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Review: World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever

My Interest

I devoured Kitchen Confidential when it came out, but oddly, I’ve never watched more than a few minutes of any of Anthony (“Tony”) Bourdain’s tv shows–I prefer reading about food and travel (and, until last week when my daughter gave me one) I do not own a tv. (I occasionally watch online though). After reading this book, I doubt I’ll go in search of any of Boudain’s tv shows, but I would be I might read more of his word. His style is not mine. It’s more Bobby Knight than I’d like–especially around food. But he certainly knew good food and exciting travel.

The Story

At the time of his death in 2018, Bourdain and his “lieutenant,” Laurie Woolever, were at work on the project of telling about people, places, and most importantly, food he had encountered over his twenty years of making travel and food tv programs. Unfortunately, they only got to have that one meeting. Tony ended his life and left Laurie with the idea to finish the project. Instead of Tony writing about places and experiences he’d loved, friends, coworkers, and relatives have contributed prose and memories. Tony’s words, drawn from his television shows and writing, make up the balance of the book.

In this world tour, I enjoyed all of his stops, but I was especially drawn to two places–the first of which is Salvador in Brazil. I was taken in by the interesting sound of the taste of a caipirinhas [a lime juice-based cocktail with sugar cane “spirits”] and for the acaraje. What’s not to like about this:

“[A] paste a batter, a falafel-like wad of smushed-up black-eyed peas, seasoned with ground dried shrimp and onions, deep-friend till crispy and golden, in some chili-spiked dende oil [red palm oil]. On top you got your catapa which is, sort of, a shrimp curry paste, and your tomato salad, your friend shrimp, your cararao frito. A must.”

As Bourdain points out in his tv show [transcript] the slave trade was very big in Brazil. You can certainly tell that just from the description above of the acaraje. Black-eyed peas [“cowpeas” in some parts of Africa], red palm oil, dried shrimp? How much more West African can you get? But you are eating it in South America. Love that whole picture. Wash it down with a caiprinhas. which to me evokes memories of Malwai and Cathay, a sugar cane “spirit” that could knock over a Teamster with its kick.

The second most compelling portrait was of Barcelona:

Outside of Asia, this is it: the best and most exciting place to it in the world.”

That’s a pretty bold statement even for as bold a guy as Tony was.

“The simple, good things of Spain that most Spaniards see as a birthright…’How can ham be this good?! How can something that comes in a can be that terrific. Simple things–an anchovy, an olive, a piece of cheese. Really really simple things, the little things that you see every day here–that’s what’s cool about Spain.'”

I love everything about this statement–simple food that lends itself to daily life, to visiting with friends. Food that fills you up but doesn’t weigh you down. Sign me up!

My Thoughts

There was no place in this book I wouldn’t want to see and experience. I must admit, though, that shark’s live and various types of tripe do nothing to my taste bud, but do make my gag reflex kick in. Ok, so I’m not as adventurous as Tony–not many of us are. But to eat my way through all the versions of wonderful Piri-Piri chicken in Mozambique, or sample street foods in India or Singapore. Those would certainly be amazing meals.

As for the book–it isn’t nice to criticize a posthumously published book. But, this, in essence, was a copy-and-paste of a dead man’s tv orations, padded out with words from a woman who was his assistant and with whom he wrote a cookbook. While Laurie Woolever’s prose was wonderfully descriptive and does set the scene well, I must say I was underwhelmed by this repackaging of Tony. When Laurie was asking herself if the world really needed this book, she should have listened to her gut saying, “Probably not.” Tony’s vision for the book would have been much better as it would have been populated with his planned essays on places, food, experiences, and more. Bourdain’s larger-than-life personality does well on the tv screen. Transcribing those words spoke, shouted, or muttered into the camera in a specific context, is just not great reading. Nonetheless, it is still a decent addition to contemporary travel literature for those who want a super-quick read. [“How thoroughly passive-aggressive can she be?” I hear you asking! LOL]

My Verdict

3.0

World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever

 

 

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Review: Band of Sisters: A Novel by Lauren Willig

My Interest

I’ve always wondered “what would I have done?” about both World War I and World War II. I like to think I’d have signed up and served in some sort of uniform. This story, then, was almost a personal fantasy of “What if?” for me.

The real Smith College Relief Unit (image source)

The Story

Based on the real-life group of Smith College graduates who served in France helping near or at the front lines, this fictionalized account of their lives focuses on Kate, a scholarship girl [why, oh why does every such person come from a “hardscrabble” existence?] and Emmie, the wealthy heiress, daughter of the formidable Mrs. Livingston Van Alden and her relative, Julia a doctor (and very Eleanor Roosevelt-ish in height, and teeth). 15 other Smithies, as they were known for their degrees from the prestigious Seven Sisters (women’s college version of the Ivy League back in single-sex days) arrive in France in new uniforms, filled with idealism, and then realize they must put their trucks together, sleep in cellars and, well, get on with the work to be done.

Of the generation who founded the Junior League and did good works in tenements and Settlement Houses in New York, Chicago, and other cities, these women really were trailblazers. They pretty much put social work on the map. Julia, a doctor who fought for her education to escape her privileged societal position, and Emmie who chafed at being Mrs. Van Alden’s daughter were typical of the society girls of their era who were “over it” as we’d say today and wanted “more.” Kate, tricked into coming by Emmie, has what today would be called “leadership” skills, but back then was just seen as a little bossy.

While the ladies work tirelessly helping the villagers reclaim their homes and lives stolen by the first battle of the Somme, the second battle is gearing up (but they don’t know that, of course). Helping with food, health care, education, entertainment, gardens, and livestock, the Smith Unit brings hope and practical assistance to the war-ravaged area. Each woman driving a truck or her accompanying Smith associates form bonds with the villagers, find a little romance, and learn things about their own strength that no modern-day corporate trust exercise or MBA program could hope to teach.

1916 Ford Jitney from Wikipedia Commons

My Thoughts

I loved the ways Emmie and Kate mature and find their strengths. That was very well done. While I did roll my eyes at Julia’s pc moment, it too was appropriately told and dealt with in the manner of 1914 and not of today. I do not like it when historical fiction goes off into modern-day thought and happily, Willig is a much better author than that. I was also thrilled beyond measure that this was told in chronological order, with memories here and there, and not in the now-overused dual timeline and a cheesy “Oh, look  Old Aunt Gerty’s scrapbook…if it could only talk…the tales it would tell…” storyline [is this a “trope”?]. Thank you, Ms. Willig, for skipping that garbage and telling us a great story instead. I wish actually hope there will be a sequel–I would love to hear about the rest of the fictional lives of Kate, Emmie, and Julia, but if not, I am glad to learn from the well-done author’s notes on the true story that a nonfiction book is in the works on the real Smith Unit. I will buy that the minute it is avaiable.

I loved the story, but there was one huge, annoying problem–the lack of an editor. Even a bestselling author needs one. The phrase “meant to” appeared on nearly every page of the book. It should have been the subtitle of the book. The phrase was ubiquitous! Never did she substitute “ought to” or “should have” or “are to be” or anything else. The first “ought to” finally came way into the book–I cheered. Then suddenly one chapter (a re-write, perhaps?) overused “ought to” before “meant to” returned. UGH UGH UGH! Spellcheck is not an editor. Someone should have called her out on this and made her fix it. The story is so good! The characters as deep as they get in this level of fiction, and the actions were believable, but the reader is bludgeoned to death with the words “meant to.” I’ve also never encountered a single America of any age (even back to my Grandmother born in 1904) “haring off” somewhere. Hares–rabbits just don’t “inform” or movements. That appears at least twice.

My verdict

4.0

Band of Sisters: A Novel by Lauren Willig

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Review: Chasing the Sun by Judy Leigh

My Interest

Judy Leigh has become a must-read author for me. Her books are fun, hopeful, and feature romance after the age of 50.

The Story

Molly is a widow still grieving her Richie when she is smacked in the face with her 70th–70!!!–birthday. She has her cat and a daughter up in Cumbria, but her life is just blah. Nell has just been shocked by her husband of many decades asking for a divorce to marry a younger woman who works at the village coffee shop. Off Nell flees to her sister for comfort. Molly decides what they both need is sun and a change of scenery so she finds an apartment to rent in Spain and the sisters head out to sunshine, beaches, and a new way of life for a few months. 

Travel, new things to learn, Spanish to improve, new foods, and sunshine enliven the two ladies, out of their respective funks. Molly decides to make a short trip on her own to Mexico and there finds something she needed (no spoilers) in a cultural event unlike any other. When Nell joins her things get even more fun.

My Thoughts

This book took a little longer to get into than the others I’ve read by Judy, but it was worth it. The characters of Nell and Molly were both believable. “Life is a celebration,” chef Christoph says at one point and it is very true. I liked the way Molly and Nell each faced their own new realities, and embraced having new experiences and just plain fun along the way.

I always think Judy’s books would make wonderfully fun movies–like Mama Mia in tone, but without the Abba soundtrack. They are made, too, for Julie Walters and I could see Helen Mirren as Molly–so like her character in Calendar Girls.

This story turned out to be so much fun! I highly recommend it

My Verdict

4.0

Note about the editor: Her editor should have caught and corrected an American saying they had spoken to their “solicitor”–a term not used in the USA. The same character also said, “shan’t” which would only be used in America a very jokey tone–probably with a bad British accent. Another American mentions “the hire car.” We call them “rental cars.” These are not a big deal, I just am always amazed at how little attention editors pay to detail anymore.

It was also humorous to hear a Texan enthuse over “Western-style” “horse riding.” Riding is generally done on “horseback” and on a Western saddle in Texas. English saddles and the English style of equitation are used for fox-hunting, dressage, show jumping, polo, and other more formal equestrian events as well as for formal riding lessons. Trail rides are usually Western in the USA–it is very difficult for a novice to do a trail ride on an English saddle. It doesn’t take away from the fun of that wonderful scene with Molly though! It will be a life-long favorite of mine from Judy’s wonderful books!

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Review: The Mountains Sing: A Novel by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

I received an audiobook version of this book free from Net Galley in exchange for a fair review. I make no money off this blog, not even from the links I post to Amazon.

My Interest

Some of my earliest memories involve seeing the Vietnam War on the nightly news. I was born during the Kennedy administration so Vietnam has been a part of the American lexicon my entire life. My parents did not try to distract us when watching the news–instead, they let us join in and talked with us about what we saw. We grew up politically aware and advanced for our age. In the early 1970s, my mother’s cousin went to Vietnam as an officer, resigned his commission, and finished his tour as an enlisted man. Later, he made his career as a psychologist specializing in the care of Vietnam vets with PTSD. Later still, I worked in a library with a large number of Vietnamese employees–all refugees of the war. Knowing a few of their stories fueled my desire to begin learning more about the war in the 1980s.

The Story

What my uncle said made me think. I had resented America, too. But by reading their books, I saw the other side of them–their humanity. Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth.”

“What my uncle said made me think. I had resented America, too. But by reading their books, I saw the other side of them–their humanity. Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth.”

In the 1920s what we know as Vietnam was part of the French empire. French culture, architecture, education, Catholicism, and language dominated especially the southern part of the colony. The story features Trần Diệu Lan, a woman born in 1920, and her family is the focus of this multinational look at Vietnamese history. From the land reform movement to the war to beyond. The stories of the different family members “humanize” the struggle to survive under each regime, and throw the forcible taking of wealth, the reduction, the after-effects of Agent Orange, and much more.

My Thoughts

I don’t know why I put this one off so long. It was really engrossing. This is the kind of multi-generational saga I loved before I let social media devour my attention span. Listening to it brought back all the joy of reading those big books of family sagas. I admired the resourcefulness of each generation in this family. There were true heartbreaks, joys, and moments when I wanted to hurt someone–all sings of a very well-told story.

My Verdict

4 Stars

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Review: Eleanor in the Village: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Search For Freedom…In Greenwich Village by Jan Jarboe Russell

My Interest

If you’ve read here much, you know I collect all the books on the Roosevelts. Eleanor is a particular favorite of mine. This book promised a look at Eleanor’s often overlooked life apart from Franklin in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. It seemed to promise new information and new insights, so I bought a hardcover copy for my collection and sat down to read it.

The Story

In spite of the premise, the book starts back with the Vanderbilts and New York in the Gilded age–a chapter that ends by mentioning Eleanor’s parents and speculating that “the sparkling events at the Vanderbilt ball would quite naturally have appeared to Anna and Elliott [Roosevelt] to be another moment emblematic of untold promise and beauty ahead for the two of them….” (p.7).  All of Eleanor’s life up to the time of Greenwich Village–the supposed focus of the book–is replayed. All the stories of her sad childhood and early marriage to Franklin are trotted out.

Eleanor, Marion, and Nan source

Eventually, we get to the short chapters on Eleanor’s actual time spent with Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, with Esther Lape and Elizabeth Reed–the women who helped Eleanor “find herself” and, in the case of Nan and Marion, who formed a household with her at Val-Kill on the Hyde Park (Springwood) estate. The actual information give was sparse. It was the same with her life after FDR’s death–sparse. The final chapter of her life, living in the same building with David Gurewitsch and his wife had barely more information.

My Thoughts

I really sat there wondering why this book was published. The notes on sources were few and far between. She makes assertions such as these (below) without backing them up with any evidence. (These are just two I selected to illustrate this–there were more.)

“One might even legitimately wonder if FDR ever would have become president were it not for Eleanor’s ongoing and transformative experiences in the Village.” (p. 79)

It was Louis Howe who “made” FDR. Eleanor certainly helped, but most of what she did came after polio. FDR started in politics when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and his ambition to be president came way before that.

“Louis Howe and Franklin joked that the women were ‘she-males,’ a loaded prases that conveyed their belief that Eleanor and her women friends would never be equal to men at home or in politics.”

WOW. Way to read into what was then a contemporary (if very mocking) term for lesbians! Franklin and Howe were far too astute to not see how useful Eleanor and the League of Women Voter’s cofounder Esther Lape, her partner, respected attorney Elizabeth Read, and Head of the Women’s Division of the NY Democratic Party Nancy Cook were to getting the newly enfranchised women voters on their side to think anything of the kind! Nothing is offered as proof of this meaning of the ‘she-male’ phrase.

The tone of the book is that of a biography for the middle grades to junior high school-age students. In fact, I even went back to Amazon to see if I had missed it being designated as such!

Eleanor with Earl Miller source

This book, like nearly all biographies of Eleanor since the “revelation” many years ago of her apparent love affair with Lorena Hickok, mostly catalogs the possible romantic interests of Eleanor after the breakdown of her marriage to FDR. In a book that champions the “New Woman” and the liberation of same-sex couples, it was humorous to see the author fall back on the old chestnut that Earl Miller (ER’s bodyguard), Joe Lash, and David Gurewitsch were all “surrogate sons” because they were younger than Eleanor. The chemistry between ER and Earl is well documented, the other two probably were platonic, but it is the idea that rankles.. Of course, the subservience by the FBI was also mentioned. The FBI did not like Joe Lash because of what they saw as his communist sympathies. We learn so little in this book about Eleanor–that is the shocking take-away.

Eleanor with Dr. David Gurewitsch source

My Verdict

If you know nothing of Eleanor Roosevelt, this is a short, introduction to some aspects of her life background, and times. It is a pleasant, fast, read that can be finished in an afternoon. If you are looking to really know about Eleanor in any way but the most superficial, see Blanche Weissen Cook’s great biography of Eleanor, or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time.

2.5

Eleanor in the Village by Jan Jarboe Russell

 

 

For an account of Eleanor’s life with Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook, see The Three Graces of Val-Kill by Emily Herring Wilson.

 

Another book by Jan Jarboe Russell

In spite of my feelings about this book, I would like to read Russell’s book The Train to Crystal City a nonfiction account of the family internment camp featured in the novel Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner.

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1936 Club Review: Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie

My Interest

THE book of 1936 was Gone With the Wind. I’ve read it too many times to count and could probably write a dissertation on both the book and the film. I am one semester from finishing a graduate certificate program so reading time is not plentiful right now. Therefore I picked the easiest read from my list.  (You can read my choices here, if interested.) If I can get a second book done–that’s great. But, for now, dear Agatha has come to the rescue with a nice, short murder story.

The Story

Hercule Poirot (whom I used to just call Hercules Parrott while reading) just happens to be near Bagdad when the murder occurs. Amy Leatheram, a nurse, is newly out in Baghdad to look after the very tedious-sounding wife of an archeologist. The wife, Louise, just maybe the sort to send herself those threatening letters to get attention–she’s a real Drama Llama. Her husband adores her. No one else likes her much. When Louise is found dead the other guests are questioned. No murder weapon is found and only a single drop of blood. Happlily, this is the sort of thing dear Poirot loves. He does not disappoint.

My Thoughts

Louise seemed a very timely character. I could just picture her on Oprah next to her henpecked husband spinning “her truth” that reflects no one else’s view! She was the proverbial “piece of work.” I liked Amy, the nurse, and found her telling for the story to be a nice addition to a very normal Agatha Christie story.

It was interesting that although this book came out after Murder on the Orient Express, it is mentioned that Poirot goes home on that train and encounters another murder. That was fun.

The book does reflect the times in the comments on the Iraqi people and various minority groups.

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie

Thank you to Stuck in a Book for hosting The 1936 Club–a fun way to read books from other eras. By club week, April 12-18, 2021, participants are to have read one book published in 1936.

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Review: The Ambassador: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Court of St. James 1938 to 1940 by Susan Ronald

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My Interest

I have stated many times my life-long interest in the Kennedy family, which I inherited from my parents and my paternal grandmother. I have a substantial library of books on them, and though I no longer buy that many on the family, I found this one on Net Galley and received it in exchange for an honest review. [I do not make any money off this blog. Even my Amazon links are merely for readers’ convenience.]

The Story

Joe Kennedy’s story is well known–father of the famous Kennedy sons: President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General/Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Senator Edward M. Kennedy and his namesake, Joe. Jr–killed in World War II  He is equally well-known for his daughter Kathleen (“Kick”) who married their heir of Duke of Devonshire, “Billy,” Marquess of Hartington, Eunice who founded The Special Olympics, Pat who married British actor Peter Lawford, Jean married to the head of the Kennedy business empire, Steven Smith, (and mother of the once-notorious William Kennedy Smith) and Rosemary–the daughter he tried so hard to protect, yet agreed to lobotomized. Until the lobotomy, however well-intentioned it might have been, being Rosemary’s father was perhaps Joe’s most admirable role. He loved her so.

Joe Kennedy’s best-known trait was his ruthlessness. This book does an excellent job of showing that. He was also a pioneer in the use of public relations. Americans knew of that big family of Joe and Rose Kennedy before he became head of the new SEC or Ambassador, let alone before Jack became a Senator or President, because of his relentless self-promotion.

Today we would say that the “optics” were good for Joe Kennedy to serve as Ambassador to the “England” [The Court of St. James]–the gregarious big Irish-Catholic American family not only showed America’s love of home and family but also showed that an Irish Catholic was as good as anyone else. Even as late as the 1930s this was not always the case.  The family was interviewed sailing for England–the very young Bobby and Teddy being the stars of the interview. Rosemary and Kick were shown leaving with Rose for their debut at Buckingham Palace–a move that delighted Irish Catholic Americans only a generation or two removed from what they saw as British treachery in Ireland. Equally engaging was the image of little Teddy with his family after receiving his First Holy Communion at the Vatican. Joe Jr, “Kick,” and Jack all became darlings of the aristocratic social round–Kick even bagging one of the most eligible bachelors of her generation. The Irish Catholic Kennedy family were “society,” not servants.

Sadly, Ambassador Joe Kennedy was often more an embarrassment than an asset. In terms of policy,  Joe was more interested in his own growing reputation than in the interests of the administration he represented in London. He allied with “Peace in our time” Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain instead of with Churchill [out of office then] or other politicians more in tune with FDR’s policies. Joe Kennedy was not a man for details. He meddled, badly, took credit for the ideas of others, and used his friendship with Clare Booth Luce of Life Magazine to hype his own views and proposals, including his so-called “Kennedy Plan” for Jewish resettlement. He would later turn defeatist on the UK’s chances of winning the war. FDR’s staff decided he was dangerous and his stint as Ambassador was ended.

My Thoughts

This was an easy, but engaging read. There is some new (new-er) information that has not been seen much before  The author, happily, does not dwell on the entire Kennedy saga which has been told in great depth too many times. She focuses solely on Joe’s professional life (i.e., the building of his fortune through liquor imports, Hollywood, and the stock market) then on his tenure as Ambassador. She adds enough family details to give a good portrait of the man.

My Verdict

3.5

The Ambassador: Joseph P. Kennedy at the Court at St. James, 1938 to 1940 by Susan Ronald will be released on August 3rd. It is available now for pre-order.

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Review: The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande

My Interest

Sometimes you need to do professional reading to solve a problem. It may always be helpful, and at some level interesting, but enjoyable? Fascinating? Well, pull up a chair my friends, this book is both. One of the helpful things about mixed-age work teams is that younger colleagues are interested, not jaded, and get fired up over what they are learning. This results in the old folks getting rejuvenated, shedding some of their ennui, and learning something as well. When my young colleague recommended this book I jumped at it. After all, she and I had had amazing conversations over the book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men and had used what we learned to re-tool how we presented our work team.

The Story

Imagine World War II without the B-17 “Flying Fortress.” It nearly happened. The plane was nearly “unflyable” due to the complexity of its systems–too many details to be remembered. Think of those stories of people having the wrong limb amputated or having the wrong surgical procedure performed on them. Scary, right?

Now think about renting a car–it is tedious. You must fill out a form. Inspect the car carefully noting any dings or scratches. Or, at the doctor’s office think of the questions the nurse or aide goes through with you before the doctor or nurse practitioner comes in.

What’s the difference between unflyable planes, wrong amputations, being off the hook for damage to a car, or waiting an overscheduled doctor’s time to talk about what matters with a patient? Checklists.  The B-17 was too complicated for one person to remember all the necessary details, but a checklist, and in time for pilots a how notebook of checklists, made it into the “Flying Fortress” that helped win the war. Doctors reduce problems in surgery with checklists. Even investors can have checklists to make sure they’ve covered all their research bases.

Now, do we like using them? Not always. They can threaten our autonomy. They can seem tedious and unnecessary. But, when done right–when boiled down to just the absolute most necessary things–like those a pilot uses, they can improve so many things. The surgeon who wrote this book set out to improve the survival and safety rates of surgery regardless of the setting. A few simple checklists, implemented at various points in surgery, taking a minute or so in total time, saved lives, reduced accidents and mistakes, and from the richest hospitals with the best of everything down to a rural hospital in Tanzania, the improvement rates were astonishing.

My Thoughts

This was honestly one of the most interesting nonfiction books I’ve read ever. Yes, ever.. When you see how and why these checklists came about, and the results, you could easily go checklist happy. That isn’t necessary though. Checklists make the extremely complex understandable. They sort the significant from the merely urgent or important. They let us cope.

I highly recommend this book. It is engaging, short, and useful. Enough said? Just read it.

My Verdict

4.0

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Review: Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women…by Lesley Poling-Kempes

My Interest

Women’s History Month and the unavailability of any of my requested audiobooks led me back to this book. I tried it once before, but at the wrong moment. This time I enjoyed it very much, in spite of a lackluster reader.

The Story

Natalie Curtis, Carol Stanley, Alice Klauber, and Mary Cabot Wheelwright left their very sheltered, upper-class New England homes and developed an art, anthropology, and musicology community in the then barely-known “city” of Santa Fe, New Mexico. At a time when Pancho Villa was taking on the tiny U.S. Army at the border (yes, THAT border), these ladies, one-by-one, found their way to the Southwest and to join forces with a  few others already there to create salons, galleries, and museums, as well as lives for themselves.

“Part of an influential circle of women that included Louisa Wade Wetherill, Alice Corbin Henderson, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Mary Austin, and Willa Cather, these ladies imagined and created a new home territory, a new society, and a new identity for themselves and for the women who would follow them” (Amazon). Georgia O’Keeffe and Willa Cather were also part of the art and literary scene of Santa Fe at this time. Mr. and Mrs. D.H. Lawrence have a cameo in the story, too.

My Thoughts

Natalie Curtis, the “ethnomusicologist who transcribed the singing of hundreds of tribes for The Indians’ Book: Songs and Legends of the American Indians, first published in 1905,” (Levin a, 2015, para. 3) was the most interesting to me. Imagine “taking down” the “score” to Native American songs, charting the notes, giving the words written form, and then singing them in front of an audience! Wow.

Not that the other ladies were in any way “not interesting,” it is just that having taken music theory and nearly failing it, I was really amazed by this feat. Two of the other ladies, Mary Cabot Wheelwright (Yes of the Cabot and Lodge Cabots) and Alice Klauber both founded Museums that still exist today and the final member of the quartet, while Carol Stanley owned, ran, lost, rebuilt a few touristy ranches among other things. All were stalwart members of the arts scene in Santa Fe in the early to mid 20th Century.

The book was a little more academic in tone than desirable, but not dry or dull. The reader of the audiobook, however, made it sound dull. It was not the material. This was a fascinating look at 4 women who could almost be said to be the “woke” of their day for their disregard of social convention and embrace of the new. As curators of Native American culture and for their protection of Native American artifacts, we owe them a great debt. San Diego owes Alice Klauber a debt on its own, for she did much to develop the arts scene in that city as well.

My Verdict

4.0

Articles on the ladies and the book:

Their True Selves: The ‘New Women’ of the Southwest by Jennifer Levin (a)

Inventing Mary Wheelwright: A Museum’s Founder’s Legacy by Jenifer Levin (b)

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Review: The Writer’s Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives by Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager

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My Interest and The Story

Nancy Pearl is America’s Librarian. She even has an action figure toy! She may not be as cool as Katherine Hepburn in Desk Set, but she’s the coolest librarian going in this country. Jeff Schwager is a playwright whose favorite book is Dennis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son-which he brought to the stage.

I liked the whole premise of the book–finding out what books influenced writers along the way in childhood, high school, college, grad school, in adult life, in their writing life.

Each author was asked basically the same questions–a few different or unique ones were thrown in along the way, of course–these were interviews after all. (Although due to scheduling problems Donna Tartt was an email interview).

The one discordant note was no fault of the authors or their interviewees. At first I thought “this is stiff and pretentious.” Then it hit me–this is a recorded book, not a recorded interview. The authors being “interviewed” have been interviewed, their words edited and published in a book. They, and their interviewers, are reading their words, not speaking them. That cleared up, I went on to devour this book.

My Thoughts

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The Book Club I Would Join

“I decided to focus on reading books that were so accomplished, so rich, you would benefit from reading them at the age of twenty and forty and sixty and eighty.”

Amor Towles and three friends have had a book club based on this for sixteen years. The go to a restaurant and discuss over a good dinner. They’ve tackled Proust. done a study through great writers of “the American voice,” and did another study through great novels of “19th Century Wives Under Pressure” that included Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch, and Portrait of a Lady. Wow!  My kind of guy, my kind of friends. This book club idea shamed me for throwing back Towles’ book in the audio version. (It was the reader, not the book). To atone I’m going to buy it in a print copy and read is slowly.

Towles was the best of the book, but if one more person had gone on and on about how amazing Watership Down was I’d have wrecked the car. I have tried three times to read that book. It’s like The Hobbit–not on my wavelength. I do not doubt the quality of the writing and story, it just isn’t for me. Incredibly, The Chromicles of Prydain was also beloved. I read it as an adult and would never have touched it as a child. Tobias Wolff was also mentioned to death but to be fair, I’ve barely read him (yet). Childhood favorites and childhood reading habits brought up an interesting side to their lives–Dave Eggers loved Corduroy while TC Boyle loved Lad A Dog and Lassie.

Some of My Favorites Mentioned

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Jeff: We were talking before…about two we both love. This Boy’s Life

Dave [Eggers] Well, [Tobias] Wolff was the one for me.

Jeff: And the other was Stop-Time.

Nancy: Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time.

Dave: Yeah, never read it. Is it good?

Nancy: Yeah, it is good. Really, really good.

Jeff: It’s great. When I read This Boy’s Life, I thought he’s obviously reading Stop-Time because there’s a direct line there from Stop-Time to This Boy’s Life.”

That was a fascinating exchange.

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One of the few books at home was Marjorie Morningstar [by Herman Wouk]…I saved Herman Wouk’s obituary, because, I thought, You started me, Herman, you started me.”

That quote is from Louise Erdrich, but it sums up my reading and writing life as well. After all, Margaret Mitchell wrote only one book and while I’ve read that one, flaws and all, too many times to count, Herman Wouk was the first author I devoured.

I did love hearing some of my favorites come up though. Marjorie Morningstar got one mention. Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott, Anna Karenina, and a few others.

Dave Eggers being put on the spot about Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, mattered so much to me becuase it was one of my favorite books read at Indiana University. Susan Choi couldn’t read John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook The World, the only book I stayed up all night reading at Indiana University. Anna Burns’, Millkman, a rare current-day award winner that stunned me with it’s excellence won a mention. Andrew Sean Greer shared my sense of terror in reading Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat. Amazingly, I don’t think anyone mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird, but Catcher in the Rye and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road as well as a few other “stalwarts” were not really praised. No one brought up The Awakening by Kate Chopin–that truly surprised me. Lolita got a new look from a few in light of #MeToo. There was a good discussion of authors whose work is largely forgotten, like John O’Hara. The entire set of interviews was shockingly NOT-p.c., only a tiny nod to the woke, too.

I was pleased to hear how they all approached reading while writing their own books and how various books had influenced (or “informed” in today-speak) their writing. Their use (or non-use) of public libraries, college or school libraries and friendships or mentorships with other authors was another topic that I found fascinating.

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The final surprises were Maaza Mengiste, author of The Shadow King (which I have stalled on reading due to laziness or quarantine brain–take your pick) and author Charles (Chuck) Johnson’s views on Uncle Tom’s Cabin was very enlightening.  Johnson and author Russell Banks were brand new names to me. I will check out their work this year. I may or may not read their books.

While I should do some research, Dave Eggers’ claim that today all great books must be about 600 pages seemed wrong. It’s hard to find big books today. That was the only thing that stood out as odd in the entire book.

While listening, I was suddenly struck by how amusing it was that several authors use a first initial. W. Somerset Maugham, T. Coraghesaon Boyle (or TC Boyle), and F. Scott Fitzgerald were/are known to their friends as “Bill,” “Tom,” and “Scott.” Like finding out all over again that Ed Murrow was baptized “Egbert Roscoe.” That tickled me. Probably it is senility or quarantine brain.

My Verdict

4.0