Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Lab Girl
by
Hope Jahren

Rating:

Here’s a book I resisted reading for two reasons. First, there was so much hype about Lab Girl that I took a step back. When everyone gushes about a book, I feel as if the decision is already made that I have to like it. Stubborn as I am, I like to make my own decisions.

I also avoided Lab Girl because I am not a science person. I fulfilled my lab science in college (barely) and then moved on to English. Years later, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a book about a scientist.

But then my book club friend 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.

Being a female scientist is not easy. Applying for grants and university pressures make financial stability a long-distant goal. She describes how she built her first lab out of a neglected basement classroom and how she and her lab partner, Bill, made do and scrounged for used equipment.

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, making me think I probably would have liked this kind of science. She is perpetually curious and awestruck by the way nature works. I learned how seeds can lay dormant for years, waiting for the opportunity and courage to take a chance on growing. I like how she applies this to human life.

In the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be.

Lab Girl is a memoir more than it is a science book. Jahren’s father taught science at a community college and it was in his lab where she developed a love for learning. But her parents were cold and distant and she craved a nurturing existence. She also describes her personal struggles with bipolar disorder, a condition which reveals itself in her young adult years. Equally important to Jahren is her relationship with Bill, to whom she gives ample credit for their successes. Their connection, while not romantic, is like a marriage.

The lengths scientists go to satisfy their obsessive curiosity is what makes them successful at their jobs, even when the way they go about achieving their goals runs counter to how the rest of us live. All-nighters in the lab, eating junk food, cross-country road trips without a map, spontaneous overseas trips to study soil: these are normal times for Jahren, Bill and her students. I’m glad there are people like Jahren because they give us the gift of their knowledge. Jahren’s delivery is beautiful.

Lab Girl deserves all the hype and recognition it has received and I recommend it to all readers.

Jahren is an American geobiologist and geochemist and has won many prestigious awards. She currently works at the University of Oslo in Norway.

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Dressing Barbie: A Celebration of the Clothes That Made America’s Favorite Doll and the Incredible Woman Behind Them – Carol Spencer

Part one of three in a series celebrating Barbie’s 60th Anniversary

In my room, in the back yard, on the beach and almost always with my friend Nancy, Barbie and her crew were a big part of my childhood. In the 1960s and 70s and admittedly, almost into our teens, we spread out wherever there was space for our dolls, outfits, cases, dream houses, cars, and even a swimming pool. We were open to ideas, and readily included accessories from other toys, whether or not they were exact fits. All the while, we played out scenarios. Many of them were typical story lines for girls back then. Barbie and Ken go for a drive. Barbie and Casey get ready for the prom. Barbie babysits little sister Tutti at the beach. But sometimes our Barbies argued, got lost, wiped out in the surf or fell out of trees.

Introduced in 1959 as a teenage model, Barbie was the brainchild of Ruth Handler, whose husband Elliot founded Mattel with Harold Matson. From the start, Barbie had a spectacular wardrobe. Early outfits resembled the classic style of Jackie Kennedy, including Spencer’s first outfit shown here:

I was especially thrilled when my sister handed down her Barbies and many of these clothes to me because they also included hand sewn and custom knitted outfits, created by our grandmother.

Barbie turned 60 this year. To mark this occasion, Harper Design released a new memoir about one of Mattel’s original fashion designers, Carol Spencer: Dressing Barbie: A Celebration of the Clothes That Made America’s Favorite Doll and the Incredible Woman Behind Them. Spencer was a designer at Mattel for over 35 years and her fashions became ours.

Raised in Minneapolis, Spencer learned to sew as a girl. In 1950, she graduated high school, broke up with her boyfriend and enrolled at the Minneapolis School of Art. From there, she got a plum job as Guest Editor at Mademoiselle, then returned to Minneapolis where she designed children’s wear for Wonderalls and “misses sportswear” for Junior House. Her career at Mattel began when she answered a blind ad in Women’s Wear magazine, seeking a fashion designer. She got the job in 1963 and joined a team of four other designers, under Charlotte Johnson, Barbie’s original stylist. The intense competition between designers resulted in a mini closetful of fun styles for Barbie, Ken, Skipper, Scooter, Casey, Francie, Tutti and friends. And many of Barbie’s fashions were inspired by Spencer’s personal wardrobe.

Dressing Barbie includes pages of beautiful high quality images of a fantastic collection of dolls and clothes. As times in America and across the world changed, so did Barbie and her clothes. From the mod clothes of the 70s, to shoulder pads and big hair in the 80s and 90s, Barbie tried on more than just the latest fashion. New multi-cultural versions of Barbie were introduced, addressing a need for a better representation of girls around the world. New careers also opened up and Barbie became an astronaut, surgeon, CEO and now runs for President every election year.

Aerobics Barbie, shown here, made a cameo in Toy Story II.

I enjoyed reading about Spencer’s experiences as a fashion designer at Mattel and learning about the process of creating Barbie’s clothes. When Spencer started her career, designing was hands-on, using glue and tiny patterns. Later, computer designs made the job easier, although Spencer had always enjoyed using her hands to craft her ideas. One of the challenges was to find patterns and prints that were suitable to scale for a doll. I had not thought of that and was interested to read how they determined what to use. The Oil Embargo in 1973 also had an impact on Barbie’s clothes because they were no longer able to use polyester, acrylics or nylon fabrics which use petroleum as a base.

Although I eventually outgrew playing with Barbies, I was sorry to put them away. But I never got rid of them – they still live in my closet. I was also sorry that the best-selling Barbie of all time came out long after I stopped playing with them. Totally Hair Barbie, shown here, had a mane of hair I would have totally loved!

Dressing Barbie is a reminder of how important imaginative play is to children. Spencer leaves the reader with these thoughts:

Because I’ve been in the toy industry for so many years, I can’t help but worry about future generations. As play becomes more centered on the virtual world, will children miss out on the real-life experiences and imagination that playing with Barbie dolls offered?

For more information, click here to read a recent article from the New York Times about Carol Spencer and Dressing Barbie.

For more visit: Look what Barbie’s wearing! Barbie Fashion 1959-1967

Images shown above are from the pages of Dressing Barbie.

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How to make a good book list – visit your library!

I’m surrounded by books at my library job and, as I travel through the stacks, I’m inspired by the many books on display. I also do a lot of book talking with my work friends and with people who come up to the desk. Yesterday, I walked over two miles and the sights were good!  Here’s a list of the books I’ve seen or heard about during my recent travels.

Take a look and be sure to check out the linked reviews by our fellow WordPress bloggers – it’s a great way to connect with readers!


Fiction

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – reviewed by HappymessHappiness
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones – reviewed by Bookshelf Fantasies
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate – reviewed by Traveling with T
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata – reviewed by Cover to Cover
Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reis – reviewed by Jenna Bookish

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly – reviewed by Dressed to Read
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – reviewed by Hannah and Her Books
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee – reviewed by Ally Writes Things
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – reviewed by By the Book Reviews
The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson – reviewed by BooksPlease

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead – reviewed by Simone and Her Books
The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn – reviewed by Angie Dokos
There There by Tommy Orange – reviewed by I’ve Read This
When Life Gives You Lululemons by Lauren Weisberger – reviewed by Rainy Days and Mondays
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens – reviewed by Fictionophile

Nonfiction

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery – reviewed by Shelf Love
Hunger by Roxane Gay – reviewed by Taking on a World of Words
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – reviewed by Kavish and Books

I’ll be reading Lab Girl for my book club and I know I’ll get to the rest one day – just a matter of time! What are you reading right now? What do you recommend?

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Book Club Mom’s March recap – a month of blog posts

Image: Pixabay

March powered through like a freight train on greased wheels and I’m happy to say I didn’t derail!

Spring has finally arrived and, for the first time since I planted bulbs, the bunnies haven’t chomped my flowers down to the nubs. That must be a sign of good things to come!

I had a busy blogging month. I read some good books, profiled two indie authors, brushed up on my vocabulary and grammar, wrote and shared some special posts and made a few YouTube videos.

Here’s a quick “ICYMI” summary of what went down in March at Book Club Mom. Click on the links to visit each post.


Book Reviews

Mar 3: The Widow by Fiona Barton
Mar 11: Transcription by Kate Atkinson
Mar 22: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
Mar 24: What If? by Randall Munroe
Mar 30: How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery


Mar 6: Giselle Roeder
Mar 19: Gina Briganti

I love meeting indie authors and I’m always looking for new profiles to post. If you are interested in being featured, please email bvitelli2009@gmail for more information.


Grammar and Vocabulary

(Images: Pixabay)

I may have majored in English, but I make plenty of mistakes. These grammar and vocabulary posts are my way of staying fresh with the rules:

Mar 5: On vocabulary, words both big and small…
Mar 21: “Into” and “in to” – are you into it?
Mar 28: Using ellipses – are you doing it right?


Special Posts

I shared two posts written by my son, Austin Vitelli. The first is a book review and the second is a feature article that appeared in The Morning Call on March 26.

Mar 6: Sweetness by Jeff Pearlman – thoughts on NFL legend Walter Payton
Mar 26: How 3 former Lehigh football players and their friends started a record label


Guest Post on author Jill Weatherholt’s blog

I was excited to be featured on Jill’s blog, where I talk about my blogging experiences (and mistakes!) and tackle the tricky question of what to do when I don’t like a book.

Mar 29: Welcome Book Blogger Book Club Mom


I’m still learning the technical side of making videos, but I’m having a lot of fun along the way. I have some new ideas for April, so stay tuned!

Mar 7: Self-publishing – here’s how we did it!
Mar 13: Walking and listening to audiobooks
Mar 20: Audiobook update and general news!


I hope you had a great month too! Looking forward to more fun in April!

Image: Pixabay

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

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

Rating:

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.

Montgomery realized at a young age that her connection to animals was unique, and in fact, it has become a defining part of her personality. As a shy, only child, she related to animals more than people. Daughter of an Army general and a mother who dressed her in frills and bows, her best and only friend was her Scottish terrier, Molly. And it was Molly who introduced her to what has become her real world of animal life.

While the cover and illustrations suggest this is a children’s book, it is not. (It’s in the Young Adult section at our library.) The author describes her intense relationship with animals and explains how, in learning about and relating to them, she has overcome many challenges, including estrangement from her parents, their deaths and depression, often over the loss of a pet.

The author’s career as a researcher, naturalist and writer has enabled her to engage with many types of creatures and she shares many surprising facts. It is her curiosity and willingness to immerse herself in their habitats and lives that sustain her. In each chapter, she describes a different animal or pet, including their border collies, a sisterhood of chickens and a beloved piglet that grew to over 700 pounds. She became attached to many other animals during research trips: a Goliath tarantula, several emus, tree kangaroos and a giant Pacific octopus.

I enjoyed reading about Montgomery’s experiences, which are very different from my own. She has made it her purpose to know, honor and learn from every creature she encounters.

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’ve already put a hold on it at the library because her octopus chapter was my favorite. 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.

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Best nonfiction reads of 2018

Image: Pixabay

Holiday shopping can be stressful and books are good options, but only if you know they’re good! Here are five of my favorite nonfiction reads of 2018. Maybe one of these will be just right for your friends or family.


Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder by Claudia Kalb – Charles Darwin was a worrier, Fyodor Dostoevsky was a compulsive gambler, and Howard Hughes had OCD. Was Andy Warhol a hoarder or simply a collector? Was Albert Einstein autistic or just focused? In this excellent collection of mini biographies, Claudia Kalb looks at twelve famous personalities and explains their known or likely battles with mental illness.


David Bowie – A Life by Dylan Jones – The story of rock legend David Bowie, who hit the scene in the 1960s and for decades delivered music, art, film and stage performances through ever-changing personas. A compilation of interviews and quotes from nearly two hundred people describing Bowie’s career. It is a terrific view into a complicated and private person.


Educated – A Memoir by Tara Westover – a young woman’s fascinating memoir about being raised in isolation by survivalist parents, tolerating her father’s mental illness and a brother’s abuse, and ultimately breaking free. Westover taught herself enough math and grammar to take the SATs and go to college, first at Brigham Young University. She later studied at Cambridge University and earned her PhD at Harvard.


Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann – a true-crime account of a shameful period of American history in which members of the Osage tribe were murdered for the headrights to oil-rich land on their reservation in Oklahoma. David Grann tells this shocking story, including the investigation of the murders led by J. Edgar Hoover’s newly-formed Federal Bureau of Investigation.


Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson – Excellent memoir about being different. Through a rambling, often irreverent and always hilarious “where is this story going?” narration, with plenty of colorful vocabulary, Lawson tells you about her childhood, depression, anxiety and illness, her family, early jobs, marriage, motherhood and how she became a blogger and writer.


What are your favorite nonfiction reads of 2018?

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Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened
(A Mostly True Memoir)

by
Jenny Lawson

Rating:

If you are looking for a great story about being different and making it anyway, I highly recommend Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson. In some ways, it is a classic success story about perseverance, but mostly, it’s a shout-out to anyone who’s not mainstream. Because Jenny Lawson is the opposite of mainstream.

Through a rambling, often irreverent and always hilarious “where is this story going?” narration, with plenty of colorful vocabulary, Lawson tells you about her childhood, depression, anxiety and illness, her family, early jobs, marriage, motherhood and how she became a blogger and writer.

Yes, Lawson is The Bloggess, here on WordPress, and you can read her latest post here. Nielson recognizes her as one of the Top Most Powerful Mom Bloggers and Forbes ranks her on their Top 100 Websites for Women.

Lawson may likely have had the most unique childhood, ever. She and her younger sister grew up in a rural town in western Texas. Their father ran his taxidermy business out of their house, never hesitating to share his enthusiasm for his unconventional job. Wild animals were frequent visitors, including squirrels, raccoons, chickens, armadillos and pigs, and they were all part of Lawson’s quirky family.

When she was a young girl, Lawson desperately wanted to fit in at school, but she did not. In high school, she suffered from an eating disorder, tried drugs, was into Goth, and had many other anxieties. But she also had a superpower: humor. And it saved her. I laughed out loud throughout her story, not because of her struggles, but because of how she describes them. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself. She holds nothing back. She’s full of human flaws and she gives herself completely to her readers. By the end of the book, I felt like I had made a friend.

Lawson’s chapters reveal a keen understanding of the human condition and a genuine appreciation of her life and family. She writes,

I can finally see that all the terrible parts of my life, the embarrassing parts, the incidents I wanted to pretend never happened, and the things that make me ‘weird’ and ‘different,’ were actually the most important parts of my life. They were the parts that made me me.”

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened was published in 2012 and is Lawson’s first book. Furiously Happy was published in 2015 and her newest book, You Are Here: An Owner’s Manual for Dangerous Minds was published in 2017.

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What’s That Book? Believe It: My Journey of Success, Failure, and Overcoming the Odds by Nick Foles

whats-that-book

TitleBelieve It: My Journey of Success, Failure, and Overcoming the Odds

Author:  Nick Foles, with Joshua Cooley

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating:  3.5 stars

What’s it about? This is a first-person account of the journey that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles experienced in the 2017 season, which culminated in the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory. After entering the season as the backup, he was thrust into the starting role after the starting quarterback, Carson Wentz, tore his ACL. Foles embraced his faith in God and overcame countless odds to achieve the greatest feat in an NFL season—winning a championship.

How did you hear about it? I’m an avid member of the “Eagles Twitter” community, so I get most of my Eagles news from there. It was hard to not hear about the Super Bowl MVP’s book while following the aftermath of the championship.

Closing comments: I learned a ton about Foles in this book, including information prior to his days in the National Football League. I was glad he included these parts instead of just focusing on the 2017 season for the entire book. It was great to hear about how he was recruited in high school, his eventual transfer from Michigan State to Arizona, and even aspects of his personal life. He’s an honest and open individual, which quickly becomes clear when listening to his interviews, and luckily, this translated into an honest, humbling book. Of course, Foles is no author, so the quality of the writing (despite the help of a real author) is not going to blow anyone away. The book probably could’ve been cut by about 40 to 50 pages and still have been just as interesting, but it doesn’t drone on and on either. Personally, I found the references to his religion a little over the top at times. I am glad that Foles’s belief in God helped guide him through his experiences, but for readers who aren’t into that kind of thing, it might come off as him pushing his religion too much. I’m sure this wasn’t his intention, so I can’t criticize it too much. However, for many people who don’t have as strong religious beliefs, it can be easy to glaze over entire paragraphs because it becomes rather repetitive. Overall, though, this was a fun, easy read and gave me some great perspective into the man that’s going to be at the top of the list in Philadelphia for a long time.

Contributor:  Austin Vitelli is an assistant editor for a medical publishing company who recently graduated from Lehigh University with a degree in journalism. He’s been a Philadelphia Eagles fan his whole life. His blog, which mostly focuses on the Eagles, can be viewed here.


whats-that-book

Have you read something good?  Want to talk about it?
Consider being a contributor to What’s That Book.

Email Book Club Mom at bvitelli2009@gmail.com for information.

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Educated – A Memoir by Tara Westover

Educated – A Memoir
by
Tara Westover

Rating:

Imagine growing up in isolation, with a father who regarded the government with paranoid distrust, who prepared the family for an impending apocalypse by stockpiling food, fuel and ammunition and “head for the hills” bags. Who made his children work with him in a dangerous scrap yard, where they were often severely injured.  And who manipulated them with his skewed interpretation of the Mormon faith. With a mother who only occasionally homeschooled her seven children and deferred to her husband, despite being the primary breadwinner as a midwife and natural healer. With a violent and abusive brother. Could you get out?

Tara Westover did, but at a cost. She taught herself enough math and grammar to be accepted at Brigham Young University, stumbled on her ignorance, but eventually gained her footing and began reading and learning. Her pursuits took her to Cambridge and then to Harvard, where she earned a PhD. The cost was estrangement from half her family. The half that denied there was anything wrong.

Education is Westover’s memoir, an account of these years in which she left her home in the mountains of Idaho. She tells her story of universities and degrees, but more importantly, she describes her education about family, mental illness and abuse. And then she explains what she did about it, how, inch by inch, she moved away from both her father’s and her brother’s strongholds.

Educated is a fascinating description of a life that is nearly impossible to envision. As a reader, you can’t imagine how to get into college with no schooling. Westover may not have understood the abuse and dysfunction at age sixteen, but she knew enough that she had to get out. The most absorbing part of her memoir, however, is how she began to recognize her father’s behavior as mental illness. But suspecting this didn’t change the danger of her brother’s abuse, which was both mental and physical. Most disturbing was how she reached out to her mother and sister and how they didn’t back her up.

I enjoyed reading Westover’s story, however, I would have been interested in knowing more about her college and later years, including her relationships with other students and new friends. I finished the book wondering what she’s doing right now. I think these details would give the reader a better understanding of who Tara Westover has become. It’s interesting to watch her book tour interviews and you can check out this Christiane Amanpour interview on CNN here. Westover also has a beautiful signing voice. You can listen to Tara Westover sing a Mormon hymn on PBS NewsHour here.

I recommend Educated to readers to enjoy memoirs and autobiographies and also those who like reading about overcoming adversity.

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Alone – Lost Overboard in the Indian Ocean – Brett Archibald

Alone – Lost Overboard in the Indian Ocean
Brett Archibald

Rating:  3.5 stars

In April 2013, Brett Archibald, a 50-year-old South African businessman, was on a surf charter boat off the Mentawai Islands of Indonesia. It was the middle of the night and the seas were storming. Archibald had food poisoning and went on deck to be sick. He lost his footing, fell off the boat and no one saw. He spent nearly 29 hours in the Indian Ocean before a miracle happened. That miracle was Tony “Doris” Eltherington, captain of an Australian charter, and a seafaring legend, who acted on a hunch and found Archibald bobbing in the vast expanse.

How Archibald survived, how his friends and Eltherington’s boat and crew persisted, and how his wife and family never gave up believing he would survive is chronicled in Alone – Lost Overboard in the Indian Ocean. Already weak from dehydration, Archibald fought off raging seas, a shark attack, dive-bombing seagulls, stinging jellyfish and man of wars. He kept his wits about him by counting strokes, naming books in his library and singing songs from his iPod playlists. Despite these efforts, he was often overwhelmed by hopelessness. In addition, he was fooled by hallucinations. When he looked to the sky and saw a wooden cross, he was sure it was another trick of the mind. That cross was the mast of Eltherington’s boat, coming to get him.

The book is written from three points of view:  Archibald, his friends and other rescue boats, and his wife and family. While there were some who thought it was unlikely Archibald could survive, those who knew him believed he would. An intense personality and competitor, always pushing himself, Archibald was better off than most, despite the odds against him. From the moment he was rescued he was coherent and surprisingly strong. I was skeptical of this part of the story until I watched several live videos of his rescue. To see what I mean, check out the links at the bottom of the post. The euphoria after his rescue is contagious, Archibald is ridiculously upbeat, making you believe he had all the right stuff to get him through what would have been certain death for most.

Survival stories are hard to resist and this is an incredible one. I enjoyed learning the details of his hour-by-hour story. While lost in the ocean, Archibald reflected on his life mistakes and failed relationships and faced the grim possibility that he would never see his wife and young children again. It’s no surprise that he came out of the ordeal a changed man and the phrase “life is short” doesn’t seem nearly as trite.

My one disappointment is in how the book is presented. The cover and title and Archibald’s first person account made me think he had written the book, but the account is in fact written by an unnamed author. This fact is buried in the “Three Years Later” chapter at the end of the book.

In addition, readers are well-advised to give up trying to remember the hundreds of names provided, which tends to bog down the flow of the story.

All in all, however, an engrossing read that results in a happy, feel-good moment.

Check out these video links and see for yourself:

Today Show video about Brett Archibald’s rescue

60 Minutes “Miracle at Sea”

I fell off a white water raft once and got lodged underneath. But my friends pulled me back in within a minute. Doesn’t compare, but I was pretty scared! Have you ever had a close call at sea?

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