Book Review: War Room by Michael Holley

In which I read my first ever sports book - and love it! This review was originally published in the November 18, 2011 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive bi-weekly issues of Shelf Awareness in your inbox, fix that by registering here.

Most football fans are aware that Bill Belichick does things a little differently--the head coach of the New England Patriots is known for his one-word press conferences and sleeveless hoodies. Behind this seemingly uncommunicative character, however, lies a man passionate about football and the art of team-building. In War Room, sportswriter Michael Holley (Patriot Reign) gives readers a glimpse of his character and the legacy he has begun to create.

As early as 1991, while working with the Cleveland Browns, Belichick had a revolutionary vision for scouting players. As he advanced in his career, he refined a system of scouting and drafting unlike any other, aided by two young protégés, Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli (now head coaches of the Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively). War Room explores the details of that scouting system, as well as the lives, relationships and careers of the three men, all of whom live and breathe football, football, football.

Though War Room tends to be overburdened by facts, names and dates that can prove challenging to a novice football fan, the passion for the sport evident in Holley's writing, mirroring that of his subjects, is a saving grace. In understanding the heart of the game--the team, and the art of building it--fans at every level of intensity will come to appreciate the careful thought and execution it takes to create the teams we root for year after year. And next year, we’ll all have a bit more strategy for our fantasy drafts.

Give Bookish Thanks

This year, I am thankful for our bookish community. For finding a place online -- or rather, several places -- that share in my love for books, reading, and the printed word. I am thankful that there are teams of intelligent, passionate people who aim to make the world of the printed word jive with the era of the backlit screen.

I am thankful there are people who are able to dedicate themselves full-time to these tasks of sharing and loving and promoting books, whether it be in a publishing house, at a bookstore, or by creating a small company that promotes books online. I am thankful that there are others who are willing to spend their free time, their me-time, doing the same. I am thankful that through the combined efforts of authors, editors, agents, publishers, bookstores, bloggers, publications, and so many more, I have a house full of books waiting to be read, a world of stories I have yet to discover.

I don't care who makes money doing this, or who complains too much, or who reads what books when, or who gets reviewed where. What I really care about is that we are all passionate about one thing: books. And together, we can be thankful that that passion still exists, in all forms, despite all of the things that threaten it.


I'm off visiting family, stuffing my face, and sticking my nose in a book or six for the rest of the week. Back on Monday. Safe travels, and happy Thanksgiving!

Book Review: Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, by Ben Loory

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is one of those books that hits you like a tube of Pringles. You're not even sure that this is really what you're in the mood for, but then you find yourself dipping in for more, and then still more... until suddenly there is nothing left.

Ben Loory is a master of his craft, although his craft is somewhat undefinable. The stories here, ranging from a mere page long to a whopping ten at most, are a collection of the terrific, the fantastic, the horrific, and the mundane, assembling themselves into a truly addictive collection of modern-day fairy tales. Loory has an imagination that must be the size of the Atlantic Ocean that proves a delight to explore. Though brief, these stories pack punch, leaving me with a tingling spine and a sense of adventure and an indescribable inability to stop reading.

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is a delight, though I am finding now that it is hard to explain why, exactly. In many ways, that is the charm of this collection--its refusal to fit into any one genre, to mold to any one set of expectations. If you find yourself with an afternoon to spare, suffice it to say that Loory will make it worth your while.


Thoughts from other bookworms:
Estella's Revenge
Book Banter


Many thanks to Penguin for providing a digital galley of this book for review via NetGalley.


Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day | Ben Loory | Penguin | 9780143119500 | $15.00 Trade Paper | 224 pages | July 2011 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

Reading with Author Blinders On

Remember that kerfuffle last summer over certain female authors complaining that certain male authors got more publicity than them? Or, in fact, that in major news outlets, male authors are consistently favored over female authors? Remember last week when said kerfuffle made a re-appearance?

I'm not out to voice opinions on one side of said kerfuffle or the other. I think both sides have merit, and I think one of the beauties of social media and the blogging network is that everyone gets to have--and voice--an opinion. (I do wish we could all play nice, however, as said kerfuffle sometimes gets hackles raised.)

While I am no major literary news outlet, said kerfuffle got me thinking about my own reading preferences. Do I read more male authors than female? I'd never really thought about it. Turns out I do: in 2011, I read 43 books written by male authors compared to just 29 written by females.

In order to know that number, I had to create the worlds nerdiest spreadsheet to tally my reading statistics. (In case you're interested, I also read 49 print books and 3 e-books and listened to 21 audio. I started 8 books that I did not finish, and 7 of the books on my list this year were re-reads.) The fact that I had to look at cold hard statistics in order to glean the fact that I trend toward male writers says one very important thing to me: that these decisions were not conscious. At no point in time did I stop and think to myself, "That book is written by a female. I should read it." (Or the inverse, of course).

Naturally, when I read a book like Gilead, which was written by a woman but narrated by an aging male priest, or Letter to My Daughter, which was written by a man but narrated by a mother, I often comment on the skill of the author in pulling off so completely a voice so foreign from their own experience. But these are observations on completed books, rather than deciding factors in what to read.

I select books by the cover, by word-of-mouth, by subject, by back-cover blurb, by captivation of the first chapter, or by opening the book at random and selecting 10 pages to read. I read books that are recommended to me, whether by fellow bloggers or by friends and family, books that are given to me, and books that are loaned to me. Rarely, if ever, does the gender of an author play a part in my decision to read a book. I think about my next read in terms of the language it will present, the subjects and themes I will encounter, the setting and the experience of reading it. These things, of course, are shaped by the author, but examples like Gilead and Letter to My Daughter are written proof that the author's gender and own life experience are not limitations for a book. The book, ultimately, stands on its own, apart from the author that created it.

I know I may be alone in this sentiment. I know there are bloggers out there who make a point to read more female writers, or non-white authors, or authors who are not from the United States, in order to keep their reading well-rounded. I commend that dedication. Really, with such a wealth of literature to choose from, selecting books by a set of specifications is challenging (just look at the long list of books that didn't meet my 2011 reading goals and you'll see what I mean).

So what about you? Do you read based on author attributes? Do you have reading goals or participate in challenges to meet these goals? Am I the only one who reads with author blinders on, or are there others out there like me?

With that, I'm off to spend Sunday morning with a new book. I haven't yet decided what it will be, but I will be picking based on the book, not the gender of the author that wrote it. At least consciously--I'll leave it to Freud to analyze what all of this says about my subconscious.

Audiobook Review: The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

When I was eleven years old, I received Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for Christmas. Since then, I have been waiting for an owl to perch on my windowsill and deliver an invitation to attend school at Hogwarts. Even after I was long past the age of Hogwarts invitations, a piece of me still held on to the hope that one day I would discover that behind the veil of the "real" world, there lay a world of magic and wizards and spells and wonder.

Not since I was eleven have I read a book that has had me longing to enter the world about which I read, yearning for some tip, some clue, some hint of a world of secret things and objects of amazement lying in wait. Until The Night Circus.

The circus arrives without warning.  
No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.  
The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick. 
But it is not open for business. Not just yet.

These opening lines of Erin Morgenstern's debut novel set the tone for the entire book, inviting a sense of wonder, mystery, and an element of whimsy onto the page from the outset. Jim Dale's narration of the passage will send chills down any magic-lovers spine, and leave listeners tingling for more.

As the story develops, we learn that the circus itself is the public stage for a challenge between two magicians, both of whom display wonder after wonder to a wide-eyed and disbelieving audience. Here, then, is a place where magic is on display for all to see, but in a world where magic is believed to be the stuff of myth, the displays are thought to be nothing more than illusion, put on for the entertainment of a paying crowd.

What are the consequences of such actions? What happens when the illusion of illusions can no longer be maintained? What price must one pay to win? To love?

The Night Circus has not been as well-loved by all as it was by me, and perhaps that is because I listened to, rather than read, the story. Because in fact, it is not about the story. Just as the circus is a mere backdrop against which two illusionists can throw their challenge, the book is a backdrop against which Morgenstern can exercise her power of descriptive language and powerful imagery. It is a means for whisking readers (or listeners) away from one world and into one similar but slightly altered, carried along by a desire to discover this world rather than merely find out what happens in it.

Some of this reviewer disappointment I attribute to that dreaded hype machine, which has made this wonderful little skirmish of a book sound like something it is not. Though there are spells and duels and romance and love triangles and even a semi-evil magician, this is not what makes The Night Circus special. No, instead its power lies in the fact that is a book of setting and description, touched with a small but helpful dose of plotlines, wrapped in striped paper and tied with a flourishing black-and-white bow.

Set aside any expectations but that you will discover something new, and The Night Circus will deliver. Not surprisingly, Dale proves to be the perfect narrator for the novel, bringing Morgenstern's elegantly imagined world to life, coloring characters with unique voices, tones, and attitudes, enveloping listeners in the melodic sounds of whimsy.

And for those of you who have always had an inkling that Harry Potter really could be real, prepare to find yourself waiting for the sudden appearance of black-and-white tents, an elaborate clock, and a faint breeze carrying the hint of caramel on its back.


Thoughts from other bookworms:
Jenny's Books
books i done read
Literary Musings


Thanks to the Anne Arundel County Public Library, as always, for continuing to stock amazing - and current! - audiobooks for my listening pleasure.


The Night Circus | Erin Morgenstern, nar. Jim Dale | Random House Audio | 978-0-307-93890-9 | $45.00 Compact Disc | 11 discs, 13 hrs 39 min | September 2011 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

Back to the Classics Challenge

This year, one of my reading goals was to read more classics. Of the 73 books I have read to date, 5 were classics. Not the best showing, really. The problem is not that I do not like classics, just that I don't seem to pick them up. But I'm going to do better next year, and in order to motivate myself, I've signed up for my first official challenge - Back to the Classics. Here's what I'm thinking of reading:

Any 19th Century Classic:
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Any 20th Century Classic
Anything by Fitzgerald
Anything by Hemingway (also part of my 26 by 26 list)
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

Reread a classic of your choice
Dubliners by James Joyce
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene
The Aeneid by Virgil

A Classic Play
Shakespeare. Shakespeare. Shakespeare.

Classic Mystery/Horror/Crime Fiction
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arther Conan Doyle

Classic Romance
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Lady Chatterly's Lover by D. H. Lawrence

Read a Classic that has been translated from its original language to your language 
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (also on my 26 by 26 list)
The Illiad or The Odyssey by Homer

Classic Award Winner
All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren (Pulitzer, 1947)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (Pulitzer, 1940)
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre (Edgar, 1965)

Read a Classic set in a Country that you will not visit during your lifetime
The Once and Future King by T. H. White
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

I'm sure my list will change as the year progresses, but at least it's a starting point. As an added bonus, I own the majority of these titles already, so I can at least work on my continued to goal to read books I already own.

What classics are you hoping to read next year? Will you participate in a challenge to reach your goal?

A Bookish Journal to a Future Reader

Several weeks ago, Greg at The New Dork Review of Books posted about his aversion to e-books (and Greg, if you're reading this, my apologies in advance for summarizing your rationale in less eloquent terms than you did). His reasons, however, were not the standard protestations of needing the physical feel of a book in hand, the smell of the binding, etc, etc (although I think I could safely argue that most bookworms harbor some love for the look and feel and smell of a physical book).

No, instead of the standard reasons, Greg did not want to give up his paper books because of the "book memory phenomenon" associated with them, the recollection of the time and place in which they were read that was associated with their physical presence on their shelves.

I feel the same way about my bookshelves (though I've never articulated it as well), and this is one of the reasons that my living room is not decorated with art, but instead several teetering versions of the infamous Billy Bookcase from IKEA. As I sit in my spectacularly recovered reading chair, I can scan the titles on the shelves, thinking of the last time I read them, or when I purchased them, or who gifted them to me, or kick myself for not reading them yet, whatever the case may be.

But my love of paper books as memory vessels goes even further than that, I think, due in large part to the fact that I write in my books. Yes, that divisive subject again. I'm not going to get into the whys of my writing in books - I've done that already - but suffice it to say that I do. (I also dog-ear the pages, if you're wondering. Top corners and bottom corners.) What I'm left with is a cohesive unit that contains both the content of the book (duh) and my experience with it. I've underlined the passages I like, circled words I didn't understand, written definitions and thoughts in the margins. I've most likely broken the binding (page 141-142 fell out of my copy of The Elegance of the Hedgehog this weekend), and there's even a risk of coffee stains on the pages (or tea, as the case may be).

What I love most about this process is not the cathartic nature of underlining or commenting as I read, though I do love that. It is that when I re-read, or turn back to a passage, a page, a sentence, I am recalling the exact experience I had when I last read the book. I am essentially reading a journal of my reading experience, overlayed atop the reading material itself.

Most often, when I re-read a book, or dip back into it for whatever reason, I find that what stands out to me has changed. Perhaps it is because I know the outcome, and therefore events take on a new meaning. Or perhaps it is because it has been several years and my perspective has changed. Or maybe it's as simple as forgetting the definition of a word I used to know (or thought I knew).

My bookcases, then, are physical reminders of a place, a setting, a story, as they are to Greg. But my books are journal entries to a future reader, especially when that future reader is myself. I have an e-reader, and I will read books on it, but the experience of revisiting my book experience will never be the same in e-ink.

Audiobook Review: The Privileges by Jonathan Dee

Occupy. Occupy. Occupy. Otherwise understood as a case of them vs. us. The top 1% vs. the 99%. The elite vs. the rest of us. The rich vs. the poor. Hell, the rich vs. the middle class, the upper middle class, and even the upper-upper middle class. These are the headlines that dominate our newscasts, our blogs, our magazines, our newspapers. However you feel about the protests themselves, or the motivations behind them, the undeniable fact that threads through every debate around the Occupiers is the fact that the richest among us are getting richer. And richer. And still yet richer.

I look at the incomes of the top 1% - the very same incomes that have risen 275% since 1975 - and wonder how on earth one person, or even one family, could spend so much money in a lifetime. The Kardashian wedding comes to mind: a showcase in absurd overspending. But don't you wonder? What is it like to live with no concept of excess? With no concern for overspending? With no fear of debt, or loss, or sacrifice? How does privilege change a person? For better? For worse? And if the 99% ask these questions of the 1%, what questions do the 1% ask of the 99%?

These are the kinds of questions addressed by Jonathan Dee's The Privileges. Although the story is in no way associated with the Occupy movements, the 1%, or any other current events, it proved a timely selection in a world of economic headline. 

The Privileges is an aptly-named novel about a wealthy family in Manhattan. Adam and Cynthia Morey are a pure exemplification of the American Dream. Married at 22, fresh out of college, they return from their honeymoon expecting their first child. Adam works for a hedge fund, Cynthia a fashion magazine. Adam gets a raise. Cynthia stops working to raise children. They settle into modest apartment in Manhattan, then move to a larger one when their children are too old to share a bedroom. Adam deals in insider trading, Cynthia questions her purpose in life. They move to a townhouse. Adam gets a 6-figure bonus, Cynthia gets involved in charities. The kids go to prep school, experiment with sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, and spend their parents' money.

Throughout it all, Adam and Cynthia remain fiercely loyal to one another, basing every action on its ability to make the other, or their family, happier than in the past. And page by page, we watch each member of the family, and even the family as a whole, struggle to define what life is all about if it is not about overcoming challenges - for in truth, they really don't have challenges to overcome in their little bubble of a world. Is it about leaving a mark on the world? Helping others? Making more money? Finding Art? And if they are such a wonderfully perfect family, led by a couple so wildly in love, why do they seem so lonely?

The prose throughout Dee's novel is stark but emotional, captured perfectly by David Aaron Baker's narration in the audio version. Though several reviews have complained of the static nature of the storyline, or the flatness of the characters, and these complaints are not entirely unfounded, I found that this bare-bones approach to storytelling actually complimented Dee's novel. Dee is not out to judge his characters, or even make you like them. He's just telling you about them, in all their selfish, wealthy glory. The story is, in fact, really not much of a story at all, moving to no specific culmination or conclusion, but instead a profile of a family, flawed and perhaps unlikeable, but ultimately understandable.

The Privileges proves to be a treatise on how wealth and greed and power and love and loyalty and determination can shape not only our own lives, but the lives of those around us. It is melancholy, bitter, but ultimately not depressing. It is an attempt to answer the question of how to leave a mark on the world, how to keep from disappearing, how to make an impact.

Like Gossip Girl, the Kardashian wedding, and the 1% headlines, The Privileges will prove captivating to anyone slightly obsessed with the world of the wealthy (and don't deny it, you know you're intrigued). Though the characters here may not be likeable or relatable, the novel itself gripping and insightful, and, given the backdrop of Occupy protests, jobs acts, and economic reform, incredibly timely.

As a final thought: Those turned off by the episodic nature of the plot should at least invest in the first chapter (focusing solely on Adam and Cynthia's wedding), which could easily stand alone as a short story.


Thoughts from other bookworms:
The Book Case
Books on the Nightstand


Note: Many thanks to the Anne Arundel County Public Library for (as always) keeping an excellent stock of audiobooks on hand for my browsing pleasure. You guys rock.

Book Review: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

Or, the post in which I admit that I read a YA-bestseller that wasn't Harry Potter and actually liked it.

You'd have to have been living under a rock for the last few years to not have heard of The Hunger Games trilogy at this point. It's so ubiquitous that it is even making appearances in the #Occupy movements. At least it did this one time, at any rate. Because it is so everywhere-and-in-your-face-and-read-me-read-me-read-me, I did the only natural thing a book snob like myself could do: I avoided it.

That is, until a good friend and fellow blogger sent me a copy and insisted - yes, insisted - that despite all the things I thought I knew about it, I had to read it. She coupled this argument with the fact that I would be able to finish it in an afternoon. Figuring I had nothing to lose but a few hours and some of my pride at insisting that it wasn't for me, I took a stab.

What I found between the unsuspecting pages of The Hunger Games was a fast-paced, imaginative and creepy in that this-is-all-too-possible kind of way story. I won't go into the details of the plot, because in all likelihood, anyone reading this has already read the whole trilogy anyway, but for those who don't know the premise:

In the country of Panem, which sounds shockingly like a country that used to be known as the United States, The Capitol dominates. And, somewhat inevitably, there is an attempted revolution. And also inevitably, in a world of dictatorships and dominatrixes, The Capitol thinks up a twisted punishment for this revolt, which doubles as a constant reminder of their power and control: The Hunger Games. Each district must send one boy and one girl to compete in the games each year, in which children are pitted against a series of man-made challenges - and each other - in a fight to survive. Last child standing wins. All the others... well, they are dead, and thereby have not won.

See? I told you it was twisted. I can understand some of the parental objections over the book (although I maintain that attempting to ban a book because it gave your child nightmares is just outrageous), for there is some heavy stuff in there: the importance of family, the concept of sacrifice, the making and breaking of allies. And death. There's all that stuff about death.

Ultimately, Collins' imagination is the savior of the book -- her writing is not. Conversations feel stilted and forced, and characters develop unevenly at best. And don't get me started on the sentences that aren't really sentences.

Despite all of the flaws, though, I'll go back for seconds and thirds with the next two books in the trilogy. Collins has succeeded in creating a masterful world, a world of centralized power and dictator-ship like rule that is all too possible to consider, and a world to which I'd like to return. I'm eager to find out what happens of the whirlwind media storm created by the Games featured in this first installment, and I really do want to know what happens to certain characters-who-shall-not-be-named-but-if-you-read-the-book-you-know-what-I'm-talking-about.

So. To sum up. Maybe not the most well-written book I've read, and certainly not my favorite of ever or even the year, but I've got a soft spot for imagined futures (see my recent review Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood), and The Hunger Games fit right in there. Thanks to Emily for the recommendation, the insistence, and then going so far as to send me my own copy of the book -- and for proving that sometimes I don't know what's best for my own reading tastes.


It seems I'm on a dystopian, re-imagined future kind of kick. What should I look for next?


Thoughts from other bookworms (sharing the same I-read-this-and-SURPRISE!-I-actually-kinda-liked-it feelings):
another cookie crumbles
Dead White Guys


You might also like:
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
The Hunger Games Companion by Lois Gresh