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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Book Review: Glass Houses by Louise Penny (audio)

I have heard wonderful things about Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache novels, but one odd aspect of the reading I do for work is that when a book is crazy popular with everyone and sells like hotcakes, I really don't need to read it. My reading time could be better spent elsewhere, on a book that will need more of a boost. This means I often miss out on some of the best books on the list. Luckily, this is where audiobooks come in! And mysteries do especially well on audio. And this one in particular, with its smattering of French (it's set in Canada), might even do better as then I'm not mangling the pronunciations in my own mind. It makes it easier to become immersed in the setting. And speaking of setting, while I've certainly read books set in Canada before, rarely has the US-Canada border come up, and it's jarring to keep hearing about Vermont as being "south," as it's always been super-north in my own context, no matter where I've been. It's good to read books that can change your perspective from time to time, even if just geographically.

So in the adorable (and sadly fiction) town of Three Pines, one day, a man (we presume) in a black cloak appears in the town square and does not move all day. His face is obscured by the hood, but it's very ominous. Several people ask Gamache, as a police officer, to do something, but it's not illegal to look ominous and scare people. Then the man is gone. Then his body turns up in the church. Who was he? Why was he there? Is he in fact a cobrador, an ancient order of men made to accuse the guilty and make them pay for their crimes? If so, who was he there for?

Worry not! Inspector Gamache will figure it all out. When crime comes to his own hometown, it will be solved. A wonderfully twisty and atmospheric mystery, I hope to have time to keep reading Louise Penny! This was thoroughly enjoyable.

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

Monday, November 19, 2018

Book Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean (audio)

This book was so much more and so much better than I had hoped! Isn't that a treat when that happens!? I had expected a pretty straightforward book about this horrific fire at the main downtown branch of the Los Angeles Library in 1986 and the "true crime" aspect of the hunt for the culprit. Instead, while it is all of that, it is also a love story to libraries and books. In fact, it is primarily a love story to libraries.

Susan was horrified to learn about this fire, years and years later when living in LA, and baffled about how she didn't hear about it at the time (excellent reason: It happened less than 24 hours before Chernobyl which dominated every national newspaper for days and weeks afterward, leaving only local coverage really of this catastrophe.) She thinks back on her own relationship with libraries and how much they remind her of her mother who, a child of the Depression, took Susan religiously. As an adult, in a fit of rebellion, Susan switched from borrowing to buying books pretty exclusively, until she herself had a child, and went back to the library. In researching this book she met most of the full-time staff of the main LA branch, which not only is where all the system-wide administration is fun from, but also houses most of the special collections, archives, and other unique matter, which is one reason why the fire was so devastating--much of what was lost could never be recovered or replaced.

Harry Peak, a blond actor who works part-time jobs and is a habitual liar, is quickly singled out as a suspect, but Ms. Orlean explains how and why arson is so hard to prove and it seems that Mr. Peak might not have been the culprit. He also might have--we'll likely never know.

Meanwhile, the lovely librarians toil on in their restored and renovated space, dealing with modern library problems such as homeless populations and whether to allow the viewing of porn on the public computers. They also deal with modern advantages, such as a local teen on the spectrum who is voluntarily cataloging a massive train map donation and finding spectacular finds which anyone else would overlook. We get a full history of this library system, and also of the book Fahrenheit 451 which I still haven't read (one day!) Made me think fondly of my years volunteering at the library in Charlotte and I immediately went onto my local library's website and reserve some books which I'd meant to do for some time. Delightful. And Susan Orlean reads the book herself.

Appropriately, I listened to this book on audio from my library via Libby (overdrive)

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Book Review: Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World's Most Famous Detective Writer by Margalit Fox, narrated by Peter Forbes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn't just make up Sherlock Holmes from whole cloth. He was based on a professor Conan Doyle had in medical school. And also on Conan Doyle's own experiences as a doctor. What Holmes does is similar to taking a detailed case history, and diagnosing the problem. And therefore it should be a shock that his creator, a physician, did occasionally solve crimes himself.

Marion Gilchrist was an elderly, wealthy woman living in Glasgow with her maid, mostly estranged from her family. She was murdered one evening as her maid went out to get the paper. Despite descriptions that didn't resemble him at all, and despite having alibi witnesses, Oscar Slater, a German Jewish immigrant to Scotland who had lived an itinerant, not always above-board life, became an easy scapegoat for the police. After all, he'd recently pawned a half-moon brooch like the one missing from Miss Gilchrist's apartment. Of course, he'd pawned it BEFORE the murder and he'd pawned it previously since he'd owned it for years and it didn't resemble Miss Gilchrist's brooch at all. Nevertheless, the police persisted in believing he was their man! He was convicted and sentenced to death. Nearly immediately doubt crept in, and his sentence was commuted to hard labor. He was eligible for parole after 15 years but it was denied because they didn't want him in Scotland and he'd been gone from Germany so long, he'd lost his citizenship there.

Meanwhile, Conan Doyle got involved to right this injustice. Like Mr. Holmes, Conan Doyle solved the case from his home without ever seeing the evidence, on the basis of testimony and journalism, through adduction (in the Holmes novels he calls his logical process deduction but that's inaccurate.) But it still took a very, very long time to free Slater. Not only were the police recalcitrant, but there was no appeals system at all at this time in Scotland.

This was a fun book about a once-famous but now little-known case, and a bit of trivia write large that illustrated pretty well the changes between the Victoria age and the modern world.

I downloaded this audiobook from the library via Libby/Overdrive.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Book Review: Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh

I still haven't read Hillbilly Elegy, but this feels like a good companion book. If you, like me, are still wondering how and why the middle and especially lower classes can feel so foreign--fearful, insular, and rejecting of intellect--this book gives an excellent glimpse in, through Ms. Smarsh's own family.

Sarah grew up on a farm in Kansas. She was the result of multiple generations of teenage parents. Her grandmother was 34 when she was born. Her mother and grandmother both had professional jobs in the city. When her farm couldn't support her family anymore, her dad had to get a "real" job, and he got poisoned by chemical fumes which caused permanent brain damage. Her parents' marriage probably wouldn't have lasted anyway, as you could tell from the very beginning that her mother felt incredibly trapped (more by her kids than her husband but they were a package deal). But that didn't help. The one good thing was that Sarah's parents' marriage was the first one in many generations that didn't have any physical violence in it.

Sarah excellent at school and she both loved the farm and also wanted more. She knew her family's life wasn't usual, especially as she often lived with her grandparents, and she knew there were more options, but she also didn't quite know what they were. She studied hard, went to college (first in her family), and grad school, and moved away, but eventually moved back (not to the farm--she's a professor in the region.) When you get to know her family, you get to see people in the "flyover country" as individuals, with flaws and skills and personalities. They become humans instead of a faceless monolith that behaves bizarrely. At the end of the book she does dip into their political affiliations, although that's never a focus in anyone's lives (and FYI, they're NOT all Republicans.)

One thing I didn't like about the book: it's written as a letter to Sarah's never-born child. Not just her unborn, but the child she will never have. The child who would have ruined her prospects and trapped her in a life like her mother's and her grandmother's and her great-grandmother's. She spent her entire teens and twenties trying to prevent this child from existing, and she succeeded. I get her thought process here, even if it's rather weird, but I didn't find the conceit very successful. It was off-putting and kept pulling me out of the narrative whenever it resurfaced. It's not a big part of the book--just a few lines at the beginning of every 10th chapter or so, but it's distracting, especially at the beginning of the book. But other than this detail, the book did an amazing job of making the Americans living in farm country, interesting and accessible to those of us on the coasts. This is a good conversation to start.

I got a copy of this ARC for free from a friend who is a rep for the publisher.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Book Review: You Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson (audio)

So this book wasn't what I was expecting, but I enjoyed it anyway. I was expecting something more along the lines of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me or So Close to Being the Shit Ya'll Don't Even Know, in other words, a hilarious memoir by a lesser-known woman of color in the entertainment business. Instead, this is a relatively funny memoir about being a women of color in the entertainment business. I know, that seems like a fine line I'm drawing, but the "woman of color" part was much more prominent, and even the entire point of this book, as opposed to her own story. Now, all the points she makes about how being African-American and a woman have down sides in this business (and this country and this era), are related back to her personal experiences, but I didn't hear much at all about her childhood growing up in Cleveland or her struggles coming up in stand-up comedy. We got some of that, but again, it was as examples, not as a through storyline.

Not that there's anything wrong with that! I enjoyed the book immensely, feel more aware (will never use or hear the word "uppity" again without thinking twice about it!), and it was funny. It's just not what I was expecting. And that's probably my own fault for going based on recommendations and not reading the description thoroughly.

As always, listening to a comedian, and also with a memoir-ish book, audio is the way to go. Ms. Robinson's delivery was fabulous. Plus Jessica Williams and John Hodgeman read their own parts. (Hodgeman's was especially hilarious, about taking Wyatt Cenac to a bespoke custom mayonnaise store in Brooklyn.) It's truly amazing how tone-deaf and still kinda racist people are on a daily basis. And I hope Phoebe's career takes off soon as I'd love to see her in something without having to track down a blog-based show (sorry, not going to happen.) And people--who asks these things? If you wouldn't ask to touch my hair, don't ask to touch Phoebe's either! Just stop it!

I downloaded this eaudiobook from my library via Overdrive.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Book Review: Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the "powerless" Woman Who Took on Washington by Patricia Miller

Colonel Breckinridge was a powerful Congressman from Kentucky, the scion of a long legacy of Breckinridges. Madeline Pollard was a teen from a respectable family whose father had died, leaving the family to ruin. She bounced from relative to relative, learning how to claw her way to some funds, trying to   get an education and further her place in life. Madeline had made an arrangement with a much older man wherein if he would pay for her college, at the end of it, she'd marry him. She wanted out of the arrangement but was baffled as to how. When the eminent and knowledgeable Rep Breckinridge introduced himself to her on a train, she saw an opportunity to both get some free advice and indebt herself to a powerful man. He saw a different opportunity, and he took it. She was seventeen at the time, and he was middle-aged. They had an affair for nearly 20 years. He always promised her that if his wife died, he'd marry her. She had at least two pregnancies by him that she had to give up, and probably additional miscarriages.

Then one day, his wife dies! Madeline is excited--they can finally marry! (After a respectable waiting period.) He assures her this is true. and then, he marries someone else! And so, in 1893, Madeline sued him for breach of contract. He was really broke, and it's not like she could sue for enforcement of the promise as he was already remarried. She sued mostly on the principle of the matter. A couple of times in the recent past, other women had been "ruined" by powerful men (one of them later became president!!) and had tried to hold them accountable, to no avail. But the times they were a'changing and it was finally occurring to people that it was patently unfair to hold men and women to wildly different standards when it came to sex, when both were involved. And the first battle in the war against powerful men misusing sex in relationships with vulnerable women was waged.

This would have been a fascinating history at any time, but is even more so now, in the midst of the #metoo movement and the massive pushback against powerful men misusing sex against vulnerable women, 130 years later. Here we can see when women first made a stand and first decided they were fed up with the shockingly hypocritical social morays that created these situations. And we can see how far we've come. And how much stays the same. And we can more clearly see the road ahead, when we learn about the road behind. Madeline may not have been a perfect woman, but she was willing to stand up for herself in the face of disgrace and public humiliation, and it turns out that's exactly what was needed.

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

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Book Review: Ellie, Engineer: The Next Level by Jackson Pearce

This sequel to Ellie Engineer finds our budding builder in fine form. With the help of her friends Kit and Toby, and is trying to build an elevator. In a safety run, to add weight, they use pickles Kit's mother has special ordered for an event, and the elevator topples, the pickles go crashing, glass breaks, they are ruined, and Ellie needs to be punished (not because her build didn't work but because they took someone else's stuff without asking.) Her punishment is that for a week she has to help an older neighbor around her house.

Ellie isn't that bummed because she assumes she's been asked to help Mrs. Curran due to her engineering skills. She envisions fixing things, making improvements, and maybe even inventing something to make Mrs. Curran's life better. But when she shows up (with Kit and Toby in tow), not only are her building skills not wanted, but when she does find some small things to fix, Mrs. Curran assumes that Toby is the handyman (emphasis on the MAN.)  Over the course of the week, Ellie does eventually convince her that girls can be builders and engineers too, she is able to build something, and she does help out Mrs. Curran, although not in the way she expects. But before she can get to that point, she has to show a lot of patience and persuasion, two skills Ellie could use some practice in.

My favorite middle grade engineer works her magic on an older neighbor who opens Ellie's eyes to sexism and assumptions that cut both ways.

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.