Friday, March 16, 2018

Book Review: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Oh my God I finished! I finished I finished I finished! Now with a preamble like that, you might think this book was torture which is why I'm so happy to be done with it, but it was the complete opposite. I really, thoroughly enjoyed it--it's just that it's really long, and it's already hard for me to squeeze in many non-work books, particularly loooooong ones that are also dense and therefore can't be read in massive chunks and take some serious time to digest.

Of course, if you're familiar with the musical, the biography is easier to read, as you have already gotten the Cliff's Notes version. As this book is the source material, I suppose ideally it ought to be read first, but I suspect that most people will be like me--first hear the musical. (I then read a book about the musical as well.) So like me, people will probably be looking for deviations, and also might get tripped out about which is the real story. It's much easier to believe the first thing you learn is real and deviations from that must be not right, but of course in this situation that's not the case--Miranda had to make adjustments to the facts to fit with a story arc and with songs and to abridge events and to move the action along and compress characters. But I'd say 80% of it is accurate.

What I did take some issue with is that certain events, such as the Reynolds Pamphlet, did not to me come across with the appropriate level of gravity for the situation. I felt like Chernow occasionally was too even-handed and too wedded to being an impartial fact-teller to give more profoundly impactful events in Hamilton's life, more weight in the book. That said, it is a biography, not a narrative, so I do understand his choice. I just worry that if I hadn't been prepped by the musical, I might have skimmed over some of the bigger events in his life without realizing how big they were. And it's not like Chernow never broke that role--he frequently comments on the humor of a situation, on the audacity of an action, or the astonishment he found upon trying to figure out simply HOW Hamilton wrote even half of what he did in the time allotted to him. (I really liked his conclusion that a lot was dictated and that Hamilton had the amazing ability to think and speak in complete sentences and paragraphs, even for hours at a time, extemporaneously.)

The book is very well-written, the historical era doesn't make anything at all hard to understand, and Chernow writes with aplomb and insight. It's not a wild page-turner or a great beach read, but if you're looking for a fascinating and incredibly well-written biography, you just can't go wrong here.

At first I borrowed this book from the library but after I used up all my renewals, I bought it at the new/used independent bookstore in my town.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Book Review: The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater by Alanna Okun

I am not a knitter. I might start next year. I did once knit a very plain scarf that was too short, but I was flummoxed by connecting a new skein of yarn.

Alanna is a knitter. In fact, she's a KNITTER, all caps. She knits forever and always and in every situation. She is in her twenties and moving to New York City and getting a new job and dating. And in these series of memoir-essays, she covers all of this, and knitting. And a few other crafts. Her mother is also crafty, which they put to good use when her mother helps decorate her new Brooklyn apartment.

The title refers to an incident I am familiar with, despite my not knitting. See, I do cross-stitch, which is another old-fashioned fabric craft. And not often, but every once in a blue moon, I would make a cross-stitch picture for the guy I was dating. And I mourn those long-gone works, and hope they still have good homes. In the world of knitting, this is known as a phenomenon where as soon as you knit your boyfriend a sweater, he will break up with you. Now, some of the sweaters in question were worth breaking up over (and frankly, I'm not sure I would have followed through with the gifting is they really turned out terribly sized, but whatever.) But it's a literal through-thread in Alanna's young adulthood--all the usual twenty-something angst, with yarn.

I got this book for free from Macmillan, my employer, also the publisher.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Book Review: As She Fades by Abbi Glines

Vale and her boyfriend, Crawford, were hit by a car on high school graduation night and he's in a coma. They've been together since practically kindergarten, and had their lives together all planned out. She spends all day at the hospital, although Crawford's mother is angry with her and will barely let her see him. While there, she meets Slate, a guy from her older brother's fraternity, who is visiting his dying uncle, and they become friends.

In the fall, she reluctantly decides she needs to start college without him, and move on with her life. At college, everyone is shocked that she's friends with Slate, a notorious man-slut with no female friends, just conquests. And her brother of course keeps his eye on them. And then, there's a massive twist. So I'm done with plot description.

This book I didn't love. I am trying to think back to when I was seventeen and decide if I'd have liked it then, and I think I would have liked it more But I'd have liked to see more dimensionality in the characters, more agency in Vale (although that does improve through the course of the book), much more development of Crawford who remains an enigma throughout. And the fraternity is never, ever called "Kappa Sigma." What a mouthful! It's always, always "Kappa Sig" at every college in the country. I know that's a finicky complaint, but it's minor errors like that that bring the reader out of the story.

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

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

My Month in Review: February

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

I did a lot of driving this month but listened to a ton of podcasts. I also was really busy with work and just didn't have as much time to read, sadly.

I note the non-Macmillan books in this post with a star.

Books completed this month:
The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Dream Daughter by Diane Chamberlain
The Chaos of Now by Erin Jade Lange
Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong (audio)*
Ellie, Engineer: The Next Level by Jackson Pearce
The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer (audio)*
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (audio)*

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow*
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson (audio)*
A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler

What I acquired this month (non-work books):
After buying almost no new books in 2017, I went a little nuts this month. With the bittersweet knowledge that I will get to read very, very few of these anytime soon.

Euphoria by Lily King
Kindred by Octavia Butler
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahirii
I Let You Go by Claire Macintosh
Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore
Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman
Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola
A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman                               
Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey
Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence by Bill James
The Woman's Hour: The Last Furious Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine F. Weiss
Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Book Review: Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan by Ted Scheinman

I am so bummed that this happened in Chapel Hill and I never heard about it before now, even though I lived in Charlotte at the time. I guess that was the year I let my JASNA membership lapse, sigh.

Mr. Scheinman was a grad student at UNC when one of his professors came up with the idea to host what they jokingly refer to as a summer camp for grown ups but what is more of a conference, for academics and laypeople alike, focusing on Jane Austen. It is interesting to mix the two groups. Normally, they don't mix much, aside from the handful of professors who are invited as speakers to JASNA's annual meeting, but they are wildly outnumbered there, and tailoring their topics to a more lay audience, so this did have a different feel. I found one chapter to be too formal in tone, but then Mr. Scheinman settled down and got into the fun of things. Were all the costumes of the people's behavior perfectly accurate to the era? Certainly not. And is he a little full of himself after he's asked to play Mr. Darcy? Yes indeed. But it's easy to forgive these trips as we're all only human, even Austen herself was human, and so at times there are stumbles. However, for a casual Janeite, this was a fun read, and will inspire envy and hope that they'll do it again.

I got this book for free from FSG, the publisher, part of Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Book Review: In Search Of by Ava Dellaira

Angie never met her father. He died before she was born. Sure, life would have been hard with him too, as her parents were still teens when they got pregnant, and her father was black and her mother is white, but still, she'd give anything to have known him. Her mother won't even talk about him—she gets too upset when he comes up.

When Marilyn met James, she and her mother were crashing at her uncle's crappy LA apartment, as her mother's dreams for Marilyn's future as a famous star were pursued. Her uncle is a drunk, abusive, and sometimes scary, so Marilyn gets out of the house as much as she can. She meets James, a neighbor in the complex, and while her uncle warns her to stay away from him, James's nuclear family with even his grandmother living with them, hot home-cooked meals eaten around the family dinner table, and engaged parents and siblings, seems like the dream family Marilyn never had. She can't stay away.

Angie finds out that she has an uncle she never knew about, her father's brother. She wonders about his whole family who she's never met. In fact, she wonders, if her mother kept his family away, maybe she kept him away too. Maybe she lied about him being dead. So she sets out to LA to find out the truth for herself about Marilyn and James, all those years ago.

The book deals a lot with secrets and lies, and Marilyn and James are compelling characters. Angie is a little less-so, as it's fairly reckless to just decide to take off for California as a teenager, and also a little juvenile to believe her father might still be alive. But teens are prone to that kind of magical thinking. The older narrative had a lot more resonance for me. Maybe it's because that time frame was closer to when I was a teen, but I think those characters were just more fully drawn and more alive than the contemporary ones. Well, in a dual-narrative story, you're always going to like one story better than the other. This was a heart-wrenching story and you'll find yourself rooting for Angie, Marilyn and James, all the way.

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

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Book Review: P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy

This book wrecked me. At fist, I just thought it was a sweet story, albeit around some deeper topics, but the end had me sobbing (and I am not an easy book crier.) Literally, I was reading in bed after my husband had gone to sleep and while I was able to be quiet, I had to get out of bed because I was sobbing so hard I was shaking the bed and I was afraid I would wake him up.

Cilla got pregnant in high school, and her parents sent her away to live with an aunt in Virginia, as they are super-Catholics (I say, having been raised as a liberal Catholic), and it's embarrassing and shameful to her parents. Her little sister Evie, finds her parents' reaction to Cilla's pregnancy, embarrassing and shameful. Who send their child away in her moment of need? Who denies that they have a daughter just because she made a mistake? If this is what their religion tells them to do, maybe Evie doesn't need their religion. And given how they treated Cilla, Evie can only imagine how her parents would behave if they found out about the feelings she's been having for her new friend, June. So instead, she writes to Cilla, first at their aunt's, and then later at the Catholic boarding school where she's going to finish up school after the birth and adoption. Cilla doesn't answer, but Evie persists nonetheless.

Cilla seems like she was a good big sister, and even without her responses, it's nice to see how Evie uses their one-sided communication to help her work out some questions about religion, faith, doubt, trust, love, and grief. And then there's a big twist. And it's the aftermath of that twist that left me so touched that even weeks later, when talking about that point in the book, I still get teary-eyed. It's a powerful and moving book, perfect for older preteens and younger teens, covering some serious topics with a believable main character, written with a deft hand.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.