The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

I don’t know if the gaps in my history education are common across America’s public school system or if it’s a weakness unique to my alma mater, but I know far more about the ancient Egyptians and the Medieval serf system than I do about, say the Cold War. (My mom gets really upset when I call the Cold War history, by the way.)

My point is, my history knowledge is pretty spotty, and gets spottier the closer we get to current events. (Where is the line for that, anyways? Who decides?) I have a pretty fair grasp of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, but my understanding of World War I is sketchy and most of what I know about World War II can be learned from The Diary of Anne Frank and Schindler’s List.

So I set out to correct this with books, starting with the much-acclaimed biography of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt covers everything between his birth and his presidency. And I do mean everything. While I appreciate a thorough biography, I did not need an exact list of all of his kills on his extensive hunting trips.

It took my over a year to read this book, but only because I put it down for about ten months. I really had to slog through his childhood. Roosevelt was a sickly child, and Morris delivers a minute account of his illnesses, treatments, relapses, and everything else you never wanted to know. By the time I was reading about his courtship of his first wife, I was bored with him, which is not something I ever expected from the man who led the Rough Riders in their famous charge up San Juan Hill.

After my ten-month hiatus, I picked the book back up and finished it in about two weeks. Once his political career gets moving, everything becomes exponentially more interesting. The book ends with McKinley’s assassination and I’m looking forward to Theodore Rex, which covers Roosevelt’s time in the White House.

Morris writes a very fair and balanced biography. Roosevelt accomplishes extraordinary things, mostly through being an overly opinionated workaholic. His more questionable decisions, like his support of James Blaine’s presidential run despite his moral objections to the man, are left to stand on their own, without condemnation or excuse.

One criticism I read of the book was that it didn’t give a very good overview of the time period. If you want to know everything that happened to Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War, for instance, this book will tell you all about it. If you were hoping for an explanation of what exactly prompted the war, it’s a little more vague.

This is true enough, but my rebuttal would be that this is Roosevelt’s biography, not a history of the Spanish-American War. If that’s what you want, I’m sure there are books out there for you. Also, I think reading about Roosevelt’s political battles did leave me with a pretty good understanding of expansionism and what the political climate of the time was and how this all erupted into fighting in Cuba.

Overall, I give this book 4 out of 5 stars. If you start about 150 pages in, it might even rate a full five.

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News of the World

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd makes a living by travelling through the small towns of Texas, reading newspapers to audiences for a dime a person. It took me a little while to get my head wrapped around this, considering our news-saturated world, but in 1870 many people couldn’t read and those who could often had difficulty getting their hands on a paper. So it makes sense.

Captain Kidd is a great character. At 71, he really is getting too old for this, but that doesn’t stop him from agreeing to take Johanna Leonburger back to her family after she is rescued from the Kiowa raiders who killed her family and kidnapped the girl four years ago. Kidd doesn’t exactly have a destination, so taking a 400-mile detour isn’t that big of a problem. Corrupt officials, road bandits and Indian raiders make the journey a little more interesting, but I get the impression there’s nowhere really safe to travel in Texas.

The bigger problem is that Johanna never wanted to be “rescued” from her new family, isn’t thrilled to be delivered to an aunt and uncle she doesn’t remember, and has forgotten all but a handful of English and German words. Somehow, despite all this, she and Kidd bond beautifully on their journey south.

I’ve never read any of Paulette Jiles’ books before this, so I don’t know if she habitually refuses to use quotation marks, but the dialogue did throw me off for a bit. Usually I absolutely hate when authors do things like this, but the story flowed so smoothly I ended up adjusting to it quickly. There’s an odd style to the story that I don’t know how to describe, except that a bunch of unconnected details somehow weave together to form a coherent picture of Texas. I would not try to write like this, nor would I recommend anyone else attempt it either, but Jiles makes it work.

This book sort of reminded me of A Man Called Ove. Captain Kidd is a likable and admirable character who does what needs done and doesn’t complain about it. His relationship with a bloodthirsty little savage who starts to call him grandfather is absolutely perfect. (I would call it heart-warming, but that doesn’t usually apply in situations where a little girl needs to be told that she can’t scalp people.)

The more I think about this book, the more I like it. Everything about it so understated and subtle that the full power of the story is sort of elusive. The more I try to nail it down, the more it slips through my fingers, but one thing I can state definitely is that this book deserves a full five stars.

Dear Fahrenheit 451

Annie Spence’s collection of letter to books might be considered strange to some people, but anyone who loves to read will understand it perfectly. There are books you love, books you hate, and books you’ve simply drifted away from over the years. Spence addresses them all as she encounters books in the stacks at her library, in her personal collection, and in strangers’ houses as she tags along to parties.

Spence’s sense of humor runs along the same lines as mine, meaning I really enjoyed her snarky jokes. I feel like I am, in every way, the target audience for this book. Also, I’m considering going back to school for my Library Science degree, and Spence really makes me want to follow through on that, if for no other reason than to shout “I dispense information to the masses!”

There are things I didn’t love about the book. There are a few spoilers thrown in here and there, mostly minor ones, and probably for books you’ve already read, but still. It’s the principle, Spence. You’ve gotta warn people about things like that.

The second thing, which is in no way Spence’s fault, is that I get the sense that our taste in books is just different enough that I’m not sure how applicable her recommendations are to me. That’s not to say that I didn’t find my fair share of titles to add to my to-read list, but I’m a little uncertain of how they’re going to turn out for me.

I’d give this book a very solid four out of five stars. It misses out on five mostly because, as much as I enjoyed reading it, I don’t think it will be as enjoyable the second time around.

The Wild Robot

Peter Brown’s book about Roz, a robot who gets activated by curious otters after the cargo ship carrying her sinks and her crate washes ashore on a wilderness island, is oddly heartwarming considering the main character does not have a heart. Roz’s programming does not, in my opinion, explain all of her decisions. I’m not sure if these human-like qualities are going to be explored further in the sequel, or if this is supposed to be a children’s book, so of course the main character is not going to be cold and calculating the whole time.

This is an excellent children’s book. I found it a little overly-simplistic and even the exciting moments didn’t seem all that engrossing to me, but I am 15 to 20 years out of the target audience. Brown keeps the tone fairly light, even when describing sad events, so I don’t think it would be too much for kids. Large sections of the book simply talk about Roz’s day to day struggle to survive in the wilderness and made me think of Hatchet, if Brian was a robot.

The ending was a bit heart wrenching, but I’m pretty certain everything will turn out all right in the end. Despite the cliffhanger and some curiosity over Roz’s fate, I’m not in a big rush to read book 2, though I imagine I’ll get around to it someday. For my own reading of it, I’d give it three stars, but I think it would rate a solid four for an age-appropriate reader. So if you’re an adult, I’d recommend you skip over this one. If you’re an adult with kids, by all means, give it a read with the little ones.

Reading People

Anne Bogel’s book on personalities is an excellent book to read at the beginning of the year. It motivated me to be a better version of myself, and should also give you some insight into your own brain to make unlocking that better version easier. Understanding your personality type means a lot more than figuring out which Harry Potter character you are. It means understanding why you act and react the way you do. Once you see what’s happening, you’ll be better equipped to modify behavior you don’t like and also become more understanding of yourself and the people around you. If you have New Year’s resolutions you’re hoping to stick to, this book might help you figure out what is most likely to work for you.

I found this book interesting, though not life-changing. Part of that is, I think I know myself pretty well. I understand my strengths and weaknesses, and I think I’ve accounted for them reasonably well. If you don’t understand yourself, this book might help point you in the right direction. Even if you don’t like what you learn, remember, it’s not your fault that you’re wired the way you are. and there are no “bad” personality types, though society does tend to value some over others.

What this book really did for me was make me more understanding of others. In particular, I don’t see eye to eye with some of my fellow Governing Board members at my church. While reading through the different cognitive functions in chapter 7, some of them jumped out at me. “Ah! That’s Steve!” (His name’s not really Steve.) And even though I still don’t agree with him, I now understand that he is thinking the way he is wired. It’s not his fault, and it’s not a bad thing. It’s just not how I work.

Bogel makes the argument, and I agree with her, that a diverse group is a strong group. So wherever you work with people, on the job, in the community, at home, we all bring different perspectives to the table, and we’ll work better together once we understand and appreciate how those different perspectives work.

She did sort of lose me in the last two chapters. I think that’s largely because the frameworks she covers throughout the book gradually became more complex and less familiar to me. This is only intended to be a brief overview of the frameworks that she has found most useful. She includes suggestions for further reading if you want to really did into any of them.

I’d give this book four out of five stars. I found it pretty useful. You probably will to, and even if you don’t, it will still be well written and interesting.

P.S. Anne Bogel runs a blog, Modern Mrs. Darcy, which covers all sorts of topics, including book recommendations. It’s worth checking out.

Annual 2017 Book Review

Happy New Year! I’ve got a long list of books to work through for 2018, but first my sister and I started a lovely little tradition we are calling the Annual 2017 Book Review. We chose 5 categories and each came with our picks from the books we read this past year.

Side note: this would not have been possible without Goodreads. This is the first year I really tracked my reading, and I highly recommend it. Goodreads is what I use, but there are other apps out there, or you could use an Excel spreadsheet, or there’s this quaint little thing called a notebook that I hear works well. Whatever you use, I think tracking your reading is an excellent 2018 resolution.

On to the categories!

Most Surprising

Are’s Pick: Where the Light Falls by Allison and Owen Pataki
This is the historical novel of the French Revolution that I highly recommended. My sister wouldn’t have read it if I hadn’t gotten it for her, but once she did she liked it more than she thought she would and, as she said, found herself thinking about it after she read it, which I always think is a mark of an excellent book.

Michele’s Pick: A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman
I picked this book for almost the exact same reasons my sister picked hers. She got it first, told me I simply had to read it, and even though I hate taking orders from my sister, I’m glad I followed this one. I never would have picked it on my own, but it was one of the best books I read this year. If there had been a Most Heartwarming category, we both agreed this would have won hands down.

Most Disappointing

We actually spent more time on this category than any other, and even though we left it as one big group, I’m going to break this into two sub-groups, the first simply being the Most Disappointing.

Are’s Pick: The Storyteller by Antonia Michaelis
I didn’t read this book, and after my sister’s review of it, I doubt I ever will. The main character is apparently trying to give his little sister a better life than he ever had, but he supposedly accomplishes this by being in the most dysfunctional relationship imaginable and then (SPOILER ALERT) committing suicide right in front of his sister and his girlfriend. In my sister’s words: “A truly awful book.”

Michele’s Pick: The Regional Office Is Under Attack by Manuel Gonzales
Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown
So I cheated and had two picks for this category, but they’re both here for the same reason. I actually liked both of these books, but I thought they were going to be fun reads, and they weren’t. I enjoyed reading them, for the most part, but not for the reasons I thought I would and I was disappointed in the lack of fun in both of them. Gonzales’ book started out much more serious than I thought it would be, but Brown’s beginning was just as much fun as I thought it would be before taking a serious and, for me, very unexpected turn in tone towards the end.

So Disappointing I Didn’t Even Finish

We talked about making this the name of the Most Disappointing category, and even though we didn’t, I’m still going to include it here.

Are’s Pick: Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston
This book is about a rumored lost city deep in the Honduran interior surrounded by legends and mystery. And the best part is, it’s non-fiction. But somehow Preston takes what should be one of the most fascinating journeys ever and makes it boring. His biggest problem is an excessive use of detail. My sister got so bogged down in the minute descriptions of the rainforest flora and fauna she never made it the rest of the way through.

Michele’s Pick: The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer
Once again proving that my sister and I share a hive mind, I picked a different book for the exact same reasons for this category. Just look at that title. This is the true story of how the librarians of Timbuktu smuggled rare Islamic manuscripts out of the city before Al Qaeda could destroy them. I wanted so badly to love this book. And I couldn’t even finish it. Like Preston, Hammer goes into way too much detail, especially about the origins of the manuscripts. I just wasn’t following a lot of it, and I really don’t think I’m the only one. So close but so, so far.

Best Non-Fiction

Are’s Pick: Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence
Annie Spence is a librarian who has written a collection of letters to the books in her library. Some of the are breakup letters, some are love letters, they’re all pretty fantastic. At least of the ones my sister read out loud to me between chuckles. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s very high on my to-read list, and I suggest you put it on yours too. The best part? It will furnish many more titles to add to your to-read list, though if you’re anything like us, that’s not usually a problem for you.

Michele’s Pick: The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
Etymology is endlessly fascinating to me, and this book could not have delivered better. Even though I read it at the very beginning of 2017, it remained at the top of my list for the entire year. If you ever wonder how this crazy language of ours became what it is, this is the book for you.

Funniest

By unanimous vote: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Despite some other strong contenders, we both agreed that Stevenson’s graphic novel reigns supreme here. The story of Ballister Blackheart and his demented little sidekick took a lot of unexpected turns, but it remained solidly entertaining the whole time. It is a bit violent, but my sister and I both have rather dark senses of humor, so it appealed to us.

Best Book of the Year

A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman
Funny, heartwarming, thought-provoking, relatable, this book didn’t quite reach my very favorite of the year, but it was in the running and I certainly understand why my sister placed it here. It has reached new prominence with the release of the movie based on it, which I think is a very good thing. Everyone should read this book.

Michele’s Pick: Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
I cannot articulate how much I liked this book. I told my sister I’m not sure what I love so much about this book, to which she replied, “Everything,” and that’s pretty accurate. I realize not everyone loves the classics as much as I do, but you just might after reading this book. It’s fantastic, and you need to go read it.

Honorable Mention

These are for those books that didn’t quite make it into one of the categories, but should have if the competition wasn’t so tight.

Are’s Pick: The Passage by Justin Cronin
This is the first book in a trilogy about the end of the world, via a virus that turns people into zombies. Zombies aren’t really my thing, so I don’t see myself reading these books, but my sister loved them.

Michele’s Pick: I’m Just No Good at Rhyming by Chris Harris.
This should have been the funniest book, and for most people it would have been, but Nimona’s dark edge played just a little more to my tastes. It also could have been the most unexpected, as I don’t usually enjoy poetry this much, but I thought Ove deserved the top spot rather than an Honorable Mention. Of course, Nimona was also unexpected because I don’t usually like graphic novels either. So this was a really tough choice for me and even though Harris got bumped down here, it’s still one of the very best books I’ve read in the past several years, and I recommend it very highly.

So that’s 2017 in a nutshell for us. What do you think of our picks? Love them? Hate them? Have your own books you want to put into the categories? Have any category suggestions you think need to be included? I’d love to hear all this and more in the comments!

The First Twenty Minutes

The First Twenty Minutes is not an old book. It came out in 2012. In terms of science and discovery, it’s pretty ancient. Gretchen Reynolds’ book on exercise science was cutting edge when it came out. For those of you who are into fitness and follow the latest trends, much of her book has already become common knowledge. But it’s still worth reading.

Getting into shape does not have to mean running for hours on a treadmill. A hard interval work (even one that only lasts 20 minutes) can accomplish as much as a much longer, slower run. Weight lifting has plenty of health benefits associated with it, besides muscle growth. Our bodies are designed to move, even if that only means standing up from your desk every twenty minutes or so and pacing around your office.

And that about sums up this book. If you want to know the science behind all of those claims, Reynolds has it for you. I got a little lost in the science sometimes. Most of the terms rang faint bells from my high school biology class. A lot of it still didn’t mean that much to me. I think she could have spent more time bottom-lining things and less time spelling out the exact experiments that were conducted.

I did think the findings were interesting, and even though I said much of it was common knowledge, I’m sure you’ll find some things that you hadn’t heard before. I know I did. And even what I already knew I liked having confirmed.

Reynolds’ mostly focuses on the science and lets the facts speak for themselves. I really liked the parts where she let her own voice come through a little clearer, which was mostly in the introduction and conclusion. So my biggest critique of this book, which I think should be a compliment to Reynolds, is that I wish she’d been herself a little more.

I still recommend this book to anyone who needs a little motivation to get out there and move more. Just about every aspect of your health can be improved through some form of movement. If you already exercise and want to understand more of the science of what is happening in your body, this is a good book. If you just like to learn things, this is a good book. All in all, I would say this is not a great book, but it is a good one. Four stars.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder

Cinnamon and Gunpowder is the story of Owen Wedgwood, British chef extraordinaire, and Mad Hannah Mabbot, captain of the pirate ship the Flying Rose. Mabbot murders Wedgwood’s employer and kidnaps him, promising him that his life will be spared so long as he provides her with a delicious Sunday night dinner every week. As Wedgwood adjusts to life at sea, he also learns that much of what he took for granted on land is simply not true.

I really enjoyed this book. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me rethink the human condition and the nature of good and evil. All of the ingredients, as Wedgwood would say, for a five star book are there. And yet, it’s just four stars.

The beginning of the book is packed full of swashbuckling fun. I really like Mabbot’s relationship with her crew. I liked how she called Wedgwood “Wedge” and I liked the crew’s nickname for him, “Spoons.” But then the book takes a gradually more serious turn, as the true nature of the Pendleton Trading Company and the opium trade come to light.

I think the whole issue of exposing corporate corruption and making up for past mistakes is a great theme for a book. And it is a serious topic that deserves serious consideration. But  Eli Brown changes the tone of his story completely. I think it would have greatly benefited from a few more light-hearted moments in the second half.

I also could have done with some forewarning of what was coming. I didn’t know much about this book before I read it, so I started out with swashbuckling fun and expected it to continue on until the last page. The swashbuckling continues, but the fun doesn’t. Maybe if I had been better prepared for that, I would have made the transition better. Now that you know, you’ll have to report back to me once you finish the book.

Despite my difficulties with the tone, it’s still a great book. It doesn’t have quite the ending I wanted, but it has the ending the stories and the characters needed. It falls short of the five star mark, but at four stars, I still highly recommend it.

I Guess I’m An Immature Grown-Up

Chris Harris’s book of poems, I’m Just No Good at Rhyming, is specifically for “mischievous kids and immature grown-ups.” And I absolutely loved it. If it means I get to enjoy masterpieces like this, I will happily own the title of immature.

Harris put together an excellent mix of poems for all ages. Some of them are the type of sheer ridiculousness that will have kids howling. Others contain more subtle jokes adults will find hilarious. As with any collection, I didn’t love all of them, but it was pretty darn close.

My favorites (it was a hard choice, but if I had to choose) were “I’m Just No Good At Rhyming” and “Two Roads.” I really liked “Rhyming” because it’s my favorite kind of poetry. There are lots of ways to make words dance along in a poem without making them rhyme, and I’m glad he took a whole poem to point that out. And I loved “Two Roads” because it’s a really funny joke involving one of the most popular poems out there.

Lots of people are comparing this book to Shel Silverstein’s works. I suppose it’s apt, except I was never that big a fan of Silverstein (sorry Shel!) and I loved this book, in case you haven’t figured that out yet.

One of the things I most appreciated about this book was the number of times Harris inserted a more profound message into a poem without ever killing the mood. When you’re done laughing, you’ll realize that there’s some good food for thought in there.

While I’m gushing over Harris, it’s only fair to take some time out to acknowledge the brilliance of Lane Smith, the illustrator. The drawings complement the poems perfectly, and there’s some excellent back-and-forth between the two minds behind this project.

As a final note, take some time to read through everything. The front cover, author’s note, acknowledgements…everything is entertaining. I actually think the acknowledgements were my favorite part of the book.

If you’ve read it, how long did it take you to figure out what was going on with the page numbers? It took me far longer than it should have.

Five out of five stars. Read this book and then badger everyone you know to do the same.

A Man Called Ove

All I knew about this book going on was that it was about a grumpy old man with a cat who somehow reminds every single person who reads it about their grandfather. I really think I enjoyed it more because of that, so if you haven’t read it yet, all you need to know is that it’s fantastic and you should.

SPOILER WARNING: If you completely skipped over that first paragraph, I’m telling you, you’ll enjoy this book more if you don’t know what’s coming. So stop reading this and go read that.

For those of you who have read it, were you as surprised as I was? If anyone had told me that a book about a widower trying to commit suicide would be funny and heartwarming and incredibly relatable, I would never have believed them. But A Man Called Ove is all of that and more.

I could most definitely imagine either of my grandfathers stomping around their house, checking radiators and grumbling about young people and their foreign cars. And there’s something very admirable about Ove’s insistence on doing the right thing in the right way, even when he’s ungracious about it. But I think my favorite character is Parvenah.

Parvaneh is Ove’s new neighbor, a pregnant Iranian woman who’s bumbling husband and two energetic daughters keep unwittingly messing up Ove’s suicide attempts. Parvaneh is the only one who realizes what is going on (at least at first) and embarks on a mission to keep Ove alive.

The whole arc of the community pulling together to save Ove and Rune, combined with Ove’s backstory of always fighting the bureaucracy and losing was immensely satisfying. I wanted to stand up and cheer when he finally came out on top.

The end of the book had me on the edge of my seat. The first time Ove tries to hang himself, I wasn’t all that invested in whether he succeeded or not. By Sepidah’s birthday party, I was terrified that he was going to go through with it. And then he has his cardiac event and I was going to be furious at Frederick Backman if Ove finally decided he wanted to live only to die of natural causes.

The epilogue is bittersweet. Life goes on, and that means death goes on too. The community changes, but the more things change the more they stay the same, as shown by the annoyed young Saab driver who buys Ove’s house.

Missing, Presumed made me question whether or not everyday life makes a good story. A Man Called Ove has restored my faith that everyday life is the best story there is. Five out of five stars.