Jenny Lawson is a blogger turned memoir writer, who is known for stories about her quirky Texan family, her random collections (taxidermied raccoons and creepy dolls, anyone?), her exposition of her most embarrassing moments, and most notably writing honestly about her struggle with mental illness. Broken (in the best possible way) is her third memoir and her fourth book.
Broken is everything that Lawson fans expect. In her somewhat stream of consciousness writing style, Lawson recounts the time the six times she lost her shoes while wearing them and the time she interrupted her husband Victor’s conference call with, “So I did what you told me to and returned that bag of stolen drugs and in exchange I got a big bag of dicks and that’s why I can never go back to the post office again and all of this is your fault” because as Jenny writes, “the art of mortification is what brings us all together.” Although, she sometimes uses these things in her defense to keep herself and other people apart; Jenny maintains a list of awkward things she has said to strangers to discourage her husband from insisting that she attend his work events.
It’s not all laughs. In “An Open Letter to My Health Insurance,” she carefully outlines the ways that insurance companies act as a barrier to good care, while also acknowledging that people with less privilege than her experience far worse; in “We Are Who We Are Until We Aren’t Anymore,” she discusses her family history of mental illness and dementia; in “The Things We Do to Quiet the Monsters,” she chronicles her experience with an experimental depression treatment; and in one spot of the book, she ponders what the dynamic of her marriage would be if her depression went fully into remission and she no longer had to rely on Victor quite so much.
Reading a Jenny Lawson book is like catching up with a friend you haven’t seen in a long time. Sometimes, you are laughing so hard that tears are rolling down your cheeks. (Seriously, don’t read this in public because there will be uncontrollable giggling.) At other times, it is so honest and vulnerable that you feel honored to be the recipient of her confessions. Like life, Broken is funny, beautiful, perfect, and sad all at once. While Broken, as well as all of Lawson’s other books, are must reads for anyone suffering from depression and anxiety, the audience extends far beyond the mental illness crowd. This is a great book for anyone who wants to read something both funny and thoughtful.
Cole Arthur Riley is the founder of Black Liturgies. If you are on Instagram, I strongly urge you to follow her at @blackliturgies. (She is also on Twitter and Facebook for anyone who doesn’t have Instagram.) I always find her words to be challenging, encouraging, and wise.
This Here Flesh is her first book, and it’s a collection of spiritual reflections, which are entwined with family stories. We meet Arthur Riley’s gramma, who endured both a traumatic childhood and an abusive marriage, to become a strong woman who guided her grandchildren with wisdom. Equally important is her father, a gentle and loving dad who taught her about dignity, but who is also a man with demons. And, of course, we meet Cole Arthur Riley herself who is as shy and reserved as she is intelligent and wise beyond her years.
The book is set up as a series of essays on different topics: dignity, place, wonder, calling, body, belonging, fear, lament, rage, justice, repair, rest, joy, memory, and liberation. As a whole, these writings explore finding God in all things, both the everyday and the extraordinary, and preserving your own worth in a world designed to attack your dignity and joy. I found Arthur Riley’s observations to be fresh, especially since she did not have a church upbringing. She did not grow up speaking Christianese or learning theology through well meant clichés, allowing her to see things that church kids don’t. She writes:
“I was sitting in McDonald’s with my first Bible-study leader when I told her I didn’t want Jesus in my heart. I was in my first year at the University of Pittsburgh and she, her last. She was gorgeous to me, even exposed to the fluorescent light rattling around us, but she spoke like the incarnation of a Hallmark card, which both aggravated and saddened me. I told her I wanted God out there doing something, nodding to the street beyond the glass window. Why confined to a heart?”
I was raised in white Christianity, and while the church I belong to now is quite different from the church where I grew up, I am of the opinion that there are some things that the white church does not do well. Lament is one. Looking to the Bible for a true understanding of justice is another. The Black church hasn’t had the luxury of taking these things lightly and instead these are essentials of faith. On lament, Arthur Riley writes:
“I am most disillusioned with the Christian faith when in the presence of a Christian who refuses to name the traumas of the world. I am suspicious of anyone who can observe colonization, genocide, and decay in the world and not be stirred to lament in some way. For all the goodness of God, my ancestors were still abducted from their homes, raped, and enslaved. I will not be rushed out of my sorrow for it . . . I shouldn’t need to recite a litany of wounds and injustices and decay in order to justify my sadness. In lament, our task is never to convince someone of the brokenness of the world; it is to convince them of the world’s worth in the first place. True lament is not born from that trite sentiment that the world is bad but rather from a deep conviction that it is worthy of goodness.”
This is not a breezy read you finish in a couple of days. You linger over it because each chapter leaves you with too many thoughts to simply move forward. For me, I would read a chapter either first thing in the morning or last thing at night. And when you finish it, you will want to pass it on your friends and your sisters because it is simply too good to keep to yourself. This is easily the best book I have read so far in 2022, and I suspect when we reach the end of the year, it will still be the best book I have read all year. It left me grateful to Cole Arthur Riley for sharing her thoughts, her beliefs, and her stories.
When Hannah Howard started her first restaurant job as a host, she fell in love with the food industry. Food had been a significant part of Howard’s childhood, but it quickly became her calling, and while she found success in her chosen industry, her obsession with food had a darker side: disordered eating had made food into a thing she both loved and feared. At the time of writing Plenty, Howard is a former restaurant manager turned food writer, and she has left binge eating behind but still struggles with body image. In this memoir, Howard not only tells her story, but that of women in the food industry. She writes about chefs, culinary teachers, entrepreneurs, and even a barge captain working in food-related tourism. Plenty addresses being a woman in a male-dominated environment, struggling with body image while working in food, and choosing motherhood while also chasing career goals.
While Plenty examines all the barriers that are unique to women in the industry, it is ultimately a celebration of food, family, female friendships, and chasing dreams. The women she profiles are interesting and diverse, and all of them are people she befriended while at work. She writes about a young chef just starting out, a chef who tired of the sexual harassment in the industry and transitioned to teaching, and woman who became a barge captain in the Bordeaux region, first by default and then by choice. I think the most inspiring story to me was that of Eat Offbeat, an organization which employs refugee women with no previous professional cooking experience but who are talented home cooks willing to learn to cook for a living. Howard also addresses what happened to all of these women during the pandemic, as they adapted to the changing industry.
I think Plenty would be enjoyed by foodies and by women who work in male-dominated industries. It would also be a natural book club selection, because it lends itself to sharing stories about work, family food traditions, and motherhood. If either eating disorders or miscarriage are triggering topics for you, you might want to pass on this. Miscarriage is part of my own story, so I may have spent that part of the book curled up with a box of tissues, crying for both her and me. No regrets for reading it, but I did want to offer a warning to anyone who may need it.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of Plenty on Amazon First Reads. It did not affect my review as I only review books I recommend.
Hannah Howard describes herself as a “writer and cheese maven” on her website, so the only acceptable food offering for a book club is a cheese plate or a charcuterie board. September is a great time to add some fall flavors into the mix, such as figs, pears, apples, and grapes.
Recommended book club menu:
Charcuterie board: One soft cheese and one firm cheese (brie and cheddar pictured), pear slices, figs, sugared prosecco grapes (recipe below), roasted grapes (pictured on brie, recipe also below), baguette, crackers, macarons
Cocktail: French 75 (recipe below)
Mocktail: Apple ginger mocktail (recipe below)
Sugared Prosecco Grapes
The first thing you need to know is that you’ll be draining most of the prosecco, so don’t use a fancy bottle. A $5 bottle works just fine here. Also note my lack of measurements here. You don’t need any terribly specific ratios here as the grapes are merely soaking in the wine. If you are preparing this for a crowd (a couple lbs. of grapes), then you’ll want to use a full bottle of wine. If you are using a small bunch of grapes like I did, you’ll use a third of a bottle at most.
Place grapes in a bowl. Pour enough prosecco over to cover the grapes completely.
Cover and refrigerate overnight (or several hours).
Drain grapes, but don’t dry completely.
Pour sugar into a baking sheet. Add grapes and roll in sugar until coated evenly.
Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Variation: Prosecco grapes can also be frozen. I didn’t do so here, as this is a fall-themed board, but frozen grapes would be delicious for an outdoor summer party. If you freeze them, just make sure to do so in a single layer so they don’t stick together like a sparkling bundle of disappointment.
Grapes may be a fruit we are accustomed to eating only raw, but that’s a sad underestimation of this delicious fruit.
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 425.
Toss grapes on a baking sheet with olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary (if using).
Bake for 25 minutes.
First things first. Do you have simple syrup in your house? If you don’t, it’s easy enough to make at home, but you need to make it a bit in advance as it needs to cool before you use it. I’d recommend making it while your grapes are roasting. Just add equal amounts sugar and water in a small saucepan. (I used 1/3 cup of each.) Heat on low and stir until sugar is completely dissolved. Let it cool.
1 ounce gin
1/2 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup
2 ounces sparkling wine
Combine gin, lemon juice, and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker with ice.
1983: Kendra Rae Phillips should have been on top of the world. A rising star at Wagner Books, Kendra is the editor of the book of the year, Burning Heart. Written by a Black woman and edited by another Black woman, Burning Heart is all that the literary world can speak about. But Kendra becomes involved in a scandal and flees her life in New York City, disappearing from public life altogether.
2018: Editorial assistant Nella Rogers pursued and acquired a job at Wagner Books to follow in the footsteps of Kendra Rae Phillips, her role model. Once there, she is disappointed by the lack of diversity. She is the only Black employee and people seem to get nervous when Kendra Rae’s name comes up. Nella gets involved with diversity initiatives, only to learn that no one wants to participate. When Hazel is hired to be newest editorial assistant, Nella is grateful to no longer be the only Black employee. While Hazel seems friendly, Nella begins to suspect her work is being sabotaged as Hazel quickly becomes the most sought after employee at Wagner.
This debut novel is fabulous. I kept anxiously trying to work out the twist to this novel because I knew there had to be a big one. Well, there was a big twist, and the hints to the twist are present very early on, but I went down the wrong path entirely because I read too many Ruth Ware and Lucy Foley books, and this is definitely not one of those books. Initially, it’s a bit Mean Girls in an office setting and addresses everything from the politics of natural hair to code switching to half-hearted workplace diversity initiatives. And the ending cannot be called anything but horror. Its clever and page-turning and it’s unlike anything else I have read.
Disclosure: Purchased my own copy.
Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid (novel)
Every August, the four Riva siblings, estranged children of musician Mick Riva, hold a large party. In 1983, the Riva siblings await the party with a combination of dread and hope. Nina, a surfer/supermodel and the eldest of the Riva family, has been in all of the tabloids after being left by her tennis pro husband and is in no mood to have half of Malibu in her home. Jay is putting all of his attention into making sure his love interest attends, if only to distract himself from news he’d rather not think about. Hud is dreading telling Jay a secret that could destroy their close relationship. And Kit is determined to solve the problem of her non-existent love life for good. If sibling drama is not enough, an abundance of drugs ensures the 1983 guests are the rowdiest bunch yet, and by morning, the entire mansion is in flames.
Taylor Jenkins Reid books are pretty much the definition of a beach read. Glamorous characters, glamorous situations, yet well written enough to deserve your time. And I believe Malibu Rising may be her best yet. It’s about how fame and money changed both a family and Malibu. The story spans from the fifties when Mick Riva met June, the mother of the siblings, in Malibu when it was just a simple fishing village that considered itself far from the glamour and money of Hollywood to the eighties when the Hollywood elite had long since descended upon Malibu.
I was pleasantly surprised to find the Riva siblings less obnoxiously privileged than I expected. Don’t get me wrong, they are privileged and I initially took a strong dislike to everyone but the feisty Kit. But while the Rivas are quite rich and accomplished in 1983, they were abandoned by their famous father and had to make their own way. They did inherit a struggling restaurant after the death of their mother, which ensured their survival, even though they were too young to effectively run it. In reading about their upbringing, I loved all of the siblings, especially Nina who was the default mother of the family.
Disclosure: Purchased my own copy.
The Guncle by Steven Rowley (novel)
At age forty-three, Patrick is a retired sitcom actor who lives alone in Palm Springs. He has a Golden Globe and an Oscar Wilde quote for every occasion. What Patrick does not have is experience with children, and he is a stranger to his niece and nephew who simply know him as GUP (Gay Uncle Patrick). When Patrick’s sister-in-law and best friend, Sara, passes away, and his brother goes into rehab for a pill addiction that went unnoticed during Sara’s battle with cancer, Patrick finds himself temporary primary caregiver for nine-year-old Maisie and six-year-old Grant. Given that the kids don’t drink martinis, he’s not quite sure how to bond with them, and he definitely doesn’t know how to help them with their grief given that he has never recovered from losing his own partner years before. There are missteps and careless words aplenty, but Patrick finds he was made to be a guncle.
The Guncle is one of those books that seems like a fluffy beach read on first glance. And it is very much a beach read, but it isn’t overly fluffy. At risk of sounding odd, what this reminded me of was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Plot wise, they are very different books, but in tone, they are more similar than dissimilar. Both books are laugh out loud funny, and both contain isolated main characters who have very little filter in what they say. However, both books deal seriously with loss and trauma and are set apart by their excellent characterization and writing.
Recently, a Christian author tweeted that she wanted to get into the women’s devotional market, only she needed a husband and four children for Instagram first. I snorted into my morning coffee as I read this, immediately able to to picture the hypothetical Instagram family all color coordinated for Easter service. Dad with a beard and a bowtie, photogenic children, and mom with blond waves worthy of a Hallmark movie. He is risen. Get 25% off my favorite curling wand with the special offer code JESUS.
This is 100% what the Christian publishing industry markets to women, and it’s exhausting.
This collection is authored by women, but it’s anything but girly. And my favorite thing about it is there isn’t even the slightest whiff of American prosperity gospel in it. A Rhythm of Prayer is a collection of prayers and essays on prayer by female theologians and writers.
This collection is real. It’s about being grounded in faith when times are difficult, when injustice is all around, when physical and mental health issues are all consuming. It doesn’t shy away from addressing the sins of the church, such as racism and ableism. It’s poetic and practical and very approachable, a guide to finding God in the everyday. There were authors I knew like Barbara Brown Taylor and Nadia Bolz-Weber and many I didn’t but now follow on Twitter. One of the authors (Marlena Graves) is someone I went to college with, while another (Emily Swan) pastors a semi-local church.
Sarah Bessey and Winnie Varghese write about growing up in communities that prayed faithfully. Alia Joy writes about faith and prayer in the midst of the highs and lows of bipolar disorder. Chanequa Walker-Barnes addresses praying while struggling under the weight of injustice. Nish Weiseth uses Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Prayer of Examen to guide us in developing our politics around our faith and not the other way around. Sarah Bessey details how to use breath prayer to meditate on scripture. In my favorite piece, Osheta Moore writes about praying for justice as she makes chicken noodle soup, finding meaning in each ingredient: carrots for wisdom, celery for anger that mellows when directed towards action, noodles for connection.
I would recommend this to anyone—male or female—of the Christian faith. Whether you are a pillar of your church, or questioning your childhood faith, or not questioning your faith but definitely questioning the church given current Christian cultural clashes. As Sarah Bessey writes in the introduction, “Prayer is still for you. You still get to cry out to God, you still get to yell, weep, praise, and sit in the silence until you sink down into the Love of God that has always been holding you whether you knew it or not.”
A Rhythm of Prayer is a reminder that while life may be difficult, prayer is a gift. A beautiful privilege rather than a duty.