My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor

My Beloved WorldMy Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
Published by Knopf

Summary from the publisher:

With startling candor and intimacy, Sonia Sotomayor recounts her life from a Bronx housing project to the federal bench, progress that is testament to her extraordinary determination and the power of believing in oneself.  She writes of her precarious childhood and the refuge she took with her passionately spirited paternal grandmother. She describes her resolve as a young girl to become a lawyer, and how she made this dream become reality: valedictorian of her high school class, summa cum laude at Princeton, Yale Law, prosecutor in the Manhattan D.A.’s office, private practice, federal district judge before the age of forty. She writes about her deeply valued mentors, about her failed marriage, about her cherished family of friends. Through her still-astonished eyes, America’s infinite possibilities are envisioned anew in this warm and honest book, destined to become a classic of self-discovery and self-invention, alongside Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father.

This was an impulse listen for me, an audiobook I spotted at the library that I’d heard good things about and that I felt I might enjoy because I like these kinds of reads. I was not disappointed here. Sonia Sotomayor has led an interesting and inspiring life and I loved hearing about what has helped her become so successful over the course of her life.

SO much of what Sotomayor has to say is both important and quotable. I almost wish I read the paper book so I could have highlighted and took notes instead of just listening to what was said; however the audio was really good so there’s that too. I just loved everything she had to say about growing up with not a lot of money, being a minority and a woman, with few examples around her about what success in the traditional sense looks like, yet still being so driven and hardworking that to succeed was the only choice she gave herself. One thing she stressed, which I think is important for anyone trying to nurture and help children, is that the ONE thing that matters in a disenfranchised kids’ life is having one adult who roots for the child, boosts him or her up, and has the child’s back in all things, no matter what. For Sotomayor that person was her grandmother, when I was a child I had one or two people in my life who did that for me, and I have to say that I can’t agree more with this statement. Not all kids have perfect parents or perfect lives, but if you are able to be there for a child who might not be in a great situation, to really show how important that child is, how special and smart and unique and creative and all of those things, it could make a huge difference in that child’s life.

Sotomayor is unflinchingly honest in this memoir and I appreciated her so much for that. She has been through a lot in her life – deaths of loved ones, a failed marriage, education at America’s top schools, many different levels of her career – and she was so open about it all. I found myself really admiring the way she makes decisions and thinks through things – I hate to admit it but I’m not as caught up in politics as I once was so I really didn’t pay attention to her confirmation hearings when she became a Supreme Court Justice and I knew almost nothing about her political beliefs and leanings. She truly is a fair and thoughtful judge – thinking very carefully through every single possible repercussion and consequence before making even the smallest decision. I liked her quite a bit and enjoyed getting to know her and understand her throughout the book.

If you’re looking to get to know Sonia Sotomayor better – the real person behind the media image of her – this is a fantastic choice. Or if you, like me, enjoy these kinds of autobiographies in general, also a fantastic choice. Sotomayor has led a very inspiring life and I have no doubt that she will continue to inspire and interest me throughout the rest of her career. I’m so glad to have read this book. Highly recommended!

Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham

Someday, Someday, MaybeSomeday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham
Published by Ballantine Books

Aspiring actress Fanny Banks has given herself just three years to become successful, and with just six months to go things aren’t looking good. She’s working as a cocktail waitress, living in Brooklyn with her best friend Jane and their friend Dan, an aspiring writer with a deadline of his own. Even though Fanny is getting call backs from auditions, she’s only booking silly things that she doesn’t feel are  “important” enough for the actress she knows she’s capable of becoming. And the charming guy in her acting class, James, who begins to show interest in her, keeps telling Fanny how important it is to be taken seriously as an actor, if you want to become successful. This is a truly funny and heartwarming coming-of-age story set in New York in the early ’90′s – a story about finding and accepting yourself.

While I’m a huge fan of Lauren Graham (the actress) I wasn’t sure how her talent as an actress would translate into a talent for writing fiction. Luckily, she seems to be excellent at writing too and I thoroughly enjoyed her first foray into the fiction world. I am sure that much of this novel is based on Graham’s own experiences as an aspiring young actress when she was in her twenties, and the authenticity of those experiences shines through on the page.

Fanny is an extremely likable character and she’s easy to root for from the very start. She’s smart, ambitious, funny, interesting, and someone I would want to be friends with. Her inner monologue is hysterical at times, as she’s constantly analyzing the people and situations around her and has running commentary to provide for the reader on just about every single thing that happens to her. It’s impossible not to be entertained by how she interprets the world around her and deals with the obstacles that come her way. She’s the kind of character that you can’t stop reading, that you want to get to know better and hang out with in real life.

I loved how the romance in this story is such a small part of the overall novel. She’s in a relationship with this actor guy, but the reader never gets to know him well because even though he’s a somewhat significant part of Fanny’s life, acting and the pursuit of success is such a bigger part. At one point there becomes a sort of love triangle thing going on, but even that story is secondary to the story of Fanny’s journey, both professionally and personally. I loved how this book is really all about Fanny and the guys (and her best friend) in her life are so secondary to what’s going on with her.

I enjoyed Someday, Someday, Maybe quite a lot! Also, I forgot to mention this but Lauren Graham narrates the audio herself and it is fantastic. I highly recommend the book and listening to the audio.

Mini-reviews – wrapping up 2013 reading part 1

Since my blogging pretty much slowed to a trickle these past few months, there are several books I never got around to reviewing. So here are some brief thoughts on four books I haven’t told you about yet. I’ll be back tomorrow with four more.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of BeliefGoing Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright – This is nonfiction but it might as well be horror because it scared the pants off of me! Not that it’s “scary” in a traditional sense – it’s a book about a religion after all – but the way that this religion developed and grew and got so many people to follow it is terrifying to me. It’s brainwashing, pure and simple, and it’s mind-boggling to me that there are so many Scientologists in the world who actually believe everything L. Ron Hubbard taught. This book is incredibly thorough, the research Wright did is very in-depth, and the writing is excellent. For those interested in learning more about Scientology this is a book not to be missed.

The Sister SeasonThe Sister Season by Jennifer Scott (review copy from the publisher) – I decided to read this one because Jennifer Scott also writes excellent YA fiction under the name Jennifer Brown and I was hopeful that her talent for YA would carry over into women’s fiction. It did, to a degree, as I liked this book about three adult sisters who are forced to spend Christmas week together at their childhood home because their father has just passed away. I thought Scott did a great job with these characters and illustrating the way sister dynamics can be so complicated – these women have true love-hate relationships with one another, and I know that’s the way it is for a lot of sisters. But I didn’t love some elements of the story (to say what would be to spoil things) so overall I didn’t end up loving the book. It was like just not love.

The Space Between UsThe Space Between Us by Jessica Martinez (review copy from SIBA 2012) – another book about sisters, this time it’s YA about Amelia (older, more responsible sister) and Carly (younger, wild sister) and a mistake Carly makes that have huge repercussions for both girls. I liked this one a lot and I think that Martinez can really write teenage girls. She truly gets them, the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that are unique to that period in a girl’s life. The dynamics between these girls were realistic and definitely accurate to real life – I connected with Amelia because as a kid, I was her, and I had a Carly as a sister too (different name, same personality). But there was a big reveal towards the end that I saw coming from miles away, which annoyed me. Overall I’m excited to read more from Martinez even though this book wasn’t perfect.

Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in AmericaFire In the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol – This book absolutely broke my heart, and gave me hope at the same time. I can’t recall ever having read another book by Kozol but I really need to start, as his approach to writing about poverty and education definitely speaks to me. It’s so alarming to realize that so many children in America have to live in atrocious conditions and then can’t even get the education they need and deserve in order to make a better life for themselves. I liked how Kozol showed readers both children who were able to get out of poverty and those who weren’t, and some who tragically died way too young. There is so much sadness in this book but also tiny slivers of hope that left me wanting to read more of Kozol’s work. I listened to the audio of this one and it was excellent.

Mini-reviews: A Hundred Summers and The Newlyweds

A Hundred SummersA Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams
Published by Putnam Adult

I loved this book so much that I don’t have much to say about it. The characters, the historical setting, the drama, the intrigue of the fact that the reader knows the characters have secrets, the romance, and all of that set at the beach! It was the perfect book for me and I couldn’t put it down. I think that so many readers will identify with the main character, as we all have toxic people in our lives that just don’t seem to disappear, but we are somehow drawn to anyway, which is the case for Lily with her “friend” Budgie. I was highly entertained by every aspect of this novel, and it was extremely well-written too. I absolutely look forward to reading Williams’ first book, Overseas, and I highly recommend A Hundred Summers.

The NewlywedsThe Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger
Published by Knopf

This novel, about Amina, a woman from Bangladesh who marries an American man, George, and leaves everything she’s ever known to be with him in his home in Rochester, New York, charmed me from the beginning. The clash of cultures was evident from the minute Amina stepped off the plane and into George’s arms, and their constant struggles to understand and empathize with one another were just like that of any other married couple – except much more complicated. Not only that, but Amina’s isolation in this foreign land made me feel so much compassion and empathy for her situation – I couldn’t imagine being in a situation like that. Freudenberger does such an excellent job helping the reader get to know and understand both Amina and George, even though the novel is told from Amina’s point of view. I listened to this one and the narrator, Meera Simhan, who was a new voice for me, did an excellent job. I highly recommend The Newlyweds, I fell in love with these characters and Freudenberger’s writing is absolutely great.

Mini-reviews: The Preservationist and How to Be a Woman

I’m not reading a ton these days but I’m blogging even less, so if I ever plan to get through my backlog of unreviewed books I realized I need to start doing some more mini-reviews. So here are minis of a couple of the books I read in September! Stay tuned for more of these coming soon. :)

The Preservationist by Justin Kramon
Published by Pegasus
Review copy provided by the author

I absolutely loved Kramon’s first novel, Finny, so when he contacted me asking if I’d be interested in The Preservationist, I jumped at the opportunity, even though I’ve been accepting very few review copies lately. Kramon’s second novel is completely different from his first, and in a way that’s a good thing – it shows he has talent writing more than one kind of book, in fact this one is in a whole new genre (thriller). To be honest, though, this departure from what I loved about Kramon’s work was a slight disappointment for me – I adored his first book so much that I was looking forward to getting my brain back in that space. This novel did have some stuff going for it, though, as I found the atmosphere to be deliciously creepy, especially towards the end when things start getting crazy for our main character, Julia. Also, while I had a good idea about what was really going on with these two men in her life, Sam and Marcus, I was impressed by how Kramon handled working out all the details and how he brought the two together in a shocking, although not altogether surprising, conclusion. The very end was a bit of a surprise, and one that I quite liked in fact. Overall, while The Preservationist wasn’t exactly what I wanted to read from this beloved author, I still enjoyed it and will continue to be interested in his work.

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
Published by Harper Perennial

This book is more a personal feminist manifesto than anything else. Moran’s wit and sarcasm add just the right amount of humor and snark to what are, in most cases, incredibly serious subjects she’s discussing. I particularly appreciated the chapters on sexism and abortion. The book is packed with insightful observations on everything related to being female and being a feminist in today’s world. I listened to the audio of How to Be a Woman and it was fantastic. Moran narrates herself, so it’s as if she’s telling her thoughts and feelings directly to the reader. I highly recommend this unique feminist memoir and especially would recommend listening to the audio for a fabulous listening experience.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach

book coverBonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
Published by W. W. Norton and Company

From the publisher:

The study of sexual physiology—what happens, and why, and how to make it happen better—has been a paying career or a diverting sideline for scientists as far-ranging as Leonardo da Vinci and James Watson. The research has taken place behind the closed doors of laboratories, brothels, MRI centers, pig farms, sex-toy R&D labs, and Alfred Kinsey’s attic. Mary Roach, “the funniest science writer in the country” (Burkhard Bilger of The New Yorker), devoted the past two years to stepping behind those doors. Can a person think herself to orgasm? Can a dead man get an erection? Is vaginal orgasm a myth? Why doesn’t Viagra help women—or, for that matter, pandas? In Bonk, Roach shows us how and why sexual arousal and orgasm, two of the most complex, delightful, and amazing scientific phenomena on earth, can be so hard to achieve and what science is doing to slowly make the bedroom a more satisfying place.

This is my second experience with Mary Roach’s work (the first being the book she wrote about space, can’t recall the title) and I got exactly what I expected with this book. By that I mean an interesting, sometimes comical, but incredibly well-researched book about a relatively obscure subject … in this case, the science of studying sex and what sex researchers have learned over the years.

Rocah’s style is pretty unique and I think her books lend themselves to a lot of different kinds of readers. You definitely have to be okay with nonfiction, but at the same time her style is very witty and at times conversational – she brings her own personality to the book at every chance she gets.

In this case, it’s a book about sex, which is a subject of interest for just about every human being I know, making this appeal to a pretty wide audience. What is revealed about the research that has been done over the years into various aspects of sex is extremely interesting and definitely held my attention. It’s funny, for a book about sex, there is nothing arousing in the book whatsoever – it’s completely focused on the science, research aspect of it, which held my attention and definitely gave me some knowledge I didn’t have before!

I listened to the audio of Bonk, which is narrated by Sandra Burr, a voice I didn’t really love. She has this sort of flat, emotionless quality to her voice that you would expect to be quite appropriate for the material she’s reading, but in all truthfulness would cause me to get bored and zone out from time to time. I think I actually would have liked this one in print better, which is a shame because nonfiction usually works really well for me in audio.

Anyway, Bonk is really good! I found it interesting and packed full of facts about sex I never thought to explore or even think about!

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill
Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins

Jenna Miscavige Hill is the niece of Scientology leader David Miscavige and was raised in the Church of Scientology. After much soul-searching and years of unhappiness, Jenna decided to leave the church in 2005. In her memoir, she recounts exactly what life was like growing up in the most upper ranks of Scientology. Along the way, she explains the beliefs, teachings, rituals, and secrets of the religion and gives a unique perspective on this controversial and secretive organization.

I’m fascinated by all religions, especially those that seem completely unlike anything I could believe in myself, so it was a no-brainer that at some point I would pick up this book. I have to say that while I was expecting to be stunned by the insider information the author presents in this book, I was more than stunned – so much of what she tells the reader in this book is completely shocking. Take, for example, the fact that Scientology is really not a religion at all, but the founder of Scientology registered it as a religion with the IRS so they would receive the tax benefits of being a religious institution, just for starters. Seriously?!

Mostly I came away from this read feeling sad for the children that grow up in Scientology and have no choice but to be raised this way. The way Miscavige Hill grew up was that she lived separately from her parents and only saw them once a week, was assigned manual labor and truly hard work on most days, and her education consisted mainly of Scientology teachings and not a whole lot else. What an awful way for a child to grow up and truly reading about her life made my heart hurt for her and the rest of the children who grow up in Scientology.

I listened to the audio of Beyond Belief and Sandy Rustin did a great job narrating. It was a petty straightforward listen, nothing fancy, but I like to listen to nonfiction and this was a great choice for that.

If you are as interested in learning about different religions and/or cult-like groups, Beyond Belief is a great choice. Miscavige Hill reveals a lot about the Church of Scientology that was previously unknown to most of the general public, and she did so at great risk to the members of her family who still have ties to the church. Mostly she wanted to educate people on the truth about Scientology and I think she did a great job of doing that without being too harsh on its leadership. Highly recommended.

Two books about Zelda Fitzgerald: Z and Call Me Zelda

Therese Anne Fowler Z: A Novel of Zelda FitzgeraldZ: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
Published by St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan
Review copy provided by the publisher

Fowler’s novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, begins when Zelda is just a teenager living in a small Alabama town. Against Zelda’s parents’ wishes, upon Scott’s selling of his first novel to a major publisher, Zelda decides to marry him and follow him along on his journey to fame and fortune. Every place Scott and Zelda inhabit – New York City, Hollywood, Paris – is like a new playground for the two of them, and even the birth of their daughter doesn’t stop the partying and fun that the Jazz Age brings to the golden couple. But Zelda isn’t just Scott’s wife – she has her own success to pursue, her own thoughts and feelings that truly matter, and Fowler brings her to life in this novel in an intense and illuminating way.

See, this is historical fiction at its best. Fowler takes a real person, Zelda Fitzgerald, that the world knows little about (at least, I didn’t know anything about her), and brings her to life in a way that made me want to learn even more about her. After finishing this book, I feel like I know Zelda, the real person who actually lived and breathed and spent so much time in social circles with some of the most iconic American authors in history. But she was so much more than that, and in Fowler’s portrayal of her, she comes across as a determined and strong woman, but loving and devoted wife, and these two aspects of her personality consistently clashed throughout her marriage to Scott.

I really liked this novel and I have to say that I think listening to the audio made me enjoy it even more. Jenna Lamia did an incredible job portraying Zelda, to the point where I felt that Zelda was telling her own story. Ultimately I highly enjoyed Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and can absolutely recommend it.

Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck
Published by NAL Trade, an imprint of Penguin

Robuck’s Zelda is a sad, broken woman who has been emotionally scarred from years of being married to the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald. This novel is not told from Zelda’s own perspective, rather it is told by a nurse named Anna Howard, who works at the mental institution where Zelda stays for an extended period of time. Zelda wants desperately to be an independent woman, but she is unable to stay sane for any length of time to do so. In addition, Scott has all but abandoned her, asking the staff at the psychiatric ward to take care of her, and specifically looking for Anna to watch over Zelda and protect her from herself.

Call Me Zelda is a nice choice to read upon finishing Z, because it pretty much begins where Fowler’s novel left off. I have to be honest, though, and disclose that I didn’t like Robuck’s Zelda nearly as much as Fowler’s. The Zelda of Call Me Zelda is not much more than a shell of a person, a woman who isn’t living life at all, but simply existing as she goes from hospital to hospital, sometimes recovering for a few days or even weeks, but always slipping back into intense mania and/or deep depression. As a result, I didn’t feel like I ever got to know her, and it was really difficult for me to root for her to even recover.

Anna, on the other hand, I did care about, but since I was hoping to read about Zelda, this annoyed me a little bit. I wanted to spend more time with Zelda, to get to know her better, to find out how her life turned out in the later years (not so well), but instead I spent so much time with this fictional nurse Anna. I don’t know. Ultimately I was left feeling that Robuck is a talented writer who can really develop her characters (Anna, specifically), but I found myself disappointed in the Zelda (or lack of Zelda) that she presented to the reader. Maybe if I hadn’t read Z first I would have appreciated this more, but the fact remains that I couldn’t help comparing the two novels, with this one finishing in a clear second place.

In conclusion, both books have their merits, but if you are only going to read one book about Zelda Fitzgerald, Z by Therese Anne Fowler is the choice I would most highly recommend.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

9780385349949Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
Published by Knopf, an imprint of Random House

From the publisher:

Thirty years after women became 50 percent of the college graduates in the United States, men still hold the vast majority of leadership positions in government and industry. This means that women’s voices are still not heard equally in the decisions that most affect our lives. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg examines why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled, explains the root causes, and offers compelling, commonsense solutions that can empower women to achieve their full potential.

Sandberg is the chief operating officer of Facebook and is ranked on Fortune’s list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business and as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. In 2010, she gave an electrifying TEDTalk in which she described how women unintentionally hold themselves back in their careers. Her talk, which became a phenomenon and has been viewed more than two million times, encouraged women to “sit at the table,” seek challenges, take risks, and pursue their goals with gusto.

In Lean In, Sandberg digs deeper into these issues, combining personal anecdotes, hard data, and compelling research to cut through the layers of ambiguity and bias surrounding the lives and choices of working women. She recounts her own decisions, mistakes, and daily struggles to make the right choices for herself, her career, and her family. She provides practical advice on negotiation techniques, mentorship, and building a satisfying career, urging women to set boundaries and to abandon the myth of “having it all.”  She describes specific steps women can take to combine professional achievement with personal fulfillment and demonstrates how men can benefit by supporting women in the workplace and at home.

Written with both humor and wisdom, Sandberg’s book is an inspiring call to action and a blueprint for individual growth. Lean In is destined to change the conversation from what women can’t do to what they can.

I read this book almost two months ago and I am still thinking about it, almost every single day. That’s how relevant Sandberg’s message is to my life. I literally think about something she wrote in this book at least once per day – and I think this sentiment will echo with most everyone who reads it.

I’m a woman in a leadership position at a company in which almost every executive is male, in an industry in which almost every executive is male. So this book hit particularly close to home for me. That being said, I think most people (not just women, I’ll get there) can find something to grab onto here, something that will cause you to stop and think and maybe even have one of those “aha” moments.

Personally, I found myself looking back through a lot of the choices I’ve made since … well, high school, really, and realizing that although I consider myself pretty successful for my age, I could possibly have made a few different choices. And not that the choices I’ve made so far aren’t good ones, it’s more like, once I look through the lens of societal norms and pressure on the different genders and all that, well it just makes me see things a bit differently.

It’s hard to explain, because Sandberg covers SO much ground here and gives an incredible amount of good advice, it’s impossible for me to be concise about what I found so valuable in the book. Basically – everything was valuable to me. And she provides so much evidence to support what she’s saying, and so much honesty about her own life, that it’s next to impossible not to hang onto every word. Which is exactly what I did.

Oh! And I listened to the audio, narrated by Elisa Donovan, and it was a great experience. She did an excellent job, and for me books like this just work really well in audio.

I have to say this, too – Lean In is absolutely not just for women. Personally I am married to a man and my boss is a man, and I think they could both benefit tremendously from reading this book. Because they both have wives (and in my boss’s case, daughters) and because they both have female employees. So not only do I highly recommend this as required reading for ALL women (I don’t care what you do for a living – full-time mother, doctor, teacher, lawyer, whatever, it’s relevant) but I think it should be required reading for all men who work with or live with women.

Reading this book gave me a huge level of respect for Sheryl Sandberg and I’m now one of her biggest fans. If you’ve read this, I’d love to discuss! What did you think?

Bloodroot by Amy Greene

9780307390578Bloodroot by Amy Greene
Published by Vintage, an imprint of Random House

Bloodroot Mountain has always been Myra Lamb’s home, and even though her own mother wasn’t there for her, her grandmother, Birdie, stepped in to take care of her. When John Odom, a boy also from Bloodroot Mountain, decides to marry Myra and take her away from her wild, outdoorsy roots, things do not turn out exactly how John had hoped. This is a story of a family throughout three generations, a story about how the choices in one generation have shocking effects for years afterwards.

It took me FOREVER to get through this book. I don’t really know why, other than the fact that I was listening to it and didn’t do a whole lot of activities during that time which allowed me to listen to my iPod. Other than that, I liked the book and was interested enough, but didn’t love it enough to NEED to pick up my iPod when I had a choice to do something else instead. Does that make sense?

I have to say that the best thing about Bloodroot, for me, was the fact that the audio was excellent. The book was narrated by a full cast and each narrator embodied his/her character. By the end of the novel, these characters had seeped into my soul, their voices were so distinct and real to me because of the excellent narration. There were southern accents, genuine feeling, great inflection – overall, such a great audio.

Other than that, I’m sort of of meh about the whole thing. This is a really sad novel, with not a whole lot of redeeming things that happen to bring it from that sad and depressing place. The characters are all messed up, and by the end of the novel I didn’t really feel like they were much better off than they were in the beginning.

So, the bad news is that I don’t have a lot of great things to say about this book. But I DO have a lot of positive feelings towards the audio, so if you like Southern fiction, and family sagas, give this one a try. You just might enjoy it more than I did!