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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Book Review: The Hilarious World of Depression by John Moe


I wasn't sure how hilarious this book would be. Or if its hilarity might be inappropriate for its subject matter. But I needn't have worried. John Moe knows precisely how to balance the two.

Books about depression aren't funny. And that's a big reason why no one reads them. The subject matter is rough enough just in its existence. And John noticed over time that a lot of comedians used depression or other mental health problems in their stand-up acts. He had a successful NPR show in Seattle, and when it had run its course he was offered a job in NPR in the midwest. From that, his podcast grew (which is an official podcast of NPR even if it's not an on-air NPR show.) As word got out, impressive people contacted him, most of whom really surprised him, like Peter Sagal, the host of NPR's Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me and Andy Richter, best known as Conan O'Brien's sidekick. But he wasn't wrong--there are a lot of comedians who either are open about their depression or were eager to be so when given a platform. And the podcast became wildly successful.

As he's interviewing these guests, he rarely talks about himself, He acknowledges that he has depression too, but the focus is always on the guest, never on him. And in this book, John Moe tells his own story. He tells of struggling with depression since his childhood. Of his family dynamics that probably didn't help. Of times over the years when it became really problematic. And then there's a crushing blow out of left field that makes him rethink everything.

Along the way, he's really funny. Mostly in the if-I-don't-laugh-I'll-cry mode which, as a Southerner, I'm very familiar with. But as he's a Seattleite, he has his own, slightly more sardonic spin on it. He never actually laughs it off--in fact that's a really unhelpful piece of "advice" (which I'm putting in quotation marks as it's such a truly terrible piece of advice that it doesn't deserve to have the word advice attached to it.) But he points out how it does have its moments of ridiculousness and absurdity, and how giving it too much power is a big part of why it's problematic. It's his own story, but it's incredibly useful for anyone. If you've known anyone with depression (and if you know any humans, you fall into that category), this book is chock full of humanity, empathy, understanding, good humor, and gut-wrenching stories. It truly helped me to better understand a disease that is pretty difficult for those on the outside to comprehend. And I laughed along the way.

This book is published by St. Martin's Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Book Review: Old Lovegood Girls by Gail Godwin

It's not often that a book really reminds me of someone I know, but this one did. This book about freshman college roommates reminded me of my freshman college roommate so much!

Feron and Merry are paired together their first year at Lovegood College, a two-year women's college in North Carolina, in the late 1960s. Feron's childhood was... difficult, and Merry's was fairly idyllic. Feron has been rescued by her uncle from a terrible situation with her step-father. Merry grew up on a famous tobacco farm with loving parents and an annoying but fun little brother. Over the holiday break, Feron was supposed to visit Merry, but there's a tragedy and Merry doesn't return to school. Feron finishes at Lovegood and goes on to finish her last two years at Chapel Hill.

The book then proceeds to cover their lives over the next sixty years. Both bad correspondents, they sometimes go years between letters and decades between visits, but it doesn't mean they're not close, and in fact Merry really is Feron's best friend. Because of the time and distance, they sometimes don't know incredibly important things about each others' lives until much later. But neither take offense at that gap, and in fact I think there's comfort in knowing there's someone out there who doesn't know about the thing and can almost be a Schroedinger's friend, who still knows the person to be who they were before the Important Thing. Some of the important things aren't unexpected--marriages, children, illnesses--which is not to take away any importance.

I recently read an article that said college friendships are forged in the forge of hottest flame--when emotions are intense, anxiety high, and one can spend pretty much ALL their time with another person--and that's a big reason why they often last lifetimes. I'm not all that sure about the why, but I agree they can certainly last. Having just seen my own freshman roommate earlier this month (when I wrote this, not when it posted) I can attest that it's most certainly possible to have close, special friendships where years go between communication and Important Things aren't communicated in a timely way, and the friendship is strong nonetheless.

In this novel is was lovely to see Merry and Feron growing up, growing old, growing together while they're apart. Neither one's life turns out as expected (what does?) but they are there for each other when needed. It was nice to see echoes of my own friendships, and to see some paths the future may hold. Women's friendships are often strong, and we also draw strength from them. I thoroughly enjoyed spending these decades with Feron and Merry, and wished I could have spent even more time with them.

This book is published by Bloomsbury USA, which is distributed by Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Stuck Inside Recommendations 21-30

On Facebook I started recommending a book a day for those stuck inside and looking for something good to read. I'm alternating between books published by Macmillan (my employer) and not. (Simply, because the vast majority of my reading is Macmillan books, it's really hard for me to not have this unbalance in any list I put together.) And I thought I'd pull together those recommendations every 10 days here, for people who I'm not Facebook friends with. These 10 books are all for kids of various ages!

Please buy books from independent bookstores! You can find your nearby indies here, or you can buy from bookshop.org or you can get audiobooks from Libro.fm. Those last two you either can get to through the website of an indie, and have part of your purchase go to that indie directly, or if you really don't know of one, any purchases made on those sites, even unaffiliated ones, will indirectly support independent bookstores. Bookstores are really struggling right now, from chains on down to the little guys, and right now, you have a lot of time to read! Seems like two great things that go great together.

Now, on with the list! While these are numbered, they are not ranked. I've starred the non-Macmillan books, and if I reviewed them, I'll link to the review. Every one of these books got a 5-star rating from me!

21. Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary*

22. A High Five for Glenn Burke by Phil Bildner 

23. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell*

24. Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang

25. Scaredy Squirrel by Mélanie Watt*

26. Llama Destroys the World by Jonathan Stutzman, illustrated by Heather Fox

27. Best Friends by Shannon Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

28. The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois*

29. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz*

30. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki, illustrations by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell
   


   

   


Book Review: Humble Pi: When Math Goes Wrong in the Real World by Matt Parker

Oh this was fun! No, you don't need to know a lick about math to enjoy this book (although if your eyes--or in my case ears--glaze over when anyone begins talking about math, that might be more troublesome.) But it's actually perfect for people who struggle with math as Mr. Parker talks about people throughout the ages who have also struggled with math--with often disastrous results! Occasionally hilarious, occasionally deadly, but always informative.

If you want your trivia not deadly, I enjoyed how when mathematicians could finally accurately calculate the height of Mt. Everest, it came out to an even number (I think 29,000 feet. I was listening to it so I can't flip back and I don't feel like googling.) But they know everyone would see that and assume it was an estimate, so they added 2 feet. (This story is also possibly apocryphal, but I choose to believe it, because it's so amusing.) Then there's a harrowing story (no one died which is a real miracle!) Of an airplane windshield being replaced using bolts that were off by such a small amount from the bolts that were supposed to be used, that the human eye can't discern any difference (Mr. Parker ordered one of each bolt and he can't tell the difference.) The windshield ripped out mid-flight. The co-pilot managed to regain control of the plane and land it while several flight attendants took turns holding the legs of the pilot who was dangling outside of the window! Seriously! From bridges that crumbled from weights (or more commonly, from marching in unison) to fighter jets that stopped functioning when they flew over the international dateline to glitches in Pacman and Space Invaders, this was a delightful read.

I downloaded this digital audiobook from Libby/Overdrive via my library.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Book Review: All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson

George--well, Matt--grew up in New Jersey in a large family, always knowing he was different. In this memoir, which is written thematically rather than chronologically, he deals with many issues that kids today, especially kids with any number of identity, family, and/or sexual orientation questions, might face.

In each chapter he grapples with an issue, tells a story from his childhood of how that issue came up for him and was dealt with, and ends with a lesson, a piece of advice, and some words of wisdom. For example, in a chapter about identity, he learned abruptly from a cousin that his name wasn't Matt, it was George. Matt was his middle name, but that was never told to him before. He went by George briefly at school, but went back to Matt. Until he went to a private Catholic school for high school, that refused to use any name but one's legal first name for all students, so he was George there.

Above and beyond everything else, he was growing up Black in America, and also later figured out he was gay. For a while he thought he might be trans, as he always daydreamed about himself in the future as a girl or a woman, and he had a cousin who was trans, but he's not. His family always had some LGBTQ people in it going back many generations, so as he says, he was lucky as they were pretty accepting of his sexual orientation. Sure, there are exceptions, but over time, even those have come around for the most part.

He went to a traditionally black college in Virginia, wanting desperately to get away from New Jersey, and interestingly found another family in his fraternity, even though frats have historically very much not been welcoming to gay people. He wasn't out in college, but it seemed to be an open secret. No one seemed surprised he was gay, and several people had asked him that over the years.

This book would be absolutely wonderful for any teen questioning who they are, who they like, who they might be. Especially for kids who might belong to more than one minority group. But also for allies, and kids who want to know more about the experience. George is very open and honest and while not graphic, doesn't skirt around important topics. There's a reason, after all, why he's subtitles the book "A Memoir-Manifesto."

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 Farrar Straus and Giroux BYR, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Book Review: Death of an American Beauty by Mariah Fredericks

This is the third in the Jane Prescott historical mystery series, after A Death of No Importance and Death of a New American. I was starting to worry a tad about murder just following this ladies' maid wherever she goes, as the Upper Classes would notice that pretty much right away. So in this book, there's a divergence, which distracts from that entirely.

Jane is taking a week's vacation. She's visiting with her uncle, who raised her, at the home for former prostitutes which he runs. When one of them is brutally murdered in the street, sadly, it seems like just another statistic and predictable, (eliminating any reason to worry that murders follow Jane around.) A new resident of the house snuck out one evening, as the house was getting ready for an annual party they throw for themselves, and when Jane goes looking for the young woman, she finds her body in a nearby alley. When she isn't suspecting at all, is for the police, with the help of some protesting religious NIMBYs who want his house shut down, to finger her uncle as the prime suspect. Naturally, Jane has to find out who really did it to clear his name.

Meanwhile, she's roped into helping out with a department store's annual beauty pageant, where she meets an exciting and fun piano player, and naturally her reporter friend Michael Behan makes an appearance. As usual, the period details are spot-on and fascinating, Jane is delightfully snappy and curious, and I for one was kept guessing as to who was the real perpetrator until moments before the Big Reveal. A fast, fun read.

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

Friday, April 10, 2020

Book Review: Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss by Rajeev Balasubramanyam

Professor Chandra teaches economics in England. He's divorced, and estranged from one of his adult children. His life seems to be skidding downhill when he's pushed into going to the United States to help his ex-wife with their youngest daughter.

While visiting, he's pushed way, way out of his comfort zone. An uptight immigrant economist, he's not enamored of the American way of life, and even less so the hippy-dippy ways of his ex's new husband. But the partying daughter is the first priority. And yes, along the way Chandra starts to figure out some of his own life as well. And starts to repair the relationships with all of his children, one at a time.

This book doesn't have quite the same highs and lows as A Man Called Ove, but I can see the parallels. Him being an economist ramped up the humor element for me personally, as my father is also an economist and I fully understand how rigid and seemingly emotionless they can be. The California/Colorado setting was perfect, taking him way way out of his comfort zone and pushing him from the ridiculous to the sublime. Very much a story about how families all have problems, this was an uplifting and humorous story that I think could be a perfect read right now.

I got this ARC free from a friend who works at the publisher, in exchange for nothing.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Stuck Inside Recommendations 11-20

On Facebook I started recommending a book a day for those stuck inside and looking for something good to read. I'm alternating between books published by Macmillan (my employer) and not. (Simply, because the vast majority of my reading is Macmillan books, it's really hard for me to not have this unbalance in any list I put together.) And I thought I'd pull together those recommendations every 10 days here, for people who I'm not Facebook friends with.

Please buy books from independent bookstores! You can find your nearby indies here, or you can buy from bookshop.org or you can get audiobooks from Libro.fm. Those last two you either can get to through the website of an indie, and have part of your purchase go to that indie directly, or if you really don't know of one, any purchases made on those sites, even unaffiliated ones, will indirectly support independent bookstores. Bookstores are really struggling right now, from chains on down to the little guys, and right now, you have a lot of time to read! Seems like two great things that go great together.

Now, on with the list! While these are numbered, they are not ranked. I've starred the non-Macmillan books, and if I reviewed them, I'll link to the review. Every one of these books got a 5-star rating from me!

11. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde*

12. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel 

13. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson*

14. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

15. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand*

16. Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee

17. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey*

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

19. The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, translated by Marlaine Delargy*

20. My Ex-Life by Stephen McCauley

  

  

 

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Book Review: The Address Book: The Untold History of the Places Where We Live by Deirdre Mask

What does your street address say about you? For most of my adult life, especially with apartments, I've felt like I've had needlessly complicated addresses. My name is long and trying to also fit the address in the return-address part of an envelope has sometimes been very frustrating. It can also be difficult to get other people to understand and spell your address. When I first moved to Montclair, I lived on Claremont Ave. It's like Montclair--but the two parts of the word are reversed. And "Clair/Clare" is spelled differently. The address seemed simple at first but it was less fun as time went on. When I lived in NYC, Manhattanites found Queens confusing when I didn't think it was at all. Take the grid system and turn it 90 degrees. Then the first few digits before the hyphen are the closest cross street. So if I lived at 19-40 45th Street. I was on the block between 19th and 20th Ave. That made so much sense to me!

Having learned my way around 3 new cities as an adult, and now working in a dozen more as a field rep, I appreciate regular systems so much. But there are exceptions to every rule. In Queens, those exceptions mean that in addition to Streets and Avenues, there are Roads and Crescents. They also follow rules, but sometimes there are exceptions that have to be made. In my hometown of Nashville, when I worked at Vanderbilt, I usually would park on Lyle Street. Which doesn't seem strange at all except that it came after 25th Street. It went 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 24th, 25th, Lyle. Huh? Later when I worked at a B&N, we would constantly get phone calls from lost customers looking for the store. We always knew what the problem was. They were on Harding Lane. We were on Harding Road. Across town.

So who named all these streets? And do you think naming streets is probably pretty simple? (If so, you've never driven in Boston, shudder.) Would you be surprised to learn there are streets today, in America (mostly in West Virginia apparently), that aren't named at all? What happens when two towns merge and there are already two Beacon Streets? (If you're Boston, you keep them both and confound any outsiders! Most other towns try to come up with a better solution.)

Have you heard Chris Rock's joke about Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.? It's pretty funny. But when you think about it. it's also really sad. I love that in Chapel Hill, NC, MLK Blvd. isn't a bad street in a bad part of town. Heck, it's where the independent bookstore is, and nothing says fully gentrified like that! But Ms. Mask looks at efforts in St. Louis to improve the business district on MLK Blvd. and the stumbling blocks that keep arising.

Did you ever think that grid systems didn't just happen? And that they're a very American invention? And yet we hired a Frenchman to design Washington DC, where we have a combination of a grid system with wide boulevards and roundabouts. How did the advent of addresses relate to the cholera epidemic? And the Hapsburgs? How does Amazon find you if you don't have an address? Can giving everyone addresses help stop the epidemic of homelessness? If you have ever wondered about any of these things, wonder no more! This is the book of fascinating facts and micro history for you!

This book is published by St. Martin's Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Book Review: It Sounded Better in My Head by Nina Kenwood


Her senior year, Natalie's parents announce they're getting a divorce. But what really knocks her back is that they're been separated--but living under the same roof and Natalie didn't suspect a thing--for ten months. No fights, no yelling, nothing. Natalie is incredulous and also wondering why they're divorcing if everything is so amiable. Recently her two best friends, Zach and Lucy have starting dating, leaving her feeling a bit like the odd man out in their threesome. So when Zach's older brother's friend invites her to go to a party, she says yes.

It's horribly uncomfortable. She hates parties. Everyone's a lot older. She can't find Owen or Alex and locks herself in the bathroom for twenty minutes. While eventually she comes out and the boys arrive, she quickly figures out that Owen is a dolt, despite being incredibly cute. But Alex, Zach's brother, keeps an eye on her at the party, and she starts to wonder if there's something there.

But she just can't believe it. Why would any cute guy be interested in her? Natalie's self-esteem was destroyed in her early teens when cystic acne destroyed her face and her back and her opinion of herself. After years of doctor's appointments and creams and ointments and pills, it's finally, barely under control. But the scars are permanent. And most of them are not on her skin, but in her soul. I did find this to be an interesting condition which I know affects a lot of people. My husband has some acne scarring, and two of my three siblings had acne bad enough that it required powerful medication to resolve. I'm sure tons and tons of teens will appreciate having a protagonist who goes through this and has come out the other side--but with life-long side effects.

The book doesn't follow a lot of the traditional teen romance tropes, but it was incredibly enjoyable. Not despite that, but largely because of that. Natalie is used to being the funny one, but her role has changed within her friend group and her family, and she's not sure who she is anymore, or how to act. The uncertainty makes her sharper than usual and she can be antagonistic and push people away. She has to learn how to be herself again, and who that is. And how to be a good friend, a good daughter and--dare I say it? A good girlfriend even.

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 Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

My Month in Review: March

The Month in Review meme is hosted by Nicole at Feed Your Fiction Addiction.

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

Books completed this month:
One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives by Bernd Heinrich (audiobook)*
Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, narrated by Robin Miles (audiobook)*
To Hold Up the Sky by Cixin Liu
Dancing with the Octopus: A Memoir of a Crime by Debora Harding
Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War by Steve Inskeep
Good Morning, Monster: Five Heroic Journeys to Emotional Recovery by Catherine Gildiner
The Other Mother by Matthew Dicks

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Check, Please!, Book 2: Sticks and Scones by Ngozi Ukazu

What I acquired this month (non-work books):