Friday, September 30, 2016

Book Review: Shrill: Women Are Funny, It's Okay to Be Fat, and Feminists Don't Have to Be Nice by Lindy West

I picked this book up on a Saturday when I was supposed to be doing work. I needed a quick break, and as this was a series of essays, I figured I could put it down easily without a narrative arc pulling me along. An hour later, I forced myself to put it down and do more work. An hour later, I picked it back up and read the whole thing. That's right, I read it in one day, almost one sitting. Been a long time since I've done that!

Lindy West has been a journalist for a long time, working in pop culture, mostly reviews of comedy and movies for places like The Stranger (Dan Savage's paper). And she gets trolls. But man, some people are so cruel! Sure, they call her names, but when even Dan, her boss and her friend, starts fat shaming women, she has to stand up for those women. And that brings on more trolls. She calls out male comedians for rape jokes, which brings on even more trolls. She goes on a TV show to advocate for stopping rape jokes, and while it goes well, so many more trolls. Until one day when a troll pops up who is claiming to be her dearly beloved and recently deceased father. Ouch. The horror. (And that's when I also realized I'd heard this part on This American Life.)  Why, people? Why? Why can't you just keep your nasty thought to yourself? Why can't you just say nothing if you disagree? Or be respectful? At least try to form a coherent thought instead of calling names? It's like everyone in the internet is a 6-year-old bully. Even as I'm writing this, I'm wondering if this is going to be the open door for the trolls to start hitting me?

I super crazy admire Lindy for standing up for women, for fat people, for not having to listen to rape jokes, and calling people on their bullshit. She has convinced a few (Dan, and Patton Oswalt who I already liked so I was much relieved when he finally got on the no rape jokes bandwagon.) Seriously, why do comedians want to fight for their right to do rape jokes? Of course you have that right. Just as you have the right to do other offensive jokes. It doesn't mean they're not offensive. I don't give up the right to be offended.

Anyway, Lindy says it all so much more eloquently than I ever can hope to, with a dash of humor, and with a great deal of sass and gumption. I don't find her shrill in the slightest. Everyone should read this book. Starting with the women.

I got this ARC for free from the publisher at Winter Institute. In fact, it is personally autographed to me by the author.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

“Waiting On” Wednesday: Today Will Be Different

“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:

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

Synopsis from Goodreads:
Eleanor knows she's a mess. But today, she will tackle the little things. She will shower and get dressed. She will have her poetry and yoga lessons after dropping off her son, Timby. She won't swear. She will initiate sex with her husband, Joe. But before she can put her modest plan into action-life happens. Today, it turns out, is the day Timby has decided to fake sick to weasel his way into his mother's company. It's also the day Joe has chosen to tell his office-but not Eleanor-that he's on vacation. Just when it seems like things can't go more awry, an encounter with a former colleague produces a graphic memoir whose dramatic tale threatens to reveal a buried family secret.

Today Will be Different is a hilarious, heart-filled story about reinvention, sisterhood, and how sometimes it takes facing up to our former selves to truly begin living.

Publishing October 4, 2016 by Little, Brown.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Book Review: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book was amazing, just like everyone said. I read parts aloud to my husband (and bit my tongue at many more I wanted to.) However, it hasn't really stuck with me. I think the reason is that for me, stories resonate more than philosophy or political viewpoints or construction plans. Those are great and necessary, in fact long overdue. However, they don't stick in my Swiss-cheese brain.

This book's conceit is a letter written by Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son, about how to function as a black man, about why American society operates in the crazy unfair way it does, and why and how it needs to change. He does brush on both his personal history and the history of blacks and whites in America, but while it is very accessible and brief (which is just what today's attention span needs), I think personally I was looking for something more substantial. Now, I can get what I'm looking for in books like The Warmth of Other Suns and A Hellhound on His Trail, but this book, while important and passionate, just wasn't the meaty tome I wanted. I did love it, but it was ephemeral personally. I suspect I am looking for something more along the lines of Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (and I am moving that up on my TBR list.)

All that said, this book is amazing and powerful and everyone should read it, particularly those who aren't big readers. It's a fast, easy read that will have you thinking hard about race in America and how we can get ourselves out of this mess we've dug ourselves into.

I got this book out of the library on my cruise ship, Oceania Regatta.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

“Waiting On” Wednesday: The Fortress by Danielle Trussoni

“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:

Synopsis from Goodreads:
From their first kiss, twenty-seven-year-old writer Danielle Trussoni is spellbound by a novelist from Bulgaria. The two share a love of jazz and books and travel, passions that intensify their whirlwind romance.

Eight years later, hopeful to renew their marriage, Danielle and her husband move to the south of France, to a picturesque medieval village in the Languedoc. It is here, in a haunted stone fortress built by the Knights Templar, that she comes to understand the dark, subterranean forces that have been following her all along.

While Danielle and her husband eventually part, Danielle's time in the fortress brings precious wisdom about life and love that she could not have learned otherwise. Ultimately, she finds the strength to overcome her illusions, and start again.

An incisive look at romantic love, The Fortress is one woman’s fight to understand the complexities of her own heart, told by one of the best writers of her generation.

Publishing September 20, 2016 by Dey Street Books.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Book Review: A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade by Kevin Brockmeier

Do you ever accidentally end up reading just the right book at just the right time? Isn't that a wonderful moment, even if the right time isn't a happy one?

I had put this book on my library reserve list because I want to get further along with my 50 states reading challenge, and it was short and a memoir, so I figured I could knock it out in no time. I've never read any of Mr. Brockmeier's fiction, although I might now. I didn't have huge expectations, just wanted to read a book set in Arkansas.

This is a memoir of one year of childhood, much like I Will Not Leave You Comfortless: A Memoir by Jeremy Jackson, with Kevin focusing on seventh grade when he was twelve. Seventh grade is hard for a lot of us, and more so for Kevin. Mr. Brockmeier gives us glimpses of his life as an adult, showing that is continued to be hard for him to fit in and have successful relationships. But in seventh grade, the worst thing happened. His long-time best friend, Thad, suddenly because not just not his friend any more, but an enemy. Someone who know he weak spots, his foibles, and his eccentricities like no one else, and knew how to break him. It was a very tough year for Kevin. As it would be for most of us. (This happened to me too, although not the part where my friend turned on me. And many nights of crying on the phone did manage to turn the situation around.) And Kevin gets through it. Occasionally with flying colors, such as when the school performed a play he'd written, a mystery about their kidnapped English teacher. Other times it was tough, and that same English teacher ended up calling the principal to talk with Kevin about the treatment from the abovementioned former best friend and other boys. But, again, he got through it, and while it wasn't fun, he learned a lot and made new friends.

I was having an especially bad day when I finished this book, and reading about Kevin's bad year made me feel better. It made me remember my bad year and how I got through it, with the usual analogy that I would get through this. No matter what goes wrong, at least I'm not in seventh grade anymore. It would be awesome to still be at an age and time where drinking Capri Sun and playing Pitfall on Atari made for the very best afternoon with friends. But the trade-offs aren't worth it. I'm glad I made it through, I'm glad Kevin made it through, and no amount of Pop Rocks or Saturday morning cartoons would ever make it a reasonable idea to want to be twelve years old again.

One odd thing: the book was written in third person. I'm guessing it's a combination of not wanting to immerse himself in that mindset again (although you do totally feel like you're in Kevin's mind, and that you understand how he thinks), and of just not being able, from a distance, to be able to imagine yourself into a scrawny 90 lb. body anymore. It was an unusual choice, I wasn't thrilled with it, but I quickly forgot about it. After the first ten pages, it didn't bother me at all. Mr. Brockmeier has some perfect turns of phrase that really made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in eerie recognition of exactly what he meant or felt. I adored this book. I hope he'll write more memoirs.

I checked this book out of the library.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Book Review: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

Once I heard a Sarah Vowell book on audio, I can never go back. Now I only listen to them on audio. I love all the guest readers she has like Nick Offerman, John Hodgman, and John Slattery. It really makes the history come alive, and it is also funny as Nick Offerman was born to play an exasperated George Washington.

When I originally moved to New York in 2000, I had no problem pronouncing Houston Street right (How-ston. Not Hue-ston). But Lafayette Street gives me troubles. I am from the South. And in the South, that name is pronounced La-FAY-ette. Heavy emphasis on the FAY. (Seriously, in my defense, the Sheriff in my hometown of Nashville while I was growing up was named Lafayette and he went by Fate, as that's how the middle of his name sounded. People would seriously look at you funny if you pronounced it the French way.) Listening to this book has gone a long way toward correcting my pronunciation.

During the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans went insane about the French and our silly Congress wasted time renaming French Fries "Freedom Fries" among other inane anti-French activities. My mother on the other hand railed against these idiots who didn't appreciate General Lafayette and the French without whose help during the Revolutionary War, we'd be royalists today. And it's true. I knew that much. But I didn't really know anything else.

In Ms. Vowell's book, history comes alive. Washington goes from being a wooden figurehead to a real live, sometimes annoyed person. Lafayette, I discovered, was shockingly young (19), but also a very team-player guy who frequently had to take on roles he was way overqualified to make some older, unqualified guy with connections feel better, and he always did it cheerfully and well. And seriously, if it weren't for Lafayette, Washington may well have lost. Along the way I learned lots of fun trivia such as that before being a general, Knox (of Fort Knox fame) was an independent bookseller. I think I like Ms. Vowell's writing so much because she loves our country and she loves history, but not to the point where she views it through rose-colored glasses. She still calls out the Founding Fathers for deeming slaves to be 3/5 of a person and other batty things politicians have done over the years. But she loves them for all their blockheadedness.

My favorite line from the book:
“The scene of Washington cussing out Charles Lee was for some reason not included in the series of bronze illustrations of the Battle of Monmouth on the monument at the county courthouse. Even though it was the most New Jersey–like behavior in the battle, if not the entire war.” As a newly minted New Jersey-ite (New Jerseyan? New Jerseyer?), I greatly appreciated that.

As usual, hilarious and informative. If you like Sarah Vowell, she hits it out of the park on this one.

I checked this audiobook download out of the library via Overdrive.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Third NJ Store: Little City Books, Hoboken

Last Monday (Labor Day) I decided to start my quest to visit all the NJ independent bookstores. After we struck out on the first one (who is closed on a federal holiday when loads of shoppers are out and about?!), we ended up at Little City Books in Hoboken, NJ. And it is such a cute store! It's on the small side (as is everything in this neck of the woods. You must learn to be efficient!) But that didn't hurt its selection at all! As you'll see from the picture (forgive my hair; I hadn't thought about picture taking that morning), I got to a point where I just had to stop myself. It wasn't that I stopped finding books to buy, either, but that I just needed to stop looking before I went broke!

I chatted briefly with Kierstan, the children's department manager, who was super nice. Then we walked around the neighborhood for a bit, found a pocket park to start reading our books in, and headed home. It was a terrific afternoon.

I am so looking forward to continuing this project! I'm not sure what store will be next, but if I do one a month I'll have them all in a year and a half. If I occasionally slip in an extra, I'll have them all in a year. Lovely!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Book Review: Who Watcheth by Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargey

This book gave me that creepy, tingly down my spine feeling that I look for in a good Scandinavian mystery. And refreshingly the main character, Detective Irene Huss, has a good relationship with her husband, a chef, and her two adult daughters. It's a nice change of pace from the crusty old loners and sad, vulnerable spinsters populating so many mysteries. It's also nice that she's sensible and does not go off and do scary stuff on her own and set herself up for obviously stupid situations. I appreciate that.

Someone is watching Detective Huss. And someone has been killing women who have been watched. It seems there is a serial killer on the loose in Goteborg and Irene could be next. Mostly the case is solved through good old solid police work, which is also refreshing. I hadn't read the previous books in the series, and you totally don't need to have as I didn't at all feel I was missing anything. Some of the Swedish names can throw the reader for a loop but I have little trouble just pushing through on those. It's a solid police procedural and I'm glad I wasn't reading it at home, alone, at night, like the last Jo Nesbo book I read where I had to put it away and read something else and I could only read it during the day. This one I was reading on a plane during the day and that was perfect. It's a solid Scandinavian mystery, and if you like those in general, you will very much enjoy this one.

Sadly, you can't get this book for a few months. It comes out in December 2016. This book is published by my employer, Soho Press. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

“Waiting On” Wednesday: Culdesac by Robert Repino

“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:

Synopsis from the publisher:
The war with no name rages on, setting the world on fire. Humanity faces extinction at the hands of the Colony, a race of intelligent ants seeking to overthrow the humans and establish a new order. To achieve this, the ants use their strange technology to transform the surface animals into highly evolved killing machines who rise up and murder their oppressors.

The bobcat Culdesac is among the fiercest warriors that the Colony's experiment has produced. Driven by revenge, and notorious for his ability to hunt humans in the wild, Culdesac is the perfect leader of the Red Sphinx, an elite unit of feline assassins. With the humans in retreat, the Red Sphinx seizes control of the remote village of Milton. But holding the town soon becomes a bitter struggle of wills. While the humans threaten a massive counterattack, the townsfolk protect a dark secret that could tip the balance of the war. For the sadistic Culdesac, violence is the answer to everything. But this time, he'll need more than his claws and his guns, for what he discovers in Milton will upend everything he believes, everything he fought for, and everything he left behind.

Relentless, bloody, and unforgiving, Culdesac is the story of an anti-hero with no soul to lose, carving a path of destruction that consumes the innocent and the guilty alike.

The book will be published by Soho Press (my employer) on November 15, 2016.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Book Review: Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Every American should read this book.

It's horrifying, how close a large swath of Americans are to homelessness. In this book, Mr. Desmond follows eight families. Some with families, some with mental or physical health issues, all with financial issues. For some it's something as simple as a broken car. Or hours at work getting cut. And just one missed paycheck is all it takes when you're living right on the edge.

It's a heartbreaking story. And riveting. For some of them, you have hope. Some, while they waver on that razor edge, could just as easily fall on the good side if just one thing went their way. But it never seems to. When you're already living in a bad neighborhood, the law of averages doesn't seem to be on your side.

A couple of surprising things that I learned: rent in the bad neighborhoods isn't much less than in the good neighborhoods. So you can pay a reasonable rent for a terrible apartment in an awful neighborhood. It might not seem on the surface to make sense, but many of these renters have multiple evictions and possibly also some convictions on their record. Most landlord won't rent to them. They don't have many options (one mother in this story called over 100 apartments listed for rent before finding something. I can't even imagine. Finding this place was hard enough with a broker and I only looked at about 10 apartments over 3 days.) Which means the bad landlords have them over a barrel. The renters have no options therefore the landlords don't have to fix the place up. And by that I mean, they don't need to have any working appliances in the apartment. Not even a fridge and a stove. The plumbing might not work, there can be holes in the windows, and the heat might not work in a Milwaukee winter. And you might say that's not up to code and sure, the renters could call the code inspectors. They can come and make the landlord fix things up. But guess what will happen? The tenant will be evicted. So how does that work out for the tenant? They really have no options. So they are paying 30% of what I am to live in a slum. I was also shocked to learn that until the late 1980s, it was perfectly legal to discriminate against renters with children (and is still commonly done although now not illegal.) So the families who need housing the most have the hardest time finding housing. Have a kid drastically increases your chances of having an eviction in your lifetime.

I could not put this book down. It's on the longer side and I whipped through it in just about two days, while on an Alaskan cruise. I found the author's note at the end, explaining the methodology and his level of embeddedness with the tenants and landlords he writes about, to be the most fascinating part. I came to genuinely feel for many of the subjects and I wish I could know what's happened to them today. A couple of people weren't as sympathetic, but sadly, that was mostly due to mental disorders.

While I think the reform of welfare was well-intentioned, I also think it had unintended consequences and needs to be revisited. I also personally remember living in low-income housing right after college, and not making enough money at my full-time retail job (1 over minimum wage) to qualify to live there. I had to get a previous job to lie and say I still worked there part-time, in order to move into the apartment. I found it baffling there was no correlation between the minimum wage, and the minimum income needed to live in federally subsidized low-income housing. Still do. And I feel incredibly grateful to the luck that I was born into the economic strata I was, with the accompanying benefits that ensure I will never come that close to edge. It's important that those of us who are fortunate, even if we are financially struggling, appreciate that our struggles are not of the razor's edge variety. And I am grateful to Mr. Desmond for opening my eyes to a horrific problem in our society today with no solution in sight. Read this book. Now.

I got this book out of the library on my cruise ship, Oceania Regatta.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Visting NJ Bookstores!

Since I've moved to NJ, a fairly smallish state, I picked up this bookmark at [words] in Maplewood, and it lists all the bookstores in NJ (although I presume there are probably more used bookstores than are listed here, as I know there's one right here in Montclair that isn't listed. And it states these are the bookstores who participated in 2016's Independent Bookstore Day).

I've been to two, and I plan to visit all of them. I don't know how long it will take—if I were to do all of them in a year, that would take a concerted effort. But I will try to get to them all within the next couple of years. So far the two I've visited are [words] and Watchung Booksellers. Heck this bookstore that posted the article linked above says if you visit 10 and post selfies of yourself there with the bookmark, they'll give you 20% off your purchase, so that's totally worth it.

Yay! A bookstore tour! I think I will go to one later today.

Book Review: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

I absolutely adored Ms. Simonson's previous novel, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. This time she went historical. The title isn't entirely accurate though as the war starts about halfway into the novel. Which war? Well, the Great War, which is why it doesn't need to be named.

Beatrice is a young Latin teacher, who has come to East Sussex for her first job, as her father has recently died. Beatrice is determined to be a spinster (at the hilariously ripe old age of about 22). Agatha has arranged it (she's the first female Latin teacher in the town) as everyone knows Britain is about to go to war and have a shortage of men. Agatha's two nephews, cousins Hugh and Daniel, are visiting for the summer, and show Beatrice around town and introduce her to people and tell her how things really work and what's really going on behind the facades and fake-nice at afternoon teas. Soon she understands she goings-on despite being an outsider, and we get a very funny view of this small English country town with its cast of characters and their relationships.

I will say there were perhaps a few too many characters—I occasionally had trouble keeping track, but overall I found them all to be charming and often unintentionally funny. I did especially love Beatrice and Hugh. I will say the ending was much more sad than I had expected going into the book, but any war book much necessarily be so. I just had thought the book would end before the war began. The book is deceptively complex, a beautiful slice of life of this little community, with compelling characters who I thoroughly enjoyed. It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but if you like quaint British stiff-upper-lip society and don't mind a little bit of sad in your novel, this one is exquisitely written.

I checked this book out of the library.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Dr. Paul Kalanithi was still a college student, he was somewhat torn. He did want to be a doctor, but he also loved literature. He got a Master's in English before he did go. But when he went, he decided to specialize in neurology, the most difficult specialty with the most heartbreaking results. But he always wanted to write, like his idol, Abraham Verghese. He just always figured he'd have more time.

When he was nearly done with his residency, he started to suddenly feel debilitatingly tired. And had some other symptoms. As a doctor, he and his wife (also a med student) knew from the symptoms that they pointed to cancer. And it turned out to be stage 4 lung cancer (no, they never mention that he smoked. Although he never specifically says he doesn't either.) Within a week, he is unable to do surgery. He and his wife, Lucy, who were struggling with their marriage just a week before, are determined to fight, but they also know the odds.

This book is beautiful, stunningly written, with amazing attention to the detail of emotion and the beauty within tragedy. That said, it's also short, it skips over some things (such as the aforementioned question of smoking), and it skips over how their marriage was just fixed overnight  after the diagnosis. That said, it was a great and sad story. It didn't affect me as much as some (maybe because I read so many memoirs, I'm more immune.) But it was a great, and greatly sad story.

I got this book out of the library on my cruise ship, Oceania Regatta.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

My month in review August 2016

The Month in Review meme is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date. I am finally starting to settle in at my new job at Soho Press, and at home where we are no longer changing addresses and chasing down errant bills. But because of the steep learning curve at any new job, I'm not going to push myself too much, and this year I'm only aiming for 2 Soho book per month. Next year I might read more but it won't as much of a strain. I did a lot towards catching up this month! My cruise was terrific along with a wonderful library. As a huge book dork, I tracked down staff to notify them of the two books that were shelved and cataloged incorrectly. Oliver Sacks in fiction and Jojo Moyes in nonfiction! Yikes!

Books completed this month:
Wobble To Death by Peter Lovesey
Who Watcheth by Helene Tursten
Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, and My Midlife Quest to Dance the Nutcracker by Lauren Kessler
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch -- Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods by Jennifer Reese
Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation's Leaders by Brady Carlson

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters With Extraordinary People by Susan Orlean
All the Winters After by Seré Prince Halverson
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

What I acquired this month:
The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams
for free from a friend who works at the publisher!