Welcome to the second installment of the Bookish Side of Life, a summer reading challenge organized by Kelsey at The Blonder Side of Life. The goal of the challenge is to put books before technology and spend some quality time reading! (You can read the first installment from June here.)
Books Started in July:
–The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, by Hilary Mantel
–Adoption, by Christopher Stone
–Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris
Books Finished in July:
–Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal, by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill
–The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, by Hilary Mantel
–Sitting in Bars With Cake: Lessons and Recipes from One Year of Trying to Bake My Way to a Boyfriend, by Audrey Shulman
–Adoption, by Christopher Stone
–Woburn: Hidden Tales of a Tannery Town, by Marie Coady
–Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, by Stephen Puleo
Goal Complete So Far:
9 / 10
Thoughts on Books Read: (italicized book blurbs from Goodreads)
Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal, by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill
2012, 441 pages
John Connolly and James “Whitey” Bulger grew up together on the streets of South Boston. Decades later, in the mid 1970’s, they would meet again. By then, Connolly was a major figure in the FBI’s Boston office and Whitey had become godfather of the Irish Mob. What happened next — a dirty deal to bring down the Italian mob in exchange for protection for Bulger — would spiral out of control, leading to murders, drug dealing, racketeering indictments, and, ultimately, the biggest informant scandal in the history of the FBI.
Compellingly told by two Boston Globe reporters who were on the case from the beginning, Black Mass is at once a riveting crime story, a cautionary tale about the abuse of power, and a penetrating look at Boston and its Irish population.
This was the book selected for the July meeting of my non-running club book club, where we tend to read books that are due to become movies in the near future. Despite the whole Whitey situation being in the news a lot when I was growing up, I knew relatively little about it all, so I was interested in what I’d learn from this book.
And boy, did I learn a lot. This book was intense. Both in terms of the descriptions of crimes committed by Whitey’s gang (Stevie Flemmi was messed up), and in terms of the writing itself. It was obvious that the authors were journalists who had been working on this story for decades and were thoroughly entrenched, because there was almost too much information. No, you know what? There was too much information. The book was nearly 450 pages, and much of it was details that I didn’t really care about. But that’s me. If I were a Bulger/mob/Southie aficionado then I probably would have loved it. As it was, it was a bit of a slog with a few interesting parts thrown in here and there.
The movie, on the other hand, should be good.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, by Hilary Mantel
2014, 256 pages
Her classic wicked humor in each story—which range from a ghost story to a vampire story to near-memoir to mini-sagas of family and social fracture—brilliantly unsettles the reader in that unmistakably Mantel way.
Mantel brutally and acutely writes about gender, marriage, class, family, and sex, cutting to the core of human experience. Unpredictable, diverse, and even shockingly unexpected, each story grabs you by the throat within a couple of sentences. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher displays a magnificent writer at the peak of her powers.
After the intense slog of Black Mass, I needed some fiction, something a little lighter. Nearly all the books I had started in June while I had Book A.D.D. were nonfiction, so I turned my sights to the book that had recently come on hold in the library for me, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. I’m not typically a fan of short stories, but the description – and, I admit, the title – intrigued me.
Alas, I was disappointed. For one thing, my dislike for short story collections that aren’t related in any way rang true for this book. I’d just get the hang of one of the stories and it would end, and I’d have to start a new one. On top of that, though the stories were fiction, there wasn’t much light about them… they were dark, and not only made me think but also made me wrestle with my thoughts. Definitely not what I needed after Black Mass. And then on top of that, I found Mantel’s writing style a little annoying, a little too flowery and symbol-heavy for what I was in the mood for. It wasn’t terrible, but I didn’t really enjoy it. Let’s just say I’m glad it was a quick read!
Sitting in Bars With Cake: Lessons and Recipes from One Year of Trying to Bake My Way to a Boyfriend, by Audrey Shulman
2015, 208 pages
It’s hard to meet people in a big city, let alone any city. And after living in LA for several years as a single lady, Audrey Shulman turned to baking. But rather than eating her cakes solo over the sink, she brought them to bars, luring guys with a heady dose of butter and sugar.
Sitting in Bars with Cake recounts Audrey’s year spent baking, bar-hopping, and offering slices of cake to men in the hope of finding her boyfriend (or, at the very least, a date). With 35 inventive recipes based on her interactions with guys from all walks of life, from a Sticky Maple Kiss Cake to a Bitter Chocolate Dump Cake, this charming book pairs each cake with a short essay and tongue-in-cheek lesson about picking up boys in bars.
I have two confessions about this book. First, I started reading it in June, but didn’t want to list it in my last Bookish Side of Life post because I was embarrassed to admit I was reading it. NEVER be embarrassed by what you read!! I spent too many years being a snob about books and, maybe it was the whole becoming-a-librarian thing, now I’m in a place where I’ve realized reading anything is awesome. Don’t let the book snobs grind you down!
And my second confession: I feel guilty about having read this book, all book-snobbery aside. You see, readers, the author of this book is dating a guy that my best friend has had a crush on for years. My friend found out recently that not only is this guy dating someone, but he’s also dating someone who spent a year trying to bait random guys with cake, wrote a blog about it, and got a book deal from it. (My friend is also a really good writer with dreams of publishing novels someday, so that made the news even more painful.)
The whole situation was so intriguing that I had to get my hands on the book and see what it was all about. Plus it sounded like an entertaining premise at the very least. Well, I suppose it was. Kind of. I wasn’t as entertained as I’d expected to be. And the book was about 70% cookbook, whereas I assumed the recipes would be an added bonus, rather than the bulk of the book. The fact that I didn’t really like the book alleviates some of my guilt from reading it in the first place, as does the (totally unbiased) knowledge that my friend is a better writer than Shulman. #sorrynotsorry
Adoption, by Christopher Stone
2015, 254 pages (ebook)
Christine Sawyer has been missing for two months. The discovery of her mutilated body will propel Chief of Police Ron Kosciak into a race of life and death with an adversary so evil that even Hannibal Lector would tremble in fear. Frustrated by an increasing body count and no clues, Kosciak relies on every investigative procedure he knows, as well as his gut instincts, in an attempt to discover the killer’s identity. Will he be able to rescue the killer’s latest adoptee, or will she be added to the list of victims? Who will be safe? Who will die when the pieces to the puzzle begin falling into place?
Murder mysteries and thrillers aren’t my typical go-to books (last month’s The Girl on the Train aside), but this one intrigued me… partly because the book is set in Central Massachusetts (where I’m from) and I always love reading books that are set locally and include places I know well. I also felt compelled to read it because I know the author and it’s his first book.
In all honesty, knowing the author actually made it extremely difficult to read this book objectively. The editor pretty much failed at the one job he/she had, and if this had been written by someone I didn’t know, I might have abandoned it early on, unable to deal with the constant typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors. I used to be a copy editor, so it’s pretty painful for me to encounter books like this!
Lack of editing aside, it was a pretty good, especially for a debut novel. The story was interesting, and kept me interested the whole time. It wasn’t quite the page-turner The Girl on the Train was, but it was certainly suspenseful! This book christened my new Kindle (a gift from my mother-in-law), and as a bonus the author gave me a signed copy, which is pretty cool!
Woburn: Hidden Tales of a Tannery Town, by Marie Coady
2008, 155 pages
Although it is only thirteen square miles in size, Woburn boasts a vast history, replete with curious episodes and colorful characters. The town was home to three women accused of witchcraft in the infamous Salem witch trials, and it was the choice camping ground of gypsy queen Marcia Mock in 1917. Discover the nefarious yeggmen who prowled the streets at the beginning of the twentieth century and the seven women known as the Robins, whose friendship inspired a chain letter that has survived for more than fifty years. Woburn: Hidden Tales of a Tannery Town explores the mysteries of Woburn’s landscape, including the deadly Horn Pond, whose waters swallowed more than fifty victims and were long believed to contain vengeful demons. Columnist Marie Coady reveals Woburn’s best-kept secrets with the vibrancy and wit of a true town sleuth.
I’m a sucker for those “Images of America” books… you know, the thin paperbacks in the “local” section of every Barnes & Noble that are full of old photographs? Well, in addition to being a self-proclaimed history nerd, I’m also a wicked nerd for local history, so I eat those books up. I have a small-but-growing collection of them about various Massachusetts towns (though I tend to hold out until I find them in used book stores, because they’re quite expensive!)
This book is similar to the Images of America books, except instead of being a book of random photographs with a few captions and a brief intro, this was a book of short historical anecdotes, supplemented with a few photos. (The archivist in me is happy about this… context!!) Like Images of America, there’s a series of books like this called American Chronicles. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for more of these!
Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, by Stephen Puleo
2004, 280 pages
Around noon on January 15, 1919, a group of firefighters was playing cards in Boston’s North End when they heard a tremendous crash. It was like roaring surf, one of them said later. Like a runaway two-horse team smashing through a fence, said another. A third firefighter jumped up from his chair to look out a window-“Oh my God!” he shouted to the other men, “Run!”
A 50-foot-tall steel tank filled with 2.3 million gallons of molasses had just collapsed on Boston’s waterfront, disgorging its contents as a 15-foot-high wave of molasses that at its outset traveled at 35 miles an hour. It demolished wooden homes, even the brick fire station. The number of dead wasn’t known for days. It would be years before a landmark court battle determined who was responsible for the disaster.
I guess July was the month for Boston(ish) history! First Black Mass, then the Woburn “American Chronicles” book, and then Dark Tide. What can I say? I’m truly a local history nerd.
This topic has fascinated me for years, especially after I lived in Boston’s North End neighborhood, where the flood happened. I always kind of snickered at the thought of a molasses flood; I pictured a puddle of molasses moving sooooo sloooowwwly while people ran comically slow, unable to outrun the sweet, sticky mess. Well, that’s not how it happened at all, and there wasn’t too much about it that was comical. The giant tank burst and a massive wave of molasses exploded, smothering everything in its path in a terrifyingly fast amount of time. In all, 21 people were killed, scores more were injured, and multiple buildings were instantly destroyed, including homes, a brick firehouse, and the city stables.
Dark Tide is a good narrative history, spanning from 1915 when the tank was built to 1927, when the victims and their families were finally paid after the most expensive civil case at that point in Massachusetts history. There were bits that got a bit dull, but for the most part it was a riveting tale from a fascinating time in Boston’s history.
Have you read any of these books? What did you think?
What did you read in July?