I have a varied taste when it comes to reading, and the book selection process is always so much fun for me. Seeking out authors from different backgrounds and discovering novels with unique storylines provides me with a variety of captivating books that hold my interest. From honest stories about her anxiety told by My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom to a debut novel about immigration and family secrets from Nancy Jouyoon Kim, there is something for everyone! Below are my final six reviews of 2020.
This one is a recent Reese Witherspoon book club pick.
Taking place in Koreatown in LA and alternating between the 1980s and 2014, Margot, a Korean immigrant, learns of her mother Mina’s mysterious death. Searching for her own identity, Margot revisits their past on a road of self-discovery and to find answers. She learns about her mother’s life as an orphan during the Korean War and her struggles as an undocumented immigrant. Their mother-daughter relationship was fractured, though not for lack of love and the desire to protect. Misunderstandings due to the language barrier and stubbornness on both sides to refuse to learn another language contributed to their disconnect, and Margot’s deep dive into the past to solve the mystery of her mother’s death gives her a greater understanding.
This often heartbreaking story of unresolved discourse, guilt and shame in a loving and well-meaning mother-daughter relationship was an easy read. Dual timelines and a mystery combine to make an enjoyable debut novel.
In this 2019 National Book Award Winner, Broom takes a journalistic approach to the history of New Orleans with a focus on facts rather than diving deep into character development. She touches on her own personal struggles, being the youngest of 12 children, not knowing her father, and losing her house in Katrina. Feeling displaced and without a solid foundation, the importance she puts on her home has her searching inside herself and out in the world for some grounding and sense of self.
Sarah travels to Burundi (near Rwanda) where she helps forgotten people who are fighting the good fight but not recognized for it. She relates to this as a black woman from East New Orleans, which seems from her description to be the wrong side of the tracks. There are no clubs with tourists and music and food where she is from, just poor families and dilapidated or vacant properties.
I was looking forward to getting a feel for New Orleans, yet this story made me feel overwhelmed with sadness. Tens of thousands of residents displaced by Katrina never returned, and although the city of New Orleans is a highly visited travel destination and the business district is up and running and functioning quite well, the outskirts of the city have not returned to their condition prior to the hurricane and many of the people who used to live there have left to make their home somewhere else. Ultimately, though, I enjoyed this memoir about a house, a family, a neighborhood, New Orleans and America.
Benson, a Black daycare worker, and Mike, an Asian chef, are a young gay couple living together in Houston. They are in a romantic relationship, although they argue often. Fights lead to sex and then they move on, but nothing gets resolved and neither of them shares how they feel or communicates what they want. Mike’s mother is on her way to visit him in Houston when he finds out his estranged father is dying. His relationship with Benson is undefined, and Mike makes the choice to leave his mother with his boyfriend in the one-bedroom apartment they share while he travels to Osaka for the last chance to be with his father.
Alternating between past and present, we learn about Benson and Mike’s childhoods and their families. Stories reveal how the couple first met, that Mike’s father is an alcoholic, and that Benson’s father kicked him out of the house when he found out he was HIV positive. The narrative provides us with snapshots of their sexual experimentation and budding relationships along the way. Communication between Benson and Mike isn’t always spoken and readers need to read between the lines as these guys struggle with each other and the people in their lives, navigating friendships, relationships and learning how to give and receive love. I read this enjoyable Good Morning America Book Club Pick in a day!
I picked up this collection of personal essays thinking it might be a good choice for my book group. Co-creator and star of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Rachel Bloom shares snippets of her life with humor as she explores her feelings of being different from everyone else. Through funny stories, poems, pictures and songs, she gives us a glimpse of her journey while discussing mental health, bullying, theater, her TV show and Disney.
As it turns out, the book was not appropriate for my book club (a bit too raunchy for the audience), but nevertheless enjoyable! Although not all of her commentary sparked interest for me, Bloom’s theater references were entertaining. In one essay, a link was provided so readers could listen to her perform, and this was enough to get me to tune in to Netflix for her successful four-season show once I finished the book. Bloom ends her essay collection with a poignant afterword that speaks to the pandemic, the birth of her daughter, the loss of a friend and the raw emotions of the current time sans humor. Overall this one is enjoyable for Rachel Bloom fans, theater buffs, and those who don’t feel they fit in and could use a few laughs!
Giovanna is a teenager living with her educator parents in a working-class neighborhood in Naples, Italy. Her best friends, Angela and Ida, are the children of her parents’ wealthier best friends and all is well in the world. Until … Giovanna overhears her parents say she is ugly like her estranged aunt and from then on the story unravels. Giovanna goes on a journey to connect with her aunt and to learn why her family is fractured. She unearths what could be the truth and all the lies that come with it.
Disillusion and storytelling are prevalent with all the characters, including Giovanna, as we see how everyone in the story lies in different ways. Ferrante writes about desire and infatuation but with all the lying and not much romance, the relationships feel dirty with a false sense of excitement. Originally written in Italian, maybe for me, the meaning of this novel was lost in translation.
I thoroughly enjoyed That Kind of Mother and was excited to read this one. Definitely an unexpected premise, this book had an element of doom which exacerbated the existing angst during this time of Covid-19, but nevertheless was un-put-down-able.
Amanda and Clay and their teenaged son and daughter head to an Airbnb in the Hamptons for a vacation. After a stop at the grocery store to stock up on food and a full day at the beach, the family is relaxing in the evening when a strange, older Black couple knocks on the door. They say they are the owners of the home and there is a power outage in NYC so they would like to stay overnight. Unclear whether they can be trusted, the family reluctantly agrees. The unexpected visitors and the news of a blackout put everyone in an uncomfortable state of hypervigilance, and then they all get word of a possible hurricane approaching the East Coast, followed by the loss of their internet connection.
While this white, liberal, middle-class family is isolated from the city and confined in the house with this older couple, they begin to witness odd things. With herds of deer running by and an unsettling silence in nature, Alam’s story creates an increasing sense of panic, ongoing suspicion and an overall feeling that the end is near. While examining class, race and human behavior in a time of crisis, Alam’s impending disaster thriller is a worthwhile read. Why I wanted to read about characters experiencing isolation and burdened with fear, I don’t know … but I did!
Jennifer Gans Blankfein is a freelance marketing consultant and book reviewer. She graduated from Lehigh University with a Psychology degree and has a background in advertising. Her experience includes event coordination and fundraising along with editing a weekly, local, small business newsletter. Jennifer loves to talk about books, is an avid reader, and currently writes a book blog, Book Nation by Jen. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, two sons and black lab.