Monthly Archives: November 2014

My blog is five years old!

A little over five years ago – on November 4, 2009 – I started this blog. I was largely inspired by reading Eva’s blog, A Striped Armchair, particularly her Library Loot vlogs, which were like Reading Rainbow episodes for grown-ups.

Except for that first year, when I threw myself into challenges and memes, I’ve never been a very prolific blogger. But writing review posts has become part of the pleasure of reading, for me. I often feel like my experience of the book isn’t complete until I’ve written about it. I also enjoy being a part of the book blogging community, whether it’s following up on a recommendation from another book blog, commenting on others’ posts, participating in a readalong, or meeting other bloggers in person.

As I was thinking about five years’ of blogging, I decided to look back at my older posts. And then I had the idea to highlight ten reviews/posts that stood out to me personally:

1. Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. Review posted Nov. 5th, 2009.

– This was my first review post so of course I had to include it. Random Family was one of my favorite reads that year too: a nonfiction book about a group of young people growing up in the Bronx. It was probably good to start off my reviews with a book that’s easy to praise.

2. Defiance by Nechama Tec. Review posted Jan. 1, 2010.

Defiance is a nonfiction book about a Jewish partisan community – the Bielski Otriad – that survived World War II in the forests of Belorussia. This is one of the few book / movie comparisons I’ve done on this blog, and I was really happy with how it turned out. I really took the movie to task, ha ha.

3. Stasiland by Anna Funder. Review posted Nov. 24, 2010.

Honestly, I think this review of a nonfiction book about the former German Democratic Republic is one of my favorite posts because I like the quotes I included so much.

4. Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. Review posted Mar. 20, 2011.

I wrote this review after re-reading the book (the first time I read it was in 2006, pre-blogging days). Winter’s Bone is one of my favorite books and I felt like I was able to articulate the merits of the book as well as what elements struck me in the re-reading experience.

5. Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O’Hanlon. Review posted Jul. 9, 2011.

I am terribly fond of travel writing and have reviewed a number of travel nonfiction books in my blog. I think I like this post because I liked being reminded of this book again. Into the Heart of Borneo is not a book I think of a lot normally, but when I saw it in my review index, I was awash in bookish sentiment over it.

6. Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt. Review posted Sept. 10, 2011.

I remember that I spent a lot of time thinking about how to review this memoir about the author’s sudden loss of his daughter. It was difficult to write because I didn’t like the book and I had a hard time unpacking why I didn’t like it.

7. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. Review posted Dec. 10, 2011.

I feel a sense of accomplishment regarding my two-paragraph overview which attempts to describe what Our Mutual Friend is “about”. The review itself is also one of my better ones. I think I spent more time on my posts then.

8. Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, translation by Tiina Nunnally. Review posted May 1, 2012.

I loved reading these Fairy Tales and really indulged myself in writing this lengthy review, calling out a number of the stories for particular mention.

9. The Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs. Review posted Oct. 1, 2012.

I like this post simply for the novelty of reviewing an entire series (not including trilogies) and pulling together my thoughts on all six novels. (Two more have been published since then.)

10. Reading my ancestor’s journal. Posted Nov. 17, 2013.

This was a non-bookish post where I talked about and included excerpts from my great-great grandmother’s journal, which I had been copying over into a Word document. My great-great grandmother lived in Williamsburg, Massachusetts and kept the journal from 1888 to 1902. I was surprised and delighted by all the interest that the blog post gathered and posted a few more times with excerpts from the journal. I hope to return to copying over and posting about the journal this winter.


Though I have no intention of stopping, it’s hard to imagine blogging for another five years. I have no idea what blogging will be like in 2019, much less what I will be doing with my life in 2019, but I hope that when that year comes I will still be discussing books with a community of online readers. (I have no doubt I will still be reading!)


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Three mini-reviews: Something Missing, Lost Lake, and This is Running for Your Life

Something MissingLost Lake - Sarah Addison AllenOrange Running for Your Life

Something Missing by Matthew Dicks

2009. Broadway Books. ebook. 224 pages.

Recommendation from: Behind the Stove


I started reading this book in 2009, but had to return it to the library before I’d made it very far. For some reason, my mind gets weird about books I’ve returned to the library unread, sort of like, “Oh well! I tried! Guess it wasn’t meant to be” and then I almost never check that book out again. For some reason, Something Missing became the symbol of this phenomenon to me, and I feel like I have totally grown as a reader and a person by finally checking out the book again (ebook this time) and finishing it.

pitch perfect 1

Perhaps now I will conquer other books in this category: Adam Langer’s Crossing California, John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

Anyway, Something Missing is a light read about a somewhat obsessive-compulsive burglar, Martin, who routinely robs his “clients” in such a way that they won’t notice anything is missing: cleaning supplies, food, and occasionally, after much planning, a more expensive item such as jewelry or an antique. But one day, after nearly being caught by one of his clients, he decides to orchestrate something good to happen in their lives, triggering a chain of events that thoroughly upends his routine, lonely life.

Martin struck me as a cross between Don Tillman of The Rosie Project and Amelie, of the film Amelie. I enjoyed the author’s fantasy of the kind of planning that goes into this kind of regular burglary. I think the book had some slow moments, but overall I found it a pleasing book with an unusual premise. There were moments that were surprisingly suspenseful as well: at one point, Martin accidentally knocks a client’s toothbrush into the toilet, and out of his own germ-phobia and fondness for his client, he races to replace the toothbrush before the client returns home.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

I’m Booking It – “[Martin’s] someone I was thinking about even when I wasn’t reading. There’s something sweet about him, even with everything he has going on. I cheered when he finally started reaching out.”

Steph and Tony Investigate – “It’s not a perfect book by any means . . . but it’s a fun romp, perfect for reading on the weekend or at the beach.”

Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen

2014. St. Martin’s Press. Hardcover. 296 pages.

I had read all of Allen’s other books except this, the newest one. In Lost Lake, a widow wakes up out of a year-long bout of emotional slumber, and takes her young daughter to visit a great-aunt at a declining lakeside resort. All of the usual elements of Allen’s books are there: the slight dash of magic, the healing of past wounds, and a little romance. Lost Lake has a more melancholy air than Allen’s previous books. I don’t know if the backstories seemed more sad, or that some characters’ regret was more palpable. I do know Allen took a two-year hiatus from writing after being diagnosed with breast cancer, and wrote this book after her treatment. Perhaps this experience changed the tone, but perhaps that’s reading too much into it, as The Sugar Queen was a more somber entry as well, if memory serves.

I do want to note that the story of one character’s childhood seemed to come straight out of Appalachian author Lee Smith’s playbook, which delighted me. But overall, this is probably my least favorite of Allen’s books, and one that I wouldn’t re-read.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Lesa’s Book Critiques – “Allen’s latest novel, Lost Lake, is as haunting and magical as the location of Lost Lake itself.”

The Sleepless Reader – “It’s likely that I’ll always have a good time with everything she writes, but within this, Lost Lake felt a bit watered down. It needed to be longer and more focused.”

write meg – “It lacked Allen’s trademark warmth, her zing and zip; it felt like a husk of a story instead of a full-blooded novel, and it suffered for that.”

This Is Running For Your Life: Essays by Michelle Orange

2012. FSG Originals. Kindle ebook. 351 pages.


I often tune into Jenny‘s Reading the End Bookcast podcast, but not usually in a timely fashion. I managed to listen to the Sept. 17th podcast soon after it was posted online, and realized, hey! I could read their next “assigned” book before its review episode! So I dutifully bought Michelle Orange’s This Is Running For Your Life on my Kindle and . . . stopped reading after the first two and a half essays. For some reason, I had thought a book of essays on pop culture would be fun, quick reading and I was very wrong. Not the author’s fault, of course, but definitely required a readjustment of my reader expectations. The thing is, I admired Michelle Orange’s formidable and perfectly executed vocabulary and incisive analysis, but I wasn’t interested in most of her chosen topics. True, I did highlight some choice phrases from her essay about manic-pixie-dream-girls but even then, I thought the essay went on too long. (This essay had also become rapidly dated in the two years since the book’s publication.)

Because I had purchased the book, and because I saw that the Jennys of the podcast had devoted most of an episode discussing each essay, I persevered after a hiatus. I’m glad that I did, for I really liked the fourth essay, “One Senior, Please” which was mostly about Michelle Orange flying to Halifax to visit her dying grandmother, and is a musing on flying and on her grandmother’s life. The Jennys of Reading the End Bookcast found the essay disjointed, but it was my favorite essay of the collection. Orange’s observations about flying were spot-on and funny. This observation followed a description of a several hour wait on the tarmac before departure:

In a tone that grew more defiantly nonchalant with every update, the pilot advised us that some of our bags would arrive on a future flight. Even with routine debacles such as this it’s rare to be promised future bullshit while the current bullshit is still very much in progress. Sorry ’bout that, folks.

I also loved how movies formed the connective tissue between granddaughter and grandmother. Maybe I just like memoirs/novelizations/personal essays about grandmothers (books like Kimi Cunningham Grant’s Silver Like Dust and Jeannette Walls’ Half-Broke Horses come to mind).

The other standout essay was the fifth, “Beirut Rising,” a description of Orange’s visit to Beirut in 2008. I love travel writing, and this essay was a straight-up example of that genre.

The rest of the essays continued to have their moments of apt commentary and interesting, though sometimes incomplete, juxtaposition of ideas. I’m glad I persevered with it, but the collection wasn’t really to my taste overall, with the exceptions noted above.

Link to Reading the End podcast on This Is Running For Your Life.


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American history as told by Sarah Vowell and Timothy Egan: Two reviews

Worst Hard Time Unfamiliar Fishes

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story Of Those Who Survived The Great American Dust Bowl

by Timothy Egan

2005. Mariner Books. Paperback. 340 pages.


The subtitle of Egan’s book – “The Untold Story” – rings true to my own experience. Though I knew of the Dust Bowl and when it occurred before I read this book, I knew very little else. I hadn’t even read Grapes of Wrath. Perhaps if I hailed from the states affected, I might have learned about it from school or older family/community members.

Or perhaps not. In the introduction to his book, Egan shares this anecdote:

Outside Inavale [Nebraska] not long ago, an old woman was found burning a Dust Bowl diary written by her husband. Her neighbor was astonished: why destroy such an intimate family record? The horror, the woman explained, was not worth sharing. She wanted it gone forever.

Through research and his own interviews with still-living survivors of the Dust Bowl, Egan recounts the events that led up to the Dust Bowl before detailing what life was like in the 1930’s for the areas affected by the incessant “dusters”. The map in the book shows the affected area to include parts of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, southeastern Colorado, a large swath of Kansas, and parts of southern Nebraska.

The most interesting piece of this book for me was learning of the factors that led to the Dust Bowl. Before it was “civilized”, this part of the United States was a grassland filled with buffalo. The buffalo were killed – partly as a way to drive off the Native American tribes that depended on the bison – and replaced with cattle. When the cattle died in massive numbers due to the harsh winters of the plains, various enterprising and frankly fraudulent companies hawked the land as farming real estate. These companies banked on people anxious to fulfill the land-owning version of the American Dream. The windmill and the tractor were trumpeted as the tools to attaining wealth in a market that favored the wheat farmer. But just as the cattle were not made for the plains, neither was wheat. With all the native grassland stripped away, and cropfields abandoned after the market took a downturn, the soil turned to dust and began rising up in storms that infiltrated homes and sickened the plants, animals, and humans that were in the storms’ paths.

Due to an alchemy of corruption, false advertising, wanton environmental destruction, and bad science (authority figures explained to would-be farmers that rain was triggered by plowed earth), thousands of people endured years and years of misery. The cause and effect of the Dust Bowl is a cautionary tale worth hearing, as that particular American alchemy is still in operation today. As I read, I couldn’t help but hear echoes of this tale in current events.

Most of the book follows a cast of real-life people through the Dust Bowl, clearly drawing on oral history, interviews, and diaries (indeed some chapters are outright transcriptions from one particular diary). Egan provides contextual detail every time a “character” reappears in the history, which proved very helpful if you read the book intermittently, as I did. That said, most of the book dragged for me. Reading The Worst Hard Time reminded me somewhat of reading Stewart O’Nan’s The Circus Fire (about the deadly Hartford circus fire of 1944). In both books, the authors seem reluctant to leave out any detail that was recounted to them by their interview subjects. The result may be a faithful tribute to these survivors, but some narrative momentum is lost in the process.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Avid Reader’s Musings: “Egan has a wonderful talent for blending anecdotes with information.”

BookLust:  “I really enjoyed the first half but got much more distracted in the second.  Still, it was good to read about so many people who lived through so much.”

Prairie Progressive: “While Egan educates the reader on [the natural and political effects of the Dust Bowl], at bottom his focus is on people, what they confronted and how they attempted to survive. That is the strength of the story — and the strength of the plains.”

Unfamiliar FIshes by Sarah Vowell

2011. Riverhead Hardcover. 238 pages.


If I knew very little about the Dust Bowl, it’s possible that I knew even less about the history of Hawaii. Vowell combines travelogue with history in Unfamiliar Fishes, particularly focusing on the era in Hawaii’s history after missionaries arrive in 1820 and before the shady 1898 annexation of Hawaii by the United States government. For all of her acerbic wit, Vowell deals fairly with the Puritan-minded missionaries, contextualizing them in their worldview. She doesn’t portray the native Hawaiians as saintly victims of Western power plays, but as a people who had their own complex, evolving culture and inner politics.

The first two-thirds of the books are very strong, as Vowell mixes the history with descriptions of her own visit to Hawaii with her pre-teen nephew. I also liked reading the connections that Vowell made between Christian missionaries’ and the U.S. Government’s interaction with Hawaiians and these same entities’ interaction with the Cherokee people. As author Paisley Rekdal said at this year’s National Book Festival, connectivity is the primary goal of creative nonfiction, and Vowell succeeds in this.

The last third of the book tends toward info-dump territory. The facts come to the reader in leaden lumps, unlike the fine blended nature of the rest of the book. Still, it was worth it to learn about the sneaky way that Hawaii was annexed by the United States: among other things, when thwarted from getting the 2/3 majority needed to ratify an annexation treaty, Congress annexed Hawaii by joint resolution, which required only a simple majority to pass. Former President Grover Cleveland opposed this action and lamented when it came to pass. He wrote to his former secretary of state: “Hawaii is ours. As I look back upon the first steps in this miserable business and as I contemplate the means used to complete the outrage, I am ashamed of the whole affair.”

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

The Book Shopper – “. . . I never get a feeling of what it is like to live in Hawaii then or now. Vowell’s purpose in writing the book is to remind us of our American hegemony. As Vowell tells her nephew Owen at the end of the book “It’s about how people like us wrecked this place.””

S. Krishna’s Books – “While Unfamiliar Fishes is well-researched, it isn’t quite as engaging as some of Vowell’s other works.  It’s never dry or boring, but Vowell clearly doesn’t have the same passion for Hawaiian history as she does for presidential assassinations.”

That’s What She Read – “[Sarah Vowell presents her research] with a fresh, tongue-in-cheek appreciation for the damage Americans have done to the native culture without pontificating too much.”


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