Friday, January 20, 2017

Book Review: Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film by Alexandra Zapruder

I didn't have strong opinions about the Zapruder film or the Kennedy assassination before reading this book. and really, I still don't, although obviously that was a super-important event in American history and the film was an amazing capture of the moment before everyone had a camera all the time, and it's an impressive piece of history itself.

If you don't know, Abraham Zapruder is the man who caught on his home movie camera, the entire Kennedy assassination, in the version you've definitely seen. Yes, other people also were there with cameras that day, but his is the definitive one. He immediately went to the police and FBI and they worked with him and Kodak to get it developed and copied right away (both of which were quite hard to do with 8 mm film) and before the end of the weekend, he'd sold the print rights to Time-Life, and soon thereafter also sold them the motion picture rights. Twelve years later, the Zapruder family got the rights back and kept them, dealing with hundreds if not thousands of requests from researchers, students, amateur sleuths, and the mere curious, until 1998 when the movie was finally released on VHS and the government took possession of the original copy of the film.

Alexandra is Abraham's granddaughter. Like me, she wasn't born yet when Kennedy was killed, so her understanding of and experience with the assassination was very different than that of her grandparents and parents. Her grandfather died when she was an infant, and her father also died fairly young, so she started to do interviews and research to piece together, not only the history of this artifact and film, but also of her family and their relationship to this accidental defining moment in their lives, that continues to impact them to this day (after all, they don't exactly have a common name, so they can't escape perpetual questions.)

Ms. Zapruder tried very hard to be objective. I'd say she succeed about 80% of the time. Her family has gotten a lot of criticism over the years, the vast majority of it completely unfounded, so she's a little defensive, if understandably so.

I was curious if a book about an object would be able to hold up over this length (it's over 400 pages) and it totally does. She doesn't get much into the conspiracy theories, aside from people who wrote books about those and tried to use the Zapruder film as proof. And it was shady the way that Oliver Stone got permission to use the film in JFK. (Basically, he set up a separate company and the woman from that company who approached the Zapruders claimed to be a researcher.) It really is a unique piece of history and it's great to have all this context for it.

And a piece of trivia—while I was reading it, a woman who wrote an editorial about the release of the VHS in her local paper was mentioned, and it was my hometown paper, The Tennessean, and I recognized the name which has a slightly unique spelling. I messaged my elementary school friend with the same name and she confirmed that is her! She had no idea that 20 years later, her editorial was excerpted here. Small world.

I got this ARC free at the New England Independent Booksellers Association fall trade show.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Reading by Publisher

I have mentioned elsewhere but in case you missed it, I was let go from my job at the very end of Sept. Since then, obviously I've been interviewing. For a lot of these interviews, just beforehand I cram and read a couple of books published by the publisher, to have talking points in the interview, to better understand their publishing philosophy, and to show I'm making an effort. I did that with Workman a couple of months ago when I was a finalist for a position there.

I still remember way back when I was an editor at St. Martin's Press circa 2004 and I got a call Friday for an interview on Monday at NAL, where if I got the job I'd mostly be working on romance novels, which I had barely read before in my life, let alone edited. I went straight to B&N from work on Friday night, bought 4 recent NAL books that covered a variety of romance genres (historical, Regency, contemporary, thriller). And sure, I've read a book in a day lots of times. But I had to read 4 books in 2.5 days. I still remember the very odd feeling on Saturday when I finished one book, and didn't even get up from my chair, but picked the next one right up and dove in.

Then a couple of years ago when I was a finalist for a job at Knopf, in a very long drawn-out hiring process, I spent about three months reading almost nothing but Knopf books. It was an interesting experience, mostly I didn't enjoy it (I hate being forced to read books), but in the end it was eye-opening in a lot of ways. Even when I worked at a publisher (St. Martin's), I never read only their books, so it was strange and I learned a lot reading just one division of one publisher for several months.

Last week I had an interview at Hachette and so I read 3 Hachette books in 3 days. I hope to have a second interview so I'm reading a 4th one now and I have a 5th one on tap. And there's a S&S position I would love to interview for, so after the Hachette books, I thought I'd read a few S&S.

Then I remembered, in December every year I do a year-end wrap-up and this year I added two new fields: books I read for work, and number of different publishers (not imprints) that I read. Well thanks to the second one, I was horrified to discover I hadn't read a single HarperCollins book in 2016. Partly that's due to me reading a bunch of Soho books last year which I hadn't of course anticipated at the beginning of the year, partly it was due to my stress and more or less being in a reading slump most of the year. Mostly it's just randomness. I like HarperCollins's books, in fact when I worked at Ingram, I exclusively worked on Morrow and Avon (and Henry Holt), and I was the backup for the HarperCollins coordinator, so I got every Morrow and Avon book (Harper bought their parent company, Hearst, at the end of 1999 so those are all Harper books now) and I could get any Harper book I wanted just by asking the rep. That's another publisher where I'd like to work. So once I'm done with the Hachette and S&S books, I need to read a few Harper books. One thing I don't need to do is read more Penguin Random House books as I've read an absolute ton of them last year. And when I realized all of this, I was both reading a print and listening to an audio Random House book.

Finally, I decided that I need to kind of formalize this. So here's my plan:
5 Hachette books
5 Simon & Schuster books
5 HarperCollins books
5 MacMillan books (for good measure, after all they're the last of the Big Five publishers that isn't PRH. And I started the year with a St. Martin's title which is why they're last.)
5 "other" books.

So, unless I get an interview at an obscure PRH imprint that publishes narrative books that I somehow haven't read, or if my book club picks a PRH book, I'm going to try to skip them for the next few months. They really dominate the publishing world but I want to see a little more of what else is out there.

Luckily, this project won't be any hardship at all—I have a ton of great selections from all of these publishers that I am really looking forward to. Here are some options:

For Hachette I have read/am reading/am about to read:
  1. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
  2. Class by Lucinda Rosenfeld
  3. You'll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein 
  4. Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film by Alexandra Zapruder (currently reading)
  5. Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland (to read, for my book club so not going to change)
For Simon & Schuster I'm currently thinking I'll read:
  1. The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery 
  2. Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper 
  3. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
  4. He's So Not Worth It by Kieran Scott 
  5. Madison's Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America by David O. Stewart (for my book club so not going to change)
For HarperCollins I'm currently thinking I'll read (interestingly, these are all nonfiction):
  1. Marrow: A Story of Love, Loss, and What Matters Most by Elizabeth Lesser 
  2. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong
  3. There Is No Good Card for This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love by Kelsey Crowe, Emily McDowell
  4. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
  5. Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know about Life I Learned from Watching '80s Movies by Jason Diamond
For MacMillan I'm currently thinking I'll read:
  1. Rise: How a House Built a Family by Cara Brookins
  2. The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams
  3. American Girls by Alison Umminger
  4. Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz
  5. Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty
For "Other" I'm currently thinking I'll read:
  1. Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan (Milkweed)
  2. Garth Williams, American Illustrator: A Life by Elizabeth K. Wallace, James D. Wallace (Beaufort Books)
  3. Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss (Vanderbilt University Press)
  4. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket Books)
  5. The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game by Mary Pilon (Bloomsbury USA)
  6. Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France by Craig Carlson (Sourcebooks)
  7. Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street's Great Foreclosure Fraud by David Dayen (The New Press)
Obviously for the "other" category, I'm missing some of the bigger players (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, WW Norton) and I have more than five books listed. This category will likely see the most change, especially if I were to, for example, get an interview at Oxford University Press or something like that.

I'm excited about this mini challenge and it'll be interesting to see if, at the end of a couple of months of no Penguin Random House titles, I notice anything feels different about my reading.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Book Review: Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family by Anne-Marie Slaughter (audio)

It's funny how some books cross your radar. When this book came out, I was creating an index for an academic friend's book. She references Ms. Slaughter and just as I was reviewing that section of the book, Ms. Slaughter's voice came in my ear, as an interview with her came on  the podcast I was listening to. I figured that was too much of a coincidence.

Now, I don't have (and am not going to have) children so a big part of this book is only interesting to be intellectually, not personally, however, it still is. Because when we don't value the caring part of our lives as much as the monetary part, then my husband's jobs (social worker, therapist) are devalued, as they are traditionally women's jobs.

I do of course have friends (most of them in fact) who do have kids and who either balance (sometimes well, sometimes tippily) family and work, or have chosen to opt out of work (sometimes temporarily) in order to focus on family. I do have one friend where the father has been a stay-at-home Dad but that was for legal issues (he wasn't allowed to work in the US with his visa status) and now that he's got his paperwork takes care of, while he's still the #1 parent, he is getting back into the work force quickly. But Ms. Slaughter delves into all of these options and more, and all of the potential pitfalls, and the reasons that we need to talk things out and think things through well in advance. She has experienced that Millennials ask her about this much more than previous generations (perhaps because they're the first generation where this feels like there's a choice? She doesn't give any reasons.) And that's smart—anyone who is still in the figuring-thing-out stage ought to read this book as it will make you think very much about your career, your family, your life's goals, and what compromises you are willing to make. I like that she calls out society for making a big deal about "good dads" who are just doing regular parenting tasks that any mom would do without getting a second look. And she calls out women for not allowing men to do parenting or household work on their own terms. (She does not however call out men who purposefully mess those things up in order to get out of chores. I've seen it happen—it's not a myth, although hopefully it's not super-pervasive. And it's not just men—I had a horrible female roommate in college who tried that too.) She notes that as Generation X is becoming management, there are a lot less of us and so there is a management gap, and yet businesses still aren't willing to look at women who stepped out of the business world for many years.

I wish the author had read the entire book. She reads the prologue and the coda. And the narrator is just fine, but of course she doesn't have the same passion in her voice as the author, and the author was perfectly great so I am not sure why a separate narrator was necessary.

The book is certainly thought-provoking. It's a tad repetitive and the author seems slightly blind to the privilege she has (she acknowledges part of it, but not all). But it's a fascinating, thoughtful, and very worthwhile read. Especially for twenty-somethings. Think about what you want from life before it starts just happening to you without intention.

I checked this eaudiobook out of the library via Overdrive.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Book Review: The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati

A while back I asked friends to recommend to me must reads set in NY/NJ and my friend Jessica recommended this one, as she knows I like historicals. Given the length (over 700 pages), I had expected it to be a saga but instead it takes place over the course of about 2 months one summer in New York City in 1883.

Dr. Anna Savard is a surgeon at the New Amsterdam Charity Hospital and one day she steps in for her cousin, Sophie—also a physician—and a mulatto—with a group of newly accepted orphans coming into New York from New Jersey, who need to have a health check before they can enter the city. The Italian translator she discovers is actually a NYC cop, unusual as the force is mostly Irish, but she finds jack interesting, and so she's pleased when she later runs into him at a fancy-dress ball at the Vanderbilts' where he is working security. One set of orphans really caught her eye, and later she runs into half of them, the two girls, and discovers they were separated from their two brothers who are now missing. She takes the two girls home and they are virtually adopted by her Aunt Quinlan and cousin Margaret. Meanwhile, the love of Sophie's life, Cap, their friend since childhood, is dying of tuberculosis, and finally persuades Sophie to marry him in exchange for him going to Europe to try an experimental treatment (she didn't want to marry him as he's really wealthy and from Old Money who won't look at all kindly to him marrying a mixed-race woman who is a practicing doctor, no less.) Anna and Jack spend every non-working minute looking for the two missing orphan boys and falling in love, while occasionally looking at the about-to-open Brooklyn Bridge and traveling to the hinterlands of upper Manhattan, a wilderness still.

I really liked all the historical detail, although the anachronisms in everyone's attitudes and societal mores got a bit eye-rolling. Only one person in the entire book—Jack's youngest sister who is also an acknowledged bitch—looks askance at Sophie (other than the horrible moneyed people who shun Cap but they're supposed to all behave that way.)While The Establishment looks down on them for their racial acceptance and their professional careers, everyone else in their lives, everyone they meet, if super-progressive to the point that I think you could pluck Anna (or Sophie or Aunt Quinlan or Jack) out of 1883 and plop them into 2017 and they wouldn't miss a beat—they'd fit right in, instantly. So that was slightly annoying. Also I really wish I'd known this was supposed to be the first in a series. I don't like reading series one at a time, waiting for the next installment for years. My memory is too bad for that. No where in the description or in the end of the book does it say that (even in Goodreads it isn't listed as part of a series) but several commenters have noted it and also there were just way too many dropped threads at the end of the book for it to be anything else. Sophie and Cap go overseas halfway through the book, never to be seen again. A man is murdering women through purposefully botched abortions which Anna is helping Jack and his partner investigate, and he isn't caught. there's much broad hinting about Anna becoming pregnant but it doesn't happen. I'm assuming all of that wraps up in book 2.

Still it was a fun distraction, with lots of period details, and it's informative about the state of medical practice at that time and women's rights. If you like Gilded Age novels, this one is a fun one, but be forewarned about the lack of a sequel at this time.

I checked this book out of the library.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Book Review: You'll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein (audio)

I didn't know who Jessi Klein was before this book came out, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially on audio (and not a little because she sounds a bit like Julie Kavner.)

At first, I thought this memoir was more of a series of unrelated essays, but they mostly come together by the end. The only gap I felt was that at the end of the first section, when she talks about why it's not cute when a tomboy grows up into a tomman, she doesn't actually explain the shift that she finally made. It's clear from other chapters that she does now wear dresses and makeup, but how she got there was not quite clear.

But other than that, this is an often funny memoir of an awkward young girl who grows up to do stand-up and eventually to write for Amy Schumer (and win an Emmy). I especially liked the relationship parts, both about her ex-boyfriend Pete and also her husband Mike, as they felt very real and she didn't gloss them up at all. The time when Mike told her he thought she was mad at him because (they were about to go on a romantic trip) that he had thought about proposing to her, but now had decided against it, was particularly raw. She felt like a slightly neurotic old college friend who I'd love to hang out with. And it's so lovely to hear about her getting star-struck at the Emmys and also feeling like that was in no way the pinnacle of her life. It was all-around funny and relatable and just a great read.

I checked this eaudiobook out of the library via Overdrive.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Book review: Class by Lucinda Rosenfeld

I wasn't quite sure what to expect of a novel pitched as involving thoughts on class structure and white liberal attitudes, but I figured it would be somewhere between strident and earnest, two things I hate. Much to my thrill, the tone of this novel was instead, light-hearted and even humorous. And yet it does have many, many discussions of class, income disparity, racism, inequality, opportunity, and so on. But Ms. Rosenfeld handles them with such a light hand that you never once feel like you're being lectured.

Karen works in development at a non-profit, Hungry Kids, and her husband, a former housing lawyer, is working on an app to connect low-income families with housing. Their daughter, Ruby, goes to the local public school very deliberately, where she is one of only 4 white students in her class. But when a boy (African-American, poor) in the class hurts another student (white, not poor), and that student leaves for a neighboring much, much better school, it starts Karen wondering, both about the other school's academic possibilities, and also about her daughter's safety at her school, and how racist is it of Karen if she prioritizes her daughter's education and safety over her experience of diversity? Karen is also experiencing some ennui in her own life, as her job and marriage have become rather boring, and so she makes some poor decisions that get out of hand, add way too much excitement into her life, and possibly blow everything up. The book zips along quickly, possibly aided by the lack of chapters (which I didn't notice until I was 200 pages in although that's something I normally would have noticed sooner and that normally would have bugged me. But it didn't here.) Ms. Rosenfeld skewers white guilt and the lefty free-trade, non-high-fructose-corn-syrup, do-gooder holier-than-thou attitudes mercilessly and humorously. Karen is constantly torn by both belonging to that group, and yet recognizing the ridiculous of it all. In her inner monologue we get to experience the same doubts and questions and inconsistencies that rage in our own minds--is it racist to be worried about these African-American teenagers walking towards me when I'm alone at night and I'm certain that I'd be just as nervous if it was a group of white kids?

I am not a mom but I feel pretty sure all my friends who are would love this book. And it would be perfect for book clubs as there's a ton to discuss. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

I got a free ARC of this book from the publisher at the New England Independent Booksellers Association (NEIBA) annual trade show.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Book Review: The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth's husband Ficre died suddenly of a heart attack in 2011. As a poet (you might recognize her name as the poet who read at Obama's second inauguration), she had to write about it. Normally the words "poetic" and "lyrical" make me run for the hills, but Ms. Alexander is excellent and I thoroughly enjoyed this tragic memoir, that ultimately is about love more than it is about loss.

She goes back to talking about when they met, how they instantly connected and decided at the end of their first week together that they were going to get married (but they knew that sounded crazy so they didn't tell anyone until 6 weeks later). Ficre was a refugee who'd left war-torn Eritrea and lived in nearly a half a dozen different countries along the way to America, including Somalia, Germany, and Italy. At one point Elizabeth realizes that their entire relationship has happened in his fourth language. He was a chef and an artist. He was a great father to their two sons. And he was so very hard to live without.

I was scared to read this book for a long time because it seemed like it would be terribly sad but a strong thread of hope pervades the book. You know that Elizabeth didn't regret any moment she spent with him and would do it all over again. And along the way, she handles everything with grace and deep emotion that is so relatable and true.

I got this book for free from the publisher at Winter Institute.