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Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan (2012)

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan (2012)

This should be your summer reading book.

I don’t often heap praise on books. I believe I’m a reader who isn’t the most difficult to satisfy. In my opinion, most “good” books rank a 3.5 out of 5. Very, very few ever make it up to a 5. I wouldn’t say this is a perfect 5, but it’s at least a solid 4.25-4.5. And in terms of the kinds of books that serve well for vacation leisure reading, Mr. Penumbra’s is 100% perfect.

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It’s hard to describe the plot without giving much away, so I’ll just say that this book contains the following:

-Secrets
-Printing presses
-Typography
-Secret codes
-Google
-Secret Societies that use a corporate front
-Mysteries
-Secrets! secrets! secrets!
-And all other kinds of fantastic stuff

Maybe I’m a geezer, but I still find it strange to read a book that discusses modern things like email, much less having a major plotline about innovative test-technology at Google. This book touches on so many different topics and interweaves so many different plotlines that it must have been a bear to research, but that diversity made it a joy to read.

Mr. Penumbra is at the top of my recommendation list right now. Pick it up for your next summer trip, you’ll love it.

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Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, Susannah Cahalan (2012)

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, Susannah Cahalan (2012)

13547180Susannah Cahalan wakes up in a hospital room, restrained to the bed, with electrodes all over her head. She doesn’t know why she’s there, how she got there, or what’s going on. She learns that she has spent over a month, none of which she can remember, descending rapidly into madness. She moves robotically, she has erratic outbursts, her speech makes no sense.

Susannah was a young and successful journalist for the New York Post. When she began acting strangely, her colleagues and family assumed she was having a tragic but not-so-unusual mental breakdown.  Susannah, however, is extremely lucky to be in the right place at the right time– a prominent Philadelphia researcher recently published about women suffering similar afflictions to hers, and while test after test came back negative, he ultimately discovered an extremely rare kind of brain inflammation.

Her family worked together with her tireless and dedicated doctors, and ultimately Susannah recovers. Her memory of her month of madness is nonexistent, and she uses her skills as a journalist to investigate what happened to her and why it happened.

Brain on Fire deals with heavy material, but it’s not a downer.  There’s always a glimmer of hope for Susannah (after all, you know from the outset that her story has a happy ending).  I was drawn to this book because of I am interested in the interplay between personal memory and the story that can be reconstructed from outside evidence.  Cahalan takes care to research and recreate what she can from journals and medical records, but because she has absolutely no memory of most of her illness, that fascinating issue never really presents itself.  Because she has no memory, she is distant from her subject, and it’s like she’s researching someone else altogether.

Brain on Fire is full of medical terms and science, but it’s not dry.  Although you know the outcome, the journey to getting there is an engaging one.  It’s a bit too serious for me to recommend this as summer beachside reading, but it’s perfect for a long plane ride.

Sidenote:  If you’re interested in the interplay between memory and outside evidence of events, be sure to check out The Night of the Gun by David Carr.  He, too, was a journalist who uses his reporting skills to research some of the darkest nights of his life, in the depths of very desperate drug addiction.  He has memories of those dark nights, and it’s fascinating to see the comparison of what he remembers and what his investigation shows.

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Straightjacket, Meredith Towbin @mtprose (2013)

Straightjacket_ByMeredithTowbin_453x680A book is shaped as much by its reader as its author.  There are books that I read while younger and loved, but picked up later and could not stand.  There are also books that I struggled with and put down, only to revisit years later and completely fall in love.  I wish Straightjacket had been released when I was in high school, because I know I would have obsessed over it.

Meredith Towbin is a prolific blogger who I’ve been reading for a while (can’t remember how I came across her blog, but probably through Rainbowmaker Emily Levenson).  A few months back she announced on her blog that her book was picked up and would be published.  Then publication day finally arrived.  I didn’t have much in the way of expectations, because it seems like everyone with a blog has a book nowadays.  The price was low and I was looking for an easy read, though, so I decided to give her YA novel a try.

Straightjacket follows the tortured romance of star-crossed lovers Anna and Caleb.  Caleb is, or claims to be, an angel.  Anna is plagued by crippling panic attacks.  They meet in an inpatient mental health facility and tumble into love, and decide to check themselves out and run away together.  Each Anna and Caleb have parent issues and demons and all kinds of struggles, but they are determined to be together.

The characters are fairly one-dimensional, and the book is driven by the plotline of Anna and Caleb’s love and struggle. As a grown up old lady, I’m more interested in character, but I know that as a teenager, the lack of complicated characters wouldn’t have bothered me a tick.  I would have connected deeply with the struggle, and passion and parent conflicts of each of the characters.

Towbin is spot on with the YA genre. This is a perfect book for brooding teenagers.  I’m too old to fully connect with it now, but can appreciate how much it would have impacted me, had I read it when I was younger and moodier.  Nice work, nice work.

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Beyond Belief, Jenna Miscavage Hill (2013)

I love secrets. Boy oh boy do I love secrets.  That is one of my favorite parts of my job, that I get to learn all kinds of secrets.  I have to keep them all locked up in my head, but the fun part is knowing them in the first place.  In Beyond Belief: Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, Jenna Miscavage Hill (niece of David Miscavage, the leader of the Church of Scientology) shares all the secrets.  She has escaped, she is mad, and she is not holding back.

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I went into this book with my sole source of education on Scientology being that South Park episode.  I expected there to be tons of strange religious ritual and extraterrestrial worship, but it turns out that life in the core of Scientology is more about manipulation, punishment and power.  What I found to be the most shocking is how families in the Sea Org (the core of the church, so to speak) were so often split up, with wives, husbands, and children each in separate states or countries, and how by that point Scientology was so embedded within them, that they did not question it.  I know if someone told me that I was being ordered to move away from my family for some undefined period of time, it would not go over too well.

I read a fair number of these terrible ordeal kinds of autobiographies, and it’s unfortunate that in terms of writing quality, they frequently have the same flat, conversational tone.  There are plenty of writers who pen autobiographies who are magnificently skilled and produce amazing work– Jeannette Walls, Cheryl Strayed, David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs to name a few.  But when I see an autobiography on the shelf that is written “with the assistance of” some journalist or another, I know that the story itself better be full of gripping twists and turns, because the writing itself isn’t going to do much for me.  While this book likely will not win any literary awards, it was interesting to get a glimpse inside the strange and secretive world of Scientology.  I can’t imagine this book interesting everyone, but if you’ve got a nebby, gossipy, curious side to you, it wouldn’t hurt to pick it up.

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Unexpected Day of Rest (and movies and books)

My January got hijacked by a million different things.  I’m dreading getting my hours report for January, because the meager billables number is going to make me cry big tears.  I wasn’t sitting around and being lazy, there was just a lot going on.  Trial college and the HFF happy hour both took up a LOT of time.  Plus, there were fewer work emergencies because a lot of the things I was working on big time in December either settled or went into dormant mode.  These events were not unanticipated, I knew they were coming.  What I did not expect was that I would get sick and KEEP getting sick in January. Argh.

I don’t know if I came down with two separate cold/flu things, or if it was one sickness that waxed and waned, but I spent most of January sniffling, hacking, destroying box after box of Sudafed, and feeling miserable.  I eventually knew that January was a lost cause in terms of productivity, so I set my sight on February for a new, diligent beginning.

And then on February 1, I came down with pink eye.  ENOUGH with the getting sick already.  I look a total mess. Not a hot mess, but a scary gross terrible mess.  I went to the doctor on Friday afternoon, and she said that I could go back to work for the rest of the day as long as I washed my hands a lot, but I don’t think my coworkers would appreciate me risking them to catching this gross sickness.  I worked at home the rest of the day Friday (and yes, I actually did work).  Now that it’s the weekend, I’ve had to set aside most of the things I planned, and instead I’m sitting around, trying to hide my hideous, swollen, gross face from the world.

Baby Beez and I rented Hotel Transylvania on OnDemand, and we’re both loving it.  It’s a kid’s movie with a predictable storyline, but it’s funny, clever and a lot of fun for both adults and kids.  We got it for a 36 hour rental, we’ve already watched it three times, and I don’t mind at all.  I think we might need to buy this one to add to the DVD collection.

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I’ve also spent my time on the couch reading. Well, not a lot of reading, since I keep having to do eye compresses, and it’s very difficult and disorienting to read out of just one eye.  I’ve been slowly making my way through The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001, and it keeps coming up in lists of favorite books, so I decided it was worth a read.

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The major themes of WWII/Nazi Germany and comics/the comic book industry are not themes that are high on my list of interests, but the storyline of the characters’ personal lives was interesting and kept me engaged.  It is a long book (639 pages), so reading it felt like it took forever, but the writing is smooth and (despite my impatience) was not a struggle to get through.  I can easily see how this book could reach certain readers to be their absolute favorite book ever, but it just didn’t have that fit with me.  It’s a great novel, exhaustively researched and beautifully written, but is not the sort that I feel the need to run out and tell everyone to read right now.

So to the extent I can actually see out of my disgusting eyes, I plan to spend today watching Machine Gun Preacher, reading The Antagonist and The Red Tent, doing a bunch of laundry, and washing washing washing washing my hands.

What’s up with yinz this weekend?