Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Book Review: When I Was White by Sarah Valentine

When Sarah was 27, she learned her father wasn't her father, and that she is biracial.

With that premise, who can resist picking up this memoir? Not me! Sarah and her family were always asked if she was black, if she was mixed, if she was adopted, if she was Hispanic. She didn't look like her little brothers. Her skin was darker and her hair was frizzy and unruly. Plus her mom was always weird about things, like confiscating her Bell Biv Devoe tape. There was certainly no blatant racism in her house, but whenever Sarah showed any interest in anything overly black, including other children, it was quickly shut down. (There were exceptions for things like Michael Jackson albums, which were mainstream enough to pass muster.)

When Sarah did find out, this massive family secret, it seemed like everyone already knew. But it also was like she already knew. She'd had suspicions for a long time. She eventually just asked her mom. Even though her mother and father had gotten married before she was born, she knew her mom was pregnant when they did. But it's hard to question your paternity when you have photos of your dad in the delivery room. Also, her father, in the summertime, was often darker in skin tone than Sarah was! There were always excuses or explanations. But in the end, something was always... off. And so Sarah asked and she found out.

Well, she kind of found out. Her mother was reluctant to give her details. And what she said, changed. She wouldn't tell her the name of her father, and mostly claimed not to even know who it was. Sarah spends years asking more questions, investigating on her own, and asking around people who knew her parents back then who might know more.

In the meantime she's having to grapple with having been raised white in suburban Pittsburgh, when in fact she's half African-American. She knows next to nothing about her race, and the understanding of who she is is suddenly ripped out from under her. She has no one she can talk to about it, and has to start to try to figure out herself on her own.

As she is a college professor, the book is well written. Very occasionally, she does lapse into a tad too much detail, but it's easy enough to skim those short sections. Overall, it really makes you think about what you would do if you suddenly found out you weren't who you thought you were, and about family secrets--how they can both be so pervasive and so toxic.

This book is published by St. Martin's Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Book Review: The Story of the Great British Bake Off by Anita Singh

I adore the TV show The Great British Bake-Off. I've seen all the specials and all the Master Classes. I have read numerous blog posts about the show. I have researched if there's any way for an American to watch the first two seasons which have never been released here. I watch it over and over. I have my favorite bakers, and the one I hate. It's so comforting and reliable and delightful and of course, looks quite yummy. Hasn't inspired me to bake yet, but it's come close. And I haven't baked in years so that's saying something.

I was of course worried for the last two seasons when Mary Berry and the two original hosts all left after a dispute with the BBC, but when I heard the new judge was Prue Leith, I breathed a sigh of relief, and the two new hosts have proven quite amusing as well.

This book is a couple of years old, so it does explain the whole dispute, but ends just before the season with all the new people. I can't believe I didn't hear about this book when it first published, but it's published by a rather obscure publisher. They did a gorgeous job with full-color full bleed pages, beautifully designed, with a paper over board cover that's both gifty and won't get abused like a jacket would. The text explains everything and somehow imitates the faintly snarky but mostly polite and kind feel of the show itself. It's just so very British. I wish it had been twice as long, is my only critique. (It's not short, I just wanted loads more gossip and backstage trivia and tales among the bakers.)

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore, Watchung Booksellers, on Independent Bookstore Day.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Book Review: Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro (audio)

Dani Shapiro did something pretty innocently that felt extremely minor at the time, that changed her life. Her husband was researching his family tree and he was doing the DNA testing at Ancestry.com, and he convinced Dani to do it as well. He sent off the vials of spit, and weeks later the results arrived. As they were packing to go on a trip, Dani looked at her results and got shocking news--her half-sister who had already done the testing herself, wasn't related to her at all. Her father was not her father.

This revelation naturally opened a can of worms and Dani spent months trying to track down the truth. She knew the usual conclusion wasn't the answer here--her mother hadn't had an affair. This was something more complicated. And to make matters more difficult, most everyone involved was dead. Both Dani's parents had already died, her older family members as well, and she was left tracking down ghosts.

I listened to the audio which was so compelling, with Dani reading it herself, that I listened to the entire thing in two days. I'm sure everyone has thought about this sort of thing from time to time--what if I was really adopted? What if secretly, I was the heir to an obscure throne? What if these crazy family members weren't related to me after all? Dani, a blonde-haired blue-eyed girl in a family of Orthodox Jews, had her heritage questions more than most but it never occurred to her before. And now, the rug was pulled out from under her.

I borrowed this eaudiobook from Overdrive/Libby via my local library.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Book Review: Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing by Robert A. Caro

A few years ago I finally tackled The Power Broker, and boy am I glad I did. Robert Moses was a terrifying, powerful, single-minded man who puts one to mind of an evil character from an old cartoon. He's in fact, hard to believe, unless you have the massively thorough research of Robert Caro behind you. I have long wanted to read his Lyndon Johnson books but A) they're awe-inspiringly long and B) he's not done yet with the series. But now, I have to resign myself to the fact that there's no way I can read them until after I retire. Well. They'll still be around then.

In the meantime, Caro gave us this wonderful little amuse-bouche of a memoir of his writing. I call it am amuse-bouche not because it's a tiny book--it's only tiny in comparison to his other books. It's a taste, a hint, an appetite-whetter. And I succumbed--I have added all of the Johnson books to by To Read list even though it will be decades before I can get to them. But that feels appropriate as a theme throughout Working is people asking Caro when his book is going to be finished. And a half-apology even for writing this book at all, as it necessarily must delay the fifth Lyndon Johnson book, even if just by a little, and readers are champing at the bit for it.

This book goes into detail about exactly how he does his research, how he interviews, and how he writes (and rewrites and revises), explaining a heck of a lot of why it seems to take a decade for each book he writes. You just don't get Pulitzer-quality work by rushing. His wife Ina also does the research right alongside him, and he gives her a lot of credit--at first for keeping their heads above water when he was several years overdue on The Power Broker and they were broke, she sold their house to fund another year of writing. And later simply for her diligent, exhaustive research by his side. In fact, when they moved to the Hill Country of Texas (that's how thoroughly he researches his subjects--he moved to where Lyndon Johnson grew up to understand what it was like), it was Ina who learned how to make jam in order to really gain full entree into the homes of their neighbors, and gain their confidence, so they'd speak more openly.

This is a perfect little book to tide you over if you're anxiously awaiting the next Johnson title, or one to try if you've always been curious about the Caro books but aren't sure about the commitment. And I highly recommend the audio, read by the author.

I borrowed this eaudiobook book from my local library via Libby/Overdrive.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Book Review: The Lost Man by Jane Harper, narrated by Stephen Shanahan (audio)

I really can't recommend Jane Harper's books in audio strongly enough. As discussed in the interview with the author at the end, each of her books so far takes place in a very different part of Australia, in which the setting acts like another, perhaps the most important, character in the book. And Stephen Shanahan brings that character to life. His Australian accent is both thick and completely understandable (not always a given, trust me.)

Nathan, the oldest of the three Bright brothers, has been out fixing fences with his son Xander just before Christmas, when he hears on the radio that his middle brother Cam, who has been running the family ranch, has been found dead in the middle of the Outback, in the shade of the tombstone of the Stockman's Grave. Their youngest brother, Bub, is standing watch, waiting for both Nathan and the authorities to make their way there. Nathan has died from dehydration and heat, but why on earth was he out here in the middle of nowhere, when he was supposed to be meeting Bub to fix an antenna, and his SUV--well stocked with water and other supplies--was just a few miles away? Why did he leave the car? With no supplies? Why did he walk out to this forsaken place? No one who grew up on a cattle station in the Outback like them, would ever have done this by mistake. Was it suicide? Or murder?

Nathan, an outcast from the town, can't just accept the police's assumption that it was suicide when there don't seem to be any signs of that, and it doesn't fit with his brother's personality. Even though he's turning up long-past secrets many would prefer to remain in the past, he can't help but keep looking into it, to know what truly happened to his brother.

A twisty turny mystery without a traditional detective, this novel fully immerses you in the life of the Outback, where generators are turned off at night and there's no electricity, where groceries are bought months in advance by the truckload, and where being alone can be a death sentence. Will this family pull together in the face of this adversity, or rip each other apart?

This book is published by Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan, my employer. 

I downloaded the eaudiobook from Libby/Overdrive via my public library.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Book Review: Amazing Decisions: The Illustrated Guide to Improving Business Deals and Family Meals by Dan Ariely, illustrated by Matt R. Trower

So, I am the daughter of an economist, so I'm not your typical lay reader of books like this. Plus I have read three of his previous books (and own a fourth) so I am well-versed in his theories and ways of thinking. In fact, I was a little worried about possibly finding this book redundant or too basic. But not at all!

In a nutshell, the book covers the two basic types of motivation: financial and social. I make some decisions for financial considerations, but a lot of others, including some you might think of as financial like how hard I work at my job, turns out to have more of a social motivation. I am friends with most of my accounts, and most of my colleagues. One colleague, Ben, and I work jointly every season on a huge project we have to do before we can go on the road. No one told us or even suggested that we join up and do it as a team--it happened organically, and I really like how we help each other on it. All this is fairly self-evident when you pay attention, but the book gave me a huge insight. My SO had a previous job that was baffling to me. It was not great with a not great boss, but somehow the job was so much worse than that. I've had plenty of those myself in the past, but none of them seemed as soul-sucking as this one. And he kept reporting things that I found really confusing, like how he couldn't get anyone, no matter how much he begged and pleaded, to cover shifts for him when we would go on vacation, despite having covered shifts for all of them in the past. I just found that so weird. Weirder still: this was a job in the helping community at a non-profit, where people supposedly do the job for the love of it, not for the really low pay. So why were all of his colleagues so difficult and uncooperative?

Well it turns out, the way his boss had injected finances into their everyday workplace was the problem! She was daily nickel and diming them on everything. Every minute of every day it seems she was pressuring them to keep costs unreasonably low. And she was miserly with giving them any time to do mandated reporting, for example, as that was a minute they weren't seeing a billable client. By bringing the finances of the company into the day to day workplace, no one was motivated by social factors any longer. As Dan Ariely explained about one study done: when workers were paid more to make more widgets on Monday and Tuesday, while their productivity went up those two days, it went down so hard on Wednesday through Friday, that overall the employees made fewer widgets than previously. When the only reward you ever get is money, and never a "well done" or "great job" or "I so appreciate that," you learn that your employer only thinks of you as a revenue generator, not a human, and eventually you learn to turn that attitude back around on them as well. It's particularly toxic, and was especially bizarre in that environment. But it was nice to suddenly have it all make sense, even if it's bad sense.

This book is a good primer of some real basics of decision-making and the underpinnings of a lot of behavioral economics. It tries hard to not be dry (well, it's economics so you've got to be prepared for a bit of that going in) and I found it overall fun and like an extended, older version of a Schoolhouse Rocks.

This book is published by Hill & Wang, an imprint of FSG, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Book Review: Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman (audio)

I took a fair amount of Art History in high school and college, and my mother and two sisters all majored or have graduate degrees in it, so I thought I knew about Vincent Van Gogh. He's not an obscure or unusual artist, and he has a memorable life story. So I wasn't sure what I'd get from this book--maybe just fleshing out what I knew.

Turns out, a lot of what I thought I knew was inaccurate. Van Gogh did not just sell one painting in his life, to his brother. He sold at least a half dozen paintings. And none of them to Theo exactly--Theo was an art dealer. Theo sold most of the paintings for Vincent. So that's wrong.

And their back story is even more interesting than I'd known. Their father was a minister and while he set them up in their careers (Vincent was also supposed to work as an art dealer), he didn't anticipate that the moral high ground he'd raised them with would result in both brothers, in their twenties, having long-standing relationships with prostitutes. I don't mean they were frequenters of multiple prostitutes. I mean they each met a young woman, fell in love, and thought they could "save her." They lived with these women, and Vincent even helped raise his girlfriend's child. Neither relationship worked out in the long run though.

Theo moved to Paris first and what I found utterly fascinating was how he was writing to Vincent, in words, what the Impressionists' paintings looked like, trying to convince him to use a lighter palette with more color, and so Vincent's very different post-Impressionistic style was largely a result of him trying to be more like the Impressionists, who he'd never seen. (He did later but his style was pretty well set by that point.) Then Vincent started having mental health issues. He seems pretty bipolar but it's hard to diagnose these things after the fact from afar. In Paris he became roommates with Paul Gauguin, and apparently there's an interesting alternate theory about him cutting off his ear, which sounded pretty plausible to me (Gauguin had a bad temper and was a master fencer and brought his swords to their apartment, hmm....) Theo finally married a woman he'd loved for many years who had initially spurned him but unfortunately, his past caught up with him, and he soon fell ill and died. I had hoped, knowing that Vincent died young, that Theo would live a long life promoting his brother's art, alas.

This book really brought this artist and his brother to life. I think the only reasons it's classified as young adult is the length, and the prostitutes. But heck, I think not only can more mature younger kids read it, but adults can most certainly get a lot out of it. I sure did!

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

I listened to this eaudiobook via Overdrive/Libby through my local library. The print book is published by Henry Holt, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Book Review: The Incomplete Book of Running by Peter Sagal (audio)

Peter Sagal loves to run. He didn't always. It came on more slowly for him. But as an adult, he has run and run and run. It has been an obsession at times. At other times, it's been therapy. As he went through a very rough, multi-year divorce (and no, you don't get any details, mind your own business), it particularly was helpful. He's not a great runner or a graceful one, and yet--he thinks you should try it too. Everyone can run. As Jim Fix famously said, all you need are two things--shoes and shorts (socks and shirts being optional in his mind.) He's run marathons, half-marathons, 5Ks and my favorite--a one mile run in his underwear.

As per the title, he doesn't claim to be an expert or to be giving out the be all end all of running advice. He is telling his story of running, giving a few tips along the way in case they're useful, and hoping you'll enjoy the story. He recommends not listening to anything at all while you run (which is crazy! Almost every episode of his NPR show, Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, I've listened to as a podcast while walking. I don't run, I walk, including a full marathon.) Twice he's lead blind runners on marathons--famously the first time he did it, they crossed the finish line less than a minute before the bombs went off at the Boston marathon, which then turned into his one appearance on NPR's news.

It's a great book for runners, but more so for any aspiring runners or wannabe runners. Peter won't show you up or criticize your gait or tell you to buy hella expensive shoes. He'll just encourage you to get up and move. And if you want to be listening to him telling you all about it while you run (or walk), I highly recommend that as you probably already know his voice very well. It's both soothing and his enthusiasm really comes through.

I borrowed this eaudiobook from the library via Libby/Overdrive.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Book Review: The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar: Evolution's Most Unbelievable Solutions to Life's Biggest Problems by Matt Simon, narrated by Jonathan Todd Ross (audio)

What a fascinating book! I really want a pet waterbear. They're microbial creatures that you can boil, that can get down to one half degree above absolute zero, blast out into space without a spacesuit, or dry out for 20 years, and they will survive all of these things! How amazing! And the elasticity of the skin of the naked mole rat, means it doesn't get cancer. There's a fish called the pearlyfish that, in order to hide from predators, swims up the butt of sea cucumbers and well... lives there.

This book very much reminded me of the completely delightful Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation by Olivia Judson which I read a couple of decades ago. While the story of pretty much all creatures great and small does revolve around sex, since any creature's #1 goal is reproduction, Mr. Simon does branch out into unusual habitats, cool ways creatures kill each other, and other bizarre evolutionary traits. Tiger beetles run so fast they temporarily blind themselves and have to occasionally stop and readjust (they don't, as I assumed, have wind blasting into their eyes so fast they dry out, instead light can't enter their eyes fast enough to process sight.) There's a species of fish that, in order to get away from sharks, shoots globs of goop into sharks' gills to suffocate them. There's a shrimp that can snap its claws so fast the friction causes heat as hot as the surface of the sun.

Do you like fun facts? Any interest in science? Better if your interest is superficial as he doesn't dive into deep details about anything, and there is some fairly juvenile humor occasionally. But the narrator sounds a tiny bit like Casey Kasem which I like. (I wish he wouldn't have such long pauses but that's easily overlooked.) I know I missed out on some illustrations with the audio version, and at first I was confused by what appeared to be some repetition, but which I eventually figured out were captions for those illustrations. This is a satanic leaf tailed gecko. That "leaf" is part of the gecko:

Much fun for a very-armchair biologist! And I got a D in high school biology so you really need no interest or aptitude at all. Just tuck in and find out about the zombie ants and the spiders that look like bird poop and how many creatures can regenerate body parts.

I downloaded this eaudiobook from Libro.fm, which supports independent bookstores.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Book review: Past Perfect Life by Elizabeth Eulberg

Ally Smith lives in an adorable small town in Wisconsin, where she is in with the "in crowd," which is a family that comprises half the town (literally). The boy she likes might actually be into her. And she's pretty sure about her college plans. Until, while filling out applications, her social security number is bounced back as invalid. She goes to her high school counselor to sort it out, and... The FBI shows up. Turns out, she's been kidnapped. By her beloved father, from a mom she never knew, and in fact believed to be dead.

At first, she hopes she can finish out her senior year staying with her friends at her high school, but her mother, who is understandably elated to have found her and baffled by Ally's lack of similar excitement, wants to take Ally home to Florida and her new family. As Ally is under 18 (which she did not know--her dad had changed her birthday too), she has no choice in the matter. She gets to see her father one time after he's locked up, and then she's shipped off.

She is furious at her father but also bereft at his loss. She is annoyed by her new overprotective and overbearing mother. She hates her new school (where, to avoid press, she also has to go by a pseudonym and make up a backstory which is harder than you'd think.) Her new younger half-sister seems to be a total bitch. She can't even have her beloved dog. In a very nice touch, her new step-father is the most understanding and empathetic--but not too much--person in the story, by far. Ally is confused, abandoned, lonely while being overloved, hiding from reporters, trying to meet a huge new family she never knew existed, trying to reconcile her past and her feelings for her father, and in general, just dealing with a new life that seems like a hot mess.

This is a very plot-driven book which plays out a fascinating what-if scenario (and not one as far-fetched as you might think as the vast majority of kidnapping cases, the kidnapper is a family member and they're due to custody battles.) As I am of a certain age, this REALLY reminded me (in plot device, not in storytelling or anything else) of The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney, which I don't remember as being this angsty. But while the character in that book may have had an easier transition, Ally's very difficult situation actually felt more realistic.

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

This book is being published by Bloomsbury, which is distributed by Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Book Review: The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess

One could argue that the 1980s was the last heyday of book publishing. But Eve would not have agreed with you. As an assistant at a prestigious literary house, she shuffles papers and keeps her boss's correspondence in line. Her family has a beach house on Cape Cod, near one of the authors her boss publishes, a past-his-prime nonfiction New Yorker writer. Eve goes to a party at his house, meets his hunky son, and has a fling with him. The writer, Henry, offers her a job as his researcher, and when she is passed over for a promotion at work, she takes him up on it. She is hoping to run into the son again and that their dalliance will lead to something more, but she finds out about his girlfriend, alas. And then she starts to sleep with Henry. Hiding their affair from his wife, a famous poet.

At the end of the summer, the writer and the poet host a famous "book party" where everyone comes dressed as a literary character, and you can "win" the party by being the first to correctly identify everyone. So while your character shouldn't be so obscure that no one can guess them, there is a striving for going off the beaten path and picking a costume that isn't too obvious.

Needless to say, at the party, everything comes to a head. Secrets will out and out some more, and there's a fracas and it's all a voyeuristic delight for the literary set. The perfect smart beach read.

This book is published by Henry Holt, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Monday, July 1, 2019

My Month in Review: June

The Month in Review meme is hosted by Nicole at Feed Your Fiction Addiction.

I note the non-Macmillan books in this post with a star.

Books completed this month:
For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity by Liz Plank
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep (audio)*
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Why My Cat Is More Impressive Than Your Baby by Matthew Inman, The Oatmeal*
Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis by Lisa Sanders (audio)*
Beheld: A Novel by TaraShea Nesbit
Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl (audio) *
The Queen Bee and Me by Gillian McDunn

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (audio) *
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
When Did the Statue of Liberty Turn Green? And 101 Other Questions about New York City by Jean Ashton*

What I acquired this month (non-work books): 
Why My Cat Is More Impressive Than Your Baby by Matthew Inman, The Oatmeal--this was just too hilarious. I first saw it at Loyalty Bookshop in Washington DC but didn't get it and regretted it, so I later bought it at Kramerbooks.
All We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin--a friend told me this was set in Nashville (my hometown) and is pretty good so I picked it up at Doylestown Bookshop.