Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Book Review: Me by Elton John, narrated by Taron Egerton (audiobook)

At first I was a little disappointed that Elton John only narrated the introduction, not the entire audiobook, but I soon learned the error of my ways! Mr. Egerton was fantastic! I knew he was a great actor from having seen him play Elton John in Rocketman, but he really brought a new level to the book in his narration. In the Introduction, Mr. John spoke rather quickly and also without a lot of emotion or tonality. He was just... reading. Whereas Mr. Egerton was most definitely ACTING. He had dramatic pauses, long sighs, he can do American accents (although his Tina Turner left something to be desired), and it was a perfect audiobook narration. I wish he could narrate all my audiobooks from now on.

That said, this was also an example of the perfection of subject matter and medium. I think Mr. Egerton would be amazing narrating any book, but this was a truly ideal marriage of form and function. You can tell Mr. John's book is terrifically fun for him to work with. It's juicy and meaty with gossip and temper tantrums and humor and cocaine and famous people. It's really refreshing how open and honest Elton John is about his flaws, his mistakes, his massive screw-ups, even making himself the butt of jokes from time to time (unless he can make Rod Stewart the butt of the joke.) I really wasn't at all sure I would like this book, but just an hour into it, I knew it not only would this help me get through the tail end of my travel season and my last bit of driving with my sanity intact, but I would even thoroughly enjoy that last drive home.

Like any sane human, I am an Elton John fan, but by no means a mega fan. I'm not sure I owned any of his music until MP3s came along and I could pick individual songs (maybe I had a copy of "Don't Go Breakin My Heart" on a mix tape.) I vividly remember the surprise that the bookstore I worked in was carrying the special Princess Diana version of "Candle in the Wind" (we sold out the first day.) And in recent years I've really enjoyed "I'm Still Standing" as an occasional personal anthem when I'm feeling a bit beaten down by the world (also Bruno Tonioli from Dancing With the Stars is in the video which is hiLARious! But now I have at least 10 of his songs in rotation, and they're just great. Also, if you think you don't need this book because you've seen the movie, the movie only covers about the first third of the book. It ends in the early 80s. If you want everything since then, like when Michael Jackson crashed the dinner where Elton's now-husband was meeting his mother for the very first time, you need this book.

This book is published by Henry Holt, a division of Macmillan, my employer. I downloaded the eAudiobook from my local library via Libby/Overdrive.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Book Review: The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson (audiobook)

I love Bill Bryson! I have read every book he's written (even his dictionary! Seriously!) I love the most his books on giant single subjects and yet I'm also always astonished when he comes up with a new area for those. The Body may be his best yet.

As always, it's utterly filled with trivia, bizarre fact, and anyone with just a passing understanding of anatomy and medicine will find something fascinating every few minutes. Did you know that if all your DNA was made into a single strand and stretched out end to end, it was stretch past Pluto and out of the solar system? Did you know that most stutterers are left-handed? And that stuttering is much worse in those who are left-handed but were forced to learn to write right-handed? Did you know that we get 2-5 cancer cells every single day of our lives, which our immune systems get rid of? And that kissing is a surprisingly bad way to spread a cold? My husband doesn't have any idea how lucky he is that I listened to this book while I was out of town and he was spared a massive amount of gasping and me telling him interesting things endlessly (he still got a few). And you need to have no prior knowledge or interest in the subject at all--I nearly failed my high school biology class.

Mr. Bryson narrates the book himself, and I know some people find him an annoying narrator, but I do not at all. He has developed a bit of a British accent and I find him charming. It's the best of both worlds where he sounds fancy and slightly foreign but he doesn't pronounce words like "laboratory" in that bizarre British way.

I found the book utterly delightful, completely fascinating, and I wish it had been twice as long.

I downloaded the eAudiobook from my local library via Libby/Overdrive.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Book Review: Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises by Jodie Kirshner

Did you read and love the amazing book Evicted? First of all, you should. And then this is the perfect follow-up. In a similar fashion, Ms. Kirshner looks at Detroit, and its perfect storm of job losses, property value tanking, crime rising, infrastructure crumbling, and the spiral that creates.

From afar, we all might think why do people stay there, but she follows a half-dozen residents to fully explain that. It's hard to just abandon a house that your family has owned for three generations. Especially when you can't afford to fix it up or--more crucially--to move. People forget, moving is expensive. Also it's hard to leave a neighborhood you once loved, where your kids grew up, where you once had hopes and dreams. The few remaining residents aren't losers who didn't get out while the getting was good--they're warriors, the last bastion of hope for this city. They're maintaining entire blocks single-handedly. They're alerting friends and family of abandoned homes they can move into and protect from vandals (yes, they're squatters, but is that worse than the house being literally ripped apart for its pipes and water heaters?). Some even see hope and opportunity. With the housing values so incredibly low, people who never could have afforded to buy a house before, now might be able to. Although the legal hoops make getting a conventional mortgage seem like a walk in the park. (And no, you can't get a traditional mortgage in Detroit. It doesn't matter how good your credit is, or how much money you have in the bank. No underwriter will insure it, so no bank will lend it.) Admittedly, also some carpetbaggers have arrived, both in the form of out-of-towners who have romanticized Detroit as a noir land of opportunity, and of absentee landlords, often flippers (but not the kind of flippers who fix up the house first).

But these personal stories serve to illuminate the larger picture. This could happen to any single-industry city. If something bizarre happened to the internet, this could happen to Silicon Valley. And it has happened to a lesser scale to other rust belt cities, from Buffalo to Cleveland (where my sister pays 1/5 the rent I do for a very similar apartment.) Diversification is the best bulwark against devastation, and then smart management if that's too late. Hopefully a city's state won't screw it to the extent Michigan did Detroit (in fact, I think Ms. Kirshner lets Michigan somewhat off the hook for some of the financial shenanigans that went on there. I think the state could have been pilloried some more and they'd have deserved it.) It's a cautionary tale, but also hopefully a story that will increase empathy for those not in booming coastal cities, for those who are struggling are often victims of circumstance and bad timing. This is an eminently readable, important book about a very American problem.

This book is published by St. Martins Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Book Review: Ellie, Engineer: In the Spotlight by Jackson Pearce

I just love these Ellie Engineer books! In this one, we really see one of my favorite aspects of the books, as it's set at a pageant. Kit often goes along with what Ellie likes to do but this time Ellie joins Kit for one of her favorite things: a kids pageant. Their friend Toby tags along too even though he can't compete (but that doesn't prevent him from trying his best to win Miss Congeniality!) Their moms take advantage of the long weekend with kids' supervised activities to have a Girls' Weekend, which is how this all comes together.

Anyway, as Ellie works on a light-up, foldable skateboarding ramp for Kit's talent, and laments that engineering doesn't lend itself well to a talent contest so she has to go with ballet, her second-best talent, the story gets underway. She meets the nasty Queen Bee of the pageant circuit, Melody, who promptly accuses Kit of theft when her precious rabbit, the highlight of her winning magic show, disappears. With the help of Ellie's engineering skills (although actually more her logic skills), Melody's rabbit is found in the nick of time, Kit's ramp lights up just right, and naturally--I know you knew this was coming--Ellie does end up showcasing her engineering skills (AND her ballet skills) in her talent after all.

For me the very best thing about this series, beyond the great friendships with girls and boys, the way they are so good at compromising and empathizing, and even beyond the engineering, is how ungendered they all are. Aside from the fact that it's a pageant and Toby can't participate (I was a little surprised he didn't fight that!), it's wonderful to see the more "girly" character of Kit doing skateboarding for her talent, and the more "tomboyish" Ellie doing ballet and being fairly excited about the whole pageant. I mean, Ellie didn't care about winning (and was bummed when Melody called her out on wearing her toolbelt on stage), but she still thought the weekend would be fun. It's so refreshing to see these variations on the usual highly-gendered kids activities and interests, just presented without comment, as if of course a girl interested in engineering would also dance ballet. Love.

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 Bloomsbury, which is distributed by Macmillan, my employer.

Friday, November 1, 2019

My Month in Review: October

The Month in Review meme is hosted by Nicole at Feed Your Fiction Addiction.

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

Books completed this month:
Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales
Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux (audio)*
The Girl He Used to Know by Tracey Garvis Graves (audio)
The Hollows by Jess Montgomery
Best Friends by Shannon Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell, illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks
Displacement by Kiku Hughes
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell (audio)*

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler
The Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World's Most Expensive Fungus by Ryan Jacobs (audio)*
Check, Please!, Book 2: Sticks and Scones by Ngozi Ukazu [annoyingly I am "still reading" this because even though I work at the publisher, only the first half of the book is available to me pre-pub.]
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
When Did the Statue of Liberty Turn Green? And 101 Other Questions about New York City by Jean Ashton*

What I acquired this month (non-work books):
Yale Needs Women by Anne Gardiner Perkins--I picked this up at NAIBA.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett--my book club book. I bought this at Browseabout Books in Rehobeth Beach, DE.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Book Review: Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell, illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks

For the last three falls, Josiah and Deja work together in the Succotash hut of the local (and bonkers crazy int he best way) pumpkin patch. They're best friends... while they work together, but they don't see each other the rest of the year. On the last day of work--Halloween, natch--on their senior years, Deja is determined to make it important. Josiah has had a crush on a girl working in the Fudge Shoppe the whole time and has never spoken to her, so that become their (possibly just Deja's, but Josiah will do pretty much whatever she asks) goal, even though it means Josiah won't win employee of the month for the 3rd consecutive time. Along the way, they eat a lot of snacks (I really want to try both a twice-dipped candy apple and a pumpkin bomb, very much. And a Freetos pie. And fresh made kettle corn. Even Succotash. Really everything in this book.), Deja is tortured by a little kid, they get lost in the corn maze, and they talk about why they're only friends at the pumpkin patch. Will Josiah ever talk to the Fudge Shoppe girl? Will Deja eat all of the snacks (and run into all of her exes)? Will anyone capture the crazy escaped goat? Will something even more interesting happen?

This YA graphic novel was light and fun and Deja and Josiah have such a terrific friendship. I both desperately want now to go to a pumpkin patch, but I also want to be friends with these two. It's kind of a perfect story, with the only caveat that it's a bit short. Yes, it takes place in one night, but I could have used a lot more of them.

This book is published by First Second, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Book Review: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, narrated by Jenna Lamia (audiobook)

I knew a little about Zelda Fitzgerald I thought but it turns out--not actually much. Back one summer in college, I had a book of short stories written by both F. Scott and Zelda. I don't remember much, but I remember not being able to really tell them apart, which says a lot for her caliber of writing, considering how much less famous she was.

Zelda was a debutante and the daughter of a judge back in Montgomery, Alabama. Towards the end of WWI, she met some young men stationed nearby in the army. Scott was captivated by her immediately, and courted her hard, despite being a Yankee (!), older, and without great career goals. The war ended moments before he was due to be shipped out, and Scott worked feverishly to finish and sell his first novel so he could prove he could support Zelda as a writer. They married, she moved to New York, and they came to define the Flapper lifestyle. They drank, had stylish and famous friends, wore amazing fashions, lived in Europe, got involved in scandals, had amazing fights, and drank some more. Scott's income was never solid so their move to Europe was actually an economic move although it didn't help a whole lot in that arena. In France they met other writers, a couple already famous, some who would be later. Most importantly, Scott became friends with a young upstate named Ernest Hemingway and introduced him to Scott's agent and editor. Hemingway, with his colossal ego and streak of evilness, then went on to undermine Scott's self-esteem, disparage him to their mutual friends, hit on Zelda, and drag him off on expensive misadventures. While Scott's drinking was already taking a heavy toll on his health before Hemingway's appearance, I do wonder how he would have fared in the long run if he'd never met Hemingway at all. I already thought Hemingway was a giant jerk for his behavior toward Fitzgerald before reading this, and I think even more poorly of him now.

Zelda for her part explored a lot of artistic endeavors, with ballet being the one she most excelled at and loved the most. But in the end, even though she was offered a professional position, it didn't work out. She ended up doing some writing, a lot of which was published under Scott's name or theirs together (as his named garnered much more money.) They had a daughter who was along for the crazy ride. But she really was a truly modern woman. She always expected to work if she wanted and to be able to pursue her own interests. Sometimes she and Scott fought about those things but mostly things worked out. They just got by a lot of the time, on credit, advances, and friends' goodwill. Also Scott occasionally worked himself to the bone to get them out of debt. Zelda eventually found things to be too much, and Scott had her committed to an asylum. He was his most productive (in terms of number of stories written, not quality) the year she was away, but that may also have been the result of less socializing meaning less drinking.

Then, as we know, Scott died terribly young. The Depression didn't affect them much as they had no savings to lose, and magazines and Hollywood kept paying during those lean years. But his health was no match for his lifestyle and he died of a heart attack at 44 in 1940. Zelda didn't live a whole lot longer, but she did outlive him, only to die a tragic death herself under terrible circumstances.

I had previously heard unflattering stories about Zelda, that she was crazy, that she held Scott back, but of course none of that is true. She may have not been the most supportive wife, if by that you mean someone who devotes their every waking moment to his care, like Hemingway's first wife (not that it did her any good.) But for a modern woman, she really was, and she was no more crazy than any of us. Who among us wouldn't mind going away to a sanatorium for a few months' rest if we could possibly afford it and manage the time? Ms. Fowler really manages to get inside her head and give us full insight into this complex, creative, and relatable woman. I really enjoyed my time with Zelda and kind of think I should go back and reread some of her stories.

This book is published by St. Martins Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.