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.

Read Women 2014: April

I finished my last book of March while listening to the first ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game of the year so what would be more appropriate to begin my April booklist than a story featuring baseball? Nothing, that’s what.

Book #14: A Whole New Ballgame- Caryn Rose

I enjoyed this book because I could see myself in a much of it. The fledgling fan who becomes obsessed with the sport, the confused girlfriend whose boyfriend convinces her to become serious only to cheat on her the moment she decides to give it a shot, and the fan who can’t understand why a game can mean so much and how people have endured heartbreak season after season and still come back for more until it happens to her. A Whole New Ballgame was a nice diversion and perfectly timed for the start of baseball season. Let’s go O’s!

Book #15: After I’m Gone- Laura Lippman

I’ve long been a Laura Lippman fan so it was easy to pick her latest book for this list. Her books are all set in or around Baltimore (at least all that I’ve read so far) and that’s an added bonus for this Baltimorean. After I’m Gone follows the story not so much of illegal bookmaker Felix Brewer but those of the people he leaves behind when he flees federal charges and years of jail time. His wife, daughters, and girlfriend (who ends up disappearing mysteriously ten years after Felix’s flight) all are affected deeply by his actions. A bit of a twist at the end is nicely satisfying.

Book #16: Liar’s Club- Mary Karr

This is a great book. I guess I somehow missed it when it first came out and it hit the bestseller’s list, blah, blah, blah. But damn. Mary Karr writes about growing up in east Texas with alcoholic parents, add a bit of mental illness, some sexual abuse, a horrible grandmother, and bam! You’ve got a memoir that is touching, funny, familiar in a way you wish it wasn’t, and a book I could barely put down. In one scene Mary describes how she decided to picket a family’s house so no one would with play with the kids she had a beef with. She figured, reasonably enough in that hardcore, hardscrabble union town, every kid in the neighborhood knew better than to cross a picket line. That bit alone is enough reason to read this book. Mary’s family is not one of white picket fences and mothers who wear pearls. Or maybe the mother did wear pearls- she liked her furs and designer clothes when she got a chance to buy them. This family is not perfect but it is real. So much more so than any ‘50s sitcom or hazy ideals we tend to imagine existed back in “the good old days.” Mary and her sister are tough, don’t want your pity, and don’t make any excuses for their family. The guts it must have taken to write this memoir takes my breath away.

Book #17: You Should Have Known- Jean Hanff Korelitz

I read a glowing review about this book in the Washington Post and decided to give it a go. Suspense, murder, intrigue, sign me up! It was… okay. It was hard to feel too much empathy for the poor little rich girl Grace who is wealthy enough to own an apartment in Manhattan and send her son to a $45,000 a year private school when she got snubbed by another parent who was even wealthier. The snub consisted of a mega-rich mom telling merely rich Grace that she could get the doorman to call her a cab. Grace knows that, she lives in Manhattan too! She knows doormen call cabs for spoiled rich women! Seriously, that was such a momentous affront Grace goes back to it over and over throughout the story. She really has worse things to worry about. Other authors have written about wealthy women without making me hate them (like Mary Higgins Clark) but by the time I finished the book my annoyance with Grace had overshadowed the genuinely terrible things that happened to her. The final straw (spoilers) was when Grace and her neighbor begin a romance. Because that’s exactly what she needed two months after finding out her whole life with her husband was a lie- his numerous affairs and fathering of several children with different mistresses, his theft of money from her father, the brutal murder of his most recent mistress, and his flight while leaving her in the lurch and even suspected of helping in his crimes. But, TA DAH! She meets a new man and everything will be OKAY! Whew.

Book #18: A Man Lay Dead- Ngaio Marsh

If you’re looking for a classic English manor mystery, this one’s for you. A house in the country, a murder mystery game gone wrong when one of the players is actually murdered, a slew of suspects, infidelity, and even some mysterious foreigners thrown in for good measure make this a nice, traditional whodunit. Probably best read whilst sitting in front of the fire with a nice cocktail.

Read Women 2014- March

My output this month isn’t as prolific as last month’s. For one, I’m back at work full-time and for another, the first book I chose for March was a massive biography. No quick read there. So for your Read Women 2014 pleasure, here are my March reads:

Book #12: Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations- Georgina Howell

Have you heard of Gertrude Bell? I had not, at least not that I could remember.  She was a scary smart badass. She took a first at Oxford (first women in her subject to do so), she learned Persian Farsi and Arabic along with several other languages like French and German, she was such an accomplished mountain climber there is a peak named after her, after journeying several times to that amorphous region known as “Arabia” (pre-World War I) she decided to become an archeologist as well. Maybe she was bored.

A contemporary of Lawrence of Arabia, she spoke better Arabic than him and helped map uncharted lands throughout greater Mesopotamia (yeah, she learned cartography as well). And she worked for the Red Cross and was a spy and was involved in the creation of the nation of Iraq. Ho hum.

Howell’s biography is very thorough and I enjoyed learning about Bell, warts and all. Her accomplishments were made easier (or possible) by independent wealth and the freedom that comes with it but she also lived at a time where women in England did not have the vote or many other rights we take for granted today. Her enlightened father encouraged her at every step of her various journeys and was the biggest influence in her life.

For all that I loved reading about Bell, the structure of the book was odd and made the story disjointed at times and repetitive. Instead of Bell’s life unfolding chronologically, after the early chapters of her life it was sorted into categories. I am not a fan. One chapter was “Desert Travel” and another dealt with her love affair with a British officer. These times in her life overlapped but the chapters had them in their own separate niches and this theme was followed throughout the book. It was disconcerting to read all about a certain part of her life only to get to the next chapter when the same bit was examined through a whole new perspective. A book just about her travels through the Arabian deserts would be amazing all on its own and I wish this part of her life would have received more attention.

Overall I enjoyed learning about this amazing woman and can only imagine what would have happened if she had a publicist as good as Lawrence’s. I wonder who would play her in the movie…

Book #13: Night in Shanghai- Nicole Mones

I want to go back in time and go to Shanghai and I am sad that the place evoked in Mones’s story no longer exists. The descriptions of the international city are so evocative I almost tapped my toes to the scenes of American jazz playing in the hot clubs around town and scrunched up my nose at some of the Chinese delicacies offered at the best restaurants.

Mones’s vivid accounts of Shanghai during the late 1930s and early 1940s are reason enough to read this book. Otherwise, the plot is uneven and jumps around without rhythm. Music is a major theme in the story that follows the life of African-American musician Thomas Greene who escapes the prejudice of his home country and finds freedom in the international jazz scene of Shanghai. The musical references can be heavy handed and a bit precious- Greene’s love is a woman named Song. I have a working knowledge of music theory and composition but I wonder how many scenes in the story would play for someone without that background. A fascinating subplot of the novel revolves around Jewish refugees from Europe resettling in China and I would love to read more about this subject.

Mones spent a lot time getting the Shanghai of this era just right, I would have liked the plot within the setting to be as tight and interesting.

Read Women 2014- February

In February I had a lot of time off work and got to read much more than I usually do, yay! I was off due to surgery on my arm and I couldn’t type or write so I got to read lots and not even feel guilty. I’ve linked each title to its Amazon page so you can read a synopsis on your own if you so wish. No particular endorsement of Amazon, it’s just easy to find pretty much any book on there. I don’t want to regurgitate a summary of each book every time, that’s boring for us both. Instead I’ll try to just give you a few quick observations about each book so I can get back to reading. So continued from January, here’s the next installment of Read Women 2014:

Book #4: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption– Laura Hillenbrand

This book was a natural for me because of my long held interest in World War II and my growing interest in the Pacific theater. If this wasn’t a true story it would be unbelievable. The horrors endured by Louie Zamperini after his plane was lost at sea and the unimaginable conditions of a POW camp in Japan are incredible in the classic sense of the world, straining credulity to the utmost. Humbling and somehow uplifting, this book will become a classic of its type.

Book #5: Carthage– Joyce Carol Oates

Carthage is the story of a young woman who goes missing and the effects it has on her family. At the beginning of this novel I felt despair-not because of the sad story but because I can’t imagine being able to write like Joyce Carol Oates. But I believe most people feel like that so I’m sure I’m not alone.

The feelings evoked by the disappearance of the daughter and her presumed murder are intense and masterfully portrayed by the author. So much so I often felt real pain for the family as the story unfolded. Not an easy book to read but a compelling one.

Book #6: The Haunting of Hill House– Shirley Jackson

I’ve long wanted to read this story. A classic of the “dare-you-to-stay-in-the-haunted-house” genre, this story creeped me out from start to finish. No gratuitous violence or gore, just a straight up mind f*ck, just the way I like it. If you like scary/sinister but are bored by buckets of blood, this story is for you.

Book #7: The Wicked Girls– Alex Marwood

This novel reminded me of the movie Beautiful Creatures, another story (based on fact) of young girls who commit a murder. However, in this book the author explores the life of the girls after they grow up and leave their respective detention centers and the tale picks up about 25 years after the precipitating event. This murder tale is unusual both because of who the murderers are (young girls) and how the story begins with their arrest rather than ending there. It’s a nice touch and makes this story stand out.

Book #8: Alena– Rachel Pastan

Alena is a modern retelling of Rebecca, the classic novel by Daphne du Maurier. I read the original Rebecca after reading so many books over the years that referenced it or paid homage to it by describing a particular type of nasty older woman as being like Mrs. Danvers. Rebecca was compelling enough although the ever unnamed main character was milquetoast and rather annoying.

Alena could not have the same impact because the secret wasn’t so secret if one had already read Rebecca. The secret was my biggest problem with this story. When unveiled my reaction was ho-hum. I didn’t care enough about any of the characters to care what happened to them. But, I didn’t care that much about Rebecca’s characters either. I find this is often the case in “must read” books. The hype is so large that I’m frequently disappointed in the reality.

Book #9: Pavilion of Women– Pearl S. Buck

The protagonist of this novel is Madame Wu, who is about to turn 40 and is done with the physical aspects of her marriage. She arranges a concubine for her husband so he won’t be neglected and sets in motion a chain of events. As usual with Buck, her characters are of a depth not apparent at first glance but so layered and nuanced that it is a pleasure to explore them. Madame Wu is very much a traditionalist with a goal of keeping her family happy and stable but she throws tradition aside when it becomes burdensome and threatens her family’s happiness. Like her China, Madame Wu has one foot in the past and tradition and another in a future of progressive and unsettling changes.

Book #10: Die a Little– Megan Abbott

I discovered this book when googling “tart noir,” a type of noir featuring female protagonists. All sorts of “best of” and “favorites” lists are out there in the Internet void so I took a gamble and ordered this up on my trusty Kindle. I’m so glad I did.

Die a Little is set in barely post-war Los Angeles. Characters smoke and drink so much I swear I got a buzz just from reading about the parties. So yeah, I loved it.

Book #11: Legwork– Katy Munger

I enjoyed Die a Little so much I decided to read another tart noir adventure. Legwork is more a straight up detective novel than Die a Little. Casey Jones, unofficial detective, is a woman after my own heart. The book opens with Casey and an occasional (and much younger) lover asleep in bed after an adventurous night. Munger had me right there. I’ll be reading more about Casey and her, umm, cases.

Read Women 2014- January

I came across the idea of Read Women 2014 in a Guardian article titled the “Year of reading women” which discusses a bias toward male (especially white) authors in the literary community. I’m not sure why this is a surprise to anyone but I liked the idea of dedicating a year to reading books by women and writers of color to try and even up the scales a bit. I didn’t read the article until the beginning of February but since the last few books I had read had been by women anyway I thought I could backdate my year to cover those. I won’t promise to read no books by men in 2014 (doesn’t seem any more fair to entirely boycott them than it was to ignore female authors) but I’ll keep it to a 5:1 ratio at most. Deal?

Now you’ll get to see the glorious randomness of my reading habits, including anything from serious histories of World War I to the latest serial killer in a page turning thriller. I won’t apologize for anything, I love to read and have never read a book and not learned something from it.

Book #1: Chances by Jackie Collins

What can I say? I love a guilty pleasure and it doesn’t get much guiltier than Jackie Collins. I devoured her books when I was a teenager and they’re a great time as an adult. I had just been through a rough patch in my life and need a good escapist read. When I saw a copy of Chances at my local book warehouse I knew it was just what I was looking for.

Chances is the first book of the Santangelo family series and tells the story of Gino Santangelo and his rise from a dirt poor immigrant kid to millionaire as well as the story of his daughter, Lucky, who is trying to make her name in a world of strong men, none as tough as her mob connected father. Other characters include a child prostitute turned New York society matron, a spoiled Greek heiress, a straight as an arrow District Attorney, and dozens of others from two bit hustlers looking for a deal to a Unites States Senator with a secret.

Jackie Collins’ books are fast-paced and her dialogue is slangy. She never uses “said” when she can use “gasped” “stormed,” or “fumed” instead which would drive me crazy except I plow through the book so fast I don’t even notice. While the author in real life moves in movie and entertainment circles (some of the fun of reading her books is trying to decide what movie or pop star a character is based on), Chances has its share of poor and desperate characters like prostitutes and starving artists. She cares for her downtrodden characters as much as her high rollers and they often are more likable than her pampered rich people or bratty movie stars.

I’m not going to defend Chances as serious literature or declare it peopled with multi-faceted and deep characters but I will declare it as fun, fun, fun. So if you need a break between reading the first volume of War and Peace and the second, give Jackie Collins a whirl.

Book #2: Divergent by Veronica Roth

I’m not sure how I came across this first book in this young adult dystopian series. I was looking for a book to read and when I checked out my Amazon wishlist I found Divergent saved there. I do this a lot, I’ll read a brief review about a book or someone will mention a title to me and I’ll save it in the Amazon list for later and when later comes have no idea what that book is. In any case, although I’m a 40ish (shhh!) woman who leans more to mystery/thrillers for my fun reads, I like to sample all sorts of genres. I read and enjoyed the Hunger Games books so I thought why not and loaded Divergent up on the trusty Kindle. Any book with a teenaged girl who is not obsessed with finding the perfect boyfriend is already ahead in my eyes.

Divergent is set in a future post-apocalyptic Chicago where people have divided up into factions dependent on their most defining traits. The Dauntless are brave, the Abnegation are selfless, the Amity are kind, the Candor are honest, and the Erudite are smart. When children turn sixteen they are tested for their aptitude for a faction but are allowed to make the final choice of which to join on their own.

Our heroine Beatrice is conflicted and when tested is shown to be Divergent, a shamed and feared condition that her tester is so horrified by she fudges the results and tells Beatrice she should keep her condition a secret or risk fear and condemnation from all members of society, but I’m never quite sure why. Heeding her advice, the adventurous Beatrice hides her Divergent nature and forges her own way during the initiation period even while the fragile society is breaking down around her.

I liked this story and I especially liked how strong Beatrice (who later goes by Tris) is while not even realizing it. Her self doubts make her real even while her fellow initiates are intimidated by her abilities. She’s not big or strong but her perseverance and stubbornness and innate abilities carry her through her initiation ordeals.

There is a love interest in the story but it’s a side plot and not the main focus of the novel. The story is focused on Tris’s struggles to succeed in her harsh environment and even thrive.

I did have a few problems with the book. I found many of the scene descriptions confusing and couldn’t visualize some of the complex settings found in the story. Another problem was that of numbers. This was set in a future Chicago and while much of the city was abandoned, the number of initiates for each faction still seemed woefully low. Where there really only a few dozen 16 year olds each year making their all important choices of which factions to join? These problems weren’t overwhelming but did distract me at times from what was otherwise an enjoyable and quick read. I’ll probably read the next one but won’t make it a priority.

Book #3: How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate by Wendy Moore

The key word in this book is research. If you happen to read the Kindle version of the book, just know that it actually ends about 2/3 of the way in, the rest of the book consists of notes. It was enough to make the history major in me swoon.

Besides the voluminous notes and painstaking details of this story, the premise itself is very interesting. The main focus of the book is the search of the 18th century philosopher, poet, and writer Thomas Day for the perfect wife but when he fails in this endeavor, he changes tactics and tries to create the perfect wife instead. It’s crazy and it sure keeps you reading to see what happens. One thing I love about nonfiction is the stuff an author can get away with. Thomas Day walks into an orphanage one day and walks out with a pre-teen girl not long after to be the guinea pig in his experiment fashioned from Rousseau’s early ideas on education. Hedging his bets, he picks up another orphan a short time later so he can double his luck. If this had been a novel I might have been shaking my head by this point, my suspension of belief wavering. But this actually happened.

At times Moore belabors her Pygmalion analogy (the statue coming to life i.e., the orphan girl, and falling in love with her creator, i.e., Day) and gets a bit repetitious but I think this might be in part to emphasize the factual aspect of this story. I really wanted to find out the results of Day’s experiments and what happened to everyone involved.

I didn’t like this book quite as much as Moore’s Wedlock:  The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore. That story was black/white, good/bad and it was easier to root whole heartedly for the poor wife at the center of the awful marriage. The characters in How to Create a Wife were more ambiguous. While my sympathies were with the orphan girls and his other love interests, Day had some redeeming qualities such as giving vast sums of money to the poor which made him not so much a pure villain as the husband of Mary Eleanor Bowes.

Dazzled by the research and the entertained by the scandalous nature of the story, I was sad when I reached the end. I’m two for two now with Wendy Moore and will certainly be reading more of her work.

Coming Up

I don’t have my whole book list for February, I often don’t know what I’m going to read next until I start it, but I have begun the first book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. If you have any suggestions I’d love to hear them.

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