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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Book Review: Schadenfreude, A Love Story: Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Unfortunate Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations That Only They Have Words For by Rebecca Schuman

In college after I squeaked out of my final German class with a D, my father apologized for passing along the Siegfried-can't-learn-languages gene. I had taken German because A) it was in my blood and B) English is a Germanic-based language which I thought meant some parts of it would be easier and C) it might be the only class where I wouldn't have to explain how to pronounce my last name. Mostly C. (And B is completely true and when I later took Chaucer in college, my background in German was super-helpful in understanding Middle English.)

Rebecca took German for an equally stupid reason, although her decision had much bigger ramifications than mine: a cute boy she liked took German. Well, that's as good as reason as any in high school! She just wasn't expecting it to stick. She went to Germany for a year in college, where she mostly partied, pissed off her host family, and learned as little as possible. And yet, it still didn't leave her. Later, after futzing around for a bit, she finally decided to go to grad school in German. And now she teaches it. She never had an "Aha!" moment when she discovered a love for it, but it just got into her blood and wouldn't let go.

The first half of the book when she was partying and rejecting all learning, wasn't really speaking to me (although it may well have when I was that age.) The end of the book when she was finally pursuing her life's goal and making a career, was when I really fell in love with the book. Now I can't blame her for the early half—I might not have done things that way in my twenties, but we've all made terrible choices/decisions out of ignorance/naivete, and the important thing is to learn from it. But I really identified with her not knowing what to do with her life, even though it seemed to be staring her in the face, and her fitful starts and stops along the way. I was almost proud when she finally got her life on track, as if I had something to do with it. Even if you aren't interested in German, this book is totally relatable to anyone who's ever felt adrift, not understood where their life was headed, and maybe didn't step out of college and onto the career ladder instantly. If you are a language aficionado, even better!

I checked this book out of the library.

This book is publisher by MacMillan, my employer.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Book Review: If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, narrated by Samia Mounts (audio)

I don't listen to a lot of fiction on audio but I've been trying it a little more lately. And this was a highly superior audiobook! In fact, I'd venture that it might be better than the print version (although since you can only read a book one way—at least the first time—one can never really know.)

Amanda has moved in with her Dad after a bad bullying incident at her last high school where she lived with her Mom. They're in the stretch of Georgia between Atlanta and Tennessee, which isn't known for being the most open-minded. Which is a concern because, you see, Amanda is a trans girl. And her identity is part of what led to her parents' divorce. But hopefully that won't be a problem as much this time, as her transition is complete, and as no one in this new town knows about her past.

Right off the bat she makes friends: an arty girl, and a group of three cooler girls. They're even cooler than they first appear because they're not purely mean girl caricatures at all. They're popular without being mean. And she meets a boy she likes, who likes her.

And that's all I'm going to say about the plot because I want you to know as little going into it as I did. Some plot twists you can guess, although you don't necessarily know when or where or how they happen. And others might surprise you.

I was very impressed with the narration. As a Southerner myself, I often hate the way Southerners are portrayed in the media with accents as thick as hominy, to the point where they often are purposefully made to sound ignorant. Luckily, the editor of this novel (who I happen to know, caveat), is also Southern so the book wasn't written that way in the first place. But the narrator also had just the right touch of Southern but not too Southern in her accent. More importantly, the emotion that came through in her voice was spot-on, and impressive. Not only at times did I feel you could hear the hitch in her voice, like Amanda was trying very hard not to cry, but other times I swear I could hear her smiling. I will look for more books narrated by her!

And I will look forward to move novels by this author! It felt very true and honest and open. I know, as she says in a note at the end, that she idealized Amanda's transition in an unrealistic way in order to make a point about society rather than about the technical details about transitioning, but the emotions behind it were entirely honest, so that one blurring of the lines didn't matter. In fact, I agree with her because in these situations, the technical details often overwhelm the emotions, when it should be the other way around.

I downloaded this eaudiobook from my library via OverDrive.

This book is published my Macmillan, my employer.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Book Review: Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton

This book began as a blog of a photojournalism essay. The author/photographer Mr. Stanton, takes pictures of people in New York. Sometimes they're kind of staged, where he finds a cool place, like an abandoned lot, and he asks passersby if they'll stand in the space for him to take a picture. But that's it. Initially, he didn't know much of anything about the people but later he started talking to them and their brief stories, of their life, their love, what got them to this place (good and bad), are riveting. These vignettes truly are slices of life, and of New York City. Most of these people could be in any big city, and many of them could be anywhere. He may have taken them all in NYC, but it's their universality that speaks to the reader/viewer.

I checked this book out of the library.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Children's book reviews round-up

I've been reading a lot of children's books lately and given my rate of reviewing, I thought I could better tackle several of the middle-grade books in a single post. So here they are:

Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke

A cute chapter book about a girl who finds a weird thing which transports her friend... elsewhere, probably another planet. Zita goes after him to save him, and meets several odd, cute, endearing friends along the way. She manages to send him home but she's stuck, so she has to get home the old-fashioned way--flying home through space. Teaches the meaning of friendship, about loyalty, and about not giving up. All great lessons, in a fun, inventive new setting, with a girl as a space explorer which I love.

My Life as a Book by Janet Tashjian

This slightly older chapter book would be perfect for boys that are reluctant readers. Throughout the story, the main character draws little stick figures of his vocabulary words in the margins (drawn by the author's teenage son!) which makes the margins very fat, so the book reads even faster. Derek wants to have fun all summer but he is thwarted by his mom who wants him to go to learning camp. He wants to visit his friend who h as gone to the East Coast for the summer, but again is thwarted. In the end his parents agree to go to Martha's Vineyard to visit his grandmother, which means Derek will have an opportunity to investigate a newspaper clipping he saw that his mom hid, about a teenage girl who died on Martha's Vineyard when Derek was a baby.

The Worm Whisperer by Betty Hicks

Ellis has to help out around the house in his rural North Carolina town. His father hurt his back and can't work, so his mother has three jobs and Ellis does everything he can (and being excellent example to kids about doing their chores). He wants to win the $1000 annual Wooly Worm race at the Wooly Worm festival and he thinks he has found the perfect Wooly Worm. Meanwhile he figures out that his classmates actually like him for him, not just because he's funny, he stands up to the bully, and he does help his family, just not in the way he thinks.

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

All three of these books I checked out of the library.

All three of these books are published by Macmillan, my employer.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Book Review: Brief Histories of Everyday Objects by Andy Warner

I think all readers of my reviews probably know by now that one of my favorite things about reading is learning new, hopefully bizarre or truly odd, facts. Which means that books like this are always right up my alley as they're chock-full of them.

The illustrations were fun and of course, made the reading easy, and distracting enough that those who aren't as fond of learning might not even notice how much they are in fact learning. However, the learning is of limited usefulness, as it's about how items like the toothbrush, the Slinky, and the coffee filter came to be invented (or reinvented in a few cases.) It's organized by room/use and then within each chapter there is a final list of additional related random facts that didn't fit into the narrative (which I often found to be the most interesting part.)

The book is listed in my library as YA, and I suppose the topic and the writing would be great for a teen who might struggle with reading. But there's no reason it can't also be a quick, fun read for an adult. When I was done, my husband swiped it and also read it, which doesn't happen often. It's a thoroughly entertaining read.

I checked this book out of the library.

This book is published by MacMillan, my employer.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book Review: Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson (audio)

See! Not everything I read is a Macmillan book!

So after loving Jenny Lawson's second memoir, Furiously Happy, I went back to read (listen to) her first one. And it was truly hilarious, of course! I was laughing out loud more than once, and I probably looked pretty silly walked back from the gym, bent over with laughter, but I don't care. Naturally, the story that introduced me to Jenny as The Bloggess, about Beyonce the giant metal chicken, was one of the out-loud laughing stories, but I also loved the story right after that one almost even more. This one really focuses on Jenny's childhood, on her meeting Victor, their relationship, her difficult pregnancies (and yes, she does only have one child, hint hint), and the beginnings of her health issues. She sounds more mentally healthy in this book, but that might be more about what she's omitted rather than an actual higher level of mental health, I'm not sure. But it was more about taxidermy, her crazy father, moving houses, working in human resources, and her daughter, than it was about battling depression and her myriad other issues. It is lighter than the second book which made it a more enjoyable experience, if also more lightweight. I truly do see her as a new David Sedaris, who can mine her bat-shit crazy childhood and life for a dozen memoirs for a decade to come. Which makes me really excited!

A note on the audio. It was both better than and less than the book. Like the previous one, if we audio listeners were missing a photo (inevitably), Jenny would describe it to us. And we got a bonus chapter (although with the caveat that it didn't make the cut for the printed book so don't expect too much, although I enjoyed it.) And at first I enjoyed that there were some odd/random sound effects at the chapter intros along with Jenny singing the chapter titles. The sound effects at times got to me a bit much and while I enjoyed the first few, towards the end of the book I was over them. There was also 15 minutes of outtakes/random Jenny thoughts at the end that would have been cute at 5 minutes but 15 minutes was way too long for bizarre stream-of-consciousness about how the recording studio smells like cat pee, or is it her tea that smells like that, and does Lady Gaga also record there and if so, does she smell like cat pee? That would have been better left on the cutting room floor.

These caveats shouldn't at all stop you from picking this book up! They might bring it down from an A++ to an A+. Jenny is awesome.

I checked this eaudiobook out of the library via Overdrive.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Book review: A Night to Remember by Walter Lord


My library has this book listed as a YA but I'm not sure why exactly. There's no YA angle, it's not written in a simplistic way. I think it's just because, as an older title the language is a less complicated than an adult book of today might be, and that it's short.

But this book is the definitive account of the sinking of the Titanic. It was published in 1955, when some of the survivors were still alive. The author interviewed around 60 of them. He breaks down the sinking minute by minute, and you see it from multiple perspectives. He really did his homework, even trying to find out what happened to the steerage passengers and to the staff of the ship. The restaurant staff was particularly hard to track down as only one survived, they weren't considered real staff (they were contracted out) or passengers, The obvious big problem was not enough boats, although as fast as the ship was sinking, they were still trying to free the last two collapsible boats when the ship went down (they were freed and people were saved by them--one half collapsed and the other upside down.) The not-obvious bigger problem was a ship only 10 miles away ignored the first distress calls, then shut their telegraph down for the night. They saw the Morse code lights (and tried to signal back unsuccessfully) and they pondered the meaning behind the 10 rockets the ship set off without actually doing a single thing to find out more or look into the distress calls. The Carpathian that did rescue everyone was 50 miles away. The Californian could have gotten to the ship within minutes of its sinking if they had responded to the first distress call, saving hundreds of additional lives.

The action moves along very fast. The descriptions are rich with detail, and the research was super-thorough. I do hate that all of the women are referred to as "Mrs. John James Astor" although that is accurate to the time the ship went down, and was still quite common in formal language at the time of the writing. And it is confusing in the end when he is talking about the aftereffects of the trauma on people decades later, and many of the women's names seem to have 100% changed due to them getting married. But that is a small detail. This is a riveting read.

I checked this book out of the library.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Book Review: This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki, Jillian Tamaki (Illustrator)

Wow.

I don't read many graphic novels. And that's an understatement (until last week I never truly had--the only graphic books I'd read were all nonfiction). And this one blew me away.

Rose and her parents go to the beach every summer for a week. Another kid a bit younger than her. Windy, is always in a nearby cottage and that's true this summer again. The old friends hang out, swim, rent movies, and speculate about the teenagers who work at and hang out at the little village store. And it sounds lovely and all, and it somewhat is, but there's an undercurrent running through the book that eventually comes to the forefront: Rose's mother is sad. Very sad. She's been sad for a long time. She wanted a second child for a long time, and they tried for a long time, and they recently gave up, although she doesn't seem like she did entirely. Rose resents that she isn't enough, that her mother can't just snap out of it, and the implications of the fact that Windy is adopted, and it seems one of the teenagers in town is pregnant and being blown off by her boyfriend, the main store employee. Finally, Rose's mother can't entirely hold it together anymore, she and Rose's father get in a big fight and he goes back to town for a few days "to work." But Rose overhears things. She's very perceptive. Adults talk and they don't always realize that little pitchers have big ears.

Even though Rose is fairly young, and Windy even younger, these preteens are mature for their age (not inappropriately so) and the book deals with some heavy issues that kept making me think it was more YA. It's not for a faint-hearted or very naive 10-year-old. But it's perfect for a more mature, thoughtful preteen who, like me at that age, wants to know more about the cruddy things that can happen in life so that she's prepared. The images were evocative and beautiful, with a limited palette that eloquently conveys the tone and emotions.

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

I checked this book out of the library.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Book Review: Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson


Okay, so Jenny Lawson is a new favorite author of mine.

I have loved her for years. I didn't follow her blog, but someone linked me to her post about Beyonce the Giant Metal Chicken and I have never laughed so hard in my life. Once a year or so I'd return to it. Then a couple of years ago a college student I was mentoring had a super shitty week, and I read her that post as a cheer-you-up moment. She later gifted me with a mug featuring Beyonce herself.

This is exactly the kind of memoir I love—a mix of heavy stuff with hilarious crap. Jenny is uproariously funny. I was listening to this (she reads it herself and her high-pitched voice just increases the humor) and there were times when I barked out loud with laughter.

In this book Jenny tackles her many mental and physical health problems (mostly mental health) with aplomb! She starts off coming out of a real depressive funk. It goaded her for quite some time, and it's jarring but also awesome to really gain understanding when she describes how this illness is so sick, that it's actually trying to trick her brain into killing her. That was an eye-opening explanation. She decides afterwards, to be "furiously happy" as a middle finger to the world in general and her depression in particular. So she embarks on continued adventures with taxidermy, and eventually a trip to Australia. In between, she spend time in therapy, she takes a lot of prescription drugs, and she does other things like go to a sleep clinic. She has such a light touch that my husband unfortunately assumed I was listening to a really fluffy, silly book. It was hard to convince him otherwise until I told him about Jenny's coda at the end where she talks about how many people have reached out to her via her blog and told of how she literally saved their life or the life of someone they love who was suicidal, until they read Jenny's radically honest stories of her own battles. Usually when I say that books can save a life, I mean something more amorphous and metaphorical, but it's impressive (and chill-creating) to realize that Jenny Lawson has literally saved lives. Kudos! That's quite impressive.

I am so looking forward to her first book and I'm definitely going to listen to that one too. (There was a bonus chapter on the audiobook, BTW, for you Jenny Lawson completists.) She reminds me of David Sedaris. And if you know me, you know that is sky-high praise!

I checked this eaudiobook out of the library via Overdrive.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Book Review: Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town by Brian Alexander

If you've heard all the hype in the last few months about Hillbilly Elegy, consider this book as a companion to or alternative to that book. It also posits to give some explanation about how America got to where it is now, taking one single town as a concrete example.

Lancaster, Ohio was a once thriving, adorable, Leave-It -to-Beaver type of town. There were great manufacturing jobs at the glass plants, which lead to good schools, and a wonderful community. Of course nothing lasts forever and the glass plants did eventually merge into Anchor Hocking. But things were still fine. Until the 1980s. Until "Greed is Good" and unfettered money  grubbing and deregulation became the name of the game. Carl Icahn set his eyes on Anchor Hocking and from there on, everything went down the toilet. It was bought by one Wall Street firm after another who wrung it out for every last penny, neglected maintenance, sold off assets, took out huge debts in its name, and basically ran the company into the ground. One CEO after another came to town (and a few didn't), said some platitudes, made things worse, and disappeared. Naturally, with the erosion of stable, well-paying jobs, everything around them began to crumble. The town fell into disrepair pretty much across the board. Drugs came in, in large amounts. While townspeople like to think that all the druggies and junkies are out of towners (why on earth would people come to Lancaster, Ohio for that?) they're not. The local cops regularly arrest former high school classmates. There are still a few locals who try to do what they can to support the community, but it's too little too late. And Lancaster, like hundreds if not thousands of medium-sized factory towns across the country, is flailing, and slowly sinking into an abyss.

The most powerful thing in the story is the author. Mr. Alexander is a respected journalist who can write eloquently and yet plainly about complicated buyouts and turnarounds and other financial machinations. But more importantly, he's from Lancaster. He grew up there. He knows some of the subjects of his book personally. He really has an insider's understanding of the history and how it's fallen out over the years, he has the perspective of someone who's moved away, and yet t he fondness that makes him not write off Lancaster entirely. Also you get the feeling that no other writer would have gotten the junkies and drug dealers of Lancaster to let him into their lives as Brian is able to get.

At the end of this book, I'm just sad. I feel I now have a much better understanding of how we've gotten where we are (and I pretty much detest Friedman economics!) but no solutions. Still at least insight and understanding is a big step towards... what? Help? A plan? I'm not sure. But it can't hurt. It's the first step towards a solution, as far away as that answer might be.

I checked this book out of the library

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

My month in review: February

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

So if you're really astute, you'll notice that the books I've read this month are mostly one publisher: MacMillan. I got a job! I started as a field sales rep for MacMillan! This means I will mostly be reading MacMillan books for the rest of the year, I'll continue listening to a lot of audios, and my reading will drop down from my current crazy-high levels. Partly that will be due to having to read just chunks, 20-50 pages, or dozens of books instead of reading complete books. I'll also be reading a lot of picture books which I don't track. And I know the FCC doesn't like us promoting products we benefit from, so like I did when I worked at Soho Press, I will note the MacMillan books as ones from my publisher. And my reviews will be a little more sporadic, as my schedule is a bit wonky.

Books completed this month: 
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
Rise: How a House Built a Family by Cara Brookins
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton (audio)
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong
Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh (audio)
Schadenfreude, A Love Story: Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Unfortunate Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations That Only They Have Words For by Rebecca Schuman
Landline by Rainbow Rowell
Brief Histories of Everyday Objects by Andy Warner
If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo (audio)

Books I am currently reading/listening to: 
Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town by Brian Alexander
Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Malone Scott
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:
From Kristen (BookNAround) from Winter Institute, yay! So many fun and exciting books that are coming out in the next few months! I will be getting a jump on 2017 with these books:
The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading by Anne Gisleson
The Reminders by Val Emmich
Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta
Careergasm: Find Your Way to Feel-Good Work by Sarah Vermunt
Tower Dog: Life Inside the Deadliest Job in America by Douglas Scott Delaney
What To Do About The Solomons by Bethany Ball
Deviate: Why Disrupting What We See Leads to Innovation by Beau Lotto
The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore
Pretend We Are Lovely: A Novel by Noley Reid
Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory
Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Malone Scott
Miss You by Kate Eberlen
Small Hours by Jennifer Kitses
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Our Little Racket by Angelica Baker
Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Just Fly Away by Andrew McCarthy