Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Book Review: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

I came to Michael Lewis in an unusual way. about ten years ago, over Christmas, I caught my dad reading an ARC of Moneyball. I'm the one in the publishing industry, not him. I was curious what ARC an economics professor would have? It was obvious to me from the cover treatment, that it wasn't an academic book, after all. And I got sucked in. My father was supposed to consider reviewing it for an economics journal but he decided he was too busy so he let me take it home. A few years later, I devoured The Blind Side. (My father specializing in the economics of sports.) Then I decided to go classic and I read his first book, Liar's Poker. I wasn't sure what to try next, and then the movie of The Big Short came out. I bought the book pretty much immediately afterwards. No one is more capable of writing accessibly about economics and finance than Michael Lewis. If you are curious about economics but afraid of the arcane language, math, and pedantic professorial style of most of those books, give Mr. Lewis a try.

This book tracks the movie pretty much dead-on (I rewatched the movie and started reading the book later that night.) For some reason most of the characters in the movie have small details and their last names changed. But it is the story of what happened in the mid 2000s with sub-prime mortgages, collateralized debt options, and credit default swaps. Don't worry if you don't understand the words quant and tranch—he'll explain them, but also you don't need to know. He tells the big picture in a way that the intricate details are erroneous.

The best thing he does is tell stories. That's how, in all of his books, he makes the complicated relatable. In this book he focuses on three groups of people who saw the crisis coming and capitalized on it: Dr. Mike Burry, the team at Front Point including mostly Steve Eisman, and Jamie and Charlie of Cornwall Capitol, the "garage band of hedge funds." Cornwall is really two thirty-year-old guys who saved up $110,000 and started investing and who want to buy these hedges but can't because they're too small and too unconnected. Dr. Burry and Mr. Eisman are running real investment firms—Burry's independent, and Eisman's as a part of Morgan Stanley. So we have three different players, none of them big, who all see this coming from different vantage points, and who want to short the sub-prime mortgage market but, at the beginning, don't even know how. Dr. Burry has to talk firms into creating short positions he wants to buy because they never existed before.

All of these teams are also fascinating in their owns ways: how they came across this niche of industry, how they figured out it was wobbly, how they managed to get their action, and why. For most of them it wasn't purely about money. And for me, as an American who bought a condo in 2008 (sigh, I know. But no, I got a conventional 30-year mortgage.) the most crucial thing in this book is an explanation of how this can happen, and the horrible realization that something like it can happen again as the ratings companies aren't reformed, the firms don't have enough capitol, and they're not regulated enough to not try to leverage and manipulate markets like they did. It won't be the same thing next time—although some investment firms have come up with a new name and a new marketing campaign for what are essentially investments in sub-prime mortgages all over again—but it will be similar enough that you should just know that it's coming.

The book was utterly riveting. I read it standing in the kitchen waiting for the water to get warm, I read it while brushing my teeth, I read it while waiting for my toast, I read it every possible minute and finished it in just two days. If you're remotely interested in this type of book, you must read it.

I bought this book at Savoy Bookshop in Westerly, RI.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Where are all the 2017 Non Fiction Books?

Last night I was talking to Kristen of BookNAround about Winter Institute (she's there and I'm jealous. She is sending me books.) We were talking a lot about what ARCs she was seeing, what authors she met, and she asked what she might pick up for me. "More nonfiction" I requested. "I haven't seen much" she said.

And yes, I know! I love nonfiction, but I have looked at oodles of "What We're Looking Forward to in 2017" articles and posts and there are practically no nonfiction books on them. It feels to me like they're 85% fiction. And I felt like last year, a lot of the big nonfiction books snuck up on me. I didn't know in advance that they were coming out until all of a sudden, Hey, there's a new Michael Lewis! And a new Tracy Kidder! And Mary Roach! And Candice Millard! I feel like I had no advance notice of any of these books, and they're all huge, all of them are big authors who I follow and whose previous books I've read, and yet, there was no advance hype. All the hype seems to be for fiction.

I am hoping that's what's happening this year. I don't want 2017 to be a year of no (or no good) nonfiction. But I am not overly worried. Here's my suspicion:

Nonfiction is easier to sell. It's easier to get media for. Those authors are easier to interview, so they are more likely to appear on TV shows and in magazines. Therefore fiction, especially first novels, are the books that publishers really have to put money and effort behind. Therefore, those are the books with ARCs circulated very early in large quantities, looking for blurbs, and so those are the books that people in the end of 2016 (and early 2017) have heard about for next year. I mean really, if you were booking for a TV show, say Ellen or The Chew, who would you have an easier time writing interview questions for: David Sedaris or Elif Batuman. If you're saying "Elif who?" then you see the problem. I think Ms. Batuman's novel, The Idiot, is going to be big this year, and I've seen ARC giveaways and blurbs all over the place for the last few months. I doubt many ARCs will be circulated for Mr. Sedaris's latest memoir. It's easy to ask someone questions about facts, about the past, about history. It's a lot harder to ask anything at all about fiction (especially without giving away spoilers, which is also rarely an issue with nonfiction.)

So I have my fingers crossed. I believe there will be as much excellent nonfiction this year as in past years, but so far, it looks like there's nothing but fiction as far as the eye can see. I'll just have to be prepared to have them sneak up on me.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Book review: Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz

This book is an excellent lesson in personable and friendly authors being their own best marketing. I was setting up a table at NEIBA (the New England Independent Booksellers Association's annual trade show) when an author at another table I was walking by, stopped me and asked a simple question as she'd never done any promotion for her book before and her publisher representative wasn't there yet and she just needed some simple help. She was so nice and friendly and so appreciate that I helped her to unpack her books, and I also ended up taking a copy which I've now read, which I wouldn't have otherwise.

This is a thoughtful and well-researched story about Molly. She has a couple of friends who don't like each other much, her little brother's hedgehog is annoying, and she wants to win her middle school's slam poetry contest. But she has a secret. She really wants to win the poetry slam contest because she thinks that it means her mom will come back home. She's been transferred to a one-year job in Toronto, but since her parents separated 6 months before she left, Molly is becoming increasingly worried that her mother will not come back and this move will turn permanent. 

Molly's always been neat and organized, but her worry causes those tendencies to spiral out of control until Molly is having a full-on OCD episode. she's very responsible and does well in school, so when she can't turn in quizzes and can't get to school on time because of her OCD (although she doesn't really know what it is yet), that compounds her anxieties, making it even worse.

I love that Molly is a very ordinary kid, not a quirky oddball type. Those kids are great too, but this might allow her story to be even more universal for kids who might be having similar issues. The author has included a note in the back about experts she consulted, and a list of books she referred to in her research, which can provide additional resources for families as well. Her baby brother is endearing and her older sister is believable with romance problems, and not an obnoxious tyrant. Her father is preoccupied, as a single dad working as a journalist, which means on deadlines and not salaried (I'm sure he was feeling a lot of pressure to bring in income, especially as his estranged wife's job after the year is up is very up in the air.) The family's problems were entirely ordinary and the kind of problems a lot of kids face, and yet also overwhelming, as Molly's best friend might move away, and they get into a very big fight. But the book doesn't awfulize and it doesn't preach. It's well-written, and Molly is easy to empathize with. This book is perfect for any family where a child might have an issue, every school library, and of course just in general for kids around this age, as they might encounter a friend or classmate with OCD tendencies. 

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 at NEIBA, the New England Independent Booksellers Association's annual trade show.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Book Review: Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France by Craig Carlson

I have a friend who posts on Facebook all the time about Paris. I've never been. My Mom wants to take the family to France this fall for her birthday, but it sounds like that will be more countryside than Paris (which is still awesome!) But I thought this memoir about a guy starting up an American-food diner specializing in breakfast in Paris, sounded funny and quirky.

It's not really those things but I enjoyed it very much. Instead Craig is a genuinely nice guy who had a rough childhood with neglectful (at best) parents, who turned out quite well despite them, and then after he spent his junior year abroad in France, decided he wanted to come back. He worked in Hollywood and had an opportunity to work on a film in France which he did, and that's when he had his epiphany—he really loved France but he really missed good old American diner food while he was there, and he figured there were others like him. And then it took him ages to get it all together. He worked as a temp and he defaulted on loans and he was broke. It took years to get financial backers and even to be able to afford a lawyer to write up those agreements, and then it took more time to incorporate in France, and to find a location, and to get a loan with iffy credit, and he finalized realize his dream when he was about 39, which gave me extreme hope. His life at 37 was looking even iffier than my own with a much crazier idea for how to get out of it, and he did!

Now the laws in France are utterly insane and he has several employees sue him (and win! Because a waiter threatening to kill Craig wasn't a good reason to fire him.) And right after opening, Bush declared war on Iraq and France was opposed to that and he seriously worried about backlash. There were convoluted problems along the way, at one point even causing him to spend a day in jail, but eventually things get more or less straightened out. He gets his second location off the ground. He hires mostly good employees who are also friends. And then he finally decides to tackle his longstanding problems with intimacy and his great fear of abandonment.

It's nice to see someone who has to struggle and go through rough times but who is rewarded for his effort and hard work and great idea. And even though I am in New Jersey, not Paris, I now really want to go to a diner. And I want to make pancakes.

I checked this book out of the library.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

I Read Beach Reads in the Winter

We are in the midst of winter. It is rainy, gray, gloomy, sometimes snowy. Isn't this snowy view from my apartment gorgeous? I know we've all be told that we ought to read happy fun, fluffy books in the summer and wintertime is a good time for the dark, gloomy, and scary books, but I just can't do that. Yep, it's partly as I have slightly depressive tendencies. But even if you don't, I still just don't get this mindset. If it's dark and gloomy outside, why do I want to read something dark and gloomy inside? When I'm snuggled up with my tea and my blanket, trying (and failing) to get my cat to snuggle with me, I want to read warm and uplifting books. I want to read about fun ideas, inspiring people, and I want to learn cool facts.

Some of you might say, but if you read beach reads in the winter, does that mean you only read light and fluffy books all year round? Not at all. I prefer my dark and dreary and difficult books when it's sunny and breezy and when I'm in a great mood and it's easy to be happy. It seems like my reading habits go against the grain, but if so, that works out really well since I am in the publishing business, and I often read books six months in advance of when they're published. Which means ARCs of beach reads are circulated in the winter and vice-versa. So my reverse winter/summer reading trends align perfectly with my chosen career, yay! How often does that happen?

I can't be alone in this. Who is with me? Who else is reading beach reads like Where'd You Go, Bernadette and Attachments this winter? And putting off the potentially depressing reads to be read by the pool or in the park in about 6 months? I wonder if there are enough of us that publishers ought to do some counter-programming and have a few opposite books on their summer and winter lists?

Monday, January 23, 2017

Book review: Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

I was supposed to read this book about two years ago for my book club, but I had a conflict and so I didn't get to reading it. I'd heard nothing but good things, and I'd also heard it was really funny which is unusual in a novel, but the raves got so amazing that they turned me skeptical. I thought it surely couldn't live up to the hype. Then the author came to the independent bookstore in my town in the fall for the latest book, Today Will Be Different, so I read that one first. And it was great so I decided to go back for this earlier novel. And yay, I'm so glad I did!

I don't know that I'd describe it as funny per se, at least not in a laugh-out-loud sort of way, but it was highly amusing, quirky, and definitely having some fun. Which are all tricky for a straightforward novel.

The book is mostly epistlary but is narrated by Bee, a 15-year-old, throughout. She makes transitions, explains things, and then at the end there's much more narration. Because her mother, Bernadette, has disappeared (this isn't a spoiler—it's pretty much given away by the title) and she's reading through a bunch of emails and letters and confirmations from a variety of places and people—her school, her father, her father's administrative assistant at Google, a neighbor and fellow school mom who hates that Bernadette's blackberry brambles are growing into her yard, and we even gets some fun things like an article in Architectural Digest about Bernadette's career and a transcript of Bee's father's TED talk. But at the beginning, things seem mostly normal. Bee's mother seems very introverted but not agoraphobic—she picks Bee up from school every day although she hates interacting with the other parents (who she refers to as gnats) and they run errands and the like. But she has hired a virtual assistant in India to take care of projects like booking a family vacation to Antarctica and investigating seasickness remedies.

But things start to go off the rails. And as Bernadette's life suddenly spirals out of control, she snaps, and vanishes. Bee is naturally trying to find her using this paper trail to hunt for clues. When I was 50 pages from the end, I really did pause and say to myself, man, I do not know how Ms. Semple is going to wrap up  everything and do so in a way that isn't profoundly sad. And yet, she does! That truly takes skill because there were a lot of plates spinning on sticks at that point. Bernadette isn't the most sympathetic character but I think we immediately warm up to her because Bee is awesome and Bee just loves her. Plus, a lot of us have been annoyed by the super-involved yoga-pants-wearing organic-food-shopping SUV-driving middle-school Moms that so drive her crazy (and even if you are one of those, you'll still find these hilarious.) And from her description, her falling-down house (that used to be a school for wayward girls) is cool, and Seattle is boring. And perhaps we're getting a skewed picture, which is one of the fun tricks of an epistolary novel—when done well each letter truly needs to be in the unique voice of that character.

I wish the book was longer! I wish there was a sequel! I wish Ms. Semple wrote faster! This was a delight from beginning to end.

I don't know where I bought this book but it's obviously used. I've had it for a couple of years.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Book Review: Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film by Alexandra Zapruder

I didn't have strong opinions about the Zapruder film or the Kennedy assassination before reading this book. and really, I still don't, although obviously that was a super-important event in American history and the film was an amazing capture of the moment before everyone had a camera all the time, and it's an impressive piece of history itself.

If you don't know, Abraham Zapruder is the man who caught on his home movie camera, the entire Kennedy assassination, in the version you've definitely seen. Yes, other people also were there with cameras that day, but his is the definitive one. He immediately went to the police and FBI and they worked with him and Kodak to get it developed and copied right away (both of which were quite hard to do with 8 mm film) and before the end of the weekend, he'd sold the print rights to Time-Life, and soon thereafter also sold them the motion picture rights. Twelve years later, the Zapruder family got the rights back and kept them, dealing with hundreds if not thousands of requests from researchers, students, amateur sleuths, and the mere curious, until 1998 when the movie was finally released on VHS and the government took possession of the original copy of the film.

Alexandra is Abraham's granddaughter. Like me, she wasn't born yet when Kennedy was killed, so her understanding of and experience with the assassination was very different than that of her grandparents and parents. Her grandfather died when she was an infant, and her father also died fairly young, so she started to do interviews and research to piece together, not only the history of this artifact and film, but also of her family and their relationship to this accidental defining moment in their lives, that continues to impact them to this day (after all, they don't exactly have a common name, so they can't escape perpetual questions.)

Ms. Zapruder tried very hard to be objective. I'd say she succeed about 80% of the time. Her family has gotten a lot of criticism over the years, the vast majority of it completely unfounded, so she's a little defensive, if understandably so.

I was curious if a book about an object would be able to hold up over this length (it's over 400 pages) and it totally does. She doesn't get much into the conspiracy theories, aside from people who wrote books about those and tried to use the Zapruder film as proof. And it was shady the way that Oliver Stone got permission to use the film in JFK. (Basically, he set up a separate company and the woman from that company who approached the Zapruders claimed to be a researcher.) It really is a unique piece of history and it's great to have all this context for it.

And a piece of trivia—while I was reading it, a woman who wrote an editorial about the release of the VHS in her local paper was mentioned, and it was my hometown paper, The Tennessean, and I recognized the name which has a slightly unique spelling. I messaged my elementary school friend with the same name and she confirmed that is her! She had no idea that 20 years later, her editorial was excerpted here. Small world.

I got this ARC free at the New England Independent Booksellers Association fall trade show.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Reading by Publisher

I have mentioned elsewhere but in case you missed it, I was let go from my job at the very end of Sept. Since then, obviously I've been interviewing. For a lot of these interviews, just beforehand I cram and read a couple of books published by the publisher, to have talking points in the interview, to better understand their publishing philosophy, and to show I'm making an effort. I did that with Workman a couple of months ago when I was a finalist for a position there.

I still remember way back when I was an editor at St. Martin's Press circa 2004 and I got a call Friday for an interview on Monday at NAL, where if I got the job I'd mostly be working on romance novels, which I had barely read before in my life, let alone edited. I went straight to B&N from work on Friday night, bought 4 recent NAL books that covered a variety of romance genres (historical, Regency, contemporary, thriller). And sure, I've read a book in a day lots of times. But I had to read 4 books in 2.5 days. I still remember the very odd feeling on Saturday when I finished one book, and didn't even get up from my chair, but picked the next one right up and dove in.

Then a couple of years ago when I was a finalist for a job at Knopf, in a very long drawn-out hiring process, I spent about three months reading almost nothing but Knopf books. It was an interesting experience, mostly I didn't enjoy it (I hate being forced to read books), but in the end it was eye-opening in a lot of ways. Even when I worked at a publisher (St. Martin's), I never read only their books, so it was strange and I learned a lot reading just one division of one publisher for several months.

Last week I had an interview at Hachette and so I read 3 Hachette books in 3 days. I hope to have a second interview so I'm reading a 4th one now and I have a 5th one on tap. And there's a S&S position I would love to interview for, so after the Hachette books, I thought I'd read a few S&S.

Then I remembered, in December every year I do a year-end wrap-up and this year I added two new fields: books I read for work, and number of different publishers (not imprints) that I read. Well thanks to the second one, I was horrified to discover I hadn't read a single HarperCollins book in 2016. Partly that's due to me reading a bunch of Soho books last year which I hadn't of course anticipated at the beginning of the year, partly it was due to my stress and more or less being in a reading slump most of the year. Mostly it's just randomness. I like HarperCollins's books, in fact when I worked at Ingram, I exclusively worked on Morrow and Avon (and Henry Holt), and I was the backup for the HarperCollins coordinator, so I got every Morrow and Avon book (Harper bought their parent company, Hearst, at the end of 1999 so those are all Harper books now) and I could get any Harper book I wanted just by asking the rep. That's another publisher where I'd like to work. So once I'm done with the Hachette and S&S books, I need to read a few Harper books. One thing I don't need to do is read more Penguin Random House books as I've read an absolute ton of them last year. And when I realized all of this, I was both reading a print and listening to an audio Random House book.

Finally, I decided that I need to kind of formalize this. So here's my plan:
5 Hachette books
5 Simon & Schuster books
5 HarperCollins books
5 MacMillan books (for good measure, after all they're the last of the Big Five publishers that isn't PRH. And I started the year with a St. Martin's title which is why they're last.)
5 "other" books.

So, unless I get an interview at an obscure PRH imprint that publishes narrative books that I somehow haven't read, or if my book club picks a PRH book, I'm going to try to skip them for the next few months. They really dominate the publishing world but I want to see a little more of what else is out there.

Luckily, this project won't be any hardship at all—I have a ton of great selections from all of these publishers that I am really looking forward to. Here are some options:

For Hachette I have read/am reading/am about to read:
  1. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
  2. Class by Lucinda Rosenfeld
  3. You'll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein 
  4. Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film by Alexandra Zapruder (currently reading)
  5. Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland (to read, for my book club so not going to change)
For Simon & Schuster I'm currently thinking I'll read:
  1. The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery 
  2. Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper 
  3. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
  4. He's So Not Worth It by Kieran Scott 
  5. Madison's Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America by David O. Stewart (for my book club so not going to change)
For HarperCollins I'm currently thinking I'll read (interestingly, these are all nonfiction):
  1. Marrow: A Story of Love, Loss, and What Matters Most by Elizabeth Lesser 
  2. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong
  3. There Is No Good Card for This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love by Kelsey Crowe, Emily McDowell
  4. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
  5. Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know about Life I Learned from Watching '80s Movies by Jason Diamond
For MacMillan I'm currently thinking I'll read:
  1. Rise: How a House Built a Family by Cara Brookins
  2. The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams
  3. American Girls by Alison Umminger
  4. Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz
  5. Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty
For "Other" I'm currently thinking I'll read:
  1. Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan (Milkweed)
  2. Garth Williams, American Illustrator: A Life by Elizabeth K. Wallace, James D. Wallace (Beaufort Books)
  3. Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss (Vanderbilt University Press)
  4. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket Books)
  5. The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game by Mary Pilon (Bloomsbury USA)
  6. Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France by Craig Carlson (Sourcebooks)
  7. Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street's Great Foreclosure Fraud by David Dayen (The New Press)
Obviously for the "other" category, I'm missing some of the bigger players (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, WW Norton) and I have more than five books listed. This category will likely see the most change, especially if I were to, for example, get an interview at Oxford University Press or something like that.

I'm excited about this mini challenge and it'll be interesting to see if, at the end of a couple of months of no Penguin Random House titles, I notice anything feels different about my reading.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Book Review: Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family by Anne-Marie Slaughter (audio)

It's funny how some books cross your radar. When this book came out, I was creating an index for an academic friend's book. She references Ms. Slaughter and just as I was reviewing that section of the book, Ms. Slaughter's voice came in my ear, as an interview with her came on  the podcast I was listening to. I figured that was too much of a coincidence.

Now, I don't have (and am not going to have) children so a big part of this book is only interesting to be intellectually, not personally, however, it still is. Because when we don't value the caring part of our lives as much as the monetary part, then my husband's jobs (social worker, therapist) are devalued, as they are traditionally women's jobs.

I do of course have friends (most of them in fact) who do have kids and who either balance (sometimes well, sometimes tippily) family and work, or have chosen to opt out of work (sometimes temporarily) in order to focus on family. I do have one friend where the father has been a stay-at-home Dad but that was for legal issues (he wasn't allowed to work in the US with his visa status) and now that he's got his paperwork takes care of, while he's still the #1 parent, he is getting back into the work force quickly. But Ms. Slaughter delves into all of these options and more, and all of the potential pitfalls, and the reasons that we need to talk things out and think things through well in advance. She has experienced that Millennials ask her about this much more than previous generations (perhaps because they're the first generation where this feels like there's a choice? She doesn't give any reasons.) And that's smart—anyone who is still in the figuring-thing-out stage ought to read this book as it will make you think very much about your career, your family, your life's goals, and what compromises you are willing to make. I like that she calls out society for making a big deal about "good dads" who are just doing regular parenting tasks that any mom would do without getting a second look. And she calls out women for not allowing men to do parenting or household work on their own terms. (She does not however call out men who purposefully mess those things up in order to get out of chores. I've seen it happen—it's not a myth, although hopefully it's not super-pervasive. And it's not just men—I had a horrible female roommate in college who tried that too.) She notes that as Generation X is becoming management, there are a lot less of us and so there is a management gap, and yet businesses still aren't willing to look at women who stepped out of the business world for many years.

I wish the author had read the entire book. She reads the prologue and the coda. And the narrator is just fine, but of course she doesn't have the same passion in her voice as the author, and the author was perfectly great so I am not sure why a separate narrator was necessary.

The book is certainly thought-provoking. It's a tad repetitive and the author seems slightly blind to the privilege she has (she acknowledges part of it, but not all). But it's a fascinating, thoughtful, and very worthwhile read. Especially for twenty-somethings. Think about what you want from life before it starts just happening to you without intention.

I checked this eaudiobook out of the library via Overdrive.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Book Review: The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati

A while back I asked friends to recommend to me must reads set in NY/NJ and my friend Jessica recommended this one, as she knows I like historicals. Given the length (over 700 pages), I had expected it to be a saga but instead it takes place over the course of about 2 months one summer in New York City in 1883.

Dr. Anna Savard is a surgeon at the New Amsterdam Charity Hospital and one day she steps in for her cousin, Sophie—also a physician—and a mulatto—with a group of newly accepted orphans coming into New York from New Jersey, who need to have a health check before they can enter the city. The Italian translator she discovers is actually a NYC cop, unusual as the force is mostly Irish, but she finds jack interesting, and so she's pleased when she later runs into him at a fancy-dress ball at the Vanderbilts' where he is working security. One set of orphans really caught her eye, and later she runs into half of them, the two girls, and discovers they were separated from their two brothers who are now missing. She takes the two girls home and they are virtually adopted by her Aunt Quinlan and cousin Margaret. Meanwhile, the love of Sophie's life, Cap, their friend since childhood, is dying of tuberculosis, and finally persuades Sophie to marry him in exchange for him going to Europe to try an experimental treatment (she didn't want to marry him as he's really wealthy and from Old Money who won't look at all kindly to him marrying a mixed-race woman who is a practicing doctor, no less.) Anna and Jack spend every non-working minute looking for the two missing orphan boys and falling in love, while occasionally looking at the about-to-open Brooklyn Bridge and traveling to the hinterlands of upper Manhattan, a wilderness still.

I really liked all the historical detail, although the anachronisms in everyone's attitudes and societal mores got a bit eye-rolling. Only one person in the entire book—Jack's youngest sister who is also an acknowledged bitch—looks askance at Sophie (other than the horrible moneyed people who shun Cap but they're supposed to all behave that way.)While The Establishment looks down on them for their racial acceptance and their professional careers, everyone else in their lives, everyone they meet, if super-progressive to the point that I think you could pluck Anna (or Sophie or Aunt Quinlan or Jack) out of 1883 and plop them into 2017 and they wouldn't miss a beat—they'd fit right in, instantly. So that was slightly annoying. Also I really wish I'd known this was supposed to be the first in a series. I don't like reading series one at a time, waiting for the next installment for years. My memory is too bad for that. No where in the description or in the end of the book does it say that (even in Goodreads it isn't listed as part of a series) but several commenters have noted it and also there were just way too many dropped threads at the end of the book for it to be anything else. Sophie and Cap go overseas halfway through the book, never to be seen again. A man is murdering women through purposefully botched abortions which Anna is helping Jack and his partner investigate, and he isn't caught. there's much broad hinting about Anna becoming pregnant but it doesn't happen. I'm assuming all of that wraps up in book 2.

Still it was a fun distraction, with lots of period details, and it's informative about the state of medical practice at that time and women's rights. If you like Gilded Age novels, this one is a fun one, but be forewarned about the lack of a sequel at this time.

I checked this book out of the library.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Book Review: You'll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein (audio)

I didn't know who Jessi Klein was before this book came out, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially on audio (and not a little because she sounds a bit like Julie Kavner.)

At first, I thought this memoir was more of a series of unrelated essays, but they mostly come together by the end. The only gap I felt was that at the end of the first section, when she talks about why it's not cute when a tomboy grows up into a tomman, she doesn't actually explain the shift that she finally made. It's clear from other chapters that she does now wear dresses and makeup, but how she got there was not quite clear.

But other than that, this is an often funny memoir of an awkward young girl who grows up to do stand-up and eventually to write for Amy Schumer (and win an Emmy). I especially liked the relationship parts, both about her ex-boyfriend Pete and also her husband Mike, as they felt very real and she didn't gloss them up at all. The time when Mike told her he thought she was mad at him because (they were about to go on a romantic trip) that he had thought about proposing to her, but now had decided against it, was particularly raw. She felt like a slightly neurotic old college friend who I'd love to hang out with. And it's so lovely to hear about her getting star-struck at the Emmys and also feeling like that was in no way the pinnacle of her life. It was all-around funny and relatable and just a great read.

I checked this eaudiobook out of the library via Overdrive.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Book review: Class by Lucinda Rosenfeld

I wasn't quite sure what to expect of a novel pitched as involving thoughts on class structure and white liberal attitudes, but I figured it would be somewhere between strident and earnest, two things I hate. Much to my thrill, the tone of this novel was instead, light-hearted and even humorous. And yet it does have many, many discussions of class, income disparity, racism, inequality, opportunity, and so on. But Ms. Rosenfeld handles them with such a light hand that you never once feel like you're being lectured.

Karen works in development at a non-profit, Hungry Kids, and her husband, a former housing lawyer, is working on an app to connect low-income families with housing. Their daughter, Ruby, goes to the local public school very deliberately, where she is one of only 4 white students in her class. But when a boy (African-American, poor) in the class hurts another student (white, not poor), and that student leaves for a neighboring much, much better school, it starts Karen wondering, both about the other school's academic possibilities, and also about her daughter's safety at her school, and how racist is it of Karen if she prioritizes her daughter's education and safety over her experience of diversity? Karen is also experiencing some ennui in her own life, as her job and marriage have become rather boring, and so she makes some poor decisions that get out of hand, add way too much excitement into her life, and possibly blow everything up. The book zips along quickly, possibly aided by the lack of chapters (which I didn't notice until I was 200 pages in although that's something I normally would have noticed sooner and that normally would have bugged me. But it didn't here.) Ms. Rosenfeld skewers white guilt and the lefty free-trade, non-high-fructose-corn-syrup, do-gooder holier-than-thou attitudes mercilessly and humorously. Karen is constantly torn by both belonging to that group, and yet recognizing the ridiculous of it all. In her inner monologue we get to experience the same doubts and questions and inconsistencies that rage in our own minds--is it racist to be worried about these African-American teenagers walking towards me when I'm alone at night and I'm certain that I'd be just as nervous if it was a group of white kids?

I am not a mom but I feel pretty sure all my friends who are would love this book. And it would be perfect for book clubs as there's a ton to discuss. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

I got a free ARC of this book from the publisher at the New England Independent Booksellers Association (NEIBA) annual trade show.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Book Review: The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth's husband Ficre died suddenly of a heart attack in 2011. As a poet (you might recognize her name as the poet who read at Obama's second inauguration), she had to write about it. Normally the words "poetic" and "lyrical" make me run for the hills, but Ms. Alexander is excellent and I thoroughly enjoyed this tragic memoir, that ultimately is about love more than it is about loss.

She goes back to talking about when they met, how they instantly connected and decided at the end of their first week together that they were going to get married (but they knew that sounded crazy so they didn't tell anyone until 6 weeks later). Ficre was a refugee who'd left war-torn Eritrea and lived in nearly a half a dozen different countries along the way to America, including Somalia, Germany, and Italy. At one point Elizabeth realizes that their entire relationship has happened in his fourth language. He was a chef and an artist. He was a great father to their two sons. And he was so very hard to live without.

I was scared to read this book for a long time because it seemed like it would be terribly sad but a strong thread of hope pervades the book. You know that Elizabeth didn't regret any moment she spent with him and would do it all over again. And along the way, she handles everything with grace and deep emotion that is so relatable and true.

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

Monday, January 9, 2017

Book Review: Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial by Rabia Chaudry (audio)

Did  you listen to the podcast, Serial? Did you love it? Yeah, me too. I knew this book came out last year and was mildly interested, but when I saw that Rabia herself narrated the audiobook, I was hooked. I am often skeptical of non-professional narrators but Ms. Chaudry did a Serial-companion podcast for a long time and is a professional public speaker so she is actually excellent.

Also, obviously, she's the best person to write this book. Aside from Adnan himself, she knows the most about this case (and being a lawyer and on the outside, she might even know more than Adnan.) Adnan Syed was her little brother's best friend throughout their childhoods in Baltimore so she feels like his big sister, too. In  1999, when she was in law school, Adnan, a high school senior, was arrested for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. And Ms. Chaudry, Adnan, and his family have been fighting to prove his innocence ever since.

This book naturally gives much more backstory and context than the podcast could do in 12 episodes. Also it has the benefit of being written after the fact, when more facts have come to the surface, when evidence has been synthesized and examined much more than Sarah Koenig had time to do on Serial, and when, thanks to Serial's insane popularity, thoughtful people came forward to volunteer their time and expertise to come to the truth of what happened that cold winter's night, 18 years ago. Ms. Chaudry also has the benefit of herself being a Muslim of Pakistani descent, to inform her perspective on the racism and anti-Muslim sentiment that informed the investigation and trial. I admit, I initially was skeptical that anti-Muslim views had as much of am impact as she claimed, but by the end of the book, I was convinced.

It's nearly impossible to prove an absence. It's much harder to prove that you are innocent than you might think. This book is chilling in that it makes it obvious how easily a person can be accused and essentially framed for a crime, if the police are convinced he did it. True that today, thanks to our always-online world, it would be easier to prove minute-by-minute where you were 6 weeks ago but seriously, if I asked you to account for every half-hour of your day on Nov. 28, could you do it? What if your life hung in the balance? It's a scary thought. I am really impressed with the man Adnan has become (even if he does seem a little paranoid about being perceived as manipulative, but given all he's been through, that one tic seems more than reasonable). It's hard to know the real truth and Ms. Chaudry is, admittedly, a far from unbiased reporter, but it does certainly seem like a miscarriage of justice has been done here, not only to Adnan, but also to Hae, whose killer seems to have gotten away scot-free.

If you're into true crime, this book is a must-read. You don't have to have listened to Serial first—Ms. Chaudry will fill in all the facts—but I'm pretty sure you'll want to. And it's great so you should. And if you already did, this book will give you a much-needed second bite at that fascinating story.

I checked this eaudiobook out of the library via Overdrive.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Book Review: The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

I read Dr. Mukherjee's previous book, The Emperor of All Maladies, and loved it, so this one was a no-brainer. After all, it's a very short list of writers who can make dense, complicated scientific writing so accessible and interesting to a lay person. This book wasn't quite at that level, but that is a very high bar so you should still read it.

My favorite stories were the narrative bits. The framing story of Dr. Mukherjee's own family, his uncle with schizophrenia and his other uncle with bipolar, both of whom were challenges for the family to deal with, was riveting. I also loved the beginning of the book when he talked about Darwin and especially about Mendel. I had no idea that poor Mendel, a German monk, had failed at his first job (minister) and was trying for a second career as a teacher, and he completely botched the licensing test more than once. And I mean really botched it. It's always fascinating for me to find people who are famous, who achieved amazing things, but who were actually considered failures at the time. It gives such hope to all of us, that no matter how down and out we might feel, we might still be having an easier time than someone like Mendel who proved the theory of heritability and therefore the theory of genes with his plant experiments. And THEN, his paper on the experiments was completely forgotten for almost 50 years, was very nearly forgotten altogether.

After all of this, when Dr. Mukherjee gets into the structure of the genes and the difficulty of mapping them and the ethical problems with changing them, at times I got a little lost in the weeds. I blame my terrible grasp of biology, not his writing for that. (I barely passed 9th grade biology.) But it did take me a little longer to finish the book than I'd anticipated. Still, it was worth it, and it was a terrific book to end the year on!

I checked this book out of the library.

2017 Reading Challenges

The last two years I've read 100 books both years. This year it was more of a struggle and did result in me not being able to finish the Chunkster challenge, but 2017 should be different as I won't have any cross-country moves. So this year I'm going to adjust that challenge to 80. If I read more, great, but I need to ratchet down the pressure a little.

I also am not sure where I'll be working in 2017 so that could affect what types of books I'll be reading, but I'm going to pick my challenges nonetheless.

The European Reading Challenge

Welcome to the 2017 European Reading Challenge – where participants tour Europe through books. And have a chance to win a prize. Please join us for the Grand Tour!

THE GIST: The idea is to read books by European authors or books set in European countries (no matter where the author comes from). The books can be anything – novels, short stories, memoirs, travel guides, cookbooks, biography, poetry, or any other genre. You can participate at different levels, but each book must be by a different author and set in a different country – it's supposed to be a tour. (See note about the UK, below)

WHAT COUNTS AS "EUROPE"?: We stick with the same list of 50 sovereign states that fall (at least partially) within the geographic territory of the continent of Europe and/or enjoy membership in international European organizations such as the Council of Europe. This list includes the obvious (the UK, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy), the really huge Russia, the tiny Vatican City, and the mixed bag of Baltic, Balkan, and former Soviet states.

THE LIST: Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and Vatican City.

NOTE: Even after Brexit, the United Kingdom is still one country, in Europe, that includes England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. So one book from any one of these four counts as your one book for the United Kingdom. I'm not going to be a stickler about it because challenges should be about fun not about rules. However, when it comes to winning the Jet Setter prize, only one book from one of the UK countries will count.

Carin says: After my three-year challenge reading a book from every state, I wanted an international challenge this year. I was originally thinking of something broader but A) most of the books I read will be from Europe, let's face it and B) I didn't find one but I found this one. I am signing up for the level of FIVE STAR (DELUXE ENTOURAGE): Read at least five books by different European authors or books set in different European countries. Whoever reads and reviews the most (but you only get to count each country once) is eligible for the Jet Setter prize, a $25 gift card to Powell's.

New Release Challenge

The rules for the 2017 New Release Challenge are simple:

Books have to be released and reviewed in 2017.
Other challenges can be used as well, as long as the ones you use for the 2017 New Release Reading Challenge qualify to the other rules.
The minimum length for a book to qualify is 100 pages, it can be in any format though, physical, e-book, ARC or audiobook.
You don’t have to be a blogger to participate, you can link to your review on Goodreads or Booklikes instead – so don’t be shy!

Carin says: Given that I am back in the land of publishing and hope to shortly be working again at a major publishing house, I need to stay on top of new releases. In fact, my bigger problem I hope is that 2018 books will not apply (I have already read 3 2017 books in 2016.) I am signing up for 31-60 books per year – New Release Pro which is only level 2. The host of this challenge is really hard-core and reads a ton more than I do and her top levels are ginormous. I read 29 2016 books in 2016 so this level seems perfectly do-able without completely knocking out all backlist from my reading.

The basics: The challenge runs from January to December. During this time you choose a book to read from each of the following categories. (Examples of books you could choose are in brackets – translations and other languages most definitely count!):

A number in numbers (84, Charing Cross Road; 12 Years A Slave; 31 Dream Street)
A building (The Old Curiosity Shop; I Capture The Castle; House Of Shadows; The Invisible Library; Jamaica Inn)
A title which has an ‘X’ somewhere in it (The Girl Next Door; The Running Vixen)
A compass direction (North and South; Guardians Of The West; The Shadow In The North; NW)
An item/items of cutlery (The Subtle Knife; Our Spoons Came From Woolworths)
A title in which at least two words share the same first letter – alliteration! (The Great Gatsby; The Luminous Life Of Lilly Aphrodite; Gone Girl; The Cuckoo’s Calling)

Extra information:
Books can be any format (print, audio, ebook).
It’s preferred that the books don’t overlap with other challenges, but not a requirement at all.
Books cannot overlap categories (for instance my example of I Capture The Castle could be used for ‘a building’ or ‘a title in which at least two words share a first letter’ but not both).
Creativity for matching the categories is not only allowed, it’s encouraged!
You don’t have to make your list of books beforehand, you can choose them as you go.
You don’t have to read your chosen books in any particular order.

Carin says: I like doing one of these more random challenges and I looked at a couple of bingo challenges (25 categories) and the PopSugar challenge for this year, but given my other challenges and the potential starting-a-new-job-needing-to-familiarize-myself-with-their-books-ASAP challenge on the horizon, I decided to go with this one with a smaller number of categories. And I've done it before and enjoyed it. Usually about half of them just happen naturally. 

Reading the Books That I Want Challenge
In 2015 I got frustrated with my reading challenges and my book clubs and other reading obligations. And while looking at my end of year post, I was annoyed that I didn't get to read a couple of books from the rather short list of books I was really looking forward to. And then I had an idea. Last year I created my own reading challenge, just for me. And it is to list the top 20 books on my TBR list and be sure I actually read them. I am very much looking forward to this! The list does not include any books currently assigned for my book clubs. I hope to read at least 10 of these books this year.

1. Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan
2. Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
3. Landline by Rainbow Rowell 
4. Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard
5. Garth Williams, American Illustrator: A Life by Elizabeth K. Wallace, James D. Wallace
6. Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) by David Sedaris
7. The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery
8. Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
9. Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss 
10. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
11. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
12. In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume
13. Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore
14. Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World by Rachel Swaby
15. Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America's Most Storied Hospital by David M. Oshinsky
16. Marrow: A Story of Love, Loss, and What Matters Most by Elizabeth Lesser
17. I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh
18. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong
19. The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game by Mary Pilon
20. The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar: Evolution's Most Unbelievable Solutions to Life's Biggest Problems by Matt Simon

Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016: The Year in Review

2016: The Year in Review

In 2010 I got this meme, I think from Boston Bibliophile. It was a fun way to summarize the year, so I now do it every year. This year I've added a couple of new categories (how many books for work and how many different publishers).

How many books read in 2016? 
My Goodreads goal was 100. Made it!

How many fiction and non fiction? 
42 fiction / 58 non-fiction. Normally it's closer to 50/50 but this was a rough year and then I tend towards NF. 

Male/Female author ratio? 
39 Male / 61 Female. Well, that's weird. I am usually very 50/50 here and this year I really wasn't paying attention. I wasn't expecting it to be so skewed. But cool!

Favorite book of 2016? 
A Man Called Ove by Frederick Bachmann

Least favorite? 
Sex and the City by Candice Bushnell

Any that you simply couldn't finish and why? 
I had no DNFs this year.

Oldest book read?  Basin and Range by John McPhee (1981)
Newest?  Unearthly Things by Michelle Gagnon (April 2017)

Longest and shortest book titles? (not including subtitles)
Longest:  Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? 
Shortest:  Leap

Longest and shortest books?
Longest: The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee (592 pages)
Shortest: Montclair by Elizabeth Shepard, Royal F. Shepard Jr. (128 pages)

How many books from the library? 
37. I love our new library! And two of these count as both--I read it from the library and then I got a copy.

Any translated books? 3

Most read author of the year, and how many books by that author? 
Hampton Sides and Peter Lovesey, 2

Any re-reads? 

Favorite character of the year? 
Sebastian/Mort(e) from the book Morte(e). He is a badass and yet his goal in life is to be a boring old guy named Mort. I get that. 

Which countries did you go to through the page in your year of reading? 
England, Australia, the American Colonies, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, France, Nigeria, New Mexico (yes, the country, not the state), Denmark, the USSR

Which book wouldn’t you have read without someone’s specific recommendation? 
Idaho (Jerry of PRH), The Book of Unknown Americans (Sally of Park Road Books), Black Water (Ali, who didn't recommend this book specifically but the entire backlist of Joyce Carol Oates), The Bookshop (Michael Kindness on the Books on the Nightstand podcast), A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip (Elaine Ruth), Lost Among the Birds (Brian of Toadstool Bookshop), Joe Gould's Teeth (Rudy at Soho), Mort(e) (Brad of PRH). Thanks everyone for the recs!

Which author was new to you in 2016 that you now want to read the entire works of? 
Rainbow Rowell

Which books are you annoyed you didn’t read? 
Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss and Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard

How many books did you read for work?

How many different publishers (not imprints) did you read?
Did you read any books you have always been meaning to read? 
Sex and the City, The Bookshop, One Thousand White Women

2016 TOP EIGHT Book Events in Carin’s Book Life—in no particular order:
8. Lead the WNBA Annual National Meeting in San Francisco.
7. Finished my term as President of the WNBA.
6. Let go from my job at Soho Press. (Normally everything on this list is a positive thing but the list doesn't specify that they must be.) (Sept)
5. Have had some great interviews, good prospects for jobs in the new year.
4. Got a job as Sales Manager for Soho Press (April).
3. My husband graduated from grad school (I know not a thing in my book life but it was an enormous stressor for us both and it allowed most of the rest of the things on the list to happen.)
2. Moved to the New York City area (Montclair, NJ).
1. Managed to get through 2016 in one piece, still standing. What a not-great year! 

My Month in Review: December

The Month in Review meme is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date:

Books completed this month: 
The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York by Alex Palmer
Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents by Robert Strauss
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
El Deafo by Cece Bell
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

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

What I acquired this month:
Christmas gifts from my husband!
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
Color Your Own Women of Power by Olivier Coipel (Illustrations), Arthur Adams (Illustrations), Skottie Young (Illustrations), Jim Cheung (Illustrations)
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen