Book Review:: Be Frank with Me, Julia Claiborne Johnson

Be Frank With MeBe Frank With Me is an entertaining contemporary story about a young professional who is assigned to work as the assistant of a bestselling author-turned-recluse (a la JD Salinger). It turns out that the author, Mimi, is quickly running out of money after her accountant steals it all in a scam, and has to finally write her follow-up novel in order to stay financially afloat. In order to support her creative efforts, her publisher sends Alice to handle anything she may need during her writing process. The thing she needs help with is watching her son Frank while she holes up in her office to write.

Frank is a special child. It is never spelled out in the novel, but he is either oddly gifted and talented or a highly functioning autistic child. Maybe he’s both. I guess the point is that it doesn’t matter what label you could slap on him, he is unique, and it is in these unique mannerisms and interests that his beauty lies. He has a devotion to old films and a fantastic memory for odd facts. He knows how everyone in his family ever died and he rarely sleeps through an entire night. He has trouble forming relationships with new people and gets made fun of at school at school for wearing top hats, coats with tails, and a monacle. The story is really a love letter about Frank. He is exhausting to be around, but at the end of the day he touches the hearts of everyone who takes the time to get to know him.

Outside of Alice’s developing relationship with Frank, the book seemed a little bit befuddled to me. Things happened, but a lot of the things didn’t really matter much. It just felt like there were a lot of needless frills added just to flesh out the story and make it seem more complex without actually being more complex. I never completely understood Xander’s place in the story, I felt like he could have used some more meaningful development. A few of the deep themes in this book, such as mental illness, death, and suicide, felt merely touched upon, while the themes surrounding Frank directly definitely took center stage.

Overall I think my general feeling with a lot of the plot was that there was an awful lot of telling, when I was really craving a closer look inside the connections between these characters — I wanted more showing! But then again it is told through Alice’s eyes, and she is the outsider of the ensemble, so I guess that is the nature of the beast in this case.

While I enjoyed this quick book, it wasn’t quite as good as many of the books I’ve read in the same contemporary category. I would recommend books like The Rosie Project, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, and A Man Called Ove before this one. However, if you are looking for more literature with socially challenged protagonists, this may be right up your alley!

Three stars.

-E.

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Book Review:: The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden

The Bear and the NightengaleVasilisa is a young Russian girl living on the edge of the medieval Russian frontier, a long and dangerous journey away from Moscow. She and her family often struggle to survive the harshest Siberian winters, relying on the favor of the old gods to see them through. Her mother knew she was a special girl, and was willing to die to give her a chance to live. And she was special, Vasilisa could see the old gods from myth and legend. They lived in the lakes of her country, dwelled in the forest, there was even a little gnome-like creature who habitated the kitchen of her family home, all of them living off of the sacrifices made by the people who lived there as part of their daily routines. But what happens as the villagers begin to convert to Christianity and slowly abandon their sacrifices to the old gods? Can Vasilisa keep them happy enough for daily life to remain the same? How can she save her people who are turning to the Russian Orthodox Church and keep them safe?

The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book in a trilogy about Vasilisa, the girl who can see what everyone else cannot. I like that this book wraps itself up very nicely at the end, not leaving any major strings dangling so you have to rush out and get the next book right away (I’m looking at you Hunger Games). Those can be exciting, but sometimes you just want a satisfying ending so you can move on to something new for awhile. However, the second book (The Girl in the Tower) is available now, and the last (The Winter of the Witch) is coming out this August, so now would be an excellent time to begin this series!

The opening chapter of this book is essentially an old Russian fairy tale. It involves the personification of Frost/Winter and a young girl with a step mother who hates her (as all good fairy tales do, right?). As the book continued I started to wonder how exactly the first chapter was supposed to fit into the greater novel, because it is quite different than the narrative that picks up in chapter two. However, near the end of the book you begin to see that the first chapter was really a reflection of the book as a whole. It is a risky way to start a novel, because many readers won’t have the patience to read far enough to understand the significance (and I personally felt the beginning of the novel was very slow to peak my interest), but if they read far enough, it is a nice payoff.

Another thing that made it hard to sink into this book was how immersed it is with Russian culture. I ended up loving it in the end (so much so that I read another book about Russia right after this), but it is certainly an adjustment to get used to, like culture shock! But I think the biggest issue was that I listened to it as an audiobook and didn’t love the narrator. She did a great job with the Russian names and accent to be fair, but in general I just didn’t enjoy her voice. I had to speed it up to 1.5x speed in order to get it to sound alright to my ears.

Overall, I thought this book was quite enjoyable. I loved the integration of the supernatural elements, which I don’t read often enough. It was especially interesting because I have a feeling a lot, if not all of these creatures that Vasilisa sees are based on real Russian mythology. It would be an interesting subject to read more about, and I hope to do that someday.

Happy reading everyone,

-E

Reading Wrap-Up:: April 2018

Total Books Read:: 7
Books for Classics Club:: 1
Books for Hemingway Project:: 0

Genre Breakdown
Memoir:: 2
Historical Fiction:: 1
Fantasy:: 1 (YA)
Contemporary/Literary Fiction:: 2
Classics:: 1

Total Page Count:: 2,570
Author Gender Ratio:: 6 females – 1 male (woah, I guess it’s a good sign, because I didn’t do this consciously!)

April was a great month of reading in my neck of the woods. I started off strong by participating in the #25infive Readathon hosted on instagram (with a goal of reading 25 hours over the course of 5 days). I loved this readathon. It came at a perfect time for me, and I blasted through those 25 hours and finished four books (some of which I was partly through already). I find readathons very satisfying because they give you a very clear goal, and it also triggers my competitive self. I want to beat the goal early, I want to beat my expectations, I want to beat any previous record I may have, and I want to beat other people too! Bahaha. I also felt like it gave me some great momentum since I really enjoyed all of the books I read for it.

A note on my reviews for all of these books::
I have decided to keep my posting pace to one review a week, posted early on Saturday mornings. So while I read all of these books this month, you may not see my review on them for some time. I am currently behind on writing my reviews, but I have several of them already scheduled, so I’m still technically ahead. The life of the blogger – it’s a strange thing! I have a few non-book review posts coming as well, and like today, it will be posted at some point earlier in the week. So far, this schedule has been working well for me. I think I’ve only skipped one week this whole year so far, and I am counting that as a huge personal win! My reading isn’t always super consistent (I only read 2 books in March, for instance), so holding back on my reviews in times of plenty like these helps me stay more consistent for my readers.

Now on to what I read in April::
I started off the month finishing an audiobook of The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. It’s a young adult fantasy novel based in medieval Russia with many elements of mythology included. I ended up really enjoying it, but the narrator and I did not get along, which is preventing me from downloading Book 2. Only time will tell if I finish this series.
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At the same time I was re-reading my paperback copy of The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I absolutely adore this book, and I highly recommend it. It’s the story of waiting and longing and true love and accepting the things that are out of your control. The writing is beautiful and so is the story. It gives you a lot to think about as well. Warning:: It is a very emotional book. If you’re not sobbing at the end, you better check your pulse!
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Back on audio I decided to download Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. This book blew me away. I was hooked from the first paragraph and loved it all the way through. Eleanor is just an ordinary nearly thirty year old office working woman, okay? She keeps to herself because everyone she knows does things Eleanor would never be caught dead doing herself. Slowly as the novel unfolds it becomes clear that maybe there is more to her life than Eleanor is letting on about, and as she begins to accept these things about herself, they are revealed to the reader as well. It’s written well, there are some great characters, and while there are some very dark themes explored in Eleanor’s past, it is funny at times too, and overall uplifting. It reminded me very much of The Rosie Project and A Man Called Ove, in all the best ways. If I don’t count The Time Traveler’s Wife (which was a re-read), then this is HANDS DOWN the best book I read this month. (But don’t make me choose between them, because they’re both soooo goooood).
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Now we start getting into bumpy territory. The next three books I read were I Was Anastasia, by Ariel Lawhon, Great Expectations by Dickens, and Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover.
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Of the three, Great Expectations was the best, but I still didn’t enjoy it half as much as many of the classic novels I’ve read. I wanted to like it, really, I did! But there was a big slump in the middle that left me wondering if I was even going to finish, and then when it got exciting again, it kind of went off the deep end a little bit. I still don’t know what to think of it considered as a whole. This is one of the reviews I am struggling with, but I am determined to figure out why I feel this way about it!
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I Was Anastasia could have been a decent book, if I had enough self-control to not look up the results of the DNA testing they did on Anna Anderson’s remains to definitively discover if she was telling the truth. Because it has been done, and there is an absolute answer to whether or not she was Anastasia Romanov. If you want to read this book, do not look up those results first!! For that reason, I can’t understand why this was written the way it was. Basically at the beginning is a forward written in the view of Anna Anderson daring the reader to pay close attention to the book because it is the true story of what happened and that you’d have to decide for yourself if she was telling the truth or not. It’s a new book, it was released in 2017, and we already have those answers, 100% certain truth. So…I just don’t get it. There are author’s notes at the end trying to explain why she wrote it this way, but still, I just don’t agree with it. It was like she wanted the readers to be on the jury of her identity confirmation case or something. It would have been more interesting to me if she dug into some of the psychology behind Anna Anderson. However, I did really enjoy the historical fiction narrative of Grand Duchess Anastasia and her family and what they experienced before the end of the Romanov legacy. It was interesting to learn about that part of Russian history, because I had no familiarity with it beforehand.
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Educated: A Memoir was not the book for me. I have a review posted already if you’re interested, here. I was expecting the book to veer more into details about her schooling and what it was like coming from no education to going straight into college…but instead it was family-centric and terribly dark. If it was fiction, that would be one thing. But this community and these people really exist, today, in this country. It makes me sick to be honest. I watched an interview of Tara Westover after I finished the book just to see her and hear what she had to say to promote such a book. All I saw was a sadness in her. I just feel terrible for her. She may have a PhD, but she is scarred for life, and it’s unclear if she even sees how much it has affected her thinking.
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After that one, I needed a break. I needed to see the sun shining and positivity and comfort. So I read Talking As Fast As I Can by Lauren Graham. This was a total palette cleanser for me, and a much needed one. It was light and funny and entertaining. Nothing deep or life-changing, but some parts were quite interesting. I’ve always been a fan of Gilmore Girls, I started watching season one with my mom allll those years ago, and it feels very much a part of my personal history. The review is up, you can read it here.

So what is next for this Litertarian?
I am currently slogging my way through The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon, book five of the Outlander series. And I mean slogging. I’ve got 42 hours left on my audiobook, and I am not confident I will finish it during the month of May.  I’ve been told by a friend that the series gets better again after this one, and I hope so hard that it’s true…because Drums of Autumn changed the game for me (in a bad way), and this one isn’t looking great either. A strange thing keeps happening to me as I read The Fiery Cross. It makes me keep wanting to go back and reread Outlander again. It’s just so good, and the rest of the series so far has just been so hit and miss. I miss Outlander! I think I will go back and reread it again soon. For the third time in a rolling year! Who’s going to stop me?!
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Anyway, I have also been dipping in and out of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris and I’m enjoying it quite a bit. I’ve also been sent a novel for review from Impress Books called Truth Sister that I am looking forward to reading soon. Keep an eye out for my review of that coming June 16th.

Also on deck and loaded on Audible to read in the next few months are::
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (Narrated by Nick Offerman)
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrit Undset
Anne of Avonlea by LM Montgomery
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari (Reeeeally looking forward to this one)
Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

And I am always looking for recommendations!
What were your favorite books this month?
What do you think I should read next?
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Happy Reading Folks!
-E.

Book Review:: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely FindEleanor is an office professional nearing her thirtieth birthday. She doesn’t get along well with her coworkers, and she doesn’t really have any friends. She lives her life on a very strict schedule, including eating and drinking the very same thing every week (a menu that is nutritionally ideal, so why on earth would she change it?), and gets irritated when things in her life are thrown off course.

So, when her computer  malfunctions at work and she has to deal with a new member of the IT department, she is annoyed. Later in the week, she happens to be leaving work at the same time as the new IT guy (Raymond), and together, they witness a man having a medical crisis in the street. Although Eleanor prefers not to get involved in other people’s business, she can’t allow herself to be blatantly rude. As such, she gathers up the bags from this now-unconscious mystery man and agrees to drop them by the hospital for him. Little does she know that this single event will completely change life as she knows it.

The story is told directly through Eleanor, so we see her world exactly how she sees it. In many books, this is no big deal, but as the story progresses there are certain passages that make you wonder how reliable Eleanor’s experience really is.

With the accident outside of work serving as the catalyst, throughout the book Eleanor is confronted with situations she’s never been in before, largely because she’s avoided them like a plague. It isn’t easy for her to break her old habits, but with new friends like Raymond and others met along the way, she begins to push herself further than she had previously allowed herself to do.

This is such a beautiful book, and I devoured it over the course of two days. Eleanor is such an interesting character. It is often humorous to see the world through her judgmental eyes at the beginning of the novel, and to slowly see those hard edges soften. While there are a lot of dark things in Eleanor’s past, overall the story is  quite uplifting and hopeful. It is a story of friendship and acceptance, and in my opinion, a must read. I will certainly be on the lookout for more from this author.

-E.

Talking As Fast As I Can, Lauren Graham

Talking as Fast as I CanAfter listening to Lauren Graham’s episode on Dax Shepherd’s new podcast Armchair Expert, I felt inspired to read the book she often referred to during the conversation, so I immediately went to amazon and bought a copy. Naturally.

I suppose Talking As Fast As I Can is technically a memoir, it is about her life and experiences, but it was really more of a career highlight than a personal memoir. While I did enjoy reading the book, to be honest, it left me feeling slightly unsatisfied. First, because a large portion of the book was already covered in that podcast I’d listened to, so it felt redundant. Second, because it didn’t seem to dig deep enough.

It is quite a short book, at just around 200 pages, and it is arranged into anecdotal ‘chapters’ that don’t always transition well into one another (especially in the ‘bonus chapter’ from the edition I read). She explores a small amount of her childhood, but mostly everything personal seemed abbreviated and the only quasi-depth that was explored was about Gilmore Girls. Where was the emotion? It was certainly more ‘this is what happened to me’ as opposed to ‘and this is what I learned from it’.  Also, if you knew nothing about Gilmore Girls (or pretty much anything from her career actually), you would probably be left feeling pretty confused about it all. I would say I am fairly familiar with her career, and there were still a lot of name drops I didn’t recognize.

Graham’s Writing style is basically the exact same as her speaking style, and her sense of humor is very obvious throughout (because she was drunk with power! a line of humor that flows throughout the book). It was a short and entertaining read, and it served as a nice palette cleanser for me.

To be fair, perhaps my discontent with this was all a misconception on my part, expecting this to be more of a traditional memoir and not just another marketing tool to promote the Gilmore Girls reboot. However, since I am familiar with both Gilmore Girls and Graham’s other most recent stint in TV, Parenthood, it was enjoyable. In fact, I vastly prefer something light and humorous such as this to the horror show that was Educated: A Memoir. I definitely think any fan of Lorelai Gilmore will get their money’s worth out of this book.

Cheers.

-E.

Book Review:: I Was Anastasia, Ariel Lawhon

I Was AnastasiaGrand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov and her family, deposed as the royal family of Russia, were murdered under captivity in the year 1918. Or was she?

At the time, the Romanov family had simply disappeared from the house in Tobolsk where they had been captives. When a mysterious woman with a terribly scarred body is discovered in Germany years later claiming to be the Grand Duchess, who was to say she wasn’t?

This novel is of duel narrative construction: one story line begins when the Romanov family is taken as prisoner at the start of the Russian Revolution and moves forward to the fateful event of their deaths, and the other begins near the end of Anna Anderson’s life (the woman who most famously claimed to be the missing princess Anastasia, there were multiple), and moves backward to her first claims of being the beloved Anastasia Nikoleavna Romanov. In this way, the truth of the claims, which had never been acknowledged as true by the court of law, are revealed to the reader at the very end of the novel. It is a little bit strange being consistently moved backward through time, but because the vital piece of information the reader is desperate for is not whether or not her identity can be proven in court, but whether her claimed identity is actually true or not.

I was immediately intrigued by the premise of this novel. I wasn’t very familiar with the historical facts of the story beyond the recognition of the names ‘Anastasia’ and ‘Romanov’, and I am always up for an intriguing conspiracy theory. However, I couldn’t keep myself from doing a quick google search shortly after beginning the book.

Whyyyyyy??

I wish wish wish I hadn’t, because folks, if you didn’t know, with DNA technology the question of whether or not Anna Anderson actually was Anastasia Romanov has been undeniably answered. I won’t give it away here, one way or another, but I can tell you it completely ruined my reading experience from that point forward. It took all of the tension out of the narrative and I found myself just waiting for the novel to end. I am so disappointed in myself, but honestly, since this novel just came out, I was truly expecting the truth to have been lost in time. I still find myself wondering why Ariel Lawhon decided to write this novel when the truth is actually out there…the narrative even begins with a monologue by Anna Anderson daring the reader to make a judgement about her, whether or not she is lying about her claims. For this reason, I would say if you already know the answer to this historical conspiracy – you probably don’t want to waste your time reading this book, because that is all that is revealed at the end. If you already know the answer, it won’t have the dramatic punch it is meant to for you. Ultimately, I found it disappointing.

However, if you do not know the true fate of each member of the Romanov family, this could be a really great and suspenseful read for you. I did not know the details of the ending, so there were still some surprises in stock for me when I finally reached the end, but it was not as satisfying as it could have been if I had just been more patient! Seriously, what was I thinking??

Beyond completely spoiling the plot for myself, I did enjoy the half of the novel from Anastasia’s perspective (before the disappearance). That side of the narrative was definitely more based in the historical record, whereas the Anna Anderson side of the story I feel probably had more creative liberties taken. As I said, I didn’t know much about Russian history, of that time or any other. I recently read The Bear and The Nightingale which includes a lot of elements of medieval Russian folklore (review coming soon), and that really piqued my interest for further Russian reading. It can take some getting used to reading Russian inspired work, especially when it comes to the names (many characters have multiple names, and sometimes they have nothing to do with one another. Also the last names can be confusing for Americans), and to be honest I wasn’t ready to leave that culture just yet. In that sense, this novel did pull through for me.

After finishing I Was Anastasia I’ve done some further reading on the Romanov family, and that makes me realize how much more I have to learn about Russian history. Do any of you have suggestions of good books based in the Russian culture or historical Russia? I’d love to hear your suggestions! You know, because my TBR pile isn’t big enough yet!

-E.

Book Review:: Educated: A Memoir, Tara Westover

educated

I wish I had not read this book.

It is filled with violence and ignorance and hopelessness. It reminds me of The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, which left me with the same terrible empty feeling in my gut. Other people seemed to enjoy that memoir; maybe those are the kind of people who will like this one.

It’s about a devout morman family living on a mountain in Idaho. A manic need to control things runs deep in the father of the family (who is probably either bipolar or schizophrenic…not to mention his highly sexist religion), and he passed the trait onto at least one of his sons. Tara’s childhood is full of complete paranoia and conspiracy theories believed deep down in the father’s soul…and since the children are never sent to any kind of school (except Sunday school of course), none of them know any better.

Their lives are filled with horrific accidents (sent from god, of course), and their father refuses to let any of them seek normal medical treatment (because they’re devils and traditional medicines poison your body and pass the poison onto your future children…if they don’t make you sterile first). I’m talking serious injuries: 3rd degree burns, multiple head injuries, horrible car crashes (because who wears seatbelts?), etc. It’s insanity. But, somehow they all always survive these traumatic events and use their healing as another sign from god that they are living their best righteous lives.

Tara is regularly abused by an older brother and lives her whole life in fear because her parents never protect her from anything, and in the case of her father, frequently puts her right in the face of danger (you can’t get hurt because the angels are right there with you….you’re doing god’s work…yada yada). I hate to think there are people so inherently violent, unpredictable, and blatantly abusive wandering around out there in the world, continuing to cause harm. It makes me sick to think of the German Shepherd described in this book. I won’t elaborate. There is no happiness, there is no escape for anyone, because our childhoods are with us forever.

I am completely heartbroken for Tara Westover.

I did not get anything from it except sadness and a little bit of anxiety just knowing that the ignorance in this book 1) exists and 2) is gaining followers all the time, sucking in others who believe they are doing the right thing by listening to the ranting of crazed lunatics and their supposed ‘proof’.

Those are my thoughts on this book. It is full of negativity and despair. That’s all.

-E.