The New York Times: Footsteps

A curated collection of the New York Times’ travel column, “Footsteps,” exploring iconic authors’ relationships to landmarks and cities around the world

Before Nick Carraway was drawn into Daisy and Gatsby s sparkling, champagne-fueled world in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald vacationed in the French Riviera, where a small green lighthouse winked at ships on the horizon. Before the nameless lovers began their illicit affair in The Lover, Marguerite Duras embarked upon her own scandalous relationship amidst the urban streets of Saigon. And before readers were terrified by a tentacled dragon-man called Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft was enthralled by the Industrial Trust tower– the 26-story skyscraper that makes up the skyline of Providence, Rhode Island.

Based on the popular New York Times travel column, Footsteps is an anthology of literary pilgrimages, exploring the geographic muses behind some of history’s greatest writers. From the “dangerous, dirty and seductive” streets of Naples, the setting for Elena Ferrante’s famous Neapolitan novels, to the “stone arches, creaky oaken doors, and riverside paths” of Oxford, the backdrop for Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, Footsteps takes a fresh approach to literary tourism, appealing to readers and travel enthusiasts alike.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever reviewed a travel book on ILR before. It’s not my style of book at all. However, I was immediately drawn in by the description of faraway places visited by some of the best known authors. Walking in their footsteps is on my bucket list. I’ve recently discovered just how much I long to travel, and since my next big trip isn’t for another year…at least I can read about it, right?

Most of the essays were every bit as romantic as one would hope. Clearly these were written by bibliophiles like myself–readers and dreamers who love to sit in a cafe with a glass of wine in one hand a book in the other, thinking about the author who wrote that novel and the life they led. The mystery has been taken out of it some what nowadays, since we can “meet” our authors on social media. (Not that I am complaining, I will totally watch every single one of your Instastories, don’t you worry about that.) But wouldn’t it be cool to drink tea with Jane Austen?

I didn’t read every single one of the essays, and there were a few I skimmed–mostly because while I recognized and liked most of the authors chosen, there were some I either didn’t recognize or care about. But I might read the one about James Baldwin anytime I read Giovanni’s Room, and the one about Byron and Shelley, while cringey, certainly shed a lot of light on that whole…um…situation.

I’m not sure I’d pick up a book like this if it were on any other subject matter. Just people randomly strolling thru Paris for no particular reason besides travel? Not a collection I’m interested. But add in the author quest and I’m totally down. I know a few friends I will be recommending this to. Should you be one of them?

Blogging for Books and Crown Publishing provided this book for an unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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AJ Mendez Brooks: Crazy is My Superpower

Three-time WWE Diva’s Champion A.J. Brooks’ Crazy is My Superpower is a literary memoir chronicling her unlikely rise from 100-pound nerd growing up in extreme poverty and enduring years of abuse to international sex symbol and professional wrestling champion (known as A.J. Lee). A.J. fought against stereotypes, forced the men in her industry to view her with respect, and inspired a huge fan base of over 2 million Twitter followers with her fierce independent streak.

Let me start this review by telling you:  I know ZIP about professional wrestling. I have friends who set up a ring in the backyard and held their own faux championships, but outside of that and Dwayne The Rock Johnson…nope. Nothing. NA to the freaking DA.

What I’m trying to say is…if you’re looking for a review from a well educated wrestling fan, run in the other direction. That is not me.

But there was a nerdy girl in Chucks on the cover of this book talking about mental illness, and I’m all here for that.

Another thing I’m here for? AJ Mendez Brooks is a girl who gives ZERO fucks. And I do mean zero. She has been through hell a million times over and just doesn’t have time for people’s shit. She is going to conquer this world, whatever she puts her mind to–through poverty and a mega dysfunctional family and her own bipolar disorder. She’s just gonna do it. Also, she thinks abandoned dogs are the greatest thing since sliced bread and I am DEFINITELY here for that.

There are two things that gave me pause:

There is a lot of “I’m not like other girls, I’m just one of the guys” going on. I get it, you’re a TomBoy who wrestles on TV, wears sweats, and doesn’t brush your hair all the time…but sometimes it got a little superior in attitude. (Also she kept calling her sweats “asexual sweats,” and that’s just…asexuals can be fashionable too, you know?)

Also, if there is a negative or derogatory term for mental illness, she used it. I did hesitate when requesting this book–not because of my lack of wrestling knowledge, but because of the title. It’s a little off putting to me. However, like I said, she just gives zero fucks. And in the end, she tells us why she uses the word ‘crazy’ so much. For her, the only way to reduce the stigma surrounding the word is to reclaim it.

I think AJ could probably eat me for breakfast and move on. I absolutely admire her strength of character. I don’t agree with everything she said in her memoir, but her quirky writing style had me entertained right up until the end. I loved her diary entries that were interspersed between the chapters, and the drawings (I think by her brother Robbie) were kick ass. If you’re a wrestling fan, comic book fan, or just general all around nerd, I think you’ll like this memoir.

Blogging for Books and Crown Publishing provided a copy of this book for unbiased review.

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Damion Searls: The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing

The captivating, untold story of Hermann Rorschach and his famous inkblot test, which has shaped our view of human personality and become a fixture in popular culture

In 1917, working alone in a remote Swiss asylum, psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach devised an experiment to probe the human mind. For years he had grappled with the theories of Freud and Jung while also absorbing the aesthetic of a new generation of modern artists. He had come to believe that who we are is less a matter of what we say, as Freud thought, than what we see.

Rorschach himself was a visual artist, and his test, a set of ten carefully designed inkblots, quickly made its way to America, where it took on a life of its own. Co-opted by the military after Pearl Harbor, it was a fixture at the Nuremberg trials and in the jungles of Vietnam. It became an advertising staple, a cliché in Hollywood and journalism, and an inspiration to everyone from Andy Warhol to Jay-Z. The test was also given to millions of defendants, job applicants, parents in custody battles, workers applying for jobs, and people suffering from mental illness—or simply trying to understand themselves better. And it is still used today.

Damion Searls draws on unpublished letters and diaries, and a cache of previously unknown interviews with Rorschach’s family, friends, and colleagues, to tell the unlikely story of the test’s creation, its controversial reinvention, and its remarkable endurance—and what it all reveals about the power of perception. Elegant and original, The Inkblots shines a light on the twentieth century’s most visionary synthesis of art and science.

So often when we think about study psychology, we talk about different methods–but we rarely think about the people who dedicated their lives to figuring out the science behind those methods. Aside from Freud and Jung, how many psychologists can you name? Not many! We see inkblots everywhere in our culture, and not even just as the tests themselves anymore. They are mimicked in art and on album covers, on tshirts and in the media. But I never knew who Hermann Rorschach was–when he lived, how he died, where the inkblots came from.

It’s all pretty fascinating, actually. Rorschach had a troubled childhood, but he was a good person, and genuinely wanted to help people. Medicine wasn’t enough, he wanted to see them for who they were. He worked his whole life with schizophrenics in asylums, trying to determine whether it was a life sentence or not, how he could get inside their heads and bring them back. He didn’t create the first Inkblot Test, but he perfected the cards used today.

The Inkblots is a very dense book. It is not only a biography of Rorschach himself, but also a biography of the Inkblot test. Hermann died young, and so the Searls shifts halfway through to the modern history of his test (WWII-current). The discussion of the Nuremberg trials and how the Rorschach test was used there stopped me in my tracks. Some of the results were so surprising…and poignant to today. I’ve certainly put more reading on my TBR surrounding that subject!

This isn’t a book to be missed for anyone interested in the history of psychology. As I mentioned before, it is dense–definitely not a fast read or something you’re going to fall in love with on vacation–but certainly fascinating. Also, Hermann Rorschach was HOT, and that’s all I have to say about that.

Blogging for Books and Crown Publishing provided a copy of this book for unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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Jennifer Ryan: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

“Just because the men have gone to war, why do we have to close the choir? And precisely when we need it most!”

As England enters World War II’s dark early days, spirited music professor Primrose Trent, recently arrived to the village of Chilbury, emboldens the women of the town to defy the Vicar’s stuffy edict to shutter the church’s choir in the absence of men and instead ‘carry on singing’. Resurrecting themselves as “The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir“, the women of this small village soon use their joint song to lift up themselves, and the community, as the war tears through their lives.

Told through letters and journals, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir moves seamlessly from budding romances to village intrigues to heartbreaking matters of life and death. As we come to know the struggles of the charismatic members of this unforgettable outfit — a timid widow worried over her son at the front; the town beauty drawn to a rakish artist; her younger sister nursing an impossible crush and dabbling in politics she doesn’t understand; a young Jewish refugee hiding secrets about her family, and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past — we come to see how the strength each finds in the choir’s collective voice reverberates in her individual life.

In turns funny, charming and heart-wrenching, this lovingly executed ensemble novel will charm and inspire, illuminating the true spirit of the women on the home front, in a village of indomitable spirit, at the dawn of a most terrible conflict.

After all the super intense books I’ve been reading lately, I was in some pretty desperate need for something light and fluffy. And while war is never exactly fluffy…stories about it can be kept light and romantic. That’s how The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is–some big action written into a lovely easy read that would be welcome alongside a cozy fire or on a sandy beach.

There are some interesting characters in this book, for sure–and as with most WWII novels, some pretty strong women. There’s a few men around, but mostly the ladies run the show and all are incredibly unique. That said, there isn’t much actual diversity in this book, which is disappointing. The only attempt at a diverse character is one homosexual soldier, whose only real role is to further the moral curiosity of one of the leads. I liked that soldier…but he wasn’t in the book enough to really count as more than a diverse prop–not what we are going for, authors.

That’s really the only criticism I can give, and while that is a big one, I did enjoy reading the book. It was a nice, pleasant read. I’m not bouncing off the walls wanting to hand this to everyone, but it was a good way to spend two days. I feel refreshed and ready for something that requires more digging.

NetGalley and Crown Publishing provided an ARC for my unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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Ted Koppel: Lights Out

In this tour de force of investigative reporting, Ted Koppel reveals that a major cyberattack on America’s power grid is not only possible but likely, that it would be devastating, and that the United States is shockingly unprepared.
 
Imagine a blackout lasting not days, but weeks or months. Tens of millions of people over several states are affected. For those without access to a generator, there is no running water, no sewage, no refrigeration or light. Food and medical supplies are dwindling. Devices we rely on have gone dark. Banks no longer function, looting is widespread, and law and order are being tested as never before. 

It isn’t just a scenario. A well-designed attack on just one of the nation’s three electric power grids could cripple much of our infrastructure—and in the age of cyberwarfare, a laptop has become the only necessary weapon. Several nations hostile to the United States could launch such an assault at any time. In fact, as a former chief scientist of the NSA reveals, China and Russia have already penetrated the grid. And a cybersecurity advisor to President Obama believes that independent actors—from “hacktivists” to terrorists—have the capability as well. “It’s not a question of if,” says Centcom Commander General Lloyd Austin, “it’s a question of when.” 

And yet, as Koppel makes clear, the federal government, while well prepared for natural disasters, has no plan for the aftermath of an attack on the power grid.  The current Secretary of Homeland Security suggests keeping a battery-powered radio.

In the absence of a government plan, some individuals and communities have taken matters into their own hands. Among the nation’s estimated three million “preppers,” we meet one whose doomsday retreat includes a newly excavated three-acre lake, stocked with fish, and a Wyoming homesteader so self-sufficient that he crafted the thousands of adobe bricks in his house by hand. We also see the unrivaled disaster preparedness of the Mormon church, with its enormous storehouses, high-tech dairies, orchards, and proprietary trucking company – the fruits of a long tradition of anticipating the worst. But how, Koppel asks, will ordinary civilians survive?

With urgency and authority, one of our most renowned journalists examines a threat unique to our time and evaluates potential ways to prepare for a catastrophe that is all but inevitable.

Every book sounds good on late night talk shows. It’s the host’s job to provide enough witty banter to make the book sound exciting and accessible to everyone. There’s a reason it’s called “The Colbert Bump.”

However, I quickly learned that Lights Out was not written for me. It’s probably extremely well-researched, informative–even interesting. I just couldn’t get into it. It just went over my head from the very beginning. You really need to have a solid foundation in military structures and acronyms to get more than 20 pages in. After that you start to lose the thread quickly. I had zero idea of what he was talking about.

I’ll put this on my shelf, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see my husband pick it up eventually. He’s way more into military nonfiction than I am, and I know he was interested in Koppel’s Colbert interview too. I’m disappointed that I couldn’t get further into this, it sounded like an interesting (albeit terrifying) theory.

This book was provided by Blogging for Books and Crown Publishing for an unbiased review. This post does contain affiliate links.

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Margaret Atwood: Hag-Seed

When Felix is deposed as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival by his devious assistant and longtime enemy, his production of The Tempest is canceled and he is heartbroken. Reduced to a life of exile in rural southern Ontario—accompanied only by his fantasy daughter, Miranda, who died twelve years ago—Felix devises a plan for retribution.

Eventually he takes a job teaching Literacy Through Theatre to the prisoners at the nearby Burgess Correctional Institution, and is making a modest success of it when an auspicious star places his enemies within his reach. With the help of their own interpretations, digital effects, and the talents of a professional actress and choreographer, the Burgess Correctional Players prepare to video their Tempest. Not surprisingly, they view Caliban as the character with whom they have the most in common. However, Felix has another twist in mind, and his enemies are about to find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest that will change their lives forever. But how will Felix deal with his invisible Miranda’s decision to take a part in the play?

Opens mouth.

Shuts mouth.

Opens mouth.

Shuts again.

That was…an experience? I have so many mixed up thoughts, which I suppose is not completely unexpected, as this IS Shakespeare retold. I’ve mentioned before that I am not a huge fan of Shakespeare to begin with–it takes me time to come to terms with his plays. But, because this was Margaret Atwood, I wasn’t going to miss it, right?

I was immediately confused by some of the language. Granted, Felix is a snooty theater person, so his speech is “high elitist,” but it is still a little over the top. And the prisoners are just the opposite…is there such a thing as under the top?

And then there’s this sentence:

“Should that happen, his humiliation would be total; at the thought of it, even his lungs blush.”

 

Felix also really took care to describe the races of the prisoners. And I say that with my tongue all the way in my cheek because when he was first introducing us to the men, he would point them out as yellow, red, brown…you get the picture. It was extremely cringeworthy.

I’m sure a case could be made that Felix is an unreliable narrator and this is not actually how the author feels or would refer to people in real life. But I still don’t think it’s at all appropriate or called for. Just because a person is of color does not mean we actually need to refer to them BY that color, especially when in history those colors have had such negative connotations.

While the language really bothered me, I did appreciate the breakdown of the play itself. It was certainly an interesting interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I read through the text before beginning this book, and didn’t quite grasp what happened–Felix’s class broke it down so much better! This is what I wish I would have had more of growing up–legitimate discussion of literature. We didn’t read many classics in school, so I missed this. I would have understood Shakespeare better had it been broken down this way, perhaps. I wish I could go back and take lit classes for fun now. It’s why I write this blog–analysis and discussion.

I’m sure all of this is completely unlikely. I know there are classes held in prisons, but full scale theater productions, with props and blackout performances? I can’t see that happening–especially where ministry dignitaries would be allowed unescorted by security. I will say it was an engaging book, but I cannot rate it very highly due to the racial disregard shown. We must do better.

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I won a copy of this book from Hogarth Books in their Read It Forward newsletter. This post contains affiliate links.

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Dark Matter

“Are you happy with your life?” Those are the last words Jason Dessen hears before the masked abductor knocks him unconscious. Before he awakens to find himself strapped to a gurney, surrounded by strangers in hazmat suits. Before a man Jason’s never met smiles down at him and says, “Welcome back, my friend.”

In this world he’s woken up to, Jason’s life is not the one he knows. His wife is not his wife. His son was never born. And Jason is not an ordinary college physics professor but a celebrated genius who has achieved something remarkable–something impossible.

Is it this world or the other that’s the dream? And even if the home he remembers is real, how can Jason possibly make it back to the family he loves? The answers lie in a journey more wondrous and horrifying than anything he could’ve imagined—one that will force him to confront the darkest parts of himself even as he battles a terrifying, seemingly unbeatable foe.

You’ve probably seen this book posted everywhere–it’s been on Goodreads, NetGalley, Blogging for Books. I haven’t seen it in the Tumblrspace yet, but it’s coming, I promise. One of the Goodreads ads has a quote from Lee Childs:  ” I think Blake Crouch just invented something new.” He’s not wrong. I keep trying to come up with something to compare it to, and I really can’t. When I told Nicole at Pure Geekery to pick this up, all I could tell her was it was sciencey, and kind of a thriller about a physicist? How else do I describe it?!

Really the only thing I can think to tell you is that it’s like a choose your own adventure in real life. Only Jason didn’t really get to pick his adventures.They just happened. And they certainly weren’t super cool and awesome–mostly just terrifying, like every anxiety-ridden stress dream I’ve ever had.

I can’t go into any further detail than that without spoiling the book for you. And I really don’t want to do that because it’s awesome. Remember back when I said I didn’t like Sci-Fi? Who was that person? I think I just wasn’t reading the right Sci-Fi. Clearly.

Fans of Peter Clines and Ernest Cline are going to love this. (Which, by the way, are they related? Probably not, but same name, similar genre…something fishy there.) Anyone who loves TRUE sci-fi, like the kind where you actually take a deep dive into scientific principles, like physics–you are going to love this. If you love mind twisters–you’re going to love this. Can I stress any more that YOU ARE GOING TO LOVE THIS?! It comes out today. Click any of the links in this post and go buy it immediately.

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NetGalley and Crown Publishing provided this ARC for an unbiased review. Releases July 26. All links are affiliate links.

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The Wolf Road

In the remote wilds of a ravaged land, Elka has been raised by a man who isn’t her father. Since finding her wandering in the woods when she was seven, he has taught her how to hunt, shoot, set snares and start fires–everything she needs to survive. All she knows of the world outside is gleaned from whispers of a cataclysmic event that turned the clock back on civilization by a hundred and fifty years and reduced governments and technology to shambles, leaving men at the mercy of the elements–and each other. 

Everything changes when Elka learns that the man she has been calling father is harboring a terrible secret. Armed with nothing but her knife and her wiles, she decides to escape his clutches and sets out on a long journey to the frozen north in the hope of finding her long-lost parents. 

But as the trail of blood and bodies grows in her path, Elka realizes that daddy won’t be letting his little girl go without a fight. If she’s going to survive, she’ll have to turn and confront not just him, but the truth about what he’s turned her into.

Cold Mountain and Silence of the Lambs are two of my very favorite books…but I never thought I’d see them combined. Then throw in a little Mindy McGinnis post-apocalyptic and you have such a weird combination of civil war era Appalachia meets psychological thriller meets modern ruin. What the heck even is this book?

Brilliant. That’s what this book is. First of all, the voice written into the narrative is unmistakably Appalachia hill country. How she captures that so clearly, I don’t even know. Accents can be super hard to read sometimes but not Elka. I fell into it as naturally as if I were really there.

Secondly, I just reeeeeeeeeeeeeeally loved this story. I don’t even know what else to say about it besides that. You have two very different female leads–think Ruby and Ada from Cold Mountain–fighting across country, saving each other along the way. And guys….THIS IS NOT A LOVE STORY. Like, MEN DO NOT SAVE THEM THEY SAVE THEMSELVES. ROMANCE DOES NOT FACTOR IN TO THESE WOMEN AND THEIR STORY. (Until the very end but it’s only a very minor drop in the hat and only as a building block to something else.)

I seriously didn’t even realize that until I wrote that sentence. I’m so used to there being a love story or a hero swooping in to save the day that I didn’t notice. THIS IS A REALLY GOOD BOOK AND YOU SHOULD READ IT.

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Blogging for Books and Crown Publishing provided a copy for an unbiased review.

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