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review 2018-04-26 12:02
The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA
The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA - Doug Mack

Quick: name the 4 American territories that aren't Puerto Rico.


I'm betting my BookLikes friends are the most likely to know some of them, but probably not all of them.  Of the 5 populated territories, I knew of 4, although I couldn't have reeled them off on command; 1 (Northern Mariana Islands) was completely new to me.


Now, how many of us could speak knowledgeably about what it means to be a territory of the US?  Are they citizens?  Can they vote?  Do they pay taxes?  Does the US Constitution apply to them?  Answers: Yes, except American Somoa. Not for president, although they can vote in presidential primaries.  No.  Yes, but only some of it - the parts that Congress arbitrarily decides to apply.


Sounds all kinds of screwed up, doesn't it?  What's more screwed up though is that I knew almost none of this, and most Americans don't either.  That's what prompted me to buy this book - it's embarrassing not to know this stuff about my own country, especially living overseas and being asked by people: what's the deal with Guam? and having to respond um... it's an island?


Doug Mack is a travel writer with a degree in American Studies, and he didn't know either, but he decided to dig into the issues that make the territories not states and try to find out why they've so completely fallen off the radar of almost all Americans, including our politicians (a congressman introduced the American Samoan representative as being from American Samolia - and massacred the man's name).  Mack visited each of the 5 territories himself, talking to whomever he could, researching their cultures and searching out the very little written about them over the decades, and speaking to the two (2!) people in the country well versed enough in the legalities to answer constitutional questions.


The results are enlightening, horrifying, and eye-opening.  Most Americans probably know about Puerto Rico's seesaw to-be-or-not-to-be-a-state, but the other territories are quite happy not being a state.  Further, American Samoans - the only territory where the residents are not US citizens (they're residents, but without the green card) - are, for the most part, happy not being citizens.  That's not to say there aren't extreme disadvantages and challenges for the territories, but Mack does a brilliant job illustrating just how difficult it is for them to balance being American with preserving their distinctive cultures and identities.  Mack also outlines brief histories of each territory, and some of the legal precedence for why they are set up the way they are, and why it's so hard to define their place in the US.  Or, you know, remember they exist.


This is a huge task and though he does it entertainingly, he does not pretend to do it comprehensively.  Every part of this subject is a quagmire of questions that have no easy answers and no good solutions.  But Mack's willing to give it a try, and he does it in a very readable, balanced narrative.  The talking points are innumerable - MT and I have discussed this book's points until we're both hoarse - and for that alone, the author gets 4.5 stars from me.  MT felt like a few questions went unanswered, and he's less than thrilled about my new enthusiasm for an American Samoa holiday (it's a seafood thing), but he's not reviewing this book, I am, and I say if you have any interest in the part of America that isn't often thought of as being part of America, this would definitely be a great place to start.

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review 2018-04-16 11:18
Born in a Bookshop
Born in a Bookshop: Chapter from the Chicago Renascence - Vincent Starrett

Not the book I expected.  I bought it because it was advertised to be a book about a bookman - and it is, but it's a biography of Starrett's life, not a memoir of his book buying and selling.  Almost nothing at all about his bookman role, actually.  What he talks about most are his days as a journalist and author, name dropping his way from first to last.  That's not a criticism, but I knew almost none of the names, which makes the whole exercise tedious rather than interesting.


Mostly, this book was both out of my league and not what I was looking for, but that's my fault, not the author's. 

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review 2018-04-02 10:31
My Life with Bob: Flawed heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues
My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues - Pamela Paul

I had no real idea what to expect from this book; the subtitle guaranteed I was going to read it, but how do you write a book about your personal reading list?


You don't, as it turns out.  You use it as context, a frame from which you hang your memoirs.  That's not to say that books and a love of reading isn't prominent - it is.  I'd call it a 60/40 split, memoir to books.  But at the end, the reader is going to know way more about Pamela Paul than about her list of books read.


And Pamela Paul is an interesting person on paper (I don't presume to know what she'd be like in reality).  Some readers might find the focus on her world travels heavy-handed, but she spends enough time on her childhood to make it clear hers was not a privileged upbringing.  She and I are the same age, and our lives, both in childhood and early adulthood have some interesting parallels, although quite a few ginormous differences. (Among others, she assumes every girl of our generation who read A Wrinkle in Time found it a life changing classic.  I did not.  Even as a kid I was bored by all things space, dooming it from the start, but I clearly remember reading it as part of my schoolwork and thinking it heavy-handed and ... please forgive me for saying this, condescending.)  


Overall, I felt it easy to relate to her and the inner-self she lets the reader see, and how books played a pivotal part.  Just about everything I read about the book beforehand mentioned the humor and wit with which it was written.  I can see that's true, but - and this bugged me the entire time, because I couldn't figure out why - I couldn't feel it.  I knew there were parts that were meant to be funny, but they didn't affect me the way they were meant to, nor the way I thought they should have.  Somehow, the timing of my reading and her writing were off.  This meant that while I really enjoyed the book, I finished it feeling like there was a failure somewhere in the transmission from the page to my brain.


It's a thought provoking read both in terms of how and what we read, and the events of our lives.  Will possibly do terrible things to a reader's TBR.

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review 2018-03-08 04:44
The Camelot Caper
The Camelot Caper - Elizabeth Peters

If you've ever read a romantic suspense title by Elizabeth Peters, you'll know what you're getting here.  If you haven't, expect a lot of narrative banter, outstanding atmosphere and setting, outstanding if superficial characterisations, a vintage version of insta-love, and an insanely silly plot that is nevertheless well researched and intricately laid out.  The villains are never a surprise, but their motives - at least for me - almost always are.


The Camelot Caper starts off in the midst of action, as Jess is on a random bus going to an unknown destination in England, escaping from men who are pursuing her for unknown reasons.  No build up, just bang!  Except then we're subjected to the flash back necessary to catch the reader up and I find that device dull, dull, dull.  I dislike the hurry-up-and-wait feel of it, so while the book started off great, it immediately bogged down for me until page 35 or so, when everyone gets on the same page (so to speak), and the silly bits of the plot start to kick in.  The scene on the bus might be one of Peters' best comic efforts I've yet read.


The rest is fast pace and fun and even though Peters' characters step in it at every opportunity, almost constantly putting themselves in peril, the writing at least made the constant beatings thrilling in a way not dissimilar to roller coasters designed for kids (Big Thunder Mountain at Disney World, for example).  That might sound like I'm damning the book with faint praise, but Big Thunder Mountain is just my speed:  fun without being terrifying and leaving me just a tiny bit exhilarated at the end.  The Camelot Caper is definitely a "C" ticket ride, at least.


This book qualifies for the Kill Your Darlings game's COD card "Antique Hunting Rifle":  the setting is never dated, though it was first published in 1969, but Elizabeth Peters first name shares an "E" with "rifle'.

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review 2018-02-27 02:02
The Virago Book Of Women Gardeners
The Virago Book Of Women Gardeners - Deborah Kellaway

This started out as a 5 star read for me, but as with any anthology, some of the writing bogged me down, made my eyes glaze, and skimming was taking place.  Especially those excepts that ran more like garden inventories; I loved reading about new plants, but there are only so many latin botanical names one can read in a row before it all starts looking like Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet...


Most of it was great though, if you're a gardener.  It's a collection of excerpts, essays, diary entries, even a little poetry here and there, written by women known for their mad gardening skills and wickedly green thumbs throughout history.  It's all non-fiction, and the book bursts with suggestions for plants; mostly oriented to the UK, with a little USA thrown in.  I did a LOT of googling while I read, and most of the plants that caught my eye are available in some form or another here in Australia, the country with draconian import laws, so despite the bias in the book, there should be something for every gardener here.


Also, the cover is gorgeous.

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