Books I’ve Read This Week: 200 Pages or More

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 26: 200 Pages or More: I am drawn to long books. My reading choices this year have included more than one American political biography by Ron Chernow and a James Michener novel. With my Book a Day 2018 goal running two weeks behind schedule, however, I have decided that it’s time for a few days of shorter books to get back on track. I chose books from my reading list on a variety of topics, including writing, business, American history, health, and historic railways. All these book are around 200 pages. Or perhaps 250. Maybe, the occasional 300 page book (or 7 hour audiobook). Seems impossible to avoid the longer books entirely! Reviews of royal history books will resume next week. Here are this week’s reviews:

#176 of 365 Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood

Genre: Writing Advice/Memoir

Format: Paperback, 219 pages

Acquired: Found at Home

Date Read: July 9, 2018

Review: I thoroughly enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s essays on the nature of life and identity as an author and reader. The book is filled with rich literary history and fascinating connections between different books over time. The early essays focus on Atwood’s own experiences growing up in Canada before there was a widely recognized Canadian literary culture then discuss a variety of circumstances experienced by authors including a sense of a dual identity (literary life and private life), reconciling creating great art with earning a living, and popular attitudes toward women authors. The final essay examines how authors learn from their predecessors, “negotiating with the dead,” as the title states. A excellent read for authors and readers alike!

#177 of 365 Bluefishing: The Art of Making Things Happen by Steve Sims

Genre: Business/Self Help

Format: Audiobook, 3 hours and 53 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Date Listened: July 9, 2018

Review: The audiobook is read with great enthusiasm by the author. Sims’ life story is quite fascinating as he began his career as a bricklayer in London’s East End and he is now a concierge to the wealthy, providing unique experiences such as a wedding at the Vatican or playing onstage with a favourite band. The business advice in the book, however, such as the importance of confidence, sincerity and persistence, has been repeated in many other places. I agree that handwritten thank you notes always make a good impression. The book is interesting in parts but not especially unique.

#178 of 365 Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Genre: History

Dates Listened: July 9-10, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 6 hours and 45 minutes

Review: A fascinating slice of early American history. The experiences of Martha Washington’s enslaved housemaid Ona Judge (later Ona Judge Staines) serves as a lens for the author to examine a wide variety of historical themes including slavery in late eighteenth and early nineteenth America, the social hierarchy of the times, free African-American communities in the north, the plantation economy, and manner in which gender shaped the experience of slavery.

The title does not quite match the content of the book. While there are some dramatic incidences of the Washingtons attempting to recapture Ona Judge Staines, most notably the chapter when George Washington’s nephew arrives at her front door, much of the book is about George and Martha Washington’s attitudes toward the enslaved people in their household followed by Ona Judge Staines’s efforts to build a life for herself as a free woman in New Hampshire. The epilogue examines the experiences of Ona Judge Staines’s extended family.

There is a little too much speculation about what historical figures might have been thinking during dramatic moments in their lives but otherwise, Never Caught is a consistently engaging book about a historical figure who deserves to be more well known.

#179 of 365 Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer by Barbara  Ehrenreich

Date Read: July 10, 2018

Genre: Popular Science/Philosophy

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 256 pages

Review: A thought provoking book. Ehrenreich expresses some well argued ideas including her view that we do not have nearly as much ability to delay our inevitable mortality as popular wellness culture would imply and that biological processes are often unpredictable. The writing is infused with a dry wit as well as an engaging synthesis of science and sociology.

Ehrenreich’s overall arguments, however, are undermined by some of her more extreme examples. While she is correct to argue that there are incentives in the American health care system that encourage doctors to order a wide range of tests, she is excessively critical of the medical profession. Her critiques appear to be informed by her own negative experiences with the medical profession rather than a broad range of interviews with other patients. In her efforts to explain why anti-smoking campaigns have not been successful among all social groups, she comes close to romanticizing smoking. An interesting read but Ehrenreich takes some of her arguments to unhelpful extremes.

#180 of 365 Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson

Genre: History/Biography

Date Listened: July 10-11, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 44 minutes

Review: I read Laurence Leamur’s excellent book, The Kennedy Women: The Saga of an American Family, some years ago and found the description of Rosemary Kennedy’s life to be both tragic and horrifying. There is a lot of overlap between Leamur and Larson’s books including how Rosemary’s mother, Rose Fitzgerald, was refused permission by her father to attend Wellesley College and later faced difficulties during her marriage to Joe Kennedy, the intolerant attitude of the 1930s and 1940s toward people with intellectual disabilities (especially women), and Rosemary Kennedy’s brief period of happiness in England as a Montessori school assistant before she was brought back to the United States by her father and ultimately subjected to a disastrous lobotomy.

Larson’s book stands out because of her extensive use of Rosemary’s heartbreaking letters, where she repeatedly expressed her willingness to do her best to meet her parents’ unreasonable expectations concerning her academic progress and her weight. Larson also emphasizes the impact of Rosemary’s experiences on her siblings, especially JFK and Eunice. Rosemary’s younger sister Eunice Kennedy, who helped found the special Olympics, emerges as the heroine of the book. An absorbing and sad read but similar in part to previous works on the Kennedys.

#181 of 365 Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by  Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Genre: Business/Popular Science

Date Read: July 11, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 310 pages

Review: An excellent book that combines science and history to argue for the importance of deliberate, frequent rest to effective work. I found the chapters about the work habits of famous historical authors and scientists especially interesting. Charles Dickens wrote dozens of books on a five hour a day writing schedule followed by a long afternoon walk. Charles Darwin achieved his scientific breakthroughs working in three 90 minute blocks each day. Pang advocates exercise, naps, vacations disconnected from work, plenty of walking and mastering new hobbies for both more effective creative work and a more fulfilling life. An important counterpoint to the prevailing culture of stress and overwork.

#182 of 365 Rails to the Atlantic: Exploring the Railway Heritage of Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces by Ron Brown

Genre: History/Geography/Canadiana

Date Read: July 12, 2018

Acquired: Complimentary Copy from Dundurn Press

Format: Paperback, 142 pages

Review: I have traveled from Toronto to Montreal to Halifax by train in 2012 and enjoyed learning more about eastern Canada’s surviving railway heritage in Rails to the Atlantic. I agree with the author that “the loss of Canada’s rail lines and passenger service is lamentable, and occasionally unnecessary (101).” The book discusses the surviving rail lines, railway museums, railway hotels and rail trails in Quebec and the Maritime Provinces, noting surviving examples of railway architecture and route structures. Former stations have been converted into a wide range of new purposes including hotels, cafes, museums, tourist information centres and even the occasional funeral home. While the book is richly illustrated, the inclusion of maps would have been helpful, especially in the sections about more obscure rural rail lines and rail trails. An interesting and informative read.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.