Tuesday, December 31, 2013

book review: Tampa by Alissa Nutting

The backstory: Tampa was longlisted for the 2013 Flaherty-Dunnan Prize, an award sponsored by the Center for Fiction for the best debut novel of the year.

The basics: Twenty-six year-old Celeste Price is eager to start her new job teaching middle school in suburban Tampa. Her reason: access to fourteen-year-old boys, the only people to whom she is sexually attracted.

My thoughts: As I was raving about this novel to my husband shortly after I finished it, he (somewhat jokingly) said that I really enjoy novels about sexual deviance. Stumped, I asked him for other examples, and he promptly replied Room (which he was too disturbed by to finish and I call one of my all-time favorite reads.) Later, I realized I also adored Repeat It Today with Tears (my review), which is about a father-daughter love affair. It's true all of these novels share the theme of sexual deviance, but they're also about so much more than that, which is why I truly love them.

I read fiction for many reasons, but one of them is to better understand other people. When news breaks of a teacher having an affair with a young student, the question of how or why a person could do that is often asked. While the question may be meant rhetorically, I love that Nutting embraces the character of the Celeste in an attempt to provide a more complicated answer to the question. Nutting does not hold back. Celeste is a brutally honest narrator, and while some parts of this novel were challenging to read, the novel is better because of them. There are moments when Celeste's relationship with Jack seem almost normal. I loved these moments precisely because they soon seem so very wrong. It's a testament to Nutting's writing, character development, and world building that there could be moments of eroticism in such a taboo relationship. Because Celeste is the reader's window into this world, it's easy to be swept away with how she sees the events, but it's still difficult to imagine a happy ending to this novel as Celeste's actions become more reckless. Celeste's collision course with repurcussions is made all the more fascinating by the depth of its set-up, and the final pages of her story are the truly perfect ending.

The verdict: Tampa is a novel that reminds me why I will always love fiction best. Alissa Nutting masterfully gets inside the mind and body of Celeste. The result is a modern masterpiece whose story can only be told this deeply in a fictional way, and its haunting final pages will stick with me for a very long time.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 277 pages
Publication date: July 2, 2013
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Tampa from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition--only $2.99!)

Want more? Visit Alissa Nutting's website 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, December 30, 2013

book review: Somewhere in France: A Novel of the Great War by Jennifer Robson

The basics: Lady Elizabeth Ashton, known to most as Lilly, has longed dreamed of a formal education and career. When World War I begins, she is at odds with her mother, who desperately wants her to find an appropriate husband, whereas Lilly wants to join the war effort.

My thoughts: Although this novel's subtitle indicates its about the Great War, the emphasis of the story is more on Lilly's search for independence and her love with war surgeon Robbie, the old roommate of her brother Edward. The hopefulness of both of these storylines shifts the tone of the novel away from the atrocities of war, even as its main characters continue to immerse themselves in it. For a novel about war, there is a surprising lack of somberness, as the narrating characters focus on their own fortune and nearly altruistic desire to help.

Underlying the novel are themes of class and its place in the war, a theme of which I'm quite fond. This time in history is a fascinating one (admittedly my love of Downton Abbey illuminated my love of this time period), and I appreciated the tensions between classes, and the past, present and future. Lilly is a dynamic character who will certainly appeal to modern readers. The love story at the novel's core is filled with passion and frustration, but both Lilly and Robbie are characters to root for; so too did I root for their love.

The verdict: Somewhere in France is a somewhat gentle, romantic war novel. I raced through it in less than a day and quite enjoyed my time with its characters, particularly Lilly. Despite much of the action taking place in war, there's a hopefulness to this novel that keeps much of the harsh realities of war at bay and makes this novel more an escapist historical romp than a novel of the depressing realities of war.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 400 pages
Publication date: December 31, 2013
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Somewhere in France: A Novel of the Great War from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Jennifer Robson'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, December 23, 2013

book review: Guilt by Degrees by Marcia Clark

The backstory: Guilt by Degrees is the second mystery in Marcia Clark's Rachel Knight series. I reviewed the first, Guilt by Association, last week.

The basics: Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Rachel Knight ends up taking on the challenging case of a murdered homeless man, still unidentified, when she witnesses a fellow district attorney bungle the case in court. Rachel recruits detective Bailey Keller, also one of her two best friends, to help her solve the case.

My thoughts: Although it wasn't a perfect mystery, I adored Guilt by Association and Rachel Knight so much I started Guilt by Degrees as soon as I finished it. Some time has passed in the story between the two books, but Clark jumps right back into the action. What begins as an ordinary day in court for Rachel Knight soon becomes a game changer. So little is known about the case initially, but Rachel and Bailey slowly start to discover the details. The more they learn about the victim and the case, the less sense things to make, which is a plot device I love in police procedurals (provided it eventually comes together and makes sense.) The case is brilliantly complicated, and Clark doesn't show her hand too soon.

I particularly appreciated the pace of this mystery. It built slowly, which allowed Rachel's personal life to shine for much of the novel. The balance between her work and personal life ebbed and flowed in conjunction with progress on the case. Simultaneously, the reader learns much more about Rachel's backstory, and it's a complicated, fascinating mystery in its own right.

The verdict: The mystery at the heart of Guilt by Degrees is more skillfully executed than in Clark's first novel. Rachel Knight and her supporting cast of characters also continue to grow, and while Rachel's backstory isn't moving forward quite as quickly as I'd like it to, it certainly leaves me wanting more.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 449 pages
Publication date: May 8, 2012
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Guilt by Degrees from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Marcia Clark'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!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

book review: Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness by Jessica Valenti

The backstory: Jessica Valenti founded feministing, a blog I read long before I started this one.

The basics: Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness is more true to its subtitle than its title. Valenti combines her own experience as a new mom with research to convey the realities of modern parenthood, including the negative parts.

My thoughts: I have clear answers to the question "why have kids?" and its opposite. In the pro column, I believe our child would make the world a better place, whether it be in a large or small way. In the con column, there's the cost, emotionally and financially. I know Mr. Nomadreader and I would be happy taking either track in life; both options would allow us to do things we couldn't do otherwise, and both will leave us feel as though we're missing out. Both would be good choices, and I expected Why Have Kids? to dive into the complicated intellectual and emotional arguments for and against having a child. It didn't. Instead, Why Have Kids? is a manifesto for reforming policies, practices, and behavior relating to parenthood.

Thanks to Amazon, I know I highlighted no less than 46 passages in Why Have Kids? Even for me, that's a lot. So despite my assertion that Why Have Kids? is mistitled, it is a fascinating read that addresses what parenthood looks like in the United States today. Admittedly, Valenti speaks from a place of privilege, both economically and educationally. I speak from the same place, and am a similar age, so I connected with this book immensely.

Favorite passage:  "While thousands of studies show that breastfed babies are healthier on average than formula-fed babies, none of this research has shown that it’s actually the breastfeeding that leads to better health. Moms who have the time and support to exclusively breastfeed—remember my five-hour-a-day pumping sessions?—may be more likely and able to support their children’s health in other ways...The only real benefit that has been proven to be a direct result of breast milk, Wolf said, is that babies who are nursed have fewer gastrointestinal issues. But higher IQs? Increased immunity? Not so much."

The verdict: Why Have Kids? does not answer its own titular question, and I fear that may keep it from finding its audience. What this book does is present an intimate portrait of modern feminist motherhood and a manifesto about improving how we view motherhood and parenthood: improving policies, valuing women as people, and encouraging parents not to do it all themselves.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 205 pages
Publication date: September 4, 2012
Source: purchased

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

Want more? Visit Jessica Valenti'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!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

three mini-mystery reviews: The Third Rail, We All Fall Down, and The Lewis Man

The Third Rail by Michael Harvey

The first two novels in Michael Harvey's Michael Kelly mystery series, The Chicago Way and The Fifth Floor, were both 5-star reads. By those standards, The Third Rail fell a little short, but it is still an excellent mystery. Michael Kelly finds himself at the right place at the right time (or perhaps the wrong place at the wrong time) when a sniper kills a woman on the L. It soon becomes clear the killers have far bigger plans to terrify Chicago, and they want Michael Kelly along for the ride. Harvey lets the bad guys share narration in this novel, and the insight into their actions wasn't as compelling of the rest of the mystery. The ending, however, is delightfully ambiguous.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Source: library

We All Fall Down by Michael Harvey

What I thought was a delightfully ambiguous ending to The Third Rail turned out to be a cliffhanger, as We All Fall Down picks up immediately after it left off. Thus, I won't spoil the set up of the fourth novel in this excellent series because doing so would detract from The Third Rail. I will say, however, that We All Fall Down is Michael Harvey's most ambitious mystery to date--both its scope and its stakes. I'm eagerly awaiting the next novel in this series.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Source: purchased

The Lewis Man by Peter May

The Lewis Man is the second novel in Peter May's Lewis Trilogy. The first in the trilogy, The Blackhouse, was a five-star read. I loved it so much I ordered the final two volumes from the UK because they don't have a US release date yet. Peter May's writing is beautifully fluid and his characters are richly developed. Once again he manages to combine a compelling police procedural with the continued exploration of the inhabitants of the Isle of Lewis, both their past and their present.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Source: purchased

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!

book review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

The backstory: Like so many of you, I read and adored Gillian Flynn's most recent novel, Gone Girl, in 2012. I finally got around to reading her first novel, Sharp Objects.

The basics: Camille, a wounded young woman who recently spent time in a psychiatric hospital, must return to the small Missouri town where she grew up to cover the murders of two pre-teen girls for the second-rate Chicago paper she works. Forced to stay with her mother, stepfather and half-sister, Camille must also confront the childhood death of her sister.

My thoughts: As many of you as know, I majored in journalism in college (and women's studies and art history--I've always been a multi-disciplinarian at heart!), and I adore stories of journalists. Camille is a fascinatingly flawed character. I loved to glimpse inside the combination of her hardness and softness. She was simultaneously a character to whom I could relate and understand and one who baffled me, yet Flynn merged both seamlessly. Sharp Objects may not be a page-turner in the classic sense, but its combination of character development, compelling backstories, and current plot made the book hard to put down.

Favorite passage:  "You’re crazy to think what you’re thinking. You’re crazy to not think it."

The verdict: Sharp Objects is delightfully creepy but also richly realized. Flynn's characters are a delight to read about, and I was as enchanted by the characters as the mysteries themselves. Ultimately, I liked Sharp Objects even more than Gone Girl.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: September 26, 2006
Source: purchased (at Parnassus Books!)

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Sharp Objects from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Gillian Flynn's website and like her on Facebook.

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, December 17, 2013

book review: Double Down: Game Change 2012 by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

The backstory: After reading (and loving) Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's first book, Game Change, about the 2008 U.S. presidential election, I grabbed a copy of their follow up, Double Down, which chronicles the 2012 election, as soon as my library had it.

My thoughts: Admittedly, I'm fascinated by politics. I won't go as far to say I enjoy it most of the time, as I far too often find the antics and actions of politicians maddening, but I do love it in retrospect. Looking back at the minutiae of how elections are won and last, bills are passed, and scandals embraced or ruined fascinate me. Double Down offers all of those things and more. It begins with a prologue of the first debate between Romney and Obama (remember the one when Obama bombed and Romney came off as charming and likeable?) Then the book shifts back to the beginning of the 2012 campaign.

Much of what I loved about Game Change was the lengthy piece about the Iowa caucuses in 2008. It was my first time living in Iowa and participating in these first in the nation events, and both parties had wide open races. That wasn't the case in Iowa in 2012. Obama was the Democratic nominee and Romney was an early national front-runner. In this election, there was so much more drama behind the scenes in the Republican race, and one of my favorite chapters in this book was the one detailing all of the qualified, popular, and well-respected Republicans who opted not to run for a variety of reasons. As fascinating as these insights were, within them is a reminder of why my fascination with politics fares better in hindsight than the present: our election system does not entice the best, most-qualified candidates to run. I also think it's a refreshingly reasonable decision to not want to be president (or go through the brutal election for a chance at the job.)

As with Game Change, my favorite parts of Double Down were the earlier parts, simply because the narrative at the time was so muddled. In the summer of 2011, the Republican nominating contest was a delightful (or appalling, depending on your take) circus to watch...if it weren't part of the process of choosing a president. At the time I found it stressful, but in retrospect, it was fascinating and amusing to relive.

Because I read Double Down only one year after the election, its final chapters held fewer surprises for me. I followed the general election carefully and watched at least an hour of political news coverage each day. Halperin and Heilemann do a wonderful job of placing each event into current and recent historical context, but with the details so fresh in my mind, there were few surprises. It's certainly not a fault of Halperin and Heilemann, but I think I would have enjoyed the ending chapters more if I read them in a few years.

The highlight of Double Down was once again the part closest to my life. In this case, it was the night before the election when Michelle and Barack came to Des Moines. Our little city may play an important role in the beginning of campaigns, but it was a shock to have the president spend his last day of reelection campaigning right here. Mr. Nomadreader and I were there that night, sitting outside on a very cold night, first listening to Bruce Springsteen play, then cheering for Michelle, and finally crying along with President Obama as he gratefully recounted the role Iowa played in his first presidential election. To have caucused for Obama in 2008 with my heart full of hope and to have shared that moment with him (and thousands of others) the night before the 2012 election was a poetic bookend for me. I cried again as I read Halperin and Heilemann recount that night, which will always be a very special one for me.

Favorite passage:  This example of Mitt Romney valuing fitness: "Oh, there’s your date for tonight," he would say to male members of his traveling crew when they spied a chunky lady on the street."

The verdict: Double Down is as fascinating, beguilling, intriguing, depressing, frustrating and hopeful as the presidential election it recounts. There were moments I muttered "I can't believe that really happened," and moments I laughed and smiled while saying the same words. It's faithful, entertaining account of a fascinating election.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 512 pages
Publication date: November 5, 2013
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Double Down from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Follow them on Twitter (Halperin, Heilemann.)

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, December 16, 2013

book review: Guilt by Association by Marcia Clark

The basics: In Guilt by Association, the first novel in Marcia Clark's Rachel Knight series, Los Angeles deputy district attorney Rachel Knight must take on a difficult case, the sexual assault of the teenage daughter of a close friend of the district attorney, when her fellow DDA and close friend, Jake, is found dead with a teenage boy in a sleazy motel. Rachel simultaneously investigates Jake's death--against the orders of her boss.

My thoughts: I was enamored with this novel from its first pages. Clark writes with fluidity and her characters jump off the page. This world, even one grounded so well in reality, is remarkably well constructed. Rachel Knight is dynamic character. I want to meet her for martinis after work...and I also want her to prosecute the guilty. I particularly enjoyed the two strongest female friendships in her life: with fellow DDA Toni and LAPD detective Bailey Keller. The friendships of these women are wonderfully realized, both professionally and personally.

As is often the case with the first mystery in a series, much of the action centers around a case that's personal for the main character. In this novel, it doesn't feel like a convention. Clark strikes the right balance between business and personal, and as Rachel keeps searching for clues in Jake's case, there's a refreshing authenticity to her insubordination. The payoff is a good one, even if Clark gives a way a few of its twists to a careful reader. I'll forgive her these overt teases for creating such a rich cast of characters and a complicated pair of mysteries in her debut novel

The verdict: Guilt by Association is a promising start to a series. The mystery itself was compelling, even as some of its twists and turns were less surprising than others. The true highlight of the book, however, are its characters. Rachel Knight is a dynamic heroine to root for.

Rating: 4 out of 5 
Length: 373 pages
Publication date: April 20, 2011
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Guilt by Association from Amazon (Kindle edition--only $2.99!)

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!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

graphic novel review: Thumbprint by Joe Hill & Vic Malhotra

The backstory: Thumbprint is a graphic novel adaptation of Joe Hill's short story.

The basics: Mallory Grennan is back from the Iraq War, where she took part in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison abuse. She's tending bar and trying to forget the past, but signs keep popping up that someone is here and trying to remind her.

My thoughts: When I picked up Thumbprint, I didn't know anything about it, and I was immediately pulled into its narrative. Mallory Grennan is a haunting and fascinating character. Admittedly, part of my fascination with her stems from her gender (and Hill's treatment of it.) In the flashbacks to Iraq, it seemed inconsequential, yet when she's home bartending, the one male patron in particular sees her only as a woman, rather than as a person.

Her story is grim, and the graphic novel's tone follows suit. In this sense, the graphicness of the illustrations force the reader to see the horrors of war rather than simply imagine them. It's powerful as well as depressing to see Mallory, a dynamic character, struggle to deal with her demons at times.

The verdict: Thumbprint is a dark, honest look at the transition from war to reality. It's also a visceral tale of complex emotions and moral. At times gruesome, Thumbprint tried too hard to shock and veered into horror as a genre rather than staying in the unsettling, real horror of war. Horror fans may enjoy those aspects more than I did.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 104 pages
Publication date: December 11, 2013
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Thumbprint from an independent bookstore or Amazon (no Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Joe Hill's website, like him on Facebook, and follow him 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, December 10, 2013

book review: This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

The backstory: Ann Patchett is one of my favorite authors. See my reviews of her novels The Magician's Assistant, Bel Canto, Run, and State of Wonder.

The basics: This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a collection of personal essays.

My thoughts: Longtime readers know nonfiction is not my favorite genre to read. Yet I adore reading the personal thoughts of fiction writers I admire, and I was eager to read Ann Patchett's collection of essays, even though I'd read a couple of them before. In the twenty-four hours I spent with this collection, I felt as though I was staying up all night drinking wine and talking to a friend. Patchett's essays are fearless. While individually they address different moments and themes, collectively, they read as a personal history. These essays are all autobiographical, and while some are more personal than others, I turned the last page feeling as though Patchett is my friend. While I think of her as a friend, the relationship between reader and writer of personal essays is a somewhat bizarre one. I keep thinking of things I could tell Patchett, if only I actually knew her. This collection is so diverse--in time, mood, and theme--it's difficult to say much without taking away the charm of the pieces individually, so I shall say this: stop reading and go find a copy to read for yourself.

Favorite passage: "Implicit in my love for Tennessee has always been the understanding that certain needs were going to have to be met elsewhere."

The verdict: I can't recommend This is the Story of a Happy Marriage highly enough. It's a smart, beautiful, and poignant collection of essays, and while I favor some more than others, there isn't a bad one in the entire collection.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 325 pages
Publication date: November 5, 2013
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy This is the Story of a Happy Marriage from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit all the tour stops and visit Ann Patchett'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!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

book review: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

The basics:  "Thirty years after women became 50 percent of the college graduates in the United States, men still hold the vast majority of leadership positions in government and industry. This means that women’s voices are still not heard equally in the decisions that most affect our lives. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg examines why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled, explains the root causes, and offers compelling, commonsense solutions that can empower women to achieve their full potential." (from publisher)

My thoughts: I chose to use the publisher's description because it's not the kind of book I would normally read (or enjoy), based on its description. Yet I kept hearing trusted friends and colleagues rave about it, so I decided to give it a try. And I am so, so glad I did. Not only did I like it, I loved it. I loved it so much I think it should be required reading for anyone. Period. Hear me out, my fellow nonfiction and business book skeptics.

I have an aversion to business. I sought out work as an academic librarian to be far, far away from the corporate world, yet I've slowly realized over the past few years that by living in capitalist society, I cannot be completely removed from business. Many of the same power dynamics are at play in business are in academia. More importantly, in the courses I teach, many students, male and female, seek a career in business. I view part of my role as preparing for them for that work, even though I have no affiliation with the business school. By the end of the first chapter, I knew I would find a way to teach this book in my First Year Seminar (FYS) next fall. In my FYS, we spent the first month of class reading and discussing Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It's a book I thoroughly enjoy, but as fascinating as it is, some of my students expressed a level of helplessness after reading it, as though their future success (or lack thereof) has already been decided for them. Lean In is an inspiring antidote to Outliers. Sandberg is a visionary, both personally and professionally:
"A truly equal world would be on where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes. I believe that this would be a better world. The laws of economics and many studies of diversity tell us that if we tapped the entire pool of human resources and talent, our collective performance would improve."
What Sandberg does so beautifully in this book is to weave her personal experiences and observations into an impeccably researched narrative and call to action. There are certainly sobering realizations. The idea of "stereotype threat" haunts me:
"Social scientists have observed that when members of a group are made aware of a negative stereotype, they are more likely to perform according to that stereotype. For example, stereotypically, boys are better at math and science than girls. When girls are reminded of their gender before a math or science tests, even by something as simple as checking off an M or F box at the top of the text, they perform worse." 
I was most moved by two pieces of the book: the mistakes young female workers make by not leaning in and the fraught ideas of fitting children into career. As a professor, I want to do all I can to steer my students away from the sexist tropes of business,both in my classroom and in their lives. Far too often I witness gender-stereotype-reinforcing behavior from my male and female students. I should do more to address it directly rather than trying to redirect it. As a 33-year-old happily married, career-driven woman trying to start a family, ideas about balancing work and family are often on my mind. I harbor no desire to not return to work when (or if) we have a child. But I still find myself wanting to lean out rather than lean in lately, particularly in terms of the future. In academia, as in many fields, we are always planning far ahead. When discussing events in 2014 and 2015, I find myself thinking (and doubting), as I wonder--but what if I'm pregnant or on maternity leave then? What obligation do I have to share my personal plans now? Should I be afraid to mention the idea of wanting a family? If the last six months have taught me anything, it's that you don't know when (or if) it will happen, and yet it took Sandberg's direct encouragement that this is the most important time in my career to lean in. There is no more important time to have a challenging, fulfilling career than when trying to bring a new life into this world.

Favorite passage: "Personal choices are not always as personal as they appear. We are all influenced by social conventions, peer pressure, and familial expectations."

The verdict: If I had to sum up the message of Sandberg's book, it would be with this passage from a speech she made at a college graduation: "I hope you find true meaning, contentment and passion in your life." It's simple and eloquent, and the rest of her book outlines all the complexities of our world that make that so much easier than said done. Sandberg asserts the world would be a better place if we had more women running companies and more men running homes, and I agree. I also think the world would be a better place if everyone read Lean In.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 241 pages
Publication date: March 11, 2013
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Lean In from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Sheryl Sandberg's website, follow 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, December 2, 2013

book review: My Venice and Other Essays by Donna Leon

The backstory: Venice is one of my favorite cities in the world. I first visited it in the summer of 2004, on my way to Athens, Greece for the Olympics. I fell in love. Two years later, Mr. Nomadreader and I opted to spend our Christmas and New Year together in Venice rather than decide whose family to visit. Despite my love of both Venice and mysteries, I still haven't read Donna Leon's much-acclaimed series set there. It's near the top of my list, but in the meantime, I had to read her essays about Venice as soon as I got my hands on a copy.

The basics: My Venice and Other Essays is a collection of essays and vignettes divided into these sections: On Venice, On Music, On Mankind and Animals, On Men, On America, and On Books.

My thoughts: I've often bemoaned how difficult it is to review a collection of short stories, and here I find myself with the same problem as I attempt to cohesively talk about a collection of essays that itself is not terribly cohesive. As I finished the first essay in the collection, I said "that's it?" Truthfully, I wouldn't consider any of the essays about Venice to be essays. While classically there may not be a prescribed number of pages an essay must be, I found these pieces to also be lacking the things I most love about essays: immersion, reflection, and wisdom. The pieces themselves aren't necessarily bad, but when I expected essays about Venice, they didn't meet my expectations. If, however, you go in expecting brief, curmudgeonly anecdotes about life in Venice, you will find them.

Early in this collection, Leon comes off as quite an unhappy person. She frequently shares her annoyances and they often read more life rants than observations. Once the collection shifted away from Venice, however, moments of wisdom, clarity, and joy began to emerge. I was surprised how much I enjoyed her musings on animals, as I am far from an animal lover. Leon was at her absolute best when offering insight on American and books. Perhaps her musings on Venice would delight Venetians, but they left me cold. When she turned her critical expatriate eye to the United States, however, I was enchanted.

It is apparent at least some of these essays were written, if not also published, some time ago. There are numerous references to current events that aren't current. There are references to U.S. presidents I don't think are the current one. As a reader, I would have found it helpful to have a date written or previous publication information shared to help illuminate the setting and perspective Leon brings.

Favorite passage: "In an age where meaning has been tossed out in favor of rhetoric, in a time when films are mere concatenations of loud noises and the shedding of human blood, it is to be expected that language should no longer be considered the chief means by which we reveal ourselves, our thoughts, and our feelings. When meaning disappears so, too, must the ability to perceive it."

The verdict: As a collection, My Venice and Other Essays is frustratingly uneven. Mercifully, the collection improves as it goes on, both in quality and depth. The essays on Venice itself were each so brief I would hardly call them essays. Leon is at her best when the essays go on more than a couple of pages. It's a shame she didn't combine or develop the shorter pieces to make them fit in with the stronger, longer essays. While there's much to be enjoyed here, there are far too many piece that detract from the collection's best. Still, by the end, I wanted to claim Donna Leon as a long-lost relative, invite her to dinner parties, and listen to her delightfully unrestrained thoughts, opinions, and experiences.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 240 pages
Publication date: December 3, 2013
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy My Venice and Other Essays from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Donna Leon'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!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A change of scenery!

After thinking and planning for months, I've finally debuted a new look for my blog. It returns to my favorite background picture, which I had on the blog for years. I'm still tweaking the font, layout, and spacing (and will be throughout this holiday weekend), but overall I'm really pleased with the initial results. If you spot anything that looks odd or is hard to read, please let me know. Thanks!