We’re all so perfectly perfect

Princesses of Iowa

What’s it about?
The Princesses of Iowa is about teenagers, growing up. Isn’t that the core of most YA? Paige, our main character, is a princess, has always been a princess, and if her parents and friends have their way, will always be a princess. She will always look perfect and she will always get straight As. She will marry her similarly perfect boyfriend – after they finish college of course – and they will go on living perfectly perfect lives. Except of course that’s not how life works. There’s a car accident before the book even starts; The Princesses of Iowa deals with the fallout. One of the princesses ends up with a permanent limp, another becomes a bit of a crusader, and our Paige somehow manages to escape almost all the consequences. Except that she’s not happy and she doesn’t see what everyone else has been going through. You really don’t like her – and I don’t think you’re supposed to – for most of the book. But there is character growth at the end, and she does grow up and figure things out.

Why should you read it?
It’s a lovely little meditation on what growing up means. It’s not gaining power or responsibilities or being the  most popular. It’s knowing who you are and how your actions affect other people. Growing up is an ongoing process. It never finishes. We’re always changing and learning more about ourselves and the people around us. I think that’s why well-written YA appeals to all ages – these are changes we all go through, at one point or another. Sometimes, it’s nice to reflect on it.

Media Studies 101

Scandals of Classic Hollywood

What’s it about?
Posting yesterday about the Mitford sisters and today about Scandals of Classic Hollywood may out me as liking celebrity gossip – as long as it’s from 80 years ago. Anne Helen Petersen is a former media studies professor who specializes in how celebrities use the media to shape their images (she writes for Buzzfeed now). Scandals is a series of essays about movie stars and their images and real life; it started as a series on Hairpin. Everyone quickly realized that it was awesome, and it turned into a book.

Why should you read it?
Because you live in a modern society where much information comes through some form of media. Because you want to know how the media chooses which information to share and which to hide and why. Because, thanks to social networking, we all craft an image of ourselves online – what information are you choosing to share about yourself? Why? Also, because gossip is fun.

Lifestyles of the rich and famous

Wait for Me

What’s it about?
Wait for Me is an autobiography of the Duchess of Devonshire, aka Deborah Mitford, the youngest of the Mitford sisters. The Mitford sisters were, in some ways, the original Paris & Nikki Hilton – the six of them were famous  mostly for being rich and pretty in the 1930s. They also had some disturbing tendencies towards fascism (except for Jessica, who was a dyed-in-the-wool communist) (Unity was all the way into fascism; it was more than a disturbing tendency). Deborah was much more traditional than her sisters, not getting into extreme politics and marrying right before war rationing kicked in. She does kick a lot of butt – she claims to only have been a housewife, but she was a housewife to an alcoholic husband and she oversaw the rebuilding of Chatsworth House into a fully-fledged business that could not only pay for itself, but eventually turn a profit.

Why should you read it?
Sadly, I’m not sure you should. The Duchess was an amazing woman, but the book was forgettable. I checked it out of the library after she passed away a little over a month ago; when I went to enter it into Goodreads, it turns out that I’d read it two years ago and completely forgotten it. I decided to read it again anyway, but didn’t find it interesting enough to continue with. There are better biographies of the sisters.

A state of grace

Lila by Marilynn Robinson

What’s it about?
Ostensibly, it’s about a woman in a small town in Iowa, falling in love with a preacher who is much older than her, getting married, and having a baby. But it’s also about so much more. It’s about loneliness and how you connect with other people. It’s about why things happen in the first place. It’s about a very practical, and very loving, version of Calvinism – religion is everywhere in Lila but it’s quiet and practical and encourages everyone to get along. It’s a version of church that’s about fellowship, not ideology. And yes, the baby being born is very symbolic of Jesus’ birth to be a savior. Even if the little boy is only saving Lila.

Why should you read it?
Because Marilynn Robinson is easily one of the best writers ever. She writes both intimately and expansively. The little town of Gilead could be the biggest city in the world because it has everything she needs to tell her story. Her characters remind me of my grandparents, who lived in rural Iowa: loving but reserved, deeply but not outwardly religious. I love them all. I loved Lila.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Junkyard Planet

What’s it about?
Junkyard Planet is about the global scrap trade. It’s an industry I knew nothing about before I read the book; now I feel like I have an at least rudimentary grasp of it. Scrapyards are amazing places. My favorite story to repeat is about car recycling: before 1958, there was no effective way to recycle a car – they were left to rot or they were burnt. In 1958 a machine to shred cars – thus making their metal available to sell – was invented. In 2007, the backlog of all the abandoned cars in the US was finally finished. America got caught up. The industry is largely in China these days; it can cost less to ship a container of recycled metal to China from LA than to ship a train car full of it to the East Coast.

Why should you read it?
It’s fascinating. Junkyard Planet was much more engrossing than I thought it was going to be. It hits the recycle loop of reduce, reuse, recycle. Where does all the stuff go? How does recycling help reduce mining and drilling and logging? What can be recycled? But he also explains that reduce, reuse, recycle is a list of ordered terms. If you want to go green, reducing your consumption is more important than reusing what you have, and then recycling. Recycling alone can’t save the world.

May I suggest that you read the WSJ’s business-focused review of Junkyard Planet?  I try to keep these short; they have lots more space.

When you just don’t care

Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

What’s it about?
I don’t even know. It’s about a boy, Theo who steals a painting and loses a mother; psychologically, he’s a mess. His father’s a professional gambler and he alternates between a nerd genius and the son of a Russian mobster for a best friend. Theo grows up. And then I put the book down, fully intending to come back to it. That was many, many months ago. I finally called it last week, looking at The Goldfinch yet again and yet again passing it over for a different story.

Why should you read it?
I have a lot of respect and admiration for Donna Tartt because I loved Secret History that much. You should read it if you feel the same way about one of her other books. But there’s a casual cruelty to some of the characters that I found off-putting, not to mention there’s at least one sub-plot that could be resolved if the characters would just talk to each other. At the end of the day, I didn’t care enough to finish it. You might like it better.

Finishing up

Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan

What’s it about?
The Blood of Olympus is the last one of the Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan, he of the Percy Jackson fame. It was a pretty standard Rick Riordan book – mythical creatures, snarky teenagers, two heroes that it’s maybe kind of hard to tell the difference between.  There are battles, one of which happens in Greece, the other of which happens at Camp Half-Blood. The prophecy was fulfilled. Nothing was surprising – it was comforting that way.

Why should you read it?
You should read it if you’ve read the first four books. If you’ve made it this far, why not finish up the series?

(Un)necessary sequel

Split Second by Kasie West

What’s it about?
Split Second is a sequel to Pivot Point. Which means that it’s about the choice that Addie makes in Pivot Point and its fallout. It’s also about her best friend, Laila. It finally makes her into a full character with quirks and foibles instead of just a good-hearted rebel. Also, the author begins to dip her toes into exploring some of the more societal questions when you live in a world where everyone can manipulate everyone else’s perceptions. What is real? How could “reality” be used and abused by those in power?

Should you read it?
Yes, if you want to get closure on Addie’s & Trevor’s relationship, and if you want to see Laila become a full person – she’s pretty awesome. The world-building political questions kind of felt like they were explored because the author thought she should instead of really wanting to. If that makes sense. It was an ok book, not particularly good or bad. That’s ok too – I enjoyed what it delivered. I am glad there’s not a third book. I don’t think the story could be stretched that far.

World building without a point

Pivot Point by Kasie West

What’s it about?
I’m mildly embarrassed to like Pivot Point. The premise is that a group of people with special mental powers – think telekinesis or mind-erasing or healing – exist. They live in a special compound by choice, where life is better for them than for the Norms outside. (I know.) Addie, our heroine, has to make a choice when her parents divorce: will she stay in the compound with her mother, or go out into the real world with her dad? Luckily, her ability is to Search – to go down two different paths in her head to see how everything will play out, depending on who she chooses. The book alternates between the two plot lines, eventually coming back to the beginning of the story once she’s seen her choices play out.

Should you read it?
Maybe? It’s not as interesting as it could be – I mean, keeping the mentally gifted in a compound? By whose choice? How does that come about? And if you can manipulate the world around you with your mind, do you ever experience the real world? If others can manipulate the world around you, how do you ever know what’s real? There are a lot of issues to explore, but Pivot Point concentrates on the romance. Seriously. It’s a fun book, but the world could lead to way more interesting stories/ideas.

People are interesting, companies aren’t

The Loudest Voice in the Room by Gabriel Sherman

What’s it about?
The Loudest Voice in the Room is about Roger Ailes and Fox News. It’s a biography of a man born into circumstances – hemophilia that turned him into a risk-taker, a mildly abusive father – that combined with his interest in television (and men like the Coors heir who wanted to fund overtly conservative news channels) made Fox News almost a fait accompli. As far as I know, it’s unique in that it’s not written from either a liberal or conservative viewpoint. The book is most interesting when it’s talking about Ailes early life and career. I put it down once it started concentrating on Fox News because I cared way less about that. Ailes is fascinating. Fox News isn’t.

Why should you read it?
I’m not sure you should. It feels like it’s about twice as long as it needs to be; unless you really, really care about the news industry you’ll likely be bored.