Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Bootstrapper, Mardi Jo Link’s new memoir, threw me a bit of a curve.  The book’s subtitle reads this way: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm, leading me to believe that its focus was on the difficulty of eking out a living from one of today’s small American farms – a topic that intrigues me, especially as seen from the female point-of-view.  Instead, Bootstrapper is more the story of one woman’s struggle to survive the breakup of her marriage to a Weak Ass from Northern Michigan – a much more common and less intriguing topic.

Link’s husband, when the couple first split up, moved only a few hundred feet away from the mortgaged acreage and family home in which Mardi Jo continued to live with their three sons.  This made it easy for Mardi Jo and her soon-to-be ex-husband to hand the boys off so that they could spend time with each parent.  But Mr. Ex, for the most part, was surprisingly invisible even as just across the road from his new place, it should have been obvious to him that Mardi Jo and her boys were struggling to put food on the table. 

Mardi Jo, though, saw life on the family farm as “living the dream” and refused to give it up even when she and the boys were largely living on peanut butter and the free bakery goods they won in a zucchini-growing contest.  She had one huge problem: she really knew very little about growing her own food, raising the meat that would sustain her family over the long Michigan winter, or keeping the chickens that would supply the family with fresh eggs.  Eventually, she learned these things, but she learned them the hard way.

Mardi Jo Link
The best thing about Bootstrapper is meeting Mardi Jo’s three sons, each of whom seems to have a unique personality and a different set of life-skills that combines perfectly to help their mother keep things together just long enough for the family to survive their near-disastrous first year of single-parenthood.  Mardi Jo, determined to save her farm despite the numerous sacrifices this will require from her and her children, is lucky to have these boys.

Bottom Line: Bootstrapper is an interesting memoir about a woman who, despite the tremendous odds stacked against her, refuses to give up her dream of living on the family farm.  Regardless of its subtitle, however, this is a book about a writer who happens to live on a farm, not a book about making a go of a twenty-first century small-time farm.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Latest Trend in Chain Hotels: In-House Libraries

New York City's famous Library Hotel
Even when traveling, be they tree-books or e-books, I manage to surround myself with reading material.  While on the road for ten days earlier this month, for instance, I managed to read three books I brought with me from the library and about half of an e-book review copy that was housed on my iPad.  (Not sleeping well in hotel beds really does extend the reading hours in a day.)

That's why I think the budding trend, detailed in a New York Times article, of some chain hotels adding library settings to their facilities is so cool.  What better way to convince guests to spend a little more time inside the building relaxing - and very likely spending money on food and drink at the same time?  Perfect.
Reading material in many hotel rooms has become about as spare as it can be — open the desk drawer and it might hold a Gideon Bible and a Yellow Pages.
But some hotels are giving the humble book another look, as they search for ways to persuade guests, particularly younger ones, to spend more time in their lobbies and bars. They are increasingly stocking books in a central location, designating book suites or playing host to author readings. While the trend began at boutique hotels like the Library Hotel in New York, the Heathman Hotel in Portland, Ore., and the Study at Yale in New Haven, it is expanding to chain hotels.
 (The entire article can be read here.  It includes a picture of the type of library-setting the hotels are moving toward.)  

Monday, July 29, 2013

Double Double

Having one alcoholic in the family is bad enough, but it seldom stops there.  Sadly enough, alcoholism is a never-ending problem for many families, one that can devastate them for generations.  In Double Double: A Dual Memoir of Alcoholism, popular mystery writer Martha Grimes and her son Ken very frankly share their own struggles to get, and remain, sober.

The pair, in alternate chapters and several "conversations," look both backward and forward in their lives, revisiting the times and events during which they became addicts, their struggles to survive their addictions, the manner in which they finally got themselves sober, what their lives are like today, and what their hopes are for the future.  Despite living in the same house during the worst of all of this, Martha and Ken managed to hide their problems from each other, or were so caught up in their individual struggles with addiction, that neither was much aware of what the other was experiencing. 

Ken, in particular, appears to have been a master of deception, the rather typical teenager who easily managed to hide his real life from his mother.  Martha, on the other hand, made alcohol such a constant part of her everyday life that the lifestyle seemed perfectly normal to her and her son.  There was no need for Martha to hide her drinking from Ken because it really did not seem to be all that unusual to either of them.

Martha Grimes
Despite the similarities in their stories, what are likely to intrigue readers most are the pair's different approaches to attaining and maintaining sobriety.  Ken is a true believer in AA's Twelve-Step approach, while Martha seems to have been so put off by the program's more overtly religious aspects that she could not tolerate the meetings.  She preferred, instead, the clinical approach but is frank about that approachs limitations and the ease in which some alcoholics manipulate both their therapy and their therapists. 

Double Double, despite Martha's assertion that its readers are all likely to be wondering whether they themselves are alcoholics, is filled with revealing insights that nondrinkers and social drinkers will find useful.  Certainly, some readers will realize that they are on the brink of similar problems - and others will find that they have already crossed that line.  But even nondrinkers who have only experienced alcoholism second-hand via observation of a distant family member or friend will come away from the book with a better understanding of the problem (Martha only reluctantly calls it a disease) than they had going in. 

Bottom Line: Double Double is a very readable and honest memoir in which its two authors are not afraid to embarrass themselves and each other.  What they have to say about alcoholism is important, and their willingness to expose themselves this way will help others to solve, or even avoid, a similar experience in their own lives.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Book Trailer of the Week: This Is How You Die

If you enjoy "pun-ish," sometimes bloody, humor, This Is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death might be just the book for you to enjoy before the summer reading season is over.  (Warning: this video might be a tad rough for smaller children, especially the first couple of minutes.)

(25th Book Trailer of the week in a continuing series of unusual and memorable book trailers spotted by Book Chase over the course of way more than 25 weeks)

Friday, July 26, 2013


Despite its cover and Hard Case Crime imprint, Joyland is really a rather sweet coming-of-age novel set in the small town carnival culture of the early 1970s.  This is not meant to say that the story does not involve elements of the supernatural, violence, or a thrilling “hold on tight” ending, however – because, after all, this is a Stephen King novel.

Devin Jones, trying to forget the college sweetheart who has so broken his heart, decides to extend his Heaven’s Bay, North Carolina, summer job into full-time work for the next year rather than to return to school.  Devin has made some good friends among Joyland’s professional carnies and is proud of the delight he brings to small children when it is his turn to wear “the fur suit.”  So, for him, Joyland is the perfect spot to get his head together before returning to the school he so closely associates with the young woman who broke his heart.

But all is not what it seems to be at Joyland.  One of the carnival’s rides appears to be haunted by the ghost of a young woman murdered inside one of its cars, and Devin comes to suspect that others may have suffered a similar fate.  Intrigued by the stories he hears around the carnival, Devin starts to ask questions and to do enough historical research to leave him wondering whether a serial killer is still out there somewhere.  The closer he comes to the truth, the more danger he places himself and those closest to him in. 

Stephen King
Along the way, young Devin will learn much about life and love from the close carny friends he makes and from his relationship with a slightly “older woman” and her young son.  The boy, despite suffering a devastating illness, becomes one of the brightest and most consistently upbeat people in Devin’s life, and Devin’s relationship with the boy’s mother is one he will remember the rest of his life – if he lives long enough to grow old.

Joyland is about growing up, or - for the unlucky ones – not growing up, and the novel certainly has its emotional moments.  What it does not do is break new ground for its author.  Longtime Stephen King fans will feel right at home in the Joyland setting because King is a past master of tales like this one.  Joyland is likely to be a “comfort read” for most of its readers, but it will probably disappoint others who are left with a “been there, done that” feeling.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Son

Philipp Meyer’s The Son is one of those books that instantly clicked with me.  It happens sometimes that the perfect-for-you book comes along at just the right moment, a book that intrigues you from the first page right on through the last one (and there are 561 pages in The Son, so that is really saying something).  I am not naïve enough to believe that everyone will have the same reaction to The Son that I had, but at this point it is my favorite novel of the first half of 2013.

This is the story of seven generations of the McCulloughs, a Texas family whose third generation was sired by Eli McCullough who claims to have been the first Anglo male child born in the Republic of Texas (March 1836).  But, unlike so many family sagas, this one is not told in a linear, let’s follow the family tree right down the line, kind of way.  Rather, Meyer lets three generations of the McCullough family carry the brunt of the action: Eli (second generation), Peter (third generation), and Jeanne Anne (fifth generation).  By alternating narrative chapters from his three main narrators, and having each of them fill in the backstories of other family members, Meyer makes it easy for the reader to follow this remarkable family’s entire 200-year saga.

Living in Texas during Eli’s generation was not for sissies, something Eli and the rest of his immediate family learn the hard way when a Comanche raiding party targets the McCullough family farm.  For Eli, however, the raid will turn out to be one of those cases of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  The years he spends with the tribe, his new family, prepare him for anything that Texas will be able to throw at him for the rest of his life. 

Philipp Meyer
But Peter McCullough, born in 1870, is not the typical Texan of his day, especially for a man fathered by Eli McCullough.  Peter is the “sensitive” type, a man whom his father and two younger brothers see as strangely unwilling to defend the family interest in the long running border war between American and Mexican ranchers.  His empathy for his Mexican counterparts is considered a weakness by even, if not especially, those closest to him.

The formidable Jeanne Anne (Peter’s granddaughter), already an old woman by the end of the twentieth century, brings the family into the modern era.  Partly because she is somewhat of a feminist, but largely because there is no one else of her generation to do it, Jeanne Anne personally oversees the family’s enormous oil fortune at a time when women do not even think of attempting such a thing. 

The Son has become a personal favorite of mine, a novel I am likely to read several times over the years.  I cannot guarantee that it will work as well for you, of course, but this Philipp Meyer novel is certainly worth a look by all fans of good, literary historical fiction.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)