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Book Review: Girl, Stop Apologizing

I found this book on the library website; it was available and sounded interesting.  I didn’t know then quite how relevant it would be.

Rachel Hollis is a consultant and motivational speaker who has transitioned from a career as a wedding planner; her business empowers women to live their best lives, unapologetically.

Girl, Stop Apologizing: A Shame-Free Plan for Embracing and Achieving Your Goals

As women, we feel the pull of competing priorities, the pressure and shame of not being enough, and the ideas about what others think we “should” be.  But why do we allow other people’s opinions to affect us so much?  Rachel speaks to women everywhere, encouraging them to follow their own dreams and let go of excuses and behaviors that do not serve.

She speaks of shaming and ways in which women are subtly and overtly discouraged from reaching for the stars, the struggle of raising children as a career minded woman, and the experience of not conforming to society’s expectations of women. She talks of her own experience, as a woman who, looking from the outside, appears to have it all.  She is honest and forthright about how family members and strangers alike have felt a right to weigh in on her choices and goals.

As a single, childless woman who has been very successful in my career, this resonates with me.  Not everyone in my life has been supportive of my dreams, and sometimes when you don’t meet the expectation that others have of you, the passive aggressive push back has been noticeable.  I have experienced the pain of having people in my life lash out against me for being successful, as if my success somehow hinders their own.  Perhaps my achievements are a reminder that they have not been living their own best life, and they only know how to pull someone down to their own level so they can feel less insecure – I’m merely speculating.  But my point is, and the book’s point is, why let somebody else dim your shine and keep you from reaching for your own goals?

Her message is clear.  Live your dreams, do what you need to do to make space for them, and be unapologetic about what they are.  You only get one life, so make sure that you live it wisely and without regret!

3 stars.

Book Review: White Trash

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg

This book was a pick from the library audiobook collection; I chose it because it was available and sounded interesting.

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The issue of class in American has existed since the first colonies were established in the 1600s.  Indentured servants were among the very first settlers in the new British colonies, agreeing to long periods of servitude in exchange for the chance at a better life.  Sadly, the life expectancy and risk of death in the colonies meant that many, if not most, of these indentures were for a lifetime.  Indentured servitude was never as widespread as slavery in America, and as a result isn’t as widely known.

The book details issues of class in the United States from those initial colonies up to modern times, discussing the impacts that societal and governmental policies have had on the poor.  Isenberg talks about the role of class in politics, both as a way to get elected, by claiming to be a man of the people, coming up to leadership from an upbringing in poverty, and as a way to control the poor through policy setting.  Lincoln, Truman, Johnson, Clinton, and others are all Presidents who have capitalized on their poor common man roots, some more common than others.

Isenberg explores issues such as the history of words that address class, and how they have entered the modern lexicon, to issues of housing, education and entertainment in depth.  The book is largely about class, but does at times explore the intersections between class, race and religion in the U.S. as well.  It’s often not easy to separate the issues.  Isenberg presents the information in a way that is insightful, and probably as neutral as one could be.

She doesn’t offer solutions to eliminate or lessen the impact of class on social mobility, but she does bring light to a subject that isn’t often discussed or well understood.  It isn’t exactly a scholarly book, but there is a fair amount of compiled research and understanding of the last 400 years of North American history here.  Certainly a worthwhile read, especially in today’s times!

4 stars.

Book Review: Grant

What an incredibly comprehensive Presidential biography!  Grant, by Ron Chernow, tips the scales at 1074 pages (I read the audiobook version), and details the entirety of Grant’s life.  Unlike Grant’s own memoirs, Chernow explores his marriage and family as well as his professional life.

Grant

Grant was a complex man.  He was born to a middle class stable family that was strongly religious and emotionally distant.  Grant excelled as an equestrian and ended up getting an appointment to West Point though his father’s connections.  He was a mediocre student, getting good grades in courses he liked and not doing well where he wasn’t interested.  He graduated in the middle of his class.

He married Julia Dent, the daughter of a slave-owning Missouri farmer, after courting her for years while working to get his future father-in-law to accept him.  It was during that time that he served in the Mexican American War, and began to display his skill in combat operations.

Grant floundered for a while after marrying Julia.  His military career took him away from her for long periods, and he didn’t do well on his own.  He began drinking heavily, and there is some evidence that a drinking episode led to his resignation from the Army in the 1850s.  He puttered away unsuccessfully as a farmer, selling firewood, trying to get a civil appointment as an engineer, and finally went to work in his father’s tannery – which he absolutely despised.  It wasn’t until the Civil War began and he went back to the Army that he found his way.  And boy did he ever.

This is likely the part of the story that you know.  Grant rose though the ranks of the Western theater, capturing Fort Donelson and later implementing a successful siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi.  Having caught the eye of President Lincoln, Grant was appointed as the Lieutenant General of all Union Armies.  Rumors of drinking binges continued to haunt Grant from time to time, and multiple people sent stories to Lincoln, leading to one of Lincoln’s now famous quotes, “I cannot spare this man.  He fights.”  Ulysses S. Grant brought the war to a close, accepting the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.

Grant continued as commander of the Army after the war ended, leading the Army’s role in reconstruction in the South.  Reconstruction failed for many reasons, but Grant did everything he could to advance peace and the rights of the former slaves.  He believe more than most at the time that blacks deserved equal rights and the opportunity to vote in the post-war era.

Riding on the coattails of his wartime fame, Grant was elected to two terms as President.  Most believe that his Presidency was mediocre; he ended up being caught in a number of political scandals as a result of his trust in his friends who were participating in a variety of nefarious activities.

Chernow documents Grant’s life thoroughly and he tries to speak of Grant’s strengths and failings in equal measures. He is clearly biased towards Grant though, always willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, preferring to think of Grant as an innocent soul who was duped by dishonest friends and political appointments rather than being complicit in their activities.  We will probably never know how much Grant knew.

The only real annoyance for me was Chernow’s obsessive focus on Grant’s drinking.  By all accounts, Grant had largely gained control of his alcohol problem by the time he went back to the Army, and no one ever alleged that Grant’s drinking got in the way of his ability to command his Army.  Yet Chernow seemingly explores every single allegation, acknowledging that they all sounded similar before dismissing most of them.  Whether Grant fell off the wagon or not seems largely irrelevant in the context of his later career and life.

Chernow clearly did extensive research on Grant, reading his letters, military orders and Presidential papers, in addition to researching many of Grant’s contemporaries and what they had to say about him.  He quotes President Lincoln, General Lee, General Sherman, General James Longstreet and many others to round out his descriptions of this great man.

Spoiler alert – as with most biographies, Grant dies at the end…  I cried.  Well done and worth the read.

4 stars.

Book Review: Curse of the Narrows

Curse of the Narrows, by Laura M. MacDonald

On December 6, 1917, during the middle of World War I, a ship carrying high explosives in Halifax Harbor collided with another ship.  Predictably, it exploded.

Curse of The Narrows

Unfortunately, a number of factors came into play in the worst possible way, and the explosion obliterated nearly everything within a half mile radius of the ship, including a heavily populated neighborhood of the city.  More than 2,000 people were killed and over 9,000 were injured. To add insult to injury, communications lines were knocked out, and a blizzard struck the evening of the explosion, making survival uncertain for those who initially lived through the blast.

It was, simply put, the largest man-made explosion up to that point in time.

Boston, receiving word of the disaster, mobilized its Red Cross contingent immediately and sent a relief train to provide assistance to the people of Halifax.  Several other nearby cities did as well, but the Boston relief train was the largest and most well organized, with doctors, nurses, supply coordinators and all sorts of relief supplies.

Rumors of German sabotage pitted people against each other, and sent officials off on wild goose chases to determine if a German bomb or submarine was responsible. Meanwhile the people of Halifax struggled with horrific and long-term injuries, lack of housing in the middle of winter, and the sad process of identifying and burying the dead.

The book details the day leading up to the explosion, and the stories of the people who lived and died in its aftermath.  Historical records research and first hand accounts provide grim detail of the experience, and MacDonald weaves the stories together into the larger narrative.  She does not shy away from the gruesome details of victims injuries, the trauma of separating families, and the legal battle after the initial relief effort ended.

My only criticism of the book is that it is rather poorly edited, with numerous typos and grammar errors, but that doesn’t take away from the story as a whole.  It is a well researched and well written book on an event that was once widely known, but has been largely forgotten to time.

4 stars.

Book Review: Anybody Out There?

I don’t remember how I got Anybody Out There?, by Marian Keyes, but I suspect it was part of a book giveaway.  I had recently finished a rather somber disaster book, and wanted something light-hearted.  Cue the chick-lit…

Anybody Out There? (Walsh Family, #4)

Anybody Out There? follows the life of Anna, a young woman in her early thirties, who wakes up injured in her parents’ Dublin, Ireland home, with no recollection of how she got there.  She lives in New York, with her husband, so what’s the deal?  She can’t reach him, and she’s confused by all the people tut-tutting around her without explaining what’s really going on.  Despite the advice of her family, she decides to return to New York and her job, and see if she can find her husband.

Anna tries to put back together the pieces of her life, as the memories of her accident come back over time.  Meanwhile, Anna’s sister back in Ireland regales her with wild and entertaining stories of her life as a private detective, caught up in a case dealing with organized crime.  There’s always the mystery of the pooping dog too!  There are mediums and ridiculous drunken nights, and jobs that make you cringe.

Despite the outward light appearance, this book deals with some tough topics of grief and loss, and the trials of relationships.  Heavy topics, framed in humor.  And some very small print…

3 stars.

Book Review: Into the Water

Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins

The “Drowning Pool” has long been known as a place where women go to end their lives, as well as a place where men take women to end them.  It has acquired a life of its own, with stories stretching back hundreds of years.  This is a place where witches were taken to sink or swim, and where troubled women made their last troubled decision.

Into the Water

Jules is shocked to learn that her older, estranged sister has become the latest victim of the drowning pool.  She was not your typical troubled woman though; she had a career and a 15 year old daughter – Jules could not believe that her sister would have taken her own life.  And so soon after another tragedy; the daughter’s best friend had taken her own life at the pool just a few months before.

Was it suicide, or was it more sinister?  Hawkins’ takes the reader on a circuitous path towards the truth, examining the thoughts and motivations of each character in the small town, and making you realize that no one is truly innocent.  But was there even a crime?  This novel will keep you on the edge wondering if you will ever truly know…  Along the way, there is a path of healing, as Jules comes to terms with her memories of her sister, embraces her daughter, and makes a new start.

The author’s character development is superb, and the audiobook version was very well done, with different voices for each character.  Well worth the read.

4 stars.

 

Book Review: Never Caught

Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

You probably knew that George and Martha Washington owned slaves.  But did you know that at least of one their slaves ran away and was never recaptured? That’s right, Ona Judge was a female slave owned by Martha Washington; she ran away in May 1796 and lived the rest of her life as a free woman. What is most interesting is that the Washingtons knew where she was, and even tried to get her to willingly return to slavery – she said no.

Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

Ona Judge was by law a dower slave; she was owned by Martha Washington and her first husband; per his will, when Martha died the slaves remained a part of the estate to be divided among their heirs. So even though George Washington is not innocent in this whole story, he didn’t actually have the legal authority to free any of Martha’s dower slaves.

In the late 1700s, Philadelphia was moving toward gradual emancipation of its slaves.  They passed a law that allowed someone newly arrived in Pennsylvania to hold their slaves for a period of six months; after that they had to free them, or leave the colony.  The Washingtons knew this, so when George Washington was elected president and traveled to Philadelphia to serve, he brought several slaves with him, but concocted an elaborate plan to rotate his slaves back down to Virginia at six month intervals.  He believed that each time a slave left the Pennsylvania colony, that reset the six month period.

Ona Judge had been rotating back and forth between Philadelphia and the Washingtons’ Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia over a period of several years during his Presidency.  In 1796, Ona Judge learned she was to be a part of a wedding gift to Martha’s granddaughter, a young woman known for her fiery temper.  It is believed that this is what made her decide to run away.

Despite repeated attempts to get her back, the Washingtons never did.  The book examines the historical record, including letters, runaway advertisements, census records and two interviews that Ona Judge did late in life.  The author tells the story of Ona Judge’s life, both during her period as a slave to the Washington family, as well as her life as a free woman.

There is much that is not known, and my only frustration with the book is that author draws it out with a lot of unnecessary repetition.  It probably would have been a more concise work of non-fiction had she not speculated over and over as to the mindset and feelings of Judge and others portrayed.  But otherwise I thought it was well researched and well-written, and enjoyed learning about this fascinating woman and the little known part she played in American history.

3 stars.

Book Review: Dare to Lead

I chose to read, Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations.  Whole Hearts., as a result of the name recognition I had for the author.  I first heard of Brené Brown from her TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability.  She is a professor with degrees in social work, and a best selling author and keynote speaker.

Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.

She speaks about a number of topics in this work, but there is one over-arching theme.  What one must do in order to become not only a good, but a great leader.  She talks about embracing vulnerability, learning to let go of what others think of you, and owning mistakes and moving on.  She speaks to the requirement to develop courage.  The book goes through the steps needed to develop courage, lean into vulnerability and lead with empathy and compassion, while maintaining accountability.  She speaks to the the body of research that has informed her work, and the successes she has achieved, as well as her failures.

She emphasizes over and over again that in order to get there; you have to do the work.  It is uncomfortable and awkward, and there will be times when you choose the easy road.  There are several salient points to be found in her book.  I found her method of communication to be a bit hokey at times, like an unending conversation with a therapist.  But her points are good, even if the delivery sometimes seems a bit scripted.

3 stars

 

Book Review: The Japanese Lover

Alma is a young Polish girl, sent to San Francisco by her family to live with a distant and wealthy aunt and uncle after the Nazis take over Poland in 1939.  She meets and befriends Ichimei, the Japanese-American son of the family gardener.  They are drawn together in a friendship that reveals the different worlds from which they have come.  So begins a love story that lasts their lifetimes.

The Japanese Lover

Alma grows, up goes to college, and lives an entire rich, full life.  Her path crosses with Ichimei’s time and time again, even though she possesses wealth and privilege that he does not.

Allende also introduces Irina, a poor girl with a trouble past who becomes the now-elderly Alma’s caregiver.  Irina tries to discover the secrets of Alma’s past, while trying to keep her own.  Irina enlists Alma’s grandson Seth in her attempts to uncover what Alma is hiding, and they discover they have more in common than just an odd, old woman.

Allende is an incredible writer, and she weaves a timeless story of love into the complexity of life, exploring themes of race, class, the Holocaust, and prejudice against Japanese-Americans during World War II.  It is very different than her other works, as it does not employ the suspension of disbelief that is a theme in her other novels.  However, as always, her character development is second to none, and each character has their own struggles and motivations.  You find yourself cheering for their successes, and mourning their losses, and gain a deeper understanding of the power of love.

4 stars

Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

I recently read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondō, a Japanese woman who has built a consulting empire devoted to helping her clients declutter.

I have heard many a comment about this supposedly ground-breaking method for reducing one’s life of clutter, and getting back to the simplicity of what is truly important.  The concept is a good one.  I fear however, that this book will not help many people achieve that goal.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

In order to be a success story of the Marie Kondō method, one must fully embrace minimalist living at its extreme.  Not to mention have a wildly overblown case of OCD, and be more than a little bit insane…

Step 1: Collect all of your belongings in a certain category in one spot on the floor.  To purge books, you must dump every single book out of every single bookcase into the center of the floor, all at one time, in order to then pick up every single book and decide whether it “sparks joy.”  If not, get rid of it.  It must spark so much joy that one should only keep a limit of 30 books.  I ask, how can I know if it sparks joy if I haven’t read it yet!?  That might have been the book’s death sentence for me.

Step 2: Repeat for every single category in your home.  Does that fork “spark joy”?  Off with its head!  I say this in jest, but I’ll use the kitchen as an example.  Beyond some of the actual food, nothing in my kitchen sparks joy.  I don’t love cooking, but I do need to eat…  My cup doesn’t floweth over every time I look at the microwave.  That colander doesn’t fill me with overwhelming gratitude that it helps me live my best life every time I drain the water from my spaghetti.  It’s a tool…  But apparently, per the Marie Kondō method, I am just not properly thanking my belongings for being so wonderful each day and as a result, my sad, tired belongings aren’t able to bring it in a meaningful way.  I’m not exaggerating here – if you don’t believe me, read the book.

Step 3: Throw everything that doesn’t spark joy away.

Marie Kondō grew up feeling joy from decluttering, organizing and purging.  This is in fact the only thing she talks about getting joy from as a child.  Apparently running around with her friends, having animals, coloring, swimming, going to camp – none of it brought more joy than cleaning.  I don’t want to judge, but there is something deeply and profoundly wrong here…

If you follow her method, you will spend approximately 1.53 years of your life doing nothing but rummaging around in your house touching, and then throwing away most of what you own.  Your house may be empty for a while.  Until you have to go back out and buy the scissors, Band-aids, soup ladle and filing cabinet all over again…  If you do read it, accept that the concept in its simple form is a good one.  Don’t keep hanging on to that shirt you got as a gift but don’t really like.  Don’t keep the glasses you never use.  Purge more, and keep what you need.

Thankfully the book was relatively short, but this was still about 6 hours of my life I can’t get back.  At least I was multi-tasking…  Good thing I checked out the audiobook version from the library, so I don’t have to throw it away…

1 star.