Monday, March 12, 2018

What I'm reading this week (3/12/18)

Last week I finished:

I'm not a huge Star Wars fan. I've seen the first three movies (which I have trouble thinking of as IV, V, and VI instead of 1, 2, and 3), and that was enough for me. Years and years ago I read a book or two by Carrie Fisher, and though the material was a bit beyond my experience or comfort zone, I remember thinking the writing was quirky and good. So when I saw the Kindle copy of The Princess Diarist on sale for $1.99 (it might still be), I downloaded it, and I read it in three days without really meaning to. I guess it was just what I needed when I needed it. I feel foolish admitting it, but I didn't really know what this book was about, and if you don't either, and you don't want your feelings about a certain dashing Star Wars star to take a big hit, maybe you should stop reading right here. You've been warned. In essence, this is the story of filming Star Wars, but it's also a vehicle for revealing the fact that Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford had an affair while filming the movie. She was 19 and drunk; he was 33 and the married father of two. She developed feelings for him, he barely had a word to say to her (what was there to talk about, after all, when the relationship could not continue?). In her diaries kept at the time of the filming, Fisher writes: "Why have I become casually involved with someone who, if I am totally honest with myself, I don't care for and who doesn't care for me? And is married." It's kind of a sad, pitiful story. But thankfully, it doesn't go into detail. The next portion of the book is excerpts from her diaries from this period, which were excruciatingly vague and impersonal, and yet, really well-written for a girl of her age. The last portion of the book is about how Fisher deals with her fans. She writes out long, funny examples of one-sided fans' dialogues with her. You know those awkward sci-fi types. I guess judging by the speed with which I made it through the book, I enjoyed it, but the fact that it was a way to reveal the affair (and why? why reveal it 40 years later?), and Fisher's sad passing a month after its publishing (and her mother's passing the day after hers), makes this a particularly sad note to end on. If you're a Star Wars fan, you've likely already read this one, and if you're not interested, you probably won't ever pick it up. It was at times charming, at times bewildering, and it contained much humor and profanity. My rating: 3 stars.

I am now officially a big fan of Alice McDermott. I'm not sure you can make such a claim about an author until you've read at least three books by them, so I've officially reached the threshold of fandom. I read her latest, The Ninth Hour, in December (my review here), and I loved it so much I immediately bough three more of her books. Someone is the book that came out prior to The Ninth Hour. Someone is very similar to The Ninth Hour, and I liked it almost as much. McDermott wrote both books as first person narratives; both are quiet books with a somber feel. Someone is the story of Marie Commeford's life in Brooklyn, coming of age around World War II. It's not a book of compelling plot, but is a more contemplative narration of Marie's childhood, marriage, and present-day widowhood, which is what McDermott excels at. And, like most/all of her work, there's also a great deal of Catholicism involved. Marie is a spunky young woman who has a mind of her own, and in some ways that means she'll always be a little lonely. While I preferred the plot of The Ninth Hour, and especially the plot twist at the end, this was a very satisfying character study. I recommend both books highly. My rating: 4 stars.

I tend to ignore books about ailments and diseases, but every now and then a book comes along that looks like a lot of fun in spite of it being part of the malady genre. Born on a Blue Day was one of those. This is the memoir of a man who is an autistic savant, much like the character in Rain Man, but on the higher functioning end of the autism scale. Daniel Tammet has been through a lot. He's dealt with Asperger's, epilepsy, and homosexuality. He's worked hard to learn to understand human emotions and how to react to them. He's pushed himself to travel and meet folks who want to know more about him and his brain. He has learned many languages--including Icelandic in one week. He has set a world record by reciting 22,514 digits of pi in five hours and nine minutes. He tells his story simply and with candor. I enjoyed hearing about Daniel's story from Daniel himself, but I feel that I would have been just fine without having experienced this book. It sort of felt flat to me, not great or bad, just average. My rating: 3 stars.

Last week I abandoned:

I was not finding Wallis in Love any fun, so I bailed.

Next up:

This book didn't get much press when it came out, but I'm a big Jen Lancaster nonfiction fan, so I'm excited to give it a read.

I'm also reading:

I feel like I'm finally making headway in All the Odes. I'm about one-quarter done.

I'm still enjoying Ranking the First Ladies. So. Many. Facts.

My audiobook:

I'm currently listening to the fifth in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. It's just as good as all the others.

Monday, March 5, 2018

What I'm reading this week (3/5/18)

Last week I finished:

As you know, I love a good biography, especially if it's well-researched, well-written, and interesting. I love being able to look into another life for a few days and read about someone from beginning to end. Bunny Mellon was a wonderful example of the genre. Although I was relatively unfamiliar with the subject, I had run across her name in other biographies, probably Kennedy family-related. In brief, Bunny Mellon was the granddaughter of the man who invented Listerine. Her father, whose marketing genius boosted the product in American's eyes (by acquainting us with the term "halitosis"), inherited the family millions. Bunny grew up in luxury's lap, eventually marrying Paul Mellon, whose father, Andrew Mellon, made millions (billions?) in business and banking. Andrew Mellon established the National Gallery and was known for his extensive art collection and philanthropy. Paul and Bunny Mellon owned several homes, a private plane or two, champion racehorses, and an enormous art collection featuring Cezanne, Renoir, Degas, Rothko, Monet, etc. They also gave away much of their fortune to philanthropic causes and political campaigns. Bunny established a reputation as a gardener and style maven, though she had no formal education. She was asked by President Kennedy to create a rose garden at the White House, and her notoriety took off. (At least, the notoriety in name, she liked to keep a low profile.) Through the White House Rose Garden project, she befriended Jackie Kennedy, and they were fast friends until the First Lady's death in 1994. Bunny lived until 2014, dying at age 104. The book was a fascinating look at "how the other half live." There was much talk of her jewelry, her French-designed (Givenchy) wardrobe, her expensive art collections, and her botanical library full of rare tomes. She was friends with Sister Parish, Truman Capote, the Kennedys, and entertained both the Queen and her consort as well as Prince Charles and Lady Diana. There was a giddy amount of name dropping, and it was fascinating to see how someone few nowadays would know by name always seemed to end up at the center of American history. (It doesn't hurt to be Jackie Kennedy's friend, I would imagine....) If you're looking for a fun, detailed, never boring, exploration of a life of luxury, this is a wonderful book. My rating: 4 stars.

When Victoria came out, I was struck by the cover, but I assumed it was a fluffy, unserious look at Queen Victoria. But then I ran upon a copy at a used bookstore, picked it up and began reading, and I was hooked. I bought a copy that day. But since it's a long book, I was concerned I'd never get to it, so I picked it up on audio at the library. I'm almost disappointed that I didn't read the paper copy. I loved the audio, don't get me wrong, but I think I would have loved sitting down with this one, and having a somewhat slower perusal. It really was wonderful. I didn't really know what to expect, how much of the Queen's life it would cover, and how serious it would be. It turned out to be the fictionalized (though I would hope it's based on truth) first year or so of Queen Victoria's 60-some year reign. It was fascinating, really. She deals with the adjustment to the throne (at age 18), navigating an overbearing mother, a power-hungry advisor, her feelings for her Prime Minister, the pressure to marry her first cousin Albert, as well as a scandal or two. The audio is wonderful. The narrator has a lovely English accent and also does a fantastic job with the German accents of Victoria's mother and other relatives. I really enjoyed this one. My rating: 4.5 stars.

Loving books about the Kennedy family like I do, I snapped up The Nine of Us the minute it was published. And then it languished on my shelves for well over a year. I finally decided to read it on Kindle, and it turned out the be the perfect way to read it. The chapters are short, and there are loads of wonderful pictures of the Kennedy nine growing up. This is the memoir of the Kennedy siblings (JFK, RFK, Teddy Kennedy, et al.) growing up in the 1930s and 1940s. It's written by the eighth of the nine children, Jean. This is a very glossy version of the family. None of the affairs of Mr. Kennedy or his sons, none of the scandal or controversy the family kicked up everywhere they went. This is an account of nine idyllic childhoods, children that never seemed to squabble, a mother's perfect Catholic faith, and a set of parents who set their children on a course to change American history. It may have been a little too perfect, but I enjoyed it anyway. I guess Mrs. Kennedy Smith has the right, as the last remaining Kennedy sibling, to write her story as she wishes, and to disregard the less desirable bits of the Kennedy family. Just know that this book should likely be balanced with something a bit less biased if you want a complete picture of the family. At any rate, I enjoyed the book regardless of the whitewashing. These folks, faults and all, really did accomplish great things. My rating: 3.5 stars.

Last week I started:

Following Bunny Mellon with this book might have been a bad move, two women from roughly the same period, both entrenched in high society. This is the story of the woman who changed the course of the British monarchy when King Edward VIII abdicated the throne to marry her. Queen Elizabeth would not be reigning if not for Wallis Simpson.

I'm continuing with:

I'm having a blast with Ranking the First Ladies. I'm totally geeking out over First Lady history.

And I'm enjoying All the Odes, but at 800+ pages, I'm already concerned about not being able to finish it in a month.
My next audiobooks:

I'll finish one and begin the other, but I'm not sure which will be first.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

March 2018 reading list

About this time of year I begin to long for something other than dirty white piles of snow, sweaters, and high heating bills. My mind is so ready to stretch and take in all the things. Plus, I want good stories. I've tried to fill my March reading list with some good stories. I've started five of these already, and I think I'm on the right path. I'm liking them all.






Wednesday, February 28, 2018

February 2018 wrap-up

February was another great reading month, full of everything from historical fantasy YA to love poetry, from post-epidemic fiction to humorous Christian essays, from a memoir of Ireland poverty to creating a capsule wardrobe. My one-word reviews below are linked to full reviews.

This month I finished:

5 stars

4 stars

4 stars

3.5 stars

3.5 stars

5 stars

3 stars
4 stars

4 stars

3.5 stars

4.5 stars
4 stars

4 stars
3 stars

Monday, February 26, 2018

What I'm reading this week (2/26/18)

I’m a little behind with reviews, not having posted last week. I’ll try to catch up now with slightly shorter reviews.

The last two weeks I read:

In an effort to get to some of the more popular books of the last couple years, I’ve been listening to a number of them on audio. That’s how I took in A Piece of the World. It’s the fictional imagining of the life of a woman in one of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings. Christina Olson lives on a farm in a coastal town in Maine with her brother. She’s unable to walk, so her life is primarily confined to her home. She meets the painter Andrew Wyeth one day, they become friends, and he spends a great deal of time on her farm in the future decades. The book alternates between going back in time to Christina’s childhood and describing the present, the 1940s with Andrew Wyeth hanging around. The childhood parts felt very much like a middle-grade novel (Wolf Hollow came to mind), and at one point at the beginning, I even double-checked that it was, indeed, a book for adults. I enjoyed this book. It wasn’t flashy or action-packed, but the characters felt real, and the setting was vivid. I’d recommend this one to anyone needing a reading refresh after a number of heavy books. My rating: 3 stars.

I also finished the second in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series, Birds of a Feather. You can read my review of book one here. In this book, which takes place in the last 1920s/early 1930s, Maisie is asked to look into the disappearance of a prominent businessman’s daughter. He is a man used to getting his way, and he wants her returned at once. But while trying to determine where the woman has gone, Maisie discovers that the woman’s friends are being murdered one by one. Who is doing it? Is it the missing woman, or is she the next victim? I enjoyed the plot of this one more than the first, although the first book sets forth Maisie’s life and is a good introduction to the characters which continue throughout the series. One would not have to read them in order, but I think you’d get the most from them if you do. I really, really like this series. They are well-written, tight of plot, and have wonderful characters. If you’re looking for a new series, especially a good British mystery one, I can’t recommend this one highly enough. My rating: 4 stars.

I’ve been meaning to read a book by Melanie Shankle for years now, and when her latest, Church of the Small Things, came out recently, I bought a reduced-price copy for my Kindle and enjoyed the beginning so much I bought it in hardcover. I tell you, the book publishers see my coming. This was a wonderful book, and an especially good read for Kindle, because it’s written in essay form, and each one is easily read when you have a few minutes here or there. Shankle is a Christian author with a fun sense of humor who writes here about motherhood, friendship, family, and pets. It’s quite funny, and I loved it. I immediately snapped up two more of her books for the future. If you enjoy Jen Hatmaker’s writing, you’ll find a similar voice here. My rating: 4 stars.

I can’t say that I’ve read everything that Gretchen Rubin has written, but I have read everything she’s written that’s made her famous: her two happiness books, her book on forming habits, and now her newest, The Four Tendencies. I’m not a big subscriber to personality frameworks, and I am bored by Rubin’s relentless self-promotion, but wanting to read her latest, I checked it out on audio. I wasn’t sure if audio would be a good idea for a book like this, but it worked very well. It is read by the author, which I normally enjoy, but I kind of find Rubin’s voice grating, so take that for what you will. This is the presentation of Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework introduced in her last book, Better Than Before, in which she categorized people into four types based on how they respond to and handle expectations: Upholder, Obliger, Questioner, and Rebel. The Upholder upholds inner and outer expectations; the Obliger upholds inner expectations but struggles to meet outer expectations; the Questioner questions expectations, usually meeting inner but not outer expectations; and the Rebel rebels against all expectations. There’s a quiz in the book (and online) that you can take to determine your type. I’ve taken the quiz at least three times, and I always forget which tendency I’m pegged as. Listening to the descriptions in the book, I’m likely what Rubin would label as an Upholder, but I might lean equally toward Obliger and Questioner depending on the situation (which, Rubin will make clear, is not really possible). I do have some reservations about this kind of framework, and this framework in particular. First, I don’t think it’s helpful for the individual or society as a whole to classify and pigeonhole folks, no matter what Rubin says. Division creates discord, not harmony. Second, Rubin discounts any chance that one’s tendencies have anything to do with nurture, telling us that it’s all nature, and therefore, one cannot change their tendency, just make allowances for it (and for others’ tendencies). I just don’t believe you can disregard how someone is raised and socialized. Third, Rubin discounts religion. This is a common problem I have with her books. You cannot remove a person’s most basic beliefs about where they come from and where they’re going and believe that you understand them. Still, if you like this sort of navel-gazing, the book is well-written, well-researched, and full of concrete examples. My rating: 3.5 stars.

My devotion to the Flavia de Luce mystery series is well-documented here. I love these books with undying adoration. The fifth book in the series, Speaking from among the Bones, is one of my favorites. In this one, tween Flavia de Luce is present when the church sets to opening a saint’s tomb, but what they find is the corpse of the church organist, who all had presumed had just up and left in the night not long ago. Flavia has a new crime to solve. Who did it? What was the motive? With much sneaking around and even some high danger, Flavia solves the case and then leads the inspector (and the reader) through the summary, proud as ever of herself. The backstory of the family losing their estate (it’s put up for sale in this installment) continues. Also, there is a crash-bang cliffhanger here that makes me want to read the sixth book immediately. I enjoyed the crime of this one more than some of the others, and really, that is the only variable in the books. Flavia is Flavia, through and through, always—one of the most wonderful characters in all of literature. Highly recommended, but it might be good to start at the beginning of the series. My rating: 4.5 stars.

At the university library where I work, we’ve created a display of campus members’ favorite books. Each book is displayed with the submitter’s reasons for loving that particular book. It was through this display that I became acquainted with Elizabeth Peters and her Amelia Peabody mystery series. Peabody is a Victorian spinster ahead of her time who takes a trip to Egypt, picking up a lady companion, Evelyn, along her way. The women meet up with an archeological group led by two brothers, Mr. Emerson, a crusty man, and his younger brother, Walter, who takes a shine to Evelyn; but the possibility of their romance is not without difficulties. The group is excavating ancient tombs when a mummy repeatedly terrorizes them, causing harm to each, but not seemingly intent on murder. Has the mummy truly come to life? Is the apparition a dressed-up local trying to drive the group away from the tombs? Or is something else going on? This was a wonderful book. I listened to it, and the narration was perfect. There was much “heart-pounding” action and some levity provided by the sparring between opinioned Amelia and curmudgeonly Emerson. And the writing was superb. This is the first book, published in 1975, in a 19-book series, so I have much ahead of me, even if the books are hard to acquire. If you can get your hands on a copy or the audio version, I highly recommend this book, and if the rest in the series is like it, it will be a long, fun ride. My rating: 4 stars.

I’ve never been interested in fashion. I’ve always seen it as an ever-changing, never-ending set of fads that bleed your wallet dry (how’s that for opinionated). Yet, I like clothes. I like variety and having beautiful things that make me feel confident and comfortable. I just don’t like to shop, and I resent purchasing things that are out-of-date as soon as you take the tags off. My style is simple, traditional is probably the most apt word. I like slacks and a well-ironed blouse, cable knit sweaters, skirts, loafers. I prefer cotton and leather, and I always layer. I dress mainly for warmth, buy most all of my clothes used, and have a million ways to keep things nice-looking for a LONG time. So you can imagine that my clothes may be a big dated—if traditional clothing styles can ever be dated. I’ve been feeling lately like my wardrobe might need a refresh. The capsule wardrobe appeals to me, but I don’t feel like I have the energy to create one. Still, I wanted to explore some options, so I picked up The Curated Closet from the library. I didn’t really know what to expect, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I loved the book. While the book is written as a plan to revamp your wardrobe, discover your style, and find pieces to help you express it, I didn’t really sit down to do the exercises the author sets forth. I sort of did them in my head, and I found that I loved doing them. While I’ve never been much interested in fashion, I’ve always loved design, and this book appealed to that love. What I liked most about the book is that it was never a set of Do’s and Don’ts. Nothing was ever written in the negative. And the author never pushed the reader to follow fashion trends. She takes a “if you don’t like something, don’t wear it, and if you like something, do” attitude and tosses aside the notion that certain clothes aren’t for certain body types. This was so freeing. She really puts the ball in the reader’s court to make the most of finding her style and building a wardrobe she loves and feels confident in. If you’re looking for a little encouragement to find your style or ways to branch out, this is a wonderful place to begin. It’s not necessarily about building a capsule wardrobe but about creating a wardrobe of only pieces you love and that work well with many other pieces. I liked the book so much I decided to buy my own copy to spend more time with the exercises she provides. Overall, the book was very thorough, but there were a couple things I wish the book had included. One was a pictorial glossary defining different fashion terms. She’d sometimes use a term, maybe referring to a specific kind of top, and I wouldn’t know what it meant nor what the top looked like. She’d also talk about different waistlines and necklines that, had they been pictured, might have sparked something for me to try. But then, I’m a very visual person. I also would have loved more information (maybe again, pictures) of mixing different colors and patterns, as that’s something I’d like to get bolder with in my own style. Also, there wasn’t much talk of accessorizing, though I suppose most folks can figure that out without help. I especially loved the section on choosing a color palette; it might have been my favorite part of the book. All in all, I was really impressed with this book, and I’m so glad I tried it. I recommend this one to anyone looking at defining their style or refining their wardrobe. My rating: 4 stars.

Lastly, I finished a re-read of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. I read this the first time in April of 2016, and I mentioned in my review, that I likely needed to re-read it to get more out of it. I’m not sure I got more out of it this time, nor did I understand the concepts more fully. I don’t know if it’s the book or me. I’d ask my husband (a former physics major) for more information on certain things (specific points in the theory of relativity, quarks, etc.), and those discussions helped me. It must be difficult to write a book like this, because you don’t know what a person’s educational or science background is, nor, necessarily, where to give more explanation and where to give less. You have to walk the line of giving just enough to define the term or theory but not so much information as to overwhelm or muddy the waters. You also must be able to anticipate readers’ questions. The book does well enough, but I’m not sure physics is a topic I myself can learn from a book. I was able to follow the discussions in the book well enough, but I was unable to bring it all together—or to remember exactly what was discussed. So, I guess, my physics education must continue elsewhere. My rating: 3 stars.

Last week I began:

Having finished all of my February reads early, I've begun some books off of my March reading list.

My "chunkster" for March is Bunny Mellon, the woman who designed the White House's Rose Garden.

I'm already halfway through the Kindle version of The Nine of Us, Jean Kennedy Smith's memoir of growing up as the eighth of the nine Kennedy children (sister to JFK, Bobby Kennedy, and Ted Kennedy).

And I began the mammoth collection, Pablo Neruda's All the Odes, which is presented in English and Spanish.

My next audiobook:

I picked up a copy of this book recently at a used bookstore, but I had a feeling that if I wished to get to it any time soon, I'd need to pick it up on audio. I have it ready and waiting for me to start this week.