Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review: 1776 by David McCullough


Title: 1776
Author: David McCullough
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: May 24, 2005
Source: personal purchase

Summary from Goodreads

America's most acclaimed historian presents the intricate story of the year of the birth of the United States of America. 1776 tells two gripping stories: how a group of squabbling, disparate colonies became the United States, and how the British Empire tried to stop them. A story with a cast of amazing characters from George III to George Washington, to soldiers and their families, this exhilarating book is one of the great pieces of historical narrative. 

My Review:

When I was in high school, history was not my favorite subject.  I was more of a science girl, actually.  (A close second: English.  Because READ ALL THE THINGS!)  I got high grades in history, but more because I was very good at memorizing things than because I had any actual interest in it.  I scored a 2 (out of 5) on the AP US History exam, if that gives you any frame of reference.

However, part of me always felt like I should have more interest in history...I mean, it gives us a better understanding of ourselves, doesn't it?  It's important to know from whence we came, yes?  But it was so DRY.  How could I care more about a subject that put me straight to sleep?  Where could I find a history book that would change my tune?

I heard about David McCullough several years ago, and thought that maybe his work could be the ticket.  As a historian, his books are well-researched and extremely detailed, but he also adds more of a human element to his analysis.  This sounded like it would work better for me, but I was still nervous--hence the five-ish years that this book has been on my shelf, untouched.

Thanks to Nonfiction November, I decided that it was time to dive in, and as you may have expected, my initial inclinations were correct.  Despite its high level of detail and dense text, I was engaged with this book from beginning to end.

This book is not, as I had previously thought, a history of the entire American Revolution.  It is, as I should have maybe guessed from the title, specifically focused on the events that took place in 1776 (and a little bit of 1775, for background purposes).  Once I figured that out, I thought, cool, I will get to read about how the Americans won the Revolutionary War!  And then I realized, nope, the war didn't actually end until 1783.  (Reminder: score of 2 on the AP US History test.)

In fact, 1776, despite the whole Declaration of Independence thing, was not a real banner year for Team America.  We lost a lot of battles.  Like, A LOT.  George Washington made a whole slew of bad decisions for the army.  Yet, by the end of the year, things had started to take a little swing--just enough to bring the tide back in our direction.  McCullough describes all this at great length, but rather than just a dull list of dates and places, he provides insight into the hows and whys of each event.  What was Washington thinking in the days before the Battle of Brooklyn?  Who were his most trusted allies?  What were the British expecting of the Americans before each battle--and how were they getting that intelligence?  Who was a raging drunkard, or a traitor, or a dirty coward?  These are all the intriguing little details that may have made history class more fun for me back in the day.  Plus, he tells it from both sides (British and American), so you get a fuller view of the tense situation as it continued to develop.

That's not to say that this book will be for everyone.  You do have to have some interest in the finer particulars of US history if you want to enjoy this book, otherwise you will get bogged down in the density of the text.  But if you're looking for a piece of historical nonfiction that will both educate and entertain you, 1776 is a wonderful start.  I will absolutely be checking out McCullough's backlist for more brain food!

Have you read any of McCullough's work?  Are there any other historian authors out there whose books you've enjoyed?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Diversity and Nonfiction #NonFicNov


Howdy, readers!  It is week 3 of Nonfiction November, and I am moving right along with my nonfic reading.  I'm still working on 1776 by David McCullough...in my defense, it is a very dense book, so it's taking me some extra time to finish.  However, it is worth every bit of the extra effort.  This is such an in-depth look at the American Revolution, and it's hard for me to put it down!  My next book will be Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed...I wanted to read at least one nonfiction book this month that was based solely on recommendations from other readers, and this one has been mentioned a LOT (hiiiiii Shannon from River City Reading!).  Stay tuned for that once I'm done getting my history on.

On to this week's featured nonfiction topic!  Diversity in Nonfiction:
"What does “diversity” in books mean to you? Does it refer to book’s location or subject matter? Or is it the author’s nationality or background? What countries/cultures do you tend to enjoy or read about most in your nonfiction? What countries/cultures would you like nonfiction recommendations for?"

Hmmmm.  Well, I could give a fairly textbookish answer to what "diversity in books" means, but this is supposed to be what it means to ME.  So if I'm being honest, I consider myself a "diverse" reader if the book I'm reading has a setting or cultural focus outside the US/Canada.  (Oh Canada, I know you're international too, but since it takes me less time to drive to your border than it does to drive to my own parents' house...I'm not considering you very diverse for my own reading purposes.)  I don't often take the author's nationality into account, and I know that that is not necessarily the best way to define diversity--because can a white American author write about, let's say, Peruvian culture in the same way as a Peruvian author?  Likely not.  But when I read books (especially books that I pick up on a whim), I rarely take the time to look into the author's background before I jump in, and so their culture is not usually on my radar while reading.

I don't think this somewhat narrow view of literary diversity necessarily makes me a less-diverse reader, but it probably is something that is worth paying attention to in the future when I read.  Because as I suggested above, two authors with different backgrounds writing about the same culture are probably not going to approach it the same way--which, in turn, will affect my experience as a reader.

However, I should also note that setting alone is not an accurate way to depict diversity.  For example: Mitchell Zuckoff's Frozen in Time is set primarily in Greenland.  But I didn't learn a darn thing about Greenlandic Inuit culture in that book, because it was focused mostly on the rescue of American servicemen in that country, not on the people of the country itself.  Thus, in my eyes, that is not a "diverse" read.  I have to get some actual insight into the inhabitants of that country in order to feel like I've diversified my reading.

As far as the countries/cultures I tend to focus on the most in nonfiction...after looking through my Goodreads lists, it seems that I don't have a particular focus.  I've covered Kiribati (The Sex Lives of Cannibals), Sudan (God Grew Tired of Us), France (Paris, My Sweet), Sweden (Yes, Chef), the UK (Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson) and many more.  No particular focus here, which is as I expected, because I find it interesting to read about pretty much any culture.  That's one of the reasons I love nonfiction--the opportunity to learn something completely new, or at least to learn about a completely new aspect of something that I am already a little familiar with.

As for a location that I'd love to get recommendations for: I have two.  First is the Netherlands.  My stepfather's family is from Holland, and I fell in love with the country after a visit there in 2010.  It would be great to get my hands on some good nonfiction that is based there!  Second is Barcelona, Spain.  Another location that my husband and I have visited and adored, but I have yet to find any books set there.
My husband and I standing by a canal in Amsterdam. Throw in a windmill and some stroopwafels and this would basically be the most Dutch thing ever.
How do you define "diverse" nonfiction?  Have any good Dutch nonfic reads to recommend to me?  And for more on my thoughts about "traveling through reading", check out this post I did last year!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Ask The Expert...Nonfiction November Style!


Hello, Nonfiction November-ites!  We are in Week 2 of the event, and it's going well for me so far.  I finished At The Mercy of The Mountains last week, and have moved on to 1776 by David McCullough.  It's been a long time since I delved into historical nonfiction, and I'm enjoying the change of pace.  This is definitely a great event for me!  Nonfiction has been woefully absent from my life in the last year or two.

For week 2, we are tasked with any one of three options...

"Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert: Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert)."

With that in mind, I am choosing to "Ask The Expert".  Specifically, I'm looking for recommendations on nonfiction regarding American politics.  Let me explain, because that's a pretty broad category!  I enjoy books that provide an inside view into American politics.  I've tried autobiographies (My Life by Bill Clinton, Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama, etc), bipartisan reports (The 9/11 Commission Report), heavily biased political analyses (The Assault on Reason by Al Gore), and books that trended more towards peeping-Tom-expose than behind-the-scenes-informative (In the President's Secret Service by Ronald Kessler).  The list goes on, but that at least illustrates some of the breadth of what I've attempted.

In all that reading, I've realized that I have several desires when I step into this genre.

-Smartly written, analytical writing.  I loved the heavily detailed account of Clinton's presidency in his autobiography; I hated the obviously-pandering-to-the-lowest-common-denominator expose style of Kessler's book.
-Not too dry.  Clinton's book had a lot of detail, but also a human element that kept my interest up (not just Lewinsky, ha).  On the other hand, the 9/11 Report was impressive, but also put me to sleep on several occasions.  It's all detail, no emotion.  Not a bad thing (I mean, consider its purpose), but just not tops on my list of reading options.
-Too heavily partisan.  This is a big one.  It's very hard to write about politics without any sort of partisan bias--I get that.  I'm not asking for every political book to be nonpartisan/bipartisan.  However, I think you can write from a political stance in a way that isn't hateful to the other side.  If you've ever read Gore's Assault on Reason, you know that that is an example of a HEAVILY partisan book...annoyingly so.  And that's coming from a Democrat.  (And since I've mentioned that--yes, I welcome books written from the right as well!  But again, as long as they are not overly hateful to the other side.  Rush Limbaugh suggestions, I can safely assume, will be left at the door.)

Just to give you an idea...without knowing much about them, a few books that have been on my TBR for a while are Pennsylvania Avenue by John Harwood, What Happened by Scott McClellan, and The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder by Vincent Bugliosi (okay, I admit the title of that one is not promising given the above requirements, but reactions from those who have read it are welcomed!).  Autobiographies and biographies also seem to have worked well for me in the past.

So there it is, experts!  I know I gave you a tough assignment, but give it a try.  Lay it on me.  What political nonfiction should I read next?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Book Review: At the Mercy of the Mountains by Peter Bronski


Title: At the Mercy of the Mountains: True Stories of Survival and Tragedy in New York's Adirondacks
Author: Peter Bronski
Publisher: Lyons Press
Publication Date: February 26, 2008
Source: personal purchase

Summary from Goodreads

In the tradition of Eiger Dreams, In the Zone: Epic Survival Stories from the Mountaineering World, and Not Without Peril, comes a new book that examines the thrills and perils of outdoor adventure in the “East’s greatest wilderness,” the Adirondacks.


My Review:

Fun fact: before I was a mom, I climbed MOUNTAINS!
At the summit of Algonquin Peak (second highest in the Adirondacks), September 2006
Yes indeed.  I grew up in Connecticut, which does not have much mountainous terrain to speak of, but after college I moved to New York, and my now-husband introduced me to hiking.  I quickly grew to love it, and before long, the two of us had our sights set on becoming Adirondack 46ers--people who have climbed all 46 of the Adirondack mountains higher than 4,000 feet.  Currently, I am only a 15er (having kids slowed us quite a bit--not my idea of a good time to bring a baby and a preschooler up a trail-less peak), but the other 31 will most definitely be reached one day.

It's easy to fall in love with the Adirondacks.  The landscape is gorgeous--there is nothing like getting to a summit and being treated to a view like this:
View from Cascade Mountain, 2005
It's peaceful.  The air smells cleaner.  It is a true escape from the distractions of every day life.  Not to mention the feeling of accomplishment when you are standing on top of a FRIGGIN' MOUNTAIN.

However, despite my many forays into the Adirondack wilderness, I admit that as a beginning hiker, I took my safety and preparedness for granted.  My husband and I only ever hiked on clear, beautiful summer/fall days, with little risk of a sudden storm...and never in the winter.  (You can also become a Winter 46er if you hike them all in that season!)  My husband always had a ton of what I thought of as "extra" gear with him...water filter, camp stove, head lamp, etc.  Meanwhile, I had water, snacks, my hiking poles, maybe some extra clothes, and that was it.  What else could we possibly need?

Bronski's At the Mercy of the Mountains convinced me that, not only was I extremely naive, but we need ALL THE THINGS the next time we hike.  He has compiled some of the most notorious and dramatic search-and-rescue stories from the Adirondacks, dating from the earliest hikers to the present.  Avalanches, freak snowstorms, and flash floods, while not daily occurrences, are a part of the reality of the Adirondacks.  When you add in an ill-prepared hiker/skiier/canoeist, without extra provisions or proper backcountry navigation skills, disaster could easily strike.

I enjoyed Bronski's collection of misadventures because he does not present them in a fearmongering or alarmist way.  In fact, that would go quite counter to his motives--Bronski loves the Adirondacks himself, and hopes that others will share in that admiration.  But loving the wilderness also means understanding and respecting it.  He brings forth these unfortunate stories to help other outdoorsmen/women gain an understanding of how to proceed into the woods with the right equipment and know-how.  Plus, the book highlights the hard work of Adirondack forest rangers and search-and-rescue volunteers, which is fascinating in itself.

Any reader interested in true-life outdoor adventure stories (Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer comes to mind) will dig this book, though it will, admittedly, appeal the most to lovers of the Adirondacks specifically.  ADK hikers will recognize many of the peaks and landmarks that are described, which adds a nice sense of familiarity while reading.  However, Bronski does a great job illustrating the setting, so readers who have never visited the Adirondacks will also get a lot of enjoyment out of the experience.

So, who wants to buy me a new hiking pack for Christmas?

Any other outdoor enthusiasts out there?  Do you have any backcountry mishaps to share?  Go ahead, don't be shy...maybe we can learn from you, too! :)

Monday, November 3, 2014

My Year in Nonfiction (#NonFicNov)

Hello, reader friends!  In case you haven't heard, November is officially Nonfiction November, as declared by its co-hosts, Becca, Katie, Kim, and Leslie.  I'm very excited to be participating in the event this month (for reasons you will see below).  Nonfiction November includes weekly discussion posts, as well as a nonfiction book readalong, so head on over to any of the hosts' blogs to find out more.

This week's Nonfiction November discussion focuses on your year in nonfiction: take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

Here's where the sad admission comes in: I've only read TWO nonfiction books in all of 2014!  I didn't even realize this atrocity until I heard about Nonfiction November and took a look back at my reviews for the year.  I read Sous Chef by Michael Gibney back in March, and Pooja Mottl's The 3 Day Reset in June, and that is IT.  So not only have I not read much nonfic at all, but I've also limited myself to food-related nonfiction.  FOR SHAME, ME.

Therefore, my obvious goal for Nonfiction November is to...read more nonfiction.  I have no real explanation for why I've strayed from it this year.  I do enjoy nonfiction, though I tend to favor fiction overall for the entertainment value.  However, I rarely have an imbalance between the two that is this large.  So I will be doing some work on that this month!  

Even though fiction may win for entertainment value, I love nonfiction because I feel like it feeds my brain.  I have learned some of the most random, fascinating factoids through nonfiction reads.  And some nonfiction authors are so good at their craft that you often feel a level of suspense that is usually reserved for a fiction novel as you're reading their work (examples would be Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff, or In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson).

So, what exactly am I reading this month?  Well, as we know, I'm not a very fast reader these days, so I can't set the bar too high.  However, I am going to try to read a few nonfic titles that have been sitting on my at-home TBR for quite a while.  Possibilities include:
1776 by David McCullough
At the Mercy of the Mountains by Peter Bronski
Chicken Soup for the Traveler's Soul by Jack Canfield, etc
The Road Ahead by Bill Gates
Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster
The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain

That's just what I have on hand though.  I sparked a little Twitter discussion the other night regarding reader's recommendations for the best nonfiction, and I got a TON of great responses!  A library trip may be in order!

What say you, friends?  Will you be participating in Nonfiction November?  What types of nonfiction do you gravitate towards the most?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

BOO! October 2014 in Review

This recap will be short and sweet, because life is just crazy up in here lately.  First, sadly, my aunt passed away on the 31st after a long battle with cancer.  This is obviously very upsetting for our family, and we are in the midst of figuring out all the arrangements, so I may be MIA a bit around here (as I'm sure you understand).

Also crazy for good reasons though.  Of course, Halloween came and went, which was much fun for our kiddos, especially Small Fry.  It's fun to see how trick or treating has progressed with him over the years.  At age 3, he is really starting to get into it, and he had a blast going door to door that night.  I had a blast too, especially when he got to the house giving out full size Snickers bars.  Because that's probably a little too much sugar for a three year old, right?  So Mommy and Daddy might just have to confiscate that...
The firefighter puts out the fires that the dragon starts, of course.
Anyway, let's talk reading!

In October I read 5 books:
Larger Than Life by Jodi Picoult
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Man V. Nature by Diane Cook
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

In addition, we did a little Six Degrees of Separation with 1984, and I gave two thumbs way up to the Gone Girl movie.

November is now upon us, and I am SUPER PUMPED for Nonfiction November!  Post about that coming tomorrow.  Definitely going to get my nonfic groove on this month.

How was your October, friends?  Any fun Halloween costumes to share?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Book Review: Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult


Title: Leaving Time
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine
Publication Date: October 14, 2014
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

For more than a decade, Jenna Metcalf has never stopped thinking about her mother, Alice, who mysteriously disappeared in the wake of a tragic accident. Refusing to believe that she would be abandoned as a young child, Jenna searches for her mother regularly online and pores over the pages of Alice’s old journals. A scientist who studied grief among elephants, Alice wrote mostly of her research among the animals she loved, yet Jenna hopes the entries will provide a clue to her mother’s whereabouts.

Desperate to find the truth, Jenna enlists two unlikely allies in her quest. The first is Serenity Jones, a psychic who rose to fame finding missing persons—only to later doubt her gifts. The second is Virgil Stanhope, a jaded private detective who originally investigated Alice’s case along with the strange, possibly linked death of one of her colleagues. As the three work together to uncover what happened to Alice, they realize that in asking hard questions, they’ll have to face even harder answers.

As Jenna’s memories dovetail with the events in her mother’s journals, the story races to a mesmerizing finish. A deeply moving, gripping, and intelligent page-turner, Leaving Time is Jodi Picoult at the height of her powers.


My Review:

OF COURSE I'm reviewing the latest Jodi Picoult release within a few weeks of its release date, and OF COURSE I loved it.  Sometimes I'm just so predictable.  (In all fairness, I don't love every Picoult novel...Songs of the Humpback Whale was mediocre at best...but 22 out of 23 is a pretty good success rate.)  :)

First, I should mention that I was pleased with how Larger Than Life (the novella that Picoult released in advance of Leaving Time) meshed with this novel.  Alice is not the protagonist in Leaving Time, but her actions do drive much of the story, so it was nice to already feel like I had some insight into her persona when the novel opened.  Larger Than Life doesn't give any spoilers, and you won't be at a disadvantage if you haven't read it, but it does provide an enjoyable compliment to this book.

Readers who decry Picoult as too formulaic will be happy to hear that there is no legal case involved in Leaving Time.  None!  I promise!  Though she does stick to her usual multiple-perspective POV, this novel had a much different feel for me than her others.  It is definitely the most mystery-driven, as you spend much of the novel trying to figure out whether Jenna's mother is alive or dead, and who caused her disappearance.  Lots of good, old-fashioned police work happening in this novel, which gives it more of a "whodunit" flavor, versus the family drama that sits front-and-center in much of Picoult's work (though there is a good amount of that as well).

I must say, I was a tad nervous about the whole psychic aspect that Serenity Jones brought to the novel.  I am more inclined to enjoy books that have a solid real-world focus, rather than supernatural elements.  However, I found myself impressed by how smoothly Serenity's "gift" was worked into the plot, and in the end, I didn't find the "otherworldly" details hard to believe at all.  Which is saying a lot, since they play a rather large role in the story.

If you've read any of Picoult's other novels, you know that she's also famous for the Big Twist Ending.  If that's your thing, you absolutely will NOT be disappointed.  I thought for sure that I had the ending staked down between two possibilities, and they were both blown completely out of the water.  I really wish I could tell you what I turned and yelled at my husband when I read it (expletives and all), but that would spoil it for you, so I won't.  (Which is too bad.  It was rather hilarious.)  But suffice to say, this is a book that's worth savoring right up to the very last page.

I know you already expected a great review from me on this one, but I promise you, this is one of the best JP novels I've read in a long time!

Have you read any of Jodi Picoult's novels?  Do you think you will be picking up Leaving Time anytime soon?
 
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