Wednesday, July 9, 2014

audiobook review: Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

narrated by Eric Martin

The basics: Detroit: An American Autopsy is part journalism, part current events, and part memoir. Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Charlie LeDuff makes the somewhat surprising choice to return to Detroit, where he grew up, with his wife and daughter. In this book, LeDuff explores what's become of the town his family has lived in for generations with a cynical, native eye.

My thoughts: LeDuff writes with a raw urgency I found infectious. The subtitle of this book gives a clue as to where Detroit stands, and as concerned as LeDuff is with the how, there's plenty of exploration as to how much really is wrong with Detroit. Part of telling that story is telling its prosperous history. Before Detroit became a sad story and a punchline, it was one of the most successful American cities. In the span of a generation, it changed drastically.

LeDuff explores these issues and themes both personally, in terms of his experience and his family's history, and professionally, as a journalist covering the city itself. The combination works beautifully, at least in part due to LeDuff's no-holds-barred attitude. He's simultaneously critical and reverent of the city. He's honest about his own mistakes and shortcomings. The result is a difficult to place in a single genre book, but it's one whose reading experience I enjoyed immensely.

Audio thoughts: Eric Martin was superb. He narrated with a strong emotional inflection, and I had to keep reminding myself he wasn't just telling me his own story (with passion, likely over beer and bourbon.) Martin perfectly navigated the combination of personal memoir, social commentary, and journalism in this book. I'll definitely be seeking out more of his narrations.

The verdict: Detroit: An American Autopsy is a fascinating blend of journalism, family history, memoir, and current events. LeDuff's writing is infused with a richness of detail, emotion and honesty. Eric Martin's narration enhances the book, but I'd recommend it in print or audio, depending on your preference.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (audio 4.5 out of 5)
Length: 7 hours 21 minutes (304 pages)
Publication date: February 7, 2013
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Detroit: An American Autopsy from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Follow Charlie LeDuff on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

book review: Birth by Tina Cassidy

The basics: Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born is a historical and anthropological look at childbirth.

My thoughts: Since I got pregnant (the nomadbaby is due August 9th), I've become more interested in books about pregnancy and birthing. As with many things in life, part of me is drawn to the natural way of doing things, while part of me is drawn to modern convenience. For example, I eat as much local and organic produce, meat, eggs and cheese as possible. But I have no desire to actually have my own garden, grow my own food, or kill the animals I eat. So I rely on local farmers and belong to a two CSAs, one for meat.With pregnancy and birth, these choices between natural and modern seem to have impossibly high stakes. For the first time in my life, my biology dictates many of my choices. As the one carrying this baby, I have responsibilities Mr. Nomadreader doesn't. How far those extend after birth is something I think about often, particularly as we tend to divide tasks more evenly in life than pregnancy allows (I have started opining how lovely pregnancy would be if we could only alternate weeks being pregnant.)

When it comes to birth, I've spent a lot of time thinking about options. Two options I never really considered were having a midwife instead of my obstetrician and having a home birth. Even with the choice to deliver in a hospital with an obstetrician, I soon learned the choices keep coming. So often in casual conversations about epidurals, c-sections, etc., someone will say "well women have been having babies without pain relief and without c-sections for years." And inevitably the response will come, "yes, and women have been dying in childbirth for hundreds of years." I wanted to know where the truth lies. Admittedly, I didn't seek out justification for my choices, or even start this book looking for a reason to change my mind. I'm fine with my choice to have an epidural and would welcome an elective c-section if it were offered. But I wanted to know more about what options I would have had in other times in history, in other countries, in other cultures or financial circumstances. I wanted to know how common or rare my choices are, and how my experience as a pregnant woman in 2014 fits into the history of humanity.

The first chapter of Birth is perhaps my favorite. Entitled "Evolution and the Human Body," it's an anthropological exploration of birth and the pelvis. It looks at what separates human pregnancy, birth, and babies from other mammals. If you only read part of this book, read that chapter. It's absolutely fascinating (and again made me want to have a c-section, which is probably not its intention.) From there, Cassidy takes a thematic approach to birth, exploring midwives, birthing places, pain relief, c-sections, doctors, tools and fads, and the role of fathers.

Birth is a fascinating book in its own right, and I learned a lot from it. What impacted me most personally is how little I really care about the birth experience. It's not a secret I haven't enjoyed pregnancy much (despite being very excited to finally, actually be pregnant!), and birth is just the last stepping stone to actually having the nomadbaby. I'm happy for that experience to be as quick and painless as possible (the anesthetized births of the 1960's sounded like a great idea to me--wake up with a baby!) I don't need that experience to connect me to humanity the way so many women throughout history have. I don't need it as a life experience. While I live at a time where I can't opt out of it, I am incredibly grateful to live at the time I do when I do have choices. And from a cultural anthropological point of view, I can't wait to see how the current birthing trends are viewed in fifty years.

The verdict: Whether you're pregnant or not, Birth is a fascinating cultural history of a process we're all a part of in one way or another.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: September 8, 2006
Source: library

 Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Tina Cassidy's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, July 7, 2014

book review: The Competition by Marcia Clark

The backstory: The Competition is Marcia Clark's fourth mystery featuring Los Angeles District Attorney Rachel Knight. Read my reviews of the first three: Guilt by Association, Guilt by Degrees, and Killer Ambition.

The basics: When a local high school is the scene of a mass murder, Rachel Knight is called in to aid the investigation, as is the procedure for high profile cases. It turns out to be a shrewd move in this case, as the two shooters managed to escape with their identities still unknown.

My thoughts: When I first heard The Competition would focus on a school shooting, I was confused. "Where's the mystery in that?" I wondered. Marcia Clark takes an all-too-familiar storyline and makes it into a mystery. The Competition asks harrowing questions: what if the school shooting is the beginning rather than the end? How do we keep the public safe and keep them from panicking? This novel is a journey into the cliches and nuances of mass murderers and high school life.

While this case is all-consuming for Rachel and her best friend/detective Bailey Keller, there are frequent mentions to events from the first three books, including the lingering storylines. Unfortunately, there's little to no movement in these storylines, and I found their inclusion to distract the narrative of The Competition. The details of these past cases are admittedly hazy, but their inclusion served to only remind me of all I didn't remember rather than to add more intrigue.

As strong as the premise for this novel is, the mystery's conclusion was telegraphed too early for my taste. As a reader, I don't like to feel smarter than the detectives solving the case, and by the end of The Competition, I did. Stripped of the jaw-dropping resolution I expected from the novel's many unexpected turns early on, I did still enjoy the conclusion, even if it more resembled a legal thriller than a whodunit by the book's end.

The verdict: The strong premise and intriguing set-up is enough to compensate for the telegraphed resolution. The mystery is the emphasis here, and there's little to no progress for the lingering plot lines in Rachel's life. I hope the next novel addresses those, or at least stops mentioning them without moving them forward.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 416 pages
Publication date: July 8, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Competition from an independent bookstore or the Book Depository. It's currently unavailable on Amazon due to their ongoing dispute with Hachette, the publisher.

Want more? Visit Marcia Clark's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Friday, July 4, 2014

mini-book reviews: Chasing the Dime, Lost Light, and The Narrows by Michael Connelly

I've been tearing through Michael Connelly's lengthy backlist, and I often find myself with repetitive things to say about them, so I'll mostly be doing mini-reviews of his titles, unless one compels me to write more deeply. 

Note: the reviews of Lost Light and The Narrows contain spoilers from prior Connelly books.

Chasing the Dime is a stand-alone thriller about Henry Pierce, a tech guru whose company is on the verge of making millions. His girlfriend, and now former colleague, breaks up with him, and when his new apartment landline turns out to be the former number of a prostitute named Lilly. The frequent calls are a nuisance, but he soon sets off to track Lilly down and finds himself getting deeper into the sexual underworld--and putting himself, and his company, at risk. Chasing the Dime is the first Connelly book to have a narrator who is not a criminal nor in law enforcement. As a reader, I often found myself frustrated with Henry and his lack of access to resources. His actions veer between stupid and reckless too often, but I must admit the premise of the novel is a fascinating one. Would I follow the story the way Henry did? No. In that sense, he wasn't a character I related to, as his actions confounded me. As the novel went along, however, I accepted Henry's quest and began to enjoy it more. The fast pace of this novel helped, but the reliance on technology means it hasn't aged that well (it was published in 2002.) Compared to the rest of Connelly's books, it's the weakest and my least favorite. As an escapist thriller, it's enjoyable.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Source: library

Lost Light is the ninth Harry Bosch mystery. Bosch is now retired from the LAPD, but he's using retirement to work the cases that still haunt him. He briefly worked the murder of Angella Benton, until her murder was linked with the theft of two million dollars from the film set on which she worked. Both cases remain unsolved. I was curious how Bosch would transition from being a detective to retirement, and in many ways, Lost Light isn't much of a departure. Bosch is forced to go rogue because he no longer has a badge, but he often felt forced to go rogue when he did. I appreciated this development because it provides even greater insight into Bosch and his motivations. His personal life is again well developed in this novel, but the complicated case kept my attention from the beginning. After a departure with Chasing the Dime, Lost Light is a welcome return to everything Connelly excels at.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Source: library

The Narrows is like old-home week for Connelly characters. Readers are treated to retired LAPD detective Harry Bosch, FBI agent Rachel Walling (last seen in The Poet), and journalist Jack McEvoy (last seen in A Darkness More Than Night.) What brings these three together? Two more deep ties to the Connelly universe: the return of the serial killer the Poet and the death of Terry McCaleb, whose suspicious wife hired Bosch to investigate. It was a delight to see all of these characters in a single book, even as I was surprised (foolishly) that Connelly killed off McCaleb. The Poet was a startling good stand-alone mystery, but I was thrilled to see its storylines revisited for more resolution. In that sense, I was incredibly glad to have read all of Connelly's earlier books so recently--the action begins quickly in this novel, and I didn't have to spend time remembering the details of the earlier works. The Narrows was a satisfying mystery and thriller, but I loved seeing all of these characters together a little bit more than I loved the mystery itself.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Source: library

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

book review: Over Easy by Mimi Pond

The basics: Over Easy is a partially fictionalized graphic memoir of Mimi Pond's experience as an art student and diner waitress in Berkeley, California in the 1970's.

My thoughts: I spent years working in restaurants. I never worked in a diner, but the wine bar in Atlanta where Mr. Nomadreader and I met, had an eight-hour brunch every Saturday and Sunday. Given my history (and Mr. Nomadreader's continued work) in the service industry, I'm drawn to books about the restaurant business. When I read Mimi Pond wrote a comic for Seventeen in the 1990's, I immediately remembered her, and I also knew she wrote for The Simpsons. Over Easy may be a debut graphic memoir, but she's an accomplished and experienced artist and author.

Pond captures the essence of 1970's Berkeley well. I was eager to explore that world, and the level of detail helped me immerse myself in it quickly. She also captures the naivete of her former self well. As is still the case, restaurants are filled with sex, drinking and drugs, and Mimi was often surprised to see how her co-workers lived and partied.

What was less successful for me in terms of storytelling was the lack of insight. It's as though Pond shared her journals from the moment without the perspective of life lived since then. In that sense, it's too ordinary of a coming of age story. Much will be familiar to anyone who spent time working in a restaurant today. While this type of coming of age story can be quite successful, I was struck by how ordinary her experience was. Clearly it was powerful enough for her to tell this story (and tell it well), but as I read, I kept waiting for the 'so what?' moment. What makes this graphic memoir/novel special? Given Pond's professional success, there's an argument there, but she doesn't address her life now at all, even in passing. Pond is what's most interesting here, but too much of the story hinges on the cast of characters that fascinated, delighted and confounded her younger self. Unfortunately, they didn't have the same impact on this reader.

The verdict: I had high expectations for Over Easy, and overall I was underwhelmed. Pond immersed me in the time and place, but I wanted more insight and reflection into her experience. I wanted more insight into what makes this story special. I most enjoyed her life outside of the restaurant, but the story focused mostly on the cast of characters within the restaurant. Ultimately, Over Easy is a competent coming of age graphic memoir, but I wanted more.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: April 15, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Over Easy from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (no Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Mimi Pond's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

audiobook review: Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen

narrated by Katherine Kellgren

The backstory: Her Royal Spyness is the first book in Rhys Bowen's Royal Spyness historical mystery series, which is set in 1930's London.

The basics: Lady Georgiana is 34th in line for the throne of England. She's also broke and unmarried. Given her station in life, working is challenging at best.

My thoughts: I have a fascination with the 1930's and aristocracy, and I snapped up Her Royal Spyness in an Audible sale awhile ago. I'm glad I finally got around to listening to it. It's a cozy mystery series, and like many cozies, it's emphasis wasn't focused on the mystery, particularly in the first half of the book.

The novel is incredibly character driven, and Georgie is a fabulous character. She's funny, and she acknowledges the preposterousness of her situation with wonderful humor. She's a heroine to root for, and when a dead body turns up in her family's home, she finds herself playing sleuth. I'm drawn to cozy mysteries where the amateur sleuth stumbles upon a mystery. Had I not known this novel was a murder mystery, it would not have been apparent until later in the novel.

While Her Royal Spyness is definitely a murder mystery, fans of historical fiction will still delight in its attention to 1930's London aristocracy. The tone of the novel is relatively light-hearted, and although there is a murder to solve, in addition to other serious problems, Bowen keeps the novel light and humorous.

The verdict: I thoroughly enjoyed Her Royal Spyness and getting to know Georgie and her family and friends. As a novel, I enjoyed the non-mystery components most, and I'm curious to see how the balance between story and mystery plays out as the series continues.

Audio thoughts: Katherine Kellgren was utterly fantastic. It was my first time hearing her narrate, but I have a hard time believing the book would have been as enjoyable in print. She mastered the varying British dialects perfectly (to my American ears, admittedly), and her performance for a character who lisped added the perfect element of humor. Throughout this mystery, which is both comical and tense, her narration matched the mood perfectly.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (audio 5 out of 5)
Length: 8 hours and 9 minutes (348 pages)
Publication date: July 3, 2007
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Her Royal Spyness from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition--only $5.99!)

Want more? Visit Rhys Bowen's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

2014: the half-way point

2014 is half over? This year has passed more slowly for me than most, thanks to the nomadbaby, who is due five weeks and five days from today (yes, I'm totally counting.) Pregnancy hasn't been my favorite life experience, but as I get closer to its end point, I am finding myself having an easier time enjoying the moments I know will be hard to come by in the coming years. I thought I'd take this opportunity to check in on my 2014 goals and see how I'm doing.

I knew when I made these goals that I wanted to keep it simple. 2014 is a year unlike any other for me. I knew August would bring dramatic changes, and I didn't want goals that would be overly ambitious.

1. Read 104 books in 2014.
I set out to read an average of two books a week this year. I imagine August and September will be pretty thin reading months for me, and I knew if I accomplished this goal, I would likely read more than half in the first half of the year. As of today, I've read 70 books in 2014, which astonishes me. I spend a lot of time sleeping, which means I have fewer waking hours to do anything else. But at a time when I know my life will dramatically change, I've been prioritizing the things that are most important to me, and reading has been one of them. Granted, I've been reading more mysteries, more nonfiction, and less literary fiction that usual. Most importantly, I haven't been reading with a number in mind. I'm simply focusing on reading books I really enjoy and devoting as much time as I can to it. I hope to do the same once the nomadbaby arrives, even though I know the number of books read will likely fall dramatically.

2. Watch 2014 films in 2014 (52 fiction films and 52 documentaries).
To date, I've watched 22 fiction films (below goal) and 32 documentaries (ahead of goal.) I'm pretty happy with these numbers because my reading numbers are so high. Mr. Nomadreader and I watched World War Z this weekend. The film is 2 hours and 2 minutes. I took six bathroom breaks. So movies may not be the best idea for me right now.

3. Read all 47 issues of The New Yorker.
As is often the case, when reading takes over my life, everything else falls away, even my favorite magazine. The year started off pretty well with this goal, but I don't think I've picked up an issue in weeks (or even months.) I need to face the music: read or cancel my subscription. I'll wait until the nomadbaby arrives to see if magazine reading is preferable to book reading in the early weeks.

4. Participate in the #fmsphotoaday challenge most days.
I am not doing well at all, but I am hoping to start fresh again today. The July list is here, if you want to play along.

Over all: I'm reading a lot, and that makes me happy.

Now tell me: did you make goals for the year? How are you faring?


Monday, June 30, 2014

book review: Don't Talk to Strangers by Amanda Kyle Williams

The backstory: I raced through the first two Keye Street mystery novels by Amanda Kyle Williams last fall and loved them both (see my reviews of The Stranger You Seek and Stranger in the Room.) When I visited Atlanta, where the series is set, in February, I treated myself and read the galley on my trip (y'all know I love to read books in the city in which they're set!)

The basics: When the Hitichi County sheriff calls Atlanta FBI profiler turned private investigator Keye Street about a possible serial killer, she travels to the lakeside, rural Georgia town to try to solve the murders of two thirteen-year-old girls killed ten years apart and discovered in the same grave in a wooded area.

My thoughts: The further along writers get in series, the harder it can be to keep things fresh. In this third installment of the Keye Street series, the first thirty pages are so are a glimpse into Keye's personal and professional life. The reader is treated to her current living situation, a bond jumping case, and office hijinks. When the action shifts to the mystery whose focus carries this novel, I was hooked. The premise is fascinating: a serial killer targeting thirteen-year-old girls ten years apart. As the details of the case unfold, I marveled at its complexity and the spot-on pacing. Williams strikes the perfect balance between the comforts of the previous books and characters and moving the storylines along in a satisfying way. These murders definitely dominate this novel, but the case is interesting and complicated enough that to have it otherwise would be a disservice. This series continues to fly under the radar, but it's among my favorite contemporary mystery series, and I cannot wait until the fourth one is out.

The verdict: Don't Talk to Strangers is a riveting procedural and a worthy entry in this excellent series. The case is the focus, and its conclusion is satisfying, but the epilogue delivers a jaw-dropping cliffhanger in Keye's personal life that left me cursing the time until the fourth installment.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: July 1, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Don't Talk to Strangers from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

A note on series order: While events from the first two books in this series are mentioned, they aren't spoiled. Readers who haven't read The Stranger You Seek or Stranger in the Room could still enjoy Don't Talk to Strangers and read the earlier novels later. Although I'm a series order purist, Williams balances character development and past events well. The biggest spoilers are in Keye's personal life, and those are relatively minor.

Want more? Visit Amanda Kyle Williams' websitelike her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, June 16, 2014

book review: Terminal City by Linda Fairstein

The backstory: Terminal City is the sixteenth mystery in Linda Fairstein's Alexandra Cooper series. Cooper runs the Manhattan D.A.'s Special Victims Unit, a unit Fairstein herself ran for many years.

The basics: A woman is found raped and murdered at the illustrious Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Soon thereafter, another body appears outside Grand Central Terminal, and Alex, along with good friends and detectives Mercer and Mike, is drawn into the self-functioning city of people who call the ground underneath Grand Central home as they try to solve these murders.

This review will contain minor spoilers from previous Fairstein novels, particularly Death Angel.

My thoughts: I, like many long-time readers, celebrated a certain development in Alex's personal life that appeared frustratingly close to the end of Death Angel. As excited as I always am for a new Fairstein novel, this year I was most excited to see what was happening in Alex's love life. The events in Terminal City pick up shortly after the events of Death Angel, so not much has changed. The first murder brings Alex and Mike, just back from suspension and an Ireland vacation, together professionally before they've spoken personally, and the case continues to dominate their time. As a reader, I found the all-consuming nature of this case frustrating, but it is realistic.

Soon, however, I was more wrapped up in the intrigue of the case and the rich history of Grand Central. Like Alex, I put her love life out of my mind. I read this mystery compulsively, but I savored the fascinating details of New York's history as much as the developing clues in the whodunit. As is typical of Fairstein, the history is not merely a backdrop--it feeds clues to the mystery itself, which make her books entertaining and informative.

The verdict: Terminal City will delight longtime fans of the series. It has all the hallmarks of a great mystery, plus Fairstein's signature in-depth look at an icon of New York City. While you could easily enjoy this mystery if you haven't read others in the series, the personal storylines likely won't be nearly as satisfying to new readers. While the mystery at the center of this one struck me as dark by Fairstein's standards, the warmth of a certain storyline in Alex's personal life compensates and left me once again eagerly awaiting Fairstein's next mystery.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 401 pages
Publication date: June 17, 2014 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Terminal City from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Linda Fairstein's websitelike her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

book review: MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction

The backstory: I've really been enjoying collections of essays lately, and MFA vs. NYC is perhaps this year's most buzzed about edited volume. It's theme also echoes many of the essays in Goodbye to All That, which I adored.

The basics: Divided into two large sections (MFA and NYC) and three smaller ones, MFA vs. NYC takes its name from an essay editor Chad Harbach originally wrote for n+1. The other essays are a mix of those written for this collection and those adapted from earlier pieces.

My thoughts: Part of what has drawn me to personal essays lately is the fascination with what it means to be a writer. In MFA vs. NYC, that theme is on full display, but it's bigger picture is the current state of American fiction. Obviously, writers are critical to that, and each essay offers different ideas and insights into what exactly it means to be a writer.

I've never seriously thought about enrolling in an MFA program, and what surprised me most about this collection was not only the rise of MFA programs themselves (in both quantity and perceived prestige) but what an MFA program actually entails. The emphasis in this collection is on Iowa, perhaps the most famous of MFA programs, and it would be easy to fill an entire collection with perspectives on this program alone.

If there's a fault with MFA vs. NYC it's that it tries to do too much. The essays are all excellent, but as a collection, it felt more unbalanced as I went along. The first two sections, on MFAs and NYC offered a variety of glimpses into contemporary writing and publishing, but as the themes shifted to pairs of essays, the collection lost a bit of its momentum. It's still an accomplished collection, but as a cohesive piece, it faltered somewhat near the end.

Favorite passages:  "It could be argued that any time you get ten to forty people together and have a core group of teachers, some homogenization is going to happen, but, in a sense, isn’t that what culture is? The establishment of a standard and then a resulting attempt to mimic that standard, followed by a passionate revolt against that stupid repressive reactionary standard, which is then replaced by a lovely innovative pure new standard, et cetera?" -- George Saunders, "A Mini-Manifesto"

"Charlotte didn’t think I was an idiot. She explained the ways in which her deployment of orcs and elves in her work differed from and even subverted the tropes of ordinary fantasy fiction. I didn’t mind discussing all this, even as I found it surreal. These were the times we were living in. I was on a college campus. I was a visiting professor. And I was sitting in my office, bearded and wise-looking and, in all seriousness, discussing orcs." -- Keith Gessen, "Money (2014)"

The verdict: Although the title implies an either/or dynamic, the essays in this collection focus more on sharing individual experience than arguing for one and against the other. As a collection of studies of modern American writing, it's fascinating. Anyone interested in the current state of American fiction will find many things worth ruminating over in this diverse collection.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: February 25, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy MFA vs. NYC from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

audiobook review: Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

narrated by Abby Craden

The backstory: I've been curious about Bringing Up Bebe since it first came out, but now that I'm pregnant (the nomadbaby is due August 9th), it seemed like a great time to finally read it. On the recommendation of Jen at Devourer of Books, I opted for the audio version.

The basics: Pamela Druckerman is a journalist and New Yorker who falls in love with a Brit and settles in Paris. Once they have a daughter, Bean, Druckerman begins to notice how different French children are than American children. They don't whine. They're not picky eaters. They sleep through the night earlier. yet when she asks French parents, they don't claim to do anything special or know what they're doing. In fact, compared to her U.S. friends who all espouse a variety of named parenting philosophies, the French parents insist that's just how children are.

My thoughts: One of my biggest fears about motherhood is exhaustion. I've always been a sleeper, and I don't function well on prolonged lack of sleep. Obviously, I'm aware that early motherhood will have me short on sleep, but I'm eager to find out anything that might help that period be as short as possible. In this sense, I enjoyed the first part of Bringing Up Bebe most because it focuses on the youngest children. My not-yet-born child does not yet whine in my fantasies, yet ini my head he does smile adorably in the middle-of-the-night when I wish I were sleeping.

Bringing Up Bebe begins with some background on Druckerman and her husband, which was interesting, but I was glad when she shifts the narrative to pregnancy. I didn't expect this book to include cultural differences about pregnancy, which I've read a lot about already. While I enjoyed her observations about pregnant French women, this section included the first red flags that Druckerman writes as a journalist who is not always willing to examine evidence or her own assumptions. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that stance, but throughout this book she vacillates between journalist and memoirist. This combination frustrated me as a reader at times, particularly because so many of her personal opinions she refuses to examine as a journalist are not ones I share.

Typically what I love about memoirs is having a glimpse into a person's real life. I liked that here, but I also realized for all the parts of this book I really enjoyed, I don't think Pamela Druckerman and I would be friends in real life. In fiction, I don't need my characters to be likeable as long as they're interesting and I understand their motivations. Listening to this book made me realize that preference extends to nonfiction too. Druckerman passes the interesting test--her life is fascinating, but her unwillingness to fully embrace this topic as a journalist frustrated me. For all the good observations (much more than half), there were several missed opportunities.

The verdict: There's a lot of wisdom and interesting observation about French parenting in Bringing Up Bebe. When Druckerman wrote as a journalist, I enjoyed this book much more than when she veered into more of a memoir style. There's a lot of good in this book, but I wished Druckerman would have pushed herself farther.

Audio thoughts: Abby Craden's narration was superb. Her French pronunciation (to my Anglophone ears) was accurate without being over-the-top. She read with emotion, and her voice reminds me of my favorite audiobook narrator, Cassandra Campbell. I'm glad I picked this one up on audio, as I fear Druckerman's opinions would have been more grating in print.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (4.5 out of 5 on audio)
Length: 288 pages (9 hours, 7 minutes)
Publication date: February 7, 2012
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Bringing Up Bebe from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Pamela Druckerma's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, June 9, 2014

book review: All Day and a Night by Alafair Burke

The backstory: Alafair Burke is one of my favorite mystery writers. All Day and a Night is the fifth novel in her NYPD detective Ellie Hatcher series (reviews of the first four: Dead Connection, Angel's Tip, 212, and Never Tell.) Also see my reviews of the three titles in her Portland ADA Samantha Kincaid series (Judgment CallsMissing Justice, and Close Case) and her two stand alone mysteries (Long Gone and If You Were Here).

The basics: When Brooklyn psychiatrist Helen Brunswick is murdered in a similar manner to how six prostitutes were murdered by Anthony Amaro in Utica and New York City twenty years ago, Ellie Hatcher and her partner are tasked with taking a fresh look at the original victims to see if the same person could have killed all the women. Amaro is in prison, so he didn't kill Brunswick.

My thoughts: As much as I love police procedural mysteries, there are special places in my heart for both stories about wrongful convictions and those about serial killers. All Day and a Night has both, plus Ellie Hatcher, one of my favorite fictional detectives. From the first page, I was hooked. After reading all of the Ellie Hatcher series in a few months, it was delightful to enter her world again after so long.

The pace of this mystery is just right. I read compulsively as Ellie and her partner JJ slowly pieced together these cold case clues. While they discussed theories based on evidence, the mystery reader in me correctly figured out the big reveal. I don't fault Ellie and JJ for figuring it out after I did, but admittedly the resolution was a little underwhelming. Despite figuring out the ending, it didn't dampen my enjoyment as I read. Burke is a great writer, and Ellie Hatcher is a dynamic character. This novel did not, however, leave me saying "wow," after I turned the last page, as most of Burke's novels have.

Favorite passage: "There's no such thing as merit separated from biography, he had told me. The only question is whether you're going to let your biography hold you down or help you up."

The verdict: I loved the experience of reading this book more than its resolution. The journey is a great one, but it's not quite as good as Burke's other books because it lacked her signature shocking twist. It's really good, and even great, but it stops just short of the fantastic standard Burke has set for herself. If you haven't read Alafair Burke yet: start at the beginning and enjoy.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 368 pages
Publication date: June 10, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy All Day and a Night from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Alafair Burke's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Friday, May 30, 2014

book review: Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

The basics: Stretching from the 1970's to the early 2000's, Astonish Me is the story of Joan, a young ballerina good enough to make the corps but not good enough to ever be a star. Joan's story is told in chapters and vignettes that move back and forth in time.

My thoughts: As someone who has little coordination and even less grace, my fascination with ballet and dance truly stems from appreciation. Maggie Shipstead clearly shares my fascination with ballet, and the characters in this novel are at times both reverent and critical about ballet. These complicated feelings about ballet extend into the characters' lives too, and Shipstead's prose is astonishingly good.

For so much interior insight, there is also a lot of action. Joan is at the center of this novel, but the secondary characters are actually more intriguing. From Joan's roommate and fellow dancer Elaine, to Russian defector Arslan Rusakov, to Joan's husband and son, as well as her neighbors, Joan is enhanced by each secondary storyline.

Shipstead's observational writing reminds me of Curtis Sittenfeld and Susanna Daniel (all three are graduates of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, for what it's worth.) I'm a reader who likes to know it all: I want plot, but I want to understand each character's feelings and perspectives. Shipstead delivers, and the non-chronological structure adds layers and layers of emotion, knowledge and understanding for the reader without, thankfully, distracting from the narrative itself.

Favorite passage:  "When they are alone, lying quietly, he holds her the way a child holds a stuffed animal: for comfort, for security, out of a primate’s urge to cling, to close one’s arms around a warm, soft object."

The verdict: Astonish Me is a novel that feels so much bigger than its pages. It's a family saga of sorts, but it's greatest achievement is in combining a compelling plot with well-developed characters, and both are as good as they are thanks to Shipstead's wise, observant, and descriptive prose.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 273 pages
Publication date: April 8, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Astonish Me from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Maggie Shipstead's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

book review: Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York edited by Sari Botton

The basics: This collection of essays takes its inspiration from Joan Didion's famous essay of the same name and invites a younger generation of writers to write about their love affairs with New York.

My thoughts: I lived in New York City for only one summer, between my first and second years of college, but it was one of my favorite summers. I always imagined I'd end up living there, and when I met Mr. Nomadreader, a native upstate New Yorker, in Atlanta, we both figured we'd end up there. When we moved to Albany for me to go to graduate school, I still thought we'd end up in New York or Boston or somewhere nearby, but then reality charged in, and I realized the difference between academic librarian salaries varied little based on where you live, and as much as I love New York, I did not pick a job that would let me have any real quality of life if we lived there. Still: New York City is magical for me, and I knew this collection would be filled with people who similarly love New York and writing. And it is.

It's always difficult to review an edited collection. As always, some essays spoke to me more deeply than others, but it wasn't always the ones I most expected to respond to. This collection is filled with essays by writers whose work I've loved in the past, and I enjoyed this glimpse into their lives. One of my favorites was Elissa Albert's because she writes as much about Albany, where she now lives, as she does about New York City. And she captures Albany so beautiful, I stuck those pages in front of Mr. Nomadreader and said, "read this. Now. It's amazing."

As I read this collection, interspersed with other reading over several days, I found myself simultaneously missing New York and incredibly grateful for the life in Iowa we're building. I'm still nomadic at heart, and part of my nomadic roots is constantly picturing different lives for myself, mostly in different cities around the world. Yet as I read this collection, I felt so fully at home with my life in Des Moines that I could enjoy the past, think of the future, but mostly revel in the experiences of these gifted writers for what they were, rather than comparing my own experiences to theirs.

Favorite passage:  "Leaving things you love is easier when you’re younger. You make stupid decisions about the wrong people. You slammed the apartment door, throw your lover's clothes out the window onto the sidewalk. Leaving gets harder as you age. You don’t leave out of anger or from coming to your senses, but because your love is not as strong as your reasons for going." Melissa Febos, “Home”

The verdict: I adored this surprisingly diverse collection of essays. All are grounded with the same theme, but the styles, stories, approaches, and emotions are wonderfully different. If you too love New York, or if you simply want more insight into the life of writers, Goodbye to All That delivers.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: October 8, 2013
Source: library

 Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit the book's website.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!