Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Publishing Career Question #3: What kinds of jobs should I be looking for?

As my WNBA intern, Elaine Ruth Boe, prepares to begin her job hunt in publishing, I've been answering some of her questions about the industry and the job hunt process. Here is her third question in our mini-series:

What kinds of job titles should I look out for as a fresh-out-of-college graduate with no “real world" experience (aside from summer internships!)? Are there key words or phrases that indicate entry level positions?

Some publishers actually separate out entry-level positions on their career pages on their website, so those are easy. Basically, no matter what department you're looking for a job in—editorial, marketing, sales, production—you're going to be an assistant to start. And the first rung on the ladder is editorial (or sales or publicity) assistant. A minor detail but important is that an editorial assistant is a different position from, and a rung down from, an assistant editor. If you already have a little experience, you can apply for that second one. And you can also look at coordinator positions, although there are very few of those.

These positions might all say they want 1-2 years of experience, but keep in mind that is a "want." Don't worry about it—it's entry level so go for it. (Especially you women. Women are often scared off by a job listing they don't meet 100% but it's just a wish list and you should always go for it if you meet 70%.) One thing applicants often seem to misunderstand is that when you're applying for a job as an assistant, your resume and cover letter ought to emphasize the skills you'd be utilizing as an assistant—not any editorial experience. First of all, any editorial experience you claim to have, unless you actually were doing real work in an editorial department elsewhere, is discounted. That's not what you're being hired for. It's great to have, but it's not why you're here. You're here to answer phones. Open mail. Water plants. File. Run Excel reports. Put together mailings. Make appointments. If you have any clerical experience at all, lead with that. An assistant will make her boss's lunch reservations, send faxes, and do data entry. Will you also be talking with authors, reviewing copyedited manuscripts, and writing catalog copy? Yes, but that's a smaller part of the job than the assistanting part, so showing off those skills and experience will get you further in the hiring process.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Publishing Career Question #2: What should I read in my free time as I prepare for interviews?

My WNBA intern, Elaine Ruth Boe, wants to start hunting for a job in book publishing for after graduation in May, ASAP. It's a little early for that so she's asked me some questions about what she can do in the meantime, which I'm answering this week. Here's her second question:

What should I read in my free time as I prepare for interviews?

This might seem like a simplistic question but not for this industry. For another industry, the answer is usually to read What Color Is My Parachute and maybe a book about interviewing or the workplace. But if you want to work in book publishing, you should expect "What have you read lately?" to be an interview question and it's not a gimme question at all. It's a very important question.

The most important thing you can be doing before it's time for applying, is reading. Read a lot. Read widely. And read recently. I know, as a college student it can be hard to know what's recent and good to read. Go to your local bookstore and your local library. Look at the display tables up front, or the library usually has a whole section for recent books. Talk to someone. I know, you're an introvert. This industry is filled with them. But you've got to become comfortable talking about books with other book people. Explain the problem, and they'll be thrilled to help, trust me! Any librarian or bookseller can stock you up. Try to read 2017 books. I know, it's only February. But I've already read four 2017 books. (And I read four 2017 books last year but no one expects you to do that!) Join Goodreads and check out their lists of recommended new releases.

Read a few books you wouldn't normally. You've been reading 99% classics for the last 16 years. You will be asked, and it's helpful for you to know, what kinds of books you like. Classics isn't a genre you can work in (they've all already been published). It's hard for you to know if you like and can work with romances, sci-fi, business books, or political books, if you haven't read any. If you go into an interview saying you only like literary fiction, that doesn't indicate much contemporary reading, much stretching yourself, or much willingness to try new things. Everyone likes literary fiction. You're also setting yourself up for a bigger pool of applicants to compete with at the literary imprints. However, not as many of your competition will be applying for jobs at romance publishers or business book publishers.

While you're reading this book, do think critically about them. You might even want to write a review on a website like Goodreads or Amazon in order to get some practice. Even if you dislike a book, you ought to be thinking, who would like this? Who is the audience for this book? How could I sell it to them? Every job in publishing (except production) is selling. As an editor, you have to sell this book to your boss to persuade her to approve you the funds to buy it. Later in the process you will write the description in the catalog that the sales force will use to sell your book to retailers and libraries. If publicity you'll be figuring out how to pitch the book to reviewers. In marketing, you'll be figuring what will help get the attention of booksellers and readers. Obviously, in sales, and as a bookseller, the selling part is obvious. In publishing, you will at some point have to work on some books you don't like, but everyone has their individual taste, and it's important that you know how to sell a book you personally don't especially like.

If your focus is on editorial jobs, keep in mind that as part of the interviewing process, you might be given a manuscript to read and come back to the interviewer with a reader's report. It's important that you not focus on plot at all. It's good practice to try a few of these on books you're reading. Every book could use some tweaks or improvements (or simply editorial choices you'd do differently.) Think about the market and the end reader and what changes in the development and construction of the book could lead to a better reading experience (and think big-picture; don't worry about grammar). But a reader's report should have no more than one sentence of plot description.

Pay attention to the publishers of the books you're reading. Try to read a book from each of the Big Five publishers (Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and MacMillan). Go to their websites and they will show you recent books that are popular, right on their home pages. Try an audiobook. Look at children's books from the last few years.

Obviously if you get an interview with the rare benefit of a few days' lead time, specifically try to read on or two of their books immediately before the interview. You won't always have time (I've had quite a few interviews be "tomorrow.") But I've also had three days' notice and managed to read three books in that time.

And lastly, read the blog Ask A Manager. Read the comments. Read the archives. And read the book Presence by Amy Cuddy. It seriously changed the way I prepare for interviews and how I gain confidence for them. Just read, read, read. If you are destined to work in book publishing, this should be a joy, not a chore.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Publishing Career Question #1: How do I job hunt before I graduate?

My WNBA intern, Elaine Ruth  Boe, had some questions about the job hunting process in the field of book publishing and she agreed to let me post her questions and my answers here, so everyone who might find them helpful can see them. First up:

I’m still an undergraduate student. I don’t live in NYC, and I can’t start a job until May. Does that mean I have to wait until I can move to NYC to look for jobs? Will publishing houses go through the application process with current undergrads?

Most everyone has this problem, regardless of field, unless they happened to go to college in the same town they want to start their careers in. 

First, while there are a lot of other things you can be doing to prepare for job hunting, there's not much purpose in starting to actually apply for jobs, until you're about 2.5 months out from graduation. So for Elaine Ruth, that means she can start in March (she graduates mid-May). In this industry, particularly for entry-level jobs, once you've been offered a job, they'd really like for you to start in about two weeks. They can be a little more flexible, up to a month, especially if you're moving, but if you need more than that, they're probably going to go with someone else. Entry-level publishing jobs are all being someone's assistant. When they get to the part of the hiring process where they're making someone an offer, the position has already been vacant for at least a month. And being someone's assistant, while important, isn't brain surgery, and there are a lot of other people who can do it so they're unlikely to hold it. It's a sad fact but it's also important if you don't want to find yourself with pulled offers and an unreasonable start date you can't comply with.

Not being in NYC is also, obviously, tricky. While it's possible to have a few phone interviews, the majority will want to meet the candidates in person. And companies don't pay for people to fly in for entry-level interviews. That means it's going to be on your own dime. I have found decent last-minute flights, and I recommend The Pod Hotel as reasonably priced and located in Manhattan. It's small, no-frills, with most rooms having a bathroom down the hall. Talk to the career center at your school. Are there any English majors from last year who are in NYC? Anyone you can crash with for a night or two? (Keep in mind, you might have to have more than one interview—and no, not back-to-back so you might need to make more than one trip for a single job opening.) Figure out what your budget is. Job hunting expenses are tax deductible so keep track of everything. (So are costs for moving for a job!) I was able to stay for a week with a friend who was attending grad school at Princeton University and commute in from New Jersey every day. Another friend in Manhattan let me crash on her couch when I was apartment-hunting. But on more recent trips, I did The Pod. 

You no longer need to put your address on your resume. Really, it isn't a necessary field. And everyone these days keeps their old cell phone number so it's very common in NYC, especially with twenty-somethings, for an out-of-state area code to mean nothing. Although you can also set up a Google Voice number with a NYC area code. You can even use a friend's address (if you clear it with her first) although be judicious with this as you don't later want to say you need four weeks since you also have to find an apartment and move, and have them giving you side-eye, thinking you lied on your resume about living here. Do note that your graduation date is "expected," as that ought to clue them in (but not highlight it). 

Talk to your parents. Talk to your career center. Talk to your friends in the city. See if there's an alumni Facebook group you can join for NYC. Get on LinkedIn and look up recent grads from your college that live in NYC. If you went to a small college, you can even hit up virtual strangers who went to your college to see if they know of anyone subletting a room/with a sofa to spare/have a spare room themselves. Be wary of Craigslist listings as NYC is ground zero for scams.

The way the time frame works is that you don't want to try to find a closing date for a job listing and wait until then to apply. You want to apply as soon as you see an opening that fits for you. Hiring managers and HR tend to look at applications as they come in, and when they have enough good candidates, pull the listing. They tend to bring candidates in for 2-3 interviews (some do just one but more companies do at least two). Depending on the time of year and schedules, it can take about a month for the hiring process. That's why you really don't want to start earlier. In fact, 2.5 months is even a bit far out, but some companies' processes do move more slowly. 

Another option is to not job hunt now. If you had a reliable summer job at home that will have you back, and if your parents will let you crash at home, it's not a bad idea to not job hunt on top of finishing up college. Go home and work your summer job. Save money. Apply for jobs in the fall. There are more openings then and less competition. And you don't have the worries of exams/honors theses/finishing school on top of job hunting, which is already a stressful experience by itself. Postponing for 3-4 months would not be a bad thing at all, and at least it's a good back-up plan in case things don't work out in the spring.

The timing won't work out perfectly. Resign yourself to that fact now. You might have more time at home after graduation than you'd thought. You might have a job fall into your lap that wants you to start before graduation! You might end up crashing on that friend's couch in the city for longer than planned. The only thing you can know for sure is that it won't go the way you'll ideally like it to. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Book Review: Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan

Oh, what a delight! I loved this book.

I just saw that a panel discussion with authors was being held where the main topic was why it's important to keep writing during a time of turmoil, and that is this book's thesis. Nell has some wonderful things happen in her life, like her darling son Hillyard (Hilly or short) and great friends and eventually, a lover interest. But she's had some bad things too, such as her first husband, and eventually the death of people close to her. The book spans about 50 years so some of the sad things are inevitable (although towards the end it did feel a bit like a piling on). And when bad things happen (the sinking of the Lusitania with friends on board, the outbreak of The Great War and Hilly's enlistment), time and again, she turns to the wonderful, witty, often hilarious novels of the inimitable P.G. Wodehouse. Nell is a teacher and a great lover of literature, and while the small town of Harvester, MN doesn't have a real library (at least not until the end of the book), Nell is able to borrow books, and a wealthy family does endow an honor library at the local power company early on. At one point Nell even writes Mr. Wodehouse a fan letter, which expresses something I've said many times myself (although she says it more eloquently), about how books can save a life. It might not feel that way, especially for novels that might even get dismissed as lightweight and silly, but there are times when our own trials are so difficult to bear, that we need to escape, and to find humor in life, most especially at times when we might otherwise fear we'll never know humor again.

Personally, I read Life With Jeeves, a Wodehouse collection of 4 novels during my wedding planning, which was one of the most stressful times in my life. I wholeheartedly agree with Nell that Wodehouse is one of the best distractions from life, when life is being a jerk. And sadly for Nell, who is a smart, kind, decent woman, life is often jerky. Sometimes we all feel that life has been unusually jerky. 2016 was like that. And why didn't I read any Wodehouse in 2016? Why didn't I read this lovely book? I meant to, but I kept getting sidetracked. I am overjoyed I finally got to it, and annoyed that I didn't read it sooner. This book was occasionally delightful, sometimes heartbreaking, but always thoughtful and touching. As a novel of small-town Midwest in the first half of the 20th century, it is a wonderful slice of Americana with a heart of gold.

I checked this book out of the library.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Book Review: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, narrated by Robert Petkoff (audio)

Almost all of the audiobooks I listen to are nonfiction. But I decided to give this one a try. I listened to one audio novel last year, which was the first in a very time, and thought I should try one again. Also lately I'd changed up my audiobook listening tactic a bit in a way I thought would work better for fiction: trying to listen to it in a few giant chunks over just a few days. And this one was great. I had planned to listen to it over 3-4 days but I got so sucked in that it only took me 2 days to listen to the whole thing.

The narrator started out sounding like a news reporter which was exactly the right tone for this book, as news plays a big role in it. A small private plane goes down off the coast of Martha's Vineyard and Scott survives. He's about to start swimming away from the fiery wreckage when he hears a small voice and he finds a young boy who also survived. He swims 10 miles to the Massachusetts coast with the boy clinging to his back and with a dislocated shoulder. Naturally, the news media jumps on this story. But Scott, a not very successful painter, isn't interested in being famous, especially not due to an event that killed many other people. But the man who chartered the plane was the CEO of a Fox-News-like news channel, so it's big news nevertheless and he finds himself pursued relentlessly. Meanwhile, the NTSB and others are trying to piece together what  happened. And the "now" chapters about Scott and the investigation and the little boy are interspersed with chapters telling each of the other passengers' and crew members' stories leading up to the fatal flight.

It was a gripping story, with plenty of intrigue and suspense. Another passenger was a banker, essentially laundering money from countries illegal for Americans to do business with who was due to be arrested the following day. Scott painted pictures of disasters—including a plane crash. There are rumors of sabotage or even a bomb. If so, who was the target? If not, what went wrong and how and why? The anchor on the new channel keeps the stories going and keeps up the pressure on the government to find out answers. At the very end (this isn't a spoiler) I was unclear about what and when Scott knew what he suddenly knew, but that isn't very material to the story overall. The narration was terrific. One character was a British ex-pat, another was Israeli, and there was the boy, and several women, and the voices were all terrific. I just had to find out more. And more. And I kept listening and couldn't put it down. A perfect distraction for a wintry weekend.

I downloaded this eaudiobook from my library via Overdrive.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Reading by Publisher - Update 1

Mid-January I assigned myself a mini challenge of reading books by more diverse publishers. It's pretty obvious that I love Penguin Random House titles because last year I read a disproportionate number of their titles (and two of the first three books I read this year were published by PRH). This year, I want to get out more. (Also it should help me when interviewing with other publishing houses.) So I'm going to do an update in the middle of the month about how I'm coming on my mini-challenge. Here's the basics:

5 Hachette books
5 Simon & Schuster books
5 HarperCollins books
5 MacMillan books
5 "other" books

And here's how I've done so far (along with books I'm thinking I might read for the publishers in question). I've got two publishers more than done! And the other two started.

For Hachette I have read:
  1. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander 
  2. Class by Lucinda Rosenfeld 
  3. You'll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein 
  4. Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film by Alexandra Zapruder 
  5. Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
  6. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley (read but not reviewed yet)
For Simon & Schuster my current plan is:
  1. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
  2. The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery 
  3. Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper 
  4. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen 
  5. Madison's Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America by David O. Stewart (for my book club so not going to change) 
For HarperCollins my current plan is (interestingly, these are all nonfiction):
  1. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong (read but not reviewed yet)
  2. Marrow: A Story of Love, Loss, and What Matters Most by Elizabeth Lesser 
  3. There Is No Good Card for This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love by Kelsey Crowe, Emily McDowell 
  4. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly 
  5. Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know about Life I Learned from Watching '80s Movies by Jason Diamond 
For MacMillan my current plan is:
  1. Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz 
  2. American Girls by Alison Umminger 
  3. Rise: How a House Built a Family by Cara Brookins 
  4. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
  5. Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton 
  6. Radical Candor by Kim Scott (currently reading)
  7. Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh (currently reading)
For "Other" my current plan is:
  1. Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France by Craig Carlson (Sourcebooks) 
  2. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis (WW Norton)
  3. Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury USA)
  4. Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan (Milkweed) (currently reading)
  5. Garth Williams, American Illustrator: A Life by Elizabeth K. Wallace, James D. Wallace (Beaufort Books) 
  6. Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss (Vanderbilt University Press) 
  7. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket Books) 
  8. The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game by Mary Pilon (Bloomsbury USA) 
  9. Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street's Great Foreclosure Fraud by David Dayen (The New Press)
  10. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore (Sourcebooks)
Initially I had thought I'd read these in order, or at least in chunks of all one publisher at a time but I quickly gave that up. Partly that's for a very good reason: I have gotten some more interview in my job search! I'm also expanding the "Other" category to 10 books. And while in my year-end wrap-up I did count the audiobook publishers that aren't the Big Five separately (Recorded Books, Brilliance Audio, Highbridge, etc.) However, for the purposes of this exercise, I'm going to count these books under their print publisher.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Book Review: Love Warrior: A Memoir by Glennon Doyle Melton (audio)

I heard great things about this book, both from reviews and from my friends. But the book wasn't for me.

From the start, I was not enamored of the narration, which was performed by the author. Her voice is very high-pitched and squeaky. It felt, at times, like it was being read by a twelve-year-old girl. But that's appropriate in a way, as I found Glennon to be rather naive and not fully mature.

She becomes bulimic at the age of ten and is hospitalized for it twice. She never discusses why or what her therapy in the hospitals discussed or how sh e's dealing with is going forward. When she starts drinking in college, in short order she is a raging alcoholic occasionally doing drugs. After college, as an elementary school teacher, she gets wasted every night and spends most of her next day at work, hungover. She starts dating a guy, Craig, and gets pregnant. She gets an abortion. She gets pregnant again. She decides this pregnancy is a message from God (but why is this one a message but the first one wasn't?)  and she and Craig get married and she has the baby and quits drinking cold turkey. They have two more kids, have a very conventional marriage, but almost no sex. Early on, Craig asks her to watch a porno and afterward, she insists not only on not watching any more, but that he gets rid of them all, and he never watches porn ever again.

Fast forward 10+ years and Glennon figures out Craig was watching porn on the family computer. Granted, the fact that their kids also use this computer is a big problem. However, she acts like he's committed murder (she also around now relapses with her bulimia, but doesn't tell Craig, and passes it off as no big deal when he finds out.) She then finds out he's been cheating on her for years, starting six months after their marriage, all one-night stands. She kicks him out.

Now, you might be thinking that's a reasonable reaction but she's very hypocritical in all this and she never acknowledges that her issues with sex, her refusal to deal with those issues, and her black-and-white one-sided declaration that he will Never Watch Porn while she also mostly refuses to have sex with him, might have been contributing factors. That's right, she isn't purely a victim here, but she is also somewhat to blame. No, I am not victim-blaming, I am acknowledging that in a relationship, when one puts up barriers, makes one-sided declarations about what the other person Can and Cannot Do, and refuses to get any help for one's mental issues, there will be consequences.

Eventually Glennon starts seeing a therapist and she does seem to address some of the problems (although nothing about what's at the root of all of them. She still seems to be just addressing the symptoms, not the underlying problems causing those symptoms). She finds a new church. (Caveat: while the book was a little churchy for my taste, I was just fine, until at the end she is just baffled to find that not all churches think the translation of Genesis is that God created Man and Helper. It never occurred to her to question that her sole purpose on earth is to Help Men. She has lived a rather unexamined life. Which is also rather odd for someone with a personal blog who has written now two memoirs, and appears to be a big fan of naval-gazing.)

I was glad at the end that she took on a little bit of the responsibility that I think she deserves for the problems in her marriage (don't get me wrong—Craig bears a huge burden of that too. But it sounds to me like it's pretty 50-50 whereas Glennon seems to think it's 90-10 Craig's fault.) Which was more than I thought she was going to pony up to halfway through the book. She never acknowledges that perhaps two kids who get pregnant accidentally (twice!) while perpetually drunk and don't even know each other for a year, isa bad recipe for marriage success. She doesn't acknowledge that she's made any mistakes. Except maybe trusting Craig. (And really, she set him up to fail, so that broken-trust is mostly on her.)

I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. I know that finding out one's spouse cheated can't be at all easy. I know that raising kids is a hard thing to do. But I also know that pointing fingers while refusing to acknowledge her own failings and culpabilities is not a road to success. I know that their issues with communicating (Craig is a physical person and she is a mental/verbal), while a big part of their problem, is not their sole problem that will fix everything when it is fixed. I get to the end of this book, and I feel like I did in college after reading Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience." I don't believe the "Experience" poems show any experience at all. They went from saying everything is white to saying everything is black. Experience and maturity don't make you switch from thinking everything is good to everything is bad. True understand and maturity mean you understand life is all shades of gray. I think that Glennon and Craig are both, sadly, large children pretending at being adults, without doing the hard work and heavy lifting of truly figuring out who they are, who they want to be, and then doing the hard work of getting there. They think if they keep punching down the symptoms of their problems, like Whack-a-Mole, everything will work out fine and eventually all the moles will just go away. Life is not a carnival game and she's really going to have to figure out what is at the root of her terrible coping skills, her body issues, her inability to admit wrong, and what she is hiding from. If she doesn't, these problems are going to keep coming back, again and again. I don't have any problem with any one who has any mental health or coping issues. I do have a problem with denying they exist and refusing to get help. That said, it was a riveting story that I couldn't put down, even if partly that was because I was so infuriated with her. I know other readers love this book and will disagree, but this is my opinion.

I downloaded this eaudiobook from the library via Overdrive.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Publishing Job Hunt Questions and Answers

Next week I'm going to answer a few questions that my intern has about job hunting for a job in book publishing. She graduates from college in the spring and her plans for graduate school have fallen through so she's about to jump on this fun job hunt merry-go-round. If you have any questions you'd also like to ask, please leave them in the comments and I'll try to answer those, too. Of course, My book, An Insider's Guide to a Career in Book Publishing, covers most of my knowledge, but this is your chance to find out more, to ask more detailed, pointed questions, and to get a personalized answer.

Book Review: Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

This book starts off with such a great setup: a neighbor down the street finds Ruth's dad's pants hanging from a tree in his yard. It turns out her father, a college professor, is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. Ruth, a thirty-year-old who performs sonograms at a hospital in San Francisco, has recently had her fiance leave her and is feeling adrift. At her mother's request, she moves home to Los Angeles for a year to help out. While there she sees the toll her father's condition is taking on her mother. She talks with her brother who, five years younger, has a different, much more complicated relationship with their parents. She gets to know her father's TA who helps create a fake class so he can feel like he's still teaching, which gives him much meaning and focus in his life.

The book's style wasn't for me. It's written in a diary format which means very little dialogue, and halfway through, she switches from writing for herself what's going on, to keeping track for her father what they've been doing, which necessitates a switch from first person to second, and from present tense to past, which felt abrupt and forced. But she does this in order to echo a notebook her father gave her that he kept when she was a small child, about the funny things she did. I found Ruth to be too passive, and without agency, for my taste. Not a whole lot happens in the book, and the overall tone was filled with melancholy. I'm sure plenty of young twenty-somethings would identify with Ruth, with feeling powerless and like events happen to you. I did at the end feel like I should appreciate my family, especially my parents, more. And I liked that towards the end Ruth did get to a more positive place. I especially liked the complication and showing how Ruth and her brother can have such different experiences of and relationships with their parents, as that's rarely acknowledged in novels. This is a challenging book that will make readers thing about their own decisions (or lack thereof), family, aging, and memory.

I got this book for free from the publisher at Winter Institute.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda (audio)

Ari is fifteen, growing up in El Paso in the late 1980s. He has two much older sisters, and an older brother in prison. He was the surprise baby after his dad came back from Vietnam. Ari mostly keeps to himself, but that summer, he meets a boy named Dante at the pool. Dante teaches Ari how to swim and they become fast friends. They make up games, they swim a lot, they play in the streets, and then something happens and everything changes. for the next year they are separated, and when Dante comes back to El Paso, their relationship is different, no matter how much Ari wants it to remain the same.

I've rarely read a more powerful book about friendship, about love, about families, about coming to terms with who you are as a person, and about acceptance. I was really thrilled with this book showing amazing role models with the parents and showing a more understanding and open side of the Latin culture that is often portrayed as very macho and singular. Instead the world of Ari and Dante is multifaceted and has great depth. The book is brutally honest, in a way that sometimes feels like ripping off a scab, that can hurt. But that in the end also promotes healing by exposing wounds to the sunlight. It's a beautiful, powerful story I am so glad I read.

The narration was truly excellent. This audiobook was recommended to me by a teenage girl who is obsessed with Mr. Miranda, which is the only reason she listened to the audio, but for an Anglo women without much Latino exposure, having the accents perfectly right and the pronunciations, really made the book extra-accessible to me.

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 eaudiobook out of the library via Overdrive.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Book Review: Rise: How a House Built a Family by Cara Brookins

Cara Brookins has bad taste in men. Of course she tries hard and thinks each time that she's found the right one, but each one was worse than the last. Her first husband actually wasn't bad at all, just kind of disappeared into the army and disappeared even more after their divorce, with very little interaction despite them having three kids. Husband #2 turned out to be schizoaffected. That's very, very bad. That means schizophrenia and bipolar. He was brilliant, an inventor with lots of patents, but in the end, he was terrifying, threatening to kill Cara and hurting her dog. Husband #3 actually chocked Cara on multiple occasions, nearly killing her. Although after their divorce he pretty much went away, unlike #2 who continued to stalk and harass her randomly.

Understandably, Cara and her four kids didn't feel safe in their home near Little Rock, Arkansas. She also couldn't afford it on her own. She knew they'd have to sell it and move. And one day she drove by a house that had been destroyed in a tornado, but the front of the house was still up and she fell in love with it. But buying a tornado-destroyed house would be crazy. Instead she bought a plot of land, took out a construction loan, and decided she and her four kids (well, three as the youngest was only two and mostly got in the way) would build the same house, by themselves. Not crazy at all.

Turns out, it really wasn't. It was a way for them to regain control and get out some anger and frustration (especially her closed-off teenage son) and do something empowering for themselves. They don't have much idea what they're doing, but with the help of a lot of YouTube videos, some help from her Dad, and a random guy from the hardware store who helped out from time to time, they did it. They built an entire house. Which is seriously impressive. The last few weeks Cara collapses from exhaustion, getting by on only two hours of sleep a night (she does after all have to also keep working her day jobs to bring in money). But her kids develop more self-sufficiency and strength, and even when they themselves go through some horrible things outside of the family, it seems the strength they have developed from this project makes them more resilient. Now, don't get me wrong, all four of these kids are going to need some serious therapy to deal with some of the awful things they saw and heard and experienced as children thanks to husbands #2 and 3, but they have built the emotional resources to do the hard work.

I checked this book out of the library.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Reading Authors of Color

I recently heard someone point out that given today's politics, it is a good time to make an effort to read books by authors of color. I agreed. And then I thought, but I have no idea how many authors of color I read. That's not something I've tracked.

So far in 2017 I've read 16 books but 3 are by authors of color which is pretty good: 19%. In 2016 I read 10 out of 100, or 10%. In 2015 I read 7 out of 100, or 7%. So I've been improving! I hope I can keep that improving rate going! Although when I look at what I have on tap for the year, it's not looking impressive for authors of color. I might have to make more of an effort. Luckily there are lots of lists I can work from like here and here and here.

And here's a breakdown by ethnicity below, which is interesting. I haven't read any books by East Asian authors since 2015. And I'm happily surprised at how many books I've read by authors of Middle Eastern heritage.

African-American:
2017
Elizabeth Alexander
2016
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Stephen Mack Jones
Okey Ndibe
Wes Moore
Sampson Davis
2015
Misty Copeland

Middle Eastern:
2017
Rabia Chaudry
2016
Siddhartha Mukherjee
Mindy Kaling
Paul Kalanithi
2015
Atul Gawande
Sahar Delijani

Latinx:
2017
Benjamin Alire Sáenz
2016
Cristina Henriquez

Native American:
2016
Margaret Verble
2015
Sherman Alexie

East Asian:
2015
Marie Kondo
Celeste Ng
Kazuo Ishiguro

Book Review: Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

Like most people, I was pleasantly shocked when this graphic memoir was a finalist for the National Book Award when it came out, and that intrigued me. I already was interested as I've seen Ms. Chast's jittery cartoons in The New Yorker for many years, but a book specifically about both of her parents dying just wasn't one that I was dying to read initially.

I never really realized before, at least not consciously, that Ms. Chast's jittery style with all the extra lines and the shakiness was meant to convey anxiety. I think, now that I get that, that it's very effective. Although for many years, it bothered me. But heck, anxiety is designed to bother us.

We begin in 2001 after a bit of backstory, when Roz suddenly begins to worry about her parents, getting elderly and living alone together in Brooklyn, and she comes in from Connecticut on Sept, 10, 2001 (driving right past the World Trade Center in her cab, a luxury she doesn't usually take.) She finds her parents, while claiming everything is fine, are deteriorating. Her mother, a domineering former high school principal, has a mind like a vault but she has several physical ailments and those begin to increase, particularly after a bad fall and a refusal to do any physical therapy. Her father, a meek former foreign language teacher, is having memory lapses, although in their staid life with its routines (and with a wife who makes all the decisions and dominates all conversation), it isn't really obvious until he's taken out of his environment and routine, when they have to go to the hospital when his wife falls.

Things go downhill from there. Eventually, despite protests, Roz has to put them in a home, and she pays a small fortune for an excellent one (and excellent in price really just means not terrible in reality). But they really couldn't live alone any more and refused all help Roz suggested. They both hung in there until their early 90s, when first her father died, and two years later her mother. She keeps their ashes in her closet, which she finds comforting.

So it isn't a traditional memoir of course. There's not a ton of exposition as it's a graphic book. But also, for a graphic book, there's a lot of words! Sometimes entire pages are exposition with no drawings, although it's all hand-lettered. Her style of writing and drawing really conveys the pressure and fear and anxiety that is so heightened not only when one's parents are failing in various ways, but which is magnified for an only child, with no backup, no support (at least not from family who lived with them and understand them. Her husband and kids seem supportive but are minor characters.) There's no splitting the duties or even anyone to argue with about not splitting the duties. There's just her. Eventually she even worries that the situation is affecting her ability to do her work. You really feel her emotions: her dread and her extreme worry.

The book was surprisingly not sad, but it felt like a resolution. It actually made me feel like I understand better what to expect myself one day when my parents' health starts to fail. It made me think a bout my own future with no kids to take care of me. But it felt comforting, maybe because it was all over and done with. You didn't feel a wonder about what was going to happen or were they going to make it—you knew the end was coming and you knew that Roz would deal with it. She obviously really loved her parents but also they were hard in their own ways, and yet she did what she had to do. And then she wrote and drew this loving testament to them, to who they were, and to their last valiant battles.

I checked this book out of the library.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Book Review: American Girls by Alison Umminger

I got this book this summer, almost the same week as when I got The Girls by Emma Cline, and I was a little weirded out by two young adult novels, published at the same time, both about the Charles Manson murders. SO I put off reading this one so they wouldn't blur together in my mind. I wish I hadn't! This book was much more mainstream and accessible and I think teens would identify with it much more.

For one thing, it isn't historical. It's set now, when Anna, a fifteen-year-old, is sick of her mother and step-mother and when her mother and father tell her they're making her switch schools, and when her mother lectures her on being nicer to her step-mother (to be clear, her mother's wife), and even though she loved her baby half-brother she's also sick of her mother's constant breast-feeding (he's well over a year old) and doting and her complete ignoring of Anna. So Anna buys a plane ticket from Atlanta to Los Angeles to visit her half sister, Delia (none of the three siblings have the same two parents), using her step-mother's credit card. Busted immediately (while she's still in the air, in fact), Anna is told to not come home without the money to repay her step-mother and she has to earn her return ticket too. Delia is an actress and her ex-boyfriend hired Anna to do research for a film he's making with Delia about the Manson murders.

At one point in the middle of the book, I started to get pretty creeped out by the Manson stuff, to the point where I wasn't sure if I'd be able to continue reading the book at night, but just then it stopped being so creepy. But it's amazing that reading about a girl reading about these murder could be creepy at all, and it was. Ms. Umminger is quite good at scene-setting in a subtle way. You feel the Los Angeles chilly mornings and the solitude of Delia's neighborhood (which can feel desolate at times) and the grittiness of the neighborhoods where they film, and then the bubble-gum candy pop stylings of the teeny-bopper show where Delia's boyfriend works, and where Anna spends most of her days, especially getting to know one of the male stars of the show.

I really liked the conceit that Anna had to write a paper to finish up her history class (when she left Atlanta school wasn't exactly over yet) and that of course she's going to end up writing about Manson you know, but the teacher poses an interesting second question about Why Los Angeles? What's so great about it? And it's not a rhetorical question—she's expected to answer that in her paper as well.

Towards the end there's a really great summary that Anna gives of Charles Manson that I even had to read out loud to my husband, it was so prescient and so sad and scary at the same time. Basically, he was just a narcissist who was so angered by having his music rejected, that he lashed out in a terrible
way, and if he'd been born 30 years later, instead of having his followers murder people, he probably just would have gotten a reality TV show on TLC and no one would be murdered. It seems pretty accurate to me.

After The Girls, I thought about reading Helter Skelter (and Manson by Jeff Guinn) but I'm just not sure. They just seems too depressing (which was also what Anna thought, reading these books and other like them). But at the same time, I feel so curious.

But this was a great YA novel about fractured families, what it means to really love your family even when they're difficult, how hard growing up is, and of course a little bit of Los Angeles-gazing to see if it's really as shiny and pretty as it seems from afar. A terrific book for teen girls who won't feel the least bit talked down to or lectured. Anna's voice is very true.

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

I was given this book by the publisher, but not with the expectation that I would write a review.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

My Month in Review: January

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

Books completed this month: 
Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial by Rabia Chaudry (audio)
The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
Class by Lucinda Rosenfeld
You'll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein (audio)
The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati
Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family by Anne-Marie Slaughter (audio)
Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film by Alexandra Zapruder
Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz
Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France by Craig Carlson
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
American Girls by Alison Umminger

Books I gave up on:
Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland

Books I am currently reading/listening to: 
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
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:
none! I am being so good! Getting a lot of books from the library. However, a friend was at Winter Institute last weekend and she's sending me a giant box of books so my acquisitions will be very different for next month (although hopefully all free and I'll still be staying in my budget of zero.)