Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Writer's Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives (Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager)

 Any book about writing will tell you that if you want to be a better writer you need to read more. In The Writer's Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives, Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager interview 23 writers about their favorite books and which ones influenced them the most.

When I pick up a book by my favorite authors, I don't really think who THEIR favorite authors are as well. It was so interesting to read these interviews. Pearl and Schwager ask very interesting questions to authors like Donna Tartt, Jennifer Egan, and Richard Ford, who in turn, provide thought-provoking answers. At the end of each interview is a list of many of the books mentioned in the interview, making it easy to put them on your own reading list.

I came away inspired to read not only many of these authors' works but also the books they recommended. I, for one, wholeheartedly recommend this to those who love books about books.


Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again (Robert D. Putnam)

Twenty years ago, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone drew critical acclaim for its research into the decline in civic participation among Americans. His newest book, The Upswing, takes his research on civic engagement and broadens it into a historical narrative of our nation’s progress and view of itself in the past century.

The Upswing focuses on a broad curve and trendline that he refers to as “I-We-I”. This trendline and curve is reflected in several indicators, from taxation to economic equality to progress in civil rights through the country to political partisanship. Putnam parallels historical events in each of these trends to show a broad narrative that the nation swung from a Gilded Age full of individualism and relatively deep partisanship to an era where the nation was conformist, community-oriented, and more egalitarian, before pivoting back into an era that is more individualist and more unequal economically. Putnam points out a number of events that drove these changes but does not suggest any one event as a trigger point for the changes, offering that the numbers of events happening in short succession would promote a turn in trajectory (the rights’ movements, Vietnam, and lowering of tax rates in the 1960’s and the Progressive Era in the early 20th Century).

Putnam, with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, offers some suggestions on how to pivot the current perceived nadir of American life into one that is more optimistic and better (more support of pragmatic reform, bipartisanship in political life, and the use of technology to foster group efforts to combat issues that face the country to name three). While the suggestions are shorter and broader than the research and evidence on “I-We-I”, Putnam does show a roadmap to how American can become a more united, community-oriented country in the decades to come. It may take more than the pundits and politicians among us to take that roadmap and make use of it.


Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Four Winds (Kristin Hannah)

I've read quite a few books by megapopular novelist Kristin Hannah, with The Nightingale being my absolute favorite. I'm always excited to pick up her books. Her latest, The Four Winds, was not her best, but fans of hers will probably still enjoy it.

The Four Winds is mostly the story of Elsa Martinelli and begins in Texas during the Dust Bowl era of the Great Depression. Elsa lives on a farm with her husband, in-laws, and two children. They all must fight every single day to survive both literally and financially. This part of the novel is completely engrossing as you root for their spirit and survival. 

What is less successful, at least for me, was part two of the novel, when the Martinellis need to decide if they will stay in Texas or go west to California. I believe that the most riveting historical fiction draws the reader in to what was happening at the time without relying so much on dialogue to explain it. Part two moves the story along mostly by dialogue instead of action, which makes it less successful than part one in my opinion. 

But Hannah should still be commended for her well-researched account of one of the darkest times in American history.


Available February 2021

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Drowning Kind (Jennifer McMahon)

I've loved Jennifer McMahon ever since I took Island of Lost Girls on vacation and didn't want to do anything else but find out what happened next. She has had some misses over the years (looking at you Burntown), but for the most part, I've enjoyed the books she's written. I've heard her called the modern-day Shirley Jackson -- her books are creepy and atmospheric and leave you wanting more.

The Drowning Kind might be her creepiest book yet. One day, Jax receives a slew of missed calls from her sister, Lexie. She is tired of Lexie's manic episodes, and so, doesn't answer the phone. The next day, she is devastated to find out that her sister has drowned in the pool at their late grandmother's house. Jax discovers that Lexie has been researching the history of the house, and that may have had something to do with her death.

But Jax is not the only one whose eyes readers see this story through. They also go back in time to 1929 to meet Ethel Monroe, who desperately wants a baby. Her husband takes her to a hotel in Vermont which has a natural spring on its grounds; this spring is said to grant wishes but it also takes something in return. The stories of Jax and Ethel run parallel to each other until the reader discovers how they are connected.

I've found that so often, a book like this is ruined by the ending, but that's definitely not the case here. I didn't see it coming. Read this one with the lights on!


Available April 2021

Thursday, November 19, 2020

How Love Actually Ruined Christmas (Gary Raymond)

 As a yearly watcher of Love Actually, I picked this book up out of curiousity. I didn't think it was going to change my feelings about the movie (which are generally positive), and I was correct. But it did make me think more about the sensitivity of some scenes.

There are a few parts of Love Actually that have always been problematic -- the "cue card" scene, the "fat jokes", etc. Raymond goes further by basically dissecting each scene with his analysis, but some of his comments were so snarky that it was hard to take them seriously. In a bookstore, I wouldn't know if this book would be shelved in the humor section or in film criticism. But he did have some valid points that hit home for me (particularly about the Prime Minister). 

So I will still be watching and enjoying Love Actually in December, but I might look at some scenes in a new light.


Thursday, November 5, 2020

Author in Chief: The Untold Stories of the Presidents and the Books They Wrote (Craig Fehrman)

Craig Fehrman’s Author In Chief details a selection of America’s presidents and the evolution of book writing style over America’s history. Our nation’s past presidents have long written books for various reasons - Thomas Jefferson wrote a first person review of Virginia as a way to share his views of the state to the wider (European) audience, with the shift to books for campaigning taking place with the use of the Lincoln-Douglas debates by Abraham Lincoln in the run-up to 1860. The nation’s thirst for learning more about the person in the office (not necessarily the gunk of the political process), combined with the country’s increasing economic and marketing machine, has changed the game for presidential writing arguably more than the men who have occupied the office.

Fehrman’s book captures the transformation in great detail, including first-person letters and dialogue from presidents and those close to them. Not every president is covered in this book, but a large swath of attention is given to those whose book or books has changed the course of how presidents wrote...and ultimately wrote about themselves. If you ever wanted to know more about the man known as “Silent Cal” (Calvin Coolidge) for being a man of few words, this book will show how much his writing changed the game for the presidential memoir.

I enjoyed this book a lot, and students of history - and presidential history - will find it well worth their time to read.


Monday, October 26, 2020

The Night Swim (Megan Goldin)

Because of the cover and description, I went into Megan Goldin's The Night Swim thinking that it was going to be a psychological thriller. Instead, it's more of a crime drama that you might see on television -- with some surprises, but mostly predictable twists.

Rachel Krall hosts a true crime podcast, with each series of the podcast covering a particular trial. This time, she is in Neopolis for a rape trial. Here, a star swimmer and Olympic hopeful is on trial for raping another high school student. In between covering the trial, she also begins receiving letters from Hannah Stills, whose sister Jenny was brutally raped and murdered in the same town twenty-five years ago. Hannah asks Rachel for help in finally bringing her sister's murderer to justice. While investigating, Rachel finds startling connections between the two cases. 

Goldin covers the topic of rape with sensitivity, however, I didn't find the writing very powerful. As I said, I expected more suspense. All in all, I found The Night Swim to be very average.