Category Archives: Nonfiction

Read Women 2014: The Recap

I first wrote about the Read Women 2014 campaign last February. My year spent reading only books authored by women was easy. I was surprised by how easy. At the beginning, I read a book or two that I had read before but I soon decided that I would only read new books so I could make my experience as broad as possible. I wasn’t as successful in only reading authors I had not read before but I don’t feel at all bad about that.

I read a wide array of styles: biography, mystery, noir, literary fiction, history, memoir, horror, suspense, creative non-fiction, young adult, short story collections- whew! I read e-books, new books, used books, paperbacks, hardbacks, and one audiobook. I read books set in Shanghai, Los Angeles, Oxford, Baltimore, London, Baghdad, Dublin, Boston, and scores of other locales. Action occurred on land, on sea, in the air, and in parallel worlds. Characters included men, women, girls, boys, criminals, lawyers, fugitives, soldiers, gangsters, world explorers, murderers, ghosts, police, doctors, artists, musicians, and ice skaters. Scenes took place in mansions, tents, concert halls, graveyards, ships, farms, nightclubs, crematoriums, schools, offices, orphanages, hospitals, shearing sheds, and lots of bars. And the time periods! All over the place from contemporary 21st century to Victorian England to World War I to the swinging ‘70s and dystopian futures.

Most of the books were at least okay. I really liked a lot, loved a few, didn’t finish a couple. The ones I didn’t finish I didn’t add to my list. That was hard for me- to not finish a book. But as I get older and realize I will never be able to read all the books I want to, I’m less inclined to waste time on ones that either bore me or are filled with errors. Some books I read for pure escapist fun when I need a break from real life, some I read to learn a little something, all I read because they interested me in some way.

Some books took me by surprise- one of the best World War I books I have read so far is Maisie Dobbs, a detective story not even set during the conflict but in the interwar period. Some books took me much longer to read than others- a massive historical account will naturally take more time than a breezy mystery- and I didn’t read as many books as I thought I would but still ended up with a respectable showing.

The authors were of various nationalities and ethnicities and religions. I didn’t do any research on them to determine these characteristics but some were evident from the subject matter or previous knowledge of the author. All the books except one were originally written in English, the exception being The Murder Farm, which was translated into English from its original German.

My biggest problem with my Read Women 2014 quest was the same one I face when reading without any limits- how to read all the books that I want to read. For every book I read on my list I would add three more. Conservatively. And while I was on my year of reading only female authors my list of books to read by men has grown to gargantuan proportions. My bookshelves, real and virtual, are filled with books by men and women I have yet to read even while I buy more or add more to my “to-read” list. Cutting out all male authors for a year did nothing to curb this tendency, I just added more and more books by women.

And here’s the crux of Read Women 2014- there is absolutely no valid reason to not read women authors. Really. If you cannot find any book by a woman that you want to read it’s because you’re not only not trying but actively resisting all the great books out there. Men often seem to be resistant to female authors, suspicious of romance novels and the odiously nicknamed “chick-lit.” I have not met a man who has read (or admits to having read) Jane Eyre. Their loss. No wonder George Eliot used a pen name. If S.E. Hinton had used Susan Hinton, The Outsiders probably would have been dismissed as a teenaged love story between wrong-side-of-the-tracks Ponyboy and rich girl Cherry. Guys would’ve thumbed their noses at the tragic Dallas and scoffed at the book as “one for girls.” So my point is, if you don’t read any (or few) female authors, you’re losing out. This isn’t to dismiss or diminish male authors in any way, but if you have a whole world to explore, why would you arbitrarily limit yourself to just one hemisphere? You have an entire world, damnit, go read!

Here’s my list of books in the order that I read them. Let me know what books you read this year.

Chances-  Jackie Collins
Divergent– Veronica Roth
How to Create the Perfect Wife– Wendy Moore
Unbroken– Laura Hillenbrand
Haunting of Hill House–  Shirley Jackson
Carthage–  Joyce Carol Oates
Pavilion of Women–  Pearl S. Buck
The Wicked Girls–  Alex Marwood
Alena: A Novel–  Rachel Pastan
Legwork–  Katy Munger
Die a Little–  Megan Abbot
Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations–  Georgina Howell
Night in Shanghai–  Nicole Mones
A Whole New Ballgame–  Caryn Rose
After I’m Gone–  Laura Lippman
Liar’s Club–  Mary Karr
You Should Have Known–  Jean Hanff Korelitz
A Man Lay Dead–  Ngaio Marsh
The Ghost of the Mary Celeste–  Valerie Martin
The Three–  Sarah Lotz
First Comes Love–  Marion Winik
The Murder Farm–  Andrea Maria Schenkel
America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops–  Christine Sismondo
Complicit–  Stephanie Kuehn
Blue Monday–  Nicci French
All the Birds Singing–  Evie Wyld
Bones of Contention–  Jeanne Matthews
The Care and Management of Lies–  Jacqueline Winspear
Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots–  Deborah Feldman
Lighthouse Island–  Paulette Jiles
Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives–  Sarah Weinman (ed.)
Demon Camp–  Jennifer Percy
Maisie Dobbs–  Jacqueline Winspear
In the Woods–  Tana French
Their Eyes Were Watching God–  Zora Neale Hurston
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory–  Caitlin Doughty
The Paying Guests–  Sarah Waters
Monday Mourning–  Kathy Reichs
Voyage of Strangers–  Elizabeth Zelvin
Queenpin–  Megan Abbott
The Knife Man–  Wendy Moore
Everything I Never Told You–  Celeste Ng
Gaudy Night–  Dorothy Sayers
The Sculptress–  Minette Walters


Iron Girl Columbia Part One: Pre-Race

“Another day, another dollarrrrrrr, that’s what I’m working for todayyyyy.” Ugh. I grab my phone to shut off the alarm. It couldn’t be 4:15 already, could it? The cheery bluegrass song I had set as my alarm tone to inspire me to get up during the work week wasn’t working its magic today. Ugh. Suck it up, buttercup, get up and get going. Fine, stop badgering me, I yell at myself. I’m not at my best in the mornings. Does 4:15 even count as the morning?? On a Sunday to boot. Whose bright idea was this??

On this particular Sunday morning, I’m getting up at oh dark thirty (or I guess, technically, oh dark fifteen) because I’m signed up to race in the Iron Girl triathlon in Columbia, MD. This summer marks my third year of participating in triathlons and the second time I’ve registered for Iron Girl. I have conflicting feelings about the race and my early morning malaise is further grumpified by my lack of all out enthusiasm for the event.

I love Iron Girl because so many women who would be hesitant to take on a triathlon feel confident enough to try an all female race first. I hate Iron Girl because of its insistence on using Girl instead of Woman. It seems like a backhanded compliment- “You’re strong and tough and you can do this… girl.” I love Iron Girl because I hear announcements at the race like “So-and-so is 71 and a cancer survivor and this is her first triathlon!” and am awed at the strength and guts of the competitors I’ve signed up with. I hate Iron Girl because for an all woman race the announcers are always men. I love Iron Girl because the racers are so supportive of each other, even during the middle of the race you hear calls of “Great job! Keep it up!” and similar sentiments. I hate Iron Girl because out of the seven or eight races I’ve done it is the only one that has a mandatory bike inspection before the race and it feels patronizing. Maybe it’s a coincidence that the only all woman triathlon I’ve done and the only one with this requirement are the same race but I doubt it.

I thrust aside my still sleeping cats and roll out of bed. No snooze today, no way. I need to get going and get on the road. I turn on my nightstand lamp and Tater Tot blinks at the bright light then yawns and tucks her head under her paw. For a moment I am violently jealous of my cats.

I had prepared well the night before and after a quick rinse in the shower I don my race gear- a pair of tri shorts, extra heavy duty sports bra, and a tight spandex UV shirt with long sleeves. Easier than sunscreen. I slip on a pair of sporty sandals and grab my bag and head downstairs to the kitchen.

It’s hard to eat this early in the morning (on top of race nerves to boot) but I had bought an almond croissant the day before figuring the nuts and sugar and carbs would be a good start. (I can feel hardcore triathletes shuddering at my lackadaisical approach to nutrition.) I grab a banana and the croissant along with some coconut water for the bike portion of the race and throw them in my bag. I make yet another quick, obsessive compulsive check of my bag and, satisfied I have everything, head out the door.

For this race you have to rack your bike the day before so that was one large item off my checklist. Not that it mattered, in at least one of the endless dreams I had during the night I had left my bike at home only to realize this as I transitioned out of the swim. I mentally check off my gear once more before I pull out of the garage. Helmet, sunglasses, bike gloves, water bottle, coconut water for water bottle, gel cubes for bike pouch, bike shoes, running shoes, running socks (no socks for the bike portion, just easier that way), race number, baseball hat for run (this is important, I hate running without a hat), croissant and banana for breakfast, Cliff bars if I need them later. Pretty sure I am good to go. I need water and caffeine but will stop at 7/11 on my way out of the city for those.

IMG_1050

Racking the day before makes the morning less hectic.

I arrive at Centennial Park and follow the guidance of volunteers waving fluorescent wands around to find a parking spot. I park and grab my bag and my diet Coke Big Gulp out of my car and head for the transition area. The morning is dark and chilly and damp and my feet are soaked by the dewy grass. But that’s okay, I’ll be jumping in a dank lake in a bit, no worries on my damp tootsies right now.

Upon entering transition, I find a volunteer doing body marking and submit to the indignity of being marked with the age of 43 on my calf. I’m 42, I mutter to myself. It doesn’t matter, your age in these events is the age you will be by December 31st of that year. And I’ll be 43 in a few weeks anyway so really, get over yourself, I command. The volunteer wants me to take off my shirt to write my race number on my arms but I tell her I will be wearing the long sleeved shirt the whole race so don’t bother.

“But, but you’ll be so hot!” she says.

“I’ll be fine.”

“Are you sure?” she asks.

Goddamnit lady, who is doing this race, you or me? My grumpiness is still in full effect.

“I’m sure,” I say.

She writes my race number on my hand and it isn’t until later I notice she transposed the numbers. 476 instead of 467. Why couldn’t she have done that with my age I think with a laugh.

When I reach my racked bike I see I have lucked out. My bike is lonely on the rack, neither of my neighbors have shown up. My mood improves further. This means I have actual elbow room around my spot and transitions will be easier.

I spread out my bright orange Baltimore Orioles beach towel under my bike and set up my gear and pump up my tires. It only takes a few minutes and I look at my watch. Another hour until transition closes and even longer than that until I start the swim. This is the part I hate the most. Waiting.

After visiting the porta-potty and milling around a bit, I make one final check of my bike and gear. All good to go. I yawn. If they only started these things at a decent hour my times would be so much faster I think to myself for about the thousandth time. With nothing else left to do I head down to the swim start. I’m in the sixth group I think. Not a bad wave really.

The sun is making a muted appearance beyond some clouds and I’m glad it won’t be glaring off the water. In my last Iron Girl I had difficulty seeing the buoys in the first leg of the swim as we swam east into the rising sun.

The Star Spangled Banner begins and I rise to attention and put my hand over my heart, hoping those few still milling about can feel my dagger stares in their backs. I whisper the “Oh” part to myself and smile.* When the anthem is done the race officially begins. Not too long now…

 

*For those who aren’t Baltimore Orioles fans, when the Star Spangled Banner plays before the start of an Orioles game the crowd bellows out the “Oh” in “Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave.”


Read Women 2014: July

Wow, is the summer going by fast. I swear it was just last week when I posted about June’s books. Got a little more reading done this month which is always a great thing. Enjoy.

Book #25: America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops- Christine Sismondo

First of all, because of this book I discovered there is a profession called “saloon historian” and when I found this out I realized all the wrong paths my life has taken because this is not my job. Sismondo’s well researched story has great tidbits (a number of battles of the Revolutionary War were named for taverns) and overwhelming evidence to support the foundational nature of taverns, bars, etc. in American culture. The rise of the cocktail giving way to the age of temperance caused a pang in my heart like I was there myself. Damn you, Carrie Nation! And now I want to open a bar named Carrie Nation just to jab a thumb in her long dead eye. Who’s with me?

Book #26: Complicit- Stephanie Kuehn

I want to say thank you to Stephanie Kuehn though I’m not sure exactly why I should be thanking her for two mornings in a row when I woke up groggy because I had stayed up late reading her twisty tale. That’s not something I encounter very often anymore, the not-being-able-to-put-a-book-down feeling that makes me look at the my nightstand clock and think, “just one more chapter, one more paragraph, I swear!”

You know from the beginning everything is not quite like it seems, this family is too messed up for that. I was a tad bit disappointed that I discerned a bit of the ending but felt better when I realized what I had gleaned was only the tip of the iceberg. Great twisty ending that makes you glad you don’t live in the same town as this family. Or at least I hope not…

Book #27: All the Birds Singing- Evie Wyld

This story might be disconcerting to some as it goes back and forth in time with little notice. I didn’t have much trouble following the movements, Wyld’s writing was natural and fluid and I was easily carried along by the current. The writing is spare, no florid emotions or superfluous descriptions. The main character, Jake, is living on an island in the English channel (I think, not sure if it ever specifically mentions the channel) in present day but the story shifts around her past life in Australia as well. Jake has a bit of a checkered past and just wants a bit of peace and quiet and to be left alone tending her sheep. Everything goes along just fine until something starts to kill her sheep and a stranger shows up on her doorstep…

Unfortunately, you don’t get a lot more closure than that. The ending comes like a slap in the face and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I loved Jake as an anti-hero and hero at the same time. In other words, a normal person. Wyld’s style was lyrical and bare and it kept me reading right along until the brick wall of the ending.

Book #28: Bones of Contention- Jeanne Matthews

Jeanne Matthews has a great way with a phrase. In the opening scene, her character Dinah Perkins is flying in a two-seater plane described as a “flimsy tin cricket.” It’s a great beginning to a fun mystery centered around Dinah and her, let’s say, challenging family. Dinah is an American but the story takes place in Australia and Matthews has a lot of fun sprinkling in Australian, or ‘Strine, slang and references throughout. Dinah’s responds to her eccentric pilot’s assertion that he was “as harmless as a rubber ducky and that’s the dinki-di” by thinking “if he imagined she could relax he was dinki-delusional,” and I laughed out loud.

Matthews gets a bit carried away with her Australian landscape and takes some unnecessary detours that don’t add to the story and slow down the pace. However, I enjoyed this mystery overall and am looking forward to the next Dinah Pelerin adventure.

Book #29: The Care and Management of Lies- Jacqueline Winspear

Winspear is deft at recreating life in pre-war (and during-war, what’s the word for that?) England. The story of the soldier in the trenches might be familiar to many but the portrait of life back home is less common and is a valuable trait in this novel. The novel follows Kezia Brissenden (formerly Marchant) and best friend Thea Brissenden through the beginning of World War I. Kezia marries Thea’s brother Tom shortly before the war begins and the dynamic among the three shifts even as the build up to the war promises even greater changes ahead.

Tom enlists shortly after the war begins (and shortly after his marriage) and Thea volunteers to serve as an ambulance driver while Kezia is left to manage the family farm, a challenging task for a vicar’s daughter. The three perspectives of the war are fresh and authentic and Winspear’s unadorned, flowing writing helps ease the reader into the futility of the Great War.

Book #30: Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots- Deborah Feldman

I bought this book after browsing through Main Street Books in Frostburg, MD while on a getaway weekend for some relaxation time (including lots of reading and writing). If you are anything like me you cannot go into a bookstore and come out empty-handed. I was very strong and only bought two books and once I started reading this one I had no regrets (like I ever do about buying books). This story fascinated me. The Hasidic community is hidden from the lives of most and the glimpses offered by Feldman make this one of the most interesting memoirs I’ve ever read. I had to keep reminding myself this wasn’t written decades (or centuries) ago, the author is still only in her twenties. Rituals and rules and rigidity form the foundation of the author’s life and the courage it must have taken to leave (and then write about it) astounds me. I read this book in two days. I was on a little mini weekend vacation while reading it so that helped but Deborah’s story was gripping and I couldn’t stop reading. The ending where she leaves her husband and gets a divorce feels rushed and I could imagine an editor pressing Feldman to hurry up and finish so they could get the book out. I hope in her next book (and I definitely hope there is a next book) this part of her life is examined again and we get the level of detail she brought throughout the rest of her life thus far.


Read Women 2014: June

It’s July already and that means with June’s post I’m halfway through Read Women 2014. The pickings are mighty slim this month. I spent a lot of time on a book I finally decided not to finish and after Blue Monday I began a lengthy nonfiction history that I’ll have to finish up for July’s post. I think it’s odd that many people seem to read more in the summer (all of those beach reads I guess) but with the nicer weather I find I read less as I spend more time outside riding my bike or swimming or going to festivals and baseball games.

Book #23: The Murder Farm- Andrea Maria Schenkel

The Murder Farm is based on a 1922 murder of an entire family plus their maid in the German countryside ala In Cold Blood. However, this murder was never solved. The Danner family wasn’t well liked in their community and Schenkel’s portrayal of them doesn’t lend much sympathy to the adult Danners (father, mother, and adult daughter). The murders of the granddaughter and maid evoke greater pity. Schenkel offers several viewpoints in the recounting of the murders including the maid’s sister, the adult daughter’s lover, and the granddaughter’s friend. The murderer is included in these narratives along with a few red herrings. It was a fast read and an interesting story although I felt a bit cheated by the ending and the revelation of the culprit. It felt like it was just plopped out on the page by the author as she tried to wrap up the story. She spent a lot of time with the varying viewpoints and motives and it finished with a “oh and by the way it’s this person.” Since the actual murder is still unsolved it is interesting to wonder whether she was correct. I’m not so sure…

Book #24: Blue Monday- Nicci French

Blue Monday is a thriller (first in a series) with more twists than a French braid. It opens with the abduction of a little girl and then fast forwards to about twenty years later when a similar abduction of a boy takes place. Therapist Frieda Klein and Chief Inspector Malcom Karlsson work together after Frieda begins to suspect one of her patients is involved in the latest abduction. Frieda has her own problems she’s dealing with but has to set those aside in her efforts to save the little boy. The glimpses of her personal life were probably my favorite part of the story, her flaws and uncertainties help make up for some of the vigorous stretching of belief you have to perform to swallow some bits of the plot. The final twist had me saying “Oh hell no!” both in a “Wow, I didn’t see that coming” and a “Yeah… no, that would never happen” way. I still enjoyed the book and its thrills and will have to read the next one soon.

Coming up next…

Right now I’m reading America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops by Christine Sismondo and have so far gotten to the temperance movement that spawned the disaster of Prohibition. Cheers!


Read Women 2014: May

How did May go by so fast? I just posted April’s books! As usual I didn’t read nearly as much as I would have liked but that’s always the case. It’s been easy so far to just read women authors, I’m starting to feel a bit guilty for neglecting the fellows but then I come across another book I want to read and I get over it.

Book #19: Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific- Mary Cronk Farrell

I was so looking forward to this book. The first time I tried to buy it for my Kindle I got some weird message about a delay due to copyright issues. I waited a few weeks and tried again and voila! This book sounded so great. The previously untold story of brave and heroic nurses in the horrors of the Pacific campaign in World War II? Sign me up! I couldn’t wait to start reading.

As soon as I did the disappointment set in. The writing wasn’t great. The story stumbled along in short bursts and lacked cohesion. That’s okay I told myself. I want to know about these women, keep reading. Then I started to get down right irritated. Where was the editor? Was there an editor? I couldn’t blame the author all by her lonesome. Tidbits like the fact that nurses had to resign if they got married as well as the first person accounts that made the nurses’ struggles so relatable and real kept me going.

Then shit got real. Or really bad. The section describing the Battle of Corregidor had the date off by a year. THE WRONG FUCKING YEAR. Okay, okay, maybe a typo that damn editor missed. And then I turned the page. Again, wrong year. I felt like I was in Bizarro world. Was I wrong? I admit I couldn’t tell you offhand the exact date of the Battle of Corregidor but I damn well know when Pearl Harbor was and subsequent battles would have only happened after this. Not seven damn months before. I even double-checked to make sure I hadn’t gotten a wire crossed because it sure is embarrassing to have a rant and be wrong. Not one, not two, not three, but four incorrect references to the date before I stopped and put the book down. I wasn’t even halfway through.

I quit. I hate to not finish a book. But for a book that touts itself as a historical account you need to get basic things right. Like the goddamn year a battle occurred. I returned the book to Amazon. I’ve never done this before but damn. As interesting a subject as this was to me, this particular volume was not worth my money or time. So for any history majors out there looking for a thesis, this is a great topic that has not yet been given its due.

**So I went back onto Amazon and looked at the book listing again. I had not realized it was supposed to be for a younger audience (listed 10-16 years old). That might help explain some of the simplistic writing, although I read some young adult fiction that is much more sophisticated, but still doesn’t excuse the glaring errors.

Book #20: The Ghost of the Mary Celeste- Valerie Martin

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste weaves together several stories across decades with the ship Mary Celeste as its focal point. The Mary Celeste was one of those “ghost ships” that was found mysteriously abandoned with no clue as to what happened to its crew. The Mary Celeste was real. I have no idea what other elements of truth there are in the rest of the book (Arthur Conan Doyle is a recurring character) and I don’t care, it was lovely.

Book #21: The Three- Sarah Lotz

Dayyyummm. That was my reaction at the end of this book. I’m über sophisticated, no? I got the recommendation for this book from Chuck Wendig’s terribleminds blog, and as usual, Chuck knows what he’s talking about.

The Three begins with four catastrophic airplane crashes in the same day. Of the four crashes only three passengers, all children, survive. The stories of the children and the reaction of the world to their survival is the meat of the story but my favorite thing (besides the general creepy aura of the whole book) was the wonderful way Lotz made the different parts of the world the book takes place in come alive. The South African slum where one of the planes crashes was so vivid and authentic you’d think the author grew up there while online chats between Japanese teenagers rang equally true. The Three was an original and disturbing story and I’m glad I took Chuck’s advice.

Book #22: First Comes Love- Marion Winik

I recently discovered Marion Winik when I took a her session on memoir writing at the Maryland Writer’s Conference this spring. She was funny and honest and her life seemed so nuts I knew I had to read some of her stuff. She talked just briefly about her marriage to her first husband, a gay ice skater named Tony and all I could think was “How does that even happen?” First Comes Love is that story of how.

The book follows Marion and Tony from when they first meet until he commits suicide while suffering from advanced AIDS. In between they fall passionately in love, do lots of drugs, have children, have marital problems, the normal stuff in life but engaging and witty and dramatic when framed by Winik. Wow, is the word I kept thinking to myself. The honesty was compelling, some of the best bits were when Marion admits her own flaws and describes some of her less than stellar actions. Marion and Tony are imperfect and real and that makes their story compelling and entertaining. I’ll be reading more of her work for sure.


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