Category Archive: Reviews

Dec 31

Book Review: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

24602886 I haven’t read much of Sarah Vowell’s stuff in the past. I picked up Assassination Vacation over the summer when I was in a really heavy essay phase, and I enjoyed it well enough. But it wasn’t enough to get me to go hear her talk at ALA Annual this past summer, and I didn’t exactly rush out to read this the moment it came out. I guess I thought I mostly just didn’t care about the subject and that it wouldn’t have anything to say to me.

Well, this was before I like a good chunk of the country became obsessed with the Hamilton cast album. But since we have and since we did, my interest in the Marquis de Lafayette has increased by a large margin. So I picked up this book from the new shelf at the library where I work as I was headed out the door for Christmas vacation. And because I thought it would be a humorous light read like Assassination Vacation, I went ahead and picked up as a nonfiction palette cleanser after finishing the phenomenal Vicious. 

First off, this book isn’t essays, and it doesn’t have chapters. How am I supposed to deal with this? I never quite knew when I could put it down. Second, because I picked up the book just because it was Sarah Vowell, I didn’t realize it was a biography. Which is fine. I just don’t read a lot of biographies.

Where this book shines is in giving a much-overlooked French perspective to the American Revolution. First off, however bad off you think the Continental Army was, they were way worse off. They perennially did not have enough shoes, clothes, or food to go around. It reminded me how close the American Revolution and the Seven Years War were to each other in time and how, geopolitically speaking, the American Revolution was really a skirmish between two superpowers that had actively hated each other for centuries. The birth of America was practically collateral damage.

Then there are tidbits about how we Americans were not quite the masters of our fate that we always suppose ourselves to be. At the fall of Yorktown (which I’ve always assumed was in New York because it has York but is totally in Virginia), there were twice as many French soldiers there as Americans. And that made it especially classy when the British tried to surrender to the French and the French made them surrender to the Americans because while it was America’s war, the French totally ruled the day. But even before Yorktown happened, there was the naval Battle of the Chesapeake that paved the way for the Yorktown victory. And who was fighting? France and Britain. Because Lord knows we didn’t have a navy. When Vowell is exploring these sorts of things, the book has a compelling interest that keeps things moving.

The Marquis does not have time for your shenanigans. He has Washington’s butt to kiss.

Now, my favorite parts of the book are when she fast-forwards to the present and talks about exploring for Lafayette related monuments or sightseeing and talking to re-enactors and seeing how things are remembered in the present day. But these instances have a bit of distance between them in the book, and I was always left wishing that they were a bit longer and that I could learn more about that quest rather than the young Lafayette’s hunt for glory. Oh, and it struck me as odd that even though this was America-centric look at Lafayette, it barely touched on his life post-Revolution, only painting it in the broadest of strokes. He lived to a ripe old age, but it seems that he had a lot more adventures that potentially could have been included. But maybe it’s outside the scope of the book. What do I know.

But the principal problem with this book doesn’t really have anything to do with this book. It more has to do with the fact that I am just not that interested in American history. I never have been. Maybe it’s because I have uniquely bad classes in the subject. Maybe it’s because I like my history like I like my cheese: with a little bit of depth and age. Maybe it’s just because I find other countries more exciting. But the subject has never done a lot for me, and this remains true with Vowell’s book. While it certainly added to my store of knowledge and gave me a new perspective on the war, it hasn’t inspired me to delve any deeper into the subject.

JMF Rating: 6/10

’til next time,

-JMF

Feb 27

Review: Murder at Pride Lodge by Mark McNease

17944664I review about a dozen or so books a year for GLBT Reviews, the review blog of the GLBT Round Table of ALA. We just had a chair switchover, and the new chair was encouraging all of us to seek out newer titles to read and review so that the blog could stay more current. I had just gotten my Audible credits for the month, so I figured I’d find something newly released, write up a review, and contribute to the common cause. So I downloaded Murder at Pride Lodge.

Okay, first things first: although the audio was newly released, the book came out in 2012. So I can’t submit a review to alternate sites, but that’s just something I’m going to have to live with. But to do a review anyways:

Devil Wears Prada Smart Fat Girl

This was not my cup of tea. At all. And while I’m not normally a mystery reader, I can be grabbed by a good enough story in any genre, but there were major flaws with the execution of this book. In no particular order:

  • For a 200 page book, there were A LOT of characters they wanted me to care about. The story follows Kyle Callahan and his partner Danny Durban as they go away for a holiday weekend at a LGBT lodge in Pennsylvania. But Kyle’s old friend the handyman mysteriously dies their first night there. Mix in a decades old murder with a lesbian assassin come to even the score, a geriatric mysterious old man, the couple that now owns the lodge, the bartender, and an awakening lesbian police officer, and there’s just a lot of characters to keep track of. The story is told in a third person omniscient style, so we keep jumping in between these characters thoughts to see how they truly feel about things. But instead of making me feel informed, it just removed dramatic tension and it forced me to attempt to care and empathize with too many characters. For the first in a series, I ended up finding the main character to be like the 4th most interesting person on the page.
  • The conclusion came out of nowhere. Obviously spoilers ahead. But Kyle realizing from one off-hand comment that someone went from hapless husband to the executor of a triple homicide…come on. The fact that said husband hid his trail almost perfectly for the first two and then bungled the third murder in a full hotel with way too obvious clues…I don’t buy it. The idea that the lesbian assassin would drive away without committing the murder she was there for and that had been her entire life’s work…it feels weak. The satisfying conclusion that mysteries build to was a flop, and this really fell flat for me.
  • The amount of exposition and back story was truly unneeded. I don’t need to know about the problems in seating people for a party at an upscale restaurant that Danny works at. I don’t need to know the career trials of Kyle’s boss. I don’t really care about the history of the lodge and who built and when and where their partner died on the grounds five years before this story even starts. I just want this story, and all the rest of this can come up organically through the characters or it can be ignored.
  • The repetition. Good god, the repetition. Did I say the repetition yet? Because there was repetition. At least four different chapters re-reviewed the lesbian assassins reason for committing her crimes. We riffed on the woman in a man’s world riff with the lesbian cop about three times. The importance of photography to Kyle. The cats that Danny and Kyle own. We repeatedly hit on each of these things. Once is a bit of exposition or character development. Multiple times makes me feel like the author thinks I’m stupid and I just don’t remember it.

I think it kind of goes without saying that the rest of the series isn’t in my To Be Read pile. But at least it got me back to reviewing on this blog.

JMF Rating: 3.5/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF

 

Nov 05

Review: Yes, Please by Amy Poehler

Yes pleaseI’m just going to jump over the fact that I haven’t reviewed a book since basically the birth of Christ and jump right back into it.

I just finished the audiobook version of Yes, Please by Amy Poehler. After having listened to her soul sister Tina Fey’s book Bossypants the week that the GIlstraps got married, I knew that reading this book wouldn’t even be an option. I was going to have to hear it. And I’m really glad that that is the format that I chose. Poehler constantly makes references that she is reading this book in an underground audio booth that she constructed beneath Mount Rushmore years before she was famous. And of course, because she’s hilarious, the book is even more hilarious with her reading and her voice literally saying all of the things that are in the book. However, unlike most audiobooks, she isn’t the only talker. She brings in Seth Meyers, Kathleen Turner, Patrick Stewart, her parents, and a slew of other people to read sections, titles, and to do their own voices during stories. In short, it really feels like you’re eavesdropping on some of the coolest people you know rather than just walking your dog around the apartment complex parking lot with your headphones in.

The book takes a fairly standard format. It contains stories of Poehler’s childhood, education, being young and scrappy, starting and growing with the Upright Citizens Brigade, her years on SNL and Parks and Recreation, and essays about being a mother, a woman, and a human being all at the same time. Poehler rarely if ever lets herself off the hook. If she did something crappy or mean or dumb, she presents it just as it happened (maybe tweaked for better comic effect). Stuff that she isn’t willing to do that to, she leaves out of the book. And I can applaud that. Things like her divorce or overly specific details about her children aren’t meant for the ravenous masses to digest, and so she keeps those as part of her personal life outside the memoir. Just because she wrote a book doesn’t mean that people get to own every little piece of her.

One of my favorite stories from the book is contained in this interview:

However, not everything is light-hearted. Poehler tells an extended story of a sketch that went wrong on SNL that ended up offending the people it was based on. She didn’t have the guts to apologize for for years (although eventually she did and it was accepted by the hurt parties). Poehler doesn’t try to present herself as the best possible person. She freely admits that she doesn’t like most people she meets and that as she gets older her patience for people she doesn’t find interesting is dwindling. She talks numerous times about her drug use when she was younger (which was recreational and not like Million Little Pieces tragic). But through it all, the listener ends up liking Poehler because she seems real and like a rougher Tina Fey.

The book doesn’t revolutionize the memoir world, and if you’re not a fan of Poehler’s, it probably won’t do very much for you. But if you’ve always wanted to spend some time hanging out with a woman that just wants to build a park, then I recommend giving this book a listen.

JMF Rating: 6.5/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF

May 15

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir

I picked up this book on a 2-for-1 special on Audible, and I’m really glad that I did. It was a blast. I was talking to my friend Krystin about it when Dale and I were in the middle of listening to it, and apparently  this book  is a bit of a response to the genre blending that has become so prevalent over the last couple of years. No blending with this one, though. Weir puts forth a straight science fiction yarn that can be summed up simply: Mark Watney is alone on Mars, and he’s doing everything he can to survive.

The majority of the book takes the form of first-person day logs kept by Mark Watney. Watney was one of the astronauts on the Ares III mission that was supposed to establish a month-long base on Mars before coming back to Earth. Less than a week in, a massive storm hits, and they all escape. Well, except Watney who becomes injured and swept away. Through dumb luck, he survives, and he spends the next two years putting his life back together on Mars. The story follows him healing his initial injuries, crafting ways to communicate with space command back home, figuring out how to become the first Martian farmer, and trying to come up with a way to get home. In the midst of it all, Watney provides shrewd observations about his new world and life with a biting, sarcastic humor that helps keep him sane in the desolate wasteland.

Now, a straight up epistolary narrative is not my thing. Though Watney doesn’t record every day of his time on Mars, leaving one character alone for too long can get dangerous. Luckily, just at the point that I was starting to get worried that Weir was going to strand us on Mars with Watney, he starts to include chapters based out of mission command on Earth. That story picks up from a satellite technician figuring out Watney is alive to the administrators trying to decide on the best way to keep him. The book accurately portrays how people on Earth would react to the news of an astronaut being trapped on Mars: morbid curiosity, fear for his safety, and a clamoring to do whatever could be done to get him back.

And so, while in some ways this book has a very modern feel, it does have a very classic format. The main problem is escape Mars, and this is never used a backdrop for more sentimental or psychological issues. The very real man vs. nature conflict puts all other worries aside as Watney has to deal with numerous problems dealt to him from the environment to a plethora of issues he brings on himself through experimentation (explosions from water making, blowing up a rover with a drill, and other mishaps). The book is simultaneously both dramatic and fun. It kept making me want to peek ahead to see if he actually made it out or not. Because you start feeling that you’re going to be so mad if he dies, but you just can’t see how could ever make it.

And if you’re going to do a trapped and trying to escape story, then that’s the way to do it.

JMF Rating: 9/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF

Apr 30

Review: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry

This book came into the library, and one of my coworkers immediately said, “That has been all over the Internet. It’s supposed to be fabulous.” So, since I didn’t have anything to read (lies…I have all the things to read), I decided to take it home and see if it really was that good. I mean, I don’t read a lot of just straight out literary fiction, but when I do, I tend to love it. Maybe it’s because I’m lucky. Or maybe it’s because I only read things that other people have raved about (looking at you, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry). So I dove into this book.

A. J. Fikry is the town curmudgeon. He runs Island Books on Alice Island, but he is not your friendly neighborhood bookshop owner. Instead, he likes literary fiction, and he has no patience for bestsellers, chick lit, children’s book, or vampire fiction. His wife used to deal with the customers, but she died in a freak car accident after an author even two years ago. After his first edition copy of a rare Edgar Allen Poe work goes missing, he decides to take up running to help clear his mind and get himself off the booze. Well, he comes home to find that someone has left a baby girl named Maya in the bookshop in his absence. He offers to keep her while they attempt to locate her mother. Sadly, she turns up dead. Instead of giving the child up to the foster system, though, Fikry agrees to keep the child and raise her.

This bring a profound change on Fikry. Suddenly, he’s not the town crank anymore. He starts ordering books for children and some more popular materials. The community rallies around this man who has no business raising a child, stopping by to drop off supplies, advice, and to create that “community raising a child” vibe that small towns in literature seem to love. It even makes Fikry come out of his shell and make an advance on Amelia Loman, the pretty publisher representative that eventually sweeps him away.

There’s also a frame structure that I found quite nice. Each chapter is preceded by a short description of a short story that Fikry wants his daughter to read. It includes a brief synopsis and why he thinks she should read it or why he thinks she will enjoy it. So, on top of a book, you get a short reading list of short stories to get you jumpstarted in that genre.

This book can be boiled down to a very simple formula. Basically, an unexpected baby makes a single dad reevaluate his life and build a more positive world for himself. But that’s such an oversimplification of how charming this book. Imagine the town crank suddenly deciding to pander to children, host author events, and start a book club for mothers and another for police officers. It’s heartwarming if not always believable in the real world sense. And the end of the book. The end of this book. Guys, it is sad. And you realize that he’s been writing this book (or at least the introductions to the chapters) from the future, and it is just so cute and charming and really, if you’re going away to the beach or you’re looking for something nice and easy but so good to read, then this is it. This is like a less mystical Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookshop. Go. Read it. Thank me later.

JMF Rating: 9/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF

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