Book #10 : Go Set a Watchman

Go set a watchman by Harper Lee. Harper, 2015. 978-0-06-240985-0


There was a lot of hoopla surrounding the publication of this book. It was billed as a “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird but since it was actually written before TKAM, I see it as more of an alternative version of Scout’s story. It is a good book but not a great one. I can see why Lee’s editors suggested she rewrite it by focusing on the scenes that take place in Scout’s youth. Those sections of the book were better written and less didactic than the main story, which takes place when Scout is 26 years old.

This is a book that was written in the 50’s and it shows. There are some jarring moments that are uncomfortable for a 21st century reader that probably wouldn’t have seemed so out of place to a mid-20th century reader. The assumption that African Americans (“Negroes” in 1950’s terminology) are backwards and were not ready to take their place beside white citizens is appalling today; at the time of the book’s writing, probably not so much.

The clunkiest moments in the book are when Scout is arguing with Atticus, Henry, and her Uncle Frank about politics. These sections feel like Lee is bludgeoning the reader to make her point, rather than subtly showing, as she did in TKAM.

All in all, GSAW is a flawed but very readable book. TKAM, however, is a modern classic. Had Lee published GSAW when it was written, we would probably not remember her today. Thankfully, she listened to her editors and reworked the story into a novel that is loved and taught across the country half a century after it was published.


Book #9 : Uprooted

Uprooted by Naomi Novik. Del Rey, 2015. 978-0-8041-7905-8


I have not read any “grown-up” fantasy for some time, and this book reminded me of all the reasons I love the genre. The story is full of twists and turns, much like the roots of a tree, and all the best fantasy elements: magic, a darkly evil foe, armies, books, towers, palace intrigue, and a bit of romance. Every time I thought I knew where the story was heading, Novik threw in something new that at the same time felt familiar.  Every plot point felt true and the characters were real people, not just symbols, and even the ones who committed evil acts had a believable backstory that left me feeling more pity than hate toward them.

The main character is a girl who has deep roots in her home and family, a girl who is often unsure of herself but strong enough to stand up for what she believes in even if it means going against the “experts.” She knows what she wants, and she knows what she has to do to achieve it.

Book #8 : All the Light We Cannot See

All the light we cannot see by Anthony Doerr. Scribner, 2014. 978-1-4767-4658-6


I don’t think I can say much that hasn’t already been said about this beautiful novel. It won the Pulitzer Prize, the Alex Award, was a finalist for the National Book Award … the accolades are well deserved.

One of the main characters, Marie-Laure, is the daughter of a locksmith; the other main character, Werner, is a prodigy with radios and electronics.  Doerr writes with the same attention to detail and narrow attention of a locksmith or an engineer, creating a delicately interlocking plot that weaves back and forth in time and place. This is a novel about World War II but its power is in the details: ration tickets, snail shells, museum corridors, loaves of bread, small kindnesses and small cruelties.  After reading it, I feel as though I lived through the war, on both sides.

Book #7 : Dumplin’

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy. Balzer + Bray, 2015. 978-0-06-232718-5


Willowdean’s mother is a former beauty pageant winner, and the head of the pageant committee in their small Texas town. Most of Willowdean’s friends call her Will, but her mom calls her Dumplin’. Will has always been comfortable in her plus sized body, despite the fact that her mother is obsessed with fitting into her pageant gown every year and her beloved aunt Lucy died from complications of morbid obesity. Then she meets Bo, her co-worker at a fast food restaurant.  Things heat up between them, but every time Bo touches her, Will feels fat and ugly. When she finds out Bo is transferring to her high school, Will slams on the brakes. How can she put Bo through the humiliation of being seen in public with a girl like her?

Since this is a YA novel, everything works out in the end, but of course Will makes some dumb mistakes along the way. She decides to enter the town beauty pageant and soon inspires a few other misfit girls to enter as well. She kind-of-sort-of starts dating a football player, has a huge fight with her best friend, and deals with her grief over the death of her aunt.

American society purports to celebrate individualism, but at the same time there is immense pressure to conform. Women, in particular, are chided if they do not fit the ideal physical form that is celebrated in the media … including beauty pageants. Willowdean and her friends buck the trend, proving that even if girls who deviate from the norm can’t win a beauty contest, they can still enter, and have a heck of a lot of fun while doing it.


Book #6 : The Passion of Dolssa

The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry. Viking, 2016. 978-0-451-4699-2


This a historical YA novel that was named both a Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults and a Printz Award Honor Book by the American Library Association. The title character is a well-born young lady in 13th century Provensa who becomes a Catholic mystic.  But this book is not really about Dolssa, but about Botille, a not so well-born young woman living in a small village on the coast where she and her sisters run a tavern.  Dolssa escapes being burned for heresy and is discovered, weak and injured, by Botille.  Even though her younger sister, who is a bit of a fortune teller, warns her of danger, Botille decides to help this stranger, who is still being hunted by the Church.

One of the things I love most about historical fiction is the way a good novel can immerse you in another time and place.  This is not a generic medieval landscape, this is late 13th century Provensa, an area of France where even today many people speak not French but Occitan.  Berry provides enough explanation to give 21st century readers a grasp of what life was like in that time, but enough is left to the exotic Old Provencal words sprinkled throughout the narrative to let us know this is a different world than our own. She also provides some back matter on the history of the region, especially the Albigensian Crusade, which took place not long before the action in the book begins.

Dolssa is a pious woman who speaks to her Beloved (Jesus) and performs several miracles throughout the book.  Ranged against her are the inquisitors of the Church, just as pious but convinced that they must defend their flocks against heresy, even if that means destroying women like Dolssa. This novel raises questions about the role of organized religion in society and the conflict between personal faith and institutional dogma. To our modern eyes, Dolssa and Botille do nothing wrong; in fact, they do much good. But to the orthodox medieval eye, they challenged the authority of the Church and therefore the word of God. Everyone in this story believes he or she is doing the right thing, and almost every action is done in Jesus’ name.

Who is right and who is wrong? This is question we still struggle to answer today.


Book #5 : Challenger Deep

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman. HarperTeen, 2015. 978-0-06-113411-1 (trade bdg.)


Neal Shusterman writes YA science fiction, but this novel is a bit of a departure for him.  It is realistic fiction, but has elements of fantasy, as his main character, Caden, navigates the treacherous waters of mental illness.  Sometimes Caden is in the real world with his parents and friends; other times he is on a mysterious pirate ship that is sailing for the Challenger Deep, the deepest place on Earth.

Shusterman was inspired by his own son’s experience with mental illness, and the novel is illustrated with some of his artwork.  Caden is an artist who finds his control over his art falling apart as things spiral out of control around him, and the drawings capture that feeling.  I have my own struggles with anxiety and depression, and there was one day within the last year when I was at work and feeling incredibly sad and on the verge of losing control.  I sat at my desk and began to doodle a twisting, densely convoluted scribble that mirrored what was going on in my head.

In fact, it was frightening just how much I identified with Caden.  I think we all have moments when our control of our thoughts feels tenuous.  Mental illnesses do not fit into neat little boxes; the human mind exists on a continuum that is ever in flux.  We all exhibit some tendencies toward obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, autism, etc.  No one mind is exactly like any other, and our minds evolve as we grow older.  Brain chemistry can get out of whack.  Experiences can forge new neural pathways.  Therapy (and reading!) can help us make sense of what we are feeling and reframe things in our minds.


Book #4 : Death by Black Hole

Death by black hole : and other cosmic quandries by Neil deGrasse Tyson. W.W. Norton, 2014. 978-0-393-35038-8


I love science, but I don’t really like math, so I enjoy reading popular science books because you get all the cool stuff about science with out all the numbers.  I even have favorite science authors, just like other people have favorite fiction authors. (Yes, I am a huge nerd!).

One of my favorites is Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and science rock star. Tyson hosted the reboot of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” and has his own talk show, “Star Talk” on radio and the National Geographic Channel. If you don’t already follow him on Twitter and/or Facebook, you’re missing out.  His comments are trenchant and funny and he makes no apologies for rejecting sloppy logic.  In a world where critical thinking skills seem to be lacking more and more each day, this is refreshing.

This book is a collection of essays he wrote over the years as a columnist for Natural History magazine, the publication of the American Natural History Museum.  Tyson covers topics such as black holes, the historical conflict between scientific and religious views, stellar evolution, the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, and even what movies get wrong about astrophysics and astronomy.  Some of the subjects are complex, but Tyson has a knack for explaining things simply and with humor.


Book #3 Americanah

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Anchor, 2014. 978-0-307-45592-5 (pbk.)


What better time to read a book about the character of America than in a time when many of us no longer recognize our own country?  While a great deal of the action in Americanah takes place in Nigeria, and both main characters are Nigerian, the third character in the story is America itself.  What does it mean to be an American, an immigrant in America, a black person in America, a woman in America?

Ifemelu leaves Nigeria during yet another academic strike, unable to complete her degree at home.  She comes to Princeton, where she struggles to understand race dynamics and find a job — any job — to pay for her rent.  She spends time with other African ex-pats, white Americans, and African Americans, learning to negotiate the strange racial and class structure of American society.

Not long before starting this novel, I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahesi Coates.  Written as a letter to his son, Coates tries to explain what it is like being a black man in America.  Both books gave me, a white woman, a new perspective on my own country.  There are so many subtle ways that racism rears its head that are easy to overlook if you happen to have been born with light skin.

I fear that such occurrences will become more frequent and more ugly, given the character of the people poised to take over the reins of government.  We must all be more vigilant, not only of others, but of our own thoughts and actions, of the things we may do without thinking.

One of my favorite parts of Americanah was the scene where Ifemelu and her American friends are watching the 2008 presidential election unfold in real time.  How much hope and excitement and promise we all felt then! How limitless the future seemed, when a dark-skinned man became our president.  Surely, we thought, things are getting better.  Surely, the darkness will fade.  How poignant it is to read of this hope just days before Barack Obama leaves office, as our nation teeters on the brink of plunging into darkness.



Book #2 The Perfect Horse

The Perfect Horse : the Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis by Elizabeth Letts. Ballantine, 2016. 9780345544803


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I have always loved horses. As a child I played more with my Breyer model horses than with dolls. I read everything written by Marguerite Henry and Walter Farley. Among all the breeds and equestrian disciplines I read about, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Lipizzaner and the haute ecole they perform at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.  I read White Stallion of Lippiza by Henry and the autobiography of Alois Podhajsky, the director of the Spanish Riding School, and I saw the Disney movie Miracle of the White Stallions, which dramatized the U.S. Army’s role in rescuing the Lippizaner from the Nazis and the Soviets. I thought I knew what had happened to these horses during World War II … but I was wrong.

For one thing, the Lipizzaner was not the only breed of horse targeted by the Nazi scheme to breed the perfect war horse.  The magnificently bred Polish Arabians were also coveted by Gustav Rau, the chief equerry of Germany and master of the horse, who dreamed of creating a legion of war horses to help the Third Reich crush resistance across Europe.  One of these Polish Arabians was the young stallion Witez, whose name was familiar to me.  I am not an expert on Arabian bloodlines by any means, but I knew this name.  I was intrigued.

Witez, and many other purebred horses, including Lipizzaner mares and foals, were taken from their homes and placed at a German stud farm in Hostau, Czechoslovakia.  Meanwhile, Alois Podhajsky was trying to protect the precious Lipizzaner stallions at the Riding School in Vienna.  As the war neared its end, Vienna was being bombed and the stallions were in mortal danger.  Hostau was in the path of the Red Army, known to summarily slaughter and eat any horses it came across.  The German officers at the Hostau farm knew the only hope of saving these precious horses lay with the American troops that were closing in from the west.

In the Disney movie, it was General George S. Patton who saved the Lipizzaner stallions, but in reality, he merely gave his blessing to Colonel Hank Reed of the U.S. Cavalry to launch a rescue mission.  The plan nearly fell through several times, but in the end, most of the horses were saved, including Podhajsky’s stallions.

And Witez? He ended up coming to the United States as the spoils of war and spent some time at the Army Remount station in Pomona, California, which had originally been the famous Kellogg Arabian Farm … and is now the campus of Cal Poly Pomona.  Arabian horses are still bred by the university, and it was on a visit to the monthly horse shows put on for the public that I had originally seen the name Witez.


Book #1: Hamilton: the Revolution

Hamilton : the Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter. Grand Central Publishing, 2016. 978-1478913641


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This was a Christmas present to myself. I love musical theater, and I love to read about things I’m interested in, so I have always been a sucker for “behind the scenes” books about shows I’ve seen (or in this case want to see).  I was expecting something similar to the books I’d read about Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, etc. but this book truly blew me away.

First of all, it is beautiful, with a faux leather half binding and thick paper with deckled edges.  Physically, it looks like something that Hamilton himself could have had on his shelf.  It has heft and just feels amazing to the hands.  I have a collection of Folio Society books, which are beautifully made and bound, and I would not hesitate to place this book beside them on the shelf.  It’s that lovely.

Most books about Broadway productions tuck the libretto in the back, almost as an appendix, but Hamilton : the Revolution intersperses it between chapters, very much like the documentary Hamilton’s America toggled back and forth between telling the story of Hamilton the man and Hamilton the musical.  The best feature of the book is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s footnotes to the libretto, explaining the inside jokes in the lyrics and some of the decision making behind the songs.

After reading this book, I have a deeper appreciation of the musical.  Now I just have to save up enough money to (hopefully) get tickets when it comes to L.A. later this year …