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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Book Review: The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough, narrated by Edward Herrmann

I believe I first heard about this flood when learning more about Carnegie and Frick in a documentary. I love the Gilded Age (or as I like to call it, the age of the Robber Barons. But I say it with love.) And this story perfectly epitomizes all the problems with that era, which is looking more and more similar to the times we live in today, with the highly polarized incomes, the complete disdain for the lower classes by the upper, and the pushing of the working classes until they're ready to revolt. And boy, did this deserve a push.

In Johnstown there was a huge dam, Or really, just uphill of Johnstown. It was built by the railroad company, which then promptly decided it wasn't needed after all. It wasn't built right in the first place, wasn't maintained at all, and was occasionally vandalized, like when the runoff valve was removed. But the kicker was when a bunch of Gilded Age millionaires got together to form a hunting club on the crest of the hill abutting the dam, and in order to make driving over the dam more convenient for them, they lowered the top and flattened it, making it closer to the water table, and less structurally sound. No problem, right? After all, this was their lake for their resort and so they'd do whatever they wanted to it. And then in 1889, it rained and rained and rained, overtopping the dam, and pretty quickly after that, it broke, and a wall of water slammed into Johnstown, killing over 2000 people.

The stories from that day are both staggeringly tragic, and shockingly bizarre, such as people who floated conveniently into structures that would save them, small children and even babies who survived solo, and then whole families that were killed. In the aftermath, it was difficult to ascertain who were members of the exclusive club with secret membership, but eventually it did come out, and it was a big scandal, even if it didn't cause much financial hardship for the club members in the end. But this was still the heydey of the Gilded Age, and it would take many more tragedies of this nature, if not of this caliber, to bring down the Robber Barons at last. I adored hearing Edward Hermann's voice again and I might seek out more of his audio narrations as I think he's just terrific, and his sonorous baritone is perfect for histories.

I downloaded this eaudiobook from my local library via Overdrive.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Book Review: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Normally, I really avoid short story collections like the plague. They're really not my thing. For me, just when you get to know the characters and become invested in them--it's all over and they're dead to you. And I hate that. But this one was picked by my new bookclub, it won the Pulitzer, and my SIL loves the author, so I went in with high hopes. And they totally were rewarded.

The first story was very depressing. And the second story was mildly depressing. Which had me worried for the whole book. I wouldn't say it was depressing overall, but it sure wasn't cheery. Obviously, stories will vary in tone and I did like it, but it's not a collection of happy stories.

A quote on the back of the book described it as a collection of stories about immigrants but at least two stories are not that. Someone at bookclub posited that it had the theme throughout of outsiders, but that didn't work either. Every theme beyond, "all these people have some relationship to India," fell apart in one or two stories, but I don't think a story collection is required to have a pervasive theme.

Regardless, the writing was stunning, the characters were super real and three-dimensional and easy to connect with, and the stories were just great. I really, really do wish that a couple of them at least were full-length novels instead, and so I'm going to check out a novel of hers at some point. But for a short story collection, this was spectacular.

I checked this book out of the library.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Book Review: Hazy Bloom and the Tomorrow Power by Jennifer Hamburg

Hazy is a pretty ordinary kid, until one day when she discovers her secret power. She gets hot, and then cold, and then gets goosebumps. Then she sees... something. And that tiny flash image will happen tomorrow. And as a superpower, Hazy does what she can to stop it! Not that is always needs stopping. Or that she's the right person to stop it. Or that she even understand what the image means at all. But she means so well!

This all takes place in one week, during which her aunt is visiting, so she has to stay in her brother's room. It's also the week leading up to a school fundraising fair, and every class is responsible for a booth. For example, one class is doing an egg toss game, and one day Hazy seems an image of breaking eggs. So when a pallet of eggs is delivered to the school, and Hazy seems boys tossing the eggs outside her classroom window, she goes to try to stop them! Of course she's not supposed to go outside during class, and the boys don't break any of the eggs, so she gets in trouble. (However when her dad gets home from the grocery store and trips... well, there's the broken eggs!)

Cute shenanigans and misunderstanding ensue. Her best friend is excited that she gets to be a sidekick. Her aunt is extraordinarily helpful. And by the end of the week, Hazy might better understand how her "tomorrow power" can work for her. First in a series.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

I got this book for free from my work because it is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Book Review: Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller

Nowadays it seems like everyone knows about my Laura Ingalls obsession, which is how it should be. And which is why, when this book was first announced, no fewer than five different people all told me about it within  roughly a week. It was all over my wheelhouse, and I had plans to get it the day it came out, but then I saw someone at BEA walking by our booth with a huge stack of it in her arms! I practically ripped her arm out of the socket, getting her attention. I was able to also tell her about Henry Holt's Laura Ingalls Wilder biography, Prairie Fires, and we talked about Pioneer Girl, and she gave me the oh-so-important news that the South Dakota Historical Society Press was there--with follow-up books to Pioneer Girl. (On a mission, I did track those down before I left the show.) And she gave me a copy of Caroline: Little House Revisited. And although I haven't read a lot of non-Macmillan print books this year, this is one I made an eager exception for.

Caroline Quiner Ingalls, also known as Ma, was in her late twenties with two kids when her husband, Charles, announced he wanted to go West. He was feeling like the land in Wisconsin was too settled up and he wanted some wide open spaces and some free land. Caroline never really asks herself if she wants to go. Given the times and the way she was raised, it never occurred to her, most likely, that her opinion on the matter was even relevant. She did get Charles to agree that when the girls were school aged, they would live someplace with a school, and with that detail buttoned down, she helped him prepare (it never occurred to me before that she must have sewn the wagon cover, but of course she must have), pack, and eventually, leave and travel west (well, more like south. They didn't go especially west.) They went to Kansas where they built a log cabin, plowed land for planting, played with their girls, had a third girl, and eventually had to leave. In the story as we've all heard it through Laura's eyes, Ma is angelic, practically perfect, with nary a sharp word or doubt, hardworking and patient. But of course, Caroline is a person, a human, and she's not practically perfect, even if she might appear so to doting daughters with the benefit of hindsight. But making her out to be a superhuman unattainable saint doesn't actually do Caroline the woman any favors, as that makes her both not human, and not interesting.

Sarah Miller has reimagined the store of the Ingalls's first trip in the wagon through the eyes of Caroline, a young mother, devoted to her husband, but distraught at leaving her family, and understandably nervous about just what Charles was getting them into. Not only would they be in a more literal middle of nowhere than we can conceive of these days but when a bad thing happened, like a log falling on Caroline's ankle, or her having to give birth, they were virtually on their own. Luckily, a neighbor's wife helped with the baby( first time they met! That's not awkward at all) and when they had the "fever 'n ague" (probably malaria), an African-American doctor (!) happened by. But any number of things could have meant life and death to their small family. They did mostly luck out in terms of health and well-being. But in the end, the settlement didn't work out.

Ms. Miller has positioned her reimagining from a more historically accurate point of view, closer to Pioneer Girl than Little House on the Prairie (for example, Carrie was born in Kansas, not in Wisconsin, both in real life and in this book, although not in Little House on the Prairie.) For serious fans, this is a must-read. I was riveted, and even now, months later, the time just before the end of the wagon trip, when they are stranded in a flooded plain for what seemed like weeks of torrential downpours, still stays with me. For more casual fans, I think it's a truly fascinating story of what those pioneer days were like for the womenfolk, who are often ignored in history books and popular culture.Just like the proverbial quote about Ginger Rogers, Caroline had to do everything Charles did, but in a corset and several layers of petticoats. (And probably backwards too.) She was a stalwart, determined young woman who was willing to give it a try, and try her hardest, to help Charles achieve his dreams. The fact that hers weren't even considered wasn't a character flaw on either side, just a sign of the times.

I got an ARC of this book for free from the publisher, HarperCollins, at BEA.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Book Review: This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is mostly known for her novels, but I've read (and thoroughly loved) her two nonfiction books. This one isn't a memoir, but rather a collection of essays, many of which are memoirish, but there's no through-narrative. The closest thing is simply watching Ann's maturing, in glimpses, in bursts, and over time seeing how she becomes who she is, and how her becoming that, and her finding the right partner, leads her to be happy. She does have a funny answer to the title question: You marry early and badly, divorce, stay single for 20+ years, refuse to marry the man who proposes to you a dozen times, and finally say yes when you think he's going to die, and have him turn out not to die. If you do all of that, you'll have a happy marriage. Because that's the only way she knows how to do it.

Aspiring writers should most definitely read this as she talks about the difficulties of touring, of what it was like for her first couple of books, which were not raving successes, as she talks about trying to balance work, writing, and marriage in her 20s, and as she talks about being a success now. Her particular path won't work for anyone but her, but there are gems in the commonalities. I particularly loved the chapter about an aborted book project for which she took the Los Angeles police entrance exams. Her father was a cop, so he really was charmed by her interest, even though he knew it was a literary interest and she didn't want to actually be a cop. But then, when I know she never wrote the book about it, I do wonder if maybe more of her interest in that topic wasn't about her father, and she was using "it's a book idea" as an excuse?

She narrates the book which was great. Particularly as a fellow Nashvillian, she pronounced some trickier local names correctly. In the chapter where she meets up with a former teacher, a nun, who is elderly, and they become friends, I was excited that I guessed she'd gone to St. Bernard's before she said it (which is pronounced Ber-nerd, not Ber-nArd). And it was great fun to hear my friend and mentor Mary Grey James mentioned several times (she was the first manager of Parnassus Books, and she introduced Ann to Karen Hayes, her eventual business partner in the bookstore venture.)  It was delightful and charming without being twee or sweet. She feels very honest (although I do think part of why it isn't a straightforward memoir is that she's judiciously leaving parts out. But she's entitled to some privacy.) I wish she'd write a dozen more. I would gobble them up.

I checked this eaudiobook book out of the library via Overdrive.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Book Review: Prairie Fires: The Life and Times of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

I am a HUGE Laura Ingalls Wilder fan. So much so that I have visited both THE Little House on the Prairie, and also Laura and Almanzo's home in Mansfield, Missouri where Laura wrote all of her novels. I have read the annotated Pioneer Girl. I have read a lot of random Laura Ingalls Wilder books that most people haven't. I have even taken an online course about her.

When I found out that a publisher at my new company had the first straightforward trade biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder in 40 years coming out, I bugged the crap out of the editor until she sent me the manuscript (which she wasn't even done editing—I had to wait on the last three chapters for several weeks.) The last mainstream trade biography was Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Donald Zochert in 1977, which had cover art inspired by the TV, not reality, and which is fairly dated, particularly from a feminist point of view. (Yes, of course I've read that, too.)

So yay, this new biography of one of American's greatest authors has been long overdue. Ms. Fraser starts out with discussing The Dakota War in 1862, which directly impacted Caroline Ingalls' opinion of Native Americans which to a twenty-first century eye, casts a pall over the series. She gives background and perspective to explain why her point of view might have been founded in fact (massacres of white pioneers by Native Americans in retaliation for the U.S. Government starving the Native Americans) and not in blind racism. (An excellent book on that topic is 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End by Scott W. Berg if you want to know more.) And from there is a normal, linear biography, taking us through Caroline and Charles's early marriage, trials in their pioneering days, matching up facts from the Little House books to the facts of Laura's real life, and through Laura's marriage to Almanzo.

Once the biography takes off from the well-known part of Laura's life, we get a whole lot more about Rose, her and Almanzo's only child, and sadly a bit of a nutcase. She acknowledges the supposed controversy surrounding Rose's editing of her mother's manuscripts, and easily dismisses the theory that Rose did most of the writing herself. (Have you read either of Rose's novels which she completely ripped off from her parents' lives and her mother's manuscripts? I have. They're at best, pulpy, soap-opera-y, and not very good.)  Undoubtedly she helped immensely, particularly with navigating the publishing world, where Rose was already a resounding success. Laura and Rose had a very difficult relationship, at times co-dependent, and at other times barely speaking to each other for stretches. Rose could not have been an easy child, even as an adult with her spendthrift ways and cockamamie political views.

I do wish we'd seen more of Almanzo in those later years. It seems that we largely don't because  he was a quiet, hardworking, but not overly interesting man, but I still wish he'd been more of a character. and frankly I could have done with a little less Rose, but that's mostly because Rose is a real pain in the neck and a kook. But she was Laura's kook. And without her, her mother's stories likely never would have seen the light of day.

I really appreciated the context we got, showing how these stories of resilience, pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps, and the rewards of hardworking frugality, really hit a note in the 1930s. In retrospect, it makes sense that I return to Laura's stories in difficult times myself. In her fictionalized version of her family's story, thrift and hard work are always rewarded, even if there are years of bad luck and bad timing. In the end, things work out. And that was true also in her non-fictionalized life, even if it was more her writing, rather than farmwork, that paid off in the end. Every Laura Ingalls Wilder fan should read this book!

This book is published by Henry Holt, which is a part of Macmillan, my employer.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Book Review: Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

Last month my husband was watching SNL hosted by Lin-Manuel Miranda and he didn't know who Lin was. I told him, and my husband, no fan of musicals, was disappointed, as I was enraptured by his singing of "My Shot" in the opening monologue. Finally, I decided to download the soundtrack. Yes, I know, I'm a couple of years late to the game, but I arrived nonetheless.

I wasn't a hater, and I found the concept fascinating. I love American history, I love retellings and seeing stories from alternative perspectives, and I love the minority casting and while I don't love rap, I love the concept of bringing it into musical theater. And wow. I listened to the whole soundtrack a few times through. It easily kept me awake while driving on my last sales appointments of the season. And, I was learning actual history--bonus! Then while on my very last sales call of the season, I mentioned it to the buyer, and she really encouraged me to check out the Chernow biography, even though I know it's huge, and I'd heard recently that Chernow is not as accessible as Isaacson, when it comes to biographies. Still, she said the musical will have prepped me well enough that I'd zip right through it. I looked it up while still on the phone with her and saw right next to it in the library listings, this book, and I reserved them both. And really, which was I going to read first--the dense history, or the one with beautiful photography which explains the thinking behind each of the songs, when the actual history was changed for the sake of story, and how Miranda worked with Chernow on crafting the musical? Duh. Of course I read this one first. (I figured also then I'd be even more primed for the Chernow and have an even better chance at getting through the biography fast.)

Wow. Again. The book is amazing. The production values in it are terrific, I particularly love all the sidebars for the lyrics (heck, wish there were more), I love the storied of the actors interspersed throughout and the story of how this musical came to be--how Miranda came up with the idea, how he approached it, how his sympathy for a character like Burr really humanized the story, how in creating a storyline for Eliza he also made her into a three-dimensional character. In fact, I really think those last two things are what made the musical come together. In lesser hands, Burr would be a pure evil enigma we'd never understand, and Eliza would be a purely good cardboard character of no depth. But by making both of them completely human, they are so identifiable and we can now put ourselves in the shoes of all of them--not just in Hamilton's. That's excellent storytelling.

And yes, the songs are stuck in my head and they will be for quite some time, but that's not a bad thing. They are so layered and diverse and thick with plot, they take multiple listenings to parse out, even with the help of this very cool book. Now, of course, I am thinking of how I can get tickets... for a year or two from now. In the meantime, this is a great book for any big fans or anyone like me who loves to know the machinations behind the story and has no hopes of getting tickets.

I checked this book out of the library.