Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden

dead endBook – This is the memoir of the great-great-great granddaughter of the industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt. Burden’s look back at her life contains very little warm sentiment. Perhaps her writing is catharsis for dealing with painful memories. She is the product of a dysfunctional family and a distinctly un-maternal mother, yet she recalls her past with acerbic humor. That sense of humor, and material drawn from the lifestyles of extremely privileged relatives combines for an interesting read.

Burden’s biography is populated with over-the-top characterizations of her family, servants, and numerous pets. These descriptions are often un-flattering, scandalous, and frequently successful in their aim to amuse. I admire the fact that she does not spare herself from this lampooning treatment. Burden begins her chronology at a point immediately after her father’s suicide, when she was approximately six years old. Her forthright portrait of her youthful self as a troublemaker who strove to emulate Wednesday from The Addams Family is disturbing and intriguing. Perhaps these traits are understandable for an individual who felt impoverished of family love.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

yes pleaseBookYes Please boldly presents personal stories and thoughts from the star of Parks and Recreation, Saturday Night Live, and Baby Mama. Rather than proceeding strictly chronologically, this autobiography humorously weaves through short chapters on topics such as being a teenager in the eighties, personal beauty, and her bond with her sons. Her passion for improvisational comedy is evident from several anecdotes relating to her starving artist days spent learning from “gurus” of the craft, co-founding The Upright Citizens Brigade, and working part-time at Chicago’s Second City.

It was refreshing to listen to this memoir narrated by a quick-to-laugh author and her assorted celebrity-friends that included: Patrick Stewart, Kathleen Turner, Seth Meyers, and Poehler’s parents. Poehler’s levity obviously infected them as well. Utilizing humor she effectively communicates deeper emotions when describing the difficulties of divorce, traveling in a third-world country, and dealing with guilt. Another advantage of the audiobook is the final chapter, which is recorded in front of a live audience at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.

Living With a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living With a Wild GodBook – Raised atheist by her upwardly-mobile, blue- and then white-collar parents, Barbara Ehrenreich set out on a quest when she was a teenager: to discover the meaning of life. She studied science and philosophy, but mostly she worked through the tough problems on her own, without any assumptions that the answers were already out there waiting for her. And then, when she was sixteen, she had an episode which she thought of then as a bout of schizophrenia, but which she now refers to as a mystical experience, a contact with an intelligence profoundly and completely other than herself.

Most famous for Nickel and Dimed, her analysis of the working poor in America in the late 90s, this book is a little outside Ehrenreich’s usual subject matter, but just as fascinating. She deconstructs her childhood journal entries and her present-day thinking ruthlessly, and she still never assumes that the answers are out there waiting for her, only that it’s important to look for them anyway, and to keep looking, even when what we find is different from what we expect.

I listened to the audiobook, read by the author, but I can’t recommend it – she reads like an academic presenting a paper at a conference. I loved the book despite the dry narration, however, and I think anyone interested in the intersection of science, religion, atheism, and spirituality would enjoy this as well.

Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

emptyBook – There is something about the extravagant mansions of the early industrialists that elicits morbid curiosity. In Empty Mansions : the mysterious life of Huguette Clark and the spending of a great American fortune true stories about some eccentric mansions and the people that lived in them are revealed. This bestselling book is written by Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Dedman, and a cousin of the heiress Huguette Clark, Paul Clark Newell, Jr. The mystery of Hugette’s life required an extra bit of investigative work on the authors’ parts because Hugette was shy and very reclusive. She passed away in 2011 at the age of 105.

I found the story of Huguette’s father, W.A. Clark, impressive. He was a risk-taking pioneer in Montana that worked his way up to becoming wealthier than Rockefeller during his lifetime. Unfortunately, his copper mining business also began widespread damage upon the Montana ecosystem. The large fortune he left to Hugette provided her the opportunity to make some outrageous decisions in how she chose to spend it.

No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty

no plotBook - Have you heard of NaNoWriMo? It’s a no-holds-barred, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing, an international challenge where thousands of people commit to an insane goal: to write a 50,000-word novel in the 30 days of November. No Plot? No Problem! is NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty’s instructional manual for the project. It covers everything from why you might want to try such a crazy project in the first place to how to motivate yourself past the week two slump, as well as offering tips and suggestions for how to plan your attack on your novel. I re-read this every year, a week at a time, to help me through my novel writing. I like Baty’s irreverant style and the attitude he brings to the project: it’s a nice reminder that even an insane goal is fun and worth pursuing.

If you’re interested in joining NaNoWriMo, it’s not too late! You can still sign up for an account on the official site to track your progress and meet other writers. Join us on two Saturdays this month, November 15th and 22nd, for afternoon write-ins. Share the companionship of other writers, compete in Word Wars, earn an entry into the 2014 Naperville Region Library Crawl prize drawing, and, of course – write!

Catch Me If You Can by Frank Abagnale

Catch Me If You CanBook - Catch Me if You Can is the story of Frank Abagnale Jr. Frank was a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, and a teaching assistant at a college all before he was twenty years old and all without a high school diploma. Catch Me If You Can tells his exploits as one of the most successful con men in history. I was absolutely floored when I heard some of the things he was able to get away with. I had to remind myself over and over that the era was a very different one and that computers were nowhere near as sophisticated as they are now, but still, the things people will believe when wrapped up in a believable package were almost sad.

One thing that really struck me in listening to this book, which Frank Abagnale has stated was exaggerated to a degree due to the co-writer’s editor’s demands, was the complete lack of malice in all of his actions. Not once did he set out to ‘get’ the little guy, he always targeted big corporations or banks with his scams. The man is brilliant and has since transferred his way of thinking towards helping the FBI and banks combat fraud.

I listened to the audiobook version and loved it. His story was also adapted into a movie and he is the only living person with a Broadway play based on his life.

Virtual Unreality by Charles Seife

virtualBook – The subtitle on this book is “Just because the Internet told you, how do you know it’s true?” As anyone who’s ever spent much time on the Internet knows, a lot of what’s out there isn’t true at all, whether it’s from someone making a joke, someone who isn’t as informed as they thought they were, or from someone who’s actively trying to mislead you. Seife gives an overview of all these kinds of Internet-enabled misinformation as well as tips on how to spot tricks and scams.

While Seife’s writing style is entertaining, full of jokes and sarcasm, his hyperbole can be misleading itself. He mentions the immanent death of libraries at least twice, even though libraries are actually seeing more use now than they have in the past. That kind of thing makes me skeptical of the rest of the information he gives – just like he recommends that you be skeptical of a website when some of its information is wrong. Seife has a bias against online information in general, and that comes through loud and clear. Still, his advice for evaluating the things you find online is good, so readers can get practice by applying the same kind of critical reading skills to Seife’s own book before the venture onto the Web.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

funGraphic Novel- Fun Home is a graphic novel memoir depicting the childhood of author, Alison Bechdel, and her relationship with her father, Bruce. Bruce is obsessed with restoring their Victorian home, is a third generation funeral director, a high school English teacher, and a closeted homosexual. He has a wife, two other children, and several male lovers. This novel takes the reader on a journey through the last few years of his life, up until he dies because of a freak accident. Or was it suicide?

Bechdel inserts many literary references into her narrative, which, in my opinion, diminishes the story and the characters. I think the story had more potential than what was transcribed, and I would have liked it more if the writing wasn’t so erudite. I attempted her second graphic novel memoir, Are you my Mother?, but found it written in the same style, and quickly abandoned it. If you are intrigued by scholarly and intellectual writing, this novel is for you.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! by Richard Ned Lebow

archdukeBook - On the 28th of June, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo, an event which is now commonly regarded as the spark that kicked off World War I. In this book, Lebow considers what might have happened if the assassin had missed. The Archduke, he argues, was an important moderate voice in European politics, and if he had lived, war may have been avoided. But what would the world look like if one of the deadliest conflicts of the twentieth century had never happened?

Lebow offers two alternatives: a particularly good world, in which the absence of war creates an open, moderate, and prosperous global community; and a particularly bad one, in which the tensions which contributed to the Great War continue without ever breaking into outright war, creating an atmosphere of oppression and paranoia. He admits that either set of events is as plausible as the other, and we’ll never be able to test his guesses, but he also argues that thinking about how things could have been different helps us to understand why things happened the way they did.

Since the book focuses so much on individual people, it’s easy to get lost in a long list of names and titles, particularly since half of the book is describing things that these people never actually did. I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to the war, but for someone already a little familiar with the events, this is an interesting new angle.

How Not to be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg

how notBook – Jordan Ellenberg, professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has written a book about math: not how you learned it in high school, but how it really is. We’re not talking about addition and subtraction here, or even algebra or calculus. (Well, a little calculus.) What Ellenberg is talking about in this book is the way math works, the way math shapes the world, and the way we can use math to change how we understand the world.

As a bonus, Ellenberg is pretty entertaining while he’s teaching. Examples range from baseball statistics to politics to con artists, and the book is liberally scattered with amusing footnotes. For example, from a description of how not to add percentages, using the Florida 2000 election results as an illustration:

Yes, I, too, know that one guy who thought both Gore and Bush were tools of the capitalist overlords and it didn’t make a difference who won. I am not talking about that guy.

This is a massively enlightening and entertaining book, and if you like having your mind blown but always suffered through trig by looking things up in the back of the book and praying you’d remember the formulas long enough to get through the test, you may enjoy How Not to be Wrong more than you might think.