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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Book Review: The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E. Hoffman


It was very hard to spy in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Very hard. The CIA had an operation in Moscow, but it was mostly hamstrung for decades. Between the difficulty of operating in a closed society, and the skittishness of the powers that be back in Washington, they really didn't get much done until the late 1970s. Then a man approached a car with diplomatic license plates indicating it was American, and tossed a note in a car window. Thanks to that aforementioned skittishness, the CIA finally started letting this man be a spy TWO YEARS later. His name was Tolkachev and he was an engineer. Among the oodles of insanely useful data he passed along were actual circuit boards from radars and MiG planes, blueprints, and details of the capabilities (and the gaps) in the entire Soviet air force system. He passed along incredibly valuable and useful information for many years, to avenge the poor treatment of and eventual killing of his wife's parents when she was a child, by the Soviet regime. Tolkachev didn't ask for much, considering what he was giving us. He did ask for a lot of money but he couldn't really use any of it. He wanted some medicine and drawing pencils for his son along with rock and roll records. One of the hardest things he fought for was a cyanide pill, as he knew what would happen if he was ever caught.

For me, I had trouble remember when this book took place. The technology that the spies had seemed primitive at best, and of course the Soviets were decades behind with anything pop culture or fashion. But it was amazing just how backwards it was, as I had to keep saying to myself, "In just two years, Top Gun takes place," when they were having trouble with small cameras that could work without very bright light, and other basics that you think were mastered in the 1960s.

The book is very readable. Slightly slow going at first, but once Tolkachev comes on the scene, it rattles along breathlessly to the conclusion (no spoilers). The photo insert did give away a big event with the ending (which infuriated me considering that for some reason the photo insert is towards the front of the book—it isn't even halfway as usual. And if it doesn't need to be in the middle, couldn't it be towards the end when that wouldn't be a spoiler? Grrr. But other than that, this book was an excellent history of a time and place I knew little about. If you're remotely interested in spying, the Cold War, or the Soviet Union, this book was just great.

I bought this book at Watchung Booksellers, my local independent bookstore.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Book Review: Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

Yet another book for the last difficult states from my 50 States Challenge that turned out to be excellent, that I wouldn't have read otherwise!

Lincoln lives in Nebraska with his Mom, working the night shift for IT at the local newspaper. Part of his job, aside from supervising the Y2K fix work, is reviewing emails flagged by the system for inappropriate language. Beth, the movie reviewer, and Jennifer, a copywriter, get flagged frequently for this discussions of whether to have children (Jennifer), horrid weddings (Beth's sister), and who the new cute guy is that they're seeing around the office. It turns out the new cite guy is Lincoln himself. And despite himself, he finds himself really falling for Beth. Even though he's never met her, and she has a boyfriend.

This all sounds complicated but it's quite the opposite. It's almost an updated epistolary novel from the days of yore when it wasn't a bizarre notion to fall for someone sight unseen. However, the fact that Beth doesn't realize that her emails are being read (at least not consciously—she does know about the flagging system) does cause an ethical issue for the reader, and for Lincoln. Midway through the book you realize you really want them to end up together, but you're not sure how it might happen, as her boyfriend isn't a bad guy, and the ethical issue would complicate things regardless.

What I really liked was how, even though at the beginning Lincoln doesn't like his job at all (he feels like he's getting paid for doing nothing), things start to go well for him. He discovers that realizing someone finds him attractive and might have a crush on him helps his self-confidence, and that helps him in many other areas. As his older sister says, it's best not to focus on what you don't like, but focus instead on what is working, and try to just add one small piece of good to that side of the balance sheet, one at a time. (He accuses her of treating him like an investment—she works at a bank—and I don't disagree with that but I also don't think that's necessarily a negative.)

This book is a traditional rom-com with some humor and yet it's also somewhat quiet, which I appreciated (no ridiculous set-pieces of tripping and being humiliated). I liked its Midwestern vibe and the caring friendship we saw between Beth and Jennifer. It's not so easy to develop fully three-dimensional characters through emails but Ms. Rowell does it masterfully. Loved it.

I checked this book out of the library.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Book Review: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

I picked up this book just because it is set in Delaware, and it's interesting that the last books I'm reading for my 50 States Challenge are proving to be excellent.

I'm not sure exactly why this book is set in Delaware, except maybe to show the immigrant experience in a place that isn't a border state, and therefore can be a stand-in for Anywhere, USA. The story centers around Maribel and her parents, the Riveras. Maribel suffered a traumatic brain injury back in Mexico and her parents waited over a year to legally emigrate to the United States so Maribel can attend a special public high school that they hope will help with the long-lasting, perhaps permanent, issues arising from the TBI. Their new apartment building is almost entirely filled with Latino/as from Central America, including the Toro family downstairs, and their teenage son Mayor, who falls for Maribel the minute he sees her, despite her limitations.

At first it seems like things are going better for the Riveras. The father has to do manual labor picking mushrooms in Pennsylvania, whereas he was a contractor back in Mexico, so their standard of living has dropped, but Maribel does seem to be improving, her mother is taking English classes, and they are making some friends in the building. But there's a creepy boy hanging around who seems to have an unhealthy interest in Maribel, and some other things go wrong. Then one night everything bad happens.

I wasn't expecting the dramatic change from a happy family who was starting to get some traction, to a very sad and brutal ending. The tonal shift didn't feel adequately foreshadowed and so it felt like the book took a sudden left turn. Granted, life can be that way sometimes. But it still felt unsatisfying when the book feels like one kind of book for 3/4 and then dramatically changes.

That said, I really liked the Riveras and the Toros. I even liked the other random people whose stories were interspersed throughout in brief 2-3 page tales of their immigration and life in America, such as the landlord, and the annoying wealthier woman. Everyone was fleshed out and felt truly three-dimensional, aside from the bad kid (although he even shows a glimpse of what turned him into a bad kid, with a throwaway line about his bad home life.) I think this book is super-important to read right now to understand what the immigrant experience can be like, how every immigrant has a unique story and a personal reason for leaving, some perhaps feeling like they didn't have a choice. It was eye-opening in that way, and I really got to care for these people.

I checked this book out of the library.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Book Review: The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes by Zach Dundas

I was introduced to Sherlock Holmes in the mid-1980s by my mother, a huge fan of Mystery! and so naturally I was indoctrinated to picture Jeremy Brett forever, as the Great Detective. (Now, after having seen others try to portray Holmes, I stand by that. Brett's performance is truly bar-none.) I went on to read a lot if not all of the stores and novels. The Speckled Band still freaks me out, as does The Hound of the Baskervilles, although most of the stories aren't scary—they're just mind-twisters.

Mr. Dundas is the perfect author to write this history—he's a big fan but not a superfan of disturbing portions. He does talk to them, the writers of fanfic and those who dress up and so on. When he was a kid in the midwest, he formed his own Sherlock Holmes club! But he also does thorough research, and yet the book doesn't read even remotely academic. It's very readable, even a fast read for nonfiction, and thoroughly entertaining. Mr. Dundas doesn't hold Conan Doyle to a very high standard—he understands that mostly Conan Doyle wrote for the money and couldn't be bothered with research or getting his time frames correct. But that isn't the point. While you might think that books about a detective with such an eye for detail would themselves have the details all perfect, but they're adventure yarns and the action is the main point. Holmes doesn't sit in his study and puzzle out the clues while smoking his pipe—he's running around town wearing disguises and using his much-lauded single stick-fighting skills. And yes, in between he often is doing coke, as he is thoroughly bored when he isn't thoroughly occupied.

If you read (or watched) Sherlock Holmes tales, this book covers everything including Conan Doyle's much-ballyhooed obsession with the occult in his later days, with care and delight. Enjoy!

I checked this book out of the library.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Book Review: New Life, No Instructions by Gail Caldwell

Years ago I began with reading Caroline Knapp's memoir, Drinking, which lead me to Gail Caldwell's Let's Take the Long Way Home (Caroline died after the first book, and in Gail's first book, she mostly wrote about her friendship with Caroline.) Caroline is still present in this book, but Gail has started to move on and so her presence, while still very important, isn't as pervasive. In fact, I think Gail might talk more about her mother in this book.

As per usual, Gail is obsessed with her dog. She's adopted a Samoyed which is young and energetic, which brings to a point the fact that Gail's lifelong limp due to childhood polio, is getting much worse, and it's very hard for her to get around anymore. She's always been active so it's frustrating for her, and it's also hard for her to admit. Then when she does, it's hard for her to get help. Many doctors simply dismiss it as arthritis brought on by the polio and basically tell her she just has to live with it. Finally a doctor gives her an MRI and lo and behold, the entire ball of her hip is just gone. Obliterated. It's miraculous that she's mobile at all.

Interspersed throughout are memories of her mother who helped Gail exercise for hours every day as a young child, to counteract the polio effects, and also memories of when her mother's health was failing and the trips to Texas and how Gail came to deal with and accept that change—another great loss around the same time as she lost Caroline.

Friends really come through, walking the dog, bringing her food, helping with things around the house. When you are on crutches you can't even bring your food from the counter to the table as you have no hands and I loved that her hospital had a monthly before-surgery class for how to deal with that stuff.

Gail hasn't had an easy life, what with being an alcoholic and having lost a lot of dear people too early, but she is unfailingly positive. Not in an annoying Pollyannaish optimistic way, but in a realistic way of knowing that things will improve, because they invariable have. I really appreciated that. I also loved the flowing language (it was great to hear on audio with Gail herself reading) and the occasional light humor. This was a short book about getting on with life even when it gets complicated and difficult. She doesn't blow smoke about how things happen for a reason or any silver linings about the tragedies, but her dogged determination and her just-get-out-of-bed-every-day attitude were inspiring in their own quiet ways. I loved it.

I downloaded this eaudiobook via Overdrive through my local library.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Book Review: The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees

The author of this novel is an enormous Louisa May Alcott fan, and she long wondered how it was possible that Alcott never had any romantic interludes in her life of any kind. And while researching her, she discovered that there was one summer, when the family temporarily relocated to New Hampshire, when Alcott's journals (which she kept religiously) have disappeared. Why is there that gap? Sure, it could easily have been an accident or coincidence that somehow that one disappeared. Or it could indicate there was something in there that she wanted to hide.

So Ms. McNees has imagined a summer romance for Louisa. In this small town they quickly become known for Bronson's fame has followed them (although they hope the infamy of his many unpaid debts have not.) Louisa's oldest and youngest sisters quickly make friends and Louisa comes up with the idea for them to stage a play, as there isn't much going on in the town. Joseph, the young man who works in his father's general store, seems to be interested in Louisa. She is determined, however, to move to Boston to write, once she's saved up enough money. But will she reconsider, given Joseph's feelings?

I know what really happens in Louisa's life, so the outcome was never truly up in the air, but at the same time Ms. McNees truly added just the right amount of suspense and true feeling to make me pause and wonder if maybe she would make a different decision in the novel. That's always a sign of a masterful writer, when the conclusion is foregone, and yet you still root for something different to happen. Any fan of Alcott's will enjoy this novel. And if you haven't read Alcott's other books, I remember loving Jack and Jill and Under the Lilacs when I was about 11.

I got this ARC for free from the publisher.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Book Review: Heartburn by Nora Ephron

I have seen this book bandied about for decades as one of the funniest books every written, so when I was down and saw it at the used bookstore, I snatched it up. Well, that isn't exactly correct, at all. Turns out it's a very depressing topic: it's the lightly novelized story of the breakdown of Nora Ephron's marriage to Carl Bernstein who she found out was cheating on her when she was seven months' pregnant (and he was quite unapologetic about it.) It is treated lightly with a great deal of humor, but that can't ever completely obscure the essentially painful nature of the storyline.

The main character is Rachel, a famous cookbook author and TV personality. Her husband Mark is a famous columnist and they split their time between DC and NYC. The book essentially is her thoughts for the first few weeks after she figures out about the affair, and tries to decide what to do. There's a very odd interlude in the middle when her group therapy is robbed at gunpoint. And two lines absolutely jumped out at me because she repurposed them later in When Harry Met Sally. It was humorous, but not exactly a funny book to read when you're feeling down. It's more of a laughing-instead-of-crying book. But I am glad I read this modern classic--it was a distraction to be sure, and it read very fast and easily. But it is never comfortable to be a bystander to the crash and burn of a marriage.

I bought this book at Montclair Book Center.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Book Review: Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

Normally a novel pitched as a day in the life of a flaky stay at home mom would be a book I'd run away from, screaming. But due to the author's reputation as hilarious, I stuck around. And the first page completely sucked me in. Eleanor actually isn't asking for much. She plans to only wear yoga pants to yoga (and to GO to yoga) and to play with her kid and to have sex with her husband and not to talk about money. She's not exactly set a high bar. And yet, day after day, she fails at nearly everything she sets out to do. I think we can all relate to that.

This book isn't hilarious like her previous one, but it's certainly humorous. Eleanor isn't exactly someone I'd want to be friends with but she's a funny hot mess to watch from afar. I loved the Seattle setting--I was there briefly this summer and went to the sculpture park that is in a chapter, and it completely rang true. But the biggest truth was the hundreds of tiny compromises that makes up our daily lives.

Eleanor used to be the lead animator on a super-popular TV series but now she doesn't work. Her son, Timby, is in grade school, and her husband is a famous hand doctor for professional athletes. Then she is called to school to pick up Timby who says he's sick (he's getting bullied) which sets off a cascade of events all over the course of a single day that bring her to some realizations and decisions.

I loved the illustration insert. It was unique and insightful. And her sister's family was hilarious (and awful.) I wasn't thrilled with how things turned out with her husband but I did appreciate that it wasn't at all clichéd. I hope Eleanor can have a better day tomorrow.

I bought this book at an event with the author at Watchung Booksellers.

Reading New York City

In the spring I moved back to the NYC area. Well, New Jersey, but I work in New York. Then I saw a list on Book Riot of the 100 must-read books of New York. I've read 20. Four I had tried and DNFed and I did not enjoy them and don't intend to try them again. I've been toying with the idea of doing this list as another multi-year reading challenge like the Reading the 50 States challenge but... I really don't want to read a lot of these, particularly the older ones, and I will hate to get to the last year and have a bunch of crappy New York books that I don't want to read in front of me, even if I will inevitably like a couple of them more than I think. But there will certainly be a couple of stinkers, too. So maybe, instead, I just use this list as a list of good New York books and if I read 5 a year for a few years, that's a good thing. Plus, after the 50 State challenge, I've been feeling very American-centric in my reading and I'd like to be more expansive in my 2017 challenges. It's very interesting to me that of the remaining books, I only 1 one of them, unread. That's highly unusual for me. But it seems like if a book is on this list and interested me enough, I've read it, not just bought it and let it languish.

So, readers, from this list, of the books I haven't read (or DNFed), what should I put at the top of my list?

BTW, I took that picture of Manhattan from a hilltop a couple of miles from my apartment.

1876: A Novel by Gore Vidal
A History of New York by Washington Irving
A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith READ
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis READ
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
Another Country by James Baldwin
Ashes of Fiery Weather by Kathleen Donohoe
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow
Bread Givers by Anya Yezierska
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote READ
Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín READ
Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall
Christodora by Tim Murphy
City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan by Beverly Swerling READ
Daddy Was a Number Runner by Louise Meriwether
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
Dreamland by Kevin Baker
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Fever by Mary Beth Keane
Forever by Pete Hamill
Fury by Salman Rushdie
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
Going Down by Jennifer Belle
Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older
Heyday by Kurt Andersen
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison READ
It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
Jazz by Toni Morrison READ
Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCan DNF
Lowboy by John Wray
Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid
Lush Life by Richard Price
Maggie, a Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane
Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos
Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
Nevada by Imogen Binnie
Open City by Teju Cole
Passing by Nella Larsen
Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish
Push by Sapphire READ
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
Re Jane by Patricia Park
Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam
Rules of Civility: A Novel by Amor Towles READ
Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
Sex Wars: A Novel of Gilded Age New York by Marge Piercy
Sima’s Undergarments for Women by Ilana Stanger-Ross
Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins
Small Mercies by Eddie Joyce
Sophie’s Choice by William Styron READ
Speedboat by Renata Adler
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton READ
The Alienist by Caleb Carr READ
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon READ
The Ask by Sam Lipsyte DNF
The Assistant by Bernard Malamud
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaVelle
The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath READ
The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe OWN
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger DNF
The Chosen by Chaim Potok
The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger READ
The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud
The Ex by Alafair Burke
The Godfather by Mario Puzo READ
The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald READ
The Great Negro Plot: A Tale of Conspiracy and Murder in Eighteenth-Century New York by Mat Johnson
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer DNF
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos
The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
The Prince of West End Avenue by Alan Isler
The Street by Ann Petry
The Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer
The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett READ
The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger
The Warmest December by Bernice L. McFadden
Time and Again by Jack Finney READ
Underworld by Don DeLillo
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann READ
Washington Square by Henry James
Watchmen by Alan Moore
Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Monday, November 14, 2016

Book Review: Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West by Hampton Sides

This reading experience was rather different for me. Because this book took forever to read despite not being overly long, but it never felt like it was dragging or boring. Just a slow read, that didn't feel like a slow read. What would happen is that I would very happily read and learn all sorts of fascinating new things for 20 pages, and I'd look at the clock, expecting it to be 30 minutes or 45 minutes, but instead it would have been an hour and a half. I  mean, it's great when you're so caught up in your reading that time flies by like that, but that means it's going to be a long, long time to finish the book.

And it was. But it was so worth it. Do you know much about the American West? Unless you grew up there, I doubt it. Mostly this book is about Kit Carson, but given who and when and where he was, that means it's also a pretty definitive history of the Southwest at a seminal moment. Kit Carson may have been illiterate (and he was embarrassed of that his entire life), but he was fluent in four languages and could get by in a dozen more, mostly Native American languages. He moved west at a young age and became a fur trapper until that career path ended (most of the animals were hunted to near-extinction and thankfully fur hats fell out of style.) He then was hired by the army as a scout and guide, and eventually he joined up. He was invaluable during the Mexican-American war and he also fought in the Civil War, although it was different in New Mexico than in the eastern half of the United States. His advice was always sound, and he was a level-headed voice of wisdom in a time of close-minded hot-heads when it came to Mexicans and Native Americans. One commander seemed to bring out the worst in him (and vice versa) but luckily he didn't serve with Carson long.

By the time Carson died, the West was pretty well conquered with trains coming and land acquired and Native Americans being herded into reservations. He went to Washington D.C. a couple of times and got to meet the president and he was feted, and he was amused by the novels written "starring" him. He always wished for more time at home with his family, and he would have been pretty happy with a quiet life, but that wasn't what he got. Instead he got a front-row seat to the final massive expansion of America.

I checked this book out of the library.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Book Review: Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates

I just saw this book on a list of great true-crime inspired fiction, and I'd liked several other books on the list, and Ms. Oates in my sister-in-law's favorite author, so I figured I'd give it a try when I saw it at the used bookstore. Plus, since it's based on the Chappaquiddick incident with Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne, I thought it was be an exciting thriller with salacious celebrity details, which would be a perfectly uber-distracting book for my down mood.

Well, the mood was very wrong. Instead, it downplays all salacious elements of the original story, and there's no thriller aspects to it. Instead, nearly half the book is Kelly (the Mary Jo character), trapped in the car, with water rising, pondering her imminent death, and she hopes the Senator will come back or bring help. The book was very evocative, I could almost feel the murky black water myself, coming closer and closer, Kelly thought back to the party, to her childhood, to her parents. Most of the book is flashbacks. We also get the Senator's side, but less so.

I can see why this book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Despite being kind of the opposite type of book I was looking for tonally, I couldn't put it down. I read it all in one day. It was chilling and sad and as the hope drained out of Kelly and out of the car, I really wished the ending would be different. The book of course wouldn't have been as powerful if it was, and it is interesting going into a book like this when you know the end from the start, and seeing how the author nonetheless manages suspense and tension. It was a great novel for anyone who likes their fiction dark and sad. Ms. Oates can sure write circle around anyone!

I bought this book at Montclair Book Center.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

“Waiting On” Wednesday: The Wood for the Trees: One Man's Long View of Nature by Richard Fortey

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

Synopsis from Goodreads:
From one of our greatest science writers, this biography of a beech-and-bluebell wood through diverse moods and changing seasons combines stunning natural history with the ancient history of the countryside to tell the full story of the British landscape.

‘The woods are the great beauty of this country… A fine forest-like beech wood far more beautiful than anything else which we have seen in its vicinity’ is how John Stuart Mill described a small patch of beech-and bluebell woodland, buried deeply in the Chiltern Hills and now owned by Richard Fortey. Drawing upon a lifetime of scientific expertise and abiding love of nature, Fortey uses his small wood to tell a wider story of the ever-changing British landscape, human influence on the countryside over many centuries and the vital interactions between flora, fauna and fungi.

The trees provide a majestic stage for woodland animals and plants to reveal their own stories. Fortey presents his wood as an interwoven collection of different habitats rich in species. His attention ranges from the beech and cherry trees that dominate the wood to the flints underfoot; the red kites and woodpeckers that soar overhead; the lichens, mosses and liverworts decorating the branches as well as the myriad species of spiders, moths, beetles and crane-flies. The 300 species of fungi identified in the wood capture his attention as much as familiar deer, shrews and dormice.

Fortey is a naturalist who believes that all organisms are as interesting as human beings–and certainly more important than the observer. So this book is a close examination of nature and human history. He proves that poetic writing is compatible with scientific precision. The book is filled with details of living animals and plants, charting the passage of the seasons, visits by fellow enthusiasts; the play of light between branches; the influence of geology; and how woodland influences history, architecture and industry. On every page he shows how an intimate study of one small wood can reveal so much about the natural world and demonstrates his relish for the incomparable pleasures of discovery.

Publishing December 6,
2016 by Knopf.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Book Review: The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro, narrated by Xe Sands

I met the author, B.A. Shapiro, a couple of years ago at an event. She is so nice! I'd read and thoroughly enjoyed her first novel, also about art, The Art Forger. I'd bought this book at the event—three copies in fact—which I gave to my mother and two sisters for Christmas that year (three art history majors there). I had planned to read one copy before I gave them away but... I didn't get to it. So instead, much later, I listened to it on audio.

Now, I tend to avoid fiction on audio. It's just not my favorite. With all the different voices, some of which seem never to be done well, and the fact that in an audio I always space out or get distracted at some point which is much more detrimental to the understanding of a novel than nonfiction, I just don't usually listen to fiction. But I have figured out a trick—if I can listen to it nearly straight-through, then it will work better for me. I'm not as lost about who characters are, I am not as easily distracted (in fact towards the end the opposite seems to happen—I get so caught up in the story that it's harder to get my attention for something else.) And this one had a bonus: the narrator was excellent.

There's a contemporary story of Danielle who works at Christie's and has been looking for her aunt, Alizee Benoit's art her entire career. Then in flashbacks, we have Alizee's story of working for the WPA and meeting Eleanor Roosevelt and having an affair with Mark Rothko and being best friends with all the other Abstract Expressionists from that period—Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollack et al. I'm not sure if the framing story of Danielle was really necessary. The book is only 20% her story and 80% Alizee's story, which is much more compelling and interesting. But int he end the two storylines do converge and Danielle does find out (more or less) what happened to Alizee when she disappeared without a trace just before WWII broke out.

I loved that it's a lesser-done time period, especially with the WPA angle which I really haven't read about much in fiction. Art is also hard to write about in novels, but not for Ms. Shapiro. She almost seems to find it easy and the art just came alive in my mind. (It's helpful to also have an idea of what Abstract Expressionism is of course.) If you like art at all, and historical novels, this is a great one. I thoroughly enjoyed it and managed to completely lose myself in Alizee's world for a couple of days.

I downloaded this eaudiobook via Overdrive through my local library.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Book Review: That Should Be a Word: A Language Lover’s Guide to Choregasms, Povertunity, Brattling, and 250 Other Much-Needed Terms for the Modern World by Lizzie Skurnick

Occasionally it's good to throw in a lightweight book as a palate cleanser, just like a nice sorbet between courses. Especially if one has been reading the same history book diligently for a month now and never seems to get anywhere.

Lizzie Skurnick is someone I've long been a huge fan of, having loved her memoir Shelf Discovery, about YA novels she loved as a girl and that hold up over time. (It eventually inspired her to start an imprint at Ig Books, reissuing classic YA novels from the 70s and 80s.) She also used to write a column in the New York Times Magazine where she would make up words (entirely portmanteaus which is a word made by mashing two other words together like brunch.) This book compiles a few hundred of those words, sorted by subject, and it is laugh-out-loud funny. Marrieds will nod knowingly before even reading the definition of martyrmony. And how has fidgital—excessively checking one’s devices—not caught on? Mostly covering pop culture and everyday society, things such as children and household chores and social media, everyone can identify with Ms. Skurnick's hilariously made-up but oh-so-necessary new words. For anyone word obsessed (like me!) this book is a must-have, and would make a great gift.

I'm not 100% sure where I got this book but I'm guessing I bought it at Park Road Books.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Book Review: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling (audio)


This book hit a sweet spot for me, which is always great. Based on what I'd heard about this book, and the popularity of it when it was new, I was pretty sure I'd like it. But it's also great, when you're not in a very sure place yourself, to read about a successful celebrity who also is unsure of herself, who has screwed up, who will never be as thin as Hollywood wants, who's had to write a lot of her own roles if she wants to have any role at all, and who has had a couple of big flops. It's reassuring to read about a real, relatable, flawed person, rather than the shiny, perfect veneer many celebrities try to convey. Even better when it's also funny.

And Mindy Kaling is of course, quite funny. We all know this from her role as Kelly Kapoor from The Office. But did you know she was also often a writer, producer, and director on the show? (And no, those weren't shows that were Kelly-heavy but the opposite in fact—if you're acting a lot in an episode you can't also be directing or producing.) I haven't watched her new show but now I'm really tempted to search it out.

As a traditional memoir, the first half of the book was about her childhood. Her parents were strict but not overly so, she had good friends, she was pudgy even as a kid, she got teased, and she found her love for comedy (not necessarily in that order.) Then halfway through, she moves to New York City (in a chapter hilariously—to me— titled "I Love New York... Which Kind of Likes Me Back.") where she had an internship on Conan O'Brien's show when she was in college but was disasterous at, and it took years for her to get anything off the ground. Eventually she and a friend wrote a play based on Ben Affleck and Matt Damon which they starred in, which won a bunch of awards and was wildly popular. She got an agent, got some meetings, and finally moved to Hollywood where she was friendless aside from the transvestites in her neighborhood. Her first big break ended up failing in a big way. She and the same friend wrote a script called Mindy and Brenda that was supposed to be a riff on Lavergne and Shirley, and much to her shock she was then expected to audition for the role of Mindy... and didn't get it. Brenda didn't get cast as Brenda either. When the show failed, she was relieved, even though that was bad for her career.

But she kept plugging away and she got on The Office as a writer. She also became a writer on Saturday Night Live where she got to meet Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. And things finally started going well. She nearly got fired one day from The Office after she wouldn't back down on a debate with her boss about an element of the show, so it's kind of nice that even after she became successful that didn't suddenly mean she suffered no missteps, and no stumbles of her own doing.

I will be definitely getting her follow-up book! This was a lot of fun and exactly what I was looking for. Her narration was also excellent, although it's another example of a book that had photos that were not given to the audiobook listeners. Tina Fey's book managed to get that right (with a PDF download of the photo insert) so I don't really understand why other publishers can't do that. But it sounds like they were on the silly side, so not a big deal to miss.

I downloaded this eaudiobook via Overdrive through my local library.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Book review: Basin and Range by John McPhee

I have read eight books by John McPhee, no two on a remotely similar topic, and thoroughly enjoyed all of them. This one is probably the one where I understood the least, as plate tectonics isn't exactly a simple process to explain to lay people, but I enjoyed it anyway. I think in parts, he was just listing off cool names of things (types of rocks, eras of prehistory), just because they sound cool, not because he expected anyone to understand. Some bits almost read like poetry.

His books always are a deep dive New Yorker-style into an obscure topic, and this one was the most obscure. Parts of it in the beginning were actually right around here as he talked about the Palisades and Watchung Mountain and even once mentioned Montclair. But soon he heads out west to Nevada and to the Basin and Range. It's an unusual place of plate tectonics as they did not create the usual mountain and plain but where you can see the plates in action. This book is a little older (1981) and plate tectonics wasn't 100% accepted by geologists yet—some still were stuck on continental drift. And I have no clue how much of the geologic science I read about is no longer accurate, but it doesn't matter as I retained none of that. I don't read a book like this to retain obscure facts about rocks, but instead for the general feel and vibe of spending time with an insanely knowledgeable uncle who will explain his interest/area of expertise to the nth degree even if you didn't ask. It will be thoroughly enjoyable even if not pertinent or retained. I have six more McPhee books on my shelves to tackle, and I will enjoy every one of them. I might not know more afterwards but I feel smarter, just for having spent that time with him.

I checked this book out of the library.

“Waiting On” Wednesday: Payoff

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations by Dan Ariely

Synopsis from Goodreads: 
Bestselling author Dan Ariely reveals fascinating new insights into motivation—showing that the subject is far more complex than we ever imagined.

Every day we work hard to motivate ourselves, the people we live with, the people who work for and do business with us. In this way, much of what we do can be defined as being “motivators.” From the boardroom to the living room, our role as motivators is complex, and the more we try to motivate partners and children, friends and coworkers, the clearer it becomes that the story of motivation is far more intricate and fascinating than we’ve assumed.

Payoff investigates the true nature of motivation, our partial blindness to the way it works, and how we can bridge this gap. With studies that range from Intel to a kindergarten classroom, Ariely digs deep to find the root of motivation—how it works and how we can use this knowledge to approach important choices in our own lives. Along the way, he explores intriguing questions such as: Can giving employees bonuses harm productivity? Why is trust so crucial for successful motivation? What are our misconceptions about how to value our work? How does your sense of your mortality impact your motivation?

Publishing Nov. 15, 2016 by Simon & Schuster.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

My month in review October 2016

The Month in Review meme is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date.

My month has been odd. I got laid off at the very end of Sept. so I have been not reading books from that publisher and instead I have been reading a lot of memoirs (my crack), audio (because sometimes it's been too hard to read but I wanted to anyway, plus I had more time to go on long walks), and I also decided to really tackle my challenges as it's close to the end of the year and I am no longer under any obligation to read other books. I was worried this summer that I wouldn't finish any of the challenges but as of right now, I think I will complete the hardest one, the 50 states. It hasn't been easy but I am pushing through. I also was way behind ever since the spring for hitting my goal of 100 books but I am finally CAUGHT UP! (Well, I was for one day. But soon I will be permanently.) As for the other two challenges (books I want to read and chunksters), there's no way I will finish them unless I read nothing but those books for the rest of the year which I am not going to do (after all, I no longer am dying to read all 20 books that I was dying to read in December and that's okay.) But I might finish one of them and I'll certainly keep going forward with them.

Books completed this month:
Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology by Leah Remini
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs
Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek with T.J. Mitchell
On Folly Beach by Karen White
Basin and Range by John McPhee
Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen
What Comes Next and How to Like It by Abigail Thomas
The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates
That Should Be a Word: A Language Lover’s Guide to Choregasms, Povertunity, Brattling, and 250 Other Much-Needed Terms for the Modern World by Lizzie Skurnick
The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West by Hampton Sides
The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees
The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters With Extraordinary People by Susan Orlean
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

What I acquired this month:
Maria Semple was in town at an author event and I got the book there, through my local independent bookstore, Watchung Books:
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

I went to Melville Books and the owners gave me some books:
The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure by C.D. Rose
How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants by David Rees
The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream by Chris Lehmann
The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer

And I finally checked out the used bookstore here in Montclair and bought these books:
Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Unless by Carol Shields
Fight Less, Love More: 5-Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship without Blowing Up or Giving In by Laurie Puhn
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
The Other Woman by Rona Jaffe
True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa by Michael Finkel