Book Club, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Travel

From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty

Another book club pick! I’m really enjoying having a book club again, particularly one that reads exclusively nonfiction! This book was originally recommended by a former book store coworker and I can’t wait to tell her what everyone else thought of the book.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
Fascinated by our pervasive fear of dead bodies, mortician Caitlin Doughty embarks on a global expedition to discover how other cultures care for the dead. From Zoroastrian sky burials to wish-granting Bolivian skulls, she investigates the world’s funerary customs and expands our sense of what it means to treat the dead with dignity. Her account questions the rituals of the American funeral industry – especially chemical embalming – and suggests that the most effective traditions are those that allow mourners to personally attend to the body of the deceased. Exquisitely illustrated by artist Landis Blair, From Here to Eternity is an adventure into the morbid unknown, a fascinating tour through the unique ways people everywhere confront mortality.

Review

As someone who has lost their fair share of friends and family members, as well as pets, almost exclusively to cancer, I’ve never really come to terms with how we, in the US, process death. A friend, who is currently going to school to be a mortician/funeral director, introduced me to Caitlin Doughty, an L. A. based mortician and founder of the Order of the Good Death, a nonprofit organization that focuses on helping people come to terms with their mortality and make decisions regarding the care and keeping of their body after they die.

These facts, when the book club picked it, made me a bit wary – I’m still not entirely at peace with my grandmother’s passing in the fall. I don’t like to talk about death. I don’t like to talk about dead bodies. I have difficulty with viewings and other death-related occasions. But, with an open mind, I started reading, with the hope that Caitlin would help me develop a better relationship one of the only facts about our lives on earth – they will end.

My husband often says he wants a Viking funeral, or a Tibetan Sky Burial, and each time he brings it up, I ask him to stop. I can’t stomach it. But Caitlin has gone all over the world, and her own country, exploring different cultures’ death rituals. And maybe it’s her writing, maybe it’s the distance, but it is absolutely fascinating! I really could not put From Here to Eternity – the travel aspect also helped me stomach the content. And at times, I cried, but for good reasons – Caitlin expertly goes back and forth between being detached and un-emotional, to feeling all the things when listening to her coworker recount the circumstances of the loss of her unborn son.

People die all the time, and she also goes into why cremation has become such a large part of the modern funeral industry, as well as the monopolies, corruption, and out-of-date laws that govern the industry in the US. To say I learned something would be a massive understatement. I was freaked out significantly less than I anticipated being while reading Packing for Mars last month.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback – $15.95 – 9780393356281 – 272 pages – originally published October 2017, this edition published October 2018 by W. W. Norton & Company – average Goodreads rating 4.29 out of 5 – read in June 2019

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

A Gross of Pirates by Terry Breverton

I love being an adult book buyer at a bookstore. When the publisher reps hear me getting particularly excited about something, they occasionally will send me a copy, and I was lucky enough to come home the other day to A Gross of Pirates sitting on the front porch waiting for me.

Synopsis

From the Dust Jacket:
It is no use pretending that these criminals do not evoke admiration – even envy. Part of the appeal is the democrati nature of their activities, characterised as far back as the 14th century by Klaus Stortebeker thieving in the Baltic – his crew were called the Likedeelers, the equal sharers. Author Terry Breverton has brought together the extraordinary stories of 144 pirates throughout history. They include Norman privateers, Barbary Corsairs, Elizabethan adventurers, Chinese pirates, the ‘Brethren of the Coast’ – and of course the pirates of the Caribbean.

Beginning with the 9th-century ‘Shield Maiden’ pirate Alfhild and ending with Mohamed Abdi Hassan – ‘Afweyne’ (Big Mouth) – who ransomed supertankers for tens of millions of dollars, A Gross of Pirates is an exciting journey under full sail across a millennium of blood and treasure.

Review

I’ve been working on a fictionalized retelling of the adventures of Alfhild, the Shield Maiden mentioned on the cover of A Gross of Pirates for years now, ever since I was first introduced to her story in Princesses Behaving Badly five and a half years ago. So little information exists about her (her actual existence is itself debatable), I get particularly excited every time I see her mentioned somewhere and because of that, I probably own every book that references her.

While A Gross of Pirates offers me no further information on my heroine, it does offer a great detail of helpful, factual, and entertaining information about 143 other pirates, many of whom this particular pirate enthusiast has never heard of. There are the typical suspects, Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, of course, and Breverton even includes my distant relation, Sir Francis Drake, who kick-started my pirate obsession when I was in the fifth grade. The others, though, were new to me. And as an enthusiast of mini-bio books (my term for books that include short features on numerous people), it has been a long time since I’ve come across new names!

The pirates are grouped by time period, location, type of piracy, and each story seems more shocking then the one before. If you have any interest in a deliciously entertaining yet thoroughly researched pirate book, you cannot go wrong with A Gross of Pirates!

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $31.95 • 9781445682921 • 320 pages • published March 2019 by Amberley Publishing • read in March 2019

Gross of Pirates

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

 

Biography, Book Club, 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
Non-Fiction, Travel

Atlas Obscura by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras & Ella Morton

Fun and eccentric travel book with lots of random and unknown places in it? Can I have a copy now please? These may or may not have been my exact words to my boss when this book first showed up at the store. 

Synopsis

It’s time to get off the beaten path. Inspiring equal parts wonder and wanderlust, Atlas Obscura celebrates over 700 of the strangest and most curious places in the world.

Talk about a bucket list: here are natural wonders–the dazzling glowworm caves in New Zealand, or a baobob tree in South Africa that’s so large it has a pub inside where 15 people can drink comfortably. Architectural marvels, including the M.C. Escher-like stepwells in India. Mind-boggling events, like the Baby Jumping Festival in Spain, where men dressed as devils literally vault over rows of squirming infants. Not to mention the Great Stalacpipe Organ in Virginia, Turkmenistan’s 40-year hole of fire called the Gates of Hell, a graveyard for decommissioned ships on the coast of Bangladesh, eccentric bone museums in Italy, or a weather-forecasting invention that was powered by leeches, still on display in Devon, England.

More cabinet of curiosities than traditional guidebook, Atlas Obscura revels in the unexpected, the overlooked, the bizarre, and the mysterious. Every page expands our sense of how strange and marvelous the world really is. And with its compelling descriptions, hundreds of photographs, surprising charts, and maps for every region of the world. It is a book you can open anywhere. But with caution: It’s almost impossible not to turn to the next entry, and the next, and the next.

Review

Christmas shopping each year for my brother-in-law and his wife is next to impossible. As corporate lawyers in New York City (now in Miami), they want for just about nothing, so getting them a present that speaks to the interests and sensibilities is the only way to go. And it’s hard. Easier now than it was before they had children back in 2016 when this beauty arrived in the store and for once, in the 6 years I’d been buying them presents, I knew exactly what to get them. I made the book one of my staff picks for holiday gift giving and, as my boss gets each of the staff a book of their choice for Christmas each year, I asked for a copy of my own.

As regular world travels (I have great and excessive envy of their passports), my brother-in-law and his wife delighted in picking out the places they’d been and where they’d want to go. They spent hours on Christmas Day pouring over the pages and it was passed around the family for hours after that. When visiting them at their apartment, it was the only book they had out on the table, the edges now worn and clearly turned repeatedly with care.

Now, as I plan my trip to the UK to visit my sister in June, I’ve post-it noted the places I want to go, and also marked them on the Atlas Obscura website because the book is too precious (and heavy) to travel with. I’ve altered my travel plans with her to suit visiting some of the places included in this book (as well as Lonely Planet’s Global Coffee Tour) and in my researching and paging through, I was pleasantly surprised to find it included some places I had already traveled too!

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $35.00 • 9780761169086 • 480 pages • published September 2016 by Workman Publishing • average Goodreads rating 4.25 out of 5 • referenced repeatedly since December 2016

Atlas Obscura Website

Atlas Obscura on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Atlas Obscura

Atlas Obscura

Biography, Non-Fiction, Photography/Art

Women in Sports by Rachel Ignotofsky

Why did I decide to read Women in Sports… I hope I’ve established through my selection of books so far that I absolutely adore all books that celebrate strong women and positive female role models. Sports in particular hold a very special place in my heart – those are my hockey skates in the picture – and I will do everything in my power to make sure that all little girls in my life know that they can do and be anything – including the world’s best ice hockey goalie. 

Synopsis

Women in Sports highlights the achievements and stories of fifty notable women athletes from the 1800s to today, including trailblazers, Olympians, and record-breakers in more than forty sports. The athletes featured include well-known figures like tennis player Billie Jean King and gymnast Simone  Biles, as well as lesser-known champions like Toni Stone, the first woman to play baseball in a professional men’s league, and skateboarding pioneer Patti McGee. The book also contains infographics on topics that sporty women want to know about such as muscle anatomy, a timeline of women’s participation in sports, pay and media statistics for female athletes, and influential women’s teams. Women in Sports celebrates the success of the tough, bold, and fearless women who paved the way for today’s athletes.

Review

Sports have always played a big role in my life. Whether I was playing them or watching them with my friends and family, I have loved them always. Growing up, I did gymnastics, ballet, roller bladed, biked, swam, played softball and skated like a fiend. I skiied, played basketball, and was nearly recruited to Brown University as an ice hockey goalie. My sister played soccer and tennis, my dad was a gymnast and sailor, my mom was a three sport athlete and my grandfather played four sports and for the Philadelphia Eagles. To say sports are in my blood is an understatement. The first book I ever finished writing was about a teenage hockey star.

Downside, I wasn’t really great at any sport, not a one. The jokes about ice hockey goalies were true for me – I was not a great skater. Upside, I loved it, so I worked hard and I practiced. When I found out that the author of Women in Science was writing about women in sports, I started begging our rep to send me an ARC (advanced reader copy) or finished copy of the book. Nine months ago. I knew I had to have this book.

I love this book – of all the compendium books of great women, this is by far one of my favorites. The art style is perfect for the style of book – think infographics, but with a bit more text. The decisions for which wonderful women to include must have been a challenging one, but it is definitely a worthy list – variety of sports and backgrounds of each of the women is diverse. If you are looking for inspiration for yourself, your daughter, your niece, your student, your granddaughter AND (or) your son, nephew, grandson, this is a fabulous book to encourage them to be their best and to never stop trying to excel.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $16.99 • 9781607749783 • 128 pages • published in July 2017 by Ten Speed Press • average Goodreads rating 4.19 out of 5 • read in July 2017

Rachel Ignotofsky’s Website

Women in Sports on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Women in Sports

Women in Sports 2