≡ Menu

Briefly | It’s early on a Tuesday morning, and I’m at home for a bit before heading out to BookExpo 2017 in New York. My flight leaves bright and early tomorrow, and I’ll be coming home late Saturday. I’ve been on the road a lot lately, first out to eastern Wisconsin, then to our family cabin for Memorial Day, and up to northern Minnesota next week. Life is busy when you’re unemployed (ha!).

Reading | Thanks to quiet time at the cabin, I got a ton of reading done while sitting by the lake (or, more often, inside the cabin looking at the lake because the weather wasn’t particularly cooperative). I finished three books — The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan (Canadian murder mystery, first in a series); My Lady Jane by Brodi Ashton, Cynthia Hand and Jodi Meadows (goofy young adult fantasy/historical fiction about Jane Grey); and Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson (narrative nonfiction about a 1900 hurricane in Galveston, Texas).

I’m nearly finished with two more — The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George (women’s fiction, a little out of my comfort zone but it came recommended), and One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Saachi Koul (hilarious essay collection about growing up the daughter of Indian immigrants).

Watching | I’ve been on a bit of a Disney movies binge the last few weeks with Mulan, Hercules, and Moana. They’ve all been really good! My sister and I also got out to the movies a couple of times to see Everything, Everything (so dang charming I could hardly stand it) and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (very, very funny).

Listening | Spotify’s Disney Hits playlist is pretty much the best, and I’m not even embarrassed to admit that.

Loving | Although I’m starting to feel some twinges of impatience, I am still enjoying my unemployment sabbatical. I’d like to start getting into more of a productive (but still relaxed) routine soon, but that’ll have to wait until later in June.

Hating | My weight has been slowly creeping up the last several months. It’s totally my fault — too many donuts, too little exercise — but that doesn’t make it any less annoying. “Eat Less Junk, Move More Often” is going to be my motto once I get back from NYC.

Anticipating | BookExpo 2017! I’m bummed that my usual roommate, Florinda of The 3R’s Blog, won’t be there this year — she’s off having the best time in Italy — but I’m excited to get to spend the conference with two of my other favorite bloggers, Shelia of Book Journey and Candace of Beth Fish Reads.

I feel totally unprepared for the conference — especially compared to Chicago last year — but I think that just gives me more flexibility to roam the floor and see what’s out there. No matter what, going to New York and nerding out about books will be fun. If you’re reading this and will be there, let me know so we can meet up!

{ 6 comments }

In real time, I’ve officially hit the halfway mark of my 100 Days of Books project over on Instagram! Fifty photos! Fifty little reviews! And fifty more to go before this wraps up on July 12.

I’m still having a lot of fun with the project, although the next couple of weeks are definitely going to be a challenge. It’s been fun to look over old blog posts and reviews to spark memories of books I read several years ago, and think about which books have stayed with me over that time. I just can’t think too hard about the fact that I have 50 more books to share, that seems overwhelming. But, one day and one book at a time.

21. Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson

I can’t remember why I put Perfect Little World on my library hold list, but when it came in I couldn’t wait to read it. At 18, Isabel Poole is a high school graduate, pregnant with her art teacher’s baby, and getting ready to face the world alone. Dr. Preston Grind invites her to be part of The Infinite Family Project, a study to look at what would happen when ten children are raised collectively for a decade without initially knowing who their biological parents are. I loved the characters in this story, and I loved that I never really knew where the plot was going or where it might end up. Izzy’s experience resonated with me in some significant ways, and I found myself rooting for her and the other members of the project as I was swept along with the story.

22. Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

It seems appropriate to read and think about a book on the importance of rest during my sabbatical (unemployment) period. In Rest, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang argues that people, especially creative workers, need effective rest in order to be effective at work: “You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.” Pang looks at habits that can help stimulate creativity – shorter work hours, morning routines, walks, naps, focused stopping periods, and sleep – as well as ways to sustain creativity through recovery, exercise, play and sabbaticals. While his suggestions make the most sense for people with flexible work schedules, I thought it was an interesting exploration of how important it is to carve out time for rejuvenation even in hectic periods of life.

23. The City and the City by China Miéville

The cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma exist in the same physical space, but have completely different social and political lives. Citizens in one city must “unsee” and “unhear” citizens of the other or face dire consequences. When a young woman from one city is found murdered in the other, a police inspector named Tyador Borlu must solve a crime connected to a world of nationalist intrigue and political mythology. I loved the way China Miéville used the familiar narrative of a crime procedural to help ground readers within a completely fantastical premise, similar to how Inception used the plot of a heist to give viewers a foothold into that universe. I love this book, and need to read more from Miéville, ASAP.

24. The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

I feel like I rave about The Rook all the time, but I haven’t posted about it for this project yet. So, The Rook is amazing! Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in a field with no memory of who she is, just a letter with instructions she left for herself before her memory was erased. Myfanwy is a leader in a secret organization, the Checquy, charged with protecting the world from supernatural threats. But the organization is under attack, and Myfanwy needs to try and figure out what is happening. The best way I can describe this book is Ghostbusters meets James Bond meets Memento, if James Bond were a lady spy who is also a kickass administrative genius. It is just so much fun.

25. The Lunatic Express by Carl Hoffman

On a day when I am traveling, it seemed appropriate to highlight The Lunatic Express. In the book, journalist Carl Hoffman travels across the world taking the most dangerous conveyances he can find to see what it’s like to travel outside the developed world. The book could have been a journalistic stunt, but I thought Hoffman recognized his privilege and made an effort to show how dangerous buses, boats, trains, and planes affect the people who use them because they don’t have another choice. There’s something terrifying and appealing about Hoffman’s journey, and that combination creates a book about traveling to find adventure and about traveling to find yourself.

26. Hit Makers by Derek Thompson

What does it take for something – a work of art, a song, a video, a book – become popular? In Hit Makers, journalist Derek Thompson tries to answer this question, using a mix of popular science research and historical examples. He argues that nothing really “goes viral,” but instead follows a relatively predictable path based on audience exposure and surprise/familiarity. I appreciated the way he connected artistry to industry and showed how they affect one another. It was a really interesting listen.

27. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters

I’m cheating a bit with today’s post because I am traveling and didn’t plan very well. I read Beautiful Ruins on a trip to Europe with my sister in 2015, and took this photo in Greece. This is what I wrote about it at the time: “Beautiful Ruins was the first book I actually finished on the trip and wow, was it basically perfect for vacation reading – readable prose, distinctive characters, and enough mystery to keep the pages turning amidst the distractions of travel. There’s some comedy in the book – especially the critique of Hollywood culture – but also a ton of heart. I totally loved it and I hope Jess Walters has more like this that I can read.”

28. Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis

Today’s book is a little bit of a throwback, Stefan Fatsis’ 2001 book Word Freak. Subtitled “Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players,” the book is a look at the people who make a living playing Scrabble and a peek into the history of Scrabble itself. Fatsis follows his own journey becoming a competitive Scrabble player, which was really fun to read about. At it’s best, Word Freak is a book about being passionate — about playing a game, achieving a goal, inventing something new, or just living life doing what makes you feel complete. It’s quirky and weird, but in the end who has passions that aren’t a little bit strange?

29. The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

I am not-so-secretly obsessed with the British royal family, and although I usually focus on nonfiction (biographies, contemporary reporting), I read The Royal We a few summers ago and really loved it. The Royal We is the story of American Rebecca “Bex” Porter, who meets and falls in love with Prince Nicholas, future king of England, while they’re students at Oxford. The book follows their relationship over a decade as they struggle with how to be “Nick and Bex” while also living up to the expectations the monarchy has for “Nicholas and Rebecca.” I loved that the book wasn’t focused on will-they-or-won’t-they and instead tried to explore more complicated questions about public and private lives and what it takes to build a sustainable relationship. Yes, the book is basically William and Kate fan fiction, but it was clearly well-researched and written from a place of intelligent curiosity. I had a lot of fun reading it.

30. The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

After their daughter, Maribel, is injured in an accident, Arturo and Alma Rivera come to the United States hoping to secure a better future for her. In their new home, a run down apartment building in Delaware, Maribel meets her neighbor, Mayor Toro, and the two embark on a relationship that affects both of their families. This story is punctuated by asides from the other Latin American neighbors in the building, sharing how they came to be in the United States. I read The Book of Unknown Americans in a blur last spring, so I can’t remember many specifics, just the feeling of joy and sadness it left me with when I closed the last page.

And that’s a wrap for this installment. You can check out Days 1 through 10 and Days 11 through 20 on the blog, or follow me on Instagram for real-time updates. Cheers!

{ 2 comments }

100 Days of Books Second

Books, books and more books! My 100 Days of Books project is still in full swing over on Instagram. I’m approaching the halfway mark – Day 50 is next Tuesday! – but I’m heading into what I anticipate is going to be the most difficult stretch.

I have plans to be traveling for a good chunk of the next three weeks, visiting friends, heading up to our family’s cabin, and going to New York for BookExpo. I’ve tried to work ahead on the project, taking photos at home and writing up some quick reviews for days when it’s too hectic, but I’m not sure how it’s all going to play out. However, that’s my problem, not yours – let’s get to the reviews! (And check back on Days 1 through 10 from a couple weeks ago).

11 Cork Dork

11. Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker

If you’ve ever pondered over the elaborate, almost comical descriptions of wine on a tasting menu, or wondered if there’s a difference between $20 and $200 bottles of pinot noir, this might be the book for you. Journalist Bianca Bosker quit her job as a technology reporter to see if should could become a wine expert and pass the Court of Master Sommeliers’ Certified Sommelier Exam. Channeling Mary Roach’s blend of personality and reporting, Bosker really dives in, joining underground tasting groups with elite sommeliers, meeting with olfactory scientists, and shadowing some of the rising stars in the wine industry. Cork Dork was a fun, educational read about wine, and the life lessons that those who are obsessed with taste can help teach the rest of us.

12 The Rules Do Not Apply

12. The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

In 2012, when Ariel Levy left for Mongolia on a reporting trip “she was pregnant, married, financially secure, and successful on her own terms. A month later, none of that was true.” The Rules Do Not Apply is a beautifully honest look at a life built in total freedom and what happens to that life in the face of devastating loss. This book offered so much illumination for my own circumstances – both how to survive and how to live again – that I can’t really think of it objectively. But I do think others who are struggling with their own sense of loss or overwhelm at the world will find something in this book.

13 Me Talk Pretty One Day

13. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Happy Easter! This 2000 essay collection contains my favorite David Sedaris essay, “Jesus Shaves.” While taking a beginning French language class, Sedaris has to explain Easter – from the Resurrection to a big candy-delivering bunny – to a Moroccan classmate. As one might expect, it does not go well. I love the humor and the heart in that piece especially, but also in most of his other writing. He’s especially great on audio if you have that option. And with that, I’m off to stuff my face with ham.

14 Riverine

14. Riverine by Angela Palm

I love the nonfiction that comes out of Graywolf Press, a nonprofit publisher here in Minnesota. Riverine is a beautiful memoir of growing up and coming to terms with the place we are from and the people we sometimes leave behind. For Angela Palm, the place was the floodplain of the Kankakee River in rural Indiana, and the person was her neighbor, Corey, now serving a life sentence for murder. The book is another look a rural poverty, but it avoids the traps of that topic by focusing so closely to this specific story and place. I’ll end this with just one stellar sentence, the end of the opening chapter: “The girl, our girl, makes it out of the riverbed, but she carries traces of brown water in her lungs and sediment in her pockets so she knows the river is still there, despite all her moving on.”

15 The Distraction Addiction

15. The Distraction Addiction by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

The Distraction Addiction starts with a good question: “Can we stay connected without diminishing our intelligence, attention spans, and ability to really live?” I like this approach because it addresses both the positive (more connections) and the negative (more distractions) ways that technology impacts our lives. Unlike many books about technology and the mind, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang doesn’t suggest we should get rid of our phones or go off the grid. Instead, he advocates for a more mindful approach where we make deliberate choices about how to engage with our devices and the world. This is one of my favorite books on the subject that I’m due to re-read soon.

16 Maine

16. Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

Every summer, the Kelleher clan leaves the city and heads to their family’s beach house in Maine. Told in alternating perspectives across three generations, Maine is the story of one summer and the entire history of a family centered around a place that means something different to each of them. Although I thought the pacing of this one was a little slow, I loved getting in the heads of such different women. J. Courtney Sullivan has a witty sense of humor that comes out sparingly but effectively through the novel. I think this one would be a great summer read, especially when you just need to get away from your own family.

17 Dark Money

17. Dark Money by Jane Mayer

I haven’t been in the headspace for serious nonfiction for awhile, so I’m glad I had the peer pressure of a new book club to help me finish Dark Money. Subtitled “The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” the book is an exhaustively reported look at a small number of big money libertarians and their political influence through a vast number of institutions. Although Mayer focuses specifically on big money Republican donors, it’s clear that their interests are well outside those of average GOP voters – readers of any political persuasion concerned about the overwhelming influence of money in politics will find this book of interest. It has certainly given me a lot to think about.

18 Killers of the Flower Moon

18. Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Killers of the Flower Moon is the kind of narrative nonfiction that I love but haven’t been reading enough of lately. David Grann recounts a series of suspicious deaths of members of the Osage Indian nation in the early 1920s. As the murders in the ‘Reign of Terror’ grew to more than 20 people, the FBI (still a young agency) was called in to try and solve the case. The book follows this real life mystery, full of conspiracies and secrets and betrayals, while also exploring how the country’s disregard for American Indians made it possible for the murderers to operate for so long. This book is impeccably researched, and written in a way that kept me turning the pages very late into the evening. Highly recommended.

19 The Emperor of All Maladies

19. The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

In honor of friends across the country who are spending the day marching for science, I decided to reach for one of my favorite example of science writing. Siddhartha Mukherjee, a physician and scientist, brings a sense of warmth and personality to what could be a difficult subject, a history of the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. He makes complex science understandable, and shows the human side of scientific research. The Emperor of All Maladies is beautifully written, emotionally rich, and full of facts you’ll be itching to share with someone else.

20 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

20. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Yesterday, HBO premiered a film version of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a truly excellent piece of narrative science writing. This book is one of my go-to recommendations for people who say they just aren’t interested in nonfiction because it is just so good. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman from Baltimore, was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Without her consent, cells from her cancerous tumor were biopsied and cultured, creating the HeLa cell line. HeLa cells, which have continued to reproduce continually, are known as an “immortalized cell line,” and have been part of many of the most significant scientific breakthroughs of the last 60 years. Based on extensive research and interviews with the Lacks family, this 2010 book is a masterful exploration of the intersections of medicine, class and race in the United States.

{ 6 comments }

currently may 10 2017

Briefly | As of today, Sophisticated Dorkiness has been around for nine years. Every year that this space still exists I feel surprised and grateful, but this year those feelings are especially strong. After everything that’s happened since last year at this time — turning 30, accepting a new job, the boyfriend’s death, moving, starting the new job, moving again, surviving the election and the holidays, navigating young widowhood, losing the new job, loving unemployment — it seems amazing that I am still writing and, even more, that any of you are still reading. But we’re here, we’re surviving, and I can say honestly that this year has taught me more than I could have ever imagined.

Reading | Since I started blogging in 2008, I’ve read about 840 books. That is a lot! I was working on getting all of my book lists into one giant spreadsheet so I could dig up some more detailed stats, but that project hasn’t gotten legs yet. Maybe by my 10th anniversary!

Listening | Since 2008, around 64 of those books have been on audio. My audio book listening seems to go in fits and spurts, depending on how much driving I have to do and how many podcasts I have queued up, but I know for sure that audio has enhanced my reading life in some big ways.

Blogging | In nine years, I’ve posted 1,497 times and gotten 26,925 comments. Of those, about 500 have been book reviews of some kind or another. Whew!

Promoting | One of the fun things that has emerged from blogging is the chance to write for Book Riot, which was started by a small group of bloggers back in 2011. At the beginning of this year I was promoted to a contributing editor and now write a twice monthly newsletter focused on nonfiction, True Story. You can read the archives of True Story here, and sign up for all of Book Riot’s newsletters here.

Loving | As always, the biggest thank you needs to go out to all of you. Finding a community of readers and friends through this blog has been one of the biggest joys of life, and something I don’t take for granted. Thank you for being here through the rough stuff and as this space continues to evolve with me.

Loving II | The townhouse I share with my sister has an awesome back deck. I anticipate many afternoons looking up at the trees with a book in hand.

Anticipating | One of the (many, many) things the past year has taught me is the importance of staying in the present and trying not to worry about what might be coming next. Plans can be comforting, but they can also be smashed to pieces in a matter of moments. What really matters is cultivating relationships and building resilience, so you have the people and the tools you need to survive the really hard moments. I’ve been working on both of those things, but I know there’s so much more to do.

Wanting | I haven’t written about it here, but my guiding word for 2017 is JOY. I want to explore what it means to be joyful, and how to cultivate a spirit of gratitude and joyfulness despite challenges and frustration. I want to understand what makes me happy, and what I can do to bring happiness to others, both online and in real life. So, I think that guiding principle will start to make it way to the blog more as this year continues.

{ 13 comments }

100 Days of Books 1 to 10

As of today, I’m about 31 days into my 100 Days of Books project. Posting a photo and short review of a book every day is definitely a challenge, but it’s been really fun so far. I feel like I’m getting to think more creatively about my photos, and spend some time revisiting books I read awhile ago in a new way. It’s hard to believe 30 days are over… and that there are 70 days to go!

I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to document this on the blog, but for this one ended up going with the simplest possible answer — copying the reviews and photos posted to Instagram and just sharing them here. I hope this helps people who aren’t on Instagram to enjoy the project too.

01 its ok to cry

1. It’s Ok to Laugh (Crying Is Ok Too) by Nora McInerny Purmort

In 2014, Nora McInerny Purmort lost both her father and her husband to cancer shortly after she miscarried her second baby. It’s Ok to Laugh, more a series of essays than a memoir, is the first book I read after Nate died that made profound grief make any sense to me. It captures the way you want to keep your person close through stories, while you also want to push everything that reminds you of them as far away as possible. She shows that grief can be darkly funny, that you need to find people who can see both the laughter and the loss, and who can be there as you try to put back together your wild and precious life. Nora also hosts an amazing podcast, Terrible Thanks for Asking, which I also can’t recommend highly enough.

02 a darker share of magic

2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

As my reading shifted towards nonfiction, I forgot how much I loved epic fantasy stories. I bought A Darker Shade of Magic as a treat to read over New Year’s weekend, and was immediately drawn into the rich, layered (haha!) world that Schwab created. The first book introduces Kell, a rare magician who can travel between worlds. In his role serving the royal family of Red London, Kell is an ambassador to the Londons of other worlds, some with magic, some that have been destroyed by magic.The trilogy only gets better as it continues, expanding to include a diverse, complicated array of characters with secrets and relationships that I loved getting to know. If you love fantasy, you will love this series.

03 hidden figures

3. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures is squarely in the realm of nonfiction I love – little-known histories featuring women doing jobs that I can only dream of tackling. The book is much broader than the movie, looking at contributions throughout NASA’s history, from the aerodynamic work that improved planes in World War II all the way through sending a man into space. I loved that the book acknowledged the deep racism at work in America at the time, but also explored how individuals, teams and families pushed against it in their own ways (without being sappy or simplistic). It’s a great read, especially if you’re a reader nervous about jumping into nonfiction.

04 american wife

4. American Housewife by Curtis Sittenfeld

When Alice Lindgren falls for the charismatic, charming son of a wealthy Republican family, she has no idea how dramatically this marriage will change her life. American Wife, loosely based on the life of Laura Bush, was an intelligent comfort read with many resonant themes… balancing private beliefs with public persona, reckoning with the cost of ambition, and accepting the compromises we make in service of those we love. I enjoyed this one a lot.

05 the stranger in the woods

5. The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

For 27 years, Christopher Knight lived alone in the remote woods of Maine. He stole clothes, books, and other supplies from nearby cabins, avoiding all human contact until he was arrested for stealing food from a local camp. Journalist Michael Finkel connected with Knight while he was in prison, then conducted numerous interviews to piece together Knight’s life as a hermit for The Stranger in the Woods. The reporting ethics of this one raised some questions for me, but overall I thought it was an engaging, complicated look at the quest for solitude in a constantly connected world.

06 scrappy little nobody

6. Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick

For me, essay collections narrated by the author hit a nice sweet spot between podcasts and full-length audio books. They’re episodic, so you can jump in and out easily, but also build some narrative momentum as you go because you’re developing a relationship with the writer. Listening to Scrappy Little Nobody was like getting to sit down with Anna Kendrick over coffee (or maybe a cocktail) for a casual friend date. There wasn’t anything earth-shattering in this collection – why would there be in a conversation like that? – but it was a fun distraction on a long car ride, which is exactly what I wanted.

07 station eleven

7. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I’m struggling to find words that can describe just how much I love Station Eleven. Set 15 years after a terrible flu wipes out civilization, the book follows a troupe of actors who perform Shakespeare for scattered settlements of survivors. Their motto comes from Star Trek – “Because survival is insufficient.” The story is full and beautiful and scary, and the writing just left me spellbound. I adore this book so much.

08 all grown up

8. All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

In All Grown Up, Jami Attenberg takes a familiar literary character – single, childless, unapologetic, borderline alcoholic white female – and gives her a unique sense of humor and melancholy. Andrea Bern, nearly 40, lives a life disconnected from other people and the ‘benchmarks’ of a traditionally successful life. Andrea seems mostly ok with both of these things, which is sometimes to her advantage and sometimes to her detriment. Told as a series of short vignettes, the book flies by with a sense of story and sense of purpose that I really admired.

09 wires and nerve

9. Wires and Nerve by Marissa Meyer

Just a quick one today, since I’m spending the day cleaning and moving boxes for my parents. I loved Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles quartet on audio, so was excited when she announced she’d be continuing with a graphic novel. Wires and Nerve follows the events of the quartet with an engaging story, cameos by all the main characters, and stylish illustrations – recommended for fans of the Lunar Chronicles world.

10 big girls don't cry

10. Big Girls Don’t Cry by Rebecca Traister

I’m digging back a little bit for today’s recommendation, Rebecca Traister’s first book about women in politics. Published in 2010, Big Girls Don’t Cry looks back to a positively gentile period in American politics, the 2008 presidential election, and what it meant for Hillary Clinton to nearly earn the Democratic nomination. I’m not sure if this book will feel dated now – perhaps suggesting the more recent All the Single Ladies would be better – but I thought it was excellent when I read it around 2011. Traister is a smart, engaging writer able to effectively balance her reporting, her analysis, and her own story as a woman covering this historic race. Skimming through the book today, it’s both funny and sad to see how our political discourse has changed… as well as how it’s stayed the same.

{ 11 comments }