Sunday, January 24, 2021

Book Review: The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

 I attended a virtual event with the author recently and someone asked about the seeming variety of her last three books, and how they all seem so different from each other: The Nightingale, The Great Alone, and now The Four Winds. But then a theme was called out that crosses them all and I loved it as it made them all make sense: they're about women having to find inner strength during difficult times. And what better book to read during the winter of 2021, as we're all hoping for a return to normalcy, but it's not here yet?

Elsa was sick as a child and has been beyond-babied by her family ever since. They won't let her go out or do anything. They think she's incapable of taking care of herself and won't let her try. Once night she makes herself a new dress in the fashionable new styles of the twenties, and sneaks out of the house. She meets a handsome young man and they have a brief love affair. Naturally, she ends up pregnant. Her family kicks her out and so she shows up on the Martinelli doorstep. Despite her being several years older, Rafe makes an honest woman out of her and they even have another child. They seems to have had a pretty good life, living on the family farm with his parents. But as the story jumps ahead to 1934, things are bad as anyone with even a passing understanding of US history would expect. 

In the panhandle of Texas, dust storms are a constant occurrence. Everyone wears a bandanna or scarf around their neck to pull up as a mask as soon as it's needed. The family goes from struggling to keep their crops and animals, to struggling to keep themselves alive. The government promises help, but it's too late and not enough. Then Elsa has to make a decision, and so they pack up and try their luck in California. 

We don't see the beginning of the Depression in this novel, nor the end. But I think a whole lot more people now understand the Depression than did just two years ago. Elsa never wanted to be in these situations and this wasn't the life she saw for herself. But she does the best she can with the hand she's dealt, over and over. She's a thin woman who was once sickly, and she has a deep well of inner strength she never even knew she had. During our own troubled times, it's nice to see another story of strength during hardship. 

Personally, in the past I've found Ms. Hannah's endings to be too pat for me, too tied up in a bow, but this one was not. I think she's achieved a new level in her writing. I'm glad I read this. It gave me hope.

This book is published by St. Martin's Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Book Review: My Brilliant Life by Kim Ae-ran, translated by Chi-Young Kim

Boy, this book is really hard to describe, so this will be a short review.

Areum has the opposite of the Benjamin Button disease. He's one of those little kids you see who looks like a tiny, really old man. Because essentially, he is. His body is aging at an astonishing rate, causing stress and havoc on his whole family. His parents, who are very young and had fewer resources and experience when they had him, have had to grow up fast and muster help. 

He decides to give his parents the ultimate gift: he is writing their love story as a novel, even though their young pregnancy with him was not a welcome event. But he is shifting the focus of the story to their love for each other.

Then his family's story is filmed and shown on a national show that solicits donations for families in need. Through that exposure, Areum makes a new friend online who seems to truly understand him. And since he likely will never meet her in person, she's not put off by his sickliness and appearance. 

Even though there is no magic in this book, it had a very magical, unreal feel to it. It's about family and unconditional love. It's about sacrifice and responsibility. It's about facing down uncomfortable truths you can't avoid. It is beautiful and tragic. It was a unique reading experience. 

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

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Book Review: Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner's Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause by Ty Seidule

Ty Seidule was born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia where his only goal in life was to grow up to be a good Virginia gentleman, like his hero, Robert E. Lee. After graduating from a segregation academy (a private school founded with the explicit purpose of letting white children continue to go to an unsegregated school), he went on to Washington & Lee University and then joined the army. When he joined the faculty of West Point, he was temporarily housed in Lee Barracks on Lee Drive. 

Recently he quit the military so he can speak his mind. This history professor wants to explain to everyone about the three causes of the Civil War:
slavery, slavery, and slavery.

He has gone back to the sources, he has done the research. He had looked into the naming of every one of these army bases that are named after Confederates. None of them were done to honor the Civil War. All of them were done to slow the progress of human rights and to intimidate African-Americans. He has the paperwork. He can prove it. And in that paperwork, he also disproves the notion that Lee joined the Confederacy solely because he felt it his duty as a Virginian to defend his state. That's bunk. And Lee said so in letters to his family. He joined because of slavery. (Also there were other Southern colonels at West Point when the Civil War broke out and he's the only one who defected to the traitors.)

In his quest to tell this story, Col. Seidule goes back and shows how he was taught to be a racist by his elders and his school system (he even finds the Virginia state history books he was taught from in school). And he explains how we have to get past these issues to move forward in this country. 

If you have someone in your life who might hear this message better from an older, white, military man, this is the most perfect book. But I, who thought myself pretty well-educated in this area, had my eyes opened in a couple of ways. For example, I am striving to change from saying "plantation" and instead calling them what they are: enslaved labor farms. I also never before realized that the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s... was exactly 100 years after the Civil War. Coincidence? 

This read was utterly fascinating and I learned a lot. You will too. 

This book is published by St. Martin's Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Book Review: I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are by Rachel Bloom (audiobook)

While I rarely read a memoir by a TV/movie star where I haven't seen at least some of their shows, this book was the exception! I've never seen Crazy Ex-Girlfriend but I still enjoyed this book. I had seen Rachel Bloom in a discussion with another funny author (Jenny Lawson) and they both were so great that I immediately added this book to my TBR. 

I'm glad I listened to it on audio as she did a lot of funny voices and occasionally sung. I did miss out on the amusement park map, but she described it which was also fun. If you purchase the audio book you should also get a PDF of the images. 

About half of the book is about Rachel's childhood and teen years which were rather traumatic. There's not a Bad Thing that happens and her parents seem nice, but she just had a ton of trouble fitting in and finding her tribe, and she was unpopular and yet couldn't manage to fly under the radar like a couple of her friends did. So most people can identify with that. But even the parts about when her show was nominated for an award and when she had to fly to NYC for the Up Fronts, were very relatable as she had to sleep on a friend's sofa the night before the WB's paid hotel room kicked in, and she wore borrowed clothes (not borrowed from a designer, but from a friend's mom) and she was asked if she could change into something darker and... that fit better. 

Occasionally you have to kind of give her a pass with some of the singing and the (blessedly short) chapter told from her dog's POV about her award win (she is not impressed. Also she thinks of Rachel as her step-dad.) Overall it's delightful fun and if you're also a fan of the show, I'm sure it's even more amazing. I might check out the show now even though the musical interludes might not work for me. We'll see.

I borrowed this digital audiobook from Libby/Overdrive.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Book Review: A Walk Around the Block: Stoplight Secrets, Mischievous Squirrels, Manhole Mysteries & Other Stuff You See Every Day (And Know Nothing About) by Spike Carlsen (audio)

I like to walk. And I love random facts. This book was made for me.

Spike goes for a walk around the block and along the way, he wonders about the composition and cost of sidewalks, where the water goes down the drainage grates, and why there's a metal number on telephone poles and what it means. You'll find out the answers to all of these and much more in this book! Where does the water coming into your house come from? When and how were road surfaces invented and developed? 

Some facts: squirrels chew on your house not to be assholes, but because if they don't wear down their teeth, they will grow too long for squirrels to be able to eat. Their teeth continue growing throughout their life.

Also: there is water in your concrete. It binds with the cement in the mixture and while it "dries" (it's not drying), it's forming crystals through chemical reactions. So even "dry" concrete still has about 10% water. And yes, you can add way too much water and no, it won't just take longer to "dry"--it will be terrible concrete that is weak and not functional.

You'll learn about the different types of electrical poles. I was fascinated that the highest wires, which are the ones with the most high power, aren't insulted. That would cause the wires to be enormous, heavy, and expensive--in ways that just won't work. So they're super duper dangerous if they were to come down. Which is why they're so high. Also the reason birds can sit on wires and not be electrocuted is because A) they're so little that they're not very useful to electricity as a conductor and B) they'd need to be touching something other than the wire for the electricity to go through them. Electricity just go into things that touch it--it travels through things to get somewhere. While Mr. Carlsen doesn't state it specifically, the implication is that humans also could sit on a wire and be safe--if they don't touch anything else. 

What do you wonder about when you go on a walk? Would you like a fun walk companion who will tell you all sorts of trivia? Invite Mr. Carlsen along. He's an excellent walking companion.

I downloaded this digital audiobook from Libby/Overdrive.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Book Review: The Comeback: A Figure Skating Novel by E.L. Shen

Maxine's family moved to way upstate New York, to Lake Placid, where she's the only Chinese-American kid at her school, and where there are multiple world-class level skating facilities and instructors, thanks to Lake Placid having hosted the Winter Olympics way before Maxine was born. Maxine practices hard every day and she's determined to master the next trick in her skating repertoire. 

She and her best friend have grown apart, but that's not presented as a tragedy which is nice. A new girl at the rink, Hollie, at first seems like fierce competition for Maxine, but eventually they become friends. The titular comeback in question is what Maxine should say to this horrid boy at school next time he makes a racist remark to her. The book's description describes the events as "micro-aggressions" but there's nothing micro about these--they're pretty obvious. So Maxine and Hollie come up with some harsh but true comebacks, and next time she's bullied, she's prepared and attacks right back. The bully, naturally, is shocked by this turn of events and Maxine standing up for herself.

You don't have to know anything about skating to enjoy this book. I really liked the friendship between Maxine and Hollie, who is relatively shy and homeschooled, so not a traditional school-based friendship like you normally see at this age. And it's a great message about clapping back and not just accepting being bullied. I wish at her age someone had helped me come up with a comeback or two instead of just spouting off the useless advice to "ignore them and they'll stop" (NO THEY WON'T.) It also just would have been nice to have an approach that was proactive instead of just defensive. I hope Maxine grows up to be a strong young woman mentally as well as physically. 

This book is published by Farrar Strauss Giroux BYR, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Book Review: The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff (audio)

I wasn't sure if I'd ever like an audiobook with multiple narrators. But an oral history is the natural book for that audio format. I've been reading more oral histories the last few years and liking them, although thus far they've mostly been about pop culture (TV shows and movies). This was my first serious one. And boy, how serious! I also wasn't sure if I should listen to a book about September 11th. I was in New York on that day and I don't especially like hearing other people's stories much, plus I strongly think that abbreviations like "9/11" are disrespectful, and even though I myself was in NYC, I dislike how many accounts ignore the Pentagon and Shanksville, PA. A college friend's brother died in Shanksville.

But this won the Audie award for best audiobook in 2020 and the reviews were fantastic and it kept showing as available in my library system, so I finally decided to give it a try. If I didn't like it I could stop. It also was much longer than I usually prefer, but it was over the holiday break so I had a good chance at finishing it before my 2 weeks were up. 

It is amazing like everyone says. An oral history was perfect for multiple narrators (and no, that one guy who sounds like Rainn Wilson isn't. There is a listing at the end of all the narrators. Although they don't seem to be listed anywhere else, particularly not in any of the publisher's websites or materials, which I thought was kind of crappy.) I do wish at least a couple of famous people --Rudy Guiliani, Katie Couric--could have recorded their own parts, especially because they were not very long overall. The accounts of people who were trapped in the World Trade Center buildings that day were particularly harrowing, of course. And the firefighters and other first responders brought a different perspective. They didn't have a lot of perspectives of regular office workers uptown like me who only had to walk several miles and be out of work for a couple of days. I wish the chapter on children's responses had been half the length. It was interesting hearing about kids whose schools were in the Financial District and Battery Park City, who were in danger themselves and who often had parents who worked in the buildings. But there were too many kids from all across the country. That though is the book's only flaw. I was amazed that people went back to work in the Pentagon the next day, even though parts of it were still on fire! 

If you experienced that day in those places and know what it was like, this book is respectful and conscientious and thorough. If you didn't, it will give you a real insight into what it was like. And for all of us, it was fascinating to learn about how the president being shuttled around the country from Florida in the days before technology was where it needed to be, meant those aboard Air Force One knew less about what was going on than pretty much anyone else in the country. They occasionally could get a local news channel for about 20 minutes as they traveled over a major city. Hearing about the responses within government that day was pretty eye-opening.

There were a few moments where the recordings were tough, but you knew everyone on the recordings had survived by the nature of the project (not everyone they were speaking to, though.) I really appreciated having the actual recordings from air traffic control and George Bush's speech. 

If you kind of what to read/listen to this but are worried you'll be sobbing throughout--I wasn't. I had one little moment where I teared up for a second, but I was fine. I wouldn't recommend listening/reading before bed. Pick a sunny day.

I listened to this digital audio book through Libby/Overdrive.