Monday, December 30, 2019

The Girl He Used To Know by Tracey Garvis Graves

The Girl He Used To Know by Tracey Garvis Graves
Published April 2019 by St. Martin's Publishing Group
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Annika (rhymes with Monica) Rose is an English major at the University of Illinois. Anxious in social situations where she finds most people's behavior confusing, she'd rather be surrounded by the order and discipline of books or the quiet solitude of playing chess.

Jonathan Hoffman joined the chess club and lost his first game—and his heart—to the shy and awkward, yet brilliant and beautiful Annika. He admires her ability to be true to herself, quirks and all, and accepts the challenges involved in pursuing a relationship with her. Jonathan and Annika bring out the best in each other, finding the confidence and courage within themselves to plan a future together. What follows is a tumultuous yet tender love affair that withstands everything except the unforeseen tragedy that forces them apart, shattering their connection and leaving them to navigate their lives alone.

Now, a decade later, fate reunites Annika and Jonathan in Chicago. She's living the life she wanted as a librarian. He's a Wall Street whiz, recovering from a divorce and seeking a fresh start. The attraction and strong feelings they once shared are instantly rekindled, but until they confront the fears and anxieties that drove them apart, their second chance will end before it truly begins.

My Thoughts:
Several years ago, my book club read Graves' book On The Island and to say that I was not a fan would be an understatement. So when this book started getting a lot of buzz, I was surprised but not going to be lured into reading it. And then I was.

What I Liked:
Graves took a big chance in making the female lead in her romance be someone on the autism spectrum. It felt to me like an accurate portrayal and, from what I was able to find on the internet, those who know far more about this than I do, seem to feel that Graves' has done good job showing what life is like for someone on the spectrum. And Graves makes Annika, a girl who has trouble doing and saying the right thing and making friends, a character that readers will really care about. I was happy to see her grow and learn how to live life in a world that she doesn't entirely understand.

As for Jonathan, there's got to be a certain element of "too-good-to-be-true" to him; he has to be someone who has the patience and understanding to deal with Annika's autism. Mind you, the couple first meet in 1991, when we weren't even aware that there was a whole spectrum of autism. But Graves' doesn't overdo Jonathan's goodness; he is not without his flaws and there is sometimes a limit to his patience. It keeps him real.

It's a lovely romance and that's coming from someone who is generally not a great fan of romance books. I enjoyed watching these two first fall in love, especially as Annika has to learn how to be in a relationship from her best friend. And I enjoyed watching them fall in love again ten years later, two people with a past but also with new baggage and strengths. But...

What I Didn't Like:When these two found themselves back in each other's lives, Jonathan seemed to take no time at all to get over the fact that Annika had abandoned him ten years earlier. The reason Annika didn't follow Jonathan after college was perfectly understandable to readers, as we slowly learn about it but Jonathan didn't have that same insight and the two never really talked about it. So, ten years later, you might expect that would need to be worked out before they could move forward. But it seemed to happen the other way.

A lot of the problem I had with Graves' On The Island, was a heavy dose of creep factor. This book doesn't come close to that but it's not without some passages that made me cringe. Here Jonathon is talking about Annika: "Her breasts never feel like they're in your face, but they make you wonder what they look like under her clothes." There were other descriptions of Annika's body that seemed out of character coming from Jonathan.

Finally, that last 75 pages or so of the book. Even those who loved this book acknowledge that the last part of the book seems out of character with the rest of the book. It gets very melodramatic and drawn out and Graves throws a lot at readers to show us just how much Annika has grown stronger. I really felt like Graves could have brought these two back together, and shown us how much being back together has helped both of them, without going to such extremes. But I know from having talked with Graves about the real typhoon that was the impetus for On The Island, that the big event at the end of the book, may have been the catalyst for this book to begin with.

So is there enough that I liked to outweigh what I didn't? I went in to this book with low expectations so I shouldn't have been disappointed. But I was. Because I felt like it wouldn't have taken much to make this a much better book. In the end, I find myself in the minority about this book - I didn't love it. But I liked it, particularly because Annika is a character that really drew me in.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Life: It Goes On - December 28

Happy last Sunday of the year and the decade! I can't believe Christmas is over. How can we plan and shop and decorate and cook for so long and it's all over so quickly? We had an unusual Christmas highlighted by having all Mini-me and Ms S home for the first time in four years. I've been looking forward to having all of my kids together for Christmas for so long that I'm a little bit of trouble letting go of it. I haven't taken down a single decoration, although that will probably change today. How about you - are you someone who takes it all down the day after Christmas? Or do you wait until the first of the year or Epiphany?

We had a kitty guest join us for Christmas!

Last Week I:

Listened To: Christmas carols, of course! I also listened to Jacqueline Woodson's latest book, Red at the Bone.

Watched: It's A Wonderful Life (again!), Elf (again!), and White Christmas. And, of course, college football, including the playoff games.

Read: Not a whole lot this week. I did finish The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek.

Made: Oh lordy, was I busy in the kitchen last week! I made taco soup to take to my parents; sugar cookies for the kids to frost at home; banana bread, Starbucks coffeecake, and green chili egg casserole for Christmas brunch; and turkey, mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, green bean casserole with fresh green beans, citrus cranberries, and pavlova for Christmas dinner. It's been almost nothing but leftovers since then!

Enjoyed: See above. I was enjoying my kids so much I didn't even get my phone out to take pictures.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: On taking down the stuff that strictly Christmas decor. I'll leave up my undecorated trees and anything else that will work for winter decor. I had planned to leave up the "fresh" greenery but it's getting so dry that I'll probably have to pull it down as well. 

Thinking About: It's the first of the year and you probably know me well enough by now to know that means I'm thinking about clearing out more clutter. It starts with Christmas decor. As I'm putting stuff away, I'll be going through the stuff I didn't use this year and will probably get rid of a lot of it.

Feeling: Tired but happy.

Looking forward to: Some friends and I are planning a progressive dinner for Friday. And, I'm sure we'll do something on New Year's Eve, although I'm not sure what that will be yet.

Question of the week: What is your favorite memory of this holiday season?

Friday, December 27, 2019

Meg and Jo by Virginia Kantra

Meg and Jo by Virginia Kantra
Published December 2019 by Berkley
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Publisher’s Summary:
The March sisters—reliable Meg, independent Jo, stylish Amy, and shy Beth—have grown up to pursue their separate dreams. When Jo followed her ambitions to New York City, she never thought her career in journalism would come crashing down, leaving her struggling to stay afloat in a gig economy as a prep cook and secret food blogger.

Meg appears to have the life she always planned—the handsome husband, the adorable toddlers, the house in a charming subdivision. But sometimes getting everything you’ve ever wanted isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

When their mother’s illness forces the sisters home to North Carolina for the holidays, they’ll rediscover what really matters.

One thing’s for sure—they’ll need the strength of family and the power of sisterhood to remake their lives and reimagine their dreams.

My Thoughts:
To say that I went into this book hesitantly would be an understatement. In general, I’m not a fan of fan fic of my beloved classics and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is one of my most beloved beloveds. And as you might have figured out by looking at the cover, Virginia Kantra is a romance writer. Which is why, after 30 or so books, I've never heard of her. But, oh, Jo March! I always wanted to be Jo March when I was growing up - fearless, independent, a writer. So I decided to see what Kantra would make of her.

I gotta tell ya, I enjoyed this one. It's not great literature and there are some issues I had with some plotting. But Kantra is clearly familiar with both Little Women and Alcott's sequel, Little Men, as well as the truth of Alcott's father, Bronson Alcott. So how'd Kantra do with the girls I grew up loving?

Meg: modern Meg is very much the Meg of Alcott's books - wonderful mother, devoted wife. And she still has her richy rich friends.  But this Meg also wants more - she wants to pursue her passion for numbers and be a partner in her marriage, not just the little woman (ha! you see what I did there?!).

Jo: still wants to be a writer, still wants to find her way in the big city, still doesn't want to end up with Laurie (although he's Trey here) and is still impulsive. But now she's battling modern writing problems. She gets downsized out of her journalist job and is working to build an audience for her blog. But now there's a whole lot of cooking involved. And she has to come to terms with the person her father really is.

Beth: this was the tough one for me. Because (cover your eyes if you don't want to have Little Women spoiled!) Beth never gets to be an adult in Alcott's books. There's not a lot for Kantra to work with. Beth is still sweet, still loves music, and still would rather fade into the background. While Kantra does put her out in the world and make her stretch her wings, she doesn't find a way to bring Beth out of the shadows.

Amy: still the baby of the family, still the one obsessed with her looks and fashion and art. Still driving Jo nuts. Except...this Amy is growing up. She is starting to think of others. And she is not taking any one's leftover boys (if you've read Little Women, I think you'll know what I'm talking about). I think I was most impressed with how Kantra took the material Alcott gave her for Amy and ran with it.

As for the supporting cast? Marmee is now Momma but she's still the rock of the family. To get the family to learn to stand on their own, Kantra has to sort of set her to the side. But she also gives Momma the backbone that Marmee (and Abigail Alcott) both lacked when it comes to her husband. Laurie (now Trey) was a bit of a disappointment; he never seems move beyond his love of Jo, which he does in Alcott's books. As for Professor Bhaer? He is now a smoking hot, world-renowned chef with an ex-wife and two teenage sons.

Although the resolution of Jo and Eric Bhaer's relationship doesn't entirely work for me (Jo never does seem to take responsibility for what she does that drives a wedge between them and I felt a little bit like his sons were mere props) and the book lacks the weight of the source material (even though Kantra does address concerns about PTSD and homelessness among veterans), overall I enjoyed the way Kantra wrapped up the book. Everyone has learned something and grown. Even though there are still some things to be worked out, you're left knowing that everything will be alright.

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton

The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton
Published April 2007 by HarperCollins
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
Fiona Sweeney wants to do something that matters, and she chooses to make her mark in the arid bush of northeastern Kenya. By helping to start a traveling library, she hopes to bring the words of Homer, Hemingway, and Dr. Seuss to far-flung tiny communities where people live daily with drought, hunger, and disease. Her intentions are honorable, and her rules are firm: due to the limited number of donated books, if any one of them is not returned, the bookmobile will not return.
But, encumbered by her Western values, Fi does not understand the people she seeks to help. And in the impoverished small community of Mididima, she finds herself caught in the middle of a volatile local struggle when the bookmobile's presence sparks a dangerous feud between the proponents of modernization and those who fear the loss of traditional ways.

My Thoughts:
Fresh off Jojo Moyes’ The Giver of Stars, I didn't set out to read another book about bookmobiles traveling out to spread literacy to under served areas. But this one came to my attention as I was browsing for books for my book club and I tend to grab up books from the library as soon as I see them to save myself the trouble of adding them to my TBR. And I’m a fan of Hamilton. Masha Hamilton is a journalist who has traveled all over the world and always brings a sense of the global community to her books, something I always look forward to when I read them.

In Moyes’ book, it never occurred to me to question the rightness of bringing books and literacy to the hill people of Kentucky. Of course, they should learn to read; as the world changes they need to be ready to change with it. But Hamilton wants readers to look at this idea another way. In The Camel Bookmobile, that choice of what books will be brought to them is not given to the villagers. Instead a corporation, more interested in doing something that will make for good PR than something that will be beneficial to the people of Africa, sends a collection of books to be used for the camel bookmobile without regard to what might be of interest or even comprehensible to the villagers.

Further, it doesn’t occur to anyone outside of the villages that these books may do more harm than good to the villages. When it comes to people who have survived hundreds of years in harsh environments, who are we to tell them that their oral knowledge and history isn’t enough? On the other hand, shouldn’t those young people have every opportunity? We need look no further than our own small towns to see how brain drain impacts the viability of a community.

As I read this book, I kept thinking of my friend, Mari, who loves books about Africa, books that explore the culture and lives of its people. This book is full of interesting characters, details about life among a semi-nomadic tribe, and the battle between tradition and modern life. Hamilton paints a world where every night a fence is drawn around your town, fires are light, drums are beaten and songs are sung all in an effort to keep wild animals from attacking the village as it sleeps. Her characters live in a place where a shortage of water is a constant concern, a lack of food normal, and everyone must be ready to pack up and move on at a moment’s notice. Yet Hamilton also makes it clear that these people want the same things out of life that we all want (minus the material desires). I very much enjoyed this one and I’m looking forward to having my book club read it next month and getting to talk to other about it.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Published September 2019 by HarperCollins Publishers
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
At the end of the Second World War, Cyril Conroy combines luck and a single canny investment to begin an enormous real estate empire, propelling his family from poverty to enormous wealth. His first order of business is to buy the Dutch House, a lavish estate in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. Meant as a surprise for his wife, the house sets in motion the undoing of everyone he loves.
The story is told by Cyril’s son Danny, as he and his older sister, the brilliantly acerbic and self-assured Maeve, are exiled from the house where they grew up by their stepmother. The two wealthy siblings are thrown back into the poverty their parents had escaped from and find that all they have to count on is one another. It is this unshakeable bond between them that both saves their lives and thwarts their futures.
Set over the course of five decades, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale about two smart people who cannot overcome their past. Despite every outward sign of success, Danny and Maeve are only truly comfortable when they’re together. Throughout their lives they return to the well-worn story of what they’ve lost with humor and rage. But when at last they’re forced to confront the people who left them behind, the relationship between an indulged brother and his ever-protective sister is finally tested.

My Thoughts:
If you asked me when I read Patchett’s Bel Canto, I would probably give you a date a decade earlier than I actually read it. It seems like it has been on my list of all-time favorite books for as long as I can remember, but it was only 2005. I am terrified to reread it for fear it will not hold up to my memory of it. So for the past 14 years (evidently only 14 years), I’ve been reading as much Patchett as I can get my hands on, trying to find the book that can live up to Bel Canto. Not a single book Patchett has written has been a disappointment. But none of them made me feel the same way Bel Canto did. The Dutch House is pretty damn close. I loved this book. It will undoubtedly be on my list of favorite books for 2019.

Did you see those two little words in that summary “fairy tale?” I hadn’t read the summary before I read the book (because Ann Patchett’s name on the book was enough to convince me to read it) but you don’t need to go into the book looking for the fairy tale elements. Mother gone? Check. Wicked stepmother? Check. Ominous passages? Check. House that draws the children to it? Check. Just like most fairy tales, there’s no real moral to this story. That’s not to say there are no lessons to be learned.

A reviewer on NPR felt this was a misstep on Patchett’s part to have Danny narrate the story, that the story should have been told from Mauve’s point of view (as she was the more interesting character) or by an omniscient narrator. But I disagree. Danny was not alive when Cyril bought the Dutch House. Because of that, we are allowed to learn the history of how the house came to belong to the Conroy’s and because he was so young when his mother left, it’s up to other people to tell Danny, and the reader, what really happened, as they knew it. Neither an omniscient narrator nor Mauve as narrator would have allowed Patchett to slowly reveal the various points of view of the past in the way she did. It is one of the things I most enjoyed; that’s how life works.

Patchett has a marvelous way of weaving the story back and forth in time so that while the story moves forward, it never loses sight of the past. She makes you care so deeply about these characters, particularly Danny and Mauve. This could have been melodramatic in a lessor author's hands, but Patchett never stoops to that. The Dutch House is a story about family and forgiveness and about having a place to call home.

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray
Published February 2019 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
The Butler family has had their share of trials—as sisters Althea, Viola, and Lillian can attest—but nothing prepared them for the literal trial that will upend their lives.
Althea, the eldest sister and substitute matriarch, is a force to be reckoned with and her younger sisters have alternately appreciated and chafed at her strong will. They are as stunned as the rest of the small community when she and her husband, Proctor, are arrested, and in a heartbeat the family goes from one of the most respected in town to utter disgrace. The worst part is, not even her sisters are sure exactly what happened.
As Althea awaits her fate, Lillian and Viola must come together in the house they grew up in to care for their sister’s teenage daughters. What unfolds is a stunning portrait of the heart and core of an American family in a story that is as page-turning as it is important.

My Thoughts:
Hunger noun
: a strong desire: craving
Hunger verb
: to have an eager desire

“You do a lot of thinking in jail. Especially when you’re locked in the box that’s your cell. Mine is about as big as the walk-in closet that I had back at home, but in place of leather bags and sling-backs and racks of clothes, I’ve got bunk beds, a stainless-steel sink-and-toilet combo, and a compact, padlocked cabinet. The Cabinet’s where you keep your valuables, like family pictures, commissary, and letters, including the one from your daughter that’s not addressed to you. The letter that, truth be told, you just can’t bring yourself to read, so you’ve got it tucked inside the bible that belonged to your dead mother.”

The Butler family has never been the same since their mother died when Althea was just twelve and Lillian was a baby. Each of the sisters, and their brother Joe, suffer from her loss and the extended absences of their father in different ways. What makes this story different from the ways other authors might have written the same story is that each of these characters is hurting in a very realistic way without being over the top. Still Gray manages to hit on a lot of themes and issues: adultery, eating disorders, physical and substance abuse, mental illness, sexuality, communication, and family relationships. Every one of the family members had their own hunger, their craving they were trying to sate; for some of them, trying to do so elicited a great price, the end of a marriage, an eating disorder, prison.

The sisters take turns telling the story of their family and how it has wreaked havoc on their lives. Althea is the least likable of the sisters but her story is compelling has you try to figure out why she came to commit the crime that has landed her in jail. Lillian is the saddest, the most vulnerable, and the sister you can’t help but hope will finally find the love she has been yearning for and exorcise the demons of her youth. I was utterly caught up in the lives of this family and so wanting them to finally communicate and find their way to becoming a healed family. Gray has written an impressive debut.

I have read so many books I have loved lately and recently updated my “best of 2019” list but it’s clear that I’m going to need to update it again because this book needs to be added to the list. In fact, 35 pages in, I knew it was going to be a book I wanted to talk to other people about and added it to my book club’s list of books to read for 2020.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Life: It Goes On - December 15

Guys, I mostly have my voice back and I finally have energy again this week! Thank heavens because with just a week before my kiddos arrive from Minnesota, I have so much left to get done around here for the holidays! Cards need to be sent, gifts need to be made, and I haven't made one holiday goodie yet. I have three audiobooks that have arrived all at once from the library and they may be all the reading I get done in the next two weeks but they'll make good accompaniment as I go about getting all of the things done!

Last Week I:

Listened To: The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates which I definitely recommend in audio. I started On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong which is lovely but something I definitely need to focus on more than other audiobooks.

Watched: Elf. Again. And, of course, football, volleyball, college basketball, The Voice.

Read: I am bouncing all over the place on books in print. I'm slowing making my way through Make It Scream, Make It Burn and did read John Boyne's This House is Haunted. But I've put aside several books which I may or may not get back to (and you know how rare that is for me!).

Made: Miss H had a holiday event yesterday for a group she belongs to yesterday and she volunteered to bring the ham and mashed potatoes. But she didn't really have time to make the ham or the mashed potatoes. So Mom cooked 30 pounds of ham and turned 20 pounds of potatoes into mashed potatoes this weekend.

Enjoyed: Christmas shopping with my dad. My sister and/or I have been going with him for about forty years now and it just isn't Christmas without that shopping trip. We took my sister along on a stick and sent her pics every where we took her so she wouldn't feel left out; she even joined us for a coffee break.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: Doing all of those things I mentioned before. 

Thinking About: Buying more twinkly lights. I can't seem to get enough of those or trees. Counted those today and I have 31 trees (only two big ones, though!) around the house. I love being surrounded by a forest!

Feeling: Surprisingly calm. And also finally ready to start listening to Christmas music.

Looking forward to: My book club's holiday get together this week.

Question of the week: What is your favorite holiday goodie to make?

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Grand Union by Zadie Smith

Grand Union by Zadie Smith
Read by Zadie Smith and Doc Brown
Published October 2019 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Zadie Smith has established herself as one of the most iconic, critically respected, and popular writers of her generation. In her first short story collection, she combines her power of observation and her inimitable voice to mine the fraught and complex experience of life in the modern world. Interleaving eleven completely new and unpublished stories with some of her best-loved pieces from The New Yorker and elsewhere, Smith presents a dizzyingly rich and varied collection of fiction. Moving exhilaratingly across genres and perspectives, from the historic to the vividly current to the slyly dystopian, Grand Union is a sharply alert and prescient collection about time and place, identity and rebirth, the persistent legacies that haunt our present selves and the uncanny futures that rush up to meet us.

Nothing is off limits, and everything—when captured by Smith’s brilliant gaze—feels fresh and relevant. Perfectly paced and utterly original, Grand Union highlights the wonders Zadie Smith can do.

My Thoughts:
I have thoughtfully underlined the bit about this being a short story collection for you because I was clearly not aware of it when I started listening to this book.

And while I would love to say that I pay every bit as much attention to the books I listen to as I do to those I read in print or digitally, let's be honest, I don't. I mean, I'm driving most to the time and I think we'd all prefer that I be paying more attention to the road than the book I'm listening to at the time. But, guys, I was so confused for a good long while as I listened to the book, trying to figure out how all of the bits I was listening to would eventually tie together.

They don't. Which I would have known had I paid any attention to the description of this book. Which I didn't because I just saw a new book by Zadie Smith and requested it from my library. Consider yourself warned and I hope that knowing this going in will help you appreciate this book much more than I did.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's be clear - once I caught on to the fact that this was a book of short stories, I really liked many of the stories. Some of them left me scratching my head (I often wonder if I'm not smart enough to "get" Smith). I suppose the beauty of writing short stories is that it allows writers to try different things, to be a bit more creative. And I will give Smith that, she has written some really unique pieces in this collection. One of my favorite stories was "The Lazy River" which is blurs the line between allegory and reality. Another of my favorites was "Miss Adele Amongst The Corsets." I adored Miss Adele but I was most taken with the idea that we may all be too quick to take offense.

Here are your takeaways:
1. This is not a novel. I repeat, this is NOT a novel.
2. If you're going to listen to this book, pay attention. There are some twisty bits here.
3. While Smith and Brown do a wonderful job reading the book, I would recommend actually reading the book instead of listening to it.
4. Enjoy - even if you do feel like Smith is much too smart a writer for you.

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Lost Books of Jane Austen by Janine Barchas

The Lost Books of Jane Austen by Janine Barchas
Published October 2019 by Johns Hopkins University Press
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through TLC Book Tours, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher’s Summary:
In the nineteenth century, inexpensive editions of Jane Austen's novels targeted to Britain's working classes were sold at railway stations, traded for soap wrappers, and awarded as school prizes. At just pennies a copy, these reprints were some of the earliest mass-market paperbacks, with Austen's beloved stories squeezed into tight columns on thin, cheap paper. Few of these hard-lived bargain books survive, yet they made a substantial difference to Austen's early readership. These were the books bought and read by ordinary people.
Packed with nearly 100 full-color photographs of dazzling, sometimes gaudy, sometimes tasteless covers, The Lost Books of Jane Austen is a unique history of these rare and forgotten Austen volumes. Such shoddy editions, Janine Barchas argues, were instrumental in bringing Austen's work and reputation before the general public. Only by examining them can we grasp the chaotic range of Austen's popular reach among working-class readers.
Informed by the author's years of unconventional book hunting, The Lost Books of Jane Austen will surprise even the most ardent Janeite with glimpses of scruffy survivors that challenge the prevailing story of the author's steady and genteel rise. Thoroughly innovative and occasionally irreverent, this book will appeal in equal measure to book historians, Austen fans, and scholars of literary celebrity.

My Thoughts:
You all know that I didn’t even hesitate, when I was offered this book for review, to squeeze in another book this month when it was about Jane Austen. You may have even heard me squeal a little bit when it arrived in the mail. It’s really a beautiful book, inside and out. I love the cover!

Not only is this a beautiful book, it’s an extremely well-researched piece of academic work. Which is also to say that this is not a quick read; it is a detailed exploration of the way that innovations in book printing and marketing gave rise to Austen’s enormous popularity. Books went from being the possessions of strictly the wealthy to being something even those with the lowliest of incomes could afford. The working class was soon able to afford to keep small libraries thanks to publishers such as George Routledge, including the copies sold in railway stations (think paperbacks sold in the airport gift shops). Because these books were not made as well nor prized by collectors, they are, in many ways, rarer than first editions.

I found it interesting that Lever Brothers and Pear soap manufacturers used copies of the books as prizes. I’m certain that if my readers were offered the chance to earn books as a prize just for buying soap, you’d jump at the chance. But can you imagine readers more than one hundred years ago thinking that a cheap copy of a book was preferable to other prizes they might choose? It goes to show how highly books were prized then, even if they were cheaply made copies.

Between each chapter, Barchas has included the story of the provenance of a particular physical book which especially intrigued me. With each of these books, using the information regarding the reprint and the signature in the book, Barchas was able to find the owner using census records allowing us to get a fuller picture of the kinds of people who might have owned and read Austen’s stories.

I’m pretty impressed that Barchas took up the common man and the lesser copies of Austen’s books as a research project, especially given the considerable number of years she devoted to the project. I’ll admit that I haven’t had time to give this book the deep reading it deserves but that’s ok – it’ll be sitting on my coffee table, ready for me to pick up and read more thoroughly as time permits. Barchas didn’t rush her research and I don’t want to rush through her work. Although, I have to admit that I’ve got a problem with Henry James and Mark Twain after reading what they had to say about Austen. I’m not sure how many more insults to my fave author I can take!

Thanks to the ladies of TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour. For other reviews, check out the full tour.

About Janine Barchas

Janine Barchas is the Louann and Larry Temple Centennial Professor of English Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity and Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel. She is also the creator behind What Jane Saw (

To purchase your own copy of this book, you can order directly from Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Life: It Goes On - December 8

Here's what no one needs this time of year - a cold that basically takes you out of commission for two weeks. Poor Big Guy and Miss H both caught it this week and I still didn't have the energy to care for them the way they deserved to be taken care of until this weekend. Pushing myself to get the main floor of the house cleaned this weekend and the Christmas decorating done (I started two weeks ago; it's sort of time, don't ya think?).

How are you all doing with getting all of the things done? I can't believe Mini-me and Ms. S will be here in just two weeks! So much left to do - gifts not even started, cards just getting ordered today, and I need to finish shopping. Same story, different year!

Last Week I:

Listened To: Ta-Nehisi Coates' The Water Dancer. So good and the reader, Joe Morton, is phenomenal.

Watched: Some of the traditional Christmas shows (The Grinch, Rudolph), White Christmas and Elf for movies. And, of course, The Voice, football, and college volleyball.

Read: Guys, I finally hit a wall. I've been reading like crazy but being sick really put a kibosh on my reading. I've got books from the library that I'm probably going to end up taking back unread and I hate doing that! I'm feeling a little bit like reading is work right now and that's never good.

Made: I think spaghetti pie and brownie sundaes are the only things I can really say I made this week. Otherwise, it's been mostly tossed together meals, whatever is easiest for which ever of us feels best.

Enjoyed: Happy hour with friends the other night. It was so good to get out of the house and do something fun!

This Week I’m: 

Planning: On finishing up the majority of the shopping this week and getting Christmas cards sent. 

Thinking About: I'm pretty sure you've figured this out by now!

Feeling: Happy about the lovely weather we've had the past week - lots of sunshine and it was even warm enough yesterday that we had the back door open.

Looking forward to: Book club this week!

Question of the week: I'm thinking of what I'll make for meals while my family is all together. What are your go-to holiday meal ideas?

Friday, December 6, 2019

Body Leaping Backward: Memoir Of A Delinquent Girlhood by Maureen Stanton

Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood by Maureen Stanton
Published July 2019 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through TLC Book Tours, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
For Maureen Stanton’s proper Catholic mother, the town’s maximum security prison was a way to keep her seven children in line (“If you don’t behave, I’ll put you in Walpole Prison!”). But as the 1970s brought upheaval to America, and the lines between good and bad blurred, Stanton’s once-solid family lost its way. A promising young girl with a smart mouth, Stanton turns watchful as her parents separate and her now-single mother descends into shoplifting, then grand larceny, anything to keep a toehold in the middle class for her children. No longer scared by threats of Walpole Prison, Stanton too slips into delinquency—vandalism, breaking and entering—all while nearly erasing herself through addiction to angel dust, a homemade form of PCP that swept through her hometown in the wake of Nixon’s “total war” on drugs.

Body Leaping Backward is the haunting and beautifully drawn story of a self-destructive girlhood, of a town and a nation overwhelmed in a time of change, and of how life-altering a glimpse of a world bigger than the one we come from can be.

My Thoughts:
Because just before I started typing this review, I deleted the email Trish, of TLC Book Tours, had sent me asking me about being on the tour, I can't tell you what it was about this book that made her think it was something that would appeal to me. She almost certainly could not have guessed how close to home this book would hit.

Maureen Stanton and I are the same age and, while we grew up in very different parts of the country and very different families, as she talked about growing up, there was a lot that I could relate to. We both grew up in towns that housed the state's penitentiary. She references Malcolm Little (later known as Malcolm X), who was imprisoned nearby the town she grew up in; Malcolm Little was born in Omaha. Like me, she went to see the movie "Oliver" when it was in theaters and read Sacco and Vanzetti from Scholastic (a book I picked out only because I had an aunt with the last name Sacco and which introduced me to true crime books).  Later she writes about her mother making a roast every Sunday and how her mother was always happy to put her husband and children first. Ditto my mom (although, to be fair, I'm not sure that either Stanton or I can be sure that our mothers were happy to do that so much as they felt it was their duty as mothers and wives). And like me, Stanton was a daddy's girl who enjoyed family outings, music, and books and who was close to her siblings.

And, like me, Stanton began experimenting with drugs and drinking while she was in her teens. But Stanton began much younger than I did and got much more heavily into drugs than I did. And just what made the difference? Stanton's parents divorced when she was still in middle school and it damaged Stanton much more deeply than she understood until she was much older. She was never sure, in her teens, if either of them was even paying attention to what was happening with her. On the other hand, my parents are still together and I never doubted for an instant that they were paying attention and cared. The other difference between Stanton and me? She grew up in an area where PCP (angel dust) became an epidemic; inexpensive and easy to get her hands on, Stanton was using dust several times a day at her peak, losing herself entirely. I was certainly aware of PCP but I really don't remember that being any one's drug of choice. But then, maybe that was just because I wasn't hanging around the kinds of people that were heavily into drugs (again, because I always knew I needed to keep up my grades and stay out of trouble).

And here is where the story crosses over into a different place where it hits close to home. While I never remotely reached the level of drug use that Stanton did, my daughter did. My daughter lived in a home where her parents were together, where they were watching her and trying to hold her to certain standards. And it didn't matter. In the end, we were just as clueless as Stanton's parents. She and I have talked a lot about what she went through but there are some things a mom just doesn't want to hear. And then a book like this comes along and makes me wake up to how close we came to losing our daughter. Stanton was lucky. The right people came into her life at the right moments, she finally began to understand that her mother cared, and she became determined to find herself again. Just like my daughter. But Stanton talks at length about the toll drugs took on the people she grew up with in Walpole, the ones who ended up in prison and the ones who died.

So you weren't born in 1960 and can't relate in any way to Stanton's experiences? You will still find this a book worth reading. Stanton draws on her own life experiences to talk about the prison systems in the U. S., the way the war on drugs changed the prison system and targeted minorities, and divorce. I was expecting a memoir so was happy to find that Stanton had things to teach me as well.

I was also really impressed with Stanton's writing, with her style and with her ability to make me see things in a way I hadn't seen them before. Like this explanation of how divorce impacts children:
"The separation was an end to intimacy with my father, an end to seeing him in his pajamas day after day, seeing him as ordinary and vulnerable and human - sleepy, crusty-eyed, unkempt, knowing him in all his moods, watching him in his morning rituals, sit-ups, shaving, coffee, newspaper or Time. I'd hover near him, close enough to smell his coffee-scented breath when I asked for a sip, black and bitter."
This one won't be sitting on a table in your local Barnes and Noble store; you'll have to put some effort into looking for it. It will be an effort well worth making. Thanks to Trish, and TLC Book Tours, for putting this one into my hands. For other opinions about this book, check out the full tour.

About Maureen Stanton

Maureen Stanton is an award-winning nonfiction writer, and author of “Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood,” a People Magazine “Best New Books” pick, and “Killer Stuff and Tons of Money,” winner of the 2012 Massachusetts Book Award in nonfiction. Her essays and memoirs have been published in many literary journals, including Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, The Florida Review, New England Review, and River Teeth, among others. She has received the Iowa Review Prize, the American Literary Review Prize, Pushcart Prizes, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and Maine Arts Commission Individual Artist Fellowships. She has an M.F.A. from Ohio State University, and teaches at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Find out more about Maureen at her website, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine

The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine
Published September 2019
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
The Grammarians are Laurel and Daphne Wolfe, identical, inseparable redheaded twins who share an obsession with words. They speak a secret “twin” tongue of their own as toddlers; as adults making their way in 1980s Manhattan, their verbal infatuation continues, but this love, which has always bound them together, begins instead to push them apart. Daphne, copy editor and grammar columnist, devotes herself to preserving the dignity and elegance of Standard English. Laurel, who gives up teaching kindergarten to write poetry, is drawn, instead, to the polymorphous, chameleon nature of the written and spoken word. Their fraying twinship finally shreds completely when the sisters go to war, absurdly but passionately, over custody of their most prized family heirloom: Merriam Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition.

My Thoughts:
When I was in grade school, there were three sets of twins in my grade, one was a set of identical boys, two sets were fraternal twins. I never gave the idea of twins much thought. Because there is a lot of twinning going on in my book club, it comes up a lot in our meetings and it's gotten me thinking about what it's like to be a twin. Just how does growing up your whole life with someone who looks exactly like you feel? And how deeply does the indentical-ness go?

But, let's be honest, the real reason I picked up this book (besides the fact that it was by Schine), was because it was about language. I do so love to geek out on words and language and I really wanted to see how Schine was going to be able to write a novel about language that might interest a wider audience. A word of warning for those who aren't language geeks – there really is a lot of discussion of language in this book and it does play a fairly significant role in the story so you can’t just rush by it. But the book's appeal is not limited.

In The Grammarians, Laurel and Daphne are so alike that it’s not just difficult to tell them apart physically, they also have the same passion for language that molds their identities and initially unites them against all others. They develop their own language, they make lists of their favorite obscure words, they both find themselves in careers that are based on language. But as much as the twins dote on each other and cherish the fact that they have someone who will always know them better than anyone else, they are also keenly aware of their differences. Their lives become a struggle between the need to create their own identities and that bond that will never break. When the twins switch jobs for a day, both believe that they have been a better version of the other one. When Laurel gets a nose job, Daphne takes it as a personal slight. When their mother complains to each of them about the other twin, the girls are quick to defend each other. And yet they will grow to have very little to do with each other and it takes a toll on the rest of the family.

While this is not my favorite Schine book (that honor goes to The Three Weissmanns of Westport), I very much enjoyed it. Schine always writes compelling family stories with humor, intelligence, and a great fondness for her characters.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Life: It Goes On - December 2

A day late and a nasty cold later (well, still working on that part), I'm hoping you all had a wonderful holiday weekend. We were a smaller group than originally planned but when you have a 16-month-old to entertain you, you hardly notice that anyone else is in the room any way! We got in plenty of overeating, our usual Black Friday morning shopping (although only three of us could go this year), and lots of time to talk and laugh together.

This darn cold has me moving slowly, with plenty of rest breaks, so I didn't even finish the Christmas decorating over the weekend. Of course,  it would go faster if I just put things up the same way I had them up last year, but that would be too easy, right?

Last Week I:

Listened To: Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep. Mixed feelings about this one. Tomorrow I'll start The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Watched: Lots and lots of football, some volleyball, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade (was it just us or was there a whole lot of the announcers and not much of the actual parade this year?), and It's A Wonderful Life, which I haven't caught in years.

Read: I didn't get much reading in over the holiday but did finish Body Leaping Backward by Maureen Stanton (which I'll be reviewing soon) and I'm about half way through Virginia Kantra's Meg and Jo, which is a contemporary retelling of Little Women.

Made: Not a whole lot. My mom let me make a pumpkin pie and a coffee cake for the gathering but we've kept it pretty low key around home and The Big Guy's been a sport and done most of the meals while I'm not feeling well.

Enjoyed: Family. But let's be honest, mostly The Prince. He is a happy, happy little man who clearly felt it was his duty to entertain us all and he did a marvelous job of it.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: On finishing the Christmas decorating, starting on some Christmas gifts that I'm making, and trying to get most of the rest of my shopping done. 

Thinking About: Heading back to the doctor this afternoon. This cold is kicking my butt and I don't have time for it.

Feeling: Eager. Mini-me and Ms. S will be here in less than three weeks. We haven't had Mini-me with us for Christmas in four years and Ms. S has never been with us so I'm making plans to pull out all of the traditions this year.

Looking forward to: I'm so off my game these past few days that I haven't even looked at my calendar for this week. I have no idea what I'm meant to be looking forward to!

Question of the week: What's your go-to when you don't feel good? Comfort food? A special tea? A movie marathon?