Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Book Review: Off Season by James Sturm

This graphic novel shows a family of four (they are drawn as dogs but otherwise sure seem very human-like.) Lisa, the wife and mom, has moved out. After the election she has been shaken to the core and is rethinking a lot of things including her marriage. The story is told from the POV of the husband/dad. He works as a carpenter for a jerk who lies about work and paying him on time, his kids Suzie and Jeremy act out, and Lisa is alternately angry, withholding, and there are moments of tenderness. It is a difficult "off season" for all of them. Will they make it out the other side together?

I really wanted the book to continue. I felt the ending was a bit abrupt. I had really gotten into the characters and the story then and it seemed like there was a lot more to explore. This seems to be a recurring problem with me and graphic novels of all stripes, so I'm starting to wonder if the problem is me, not the books. That was my only real issue with it. It took a bit to get into it, but then I really identified with him, as an adult living in a post-2016-election world and with all the difficulties therein.

This book is published by Drawn & Quarterly, which is distributed by Macmillan, my employer.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Book Review: In Pieces by Sally Field (audio)

I've always liked Sally Field. I appreciate that she both is in very good movies and TV shows, but also sometimes just takes the work she can get because it's a job. As she's always seemed very real and down-to-earth. I'd heard this was great, and as I always like an audiobook memoir read by the author, when the author is a professional entertainer (and sometimes non-entertainers, but those are much more reliable), I went for it!

It is great. She had a harrowing childhood though, and it is awkward and cringeworthy for this listener to hear her reading about her step-father's repeated molestations of her. However, that's not the majority of the book, so I was able to move on. (It does, of course, impact her entire life, but the details which made me squeamish are only in the beginning.) She had mostly not-great relationships with men, but she obviously adores her three sons. She was lucky that The Flying Nun didn't completely ruin her career. And I was shocked to hear that Gidget was only on for one season!

At one point I realized, there's only about an hour left of the audiobook, and she's only now done Norma Rae, so we're not going to get through everything. And she really sped through the highlights after that. Her life was more stable and I suppose she didn't want this to be a chronicle of her children's ups and downs. But what was really interesting, especially at the end, was her relationship with her mother. She eventually confronted her about her step-father's molesting and they worked that out. But Sally always struggled with reconciling her image of her mother with reality. Since she had her first child, she really leaned on her mother's help with her kids, her entire life (her third child is 20 years younger than her first so she had child care needs for several decades.) And when her mother was in poor health and fading, Sally thought about how reliable and helpful and loving her mother was, and how she could always count on her. But what she seems to have never truly understood is that she was only those things when Sally was an adult. When Sally was a child, she'd invited a child molester into their home, she'd drunk heavily, and ignored her children. But Sally has a lovely way of understanding that your relationship is what is IS, now, not then. And it's going to always be different and changing. And while she has trouble not idealizing her mother when she was younger, she does intellectually understand that her mother really let her down, but that's not who her mother was anymore.

I also found it refreshing to finally get a memoir where the subject doesn't have perfect memory. I have a dreadful memory for details for the most part and am always rather flummoxed by people who write about things decades past with nuance and detail, when I can barely remember last month. Sally, having been in the public eye, did have the benefit of an aunt who kept scrapbooks, and an agent who mailed publicity notices and reviews, to help jog her memories. But it was kind of nice to hear someone for once say that she was looking at a photo of a house she'd lived in, which she had no memory of at all. Partly though that might be due to some mild dissociating due to the molesting. Playing Sibyl wasn't as much of a stretch for her, unfortunately. (And hence, the title of the book.)

A really enjoyable memoir of a woman who is pretty relatable and ordinary--someone you think you might be friends with if she lived next door--and the rather unordinary life she lead.

I listened to this book via Libby, the Overdrive audiobook app from my library.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Book Review: The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (audio)

So last year I listened to a different octopus book, Other Minds, and I was afraid this would tread a lot of the same ground, but I love Ms. Montgomery's writing so I was willing to give it a chance anyway. Luckily, they cover very little of the same material, so if one book interests you, you should pick up the other.

This one does tell you A LOT about octopuses (no, they are not octopii. You can't put a Latin ending on a Greek word.) But it's more about Sy's personal relationship with a series on octopuses she befriends at the New England Aquarium. From Athena to Octavia to Kali, these octopuses have very distinctive personalities and are whip-smart. They love puzzle boxes and taking things apart and they can squeeze through bizarrely tiny openings, making them particularly difficult animals to contain. While light on science, Ms. Montgomery's background is in studying animals and she understand that these few specimens aren't a large enough number to study, they do have some striking similarities that must inevitably lead you to believe in their intelligence and individualism in a way that makes me uncomfortable to ever eat octopus again (luckily, it's not a favorite food at all, so easy to cut out. Sorry, Penny.)

If you're interested in the lives of animals, as opposed to the science, and if and how they can have relationships with humans, but are tired of all the dog and cat books, this book is perfect for you. If you also want to know the science, pick up Other Minds as well. It's a great companion. I found this book a delight.

I listened to this book through Libby/Overdrive via my local library.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Book Review: Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring by Richard Gergel

In 1946, Sergeant Isaac Woodard was on a Greyhound bus heading home from having served in WWII. He asked to step off the bus to use the restroom. He and the bus driver had words. Police were called. The police chief beat the tar out of him and drive his nightstick into both of Woodard's eyes, blinding him. More than a decade before when we think of the Civil Rights Movement beginning, it had already begun. This case galvanized the NAACP, taught a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall a thing or two about trying politically charged cases, and most importantly, it changed the mind of a young judge named J. Waties Waring in South Carolina. Waring couldn't change the outcome of this case. But the shocking things he learned about the treatment of African-Americans in America made him look into it further, made him an activist, and his dissent in a public school segregation case in 1951 was pretty much quoted word for word a few years later by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education.

We often see the big events only, without context, without understanding of what lead up to them. We don't understand the decades of anguish and servility and mistreatment that lead up to them. And we also don't understand what events lead great men (and this era, it was mostly men) to buck the trend and to stand up for what was right instead of what was accepted. Woodard and Waring's names have been mostly lost to history, except for those who study the Civil Rights movement in the United States. We ought to remember them. What might seem like solitary incidents of brutality and incivility can later lead to great change. One can find much inspiration in stories like these today.

This book is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Book Review: Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart

Coyote and her dad are driving all around the country in a converted school bus. She's home schooled, and they see the whole US. But there's one place her dad won't take her--home to Seattle. See, a few years ago Coyote's mom and two sisters all died in a terrible car accident. Coyote was supposed to be in the car that day too. And it's just been way too much to deal with. So they don't. They drive around to cool places, Coyote reads, she adopts a kitten named Ivan.

One day she calls her grandmother back home, and gets some bad news. There's a park in their old neighborhood that's going to be torn down for a developer to build something. In that park, a month or so before they died, Coyote and her two sister and their mom buried a memory box. Coyote can't tell her grandmother where exactly it is although she knows she can find it. But that means she has to get her dad to drive back to Washington. And she has just over a week to do it. They're in Florida.

So first she meets a boy her age. He and his mom are trying to travel to St. Louis where his aunt has a better job for his mom but their car broke down, so she offers them a ride. That will get her halfway home. Then she figures out they need another driver to spell her dad so she overhears a man in a diner talking about needing to get out west and she offers him a ride too. Eventually they pick up a few other people, and this motley crew of strangers becomes friends.

But will Coyote get to Washington in time? Will she and her dad finally deal with the grief they've been running away from? Will she ever have stability in her life?

This was a wonderful story about friendship, about family, about how family can be the people we surround ourselves with, about trust and love, and ultimately about dealing with grief. It's a very positive fun road trip story, with the grief part only being a bit at the end. It's handled very well and Coyote is a wonderful girl who is having an unusual life but who you just know will turn out great one day.

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 Henry Holt, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Book Review: The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot Against George Washington by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch

Since I've moved to New Jersey, I've been reading a heck of a lot more books on the Revolutionary War than I ever did before, and not just because of Hamilton. The topic of this book really intrigued me, but I knew it was written in a style I wasn't so sure about, but I gave it a try. And it was fun!

It's about a conspiracy by British Governor Tryon (yes, my North Carolina friends, the same guy your streets are named for) to turn American colonists to the British side during the early days of the Revolutionary War, including members of George Washington's personal body guards, who were plotting to assassinate Washington. When I mean early days, the climax of the book takes place one week before the Declaration of Independence was signed. One reason we've never heard of this is, aside from the very public sentence which was meant to be a lesson/warning to other soldiers, this was intentionally kept secret, and not publicized, so Washington in particular and the American army in general wouldn't look weak or vulnerable. But this was one of the first instances in modern times of counter-espionage, and when we (and the British and quickly after, everyone else) realized how counter-espionage was pretty much just as important as espionage. In that regard, this incident lead more or less directly to organizations like the CIA and Secret Service.

I don't want to give away too much. But I will say this is written in a very different style than other history books I've read. In present tense with short, choppy paragraphs which all end on a cliffhanger, the style of this book is much more in he vein of a thriller. It certainly does keep the action moving the the pages turning, even if it is not as straightforward, there's some repetition in all the foreshadowing, and present tense in a history is a bit odd. But it's fun, it's an easy read, and you will learn a lot.

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

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Book Review: The Widows: A Novel by Jess Montgomery

This is a historical novel that feels like a Western. It's set in rural, Appalachian Ohio in the 1920, but it feels older and more Western than that, as this neck of the woods was a bit behind the times. And like you sometimes get in those old Westerns, this is a story of the gumption of two strong women, both lightly based on real historical women.

The first one, Lily, is married to the town sheriff, and she runs the jail, which is in the back of their house (think: The Andy Griffith Show.) Until one day he is shot and killed, transporting a prisoner from the mine back to the jail. Except Lily doesn't believe that prisoner killed him. And luckily, she's appointed his replacement, so she's in an excellent position to look into his death further. (Based on the real first female sheriff in Ohio.)

She meet up with Marvena, whose husband was recently killed in a mining explosion. Marvena had been a good friend of Lily's husband, and rumored to be more. But they ignore the rumors and band together to find out what's really going on behind the scenes in their town. Marvena is organizing the miners into a union (she's based on Mother Jones) and they both want their town to be a place of honesty and justice, not backstabbing and exploitation. They will come up against some powerful forces, but these stubborn, angry women with little to lose, are happy to demonstrate how tough they are despite their long hair and dresses. Especially when it comes to defending their kids.

These women are inspiring and really define the word gumption like no other. In a time when the strength of women was in question it's refreshing to read about women who stood up to the boys' club and men's power plays even when it was life-threatening. and if that's not enough, the mystery about what really happened to Daniel will keep you guessing.

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