The Book That Would Be a Casserole: ‘Greenlights’ By Matthew McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey might remind you a little bit of Ernest Hemingway. They both favor declarative sentences, and while there wasn’t any bullfighting in ‘Greenlights’ there may as well have been. If you choose to read this book, opt for the audio version, if only to make the affects of this book more potent. Be warned, your reaction to the first twenty minutes just might be an honest to goodness “WTF.”

The structure of the book is almost thrust upon the reader/listener. Think of the boat scene in the 1971 classic, “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” As strange as the book starts, almost just as abruptly you’ll find yourself accustomed to his verbal-heading outbursts of “Note to Self!” and “Pree-scription!” and “Bumpersticker!” The trippy boat ride stops and you settle in to what is generally more akin to a smooth canoe ride down a glassy river.

Because of the outbursts, the slightly unbelievable anecdotes, the compelling dialogue, the uneven life advice, and the vulnerability that borders on TMI, ‘Greenlights’ is a casserole.

A little of this, some of that, everything congealed with a sticky substance–and McConaughey’s sticky substance is charisma. He’s a good storyteller, almost as much because he thinks he is as the fact that he has some talent for it. In the introduction, he says the book is not really a memoir or self-help and he’s right; it’s both and so it’s neither. Yet, whatever he has thrown together in this literary casserole, it still satisfies.

To his credit, you’ll feel a lot of things listening to stories about his family and his upbringing. Some might say he has the power to move you. Others might say that there’s a lot of “emotional unpacking” he needs to do. Yet through his mantras/advice/insights he seems to take ownership of it all. I found his attitudes nicely reflected in the lyrics of Feist’s song “I Feel It All” (“I’ll be the one who’ll break my heart”,) though, McConaughey would probably prefer his book being compared to a John Mellencamp song.

This Book Might Be Your Next Read If:

  • You like celebrity memoirs
  • You’re interested in intentional and unintentional depictions of masculinity
  • You like the way Matthew McConaughey’s voice sounds
  • You want to understand the perspectives of people who are successful in their chosen profession
  • You want to laugh along with someone who’s laughing at himself

Photo Credit: Penguin Random House

Delightfully Uncomfortable and Perfectly Tender: ‘The House in the Cerulean Sea’ by TJ Klune

Whether it’s because of what I’ve been reading lately, or what writers have been writing, I haven’t cried during a book (multiple times!) for a very long time. ‘The House in the Cerulean Sea’ by TJ Klune will bring tears to your eyes for all the right reasons.

This story feels like a parable, except the teachers, or rather mentor figures, are comically authentic children, residents of the Marsyas Orphanage, and the student is a 40-something caseworker who needs to live a little. This story is what you wish Disney could be—woke enough to have an overtly gay protagonist and irreverent enough to make the Antichrist likeable.

This novel is character driven, and Klune has found a way to bring out both the child and adult in his characters. You will feel ‘all the things’ along with them—mischievous, indignant, curious, joyful, hurt, frightened, cared for, and loved. Don’t be surprised if you hug this book fiercely when you’re done with it.

Given the fantastical nature of this book, you can almost hear Camille Saint-Saëns’ ‘The Carnival of the Animals’ as a soundtrack to this story.

The idiosyncratic characters are reflected in the tone of each movement. It’s said the composer, “intended to write the work for his students” (Wikipedia) and as such, you could pretend the songs were written for the children of the Marsyas Orphanage. This is not to say the children are like animals, they are not, and they experience painful bigotry in the story because of their magical status. This piece of music is fun, and the children remind the protagonist that fun is necessary.

Given also that the story follows idiosyncratic, authentic, witty, mischievous children, you’d do well to eat a dirt cupcake while helping yourself to this story. After all, isn’t the idea of eating worms positively silly and delightful?

This Book Might Be Your Next Read:

  • If you need to be reminded of the goodness in people
  • If you’ve ever worked with children as a social worker or in any other teaching/mentoring role and loved it
  • If you’ve seen “Joe Versus the Volcano” and liked it
  • If you like your fantasy to feel very realistic

The Book That Feels Like an Imaginary Friend: ‘The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue’ by V.E. Schwab

‘The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue’ by V.E. Schwab is a story that feels so special you’ll want to keep it a secret. But you can’t because it seems everyone already knows about this book. In case you haven’t stumbled across this novel, know this: you’ll want to savor every word to make it last.

Reading this book will feel like a new lover, like limerence. You’ll want to talk to this story, and in its own way, the story will talk back. This is why this book will be your imaginary friend. If you’ve ever felt like no one notices you, that the world moves in rhythms you can’t mimic or match, you will feel seen by this book. Incredibly, the novel’s premise and the novel’s aesthetic are one and the same. It will feel like an imaginary friend because meeting Addie LaRue is like having an imaginary friend.

If this book could be distilled in to a poem, that poem would be the song ‘J’arrive à la ville’ by Lhasa De Sela. Listen to the song and then, if you’re not fluent in French, read a translation of the lyrics.

It’s a bit uncanny the way Addie’s story is mirrored in the lyrics. Particularly, the part of her “Invisible Life” that follows her through France as she grapples with the reality of immortality by way of invisibility.

As the reader, you’ll feel like Addie’s only companion, which will draw you further into her world and her confidence. Lhasa Del Sela’s melancholic voice holds the same sort of sorrow that Addie feels as everyone in her life forgets her. In both the song and the novel, this sorrow is dignified and points to a deep inner strength.

For a story about a French woman who has nothing, I would offer, almost as a gift, that the culinary companion to this novel should be a baguette. A simple, textured food that feels nourishing, a baguette can be meal or snack, served plain or with cheese, or as a sandwich, or with chocolate. A baguette, in its versatility, represents the joy and hope this story contains.

This Book Might Be Your Next Read:

  • If you are a Francophile, art lover, book lover, and/or lover of the difficult to explain
  • If you appreciate LGBTQ love stories
  • If you appreciate nondualistic descriptions of very old concepts
  • If you appreciate clever characters
  • If you appreciate modern ways of thinking applied to settings from the past

Photo Credit: Indie Bound, Publisher Tor Books

The Book for Coping with 2020: ‘Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope’ by Mark Manson

(The headline probably tipped you off, but just in case, there’s some profanity in this book experience. Ye be warned.)

If you’ve reached the stage of the pandemic/post-election/post-insurrection surreality where you’re ready to dive deep into the abyss-like psychology of the United States but don’t want to get the bends, then the oxymoronic ‘Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope’ by Mark Manson, is just what this uncertified bibliotherapist ordered.

While not required, consider reading ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck’ or Mark Manson’s blog first, if only to orient yourself to his particular brand of ‘self-help.’ If that brings up feelings of TL:DR, this description from his website should give you a pretty good idea of what he’s about:

I write life advice that is science-based, pragmatic, and non-bullshitty – a.k.a., life advice that doesn’t suck

-markmanson.net

With that out of the way, this book will both overwhelm and make you feel like you’re getting the CliffsNotes. You may want to seek out some of the primary texts mentioned in the book, like Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ or the works of Friedrich Nietzsche.

The tone of Manson’s writing is a bit like a burnt marshmallow. You’ll have a mouth full of ash but then you’ll find a sweet, gooey center. Manson’s rhetoric is both sarcastic and contemplative, apathetic and industrious. He respects the thinkers who have come before him and endeavors to take thought to its next logical conclusion. SPOILER ALERT: it’s robots.

Since he advertises his brand of self-help as being science-based it’s no surprise that the book eventually veers toward the singularity. Yet with it’s breaks for subtle humor and overall Gen Xer attitude, there’s nothing that will get you more in the mood for this book than this work of musical genius:

(you were warned, this video is also NSFW)

So, how does this book help with the quagmire of feelings we’re still sorting through from 2020? Well, it’s tough love. Simple as that. It’s a friend who’ll tell you there’s vomit on your shoe and helps carry you to the Uber in the same breath.

This Book Might Be Your Next Read:

  • If you have a penchant for parodies
  • If you don’t have time to study philosophy, or the interest, but you like making thoughtful conversation at parties
  • If you think you might be interested in philosophy but you don’t know where to start
  • If you like gray areas

photo credit: HarperCollins (purchase the book here)

How Putting Fruit on Salad is Like ‘After the Blast’ by Eric Wagner

Try to remember the first time you had a salad with fruit in it. If you’re like me, you were probably in your twenties and were just discovering the culinary world beyond top ramen and frozen burritos. Usually, salads are for vegetables, and dressing and cheese are for hiding the taste of all those vegetables. When you put fruit on a salad, you’re showing your taste buds that hiding the “healthy” stuff behind the “good stuff” isn’t necessary because fruit is both the healthy stuff and the good stuff. Reading ‘After the Blast: The Ecological Recovery of Mt. St. Helens’ by Eric Wagner is both the healthy stuff and the good stuff. It is the fruit in a book salad.

You might fear that fruit on a salad is pretentious and to this I say nay. What could be more pedestrian than an apple or a pear? And similarly if you think science writing is also pretentious, or at a minimum, out of your wheel house, fear not. What’s really satisfying about fruit on a salad is the way the fruit’s juice hydrates the whole dish. The juice is the joie de vivre of a salad. And there’s so much juice in Wagner’s scientific observations, the writing is downright refreshing.

Whether he’s interviewing scientists or describing the surprising ways that Mt. St. Helen’s landscape recovered after the volcanic eruption of 1980, you’ll appreciate the curiosity he displays that’s also tempered by the reverence he has for his subject matter. Sprinkled throughout, like a few walnuts on our book salad, Wagner incorporates self deprecating humor that keeps the writing from being too serious. These moments will also make you feel like he’s invited you to be a part of his special club of scientist friends.

The refreshing and reverent take on the subject matter evokes Kishi Bashi’s soaring song ‘Marigolds.’ While marigolds don’t make a prominent appearance in the book, this song definitely captures Wagner’s earnestness, one that’s transferred to the reader, in the lyrics “I want to see the world the way you do.”

This Book Might Be Your Next Read:

  • If you’re a nature lover/national parks lover/science lover
  • If you appreciate subtle surprises and humor
  • If you’ve ever marveled at the resilience of nature
  • If you subscribe to ‘The Atlantic’ and that long read just wasn’t long enough

photo credit: University of Washington Press (purchase the book here)

H/T: In Defense of Plants Podcast

Moody Defiance in ‘Mexican Gothic’ by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The deep plum and emerald hues on the cover of ‘Mexican Gothic’ by Silvia Moreno-Garcia are the first hint of how rich this novel feels. The sentences will make you feel tipsy at first and then warm you like a thick red wine. However, this story is not for the hungry (that is, unless you hunger for flipping pages).

Be ready for stomach turning details that will make you want to clean your bathroom seven times and run a dehumidifier. This is definitely a horror story, but with an old-fashioned feel, like the horror of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Yet there are more modern elements too, despite being set in the 1950s.

The modern elements are reflected in the social attitudes of the protagonist, attitudes which hint at feminism, anti-racism, and anti-imperialism. The story’s modernity paired with its moodiness is aptly reflected in the tracks Moreno-Garcia has put together in the book’s playlist. Especially in songs like this one:

The repetitive rhythm depicts the frustration the protagonist feels as her beliefs conflict with the beliefs of her antagonists. The song has a sort of push/pull feel to its style that also alludes to the protagonist’s conflict. And the covers from the playlist, like “Tainted Love,” echo the way the story taps into the nostalgia of the gothic novels that came before it. If you’re at all on the fence about whether or not to read this book, listen to this playlist and let yourself read into the lyrics a bit. If you’re intrigued, get your hands on this book.

This novel might be your next read:

  • If you’re looking for a new take on old favorites
  • If you’re looking to be creeped out and filled with dread
  • If you’re looking for a satisfying resolution
  • If you’re looking to exist in the thin space between reality, history, the fictional, and the surreal
  • If you’re looking for a charming yet dissenting heroine

Photo Credit: Random House LLC via Amazon