Book Reviews

We all know Barbara Walters as the poised interviewer who asks the tough questions. She’s broken ground for women in the broadcasting industry; first on NBC’s Today Show, and later on ABC’s 20/20 and The View.

She's the woman who can get the scoop on everyone else … but what’s her story? Did she always have ambitions to become the household name she is today? Would she have done anything differently? You might be surprised at the path that Walters has taken, which she describes in her 2008 memoir, Audition.

Walters takes us back to the beginning: how her parents met, what life was like as the child of a risk-taking show producer, and how she felt as a young woman with little direction. We see a glimpse of a young Walters before the television specials and the interviews. Like anyone else, Walters was struggling with the demands of home and family life while her career was blossoming at NBC.

What we didn’t see on TV were her professional struggles with co-workers that almost drove her out of the business before ever finding her foothold with the network. If Walters had stood back and allowed others to stop her from moving forward with her career, we might never have known the talent she is today.

For many men, the fantasy of escaping the drudgery of their daily lives includes strapping on a sabre, affecting an accent, a-swashin’ and a-bucklin’ through the rigging, clutching a buxom wench, a pint o’ ale and a parrot spewing colorful invective.

If that seems like too many objects to juggle, it’s his fantasy. He can handle it.

Women already know how to juggle (bring home bacon, fry in pan, it’s all part of a day’s work). All we need to escape is a couple of candles, a jar of aromatic bath salts, a good book, and a lock on the bathroom door. Historical fiction can be the highest form of escapist literature as it thoroughly transports the reader to a time and place completely different from current circumstances.

And a good historical novel can be the equivalent of a capful of the most decadent soap bubbles, removing the reader from a life slightly ordinary to one wholly (though temporarily) remarkable.

Go ahead, ladies. Choose your own adventure.

Storyville, Lois Battle

It wasn’t enough for Ernest Hemingway to be one of the largest literary lions of the 20th century. His written works brought him celebrity and his many marriages, dalliances, and adventures were fodder for tabloids.

There was no experience too much for Hemingway to take on. From his wartime experiences on the Italian front in World War I, covering the Spanish Civil War, and his observations of D-Day and the liberation of Paris. He traded lofty ideas with Gertrude Stein’s set in Paris, rode out the Labor Day hurricane in the Florida Keys, nearly died while on safari in the Serengeti, and awarded Fidel Castro a trophy in the Hemingway marlin fishing contest.

Hemingway lived as large as he wrote. Other writers have noticed this trait, and instead of writing biographies, they have chosen to cast Hemingway as a character in their own fiction. While Papa never takes center stage in these books, he often proves the most colorful and lively of supporting characters, and his fictional escapades fit nicely with his real ones. A reader could almost believe Hemingway really did help solve a crime, visit a boy’s school, or was the object of tumultuous affection between two female friends in Paris.

Toros and Torsos, Craig McDonald

Dorothy West

What is more appropriate for June than a wedding, or The Wedding by Dorothy West?  Published in 1995, it, together with the story collection, The Richer the Poorer, constitutes the final output from the Harlem Renaissance generation of writers.

West (1907-1998) was one of the last surviving members of that literary and artistic movement, which had its peak in the 1920s and 1930s. West had her entry into that world with a story, “The Typewriter,” which won second place in a literary contest in the 1920s.  She tied for second with Zora Neale Hurston, another of the women writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance. 

West was less influential as a writer than as an editor and publisher.  She got the magazine Challenge off the ground in 1934, and its successor, New Challenge, later in the decade. These magazines provided an outlet for many of the young writers of the Renaissance. Richard Wright got his start writing stories for these magazines. 

In addition to the two works listed above, West produced the novel The Living is Easy in 1948, and these three works are the entirety of West’s literary output.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht reads like a piece of allegorical art. It is a literary creation to be savored, debated, enjoyed, and interpreted differently by each person who experiences its mysterious creativity.

Set entirely in the war-torn Balkans, this newly-published novel begins with the voice of four-year-old Natalia as she describes her weekly trip to the zoo with her physician grandfather to visit the captivating tigers. While spending time together, her grandfather reads his beloved copy of The Jungle Book to her and tells her incredible stories filled with Slavic folklore and superstition. 

Eventually Natalia grows up and becomes a doctor herself. While she is away on a mercy mission to inoculate children at a distant orphanage, her grandfather dies alone under odd circumstances in a strange town. Natalia is puzzled by his actions and feels compelled to seek truth and understanding about his death. Slowly and with determination, she begins piecing together the details of her grandfather’s last days, but in doing so, she also puts together the pieces of his life and discovers a new understanding of who her grandfather really was as a man.

Three Cups of Tea may just be one of the most well-known works of non-fiction around today. It’s a tricky one to avoid hearing about. If you haven’t read it, someone you know has, or you’ve seen one of the thousands of interviews given by co-author Greg Mortenson.

And even if you’d managed to avoid all of that, the potential scandal unearthed by CBS’s 60 Minutes last month, alleging not just that portions of the book are fabricated, but that Mortenson mismanages the charity that allows him to build all these schools, has put the book and Mortenson directly into the public spotlight and headlines.

It was this hoopla, actually, that prompted me to pick up Three Cups of Tea. After hearing about it for so long, I wanted to decide for myself what to believe.

The current popularity of knitting as a craft comes from its versatility and creativity. As a teenager in 1960s Japan, Kyoko did not view knitting in such positive ways. For her, it was a symbol of repression.

Yarn: Remembering the Way Home is New York Times noted author Kyoko Mori’s memoir of her life in Japan, her decision to leave Japan the first chance she had, and how she developed a successful life in the United States.  

In her seventh grade home economics class, Kyoko was required to knit a perfect pair of mittens. With mismatched stitches and uneven knitting, Kyoko’s mittens earned only a D-. She had little use for knitting and for many other skills taught to teenage girls; skills she saw as symbols of repression thrust upon Japanese women. She had witnessed how the strong patriarchal society had destroyed her mother, leaving her with suicide as her only means of escaping an overbearing husband.

Being a runaway is hard enough as it is – leaving behind friends, family, and the life you’ve always known just to get away. Survival is always a concern, and it gets even trickier as a runaway in Unwind. In Neal Shusterman’s dystopian young-adult novel, they’re not just after you. They’re after your body parts.

In the future, in order to satisfy both sides of the pro-choice and pro-life war, the American Government has approved the Bill of Life.  The Bill of Life states that parents may choose to retroactively abort a pregnancy when their child is between the ages of 13 and 18.  In doing so, the child is technically kept alive by the dismemberment and “recycled,” with 100% of the child’s body material getting repurposed. The child’s life is never taken, just...“redistributed.” This process is known as “unwinding,” and the unfortunate children and teens fated for this are known as “Unwinds.”

Our three main characters are all on the run for different reasons. Connor is a troubled boy whose parents decided to unwind him after multiple fights in school. Risa is a ward of the state who feels she was never really given a chance to shine. And Lev is along for the ride with Connor and Risa after being kidnapped on his way to his own tithing – he is his family’s religious contribution to the unwinding system.

Sometimes in our lives, we set our own limitations. We are too afraid to follow our dreams. We tell ourselves that we don’t have enough skills, talents, or physical abilities to do a certain task. These fears prevent us from utilizing the full potential that we have.

Is your makeup trying to kill you? Some days it may seem like it. The blusher quits working, the foundation is flat, the lipstick has turned into Clown Red but the label says “Blushing Bride Pink.”

Perry Romanowski and the collective of cosmetic scientists behind The Beauty Brains understand the science and tech behind the beauty biz and know how to explain it in simple terms. Think of them as the Dear Abby of the cosmetic counter. They’ll answer any question, no matter how absurd.

And they have some silly ones in their book Can You Get Hooked on Lip Balm?* While the questions may seem silly, the answers are serious. The Beauty Brains speak openly about name-brand hair care products and such products’ claims to body-enhancing magic. Newsflash: The cosmetics industry is in it to make a buck, but they can’t lie about what their products do. Read between the lines of the fine print. But there’s some solid advice and science in this book, too.

For starters, the BBs talk about the biological components of hair and how to keep it healthy and shiny. The upshot? Don’t put stuff on it: chemicals, heat, pressure. This means go easy on the coloring, flat irons, and hair extensions. But if you can’t, they offer practical guidance for keeping hair as healthy as possible under these adverse conditions.

May never comes but I think of May Day (May 1) and the no-longer-vibrant Communist Party with its call, “Workers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.” What to read this month of May? 

Kapital seemed too long. The Communist Manifesto seemed too short. Quotations from Chairman Mao seemed just right. 

The book is an unusual one for a classic. It is a collection of quotations, much like Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, but with all quotations coming from one source: Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and its leader for another quarter century or so. There are a total of 427 quotations on 33 topics taken from speeches and writings by Mao from 1927 through 1964.

The book was first published in 1965, and published in translation in 1966. During the first decade of its existence, it was expected that every man and woman in China have a copy of the Quotations and that they consult and study it on a regular basis. Because of China’s large population, the book had one of the largest circulations of any book in its day. Take that, John Grisham!

Following Mao’s death in 1976, the book waned in popularity, though Quotations still has some hold on the generation that came of age in the 1950s and 1960s. 

In her latest collection of personal observations, truisms, and experiences, I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections, author Nora Ephron assembles more life lessons cloaked in pithy, relatable text.

Nora obviously had a few more things to get off her chest after her book I Feel Bad About My Neck. Being a big believer in a refreshing, recuperative rant every now and then, I gleefully listened for her latest editorials. Nora masterfully and lovingly rants about the things we would all rant about if we had the enormous platform or audience to listen.

While there ain’t no rant like an adorable Nora rant, the book’s title is what really drew me in. I have a morosely poor memory, and I was eager to hear what she had to say on the topic—so I could then promptly forget it.

Concerning her own fading memory, Nora concedes, “On some level, my life has been wasted on me. After all, if I can’t remember it, who can?”

(Preach it, sister!)

Nora produces a long list of celebrity encounters that she confesses she can’t recall anything about — like Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. She also admits that the sole thing she recalls about her trip to the White House the evening Richard Nixon resigned was her stolen wallet.

(Hey, I’m not here to judge.)

Every reader loves discovering a first novel no one has read yet and passing it on to other readers who will share the delights of a brand new voice. Look what happened with Sara Gruen and Water for Elephants, Kathryn Stockett and The Help, or Garth Stein and The Art of Racing in the Rain. All became big word-of-mouth titles.

But how about those dusty gems languishing on the bookshelf that didn’t get the big publicity push? They are no less satisfying, delightful and thought-provoking. Readers interested in giving a second life to a first novel may find something worth passing on from these debuts that should have put their authors on the reading map.

Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine by Ann Hood

Two things were certain about Georgia Bottoms.  She was the undisputed belle of Six Points, Alabama, and the only thing she loved more than her appearance was her divine reputation. 

Georgia’s “chicken-fried” charm and “sweet-tea” hospitality also made her the natural choice as Six Points’ unofficial town hostess and goodwill ambassador, until one Sunday in church when the lid was blown off of her entire “gravy and grits” facade.

The seventh novel by Alabama native Mark Childress, Georgia Bottoms, focuses on a 30-something Southern belle who is trying to pretend, for herself and an entire town, that the old-fashioned ways of the aristocratic South still exist in god-fearing, gossip-spreading Six Points, Alabama. 

Just published in February of this year, Georgia Bottoms combines a group of stereotypical southern characters into a tale of crazy situations, sexual misconduct and deceit at its finest.  Georgia appears to be a well-off single woman from a family of old money. She faithfully occupies her pew at the Baptist church every Sunday, dotingly cares for her elderly mother with Alzheimer’s, and selflessly spends hours creating beautiful quilts which she sells at a local store for a bargain price. 

Sarah Vowell is obsessed with history. Also: death. Where does a person with these two intertwined fascinations go on vacation? The answer to that question turns out to be some pretty surprising places.

Vowell's sense of humor and wit keep her travelogue Assassination Vacation from reading like a college textbook on the subject of Presidential assassinations

Part travel memoir, part history, and with a keen eye for the ridiculous (including a self-awareness of her own almost religious zeal for the subject), Vowel's book manages to look into the history of the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley in such a way that keeps you on your toes.

Vowell is a native of Montana, but you’d never know it the way she clings to the East Coast. She doesn’t drive (phobia), so she considers one of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth’s greater faults to be “that he did not have the decency to die within walking distance of a metro stop.” In many ways, Vowell is herself a character as interesting to read about as the historical figures she portrays with such detail. 

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