I keep an ongoing to-do list on my phone. Every time I finish a book, I add the future review to that list. Every time I think of an “Extra Extra” idea, I add it as well. For the last six months, the top of that list has read “Why I Don’t Have One-Flame Reviews.”
It’s not that every book I read is five-flame fabulous or that I go too easy on books. On the contrary, I tend to round down if I initially want to give a book half of a flame. Earlier this year, I realized that the reason I don’t have any one-flame reviews is because I likely wouldn’t even finish a book if I felt that harshly toward it.
Well, that all changed when I picked up a book that’s received quite a bit of attention in 2020 and that was written by an author whose previous work I thoroughly enjoyed. Before reading The Book of Lost Friends, I knew that — in addition to liking the author — this novel fell into the historical fiction realm, took place after a war, and had powerful themes about literature. All things considered, it was certainly poised to be a top contender for my annual “Ranked” list.
Not long after I started it, though, I heard that familiar echo of the white savior and the tone-deaf decision for a white woman to write from a Black person’s perspective, and it irked me in every single way. To a lesser degree, I also was bothered by incongruent storylines, stereotypes, unfulfilling foreshadowing, and an overabundance of detail. I guess there’s a first for everything.
Mental health seems to be an increasingly common theme in literature. Amen. In fact, books are part of the reason why I started analyzing my own mental health and recognizing that I needed to take better care of it. I recently opened up about starting therapy back in May, and I really believe that reading about so many book characters’ experiences with therapy and about their struggles influenced me to seek help too.
Sometimes books about mental health struggles can intensify your own though. It’s not that they’re bad, but when you’re feeling sad, reading about someone else’s sadness — though making you realize you’re not alone — makes you spiral. That’s what happened recently when I read the profound novel, A Little Life. While it was both beautiful and tragic, the latter quality seemed to take over my own feelings.
So was I ready to pick up another novel dedicated to the same topic (not to mention just weeks before the election during a pandemic)? Fortunately, The Existence of Amy didn’t give me those negative thoughts and feelings. Rather, I felt a kinship with the main character — even if her experiences were completely different than my own — and I felt a rush of emotion for those closest to me who have helped me along the way. I didn’t finish this book feeling anxious and sad; I left it feeling hopeful and grateful.
I love food almost much as I love books, and on occasion, it takes the cake (pun totally intended). Surprisingly, unless you count the growing number of cookbooks I possess, rarely do food and literature come in contact with each other in my life. They did earlier this year when I read a dreadful book about a supper club. (It was more coming-of-age/confusing drama than supper club, though). That was less than satisfying.
Recently, I finished A Little Life and felt my soul sink to a new low; something can be four or five flames without providing contentment. So BLL friend Dana came through once again when I told her I needed an absolute joyous read that was both flameworthy and would bring me zero sadness.
I distinctly remember laughing on page two of Garlic and Sapphires and thinking I had found the perfect pick-me-up. That laughter returned at many, many points during this book, and I also remember a lot of New York nostalgia and my constantly growling stomach … perhaps that’s just par for the course for this book-lovin’ foodie.
I know I know. It’s a very odd title, but does it grab your attention and reel you in? Of course, and that’s why it’s a great title. That’s what great books deserve, and that’s exactly what Shaffer’s novel is.
I read this novel at the beginning of the pandemic (apologies for the delay!), and it easily earned four flames. It was moving, funny, heartbreaking and heartwarming, and just a great story. It’s also a movie on Netflix that came out in 2018. Many people have recommended this book to me, including my friend Danielle, who I watched this movie with virtually (#coronavirus). After indulging in this adventure yet again — as well as Michiel Huisman who dreamily plays Dawsey Adam — I decided to take the movie and book toe to toe.
I’ve talked several times about not growing up with people who looked, lived, or believed differently than I did, and that lack of diversity influenced my life. When it comes to family, though, it doesn’t matter where you grow up or how you’re raised; we can all relate to having familial disputes.
If there were ever a year for family disagreements, 2020 would smoke the competition. With a heated election, a pandemic, and racial conversations heightening all of the emotions, there are bound to be intense disagreements among family. I’ve definitely experienced my fair share in recent months.
So I was interested that varying viewpoints and morals between a daughter and her family served the focal point for Amulya Malladi’s The Mango Season. Traveling to a new country and reading about a culture completely different than my own made it that much more dynamic.
Let’s be frank: There’s a lot of shit in the world today. And 2020 alone is the largest dumpster fire imaginable. So with all the sadness, injustice, hypocrisy, and frustration in the world, I try to find joy wherever possible.
Let me be frank again. There isn’t an ounce of joy in A Little Life. So was this the greatest book for me to be reading or the smartest choice right now when I’ve consciously tried to avoid depressing books in this terrible year? No, no it was not.
But was it a good book? Definitely. It was beautiful and moving and insightful and heartbreaking and possessed all the qualities that make great literature so powerful. And yes, I am glad I read this book and so thankful for my coworker in Germany (yes, Germany — what a saint) who bought this book for me after our many, many discussions about how much he loved it.
Seriously, though, I could have done without 800+ pages of sadness.
In college, I took a class on Ronald Reagan. I loved history, and because I was simultaneously taking my dreadfully exhausting capstone, I was trying to limit the amount of time I actual went to and from and sat in physical classes. So I signed up for online classes, as well as one dedicated to the former president that met every Wednesday evening for three hours. (We closed the magazine issue on Wednesday mornings, so yes, yes I slept through most of this class. Still managed to get that A though!)
My professor promised on day one that we would never be able to guess his political leanings, and he was right. Major props to him even if I slept through his lectures. I actually did learn a lot in that class and enjoyed the reading and studying for the exams (you can’t actually be surprised by that statement). He taught me one thing in particular that I’ll never forget and that I’m continuously reminded of in 2020 and with the most recent book I read, American Spy: The main difference between Republicans and Democrats is that the former believes America is the Beacon on the Hill, and the latter does not. Talk about a watershed moment for yours truly.
This moment has replayed itself many times for me in 2020, including when I recently watched an AJ+ video about American exceptionalism (thanks for the rec, Rachel Cargle). And then the next week, I started American Spy, which zeroes in on this exact topic. This is basically a longwinded way of me saying that unfortunately American exceptionalism is stronger than ever, and it’s been on my mind constantly. I’ve witnessed way too much backlash proclaiming this country doesn’t need to change and that it is the best place on Earth.
I’m sure I will lose some readers when I say that it is in fact not the best place on Earth and that there is room to improve.
That’s not to say you can’t love America while simultaneously wishing for change. If you don’t believe me, I suggest you read American Spy. The main character is the perfect character study in having doubts about your country but being an active participant to catalyze change. Thankfully, there are a plethora of authors who have chosen to use their incredible stories as teaching moments for this topic. I can only hope that one day America’s ego will somewhat deflate.
Since we were sprightly little teenagers, my cousin Kaitlyn Wibbenmeyer and I have bonded over our shared love of books. And in particular, we’ve been fond of (re: obsessed) with one author in particular: Emily Giffin. So I knew when Giffin’s latest novel, The Lies That Bind, was released early this year, Kaitlyn and I would have to discuss. And boy, did we have a lot to say.
In the latest episode of The Biblio Files, Kaitlyn and I chat about Giffin’s amazing and relatable characters; how she brought 9/11 into her fictional tale in such a sensitive yet powerful way; and how her writing has matured and improved over the years. (Yes, somehow it’s possible to keep getting better when you are already so good.) We even make the claim that The Lies That Bind has set a new Giffin standard. And yes, we fangirled … hard. We left our love for Emily Giffin on this recording, and we are not afraid to admit it.
(We’re currently accepting applications for the EG fan club as we speak.)
Listen to our conversation about The Lies That Bind on your preferred podcast platform. Don’t forget to share and subscribe and to also visit Anchor where you can become a supporter of The Biblio Files. Enjoy!
Y’all should know my love for Emily Giffin by now. I’ve never tried to hide it since I first read Something Borrowed when I was 15. In a way, I’ve grown up with Giffin’s writing, and I’ve seen a change in her books just like I’ve seen a change in myself. But there are some aspects of Giffin’s work that have never altered, and for that I am grateful.
From her first book to the her 10th, she’s showcased an incredible ability to write great and relatable characters, and she excels at telling stories that thrive in that gray area that makes literature so wonderfully complex. These same attributes are ever-present in her recent novel, The Lies That Bind, which might just be her best work yet.
When I started The Biblio Files in February, I made a goal to interview one author in the first year. Thanks to the amazing book Three-Fifths and its author, John Vercher, I’ve reached that milestone.
In the first author interview of this podcast, I had the pleasure of chatting with John about everything from racism in America and the unfortunate circumstances that make his book “timeless” and to his complex characters and their heartbreaking ending. We had a fascinating and enlightening conversation, and I’m excited for his future work to hit the bookshelves.
You can listen to our conversation wherever you consume podcasts or via Anchor, the platform I use to publish every episode. While on Anchor, you can also subscribe to and support The Biblio Files. Check it out now!