Friday, July 5, 2019

11/22/63 by Stephen King

I have just, as in literally minutes ago, finished reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King. I know, this book has been out for YEARS, and for the last two or three it has been staring at me from my bedside table, but it was just so daunting! I mean, come on- it's eight hundred and eighty pages! That looks like a significant time investment. And it is: the audio version is 30 hours! And yet I had heard that it was very good and that it was a much quicker read than its 2.6 pounds suggests. In case I'm not making myself clear, this is a hefty book. Of course, you are probably already aware of that because you've probably already read it, along with most readers I know.

In 11/22/63, Jake Epping tumbles down a rabbit hole from 2011 to 1958 and is tasked with preventing the Kennedy assassination, an event that is described as a watershed moment, the prevention of which is bound to save thousands of lives and make the world an infinitely better place. Unfortunately, Jake has to wait five years before he can accomplish his assignment, but he spends it "turning native". He loves the way food tastes and the way the air smells (except for the ever-present cigarette smoke). He gets a job, makes friends, and builds a life for himself, but his mission must be completed and he cannot fail.

Except for Les Miserables, which I read twenty years ago (whoa! seriously?!) and which took me a solid year to finish, this is the longest book I've ever read. There is a lot of meat in this story and yet it flies. I hated putting it down and today I knew I wouldn't be able to do anything else until I had finished it. I had reached the "nitty gritty" and I needed to get through to the end. I did and it was fantastic! I truly enjoyed this book: the history, the characters, the spot on descriptions of places near where I grew up, and the course of events that had me captivated. If you, like me, have procrastinated reading this novel because looked like too much, I recommend you have a little faith in yourself and in Mr. King and get started right away. You won't be disappointed.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

What I've Heard- Becoming by Michelle Obama

I was very excited to finally get to listen to Becoming by Michelle Obama! It. Was. FANTASTIC!

I have long admired the former First Lady, but I didn't know much at all about her childhood or the family that raised her. Michelle is proud of her Southside of Chicago upbringing and the steady and loving family who surrounded and encouraged her. The reader is allowed to follow her on her journey from small public school within walking distance of her home to a magnet school three hours away by city bus to Princeton and on to Harvard Law School. We then watch as she strives to make partner at a law firm in Chicago where she meets a plucky young intern named Barack.
SPOILER ALERT: they get married and have two daughters.

Michelle then lets us peek inside her struggles to balance her own career ambitions with those of her husband and with raising her family. I enjoyed learning about all the behind the scenes work involved in being married to a candidate for Senate and then President. Life in the White House is also fascinating to read about as it focuses on her initiatives and goals as well as raising her girls in such a bright spotlight.

I don't usually listen to books I haven't read, but autobiographies read by the author are almost always a win-win. Of course, the only problem with audiobooks is that it is much harder to highlight and mark and draw hearts around all the wonderful quotes, but hearing Michelle's story in her own voice made it worth it. If you are fan of the Obamas you are going to love this book. If you aren't or if you are undecided, I urge you to give this book a try anyway. Politics is a very small part of her story and the rest is, I believe, pretty universal. I have great respect for Michelle- her integrity, her intelligence, her determination, and her optimism make her an excellent role model for girls and women of all ages.

An Anonymous Girl by Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen

When I saw that Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen, the authors behind The Wife Between Us, had released a new book, I was anxious to get my hands on it. An Anonymous Girl begins with Jess, a makeup artist struggling to make ends meet in New York City. When a pampered client blithely mentions a psychological study that pays big bucks, Jess finds away to sneak in to the study. It is during this study that she meets Dr. Shields who then offers her the opportunity to extend the study for even greater compensation. Jess is enthusiastic at first, but when things stop adding up she becomes worried. Is she just paranoid or is something really as wrong as it feels?

Just like with The Wife Between Us, I could not put this book down. I didn't have nearly the reading time I would have liked and I was always regretful every time I had to put it away to do something else. Last night I stayed up well past my bed time just to finish and find out what would happen. Jess is kind of a mess with regrets that go back more than a decade, but Dr. Shields seems to want to help. It isn't long before Jess realizes everything isn't as it seems and that's when it gets really interesting.

This book is the perfect summer read- the chapters are short and quick and the plot is fast moving.
I think you'll really like it.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

I have teenagers, well one teenager and one preteen, but I want very much to raise them well and as Hermione says, "When in doubt, go to the library." I haven't read parenting books since I had babies, but I thought I would see what I could learn about teens. When I came across How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, I was plenty interested. Communicating with teens is no easy task so I was happy to read all about it.

This book is very short and compact- it only took me a day to get through it- but it has some good advice: Listen to your children, respect them as individual people. The most valuable comment I read was that the way we deal with the little things (bad table manners, messy bedrooms) will lay the groundwork for all the big things (drugs, sex). This book doesn't imply that we let our children do whatever they'd like, but that as we are redirecting their behavior, it is possible to communicate in a way that is respectful rather than degrading.

Unfortunately, this book felt outdated and a little cheesy. I don't feel like I learned much, but since it was a library loaner and didn't take up too much of my time, I'm not too worried about it.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Typically, I tend to avoid books surrounded by an overabundance of hype. When the expectations are too high, the let down is usually too great. I have listened for months to people talking about Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and not a single person has failed to rave about how amazing it is and how you just have to read it and seriously, did we mention that it was amazing? And yet every time I picked it up and read the synopsis it didn't appeal to me. I can't tell you why I wasn't interested, but it just didn't "sing" to me. And then our book club couldn't resist the siren's call any longer. With all the 5-star reviews and all the gushing, we surrendered.

Kya lives alone in the North Carolina marsh and has done nearly all her life. Abandoned by her family, she learns to fend for herself. Before long, she becomes part of the town folklore: the "Marsh Girl". She is alone, she is different, there must be something wrong with her. When a popular young man dies, it is no surprise that she is immediately the prime suspect.

This book is slow to start, but if you can settle in to the descriptions of the marsh and all the life in it (it really does go on for a long time), you will be rewarded with great characters and a storyline that will capture your imagination. The second half of the book flies by so quickly you won't want to do anything but read. I won't gush as others have done, but this was a very good book. When I learned that the author is a wildlife scientist, it explained to me why there is so much detail about marsh life, but I thought it was still a little too much. Other than the pacing, this book was quite enjoyable and I was glad to have read it after all. 

Friday, June 7, 2019

The Coincidence of Coconut Cake by Amy E. Reichert

What could be a better way to follow an interesting, but hefty, book about the economy than a light and fluffy book about cake and romance? The Coincidence of Coconut Cake by Amy E. Reichert has been on my shelf and waiting for the perfect moment and this was it!

Lou is a remarkable chef and the owner of a small restaurant, but is weighed down by a terrible relationship. Don't worry- this is no spoiler as it is painfully obvious this isn't the man for her in the very first scene. When that all falls apart, so does her cooking- but just for the one day. Unfortunately, it is also the day that a notorious food critic visits her establishment and it couldn't have gone any worse. As Lou grapples with her failing business, she distracts herself with a new friend, Al. The rules are very clear: they are just friends. Lou shows Al the wonders of her home town while Al provides just the inspiration she needs to overcome her trial and fight for what she really wants.
If only it were that simple.

The characters are wonderful and the storyline is sweet and light, but this book had so much delicious food in it and that may have been my favorite part. I love reading about chefs and cooks and bakers, anyone who feeds the people they love; I always feel so inspired- and hungry! Now that I've finished reading all about it, I couldn't resist making my own coconut cake. There is a recipe provided in the back of the book (I love it when authors do that!), but I used one that I have made before and know that I love. It is baking in the oven right this very minute and it smells fantastic!
I recommend this book and a slice of cake- what could be better?

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

I don't normally read a lot of non-fiction and I can't remember when I have ever read anything about the economy, but a few months ago I saw an interview with Rutger Bregman talking about his book  Utopia for Realists and I was intrigued. It was entirely likely that I would reserve the book from the library, flip through a few pages and decide it wasn't going to actually be readable- not by me, anyway. I did just go on and on in my last review about how little patience I have with books that don't capture my attention. Well, no one could be more surprised than I was to find myself completely absorbed with concepts I knew absolutely nothing about before opening this book.

According to Bregman, we need to drastically change some of our economic beliefs if we want to make the world a better, and more profitable, place. He talks about a universal basic income, shorter work weeks, and significant changes to immigration laws. These ideas will sound entirely too radical for many people, but Bregman does a good job of explaining how they work and what it could mean for society. Here are a few points that stood out to me:

 Lest there be any misunderstanding: It is capitalism that opened the gates to the Land of Plenty, but capitalism alone cannot sustain it.

On the topic of international relief: The great thing about money (actual cash) is that people can use it to buy things they need instead of things that self-appointed experts think they need. And, as it happens, there is one category of product which poor people do not spend free money on and that's alcohol and tobacco. In fact, a major study by the World Bank demonstrated that in 82% of all researched cases in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, alcohol and tobacco consumption actually declined.

Did you know that Nixon was in the process of passing a bill to provide a basic income in the 1970s, but a study found that the divorce rate among those participating in an experiment in Seattle jumped more than 50%? My first thought was that when women have the financial means to support themselves, they are no longer forced to stay in bad marriages. This rise in the divorce rate was enough to change the opinion of politicians supporting it despite all the other outcomes, such as better school performance and improvements in health. A basic income, evidently, gave women too much independence. Sadly, it was discovered a decade later that there had been a statistical error and that the divorce rate hadn't actually changed at all.

There were several studies that illustrated that the cost of poverty and homelessness (health care, social services, police, and court costs) is actually more than what it would cost to provide a basic income which has been shown to be more successful anyway. In Utah, in 2005, in an effort to combat homelessness, housing became a right. Free apartments were provided for those in need and it was actually a windfall for the state budget. State economists calculated that a drifter living on the street cost the government $16,670 a year. An apartment plus professional counseling, by contrast, cost a modest $11,000.

It may be an unpopular topic among some, but raising taxes on top earners has been shown to improve not only society at large, but actually the economy as well. Not all work is created equal- an investment banker or hedge fund manager may make a lot of money, but doesn't actually create anything. A builder fills a need, but doesn't make as much income. For every dollar a bank earns, an estimated equivalent of 60 cents is destroyed elsewhere in the economic chain. Conversely, for every dollar a researcher earns, a value of at least $5 - and often more - is pumped back into the economy. … In plain English: Higher taxes would get more people to do work that's useful.

Regarding immigration, Bregman suggests that open boarders would be the solution to many problems, but if you're not ready to go quite that far, he says: Even just cracking the door would help. If all the developed countries would let in just 3% more immigrants, the world's poor would have $305 billion more to spend, say scientists at the World Bank. That's the combined total of all development aid - times three.

These ideas may all be a bit hard to swallow, but Bregman explains them in a way that certainly does make the reader curious about what could be. The author does not browbeat his readers, nor does he discount the concerns they may have. He simply presents the information with the hope that it will educate and enlighten. I found this book fascinating and very accessible. I am sure there is a lot I don't understand, but this gives me something to consider and maybe even hope for in the future.
I think this book could be an excellent conversation starter if you thought your book club could handle it. Money and politics can be tricky, but they are important conversations to have.