Category Archives: Books

The Wordy Shipmates – Sarah Vowell

I think my exhaustion is not going to do honor to this last review – but in your mind, know that I loved it.

I don’t listen to NPR, so I did not know anything about Sarah Vowell, other than my boss thinks she has a very unique voice (that would apparently drive me nuts) and so many people recommended her, and this book to me – that I finally picked it up.

So glad I did. The short version is: It’s about the Puritans. The long version? The founding of a nation, religious doctrine, feminism, rifts in Protestantism, the separation of church and state, nationalism and patriotism. Her writing is funny, engaging and insightful. I really love her comparisons to modern politics, and it’s peppered with personal stories about the research itself.

I love when books do that awesome thing where afterwards, I feel like some sort of expert on something I didn’t even know I wanted to know anything about.

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The Monsters of Templeton – Lauren Groff

No particular reason for picking this one up – it was just on the shelf and I felt a little light on my library selections that week.

I enjoyed it (NY Times Review). Essentially, the story of a girl who moves back home after some disastrous life choices and tries to figure out the mystery of her paternity.

It had a few things going for it, for me. The girl was an archaeologist (although that barely factors in), the story was peppered with “photographs” of the characters (from the author’s personal collection) and I really liked some of the characters.

What I didn’t love was that while some of the characters were enjoyable, there were sudden changes in personality that I didn’t quite get – or backstory just didn’t add up. Also, and this is more due to my attention span than poor writing – but the author does one of those things, where there is this whole 2nd or 3rd story, told by another generation, sometimes in letters – that just loses me. I admit, I skimmed through entire chapters here. I probably missed something crucial or enjoyable, but I really hate having to entirely switch gears like that. So, I kind of cheated.

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Not Becoming My Mother – Ruth Reichl

Just in time for Mother’s Day! Who says I am not organized or timely?

I have read Reichl’s other memoirs, and enjoyed them – both her writing and her stories of being a famous food critic. Unfortunately, this wasn’t that enjoyable.

Reichl has mentioned stories about her mom before, in affectionately called “Mim Tales” – but this book felt more like a task she had to complete, rather than a labor of love. It was short – I think a little less than 100 pages, and was really just her looking over notes and writings that her mom had left behind – both of her mother and her grandmother. It was about the bleakness of life for women of the “Greatest Generation” and seemed an ode to the importance of work outside the home for women. You learn later that Ruth and her mom were estranged, and only hints as to why, but this seems to be her own reconciling with the life her mom had, and why she is glad she had such a different life and outcome.  But – the book itself? Repititive, self-indulgent and just kind of melancholy.

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Will the Vampire People Please Leave the Lobby? – Allyson Beatrice

This book was found on the shelves in the office of a Buffy-loving coworker. I really loved it! I don’t know how exactly to explain it. A series of essays about fandom? Or internet fandom? Or, communities that spring up around TV shows. It wasn’t exactly about the Buffy fans in particular, but of course, prominent Buffy characters featured prominently. It seemed to be more about the internet, and community. Something that is near and dear to my heart, because of my involvement in NerdNYC.

My favorite sections of the book talked about how riled up and angry the author gets with interlopers and trolls in her community and the frustration she feels when the community gets all hugs and ponies about it, instead of the “Cut a Bitch” style that she (and I) favor.

I loved her story of the internet as a family. As a girl whose closest friends all now live within blocks and were met on the “interwebs” – I can relate.

In terms of Buffy – it was a little sad to hear that while she is in close touch with some of the writers, Joss really has no idea who she really is. But I loved how much credit she gives to the writers, and not the actors. And that she goes into fanfic, and who stories really belong to.

I wasn’t expecting to like this book much at all, but I found the writer engaging, funny and  – the book just kind of hit a chord with me. The only criticism I would offer is that sometimes it felt a little disjointed – some stories were repeated, or characters reintroduced. You don’t need to be a Buffy fan to like the book (but I am sure it helps), but I think you definitely need to be an internet nerd.

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Devilish – Maureen Johnson

Okay, I love Maureen Johnson. Not only have I met her in real life (NAME DROP! she is friends with a friend – who this book is actually dedicated to!) but I just think she is a really fun YA writer.

Maureen describes Devilish:

At St. Teresa’s Preparatory School for Girls in Providence, Rhode Island, rebellious senior class genius Jane Jarvis is worried about her best friend Allison Concord. Ally is lovable, but a little clueless, and badly in need of Jane’s help. She needs to get a freshman “sister” at the school’s annual Big-Little celebration. When Ally blows it (rather literally), Jane knows that they are in for a rough few weeks.

She has no idea just how rough they will be.

Strange things start happening in Providence. Hail storms rip into the city. A strangely polite gourmet in a silver roadster turns up every time Jane turns around. A freshman guy from neighboring St. Sebastian’s starts to stalk her. A lanky, cupcake-loving sophomore transfer steps into their lives to save the day . . .

Then Ally begins to change. She looses the awkwardness that Jane has always known and loved and becomes the model of cool. Things don’t go as well for Jane, and she soon winds up facing the threat of expulsion and ruin.

But these are only the beginnings of much bigger problems. Jane’s life is about to get much worse. Ally claims that she sold her soul, and Jane throws herself on the line to get it back. But this battle is big. A crowd of strangers is about to descend on Providence, and they’re not there to go on a campus tour of Brown.

It’s Jane versus the demons, and nothing is what it seems. There will be perfume bottles, dogs, explosions, dancing, death, badly misused textbooks, ex-boyfriends, very long falls, unusual weaponry, and lots of sugary snacks before it’s all over.

Hey, you do what you have to do. Everyone knows high school is hell.

Not really sure what else to say. I love YA, sassy, brilliant heroines and “Glory” style demons (c’mon, you have to watch Buffy, right?). It was cute, it was well-written and it made me laugh and want a cupcake. Then again, most things make me want a cupcake.

The cutest part, was that this was a library book, and some kid wrote on the cover page “Maureen Roxs! Get her other books!” and (s)he listed them all out. It was cute! Note: Vandalizing library books = not cool.

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The Gravedigger’s Daughter – Joyce Carol Oates

I may have read “Blonde” but I think this is the first Oates book I have read. I don’t want to say too much about it, because I am pretty sure that most of my readership is also in my book club, and this is this month’s pick. But, for posterity’s sake:

At the beginning of Oates’s 36th novel, Rebecca Schwart is mistaken by a seemingly harmless man for another woman, Hazel Jones, on a footpath in 1959 Chatauqua Falls, N.Y. Five hundred pages later, Rebecca will find out that the man who accosted her is a serial killer, and Oates will have exercised, in a manner very difficult to forget, two of her recurring themes: the provisionality of identity and the awful suddenness of male violence. There’s plenty of backstory, told in retrospect. Rebecca’s parents escape from the Nazis with their two sons in 1936; Rebecca is born in the boat crossing over. When Rebecca is 13, her father, Jacob, a sexton in Milburn, N.Y., kills her mother, Anna, and nearly kills Rebecca, before blowing his own head off. At the time of the footpath crossing, Rebecca is just weeks away from being beaten, almost to death, by her husband, Niles Tignor (a shady traveling beer salesman). She and son Niley flee; she takes the name of the woman for whom she has been recently mistaken and becomes Hazel Jones. Niley, a nine-year-old with a musical gift, becomes Zacharias, “a name from the bible,” Rebecca tells people. Rebecca’s Hazel navigates American norms as a waitress, salesperson and finally common-law wife of the heir of the Gallagher media fortune, a man in whom she never confides her past.

I didn’t love this. I found that it was almost a difficult story to follow, because Oates’ language and writing gets in the way of her own story. I think the same themes kept getting hit on, but never really clearly enough for me to feel moved or attached.  The story is told in three (or four?) parts, and I found that I really liked the first and last – but the entire middle (and really, meat) I couldn’t find myself emotionally invested.

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Water Witches – Chris Bohjalian

I think this is the second or third book I have read by this author. The first one I read, I really really liked (Midwives). The second one (Before You Know Kindness), also with an environmental theme, I remember enjoying reading – but had to look up what it was about on BN.com.

I fear that this third one will fall into that same “oh yeah, that was okay” category.

In a moving, life-affirming novel suffused with ecological wisdom, a Vermont ski resort’s plans for expansion collide with environmentalists seeking to preserve a mountainous wildlife habitat and riverine ecosystem. Narrator Scott Winston, a transplanted New York City lawyer who represents the ski resort, switches allegiance after he and his nine-year-old daughter spot three mountain lions in an area targeted for clearing. Complicating matters is the envy that Scott’s pragmatic wife, Laura, a native Vermonter, feels toward her famed sister, Patience Avery, a dowser (water witch) who also opposes the ski resort and whose talent for locating underground springs, missing persons or lost objects with a divining rod figures prominently in the novel’s denouement. The struggle between the developers and their opponents culminates in an environmental board hearing that has all the dramatic excitement of a courtroom trial. With wit, insight and mordant irony, Bohjalian charts Scott’s metamorphosis from rationalistic materialist and skeptic to one who believes in higher powers and the interconnectedness of all life. In a refreshing twist, instead of offering a bucolic idyll, the author takes us through a Vermont beset by drought, a declining ski industry, unemployment and endangered ecosystems.

I don’t know about life-affirming or ecological wisdom, but it was a good book. It’s a little heavy-handed on the “there are two sides to every issue!” and “kids are amazing, innocent beings” but overall – nice. That’s really the best I could do – nice.

One thing I did enjoy about it, and this is the kind of stuff I will remember is the little glimpse into the world of “dowsing.” I knew very little about water-dowsing or this group of practicing diviners (divinators?) and probably won’t investigate further but I feel like I got a little glimpse into something, and somehow, knowing my life, this will probably come in handy one day during an inane conversation.

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