Friday, December 15, 2017

#15 [2017/CBR9] "Pretty Face" by Lucy Parker

Pretty Face (2017) is another delightful romance by Lucy Parker that takes place in the theater district of London. Lily Lamprey is a young television actress who is known for her luscious curves and breathy voice. She wants to make the jump to the stage, but is hampered by her voice and previous acting experience. That is, until Luc Savage, a successful and notorious director casts her as one of the lead roles in his new play.

There is an undeniable and unsurprising spark between the two as soon as they start spending time together, but both are resistant to a relationship. Many people are surprised at Luc's casting choice and Lily does not want to get a reputation that she sleeps with directors for parts. Luc has just recently been divorced and doesn't want to provide any more fodder for the tabloids.

The two "accidentally" make out a time or two, spend time with each other's families and friends and really get to know each other. They go out of their way to support each other and really do seem to be a good match.

I really enjoyed this book. It's definitely up there as one of my favorite romances this year, and I always wish that I could find more like it. Lily and Luc are likable and understandable as real people. Luc is sweetly protective of Lily without being overbearing. Parker manages good romantic tension throughout the book as the characters and their relationship grows. I'd definitely recommend this one to any lovers of romance.

#14 [2017/CBR9] "Hillbilly Elegy" by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy (2016) by J.D. Vance has over 10,000 reviews and four and a half stars on Amazon. It's on NPR's Best Books of 2016 list, and was also a book we read in book club. The Economist said "You will not read a more important book this year," and the New York Times called it "essential reading." I may be in the minority with this opinion, but I didn't love it. Although parts of Vance's life were certainly interesting, it wasn't what I expected and I found some of it off putting.

J.D. Vance grew up in Ohio. His grandparents had moved there from Kentucky, and he continued to visit there during the summer. His mother was an addict, which led to something of a traumatic and unstable childhood. Fortunately, his grandparents were around and did much of the raising. He joined the marines after high school and went on to go to college and finally Yale Law School.

I was expecting a deep look into Appalachia, it's culture and people--perhaps a comprehensive analysis of what life is like and how standards of living could be improved. However, Vance's only attachment to Appalachia was his occasional summers there, and his only knowledge stems from the interactions with his family. He did little, if any, research on what I thought was his subject matter, and I did not learn very much about the area.

I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to grow up with a drug addict for a mom. It is impressive that Vance was able to make a success of himself. However, I still don't see how his experiences relate to Appalachia. There are drug addicts everywhere, in many areas, and in all social classes. Breaking Night by Liz Murray is a much more harrowing and personal story of dealing with addict parents. But it was when Vance got to law school that I really started feeling annoyed. He griped about how difficult it was to be at law school and not understand the interview culture or what spoon to use. Seriously? I grew up in a stable, middle class home and I had no idea what was happening when I went to law school. I didn't even know what a clerkship was, let alone that it was the job I was supposed to be looking for after my first year--and that these were unpaid positions, perfect if you didn't ever need to earn money.

I started finding Vance's writing as self important. He seemed to brag about not shaking the Ohio State's president's hand at his graduation, and I couldn't understand why he thought that was important to include in his story. "I may have been the only graduating student that day to not shake his hand." (187) Vance writes as if he has a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. His graduation from Yale Law School was that undeniable token of success, and he wanted to make sure we all understood that he made it.

At times, Vance would show some empathy towards those around him and back in Appalachia who were stuck in their circumstances.

"Surrounding me was another message: that I and the people like me weren't good enough; that the reason Middletown produced zero Ivy League graduates was some genetic or character defect. I couldn't possibly see how destructive that mentality was until I escaped it." (176)

"Psychologists call it 'learned helplessness' when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life." (163)

And then he would say that they were also lazy and not working hard enough. Not only was he inconsistent, but he never even tried to give a thorough history or discuss the systemic causes of poverty in Ohio or Kentucky. He also did not present any ideas that might potentially help. This book left a bad taste in my mouth, but I couldn't quite put my finger on what was bothering me. And then I went to the one-star reviews on Amazon, and most of them eloquently expressed what I had been feeling but unable to express. I'm afraid this is the occasion of a book that was over-hyped.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

#13 [2017/CBR9] "Sex Object: A Memoir" by Jessica Valenti

"We have to walk through the rest of our day knowing that our discomfort gave someone a hard-on."

Sex Object (2016) by Jessica Valenti was another book I found on NPR's list of Best Books from 2016. The list has led me to quite a few good books, and I am usually a fan of a good feminist memoir, so I picked it up. In it, Valenti discusses details of her childhood and adult life, showing what it's like to live when men use you first as an object of desire, only perhaps seeing you as human second.

Valenti does not pull any punches when she describes her life dealing with men, starting with being constantly accosted on the subway as a young teenager. I could relate most to these stories of her as a young girl. I look back on my childhood and see how vulnerable I was. I had no understanding of what bad men and boys would and could do to me or how to fend them off. One boy in sixth grade moved his hands down my chest and said I was a prude if I didn't like it. I didn't even know what to make of it, but was left with a vague impression of violation and that there was something wrong with me. Fortunately, these stories of my coming-of-age are few and I count myself lucky because I have known many more good men than bad. But I ache for the vulnerability of young girls today as they are accosted before they can even figure out who they are, what they like, and how to say 'no'.

"No one wants to listen to our sad stories unless they are smoothed over with a joke or nice melody...No one wants to hear a woman talking or writing about pain in a way that suggests that it doesn't end. Without a pat solution, silver lining or happy ending, we're just complainers--downers who don't realize how good we actually have it." Valenti has it right. It was often difficult or downright depressing to read negative story after negative story with no improvement or suggestions for changes.

Sex Object made me think and moved me at times. However, I sometimes had a hard time seeing the bigger picture or understanding what point Valenti was trying to make. She told one story of a bad boyfriend, but I didn't see how he related to the sexism of the rest of society. He just seemed like a bad boyfriend. There are always assholes in the world, both men and women. I also think I might have been more invested if I knew more about the rest of Valenti's life. Something kept me from engaging fully.

Looking up reviews on this book, I found that Jessica Valenti was the author who received the highest number of negative and harassing comments on The Guardian's website since 1999. She has dealt with a lot of that shit in her life and is understandably tired and tired of dealing with it.

#12 [2017/CBR9] "Born a Crime" by Trevor Noah

Last year for Christmas, my brother and sister-in-law got me a signed copy of Born a Crime (2016) by Trevor Noah. It was a perfect gift because I was already waiting for it to become available at the library. I'd watched Trevor Noah enough on The Daily Show to come to like him and appreciate his humor. I knew that he was South African, but not much else. It wasn't until I saw him doing an interview talking about his book that I realized he had some fascinating personal stories to tell. I very much enjoyed his book and I appreciate his comedy and insights even more now that I know more about him.

I had, of course, learned about Apartheid in South Africa, but I did not understand some of its intricacies. I just assumed that the racism used to consolidate power of the white people in South Africa was similar to that used in the United States to justify slavery. However, Trevor's mother is black and his father is a white Swiss German. This made him "colored," a specific class in South Africa that was not allowed to mix with either whites or blacks. This made Trevor's existence a literal crime, as it was evidence of a relationship between races and could have led to jail time for his parents. Trevor and his mother had to be careful when they were out. His mother had to pretend he wasn't her son if there were police around. Trevor Noah was too young to fully comprehend what was happening at the time, but it's hard to even imagine growing up like that.

Noah goes into a fair amount of detail about his life and upbringing in South Africa. He focuses on his childhood and teen years. There is no information on his current life or how he ended up on The Daily Show, which is fine, because it's not the point of the book. Trevor Noah was smart, energetic, and constantly getting into trouble. His childhood is endlessly fascinating.

But more than anything, this book felt like a heartfelt love letter to his mother. She was incredibly strong and courageous, bravely bucking boundaries and stereotypes to give Noah as many experiences and advantages as she could, despite her incredibly limited circumstances. It is without a doubt that Trevor Noah would not be where he is without her. I don't want to go into too much detail here, but her story is unforgettable.

This book was, at times, informative, hilarious, and heartbreaking. I loved it, and it's made me like Trevor Noah and The Daily Show even more than I did before.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

#11 [2017/CBR9] "The Winter Camping Handbook" by Stephen Gorman

I've been camping and backpacking a lot lately. I like the gear, the challenge, the beauty, and getting away from it all. But there's always some new horizon to explore or a new trial to endure. Once I've tried something, I always find myself looking for something just a little bit  harder. For me, that was winter camping. Summer camping is delightful. The temperature is generally comfortable. You have sunshine and light until almost nine o'clock at night--giving you tons of time to hike and set up camp. Basically, you can make a lot more mistakes without dire consequences while summer camping.

But winter camping is a much more serious endeavor. With fewer people out in the woods, you are generally more isolated. Also, mistakes in clothing and gear can easily lead to hypothermia. In fact, just twisting an ankle and being unable to walk is significantly more dangerous in winter. Really, everything is harder and more uncomfortable, from cooking to going to the bathroom. And there's potential avalanche danger. Winter camping seems especially hard for me because I get cold so easily. The only thing you generally don't have to worry about is bears because they should be hibernating.

What I usually do when starting anything new is pick up a book on the subject, and that's why I read The Winter Camping Handbook by Stephen Gorman [originally printed in 1991 and revised in 2016]. I'd prefer to avoid at least some of my stupid mistakes through book learning rather than experience. The Winter Camping Handbook is a very broad overview of camping in general, gear recommendations, and cold injuries. Unfortunately, none of it was specific enough to be very helpful for me. I was interested in learning more about skiing in the back country and avalanche danger, but I really needed more information for it to be useful.

While reading, I had the feeling that even though this book was "revised" in 2016, they may have not done much with the actual content. It is always disconcerting to be reading an advice book and find that you know more than what's in the book. This was very true of their section on sleeping bags. Basically, Gorman's advice for winter sleeping bags is that mummy bags are warmer. He goes on to say that warmth ratings are not helpful because there is no standard; you can really only go by trial and error. But there is a standard. The European Norm or EN classifies most sleeping bags with a "comfort rating" and a "lower limit" rating. The comfort limit is generally when a woman, or a cold sleeper will stay warm, and the lower limit rating is generally when a man, or a warm sleeper will stay warm. Generally women get colder than men. Thus, women's sleeping bags, even the same brand, style, and rating will actually have more insulation than the men's. Because I'm tall, I chose to get a women's tall version rather than the men's version (which would have been tall enough) because it had more insulation. You still have to figure out what works for you, but these are incredibly helpful guidelines. Anyway, I was shocked that a book on winter camping would not have this information on sleeping bags. It's very basic and very important. After that, I simply did not trust this book to have the latest and greatest information.

Now, I'm sure this is going to be TMI for those of you who are not campers, but I'm also guessing that you are only reading this at this point if you are a backpacker. So, the other question I had about winter camping was what to do when you go to the bathroom. How do you bury your waste if you are surrounded by snow. Now, Gorman mentions that you want to get out of camp to do your business, but he doesn't address my question. Burying waste in snow doesn't do much come spring time. I was curious what the Leave No Trace principles were on this, or if Gorman thinks it's okay [I don't] because there aren't as many winter campers. Unfortunately I did not get a clear answer to my question.

So, on the whole I was disappointed in this book. I wanted more detail and more information. This may be better for someone who is new to camping, but even then I think there are other books out there with better information.

#10 [2017/CBR9] "Midnight Angel" by Lisa Kleypas

Sometimes I crave romance novels. Whether it's because I've read too much serious literature and non-fiction or I just need the escapism, the best thing to do is curl up with a romantic novel as soon as possible. I'm pretty sure that's what happened with Midnight Angel (1995) by Lisa Kleypas. Feeling the need for some romantic distraction, I got on the library website, looked up Lisa Kleypas--because she's a good, reliable author--and picked a book that was available.

Tasia, a young Russian heiress. is about to be put to death for killing her cousin and fiance--something she does not remember. She is rescued by her uncle and brought to England in order to secretly work as a governess for the Marquess of Stokehurst, Luke. Lucas Stokehurst lost his arm in a fire while trying to rescue his wife and daughter from a fire nine years before. His wife died and Luke has never gotten over it. However, his daughter is now twelve years old and needs a governess. Despite his better judgment, Luke agrees to have Tasia as a governess without knowing her true identity. Tasia is grateful for the safe place, intrigued by Stokehurst, and adored by his daughter. She is also tormented by fear that her cousin's brother will follow her to England to avenge his brother's death.

I feel that I need to be honest here. I read this book in the beginning of the year, and then proceeded to not review any books for (almost) the rest of the year. Now going back to review this novel, I truly did not remember it at all. Even after I read the synopsis and started reading others' reviews, I could not remember it. It wasn't until I looked at the actual pages of the book that it rang a bell. However, I couldn't remember having any strong feelings about this one. On the one hand, it doesn't bode well for this novel because the one's I really like stick with me. On the other hand, it looks like there wasn't anything in this novel that was too irritating, or I would have remembered that as well.

What I do know is that Lisa Kleypas is a good author. You can always count on well-written material with her. Many of the reviewers who did not like this novel complained that Luke was an unfeeling, alpha male brute who treated Tasia horribly. I do remember disliking him at times, and it's good to be wary of books written back in the 90's when a horrible alpha male as a Hero was more acceptable. Another common complaint was that Tasia was super pious and religious in the beginning of the book but changed her tone a little too quickly once she became involved with Luke. They did not like her drastic change of personality without the groundwork. I think I found this to be some diverting fun in the moment, but it obviously did not affect me much.

#9 [2017/CBR9] "The Princess Diarist" by Carrie Fisher

"If anyone reads this when I have passed to the big bad beyond I shall be posthumorously embarrassed. I shall spend my entire afterlife blushing."

Carrie Fisher is an icon. Even kids today know that white dress and the hairdo, made famous in a movie forty years old. Having been introduced to Star Wars at a young age by my brothers, I've found that I know the films so well that I can't even look at them critically. They've just always been a part of my life. I've also always liked Carrie Fisher, whether it was in Star Wars or When Harry Met Sally, and when she began doing publicity for her new book, bringing her partner Gary along with her, I knew I wanted to read it.

I requested the audio CD's from my library because I wanted Carrie Fisher's story in her own words. It took months and months before it was finally available. And in those months, Carrie Fisher had passed away. This changed the book from something of a romp into something of an elegy.

The parts I remember most about this book were also the parts that Fisher talked about on the talk show circuit: the fact that she couldn't wear a bra under that famous white dress and her affair with Harrison Ford. Fisher is very honest as she describes her naivete and insecurity on her first movie. She just wanted everyone to like her. She doesn't go into too much detail about Harrison, but she is very honest about the emotional impact the affair had on her.

"I suspect that no matter what happens I will allow it to hurt me. Eat away at my insides, as it were--as it will be. As it always has been. Why am I so accessible? Why do I give myself to people who will always and should always remain strangers? I have always relied on the cruelty of strangers and I must stop it now."

The glimpses Fisher gives into the making of Star Wars and her relationship with Harrison Ford were the most interesting parts of the book for me. Fisher also includes excerpts from her diary at the time. These are very raw and honest, but sometimes difficult to digest--especially listening to them in my car. I often found myself wishing that I had the hard copy to look at.

In the end, Fisher discusses her fandom and when she started signing autographs for money. It felt a little random to me, but she continued to be her insightful and original self. "--when men approach me to let me know that I was their fist love, lets just say I have mixed feelings. Why did all these men find it so easy to be in love with me then and so complex to be in love with me now?"

I was waiting for this book for quite a long time, and I was very happy to read it. Looking back, I wish I had gone with the hard copy. As much as I liked hearing Fisher speak, I sometimes have problems concentrating and really taking in audio books. I likely would have gotten more out of it if I'd been able to read her words in black and white. Please keep in mind, that this review might have been more positive had I read the book in a different from. My admiration for her, though, remains unchanged.