Thursday, July 28, 2016

Review: The Gilded Years

Anita Hemmings has wanted to attend Vassar College ever since she was a little girl. In 1897, she is a senior who is excelling in languages and is well-liked by her classmates. This year, she is rooming with Lottie Taylor, the daughter of one of the wealthiest, most prestigious men in New York. Lottie's insistence on becoming close friends with her roommate puts Anita in a perilous position, because Anita is not the typical Vassar student. She is the only African American student at the school, but no one knows that about her. Anita is passing.

The Gilded Years is based on true events. Anita Hemmings was the first black student to graduate from Vassar College. But little is known about the inner thoughts of Anita or even what happened to her after she left the school. Karin Tanabe has a somewhat blank canvas to imagine what it was like for this young woman to pay attention every moment of every day to ensure that she separated her identity as a white student from the reality of her poor, black family back home.

Tanabe does an excellent job of creating a sense of place and time. I believed that I was in the hallways of Vassar chatting about classes or visiting the grand mansions of New York City with Lottie. But I never really felt a connection with Anita herself. Perhaps it's because Anita spends so much of her life living on the periphery and trying not to be remembered, but she never seemed fully realized as a character or a person.

I'm glad Karin Tanabe wrote this book. It's important that we know the story of Anita Hemmings, that we understand the lengths that people had to go to in order to get an education, a job, or live in a better neighborhood. Anita didn't write her own story but, through this book, we can imagine the life of a woman who fearlessly pursued her dreams.


The Gilded Years
By Karin Tanabe
Washington Square Press June 2016
379 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Made Me Want to Learn or Do More

It's Tuesday, so it's time for your a new list brought to you by the fabulous bloggers at The Broke and the Bookish. This week, we are discussing the books that made us want to do something or learn more about a topic. You can check out what other readers have on their lists here.

         Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World      The Hours Count

1. The Language of Flowers is the story of a young woman who has aged about of the foster care system. Reading this book sent me to research what happens to foster children when they turn 18 and look into the Camellia Foundation, which was founded to aid and support these young people as they transition to college and careers.

2. Excellent Daughters showed me just how varied the lives of young women are in different Arab nations. I'm on the lookout now for news and articles about how women are living in these nations and remembering that it is impossible to make a blanket statement about "The Middle East."

3. Be Safe, I Love You is a novel that follows Lauren, who is newly home from a tour in Iraq. It quickly becomes apparent to the readers (if not to her friends and family) that things are not right with our protagonist. Author Cara Hoffman sheds light on the traumas that some of our soldiers bring back home with them. I am working with my kids this summer to write letters to some of the people serving our country and I will be looking for more ways to say thank you.

4. The Hours Count imagines Ethel Rosenberg through the eyes of a fictional neighbor. At the end of the book, Jillian Cantor delves into the events surrounding the arrests and executions of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. I am fascinated (and appalled) by the fact that the Rosenbergs were the only US citizens executed for espionage and I am looking forward to reading more about them soon.

5. Flight of Dreams is another historical fiction novel. This one proposes a possible turn of events that led to the dramatic and horrifying destruction of the Hindenberg. I was so invested in these characters, who were mostly the actual people who flew on that tragic trip. While writer Ariel Lawhon does include a lot of research after the story, I went straight to the internet to find out more about these people and the different theories of what might have happened on the Hindenberg.

               Flight of Dreams     Be Safe I Love You


6. Vanessa and Her Sister is about the Woolf sisters. You probably know one of them - the author Virginia Woolf. But her whole family (including sister Vanessa) was ridiculously talented. They were writers and artists and a part of the infamous Bloomsbury Group. Trust me when I say it is easy to fall down the internet rabbit hole of researching that group of artists and thinkers.

7. Bread and Wine made me want to invite all the people over. Now I have mentioned before that I am an introvert. Obviously, I benefit from a quiet night with a good book after the kids are in bed. But Shauna Niequist invites you to just open the door and bless your family, friends, and neighbors by bringing them into your house (whatever it looks like) and loving them with food, whether it's a perfect steak or delivery pizza.

8. Spell It Out sent me right back to my college linguistics textbooks. I was an English major and delighted in the one class I took that delved into the how and why of our very weird language. After reading this, I dove back into linguistics and enjoyed it just as much.

9. Code Name Verity and 10. Love and Treasure
My husband constantly teases me for being obsessed with literature in the WWII era, but these two books respectively sent me off to learn about the women who were daring pilots and trains full of treasure, people!


        Bread and   Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes     Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling


What books made you want to learn more or do something new?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

It's Monday and I am at peak introvert

Hello there, new week!

I am writing this from a comfy spot on my couch, ready to relax away the rest of this evening. Husband and I are ready to be our best introverts after a day full of church, kids, and visits with family. Are there any other introverts out there with tips for living with extrovert children? 


Next, I'm planning to read Paper and Fire, book 2 in the Great Library series. Then I'm picking up My Name is Asher Lev, because somehow I haven't read this one yet!

                Paper and Fire (The Great Library, #2)     My Name Is Asher Lev

What are you reading this week?

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Friday, July 22, 2016

Five Picks for the Reluctant Nonfiction Reader

Nonfiction. A literary land populated by stodgy history tomes and incomprehensible science. Right?

Wrong! I am here to be your guide into nonfiction that you actually want to read; the kind of books you can actually finish and feel like you learned something without falling asleep while reading page 23 for the fourth time.

Here are five authors and methods for the apprehensive nonfiction reader:


1. Erik Larson
Did you know that a serial killer used the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 to lure unsuspecting victims? Have you ever heard of the Lusitania, an ocean liner that dared to sail through U-boat infested waters during World War I?

Larson takes moments in history that were big at the time but rarely discussed now and brings them to vivid life. He leaves no stone unturned in his research and yet his books read like novels instead of dry volumes of history.

2. Mary Roach
You know those things you always wanted to know about, but you didn't know who to ask? The person to ask is Mary Roach, She writes about sex, the digestive system, and dead bodies, for starters. She's the wonderful grown-up version of the kid in science class who loved everything gross and weird.

Her books are quick and informative reads and she is a writer who delights in telling you bizarre things and making her readers laugh. Plus, you will be a big hit at parties when you can tell people what happens when an astronaut throws up in her helmet or what really happened when crazy Uncle Ted claimed he had a "near-death" experience.

            The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America    Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

3. Karen Abbott
Ok, time for the fascinating ladies of history now. Abbott writes about spies, lady soldiers, strippers, and notorious madams (yes, that kind) in her books. These books provide windows into the lives of these (in)famous women, while also showing readers the ways that they were constrained by their times and the ways in which they broke free of societal restraints.

4. TED Talk to Book
Maybe you just need to switch from one medium to another. If you get to see and hear someone speak about their passion, then it's easy to just keep going and read a whole book about it. See Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and We Should All Be Feminists and Susan Cain and Quiet, for a starting point!

5. Pop Autobiography
Nobody said reading nonfiction had to be stressful, friends. Sometimes it means going straight from a 30 Rock binge to listening to Tina Fey talk about the show. Or it might mean putting on your favorite Sara Bareilles album while reading about how she started writing those very songs.

                   

Do you have a favorite nonfiction author? How do you ease yourself into reading nonfiction?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review: June

Cassie Danvers is happy to hole up in her grandmother's crumbling mansion while she tries to figure out what to do next. Her grandmother has passed away, Cassie has split with her boyfriend and left New York City, and now she has to decide the next step. But it turns out that her future just may come to her front door, when she is informed that famous movie star Jack Montgomery has left her his fortune. Jack's daughters, who are famous in their own right, are not pleased with this and they descend on Cassie, with their assistants in tow. Cassie and her slightly bizarre guests turn to the past, as they research the summer that Jack Montgomery filmed a movie in the small town of St. Jude, Ohio and met Cassie's grandmother June.

As in her earlier novel Bittersweet, Beverly-Whittemore deftly portrays the ways in which money does (and doesn't) change things for her characters in both the past and the present. Two Oaks, the house in which June and then Cassie live, is an actual character that reacts to the things that happen within its walls and falls apart on purpose to get what it wants.

I found the two timelines somewhat uneven. The author has chosen to give us most of the past story through the eyes of June's best friend Lindie, who is younger, poor, and has a tendency to dress in her father's old clothing instead of the dresses favored by June. Lindie in her own right is a fascinating character and the relationship between the two girls in the midst of Southern gentility and Hollywood glamour makes for great reading. Cassie's story in the present seems to suffer by comparison. She spends a fair amount of the book moping around, trying to decide if she should get out of bed in the morning or not. This doesn't make for very riveting reading and it doesn't particularly endear us to her character.

It's tough to write parallel story lines that equally hold the reader's interest. In spite of this, if you like your summer reads full of forbidden trysts, deep friendships, and long-held family secrets, June is the perfect story for your weekend reading.

June
By Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
Crown May 2016
400 pages
Read via Netgalley

Monday, July 18, 2016

It's Monday and we are back from DC!

Hey there, bookish friends!

We just got back on Sunday night from a whirlwind weekend in Washington, D.C. We left on Friday morning and drove to Rockville, Maryland where we stayed in a hotel just two blocks from the metro line. Friday night, we ventured out to Rockville Town Square, where the kids played in a park while we listened to live music, and then we hit the toy store and got some frozen yogurt. Saturday morning, we got an early start which turned out to be a very good thing. By the time we got to the National Mall for Together 2016, the security line stretched for blocks. Once we finally got inside the fence, we were fortunate enough to stake out some prime grass underneath a grove of trees. It was blisteringly hot. While we couldn't see the stage, we could hear all of the speakers and musicians and husband took the kids for some one-on-one walks so they could see who was on stage and get a better idea of what thousands of people look like in once place!


We stayed about two hours and then decided to move on to a place that provided food and air conditioning (and history, of course). We visited the American History Museum and the Air and Space Museum. We got on a very crowded train and made it back to our hotel just in time for the skies to open. We had packed no umbrellas, of course, and I will confess that walking two blocks in the rain with a sleeping toddler made our walk back to the hotel a bit tougher than our morning walk to the train! The kids spent the evening playing with their new toys, while their parents tried to soothe their tired muscles after carrying children and supplies for eight miles or so.


On Sunday we stopped at the Udvar-Hazy Center, which is home to lots of airplanes and the space shuttle Discovery. Have I mentioned my husband is a big fan of space? After a frustrating amount of traffic, we were all happy to sleep in our own beds Sunday night!


The reading kept moving right along, too. I read Alice Hoffman's Here on Earth early in the week and I think I will be donating it right back to the library sale from whence it came. It's apparently a modern retelling of Wuthering Heights (which I did not know at the outset) and it left me feeling like a good shower might be in order. I managed to read Sleeping Giants mostly in our hotel room this weekend as I waited for kiddos who were excited by the prospect of a new city and getting to sleep in the same big bed to finally go to sleep!

       Here on Earth      Sleeping Giants (Themis Files, #1) 

Up next for me? I'm really excited to read Ben Winter's Underground Airlines and Ramona Ausubel's Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, which I bought from my local indie bookstore last week. I've read books by both of these authors and I will probably neglect all sorts of things this week as I see what they've written this time.

       Underground Airlines     Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty 

What are you reading this week?

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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Mini-reviews: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours and Summer Days and Summer Nights

Helen Oyeyemi is known for writing novels that are unexpected, a bit dark, and based on fairy tales. In What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, the stories concern doorways and keys, sometimes in minor details and sometimes as an integral part of the story. Some characters jump stories, showing up as a protagonist in one and a minor character in another. As with many short story collections, I read some stories I adored and some that I really had to commit to finishing.

books and roses is amazingly executed and one of those stories I wished would spark a whole novel. It follows a young woman who was left on the steps of a monastery as a baby with a note and a key. She now works in a hotel doing laundry, where she encounters a wealthy painter who wears a key around her neck too. Their lives will intersect in incredible and magic ways. Oyeyemi seems to shine brightest when she is writing of the past, of fables and fairy tales like in drownings. But I also enjoyed the modern story a brief history of the homely wench society,where a group of young women prank a fraternity, and presence, in which a couple undergoes an experiment and sees the son they never knew. Helen Oyeymi is inarguably an incredibly talented writer and I will gladly explore any magic land she creates.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours
By Helen Oyeyemi
Riverhead Books March 2016
325 pages
From the library


YA writer Stephanie Perkins edited a story collection entitled My True Love Gave To Me, which features stories about falling in love during the magic of winter. The collection was so popular that a second one was released this May, which focused on summer flings. Summer Days and Summer Nights is a great way to find new YA authors and it features a wonderfully diverse group of characters.

In "Head, Scales, Tongue, Tail," a boy and a girl start a tentative romance in a summer town where a monster supposedly swims in the lake. It was the perfect start to a bunch of stories about summer. Libba Bray's "Last Night at the Cinegore" might be more of a horror homage than a love story, but it's a lot of fun. Perkins checks in with her characters from the winter book with "In Ninety Minutes, Turn North" and I loved seeing how the relationship between Marigold and North had changed. "Souvenirs" is the tale of two boys breaking up before going off to college at the amusement park where they both work. This is the perfect collection to relive the joy of your first summer love, while sitting on your porch with a cool glass of lemonade.

Summer Days and Summer Nights
Edited by Stephanie Perkins
St. Martin's Griffin May 2016
400 pages
Read via Netgalley