Monday, February 6, 2017

Rainy Day Reading

With the epic rains of January came plenty of time to be cozy with my cat, mug of hot cocoa, and many a fabulous book.  Here are some highlights:

A Cordiall Water - M.F.K. Fisher
It's been years since I read Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf, but a friend reminded me of her prolific writings and specifically recommended A Cordiall Water, and it was a truly delightful read, in which Fisher writes about various remedies (and related cultural lore) intended to "assuage the ills of man and beast."  While I doubt I'll be laying a quartered pigeon on my chest any time soon (or making said pigeon into a broth) or putting bacon grease up my nose, I might need to up my honey intake, at a minimum.  All in all, highly entertaining!

A Journey Round My Skull - Frigyes Karinthy
Karinthy, a Hungarian writer, wrote this memoir in 1939 about his experience of having a brain tumor.  It's a riveting account of his thoughts, starting with his intuition that something was very wrong, as well as the doctors he meets with and who ultimately operate on him (not under full anesthesia - now that's an utterly harrowing passage), his relationships with friends and family, and the trial and error along the way, with misdiagnoses, miscommunications, and misanthropic moments, to boot.  Fascinating - I couldn't put it down. 

Jackaby - William Ritter
It's very rare for me to head to the teen section of the library, but that I did, in search of Jackaby, a book that was on display at a bookstore.  The old timey writing and plot caught my attention, and I have to admit, I read it voraciously and contentedly.  It tells the story of a young woman named Abigail Rook who arrives in the port town of New Fiddleham, England in 1892, and ultimately lands a job with R.F. Jackaby, a crime investigator with a unique ability to tap into supernatural elements.  I can't wait to read the sequel, with the appealing title, Beastly Bones

House of Liars - Elsa Morante
How does one possibly begin to recover from the post-Ferrante tetralogy blues?  How can such a hole be filled?  As Ferrante mentions in her memoir and collection of interviews, Frantumaglia, one of the writers she admires is Elsa Morante, an Italian novelist.  Therefore, I picked up Morante's House of Liars (published in 1948) and found myself immediately immersed in a novel that reminded me of Garcia Marquez, Allende, and of course, Ferrante.  It's peopled with passionate and stormy characters mired in the messy ties of family, loyalty, love, lust, and jealousy.  Plus, it has one of the most unexpected and creative endings that I've read in some time! 

The Eaten Heart: Unlikely Tales of Love - Giovanni Boccaccio
The Eaten Heart is a collection of stories from Boccaccio's The Decameron, which was written in the mid 1300s over a period of ten years.  The premise of the book is that a group of young Italians are in a secluded villa outside of Florence, where they are attempting to escape the Black Death, and pass the time by telling stories (100 in total) to each other. These stories all focus on love in its various forms - bawd, lustful, nostalgic, unrequited, etc.  This is perhaps the first time I have read literature from the 14th century, so I was struck by how modern and engaging the language is!  I definitely plan to read more tales from The Decameron

To Build a Fire and Other Stories - Jack London
Jack London was a prolific writer, and was a master of short stories.  This collection shows his breadth, and includes several of his Klondike stories which are rugged wilderness tales that take place in the Far North.  It also includes stories featuring working men, downtrodden folks, fighters, desperados, and others, in an array of local and exotic locations, largely inspired by London's own experiences and travels.  While I liked some stories more than others, he has a very engaging and crisp writing style overall, and it is a great collection. 

Baldwin: Bold, Bright, Brilliant

I re-read Baldwin's The Fire Next Time last year, and think it is an essential book that all Americans should read.  Baldwin wrote it in 1963, and now, over 50 years later, it remains more relevant than ever, and stands as one of the most important, lyrical, and searing books ever written about race relations in this country.

It seems Baldwin's words are resonating, as there is a resurgence of interest in his work, as evidenced by the recent release of the documentary I Am Not Your Negro.  I also recently watched another documentary about Baldwin, first aired in 1989, called The Price of the Ticket.  Both are powerful and important films (in my opinion, especially the latter), which depict Baldwin's courage, humanity, charisma, charm, poise, and passion for social justice. 

I recently read both  James Baldwin:  The Last Interview and Other Conversations published by Melivlle House, and Letter to Jimmy written by Alain Mabanckou, a Franco-Congolese writer.  Paired together, they provide a good range of information about Baldwin's life, both his early years and his last days.  The former includes Baldwin's own thoughts and reflections, while the latter provides Mabanckou's reflections on what shaped Baldwin's ideas.  They are both very good books, but I think the best place to start is with Baldwin himself.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 reading roundup!

I've done it! I met my goal of reading 100 books this year.  It's hard to do a "top 10" so instead, I've listed my favorites by category. 

Favorite autobiographies/memoirs/essays
Find a Way - Diana Nyad
Walk through Walls - Marina Abramovic
The Hidden Wound - Wendell Berry
The Journey Home - Edward Abbey
Frantumaglia - Elena Ferrante
Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs - Wallace Stegner

Favorite re-reads:
The Fire Next Time - James Baldwin
The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Favorite debut novels:
Behold the Dreamers - Imbolo Mbue
Border of Paradise - Esme Weijun Wang
Best Short Stories:
The Splendid Outcast - Beryl Markham
The Magic Barrel - Bernard Malamud
Favorite books by established authors new to me this year:
Medicine Walk - Richard Wagamese
The Temporary Gentleman - Sebastian Barry
The Sea - John Banville

Eileen - Ottessa Moshfegh
Best survival story:
After the Wind - Lou Kasischke
Best Southern ambience:
The Risen - Ron Rash
Best non-fiction:
Are Prisons Obsolete? - Angela Davis
The Fire This Time - ed. by Jesmyn Ward
The Hour of Land - Terry Tempest Williams
Best engrossing reads (dare I say "beach reads?"):
House of Thieves - Charles Belfoure
The After Party - Anton DiScalfani
Sweet Caress - William Boyd
Best letters:
The Collected Letters of Wallace Stegner (real letters)
To the Bright Edge of the World - Eowyn Ivey (fictional letters)

Best books from the 1930s:
My Sister Eileen - Ruth McKenney
Remembering Laughter - Wallace Stegner

Monday, December 12, 2016

Up and Coming from Cameroon: Imbolo Mbue

Imbolo Mbue's debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, is both timely and timeless, and compulsively readable.  Mbue confronts head on the challenges of being an immigrant amidst the relentless pace and demands of New York City.  Mbue tells the story of Jende, Neni, and their young son, trying to make a better life for themselves.  Jende works as a driver for Lehman Brothers exec Clark Edwards, and Neni works for Mrs. Edwards.  The more time they spend with the Edwards family, the more they start to see beyond the wealth and privilege that the family exudes, to the more troubling undercurrents.  With the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Jende's job is threatened which puts a significant strain on his family, and even his marriage.   Mbue has written a brilliant first novel - highly recommended! 

Monday, October 24, 2016

How gritty are you?

I visit many schools, and I often hear or see the word "grit" as I walk through the halls and visit the classrooms.  It has become a buzzword in the education world.  What is grit and can we develop it within ourselves?  Angela Duckworth, a Harvard and University of Pennsylvania trained neurobiologist with a Ph.D. in Psychology explores the concept of grit in depth, in her book entitled Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.  Grit, Duckworth tells, us, is a combination of passion and perseverance which, lucky for us, is not fixed.  It is about "holding the same top level goal for a very long time." 

Duckworth points out that while our culture has a bias for those who are "naturals," we can actually become grittier and improve upon our potential as we get older.  Throughout her book, Duckworth shares interviews and findings with various "grit paragons" such as West Point graduates, athletes, and musicians.  Interestingly, grit paragons did not necessarily start with just one activity (say, baseball, for example), but typically had explored several interests before finding their passion.  Once they find their passion (or "interest"), the next step is practice in a deliberate way which includes clearly defining a stretch goal, engage with full concentration and effort, get immediate feedback, and repeat (with reflection and refinement).  After practice, comes purpose, as in, connecting whatever work you do to something greater than yourself.  Through the practice of "job crafting" Duckworth posits that you can change your mindset about your current position to increase its connection to your core values. 

Within the context of parenting, Duckworth points out that parenting to enhance grit is best achieved by finding a balance between being supportive and demanding.  Duckworth also touts the importance of growth mindset, which, as opposed to a fixed mindset, is one in which we perceive that the brain is a muscle and can grow, thus intelligence is not fixed.  She gives examples of statements that promote growth mindset, such as "great job, what's one thing you could do even better?"   Overall, it's an interesting read.

Indelible Irish

I had a serendipitous reading experience last week in which I picked up both John Banville's The Sea and Sebastian Barry's The Temporary Gentleman at the library, not knowing much about either book or either author.  Both are contemporary Irish writers with many novels under their belt.  I happened to pick these two books with no previous recommendations.  Both roped me in immediately with gorgeous language and unique plots.  Barry's novel is told from Jack McNulty's perspective as he looks back on his difficult marriage and his career as a soldier, engineer, and UN observer which took him all over the world.  It weaves in anecdotes from where the protagonist currently sits, in 1950-s Ghana, reflecting on his life.  I couldn't put it down. 

Banville's The Sea is a slim novel that explores the way grief, love, and childhood memories intersect, with the ever-changing but steady sea as a backdrop.  Banville used a number of words in his novel that I had to read more than once because I wasn't sure if they were real or invented, such as "quietus" and "bosky," which kept me on my toes.  Every single page contained memorable passages, but these were a few of my favorites:

How wildly the wind blows today, thumping its big soft ineffectual fists on the windowpanes.  This is just the kind of autumn weather, tempestuous and clear, that I have always loved. 
Also, she understands me to a degree that is disturbing and will not indulge my foibles and excesses as others do who know me less and therefore fear me more. 
My expression was uniformly winsome and ingratiating, the expression of a miscreant who fears he is about to be accused of a crime he knows he has committed yet cannot quite recall, but is preparing his extenuations and justifications anyway. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Legacy of James Baldwin

The recently published collection of essays, The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward, includes 18 essays that reflect on similar themes that James Baldwin addressed in The Fire Next Time, written over 50 years ago.  Yet, as J. Ward writes in the introduction, "Replace ropes with bullets.  Hound dogs with German shepherds.  A gray uniform with a bulletproof vest.  Nothing is new."  The essays all explore race in America and are divided into three sections based on the historical, current, and future context (called legacy, reckoning, and jubilee).  Representing a diverse group of voices from academics to activists, The Fire This Time is essential, thought provoking reading. Some interesting perspectives and comments:

"If I knew anything about being black in America it was that nothing was guaranteed, you couldn't count on a thing, and all that was certain for most of us was a black death."  - Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah
"It seems the rate of police killings now surpasses the rate of lynchings during the worst decade of the Jim Crow era."   - Isabel Wilkerson
"And we must know deep in our bones and in our hearts that if the ancestors could survive the Middle Passage, we can survive anything."- Kiese Laymon
"...when my Grandmama hugs my neck, I'm going to tell her that when no one in the world believed I was a beautiful Southern black boy, she believed."  - Kiese Laymon
"...the wrongheaded question that is asked is, What kind of savages are we?  Rather than, What kind of country do we live in?"  - Claudia Rankine

Baldwin's Bold Words

James Baldwin' writing, in No Name in the Street, speaks for itself.  Examples of his beautiful writing:

But for power truly to feel itself menaced, it must somehow sense itself in the presence of another power - or, more accurately, an energy - which it has not known how to define and therefore does not really know how to control.

The powerless, by definition, can never be "racists," for they can never make the world pay for what they feel or fear except by the suicidal endeavor which makes them fanatics or revolutionaries, or both; whereas, those in power can be urbane and charming and invite you to hose which they know you will never own. 

The truth which frees black people will also free white people, but this is a truth which white people find very difficult to swallow. 

White people, in the main, and whether they are rich or poor, grow up with a grasp of reality so feeble that they can very accurately be described as deluded- about themselves the world they live in.  White people have managed to get through entire lives in this euphoric state, but black people have not been so lucky...

It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.

For if it is difficult to be released from the stigma of blackness, it is clearly at least equally difficult to surmount the delusion of whiteness. 

People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned. 

A Siren Call

Ron Rash is one of my favorite Southern writers.  Alongside One Foot in Eden and Serena, The Risen does not disappoint.  It's a siren call - the appeal of something alluring but potentially dangerous. Two brothers, Bill and Eugene befriend an intriguing, free spirited young woman, Ligeia, who is visiting relatives, all within the backdrop of small town North Carolina.  The book is set in current day, but flashes back to when the characters first met in 1969, and follows the very different trajectories of the brothers since that fateful summer.  As the truth surrounding a longstanding mystery bubble to the surface, so do the tensions between Bill and Eugene.  It's captivating, atmospheric, poetic.  Ron Rash is at his best with The Risen.

On incarceration

I recently read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and Angela Davis' Are Prisons Obsolete?  Combined, these provide an accessible and informational overview of the history of mass incarceration in the United States, and provides some potential solutions. For the purposes of this blog post, I have focused on M. Alexander's book. 

The New Jim Crow posits that in the history of the United States, there have been three forms of racialized social control - a racial caste sysetm based on exploitation (slavery), subordination (the Jim Crow laws) and marginalization (mass incarceration).  It took a war to end slavery, and a mass social movement to end Jim Crow.  Alexander suggests that it would require another mass social movement to end mass incarceration and its stigmatizing effects on communities of color.  She sets out to stimulate conversation on thought on the role of the criminal justice system in perpetuating a racial caste system. 
Alexander describes some of the discrimination that the formerly incarcerated face, which include but are not limited to tangible impacts such as housing, employment, exclusion from jury service, denial of public benefits, ineligibility for food stamps, inability to secure a drivers license.  Coupled with intangible effects such as the social stigma and a "racially segregated and subordinated existence," felons are permanently on the margins of society, excluded from full participation as a citizen.  Alexander states, Hundreds of years ago, our nation put those considered less than human in shackles; less than one hundred years ago, we relegated them to the other side of town; today we put them in cages."  She further states that"A human rights nightmare is occurring on our watch."  

Alexander describes the history of the three racialized forms of social control, in particular mass incarceration, and describes its failure in actually preventing crime and that, in fact, it was not an increase in violent crime that accounted for the prison boom.  Rather, it stems largely from the war on drugs that was waged in poor black communities, as opposed to say, in white fraternity houses or wealthy white suburbs, that resulted in convictions for drug offenses.  The data shows that people of color are no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites.  Due to a combination of "stop and frisk" policies, pretext stops (ex. being pulled over for a supposedly broken tail light as a pretext for a drug search), and cash incentives to police departments for drug law enforcement, drug convictions soared.  Simultaneously, with a decline of jobs in the inner cities, there was an increased incentives to sell drugs to keep food on the table. 

Here are some facts and ideas she mentions:

- No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities
- 1 in 3 young African Americans is under the control of the criminal justice system (where it be in prison, jail, probation, or parole)
- African Americans are six times as likely to be sentenced to prison for identical crimes, than whites (among youth never sent to juvenile prison before)
- The stigma of incarceration leads to silence and a "collective denial of lived experience" and leads many to embrace a stigmatized identity
- Potential solutions:  meaningful re-entry programs, the elimination of incentives to arrest poor black and brown people.  She points out that affirmative action has been positive in providing psychological benefits to people of color, but in doing so abandons a more radical social movement

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

As Good as Larry Watson

I've been a fan of Larry Watson ever since I read Montana, 1948, so of course I was very excited to see that he published a new novel recently, entitled As Good as Gone.  Watson is a master at engaging the reader quickly, with his interesting characters amidst the eastern plains of Montana.  His writing is a niche blend of mystery, novel, and Western, that I greatly enjoy.  While As Good as Gone kept me reading, I found it a bit lackluster in comparison to American Boy and Montana, 1948, which seemed more fully realized.  Then again, why not just read everything Watson has written?  His smart writing and great dialogue are sure to entertain!  

A Burning Flame

I recently re-read James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, and I highly recommend you read it as soon as possible.  As I was taking in Baldwin's words, I found myself earmarking multiple passages on every page until I finally just gave up and realized that every single page of this fierce book is filled with powerful, unforgettable, and essential thoughts about race and racism in America, and that it is the kind of book that should be read right now, and then re-read often.  I'm going to re-read this book at least once a year, because it rings as true now as it did in 1963 when it was first published.  It would be interesting to read it in tandem with Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, as Coates' recent memoir discusses similar themes and is written in a similar style to part of Baldwin's book (i.e. in the form of a letter to a young black man).  Bottom line - it is essential that everyone read this book.  Baldwin's message burns as bright as ever.  

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Two Debut Reviews

Esme Weijun Wang's debut novel The Border of Paradise captivated me from the first few pages.  Set in mid twentieth century Brooklyn, Taiwan, and a high Sierra town in California, it explores the impact of mental illness on multiple generations of the Nowak family, and portrays how it brings the family close together and tears it apart.  Taking the first person perspectives of the different family members is not a new approach but is done in such a fresh and intimate way in Wang's deft hands.  I was curious about this very talented young writer, so I went to her website which is quite unlike other author websites I have visited.  She describes how the three themes on her mind in recent times are creativity, resilience, and legacy, all of which are touched upon in her novel.  It's evident after reading the novel and visiting her website that she someone bristling with creative ideas, and has published many essays and embarked on other artistic projects.  Highly recommended!

Yaa Gyasi's debut novel Homegoing has been hailed as a revelation - some have even gone so far as to suggest it is and will be the best book published in 2016.  This is one of those books (and I've had this feeling before, for example, when Zadie Smith published White Teeth and Chimamanda Adichie published Purple Hibisicus) in which I wonder what I was doing when I was 26 years old!  What Gyasi has achieved at such an early stage of her age is very impressive.  She's written a gorgeous, heartbreaking novel that spans eight generations and multiple geographies (coming full circle to Ghana, with many stops in between including Harlem and Alabama). What I find particularly interesting about her novel is that despite its breadth, each chapter almost stands alone as a vignette that explores deeply the characters' lives.  To achieve both breadth and depth is rare.  It's an essential read on slavery and its legacy.  

2016 mid-year reading roundup (a bit late)

It's time for my mid-year reading roundup. I read many thought provoking, memorable, and riveting books in the first half of 2016. Here are my top 10 favorites (out of about 50 total), in order of when I read them from January up until June 30th:
1. Eileen - Ottessa Moshfegh
2. Black Man in a White Coat - Damon Tweedy
3. Forgotten Country - Catherine Chung
4. The Splendid Outcast - Beryl Markham
5. Find a Way - Diana Nyad
6. House of Thieves - Charles Belfoure
7. The Hidden Wound - Wendell Berry
8. Mankiller: A Chief and Her People - W. Mankiller & M. Wallis
9. Becoming Nicole - Amy Ellis Nutt
10. The After Party - Anton DiSclafani

Wallace Stegner continues to blow me away with his range and beautiful writing (but I didn't want to crowd my top 10 list with all Stegner!). My favorites so far from this year have been his first novel, Remembering Laughter, and one of his collections of essays on the West, entitled Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs (in particular the essay "Letter, Much Too Late").

The first book I read in the second half of the year is also spectacular - The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Homage to National Parks

The last time I read Terry Tempest Williams, other than some of her shorter works in Orion Magazine, was over 15 years ago in my undergraduate course, American Essays of Place.  I was delighted to see that she recently published The Hour of Land, a memoir of her experiences at some of her favorite national parks and monuments.  Each chapter focuses on a different park, and is written in a unique tone.  In addition to sharing her own experiences, she infuses the history and founding of several of the parks, as well as discusses more recent political issues.  

In describing her childhood experience falling and getting 136 stitches by venturing out into nature, Williams reflected, "We learned early on we live by wild mercy."  She describes the national parks as our "public commons" that inspire humility.  

Williams starts in describing Grand Teton National Park, a park she and her family has visited every single year of her life.  She brings us to the scene of Civil War reenactments at Gettysburg National Military Park.  She tours Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota with a ranger dedicated to keeping encroaching oil fields at bay.  She interviews people affected by the BP oil spill along Gulf Islands National Seashore.  

We are taken into a scene in which she and her family came very close to being swallowed up by a wildfire at Glacier National Park.  Williams also describes the tension between the park system and the Native Americans who, in the case of Glacier, are demanding reinstatement of their treaty rights for access to the land to hunt, fish, and use cultural sites for spiritual practices.  One interesting fact I learned is that  25% of all firefighters working today on wildfires in public lands are Native American.

We are invited along to Alcatraz, to experience Ai Weiwei's (a dissident artist and prisoner in his own country) exhibit and discusses the Native American occupation of the island.  I learned that the prison was ultimately closed because it was too expensive to run and the structures were compromised by its location in the middle of the bay, in which wind, water, and salt corroded the buildings.  I thought this line particularly interesting given my recent work with the Prisoners Literature Project - "To receive mail in prison means you have not been forgotten.  A piece of your humanity is restored.  Isolation is momentarily suspended."'

We learn about the "cultural ecotones" of Acadia National Park, which she defines as border areas where two different landscapes meet (civilization/wilderness, forest/ocean, meadow/woods), and discusses the tensions, but also the bountiful wildlife, that live on these edges.  She discusses the convergence of lands around national parks (Native American, private, state owned, public, etc.), and how challenges can exist along these boundaries, by those fiercely wanting to protect the land, and by those who want to develop it.  

In her chapter on Big Bend National Park, she states, "Perhaps that is the nature of deserts - to break us open, wear us down to bedrock."  She also describes another one of my favorite writers, and a friend of hers, Edward Abbey, as "the ultimate misanthrope."  She advises the reader, "What I know as a naturalist is that if you want to see wildlife, get up before dawn."

Williams is passionate about the parks and takes us into the intimate battles that environmental activists fight to protect our land, sometimes at great personal costs.  Ultimately, my reading of this book ended with a feeling of hope, that despite threats to our beautiful national parks that have given me so much personal happiness over the last few years, that there are many people who care fiercely about the preservation of these majestic, humbling places.    

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Onions in the Stew

Betty MacDonald's Onions in the Stew drew me in, as I related in an earlier post, when I stumbled upon the 818 section at the public library.  The title alone seemed intriguing.  This is a memoir published in 1954 that focuses on MacDonald's decision to move to Vashon Island with her husband and two daughters.  During the time she lived on the island, she was both a writer and housewife, and describes day to day life on the island in a witty (and sometimes even hilarious) tone.  Some of my favorite quotes/expressions:

One bleak morning toward the end of the siege, I was shuffling around the kitchen contemplating a salad of noodles, Puss'n Boots and candle stubs, when Don announced, "My God, we have run out of whisky!" and offered to mush up to Vashon and get some supplies.

Rather defiantly I ate all the mushrooms, even flouncing up and getting a second helping...I was drinking my second cup of coffee when suddenly without any warning everything went black.

Glackity adolescents

Tiger, the boxer, looks very large and powerful but he spent one evening sitting on my lap eating gumdrops, watching Mr. Peepers on television and proving that appearances are deceiving.

It was uncomfortable, like trying to play bridge while an old aunt is choking to death on a fishbone in the same room.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The stacks: 818

I had a true "Dewey Decimalist" moment while at the public library the other day.  I found myself wandering the stacks, and stumbled upon the 818 section.  Here, I found lots of old looking somewhat encrusted books, but with very fabulous titles such as Onions in the Stew, My Sister Eileen, Oranges, and, Life Among the Savages.  I wasn't sure what the common thread was (memoirs?  light reportage?), so when I went home I found out that 818 refers to the quite general "American miscellaneous writings in English."  It is very rare for me to pluck books off the shelf with reckless abandon, having no idea what these titles might contain, but I quickly perused them and they all looked like gems.  In just a few hours, I polished off My Sister Eileen, by Ruth McKenney.  Come to find out, McKenney had a fascinating life.  Raised in Ohio and a precocious student (French, debate team, etc.), she was a tomboy with a sardonic wit to boot.  She studied journalism in college and wrote for the student newspaper, the Ohio State Lantern.  She survived one suicide attempt, and eventually moved to a moldy apartment in Greenwich Village with her sister Eileen.  Their real-life experiences were featured in a series of essays published in The New Yorker.  Anthologized in My Sister Eileen, they are highly readable and entertaining, with essay titles such as "No Tears, No Good," "A Loud Sneer for Our Feathered Friends," and "Mr. Spitzer and the Fungus."  Here are a few lines from "The Prince:"

He was handsome enough, if you like that dark, beady type.  Personally, one Georgian prince was enough for me....even Eileen, the belle of the Midwest, hadn't been able to gather in, during her heart-smashing career, so much as a Belgian count.  

So, having told one whopper, I went on, as is my unhappy custom, and told several more.  

An Inspiration: Diana Nyad

I've been telling everyone I know to read long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad's memoir Find a Way, which recounts her childhood and family relationships, her travels and interests, as well as her many attempts, and finally her success, in swimming from Cuba to Key West.  It's the best kind of memoir - intimate, vulnerable, inspiring, with moments of triumph.  I was rooting for Nyad from the very first page.  It's also a very well written book (Nyad studied for a PhD in comparative literature). 

I found all of the details and challenges of her swims to be totally fascinating - how she ultimately was able to stave off delirium, sharks, jellyfish, asthma, pain, currents, weather, and other seemingly insurmountable challenges to achieve her dream on her fifth attempt at the age of 64. 

Her absolute commitment to achieving her lifelong dream despite many setbacks, and her overcoming the circumstances of her childhood and adolescence serve as an inspiration and pushes the limits of what we think we may be capable of, and for that I'm grateful for having read this fascinating book. 

NYC: Gangsters in the Guilded Age

If you are looking for a fast-paced, intelligent caper, look no further than Charles Belfoure's House of Thieves, which captures 1886 New York City high society as well as its underworld.  Family secrets, deceptions, crime, glamour, gangsters, heists - it's all contained in this very entertaining novel, centered around John Cross, a successful architect, and his son who finds himself in over his head with gambling debt.  Part historical fiction, literary thriller, and family character study, this is a book you will stay up late at night to finish! 

Mankiller: A Chief and Her People

I highly recommend Mankiller:  A Chief and Her People, written by Wilma Mankiller and Michael Wallis, a fascinating autobiography of Mankiller's life interwoven with her engaging telling of the history of the Cherokee people.  Mankiller spent her early childhood in Oklahoma before her family moved to San Francisco as part of the Bureau of Indian Affair's relocation plan.  Mankiller became an activist in the 1960s in San Francisco, got very involved in working to support the Native American community, was part of the Alcatraz Island occupation, and eventually went on to work for the Cherokee Nation, and made history by becoming the first female leader of a major Native American tribe (the Cherokee tribe is the second largest tribe in the U.S., after the Navajo tribe).   She was a champion of education, gender equality and creating economic opportunities for women, indigenous solutions, health access, job creation, and worked tirelessly for the rights of the Cherokee people as well as other indigenous groups.  She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton in 1998.  This was a very interesting, well written book, by and about an inspiring leader!