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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Book Review: Nothing Good Can Come from This: Essays by Kristi Coulter

This is a memoir told in essays, which can feel disjointed, but for me it did come together in the end. Kristi is a successful businesswoman with a drinking problem. This is not a story commonly told. Pretty much all of the addiction memoirs I've run across have felt like a competition to who can achieve a new low. Which is a dreadful thing to aspire to, as many people die on their way down. Also, the vast majority of people with drinking problems do not have the horrific consequences described in those books. A lot of people are able to deny their problems, and also aren't able to find help they feel is appropriate because it's all geared to much more severe versions of the problem. But I really admire Kristi for acknowledging that it was a problem and figuring it all out for her, before she had terrible consequences. I think more people might see themselves in Kristi than in Sarah Hepola.

Anyway, I thought she was very forthright and straightforward. Her life seems fairly normal, with a loving husband she sometimes squabbles with, a house that sometimes breaks down, a very demanding job with a lot of travel, and a level of income that means she can eat out at super-fancy restaurants regularly, and developing a palate and considering herself a "foodie" came with an awful lot of wine. Soon she was drinking a bottle of wine every night. And when she tried not to, she found she couldn't. She'd really, really try, and she still couldn't.

What seemed to be key for her eventual success, after being a functional alcoholic for ten years, was when she stopped hoping that one day she's want to quit. And instead she just quit. It was waiting for the wanting, certain one day it would appear and provide her with unlimited fortitude and strength, that held her back.

It wasn't easy. And she didn't do it alone. Well, she did for the first year, white-knuckling it. But then she went to AA. She writes in a fun, breezy style, that's also refreshing for an addiction memoir. I really enjoyed it. It's short and can be read in just a few hours.

I got this book for free from my employer. It is published by FSG, a division of Macmillan.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Reading By Publisher Take 3

So in 2016 I started tracking what publishers I was reading in my year-end stats and last year, while job hunting, I started a project (never finished because of job getting) to purposefully diversify my reading by publisher. Since the job getting, the opposite has happened to me.

I was initially concerned about reading books from just one publisher, based on my unhappy experience reading only Knopf books (while interviewing for a job in case you're tracking variations on this theme). Of course that's reading a single imprint, not one publisher, and I've worked at Macmillan before (at St. Martin's Press, so in a single division) so I knew I did/do like a lot of their books. But still. It feels limiting.

And yet, I've found it to be so much fun! After all, Macmillan (and her distribution lines) publish 3000-4000 books a year. And they're super diverse in subject matter and literary ilk and even age range, since I sell children's books as well as adult. There definitely are publishers where I would struggle, as my interests diverge a lot from their genres, to find books to interest me, and I would feel much more forced into reading, which sucks. Or I might just not read a whole heck of a lot of their books. That's a choice, and I do know a couple of my fellow Macmillan reps make that choice, but to me, that would make my job harder and also I'd get a lot of side-eye in the office, especially from my boss, so that feels like a questionable decision if you can find some books in the mix that you do like. And at the 5th largest US publisher, that shouldn't be hard to do.

And it isn't! So far every season I have not managed to read all the books I wanted to at the beginning of the season. That's a very good thing. Sometimes it's due to those books not being available until too late (I give myself 4 months to read books for each season and then I have to move on to the next season), sometimes I'm distracted by other books, and sometimes I have heard things throughout the season that make me less excited about a book than I initially was. But this has actually, so far, been a good problem to have, at least on this side.

But it does create another problem. What about all of the non-Macmillan books I want to read?

Argh. Well, I now have to aggressively prioritize. Non-work books can absolutely wedge themselves into my reading agenda the minute they come out (see: David Sedaris). And of course, I prioritize my book club books (which is why when one sucks, nowadays that's an even bigger bummer than before.) But in reality, most of my non-work books are audiobooks. And that really skews what I read for a couple of reasons. For one, a small fraction of books are available on audio in the first place. Tons of books that I want to read just aren't made into audiobooks for a variety of reasons. Second, it's what's available. I don't want to listen to an audiobook on CD, because then I can ONLY listen in my car (no longer own a CD player in my house). Downloadable is the way to go. Thanks to my awesome library system, I have 2 ways I can log into 2 systems: Overdrive/Libby and CloudLibrary. But what I can download depends on what books my library has purchased (leased) on audio from that service. We don't actually have access to the entire library of available audiobooks at these services. I did recently sign up for Libro.fm as well (which is not free; it's like Audible, but
for indies.) That opens up a whole new list of options. But the biggest limitation for me is that there are a bunch of books that I don't want to listen to on audio. I know the experience won't be enjoyable, and I might end up disliking a book that I would have liked in print. Fiction, especially of the literary type, fares less well on audio in my brain. I really prefer nonfiction, and the few novels on audio I listen to tend towards thrillers. I either need something I don't have to 100% listen to and occasionally can be distracted from without missing a crucial element (nonfiction) and/or something compelling that sucks me in which will grab my attention and hang on to it like a vacuum (thriller).

So far this year, I've read 69 books. We are just past the halfway point in the year. Of those 69, 22 are non-Macmillan titles, or 31%. 10 of those were in print so 12 on audio (a much more even split than I was expecting) and 3 (all print) were book club selections. This is not including all of the picture books and early reader books that I read for work, which is roughly 40-50/season, which would really skew my numbers pro-Macmillan.)

I suppose I could cut out those 22 books and read exclusively Macmillan, but I'm not going to do that. Not only because of the David Sedarises in the world, but because it helps me keep up with the market more generally, actually makes my bookstores trust my recommendations more when I occasionally suggest another publisher's book, and it makes me feel more free and not oppressed by what I have to read for work. I've long known that as soon as a book is assigned to me, I don't want to read it, EVEN IF I'M THE ONE WHO ASSIGNED IT (for example, if I suggested it for book club).

With more than a year of mostly reading one publisher, this is my conclusion: it's not bad! I can keep this up. Not sure if my numbers will always look like this, but for now, it's do-able. I do wish more (all?) books were available on audio though.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Book Review: Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson

This is a gentle epistolary novel that is initially deceptive in its subtlety. So when I read the first 10 pages, I wasn't blown away by the book, but I am SO glad I went back to it.

In England, when Tina was a small child, her grade school class was captivated by the story of the discovery of the Tollund Man, a prehistoric man found buried in peat and perfectly preserved, who is now in a museum in Denmark. The class wrote a letter to the professor who found him, and he ended up dedicating his book about the Tollund Man to her class. Tina and her best friend Bella always swore they'd go to the museum to see the Tollund Man. But there was always a reason not to go. And they never got around to it. And now Bella has died.

In her grief, Tina writes to the museum. The professor has died long ago, so one of the curators, Anders, responds. Amusingly, he takes her hypothetical questions to be literal and answers them as best he can. And so Tina responds to his endearing letter. And he writes back. And so on. And a true friendship develops, across countries and languages and different life situations. Tina lives on a farm, her adult children are moving on with their own lives separate from hers, and she's feeling ennui. Anders lives alone, as his difficult wife died years ago, and his adult children have moved away. And yet their different problems draw them together.

This is a quiet and important novel, about connection and relationships and trust and faith in the human experience. I truly loved it.

This book is published by Flatiron, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Book Review: The Breakdown by B.A. Paris, narrated by Georgia Maguire (audio)

I've said before, these women-focused, domestic thrillers aren't my usual cup of tea. But they're so prevalent these days that I do pick one up every once in a while. And thrillers are good for audio, even if I tend to avoid fiction on audio.

Cass was driving home in a terrible storm, and she took the dangerous windy road through the woods with no cell service that her husband asked her not to take. She saw a car pulled over. She stopped and waited to see if the driver would somehow signal they needed help, but they didn't. She went on. The next morning she found out that the driver of the car, a woman she knew slightly, had been murdered. And Cass can't put this behind her. It starts to obsess her, eat away with her, ruining her confidence, making her doubt her sanity, until she nearly gives everything up. Cass is meant to be a very sympathetic main character, but instead she is frustrating, often causing the reader to want to shake her or slap some sense and some gumption into her.

You know, given the genre of the book, that there will be twists and you're looking for them from the very beginning. When they come, while they have been set up and are (within the realm of the genre) believable, and I didn't entirely guess them, Cass's new level of agency, self-determination, and finally gumption, seem out of character with the Cass we've gotten to know in the first 80% of the book. There are some reasons for that, but it still felt somewhat disjointed. And the complexity of the gaslighting seemed to be hanging together by a thread.

But hang together it does. Even when Cass was driving me up a wall, I couldn't stop listening. It was compelling, even when annoying. If you like these domestic, women's thrillers, this is a good one.

I listened to the audiobook on Overdrive via my library. This book is published by St. Martin's Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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.