Review: Pioneer Girl

Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls WilderLaura Ingalls Wilder is best known for her Little House books, which tell the semi-autobiographical story of her pioneer family. These tales did not sprout fully formed from Wilder’s head — in fact, she originally penned them all together in a single autobiography she called Pioneer Girl.

Wilder’s daughter Rose — a published author herself — tried throughout the 1930s and 1940s to have Pioneer Girl published, but could never find a buyer. Eventually Rose convinced her mother that a series of children’s books based would sell better.

The Little House series became incredibly popular, but Pioneer Girl languished unpublished for almost a century. In 2014 the South Dakota State Historical Society Press and the Little House Heritage Trust collaborated to finally publish Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Biography.

New, yet familiar

In my review of Willa Cather’s My Antonia I mentioned that the novel was like a grown-up version of Wilder’s books. Little did I know that just a few years later I’d be reading the grown-up version of Wilder’s books — written by Wilder herself!

If you’ve read the Little House books, you’ve read most of the stories Wilder tells in Pioneer Girl. What’s fascinating is comparing the two. Critics of Wilder’s books enjoy saying that Wilder herself couldn’t write, that it was Rose who edited the books and added enough to make them great. But it’s so obvious in Pioneer Girl that Wilder always had the talent — she just needed to develop a voice and stronger storytelling chops.

Pioneer Girl is annotated beautifully by Pamela Smith Hill and a dedicated team of researchers. I learned more about Wilder, but I also learned more about her parents, siblings, extended family, neighbors, and friends.

There are still things we don’t know about Wilder, such as why she chose to fictionalize some parts of her autobiography. But Pioneer Girl gives amazing insight into her life and her writing. The prefaces offer larger context on Wilder’s life, as well as a peek into the editing and research it took to get it ready for publishing.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to re-re-re-reading Little House on the Prairie.

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Review: Lincoln’s Melancholy

Lincoln's Melancholy, Joshua Wolf ShenkMost people know a few things about Abraham Lincoln: he was president during the Civil War; he “freed the slaves”; he made a killer speech at Gettysburg. But what most contemporary readers don’t know is that Lincoln was a profoundly melancholy man. Throughout his life he endured several major depressive episodes and suicide watches. Yet he led a country through one of its most challenging times. How is this possible?

Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness is an attempt by author Joshua Wolf Shenk to show readers Lincoln’s personal struggles, how he coped, and how both sides of his personality — the melancholy and the cheerful — made him a great leader.

Lincoln, Inside Out

Although I’ve never been told directly, I learned at a young age that cheerfulness and extroversion are better than sadness and introversion. I’ve dealt with anxiety all my life, and it wasn’t until I started therapy a couple years ago that I heard the words, “It’s okay to be anxious” and “It’s okay to be sad” in relation to my internal struggles. Until then I’d always gotten the impression that I needed to fight those emotions, that I needed to be cheerful and calm when all I wanted to do was scream and cry.

That’s why I’m so glad that books like Lincoln’s Melancholy and Pixar’s newest smash success Inside Out exist. They both give credence to the idea that a one-dimensional personality and experience lead to a one-dimensional, less meaningful existence.

For Abraham Lincoln and Riley Anderson, it’s at the intersection of emotions where they find their greatest strength. For Lincoln in particular, it was critical for him to learn coping mechanisms for balancing the darker and lighter aspects of his personality.

A lesson worth remembering

I’ve liked Lincoln since reading Team of Rivals in 2013, and it has been so good to learn that a man I respect dealt with some of the same problems and still managed to be a good, successful person.

Lincoln didn’t bury those feelings, he didn’t ignore them. He let himself be miserable, dwell on the negative, and brood by the fire. And then he shook it off with a joke or a good book and got the fuck on with his life. He knew he needed to have those moments, talk about them openly with friends, and ultimately be able to set them aside in order to do his job.

I started reading Shenk’s book in early June, a few weeks into a pretty rough time period. There were multiple times when I found myself sinking into depression and anxiety. Worst-case scenarios zoomed around my head like a stunt motorcyclist in one of those round cages.

Normally I fight these feelings by stuffing them down and trying to ignore them — generally a bad idea, since I can only cram so many feelings in before they explode and I have a major meltdown.

But each time I felt these feelings bubbling to the surface, I took a page from Lincoln’s book and just…let them happen. I let myself cry, let the worst thoughts fly through my head. Then I made the decision to come back, to get up and get on with my day. My depressed and anxious thoughts never went away fully, but I was able to set them aside and focus on other things.

A great read

Personal connections aside, Lincoln’s Melancholy is a great book. Shenk looks at multiple primary resources to discover when Lincoln had his worst episodes, and considers the events that could have triggered them.

He also writes about psychology and how the cultural environment of the time meant that it wasn’t a big deal to elect a president who was known to be depressed and sometimes suicidal.

Then of course Shenk looks at the bigger question: did Lincoln’s darker nature, and his methods of combatting those tendencies, actually make him a stronger person and leader?

Lincoln’s Melancholy is a fantastic read for history and psychology buffs, as well as those who are fighting the twin challenges of depression and anxiety. Get a copy right now!

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Review: Time Riders

Time Riders, Alex ScarrowLiam is aboard the Titanic in 1912; Maddy on a doomed plane in 2010; Sal trapped in a fire in 2026. Each is saved from death at the last moment, but they can never return to their own time. History is in danger, and they’ve been recruited to protect it.

The trio are TimeRiders, dedicated to preserving the world’s true historical timeline. Time travel is real, and there are some who would use it to change the past.

Normally these changes are small, easy to miss. But all it takes is one madman to throw all of history into a nuclear tailspin. Now Liam, Maddy, and Sal must work together to find this time villain and undo his changes — before he destroys the world.

Quite the ride

The first novel in author Alex Scarrow’s TimeRiders series is fast-paced, dropping the reader immediately into a world constantly thrown into chaos by people looking to mess with history. Fortunately I never felt lost — at last, a book in which the rules of time travel make sense!

It’s interesting that the Time Riders actually don’t do much time traveling; Liam makes a couple jumps, but it’s actually Maddy and Sal — the analysts, the pattern-spotters — who do most of the work. Without their understanding of how the world should be, Liam would never be able to know when something changes.

Time Riders is the first in a series, so the reader has to take in new characters and world norms quickly. But the pace doesn’t suffer, and it never feels like you’re being bombarded with unnecessary information. There’s eight more books in the series, and it looks like things get pretty intense.

Recommended reading for lovers of time travel, history, and slightly bizarre pop culture reference choices.

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Review: Hild

Hild, Nicola GriffithLittle is known about the girl who would eventually come to be known as St. Hilda of Whitby: she was born in 614 A.D., baptised in 627, disappeared from written record, and reappeared 20 years later and became a powerful political advisor and teacher.

Hild is author Nicola Griffith’s attempts to fill in the historical gaps, to describe hypothetical circumstances that could have contributed to Hild’s growth as an advisor. The book also provides a detailed look at what seventh century life was like in Britain, particularly for women. It’s the first in what I’m sure will become a popular epic saga.

Incredibly unsatisfying

I love historical fiction, especially when it focuses on women who end up being the power behind the throne. And I tried so hard to like Hild. But in the end, it felt like 536 pages of…mush.

There’s a map provided, but the author doesn’t provide any historical context as to who all these warring factions are. No toddler — even in medieval times — would be as mature as Griffith portrays Hild in the first several chapters. There are dozens of characters, many of whom disappear and reappear at random, and all with names that are impossible to keep straight. Hild is married to a man for political reasons that aren’t fully explained, but she’s also got a weird quasi-homosexual relationship with one of her servants (that’s also never explained). They’re all squabbling over land and religion, and I just couldn’t care less.

I should have known better — I never enjoy a book that critics describe as “lush,” “sweeping,” or “absorbing.” It all just winds up feeling pretentious.

A polarizing read

Normally I don’t pay much attention to what other bloggers think of a particular book, but in this case I checked out the Goodreads reviews to see if I was missing something — is Hild great and I’m just uncultured swine?

Turns out it’s a mixed bag: overall the book has a four star rating. Lots of people disliked it for the same reasons I did, and lots of other people loved its “sweeping” saga-like feel.

Who edited this?

In typical “I’m-a-blogger-and-am-giving-suggestions-for-improvement-despite-having-no-real-world-novel-writing-experience” fashion, I think there’s two things the publisher could have done to make Hild an easier read.

Give context up front

It’s not until the afterword that the reader learns anything about the real Hild. Why couldn’t the editor/publisher have put that information at the beginning of the novel, so the reader has some idea of real-world context? If we know as little about Hild as the author says, it should be easy to include a Wikipedia-like entry at the beginning.

Get thee to an editor!

Much like Kathy Reich’s Déjà Dead and Katia Fox’s The Copper Sign, Hild falls prey to the “Include ALL the information” problem. It’s clear Griffith did a lot of research on Hild and the world/time in which she lived, but a good editor probably could have knocked out 50-100 pages of useless info without compromising the story. That “kill your darlings” advice applies to more than just characters.

Final thoughts

Hild is my least favorite read of the first half of 2015. It’s confusing and dull, and I don’t care about any of the characters or the political machinations Griffith describes in mind-numbing detail. I’m glad other people enjoyed it, but this is one I’d toss back.

(I read this book as a part of the 2015 Monthly Motif Challenge. July’s challenge was to read a book in which the main character stands up for themselves, against an enemy, or for something they believe in.)

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Birthday Books (Plus Snake Pictures)!

A few weeks ago my mom came to town to celebrate my 28th birthday. We ate and chatted a lot, got our nails done, and of course made a stop at Barnes and Noble. I got some great presents, most of which — surprise! — are of the paper-and-ink variety.

Before I get to the book haul, I wanted to share some photos from our visit — namely, snakes.

Visiting the Snake Farm

My mom has wanted to visit Animal World and Snake Farm since she first drove past it on a family vacation in 1969. She’s talked for years about going, and this year the timing was finally perfect.

Animal World and Snake Farm

The place was featured in a 2007 episode of Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs, and in the intervening years has grown, recently becoming an accredited zoo. They’ve got dozens of snakes — most of them very poisonous indeed — but they’ve also added all kinds of birds and mammals, including Capybara and Ankole-Watusi. And of course there’s Princess Pickles.

Princess Pickles

It’s a four-month-old porcupine! Wearing a purple harness! Eating a grape! What’s not to love?

And let’s not forget the creepy-crawlies. We’ve got your Big Ass Snakes:

Big snakes

And there’s always that one that seems to be sizing you up (I could see this one breathing):

Tree boa

While this kind of adventure is not typically my thing, it was fun to be with my mom as she crossed something off her bucket list. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of animals, and they all seemed healthy and happy.

Animal World and Snake Farm has made and is continuing to make improvements, and it’s obvious the staff cares about the animals. It was a fun time, and I think you should consider visiting next time you’re near New Braunfels, Texas.

Books, books, books!

They really are the gift that keeps on giving. Here’s what I got for my birthday.

Shopping, Seduction, and Mr. Selfridge is a biography about the man who revolutionized shopping. I saw a short documentary about Selfridge’s earlier this year, and my marketer’s mind loved hearing about his strategies and life. Who says work reading has to be boring? Shopping, Seduction and Mr. Selfridge, Lindy Woodhead
The Girl on Legare Street is the sequel to The House on Tradd Street, one of my so-far favorite reads of 2015. The Girl on Legare Street, Karen White
I asked for The Legend of Eli Monpress based on a friend’s recommendation. Magic and mayhem! The Legend of Eli Monpress, Rachel Aaron
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House Books series has always been one of my favorites, and I’m so excited to get my hands on Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Biography. Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder

Life has gotten really real in the last few months, and it was so great to spend some time with my mom. I’m a lucky girl.

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