A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

One Sentence Review: “Having an accent means you belong somewhere.” 

atreegrowsinbrooklyn

Pages: 528  Genre: Historical Fiction / Coming of Age / Classic 
Rating: 5 of 5 dolls named Mary
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.23 of 5 stars
Form Read: ebook   Purchased or Borrowed: Borrowed from the library 

Synopsis from Goodreads: The beloved American classic about a young girl’s coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.

BACKGROUND

This book is one of the editions printed by the US Government during World War II as a pocketbook for soldiers to carry with them. It went through multiple printings during the course of the war, and prior to the author’s death, she still received letters from veterans describing what the book meant to them and how it helped them in a time of need. The importance of this book to the war effort is outlined in “When Books Went To War: the stories that helped us win WWII.”

The main theme of the book is one of self and family betterment. It’s improvement over generations, a little at a time. It’s also a book on poverty, growing up, and the little things we take for granted. It’s addiction and how the disease pulls you under.

“A person who pulls himself up from a low environment via the bootstrap route has two choices. Having risen above his environment, he can forget it; or, he can rise above it and never forget it and keep compassion and understanding in his heart for those he has left behind him in the cruel upclimb.” 

WRITING STYLE & CONTENT

The book is well written and told from the perspective of a young girl growing up poor in Brooklyn. I’d believe the author had first hand experience with poverty, judging from how well she writes it. Coming from one of the poorest parts of the country, I hate the way people often portray the poor but Smith does an excellent job showing how as a child you’re ignorant of the fact of being a “have not” until you meet people who are “haves.”

Smith also does an excellent job showing the way communities like that band together but also how they shame members of their group because the idea of “looking down on” is something they rarely get to do, so if someone breaks the strict social rules for that group they are punished.

OVERALL FEEL

This book is one of those you read multiple times during your life, and each time you’ll have a different reading experience. The characters are well developed and as you gain more life experience you’ll relate to each of them in a slightly different way. I saw a lot of my younger self in the main character Francie. A hunger for knowledge and to make it out of where you’re from, but the desire never to lose those roots or feel ashamed of them.

“… the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood.” 

The impact of addiction on an individual and the family as a whole is also a major plot point throughout the book. The main character’s father is an alcoholic and you see how it changes him and how his family deals with his disease.

“People always think that happiness is a faraway thing,” thought Francie, “something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains–a cup of strong coffee when you’re blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you’re alone–just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.”

Though I originally borrowed this book, I plan on purchasing the ebook so I can read it again in a few years, and see how I have changed reflected in the book.

Find this book on: Goodreads / Amazon / B&N 

A Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

One sentence review: “The dead tell the story of the most boring apocalypse ever.” 

briefhistoryofthedeadPages: 252  Genre: Post-Apocalyptic 
Rating: 3 of 5 Crushed Coke Cans
Average Goodreads Rating: 3.66 of 5 stars
Form Read: Physical Book   Purchased: Used Book Store

Amazon synopsis: From Kevin Brockmeier, one of this generation’s most inventive young writers, comes a striking new novel about death, life, and the mysterious place in between. The City is inhabited by those who have departed Earth but are still remembered by the living. They will reside in this afterlife until they are completely forgotten. But the City is shrinking, and the residents clearing out. Some of the holdouts, like Luka Sims, who produces the City’s only newspaper, are wondering what exactly is going on. Others, like Coleman Kinzler, believe it is the beginning of the end. Meanwhile, Laura Byrd is trapped in an Antarctic research station, her supplies are running low, her radio finds only static, and the power is failing. With little choice, Laura sets out across the ice to look for help, but time is running out. Kevin Brockmeier alternates these two storylines to create a lyrical and haunting story about love, loss and the power of memory.

PRODUCT PLACEMENT AND THE AFTER-LIFE, A REVIEW 

Wow. I never knew the end of the world could be a complete and utter bore before. The initial concept is great. The idea that those you knew give you a second chance in a kind of urban purgatory. I’d be pissed if I lived a good life and then realized I am stuck for anywhere from 40-80 years paying bills and continuing to work. But don’t fret, you can finally open that restaurant you always wanted to and spend 14 hours a day working there post-retirement!

People don’t age, so that adds another layer of awkward. As does the gratuitous product placement. The flow of the story is sometimes sacrificed for a quick reference to how refreshing a Coke would be, or a suspenseful moment in the afterlife put aside to comment on the number of crushed Coke cans on the sidewalk or rolling past the individuals stuck in purgatory.

The concept is good, but the execution lost it’s way about halfway through and reminded me of listening to a good story told by a 90+ year old man who derails frequently and focuses on inconsequential extraneous detail instead of the story you’re attempting to hear.

Find the book: Goodreads / Amazon / Barnes & Noble 

The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen

One sentence review: “What happens when you make a bad decision, and stick with it no matter what.” 

lightfirefliescoverPages: 338 Genre: Fiction / Mystery  / Psychological / Coming of Age
Rating: 3 of 5 Sun Spots
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.03 of 5 stars
Form Read: kindle ebook   Purchased: Kindle First of March (free)

Amazon synopsis: A haunting and hopeful tale of discovering light in even the darkest of places. For his whole life, the boy has lived underground, in a basement with his parents, grandmother, sister, and brother. Before he was born, his family was disfigured by a fire. His sister wears a white mask to cover her burns.

He spends his hours with his cactus, reading his book on insects, or touching the one ray of sunlight that filters in through a crack in the ceiling. Ever since his sister had a baby, everyone’s been acting very strangely. The boy begins to wonder why they never say who the father is, about what happened before his own birth, about why they’re shut away.

A few days ago, some fireflies arrived in the basement. His grandma said, There’s no creature more amazing than one that can make its own light. That light makes the boy want to escape, to know the outside world. Problem is, all the doors are locked. And he doesn’t know how to get out…

REVIEW 

This wasn’t a book I’d normally pick up, but because it was free and had such positive ratings on Goodreads, I decided to give it a try. It’s fast paced mostly because you can’t wait to find out what would be bad enough to drive an entire family to living underground. Did the rage virus finally break free? Did WW3 destroy civilization? Unfortunately it’s nothing so world shattering that drove these people into a Morlock like existence.

The story unfolds through the eyes of a 10 year old boy, who has lived his entire life underground. He’s fascinated by the small spot of light that streams into their “home” at specific times of the day. This perspective allowed us, as adult readers, to know things he doesn’t yet understand but it also provides frustration as we keep circling back to the same topics over and over.

Everything wraps up in a tidy completely unbelievable bow in the end, which was also very frustrating because the reality of their situation and you know, having social security information and other needed documents that aren’t provided when you’re born in a windowless basement, completely sours the book for me.

Find the book: Goodreads / Amazon / Barnes & Noble 

A Gathering of Shadows (Shades of Magic #2): Review

One sentence review: The triwizard tournament, now with 75% more Londons! 

This is one of the more anticipated fantasy books of this year, as it is the sequel to the highly popular “Darker Shades of Magic” by V.E. Schwab. The first book of the series made my top reads of 2015, due mainly to the inventive “multiple London” world she created.

gatheringshadowsPages: 512  Genre: Fantasy / Magic / Historical Fiction 
Rating: 4 of 5 Red Star Coins
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.52 of 5 stars
Form Read: kindle ebook   Purchased: Yes

Synopsis from Amazon: Four months have passed since the shadow stone fell into Kell’s possession. Four months since his path crossed with Delilah Bard. Four months since Rhy was wounded and the Dane twins fell, and the stone was cast with Holland’s dying body through the rift, and into Black London.

In many ways, things have almost returned to normal, though Rhy is more sober, and Kell is now plagued by his guilt. Restless, and having given up smuggling, Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila, who disappeared from the docks like she always meant to do. As Red London finalizes preparations for the Element Games-an extravagant international competition of magic, meant to entertain and keep healthy the ties between neighboring countries-a certain pirate ship draws closer, carrying old friends back into port.

But while Red London is caught up in the pageantry and thrills of the Games, another London is coming back to life, and those who were thought to be forever gone have returned. After all, a shadow that was gone in the night reappears in the morning, and so it seems Black London has risen again-and so to keep magic’s balance, another London must fall…in V.E. Schwab’s A Gathering of Shadows.

REVIEW

This book takes place only a few months after the major changes that end the first book in the series. We get to see more of the world of Red London and also get to hear how the different regions of Red London interact with one another. This was my favorite part of “Darker Shade” and I was very glad she expanded so much on this point in this book.

We spend a lot more time with Lila, who is unfortunately one of my least favorite characters, but you do get a little more insight into how she became the way she is, which gives her a little more of a pass for her more annoying character traits.

The relationship between Kell and the royal family is also something that is explored more thoroughly, as is the perception of the people of living with someone who could be either viewed as gifted or cursed for having near unlimited magical ability. The different kinds of magical gifts and the frequency they occur is expanded on, which was anther of the more interesting points in this book.

The main focus in the synopsis is the magic tournament, and while this is a constant background event, it really isn’t fleshed out in the actual text. Other than a couple of key moments, you just hear the results of the main characters and don’t really see a detailed view of how different gifts are actually used in a combat situation.

Gathering Shadows definitely had middle book problems, as this is going to be a trilogy, and the cliffhanger at the end was a little infuriating but also expected. I was very excited that this book is more than 100 pages longer than the previous book, but was disappointed in how those pages were spent. I expect a lot of setup for the next book, and love the world building enough that I’ll still pick that one up the moment it is released.

Would I recommend: yes, but with the understanding it’s a middle book.

Find the book: Goodreads / Amazon / Barnes & Noble 

A Review of “Headstrong: 52 women who changed science-and the world”

A book which covers the importance of the women who pioneered the way for others, such as myself and other female scientists working in predominately male fields, which made the disappointment in accuracy and immature writing style even more poignant. Inclusion into the book was predicated on the fact you’re no longer living, which I get, since scientists who are still living might still achieve other accolades.

headstrong52womenPages: 288  Genre: Nonfiction / History /  Biography   
My Rating: 2 of 5  Broken Beakers
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.01 of 5 stars
Form Read: kindle ebook   Purchased or Borrowed: Library Copy

Synopsis from Amazon: In 2013, the New York Times published an obituary for Yvonne Brill. It began: “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job, and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” It wasn’t until the second paragraph that readers discovered why the Times had devoted several hundred words to her life: Brill was a brilliant rocket scientist who invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites in orbit, and had recently been awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Among the questions the obituary—and consequent outcry—prompted were, Who are the role models for today’s female scientists, and where can we find the stories that cast them in their true light?      

Headstrong
 delivers a powerful, global, and engaging response. Covering Nobel Prize winners and major innovators, as well as lesser-known but hugely significant scientists who influence our every day, Rachel Swaby’s vibrant profiles span centuries of courageous thinkers and illustrate how each one’s ideas developed, from their first moment of scientific engagement through the research and discovery for which they’re best known. This fascinating tour reveals these 52 women at their best—while encouraging and inspiring a new generation of girls to put on their lab coats.

THE WOMEN

As a women in science, it’s still hard working in a predominately male dominated field but at least no one contested my enrollment in college, or denied me a higher degree because of my sex. Most, but not all, of the 52 women discussed in this book had supportive husbands who often also worked in science and realized their brilliance.

“As a research worker, the unforgotten moments of my life are those rare ones, which come after years of plodding work, when the veil over nature’s secret seems suddenly to lift and when what was dark and chaotic appears in a clear and beautiful light and pattern”          –Gerty Cori from “This I Believe”

READING LEVEL & WRITING STYLE

This is a strange mix of middle grade reading level with the occasional big word thrown in for drama’s sake. It makes each of the 4-8 page biographies sound glossed over with a random but sometimes irrelevant fact thrown in for good measure. The author’s writing style itself was somewhere between a text message and middle school book report, with unneeded colloquial references and general slang that just gave the feel of being unprofessional and didn’t add anything to the actual story or the point that was attempting to be made.

FACT CHECK

The format of this book leaves very little room for embellishment for any of the 52 women’s stories, but after reading one particular story I’m familiar with, I realized a lot of the facts could have been glossed over in a “I AM WOMAN” kind of a way obscuring their actual role in the events reported. The entire section concerning Helen Taussing and her role in “blue baby syndrome” was glossed over and made to be much more important than it actually was. Much of this has to do with the fact that Vivien Thomas, the African American “janitor” who pioneered the actual surgery, was omitted from having any major role in the discovery (other than the fact she talked to him, which he claims didn’t happen).

Omitting the importance of others in a scientific discovery because of race or gender is the whole premise of this book, so the author doing the EXACT SAME THING, both makes me angry and leaves me questioning the accuracy of the biographies.

MY THOUGHTS AS A WOMAN SCIENTIST 

I like that this book exposes readers to women scientists from a variety of backgrounds and gives insight into their lives outside of the lab and relationships with others as well. I’m disappointed in the accuracy, but it would be a good general introduction to several different forms of science for young readers. If interested in a particular woman’s life, I’d recommend not taking anything in this book as fact, and reading a few other sources.

It’s sad, but I’ve worked in three primarily male dominated scientific fields in three different states, and this is still a problem. All of my bosses are men. All of my bosses bosses are men.

Having a family and working in a demanding field makes this even harder. Women ridicule because you if you decide not to have children, and men don’t take you seriously because one day you might, and that makes you somehow a less reliable investment. If you do decide to have a family AND a career, it’s a constant struggle for balance.

One of my coworkers is a female scientist and attempts to accomplish as much as a male coworker with a child the same age. The male coworker’s wife took a less demanding job with flexible hours to give him the ability to focus on his career and advancement, but my female coworker doesn’t have this. She is the primary caregiver for her child, she works long hours, and still is responsible for daily life at home. When heads of other departments or sites visit and we have dinners, she can’t go because she has to be home to care for her daughter, but the male coworker doesn’t have this issue. He can meet higher up bosses and be involved in more projects. He doesn’t have to turn down travel because his partner prefers he’s home to cook meals and do laundry. Mentioned in the Harvard Business Review, these extra hours mean advancements, bonuses, and further burden on your spouse.

The women highlighted in this book laid the foundation, but we still have a lot to do both in the workplace and in the home to truly have a balanced life.

 

The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, a review

Paper is slowly taking over my life. It is gradual, and I don’t notice it day-t0-day but now that I have a real job and am somewhere we plan on staying for a while, I feel the need to tame the paper beast. This book received a lot of praise from youtube and goodreads, so I thought I’d give it a go.

lifechangingtidyingupPages: 226 Genre: Nonfiction / Selfhelp / Organization / Lifestyle  
Rating: 3 of 5  swiffer dusters
Average Goodreads Rating: 3.79 of 5 stars
Form Read: kindle ebook

Synopsis from Amazon: This #1 New York Times best-selling guide to decluttering your home from Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo takes readers step-by-step through her revolutionary KonMari Method for simplifying, organizing, and storing.

Despite constant efforts to declutter your home, do papers still accumulate like snowdrifts and clothes pile up like a tangled mess of noodles? Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo takes tidying to a whole new level, promising that if you properly simplify and organize your home once, you’ll never have to do it again. Most methods advocate a room-by-room or little-by-little approach, which doom you to pick away at your piles of stuff forever. The KonMari Method, with its revolutionary category-by-category system, leads to lasting results. In fact, none of Kondo’s clients have lapsed (and she still has a three-month waiting list). With detailed guidance for determining which items in your house “spark joy” (and which don’t), this international bestseller featuring Tokyo’s newest lifestyle phenomenon will help you clear your clutter and enjoy the unique magic of a tidy home—and the calm, motivated mindset it can inspire.

THE REVIEW

This book has some good advice on how to declutter and organize your entire home. Can a writing style be polite? That’s the feeling I got from Marie Kondo’s personal accounts of individual problems with clients, and how she developed this method over the course of her life.

HOW TO START

A tidying marathon doesn’t cause rebound. She states that if you see an immediate and drastic difference you’re more likely to keep it up, than if you make small changes over and over and make no seeable difference. Never tidy by space but instead sort by function, as we tend to story many of the same type of items in different locations. When you gather all of one type of item you can see which you really use and which you need to discard.

TYPES OF PEOPLE WHO CAN’T STAY TIDY

She states that after years as a professional organizer, she has decided there are there kinds of personalities that prevent most people from living in a tidy home: 1) can’t throw it away, 2) can’t put it back, and 3) first two combined. I’m most definitely the second. I am horrible about never being able to find anything, and I’ll reorganize only to forget the new location… it’s not like we have a huge house, we live in Boston! .. the constant use of “tidy” is already getting to me.

EVERYTHING HAS A HOME 

She lives by the idea that if everything has a place, and is returned to that place it can always be found, and that space will never be filled with other items you don’t actually need. You do this with everything in your house. You use it, then you put it back.

TYPES OF TIDYING 

At this point in the book I wished she’d use another word for tidying, it was irrationally starting to get on my nerves. Anyway though, Kondo says there are two types of tidying: daily and special event. She says not to tidy daily, so this was bit confusing. Daily tidying is just putting things back where they belong. Special event tidying is actually going through items and putting your house back in order. Kondo says she does this about twice a year for less than an hour each time.

WHAT’S INVOLVED

It’s simple. You keep it or you don’t. Giving things to your parents is not considered dealing with the mess, it’s just putting things off to others for them to deal with.

She has a very unique look at things and homes. She thanks her home for giving her shelter each day when she comes home, she also believes that your clothes are resting when they are put away, and that the way you handle them transfers energy, making them last longer…. That’s a little too out there for me, but I do agree with the author that when you know you can find anything you need quickly, that it reduces your stress level. As does having everything put away so you don’t feel like your avoiding the elephant in the room while binge watching netflix.

BOOKS! 

She has a whole section on book organization. I did this a few years ago and never looked back. I purged all the texts from college that I kept “as a reference” and never opened. I also got rid of all my note binders I also never checked again.

I don’t get all of the booktubers with hundreds and hundreds of books! I move every few years and packing and moving that many books is such a burden. Also, I’ve lived in urban areas in the New England area, which means space is a premium. No more “I’m going to read this one day!!!”

THINGS THAT AREN’T CORRECT

The author states that there is no reason to keep pay stubs, but my current company asked for stubs from specific months at several previous science positions to confirm timing of employment (W2s as well). If you can’t provide the paperwork they request you don’t get the job. I keep all pay-stubs and would recommend anyone wanting to work at a major university or in industry based science do the same.

OVERALL 

This was a quick and easy read, with a pleasant writing style… even if the word “tidy” made me cringe near the end of the book. Some of the concepts are a little too close to the crazy train for me… I’m not going to talk to my socks… But it does have some good tips, so I’d recommend it if you want a light read and are interested in reorganizing.

Find this book: Goodreads  / Amazon / B&N

 

Rook by Sharon Cameron, a spoiler free review

rookPages:467  Genre: YA / Science Fiction / Dystopian 
Rating: 1 of 5 red feathers  Average Goodreads Rating: 3.76 of 5 stars
Form Read: kindle ebook

Synopsis from Amazon: Who needs a wedding ring when you can pick up a sword? A remarkable and utterly inventive novel from Sharon Cameron, author of THE DARK UNWINDING, which USA TODAY called “spellbindingly imaginative.”

History has a way of repeating itself. In the Sunken City that was once Paris, all who oppose the new revolution are being put to the blade. Except for those who disappear from their prison cells, a red-tipped rook feather left in their place. Is the mysterious Red Rook a savior of the innocent or a criminal? Meanwhile, across the sea in the Commonwealth, Sophia Bellamy’s arranged marriage to the wealthy René Hasard is the last chance to save her family from ruin. But when the search for the Red Rook comes straight to her doorstep, Sophia discovers that her fiancé is not all he seems. Which is only fair, because neither is she. As the Red Rook grows bolder and the stakes grow higher, Sophia and René find themselves locked in a tantalizing game of cat and mouse.

Find this book: Goodreads / Amazon / B&N 

REVIEW

Lies!… This book WANTS to be a good book and has a nice original idea that could have allowed it to maybe even be a great book, but after all the praise listed above and the attention it received on booktube, I’m shocked at how bad it is. Our main perspective throughout the book is from the view of Sophia Bellamy, an 18 year old adventurer and daughter of a formerly wealthy family. Set in a dystopian Europe, with the main focus being on the “sunken city” of Paris, this book advertises all the things I love about this genre and reading level. Simple story–check. Strong female lead–check. A dystopian world–check. It falls short on all of these things.

THE WORLD

The world is interesting. Bellamy lives is what is probably London or somewhere else on the coast of what used to be England. Her limited description of the area around her and what has become of Paris is also interesting, but doesn’t give us a very clear picture on how the “common wealth” where she lives, really interacts with the sunken/upper city. Sophie alludes to the “great death” because of a solar shift “of the poles” of some sort that seems to have combined with solar flares and pushed those that survived underground. This is such specific and yet implausible circumstances I can’t take it seriously and the author defends in the author’s notes.

This was the best part of the book for me. The idea of speaking “Parisian” was a little redundant, like the author had to spell out that this city used to be Paris, instead of letting us piece it together. The parts the author shows us really comes together, but the majority of the book is written as though the author just wrote down verbatim the idea she told her 5 year old niece. This is a middle grade/ YA book, so I didn’t expect Shakespeare, but I did expect a certain basal level for publication (and all the misplaced hype).

They talk of the “ancients” and say the date they found on a coin was 2024, then why the hell are they acting like it’s 17th century France!??! Not only are arranged marriages still around, but women have lost pretty much all of their rights and everyone is back to dressing in corsets and powdered wigs. I know she really wanted to drive home the “French revolution” aspect, but this was over the top and not needed. That’s a pretty well known historical event, I don’t think the point would have been lost if the culture hadn’t been regurgitated in parody (it’s mentioned in the synopsis).

CHARACTERS 

The characters as a whole are very flat, and the most developed is probably Sophie’s intended, René . We get a better picture of him through a change in his intentions. Sophie, who I guess we’re supposed to identify with, was just a privileged brat. Her intentions were good, but the way she is written made me dislike her, regardless of her circumstances. If she had been written a little bit younger, it might be more believable, but having an 18 year old that is expected to be of marriage age within the world you build, be flabbergasted and not trust herself to even LOOK at a man is unbelievable to me (even the 18 year old me).

The remaining cast were more stereotypes than realized characters. We have the love triangle muscle that doesn’t get her, the mother figure, the unloving father, the overprotective brother, the religious zealot, and the immoral bad guy.

PLOT

I know as a woman in my 30s, I’m not the intended audience, which I’m aware of. The later part of the book in the sunken city was intriguing, but could have been half that length. As a whole the plot was sluggish and awkward. For the length of this book and reading level, large portions of each chapter were “fluffed” to the point of annoyance, and I found myself thinking, “Just get on with it already!!” throughout the book.

It would have been interesting and built more intrigue if we hadn’t learned the identity of the Rook right off the back. There was an attempt at suspense with the identity of the informant, but this too was overdone and by that point I just wanted the main story to move forward… move at all.. so this too just became a distraction when it could have been another twist.

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re preteen girl, I can see this story being more believable. Overall, it was incredibly slow and should have been edited down to highlight the actual story and the unique world Cameron created. I would like to see a second book [with a new editor] created in this same world.

 

A southerner’s review of “Deep South” by Paul Theroux

deepsouthpaultherouxsouthernbookreview

Let me start this review with my bias: I spent birth to the age of 25 living in various southern states and grew up in a rural area, even by Southern standards.

This being said, there are things I love and treasure about the culture, but there are also very distinct reasons that I no longer live there. This review is a mixture of quotes from the book and my personal experiences on the same topics.

 

deepsouth


Pages
:464  Genre: Travel/ Regional Nonfiction

Rating: 3 of 5 fried pies  Average Goodreads Rating: 3.78 of 5 stars

Summary from Amazon: One of the most acclaimed travel writers of our time turns his unflinching eye on an American South too often overlooked

Paul Theroux has spent fifty years crossing the globe, adventuring in the exotic, seeking the rich history and folklore of the far away. Now, for the first time, in his tenth travel book, Theroux explores a piece of America — the Deep South. He finds there a paradoxical place, full of incomparable music, unparalleled cuisine, and yet also some of the nation’s worst schools, housing, and unemployment rates. It’s these parts of the South, so often ignored, that have caught Theroux’s keen traveler’s eye. 

On road trips spanning four seasons, wending along rural highways, Theroux visits gun shows and small-town churches, laborers in Arkansas, and parts of Mississippi where they still call the farm up the road “the plantation.” He talks to mayors and social workers, writers and reverends, the working poor and farming families — the unsung heroes of the south, the people who, despite it all, never left, and also those who returned home to rebuild a place they could never live without. 

From the writer whose “great mission has always been to transport us beyond that reading chair, to challenge himself — and thus, to challenge us” (Boston Globe), Deep South is an ode to a region, vivid and haunting, full of life and loss alike.
Find the book: Goodreads / Amazon / B&N  

MAJOR POINTS

The book is supposed to be an inside look on the culture and conditions of the southern states and the people who call it home. The reality is that he spent a very small amount of time in the south in general, and instead the majority of the book focuses on specific small towns, mainly in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. He visits these same rural communities for short periods multiple times, during different times of the year. This allows him to see changes in the area and the people, but it also means the majority of his observations are either very specific or regional generalizations.

FAULKNER’S SOUTH

“Faulkner insisted on how different Southerners are from the rest of Americans; it is a belief that many Southerners cling to…”

Faulkner is referenced throughout the book, and he has a dedicated chapter just to his version of the Southern town and townspeople. I think the view of the south in literature and how it’s changed overtime is an important point when contrasted to what Theroux actually observed, but the extensive quotations and references to different books and authors was distracting and verbose.

SOUTHERN CULTURE

“[The] Southern identity is not a matter of local color, quaintness, biscuits, white columns, dusty roads, and so forth. It lies very deep. In its entirety, it is known only to God, but of those who look for it, none gets so close as the artist.”

We are easy to identify as soon as we speak. We have a drawl and distinct vocabulary that distinguishes us from other regions. The majority of these preconceived notions are not positive. Racism is still rampant. Poverty, illiteracy, and violence are widespread. These things perpetrate the stereotype of the gun toting redneck and the entitled southern belle.

“The poor, having little else, keep their culture intact as part of their vitality, long after the well off have dumped it.”

This is completely true. It also has to do with the “altered” history many of us are presented, which just furthers the resentment stemming from the Civil War and forced integration during the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s. I graduated high school in 2000 and still learned about the Civil War as “the war of northern aggression” and the fight for “state’s rights.” Everything covering this subject was skewed to a southern perspective of being wronged by the north.

The area I’m from has an annual reunion and celebration honoring confederate soldiers who fell in the Civil War and locals boast about how my region of the Ozarks holds the headquarters of the [still active] Klan. Being raised in this environment doesn’t mean you’re destined adopt these ideals, my husband and I are both proof of that, but with this sort of inundation it makes it harder to see perspectives garnered as “outsider” points of view and harder still to realize these differences actually exist. You never realize what is regional until you venture out of that area and gain perspective.

“One is more often greeted with suspicion, hostility, or indifference. In this way Americans could be more challenging, more secretive and suspicious and in many respects more foreign, than people I have ever met.”

Theroux recounted the dichotomy of the welcome and hospitality of the South, with the wariness of outsiders. In many of the areas I’ve lived in and traveled to, if you don’t have grandparents buried there, you’re not “from” there. He does an excellent job giving real examples of times when this is true and how many topics of conversation discussed openly by Southerners with strangers, are considered private information by people from other region. It’s not uncommon to meet someone in line somewhere (where it’s considered rude not to chat) and their second question is what church you attend.

WORKING POOR AND POVERTY 

“Sixteen percent of Americans were classified as poor–and it was twenty percent in the South, in places where the income gap was growing wider than at any time in history.”

Where I grew up in the Ozark mountains of northern Arkansas, I knew people who didn’t have indoor plumbing and lived in the same conditions the author recounts of the south in general. Conditions he deems “third world.” When I describe growing up poor in the south to scientist friends in Boston, they are always shocked. Working as a child is still common, either on a farm or doing random jobs. My first paid job was around the age of 12, where I washed dishes for a local catfish restaurant. This is something none of my Northern friends experienced. Some had jobs, but most were part time and not until college to use as “spending money.”

“Companies had come to the South because the labor force was available and willing, wages were low, land was inexpensive, and unions were nonexistent.”

This passage hit me particularly hard. My grandmother worked in a shirt factory, that if it was located anywhere else in the world would have been considered a sweatshop. It wasn’t heated or cooled, and would get over 90F inside during the summers. If she didn’t meet her quota her already low pay was docked. At one point when I was in elementary, my grandmother sewed through her hand. She wasn’t allowed to go to the doctor, and her pay was docked twice, once for not meeting her daily quota for the time she took to remove the needle from her hand and bandage herself, the second for the loss of merchandise because she bleed on the shirts she was working on.

No one complained openly because they couldn’t risk losing one of the few regular jobs available in the area. A hard but sought after job because it came with health insurance, something most of the people I grew up with, myself included, didn’t have. The entire factory, and the others located in nearby towns, was outsourced to Mexico in the early 2000’s, after I left for collage.

“The poor in the rural South cast aside and existing like residue.”

This taught me the value of hard work but my family also said time and time again that you should be thankful for any job and do it to the best of your ability, because if you don’t there is a line of willing bodies waiting behind you that haven’t been so lucky. This is something that means my work ethic today borders on pathological, but has also allowed me to be very successful because the majority of the country (thankfully) doesn’t have this mentality and only specific parts have the lasting experience true poverty provides.

“Poverty is a great educator. Those who have never known it lack something.”

I don’t really like this statement, but it does sum up much of the South. When you work to eat and starve if you rock the boat or complain about conditions, your basal level of what is acceptable is shifted from the average worker. I now work with mostly people who came from middle or upper middle class families, and my previous position in the Ivy League involved working with people who were independently wealthy or came from this sort of background. Most of the time this isn’t an issue, but it’s easy to take risks both in career and education when you have a safety net you know will catch you. The majority of the working poor don’t have this. I knew continuing on to college was completely up to me, if I lost a scholarship or couldn’t deal with increases in tuition I would simply have to quit. HERE is a document complied in 2014 by the US government on many of the limitations poverty places on education and potential for advancement.

“I saw […] a pawnshop, since the most costly and pawnable item in a hill country household is a firearm.”

My parents opened a pawnshop when I was in middle school, and it proved to be a turning point for us financially. We had a lot of hardships when I was very young, but this business provided a little more security. We no longer had periods without heat in the winter, and I went to the movies and out to dinner for the first time a year or two after the shop was opened (around the age of 12). This didn’t by any means make us “well off” or even really comfortable, but it did allow us to have basic needs covered and new clothes once a year.

The shop also met a need in the community. Up to this point second hand tools and other products were only available at yard [or tag] sales. The last several years have been hard on them though, I asked my mother why and told her that I thought business would be increasing because people needed used things over new she responded, “The people who couldn’t afford new before, now can’t afford used.”

Guns and bows are still the most common item purchased and pawned for the shop because of the quote above. Every time I visit home and spend any length of time in the shop, the conversation eventually turns to someone taking the guns, or ammo shortages.. which is a topic the author heard all through his travels.

RACE

This is a major topic throughout the book, and rightfully so. Theroux terms the portions of the South heavily populated by former slaves as the “black belt.” He does a good job contrasting the communities and outlining the separation that still exists today. Theroux even brings examples of college sororities and fraternities that are still divided by racial lines.

The book also gives several examples of the impact the fear of change can have on the community and on the individual. “The South remembers,” is a phrase I grew up hearing and facilitates the culture so many are trying to hold on to, but also so many of the prejudices that shame us and prevent us from growing and progressing as a region.

Most of the people I’ve met in New England and abroad who have ventured to the South have all mentioned it’s like stepping back in time and the longer I’m away the more I see it.

VETERANS

The author meets several veterans while traveling and touches on how the poorer region of the South donates the lives of many of it’s sons and daughters to military life. Many of the personal accounts in the book relate that military life was their only way out of poverty and the only way they would get to see the world would be through the lens of a rifle scope.

povertyopportunity

This image is taken from THIS article about poverty and opportunity.
Expanded on in a second article about the cost of inequality, HERE.

A large portion of my family is military, as are many of the people I went to school with. There is a great passage from a Vietnam vet and his experience returning from war to a still racially charged southern town, even after serving his country and coming home damaged as an Airborne veteran. Many of the people from my hometown have ended up in this division and many of those people now have memorials. It’s a very sobering thing as a teen to attend the funeral or memorial service for someone the same age as you. I assume the same is true for those who experience loss in urban areas. Death is death and it tends to visit the poor more frequently.

CRITICISM

I have a few problems with this book, though it is insightful and well written in many places. One is the obviously biased descriptors sometimes used for the regions he visits, such as the “bumpkin hills” of the Ozark mountains in Arkansas. This is where I’m from, and likely why this judgement based word choice stuck with me.

Theroux repeatedly refers to his previous books and his travels around the world. I think at least once in every major section he mentions the aid and relieve efforts in “third world” countries, and draws the parallel to how little support much of the impoverished south receives. While the original point is very good, I don’t think the reader had a memory laps after 20 pages of reading and revisiting with the same exact phrasing became off-putting near the end of the book.

Expanding on this point, he obviously wrote this book in sections, with each subsequent visit being a new account on the area. While I’m sure he needed to remind himself of certain aspects of each particular visit, when read as a complete piece this is redundant and distracting. The expansion of changes he noted in the area was interesting, but I didn’t need a complete history of the town each time it was revisited.

My final major criticism of this book is the name dropping style he quotes other books and authors. Sometimes it’s relevant, but the majority of the time it’s just filler.

“… around the world, the private language of the underclass that identifies the speaker and is exclusive to that group: Cockney, street slang, and thieves’ argot, and verbal formulas that are distinct to secret societies, to baffle and vex and exclude outsiders.”

This is part of the reason I will always identify with the South and Southern culture. You can tell as soon as I speak that I’m not from New England. This same accent gives me away as “belonging” when I return to the south. It’s also easy. I know the rules and how to interact. Poverty and unity of community leaves a mark that travels with you, even after years of being away. I think this is part of the reason so many of the people Theroux interviewed eventually return to the area that once was home. There will always be things I don’t agree with, and hopes I have for the region as a whole, but it will also always be my home, even if I never live there again.

 

The Nerdist Way: A book review by a fellow nerdfighter

nerdistway

The Nerdist Way: How to make it to the next level (in real life), by Chris Hardwick

 pages:304      genre: Humor/ Self-help      form: ebook 

Amazon Blurb
WELCOME YOUR NEW NERD OVERLORD

Attention, Nerds: You don’t have to be a stereotypical geekwad to appreciate the tenets of Nerdism and to make your innate talents for over-analysis and hyper-self-awareness work for you instead of agin you. Join Nerd superstar Chris Hardwick as he offers his fellow “creative-obsessives” the crucial information needed to come out on top in the current Nerd uprising.

As a lifelong member of “The Nerd Herd,” Chris Hardwick has learned all there is to know about Nerds. He’s studied them, lived with them, and has endeavored to milk their knowledge nectar and isolate its curative powers for what ails you. Thus, he has founded a philosophical system (and blog) called The Nerdist, and here he shares his hard-earned wisdom about turning seeming weaknesses into world-dominating strengths.

From keeping your heart rate below hummingbird levels to ignoring your brain, Hardwick reveals the secrets that can help you accomplish what you want by tapping into your true nerdtastic self. Remember, success is the most satisfying—and legal—form of vengeance there is. And you can achieve it…when you follow the Nerdist Way.

Find the book on: Amazon / Goodreads / B&N 

My Rating: 4 of 5 Chess Trophies   Average Goodreads Rating: 3.75 stars

REVIEW

DISCLAIMER: I’m a scientist and a HUGE nerd so this might resonate more with me than the average Joe on the street. 

BOOK STRUCTURE & SECTIONS 

Part 1: Mind (RPG your life, your inner monologue and ignoring your brain, anxiety and “sucstress”) 

IMG_20160206_090159

This section had a lot to do with the mind of the nerd and our particular phenotype. We are super focused (ahem, obsessive, cough-cough) and can sometimes let that get us in trouble. Because of this “laser focus” and more often than not, advanced intelligence, a lot of nerds, myself included, have problems with anxiety. Hardwick goes through how he overcame many of his fears and anxiety in general. He also gives examples of when his super process driven brain will try and screw him by going through EVERY possible scenario for every situation rendering him dripping with fear and unable to act.

Part 2: Body (start now, getting moving, workouts with illustrated nerd bear, general nutrition advice) 

IMG_20160206_083805

I skimmed the majority of this section. He goes through his battle with his weight and meeting and working with Trainer Tom (who sounds awesome by the way). The majority of the nutrition advice sounds good and isn’t the typical eat all the protein sort of thing  you see in these kinds of books. The picture below is an example of the illustrated nerd bear that walks you through how to do a variety of the exercises he mentions. I’m a former beauty queen, played basketball, and took a lot of college classes in kinesiology/ exercise science for the required Sports Nutrition part of being a registered dietitian, so all of this was review but generally sound.

Part 3: Time (tracking your time, focus on goals, getting your finances in order, simplify, learn to say no, build your work goals) 

This section had some very helpful tips on determining where your time actually goes. He also does a really good job describing ways we feel like we’ve been productive when what we are actually doing is just wasting time while dancing around the things we really need to get done. A great example he uses from the book is the Wiki black hole. You search one simple thing for a quick response and then the next thing you know you’re reading about how all the different kinds of rats differ from each other and where each kind is from. Manage your time and know where you’re going next once you’ve finished a task.

Summary of main points from each section. 

This was mainly filler where he just recounted main points from each major and minor section, adding on a few pages to the total for the book.

GROWING UP NERD

This book was HILARIOUS! There were some cheeky points where he wants you to draw yourself as a D&D character, but I can totally overlook that when someone peers directly into my soul.

ADDICTION AND ANXIETY 

Hardwick describes the “laser focus” most nerds possess and how be can sometimes become destructively obsessed. He shares his personal spiral into the void of alcoholism and gaming obsession. He wouldn’t go out with friends or prepare for interviews because he was always thinking about the game and his next beer.

FAT SHAMING 

There is a lot of fat shaming through out the book. This is mostly self directed, where he talks about his disgust for the unmotivated blob he became, but the way a lot of this is phrased and the sheer frequency it comes up, might make some readers uncomfortable. For a book whose main point is to focus on the positive, the negative self image Hardwick once held comes up much more than expected. This being said, he wants to give real examples of how he got his shit together and became the Nerdist he is today, and being called out on national TV by another comedian about how he descended into a self destructive hate spiral gave him the motivation he needed to change.

He is very forgiving about things that were out of his control, like alcoholism/ addiction, and how he knows he can’t trust himself, but he doesn’t give this same buffer for the weight he gained because of drinking. He also gives himself a bit of a reprise when discussing Trainer Tom and his gradual transition to an active lifestyle.

GROWING UP NERD

This book was written more for the middle age male nerd, than any other audience. Which makes since, since he’s writing about his own experiences and being male those readers are more likely to get the references. I did enjoy most of the book but sometimes the references were geared so much to the male gender that I would just skim the section and get frustrated that it wasn’t a “nerd advice” book, but a “male nerd advice” book.

 

January 2016 Goodreads: Favorite and Most Disappointing Books of the Month

The following are all the books I’ve read this month (excluding graphic novels).

This month’s favorite: 

This was a hard one because I had a few books this month that I really enjoyed. Ultimately I decided to go with “The Nightingale” because the ending was extremely moving and the book as a whole was well written.

nightingale

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah; pages:440; genre: Historical Fiction/ Military Fiction; Rating: 5 of 5 handkerchiefs (because you’re going to need them)

This starts in occupied France during the time just before France declared war on Germany. The majority of the story takes place during German occupation of France, in a small village. I’m actually very impressed so far. The author does a great job bringing weaving the idea that both sides were young and wanted to return to their families. It deals with the stress the Great War put on families and how that transformed the way this country dealt with the German threat. I’m drawn to books from this period in time, but I’ve never read anything from the French perspective. I also wanted to read this specific book because one of my best friends is from the region mentioned in the book and I’ve visited her family there a few times now. This book was great and I highly recommend it! [AP and TBR]

Most disappointing book of the month: 

nerddowell

Nerd Do Well: A small boy’s journey to becoming a big kid by Simon Pegg; pages:356; genre: Humor/ Autobiography; Rating: 2 of 5 Star Trek Figurines

This is the autobiography of the British comedian Simon Pegg, who brought us Hot Fuzz and Shawn of the Dead, two of my favorite comedies. Pegg openly admits he’s not really excited about writing this book, but he’s been asked enough times that he decided he must. He weaves in an alternative story of himself as a futuristic batman and his robot butler, so this is most definitely not like any other biography I’ve read to date. He also plays the iconic Scotty from the newly rebooted Star Trek series (which is perfect casting). His subtle humor and perfect timing make me spew things from my nose any time I watch one of his movies, but I’m not completely sure it translates to print. Review coming soon. [TBR] See my complete review HERE.

Complete “Read” List

thefold

The Fold by Peter Clines; pages:384; genre: Science Fiction/ Thriller; Rating: 5 of 5 Alternative Dimensions

This book follows an underachieving “Sherlock” type main character enlisted by his childhood best friend to investigate a secret military research project that allows people to step through a portal and end up anywhere in the universe (like stargate). They repeat multiple times how it is NOT like Stargate but is something else all together (it’s totally like Stargate). He gives an excellent reason as to why he choose an ordinary life over the exceptional life his mental gifts could afford him. Several science-y sections that were a little more detailed than the story really required, but was fast paced and an easy read with interesting characters. This is expected to be the first in a series. If you like the X-files or Doctor Who (or any of the Stargate spinoffs), this is a good book to try out. [TBR]

whatif

What If?: Serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions by Randall Munroe; pages:320; genre: Humor/ Science; Rating: 2 of 5 Theoretical Monsters

This book is by the same person who brings us the hilarious XKCD webcomic. I’m a huge fan of the comic and this book has been in my TBR since it was slated to be published. Parts were funny, but I read the ebook version on my tablet and the formating had horrible issues. Every few pages within in every chapter slowly shifted the text to where I couldn’t read the right side of the page. The content was pretty funny, but I’d recommend the physical book on this one. [TBR]

orlandowoolf

Orlando by Virginia Woolf; pages:333; genre: Historical Fiction/ Gender Issues, Rating: 3 of 5 Swashbuckling Pirates

This book is a historical piece that starts with a youth of noble birth and his experience with love and loss. He experiences life and attempts his hand at running his estate and writing. He has an unusually long life and due to an unspecified illness awakes as a woman (not a spoiler, it’s on the backcover). She then views the same world through the eyes of a noble woman and what this means for her estate now that she’s no longer male and how she’s treated by others. This was a great book. It’s well written, if a bit long-winded and confusing at times. Having some time to reflect on the story after completing it makes me like this novel even more. [classic]

 

lastcolony

The Last Colony (Old Man’s War #3) by John Scalzi; pages:320; genre: Science Fiction/ Space Opera; Rating: 4 of 5 Modified Humans

This is the third book in a military based space opera. A government unit from Earth keeps it’s home planet safe through lack of knowledge, but needs soldiers to do so. It offers everyone over the age of 65 a trade, an unknown way to make them young again, with the knowledge they can never go back to earth. This book focuses on two main characters from the previous books and a new colony. Political drama, check. Military battles, check. Space explosions, check. Modified humans and space aliens, check. [counts to TBR]

Ulysses

Ulysses by James Joyce: ; pages:820; genre: Classics/ Literature; Rating: 2 of 5, Simmering Kidneys

Started off pretty good, but fizzled near the end. Some chapters are easier to get through than others and his description of the world around him is one of the oddest I’ve read. For me, the stream of consciousness style writing and strange way of describing things just got to be too much. Snot green sea, breakfast is smells of urine, and women are described as having swaying utters. [counts to TBR and Classic]