Sunday, August 21, 2016

#37 [2016/CBR8] "It Ended Badly" by Jennifer Wright

Like most of the books I read these days, I discovered It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History (2015) through a Cannonball Review. It sounded like a fascinating, fun read, and it was immediately available at my library. That's really all I needed, but knowing that one of the break-up stories was about Edith Wharton was probably what had me picking up this book so quickly. I love Wharton's writing, and I wondered if I would be able to see any of her personal life (which I knew almost nothing about) in any of her books.

Wright's writing is entertaining and easy to follow. The stories feel like a gossip session. "Did you hear about the time that [insert crazy story here]." And if you weren't particularly interested in one of the people, you didn't have to wait long until you had an entirely new historical era and topic. Sometimes these stories are set up as lessons or consolations for those recently suffering from a breakup. Most often, the consolation is: no matter how badly you felt or acted during your last breakup, you could not have been as bad as these couples. However, these thirteen stories are so far from our reality, that the "lessons" were a little bit of a stretch. A common theme throughout these stories is mentally ill people with a lot of power.

It is probably not surprising that I found Edith Wharton's story of love and woe the most interesting. Wharton grew up in an incredibly sexually repressed household--Wharton's mother would not even tell her anything of sex the night before her marriage. Her marriage was probably celibate or almost celibate and ended in divorce, But in 1907, when Edith Wharton was forty five, she had her one and only love affair. Morton Fullerton was a journalist and a player of the highest order. Like many players, he was charismatic and very good at sex. But he also had a sociopathic tendency to attach people to him and then leave them without a word. And he did this to Edith Wharton.

After a couple of mind-blowing months, Fullerton disappeared, and Wharton sent him sad, longing, and forgiving letters. 
                  I re-read your letters the other day, & I will not believe that the man who wrote them did not feel them, & did not know enough of the woman to whom they were written to trust to her love & courage, rather than leave her to this aching uncertainty...
                  You told me once I should write better for this experience of loving. I felt it to be so, & I came home so fixed by the desire that my work should please you! But this incomprehensible silence, the sense of your utter indifference to everything that concerns me, has stunned me. It has come so suddenly...
When Fullerton continues to ignore her and treat her like crap, Wharton comes to a heartening, self-empowering conclusion.
                  What you wish, apparently, is to take of my life the inmost & uttermost that a woman--a woman like me--can give, for an hour, now and then, when it suits you, & when the hour is over, to leave me out of your mind & out of your life as a man leaves the companion who has afforded him a transient distraction. I think I am worth more than that, or worth, perhaps I had better say, something quite different.

What a sad story. And what an asshole Fullerton was. I'm torn between being pissed at Fullerton for causing such heartbreak in such an insensitive way, and being grateful that Wharton could at least experience love. This story made me want to re-read The Age of Innocence and read Wharton's biography.

I only had some minor complaints about this book. I found myself often wishing for more historical context. Wright uses a lot of primary sources, which were fascinating to read, but I wanted to know more. Often, Wright would say, "some people think this happened and some people think this happened" and just leave it. She seems to know a lot about history. I would have preferred at least her opinion as to what was more likely. Any of the stories or people I found interesting, I felt like I needed more information to get a complete picture of what was going on. Also, I enjoyed Wright's tone, but sometimes her jokes took me out of the history she was trying to tell and served only to distract.

Finally, Wright said that "Anne Boleyn is my personal breakup role model." (71) She admires Boleyn for her composure and willingness to take the high road at her death. Indeed, her actions made her a more memorable historical figure. Standing before her execution, Anne Boleyn said, "...but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord." (70) Seriously? If Anne Boleyn had been sarcastic, I would have enjoyed this speech much more. Sure, taking the high road and not speaking badly of your ex is the best way to go in normal break-ups. But when your spouse is a hypocritical monster about to kill you, I think you can go ahead and speak your mind.

Friday, August 19, 2016

#36 [2016/CBR8] "The Year We Fell Down" by Sarina Bowen

I picked up The Year We Fell Down (2014) ages ago, when it was either really cheap or free on Amazon, but I never got around to reading it. Months later, a day came when my options were few and my urge for some light reading was strong. I vaguely remember not being too excited about college kids, hockey, and wheelchairs, but I was very pleasantly surprised.

Corey Callahan is nervous because she's just starting her first year at a college that seems remarkably like Yale. She is away from home for the first time, but she's also dealing with the stress of a recent accident that's left her in a wheelchair. With nerve damage making it difficult to use her legs, Corey's been through tons of physical therapy. She's had to learn how to get out of bed, get dressed, and get around in a wheelchair. And now she has to learn how to navigate her new campus. Not only that, Corey was a star hockey player. She's lost the ability to do the activity that she enjoyed and excelled at more than anything.

Corey is put in a more accessible room on the first floor of a dorm away from the other first year students. She has a roommate, Dana, and she has Adam Hartley across the hall. Adam Hartley is the sexy upperclassmen, star hockey stud, who is also in the accessible dorm because he broke his leg and is stuck on crutches.

Hartley and Callahan (they call each other by their last names, which I found very confusing because I could never keep them straight) bond over their shared love of hockey and hockey video games. They both have so much trouble getting around that they end up spending a lot of time together. Hartley is devoted to his girlfriend, Stacia, the original mean girl who is studying abroad for the semester, but Corey almost immediately develops a pretty heavy crush on Hartley that only gets stronger.

There were a lot of things that I really liked about this book. First, it was unique and interesting to have a heroine with a permanent disability. I thought Bowen did a good job with Corey's frustrations at her limitations. I especially related to Corey's self consciousness and need to be independent. It felt pretty realistic.

Secondly, I really liked the relationship between Corey and Hartley. They were actually friends who spent time together and got to know each other. Of course Corey developed an immediate crush on Hartley, and it just made sense that it would take a while for Hartley to get to know Corey and realize what he felt about her. It made even more sense when his attraction to Stacia was explained later in the book. Their first hook up and Corey's reaction to it seemed exactly like something that has probably happened countless times in college dorm rooms. Also, I loved Corey and Hartley's first date. It fit their relationship perfectly.

***KIND OF SPOILERY?***Finally, I grew to like Corey's character so much that it almost transcended the romance. Sure, I wanted her and Hartley to get together, but when things were looking grim between the two, I knew Corey would be all right. Right when she was down at her lowest, she didn't wallow in self pity. She pulled herself up and went out for the inner tube water polo team, exposing her weaknesses and vulnerabilities in a way that she had always tried to avoid. She called it her Bravest Day Ever, and it was one of the most moving moments in the book for me. I was so happy for her.

I'm definitely going to be reading more of Sarina Bowen. Unfortunately, I cannot find any more of The Ivy Years series at the library. I did download Coming in From the Cold by Sarina Bowen, but it's a different series, and I don't know anything about it. Are some better than others?

Monday, August 15, 2016

#35 [2016/CBR8] "The Gutsy Girl" by Caroline Paul

I first heard of Caroline Paul because she was one of the first women firefighters on the San Francisco Fire Department, and she wrote a book about it (Fighting Fire, 1998). I bought the book, planning on reading it, but haven't gotten to it yet. Once I went through my own fire department academy, I wasn't too keen on going through the experience again--even through the eyes of another. But then I heard of another book by Caroline Paul, and I was curious enough to read it right away. The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure (2016), illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton, seems to be geared toward tweens and middle school students.

The Gutsy Girl is a wholly positive book that encourages young girls to get out of their comfort zones and be adventurous. Although Paul sometimes defines getting out of your comfort zone as doing anything that scares you, including raising your hand in class, the book is focused on outdoor and physical adventures. In addition, the book is a celebration of groundbreaking women in a number of fields. Paul uses stories and role models to say, "look at all this cool stuff women and girls have done, you can do it too, just be confident and don't worry about failure."

The book is split into chapters with short stories of Paul's life interspersed with small blurbs of inspiring girls and women today and throughout history. At the end of each chapter are some adventure tips and ideas for journaling. The tone is lighthearted and encouraging. It is clear that Paul is very aware of some of the factors limiting women today and is doing her best to encourage young women to succeed in areas often dominated by men.

Paul's stories about her life are more about teaching lessons in overcoming fear and failure than crowing about her own accomplishments. However, reading between the lines, it is obvious that Paul is a remarkable person who has done a lot in her life. She rowed competitively at Stanford(?), went paragliding in South America as a teenager, was invited to be on the National luge team, and broke down boundaries as a woman firefighter.

My favorite part of the book was just reading about Paul's life. She is a clear, entertaining writer. The small blurbs of inspiring girls and women interspersed throughout the book were sometimes distracting, but they also added a new dimension that was helpful overall. These inspiring women ranged from Ashima Shiraishi, a 15-year-old New Yorker and one of the best climbers, male or female, in the world right now, to Annie Taylor. Annie Taylor was the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Even more remarkable was the fact that this was 1901 and Annie Taylor was sixty-three years old. Desperate for money, she designed her own barrel and survived. Unfortunately for her, the press was not interested in an old woman going over Niagara Falls, and it wasn't until a man did the same feat ten years later that he got the attention she deserved.

I appreciate Paul's writing, and I appreciate that Paul is trying to inspire girls to not let fear or boundaries stop them. It's hard for me to imagine what I would have thought of this book if I had read it in middle school--if it would have inspired me. I was a very different person back then. I hope that a young girl can read it today and be inspired by the many possibilities out there.

#34 [2016/CBR8] "How Bad Do You Want It?" by Matt Fitzgerald

I'm so far from an elite athlete, even the comparison is comical. Yet I've pushed myself often enough and hard enough while running, rowing, or cycling, that I have some understanding of the pain of pushing past your limits. So, I was intrigued when I heard about this new book, How Bad Do You Want It?: Mastering the Psychology of Mind Over Muscle (2015) by Matt Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald's main thesis (supported by lots of science) is that your mind is the limiting factor in athletic endurance performance. It is your perceived effort that limits what you are able to accomplish. As you get fitter, your actual and perceived effort will decrease for the same amount of work. But you can also decrease your perceived effort and increase performance without any actual fitness gains. Fitzgerald looks at the personal stories and important races of a number of different athletes, including runners, cyclists, triathletes, and rowers. He uses each story to exemplify a certain principle in the science of endurance racing.

Since I'm into this kind of thing, I found all of the stories fascinating. They were often tales of immense talent coupled with frustration and failure inevitably ending with an inspiring comeback or win. It's inspiring stuff. The science is also fairly interesting. The main problem I had with this book, though, is that Fitzgerald tried too hard to match the science with the story of his athletes. The book would have been rather dry and boring without the inspiring wins, so I definitely understand his motivation. However, the success of one athlete in one race depends on so many factors, many of them still unknowable and unquantifiable, including who the competition is and how the competition is feeling. I feel that the book lost some of its credibility in its effort to tie everything together a little too neatly.

For example, Jenny Barringer was a remarkable young runner who had easily won every cross country race she'd run that season. But she lost it at her final and most important race. After feeling dizzy during her warm-up, she literally collapsed in the middle of the race. Although she was able to eventually get back up and finish, she came in near the end. Fitzgerald used Jenny Barringer's story to show that you had to expect and even brace yourself for the pain you were going to feel in the race. Barringer apparently had so little competition in the races leading up to her big one, that she was not prepared to push herself to the limit. I don't buy this explanation at all and think she was suffering from some unknown, physical problem. Why did Barringer feel dizzy during her warm up? She shouldn't be feeling bad in the warm-up if it was the unusually hard competition that made Barringer collapse. In addition, usually, if you're not prepared to push yourself very hard, you slow down, you don't physically collapse. No one knows exactly what happened that day, but I was not convinced by Fitzgerald's explanation.

I found this same problem with a number of Fitzgerald's other anecdotes. Greg Le Mond came back from almost dying after being shot with a shotgun. In order to win the Tour de France, he had to race the time trial of his life. Fitzgerald used Le Mond to show that athletes often improve more with time-based goals than with those that are more general. However, Le Mond's situation does not seem to fit this mold. He started his time trial before his rival and did not have a clear time-based goal. There are probably thousands of reasons won that day, but I was not convinced it was because Le Mond had a time-based goal.

Finally, I did find the chapters on Thomas Voeckler and Willie Stewart directly on point. When Voeckler had an audience and unexpected success, he biked much better than expected and was able to push himself harder than he ever had before. Willie Stewart was able to use the plasticity of the brain to learn how to swim differently, and very successfully, after losing his arm in an accident.

After being a huge cycling fan for a number of years, I have become quite cynical when it comes to performance enhancing drugs. I'm sure there are clean athletes out there, but when I read a story about an athlete who improves dramatically, I can't help but wonder. I'm not sure, but I can guess that a way to decrease perceived effort is to take performance enhancing drugs. This is not the subject of this book, and it's probably unfair to expect Fitzgerald to open up that can of worms, but I found the question consistently distracting.

I did enjoy reading the individual stories in this book, and I learned something about the science of endurance racing. However, if you are looking for a guidebook to improve your training, this is too general to be useful in that regard.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

#33 [2016/CBR8] "Ridiculous!" by D.L. Carter

I would occasionally roll my eyes at this book, thinking, oh my god, this plot or this character is ridiculous. But then I would remember the name of the book and know that I couldn't really complain about a book being ridiculous when its called Ridiculous! (2012). Really, what did I expect? I have never read anything by D.L. Carter before, but this one was fun and interesting, so I'd be willing to read another.

Millicent Boarder, her two sisters, and her mother have lived under the miserly and disagreeable thumb of their cousin Antony North since their father died. Treated like uncompensated servants, their situation becomes even more precarious when Mr. North suddenly dies of a fever. In a rather desperate attempt to protect her mother and sisters from homelessness and destitution, Millicent dresses up as Antony. She realizes the risks she's taking and knows she's in it for the long run, but it seems a small price to pay for freedom and happiness for her sisters and mother.

While on business as Mr. North, Millicent [hereafter referred to as Mr. North when she's dressed as him] comes across a recently overturned carriage holding Shoffer (a Duke? or some kind of high nobility) and his sister Beth. Mr. North helps them out and he and the Duke become friends, eventually becoming even closer friends. When Mr. North brings the Boarder sisters and their mother to London for a season, Shoffer, is remarkably helpful in finding them a place to stay and introducing them to society. Beth, very shy and uncertain, quickly becomes friends with the two Boarder sisters, and the two families spend quite a bit of time together. In order to pull off her scheme, Millicent turns Mr. North into something of a joke, a man of wit and parody who never takes himself too seriously. Mr. North quickly becomes the fashion of the London season. Although I sometimes thought Mr. North's antics were a little over the top, his carefree rejection of societal norms was often amusing and a large part of the book.

As I was reading this, I knew Shoffer and Mr. North would end up together, but it was hard to figure out how or when it was going to happen. In fact, the friendship between the two was so well built, and they spent so much platonic time together, that I sometimes had a hard time imagining them as a couple. I did appreciate that they really had a basis for their relationship. I also appreciated how, as Millicent took on the persona and responsibilities of Mr. North, her relationship with her sisters and mother changed. They spoke less often. Millicent did not want to burden her sisters with the financial issues she was dealing with, and her sisters often did not tell her what was going on in their life. Millicent also appreciated her freedom as a man so much, that, even if it had been safe to do so, she did not want to give it up.

I was not very impressed with the characters of Millicent's mother and Beth's grandmother. At some points, Millicent's mother seemed nothing short of idiotic. She would deliberately chastise Millicent in front of servants, possibly giving her secret away. But she was also put in charge of choosing all parties and social engagements for the family because she would make the right decisions? I found her unrealistic and inconsistent. Beth's grandmother, on the other hand, was a picture of pure evil without any explanation. No one likes a snob, but Beth's grandmother wasn't acting remotely rationally.

This book was a quick, fun read that kept me entertained. Although I had a couple of problems with it, the good definitely outweighs the not as good.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

#32 [2016/CBR8] "The Money Class" by Suze Orman

John Oliver, always witty and informative, was discussing retirement plans one day, and I saw it on Youtube. That reminded me that I've been working for the same place for four years now, and I still haven't set up my own retirement plan. One of the problems is that I was always distracted by the many other things I could be doing with that money. But the main problem was that I had no idea what I was doing. When the economy was bad, I figured what's the point of throwing my money into a plan where it will just erode away? I also didn't know how much I should be putting in, how I should do my investments, or what I should do with all of the other short-lived retirement plans from my previous jobs. I also have approximately zero interest in this kind of thing. Oliver's piece focused primarily on how to avoid getting overcharged on fees and to find financial advisers that would look out for your best interests. He mentioned Suze Orman a lot when dispensing advice, so I figured, if Suze Orman is good enough for John Oliver, then she's good enough for me.

So I promptly went on Amazon and found a book by Suze Orman that looked helpful, which turned out to be The Money Class (2011). I was going to say this was the most helpful financial book I've ever read, but I'm also pretty sure it's the only one I've ever read. It is clear that this book is geared towards those who have some money coming in, and realistically, a lot of money coming in. Orman recommends having an eight-month emergency fund, buying everything with cash (instead of credit), saving for college (if possible and appropriate), and putting at least fifteen percent of earnings towards retirement. I am in a relatively (although I would very much like to win the lottery) stable position financially, and it seemed a little overwhelming. If I were just scraping by or unemployed, I would have to stop reading this book at the first chapter. However, I thought Orman was clear, encouraging, sympathetic, and practical. Sure, I finished this book about a month ago, and I still haven't set up my retirement fund, but I have a much more clear idea what I want and will be procrastinating no[t much] longer.

Orman wrote this book as a handbook for those dealing with the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. One of her themes is that you have to "stand in your truth." For example, you need to look at your mortgage, the value of your house, how long you plan on staying, and your income to decide whether you can afford that mortgage. If you can't, raiding your retirement fund or asking relatives to help you out, will not make any difference. In the long run, you will still have to leave your home, but now you also have nothing to live on in retirement. The best option is to look carefully at your finances and be proactive. She applies this principle throughout the book, including colleges. You can go into a little debt for college, but too much will suffocate you when you graduate. You (or your kids) may be better off going to a cheaper school or starting off at a community college. It is important to honestly look at your finances before making a decision.

Orman's book is split into subjects of: family, home, career, and retirement. She is concise on each subject but touches on a number of important points. Her family chapter advises on loaning money to family members, raising kids with financial savvy, and saving for college. Her home chapter focuses on when to buy a home, if you can afford a home, and when to get rid of your home. The career chapter gives advice to those both employed and unemployed and those looking to start their own business. Finally, the retirement section (and the one most helpful for me at this point!) was split into "Getting Going in your 20's and 30's," "Fine-Tuning it in Your 40's and 50's," and "Living in Retirement." I read all of them, but the chapter I needed was the "Getting Going in your 20's and 30's." Not only did she make clear how important it was that I start my retirement fund as soon as possible, I now have some clear advice on how to invest my portfolio. The later chapters were also helpful in seeing where my parents were in the process and what they will need. There may be better books out there, I wouldn't know, but I just wish I had read this book earlier.

Monday, August 8, 2016

#31 [2016/CBR8] "One Thousand White Women" by Jim Fergus

I'm not too sure what to write about One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd (1998) by Jim Fergus. It was another book club book. So even though I'd seen it on the bookshelves at Target and was intrigued, I probably wouldn't have read it on my own. On the whole, I liked it. It kept my interest and had a lot of fascinating historical detail. Most of my book club was just frustrated that it wasn't a true story. For my part, I was able to accept that there was no way this could have happened and then just let myself enjoy the story. After all, isn't that what fiction is all about: the ability to explore the impossible? In this case, you have to allow that the U.S. government would volunteer one thousand white women up as brides as part of a treaty with the Cheyenne Indians. Fergus imagined what would have happened and then wrote it down.

Apparently Fergus had seen in his research that at some point in treaty negotiations with the U.S. government, a Cheyenne Chief asked for 1,000 white women. At the time,things were not looking good for his tribe. As a matrilineal society, the chief's hope was that the white women would help his tribe assimilate into the culture that was quickly dominating the continent. In reality, this request was never taken seriously and certainly never fulfilled. There is no way the government would actively send white women off to "breed" with the Indians in 1875. It seems that racism often centers around an obsession with keeping women "safe" and "pure". The country was riddled with anti-miscegenation laws (that lasted for a disturbingly long time after this period). But Fergus sets up a world where President Grant, in an effort to encourage peace, sets up a secret "Brides for Indians" program.

Fergus does a pretty good job of setting up the reality of this situation. The government didn't wander around society parties looking for wealthy, connected women. They started in prisons and mental institutions. And that's where they found our protagonist, May Dodd. May Dodd was a strong, independent, passionate woman. She was born in high society. She defied her family by running away with a man she loved and having two kids with him. They responded by kidnapping her, taking her children, and putting her in a mental institution. The mental institution was a place of horrors. Desperate to get away, May would have agreed to almost anything. And so she found herself on a train with the first group of approximately forty women sent out West.

The story is told through May Dodd's letters and journal entries. She is smart, open-minded, adventurous, and practical, and I enjoyed reading the story from her perspective. She quickly becomes something of a leader of their group of women. Her ultimate goal is to gain her freedom and get back to her children, but she's willing to make a good faith attempt at the arranged marriage. On their long journey, they stop at a fort where May Dodd meets Captain John Bourque. They fall in love, but they are both promised to others. May Dodd continues on to meet the Cheyenne and ends up marrying Chief Little Wolf. May goes into great detail about her life with the Cheyenne, and how she is viewed when she goes back to the fort as the Chief's wife.

Like I said, on the whole I liked this book. I do not know enough to be too discerning, but from all accounts, Fergus did a lot of research and has included a lot of historical detail. He made this book pretty believable, given its plot. I sometimes had issues with the roles of the other women in the story. Something about them, and it's probably because we don't spend as much time with them, did not feel as authentic. I also sometimes wished I had a little more context or information about the Cheyenne Tribe and their customs. However, since the story was from May's point of view, she simply recorded what she saw. She did not have supplemental information. I am also often wary of books that require a white protagonist to tell the story of a minority group. Why couldn't we just have had a novel about the Cheyenne struggling to survive in 1875? Yet Fergus did a pretty detailed and nuanced job of describing reality for Chief Little Wolf's tribe at the time, so I have a hard time faulting him there. I'd probably give it 3.5 stars.