Friday, July 31, 2015

Book Review: Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer's Search for Wonder in the Natural World by Leigh Ann Henion

Last week I was not feeling great. Not sick, but I had lost motivation and was having a hard time just getting through the things I needed to do. I was supposed to read a depressing WWII book for my book club. Instead, I needed a pick-me-up. I remembered meeting Leigh Ann Henion at an author event in the spring. I am almost never influenced by authors to buy their books. My books are very carefully selected after I've read multiple reviews. But Ms. Henion was effervescent. Her enthusiasm and glee with the world was infectious, but not silly. There was real substance behind her joy. That was just what I needed in my life just then.

In this book, Leigh Ann travels around the world to experience natural phenomena--the migration of Monarch butterflies in Mexico, volcanoes in Hawaii, the Northern Lights in Scandinavia, an eclipse in Australia, among others. While experiencing these unique and stunning events, she has been dealing with a difficult adjustment to becoming a mother at home, juggling her marriage and work as well. Taking the time to go see the nightly lightning storms in Venezuala and the bioluminescent coves in Costa Rica, she learns she needs to give herself time to just be, to find herself and her place in her world again, and that she actually is a better mother if she sometimes gets away. Spiritual but not religious, Leigh Ann is also experiencing the utter astonishment of these once-in-a-lifetime types of events and finding comfort and awe in the natural world. She also meets interesting and inspirational people along the way, such as the former Kilimanjaro porter in Africa who thinks his life is normal and boring, and yet doesn't see the astonishment in the fact that he's summited Kilimanjaro dozens of times. They show her how to look to her own life for the phenomenal in the everyday.

The book is well-written, smoothly transitioning from her life in the mountains of North Carolina with her family, and the sometimes bizarre and always fascinating phenomenal events that take her to all the corners of the globe. Every single event in this book is now added to my own bucket list.

I bought this book at Park Road Books at a WNBA event with Leigh Ann Henion and other authors.

Book Beginnings: Phenomenal

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.

Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer's Search for Wonder in the Natural World by Leigh Ann Henion

"A report came over the radio in Swahili: Someone had spotted a cheetah and her cubs."

Leigh Ann is in the Serengeti to see The Great Migration. her driver asks if she wants to go see the cheetahs. Duh!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Judge a Person by Her Bookshelves

Of course I judge people by their bookshelves. When I come into someone's home, I gravitate towards them like a moth to flame. I strain my eyes to see what books complete strangers are reading on the plane, on the subway, at the pool. If a friend raves or rants about a book on Facebook, it could completely change my opinion of her. I almost broke up with a boyfriend because his favorite book of all time was Catcher in the Rye (and he was almost thirty) but the other books on his bookshelves gave him a second chance. I think these judgments are fair game and I am pretty confidant about them.

However, the reverse doesn't work well for me. Friends or family will come over to my house, they'll peruse my bookshelves, and they'll say, "Oh, what did you think of The Nightingale? Isn't it wonderful?" and I'll say, "I don't know. I haven't read it yet. I've heard good things, though." And then they might follow it with, "Oh, but you must have loved Summer Secrets! I adore Jane Green," And I'll have to answer, "I've liked some of her books too, but I haven't read that one yet." You see, all the books in my bookcases are books I haven't read. So it's not really fair to use them to make a judgment of me because I don't know yet whether or not I like them. You can judge me based on what books I want to read, but that's different than judging based on books I've read and loved and collected.

In my defense, I have a lot of books. I've worked in the book industry for more than twenty years, so I have friends who send me books, I'm on a couple of publishers' lists, I have maxed out my reserve list at the library, and I do buy well more than my fair share of books at bookstores. I have currently more than four hundred books in my house that I haven't read yet. If I were to keep all the books I read, on top of the books I haven't yet gotten to, I fear I would die, crushed to death in an avalanche of my own creation (or if I slowly starved with my two broken legs, at least I could read a few more books before I died.)

Yes, I do have a handful of books I hang on to. There's a skinny bookcase tucked away in a corner with classics and some antique editions and other nice, gift-book editions of favorites. Upstairs in my bedroom, I have a shelf of old beloveds, and another shelf of loved children's books. And in my office, a shelf of the books I acquired when I was an editor at St. Martin's Press. But for the majority of books, I want them to go on to a good home. I want to spread the wealth, to encourage more reading. And I need to clear some space on my shelves so I can buy more books!

Book review: The Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly

Every once in a while, even the most literary among us, must cleanse our palates. And for me, Michael Connelly's Mickey Haller books are the perfect sorbet. I was glad at the end of the book that he bought two more used 2011 Lincolns, because what's the Lincoln Lawyer to do when his vehicle of choice has been put out of production? Become the Lexus Lawyer? Yeegads. Well, that's Mr. Connelly's problem to solve.

In this book, we finally have the conclusion of a small side story that's appeared (if I remember correctly) in all the previous Mickey Haller books, that of the prostitute Gloria, who Mickey was trying to help leave the life. He thought she'd moved to Hawaii and started over. But it seems as if she returned to L.A. and went back to the business. Sad story, but it gets worse. Because Mickey's latest client is accused of Gloria's murder.

Like all the books, there's a great deal of lawyering going on, a lot of behind-the-scenes action explaining all the research and strategies that go into preparing for a capitol case, and also giving a realistic view of the timeline, and the toll the lengthy process takes on the accused. Despite all the legal thrillers I've read and the legal TV shows I've watched I'm still learning new things, such as that for a motion or a objection, the judge is more likely to rule in favor of the defense, who will be likely looking for things to appeal, then for the prosecution, which does not have an appeal. I never knew that. Now I can watch my reruns of Law & Order with greater understanding.

I love the puzzle these cases represent and how figuring them out is usually a long process of applying logic repeatedly. That greatly appeals to my logical and puzzle-solving mind. As usual, it does bog down a little in the middle, but I do think that's partly to give readers a taste of what it must be like to live through a case that can take months, if not years to resolve, and I appreciate the verisimilitude, although I understand why others might want the book to careen at a breakneck speed from beginning to end. But for me, these books are just terrific summer candy. I can't wait for the next one.

I checked this book out of the library.

“Waiting On” Wednesday: South Toward Home

“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:

South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature by Margaret Eby

Synopsis from Goodreads:

A literary travelogue that ventures deep into the heart of classic Southern literature.

As the writer Elif Batuman did for Russian literature in The Possessed, Margaret Eby does for Southern literature in this charming book of literary exploration. From Mississippi (William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, Barry Hannah) to Alabama (Harper Lee, Truman Capote) to Georgia (Flannery O’Connor, Harry Crews) and beyond, Eby—herself a Southerner—travels through the Deep South to the places that famous Southern authors lived in and wrote about. South Toward Home reveals how they took these places and the lives of their inhabitants and transmuted them into lasting literature. Whether meeting the man in charge of feeding Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks in Milledgeville, peering into Faulkner’s liquor cabinet, or seeking out John Kennedy Toole’s iconic hot dog vendors in New Orleans, Eby combines biographical detail with expert criticism to deliver a rich and evocative tribute to the literary South.

Publishing September 8, 2015 by W. W. Norton & Company.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Book Review: Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule by Jennifer Chiaverini

I was shocked when I first heard the premise of this story--Mrs. Ulysses Grant owned a slave? And brought her with her to the battfield on the Union side during the Civil War? Huh? I had to read this.

Mrs. Grant is Julia, who grew up outside of St. Louis, on a plantation. Missouri, although it did not join the Confederacy, was a slave state (you might remember The Missouri Compromise from American History class.) And her personal slave, Jule, remained her personal slave, even after her marriage, despite Ulysses being an abolitionist (technically, her father had given her Jule, but not signed over the paperwork, so while she could have talked with her father, she did not herself have the legal standing to free Jule, had she wanted to. Or at least that's according to the novel.) Jule often stayed back at Julia's father's house though (which she preferred, as she was married to another of his slaves) and Julia's in-laws did not appreciate her bringing a slave to Ohio anyway.

This novel tells the whole of Julia Grant's life, from about age 16 when she meets Ulysses, a young officer stationed nearby, through their rough early married years when they were so poor that Ulysses was selling firewood on street corners, through the war, his presidency, and beyond, although the bulk of the book is the first 20 years or so of their marriage, through the war. After that the passage of time speeds up and we zip through the presidency quickly and the years afterward even faster.

I had expected Julia and Jule to have a great relationship that would be the heart of the book, but that was not the case. They were friends as small children, but not after that. It wasn't antagonistic, but Jule was always aware that she was a slave and that it was ironic that Julia wouldn't even make the argument to free her, despite Ulysses's well-known feelings on the subject. Julia never even seemed to see the irony. And for a good half of the book, Julia and Jule aren't together at all and have no relationship. So the book wasn't quite what I felt it had been set up to be. And while it was well-researched, it was perhaps over-researched. It largely felt like a fictionalized biography of Mrs. Grant. Now that's all well and good and I likely would have read a book described that way, but that was more staid and stiff than what I was expecting. I also wish, as I do with most historical novels I read, that there was a longer author's note explaining what is and isn't fact at the end. It has though inspired me to move up on my TBR list by quite a bit, Grant by Jean Edward Smith.

The publisher sent me a copy of this book.

Teaser Tuesdays: Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by A Daily Rhythm.

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 and author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule by Jennifer Chiaverini p. 48

"In mid-October, with the end of Ulys's furlough approaching, he and Julia bade farewell to his family and returned to St. Louis. The journey home should have been as delightful as their first excursion upon the rivers, but with each passing day Julia felt more sharply the pain of impending loss."

This was in 1848. not during the Civil War. But their long separations during the early years of their marriage convinced the Grants that they didn't like to be apart, and they rarely were for long after that. Even during the war, Julia often wasn't far away and would visit between battles.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review: I Regret Nothing: A Memoir by Jen Lancaster

I got on the Jen Lancaster wagon a little late--which meant when I did I was lucky enough to have a backlog of several memoirs to read. Then I got bogged down and I did recently buy but haven't yet read her last one, The Tao of Martha, when the newest one, which I had on hold at the library, came in! So out of order, oops. But I don't think I missed much, except for the death of her beloved dog, Maisie.

In this book Jen does something she has set out to do several times in the past, and I think for the very first time she truly is successful: improve herself. While she had a book about losing weight, she really kind of didn't. And she had a book about trying to be more cultured, where she did go to more museums and plays but essentially remained the same. In this book she seems to have a bit of a revelation. She comes to realize that she shouldn't necessarily aim to "lose weight" but to be healthier. And she shouldn't try to "learn a foreign language" just to seem smart, but so she can travel (and she should also travel more.) She starts to appreciate life improvements for the improvements that they truly are, rather than the appearance of improvement they might give. She looks at her friends, and sees that some of them really seem happy (or at least happier than her) and instead of trying to copy what they're doing, she tries to emulate their outlooks on life and their big-picture goals. This seems to work so much better!

Don't get me wrong. I love bitter and angry Jen. And obviously in her first book she got her finances in order in a big way which was a huge accomplishment. But in this book she really seems to be growing and I want to give her a lot of credit. She travels to Italy. She meets with both a therapist and a nutritionist about her food issues instead of trying to diet. She finds a new hobby that can be a second income for her and Fletch (and that involves him as well). She's still very sarcastic and hasn't lost her edge, but she's not so angry all the time which is refreshing and makes me think that she's a little happier, which makes me happy. If you like Jen, you'll love her latest. If you haven't read her before, I'd start at the beginning with Bitter is the New Black, but if you pick up this one first, you'll still really enjoy.

I checked this book out of the library.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Book review: The Bullet by Mary Louise Kelly

Summer is the perfect time of year to read thrillers. They're distracting, but not so much that you need to give it your full attention. This book has the bonus of a terrific premise. I heard the author on the radio talk about how she really did meet a woman who went in for an X-ray and the technician asked her, "How did you get that bullet in your neck?" and she honestly had no idea how. The author didn't ever find out how the original woman got the bullet, but she went off with her own creativity and made up an interesting story to explain it.

Caroline is a French professor at Georgetown with carpal tunnel, and when she gets an MRI, the technician asks her the above question, which shocks her. She has a bullet? In her neck? How did it get there? When? Why doesn't she remember anything or know about it? Of course she goes to her parents, and she finds out a story that happened when she was a small child that is shocking and frightening.

I don't want to give away too much but suffice it to say that this book was thrilling, exciting, and page-turning. I read the book all in one day. It had a couple of good twists I didn't see coming but didn't feel like they were blindsiding me. I liked that it was mostly set in D.C. and partly in Atlanta--that was a nice change of pace. It was a fun and a great beach read.

I checked this book out of the library.

Book Beginnings: Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule

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.

Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule by Jennifer Chiaverini

"The slaves froze when they heard the old master shouting from the big house, conversations cut off in midsentence, hands grasping spoons hovering between bowls and hungry mouths."

I get that this sentence is trying to set up for readers how every minute of life is difficult for slaves, but for the whole book, Julia (the daughter of "the old master") talks about how well they treat their slaves. So which is it? Are they all terrified by the sound of his voice--which implies that there are severe consequences of his anger--or are they treated nicely? The author never clears up this discrepancy. I think she wrote this scene just for setting the atmosphere, but it's also hard to believe that slave owners were really nice to their slaves, even if they were well-intentioned. It would have been nice to have more detail on that issue.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Book Review: Going Away Shoes by Jill McCorkle

While short story collections aren't my thing, Jill McCorkle is, and I was thinking it was kind of crazy that there are books, in my house, by one of my all-time favorite authors, which I haven't read. So I decided to tackle it.

Now, because short stories aren't my thing, they take me forever to read. I don't think you should read a collection just one after the other after the other, unless the book is actually a collection of short stories that make up a novel (like The Joy Luck Club or Olive Kitteridge.) So never more than one a night. And so that means I've always got another book going at the same time, and sometimes that book takes precedence. Therefore I make a point of being sure to read a story between books, as a sort of palate cleanser. But if I only read a story between books, it takes forever (3 months) to read a collection. And by the time I get to the end, I don't remember the beginning stories so clearly. Starting to see why I don't like short story collections? Oh, also, I feel like just as I'm getting to know the characters, boom, it's over. But this is all just me and my short story aversion. If you like short stories, you should read this book right away.

Now some of the stories I found most affecting were towards the end. Is that because I just don't remember the beginning ones so much? Can't say. But "Magic Words" and "Driving to the Moon" were two that I definitely wished were book-length. A couple of the stories tend towards the sad like "Intervension" and "Another Dimension" but the majority of them have at least a little of Ms. McCorkle's trademark humor. But she doesn't use the humor just as levity--it usually serves to highlight the darkness underneath or to show how some people get through difficult situations. Sure, there are a couple that tend more to the silly, like "PS" but for the most part, Ms. McCorkle's tone reminds me of the line from Steel Magnolias about how the best emotion is laughter through tears. (That's also appropriate as they share a Southern theme, too.) Superficially, these stories often appear simply and fun, but they deal with loss, death, divorce, loneliness, denial, and many other dark places. But Ms. McCorkle doesn't dwell in the dark, which I very much appreciate. Most of her characters pick themselves up and move on, often by making a little joke.

There's a lot of substance in these stories which are easy to read and digest. I wish I loved short stories. But for someone who doesn't, Jill McCorkle is still a masterful short story writer.

I've owned this book for many years. I don't remember where I got it, but I suspect I bought it.

“Waiting On”: Kitchens of the Great Midwest

“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:

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Synopsis from Goodreads:
Kitchens of the Great Midwest, about a young woman with a once-in-a-generation palate who becomes the iconic chef behind the country’s most coveted dinner reservation, is the summer’s most hotly-anticipated debut.

When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva’s journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that’s a testament to her spirit and resilience.

Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal’s startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity. By turns quirky, hilarious, and vividly sensory, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an unexpected mother-daughter story about the bittersweet nature of life—its missed opportunities and its joyful surprises. It marks the entry of a brilliant new talent.

Publishing July 28, 2015 by Pamela Dorman Books.

Book review: Nothing to Do But Stay by Carrie Young

A friend told me a few months back that if I liked Laura Ingalls Wilder (and do I ever!) then I really ought to read this book, which is the author's memoir mostly about her mother, who was a homesteader in North Dakota in 1905.

The book is divided into sections, and each section is basically a stand-alone essay. So there's one section all about Norwegian-North Dakotan hospitality and foods, one about her Uncle Ole, but my favorite was the first and longest section, about her mother deciding to take a homestead, marrying in her mid-30s and promptly having 6 children, and as one of those children, what the author's life was like growing up during the Depression, even having to spend winters sleeping in the one-room schoolhouse where her sister taught because the weather was too severe for their father to drive them to and from, even on the weekends. The siblings each paid for each others' education which was really great, although I was sad when the oldest sibling who did end up getting the most education (after getting her bachelor's in education she went back to school for a nursing degree in WWII), ended up getting married and quitting work to stay at home. The author seemed disappointed about that as well, which was a refreshing perspective during a fairly traditional time.

Their time on the prairie, while at times not easy, was never terrible. They made it through the Depression, rarely got in debt, supported each other, and had a great extended community of Norwegian-Americans (and the occasional Swede). It's a nice and light book, not telling dark tales of a rough time in our history. If you're looking for a memoir with a through-thread of narrative, this will disappoint, so be prepared for that. But it's a great slice of life from a time and place we don't know much about in our nation's past.

I checked this book out of the library.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Teaser Tuesdays: The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by A Daily Rhythm.

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 and author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly: A Physician's First Year by Matt McCarthy p. 36

"I spent the next few hours peering over Baio's shoulder as he put out one fire after another. It was like being in the front row of a small concert, mesmerized by an undiscovered band on the cusp of stardom, thinking, Why didn't I ever learn to play the guitar?"

Matt's first rotation as an intern is working with a doctor who bore an uncanny resemblance to Scott Baio from his Charles in Charge days, and the same unflappable confidence in the face of a crisis (although much different crises working with heart patients, than babysitting a trio of teenagers.)

Book Review: The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly: A Physician's First Year by Matt McCarthy

Matt McCarthy is so endearing. He's a brand-spanking-new doctor and he doesn't know a darn thing and isn't afraid to tell us. This book mostly covers his first year as an intern at Columbia University Hospital. He went to Harvard for med school (although apparently they don't teach much medicine which is disturbing. Harvard grads are well-known for having no grasp of physiognomy, only dissecting one upper or lower extremity.) And then, in the grand tradition of American medical training, he is thrown into the very deep end. He starts at the cardiac care unit (CCU) with a great resident who he calls Baio for his resemblance to Scott Baio. He screws up a diagnosis his first night which haunts him for many months until he comes clean. He also meets Benny who lives in the CCU, waiting on a heart.

Each month Matt gets a new department and a new resident teaching him, some good some not. Each month he feels newly overwhelmed with the masses of information and skills he lacks. The low point is when he sticks himself with a needle after drawing blood on an HIV patient. With drug-resistant HIV no less, and Hep C. Although, the months of taking a giant drug cocktail daily does help him connect with an HIV-positive patient later, and get her to agree to take one drug (which is not what she needs but is better than the none she was taking.) It's slow, but Matt does improve with his abilities and his knowledge, and by the end of the first year, somehow, without us or even him consciously realizing it, he has become a competent (if still very young and inexperienced) doctor, able to run a code by himself.

I loved Matt's brutal honesty. He mopes, he second-guesses, he feels guilty, he worries about himself and others, he wants desperately to help but doesn't know how, and his eager earnestness in trying to improve was what drew me along, despite his errors and ineptness and bungles along the way. He manages to never forget about the patients, to try to connect with them above all else, and he works like a dog to get everything right. It is more than a little disturbing to realize how clueless the person helping you at a teaching hospital just might be (although I've always known that in theory, having grown up at a university, and loving TV shows like ER and Gray's Anatomy.) It's refreshing to hear from a doctor who couldn't be further from the stereotype of an arrogant type-A personality (Matt actually was drafted and played minor-league baseball for a year as a lefty pitcher, so he really isn't from a stereotypical background at all.) And it is a nice reminder that once, we were all bumbling about with little knowledge in our field. The learning curve may be steep but most of us make it up, and even the most knowledgeable once were students too.

The publisher sent me a copy of this ARC.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Book review: How About Never--Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons by Bob Mankoff

It was so hard to actually read this book and not flip through it and just read all the cartoons first! That was of course my introduction to The New Yorker. As a kid, my parents' subscription seemed so dense and difficult I never tried reading any of it... except for the cartoons. Although, to be honest, I'm not sure that I understood even half of them. Later, as an adult living in New York with my own subscription, I did get 99% of the cartoons, and although I read the magazine cover to cover (except for the short story and the poem), the cartoons remained the best part.

So it was fascinating to find out what happens behind the scenes. How different editors over the years have affected the style and type of cartoons featured. How the cartoon marketplace has changed how the cartoon editor mentors young cartoonists. How no one understands how the cartoonists are paid. And Mankoff goes back also to his own childhood to tell of how he got started in cartooning.

This isn't a traditional memoir--you don't find out about his first two marriage except in a throwaway line regarding his third marriage. There isn't a lot of insight or deep thinking about his past. It's fairly strictly about cartooning, all the way. We might not even have heard about the third marriage except that wife helped to found and run The Cartoon Bank, Mankoff's brain-child website devoted to selling cartoonists' other (read: rejected) works so they can more easily make a living (since acquired by The New Yorker and Conde Nast and now also featuring New Yorker cartoons and their other magazines.)

I loved how he used cartoons throughout to illustrate points and to explain who different people in the business are and to show the evolution of The New Yorker cartoons (and this is particular to The New Yorker cartoons, not cartooning in general.) Suffice it to say that if you are a fan of these, you'll love the book, which is an easy read.

I checked this book out of the library.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Book review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

I guess I have a little morbid streak. I have a category on Goodreads titled "death." And so yes, this is the kind of book that totally appeals to me. While I am squeamish in real-life situations that would involve anything even half as gross as what Caitlin encounters, in books I am instead fascinated.

Caitlin grew up on Hawaii but moves to California after college to pursue work in the funeral industry. It's surprisingly hard to get a job, even in an economic downturn, but she does finally get hired at Westwind Crematory in San Francisco. And she had expected, she loves the work. Parts of it are very hard at first, particularly as her boss's training method is just to tell her to do things and not train her, but luckily others at the crematory are more helpful, particularly the driver who teaches her how to be appropriate when doing body removals. (You don't want to smile like you're happy about it, and you don't want to look dour or depressed. It's a fine line.) Eventually Caitlin quits the crematory to move to Los Angeles and go to mortuary school. She doesn't like that very much, especially learning how to embalm, as she's more of an all-natural girl, but she does end up at a mortuary, doing what she loves--helping people find peace and helping the dead rest in accordance with their wishes. She's quirky and different, but she's not a death-obsessed goth girl. She's respectful and just trying to do her best and help.

I learned a ton of fascinating new facts including that your family can witness your cremation, even pushing the button, and that can bring great closure. She sometimes goes off on tangents, although they are well-researched, and it can at times veer from a memoir to more of a diatribe about modern death and funeral conventions and their negative impacts. But she always brings it back before getting up on too much of a soapbox. It was an easy read, relatively short, and very intriguing for anyone interested in the mortuary world.

I checked this book out of the library.

Book Beginnings: The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly

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.

The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly: A Physician's First Year by Matt McCarthy

"It started with a banana peel."

On Matt's first day in a hospital in medical school, his surgical resident made him suture a banana peel. It took him most of a week to figure out how to do it properly. I'm not sure if this made him a better doctor. I think the resident was just being a jerk.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Book review: Younger by Pamela Redmond Satran

Yes, I read this book because of the TV show based on it. It's changed a bit (not to mention it's ten years old) but it was still thoroughly enjoyable.

Alice's husband left last year. Then her daughter announced she was leaving college to go to Africa with the Peace Corps. Alice, a 44-year-old housewife in New Jersey is bereft, alone, and hasn't had a job since she was 22 and had had to quit when her pregnancy developed complications. On New Years Eve she visits her best friend, Maggie, in Manhattan, and lets Maggie do a bit of a makeover on her. Alice is shocked to find that after a year of depression when she did nothing but garden and work out, she is svelte again, and in fact looks like she's in her (late) twenties. At Maggie's urging, she reapplies to all the publishers who rejected her a year earlier, when she was middle-aged and looking for entry-level work. As a twenty-something, Alice gets hired to work as the assistant to a very difficult Marketing Manager at the same publisher she'd worked at twenty years earlier. The Marketing Manager is awful, and she's also younger than Alice really is, and juggling a powerful, demanding job and three kids. Alice wonders if she made the right decisions, opting our of the rat race in order to try to have a large, happy family.

Meanwhile she's met a guy at a bar, Josh, who seems very cool even though he's too young for her in reality, and she's befriended an editor at work, Lindsay, who is dating one of the publishers on the sly, an awful guy. She moves in with Maggie, an artist in a loft in the East Village, who finally decides it's time for her to have a child. Alice finds parts of being a 20-something freeing, and she finds part of it revelatory. While there's no magic involved, she does wonder if she'd make the same decisions again, if she could do everything over. What was the right thing to do? And can she get a do-over?

The book had some deeper themes for a lightweight chick lit novel. But they were appropriately treated with a fairly light hand, and didn't weigh the book down. But it wasn't a completely fluffy and silly book. The book had even less about the publishing industry than the TV show, as it was just a place where she worked for the most part. I really enjoyed it. It was refreshingly different for a book in this genre, yet that doesn't mean it was trying too hard. As for people who think it's too far-fetched, I look very young myself and think I could pass with different hair and wardrobe, and I also understand why she isn't getting hired at her age with barely 6 months' experience, 20+ years ago. It's not that she's not qualified (although I would wonder if her computing skills were up to par), it's that she's unlikely to be happy in such a low-level, demeaning position as an assistant usually is. Heck, I had nearly aged out of the editorial-assistant position when I got mine at 26 and it was hard for me to kowtow to full editors who were the same age as me. This book was a fun, easy read for a summer afternoon.

I checked this book out of the library.

“Waiting On”: Circling the Sun

“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:

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Synopsis from Goodreads:
Paula McLain, author of the phenomenal New York Times bestseller The Paris Wife, takes readers into the glamorous and decadent circle of British expats living in Kenya in the 1920s. Circling the Sun tells the story of the beautiful young horse trainer, adventurer, and aviator Beryl Markham, from her childhood in British East Africa to her relationship with hunter Denys Finch Hatton and rivalry with Out of Africa author Karen Blixen—a notorious love triangle that changed the course of Beryl’s life.

Publishing July 28, 2015 by Ballantine Books.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Book Review: Dietland by Sarai Walker

Wow, is this book refreshingly different! I had heard some of the plot, but I still wasn't quite prepared for it. Partly I think the cover and the beginning of the book make you think "chick lit," even if you hear it's subverting that genre. But that's perfect. It's the most subversive for you to first be immersed in exactly the tone and subject that is then turned on its head.

Plum is very overweight, which is unusual in New York (you have to walk everywhere). For her job she answers emails from readers to the editor of a prestigious teen fashion magazine (think Glamour). She thought they were being nice when they suggested she work from home, not that they didn't want someone her size in their office! One day, while working at a local cafe, she notices a young woman who she's noticed a few times recently--is she being followed? And then someone leaves her a book--an expose of the diet program she was a member of in her late teen years written by the daughter of the founder. And then Plum meets a couple of women who want to help her. No, they don't exactly want to help her have the bariatric surgery she has scheduled, although if that's what Plum still wants after she listens to them, they will pay for it. But they want her to listen to them and what they have to offer. And what they offer is something rare and precious in this day and age: acceptance.

Meanwhile, someone (or someones) calling herself "Jennifer" has begun kidnapping and blackmailing people around the world so that now England's tabloids run pictures of naked men instead of topless women, imams suggest men blind themselves instead of women covering themselves, and the world's most famous porn star is publicly murdered. How are these events tied in? The stalker woman has disappeared--is she Jennifer? Are there many Jennifers?

A highly subversive farce, Dietland is a funny but deeply important book that all women (that's right I said ALL) should read. It will make you think deeply about your own body issues, about how you have dealt with them over the years, about the media's body shaming and slut shaming, and it will not leave you quickly. It's brilliant in how it takes chick lit tropes and dumps them on their head. It isn't a perfect book (no farce ever really can be as the balancing act between story and message is so tricky, they both are so heavy), but it will keep you reading and rooting for Plum (and honestly I was rooting for Jennifer, too! While murder and vigilante justice are normally a bridge too far for me, there's certainly satisfaction in seeing rapists who've gotten away with their crimes, finally treated to their just desserts.)

A friend at the publisher got me a copy of this book.

Teaser Tuesdays: Dietland

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by A Daily Rhythm.

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 and author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Dietland by Sarai Walker p. 43

"Summer vacation was approaching and then my senior year, at the end of which I would go to college in Vermont. Thanks to the Baptists Plan I would be thin when I arrived at college."

I wonder how many girls think that's the key--to be thin when you make a major transition and then all your problems will be solved. I'll bet it rarely works. And I must say, thank goodness The Baptist Plan doesn't really exist as a diet. It sounds kind of evil (although yes, other very similar plans do.)

Friday, July 10, 2015

Book Beginnings: Dietland

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.

Dietland by Sarai Walker

"It was late in the spring when I noticed that a girl was following me, nearly the end of May, a month that means perhaps or might be."

This girl eventually leads our protagonist, Plum, to a group of women who will make her question everything about her life and her decisions, and who see what Plum might be.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

“Waiting On” Wednesday: Bennington Girls Are Easy

“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:

Bennington Girls Are Easy: A Novel by Charlotte Silver

Synopsis from Goodreads:
Charlotte Silver dazzles with a ruefully funny coming-of-age novel that follows two recent Bennington grads who are determined to make it in the Big Apple.

Bennington College, founded in 1932 as a suitable refuge for the wayward daughters of good families, maintains its saucy reputation for attracting free spirits. There, acres outnumber students, the faculty is composed of fading hippie and clothing is largely optional. Or, as J. D. Salinger put it in Franny and Zooey: a Bennington-type “looked like she’d spent the whole train ride in the john, sculpting or painting or something, or as though she had a leotard on under her dress.”

Cassandra Puffin and Sylvie Furst met in high school but cement what they ardently believe will be everlasting friendship on Bennington’s idyllic Vermont campus. Graduation sees Sylvie moving to New York City, where, later on their twenties, Cassandra joins her. These early, delirious years are spent decorating their Fort Greene apartment with flea market gems, dating “artists”, and trying to figure out what they’re doing with their lives.

The girls are acutely and caustically observant of the unique rhythms of the city but tone deaf to their own imperfections, which eventually drives a wedge between them. Equal parts heartfelt and hilarious, Bennington Girls Are Easy is a novel about female friendships—how with one word from a confidante can lift you up or tear you down—and how difficult it is to balance someone else’s devastatingly funny lapses in judgment with your own professional and personal missteps.

Publishing July 14, 2015 by Doubleday.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Teaser Tuesdays: The Promise

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by A Daily Rhythm.

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 and author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

The Promise: A Novel by Ann Weisgarber p. 61

"Hours later, at the hotel, it went much as I had imagined: the speculating glances from the desk clerk, the sinking into the bathtub, my wobbling knees, and Oscar's expectations. What I had not imagined was me."

Catherine has just married a man she barely knows. Of course the first night will be fraught.

Book Review: The Promise: A Novel by Ann Weisgarber

This book starts off slow, as Catherine, a pianist in Dayton, OH, is involved in a scandal and ostracized by society in 1900. Unable to support herself and without support from her family she soon finds herself in dire straits. As she ponders her options, she thinks back to a boy who really liked her back in high school, who seemed steady and kind and who appreciated her for who she was. He moved to Texas and she writes him there. As she counts her pennies to see when she will be forced to leave her hotel, she hears back from him that his wife recently died leaving him and their young son alone on a milk farm in Galveston. Quickly he proposes and she accepts.

In Galveston she finds herself once again on the outside of society, but it is understandable this time, as she is not of farming class and is from the other side of the country; it is not because she has done something bad. She is awkward with Oscar and his son Andre, and completely flummoxed by their determined and jealous servant, Nan (who is secretly in love with Oscar.) Just as things start to smooth out, a storm kicks up. The kind of storm that only hits once in a hundred years...

Hopefully you've heard of the hurricane that nearly wiped out Galveston Island. To this day no one know how many people were killed, but Galveston was the largest city in Texas at that time, and it never was again (official estimates range from 6000 to 12,000 deaths). The story has been told before, but from the town--not from down island where the farmers were. The author has a vacation home on Galveston and immersed herself in the history of the area. Her research shows as the book's historical details ring true. While the book starts off slow, it is a quiet building tension that culminates in the stunning catastrophe that threatens Catherine, Oscar, and their friends. This storm would test anyone, and some people have more resources to face tragedy and horror than others.

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

Friday, July 3, 2015

Book Beginnings: The Promise

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.

The Promise: A Novel by Ann Weisgarber

"There wasn't nothing good about funerals."

Well that's blunt but certainly true. Particularly as this funeral is for the narrator's best friend.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Book review: Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own by Kate Bolick

Like most American girls, I assumed when I grew up, I'd get married. Probably right after college. And have a couple of kids and a house but I drew the line at a mini van. But things didn't work out that way and I am so glad they didn't. In fact, for a long time, I had happily resigned myself to the fact that it was looking like I'd be single forever. And while I wasn't thrilled with the idea at first (in fact, in my 20s I'd describe myself as horrified by that idea), by my 30s, it was nice. I bought myself a condo. I decorated everything myself and it was exactly how I liked it. But just when everything was the way I liked it, I met my husband. Even then, I told him we didn't ever have to get married. (He obviously disagreed.)

Kate Bolick struggles with this situation as well. She seems to be more ingrained in the societal pressures, as even when she's extolling the virtues of spinsterhood, she's going from long-term relationship to long-term relationship, without much solo time in between. She eventually sees a pattern in the authors she's drawn to who, if they're not spinsters in the strict, conventional sense of the word, do rock society's definitions, and often are single for long stretches and if they do marry, the marriages tend to be short and bad. Yet, for all her purported longing for their quiet life of the mind, she doesn't make choices that would lead her to that life. She seems to be an extrovert, relying on the approval of others in her life (not that there's anything wrong with that but it explains her serial monogamy and lack of alone-time despite her avowed desire for it.) And she moves through her twenties and thirties, guided by five women authors of a different era, in trying to figure out what she wants from life, from relationships, and what works for her.

I am glad she's worked hard to give the word "spinster" back its dignity, to analyze the benefits of spinsterhood at different periods, both to the women who were the spinsters and to society at large. I wish she'd been able to have a little more personal insight. There's a line in the Prince song "17 Days" where he says, "If you're the one who's always lonely. Then I'm the one who's always alone." When I was single, I loved that line, the difference he made between "lonely" and "alone." Some people, and I suspect Ms. Bolick is among them, think those words mean the same. I don't. I am often alone and rarely lonely.

This book is a great literary analysis of some often overlooked writers, and a worthy discussion of what it means to be single in this day and age. Avowed single ladies might not appreciate all of Ms. Bolick's conclusions, but I greatly appreciate that she's opened up this discussion.

A friend who works at a bookstore sent me an ARC of this book.

Book Review: Not My Father's Son: A Memoir by Alan Cumming

I love Alan Cumming. He always heightens the acting in any play or TV show. He seems so sharp and witty and so I was intrigued when this memoir came out.

Unlike a typical celebrity memoir, Alan doesn't focus on the years of his success and fame. He certainly does mention them, but the book is mostly about his miserable childhood with an abusive father. He does note that he started acting as a way to deal with the abuse--either to try to fool his father, or to fool others who noticed something was wrong. But it's all about his family.

In 2010 he was doing the TV show, Who Do You Think You Are, which was researching his mother's father, a WWII vet who died mysteriously a few years after the war in Malaysia. He got an alarming phone call from his older brother about their father, and a bomb he wanted to drop into Alan's life, in a moment when he was already vulnerable and emotional. Nice guy.

The book jumps back and forth between "Now" and "Then," with the result of his father's bomb getting somewhat dragged out, but not overly so. I loved listening to the audio as occasionally Alan threw in a tone that wouldn't be in the printed book. After years of watching him on The Good Wife, I forgot he was Scottish, so that took a little bit of getting used to. But it was an excellent piece of honest, emotional truth, and I appreciate him letter everyone in. At the end of the book he also discusses how things like abuse isolate people and how one reason he wrote the book is to speak out about it, so victims know they're not alone, and it loses some of its power. That's a terrific thing to do.

I borrowed this audiobook from the library as a download through Overdrive.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

“Waiting On”: Among the Ten Thousand Things

“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:

Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont

Synopsis from Goodreads: 
Jack Shanley is a well-known New York artist, charming and vain, who doesn’t mean to plunge his family into crisis. His wife, Deb, gladly left behind a difficult career as a dancer to raise the two children she adores. In the ensuing years, she has mostly avoided coming face-to-face with the weaknesses of the man she married. But then an anonymously sent package arrives in the mail: a cardboard box containing sheaves of printed emails chronicling Jack’s secret life. The package is addressed to Deb, but it’s delivered into the wrong hands: her children’s.

With this vertiginous opening begins a debut that is by turns funny, wise, and indescribably moving. As the Shanleys spin apart into separate orbits, leaving New York in an attempt to regain their bearings, fifteen-year-old Simon feels the allure of adult freedoms for the first time, while eleven-year-old Kay wanders precariously into a grown-up world she can’t possibly understand. Writing with extraordinary precision, humor, and beauty, Julia Pierpont has crafted a timeless, hugely enjoyable novel about the bonds of family life—their brittleness, and their resilience.

Publishing July 7, 2015 by Random House.