Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Nonfiction Review: Look Alive Out There: Essays

Ever since the 2008 release of her best-selling collection of essays, I Was Told There'd Be Cake, I've been wanting to read some of Sloane Crosley's work. I'd heard rave reviews online, on podcasts, and from friends. So, I was excited to listen to her latest essay collection, Look Alive Out There, on audio last month, read by the author. I so enjoyed her warm, witty writing that covers everything from the trivial to the deeply moving.

Crosley's book includes 16 essays, some under two pages long and some continuing for more than 20 pages. Each one is an acute observation of an ordinary moment (or more) in time. Topics are far-ranging, from the time she attended the wrong shiva (and didn't admit it to the hosting family!) to her cameo on an episode of Gossip Girl that didn't quite meet her expectations. Some of her essays are about amusing or annoying brief episodes in her life, like Right Aid, about sharing a birthday with the clerk at her local drugstore or The Chupacabra about the surreal moment when she was receiving a massage and the masseuse's dog had a seizure in front of her. A few essays are truly jaw-dropping (though true) and based on articles she wrote for magazines, like Up the Down Volcano, about her misadventure trying to climb a 20,000-foot active volcano in Ecuador with no preparation or Relative Stranger, her interview with a second cousin who was a major porn star. And a couple of her essays really delve into deeply personal stories, like Cinema of the Confined, about developing a chronic illness (that one really spoke to me, and I plan to listen to it again) or dealing with fertility issues in The Doctor Is a Woman, though her ever-present sense of humor keeps even these from becoming too dark. Here's a brief excerpt of the first few sentences of her first essay, Wheels Up, to give you an idea of her unique style and tone:
"I am running late for the airport, trying to catch a cab on my street corner. A woman in a wheelchair and her date, a man, arrive at the corner seconds after me. They pretend not to see me, and I pretend not to see them, which is the kind of cutthroat strategy New Yorkers employ when embarking on otherwise benign activities. It's partially to avoid conflict and partially to claim innocence in the event of the finger."
Crosley has a talent for telling a story with warmth and wit and for zeroing in on details that we can all relate to, even if our experiences are vastly different than hers. Listening to her read these essays feels like sitting with a friend - a very funny friend - over coffee, while she regales you with her latest escapades. I enjoyed every single essay in the collection and listened to the entire book in just a few days, and she left me wanting more. Now that I've experienced Sloane Crosley's writing talents, I will definitely be looking for her other essay collections and her magazine articles, too.

256 pages, MCD
Macmillan Audio

Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

Listen to a sample of the audio book from the essay Outside Voices, read by the author, or request the book from Audible.

Purchase Look Alive Out There from an indie bookstore, either online or locally, here:
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

Or order Look Alive Out There from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

TV Tuesday: Killing Eve

With all the fall shows on cable going on hiatus after their "mid-season finale" (when did that become a thing?), my husband and I were hunting for something new to watch last week. I told him I'd been hearing rave reviews of Killing Eve, which was just nominated for Golden Globes for Best TV Drama and Best Actress, so we tried the first two episodes...and then ended up quickly binging the rest of the first season!

Sandra Oh (of Grey's Anatomy fame) stars as Eve, an American married to a Brit, living in London, and working for MI5 (the UK's version of the FBI) as an analyst in an office. It's clear from the first episode that Eve is eager to do more and has some amazing instincts, but her job definition is limiting. She is assigned to babysit a woman who witnessed a horrible assassination, but she goes above and beyond the call of duty. By the second episode, she is working for a small, secret sub-organization within MI6 (like the UK version of CIA) that is tasked with finding the mysterious assassin who is leaving dead bodies all over the world. The team knows - thanks to Eve - that this deadly killer is a woman. From the beginning, the audience sees this story play out from both Eve's perspective and that of the female assassin, Villanelle, who soon knows that the team (and specifically, Eve) is tracking her. From then on, it becomes a cat-and-mouse game, with Eve and her team chasing Villanelle around the globe, and the two women becoming more and more obsessed with each other.

This show is so unique and completely compelling! We finished the first season in just a few days and were disappointed to find it was over so soon. Sandra Oh, an acclaimed actress already, is excellent in this role, as Eve is first fixated on finding Villanelle and later, more personally fascinated with her, all while her marriage suffers. Jodie Comer, as her nemesis, Villanelle, is less well-known as an actress but is incredible in this role, playing the strangely appealing cold-hearted killer in a way that is utterly captivating. The rest of the cast is good, too, but these two women take front stage as they become locked in psychological warfare - and something like admiration? - with each other. In addition, the mystery and thriller elements of the show provide plenty of suspense. The short first season was over far too soon, and we can't wait for season 2 (due out in 2019)!

Killing Eve is produced by BBC America, and the first season with 8 episodes aired this spring. You can still find it On Demand through your cable company or on the BBC America website, though only episodes 1 & 2 are free in both places, so you can try it out. Spoiler alert: you will love it and want to watch more! You can purchase episodes on Amazon starting at $1.99 each or $13.99 for the entire season. We thought it was well worth the investment.

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Movie Monday: Trainwreck

Having been homebound for most of the past two months, thanks to my chronic illness flaring up, I haven't been able to go out with my friends or even make it to my book group meetings, so last week, my two closest friends brought Girls Night Out to me! They came over with take-out Thai food, and we watched a movie in our family room - complete with recliners for everyone. We were looking for a light, funny movie and ended up watching Trainwreck, which was definitely light and funny, though perhaps a bit raunchy for some tastes!

Amy Schumer stars as Amy, a writer working for a men's fluff magazine called S'nuff in New York City (with hilarious article titles). Besides being focused on her career, Amy was brought up to believe that monogamy is not possible, a view instilled in her by her carousing father, Gordon, played by Colin Quinn, to explain why he and her mother broke up. Now, her father is aging, but Amy has stuck with his dysfunctional life philosophy. As a result, she drinks a lot, smokes some weed, and sleeps with lots of guys. Officially, she has a boyfriend, Steve, a muscle-bound hunk played by John Cena, but Amy still has one-night stands with other guys. Her rule is to never spend the night. Then, her editor assigns Amy to write an article about the "sports doctor to the stars," Dr. Aaron Connors. Amy knows less than nothing about sports, but she wants a promotion, so she spends time with Aaron, interviewing him for the article and getting to know him. She's attracted to him - and vice-versa - but he doesn't fit her usual type. He's intelligent, sweet, and kind. Will Amy be able to break a lifetime of conditioning to commit to one man?

Oddly, I think this is the first time I've actually watched Amy Schumer in a movie, even though I know of her, have heard interviews with her, etc. Directed by Judd Apatow, Trainwreck features his signature fast-paced amusing banter throughout (think Knocked Up, 40-Year Old Virgin, Bridesmaids, etc.) and also that same kind of raunchy, silly humor. I think it might have been a bit too raunchy for my friends (especially the one-night stand montage!), though we all laughed. As for me, I tend to prefer a more clever, dry wit in my comedies than such obvious silliness, but I enjoyed it overall. The cast was good, the banter funny, and like all romcoms, it has a happy ending. The side plots about  Amy's relationship with her sister and how they are adjusting to their father's aging were even tender and moving (and still funny). It's a fun, mindless ride for when you are looking for escape (and aren't easily offended!). Sometimes, that's just what you need.

Trainwreck is available for streaming on Amazon, starting at $2.99, or on DVD.


Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

It's Monday 12/10! What Are You Reading?

Happy Monday! We dove into the holiday spirit this weekend and got the family together on Saturday to put up and decorate our Christmas tree, which is always one of our favorite parts of the season. Our tree is covered with memories - stuff our kids made in school, photo ornaments from each year, and many, many ornaments from all of the wonderful places we've visited on vacation! It was a very nice day - and a minor miracle that we were able to get both sons home at the same time.

As for me, I was much better last week, after a 2-month long relapse of my chronic immune disorder. I had just one bad day when I needed to rest all day, but otherwise, I left the house almost every day! A big reason to celebrate, and I was so grateful to be out and about again. You should have seen how excited I was to go to Trader Joe's - exhilarating just to feel normal again. Unfortunately, I am going to start on a new treatment protocol for Lyme disease today (a recurrence of which triggered this recent relapse), so I am expecting to get worse again, but hopefully not for too long. I got a lot done last week and cleared my calendar for this week, so I'm ready!

Meanwhile, as always, we are all enjoying our books - here's what we've been reading this week:
  • I finished The Lost Girls: Three Friends. Four Continents. One Unconventional Detour Around the World by Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett, and Amanda Pressner. The subtitle is pretty self-explanatory - it's a memoir with chapters written by the three authors about the year they spent traveling around the world. The travel is fascinating, but I am also intrigued because they all worked in magazines/freelance writing (which is what I do, though on a smaller scale). I really enjoyed this book - it was an incredible journey, both personal and global.
  • Next, I picked up my book group's selection but just briefly! They were discussing another nonfiction book, Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes by Richard A. Clarke and R.P. Eddy. It's about modern catastrophes - everything from the Gulf War to Hurricane Katrina to financial disasters - and how, in each case, there was one person who foresaw what would happen...but no one listened to him/her. It's an interesting premise, but my copy was very late coming in at the library and then I wasn't feeling well enough to go to the meeting, so I only read 2 1/2 chapters of it! What I read was intriguing, though, and my friend told me it was a good discussion.
  • I know Nonfiction November is over, but I can't seem to stop reading nonfiction! I am currently reading The Light Years, a memoir by Chris Rush that is due out in April. A few weeks ago, I was e-mailing with Victor Lodato, author of Edgar and Lucy, a wonderful novel and one of the featured books at Booktopia VT two years ago. I met Victor at Booktopia, so in our recent e-mail exchange, he told me about this memoir that he had helped to edit. He said it was amazingly good and asked if I'd like to receive an advanced copy, possibly to review. Everything he said was true...and more! It's a moving, powerful, funny story of a seriously warped childhood among the drug culture of the 1960's and early 1970's, and I'm enjoying it very much.
  • In between, I squeezed in a quick middle-grade graphic novel, The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo - The Monster Mall by Drew Weing. You may recall that I read the first book in this series (my review at the link) for the RIP Challenge this fall and absolutely loved it, so I was eager to read book 2. The sequel was just as good as the first one - fun, original, humorous, and just a touch spooky.
  • I started a new audio book, moving back to fiction finally! I am listening to Release by Patrick Ness, a teen/YA novel narrated by a gay teen whose father is a hardcore evangelical pastor. The novel all takes place in a single day - possibly the worst day of Adam's life, when everything that could go wrong does. It's completely engrossing, and I'm really enjoying it.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading Dead Wake by Erik Larson, the king of entertaining narrative nonfiction. He says this story of the sinking of the Lusitania is interesting so far, and he keeps reading facts out loud to me, saying, "Did you know this...?"
  • I think that Jamie, our 24-year old son, is still finishing his favorite Wheel of Time series, with the final book #13, Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.
Blog posts last week:
Nonfiction Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt - modern classic narrative nonfiction - highly entertaining!

Memoir Review: Seven: In the Lane of Hope by Michael J. Marini - warm, funny memoir of a remarkable family

Great Gifts for Readers and Writers - gift ideas for your friends and family...or to add to your own wish list!

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date, so head over and check out her blog and join the Monday fun! You can also participate in a kid/teen/YA version hosted by Unleashing Readers.

You can follow me on Twitter at @SueBookByBook or on Facebook on my blog's page.   

What are you and your family reading this week? 

Friday, December 07, 2018

Great Gifts for Readers and Writers

It's that time of the year, when most of us are buying gifts for friends and family and looking for that special something that will be the perfect gift for the recipient. Personally, I love choosing gifts for people and finding just the right thing.

Of course, my go-to gift is...a book! Whether the recipient is an avid reader or only occasionally picks up a book, I love to choose just the right book to make his or her face light up. I've picked out a cool vegan cookbook for my newly-vegan young cousin, a fun book on starting your own business for my non-reading business school son, and a gorgeous coffee table book about football for my sports-obsessed step-father.


Two years ago, I wrote a Book Gift Guide for Vital! magazine - the suggestions for books and authors according to the recipients' interests are still a good starting point now.

But, aside from books, here are some other fun ideas for the readers and writers on your gift list this year:

Eyeglass Holder
If you're like me, you now have reading glasses stashed in almost every room of your home, and if you're like my husband (who wears different pairs of glasses for different purposes), you are constantly misplacing your glasses! Last Christmas, I gave him this awesome and stylish wooden eyeglass holder that looks a bit like those stone figures on Easter Island. In fact, I gave him 3 of them, each wrapped separately, for maximum laughs while opening gifts! He now has one each in the family room, kitchen, and bedroom and can (usually) find his glasses.

Book Journal
A book journal is a great gift for the casual reader who can never remember what she's read or the avid reader who likes to keep track of his books. There are lots of different ones available, but The Book Lover's Journal meets my criteria: lots of room for recording books read, TBR lists, books lent or borrowed, and book group info, plus some cool extras, like a checklist of great books. Best of all, this one is compact but hardcover, with a spiral binding so it lies flat for writing.

Cookbook Holder
One of my pet peeves is cookbooks that won't lie flat so you can't leave them on the counter to refer to the recipe while you cook (and let's face it - very few cookbooks come spiral-bound). The answer is a holder that will not only hold the pages open but also hold the book up, at a comfortable angle for easy viewing while cooking. This Best Book Stand is ultra-adjustable, both in the angle of the holder and in its ability to hold your book open, plus its plastic is easy to clean after kitchen splatters. For something a bit more stylish, the Bamboo Bookrest will hold your cookbook open at whatever angle you choose, with a design that will look nice in your kitchen. If your gift recipient likes to cook from recipes on their tablet, then this iPrep Adjustable Stand is the perfect choice, comes in two sizes, and fits all kinds of tablets.

Book Holder for Reading
If your gift recipient would like a more comfortable way to read books, try The Book Seat for print books, a comfy little contraption that can be used on a flat surface or in your lap. (Note that it comes in different colors but each is listed separately, so just search for The Book Seat to see them all). For e-readers, the cutely named Flipy provides 3 different angles in a soft holder that can stand on flat surfaces or on your lap.

Both readers and writers enjoy writing in journals and often have multiple journals for different purposes. I have one for a brief daily recounting of my day, one for recording the books I read, one where I write quotes from books I want to remember, I kept one each when my kids were young for recording the sweet, funny things they did and said, and I have piles of travel journals! Here are some ideas for the journalers on your list. I love a spiral binding because it lies perfectly flat for easy writing. Graphique's Gold Polka Dot Journal is one of many designs that looks inspiring and lies flat. Maxdot's Kraft Paper Spiral Notebooks come in a set of 4 color-coded journals, including pens, and multi-colored Post-It notes mounted inside each one. The set makes a nice gift for the creative or super-organized person on your list! Of course, Moleskine Soft Cover Notebooks are the Cadillac of journals, coveted by readers and writers alike for their smooth, high-quality paper and ability to lie flat. They come in large size or pocket (or purse) size, and you can choose lined, plain, or dotted pages in a range of cover colors (you can also get hardcover Moleskines, though I am partial to the soft covers).

Finally, in spite of my large collection of all kinds of journals, each Christmas, my husband gives me a Sierra Club or Audubon Weekly Engagement Calendar, which I find perfect as a quick daily journal to jot down a few sentences at the end of each day (each page has one week, divided into 7 days), plus I love turning the page each Monday to see another gorgeous wilderness photo. I have a box in my closet with 30 years' worth of these!

For the Book Lover
The latest in a long string of books about books is the ultimate reading guide, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List, this season's hot new release. This one is sure to be a hit for any avid reader (hint, hint...)

For All Readers and Writers
Last but not least, the best gift you can give to any book lover is a gift certificate to an awesome bookstore so they can have the fun of browsing and picking out their own books!

Use this link to find an independent bookstore near your gift recipient, then use their website or call the store to order a gift card or certificate.
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

Also, this is a great time of year to help support your own local indies. I admit I do order from Amazon if I need to ship something, but for books I will hand deliver, I order them all through my tiny local bookstore - they sell mostly used books but will order new books, with a discount for their customers. Check with your local indie, and if you don't see what you want on their shelves, ask them to order it for you.

How about you? What gifts do you like to give to the readers and writers on your list? And what gifts do you want to receive??

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Memoir Review: Seven: In the Lane of Hope

I knew a friend of mine was working on a book, so I was excited for him when he told me it had finally been published! I immediately bought myself a copy, but then I started to worry, as I think is normal whenever a friend asks you to read something he or she wrote. What if it's not good? What would I say? I didn't need to worry. Michael Marini's memoir about his family, Seven: In the Lane of Hope, is warm, inspiring, and funny.

The memoir begins on Christmas Day 2011, when Michael's 77-year old father was in the hospital, and doctors said he was dying. His entire family - Michael, his 10 siblings, and his mother - gathered around his sickbed, but his father wasn't ready to die yet. He made a miraculous recovery, slowly but surely, which caused Michael to think more deeply about his family and his faith. They ran a produce business in the summer and a Christmas tree business in the holiday season, and the whole family pitched in to help. Much of the book focuses on Michael's seven sisters (hence the title), with a chapter devoted to each one, the role they played during his father's infirmary, and their roles in the family. Along the way, Michael shares stories of his own life growing up, for a long time the youngest of ten kids, as a part of this big, loving family. There were many moments of joy but also plenty of challenges, like his father's illness. All of the kids were runners, on the track and/or cross-country teams for their schools (as Michael points out, what better sport for a family of 10 kids, where the only equipment needed is sneakers?), so many of his stories deal with running. The memoir is book-ended by the story of his father's recovery.

I relaxed as I began to read the memoir and realized that not only was Michael a good writer, but his sense of humor came through in his writing. His stories of his sisters and the rest of his family are warm, affectionate, and often very funny, especially from his perspective as the youngest for the first seven years of his life. Running and racing are themes throughout the memoir, both literally and as a metaphor for life. His father, who coached all of them and was a runner himself, had all kinds of insightful sayings that Michael shares, including some that really spoke to me, like "You are right where you need to be." There is also a thread of religion throughout the book. Though I consider myself spiritual, I am not very religious, but although faith is an important part of Michael's family's lives, I did not find these elements to be overly obtrusive - they are there if you want them. There is plenty to relate to in this book and find inspiration from, even if you are more of a secular person as I am. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed this insightful and witty story of a remarkable, loving family, and I dog-eared many, many pages with inspirational words I want to add to my Quote Journal.

197 pages, self-published

Seven: In the Lane of Hope is available through Amazon, both as an e-book and in print.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Nonfiction Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

I finally found time to read the narrative nonfiction modern classic Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, after more than 20 years of sitting on my shelf! It was published in 1994, and my mom lent me her hardcover edition soon after that. Do you think she still wants me to return it? It was worth the wait, a highly entertaining true crime story that focuses on the unique culture and quirky citizens of Savannah, Georgia.

The author explains how he came to live part-time in Savannah for eight years. As a magazine reporter in the 1980's, he decided to take advantage of newly discounted airfares to travel to different places on weekends, and he discovered Savannah during a trip to Charleston. He was so beguiled by the unique place and its people that he rented an apartment there and began to split his time between New York and Savannah. Before long, he felt at home there and so, when a murder took place in his adopted city, he became a part of the story. Interestingly, the murder and the multiple court cases that followed don't take place until halfway through the book. Part 1 is all about the the city and the people of Savannah, setting the stage for the murder mystery/courtroom drama to come. This is more than enough to keep the reader's attention, as Savannah is a character unto itself and seems to be populated by colorful and quirky people. From the antiques dealer/house restorer who lives a wealthy lifestyle and throws lavish parties but is squatting in his current residence and always fighting off bill collectors to the outrageous drag queen named Lady Chablis who randomly chooses the author to chauffeur her around town to the mysterious man who everyone says has a jar of poison at home that could kill the entire city if he ever decides to put it into the water supply, the author meets each one and becomes a part of the crazy-quilt fabric of Savannah. Part 2 is more of a straightforward reporting of the murder and its aftermath, including the three different court cases to try the accused murderer.

This book is pure fun. I know that's a strange thing to say about a story that centers on murder, but this cast of characters is just so outrageous that that they would seem over-the-top in a novel. Similarly, the actual murder and especially the court cases are "this could only happen here" events, like something out of a cheesy movie. But it's true! Berendt has written a very amusing and engaging story, with plenty of wit. When I laughed out loud the hardest, my husband said, "Ah, you must have gotten to the chapter about Chablis!" Truth really is stranger than fiction, and Berendt captures that strangeness perfectly here.

388 pages, Random House
Vintage Paperbacks

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

Listen to a sample of the audio book here.

Purchase a copy of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil at an indie bookstore, either locally or online, here:
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

Or order Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.