Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Sociology, Travel

Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn

In continuing my war correspondent memoir/biography trend, I figured it was time I pick up Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another. Those who know who she is typically think of her as Hemingway’s third wife, but those who care about journalism, know her as one of the first female war correspondents, and inspiration to my favorite journalist, Marie Colvin.

Synopsis

As a journalist, Gellhorn covered every military conflict from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam and Nicaragua. She also bewitched Eleanor Roosevelt’s secret love and enraptured Ernest Hemingway with her courage as they dodged shell fire together.

Hemingway is, of course, the unnamed “other” in the title of this tart memoir, first published in 1979, in which Gellhorn describes her globe-spanning adventures, both accompanied and alone. With razor-sharp humor and exceptional insight into place and character, she tells of a tense week spent among dissidents in Moscow; long days whiled away in a disused water tank with hippies clustered at Eilat on the Red Sea; and her journeys by sampan and horse to the interior of China during the Sino-Japanese War.

Review

Martha Gellhorn has fascinated me for quite some time, given my present obsession with female war correspondents this should not be surprising. Her life, one wholly unconventional for her time, is inspiring, but also, in light of twenty first century sensibilities, one I had to remind myself, began over a century ago.

A feminist at her core, Martha, M as UC (unwilling companion, AKA Hemingway) calls her, sets off on each “horror journey” as she’s dubbed them, without a great deal of pre-planning, other than the bare minimum required by her destination. The era of traveling by your bootstraps, hopping flights when you need them, hoping to stumble upon a hotel with available rooms each night, etc. is simply unheard of today. Even when Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman went around the world and south through Africa on motorcycles, they still had reservations and accommodations, or at least tents to sleep in each night. Did Martha? No.

When I think of a single woman traveling in the 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s, I feel a sympathetic sense of dread. I keep waiting for something to go thoroughly wrong, but by her wits or the kindness of others, she avoids any great gender related danger. M doesn’t typically discuss how her gender has anything to do with her ability to travel and I LOVE IT. I felt the real sense of, “If M can do it, so can I!” much more so than when reading Lynsey Addario’s autobiography and Lindsey’s biography of Marie Colvin (apparently a disproportionate number of my favorite journalists are Lindseys…) – they went to the front lines of war. Martha, due to either her gender or the time period, goes to the back lines of war. The war that we don’t see that isn’t quite as dangerous as the war everyone saw on the newsreels each night.

When M and UC (Hemingway) go to China during World War II, it never feels like there is a great threat on their lives. When M goes to the French islands of the Caribbean, I learned a great deal about how the Vichy government affected their lives, but I was never fearful of M’s survival. These adventures, and M’s quite frequent poor decision making – when the pilot of the boat tells you he won’t wait for you to scale a dormant volcano because he can’t dock safely, you should probably heed his warning and not be surprised when you get up in the morning and he’s gone – just a thought. But all these adventures are learning experiences for M and for us, her readers, 40 years after the original publication, 70 years after the adventure. But the real sticking point for this collection for me is M’s trip to Africa.

Holy mother of colonialism. In January of 1962, Martha Gellhorn went to Africa. I found the map in my photo in my collection of vintage maps with a copyright date of 1960 – pretty darn close to how the continent was divided politically at the time of Martha’s travels. Given that Martha’s trip to Africa is by far the longest and move life-affecting of this collection of essays, it seemed a fitting backdrop for the book. But to think of Martha’s approach to the continent, it makes me retch a bit inside.

It seems so foreign to me that we, as human beings, particularly white people, could stereotype an entire continent of people and refuse to get to know them, learn about their communities, and simply label them as selfish, liars, etc. The thing that terrifies me the most is that M was probably considered progressive for her time. While I’m sure there are readers who would find it difficult to turn off their 2018 filters and would find her recounting of her trip to Africa offensive, at it’s core it is a compelling historical and sociological exploration into the changing nature of how we travel and interact with people, and is definitely worth reading.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9781585420902 • 320 pages • first published 1979, this edition published May 2001 by TarcherPerigee • average Goodreads rating 3.83 out of 5 stars • read in December 2018

Travels with Myself and Another

Fiction, Historical

Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce

Working six days a week at the bookstore for the holidays is crazy and I’m way off of my normal posting schedule. But it’s probably one of my favorite times in the store – I get to tell people about my  favorite books all day and they’re most inclined to buy them as gifts! Each year everyone on the staff picks 3 books for our top “gift giving books” of the year and Dear Mrs. Bird is one of mine.

Synopsis

Emmeline Lake and her best friend Bunty are doing their bit for the war effort and trying to stay cheerful despite the German planes making their nightly raids. Emmy dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent and when she spots a job advertisement in the newspaper she seizes her chance, but after a rather unfortunate misunderstanding, she finds herself typing letters for the formidable Henrietta Bird, renowned advice columnist of Women’s Friend magazine.

Mrs. Bird if very clear: letters containing any Unpleasantness must go straight into the bin. But as Emmy reads the desperate pleas from women who may have Gone Too Far with the wrong man, or can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she begins to secretly write back to the readers who have poured out their troubles.

Review

I have loved a good World War II novel for a very long time and have been a deep lover of the genre of historical fiction as a whole for more than two decades (which is more than two thirds of my life given that I’m just shy of 30). A few years ago, though, it seemed to be all I read – great for giving recommendations as at the bookstore, not so great for mental health and reading enjoyment. I felt broken – scenes in concentration camps no longer elicited any feelings from me. I should be bawling my eyes out and I wasn’t. I should have felt something more than simple blase. So I took a break.

Then our Simon & Schuster sales rep gave me and ARC of Dear Mrs. Bird. When it came out and I still hadn’t read it, he sent me a finished copy. When he stopped in to see us and I still hadn’t read it, he very kindly told me (lectured me) about not doing so. He thought it’d be perfect for me. I should have listened to him sooner.

When the holiday staff table was looking like it needed a jolt of historical fiction, I figured it was the perfect time to read this most delightful of books. Did I cry? Of course I did – it’s a World War II novel and is not without it’s share of doom and gloom. But that’s not the main point. That’s not the main plot. It’s not the driving force of Emmy’s life. Is it perfect? No. It’s a debut and the pacing and plot can be clunky and lacking. But it is a most enjoyable and delightful read and an excellent addition to the genre.

So, if you’re a WWII lover like me but are feeling a bit broken by each book trying to be the next Book Thief or Nightingale, take a look at Dear Mrs. Bird. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $26.00 • 9781501170065 • 288 pages • published July 2018 by Scribner • average Goodreads rating 3.81 out of 5 • read in December 2018

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

Bestsellers intrigue me. I don’t read many, which seems to confuse bookstore patrons until I tell them that I read other books so that when they have finished a bestseller and want something similar, I have a recommendation for them. But when The Woman Who Smashed Codes started to fly off the shelves, I was intrigued enough to take a look.

Synopsis

In 1916, a young Quaker schoolteacher and poetry scholar named Elizebeth Smith was hired by an eccentric tycoon to find the secret messages he believed were embedded in Shakespeare’s plays. But the urgencies of war quickly transformed Elizebeth’s mission, forcing her to apply her skills to an exciting new venture: codebreaking – the solving of secret messages without knowledge of the key. Working alongside her was William Friedman, a Jewish scientist who would become her husband and lifelong codebreaking partner.

Review

A number of customers at the bookstore came in looking for The Woman Who Smashed Codes because their book club had decided to read it. Each time I showed it to them, I’d flip it over, read the back cover myself, and think it was interesting before ultimately putting it back down. Then came holiday (over)ordering at the bookstore and when The Woman Who Smashed Codes came off the bestsellers and we still had a few too many copies on hand, I decided to make it my pet project to sell it myself, without the “bestseller” status, but with the “staff recommends” qualifier.

The holidays are the ultimate time for recommending books to customers. While we are always helping people find a book for themselves, now is the time when people come in with their holiday list and ask us to pick out books for their loved ones. Most of the time they give us some basic information: they like history books, fantasy, science, they’re accountants, etc. and then we take that information to pick out books for them in the store. With that in mind, I’ve decided to change up my review for this book today to my bookstore pitch, but in the opposite way, for customers who come up and ask us if a book is any good. (This is an idealized conversation, but I do have many that go somewhat like this)

Customer (holds up The Woman Who Smashed Codes): Is this book any good?
My Coworker: My manager, Sarah, loved it! Let me ask her to help you!
Me: I really enjoyed The Woman Who Smashed Codes! Is there anything in particular you would like to know about it?
Customer: Who would enjoy it?
Me: It would be a great gift for anyone who is fascinated by World War II history, or someone who enjoys lesser known stories from history, or anyone who loves a great biography of a unique person.
Customer: What was your favorite part of the book?
Me: I love stories about how people we’ve never heard of today played major roles throughout history. Elizebeth, the subject of the book, worked tirelessly to break the codes of Nazis during WWII and her work played a key role in the Americans’ decryption of the German Enigma machine. Additionally, it was her husband who broke the Japanese decryption machines – they were a fascinating couple and I loved how the author, Jason Fagone, really delves into their relationship instead of just focusing on Elizebeth’s work for the government.
Customer: That sounds really neat! I think I’ll give it a shot!

As booksellers, we know, especially during the holiday season, that we may only have a minute or two to share with a customer why we really love a book. Every customer can read the back of the book for a description of the plot/subject, but that information (and what I always include as the “synopsis”) comes from the publisher. I figure my role, as bookseller and blogger, is to put the personal emphasis on the books I love, the books that may also get overlooked on a store’s shelves if they don’t have colorful spines or staff picks tied to them.

When I can’t find the time to personally tell every customer about the books I think they’ll love, I write short little “blurbs” to put under the books on the shelf or print the blurbs up on bookmarks as we do at the store annually for our top holiday gift picks. That being said, my question to you, dear readers, is: When you go into a bookstore during the holidays, or any time of year, to you seek out staff picks? Do the staff’s recommendations hold any sway with what you end up deciding to read or take home?

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9780062430519 • first published September 2017, this edition published August 2018 by Dey Street Books • average Goodreads rating 4.19 out of 5 • read in November 2018

Woman Who Smashed Codes

 

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

In Extremis on Goodreads

Get a Copy of In Extremis

In Extremis

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

From the Corner of the Oval by Beck Dorey-Stein

I’ve slowly but surely been making my way through the four major Obama White House Staffer memoirs – first was Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?, followed by this one, next will be Thanks, Obama (my coworker Su’s favorite), and last The World as It Is

Synopsis

In 2012, Beck Dorey-Stein is working five part-time jobs and just scraping by when a posting on Craigslist lands her, improbably, in the Oval Office as one of Barack Obama’s stenographers. The ultimate D. C. outsider, she joins the elite team who accompany the president wherever he goes, recorder and mic in hand. On whirlwind trips across time zones, Beck forges friendship with a dynamic group of fellow travelers – young men and women who, like her, leave their real lives behind to hop aboard Air Force One in service of the president.

As she learns to navigate White House protocols and more than once runs afoul of the hierarchy, Beck becomes romantically entangled with a consummate D.C. insider, and suddenly the political becomes all too personal.

Against the backdrop of glamour, drama, and intrigue, this is the story of a young woman making unlikely friendships, getting her heart broken, learning what truly matters, and, in the process, discovering her voice.

Review

Beck is a Philly suburb-raised elder millennial like me. I was so excited about her memoir of her years in the White House, maybe more so than Alyssa Mastromonaco’s, which I adored. The four names of Alyssa, Beck, David Litt & Ben Rhodes are inextricably linked in my mind as the authors of the collective “Obama White House Memoirs.” I’ve even tried to arrange displays so that I can feature all four together without anyone really noticing that that was my primary objective. Alyssa, whose was published first, even references her fellow staffers literary endeavors in her own. But onto Beck.

As a White House stenographer, a person who records all of the president’s conversations and then transposes them later for memos, briefings, and posterity, Beck had incredible insider access to the Obama White House. She kept extensive journals during her years there and her memoir reflects her attention to detail. The details of her personal life.

Beck traveled all over the world, met countless interesting people, and experienced many once-in-a-lifetime adventures alongside the leader of the free world. But what makes up the bulk of her memoir? Her affair with a fellow White House staffer. Each of the magnificent locales she travels to is given a cursory description, and then we endure Beck’s exposition of her affair. We get a more in depth description of the White House staff parking lot than the whole of southeast Asia.

I get it – it’s her memoir, she can write about whatever she wants. And Beck is a marvelous writer, I finished the whole of From the Corner of the White House because her writing is so strong. And yes, she obviously talks about friendships and travels and what is going on in our country and parts of her life other than the affair, but its dominating force in her life also makes it a dominating force in the book. And I felt significantly misled. Based on the publisher synopsis above, I thought I was going to get an insider glimpse into life inside the White House, The West Wing in book form so to speak (without any confidential details of course), but instead, I got an insider glimpse to Beck’s personal life, not exactly what I was expecting.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9780525509127 • 352 pages • published July 2018 by Spiegel & Grau • average Goodreads rating 3.85 out of 5 • read October 2018

From the Corner of the Oval on Goodreads

Get a Copy of From the Corner of the Oval

From the Corner of the Oval

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

Jell-O Girls on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Jell-O Girls

Jell-O Girls

Fiction, Historical

The Kennedy Debutante by Kerri Maher

I’ve started reading again! In an effort to ingratiate myself with our publisher reps at the bookstore, I’ve decided to read an advanced reader copy a month BEFORE the book comes out AND write an “Indie Next” pick for it – this is the first! Downside, I read it back in July so my memory of it is a touch fuzzy…

Synopsis

London, 1938. The effervescent “It Girl” of London society since her father was named the ambassador, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy moves in rarefied circles, rubbing satin-covered elbows with some of the twentieth century’s most powerful figures. Eager to escape the watchful eye of her strict mother, Rose; the antics of her older brothers, Jack and Joe; and the erratic behavior of her sister Rosemary, Kick is ready to strike out on her own and is soon swept off her feet by Billy Hartingon, the future Duke of Devonshire.

But their love is forbidden, as Kick’s devout Catholic family and Billy’s staunchly Protestant one would never approve their match. And when war breaks out like a tidal wave across her world, Billy is ripped from her arms as the Kennedys are forced to return to the States. Kick finds work as a journalist and joins the Red Cross to get back to England, where she will have to decide where her true loyalties lie – with family or with love…

Review

Kick Kennedy has fascinated me for years (for the full background on my love of Kick, see my review of Barbara Leaming’s biography, Kick Kennedy) so when Cheryl, our Penguin sales rep, told me about The Kennedy Debutante, I begged her to send me an advance copy. I happy wrote an Indie Next nomination for it, even though I didn’t love it as much as I hoped. And it didn’t make the list, but I felt a sense of accomplishment in doing it!

The Kennedy Debutante has taken Kick’s story and turned it into commercial women’s fiction. And for someone who doesn’t read a great deal of commercial fiction, particularly this year, I wasn’t entirely thrilled with the focus of the story being almost exclusively on Kick & Billy’s love story. Which has always been the least fascinating part of Kick’s story. The best parts of the book involved one of the few invented characters (no historical counterpart), a priest, Father O’Flaherty, who serves as Kick’s moral and religious counselor and is a bright spot in the face her parents’ darkness in the disconcerting time in London leading up to World War II. O’Flaherty is kind and compassionate and helps Kick come to terms with who she is, and the role that she has to play in British society, and subsequently it’s history, during her lifetime.

Additional bright spots include any time the Kennedy kids come into the frame, Joe & Jack (JFK) are quite a pair, and the inner glimpses into Rosemary and Eunice’s lives also show how close the sisters were and the obvious inspiration for Eunice’s founding of the Special Olympics. The siblings’ closeness was another bright spot of the book and I found myself often reading in anticipation of the next time the Kennedy clan would appear on set.

Overall, I enjoy The Kennedy Debutante, but if Kick was not the protagonist and it was say, about one of the Mitford sisters or a generic English woman living during WWII book, I would not have picked it up or bothered to be interested in it, given its position in the very saturated field of WWII fiction.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $26.00 • 9780451492043 • 384 pages • published October 2018 by Berkley • average Goodreads rating 4.01 out of 5 • read in July 2018

Kerri Maher’s Website

The Kennedy Debutante on Goodreads

Get a Copy of The Kennedy Debutante

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

A book? About a mysterious bookstore with a millennial cast of characters? My response to finding out about was as follows: WHY DID I NOT KNOW ABOUT THIS BOOK SOONER?!? And then I told my boss about it and made him buy it. Yep, I’m that kind of indie bookstore manager – I upsell to my boss. 

Synopsis

The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon away from life as a San Francisco web-design drone and into the isles of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after a few days on the job, Clay discovers that the store is more curious than either its name or its gnomic owner might suggest. The customers are few, and they never seem to buy anything – instead, they “check out” large, obscure volumes from strange corners of the store. Suspicious, Clay engineers an analysis of the clientele’s behavior, seeking help from his variously talented friends. But when they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, they discover the bookstore’s secrets extend far beyond it’s walls. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave.

Review

To say that I enjoyed Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore would be to put it lightly. I had been intrigued by it for quite some time and eventually requested the audiobook on the library Overdrive app. I was hooked immediately – and for someone who has only read a handful of fiction titles this year, that’s saying a lot. There was a lot I thought would annoy me – it’s in first person, it’s a male narrator, Kindles are referenced in the first few pages… all the things that might annoy a feminist bookseller. But I kept listening, and just wow.

I now realize that I am 5+ years late to the Penumbra party. It’s a book that has been raved about in various literary circles for years now but hasn’t graced the shelves of my bookstore for the better part of those five years. Why, I asked myself, if this book is so good, do we not have it? Because it needed a champion. There is nothing about its spine to entice a reader to pick it up off the shelf. This is not dissimilar to Penumbra’s bookstore – there’s nothing about the outside that would make you necessary decide to go in and browse (other than the fact that it’s a bookstore… but, I digress on that point). There’s a mystery inside, as there is in the physical book, and there’s a bunch of references to things that you really wish actually existed, just like Harry Potter.

There are hidden gems for booksellers to find, and Clay, our protagonist and narrator, goes on a journey from Kindle reader to indie bookstore champion that all indie booksellers adore. There are secret reading rooms, artifacts from antiquity, and, most important to us millennial readers, accurate depictions of people who are disproportionately affected by the great recession. As a 2011 college grad, these are my peers in these pages. And I can relate to them all. The book is fun, the characters and their friendships are great, the whole effect of the book is great, and I know I don’t usually repeat such a useless word so often, but I’ve decided to become this book’s champion and so, if you haven’t read it, go do so. It’s really great.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9781250037756 • 304 pages • originally published October 2012, this edition published September 2013 by Picador • average Goodreads rating 3.75 out of 5 stars • read August 2018

Robin Sloan’s Website

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr Penumbra

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham

To say that I am a Gilmore Girls fan may be a bit of an understatement. I am a basic white (elder – according to Iliza Shlesinger) millennial young woman, therefore I love Gilmore Girls. It’s basic logic. However, as I wasn’t a huge fan of Graham’s fiction (Someday, Someday, Maybe) it took my sister over a year to convince me to actually read her memoir.

Synopsis

In Talking as Fast as I Can, Lauren Graham hits pause for a moment and looks back on her life, sharing laugh-out-loud stories about growing up, starting out as an actress, and, years later, sitting in her trailer on the Parenthood set and asking herself, “Did you, um, make it?” She opens up about the challenges of being single in Hollywood, the time she was asked to audition her butt for a role, and her experience being a judge on Project Runway.

In “What It Was Like, Part One,” Graham sits down for an epic Gilmore Girls marathon and reflects on being cast as the fast-talking Lorelai Gilmore. The essay “What It Was Like, Part Two” reveals how it felt to pick up the role again nine years later, and what doing so has meant to her.

Some more things you will learn about Lauren: She once tried to go vegan just to bond with Ellen DeGeneres, she’s aware that meeting guys at awards shows has its pitfalls, and she’s a card-carrying REI shopper. Including photos and excerpts from the diary Graham kept during the filming of the recent Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, this book is like a cozy night in, catching up with your best friend, laughing and swapping stories, and—of course—talking as fast as you can.

Review

I find the best way to “read” celebrity/prominent people’s memoirs is to listen to the audiobook. Oftentimes the person in question reads the book themselves, as is the case not only with this book, but also with Who Thought This was a Good IdeaI Hate Everyone Except YouWhy Not Me?, and all of Anthony Bourdain‘s works, or at least those are the ones I have listened to. The other side of celebrity memoirs, which Lauren Graham actually points out, is the idea that the celebrity clearly didn’t write the book themselves. Of those mentioned above, I can guarantee at least two were self-written, one admittedly co-written and the other, who really knows?

Then I start thinking to myself, well, do they only have a book deal because they’re a celebrity? Most likely. Does being a person of interest increase public interest in their lives? Yes (whether this is good or bad is not the topic of debate here, but an interesting one to be sure). Lauren Graham is certainly a good writer. And her essay collection here is entertaining and delightful. She approaches her life honestly and with contemplation, particularly in why the character of Lorelai Gilmore has always had such a precious place in her heart.

As a long time fan, I was delighted when the revival of the show was announced, however, I was extremely disappointed. Lauren, naturally, loved stepping back into the role and, as the book, and therefore stories, were written and published before the series was available for viewing and as she was a large part of it, it would make sense that her opinion differs from that of the public. However, her stories were good, and her emotional investment in the series certainly contributed to our continuing love of it in 2018 (despite the revival – we’ll pretend that never happened.)

My only gripe, is that she continually referenced the photos in the book, while reading the audiobook. Can’t very well look up the page in the book while listening to it while driving, now can I? And for those who don’t have the physical copy and just the audiobook? Not going to work out so well.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780425285190 • 240 pages • originally published November 2016, this edition published October 2017 by Ballantine Books • average Goodreads rating 3.99 out of 5 stars • read in August 2018

Talking as Fast as I Can on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Talking as Fast as I Can

Talking As Fast As I Can

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

Kitchen Confidential on Goodreads

Get the US Edition of Kitchen Confidential

Get the UK Edition of Kitchen Confidential (pictured below)

IMG_20180715_100550_488