Monday, August 31, 2015

Book review: Yes Please by Amy Poehler

This one you've got to listen to on audio. So much so that I can't imagine that the print book doesn't feel like an afterthought. After all, in the audiobook, you've got Patrick Stewart, Carol Burnett, and Kathleen Turner reading the chapter titles (and Kathleen Stewart voices the evil devil voice inside Amy in one chapter) but you've also got Amy in conversation with Seth Myers from SNL and Michael Schur, the creator of Parks & Recreation. Oh, and Amy's parents. And the last chapter is live at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater which Amy co-founded. This audiobook is great. Not because it's profound or because Amy dishes great gossip, but because US Weekly is right... celebrities are just like us.

One of the awesomest things about Amy Poehler is that you believe you could have gone to school with her or worked with her, and you just know you'd have been friends. She discusses her career in detail, and I loved that she really approached it the way a college graduate would approach any career, with working on her skills, networking, and diligently applying. She didn't expect to be "discovered" or to become famous overnight. She worked her way up, she struggled, and a big way she got to where she is was by saying "yes" a lot. The title supposedly speaks to the first rule of improv, which is that you always say "yes" in any improv situation, but I think it speaks more to her own personal rule of life which is to approach situations with a positive outlook and to try things at least once, even if they could be embarrassing or scary. Sure, she wasn't thrilled with impersonating Hillary Clinton, as she didn't think she did a very good impression, and as she was increasingly more pregnant with each appearance on SNL, so when Ms. Clinton herself appeared on the show, as awkward as it could be, she just dove in.

I often conflate Amy with Leslie Knope in my mind but I am pleased to say I can now separate them and Amy does seem more healthy and balanced. She says no sometimes (to impositions on her personal time), she doesn't go overboard, and she doesn't always do the right thing. (I know, Leslie doesn't either, but in a different way.) I very much appreciated her chapter about the time she needed to apologize for something that happened on SNL, both to a celebrity, and to a complete stranger, and how she agonized over it for years and even though when she finally did it, it was very late, there was still value in it, proving the adage "better late than never."

Amy is so relatable and open and friendly, that you don't mind that you don't get any juicy gossip about the end of her first marriage to Will Arnett. The story about her going into labor right before her last episode of SNL as Hillary Clinton was to go live (and right after--seriously the day after--her ob/gyn died) is pretty excellent. Both an example of what we all hope to avoid, and yet the kind of everyday disasters that happen to all of us, no matter who we are.

I couldn't stop listening to this book. I listened to it morning, noon, and night, and I even weeded my garden (the WHOLE thing!) in order to listen longer. I want Amy to be my friend. Meanwhile, read this book.

I checked the audiobook out of my library, via Overdrive's app.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Book Beginnings: Armada

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.

Armada by Ernest Cline

"I was staring out the classroom window and daydreaming of adventure when I spotted the flying saucer."

How on earth could you not keep reading after that first line? It's got to be one of the greatest first lines I've ever read. And no, he's not seeing things. It really is a flying saucer.

Book Review: Armada by Ernest Cline

I really loved Ernest Cine's previous novel, Ready Player One, so when I heard he had a new one coming out that also looked like accessible sci fi, I jumped on it. I am not normally a sci fi reader but when it is firmly grounded in reality and isn't too far in the future (this is in 2017 so not far at all), it can really work for me, like The Martian did also.

Zack Lightman is staring out of his classroom window one day when he sees a spaceship. And as if that isn't shocking enough, it looks exactly like one of the enemy spaceships from his favorite video game. Stunned, Zack leaves school and goes home, and starts to think about his father's journals, which he read when he was about ten years old, in an effort to get to know better the father who died when he was an infant. At the time he found them confusing, and worried they indicated his father was mentally unstable. But now, things start to make sense. Could his father have been right in his theories about video games, sci fi movies and pop culture, and the possibility of real aliens? Well, Zack thinks, he's seen the spaceship with his own two eyes, so he guesses whether or not there are aliens is no longer a question.

From there the book jumps off into a breakneck thriller (most of the book takes place in just two days) in which Zack will have to do nothing less than save the human race. Some parts may feel a little familiar, but Cline acknowledges this and even has some characters say things like, "Hey, this is just like in Ender's Game." And all the fun pop culture references and rip-offs make perfect sense in this context.

I don't want to give too much away. But it is perfectly accessible for someone who only ever owned an Atari and who never really got past Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. You not only don't have to be a sci fi fanatic to like this book, but I think it's really geared towards those of us who are less immersed in that world. Some of the explanations might be old hat for big sci fi fans. But I hope they'll still enjoy this book. My husband read it immediately after I did and enjoyed it too. And with an 18-year-old protagonist who'd rather play video games than do schoolwork, this book is perfect to suggest to male teen reluctant readers.

I checked this book out of the library.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

“Waiting On” Wednesday: After Alice

“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:

After Alice: A Novel by Gregory Maguire

Synopsis from Goodreads: 
From the multi-million-copy bestselling author of Wicked comes a magical new twist on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lewis’s Carroll’s beloved classic.

When Alice toppled down the rabbit-hole 150 years ago, she found a Wonderland as rife with inconsistent rules and abrasive egos as the world she left behind. But what of that world? How did 1860s Oxford react to Alice’s disappearance?

In this brilliant new work of fiction, Gregory Maguire turns his dazzling imagination to the question of underworlds, undergrounds, underpinnings—and understandings old and new, offering an inventive spin on Carroll’s enduring tale. Ada, a friend of Alice’s mentioned briefly in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is off to visit her friend, but arrives a moment too late—and tumbles down the rabbit hole herself.

Ada brings to Wonderland her own imperfect apprehension of cause and effect as she embarks on an odyssey to find Alice and see her safely home from this surreal world below the world. If Euridyce can ever be returned to the arms of Orpheus, or Lazarus can be raised from the tomb, perhaps Alice can be returned to life. Either way, everything that happens next is “After Alice.”

Publishing October 27, 2015 by William Morrow.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Book Review: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer, read by Mozhan Marno

When I first heard about this book I was very intrigued. The topic was fascinating and I love the author. However, I did pause for a moment to consider if a male author was the right person to write about young women being raped. But only for a minute. I knew Krakauer would research the crap out of the topic and write like a savant, as always, and I also knew that there are some people who would not be willing to truly hear this story, if it came from a woman. For those people, this book is sorely necessary.

Krakauer, like many people, had no idea the real width and breadth of the problem of campus rape. He'd heard stories in the media but had dismissed them as blown out of proportion. Until a family friend was raped at college. And then he heard other stories about women he knew who'd been raped, attacked, and assaulted themselves, and also how many of their friends had been victimized. He thought he'd take a look at the statistics to see if the volume of these stories could be true and he was shocked at the prevalence. He picked the University of Montana in Missoula to focus on, not because the rape culture was so out of control there, but quite the opposite--he picked it because it was so ordinary, and fell smack into the middle of the statistics, if a little on the low side.

At UM, the football team reigns supreme. I understood that at schools like the University of Tennessee or the University of Alabama, which regularly are contenders for the #1 spot, but I did not realize that was true at a school not in a major conference. (My college football team was a joke, and I assumed all non-major-conference schools saw their teams that way.) The years that Krakauer spent in Missoula, looking into the rapes and sexual assaults associated with the school, a rape crisis broke out in the local media that eventually went nationwide, mostly surrounding the football team. And every case Krakauer follows except one brief one, involves the football team, particularly the quarterback Jordan Johnson. While the University of Montana's rape incidence might be average in the United States, hopefully its treatment of these crimes is not so. The prosecuting attorney, Kirsten Pabst, only took to trial less than 10% of the rape cases brought to her by the police, only the ones she was certain she could win. In recorded sessions, she frequently told accused rapists that she believed them and she knew it would ruin their lives if they were prosecuted. She often did not speak to the rape victims (in violation of state law.) I already pretty well hated her when she quit the county attorney's office to join the defense team for Johnson. I still can't fathom how a woman could be so callous and disregarding towards the assault of other women.

Luckily, the Department of Justice decided to look into local practices due to the media outrage. New policies were put into place, including telling the police they must believe the victim unless proven otherwise (I do not have to convince the police that I am not lying when I report a burglary, after all.) And this is doubly good when you learn who ends up being in charge at the end of the book. Shudder.

I am very proud of Allison, one student who was raped by a childhood friend when she was asleep at an off-campus house after a party. She was persistent and calm and eloquent when repeatedly having to relive her rape and the aftermath, even when he inexplicably appealed his sentencing after a plea-bargain (which is not allowed after a plea-bargain but he got to do it anyway.) I wish all young women had the strength to prosecute and see it through. Although after seeing the way they were treated by both the police and the attorneys, it's a lot more understandable to me why some might not be up for it.

The descriptions of the rapes and attacks, which are repeated, are graphic and violent. This book is not for the faint of heart (although it's so important that they should push through and read it anyway.) I found it very interesting that the audiobook was read by a woman. There are a handful of occasions where the author speaks of himself in first person that were a little odd in her voice, but I think that made it more even-handed in some ways. I listened to this book with my husband on a trip and he had no idea of the extent of this problem or the reasons behind the lack of prosecutions, and this was eye-opening for him as well (and lead to some interesting discussions.) I think it's actually more important for men to read this book. And well, for everyone to do so. This has to stop. When I went to college, women were given lectures on how to stay safe. But when will we start teaching our young men not to rape?

We were visiting with my father and step-mother on that trip and the day after we told them we were listening to this book, they shared the news that Vanderbilt University's new football slogan, which I think lasted for less than one day, was: "We Don't Need Your Permission." Last year, members of their football team were investigated for several very bad instances of sexual assault. How in this day and age can a football team be so tone deaf after two of their own members were convicted just a few months ago? It just goes to show how far we have to go in changing the culture that allows this behavior to go on and convinces big, strong young men that they are entitled to whatever they want and aren't responsible for any of their bad actions.

I checked this audiobook out of the library via Overdrive.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Book Review: Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival by Peter Stark

When we think of the settlement of the western U.S., we think of covered wagons and the Oregon Trail. But who found the Oregon Trail? How did the people know where they were going.

I lived in Astoria, NY for five years and whenever I tried to google things, I'd often get results for Astoria, Oregon, which I'd never heard of before. I wondered if they were both named after the same guy, John Jacob Astor, and it turns out they were even though they were on opposite coasts. (It's not in the book but Astoria, NY was named by the neighborhood in hopes that Astor would come out there for vacations, but it didn't work.) But Astoria, Oregon was not only named for Astor, it was sponsored by him and founded by him.

Astor was an immigrant from Germany who built up the largest fur trade empire in the world. The most fertile hunting ground for furs was the Pacific Northwest. But there were no settlements in that region, making it difficult to make much inroads in the region, aside from trading with the local Native American tribes, and even that was precarious and iffy.

With President Jefferson's blessing, Astor decided to fund both an oversea and an overland expedition with the goal of founding a West Coast outpost of Astor's business at the mouth of the Columbia River, which Lewis and Clark had discovered just a few years earlier. It took a couple of years to get the expeditions up and running but off they went, with Captain Thorn in charge of the ship the Tonquin, and Wilson Price Hunt in charge of the overland expedition, trying to find a better route than Lewis and Clark's, one that avoided the Blackfeet territory and that found a better route through the Rockies.

This story used to be widely known in American history but now is pretty much forgotten. It's a riveting and harrowing story of unprepared pioneers who nonetheless managed substantial and impressive feats. A very easy read for a well-researched historical record.

I checked this book out of the library.

Book Beginnings: Astoria

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.

Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival by Peter Stark

"On August 13, 1813, gale winds blew up as John Jacob Astor's ship the Lark sailed in the open Pacific."

The Lark was a fast ship, trying to replenish the Astoria settlement in present-day Oregon, and also communicate with the settlement from Astor, as he hadn't even been able to notify them of the breakout of the War of 1812. This was the very first American settlement on the West Coast.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

“Waiting On”: A Window Opens

“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 Window Opens: A Novel by Elisabeth Egan

Synopsis from Goodreads:

From the beloved books editor at Glamour magazine comes a heartfelt and painfully funny debut about what happens when a wife and mother of three leaps at the chance to fulfill her professional destiny—only to learn every opportunity comes at a price.

In A Window Opens, Elisabeth Egan brings us Alice Pearse, a compulsively honest, longing-to-have-it-all, sandwich generation heroine for our social-media-obsessed, lean in (or opt out) age. Like her fictional forebears Kate Reddy and Bridget Jones, Alice plays many roles (which she never refers to as “wearing many hats” and wishes you wouldn’t, either). She is a mostly-happily married mother of three, an attentive daughter, an ambivalent dog-owner, a part-time editor, a loyal neighbor, and a Zen commuter. She is not: a cook, a craftswoman, a decorator, an active PTA member, a natural caretaker, or the breadwinner. But when her husband makes a radical career change, Alice is ready to lean in—and she knows exactly how lucky she is to land a job at Scroll, a hip young start-up which promises to be the future of reading, with its chain of chic literary lounges and dedication to beloved classics. The Holy Grail of working mothers—an intellectually satisfying job and a happy personal life—seems suddenly within reach. 

Despite the disapproval of her best friend, who owns the local bookstore, Alice is proud of her new “balancing act” (which is more like a three-ring circus) until her dad gets sick, her marriage flounders, her babysitter gets fed up, her kids start to grow up, and her work takes an unexpected turn. Fans of I Don’t Know How She Does It, Where’d You Go Bernadette, and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry will cheer as Alice realizes the question is not whether it’s possible to have it all, but what does she—Alice Pearse—really want?

Publishing August 25, 2015 by Simon & Schuster.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Everyone loves this book. It won the Pulitzer Prize. It was a finalist for the National Book Award. I should have loved it, right? Except that I didn't. The last hundred pages nearly redeemed it though.

Marie-Laure is a young girl, blind, living in Paris with her father, the locksmith for the natural history museum. Werner is a young boy, an orphan, living in Germany at an orphanage with with sister Jutta, obsessively working on radios. In 1944 their paths will cross. But you'll have to get through 500 pages to get there. Granted, they are pages of mostly dialogue and super-short chapters, so despite the length it does read fast. But it should have been a third shorter than it was. I didn't like the occasional chapters from the point of view of characters other than Maire-Laure and Werner (I think if you've set up certain POVs, you need to stick to them.) And I didn't feel that either Marie-Laure or Werner's characters were well-developed. I felt I didn't really know who either of them were. The secondary characters, such as Madame Manoc and Uncle Etienne and Jutta were much more concrete and defined, in my opinion.

Yes, yes, I know, the writing was beautiful. But for me, pretty writing does not make up for a lack of character development and a very slow plot. If I liked to read things just for beautiful language without regard to those other facets, I'd read poetry (which I don't.) The plot picked up significantly towards the end, and the characters started to jell. But it was a little late in my book.

My mother gave me her copy when she finished it.

Book Beginnings: All the Light We Cannot See

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.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

"At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses."

I went with two sentences because the first is so short, and you have no clue what it's referring to. The unnamed thing that is blowing across the rooftops are leaflets being dropped by airplanes telling citizens of a city to leave and go to the countryside, as a bombing is imminent. That seems so civilized!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

“Waiting On” Wednesday: The Oregon Trail

“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:

The Oregon Trail: An American Journey by Rinker Buck

Synopsis from Goodreads:

In the bestselling tradition of Bill Bryson and Tony Horwitz, Rinker Buck's The Oregon Trail is a major work of participatory history: an epic account of traveling the 2,000-mile length of the Oregon Trail the old-fashioned way, in a covered wagon with a team of mules--which hasn't been done in a century--that also tells the rich history of the trail, the people who made the migration, and its significance to the country.

Spanning 2,000 miles and traversing six states from Missouri to the Pacific Ocean, the Oregon Trail is the route that made America. In the fifteen years before the Civil War, when 400,000 pioneers used it to emigrate West--historians still regard this as the largest land migration of all time--the trail united the coasts, doubled the size of the country, and laid the groundwork for the railroads. The trail years also solidified the American character: our plucky determination in the face of adversity, our impetuous cycle of financial bubbles and busts, the fractious clash of ethnic populations competing for the same jobs and space. Today, amazingly, the trail is all but forgotten.

Rinker Buck is no stranger to grand adventures. The New Yorker described his first travel narrative, Flight of Passage, as "a funny, cocky gem of a book," and with The Oregon Trail he seeks to bring the most important road in American history back to life. At once a majestic American journey, a significant work of history, and a personal saga reminiscent of bestsellers by Bill Bryson and Cheryl Strayed, the book tells the story of Buck's 2,000-mile expedition across the plains with tremendous humor and heart. He was accompanied by three cantankerous mules, his boisterous brother, Nick, and an "incurably filthy" Jack Russell terrier named Olive Oyl. Along the way, Buck dodges thunderstorms in Nebraska, chases his runaway mules across miles of Wyoming plains, scouts more than five hundred miles of nearly vanished trail on foot, crosses the Rockies, makes desperate fifty-mile forced marches for water, and repairs so many broken wheels and axles that he nearly reinvents the art of wagon travel itself. Apart from charting his own geographical and emotional adventure, Buck introduces readers to the evangelists, shysters, natives, trailblazers, and everyday dreamers who were among the first of the pioneers to make the journey west. With a rare narrative power, a refreshing candor about his own weakness and mistakes, and an extremely attractive obsession for history and travel, The Oregon Trail draws readers into the journey of a lifetime.

Publishing August 18, 2015 by Simon & Schuster.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Reading Just One Imprint

Last fall, I applied for a job to work at Random House and I was a finalist. Then the decision-making process grew long, and longer and longer. In an effort both to be a better candidate if more interviews became necessary, and also to get a leg up on the position if the job came through, I read solely books from that division of Random House during the waiting process. Which took three months. I never imagined it would take that long (even though hiring processes always take longer than you expect) and while I didn't end up getting the job, the process of reading just one division of one publisher for so long was eye-opening.

I'd never done that before. Even when I worked at St. Martin's Press, a key component of the job of an editor is keeping abreast of what is being successfully published in the marketplace, so you have to keep reading a lot of books from different houses. So this was unique. I also was limited in that I wanted to be reading very recent books, from the current list and only going back at most a year (at best, I even went to my local independent bookstore, explained the situation, and they gave me a few galleys of books that weren't published yet). I felt lucky that the division was Knopf/Doubleday. After all, Knopf is one of the most revered, most respected imprints in all of book publishing. I figured this would be an enjoyable task, even if it was reading a long list of books I most likely wouldn't have otherwise read.

The week before the interview, I didn't even know what division it was, so I just read whatever I could get my hands on the fastest from 2014 from Random House, so at first I read Duel with the Devil by Paul Collins (Crown, paperback 6/14) because I happened to have it at home, and I asked my husband (who was hanging out at a B&N when I got the call) to buy Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris (Crown Archetype, hardcover 10/14). The next day I went to the local independent and I bought The Martian by Andy Weir (Crown, paperback 10/14) and The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore (Knopf, hardcover 10/14). A friend loaned me Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir by Frances Mayes (Crown hardcover 4/2014). Around this time is when I found out what the division was. So all the Crown books I'd been reading, while nice and all, weren't pertinent. Maybe I should have taken it as a sign that when I could choose among all of Random House, I was mostly choosing Crown books. Hindsight!

I shifted gears. I found Long Man by Amy Greene (Knopf hardcover 2/14) on my shelves at home but anything else I had was too old to be of use. I started to reserve a ton of books at the library, and basically whatever was available from the Knopf/Doubleday fall list was what I would be reading next. The first books I got from the library were Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood by Leah Vincent (Knopf/Talese, hardcover 1/14), My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff (Knopf, hardcover 6/14), and Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead (Knopf, hardcover 1/14). Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau, hardcover 10/14) I checked out on audio (I'd heard him do a Fresh Air interview and knew he'd be terrific reading his own book which he was.) I knew that book wasn't in either imprint but I couldn't find any audios of the books I needed and I figured reading a NYT bestselling Random House book wouldn't hurt, and I needed to listen to something.

While these were all books I'd have happily read without my self-assigned restriction, I then started struggling to find more I would like to read (and could easily get at the library). But I found Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher (Doubleday, hardcover 8/14), The Lost Book of Mormon by Avi Steinberg (Knopf/Talese, hardcover 10/14), The Heathen School by John Putnam Demos (Knopf, hardcover 3/14), The Distance by Helen Giltrow (Doubleday, hardcover 9/14), and An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker (Knopf, hardcover 9/14). And other than the Doubleday books, I did see the quality start to suffer. I took a mini break by reading The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg which is a Knopf book but from back in 2008 (which I had long owned so this was an excuse to get around to it). Next I read Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce (Doubleday, hardcover 9/14) and Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte by Carol Berkin (Knopf, hardcover 1/14) which were both meh, and I was starting to dread my assignment. Thankfully, then things started to turn around a little. I enjoyed Police by Jo Nesbø (Knopf, hardcover 10/13) and All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Matt Bai (Knopf, hardcover 9/14) and I loved by Some Luck by Jane Smiley (Knopf, hardcover 10/14) which I never thought I'd get to as I was very far down the reserve list for this title, but books did keep coming in as the waiting got longer. I also had gotten a couple of ARCs from the bookstore for upcoming books and I liked The Job: True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop by Steve Osborne (Doubleday, hardcover 4/15). And I lucked out that the last book I read in this exercise was In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides (Knopf, hardcover 8/14) as that was a really good one.

In the end, I had read 13 Knopf books, 4 Doubleday books, and 5 other Random House titles in three solid months. That's 22 books altogether in prep for this interview and job. I have never been so prepared! Or so immersed in a single division of a publishing house.

What I learned was interesting to me. I no longer put Knopf on a pedestal. They publish duds too, just like everyone. And on the reverse, three of the Doubleday books I really thought were great! I now am more critical of my nonfiction history. They really need to be well-written. And that doesn't mean vomiting up every single scrap of research the author did, nor does it mean pedantic repetition or dry recitation. Make it live. Make it sing. Make me care about these people (or at the very least, able to tell them apart.) I was thrilled to discover a couple of books I never would have read without this task, and really were great: Dear Committee Members and The Distance. I also don't know how many years it would have taken me to get to the Jane Smiley book (and instead, I am reading all three books in this series the minute they are released. Yes, book three is already on hold at the library.)

I do now feel like I can tell a Knopf book just by reading it. In fact, when pulling this list together, I only had to double-check the imprints but I knew which was which, just based on the book. If it's important, literary, or somehow has a deeper theme or import, it's Knopf. Doubleday books are lighter, more fun, and I really found myself looking forward to them. In the past, I'd never given Doubleday a second thought. It seemed like one of dozens of middle-of-the-road indistinguishable imprints that catch a lot of flotsam and randomness. But now, I will actually pay attention to them.

I wouldn't do this again by choice. But it was informative, and I learned a lot about this important division of Random House. And what it's like to have books that I must read for the first time really since school. I didn't especially like that part (book club books don't count as much because I do skip some if I really think I'll hate them) but I managed it. I do wish I'd been able to read more books that I wanted to during those three months, but the benefits were worth it in the end, even without the job. In fact, at the end, looking at how many, many Knopf books I'd have to read if I got the job, I wasn't too bummed to not get it. Bring on more Doubleday (and Crown)! But I'll be picky about my Knopf.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Book Review: Steering Toward Normal by Rebecca Petruck

This book has such an appealing jacket that I bought it even though I was not as bowled over by the premise of a story of two eighth-grade boys on a farm, raising steers in Minnesota. I'm very glad I judged this book by its cover!

Diggy is growing up on a farm with his father, Pop, and he has just bought a new young steer, Joker, which he planned to compete at the county and state fairs through 4-H. One day, a man from town drove onto the farm, and pushed his teenage boy out of his truck with a suitcase. It was Wayne Graf. Mrs. Graf had been Diggy's favorite elementary school teacher but she'd died of cancer the month before. Mr. Graf wasn't coping very well. And he said that Pop was Wayne's real father.

This book takes place over the course of one full year. Throughout, Mr. Graf wavers back and forth about wanting Wayne back, and understanding Wayne was better off, at least in the short term, with Pop. Diggy is furious about Wayne usurping his life (they're even in the same grade at school.) Wayne even wants a steer to compete against Diggy. And then when Wayne starts to pry into the whereabouts of Diggy's mother, who left him on Pop's doorstep when he was a baby and was so desperate to get away, when her car wouldn't start, she drove away on Pop's tractor, becoming the town joke.

Both Diggy and Wayne learn a lot, grow up a lot, and have a rough yet important year together. Meanwhile we readers learn a lot about raising steers, about 4-H clubs, and about some of the benefits of living on a modern farm. Diggy is a compelling lead character at a rough transition in his life, when suddenly faced with watching his new half-brother go through an even rougher transition. He is realistically drawn and easy to empathize with. The juxtaposition of the two missing mothers was a nice touch, showing how different kinds of loss can have different grieving reactions. And the book shows how families don't all look like the conventional stereotype. Sometimes a family is two half brothers and two fathers and two steers. I admit, I got teary at the end, as one pretty much is always guaranteed with any book involving animals. It is an important book, just on the boundary between Middle Grade and Young Adult, showing a different kind of teenage life than most American teenagers learn about, and yet one as normal as the flag and apple pie.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

I bought this book at Bibliofeast from Park Road Books, two years ago.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Book Beginnings: The Remains of the Day

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 Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

"It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days."

This line gives you a good feel for the overly formal, stiff style the narrator, Mr. Stevens, a British butler, uses.

Book Review: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

On the one hand, it's embarrassing it took me so long to read this book. I received this as a college graduation gift from two of my professors. On the other hand, for more than 10 years, it was lost inside a very badly labelled box that otherwise only contained things destined for permanent storage. But once I found it, I still didn't read it. Partly out of guilt. Partly, no one else was reading it anymore so I wasn't reading or hearing great things about it. Partly, it kept getting superseded by newer, hotter books. Thankfully, one of my challenges has "A book at the bottom of your to-read list" as one of the categories. I don't know if this is the book I own that I've not read that is THE oldest, but it's from May 1995, so it's got to be pretty close. And thank god I have that category! This is one of the best books I've read in a long time.

The note in the front from my professor notes I should pay attention to the language, so I made a point from the very beginning to read it slowly. And given the exacting and perfect language, that is the right way to read this novel. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever read a novel where the main character's voice was more particular and strong. No other character in all of literature could read these same sentences and have them ring true. They belong to Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall, and no one else.

The whole book takes place over just a few days. It is after WWII and Lord Darlington has died, and the house has been sold--complete with proper English butler--to an American. The new owner encourages Stevens to take a vacation (while he himself is abroad), even offering to pay his gas for Stevens to get out and see the countryside. Stevens immediately knows what he's going to do. The Hall has been understaffed and after reading a letter from the old housekeeper, Miss Kenton, who has left her husband, he drives off to see her and offer her her old job back. It takes him four days to drive to her, during which he takes in the country and meets locals. It takes a while for the reader to figure out that Stevens isn't an entirely reliable narrator. For example, while he is serving immediately after his father's death (seriously, just a few minutes later), he reports that several guests ask if he is okay, and upon answering that he is fine, one guest notes, but you appear to be crying. And at other times he reports things such as that he happened to be walking by Miss Kenton's room when she opens the door and asks why he is stomping around back and forth in front of her door, giving a very different impression of his actions than he reports.

Stevens is obsessed with dignity, and thinking back on his life, on his father's life (also a butler), on Lord Darlington's mistakes as a German sympathizer in the 1920s and 30s, on his relationship with Miss Kenton, most of the novel is internal, but it flies by (even when reading slowly to savor the language.) It is intense, emotional, heartbreaking, and yes, dignified. I loved this book. The writing is deceptively simple but masterfully crafted, with not a word that isn't needed. I feel I could read it multiple times and get more out of it each time. It is beautiful and stunning. A masterpiece.

I was given this book as a gift.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

“Waiting On”: The Race for Paris

“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:

The Race for Paris by Meg Waite Clayton

Synopsis from Goodreads:
The New York Times bestselling author of The Wednesday Sisters returns with a moving and powerfully dynamic World War II novel about two American journalists and an Englishman, who together race the Allies to Occupied Paris for the scoop of their lives.

Normandy, 1944. To cover the fighting in France, Jane, a reporter for the Nashville Banner, and Liv, an Associated Press photographer, have already had to endure enormous danger and frustrating obstacles—including strict military regulations limiting what women correspondents can do. Even so, Liv wants more.

Encouraged by her husband, the editor of a New York newspaper, she’s determined to be the first photographer to reach Paris with the Allies, and capture its freedom from the Nazis.

However, her Commanding Officer has other ideas about the role of women in the press corps. To fulfill her ambitions, Liv must go AWOL. She persuades Jane to join her, and the two women find a guardian angel in Fletcher, a British military photographer who reluctantly agrees to escort them. As they race for Paris across the perilous French countryside, Liv, Jane, and Fletcher forge an indelible emotional bond that will transform them and reverberate long after the war is over.

Based on daring, real-life female reporters on the front lines of history like Margaret Bourke-White, Lee Miller, and Martha Gellhorn—and with cameos by other famous faces of the time—The Race for Paris is an absorbing, atmospheric saga full of drama, adventure, and passion. Combining riveting storytelling with expert literary craftsmanship and thorough research, Meg Waite Clayton crafts a compelling, resonant read.

Publishing August 11, 2015 by Harper.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Women Who Walk

I love to travel (I've been to about 15 countries) and I love to walk (I've walked a whole marathon.) I want to do that giant walk across Spain sometime (Camino de Santiago). With that in mind, I gravitate towards books on travel and the rare books about hiking/walking.

Lately I've noticed a mini-trend of travel books about women going (mostly) solo on incredible trips that are not just physical, but also emotional. I'll bet you've heard of the first two: Wild by Cheryl Strayed and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. But then I also read Tracks by Robyn Davidson and Phenomenal by Leigh Ann Henion and I really started to see a theme. And it's not a theme I see in books about men out trekking across the world. You don't get the same level of introspection and emotional catharsis in Bill Bryson's books or Tim Cahill's. Why is that? Is it because the woman traveling alone is so unexpected and even occasionally dangerous, that the emotions are heightened along with the danger and unusualness of the situation? Reading about Cheryl hiking in the Pacific Coast mountains is such a different experience than Bryson and Katz attacking the Appalachian trial. It's hard to be funny when you're alone and afraid. And when you're alone, you can face things that are more easily suppressed in company. In fact, sometimes you get to face things that you'd rather not.

But why is it all women? Aren't there any men out there with difficult and uneasy backgrounds who go on a trip to find themselves and their place in the world? Sure, Sarah Vowell's books are travelogues that are also hilarious and not very introspective, but that's a different kind of travel--mostly by plane and car and with an agenda, meeting historians and guides, like Tony Horwitz. Long ago I read Tony Hawk's Round Ireland With A Fridge in which he hitchhikes around the perimeter of Ireland with a mini fridge (due to a bet) and so he's traveling a little more rough and he's alone, aside from all the drivers he encounters, but there's still no revelation, no long night with the soul.

The only one I've found that seems to have a chance at being in the same ballpark is A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins (which I haven't read yet so I can't swear to it.) But still, the fact that there is only one, when there are so many, many travel books by men, makes me really wonder why. Is it because women are more drawn to these experiences in order to encourage or incite an emotional breakthrough? Or are they more likely to have an emotional experience when traveling than men? Which is the impetus: the travel or the breakthrough? Which one is the means and which one is the end?

I do love travel, and the idea of following in these footsteps, even just a little, is tempting, although the danger is still very real (and I don't like camping that isn't car camping, so I lean towards Eat Pray Love or Phenomenal to emulate.) But I have found I do very much enjoy the travel book that isn't just a "we went there, we saw this" list of places, but instead is a deeper communing with nature and the world. Are there others? I do hope this mini-trend continues. In the meantime, these books are great to listen to while you walk. Maybe they'll inspire you to get out, experience nature, and think a bit.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Book Review: Honey by Sarah Weeks

Melody's mother died when she was born and no one really talks about her. Melody's father is nice, though. He's a high school teacher who is always teaching Melody new words and playing fun games with logic and grammar. One weekend, he goes away camping with his winning debate team, leaving Melody with her grandfather, and Melody finds out from Teeny, the snoopy kid next door, that "Henry has caught the love bug." Henry is her father. Melody's best friend Nick does some quick research and finds out he's the only Henry in their small town of Royal, Indiana. Melody and Nick head off to the new beauty salon, where Teeny overheard the gossip, to clear things up. Melody will learn a lot more than she bargained for.

This sweet story also has a few chapters told from the point of view of a dog, who readers quickly realize was owned by Melody's parents when she was born, but given away to the beauty-salon owner. While those chapters aren't as effective (and I felt the dog's prophetic dreams were very forced), most ten-year-old girls will love them. The book naturally has a happy ending, with strong lessons learned all around, most especially about telling the truth, even if it's hard, and even if it seems protective not to. It's interesting that aside from the very girly-girl of annoying, younger Teeny, Melody is completely surrounded by males: her father, grandfather, and Nick. She is tomboyish although that isn't dwelled on. Everyone is well-intentioned, and while the red herring that Melody misinterprets is pretty coincidental and has a contrived feeling, I doubt most kids this age would pick up on that. (And coincidences do happen.) As it does deal with Melody's mother's death, it's for the more mature middle readers, but her death happened long ago and isn't immediately present for any of them, although it's not something they blithely skip over. It is handled with respect but with a light touch that shouldn't impact young readers too heavily.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

I got this book for free from the publisher at Winter Institute 10.

My month in review: July

I recently looked through my blog stats and I found that even though I like the It's Monday What Are You Reading posts, mine aren't very popular, so I've decided to ramp it down a notch to a month-end review. That will also be easier to maintain, and hopefully having all my book acquisitions lumped together each month will help me keep my book purchases down a bit, as I am on a budget, and when I just just listing three a week, it didn't ever look bad. But now I will list everything acquired each month, along with all books read/listened to and the one/two I'm currently reading on the first of the month. Hope this new format works for you all too!

The Monday meme has been hosted by Sheila at Book Journey and we hope she'll return again.

My husband was out of town twice last month and I get a lot more reading done when he's not home! I am so far ahead of the game now, I'm thinking of changing my annual goal again, this time from 90 to 100 books.

Books completed this month:
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer's Search for Wonder in the Natural World by Leigh Ann Henion
Younger by Pamela Redmond Satran
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
Going Away Shoes by Jill McCorkle
How About Never--Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons by Bob Mankoff
Nothing to Do But Stay by Carrie Young
The Bullet by Mary Louise Kelly
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
I Regret Nothing: A Memoir by Jen Lancaster
The Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly
Honey by Sarah Weeks
Steering Toward Normal by Rebecca Petruck

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival by Peter Stark

What I acquired this month: 
So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson was sent to me from a friend. I have bought nothing this month! Yay! Been checking books (and even a couple of movies!) out of the library. I haven't picked it up yet but I'm very excited that Armada by Ernest Cline is waiting for me.