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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Book Review: 30 Before 30 by Marina Shifrin

I love a list. If it's a list where I can already cross off a whole bunch of things and feel accomplished for having done nothing more than read a list, all the better! So while it might seem a little unusual for a 43 year old to read a book about 30 things to do before you're 30, I figured this sounds like a list where I can check everything off!

Of course not. That's not how a book like this goes. If it's all boring, everyday stuff that most everyone has done, it's not a book. Yes, I've done a few (donate hair) and I could do others if I felt like it (ride a bike across the Brooklyn Bridge) but a lot fell in the category of I didn't want to do them, but it was fun watching someone else (Become Internet Famous.) That one in particular crossed off two things, because it was her epic viral video in which she quit her job that made her famous, so I give Marina big points for that.

For the past several years, stomping on Millennials has felt like a sport, one that is rather mean-spirited and unfair (I'd guess 70% of the things we Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers claim are Millennials being entitled are simply things everyone--including us Gen-Xers and Boomers who apparently have really terrible memories--did ourselves when we were early 20-somethings not because of our generation, but just because of the lack of real-work experience that age dictates. Don't believe me? Rewatch Reality Bites and Friends and the first three seasons of The Real World and get back to me. I'll wait.) I super-appreciate that while Marina's book is an obvious push-back to that attitude, she never names it. Instead, she's happy to let it die a quiet death. Meanwhile, she will try to be positive and uplifting, without being cloying or peppy or annoying, which is a great attitude to have.

Sure, some of the things she does like move to another country where she doesn't know the language, are things I do not aspire to, but hey, I've done things she probably wouldn't enjoy either, and we each get to pick our own life lists. Overall, it was a series of essays that ended up being a memoir, about a 20-something working hard to figure out this Real World and her place in it and how to make a go at it without falling on her ass. That's what most of us were trying to do at that same age, with varying levels of success, and I think other 20-somethings will really identify with her and find her journey inspiring. I found that it reassured my faith in this younger generation who are finding their way through some rather rough terrain.

This book is published by my employer.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Book Review: Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick, narrated by Scott Brick (audio)

I've been trying to bone up on my Revolutionary War knowledge since moving to New Jersey two years ago. Our first apartment here was on a block where George Washington had stayed in a temporary headquarters during the war, briefly, as our town has a good view of Manhattan. And a few months ago I stopped at Valley Forge and walked around. I just don't know much about the war itself, and it's fascinating when I read about it to hear of towns I've been to or driven past, which really brings it home and makes it more real.

Most Americans have heard of Benedict Arnold and know he was a world-class traitor, perhaps the best one that ever lived (at least in this country) what most Americans won't know or even puzzle through is that he was also a world-class general. Don't believe me? Well, think about it: how could he have been in such a position to betray our country on such a level, if he weren't very high up in the military?

He was bad playing politics. And I don't mean in the governing of a country sort of way--I mean playing the politics of sucking up to the powers that be to get promotions, that sort of thing. His social skills were seriously lacking. He was blunt and off-putting. Therefore, despite some really spectacular feats on the battlefields, he often didn't get the promotions and seniority that he rightly deserved (also this was because the Continental Congress got to make promotions in the military, not the military higher-ups. Washington did want him to get promoted.) So over time, he fell behind his peers, and especially he fell behind men who had made major military blunders, who had publicly proven their cowardice, and who were just incompetent. And he was a spendthrift, so he really needed the extra income that came with promotions.

Then he met Peggy Shippen. Mr. Philbrick doesn't outright claim that she was the brains behind his betrayal, but it's heavily implied. Peggy and Benedict got married. And Peggy then introduced him to a British officer, Andre, and Andre and Arnold plotted for Arnold to gain command of West Point (at that time a fort, not a military school) and turn it over to the British. The plot was foiled by Andre's stupid behavior upon attempting to return to the British lines, and he was caught with a letter from Arnold on him revealing the plot. Arnold became a high-ranking British officer. Andre was hanged by the Americans. And I hope Arnold was very happy with Peggy for the rest of his life. America lost a great general, although one who by that point, due to multiple on-field injuries, was not as useful as previously.

And then Mr. Philbrick makes a great conclusion which I never thought of before but heartily agree with: America at this point in time, was distracted, factionalized, and really needed a rallying point for everyone to get behind. And Benedict Arnold turned out to be that thing. King George, as not-awesome as he was, was not an inspiring villain. But Benedict Arnold was! His betrayal really became a rallying point that all Americans could agree on. And it helped coalesce various factions into a single nation. So the rather unusual conclusion is that America needed Benedict Arnold to be a traitor. He couldn't have done a bigger favor for our country.

I borrowed this audiobook from the library via Overdrive.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Book Review: Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

Suzette lives with her husband and daughter in their stunning, custom-built home in Pittsburgh, dealing with her irregular health, and her weird, possibly murderous child. She's been h ome-schooling Hanna since she gets expelled from every school, but she can't keep that up much longer and maintain her own sanity. Her husband just doesn't get it since Hannah acts like an angel when he's around, but soon Hannah's dangerous predilections for harming Suzette are undeniable.

Hanna is a creepy, creepy little girl. She reminded me a lot of My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier or The Bad Seed (although I haven't read that, but I know enough about it thanks to the cultural zeitgeist.) But I'm starting to feel that little psychopathic girls are becoming a trope and they needs to be expanded upon before they firmly meld into a cliche. Particularly since according to psychological studies, the vast majority of psychopaths are male.

The narrative switches back and forth between Suzette and Hannah. The Hannah parts felt kind of weird to me, stilted and not like the real voice of a child (always tricky to pull off.) And Suzette's medical issues are presented as a serious problem in the beginning of the book, so much so that you expect them to come back and have some important role in the end, but they don't. For me, the level of tension in the book didn't payoff, but I did like the ending as one that's actually realistic in this situation. However, thrillers about psychopathic kids aren't usually noted for their realistic endings, so I am not sure that's effective. It was a fun read, but uneven, and with some gaps.

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

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Book Review: Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (audio)

What a glorious book! Made all the better by hearing Bruce himself read it on audio.

He had a close, loving, but unstructured childhood, where he often stayed up until all hours and didn't go to school, even as a quite young kid. His family was poor but because his father was a fix-it man, they were the first on their block to have a TV. He never felt truly deprived. His grandmother raised him more than his mother. And then at one point, he decided he really wanted a guitar. His mother bought him one that cost way more than they could afford, but also was a bad guitar, and yet he was determined to make it work. Eventually someone clued him in that he was playing a base as a guitar, and that's why it never was quite right.

One of his first bands had trouble finding a lead singer. They decided everyone in the band should try to sing, and Bruce was rejected instantly for his terrible voice. In fact they made fun of him for years for his bad voice. Like most bands, initially they were a cover band. But then Bruce wrote a song. And another song. It's actually not too surprising that he's a decent writer in this memoir, considering that he's been writing since he was about 16. Occasionally, there was a line where, to my amusement, I could hear the cringe in his voice. He's obviously thought it was really clever when he wrote it, I imagine it's a line that his editor flagged as being twee or eye-rolling or pretentious but he stuck to his guns. And now that he had to say it out loud, I could hear the embarrassment and regret in his voice. (Hint for aspiring writers: read everything you write out loud. You will find tons to fix with that method and catch loads of typos.) I feel smug on his editor's behalf.

Anyway, you hear about what it's like to tour, about his father's tricky mental health, about his first short marriage, about finally getting fame and recognition 20 years after he started playing, about his second happy marriage, about his long-time friendships with bandmates like Clarence Clemmons, about touring some more, about his kids, about being inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, and finally about some of his own mental health issues (which, unlike his father, he gets help for. He both sees a therapist and is on medications.) He really wants to be open about those issues as he wants to destigmatize it so more people, like his father, will get help.

The book was fascinating, fun, well-written, occasionally poetic, and really made me understand what it's like to be a working musician, where this is a job, not a hobby or a lark or a treat. It's a job. And he's the CEO. And he has employees who count on him for their livelihoods. It is a different side of the industry than most people see. And he's had a truly fascinating life. I do wish there had been photos though. That feels like a big loss. I was so excited that I had both the print and audiobooks because I thought, for once I won't be stiffed on the photo insert! But alas, no photos.

My husband bought me the hardcover as a gift at an airport store, and I listened to the audiobook from my local library via Overdrive.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Book Review: Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence by Bill James

In my interview for this job, my now-boss brought up the subject of the genre of True Crime, and how it probably needs to be rebranded. I agree wholeheartedly. But I think that it needs to be broken in half, and that's what needs to be rebranded. In the year and a half since then, I've thought of this a lot. My Mother-in-law reads a lot of true crime, and I read a modest amount, but until this book, the Venn Diagram of our true crime reads had no overlap at all. She tends to read the ripped-from-the-headlines, commercial, tabloid-esque variety (not that there's anything wrong with that!) such as Jaycee Dugard's tell-all and books co-written by People Magazine journalists (really, no judgment. I subscribe to People and I love it.) Whereas the books I read that fall within the True Crime genre are more like The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science, about a nineteenth-century French serial killer. My boss was discussing this because the more literary side of this genre has been on a big upswing, but the books can be hard to sell as the phrase "true crime" has a salacious ring to it that doesn't resonate with literary readers, even if they're missing out.

A few months ago I was at one of my accounts and I mentioned my MIL's birthday was coming up and she liked True Crime, and the buyer immediately went to this title. I knew who Bill James was instantly, having eaten up Moneyball when it was first published. I jumped on it and bought it for her right away. Then I thought, this looks so fascinating, I ought to get one for myself. And when I went to add it to Goodreads, I saw that I already had added it. Hm. (This is why I am religious about my Goodreads or I would own dozens of duplicate copies of books.) And I thought, this could be interesting if my MIL and I both like it. We could actually finally have a book in the middle of the Venn Diagram! So I sat down and read it.

Chunkster as it is, I read it very quickly. James is making the argument that while the intelligentsia looks down on true crime aficionados as exploitative and low-brow, this fascination has been going on for centuries, has been beloved by plenty of the high-brow, and actually has a purpose or two. It helps us to NOT become inured to the horrific goings-on around us, it can actually be a welcome distraction from awful news that is more difficult to mentally and emotionally deal with, and heck, publicizing serial crimes can often lead to arrests and heightened public awareness. He goes back and looks at dozens of "crimes of the century" over the last 200 years in America. He looks at patterns in the coverage of crimes. He looks at how in a few cases like JonBenet Ramsey, the public scrutiny of course screwed up the way the case was handled by the police, irreparably. He does give his opinion of who committed certain "unsolved" murders. He shows how American culture has been influenced by crime, and how crime has influence American culture. He gives his opinions on how and what could help reduce crime and in what ways we're actually exacerbating it. If you are a pop culture junky like I am, and have even a passing interest in the O.J. Simpson case or any of the classics like The Boston Strangler or Ted Bundy, this is a must-read. It is a few years old (2011) so don't expect the high-profile crimes of the last few years to be included. Personally, I was annoyed by a sprinkling of typos throughout, but it happens. And it didn't take away from the masterful synthesis of two centuries of "popular crime" in America.

I bought this book at Solid State, an independent bookstore in Washington DC. 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

My Month in Review: June

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

I note the non-Macmillan books in this post with a star. I am home for a couple of months before I start traveling for work again, so I should be able to catch up on reading, but this weekend it's supposed to be mind-blisteringly hot which is not great for reading, so we'll see.

Books completed this month:
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O'Farrell (audio) *
Maybe a Mermaid by Josephine Cameron
Ruby in the Sky by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo
Girls on the Verge by Sharon Biggs Waller
The Astonishing Maybe by Shaunta Grimes
Educated by Tara Westover, narrated by Julia Whelan (audio) *
Wishtree by Katherine Applegate (audio)
Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart
Calypso by David Sedaris *
Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson
Tetris: The Games People Play by Box Brown
The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home by Denise Kiernan *
Credo: The Rose Wilder Lane Story by Peter Bagge
News of the World by Paulette Jiles *

What I acquired this month (non-work books):
Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen
Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly
I bought these two at Park Road Books in Charlotte when I was in town for the Women's National Book Association annual national board meeting.

A friend at the publisher got me a gratis copy of Ask a Manager: Clueless Coworkers, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and Other Work Conversations Made Easy by Alison Green, which is based on my favorite blog.