Monday, December 5, 2016

Book Review: The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York by Alex Palmer

I had a rather unusual experience with this book in that it wasn't exactly what I was expecting (and I think the copy on the book's cover is somewhat misleading) and yet I enjoyed it nonetheless. Normally when I'm expecting one kind of book and I don't get it, that negatively impacts my reading experience, but not as much this time.

John Gluck started The Santa Claus Association in 1913 to answer the letters to Santa that normally were destroyed by the Dead Letter Office of the post office every year. He had high standards initially--eschewing cash donations and instead hooking up a needy child directly with a wealthy donor who then could directly experience the joy of giving and experiencing the impact, in a way that writing a check just does not accomplish. This also gave him a high and mighty position from which to look down on other charities which Gluck found corrupt and wasteful. He used an army of boys from the United States Boy Scouts (NOT the Boy Scouts of America, this was a competing organization where the boys were armed with guns) to investigate every letter to be sure the family was in fact needy and not a wealthy greedy kid or a grifter or some other undeserving sort. It was glamorous and Gluck appeared in the papers a lot and eventually even married an actress, vaulting into the upper echelons of society.

But his non-Santa related work was not as successful. He was arrested for promoting a bullfight in Coney Island where the bull was hurt. He got into a massive battle with the head of the BSA as he promoted the USBS (and along the way, skimmed a great deal off the donations he brought in). Eventually he ticked off a lot of people in high places and he ended up being targeted by investigation for the shady fundraising tactics he was using in his once-vaunted Santa Claus Association.

I was expecting more of a con man story like in Titanic Thompson (who would have mopped the floor with Gluck.) Gluck dreamed he was that charming and smart and tricky, but he wasn't at all. He was a guy who tried hard in the wrong ways, was moderately successful at times, and ultimately a failure, but at least he was an amusing one with a good story. I did learn along the way about the evolution of the character of Santa Claus and the Macy's parade and other Christmas traditions, although I was expecting a bit more in this area. but upon reflection, maybe that would have been too much. I did like learning about the USBS which I'd never heard of before and that was a fun bit of trivia. Overall the book was a fast read with a large helping of holiday cheer and the story of a mildly reprobate huckster who in the end was fairly harmless.

Interestingly enough, the subject of this biography is a relative of the author's. It does make one wonder if we all looked back into our family trees, what interesting characters we might shake out.

I got this book at a WNBA book swap last year in Charlotte. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Book Review: Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want by Tess Vigeland (audio)

When I first was let go from my job in 2010, and was feeling adrift and sometimes panicky and often like a failure, Tess Vigeland on Marketplace Money always calmed me down. So much so that sometimes I would save an episode or two and listen to the podcasts immediately before an interview as they left me feeling confidant and in charge. Then in 2012, she left, rather abruptly. I was sad. I tried listening to the show for another 6 months or so but I eventually stopped. I didn't like the new host or the new format very much. Maybe I should try it again, but I think I really liked Tess.

So last fall, when my husband and I were considering a grand leap—moving across the country and both getting new jobs, and I heard Tess had a book coming out, and one that was about making big leaps in one's career, it seemed like kismet! And then a variety of things kept me from getting to read the book (for one, I was determined to listen to it on audio, but it wasn't available through Overdrive as a download.) And then I got let go from my new job and was in another unemployment funk. Seems like perfect timing so I requested the CDs.

And ah, there was my friend Tess again. The one who has her head screwed on straight, is sensible, and yet is also human and not afraid to admit it. The times I loved her the most on Marketplace was when she was admitting her own financial missteps, when she talked about how her and her husband combining their finances was a difficult decisions to make, when she talked about the several bouts with identity theft she's had to cope with. You felt like jeez, if these things can happen to an expert in personal finance who's at the top of her career, then of course I'm occasionally making a misstep myself—no one's perfect!

Now Tess doesn't even give away what was the event that lead to her leaving. And while I would love to hear the dirt, I appreciate her unwillingness to gossip. (Although it did feel like there was a bit of a hole in the story.) After all, why she left wasn't really about a single event. The book is about what to do when you decide you just can't take it any more but you also can't get something else lined up—whether because nothing else materializes before you get to the end of your rope, the time you gave yourself to transition out was too busy to do anything else, or because you just really don't know what to do next. It's no step-by-step guide to refiguring your career life, it's more about acceptance and about how the struggle to get to that next step in your life is okay.

Of course I didn't get to a breaking point and quit—I was let go—so it's not quite the same. But a heck of a lot still applied, and I even appreciated when she talked about some problems that I don't have as a "let go" rather than a "quit" unemployed person. Namely, I am not a "quitter," I don't have guilt for having put my family into this position financially on purpose, and Tess also experienced that a lot of her network didn't step up to help, as mine has, because they assumed she had something else already in mind, or else why would she quit? I had assumed that quitting was advantageous over being let go, but perhaps not.

While at the end, she doesn't have everything figured out just yet, she is in a better place mentally and emotionally, and she's ready for the next big thing to come along. And hearing that even Tess Vigeland occasionally is runner-up for an awesome job she'd love and be great at (host of NPR's Weekend Edition) makes it a little easier to swallow when I am runner-up for an awesome job I'd love and be great at. If I can have confidence that something else great is out there for her and she'll eventually find it, I ought to be able to have more confidence in my own situation, as hard as that is to do when everything feels like a personal rejection. So I learned no tips, I have no new knowledge, but I come away from her book with a slightly better state of mind, and I'm going to try to cut myself more slack, job hunting during the hardest time of the year. I do hope Tess will end up back on the radio or on a podcast, though, because I will listen to her talk about almost anything. I loved it. I highly recommend the audio version which instead of printing a speed she gave at the World Domination Forum, gives you the actual live recording complete with audience reactions and questions, etc.

I checked this audio book out of the library.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

My month in review November 2016

The Month in Review meme is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date.

Books completed this month:
The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees
New Life, No Instructions by Gail Caldwell
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West by Hampton Sides
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple
The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes by Zach Dundas
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E. Hoffman
Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want by Tess Vigeland

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York by Alex Palmer
The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters With Extraordinary People by Susan Orlean
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

What I acquired this month:
I was good this month! Didn't buy any books!! Have been using the library a lot. I kind of hate not buying any books.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Book Review: The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E. Hoffman

It was very hard to spy in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Very hard. The CIA had an operation in Moscow, but it was mostly hamstrung for decades. Between the difficulty of operating in a closed society, and the skittishness of the powers that be back in Washington, they really didn't get much done until the late 1970s. Then a man approached a car with diplomatic license plates indicating it was American, and tossed a note in a car window. Thanks to that aforementioned skittishness, the CIA finally started letting this man be a spy TWO YEARS later. His name was Tolkachev and he was an engineer. Among the oodles of insanely useful data he passed along were actual circuit boards from radars and MiG planes, blueprints, and details of the capabilities (and the gaps) in the entire Soviet air force system. He passed along incredibly valuable and useful information for many years, to avenge the poor treatment of and eventual killing of his wife's parents when she was a child, by the Soviet regime. Tolkachev didn't ask for much, considering what he was giving us. He did ask for a lot of money but he couldn't really use any of it. He wanted some medicine and drawing pencils for his son along with rock and roll records. One of the hardest things he fought for was a cyanide pill, as he knew what would happen if he was ever caught.

For me, I had trouble remember when this book took place. The technology that the spies had seemed primitive at best, and of course the Soviets were decades behind with anything pop culture or fashion. But it was amazing just how backwards it was, as I had to keep saying to myself, "In just two years, Top Gun takes place," when they were having trouble with small cameras that could work without very bright light, and other basics that you think were mastered in the 1960s.

The book is very readable. Slightly slow going at first, but once Tolkachev comes on the scene, it rattles along breathlessly to the conclusion (no spoilers). The photo insert did give away a big event with the ending (which infuriated me considering that for some reason the photo insert is towards the front of the book—it isn't even halfway as usual. And if it doesn't need to be in the middle, couldn't it be towards the end when that wouldn't be a spoiler? Grrr. But other than that, this book was an excellent history of a time and place I knew little about. If you're remotely interested in spying, the Cold War, or the Soviet Union, this book was just great.

I bought this book at Watchung Booksellers, my local independent bookstore.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Book Review: Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

Yet another book for the last difficult states from my 50 States Challenge that turned out to be excellent, that I wouldn't have read otherwise!

Lincoln lives in Nebraska with his Mom, working the night shift for IT at the local newspaper. Part of his job, aside from supervising the Y2K fix work, is reviewing emails flagged by the system for inappropriate language. Beth, the movie reviewer, and Jennifer, a copywriter, get flagged frequently for this discussions of whether to have children (Jennifer), horrid weddings (Beth's sister), and who the new cute guy is that they're seeing around the office. It turns out the new cite guy is Lincoln himself. And despite himself, he finds himself really falling for Beth. Even though he's never met her, and she has a boyfriend.

This all sounds complicated but it's quite the opposite. It's almost an updated epistolary novel from the days of yore when it wasn't a bizarre notion to fall for someone sight unseen. However, the fact that Beth doesn't realize that her emails are being read (at least not consciously—she does know about the flagging system) does cause an ethical issue for the reader, and for Lincoln. Midway through the book you realize you really want them to end up together, but you're not sure how it might happen, as her boyfriend isn't a bad guy, and the ethical issue would complicate things regardless.

What I really liked was how, even though at the beginning Lincoln doesn't like his job at all (he feels like he's getting paid for doing nothing), things start to go well for him. He discovers that realizing someone finds him attractive and might have a crush on him helps his self-confidence, and that helps him in many other areas. As his older sister says, it's best not to focus on what you don't like, but focus instead on what is working, and try to just add one small piece of good to that side of the balance sheet, one at a time. (He accuses her of treating him like an investment—she works at a bank—and I don't disagree with that but I also don't think that's necessarily a negative.)

This book is a traditional rom-com with some humor and yet it's also somewhat quiet, which I appreciated (no ridiculous set-pieces of tripping and being humiliated). I liked its Midwestern vibe and the caring friendship we saw between Beth and Jennifer. It's not so easy to develop fully three-dimensional characters through emails but Ms. Rowell does it masterfully. Loved it.

I checked this book out of the library.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Book Review: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

I picked up this book just because it is set in Delaware, and it's interesting that the last books I'm reading for my 50 States Challenge are proving to be excellent.

I'm not sure exactly why this book is set in Delaware, except maybe to show the immigrant experience in a place that isn't a border state, and therefore can be a stand-in for Anywhere, USA. The story centers around Maribel and her parents, the Riveras. Maribel suffered a traumatic brain injury back in Mexico and her parents waited over a year to legally emigrate to the United States so Maribel can attend a special public high school that they hope will help with the long-lasting, perhaps permanent, issues arising from the TBI. Their new apartment building is almost entirely filled with Latino/as from Central America, including the Toro family downstairs, and their teenage son Mayor, who falls for Maribel the minute he sees her, despite her limitations.

At first it seems like things are going better for the Riveras. The father has to do manual labor picking mushrooms in Pennsylvania, whereas he was a contractor back in Mexico, so their standard of living has dropped, but Maribel does seem to be improving, her mother is taking English classes, and they are making some friends in the building. But there's a creepy boy hanging around who seems to have an unhealthy interest in Maribel, and some other things go wrong. Then one night everything bad happens.

I wasn't expecting the dramatic change from a happy family who was starting to get some traction, to a very sad and brutal ending. The tonal shift didn't feel adequately foreshadowed and so it felt like the book took a sudden left turn. Granted, life can be that way sometimes. But it still felt unsatisfying when the book feels like one kind of book for 3/4 and then dramatically changes.

That said, I really liked the Riveras and the Toros. I even liked the other random people whose stories were interspersed throughout in brief 2-3 page tales of their immigration and life in America, such as the landlord, and the annoying wealthier woman. Everyone was fleshed out and felt truly three-dimensional, aside from the bad kid (although he even shows a glimpse of what turned him into a bad kid, with a throwaway line about his bad home life.) I think this book is super-important to read right now to understand what the immigrant experience can be like, how every immigrant has a unique story and a personal reason for leaving, some perhaps feeling like they didn't have a choice. It was eye-opening in that way, and I really got to care for these people.

I checked this book out of the library.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Book Review: The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes by Zach Dundas

I was introduced to Sherlock Holmes in the mid-1980s by my mother, a huge fan of Mystery! and so naturally I was indoctrinated to picture Jeremy Brett forever, as the Great Detective. (Now, after having seen others try to portray Holmes, I stand by that. Brett's performance is truly bar-none.) I went on to read a lot if not all of the stores and novels. The Speckled Band still freaks me out, as does The Hound of the Baskervilles, although most of the stories aren't scary—they're just mind-twisters.

Mr. Dundas is the perfect author to write this history—he's a big fan but not a superfan of disturbing portions. He does talk to them, the writers of fanfic and those who dress up and so on. When he was a kid in the midwest, he formed his own Sherlock Holmes club! But he also does thorough research, and yet the book doesn't read even remotely academic. It's very readable, even a fast read for nonfiction, and thoroughly entertaining. Mr. Dundas doesn't hold Conan Doyle to a very high standard—he understands that mostly Conan Doyle wrote for the money and couldn't be bothered with research or getting his time frames correct. But that isn't the point. While you might think that books about a detective with such an eye for detail would themselves have the details all perfect, but they're adventure yarns and the action is the main point. Holmes doesn't sit in his study and puzzle out the clues while smoking his pipe—he's running around town wearing disguises and using his much-lauded single stick-fighting skills. And yes, in between he often is doing coke, as he is thoroughly bored when he isn't thoroughly occupied.

If you read (or watched) Sherlock Holmes tales, this book covers everything including Conan Doyle's much-ballyhooed obsession with the occult in his later days, with care and delight. Enjoy!

I checked this book out of the library.