Book thoughts: Memoirs from Lena Dunham & Amy Poehler

Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham

I spend a great deal of time in the car these days. With the addition of driving to Oliver’s day care each weekday, I’m commuting at least 40 minutes daily — so I can plow my way through an audiobook or two a week.

Which is awesome, actually . . . given I’ve had so little energy to read physical stories since Ollie came home. I’m often determined to settle down with Jennifer Weiner or Meg Cabot before bed, thinking that tonight is the night I’m going to finally read for goodness’ sake, but something comes up.

Or, more accurately, the eyelids come down.

Through plenty of trial and error, I’ve come to realize that my favorite audiobooks are memoirs — particularly when read by the author. I’ve checked out all sorts of non-fiction I wouldn’t normally read in print, but adored them as audios.

But I didn’t need any convincing to read Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. They arrived on hold for me at the library at the same time, and I didn’t have the heart to leave either lady there. Good thing I didn’t, either; I’d finished both in three weeks, a new record, and desperately missed them both when their stories were done.

So. Lena.

Dunham, a 29-year-old New Yorker, is a polarizing figure. Known for being the creator, writer, director, producer and star of HBO’s “Girls,” Lena has no problem putting it all out there — literally and figuratively. Some declare her the voice of our generation; others label her a self-important drama queen. I happen to be in the former category, and I’ve watched “Girls” for years. The show isn’t perfect, but it’s thoughtful and entertaining. Lena’s Hannah is messed up and whacky and self-absorbed, but she’s refreshingly realistic in her obsession with writing and love. I relate to her. Not all of her, but enough.

In reality, Lena is not Hannah . . . but, in some ways, she is. Not that Kind of Girl is Lena’s life-story-in-vignettes with tales of her awkward adolescence, search for acceptance, demanding of respect and growth. There are some squicky moments, yes, and it’s not for me to debate the level of their squickiness. But I think Lena is mostly guilty of oversharing. (Can you overshare in a memoir? Probably.)

Look: Lena can be brash. She’s controversial. She’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s okay. From a feminist standpoint, I appreciate hearing her voice above the din and look up to her for all that she’s accomplished before 30.

Her memoir is quick, pithy, easy on the ears and often very funny. There are some deeper, disturbing moments, but it’s not a depressing story. If I’m honest, I’d normally be super jealous of an under-30 talented takes-no-prisoners writer lady who is actually younger than me, but really? I’m just kind of proud of her. In a big sister kind of way.

And then we have Amy Poehler, who’s Yes Please was the perfect companion to my morning drives. Like pretty much everyone in America, I was introduced to Amy through “Saturday Night Live” and was a mega-huge fan of the often-underappreciated “Parks & Recreation,” which I watched religiously with my dad. Leslie Knope is it.

Poehler’s memoir is part motivational speech, part biography, part behind-the-scenes glimpse at the shows and people who helped boost her to monumental success over the years — and I really enjoyed all of it. Like Lena, Amy comes across as a down-to-earth but badass lady who has me totally rethinking what it means to be deemed “bossy.”

Bossy women get stuff done.

Amy is like your cool aunt who admits to recreational drug use while still cautioning you against it, and comes across as deeply knowledgeable about life because she’s probably “been there.” Growing up in Massachusetts, Amy later moves to Chicago to begin working in improv and eventually marries and divorces Will Arnett, has two sons, achieves great success on “SNL” and “Parks & Rec” and then, when it’s over, must find what’s next again.

She sounds like an amazing friend, colleague, daughter and mom, and you get a sense of all those roles while listening to Yes Please. I loved her stories of and take on working toward success — and it doesn’t have anything to do with it happening overnight. Overall, her memoir was equal parts funny and empowering: a perfect recipe.

Both Lena and Amy narrate their own books, as you’d hope and expect. Each does a wonderful job. These women are storytellers, and these are their stories. Who else could possibly tell them?

By the time I’d finished both audios, I felt like I’d just sent a new friend off on a long vacation with no way to get in touch. Amy and Lena have both further endeared themselves to me, and I’d definitely recommend their stories to anyone who wants to think about life, snort into their commuter-friendly coffee mug and feel good about the road ahead.

Four stars, both of ’em!

Not That Kind of Girl / Pub: 2014 / 265 pages
Yes Please / Pub: 2014 / 329 pages


Book chat: ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ by Jenny Han

To All the Boys I've Loved BeforeIt’s been too long since I sank into some solid young adult fiction. And with my limited attention span these days? Well, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before really hit the spot.

The middle of three daughters, Lara Jean Song is used to hovering behind her successful older sister — often feeling a bit adrift behind Margot’s perfection. But with her sister heading off to college abroad (and breaking off her relationship with Josh, once Lara Jean’s own crush), this Song girl is ready to shine.

Maybe.

When a secret box of Lara Jean’s letters disappears, she is suddenly forced to confront her crushes — past and present — as her notes land in mailboxes around town. Lara Jean has always taken to letter-writing as a way to release her feelings for the boys she has loved: her first kiss, her summer camp love . . . even Josh, her sister’s ex-boyfriend.

As her crushes receive her notes and press her on her feelings, Lara Jean is forced to own up to her emotions — even as a faux-relationship with Peter, a popular boy on the rebound, begins to actually blossom. On the home front, Lara Jean is charged with caring for Kitty, her sassy younger sister, as well as her warmhearted but busy, bumbling father.

Though she’s initially mortified by the letters, are they actually the key to moving forward?

Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a sweet story with plenty of family dynamics, high school loves and entertaining escapades to delight its audience. Though it’s described as the tale of Lara Jean confronting her crushes, it’s also about family and self-acceptance.

Have you ever written a letter you never intended to send? As a teen, I frequently drafted notes to crushes and ex-boyfriends as a way to “get out” whatever angsty, complicated, 16-year-old drama I had stored up without fear of embarrassment or reproach. In fact, I had a floppy disk (a floppy disk! You too will get old someday, kids) full of such missives.

Had someone found my super-private collection of letters to the adorable guy in my math class or my first kiss or first love and actually sent them, I’m pretty sure you would have had to pry me out the dark cave I would have made my new home. But Lara Jean? She’s a pretty resilient, courageous cat. As a narrator, she’s entertaining and matter-of-fact — the sort of person who doesn’t realize she’s funny, which is the best kind.

Though I enjoyed Lara Jean’s burgeoning friendship/relationship with Peter, the charming boy-about-town, the real highlight here was the Song sisters’ dynamic. Especially tight-knit since their mother’s death, I found their closeness heartwarming and realistic. I loved that Lara Jean appreciated Margot even more after she was off in Scotland, and young Kitty is a wise-beyond-her-years and fun character pivotal to the story.

A breezy and enjoyable novel, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before demands little of readers except their rapt attention . . . which you’ll happily hand over. Sometimes that’s exactly what we need!


4 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg


Bookish speed dating: getting lost, finding yourself and more

So I’ve, um, gotten a little behind on book reviews.

Which is to say . . . I am ridiculously behind on book reviews.

Even when I was actively getting lost in a story (or four), I lacked the brain power to discuss anything intelligently. So I cataloged my finished reads on a spreadsheet, made a note to review them later and . . . promptly had a baby.

So.

Here I am: desperately wanting to play catch up. These unreviewed books, friends, they’re weighing on me. Weighing down my soul. Making me feel like a failure. Taunting me from their color-coded Google Doc.

Let’s speed date, shall we? I’ll give you a rundown so you can decide whether to pursue a relationship further. I won’t pressure you or follow up with sassy text messages or Facebook notes asking if you and Happiness For Beginners hit it off; your choice to connect in the future is yours alone.

I’m considerate like that.


Happiness for BeginnersHappiness For Beginners
by Katherine Center
Published: 2015
Source: Review copy from publisher
4.5 stars

Though tough to avoid comparisons to Cheryl Strayed’s classic Wild, Center’s novel of a recently-divorced woman who sets off on a wilderness journey of self-discovery and independence — with her kid brother’s best friend, incidentally — is entertaining, sweet and memorable.

I love Katherine’s writing, which flows like a fast-moving current; it’s impossible not to get swept up in her warm characters, compelling setting and relatable plot. At 32, Helen abruptly finds herself starting over — and regardless of where we are in life, readers will find a bit of themselves in Helen’s cautious optimism. Totally loved it.


Tempting FateTempting Fate
by Jane Green
Published: 2014
Source: Audio from library
3.5 stars

Despite having the perfect marriage on paper, Gabby and Elliott struggle with the mundane details of the long-married: not enough time for themselves, each other and their two daughters, who are growing up — but still in need of their parents’ attention.

When a girls’ night out leads to a chance meeting with a younger, handsome stranger, Gabby can’t resist the allure of feeling wanted again. Those feelings — and, later, actions — have far-reaching consequences, however . . . ones even Gabby can’t anticipate.

So I know I sort of swore off Jane Green after the disastrous Another Piece of my Heart, but I was seeking something lighthearted back in March — and I found it here. Though Gabby’s decision-making skills are sketchy at best, I got lost in the endlessly-complicated drama. Good, crazy fun.


Margaret From MaineMargaret From Maine
by Joseph Monninger
Published: 2012
Source: Review copy from publisher
3 stars

After her husband is gravely injured during a deployment, Margaret is left to care for her young son and father-in-law as they work to maintain the family farm. When another serviceman arrives to accompany her to a ceremony in Washington, she is swept up in their powerful chemistry . . . and the idea of feeling free again. But her loyalty is to her husband, even if he’s in a place he’ll never be reached.

I felt for Margaret and Charlie, who seemed star-crossed from the start. I thought their relationship advanced beyond propriety a little too quickly to be realistic (and some of the dialogue was super silly), but still enjoyed this short, heart-wrenching novel.


Coming CleanComing Clean
by Kimberly Rae Miller
Published: 2013
Source: Purchased
3 stars

In this story of growing up in a hoarding household, Miller manages to draw us into her paper- and garbage-strewn world without really opening up to us. It’s a strange thing, indeed, to write a memoir about such a personal topic that still manages to come across as detached — but I finished this short story of Miller’s childhood and college years with a bit of a shoulder shrug. I did finish, though — and that says something. Especially given my sleep-deprived attention span.


The One That Got AwayThe One That Got Away
by Bethany Chase
Published: 2015
Source: Review copy from publisher
3.5 stars

Sarina is a talented architect with great friends, a successful business and a loving relationship with a man she believes will be getting down on one knee in short order. But when an old one-night-stand resurfaces, asking for her design expertise on a new home, Sarina begins to question the past — and her future.

This was the story I was reading the day before my son was born, and for the most part? I succeeded. Chase has created a realistic, could-be-your-bestie narrator in Sarina, and her sexy, playful dynamic with athlete Eamon Roy — a man who once ended them before they could begin — is one with which many will likely relate.

Though it wasn’t a truly stand-out read, it is a layered story that also deals with grief, friendship and pursuing what we truly want. And heck, it managed to (mostly) distract me from impending childbirth, so that counts for something?


Book chat: ‘The Precious One’ by Marisa de los Santos

The Precious OneTaisy Cleary thought she’d finally banished him. After her father abandoned the family when she and her twin brother, Marcus, had just turned 18, Taisy made it her mission to press on without the dominating, controlling, sneering Wilson Cleary. With his pregnant second wife quickly ready to welcome a new daughter, his first wants only to exorcise him.

Wilson makes it his mission to protect Willow, this precious babe, from all the world’s hurts. As his third child lives a sheltered, academically-rich life under her father’s tender wing, Taisy and Marcus work to erase difficult Wilson from their lives. And they succeed — mostly — for 17 years. But after learning of her father’s recent heart attack, Taisy is shocked to receive an invitation back to the hometown she fled so long ago.

Faced with a surly teenage half-sister, dreamy stepmother and father who remains as self-obsessed as ever, Taisy is also confronted with memories of another man she lost so long ago: her first love, Ben. Returning to the Delaware town where she’d once been so happy, she hopes to forge new connections . . . just as her sister needs her the most.

Lyrical, thought-provoking and filled with memorable characters, Marisa de los Santos’ The Precious One challenges our notions of family, loyalty and second chances. Though it got off to a slow start for me, I became lost in the beautiful language and sucked into the world of the complicated, broken Clearys.

In chapters alternating between Taisy and Willow’s viewpoints, the story begins with Taisy estranged from her father and his second family — but still faced with a longing to understand, and be understood by, her dad. While her brother has long given up on Wilson, Taisy can’t seem to shake her strange, misguided feelings of loyalty to the man who destroyed to their once-strong family unit. Even decades later, she can’t help wondering . . . why?

With Wilson now in his 70s and in questionable health, he calls his oldest daughter — a writer — for a favor: to ghostwrite his life story, one of his marvelous mind. An unquestionable genius, Wilson places education and knowledge above all else. His daughter, Willow, was molded in his image: a brilliant, savvy young woman who thinks easily for herself . . . but can’t function away from her father’s grasp.

Public high school is a new circle of hell for Willow. With Wilson unable to continue her homeschooling, she enters eleventh grade without any of the grasp of culture or social norms. And it’s painful. When the author has us join Willow in a dirty stairwell where she’s somberly eating her lunch alone, I ached for her. Who hasn’t felt like the misfit?

And that’s why it’s so easy to understand how she is quickly adopted by a new mentor: her English teacher, a 30-year-old man who easily quotes poetry and Shakespeare but harbors dubious intentions. The Precious One is as much the story of a family as it is one of predation and loneliness, hope and belief.

I related to Taisy — in her thirties, still smarting with the dissolution of her first love — and with Willow, this sad and lovely girl who can’t understand just how sad and lovely she really is. No matter your age, there is probably a bit of Taisy and Willow in all of us: people who still seek the approval of their parents, regardless of what’s come to pass between them. Willow’s fondest hope is to never make a mistake, and Taisy’s is to atone for her worst one of all.

Can you tell I liked this book? I really liked this book. I read it almost entirely in one afternoon with my swollen pregnant feet propped on a coffee table, lost in the Clearys and their myriad issues . . . swept up in the idea of Wilson’s mysterious past and how much he inflicted his own issues upon his unsuspecting children.

Though I didn’t feel we got the most satisfying story arc from Wilson’s history, I appreciated Taisy’s desire to dig deeper — to try and find the root of what made this man so calculated, austere and cold (to everyone but Willow, that is). As Willow begins to clear a small path in the real world outside her parents’ arms, I felt a surge of protection for her . . . even though my loyalty was, for the most part, with Taisy.

The evolution of the sisters’ relationship is at the heart of the story. Though we have sinister subplots peeking into the crevices between paragraphs, Willow and Taisy finding solace and camaraderie in one another — and the changes they help bring to each other’s lives — was moving, to say the least. Though Willow would have never admitted to needing a “sister” around (and Taisy could never imagine being that sister), their changing dynamic was my favorite part of The Precious One.

With a satisfying conclusion and engrossing plot, Marisa de los Santos presents a winning novel that swept me up with its gorgeous prose and compelling characters. This family isn’t one I’ll soon forget.


4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Facebook
Complimentary copy provided via TLC Book Tours for review consideration


Book chat: ‘Attachments’ by Rainbow Rowell

AttachmentsLincoln didn’t plan on becoming a snoop.

Hired by the nascent IT department of a local newspaper to ensure their employees aren’t using the new-fangled Internet for nefarious purposes (it is 1999, after all), Lincoln’s primary job is to hang around at night reading others’ email.

For a while, nothing interesting happens. Aside from the occasional off-color remark, his filter remains resolutely boring. Until chains of messages begin to pour in between Beth and Jennifer, two members of the editorial staff who share their lives through a series of notes passed like a digital middle school experience.

Though he feels awful invading their privacy, the friends’ emails keep appearing in his filter . . . and he keeps reading them, partly because he’s bored silly — it’s an overnight shift in an empty building — but, gradually, because he starts to feel connected to them. Especially Beth, a sharp and funny movie critic stuck in a dead-end relationship.

When their paths cross in daylight, everything feels different . . . and his affections only grow. But how do you confess to snooping on your love interest for months — and all on the company dime?

Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments is a sweet, modern love story that immediately sucked me in. As an editor at a local newspaper myself, it was literally impossible for me to not relate to this quick, quirky and entertaining read.

Lincoln is the sort of dude you can’t help but root for — a man floundering a bit to find his way in the world after a nasty break-up, but undoubtedly someone with a heart of gold. I loved his relationship with his well-meaning but overbearing mom, of all things; it was incredibly realistic, right down to her shoving casseroles into his hands on his way out the door.

In his late twenties, Lincoln doesn’t plan to still be living at home . . . or working in a soulless IT position, where even a monkey could read flagged emails and send warning messages to the paper staff. But he knows there is something more — and he’ll find it. Eventually. His predicament is one many can relate to, I’d wager, though the story was set in the chaos of Y2K. (Also: nostalgia.)

Beth and Jennifer’s dynamic was wonderful. I read Attachments thinking often of who my own Beth would be (I mean, I’m definitely Jennifer, the married and nervously pregnant editor). Though we only get to know the pair through their constant emails to each other, this style — a modern epistolary — worked really well for me.

And it made for an incredibly quick read. Though Lincoln is the star of our show, every side character held his or her own — and as the story progressed, I was dying — DYING — for Lincoln and Beth to meet. I kept wondering how they would eventually run into each other, waiting to see if instant sparks would fly. Wanting shy, handsome Lincoln to finally make a big move.

Lovers of contemporary fiction and the ever-funny, ever-wise Rainbow Rowell will find much to love in this savvy story. It was an incredibly entertaining way to spend a few weeknights, and definitely solidified my Rowell love.


4 out of 5

Pub: 2011 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Complimentary copy provided by publisher for review consideration


Book chat: ‘The Godforsaken Daughter’ by Christina McKenna

The Godforsaken DaughterWhen her father was alive, Ruby Clare didn’t much mind that she was single, serious, plain and sturdy. She and Vinny worked side-by-side on the family farm in Tailorstown, Northern Ireland, toiling together in a way that felt less like work and more like camaraderie.

But after his unexpected passing, Ruby is left to care for her aging, tyrannical mother and ungrateful twin sisters — both of whom fancy themselves sophisticated ladies now that they’ve fled to Belfast, working at a department store and returning only to antagonize Ruby about their starched sheets on the weekends.

Mired in grief and desperate for hope, Ruby discovers a set of mystical objects left by her paternal grandmother — a spiritual woman who died in the lake outside their house. The deeply-religious Martha immediately fears that Ruby has been taken over by an evil spirit, remembering how her mother-in-law — awash in her own grief years before — had eventually committed suicide.

But Ruby is buoyed by the strength and confidence the objects give her, eventually finding the courage to stand up to her family and a sense of peace that she does, in fact, have some control over her own destiny . . . however fleeting.

Alongside the story of Ruby is that of Henry, a psychologist from Belfast who arrives in Tailorstown after fleeing his own wayward life following his wife’s disappearance. It’s the 1980s in Northern Ireland, and unrest is still all around them . . . and in Henry’s soul, too. Not knowing what happened to Constance, his beloved wife, is destroying him — but he’s been told to lay low and “stop looking.” He’s just not sure how.

The Clares and Henry’s lives eventually intersect in Tailorstown, where everyone is yearning for something about unsure how to find it. In the mix, too, are Jamie McCloone, a lonely farmer; Rose, his friend and Ruby’s new confidante; and Father Kelly, the devoted parish priest who tends to the Clares in their darkest moments.


Irish countryside


Christina McKenna’s The Godforsaken Daughter is an enthralling, well-drawn and incredibly evocative story of love, grief, redemption and faith. I couldn’t read a passage or two without picturing the rolling Irish countryside, and the idea of life on a small pastoral farm was intoxicating.

Of course, life for Ruby Clare is far from picture-perfect. I immediately bonded with our heroine as she traverses the strange, awful landscape of life without her father. Her mother, Martha, is a distressingly awful woman who leans mercilessly on her oldest daughter but offers little in return. When Martha threatens to parcel off her late husband’s farm, Ruby shows her first signs of a backbone — and I desperately hoped to see more.

There is so much happening in The Godforsaken Daughter, but it never felt cluttered. First, the time period: set in the 1980s during the Troubles, there is a sense of unrest and simmering violence throughout the narrative. Without giving too much away, several characters are affected by the Troubles. Though I’m not intimately familiar with Irish history, I remember stories of the violence and bombings in Belfast when I visited in 2011. My lack of knowledge didn’t hamper my understanding — and enjoyment — of the story.

And enjoyable it was! I fear my synopsis has made it sound darker than it actually is. Even with mysticism, seances, religious differences and death, The Godforsaken Daughter still manages to be . . . uplifting? interesting? wildly compelling?

McKenna draws each of her characters so vividly, you feel as though you’re sitting in a diner nibbling on pastries with Biddy or cruising through town in the back of Rose and Paddy’s car. Ruby is a Cinderella-like character who longs to be loved and accepted, and she eventually comes into her own. Though she’s in her early thirties, the novel also functions as Ruby’s coming-of-age story.


Irish Sea


Northern Ireland itself comes alive in McKenna’s tale, taking on a shape and personality as distinctive as any other character. I felt like I was on the banks of the Irish Sea, thinking about a different way of life in a town populated by such colorful people. I loved how easily I could picture each of Tailorstown’s residents — even the awful sisters, who were terrible brats I hoped would get theirs.

The Godforsaken Daughter is an engrossing, page-turning read about family, love, faith and moving forward. I adored its country setting, relatable cast and unique plot. By the last page, the loose ends had come together in a way that was deeply satisfying without being predictable. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to reading McKenna’s other works!


4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review


Book chat: ‘Love, Lucy’ by April Lindner

Love, LucyThe summer before her freshman year of college, Lucy Sommersworth embarks on a European adventure for a taste of freedom before sacrificing her dreams of acting to focus on business in school. Accompanied by Charlene, a new friend and fellow college student, the pair purchase rail passes to crisscross the continent and meet many characters along the way.

Landing in Florence, Lucy and Charlene check in at a hostel in the heart of the city with the goal of exploring the famous Italian locale — and it’s not long before they meet Jesse Pallatino, a New Jersey native currently bumming his way around Italy busking for cash.

What follows is a whirlwind romance that sizzles in the Florence sun . . . but threatens to implode when Lucy returns to Philadelphia, where she begins her practical education but struggles to forget the amazing summer they shared. As the pair try to determine if and how they fit into each other’s lives, Lucy undergoes a metamorphosis all her own.

April Lindner’s Love, Lucy is a sweet — if predictable — young adult novel perfect for armchair travelers. With its warm Italian breezes, vivid scenery and romantic settings, Lucy’s time in Europe reads like something out of a dream . . . especially when a guitar-playing free spirit comes on the scene.


David

Florence

Florence cafe

Scenes from Florence, 2007


Though I’ll admit to liking the first half of the book — set abroad — more than the second, Lucy is a likeable heroine struggling to appease her difficult father while still being true to herself. In love with theatre, she feels alive on stage . . . but her dad, who happens to be footing the bill for her college education, has little interest in the arts.

After their chance meeting and mutual attraction, it’s Jesse that gets Lucy thinking about how life could be should she leave the safe path her parents have laid for her to chase her dreams. I found the conflict realistic and, for many, familiar: choose the comfortable route, or dare to be bold?

Though Lucy and Jesse never felt totally formed as characters, I didn’t mind the lightness with which I read Love, Lucy. It was sweet, uncomplicated and relatable, especially as Lucy struggles to choose between a new love interest and the wild Jesse. Intimacy definitely plays a role in the storyline, so bear that in mind for younger readers.

If you’d like to take a walk through Italy without leaving the comfort of your porch, Lindner’s fun story may be your ticket. The scenes in Florence and Rome took me back to my own trip there in 2007, and I loved reliving that experience through Lucy’s eyes.


3.5 out of 5

Pub: 2010 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy kindly passed along by Estelle. Thank you!