5 Things – Vegas edition

I freak out — for lack of a better phrase — a bit when Ryan and I fly on the same plane. While this doesn’t help my ability to fall asleep and let the plane time travel me to my destination in minutes, it gives me time to read. Thanks to several uninterrupted flying hours last week, I finished my latest library books more quickly than I expected, which is why there are two books in this five things.

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

I can’t remember when I put this on my reading list, but I grabbed it when I went to the library before leaving for Las Vegas. I didn’t have to wait for it, and the copy I found happened to be paperback, most likely because it was published in 1966. With its baby pink cover and cast of lovely characters, Valley of the Dolls could have read like a campy throwback to the golden days of Hollywood and the way TV usurped the success of star-driven movie studio successes.

Instead, I found something else entirely. The campy feel weaves through the book, buoying the story with beautiful characters and shenanigans like gifts of mink coats and women who ply their looks — or downplay them — to go after what they want in life. The three main characters, Anne, Nelly, and Jennifer, each possess a certain quality that allows them to make their way in a world where men hold the power to make or destroy their dreams. Ambition, talent, looks, and quiet shrewdness mix together under their lovely exteriors and propel each of them to success. But the other side of that pinnacle lies waiting for them, a wasteland where even the most successful women depend on the love and support of men to keep them afloat — even as it destroys each of them.

Vegas tripA Champagne vending machine

Prior to leaving for Vegas, one of my friends brought up that a champagne vending machine lived in a hotel not far from where we’d be staying. Of course, in Vegas distance, “not far” isn’t the same as not far in other places. The six of us started walking, and kept walking, and I’m almost positive Ryan thought my idea was the worst idea ever. (It’s likely all of the men, who were NOT interested in trying the champagne vending machine, thought we were nuts to keep walking, but no one else was going to say anything.)

When we got to the hotel, we entered to find elevators and very little guidance about anything else — no friendly concierge or signs pointing to where we needed to go. A quick Google search pointed us back on track, and up we went. (Floor 23 is where you need to be. There, you’ll find a registration desk, and they’ll sell you the token you need for the vending machine. The machine lives directly across from the desk, so we didn’t have the opportunity to get lost again.)

I’d rate the machine a little overpriced (though not ridiculous by Vegas standards) but novel, fun, and a little bit silly. Since our only plans that night were loose and not time-based, I’m glad we went.

Purple Reign

Between the six of us traveling to Vegas, we’d seen a variety of Cirque shows, which tend to be what I want to see while there. Britney had the gall to be off during the time we were in town, and none of the men seemed all that thrilled about Boyz II Men or the Backstreet Boys. All six of us voiced enthusiastic consent of the Prince Tribute show, and I loved it even more when we actually saw it.

Getting there took a little work. We thought we had oodles of time, but suddenly we were booking it to the MGM Grand to ride the monorail all the way over to the Westgate. Someone tripped on the way (not me) and someone had to change into another outfit when we returned to the hotel because she couldn’t stand for one more instant in her heels (me). Purple Reign still gets two huge thumbs up if you’re looking for a fun show, especially if you’re looking for a decent deal. (We found tickets on Groupon.) Jason Tenner embodies Prince so well, from his voice to his mannerisms — and my friends say his guitar skills are pretty close, but I can’t speak to that. We danced and sang along and might have spent a few minutes wondering why the group of guys in front of us looked so grumpy the whole time. Seriously, check it out the next time you’re there.

Vegas trip

Fine, this is not a hotel bar, but this cabana turned out to be one of my favorite expenditures of the trip.

The allure of hotel lounge bars

Years ago, I would believe people when they mentioned Las Vegas as a cheap vacation destination. It never works out like that for us. I don’t gamble very much ($30 total this trip), so I don’t rack up those bonuses, including free drinks. Each time I check ticket prices for shows, they seem higher than our last visit. So when you’re sitting in a hotel lounge with your friends, nursing a glass of wine, and the singer starts playing some of your favorite covers, you grab a seat and enjoy it. Hotel lounges make for fantastic people watching, too. People on their way to somewhere else and people slinking home. Conference goers (everyone toting matching backpacks) whose conversations grow more and more animated as the night gets later. We ended our weekend in Lift, one of Aria’s hotel lounges, singing into microphones with the lead singer, staying up later than we expected, and appreciating (so much) spending time with people we don’t see nearly enough.

The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

I loved The Interestings, a Wolitzer novel painted as a bit of an ode to the 80s and a lot as an exploration into artistic ambition, privilege, and the lasting impact of friendships that take hold during adolescence.

I read The Interestings in the summer, in the hazy days when everything stands still and everything seems like it might be a possibility. I read The Ten-Year-Nap on a plane, where a draft of a short story collection sat silently at my feet, when I harbored doubts and worries about what would happen to that collection. The mothers in Wolitzer’s story pressed pause on their careers (or jobs, in some cases) to raise their children. Now that their little ones are getting older, Amy, Jill, Roberta, and Karen find themselves a little adrift.

I’ve read some critiques of this novel claiming the women in the book take their worries too seriously, but I think that’s part of why I related to it. Leaving the work force to take care of my kids has been the greatest joy of my life, but it’s also shifted things irrevocably, and I know that’s true for many of the moms I know. Our educations and job experiences trail behind us, but they don’t seem to count for much. I’ve started filling out applications for certain things and stopped, embarrassed by the gap between what I used to do and what I do now.

The four friends find themselves struggling to emerge from the amazing, magical world of raising young children, a world with its own rhythms and languages, a world that sometimes seems trite and boring to those outside of it. When Amy’s husband’s eyes glaze over when she describes part of her day, she knows it’s happening — and I know that feeling. As Amy becomes enamored with and entangled in another friend’s life, a woman she believes has a grasp on relevancy she’s somehow lost, the reader sees how hard it can be to begin to balance motherhood, work, and a sense of self.

The Ten-Year-Nap might not be for everyone, but it fired along my synapses long after I left the plane — and encouraged me to take another step forward with my own writing.

Vegas trip

Aria

I lied. Vegas deserves a 6-item edition of 5 Things. We loved staying at Aria. Excellent restaurant options, a (relatively) good deal on a poolside cabana that absolutely made our Sunday, and large, well-equipped rooms and bathrooms.

I’m not sure we’d stay here again, though. Las Vegas is filled with shiny, sparkly things, and that includes the hotels. I have a hard time staying somewhere more than once, simply because I enjoy falling in love with a new resort each time we visit. Also, despite a tram stop located in the adjacent Crystals Shops, we found ourselves ordering Lyft more often than we expected when it came time to walk back to the hotel. Everywhere on the Strip seems far from everywhere else, but if you plan on leaving to eat or hang out anywhere but the City Center, consider Lyft/Uber/taxi costs into your vacation budget.

My favorite parts of the hotel were probably, in no particular order:

This post contains affiliate links, which means if you click on one of my links, I get a small (very small) commission. Alas, it only works on the books. 

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Saturdays are for reading: 2 book reviews

Almost Missed You review

Almost Missed You by Jessica Strawser

I can’t comprehend the idea of returning from relaxing on the beach during a family vacation to find Ryan gone with the kids, but that’s exactly what happens to Violet in Almost Missed You. The abrupt shift from a happy family dynamic to a horrifying nightmare keeps readers turning pages in Strawser’s novel. Piecing together the backstory of the main characters (Violet, Finn, Caitlin, and George) moves quickly, though the pieces shift as the story moves along. More questions arise just when readers think they have an answer they need to figure out Finn’s motivation.

Finn and Violet meet on the beach, but a long series of missed connections keeps them apart for a couple of years, years where each of the characters live their lives, forging connections and secrets that are only revealed bit by bit during the story. Finn and Violet aren’t the only ones with missed connections. The overall feeling of missed chances weaves through Almost Missed You, highlighted by the secrets we keep from one another and by the way making impossibly bad decisions doesn’t seem so impossible when you love or hurt with your whole being.

Protection, resentment, blame and forgiveness all play roles in the story, and I found myself impressed by Violet’s combination of steely optimism and capacity for empathy. As she works through her emotions when Finn takes Bear from her, I wondered if I could show the same strength as she does. I hope I never have to find out.

A Man Called Ove review

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

I put this book on hold at the library forever ago, along with the thirty-some people ahead of me in the queue. Thankfully, I waited around for the grumpy Ove, a man absolutely bent on committing suicide to be with his recently deceased wife. I realize that doesn’t sound like the type of book (many) people might want to read, but A Man Called Ove gently wraps you in Ove’s life until you see how a simple man can be a special light in the lives of those around him. The book’s narrative jumps around from past to present, and the flashbacks aren’t always in a linear arrangement, but each time the reader glimpses a bit of Ove’s past, bits of his present make a little more sense.

Handy with everything mechanical and quiet except for sometimes-harsh comments, the grumpiness that first defines Ove gives way to an understanding about his personality and a look into his own brand of kindness and generosity. One time, we bought my dad a hat emblazoned with one of the 7 dwarfs and the scrawled moniker “Grumpy”. He wore it to Disney World when we went, and moments in A Man Called Ove reminded me so much of him I laughed and cried my way through the pages. Any of my friends and family members who found themselves on the receiving end of his “I don’t know if I can fix it, but I’ll try” statements will know exactly what I mean after reading this book.

I received a copy of Almost Missed You in consideration for review. All opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links. 

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5 Things – Book edition

Reading more always helps my writing, so I’m sharing some book recommendations from what I’ve been reading lately. These 5 books run the gamut of subjects, so I’m sure any reader will find something to add to their reading list.

must read children's books

Rules by Cynthia Lord

Abbey and I both read Rules by Cynthia Lord. Her school participates in an amazing program called Authors in April, where authors visit the district to talk about their books, their subject material, and their writing process. Invited authors are divided by grade level, and I’ve been so impressed with the talent represented each year. The 4th and 5th graders are actually Cynthia Lord’s group this year, but Abbey brought home Rules from the library anyway, sped through it in one night, and then asked me to read it.

The main character, Catherine, loves her brother David fiercely, but she also deals with a combination of protectiveness and embarrassment over some of his behaviors stemming from his autism. When she becomes friends with Jason, a boy with special needs involving an inability to speak, Catherine discovers “normal” behavior can be hard to define — and so can real friendship.

The book deals with subjects so many kids can relate to, and we’ve had several conversations about it already. We’ve talked about special needs, popularity, and kindness. As she gets older, Abbey’s finding that communicating her feelings, wants, and needs involves more nuanced language than she’s used in the past, and we’re still figuring out how to navigate that vocabulary. I found Rules to be an excellent, authentic resource to discuss special needs but also to discuss the push and pull of emotions involved in tween life, where family and peer worlds collide in sometimes uncomfortable ways.

review of The Mothers

The Mothers: A Novel by Brit Bennett

I loved reading The Mothers by Brit Bennett. I enjoy a lot of books, but I want to make the distinction that I viscerally enjoyed the process of reading this one. Bennett’s structure and prose lean toward the lyrical, and I found myself easily sliding into the rhythm of her world each time I picked up the book. Like many books that stick with me, I felt torn between wanting to know how the book ended with wanting it to last just a little longer.

I’ve heard and read mixed reactions to the novel. Bennett deals with teenage sexuality, abortion, pregnancy, infertility, and — perhaps, above all — the complicated nature of female relationships. Two of the central characters in The Mothers have actually lost their mothers, one to death and one to emotional apathy. Though vastly different, Nadia and Aubrey become friends one summer, their friendship a little inexplicable, impenetrable, and perhaps inevitable given their circumstances.

Reading this during Listen to Your Mother season added a layer of complexity to the reading, as I’m immersed in motherhood stories right now. I appreciated the ways in which Bennett deepened the idea of motherhood to move beyond the relationship between mothers and their daughters. Of course that connection shapes all of the characters, but the other sorts of mothering involved — from friends and from the community — also have permanent, lasting impact on the women Nadia and Aubrey become.

The haunting idea of “what if?” permeates the pages of Bennett’s novel, a bewitching idea for someone approaching her 40th birthday and wondering about some of the choices I’ve made over the course of my life. Not surprisingly, The Mothers doesn’t end tidily, which gives readers more to explore (in my opinion) than if it had. After all, life doesn’t allow for do-overs, and the choices we make have ripples of consequences that can be smoothed but never undone.

The Whole Man by CF Rose

The Whole Man by CF Rose

Baseball season is upon us, though Michigan’s weather isn’t exactly cooperating. If you love the sport but wish it was a little warmer, pick up The Whole Man by CF Rose.

Rose’s debut novel tells the story of former promising professional player, Jesse Walsh, and the compelling Evan O’Cleary, a woman with whom he had a passionate weekend back in his playing days. When they run into each other years later, they circle each other warily but find they’re drawn to each other again and again.

Steamy and seductively, The Whole Man highlights the intensity of Jesse and Evan’s attraction while tempering it with their individual reasons for trying to stay emotionally detached. Evan doesn’t want to trust Jesse, though she begins to rely on him when a dangerous ex returns to her life. Unfortunately, their pasts have more in common than they originally knew, and the secret lurking there might be enough to tear them apart for good.

Rose’s experience as a former sports writer brings an authenticity to the baseball scenes — Jesse is now a high school coach. Her ability to climb inside Jesse’s head fleshes out his character in a way some romance writers aren’t able to do with their male characters. Evan and Jesse share an electric connection, and readers will love the way The Whole Man explores whether chemistry and good intentions are enough to overcome an increasingly complicated past.

A review of Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell

Winter’s Bone  by Daniel Woodrell

Bleak and beautiful, Winter’s Bone tells the story of Ree Dolly, a sixteen-year-old high school dropout and caretaker of her mentally ill mother and two younger brothers. The plot unfolds quickly, as Ree has only days to find her father and make sure he shows up for a court appearance — an appearance for which he’s bonded the family’s home, the only thing they have worth anything at all.

Woodrell, though, offers so much more than a tension-filled story with Winter’s Bone. Through Ree’s eyes, we discover everything we need to know about the unbreakable law in her Ozark town, a law governed not by the authorities but by bloodlines, secrets that aren’t secret, and the unwavering system that swiftly punishes those who tread too closely to cooperating with the police.

I could read Woodrell all day long and not tire of his prose. Lush and lyrical, he examines the impoverished lives of his characters and their harsh surroundings while finding the slivers of beauty that allow them to go on living when it doesn’t seem like there’s much hope left in their lives. Much of the story takes place outdoors, as Ree literally trudges through snow, sleet, and finally, ice in her search for Jessup. A single scene shows Ree truly warm, and those moments linger, letting the reader fall in love with her just as fiercely as we see her love for and loyalty to her family.

With crystal meth and vigilante justice as much a part of life in the Ozarks as branches cracking heavily with ice, Woodrell might not be for the faint of heart, but Winter’s Bone left me hunting out more of his books on my library shelf.

A review of The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale: A Novel by Kristin Hannah

After All the Light We Cannot See, I wasn’t sure whether I’d react as emotionally to another book about World War II. I found myself interested in the descriptions of The Nightingale as telling the story of the women’s war — how women resisted, survived, and found themselves challenged in ways they never thought possible.

At its heart, The Nightingale tells the story of family, loyalty, and how we’re shaped by our love for those around us. Faced with the loss of their mother, Vianne and Isabelle Rossingol find themselves adrift. Their father’s grief drives the three of them apart in heart wrenching ways, and the sisters deal with their losses in distinctly different ways. Vianne finds a love to build her life back into light from the darkness, and Isabelle surrounds her heart with steel and a thirst for action and meaning in her life.

When the Germans invade and occupy France, the sisters inevitably react almost in opposition: Vianne attempts to assimilate and wait out the harsher parts of war and Isabelle seeks out ways to resist the enemy at any cost. As the occupation grows more horrific, each sister finds her resolve tested, and both discover survival comes at a cost they’d never expect.

The insidious nature of the occupation broke my heart, even though I knew the facts of the war. The way Vianne tries so hard to keep her head down and keep her family safe serves as a perfect example of the way so many people looked the other way as the occupation and the treatment of Jews declined steadily into the ultimate violence. In a story like this, a happy ending isn’t possible, though Hannah offers a glimpse at the love and humanity that make fighting for survival worthwhile, even when it seems impossible.

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Hard to Die – A review

A review of Hard to Die by Andra Watkins Like so much of the nation, the Hamilton: An American Musical soundtrack dominates my playlists. Working from home means music often fills the space left quiet from the lack of co-workers, and I’ve listened to the Hamilton soundtrack more times than I could count.

I should be embarrassed to say I’ve learned a lot about history from the musical retelling of Alexander Hamilton’s life, but I’m too grateful to feel truly embarrassed. At least I’m learning now. Certain lyrics resonate on different days, but I often return to the simplicity of “Who Tells Your Story”:

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

History books take shape through the hands of those still living, and it’s often those who are lost who aren’t fully fleshed out, though their narratives may be just as powerful as the ones who live.

Hard to Die, a novel by Andra Watkins, tells of Theodosia Burr (yes, the daughter to whom Aaron Burr sings on Hamilton). Theodosia dies young, and Watkins gives us glimpses of her life as she imagines an afterlife in which Theodosia still lives, an afterlife in which Theodosia must complete a mission to move out of the in-between state in which she remains.

Alive but not, Theodosia has control over how she’s remembered only if she’s able to complete her mission — helping a living soul navigate a crucial crossroads in their lives. If she fails, she’ll simply fade from history’s pages, as though she’d never lived at all.

Theodosia’s mission involves Richard the handsome spy-turned-soldier who just wants to escape into normalcy. Unfortunately, leaving the spy network in which he was entrenched might not be as easy as Richard expected, even from the hallowed walls of West Point. Richard encounters someone from his past, someone with a deadly connection to Theodosia.

As each of the players circles the others, unsure of who to trust, Theodosia and Richard find themselves drawn to each other. The specter of suspicion lingers, and neither can decide how much of themselves they can reveal without endangering both of their lives.

Readers of Watkins’ other books will be pleased to see a cameo from a beloved character, and by the end of the novel, threads weave together to highlight Watkins impeccable plotting skills.

Truthfully, I’m unsure how much of Theodosia’s story comes from history’s annals and how much comes from Watkins’ fertile imagination. The story races along without demanding a history degree, and I believe Watkins’ take on the afterlife will enthrall many readers.

Read more about Hard to Die on Watkins’ author page.

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