Tuesday, June 01, 2021

May, 2021: In The Books Part 1

 May was such a great month for reading that I wish I could rewind and do it all over again. Seven books. Two audiobooks. Who Was...? books! Brilliant nonfiction! Two new author discoveries!

1. The Splendid and the Vile - Erik Larson. Nonfiction. Audiobook. It's so satisfying to read books by your favorite authors the moment the books are published, but even more fun is to let several of their works pass you by. Then, in a few weeks or months, devour them in a reading frenzy. When The Splendid and the Vile came out last year, I knew I couldn't put off Erik Larson much longer. Set mainly during the first years of Winston Churchill's time as prime minister, it was also at the time when Germany was bombing England with impunity. Told mostly through firsthand accounts and diaries, including Churchill's teenaged daughter, Mary, Churchill's struggle to convince FDR that the United States must join the Allied effort is quite suspenseful, though even the most casual of history readers knows the outcome. Even better than getting a glimpse into Churchill's world, and even more affecting is seeing how the bombings affected English people of all classes. Larson somehow manages to show both the horror and the humor, as well as the absurd, as when one of the leaders of the Nazi party, Rudolf Hess, gets a wild hair and decides to fly to Scotland to negotiate a peace -- the farthest thing from Hitler's mind, and much to his extreme displeasure. Entertaining and educational. Highly recommended. Especially the audiobook version.

2. Who Was Davy Crockett? - Gail Herman, Nonfiction. First of all, *don't* call him Davy. Call him David, because that was what Mr. Crockett preferred to be called. Gail Herman leads young readers through David Crockett's colorful frontier life to his tragic end at the Alamo then his leap into immortality via tall tales and the 1950s Disney television show. The illustrations by Robert Squier add to the vividness of the narrative.

3. Who Was Benedict Arnold? - James Buckley. Nonfiction. Benedict Arnold reminds me of the old Animals classic with the refrain: I'm just a soul whose intentions  are good/ Oh Lord! Please don't let me be misunderstood! Buckley plunges right in, with Arnold fleeing for his life, as the Americans, who have learned about him selling secrets to the British are hot on his heels. Then Buckley steps back to the beginning of Arnold's life, fixing a steely eye on our most infamous traitor. He acknowledges that Arnold had some good traits, but he was also reckless, dishonest, petulant, and ambitious right from the very start. I can't remember any other Who Was...? book that adopted such a stern tone towards its subject, and rightfully so. Again, the illustrations really pump up the drama.

That's the first half of May. Coming up in the second half: The Hate U Give, Shrill, The River of Doubt, and The Witches are Coming. I can't help it; I am so impressed with my bookworm self.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Hey April Part 2

 So, where were we? That's right. I was going to talk about Eleanor by David Michaelis. I dearly loved this book with a couple of reservations. It was both sensitive to and admiring of Eleanor Roosevelt. The research was thorough. Themes were well-established with good follow-through. What I'm about to write may seem picky, may make me seem like Karen or June Cleaver clutching their pearls, but I'm not, I'm really, really not. No pearls on this girl; that's not me at all. And yet: I cringed in the chapter where Eleanor is a young mother and Michaelis refers to her giving birth not once but twice as "push[ing] out her [first/second/third/etc.] baby". Excuse me??? This seems a little crude for an otherwise respectful biography. Yes, I KNOW that that's what women do during a birthing process that isn't a Caesarian, and Eleanor Roosevelt certainly did, but it seems like a lapse in judgement. Is it possible that Michaelis had an editor who didn't like him and went back and inserted "pushed out her # baby", removing the more genteel "gave birth to a daughter/son"? Or is this way of describing childbirth a new and accepted thing and I've totally lost touch? After all, I haven't given birth or pushed anyone out since 1984. Anyway. Ahem. The other thing that bothered me was a mistake in a caption in one of the photos that refers to a necklace Eleanor is wearing as made out of tiger claws. In the book's text, it clearly states that the necklace is made of tiger teeth, and inspection of the actual photo bears this out. Other than those two things, Eleanor is a wonderful biography, warm and perceptive and intelligent as Eleanor herself.

Who Was Levi Strauss? was not one of my favorites in the Who Was..? series. Although Strauss was an immigrant who came to America and made his fortune making pants for miners during the 1849 Gold Rush which turned out to be the most popular form of clothing EVER, the man surprisingly, didn't have a very colorful life. There were a lot of awkward filler articles in the book to make up for that lack of color. This book would have worked better as What Are Levis? Or What Are Blue Jeans?

A Who Was...? book that I really enjoyed was Who Was Julia Child? This was co-authored by Geoff Edgers, writer of  Who Were The Beatles? one of my new favorites. I loved the way Child's zest for life and her quirky personality were conveyed. Her time in the OSS during WWII was especially well-done. I had to stop reading periodically and go watch YouTube videos from The French Chef. The book gave me a warm glow. When her kitchen at the Smithsonian was mentioned, I smiled, remembering how I got to see it for myself several years ago. And Julia's junk drawer! This really is a charming addition to the Who Was...? series.

Who Was Milton Bradley? was lively and interesting. It's well-written, and the sidebar articles feel organic to the text. Even better, the illustrations by Tim Foley make Bradley's story come to life. Another new favorite.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue was my only fiction book for the month, and I don't feel as if I read it; I feel as if I absorbed it through my skin. The novel takes place over three days in a makeshift maternity ward in Dublin during WWI and also during the 1918 pandemic. The main character, Nurse Julia is left to run the ward alone until a young volunteer named Bridie appears to assist her. This isn't a long book. It's brief and packs a wallop. Brutal and tender. I feel as if I need to read it again.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Hey, April Part One

 1. Eat a Peach - David Chang. Memoir.

2. Who Were The Beatles? - Geoff Edgers. Biography.

3. Who Were The Brothers Grimm? - Avery Reed. Biography.

4. Eleanor - David Michaelis. Biography.

5. Who Was Levi Strauss? - Ellen Lebrecque. Biography.

6. Who Was Julia Child? - Geoff Edgers. Biography.

7. Who Was Milton Bradley? - Kirsten Anderson. Biography.

8. The Pull of the Stars - Emma Donoghue. Novel.


I really didn't enjoy Eat a Peach. David Chang's authorial voice was turned up to 11, and things were lost or discordant or distorted. Very few of those precise and evocative descriptions of food that you usually see in food memoirs. Props to Chang for making the reader feel the clanging and banging in his head, and I am very glad that he got help. I wish I had liked Eat a Peach. Now I feel guilty. Don't let me put you off reading it.

Confession time: You know how Pawn Stars runs allll day and alll night on Mondays on The History Channel? If I'm off work, I'll spend hours in front of the television, patiently waiting for a glimpse of my newest bookworm crush, Rebecca Romney to appear and help Rick and Chumlee and the rest of the gang figure out the correct value of a book. My admiration for Rebecca seems to know no bounds; I follow her on Twitter and I rented the documentary The Booksellers so I could bask in her reassurance that bookselling is alive and well and thriving. (There were a bunch of old farts who were grimly steadfast in their conviction that bookselling is on life support. Team Rebecca!) In one of the many ways that Rebecca uses her powers for bookworm good, she and and her bookselling partner Heather O'Donnell (Honey & Wax Booksellers) established an annual prize for American women book collectors age 30 and younger. The smaller the focus, the quirkier the collection, the better Rebecca and Heather like it. One of this year's honorable mentions has a collection of Beatlemania. She said that she got interested in The Fab Four after she read Who Were The Beatles? Wow! So there they were, several of my passions colliding at once: Rebecca Romney, the Who Was...? series, beguiling "odd shelves", as the late Larry McMurtry called very specific book collections, and the Beatles. The magic of inter-library loan yielded a copy, I read it and loved it. Who Were The Beatles? is staunchly on my favorites list in this series.

I've always been charmed at the idea of the Grimm brothers traveling through Germany and getting people to tell them stories. It reminds me of A.P. Carter of The Carter Family traveling through the mountains in Virginia and getting people to sing old ballads and other songs. I also love it that the Grimms were linguists. Another winner in the Who Was...? series.

I want to talk about Eleanor and The Pull of the Stars so badly, but I'm fading, (actually, I may have broken something with that Rebecca paragraph!) and morning comes early. April will have to be in two parts.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Yikes, Two Months!

 No, I haven't lost that blogging feeling! I woke up this morning, casting about for reasons and excuses why it's been two frigging months. But nevermind. Blog, just blog!

So waaaaaaaaaaay back in March: That was a good month for reading:

1. Little Town on the Prairie - Laura Ingalls Wilder

2. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less - Greg McKeown

3. Always Young and Restless - Melody Thomas Scott

4. Solutions and Other Problems - Allie Brosh.

5. Who Was Catherine the Great? - Pam Pollack and Meg Belviso

6. Who Is Kamala Harris? - Kirsten Anderson

7. Who Was Walt Whitman? - Kirsten Anderson


I always love me some Laura, but the minstrel show is pretty ugh. Also ugh but also kind of horrifying and funny was Pa's dream about going to the barber only to wake and find that a mouse has been chewing off his hair to make a nest.

My takeaway from Essentialism is that if you say no, people will be pissed off in the short term. If you say yes, they won't really respect you for it. This book was too closely related to a very narrow sliver of the workplace and not enough to other avenues of life.

Always Young and Restless was fun as I expected, but there was also more depth than I expected.

Solutions and Other Problems: I'm just not a fan of Allie Brosh's style of art, but I very much enjoy her writing.

Who Was Catherine the Great?  Who indeed! Wow, the authors tackled some extremely grown up subjects here to present a portrait of a complex woman which is satisfying to readers of all ages.

The Kamala Harris biography felt rushed out and was disappointingly short.

Who Was Walt Whitman? wasn't one of my favorites of this series. It seemed a little hazy.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Happy 17th, Blob: Blob's Endless Wishlist

 March 11th was my blog's (affectionately known as Blob) 17th birthday. I didn't forget; I've just been distracted with moving and unpacking.

Cake's good anytime, right? Get that frosting knuckle-deep and all tardiness can be forgiven, or at least, that's my plan.

To celebrate this year, I thought that instead of looking back at the past and how Blob came to be, we'd look into the hazy future, glimpse a book-lined horizon, and take another peek at Blob's Endless Wishlist. 17 books, one for each year. Snort. Yeah, right. There are so many more than 17. Restraint is not my middle name:

The "Dolphin" Letters [Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick duking it out at the end of their marriage. Robert Lowell being his usual, um, self and using Hardwick's letters verbatim in his poems without her permission.]

Blitzed [Nonfiction. Nazis on speed]

River of Doubt [Theodore Roosevelt's perilous journey down the Amazon, 1913-1914. I must get around to this book!]

Home - Julie Andrews. [first volume of her memoirs]

Fire Season - Phillip Connors [recommended by my IRL bookworm buddy, Teri Pre AKA The Enabler]

Jack - Marilynne Robinson

The Vanishing Half - Brit Bennett [I got this for Christmas!]

Ottessa Moshfagh book. [New novel. 2020 Title?]

Becoming Duchess Goldblatt [Because Care loved it. I think she gave it like a gazillion slices of pie]

The Talented Miss Farwell - Emily Gray Tedrowe

Dancing at the Pity Party - Tyler Feder [Spawn read this graphic novel. Said good things about it]

Winners and Losers - Martin Quigley [1961 novel. Recommended by Nancy Pearl]

Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Fremont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War - Steve Inskeep. [History]

Burnt Sugar - Avni Doshi

The Discomfort of Evening [Int'l Booker Prize winner]

The End of Vandalism - Tom Drury [Novel. 1994. Recommended by Nancy Pearl. A love (picture of triangle): Dan Norman, the sheriff of Grouse County, Tiny Darling, a mostly inept thief, and Tiny's wife, Louise]

The Fountain Overflows - Rebecca West [1957, novel]

Adrienne Rich biography

The Moth and the Mountain: A True Story of Love, War and Everest

Waste: One Woman's Fight Against America's Dirty Secret - Catherine Coleman Flowers

We Keep the Dead Close - Becky Cooper [Is it disconcerting to anyone else that this author has such a sprightly name and her book's subject matter is rather grim?]

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams

Divorcing - Susan Taubes [Novel. 1969.]

American Cheese: An Indulgent Odyssey Through the Artisan Cheese World - Joe Berkowitz

Eggshells - Catriona Lally [short stories? novel?]

Shuggie Bain - Douglas Stuart

Eat a Peach - David Chang [Chef. Memoir]

Hamnet - Maggie O'Farrell

3 Martini Lunch [Fiction? Nonfiction? ETA: This is about Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton hanging out. No wonder it went on the wishlist!]

Pull of the Stars - Emma Donoghue

Eleanor - David Michaelis [biography. Madly circling this one at bookstores these days]

Requiem for a Dream - Herbert Selby, Jr. [Novel. 1978.]

Sunday, March 07, 2021

February's Reads: Bring Out The Laura. Bring Out The Self-Help

So yeah, February. I was feeling a bit wild and scrabbly in the brain, and we won't even TALK about how much Imodium I ate. It's really true what they say about the gut being the second brain. Sometimes it's nothing but a bully and muscles the brain out of its rightful position.

But enough of the crap chronicles. Things are better now. 

So anyway: I moved. 17 miles west. New apartment. Cat-friendly. It's got a lovely, cottage-y feel. 

I've finally unpacked alllllll the boxes and the very newest incarnation of the Bybeeary is in place. No, that's not exactly true. What I mean to say is that the books have been flung onto the shelves and want a good rearranging.

Even with all the craziness that comes with a move, I still found time to read. Three books. I staggered and fell into the books and with baleful stares, dared anyone to pull me out before the appropriate time.

Atomic Habits - James Clear. Nonfiction.

These Happy Golden Years - Laura Ingalls Wilder. Fiction.

The Long Winter - Laura Ingalls Wilder. Fiction.

I liked Atomic Habits because it's self-help, and the message about small changes bringing about big changes reminded me of Kaizen, which soothed and entertained and inspired me two years ago. In a way, it was like a re-read. The two Wilder books, of course, were actual re-reads. I was especially feeling The Long Winter during February's Deep Freeze. March has started out much the same: I read another self-help book, The Essentialists and another Little House book, Little Town on the Prairie, but I think the spell is broken. 

I'm now reading a biography of James Baldwin on my Kindle, but I might not finish because I haven't yet located my Kindle charger. I know I put it somewhere...

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Remember January? What I Read


Aaaargh, too many weeks without a blog post. Unexpected life changes. I want to say that it's exhilarating, and it is, but yeah. Gotta admit that there's also that temptation to ask what fresh hell is this.

Today is a snow day, so I want to take advantage of being in and tell you about my reading in January. As usual, I started off the year with grand intentions. 

Books I have started, but haven't finished:

A Promised Land - Barack Obama

Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy

Testament of Youth - Vera Brittain

These aren't DNFs, not at all. This is rich, rewarding reading, but my brain, this brain I've had since I was a small girl, is skittering like a pat of butter in a hot skillet. I'm dipping into each book and making single-digit progress daily. With any luck, in a few months I'll finish them all around the same time and Goodreads will stop scolding me for being behind. Go suck an egg, Goodreads! Did you ever have life fall on you? Of course not; you're a...what's the word I'm looking for? "Social media cataloging website". Thanks, Google.

Anyway, here's what I *did* complete in January:

1. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck - Mark Manson. Nonfiction. I was annoyed and disappointed by this book. The writing style seemed disjointed and blathery. I was reminded of late evenings/early mornings in bars. Not drunk enough and in complete misery thanks to the blabby (and usually male, but not always) drunk who has pinned me in the corner where I've gone to hide. They tell me in painful detail about how intelligent they are, and how they've got life all figured out. Then they tell me again. And again. And AGAIN. There's not enough alcohol in the world. I can fairly feel the bruises blooming all over my cerebellum from this onslaught. No, just no.

2. News of the World - Paulette Jiles. Novel. I saw the movie and read the book within a week of each other, so it's hard for me to separate the two. I will say that the movie adaptation is wonderful. I am impressed with Jiles' research into the Old West. I like her slightly severe, pared-down style of writing, and am eager to read other novels by her. 

3. Who Was Lucille Ball? 

4. Who Was Mark Twain?

You know I'm happily addicted to the Who Was...? series, but some of them fall a little flat for me. In the cases of Lucille Ball and Mark Twain, it seems like they are too large and complex to be reduced to the formula of the series.