As much as I love reading escapist romantic comedies, it isn’t often that they keep me up past 10pm. I prize my sleep, and besides, rom coms tend to be so formulaic that you know what is going to happen, so there is no point in losing sleep over them.
Annabel Monaghan’s debut adult novel, NORA GOES OFF SCRIPT, keep me turning pages until 1:00am. It’s what Hollywood calls a “high-concept” premise: Imagine you write a screenplay about the breakup of your marriage and People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” comes on-location to your house to play the part of your ex-husband. Imagine further that he asks to stay an extra week in your back cottage.
The surprise here is not that Nora falls in love with Leo Vance or even that he falls in love with her, it’s about what happens NEXT.
In November of 1964, my mother, a home economics teacher in New Jersey, informed her principal that she was expecting a child (me) in May. She wanted to provide enough notice so he could hire someone to take her place for the last month of school. He nodded and told her that when the marking period ended in two weeks, she would no longer have a job. She was fired.
Unfortunately her experience was not unusual for that time period. In the 1960s and into the 1970s, state laws limited women’s rights and protections in many ways. For example, in Connecticut, using birth control was illegal until 1965, when the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that prohibiting birth control violated a couple’s right to privacy. Unmarried women could not purchase contraceptives in Massachusetts until the Supreme Court overruled that in 1972. Nationally, until the Fair Credit Opportunity Act passed in 1974, women could not get a credit card unless a man co-signed for it.
When my mother was growing up, women’s career options were presented like a multiple-choice question: you could become a secretary, a nurse, or a teacher. And you were expected to stay at home once you had children. Women who were able to advance academically and pursue other careers faced discrimination and unequal pay. PS, they still do: In 2020, women earned 84% of what men earned, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of median hourly earnings of both full- and part-time workers.
Bonnie Garmus’s witty and propulsive debut novel, LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY, brings all of this up. She captures women’s experiences in the late 1950s and early 1960s by shining a bright light on the challenges faced by the main character, Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant, passionate chemist who engages in daily battles to do her work, much less be recognized for it. Her life becomes even more difficult when her lover, Calvin Evans, dies and Zott learns that she is pregnant as a result of contraceptive failure. Surrounded by a wise cast of characters including her five year-old daughter, Mad, and her dog Six-Thirty (whom Zott teaches more than 900 words), Zott, who is nothing if not relentlessly candid, makes some surprising decisions and shows the power of fighting for what is right.
This book is by turns hilarious, knowing, and although based in the past, still terribly relevant for our times.
Every once in a while, you are lucky enough to read a book that makes you feel grateful that it was written.
The publishing industry being what it is, this remarkable novel by Sandy Gingras (full disclosure: a dear friend) whose cover features a woman and a young girl walking on a beach is being released in early July and will likely be praised as “a great beach read” or “a great summer read.” But it is SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT.
Yes, it is set in Florida at the “Low-Key Inn,” and some events take place on beaches, kayaks, and motor boats. There is a swimming pool with a dolphin fountain. People wear flipflops and sun screen lotion. And yes, it takes place during a vacation (actually around Christmas), so you can call it a beach read if you want. But please know that the characters are more profoundly drawn and more thoughtful and reflective than those we typically find in a “beach read.”
Beginning with Mary Valley, a 40-something writer for home magazines who realizes she has lost touch with what “home” means, this book—which is both poignant and witty—shows us the hearts of characters who are both lost and endearing. After Mary’s boyfriend/boss tells her he plans to spend Christmas with his ex and she decides to book a trip to a hotel on the edge of the Everglades, we find ourselves folded into the lives of Mary’s estranged daughter, CC, and Larkin, her adorable granddaughter, as well as Daniel, a man who lost his son in Afghanistan, and Ollie, the hotel owner who may lose her hotel, and Al, the business man who lost his wife and daughter in a fire. And we find ourselves loving ALL of them. While these people might have good reasons to be depressed, they keep fighting for their lives.
The book jacket notes: “This is the tale of how wounded people can help each other heal, how lost people can help each other find their way home. How life can become a love story.” Yes. This book is all that and more. It’s truly a gift.
One thing I love about books is that they provide a guaranteed avenue for escape when day-to-day life feels too pressing. Some people go for mysteries and the allure of getting lost in a detective’s life. I’m more of a rom-com fan myself. Which is why I enjoyed Emily Henry’s latest novel, BOOK LOVERS, so much. It’s a rom-com that plays in the field of publishing (the main characters are an agent and an editor), so it’s a win-win. This is Ms. Henry’s third book (and her best so far, IMHO), and it moves quickly. Her trademark witty banter is delightful and engaging—in fact, it’s almost suspenseful (as in, What funny things will they say to each other next?).
The premise is that while Hallmark movies often end with the guy falling for the small-town girl and leaving his cold, bitchy, big-city girlfriend behind, this book wants to know: What is that supposedly cold girlfriend really like? What is HER story? Why IS she such a workaholic? Can she find love, too?
All good questions that inquiring minds want to know. And whether you’re lounging on a beach chair to soak up the sun or snuggling under a comforter on a rainy day, the answers are worth the trip.
While many people are struggling these days—and have been for months and months, really—so many are still fighting the good fight and trying to do good things. We live in difficult times, and sometimes it’s hard to find joy or to even believe that you deserve to feel joy when so much is not right with the world. That is why I’m recommending Karen Walrond’s latest book, THE LIGHTWORKER’S MANIFESTO. I know so many good people doing great work in the world who would find comfort and helpful ideas in this book. The subtitle raises the question that it answers: How to Work for Change without Losing Your Joy. Yes. We would like that. Every day.
No matter what you do, or what you hope to do, there is something in this book for you. Karen Walrond begins by reflecting on Victor Frankl’s ideas about the connection between meaning and joy—namely, that doing something significant, caring for others, and summoning courage during difficult times leads to meaning, and meaning leads to joy. Take a moment to think about that.
This book builds on that notion, layering stories with strategies and tips for how to do these things that lead to joy. So you should read it. With a pen in your hand, and a journal by your side.
“By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree. By the time he was ten, he could hit a running squirrel at fifty feet with a bow and arrow. When he turned twelve, he went out into the woods, alone and empty-handed, built himself a shelter, and survived off the land for a week. When he turned seventeen, he moved out of his family’s home altogether and headed into the mountains, where he lived in a teepee of his own design, made fire by rubbing two sticks together, bathed in icy streams, and dressed in the skins of the animals he had hunted and eaten.
“This move occurred in 1977, by the way. Which was the same year the film Star Wars was released.”
Thus begins Elizabeth Gilbert’s enthralling account of the life of a truly fascinating human being. Although Gilbert is better known for her 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love, she probably earned the advance for that book because in 2002, The Last American Man was a National Book Award Finalist in nonfiction. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to “live off the land” and truly appreciate nature, this book takes us into the life of a man who actually does that. Eustace Conway is passionate, energetic, hyper-focused, and incredibly skilled.
How he develops all of these qualities and yet, like many of us, is still not satisfied with his life, is what makes this book worth reading.
With the exceptions of my mother’s strawberry shortcake and Carvel’s ice cream cake, I am not much of a cake fan, so the idea of watching people bake cakes on TV has never appealed to me despite some friends’ exhortations that I didn’t know what I was missing. That said, you absolutely do not need to have watched The Great British Bake Off to appreciate how brilliantly it is portrayed in this hilarious rom-com (which, if any producers are reading, would make a great movie).
The eponymous Rosaline Palmer is a single mother who dropped out of med school to have her daughter, and while her judgy parents don’t approve of her career path, she believes participating in a national baking competition will solve her problems. She meets two men who draw her attention, and she ends up learning important lessons about herself. I just realized that this paragraph sounds super-serious, and that is probably why I enjoyed this book so much: it’s both serious and laugh-out-loud funny.
Just ask the people on the train with me, who wondered why that crazy lady was chortling so hard.
As someone who is mildly curious (OK, obsessed) with how people meet and fall in love, I know we all have our Sliding Door moments—when we either make the train or we don’t, and everything changes. THIS TIME NEXT YEAR, a delightful rom-com with excellent banter, manages to include several such moments; the main characters nearly meet or actually meet several times before they “meet-cute.” And these meetings start early: on Day One, their mothers are in labor in the same room in the same hospital. As implausible as that sounds, it doesn’t seem so crazy as events unfold. The characters are flawed, unlucky, and deeply lovable, and we can’t help rooting for them the whole way.
It makes one wonder if we really do get so many chances to live HEA (Happily Ever After), as the genre promises. One can only hope.
Despite being told by NBC News executives—his bosses—to “pause” his reporting, Ronan Farrow doggedly investigated media mogul Harvey Weinstein on behalf of the many women Weinstein assaulted and/or raped. Farrow ended up going to the New Yorker magazine, where editor David Remnick welcomed him, and Farrow’s story was published. Harvey Weinstein was ultimately convicted and will probably be in jail for the rest of his life. Even if you already knew all of that, trust me: this book is still a thriller.
CATCH AND KILL intertwines a story about heinous sex crimes and abuse of power with the story of the reporter’s struggle to tell that story. Farrow keeps the focus on the women whose stories he was trying to reveal, but it is also impossible not to feel equally outraged by the media corruption he faced as he attempted to do his job.
I could tell you that this book is a page-turner (it is) and leave it at that. But it’s worth reflecting on why this book matters. Sexual violence is not solely a problem for actresses. Let me share some data from the CDC:
Sexual violence is common. More than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetimes. Nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 38 men have experienced completed or attempted rape and 1 in 14 men was made to penetrate someone (completed or attempted) during his lifetime.
Sexual violence starts early. One in 3 female rape victims experienced it for the first time between 11-17 years old and 1 in 8 reported that it occurred before age 10. Nearly 1 in 4 male rape victims experienced it for the first time between 11-17 years old and about 1 in 4 reported that it occurred before age 10.
Sexual violence is costly. Recent estimates put the cost of rape at $122,461 per victim, including medical costs, lost productivity, criminal justice activities, and other costs.
CATCH AND KILL is the kind of book that throws a spotlight. You should read it.
John Boyne throws us headlong into this novel with one of my favorite first sentences ever:
Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork and denounced my mother as a whore.
In my undergrad years, as a Comp Lit major, I would’ve written a 10-page paper on that sentence. But now, I luxuriate in its humor and complexity and keep reading with pleasure. The story of how Cyril Avery (“not a real Avery”) came to be born—and lived, and lived, and lived—is a doozy, both poignant and laugh-out-loud funny, and while it runs for 580 pages, it literally runs. It is a quick long read. Along the way, we learn what life has been like for unmarried women and gay men in Ireland from 1945 forward. Mercifully, things have changed.
This is, as they say, a book with stories to tell.