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Monday, August 3, 2020

Book Review: When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams

When Terry's mother was dying, she told Terry she was leaving her journals to her. She had 54 of them, one for every year of her life. But Terry had to promise not to read them until after she died.

After her death, Terry reached to them for comfort, and she found... nothing. Nothing. They were blank. All of them. She bought one every year and kept them all on a shelf. What did it mean? What did it mean that she gave them to Terry? And now in 54 short essays and meditations, Terry looks at her life, her mother's life, and tries to make sense of the world.

First of all, I have to say WOW, Terry is SO much more understanding and resigned to this situation that I would have been. I would have been utterly furious. I imagine a lot of screaming, "how dare she!" It's one thing to have pretended to keep a journal. After all, they're Mormon, and that's expected of all women, regardless of whether they actually want to, if they find it helpful, or if it's a burden to them. But to tell Terry they were especially for her and to  make her promise not to read them until after she's dead, and leave no explanation--that's really cavalier with Terry's feelings at the worst time in her life. 

That being said, if you can get past the origin of this book, the essays are beautiful. Ms. Williams is a terrific writer, who loves the environment and the nature surrounding us. She takes inspiration from her mother's lack of voice, and gives her voice back to her. Using the recurring metaphor of women as birds, she ties it all together. It was a quick read and definitely worth it. I've heard of writers and writing classes using this book and that makes sense to me. 

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

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Book Review: Becoming by Michelle Obama


I wanted to read this book when it first came out like everyone under the sun. But I heard the audiobook was the way to go. And it's (just) over nineteen hours. Which just has been too much of a commitment for me to make until now. Now, instead of going to the gym, I'm walking for 2 hours 4 days a week, which meant I could finally tackle it without worrying it would take me so long to finish that I'd have forgotten the beginning by then! (Also, because I knew it would take me more than 2 weeks to listen, I couldn't get it through my library. I had to purchase it.)

Michelle has a fairly ordinary growing up, if rather poor. On the infamous South Side of Chicago she lived in a small apartment with her parents and older brother Craig, in a little house owned by her aunt and uncle. She took piano lessons, eventually went to a better school, and followed her brother to Princeton, where he'd won a basketball scholarship (despite her school counselor telling her she couldn't get in to Princeton.) I was very struck by a comment made by Michelle's mother after Barack was elected, when she was asked about how Michelle was a special child. Her mother said she wasn't special. She said, there are hundreds of kids just like Michelle and Craig on the South Side--we just aren't looking for them. And I can see that. Which isn't to say that Michelle isn't brilliant and accomplished and impressive--she's all those things and more. But truly, there was nothing exceptional about her that made you think she'd end up in the White House. If she was in my book club or I worked with her, that would make sense. She's so accessible and down-to-earth, and Everywoman.

She did work hard and her accomplishments are laudatory, and I'm no longer annoyed that she didn't do more as First Lady, as I once was. She was trying to find a good balance, her kids were young, her job wasn't something she could keep doing, and she did do a lot with nutrition and health for kids. In fact, she did a lot more than I knew, along with Jill Biden, from getting food vendors who sell to schools to provide better options, to getting the parent company of Olive Garden to offer more low-calorie options. 

I kept waiting for a moment to happen when she was shocked by what was happening and that never did occur. But that also makes sense. Everything was incremental. The road the White House was built in many small steps over years. That realization makes it seem much more like truly, anyone can be president. With Barack's books, it seems he saw the path laid out more clearly and earlier on than she did, but there wasn't ever a point where she would've said, "Wait, that's crazy!" 

Meanwhile, there are gowns and celebrity sightings, and backstage details. It was inspiring, and right now a real kick in the head, too. Man, what a classy, smart, together family we once had in the White House. We really let them down in the last election. It's nice to remember how great they were but also sad in comparison.

I bought this audiobook digitally from Libro.fm. 

Saturday, August 1, 2020

My Month in Review: July

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:
When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams
Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen by Mary Norris*
Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller*
Broken (In the Best Possible Way) by Jenny Lawson 
Even the Stiffest People Can Do the Splits: A 4-Week Stretching Plan to Achieve Amazing Health by Eiko*
Becoming by Michelle Obama (audio)*
Buses Are a Comin': Memoir of a Freedom Rider by Charles Person, with Richard Rooker

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Check, Please!, Book 2: Sticks and Scones by Ngozi Ukazu
Love Is for Losers by Wibke Brueggemann
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein (audio)*

What I acquired this month (non-work books):
none. I was good! Also I am moving and the last thing I wanted to move was more books.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Book Review: Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen by Mary Norris

Mary tried to learn Latin as a child but her father opposed her learning a "dead" language. As an adult, she pursued Greek with abandon. Her job at the New Yorker would pay for continuing ed, so she was able to expense her initial classes, but when she started studying Ancient Greek, as opposed to contemproary (which are pretty completely different languages), they balked. After some help, that went through and she not only pursued the learning (complete with acting in a couple of Ancient Greek plays, in Greek), but of course had to go to Greece.

She prefers to travel alone, especially as her travel style isn't compatible with many people's. She prefers to do absolutely everything it is possible to do and see in a place. She's not good at sitting by a pretty place and just relaxing.

But she is an excellent companion for this armchair traveler! I have long aspired to visit Greece but I haven't managed it so far, and I think when I finally do, I'll have to reference this book as she has some places she really enjoys. I was thrilled to see that she visited The Parthenon in Nashville, my hometown, and she liked it! Its' hard to describe to people how a life-sized Pathernon, made of aggregate instead of marble, in the middle of a park in Tennessee, can be impressive and not kitschy. Few people believe you until they see it for themselves. She was a doubter. 

If you have any love of language, any dreams of visiting Greece, this was a delightful and fun read. I truly enjoyed it.

I bought this book at Quail Ridge Books, an independent bookstore.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Book Review: Inferno: A Memoir of Motherhood and Madness by Catherine Cho

Catherine Cho never placed much credence in her parents' Korean superstitions. So when she and her husband had a baby boy and coincidentally,  just after they had the opportunity to come back from England for an extended trip around the US to introduce their son to friends and family, it made sense. Her parents were horrified as he wasn't 100 days old yet. Also she hadn't subscribed to the myths about staying in bed for the first 21 days and all that goes with that.

At first, the trip went great. They began on the West Coast and drove East. In Virginia, where Catherine is from, things started to be uncomfortable, but she thought that was due to her family who were never comfortable people to be around, in the best of times. Then at her in-law's in New Jersey, she saw the devil in her baby's eyes. Next thing she knew, she woke up in a locked ward.

The storytelling goes back and forth, explaining Catherine's childhood, an abusive relationship she was in before, and what life was like on the ward for her now. She pieced back together, from medical notes and her husband's recollections, what happened that last bad few days that caused her family to have her committed. And she had to piece things back together, if she ever wanted to put her life back together, and go back home.

Certainly there are some shadows of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Awakenings, but Catherine's story is purely her own. We've all known someone who's struggled with postpartum depression, but postpartum psychosis is something else. And she tells it so amazingly, it's shocking to realize that the person who was once so unhinged, is the same person reconstruction those events so beautifully. Insanity is such an incredibly hard thing to write from first person (although as a reader, that's the best way to understand it) and it reminded me a little of Jill McCorkle's The Cheer Leader which is my gold standard for that. Gives you an incredible amount of empathy and sympathy for people who go through this, and an understanding as to why there's such a stigma. The ending, with Catherine now suffering debilitating periods of depression, probably for the rest of her life, is melancholy, but realistic. This book reminds me why I love memoirs so much. This was a riveting story but one I would never, ever want to live through.

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

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Book Review: March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women by Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jane Smiley (audiobook)

This is a short book of four essays, one focusing on each of the four March sisters in Little Women, by four prominent women authors of today. 

My favorite was Jane Smiley. Some of the other essays I felt had anachronisms and were not always considering the world of the later 1800s--they were often forcing the morals and feminism of today on a different century which isn't fair. But that was rare. Ms. Smiley was the one writer who really did not do that. It also made me rethink the character of Amy somewhat, which I'd already started doing after the most recent movie adaptation. 

And the essay on Beth was interesting in pointing out that as idealized as Beth was, that's problematic in its own way. She wasn't allowed to be a three-dimensional person like her real-life counterpart, Lizzie. 

Meg was the boring sister when we all ready this book as tweens/teens, but now, I think I am a Meg. She shouldn't be dismissed so lightly as she tends to be by younger readers, as she's the stable, stalwart one who follows her heart.

Finally, Jo. Beloved Jo. Frustrating Jo. Jo who stands in for the author. Jo who most young girls identify with initially. I don't want to say too much about her, but the essay rings very true.

This was super enjoyable, a short read (or listen) and if you're at all a fan, you will love it.

I downloaded this digital audiobook from my local library via Libby/Overdrive.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Book Review: The Mall by Megan McCafferty

It's 1991. Cassie has just graduated from high school. She missed the beginning of the summer due to an aggressive bout of mono, but now she's ready to tackle her fun summer job at a cookie store at the mall with her perfect boyfriend before heading off to college in NYC with him. What could be better?

Well it turns out that while she was sick, he was cheating on her. And she gets fired for never showing up at work. What looked like the ideal summer is now the worst! She can't bear the humiliation of telling her parents (plus she does need a job) so after spending a couple of fruitless days at the mall applying for "Dylan" and "Brandon" jobs (she has a hilarious Beverly Hills 90210-based ranking system of mall jobs), she ends up with the worst job possible: working in the slutty dress shop owned by the mother of her former best friend. And yes, former best friend still works there too. While avoiding her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend and figuring out where her life is going, she runs across a treasure map of sorts based around old Cabbage Patch dolls, and ends up having the summer of her life!

1991 is also the summer I graduated from high school. This book SO spoke to me! I know it's classified as YA, but I think anyone who grew up then will love it. In fact I think today's teens will miss a lot of the cultural references and not enjoy the nostalgia as much. It's a light, fun read, perfect for summer.

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

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Book Review: Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller

NPR reporter Lulu Miller felt she'd made a mess of her life. Ever since she was a kid and asked her dad what was the meaning of life, and he'd answered "Nothing!" she'd felt unmoored, pointless, depressed. Her father had seen it as freedom, but she found it terrifying. She ran across a story of a man, David Starr Jordan, which inspired her, and she set out to find out more about him, hoping it would bring order to her chaotic life.
David Jordan was the first president of Stanford. He also was a taxinomist, identifying and naming a quarter of all the known species of fish in the world. By many counts, he'd been incredibly successful. But he'd also suffered many losses: his first wife, a beloved daughter, and his entire fish collection. The 1906 earthquake sent his fish collection crashing to the floor in a sea of broken glass, with the names of the fish floating unattached. It also set fires on campus and destroyed buildings, even unironically crashing a statue of Jordan's mentor headfirst into the ground. Yet he picked himself up and set right back to setting things straight. He not only saved a lot of his collection, he came up with a clever solution of sewing the name tags directly onto the fish, so they could never be separated again. How could someone face devastating losses and keep going, with cheer and energy, knowing it could happen again? This is what Lulu wanted to figure out.
But maybe that's not all that was going on with Mr. Jordan? In fact, maybe he wasn't someone to put on a pedestal at all. Maybe his way of thinking is just as flawed and problematic as all of us. And maybe, along the way, Lulu will find out more about herself. And maybe she'll figure out she doesn't need this man to emulate, this crutch, after all.
I bought this book from an independent bookstore.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Book Review: A Royal Affair by Allison Montclair

In book 2 of this series, Gwen and Iris's fledgling matchmaking business is picking up, so much so that they are eyeing the office next door, complete with two enormous, extravagant desks, for expansion. Their dreams will be helped by a nice paycheck when a friend of Gwen's titled family arrives, who works for the Queen (unofficially. But officially. She'll deny it if you ask. But she totally works for the Queen.) It seems that young Princess Elizabeth is enamored of a minor Greek Prince who might be of dubious background, and now a cryptic note has arrived, threatening scandal. Gwen and Iris seem like just the young women to look into this sort of thing. And of course, they are.

Yes, we all know Elizabeth married Phillip, but that doesn't rule out the suspense of secrets and lies and royal machinations. And someone sure seems to want Gwen and Iris to stop their investigating! Is it Iris's old boss? An enemy of the royal family? I for one really appreciate that their investigations so far all make sense, for women who aren't in fact private investigators. The secrets kept me guessing, and there was a great twist I didn't see coming in the denouement. I can't wait for the next Sparks and Bainbridge mystery!

This book is published by Minotaur, an imprint of Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Book Review: Dung for Dinner: A Stomach-Churning Look at the Animal Poop, Pee, Vomit, and Secretions that People Have Eaten (and Often Still Do!) by Christine Virnig, illustrated by Korwin Briggs

If you have any kids in your life who like gross stuff, here's the perfect book for them! They'll learn interesting and fascinating things and not even realize it. Not useful things--but it's still learning. It's especially great for reluctant readers. Do you want to know why the Egyptians ate poop? All the many times pee has been used as something useful? Why people might eat other super gross things from your body. Yuck. But can't put it down. NOT for reading at or near mealtime.

This book is published by Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Book Review: This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Medical Resident by Adam Kay (audiobook)

Adam became a doctor. He picked it when he was 16 and in the UK, there's not a lot of room for looking back or changing course from there on out. Some terminology is different (I was surprised by the fact that once a doctor finishes up all of what we call the internship and residency, he or she stops going by Dr. Kay and goes back to Mr. Kay which is somehow better.)

He quickly settles on ob/gyn as his specialty through process of elimination, and he's quite good at it. But it takes a real toll. The hours are brutal, babies are unexpected, complications are myriad, and there's no room left for emotions or a personal life. Luckily Mr. Kay kept both a journal and his sense of humor.

You can't be especially squeamish to read (or listen) to this book as the number and variety of bizarre things people will stuff up inside themselves is astounding. Along the way, though, you do hear numerous stories that will make you smile, laugh, occasionally be sad, and will give a great deal of appreciation for all of your physicians from here on out. They are human. And this is a tough job. Thankfully, parts of it are funny. Although the other parts are why Mr. Kay isn't a doctor anymore. But he's also a good writer!

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

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Book Review: Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels by Rachel Cohen

Just after Rachel had her first baby, her beloved father's illness returned and he died. She found throughout the period in which she had two children and lost her father, she could read nothing else but Jane Austen. She returned over and over and over again to her five novels (not Northanger Abbey which is a farce of a Gothic novel.) At different times, different novels spoke to her. She could pick them up anywhere and just read a few pages and put them down. Reading them was more of a form of meditating, rather than novel reading. She wasn't reading for content or critique, but for comfort and reassurance. Much like H is for Hawk, this novel is about how grief renders one utterly shocked and unable to cope in their usual ways--therefore glomming on to a talisman that seems to make some sense of the new world.

At times the book made me sad. Rachel's father sounds delightful. I have a professor father myself, but we never go on walks (unless you count golf in which case on vacations we often go on walks.) It's a fascinating idea, for one who hasn't reread a book in years, to consider rereading and rereading and rereading. What new insights would one get on the 20th rereading? The 50th? Would I one day grow to like, or at least appreciate, Mansfield Park? Unlike other readers I've always liked Emma--would I perhaps grow frustrated with her? Anne is so passive and so sad, but has been my favorite heroine--would she stay that way? And the silly Marianne, would I perhaps appreciate her emotionality more?

Alas, I don't see me finding out, but I do, in my own way, revisit Austen's novels over and over, through pastiches, retellings, biographies, hagiographies, and other variations on this theme. This likely will be a lifelong pastime.

And it it calming to read this quiet meditation on Austen, on her life and her heroines, during a difficult time in someone else's life, and how Austen provided solace and comfort. Each of us will deal with grief in our own time and our own way, and I hope I can do it with as much grace and thoughtfulness as Ms. Cohen.

This book is published by Farrar Straus & Giroux, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Book Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

I hadn't read a book club book in a while and I'd heard really good things about this one so I was excited to read it. But it was nothing like I expected.

It's set on this obscure peninsula in far, far Western Russia, past Siberia. Two young girls go missing and are missing for a long time. The story is told from multiple points of view, never returning to the same narrator again, some directly involved in the crime, and some only tangential. It takes quite a ways into the story before you start seeing overlaps and connections between the characters. The story is described as a mystery, but it's really not. In that there's no detective who solves anything, and there are no real clues until one at the very end. It's more just the story of a region which is affected by a terrible crime and how that plays out. Oh, and there was another girl, an Indigenous teenager, who went missing a couple of years ago, but the police assume she ran away (impossible in this remote area--no one can get in our out without leaving a trace as you'd have to go through a checkpoint, an airport, or a port.) so they don't look for her. Did she not run away? Is it related?

The book is a fascinating look at cultures we're very unfamiliar with, and yet in other ways it seems like exactly what we know. It's a mash-up of cultures in a way we often don't see in the United States. The various Indigenous peoples and the way they do or don't mesh with the surrounding Russians, provided an extra layer of intrigue and interest.

It was slow going at first, and at middle, and it read like a series of short stories (which I personally don't like) but in the end, I'm glad I read it.

I bought this book from Bookmarks, an independent bookstore in Winston-Salem, NC.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Book Review: Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth by Kate Greene

Kate majored in Chemistry and got a Master's in Physics. She applied to NASA and got turned down, so she became a science journalist instead. Years later, she saw a notice about this experiment that needed volunteers, applied, and was selected. She became one of five "astronauts" who went to Hawaii for five months and lived in a geodesic dome.

Their primary goal was to study food and eating. It's a big problem in space. On the International Space Station, after the first month, most astronauts basically stop eating. The most coveted item on the ISS is hot sauce. This is troublesome in and of itself as it has a serious impact on the health of our astronauts and needs to be solved if we truly want to have long-term space programs. And speaking of long-term space programs, food is also an issue there because if you think about something like a mission to Mars, food will be the biggest weight, biggest mass, and biggest expense for the trip. Can we let astronauts cook? On the ISS they actually grow a few foods--can that be improved on?

In addition to this study, each of the "astronauts" have their own studies they're responsible for and Kate's is about sleep. Others are studying things like isolation and group dynamics and leadership. Even though she never left the planet (except presumably to fly to Hawaii but she was still within the atmosphere), she will greatly help the future of space travel.

Interestingly, this experience also changed her life. She was not the same woman coming out of this experiment as she was going in. She writes about everything so beautifully, so poetically, you forget you're reading about science. And it's styled as individual essays so even though they certainly come together into a cohesive whole, you don't have to read it all through at once.

It's a fascinating, thoughtful, and unexpectedly lovely essay collection covering Ms. Greene's experience as a pretend astronaut, performing scientific experiments for the future of the space program.

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

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Book Review: Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.

This book gives a surprising angle on where we are today with black incarceration and police relationships. It focuses on DC where there's no surrounding state to sway statistics, but where the neighboring other-state counties can provide contrast, and also it's a majority-black city so issues tend to stand out in relief.

And in going back to the beginning, to the 1930s when police forces really started being a thing and when Jim Crow was in full force, and when illegal drugs first popped up, Mr. Forman finds something utterly fascinating: initially, African-Americans were on board with more police presence and actually argued for harsher drug laws.

Obviously you need to understand the full context for this, but before this time there was essentially NO police presence in black neighborhoods, as they were only protecting whites, and no one was responding to any crimes that happened to black people. Separately, when drugs started to really affect black neighborhoods, black leaders often thought (mistakenly but they had no way of knowing it at the time) that harsher drug laws would prevent black youths from getting involved with drugs, and therefore would protect black families and black neighborhoods. Obviously, that drastically backfired. The book then follows these policies up through now, showing the consequences. Very important read today. Oh also, this book won the Pulitzer Prize.

This book is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Book Review: The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal

I worried about writing a review for a book later in a series without giving away spoilers. Luckily this book runs parallel to Book 2, The Fated Sky, so it's not as spoilery as I had worried. (That said, you should read them in order as a couple of major twists in Book 2 are necessarily revealed in Book 3.)

Nicole Wargin is the main character here. She was another of the original Astronettes alongside Elma York. She's a former debutante and the wife of the Governor of Kansas (remember, Kansas City is now the capitol of the U.S.) A lot of people don't know that in WWII she was also a spy. Luckily, her time at a Swiss Finishing School helped in that, as it did later as the First Lady of Kansas. And she has no idea how helpful it will be in her next trip to the moon. As the Earth Firsters are gaining in strength, confidence, and destructiveness. And it seems there is a saboteur on the moon. The latter 75% of the book reads like a mystery or a spy novel with lots of twists and turns, clues, and investigation. It's impressive how Kowal can shift between genres effortlessly.

I didn’t want it to end. I was reading it for a week which is incredibly long for me and completely threw off my book count for the year, and I didn't care. Kowal is amazing. Her characters are so real, and what happens to them is so real—including injuring and occasionally even killing important people who in the course of humanity would probably die, but who other authors wouldn’t have the guts to kill. This one didn’t make me cry like Book 2 did. But I just want to live in this world forever. If there were 10 more books of 700  pages, I would read them all. Waiting so hard for Book 4.

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

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Book Review: Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World by Noah Strycker

I love stunt memoirs. You know, like Julie & Julia or The Year of Living Biblically--those people who'd go off and do a nutty thing for a year. It's a memoir, my favorite genre, and you know nothing can go too horribly wrong or else they wouldn't have gotten through the year and there'd be no book. So it's memoir with a purpose and it's emotionally on the lighter side, sometimes even funny. Perfect. And yet, there are almost none of these left. I read all the decent ones back in their heyday in the mid-2000s. But we've run out of crazy-thing-for-a-year ideas. All the good ones are done. So alas, my absolute favorite subgenre has been moribund for a decade or so.

But then I found this book! Several years ago I read The Big Year and I watched the movie, which I recently rewatched (it's decent. Not amazing, but a good watch and moderately entertaining with nothing offensive.) I looked the book up on Goodreads to see when I read it and Goodreads suggested this book to me--which was recent and has an even better rating! Woo hoo! This rocketed to the top of my TBR list.

Noah is a big birder. He even works at Birding magazine. And he decides to take his 29th year and do an International Big Year. Most big years are geographically limited which means if you do a Big Year for your state or for North America, when a bird has gotten off track and is in the wrong place, you have to jump in your car or on a plane and race off, otherwise you're limited by the birds native to your area, and that isn't the way to make a record. But Noah's year was different. If he was in one place and there was a sighting of an unusual bird halfway across the country, he didn't care. He'd probably go to that bird's natural habitat and see it there. Instead, his goal in each stop was to see the birds endemic to that place--the ones never seen elsewhere at all. So it's the opposite theory--he really wants to see all the native Sri Lankan birds when he's there and all the Costa Rican birds while in that country. He's able to become more immersed in the local habitats and environments, because his focus is much more on what's supposed to be there, not on the outliers.

He does spend the entire year on the road except for a few days in May when he does hit his home of Oregon, on the US part of his trip. He starts in Antarctica, hitting all seven continents, a few of them twice. There are over 10,000 known species of birds (according to the guidebook he uses. There's a different one that has a larger number, and recently scientists have way upped the number to over 14K using genetics.) A few years ago a couple got over 4500 birds on a world Big Year.  Noah plans to pass them and his goal is 5000--to see half the known species. Along the way he meets loads of people. While he's traveling alone, he never is alone--he meets up with locals he finds through a birding app and occasionally friends meet up with him for brief stints. The birds seem fascinating--I did have to look up a couple of them that are just bizarre. I keep being tempted to start birding and yet, I can't possibly keep even 1000 birds straight, let alone ten times that, so I'm content to just observe the ones in my own backyard.

Meanwhile, I was so grateful, in this time of uncertainty and weirdness, to find one last stunt memoir, to lighten my days.

I bought this book from Quail Ridge Books, an independent bookstore.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Stuck Inside Recommendations 81-90: Graphic Novels and Sci Fi!

On Facebook I started recommending a book a day for those stuck inside and looking for something good to read. I'm trying to alternate between books published by Macmillan (my employer) and not. (Simply, because the vast majority of my reading is Macmillan books, it's really hard for me to not have this unbalance in any list I put together.) And I thought I'd pull together those recommendations every 10 days here, for people who I'm not Facebook friends with. These 10 books are all mysteries, as requested!

Please buy books from independent bookstores! You can find your nearby indies here, or you can buy from bookshop.org or you can get audiobooks from Libro.fm. Those last two you either can get to through the website of an indie, and have part of your purchase go to that indie directly, or if you really don't know of one, any purchases made on those sites, even unaffiliated ones, will indirectly support independent bookstores. Bookstores are really struggling right now, from chains on down to the little guys, and right now, you have a lot of time to read! Seems like two great things that go great together.

Now, on with the list! While these are numbered, they are not ranked. I've starred the non-Macmillan books, and if I reviewed them, I'll link to the review. Every one of these books got a 5-star rating from me! 

81. Thornhill by Pam Smy

82. Best Friends by Shannon Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham 

83. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, translated by Mattias Ripa

84. Kiss Number 8 by Colleen A.F. Venable, illustrated by Ellen T. Crenshaw

85. The Hunting Accident: A True Story of Crime and Poetry by David L. Carlson, illustrated by Landis Blair

86. The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

87. The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

88. Mort(e) by Robert Repino*

89. The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, translated by Marlaine Delargy*

90. The Martian by Andy Weir*




Thursday, July 2, 2020

Book Review: Happiness for Beginners by Katherine Center

I read two of Ms. Center's recent books, Things You Save in a Fire and How to Walk Away, and really enjoyed them, so when I saw this book will be reissued later this year, I figured I'd give it a read too, and see if her recent success means her writing has changed or improved. I'm happy to report I liked this one as much as those!

Now Ms. Center's books tend to be more solidly commercial women's fiction than I usually read, but I do think they're a step above the average in that category. And I do find them to be compelling reads.

Helen got divorced last year, after her husband became an alcoholic and didn't want to fix that. She's 32, an elementary school teacher, and feels like her life is stagnant. In an effort to rediscover herself, she signs up to do a strenuous 3-week hiking/camping course. While attempting (and failing) to drop off her dog with her 10-year-younger brother, she finds out to her dismay that his roommate, Jake, is going on the same trip. She'd really wanted to go alone. (Of course there are others on the trip, but without anyone she knows.) She agrees to drive him from Boston to Wyoming but then they're going to pretend like they don't know each other. Which becomes infinitely more difficult when he confesses he's been in love with her since the minute he saw her (awkwardly, at her wedding).

Now, she's not outdoorsy. She's only been car camping. She's about 10 years older than everyone else on the trip, bright young college students, and the leader looks to be 15 (he's obviously not but it doesn't help her confidence.) She's one of the slowest hikers. But she's bound and determined that she's going to get one of the 3 coveted certificates awarded at the end to the three best participants (measured more by effort). But Jake is so distracting, especially as he flirts with the beautiful, kind, and smart Windy (not a typo.) On this trip, Helen will reach deep inside herself to discover her own limits and depths, and she will come out the other side a changed woman.

This book reminded me a lot of Wild, albeit with a less crazy background, if it had mixed with a book club book. It didn't make we want to go camping or hiking, but it did serve as a great reminder that we are each of us in control of our own happiness, especially in our reaction to others. And it's a good idea every day to think of at least 3 good things that happened that day. And to address blisters as soon as you feel a hot spot forming--don't wait!

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

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

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:
Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride by Lucy Knisley
March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women by Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jane Smiley (audiobook)*
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s: An Oral History by Andy Greene*
Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World by Noah Strycker*
This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Medical Resident by Adam Kay (audio)*
Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Becoming by Michelle Obama (audio)*
When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams
Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen by Mary Norris
Check, Please!, Book 2: Sticks and Scones by Ngozi Ukazu
Even the Stiffest People Can Do the Splits: A 4-Week Stretching Plan to Achieve Amazing Health by Eiko*

Books I gave up on:
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson*

What I acquired this month (non-work books):
None. I preordered Isabel Wilkerson's new book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, from Loyalty Books, an independent bookstore in DC and MD.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Book Review: The Better Half: On the Genetic Superiority of Women by Sharon Moalem (audiobook)

I was already intrigued by this book but after the author wrote this article in the New York Times, I was determined to read it. After all, why are more men dying of COVID-19? I know that in every place I've ever seen average life expectancies, regardless of era or culture, women always outstrip men by several years. I joke with other girlfriends about how our male spouses seem just decimated by simple colds when we keep on truckin'. But maybe there's something to that?

Now, Dr. Maolem doesn't address "the man cold" specifically, but his other conclusion lead me to believe that it might be a real thing. After all, women's immunological systems are stronger, which is why it hurts so much when I get my last tetanus booster but my husband didn't recall his being a big deal. And women are, in general, healthier.

Let me back up. It all boils down to the two X chromosomes. Because genetic women have two, when there's an error or bad gene on one, we usually can fall back on the other. Genetic men cannot. In addition, in certain areas, such as the parts of our bodies that produce antibodies, we likely have 2 Xs in operation, leading to more diversity among the antibody production, which leads to more options and better outcomes. Genetic males, with only one X, don't have these options. Sadly, the Y seems to make a penis and testosterone, and nothing else. It's a tiny, pretty useless chromosome. And it means that men get X-related problems like color blindness, whereas woman sometimes can have super color vision, allowing them to see ten times the number of colors a typical person can see, and even to see a fourth color beyond the standard three (like birds do.)

Before anyone jumps on this book for bias, I should note that Dr. Moalem is himself male.

And obviously, he's very enlightened, to investigate the differences between the genetics of men and women to see what advantages women have. In the past, when the differences were acknowledged at all, it was only to point out disadvantages women's genetics give us (hormonal, difficult for drug testing). But by looking at the advantages, we might be able to help ALL humans live longer and better lives.

Of course, there aren't only advantages. There's always a flip side. Women do get autoimmune diseases at a dramatically higher rate than men, due to our strong immune systems that can sometimes backfire, and there are a few other diseases like Alzheimer's which strike genetic women more often. Then there's the fact that since up until a few years ago, drugs were only tested on male mice and male people, the dosages for women might be way off, if they work for women at all (and don't maybe cause women extreme harm!)

Tons of fascinating facts, from why cats and dogs produce their own vitamin C, to how elephants stave off cancer despite being both incredibly large (the more cells you have, the more likely one of them is to go rouge) and their long lives (the longer you live, the more likely you are to get cancer.) If you like armchair science at all, this is incredibly accessible and truly interesting.

This book is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Book Review: History Comics: The Roanoke Colony: America's First Mystery by Chris Schweizer

I was intrigued by this new history graphic novel series, brought to you by the same folks who make Science Comics, and since this is near where I used to live (kinda. Adjoining state) and one of my accounts had a question about it, I jumped in.

The two native peoples on the front cover are actually the narrators, and while one guy likes the colonists and lives with them, the other guy, who was at first welcoming, ends up thinking the English people should leave, and fighting them. Yes, they look rather like caricatures, but so does everyone in the book (except for the dreamy Sir Walter Raleigh.) That's just the illustration style.

You learn lots of fun facts and then there's the disappearance. With that, they present several theories, from the likely to the cockamamie (aliens!) which is rather fun. As the other History Comics won't have a mystery at their core, I'm not sure how structurally different they are. But this was a lot of fun, really informative, and I especially liked how the story was told from the perspectives of the Native Americans. (No, the author is not Native American, which is unfortunate, but not, to my mind, reason to dismiss the book.)

This book is published by First Second, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Book Review: The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s: An Oral History by Andy Greene

I didn't love The Office right off the bat. And honestly, I've never been a fan of the British show. I know that's sacrilege to say, but it was just too dark and too uncomfortable for me. That said, it quickly grew on me, particularly as I've worked in quite a few dysfunctional offices myself (at one point in my early twenties, I'd had such a string of bad bosses in a row that my father pointed out the common denominator was me. No, I was not the problem, except that perhaps I should have been more discerning in what jobs I took. A problem many, many people on this show have as well.)

I have grown to love oral histories. It's so great to hear the stories right from the mouths of the people involved, from the creators to the actors to backstage staff. I did notice in this one, unlike the last one I read (Modern Family), there was some dish that was skipped over. It was mentioned a couple of times that some actors became divas and even difficult to work with in later seasons, but that was glossed over the real story was not told and the actors were not named (whereas in the Modern Family book, everyone was very up front about the two showrunners having developed a deep dislike of each other after the pilot and refused to work together ever again, which bizarrely worked.) But the weakness of Season 8 and the ballooning character list and that Robert California was probably a mistake, and the writers never really knew what to do with the character of Nellie, was all addressed. As was the transformation of the character of Michael Scott from more of a real jerk in Seasons 1 and 2, to more a lovable, giant child of a boss the rest of the time.

If, like me, you love all things The Office and have been listening to the fantastic podcast, Office Ladies with Jenna and Angela, you'll get a few repeat stories, although I did appreciate that the stories were consistent. The book naturally can't go into a deep dive of every single episode, but it's a nice complement to the podcast, that here we get overviews of entire seasons instead.

Much fun, and I rebinged the first three seasons while reading this. Great reading for these stressful times.

I bought this book from Bookmarks in Winston-Salem, NC, an independent bookstore. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Book Review: Child Star by Box Brown

Well this was different! Box Brown's books up to this point have all been nonfiction, and I really loved his books on Andre the Giant and Tetris. I knew this one would be great as I love his style and I also am a fan of pop culture from the 1970s and 1980s, which inspired this novel.

It is about a child star, a kid named Owen Eugene, who has a disability that keeps him very small (think Gary Coleman meets Emmanuel Lewis) so he's playing children much younger than his real age (although sometimes lying about his real age and seeming oddly precocious). He's in some commercials and then a TV show and then he breaks out! He has a catchphrase and toys and lunchboxes and everything! And it's great for a couple of years--during the summer hiatus he makes movies--but of course, it inevitably ends. He's no longer so cute, but he also doesn't physically grow up and can't play real adult roles, and his parents squandered a lot of his money. He cobbles together bit parts here and there, has a couple of strange sexless marriages, and then there's the inevitable end. The book is presented in documentary format as if it's interviews with his parents, his agents, co-stars, and his two wives. Sadly, you'll notice I didn't say "friends" in that list. Some co-stars did consider them friends at the time, but afterwards saw their relationship differently.

This character of Owen Eugene is an amalgam of several child stars from that era, and you can see snippets here and there that you can identify with old tabloid stories. The book manages to be both nostalgic and sad at the same time. As a case study of what often went wrong in that era of unprecedented child popularity, this is masterful. But don't go into this thinking it'll be cute and fun. There's a dark side to all child stars, even the one who survive.

This book is published by First Second, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Book Review: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Oh Thomas Cromwell! Man, if I could just learn 1% of his ability to be so supremely useful, that's at the heart of his power. In the first book, for most of the time, he was following in Cardinal Wolsey's coattails, and then floundering a bit on his own, culminating in the death of Thomas More. In this one, he's fully come into his own power, and while initially he helps the Boleyns, when Henry VIII's eye turns to Jane Seymour, Cromwell helps that along. It's kind of funny that the Boleyns think he's on their side and then they're confused, hurt, and betrayed when he seems to switch to the side of the Seymours, But he's never on the side of either the Boleyns or the Seymours--he's on Henry's side. What Henry wants, Henry gets. That's how Cromwell keeps his vaunted power, despite so many predictions of his downfall. He does not align himself with any outside political groups. His loyalty--not for loyalty's sake but because it is what's best for himself and for England--is to the crown.

In this book Anne falls from her peak. She has a girl and then several lost pregnancies. Eventually the first queen, Katherine, dies. But that does not restore Anne to her former glory--instead it seems to hurry along Henry's desire to be done with Anne and move on. His choices in his wives are so transparently reactions to the previous ones that they're almost like sisters, whose personalities are often largely a reaction to and a desire to be different from, what has come before. Katherine was maternal and safe and religious. Anne was sexy and feisty and opinionated. Jane is quiet, virginal, and seems to have no opinions at all. If only Henry didn't always pivot 180 degrees, he might have found a more suitable match along the way, but instead he is a man of extremes.

Meanwhile, Cromwell works behind the scenes, giving advice, setting up meetings, and eventually having revenge on the men responsible for the downfall of Wolsey, all the while massaging relationships with foreign ambassadors and of course, bringing about the end of Anne Boleyn. It was simply, in the end, the only thing he could do with Anne, given the circumstances and Henry's desires.

Once again Ms. Mantel has beautifully captured the richness of the era, from the dirt to the clothes to the layout of castle bedrooms. You feel like you're there while reading it. I found this one a tad easier to follow, probably from familiarity. It was a faster read and not just because it was shorter--I didn't struggle as much with the language and the almost stream-of-consciousness writing which sometimes leaves the reader confused as to who the many "he"s in a sentence are, or if someone is talking or not. None of that is a bad thing here--those things, when done well, only bring more atmosphere to the read. It is a complicated time with confusing loyalties and politics, so if you feel a little lost, that's accurate. Once again, I stand enthralled by Cromwell's power, and mastery of every situation.

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

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Book Review: Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride by Lucy Knisley

So I loved Lucy Knisley's graphic novel memoir Relish, which means I dove into this one head first. I got married seven years ago and even though it was a pretty small wedding (I think we sent 30 invites, and most of those were for the reception), the planning was just as crazy as for a big wedding. It turns out it isn't any easier--you're just ordering smaller quantities of things, which therefore are much more expensive on a per-item basis. But you still need a dress, shoes, hair, flowers, cake, food, drinks, music, venue, officiant, everything. And it was horrid. I kept remembering my old friend Rachael who pushed the delightful and terrifying wedding memoir, Otherwise Engaged by Suzanne Finnamore on me when I was not even 25. Rachael was just a couple of years older than me but she was married, and she said reading Ms. Finnamore's book made her realize that wedding planning made everyone insane (which was also an eye-opening comment for me as Rachael was super prepossessed and organized and unflappable.)

And as you may expect, her wedding also made Ms. Knisley rather insane. First there was an interesting backstory with the relationship as she and John were on and off for years, but mostly on. They were only ever off for two reason--proximity, and a final realization that she really wanted kids and he really didn't. But even that breakup didn't stick. It seems John compromised (which is covered extensively in the memoir after this one, Kid Gloves) and one minute they weren't even dating and the next, they were engaged (which was a tad awkward to explain.) Then the wedding planning begins! As neither of them have much money and live in an expensive place (Chicago), they end up having the wedding on her mother's property in upstate New York, which is also convenient as he rmother is a caterer (but not catering Lucy's wedding) and works at the local farmer's market so she has friends who do flowers, that kind of thing. Also, supremely inconvenient as Lucy and John aren't there, and it means her mother wins a few more battles than she otherwise might have. Lucy and her mom fight a lot, for the first time in their lives (wow, what delightful teenage years she must have had!)

It's crazy, expensive, things go wrong, Lucy makes LOTS of crafts, her friends and family are delightful and also crafty, and yes, weddings are crazy-making no matter how laid back or super on top of things you are. If a wedding is even remotely in your future (I read Otherwise Engaged a solid 15+ years before I got married), you should read this (and that. Read them both. Cautionary tales are always helpful in my experience, particularly so if you read them before the events in question are upon you.) Also if you've ever had a wedding. Or been in a wedding. You will appreciate her honesty, humor, and relatability.

This book is published by First Second, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Book Review: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (audiobook)

I listened to this memoir on audio, and it turns out that somewhat changes the experience. I didn't realize that it's a series of very, very short chapters, some only a few sentences, which probably did not read as disjointed as those sometimes seemed on audio (a couple of times I even wondered if my audio was skipping or if something had been left out.) I wish I'd known that going in as it might have made for a slightly different experience.

Carmen writes about a bad relationship she was in. She met her girlfriend in graduate school, but they both moved several times, the girlfriend never seeming to be able to settle down or be satisfied, which is a bit of a metaphor for her life. As she can't be satisfied, no one can make her happy, especially not Carmen. And things take a bad turn. The relationship becomes manipulative, cruel, mean. Abuse doesn't always have to be physical to have the same repercussions. It was jarring, reading this very shortly after I read No Visible Bruises. Parts of it were lovely--Ms. Machado has a real way with words and could evoke feelings very smoothly out of precise imagery. But in the end, it's a beautifully-told story of a horrible relationship and the difficult aftermath.

I checked this digital audiobook out of the library via Libby/Overdrive.

Stuck Inside Recommendations 71-80: Anti-Racist Reading!

On Facebook I started recommending a book a day for those stuck inside and looking for something good to read. I'm alternating between books published by Macmillan (my employer) and not (actually for this category only 1 was from Macmillan). (Simply, because the vast majority of my reading is Macmillan books, it's really hard for me to not have this unbalance in any list I put together.) And I thought I'd pull together those recommendations every 10 days here, for people who I'm not Facebook friends with. These 10 books are all mysteries, as requested!

Please buy books from independent bookstores! You can find your nearby indies here, or you can buy from bookshop.org or you can get audiobooks from Libro.fm. Those last two you either can get to through the website of an indie, and have part of your purchase go to that indie directly, or if you really don't know of one, any purchases made on those sites, even unaffiliated ones, will indirectly support independent bookstores. Bookstores are really struggling right now, from chains on down to the little guys, and right now, you have a lot of time to read! Seems like two great things that go great together.

Now, on with the list! While these are numbered, they are not ranked. I've starred the non-Macmillan books, and if I reviewed them, I'll link to the review. Every one of these books got a 5-star rating from me! There's a lot of history in here. I think understanding how we got to where we are is vitally important.

71. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs

72. The Children by David Halberstam

73. March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell 

74. Some Places More Than Others by Renée Watson 

75. Jubilee by Margaret Walker

76. Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley

77. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

78. The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin

79. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot 

80. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson


 

  
 

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Book Review: Braver: A Wombat's Tale by Suzanne Selfors and Walker Ranson

Lola sure is one brave little wombat! She's snuck out one morning (they're nocturnal and meant to be sleeping) as she's a chatterbox which is Not Done in the world of wombats, so she can talk to some neighbors. Thank goodness she did as she then sees her entire village of wombats, including her parents, being carted off in a cage! She has to rescue them! She heads off down the river behind them and meets up with a fastidious Swamp Water Rat, and an adorably clueless baby Blue Penguin. They get help along the way from some kind echidnas, a one-winged bird in a hot air balloon, and a surprisingly nice Tasmanian devil. They are heading to the capitol city to find Lola's uncle, another rare talker of a wombat, who works as an ambassador for the Queen. Lola knows he'll know how to rescue her parents!

Part Wizard of Oz, part Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (although not as scary), this animal quest story has plenty of action to keep you reading, without being too worried about the outcome. Lola learns a lot along the way and must keep her wits about her. The authors are great at making each species have consistent personality traits and some unique speaking quirks, to differentiate between them all. I think middle grade readers will really enjoy this one.

This book is being published by Imprint, an imprint of Macmillan Children's Publishing Group, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Book Review: American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century by Maureen Callahan (audiobook)

Well I thought this book sounded terrifying and I was right. Not all true crime books scare me, but Israel Keyes doesn't seem like a serial killer, which is what makes him so horrifying. He had a steady business, maintained longstanding relationships, he even had a daughter. And yet, all across the country, he murdered people.

We'll never know how many or who or where, but he sometimes traveled vast distances, and he had "kill kits" buried in various far flung states. You know, in case the urge to kill struck suddenly, so he'd always be prepared to execute his deadly whims. Finally it's a kidnapping and murder in Alaska that does him in and alerts the FBI to his existence--and it still takes absolutely ages for them to put the clues together and convict him. This book is not for the faint of heart--even among true crime fans. You may have crossed paths with this man. He wouldn't have raised any red flags. We'll never know. This book kept me awake (excellent for long drives!)

I checked this digital audiobook out of the library via Libby/Overdrive.


Thursday, June 11, 2020

Book Review: Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley

I was looking to read a book that would be a break. Something on the lighter side, no big thinking, ideally short. And I was looking through books from my work when I remembered this one that several stores have recommended to me, which was published before I started working here. I've read her more recent books, so I thought I'd go back and check this one out too.

It was utter perfection. Exactly what I was looking for. It's a series of essays (the chapters are pretty chronological but each can stand on its own) and Lucy growing up in a world of food. Her mother had worked at the original Dean & Deluca's and eventually has her own catering business, where Lucy often works as a kid. Her father is a big foodie who loves eating out. Lucy is an adventurous eater with a particular fondness for cheese (her mother started out as a cheese monger as well.)

This is a graphic novel which works very well with food as food is a visual experience as well as taste and smell--and at least that one component can be addressed here. It's amazing what she can convey. I ended this book very much looking forward to my next meal, and certain it would be cheesy.

This book is published by First Second, a division of Macmillan, my employer.