- I know the author or the publisher (or someone affiliated with either),
- I’m keenly personally interested in the topic or genre,
- and I have some time available to make good on a promise to review it.
Contents – Alphabetical by Title
(Listed alphabetically, each title is linked to its review for quick access, but the actual reviews are organized chronologically in the order I review them, with the most recent review found just after this Contents list.)
1776 / McCullough
11 Laws of Likability, The / Lederman
Book Lover, The / McFadden
Cat Calls / Adlon & Logan
Girls of Atomic City, The / Kiernan
Greater Journey, The / McCullough
Little Miss Merit Badge / Beaman
One Moment, One Morning / Rayner
Palm Trees on the Hudson / Tiber
Plot Whisperer, The / Alderson
Steve Jobs / Isaacson
Tribes of Eden / Thomas
Type Matters! / Williams
Until the Fires Stopped Burning / Strozier
Wives of Henry Oades, The / Moran
Author: Walter Isaacson / Publisher: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks / Copyright: 2011 with Epilogue 2013
Kudos to Walter Isaacson for pulling together the complex story that was Steve Jobs. If you don’t care about technology or business, don’t read the book, because it is impossible to separate Jobs the person from Jobs the visionary/creative, and his arena was the business of technology. My particular enjoyment of the book resulted from reading it simultaneously through three lenses: (1) my own computer use in the publishing business from 1972-on, as I was one of the lucky early users of Xerox’s Alto/Gypsy program and have continued using computers, both Microsoft and Apple products, through to this day; (2) a fascination with well-written biographies of successful people (not just current fame); and (3) a fellow writer’s intrigue with how Isaacson merged a gazillion resources including over a hundred personal interviews with people besides Jobs into a sensitive and sensible story of an especially complex person’s life. Yes, it left me breathless too.
Author: David McCullough / Publisher: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks / Copyright: 2005
My Goodreads rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book would have benefited from a modern-style map in addition to the old ones reproduced in the photo sections. I had way too much trouble understanding which troops were where, etc., from the written descriptions, and the old maps, or at least the portions depicted in the cropping, didn’t show all the places mentioned in the text. Finally I just went with the flow and figured the real story for me were the people involved anyway, and how they were making their decisions. For that, I’m so grateful for a David McCullough, an author I trust to get the facts right and not put too much into the heads of the “characters” that wouldn’t have been there.
Though the book wasn’t truly compelling in the writing, the events and people certainly were. I’m humbled by the ancestry that fought for this country, just as I am humbled by those who fight for it today. As McCullough’s telling points out, we almost didn’t become our own country at all. It was very close and somewhat dependent on luck.
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
Author: Denise Kiernan / Publisher: Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. / Copyright: 2013
Article first published as Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan on Blogcritics.
Denise Kiernan, author of The Girls of Atomic City, is an experienced producer, journalist, and writer who also has a science-education background, all of which helped her create this important work of historical biography — and just in time. As most of us are all too aware, the generation who fought in World War II or supported the effort from home are leaving us — their children, grandchildren, and greats — to carry on without them. Thanks to author Kiernan, we hear from a group of that generation’s women, now in their eighties and nineties, whose wartime experience matched no one else’s. Ever. Anywhere.
Between 1943 and 1945 these women left home or existing jobs to take unknown jobs in the newly constructed, secretive, and increasingly crowded town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. “[The women were] told that their new jobs served one purpose only: to bring a speedy and victorious end to the war. That was enough for [them].” They worked hard for some two years before learning what they were really working on. When the U. S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, they finally knew what their contribution was to the war effort.
The book takes an approach reminiscent of that taken by the military overseers of the town of Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project. That approach is to compartmentalize information. Unlike what the Oak Ridge workers experienced, however, the book’s readers are privy to a far wider range of compartmentalized information all along the way, giving us a 360-degree vision of the overall project, not just limited to Oak Ridge and not just limited to the women.
The book first provides brief-bio lists of the people, places, and things that will be key to the narrative; then a map of the town of Oak Ridge — showing the locations of the four uranium-enriching plants and the seven guarded gates, the only ways on and off “the Reservation,” as the town was often called; and then chronologically detailing in alternating chapters the experience of regular people — as part of the rapidly growing, government-run city of Oak Ridge — and the inexorable advance of scientific knowledge bent toward winning World War II.
Kiernan’s science chapters are remarkable for two reasons. (1) They highlight the roles of usually unsung women (Ida Noddack, Lise Meitner, Leona Woods, Joan Hinton, Elizabeth Graves) in the prediction, measurement, and containment of nuclear fission as a concept and a reality. (2) They are sublimely clearly written for lay readers; the author presumes that her readers have little to no background in science. The fact that she successfully describes nuclear fission without ever using a diagram is testimony to the clarity of her writing.
Kiernan’s people chapters are remarkable as well, weaving in the true experiences of Oak Ridge workers (represented by those still living to share memories directly) with all aspects of the city’s rapid development. The city was originally planned to have 13,000 residents, but that plan was scrapped and increasingly higher numbers were planned. By the fall of 1943 the plan was for 42,000 residents. In 1945 the number peaked at 75,000 residents.
The book emphasizes the mud everywhere, since sidewalks couldn’t be created fast enough, and the speed with which housing went up. “At the height of construction, new [prefab] homes were erected as quickly as one per every thirty minutes.” The total land taken over by the government eventually came to over 90 square miles, much of it used by the four uranium-enriching plants and the rest of it used by the townspeople who serviced the plants (while ignorant about the nature of their work) or the hospitals and cafeterias and so on servicing the people. The average age at Oak Ridge was 27.
Reading, I felt breathless more than a few times; it is mindboggling how much was accomplished how fast, especially in light of the unpredictability of any human endeavor but this one multiplied by so many assignments, people, and numbers needed to get to the lesser and finally the greater goals. Even as all the Project work was getting done, people’s lives were being lived. “Women infused the job site with life, their presence effortlessly defying all attempts to control and plan and shape every aspect of day-to-day existence at Oak Ridge. The Project may not have known what was to become of the town after the war, but the women knew that while they were there, they would not only work as hard as the men, but they would make it home.”
This review can’t begin to do justice to the story contained in The Girls of Atomic City. I’m grateful to Denise Kiernan for her research, her journalism and people skills, her stick-to-itiveness — all that she brought to this work of narrative nonfiction to give readers a larger picture than, I believe, has been available to the general audience before. Certainly the timeline, the science, the major military and political players, and so on are well known. But it has taken an astute woman writer to tell the story in a whole new way.
Kiernan writes in her Epilogue, “When these people and what’s left of the original town and plants are finally gone, who and what will be left to interpret the origins of one of the most significant moments in world history — the birth of the nuclear age? [The] challenge in telling the story of the atomic bomb is one of nuance, requiring thought and sensitivity and walking a line between commemoration and celebration.” Giving the book a title that will encourage women to pick it up and read it means that more people will truly comprehend the historic story of the nuclear age and carry the attendant responsibility forward.
The author ends a publicity interview with this statement, and I’d like to end my review with it as well: “Many people know very little about the development of the atomic bomb, despite the fact that nuclear weapons and nuclear energy play a significant role in our lives and our world … Whether or not you agree with the outcome, the tremendous amount that the Manhattan Project accomplished in such a short amount of time — just under three years [from initial groundbreaking] — is astonishing. The phrase “Manhattan Project” remains synonymous with an all-out effort. We need a Manhattan Project for … obesity, the fight on cancer, climate change … I hear and read that all the time. It makes you wonder what other kinds of things could be accomplished with that kind of determination, effort, and, not to mention, financial and political support. What if the kind of money, manpower, and resources that went into the Manhattan Project went to the fight against hunger? Alzheimer’s? Homelessness?”
The Book Lover: A Novel
Author: Maryann McFadden / Publisher: Three Women Press / Copyright: 2012
Article first published as Book Review: The Book Lover: A Novel on Blogcritics.
If you love relationship novels that keep you turning the pages, and if you’re curious about writers and booksellers, look no further for your next summer read. The first and last stages of a book’s life cycle are embodied in the two main characters of The Book Lover by Maryann McFadden (author of The Richest Season and So Happy Together). The younger character, 39-year-old Lucy Barrett, is a writer. The older character, 64-year-old Ruth Hardaway, is an independent (nonchain) bookseller.
The two characters meet because Ruth has arranged for Lucy to do a signing at her bookstore. Both women have high hopes for the success of Lucy’s book. As the story unfolds, the reader learns what writers and booksellers worry about as they jump through their particular hoops. For readers who are not familiar with the demands of the book world, the story will open their eyes to the beginning and end of the process (not the publishing part itself).
The book world, however, is not the real world, and the narrative tension comes from the personal lives of Lucy and Ruth as they come to grips with choices they have made and choices they need to make. Both Lucy and Ruth have been keeping secrets from their loved ones. Lucy has not only written but self-published a book and has yet to tell her husband, David, about it. Ruth has been developing a friendship with Thomas, a convicted felon, but has kept her feelings from him and everyone else. There are a lot more secrets to be uncovered as Lucy and Ruth and others in their lives become part of the story. I was reminded of a quotation my grandmother passed along to me, I think from Shakespeare, “Ah, what tangled webs we weave when first we practice to deceive.” And fodder for a novel, no?
Maryann McFadden’s writing employs a lot of foreshadowing and keeps you turning the pages. There are 50 chapters, mostly short, usually containing two scenes, and usually switching between what’s happening with Lucy and what’s happening with Ruth. You get used to the pace, which doesn’t ask you to think too hard about underlying motivations. Even so, as events fly along, the story calls into service many truths about us humans. One of the story’s key ideas is that we’re prone to telling white lies or lies by omission when we feel that telling the whole truth may keep us from getting what we want. Lucy lies in bed one night “…exhausted, her mind continuing to go over the past, the puzzle still trying to work itself in her brain. Why did she seem to avoid the truth in some of the most important moments of her life?”
A common thread across all the characters (there are many more than only Lucy and Ruth) is a decision, a final willingness to move out of their comfort zones in order to change the lives they have grown dissatisfied with. The decisions are positive and empowering.
The book walks a tightrope when it comes to conveying the difficulties of promoting and selling books without the imprimatur of an established publishing house or online and chain retailers—a major reason The Book Lover exists. The author wants to help inform readers about the hard work and pitfalls involved, and she has created two plots and several subplots that keep the reader interested without feeling preached to. By the time the following information is given, the story has introduced enough of the small-town community within which Ruth’s bookstore operates that the reader will get the message in the manner intended.
Megan, one of the employees at Ruth’s bookstore, explains how shopping locally helps everyone. “If you spend $25 in your town at an independent store, $13.75 stays in your community. If it’s a big box or chain store, it would be $3.90. If you spend that same $25 on the internet, you’re giving $0 to your community … No one wants boarded-up shops on Main Street, but in some places, that’s what you have.” Perhaps not surprisingly, The Book Lover is a 2012 Indie Next Pick (recommendations from independent booksellers). The author talks about her book in the following video.
Palm Trees on the Hudson: A True Story of the Mob, Judy Garland & Interior Decorating
Author: Elliot Tiber / Publisher: Square One Publishers / Copyright: 2011
Article first published as Book Review: Palm Trees on the Hudson: A True Story of the Mob, Judy Garland and Interior Decorating by Elliot Tiber on Blogcritics.
Before reading Palm Trees on the Hudson, I couldn’t retain the title for more than a couple minutes. After reading it, the title springs to mind with strong imagery because it is tied to a milestone event for author Elliot Tiber. Tiber is a highly sought-after lecturer who has written and produced numerous award-winning plays, musical comedies, television shows, and films. As a professor of comedy writing and performance, he has taught at the New School University and Hunter College in Manhattan. His first novel, Rue Haute, was a bestseller in Europe and was published in the US under the title High Street. His 2007 book Taking Woodstock was made into a motion picture from director Ang Lee in 2009. With Palm Trees on the Hudson, Tiber offers up a prequel memoir to his fans.
Born Eliyahu Teichberg, teacher-writer-producer-artist-decorator Tiber gives readers his background story in this sometimes plodding but more often picturesque and always informative book about the family he couldn’t really leave behind and the life he created for himself in 1960s’ Manhattan. The story Tiber tells is memorable. He lived through and participated in a time of great upheaval in American society, when homosexuality was closeted and AIDS was underway but not yet comprehended.
The upheaval in society was matched by Tiber’s own coming of age, as he left his family home in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, to find his own way as a semi-closeted (mostly just to his parents) gay man making a living through his art, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit. He became one of New York’s top interior decorators. In the spring of 1968, he landed a job that called on all he had learned up to that point. That is the job has given the book its subtitle (The Mob, Judy Garland & Interior Decorating).
Tiber’s first apartment was roach-infested—which I could relate to, having suffered the same shock during one move of my own—but Tiber got rid of the roaches the same day through a helpful encounter with a knowledgeable fellow tenant, Loki. Loki helped him clean the place up and introduced him to people and methods that led to cheap or free objects for decorating his first apartment. From that introduction to Greenwich Village, Tiber grabbed hold happily. Determined to keep his new-found freedom-to-be, he put massive energy and creativity into building a career that required lots of hard work and a growing number of connections and referrals.
“… [M]y pattern of constantly switching companies had officially begun … I was courted by several design firms, all of which offered good pay for the fun of creating imaginative in-store displays. I … got to see my designs featured in Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus … it was heaven.” With enough security in his regular jobs, Tiber simultaneously started his own enterprise, Plaza Interiors, which eventually led to enough work that he could devote full time to it. He also accepted an offer from his alma mater Hunter College to teach art. “For the first time in my life, my mother was speechless.” Even though his work had been featured in major department stores, and he had been making enough money to send some home each week, his mother had never understood or approved of what he did. Teaching she understood. If her son couldn’t be a rabbi or a doctor, teaching would do. She was thrilled.
Tiber tells about living the duality of a wildly gay and upwardly mobile lifestyle in Manhattan during the workweeks, and then on weekends shifting into dutiful-son mode and helping his parents manage their own business. When they asked for his financial and physical help getting a new motel up and running near White Lake, New York, he provided it. Tiber does a good job relating the stark contrast between the two environments he was immersed in. One way he dealt with the weekend work was to start a summer theater in the barn where he could perform comedy monologues.
“At my first performance, nobody showed up. Scratch that; Momma dropped in for a few minutes to watch me as I stood there talking, talking, talking to the empty air … She demonstrated support for my creativity as only she could: ‘Yutz! I told you not to make a theater! Who needs a theater? And you, Mr. Comedian, you’re not even funny. Nobody wants to hear your stories!’ And with that, she ran back to the motel. Pretty amazing. I thought. No audience and I still had a heckler.”
Back in the city, along with building his career, Tiber yearned to find true love. Failing that, to relieve his sexual frustration, he spent a lot of his leisure time “in the Times Square ‘grindhouse’ movie theaters, which showed porno movies, Westerns, and old foreign flicks. But nobody came to see the films. The draw was the sexual activities in the theater itself … I made out every time I went there.” He also visited the piers, and “a former 1920s speakeasy called Lenny’s Hideaway,” a gay club that the police often raided and outside of which homophobic thugs hung out “for the sole purpose of beating up patrons as they left for home.” During the time period covered in this memoir, Tiber doesn’t find a serious boyfriend. “I still hungered for love and cried myself to sleep more often that I care to remember.”
Battling depression, Tiber saw several psychologists during those years, but what finally worked for him was the disastrous job of the subtitle, which sent him home to the motel. His downtime that summer led to Tiber having an epiphany while sitting in a lawn chair on the bottom of an emptied pool listening to a Judy Garland album.
I enjoyed the book, even though it was often facile. I never got the feeling, for instance, that Tiber ever really tried to see the world from his mother’s viewpoint, and this made certain passages in the book frustrating as he aimed more for humor than compassion. But that would have worked against his comedic style and his own messages, so I let him off that hook and enjoyed the book for the story he wanted to tell. I do wish there had been some photographs in this memoir, including some of his artwork, which included murals, and some of his room designs.
Having been in publishing in some form or other all my adult life, I’m probably one of the few people who actually reads the small print on the copyright page, the page verso to the title page. I especially enjoyed the small print this time because it includes a note from the author. Tiber writes, “You may be wondering why a nonfiction work would have a disclaimer. Well, it boils down to a nervous publisher who worries about using real names when describing a crooked judge, a connected restaurateur, and their cronies….” I can’t say I blame Tiber’s publisher for asking for pseudonyms. Tiber does suggest, however, “… for those curious readers who want to know the real names of bad guys, there’s always Google.” I decided, for my part, to leave well enough alone.
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Type Matters!: Simple Tips for Everyday Typography
Author: Jim Williams (Foreword by Ben Casey) / Publisher: Merrell Publishing (London) / Copyright:2012
The following review, written by Meredith Ann Rutter, was first published as Book Review: Type Matters!: Simple Tips for Everyday Typography by Jim Williams on Blogcritics.
Type Matters! by Jim Williams (publication date April 10, 2012) is physically satisfying. Seriously. I can’t stop rubbing the soft, flexible front cover, lifting it up and caressing it away from the pages, then hefting the whole book and running my fingers between the two ribbons bound in for keeping my place on two page-spreads at once. There’s also an elastic loop bound-in for holding a group of end pages fast to the back cover. When I smell the pages, they carry a leathery papery smell. The pages are thick and cream-white with red and black ink used intelligently throughout. This book is pleasing to the touch, the nose, the eye, and when actually read, to the hungry mind.
This is a starter book and a wonderful gift idea for someone beginning to develop page layouts, whether on the computer or in print (not that there’s really any other way anymore). Explained and demonstrated are terms such as kerning, leading, ligatures, drop capitals, and many others. This book highlights the most basic history and rules of typography that, when ignored, drive more knowledgeable typographers crazy—crazy enough to yell, “Type matters!”
The author, Jim Williams, is a freelance graphic designer and a senior lecturer in graphics at Staffordshire University. He was asked by a design company in Manchester (England) “to give a series of talks, one of which was about tips that could help its designers with day-to-day typography.” In addition to the material he included in that presentation, he notes that many things “have informed the content of Type Matters!, including what I have learned from the people with whom I’ve worked, the glaring mistakes I’ve seen and the questions I’ve most commonly been asked by students.”
The book is organized into three parts: (1) Background, (2) Setting Headings and Display Type, and (3) Text Setting. The third part is comprised of quadruple the items in each of the first two parts, and with good reason: most typographic rules relate to text setting. By text here, I mean the words that form sentences and paragraphs, not headings.
The author asks the novice typesetter or book designer to learn only enough background as necessary to move quickly into learning basic rules of an historic game, some of which have been in play since before Gutenberg. The industry’s move from hot type to the computer screen has not pushed the rules of typography into oblivion. Sadly, however, it has enabled too many computer users to ignore their readers’ need for text that subliminally encourages them to keep reading. Too often, the appearance of the text subliminally frustrates them.
Other books on typography may offer more on, for instance, the personalities of the many different typefaces available, but those books run the risk of overwhelming the early learner in the field. This book is perfectly positioned to ease the newbie into the world of typography. Type Matters! is full of helpful rules of thumb, important bits of information to get the novice noticing amateurish mistakes that can easily be avoided. With these basic rules under one’s belt, denser and more esoteric volumes may be tackled. The end matter in the book is excellent, including a glossary of terms, a bibliography for reference and further reading, an index, and a directory of museums, libraries, and organizations committed to good typography.
I learned a few terms that are not commonly used in the United States, such as calling en-dashes nut dashes, and em-dashes mutton dashes. “Flush left” in the U.S. is “Range left” in this book. But such differences are instructive more than annoying. I’m also embarrassed to admit I never realized the ampersand came about as an abbreviated design of the letters “e” and “t,” spelling the Roman word for “and.” Who knew?
Type Matters! is not really a reference book in itself; it is a learner’s bible. Its black, leather-looking binding befits its place as a bible. Its content will open the eyes of anyone who works with text creation but has never worried about typographic fine points. This book is for anyone who doesn’t understand the humor in Foreword-writer Ben Casey’s cautionary note: “Without [this fundamental knowledge, one] will be unequipped to enter a world that may sound surprisingly cruel and violent: where widows are castigated, punctuation is hung and, without due consideration, type can end up bleeding in the gutter. Pay attention.”
Three page-spreads from the book are reproduced below.
Cat Calls: Wonderful Stories and Practical Advice from a Veteran Cat Sitter
Authors: Jeanne Adlon and Susan Logan (Foreword by Jim Davis [creator of Garfield] and Illustrations by Cathy Morrison) / Publisher: SquareOne Publishers / Copyright:2012
The following review, written by Meredith Ann Rutter, was first published as Book Review: Cat Calls: Wonderful Stories and Practical Advice from a Veteran Cat Sitter on Blogcritics.
Our two elderly cats, Redford and (Miss) Newman, died a few years ago. At nineteen and seventeen, they were the longest lived of the twenty cats I’ve helped parent. They lived the longest mainly because they were the first cats I ever made a point of keeping indoors. This decision is roundly seconded by the authors of Cat Calls, who believe, as I do, that cats are just as happy—if not happier, in light of parasites and traffic and so on—to be indoor cats as outdoor cats if their basic needs are being met.
Author Jeanne Adlon started the very first cat-sitting service in New York City in 1977. She called her business Cat Calls, and through word of mouth was able (I’ll bet quickly) to grow the business into full-time work. The book by the same name includes many reminiscences about the cats she cared for over the years. Today Jeanne Adlon responds to inquiries as a Cat Expert on www.CatChannel.com. Co-writer Susan Logan is the editor of Cat Fancy magazine and a regular speaker at the Cat Writers’ Association.
This pairing of authors has resulted in an informative and reader-friendly work especially suitable for new cat owners and also for anyone aspiring to be a cat sitter. In only 144 pages, this slim volume from SquareOne Publishers provides the basics that most longtime cat owners take for granted but are must-reads for the newbies. This is a book that assumes the reader already has particular cat(s) in mind to apply the advice to. It isn’t a coffee-table book about breeds of cats, for instance, nor does it contain (any!) photographs of cats. Instead, it is lovingly and lightheartedly illustrated by artist Cathy Morrison in a style reflecting the tone of the text. (It’s too bad Morrison’s name isn’t included, and as prominently as Jim Davis’s, on the cover. And no, I don’t know her.)
As a longtime cat parent, I had the arrogance to predict I wasn’t going to learn anything from Cat Calls, and I’m happy to report I was wrong. The specifics of what I learned aren’t important here—though I’ll mention that four of the items involved, separately, a moat, brewer’s yeast, quick[as in claws]-alert clippers, and getting cats to love their carriers. What’s important is that readers will pick up a lot of neat ideas from the practical advice in this book, and that’s happy news for the cats.
The seven chapters cover issues related to (cat) adoption, food, indoor/outdoor cats, litter boxes, health care, misbehavior, and playtime or special occasions. Chapter subheadings are sensible (as opposed to cute or confusing), and marginal notes called “Feline Fact” add tidbits beyond the text. Once per chapter there is a section called “Distinctive Feline” that tells a special tale in more depth than the other tales in the book, which are quite brief, provided in support of the how-to advice.
Here’s a bit of advice I had to learn the hard way myself, and it really affects how much you like your cat after the kitten has grown up. “[Teach] kittens that fingers, toes, and other body parts are not playthings . . . [It’s] best not to play games in which you move your hand under a blanket, pretending to be prey, or to encourage cats to pounce on or swat you. This might be cute when they’re kittens, but it’s not fun when they’re adult cats and can draw blood.”
Related to that advice is the following, equally important step: “If your kitten or adult cat starts biting you, immediately stop petting him and ignore him for a few seconds. Never hit your cat, because he will not associate the punishment with his inappropriate behavior. Instead, redirect kitty’s attention to a toy. Reward him for playing with his toys with praise or treats, and he’ll soon learn that hands are for petting and toys are for playing.”
This book is a perfect gift for anyone just beginning cat care, even as young as nine or ten if a good reader, and also for anyone who thinks they know enough to be a cat sitter. Because the latter audience is part of the universe the authors probably hope to reach, Adlon emphasizes that responsibility is the key factor in providing a good cat-sitting service. “[Y]ou need to be available to work seven days a week, and your busiest times are weekends and holidays. You will be working when other people are away on vacation or enjoying the holidays with friends and family . . . To build and keep a loyal clientele, you must be available 24/7.” Imagine the love and commitment behind such a job.
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The Wives of Henry Oades
Author: Johanna Moran / Publisher: Ballantine Books, imprint of Random House Copyright:2010
I posted the following as an Amazon Customer Review 2-17-2012
A book to relish: There are many reviews already here providing the storyline for this wonderful book. I’m here to second all the positive comments, and to add my own experience with the book, which was to sink into it and get caught up with the characters and in the settings so superbly drawn by this author. It’s a rare book that I wake up thinking about in the morning, actually anxious to find out what’s going to happen at the end. It was a thrilling way to awaken, and indicative of the uniqueness of this story. If you’re in a book club, this would be a terrific offering, since there are many scenes and behaviors begging for discussion. I can’t wait for Ms. Moran’s next book!
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Little Miss Merit Badge
Author: Ronda Beaman / Publisher: Wyatt-MacKenzie / Copyright: 2012
The following review, written by Meredith Ann Rutter, was first published as Book Review: Little Miss Merit Badge: A Memoir on Blogcritics.
Do you remember the girl in your school (doesn’t matter what school, what age) that everyone knew because she was a big winner? Maybe the girl was the one who won all the spelling bees, got the highest standardized test score, sold the most Girl Scout cookies, earned the most badges—in fact, so many badges she needed two sashes to hold them all … you get the picture. Some would say that girl had an “accomplishment addiction.”
Author Ronda Beaman, in her memoir Little Miss Merit Badge, describes the parental attention-disorder environment that bred such an addiction in her at a young age. Her parents were extremely good looking, and her father had been captain of the high school basketball team, used to adulation. But sometime after their high school graduation, her parents got married with baby Ronda on the way. From the word go, Ronda (and subsequent siblings as well) was in an unknowing competition with her father for attention. She compensated by becoming overly ambitious.
Beaman writes with humor and empathy, both for herself and other members of her family, even as she provides the reader with clear examples of why she never knew what would come out of her father’s mouth next. He once told fourth-grade Ronda, who was worrying about taking America’s Math Proficiency Exam, that everyone has an IQ, even her. The memoir is rife with examples of her father’s backhanded compliments and mean or thoughtless comebacks to the most innocent of comments. Ronda and her siblings had to be careful not to get too excited or show too much emotion about anything for fear of being put down for it. “The decree by which we all were governed was that no one in our family could be smarter, funnier, better looking, or more well-liked than my father.”
Imagine being that girl and feeling the need to prove yourself every few months because your family kept moving—two, three, four times a year, say. You had no chance to develop long-lasting relationships, and the father who was causing all those moves kept giving you mixed messages about your worth. The more Ronda was denied reassurance or success, the harder she strove for it. One year her resourcefulness in collecting S&H Green stamps, cereal box tops, and Bazooka Joe comics (all redeemable for prizes she could sell or trade up from) resulted in funding her own way to Girl Scout Camp for a week.
Beaman is forthright about her own misdeeds. Perhaps you can forgive young Ronda for faking as many successes as she actually achieved. “My first badge attempt was keeping a diary to earn the Write All About It badge … I lied on every page … I like to think of my fiction as early signs of creativity. With sheer pluck and perspicacity I wrote about the life I wanted, rather than the life I had.”
Beaman has organized the chapters in her memoir around the names of twelve of the badges earned during her time in the Scouts. In a life-changing scene, seventh-grade Ronda learns that she is not invincible and cannot rely on fakery to get true companionship and self-respect. She starts working on earning a Healthy Relationships badge. This can be difficult if you mark the passage of time with phrases like “about three houses ago” and can honestly say your earlier childhood did not include a true mentor, role model, or good friend.
Thankfully, through the moral compass experiences provided early on by Girl Scouts and through careful, intelligent observation of what worked and what didn’t work, Beaman built a good life for herself and others. She reflects on the paths people’s lives take: “It’s as if everyone is born with an empty [Scout] sash … and we each get to choose which badges we merit and which badges we rebuff due to lack of interest, desire, talent, or capability.”
She goes on to conclude, “I discovered integrity, truth, hard work, goals, and commitment within the circle of each Girl Scout badge. But it is outside the circumference of the badges that I faced even more rigorous requirements: among them, forgiveness, compassion, love, courage, resilience, faith, and steadfast hope … It took years to understand that I could never have what was inside each [badge] until I secured what lay outside of them. And what was outside those badges was not my father, my family, or any troop, what lay outside was my life.”
Continuing her penchant for getting meritorious things accomplished, Beaman was the first person in her family to finish college, summa cum laude at that, and later earned her masters and doctorate degrees and became a professor. (Her father commented that he “always thought professors had to be smart.”) She raised two sons as a single parent, was named mother of USA Today’s Most Creative Family, and was an active Board member of the Pay It Forward Foundation. She is now Chief Creative Officer at PEAK Learning, a director of leadership studies at California Polytechnic University, an international speaker, and a fitness coach. Little Miss Merit Badge is Ronda Beaman’s first memoir and second book. Her first book was You’re Only Young Twice: 10 Do-Overs to Reawaken Your Spirit. (Full disclosure: Though I’ve never met Ronda Beaman, I was the lucky publisher of her first book, now being sold by Quick Publishing.)
I’m highly recommending the book. I’d be remiss not to mention there are a number of copyediting errors, but the writing is highly entertaining and the messages are timeless. This is a great gift book for friends and family, and a definite candidate for lively group discussions.
Little Miss Merit Badge includes book club questions and an invitation to have the author appear at book club or troop meetings (in person or via Skype, phone, or Twitter). Visit her website for ideas and giveaways. There is even a Facebook app called The Merit Badge Project where you can earn badges of your own. There’s an excellent YouTube book trailer linked here.
One Moment, One Morning
Author: Sarah Rayner / Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin / Copyright: 2010 (First U. S. Edition January 2012)
The following review, written by Meredith Ann Rutter, was first published as One Moment, One Morning on Blogcritics.
British author (born in London, living in Brighton) Sarah Rayner’s third novel, and her first to be sold in the U.S., One Moment, One Morning begins with an unexpected, nonviolent death three pages into the book. Wake up, reader! Not that you were even thinking about sleeping. The narrator isn’t. She is on the 7:44 a.m. commuter train, along with a lot of other people, and only pretending to doze while she takes in details about her coincidental companions. The sudden death of one of those other commuters reverberates through the rest of the book, as three women affected directly or indirectly by it are drawn into each other’s lives.
Rayner emphasizes the density and speed of the reverberations with chapters titled by days of the week, and numerous subsections by times of day. She draws a clear picture of each protagonist’s needs, goals, and challenges. As one woman and then another and then another finally behaves out of character, the major scenes unfold. The big questions—and suspense—in the book revolve around whether the uncharacteristic behaviors, when they do occur, will prove to be beneficial or disastrous to the people involved.
Karen, the bereaved widow, has been left to finish raising two young children without the father they loved. Anna, her friend and the children’s godmother, does what she can to be supportive while attending to her job and worrying about the longevity of her own domestic situation with an alcoholic boyfriend. Lou, single and a lesbian, is feeling the emptiness of having few people she will talk openly with. The three women, all in their early thirties, are respectful of the pressures on each other. Even as they battle their own demons, they devote emotional space to others. Each character’s “moment” occurs during a different time of day—Karen’s in the morning, Anna’s at night, and Lou’s in the afternoon.
Flashbacks appear out of nowhere, highlighting the emotional power of memories, as each character works on herself and moves through the week following the unexpected death. There are many themes in this book, including but not limited to how we handle feelings of guilt, how our different natures need not prevent us from and may even encourage forming strong bonds with others, and how our families, friends, and responsibilities help us cope with changes even as they so often make us want to grumble or scream. The main theme may be that we are never alone.
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Tribes of Eden: A Novel (Kindle Edition)
Author: William H. Thomas / Publisher: Sana Publications Copyright:2012
I posted the following as an Amazon Customer Review 12-27-2011
Set in the near future, too near for comfort, the United States of America has crumbled. People who had become dependent on the digital/electrical grid that held everything together were set adrift. The price of gasoline skyrocketed, the stock market crashed, and “instead of providing calm reassurance, the government lurched and wobbled … There was a great unraveling.” Riots broke out in the streets of the major cities, and one family in particular was separated as they escaped Chicago.
As this family comes back together, with collective stories to tell, they find sanctuary and a new life in an idyllic community in upstate New York living off the “GRID,” which is the name for the sinister new regime that has taken over society. This can’t last forever, of course, and the new regime eventually begins zeroing in on destroying all those who would resist assimilation into the GRID.
Classic themes of good versus evil, family tensions, and the bonds shared by young and old come together in this unique book that tells a fast-paced yarn where the strength of an unusual alliance is tested and found true.
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The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master
Author: Martha Alderson / Publisher: Adams Media / Copyright:2011
The following review, written by Meredith Ann Rutter, was first published as Book Review: The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master by Martha Alderson on Blogcritics.
Martha Alderson is a writer by night and a plot consultant by day. She has worked with hundreds of writers in workshops, retreats, and personal consultations. Over the past fifteen years, her clients have included bestselling authors, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors. With her new book, The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master, Alderson delivers a powerful addition to the writer’s bookshelf. Any writer in search of a new slant on plot development—as well as character development—will find a unique approach here. Alderson loosely links story development to the writer’s own personhood as the writing develops.
Organized in three parts, the book focuses first on plotting and themes, next on creating characters and setting, and then on fleshing out the journey. Skeleton charts titled “Plot Planner” and “Scene Tracker” encourage the writer-reader to begin tackling these tasks right away because they look so simple. Alderson slowly unveils their complexity during the course of the book while offering myriad hints of encouragement to keep writers believing—knowing—they can do it. The book suggests both visual and kinesthetic ways to access ideas. The Plot Planner chart, for instance, uses paper and sticky notes and different colors to represent scenes and characters.
This book comes closer than others I’ve read to shedding light on the nuances of the writer’s battle-dance with the story. The writer becomes part of the story, bringing his or her own struggles, flaws, and strengths to bear on the characters’ struggles, flaws, and strengths. Alderson believes “that every book is part of a Universal Story that flows throughout our lives, both in our imaginations and in the reality that surrounds us … What is left after the end of the story has the potential to transform not only the writer but all those who read the story as well.”
Alderson, writing with empathy and clarity, works this thread throughout her book. Shaded “Plot Whisper” boxes guide the writer in specific how-to strategies. Sections called “The Writer’s Way” help the writer gain self-knowledge to enrich scenes and characters. The Writer’s Way sections are written in second person and are clearly directed to you, the reader, personally. Less prescriptive than the Plot Whisper sections, they have an almost singsong quality that lures you to search for awareness and bring yourself into the equation. Sprinkled among the more straightforward concepts in this how-to book, the Writer’s Way sections help you get in touch with the Universal Story from another angle, your very own.
About character development, Alderson writes, “The most complete way for a reader to identify and relate to a character is through the range of emotions exhibited by that character … In a world that is left-brain dominated and heavily influenced by the left-brain specialties of logic, literal interpretation, and other features of the mind, displays of emotion are often frowned upon. We learn to mask our feelings and protect ourselves. This leads us to the mistaken belief that when we experience strong emotions we are the only ones to do so. Genuine emotions are universal and recognizable even between people who do not share the same language or customs. Every honest show of emotion by the protagonist renews the Universal Story.”
In a subsequent Plot Whisper box, a specific action Alderson recommends is this: “Keep your journal with you at all times to jot down behaviors you see in others or feel in yourself that signify emotional reaction to external events. Push yourself to detect emotional displays, no matter how subtle, beyond clichés.” It is typical of this book to provide concrete ways to get at nuanced material.
Alderson’s detailed look at crisis versus climax is the most helpful I’ve read. On crisis, for example, she writes, “A crisis is a deep disappointment, a blow, the dark night of the soul. A crisis heralds the full transformation at the end of the story, but first comes a severing from the past, and at the crisis the protagonist suffers. The crisis is a breakdown with the potential for a breakthrough.” And that’s only a portion of the value Alderson delivers about the crisis scene. She delivers such value for all aspects of creating a novel.
I used the ideas in The Plot Whisperer in two ways during the month of November. I drew and tacked onto my office wall a Plot Planner and then attached labeled stickies to see whether my existing draft of a novel panned out okay. I was reassured that my scenes fell in line with a worthy plot plan. At the same time, Alderson’s comments on what I should be noticing helped me to deepen my comprehension of what was there and what might still be needed.
The other way I used The Plot Whisperer in November was to help me figure out whether I had a solid idea for a new novel. November was NaNoWriMo month. I really wanted to draft a novel in thirty days, but as it turned out I would have only about fifteen days. So I used that time instead to keep studying Alderson’s book and to zero in on a plan rather than let my speed-typing fingers do the talking (as I did in 2009 and 2010, when I “won” NaNoWriMo). Alderson’s book, I discovered, is helpful whether you are a seat-of-the-pants or an outlining first-draft writer. I’m experiencing the truth that one can be either type depending on the novel. Whether at the start, middle, or end of draft one, the novel you are writing must at least begin to attend to all the points Alderson makes. It is reassuring that her book—my copy extremely dog-eared now—will be a constant resource.
Ideas in The Plot Whisperer are accessible no matter what draft or revision stage you are tackling. The index, sadly undervalued in too many books, is helpful. The only area for improvement I can suggest overall would be the addition of subtitles to the Plot Whisper boxes, to allow at-a-glance access during a writer-reader’s revision stage.
Alderson recognizes writing as a craft and teaches another way to come at it, a very personal way. Her book is a wonderful mix of analytical and reasoned aids delivered with emotional acumen in a light therapy session that never has to end.
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Until the Fires Stopped Burning: 9/11 and New York City in the Words and Experiences of Survivors and Witnesses
Author: Charles B. Strozier / Publisher: Columbia U. Press Copyright:2011
I posted the following as an Amazon Customer Review 10-5-2011
I didn’t know anyone who died on 9/11. Geographically, a woman from the town next to mine in Massachusetts died on American Airlines Flight 11 when it crashed into the first (north) tower. Personally, the daughter of a close friend and colleague of mine lived in Manhattan at the time. Professionally, Day Two of a key training session for many employees in my company was cancelled an hour after it started, to be rescheduled when we knew what the hell was happening.
According to author Charles B. Strozier, in his book Until the Fires Stopped Burning, people in or near the towers, close enough to encounter death, were “survivors,” in zone 1. People who were not close enough to encounter death but were close enough to see the disaster unfold (e.g., the burning buildings from a few blocks away) were “witnesses,” in zone 2. My friend’s daughter was a “participant,” in Zone 3, being part of that day’s chaos and trauma in Manhattan. My colleagues and I were “onlookers,” in Zone 4, seeing everything in a virtual manner, on TV. Strozier delineates these four zones of sadness to discuss his conclusions based on interviews and studies he has conducted over the last ten years. Descriptions of the zones of sadness make up Part One of the book.
Unfortunately, only Part One of the book’s three Parts had any true emotional and intellectual force, in my opinion. I bought the book because I believed the author’s conclusions and considerations after ten years of scrutiny would be informative, given that he was a psychoanalyst in Greenwich Village and a history professor at the John Jay College of the City University of New York, where he created a Center on Terrorism in the late fall of 2001. But in comparison to the first part of the book, the other two parts were either obvious comments related to PTSD sufferers, for instance (and true enough, but not new) or esoteric and seemed a stretch too often. Several chapters were only tenuously connected to 9/11. His chapter on “traumasong” was hardly relevant to the rest of the book.
Not proofreading, but overall in the book—and I did read the whole thing—I noticed ten typographical errors, more than I’d fear to see in a book published by renowned Columbia University Press. I assume the errors were introduced by going to press too quickly. My favorite, and not to make fun of the event or to titillate, but omigawd what a typo, presumably was made by a transcriptionist, but the author certainly should have caught it. He quotes a woman who gave birth on 9/11 at a hospital in Greenwich Village, sometime that day but after the event. The next day, going home on the F train with her day-old baby, she thought her “universe” would fall out on the train. I don’t think so.
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The 11 Laws of Likability: Relationship Networking … Because People Do Business with People They Like
Author: Michelle Tillis Lederman / Publisher: Amacom Copyright:2012
The following review, written by Meredith Ann Rutter, was first published as Book Review: The 11 Laws of Likability: Relationship Networking … Because People Do Business with People They Like by Michelle Tillis Lederman on Blogcritics.
“I’m not very good in networking situations,” I once admitted to a new employee as we entered a conference where networking was going to be a major activity. She then shared with me that a former boss of hers had once noted that this employee had better results networking with one or two people during a half-hour session than her boss had networking with ten people in the same session. The idea of spending more time with someone, not less, was an eye-opener to me. Suddenly I felt a lot better about the concept of networking.
The 11 Laws of Likability by Michelle Tillis Lederman is a well-organized, clearly written book that brings home many potentially eye-opening concepts, all of which are based on the idea that networking can be as enjoyable as having a conversation with friends and still be highly beneficial to career goals. The overlap between my former employee’s advice and the ideas laid out by Lederman exists, I believe, in the concept of authenticity. One doesn’t need to spend a lot of time with a connection, though that can help; rather, the interaction needs to be authentic in some way, and that can happen in an instant.
The book is organized in three parts based on what you can do before, during, and after having a conversation with a connection.
• Before having the conversation, familiarize yourself with the four laws of likability related to authenticity, self-image, perception, and energy.
• During the conversation, act on the laws of curiosity, listening, similarity, and mood memory.
• After the conversation, build the relationship through the laws of familiarity, giving, and patience.
Each chapter begins with a scene from the author’s own experience that demonstrates the law in action or the need for the law. The chapters do not have to be taken altogether or in a certain order; you can jump to the one(s) you feel are most important to you at this time. Even so, I found it beneficial to read the book in the order presented. For each law, following a description of its meaning and intent, the author provides simple and relevant activities to help you “Live the Law,” to apply the concept to you own work life.
Author Lederman’s suggestions for personalizing concepts to your own interests and situations are excellent. For example, in the chapter on the law of curiosity, she provides many ideas for ways to open conversations with potential connections. She provides examples for making personal inquiries, asking opinions, posing hypotheticals, seeking advice, complimenting (not flattering), and using the news. The subsequent Live the Law activity has the reader “change [the examples] in some way to make them authentic for you. Then generate at least two more original examples for each type. At the end of the exercise you should have a robust repertoire of questions to use for opening and continuing conversations in any situation.”
When I first received the book for review, I thought I wouldn’t see much new in it, but I was wrong. What seems at first glance like a good book for people just entering the workforce is also a good book for people jaded by upheavals and misunderstandings in the workforce. (Who, me?) What’s new in the book is its insistence on authenticity as the key to likability. What’s new to you under that umbrella will be different than what was new to me under that umbrella.
This book is a fit for just about any B2B setting you can think of. Who doesn’t want to be perceived as likable, and yet aren’t we all at some point or other disliked? (Again: who, me?) In any case, as the author notes near the end of the book, “The point isn’t for you to like everyone and for everyone to like you. Instead, the point is to create meaningful connections that strengthen your relationships, your self-awareness, your productivity, and inevitably, your results.”
Major corporations and small businesses both would benefit from purchasing this book in bulk and distributing it gratis to all the employees. They will be thankful for it. And customers will benefit from the fallout as well.
* Image source link: Vlado
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The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris
Author: David McCullough / Publisher: Simon & Schuster Copyright:2011
The following review, written by Meredith Ann Rutter, was first published as Book Review: The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough on Blogcritics.
Author-historian David McCullough (1776, John Adams, Truman, and more) has now applied his talents in research and description to the years 1830 – 1900, but not as they were lived in America. In his latest study, McCullough gives us a profound feel for how a number of enthusiastic Americans experienced Paris, France, and brought or sent back to the United States the benefits that their broadened horizon generated.
Some of those benefits are easily named, such as the idea for an electromagnetic telegraph and the Morse code. But most of the benefits over the time period covered have to be acknowledged as incalculable, such as the influence of the new Impressionist art movement on Mary Cassatt’s developing style and subsequent contributions to the art world. McCullough’s sweeping work reminds us that France, through its Parisian institutions and teachers especially, was supportive of and valuable to our country’s steep learning curve and creativity in nineteenth-century arts, medicine, and technology.
There are many fascinating accountings in this book including, for example, the often hair-raising sea voyages to get to France; the conditions under which surgeries were accomplished—sans anesthetics or disinfecting and sterilizing procedures, still unknown anywhere; the seven trunks of clothes one woman needed in order to spend a week at Emperor Louis Napoleon’s country home; and the epiphany Charles Sumner had in Paris that eventually led to his being brutally attacked back on the floor of the Senate Chamber.
What may be (and could be, but who’s counting) a thousand people mentioned, the following are among the recognizable names given greatest attention: Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Morse, Charles Sumner, George Healy, John Singer Sargent, Elihu Washburne, Mary Cassatt, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Additional people are covered in a bit less depth, and oh-so-many others are given only a sentence or two or three.
Through hundreds of comments in addition to the author’s, we learn much about the personal lifestyles of myriad individuals—teachers, doctors, inventors, politicians, writers, and artists of all kinds, from painters and sculptors to musicians, singers, and dancers. We also learn about French leaders, the Second Empire, the Second and Third Republics, and the Franco-Prussian War and siege of Paris. All these occurred during the time period covered, and all affected or were reported by Americans in Paris. The American Civil War also occurred during this period, of course—and we learn that the French were sympathetic to the Confederacy.
Humor is often provided by quotations from journal entries and letters. For example, McCullough writes: “The fashion for mustaches and beards among the French dandies, the Parisian ‘exquisites,’ had little or no appeal … ‘Don’t you hate to see so many ninnies in mustaches?’ wrote John Sanderson [a teacher from Philadelphia]. Beards annoyed him still more. ‘One loves the women just because they have no beards on their faces.’ If a man was born a fool, Sanderson concluded, he could be a greater fool in Paris than anywhere on earth, such were the opportunities.”
The fourteen chapters, organized chronologically, are loosely titled based on one idea or person but cover a number of travelers with a variety of talents and interests. There is so much more within each chapter than the titling implies, in fact, that the reader can lose the thread easily. It seems to this reviewer that many subsections of chapters were included mainly because information had been gleaned about some event or person that might not otherwise see the light of day in any other book, and so the author felt obligated to include it in this one. But perhaps the absence of a continuously clear focus is not a major flaw. There is plenty here to entertain and inform. It is contingent upon readers to let go, to flow, in order to take a greater journey themselves.