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2018 Reading Roundup: A Year of Nonfiction

The Year on the Blog

A Big THANK YOU! to Our Readers & Followers

This year has been a bit of an up and down reading year (September and October were nearly entirely lost), we posted all of our “backlogged” reviews from previous years and have completely transitioned to WordPress from our old platform – everything that we reviewed before is now here! The connections gained with fellow book lovers has been amazing – the kindness of strangers is incredible in the book world. But I guess, when you’re talking about a mutual love of books, you’re never really strangers! So a big thank you to all of our wonderful (fellow) readers!

The Reading Challenge

This year I set a modest 52 book challenge for myself. In August I was way ahead, like ten books or something, which never happens, so I thought about changing it, but with all the family changes in September (see In Memory of My Favorite Reader for details), I didn’t really finish any books in September and most of October. So finishing with more than 52 books was the goal, but I decided not to stress about it too much. My total for the year: 58 – not too shabby! As for the PopSugar Reading Challenge, I didn’t do too badly – results here.

I’ll be taking the 2019 challenge this coming year and you can join in here.

This Year’s Books in Review

I’m a number cruncher. It’s my happy place. I run reports and create tables based on our staff picks at the store, so of course I have to do so for myself as well! Results of this year’s reading are as follows:

The Statistics

(all titles link to their reviews!)

Books Read: 58
Total Pages: 14,840
Average Length: 255 pages
Shortest BookWe Should All Be Feminists
Longest BookIn the Garden of Beasts
Most Popular Book Read (via Goodreads): The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Most Obscure Book Read (via Goodreads): I Know a Woman

Books by Female Authors: 34
Books by Female Minority Authors: 4
Books by Male Authors: 13
Books by Male Minority Authors: 3

Fiction Titles (w/o graphic novels): 14
Nonfiction Titles (w/ graphic novel memoirs): 41
Graphic Novels: 5 (4 of which were Giant Days)
Audiobooks: 32
Average Rating: 8 out of 10

Top Genres of 2018
Memoir/Autobiography: 18 books
Essays: 13 books
Sociology: 10 books

New Favorite Authors
Jenny Lawson – Let’s Pretend This Never Happened Furiously Happy
Alyssa Mastromonaco – Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?
V. E. Schwab – A Darker Shade of Magic

Still Favorite Authors
Anthony Bourdain – Kitchen Confidential
Sarah J. Maas – A Court of Frost and Starlight
Agatha Christie – The Body in the Library

Reading Predictions for Next Year?

Towards the end of the year I started to crave fiction once again. Who knows? Maybe next year will be closer to a 50/50 split for nonfiction and fiction, maybe I’ll continue on this new nonfiction path – I find my reading interests woefully difficult to predict!

Happy New Year Everyone!

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

As You Wish by Cary Elwes

When I was looking for a fun new book to read, one of my coworkers recommended As You Wish. As is my habit this year, I immediately went searching for an audiobook and discovered that Cary, and the entire still living cast of The Princess Bride, with one exception, read the audiobook! 

Synopsis

From actor Cary Elwes, who played the iconic role of Westley in The Princes Bride, comes a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the family favorite and cult classic film filled with never-before-told stories, exclusive photographs, and interviews with costars Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Mandy Patinkin, as well as author and screenwriter William Goldman, producer Norman Lear, and director Rob Reiner.

Review

My mom first bought me The Princess Bride one day when I was in upper elementary or middle school and had been home sick for a few days. The Princess Bride and 10 Things I Hate About You were supposed to cheer me up and make me feel better. I begrudgingly let her put The Princess Bride into the brand new DVD player in her bedroom where I had taken up residence. I was hooked immediately. I had a handful of films that were known as my “sick day movies” and The Princess Bride jumped immediately to the top. At this point, the movie was about 15 years old and I was a member of the new generation of millennials falling in love with it for the first time.

It’s been a few years at this point since I watched the movie, it’s not readily available on any streaming service and my DVD player hasn’t seen any use in the last few years with the emergence of streaming, but as soon as I started listening to the book, I pulled the movie out and was thrilled that it was just as wonderful as I remembered. And then I had to watch every other movie staring Cary Elwes, but that’s a different story.

Cary’s book follows the production schedule as the structure/timeline for As You Wish so I advice watching the movie first if you either a, have never seen it before, or b, for a refresher of the chronology of the plot. Interspersed in his narrative are a great number of interviews with other cast and production members. While Cary does a great job of telling the nuts and bolts of the filming as well as his own feelings and reactions during production, the other cast members interjections are my favorite parts.

This collaborative writing process makes me love the movie and the cast even more. The fact that 30 years after the movie was released, the cast are still in regular contact and still get on well enough to all contribute to the book is an absolute delightful thing to witness. The way the different cast members memories are woven together is pitch perfect for the movie and you often feel like you’re on set with Cary, Robin, Mandy and the others as the narrative moves forward. If you have any sort of love or enjoyment of the film, I wholeheartedly recommend reading As You Wish, it was one of my favorites of the year and I cannot think of a better final review for 2018.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9781476764047 • 272 pages • first published October 2014, this edition published October 2016 by Touchstone • average Goodreads rating 4.11 out of 5 • read December 2018

As You Wish-1

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Sociology, Travel

Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn

In continuing my war correspondent memoir/biography trend, I figured it was time I pick up Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another. Those who know who she is typically think of her as Hemingway’s third wife, but those who care about journalism, know her as one of the first female war correspondents, and inspiration to my favorite journalist, Marie Colvin.

Synopsis

As a journalist, Gellhorn covered every military conflict from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam and Nicaragua. She also bewitched Eleanor Roosevelt’s secret love and enraptured Ernest Hemingway with her courage as they dodged shell fire together.

Hemingway is, of course, the unnamed “other” in the title of this tart memoir, first published in 1979, in which Gellhorn describes her globe-spanning adventures, both accompanied and alone. With razor-sharp humor and exceptional insight into place and character, she tells of a tense week spent among dissidents in Moscow; long days whiled away in a disused water tank with hippies clustered at Eilat on the Red Sea; and her journeys by sampan and horse to the interior of China during the Sino-Japanese War.

Review

Martha Gellhorn has fascinated me for quite some time, given my present obsession with female war correspondents this should not be surprising. Her life, one wholly unconventional for her time, is inspiring, but also, in light of twenty first century sensibilities, one I had to remind myself, began over a century ago.

A feminist at her core, Martha, M as UC (unwilling companion, AKA Hemingway) calls her, sets off on each “horror journey” as she’s dubbed them, without a great deal of pre-planning, other than the bare minimum required by her destination. The era of traveling by your bootstraps, hopping flights when you need them, hoping to stumble upon a hotel with available rooms each night, etc. is simply unheard of today. Even when Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman went around the world and south through Africa on motorcycles, they still had reservations and accommodations, or at least tents to sleep in each night. Did Martha? No.

When I think of a single woman traveling in the 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s, I feel a sympathetic sense of dread. I keep waiting for something to go thoroughly wrong, but by her wits or the kindness of others, she avoids any great gender related danger. M doesn’t typically discuss how her gender has anything to do with her ability to travel and I LOVE IT. I felt the real sense of, “If M can do it, so can I!” much more so than when reading Lynsey Addario’s autobiography and Lindsey’s biography of Marie Colvin (apparently a disproportionate number of my favorite journalists are Lindseys…) – they went to the front lines of war. Martha, due to either her gender or the time period, goes to the back lines of war. The war that we don’t see that isn’t quite as dangerous as the war everyone saw on the newsreels each night.

When M and UC (Hemingway) go to China during World War II, it never feels like there is a great threat on their lives. When M goes to the French islands of the Caribbean, I learned a great deal about how the Vichy government affected their lives, but I was never fearful of M’s survival. These adventures, and M’s quite frequent poor decision making – when the pilot of the boat tells you he won’t wait for you to scale a dormant volcano because he can’t dock safely, you should probably heed his warning and not be surprised when you get up in the morning and he’s gone – just a thought. But all these adventures are learning experiences for M and for us, her readers, 40 years after the original publication, 70 years after the adventure. But the real sticking point for this collection for me is M’s trip to Africa.

Holy mother of colonialism. In January of 1962, Martha Gellhorn went to Africa. I found the map in my photo in my collection of vintage maps with a copyright date of 1960 – pretty darn close to how the continent was divided politically at the time of Martha’s travels. Given that Martha’s trip to Africa is by far the longest and move life-affecting of this collection of essays, it seemed a fitting backdrop for the book. But to think of Martha’s approach to the continent, it makes me retch a bit inside.

It seems so foreign to me that we, as human beings, particularly white people, could stereotype an entire continent of people and refuse to get to know them, learn about their communities, and simply label them as selfish, liars, etc. The thing that terrifies me the most is that M was probably considered progressive for her time. While I’m sure there are readers who would find it difficult to turn off their 2018 filters and would find her recounting of her trip to Africa offensive, at it’s core it is a compelling historical and sociological exploration into the changing nature of how we travel and interact with people, and is definitely worth reading.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9781585420902 • 320 pages • first published 1979, this edition published May 2001 by TarcherPerigee • average Goodreads rating 3.83 out of 5 stars • read in December 2018

Travels with Myself and Another

Fiction, Historical

Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce

Working six days a week at the bookstore for the holidays is crazy and I’m way off of my normal posting schedule. But it’s probably one of my favorite times in the store – I get to tell people about my  favorite books all day and they’re most inclined to buy them as gifts! Each year everyone on the staff picks 3 books for our top “gift giving books” of the year and Dear Mrs. Bird is one of mine.

Synopsis

Emmeline Lake and her best friend Bunty are doing their bit for the war effort and trying to stay cheerful despite the German planes making their nightly raids. Emmy dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent and when she spots a job advertisement in the newspaper she seizes her chance, but after a rather unfortunate misunderstanding, she finds herself typing letters for the formidable Henrietta Bird, renowned advice columnist of Women’s Friend magazine.

Mrs. Bird if very clear: letters containing any Unpleasantness must go straight into the bin. But as Emmy reads the desperate pleas from women who may have Gone Too Far with the wrong man, or can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she begins to secretly write back to the readers who have poured out their troubles.

Review

I have loved a good World War II novel for a very long time and have been a deep lover of the genre of historical fiction as a whole for more than two decades (which is more than two thirds of my life given that I’m just shy of 30). A few years ago, though, it seemed to be all I read – great for giving recommendations as at the bookstore, not so great for mental health and reading enjoyment. I felt broken – scenes in concentration camps no longer elicited any feelings from me. I should be bawling my eyes out and I wasn’t. I should have felt something more than simple blase. So I took a break.

Then our Simon & Schuster sales rep gave me and ARC of Dear Mrs. Bird. When it came out and I still hadn’t read it, he sent me a finished copy. When he stopped in to see us and I still hadn’t read it, he very kindly told me (lectured me) about not doing so. He thought it’d be perfect for me. I should have listened to him sooner.

When the holiday staff table was looking like it needed a jolt of historical fiction, I figured it was the perfect time to read this most delightful of books. Did I cry? Of course I did – it’s a World War II novel and is not without it’s share of doom and gloom. But that’s not the main point. That’s not the main plot. It’s not the driving force of Emmy’s life. Is it perfect? No. It’s a debut and the pacing and plot can be clunky and lacking. But it is a most enjoyable and delightful read and an excellent addition to the genre.

So, if you’re a WWII lover like me but are feeling a bit broken by each book trying to be the next Book Thief or Nightingale, take a look at Dear Mrs. Bird. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $26.00 • 9781501170065 • 288 pages • published July 2018 by Scribner • average Goodreads rating 3.81 out of 5 • read in December 2018

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

Bestsellers intrigue me. I don’t read many, which seems to confuse bookstore patrons until I tell them that I read other books so that when they have finished a bestseller and want something similar, I have a recommendation for them. But when The Woman Who Smashed Codes started to fly off the shelves, I was intrigued enough to take a look.

Synopsis

In 1916, a young Quaker schoolteacher and poetry scholar named Elizebeth Smith was hired by an eccentric tycoon to find the secret messages he believed were embedded in Shakespeare’s plays. But the urgencies of war quickly transformed Elizebeth’s mission, forcing her to apply her skills to an exciting new venture: codebreaking – the solving of secret messages without knowledge of the key. Working alongside her was William Friedman, a Jewish scientist who would become her husband and lifelong codebreaking partner.

Review

A number of customers at the bookstore came in looking for The Woman Who Smashed Codes because their book club had decided to read it. Each time I showed it to them, I’d flip it over, read the back cover myself, and think it was interesting before ultimately putting it back down. Then came holiday (over)ordering at the bookstore and when The Woman Who Smashed Codes came off the bestsellers and we still had a few too many copies on hand, I decided to make it my pet project to sell it myself, without the “bestseller” status, but with the “staff recommends” qualifier.

The holidays are the ultimate time for recommending books to customers. While we are always helping people find a book for themselves, now is the time when people come in with their holiday list and ask us to pick out books for their loved ones. Most of the time they give us some basic information: they like history books, fantasy, science, they’re accountants, etc. and then we take that information to pick out books for them in the store. With that in mind, I’ve decided to change up my review for this book today to my bookstore pitch, but in the opposite way, for customers who come up and ask us if a book is any good. (This is an idealized conversation, but I do have many that go somewhat like this)

Customer (holds up The Woman Who Smashed Codes): Is this book any good?
My Coworker: My manager, Sarah, loved it! Let me ask her to help you!
Me: I really enjoyed The Woman Who Smashed Codes! Is there anything in particular you would like to know about it?
Customer: Who would enjoy it?
Me: It would be a great gift for anyone who is fascinated by World War II history, or someone who enjoys lesser known stories from history, or anyone who loves a great biography of a unique person.
Customer: What was your favorite part of the book?
Me: I love stories about how people we’ve never heard of today played major roles throughout history. Elizebeth, the subject of the book, worked tirelessly to break the codes of Nazis during WWII and her work played a key role in the Americans’ decryption of the German Enigma machine. Additionally, it was her husband who broke the Japanese decryption machines – they were a fascinating couple and I loved how the author, Jason Fagone, really delves into their relationship instead of just focusing on Elizebeth’s work for the government.
Customer: That sounds really neat! I think I’ll give it a shot!

As booksellers, we know, especially during the holiday season, that we may only have a minute or two to share with a customer why we really love a book. Every customer can read the back of the book for a description of the plot/subject, but that information (and what I always include as the “synopsis”) comes from the publisher. I figure my role, as bookseller and blogger, is to put the personal emphasis on the books I love, the books that may also get overlooked on a store’s shelves if they don’t have colorful spines or staff picks tied to them.

When I can’t find the time to personally tell every customer about the books I think they’ll love, I write short little “blurbs” to put under the books on the shelf or print the blurbs up on bookmarks as we do at the store annually for our top holiday gift picks. That being said, my question to you, dear readers, is: When you go into a bookstore during the holidays, or any time of year, to you seek out staff picks? Do the staff’s recommendations hold any sway with what you end up deciding to read or take home?

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9780062430519 • first published September 2017, this edition published August 2018 by Dey Street Books • average Goodreads rating 4.19 out of 5 • read in November 2018

Woman Who Smashed Codes