Biography, Non-Fiction

In Extremis: The Life and Death of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum

I first came across In Extremis when going through front list (new release) publisher orders and, thanked my lucky stars I have such a good relationship with the rep because when I begged her to send me an advance copy, she happily obliged. And I think it is safe to say, In Extremis is my favorite read of the entire year.

Synopsis

When Marie Colvin was killed in an artillery attack in Homs, Syria, in 2012, at age fifty-six, the world lost a fearless and iconoclastic war correspondent who covered the most significant global calamities of her lifetime. In Extremis, written by her fellow reporter Lindsey Hilsum, is a thrilling investigation into Colvin’s epic life and tragic death based on exclusive access to her intimate diaries from age thirteen to her death, interviews with people from every corner of her life, and impeccable research.

After growing up in a middle-class Catholic family on Long Island, Colvin studied with the legendary journalist John Hersey at Yale, and eventually started working for The Sunday Times of London, where she gained a reputation for bravery and compassion as she told the stories of victims of the major conflicts of our time. She lost sight in one eye while in Sri Lanka covering the civil war, interviewed Gaddafi and Arafat many times, and repeatedly risked her life covering conflicts in Chechnya, East Timor, Kosovo, and the Middle East. Colvin lived her personal life in extremis, too: bold, driven, and complex, she was married twice, took many lovers, drank and smoked, and rejected society’s expectations for women. Despite PTSD, she refused to give up reporting. Like her hero Martha Gellhorn, Colvin was committed to bearing witness to the horrifying truths of war, and to shining a light on the profound suffering of ordinary people caught in the midst of conflict.

Review

I love war correspondents’ memoirs and biographies – It’s What I Do was one of my favorite reads of last year. And, just, oh my goodness. In Extremis dethroned Lynsey from the top of my personal ranking. Granted, I’ve only read two to completion so far (I’m reading Martha Gellhorn’s, the role model for both Lynsey and Marie, right now), but goodness gracious, it will be a long time before I find another book like this. And it caused one of the longest book hangovers I’ve ever had. And, through In Extremis, I had the opportunity to check off a book seller life goal and be the first review for a title on Goodreads and Lindsey Hilsum responded to my review!

My husband, Ben, and I have been together for almost a decade and he could not recall a single instance in that time when I stayed up past midnight to read. I absolutely love to read, but am borderline narcoleptic so I’m not a big night time reader. But for days on end, I stayed up far later than I should have, unable to put down Lindsey Hilsum’s marvelous biography of her friend and fellow journalist, Marie Colvin.

Lindsey Hilsum is, in the humble opinion of someone who has not personally met her, the best person to write Marie Colvin’s biography. A friend, but not an intimate acquaintance, she approaches her subject with the kind and caring hands of someone who felt a deep loss when she died, but removed enough to offer a fairly objective perspective on the life decisions she made that led her to that final, fateful trip to Homs, Syria in 2012. Marie kept extensive journals her entire life and they serve as the basis for the bulk of In Extremis, making it as close to an autobiography as it could possibly be. Sprinkled in are excerpts from Marie’s reporting for London’s Sunday Times, and they offer an even deeper glimpse into what inspired and drove her to seek out war zones and report on the stories of the people who live there.

A few years ago, Ben & I visited the Newseum in Washington D. C. which triggered my current obsession with journalism. I’d always loved writing and have been a news junkie from a very young age (the day does not start until I’ve checked the BBC, CNN and my custom Google newsfeed), but I never appreciated just how important journalists are worldwide until that trip. They are responsible for keeping the world apprised of the goings on in far reaches of the world and at home. And nothing, well, almost nothing, in regards to my country’s current political climate, makes me angrier than the unofficial war on journalism and the president’s constant claims of fake news. As I rally against it, and uninformed fellow Americans, I remind myself of the fact that Marie Colvin had to stand up to people who challenged the authenticity of her reporting and she did so with kindness, grace, and style.

Even though Marie’s personal life may have been a bit of a mess, okay, quite a big mess, she played a crucial role in ensuring that the western world knew exactly what was going on in the war zones of the world, particularly the Middle East. It is easy enough for those of us sitting in our living rooms in the Northeast of the US to ignore the challenges facing not only that area of the world, but also in Europe as they struggle to accommodate record numbers of refugees, and to dehumanize those who are struggling because their struggles don’t affect us directly. But Marie wouldn’t let us. She did everything in her power to bring that suffering, the plights of the people who were displaced from their homes, and the challenges they faced daily, into our collective consciousness.

When reading, and therefore constantly Google-ing Marie Colvin, I came across the production of A Private War, Matthew Heineman’s cinematic depiction of Marie’s life. While the movie is based on the Vanity Fair article published immediately after Marie’s death and not on Lindsey’s biography, the two, given their near simultaneous release dates, will become inexorably tied to each other in future. I was very nervous when I found out that Rosamund Pike is playing Marie – I adored her in Pride & Prejudice, but is she the best choice to play my new hero? After reading articles about production and how much the process of portraying Marie affected her personally, and the fact that a documentary filmmaker is at the helm, I’m far less concerned and a great deal more excited.

Lindsey’s writing is tremendous, Marie’s life equal parts inspiring and cautionary tale, and I truly hope that her story reaches as many people as possible and helps us all recognize that we are all human. We all share this world, and the sufferings of a few are the sufferings of us all.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9780374175597 • 400 pages • published November 2018 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux • read September 2018

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In Extremis

Biography, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Jell-O Girls by Allie Rowbottom

I’ve been half-heartedly participating in a book club that used to be mine and has now migrated into someone else’s, but I’ve still had a foot in the door. When a fellow member picked Jell-O Girls for today’s discussion, I was thrilled to finally read nonfiction AND get to talk about it. Downside, my opinion and personal experiences seemed to be in the minority…

Synopsis

In 1899, Allie Rowbottom’s great-great-great-uncle bought the patent to Jell-O from its inventor for $450. The sale would turn out to be one of the most profitable business deals in American history, and the generations that followed enjoyed immense privilege – but they were also haunted by suicides, cancer, alcoholism, and mysterious ailments.

More than one hundred years after that deal was struck, Rowbottom’s mother, Mary, was diagnosed with the same incurable cancer that had claimed her own mother’s life. Determined to combat what she had come to consider the “Jell-O Curse” and her looming mortality, Mary began obsessively researching her family’s past, bent on understanding the origins of her illness and the impact on her life of both Jell-O and the traditional American values the company championed. Before she died in 2015, Mary began to send Rowbottom boxes of her research and notes, in the hope that her daughter might write what she could not. Jell-O Girls is the liberation of that story.

Review

I’ve been in a bit of a book-finishing rut for the past month and a half. All year I’d been flying through books and then, as soon as my grandmother got sick and passed away, I haven’t wanted to touch a book. Until now. Part of getting back to my normal life it seems must include reading (which is very logical given my occupation, I just hadn’t felt like opening a book), and these days, reading means primarily nonfiction. It’s been a year of my near complete lack of interest in fiction and YA (my two staples for the past two decades), so when book club finally veered back to nonfiction, I was thrilled – I hadn’t actually finished a new book club book since, uh, January 2017.

If I were to write a memoir, it would be a lot like Jell-O Girls. The publisher summary doesn’t exactly capture the spirit of the memoir – it sensationalizes it more than needed. Allie Rowbottom faces an interesting inheritance – money from Jell-O which supported her artist mother her entire life, and a “curse” so to speak, which is basically her family trying to find a source of blame for poor genes. I was intrigued when I picked it up, and it held me captivated until I finished it – in 48 hours. And then I went to log it in Goodreads and see what other people thought about it. Oh boy.

I need to start holding off on looking a Goodreads reviews until I’ve finished a book. I adored Jell-O Girls and thought it one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. It seems, however, I am in the minority when it comes to most readers and I think that there are two primary reasons for this. Firstly, the integration of the Jell-O story with that of Allie’s family doesn’t always work particularly well. It’s nice, and a refreshing interlude at times, to see how Jell-O has changed over the years, but it really has very little to do with Allie, her mother Mary, and her grandmother, Midge, our three female protagonists of the memoir. Second, if you’ve never experienced any of the traumatic events and family situations the main characters experienced, it can be easy to discount them as Rich White People Problems, as most people in my book club, and on the interwebs of Goodreads, seemed to do.

Those two things considered, as someone who has been the primary caretaker to a family member slowly dying of cancer, just lost her grandmother, has had to handle the fact that her mother will most likely die of cancer given that she’s already a three-time survivor, whose parents are divorced, whose family has a long history of mental illness, when you’ve struggled with anorexia nervosa and developed OCD tendencies, passed out and not remembered the last time you ate because you couldn’t control anything in your life except what you ate, well. You could say Allie’s Jell-O Girls is the story of me and my mother’s family.

We’re all a little crazy, humanity proves this. And when you’ve experienced very similar situations to Allie and you want to convey just how magnificently she captures the feeling of waiting for hours on end in the surgical waiting room that you struggled for years to find words to describe, you want to share that with people. You want to talk about just how important this book is to you, not just because you think it’s good, but because it let you know that you are far from alone. That other people have experienced the same set of traumas, self-inflicted and otherwise, that you have. That it’s okay to feel like you’re losing your mind and that you are not alone.

Despite working in a bookstore and talking about books for a living and recommending countless books to people over the last few years, I don’t actually have the chance to sit down and talk about books in detail with many people. I get to give people my thirty-second elevator pitch on a book and hope they’ll buy it. And part of the success of the store I work at is that all of the employees have their own genres of interest – Su reads things dark and twisty, Pam reads contemporary women’s and historical fiction, Mary reads commercial nonfiction and fiction, Jennifer is our children’s buyer and can tell you anything and everything about all the picture books on the shelves, Kaz specializes in LGBT literature, PK reads business and history, Hadley reads the little known random books published by small, academic and indie presses, Staci reads just like my mom, thrillers and mysteries from Baldacci to Scottoline, and I read a little bit of everything in between. There’s not a whole lot of overlap. Therefore, enter book club – the perfect opportunity to discuss books with (mostly) like-minded individuals.

I miss picking all the books (I am aware that this is very selfish). I miss it being a way to support the store (I’m now the only one who doesn’t buy the book on Amazon or from B&N). I miss having productive discussions about interesting books. No one likes to feel like they’re under attack or being misunderstood when they choose a book or have a specific feeling about a book. And I love Jell-O Girls. In my 29 years of existence and of the 220 books I’ve read since I started working at the bookstore in 2015, it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t care if the rest of the world disagrees with me. I will praise it for handling life situations that so many people find difficult to talk about. So please, ignore the plethora of poor ratings on websites. Ratings don’t capture the spirit of the book. If you think reading this book would benefit you, your family, please. Take a look at it.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9780316510615 • 388 pages • published July 2018 by Little, Brown and Company • average Goodreads rating 3.2 out of 5 stars • read in October 2018

Allie Rowbottom’s Website

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Jell-O Girls

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Oddly enough, Kitchen Confidential was not the first Bourdain I read, but the last, despite it being the entire reason that the world knows his name. I put it off, thinking that they way it was described was not in line with the Tony I had come to know and respect through his various television programs and world travels. But I was wrong. So wrong.

Synopsis

After twenty-five years of ‘sex, drugs, bad behavior and haute cuisine’, chef and novelist Anthony Bourdain decides to tell all. From his first oyster in the Gironde to his lowly position as a dishwasher in a honky-tonk fish restaurant in Provincetown, from the kitchen of the Rainbow Room atop the Rockefeller Center to drug dealers in East Village, from Tokyo to Paris and back to New York again, Bourdain’s tales of the kitchen are as passionate as they are unpredictable, as shocking as they are funny.

Review

By sheer happenstance, my husband and I spent June 8th on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Tony’s home of many years (when he wasn’t traveling, which was rare). We were going to a concert in Brooklyn that night and decided to go the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) for the day. As we were driving to our “local” train station in NJ in rush hour traffic from our home west of Philadelphia, we listened to NPR, as we always do. And around 8AM, as we sat in Trenton traffic, we turned the volume up because we couldn’t believe what we had heard. Tony died. By his own hand. To my husband and I, this was unthinkable. We’d been watching No Reservations since we’d started dating. Our relationship had two television constants, Top Gear and Tony.

As we made our way into the city on NJ Transit as we’ve done countless times before, I took my usual news junkie status to a new level. My hero, he was gone. Gone without explanation. The BBC, CNN, NBC, ABC, NPR, no one had anything else to report except that which we already knew. He was gone. I texted my boss at the bookstore straight away and begged him to put the books in stock out on display with the staff pick blurbs I’d written for them ages ago. Medium Raw, my favorite summer read, Appetites, the only cookbook I cook out of, and, though I hadn’t read it, obviously we needed to order in Kitchen Confidential ASAP. Then I started dreading the fact that I’d be meeting with our publisher rep at the start of the week, the rep who handled his imprint for Harper Collins. I couldn’t bring myself to think straight.

I looked up whether or not we could get a reservation for a mid-afternoon meal at Les Halles, only to discover it had closed. Only months ago, we could have gone and didn’t. I kicked myself for it. When we walked past it later in the day, I saw the remembrances people had left. It inspired my first post two days later, Dear Tony. I debated whether or not I could bring myself to watch Parts Unknown anymore and when it turned out to be too tear-inducing, I decided to read the one book of his I didn’t want to, Kitchen Confidential.

I was afraid I wouldn’t like it. I was afraid it would talk too much about drug use and that I didn’t really want to read about, I’ve dealt with it enough in my family. I was afraid that the Tony writing was different than the Tony we’d come to know and love. And then, I decided to be brave and listen to him read it. I was on my way to London to visit my sister when I finally gave in. I still didn’t even own a copy of it. But after only five minutes, I realized I had nothing to worry about – Tony was still Tony – already a master storyteller, already with three novels to his name, already well on his way to not becoming, but staying himself, and then revealing that self to the world. And when I found a special edition of the book with all his notes and handwritten margin doodles at a bookshop in London, well, I had to have it.

Kitchen Confidential is, for anyone who has gotten to know Anthony Bourdain through his various shows, thoroughly him. The story isn’t linear or chronological (his never are, even Parts Unknown), and he is very open and honest about his periods of dishonesty and chef-poaching, honest about his privileged upbringing and squandering it, honest about the world of the professional kitchen. Honest and candid about his life and how he got to where he is, and the result, for anyone who, like me, had watched for years and never read, is heartbreaking.

Because in reading now, for the first time, it is impossible to disassociate the book with the end. It is impossible to ignore the fact that we will never have another Bourdain masterpiece. Impossible to forget that he’s no longer here to tell us stories on Sunday night. Impossible to understand how things went this way. Because as much as I wish I had known him, I didn’t. I didn’t know, I don’t know, what led him to do what he did. But I can read his works, reread, rewatch, and hope, beyond hope, that he has changed the world for the better.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars (Medium Raw is still my favorite)

Edition: Paperback • £10.99/$16.99 • 9781408845042 (UK)/9780060899226 (US) • 352 pages • originally published May 2000 by Bloomsbury • average Goodreads rating 4.02 out of 5 • read in July 2018

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IMG_20180715_100550_488

Biography, History, 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

Fantasy, Fiction, Retelling

Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon

I love a good fairy tale adaptation and when I first heard the true story of the Little Mermaid, I became a bit obsessed with all accurate adaptations.

Synopsis

Princess Margrethe has been hidden away while her kingdom is at war. One gloomy, windswept morning, as she stands in a convent garden overlooking the icy sea, she witnesses a miracle: a glittering mermaid emerging from the waves, a nearly drowned man in her arms. By the time Margrethe reaches the shore, the mermaid has disappeared into the sea. As Margrethe nurses the handsome stranger back to health, she learns that not only is he a prince, he is also the son of her father’s greatest rival. Certain that the mermaid brought this man to her for a reason, Margrethe devises a plan to bring peace to her kingdom.

Meanwhile, the mermaid princess Lenia longs to return to the human man she carried to safety. She is willing to trade her home, her voice, and even her health for legs and the chance to win his heart…

Review

I had beautiful, enchantingly high hopes for Mermaid. I wanted it to be what I think the author originally envisioned it to be – an amazing retelling of the classic tale that added some depth, intrigue, and a few more character flaws, into the original plot. Unfortunately, this was not the case. I still award three stars, simply for the fact that it held my attention. I read it quite quickly as I kept waiting for it to turn into something amazing, but then encountered a lackluster ending, put it down and just said, “Huh.” On to the next book I guess.

Like most fairy tales, our female protagonists profess great love for the prince despite hardly knowing him, and Lenia, the mermaid, gives up everything for a handsome, unconscious human, and then unrealistically expects him to fall in love with her. The prince, being a philandering human with fully functioning anatomy, takes advantage of this gorgeous woman throwing herself at him, and she mistakes this act for deep and enduring love. Boring and predictable and this does not elevate the retelling or rectify the issues I had with the Disney movie. Hopefully must adult women reading this book are intelligent enough to realize that they do not want to be like the mermaid – they should aim to be more like Margrethe, Lenia’s rival for Prince Christopher’s affection.

​Well, not really, but if you’re going to pick one of the two women to focus on as a better role model, Margrethe is a clear winner. Brought up in a convent for her own protection, she encounters the prince first when she discovers him on the beach where Lenia saved him. She nurses him back to health, and then later realizes that if she marries him, she might save her country from the ceaseless wars they’ve been fighting with Christopher’s kingdom. Additionally, she realizes that she doesn’t love Christopher, but realizes she will be serving the greater good, not her own selfish desires. Does this make her a better human? I don’t know. But she does agree to raise Lenia and Christopher’s daughter which is at least a little admirable. Either way, I’ve already ordered Carolyn’s next book and hope that it will be more satisfying than this one!

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.00 • 9780307589922 • 224 pages • published March 2011 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 3.62 out of 5 • read in November 2011

Carolyn Turgeon’s Website

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Mermaid

Contemporary, Fiction

Brida by Paulo Coelho

One of my GED students from Brazil recommended this book to me as the author is from her home country (though she read it in English) and she really enjoyed the premise. I agreed to read it in an effort to continue to encourage her to read in English, but I was not quite as impressed as she was.

Synopsis

Brida, a young Irish girl, has long been interested in various aspects of magic but is searching for something more. Her search leads her to people of great wisdom. She meets a wise man who dwells in a forest, who teachers her to trust in the goodness of the world, and a woman who teachers her how to dance to the music of the world. As Brida seeks her destiny, she struggles to find a balance between her relationships and her desire to become a witch.

Review

Brida is… interesting. I’ve read a few books that are translations from the original language or dialect, but this is the first time I’ve read a work of fiction that was a translation and it just felt… awkward? It’s been a few weeks since I’ve finished reading Brida and I’m still trying to figure out if my feeling of awkwardness comes from the translation or Coelho’s writing style.

Brida is an intriguing character as she is a young woman who simply decides that she wants to be a witch. The story starts off with her quest to find the Magus, a potential teacher/mentor for her to follow on the path of the sun, a spiritual path open to those who choose to study witchcraft. The Magus, however, realizes that the path of the sun is not Brida’s destiny but that she is, in fact, his soul mate. The Magus points her in the direction of Wicca, a teacher of the path of the moon, which seems to fit Brida better on a spiritual level.

Brida takes an interesting approach to the world of magic be enveloping it in to organized religion and taking it beyond Wiccan culture. The paths of the sun and moon are described as paths to God. The book is a discussion of the “meaning of life” through Brida’s decision to become a witch. She learns to dance to the music of the world, use all five of her senses simultaneously, and ultimately get the most out of life. She goes through a crisis of “faith” or two and doubts her abilities and life choices. Overall, though, I think I was ultimately disappointed because it just felt so ordinary and scatter-brained.

Rating: 5 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.99 • 9780061578953 • 212 pages • first published in 1990, this edition published February 2009 by Harper Perennial • average Goodreads rating 3.46 out of 5 • read in June 2015

Paulo Coelho’s Website

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125-Brida

Fiction, Historical

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

I love any book set in Europe during World War II, it is by far one of my favorite time periods to read about. I requested the audiobook from the library to listen to while driving to and from work and I wound up enjoying it so much, I bought the actual book as well.

Synopsis

After disgracing themselves at a high society New Year’s Eve party in Philadelphia in 1944, Madeline Hyde and her husband, Ellis, are cut off financially by his father, a former army colonel who is already ashamed of his son’s inability to serve in the war. With his best friend, Hank, Ellis decides that they only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed where the Colonel once very publicly failed – by hunting down the famous Loch Ness monster. Maddie reluctantly follows them across the Atlantic, leaving her sheltered world behind.

The trio find themselves in a remote village in the Scottish Highlands, where the locals have nothing but contempt for the privileged interlopers. Maddie is left on her own at the isolated inn, where food is rationed, fuel is scarce, and a knock from the postman can bring tragic news. Yet she finds herself falling in love with the stark beauty and subtle magic of the Scottish countryside. Gradually she comes to know the villagers, and the friendships she forms with two young women open her up to a larger world than she knew existed. Maddie begins to see that nothing is as it first appears: the values she holds dear prove unsustainable, and monsters lurk where they are least expected. As she embraces a fuller sense of who she might be, Maddie becomes aware not only of the dark forces around her but of life’s beauty and surprising possibilities.

Review

While I had never read any of Sara Gruen’s books, well, still have never read as I listened to this one, I have seen the film adaptation of Water for Elephants and enjoyed her story-telling technique. Typically, when I choose a book to listen to in the car while driving back and forth from work, I pick one that is sitting on my shelf, but that I just haven’t had the chance to read yet. With At the Water’s Edge I decided to go for a new book, in keeping with my love of women’s World War II stories. Plus, it starts in the high society quarter of Philadelphia (Rittenhouse Square), near where my grandmother lived as a young girl during World War II.

Maddie, main character of At the Water’s Edge, starts off as the agreeable, and mostly clueless wife of a charismatic young man, Ellis, born into great wealth. Her family is tainted by scandal via her mother and his through his perceived inability to serve in the war. Together, with Ellis’ friend Frank, they set off in search of the Loch Ness monster to reclaim their rightful place in society. They find themselves sheltered in a rundown inn quite near the loch where the manager is surly and the young women who work there don’t think much of the trio’s high society ways. Over the course of a few weeks, Ellis and Frank habitually leave Maddie to her own devices as they search out the monster and Maddie befriends the two women who work in the inn, Anna and Meg (who are by far the best characters in the book).

At the Water’s Edge is what I have come to discover is stereotypical woman’s fiction. Shortly into their adventure, Maddie realizes that her husband is a world class asshole and she attempts to assert her independence in any way she can. In this sense, Maddie goes from being the docile little sheep being led around blindly by Ellis and Frank (she crossed the Atlantic in the middle of the war because they suggested it) to standing on her own two feet and defending those she has come to care about. She eschews her high society background and falls in love with the Scottish Highlands, and the grouchy inn manager to boot. This shouldn’t be a surprise – it was bound to happen or there would be no story – Nessie only exists in our imaginations.

​Sara Gruen’s work reminds me of that of Sarah Addison Allen (are we noticing a pattern of Sarah’s here?) in the sense that it was a breezy read/listen, the characters were intriguing, and the plot was predictable, but not to the point of boredom or irritation. The best scenes are the unexpected ones, particularly those involving the Canadian lumberjacks. Maddie, Anna, and Meg are all real, emotional characters that waver occasionally on being two-dimensional, but their friendship is believable and that is the most impressive part of the book. Writing female relationships is more challenging than writing romantic ones and Gruen does so here with an expert hand.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9780385523240 • 416 pages • first published March 2015, this edition published November 2015 by Spiegel & Grau • average Goodreads rating 3.65 out of 5 • read in May 2015

Sara Gruen’s Website

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122-At the Water's Edge

Essays, Non-Fiction, Sociology

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

This seems like an apt title for this week! I am an unabashedly HUGE Eagles fan and I have been, according to my mom, since birth. It helps that her father, my grandfather, played for them briefly in the 1950s. We are an Eagles family, we bleed green. And nothing, well, almost nothing, frustrates me more than when I am trying to answer one of my female friend’s questions about the sport and a man feels the need to jump in and explain what’s going on to both of us.

Synopsis

In her comic, scathing essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” Rebecca Solnit took on what often goes wrong in conversations between men and women. She wrote about men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don’t, about why this arises, and how this aspect of the gender wars works, airing some of her own hilariously awful encounters.

She ends on a serious note – because the ultimate problem is the silencing of women who have something to say, including those saying things like, “He’s trying to kill me!”

This updated edition of the book features that now-classic essay as well as Solnit’s recent essay on the remarkable feminist conversation that arose in the wake of the 2014 Isla Vista Killings.

Review

The great reckoning, in terms of sexual assault, had been bubbling beneath the surface of society for years, decades, even centuries, before it burst through the surface and made headlines in late 2017. The most important aspect I want to make sure that I state in regards to this review is that Men Explain Things to Me is not an essay collection that bashes men.

Rebecca Solnit’s purpose in collecting together the essays that make up the book Men Explain Things to Me is, like any good journalist’s intention, to make her readers aware of things that are going on in the world today. Each essay in the collection deals at least in some small way how we interact with each other, both as members of society and within personal, intimate relationships. It is about encouraging women to find their voices and encouraging men to think about how their words and actions are perceived and interpreted.

For a fairly short book (less than 200 pages), it took me the better part of three weeks to read. Not because it was dense, or because I didn’t like, but because I wanted to make sure that I remembered Rebecca’s words and used them to do good in the world. One of the biggest strengths and challenges with the written word is that they can be interpreted in many different ways. Reading Men Explain Things to Me can be twisted and turned to make anyone’s point, and I don’t want to do that. I want to take what Solnit writes and make myself a better contributing member of society. And I have to believe that’s what she would want as well.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $12.95 • 9781608464661 • 176 pages • first published May 2014, this edition published September 2015 by Haymarket Books • average Goodreads rating 3.92 out of 5 • read in February 2018

Rebecca Solnit’s Website

Men Explain Things to Me on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Men Explain Things to Me

119-Men Explain Things to Me

Contemporary, Fiction

The Ex-Debutante by Linda Francis Lee

This was one of the first “adult” fiction books I read after graduating high school and deciding I needed to branch out from the young adult section. And while I’m a northern at heart, when presented with the opportunity to read about southern debutantes, I usually do so in order to mock them later. But in this book, there is so much heart and character development that I simply cannot mock. And the main character is named Carlisle, as is my beloved hometown.

Synopsis

When Carlisle Wainwright Cushing, of the old-moneyed Texas Wainwrights, moved to Boston three years ago to work at one of the city’s most prestigious divorce law firms, she thought she had escaped the high society she’d grown up in – after all, no one in Boston, not even her fiancé, knew she was an heiress. But now Carlisle has been lured back to Texas to deal with her mother’s latest divorce and the family-sponsored hundredth annual debutante ball, which is on the verge of collapse. She’s afraid she’ll never get back to Boston, at least with her reputation intact, especially when good ole’ Southern boy Jack Blair shows up on the opposite side of the divorce court, making her wonder if he’s going after her mother in the proceedings – or her. Carlisle’s trip home challenges her sense of who she really is and forces her to face her family’s secrets.

Review

I picked this book up as a quick read the summer after my sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh, one of many books that I figured might be enjoyable if I read it, but wasn’t super into starting. Once I did, though, I could hardly put it down! It’s not news that I’m driven towards books that are more character-driven than plot-driven and that I appreciate strong and independent female characters that think and speak for themselves and never turn down an opportunity for deliciously witty banter with a romantic interest. The Ex-Debutante fulfilled my expectations of Carlisle. Come to think of it, after I read it I was fairly certain that if I ever had a daughter, I would totally name her Carlisle.

There were many things that drew me towards the book – I’d been on a She’s the Man kick (which features debs), I’d entertained the idea of becoming a lawyer (at the time I still didn’t want to teach), and I was infatuated with a guy name Jack that’d just broken my heart. Connections abounded and reading about Carlisle and how she handled her life gave me the confidence to take a greater interest in shaping my own life to be what I wanted, not just what was expected of me as a 19-year-old-almost-college-junior.

The end of your sophomore year of college is when you’re supposed to have your mind made up (if you didn’t when you started) about what you want to be when you “grow up” and who you are as a person. Your days of finding yourself are supposed to be done – you were either supposed to take a year off to traipse through Europe before enrolling or have it all sorted by the time you’re done your first semester so that you can settle in and start working towards some nonexistent goal that is supposed to define the rest of your life.

But, as with many other things in life, we don’t all follow the same path, our development as human beings really isn’t mappable as some psychologists would try to lead us to believe. And in a time of great personal confusion, Carlisle personified that twisting, knotting, ineffable desire to be unique and individualistic to a tee. I’d spent the four months before reading The Ex-Debutante caring for family and supporting those around me. While I’m beyond glad that I took time off from college to do so, reading The Ex-Debutante was the first time I took a break that was just for me, that I took time out of the day to do something I enjoyed, even if it was just reading. So my review is less about the book, but more about what the book, and the protagonist, made me realize about myself.

Rating: 8 stars

Edition: Paperback • $22.99 • 9780312354985 • 341 pages • first published April 2008, this edition published March 2009 by Griffin • average rating 3.67 out of 5 • read in May 2009

Linda Francis Lee’s Website

The Ex-Debutante on Goodreads

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Ex-Debutante

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

Jessica Darling quintet by Megan McCafferty

Jessica Darling helped me survive high school. I was first introduced to the delightfully snarky, sarcastic and spunky teen heroine of Sloppy Firsts when I was a freshman in speech and debate practice after school one autumn afternoon back in 2003. A frenemy of mine was testing out an excerpt from Second Helpings for a speech competition and it was certainly effective: I remember nothing else of the speech and debate season but hearing about Jessica handle the popular girls in a Jersey mini-mall still resonates in my head a decade plus later.

The series consists of five books and originally Megan McCafferty only intended to write the first two and they stand alone very well. I also read Second Helpings before Sloppy Firsts and while slightly confusing, I think it just made me love Marcus even more. I also had the great pleasure of meeting Megan McCafferty my junior year at Pitt and she has now started a Jessica Darling in middle school series which is quite wonderful as well, even though it differs from the originally established timeline.

Sloppy Firsts Synopsis

When her best friend, Hope Weaver, moves away from Pineville, New Jersey, hyperobservant sixteen-year-old Jessica Darling is devastated. A fish out of water at school and a stranger at home, Jessica feels more lost than ever now that the only person with whom she could really communicate has gone. How is she supposed to deal with the boy- and shopping-crazy girls at school, her dad’s obsession with her track meets, her mother salivating over big sister Bethany’s lavish wedding, and her nonexistent love life?

Sloppy Firsts looks at Jessica’s predicament as she embarks on another year of teenage torment – from the dark days of Hope’s departure through her months as a type-A personality turned insomniac to her completely mixed-up feelings about Marcus Flutie, the intelligent and mysterious “dreg” who works his way into her heart.

Series Review

There are, thus far, 8 books about Jessica Darling. Therefore, understandably, my review cannot simply be contained to one book, each reading changes and effects how I view the books so it may be a bit garbled and I’ll try to review book by book without any spoilers, but bear with me!

Sloppy Firsts I have read only once and I did so after reading Second Helpings, the stronger of the pair, writing wise. I was introduced to Jessica after Marcus, after her sister’s wedding, and after she’s met, and discovered the truth about, Hyacinth Anastasia Wallace. All of these things take place in Sloppy Firsts but I didn’t know the full story. At the start of Sloppy Firsts, Jessica is broken, though she does her best to hide it. Her best friend Hope has moved away and while Hope does not actually physically enter the story until the end of Second Helpings, I had already met her. But her influence on Jessica’s life is profound – she is her best friend, her confidant. For a young girl to have such a strong friendship is an incredible thing to behold and when that friendship is no longer as present, depression can quickly ensue. Throughout Sloppy Firsts, Jessica must handle changing feelings, embarking on a friendship she fears Hope would disapprove of, and betrayal of her trust by a new friend. The waters of high school are choppy and Jessica must learn how to cross them safely without her navigator and first mate, Hope.

Second Helpings: My copy of Second Helpings is thoroughly beat up. I love the book, I’ve read it over and over and over again whenever I have been in need of inspiration for my own writing, or when I just want to read about characters that I love dearly. So who came up with it first, JK Rowling or Megan McCafferty? Both have a character known as “he who shall not be named” and Jessica is horribly mad at the one who walks around her high school’s halls. Her feelings have been hurt, irrevocably, she claims, and she swears to never forgive the sinner. Second Helpings is set during Jessica’s senior year and from the very start, it seems as if all hell will be breaking loose. She must deal with national tragedy (9/11), personal tragedy when a beloved family member is lost, and coming to grips with her own moral quandaries and whether or not a friendship is still a friendship if secrets are kept.

Charmed ThirdsFourth Comings: In which Jessica follows her heart and goes to her dream college and lands what she believes to be her dream job. Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings are my two least favorite books and for the longest time I would not read them. Laura had started them and was unimpressed. However, when I met Megan McCafferty, I needed a book for her to sign and so I picked up a copy of the new edition of Charmed Thirds. I will cherish it always as it bears McCafferty’s lovely looping signature and I got to meet her with some of my best college friends. However, Jessica, is just not Jessica in these two books. While Sloppy Firsts & Second Helpings cover roughly a year and a half between them, Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings span almost 8 years and everything feels so rushed.

Perfect Fifths: When I went to hear Megan McCafferty speak, she read aloud from the recently released Perfect Fifths and I was hooked. It was the first time we the readers get Marcus’ point of view and WOOHOO!!! I powered through Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings just to get to the part Megan McCafferty read in the dimly lit auditorium of Frick on my beloved Pitt’s campus. As the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series did years later, the fifth book takes place when the main characters are in their late twenties. And it is pure literary gold. It’s an ending, without being final but also without fully answering all the questions that have so far gone un-answered. But it is perfect, perfect for you, yes, you to enjoy.

Jessica Darling is a relatable girl for those who grew up feeling pressure in high school, fearing being misunderstood, missing their best friend, wondering when their lives would really begin and if their relationships with others were/are meaningful. Jessica, Marcus, Hope, Bridget, Percy, Bethany and even Mr. and Mrs. Darling make up an unforgettable cast of characters. As is the case with all series, there high points and low points, both within the story and the story telling but all-in-all, Jessica is a character to depend on and a role model for those who don’t quite fit in, feel a little lost or who simply want a shoulder to cry on. She’s your girl.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Sloppy Firsts Edition: Paperback • $13.99 • 9780609807903 • 304 pages • published August 2001 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 3.94 out of 5 • series finished April 2010

Megan McCafferty’s Website

Sloppy Firsts on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Sloppy Firsts

Jessica Darling