Posts Tagged reading

book review: Band of Sisters

Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig. William Morrow| March 2, 2021| 519 pages | $27.99| ISBN: 9780062986153

RATING: 4/5*

Based on actual events during WWI, a group of Smith College alumnae formed the Smith College Relief Unit and traveled to northern France to assist in civilian relief work in 1917. They traveled around delivering supplies, providing medical aid and educating school children in decimated villages. Since she can speak French and drive, Kate Moran, a scholarship student, gets recruited by her friend Emmie Van Alden. Kate leaves her job as a teacher and joins 17 other Smith women, including two doctors. 

“Debutante nonsense, her mother called it. Good enough for those who didn’t have to worry about getting their living. 

But this was work too. She might not be paid for it, not exactly, but the Unit was covering her room and board, and how else was she ever to see France, even France at war?” 

Emmie Van Alden comes from a wealthy family and doesn’t need to earn a living. The unit’s mostly composed of privileged women. They could’ve stayed safe in the United States but they chose to help with war efforts and that’s to be commended. The unit leader, Mrs. Rutherford, provides some statistics: “In the little over a week that we’ve been here, Miss Van Alden alone has already made fifty-one calls on forty-two families.” She also noted that the medical department had seen nearly three hundred patients. 

Throughout the novel, Kate struggles with confidence, belonging and feeling like an outsider. She even overhears another woman commenting that she didn’t know that there were any Catholics at Smith. However, she’s extremely focused and efficient and even becomes the assistant director of the unit for a while. However, when Kate finds out that Emmie’s family is paying her room and board, it draws another rift in their tenuous relationship. Later she finds out that Emmie’s cousin, Julia, one of the doctors on the excursion, comes from a poor family as well. To Emmie’s dismay, Julia and Kate become close, making Emmie feel like the odd one out. There’s a lot going on in this novel. 

“She’d thought they’d been happy at Smith. It had seemed to work then. Emmie provided all the affection and Kate provided the practical skills, and between them, they balanced out rather nicely.”

The unit faces more challenges than anticipated once they reach their post in Grecourt. There’s constant shelling from the Germans, threats to be ousted by the British army and French bureaucracy. Villagers suffer from pneumonia, measles, tetanus, syphilis. One night, Kate and Emmie run out of gas and get lost in a snowstorm and are nearly sexually assaulted by some soldiers.  The women in the unit prevail despite undermining, mistreatment and discouragement by men. There’s some romance mixed in, too. There aren’t that many women around France at this time and men come for dinner parties every week. Emmie flirts and falls in love with British Captain Will DeWitt (of the DeWitt biscuits!). He tells her that he’ll propose to her after the war ends.

I’d not heard of the Smith College Relief Unit before discovering this book. I’m a women’s college graduate (Simmons College ‘91) so this particularly appealed to me. Author Lauren Willig completed meticulous research straight from the source at Smith College Special Collections. She pored over letters, journals, reports and photos. There are still so many stories one can cull from historical documents. It’s fascinating. I’ve not read a lot of books based in WWI so I appreciated that as well. This is why I love to read historical fiction. I learn about events I didn’t know that much about and am transported to different times and historical moments in a creative, accesible and memorable manner. While the book dragged a little bit at times and might have been too long, I overall enjoyed reading about these brave, determined women. They must have been forever bonded by their remarkable experience during WWI. 

Band of Sisters is the perfect novel to read during Women’s History Month. 

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book review: The Sea of Lost Girls

The Sea of Lost Girls by Carol Goodman. William Morrow| March 3, 2020| 304 pages | $16.99| ISBN: 9780062852021

RATING: ****/5*

“For all the town’s fascination with its dark history–the Indian massacres and early colony, the influenza epidemic and lost girls– those stores are meant to be part of the past, told on candlelit ghost tours or sold in glossy paperbacks to be read on rainy weekends the lost girls aren’t meant to come back.

But here I am.”

I tore through this mystery/thriller! ⁣

Tess teaches at Haywood Academy, a boarding school in Vermont, and her husband, Harmon, is head of the history department. Her 17-year-old son, Rudy, struggles with dark moods and anger. He doesn’t know much about his birth father. His mother wont reveal all that much about him. ⁣

Tess got pregnant when she herself was a student at Haywood. One night, Rudy’s girlfriend, Lila, is found dead on the beach. Was it an accident or murder? Did Rudy kill her? Turns out Lila was writing a paper about a missing girl from many decades ago and her connection to Haywood. Is history repeating? ⁣

Family secrets get exposed and there are multiple suspects in Lila’s death. Haywood school has a long entrenched history of unsolved cases involving missing girls. The novel revolves around the standard trope of a teacher-student relationship with numerous twists that I definitely didn’t see coming.⁣

I really like school settings, particularly private schools. Privilege, power, youthful insecurities, New England myths and legends, local townspeople provide plenty of drama. ⁣

Has anyone heard of the Bennington Triangle? That served as inspiration for author Carol Goodman. I don’t listen to true crime podcasts so I hadn’t heard of it even though I live in Massachusetts and spent many family vacations in Vermont in my youth. I’m now going to find a podcast!⁣


–review by Amy Steele


I received a review copy from William Morrow.

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book review: No Judgments

No Judgments by Meg Cabot. William Morrow| September 24, 2019| 358 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-289004-7

RATING: ***/5*

Oops! I did it again. I read another contemporary romance. These keep getting sent to me even though I have repeatedly stated that my reading interests primarily lie in historical fiction, memoir, contemporary literature, literary fiction and feminist books. I know that these are popular books and I’m often sucked in by the cover and descriptions. It’s definitely a good way to break up my reading. After a challenging book, I often want a palate cleanser such as YA or thriller or romance.

So let’s look at this novel and why I chose it. First the cover attracted me– a fun picture of a couple kissing under an umbrella with a dog and a bright color palette with pink and blue. Next, is the author–I’ve read at least one novel by Meg Cabot in the past. She writes both contemporary adult fiction and  YA. She wrote the popular The Princess Diaries. Finally the description sounded great. Hurricane season seemed the perfect time to read a novel about a hurricane in a gorgeous island setting. Plus there’s animal rescue? I’m in!

Bree Beckham left Manhattan for Little Bridge, a small island in the Florida Keys, where her family vacationed. Bree’s mother is a millionaire and famous radio personality known as Judge Justine.   She’s working as a waitress and trying to figure out next steps as a category 5 hurricane barrels toward the island. Most people leave but Bree stubbornly decides to stay with her rescue cat. Her boss’s wife invites her to stay at their more Hurricane-proof home. She takes them up on the offer. After the hurricane, she starts rescuing and helping pets left behind and her boss’s nephew Drew offers to help her out. They of course start to fall for each other. I found Bree’s story to be relatable. She was working in a field she didn’t quite like and she’d left a terrible relationship behind in New York. Her intelligence and strength carry the novel. That and her flirty banter with Drew. Their relationship starts in Moonlighting style. Do they like each other or don’t they? Little Bridge is the true star though. This is Cabot’s love letter to the Florida Keys. She creates a strong sense of place throughout this novel. Although it’s predictable, it’s a sweet little romance novel sure to allow readers a bit of escape. It’s the first in the Little Bridge series, of course, as the most popular novels tend to be.

Cabot was inspired by the true-life story of Brittany Davis who rescued pets in need during Hurricane Irma. Cabot herself decide to stay at her Key West home during the storm that hit the Florida Keys in 2017. Cabot had a landline and soon her home became a hub for locals who wanted to connect with the outside world after the power went out.


–review by Amy Steele


I received this book for review from William Morrow.


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book review: Morningstar


Morningstar: Growing Up with Books by Ann Hood. W.W. Norton| August 2017| 192 pages| $22.95| ISBN: 9780393254815

RATING: ****/5*

I meandered my way through these essays because that’s generally what I do with essays and short stories. I read one, read something else and then read another. It’s quite a thoughtful mediation on reading and growing up with books. Ann Hood [Comfort, The Obituary Writer] recalls memorable and influential books. Hood writes: “How can I describe what reading gave me? An escape from my lonely school days, where girls seemed to speak a language I didn’t understand. A glimpse into the possibilities of words and stories. A curiosity about the world and about people—the young Amelia Earhart seeing her first airplane, Helen Keller’s silent world, Nancy Drew solving mysteries, David Copperfield surviving the streets of Victorian London.” She provides plenty of insight into her personal life, family and growing up in a mill town outside Providence, Rhode Island. I’ve read some of the books mentioned and will likely read many others she referenced. Bookworms will find much in which to relate in these essays. She writes: “…whatever book it is, it falls into your hands at just the right moment when you need to read it. It transforms you. Perhaps it lifts you up when you are at your lowest; perhaps it shows you what love is, or what it feels like to lose love; perhaps it brings you places far away or shows you how to stay put when you need to.” When I finished these essays I semi-smiled and nodded knowingly about the power in reading and the comfort one finds within the pages of books.

on Marjorie Morningstar:

“Maybe that’s why i reread it every year. Maybe. as time beats me up and grief or loneliness or a new kind of bittersweet melancholy take hold, I need to remind myself to keep going, keep reaching, to not forget the girl who believed she could have everything and anything at all.”

On The Bell Jar:

“An immediate bestseller, Plath’s story of beautiful, brilliant Esther Greenwood’s breakdown spoke to my generation. The minds of women were just being discussed openly as feminism soared. Questions of career, sex, marriage, and finding yourself were, I suspect, what kept me up at night.”

On The Grapes of Wrath:

“When I finished reading The Grapes of Wrath, so many things about writing a novel became clear to me. Plot. Character. Conflict. Escalating stakes. Metaphor. The Grapes of Wrath begins with a drought and ends with a flood.”

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from W.W. Norton.

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Books Read in 2014

I keep a running page on books I read during the year but thought it cool to run this list and tally. Also I’m great with words, not with figures. this took me way too long to figure out and isn’t precisely accurate.


total: 114
female authors: 82 [72%]
male authors: 32 [28%]
nonwhite authors: 14 [12%]
2014 releases: 76



1. The Culling by Robert Johnson [The Permanent Press, 2014]*
2. 12th of Never by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
3. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
4. The Kept by James Scott [Harper, 2014]
5. Dakota by Gwen Florio [The Permanent Press, 2014]*
6. Wild Tales: A Rock and Roll Life by Graham Nash
7. Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir by Penelope Lively [Viking, 2014]
8. The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout


9. Wendell Black, MD by Dr. Gerald Imber [Bourbon Street Books/ Harper, 2014]
10. Waiting to be Heard by Amanda Knox
11. It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons Why You’re Single by Sara Eckel [Penguin, 2014]*
12. Wench by Doren Perkins-Valdez
13. The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh [Berkley Paperback, 2014]
14. Tampa by Alissa Nutting [Ecco Paperback, 2014]*
15. Safe with Me by Amy Hatvany [Washington square, 2014]
16. The Wood of Suicides by Laura Elizabeth Woollett [The Permanent Press, 2014]*
17. Fallen Beauty by Erika Robuck [NAL, 2014]*
18. PIONEER GIRL by Bich Minh Nguyen [Viking, 2014]*


19. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
20. The Bedwetter by Sarah Silverman
21. The Daring Ladies of Lowell by Kate Alcott [Doubleday, 2014]*
22. Low Country Spirit by Ann Hite
23. Saving the Hooker by Michael Adelberg [The Permanent Press, 2014]*
24. I Don’t Know Where You Know Me From by Judy Greer [2014]
25. CURED by Nathalia Holt [Dutton, 2014]*
26. The Bear by Claire Cameron [2014]
27. The Watch by Roy-Bhattacharya Joydeep
28. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell [2014]
29. The Light in Ruins by Chris Bohjalian
30. Visible City by Tova Mirvis [HMH 2014]*

you shouldve


31. Voodoo Ridge by David Freed [Permanent Press, 2014]
32. My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
33. You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz [2014]

boy snow bird


34. Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia [HMH, 2014]
35. One More Thing: Stories and More Stories by B.J. Novak [2014]
36. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi [Riverhead, 2014]*
37. Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose [Harper, 2014]
38. So Long Marianne by Kari Hesthamar [ECW Press, 2014]
39. A Natural Woman by Carole King
40. Cure for the Common Breakup by Beth Kendrick [NAL, 2014]
41. Fallout by Sadie Jones [Harper, 2014]*
42. Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead [2014]*
43. Trapeze by Simon Mawer*

crucial conversations


44. Crucial Conversations by May Sarton*
45. Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson [Ecco, 2014]
46. Finding Peace Amid the Chaos by Tanya Brown [Langmarc, 2014]
47. Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo [HMH, 2014]*
48. Miral by Rula Jebreal
49. Vulture au Vin by Lisa King [The Permanent Press, 2014]
50. Arts & Entertainments by Christopher Beha [Ecco, 2014]*
51. What I Never Told You by Celeste Ng [Penguin, 2014]*

kind of intimacy


52. My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff [Knopf, 2014]*
53. North and South by Elizabeth Bishop
54. Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian [Doubleday, 2014]
55. A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth
56. A Distant Father by Antonio Skarmeta [Other Press, 2014]
57. I Love You More by Jennifer Murphy [Doubleday, 2014]


58. Because it is Bitter and Because it is My Heart by Joyce Carol Oates
59. Ghost Waltz by Ingeborg Day [Harper Perennial, 2014]
60. Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little [Viking, 2014]*
61. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton [ecco, 2014]
62. Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal [Pamela Dorman, 2014]
63. The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar [harper, 2014]

unspeakable things

64. The Drop by Dennis Lehane [William Morrow, 2014]
65. Tomboy: a graphic memoir by Liz Prince [Zest Books, 2014]
66. Bad Feminist: essays by Roxanne Gay [Harper Perennial, 2014]
67. Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny [Bloomsbury, 2014]*
68. The Fall by Diogo Mainardi [Other Press, 2014]*
69. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
70. An Italian Wife by Ann Hood [WW Norton, 2014]

alice and freda forever

71. The Garden of Letters by Alyson Richman [Berkley, 2014]
72. WILD by Cheryl Strayed
73. Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce [Doubleday, 2014]*
74. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
75. Alice + Freda Forever by Alexis Coe [Zest, 2014]*
76. Euphoria by Lily King [2014]
77. The Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill [2014]*
78. Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story by Peter Bagge
79. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
80. River of Glass by Jaden Terrell [The Permanent Press, 2014]
81. Science . . . for Her! by Megan Amram [Scribner, 2014]
82. The Story of Fester Cat by Paul Magrs [Berkley Trade, 2014]
83. Working Stiff by Judy Melinek [2014]*
84. Utopia by Thomas More

all days are night

85. Rabbit, Run by John Updike
86. The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer [grand central, 2014]*
87. The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
88. All Days are Night by Peter Stamm [Other Press, 2014]*
89. Rooms by Lauren Oliver [Harper, 2014]
90. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel [2014]
91. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
92. Gray Mountain by John Grisham [doubleday, 2014]
93. The Hormone Factory by Saskia Goldschmidt [Other Press, 2014]
94. Woman with a Gun by Phillip Margolin [Harper, 2014]
95. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
96. Life Drawing by Robin Black [Random House, 2014]*
97. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride [Coffee House Press, 2014]

wolf in white van


98. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande [2014]* (audio)
99. The Fever by Megan Abbott [Little Brown, 2014]
100. Blue is the Warmest Color by Julie Maroh
101. The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant [Scribner, 2014]*
102. In Search of Cleo: how I Found My Pussy and Lost My Mind by Gina Gershon (audio)
103. Rewire Your Anxious Brain by Catharine Pittman and Elizabeth Karle [2015]
104. Thunderstruck and other stories by Elizabeth McCracken [2014]
105. Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle [FSG, 2014]
106. Liar Temptress Soldier Spy by Karen Abbott [Harper, 2014]
107. Sunset Park by Paul Auster
108. I Married a Communist by Philip Roth
109. Nora Webster by Coim Toibin [Scribner, 2014]
110. Redeployment by Phil Kay [Penguin 20141]
111. Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub
112. The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore [2014]
113. Diary of the Fall by Michael Laub [Other Press, 2014]
114. What the Lady Wants by Renee Rosen [NAL, 2014]

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boy snow bird

1. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi [Riverhead]

clever, stunningly gorgeous novel about race.

daring ladies of lowell

2. The Daring Ladies of Lowell by Kate Alcott [Doubleday]

If you grew up in Massachusetts like me, you likely went on a Lowell Mill tour at some point during an elementary school or junior high field trip. I went twice because when my Aunt and cousins visited from Texas they wanted to go. While you rode on a boat along the Merrimack River listening to a guide speak about girls and young women leaving their families from all over New England to work at the Lowell mills it was easy enough to disassociate from it yet dreadful to think about the harsh conditions these women faced back in the 19th century.

Like the Salem witch trials the industrial revolution and bitter working conditions for Lowell mill girls happened essentially in my backyard and I feel particularly close to the plight of the mill girls depicted in this novel. It’s only the second five-star rating I’ve given to any book this year. Kate Alcott vibrantly brings the stories of the Lowell mill girls to the page as she creates strong, outspoken female characters enduring adverse situations that dare imagine and dispute better working and living situations.

complete review

everything i never

3. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng [Penguin Press]

Anything I write will never be enough to convey the power and magnificence of this debut novel.

complete review


4. Fallout by Sadie Jones [Harper]

Fallout revolves around Luke Kanowski, a young man with a mother living in a mental institution and a a former Polish POW father who remained in England after the war. Both parents rely tremendously on Luke. Living in a rustic northern town, Luke escapes the familial strain and dead-end choices through a passion for theatre. He reads everything and remains updated on all theatrical goings on. One night he meets aspiring producer Paul Driscoll and theater student Leigh Radley who will influence his future in myriad ways

complete review

visible city

5. Visible City by Tova Mirvis [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt]

Author Tova Mirvis writes with a melancholy gorgeousness about connectivity and disparity. When we imagine others’ lives we never expect what we eventually discover to be true. Perfection masks insecurities. Contentment hides dissatisfaction. What is happiness? Our ideal is never another’s ideal. How something looks from afar rarely looks as virtuous once you start to delve into the grit and imperfections.

complete review

pioneer girl

6. Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen [Viking]

Author Bich Minh Nguyen writes about a Vietnamese-American family and its connection to the beloved American Ingalls-Wilder family as seen through the eyes of a savvy, inquisitive young woman. Almost everyone remembers reading the Little House on the Prairie books about Laura Ingalls and watching the television show.

complete review

love me back

7. Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce [Doubleday]

One of the best novels in a while about finding your way and developing a sense-of-self in your twenties.


garden of letters

8. The Garden of Letters by Alyson Richman [Berkley Trade]

When I’m thinking about a novel for some time after reading it, I know it’s remarkable. Think you’ve heard all the stories about WWII. Think again. The Garden of Letters by Alyson Richman focuses on the Italian Resistance. Elodie, a young student and cello player, becomes involved in the Italian Resistance when artists and teachers at her school become targets for Mussolini’s Fascist regime.

interview with Alyson Richman

dept of speculation

9. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill [Vintage]

impressively creative.

all days are night

10. All Days are Night by Peter Stamm [Other Press]

A popular television news reporter wakes up severely disfigured by a car accident. The novel beautifully traverses past and present. Stamm writes in an effectively laconic and melancholy style. He’s exploring appearances from various angles. It’s a gripping read about art and connection.


life drawing

11. Life Drawing by Robin Black [Random House]

stunning writing. brilliantly explores marriage in all its nuances.

boston girl

12. The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant [Scribner]

This is the story of the education of Addie Baum. Jewish daughter to immigrant parents Addie grew up during the mid-1900s in a one-room tenement house in Boston. In telling Addie’s story, author Anita Diamant covers a lot of history: prohibition; 1920s flappers and artists; WWI; The Great Depression; illegal abortions, birth control and Margaret Sanger; the Spanish Flu; women’s education; women’s careers; journalism; civil rights. Like The Red Tent, Diamant depicts history through a feminist eye. Intelligent, resourceful and intellectually-curious Addie is a wonderful feminist character. I probably truly fell in love with this novel when Diamant mentioned Simmons College, my women’s college alma mater in Boston. At one point, Addie discusses her goal to attend college but that she fears many won’t accept her because she’s Jewish. [“There’s Simmons College,” I said. “They even accept the Irish if you can imagine.”]

complete review

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IN THE REALM: Fall Reading Part One

by isaac israels

by isaac israels

Grab a cuppa and a fuzzy blanket, tuck in for some fall reading.

contemporary lit:


Love Me Back by Merrit Tierce
Doubleday [September]
RATING: *****/5*

“Tanya had been halfway nice to me, in that beatup way career low-grade hospitality workers have. The ones on whom something has quit, bitterly, and then quit again, resigned. They’ve made it this far by not fucking up too much or knowing how to manage it when they do, so they’re typically proficient if not too shiny.”

Raw, creative novel about a young mother who works as a waitress. Sex –she admits to having sex with 30 men in a three-month stretch–, drugs [cocaine, cannabis, pills] and the nitty gritty of working in the hospitality industry. The young author Merritt Tierce used her own experience in various restaurants to create this character. Marie had so much potential as valedictorian of her high school until she got pregnant and married her daughter’s father at 17. She’s scrappy, opinionated and tough. As Marie remembers her self-destructive times, her wilder days [where she drank, drugged and hooked up for an escape, for obliteration], she’s also astutely aware and contemplative. It’s graphic, sometimes shocking and chocked with angst. One of the best novels in a while about finding your way and developing a sense-of-self in your twenties.

“In that restaurant all of us were off. Chipped. Everybody on the way to the curve. Maybe it’s the same in a law firm, a nail salon, whatever high or low. Maybe that’s just what it is to be alive, you’ve got that broken sooty piece of something lodged inside you making you veer left.”


alice and freda forever

Alice & Freda Forever by Alexis Coe
Zest [October]
RATING: *****/5*

“Only Freda knew the whole story and she wanted nothing to do with Alice anymore. It was as if their love had never existed, her world shattered by a phantom. The box, hidden in the kitchen, was all she had left, the only proof that Freda ever loved her.”

True story of murder, love, same-sex relationships and betrayal in turn-of-century Tennessee. School mates 19-year-old Alice Mitchell and 17-year-old Freda Ward were close and were engaged at one point until Freda’s family intervened. They didn’t want their reputation tarnished and forbid Freda from any continued communication with Alice. The plan had been for Alice to pass as a man so the two could marry. Teenage love can be complicated, to say the least. Alice was crushed. She became obsessed that Freda should never be with anyone but her and she stabbed her to death in 1892.

A long-forgotten scandal, Alexis Coe brings it all back through extensive research from court records, letters and other related materials. Same-sex relationships still receive much public scrutiny though more accepted 120 years after this case. Matthew Shepard was brutally killed 16 years ago. Same-sex marriage is possible in 30 states after intense legal battles. Coe discusses that there were certain expectations for how a woman should act and the opportunities available to women. Mostly for Alice and Freda, that would be marrying well. A beautiful thoughtful book that discusses gender identity and same-sex relationships in the context of this long-ago tragic true crime in Memphis.

republic of imagination

The Republic of Imagination by Azar Natisi
Viking [October]
RATING: ***/5*

In this book, Azar Natisi contemplates three novels– The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers [one of my all-time favorites]– in her teaching and immigrant experience in America. She juxtaposes her experience teaching in the states with teaching in Iran. It’s part-memoir, part literary-analysis. Rather academic at times. I’ve yet to read Babbitt so completely unfamiliar with that novel.

“The crisis besetting America is not just an economic or political crisis; something deeper is wreaking havoc across the land, a mercenary and utilitarian attitude that demonstrates little empathy for people’s actual well-being, that dismisses imagination and thought, branding passion for knowledge as irrelevant.”

How many people do you know or have talked to who proclaim they “don’t read” as if that’s a positive? Natisi emphasizes the importance of great literature, the knowledge and discussion elicited from reading.

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2013 Summer Book Picks [part one]


The People of Forever are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu [Hogarth Books]

My favorite book of last year is available in paperback. The novel focuses on three young women in the Israeli army. They’re thrown into some truly adult and potentially dangerous situations. While they often think like hormonal, selfish, naïve teenagers at other times these women react with amazing strength, bravery and clarity. Boianjiu includes point of views from Egyptian army members, Palestinians and a Ukranian woman who seeks to emigrate to Israel. A veteran of the IDF, she writes with compassion, humor, modernity and a humanistic approach to the IDF and Israel’s issues with its border nations as well as the United States and the UK.

RATING: *****/5


The Collective by Done Lee [W.W. Norton paperback, 2013]

“Give up trying. The world doesn’t need another dilettante, and that’s all you’ve ever been.”

This was one of my favorite novels of 2012. While at Macalester college, Eric Cho forms a strong friendship with painter Jessica Tsai and novelist Joshua Yoon. Years later they reunite in Cambridge forming the Asian American Artists Collective [3 AC]. Don Lee masterfully creates characters, story lines and vivid descriptions with the most gorgeous prose. These characters compete with each other, become jealous of one another and support each other’s goals. Lee truly grasps the creative lifestyle–its ups and downs, its starving moments, its triumphant moments.

RATING: *****/5

GretaWells hc c

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer [ECCO, 2013]

“Why is it so impossible to be a woman? [sic] When has a woman ever been forgiven? Can you even imagine it? For I have seen the plane of being, and nowhere upon it is the woman tracing her life as she always dreamed of it. Always there are the boundaries, the rules, the questions—wouldn’t you prefer to be back home, little lady?—that break the spell of the living.”

This one’s about time-travel however Greta travels in an unusual, ingenious way. It’s engrossing as long as you can get past the issue that causes Greta to time travel—she’s being treated for her depression by electroshock therapy—“Of course this was how our minds had connected in that blue electric flash of madness, across the membrane of three worlds so we switched places, two Gretas and myself, and awoke to different lives.” My issue wasn’t with that but with Greer never mentioning her depression as she traveled from her present day of 1984 to 1918 to 1941. The present Greta just lost her twin brother Felix to AIDS and her longtime paramour left her. In each time period she’s missing a loved one and her life’s slightly different. Even her physical appearance is a bit different. Greer recreates each time period through wonderful description, interesting people and dialogue. It’s a fast-paced novel perfect for summer reading. In the end Greta much decide which time she’s happiest in and in which she wants to remain.

RATING: ***/5

crazy brave

Crazy Brave by Jo Harjo [W.W. Norton, 2012]

Poet and Native American Jo Harjo writes lyrically about her difficult childhood in the Midwest. Her stepfather was an abusive alcoholic; she faced extreme challenges as a Native American and pretty much raised two children on her own. While she recalls these horrific moments in her past she’s also hauntingly philosophical and forgiving. She writes: “In the end, we must each tend to our own gulf of sadness, though others can assist us with kindness, food, good words, and music. Our human tendency is to fill these holes with distractions like shopping and fast romance, or with drugs and alcohol.” She also intersperses her tribe’s beliefs but never in an overbearing manner. About having a spinal tap in her youth, she writes: “The spinal column carries personal essence back and forth between earth and sky. The spine is powerful and vulnerable. The procedure was excruciating.” She’s a powerful voice for women and minorities; a truly beautiful soul.

RATING: ****/5

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BOOKS: Halloween Reading Suggestions

The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
–sure to give you plenty of nightmares and make you think twice the next time you walk into a cellar

The Water’s Lovely by Ruth Rendell
–popular British mystery author. psychological. will give you chills.

Asylum by Patrick McGrath
–gothic creepy. who doesn’t like to read about insane asylums for the “incurable”?

Stiff by Mary Roach
–non-fiction: delves into everything you’d want to know (and some things you might not) related to dead bodies

Ghost Stories by Edith Wharton
–did you know that The Mount, her mansion in The Berkshires, is haunted?

The Woods by Harlan Coben
–they’re alive!

Lord of the Flies by William Golding
–kids turn downright nasty when left to make their own rules & form their own “society” on an island

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
–I don’t want to give anything away but it’s riveting, powerful and haunting

Death Dance by Linda Fairstein
–Not only a superb, page-turner but a detailed behind-the-scenes of both the Metropolitan Opera House and the Royal Ballet.

A Darker Shade of Crimson by Pamela Thomas-Graham
–a mystery that takes place at Harvard which focuses on racial, social, and political issues of the Ivy League school

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