Books Come in Batches

Book reviews often tempt me to buy books, but the library is my first frame of reference. Sadly, I often find myself on a long wait list; by the time the notification comes for picking up my book, I’ve often forgotten I ordered it – or lost patience, bought it, and read it.

thumbnail_IMG_4718    Here’s my recent stack of five ready at once, and two more are already waiting for pick up.  Guess I better start reading.  Which would you read first?

  1. Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners by Gretchen Anthony
  2. The Library Book by Susan Orlean
  3. Dry by Neal and Jarrod Shusterman
  4. The Book That Changed America by Randall Fuller
  5. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

Waiting for me at the library:

  • Flora by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
  • Little by Edward Carey

 

Michelle Obama’s Becoming

When I first started reading Michelle Obama’s autobiography – Becoming, I was reminded of all the new women I had met when I first moved to Hawaii.  Over coffee or lunch, we told our life stories, wondering what we had in common, and if we could make a connection.  Obama writes as though she were across the table, telling you about herself – a comfortable and sometimes revealing banter, with some of those same yearnings and worries many women have experienced.  Not so important are her parents’ push for her to succeed or her hard work ethic; more so are her inner fires so familiar to many of us – am I good enough?  what will they think of me?  can I really do this?  In case you miss any of these, the editor has neatly used bold print to clarify their importance.

The pictures in the center of the book actually drew my attention first – right out of a family album – just as the book is meant to be.  Curiously, the book doesn’t really take off until she meets Barack and her life is irrevocably changed.  The familiar headlines of her clothes, her attitude, her politic faux pas, are repeated, but this time Michelle tells her side, mostly confirming what intelligent people, mostly women, already knew.  Of course, she wasn’t malicious or calculating; she was just trying to navigate the job.

After eight years living in the bubble, she is decidedly relieved to pass the torch.  As with most jobs, whether in government, business, or academia, new administrators make changes, sometimes destroying initiatives from their predecessors.  But Michele’s famous healthy garden on the White House grounds still stands, and the new First Lady has been harvesting the vegetables with a new crop of children.

Related Review:  First Women

Unsheltered

9780062887047_p0_v2_s600x595   Reading Unsheltered was difficult, not only for the weaving back and forth from the post Civil War era to the present, but also for the not so subtle references to today’s politics and governmental leadership in the United States. As she toggles between the lives of the 21st century grandmother Willa Knox and the 19th century science teacher Thatcher Greenwood, who both lived in the same house, the language seems stuffy in the past and glib in the present.  Most depressing is the implication of ignoring lessons from history – nothing really changes and we continue to repeat the same mistakes.

I thought of beginning this review with the note of the main character, Willa, suddenly having to take on the raising of her grandson when his mother commits suicide. Although years ago,  I clearly remember meeting a woman in her sixties who had decided to raise her abandoned grandchild to keep the boy from foster care; her harrowing story was pitiable.  But Kingsolver has so much more to reveal in this tale of a modern extended family surviving in a rundown yet historic house in Vineland, New Jersey.  Her topics include raising children but also health care and global warming, as well as Wall Street activism and relations with Cuba – among others. She has an agenda.

Willa lives in the house with her handsome husband Iano, a non-tenured college professor, her terminally ill father-in-law Nick, her rebellious daughter Tig,  her son Zeke’s baby son, and Daisy, the old dog.  Thatcher, a high school science teacher, lives in this house about 150 years earlier with his new wife Rose, his mother-in-law, and his young sister-in-law, and two dogs.  The house, constructed without a foundation, has been falling apart since it was first built in Thatcher’s time, and seems about to implode by the time Willa’s family inherits it. 

The house may seem a symbol of their lives, also falling apart.  Thatcher, determined to bring scientific inquiry into his classes by teaching Darwin’s theories, faces a stalwart and fearful body of staunch religious conservatives, determined to ignore new ideas that would topple their well structured world.  Thatcher finds a friend in his neighbor, Mary Treat, an eminent biologist who regularly corresponds with Charles Darwin, but his connection to the local newsman who sympathizes with his struggle leads to a murder and his banishment from the town.

Although Willa’s problems may be modern, they mirror Thatcher’s frustration in dealing with those circumstances thwarting attempts to have the good life.  Iona moves from college to college trying but never getting the elusive tenure track position; Willa leaves her job writing for a magazine to care for her ailing father-in-law; their son Zeke with degrees from Ivy league schools has no job; their daughter Tig, a promising biologist, dropped out of college to migrate to Cuba but returns as a car mechanic – an extended middle class family with no future prospects, no savings, a stack of unpaid bills, in a falling down house.

In both worlds, present and past, the underlying mantra is the struggle between the haves and have nots.  Darwin and new scientific discoveries pose the threat to the status quo in the past, butting against Landis, the town creator and clever entrepreneur gaining wealth at the expense of others, while the environmentalists and the socially conscious in modern times are desperately trying to hold against the empty promises and loud blustering bullies of conservative politics.

Unsheltered is not an easy read, but Kingsolver never meant to write a book with sublime references to love or with delicious twists; she’s left that to Moriarty and others.  The reference to a murder doesn’t appear until page 300, and then disappears again in deference to biology, history and the inevitable repetition of human foibles and idiocy; it’s a wonder our species has survived thus far.

Kingsolver finished this book before Trump won the presidency, and his name is never mentioned.  In fact, in her acknowledgments she notes her research on the lives of the nineteenth century persons who inspired the story, the biologist Mary Treat and the “shenanigans of Charles Landis and his role in the murder,” but “among the novel’s twenty-first century characters, any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.”   But if you have any doubt to whom she is referring, she cites a famous campaign quote:

“He said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and people would still vote for him.”

And if you have any doubt where she stands, the line after he wins the New Hampshire primary – “Welcome to the Granite State…we have rocks in our heads!” – may give you a clue.

 

The Frugal Traveler: Rediscovering Travel

9780871408501  Why do you travel? Maybe you want to attain an elusive airline or hotel elite status, want to explore new places before they change irrevocably, or you just don’t like staying home? Seth Kugel, the “Frugal Trsveler” for the New York Times always has a good reason to go and an easy way to enjoy when you get there. His column has inspired me many times, and now he has a book – Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious.

Spending hours trying to coordinate a trip to a conference in one city with visiting friends in another, while snagging a good hotel rate, confirming a decent airline seat, looking for the best deals on rental cars, and, of course, coordinating visits to the best bookstores, bakeries, and restaurants (in that order of priority) confirmed that being my own travel agent can be ludicrous, time-consuming, and frustrating.  

When I read the preview for Kugel’s new book:

“Rediscovering Travel explains – often hilariously – how to make the most of new digital technologies without being shackled to them…While recognizing the value of travel apps, he recommends that travelers use them sparingly. Instead of using TripAdvisor to find a predictably pleasant restaurant, for example, he recommends wandering around looking into windows or asking a stranger for advice…”

I knew I had to read this book.

Historical Notes – Revealing the Person Behind the Myths

51zkQJrF6jL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_  The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered by Laura Auricchio

In Deborah Harkness’s Time’s Convert, the appearance of the Marquis de Lafayette and his role in both the American and French revolutions piqued my interest in the French aristocrat who is still revered as a hero in the United States (one of only seven people granted honorary U.S. citizenship) yet denigrated in his homeland of France as a traitor.  With almost one hundred pages of reference notes, The Marquis offers a definitive examination of the man and his complex life.

“The Marquis de Lafayette at age nineteen volunteered to fight under George Washington and became the French hero of the American Revolution. In this major biography Laura Auricchio looks past the storybook hero and selfless champion of righteous causes who cast aside family and fortune to advance the transcendent aims of liberty and fully reveals a man driven by dreams of glory only to be felled by tragic, human weaknesses. “

Auricchio’s narrative is informative and conversational – an easy way to learn history.

A Well Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler

II4KCPF3K4I6RPOASD4BZRMMLU  The Vanderbilt name carries with it a sense of awe for me.  I’ve heard of the railroad baron who built an empire and had magnificent homes in New York City with a “beach house,” known as The Breakers in Newport.  I know about Gloria Vanderbilt of skinny jeans fame, and her son, Anderson Cooper, the blue-eyed white-haired newsman.  But who was Alva Smith Vanderbilt?  

Therese Anne Fowler reveals the story of the outspoken  feisty suffragette married to William K. Vanderbilt,  grandson of Cornelius and great great grandfahter to Anderson. In the first half of her life Alva does what is expected of her, marries into money and society, and works behind the ssenes to assure the Vanderbilt name is synonymous with wealth and power.  But after being betrayed by her husband with her best friend, she divorces William and marries her own true love.  Divorce in the Gilded Age was no small undertaking, but she manages.  Eventually, in the second half of her life, with no husband, she uses her money and influence to fight for women’s right to vote and equality.  

Although Fowler’s narrative is sometimes painstakingly slow and the plights of the wealthy seem overbearing, Alva rightfully takes her place among strong women in history.