Saturday, December 31, 2016

Reading Challenge 2016 Summaries

Last year was the first year that I didn't finish a reading challenge. Well, this year I didn't finish two! But it was a really rough year and I still managed to finish what I think will be the hardest challenge ever, and I still read 100 books, and one of the challenges I hadn't really designed in order to really be sure I read every book on it.

It's this first one. In 2015 I had read hardly any of the books I'd started off the year wanting to read and I wanted to be sure that didn't happen again. Reading 12 of the top 20 books I wanted to read going into 2016 actually seems pretty great to me. And a few of them have really dropped off my list. I didn't read them because I'm just not that enticed anymore. I hope/expect I'll get to all of these eventually, but just not right now. After all, in 2016 I had to A) read a lot of books in prep for interviews B) read a lot of books from my publisher when I had that job C) read mostly cheerful books as it was a particularly rough year, which eliminated a couple of these.

It is surprising that I didn't finish the Chunksters but with moving across the country and the stress of starting a new job and then of losing that job, I got behind several times with my reading, and I got to a point where I could either do the Chunkster challenge or read 100 books, and since I wasn't gung-ho about any 450+ page books, I decided to let it go. I've been doing the Chunkster Challenge for years and this is the first time I haven't finished. And heck, last year I read 7 while I was only going for 5, so it's not like I never read long books.

Finally, I finished the State by State Challenge! I am so proud of this! It was a very difficult challenge as it's not so easy to find books set in certain states (or there is one easy one but I'd already read it!) I gave myself three years to do this challenge. It means I've read fewer international books in the last three years, so I think an international challenge is in store for 2017. One fascinating thing with doing this challenge was that some of the harder states, like Nebraska and Delaware and Arkansas, lead to me reading books I otherwise wouldn't have and that I really loved. The easy states, like California and New York, were unmemorable. I read a dozen (or more!) books set in New York in the last three years and had to make no effort. But I had to make a big effort for North Dakota and Wyoming. It was interesting how many states that were more obscure I didn't have to try for, but were books picked for my book clubs (Iowa, Kentucky, Oregon). Loved this challenge and so glad I did it.

Reading the Books That I Want Challenge
Last year I got frustrated with my reading challenges and my book clubs and other reading obligations. And while looking at my end of year post from last year, I was annoyed that I didn't get to read a couple of books from the rather short list of books I was really looking forward to. And then I had an idea. This year I am creating my own reading challenge, just for me. And it is to list the top 20 books on my TBR list and be sure I actually read them. I am very much looking forward to this! The list does not include any books currently assigned for my book clubs or that I plan to read for my State by State challenge. 

I've spent time tweaking my list and I am pretty happy with it. I really want to read these twenty books this year and I hope that this challenge will get me to do it:
1. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell DONE
2. Drinking in America: Our Secret History by Susan Cheever
3. Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall
4. Louisa May Alcott by Susan Cheever
5. Terrible Virtue: A Novel by Ellen Feldman
6. The Work: My Search for a Life That Matters by Wes Moore DONE
7. Chocolate Wars: The 150-Year Rivalry Between the World's Greatest Chocolate Makers by Deborah Cadbury DONE
8. The Last September by Nina de Gramont DONE
9. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs DONE
10. On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz DONE
11. Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon DONE
12. The Arrangement by Ashley Warlick 
13. My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout DONE
14. The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America's Game by Edward Achorn DONE
15. Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport by Matthew Algeo DONE
16. Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss 
17. Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse: A Novel by Faith Sullivan
18. The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson DONE
19. The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson DONE
20. Call the Midwife: A True Story of the East End in the 1950s by Jennifer Worth DONE

13/20 as of 12/19/16




Chunkster Reading Challenge 
Wondering what’s a chunkster? A chunkster is an adult or YA book, non-fiction or fiction, that’s 450 pages or more.

Here’s the rules for this year’s challenge (from 2015):
Audio books and e-books are allowed. You want to listen to a chunkster on audio? Be my guest. Essay, short story, and poetry collections are allowed but they have to be read in their entirety to count. Books may crossover with other challenges.
Anyone can join. You don’t need a blog. Feel free to leave your progress on the monthly link-up posts.  You don’t have to list your books ahead of time. Graphic novels don’t count. Reading a chunkster graphic novel isn’t the same as reading a non-graphic chunkster.

Carin says:
I always love my chunkster challenge. It's never been a challenge I've struggled to solve, luckily. I'm a little worried since the 2016 post isn't up yet. Nevertheless, I'll pick 6 for this year. 

1. The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street: A Novel by Susan Jane Gilman 500 pages
2. The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton 466 pages
3. The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson 496 pages
4. The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee 592 pages
5. 
6. 

4/6 as of 12/31/16

State by State in 2014-2016
Ever thought you would like to read your way across America?
The USA Fiction Challenge asks you to do just that.
Read just one book from each state - you choose whether the link is the setting or the author.
You choose whether you confine yourself to a particular genre or not.

Carin says:
I am extending this challenge over multiple years. I am picking setting (I think often where an author's from is wildly irrelevant to a book) and I am not confining myself to a genre. I had hoped to have 35 books done by the end of my first year but I only had 22. Now I have 37 done, leaving 14 (I included Washington D.C.) I am confidant I can finish this year, and I'm going to try pretty hard. I own 6 of them, and two of those I know are on my book club's list for this year, so those are easy guarantees. Books marked in blue were read in 2014, black in 2015, with red for 2016.

Alabama: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
Alaska: 
All the Winters After by Seré Prince Halverson
Arizona: Son of a Gun: A Memoir by Justin St. Germain
Arkansas: A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade by Kevin Brockmeier
California: The Longest Date: Life as a Wife by Cindy Chupack
Colorado: 
Columbine by Dave Cullen 
Connecticut: The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic by John Putnam Demos
DC: All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Matt Bai 
Delaware: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
Florida: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani
Georgia: 
Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood by Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley Jr.
Hawaii: Hawaii by James A. Michener
Idaho: 
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
Illinois: Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen
Indiana: She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel
Iowa: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
Kansas: 
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn 
Kentucky: The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton
Louisiana: Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink
Maine: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
Maryland: 
Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte by Carol Berkin
Massachusetts: Defending Jacob by William Landay
Michigan: You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers
Minnesota: 
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Mississippi: Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League by Jonathan Odell
Missouri: 
Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life by Pamela Smith Hill
Montana: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer
Nebraska: Attachments by Rainbow Rowell 
Nevada: Basin and Range by John McPhee
New Hampshire: The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees

New Jersey: 
Let Me Explain You by Annie Liontas 
New Mexico: Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West by Hampton Sides
New York: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro
North Carolina: 
My Accidental Jihad by Krista Bremer
North Dakota: Nothing to Do But Stay by Carrie Young
Ohio: The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok
Oklahoma: Maud's Line by Margaret Verble
Oregon: Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival by Peter Stark
Pennsylvania: The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan
Rhode Island: 
In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me about Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love by Joseph Luzzi 
South Carolina: On Folly Beach by Karen White
South Dakota: The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber
Tennessee: 
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan
Texas: Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce
Utah: The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family by Josh Hanagarne
Vermont: Good Grief: Life in a Tiny Vermont Village by Ellen Stimson
Virginia: 
The House Girl by Tara Conklin
Washington: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
West Virginia: Close to Famous by Joan Bauer
Wisconsin: Keeping the House by Ellen Baker
Wyoming: 
Letters from Yellowstone by Diane Smith
22/51 in 2014
15/29 in 2015
14/14 in 2016 DONE!

Carin's Best Book of 2016

As usual, part of the reason you love a book is because of how you're feeling and what's going on in your life when you read a book. I think I would have loved A Man Called Ove no matter what, but it helped that I was going through a rough patch. If you're feeling down or blue, read this book. You'll get to a point about 80 pages in when you'll say, "What the hell, Carin? This book is depressing!" Hang in there. Everything starts to change at that point. And it's the most lovely, heartwarming, but not cloying or sweet book. And that's a fine line to ride.

I've recommended this book many times this year. I saw the movie. I want to buy a copy (I had borrowed the one I read) so I can read it again and so I can get my husband to read it. If you're looking for a Stars Hollow or Lifetime movie experience, this isn't is, as Ove is grumpy and curmudgeonly to an extreme, but int he end, I just loved him, and all his neighbors, and I love the message and I hope we all can be communities like the one that surrounded him. In today's tough times, we need this book more than ever. And Ove would like for me to say, we should all drive Saabs.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Book review: Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

This was a cool book, and my husband gets serious points for getting it for me for Christmas! It's told from multiple perspectives and I occasionally did have to really concentrate to figure out who the perspective character was in a chapter, but overall that worked well. The setup's a little complicated but bear with me:

Elizabeth, Andrew, Zoe, and Lydia were in a band in college. Now it's 20 years later and Elizabeth and Andrew are married with a son, Harry. Zoe is married to Jane, who she runs a restaurant with, and they have a daughter, Ruby. Lydia gained immense fame after college as a singer, mostly thanks to her big hit which was written by Elizabeth, with music by all four of them. She died at twenty-seven. Elizabeth and Andrew live on the same block in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, as Zoe and Jane. And now Hollywood has come knocking, wanting the three surviving bandmates to sign away their life rights and rights to their songs for a bio-pic about Lydia. Meanwhile, Harry has a huge crush on Ruby, who turns up in his summer SAT prep class. Andrew, independently wealthy, is in another period where he's looking for purpose and he stumbles across a yoga center of sorts. Elizabeth, the together one, a real estate agent, is taking Zoe to see apartments as she's thinking of divorcing Jane.

Naturally, all of this comes to a head over the summer, with poor Elizabeth really getting the brunt of things. At times it's hard to feel sympathy for Andrew, but Ms. Straub is holding out a few crucial pieces of information until late in the game, which make readers reevaluate, a couple of times. After all, none of us can ever really know the whole story, even when we see it from multiple sides, can we? It's still from a person's perspective with their accompanying baggage, emotions, and blind spots.

The book was really engaging, and the neighborhood is such an important element that it's nearly a character itself (and made me wonder if I missed out on the one place in the five boroughs that might have worked for us, but that ship has sailed.) The setup was pretty unique, and I loved the reflections on long friendships and on who are the leavers and who are the left. The book isn't super-deep or profound, but it nevertheless manages in a light way to deal with real crises of real people, and it felt very honest and true. Not traumatic, but not fluffy. A good middle ground.

I received this book as a gift.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Book Review: El Deafo by Cece Bell

I loved this book! It was so sweet, so honest, so true.

Almost everyone can identify with feeling different, weird, judged, left out, even if very few of us can identify with Cece's actual issue (after a sudden childhood illness, she was left profoundly deaf and at school she had to wear this large square box on her chest to be able to hear the teacher.) Ms. Bell has recreated her childhood with rabbits (which is an ironic animal to choose, considering their large ears and her deafness) in a very accessible and identifiable way in this graphic memoir.

Cece first goes to a school where everyone in her class is hearing impaired, which is great. Then her family moves and she attends the local school. While she has a couple of older sisters, they're a lot older so they're not very helpful. The neighborhood kids luckily like her so that does help. And soon she's able to wear hearing aids that are nearly invisible so those kids often don't even know that she has any hearing issues. But at school that hearing aid won't cut it and she needs to wear this large, obvious, intrusive box while her teachers each wear a microphone. (One of the more hilarious details involves teachers who forget to take it off or turn it off while complaining in the teacher's lounge or going to the bathroom.) Some kids treat her weird, which is not great. And to counteract that, in her mind, Cece comes up with a secret superhero identity as "El Deafo." But other kids don't and she does make a great friend. But then that great friend suddenly doesn't want to be friends anymore, which feels just awful for Cece.

This is an excellent book about differences, about resilience, and about fitting in. It should be required reading in all middle schools. The graphic format means it's understandable by a wider range of kids, even including kids who might struggle with reading. The Cece in the book feels very real and is easy to identify with even though her specific problem isn't. But kids will see themselves, or a classmate, in this story easily, and hopefully it will build empathy and understanding.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

I bought this book at Target to give as a gift to my niece.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Book Review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal (audio)

This was an intriguing audiobook. The central thesis is that humans aren't special in pretty much any way. We're another animal, and the more we try to either denigrate other animals or build ourselves up, the more we are proven wrong, as animals as varied as chimps, crows, octopuses, and elephants prove themselves to be able to do all sorts of things once declared to be unique to humans and thus proving our superiority, from sharing to empathy to language to math to future planning to tool using.

Dr. de Waal works with chimps and bonobos but he goes to great lengths to show lots of animals, not just other hominids, are capable of these impressive feats. Personally, I loved the parts about Alex and parrot the best, because I have read a book about him, and he's quite a character. He was able to add large numbers without ever being taught. He had a lot of personality. And a lot of words. And he proved indubitably that he was very smart.

The chimps also have a lot of personality and some of the tests really brought that out. I loved the tests where a lower-level chimp could see where a food treat was hidden, and when they were allowed out to the outside area, they didn't rush right over to it, but instead nonchalantly pretended nothing interesting was going on, until everyone else was occupied, and only then did they go get the treat. And this is a great example of the types of tests/studies that should be done. Dr. de Waal is very dismissive of inappropriate testing that is later used to prove animals are stupid. If you try to compare how fish climb trees to how humans do, the fish will seem stupid. But they'll outswim a human every time. Similarly, if we test elephants' tool use by only giving them things they have to pick up with their trunk—which they're obviously capable of but don't always prefer as it impacts their breathing and their maneuverability—they don't always test well. But if instead we give them boxes they can use as a stool to reach something, they'll use that tool every time. Also often when hominids are compared to human babies or children, those humans have the advantages of A) being tested by one of their own species B) sitting on their mother's lap C) understanding the directions (for children), while the chimps have none of these advantages and yet often perform quite well. There's even one whose ability to memorize excel any human ability by far and away.

The book is well-written, accessible, and the narrator was soothing and kept my attention. It's not too technical for an audiobook, and some of the more unusual names are probably helped by having someone who knows the correct pronunciation. I was thoroughly entertained throughout and highly recommend this book for any animal lover. I also think people who think humans are far superior to animals ought to read it, but I'm sure they won't.

I checked this audiobook out of the library via Overdrive download.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

2016 Can Bite Me: a Book List

2016 has been a bad year for most people, us included. We've had a cross-country move, multiple job losses, insane stress, financial struggles, and the election. Prince, Florence Henderson, and Gwen Ifill died. Like many people, in times of stress, I turn to books. Books can make things feel better. But if you're not careful in your choices, they can also make things worse. It's not always that easy to tell, as some book descriptions are deceptive or just difficult, but this has been a year when being careful with book selections was more important than ever.

For me, when I'm really stressed, I tend to revert to reading a lot of memoirs, my favorite genre. This year while I did start out reading a lot of them, I tapered off dramatically the last few months, outside of audiobooks. I've read 26 memoirs out of 96 total books so far. Usually schadenfreude is helpful, not to mention reading about people who went through worse times than I have makes me feel like I can make it out the other side too. But I started to feel like I just couldn't read about any more horrible stories about bad things happening to nice people. And the memoirs that aren't about bad things just felt fluffy and silly.

Some weeks I almost felt like I couldn't read at all. I was too exhausted, wiped out, had no ability to concentrate or might fall asleep or I just wanted to watch Friends and play Solitaire on my phone. So a solution was audiobooks. I listened to 14 audios this year which might just be an all-time high.

I was surprised that at times I turned to fiction. That's not usually my go-to for a feel-good book, as they often are filled with tragedy and pain. A Man Called Ove nearly had me weeping on the floor around page 80 but it more than redeemed itself, catapulting to one of the top spots as one of the most feel-good books ever. The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood I really identified with emotionally. And some more thriller-esque books like The Girls by Emma Cline and The Last September by Nina de Gramont were completely and totally distracting.

But what I've really gravitated to in the worst of times is science and history. Those books can't surprise you with a tragic twist. They can't hit too close to home. I can read about James Buchanan and about genetic mapping without worrying something will remind me that I'm unemployed and broke. I can read about Cold War spies and about animal behavior without worrying about feeling too many emotions that open not-even-closed wounds and threaten my precarious emotional balance.

This terrible year has been the year of feel-good books a la A Man Called Ove, and I have a few other books in that vein in my queue, but I personally think that science and history are going to be in heavy rotation for me in 2017 (at least until I get a new job!) A few on my list are Hero of the Empire, The Soul of an Octopus, Dead Wake, and I Contain Multitudes. What science and history books ought I add to my list? Do you have any great recommendations? What do you read when you're in the doldrums?

Monday, December 19, 2016

Book Review: My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

This is a hard book to summarize. It takes place entirely in retrospect, as the current time does appear to be now, but Lucy is telling us about a few days more than 30 years ago, when she was in the hospital for over a month (she had a minor operation but afterwards her fever wouldn't come down and they couldn't figure out why) and in the midst of that, her mother, who had never flown before and whom Lucy hadn't visited in many years, came to visit her in the hospital for five days. During that time they talk about mostly things that feel superficial and irrelevant, but they trigger memories in Lucy of things further in her past, of things in her future that may not have panned out the way she'd been expecting at that point in time, about predictions or assumptions that were later proven right or wrong, and about her relationship with her family generally and her mother in particular.

But mostly it's a quiet, short novel about a few days where not much happened, but that ended up being some of the most significant days in Lucy's life. We find out about her life as a daughter, a wife, a mother, a writer, a successful author, a divorcee, and so on. Through the lens of these few days, an entire world is opened up.

Because the book is so short, I could have read the whole thing easily in one night, but I put it down about halfway through because I wanted to absorb and think about some of the issues it brought up. Is it as revelatory and brilliant as Olive Kitteridge? No, but I suspect nothing ever will be—that's a high bar to hold her to every time. But it does hearken back to Olive. For me, it far exceeded The Burgess Boys even though not much happens here. I think that's an area where Ms. Strout excels: stories where not much happens. Usually I prefer a little more plot over character development, but when it's done as masterfully as by Ms. Strout, character development is wonderful and all you need. While this book is quiet, a little sad perhaps, and not at all exciting, the preciseness of her insight more than makes up for those potential flaws (but which are not at all flaws here), so for those who, like me, might have been disappointed by her last outing, know that she is back in high form.

I got an ARC of this book at Winter Institute free from the publisher.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Favorite Book?

A couple of months back, a friend in publishing put up a post on Facebook asking if people wanted to participate in a book-giving exercise of sorts. Kind of like a chain letter, everyone who said yes would send a copy of their favorite book to a person and get added to a list so down the road we would get books. Sounds awesome, but I just can't manage to do the first step. After all, what is my favorite books?

I always say Pride & Prejudice, but it is really my FAVORITE? It's rich and funny and detailed and real and reads like butter, but is it really truly my favorite? It wasn't at all life-changing. It didn't have a big impact on me. Can a book that didn't do that be a favorite?

What about the book I've read the most? That would be The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But is a middle book in a series, and a children's book (or YA) no less, really appropriate? If so, shouldn't I then go back further to the book that I probably have read the most in the world, Madeline by Ludwig Bemelman. But I don't think children's books were what was implied. I should probably pull something off of this list or this one. Poachers by Tom Franklin is one I keep coming back to. And The Cheer Leader by Jill McCorkle. I keep thinking I should take an hour or so and look through every 5-star book on my Goodreads list, but I keep getting sidetracked, and I think in the end I wouldn't have a single book, but a list. And I'm not sending a dozen books, that's crazy (and I can't afford it right now, although I'd love to do it.) But there are so many to choose from! The Accidental Tourist was a life-changer for me and really introduced me to reading for pleasure as an adult. The Eyre Affair is one I still recommend that was one of the funniest books I've ever read (and funny books don't come around every day.) I've read every book by Bill Bryson, so shouldn't one of his books make the cut, considering that he's prolific and that was a lot of books? What about The Joy Luck Club, which was the first contemporary adult book I read and which stood up in a reread a couple of years ago and was so powerful. What about Gone With the Wind? Why not a Calvin & Hobbes book?

This is so hard.

Which is why I haven't gotten my mailing out yet and still might not for a while longer. I think at some point I'll just need to bite the bullet and call it, and not obsess over whether or not the book truly is my #1 "favorite." Perhaps that choice of word was a poor one in the original request. It's a fun exercise to think over, but also causing me angst. Do you have a #1 all-time favorite book? What do you base that on? Can you talk me into making this call and not worrying over it any longer?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Book Review: Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents by Robert Strauss

I read this book in the wake of the election. It hopefully is getting a bit of a boost from that. After all, reading about the worst president ever (up until now), is a good way to try to look and see what might lie ahead.

Buchanan was the first president who wasn't either a Founding Father or a war hero. He was rather, a professional politician (a lawyer when he was between political gigs) and he did have spectacularly bad timing. Few people would have been able to do much with the mess of those years. However, considering that Lincoln did so spectacularly well with the only years that were worse, shows it certainly could be done. The worst thing that he did, over and over again, was nothing. He wouldn't make decisions. He wouldn't make a tough call. He'd try to wait out a tricky situation. But you can't do that when states are threatening to secede from the union. That's not the time to sit on your hands and hope time heals all wounds.

Interestingly he was also at the time our oldest president, and the only one a bachelor (his niece happily stepped in to perform all the First Lady tasks) and possibly also our first gay president, although we'll never really know the truth there. Being back-to-back with Lincoln does nothing to burnish his reputation, although the reverse is also true as his predecessor is also one of the 5 worst so he could have looked good in comparison. What I found the most intriguing was that at this time, int he early to mid 1800s, We had a real string of forgettable and inconsequential presidents, and yet we had a lot of non-president statesmen who were impressive and spectacular (like Henry Clay and James Seward.) So why were we electing these yahoos? The nominating system worked less well then and of course our bizarre electoral college has never helped. More than once in these years, the candidates running were hoping no one would get a plurality of votes and the Congress would have to decide the president. That strikes one as an odd tactic in today's world.

Interspersed through this biography, Strauss gives us a rundown of the other presidents vying for the sobriquet of Worst. The good thing (so far) is that all of our bad presidents have been impressively ineffectual and they just don't do anything. It's possible that in four years we'll not only revise the list, but that we'll finally have someone who stands out as actually accomplishing negative things, but we can always hope for another Know Nothing campaign and a Do-Nothing Congress to mitigate.

I also realized upon reading this that I have only read one other straightforward presidential biography (not including Lincoln's Melancholy which is pretty narrowly-focused) so I ought to probably read another one. It's sad that of the only two I've read, one was of the worst president. (The other was John Adams by David McCullough so that compensates in a lot of ways.)

Regardless of whether you fear the next four years, this was an entertaining and amusing biography, and we ought to learn from our mistakes so we don't repeat them, which means we should study the worst president alongside studying the best.

I checked this book out of the library.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Book Review: Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

For the past three years I've been on a mission to read a book set in every state (more on that here.) And my last book and state was Idaho. Because I don't have a lot of options for this state, I didn't feel it was even really worth pondering much if I wanted to read this book. There wasn't much descriptive copy on the ARC anyway, which was fine. And I think I would have shied away, if given the choice. But I'm very glad I didn't!

The main character is Ann. She;s a piano teacher and former choir teacher in Idaho, taking care of her husband who has early-onset dementia. But that's not as bad as it might seem, because that means he doesn't always remember that he once had two children and his first wife killed one of them and the second one disappeared that same day. Interspersed are flashbacks to the early days of Wade's first marriage, the two girls playing together and growing apart, and then flashes to the prison where their mother, Jenny, is serving her sentence. Ann is naturally incredibly curious about what ultimately happened that day--after all she'd seen June, the daughter who vanished, at the school just a few months before and that encounter lead her to have a discussion with Wade, which lead to her giving Wade piano lessons. She feels like a part of the story, but also left out. Although with Wade's faltering memory, he's somewhat left out too.

The book feels languorous and the beginning is somewhat slow going, but you soon get into the mystery and the rich characterizations of these characters' lives--for example getting a sentence of life in prison truly was worse for Jenny than the death penalty would have bee, as living with what she did is very nearly unbearable. This book would be just terrific for book clubs. There's a ton to discuss and I myself would love to talk with someone who's read it as I have some questions myself about motivations and resolutions. The isolation they live with in Idaho is a key component to the story and it is interesting how, several times, Wade and Jenny think about how significant the change is when they move from the prairie lands where they grew up to the mountain, and how that changes their whole outlooks on life and how they see the world.

I was given this ARC for free from a publisher rep who is a friend.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Reading State by State Wrap-Up

Back in 2013 I found a reading challenge that I thought truly would be challenging. I'd much appreciated the Westerns I'd read over the years, but pretty much all of them had been forced upon me by my book clubs. And I had been discussing with a friend how we thought Midwestern fiction was underrated and ought to be a classification that people look for and use, like Southern fiction and Westerns. So this challenge to read a book set in every state felt right. I knew it was possible to do it in two years (heck, it is possible to do it in one but I don't have that kind of single-minded determination, I like to read other kinds of books, and between this and my book clubs, every single possible book I read in 2014 would have been accounted for if I did that.) I wanted to enjoy this challenge and not feel it to be too much of a burden, so I gave myself three years. I knew some states (NY, CA) would be fulfilled with no effort at all (in fact, I've read roughly a dozen books set in each of those states over the last three years). I was surprised at some of the more obscure states that were ticked off by my book clubs: Kentucky, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi.

But I was really worried about this, the third year. I thought the states I hadn't gotten to in the first two years would be very difficult to find books set in (and that was mostly true) and that the books would not be enjoyable, which luckily wasn't at all true. In fact, I'd say I liked the last five books I read for this challenge as much if not more than the first five. Some of those last states introduced me to books that I really loved, that I never would have otherwise read, like Attachments (Nebraska), The Book of Unknown Americans (Delaware), and Maud's Line (Oklahoma). This challenge got me to prioritize books set Elsewhere, in particular not in NYC, which gives such a better-rounded and more realistic view of the United States. Now, it does mean that I read fewer international books in the last three years but not by much.

I am so glad I did this challenge! I wish it was still active, as I think everyone ought to do it. Expand your horizons! Read Western books and Mountains and Plains books and New England books! We live in a wide and varied country and it's so helpful to our understanding to be familiar with all of it, not just our own corner.



State by State in 2014-2016
Ever thought you would like to read your way across America?
The USA Fiction Challenge asks you to do just that.
Read just one book from each state - you choose whether the link is the setting or the author.
You choose whether you confine yourself to a particular genre or not.

Carin says:
I am extending this challenge over multiple years. I am picking setting (I think often where an author's from is wildly irrelevant to a book) and I am not confining myself to a genre. I had hoped to have 35 books done by the end of my first year but I only had 22. Now I have 37 done, leaving 14 (I included Washington D.C.) I am confidant I can finish this year, and I'm going to try pretty hard. I own 6 of them, and two of those I know are on my book club's list for this year, so those are easy guarantees. Books marked in blue were read in 2014, black in 2015, with red for 2016.

Alabama: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
Alaska: 
All the Winters After by Seré Prince Halverson
Arizona: Son of a Gun: A Memoir by Justin St. Germain
Arkansas: A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade by Kevin Brockmeier
California: The Longest Date: Life as a Wife by Cindy Chupack
Colorado: 
Columbine by Dave Cullen 
Connecticut: The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic by John Putnam Demos
DC: All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Matt Bai 
Delaware: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
Florida: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani
Georgia: 
Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood by Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley Jr.
Hawaii: Hawaii by James A. Michener
Idaho
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
Illinois: Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen
Indiana: She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel
Iowa: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
Kansas: 
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn 
Kentucky: The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton
Louisiana: Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink
Maine: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
Maryland: 
Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte by Carol Berkin
Massachusetts: Defending Jacob by William Landay
Michigan: You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers
Minnesota: 
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Mississippi: Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League by Jonathan Odell
Missouri: 
Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life by Pamela Smith Hill
Montana: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer
Nebraska: Attachments by Rainbow Rowell 
Nevada: Basin and Range by John McPhee
New Hampshire: The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees

New Jersey: 
Let Me Explain You by Annie Liontas 
New Mexico: Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West by Hampton Sides
New York: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro
North Carolina: 
My Accidental Jihad by Krista Bremer
North Dakota: Nothing to Do But Stay by Carrie Young
Ohio: The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok
Oklahoma: Maud's Line by Margaret Verble
Oregon: Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival by Peter Stark
Pennsylvania: The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan
Rhode Island: 
In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me about Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love by Joseph Luzzi 
South Carolina: On Folly Beach by Karen White
South Dakota: The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber
Tennessee: 
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan
Texas: Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce
Utah: The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family by Josh Hanagarne
Vermont: Good Grief: Life in a Tiny Vermont Village by Ellen Stimson
Virginia: 
The House Girl by Tara Conklin
Washington: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
West Virginia: Close to Famous by Joan Bauer
Wisconsin: Keeping the House by Ellen Baker
Wyoming: 
Letters from Yellowstone by Diane Smith
22/51 in 2014
15/29 in 2015
14/14 in 2016 DONE!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Book Review: The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York by Alex Palmer

I had a rather unusual experience with this book in that it wasn't exactly what I was expecting (and I think the copy on the book's cover is somewhat misleading) and yet I enjoyed it nonetheless. Normally when I'm expecting one kind of book and I don't get it, that negatively impacts my reading experience, but not as much this time.

John Gluck started The Santa Claus Association in 1913 to answer the letters to Santa that normally were destroyed by the Dead Letter Office of the post office every year. He had high standards initially--eschewing cash donations and instead hooking up a needy child directly with a wealthy donor who then could directly experience the joy of giving and experiencing the impact, in a way that writing a check just does not accomplish. This also gave him a high and mighty position from which to look down on other charities which Gluck found corrupt and wasteful. He used an army of boys from the United States Boy Scouts (NOT the Boy Scouts of America, this was a competing organization where the boys were armed with guns) to investigate every letter to be sure the family was in fact needy and not a wealthy greedy kid or a grifter or some other undeserving sort. It was glamorous and Gluck appeared in the papers a lot and eventually even married an actress, vaulting into the upper echelons of society.

But his non-Santa related work was not as successful. He was arrested for promoting a bullfight in Coney Island where the bull was hurt. He got into a massive battle with the head of the BSA as he promoted the USBS (and along the way, skimmed a great deal off the donations he brought in). Eventually he ticked off a lot of people in high places and he ended up being targeted by investigation for the shady fundraising tactics he was using in his once-vaunted Santa Claus Association.

I was expecting more of a con man story like in Titanic Thompson (who would have mopped the floor with Gluck.) Gluck dreamed he was that charming and smart and tricky, but he wasn't at all. He was a guy who tried hard in the wrong ways, was moderately successful at times, and ultimately a failure, but at least he was an amusing one with a good story. I did learn along the way about the evolution of the character of Santa Claus and the Macy's parade and other Christmas traditions, although I was expecting a bit more in this area. but upon reflection, maybe that would have been too much. I did like learning about the USBS which I'd never heard of before and that was a fun bit of trivia. Overall the book was a fast read with a large helping of holiday cheer and the story of a mildly reprobate huckster who in the end was fairly harmless.

Interestingly enough, the subject of this biography is a relative of the author's. It does make one wonder if we all looked back into our family trees, what interesting characters we might shake out.

I got this book at a WNBA book swap last year in Charlotte. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Book Review: Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want by Tess Vigeland (audio)

When I first was let go from my job in 2010, and was feeling adrift and sometimes panicky and often like a failure, Tess Vigeland on Marketplace Money always calmed me down. So much so that sometimes I would save an episode or two and listen to the podcasts immediately before an interview as they left me feeling confidant and in charge. Then in 2012, she left, rather abruptly. I was sad. I tried listening to the show for another 6 months or so but I eventually stopped. I didn't like the new host or the new format very much. Maybe I should try it again, but I think I really liked Tess.

So last fall, when my husband and I were considering a grand leap—moving across the country and both getting new jobs, and I heard Tess had a book coming out, and one that was about making big leaps in one's career, it seemed like kismet! And then a variety of things kept me from getting to read the book (for one, I was determined to listen to it on audio, but it wasn't available through Overdrive as a download.) And then I got let go from my new job and was in another unemployment funk. Seems like perfect timing so I requested the CDs.

And ah, there was my friend Tess again. The one who has her head screwed on straight, is sensible, and yet is also human and not afraid to admit it. The times I loved her the most on Marketplace was when she was admitting her own financial missteps, when she talked about how her and her husband combining their finances was a difficult decisions to make, when she talked about the several bouts with identity theft she's had to cope with. You felt like jeez, if these things can happen to an expert in personal finance who's at the top of her career, then of course I'm occasionally making a misstep myself—no one's perfect!

Now Tess doesn't even give away what was the event that lead to her leaving. And while I would love to hear the dirt, I appreciate her unwillingness to gossip. (Although it did feel like there was a bit of a hole in the story.) After all, why she left wasn't really about a single event. The book is about what to do when you decide you just can't take it any more but you also can't get something else lined up—whether because nothing else materializes before you get to the end of your rope, the time you gave yourself to transition out was too busy to do anything else, or because you just really don't know what to do next. It's no step-by-step guide to refiguring your career life, it's more about acceptance and about how the struggle to get to that next step in your life is okay.

Of course I didn't get to a breaking point and quit—I was let go—so it's not quite the same. But a heck of a lot still applied, and I even appreciated when she talked about some problems that I don't have as a "let go" rather than a "quit" unemployed person. Namely, I am not a "quitter," I don't have guilt for having put my family into this position financially on purpose, and Tess also experienced that a lot of her network didn't step up to help, as mine has, because they assumed she had something else already in mind, or else why would she quit? I had assumed that quitting was advantageous over being let go, but perhaps not.

While at the end, she doesn't have everything figured out just yet, she is in a better place mentally and emotionally, and she's ready for the next big thing to come along. And hearing that even Tess Vigeland occasionally is runner-up for an awesome job she'd love and be great at (host of NPR's Weekend Edition) makes it a little easier to swallow when I am runner-up for an awesome job I'd love and be great at. If I can have confidence that something else great is out there for her and she'll eventually find it, I ought to be able to have more confidence in my own situation, as hard as that is to do when everything feels like a personal rejection. So I learned no tips, I have no new knowledge, but I come away from her book with a slightly better state of mind, and I'm going to try to cut myself more slack, job hunting during the hardest time of the year. I do hope Tess will end up back on the radio or on a podcast, though, because I will listen to her talk about almost anything. I loved it. I highly recommend the audio version which instead of printing a speed she gave at the World Domination Forum, gives you the actual live recording complete with audience reactions and questions, etc.

I checked this audio book out of the library.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

My month in review November 2016

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

Books completed this month:
The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees
New Life, No Instructions by Gail Caldwell
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West by Hampton Sides
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple
The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes by Zach Dundas
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E. Hoffman
Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want by Tess Vigeland

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York by Alex Palmer
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:
I was good this month! Didn't buy any books!! Have been using the library a lot. I kind of hate not buying any books.