One summer can change a lot. In May of 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first man to fly nonstop by...more Originally published on The Librarian Next Door:
One summer can change a lot. In May of 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first man to fly nonstop by plane across the Atlantic Ocean. This milestone in aviation would set off a series of more milestones and would be just one of many incredible things that happened during the summer of ’27 in the United States. With Babe Ruth making a spectacular comeback in home run history, President Coolidge taking a “hand’s off” approach to running the government and the economy growing at an impressive rate it would eventually not be able to sustain, there was one major news story after another that summer and America was at the center of it all.
Bill Bryson is one of the most prolific and entertaining narrative nonfiction writers around these days and with One Summer: America, 1927, he manages to make even the driest bits of history come alive by connecting them to greater stories. With his impeccable research and sharp eye for details, Bryson tracks the events of one summer in America’s history, during which it seemed like nothing at all could go wrong. And while there weren’t as many laugh-aloud moments as with some of his other books, Bryson still manages to sneak his sly, witty sense of humor into the history and make you smile with his observations.
One Summer is divided into sections, which each track the interconnecting events of the months of May, June, July and August of 1927. One of Bryson’s cleverest tricks is to start a story in one chapter, then leave it for awhile before picking it up again several chapters later, neatly tying it in to another. While Lindbergh’s flight took place in May, his story doesn’t end there and good ol’ Charles pops up now and again throughout the rest of the book. Indeed, one of my favorite parts about One Summer is how Bryson clearly shows the connections between each event. While each may appear independent to outside observers, Bryson draws the lines of connection between them and shows just how intertwined everyone was.
Most importantly, Bryson has a way of making history seem relatable and interesting. One Summer is filled with pieces of random, weird, bizarre and just plain strange trivia and tidbits, which add color and interest to what would otherwise be a bland retelling of facts and figures. Bryson writes as if he’s talking with friends, which makes it easy to get lost in his books. I’m generally not a history buff nor do I read a lot of nonfiction, but I was easily entranced by One Summer in large part because Bryson is a writer who knows how to make his subject interesting to everyone, not just the self-professed history nerds. The result is a book that’s very approachable and entertaining even for those of us not normally conditioned to read history.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed several of Bill Bryson’s other books and I’m delighted that I liked One Summer: America, 1927, despite my overall reluctance to gravitate towards nonfiction. You may think you have no interest in Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge or anyone else gracing the pages of One Summer. I don’t blame you – I thought the same thing. Then I started reading and Bryson’s excellent storytelling drew me in. Give One Summer a chance, because I’m certain you won’t regret it. (less)
His name may not be as widely known as Woodward and Bernstein, but John McPhee still has plenty of acc...more Originally published on The Librarian Next Door:
His name may not be as widely known as Woodward and Bernstein, but John McPhee still has plenty of accomplishments. An American writer and journalist, McPhee is considered one of (if not the) originators of creative nonfiction. He’s been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize four times; he’s also won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1999, in the General Nonfiction category. McPhee’s work sometimes defies categorization. He’s a journalist, with an obsessive attention to detail and facts, but he’s also a literary writer, weaving stories out of those same facts.
Last month, my book group read The John McPhee Reader as our selection. This book offers samples of a wide range of McPhee’s writing, from his earliest pieces for The New Yorker magazine, to his later works that stretched into full-length books. The selections are wide-ranging and diverse. There are profiles of specific people (including a young college basketball star named Bill Bradley who would eventually run for President), the history of Florida’s orange groves, and even a story on a hybrid airship. Despite the fact that nearly all of the selections are taken from larger works, they don’t feel out of place or incomplete. Each selection stands easily on its own, a testament to McPhee’s skill as a writer to make every word count.
McPhee attended Princeton and continues to teach there to this day, so there is a subtle sense of elitism that pervades The John McPhee Reader, especially with regards to his profile of Bill Bradley (a fellow Princetonian) and a profile of Thomas Hovings, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But McPhee also writes about the people of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, and the crofters on the island of Colonsay off the coast of Scotland. Whatever his own experiences were or are, McPhee has the enviable ability to fit in with his subjects and draw out their own thoughts, ideas and opinions. Most of all, the level of detail is mind-boggling. From a description of the precise appearance of a piece of art, to so-strange-it’s-true facts of an orange-growing empire, McPhee packs his essays, articles and books with a truly impressive number of details.
Interestingly, the one part of the book I found most interesting wasn’t written by McPhee at all. The editor, William Howarth, introduces The John McPhee Reader with a McPhee-esque mini profile of the writer himself. In it, Howarth outlines McPhee’s personal and exceptionally disciplined approach to writing. It’s a fascinating and intimate look at how the writer embraces his craft and how McPhee works meticulously in stages, tweaking and pruning his words until what remains is exactly right. You’ll end up reconsidering your own writing style as a result.
McPhee’s talent is undeniable, so if you’re a fan of creative nonfiction, The John McPhee Reader is a great introduction to one of the first and still one of the best when it comes to literary journalism.(less)
Peggy Orenstein had confident ideas about how she was going to raise her daughter – until the day her dau...more Originally posted on The Librarian Next Door:
Peggy Orenstein had confident ideas about how she was going to raise her daughter – until the day her daughter came home reciting the name of every Disney Princess, despite the fact that Orenstein had never introduced her daughter to any Disney movies. Thus began her quest to uncover how, when and why princesses – and, more generally, the emphasis on physical perfection – have become the golden standard for young girls today. Her exploration led to Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.
Cinderella Ate My Daughter looks at the rise of the intense girlie culture in the marketing world and how it emphasizes and encourages young girls to emulate specific traits, most of which focus on physical appearance. Orenstein also tries to discover whether gender automatically or inherently dictates a child’s choice in toys, tries to unravel why so much (in some cases, too much) importance is placed on a girl’s appearance, traces the evolution of pink as a decidedly “girl” color and, throughout it all, shows clearly how marketing executives across the country are taking advantage of all these changes to deliberately target girls and create highly divided, hyper-segmented target audiences.
The book is approachable and easy to read. Reading it felt like talking with a friend, which comes in part from Orenstein’s reliance on her own stories and experiences to make her research relevant. She’s also very funny, which helps dampen the blow of her scary conclusions. I especially liked how Orenstein wove her own thoughts, doubts and feelings about all of these issues into the book. She’s honest about how she feels and how she constantly struggles to do what she thinks is right for her family. Above all, she doesn’t judge parents who do buy into the whole “princess scene.” She tries to understand the choices they make, especially when they are different from her own, but she doesn’t criticize. She just wants to give all parents (and/or all readers, as well) as much information as possible so they can make informed choices.
The extensive appendices feature an interview Orenstein gave with American University, sobering statistics about the depiction of girls on screen from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media, and several pages of notes referencing the books, reports, articles and journals Orenstein relied on for her research. (I would have liked those notes as footnotes in the actual text, so I didn’t have to keep going back and forth, but that’s a minor quibble.)
Cinderella Ate My Daughter is thought-provoking and enlightening. Even if you don’t usually read nonfiction and even if you are not a parent, this book is still worth your time. With an easy-going, approachable writing style and lessons everyone can benefit from, Peggy Orenstein’s book is eye-opening and vitally important to the future of girls.(less)
“The single most important aspect of personality – the “north and south of temperament,” as one scient...more Originally published on The Librarian Next Door:
“The single most important aspect of personality – the “north and south of temperament,” as one scientist puts it – is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.”
Thus begins Susan Cain’s fascinating exploration of introverted personality in a world that values, above all else, the Extrovert Ideal. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is part science (biology and neurology), part sociology and anthropology and part psychology. It’s an in-depth look at the undervalued contributions introverts make in the world and is empowering, both for those of us who are introverts (*waves hands*) and for those who wish to understand us.
Quiet is impeccably researched and filled with numerous scientific and case studies that provide new perspectives to well-known facts and illuminate previously understood ideas. Cain clearly did her work (the notes in the back indicate that she took five years to research and write this book) when it comes to understanding introversion and extroversion. She writes about the various workshops, seminars and conferences she attended, in addition to the countless interviews she conducted with scientists, psychologists and professors, all of which contribute to the book’s overall message.
More importantly, though, Quiet is so effective because it’s well-written and easily accessible. Cain’s passion and enthusiasm for the subject come through on every page. She makes it easy for readers to care about what she’s talking about, even if you don’t understand every little detail. Perhaps because I’m an introvert myself or maybe because Cain herself is an introvert, I was invested in this book. Every chapter felt relevant and important, every issue felt as if it could have profound implications for my own life.
Quiet is divided into four parts. Part one explores the rise of the Extrovert Ideal and its current place in an American culture that values big personalities, particularly in the business world. Part two introduces the biological, neurological and physiological explanations for introversion and extroversion, pointing out that our personalities are, to a large extend, hard-wired in our brain. Part three looks at how culture can play a role in determining who ends up on the introverted side of the scale as well as how different cultures place different values on introversion and extroversion. The fourth and final part of Quiet talks to introverts themselves and offers concrete examples for navigating a world that doesn’t always appreciate thoughtfulness and introspection.
I loved the entire book, but I found part two of Quiet to be the most interesting and fascinating. It turns out there are actual biological and neurological explanations for introversion! Moreover, though the premise of the book itself and much of her research stems from her own strong opinions on introversion, I think Cain did an admirable job of illustrating the need for balance. She points out that either extreme – pure introversion or pure extroversion – doesn’t work very well. Cain highlights this need for balance by retelling the stories of famous introverted and extroverted pairs who accomplished great things together, among them Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Additionally, Cain emphasizes the need for introverts and extroverts to learn from each other and work together.
Most of all, Quiet helped me understand myself better. Though I’ve always identified as an introvert, this book gave me concrete ideas on how to use this introversion to my advantage. Instead of trying to constantly fit in and be someone I’m not, I can learn to make the most of my own unique strengths, even if the world around me doesn’t always understand how or why I am the way I am. I’m now in a better position to advocate for myself, whether it’s at work or when I’m surrounded by my lovely but overly extroverted family members.
Susan Cain’s Quiet is an absolute must-read for anyone who self-identifies as an introvert or for anyone who wants a better understanding of personality differences and the way those differences affect everything from education and dating to politics and business. Quiet is a truly impressive book.(less)
Since the first novel was published in 1996, George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and...more Originally posted on The Librarian Next Door:
Since the first novel was published in 1996, George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire (better known by the name of the first novel, A Game of Thrones) has captivated thousands of readers, many of whom vowed a dislike of fantasy novels until they read Martin’s work. Originally a trilogy, the series has expanded twice – first to five novels, and currently to seven (as of today, anyway). With more than 15 million copies published worldwide, A Song of Ice and Fire truly ranks among the best fantasy epics, with Martin’s name uttered in the same sentence as Tolkien, Robert Jordan and many others.
A new compilation of essays from Smart Pop books, Beyond the Wall: Exploring George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, takes a closer look at why this series and these novels have become a global phenomenon and why Martin’s writing is so accessible to so many readers. The collection, edited by James Loweder and with foreword from R.A. Salvatore, covers a wide range of topics and subjects, from a consideration of the elements of romanticism in the series to a look at the inherent and unique challenges of adapting an epic action and character oriented story into graphic novel format. Some essays dive deeper into specific plot points, while others try to unravel the mystery of certain characters’ motivations and still others look at the world of Westeros through a specific lens or viewpoint. There are, of course, many passing references to the HBO television series (indeed, it would be impossible not to mention it, given its place in popular culture), but the heart and soul of each essay are the books themselves and, above all, Martin’s world, his words and his characters.
Fair warning: Beyond the Wall as a whole looks at the entire series as it is currently published, up to and including the latest novel (novel number five) A Dance with Dragons. Readers and fans who haven’t read all of the books will most certainly have future plot points spoiled if they choose to read Beyond the Wall, so proceed at your own risk. Additionally, while the book can be enjoyed by anyone, I think casual fans of the books (if such fans exist) and fans who only know Westeros through the television series won’t get as much out of these essays as those who are familiar with the novels. My impression is that Beyond the Wall is intended for engaged fans of the series.
There’s a real mix of contributions to this collection, with a diverse group of authors offering up their own opinions on Martin and A Song of Ice and Fire. As is usually the case, a few essays in particular stood out for me. Myke Cole’s “Art Imitates War” is a fascinating exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder and how it manifests in the two very different characters of Arya Stark and Theon Greyjoy. Cole, a former military officer once deployed to Iraq, has an intimate first-hand knowledge of the realities of trauma and war and draws upon this experience to give a palpable authenticity to his essay. “Art Imitates War” gave me the chance to look at familiar characters and events from a new perspective and understand the drastic change Arya and Theon undergo.
Having studied theology and comparative religion in college, I was also drawn to Andrew Zimmerman Jones’ essay, “Of Direwolves and Gods.” Jones takes a look at the various religions and belief systems Martin creates, attempting to understand the roles these many (often contradictory) gods play in shaping the events that unfold in the novels. Jones makes comparisons between Martin’s own professed agnosticism and his depiction of flawed, subjective religions that don’t provide easy answers: “The religions of Westeros claim to dictate absolute, perfect truths through imprecise, flawed institutions and beings – just like the religions we encounter every day.”
Some of the other essays I particularly enjoyed were Adam Whitehead’s “An Unreliable World,” a look at the problem of history, myth and timekeeping in Westeros; Caroline Spector’s, “Power and Feminism in Westeros,” an exploration of Martin’s depiction of gender; and Matt Staggs’ “Petyr Baelish and the Mask of Sanity,” a character study of the one Westerosi character who is – quite literally and clinically – a psychopath.
Some of the essays are more academic, some are more conversational. There are even disagreements within the collection of essays, topics these essayists don’t agree on. But above all, it is clear that these authors, like so many others, are huge fans of George R.R. Martin and A Song of Ice and Fire. They may love this series and these novels for different reasons, but at the end of the collection, they appreciate the astounding creation Martin has given the world.
The story has expanded by thousands of pages past Martin’s original target, and the deadline for each new volume’s release has become as fluid as its page count. It’s been a decidedly messy birth, but that very fact should hearten readers. It means the story is being told as it should be told – as its creator wants it to be told. The chaos is a sign of creative freedom. It shows just how vital, how organic, this magnificent series has become.(less)
In the fall of 1948, Julia Child and her husband Paul arrived in Le Havre, France for Paul’s new position...more Originally posted on The Librarian Next Door:
In the fall of 1948, Julia Child and her husband Paul arrived in Le Havre, France for Paul’s new position at the American Embassy in Paris. A simple meal in Rouen, at Restaurant La Couronne, would begin Julia’s love affair with French food – an affair that would spawn a lifelong fascination and obsession with food and change Julia’s life forever.
It is impossible not to love Julia Child. Her infectious enthusiasm seems to pervade every aspect of her cooking. Published two years after her death in 2006 and co-written by her grand-nephew Alex Prud’homme, My Life in France was Child’s sumptuous memoir of her time in Paris and Marseille in the early 1950′s. Filled with incredibly detailed memories (including precise and deliciously descriptive recollections of specific meals), My Life in France fills you with Julia’s warmth and passion for France, French food and the experience of eating extraordinary food.
This book is not an autobiography in the strictest sense; rather, it’s a collection of stories and memories linked together by food – the food Julia loved to eat and the food she learned to craft and create during her years in France. It’s focused primarily on the first half of the 1950′s decade, when Julia attended Le Cordon Bleu, and then met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, the two women with whom she would write the classic French cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Her stories are accompanied by black-and-white photographs taken by her husband Paul and together, they give readers an intimate look at Child’s life in what she called her “spiritual homeland.”
The best way to describe it is to say that I fell in love with French food – the tastes, the processes, the history, the endless variations, the rigorous discipline, the creativity, the wonderful people, the equipment, the rituals.
Though Child and Prud’homme relied on family letters to help fill in some of the blanks, the level of detail in My Life in France is still astonishing, especially considering that Julia was recalling all of these memories in her 90s! And while her nephew did do the bulk of the actual writing, it is Julia’s voice that shines through on every page. You can practically hear her, with her distinctive voice, describing the simplicity and the intricacy of French food. Post-war France comes alive and it’s as if you’re there with her, bobbing in and out of the little shops, lingering in the market over the fresh produce and flushing with excitement in her attic kitchen as she experiments and triumphs. Her single-minded determination to master French cooking is inspiring and her relentless belief in her cookbook, despite several rejections, is a lesson in perseverance.
Of course, Julia Child fans should read My Life in France, but even if you’re simply a fan of food or a fan of France, this memoir is the perfect companion. With sensory details and a palpable zest for life, Julia Child’s My Life in France is as comforting as a croissant and chocolat chaud on a rainy day. (less)
You may never see them, but they are always there. Quietly observing every little thing around them, t...more Originally published on The Librarian Next Door:
You may never see them, but they are always there. Quietly observing every little thing around them, they see more than they reveal and plan for every possibility. There’s an allure to the members of the Secret Service, something about them that intrigues. And yet, their very name speaks to the mystery that surrounds them. The commission book that most agents carry with them states that a Secret Service agent is, among other things, “commended as being worthy of trust and confidence.” Active agents don’t spill the secrets of the Secret Service because they must be able to have the trust of those they are protecting.
Retired agents, on the other hand, well they can talk. And many did, in interviews for Ronald Kessler’s book In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect. A former journalist, Kessler sought out people no longer with the Service to get a fuller, more complete picture of life as an agent and the things only they had seen. Part history lesson, part gossip sheet, In the President’s Secret Service aims to shed light on the area least understood by most Americans.
Kessler starts with a bit of a history lesson, for which I’m personally glad because I learned a lot I didn’t know. To start with, the Secret Service is much younger than you might imagine. The agency began as a division of the Department of Treasury (where it still remains today) that investigated counterfeiting. By the late 1800′s, with counterfeiting mostly under control, the agency started to investigate other crimes, including those involving the President. It wasn’t until 1902 that the Secret Service assumed responsibility for protecting the President and it wasn’t even until 1952 that Congress officially passed legislation permanently authorizing the Secret Service to guard the President, Vice-President and others. And even then, the protection was nothing like that of today. It took a national tragedy to change it all.
Despite attempts on several Presidents’ lives in the late 1800′s and early 1900′s, protection of our country’s highest elected office was spotty. Then, in 1963, President Kennedy was shot and killed in a motorcade procession in Texas. The ramifications of his assassination changed the way the Secret Service operated completely. Nowadays, agents prepare and prep and analyze every to the most minute detail. No threat goes unchecked.
Kessler’s book is filled with fun facts and tidbits about the agency itself, the rigorous training process agents undertake and the level of detail that goes into protecting the President every single day. While this part of the book is interesting, it’s the salacious details the retired agents reveal that make this book truly entertaining. Interspersed with the drier facts and details are stories from retired agents about previous Presidents and their true personalities behind closed doors. Some are probably not surprising (Kennedy had multiple affairs – shocking!) while others may make you seriously question the intelligence of the American voters (who would vote for this guy?!?) while simultaneously marveling over his ability to play a public role completely different from his private one. No one – Democrat or Republican – is safe from the agents’ revelations.
But perhaps most interesting to me was the rationale behind an agent’s service. Whether the President and his family is friendly and respectful or rude and cold, the agents guarding them protect them all the same. It even seems that the Secret Service may be the one truly bipartisan place in Washington. Many people believe that Secret Service agents are trained to take a bullet for the President, when that’s not exactly true: “Agents do not protect any individual but rather the integrity of the office, so the bullet we may take is for the office – not the person.” Most agents don’t care if they personally agree or disagree with a President’s politics. They are there to guard the office of the President – whoever the President happens to be.
In the President’s Secret Service is a must-read for any political junky or history buff. With in-depth behind-the-scenes disclosures about the the Service itself and enough tantalizing Presidential gossip to make US Weekly jealous, it’s a book even those who don’t like history can enjoy. (less)
We all have that dream, the one where we drop everything, sell all our possessions and take off for ad...more Originally published on The Librarian Next Door:
We all have that dream, the one where we drop everything, sell all our possessions and take off for adventures in far-off lands and exciting destinations. But most of the time, it remains just a dream – but not for best-selling author Eloisa James. Just weeks after losing her mother to cancer, James was diagnosed with the very same disease. Even after successful treatment, she wanted a change. So she and her husband sold their house and cars, took sabbaticals from their teaching jobs, packed up their children and moved to Paris for a year. From endless gastronomic discoveries to the inevitable envy of fashionable French women (accompanied by an insatiable lust for their French clothes), James recounts her family’s time in la ville de l’amour.
I’ve long felt an attachment to Regency romance author Eloisa James. She wrote some of the very first romance novels I ever read and I’ve continued to enjoy her writing throughout the years. On top of that, she’s a Shakespeare professor at my alma mater (though, regrettably for me and my love of Shakespeare, she arrived at the university after I graduated) and my favorite of her books are four that take inspiration from the Bard himself. Add into this mix my fascination (and yes, even obsession) with France and there is no doubt that I would snap up Paris in Love the minute it came into the bookstore.
Paris in Love is technically a memoir, but James’ style of writing and the short, little vignettes (many of which started out originally as Facebook status updates, believe it or not) made me feel as if I were listening to a beloved friend confide in me. Several times I found myself bringing the book closer to my eyes and my body, as if I were leaning in to better hear my friend gossip and share. This informal style makes Paris in Love so accessible and also so impossible to put down.
James has an eye for the smallest details and takes great delight in the enjoyment and celebration of the little things in life. The stories and vignettes are loosely organized by season, but each could easily stand alone as a moment in time captured on the page: Paris on this day, at this hour. Paris in Love showcases the everyday Paris, the routine of James and her family, the rhythms of Parisian life and the charm of the shopkeepers, the Metro passengers, and the others you might meet each day.
My favorite parts involved James’ family – her Italian husband Alessandro, their two adolescent children and even Milo, the obese Chihuahua – all of whom come alive in her hilariously funny stories. Several times I laughed aloud at their antics (which definitely earned more than a few stares on the T) and by the time I finished the book, I felt like I had gotten to know these people. Paris in Love makes you feel as if you are right there with James, sharing in the same experiences.
Eloisa James’ Paris in Love is an absolute delight from start to finish. I was wooed and charmed by this book and it is the best kind of book to enjoy – the kind that simply makes you happy when you’ve finished reading. It’s definitely one of the best books I’ve read in 2012 so far. If you’re a fan of James’ romance novels or even if you’re just a fan of Paris, then you cannot miss this book.(less)
Almost all of the interviews we collect touch on the great themes of human existence, and – as we’ve l...more Originally published on The Librarian Next Door:
Almost all of the interviews we collect touch on the great themes of human existence, and – as we’ve learned after recording thousands upon thousands of sessions – there can be no question that the greatest of these themes is love.
So begins a wonderful collection of original stories from the folks behind Storycorps. All There Is: Love Stories from Storycorps is a book of interviews compiled into one long narrative about the enduring power of love and the way love touches us all, in so many different ways. Edited by David Isay, these interviews were recorded as part of the Storycorps project and then collected for this book.
For those of you who may not know, Storycorps is a national nonprofit project with a deceptively simple premise: every story, every voice matters. Founded in 2003, Storycorps gives Americans of all ages, races, backgrounds and beliefs the chance to record their own story for future generations. Each participant gets to keep a copy of his or her story and another copy is archived in the Library of Congress, so that future Americans can look back and hear, in their own words and own voices, the stories of Americans just like them.
All There Is is a collection of some of the greatest Storycorps recordings about love. The book is divided into three sections: love found, love lost, and love found at last. Isay and the other Storycorps editors have done minimal editing; each selection retains the individual voices of the people telling it. I think there is a unique kind of power to telling your own story in your own words; these love stories feel so much more real because I’m reading them as they come from the individuals themselves. There’s no second or third-hand party to confuse things. Reading this book felt like chatting with a close friend again and again.
And, like all good books, All There Is is filled with original and honest stories that stir up a range of emotions. Sometimes I smiled, sometimes I got choked-up and teary-eyed and sometimes, I laughed through a few tears. There’s such an incredible and diverse range of stories that it’s nearly impossible to choose a favorite.
I did really appreciate the stories from the older generations, partly because they reminded me of my own grandparents’ love stories and partly because there was clearly so much wisdom in their experiences. There were also stories that were difficult to read, especially those within the “Love Lost” section (including a couple of heartbreaking stories revolving around September 11th), but those were also some of the most important stories as well.
There’s some sadness in All There Is, but there’s also a lot of hope and joy. I’d love to read more anthologies of Storycorps stories, because the whole point of the project is to preserve these tales for others to hear. A heartwarming and enjoyable collection, All There Is will make you believe in love – real, actual love told by the people who know best.(less)
“The sun is rising behind Downton Abbey, a great and splendid house in a great and splendid park. So s...more Originally published on The Librarian Next Door:
“The sun is rising behind Downton Abbey, a great and splendid house in a great and splendid park. So secure does it appear that it seems as if the way of life it represents will last for another thousand years. It’s won’t.”
Recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most critically acclaimed television show” for 2011, Downton Abbey has taken the world by storm. The massively popular show was originally intended as a one-off miniseries; it did so remarkably well that the second season is now airing in the U.S. (having already aired in the U.K.) and a third season is in the works.
To complement the show, Jessica Fellowes (the niece of Downton scribe and executive producer Julian Fellowes) has written The World of Downton Abbey. Both a behind-the-scenes look at the show and its characters and a remarkably detailed exploration of British history at the beginning of the 20th century, The World of Downton Abbey is an impressively researched book every fan should have. Written with the cooperation of many members of the television show’s production crew, the book is both gorgeous, thanks to numerous photographs from the set, and well-written and engaging.
The book is divided into several chapters that delve deeper into the different aspects of life in England in the years leading up to and during the First World War. Chapters such as “Family Life,” “Society,” “Life in Service” and “House & Estate” provide a closer look at the day-to-day process of keeping a large country home like Downton functioning and thriving. Using the characters as examples, Jessica Fellowes explains how a young man like William or a young woman like Anna might get their start as a servant to a great family, while also outlining the history that brought American heiresses like Cora to England so they could marry into the aristocracy.
Other chapters (“Change” and “War”) focus on the vast and numerous changes that accompanied World War I. Here, the history is particularly important as it helps clarify the issues behind the storylines in the television show. The rise of socialism, the Irish troubles, and the general weakening of the power of the older generations all offer ample inspiration for the writers and the actors. Perhaps the most fascinating realization from The World of Downton Abbey was the realization that, in many ways, the world of Downton and the lives of its inhabitants act as a metaphor, mirroring our own rapidly changing world:
Life at the turn of the twentieth century was not so different from our own a hundred years later. Just as ongoing developments in technology influence the way we communicate, travel, life and work now, the Edwardians labored to adapt to the fast, furious arrival of abundant inventions. (pg. 72)
Throughout each chapter, there are sidebars filled with pictures and more details about specific characters or positions within the Downton world or a closer look at one aspect of the television show. Fellowes often includes notes about real people who inspired certain characters (for example, the real newspapers magnates who gave life to Sir Richard Carlisle) or insights about the skills and education a servant might need to perform their job. Additionally, the book is peppered with quotes from producers, actors, and the television show itself, offering an intimate glimpse of how this intricate and well-staged world comes together.
The World of Downton Abbey is as lavish as the Earl of Grantham’s drawing room and as practical as the maids’ uniforms. Brimming with information, details and histories, it is an indispensable companion to the enormously popular television show. It’s an absolute must-have for any Downton Abbey fan. (less)
Romance novels, and the readers who love them, tend to get a bad rap. I can’t tell you the number of t...more Originally published on The Librarian Next Door:
Romance novels, and the readers who love them, tend to get a bad rap. I can’t tell you the number of times my stepmother would bemoan my choice in novels, telling me I “could do better than a romance novel.” Better than a romance novel? Surely you jest! Sure, not every reader will gravitate towards a romance novel, but then again, not every reader will want to read science-fiction, crime thrillers or Nicholas Sparks novels (*gag*). Romance novels are as diverse as any other genre and those of us who read – and love – them do so for a variety of reasons. And just in case you need some ammunition to fend off the pleas of well-meaning, but misguided family members or friends, I suggest you read Everything I Know About Love, I Learned from Romance Novels, the latest book from Sarah Wendell.
Wendell is the cofounder and bloggess behind Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, quite possibly THE best website devoted entirely to the romance genre. Wendell is a ninja of love, at least according to the Twitter-supplied bio at the back of her book, so she knows of what she speaks. Everything I Know About Love (hereafter known as EIKAL) is filled with her trademark wit, humor, snark and all-around general awesomeness. By validating and celebrating romance novels and the things we can learn from them (about ourselves, about a boyfriend / girlfriend / friend with benefits, and about life), Wendell gives voice to all the romance fans who find value and worth in between the pages of their favorite romance novel.
As Wendell herself says in the introduction, it is frighteningly easy to dismiss romance novels as inconsequential. But as several readers and authors point out over the course of the book, nothing could be further from the truth:
Ironically, many people who disdain the romance genre and look down on the women who read it presume that reading about courtship, emotional fulfillment, and rather fantastic orgasms leads to an unrealistic expectation of real life. If we romance readers are filling our own heads with romantic fantasies, real men and real life won’t and cannot possibly measure up to our fairy-tale expectations, right? Wrong. Wrongity wrong wrong wrong. That accusation implies that we don’t know the difference between fantasy and real life, and frankly, it’s sexist as well…
Sometimes the fantastical and impossible…can help translate reality better than any self-help book ever could. When you see your problems blown up into, dare I say, fantasy proportions, your real problems don’t look so insurmountable. Fantasy, instead of distorting reality, can help you comprehend your reality. (pages 6-7)
With chapter headings such as “We Know Who We Are, and We Know Our Worth,” “We Know How to Spot Real-Life Heroes and Heroines,” and “We Know that Happily-Ever-After Takes Work,” Wendell uses reader feedback and examples from numerous romance authors to demonstrate the very real lessons of romance novels. She refuses to buy into the idea of romance as fluff and instead proves, chapter after chapter, that romances reveal, better than any other type of book, the details of good (and even not-so-good) relationships – and not just sexual relationships, but relationships of all kinds.
There are no illusions in this book. Wendell (or any of the other people she interviewed) isn’t pretending that relationships are magically easy and that all problems will be solved as neatly as they are in the pages of a book. What she is doing, however, – so brilliantly – is putting on page the words many people sometimes have a hard time believing: yes, you are worthy and yes, you deserve happiness. Not in the past, not at some indeterminate time in the future, but right now, in the present, you deserve your own version of a happily-ever-after. And, whether you choose to believe it or not, romance novels can help you get there.
I’ll admit that as a fan of both romance novels and Smart Bitches Trashy Books, I was probably inclined to think favorably about Everything I Know About Love… even before I read it. So take my opinion with a grain of salt if you want, but I do, in all honesty, think this is an important book worth reading. If you love romance, if you hate romance, even if you’re mostly just “meh” about romance, Everything I Know About Love reminds us that ultimately, the most important things in life are not material or monetary. The most important things are the people, flawed and imperfect, who just happen to be perfect for us.(less)
In the introduction to The Sense & Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries, producer Lindsay Doran writes...more Originally posted on The Librarian Next Door:
In the introduction to The Sense & Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries, producer Lindsay Doran writes that it took 15 years just to develop the project (write the script, find a director, etc.) before filming ever started. The insider-y bits of information from Doran and from Emma Thompson’s diaries are wonderful peeks into the heart, passion and love that went into bringing Austen’s classic to the big screen.
The Sense & Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries, which I read as part of Austenprose’s Sense & Sensbility Bicentennial Challenge, includes illustrations, the full screenplay (which won Emma Thompson an Oscar) and an appendix of extras, in addition to Thompson’s diaries. The diary entries are the star of this volume, as Thompson’s delightful Austen-esque wit shines through abundantly. She writes about the entire process, from start to finish, and it’s clear she was devoted to ensuring the film was as excellent as it could possibly be (in one entry, for example, she claims she hid her television, radio and newspapers prior to filming in order to stay in her 19th century mindset).
Thompson’s diary entries reveal things both interesting (they were not only taught how to curtsy, but also why Elinor and Marianne would have done so) and hilarious (at various points, she panics about the script, convinced Austen would hate it). Her eye for detail and her laugh-aloud descriptions of the cast and crew is worth the read alone:
…Everyone looks a bit done in. Except for Ang [Lee, the director], who brings self-contained calm wherever he goes. Just looking at him makes me feel frazzled in comparison… Hugh Grant breezes in… Repellently gorgeous, why did we cast him? He’s much prettier than I am.
Thompson reveals herself as an actress and a writer deeply involved in every part of the film and divulges pieces of Sense & Sensibility trivia unknown to most fans – for instance, Thompson apparently wrote the part of Edward specifically for Hugh Grant. And Kate Winslet was immediately, always exactly Marianne. My favorite parts, however, are when she talks about the process of writing the script itself. She relates a tale of going to sleep with Austen’s letters clutched in her hands and admits to nagging the cast about the proper terms and words to use when filming:
It’s true I’m always at them. The language in the novel is complex and far more arcane than in the later books. In simplifying it, I’ve tried to retain the elegance and wit of the original and it’s necessarily more exacting than modern speech.
Jane Austen is a popular choice for Hollywood, but not every adaptation takes a great deal of care with her stories and words. Reading this book can only be described as a joy for this Austen fan, because it is obvious – through the words of Thompson herself in The Sense & Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries – that Emma Thompson, Ang Lee, Lindsay Doran and everyone else involved with the film was firmly committed to creating a movie that evoked the very best of Austen herself.(less)
In March of 1952, Julia Child, then living in Paris with her husband Paul, wrote a fan letter to Bernard De Voto, a historian a...more (original review here)
In March of 1952, Julia Child, then living in Paris with her husband Paul, wrote a fan letter to Bernard De Voto, a historian and journalist who had written a column in Harper’s Magazine criticizing American-made steel knives. Along with the letter, Julia sent a small French-made knife as a token of her appreciation for his column. Bernard’s wife, Avis, routinely handled his correspondence and replied to Julia’s initial letter. Thus began a lifelong friendship, one that lasted until Avis’ death in 1989. Through their letters alone, Julia and Avis became confidants and, most importantly, set out to publish a cookbook on French cooking for the average American housewife.
Thanks to their families and local libraries, many of these letters have been preserved for future generations. In her book, As Always Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, editor Joan Reardon meticulously recreates Julia and Avis’ friendship and the creation of the now-famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by reprinting their literary correspondence, from the very first letter, to Julia’s arrival in Cambridge some nine years later in 1961.
The reprinted letters, once hand-written or typed by Julia and Avis themselves, give readers an intimate sense of who they were, in their own words. The range of topics covered by the letters is astonishing and it quickly becomes clear that Julia and Avis were both highly intelligent, witty, funny, gracious and the absolute antithesis of the stereotypical 1950′s American housewife. There’s also the sense that you are peeking in on their private lives; though the letters were edited to exclude mentions of most private matters, the friendship and the camaraderie is still there. Long before they met in person, Julia and Avis became the best of friends.
Obviously, given that it’s a book about Julia Child, the descriptions and details of food take center stage. Julia and Avis held strong opinions about certain ingredients and recipes and both had a lifelong love affair with food and cooking. Readers are taken into the very heart of Julia’s passion for French food and her devotion to sharing her knowledge with others. There are also comments about America’s growing reliance on pre-packaged and “quick” foods, something Julia was reluctant to embrace after years of access to the freshest ingredients in France.
Though it is, first and foremost, a book about friendship and food, it is also an incredibly rich primary source for life as an American both at home and abroad in the McCarthy era. Julia and Avis were both exceptionally well-read and tuned into current events and politics. Their letters are filled with references to political, cultural and social events, with Julia often providing the American expatriate’s view and Avis offering up comments on 1950′s Cambridge, Massachusetts society.
Reardon shaped the book by dividing the letters by section and wrote introductions to each section, providing background information and placing the letters in a larger context. She also added footnotes to clarify names, places, French phrases and other bits of information the average person might not be familiar with. Julia and Avis apparently had the habit of using initials instead of full names to refer to people they both knew.
As I don’t read nonfiction often, it did take me awhile to find my pace and settle into the book. The sheer abundance of information and history contained in the letters can make it seem overwhelming at first. At times, I felt as if I were slogging through letter after letter. But the information is so rich and detailed that you begin to feel as if the letters were written to you. It’s worth it to take the time and savor this book, in small doses if you must or want, because any fan of Julia Child, food or even just 1950′s America will find this book a treat.(less)
Review originally posted at The Librarian Next Door:
Classical literature is classic for a reason: the stories – and characters – have weathered the ch...more Review originally posted at The Librarian Next Door:
Classical literature is classic for a reason: the stories – and characters – have weathered the changes in time and history and yet have still remained beloved. Fictional characters become real to readers, forging literary friendships and delighting us over and over again with adventures that never seem to grow old. Indeed, where would I be – where would any of us be – without Lizzie Bennett, Anne Shirley or Laura Ingalls? There heroines played a large role in my childhood and now, thanks to a thoughtful book by Erin Blakemore, I’m still learning from them as an adult.
The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder is a series of essays that explore the lives of the female authors and their famous heroines, extracting important and vital lessons. Blakemore digs deep into the authors’ pasts to uncover how their own lives informed the creation of their characters’ lives and what, exactly, a 21st century woman – a heroine in her own life – can learn from them. Each heroine/author pair is examined through the lens of one particular quality; Jane Austen and Lizzie Bennett, for example, embody “self” while Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre are, of course, “steadfastness.”
The Heroine’s Bookshelf may not have been written for me, but it may as well have. In the introduction, Blakemore reveals her own bookworm tendencies, thereby guaranteeing that I would love her and this book:
“Call me a coward if you will, but when the lines between duty and sanity blur, you can usually find me curled up with a battered book, reading as if my mental health depended on it. And it does, for inside the books I love I find food, respite, escape, and perspective. I find something else too: heroines and authors, hundreds of them, women whose real and fictitious lives have covered the terrain I too must tread.”
From the start, I knew I would find kindred spirits in this book, but I also found a sense of comfort and familiarity, a feeling that comes with revisiting literary friends I know so well. This book also conveys a sense of discovery. I was pleasantly surprised to learn things that I didn’t know before, both about the authors I’ve loved since I was a child and the characters who have become as real to me as any living person. I also truly enjoyed the fact that Blakemore included many of my favorites (Austen, Bronte and Alcott), but also exposed me to a few heroines I’m learning to love in a new way for the first time (I’m looking at you, Miss Scarlett O’Hara).
One of the reasons I think The Heroine’s Bookshelf works so well is because these authors and their heroines struggle with issues that are universal. There’s a timelessness to these stories, which makes it easy to go back and re-read them time and again and still find a new way of looking at them. While my 21st century live might be very different from Lizzie Bennett’s economic and marriage woes or Mary Lennox’s magic garden, there are still things they can teach me, still ways in which our lives do connect. For all of their flaws – and for all of my own – these heroines are women who triumph, women who find their own way, and there’s certainly a lot to be said for taking that lesson and applying it to my own life.
Every reader has his or her own relationships with and memories of these heroines. These women mean different things to each of us and that’s part of what makes The Heroine’s Bookshelf so great. While the lessons therein are largely universal, every reader will have a different experience with this book because we all have our own way to relating to these fabulous characters. My Lizzie Bennett might be quite different from yours, and that’s okay because neither one is wrong. The Heroine’s Bookshelf is a must-read for any literature lover, for any girl or woman who grew up with these characters or anyone who just loves looking beyond the surface and seeing more of a character or author.
“As women, we are the protagonists of our own personal novels. We are called upon to be the heroines of our own lives, not supporting characters…luckily, we’re not required to be brave to be heroines…all we have to do is show up for our own stories. Even if the reality is less glamorous than fiction, even when it feels impossible to tap into a spirit that’s bigger and better than you, but IS you, we’re called upon to lead big, sloppy, frustrating lives.”
Some books are read in one sitting and then put back on the shelf, never to cross our thoughts again....more Originally published on The Librarian Next Door:
Some books are read in one sitting and then put back on the shelf, never to cross our thoughts again. Other books contain so much depth and richness that one reading could never begin to uncover the treasures within. These are the books that colleges design literature courses around, books that simply beg to be explored further. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, even J.K. Rowling – three examples (among many, many more) of authors whose books inspire a passion to read between the lines and discover hidden meanings. These authors just don’t invite praise; they welcome discussion and challenge readers to think beyond the story on the page.
Now author Suzanne Collins joins their ranks with her popular and critically acclaimed The Hunger Games series. In The Girl Who Was on Fire, edited by Leah Wilson, 13 different young adult authors take a critical look at the series with their thought-provoking, deeply intriguing and even funny essays. Pushing past the surface, these essays lay Katniss and her friends bare as they explore the various aspects of life in Panem, the horror of the Games themselves and the complicated relationships between the series’ main characters. In doing so, these authors reveal the detail Collins included in her books, from the most obvious comparisons to other dystopian novels like 1984 to the more subtle ones like the deft similarities between Snow and Coin.
The essays cover a wide range in topics, touching on everything from the scientific and technological advances of Panem and Cinna’s fashion fabulousness to the radical idea of love as a weapon, the politics of war, and the strange intersection of “reality” television and news broadcasts. Each essay clearly demonstrated its author’s love and enjoyment of The Hunger Games series, while encouraging other readers to look past the obvious answers. There were essays that made me laugh, essays that delighted me with their cleverness, essays that challenged my opinions of certain characters and even an essay or two that made me shake my head with mild disagreement. All shared a respect for Collins’ original series and its incredible insights.
While I truly enjoyed the entire book as a whole, one essay in particular stood out as being exceptional: Jenn Lynn Barnes’ essay on “Team Katniss.” Barnes wisely points that the whole “Team Gale” versus “Team Peeta” romantic triangle overshadows a more important aspect of the novels: Katniss’ initial lack and eventual development of self-awareness. Barnes makes the argument that we’ve come to expect romantic triangles in young adult books these days and while that’s all well and good, focusing solely on Katniss’ romantic choices leaves readers without a good understanding of who Katniss herself is. I really loved Barnes decision to explore Katniss herself because, pretty boys aside, The Hunger Games series is, first and foremost, Katniss’ story, or as Barnes says (much more eloquently), “Sometimes, in books and in life, it’s not about the romance. Sometimes, it’s about the girl.”
The English major in me refuses to die, so I’m a pretty easy target for a book like The Girl Who Was on Fire. But any fan of The Hunger Games, whether casual or die-hard, will find plenty of food of thought with these essays. With precise, in-depth explorations of timely and relevant topics, The Girl Who Was on Fire is a must-read for anyone who ever wanted to look beyond the words on the page and learn more about their favorite books.(less)
Review originally published at The Librarian Next Door:
I loved every page of Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, edited by Holly Black and Cecil C...more Review originally published at The Librarian Next Door:
I loved every page of Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci. This collection of wry, funny, laugh-out-loud awesome short stories is every geek’s dream come true. The stories, all written by well-known YA authors (and self-professed geeks), are as diverse and unique as the geeks themselves. Interspersed with the stories are comic strips and there’s even a glossary in the back for those who might be a bit confused.
While every story brims with authenticity and humorous in-jokes, there were a few that stood out to me. In David Levithan’s “Quiz Bowl Antichrist,” Alec gets recruited for his school’s quiz bowl team because they need someone to answer the English Lit questions. While contending with an autocratic team leader, he crushes after one teammate and finds a true friend in another. Levithan’s Alec is sarcastic and over-confident, catty and angry. But he’s also funny and confused – in other words, a fairly typical teenage boy, caught up in trying to figure things out. Against the backdrop of a cutthroat quiz bowl competition, Levinthan’s characters are full of life.
The unnamed speaker in Sara Zarr’s “This is My Audition Monologue” is a brilliant, overachieving, diva-with-a-capital-D and I swear to God, I know (or, at least, knew) girls just like her. In Zarr’s stream-of-consciousness story, Miss Diva attempts to audition for the school play with her own self-written monologue, a piece that turns into a long critique on the history of school theater and how she, in particular, has been woefully underused. The ego and narcissism that permeates Miss Diva’s monologue is so spot-on. Sure, maybe some people think it’s over the top, but I thought it was pitch-perfect in capturing the ruthless ambition and desperation of a young ingenue who wants nothing more than to bask in the spotlight.
Lastly, Libba Bray’s “It’s Just a Jump to the Left” follows two lifelong friends on the cusp on high school as their lives start to take drastically different turns, all while they struggle to hold on to the one tradition that has kept them together all this time – regular midnight viewings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. When Agnes starts dating her first boyfriend, Leta feels both left behind and an urgent need to try and catch up. Leta begins to cling to Rocky Horror as the one constant in a life that’s frequently changing, while Agnes rushes towards maturity without thinking through the consequences. The girls’ friendship, the strength of their bond and the obstacles it faces are heartrendingly real. Bray has depicted a friendship on the brink with tiny little details that makes you pause and think back about your own adolescence.
A few other stories also deserve an honorable mention shout-out, including Garth Nix’s “The Quiet Knight” that ventures into the world of LARPing, Lisa Yee’s “Everyone But You,” about the popular girl starting over as a geek and Barry Lyga’s “The Truth About Dino Girl,” with a good girl revenge fantasy you’ve always dreamed about.
If you’ve ever lost track of time playing a role-playing game online, if you’ve ever obsessed over a book, a movie or a television show, if you love anything other people might make fun of (see: science-fiction, fantasy, theater, science, math, trivia, reading, etc, etc, etc) then this book is for you. You are a geek! Say it loud and say it proud! (less)