Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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This book. Oh, this book. This book brought me back to school. It schooled me. Toni Morrison called it “required reading,” and I could not agree more. There are parts of me that can’t think of this book without being infuriated and sad for the American condition.

Coates is brilliant. He’s a thinker, and a writer, and he demonstrates the duality of America and the inaccessibility of the American “Dream” in a beautifully poignant way. This book is marvelously uncomfortable. And everyone should read it.

Do you think there is a race problem in America? Do you think there is not a race problem in America? Do you think you understand race? Do you think you don’t understand race? Do you think race is even a “thing”? Have you ever thought or felt that someone else is in control of your body, regardless of how innocent you are of any wrong-doing? If any one of these describes you, even in the slightest, no matter what color or race you believe yourself to be, you should read this book. Coates captures perfectly the current state of America, of the dual histories of America, of the dual present of America. He articulates everything I ever wanted to say about race in America, but didn’t know how to exactly put the words together. Like a dream you just-sort-of remember, but cannot articulate completely.

Granted, his view is one among many, but his experiences are real and valid. If you don’t understand the outrage around the end of several young, black men’s lives recently, then you should read this book. If you think you understand the outrage, you should still read this book.

Coates is essentially writing a letter to his fifteen year old son, describing what it was like for Coates himself to grow up as a black man in America, and what he hopes it is and isn’t and knows it is and isn’t, for his son. Sounds a bit back and forth? Yes. That is part of the point.

This is a book I’ll read over and over. I’ll pick up and flip to a section and read, to understand (or try to understand) something so completely outside of myself and my own experiences. This book opened my eyes to the present in the same way W.E.B DuBois’ “The Soul of Black Folks” opened my eyes to the past. Whoever is reading this – your existence and perspective is not a complete story of a country, culture, society or nation. Step outside yourself. Open your mind. Read this book.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

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**This review contains “spoilers.” In whatever that means for a work of historical nonfiction.**

Essentially, this book is about the 1893’s World Fair in Chicago and the men that made it happen. Tangentially (unfortunately), it’s about one of America’s earliest serial killers.

Overall, I gave this book three stars. It was well written, and well researched. For me, it contained a bit too much White City bureaucracy and not enough Devil. But, both aspects are interesting in their own right.

The history of the World’s Fair, how it came to be, what it encompassed, and what it took to get it done, is impressive and intriguing. It could have been a book on its own. I’ve never given much thought to architectural history before, and this book proved a welcome introduction to the topic. Larson did a wonderful job making a 120+ year old event still feel relevant. Politics, bureaucracy, the pride of powerful men, all still themes ringing true today. Additionally, Larson’s ability to tease out the events and people that intersected, or resulted directly from the 1893’s Fair that are still relevant today (Helen Keller, Susan B Anthony, Disney, Oz, Shredded Wheat!), certainly keeps the reader engaged.

The “story” of Prendergast as an assassin could’ve developed much more thoroughly. The snippets one gets of him are most intriguing, but disappointingly scarce.

The story of H.H. Holmes could’ve been a separate book in and of itself. Unfortunately, it didn’t occupy as much time as it should have in Larson’s pages. The last quarter of the book, following up on Holmes’ activities after the Fair, was among Larson’s crowning moments. Tying the story together with the hunt for proof that Holmes had committed even a fraction of the atrocities that he may have was exciting. But, admittedly, I wanted more. If Holmes’ case was the media frenzy that Larson led us to believe, then there should be sufficient historical fodder for more time spent to this aspect of the book.

Larson’s attempt to intersect Holmes as a devil that would affect the end of the great men of the Fair and the case investigating Holmes fell a bit flat. Part of it was that the crux of the book centered around the bureaucracy of building the Fair and it’s impact on American architectural history. During the building and exposition of the Fair, there was no real intersection between the main characters and Holmes; and, not enough development of those that spent the time investigating, defending, and dealing with him in the end.

All in all, I enjoyed Larsen’s approach to writing history. He attempted to make history relevant and exciting for the reader today, without sacrificing academic rigor. I enjoyed the way he was able to tease out events of the events of the time that would ring familiar to today’s reader. Additionally, it was quite stimulating to reflect back on the progresses that have been made in areas of public works, public safety, psychopathology, criminology, and even the concept of “evil” in a seemingly common man, over the past century.

My essential admiration for Larson, and this book in particular, is the making history relevant, and useful. Reflection on historical events, and progress, as well as creating additions to the collective historical memory are the supreme asset of the continuation of the study of history. While the book does have its flaws, over all it is a great read. Though, I do hope that Larson dives deeper into the details and connections in his other and future works.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

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What a wonderful gift to reading and literature this book is. Published WAY back in 1996, I’m not sure how everyone of my reading buddies hasn’t heard of this book by now.

I heard about this book first from the fantabulous Rebecca Schinsky via the BookRiot podcast. She raved about it, which immediately made me want to read it, because let’s face it, if Schinsky likes it – it has to be good. But then, when I came across it at my local indie bookstore, the handwritten recommendation from the book store staffer raved about it using almost exactly the same words (AND SO MUCH MORE). So I was sold, book was purchased, love was had.

On its face – this is a book about a bunch of friends – scientists and a Jesuit priest – discover life on another planet and then venture, under the purview and finance of the Jesuits, to this planet to make contact with this alien race.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking – seriously?

But wait! It’s really about SO MUCH MORE than that. This is book about God, about faith, about understanding faith, about losing faith – from many different points of view religious, skeptical and even secular (imagine!). This book is about purpose, and mankind, and morality, and good intentions, and misunderstandings, and cultural diversity, and destiny. It’s about the vulgarity of intelligent life. It’s about living beings as a cog in a wheel of economic and social structure.

This book is really about BIG topics. Wonderfully written, totally inspiring, want-to-get-lost-in-it-for-days fantastic. I took a longer time than I needed to for completing this book. I simply did not want to finish it. Well, wait. Yes, I wanted to finish it – but I didn’t want it to be over. This is the type of book, these are the types of characters and ideas, that sit with you for a long time. If you are looking for a really exquisite piece of literary fiction, this is it – get it now.

Mile 81 by Stephen King

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This work was marketed as a Kindle Single, which I didn’t know was a “thing” prior to this experience. I guess Kindle Singles are like novellas? I think it was longer than a short story, but I have trouble judging that type of thing in “kindle pages” as opposed to actual pages.

Anyway, the story was great – Demon other world abandoned car parked at a Mile 81 rest stop devouring good samaritans at will. Super creepy. Super King.

There’s not a ton more to say without just telling you everything that happens, so I’ll let you read it, that is – if you have a Kindle or Kindle App – it’s only $2.99 on Amazon, so not too much of an investment, either in time or money, to add a little creep factor to your to-read list.

I don’t dislike the idea of Kindle Singles – I wish they’d employ it more, for new authors, or for selling single stories of a short story collection. It could be used as an “appetizer” of reading.

What are your thoughts on this concept?

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

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Doctor Sleep is the long awaited, or perhaps, long anticipated sequel to King’s The Shining. In preparation for the release of Doctor Sleep, I read The Shining for the first time – having seen the movie several times, but not having read the book. Not surprisingly, the book was better.

Doctor Sleep picks up the story of Danny and his shine, several decades later. In trying to deal with the horrors that was his childhood at the Overlook Hotel, Danny has grown up into an alcoholic, not particularly shocking. The story is Dan’s overcoming of his alcoholism, reconnection to his shine, and the relationship he develops with a young girl who can shine quite significantly more than even Dan himself.

The book is classic King. Supernatural, super engaging, and super creepy. The best part about this book was its ability to stand on its own. Yes, it’s helpful to know the back story and have an understanding of what happened to Danny in The Shining. But the story can hold its own. It hearkens back to the plot lines of the original here and there, but it has its own solid plot, characters and sense of engagement. The makings of a sequel that doesn’t really feel like a sequel – which is what we’re all really looking for, right?

If you’re a King fan, I assure you won’t be disappointed. If you’re only interested in King’s “big works” I would count this among them. I’m glad King waited these many decades for the story of Danny to come back to him naturally, instead of trying to pump out a “second best.”

I give Doctor Sleep 3.5 of 5 stars.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

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If you’re looking for an engaging, dystopian read, this is it. If you were a fan of The Hunger Games, you will likely enjoy this read.

Roth has created exciting, well-developed characters in an exciting future world. People in futuristic Chicago are separated into 5 different factions based on their most predominant characteristics by an exam, from which they are given their inclinations, then allowed to choose, when they are 16. Lead character Beatrice Pryor experiences the process a bit differently than most. Following her journey to discovering herself, and some government secrets leads her on a wildly intense adventure that will have you up reading late into the night!

I finished this book in just a few sittings, the last one wrapping up at about 2am. Roth gives you enough of the story, and world, to get you through the book, but makes sure you have enough questions to want to pick up the next book – expert! The ending, while appropriate for the book certainly left me wanting more, and I find myself (once again) glad that I held off on beginning a series with great reviews until the series was complete!

Roth establishes herself as an excellent story-teller, with a knack for creating interesting characters who are perfectly flawed. This is a YA book, so be prepared for some teenage angst and PG-13 love scenes. But if you’re looking for a good, fun, and relatively quick read, despite the page count, check it out!

The “To Be Read” List

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This is the previously referenced “TBR list” post….

Throughout my life, I’ve struggled with the best way to track books. Books read, books to be read, interesting books, etc. In 2010, I discovered goodreads.com. This was the answer to my problem! I’d been tracking books I wanted to look into or mark as “to read” in notebooks, book covers, or cell phone “notes” sections for ages. But those methods don’t travel well over time.

(Bear with me folks, we’re talking about early 2000s here. I was acquiring my first flash drive. The Cloud wasn’t a “thing” yet.)

When I discovered GoodReads, I’d considered all my problems solved. And they were, for a while. But eventually I came across a few books that I wanted to read that weren’t in the Goodreads library. Additionally, I wanted to alter my book tracking demographics in ways that Goodreads wouldn’t allow. I wanted more from the “stats” section.

In the late months of 2013, I decided to start tracking my TBR list not only on Goodreads, but also separately via google docs. This would avoid many of the problems I’d had prior with Goodreads’ list manipulability, and also, I’d have the list in case anything ever happened to the Goodreads website. This list, in MS Excel format, is now “complete.”

The list includes what I am currently reading as well as my entire “to-read” list. It is extensive…256 items long. WOW. (ahem… and growing).

I was surprised with how many books I had on my list. Interestingly, I was equally surprised with how many books I instantly recalled – this is three years of TBR-ing I’m reviewing! Some books that I reviewed from the GoodReads list did not make the excel perma-list. If I couldn’t remember adding it, and then reviewed the book on GoodReads and couldn’t figure out why I added it, it got deleted. This happened… twice. HA!

The most significant shock in reviewing my TBR list was how many non-fiction books were on it! Throughout my adult reading life, I’ve been … preoccupied with nonfiction.  I think a good portion of this is due to my graduate work – law, then history and public policy. It left very little time for fiction reading (which at the time I considered “free” reading. Now, reading is reading is reading). However, most of the actual reading I’ve done the last few years has been fiction-based.

Shockingly, 45% of the books on my current “to read” list are non-fiction. My perception before beginning this project of transferring my list to a different, more manipulable format, was that I would have far less non-fiction. However, in the process of re-writing the list, I was floored by how much non-fiction it encompassed. Sometimes I find that I miss going to school, as a result, I do have clear memories of repeatedly seeking out non-fiction books to add to my TBR list, so that I can “keep the education alive.” Now, I actually have to start reading them!

There isn’t a terrible ton of repeating authors on my list. Which I am pleased about. Some of my favorite authors, Gaiman and Erdrich, are on there multiple times. And, I suspect after reading “Start Here: Volume 2” there may be some more repeats, but overall I’m pleased with the diversity. I have authors from several different countries and backgrounds as well – in both the fiction and non-fiction categories.

I’m also tracking when the book is added to the TBR list, how long it takes me to read each book, what my “rating” was, and if I read the book in paper or ebook. So, eventually I will have even more awesome data on my reading habits to sort through.

Over the past 2 years, I’ve become obsessed with bookriot.com. For anyone who reads this blog, that is not news. BookRiot has heavily influenced my TBR list with 37.5% of the books on it being recommended to me by BookRiot – the only other larger category in my “recommendation source” field is “unknown.” I suspect many of those books I also heard about on BookRiot, I just don’t remember.

I anticipate that much of my early-year reading in 2014 is going to be BookRiot heavy. However, I am excited to check out many of these non-fiction titles on this list. Being able to handle each title, one-by-one, to rework this list really got me excited about reading this year! Not that I wasn’t already, but just amped it up a bit.
Who else keeps track of their reading habits? Is there anything else you think I should be tracking?

My Local Indie

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Confession: Until recently, I had not visited my local independent bookstore.

Shame.

I heart books. So why hadn’t I been to my local indie? I see it all the time, located just a door down from one of my favorite lunch spots, the Book House beckons me during many a lunch hour. I often promise myself I’ll come back when I have more time, to check it out, get lost in it. But I never had.

Then, this holiday season Sherman Alexie spearheaded “Indies First” and the whole bookternet was a-buzz with local writers hand-selling books at independent bookstores in their neighborhood on Small Business Saturday. I checked out the event’s website to see if any authors would be at The Book House. Alas, no one was scheduled, but I decided this would finally be the time I visited the store, regardless.

So, I did. I had some gift ideas in mind for family – maybe I’d pick them up there. As soon as I entered I delighted that it was just oozing bookishness and I wanted to grab a book off the shelf and just make myself at home for a while. But I didn’t, barely resisting;  instead I perused the shelves, pouring over the wonderful hand-written recommendations for various books. This place was just wonderful – an untapped treasure, just down the road from my home. Perfection.

Confession: I bought 4 books. None were gifts. Whoops?

Buying four books in my first venture means I probably won’t be needing to go back there all that soon, but when I’m in need of some new paper volumes – to The Book House, I shall head. In fact, there’s another short story collection calling my name, one I’ll want a paper copy of, I anticipate another visit in my near future.
Do you visit your local bookstore? How do you like it?

Please Ensure I Do Not Need to Exert Myself

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Generally, I’m all about progress, but sometimes I think we try to “advance” little things that were fine just the way they were. With that being said, there have been loads of advances in technology over the last few decades that have made our lives immeasurably more convenient.

Take the DVD, for example, not only does it have superior sound and video quality, and take up less space, and theoretically last longer, but it’s easy to use! Be honest, did anyone ever REALLY understand how to program the VCR? Really, don’t lie. That was miserable.

Or digital music – no chewed up cassette tapes, no scratched CDs. Music can last forever in the cloud!

Text messaging – now you can unobtrusively ask someone a simple question, and get a quick answer, without it devolving into a 100 hour conversation about who knows what. I mean, I’m happy to hear your dramatic ex boyfriend story – over a drink – but I’m at work right now and I just wanted to know if you could quickly forward me that email we were talking about earlier?

But, there are some advances that are not all that great. Some that are the opposite of convenient. Here it comes: I’m talking specifically about the auto industry’s move away from manually opening gas tank doors. I mean they don’t even make them with the ability for you to quick pop it open with your finger any more – seriously? This may seem small, but isn’t progress supposed to make things BETTER? I bring this up during a time where we have a season called “winter” here in upstate New York. It snows, it’s icy, and it is COLD, I tell you. So if it’s going to be 2 degrees out overnight, like any good north-easterner, I know, I need more than one gallon of gas in my tank to be sure my gas lines don’t freeze and I’m left all sorts of screwed in the morning. Except it’s also cold now. Not freezing rain, not snow, just some standard mid-winter chilly weather. And I’m at the gas station. With a mere gallon in my tank. PULLING ON THE DAMN RELEASE REPEATEDLY! Who has been there? When you kick your car tires and curse the car manufacturers for now making popping the gas tank door a two person job, just because it’s cold.

At least I can quickly text someone to meet me at the gas station to help me open this damn thing up…