Sunday, August 28, 2016

Book Review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

I loved this book! Yes, it's my bread-and-butter: a memoir with lots of odd, fun facts. But it was just terrific. I'm still spouting off some of the fun facts two weeks later, and I read a 4-page section out loud to my husband. It was so compelling.

Hope always wanted to be a scientist. Her father was a science instructor at a community college and she loved his lab when she was a little girl. She grew up and went to college and got her doctorate and became a tenure-track professor. In college she met a younger science student, Bill, who she hired as a lab assistant and who stuck with her throughout her career. She eventually focuses on paleobiology, mostly on dirt and trees. You might think that sounds boring but trust me—it's fascinating. At one point she and Bill are in Northern Canada looking into a prehistoric deciduous forest. Obviously at the time this existed, the poles were much warmer than they currently are, but she's baffled and impressed with how the trees dealt with the 3 months of constant sun and 3 months of constant dark. Do the trees have a special ability they've been hiding for several thousand years? Or were they impressively adaptive?

Hope has a real way with explaining science accessibly and even in a fun way. I noted quite a few quotes, which I hadn't expected in this type of book. She struggles with personal relationship aside from with Bill, which she partly attributes to  her upbringing with Scandinavian parents who talk little and never about feelings, and partly we find out later, due to her bi-polar. Although eventually she does marry and even has a child (which is tricky with her diagnosis as she has to go off her meds.)

I wish this book were twice as long. I very much hope that Dr. Jahren is writing a second (and third) book. This one was terrific. If you like science at all, and if you like memoirs, you must check out this book.

I got this book out of the library on my cruise ship, Oceania Regatta.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Book Review: Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, and My Midlife Quest to Dance the Nutcracker by Lauren Kessler, narrated by Hollis McCarthy (audio)

My friend Sarah once told me a cool story about how her mother danced the lead in the Nutcracker, on pointe, in her 50s, as a part of a troupe of older ballet dancers. I thought that was amazing. I took ballet as a kid, for many many years, despite having no talent, an uncooperative body (falling arches, inflexible, no turnout), and always being a half beat behind the music. But I loved it and it worked for me, until I needed to actually have some skill or talent to continue. In college, I stopped. I was good at one thing--going on pointe. I tried it again last year even though my old pointe shoes didn't fit anymore, and I still could do it, no problem.

I was captivated the minute I saw this book in a bookstore. However, I didn't read the description and I assumed it was something like what Sarah's mother did, and that misunderstanding meant I liked the book a little less, although that's no fault of the book.

Instead, Lauren was like me and took ballet as a child. Unlike me, she had dreams of being a professional that lasted beyond  first grade. But then she quit before I did because, at the time she needed to dramatically increase  her ballet immersion if she were to pursue a professional career as an adult, instead her teacher told her mother that Lauren had no hope of that, mostly due to her body type. Unbeknownst to both of them, Lauren overheard the conversation which hurt her deeply. She quit that day.

But she still loved the ballet. She saw many, but especially the Nutcracker which she saw every year in her hometown of Portland, OR. And one year her husband went off to Paris on a long business trip in December without Lauren, and she decided to splurge and see a half dozen Nutcrackers all around the country. But that wasn't enough. She wanted more. So she spoke to the president of the company that performs Portland's Nutcracker every year and got her to agree that Lauren could dance a role in the next year's performance.

Well that's a little crazy. It's never mentioned but surely she partly agreed for the publicity angle, otherwise there's zero reason to agree to let a stranger, middle-aged, slightly overweight, not in ballet shape, who hasn't danced in about 30 years, do this. But she does. And Lauren then spends the bulk of the book procrastinating, doing exercising she knows is wrong, and pre-pre-pre-preparing for ballet. I have a quibble with how late she finally took adult ballet, considering how much faith the company was putting in her and how remarkable this opportunity was. She then spent a lot of time complaining about her body, especially her arms, while not apparently doing much about them, and while talking about how awful it is when women complain about their bodies. Sigh. But then she got up to when she was rehearsing with the company and I really enjoyed that. She got to know most of the professional dancers and they all had fascinating stories (I wish, in fact, she'd gotten into that more.) I loved the history of The Nutcracker, which is king of kooky (and meant I got a trivia question right later that week!)

Overall, while the book was uneven, I did enjoy it. It's great for any former ballet students who once had aspirations that have since been dashed. It's for the former snowflakes and former soldiers everywhere (yep, those are the roles I had in the junior ballet in my youth.) I wish she was a little less obsessed with "leos" (is that really how people talk about leotards today? It sounded affected.) and partly, the narration might have impacted how I found her to be somewhat self-obsessed and smug. Maybe print would have been better. But I still am glad I read it.

I checked this downloadable eaudiobook out of the library.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Book Review: On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz

I walk a lot. And that's an understatement. I have walked an entire marathon (7 hours, 20 minutes). It hasn't been unusual for me to walk 10+ miles on a weekend day. Now that I've moved, my walking is different--I walk a mile to the train station every morning, and back home. And I have to walk from Penn Station to the subway station. And on Thursday evenings I walk to Penn Station. And on Friday mornings I walk from Penn Station. Without even trying, I usually log about 30 miles a week. And sometimes more. Last week I was on an Alaska cruise. I went on three walks as excursions. I even logged one 3+ miles day without ever leaving the ship (and it wasn't a huge ship!)

That said, these walks get boring, fast. Right now it's glorious to walk down shady streets of slate sidewalks between beautiful Victorian homes. But eventually I'm going to be thinking, "Yep, it's the purple one again. And when will the blue house mow their lawn? And why is there always furniture in front of the yellow house for trash pickup? Do they have any furniture left in the house? Where does it come from?" And I find that when walks get boring, they get slow. Ms. Horowitz postulates the opposite--that when walks are boring they go quickly--but that's not at all my personal experience. When there's nothing to entertain me, they're interminably long. Therefore, I plan to stave that off, partly by reading this book! Ms. Horowitz walks a city block (mostly the one in her NYC neighborhood which is a triangle, not a square, so 3 streets) with 11 "experts." Now, the experts vary in expertise. One in her toddler son and one is her dog. But one is an expert in fonts and lettering, one on stones and rocks, and one on ordinary city animals like raccoons. They all opened my eyes. The doctor could diagnose skeletal problems just by people's gaits. The stone guy could identify not just the type of rock on the side of each building, but he knew where it was from ("Knoxville, Tennessee limestone.") The lettering on the recently defunct NYC Taxi logo really infuriated the lettering expert. Her son was fascinated by stand-pipes.

I wish she's delved deeper. I wish she'd had an architect as some of the buildings are just stunning, even decrepit and vacant ones. I wish she'd had an expert in garbage. (No, I'm not being funny.) I wish she'd had a psychiatrist to talk about the homeless problem and to tell me if the guy on 32nd St. and 6th Ave. who dances in the street to his headphones is just happy and energetic, or if he has mental issues I should worry about.

But it was a lot of information in a relatively thin book. I should have parceled it out over a longer timeframe. Instead I was looking at and listening to everything all at once instead of just one at a time. This book will keep me interested in my commute and actively participating instead of zoning out, for many months to come. It is a slow read ideally, so be prepared for that. Also, I wish ALL of the walks had been on the same blocks and unfortunately they weren't--sometimes she went to the experts instead of them coming to her. But I really enjoyed it. Mostly we think about walking in the woods, and it's refreshing to read about walking in the city.

I checked this book out of the library.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Book Review: Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch -- Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods by Jennifer Reese

This woman, Jennifer, was already an avid home cook (from scratch) with a garden, when she started wondering about exactly what we make from scratch, what we don't, and why. She was inspired by premade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Just as she started with this pondering, she lost her job. It seemed like a good time to see if her family could save some money (and eat better) by making much, much more from scratch. This involved eventually her buying chickens and a goat.

The recipes look great. They're generally do-able, and the ones that aren't, she says up front. She doesn't only look at the cost (and when she does, she figures out what it REALLY costs including if you have to buy special equipment or a really expensive ingredient that you will never use up over a lifetime) but she also looks at the pain in the ass factor. Some things might be cheaper to make but take forever or are really, really hard and easy to screw up.

Personally, I had wanted this book to be able half memoir and half cookbook. To my chagrin, it was more like 15% memoir. I did end up reading the entire thing (okay, I skimmed the recipes but I did skim them, not skip them!) But my husband was thrilled as he loved the recipes and didn't care much about the memoir parts (although he was sad when she had to get rid of her second goat who cried nonstop when they got her.) So it was a great choice for us, and I look forward to eating some of the food here!

Initially I checked this book out of the library, but when my husband saw how excellent the recipes were, we ordered a copy from our local independent bookstore, Watchung Booksellers.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Book Review: The Clancys of Queens: A Memoir by Tara Clancy

I'm very glad I got to hear this author at an event as her distinctive voice rang in my ears throughout my reading of her book. She has a deep, snarling, yet upbeat rasp. She spoke of how she was inspired to write after reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and finding out there weren't really any other books about a working class girl growing up in a borough, and that the one there was was so old and fiction. And thank goodness she was inspired! This is a great book.

Admittedly, I am also biased because I lived in Queens for almost five years. Now I lived in a completely different part, but it was still fairly working class (at that time. Astoria has gotten very trendy in recent years.) But I appreciate so much her wanting to freeze in time a much overlooked borough.

Tara was a world-class tomboy, not just good at spots but at running away and punching, but always good-natured. Her parents divorced when she was little and she lived during the week in a small apartment with her mother, surrounded by extended family, every other weekend at her father's, which was basically a shack, way out almost near JFK airport, and other weekends with her mother at her mother's boyfriend's house on Long Island, which was a very fancy estate and she'd be picked up in a limo. Luckily, that didn't faze her, she didn't have pretensions on those weekends and feel like she was slumming it with her father, nor did she resent either parent's situation. She just accepted it and moved on. Eventually her father, a cop, remarried. And her mother's boyfriend lost most of his money. But Tara, in this rough and tumble life, learned to love reading and writing, despite turning into a quintessential bad girl and getting kicked out of school.

Her voice, as I said, was distinctive and I hope that comes through as well for people who are only reading her on the page. She is a bundle of energy and her spitfire passion for her family and her home shines through on every page.

I received this ARC for free at a NAIBA event, provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Book Review: Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation's Leaders by Brady Carlson

Several months ago, Kristen, AKA Booknaround, recommended this book to me and I was shocked I hadn't even heard of it. It's weird when a book is 100% in my wheelhouse and yet somehow flew under my radar, even though I consider myself pretty clued in to the book world. But a book about history trivia based around the deaths of all of the presidents? Yes, please!

If you love presidential or American trivia even half as much as I do, this book is for you. Not chronological, but more grouped according to themes (including one chapter on the boring presidents), he keeps the info and the stories moving along, not trying to wring fascinating that just isn't there out of boring stories for the sake of even-handedness, but also not dwelling too long on the more interesting ones. The sense of balance was dead on. I never felt any president got the short shrift, or was yammered on about too long. I did find it really interesting that William Henry Harrison, who famously died after giving a horrendously long inaugural speech in the cold without a coat, was doing that in order to prove people who'd accused him of being too old (he was the oldest person elected president at that time) or too dumb (his speech was mostly about ancient Greece and Rome and the foundations of democracy as a concept) to be president. It's nice to understand there was a reason behind that foolish decision, even if it did totally backfire by resulting in him only being president for one month and spending that entirely ill in bed.

Some of the memorials and tombstones also have cool stories, and don't always fit the stature of the president's term in office, or his reputation. History has been kinder to some presidents than others. And the realization that some presidents who were revered in their own century but are pretty well forgotten today, means that many of the presidents who are towering figures today will also fade with time, is sobering. Which presidents will be remembered as the great ones, and the awful ones, in another hundred years? Will anyone at that point understand why John Kennedy has a perpetual flame at his tomb (although really, it goes out all the time and has been outright replaced more than once)? Or will he turn out to be a Millard Fillmore or Martin Van Buren in the very long term?

While the book on the surface is a fun, light story of the author's travels to pay his respects to all the presidents, underneath there are thoughtful ruminations on the nature of the role of president, in his time and in history. But if you just want light trivia, you're by no means beaten about the head with the more philosophical ideas. It can be enjoyed on either level.

I checked this book out of the library.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Book Review: August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones

What really makes Soho's crime novels stand out is their settings. You truly feel transported, whether the book is set in Bath, England, Paris, France, or, as in this book, Detroit, Michigan. Now, you might not think you want to spend time in Detroit, but I've been there a couple of times in the last 5 years and it's really not bad. Unlike what the news reports, there is still stunning architecture, nice people, and interesting culture (I highly recommend the DIA, the Detroit Institute of Art.) That said, I'm not going to stroll around the more deserted areas alone at night. It is still very much a struggling city. And that's why it's easy to admire a man like August Snow, who won a large lawsuit against the city, and after travelling, decided to not only move back to his old neighborhood, Mexicantown, but to buy up most of the empty houses on his block and fix them up and rent them out.

August was a cop, like his father, but he got involved as a whistleblower in a corruption scandal (details are murky) and so on his return, he's pretty much friendless in the city. None of his old officer friends are willing to still be his friends, thinking he was disloyal. But he's not sure what else to do with his life but go home. Then a woman he'd known back then gets in touch, Eleanore Paget, the head of a local bank. She thinks something fishy is going on and wants August to investigate. He tells her he's no longer a cop and he's certainly not a PI, but she won't give in, losing her temper and screaming to try to get him to help. August stands firm. Next thing you know, she's dead. Supposedly a suicide but it sounds suspicious to August. He feels guilty about not helping her when she asked, so he decides to do some asking around now, and soon finds himself involved in a big mess up to his neck.

I loved the local color in this book, the descriptions of the people and the food of Mexicantown was very visceral and made me hungry. It all felt very authentic, and it obviously came from a place of love for the city. The plot was appropriately twisty and there were a few scenes of violence that not only weren't gratuitous, but explained the fight or the shoot-out in such a clear way that I've rarely experienced in those scenes. I could have done without a lot of the old-school behavior with the police—a fair amount of yelling, threats of retribution, some misogyny. Maybe I'm fooling myself, but those parts had a very 1970s feel to them. But that was a minor flaw in an otherwise rip-roaring crime novel that flies along at breakneck speed. If you like your mysteries gritty, this one's for you.

But sadly, you can't get this book for a few months. It comes out in February 2017. This book is published by my employer, Soho Press.