The Watergate: Inside America’s Most Infamous Address by Joseph Rodota

35098706I got excited about this book because I am a bit of a history nut for Watergate and Richard Nixon. So when I saw this book I knew I had to read it.

This was a very well researched book. There is an amazing amount of information and detail.

The book starts with the challenges of finding approval for the building and all the controversy of having a structure that would be taller than the monuments in Washington. At the time, this was a pretty avant-garde type of architecture, especially for Washington. I found it interesting that it was designed by an Italian architect.

The author did a good job of mirroring the events of the Watergate scandal and the scandals that surrounded the financing of the Watergate complex.

Because the complex was so convenient for politicians, ‘rivals’ would basically chit chat in the hall or cordially exist outside of the political arena.

My challenge with the book was that it got a bit mired in details sometimes and that impacted the flow of the story.

If you are a fan of Washington DC history, or of architecture, then this is definitely a book you would enjoy.

I gave it a 3/5 star rating on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from Edelweiss for a fair and honest review. (Thanks Edelweiss!)

 

White Houses by Amy Bloom

35876524This is a fictionalized account of the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok.

Hickok is a reporter and is assigned to interview Eleanor Roosevelt. They form a bond, and the story traces their friendship and relationship over the years.

The book is written from Lorena’s point of view. The narrative goes back and forth between ‘present day’ and Lorena talking about her roots growing up in poverty in South Dakota.

I am intrigued with books that take real life people and weave a fictional narrative around them. I think that would be more challenging than coming up with complete fiction: you need to use facts and portray the real-life characters as they are known.

Overall I really liked this book. It took me a bit to get into the narrative and get used to the flow of the book – the flipping back and forth in time. But once I got over that, probably 25 or 30 pages, I really got into it and enjoyed it.

I found two things particularly interesting…

The first was that, at least according to the book, it was an open secret that both Roosevelt’s were having affairs. I am not that familiar with the history, so I am assuming that this is somewhat rooted in fact. That was back in the day before full-on media coverage and social media. Today to be able to pull that off would be unthinkable. How times have changed.

The second interesting thing was around the progress of the ability to be openly gay. Hickock is a lesbian and has many relationships and affairs. They aren’t secret, but they aren’t flaunted around openly either. This theme runs through the book with another gay character, a man.

This was a good read, and great story. I would highly recommend it.

I gave it a 4/5 star rating on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. (Thanks NetGalley!)

Grant: Half-way Point

Someone (I believe William Pitt) once said that parliaments are not driven by public policy or great ideas, but on the weakness and frailty of its members.  I have been thinking about that quote as it relates to biography and fiction.

When you read the Grant biography (or any military history), you see that impact that human error plays on warfare and what it does to shorten the lives of men.  This includes everyone, Grant included.  There are numerous times when Chernow points out that the right action might have shortened the war by a year, had it been taken.

GenWFSmithSee Baldy Smith, a Union general who was the first guy into Fredericksburg and caught the South by surprise and undermanned.  Had he pushed forward into the city, Lee would have had to abandon Richmond, which would have fallen and the war would have been completely different.  Instead, he lost his nerve, served a big breakfast to the men and let the moment pass.

So human weakness and frailty cost lives in war.  Of course, without human weakness and frailty, there would not have been war in the first place.

But that’s not my point.

My point is this:  if your point is about the impact that human frailty and weakness have on events, you’re better off making that point with non-fiction than you are with fiction.

First, there’s plenty of examples in non-fiction.  No need to make shit up.  But beyond that, if you want to have a bunch of people screwing up in fiction, you have to be very careful.  It seems to me that the whole thing could come off as contrived and artificial.  You’d have to take the time to fully develop the character who screwed up and post their failure to some past tragedy or a controlling father, or whatever, and you’d lose the elements of what makes a good story and also the message that we are all flawed.

This is a great book.  I’m not sure it’s a musical but it could be a movie or series, like the HBO adaptation of McCullough’s John Adams.  I’m actually looking really forward to the rest of it.  I’ve read a bunch of Civil War history, but I’m pretty unfamiliar with Grant’s Presidential terms, beyond the broad strokes we learned in school.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

american marriageWhere to start in unpacking this book. First of all, it was excellent.

I did not read the synopsis of this book before I read it, and I suggest that you do not either. Just trust me, this is worth it. This is my first Tayari Jones book, and it won’t be my last.

There are so many layers and messages that this book offers. Obviously, per the title, it is about marriage. How do you sustain a marriage while one person is estranged, and is away for longer than the two of you have been married? This book is also about family, what makes a family, how do these ties bind you to the past and the present.

One of the things that made this book so powerful was the way the author told the story. It is told through a combination of first person accounts, and letters written between the characters while the husband is away. You never get an omniscient and unbiased view of the characters, you are left to make your own assumptions and judgements.

The plot of the book moves along and never gets boring. Because of the first-person accounts, and some going back and forth in time, it fills in the gaps of the story and keeps you interested.

This was a really smart, engaging, enlightening, heart-wrenching story. If you are looking for a well written book that will make you think, then this is your read. Also, without giving too much away, this is an important story to tell. It deals with race and how people are unfairly treated and judged. Always important story to tell, but even more so today.

I rated this book 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. (Thanks NetGalley!)

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

hazel woodThis was a late addition to the reading list. I got approved for it while I had moved on to my next book. It was one that I really wanted to read, so I put on my reading pants and got to it.

The story focuses on 17 year old Alice. Her grandmother made a name for herself writing dark fairy tales. Alice and her mother move from place to place, seeming to be on the run from something. As usual, I don’t want to give the story away. Because that is part of the fun of reading the book, right?

I really enjoyed this book. I was worried about getting through it quickly since I only had a week to read it (on top of working and packing to move). But it was not a problem. It was easy to get through, and it was easy to get absorbed in.

It’s got a fairy-tale, adventure, magical vibe to it. It kinda has a Neil Gaiman-ish feel to it. Rooted in this world but also in another fantasy world.

It is inventive, and the characters are well crafted. Honestly I had no idea what was going to happen next.

I will say, I did find Alice to be a little bit annoying in the beginning, however, it becomes clear why she is that way as the book progresses. So if you have the same experience, just go with it.

Overall, it was an enjoyable and fun read.

I recommend this highly and gave it a 4/5 star rating on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. (Thanks NetGalley!)

Review: A Horse Walks Into a Bar

horseSo Barb got me A Horse Walks Into a Bar for Christmas.  It was on my wish list.  I had seen it on a lot of the year-end lists and it looked like something I would enjoy.

And I did.  It is a supreme literary achievement and deserves all of the accolades it has received.  David Grossman, the author, created a piece of writing that is at the top of the craft.

The frame of the book is deceptively simple.  The entire story is told through one man’s stand up routine in a club in Israel.  Grossman takes that frame and uses it to gradually reveal the story of the stand up comic, who is clearly tormented.  Through it all, the reader has the sense it is bad.  Is driven to keep watching.  Sees it get worse and worse and yet continues.

I can’t find the quote, but somewhere the narrator says something like “but what is literature but an excuse for a man to look into another man’s tortured soul?”

The audience at the club gets involved as part of the story.  As the story moves forward, it turns out that people who have been sitting there in the audience are actually part of the story, as if a spotlight shines on them suddenly in the dark.

Grossman’s writing has been praised in reviews for being elegant and spare.  It’s hard to describe how true this is.  Every word is perfect.  Every word is necessary.

This is one of those stories that has everything.  Abuse.  Family dysfunction.  Mental illness.  Death.  Regret.  Told in a florid and overbearing style, it would collapse of its own weight into The Prince of Tides.  It would be emotionally unmanageable.

But Grossman gives us nothing but the story and lets us supply the feelings.

I don’t like to give plot summaries, but if you read the book, there’s a scene where the comic describes being put into a truck with a total stranger and the scene goes on and on and you can feel yourself in that car, you can see what it looks like out the dusty window.  The scene, which seems incidental, turns into the book’s critical passage and it is a torture to read.

Which brings up a key point.  This book is framed in a stand-up comedy routine.  Any reader should understand that the book is almost never funny.  There are a couple corny jokes–like ones your uncle would tell every year at the family BBQ after cracking open his sixth can of Stroh’s–and you might chuckle at those, or groan.

But this book is not funny.  In fact, it is a tough read.  It is dark and it delves into the most pain and regrets that people are capable of carrying, exponentially multiplied by years of stewing.

And I guess that’s my ultimate verdict.  This is an expertly crafted piece of fiction.  I like my art dark, and it certainly is.  The only thing that keeps this book from reaching my very top shelf is just the fact that…for my taste…it is dark and humorless, unlike say Catch-22.

That’s ultimately quibbling.  This is a great book.

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

music shopThis book description had me at record shop and set in the 80s.

This book wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but at the same time it was more than I had hoped for.

The story is about Frank, the owner if a record shop in 1988 London that only stocks vinyl. There is a cast of supporting characters that make up the small neighbourhood the shop is located in. Frank’s life changes the day that Ilse, a mysterious woman, faints outside his shop one day.

Frank’s gift is that he can tell the song that you need to hear to fix what ails you. I am a huge music fan, and I am aware of the healing power of music. I was very much into the concept of music as a prescription for healing.

This could have been a simple love story. Between Frank and Ilse. Or between Frank and music. But it’s more than that. There are themes of moving on from your past, standing by your principles, and fighting for what you believe in.

There is a thread of what I thought was sadness, but I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s tenderness. The author obviously has great emotion for the topics that she writes about. This book is also, surprisingly, laugh out loud funny. (I won’t spoil it for you.)

If you are looking for a good read, that isn’t too taxing but is rewarding. This is your book. And, if you are a fan of music I would definitely check this out.

As a bonus, there is a Spotify playlist that goes along with this book: https://open.spotify.com/user/penguinbooks/playlist/1skEBZppUBtHBXxdcYIHns
(If you are like me, in these situations, you like to listen along with the songs.)

I rated this book 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. (Thanks NetGalley!)