Review: No Ordinary Time

No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns GoodwinWhen Hitler began his invasion of Western Europe in May 1940, Franklin Roosevelt faced a dilemma. He was part-way through his second term as President, and his New Deal was only beginning to benefit a country trying to claw its way out of the Great Depression. America’s military was at its smallest and least prepared since WWI, and few people were interested in jumping into an expensive war that was happening halfway across the world.

No Ordinary Time follows Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, their family, and Franklin’s closest advisors from May 10,1940 until after his death in April 1945. Author Doris Kearns Goodwin chronicles the transformation of the American military from “barely passable” to one of the strongest forces on the globe, the shifts in culture that brought more women and African Americans into the workforce, and changed the course of history.

636 pages of awesome

After wooing me with Team of Rivals and The Bully Pulpit, I knew I could expect great things from Doris Kearns Goodwin for No Ordinary Time. The book is well-researched, fascinating, and incredibly tight despite its massive scope.

FDR held the office of President for more than 4,400 days (he died less than 30 days into serving his fourth term), and accomplished an unbelievable amount in that time. He led the country through the Great Depression and WWII, and — thanks in great part to Eleanor — pushed through some of the first legislation preventing discrimination based on gender or race.

Reading about Franklin and Churchill’s efforts at preventing Hitler from steamrolling through Europe, and preparing their own militaries and people for a hideous war, was interesting, but Goodwin never stops halfway.

No Ordinary Time is just as much about Eleanor Roosevelt as it is her husband. Eleanor was a polarizing figure — loved by those who saw her as championing domestic causes like women’s rights and civil liberties, hated by others who saw her as an aberration, a wife who didn’t know her place.

Just as interesting were the glimpses into the Roosevelt’s personal lives and their flaws: Franklin’s affair before his Presidency and his habitual flirtations, Eleanor’s inhibition, inability to forgive, and unwillingness to play second fiddle to Franklin.

I appreciate that Goodwin did not hide or ignore these flaws. They are what made the Roosevelts human, and contributed to the decisions they made while they lived. I finished the book having developed a great respect for the couple, as well as a healthy dislike for some of their choices.

A fantastic read

WWII brought some of the biggest changes to the American military, culture, and political landscape. Many of the changes were brought about by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and yet most of us know little about who they were.

No Ordinary Time is a detailed peek into the lives of those living at the White House during one of America’s most trying times, and it should be required reading.

(I read this book as part of Non-Fiction November. Click the link to see posts from this and previous years!)Non-Fiction November

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Review: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England

The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England, Ian MortimerIt’s common knowledge that if you want to learn about a foreign country, the first thing to do is invest in a guide book. And thanks to author Ian Mortimer, the same can be said of foreign times.

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England is perfect for those intending to visit 14th century England. Everything you need can be found within its pages: what to wear, how to speak, where to stay, and how to avoid running afoul of the law.

Mortimer’s guide covers over 600 years of history in the present tense, bringing the 14th century alive in a way few other history books can.

Permission to squee?

I’m fangirling so hard right now, I can’t even.

Writing an engaging history book is a challenge, especially when the author has to go wide (600 years) and deep (travel, clothing, language, behavior, diseases/medicine, etc.). Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveler’s Guide is a fantastic balance of history and storytelling — something I just can’t resist.

He’s an expert historian, and it shows. Time Traveler’s Guide quotes dozens of primary sources and includes many examples of artwork from the 14th century.

Some of the smaller details — such as how the monetary system operated — got a little dull, but didn’t at all hamper my enjoyment. Other parts — especially the descriptions of plague and leprosy — were intense and hard to stomach.

I wish that Mortimer would write an entire series of guides (Regency England, Revolutionary France, etc.), but sadly he hasn’t. I’ll have to console myself by finding copies of his five other books, the most recent of which is called Medieval Intrigue: Decoding Royal Conspiracies.

What’s your favorite historical period? Would you actually like to visit?

Non-Fiction November(I read this book as part of Non-Fiction November. Click the link to see posts from this and previous years!)

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Review: Below Stairs

Below Stairs, Margaret PowellMargaret Powell didn’t finish her education until she was nearly 60 because she spent the end of her childhood and many years thereafter as a kitchen maid and cook. She scrubbed floors and vegetables, washed dishes and ironed bootlaces, and worked from before sunup until long after sundown.

Originally published in 1968 and republished again in 2012 in the wake of the incredible popularity of shows like Downton Abbey, Powell’s memoir Below Stairs takes the reader through the servants’ domain, laying bare its often brutal ways.

Very well done

After reading Maid to Match during and after my return from visiting Biltmore, I was excited to get my hands on copies of some of the other books I saw for sale there. Below Stairs was one of those books, and I’m glad I read it.

Maid to Match was by no means poorly done, but in the end it’s fiction, and more than a little romantic. Powell’s book was a nice palate cleanser, a more realistic depiction of what life was like for many servants at the turn of the century.

I enjoyed the first person narrative and Powell’s almost stream-of-consciousness writing style. It’s obvious that she was a firecracker as a young person, and remained so even when writing her book. She wasn’t content to be a kitchen maid — or even be “in service” — any longer than she had to.

Below Stairs is short, a little over 200 pages, and left me wanting more. Fortunately a few years after publishing her memoir, Powell wrote Servants’ Hall: A Real Life Upstairs, Downstairs Romance, which chronicles the story of an under-parlourmaid named Rose who elopes with the family’s only son (scandalous!).

If you’re a fan of Maid to Match, Downton Abbey, or any other similar stories and want to give non-fiction a go, I highly recommend Margaret Powell’s memoir.

Non-Fiction November(I read this book as part of Non-Fiction November. Click the link to see posts from this and previous years!)

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Review – Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Essentialism, Greg McKeownFeeling overworked is a common complaint amongst Americans. We spend more time at our desks than anyone else, yet most of us come home at the end of the day feeling like we didn’t really get much done.

Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is not another “productivity hacks” book; instead, it’s a handbook for helping you decide what in your life is absolutely essential so that you can contribute your finite energy to the things that actually matter most.

A good book…for someone else

While I enjoyed McKeown’s book, I found myself skimming a lot. After setting it aside for a few days and coming back to it, I’ve realized there’s two likely reasons it didn’t resonate.

I’m not the target audience

As I read I found myself repeatedly thinking, “I bet my boss would find that helpful.”

In my opinion Essentialism is meant more for a busy CEO who has both the overburdened schedule and the luxury of telling people she can’t do something they ask of her.

It’s simply not possible for me to tell a client or my boss, “I’m sorry, I’m not able to do that,” or “Which of my other projects should I drop in order to complete this one?” I can shift my priorities around, but I can never not do something I’ve been asked to do.

This realization was a little disappointing, but I hoped that I could still get some ideas for “essentializing” my personal life.

I’m already an Essentialist

The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage.

This is going to sound like a total #humblebrag, but I already use most of the strategies discussed in Essentialism to streamline my life.

I’m a perfectionist who despises busywork and purposelessness, and looks for every opportunity to avoid stress and anxiety; if I hadn’t started using some of these strategies I’d have lost my mind years ago.

A few things I plan to try

Even though this book didn’t end up being ideal for me, there’s a couple new-to-me ideas of which I’m hoping to make a habit:

  • If it isn’t a clear yes, it’s a clear no - If there’s an intern candidate I’m on the fence about or an invitation or idea I’m considering that I can’t quickly and cleanly say yes to, I’m going to drop it.
  • Develop goals and stick to them - Knowing my goals makes it easier to say no to things that conflict with those goals (i.e., Saying no to a weekday get-together because I know getting good sleep is critical to my health).
  • Avoid majoring in minor activities - Do I really need to spend time re-organizing my TBR list, or should I do something more important like spend time with friends?

These may seem like small things, but I think doing them consistently will have a positive effect on my stress and anxiety levels. I’ll fret less over things because I’ll have litmus tests on which to rely.

Want to become an Essentialist?

Then check out Greg McKeown’s book. It’s a fresh perspective on the productivity rat race into which we all seem to have entered ourselves, and even gave my purpose-obsessed brain something to work on.

How do you keep your focus on what’s essential?

Non-Fiction November(I read this book as part of Non-Fiction November. Click the link to see posts from this and previous years!)

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Review: S

S, J.J Abrams and Doug DorstEverything about V.M. Straka — even his true identity — is a mystery. His final novel, The Ship of Theseus, is filled with indecipherable codes and clues to the author’s identity and his actions of revolution against dictatorial governments.

Disgraced graduate student Eric has read Straka’s novel multiple times since age 15, and still feels no closer to solving the book’s true mystery. When college senior Jennifer discovers his battered copy and leaves notes in the margins that question his discoveries, a new story begins and an incredible adventure is set into motion.

Eric and Jen are dedicated to uncovering the truth, but there is a powerful force willing to do anything to keep that truth hidden. Will the truth be brought to light, or will Eric and Jen become just two more people who disappeared while searching for V.M. Straka?

An incredible book experience

I knew from the moment I opened this book that it would be an incredible experience.

First you break the seal of the black box in which the book is contained. It’s got a 1980s library book feel about it, complete with ISBN sticker.

S, J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

But what really got me excited was the inside. There’s stuff tucked in the pages! Photos, newspaper clippings, postcards, letters, napkins with scrawled maps…it’s almost magical.

S, J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

Authors J.J. Abrams (yea, that one) and Doug Dorst have managed to make the reading experience even more tactile, and looking at all the inserts I knew I had to read this book right. now.

Two novels in one

S is composed of two separate stories: the novel written by Straka and the notes written in the book by Eric and Jen. Their notes are layered as well. Text in pencil denotes Eric’s original notes from high school, and black/blue, orange/green, and purple/red indicate subsequent read-throughs.

The result is a multi-layered book in which you’re simultaneously following at least two stories at multiple points in time, and it’s fabulous.

I can’t give too many details — that would ruin the fun! — but I can say that Straka’s novel is very much what you’d expect from a pre- and post- WWII European revolutionary, and that Eric and Jen’s story is tense and enthralling.

A complex mystery

Eric and Jen’s quest quickly becomes the reader’s thanks to some devilishly clever ciphers left in the book’s footnotes by its translator. It’s fun watching them puzzle out the clues and eventually solve the ciphers, which in turn give them more clues to the identity of V.M. Straka.

There’s different ways to read S, but my chosen method was to read a chapter of Ship of Theseus and then jump back and read Eric and Jen’s notes. No matter how you tackle it, though, I get the feeling it’s a book in which you find new stuff every time you read through again.

The book has gotten something of a cult following, with sites like Reddit’s /r/whoisstraka and SFiles22 operating as gathering points for those interested in unraveling the mystery.

Unbelievably cool

S is beautifully crafted — not just the stories, but the physical book as well. The entire reading experience was incredibly fun, and I can’t wait to read through again and see what great stuff I missed!

Have you read this book yet? If not, go get a copy now!

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