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30 Apr

An entire month has whooshed by here on Blue Truck Book Reviews, like the breeze from the dance floor at a  wedding when you are small and playing under a table covered in a long white cloth. I haven’t been hiding in any secret places or doing much playing, but I have been very busy preparing for a huge and important event coming up on May 14: I’m graduating from college.

Because it’s taken me ten long, hard, rightful years to get here, this is an emotional achievement for me. So while I’ve been working hard doing all the things I normally do plus all the extra things I must do to walk across the big stage, I’ve also been careful with myself: making sure I’m getting enough rest and exercise; making sure my soul is fed with good books; making sure I’m allowing myself to be in the moment instead of feeling guilty about x, y, z, including  posting reviews here. I have been pleasantly surprised (One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming), utterly riveted (A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, and The Gospel of Anarchy by Justin Taylor), and left gasping with heartache and recognition at one of the best books I’ve read so far this year (You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon), but mostly I have been burrowed into reading for comfort, and for me, that’s one of the best being in the moments there is.

I may post reviews of these books and the others I’ve read since the end of March eventually, but right now, I simply want to enjoy my accomplishment to the detriment of most of my various pursuits (my job, my writing, and my new vegetable garden notwithstanding). I hope you are all well.

As always, happy reading.


There is No Such Thing as a “Guilty” Read

2 Feb

The other day a friend started talking to me about “guilty” reads. We were emailing back and forth about what we’ve currently buried our noses in, what we’ve dropped halfway through, and what we have waiting on our figurative nightstands. At one point, she admitted she was reading a book that wasn’t particularly well-written but whose story so moved her, she couldn’t put it down. She said this wasn’t the first book she felt guilty “indulging in” like this.

I went silent for awhile, which probably should have tipped her off that I was carefully containing a rant – I didn’t want her to misconstrue its direction, which was not at her, but at the injustice of this mentality. I didn’t even know how to begin to address it, I only knew it was something I wanted to poke at with a stick until my little scene turned into a reenactment of Lord of the Flies.

Uncharacteristically, I withheld the crazier parts of my rant, merely calmly telling my friend that I don’t believe in “guilty” pleasures (which is why I always include it in quotes). And to prove it to her, I promised I would publish a list of every book and/or magazine I’ve read or purchased in the past month, with the exception of online content, and she could decide for herself which ones I should consider “guilty” and which ones I could cop to with no shame. (Also, I’ve labeled each book so there is no question what genre each belongs to, and because I can’t help myself.)

Books I’ve read:

  • Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff (fiction; reviewed here)
  • The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich (fiction)
  • Good Eggs: A Memoir by Phoebe Potts (memoir; nonfiction; reviewed here)
  • A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick (fiction; reviewed here)
  • The Very Best Recipes for Healthy by Martha Rose Shulman (cookbook; nonfiction)
  • The Radleys by Matt Haig (fiction; reviewed here)
  • Sunset Park by Paul Auster (fiction; reviewed here)
  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (fiction; review forthcoming)
  • Women Food and God by Geneen Roth (self-help; nonfiction)

Books I’ve bought and haven’t read yet:

  • Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Pattern of Intimate Relationships by Harriet Lerner (self-help; nonfiction; e-book)
  • Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal by Patty Loew (history; nonfiction)
  • You Know When the Men are Gone by Siobhan O’Fallen (fiction; short stories)
  • Rain When You Want Rain by Betsy Johnson-Miller (poetry)
  • Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition by Guy Kawasaki (business; nonfiction)
  • The Lover’s Dictionary by David Leviathan (fiction)
  • The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown (self-help; nonfiction)
  • Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney (classic; poetry)
  • No Planets Strike by Josh Bell (poetry)

Magazine I’ve read at least half of:

  • Harper’s
  • Esquire
  • Inc.
  • Poets & Writers
  • National Geographic
  • Edible Madison
  • Edible Iowa River Valley
  • Playboy
  • Psychology Today
  • Wisconsin Trails
  • Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine
  • Cook’s Illustrated

So, you tell me: anything up there you think I should be ashamed of?

I’ll tell you right now, guilt is waste of life, and “guilty” reads is a preposterous idea. There is no such thing.

Read what you love and only what you love. Leave the rest, and enjoy yourself.

Book review: Sunset Park by Paul Auster

28 Jan

I read Sunset Park by Paul Auster in a day, but maybe I should have taken longer to appreciate it – because I don’t.

Miles Heller finds himself in a tough spot with an underage girl in Florida, and though it’s not quite the tough spot one immediately thinks of, it’s tough enough for him to flee home to New York, to live as a squatter in a repossessed house in Brooklyn with an old friend and two women.

This set-up might have been enough for an interesting story. Miles, suffering from the trauma of accidentally killing his step-brother nearly a decade earlier, has willfully estranged himself from both his parents and step-parents for seven years. His emotional disconnection is abundantly apparent, but rather than caring about Miles, I sort of loathed him.

His roommates – among them the boisterous Bing, who runs a “Hospital for Broken Things” where people can bring items to be fixed that technology has outdated; Alice, who is finishing her dissertation on the classic film, The Best Years of Our Lives (and whose thoughts on this movie turn out to be the most interesting five pages of the book); and Ellen, a meek, confused artist whose major breakthrough comes by filling sketchbooks with sexually explicit images – lend landscape to this story, but not depth.

To be fair, I’m not familiar with much of Auster’s work, though I did enjoy The Brooklyn Follies a few years ago, but when I finished this book, I didn’t feel anything, and that disappointed me. The most compelling aspect of the plot was the circumstances of four people living in a rent-free house in New York City, but the characters that could have held up that storyline simply never came through for me.

Auster is a talented writer, but I would recommend Sunset Park only to his fans.

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This book was published by Henry Holt and Company in November 2010. If you’d like to read a good review that disagrees with mine (and includes an excerpt from the book), do so here. For more information about the author and his other work, visit this unofficial website. To purchase this book from an independent bookstore and support me as an IndieBound affiliate, click here. As always, happy reading.

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of the book that I received from the publisher.

Book review: Google’lize Your Life by Jeff VanDrimmelen

20 Dec

When I first received Jeff VanDrimmelen’s book, Google’lize Your Life, I was terribly excited. The book whispered, “Do you want to Google’lize your life?” Predictably, I screamed, “Hell yes!”

This was the first warning sign. (You get pretty familiar with warning signs when you are an obsessive organizer and someone who uses obsessive organization as a way to manage your chronic anxiety.) Yet I decided to ignore this, and also the fact that I’ve been using Google products since Gmail first came out in 2004 – eons, in internet years – and probably didn’t need the advice.

Yet I stick with these tools precisely for the same reason, I assume, VanDrimmelen wrote an entire book about them: they work. And because I’m a more productive person thanks to these products, because I value their consistent simplicity, and because I can never consume enough information about the things I love, I was interested in the little hacks and tweaks that might take me to the stratosphere.

And that was a great plan, except that Google’lize Your Life didn’t rock it, at least not for me.

To his credit, VanDrimmelen writes in an easy and accessible way that would benefit any Google beginner, and I would recommend his book to anyone who is unfamiliar with Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Tasks, especially if they’re looking to get a lot out of a straightforward productivity system.

However, my major complaint is that the screen shots for Google Tasks that VanDrimmelen provides in-text don’t match any screen shots in real life. I don’t know how he’s getting his Tasks list to look like this, and he doesn’t tell me. I would have loved to access this feature, and was greatly disappointed when I got online and found I couldn’t expand my Tasks this way. (So disappointed, in fact, that I’ve put off writing this review so that I could calm down enough to assess it fairly.)

Google’lize Your Life is a good starting point for people who are considering the basic Google products. It’s just not enough for someone who has already Google’lized to the power of Google, with a big Googly smile on her face.

Update: A day after this post was published I received an email from the author. To access the canvas view of Google Tasks, log into Gmail and follow this address: Thanks, Jeff!

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This book was elf-published by the author in 2010. For more information, visit the Google’lize website. This book is not currently available through independent booksellers. As always, happy reading.

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of the book that I received from the author.

Book review: You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin

6 Nov

No one ever tells you what a bloodbath marriage can be. Of course everyone says it’s hard, and you hear all these comments about how it’s a slog, how it’s unimaginably difficult, how crazy it can make even the most sane. But you never really believe all of that, because it’s hard to grasp when you’re on the outside, and it’s hard to imagine when you don’t really want to. You’re too busy being sure nothing will change after it happens. You’re too confident you’ll be the couple that rises above.

But it’s true. All of it. Some days it’s all you can do to wake up next to your spouse and resist the urge to hold a pillow over their face, or yours. Sometimes, even though you’d never admit this to anyone, you consider simply not showing up and doing all you can every day. There are fantasies of what it used to be like when you were Independent George, or what it could be, daydreams about freedom from everything heavy or unmanageable, thoughts that stay a little too long and detail a little too carefully the loopholes in the sheer hard labor that marriage requires.

Victor Aaron, the main character in You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin, is a man who has forgotten completely these truths. He sees the marriage he shared with his dead wife, Sara, as “a perfect, if tumultuous, duet between two opposite but precisely matched souls.” Until one day, he discovers a series of notecards Sara wrote as part of a couples therapy session, detailing the major shifts in their 30-year relationship, and the tectonic plates of Victor’s beliefs start to slip apart.

Peppered with a cast of characters who possess real depth and variety, You Lost Me There is a cornucopia of the complexities of what it means to be human – how our memories can betray us, how our bad habits can bog us down and hold us back, how our connections to other humans can break us utterly and yet still set us free.

Baldwin knows marriage, and it’s a little heartbreaking to read, if you know it, too. But his terrific writing, coupled with his amazing ability to splice scenes so that we are watching two characters in a conversation while one is experiencing something different in his head, save this novel from being overly sentimental, or even too bittersweet. 

For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, this is a nuanced portrait of one man’s grief and of his journey towards, through, and out into the other side of change.

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This book was published by Riverhead Books in August 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website. You can also listen to the prologue by watching the book trailer. If you’d like to purchase this book and support independent booksellers at same time, click the IndieBound link that follows, and as always, happy reading. 

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FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of the book that I borrowed from the public library. 

Inside Petty Magic (plus book recommendations!): An Interview with author Camille DeAngelis

5 Oct

I could not be more pleased to tell you my dear friend has a book coming out today. Petty Magic by Camille DeAngelis is easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and I’m not just saying that because I like her and because she sends me cookies, t-shirts, absinthe lollipops, and all other manner of cool things you will never enjoy.

But obviously, our friendship creates a conflict of interest for me in reviewing her book. Shockingly, as I get older and — I don’t know how this happened — more professional, I care about things like conflicts of interest. So I won’t be getting into the hows and whys and the omg run out and buy this book right nows of a review, but I will be getting into a slew of questions, because this girl can still hook you up:

Your previous novel, Mary Modern, was inspired by a photograph of your great-grandmother, and what it would be like if you could communicate with her. Petty Magic also has a fantastical storyline, yet it’s also grounded in a very real way. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

In 2007 all I had was Fawkes & Ibis (the curiosity shop where Eve’s love interest works; I had cannibalized an earlier manuscript) and the bare-bones premise: old witch makes herself young again so she can go out to bars and seduce men. I knew it would be loads of fun to write, but initially I thought it was only meant to be a short story, and (for now anyway) I write short stories only for my own amusement.

Meanwhile, I’d been working on another novel idea—written thirty or forty pages and had done quite a bit of  research—and I’d shown the first chapter to my best writer friend. We were on a walk in the Silvermines, a rather spooky set of mountains in County Tipperary in Ireland, and he was saying that he liked the chapter and that it felt very fast-paced, like a novella—and I groaned because I knew then that the thing I was working on wasn’t going to pan out. [Editor’s note: read Camille’s blog post about that weekend here]

Then I told him my little idea about a randy old witch, and he said there was a novel in that for sure. I’m telling you where I was when I committed to the idea because I think it actually flavored the story—the following year I did a bit of traveling in the Harz Mountains, where the Grimm brothers collected their fairy tales, and had that same eerie feeling as we walked through the evergreen forest in the rain and fog.

I love your main character, Eve. She’s so feisty! Is there any Camille in Eve?

For me, the fun in making people up is giving them attributes you only wish you could have yourself—Eve is adventurous and supremely confident (to the point of arrogance; of course that’s not a trait I want for myself, but in fiction as in real life, ain’t nobody perfect). I do like to think I’ve grown more sure of myself in the three years since I began writing Petty Magic, though, so maybe I’m becoming a little more like Eve as I go along.

You’ve told me that you read several really interesting books as research for this novel. How does one even go about researching such wide topics as beldames, and World War II? Here’s your chance to geek out – any favorites or recommendations?

For a good overview of the female spies of World War II, I recommend Marcus Binney’s The Women Who Lived for Danger: The Agents of the Special Operations Executive and Sarah Helm’s A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII. I found Violet Szabo’s and Virginia Hall’s stories particularly inspiring; and of course I have to mention the love affair between courier Odette Sansom and her circuit leader Peter Churchill in occupied Paris. (They wound up getting marriedafter the war, although the marriage didn’t last.)

But if I had to pick the one most useful book, it would be Joseph Persico’s Piercing the Reich: The Penetration of Nazi Germany by American Secret Agents During World War II. I’d had no idea American spies had been so active inside Germany! The Office of Strategic Services was willing to send in their agents, while the Special Operations Executive (in Britain) was reluctant because they figured they’d be sending their men into certain death. And yet many of the American spies who had begun setting up networks within Germany survived the experience. Persico’s book is completely riveting.

What I read for Petty Magic has led to an even longer list of books I still want to read—like Mark Seaman’s Bravest of the Brave, a biography of F.F.E. Yeo-Thomas, the English spy code-named ‘the White Rabbit.’ His wartime activity includes more than one highly improbable escape (though he was usually recaptured, and the Nazis tortured him horribly every time he was brought back in). So needless to say Jonah’s inspired by Yeo-Thomas.

There are several other books on espionage and World War II I enjoyed and learned a lot from, and you’ll find the full list in the acknowledgments. I also read a bit about witchcraft and folklore— scholarly works, mostly—and those were indirectly useful because I wanted to subvert and reinforce those classic tropes at the same time.

On a different note, because this is a book blog and also because this is my blog: I know you’re a great reader and lover of books. Are there any books you’re an evangelist for?

I adore Angela Carter, and I really wish she were more widely read and appreciated in the U.S. I love The Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus, and Wise Children, her last novel, is probably her best—(how often can you say that of a dearly departed novelist? although she was at her creative peak, dying of cancer in her early fifties)—and if you read it you will see just how much she has inspired me. ‘It doesn’t matter if what happens next spoils everything; the anticipation itself is always pure.’ Brilliant.

The other underappreciated writer I always gush about is Sheridan Le Fanu, the Anglo-Irish novelist and short story writer whose vampire novella, Carmilla (in the story collection In a Glass Darkly), predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by a good twenty-five years. I’ve been reading Le Fanu’s biography, and a real-life ghost story involving his wife is particularly compelling—there’s a definite theme, in his fiction and in his life, of the dead coming back to claim the living. So you see, he was a gothic character in his own right; after his wife died he became a recluse, and his neighbors called him ‘the Invisible Prince.’ I’ve all but put him in my new novel. Which leads me to your next question…

What are your plans for the future? Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now?

I’m working on a young adult novel, a ghost story set in Dublin in the 1860s, which may or may not turn into a trilogy. My immediate plan—once the Petty Magic publicity stuff has eased up—is to spend a few weeks in London and Edinburgh in November, wandering through graveyards and writing in pubs. I’m also taking a lot of notes for my next adult novel, which is probably going to be the most gothic thing yet.

Thanks, Camille! Not just for the interview, either.

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Petty Magic, which you can and should purchase for yourself and all your loved ones by clicking on the giant red IndieBound link below, was publishd by Crown today, October 5, 2010. For more information about Camille and her other books, visit her website. While you’re over there, check out her blog, which is not at all one of those author-blogs that only talks about the book that was just published. And to show your love for Petty Magic (and also to rock a very funny t-shirt or two), pop over to Camille’s cafepress store.

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In all honesty

18 Sep

I haven’t been here. You know this. You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you get the point.

It’s not because I haven’t been reading, though my reading has dropped off tremendously. The start of the semester, plus two face-slappingly stressful weeks and Stephen King’s 700-page Under the Dome have a way of bogging a girl down, despite even the most hardcore reading addiction.

But, to be honest, I’m playing a game of dodgeball here, with my own excuses. I don’t want to come out and tell you the truth, which is that a few weeks ago, I realized I’m feeling really lost, stuck in this place where I don’t know – for one of the first times in my life – how to define where I am emotionally. Uncharacteristically, I haven’t spent a lot of time analyzing this state, maybe because at the end of the day I’m so exhausted from not only keeping the ducks in a row, but also juggling the ducks and dancing backwards in high heels with the ducks flapping my in the face and then spoon-feeding the ducks duck food that I’ve mashed in my own mouth, and I’ll stop here before this turns into some kind of hideous duck erotica. (Oh, I can just see the search terms now.)

What I am really asking is for your book-loving help.

I have – this comes as a surprise to no one – long looked to books for, well, everything, really, but I especially look to them in difficult moments, in rough periods, in times when I feel I’m flailing. Now, even though this is still new to me, I’m looking to books when I feel lost.

So I am asking for recommendations, book people. What I want specifically is a business book – stay with me here! – or even a self-help book that could be applied to the my professional life or the world of business. Hell, a book about herding ducks would be awesome, but if that’s a title that would never see the light of your bookshelf, then maybe just give me your best book medicine, whatever it may be.

And if you have no suggestions, that’s okay. I just wanted to be honest here. Because having a crisis that could be healed, even slightly, by books should have its place in book blogging, too.

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