Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “erin is scrumtrulescent”

Erin is Scrumtrulescent’s #CBR4 Review #09: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Speaking as someone who has worked in few different hospitals in a non-clinical capacity for almost ten years, I would say it is easy to forget you work in a hospital sometimes but that would be a total lie. It is just easier to forget you work in one. I encounter patients on a daily basis but they’re not mine, not really. I do not treat them, I cannot help them in any way other than to be friendly, answer any questions they may have, help them change into a gown, and perhaps crack a stupid joke or two to make them smile. I assist with unit patients and have been urinated on, vomited on and have had to clean up body fluids often enough that I barely even notice it anymore. Hell, most of the time I crack jokes about it. There are some days that no matter what I do I cannot forget, and it hits me like a ton of bricks.

For every forgettable jerk who comes in limping declaring their leg broken and demanding to be seen before an ER patient because they need to get home in time for their stories, there comes in the nicest person I will meet all year. They will come in for back pain, a headache or some other seemingly common and innocent sounding ailment. They do not remember how long they have had it and did not want to be a baby about it or ask for help. Sometimes it turns out to be nothing, but other times – too many times – I hear a muttered a curse word, a frantic call or two, or sometimes I will just get a look from the technologist doing their study: Cancer. My office disappears quickly when I am forced to call a patient’s wife because he has to be admitted to the hospital and cannot stop crying long enough to get the words out himself.

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is a book not just about cancer but two teenagers with cancer no less. Hazel Lancaster, a sixteen year-old with thyroid cancer, meets Augustus Waters at a cancer support group. He is seventeen, gorgeous, smart and is missing a leg thanks to bone cancer for which he is in remission. Even with her omnipresent oxygen tank and swollen face, he makes her feel like any normal teenage girl would feel meeting such a boy. It is something straight out of a Lifetime movie and normally (even despite my ovaries), I am usually not a sucker for such things. While not wholly original or without its faults, Green managed to suck me in almost immediately. His writing is simple and pretty and makes the story much better than it ought to be. I wanted to know everything I could about Hazel and Augustus, and even though I knew their story would not end well, I still was unprepared for just how hard it hit me.

If there is one minor quibble I have about this book, it is that John Green writes lovely and witty dialogue that is entirely too lovely and witty to be coming out of a teenager’s mouth. At some points it is distracting, and this is coming from somebody who absolutely loves Juno. Most of the time, it is so damn delicate or funny or just heartbreaking that you get so distracted from trying not to cry that you totally forgive it. One of my favorite lines in the book is Hazel declaring, “I fell in love the way you fall out of a tree; slowly and then all at once.” Young love, cancer and lines like that. Call me a sap all you want but sometimes you just have to sit back, have a good cry, and enjoy it.


Erin is Scrumtrulescent’s #CBR4 Review #08: The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

Many months ago (back when I still tried to keep up on my reviews on here) I read Richard Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution and was shocked at how readable it was and how much I liked it.  In a comment on my review of that book, somebody recommended that I check out some Sarah Vowell for some more history that would not put me to sleep. So when I spotted The Wordy Shipmates in the bargain bin of my local bookstore, I snapped it up.

Like Beeman, Sarah Vowell does manage to bring a lot more energy to the story of the Puritans, a people widely considered America’s philosophical and moral ancestors but mainly known to me as those people who sailed here and wore shoes with buckles on them from my fourth grade history class.  She manages to make them a lot more interesting than ancient Mrs. Zalecki ever did and for the most part I found it to be an easy read. My main stumbling blocks with historical non-fiction tend to be a feeling of being overwhelmed, either because the author is providing too much information on everything or else I am given explicit background on supposedly important figures only, thus finding it difficult to see them in history’s big picture. Vowell strikes a nice balance, finding notable figures among the Puritans – such as John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson,and managing to both explain their importance and give an idea of who they were as actual people.  In Hutchinson’s case, she was not only an actual person but a bit of a nutcase. And you know what? I love reading about nutcases, even Puritan ones.

Vowell’s style is a bit all over the place, and this is not entirely a bad thing. I was unsurprised to find out just how prolific and varied her career has been and, having looked up some of her articles and media appearances, I found her to be clever and at times downright hilarious.  This does show in her writing, as she goes from being merely informative to amusing to almost free-form, and this definitely helps keeping the material from getting too dry. At some points, however, I found myself rereading sections or pages because I felt like whatever she was explaining at the time was not quite getting through to me among all the other extraneous stuff. Unlike Beeman’s book (and the other great book I mentioned in my previous review, James L. Swanson’s Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase For Lincoln’s Killer – seriously, go read it!), I felt like The Wordy Shipmates suffered a tiny bit from her style. While she does as good of a job as Beeman and Swanson did at laying down all the background and boring facts we need to know in order to keep up, Vowell’s style makes itself known more often. Perhaps it was because this was the first work of Vowell’s I have read, but at some points I really wished she would have toned it down a bit.

Vowell’s occasional overbearing style lapses aside, I enjoyed reading this and am excited to check out her other books.

Erin is Scrumtrulescent’s #CBR4 Review #07: How Did You Get This Number by Sloane Crosley

If there is one thing I am a sucker for when it comes to reading, it is biographies and memoirs. While I will occasionally read something in which I might actually learn something, I tend to gravitate towards collections of personal essays from people who have lived through many a screwed up or hilarious situation that I can then vicariously experience. My first taste of this was reading David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day, which to this day remains one of those books I practically force on people when I find out they have not read it. It was actually while discussing with a friend our mutual love of David Sedaris (and his sister, Amy, for that matter) that she handed me Sloane Crosley’s How Did You Get This Number and told me I might like it.

To my friend’s credit,  it really does have a lot of the qualities I usually like in memoirs and Crosley is close enough to my age and demographic that we were bound to have enough in common that some of her experiences might even mirror my own. As it turns out, even that could not get me to like this book very much. There is just nothing memorable about this book for me in terms of content. It was the written equivalent of sitting through an awkward lunch with a friend you have not seen in a while with whom you now have nothing it common. It seems to last forever and you know she talked about something but to be honest you forgot it a few seconds after she mentioned it because you do not care enough to put the effort into really listening.  The one thing I do remember about her writing is that a couple times I came away with the impression that she thought whatever she was saying was ever so clever and witty, and I did not much agree with her.

Afterward, I think the thing that left the worst taste in my mouth was not how disappointed I was with the book itself but how much better it could have been. There were definitely some parts of this that I laughed at but it was more the situation and not really her writing. I really think there are two kinds of memoir writers – those who have lots of material, not all of it great, but can write the hell out of it, and those that just have good material. It might just be that I am not a big fan of her style, but for me Crosley definitely falls into the latter category.

Erin is Scrumtrulescent’s #CBR4 Review #06: I’m Proud of You by Tim Madigan

Ours is a culture that changes its mind almost daily on things we deem acceptable and those we do not. Your favorite book, movie, television show, or album (do kids still know what these are?) will most likely not be your favorite in another five or ten years. Certainly my tastes have changed a lot from high school to, let’s just say a few years removed from high school, and I think (and would hope) that is true with a lot of people. On the other hand I think the stuff we liked before then, before we ever felt the hint of peer pressure, cliques, and other adolescent nonsense is the stuff that truly endures.  This is the stuff that you still find yourself picking up in a bookstore, or stopping to watch a few minutes when you catch it flipping channels. Unlike being repeatedly (!) photographed in a Limp Bizkit shirt in high school, still owning a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit is not something I will ever look back on and cringe at. And for me, and for probably a lot of other people, Mr. Rogers falls into this same category.

At first I was a bit leery about reading this book. On television he seems, even when I watch reruns of his show today, so damn earnest and kind and I was nervous about somehow tainting that. The title of the book made me think I had nothing to worry about and much to my relief, the Fred Rogers Tim Madigan presents in I’m Proud of You is exactly what one who grew up with him would expect: Kind, patient, and endearingly optimistic. He gets the title of his book from how Rogers would end his letters or emails to him – sometimes abbreviating it “IPOY” and, sometimes, even adding an exclamation point or two for emphasis. That’s not to say that all of Rogers’ letters to Madigan were all nothing but praise and verbal slaps on the back. At the beginning of the book, Madigan’s relationship with his wife is strained and he fears they may get a divorce. This is around the same time he meets Rogers and after several communications back and forth that gloss over the issue, Madigan finally reveals what is going on and pours his heart out. What he gets back is exactly what he needs – advice, optimism, support with nary a word of judgment, just encouragement that things would get better. None of us, nor Madigan, could have asked for anything more. Their friendship continues to develop when Madigan’s brother becomes terminally ill. It is amazing to read these letters and emails from Rogers to Madigan and remind yourself

Being as though Fred Rogers passed away nearly a decade ago from stomach cancer, I knew how this book would end. Thankfully, Madigan does not drag it out or make it more dramatic then it needed to be.  He keeps the same balance that remained throughout his book and limits his knowledge to what went on to what he heard from the man himself and details read subsequently in the news along with the rest of us. While Madigan’s writing isn’t really notable,  he gives us exactly what we need. We get close enough to see that Fred Rogers really was his Mr. Rogers persona and that in real life any of us would be lucky to have had him as a friend … or neighbor.

Erin is Scrumtrulescent’s #CBR4 Review #05: Talking to Girls About Duran Duran by Rob Sheffield

When I was fourteen, I was a friendless mute in the halls of my high school. In classes I barely spoke and spent most of my time with my limp hair over my face, hiding both my acne and the tiny headphones from my Discman. It all changed when one of my brother’s friends tapped me on the shoulder one day and extended an olive branch in the form of pointing out the fact we were both wearing the same exact band t-shirt. The year was 1995, the band was the Smashing Pumpkins and from that day on everything else in life got easier. I had someone better than a friend; I had somebody who also spent way too much time memorizing song lyrics, minutiae about four people we had never met, and who also spent their money on unofficial picture-laden biographies and singles remixes.  You just don’t find that every day, people.

This is the general theme behind Talking to Girls About Duran Duran.  Having grown up in the 1980s, Sheffield starts each chapter with a song from a year within that decade. Sometimes the chapter is about that song or band and sometimes it is just an undercurrent in memories from that era. It is a fun look back at a decade I am too young to really remember through the eyes and ears of somebody whose record collection I would love to pick through. Everybody from Madonna to The Replacements to Haysi Fantayzee is included, and Sheffield does a great job of convincing you that you do remember that song and band even if you have no idea who they are.

While I have not always been crazy about Sheffield’s  contributions to Spin magazine, I really enjoyed his debut Love is a Mix Tape. While this book does not have the emotional gut punch that his debut had, there are still some very nice moments captured. A large chunk of my memories between the ages of thirteen and twenty-three are based around music as well, but it was nice to read about somebody else’s. I would not go so far as to say you have to be a huge music nerd to enjoy this book, but it certainly would not hurt.

In one of the essays in the book, Sheffield goes into detail about the ups and downs of his relationship with the Smiths. His love was so intense at one point that even listening to them while doing mundane things made it seem as though Morrissey was reading his thoughts and having a conversation with him through the lyrics he was hearing. Even things like walking around or doing laundry were totally different with or without a soundtrack. This sounds a bit ridiculous, and you sense that Sheffield knows this as he is writing about it.  I laughed when I read it, it DID seem silly but it was a silly I am still young enough to remember but old enough to already miss. I never thought I would miss seeing Billy Corgan in shiny silver pants but, God help me, I still do.

Erin is Scrumtrulescent’s #CBR4 Review #04: The Death of Rhythm & Blues by Nelson George

Covering from the 1930s through the mid-1980s, Nelson George’s The Death of Rhythm & Blues is a pretty excellent account of how “race music” changed over the years, transformed into a ever-changing genre and eventually got watered down into what he refers to as crossover music. The thing that makes Nelson George’s book a bit better than most is that he does not just give you the necessary background on many of the artists (among them: Sam Cooke, Al Green, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Prince, B.B. King, etc.) but also on a lot of the behind-the-scenes players. Booking agents, arrangers, managers, record company honchos and the disc jockeys that all played a huge part in the process of helping (and occasionally hindering) black music reaching the masses.

Anybody could have taken a dozen or so notable black artists, devoted a chapter to them, and made a pretty interesting book. Nelson George manages to weave stories about record executives and managers into those about artists to not just explain how it happened but why and its significance in history. Racism, payola, what failed artists didn’t do right, how the music industry itself made it easier for some artists to blossom and he makes it all seem effortless. He paints you a robust and not always positive picture of the bigger themes throughout but you can close your eyes and see all the tiny stories, too: The disc jockeys who worked long hours, got paid next to nothing, and didn’t need a playlist to tell them what was popular; the neighborhoods that James Brown told to keep their shit together after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated; the blues men and women who went virtually unnoticed until white artists started ripping off their sound decades later – it is all in there.

Be forewarned, while I really liked this book, I probably would not recommend it to everybody. Unless you are a pretty big music nerd then this might not be your thing. I really cannot express enough how both informative and well-written it really is though. I mentioned in an earlier review that one book managed to get me into a subject that had previously held very little interest to me simply because it was so damn good. Could this book do that for somebody out there? I really hope so.

Erin is Scrumtrulescent’s #CBR4 Review #03: Atonement by Ian McEwan

About halfway through reading this book, I was not at all surprised they eventually made it into a movie. After all, it is a period piece set over the course of several years during a war, includes a pair of tragic lovers, and ends with a sort of twist. People eat that shit up, right? Well, I have not seen the movie but at that halfway point in the book I was not only dreading reading the rest of it but was even dreading having to write the very review you are now reading.

I was just going to be snarky and make a list of things that I would rather do than to ever have to read this book again, but I’ll try to not be so lazy: Ian McEwan’s Atonement is a novel about a young girl whose active imagination gets the better of her, and subsequently she manages to ruin the lives of two people.  As she gets older, she realizes this and tries to atone for the mistakes of her youth. The one good thing I can say is that McEwan played around with the timeline a bit and the book probably would have been much longer had he not. For that, I am thankful. I am also thankful I read this early on in the year because if I had read this after reading eighty or so books that were much better, I would have probably stopped reading for a while.

To be clear, this book is probably not as terrible as I am making it sound. I have read much worse books, ones so bad I could not even finish them. McEwan is apparently considered a good writer from what Google tells me, and maybe it is just his style or this just is not my thing in general. Whatever it was, getting through this book was pretty brutal. Unless you have a strong desire to be bludgeoned into boredom with perfectly serviceable prose, I strongly suggest you leave this one alone.

Erin is Scrumtrulescent’s #CBR4 Review #02: Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution by Richard Beeman

If there was one subject in high school I absolutely hated with every fiber of my being, it was history.  It wasn’t that I was one of those kids who questioned why we had to learn all that stuff because I would never use it or that the past had no reflections on today or anything so thoughtful, it just bored me to tears.  It was just names all names and dates, and for the most part I forgot anything I learned soon after we were done covering it. However, last year a friend wore me down with her recommendations to read a book on the Lincoln assassination (James L. Swanson’s Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer) and I was blown away by how much I enjoyed it. I loved the style in the book – Swanson managed to take something that was already sort of interesting and then cover it from so many different angles, weaving it into something that read almost like fiction, that for a few days I forgot just how much I hated history.

Richard Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution is not as effortless a read as Swanson’s book, but Swanson had less of the uphill battle turning all that material into something readable. To his credit, Beeman does a pretty good job here. He covers the day-to-day progress of the nearly four months it took to get the document written. What makes all that tolerable is his making the men involved into more than just their accomplishments. When you realize just how varied the backgrounds were of the fifty or so men involved, and that they were trying to get this written during the spring and summer months in Philadelphia all shoved into a stuffy assembly room, it is amazing that it didn’t take even longer. There were definitely some characters here – a one-legged ladies’ man, a few people with a healthy Napoleon complex, some flakes who couldn’t make it until the end, and a scant few men who miraculously kept them all on task long enough for it to get done.

It took me a bit longer to get through than I thought it would, but I think the biggest mistake I made was trying to read this while also doing other things or at work. There are a lot of people involved here and it is not something you can really stop and start frequently without your enjoyment of it suffering a bit. That all being said, still very much worth checking out.

Erin is Scrumtrulescent’s #CBR4 Review #01: Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

There are certain topics that manage to be endlessly fascinating to me, and as a result I find myself gravitating to certain, familiar areas of my local bookstores. If I am in the need of something new to read but not quite sure what that would be, wandering over to the science section usually gives me a few good ideas. This is where I stumbled onto this interesting looking read, and it did not disappoint.

Packing For Mars offers a look at pretty much anything you ever wanted to know about what it was and is like being astronaut. It is not only those lucky few who have been to space that she covers, however. She also spends a fair amount of time with a lot of people who have made it possible (not to mention easier and much less gross) for those astronauts to do what they do.  It turned out to be more than just interesting though; I was at times laughing out loud, dumbfounded, and – more than a few times – totally grossed out.

Roach, as is the case in all her other books as well, has researched this topic meticulously. She presents the basics – anti-gravity and early failures – but delves into places a lesser writer would make hard to get through. Among them: hygiene sacrifices, space cuisine, and the challenges of going to the bathroom in a place with no gravity. She presents this all with the perfect bit of humor and enthusiasm needed to make the writing seem effortless but in the end still leave you in awe of the subject matter.

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