Book Review: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (2/5)

23 Jul

I’ve read a fair number of Eggers works and each one seems to be distinctly different from all the others. As such, they’re a bit hit and miss with me. There are some I really enjoy and others that are just ‘bleh’ but very few that I don’t enjoy. I guess there’s a first time for everything because this one just wasn’t a winner with me. It’s sad that it’s the author’s memoir.

Cover image via Goodreads

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

Other books by Eggers reviewed on this blog:

A Hologram for the King (and Movie Review)
The Circle (and Movie Review)
Zeitoun (and Book Club Reflection)

Summary from Book Rags:

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a memoir by magazine editor Dave Eggers. The book tells the story of how Dave’s parents died of cancer within five weeks of each other and left Dave and his siblings custody of their seven year old brother, Toph. Dave tells his story with his trademark satire dripping from every word, allowing the reader to follow him on the ride from total irresponsibility to maturity and acceptance. This memoir is memorable and indeed heartbreaking, leaving the reader touched and yet strangely amused.

I loved parts of this book and there were other parts I struggled to get through. I thought the stories of being a father/brother and trying to be a 20-something while being in charge of his brother were great. I thought that was going to be the focus of the book, really. But there were parts where the way Eggers told the story drove me crazy. The extended (and fake) interview with The Real World for example. I’ll go into detail more but the back-and-forth nature of the storytelling made it hard for me to enjoy as a whole and led me to rate it lower than I felt parts of it deserved.

The life Eggers portrayed seemed very realistic to me. People do their best and sometimes that best doesn’t seem great from the outside or looks like failure to some people. Eggers dealt with his criticism in a weird way sometimes, lying about Toph to make himself laugh at the expense of his friends. But it was how he needed to cope. It was how he could keep doing his best. It was right for him. People need to be selfish sometimes and do what’s best for them to keep moving forward and I saw that in Eggers portrayal of himself and his family from time to time.

I liked Toph best and I wish we’d gotten a little more about him in the story. He was in a very difficult position for the majority of the story. He was likely raised like an only child, with his next oldest sibling being 13 years his elder. When Toph was forming a lot of his memories, Beth and Bill would have been out of the house and Dave would have been in high school. I’m going to guess their mother doted on him based on her personality and the one scene we have where they interact. I think the death of his parents would have been much harder on Toph than we’re led to see in this story. I wish we’d been able to see that and his coping more.

I think the way Dave felt when parenthood was thrust on him was very relatable. He didn’t know what to do but he was going to do his best to do it. It reminds me of when you start a new job and have to jump in with both feet and find your footing before you slip. Dave tried really hard and was clearly worried about Toph very often. Granted, my brother is two years younger than me, but I never worried about him that much though I didn’t have to take as much responsibility for him. I felt it was really admirable.

Dave Eggers
Image via Amazon.com

Dave doesn’t tell us how he felt about his father at first. It comes throughout the book in chunks and I liked how he did it that way. I thought it revealed a lot about his family and how they projected themselves that he wouldn’t talk about this earlier in the book. You learned about the siblings and how they got along well before you know how their parents’ relationship was tested. I felt this added a layer to the book because it was something you might not know about the Eggers even if you were a friend, something you’d have to come to learn the way I did as a reader.

There were parts of the book that got ‘too meta’ for me. The biggest being the Real World interview which we find out while reading it is not anything like the real interview but a way for Dave to tell us more about his family. That felt cheap and unlike a lot of the times that Dave’s humor made me laugh, this made me angry. I wanted to get through that section fast but it took me longer and longer the more frustrated I got.

Memoirs tend to focus on a pivotal part of someone’s life and I think Dave picked a very change-fraught part of his life and the lives of his siblings to cover. Toph had to learn to take his brother serious as a parent figure while Dave had to learn to be a father and still be a 20-something single guy. He was a friend and a brother and a parent. They had to figure out their roles and how they could work together to still be a family and support each other.

Writer’s Takeaway: Dave is clearly a guy who likes to have fun, as he shows us in his interactions with Toph and his friends. I didn’t always agree with his sense of humor and the things he found funny. That was fine with me when it was him telling jokes about Might, but it was something different when it was him pulling a fast one on me as his reader. I didn’t like the dream/reality jumbles that weren’t explained, the meta-discussion with John, or (again) the Real World interview. I felt like I was the butt of his jokes and it annoyed me.

I’m sad to make this my lowest Eggers rating. Two out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius | Ester’s Book Blog
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers | EatSleepRead
‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ by Dave Eggers- Review by Tathushan Subenthiran | Wilson’s School: Student Book Reviews
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and the Modern Memoir | No Pun Intended
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers | Sea of Shelves

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Writers’ Group: Writing Longhand and Book Promotion

22 Jul

My writers’ group met last week and we covered some very different topics. The first was software that takes written words and translates them to digital words in a word processing software. This is good for those that prefer to write longhand or who (like me) do not have power or an internet connection. (We lost power during a heatwave. I’m writing this from the air-conditioned library.)  This technology is called Optical Character Recognition. For those of us with MS Office, OneNote has this capability (more on how to do it here) so no need to buy new software! Another option for those without MS Office is an app called Pen to Print. To use this software, the written words must be on lined paper.

I’ve mentioned before that one of our writers recently self-published his book. I asked how it’s been going and got some good details I’ll keep in mind if I ever self publish. We talked about a Goodreads Giveaway Jason ran. The writer gets to select the amount of time the giveaway will run for and how many copies he or she wants to give away. When the time runs out, Goodreads gives you the names and addresses that you will be sending the copies to. It falls on the writer to pay to ship the copies. There’s an option to give away Kindle copies if the book is in that format and this avoids shipping costs. We had another writer at the meeting whose book was available through Barnes & Noble though it wasn’t carried in any store. It could be ordered to a store or ordered on their website. He said that he’d gone into a store and talked to an employee about this though I’m sure there’s a way to do it online. Another writer pointed out that the book would qualify for the Michigan Notable Books program that our state library runs. For those who are Michiganders, you can read more here. It’s worth looking into other states and countries to see if these opportunities exist in other areas.

It was a quick meeting so that’s all I’ve got this month. I’m sure I’ll have something to contribute once I start writing again. And that should be next week! Should be.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Review: The Golden Rules by Bob Bowman (3/5)

18 Jul

If you’ve been here for some time, you know I love swimming. I grew up swimming competitively since the age of nine and I still compete as an adult. Needless to say, I watch the Olympics religiously and Michael Phelps was a big icon of my childhood. Behind every athlete is a coach and Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, is a legend. He coached at the University of Michigan while Michael was in college so he almost feels local, too. When I heard Bowman had a book, I knew I wanted to read it and unfortunately it took me a few years to finally get around to it.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Golden Rules: 10 Steps to World-Class Excellence in Your Life and Work by Bob Bowman and Charles Butler

Summary from Goodreads:

Bob Bowman, best known as the coach for the record-breaking run of Michael Phelps, is one of the most successful coaches in sports history. He is lauded for his intense personality, incredible dedication to his athletes, and his ability to nurture talent in athletes who have the heart and drive to win. This is his motivational book about winning in all walks of life and what you have to do to get there. He presents ten key concepts that all people should live by. Illuminating his lessons with spirited anecdotes, Bowman will teach you how to get gold out of every day by setting goals and getting motivated to achieve them. He will explain that taking risks is the key to success in any pursuit, and coach you on how you can become more risk-tolerant.

By following The Golden Rules, you will learn to visualize in order to achieve your goals, and that above all else, dedication to your training, your job, or whatever area it is you are seeking to triumph in is paramount for success.

As much as Bowman kept talking about how his rules could be applied to any job and pursuit, it was very focused on swimming. He uses examples of how he applied the rules with his swimmers and their preparation for meets. He talks extensively about Michael and his accomplishments following the rules. I would recommend this book for swimmers, but I’m not sure if I would recommend it outside that community. I also like Bowman less after reading this book. He talks about how hard he is on his swimmers and while I know that’s an effective coaching style for some, it’s not a system that would work on me. I guess I’m lucky I was never an elite caliber athlete who had to decide if Bob would coach me!

Bowman portrayed himself and his swimmers in a very real way. He talked about his shortcomings and the times when his swimmers stumbled. I’m a big fan of one of Bowman’s other swimmers, Allison Schmidt, and the way he described her was in line with the athlete I’ve watched for years. (As a side note, Schmidt went to high school 30 minutes from me and is about the same age as me.) I’m glad he talked about the times Michael stumbled because those were very public and large mistakes, and I’m glad he talked about himself in a very truthful way as well. I didn’t feel like he was showing only the best of himself.

I liked the message Bowman had and the method he shared. The stages he has made sense to me and I can see how I’ve applied some of them in my life and the adventures I’ve undergone. I can apply them to my triathlon endeavors, sure, but I can also apply them to planning my trip to Europe last summer or the career change I’m thinking of making now. Going all-in is helpful, having a team support individual success makes everything better, and overcoming adversity makes success even sweeter. I liked how Bowman detailed how his athletes had overcome this and it helped me see it in my life.

Bob Bowman
Image via ASU Website

Bowman talked a lot about a swimmer I wasn’t familiar with, Jessica Long. Her story stuck with me more than any other athlete Bowman mentioned. I was very inspired by her goal of making the qualifying time for the standard Olympic trials despite being a decorated Paralympian. Her story of meeting her birth parents had me tearing up, too!

I disliked when Bowman talked about motivating his athletes by telling them they weren’t trying hard enough and that their effort level was unacceptable. Maybe it’s because I’ve never gone into practice and just gone through the motions. I’ve never done just enough when I was first asked to do as much as I could. I’m very internally motivated so a coach who relies on external motivation to push a swimmer forward was an odd concept for me and it made me feel like he didn’t tailor his style of coaching to fit what his athletes needed.

My audiobook was narrated by Peter Berkrot. Bowman mentions several times being from South Carolina and Berkrot’s southern accent seemed to go perfectly with Bowman’s energy and hometown. He seemed to channel the Bob Bowman I’ve seen on interviews and fit the personality I’ve heard of from his swimmers. He really nailed it in my opinion.

Bowman focuses on excellence in whatever you do and achieving goals. He talks about how goals are often based on meeting a target and not on beating another person. Instead of setting a goal of Michael winning a medal, they would figure out what time he would likely need to win the medal and focus on swimming that time. Similarly, I’ve set a goal of finishing my Half IronMan in a certain time (though I’m being flexible with it) and have certain criteria for my next career move that I’m focusing on. Excellence can come in many forms, but Bowman’s advice of setting large and small goals to get there and how to go toward chasing those goals resonated well.

Writer’s Takeaway:  Bowman shared his message mostly through anecdotes which were helpful. I could see the point he was trying to make illustrated. What was hard about it was that the timeline was a bit messy. He jumped backward and forward in time, skipped from one swimmer to the next, and I wondered if I followed only because of my personal interest in the sport. If I was going to write an inspirational book, I would try (and probably fail) to tell a story in order and talk about how the process worked sequentially instead of in spurts.

This book was enjoyable but I’m not sure it had the universal appeal it was meant to. It also fell short for me in a few ways. I’m giving it three out of five stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
Bob Bowman’s Golden Rules for World-Class Excellence in Your Life and Work | The Tao of Wealth
Bob Bowman discusses ‘The Golden Rules’ on TODAY | NBC Sports

WWW Wednesday, 17-July-2019

17 Jul

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!IMG_1384-0

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Note: For users of Blogspot blogs, I’m unable to comment on your posts as a WordPress blogger unless you’ve enabled Name/URL comments. This is a known WordPress/Blogspot issue. Please consider enabling this to participate more fully in the community. 


Currently reading: Still going slow with Becoming Madame Mao by Anchee Min. I keep pecking away. Slowly but surely. I’ll get there.
I think I’ll finish A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin this week. I’ve made some really good forward progress and I’m prioritizing it when I’m in my car. Maybe wishful thinking, but I’ll stay positive.
I really wanted to say that I’d finished A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. I guess the style has started to grate on me and I’m not reading it as quickly as I’d like to. At this point, I just want to finish it so I can move on.
We haven’t had a chance to listen to more of Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton. It might be a few weeks before we have a substantial car ride together again. We’ll be driving to Ohio at the end of the month for my Half Ironman so I know we’ll have some time then.
I’ve been listening to The Golden Rules by Bob Bowman while I workout. I’m not sure if anyone outside of the competitive swimming world is familiar with Bowman, Michael Phelps’ and Allison Schmidt’s coach, also named head coach of the Olympic Men’s USA Swim Team. This book seems like it’s trying to appeal to non-swimmers, but swimming is a huge focus of it just due to Bowman’s job. I’m enjoying it, though.

Recently finished: I finished Being Mortal by Atul Gawande quickly after I got back to running and biking. I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected and was able to post my review on Monday. Please go check it out! I gave the book 4 out of 5 stars.
It’s more of a short story than a book, but I listened to Ajax Penumbra, 1969 by Robin Sloan. This is a short prequel to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and it was really fun to revisit the world Sloan created for that one. The review for this one posted yesterday and I gave it 4 out of 5 stars. Not a bad week for reading!

Reading Next: I can’t wait to start The Map of Time by Félix Palma. It’s taunting me from my bedside table and intimidating me with its length. I really want to start soon!
I’ve decided on my next eaudiobook since I’ve been flying through them so fast. I want it to be A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab. It’s been more than three years since I read the first one but I think I remember it pretty well and I can’t wait to jump into the world again!


Leave a comment with your link and comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Review: Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloan (4/5)

16 Jul

This is really more of a short story, but it deserves a review. My husband and I loved Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and when I found out there was a prequel, no matter how short, I wanted to read it. I found an audio edition and on a day with a run and indoor bike, I finished the whole thing.

Cover image via Goodreads

Ajax Penumbra 1969

Other books by Sloan reviewed on this blog:

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (5/5)

Summary from Goodreads:

August 1969 San Francisco. Ajax Penumbra seeks a book–the single surviving copy of the Techne Tycheon, a mysterious volume that has brought and lost great fortune for anyone who has owned it. Late one night, after another day of dispiriting dead ends, he stumbles across a 24-hour bookstore, and the possibilities before him expand exponentially.

Maybe my memories of Ajax Penumbra from the full novel are a bit off because this character seemed a little stiff. But my memory of the 24-hour bookstore and the magic that it held were spot on. I loved coming back to the store and the mysteries within it. Mo was great and the friendships with Corvina and Claude were so fun to see develop.

The characters in this one weren’t really credible, but I wasn’t expecting them to be. Penumbra was a very eccentric character in the original novel, so I expected his origins to be equally eccentric and fun and I wasn’t disappointed. They were what I expected them to be.

Mo was my favorite character. It’s as if owning the bookstore makes you into an energetic and haphazard person and I loved that in Mo. He was very passionate about the store and what was inside it and his customers and I found that very endearing. He was also very smart. In many ways, he’s like the Mr. Penumbra we come to love but he’s very unique at the same time and I liked how Sloan built his character.

I thought Ajax going to Claude when he had a problem was a very realistic solution. There are a lot of times that someone very far from a topic or problem can provide a solution that helps more than the experts or team working on it can. Claude had a local’s perspective and I liked how he was able to help.

Robin Sloan
Image via BookRiot

I loved the story of the William Gray. I hope that’s true and that the city is really built on scuttled ships. Even if it’s not true, I still liked the story and I wish it were true because now I’m thinking about all the treasure that could be buried underground.

The actual discovery of the Techne Tycheon was my least favorite part. I liked the puzzle and the research so doing the physical work to find the book ended up being a bit of a disappointment to me. Maybe a puzzle on the lock would have been better. But now I’m stretching.

Ari Fliakos narrated the audiobook, the same man who did Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I’m glad Ari came back for this short story. He already had a flair for Penumbra and the fun cast of characters that surrounded him and was able to bring that back.

Penumbra is determined to solve the mystery, much like Clay was in the full novel. I liked seeing the dedication to books that Penumbra and his coworkers at Galvanic had. It was really encouraging to see how books had come to influence life and how much people cared for them. It was very similar to the love of books that was expressed in the full novel.

Writer’s Takeaway: I feel writers are often asked to continue with characters in the form of a sequel or companion novel because publishers know it will sell. I think this is one of those instances but I think Sloan handled it well and in a different way from what was expected. He gave his readers a short insight into Ajax Penumbra without muddling the main novel’s plotline and by giving us just a taste of the mysterious character we’d grown to love in the novel.

A really enjoyable short jaunt down memory lane. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloan | One Book Two
Ajax Penumbra 1969 | Raging Bibliohlism
Ajax Penumbra, 1969- Robin Sloan | Track of Words

Book Review: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande (4/5)

15 Jul

It’s been a while since one of my book clubs picked a non-memoir non-fiction. I hadn’t heard of this choice before it came up on the list but, as so often happens, I’m so glad we picked it because I ended up really enjoying it.

Cover image via Goodreads

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

Summary from Goodreads:

Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming the dangers of childbirth, injury, and disease from harrowing to manageable. But when it comes to the inescapable realities of aging and death, what medicine can do often runs counter to what it should.

Through eye-opening research and gripping stories of his own patients and family, Atul Gawande, a practicing surgeon, reveals the suffering this dynamic has produced. Nursing homes, devoted above all to safety, battle with residents over the food they are allowed to eat and the choices they are allowed to make. Doctors, uncomfortable discussing patients’ anxieties about death, fall back on false hopes and treatments that are actually shortening lives instead of improving them.

In his bestselling books, Gawande has fearlessly revealed the struggles of his profession. Now he examines its ultimate limitations and failures–in his own practices as well as others’–as life draws to a close. Riveting, honest, and humane, Being Mortal shows how the ultimate goal is not a good death but a good life–all the way to the very end.

This book hit me harder than I thought it would. I recently lost my grandfather who had been living in an assisted living facility for a few years and eventually succumbed to pneumonia. Both of my grandmothers are still alive and both are in assisted living. I’m sure most people have experienced death and dying in their lives, either friends or family. This book made me start thinking already about how I’ll react when my parents start to age. As the oldest daughter, care will likely fall to me. We’re fortunate that my husband has other siblings so we won’t likely have to deal with both sets of parents. I’ve started thinking about what’s important to my parents and what a quality life might mean to them and how I could provide that. But I also know that I need to ask when the time comes. This also made me think about what I would want to do if I had a terminal disease. How far would I go to fight it and how important are comfort and quality of life in the end.

Gawande portrays a lot of different people he’s met and it’s clear that they have different priorities and personalities. Some of them want to live as long as possible while some value independence and others comfort. I liked that he chose a wide variety of people at various stages of their lives to comment in this book. It started off feeling like a book on elder care but he brought it to a place where I realized it could affect me as well.

Providing the details of his father’s illness grounded the second half of the book for me. Gawande isn’t just preaching best practices. He’s had to live through the tough conversations he talks about and live with the consequences of them. I thought it gave a lot of weight to what he was saying. I liked how he showed that he applied what he learned to his patients and the difference he felt it made in their final days.

While I was reading this book, I went to a friend’s wedding. We had breakfast at her family home on the morning of the wedding. It’s a home that her great-great-grandfather built and which has passed down through the generations. When we sat down to breakfast, I noticed an elderly woman sitting in an armchair in the corner of the room. Assuming correctly that this was her grandmother, I walked over and introduced myself. The woman jumped and I was afraid she was going to spill her coffee. She apologized for her reaction, she is mostly blind and hadn’t seen me approach. The smile on her face when I squeezed her hand and when each of our friends followed me over to her and introduced themselves melted my heart. She appreciated being recognized. We were in her home, after all. I’m not sure if I would have done that if I hadn’t been reading this book. She was quiet and seemed perfectly happy with her coffee and the conversation she was having with her daughter. But she really appreciated meeting her granddaughter’s friends who she would see later that day at the wedding. This book has made me think more about what I would want when I’m grandmother-aged and I’ve started treating people differently. I hope it sticks.

Atul Gawande
Image via Wikipedia

The section on end-of-life decisions and quality of life stuck with me. We go through a lot to help add months to a person’s life. Too often, I don’t think a lot of thought has been given to how that additional month is in reality for the sick. It’s likely a month of recovery and pain. Talking about what a person wants and needs for their final time is critical. I started to think about what I would want if I had to make hard decisions and I think being to read and comprehend would be very important to me. I have a huge TBR to get through after all!

There wasn’t a part of this book I particularly disliked. It was all very informative and I think it helped change my perspective on aging and dying. We have to accept our mortality and respect our lives when it comes to the end. None of us can escape death as much as we try. We have to know when the race is over.

My audiobook was narrated by Robert Petkoff. I liked how he narrated the book, giving weight to a serious subject. He didn’t try to use voices for the women or men that Gawande profiled. He was straightforward and clear about the subject. I thought that was a good way to deliver the message.

Gawande has to face death a lot in his job. He does surgeries with the point of curing, healing, and granting longer life. I think he’s well positioned to lecture on the subject of mortality. He has seen first hand when he can help and when he’s only kicking the can down the road. Bringing in his father’s illness shed a lot of light on the book as well. It’s not just what he does with patients, but what he really believes as well.

Writer’s Takeaway: I don’t know how much I learned about writing from this book. The non-fiction subject Gawande chose deserves some different approaches than the fiction I aim to write. It did highlight for me how adding a personal touch to a topic can make it seem so much more real. I’m likening this to the ‘write what you know’ mantra and how that can make a story stronger.

I enjoyed this book, the perspective, and what it’s left me with. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
Being Mortal | Timestafford’s Blog
Review: Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal- Medicine and What Matters in the End | The Healthcare Marketer
“No Risky Chances” by Atul Gawande (Excerpt from Being Mortal) | Lunch Break Reader
Book Review: Being Mortal | The World of Pastoral and Spiritual Care

Day Off (Again)

11 Jul

I feel I’ve done this a lot during my 70.3 training, but I’m giving myself another day off. It’s a mix between having a slow reading run and finally being back to full training load that’s slowed me down with posts. I’ve got a few things lined up for next week that I’m excited about, though. You’ll see. Until then, enjoy your weekend and your books as I know I will. Happy reading!

WWW Wednesday, 10-July-2019

10 Jul

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!IMG_1384-0

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Note: For users of Blogspot blogs, I’m unable to comment on your posts as a WordPress blogger unless you’ve enabled Name/URL comments. This is a known WordPress/Blogspot issue. Please consider enabling this to participate more fully in the community. 


Currently reading: I moved forward a bit in Becoming Madame Mao by Anchee Min. I had a lot of coworkers in the office who aren’t normally there and that meant a lot of catching up. Usually, that happens during lunch, unfortunately. Still slow going but the book’s made a big shift in a positive direction.
I’m being positive about finishing A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin before I have to renew it again. I’m on disk 32! I can do it. Only a normal length book to go!
I had all the intentions of reading a lot of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers this weekend, but that didn’t pay off as much as I’d like. I think I’ll finish it this week, but that might be wishful thinking again. It’s just hit a slow point for me and I’m having trouble moving forward.
I’ll be finishing up Being Mortal by Atul Gawande soon. I’m mostly recovered from my injury which means I’m ready to start biking indoors and running again which means more time listening to eaudio. I’m optimistic that this one will be done next week.
My husband and I made more progress on Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton over the weekend. It could have been better, but I kept falling asleep. Fail. We’ll keep pecking away at it while we do a lot of driving vacations this summer.

Recently finished: Nothing for a second week. Big bummer here, I thought I’d have something to report.

I did manage to post my review of Wolf’s Mouth by John Smolens. Having one thing done still feels good! It went up on Monday.

Reading Next: I picked up The Map of Time by Félix Palma from the library and I’m a bit overwhelmed. It’s over 600 pages! It’s quite hefty and I’m excited about the premise, but now also nervous about finding time to read the whole thing. Wowza!


Leave a comment with your link and comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Club Reflection: Wolf’s Mouth by John Smolens

9 Jul

My book club met to discuss Wolf’s Mouth by John Smolens a few weeks ago. I’m behind on getting this up and I apologize but it works out nicely that this is going up the day after I posted my review, right? I totally planned that.

Smolens is based in Marquette, one of the largest cities in Northern Michigan and the location of Northern Michigan University, which I believe is the largest school in the Upper Peninsula. Smolens teaches English at NMU.

We were all interested to hear that there were really five POW camps in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP). Au Train was the largest and considered the least violent and had the least security. It’s a remote location! There were a total of 400,000 POWs located throughout the US. We appreciated the perspective of this book, how it was about an Italian soldier in an US-based POW camp. I’d never read a book about this before. It was also fun hearing the misinformation that the Axis powers had spread about the US.

The phrase in the opening pages that led to the title, Wolf’s Mouth, is from an Italian phrase whose equivalent is ‘Break a Leg.’ It was wishing luck to Frank when he had to be brave and face something intimidating, whether that be the woods of Northern Michigan or Vogel. There was a lot of humor in the book about misunderstood colloquialisms. I liked that this was one I misunderstood as an English speaker.

We spoke a lot about Vogel in our discussion. We wondered if he was protecting himself and what he’d done in the camp, or if he really felt he was protecting the Reich. Having his son working for him was an odd situation as well. We wondered how much of his father’s story Anton believed. And we wondered if his beliefs changed when he went through the trial or visited Munising. It was hard for everyone in our group to believe that there would be groups in the US carrying out the Nazi’s war. Especially with the war over for so many years.

We were asked to describe the book in one word. Troubling came up, as readers were troubled by the Nazi’s running the training camps and how the Axis powers mistreated each other. Forgiving came up since Frank was asked to forgive so much through the course of the book. And nostalgia as many of our members have fond memories of Detroit in the 50s when Frank was living there.

We had very few complaints about the book. One was that there were too many characters introduced during the Detroit section. We lost track of them and they didn’t come into play in the book again. There was one specific complaint where it was mentioned that in 1956, buses in Detroit were segregated. Our members didn’t remember that at all. There was no true segregation on the buses, though there were buses that stayed north of 8 Mile Road, the border road between the city and the suburbs (is anyone else singing Eminem now? Just me?). This was brought up again when Leon got on the Greyhound and seemed to sit at the front.

Overall, we enjoyed the book and the memories of Michigan that it brought up. It was fun to read a book in our home state. Maybe we’ll be able to again soon.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Review: Wolf’s Mouth by John Smolens (3/5)

8 Jul

I was a little nervous when my book club picked this one. I’d never heard of the author and it was published with a small press. The last time we had a book like this, we didn’t know who had picked it and none of us ended up liking the book. I found out early on that one of our readers had recommended it so I was reassured. I put myself in a rough place, though, because I didn’t start it until the week before our meeting and I needed a bit more time than that to finish. I made it, but with just one day to spare.

Cover Image via Goodreads

Wolf’s Mouth by John Smolens

Summary from Goodreads:

In 1944 Italian officer Captain Francesco Verdi is captured by Allied forces in North Africa and shipped to a POW camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the senior POW, the ruthless Kommandant Vogel, demands that all prisoners adhere to his Nazi dictates. His life threatened, Verdi escapes from the camp and meets up with an American woman, Chiara Frangiapani, who helps him elude capture as they flee to the Lower Peninsula. By 1956 they have become Frank and Claire Green, a young married couple building a new life in postwar Detroit. When INS agent James Giannopoulos tracks them down, Frank learns that Vogel is executing men like Frank for their wartime transgressions. As a series of brutal murders rivets Detroit, Frank is caught between American justice and Nazi vengeance. In Wolf ’s Mouth, the recollections of Francesco Verdi/Frank Green give voice to the hopes, fears, and hard choices of a survivor as he strives to escape the ghosts of history.

I was nervous because I know some people like wolves and want to write a lot about them. I do not like wolves and do not want to read about them. Because I don’t read book summaries, I didn’t know how the wolf would come into play with this book. Lucky for me, it was minimal and this book highlighted a part of my state’s history I knew very little about. I had no idea there were POW camps in northern Michigan! I went on a trip through the UP (Upper Penninsula) right after reading this and the way Smolens describes it is very accurate. I can’t imagine how much more remote it must have been in the 1940s. You’d be hard pressed to escape. I found some parts of this book hard to believe, such as Vogel’s prolonged vendetta. Frank was a very flat character, too. He had to adapt to what happened around him and as such, he didn’t have too much of a personality of his own. The people around him were well drawn and likable, but I wasn’t sure what to think of him. I also had some issues with how the book was paced. It was a slow start, and then once the action started going, there was no breath. We jumped through time to get to the high action and then had to relive a lot of the skipped time in flashbacks through the beginning of the time jump. I was looking for a little more high-and-low in this one.

Besides Frank’s blank personality, the characters around him were very believable. I adored Chiara and I thought she was very brave. She was smart, too, and creative in how she made sure Frank would be safe while they were traveling. I adored the reunification with Adino at the end. It was a very well written and emotional scene, one that brought an actual tear to my eye. You don’t find friendships like that every day.

Claire was my favorite character in the story. I thought the way Frank cared for her was really sweet and I liked how strong she was when faced with such great odds. I cheered for her a lot and I was sad she didn’t make it the whole book. I think she would have been an amazing character for Frank to be growing old with.

There wasn’t much relatable in the plot to me, but the setting was very relatable. My parents have a second house in Northern Michigan and I thought about that place a lot while reading this. I also got to think of Detroit in an earlier era when it was in its heyday and overall had really positive feelings about this book’s setting. It’s clear Smolens is a native, he’s very sweet on the state and portrays it well.

John Smolens.
Image via Amazon

I thought the end was very fitting and I’m going to talk about it now so please skip ahead if you’re not interested. Anton was left with the same things Frank had when he started his life again. He was abandoned outside of Munising and had to keep away from the wild and elements in order to move on with his life. It seemed a bit odd at first, but more and more appropriate as I thought about it and in the end, I was really pleased with it.

The time jumps were disruptive to me. A lot of things were explained that I think could have been left alone. The jump skipped a lot of boring time but then that time was covered so as to avoid leaving a gap. It wasn’t a good solution to what Smolens was trying to accomplish by skipping ahead in time.

Frank has to forgive himself and be forgiven. It was easier for him to forgive himself for putting Claire in danger, for not protecting Adino, and for escaping. He struggled with being forgiven even when he asked for it because he didn’t think he’d done anything needing forgiveness. I think his inability to sympathize with Vogel in any way was a big part of his problem in this book. Vogel was drawn as so clearly evil that you couldn’t find a way to forgive him. And so Frank struggled with it his whole life.

Writer’s Takeaway: Flashbacks are very hard and I have a rather major one in my book that I’m contemplating taking out. I think I will now that I’ve read this book and seen how disruptive it can be. The flow of the story was really thrown off and I wish less had to be explained.

An enjoyable read but a few things about it really kept me from enjoying it. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
Q&A with John Smolens | A Rally of Writers
“Wolf’s Mouth” by John Smolens | Book Nook Book Reviews