Monday, April 23, 2018

What I'm reading this week (4/23/18)

Last week I finished:

I have an awful lot of reviewing to do from last week, so I'm going to try to make these short.

When Lab Girl came out, I immediately read an excerpt thinking I'd found a memoir just for me. After reading a bit of it, I felt unsettled (though I can't remember exactly why, it just felt weird) and decided it wasn't going to be a book for me after all. And then it went on to do very well. And when a book does very well, I tend to get around to it eventually (FOMO?). This one was kind of a wild ride. I'd alternate between loving it and wanting to quit it. The book alternates memoir chapters with short chapters discussing trees and how they grow. The writing is superb, and I really enjoyed that aspect of the book. I also enjoyed the fact that the author grew up close to where I did and held onto her Christian faith even while working in science (biology). I was unsettled, though, by the author's mental illness and family estrangement. Also, her lab mate, while an interesting curveball of a character, was a little too loose-cannon for my comfort. Together, the pair seemed a bit too immature, but they had fun. I just didn't enjoy their teenager-y exploits. So, while I liked some parts of the book, other parts just felt weird. If you have a high tolerance for odd stories, you'll probably like this. And, if you're a science nerd, I think you'll want to read this. My rating: 3 stars.

As you know, I love books about presidents. And I especially adore books about President Reagan. Still, I don't always expect a lot from memoirs by presidential aides, because there are so many ways they can go wrong. They are often too fawning, painting a cloyingly perfect picture of the man they worked for. Just as often, they can feel like self-service brag pieces or a way to relive the glory days when they were important people working for the most important man in the world. It's difficult to straddle the line well. And yet, I devour these books looking for a delicious morsel where it can be found. So when Movie Nights with the Reagans was released, I bought my copy right away. I was concerned that mixing stories of Reagan and the 1980s movies he watched would be gimmicky and kitschy and make for a mediocre book at best, but considering how I love Reagan stories and 1980s movies, I was more than willing to take my chances. I'm happy to say that this book really rose to the challenge. It was absolutely wonderful. All my fears about it being cheesy were met with well-crafted prose that amply weighed the plot of a hit movie (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, etc.) with a corresponding issue from President Reagan's eight-year term (space exploration, Soviet relations, women in the workplace, etc.), and it never felt contrived. Written by Mark Weinberg, Reagan's special advisor and press secretary, who necessarily spent a lot of time with the Reagans, the book tells of weekend movie nights at Camp David, the presidential weekend retreat. A retired actor, Reagan never lost his love of film and sharing stories of his Hollywood career. Weinberg never puts words in Reagan's mouth, though he does quote him and give personal anecdotes that showed who Reagan was as a man. The book was both personal and professional, very well edited, and while Weinberg obviously has nothing but respect for his former boss, he never gets slobbery. I enjoyed every minute of this book, which never felt like a book written to profit on a close relationship with a powerful man. It's just what we need in today's political climate. Whether you're a fan of Reagan or not, this is a wonderful book worth the read. I highly recommend it. My rating: 4.5 stars.

I've always enjoyed Tina Fey's comedy work. Though I don't really follow celebrities' careers, especially comedians, what I've seen of Fey over the years has always struck me as funny and smart. What endeared me to her was her phenomenally funny impression of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. While my politics are undoubtedly more aligned with Palin's than Fey's, I never saw the impression as anything other than a clever spoof by a dead-on lookalike. It never felt particularly mean to me or like it was done in a hateful way. Needless to say, the part of the book where Fey talks about this hugely successful part of her career was my favorite part of the book. But aside from that, this line alone would have been worth the price of admission: My parents raised me that you never ask people about their reproductive plans. "You don't know their situation," my mom would say. I considered it such an impolite question that for years I didn't even ask myself. This line so encapsulates my reproductive situation for the past twenty years or so I laughed out loud when I read (heard) it. Then I replayed it and laughed even harder. I listened to this one on audio because it was read by Fey herself, and I recommend the audio. I only wish this one would have been longer. It was a delight. My rating: 3.5 stars. P.S. That cover has always weirded me out.

I often suffer from irrational anxiety (is there such a thing as rational anxiety?), and it is getting to the point where I feel I need to work harder at meeting the claim and eradicating it. Since I use God as my only physician, it's natural for me to turn to prayer and Truth to solve this problem. But I've been lazy about doing that consistently. Enter Max Lucado's Anxious for Nothing. I'd been kicking around the idea of reading this book for awhile, but I was held back by the feeling that I didn't want even more to deal with by reading a book that gives a personal view of scripture rather than a spiritual one. Still, I felt led to buy it on a Kindle sale and give it a couple pages. If it made me uncomfortable, I'd abandon it. And if it helped, it helped. I'm happy to report that it helped. It really helped. Lucado uses scripture, the common ground for all Christians, and not a lot of personal interpretation, where Christian beliefs diverge, to show his readers a way out of anxiety. It's a relentlessly positive book, and not positive in a fluffy way. There's no judgment or shame or guilt, which would have made me put the book down right away. It's not preachy, and it's not decidedly denominational. As a pastor, he is used to using good analogies to drive the simple points home. I got a lot out of this book, and I plan to buy a hard copy for future reference. I recommend this book to anyone dealing with anxiety who wants to heal it using a Christian perspective. My rating: 4 stars.  

It's really hard to write reviews for books in a series. It's sometimes impossible to talk about them without giving spoilers or discussing previous books of the series in length. So I'm going to keep this short. Princess Elizabeth's Spy is the second book in the Maggie Hope mystery series. Both it and the first book in the series follow math whiz and spy-wannabe, Maggie Hope, through her close brushes with danger as she serves as Prime Minister Winston Churchill's secretary (book 1) and Princess Elizabeth's "maths" tutor (book 2). There's murder and danger and everything comes out right in the end. Through the books is a secondary plot involving Maggie finding out what happened to her mother--said to have died when Maggie was small--that took a big leap forward in this book. I listened to both on audio, though if I continue with the series, I might switch to paper as I find the audios a bit grating on my nerves. These are exciting books, and aside from the murders (never grizzly) and occasional foul language (unnecessary), rather fun. My rating: 3 stars.

Poetry confession: I own at least four of Roger Housden "Ten Poems..." books. They all have touchy-feely titles like Ten Poems to Change Your Life and Ten Poems to Open Your Heart. His latest book in the series is Ten Poems for Difficult Times. While the titles are almost unforgivable, the books themselves are often very good. Housden obviously has a love for poetry, reads it widely, and encourages close, personal relationships with individual poems. The books combine ten well-chosen poems with Housden's personal reflections on the poems' content. They're never as touchy-feely as the titles, but they often get emotional (what is poetry without emotion?), and sometimes self-serving. And they sometimes become places for Housden to lament the current state of things and give jabs at Republican presidents while they're in office. He is obviously quite liberal and assumes his readers are, too, which is just stupid. At one point in this book he recalls the 2016 election results as something that distressed everyone, and I just had to roll my eyes. But I'm used to this shortsighted and politic-centric view of America amongst poetry pontificators. I don't know why Housden thinks harboring resentment helps you through difficult times, but there you go. Aside from the moments of Self-awareness-with-a-capital-S, that make one wince, the book was enjoyable enough. I didn't fall in love with any of the poems, but that never bothers me. Try these books if anthologies leave you cold, and you're looking for a hand-chosen set of poems that encourage some interaction with the poems. It's what the books do best. My rating: 3 stars.

Last week I abandoned:

There was a lot of buzz in some circles for 12 Rules for Life, and I was very excited to read it, but after one 28-page chapter (which followed 30 pages of introductory material), I bailed. I want the information in the book, but it's too much of a slog getting it. It's not a bad book, it's just loftier than a pleasure read. (P.S. Dana Perino agrees with me!)
This week I'll finish:

This one isn't quite what I expected. More on that next week.

I'll also finish:

After 60 or so pages of Upstream, I can tell you that I prefer Mary Oliver's poetry to her essays. More on that next week, too.

And I'm re-reading Plus Shipping by Bob Hicok. This was one of my favorite books of poems in my post-college days.
My audiobook:

I've just begun Ann Hood's The Obituary Writer, which I will finish his week along with Mike Myers' Canada, which should be interesting!

Monday, April 16, 2018

What I'm reading this week (4/16/18)

Last week I finished

The reviews I agonize most over are for books I loved and books that everyone has read. Hillbilly Elegy is both. For some reason, this book has become a political read, and it's been billed as "the book that explains why people voted for President Trump." Those are the precise reasons I wasn't interested in reading it when it came out. I know why folks voted for President Trump, if you don't, just ask me. Add to that what has been shared of the plot on various blogs in reference to the domestic violence, so even though it was one of my favorite genres, I decided it wasn't for me. But then as often happens with extremely popular books, I decided I had to know why so much was being said about it. I bought it on a great Kindle sale, and I was sucked in on the very first page. I loved reading it. But where do I even start in reviewing it? A short synopsis: J. D. Vance is the child and grandchild of Kentucky "hillbilly" transplants in the Rust Belt (Ohio). In this memoir/social science book, he details the events of his life in the white working class environment, including domestic violence, low income, chaotic family life, and a drug-dependent parent. Vance effortlessly blends memoir with sociology, using his life and family experiences to show the problems of the white working class as a whole. I've never read a book that so expertly uses personal stories to demonstrate societal issues. This is a book I've been living for the15 years I've been deeply involved with a family of nearly identical circumstances. I nodded knowingly dozens of times when Vance explained his childhood and his mother's poor life management. For much of the book I could not figure out why this book shocked so many people; then I realized the obvious: not everyone has seen this kind of lifestyle in action. I've had a front-row seat for a long time. I wasn't shocked; seeing what I've seen, there's not much that can shock me anymore. I was just so relieved to have that part of my life explained to the world for me, because I knew I'd never have the courage (or energy) to do it myself. The way Vance told his story was the perfect balance of personal angst and anthropological distance. The violence so many bloggers alluded to was presented more anecdotally than immersively. Because the real story was not what happened to Vance growing up (the chaos, the violence, the constant change, the parade of father figures); the real story was that his childhood experience was not unique. He takes us beyond such books as The Glass Castle or Angela's Ashes and asks us how this happened and how we can fix it. This book asks for engagement. He shows where and how the government has failed its citizens with entitlement programs and where society has failed its children by not valuing work. Vance exposes some hard truths that should change the way people vote. He's saying that throwing money and even sympathy at the social problems of the white working class is not changing things for the better, but for the worse. Unfortunately, Vance is able to offer no answers. But it's not his place to. He was one of the lucky ones who survived that kind of life and became a successful man. We as Americans love these underdog stories. We love the kid who was raised by a drug-addicted mom and a gun-toting mamaw who grew up to go to Yale Law School. We also love to put people into boxes according to type and create new terminology and laws and government programs to help them. We love to blame people, but we equally love not to let anyone know we are blaming, so we hide behind our programs and know that we're good, caring people. Well, I've seen firsthand how this attitude plays out. So has Vance. I've been looking for the answers for years, as my heart breaks for those close to me who can't seem to find their way out of the cycle of chaos. I've seen how government programs make things worse, how drugs become a religion, how being in want and blaming everyone but oneself for the cause of it creates a haze of denial that doesn't dissipate for generations. I've bought a kid shoes because he had none, a coat because he had none, and watched his parents buy three cell phones because they no longer had to worry about buying shoes or coats. I've bought a laptop when someone finally completed a GED and enrolled herself in tech school, only to find out she'd pawned it a couple of weeks later. I've bailed the father out of jail for domestic abuse and faced the child who wanted to ask, why did you do that? because right then he hated his father and hated me, too. I've left church thinking I should give everything I have to solve the materials problems in this family, and I've also left it knowing that "the poor will always be with you." The only thing I've learned for sure is that blame doesn't help and neither does sympathy. So, no answers from Vance or from me, but the book did what all great books do: it started a national dialogue. It bought to light those living in society's shadows, those who are sure they are powerless because they feel hopeless. I guess frank talk is where we start. Just so long as it's not where we stop. My rating: 5 stars.

At the same time I was being blown away by Hillbilly Elegy, I was reading and being blown away by Little Fires Everywhere. This book was at the top of every list at the end of 2017, and now I know why. The book is so masterful. The plotting is so precise that it builds and builds and builds almost until the last page. It reminded me very much of the way Beartown was written, the third-person omniscient narration that gives you a taste of everyone's thoughts, makes for a complex and engaging story. It's hard to describe what this book is about, and for at least three-quarters of it, you're not even sure what it's about. Not to say the plot is being held from you, but it's still building. Overall, I guess you could say it's the story of families. There is the upper-middle-class Richardson family, Mom, Dad, Lexi, Trip, Moody, and Izzy, each with their own levels of personal awareness. There is single mom and artist Mia and her daughter Pearl who have just moved into the neighborhood and befriends each of the Richardson kids. And there is a custody battle over a little Chinese girl. This is a book where there are no absolutes. What one person takes for granted as truth or right, another whole rejects without a second glance. In other words, it's just like life. What makes a family? What's the proper way to live and provide for your children? Who has the power? What role does personal responsibility have in a family life? Ng makes us see there is so much there below the surface, and even though we're navigating this stuff every day, we don't necessarily realize we are. Don't let the plot as I've described it turn you off. It's not a book about kids, though most of the main characters are kids. It's not a book about race, though that is part of it, too. The wonder of this book is more in how the story is told and how the reader interacts with it than what's being told. I loved this book, and I'm sure to go back to read her previous novel, Everything I Never Told You. I can't imagine this one not being on my top ten list at the end of the year. My rating: 5 stars.

Awhile ago, I ran across America's First Daughter, an historical fiction novel that imagines the life of Martha (Patsy) Jefferson Randolph, daughter of President Thomas Jefferson. The ratings for this one are stellar on Amazon. You know I have a love-hate relationship with historical fiction that reimagines the life of a historic figure. On the one hand, I'm drawn to it like a moth to candlelight, on the other, I'm deeply uneasy about anyone recreating the life of someone famous (or even someone common) because you could never be completely accurate. An author's biases, then, are what I'm scouting for the entire time I'm trying to enjoy a book like this one. A side note (that's relevant, I promise): I detest when books like this put the author's notes on procedure in the back of the book. I spend the whole book wondering now how did she know that? where did this information come from? did this even happen? It drives me to distraction. Put it all up front, people! Put the skeptic's mind at ease--or allow them to bail--up front, don't make them wait for almost 600 pages to know how the research was conducted! So, that accurate history limbo is where I was stuck for 19 CDs until I was told that the information for the book came from the copious amount of letters amongst members of the Jefferson family. I knew the book was based on Thomas Jefferson's letters, but I doubted the very personal stories of Martha's life would have come from his letters. And frankly, I doubted they'd come from hers. People neither then nor now talk so openly about such private matters as what goes on in a long marriage or behind bedroom doors. Also, I was uncomfortable with how politically correct the authors were with issues of slavery and race. They seemed determined to make Jefferson out to be a hypocritical bigot and made all the "good guys" anti-slavery. Jefferson's views on slavery were never fully explored, and that was a glaring oversight for me. He proclaimed he was anti-slavery, but he kept slaves, this is what everyone knows. What we don't know is how he held those opposing viewpoints. The truth is likely more complex than "he was a hypocritical bigot." That's unfair and sloppy. The whole thing was a bit heavy-handed for me, and the pro-slavery side was not presented because it was just so obviously wrong. But this was Virginia, early 1800s, if you're going to tell the story, tell all of the story! This felt intellectually dishonest, and I didn't trust the book because of it. My other big problem with this book is how dramatic it was. There was SO. MUCH. DRAMA. I was very ready for the book to be over about halfway through. It wasn't a bad book, and if you don't have a problem with present-day authors taking liberty with those who could not or did not speak for themselves when they had the chance, it's a good story. It just wasn't my cup of tea. A note on the audio: if you have trouble with syrupy southern belle accents, you might want to stick to the paper version here. I never did get into it. My rating: 3 stars.

This week I'll finish

This book is kind of a wild ride. I'll review it next week.

And then I'll begin

I'm very excited to read this one. I feel like I could really use some good life advice right now.

Last week I began reading

Speaking of good life advice, I began Max Lucado's Anxious for Nothing last week, and I'm really enjoying it so far. I'm also just barely into Mary Oliver's Upstream, nature essays.

This week I'll continue with

And I'm still loving these two, esp. the Reagan book which is charming and informative.

My audiobook

I'm currently listening to the second Maggie Hope mystery, Princess Elizabeth's Spy. It's a fun listen.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

23 2018 releases I'm most excited about

I've been sitting on this post for a long time. There are so many good books that have either just come out or are coming out later this year, that I just had to share 23 I plan to buy and read.

Next in a series

I love the Kopp Sisters series, based on a real female sheriff in the early 1900s. The fourth in the series, Miss Kopp Just Won't Quit, is due out this fall.

And my literary crush Fredrik Backman is coming out with a followup to Beartown in June, Us Against You.

I fell in love with My Lady Jane this year, and the second in the series, a reimagining of Jane Eyre called My Plain Jane, comes out in June.

And the final book in the Penderwick series, Penderwicks at Last, releases in May.


I read most everything Anna Qindlen writes, although I enjoy her nonfiction more. Her newest, Alternate Side, a novel, is on my list.

I gave into the hype and ordered a copy of An American Marriage. Some bloggers say it's the best book they've read this year, and some say it's overrated. I'll let you know.

From the authors of America's First Daughter comes My Dear Hamilton, which fictionalizes the only part of Hamilton I'd have any interest in.

I've been hemming and hawing over Amy Bloom's White Houses for months. I tend not to like fictionalizations of real figures (especially when the author imagines their sex lives), but I'm also drawn to them. For the record, we do not know that Eleanor Roosevelt had lesbian relationships.

After loving The Poisonwood Bible last year, I've been meaning to read another book by Barbara Kingsolver. Unsheltered comes out this fall.

From the author of the Downton Abbey companion books comes The Mitford Murders. I'm super excited to begin this one.


I gave into the hype surrounding Educated and bought a copy. For some reason it didn't appeal to me when I looked into it when it was first released, but I've heard so much buzz about it, I have to try it.

I've gotten to like Geraldo Rivera in the past decade or so (I remember him from the Al Capone's vault and Geraldo days, which was not his best work), and I'm very interested in his The Geraldo Show about his years as a war correspondent.

Although I was never a fan of Lidia Bastianich's cooking shows, she has been on my radar for decades, so I've added her memoir, My American Dream, to my TBR.

And I've added First Lady Michelle Obama's memoir, Becoming, to my list of books to read, though I can't be sure I will.


Three books about politics: Eunice (biography of JFK's sister, Eunice Kennedy), Every Man a King (about American populists), and Three Days in Moscow (about Reagan and the fall of the Soviet empire).

I've meant to read something by Lawrence Wright for some time, and when I heard about his forthcoming, God Save Texas, I decided that was the book to begin with. If I were to read the biography of any state, I'd choose Texas. Wouldn't you?

And for a lighter, girlier read, One Beautiful Dream.


I love Ted Kooser's poetry, so I was excited to see he has a new collection, Kindest Regards, coming out in May.

And from the author of How to Read Literature Like a Professor comes How to Read Poetry Like a Professor. It's probably time for a refresher.


Every spring I like to pick up a book about flowers or gardening...and then not plant flowers or garden. This year it might be Martha's Flowers.

And Rick Bragg (All Over but the Shoutin') has a new cookbook coming out, The Best Cook in the World.

What's are your 2018 must haves?


Monday, April 9, 2018

What I'm reading this week (4/9/18)

Last week I finished

This is the second book I've read by J. Randy Taraborrelli, and after finishing, I have to say I'm a big fan. He's written three books about the Kennedys, Jackie, Ethel, Joan; After Camelot; and the newest, Jackie, Janet & Lee. He conducts dozens of interviews with folks intimately connected with the principle characters in the biographies, including family members, servants, friends, lovers, exes, and politicians. The books feel very well researched, but they are also very readable. They never bog down with uninteresting detail. They skip along, giving in-depth personal information, and sometimes border on, but never quite cross the line into, salaciousness. They're also quite balanced, not seeming to take sides, as it were. Taraborrelli knew Jackie Kennedy Onassis when she worked as an editor, so the author has a personal frame of reference. This book details the lives of and relationships between Jackie Kennedy Onassis, her mother Janet Auchincloss, and Jackie's sister Lee Radziwill. There were powerful dynamics between the three, power plays, hurt feelings and resentments, and years and years worth of meddling and coping with each other. Janet was a controlling woman who insisted she knew what was best for her daughters. Jackie was a taciturn woman well-loved and quite damaged by the assassinations of her husband, JFK, and his brother, Robert Kennedy. Both women believed that money was power, and both money and power were essential to happiness and security. Lee, the younger of the Bouvier girls, harbored deep resentments toward her famous sister, Jackie, for always having life handed to her so effortlessly simply because of who she was. The book details the numerous romances, marriages, and extramarital affairs of the three and the men they were involved with. It details the various family relationships with the Bouvier sisters, their Auchincloss stepsiblings, Janet Jr. and Jamie, and the half-siblings from Hugh Auchincloss' previous marriages. It takes us from Jackie and Lee's early childhoods to Janet and Jackie's deaths. It ends heartbreakingly, when we realize that the difficulties of their relationships were not resolved. In all, it was a very good book, a look at how the other half live, and I enjoyed it very much. I was also glad to go back to my much simpler life when it was over. My rating: 4.5 stars.

I have been a fan of Li-Young Lee's poetry since he burst onto the poetry scene in the early 1990s. I have read some of his early poems so many times I have them nearly memorized. So, I was excited when his latest book, The Undressing, was released earlier this year. Lee's poetry is complicated. Some of his poems are as accessible as unlocked houses, others are impenetrable as stone fortresses. The title poem of the collection, the first poem in the book, was one of the latter. It alternates between two lovers, one undressing the other, while the undressee speaks at length about...something. I have no idea what was being said or what it meant, and I fretted for pages the Lee had finally taken his verse to a place of unintelligible jabberwocky. But the poems that followed felt more like the Li-Young Lee poems I enjoyed so many years ago. I didn't find anything here that set me on fire, but I enjoyed the feeling of familiarity while reading his poems. He definitely has a style of his own. I would recommend the reader look at his earlier books, especially Rose and The City in Which I Love You, before tackling this one. My rating: 2.5 stars.

This week I'll finish

Oh my gosh you guys, I am loving this book. I read a lot of books each year, but only a very few of them make me want to not put the book down until it's finished. This is one of them.

I recently abandoned

I forgot to report on this one. I've read at least a half dozen books about women escaping the FLDS cult run by Warren Jeffs (and other polygamist FLDS communities). They're all pretty similar, lots of sister wives and half-siblings, lots of poverty, lots of violence and abuse. But Breaking Free is the only one I have not finished. Rachel Jeffs speaks so descriptively about the sexual abuse she suffered at the hand of her father, Warren Jeffs, that I just had to put it aside. It wasn't a bad book otherwise.

I'm continuing with

This month of reading is shaping up to be stellar, and these two books are part of the reason. My review of Hillbilly Elegy will be up next week.

Last week I began

I'm enjoying Roger Housden's latest in his "Ten Poems" series, although I can assure you we cancel each other out when we go to the polls.

My audiobook

I think this one is too long by half. It's not unenjoyable, but I'm glad I'm listening to it instead of reading it. I think it would really drag in paper. I'll review it next week.