Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Travel

Second Wind by Nathaniel Philbrick

This weekend my father came out to visit and stay with my husband and I in our new house to help us do some outdoor work. He was the first overnight visitor to the new abode, and he slipped and fell, injuring his shoulder. I blame myself, and was reminded of all the other times he’s told me not to worry about him, and one that stands out is when he flipped his little Sunfish sailboat over in the lake. I gave him Second Wind for Christmas last year and now that we’ve both read it, it felt time for a review.

Synopsis

From the Inside Flap:
In the spring of 1992, Nathaniel Phibrick was in his late thirties, living with his family on Nantucket. Feeling stranded, he longed for that thrill of victory he once felt after winning a national sailing championship in his youth. Was it a midlife crisis? It was certainly a watershed for the journalist-turned-stay-at-home dad, who impulsively decided to throw his hat into the ring, or water, again.

With the bemused approval of his wife and children, Philbrick used the off-season on the island as his solitary training ground, sailing his tiny Sunfish to its remotest corners, experiencing the haunting beauty of its tidal creeks, inlets, and wave-battered sandbars. On ponds, bays, rivers, and finally at the championship on a lake in the heartland of America, he sailed through storms and memories, racing for the prize but finding something unexpected about himself instead.

Review

My father has loved sailing for as long as I can remember. As a builder and contractor, he’s had the opportunity to build many houses, but the one that made him happiest was his own, lakefront house in south central Pennsylvania. And with said house, came the opportunity to sail. And for just as long, it’s been my favorite pastime of his, and one to share. Just don’t ask me to get in the boat with him – the aforementioned flipping was done for fun.

Second Wind seemed like a logical book to give him for Christmas, now that he’s starting to slow down with the building a bit (though this recent injury may lay him up for longer than he would like) and take some more time to pursue leisurely activities. The sailboat is no longer one of them (he no longer resides on a lake), but can vicariously live through Nathaniel Philbrick.

If looking for a leisurely story about one man’s journey to find himself and reclaim some lost youth by reconnecting with nature and the seemingly distant past of sailing, Second Wind is perfect. It’s not my favorite Philbrick, but it certainly like the breath of fresh air that powers his sails – the perfect recovery book – one to be read after heavier fare or finishing a long series. It asks little of the reader’s brainpower and seeks only to share a story. As I’m also reading A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, I can definitely recommend it to readers who enjoyed his adventure of the Appalachian Trail.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Second Wind

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Political Science, Psychology, Sociology

So Here’s the Thing… by Alyssa Mastromonaco

I begged and begged our publisher rep for an advance copy of this book because I loved Who Thought This was a Good Idea? And when she didn’t send one, I was devastated, but of course, still read it when it arrived on the shelves for sale!

Synopsis

From the Inside Flap:
Alyssa Mastromonaco is back with a bold, no-nonsense, and no-holds-barred twenty-first-century girl’s guide to life, tackling the highs and lows of bodies, politics, relationships, education, life on the internet, pop culture, and spontaneous motorcycle trips along the Japanese coast. Whether discussing the future of diplomacy or high-profile dance-offs, working int eh West Wing or working on finding a pair of underwear that doesn’t make her look like a Teletubby, Alyssa leaves no stone unturned… and no awkward situation unexamined.

So Here’s the Thing… brings a sharp eye and outsize sense of humor to the myriad issues facing women the world over, both in and out of the workplace. Along with Alyssa’s personal experiences and hard-won life lessons, interviews with women like Monica Lewinsky, Susan Rice, and Chelsea Handler round out this modern women’s guide to, well, just about everything you can think of.

Review

I love Alyssa Mastromonaco. I did not love So Here’s the Thing… Which is upsetting to me. As a bookseller, my goal is to bridge the divide between readers and authors and also help to expose readers to something new and different. When I loved Who Thought This was a Good Idea? so much, I shared it with a middle aged woman who once walked into the store wearing a MAGA hat. She loved it. Bridging the divide, one step at at time. When she asked for So Here’s the Thing… I had to think long and hard about whether I recommended it or not.

The publisher’s marketing is misleading. Alyssa spends the first quarter of the book rallying against our president. I think everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I wouldn’t be such a big fan if I didn’t find myself often agreeing with her. However, I feel there is a time and a place for such rhetoric. And based on the marketing of this book, I felt the publisher tried to hide the truly divisive language found between the front and back cover.

Additionally, the non-political parts felt like a rehashing of anecdotes from Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? I loved it, but this felt like the fat that was trimmed from the first one. And trimmed for a reason. I understood the point of the book to be on offering helpful advice to twenty-first century women, and while I still respect Alyssa and look forward to any further books she may write, I was left incredibly disappointed by So Here’s the Thing…

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $27.00 • 9781538731550 • 240 pages • published March 2019 by Twelve • average Goodreads rating 3.92 out of 5 stars • read March 2019

So Here's the Thing

Essays, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Maeve in America by Maeve Higgins

In preparing for a weekday drive to my father’s place two hours away, I went searching for a fairly short and entertaining book to listen to on the drive – enter Maeve in America!

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
Maeve Higgins was a bestselling memoirist and comedian in her native Ireland when, at the grand old age of thirty-one, she left in search of something more. Like many people in their early thirties, she both was and absolutely was not the adult she wanted to be. At once smart, curious, and humane, Maeve in America is the story of how Maeve found herself, literally and figuratively, in New York City.

These essays – of not being able to afford a dress for the ball, of learning to live with yourself while you’re still figuring out how to love yourself, of finally realizing what sort of shelter dog you would be – will make you laugh out loud as they reveal a woman who shoots for the stars and hits the ceiling, but always finds the words to make sense of it all.

Review

Maeve Higgins is one of my new favorite people. Ten years ago (I can’t believe it’s been that long) I traveled to Ireland for a study abroad opportunity. While certain circumstances led to the trip being an absolutely disaster, the vast majority of the people I met were wonderful, warm, gracious and welcoming. I was a young girl, traveling the country because my step-father’s ancestors hailed from the Emerald Isle (and my German was shaky, so English seemed the better bet). And one of the fascinating things I learned while there that has stuck with me ever since is this: pre-famine, Ireland’s population was nearly 9 million. Afterwards, it was 4.5 million. It is still roughly 4.5 million, though slowly growing. So why, after the famine, did it take 150 years for the population to start to recover?

Emigration. For the most part. And when someone emigrates from one location, they become an immigrant in another. Enter Maeve, Irish emigrant, US immigrant. Maeve arrived in the US shortly before the changing of the guard at the big house in D.C. And while the bulk of her book is about her experiences in NYC as an (elder*) millennial (*Iliza’s term) and details her struggles with her finances and dating (the two things that plague millennials most), she diverges to a few political and social justice oriented topics.

Maeve travels to Iraq with two other comedy writers/performers to do workshops with Iraqi and Kurdish comedians and she hosts an important podcast focused on immigration and the stories of those who have immigrated to America. Importantly, she addresses her privilege as an immigrant, being a native English speaking white female. But she is using the privilege to bring to the forefront voices of those far less fortunate immigrants, often to the chagrin of her podcast producer. Maeve Higgins is doing amazing things for the US and the world.

Yesterday, I got really angry. I was reading a Buzzfeed article, as I am wont to do when bored, and it was about Mike Pence and the Irish PM. It was a important story, well written, and made its point eloquently. However, the same picture is used twice, and the third person in the picture, the only woman, is Maeve Higgins. And her presence is not acknowledged. AT ALL. While she is not the focus of the article, due to lack of acknowledgement, readers have assumed a number of things about her role and reason for being in the picture. This article PERFECTLY highlights how often women (and immigrants) are completely overlooked by the media. All it would have taken was a quick caption: “Irish PM, VP, Irish writer Maeve Higgins and Irish PM’s Partner” (but instead of titles, put names, because all names are important).

Maeve has done tremendous things to advocate for a forcibly silent majority of immigrants. And when her visage is featured in a nationwide, widely read, publication, her presence is completely ignored–and, as a result, her accomplishments.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780143130161 • 256 pages • published August 2018 • by Penguin Books • average Goodreads rating 3.57 out of 5 stars • read March 2019

Maeve

Graphic Novel, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Kid Gloves by Lucy Knisley

I don’t know if I want kids. Thankfully, my husband also isn’t sure, so we are unsure together. And when Lucy announced her own pregnancy at the beginning of 2016, I was so excited because I knew, eventually, she’d write about it has she has done with countless other events in her life, such as when she got married and wrote Something New. So once again, I turn to Lucy for wisdom and advice, guidance and experience, to help me continue to understand my own feelings toward motherhood as my 30th birthday swiftly approaches.

Synopsis

From the inside flap:
Her whole life, Lucy Knisley wanted to be a mother. But when it was finally the perfect time, conceiving turned out to be harder than anything she’d ever attempted. Fertility problems were followed by miscarriages, and her eventual successful pregnancy plagued by health issues, up to a dramatic near-death experience during labor and delivery.

This surprisingly informative memoir not only follows Lucy’s personal transition into motherhood but also illustrates the history and science of reproductive health from all angles, including curious facts and inspiring (and notorious) figures in medicine and midwifery. Whether you’ve got kids, want them, or want nothing to do with them, there’s something in this graphic memoir for you.

Review

I have always felt like Lucy Knisley is the big sister I wish I had. I had a few older step sisters over the years, but as seems to be the case with most American families these days, we didn’t keep in touch when our respective parents split. So on Lucy I rely. French Milk I read before studying abroad, Displacement to help me cope with my grandmother’s aging on a family trip to the Bahamas, Something New arrived shortly before I got married… and now, as my husband and I contemplate having children, Lucy has come through for me once again, releasing Kid Gloves.

When I begged our publisher rep for an early copy, the rep with whom I’ve had many conversations about our childbearing decisions, warned me that it wasn’t a glowing recommendation either way, but a chronicle of Lucy’s unique experience, which was exactly what I needed. Lucy’s honest depictions of her life have offered me more guidance and wisdom than any other author of the last decade of my reading life.

As my friends have, and try to have, children, I find myself wondering if I want to join their ranks or if I would be happier as Aunt Sarah. When my nephew was born in late 2017, I revisited my feelings once again, and found myself happily Aunt Sarah, happy to hand him back to my brother- and sister-in-law. Lucy’s memoir has helped me understand my own feelings and it is truly a spectacular book.

It is perfect. Her best yet, and I’ve read every single one. Lucy’s son, “Pal,” is now a social media darling in his own right, and Lucy, and her husband John, faced miscarriages, depression, anxiety, pre-eclampsia and eclampsia to have their son and Lucy details each of these experiences in Kid Gloves with, at times, excruciating and raw emotional detail. It is a beautiful graphic novel memoir, the style typical of Lucy’s other books, but she’s really knocked it out of the park with the emotional content this time.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $19.99 • 9781626728080 • 256 pages • published February 2019 by First Second • average Goodreads rating 4.68 out of 5 • read November 2018

Kid Gloves (3)

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life by Eric Idle

Given that we recently traveled to Doune Castle, the filming location for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I wanted a bit more background on one of my favorite comedy troupes, the infamous Pythons. Also, please ignore the badly photoshopped photo, I have a bone to pick with Michael Palin’s bookstore, Aberfeldy’s Watermill Bookshop about that…

Synopsis

From Inside the Dust Jacket:
We know him best for his unforgettable roles with Monty Python – from the Flying Circus to The Meaning of Life. Now Eric Idle reflects on the meaning of his own life in this entertaining memoir that takes us on a remarkable journey from his childhood in an austere boarding school through his successful career in comedy, television, theater, and film. Coming of age as a writer and comedian during the Sixties and Seventies, Eric stumbled into the crossroads of the cultural revolution and found himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of George Harrison, David Bowie, and Robin Williams, all of whom became dear lifelong friends. With anecdotes sprinkled throughout involving other close friends and luminaries such as Mike Nichols, Mick Jagger, Steve Martin, Paul Simon, and Lorne Michaels, as well as the Pythons themselves, Eric captures a time of tremendous creative output with equal parts hilarity and heart.

In Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, named for the song he wrote for Life of Brian that has become the number one song played at funerals in the UK, he shares the highlights of his life. and career with the kind of offbeat humor that has delighted audiences for five decades. The year 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Pythons, and Eric is marking the occasion with this hilarious memoir chock-full of behind-the-scenes stories from a high-flying life featuring everyone from Princess Leia to Queen Elizabeth.

Review

Eric Idle was friends with everybody. Anybody who was anyone of notes in the late ’60s through early ’90s in the comedy and rock-and-roll world was his friend. From Mick Jagger to Robin Williams and most celebrities in between, Eric Idle knew everyone in Hollywood, New York, London, and everywhere in between. His memoir reads less like a story of his life and more like a who’s who list.

Three chapters in particular, though, stuck with me. I listened to the audiobook, which Eric Idle read himself, and it was obvious which two chapters were hardest for him to write. Those that recount two deaths, that of his best friend, George Harrison, and his friend Robin Williams. I cried listening to him recount how George was assaulted and later passed away. I felt the pain he felt at loosing his best friend of nearly four decades. In his recounting of his friendship with Robin Williams, he shared that his friends also felt blindsided by his death. The public, those who knew him best, no one expected him to take his own life. The emotion Eric evokes is heavy and weighs on the narrative.

The third chapter that remains with me is that of the journey from Holy Grail to Spamalot. Eric was the musical genius of Monty Python, responsible for the vast majority of the songs in all of their works. As such, he was the driving force in adapting Holy Grail from film to stage. It’s been a show I’ve always wanted to see and one my husband saw with the original cast. Eric’s delight in the success of the show is inspiring and an uplifting moment to motivate anyone to follow their dreams.

All in all, if you love Monty Python and the British celebrity scene of the late mid-20th century, this book is a riot and perfect for you.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Edition: Hardcover • $27.00 • 9781984822581 • 304 pages • published October 2018 by Crown Archetype • average Goodreads rating 3.85 out of 5 stars • read in February 2019

Always Look On the Bright Side of Life (2)

Essays, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Paddle Your Own Canoe by Nick Offerman

After watching Making It and meeting Nick in June at Book Expo, I figured it about time I read one of his books. When I realized that I read so many books by famous women that are thinly veiled self-help memoir-y type books, I realized I owed to my inherently bias self to pick one up for men and give it a go.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
When it comes to growing a robust mustache, masticating red meat, building a chair, or wooing a woman, who better to educate you than the always charming, always manly Nick Offerman, best known as Parks and Recreation‘s Ron Swanson? Combining his trademark comic voice and very real expertise in carpentry, Paddle Your Own Canoe features tales from Offerman’s childhood (born, literally, in the middle of an Illinois cornfield) to his theater days in Chicago to the, frankly, magnificent seduction of his wife, Megan Mullally. Offerman also shares his hard-bitten battle strategies in the arenas of manliness, love, styles, and religion, and invaluable advice on getting the most pleasure out of woodworking, assorted meats, outdoor recreation, and other palatable entrees.

Review

I feel like most books I read this days are a 7 out of 10. I enjoyed them while reading, and then almost immediately forget them. Maybe a passage or two stands out here and there, but for the most part, they’re in one ear and out the other, particularly so as I’ve found I enjoy listening the celebrity read memoirs as audiobooks these days. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have the patience for them.

But, Nick Offerman has a gentle voice and so I’ve been listening to Paddle Your Own Canoe to help me fall asleep at night. It certainly isn’t boring, but it does put me in a sleepy state of mind (though my husband says I’m practically narcoleptic, so there’s that…). The tales he shares of his childhood and young adulthood are funny and interesting, a bit raunchier and irreverent than I was expecting, but still enjoyable. Men are definitely the target audience, but I enjoyed his tales and especially his words of wisdom to men.

There are a lot of rich white dudes who say things about masculinity and women that are toxic and misogynistic. Nick Offerman, thank goodness, is not one of those men. His advice is practical and reasonable and boils down to “be a good person, don’t be an asshole,” words we can all strive to live by. But overall, I would say Paddle Your Own Canoe is about on par with Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me as far as parts memoir, humor and life advice.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780451467096 • 352 pages • originally published October 2013, this edition published September 2014 by Dutton • average Goodreads rating 3.67 out of 5 stars • read February 2019

Paddle Your Own Canoe (2)

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

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

From the Corner of the Oval by Beck Dorey-Stein

I’ve slowly but surely been making my way through the four major Obama White House Staffer memoirs – first was Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?, followed by this one, next will be Thanks, Obama (my coworker Su’s favorite), and last The World as It Is

Synopsis

In 2012, Beck Dorey-Stein is working five part-time jobs and just scraping by when a posting on Craigslist lands her, improbably, in the Oval Office as one of Barack Obama’s stenographers. The ultimate D. C. outsider, she joins the elite team who accompany the president wherever he goes, recorder and mic in hand. On whirlwind trips across time zones, Beck forges friendship with a dynamic group of fellow travelers – young men and women who, like her, leave their real lives behind to hop aboard Air Force One in service of the president.

As she learns to navigate White House protocols and more than once runs afoul of the hierarchy, Beck becomes romantically entangled with a consummate D.C. insider, and suddenly the political becomes all too personal.

Against the backdrop of glamour, drama, and intrigue, this is the story of a young woman making unlikely friendships, getting her heart broken, learning what truly matters, and, in the process, discovering her voice.

Review

Beck is a Philly suburb-raised elder millennial like me. I was so excited about her memoir of her years in the White House, maybe more so than Alyssa Mastromonaco’s, which I adored. The four names of Alyssa, Beck, David Litt & Ben Rhodes are inextricably linked in my mind as the authors of the collective “Obama White House Memoirs.” I’ve even tried to arrange displays so that I can feature all four together without anyone really noticing that that was my primary objective. Alyssa, whose was published first, even references her fellow staffers literary endeavors in her own. But onto Beck.

As a White House stenographer, a person who records all of the president’s conversations and then transposes them later for memos, briefings, and posterity, Beck had incredible insider access to the Obama White House. She kept extensive journals during her years there and her memoir reflects her attention to detail. The details of her personal life.

Beck traveled all over the world, met countless interesting people, and experienced many once-in-a-lifetime adventures alongside the leader of the free world. But what makes up the bulk of her memoir? Her affair with a fellow White House staffer. Each of the magnificent locales she travels to is given a cursory description, and then we endure Beck’s exposition of her affair. We get a more in depth description of the White House staff parking lot than the whole of southeast Asia.

I get it – it’s her memoir, she can write about whatever she wants. And Beck is a marvelous writer, I finished the whole of From the Corner of the White House because her writing is so strong. And yes, she obviously talks about friendships and travels and what is going on in our country and parts of her life other than the affair, but its dominating force in her life also makes it a dominating force in the book. And I felt significantly misled. Based on the publisher synopsis above, I thought I was going to get an insider glimpse into life inside the White House, The West Wing in book form so to speak (without any confidential details of course), but instead, I got an insider glimpse to Beck’s personal life, not exactly what I was expecting.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9780525509127 • 352 pages • published July 2018 by Spiegel & Grau • average Goodreads rating 3.85 out of 5 • read October 2018

From the Corner of the Oval on Goodreads

Get a Copy of From the Corner of the Oval

From the Corner of the Oval

Biography, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Jell-O Girls by Allie Rowbottom

I’ve been half-heartedly participating in a book club that used to be mine and has now migrated into someone else’s, but I’ve still had a foot in the door. When a fellow member picked Jell-O Girls for today’s discussion, I was thrilled to finally read nonfiction AND get to talk about it. Downside, my opinion and personal experiences seemed to be in the minority…

Synopsis

In 1899, Allie Rowbottom’s great-great-great-uncle bought the patent to Jell-O from its inventor for $450. The sale would turn out to be one of the most profitable business deals in American history, and the generations that followed enjoyed immense privilege – but they were also haunted by suicides, cancer, alcoholism, and mysterious ailments.

More than one hundred years after that deal was struck, Rowbottom’s mother, Mary, was diagnosed with the same incurable cancer that had claimed her own mother’s life. Determined to combat what she had come to consider the “Jell-O Curse” and her looming mortality, Mary began obsessively researching her family’s past, bent on understanding the origins of her illness and the impact on her life of both Jell-O and the traditional American values the company championed. Before she died in 2015, Mary began to send Rowbottom boxes of her research and notes, in the hope that her daughter might write what she could not. Jell-O Girls is the liberation of that story.

Review

I’ve been in a bit of a book-finishing rut for the past month and a half. All year I’d been flying through books and then, as soon as my grandmother got sick and passed away, I haven’t wanted to touch a book. Until now. Part of getting back to my normal life it seems must include reading (which is very logical given my occupation, I just hadn’t felt like opening a book), and these days, reading means primarily nonfiction. It’s been a year of my near complete lack of interest in fiction and YA (my two staples for the past two decades), so when book club finally veered back to nonfiction, I was thrilled – I hadn’t actually finished a new book club book since, uh, January 2017.

If I were to write a memoir, it would be a lot like Jell-O Girls. The publisher summary doesn’t exactly capture the spirit of the memoir – it sensationalizes it more than needed. Allie Rowbottom faces an interesting inheritance – money from Jell-O which supported her artist mother her entire life, and a “curse” so to speak, which is basically her family trying to find a source of blame for poor genes. I was intrigued when I picked it up, and it held me captivated until I finished it – in 48 hours. And then I went to log it in Goodreads and see what other people thought about it. Oh boy.

I need to start holding off on looking a Goodreads reviews until I’ve finished a book. I adored Jell-O Girls and thought it one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. It seems, however, I am in the minority when it comes to most readers and I think that there are two primary reasons for this. Firstly, the integration of the Jell-O story with that of Allie’s family doesn’t always work particularly well. It’s nice, and a refreshing interlude at times, to see how Jell-O has changed over the years, but it really has very little to do with Allie, her mother Mary, and her grandmother, Midge, our three female protagonists of the memoir. Second, if you’ve never experienced any of the traumatic events and family situations the main characters experienced, it can be easy to discount them as Rich White People Problems, as most people in my book club, and on the interwebs of Goodreads, seemed to do.

Those two things considered, as someone who has been the primary caretaker to a family member slowly dying of cancer, just lost her grandmother, has had to handle the fact that her mother will most likely die of cancer given that she’s already a three-time survivor, whose parents are divorced, whose family has a long history of mental illness, when you’ve struggled with anorexia nervosa and developed OCD tendencies, passed out and not remembered the last time you ate because you couldn’t control anything in your life except what you ate, well. You could say Allie’s Jell-O Girls is the story of me and my mother’s family.

We’re all a little crazy, humanity proves this. And when you’ve experienced very similar situations to Allie and you want to convey just how magnificently she captures the feeling of waiting for hours on end in the surgical waiting room that you struggled for years to find words to describe, you want to share that with people. You want to talk about just how important this book is to you, not just because you think it’s good, but because it let you know that you are far from alone. That other people have experienced the same set of traumas, self-inflicted and otherwise, that you have. That it’s okay to feel like you’re losing your mind and that you are not alone.

Despite working in a bookstore and talking about books for a living and recommending countless books to people over the last few years, I don’t actually have the chance to sit down and talk about books in detail with many people. I get to give people my thirty-second elevator pitch on a book and hope they’ll buy it. And part of the success of the store I work at is that all of the employees have their own genres of interest – Su reads things dark and twisty, Pam reads contemporary women’s and historical fiction, Mary reads commercial nonfiction and fiction, Jennifer is our children’s buyer and can tell you anything and everything about all the picture books on the shelves, Kaz specializes in LGBT literature, PK reads business and history, Hadley reads the little known random books published by small, academic and indie presses, Staci reads just like my mom, thrillers and mysteries from Baldacci to Scottoline, and I read a little bit of everything in between. There’s not a whole lot of overlap. Therefore, enter book club – the perfect opportunity to discuss books with (mostly) like-minded individuals.

I miss picking all the books (I am aware that this is very selfish). I miss it being a way to support the store (I’m now the only one who doesn’t buy the book on Amazon or from B&N). I miss having productive discussions about interesting books. No one likes to feel like they’re under attack or being misunderstood when they choose a book or have a specific feeling about a book. And I love Jell-O Girls. In my 29 years of existence and of the 220 books I’ve read since I started working at the bookstore in 2015, it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t care if the rest of the world disagrees with me. I will praise it for handling life situations that so many people find difficult to talk about. So please, ignore the plethora of poor ratings on websites. Ratings don’t capture the spirit of the book. If you think reading this book would benefit you, your family, please. Take a look at it.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9780316510615 • 388 pages • published July 2018 by Little, Brown and Company • average Goodreads rating 3.2 out of 5 stars • read in October 2018

Allie Rowbottom’s Website

Jell-O Girls on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Jell-O Girls

Jell-O Girls