Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The Book of V by Anna Solomon

The Book of V by Anna Solomon
Published May 2020 by Holt, Henry and Company, Inc.
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
For fans of The Hours and Fates and Furies, a bold, kaleidoscopic novel intertwining the lives of three women across three centuries as their stories of sex, power, and desire finally converge in the present day.

Lily is a mother and a daughter. And a second wife. And a writer, maybe? Or she was going to be, before she had children. Now, in her rented Brooklyn apartment she’s grappling with her sexual and intellectual desires, while also trying to manage her roles as a mother and a wife in 2016.

Vivian Barr seems to be the perfect political wife, dedicated to helping her charismatic and ambitious husband find success in Watergate-era Washington D.C. But one night he demands a humiliating favor, and her refusal to obey changes the course of her life—along with the lives of others.

Esther is a fiercely independent young woman in ancient Persia, where she and her uncle’s tribe live a tenuous existence outside the palace walls. When an innocent mistake results in devastating consequences for her people, she is offered up as a sacrifice to please the King, in the hopes that she will save them all.

In Anna Solomon's The Book of V., these three characters' riveting stories overlap and ultimately collide, illuminating how women’s lives have and have not changed over thousands of years.

My Thoughts: 
I can't actually recall requesting this book but I can tell you two reasons why I would have - I love the cover of this one and that opening paragraph comparing this book to Fates and Furies, a book I very much enjoyed and which was a probably the most talked about book in 2015. Comparing any book to it is a bold statement. Unfortunately, for me, it wasn't a comparison this one could live up to.

Perhaps if I'd more recently read the Book of Esther, this one would have had a greater impact on me. Because I hadn't, I didn't see where Solomon had veered away from that part of the Christian and Hebrew bibles and it made the final chapter of her story less impactful. Unfortunately, this storyline was also the storyline in which I had the least interest which was a problem given that it's the story that the other two storylines are based on.

To be fair to this book, it sort of felt like the wrong book for me to be reading at this time. When I finished this book and started looking for what to read next, I knew I needed either something light or something that would take me to another world. In other words, nothing like this book at all which is a book entirely designed to make readers think about what it means to be a woman, now, forty years ago, and thousands of years ago. We're in the heads of these women a lot which makes it slow going. It also makes it a book I want to be able to recommend; I want to be able to say "read this book about how being a woman has changed and how it hasn't."

I'm loathe to tell you what my other issue was with the book because I know it's not going to be a popular thing for me to say. Here goes: there was a lot of religion in the book (duh, Book of Esther) and I felt like that part took away from the part I was interested. It's not that I'm opposed to religion in a book, and I'm always up for a book that teaches me something new. But I didn't really feel like I was learning from this book, just that religion was being forced into the storylines.

Ugh. I feel like I'm beating this book up. It's not a bad book. If I'd been in the right frame of mind, I feel like I would have enjoyed this one more. If I was more familiar with the story of Esther, I might have enjoyed this one more. If the summary interests you, check out other reviews. Other people may feel very differently about it.

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell

The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell
Published August 2019 by Atria Books
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
In July 1913, twenty-five-year-old Annie Clements had seen enough of the world to know that it was unfair. She’s spent her whole life in the copper-mining town of Calumet, Michigan where men risk their lives for meager salaries—and had barely enough to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. The women labor in the houses of the elite, and send their husbands and sons deep underground each day, dreading the fateful call of the company man telling them their loved ones aren’t coming home. When Annie decides to stand up for herself, and the entire town of Calumet, nearly everyone believes she may have taken on more than she is prepared to handle.

In Annie’s hands lie the miners’ fortunes and their health, her husband’s wrath over her growing independence, and her own reputation as she faces the threat of prison and discovers a forbidden love. On her fierce quest for justice, Annie will discover just how much she is willing to sacrifice for her own independence and the families of Calumet.

My Thoughts:
Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow is one of my all-time favorite books and I've been meaning to read more of her work for a long while. So when I chanced upon this one, I hardly even glanced at what it was about. But look at that cover and look at that description - you know I was going to read this one, regardless of who had written it. It checks off so many of my wants in a book. Strong woman? Check. Historical fiction about the U.S.? Check. A book about a subject I've been wanting to read more about? Check. Based on a real person and real events? Check and check.

From top left, clockwise: Annie Clemenc, parading strikers, miners for the Calumet and Hecla Company, James McNaughton (manager of the company), union organizers including Mother Jones, and the Italian Hall where at least 73 people died on Christmas Eve 1913.

It was only when I was nearly finished with this book that I discovered that Russell is a highly respected writer of historical fiction (I mean, I had seen some of her other books so I suppose I should have suspected that this was her wheelhouse). World creating, as she did in The Sparrow, is clearly not her usual jam. Instead she relies on real events and research to craft her stories. Unfortunately, that leaves her unable to create the kind of magic she created in The Sparrow, married as she must largely be, to actual settings and facts.

There's no doubt that Russell is an impressive researcher. Which is part of the problem with the book. She has packed so many facts and historical figures into the book that it's hard to actually connect with most of the characters and Russell doesn't leave herself much room to really develop them. Annie Clemenc was a fascinating person and Russell does a fine job with her for the most part, but other characters are flatter. Further, the outcome of the real strike is known and Russell chooses here to stick with the historical facts in so far at that is concerned instead of veering into the fiction piece of the genre. It makes for something of a flat ending.

All of that makes it sound like I didn't like the book. I did. I learned a lot and I kept thinking of the ways it took me back to Wiley Cash's The Last Ballad, about the mill strikes of the 1920's. I loved Annie Clements and was disappointed to find that the real Annie Clemenc's life didn't get much better after the strike. Ten years ago, before I started blogging (and really understanding how many books there are out there that I'll never get to), I would have been perfectly happy with this book, which I'd give a solid 3 stars, if I gave out stars. There's nothing wrong with a 3 star book. This one just suffered in comparison to its 5-star brother and all of the other really great books I've read this year.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Life: It Goes On

Happy Sunday! I'm up, productive and getting ready to start a painting project. All of which should tell you that yesterday's Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon was another failure for me. What's that you say? I hadn't even mentioned that yesterday was Dewey's? Yep, that's just one of the ways I failed. I was so excited for this readathon - thanks to the quarantine, there was nothing on my calendar to conflict with my reading, no events to go to, no last-minute get-togethers were going to come up. The house is loaded with food so snacks were no problem. I put together a list of books to read. I. Was. Ready. Then I didn't even get a post typed up to kick things off. And it went downhill from there. I did get some reading done and I read without guilt about the things I "should" have been doing, so there's that, I guess. Wish I could tell you that I'd accomplished a lot of other things instead of reading, but I didn't do that either.

Last Week I:

Listened To: I'm still listening to Erik Larson's The Splendid and The Vile and hope to get a lot of time to listen to it today which I'm working on some projects.

Watched: My friend, Ellen, is a playwright who had a play that was performed at the Omaha Community Playhouse some time ago. Friday night they "live" streamed the play on YouTube so I got to watch that. Recommended Reading For Girls is, like all of Ellen's work, so clever and funny and heartfelt.

Read: I did finish both Sue Monk Kidd's latest, The Book of Longing, and Kate Atkinson's first Jackson Brodie book, Case Histories yesterday. I'm having to push myself to read right now (as I know so many of you are doing, too) and I think that was part of my problem yesterday. I have no library books coming due and no review books that need to be read right now so what to read next is entirely up to me. Now I need to find the book that will stick.

Made: I have finally hit my stride on doing that through all of this. I made a new version of chicken and noodles this week and a pan of lasagna and two batches of cookies. On the agenda today is bread, banana bread, and broccoli cheese soup in bread bowls. Yes, that's a lot of bread but I think we've all stopped judging each other at this point, right?!

Enjoyed: A visit from the mask faerie the other day. My friend texted and said she'd made masks and asked if we wanted a couple. So she dropped them off...with a bottle of wine! How cute is this!

This Week I’m: 

Planning: Last week went south on me; we had some things come up that really threw a wrench in things. So this week's plan is to get done what I meant to do last week. While I'm grateful to still be working and getting paid, there's also a part of me that really wishes I were bouncing around the house looking for things to keep me busy!

Thinking About: Thinking it's finally warm enough that I can stop babying the plants I potted a couple of weeks ago and get the rest of the plants I need to finish things up.

Feeling: Nervous. In another week, we will start going back to "normal." But I don't know that I'm going to feel safe out in public for months yet.

Looking forward to: Family Zoom time in a bit.

Question of the week: What did you cook up this week?

Thursday, April 23, 2020

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier
Read by Fenella Woolgar
Published September 2019 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
1932. After the Great War took both her beloved brother and her fiancé, Violet Speedwell has become a "surplus woman," one of a generation doomed to a life of spinsterhood after the war killed so many young men. Yet Violet cannot reconcile herself to a life spent caring for her grieving, embittered mother. After countless meals of boiled eggs and dry toast, she saves enough to move out of her mother's place and into the town of Winchester, home to one of England's grandest cathedrals. There, Violet is drawn into a society of broderers—women who embroider kneelers for the Cathedral, carrying on a centuries-long tradition of bringing comfort to worshippers.

Violet finds support and community in the group, fulfillment in the work they create, and even a
growing friendship with the vivacious Gilda. But when forces threaten her new independence and
another war appears on the horizon, Violet must fight to put down roots in a place where women
aren't expected to grow.

Told in Chevalier's glorious prose, A Single Thread is a timeless story of friendship, love, and a woman crafting her own life.

My Thoughts:
Which comes first for Chevalier – the idea for a new story about a woman or the discovery of a subject she’s dying to research? She never seems to run out of either the story ideas or the interesting subjects to explore and she always finds a way to make center the story around women, even when the historical focus has been on the men (as with Griet in The Girl With The Pearl Earring, a book about the girl who inspired the painter Johannes Vermeer).

In A Single Thread, the history and the art are less well known. And while there really was a Louisa Pesel, who lead the broderers who made the embroidered kneelers, cushions, and other accessories for Winchester Cathedral, this is not her story. Instead it is the story of a group of women, the broderers, who form their own kind of tapestry as their lives are bond together. It's also the story of a group of women who became known as the "surplus" women and the story of single women in the 1930's, a time when single women were looked down on once they reached a certain age, and the story of women who had to hide in plain sight because of their sexuality. At the heart of the book lies Violet, a woman struggling with grief from the deaths of her father, brother, and fiancé and trying to find her place in a world where nothing more is expected of her than to take care of her aging, unpleasant mother.

WhenViolet can't take it any longer, she moves away, taking a job as a typist, a job that pays so little that she can't even afford to eat hot meals and where her coworkers are vapid girls who talk of nothing but finding a husband. It's a real measure of how miserable life with her mother was when this life is better than that was. Then one day she chances upon a church service recognizing the latest batch of completed embroidered works and meets a young women who will help her find a place among the group of broderers. It's just the thing that Violet needs to help her come back to life and find her place in the world. Soon she's found a strength she never knew she was capable of and a group of women to support her.

It's a quiet book (one reviewer called it "gentle"), heavy on the details of the embroidery (as well, a the music and skill behind the ringing of the bells in the Cathedral) and events unfold slowly. I listened to it and Fenella Woolgar does a lovely job; I can't imagine it's a book someone would find themselves unable to put down in print, though. Yet, I can also see it being exactly the kind of book that might be adapted into a movie because Chevalier is so marvelous and bringing her subjects to life. The colors and textures of the embroidery, the scale and majesty of the Cathedral, the mechanics of ringing the bells, and the visible circumstances of her characters' lives. There is one character and story line I felt could have been left out of the book entirely and nothing would have been lost; in fact, I might well have enjoyed it more without the threat that storyline carried. It's not a book for everyone, particularly those that enjoy a more fast-paced book, but I think Chevalier's fans will have been pleased with this one.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Conviction by Denise Mina

Conviction by Denise Mina
Published June 2019 by Little, Brown, and Company
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
The day Anna McDonald's quiet, respectable life exploded started off like all the days before: Packing up the kids for school, making breakfast, listening to yet another true crime podcast. Then her husband comes downstairs with an announcement, and Anna is suddenly, shockingly alone.

Reeling, desperate for distraction, Anna returns to the podcast. Other people's problems are much better than one's own — a sunken yacht, a murdered family, a hint of international conspiracy. But this case actually is Anna's problem. She knows one of the victims from an earlier life, a life she's taken great pains to leave behind. And she is convinced that she knows what really happened.

Then an unexpected visitor arrives on her front stoop, a meddling neighbor intervenes, and life as Anna knows it is well and truly over. The devils of her past are awakened — and they're in hot pursuit. Convinced she has no other options, Anna goes on the run, and in pursuit of the truth, with a washed-up musician at her side and the podcast as her guide.

My Thoughts:
Some months back, one of my bookclub members recommended this book based on an NPR review. It's not my habit to add a book to our list but if Maureen Corrigan recommends a book, I'm prone to believe it's worth reading. I'm not sure I've ever agreed with her more than I do about this book.

Anna has created an ordinary, albeit upper-middle-class, existence as a housewife in the suburbs, raising her beloved daughters. It's all blown apart one morning. First she listens to that podcast and finds that a friend from her past has died and another name has resurfaced, a name that causes her past to come crashing into her present. Then a persistent knocking at her door turns out to be her best friend who has, it turns out, not come to pick her up for yoga but to run away with Anna's husband. To say that Anna does not handle that that revelation well would be a major understatement. She is, in fact, a bloody mess on the entryway floor, contemplating suicide, when Fin appears at the door. The two soon find themselves both trying to find out what really happened to Anna's friend, Leon, and running for their lives.

All of that summary happens in the first couple of chapters and Mina never lets off the accelerator. I wanted to set everything else in my life aside and do nothing but read this book. And, guys, I did. not. see. that. ending. coming. If you read this and you do, please don't tell me. I don't want to find out that it was something everyone else saw coming. Not only is this a great story but Mina manages to hit a lot of heavy themes along the way, rape, addiction, eating disorders, and the damage caused by social networks.

Through all of that, she is weaving all manners of storytelling into the book - Anna's podcasts, books, folk tales, alibis, false leads, and lies. Anna even recalls a conversation she had with her friend, Leon, who died on the yacht, about the Arabian Nights, which he called simple children's tales.
“I was appalled. I went off on a rant about the ‘Arabian Nights,’ the collective nature of it, how it created a whole world through accretive storytelling: layers of lives lived simultaneously, intersecting. And how it bounced from genre to genre, the stories were funny and brutal and romantic and tragic like life. . . . It was produced before stories could only be one thing, before the form was set.”
I do love meta writing and Mina lives up to Scheherazade with all of the stories she has woven into this one book.

As much as I loved this book, and even though I thought the ending was satisfying in many ways, I also felt like it was a bit too easy. The rest of the book was so damn complex and there was a part of me that really wanted the ending to be just as twisty.

The Washington Post reviewer said "Denise Mina is one of the leading practitioners of what's called Tartan Noir: the melding of American hard-boiled detective fiction with the atmosphere and local color slang of Scotland." I've never heard of Tartan Noir but if this is what Tartan Noir is, I'll definitely be looking for more books that fall into that genre.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Life: It Goes On - April 19

Happy Sunday! It is Sunday, right? I'm still working, albeit from home, and I'm still losing track of what day it is. I don't know how those of you who aren't working right now are keeping track!

The temperature in my backyard read 75° yesterday so I started moving more of the fifty or so plants I have in boxes in my kitchen into pots outside. It's too early; I know it's too early. But I needed to be doing something outside. And I needed some of that clutter out of my kitchen. So I'll probably spend the next three or four weeks checking overnight temperatures to see if they will need to be covered for the night. It's worth it - I love looking out and see that sign of spring in my yard.

Last Week I:

Friday, after the sun
came out and the snow
started to melt.
Listened To: I finished Gigi Levangie's Been There, Married That, which was the perfect read-while-you-work book, just as Erik Larson's latest, The Splendid and The Vile became available. It's a long one and I'm not sure how I'm going to find the time to listen to it without any commute. I'm only 30 minutes in to it so far and have only 9 days to listen to 17 more hours. We'll see how this goes both time wise and with my ability to focus on a long, nonfiction book right now.

Watched: Thursday we watched 6" + of wet snow fall. It was beautiful and the streets and sidewalks were warm enough that they stayed pretty clear. But, damn, it's the middle of April - it's not supposed to do that. Luckily, it being the middle of April also means that by the end of Friday, almost all of the snow was melted and things were drying up.

Read: I finished Paulette Jiles' Simon The Fiddler, which I loved; now I'm back to Kate Atkinson's first Jackson Brodie book, Case Histories, which I'm reading as part of a group read. I also started Sue Monk Kidd's new book, The Book of Longings.

Made: I would love to be able to tell you that I'm cooking up a storm these days, what with having extra time everyday now that I only have a one minute commute. But I haven't been terribly creative. We have been eating a lot of salads, I slow cooked some delicious pork chops, and we've been playing with ramen recipes. Mini-him is the one whose really busting out his cooking skills - he made bolognese sauce one day this week and he and his girlfriend have made several Japanese meals. So proud of my boys' mad kitchen skills!

Enjoyed: A social distancing dinner last night. We picked up Greek food then met in a school parking lot (parks here having been closed). It was a little weird, but, basically, a picnic. We're planning to do it again next weekend. Like everything we're having to do differently right now, we learned some things that will make next time better.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: We may have passed the end date of 40 Bags In 40 Days (and I'm both proud and horrified to say that I did hit the goal of 40 bags!), but my work will continue. I have never finished my work in the basement and I'm bound and determined to stick with that this year until I am done. It sounds morbid to say, but if the worst were to happen to me with this virus, I want to leave things in such a way that my family will easily be able to find anything they need.

Thinking About: Other ways to actually see people without putting any of us at risk.

Feeling: Tired of being afraid.

Looking forward to: 2021. Surely by then we will be able to go to sporting events, eat out, and hug each other without fear.

Question of the week: As you can see, this virus is on my mind a lot, although I am finally able to turn it out for long periods now. How are you all finding ways to keep your mind occupied and keep in touch with the people you love?

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Simon The Fiddler by Paulette Jiles

Simon The Fiddler by Paulette Jiles
Published April 2020 by William Morrow
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through TLC Book Tours, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
In March 1865, the long and bitter War between the States is winding down. Till now, twenty-three-year-old Simon Boudlin has evaded military duty thanks to his slight stature, youthful appearance, and utter lack of compunction about bending the truth. But following a barroom brawl in Victoria, Texas, Simon finds himself conscripted, however belatedly, into the Confederate Army. Luckily his talent with a fiddle gets him a comparatively easy position in a regimental band.

Weeks later, on the eve of the Confederate surrender, Simon and his bandmates are called to play for officers and their families from both sides of the conflict. There the quick-thinking, audacious fiddler can’t help but notice the lovely Doris Mary Dillon, an indentured girl from Ireland, who is governess to a Union colonel’s daughter.

After the surrender, Simon and Doris go their separate ways. He will travel around Texas seeking fame and fortune as a musician. She must accompany the colonel’s family to finish her three years of service. But Simon cannot forget the fair Irish maiden, and vows that someday he will find her again.

My Thoughts:
Before I blogged, read Paulette Jiles' Enemy Women. It was one of those books that people were passing from friend to neighbor to family member. Three years ago, I read and loved Jiles' last book, News of the World. That time, it was my turn to put the book into everyone's hands; I even made my book club read it and in December we will go together to see the film adaptation of that book. That's how much I love Jiles' stories. It was, then, a no-brainer when I was offered her latest book for review.

Jiles is a master of crafting stories that never sacrifice amazing characters for incredible story lines, filled with enough tension to feel real to the time and place but always with hope. Through all of that, Jiles is one of the best at painting a picture with her words.
"Houston was strung out along a muddy bank of wharves and warehouses much like Galveston except here there was no clear seawater, only the heavy green bayou. Landing stages and steam vessels tossed into the bank, men loaded cotton and hemp, unloaded salted fish in barrels, train oil, shoes, and crates of patent medicines. Along the waterfront were warehouses and leaning shacks where men ran in and out like figures in a cuckoo clock."
Like the other books I've read of Jiles', this one is a journey, an unlikely hero seeking a home and family. Along the way, Simon survives by his intelligence, his skill, and by surrounding himself with people who will become like family. In the beginning, I wasn't sure I would like Simon; I thought he might be one of those characters that I'd grow to care about despite his being unlikable. The truth is, I did grow to care about Simon. Not because he was unlikeable in a way I could understand but because I came to understand him and watched him grow as a person, gradually, believably.

This book has already been added to my favorites of the year and, when I can finally put it in other people's hands, I will absolutely be doing that.

Thanks to the ladies at TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour. Check out the full tour here. you can pick up your own copy of the book at HarperCollins.

About Paulette Jiles:

Paulette Jiles is a novelist, poet, and memoirist. She is the author of Cousins, a memoir, and the novels Enemy Women, Stormy Weather, The Color of Lightning, Lighthouse Island, and News of the World, which was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award. She lives on a ranch near San Antonio, Texas.

Find out more about Paulette at her website.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Capital Dames by Cokie Roberts

Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington 1848-1868 by Cokie Roberts
Read by the author
Published April 2006 by HarperCollins Publishers
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
In this engrossing and informative companion to her New York Times bestsellers Founding Mothers and Ladies of Liberty, Cokie Roberts marks the sesquicentennial of the Civil War by offering a riveting look at Washington, D.C. and the experiences, influence, and contributions of its women during this momentous period of American history.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, the small, social Southern town of Washington, D.C. found itself caught between warring sides in a four-year battle that would determine the future of the United States.

After the declaration of secession, many fascinating Southern women left the city, leaving their friends—such as Adele Cutts Douglas and Elizabeth Blair Lee—to grapple with questions of safety and sanitation as the capital was transformed into an immense Union army camp and later a hospital. With their husbands, brothers, and fathers marching off to war, either on the battlefield or in the halls of Congress, the women of Washington joined the cause as well. And more women went to the Capital City to enlist as nurses, supply organizers, relief workers, and journalists. Many risked their lives making munitions in a highly flammable arsenal, toiled at the Treasury Department printing greenbacks to finance the war, and plied their needlework skills at The Navy Yard—once the sole province of men—to sew canvas gunpowder bags for the troops.

Cokie Roberts chronicles these women's increasing independence, their political empowerment, their indispensable role in keeping the Union unified through the war, and in helping heal it once the fighting was done. She concludes that the war not only changed Washington, it also forever changed the place of women.

Sifting through newspaper articles, government records, and private letters and diaries—many never before published—Roberts brings the war-torn capital into focus through the lives of its formidable women.

My Thoughts:
It's Cokie Roberts so that's a selling point right off the bat. Then it was recommended to me by someone I know would never steer me wrong. Well, that's not entirely true; we have vastly different opinions about Outlander. But on this book, we absolutely agree. If you read the full title above, you'll also have noticed that this book is about a period of time I grew up immersed in and now love to read about.

Roberts reads the book. I had forgotten how much I loved her voice and her way of telling a story. It's a big selling point for the book. But this is another one of those books that sort of demands that you pay attention to while you're listening to it which might not make it an ideal for book to listen to for everyone. There are a lot of "characters" to keep track of and a lot of relationships to pay attention to here.

Jessie Fremont,
Elizabeth Lee,
Kate Sprague,
Julia Grant
For anyone who's read very much about the Civil War and the women in the spotlight at that time, there will be a lot of familiar names here: Mary Todd Lincoln, Varina Davis, Clara Barton, Louisa May Alcott. But there are a lot of less famous women who played equally important roles:

  • Jessie Benton Fremont: daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton and wife of military officer, explorer, and politician John C. Fremont. Jessie was a highly vocal proponent of her husband and often butted heads in Washington. 
  • Elizabeth Blair Lee: daughter of Francis Blair (journalist and newspaper editor), sister of Francis Preston Blair (politician and soldier), wife of Samuel Lee (Rear Admiral of the Navy). The Blairs' home became part of what is now known as Blair House, the guest home of visiting dignitaries. The Blairs and the Chases were fierce opponents. 
  • Kate Chase Sprague: daughter of Treasury Secretary (later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) Salmon P. Chase and wife of Rhode Island governor William Sprague. Kate was determined to be First Lady and spent years pushing the idea of her father for President. 
  • Julie Grant: wife of U.S. General U. S. Grant. Julia has been snubbed by Mary Lincoln and was probably more than a little happy to find herself a far more popular First Lady than Mary Lincoln had ever been. 

Other women Roberts covers are women I've met in other books, both nonfiction and fiction: Rose Greenhow, Elizabeth Keckley, Dorothea Dix.

In focusing on these women, Roberts explores the influence women had over the events of the war and the ways that the war changed the role of women. For example, prior to the war, nursing was the purvue of men; since that war, it's a profession that became almost exclusively one for women. Women began working in factories at this time and were the primary drivers of fundraising for increased sanitation in the country.

This book is a hit for me on so many levels: political, gender roles, interesting women (and their men), and the details of war. I only wish I had a physical copy to pass along to my parents. I know my mom, in particular, would love it!

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Life: It Goes On

Happy Easter! This is going to be one of the strangest days of all of this social distancing stuff. We are meant to be together to day more than so many other days. We are meant to be in churches and with extended family. Instead, we will be celebrating only with those who live with us. Church will be (for those who are intelligent enough to believe the scientists) virtual. We will Zoom get together with family today, as I suspect so many of you will, as well. There will be ham on my dinner table and we'll use the good dishes. It seems a little silly to bother but it also feels essential to maintain as much tradition and routine as we possibly can right now.

Last Week I:

Listened To: Working from home has the advantage of me getting to pick the background music playing while I work. I'd rather not divulge how much of my time has been spent trying to find which play lists are working best for me but I think I've got that part resolved. The disadvantage of having no commute is that I have almost no audiobook listening time. Also very little ability to focus on something that's not in my hands. Gigi Levangie's latest, Been There, Married That became available on Friday and, so far, it's just the right thing for my brain right now.

Watched: Friday night we watched The Shows Must Go On on YouTube which is showing a stage adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar which we enjoyed. Yesterday I watched You've Got Mail which always brightens my day. Tonight we'll probably watch Jesus Christ Superstar again; the adaptation that was shown live last year is being rebroadcast. I do love that musical!

Read: I've joined a readalong of Kate Atkinson's Case Histories. I haven't done a readalong in a while and I forgot how hard it is to see aside the book for a few days between meet ups! In the meantime, I'm excited to be reading Paulette Jiles' latest, Simon the Fiddler. I know several people who are going to be chomping at the bit to get their hands on this one as soon as I finish it!

Made: A lot of comfort food - tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, chili, pasta. Today I'll make a ham, potatoes, layered salad, maybe even deviled eggs since my Mom won't be with us to bring them.

Enjoyed: A knock on the door Friday that turned out to be the delivery of an Easter lily from my parents. It was just the thing I needed to finish my holiday mantel and helped remind me that, just because we won't be together, we are not alone.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: On cleaning up the desk I'm working at for the next three weeks at least. It's The Big Guy's desk and he doesn't seem to mind working in clutter. It's making me twitchy so I'm going to be spending some time getting things organized and finding new homes for the six toys he has on the desk. We'll see how long it lasts after I go back to the office!

Thinking About: Trying to convince my employer to let me bring my emotional support cat with me when I go back to the office. My cat hardly leaves my side during the day and I reward her by making it easier for her to watch birds out of the windows. We're going to be pretty inseparable after three more weeks together nonstop!

Feeling: Cranky about the forecast. One thing that is helping me get through all of this is that it's been fairly warm and very sunny. This week is supposed to be colder than normal. Which means no dinners on the patio, no open windows and doors. On the plus side, maybe I'll be more productive inside when I don't spend half of my free time soaking up sun!

Looking forward to: Family Easter Zoom time later today!

Question of the week: If you celebrate Easter, what changes are you making this year to celebrate?

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Transcription by Kate Atkinson
Read by Fenella Woolgar
Published September 2018 by Little, Brown and Company
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
In 1940, eighteen-year old Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage. Sent to an obscure department of MI5 tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathizers, she discovers the work to be by turns both tedious and terrifying. But after the war has ended, she presumes the events of those years have been relegated to the past forever. 

Ten years later, now a radio producer at the BBC, Juliet is unexpectedly confronted by figures from her past. A different war is being fought now, on a different battleground, but Juliet finds herself once more under threat. A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence.

My Thoughts:
Let’s just start with the reading, shall we? Fenella Woolgar is marvelous and deserves to be recognized and if I wait to tell you about here until the end, you might have already stopped reading. This is the second of Atkinson’s books that I’ve listened to her read and, while I’m certain I would have been impressed with the books in print, Woolgar’s reading adds so much to the books. So much so that I’ve placed a hold on Tracy Chevalier’s latest, A Single Thread, for the sole reason that Woolgar is reading it.

Now, on to the story.
“Juliet had stopped going to that school, stopped preparing for that bright future, so that she could care for her mother—there had always been only the two of them—and had not returned after her mother’s death. It seemed impossible somehow. . . . That girl, transmuted by bereavement, had gone. And, as far as Juliet could tell, she had never really come back.”
Without any attachments, Julia is just the kind of girl MI5 is looking for. Young, naïve, and alone, she is easily scooped up into the world of espionage. Initially recruited into the secretarial pool, Julia is soon part of a “high tech” surveillance team. Her job is to transcribe recordings of meetings between an MI5 agent, Godfrey Toby who is posing as a German government agent, and a group of Fifth Columnists (“a group of secret sympathizers or supporters of an enemy that engage in espionage or sabotage within defense lines or national borders” – I had to look it up and thought you might not know that phrase, either). It’s dull work in the beginning and, as the only woman on the team, Juliet is often called on to do the kinds of things the men think of as “women’s work.” Our girl Juliet is keenly aware of the slight.

But let’s not to be too hasty in calling Juliet a feminist. To fill her days, young Juliet spends a lot of time fantasizing about a romantic relationship with her handsome boss, Peregrine Gibbons. Perry shows an interest in her that, as it turns out, is not in the least bit romantic. Instead, Perry has chosen Juliet to act as a double agent. As Iris Carter-Jenkins, Juliet is handed a gun, an imaginary fiancé, and very little in the way of training. In no time at all, “Iris” has befriended Mrs. Scaife (a wealthy anti-Semitic) and the Fifth Column. She takes to it like water. It turns out all of the women in the book are masters at assuming whatever identity is needed at the time, a trick we women all now only too well.

After the war, Juliet is working as a producer on “that other great national monolith,” the BBC. Ironically, she is in charge of a program called “Past Lives.” It’s her own past life that is haunting her so badly that she becomes convinced that ghosts from the past have returned to punish her. As it turns out they have… in more ways than one.

The review of this book in the New Yorker suggests - no, out and out says – that Atkinson’s style “isn’t terribly distinctive.” Yet, if you’ve read any of her books, I’d bet you’ll disagree. She has, to my way of thinking a very distinctive style that sucks me into her books and which I think is marvelous. Her, as in her other books, there is both a nostalgia and a sense that the blinders are off and she sees the truth behind the façade. Was this my favorite of her books? No. Life After Life still holds that spot. But I enjoyed this one from the first and loved the way Atkinson bounced me around and then turned everything upside down.

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll

The Bullet Journal Method: Track The Past, Order The Present, Design The Future by Ryder Carroll
Published October 2018 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
For years Ryder Carroll tried countless organizing systems, online and off, but none of them fit the way his mind worked. Out of sheer necessity, he developed a method called the Bullet Journal that helped him become consistently focused and effective. When he started sharing his system with friends who faced similar challenges, it went viral. Just a few years later, to his astonishment, Bullet Journaling is a global movement.

The Bullet Journal Method is about much more than organizing your notes and to-do lists. It's about what Carroll calls "intentional living": weeding out distractions and focusing your time and energy in pursuit of what's truly meaningful, in both your work and your personal life. It's about spending more time with what you care about, by working on fewer things. His new book shows you how to...

• Track the past: Using nothing more than a pen and paper, create a clear and comprehensive record of your thoughts.

• Order the present: Find daily calm by tackling your to-do list in a more mindful, systematic, and productive way.

• Design the future: Transform your vague curiosities into meaningful goals, and then break those goals into manageable action steps that lead to big change.

Carroll wrote this book for frustrated list-makers, overwhelmed multitaskers, and creatives who need some structure. Whether you've used a Bullet Journal for years or have never seen one before, The Bullet Journal Method will help you go from passenger to pilot of your own life.

My Thoughts:
Does this picture help you understand how much I loved this book? I mean, it's a book about creating a book to help organize your life. How was I not going to love it?

I'm on my fifth year of using a bullet journal and it's been an evolving process. In the beginning, I was working hard to be as creative as possible with my journal, carrying around a box of colored pencils and then markers, along with washi tape and stencils. It didn't take me long to figure out that, as much as I admire journals that are colorful and creative, it was more work than I wanted to put into my journals. So I went back to Carroll's website to really get a feel for the process (

This book reinforces the process but also dives deep into the reasons it works and the ways it can be customized. If you've never used the bullet journal method, this is a great starting spot. But it's also a great resource for those of us who've been using the method for years. I knew the process but I didn't necessarily know why Carroll had developed each piece of it. Knowing the why is really going to help me use my journal better and help me develop what Carroll calls "collections" for more parts of my life and in a better way. All of those sticky notes have turned into ten legal pages of notes since I have to return the book (someday, when the libraries reopen) and there is some homework I still want to get to.

Don't be scared off by all of those sticky notes and the mention of homework, though. The beauty of the method and this book is that it is entirely up to you to make of it what you will. You can do as much, or as little, as you want. If you're like me and need paper and pen to keep things on track, this is definitely the way to go to help you stay on track without a lot of little notes all over the house!

Let's be honest, this book is right up my alley anyway. But right now, it was exactly what I needed to help me refocus on reading.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Life: It Goes On - April 5

Because I'm a person that can sometimes go a whole weekend without leaving the house anyway, while I've been home this weekend, it's been easier to pretend that everything is perfectly normal. Except that part where the other people I live with never. leave. What's a girl who needs her alone time to do???

On the other hand, Thursday I started working from home. That will be my new normal for at least a month. Already I miss that routine. And the people. It was my last real chance to see other people. It's weird working from home.

Of course, the people I really miss are my people - my family, my besties, the people I hug. Friday afternoon, I happy hour'd via Zoom with my besties. We talked for two hours. I may have drank the better part of a bottle of wine. I felt so much better when we were done, so much lighter. Then Saturday, we "zoomed" with almost everyone on my side of the family. I got to see all of my brother's grandkids and hear them talk and see my great-niece walking (she just recently started). It's not the same as getting a hug but, for now, it helps.

Last Week I:

Listened To: I finished Tracy Chevalier's A Single Thread on Wednesday and don't have a new audiobook available right now so I've been bouncing around with different kinds of music. Without a commute, it's hard to listen to podcasts. I'm not sure how I'm going to listen to a book when my next library hold becomes available.

Watched: We're trying to avoid too much of the news. We want to be informed but not overwhelmed. So we leave the t.v. more than usual.

We also took advantage of the first weekend of free Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals; Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was available on YouTube. We watched for 45 minutes but couldn't take it any more; it was released straight to video when it came out and it showed. Next weekend is Jesus Christ Superstar; I'm really looking forward to that one!

Read: I'm struggling with The Book of V. I'm about half way through it but it's taken me most of the week and it's a short book. It may be a rare DNF for me. There are three stories within the book and I'm having a hard time getting into any of them. I'm not blaming the book; it's probably, more than ever, a case of wrong book, wrong time.

Made: Salads, beef stroganoff, enchiladas, Miss H's favorite goulash - we've been making good meals this week. One benefit of working from home is that I'll have an extra hour every day so I'm hoping to cook even more in the coming weeks.

Red Cedar Works - one of
fave small businesses!
Enjoyed: Miss H went into Lincoln this week and socially distance visited my parents. I wish I could have seen their faces when she surprised them! She came back with a little gift for me that my sister had sent to my parents' house (along with the rest of their order) to congratulate me on my new job. She calls these "conversation boxes" and this is now my second one.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: On finishing up 40 Bags in 40 Days this week. I'll definitely get my 40 bags out (although "out" is a bit of a misnomer since I can't get anything to Goodwills or shelters). I just haven't done a good job of hitting the area that needed it most, my basement. When the sun is shin gin, I don't want to be downstairs; when the sun isn't shining, I can't seem to get motivated. 

Thinking About: The two nurses in our family, and all of the other health care workers, who are on the front line of this thing.

Feeling: At the moment, I'm feeling eager to get past the last freeze. The Big Guy got worried that we wouldn't be able to get vegetable plants and flowers if we went to shelter in place so my kitchen table is now covered in plants. We cannot use the table but I'm going to be so happy when my yard is full of color come summer time.

Looking forward to: It's supposed to be almost 80 degrees on Tuesday so my friends and I are planning a social distancing appropriate dinner party. One of them has a really big patio so we can all stay far enough apart to be safe and we'll all bring our own meals. It will be very different (and so hard not to hug them!); but at least we'll be together.

Question of the week: Have any of you started making masks? I ordered material to make some and will give that a shot this week. BG has done a lot of research so we think we'll be able to make masks that will at least allow us to go out for short periods relatively safely.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Hell or High Water by Joy Castro

Hell or High Water by Joy Castro
Published July 2012 by St. Martin's Press
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Nola Céspedes, an ambitious young reporter at the Times-Picayune, finally catches a break: an assignment to write her first full-length feature. While investigating her story, she also becomes fixated on the search for a missing tourist in the French Quarter. As Nola's work leads her into a violent criminal underworld, she's forced to face disturbing truths from her own past and is confronted with the question: In the aftermath of devastation, who is responsible for rebuilding what's been broken?

My Thoughts:
I wish I were better at remembering or recording where I first heard of books. I know I've been wanting to read this one for several years. I know when I saw Castro at the 2015 Omaha Lit Fest I was hoping to be able to pick this book up then (unfortunately, they didn't have it). Because I can't remember where I first heard about the book, I also can't remember what drew me to it so I went into this one completely blind. Even so, it was not what I expected.

I thought I was going to get a straight mystery with a colorful setting. That's not what I got.

There is a mystery piece to this book - who is kidnapping and killing young women in New Orlean's French Quarter? But that is almost a backdrop for the real stories here.
"In the aftermath of devastation, who is responsible for rebuilding what's been broken?"
In Hell or High Water, that piece of the summary isn't just talking about New Orleans, post-Katrina. It's about those who suffer from sexual predators, who become the subject of an assignment Nola is unexpectedly handed that might make her career. Mostly, though, it's about Nola.

Nola is one of the most interesting characters I've read in a long time. Her mother was a Cuban refugee, her father left them when she was little after moving them to New Orleans, and she grew up in the Ninth Ward, in the projects. To give her a better education, Nola's mother sent her across town to a private school, a place where Nola felt even less like she fit in.

Now, she's feeling stuck and desperate for the kind of story that will allow her to get out of New Orleans, away from her past and away from her mother, an alcoholic who requires Nola's help every Sunday to keep up her place. She has a group of friends that gets together weekly but none of them know about Nola's past and none of them struggle to make ends meet. Even with her closest friends, Nola doesn't feel like she fits in and she can never entirely let her guard down. There's a dark side of Nola that even her besties don't know about and that's the part of her that makes her such an interesting character. And that's the part that's going to make this book really blow up.

The second most interesting character in this book? The city of New Orleans. I'm not sure I've ever read a book where the setting played such a big role in the book. From the French Quarter, to the zoo, to the food, to the nearby plantations, to culture and food. Once in a while it felt like too much, like Castro was looking for ways to get more of New Orleans into the book. But mostly, it really rooted the story and the people in the story.

Trigger warning: When Nola finally gets an assignment she hopes will really launch her reporting career, it's a piece about the sexual predators that went off the radar after Katrina. To get a full story, Nola interviews a number of convicted predators and a psychologist who talks about the effects on their victims. It's a tough read and if it's something that you have experience with, it might be too hard to read.