Friday, November 28, 2014

Book Beginnings: Duel with the Devil

Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading.

Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America's First Sensational Murder Mystery by Paul Collins

"Andrew Blanck had just been sitting down to lunch with a horsebreaker when Elias Ring and Joseph Watkins showed up and battered at his door."

Elias's wife's cousin. Elma, was missing. The young Quaker girl had been staying with them at their boarding house, and had gone out one night and not returned. Mr. Blanck has a key piece of evidence, although he doesn't realize it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book review: My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

The minute I heard about this book, I knew I'd have to read it. It's about an agency assistant (basically an editorial assistant but at a literary agency instead of a publishing house) in NYC in 1996 (the year after I graduated from college.) It sounded so familiar and yet, I'm always incredibly curious about what would be different from my own experience.

Joanna dropped out of graduate school without finishing her Ph.D. and like all English majors (especially those from New York), Publishing called to her. Through an employment agency, she quickly landed a job as an assistant at an old-school literary agency in midtown. And it is seriously old-school. I thought my old publisher was antiquated because they forced the last hold-out editor to get a computer in 1999 and there was still one form that was on carbon paper and needed to be typed. This agency in 1997 just got their first computer, and still thought of the photocopier and fax machine as new technology. So poor Joanna was manually retyping a form letter over and over on a Selectric typewriter every day. I feel so cutting edge since I had my first computer around 1987 and my first laptop in 1991.

So on her first day at this new job, the only thing her new boss very explicitly explained to her was how to deal with "Jerry," Joanna didn't get it at first, but by the end of the day she had connected the dots and came up with J.D. Salinger. Yep, the agency represented him (and other estates from his era like Fitzgerald.) And he is famously reclusive and cantankerous so placating him is a high priority at the agency.

Meanwhile, Joanna pretty much immediately upon moving back to NYC, met and moved in with an older guy, Don. He's a writer, like Joanna (she: poetry; him: fiction). He's a socialist and mocks her for bourgeoisie tenancies. They move into a terrible apartment in Williamsburg with no kitchen sink and no heat.

The book is a lot about Joanna's year working at the agency. It's a great view into that world for anyone thinking about going into publishing. I really enjoyed those parts of the book. Don I enjoyed much less. He was an ass. Very snobby. Joanna was snobby enough with her literary tastes, but he was much worse and meanly teased her for any interest in any commercial fiction from the last century. And I had to sigh when she lamented not having read the complete works of Dickens. She does acknowledge at one point the irony of preferring to work with dead writers... while wanting herself to be a live writer (ditto for Don). But that revelation was immediately forgotten. He even dismissed her liking of Jane Austen as liking of something commercial and trite. Seriously? He seemed to think unless you were reading Kant, you were worthless. I have no time for idiots like that.

But often in our early 20s, we do date idiots. And I should cut Joanna slack and I'm not sure my circa-24 boyfriend would look much better under a spotlight. But like I said, I preferred the majority of the book that was set at her work. And that's why you should read the book. It is witty, interesting, with a kooky cast of characters (including Jerry himself who does make a cameo) and gives a great insider's view of the world of literary agencies, circa 1970 (because that's really how this company functioned.) It was a fast, easy read and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I checked this book out of the library.

Southern Lit Subgenres

Back in 2011 I did the Southern Lit reading challenge, and I've not done one since. Partly, I like to try different challenges and I try to keep the number of challenges I do to a reasonable number, but as a Southerner who lives in the South and who claims to love Southern Lit, I read a fairly small amount of it. And after a recent disappointing Southern read, I think I've sort of figured out why.

Classifying all books that are published from a quarter of the country as simply "Southern Lit" does a disservice to readers (as does the classification of "Western Lit," and the biggest disservice I think we do is ignoring "Midwestern Lit" altogether. But that's a rant for another day.) There are some types of Southern books that I like, and some types that I don't, and when such a broad brush is used to paint an area of literature, it's easy to get bum recommendations. Just as a mystery reader will have strong opinions on cozies versus noirs versus police procedurals versus PI mysteries, I think we need to break up Southern lit into its parts.

What is a difference between Southerners and Northerners? Northerners hide their crazy aunt up in the attic whereas Southerns set her out on the front porch. A lot of these novels take advantage of this adage and pepper their cast with several funnily cranky old ladies who speak their minds and say what everyone else is thinking but keeps to themselves. Think of "Ouiser" in Steel Magnolias. But with more corn pone.

Like humorous, but taken down a notch. These books do have a more straightforward, traditional plot, but with some oddball characters mixed in. You might cry as well as laugh. Humor can be used to heighten serious situations, and when done well, it's stunning. When done poorly, it feels forced, like everyone is a secondary character from Gilmore Girls and no one is completely sane.

This might be the one Southern offshoot that is currently widely used. In these books, everything goes bad. Everyone is evil (well, there might be one redeemable character, our hero). No one obeys the law, everyone's drinking moonshine, and they might shoot you just for sport. Kissing cousins of the Hatfields and McCoys, these novels are dark and often don't have happy endings.

Nearly everything in this category is related to a single historical period, the Civil War (and immediately before and after.) I do wish people would branch out more as most of the South, particularly the coastal areas, was settled nearly as long ago as New England and the Mid-Atlantic. As a Southerner, I am occasionally disheartened that Yankees often seem to not know that there truly is any history in the South before 1850.

Literary Literature:
These books take themselves way too seriously. No one cracks a smile. Descriptions are taken to a new level. Tone and atmosphere are of utmost importance. Pretentiousness is a good thing. Wants to be Faulkner but for heaven's sake, no one even wants to read his books and they are Great Classics.

What I would love to see are more books that are mysteries or women's literature or thrillers, that just happen to be set in the South. Plenty of people live in the South who have fairly ordinary lives, who aren't eating Moonpies and marrying cousins and secret racists and quirky just for quirky's sake. It's so refreshing when I read a book set south of the Mason-Dixon line that is just a normal, regular book. Yes, setting is important, but why in the South must setting be Everything? Why must it dictate plot and character? Why must books set here reflect long-ago stereotypes? I'm sure it's partly because the majority of editors and agents are Northerners, and stereotypes are all they know and understand of the South. But for those of us who do live and work here, we'd love to see a few more books that reflect our normal, everyday lives without making us all out to be kooks who fly Confederate flags and would lynch people if we thought we wouldn't get caught.

I love good Southern novels. But there are a lot of Southern novels that I won't be reading. Just setting a book near my home isn't enough to persuade me to read it. Are any other Southern readers out there as frustrated by the state of Southern literature as I am?

“Waiting On” Wednesday: A Spool of Blue Thread: A novel by Anne Tyler

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

A Spool of Blue Thread: A Novel by Anne Tyler

Synopsis from Goodreads:
From the beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning author--now in the fiftieth year of her remarkable career--a brilliantly observed, joyful and wrenching, funny and true new novel that reveals, as only she can, the very nature of a family's life.

"It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon." This is the way Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she fell in love with Red that day in July 1959. The whole family--their two daughters and two sons, their grandchildren, even their faithful old dog--is on the porch, listening contentedly as Abby tells the tale they have heard so many times before. And yet this gathering is different too: Abby and Red are growing older, and decisions must be made about how best to look after them, and the fate of the house so lovingly built by Red's father. Brimming with the luminous insight, humor, and compassion that are Anne Tyler's hallmarks, this capacious novel takes us across three generations of the Whitshanks, their shared stories and long-held secrets, all the unguarded and richly lived moments that combine to define who and what they are as a family.

Publishing February 10, 2015 by Knopf.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Book Review: Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John W.S. Bradshaw

I do love kitties. Every day poor Turkey gets "hug punished" because he's just so darn cute (I think it's a hug, he thinks it's punishment.) And so my husband got me this book that promised to teach me about how cats work.

Mr. Bradshaw goes back to how cats were domesticated, where and when and why. It's a bit more than I needed, spending multiple chapters in Ancient Egypt and other areas of the Middle East and comparing one breed of wild cat to another. But it does give you the background information you need to truly understand (as best we can) why cats are the way they are. Unlike dogs, cats mostly domesticated themselves. And unlike dogs, we've rarely been much for breeding them. That's a big problem. The cute cats who are genial and fun and snuggly (like our cats) are spayed and neutered and don't pass those awesome genes along. Most of the cats who breed are the feral or wild cats, who are much less likely to have the right temperament to be pets. And this is not a good time for pet cats to be getting less friendly, because they are recently under siege from bird lovers and others who dislike their propensity for bringing home "presents." It's only been in the last 50 years that we suddenly want cats to spend all their lives inside and to not hunt, so we're asking them to make a couple of huge adjustments in a very short period of time, without breeding for it.

But it turns out your cat is smart. Probably never can figure out how to use tools, but can figure out how to open a door handle and are pretty darn smart for how small their brains are. They amount of stuff they can smell is astonishing (and they even have a secondary smelling method you might sometimes see, when they are smelling with their mouth open. That's mostly male cats smelling for female cats.) But their future is somewhat uncertain. Still, I think the author might be overblowing that situation (and he is British which does impact this, as there's a lot more of an anti-cat movement there and in Australia). After all, there are more pet cats than any other kind of cat. But bird people, please stop freaking out so much. With cats being kept inside more and more, they're probably killing less birds than they ever had before. The feral cats might be, but regulating pet cats more harshly won't impact feral cats at all. (And some of us cat people like birds too,)

Overall, an interesting read, but a tad more technical than I was hoping for.

My husband bought this book at Fiction Addiction, the independent bookstore in Greenville, SC.

Teaser Tuesdays: Cat Sense

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading.

Grab your current read. Open to a random page. Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John W.S. Bradshaw p. 70

"Even today, most domestic cats exert a remarkable amount of control over their own lives, significantly more than other domestic animals, such as dogs. If we leave the pedigree breeds to one side for a moment (and these are still a minority), most cats go where they please and choose their own mates (unless they are neutered--a relatively recent phenomenon)."

Yep, our cats pretty much do what they want to do, aside from going outside when they want to. And I suppose they'd like us to feed them wet food and treats more. Otherwise, they get their way a lot. One of the benefits of having claws.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Book Review: Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood by Leah Vincent

Leah grew up in a Yeshivish household, her father a rabbi in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community. Her dream for her whole life was to marry young and have a dozen children. She wasn't allowed to touch boys or even be alone in the same room with one until she was married. Her mother did everything her father asked without question, and Leah felt loved and comforted in her home. But when she was a teenager, she went to England to live with cousins for a while before entering a prestigious girls seminary (Yeshivish girls don't go to college.) There, she met and hung out with another girl whose family was not as strict. And she hung out with the girl's brother. He was cute and he had radical ideas, like that if a girl wants to go to college, she should. Leah was never the same.

Although she never consciously decides, "I disagree with this religion and I'm not going to do what they say," she subconsciously does just that. But because it is subconscious, it is more complex and more drawn-out. She continues to try to fit in, visiting her older sister in Israel, until her letters to the boy are discovered, causing such a shocking scandal that her family basically casts her out and treats her like she's dead. Her parents arrange an apartment and a job that doesn't quite pay for the apartment in Brooklyn, and then write her off. Even when she's been admitted to the hospital for a suicide attempt, her parents refuse to help or visit. And while she does attend college and wears jeans for the first time and learns who the Beatles are, she still dreams of marrying an ultra-orthodox husband and having a large family. What is difficult both for Leah and for the reader to realize for a long time, as Leah stumbles around blindly in the secular world, is that simply casting off a belief does not mean that she will fit in or understand. She has to in some ways start over, learn what the normal secular world is like and how people function in it.

The book is at times harrowing, at times humorous, and always honest. Leah tells stories where she doesn't come across well at all, and yet you empathize with her innocence and misguided trust, her complete lack of guile, and her sad lack of friends. I wanted to befriend her and help her navigate through her new reality, and I really wanted to punch her parents. This was a very fast read giving a peek into a normally closed and secretive community, Leah seems to have come out the other side and I for one am cheering for her to continue to prove to her family that she isn't evil and nothing bad will happen to her, just because she disagrees with them and has different beliefs.

I checked this book out of the library.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is now hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books completed last week:
Long Man by Amy Greene
Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood by Leah Vincent

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic by John Demos

Up next:
The Orphans of Race Point: A Novel by Patry Francis
It Comes In Waves by Erika Marks
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

Friday, November 21, 2014

Book Review: Long Man by Amy Greene

I wanted to love this book. It's set in my home state of Tennessee. The author came to an event in the spring that I attended. I generally like Southern literature and don't feel I read enough of it. But sadly, this isn't the type of Southern lit that I respond to.

In 1936, TVA is damming up the river which will flood the town of Yuneetah near Knoxville. Everyone has been ordered to move and most have taken relocation packages from the government. Some moved to the next county to another farm, but some took the opportunity to move away north where there are factory jobs. Annie Clyde however does not want to move. She wants to stay with her three-year-old daughter Gracie, although her husband James has already rented them an apartment in Detroit. As they fight about their future, Gracie wanders off. Their hunt for her soon turns desperate as the lake is rising after days of rain and everyone has lost someone to the river before. A local drifter, Amos, has returned to the town to say goodbye and to visit his adoptive mother, Beulah, who lives up the mountainside and is outside of the evacuation zone. He quickly falls under suspicion. The sheriff struggles to organize a search party with nearly all of the town's residents long gone. Will Gracie be found before it's too late?

The book is languid, flowing slowly like a slow rising river. The descriptions are spot-on, and the reader can picture the twisted trees, the forest full of briers, the apple tree, the abandoned buildings. But personally, I need more than that. From my description it sounds like the book has a lot of plot, but that doesn't get going until nearly halfway into the book. And now, I don't mind a character-driven book, but I need to empathize with the main characters. Instead Annie Clyde is prickly, a loner who shuts people out. A lot of the book also dwells on her aunt, Silver, a recluse who lives at the top of the mountain and avoids people pretty constantly. And then there's Amos, who grew up in the town but has been riding the rails for 30 years, getting into trouble (as evidenced by his missing eye) and (sound familiar?) avoiding people. His adoptive mother is definitely an outsider although I wouldn't describe her as necessarily a recluse. But all of the main characters in the book are outsiders and most of them are recluses who dislike people. That's hard to believe (why are all these recluses living in or near a town anyway?) and harder to understand. I certainly understand there are cranky, socially maladaptive Southerners, but to populate all of your main characters from that subset is, to my mind, a mistake. The empathetic characters were James, the sheriff, and the TVA employee, who are all fairly minor characters. I'm sure some people will love this book. The skill of the writing is excellent, the descriptions evocative, and yes, some readers like their book full of quirky, cranky people. But I don't. That last point just didn't do it for me. And with the characters as they are, I'd have needed a lot more plot to be moving a lot faster, to get over it. And that was lacking too. With an extremely slow start and backstories that go back multiple generations, there wasn't nearly enough going on for my taste.

I want to emphasize this isn't at all a bad book. There are even people I would recommend it to. It's just not my cup of tea.

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore, Park Road Books.

Book Beginnings: Cat Sense

Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading.

Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John W.S. Bradshaw

"The domestic cat is the most popular pet in the world today."

I've known this for years from when I used to select books for PetSmart and Petco. Many of my dog-loving friends didn't believe it, but it's true. There might be more households with dogs, but given the number of multiple-cat households, pet cats outnumber dogs, easily.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Reading Journal

Okay, so I don't actually have a reading journal. But recently at a talk, I heard MaryBeth Whalen, co-founder of SheReads, say that her reading journal is the closest thing to a journal that she has, and a light went off in my mind when she said it. That's so true! I've never been much for journaling (which is crazy because I have a terrible memory.) I can do one for a short period, like I did keep a note of what we did each day on our first cruise. But I just can't keep it up. On the other hand, many people say to me that they're impressed with how I keep up my Goodreads account. I don't see that as any trouble at all. When I start a book, I look it up and either add it or just change the status from To Read to Currently Reading. When I finish, I change the status again (and this time it's even easier because it's no trouble to find a book in my Currently Reading list.) If I weren't a diligent reviewer, I could just add stars right there and move on. I think the way I do it is easy because I maintain it, so I never do more than a couple of minutes at a time. If I were to postpone it, wait until the end of the month and have a bunch of stuff to update, it would feel more like a chore, plus I'd need to find a chunk of time. But I need to keep it maintained.

Why? Because of my above-mentioned terrible memory. I started keeping a list of all the books I read back around 1998. That's when I had my first "real" job at Ingram Book Group and one thing I had to do was research "comps" for upcoming books from my publishers. Yes, the editorial and sales departments already should have done that for me, but sometimes they didn't (or they did a bad job of it. You can't just compare every chick lit novel to Bridget Jones' Diary.) And one of the books on the list would invariably lead me to say to myself, "This is just like that book I read a few years ago, that book.... What the hell was the name of that book?" So the list began. For many years it was the only thing I did in my lovely leather Franklin Planner (which now serves zero purpose). And then I found Goodreads.

But what's cool is that it is like a journal for me. I can almost always remember where I was when I read a book. I'll be able to narrow down a year because I know I read it in New York. Or I know I read that in St. Croix. I can remember which apartment in Nashville I lived in when I read a certain book. I know which book I read when I visited New York to interview. I remember which books were vacation books, which books were home books, and then there are some books where I don't remember and I don't know if that's because I read them in a variety of places or what. But most of them I can. So for me, when I look at my list of books, I really am taking a trip down memory lane as I remember which books I borrowed from the cruise ship library, which books I read after final exams my senior year in college, and which books I read on a plane (one I really wanted to throw but that's not advisable on a plane.) I rarely remember if I owned them or not, where on earth they went to, and I have trouble remember the plots (hence the diligence to reviews now), but the where sticks with me and from that come the memories. So my list of books is my journal. Does anyone else experience this? Or am I unique in remember where I was when I read things?

“Waiting On” Wednesday: Amnesia

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

Amnesia by Peter Carey

Description from Goodreads:

It was a spring evening in Washington DC; a chilly autumn morning in Melbourne; it was exactly 22.00 Greenwich Mean Time when a worm entered the computerised control systems of hundreds of Australian prisons and released the locks in many places of incarceration, some of which the hacker could not have known existed.

Because Australian prison security was, in the year 2010, mostly designed and sold by American corporations the worm immediately infected 117 US federal correctional facilities, 1,700 prisons, and over 3,000 county jails. Wherever it went, it traveled underground, in darkness, like a bushfire burning in the roots of trees. Reaching its destinations it announced itself: THE CORPORATION IS UNDER OUR CONTROL. THE ANGEL DECLARES YOU FREE.

Has a young Australian woman declared cyber war on the United States? Or was her Angel Worm intended only to open the prison doors of those unfortunates detained by Australia's harsh immigration policies? Did America suffer collateral damage? Is she innocent? Can she be saved?

Publishing January 13, 2015 by Knopf.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book Review: Diamond in the Rough: A Memoir by Shawn Colvin

Shawn Colvin's Fat City provided the soundtrack to a large part of my college years. From the tragic honesty of "Monopoly" to the fun of "Tennessee" (and it didn't hurt that I am from Tennessee) to the gentleness of "Tenderness on the Block," I felt like I understood Shawn's songs, and she understood me. I went on to get several other of her albums, although none spoke to me in quite the same way, but it might have been the place I was in my life when I first heard her songs that made me connect so much to that particular album.

I am not one for celebrity memoirs, but as soon as I heard this one was coming out, I knew I needed to read it. I needed to understand the woman who wrote lines like, "But imagine the nerve of a God/ Letting me let you in/ And I thought I could let you go in grace/ But I've got to think again." She understood the anger mixed with sadness (and desperation) after a breakup and I needed to hear that someone else had these same feelings (and therefore I wasn't a freak for my own extreme reactions to failed love affairs.)

Luckily, she's a good writer (already kind of knew that from her songwriting.) Being from Nashville, I am not impressed with celebrity trappings, but she seems down to earth and pretty ordinary (in a great way), aside from her job. And it really is a lot like a day job, just with long travel schedules. She does seem to have not-great taste in men, but she's got a great daughter and some great friends (even including some exes). And I truly appreciate how honest she is about how hard the writing part is for her. I hope that will give other aspiring songwriters a realistic idea of what it's like.

I felt like a good friend was catching me up after many years apart. It's the perfect book to curl up with next to a fire with a mug of tea or a glass of wine. Shawn's seen highs and lows, she's had her share of heartbreak, and she's very open, sharing it with all of us. If you're a fan at all, you'll thoroughly enjoy this glimpse behind the curtain (which likely will be brightly patterned.)

I bought this book at Parnassus Books, the independent bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee.

Teaser Tuesdays: Diamond in the Rough

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading.

Grab your current read. Open to a random page. Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Diamond in the Rough: A Memoir by Shawn Colvin

"I went back to this tidbit years later and finished it, called it 'Ricochet in Time,' and included it on my first record, Steady On. It's a song I still love to perform, because it describes being a musician on the road."

As much as I liked hearing about Shawn Colvin's life in this book, what I read for were the stories behind the songs, those songs that meant so much to me and spoke to my very soul, back in college.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Book Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

I have always loved Wonder Woman. When I was five, I dressed as Wonder Woman for Halloween. My friend Rachel (who was a year older than me and a foot taller than me) introduced me to her friend Alanna (a foot taller than Rachel!) after school that day. She repeatedly kept trying to get me to say my name to Alanna, but instead I insisted over and over that I was not Carin, "I'm Wonder Woman!" I haven't seen Rachel in a few years, but I'm certain if I ran into her again, that story would come up.

I don't know if I ever read a Wonder Woman comic, though. Watched the TV show with Linda Carter, sure! Desperately wanted the lunchbox and the underoos. Never got them but that Wonder Woman costume was the only actual store-bought costume I ever knew my parents to buy any of us, and it was in the dress-up box for years (it was cloth, not plastic or paper.)

I picked a good role-model, although her backstory is decidedly odd. She was created by Dr. William Marsden, who also was the inventor of the lie-detector test back in 1915 (his model was not the one that caught on and is used today.) That sounds very strange until you think about one of Wonder Woman's gadgets--that lasso that made anyone tell the truth. Now, it makes more sense. Dr. Marsden created Wonder Woman to be a feminist, with homage to the suffragettes and other female pioneers, particularly Margaret Sanger (the founder of Planned Parenthood.) See, Marsden had not only a wife, but also a live-in mistress (and a third woman who lived with them sometimes.) The live-in mistress was the niece of Sanger, so their family knew her well. No one seemed to know exactly how their family worked (her children didn't know for decades that Marsden was their real father, instead of their mother's fictional deceased husband.) But it did (in fact the two women continued to live together for many decades after Marsden's death.)

Marsden had some decidedly kooky ideas, including that women were really in power as it was more powerful to submit to another person, which is why being tied up or chained featured so prominently in the storylines. In fact, it was so very everpresent that after a while it starts to have undertones of S&M. Marsden would always reject that idea, but it's hard to come to another conclusion when you see so many of the strips with that same premise repeatedly. Nevertheless, Wonder Woman was presented as a seriously powerful and independent woman. Which made it all the more ridiculous when she was added to the Justice League, which was written by a different cartoonist who did not like Wonder Woman and not only relegated her to the role of secretary, but constantly sidelined her with excuses like, "I haven't typed up last week's minutes so I can't help you go save the world, but I'll be with you in spirit. Good luck boys!" Ugh. And also the later, 1950s-era Wonder Woman (after Marsden's death) who became a model and a romance-advice columnist, pining away to marry Steve.

But it is the backstory, or the secret history, which is the most fascinating. Marsden had a law degree and a Ph.D. from Harvard, but his career was on a swift downhill trajectory that veered off into Hollywood and murder cases and other odd tangents before he finally hit on Wonder Woman (luckily his wife worked as an editor, mostly at Encyclopedia Brittanica and major magazines, while the mistress stayed at home with all the kids, so her income kept them afloat.) He was interested in free love, many decades before that phrase became popular. He thought people should be able to do what they wished when it came to love, which was the most powerful force in the universe, and that's why women were going to soon rule the world: because they were more in touch with their feelings and they were kinder, more peaceful people than men. While he never said they were as smart as men, the women in his life were all highly educated with graduate degrees, so he obviously didn't think they were dumb.

What an odd but fun story! Well-written, extremely well-researched, this stranger-than-fiction history behind Wonder Woman is an excellent read.

I bought this book at Park Road Books, my local independent bookstore.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books completed last week:
Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir by Frances Mayes
The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Long Man by Amy Greene
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Up next:
A Southern Girl by John Warley
The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Friday, November 14, 2014

Book Beginnings: Diamond in the Rough

Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading.

Diamond in the Rough: A Memoir by Shawn Colvin

"Who doesn't have a bit of pyromania in them?"

Anyone familiar with Ms. Colvin's songs immediately gets the reference here to "Sunny Comes Home," but she's actually talking about her childhood and when she accidentally set the yard on fire.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Book Review: Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir by Frances Mayes

I had an unusual experience with the book. The woman who loaned it to me had said that she was "dipping in and out of it" and internally I made a face as I never, ever do that (in fact, I even stopped flipping around in Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography and started reading it straight through!) But I think that is a great way to read this book.

I was under the mistaken impression that the book was about Ms. Mayes's moving back to the South (North Carolina) as an adult (after her sojourn in Italy). Instead, that bookends the memoir, but the book is about her growing up and ends when she's about 22. From Fitzgerald, Georgia (one college professor upon hearing the name of her hometown did remark "Isn't that a bit much?"), she was the much youngest (eight years behind her nearest sister) daughter of a couple of fought bitterly and dark heavily. Her father ran his father's fabric mill, and her mother was a good housewife of the 1950s, painting her nails, baking brownies, and recovering furniture (with the help of an African-American maid.) Frances never quite fit in. Chomping at the bit to get out from her small town and repressive family from a young age, she did eventually get to go away to college (first Randolph-Macon and then the University of Florida) but she seemed never to feel completely free of the South until the death of her parents. It seems as if only when that last tie was severed, could she make the choice to return without repercussions.

The book is filled with languid tales of floating down rivers in summer, buying Capezios and going on dates, sneaking out of the dorms to have fun and party. It also has sordid stories of mental abuse, withholding, manipulation, and other trials of familial love gone wrong. Each chapter stand on its own and can be read as an essay. They are in chronological order in the Book, but the past doesn't inform the future much. A few characters do progress--most often by deterioration, not growth--but for me it did not gel as a single narrative. Instead, I found that when I tried to read it straight through, I did not enjoy it. But when I read it in short bits here and there, I did. That's strange. Most books improve with a large block of time when you can delve deeply into it, but this one didn't. When I tried that, the stories felt repetitive, unremittingly cruel, and a little boring. But when I switched back to the short stretches of reading, it improved immensely. Maybe you need to digest the parts. Or maybe you need to stay on the surface and not delve too deeply. Whatever the reason, this is the perfect book if you know you don't have a lot of time and are looking for a book which you can set down and it won't suffer from the delay. This one improves.

I borrowed this book from a friend.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

“Waiting On” Wednesday: As Good as Dead

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

As Good as Dead: A Novel by Elizabeth Evans

Synopsis from Goodreads:
At the high-octane Iowa Writers' Workshop, small-town Charlotte is thrilled and confounded by her relationship with charismatic and sophisticated Esmé: One moment, Esmé is Charlotte's best friend; the next, Esmé shuns her. After a tumultuous weekend, Charlotte's insecurities and her resentment over Esmé's confusing behavior reach a fever pitch. Blindly, Charlotte betrays her friend-in the process, unleashing a cascade of calamities on her own head.

Twenty years later, Charlotte is a married novelist and professor--when Esmé returns, bringing the past that Charlotte grieved over, and believed buried, to Charlotte's doorstep. Charlotte is both mystified and elated by her friend's reappearance. Though she yearns to redeem the old friendship and her transgression, she is wary, and rightly so: Esmé makes no mention of Charlotte's old betrayal but her invitation to dinner leads to a request--one that is highly unethical and includes an unstated threat.

Charlotte is faced with a choice: comply and violate her integrity or refuse and risk the destruction of her marriage. As Good As Dead performs an exquisitely tuned psychological high-wire act as it explores the dangers that lie in wait when trust is poisoned by secrets and fears.

Publishing March 3, 2015 by Bloomsbury USA.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Book review: Tracks: A Woman's Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback by Robyn Davidson

I heard about this book when Wild first came out. Also a young white woman of privilege, deciding to do a long solo hike in order to straighten out her head. This one decides to cross the Australian desert alone, except for four camels.

Robyn doesn't really give us her background. She just shows up in Alice Springs with a few dollars and her dog. We do eventually learn that she has some family and a graduate degree, but what exactly inspired her is always vague. She isn't running away from a great loss or great regrets. She just wants to be alone and free, and do something extraordinary.

She can't just gather up some wild camels and go so she ends up spending more than a year in Alice, learning about camels and saving money. Finally, halfway through the book, she is ready for her journey (no longer entirely solo as she's gotten some funding from National Geographic, and the NG photographer will be joining her periodically.) An elderly aboriginal an joins her for part of her trip as well.

This trip is more pure in a way, without the benefit of REI and custom-fit boots and camelbacks (which would have been ironic.) Robyn mostly hikes in a skirt (sometimes naked) in old sandals, doesn't drink at all during the day, only in the morning and at night. She doesn't have any real epiphanies and she doesn't have any serious brushes with danger. It is an arduous and difficult trip, but not as life-changing. She seems afterwards to think it was life-changing in the way she views aloneness and the Aboriginals, but I think those parts of her were already there, just heightened by the trip (and perhaps would have been heightened regardless, just by any life experience.) It is interesting, as this took place in the 1970s, to see the differences in the racism and the treatment of Aboriginals, but it was already changing (I noticed her refer to Ayers Rock as Uluru--a name I'd never heard until my trip in 2012). I did enjoy the book but I didn't feel much connection to Robyn, She kept her readers at arms' length. She didn't really let us in to her thoughts, beyond the daily and the practical, and the lack of understanding her motivation did throw me. But it is perhaps one of the original stunt memoirs, although she wrote the memoir much later (it wasn't designed as something to do in order to write a memoir about it.) That might account for some of the distance, since there was distance when she was writing it. But overall, if you like stunt memoirs and books about crazy outdoors feats, this is a good one.

I checked this book out of the library.

Teaser Tuesdays: Tracks

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading.

Grab your current read. Open to a random page. Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Tracks: A Woman's Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback by Robyn Davidson p. 14

"I might have thought twice about staying there after the outburst, but it became apparent very quickly that my new demon friend was a wizard with camels. I will now, once and for all, destroy some myths concerning these animals."

Basically, everything negative you know about camels is wrong (except for the spitting). And the man who will train Robyn to work with camels is volatile with a wretched temper.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Book Review: Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris

From the minute I heard about this book, I knew it would be genius. I was already psyched about a memoir by Neil Patrick Harris, and when I heard it would be a Choose Your Own Adventure format? Awesome. I had no idea how that would be pulled off but I also knew that if anyone could do it, it would be NPH.

I watched every episode of "Doogie Howser M.D." I watched every episode of "How I Met Your Mother." I haven't seen him in any stage productions unfortunately (I have seen several that he was in, including "Proof" and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," but not with him in them.) And I am a fan. After seeing him last month in "Gone Girl," I am also just so impressed with his range. But he also seems like such an interesting guy. And he is!

It's refreshing to read a Hollywood bio that doesn't have a horrible childhood. He grew up in New Mexico with a great older brother and great parents, who were supportive and helpful all along the way. He started acting in a school play and then went to acting summer camp, and the rest is history. The director of the summer camp was casting for a movie, which was "Clara's Heart" starring Whoopi Goldberg, and Neil got the part. He never looked back. Although he did have to fight hard after "Doogie" to not be typecast. Playing the lead in "Rent" definitely helped (I remember hearing about that at the time and being baffled by what seemed like really bad casting, because I too had pigeonholed him.) Meanwhile, he was coming to terms with his sexuality, eventually meeting David and having twins (I'm not giving away anything that you don't already know from People Magazine.) And he does magic.

So, how does the Choose Your Own Adventure format work? Well, there are about 8 fake endings, which are just a single page each and pretty funny. Otherwise, while you can skip around in the normal CYOA way (To get into a fight with Scott Caan, turn to page 20.) Some of them just lead you down different paths to the same ending (you might first learn about his acting, then his personal life, then his magic. Or first his magic, then his personal life, and the acting last.) But the truth is, you really can just read straight through. I was concerned about missing anything. I am a complete-ist (if I am going to finish the book, that is) and it was so funny that the last thing I wanted was to miss any jokes. For a while I used two bookmarks, one to mark the last page sequentially that I had read, and the other to mark where I was with following the CYOA jumps. But eventually (about halfway in) I just started reading straight through and it was perfectly fine that way (although some of those fake endings seemed to come out of nowhere and were abrupt. But that was just funny, too.) He also includes about ten essays from friends, fellow actors, and so on, such as Sarah Silverman and Penn Jillette. And he includes a couple of drinks recipes, a recipe for David's fresh pasta with Bolognese sauce, and a crossword. Also a few magic tricks. Seriously, he tells you what to do, and at the end he tells you what card you picked. It's impressive for a book! There are sketches throughout (I was disappointed they weren't by NPH) and one chapter is annotated by David and there are other unusual meta-bits and silliness. I have never had so much fun reading a celebrity memoirs. And the book's not just ridiculous and fluffy--he does actually get through all the facts and details along the way.

So notice is now out: NPH has raised the bar for celebrity memoirs, and I hope everyone else steps it up to compete, because the reading world will be the richer for it.

I bought this book at B&N.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is now hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books completed last week:
Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America's First Sensational Murder Mystery by Paul Collins
The Martian by Andy Weir
Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir by Frances Mayes
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Up next:
First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen by Charlie Lovett
The End of Innocence by Allegra Jordan
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Friday, November 7, 2014

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

I heard about this book last spring when it first came out, as a book that would definitely appeal beyond the usual sci fi fans, and I was particularly interested in the promotion by Fiction Addiction in SC where they asked their members to trust them and buy the book wrapped in a paper wrapper so they didn't even know what they were buying. My book club usually picks one sci fi/fantasy book each year and this one seems like a shoe-in. I have been waiting and waiting for that but I just couldn't wait anymore! And I'm so glad I didn't! I could not put this book down. I was reading it while brushing my hair. I was reading it while waiting for my toast to toast. I was reading it while "watching" the cat outside. It's almost 400 pages and I finished it in 48 hours.

Mark is on a manned expedition to Mars. A bad sandstorm kicks up and although the habitat can withstand winds that strong, the craft they need to return to the larger ship that brought them there (and will bring them back to earth), cannot, so the mission is scrubbed. As the six astronauts are making their way back to the craft, Mark is blown away from the rest and impaled on a piece of radio antennae. His spacesuit reads no blood pressure, no heartbeat. The commander makes the agonizing decision to leave his body and the five remaining astronauts return.

But Mark is not dead. He was injured (and the stabby antennae also stabbed the computer on his spacesuit causing those negative readings) but he makes it back to the hab. And he discovers that not only is he stranded on Mars, but he has no way to communicate with either the ship or with NASA. (And even if the ship knew he was there, they do not have another small craft that could go to Mars and back. Most of them only have the capacity for the single trip they're designed for.) Another mission to Mars is planned in four years. If Mark can wait that long. He's a botanist and a mechanical engineer, so he does have some skills to draw on. And he'll have to be creative to make this work.

This book sounds like it could be awful--no dialogue, one character with no one to interact with. In fact at one point I said to my husband, very excitedly, "Now I get to find out if the potatoes Mark planted have sprouted!" I paused and then acknowledged that I probably just described the most boring book ever written. And yet, this book is brilliant, very fun, and riveting. That is entirely due to Mark, his irreverent humor, his creativity, his lack of self-pity, and just how engaging he is. The book is Mark's journal, being written for posterity whether he survives or not (which does away with the problem in books like this of a first-person narrative killing the suspense about whether or not he'll survive. He could be narrating this and still not survive. You just don't know.) The science seems legit (I've read that it's very accurate) but isn't inaccessible for this non-science reader. The life-and-death situations that keep cropping up very much cause some heart-in-your-throat moments, when you just don't know how (or if) Mark's going to get out of his latest predicament. Some people might find his lack of depression and self-pity unlikely, but remember people who are accepted into space programs have been through extensive psychological testing, and they only accept people who are likely to be able to withstand grueling situations.

I loved this book. It might be my favorite book I've read this year. I don't care if you don't read science fiction. You need to read this book. Now. I'll wait.

I bought this book at Park Road Books, my local independent bookstore.

Book Beginnings: Tracks

Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading.

Tracks: A Woman's Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback by Robyn Davidson

"I arrived in the Alice at five a.m. with a dog, six dollars, and a small suitcase full of inappropriate clothes."

In case you are wondering, "the Alice" is Alice Springs, Australia, nearly dead in the center. Robyn has this crazy idea that she'll capture a couple of wild camels, tame them, and then trek across the desert to the western coast. And apparently she's going to do this with no money.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

“Waiting On” Wednesday: Cat Out of Hell

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

Cat Out of Hell by Lynne Truss

Synopsis from Goodreads:
The mesmerizing tale of a cat with nine lives, and a relationship as ancient as time itself and just as powerful. The scene: a cottage on the coast on a windy evening. Inside, a room with curtains drawn. Tea has just been made. A kettle still steams. Under a pool of yellow light, two figures face each other across a kitchen table. A man and a cat. The story about to be related is so unusual yet so terrifyingly plausible that it demands to be told in a single sitting. The man clears his throat, and leans forward, expectant. "Shall we begin?" says the cat.

Publishing in the U.S. March 3, 2015 by Melville House.

Book review: Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink

I had heard such great things about this audiobook that I was actually looking forward to a lot of long driving I had in my schedule this month! And then it won the Pulitzer Prize so expectations were high. But it held up.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the city wasn't near ready. And it hadn't been for decades. The problems that ensued, were all known issues (although the odds of all of them happening at once were, admittedly, minuscule.) As we all know now, it wasn't the hurricane itself that caused the most trouble, it was the flooding afterwards from the failed levees. And yet, that wouldn't have been as much of a problem if people had evacuated. If only the mayor had given the evacuation order sooner. If only they had been more organized (a lot of the poor in New Orleans do not own cars). And why, oh why, were hospitals exempted from the evacuation order? Particularly hospitals with generators below ground level? Like Memorial Hospital.

The question here was, did doctors and nurses kill patients deemed unable to move? Was it euthanasia? Murder? Could it have been prevented? Were they being kind and putting sick, unhappy people in pain out of their misery? How can something like this be prevented from happening again?

Situations like this happen so rarely in the United States, it is fascinating to see how people actually react in a true crisis, one that goes on for days and looks like it might not end. At times it did have the feel of a post-apocalyptic movie. Unthinkable decisions start to be... thinkable. What was the right thing to do? What would you have done?

The book doesn't answer all these questions, but they are important question to raise, and hopefully for all hospitals and cities and the like to address before the next disaster happens. No region of the country is immune to natural disasters, even if they aren't all in the hurricane's path.

I bought this book from Audible.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Book Review: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

I was reluctant to read this book, despite having heard great things, because it looked to sweet and precious to me. I should ignore my gut in these decisions because my gut has shit for brains (bonus points if you can name what book that's from). I was wrong and this book was awesome. Thank god for book club! This was picked for both of my book clubs this month which is a nice synergy.

Don Tillman, a genetics professor, lives a very scheduled, organized, clean, and active life, with every second accounted for. While he has dealt over the years with his social awkwardness, through playing the clown and through some casual therapy, he has never quite gotten to the point of dating anyone. He decides having a wife would be nice, so he embarks on The Wife Project. His friend Gene, a married lothario trying to sleep with a woman from every country, decides to use Don's rejects as his own private dating pool. When Gene sends Rosie to Don, he presumes it's because Gene looked at her profile and thought she merited a second look. However, Rosie is actually looking for Don's help as a geneticist, to track down her biological father. Rosie is completely unacceptable in every way: she's a smoking vegetarian who's always late. But Don nevertheless finds himself trying to help her with her Father Project. But the question becomes, why? She wrecks havoc with his schedule, his apartment, his orderly life, and he doesn't have anything to gain by helping her. Or does he?

Naturally, Don is one of the many who thinks he should be looking for someone very similar, ignoring the advice that opposites attract. And he finds that the chaos in his life can actually be fun. But is he equipped to deal with it? After all, we can all see from a mile away (except for Don) that he obviously has some version of Asperger's and is very rigid and confined. Is it worth the risks to his settled life, to upend everything, for possibly getting close to Rosie?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book which wasn't as fluffy as I expected, although it did have very funny hijinks and nicely absurd scenes, but they were balanced with some real issues in both Don's and Rosie's lives that need to be sorted out first. It was a pleasant and fun read, with solid real life behind it. A nice reprieve from super-serious depressing novels that often eschew fun for fear it will dumb down the book or trivialize the important topics. When handled deftly, humor can enhance serious topics. And Mr. Simsion does that perfectly.

I bought this book at Barnes & Noble.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Rosie Project

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading.

Grab your current read. Open to a random page. Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion p. 31

"With the arrival of Late Woman, the waiter appeared with menus. Olivia scanned her, then asked, 'The pumpkin soup, is it made with vegetable stock?'"

These two women have each committed mortal sins in Don's eyes, the first by being late, and the second by being vegetarian. Off the list! No wives for you.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Book review: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

I adored Elizabeth Strout's previous novel/short story collection, Olive Kitteridge, so I was very excited to read this... except then I didn't read it right away. The reviews I read were good but not glowing. And while the concept was intriguing, it didn't scream "read me." And I kind of agree with the vibe I was getting: the book was good but not great, and had a lot of unrealized potential.

Jim and Bob Burgess have escaped from Maine to New York City where Jim is a big-time successful lawyer, and Bob works for legal aid. Their sister, Susan, stayed in Maine. She calls in a panic one day when her son is arrested for a hate crime. He rolled a bloody pig's head into a mosque.

Bob's character to me was slippery where sometimes he seemed mentally slow but at other times, quite sharp. Susan didn't seem to have much of a personality, aside from being pathetic and pitiable. Jim was very well-drawn, but also a bit of a caricature. The nephew's changes at the end of the book were a little hard to believe. And I felt that the arrest and court case just didn't have the impact I was expecting. I think the result was actually what would have happened in real life, but that's a let down in a novel. We read novels to experience the horrible things that luckily most often don't happen. We want the extreme highs and extreme lows that life (again, luckily) rarely gives us. So that seemed like potential, missed.

So this book was a mild disappointment, but even a modest book from a great writer is not a bad thing. And I think my expectations may have been too high. I'm not sure any book would have satisfied me after Olive. She would have eaten all of these Burgess siblings alive. I wish she'd shown up to shake things up.

I bought this book at Barnes & Noble.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is now hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books completed last week:
Diamond in the Rough: A Memoir by Shawn Colvin
Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John W.S. Bradshaw

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Up next:
The Unexpected Waltz by Kim Wright
Steering Toward Normal by Rebecca Petruck
Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport by Matthew Algeo