Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Book Review - One for the Books

One for the Books


Joe Queenan

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Reading & Books

Synopsis: Queenan discusses several aspects of his life as a reader.

Date finished: 13 May 2013

Rating: ****

I read much of the first essay in an Amazon preview, and I enjoyed his curmudgeonly voice, his absolute faith in his own opinion being right. It was enough to make me buy the books. (It’s a paradox of life: sometimes a grumpy, unpleasant attitude can be refreshing.)

Well, the first essay was definitely the best part of the book, in my opinion. It’s where he talks about the who, what, when, where, why, and how of his reading. He reads about 150 books per year, on the average, hates e-readers, reads to escape (and is convinced all readers do), never reads this year’s book this year, owns 1374 books, writes in his books, organizes his books by texture and height, hates it when folks give him books to read, despises book clubs, praises citizen reviews (such as Amazon), and has strong opinions about what’s good and worth reading.

The essay titled “Other Voices, Other Rooms” was like the first essay, and I enjoyed that as well. In it, he discusses his friends’ reading habits. The essays in between were less interesting. He discussed literary road trips and bad experiences in libraries and good experiences in bookstores.

I have a thing for books about reading. I love the voyeurism and passion and camaraderie. I never find books on reading that are written by readers like me, but that doesn’t really seem to matter. Within the first handful of pages I knew I was in for ride of fiction namedropping when he dismissed nonfiction flat-out. He’s a fiction and classics guy.

What would he think of what I read? He’d guffaw and make scornful comments. I, for one, enjoyed Eat Pray Love and am not ashamed to say I got a great deal out of it. I enjoyed Blink. I also enjoyed Madame Curie. I am tired of folks who think the only books worth reading are classic literature and that anything that ended up on a bestseller list is drivel. There are so few readers in the world, why alienate most of them with a single swipe? And this by way of saying, the acerbic wit got old. The bashing of some books and authors and the exulting of others got old. Can’t we all just get along?

But all in all, I enjoyed his writing. It was smart. I even ran upon a few words I didn’t know (that is rare these days). His writing, likely because it is so opinionated is infinitely quotable. Here are some of my favorites:

The average American reads four books a year, and the average American finds this more than sufficient. (page 1)

Winston Churchill supposedly read a book every day of his life, even while he was saving Western Civilization from the Nazis. This is an amazing achievement, because by many accounts Churchill spent the Second World War completely hammered. (page 5)

I do not listen to audiobooks, for the same reason that I do not listen to baked ziti; it lacks personal touch. (page 6)

From the moment I own a book, even before I open it to the first page, I feel that it has in some way changed my life. (page 15)

Only in libraries do [employees] stay in the same place for so long; even churches and urban crime syndicates move the personnel around. (page 40)

Book clubs pivot on the erroneous, egotistical notion that the reader has something to add to the conversation. (page 44)

…the vast majority of book reviews are favorable, even though the vast majority of books deserve no praise whatsoever.” (page 144)

his daughter on why she doesn’t like libraries:

When I read a book it is an investment, not a loan.

People who prefer e-books…think that books merely take up space. This is true, but so do your children and Prague and the Sistine Chapel. (page 239)

Would you recommend this to a friend?
A reader, yes. Also a curmudgeon.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Book Review - Happier at Home, Gretchen Rubin

Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life


Gretchen Rubin      


Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Projects and Adventures

Synopsis: Rubin returns to her happiness project with ideas to make her happier at home.

Date finished: 6 May 2013

Rating: *****

I can’t really explain why I love Rubin’s Happiness books so much. Maybe it’s because I see so much of myself in her. She’s very systematical, hyper-regulated, loves rules and gold stars. She says of herself: “…my idea of living on the edge is to leave the apartment without a sweater” (page 4) and “I’m the kind of person who makes the bed in a hotel room, even on the morning of checkout” (page 45). Yes, that kind of person. I hear ya, sister. Though I don’t make hotel beds (I don’t make home beds either, until I’m ready to get into them), I do rotate spoons for even use, so peas in a pod, yes.

For the first few pages, where she’s setting up the project, my enthusiasm flagged. I’d been saving this book because her last book, The Happiness Project, was one of the only books I’ve ever read that, when I finished it, I wanted to read again. I started to wonder if this book could live up to its predecessor and if it would be rehash. I also wondered if I remembered her personality wrong. But once we got into month one of the project I remembered why I liked her so much. She’s a chronic researcher, but her research obviously energizes her, and in a strange way, energizes me when I read about her project. I was fully on board again.

She’s also a chronic lister. She has lists of Splendid Truths and rules of adulthood. They’re pretty good rules, too. Two of the splendid truths: “To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.” (Splendid Truth 1) and “I can build a happy life only on the foundation of my own nature.” (Splendid Truth 5). Other maxims: Choose the bigger life. (page 79) Find your own Calcutta.—Mother Teresa (page 228). Be Gretchen.

This is a woman who knows herself—her strengths, weaknesses, and limitations, her likes and dislikes, how to push herself and when. And she seems to know what will make herself happy. I like the level of self-awareness. She’s a serious person, but she doesn’t take things so seriously that she stifles her emotional growth.

I enjoyed the range of happiness projects in this book, everything from abandoning a project to starting a project with her sister. Little things like creating shrines of things she loves and enjoying smells more. (Who thinks of this? But isn’t awareness exactly what heightens happiness?) And I was especially taken with her threshold ritual. I’d like to incorporate this into my life.

All in all, I enjoyed this book as much as her first, and I hope there is at least one more book like this in her.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Book Review - Carry On, Warrior: Thoughts of Life Unarmed, Glennon Melton

Carry On, Warrior: Thoughts of Life Unarmed


Glennon Melton

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir

Synopsis: Melton discusses her life and what she’s learned along the way.

Date finished: 30 April 2013

Rating: *****

I can’t tell you what I’ve gotten from this book, and from the author’s website. It’s like going to a therapist who sees God much the same I do. It’s like getting advice on your life without her knowing what your life is like or what your problems are. Without saying so overtly, she is teaching that we’re all the same, it’s just a matter of degree.

And did I mention that she’s hilarious? Goodness, I laugh until I cry sometimes. She has an Anne Lamott-like voice, more bubbly than neurotic, though.

What strikes me about her work is how honest it is. It’s like honest wrapped in honest. She can take a hard honest truth and split it open and light spills out. Most people are afraid to be that honest. Or more likely, they don’t know you CAN be that honest. It’s quite an education.

These essays come from her blog, so if you’re a long-time reader, they’ll be familiar. I was really hoping for more new stuff. But I guess that’s what second books are for.

Her main themes, both here and on her blog are these:
  • We can do hard things.
  • Love wins.
  • We belong to each other.
  • Do the next right thing.
  • Show up.

Some favorite moments from the book:

People who need help sometimes look a lot like people who don’t need help. (page 15)

These things don’t fill me completely but they remind me that it is not my job to fill myself. (page 21)

Maybe the fact that [parenting is] so hard means she IS doing it right, in her own way, and she happens to be honest. (page 113)

Elephants gotta be elephants and people gotta be people. (page 118)

The problem is always me, and the solution is always me. (page 138)

Reading is my inhale and writing is my exhale. (page 51)

After reading the sixteenth parenting book that contradicted the first fifteen, I quit trying to become a better parent and decided to try becoming a better person. (page 173)

And that’s what I do. I think of the most beautiful thing I can imagine and then try to do that thing. It’s an interesting but difficult way to live. (page 254)

My only gripe with this collection is that the organization didn’t make sense to me. It wasn’t chronological, which threw me for a loop more than a couple times.

But I can’t be disappointed. This book uplifted me, became a friend and guide to me, and, in a small way, cured me.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes. Yes. Yes.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Book Review - An American Life: The Autobiography, Ronald Reagan

An American Life: The Autobiography


Ronald Reagan

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Politics & Washington, D.C.

Synopsis: President Ronald Reagan recounts his eight years as president.

Date finished: 24 April 2013

Rating: ****

When I was five, Ronald Reagan was running for president. My folks were farmers, and they believed only the democrats looked out for farmers, so they voted democrat. As election coverage ramped up, my older brother taught me this ditty:

     Ronald Reagan – he’s no good
     Send him back to Hollywood
     Jimmy Carter – he’s our man
     If he can’t do it, no one can

That was my introduction to the president who would serve during most of my childhood.

In second grade, our teacher, Mrs. Miles, told us President Reagan loved jelly beans, and our class sent him some. This was about 1982, at a precious time in our history when those jelly beans may very well have ended up in a glass dish in the oval office. He sent us a personal letter thanking us for the candy, and we were pictured in the local newspaper. I figured if the president of the United States could take time to thank a bunch of second graders in Taylor, Wisconsin (population 365), he wasn’t all bad. Of course, I didn’t tell my folks that—and especially not my big brother.

Like all presidential memoirs, this one was full of facts and figures and dates and read much like a history book. He discussed all the things I remember hearing about growing up but not understanding until now: Nicaragua and the Sandinistas, the Iran-Contra affair, the traffic controller union strike, supply-side economics, peace through strength, Reagan & Thatcher, Beirut, nuclear disarmament, Star Wars, Gorbachev and the USSR, etc.

I was disappointed by some of the omissions. There was no discussion, for instance, about his famous amnesty bill. Did he think this was a failed move on his part? Did he think that writing about it in the 1990s when George H.W. Bush hadn’t done anything to close the border (as I understand it, part of that bill) was violating the 11th commandment (thou shalt not talk ill of fellow Republicans)? Whatever the reason, a mention of it should have been provided, I think.

The most glaring omission, however, was the lack of personal family information. While he talks quite a bit about his parents, brother, and childhood, his marriage to Jane Wyman and the welcoming of his children Maureen and Michael was mentioned in a single paragraph (page 92). Meeting and marrying Nancy only warranted two pages (121-123). The births of Patti and Ron were mentioned only in passing. On the other hand, he waxed poetic about his horses over and over. Obviously, he made a conscious decision that family matters were private and not fodder for a book, but I maintain that this is a memoir and readers deserve those details.

In a day when the current crop of Republicans has Reagan on such a high pedestal, he’s nearly deified, it’s nice to read about the man in his own words. He was confident and humble. He was well-spoken and witty. He was hot-tempered and even-keeled. He was patient. He was kind. What’s better, he was one of the last great statesmen, I can see that now. It was eerie how many of the problems he faced as president are being faced by our current president: economic recession, nuclear armament of nations run on unstable ideals, the threat of unstable idealism (the spread of communism and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and jihad), and of course, the ever present Israel/Pakistan conflict. What’s more interesting, however, that on every issue, our current administration is the idealistic opposite of President Reagan’s administration. Reagan turned the economy around, our current economy languishes. Reagan called for Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” the current administration will not call terrorism by its name.

I read this book hoping I’d find some of the speeches I remember from my childhood, and I was not disappointed:

     You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of   
     man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.
     —from a speech delivered for the Barry Goldwater campaign

     They [economic ills] will go away because we as Americans have the capacity now, as we’ve had in the
     past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom. In the
     present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem….all of us need
     to be reminded that the federal government did not create the states, the states created the federal
     —from his first inaugural address

     General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and
     Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr.
     Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
     —given near the Berlin wall (which would come down in the next administration)

Some various quotes:

     To Gorbachev:
     We don’t mistrust each other because we are armed; we are armed because we mistrust each other.
     (page 13)

     There probably isn’t any undertaking on earth short of assuring the national security that can’t be handled
     more efficiently by the forces of private enterprise than by the federal government. (page 120)

     No government has ever voluntarily reduced itself in size… (page 129)

     By 1960, I realized the real enemy wasn’t big business, it was big government. (page 135)

     Once started, a federal program benefiting any group or special interest is virtually impossible to end and
     the costs go on forever. (page 197)

     University of California student rioters telling Pres. Reagan he didn’t, couldn’t, understand their
     You weren’t raised in a time of instant communications or satellites and computers solving problems in
     seconds that previously took hours or days or even weeks to solve. You didn’t live in an age of space
     travel or journeys to the moon, of jet travel or high speed electronics…”
          When he paused to take a breath, I said:
          You’re absolutely right. We didn’t have those things when we were your age. We invented them.
     (page 179)

     If I could be elected president, I wanted to do what I could to bring about a spirited revival in America.
     (page 219)

     I believed—and intended to make it a theme of my campaign—that America’s greatest years were
     ahead of it… (page 219)

     The economic recovery system was threefold: Cut tax rates, get government regulators out of our way,
     and reduce government spending. (page 312)

     …frankly, I’m not sure a man could be a good president without a wife who is willing to express her
     opinions with the frankness that grows out of a solid marriage. (page 380)

     For years, I’ve heard the question: “How could an actor be president?” I’ve sometimes wondered how
     you could be president and not be an actor. (page 393)

     I’ve believed many things in my life, but no conviction I’ve ever held has been stronger than my belief that
     the Unites States must ensure the survival of Israel. (page 410)

I came away from this book with an appreciation for Reagan as a man and as a president. I also felt proud of my country, truly honored to be an American, fighting on the side of good, propping up other nations, tearing down walls, being a shining city upon a hill for the whole world.

Would you recommend this to a friend?