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Saturday, March 31, 2018

Book Review: Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin, narrated by Ray Porter (Audio)

After watching The Post, I was excited when I learned about this YA bio of Daniel Ellsberg because I wanted to know more about him and about the Pentagon  Papers.

As an aside, I've been reading a lot of YA nonfiction in the last year and not only is the quality top-notch, but I love that due to shorter lengths and simpler language/concepts, YA nonfiction can often tackle topics considered too small for an adult book, so I'm learning about fascinating smaller subjects that are really enlightening to history overall.

Anyway, Daniel Ellsberg actually had been a marine. After his service, he went into government, and he eventually spent time in Vietnam as an observer, alongside soldiers. He'd gotten romantically involved with a journalist who was very against the war.  But it was pretty much what he saw first-hand which changed his mind about the war and our place in it and its necessity. He also saw politicians straight-up lying to the American public about our level of involvement, how the war was going, and how many Americans were dying. Eventually he felt he was a duty as an American, to expose to American citizens, the truth behind the lies. He snuck out thousands of Top Secret documents, copied them, and released them to various journalists. They first ran in the New York Times, but they were slapped with a lawsuit and couldn't publish them anymore. The Washington Post then took up the story, until they too were rejoined from publishing. It went to a dozen more newspapers until the story was out and government lawsuits were not having the success they wanted, and only looked like the government was continuing to suppress the truth.

Ellsberg was prosecuted as a traitor, even though he argued (and I agree) that his actions were instead very patriotic. The Nixon administration wanted to ruin him in any way they could, so they got a group of men together to break into Ellsberg's therapist's office, to try to find his notes on Ellsberg which they then planned to leak and publicize. Not only were there no notes, but those bumbling burglars (known as "the plumbers") went on to break into the Democratic Headquarters in the Watergate building, leading directly to Nixon's downfall.

There are a disturbing number of parallels to what's happening in politics today with the president wanting to control news stories and with the importance of journalism as "the fourth estate," providing an additional check on government.

Steve Sheinkin is a truly impressive biographer, even more so with his bios all being aimed at a younger audience. Some moments in history are super confusing. I've read All the President's Men. It was hard to get through, I'm not sure I followed everything, and it was too dense to get through in a short time frame. If you are an adult who wants to learn more about a part of history but haven't had luck, I strongly suggest you look for YA nonfiction about it. It's so accessible and non-complicated, while not dumbing down the content at all. It's a real trick to explain these events clearly and simply, and Sheinkin is the Master.

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

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer. I listened to an audiobook version through Cloud Library via my local library.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Book Review: Zombie Abbey by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

This book is very, very much Downtown Abbey with zombies. A wealthy family in England with three daughters and estate entailed away if the oldest doesn't marry well and quickly, sounds very familiar. Even the personalities are similar. A big difference comes with the servants, who don't seem to bear much resemblance to their Downton-counterparts. And a stableboy plays a big role, who is not featured at all in the TV show.

And just as the whole marriage-plot starts to get off the ground with multiple potential suitors for the oldest daughter up for the weekend, a zombie appears. Of course, they people at the Abbey don't know what's going on a first, and it's only after a third person dies a horrible and dramatic death as a zombie that they finally figure out what's going on, and try to come up with a plan. Meanwhile, the healthy townspeople show up and are also let into the Abbey which is now quite crowded. And then...

Well, apparently there will be a sequel! I am not a fan of reading a book in a series and then having to wait and wait (my memory is terrible, especially for details.) But I've certainly got to read the next book to find out how they get out of this mess (and who each of the daughters will marry.) Just good old silly fun, quite enjoyable, so long as you're not expecting much substance.

This book is published by Entangled Teen, a part of Macmillan Press, my employer.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Book Review: The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer (audio)

Took a long time to get this--the wait list at the library went on for ages! But it was worth it. As usual, a memoir by someone famous especially someone funny. is something I wanted to hear in the author's own voice. And that was the right choice.

Throughout this memoir, Amy is hilarious, honest, funny, forthright, insightful, relatable, and goofy. In more or less chronological order, we hear about her growing up, her father getting sick, her success in stand up and eventually TV, her relationship with her sister, her relationships with men, and just everything. Interspersed throughout are funny lists and sidebars. The parts you probably aren't expecting is hearing about how her first time having sex was essentially date rape. And about having to clean her father up after he pooped himself in public more than once due to his illness. And these stories are great--they're straightforward without any goofing around although with a sense of humor and you really feel they're true.

But one caveat with the audiobook is that they're often followed up with one of those funny lists, and there's no more than a couple of seconds pause between the two, which can lead to some jarring moments. Right after I've heard about someone's rape, I don't want to immediately get a joke. In the print version of the book you can pause yourself for a moment or two to process, which is trickier in an audiobook. That said, it's a minor caveat. I'm still very glad I listened to this book instead of reading it in print.

With Amy you really get the impression that she's a regular girl which I mean in the best possible way--like if you met in real life you could be friends. And like regular people, she's had some problems in her life. And luckily for us, she's chosen to share them in a way that is both healing and also, appropriately, funny. Due to the occasional dark nature, I'd say she's the closest to David Sedaris that I've read. And that's a HUGE compliment.

I downloaded this book on Overdrive via my library.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Book Review: We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (audio)

This slight book contains a massive amount of information in the slim pages between its covers. Everyone should read it (after all, it won't take any significant time at all.) And the audio is really great to hear it in Adichie's own words. In fact, I'd even recommend the audio as something for families to listen to. Some of the book might be a little hard on its own for younger kids to get, but in her reading, the slows down for the complicated bits, and her intonation helps a lot with providing context. Also some parts which take place in Africa might need more explanation from adults. But I think this would be a great read for preteens and teenagers.

It's rather simple in a lot of ways. She explains that being a feminist doesn't mean holding women to he higher or better than men, but it does mean that we have a lot of work to do--all of us, men included--to fix problems, make up for past unfairness, and set up society to go forward with to much more even, fair future where girls and women have the same opportunities as men without extra responsibilities, assumptions, or work. This book doesn't need to be longer. Because this is not a difficult or complicated concept. Men and women should be treated the same in the same situations, and that's pretty much it. She gives concrete examples, and tells how and when her own eyes were opened, and some stories about seeing or experiencing sexism. But it really is just simple. We should all be equal. End of story.

I downloaded this book on Cloud Library via my local library.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Book Review: The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton

One day Ray Hinton was mowing his mother's lawn when a police car pulled up. The cops arrested him for murder, and he had not one tiny clue what they were talking about. But he was sure everything would work out--after all, he hadn't done it. In fact, he had an airtight alibi for the time of the murder. But a lovely (and sadly in Alabama for an African-American, common) series of coincidences, incompetence, and racism all came together and Ray was convicted, and spent 30 years on Death Row.

Boy oh boy I wouldn't have been half as sanguine about the situation as Ray is. He's very understanding and calm and forgiving. Perhaps I would have gone mad inside, which he most certainly did not, as his zen-like attitude definitely helped with doing the time.

It's interesting--the men in Death Row in his prison are all on a single side of a hallway, so they never can see each other, even though they can yell to each other. So at one point, after he'd gotten friendly with another inmate, it was shocking for them both to see each other and find out that Ray had become friends with a notorious white supremacist. Ray started a book club on the Row that was inspiring, with all of the men passing around just one copy of the book for weeks so everyone wold read it and then discuss. Life was going on this way with Ray's incompetent/evil attorney exhausting his appeals. And one day, one of the guards gave him Bryan Stevenson's phone number. I have read his excellent book, and I whooped for joy when that happened. But first another attorney was assigned to him, and that dragged things out even more. Finally, when she moved away and Bryan took over, I really had hope, although truly at that point almost every option had been used up. How did Hinton get out? You'll have to read the book! You'll also have to read it to hear his remarkable story of growing up poor and black in Alabama, and through the lens of Bryan's life, we can see the story of impoverished African-Americans in this era and their treatment by society and law enforcement in particular, writ large. It's an inspirational albeit frustrating story.

I got this book for free from the publisher, St. Martin's Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Book Review: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Oh my God I finished! I finished I finished I finished! Now with a preamble like that, you might think this book was torture which is why I'm so happy to be done with it, but it was the complete opposite. I really, thoroughly enjoyed it--it's just that it's really long, and it's already hard for me to squeeze in many non-work books, particularly loooooong ones that are also dense and therefore can't be read in massive chunks and take some serious time to digest.

Of course, if you're familiar with the musical, the biography is easier to read, as you have already gotten the Cliff's Notes version. As this book is the source material, I suppose ideally it ought to be read first, but I suspect that most people will be like me--first hear the musical. (I then read a book about the musical as well.) So like me, people will probably be looking for deviations, and also might get tripped out about which is the real story. It's much easier to believe the first thing you learn is real and deviations from that must be not right, but of course in this situation that's not the case--Miranda had to make adjustments to the facts to fit with a story arc and with songs and to abridge events and to move the action along and compress characters. But I'd say 80% of it is accurate.

What I did take some issue with is that certain events, such as the Reynolds Pamphlet, did not to me come across with the appropriate level of gravity for the situation. I felt like Chernow occasionally was too even-handed and too wedded to being an impartial fact-teller to give more profoundly impactful events in Hamilton's life, more weight in the book. That said, it is a biography, not a narrative, so I do understand his choice. I just worry that if I hadn't been prepped by the musical, I might have skimmed over some of the bigger events in his life without realizing how big they were. And it's not like Chernow never broke that role--he frequently comments on the humor of a situation, on the audacity of an action, or the astonishment he found upon trying to figure out simply HOW Hamilton wrote even half of what he did in the time allotted to him. (I really liked his conclusion that a lot was dictated and that Hamilton had the amazing ability to think and speak in complete sentences and paragraphs, even for hours at a time, extemporaneously.)

The book is very well-written, the historical era doesn't make anything at all hard to understand, and Chernow writes with aplomb and insight. It's not a wild page-turner or a great beach read, but if you're looking for a fascinating and incredibly well-written biography, you just can't go wrong here.

At first I borrowed this book from the library but after I used up all my renewals, I bought it at the new/used independent bookstore in my town.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Book Review: The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater by Alanna Okun

I am not a knitter. I might start next year. I did once knit a very plain scarf that was too short, but I was flummoxed by connecting a new skein of yarn.

Alanna is a knitter. In fact, she's a KNITTER, all caps. She knits forever and always and in every situation. She is in her twenties and moving to New York City and getting a new job and dating. And in these series of memoir-essays, she covers all of this, and knitting. And a few other crafts. Her mother is also crafty, which they put to good use when her mother helps decorate her new Brooklyn apartment.

The title refers to an incident I am familiar with, despite my not knitting. See, I do cross-stitch, which is another old-fashioned fabric craft. And not often, but every once in a blue moon, I would make a cross-stitch picture for the guy I was dating. And I mourn those long-gone works, and hope they still have good homes. In the world of knitting, this is known as a phenomenon where as soon as you knit your boyfriend a sweater, he will break up with you. Now, some of the sweaters in question were worth breaking up over (and frankly, I'm not sure I would have followed through with the gifting is they really turned out terribly sized, but whatever.) But it's a literal through-thread in Alanna's young adulthood--all the usual twenty-something angst, with yarn.

I got this book for free from Macmillan, my employer, also the publisher.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Book Review: As She Fades by Abbi Glines

Vale and her boyfriend, Crawford, were hit by a car on high school graduation night and he's in a coma. They've been together since practically kindergarten, and had their lives together all planned out. She spends all day at the hospital, although Crawford's mother is angry with her and will barely let her see him. While there, she meets Slate, a guy from her older brother's fraternity, who is visiting his dying uncle, and they become friends.

In the fall, she reluctantly decides she needs to start college without him, and move on with her life. At college, everyone is shocked that she's friends with Slate, a notorious man-slut with no female friends, just conquests. And her brother of course keeps his eye on them. And then, there's a massive twist. So I'm done with plot description.

This book I didn't love. I am trying to think back to when I was seventeen and decide if I'd have liked it then, and I think I would have liked it more But I'd have liked to see more dimensionality in the characters, more agency in Vale (although that does improve through the course of the book), much more development of Crawford who remains an enigma throughout. And the fraternity is never, ever called "Kappa Sigma." What a mouthful! It's always, always "Kappa Sig" at every college in the country. I know that's a finicky complaint, but it's minor errors like that that bring the reader out of the story.

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

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

My Month in Review: February

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

I did a lot of driving this month but listened to a ton of podcasts. I also was really busy with work and just didn't have as much time to read, sadly.

I note the non-Macmillan books in this post with a star.

Books completed this month:
The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Dream Daughter by Diane Chamberlain
The Chaos of Now by Erin Jade Lange
Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong (audio)*
Ellie, Engineer: The Next Level by Jackson Pearce
The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer (audio)*
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (audio)*

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow*
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson (audio)*
A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler

What I acquired this month (non-work books):
After buying almost no new books in 2017, I went a little nuts this month. With the bittersweet knowledge that I will get to read very, very few of these anytime soon.

Euphoria by Lily King
Kindred by Octavia Butler
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahirii
I Let You Go by Claire Macintosh
Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore
Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman
Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola
A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman                               
Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey
Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence by Bill James
The Woman's Hour: The Last Furious Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine F. Weiss
Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson