Monday, February 8, 2016

Book Review: "Liar" by Rob Roberge

When I read the little summary for this book I was intrigued: man who finds out that he will probably be losing all of his memories due to dementia sets out to put them all down. Great, interesting, fine. And it's kind of like that. It's more of a really choppy, but not quite stream of consciousness/fever dream, jump around time line about his life and his excessive use of drugs and alcohol over the years. Also worth nothing, I didn't know who this person was, but they are apparently a novelist who has put out some successful books.

 He is told that he is at a higher than likely risk for diseases like Parkinson's and dementia, due to some concussions that he got through his life (including one he got in a car accident that was so bad that he almost was paralyzed). Though I feel like he never points out that his brain also could be damaged by the EXCESSIVE drug and alcohol abuse. Honestly, the fact that he lived past 30 seems to be a surprise to him (and to me if I'm honest). He also was diagnosed with bipolar disorder which, he says, lead to some of the drugs and drinking.

This is not an uplifting "man started doing drugs and drinking when he was 15 and eventually turns his life around" story. Though that is kind of the story. Rob is a serious alcoholic and drug user for a long portion of his life, and then gets clean for 20 years, and then falls back into his old habits.

It's probably my fault for not liking this book very much. If I had read a couple more reviews I would have probably seen that this was not a book for me. it was too nonlinear and didn't really seem to say anything. I never felt like he was bragging about his exploits. Maybe it is best read if you are a fan of his work already, then it might provide you some perspective about his writing?

I received this book in exchange for an honest review from Blogging for Books

Friday, February 5, 2016

My New Podcast Obsession - Stuff You Missed in History Class


I feel like I'm always a little behind on getting the scoop on the best podcasts, though Heather over at Capricious Reader has turned me on to so many great ones I don't even mind being late to the party. My most recent obsession is "Stuff You Missed in History Class". The hosts thoroughly research and then tell us about interesting true stories that are interesting and maybe under-reported in the history books. They episodes are short, interesting, and make you feel like one smart cookie by the end of them! I listen to a couple a day and I rue the day that I finally get caught up and actually have to wait on new episodes.

I've mad a little playlist to pique your interest. I tried to pick a grouping of episodes that represent the span that the podcast encompasses but mainly I just ended up picking my favorites. Each title is linked to the episode for easy listening! (If you listen to this podcast and have favorites please tell me about them in the comments so I can give them a listen!)

"The Princess Who Swallowed a Glass Piano" (Aired April 24 2013)

There once was a princess who lived kind of isolated in a far away castle...and she thought she swallowed a piano and this caused her great distress. The interesting thing is that this wasn't a super strange thing at the time....

Sir Christopher Lee (Aired October 12 2015)

Sir Lee was a BAMF. There's simply no other way to put it. Actor, espionage maker, family man, a wizard AND a heavy metal musician. I might be in love with Christopher Lee. It's a shame that he died recently.

"The Hartford Circus Fire" (Aired March 11 2015)

In 1944, a fun day at the circus turned into a  big top terror. I'm not sure why this event fascinates me so much, but it always has. Maybe because my great-grandma sewed costumes for a circus!

"China's Footbinding Tradition" (Aired March 19 2014)

Just a head's up there is some talk about repeatedly breaking foot bones in the episode. But besides that, it's interesting to hear about the "whys" of this tradition. Spoiler - it's not because everyone had a Tarantino-esque foot fetish. But yeah, maybe some of that too.

On the docket to listen to today while starting at spreadsheets and doing math:

"The Dyaltov Pass Incident" (Aired October 6 2014)

A camping/climbing trip for a bunch of college kids goes horribly wrong and we still don't know why!

Anyone else listen to this podcast and have a favorite? Or have a different podcast they love that they would recommend?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Book Review: "In the Land of the Armadillos" by Helen Maryles Shankman (HFVBT)

A Spring 2016 Discover Great New Writers selection at Barnes & Noble.

A radiant debut collection of linked stories from a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, set in a German-occupied town in Poland, where tales of myth and folklore meet the real-life monsters of the Nazi invasion.

1942. With the Nazi Party at the height of its power, the occupying army empties Poland’s towns and cities of their Jewish populations. As neighbor turns on neighbor and survival often demands unthinkable choices, Poland has become a moral quagmire—a place of shifting truths and blinding ambiguities.
Blending folklore and fact, Helen Maryles Shankman shows us the people of Wlodawa, a remote Polish town: we meet a cold-blooded SS officer dedicated to rescuing the creator of his son’s favorite picture book, even as he helps exterminate the artist’s friends and family; a Messiah who appears in a little boy’s bedroom to announce that he is quitting; a young Jewish girl who is hidden by the town’s most outspoken anti-Semite—and his talking dog. And walking among these tales are two unforgettable figures: the enigmatic and silver-tongued Willy Reinhart, Commandant of the forced labor camp who has grand schemes to protect “his” Jews, and Soroka, the Jewish saddlemaker and his family, struggling to survive.

Channeling the mythic magic of classic storytellers like Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer and the psychological acuity of modern-day masters like Nicole Krauss and Nathan Englander, In the Land of Armadillos is a testament to the persistence of humanity in the most inhuman conditions.

Wesley's review:

This was my kind of short story collection. When I finished it (a little bit past my bedtime *cough*) I just held it in my hands and savored the feeling of reading something that was just such a good read. It was like eating a Snickers bar on a day that if you DIDN'T GET SOME CHOCOLATE THERE WOULD BE HELL TO PAY.


This is my favorite kind of short story collection, when all of the  stories have a common theme or setting and has a thread of continuity through them all but it doesn't just tell the same story from a different angle over and over again.

I like the little dose of magical realism in a couple of the stories. For the people of Europe during WWII it must have really seemed like the end of the world was at hand; so who says talking animals would have been completely out of the question? (If you don't like magical realism, don't let this put you off. It doesn't show up a lot.) Even my magical creature, the golem, shows up in a story. I might have to update my guest post about golem that I just did for Book Bloggers International! 

I liked that there were some happy endings, but not so many to not be realistic. Because, not a whole lot of happy endings come out of WWII, but there were enough to keep me from despairing.

Each story I read I thought "this one will probably be my favorite". (With the exception of the Messiah one, that one I liked the least out of the whole bunch). But I think my two absolute favorites were "Super crotchety old man saves a little Jewish girl, also there's a talking dog" or "Legit ghost story I could tell around the campfire about mysterious animals in the woods" those aren't the actual titles obviously.

The more "humane" side of a couple of the German characters also made things complicated, in the best kind of way.

If you couldn't tell from the gushiness of this review, I very much liked this book. It gets a solid 4 out of 5 stars from me!

About the Author

Helen Maryles Shankman lived in Chicago before moving to New York City to attend art school. Her stories have appeared in numerous fine publications, including The Kenyon Review, Cream City Review, Gargoyle, Grift, 2 Bridges Review, Danse Macabre, and She was a finalist in Narrative Magazine’s Winter Story Contest and earned an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers competition. Her story, They Were Like Family to Me, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Shankman received an MFA in Painting from the New York Academy of Art, where she was awarded a prestigious Warhol Foundation Scholarship. She spent four years as as artist’s assistant and two years at Conde Nast working closely with the legendary Alexander Liberman. She lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a year, spending the better part of each day in an enormous barn filled with chickens, where she collected eggs and listened to the Beatles.

Shankman lives in New Jersey with her husband, four children, and an evolving roster of rabbits. When she is not neglecting the housework so that she can write stories, she teaches art and paints portraits on commission. In the Land of Armadillos, a collection of linked stories illuminated with magical realism, following the inhabitants of a small town in 1942 Poland and tracing the troubling complex choices they are compelled to make, will be published by Scribner in February 2016.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Book review: "The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire" by Jack Weatherford

When I say Genghis Khan you probably have some images that come to your head: maybe fast horses, falcon hunting, Mongolia, the creepy Mongolian guy from Mulan who ISN'T Genghis Khan but whatever maybe he's his cousin or something?

What if I told you, that you could have rightly called him a feminist too? Even if a lot of the things he did for women "did not spring from an ideological position or a special spiritual revelation so much as personal experience and the practical needs of running a harmonious society". (I guess if a new law prevented me from being sold into a terrible marriage I wouldn't really care what his motivation was.)

-He outlawed the sale or barter of woman which was a BIG departure from the tribal system which made big changes

-He made his daughters powerful Queens that helped protect the new empire. Before Genghis Khan, there were several tribes in the area who were independent and he (kinda forcibly sometimes) united them under himself to make the Mongol nation. Here's a wonderful paragraph that talks about it: 

"The Daughters of Genghis Khan formed a phalanx of shields around their Mongol homeland. They marked the nation's borders and protected it from the four directions ad they ruled the kingdoms of Onggud, Uighur, Karluk and Oirat. With his daughters in place as his shields surrounding his new nation, Genghis Khan could now move outward from the Mongol steppe and conquer the world"

...and basically that's what he did.

The down side of all of this is that after Genghis Khan died, Mongolia backslide on all of this progressive women stuff in a big, ugly way. Like a mass rape of any girl over 7 that took place a decade after Genghis died. Obviously not everyone shared his views.

Though this book is mostly about strong Mongolian women, I found that some of my favorite parts were learning little things about the Mongolian culture.

Here's a fun fact: Let's say that a son is going off to war or something. As he leaves, his mother will stand in the doorway of her ger (a ger is their home structure. It's like a yurt) and thrown ladles full of milk in the direction that he is going. The milk represents a path made of white stones. If there was such a path, the rider would be able to ride during the night because of the reflection of the moon making it easier to see.

Here's another: The Mongols thought that you'd leave a little piece of yourself in certain objects when you died. Since they were such a horse-centric culture, they thought men left part of themselves in their horses manes. Often the horses manes would be made into banners and left at a great warriors grave. For women it was the coverings of their ger. They were made from felt that the women would pound and work and form and craft that really made it apart of themselves.

There was also a massacre scene that made the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones look like a Sunday in the Park.

The writing in this book was so good, there were so many times I stopped and thought "well that was a beautifully crafted informative sentence. I love that sentence". Like this one "The Mongol Empire ended abruptly on a snowy day in 1399 when the sex-crazed spirit of a rabbit jumped on Elbeg Khan and captured his soul".

  I give this book a solid 3.75. Informative, interesting, a good length. Woohoo!


Friday, January 29, 2016

Book review: "Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot that Avenged the Armenian Genocide" by Eric Bogosian

This was the first book that I checked out of the library in 2016. It took me awhile to actually get finished (no lunch breaks at work for almost a week because of pure insanity time? Yes, that cuts down on the reading time.) But it's finally finished and I'm happy to be sitting here reviewing this little piece of history that I'm shocked doesn't get more "press".

The first thing we need to do is talk about the two major players in our story. The countries of Armenia and Turkey. Let's take a gander at the map, shall we?

You could fill books (and people have) about  the relationship between Armenia and Turkey. The things they have in common and the things that are dramatically different. Since this post would have to be incredibly long let's just say that relations between these two countries were bad. Again, we don't have the time (and I don't have the knowledge) to tell you all the history of the Ottoman Empire.(#oversimplificationalert,) And then the Armenian genocide happened.

There will never be a for-sure-officially verified number, but it is believed that 1.5 million Armenians were killed between 1915 and 1923. Most of it is stomach churningly violent a gruesome. In many cases, some variety of this this scenario happened. The Turks would come into a village and tell the occupants that they were being resettled and that they had a short amount of time to gather their things and get into a caravan. The caravans would go for miles, without food or water being given, many people would die on the way. At some point the men would be separated from the women and children. The men would all be killed. Then the captors would tell the women and children that they could go back to their village. The women and children would start to head back (after they had been relieved of all of their possessions. One of the captains in this killing brigade said "If we had killed the women and children in the cities, then we wouldn't have known where the valuables were being kept...for this reason we "allowed" them to take all the jewelry with them.") and their captors would ride ahead to the villages they would be passing and encouraged the locals to attack the group. This was only one scenario. Other times some tactics are grossly familiar to people who are familiar with the Nazi killings that happened outside of concentration camps. The worst thing, I think I read in the book was that a group of women were made to strip naked, and then forced to lay on top of each other in pairs, and then beheaded. One swing of a weapon, 2 murders.

Sigh. The ugly, terrifying things and events in history are important to remember. Even if makes you feel sick.

Armenians had been scattered, literally around the world during this time and almost all wanted vengeance. And that's where Operation Nemesis (and one "lone wolf") came in. A group of Armenians (some in America, some still in Europe) organized in a clandestine group to hunt down the leaders of the Armenian genocide and kill them. (As an aside, you might be wondering about what other nations thought of what was happening. There was no one who was like "Don't worry Armenia, we will come to your rescue." So if the Armenians wanted justice they probably weren't going to get their version of the Nuremberg trials, at least not in the same way. Though afterward there was a lot of movies made and stories written about it).

I don't want to give too much away, but Operation Nemesis had success. Was it nearly enough to avenge 1.5 million people? No, but would that ever be possible?

This was not always an easy read but I learned SO much (maybe not surprising since my knowledge base was pretty small) and the book was written in an approachable easy to understand way. Also, that is a powerful cover it grabbed me practically from the other side of the library! I will give it 3.75 stars out of 5!


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Why harsh winters especially suck if you're a lady...

Non book related rant ahead....

We're finally in full fledged winter in Wisconsin, which means snow, ice and wind chills with some regularity into the double digits below freezing. While talking with my female friends and coworkers we came up with a rather long reason why winter is worse for women than it is for men:

Earrings: No matter if you're wearing studs or big old chandeliers the same thing always happens. They get stuck in your scarf. I've almost ripped my earrings out enough times that when I take my scarf off it's like sloooooowly unwrapping a bow.

Headwear: I have given up on trying to find a hat that is cute AND professionalish AND warm. I have several hats and none of them cover all of the bases. If it's seriously cold, I don't care if it's cute or professional looking so I wear my hat that looks something like this:

(Though weirdly enough I get compliments on it all the time. Which, I don't understand but I will take). And then no matter headwear you wear your hair is either smooshed to oblivion or as staticky as all get out. Or if you are a lady with particularly voluminous hair and you can't find a hat that will cover all of your hair and stay on your head then you have to do the wrap around ear muffs and those just aren't as warm.

Makeup: When the wind really get's blowing and it's freezing and it makes your eyes water and your mascara streaks and everything thinks you were crying. Or when your make up rubs off on your coat collar and scarf and hat because you are trying to bundle everything in to cover your face.

Coordination: Most people don't care, but I have been conditioned to never simultaneously wear anything black and brown at the same time (khaki is fine). And so I have a pile of brown hands and gloves and scarves and a pile of black ones, so I don't mix.

How I cope: I stop caring how my makeup looks and if my hat and gloves coordinate. I do care about ripping out my earrings because ooooooooooooouch. I know that everyone else is dealing with mostly the same issues so I shrug my shoulders and say "Meh, all of us are cold and yet kinda sweaty and have frozen boogers. So what can you do?"

One perk: You can get away with wearing a bra a little less. Little miracles.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Book review (kinda): "Mr Splitfoot" by Samantha Hunt

As I was sitting down to write this review I had a revelation about the title and almost spit out my Special K Cinnamon and Pecans. This is one of those books, it just sneaks up on you when you're sitting in your bathrobe just trying to be productive before work.

Mr Splitfoot is a book I picked up thanks to dear Andi giving it the gushing treatment on Twitter. I immediately got on the list for it for the library. For the record, here is Andi's review.

This is a book that as soon as you read it you want to read it again, because now with the information/answers you (think) you have you want to let it wash over you again with new eyes.What I think I like most about this book is that I kind of thought that I had an idea where this book was going. I was wrong. I love being proved wrong.

We've got two storylines going at the same time here.

In the past time line we find out about some poor children living in Christ's Love! foster home. Foster home is putting it in an unjustly nice light. It's a cult that is populated by poor children who are in the foster system who have been hand selected by "Father". Ruth and Nat are two of these children. They help protect each other and are inseparable, thinking of each other as siblings. Nat, and later Ruth, develop an ability to talk to the dead which ends up being their ticket out of Christ's Love! Nat, Ruth and Mr Bell, the one who helps them escape, start traveling around and putting on séance type readings for grieving people. This doesn't always end well. One time it ends really, really scarily, because there's a guy with no nose. ICK.

In the present time line, Ruth's niece Cora is finding herself in a weird crossroads of her life. She is newly pregnant (by a PSYCHO) when Ruth shows up at her house one day. Cora remembers seeing Ruth as a young girl, and Cora thought she was vivacious and full of light. Now when Cora sees her she seems deflated and sad and Ruth wordlessly begs Cora to come with her. What follow is a long, on foot journey where Ruth never says a word.

This book gets 4 out of 5 stars from me. I love the weirdness. I love the option of magical realism. I like that despite the totally horrible things that happen in this book there is some hope at the end. I love, for some reason, when the Devil shows up in books (or does he?!), see this post. Not that I would have done it anyway but I will now NEVER snort home cleaning products.