Thursday, January 31, 2013

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

Title:  Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker
Author:  Jennifer Chiaverini
Publication Information:  Penguin Group, Inc. 2013. 356 pages. 

Book Source:  I read this book based on its description. The book came as a hardcover edition from the library.

Favorite Quote:  "She was a free woman in a nation united and at peace. She had lived a full and fascinating life. She had known the most remarkable people of her age, and she had never refused to help the humble and down-trodden. Despite the disappointments and losses and heartbreaks, she would not have wished her life a single day shorter - nor, when the time came for her to join the many friends and loved ones who had gone on before her, would she demand an hour more."

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born a slave. She lived as a slave for over 30 years. She was able to purchase her freedom, and she headed north. She eventually settled in Washington DC and became the mantua maker for the wives of the politicians in the area. She received an introduction to Mary Todd Lincoln and based on her skill, became Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker.

More than that, she became Mary Todd Lincoln's friend starting from when Abraham Lincoln was elected president through the Civil War through Lincoln's assassination and beyond. It is through this vantage point that this book tells the story of this time in our history.

Prior to reading this book, I was not aware of Elizabeth Keckley or that she penned a controversial autobiography titled Behind the Scenes: Or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. This autobiography was in effect the cause of her estrangement from Mary Lincoln.

The book Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker purports to be historical fiction, but it reads more like history. Fascinating history about a critical period for our country, but history nevertheless. I found the focus of the book to be the history with Elizabeth's story providing a running theme through it. I wish it had been the other way around - Elizabeth' story told with greater emotion and feeling with the history providing a background.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Last Runaway

Title:  The Last Runaway
Author:  Tracy Chevalier
Publication Information:  Dutton, Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2013. 305 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book based on an interest in the author's work. The book came as a hardcover edition from the library.

Favorite Quote:  "Each time Honor's life change, she found she missed what she'd had before .... But there was no use dwelling on what her life might have been:  such thinking did not help. She had noticed that Americans did not speculate about past or alternative lives. They were used to moving and change."

Honor Bright is a young Quaker girl from England who accompanies her sister Grace to the United States in the nineteenth century. She emigrates not as much to come to the US but rather to get away from her life in England. A tragedy forces her to take yet a different path into her new chosen world. Along the way, she gets involved with the Underground Railroad.

The book to me was an unexpected story. Based on the title and the book description, I expected a story centered around slavery and the Underground Railroad. In that respect, I was disappointed. The Underground Railroad is a big part of this story, but it is not the central story.

This, for me, is more of a coming of age story - it is Honor Bright's story. Through her choices, circumstances, and the people she meets, Honor Bright grows up. She learns to stand up for herself and her ideals. She also learns that often, people's realities lead to a compromise of ideals and justifications of that compromise. She learns that life is not black and white but full of nuances and a spectrum between the two.

So, the book was not what I expected it to be. However, once I realigned my focus to the focus of the story, it was a compelling story. I can't wait to see what Tracy Chevalier writes next.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Pretty One

Title:  The Pretty One
Author:  Lucinda Rosenfeld
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company, Hatchette Book Group. 2012. 305 pages.

Book Source:  I received this book through the GoodReads First Reads program free of cost in exchange for an honest review. The book arrived as a a paperback uncorrected proof.

Favorite Quote:  "In recent years, Olympia had become so unreachable, so cold ultimately .... She was like a house with no doors or windows: it was impossible to get inside to see if it was even heated."

The Pretty One is a story of sisters - Perri, Pia, and Gus. Perri is the one with the successful business, a solid marriage, and accomplished kids. Olympia or Pia is the beautiful one choosing to be a single mother. Gus is the free spirit in the throes of a breakup.

However, sometimes all is not what it seems. All three have aspects of their lives they keep hidden - an old flame returning, an affair, and other things. Their relationships ebb and flow with love and resentment mixed together. Through it all and at the end of it all, they are sisters and all that entails.

I expected to relate to the characters in the book and their relationships. I did not. The characters seemed somewhat one dimensional and tailored to stereotypes. They do not really evolve or develop as the book progresses.

They also sounded self-indulgent and sometimes petty and mostly very negative. Unfortunately, that feeling seemed to permeate through the book making it not an enjoyable read.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Missing Ink

Title:  The Missing Ink
Author:  Philip Hensher
Publication Information:  Faber and Faber Inc. 2012. 270 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book based on seeing a giveaway for it on GoodReads. The book came as a hardcover edition from the library.

Favorite Quote:  "In all sorts of areas of our life, we enhance the quality of our lives by going for the slow option, the path which takes a little bit of effort ... Perhaps that is the way to get handwriting back into our lives - as something which is a pleasure, which is good for us, and which is human in ways not all communication systems manage to be."

The Missing Ink speaks about the dying art of handwriting. It speaks about the evolution of writing, its history, its tools, and its place today in education and society. The book includes research and factual information and statements from "witnesses" to the process of handwriting.

Overall it is an interesting book about a topic we should address. The movement away from handwriting has influences some things for the better - for example, fewer errors in the medical field since individuals no longer have to decipher handwritten notes. For those with physical challenges, the advent of tools to help communicate brings innumerable benefits.

However, we are now coming to an entire generation who will not learn to write. Only a few states in the US right now require students to be taught cursive handwriting. And even for some of those, the requirement now is that a student be able to sign their names. That is all. Research is being done to consider what skills and learning processes might be lost and how to compensate.

This book addresses these and other topics, but it was not entirely what I expected. It presents a lot of information. That information is interspersed with personal anecdotes from the author's life and other "witnesses" as he calls them. The anecdotes and witness statements are interesting, but I found myself skimming through waiting to get back to the information of the book.

These anecdotes introduce a lot of humor and warmth into the book, but I am not sure they contribute to the end goal. For me, they detracted from the main point that we are losing the art of handwriting and generations are coming who will never learn that skill. Even though newer communication tools bring benefits, handwriting has a place now and in the future. I hope.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Buddha in the Attic

Title:  The Buddha in the Attic
Author:  Julie Otsuka
Publication Information:  Alfred A. Knopf, Random House, Inc. 2011. 103 pages.

Book Source:  I picked this book based on reading about it in the New York Times. The book came as an ebook edition from the library.

Favorite Quote:  "You will see:  women are weak, but mothers are strong."

The Buddha in the Attic tells the history of a segment of our country. It tells the story of the "picture brides."

To understand the book, you have to understand a little of the history behind it. In the late 19th century, Japanese men travelled to the US to seek work. The original goal was to work, earn, and then return home. For a variety of reasons. the men were unable to do so. So, they worked with matchmakers in their native country to select brides. The young women or their families agreed to the marriages - some for economic reasons and some because "it was better to marry a stranger in America than grow old with a farmer from the village." These young women became the picture brides.

This book tells the story of one group of such women and their experiences in the US. It begins in the early twentieth century with the journey on the boat to the US and concludes with the onset of World War II. Through these women's eyes, we witness their disillusionment as reality does not match the picture painted in letters, the migrant worker life style, the development of ethnic communities, the birth, childhood, and assimilation of their children into US culture, and finally the treatment of the Japanese at the onset of World War II.

The book is unusual in that it is narrated in first person plural. It is told from the perspective of the entire group of women rather than one individual. As such, it is very descriptive in nature. As each point in life is reached, it is described for the group and then in statements like "one of us....." or "most of us...." or "we.....". The only difference in narration comes in the last chapter, and it most effectively makes the point.

The book is history. The book is narrative in nature. The book does not have an individual main character. Yet, it is an absolutely beautifully told story. It is personal and emotional and pulls me right in. The group of picture brides become the single main character. You travel their journey with them - the love, the fear, the tears, and everything else in life.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Exactly Where They'd Fall

Title:  Exactly Where They'd Fall
Author:  Laura Rae Amos
Publication Information:  Laura Rae Amos, Smashwords edition. 2012. 356 pages.

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Member Giveaway program free of cost in exchange for an honest review. The book arrived as an ebook edition.

Favorite Quote:  "Maybe that was how people got over things, progressing in fractions that were too small to register until they looked back and couldn't remember having moved so far."

Exactly Where They'd Fall is a snapshot of the lives of a group of twenty-something and thirty-something friends. It is picture of a short period of time in which relationships shift and change. Jodie, Amelie, Piper, and Drew are the main characters.

These individual became friends at different times and for different reasons. Now, however, relationships are changing. Piper is getting married. Amelie and Drew have paired up. And Jodie is left all alone.

The story moves through about six months of this transitional phase in their lives. I say this book is a snapshot because throughout the book, you gets hints and glimpses of the backgrounds of the main characters, the aspects of their lives that lead to decisions and emotions now. But just hints, the book never develops the back story. Also, the book ends on a snapshot leaving you wondering what will happen next in these lives.

I enjoyed this book because it has a ring of truth about it. The characters, the situations, and the relationships seem real. It seems an actual segment of someone's life. What I enjoyed less is that the back stories are never explained and the books ends on a note that seems unfinished. Overall, though, an enjoyable read.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Orchardist

Title:  The Orchardist
Author:  Amanda Coplin
Publication Information:  HarperCollins. 2012. 408 pages.

Book Source:  I saw this book while browsing the new book section at our local library. The book came as an ebook edition from the library.

Favorite Quote:  "And that was the point of children .... to bind us to the earth and to the present, to distract us from death. A distraction dressed as a blessing:  but dressed so well and so truly, that it became a blessing. Or maybe it was the other way around:  a blessing first, before a distraction."

The orchardist is William Talmadge, a reclusive man living in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the century. He quietly tends to his fruit orchards and makes a living. He lives alone, having lost his family when he was rather young. One day, two teenage girls steal some fruit from him. Rather than pursuing them, he deals with them with great gentleness. Gradually, he learns that they are young, pregnant, and running from an abusive life. Gradually, they learn to trust him. The girls are pursued by their captors, and what happens when they catch up alters the course of all their lives.

I abandoned this book after about a 120 pages. I just could not finish it. It is bleak and depressing. Each of the characters are rather reclusive and caught in the depths of their own sorrows. A lot of the writing is description - of the beautiful countryside, of William Talmedge's work, thoughts, and point of view. The descriptions got very long and very hard to read after a while.

Also, I felt a divide between me as the reader and the characters. The stories were sad, but the characters seemed so distant that I had a hard time developing a relationship with the characters. Even a hundred pages in.

I very rarely abandon books, but unfortunately, I abandoned this one.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Title:  Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking
Author:  Susan Cain
Publication Information: Crown Publishers, Crown Publishing Group, Random House, Inc. 2012. 333 pages.

Book Source:  I picked up this book while browsing at the library. The book came as a hardcover edition from the library.

Favorite Quote:  "If there is only one insight you take away from this book, though, I hope it's a new found sense of entitlement to be yourself. I can vouch personally for the life-transforming effects of this outlook."

"At least one-third of the people we know are introverts." So begins the description of Quiet by Susan Cain. She goes on to define introverts as "the ones who prefer listening to speaking, reading to partying; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over brainstorming in teams."

The book itself begins with the Rosa Parks, who in her own quiet way made such a huge impact on the civil rights movements. Her impact was perhaps all the greater for "quietness." The book presents a wealth of research and stories on two primary tenets - the enormous influence quiet or introverted people have had on our society and the shift of our culture towards creating an extrovert ideal. The book discusses the consequences of adhering to the extrovert ideal and the ideas and innovations we may lose by not honoring differences in temperament.

The book discusses the extrovert and introvert personalities in a school setting, at home, in a social setting, and in a professional setting. It also talks about the differences across cultures. Finally, it comes to discuss raising "quiet" kids in a culture that celebrates the extroverts.

I really enjoyed reading this book and will like re-read it at some point. It includes a lot of information and so many stories to illustrate the author's points. A key point to note is that this is not a self-help books. It does not tell people to change who they are or attempt to compensate for a perceived deficiency. It identifies that different personality types exist but that our society is not fully celebrating or nurturing those of us who tend to be "quiet."

A well-written book about an important topic.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Girl She Used To Be

Title:  The Girl She Used to Be
Author:  David Cristofano
Publication Information: Grand Central Publishing, Hachette Book Group. 2009. 241 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book based on the recommendation of a friend who also happens to be a librarian. The book came as a hardcover edition from the library.

Favorite Quote:  "I am tired of living, but what keeps me from dragging a blade across my wrist or diving off one of the crippled bridges that cross the polluted rivers my motel rooms predictably border is the idea of life - that somehow, someday, I will figure a way to experience what it is like to live in unfettered happiness, to bask in the freedom of security, and finally to understand the person I am supposed to be."

Melody Grace McCartney has many different names - Michelle, May, Karen, Ann and so many more. She has been part of the Federal Witness Protection Program for over 20 years. She and her family witnessed a horrible crime when Melody was six. Since that time, Melody has had so many different identities - so many except for the one she really wants - her own.

As the book begins, Melody is about to be relocated yet again. This time, it is because she has become bored with the life she has and manufactures a situation that precipitates the relocation. This is not the first time she has tried this as she longs for her true identity and a place where she feels she belongs.

In the midst of this, she meets a man who calls her by her real name. Jonathon Bovaro is part of the crime family from which Melody has been hiding all her life. Yet, the chance to be Melody McCartney proves irresistible.

This story too proves irresistible. I want to reach in and protect the child Melody used to be and to return to her the safety and security she craves. Even though I have a hard time understanding her attraction to a man whose family is responsible for her losses and her sorrow, it does not prevent me from feeling for her and with her.

David Cristofano has also written the same story from Jonathon Bovaro's perspective because as he says to Melody, "In fact, we are identical except for one thing:  You would give anything to be who you were meant to be, and I would give anything to be anyone but who I was meant to be." That book is titled The Exceptions, and I can't wait to read it!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Good Girls Revolt

Title:  The Good Girls Revolt
Author:  Lynn Povich
Publication Information:  Perseus Book Group. 2012. 249 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book based on a recommendation by a friend. The book came as a hardcover edition from the library.

Favorite Quote:  "For most of us middle-class ladies, standing up for our rights marked the first time we had done anything political or feminist. It would be the radicalizing act that gave us the confidence and the courage to find ourselves and stake our claim."

The Good Girls Revolt is a memoir of a group of women - the first women in the media industry to initiate a class action suit against their employer for sex discrimination. The "good girls" are female employees of Newsweek magazine during the 1960s.

Lynn Povich considered herself lucky to have landed a job at Newsweek. For a young woman raised in the 1950s, a job at Newsweek, a reputable journal, was career making. However, over the years, the discrimination between equally qualified men and women became increasingly apparent. Things came to a head in 1970 when Newsweek's cover story was on women's movement and was titled "Women in Revolt." Forty-six female Newsweek employees timed their class action discrimination lawsuit to be filed that same week.

This book tells the story of these women, how they got to the point of filing the lawsuit, and what happened after. It is a fascinating piece of history and one that I was not familiar with before reading this book.

Unfortunately, I found the book very difficult to read. It moved between characters and back and forth over time very rapidly. I found myself getting lost - either having to re-read to follow the thread of the story or to skim facts that were less relevant to the main story line.

Equality and the fight for equality is an idea I whole-heartedly support. So, I am glad I learned about the story, but I just wish I had enjoyed the book more.