Luck Favors the Prepared by Nathaniel Barber

Luck Favors the PreparedLuck Favors the Prepared

by Nathaniel Barber

Kindle Edition, 204 pg.
Take the Stairs Publishing, 2017

Read: July 22 – 24, 2017


If the title is true, Nathaniel Barber was/would have been one of the worst Boy Scouts in the world. You don’t have to read many of these non-fiction short stories to decide that luck and Barber are, at best, passing acquaintances. Which is probably good — they make for better reading that way (Barber, might disagree about the “good” there — it is his life).

These stories don’t detail his life, they give you glimpses into experiences that have stuck with him for one reason or another, and largely they resonated with me. For example, his first (disastrous) experience with being a landlord. His goals for it were pretty much what I’d envisioned the time or three I thought about trying it. How it turned out for him, is pretty much what I feared would happen to me. A lot of what happened to him as a band geek made me think of what it was like when I was one (thankfully, it was a little tamer for me). I’ve never had a coworker like Dale Kendrick, but I can name one or two individuals that easily could’ve been.

Not all of his stories are those the reader will be able to identify with — but there’s something in his telling of them that will allow you to see yourself in that situation, and feel the humanity.

There is one important difference between his life experiences and mine — or most readers’ — his are funny. Or at least the way he’s able to present them is (probably more the latter than the former). Not always in a laugh-out-loud way, sometimes it’ll just be a wry smile, or shake of the head. But Barber’s been able to mine the humor in most of these situations — frequently at his expense.

Each story has a different feel to it, so even though they’re all about the same central character, they’re individual stories. They don’t all flow chronologically — he jumps back and forth though his life, you won’t walk away with a “life story” or anything, you’ll just get a good understanding of various points in his life. It’s like sitting around a table with an old friend, “Did I ever tell you about the time . . . ”

Barber’s writing chops are evident throughout this, whether he’s going for economy of words:

Against the advice of my lawyer and stern warnings from my therapist, I accepted Elsbeth’s invitation to lunch.

or if he’s going for a visual that will stick with you:

Mr. Millson was a short, puggish man. He was skinny except for a cantaloupe gut he not only ignored but allowed to lend heft to his wagging swagger. He was short and compensated for this with a simmering, constant temper, always fired up and red-faced. Even when he was just trying to schmooze an extra scoop of Jell-O from the lunch lady. His lips were not lips, but the absence of lips. Sweaty flaps, really. Fleshy bits of face he pursed to a thin, kissy embouchure under a bulbous, alcoholic nose.

you get exactly the idea he was going for — this isn’t some sort of arty-ambiguity here, it’s a precise brushstroke. He wants you to feel what he felt, he wants you to see what he saw — and he wants you to at least grin about it. Sometimes he’s not that subtle; infrequently, he could be more skillful about it — but he’s hitting his targets, he’s evoking memories about embarrassments of our youth, empathy over similar struggles of young adulthood, or a slight feeling of dread knowing that’s exactly how you’d react in that situation. Thankfully, he generally wants that to be followed with a chuckle.

Creative, distinctive, amusing — this collection will leave you wanting to see more from Nathaniel Barber, while being very glad you have this.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion and participation in this book tour. I appreciated the book, but my opinions expressed are my own.

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4 Stars

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A Few Quick Questions With…Nathaniel Barber

Like many things in this Book Tour stop, getting this Q&A together almost didn’t happen — but Barber stepped up and got some good A’s together for the Q’s a I threw at him. All while prepping for a book release party. Couldn’t have been easy, but it’s much appreciated.

There was a good deal of jumping around in time in your arrangement here, why did you choose not to start with young Nathaniel and move forward? Was there a strategy (that you care to share) behind the arrangement?

I’m aware that jumping around the timeline could seem like a gimmick. I understood that was a risk but it was a risk I felt was worth taking.

Chronology is a tool. It is very useful. It sets the pace and sometimes, when there’s a lot of messiness and moving parts, chronology can be the only thing that holds a narrative together.

Arranging these stories in chronological order demanded segues between the chapters. They just didn’t read right without them. Maybe it was somehow possible, but I was having a bear of a time trying to make them flow. These segues were lengthy and distracting. You can imagine, for example, the acrobatics required to naturally transition between hosting an exchange student from Paris, to an obsession about pants.

“Time passed. The days grew into weeks and my thoughts turned to pants…” and so on. No thank you.

I admire brevity. While these stories could use a bit more economy of language, the subject matter is very tight. The scope of the story is singular and isolated. These stories stand on their own. I like that about a short story. It demands so much from the reader: they must put the pieces together themselves. A short story reader is a smart reader. With barely enough information, they’re able to carry the weight. It’s participatory. A shared experience.

Similarly — what led to you choosing the events to write about?
Really, the stories chose me. I know that sounds glib. I can’t help but roll my eyes when I hear authors say things like, “The stories chose me.” But it’s true. As I mentioned, I struggled with these stories to an obscene length. They simply would not let me alone. Many of them were not easy to tell. I would have preferred something witty and artful, but instead I got stuck with these plain-jane stories. They’ve grown on me since though. I’ve developed a great appreciation for banality, thanks to these stories.
What was the biggest surprise about the writing itself? Either, “I can’t believe X is so easy!” or “If I had known Y was going to be so hard, I’d have skipped this and watched more TV”.
The biggest surprise for me was that there would be an end to working on these stories. Writing and editing a story is a suffocating experience. Sometimes it seems they will never be finished. Their arc, the characters and the concepts that are juggled around a story are sometimes so nebulous and scattershot it seems like a game of whack-a-mole. But I kept working on them, and eventually, story by story, I wrote that last sentence. It’s quite a thing, when you know you wrote the last sentence, even if it still needs to go through a number of edits—it’s a thrilling process, to fine-tune that last sentence.
A lot of what makes a writer are the books that he’s read — what books in particular do you think made you the writer you are/the book the book it is?
Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos and Pat Conroy’s The Death of Santini and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Alice Munro’s Dear Life.
You’re leading quite the interesting life — is there another book in you? (or are you waiting to see how this goes?)
Yes, I contain multitudes (to quote Whitman). Luck Favors The Prepared is a way of asking for permission to write more. I have so much more in me, I can’t wait to get it out there. There’s two books of rhyme and meter poetry on the way. One is a book of childish poems for adults, and the other is a book of grown-up poems for children. What could go wrong? Also, soon I’ll have another collection of nonfiction short stories (and some fiction short stories) as well as as novel which I’ve begun but I hate. I hope I fall in love with this novel soon because so far, the outlook is grim. It doesn’t seem very funny, it deals with a lot of awful, horrible characters. There is violence, there are some terribly graphic scenes I don’t know how to write yet. And worst of all, I have no idea what will redeem the story. So, the jury’s out on that one.

Hungry Heart (Audiobook) by Jennifer Weiner

Hungry Heart (Audiobook) Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing

by Jennifer Weiner , Jennifer Weiner (Narrator)

Unabridged Audiobook, 13 hrs, 15 min.
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2016
Read: February 6 – 14, 2017


I’m not the biggest Jennifer Weiner fan in the world, nor am I in her target demographic in any way, shape, or form — but I’ve enjoyed (in some cases more) those books of hers that I’ve read. So I figured there was a better than even chance that I’d appreciate this collection of essays about her life, career, love life, dogs, social media and more. It’s also read by Weiner herself, which is almost always a winning characteristic for me.

Sadly, this audiobook was better in theory than it was in real life.

There’s a scene in the last season of Gilmore Girls where Logan points out to Rory that despite her prejudices, attitudes and belief, she’s actually part of the same privileged class that he is — which she doesn’t take too well (understandably). I kept thinking about that as I listened to some of Weiner’s tales of woe about her childhood and college life. I’m not saying that she didn’t have problems in her childhood, that she didn’t have trials that no one should have to go through, or overcome a lot in her professional life. But man…the self-pity was overblown — she got an Ivy League education, came out of it with less debt than many people I know who went to less prestigious schools, took a high school trip to Israel, and a largely pleasant childhood.

It doesn’t get much better when she starts talking about her adult life, either. She assumes sexism — and has faced, continues to face, and will probably face a good deal of it in the future — but seems to have some fairly strong gender biases herself. She will frequently say something like “As a woman, I know I’m supposed to be X in this situation.” Almost every time she said something like that I thought, actually a man in the same situation would be expected to behave the same way — it may not be honest, healthy, or “authentic” in the contemporary understanding — but it’s what how an adult person in polite Western culture should act.

Oddly, for someone who lamented her own inability to be a stay-at-home mom/writer, the scorn she displays for stay-at-home moms later in the book seems out of character. Actually, she is dismissive of people with other beliefs and convictions than hers. I’m not suggesting for a moment that she shouldn’t be an opinionated person (of any sex), but it’s hard to respect anyone who can’t reason with their opponents with out dismissing or vilifying them.

I actually had a few more things in my notes along those things, but seeing this on the screen makes me want to stop before this becomes a diatribe against the book. Because, believe it or not, I enjoyed this book — when she tells a narrative or goes for a laugh, I really got into the book and wanted to hear more. It’s when she gets on her soapbox or when she doles out advice that wouldn’t work for women less-well-off than she is, I couldn’t enjoy it.

If anything, this book makes me like her fiction more — because the flawed people she writes about are a lot more relatable than she presents herself as. But listening (I think reading would be better — see below) to Weiner describe her problems with overeating, or the journey to get her first book published (and the real life experiences that shaped the book), her mother’s reactions to her book tours, getting the movie In Her Shoes made, stories about her dogs, and so on — man, I really liked that and would’ve gladly consumed more of that kind of thing.

As an audiobook, this was a disappointment. I found the little sound effect/chime thing between chapters grating. Weiner’s reading was too slow and her cadence demonstrates that she reads a lot to her kids. Which would be fine if the prose matched, but it didn’t.

I can’t rate this too low — it was well-written I laughed, I felt for her and some of the other people she talked about in a way that I can’t justify rating below a 3. But man, I want to.

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3 Stars

The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee by R. David Cox

The Religious Life of Robert E. LeeThe Religious Life of Robert E. Lee

by R. David Cox
Series: Library of Religious Biography

PDF (will be published as paperback), 259 pg.
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017

Read: December 25, 2016 – January 1, 2017

I feel always as safe in the wilderness as in a crowded city. I know in whose powerful hands I am, & in them rely, & I feel that in all our life we are upheld & sustained by Divine Providence. But that Providence requires us to use the means he has put under our control. He deigns no blessing to idle & inactive wishes, & the only miracle he now exhibits to us, is the power he gives to truth & justice, to work their way in this wicked world.

So wrote Robert E. Lee in a letter to his wife while serving in Texas, and according to R. David Cox it summarizes his theology. If you have to sum up a man’s theology in 3 sentences, that’s a decent one to have.

Robert E. Lee was no theologian, he wasn’t a pastor or preacher or religious scholar of any kind. He was a churchman, however. Seemingly a faithful one who served as he could — and he was a believer in the middle of a tumultuous time for American Protestantism and American as a whole, as such what he thought about the tumult from his religious perspective is instructive and fascinating reading. Which is pretty much why anyone might want to read this (and probably why Cox wrote the thing).

By and large, the book is a chronological look at Lee’s life, what’s going on in the national and ecclesiastical culture, and how Lee (and his family members — particularly his wife) responded to it and how his faith grew throughout his life. It’s not exactly a biography, but it is biographical. There were a couple of chapters that stepped back from the chronological look, and examined Lee’s perspectives on specific topics (the above quotation about providence comes from one of those). I particularly enjoyed and appreciated those.

I was surprised how little space was devoted to the years of The War Between the States, honestly. It may be that there wasn’t that much material — Lee was probably too busy to write a lot of things in letters that he might normally have (like: thoughts about sermons heard, theology, ecclesiastical concerns, etc.), that’d certain be understandable. Cox might be the one historian who doesn’t like writing about that time period. It might just be that his pre- and post- War writings were better material for the book — there are any number of good reasons for it, I was just surprised that the one thing the man is best known for is so little represented in the book.

One of the drawbacks of this book is the author’s perspective on Lee himself (at least what came across to me as his perspective, I could have read him wrong, he could have written it in such a way as to be easily misinterpreted, etc.). I’m not saying that I want a hagiography, nor do I want Cox to be some sort of Lee fanboy. A critical eye is essential. There’s an element of Chronological Snobbery (to borrow Lewis’ phrase) here when reflecting on Lee’s racial and political views. I have no problem with Cox disagreeing with them (I disagree with many of them), but he came across as patronizing (at least on the border of it). To a lesser degree, I thought the same about some of Lee’s religious views. But this didn’t crop up often, and when it did, it was easy to gloss over or ignore. It’s a drawback to the book, but not a reason to avoid it. If anything, Cox came across as detached and neutral when it came to the subject and his religion (it was impossible to tell if Cox shared any aspect of belief with Lee) 98% of the time. It’s just that 2% or so . . .

This is a part of Eerdman’s Library of Religious Biography series — which I hadn’t heard of until now. I have one sitting at the top of my To Be Bought pile (talked about it last month in a Saturday Miscellany post), but I didn’t realize it was part of a series. The books in the series are intended to “link the lives of their subjects – not always thought of as ‘religious’ persons – to the broader cultural contexts and religious issues that surrounded them.” It’s a fascinating concept, and I’m glad this series exists. I hope to get more of them soon.

This was a fascinating read, if a bit dry and detached. Neither’s bad, and may be commendable under the right circumstances (which may include such a divisive figure as Lee), but it doesn’t make for the best read. That, plus my ambivalence towards some of Cox’s attitudes toward the subject, makes me rate this 3 Stars. That’s still a recommendation, and I’ll gladly tell anyone to read it — believer or nonbeliever — if they want to understand Lee better, but I’m not that enthusiastic about the book.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this opportunity.
N.B.: As this was an ARC, any quotations above may be changed in the published work — I will endeavor to verify them as soon as possible.

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3 Stars

Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick

Scrappy Little NobodyScrappy Little Nobody

by Anna Kendrick

Hardcover, 271 pg.
Touchstone, 2016

Read: December 22 – 26, 2016


Unlike some of the celebrity memoirs I’ve read this year (and yeah, there’s been a lot of them — I’m not sure why), this is a pretty straight-forward one. Roughly chronological, it covers Kendrick’s life and career from childhood to the last year or two. What separates this is Kendrick’s voice — it is so strong, so funny (I almost wish I’d gone for the audiobook version — narrated by the author — instead for her literal, not just authorial, voice), so brutal.

Thankfully, she saves most of her mockery for herself, so she comes across as charmingly self-deprecatory and insecure.

I’m not sure what to say about this, without resorting to a very long list of quotations that will be too long, and yet not long enough.

I chuckled often, I enjoyed the look at her life and strange childhood; the behind-the-scenes anecdotes about some of her films and award-shows; the present-day social awkwardness. I may not have much to say, but it’s only because my brain isn’t firing right tonight (it seems), not because the book doesn’t deserve it.

If you’re a fan of Kendrick’s, you’ll enjoy this. If you wouldn’t call yourself a fan, but have enjoyed some of her work, you’ll probably enjoy this. If you don’t know anything about her, you still might like this (and get a list of movies to go look into).

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4 Stars

Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham

Talking as Fast as I CanTalking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls, and Everything in Between

by Lauren Graham
Hardcover, 205 pg.
Ballantine Books, 2016

Read: December 12 – 31, 2016

This book isn’t a proper autobiography or anything (doesn’t claim to be, either); it’s stories, memories, thoughts and humorous bits that Lauren Graham shares about her life and career.  She uses the revival of Gilmore Girls as an excuse to look back on her both to this point, as her career is marked by looking back this year. I haven’t seen the new Gilmore episodes (still working my way through the series with my kids), so I could’ve read the material discussing that a little closer — although I did think the tributes to Edward Herrmann fitting and touching.

The book covers pretty much what you’d expect from an actor’s memoirs — discussion of her childhood, paying her acting dues, education, her big break and so on. All told with wit and charm. Graham’s personality shines forth and really draws you in. She spends a good amount of time talking about the original run of Gilmore Girls, Parenthood, and her novel. I was glad to see that she did that — so many actors/celebrities don’t give that much time or space to the things that made someone want to read their books in the first place.

A few of the highlights of this book are from the parts that aren’t de rigueur. There’s a section on eating and health tips, that made me laugh out loud — Graham learned the same lesson Jim Gaffigan and Weird Al did — food jokes work 99. 6% of the time. There’s some really good writing advice that Graham was given by a friend that helped her to finish this book — and seems like the kind of thing that could help many authors. There’s some recurring jokes about Ellen DeGeneres and the cast of Today. I don’t want to suggest those are all the highlights, but they’re are good sample. 

Most of the book feels like Graham set her phone to “Voice to Text” and cut loose. But there’s no way that it would’ve come out as good if that’s what she did — that kind of feel is the result of a lot of hard work and planning. It all paid off, this was one of the more enjoyable books to read that I’ve tackled recently — don’t get me wrong, the content was good, too — but the writing was as smooth as silk. Unlike that sentence. Between this and her novel, it’s clear that Graham’s really quite a writer, I hope to see more from her.

This was a fast, breezy read — a lot of fun with plenty of heart. Pretty much everything you want from/would expect from Graham. A sure fan pleaser.

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3.5 Stars

Life Outside the Box by Marilyn R. Wilson Book Tour

Welcome to our Book Tour stop for Life Outside the Box. Along with this blurb about the book I’ve got an interview with the author, Marilyn R. Wilson coming up soon (the link’ll work when the post goes live).

Book Details:

Book Title:  Life Outside the Box (Second Edition)
Author: Marilyn R. Wilson
Category: Adult non-fiction, 236 pages
Genre: Inspiration / biography / fashion
Publisher: Real People Real Lives Press
Release date: Oct 27, 2016

Book Description:

This second edition offers new content added to each and every chapter – personal author reflections from behind the scenes.

Get inspired to step out of your box and embrace your potential. From the corporate world, to the arts, to working with the disenfranchised, the message is clear: there is no such thing as a normal way to live your life and no one right solution to any problem. Selected from over a hundred interviews, the stories shared here open a window on the journeys of seven women and three men who have charted their own paths, including Ruthie Davis–top US luxury shoe designer and the winner of the 2014 AAFA Footwear Designer of the Year award; and Geir Ness whose perfume is a staple in Nordstrom, Disney World, and on Disney Cruise Lines. Enjoy a glimpse behind the scenes into the unique ways these individuals have chosen to deal with life’s challenges and how they define success in their careers.

Buy the Book

Amazon ~ Barnes & Noble

Meet the Author:

Marilyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer and speaker with a passion for interviewing. Her career as a writer began in an unusual way, by answering a Craigslist ad. It was while conducting her first interview the world Marilyn R. Wilsonshifted – she had found her passion. Since 2006, she has interviewed over 150 people from as near as her hometown of Vancouver, Canada, and as far away as South Africa.

​Whether through a random encounter on the New York subway or via a one-on-one interview with an internationally recognized artist, the goal is the same-to give wings to the unique journeys of inspiring individuals. This goal first led the author to co-launch a successful, innovative magazine focused on professionals working in the fashion industry paired with photography and illustrations by local artists. Then in 2015, Wilson took her passion to a new audience with the release of her first book, the first in a series featuring the lives of real people living real lives.
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