Friday, October 31, 2014

Friday Finds (Oct. 31)
Hosted by MizB. Click on the picture to link up!
It's Friday, and just one more reason it's a good day is linking up to Friday Finds. I'm so excited about the books I've been finding lately.

When I read Destiny of the Republic recently, I was introduced to the period of time when antiseptic surgery was not yet the norm. Many thought it was ridiculous and many doctors hastened death in their patience because of their prejudice. Dr. Mutter's Marvels is the biography of a doctor who accepted the practice, and it sounds fascinating.
I'm reading Some Luck by Jane Smiley this week, and I'm loving it so much I've added her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres to my TBR list. I remember watching the movie based on the book when it came out and not liking it much (but then, it's my personal opinion that Michelle Pfeiffer ruined pretty much every movie she ever landed), and I've never read King Lear, but if this is half as good as her newest novel, I'm all in.

The Good Son is a biography of JFK Jr., specifically his relationship with his mother.

As for some heavy history...
In the Heart of the Sea is the story of the whaleship Essex (which inspired Moby-Dick), and if it's anything like In the Kingdom of Ice (one of my favorite books of the year), I think I'll enjoy it a lot.
While I was checking out In the Heart of the Sea, I ran across another of Nathaniel Philbrick's books,  Mayflower. Should be a fascinating read.
With In the Kingdom of Ice, Hampton Sides made a fan for life here, so I've added his Ghost Soldiers to my list, too. But Unbroken was enough World War II POW story for me for awhile, so I don't think I'll be dipping in this one soon.

And for some eye and brain candy...
Novel Interiors, due out Dec. 2, is a decorating book full of interior designs based on books (Austen, Bronte, Wharton, etc.). Combining two of my passions, books and interior design. Sigh.
By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from the New York Times Book Review is a series of interviews with contemporary authors. Although I'm sure not to know most of the writers, it doesn't really matter to me. I love to hear anyone talk about books.
Whew, that was quite a list. What have you added this week?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Bright Wings, Billy Collins (ed.)

Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems about Birds

Billy Collins (Ed)

Category: Poetry; Animals (Birds)

Synopsis: Former poet laureate Collins presents poems about birds.

Date finished: 2 September 2014

Rating: ***

I imagined that I would love this book. I love poetry. I love birds. And I love Billy Collins. So a book of bird poems edited by Billy Collins seemed an enjoyment no-brainer. Unfortunately, not so much. While I enjoyed the book, it didn’t “burn me down” as my old poetry professor told us good poetry should. There was a candle flicker occasionally, but no roaring fire.

Now, I was impressed by the sheer number of poems in this collection. And almost all of them were poems I didn’t know. No Poe’s “The Raven.” (But he did include Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.”) There are old and contemporary poets. It really is a good mix.

The pictures, though, blew me away. Some of them really are breathtaking. The illustrations are done by America’s foremost bird illustrator, David Allen Sibley. And each bird represented in poetry is depicted in artwork and accompanied by a short dossier of the bird. It’s all printed on good, heavy, glossy paper. And I really like the size of the book. (When it comes to poetry, it’s as much about the presentation as the thing being presented.)

One quibble I had—and perhaps I missed something—is that the poems/birds seemed to be in no particular order. All of the poems about a bird (cardinals, for example) were together, but there seemed to be no method to the presentation. I expected to see all the songbirds together, all the birds of prey, all the waterfowl, etc. Granted, I don’t know much about bird orders, but it didn’t seem logically organized. (Although it might have been, for all I know.)

But overall, it really is an elegant and sophisticated little collection. And I found some real gems. But the ratio of gems to “ehs” was too low to make it a favorite anthology.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
This would be a beautiful gift for a birder or poet in your life.

You might also enjoy:
Aimless Love, Billy Collins
Dog Songs, Mary Oliver

Monday, October 27, 2014

Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

Candice Millard

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

Synopsis: Millard recounts President James Garfield’s assassination and all the history surrounding it.

Date finished: 24 August 2014

Rating: *****

I just can’t even tell you how much I enjoyed this book. Writing reviews for books I love is the hardest writing I do. It’s like trying to intelligently explain to someone why you collect ceramic pigs. You can’t do it. Writing good reviews is my ceramic pig collection, I guess you could say.


The university I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life (yipes!) is set on Garfield Avenue. I’d always wondered what kind of president Garfield was. I’d never heard or read anything about him in school, so I figured he was one of those presidents who didn’t get much done and was doomed to be a part of the lineup but not a key player. And actually, that’s partly true, but only because Garfield suffered an assassination attempt just a few short months into his presidency. He spent the rest of his term (two months) dying from his well-meaning doctors’ attempts to save him.

James Garfield, our twentieth president, was an honest, upright, articulate man. He stood for principle. The American people loved him. And so, when a deranged assassin shoots him in a train station, the American public holds vigil. His doctors produce frequent updates, though not all are entirely honest. Still, the people anticipate the worst. They’d just been through the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination not a full generation before. They’re a tired people, they wonder just what the world is coming to.

What makes this tragedy even more terrible is that the very doctors who mean to save Garfield’s life are the ones responsible for hastening his death. In fact, Millard asserts that the location of the bullet was fortuitous. If left alone, it would have caused Garfield no pain or damage, and he’d live a full life. It’s the probing of the wound with unsterilized instruments, and indeed, human fingers, that causes infection so severe it takes the president’s life. You see, Lister’s notion of antiseptic surgery was just taking hold, but many physicians in America had not yet attached to the idea.

In addition to meeting James Garfield, we meet his assassin, Guiteau. We’re also told about Alexander Graham Bell’s efforts to produce a sort of electromagnetic divining device to locate the bullet in Garfield’s body. Bell works obsessively to bring the apparatus to fruition. We are shown the lengths to which a grieving nation goes to honor its president. And we are introduced to the nation’s twenty-first president, Chester Arthur, who begins his term as an ill-prepared puppet, but leaves it a respected man.

Millard tells a flawless story, packed with history. She writes in such a way that you empathize deeply with 1880s Americans. You mourn the president who died almost 135 years ago. It was just superbly written. My favorite story all year is the story of how Garfield wins his party’s nomination for the presidency. It made me laugh and cheer. You’ll love it. 

You might think by the subject matter that this book will be dour, dark, depressing. That is not the case at all. In fact, I came from this book with a buoyed sense of patriotism and better view of humanity.

America has had a lot of fine presidents, but it’s going to take something phenomenal to make me like one of their stories as much as I like Garfield’s.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

You might also enjoy:
Killing Kennedy

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Finds (Oct. 24)
Hosted by MizB. Click on picture to link up!

Had a rough week with lots of emotional turmoil and "stinking thinking". Bah! I've still been reading, but I haven't been thinking a whole lot about books or writing reviews. Hopefully next week will be better.

Who can resist a man in uniform right? I've been reading a lot of nonfiction about WWII this year, and George Marshall: A Biography seems a logical choice for future reading. General Marshall was the man who ran the US campaign in WWII.

Shortlisted for the National Book Award, An Unnecessary Woman is a novel about a woman in Beirut who translates books into Arabic for her own enjoyment. A book about books, I'm in. I also tend to enjoy novels that are character studies.

Speaking of books about books. I was talking to one of my student workers the other day, and she was appalled that I'd never read Fahrenheit 451. I confessed I didn't even know the plot of the book, just that it was sci fi, a genre I enjoy when it comes to movies but I'm not sure I would when it comes to books. But when she told me what it was about, it didn't feel very sci fi to me. I guess it's sci fi because it's set in the future and is somewhat apocalyptic? Anyway, onto the list it goes for future reading. (Have you read it? Did you enjoy it?)

What did you add to your list this week?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

George Washington's Secret Six, Brian Kilmeade & Don Yaeger

George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution

Brian Kilmeade, Don Yaeger

Category: Nonfiction: U.S. History (Revolutionary War)

Synopsis: Kilmeade and Yaeger introduce us to the Culper Spy Ring, developed by General George Washington to gain strategic information to win the Revolutionary War.

Date finished: 1 September 2014   

Rating: ****

If nothing else, this book showed me how very much I’ve forgotten about the Revolutionary War and the birth of the nation. Here is a partial list of people and events discussed that I remember very little about: Benedict Arnold, Battle of Bunker Hill, Siege of Boston, Continental Congress, Second Continental Congress, Declaration of Independence, the Stamp Act, Boston Massacre, “the shot heard ’round the world,” Intolerable Acts, Patriots and Loyalists, Treaty of Paris. Some of these, of course, I remember better than others, but for the most part it was like going back to fifth grade and learning it all over again. So, if nothing else, this book is a great primer for all (forgotten) things Revolutionary War.

But did you know about the spy ring? I guess I must have known spies were used, but I certainly don’t remember hearing about the Culper Spy Ring. Or its secret code for communication to General Washington. Or its foiling of Benedict Arnold’s plot to surrender West Point to the British. I sometimes wish I’d have paid more attention in Social Studies back in the day, but boy is it fun rediscovering this history as an adult.

British Intelligence Office, Major George Beckwith, said that “Washington did not really outfight the British, he simply outspied us!” This seems to be the case, from the evidence presented in the book. The British army was larger, and Washington had to spread his meager, tired troops out on several fronts, anticipating their next moves. Those moves were easier to anticipate, of course, with the intelligence gained by his spy ring.

I highly recommend this short book to anyone who wants a refresher on the Revolutionary War, wants to know more about Washington as a man and a general, is interested in was spies, wants a tale full of intrigue and peril, or just wants a jolt of patriotism for a country that might never have been.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday Finds (Oct. 17)
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Three more this week.

The Lost Tribe of Coney Island sounds a little like a companion book to The Devil in the White City in that it's about a public spectacle and a sketchy perpetrator. It's the story of a Filipino tribe brought to Luna Park for public display. The man who brought them in was none to scrupulous.

On His Own Terms is the looooong biography of Nelson Rockefeller. I know next to nothing about the Rockefeller family, so this might be a good place to learn. It's set to be released Oct. 21.
In the spring and fall I'm always looking for something a little different, more visual, a different kind of story. Dispatches from the Drownings is that kind of book. It's written by a professor at my university, and it's part true, part false. He's compiled newspaper clippings about area drownings in the late 1800s and also written some of his own. When you read them, you have to look for clues as to which might be false. (A key is provided in the back.) Sounds interesting, right? This is especially interesting to me because it includes scores of actual photos taken by a Black River Falls, Wisconsin photographer. Both sides of my family have long roots in and around this city, so I just might stumble upon a long-lost relative!

What have you been excited to add to your list this week?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Apprentice, Jacques Pepin

The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen

Jacques Pepin

Category: Nonficiton: Memoir, Food & Cooking, France

Synopsis: Chef Jacques Pepin recounts his life spent in French food and beyond.

Date finished: 28 August 2014

Rating: ****

If you’re looking for a good solid memoir about food and being a chef, The Apprentice is your book. Jacques Pepin grew up in France, learned to cook at his mother’s side, did his apprentice work in various parts of France, and served as chef to French President Charles DeGaulle. As a young man, he came to America and ended up at Howard Johnson’s test kitchens, creating food in mass quantities to be frozen and distributed to the many Ho-Jos throughout America.

Pepin was a respectable guy who counted Julia Child among his closest friends. In America, he married and raised one daughter. He went on to write many books, including The Art of Cooking, a two-volume set edited by Judith Jones, who also served as Julia Child’s editor. He also produced cooking shows on television.

This is what I consider a classical memoir. He tells the story of his life in an engaging and relatable way. There’s nothing flashy here, but he also doesn’t take himself too seriously to be fun. I recommend this book to anyone who loves food, France, or both.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

You might also enjoy:
My Life in France
The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Margarita Wednesdays, Deborah Rodriguez

Margarita Wednesdays: Making a New Life by the Mexican Sea

Deborah Rodriguez

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Living Abroad, Mexico

Synopsis: Having fled Afghanistan, Rodriguez finds herself looking for another adventure.

Date finished: 19 August 2014

Rating: ****

I adored Deborah Rodriguez’s Kabul Beauty School. It’s one of my favorite books about that part of the world, and I’ve read a lot of them. After leaving Afghanistan—and her ill-fated marriage and beloved beauty school—for safety reasons, Rodriguez finds herself without a country to call home. She returns to America, but she’s depressed and listless. Until she plans her next big adventure: moving to Mexico.

I say this with all due respect, but Rodriguez is one flaky woman. She attracts (and marries) only the wrong kind, she flits around the world, hopping from continent to continent, her relationships with family members are rather unreliable. But then again, she’s also adventurous, fun-loving, willing to take risks. While Kabul Beauty School was a much more serious book, and showed Rodriguez in a more responsible light, this book was good in a different way. It’s a good summer read for those of us who are too set in our ways to pick up and leave the country, and live vicariously through those who are more adventurous.

So, in all, I enjoyed the adventure with Rodriguez, and hope that when she leaves Mexico (which I have to imagine she will), she’ll write about her next stop in life.

As an aside, Rodriguez is not Latina, she just writes under a former name. In case that makes any difference to you. Don’t expect a Mexican woman finding her Mexican roots, that’s not what this book is about.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes, if she can appreciate the story for what it is.

You might also enjoy:
Kabul Beauty School
The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry

Friday, October 10, 2014

Friday Finds (Oct. 10)
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Well, it's definitely autumn in Wisconsin. The leaves are in a riot of color, the nights are dipping down to freezing temps, and we've had the heat on several weeks. Makes me think about long winter days spent reading. Not that my routine changes at all in the winter, but I do experience that "hunker down" feeling.
Five books added to the TBR this week. Fiction, historical non-fiction, poetry, and faith.

I so enjoyed Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City that I had to add In the Garden of Beasts to my list of books to read.
I also did a search for new poetry, and I found that Mary Oliver has a new book, Blue Horses, out soon. Her poetry is very earthy and often (always?) nature-inspired.

I haven't read a lot of classics. I've read even less long classics, but something inspired me to add George Eliot's Middlemarch and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick to my list of books to read someday. Someday being the operative word. Maybe it's the hunkering down feeling that makes me add these this time of year?
I stumbled upon a new Anne Lamott book Small Victories (due out Nov. 10), which I'm looking forward to. I've read all of Lamott's nonfiction except for her last book, Stitches, which I've been saving for the right occasion. When Lamott isn't bashing Republicans (which has died down since Pres. Obama took office), she's writing about family and faith in a hilariously neurotic and always insightful way. We don't agree on a number of things, but I still enjoy reading her books.
What did you add to your TBR this week?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Autumn Portraits

Each year I make a calendar on Snapfish for my (step)son and daughter-in-law as well as my husband's first wife and myself. I include all of my favorite pictures from the past year. I was feeling a little panicky that it was already September and I hadn't taken any photos I could use yet. So I cajoled my eight-year-old grandson, Bo, into posing for me around campus (lunch at McDonald's does it every time). We chose the perfect day for it, and I walked away with a number of shots that make me happy. Thought I'd share them with you all here. Which one is your favorite?

Yes, that's me with him. We're best buds.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Behind the Curtain, Dave Berg

Behind the Curtain: An Insider’s View of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show

Dave Berg

Category: Celebrity

Synopsis: The Tonight Show with Jay Leno co-producer, Dave Berg, recounts favorite stories about his years with the show.

Date finished: 16 August 2014

Rating: ***

Let’s get this out there first thing. I love Jay Leno. I’ve kinda had a thing for him since he took over the Tonight Show in 1992. Something about a man who can make me laugh is just irresistible to me. All of the guys I’ve ever dated have had a wicked sense of humor. If you can’t make me laugh, good luck winning my heart.*

That goofball smile, that caricature chin, and the suits are all nice extras.

So, given the infatuation, it’s no surprise that I was all over this book when it came out. It’s a behind the scenes look at the Tonight Show with Jay Leno as told by its producer, Dave Berg. It’s full of stories of various actors and actresses, musicians, athletes, and politicians. It also tackles the early 1990s late night war with David Letterman and the bizarre NBC scheduling decisions of 2009 moving the king of late night an hour earlier, giving the Tonight Show to Conan O’Brien, who tanked spectacularly, and then bringing Jay back to the late night hour, but on short contract. If you still haven’t figured out what the NBC execs were thinking, Berg can help you out.

So, I enjoyed this book. It was fair and honest. Some of the stories were fascinating and I spent a lot of time while I was reading the book relaying the stories to my husband.

The thing is, the book was poorly written. Berg may have written jokes and skits for Leno, but he’s not much of a writer. Nor, oddly, is he very funny. In many spots, the book just fell flat. I would just groan. He tells a long, long story about Dennis Rodman, for instance, that goes absolutely nowhere. His segues are amateurish. He’s just not much of a writer. Though, I have to say, he’s a seriously nice guy.

But, I guess I’d say the book is worth the bad writing for the celebrity stories. You’ll find out who Jay’s favorite guest was, which guest’s appearance ended the late night war with Letterman once and for all, which guest appeared more often than any other, which guests they wish they could have gotten but never did, and which politician guest did his pre-show rundown interview while peeing behind a half-open door.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
A Leno fan, yes.

You might also enjoy:
Leading with My Chin

*Yes, I’m happy to report that my husband’s a very funny guy. Hi honey! No, I’m not really in love with Jay Leno.

Monday, October 6, 2014

My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir; Literary/Writers

Synopsis: Rakoff tells of her year spent in the publishing agency that represented J.D. Salinger.

Date finished: 12 August 2014

Rating: ***

I enjoyed this book. It was a quick, enjoyable (for the most part—more on that in a second) read. Unfortunately, this is one of those memoirs that will slip quietly from my mind within a few months.

Rakoff is just out of college when she lands a personal assistant job at a publishing agency (never named) in the 1990s. Her boss (also unnamed) is a bit difficult. Her boyfriend’s a jerk. Her life at the time is in disarray. And she has just been presented with her college credit card bills to pay. It’s your typical twenty-two-year-old stuff. Although Rakoff is a few years ahead of me, I could relate to the period of time she’s talking about and the office atmosphere at that time. (Putty-colored desktop computers weren’t yet on everyone’s desktop, for example.)

The trouble with this book is it’s a coming-of-age story about a woman who doesn’t know who the heck she is, so the reader, no matter how patient and understanding, can’t know who the heck she is. No conclusions are reached. No hindsight is engaged by the grown-up Rakoff. She worked a year, moved on, and who knows what happened to her. And because we didn’t know her (because she didn’t know herself) who really cares what happened to her?

What is a coming-of-age story without wisdom? Blah.

The parts about Salinger were sweet. I think that’s part of the reason I finished the book, so I’d be sure not to miss any hints into Salinger’s personality or life.

In the end, this just didn’t satisfy me. I think it would be a good beach read, but it’s not for the reader looking for a personal story with any depth.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
I don’t think so.

You might also enjoy:
Summer at Tiffany

Friday, October 3, 2014

Friday Finds (Oct. 3)
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Well, we're down to three months left in the year, and I'm already figuring out which books I'll get to this year, and which will be waiting for next year. (I'm a little Type A.)

This week I've added three items to that list.

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story is, yes, another book about Jackie. I believe this one deals more with the aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy and less with the Camelot years. This book will be released Oct. 28.

I'm currently reading The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson about the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, IL. The landscape architect for the Fair was Frederick Law Olmsted, a person who has come up in other history books I've read recently. I wanted to know more about him, so I added Genius of Place to my TBR. Olmsted is the man who created Central Park in NYC, and his notions about landscaping seem even more relevant now than 100+ years ago.

Shauna Niequist is an author I enjoy a great deal. She writes books that deal with faith, family, and food. Savor, set to release in March 2015, is a devotional covering one year. While Niequist and I have different views on faith and the nature of God, I tend to enjoy her work more than others.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bomb, Steve Sheinkin

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

Steve Sheinkin

Category: YA nonfiction; History; Politics & Washington

Synopsis: Sheinkin relates the building, testing, and use of the atomic bomb in World War II.

Date finished: 7 August 2014

Rating: *****


Oh. My. Goodness.

Through much of this book, I thought I would be rating it a three or four. It was very well-written, but it wasn’t entirely compelling. It felt too much like a high school U.S. history textbook—lots of facts, not a lot of application to life. But I kept reading, because, frankly, I really don’t remember learning about the atomic bomb, and definitely don’t remember learning about the spying that was involved.

About the time the worksite in Los Alamos was formed and staffed, the book took an upturn and became very intriguing. Though, of course, I knew how it all ended, the events leading up to the building, testing, and use of the atomic bomb were riveting. As soon as fission is confirmed, the great powers of the 1940s world are in a panic for the weapon to end all weapons. There is spying. There are double agents. And, of course, there is the frenzied race to build the bomb before the Nazis.

And then President Truman’s decision to use the bomb on Japan to end the war.

It’s this last part, the dropping of the bombs and the aftermath around the world, that makes this an outstanding book. Sheinkin captures the terrible destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and provides eyewitness accounts by survivors. But beyond this, he conveys the mixture of emotions felt by those responsible for creating this terrible weapon: grief, guilt, horror, pride, relief, exhaustion, fear. Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atomic bomb, especially, was stricken by what he’d help accomplish. Had humanity just created its doom? It was an eye-opening and sobering coda to an ugly war. I found this part of the book so powerful, I think I will always carry the feeling with me. Never will I look at this part of human history in quite the same way. 

And just as the creation of the bomb wasn’t the end of the story, the use of the bomb wasn’t the end either. The period following World War II became a race among nations to build and stockpile bigger and “better” nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer argued that the period after WWII was a time to step back from the arms race, not ramp it up. He knew the greed for more weapons would take on a life of its own. It wouldn’t take long before it would no longer be about ending a war, ensuring national security, or even intimidating rogue nations, it would become about terrorism, annihilation, and genocide. We need look no further than the current turmoil in the Middle East to see his prophesy come true. (The government, by the way, didn’t like Oppenheimer’s opposition, so they removed him from the equation by revoking his security clearance.)

A note about this being a YA read: I wouldn’t have been able to tell, had I not known, that this was not a book for adults. Never does Sheinkin water down the scientific aspects of the physics involved, and never does he shield his young audience from the truth of what’s happening. This surprised and pleased me.

I will say that this is not the kind of book you want to pick up and put down with several days between readings. There are a lot of names and events and dates and countries, and it’s hard to keep track of the details. I know this from experience.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes, readers of all ages should read this book.

You might also enjoy: