Non-Fiction, History, STEM

Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson

After a few years of being without a book club to lead (I still participate in my former club), I felt the nagging urge to start one that better suited my current tastes, nonfiction! Below is my review for the inaugural book, Isaac’s Storm!

Nonfiction Book Club (2)

Synopsis

From the back cover:
September 8, 1900, began innocently in the seaside town of Galveston, Texas. even Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau, failed to grasp the true meaning of the strange deep-sea swells and peculiar winds that greeted the city that morning. Mere hours later, Galveston found itself submerged by a monster hurricane that completely destroyed the town and killed over 6,000 people in what remains the greatest natural disaster in American history – and Isaac Cline found himself the victim of a devastating personal tragedy.

Using Cline’s own telegrams, letters, and reports, the testimony of scores of survivors, and our understanding of the science of hurricanes, Erik Larson builds a chronicle of one man’s heroic struggle and fatal miscalculation in the face of a storm of unimaginable magnitude. Isaac’s Storm is the story of what can happen when human arrogance meets the uncontrollable force of nature.

Review

So, I missed the first book club meeting of my own book club. I had to go to the Hudson Valley in New York for a book buyer’s retreat (which was a lot of fun) and so my coworker, Su, filled in for me. Three ladies showed up, a strong presence for a brand new club, and apparently they had a lively discussion. I absolutely cannot wait to join in for the next meeting – if you want to follow along with our reading from afar, check out our book club page here!

I have now read three works by Erik Larson, Dead Wake (my favorite), In the Garden of Beasts (my least favorite) and now Isaac’s Storm (my middle choice). Unlike the first two works I read, Isaac’s Storm focuses on one main storyline, that of Isaac and the town of Galveston before, during, and after the storm. Other people and places make brief appearances, but the primary narrative sticks to the Texan Gulf coast.

As one of Erik’s earliest works, it is not surprising that what we think of as his trademark storytelling style, epitomized in Devil in the White City according to my coworkers, is not present in Isaac’s Storm. It is still an enjoyable book and a fascinating portrait of the early days of the American weather service. It is also difficult to fathom that Erik wrote this book before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf coast. The bureaucracy involved in getting word out to the area that a storm was coming is laughable, but still in place today.

Unfortunately, I walked away from Isaac’s Storm without much more than a “I’m glad I didn’t live in turn of the century Galveston.” I didn’t particularly care for Isaac and I couldn’t tell you the names of any of the townspeople mentioned throughout, they just didn’t stick with me the way the people in his other books did. It wasn’t a bad read, just not Erik’s strongest (also not surprising, at it is one of his earliest works).

Rating: 7 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $16.95 • 9780375708275 • 336 pages • originally published August 1999, this edition published July 2000 by Vintage • average Goodreads rating 4.06 out of 5 stars • read in March 2019

Isaac's Storm

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)

Essays, Non-Fiction, Psychology

Girl Logic by Iliza Shlesinger

Self-Help January continues! This book originally came out in November 2017 and I still have an advance reader copy… I’ve been sitting on it for almost 2 years and decided now was finally the time to read it. I love Iliza, so much so that I decided to use her book for my first “bookface” picture!

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
Have you ever been pissed because you’re not pretty enough, and then gotten even more pissed that someone didn’t find you as pretty as you think you are? Have you ever obsessed over the size of your thighs while eating dessert, all the while saying you’ll work out extra tomorrow? Or spent endless hours wondering why you have to bear the brunt of other people’s insecurities? I mean, after all, I’m pretty great. Why cope with insecurities I don’t already have?

That last one’s just me? All right, then.

But if the rest sounds familiar, you are experiencing girl Logic: a characteristically female way of thinking that appears contradictory and circuitous but is actually a complicated and highly evolved way of looking at the world. You end up considering every repercussion of every choice (about dating, career, clothes, lunch) before making a move toward what you really want. And why do we attempt these mental hurdles? Well, that’s what this book is all about.

The fact is, whether you’re obsessing over his last text or the most important meeting of your career, your Girl Logic serves a purpose: It helps push you, question what you want, and clarify what will make you a happier, better person. Girl Logic can be every confident woman’s secret weapon, and this book shows you how to wield it.

Review

Last week I wrote about what I call “Self-Help January” and my doubts about how helpful self-help books written by middle class female white millennials can be. And I came away without a clear answer to my question. And now I’m back with another white female middle class (elder) millennial written self-help book. As this is my primary demographic, it is the subset I am most drawn to for self-help, but I also want to find books to review and recommend that are applicable to those outside this narrow subset as well. And Iliza, how I love you, seems a bit more helpful than last week’s Adulting.

If you haven’t seen or heard of Iliza, allow me to introduce her to you. She is a stand-up comic (but so much more!) and she won Last Comic Standing – the youngest and first woman to ever do so. She has a handful of Netflix specials, two (short-lived) television shows, Forever 31 on ABC and Truth and Iliza on Freeform. Her most recent Netflix special, Elder Millennial, is her best thus far.

Her honest and confident approach to life make her a role model for all young women, as well as her peers. And she freely admits that she doesn’t have everything sorted out – that her life is still a work in progress and her success is not a measuring stick for others’. The topics she covers in Girl Logic stem from the female-centered topics of her stand-up and focuses on three primary relationships: the relationship with have with ourselves, with other women, and with men.

The relationship with men section entertained me, but as someone who’s been in a relationship for the entirety of my twenties, I didn’t find much to relate to there but I know a lot of my friends who have also read Girl Logic found her advice here to be most helpful. For me, I have had a crappy on-off relationship with my body it feels like. I hate it, I love it, I’ve starved it, coddled it, over-fed it, under-exercised it, etc. It is always helpful to hear about other women’s similar struggles, if only for a reminder that it’s something we all do and our inner-monologue (aka Girl Logic) is both helpful and harmful in this relationship.

Iliza’s last point starts with a bit of an apology in regards to her previous acts – acts where she hasn’t always been as kind to other women as she would like. And that particular section is tremendously helpful. Women should support other women, but not blindly follow them just because they are women. But lead with kindness and respect – that’s really all that matters. You don’t have to be friends, but with mutual kindness and respect, life will be a lot happier all around.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.99 • 9781602863347 • 256 pages • first published November 2017, this edition published November 2018 by Hachette Books • average Goodreads rating 3.90 out of 5 • read January 2019

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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

 

Biography, Non-Fiction

In Extremis: The Life and Death of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum

I first came across In Extremis when going through front list (new release) publisher orders and, thanked my lucky stars I have such a good relationship with the rep because when I begged her to send me an advance copy, she happily obliged. And I think it is safe to say, In Extremis is my favorite read of the entire year.

Synopsis

When Marie Colvin was killed in an artillery attack in Homs, Syria, in 2012, at age fifty-six, the world lost a fearless and iconoclastic war correspondent who covered the most significant global calamities of her lifetime. In Extremis, written by her fellow reporter Lindsey Hilsum, is a thrilling investigation into Colvin’s epic life and tragic death based on exclusive access to her intimate diaries from age thirteen to her death, interviews with people from every corner of her life, and impeccable research.

After growing up in a middle-class Catholic family on Long Island, Colvin studied with the legendary journalist John Hersey at Yale, and eventually started working for The Sunday Times of London, where she gained a reputation for bravery and compassion as she told the stories of victims of the major conflicts of our time. She lost sight in one eye while in Sri Lanka covering the civil war, interviewed Gaddafi and Arafat many times, and repeatedly risked her life covering conflicts in Chechnya, East Timor, Kosovo, and the Middle East. Colvin lived her personal life in extremis, too: bold, driven, and complex, she was married twice, took many lovers, drank and smoked, and rejected society’s expectations for women. Despite PTSD, she refused to give up reporting. Like her hero Martha Gellhorn, Colvin was committed to bearing witness to the horrifying truths of war, and to shining a light on the profound suffering of ordinary people caught in the midst of conflict.

Review

I love war correspondents’ memoirs and biographies – It’s What I Do was one of my favorite reads of last year. And, just, oh my goodness. In Extremis dethroned Lynsey from the top of my personal ranking. Granted, I’ve only read two to completion so far (I’m reading Martha Gellhorn’s, the role model for both Lynsey and Marie, right now), but goodness gracious, it will be a long time before I find another book like this. And it caused one of the longest book hangovers I’ve ever had. And, through In Extremis, I had the opportunity to check off a book seller life goal and be the first review for a title on Goodreads and Lindsey Hilsum responded to my review!

My husband, Ben, and I have been together for almost a decade and he could not recall a single instance in that time when I stayed up past midnight to read. I absolutely love to read, but am borderline narcoleptic so I’m not a big night time reader. But for days on end, I stayed up far later than I should have, unable to put down Lindsey Hilsum’s marvelous biography of her friend and fellow journalist, Marie Colvin.

Lindsey Hilsum is, in the humble opinion of someone who has not personally met her, the best person to write Marie Colvin’s biography. A friend, but not an intimate acquaintance, she approaches her subject with the kind and caring hands of someone who felt a deep loss when she died, but removed enough to offer a fairly objective perspective on the life decisions she made that led her to that final, fateful trip to Homs, Syria in 2012. Marie kept extensive journals her entire life and they serve as the basis for the bulk of In Extremis, making it as close to an autobiography as it could possibly be. Sprinkled in are excerpts from Marie’s reporting for London’s Sunday Times, and they offer an even deeper glimpse into what inspired and drove her to seek out war zones and report on the stories of the people who live there.

A few years ago, Ben & I visited the Newseum in Washington D. C. which triggered my current obsession with journalism. I’d always loved writing and have been a news junkie from a very young age (the day does not start until I’ve checked the BBC, CNN and my custom Google newsfeed), but I never appreciated just how important journalists are worldwide until that trip. They are responsible for keeping the world apprised of the goings on in far reaches of the world and at home. And nothing, well, almost nothing, in regards to my country’s current political climate, makes me angrier than the unofficial war on journalism and the president’s constant claims of fake news. As I rally against it, and uninformed fellow Americans, I remind myself of the fact that Marie Colvin had to stand up to people who challenged the authenticity of her reporting and she did so with kindness, grace, and style.

Even though Marie’s personal life may have been a bit of a mess, okay, quite a big mess, she played a crucial role in ensuring that the western world knew exactly what was going on in the war zones of the world, particularly the Middle East. It is easy enough for those of us sitting in our living rooms in the Northeast of the US to ignore the challenges facing not only that area of the world, but also in Europe as they struggle to accommodate record numbers of refugees, and to dehumanize those who are struggling because their struggles don’t affect us directly. But Marie wouldn’t let us. She did everything in her power to bring that suffering, the plights of the people who were displaced from their homes, and the challenges they faced daily, into our collective consciousness.

When reading, and therefore constantly Google-ing Marie Colvin, I came across the production of A Private War, Matthew Heineman’s cinematic depiction of Marie’s life. While the movie is based on the Vanity Fair article published immediately after Marie’s death and not on Lindsey’s biography, the two, given their near simultaneous release dates, will become inexorably tied to each other in future. I was very nervous when I found out that Rosamund Pike is playing Marie – I adored her in Pride & Prejudice, but is she the best choice to play my new hero? After reading articles about production and how much the process of portraying Marie affected her personally, and the fact that a documentary filmmaker is at the helm, I’m far less concerned and a great deal more excited.

Lindsey’s writing is tremendous, Marie’s life equal parts inspiring and cautionary tale, and I truly hope that her story reaches as many people as possible and helps us all recognize that we are all human. We all share this world, and the sufferings of a few are the sufferings of us all.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9780374175597 • 400 pages • published November 2018 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux • read September 2018

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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

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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

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