Booked: Spring 2016 Book Reviews

“A Window Opens” by Elisabeth Egan

Elisabeth Egan’s debut novel hit all the right notes for me – a working mom gets a full-time job in the publishing industry after her husband finds out he won’t be making partner at his law firm & decides to start his own practice. It’s a book that has books, work-life balance struggles, and it’s set in New Jersey. What more could this book-obsessed, soon-to-be lawyer and New Jersey native look for?

Egan has drawn heavily from her own life. She used to write for Self, then worked for Amazon for under a year, and is currently the books editor for Glamour. The protagonist, Alice, works part-time for a magazine called You, and then gets a job full-time with Main Street, an Amazon/Google stand-in that is opening brick-and-mortar bookstores. The parallels are apparent, but Egan’s insights into the publishing industry and the culture at tech monoliths lend the novel a critical element of truth.

My complaints are minor. First, Alice’s husband’s drinking problem seemed more like a convenient plot device than a realistic portrayal of alcohol abuse. He has one bad slip-up in which no one is actually harmed, and then stops cold turkey. He’s also a bit of an unsympathetic jerk toward his newly bread-winning wife at various points, and I cringed when Alice didn’t stand up for herself. Even so, navigating these new familial roles still felt familiar, even if the mechanics felt a bit forced. Second, while I generally liked the audio book, the narrator occasionally slipped into some pretty obnoxious New Jersey accents. I can deal with the irritating stereotype, but it was bothersome that the accents were not applied to the same characters consistently.

Beyond the setting, Alice’s family struggles are real. Her dad’s throat cancer has returned just when she’s starting her new job and her husband seems to be drinking a bit too much. Above all, Alice’s relationships with and devotion to her children shine. She misses being there for her kids, and the flexibility allowed by her part-time job, especially in helping with her father’s medical appointments.  Does Alice handle these struggles from a place of privilege? Absolutely. Even with her husband’s greatly-reduced post-law-firm earnings, Alice keeps her nanny. Alice supposedly lands her full-time dream job thanks to her Twitter feed. These are not exactly problems of the middle class or even the majority of the country. Yet, her quest to find a fulfilling job that still affords her the time with her family will resonate with countless women, even if her ultimate solutions will not be plausible for many.

Verdict: Affirmed. Despite my two minor quibbles, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Highly recommended for book clubs and women looking for an insightful escape from the law school grind.

“Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things” by Jenny Lawson

Jenny Lawson, better known as The Bloggess in certain internet circles, is a hero to many. On her blog, and now in her two published books, she writes unflinchingly and hilariously about her struggles with mental illness and her determination to enjoy life anyway. If you’ve never heard of her, her second memoir, “Furiously Happy,” is a great place to start. She does her own audio narration, and her delivery is spot on.

Lawson has depression, anxiety, and a handful of other diagnoses that she lists at one point, but I can’t remember as I’m writing this. She states upfront that “My mental illness is not your mental illness;” the same diagnosis affects everyone differently. She shares her experiences, her struggle, and her joy, so that others know they’re not alone. She has vowed to live life to the fullest, determined to enjoy her happiest moments so that when mental illness rears its head, she has her best memories to “take into battle.”

And her happy moments are glorious. Lawson has a wonderfully sarcastic, offbeat sense of humor that, while certainly not politically correct, is absolutely hysterical. She can look her mental illness in the eye and laugh in its face; that’s inspiring, whether or not you personally relate to her fight. Her anecdotes are heartwarming and cringe-inducing and heartbreaking by turn, and sometimes all at once. Yet underneath all of this is a hope and resiliency that are truly inspiring.

Verdict: Affirmed. Whether you are fighting mental illness yourself, supporting someone who is, or looking to better understand what it can be like, this is an important book. Besides, how often are capital-I important books also uproariously funny?
“Kitchens of the Great Midwest” by J. Ryan Stradal

I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up this 2015 novel knowing only that it received a considerable amount of buzz and had something to do with food. I was surprised with a little gold nugget of interconnected vignettes that charmed my socks off.

At the heart of the book is Eva Thorvald, the daughter of a wine enthusiast and a chef, who is born with an impeccable palate and a passion for eating and cooking incredible food. Each chapter offers a glimpse into Eva’s life through the eyes of someone upon whom she had a great impact – an older cousin who takes Eva on a tour of the spiciest foods in her college town, the housewife who enters her dessert into a contest Eva is judging, another chef who has to decide whether to go into business with Eva. With different narrators, each has its own feel. The constant switching kept the book moving at a swift pace, and I was engaged throughout as I looked for Eva to pop up and evaluate the changes in her life.

The book comes together in a satisfying final story that ties together the book’s many disparate elements without feeling forced. I saw how the groundwork had been laid for the ending, and felt that the payoff was well deserved. Much like the Pultizer-Prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge,” “Kitchens of the Great Midwest” shows how one person can impact the lives of many others, amid its own homage to the foods that comfort, challenge, and confound us throughout our lives.

Verdict: Affirmed. This is a comforting, charming read to take you far, far away from the stresses of law school.

“Signs Preceding the End of the World” by Yuri Herrera

I am so happy this tiny little novella got enough buzz that I heard about it, and wish that it gets so much more attention. It deserves all of it, and much more.

Makina is a young girl in a small village. Her brother has travelled to another country and lost contact with her family, so Makina’s mother sends her to make the crossing and find him. As she travels, making connections with potentially-nefarious underworld types, she gets farther and farther from the world she knows and delves deeper into a strange new land.

Though never named, it is fairly clear that Makina is traveling from Mexico to the United States. We see this journey through the eyes of a clever, determined, incredibly strong young woman who is as in control of herself as possible in her situation, but nevertheless becomes fundamentally changed by her experience. This book tackles immigration, race, language, and family in a mere 104 pages. It begs for a re-read to unpack all of the themes and allusions crammed into its pages, yet it is compulsively readable on first read. A bonus for word nerds (and we’re in law school, so there’s probably a solid contingent of us), the translator’s note at the end explains decisions made about how best to capture Herrera’s unique take on language in English & answered questions I had while reading.

Verdict: Affirmed. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I wish I could study it in a class where we could fully dissect the allusions and compare it to other texts. I’ll just have to make do with another re-read for now.

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