“Shit, Actually” by Lindy West

Reading Shit, Actually: The Definitive, 100% Objective Guide to Modern Cinema is like becoming ensconced in an comfy, cozy couch on a rainy Sunday, channel surfing until you find one of those movies you’ve already seen but you’re like, “I could watch this again.” Then settling in for the rewatch with your funniest friend who picks apart the plot holes and character flaws you never noticed before—and makes you laugh your ass off in the process.

A hilariously outspoken writer, comedian and activist, West is probably best known from her 2016 memoir Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman and/or its small-screen adaptation Shrill, which premiered on Hulu in 2019. She uses her real-life experience as a writer and executive producer on Shrill and former movie critic, as well as being a certified cinephile and pop culture addict, to take a second—sarcastic and just-the-right-amount of critical—look at more than 20 contemporary movie “classics.”

From Face/Off, Garden State and Titanic to Harry Potter, Reality Bites and Shawshank Redemption (oh, yes, she did!), West skewers them one by one. And thanks to her, I’ll never look at any of them the same way again.

THE FINAL WORD: There are two kinds of people who will truly appreciate this book: 1) people who are already fans of West and her humor; and 2) anyone who saw Titanic and screamed at the screen as the old lady casually tossed the “The Heart of the Ocean” INTO the actual ocean knowing the guy from Twister and one of those astronaut movies dedicated his life to finding it but never did because she had it the WHOLE TIME—but not after making him listen to, like, three hours of her Titanic story first.

And let’s not even get started with whether or not that door could have held poor Jack, too.

“American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins

I woke up this morning and thought, “Let me just read for, like, 15 minutes before I get out of bed. So I rolled over and grabbed American Dirt. Fast forward three hours, and I had finished the entire book.

Jeanine Cummins’ vivid and stunning story follows a Mexican family who are rocked by narcos violence and the survivors’ arduous journey to cross the border into the U.S. It’s eye-opening, suspenseful and totally engrossing. Suffice it to say, Oprah’s Book Club does it again.

THE FINAL WORD: You know when someone says a book was so good, they couldn’t put it down? This is one of those books. In other words, don’t pick it up if you don’t have three hours to spare.

“A Good Marriage” by Kimberly McCreight

This is a book cover for A Good Marriage

For me, a good beach read is either a light, sunny story that requires very little of my overtaxed brain except to enjoy the escape; OR a mystery thriller that puts my mind into overdrive trying to unravel the whodunit, completely absorbing my brain and blocking out the real world.

For me, A Good Marriage was the latter, and it was totally absorbing. It’s a legal thriller/murder mystery by Kimberly McCreight (I’m a huge fan of her previous book Reconstructing Amelia).

At the core of the story is a brutal murder that happens in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, a neighborhood which looks picture perfect. But much like on Instagram, the images projected are often covering up real life—where seemingly flawless families and couples have plenty of secrets hidden behind the posts. Take for example, the murder takes place the night of the neighborhood’s annual “key party.” After the sweet, pretty wife of a tech millionaire is found dead at the foot of the stairs of their mansion, her husband, being held at Rikers Island prison, contacts his former law school colleague Lizzie to help prove his innocence. From there, his secrets, his wife’s secrets, the neighbors’ secrets and Lizzie’s secrets come to light with twists and turns that remind us you never know what is REALLY happening behind closed doors.

THE FINAL WORD: For me, A Good Marriage was the perfect summer read, a true page-turner that kept me engaged from beginning to end. It’s like HBO’s Big Little Lies and The Night Of and Netflix’s The Staircase had book baby.

“Hollywood Park” by Mikel Jollet

Hollywood Park is a memoir by Mikel Jollet, who some of you may know as the lead singer of The Airborne Toxic Event (the band has been around since 2008, but their haunting name could not be more appropriate than it is in 2020). Only 46 years old when he wrote the book, Jollet had already endured lifetimes of pain and misfortune as he navigated through experiences I can only describe as jaw-dropping (and not in a good way).

For starters, Jollet is born into the controversial Synanon cult that lived just below the Hollywood Sign in the ’60s and ’70s). He manages to survive, but life after the cult is difficult and dangerous in its own way.

Surrounded by addiction and poverty, Jollett lives with his mentally-ill mother who has a loose grasp on reality and highly questionable taste in men, not to mention having to contend with his own lingering questions and pain from his early days in the cult. As you can imagine, it’s a hard story to digest, especially knowing the book is a memoir, but his words and writing are so magical, it’s worth any feelings of discomfort.

As a reader, I was intensely waiting and cheering for Jollett to get to the crossroads where his life takes finally a turn for the better. I plowed through the book, and as soon as I put it down, I immediately downloaded some Airborne Toxic Event music. I wanted to continue to enjoy his hauntingly beautiful prose, especially after gaining a unique insight into the songs’ themes and lyrics.

THE FINAL WORD: You don’t have to be a fan of indie rock or post-punk revival (or even know what they are, for that matter) to be drawn in by Hollywood Park. If you like superbly-written memoirs and stories of survival (like another favorite of mine Educated), you, too will give this book two thumbs up.

A special shout out to my beloved “word dealer” Ron Block for sending this remarkable book my way.

“The Margot Affair” by Sanae Lemoine

This is a book cover for The Margot Affair

In times like this, I think for me reading helps keeps me sane and my mind open. And, it’s a brief mental respite. You know how in Mary Poppins, Mary, the kids+Bert jumped into the chalk sidewalk painting and were immersed in another world? That’s the sensation I felt reading The Margot Affair – from the first page I felt like I lived inside the character’s world. It comes out next week but I was lucky emough to snag an ARC from #netgalley. Sanae Lemoine paints just beautiful word pictures – you can practically hear the clinking of spoons hitting saucers at an outdoor cafe and smell the baguettes baking on the Parisian streets where the titular character, teenage Margot, lives with her Mom, famed stage actress Anouk. The story of Margot, the illegitimate daughter of Anouk and a rising French politician (married) and the fall out of what happens when Margot takes extreme action to expose herself to the public and finally get recognized as his second family and to prove she and her mother were the one he loved the best. It’s a touching story, and the underlying theme of someone feeling invisible and urgently needing to be heard and seen weren’t lost on me right now. I also really loved the descriptions of Paris landmarks, the food…everything really comes to life almost as if you’re there. Almost. I loved this book and can’t wait to read the author’s second book. It left me crazing more – and craving fresh French bread with creamy real butter and homemade pear jam. 

“With or Without You: A Novel” by Caroline Leavitt

This is a book cover for With Or Without You

You’ve probably seen those Dateline or 20/20 stories about people who wake from a coma with a talent they never had pre-coma, like speaking fluent French, playing the trombone or juggling. That “wake up,” both literal and figurative, is the set up for Caroline Leavitt’s With or Without You. Following the success of Cruel Beautiful World (which I loved!), this novel details the way in which a coma upends the lives of its main characters. (Life taking an unexpected, unwanted, 180-degree turn sounds kinda familiar right about now, huh?)

The story begins in the living room of longtime couple Stella and Simon, who are in the midst of a late night argument. Stella is a responsible nurse, while Simon is a languid rock musician whose star has dimmed considerably since they’ve been together. It’s the eve of Simon’s departure for a possible comeback tour, and they’re revisiting a recurring subject. After 20 years as a couple, Stella is ready to settle down and have kids, but Simon wants to stay untethered to keep chasing his music dreams. They fight. They drink. Pills are introduced … and Stella’s in a coma by morning.

The rest of the story unfolds from the point of view of several characters including Simon, who’s experiencing a real role reversal having to take care of Stella; Stella’s estranged mother, who is not Simon’s biggest fan; Stella’s doctor/best friend, also in the anti-Simon camp; and Stella herself. As Stella remains comatose, life still moves forward and her “absence” and subsequent “awakening” bring about major changes, creating a domino effect that touches all of her relationships.

Leavitt’s skill as a story teller made me feel like I was right there in the middle of their little circle, both cheering for and jeering against the decisions the characters make along the way. To be so engrossed in a book you can actually picture yourself in it is a rare treat.

THE FINAL WORD: With or Without You is gorgeously constructed, full of multifaceted, nuanced characters and presented with unwavering honesty. And the book’s premise of learning to accept major life changes, especially the kind that are forced upon you, is something we can all relate to in 2020. Basically, your summer reading list is not complete without this book.

* I was invited to participate in With Or Without You’s blog tour by Algonquin Books. The book is available beginning Aug. 4, 2020.

“Hieroglyphics” by Jill McCorkle

Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle is a beautifully told story that intertwines the narratives of four characters: Lil and Frank, an elderly married couple; and Shelley, a young and recently abandoned single mom, and her quirky son. They are linked by a house that was once Frank’s childhood home and is now home to Shelley and her son. Its Frank obsession with nostalgia that drives his desire to return to the North Carolina town where he grew up—more specifically, that house. Or at least, that’s what McCorkle wants us to believe.

The idea of revisiting meaningful places from one’s childhood struck a chord with me immediately. I’d give anything to go back to my late grandmother’s house in Chattanooga, Tenn. I can still picture each room perfectly—and in my mind, it’s the same today as it was in the ’80s.

After establishing the house as what links the main characters, the story travels back and forth through decades, ping-ponging between pivotal events in each of their lives, while slowly unearthing experiences of profound loss, stunning betrayal, family dysfunction, discovery, redemption, love and acceptance. If it sounds like it could be confusing or difficult to follow, it isn’t, as the author moves between narratives seamlessly. Admittedly, I found myself more invested in one character’s story over another’s and wanting to stay with their storyline a bit longer, but in the end, the balance works in a way that only a masterful writer, like McCorkle, could pull off.

One of the main takeaways I got from this wonderful book is something I think is super relevant right now: Every single person is dealing with things you have no idea about. Think about the old man sitting next to you at the doctor’s office, the elderly woman in the car behind you at a stop light, the young mom listlessly dropping items in her grocery cart, the boy you passed on the on the sidewalk using a towel as a Superman cape. Just like you, every one of them has a story, a turning point, a weight they carry on their shoulders, a life incident that shapes who they are and the paths they ultimately take in life.

THE FINAL WORD: I loved going into the “cave” with McCorkle and seeing how she “translates” the characters for us lucky readers. Her unique literary light shines on every page, making Hieroglyphics a book I’d highly recommend.