History, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

First Women by Kate Andersen Brower

I’ve always loved biographies of the royals and, as an #ImWithHer girl, when I realized that First Women existed, I figured it would be one that I should take a look at.

Synopsis

One of the most underestimated – and demanding – positions in the world, the first lady of the United States must be many things: an inspiring leader with a forward-thinking agenda of her own; a savvy politician, skilled at navigating the treacherous rapids of Washington; a wife and mother operating under constant scrutiny; and an able CEO responsible for the smooth operation of the White House resident. Now, as she did in The Residence, former White House correspondent Kate Andersen Brower draws on a wide array of untapped, candid sources – from residence staff and social secretaries to friends and political advisers to the former first ladies themselves – to tell the stories of the ten remarkable women who have defined the role since 1960.

Brower offers new insights into this privileged group of women. The stories she shares range from the heartwarming to the shocking and tragic, exploring everything from their friendships with other first ladies to their public and private relationships with their husbands. She also presents a new portrait of one of the most-watched first ladies of all time, Hillary Clinton.

Review

I poured through First Women with an obsessive attitude. I devoured all of the information about the first  ladies from Jackie to Michelle (I read the hardcover and therefore did not read the afterward about Melania). First Ladies includes glimpses into the lives of the following ladies: Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Rosalind Carter, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush & Michelle Obama with a few illusions to Mamie Eisenhower and the first truly modern first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.

I’ve always had my personal favorites, Jackie, Nancy, Hillary & Michelle, and the others I really didn’t know much about. My favorite line emphasizes the regal aspect of the Kennedys, when Grace Kelly’s daughter, and real life princess, Princess Caroline, refers to Caroline Kennedy as Princess Caroline Kennedy. I’ve always been fascinated by Jackie and so learning more about her thrilled me. Learning more about Rosalind, Pat & Barbara, who just recently pasted away, was also enlightening and enlivening.

Each chapter is divided by topic, not by first lady as I anticipated. This was mostly helpful, though occasionally confusing. Brower has a penchant to use lots of pronouns, which means I would often lose track of which first lady she would be referring to. Additionally, her primary source in regards to Michelle Obama was clearly her hair dresser and every time Michelle enters the narrative, Brower feels the need to emphasize, repeatedly, that Michelle did not want to be first lady. Over and over again – we get it, she didn’t want to be there. It seemed like the life of Michelle was shunted aside in favor of Lady Bird and Nancy particularly.

Because of this, what I feel was an, extreme oversight of the value of the first lady beloved by the country, I did not have the most favorable opinion of the book, and yet, I couldn’t stop reading.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.99 • 9780062439666 • 416 pages • first published April 2016, this edition published January 2017 by Harper Paperbacks • average Goodreads rating 3.70 out of 5 stars • read in May 2018

Kate Andersen Brower’s Website

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First Women

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Looking for an interesting historical book about Nazi Germany, and knowing that my book club was going to read Dead Wake, I decided to read In the Garden of Beasts. Downside, it is a difficult book to get into, upside, the audiobook is well done and enjoyable.  

Synopsis

The time is 1933; the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.

A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance, and – ultimately – horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.

Review

In the Garden of Beasts is a bit dry. Even for those who are very interested in the time period, and Americans’ experiences in early Nazi Germany it can be a bit difficult to get into. Therefore, I recommend pairing it with another book that covers an alternate perspective during the same time, or close to it. And listen to the audiobook.

In the Garden of Beasts is less the story of the Dodd family and more the story of what was really going on in 1933 Berlin, and Germany as a whole. Even most people with an interest in the time and subject matter do not know of just how atrocious that actions of the Brownshirts/Stormtroopers/SA/SS were at the time. The concentration camps? Already in existence. Jewish purges? Already happening. Americans threatened? Yep. Already hating the Soviet Union? Check. To the point where the US didn’t even want to acknowledge it’s existence. Hitler lying repeatedly? Absolutely. Dissidents disappearing mysteriously or being shot point blank? Anyone who denies any of this, and the war atrocities and Holocaust happening? Remind them that the Nazis gave us one small means of confirming their despicable actions – they were meticulous record keepers.

Like all populist revolutions, the German revolution started off with charismatic leaders and promises that most people could support. As mentioned in my review of Four Perfect Pebbles, however, this seemingly perfect revolution can quickly become dangerous. The same thing happened in Iran as recounted in Persepolis. No one should think that they have to destroy an entire group of people.

Also, Erik Larson does a terrific job of differentiating between the German people and the members of the Nazi party. The Dodds were in Germany at a time when the German army still held loyalty to the president, Hindenburg, not the chancellor, Hitler. The actions of the Nazis were not the actions of all of the German people. As the granddaughter of a German woman who, while not Jewish, still suffered greatly during the war, my sister and I appreciate the distinction being made. My grandmother faced enough adversity in coming to the US without needing to be blamed for killing people, she was only ten years old when the war ended.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9780307408853 • 448 pages • originally published May 2011, this edition published May 2012 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 3.82 out of 5 stars • read March 2018

Erik Larson’s Website

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In the Garden of Beasts

History, Non-Fiction

The Little Book of Feminist Saints by Julia Pierpont

Welcome to Women’s History Month! This month I will try to focus my reviews on books that discuss women in history and as I’ve read quite a few, it shouldn’t be too hard!

Synopsis

In this luminous volume, New York Times bestselling writer Julia Pierpont and artist Manjit Thapp match short, vibrant, and surprising biographies with stunning full-color portraits of secular female “saints” champions of strength and progress. These women broke ground, broke ceilings, and broke molds including:

Maya Angelou – Jane Austen – Ruby Bridges – Rachel Carson – Shirley Chisholm – Marie Curie & Irene Joliot Curie – Isadora Duncan – Amelia Earhart – Artemisia Gentileschi – Grace Hopper – Dolores Huerta – Frida Kahlo – Billie Jean King – Audre Lorde – Wilma Mankiller – Toni Morrison – Michelle Obama – Sandra Day O’Connor – Sally Ride – Eleanor Roosevelt – Margaret Sanger – Sappho – Nina Simone – Gloria Steinem – Kanno Sugako – Harriet Tubman – Mae West – Virginia Woolf – Malala Yousafzai

Review

Julia Pierpont starts off The Little Book of Feminist Saints with a story in her prologue about playing Peter Pan as a young girl. Immediately I knew I was going to enjoy reading little stories about the women she included in the book because of that story – I always played Peter Pan. Always.

Each of the women included are given their own day, just as Saints are, and the information on each page includes unique and inspirational information. The women included are a fairly diverse bunch and I enjoyed learning more about each of them. It is the perfect gift book for your favorite women!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $18.00 • 9780399592744 • 208 pages • published March 2018 by Random House • average Goodreads rating 4.18 out of 5 stars • read in March 2018

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Little Book of Feminist Saints

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

Princesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

I found this book on my very first visit to the Strand in New York City right after I finished student teaching. I’ve always loved multi-story books about historical women. Additionally, while reading this book at the Greyhound station in New York City while waiting for my bus back to Philadelphia, I stumbled upon my new heroine in my latest writing endeavor!

Synopsis

You think you know her story. You’ve read the Brothers Grimm, you’ve watched the Disney cartoons, and you cheered as these virtuous women lived happily ever after. But real princesses didn’t always get happy endings. Sure, plenty were graceful and benevolent leaders, but just as many were ruthless in their quest for power – and all of them had skeletons rattling in their royal closets.

Review

Princess Behaving Badly is one of my favorite types of books – a nonfiction book that is written in a series of short vignettes, each focused on a different woman of aristocratic birth. What I really enjoyed most about this book versus some of my other favorites, like Doomed Queens and Lives of Extraordinary Women is how the author uses a very loose interpretation of the word “princess.”

The 30 “princesses” of Princesses Behaving Badly are grouped into 7 categories: Warriors, Usurpers, Schemers, Survivors, Partiers, Floozies, and Madwomen. Each little story about the princess of choice is written like a tabloid entry which some people might not like, but I thought it a great way to poke fun at the media’s obsessions with princesses and the aristocracy. Some notable women are excluded, i.e. Lady Diana Spencer, but for the most part, I loved learning about different women who are not so widely covered by my extensive collection of notable women books.

Overall, I take books like this lightly and do not interpret them to be in-depth and extensive portraits of trouble maidens or explanations for the princesses’ often weird and strange life choices. That’s what biographies are for and this book makes no pretentions about trying to be a serious piece of deeply researched literature on the lives of 30 women who caused a stir in the lives of others over the course of the last couple of millennia.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9781683690252 • 304 pages • first published November 2013, this edition published March 2018 by Quirk Books • average Goodreads rating 3.61 out of 5 • read in December 2013

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie’s Website

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Princesses Behaving Badly

History, Non-Fiction, Political Science, Sociology

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

I’ve decided I might as well just go ahead and start calling 2018 my year of nonfiction. Two full months in and I’ve only read one traditional work of fiction out of the 10 books I’ve read. Also, I’m prepared to lose friends and alienate certain groups of people over this review and if that’s the case, so be it. I’ve accepted it and made my peace with it.

Synopsis

The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.

Review

I will never support the current president of the United States. He is not the person that I voted for and he is not the person that the majority voted for. I woke up the day after Election Day 2016 in tears, not because we didn’t elect our first female president (yes, I was bummed about that), but because it seemed that a man who lied and connived his way into the top office managed to hoodwink a bunch of my fellow Americans into supporting him. I couldn’t believe it. I cried foul. Because they failed to notice the overt similarities between his campaign and those of the Nazi party and fascists of Europe in the twentieth century.

Now, let me make myself clear – I have nothing against Republicans, hell, most republicans I know do not like our current president. I do, however, have something to say to all those who let themselves be dragged into the media circus that was his campaign. It’s taken me a full year to finally come to terms with my feelings on the whole matter and I’m pleased to report that when I did finally settle into how I feel about it all, after many panic attacks and moments of depression and despair, I realized that this is not solely a gender issue. I’m not a whiny woman sad that Hilary does not sit in the oval office simply because I wanted a female president (someone I had once considered a friend accused me of this). It is, as Timothy Snyder outlines, an issue of tyranny and group behavior that leads to tyrannical leaders landing in power – and staying there.

Those who voted for the current president are supporting a man who acts against just about everything that the Founding Fathers sought to safeguard our country against. Snyder points out repeatedly that we have ignored history. And when we ignore history, especially recent history, we find ourselves doomed to repeat it. When we ignore nationalistic behavior, when we ignore propaganda and language that subverts our freedoms and democracy, when we turn on our neighbors and judge them by their race, religion, sexual identity, etc. we find ourselves screwed.

I absolutely refuse to sit idly by and watch that happen. I will not stay quite in the face of people who cannot manage a well reasoned argument or defense and simply resort to shouting the same mantra over and over. I refuse to let people degrade others by using harmful stereotypes to prejudge or discriminate against them. And I refuse to be silenced by those who would rather I say and do nothing at all.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $8.99 • 9780804190114 • 128 pages • published February 2017 by Tim Duggan Books • average Goodreads rating 4.26 out of 5 stars • read March 2018

Timothy Snyder’s Website

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On Tyranny

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

The Crown Official Companion Volume 1 by Robert Lacey

After Downton Abbey ended, I began a search for a new favorite historical British show, and, lucky me, The Crown came along! When I found out that the Queen’s biographer was writing a companion nonfiction account, I knew I had to treat myself to it!

Synopsis

Elizabeth Mountbatten never expected her father to die so suddenly, so young, leaving her with a throne to fill and a global institution to govern. Crowned at twenty-five, she was already a wife and mother as she began her journey towards becoming a queen.

As Britain lifted itself out of the shadow of war, the new monarch faced her own challenges. Her mother doubted her marriage; her uncle-in-exile derided her abilities; her husband resented the sacrifice of his career and family name; and her rebellious sister embarked on a love affair that threatened the centuries-old links between the Church and the Crown. This is the story of how Elizabeth II drew on every ounce of resolve to ensure that the Crown always came out on top.

Review

This is my favorite book of the year, after Notorious RBG and It’s What I Do.  Apparently this is a year marked by nonfiction works for me.

Broken up by episodes, The Crown The Official Companion Volume 1, calls out, in the first few pages, the viewers of the show who, like me, watched each episode for a second time while scrolling through various Windsor related Wikipedia pages. Interspersed within and between the chapters are character and event profiles providing further insight into how certain decisions, such as televising the coronation of the Queen, were determined. Pictures include both stills from the show alongside real photographs of Elizabeth and Philip.

With a budget of $5 million per episode, Netflix’s The Crown is a sweeping historical drama that blows all others out of the water with it’s focus on historical events and attempts to remain true to the personalities of the real-life people portrayed on the silver screen. And while the show is fictionalized in some regards, the official companion book makes it quite clear that Peter Morgan, the show’s creator, did not have to deviate too far from real life to make his show so compelling.

The most fascinating biographies are those that are of people who have lived far from ordinary lives. Americans have always had a certain fascination with the royal family and “how the other half lives.” The Crown The Official Companion is as much a detailed biography of Elizabeth II as it is companion to a popular show.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9781524762285 • 336 pages • published October 2017 by Crown Archetype • average Goodreads rating 4.2 out of 5 • read in December 2017

Robert Lacey’s Website

The Crown The Official Companion Volume 1 on Goodreads

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Crown

History, Non-Fiction

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Every month, the Modern Readers discuss what types of books we collectively would like to be reading. In February 2016, one of our number mentioned that Erik Larson would be doing a talk in a nearby town, so we figured Dead Wake would make a great book club choice!

5 - April 2016 - Dead Wake

Synopsis

On May 1, 1915, with World War I entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “greyhounds” – the fastest liner then in service – and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack.

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game. As the Lusitania made her way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small – hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more – all converged to produce one of the greatest disasters of history.

Review

Novelistic nonfiction is the moniker attributed to Erik Larson’s particular brand of history writing, meaning, he chooses what to write about based on his ability to find a narrative embedded naturally in an historic event, and Dead Wake is no exception. The “narrative” found in Dead Wake is really a blend of about ten narratives, switching between the passengers on the ill-fated Lusitania, its captain, the commander of the U-boat that sank it, the employees of the mysterious Room 40, as well as Churchill and President Wilson.

Through alternating narratives (not to be confused with points-of-view), readers are able to come to an understanding of the intricate details of the sinking of the Lusitania in Larson’s account of the disaster. And therefore, invariable, every reader, regardless of their previous knowledge and study of the event and circumstances, will learn something new. For most, the shocking and new information centers on the Germans and new revelations of The Sound of Music‘s well known male lead, Captain Georg von Trapp, or discovering the existence of the Royal Navy’s Room 40 which decoded German transmissions. However, as a student of German history, of these two narratives I was already aware and it was therefore simpering, lovesick Wilson that befuddled me. The leader of isolationist America was alternatively heartbroken and lovestruck and not particularly focused on the war going on in the world around him, which was news to me. I had always defended the visionary of the League of Nations to his critics, but I need to revisit my position…

I had reservations about Dead Wake, but after reading it, and hearing Erik Larson speak, they were quickly squashed. I highly recommend Dead Wake to anyone who truly enjoys a compelling retelling of historical events.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9780307408877 • 480 pages • originally published in March 2015, this edition published March 2016 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 4.06 out of 5 stars • read in April 2016

Erik Larson’s Website

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Dead Wake

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath

Back in October, when this beautiful tome arrived at the bookstore, my coworkers were debating where it should be shelved. I chimed in by saying they could hold off deciding for a few days, because it was coming home with me! Then again, pretty much any book that comes into the store screaming “female badassery” comes home with me before too long!

Synopsis

Get ready! It’s a long (but good!) one!

Let’s face it: the list of historical women we learn about in school is lacking. It’s safe, it’s censored, it’s short. And even when we learn about a true legend – say, Harriet Tubman – we get half the story (and it’s usually not the half about her as a plantation-torching Union spy-master). This is just the list of women we know about. What about the women we don’t?

In place of complex, real-life heroines, we get sparkly, doe-eyed animated damsels who dominate children’s minds everywhere. Rejected Princesses is here to provide an alternative to that.

In this fully illustrated, deeply researched, and totally entertaining collection, Jason Porath offers 100 women too uncompromising, too untoward, or too uncomfortable to fit the modern princess mold. Gathering together a diverse set of some famous, some infamous, some forgotten, and some virtually unknown figures from history and myth, from all over the globe, this book presents the female role models we never knew we needed. Yes, there are a few princesses, but there are also pirates, spies, journalists, activists, concubines, empresses, ninjas, pilots, samurais, mathematicians, sword-slingers, and warlords too.

These women were rebels and rulers, pioneers in their fields, and fighters for their causes (and sometimes for themselves). In a time when women are still pushing for equal pay and equal opportunity, shouldn’t we be putting brave women like Sybil Ludington, Hatshepsut, Nzinga Mbande, Josephine Baker, Khutulun, Rani Lakshmibai, Harriet Tubman, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Joan of Arc on equal footing with Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty?

Women have always played a key, kick-ass role in revolutionizing our world. The girls of today are the latest links in a long chain of geniuses, warriors, and fearless women. It is the birthright of every woman to have a connection to that history.

Review

Like I mentioned in my previous review of Wonder Women, I love books that are compendiums of stories about different women who have done awe-inspiring things. The biggest selling point of this particular book for me is two fold:

  1. The author worked on my favorite animated movie – How to Train Your Dragon and helped bring one of my favorite characters, Astrid, to life! (the cake topper for my wedding was even Astrid & Hiccup!)
  2. He included Alfhild, a Viking princess turned pirate and the real life inspiration for the novel I’m writing!

In Rejected Princesses, Porath includes women who are princesses and commoners alike, who hail from all over the world, from all walks of life, of all manner of life experiences. The illustrations of each “princess” are exquisitely designed to highlight their uniqueness and specialties. Porath also designed a rating system for all the women, but not the usual misogynistic rating of hotness, but of the type of life they led, more similar to a movie rating from G to R. In this manner, Porath has ensured that Rejected Princesses can be suitable to all ages and for younger children, parents can determine which stories to share with their children.

So many of the women included would make terrific role models, especially given their diverse backgrounds, for any young woman, or man, and I absolutely cannot wait for a second volume! Porath continues to add new women to the Rejected Princesses‘ website and I hope that he will include them together in a a book just like with this volume!

Rating: 10 out of 10

Edition: Hardcover • $26.99 • 9780062405371 • 384 pages • published October 2016 by Dey Street Books • average Goodreads rating 4.54 out of 5 • read in November 2016

Rejected Princesses Website

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Rejected Princesses

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

Wonder Women by Sam Maggs

It is a known fact at the store than any book that comes in that screams “female badassery,” a phrase a coined when telling publishing reps what types of books I enjoy, is to immediate go to me for review and ogling. I first heard of/met Sam Maggs at BookCon in 2015 and I have been a fan of hers ever since. When I found out her sophomore book (her debut being The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy) would be about women in STEM, I knew I had to read it and recommend it to so many of my (former) students and customers.

Synopsis

Smart women have always been able to achieve amazing things, even when the odds were stacked against them. In Wonder Women, author Sam Maggs tells the stories of the brilliant, brainy, and totally rad women in history who broke barriers as scientists, engineers, mathematicians, adventurers, and inventors. Plus, interviews with real-life women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) careers, an extensive bibliography, and a guide to women-centric science and technology organizations – all to show the many ways the geeky girls of today can help to build the future.

Review

I’m a sucker for nonfiction compendiums that chronicle the lives of interesting people in short digestible vignettes, which is not only evident here with Wonder Women, but with the forthcoming review for Rejected Princesses.

In March of my sophomore year of high school, my stepfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was given months to live, but through a cutting edge surgery that summer, we were able to have another four years with him before he passed away in the spring of my sophomore year of college. His diagnosis led me to consider a future in biomedical engineering – specifically the artificial organ project, being pioneered at Boston University. I made it my life goal to become a medical researcher and was a founding member of my high school’s STEM Savvy group. Lady researchers and mathematicians have always held a special place in my heart, and while I did not fully pursue a career in STEM, I will always look at ladies like Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, and Ada Lovelace as role models and inspiration.

Sam Maggs obviously cares for and respects not only the 25 women she profiles, but also the women whom she interviews regarding contemporary issues with women’s roles in the STEM world. She handles the discussion of feminism and sexism in primarily male roles of engineering, science, technology and mathematics with an understanding of someone who has experienced some of the issues her foremothers did.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $16.99 • 9781594749254 • 240 pages • published in October 2016 by Quirk Books • average Goodreads rating 4.17 out of 5 • read in December 2016

Sam Maggs’ Website

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Wonder Women