On animals, nature, books and live feeds

Hi Everyone,

I wrote a post on our library blog today and shared live feeds of scenes of nature around the world. I’ve become fascinated with them, especially one of eagles and their babies.

I’ll share the link to that post at the bottom, but I also want to share a book I read last year, How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery. I think it ties in nicely with these nature feeds. Montgomery is the author of 28 books for children and adults and her New York Times Best Seller, The Soul of an Octopus, was a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction. I recommend How to Be a Good Creature to anyone who is interested in animals, from those in the wild to the ones curled up in your lap or at your feet.

You can check out my review here.

Click here for more information about The Soul of an Octopus.


And to see how to get to the live feeds, with more book suggestions, check out this post: Explore nature’s creatures with, live feeds, books and magazines.

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Audiobook Review – Maid by Stephanie Land

Maid
by
Stephanie Land

Rating:

This is going to be one of those reviews that goes against a popular and well-received book. But it also raises an important question that readers should consider when they’re reading a memoir.

First, though, a quick summary of Maid by Stephanie Land. It’s Land’s story of how, as a single mother, she found herself homeless and had to turn to public assistance in the form of grants, food stamps and similar programs to help her find a place to live and provide daycare while she worked. In an eye-opening explanation, she lists the programs and specific requirements she needed to meet in order to qualify. As a former coffee shop worker and part-time landscaper, she had only a high school degree and struggled to find regular work. She took on jobs cleaning houses, working for herself and also through a maid service. But for a long time, there were never enough hours for her to earn a proper living

It’s also her success story of how she was able to pick herself up and get a college degree in creative writing and eventually write this book.

I’m all for this kind of success story and that’s why I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by the author.

The problem I have with the story is that the author is whiny, chippy and judgmental about the people she interacts with, including her family, who do not support her. I’m not going to get into the details about these relationships, her actions and the decisions she makes, except highlight a couple that really bugged me.

I thought her attitude towards the people in the homes she cleaned was hypercritical and downright shocking. Looking at receipts, going through papers, trying on clothes, snooping through their prescriptions, and the worst, opening up the urns of one family’s ashes and imagining how they died – that stuff is appalling. So much complaining about their bathrooms and the dirt in their homes. It was tiresome.

My other chief problem comes from a highway car accident in which the author left her daughter alone in their pulled-over car to a retrieve a toy that had gone out the window. There were many more things that rubbed me the wrong way, including major facts that were left out, that seemed to spin her story the way she wanted it.

But I want to raise a question about how readers are supposed to react to another person’s actions, when they’re put out there in a memoir, particularly the overcoming adversity type. As I said before, I like inspirational and uplifting stories and I don’t begrudge anyone’s success and happiness. As many other reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads have noted, I’m glad she dug herself out and found success. And if the book gives others in her situation the hope to do that, I’m for that.

I don’t mean to offend anyone who enjoyed reading or listening to Maid. As I said above, I’m glad she found happiness. But if readers feel something else, along with that message, something that doesn’t ring right, can’t we say so? What do you think?

To be fair, I’m sharing some positive and a couple skeptical WordPress reviews of Maid. And you can also click on these Amazon and Goodreads links for a full selection. It’s clearly the reader’s right to like the book, even though it wasn’t for me. Even Barack Obama liked the book, so what do I know?

Visit these blogs for a variety of reviews:

Becky’s Books
Hit or Miss Books
Ink Drinker Society
Arguably Alexis
The suspense is killin’ me—

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Books to Pen – Book Club Mom’s creative writing blog

Hi Everyone,

I just launched a new blog called Books to Pen, dedicated to my creative writing efforts. I posted my first piece of short fiction which you can find here. I hope you will take a look. Feedback is welcome!

https://bookstopen.wordpress.com


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Book Review: Howard Hughes: The Untold Story by Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske

Howard Hughes: The Untold Story
by
Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske

Rating:

I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know much about Howard Hughes when I opened this biography. Most of it happened before I was born and I was too young to understand what happened later in his life. But I knew his name and I had a vague knowledge of his involvement in aircraft and the movies. That was it.

Hughes had a lot going on in his life. He was a dashing billionaire inventor and pilot, ran two giant corporations, built a major airline, was a filmmaker and used his money to get and control whatever he wanted, including a shockingly long list of glamourous women.

Born in Texas in 1905, Hughes grew up an only child, smothered by his mother’s obsessive attention and fear of germs. Already different and uncomfortable around other children, he preferred to play alone in the workshop his father built for him, where he tinkered with many inventions. He became a millionaire at nineteen, when his father died and left behind a successful oil drill bit business (Hughes Tool Company). The timing of his life, his engineering genius and business instinct resulted in decades of profits in the tool, aircraft and government contract businesses. With all this going on, he plunged into movie-making and made many successful films.

But there were many things askew in Howard Hughes. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a condition that was less understood at the time and often untreated or self-treated, affected all aspects of his life. More than a dozen head injuries, a syphilis infection and an alarming drug habit no doubt contributed to an increasingly bizarre and reclusive life.

He surrounded himself with staff and security who would do anything he asked, including hunting down beautiful stars and starlets, some of them in their teens, setting them up in bugged apartments, with detectives reporting on their every move. He seduced hundreds of famous women, including Jean Harlow, Kathryn Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner, married twice, and was engaged to multiple young women and girls at the same time. He declared his love to all of them and some of them bought it. Hughes’s behavior with women was glamorized at the time, but from a modern reader’s perspective, it is disturbingly predatory.

Despite these conditions, he continued to negotiate huge deals for Hughes Tool Company, Hughes Aircraft, RKO Pictures and Trans World Airlines. He was also a political contributor, sometimes to both parties and had ties to President Richard Nixon’s adversary, Democratic National Committee Chairman Larry O’Brien. It’s believed that Nixon’s interest in knowing more about O’Brien’s relationship with Hughes was one of the reasons for the Watergate break-in.

In his prime, Howard Hughes was deemed an American hero, but in his final years, he was barely lucid. And it turns out, his loyal staff had their sights on his riches and pumped him with shocking amounts of codeine and painkillers. He died at age seventy in 1976.

There is much more in this book, too much to mention and better to read first-hand. There is no question that Hughes’s unbelievable life story fits Mark Twain’s observation that “Truth is stranger than fiction.”

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Book Review: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone
by
Lori Gottlieb

Rating:

Lori Gottlieb, a writer and psychotherapist, felt crushed when the long-term relationship with her boyfriend ended abruptly. She was certain she’d been wronged and wanted to find a way out of her pain. So she found her own therapist (Wendell) and, while he was helping her, she was helping her patients with many of the same issues, all of which come from being human.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is the story of four of Gottlieb’s patients and of her own journey to better self-understanding. She explains the similarity and why she wrote the book: “Our training has taught us theories and tools and techniques, but whirring beneath our hard-earned expertise is the fact that we know just how hard it is to be a person.”

Gottlieb introduces us to her patients: John, a highly successful television writer who thinks everyone is an idiot; Charlotte, a twenty-five-year-old with anxiety and relationship issues; Julie, a thirty-something newlywed with a cancer diagnosis; and Rita, nearly seventy and considering suicide.

In chapters that connect Gottlieb’s progress with her patients’, we get to know them all. The author describes how it feels to be both patient and doctor. “Does my therapist like me?” she hopes. “Are my problems boring?” she worries. She talks about the relationships with her patients and how invested she becomes in their progress and happiness. And how they see her. What would they think if they knew that she, too, was in therapy?

As we learn more about them, we begin to see that the problems John, Charlotte, Julie, Rita and Lori have are variations of our own and based on a search for meaning in life.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is both anecdotally funny and informative about theories and methods. Gottlieb gives us insight into her own therapy by laughing at her initial awkwardness with Wendell. She shares her insecurities and obsessions over the “Boyfriend” who broke it off. And as a therapist, she describes the many professional decisions she must make, such as how to honor the confidentiality contract with patients when your paths cross, in person and through referrals. As she discusses their sessions, she shows what methods she uses to see what’s really underneath John’s anger, to show Charlotte how to break her self-destructive habits, to help Julie with a grim diagnosis and to teach Rita how to find a reason to live.

She encourages her patients to acknowledge their pain because “feeling your sadness or anxiety can also give you essential information about yourself and your world.” She emphasizes recognizing sadness and breaking free from “stepping in the same puddle,” pointing out that “most big transformations come about from the hundreds of tiny, almost imperceptible, steps we take along the way.” I like that.

I found this book highly readable and informative. By sharing her problems and relating them to her patients’, Gottlieb erases the stigma of going to therapy. Her message? We all need someone to talk to.

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Fiction or nonfiction? Twitter reading poll results

The results are in on my small Twitter poll. Eighty-seven percent of those who responded on Twitter prefer fiction over nonfiction. And I had six write-ins on my blog. One for fiction, one for nonfiction and four readers who say it’s kind of even.

Despite these results, I feel as if readers are reading more nonfiction than ever. I’ve always preferred fiction over nonfiction, but I’m reading more nonfiction than I ever did in the past.

Here are some recommended nonfiction books I’ve read since I started my blog.


The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin – I wasn’t sure I would enjoy reading this, but I was happily surprised to find Franklin’s memoir a remarkable and amusing record of time in America during the mid- to late 1700s. I also enjoyed refreshing my memory about the colonies before the American Revolution and the steps that led to independence.


Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. – Dedman was intrigued by two vacant but fully maintained mansions and two large apartments on Fifth Avenue in New York, owned by reclusive heiress, Huguette Clark. Clark, by choice, spent the last twenty years of her life in a hospital bed and gave away large amounts of money to her caretakers and advisers. When she died at age 104, who was to inherit her $300 million fortune?


Helen Keller – The Story of My Life – If you grew up in the United States, you very likely learned about Helen Keller in school.  She was an American girl from Alabama who lost her sight and hearing as a baby and determinedly overcame these obstacles to become a writer, a social activist and an advocate for the blind and deaf.


In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – Many believe that Truman Capote was the pioneer of the nonfiction novel genre. In a 1966 New York Times interview with George Plimpton, Capote explains his decision to write a book about the brutal 1959 murder of a Kansas family: “The motivating factor in my choice of material—that is, choosing to write a true account of an actual murder case—was altogether literary. The decision was based on a theory I’ve harbored since I first began to write professionally, which is well over 20 years ago. It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the ‘nonfiction novel,’ as I thought of it.”


Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – Here’s a book I resisted reading because there was so much hype that I took a step back. I also avoided it because I am not a science person. But then my book club chose Lab Girl and I committed to reading it. So, wow. This book was excellent. Jahren writes beautifully about her lonely childhood in Minnesota, college life and early years trying to make it as a scientist.


Night by Elie Wiesel – I had read other books about the Holocaust, but never Night, Elie Wiesel’s memoir about being sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland during World War II. The New York Times calls it “a slim volume of terrifying power” and I couldn’t agree more. In 1944, Wiesel was deported by the Germans from his town of Sighet, Transylvania and sent by cattle train to Auschwitz and later Buchenwald. He was just a teenager. His account of this experience is a horrifying reminder of a terrible period of history.


Notes from a Public Typewriter – edited by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti – Here’s a quick book that is guaranteed to put you in a good mood. It’s about the owners of the Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When they set up the store, they put out a typewriter and paper for anyone to use. It wasn’t long before customers began to type random, sometimes whimsical and often heartfelt messages for all to see. Notes is a compilation of these messages.


Have you read any of these?  What are your favorite nonfiction books?

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A great reading year for fiction and nonfiction – check out these recommended reads!

Image: Pixabay

It’s been a great reading year and the perfect time to share the books I’ve enjoyed. I’m ready to curl up with a good book, are you?


Fiction

Leaving the Beach by Mary Rowen

The story of a young woman and her search for happiness. Set in the working class town of Winthrop, Massachusetts, readers get to know her in alternating time periods—in the 1970s and ‘80s as an awkward teenager and college student, and in the 1990s as a young adult.


Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Highly recommend this terrific story of complicated family dynamics. You’ll want to read it all at once to know how it works out!


Lot: Stories by Bryan Washington

Debut collection of 13 coming-of-age stories, set in Houston, and told mainly by one character. An uncensored look at a struggling population with a hopeful finish. One of Barack Obama’s Top Picks of 2019.


Nonfiction

The Beneficiary – Fortune, Misfortune, and the
Story of my Father by Janny Scott

Interesting biography of Robert Montgomery Scott, written by his daughter Janny Scott. A history, spanning four generations of a wealthy family that settled on what’s called the Main Line outside of Philadelphia.


Honor Girl – A Graphic Memoir by Maggie Thrash

Young Adult graphic memoir about the author’s coming-out experience at a summer camp in the mountains of Kentucky.


How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in
Thirteen Animals
by Sy Montgomery

The more Sy Montgomery studies animals and nature, the more she knows that humans have a lot to learn about the creatures that share our world. In this book, she describes her unique relationships with 13 animals and what they have taught her.


What good books did you read in 2019?

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Book Club Mom’s great reads of 2019

I read some great books this year. Here’s a list of my favorites!


Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Is it good luck to survive a plane crash over the Atlantic? Most would think yes, but Scott Burroughs, after a heroic swim to safety, with four-year-old JJ Bateman clinging to his neck, may wonder. Because he will soon find himself caught between competing government agencies searching for a cause and the media’s ruthless pursuit of a story, any story, even if it’s unfounded. Winner of the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel and the 2017 International Thriller Writers Award for Best Novel.


In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Fantastic nonfiction novel, the first of its kind and considered Truman Capote’s masterpiece. The chilling depiction of a senseless 1959 murder of a Kansas family. Capote and his childhood friend, Harper Lee, went to Kansas to research the story and compiled over 8000 pages of notes. They were granted numerous interviews with the murderers, who by then, had confessed and were in jail awaiting trial. They moved to death row after their convictions, where Capote continued to interview them until their hangings. He became particularly attached to Perry Smith and related to his unhappy childhood.


Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Fantastic memoir about Hope Jahren’s experiences as a scientist. Jahren’s field is plants, especially trees, and her interest in them is contagious. She explains the fascinating way in which they grow, reproduce and adapt. Jahren writes beautifully about her profession, its challenges and about her lonely childhood in Minnesota, college life and early years trying to make it as a scientist.


Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less is turning 50 and he’s at the edge of a crisis: his writing career has stalled and his former lover is getting married. To guarantee he’ll be out of the country on the day of the wedding, Less accepts a string of unusual writerly engagements that take him around the world. His goal? Forget lost love and rework the novel his publisher has taken a pass on. In a comedic series of travel mishaps, Less bumbles through this symbolic journey in search of happiness. Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.


Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Set in New York during the Depression and World War II, the story begins with Anna Kerrigan as a young girl whose father has ties to organized crime. She accompanies her father on an errand and meets a mysterious man with powerful connections and won’t fully understand the impact until years later. I highly recommend Manhattan Beach to readers who like historical fiction and big stories with strong female characters.


Notes from a Public Typewriter – edited by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti

Guaranteed to put you in a good mood, about the Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, owned by Gustafson and his wife, Hilary. When they set up the store in 2013, they put out a typewriter, with paper, for anyone to use. It wasn’t long before customers began to type random, sometimes whimsical and often heartfelt messages for all to see. This book is the combined story of these messages.


Refugee by Alan Gratz

Terrific Young Adult historical novel about three refugee children, caught in different periods of conflict, who flee their countries in search of safety and a better life. In alternating stories, the children face unpredictable danger as they desperately try to keep their families together. Each discovers that, by being invisible, they escape many dangers, but miss chances for others to help them. Published in 2017 Refugee is now included in many middle and high school curriculums. A New York Times Notable Book, an Amazon Best Book of the Year, and both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year.


Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman

Great memoir about a woman who is hired to play violin in a prestigious touring orchestra, only to discover that the microphones are turned off. What’s turned on is a $14.95 CD player from Walmart, playing a recorded version of a composer’s music, performed by other musicians. The music sounds suspiciously like, but a strategic note or two different from, the score of the popular 1997 film, Titanic.


Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Kya Clark is six years old when her mother walks out of their shack, a place hidden in the marshes of North Carolina, where racial tension and small-town prejudices are firmly in place in the nearby coastal town of Barkley Cove. Soon her father’s abusive rages drive Kya’s older siblings away, leaving only Kya and her father. Then one day it’s just Kya, known in town and shunned as the wild Marsh Girl. The story begins in 1952 and jumps to 1969, when a young man has died. In alternating chapters, readers learn Kya’s story of survival and how she becomes part of the investigation into his death.


What books were your favorites in 2019? Leave a comment and share your best!

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My Friend Anna – The True Story of a Fake Heiress by Rachel DeLoache Williams

My Friend Anna – The True Story of a Fake Heiress
by
Rachel DeLoache Williams

Rating:

In 2017, Rachel Williams, a young woman working for Vanity Fair magazine in New York, made friends with a 26-year-old woman named Anna Delvey. Delvey was living in a swank hotel and claimed to be a German heiress. The two became fast friends and Anna brought Rachel into her world, treating her to expensive restaurants, nightclubs, workouts, saunas, and pedicures. Anna claimed to be negotiating a big idea – a private art club, housed in the historic Church Missions House on Park Avenue. A couple months later, Anna invited Rachel and two others to join her on a lavish, all-expenses paid vacation in Marrakech, Morocco.

That’s where it all went south. When Anna’s credit cards didn’t work in Marrakech, she persuaded Rachel to put the charges on her own cards, including a Vanity Fair American Express expense account, assuring Rachel she’d pay her back as soon as she talked to her bank. The charges totaled over $62,000 and Anna began to drag her feet. After two months of promises (my favorite line from these conversations: “Would Bitcoin be okay?”), Rachel began to understand that she’d been conned.

My Friend Anna is the story of how Rachel, 29, dealt with being duped out of a large amount of money, which included providing authorities with information and evidence that led to Anna’s arrest. The charges were grand larceny and theft of services from Rachel and others of more than a quarter million dollars. Rachel testified at her trial and wrote this book.

This story has gawkers’ appeal. You read it because you want to know how anyone could fall for a scam like this and you’re glad it’s not you! The author fell for her friend’s tales of wealth and billion dollar trust fund. And her fatal mistake was taking out her own credit card to cover the costs of their vacation. I didn’t feel too sorry for her, however. The book deal and HBO’s purchase of the story have probably taken the sting out of this friendship gone wrong.

That said, I tore through the story and enjoyed reading how it all unraveled. I especially liked the text message exchanges, which while they were repetitive and a bit whiny, reflected Rachel’s desperate attempts to get her money back. I would have liked to know more about Anna, whose past is revealed late in the book. For most of the story, she’s an enigma.

Of course, when I finished, I wanted to see just who these people were. To round that out, here’s a good interview from ABC Nightline:

So all in all, a good, fast read, a little light on substance, but entertaining.

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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood
by
Truman Capote

Rating:

A non-fiction novel. What is that, exactly? Many believe that the pioneer of this genre was Truman Capote. His best selling book, In Cold Blood, is a chilling depiction of a senseless murder. In a 1966 New York Times interview with George Plimpton, Capote explains his decision to write a book about the brutal 1959 murder of a Kansas family:

The motivating factor in my choice of material—that is, choosing to write a true account of an actual murder case—was altogether literary. The decision was based on a theory I’ve harbored since I first began to write professionally, which is well over 20 years ago. It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the ‘nonfiction novel,’ as I thought of it.

The result was In Cold Blood. Published in 1966, it became an instant success and is considered Capote’s masterpiece.

On November 14, 1959, Herb Clutter, his wife, Bonnie and their two teenage children, Nancy and Kenyon, were brutally murdered in their Holcomb, Kansas home. Their killers, Richard Eugene Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, were two ex-cons looking for fast cash. They’d heard that the Clutters had a safe full of money and drove over 400 miles across the state to rob the family. When they discovered there was no safe, and very little cash, the two men killed the Clutters in a rage.

I was curious about this book, but I had avoided it for many years. I don’t like reading violent crime stories, but as a Capote fan, I knew I had to read it. While the story is about the crime and the investigation, it is equal parts a picture of a small middle-American farming town and a psychological study of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. While I had no sympathy for these men, I was fascinated with their back stories. Hickcock’s insistence on robbing the Clutters, along with Smith’s unpredictable reactions to people and situations led to killings that may not have happened on a different day.

Capote and his childhood friend, Harper Lee, went to Kansas to research the story and compiled over 8000 pages of notes. They were granted numerous interviews with Hickock and Smith, who by then, had confessed and were in jail awaiting trial. They moved to death row after their convictions, where Capote continued to interview them until their hangings. He became particularly attached to Perry Smith and related to his unhappy childhood.

In Cold Blood was first published as a four-part serial in The New Yorker in 1965. It was published in book form the following year. How Capote organized this vast amount of information and assembled the story is extraordinary.

Capote made a lot of friends in Kansas, but he also made some enemies. He was particularly close to the lead investigator, Alvin Dewey, but Duane West, a prosecuting attorney, hated Capote. West called the book “garbage” (but he didn’t read it) and claimed that it wasn’t factual. He said that Capote made Dewey into a hero, when the real hero was a man named Rohleder, who captured important evidence in his photographs. Some townspeople felt they were not accurately portrayed and others have criticized the account as being inaccurate. My sense is that there were a lot of big egos in town and readers need to decide for themselves.

What is definitely true is that Capote’s writing is excellent, as I expected. And as a side note, this book isn’t nearly as violent as current true crimes and thrillers. Have you read In Cold Blood? What did you think?

For more Truman Capote, visit these links:

Breakfast at Tiffany’s
“House of Flowers”
“La Côte Basque”
Who’s That Author? Truman Capote
The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

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