Book(s) Review: Last Hundred Year Trilogy by Jane Smiley

I read a lot of books, as reading fiction is one of my favorite hobbies.  I make great use of our public library, and I keep tabs on new books that they get through an RSS feed that gets updated whenever they get something in.  I’ll take a look, and will mark the book for a read if it looks interesting enough (and often, I’ll check Goodreads to see what other readers think).

mb-2016-02-booksAbout a year ago, a book appeared that I knew I’d like, called Some Luck by Jane Smiley.  It was the first book in a trilogy that she was releasing over the course of about a year that would chronicle a family over the course of 100 years, which happened to be 1920-2019.  Yes, the book goes ‘into the future’ but I’ll cover that at the proper time.

I was intrigued, the ratings for the book were good, and as she’s an accomplished author, it looked great.  I’ve recently completed the trilogy, and thought it was interesting enough to post a review, breaking down the review by each book.

Some Luck

The book starts off with Walter and Rosanna, the patriarch and matriarch of the Langdon family settling into their newly acquired farm in Iowa in 1920.  Every chapter covers one year, and each ‘year’ is told from the view of individual characters.  This early, many of the chapters are concentrated with just one person, but as the family tree expands, multiple perspectives can often be found within one chapter.

The bottom line is that I love this book.  The book talks about life on the farm, which is always of interest to me as I envision a ‘simpler time’, and keeps things interwoven with major events of the time, such as the Great Depression and World War II.

We’re introduced to their children as they are born, and we get to see them start to grow up and make their way in the world.  By the end of the book, which is now in the early 1950’s, most of the storytelling has shifted to the ‘2nd generation’ as many of them grow up and start to make their mark across the country.  This generation starts expanding the scope from beyond the farm and the town which it resides, which is very representative of the times.

This was a great book and I was extremely excited for more.

Early Warning

The second book opens after a major event took place at the end of the first book, which definitely puts the shift squarely on the 2nd generation.  The book focuses on Walter and Rosanna’s children, and of course, the next generation is introduced as the characters age.

The 2nd generation is probably the most impactful of the entire trilogy, since they’re the only generation that spans across all three novels.  You really feel that you’re getting to know these characters more so than any other ones, so this is a very enjoyable novel.

Most of the Langdon family turns out to be very successful, and again, the different events of the times are interwoven into the storyline, through the story is really very character driven.

By the time the third generation is fully ‘populated’, if you will, the number of characters to keep track of has grown substantially.  There is a family tree in the front of each book, and at about mid-way through the 2nd book, you often have to go back and reference what lineage a character might be part of, especially, as is often the case, several chapters might go by between having a character in focus.

At the end of the book, we’ve hit the late 1980’s and since that’s the time where I really became aware of the world from a ‘big picture’ perspective, it’s really cool to read this story and having a point of reference from the time and what was going on.

The storytelling was great, though with all the extra characters, it made it more difficult to ‘bond’ with the characters.  Still, I was very excited for the conclusion.

Golden Age

This book wraps up the 100 years, going through present time (2015 as that’s when the book was released), and even extending out four years into the future.

As I said before, I was really excited to see how things turned out.  I really wanted to like this book.  I wanted to love it.  I wanted to, I really did.  *sigh* But as you can maybe guess from me saying that, I didn’t.

I knew that the 2nd generation would be phased out and that the 3rd and even 4th generations would be the focus.  That happened, but the main problem is that the characters became even less relate able and more unlikeable.

The main bit of disappointment was that, as soon as the book moved into the 21st century, the family and their actions went from the primary focus to the secondary focus.  What became the primary focus, then?

Politics.

Around the turn of the century, every character became focused on politics, to the point where it was distracting.  The author obviously leans very much liberal, and while I don’t, my problem isn’t that she leans liberal, it’s that she made it part of the storyline.  Up until this point, her characters were multi-dimensional.  You could have a character that did bad things but still be written as a ‘good’ person, or vice versa. Once Bush v. Gore took place, that went right out the window.  Characters were either good (Democrat) or bad (Republicans).

And, the level of this went to the point of absurdity.  At one point a couple was planning a winter vacation so that they could go somewhere warm, and as they were naming off potential locations, Florida came up as an option, but was immediately vetoed by a character.  Why? Because Rick Scott was the governor.

Now, I’ve been politically minded about various things in the past, and I know people that are fiercely political, yet as cuckoo as I’ve seen people get about their politics, I’ve never seen someone write off a potential trip because they don’t like the governor of the state.

Yet, this is how it is in this book.  And, it’s not just a couple of passionate characters.  Nope, it’s pretty much every one.

While reading through the first 80-85 years of the trilogy, I often wondered why she was writing a few years of future time, but once the book turned to politics, I suspected that the answer was because she wanted a platform to show just how bad she thought things would get if the evil Republicans/Wall Street/mega-corporations were allowed to continue doing what they do today.  And that’s exactly what happened.

All in all, this was a very disappointing conclusion to the series, and the shift was unnecessary.

Rating

Some Luck: 5 Stars (out of 5)
Early Warning: 4 Stars
Golden Age: 2 Stars

In summary, I would definitely recommend this book if you like fiction and the living history genre, but I would advise skipping anything past 1999.

Copyright 2015 Original content authorized only to appear on Money Beagle. Please subscribe via RSS, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or receive e-mail updates. Thank you for reading.

Keeping American Express In Light Of The Costco Switch

One of our favorite credit cards is our Costco American Express card.  We signed up for the card several years ago because it offered a lot of great rewards:

  • 1% cash back on all purchases
  • 3% cash back on gas purchases
  • 2% on restaurant and travel purchases
  • AmEx is the only credit card accepted for purchase inside a Costco store

It’s grown into one of our favorite cards, but within a short time, it will soon be history.  Costco has announced that they’ll be partnering with Visa, and while the specifics haven’t been announced, they will only accept Visa cards once the switch takes effect.

Presumably, there will be a ‘Costco Visa’ card that will likely offer the same or similar rewards.

mb-201402creditcard400However, this is a big loss for American Express.  I know that the stock price actually took a several percentage drop on the day the loss of Costco was announced last year.  They likely generate a lot of revenue from Costco, and I’m sure they don’t want to lose it.

My wife and I were talking about how much we like having an American Express card, and that we would need to potentially continue to use them in some fashion.  The reasons we wanted to keep an American Express card were:

  • It’s nice to have options
  • They have special offers in the form of statement credits that pop up from time to time.  We’ve had a credit just for charging our Sprint bill, and shopping at Amazon, just in the last few months.
  • There are often special offers associated with using an AmEx card.  For example, we got the opportunity to buy advance tickets for a concert last year by making the charge on our American Express card.

We did have two American Express cards for a time, as we had opened one last year so that we could get a tremendous deal on Delta on our plane ticket purchase (it didn’t lower the cost of the tickets, but we got a ton of free miles and free luggage check-in), but we just cancelled that because after one year, an annual fee was about to kick in.

However, not more than a couple of days after that conversation, an offer popped up right after I logged into our American Express card.

They noted that our current card will soon be ‘deactivated’ and that we’re pre-approved for a Blue Cash Everyday card.  They have a pretty tempting rewards structure:

  • 1% cash back on all purchases
  • 3% on grocery store purchases
  • 2% on gas and department store purchases
  • On top of it, if we make $2,500 in purchases over the first three months after opening the card, we will get a $300 statement credit. Their standard offer, so far as I’ve been able to tell, is a $100 offer after charging $1,000, so while the spending amount goes up, the bonus reward is pretty awesome!

This sounds like a great fit.  Unfortunately, the offer only appeared for a day and by the time I spoke to my wife about it and we agreed it was a good offer, it was gone.  I’m thinking that they’ll be looking to retain current customer, especially as the end date of the agreement moves close, so I’m confident that the same or a better offer will appear.

Assuming that the new Costco Visa card would offer an increased bonus on restaurant and travel purchases, we would have all of the categories covered that we do today, as well as adding grocery stores and department store purchases.

That’s not a bad combo!

Readers, have you started looking at your replacement alternatives for the Costco American Express card?  What have you found?

Copyright 2015 Original content authorized only to appear on Money Beagle. Please subscribe via RSS, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or receive e-mail updates. Thank you for reading.

Thoughts On Amazon Prime

We joined Amazon Prime last fall when they offered a $32 discount on their normal $99 price as a one-day promotion for new customers.  Since we’d never paid for Amazon Prime, but had debated on it, we decided to take advantage of the pricing.

Now that we’ve had it for just over three months, I figured it would be a good opportunity to check and see how things are shaping up.

2-Day Shipping / Convenience

Having access to two-day shipping definitely opens worlds of opportunities.  I took a look at my account as well as mb-2016-01-boxesmy wife’s account, and between October 1, 2015 and January 11, 2016 (when I started writing this article) we placed 23 orders from Amazon.  In the same period one year earlier, we placed 6 orders.  That’s nearly a 400% increase in the number of orders.  We definitely increased our cardboard recycling output!

Not all of these are directly attributed to having the two-day shipping, but I can tell you that quite a few of them definitely are.

In fact, it’s easy to get complacent as I recently learned.  The very first car seat that we ever purchased recently celebrated its six year birthday.  Six years was noted as the useful life of the seat, as the manufacturer noted that key components could start losing integrity.  Essentially, it was time to trash the seat.

We still like having seats for both kids in both cars, but now that our son is old enough for a booster seat, we needed one of those rather than a full fledged seat.  I whipped out my phone and looked up booster seats.  I settled on one that we liked that was around $24.  My wife pointed out that I should look it up on Target.com.  I did and it was $20.  Plus, with our Target card, we save an extra 5%, which brought it to $19.  Plus, it was available for pick-up at our local store!

It just goes to show that Amazon makes it very convenient, to the point where you need to remind yourself to shop around.  Since then, I’ve made it a point to better pay attention before simply clicking the Purchase option at Amazon.

Movies and TV

With Prime membership, we get access to their video library.  We can rent or purchase movies, often at a discount, and they also have a rotating library of streaming content that is available at no charge.

My wife has been using the streaming option for awhile, having found a few things that she likes.  I just recently set it up on our Roku so that I could watch it on TV.  The only thing that I’ve gotten through actually watching is the 8th season of Curb Your Enthusiasm.  Outside of that, I’ve only browsed.  The content seems rather limited compared to Netflix, but the price is right, I suppose.

Bottom line, I wouldn’t sign up for Prime solely for their free watchable content, but as a side perk, it’s nice to have.

Music

Last year, I had a free three month subscription to Google’s streaming music service, and I fell in love with it.  However, the $10 per month charge was pretty steep, so I sadly let it expire.  They had a great selection of music that I could pull up and listen to, and the app was really easy to use on my mobile phone.

When I found that Amazon Prime included access to streaming music, I was pretty excited.  I downloaded and installed the app, and started using it pretty regularly.  My thought is along the same lines as the Movies and TV element, in that it’s nice to have as a free add-on, but it wouldn’t be worth paying for on its own.  In fact, it doesn’t really even compare to Google Music in terms of my experience so far.  Let me explain:

  • App Navigation – I really don’t care for the navigation of the app.  They create some separation between music you’ve purchased and streaming video, so you have to switch over to ‘Prime Music’ every time you want to search.
  • Basic Info – When I search for an artist, and I get the list of albums that Amazon offers, one of the things I would love to see is when the album was released.  Amazon doesn’t show that or sort it that way.  Even when you click the album from the list to get more details, that basic release date is missing.  It’s a small thing, but I always sort music based on when it released, so this is extremely annoying to me.
  • It’s Not Shared – I told my wife about having access to the streaming music feature.  She downloaded the app and attempted to configure it, only to be told that she doesn’t have access.  Turns out that although many elements of Prime are shared across the household, streaming music is not.  You can only register the service to one account, any more than that and you have to pay.  I guess I understand the economics that drive this, but it would have been nice to know this up front.

Books

To be honest, I haven’t set up the Kindle app or even tried to see if I can use any type of e-reading benefits from being a Prime member.  I don’t have an actual Kindle, so I suspect that some of the benefits are limited or non-existent.

Storage

You get a few GB of cloud storage plus unlimited storage of photos, but we haven’t yet set this up.

Would We Pay Full Price?

At this point, we definitely enjoy the convenience.  As we get more used to using some of the features on the streaming music and video side, I think we’ll capture even more benefit.  It’s hard to say what we’ll do in the fall when our membership comes due, but I would lean toward us renewing the Prime membership if we had to decide today.

Readers, are you Prime members? What are your experiences with any of the items I’ve noted above or anything that I might not have mentioned?

Copyright 2015 Original content authorized only to appear on Money Beagle. Please subscribe via RSS, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or receive e-mail updates. Thank you for reading.

6 Things To Do With An Unexpected Snow Day

This past weekend saw one of the biggest snowstorms in history strike the East coast.  At times, watching TV and seeing the reports of snow piling up was as riveting of TV as there’s been lately (and, yes, this includes Making A Murderer).

Luckily, here in Michigan, we didn’t get even a flake of snow.  In fact, since we were right on the other side of the system, it was sunny for a good part of the weekend.  We’ve only had one major snowfall this season, and we were in Disney World for it, so it’s been very quiet for us.

There’s plenty of winter left this year, and chances are we’re still ripe for a storm, so I thought about some ways we’d handle things if we got snowed in by a major storm.

Do you wanna build a snowman?
Do you wanna build a snowman?

Play in the snow

If it’s really windy or really cold while it snows, this might not work, but sometimes all it does is just snow.  A lot.  And, when it does, it’s fun to go outside for a bit in the middle of the storm and watch the world transform into a winter blanket.

Movie and popcorn

There are few things better than taking some relaxing time, knowing that you can’t go anywhere, so snuggling up and enjoying some family time just works out really good during a snow storm.

Work on a long put-off project 

There are always small projects that need to be done around the house.  Provided that it’s not something where you might need to run out to the store for more supplies, you can sometimes get something crossed off your to-do list that’s been sitting there for a while.

Get your brain working

People can get restless pretty quick when they get cooped up, but it can be fun to get some exercise…and I’m talking about exercising your brain!  Doing a jigsaw puzzle or reading a book or working on coloring (that’s not just for kids anymore, by the way) can be great ways to keep your brain stimulated, which will help pass the time better.

Bake something fun

If it’s snowing then that means it’s cold enough to where turning on the oven and filling the house with the smell of freshly baked cookies is always a good thing.  So, have at it!

Keep in touch with your family, friends, and neighbors

While hopefully everybody is staying inside where it’s nice and safe, you want to make sure that your loved ones or those around you are weathering the storm OK. While it’s easy to get lost with the people with you in your house, make sure to keep tabs on the world outside.

Readers, with a quarter of the population having been affected by the storm, I know there are readers who were impacted.  How did you hunker down and make it through your most recent storm?

Copyright 2015 Original content authorized only to appear on Money Beagle. Please subscribe via RSS, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or receive e-mail updates. Thank you for reading.