. It forces you to talk to new people.

But this book does something that is novel. What Bertsche does is  write about all the awkwardness and weirdness that comes from executing that advice. She writes about how terrified she was to strike up a conversation with someone at a party where she knew no one. She writes about how she goes on dud friend dates, where they have nothing in common and thus have long periods of awkward silence. She writes about how you feel like a failure, and kind of lame, when you ask people to set you up on friend dates – because it’s like an admission no one wants to be your friend. She writes about the insecurity that many women feel – “why would she want to be my friend, she probably already has friends.”

Basically, it’s like she’s done the hard part.