Saturday, February 13, 2016

Book Review: Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

Title: Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things
Author: Jenny Lawson
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: frank conversations about mental health

In Furiously Happy, Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, writes frankly about her mental health challenges, which include anxiety, depression, and a host of related issues.

Okay, okay, I know I'm going to draw some ire here, so I'm taking a deep breath and forging ahead. I'm not a regular reader of Lawson's blog. I never read her first memoir, Let's Pretend This Never Happened. I have never had some of the mental health problems that Lawson has had. So I'm not her target audience. But this book kept coming up in every "Recommended for You" feed, and I bought it. I was reading Brene Brown's Daring Greatly at the same time, and in that book, Brown talks about vulnerability and about how sharing too much too soon with people whose trust you haven't earned can backfire. And that's exactly what this book was for me. I think that for some people, those with whom Lawson has established a rapport over years, this book would be fabulous, but for me, it felt like too much, too soon. The details of all of her fights with her husband, Victor, the incredibly detailed conversations she had with herself, which are things her regular readers would probably love, just annoyed me. So this book would be fabulous in the right hands, but her willingness to put everything out on the table was too much too soon for this reader.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Book Review: Styled by Emily Henderson

Title: Styled: Secrets for Arranging Rooms, from Tabletops to Bookshelves
Author: Emily Henderson
Enjoyment Rating: **** (3.5)
Source: Hard Copy

Like many of you, my Instagram feed is full of lives that look much prettier than mine. They eat better food, their counters never have any crumbs on them, and there's no clutter anywhere in their homes. For the most part, these are people who make their careers in social media, so most of the time, I'm able to remember that the rest of their house probably doesn't look perfect, and I'm able not to hate them. One of the people I follow most eagerly is stylist/interior designer Emily Henderson, whose rooms always look effortlessly cool. So when I discovered that she had a new book coming out, Styled, I bought it right away.  In Styled Henderson focuses not so much on the big pieces in a room, but more about how to accessorize a room. It reminds me a lot, actually, of a clothing stylist picking out jewelry. And while I'm not much of a jewelry kind of girl, now that Rose and Eli aren't in danger of breaking any accessory in the house, I figured it might be time to get some advice on how to move away from minimalism.

There are some parts of the book (like the "what's your style" quiz) that seemed kind of pointless, but the book was mostly useful. There are lots of pictures of Henderson's own home (which I love, from a purely voyeuristic point of view) as well as photos of projects she's worked on, and she talks about how to decorate shelves and tabletops so they reflect your own personal style. After reading the book, I took about 600 books to Savers and cleared out enough shelf space to do some styling of my own. It was a pretty fun experience, and I feel like the pointers she gave are good, if you are eager to increase your knicknack count.

Book Review: Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

Title: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
Author: Brene Brown
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Audible
Content Alert: some mild language

I absolutely adored Brene Brown's Rising Strong when I read it a few months ago. Even though Rising Strong works well as a stand-alone book, I still got the sense that I was missing part of the story because I hadn't read Daring Greatly (because you have to dare greatly before you can rise strong). I had loved listening to Rising Strong so much, mostly because Brene Brown narrated it perfectly. She was telling her own story and I could hear the vulnerability in her voice when she wanted to show vulnerability, I laughed along with her jokes, and felt kind of like a girlfriend by the time I got to the end of that book. I was SO disappointed to discover that Brown did not narrate Daring Greatly. And to make matters worse, the narrator's voice was so flat. She sounded bored the entire time. A really great audiobook can greatly enhance the word on the printed page. A really bad audiobook can ruin it. And unfortunately, the narration ruined Daring Greatly for me. I knew the information was important for me personally as a parent, a leader, and just a good adult, but I never wanted to listen to this book. I gritted my teeth and got through it, but the things that would have seemed a little endearing had Brown narrated the book herself (like the way she constantly refers to her earlier works) annoyed me in this version. I feel that the book is at least a solid 3-star book on the printed page, but I can't give the audiobook more than two stars.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Book Review: Missoula by Jon Krakauer

Title: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
Author: Jon Krakauer
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Hard copy
Content Alert: Language, sex, sexual abuse, violence

Remember when I said that Jonathan Franzen's Purity was too deep and depressing to be good beach reading? Instead, on the advice of my husband who had just plowed through this entire book in two days of kiddie pool duty, I picked up Jon Krakauer's Missoula, which is, as the subtitle suggests, about a series of date rape cases that took place on or near the University of Montana campus between 2008 and 2012. Krakauer lays out the stats that at least 110,000 women are raped in the United States each year, most by acquaintances, and most of the time, when victims actually do report the crimes, they, and not the perpetrators, become the object of suspicion. This is definitely true in the cases Krakauer profiles, none of which has a clear or wholly satisfying conclusion for the alleged victims.

I went to college in a place where I honestly never saw drinking. I also never knew anyone who admitted to having premarital sex. I know that doesn't mean that it didn't happen at BYU, but I think it does mean that cases like the ones Krakauer profiles in Missoula were both less frequent (alcohol played a role in all of the cases he examines) and less likely to be openly discussed. So this book was shocking in a lot of ways. As I prepare to send my kids off to college, I think this is a book that all of them (boys and girls) should read.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Book Review: Home is Burning by Dan Marshall

Title: Home is Burning: A Memoir
Author: Dan Marshall
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: So. Much. Swearing. Some sex. Some illegal drug use. And a sad, slow decline ending in the death of the author's father.

Dan Marshall was a twenty-five-year-old Berkeley grad, living in LA, with a sweet job and a hot girlfriend when his father, Bob, a marathon runner who had never been sick a day in his life, was diagnosed with ALS. To complicate matters, Dan's mom, Debi, had been living with stage-four lung cancer for more than a dozen years, and she'd had a relapse and needed more chemo. So Dan and his brother Greg moved back home to take care of their parents. Home is Burning is the account of Dan's year living at home in Salt Lake City, taking care of his parents.

I would imagine that if I lived in New York or Los Angeles, seeing my city through the eyes of authors and filmmakers would become commonplace. But Salt Lake City is not a popular setting for books and movies. And when it does appear in film (like in High School Musical, it's often masquerading as someplace else). For me, the fact that Home is Burning takes place in Salt Lake made it so much more enjoyable. I could not, in good conscience, give this book a higher rating, because it seemed to operate only on the emotional levels of shock and sadness, but I really enjoyed reading it. The high school Marshall attended is Olympus, my kids' rival high school. They walk in the same canyon where I run trails, and they even stop and get drinks at Shivers, where I'm a frequent visitor at the drive-thru. At one point, Marshall named his street, and you'd better believe I opened Google Maps on my phone and, like a true creeper, found out where the street was. Turns out I run within half a block of his house at least three times a week. So the fact that the book takes place in my backyard was novel and thoroughly enjoyable. Not quite as enjoyable was the fact that Marshall is constantly referring to the damn Mormons or the f&^%ing Mormons. I know that part of his bravado was intended to show his fallibility as a character, but the fact that Marshall and his family seemed to hate the Mormons so much for I'm not sure what other than being squeaky clean Mormons got at the heart of one of the biggest tensions here in our city. I think that also made this book more important and significant as a local reader, even if it was less easy to brush off the comments because I recognize how it plays out in our city from day to day.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Book Review: Humans of New York Stories by Brandon Stanton

Title: Humans of New York: Stories
Author: Brandon Stanton
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Hard Copy
Content Alert: a pretty clean read, but the stories really run the spectrum

Remember back in the day before smartphones when people used to keep a stack of magazines in the bathroom for a little toilet reading? In my house we even had a book called The Bathroom Book, with bite-sized little tidbits, short enough for a potty break. It's kind of ironic that Brandon Stanton's The Humans of New York phenomenon started on Instagram (which has definitively won the bathroom reading battle, if there was one), because Humans of New York: Stories, would be the best back of the toilet book ever.

Stanton's book is his Instagram account in published form. My sense is that Stanton walks around New York and asks people if he can take their picture, then asks them a few questions, and picks a snippet from that short interview to post along with the picture. With 4.7 million followers, the account is insanely popular (and whoa, all the judgy jerks on the internet who used to hang out on message boards now comment on HONY), and I'm always impressed with the way Stanton manages to get something interesting and profound of the people he talks with. There seems to be a light attempt at some thematic arrangements in the book, but mostly, the pictures and stories speak for themselves. Even though I'd read most of the stories individually when they came out on Instagram, there was a power to reading them together in the book.


Monday, February 8, 2016

Book Review: Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Title: Circling the Sun
Author: Paula McLain
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: sex

Based on the life of real-life aviatrix Beryl Markham, Circling the Sun opens with her pioneering trip across the Atlantic from Europe to North America (the hard way, where the winds weren't favorable), yet the book isn't about her career in aviation at all. Rather, the book focuses on the early years of her life, growing up in Kenya with her father (after her mother returned to England with her brother), carving out a career as a successful jockey, and negotiating romantic and business relationships with men.

McLain has a lovely command of the English language (she has an MFA in poetry, and it shows), and uses it to show the conflicts within Beryl-- her restlessness, her desire to be free like the Kipsigis boy she grew up with, and wild like the horses she struggles to tame. The story also makes Kenya come alive and thrum with romance (Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa, appears in Circling the Sun as the third point in a love triangle with Beryl and Denys Finch-Hatton). I wonder if McLain romanticizes Markham at all-- she seems entirely sympathetic to some difficult choices she makes (particularly leaving her only child with his grandparents) and seems to gloss over an affair she had with Prince Henry during the period. All in all, an interesting, if somewhat simplified portrayal of someone who appears to have been an even more interesting and complex person in real life.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Book Review: Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter

Title: Pretty Girls
Author: Karin Slaughter
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: sex, language, violence-- this is a book for grown-ups

It's been twenty years since Claire and Julia's sister Lydia vanished without a trace after leaving a bar near the University of Georgia, where she was a student. In that time, Claire has gone on to marry a man who became a tech millionaire, and Lydia spent time in and out of rehab, on welfare, and raising her daughter as a single mom. The sisters don't talk at all, until Claire's husband, Paul, is murdered before her eyes in an Atlanta alleyway. After the funeral (wake cut short by a break-in), Claire reaches out to Lydia to help her get a sense of her situation, and soon they're back on the trail of finding Julia. The book is incredibly dark, with lots of scary scenes (Paul may have been involved in making rape and torture videos marketed on the dark internet), and some truly evil characters.

It's been a few weeks since I finished reading Pretty Girls. Sometimes I think it's lazy of me to let some time elapse after finishing a book before reviewing it, but often that time helps me see how much I remember a book. I figure that if I can't remember a book after only three weeks have passed, it probably wasn't all that good, even if I found it engrossing in the moment, and that's the case with Pretty Girls. At the time, I couldn't wait to see what really happened to Paul, and if Claire and Lydia could escape with their lives, but weeks later, all I remember is the discomfort I felt when I Slaughter described the places where the torture of women took place.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Book Review: The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati

Title: The Gilded Hour
Author: Sara Donati
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: violence, sexual violence, lots of talking about sex (but not a lot of sex itself)

When Dr. Anna Savard gets called from her New York home to vaccinate Italian orphans one morning in 1883, she can't foresee the many ways her life will change as a result of that day. First, she meets Rosa and her brothers and sisters, and Anna promises them that she will try to make sure they aren't separated. Then she meets Jack, a detective with the New York Police Department. While the young family and Jack enrich Anna's personal life, her professional life, along with that of her cousin, Dr. Sophie Savard, is under attack due to their involvement with a young mother who had been under their care and died after receiving an abortion. Donati uses this story to highlight the lack of family planning options available to women at this time, and to the evils of the Comstock laws, a series of anti-vice laws. Sophie, who is of mixed-race, also figures prominently in the book, especially as she prepares to marry her childhood love, the scion of a wealthy New York family, and travel to Switzerland with him so he can receive treatment for tuberculosis.

Some of my very favorite books ever (Caleb Carr's The Alienist, Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni) have taken place in the same NYC Donati uses as her setting. It's a place of swishing skirts, menacing shadows, wealth, poverty, and danger. Typically, I am also a huge fan of books with medical subjects, and of books that really get into a world I'm interested in. Readers of The Gilded Hour know about everything from the style of dress that was popular at the time, to home decorating trends, to what foods were popular in Italian immigrant families, to birth control methods. I loved that aspect of the book, as well as the character development-- Jack and Anna's relationship was so smart and measured and romantic, I wanted to live in it. In the second half of the book, Donati introduces the idea of a serial murderer performing abortions in a way that will kill the women who seek them, and while this story was engrossing, the fact that this part of the narrative (along with several others) doesn't have a clear resolution, weakens the reading experience for me, even though I knew from the outset that this was going to be the first book of a series. At 700+ pages, at least tie up the murder mystery, please.

I'm now interested in Donati's Wilderness books. The covers looks SO much like historical romance novels, which makes me a little less interested in reading them than if they were historical novels with romantic subplots, which is how I would characterize The Gilded Hour.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Book Review: Hold Me Closer by David Levithan

Title: Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story
Author: David Levithan
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: language, conversations about sex

If you read David Levithan and John Green's novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson, you probably remember Tiny Cooper, the enormous gay football player who loves musical theater almost as much as he loves both Will Graysons (one platonically, the other romantically). The most heartfelt parts of WG, WG come during the production of Hold Me Closer, Tiny Cooper's life in musical theater format. If you ever wanted the script for the entire play, Levithan has now provided that for your reading pleasure.

Okay, so I know a forty-year-old woman is not David Levithan's target audience. I get that. I also get that when kids become caught up in the world of a story, they want as much of that story as possible. That's why my kids will spend their hard-earned allowance on the Gods and Monsters supplement to the Rick Riordan books. But this is the second Levithan book in a row I've read that I expected to advance a story I really enjoyed (the other being Another Day) that basically just recapped the story from another perspective. This might work for a fifteen-year-old fanboy, but it doesn't work for his mother. In fact, it just feels lazy.