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Staff Picks: Books

For Lizzie freedom means learning

 In Lesa Cline-Ransome's book Freedom's School, one day mama told Lizzie and her brother Paul that they “went to sleep ‘slaves’ and woke up free”. Mama said that being free means you have to work harder. “Real freedom means ‘rithmetic and writing.”

Lizzie was eager to learn but it was hard for her and Paul to leave their mama and daddy working so hard in the crop fields. Getting to school was not easy and sometimes they had rocks thrown at them. The first school was burned down. Daddy remarked that “at least they got a little learnin”. Lizzie and mama didn’t answer “Cause they knew that halfway to freedom feels like no freedom”.

Well, Lizzie got her wish. One day mama woke them up and said hurry up and get dressed and we’ll go check on Mizz Howard. They got there to see men working on rebuilding the school and Mizz Howard was ready to start lessons. 


The Invention of Wings

One of my favorite reads during the long winter was Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings, which follows the relationship between Hetty "Handful" Grimke, a Charleston slave, and Sarah, the Grimke daughter who is given ownership of Handful for her 11th birthday. Told in alternating points of view between the two, the book follows each girl's individual growth into adulthood as well as their ever-changing relationships with each other and with their families, all in the setting of the 19th century South. Both antislavery and women's rights movements play prominently in this fast-moving but captivating narrative that chronicles an important time (and an important figure) in our country's history. 


West of Sunset

It has been many years since I have read one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books but I have read several historical novels in the past few years about him and/or his wife, Zelda. The most recent one, West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan, was published in January.

O’Nan focuses on the last three years of Fitzgerald’s life, 1937 – 1940, as he is trying to make it as a Hollywood screenwriter. These were troubled years; his literary success is well behind him, he was abusing drugs and alcohol, Zelda was in and out of a hospital being treated for mental health issues, his finances were in ruins, and the world was on the brink of World War II.

Although the focus is on Fitzgerald, there is also the romance of Hollywood and the movies, the relationship with Ernest Hemingway and movie stars of the times, and his affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham.

One reviewer referred to it as a “bittersweet portrait of the once-great novelist.” In the end it is almost heartbreaking to see Fitzgerald slip away.

This is a strong addition to the Fitzgerald historical fiction literature.

 


Reading About the 60’s

I wrote a few days ago about my unplanned reading emphasis for 2014 on books about World War I and II, generally with a European setting, and both fiction and nonfiction.

I enjoy looking back over the list of books I read during the year and see another unplanned emphasis: the 1960’s. It is not surprising that there have been many books published about that decade as we “celebrate” the 50th anniversary of the mid-point of that decade AND a formative time for me.

I read and would recommend

Ready for a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Streets” Became the Anthem for a Changing America by Mark Kurlansky

The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America by James T. Patterson

Tomorrow-land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America by Joseph Tirella

1963: The Year of the Revolution by Robin Morgan

You don’t have to have grown up in the 60’s to appreciate these titles, but it helps! I’m betting we’ll see more titles about this decade published in 2015.


I Pledge Allegiance

This story touches my heart. I picked it up to read because I met Pat Mora one Fall when she made an author visit to Kalamazoo. I always enjoy her work, so it was natural for me to read this book.

The story is about Libby’s great aunt (Lobo) who is eighty years old. She has been studying very hard, learning all about America so that she can take her citizenship test. Libby and her Mom will go with Lobo to the ceremony when she becomes a citizen of the United States.

Libby’s class practices the Pledge of Allegiance just as her great aunt does. Libby’s teacher explains the meaning of it as they recite it. Libby and Lobo practice saying the Pledge of Allegiance every night so that on Friday, the big day, they will both be ready. While they wait for Friday to come, Libby’s great aunt tells her about her country and coming to the United States. They came here to protect the family.

At the ceremony, the Judge tells everyone what a happy day it is. She has all the new citizens stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

When my mother-in-law was eighty years old, she too became a citizen of the United States. We were lucky enough to be able to have the Judge come to her home and perform the ceremony. My daughter was in kindergarten at the time and we talked about how Grandma had to learn the history of our country and how important it was to her. It was a touching ceremony and we all recited the Pledge of Allegiance with her, there was not a dry eye among us. We were every bit as proud of her as Libby was of Lobo. It is something our family will never forget.


Top 10 Books of 2014

I always look forward to the New York Times Book Review that reveals their editors’ picks for the top 10 books of the year. I have rarely read any of them, because I have spent that year trying to catch up on the best books from previous years. So I add some more to my list. 

For 2014, I had read one of them – On Immunity by Eula Biss. That one caught my eye early because I loved her book Notes From No Man’s Land about race in America.

One of them, The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, was considered as a possible Reading Together selection for 2015.

Here’s the list:

Fiction
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Euphoria by Lily King
Family Life by Akhil Sharma
Redeployment by Phil Klay


Nonfiction
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
On Immunity by Eula Biss
Penelope Fitzgerald: a Life by Hermione Lee
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright


May your reading lists prove fruitful in 2015.


Happy New Year!


More Stamps

Some time ago I wrote about a history of Britain as derived from its postage stamps. Recently, while browsing in the new non-fiction area on the first floor, I thought I was looking at that same book. But wait! No, it’s by the same author, but this time it’s the history of the United States in thirty-six commemorative postage stamps. Since I liked the British volume, I just had to pick it up. I was not disappointed, since the images of the vintage stamps are so well done and the text, which includes events such as the Iwo Jima battle, the 1969 moon landing, and the tenth anniversary of NATO in 1959 is informative. Toward the end is a chapter about the celebrities who appear on later stamps, such as Elvis. This book is based on a clever idea and one can read as much or as little of it as one wants and still gain something.


An Unplanned Reading Emphasis

As I look back over the list of books I read in 2014, I am surprised how many of them have a European, World War I or II setting both fiction and nonfiction. That was not intentional. Many of the books I read are relatively new so I can only assume there has been many books with this setting and time published in the last year or so.

Fiction favorites include:

The Wind is Not a River by Brian Payton

Lovers at the Chameleon Club 1932 by Francine Prose

The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure

Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

My nonfiction favorites of this setting and time include:

The Hotel on Place Vendôme by Tilar J. Mazzeo

The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance that Changed the World by Greg King

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel Brown

The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit and An Epic Quest to Arm an American at War by Albert J. Baime (Not a European setting but WW II)

Do you have any of this time and setting to recommend to me? Contact me


The Immortal Evening

The New York Times Book Review started a feature called “By the Book” a year or two ago. Someone, usually an author, is interviewed about their reading habits. Several of the questions are repeated almost every week like; What is currently on your nightstand?, What book are you embarrassed that you have not read yet?, or What book was a great disappointment to you?

 
Another one of the recurring questions is: “You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?” I’ve noticed that Mark Twain and Charles Dickens get invited a lot. 

 
In Stanley Plumly’s, The Immortal Evening, we learn about an actual dinner party involving three literary giants: William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Charles Lamb. The dinner took place on December 28, 1817 at Benjamin Robert Haydon’s house who was working on a painting called Christ’s Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem. Interestingly, in the crowd around Jesus in the painting, Haydon included the likenesses of Wordsworth, Keats, and Lamb. 

 
If you enjoy poetry and art history, this might be the one for you.


By the way, my answer to the New York Times Book Review question would be: Wallace Stegner, Lorrie Moore, and George Saunders. Who would you invite?


Our Better Angels

How would you react in the face of a disaster that left thousands homeless and wiped out essential city services in Kalamazoo for weeks on end? Rebecca Solnit takes a look at some major disasters over the past century or so and reports on some of the grassroots communities that emerged to provide relief in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell.


Focusing on the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, a horrific explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Hurricane Katrina she reports that government officials and wealthy power brokers have often turned resources towards protecting property and policing the disaster area because of fears that the public’s reaction will be to turn savage and live out some Mad Max survival of the fittest scenario. 

 
Although there are some people who take advantage of the situation, she finds that there are more people who come together to form impromptu communities to provide relief and comfort for those in need. I enjoyed reading about these temporary utopias that emerge from these disasters and bring out our “better angels.”