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Tag Archives: Friday Reads
“With a dissolving marriage, strained finances, and her life in flux, Ally Anderson longs for normal. Her greatest concerns, though, are the health problems of her young daughter, Kylie. Symptoms point to a compromised immune system, but every doctor they’ve seen has a different theory. Then comes hope for some clarity.
It’s possible that Kylie’s illness is genetic, but Ally is adopted. A DNA test opens up an entirely new path. And where it leads is a surprise: to an aunt Ally never knew existed. She’s a little wild, very welcoming, and ready to share more of the family history than Ally ever imagined.
Coping with a skeptical soon-to-be-ex husband, weathering the resistance of her adoptive mother, and getting maddeningly close to the healing Kylie needs, Ally is determined to regain control of her life. This is her chance to embrace uncertainty and the beauty of family – both the one she was born into and the one she chose.” (Audible)
This book caught my eye because I too was adopted, and as usual, I read and listened to it. I was caught up immediately in the story, and while there are some minor problems with the editing of the audio version, it still held my attention from start to finish.
There are many different ways, and reasons why, adoptees search for their biological families. In Ally’s case, she is desperately looking for answers to explain her daughter’s life-threatening allergic reactions. Ally is so desperate in fact, that she turns to an alternative approach: meditation and desensitization therapy. Through all of the anxiety and uncertainty regarding Kylie’s new treatment, Ally finds not only her “other family,” but her inner strength. That strength helps her resolve issues with her ex, her mom, and her ability to move forward with her life.
Definitely a good read!
I am here!!
Eighty percent of the world’s population has been manifesting fantastic superpowers by the time they turn four years old. Those with more powerful “quirks” have become professional superheroes, working to stop those who would use their powers for evil and to save innocent lives. Young Izuku Midoriya dreams of the day when he can follow in the steps of his idol, All Might – the number one hero and symbol of peace.
When Midoriya learns that he is one of the unlucky few, born without a quirk, he is crushed. However, he refuses to let this setback stop him from his dream of attending U.A. High, the prestigious high school, and enrolling in their hero course. As the entrance exam approaches, it seems all but impossible that Midoriya will have any hope at all getting accepted.
An encounter with All Might and a battle with a sludge villain changes everything and sets Midoriya on the path to his destiny (with some incredibly hard work). Katsuki Bakugo, his rival/friend since childhood is less than impressed. (If you’ve ever seen or read Dragon Ball Z, they remind me of Goku/Vegeta, ha.)
I’ve just started reading this series, but I’m really enjoying it so far. Midoriya is so pure and precious and there’s more to All Might than just his physical strength. (There’s some fourth-wall breaking that I also love with All Might’s character.) The quirks and other characters are all so different and fun. There are animal-based quirks; one character has all the powers of a frog. Others can make things float, have powers of fire or ice, explosions, or powers like one student who has engines in his legs that make him really fast.
This first book of the manga series moves quickly with enough story to build the world and lots of action between villain/hero battles and later in the entrance exam. Intended for young adults/teens.
Horikoshi, K. My Hero Academia, Volume 1. Translated by Caleb Cook, VIZ Media LLC, 2016.
I was ready for a book of short stories, for compelling characters in intriguing situations, and I found that in a book I’d been meaning to pick up for a while: Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat.
Danticat manages to touch on all aspects of life—births and beginnings, deaths and ends, and all in between—while telling stories about the unexpectedly small parts of life.
And it is obvious Danticat knows everything about her characters, even if she doesn’t tell us everything. She knows what they think about when they fall asleep and which sock they put on first. That’s how she knows what details to share with the reader. She’s just telling us what we need to know to tell the story the characters inhabit. So we have a sort of intimacy with them, like we’re right next to them in Port-Au-Prince, in Miami, in an unnamed Caribbean country, or even falling through the air.
Danticat, Edwidge. Everything Inside. New York. Alfred A. Knopf, 2019
Mo Rocca is a multi-talented actor, humorist, and journalist on various radio and television programs. I became a fan listening to him on National Public Radio’s Quiz Show – Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! and watching him on CBS Sunday Morning. Because Mo is the narrator, I knew I would not be disappointed with this audiobook.
A Mobituary, as Rocca defines it, is “an appreciation for someone who didn’t get the love she or he deserved the first time around.” What I particularly loved about this book is that Mo’s cultural points of reference often parallel mine. A good example was the love shown for Audrey Hepburn who died the day of Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. Hepburn’s younger son, Luca Dotti, explained, “his mother suffered from severe malnourishment at the end of World War II, weighing only 88 pounds… the stress of the war stayed with his mother the rest of her life, but she hid it well. My mother was then a survivor … you always have this duality – you are happy to be alive, but you have this sense of guilt because the person next door didn’t make it.” Hepburn’s older son Sean Ferrer, explained: “I think that this is one of the reasons why she wanted to do the UNICEF work, is that she remembered so vividly herself and her emotions as a little girl and living through the war.”
This book sheds light on many other celebrities, politicians, landmarks, trends, and trees. While not nearly as much in love with Barbra Streisand as Mo, (a very alive Streisand is included in the Fanny Brice chapter), I laughed out loud listening to Mo’s ruminations on both women. I had no idea Herbert Hoover saved Europe during WWI from starvation using his engineering abilities before he became a US President. Also laudable are the Mobituaries on the historic figures memorialized by rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike, the death of several fashion trends, and the loss of Auburn University’s famed oak trees. Mo completes his book with a Mobituary on his father Marcel (1929-2004) who resumed his teenage trumpet playing at age 50 in the cellar of their home. It was because of his father that Mo learned to love obituaries. A fitting end to an excellent collection of remembrances. https://www.mobituaries.com/
Rocca, Mo. Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019
I recently re-read this book for a book club and it was just as good the second time around. It’s one of those titles I always end up recommending when talking about books.
Meet Eleanor. She goes to work, buys groceries, she dislikes her co-workers, but enjoys doing crossword puzzles and reading. And every Friday she buys a margarita pizza and lots of vodka. Because that’s what it takes to get through the weekend. This novel brings up several hard issues, substance abuse, emotional, verbal, and physical abuse, suicide and depression, but at the heart of it, it’s about being alone. How isolation is only ever a band aid, and not a very good one.
One of my favorite things about this novel is the main character’s inner dialog. For how heavy the subject matter can be, I laughed a lot while reading this book. Eleanor’s inner voice is blunt, quirky, and deeply endearing.
The main character is completely flawed, but not in the normal fictional ways that I read so often. She’s not secretly drop dead gorgeous behind her glasses, or charmingly clumsy. She’s painfully average in almost every way. Except her scars. Those that are on the outside and on the inside distinguish her. The first time I read this book I found her so painfully awkward I wondered if I could keep reading. I did, and I was not disappointed.
I also appreciate that this book doesn’t have the traditional “happily ever after” ending, but a realistic one. All of Eleanor’s problems don’t magically vanish. I think it’s much more important to see how she’s grown, and the baby-steps she’s taken to live a happier, healthier life.
Give this book a try.
Gail Honeyman. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: A Novel. Pamela Dorman Books. 2017
All the Gallant Men is the Nebraska Center for the Book’s 2020 One Book One Nebraska selection. Donald Stratton’s memoir stems from his remarkable experience as a naval seaman serving on the USS Arizona. Stratton was among the survivors from the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The book is the only memoir written by a USS Arizona survivor.
Stratton’s book is not one that I would have selected to read on my own. I read it because of its nomination for the One Book One Nebraska program. It didn’t take many pages before appreciating Donald Stratton’s story. It is remarkable and inspiring. The book is much more than an account of the Pearl Harbor attack. Donald Stratton’s life is chronicled from his early years growing up in Red Cloud, Nebraska, joining the Navy following high school, military experience as a seaman. Later, Stratton traveled the world as a skilled commercial diver in the oil industry.
Stratton was severely burned during the Pearl Harbor attack but managed, along with a few others, to climb hand-over-hand on a rope to an adjacent ship, an astonishing feat considering the 70 feet length and the burned hands of the seamen and the fires burning below. The rope was thrown by Joe George, a sailor from the other ship. The rope throw was a heroic act that was never fully rewarded because George disobeyed an order to cut the lines that tied the two ships. Without the rope, these sailors would have perished. Stratton had a long and painful recovery. Even so, he endured and with determination reenlisted in the Navy. Offered a non-combat post, he instead chose to return to a battleship and rejoin the war in the Pacific.
Donald Stratton’s story is dedicated to preserving the memory of the men aboard the USS Arizona – those that died and those that survived. In Stratton’s words: “I have tried my best to express what I could about what I experienced that day. It isn’t enough, though, because it is only one side of the story. The other side lies an ocean away. When you read a statistic, like 2,403 dead, it says so little. A statistical death is only the skeletal remains of a life. Without flesh and blood; its beating heart or its winking eye; its quick wit or its contagious laugh.”
I hope that many Nebraskans will read All the Gallant Men and that the book will lead to more stories about the experiences and sacrifices of those who serve and have served.
Ken Gire deserves recognition for his collaboration with Don Stratton to bring Stratton’s story to print. How that came about is an interesting story in itself (see writer’s postscript).
Described by family members as a humble and generous man, Donald Stratton passed away on February 15, 2020.
Donald Stratton and Ken Gire. All the Gallant Men: An American Sailor’s Firsthand Account of Pearl Harbor. HarperCollins. 2016.
Friday Reads: The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home
In addition to the history of the Biltmore estate, this book also covers the Vanderbilt family. After a bit of background into the wealth inherited by George Washington Vanderbilt, the youngest son of William Henry “Billy” Vanderbit, the book focuses its attention mostly on the life of George, the building of the Biltmore estate, his wife, Edith Dresser, and the chronology of their lives and the evolution of the Biltmore estate. The Vanderbilt wealth was expanded through railroads and shipping and increased through inheritances. In 1877, Billy inherited nearly $100 million from his father, and when he died in 1885, his wealth had doubled to over $200 million. George was the youngest son of Billy, with seven siblings. Being the youngest, his inheritance was less than his siblings, although still in the millions of dollars. George was an eccentric cat, introverted with interests in art and books. Longtime bachelor until his marriage to Edith at age 37. In many ways, the book is also about Edith and her relationship with the Biltmore, especially since George died at the age of 51.
At any rate, the book covers interesting background information about the Vanderbilts, their fortune, philanthropy, and super-rich lifestyles. The book details George’s vision for the Biltmore, and its construction and maintenance. The estate was built from 1889 to 1895. Some of the statistics are staggering; especially considering this was pre-1900:
- A woodworking factory and brick kiln was produced on site, generating 32,000 bricks per day;
- 175,000 total square feet, with more than 4 acres of floor space;
- 250 rooms in the house, including 35 guest rooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, and 3 kitchens;
- Over 100,000 acres of surrounding area, including a robust forestry program (after George’s death Edith sold over 85,000 acres back to the federal government); and
- A library with over 10,000 volumes, many rare and collectible.
The Biltmore has been open to the public since 1930, with a brief hiatus during World War II, when various paintings and sculptures were moved there from the National Gallery of Art to protect them in the event of an attack on the U.S. The home continues to be owned by a private company ran by the Vanderbilt heirs. The Last Castle is overall an interesting read, not only pertaining to the construction and maintenance of the Biltmore estate, but also the Vanderbilt family and surrounding Asheville community.
Kiernan, Denise. The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s largest Home. Atria Books, 2017.
I’ll be the first to admit that you can put the word “library” in any book title, and I’ll read it without hesitation. But I am sure glad I picked up The Library of Ever by Zeno Alexander, because it was delightful. I read a handful of middle-grade books around this time each year, and this has been my favorite selection so far of 2020.
Trying to abscond from her nanny at the library and get some quality reading time in, Lenora stumbles into the “staff only” section. Recognizing her potential, the head librarian offers her a job as “Fourth Assistant Apprentice Librarian”, tasking her to use her wits and valor to serve her patrons. Lenora embarks on a series of adventures, some comical, some harrowing, in her quest to answer patron inquiries. If only my days on the reference desk were this exciting!
This book clocks in at 208 pages, so it’s a fairly quick read, making it ideal for read-alouds. The fast-pace and fun facts will keep middle grade readers engaged. I have a certain niece named Lenora that will be getting a copy soon for sure!
Alexander, Zeno. The Library of Ever. Imprint, 2019.
The Usual Suspects by Maurice Broaddus
While Thelonious Mitchell enjoys pulling pranks at school to get a rise out of their teacher and the principal, there is no way he or his best friend Nehemiah, would do anything dangerous. A gun was found in the park next to the school, and the administration is on alert.
Thelonious is more than irritated that the first place anyone looks for the guilty party is the special education classroom (where he is), where neuro-atypical students do their best (and occasionally cause trouble). He is now determined to solve this crime, along with Nehemiah, to prove their innocence
Mr. Blackmon is not the teacher, but he is assigned to work with Thelonious and guide him to better choices and decisions. The unfair accusations and suspicions hurt, and Thelonious’s growth as a leader with integrity, is delightful to see.
Broaddus, Maurice. The Usual Suspects. Katherine Tegen Books, 2019
Frankissstein: A Love Story, by Jeanette Winterson, is just that: a love story.
What kind of love story, though, is the question. Love between whom? Love for what? That’s the question at the core of it.
The book is divided between two main intertwined narratives: the first set in history, that of young Mary Shelley, as she sparks with inspiration to pen the novel Frankenstein. The second narrative takes place in the near future, following Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor, and their journey alongside the mysterious man they have fallen in love with: Victor Stein. Victor, who is seeking to overcome death, not through stitching and reanimating a corpse, but with AI technology. Accompanying them are their parallels from both times: Lord Byron, the poet becomes Ron Lord, the sex-bot inventor/dealer (ha!); Dr. Polidori, Byron’s physician, becomes Polly D., a writer for Vanity Fair, and Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s stepsister and Byron’s mistress, who becomes just Claire, a religious woman.
It’s a novel that was, largely, more philosophy than plot. Winterson’s stories are usually such — literary fiction; my all-time favorite book is her The Stone Gods — but this read almost like a thesis on what makes us human, the future of humanity, death, what our souls might be (if we even have one), gender, a smidge of socialism, reality, the ethics of AI/robotics, feminism… it was a lot packed into 344 pages. The interwoven narratives kept the book flowing, as did Winterson’s clever writing, as usual; though I did wrestle with choices she made, especially where Ry was concerned, choices that felt like amateur, insensitive mistakes. Overall, I loved Mary Shelley’s story more than I loved the pseudo-sci-fi story, even (or maybe because) I knew what happened in her life, tragedies and all. It was just the telling that varied. For me, that was where the love story shone through the brightest. Mary’s love and grief and curiosity were so well threaded together that she came alive on the page better than all the others, I felt, and was (re)animated for a little time with nothing more than a spark of imagination.
Frankissstein certainly isn’t Winterson’s most successful work, by any means, in my opinion, and unfortunately ended up feeling more like something like a work in process than a final product. And it definitely is no stellar crash-course in Trans 101; Ry is not understood by the characters that surround them in the narrative, which makes it challenging to see if they are understood by their author (who could have – should have – used non-binary instead of hybrid to describe them in-text), and so you feel for them, seemingly as displaced in the world as Dr. Frankenstein’s creation; a parallel, too, that perhaps is not the most kind; however, there is a great wealth of history of the queer and the creation, the queer and the monster. But the analysis one can pull from the text doesn’t fully make up for the discomforting wade through transphobia, and so if you’re interested in Winterson’s LGBTQ works rather than her musings on the human condition, another one of her earlier novels or her autobiography might be a better place to begin.
Winterson, Jeanette. Frankissstein. Grove Press, 2019.
In Crosstalk by Connie Willis, a simple surgery to promote empathy between romantic partners goes hilariously wrong. It shows how constant, complete, personal connection is anything but desirable. Briddey Flannigan should have known, since the cell phone company, (COMMSPAN) she works for in a US city, is very nearly a model of what will come, with gossip seemingly carried on the breezes! And avoiding telling her family the news that she and her perfect boyfriend, Trent Worth will be having the implantation of a devise which will result in empathy,( if they are truly in love), before she tells her friends at work is, well, a lost cause.
The entire novel moves at a breakneck pace from one situation to another. Just as soon as Bridey has settled her family, her boyfriend Trent springs a speeded up surgery schedual on her, so she’s off to the hospital. And avoiding gossip and her family, by hiding her car. After seeing that her family has no boundaries where it comes to Bridey’s privacy one begins to see why she’s so secretive. And why she settles on the up and coming executive Mr. Worth, and his push to get the EED (the empathy device) before they marry. Which her family and CB Schwarz think is a really bad idea–and they all email, call, or text her. She argues it’s been tested before, and that even celebrities have had it done, and that they are even having the Dr. who invented the device doing the surgery. The surgery goes well. The aftereffects are, well, telepathy. And of course, the first person she hears is not Trent, but CB Schwarz, who is naturally telepathic.
Ms. Willis brings the claustrophobic and confusing experience that we imagine to be telepathy to a print page well. It can be confusing for the reader as well, but having a sense of the harried life of Briddey, makes it worth a little push just to get through those passages. It also gives her new relationship with CB a understandably difficult start. And exposes the real reasons behind Trent’s wanting to get the EED before getting married, like other couples.
This is the perfect introduction to Connie Willis and her comic timing, her patter, and infectious humor and sense of irony. If you enjoy Crosstalk, you’ll enjoy, To Say Nothing About the Dog, and Bellwether.
Crosstalk, by Connie Willis, Del Rey, 978-0-34554067-6
Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was banned or challenged in several communities. ALA’s Banned Book Spotlight quotes a complaint from one of the challengers, highlighting “shocking words of profanity, sexual innuendo and violence”. A reviewer on Goodreads recommends the book for older audiences because she is “all for letting kids enjoy their innocence for as long as possible”. This book does have adult themes, including alcoholism and child abuse, with the constant bitterness of death glaring between the pages.
Parents and schools can try to ban books and protect innocent minds. However, we cannot ban reservations to protect the innocent. For many kids living in these areas, life is not appropriate for a young adult audience. What is the alternative to life? We have a theme.
How do I know about reservation life? My dad is from the Bad River Band of Chippewa in Wisconsin. I grew up hearing the myths and legends of an amazing culture. The myths are better than the reality of that reservation. Poverty runs rampant, and alcohol and drugs are the strong thematic elements that propel many people through the day. The ones who leave the reservation are challenged to change their way of life. Reservations are often a small, tight-knit community. Leaving is traitorous. Leaving can mean you are no longer Indian. It’s like saying your skin changes color as soon as you cross the border. Not everyone thinks this way, and not every reservation is the same. But I’ve seen it often enough.
I didn’t grow up on the reservation. I grew up with the aftermath. That is another story. We’re here to talk about Junior, a Spokane Indian born with brain damage to alcoholic parents. He’s the protagonist of The Absolutely True Diary. This is the story of how he leaves the reservation by attending an all-white rural school, 22 miles from the reservation. He hitchhikes his way to school and back, catching fire and vitriol on both ends.
Yet he is determined to break free and make change happen. I’ve read the book, and concur that it is absolutely true. Change can be like raking over hot coals. The humor and cartoons make the pain bearable. Humor is the collection of small respites necessary to drive change to fruition. If you want to bear witness to the truth of life, laid bare by a teenage protagonist, please read this book. Read deeply, and take the wise words of a teenage Indian living through real, thematic elements: “Life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community”.
Friday Reads: The Little Book of Big Feelings: an Illustrated Exploration of Life’s Many Emotions by Maureen “Marzi” Wilson
Being the good reader that I am every holiday season I make sure to include books on my gift list. (Yes, my family still does Christmas lists but that’s a story for another time.) Sometimes I’ll ask for the latest hot fiction title, or I might want a larger coffee table book that I’ve had my eye on but couldn’t justify the price. This year though I went with something small enough to fit in my stocking.
The Little Book of Big Feelings is authored and illustrated by Marzi Wilson, creator of “Introvert Doodles”. If you’ve ever wondered about the care and feeding of your fellow introvert, or are one yourself, I highly recommend checking her out. She has a lovely little Instagram page, perfect material to scroll through when that party gets to be a bit to much and you’re taking a moment to yourself behind a potted plant. She has three other books, as well, including an activity book!
This latest book takes a look at those big feelings we all get, joy, sadness, anger and so on, how they may look different to an introvert and, greatest of all, how to deal with them. Reading this book is a great way to get perspective on those emotions and even to start processing and accepting them. Each section deals with one particular emotion in small cartoons as well as meatier parts dealing with they psychology behind them. This is a fun and easy to grasp little book that, while slightly geared towards adults, would totally be useful for those fun balls of emotions that are teens.
Exile from Eden, the featured title in this Friday Reads, is the sequel to Andrew Smith’s 2014 apocalyptic novel, Grasshopper Jungle, which I claimed as my new favorite book in a July 15, 2016 Friday Reads. I guess, therefore, this is a sequel Friday Reads.
Exile from Eden begins sixteen years after six-foot-tall praying mantises with a taste for human flesh forced Austin Szczerba, Robby Brees, and Shann Collins, along with Robby’s mother, Connie Brees, her boyfriend, Louis Sing, Shann’s mother and stepfather, Wendy and Johnny McKeon, and Austin’s dog, Ingrid, to hole up in an underground bunker, called Eden. During these sixteen years, Johnny McKeon and Ingrid have died, and Arek Szczerba and Mel Sing have been born. Arek is the son of Austin and Shann, though he considers Robby his second father. Mel is the daughter of Connie and Louis.
Narrated by sixteen-year-old Arek, Exile from Eden tells the story of what happens when he and fifteen-year-old Mel leave Eden (or, as Arek calls it, “the hole”) to search for Austin and Robby, who have failed to return from one of their regular supply-gathering missions. A road trip adventure ensues. As was the case with Grasshopper Jungle, however, Exile from Eden is about so much more than a mere plot summary would suggest. After all, as Austin stated in Grasshopper Jungle, “[g]ood books are about everything.”
In Grasshopper Jungle, Austin was obsessed with recording history and telling the truth. In Exile from Eden, Arek, his son, also ruminates on truth—how we construct it for ourselves and try to convey it to others: “All stories are true the moment they are told,” Arek states in the opening sentence of the book. “Whether or not they continue to be true is up to the listener” (3).
Because he was born and raised in the hole, Arek has no firsthand knowledge of the before-the-hole world, and extremely limited exposure to the new post-apocalyptic world outside the hole. To address this deficit, his father, Austin, brings back artifacts—including books, maps, and paintings—to try to build a model of the world for Arek. As Arek discovers after leaving the hole, however, “the model . . . is not the thing” (110). This leads him to further epistemological exploration of what we can know and how we can know it:
. . . My father’s model of the world was supposed to represent everything that was outside the hole. The only thing that can re-present anything real is the thing itself. No models can ever adequately perform that job.
The model presents—and re-presents—only the model, and nothing more.
And the data—what’s really outside the hole—does not call to us, so we must go to it, and then interpret its meaning with our incompetent human minds. The data is mute; we give it an imperfect voice. (110)
Exile from Eden juxtaposes the before-the-hole world, with its rules and protocols, shame and inhibitions, with the terrifying, unstructured freedom offered by the after-the-hole world. In Eden, Arek’s grandmother, Wendy–“SPEAKER OF LAWS” (20), believer in following instructions, and segregator of the sexes—represents the pre-hole world. The promise of the post-hole world, on the other hand, is captured most powerfully by a line from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, recited by Arek’s father, Austin, after he and Arek finish reading the book aloud to each other: “In landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God” (244).
At one point, Austin tells Arek “you and Mel are like the first humans on earth. You are the new people, without the baggage everyone carried with them, without end, from before” (188). Indeed, after months outside the hole, Arek describes Mel and himself as “joined to the world outside, not as pieces of a model, but as the thing itself” (347).
In the final chapter, when he and Mel finally reunite with Austin and Robby, Arek, channeling Melville, describes himself as “Shoreless Man.” And when Austin asks how he likes it outside the hole, Arek replies “There are no rules, and it’s wild” (353). Based on the premise set up throughout the book, this is a good thing and a happy ending.
Smith, Andrew. Exile from Eden. New York: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 2019.
Friday Reads: Nebraska During the New Deal–The Federal Writers’ Project in the Cornhusker State by Marilyn Irvin Holt
I don’t generally read a lot of non-fiction, but occasionally I come across a title that really catches my Nebraska history eye: Nebraska During the New Deal : the Federal Writers Project in the Cornhusker State. And for those not already familiar with the writing of Marilyn Irvin Holt (The Orphan Trains, Children Of the Western Plains, and others), her meticulous research and insightful writing never disappoints. I highly recommend her newest title as another excellent example of the history of Nebraska and the Nebraska spirit.
As a New Deal program, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) aimed to put unemployed writers, teachers, and librarians to work. The contributors were to collect information, write essays, conduct interviews, and edit material with the goal of producing guidebooks in each of the then forty-eight states and U.S. territories. Project administrators hoped that these guides, known as the American Guide Series, would promote a national appreciation for America’s history, culture, and diversity and preserve democracy at a time when militarism was on the rise and parts of the world were dominated by fascism.
Marilyn Irvin Holt focuses on the Nebraska project, which was one of the most prolific branches of the national program. Best remembered for its state guide and series of folklore and pioneer pamphlets, the project also produced town guides, published a volume on African Americans in Nebraska, and created an ethnic study of Italians in Omaha. In Nebraska during the New Deal Holt examines Nebraska’s contribution to the project, both in terms of its place within the national FWP as well as its operation in comparison to other state projects. (University of Nebraska Press)
First, a confession, I have never actually played Minecraft. I know the basic concepts and I’ve watched other people play it, I just haven’t played it myself (yet). The only reason I picked this book up is that I’ll read anything and everything by Catherynne. I don’t know the lore of the game, so I’m sure I missed certain things, but I still really enjoyed this book (and you don’t need to read the other three official Minecraft novels before this one either).
This is a story of two young twelve-year-old endermen. Twin brother and sister, Fin and Mo, have always lived on their purple ship attached to the end city of Telos with their angry little pet shulker, Grumpo. They spend their time scavenging for very good junk or just junk, visiting the Ender Dragon (ED) who circles and watches over the End, or with their friend Kan who is very much an outsider. They all communicate telepathically, but still have a distinct “voice.” It’s definitely interesting how Catherynne writes. I really didn’t expect to care so much about little square shadow creatures.
Individually, endermen become dumb and angry, but stacked together with other elders and fragments, they become smarter, stronger, better. However, Fin and Mo are happy just the two of them and are plenty smart, thank you very much.
Then the invaders arrive from another dimension. Humans. Fin and Mo now have to defend their home and treasures as everything they know changes.
The Lady From the Black Lagoon is a biography, but it’s also not a biography. Sure, it’s the compelling life story of Milicent Patrick, a woman on both sides of the Old Hollywood camera. Milicent was a striking figure in front of the camera, but she was a real trailblazer in the world of make-up and design—specifically monster design, most notably, the Creature from The Black Lagoon. It’s also the story of her biggest fan, author Mallory O’Meara, and her quest to find out Milicent’s story, and her determination that Milicent get the credit she deserves for her work.
Along the way, O’Meara faces challenges. Milicent reinvented her identity many times, and used variations of her name personally and professionally–which was not unusual in Hollywood by any means, but it still poses research challenges. Luckily, O’Meara was already knowledgeable about Old Hollywood, and it was her voracious interest in old monster movies that led her to Milicent in the first place. O’Meara also gets some good research advice from some helpful librarians and archivists, which warmed this library worker’s heart.
This book is full of amazing stories. We get Milicent’s childhood years spent growing up on the Hearst Castle grounds, because her father was an engineer on that never-ending project. We also get the complicated family relationships that shaped Milicent’s life. We learn a lot about the behind-the-scenes production of Old Hollywood movies—and what a tough place it was for a woman to work, and how easy it was for Milicent’s labor to be exploited and almost erased. What really brings it all together, though, are the parallels that O’Meara is able to draw between her own career in movie production, with Milicent’s experience. O’Meara understands why Milicent chose to fight some battles and chose to walk away from others, and shares her own stories—some inspiring, some frustrating. (I have a guess who the unnamed voiceover jerk actor is, so let me know if you do, too.)
I listened to this book, and the author read it. That’s a risk—and in this case, it’s one that paid off! The author has a pleasant and clear voice, and her passion for her subject comes through loud and clear. After listening, I learned that it’s on many best-of lists for 2019, and I’m not surprised one bit.
O’Meara, Mallory. The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick. , 2019. Print.
I discovered Graham Norton watching his talk show on BBC America many years ago. I downloaded his latest novel, A Keeper, looking forward to another story set in Ireland where Norton was born and raised. A Keeper begins with Elizabeth Keene, a college professor living in New York City, separated from her husband, raising their 17-year-old son on her own. She returns to the house of her recently deceased mother in a small Irish village. While sorting, she discovers a group of letters that begin to reveal more questions than answers about Elizabeth’s uncertain paternity. The letters tell a story of Elizabeth’s mother Patricia, forty years earlier, communicating with a man named Edward Foley through a lonely-hearts ad in the Farmers’ Journal. When Elizabeth inherits a property that belonged to Edward Foley, she begins a journey to gather more information.
The novel weaves two stories labeled – NOW and THEN – with Elizabeth and Patricia respectively navigating their lives through difficult if not perilous circumstances. Elizabeth’s conversations with those who knew her mother and Edward Foley provide some never known information and with each new fact, there are more questions. A young Patricia arrives for a visit to meet Edward for a second date and his overbearing if not mentally deranged mother creates a scenario that is both unexpected and terrifying.
What Norton does so well in his books is reveal family secrets that are often difficult with deftness and humor. The inner thoughts of characters and dialog are strengths of his writing. Thinking I might be alone in my appreciation of his latest two fiction novels, I discovered A Keeper was shortlisted for in the fiction category for the National Book Awards and his first novel, Holding won an Irish Book Award for Popular Fiction. Graham Norton shows us his comic talent on his talk show but there is much more to him than witty banter. His writing and narration skills are also laudable.
Norton, Graham. A Keeper. Atria Books, 2019.
Let me set the scene for you. Felix, is a disgraced theatrical director, down on his luck, he applies to teach a prison literacy program. He has faded into obscurity after suffering personal loss and professional betrayal. As a result, a motley group of prisoners takes on Felix’s challenge of performing “The Tempest” to earn themselves credit in the literacy program. A play Felix has become slightly obsessed with after the fall of his career. Not only do you get to experience the play re-told but also from behind the curtain, an angle only those on the stage usually have access to. Prepare yourself for an interesting and diverse cast of characters, dark plot twists, redemption, and in true Shakespeare fashion, revenge.
I’m always in favor of a good classic transformed, and Margaret Atwood does an exceptional job of bringing “The Tempest” into the 21st century with her novel “Hag-Seed: William Shakespeare’s The Tempest Retold” (Hogarth, 2016.) The novel is a part of Random House’s Hogarth Shakespeare series, where well-known authors re-tell one of Shakespeare’s plays. So for those of you who are fans of”West Side Story,” “Ten Things I Hate About You,” or “She’s the Man,” this is really a series you should check out.
A few years ago, I read and enjoyed Steve Sieberson’s book, The Naked Mountaineer: Misadventures of an Alpine Traveler (University of Nebraska Press). Sieberson renews his adventure writing with an equally delightful Low Mountains or High Tea: Misadventures in Britain’s National Parks. Sieberson explains how he and his wife – lovingly referred to throughout the book as the Italian Woman – found themselves spending a summer in Britain with intention for travel to Britain’s national parks. A rental car, road maps and guidebooks were among the tools for their adventure.
Sieberson grew up in northwest Iowa. A family trip one summer from his rural home in northwest Iowa to Colorado began his lifetime fascination with travel and with high elevations. From there he read books on mountaineering, books that he found at his local library. His boyhood fascination has endured through his adult years. His summer adventure in Britain included mountain experiences, visits to far-flung places, pubs, teahouses, B&Bs, and much, much more.
What I found admirable and especially enjoyable about Sieberson’s book is his wonderful humor. Here’s an example: in conversation with a local about nearby trails, he writes “I said that I wasn’t much interested in the three-peak circuit, but that I just wanted to get to the high point and back in the most direct way possible. The tilt of her head and the lift of an eyebrow suggested that perhaps my slam-bam approach to her magnificent hills did not meet her approval.” Throughout, he pokes fun at British ways and novelties. His characterizations of the many people encountered and interactions are especially memorable.
Sieberson’s book is keenly descriptive and rich in detail. His descriptions of hiking and climbing are nearly photographic in detail. I’d like to know how he captured those many impressions and recorded them with such precision. Sieberson’s commentary on the people, places, customs, and food are more than travel guide worthy.
Sieberson’s law career provided opportunities for travel throughout the world. In recent years, he has added professor to his resume as a Creighton University Law School faculty member.
Sieberson, Steve. Low Mountains or High Tea. University of Nebraska Press, 2019.