Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter

30231738I know it’s early goings yet, but this book is a definite contender for my favorite book of the year (it wasn’t published this year, but I read it this year).

Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill is a collection of essays and memories written and published by the author/retired editor in her 90s.

If you haven’t read anything by Athill, I highly recommend you do so. She’s a distinct personality and that comes through in her writing, which, I know it’s cliche to say, is both poignant and humorous and most of the time humorously poignant.

Each chapter covers a specific memory or topic. Or memories as the vehicle for addressing big topics that include but are not limited to Athill’s miscarriage, aging, her childhood in Norfolk, fashion, WWII, colonialism in the Caribbean, her various love affairs, and her preference for being the “other woman.”

She writes it all in matter-of-fact prose with acknowledgement of her own “prosaic” tendencies. And yet, she does cover beauty, writing a passage on “looking” that, I’ll admit, gave me permission to enjoy a pastime I couldn’t have put a name to, which is looking, observing, really seeing something that interests you.

“Looking at things is never time wasted. If your children want to stand and stare, let them. When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But there it has remained, tucked away in hidden bits of my mind, and now out it comes, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring. And giving me this book, of memories, thoughts and reflections, which does – roughly – add up to being a report on what living for ninety-seven years has taught one rather lucky old woman.”


 A pic I took on my phone to remember the moment

Personally, I think of wandering the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where I went for the first time last summer. I was in a state of bliss, content to stand in front of the Sargent portraits til my eyeballs fell out. Now I know that looking is a thing, I’m going to spend more time doing it.

I also found out that I am not alone in how I have grown to perceive poetry and its place in my reading life over time.

“However, when someone asks me for my favourite poem and I answer Lear’s ‘ The Owl and the Pussy Cat ’, I am not being facetious. I really do prefer poems which tell a story to those that plumb the depths of experience, and those that depend largely on associations hooked up into a poet’s mind by words and images are lost to me. I read to see something, not to decipher codes.”

This was so validating for me. I got the impression that living life in your 90s is very freeing in the sense that you don’t worry about what people think of you (which Athill confirms for herself in the last chapter of the book). Wouldn’t it be great if I could give myself permission to live like that now?

Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

How to Read a Dress: AKA, I love a book with pictures!

HowToReadADressJust wrapped up How to Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards. It was such a treat. If you have any interest in women’s fashion or historic dress, this is a fun book to add to your collection.

And if you’re a novice in this area like I am, it’s a great primer. I now feel like I know which parts of a historic dress to notice, from bodice to skirt, sleeves, and trim.

The book is organized into chapters spanning specific periods from 1550-1600 to 1960-1970. Each spread introduces the dresses being featured and gives some historical background along with a short overview of the specific trends the dresses exemplify. We also get some commentary on who might’ve worn such a dress and what for—day, evening, wedding, etc.


Just looking at the fabrics is treat enough for me. I mean those stripes are 1

And here’s the dress from the intro to the 1710-1790 section. Can you imaging wearing something like that?


One thing I really like about this book is the fun graphics. Each section begins with a page of silhouettes featured in the following pages.

My own pic – excuse the bad lighting:


The whole book is just so put together. I think I’m going to buy a copy just to have it as a resource. Also, if you’re interested in fashion history, Lydia Edwards’ Instagram account is a fun one to follow. She features a lot of dresses that aren’t in the book.

How fun is it to read a book with pictures?

Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence

34964841I like talking to people, but I unfortunately possess the unsociable qualities of both shyness and introversion. The two don’t always go together, but if you have them both, they do tend to feed on one another.

That means it takes A LOT of energy for me to engage, no matter how enjoyable I usually find it. After a social interaction, I’m always glad to have connected with other people. It just takes a lot of chutzpah on my part to get out there.

That’s why I was attracted to Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence by Amy Alkon. At first, I ignored this book because I’m getting kind of impatient with the whole using-a-swear-word-in-a-title trend. Not because I’m against swearing, but because I just think this concept is a bit overused and at least some of the time, it seems like a ploy to get millenials to buy books.

All that aside, Unf*ckology is billed as a “science-help” book, which appealed to me. And I ended up enjoying it. Here are a few things I learned:

“Fake it ’til you make it,” a strategy that has pretty much gotten me through life thus far, is a methodology backed by science. (Validation!!) Impersonating a confident person you admire, paired with practicing body language that conveys confidence (walking tall with your head up, for example), is an especially potent combo. These behaviors can actually convince your brain that you are, in fact, confident.

That idea stems from the theory of “embodied cognition,” which posits that the way we think is influenced by other systems in the body than just the brain. From wikipedia: “the features of cognition include high level mental constructs (such as concepts and categories) and performance on various cognitive tasks (such as reasoning or judgment). The aspects of the body include the motor system, the perceptual system, bodily interactions with the environment (situatedness) and the assumptions about the world that are built into the structure of the organism.”

And, as Alkon puts in from a self-esteem perspective: “By consistently changing how you behave (down to how you move, breathe, and carry yourself), you can transform how you feel about yourself, how other people see and treat you, and who you are.”

Alkon explains a few other related concepts, citing the studies that back them, and the last part of the book is a sort of “how-to” manual mostly based on exposure therapy. Essentially, if you are afraid of spiders, you need to be exposed to spiders, feel the intensity of your fear, and then notice when being near a spider doesn’t kill you. That’s a very nutshell example, but I’m giving you the gist. Alkon lays out some ideas for exposure to anxiety-inducing social situations and guides you through the process.

As someone who’s fairly educated about social anxiety, I didn’t read a whole lot that was new here, per se, but I liked that she gave us the science and then told us how to apply it at the end (science→help). I’ll definitely be trying some of the exposure techniques. And you better believe I’m gonna’ keep faking it ’til I make it. It’s science!

Nonfiction, Uncategorized, What Ben Read

Brunch is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party

1So the guys behind a podcast called “Dinner Party Download” wrote a book titled Brunch is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party. One might assume that they are not completely impartial, and one would be absolutely correct. The anti-brunch case is argued very loosely, with the general thrust being that it is too commercial and also prone to making you lazy and day-drunk.

The perspective is hipster-ish, and slanted toward single people who enjoy having drinks (though they do make allowances for teetotalers and those blessed with progeny). If you’re not the target market, either read the book as anthropology or don’t bother. The authors know their target market and pander unashamedly.

All that aside, it was a fun read. There is something to be said for a dinner party: friends coming together for the purpose of enjoying good food, good company, and perhaps some mild hijinks. Adding a little more DIY to our socializing could be both good for camaraderie and easier on our budgets. And the book is sprinkled with enough banter, anecdotes, humor, and practical tips to keep it light and enjoyable. Underneath all their tomfoolery, the authors are earnest in their evangelization.

Also, I don’t want to spoil anything, but there is a twist ending that definitely made me chuckle.

Fun and funny
4/5 Mimosas

Fiction, Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

2 mini-reviews: The Year of Less and Break in Case of Emergency

Why am I grouping these two books together, you may ask. Well, for no other reason than that I finished them both over the weekend. They don’t particularly go together although they’re both easy reads.

The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store by Cait Flanders

1I was semi-interested in this book because I am a follower of personal finance blogs in the hopes that their frugality will rub off on me. Cait Flanders is a veteran in this arena. So I snagged her book at the library and, honestly, it wasn’t what I was expecting, but in a good way.

Flanders has a relatable voice, the same that comes across on her blog, and I found her really endearing as she describes her foibles and failed plans along the way to financial stability. She also talks about her family life, weight loss, and her decision to give up drinking, admitting her failures along the way, which is what really got me. She was so open and honest about her struggles and didn’t try to make poetry of them like hardcore memoir-writers do. I appreciated that. Sometimes you just want to peek into someone’s life without a literary education.

Break in Case of Emergency by Jessica Winter

2I discovered this book on this list of The 12 Worst Workplaces in Contemporary Literature. The library had a copy, so I grabbed it on Saturday and read it in a couple of hours.

If you work in an office, or if you’ve ever had to forward someone an email you already sent them to prove you did something, you’ll probably enjoy this one. It’s the story of Jen who’s been laid off during the economic crisis of the mid-aughts. She gets hired as a communications person for a nonprofit organization called LIFt, which ostensibly has the mission of empowering girls and women the world over, guided by a “weird jumble of Buddhism and libertarianism.” The first scene is a meeting in which company head Leora Infinatas (self-named) throws out incomprehensible platitudes as ideas in an effort to have a meaningful exchange with her employees. Everything’s very meaningful at LIFt.

Having encountered that particular brand of empty rah-rah, speaking-in-motivational-quotes bullshit through any acquaintance who’s ever participated in an MLM scheme, I was intrigued to see how this kind of language would be laid out in a novel.

Unfortunately, I found Winter’s writing to be cumbersome, packed with lengthy sentences stacked on top of one another. It’s a dense-ness that, I imagine, felt easier to write than it was to read.

This isn’t even the longest, but it’s a good example of the many actions and concepts that can be crammed into a Jessica Winter sentence or two:

“Jen stifled a smile and looked down at her open notebook, where she’d written board meeting notes with her fountain pen and gradually added serifs and flourishes until the letters became a row of gerbera daisies and flamingo lilies. From the first time they’d met, Jen recognized Karina as a master of the filibuster, but she hadn’t yet seen Karina cast the spell on Leora—the gift of shrouding any and every topic in a fluffy word cloud of reiterative agreement until the original query was swallowed up in the woozy vapor of resounding enthusiasm for an unstated but sublime goal.”

The text is blocky like that most of the way through, though it’s broken up at times by delightful dialogue, the most enjoyable being exchanges between main character Jen and her manager, Karina. Karina gives poor Jen no real guidance, even when Jen asks for it directly, and is the kind of boss that criticizes Jen for arriving 12 minutes late to work one morning after a fertility treatment.

Here’s a wee taste of the delightful horseshit Winter is poking fun at:

“Look, Jen,” Karina said to her computer, “if this opportunity just isn’t calling your name—if you just can’t hear it—I understand completely. There’s plenty of other people on the LIFt team who might be able to strike that harmony the moment they hear the tune, so to speak.” Karina clicked her mouse to open an email.

“No, no, I’m excited to go—I can hear the harmony!” said Jen, finally succumbing again to the lure of the cushion-laugh. “I can’t wait. Apologies for giving off a different impression.”

“Like I said, just open yourself up to the journey,” Karina said to her email.

So, those parts of the novel are definitely enjoyable. The rest was a sort of superficial exposition of Jen’s marriage, female friendships, and fertility issues. Lots of meaty topics there, but none of them delved too deep, and I wasn’t interested anyway.

Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

The BTK Murders: Inside the “Bind Torture Kill” Case that Terrified America’s Heartland


Don’t be put off by this ridiculous cover or Rader’s ugly mug; this book is well-written.

This guy was running lose for like 30 years?!

That was my incredulous reaction as I made my way through The BTK Murders: Inside the “Bind Torture Kill” Case that Terrified America’s Heartland by Carlton Smith. This is a well-written police procedural with glimpses into the killer’s doings based on his elaborate and forthright confessions.

It’s honestly a fascinating exposé of a personality, if you will. Because this guy is straight nuts. He’s so mired in narcissism that he has no real concept that other people exist other than to play a role in his (icky, icky) life.

Except, as Smith shows throughout the book, the killer, Dennis Rader, has a good cover. He’s married with two kids and lives an otherwise quiet life working for Coleman (based in Wichita) and an alarm system company (ironically), among other jobs.

What was most fascinating to me in Smith’s narrative is the part Bob Beattie plays. A retired lawyer and renaissance man of sorts (we get a bit of his background in the book), Beattie, when he was allowed to, helped the police and media root out Dennis Rader by playing his narcissistic tendencies against him.

For example, Beattie publicized that he was writing a book about Rader, betting that the killer wouldn’t be able to stand that someone else was writing his story, possibly getting things wrong. Sure enough, the publicity ferreted Rader out of his hole, prompting his communications with the media, which eventually led to his capture. I won’t tell you how he was caught because it’s just too good and if you read the book, I’d be depriving you of a laugh.

Despite thirty years, off and on, of detective work on behalf of Wichita law enforcement and even the FBI, Beattie pretty much comes across as the hero of this story, at least as Smith tells it. 

Anyway, if you like true crime, it’s a good read despite the sensationalist title and ridiculous cover.

Nonfiction, What Ben Read

12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers

51ymGTSNSyL12 Strong by Doug Stanton (previously titled “Horse Soldiers) started out really strong, jumping straight into the action. The description of the fortress Quala-I-Janghi, the House of War, really sets the stage for an epic showdown. Events start unfolding, we reach a crisis…and then Stanton throws out an anchor and slowwwws everything way down.

We get a bunch of good backstory on a bunch of guys whose names become hard to keep straight. I found myself constantly flipping back trying to remember who was who. Stanton does not do a great job of sprinkling in little cues or reminders to help us recall whether this guy is the medic with the kids or the divorced weapon specialist or the communications officer with the pregnant wife etc., etc.

I am getting these descriptions wrong. I know I’m getting them wrong. And it’s a disservice to some really badass dudes. But the book just jumps around too much, and doesn’t really make more than a couple of the characters stick.

What it does do is provide a really impressive behind-the-scenes look at Special Forces soldiers doing what they do best. This is a war story, a story about heroism, but it’s also reasonably nuanced. These guys are think first, shoot last types of operators. They are diplomats, advisors, strategists, always looking to fight smarter, not bloodier. They pay attention to cultural sensitivities. They repeatedly tell their Afghan allies, “This is your war, we’re just here to help.” And with the staggering force of U.S. airpower behind them, they achieve an astonishing amount of success.

Of course things didn’t quite work out so well in the end. And while the focus is on these particular events, the book acknowledges the larger context. The epilogue reads a bit like a look at what might have been. The Iraq war, where some of the protagonists would end up suffering death or maiming, is generally painted as a Bad Idea.

It’s interesting to read the reactions to this book. They’re mostly positive, but there’s some criticism from the left, “too much enthusiasm for war,” as well as from the right “why are they acting like John Walker Lindh (the American Taliban) is worthy of any sympathy?” To me it generally trends in the patriotic, heroic direction that one would probably expect.

These really are incredible and impressive events regardless of how one might feel about war in general or the U.S. operations in Afghanistan in particular. And the way Stanton takes a step back at the end to look at the broader picture prevents it from coming off as blindly jingoistic.

Impressive but flawed
3/5 stars