Reading Nonfiction in 2020

My nonfiction reading for 2020 was typical in terms of amount–too many to count. A lot of them were assigned for book reviews so I can’t include any of those in my best-of list. The other chunk was research reading for my (still) book-in-progress about Dale Evans.

(Dale Evans c. 1939)

The books for research reading usually don’t make it to my year-end list because I like to keep my work reading separate from my leisure reading. (The same goes for the book review books.) But I made an exception for a book I picked up because I thought it might provide some helpful background on women in 1940s-1950s Hollywood. It did, to a certain degree, but The Lady From the Black Lagoon turned out to be much more than that. Mallory O’Meara brilliantly writes about Milicent Patrick, an animator at Disney who went on to create one of the most iconic movie monsters. I kept thinking about the book, and about the many women ignored despite their achievements, long after I turned the final page.

Paperback The Lady from the Black Lagoon : Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick Book

O’Meara’s book did well, garnering reviews from The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor. It’s a great example of how the life of an “unknown” woman can be made into a fascinating story.

I also loved Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House, a memoir about growing up in New Orleans that’s infused with history and current events.

Hardcover The Yellow House Book

Broom’s debut was a New York Times bestseller, and it won the 2019 National Book Award. The writing is lovely, the story compelling.

My third favorite nonfiction book from 2020 was also a memoir, one first published in 1945 and quickly forgotten. Françoise Frenkel was a Polish Jewish woman who opened a French bookstore in Berlin in the 1920s. Pushed out in the late 1930s, she spent years fleeing the Nazis.

A Bookshop in Berlin

Another “unknown” woman, another important story. There seems to be a theme here with books I like to read–and write.

Dale Evans is the most famous woman I’ve ever written about, though she’s much less well known today than she was in the mid-20th century. Many of my blog posts in 2021 will center on that writing and publication journey. Stay tuned.

The Happy New Year Reading Roundup

2021 has finally arrived. When I woke up this morning, everything looked remarkably like it had the day before–the biggest clue that any changes that might happen won’t happen overnight. Still, fingers crossed for a really, really good new year.

HappyNewYear_2015
(from The Bookwyrm’s Hoard)

My 2020 was unimpressive in terms of numbers of books read. Not counting the books I read for professional reviewing and the ones for research for my own current manuscript, the total was 46. That’s an all-time low for me. (Last year: 64) Of course, 2020 was a pretty strange year, and that strangeness had an impact on my reading, especially because I couldn’t access the library as much as usual. And moving (in-state, but still….) took up a big chunk of my spare time.

I reread several of my favorite books in 2020, mostly because I had them right in the house. I hadn’t read Toni Morrison’s Beloved in a long time, and I was once again knocked sideways by its greatness. I revisited Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, still one of the best books I’ve ever encountered.

Of the new-to-me novels in 2020, here are the stand outs. I found the first four exceptional:

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Beheld by TaraShea Nesbit

Beheld by TaraShea Nesbit, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble®

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Transcendent Kingdom : A novel

The Girl With the Louding Voice by Abi Dare

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Up next, reading nonfiction in 2020.

It Happened One Christmas

A week or so ago I scrolled through one of my streaming services, thinking I might get into the holiday spirit by watching a Hallmark-style movie. I read the descriptions of about a dozen and none really looked any better than the other. Then I saw this:

It Happened One Christmas (1977)

I remember watching this on television in the late 1970s. It’s kind of hard to believe now, but when it first aired in 1977, the movie on which it is based, Frank Capra’s 1946 It’s A Wonderful Life, was nowhere near as well-known as it is today. In fact, Marlo Thomas’s remake probably played a big role in reviving interest in the original film, which starred Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore.

I’d been a big fan of Marlo Thomas’s sitcom, That Girl, which ran on ABC for five years, until 1971. The show had a feminist bent–her character, Ann Marie, was a single career woman with a boyfriend she ended up not marrying–that represented Thomas’s own interests in women’s issues. During the 1960s and 1970s, the women’s movement was active and vibrant. The Equal Rights Amendment was a real possibility.

When That Girl ended, Marlo Thomas continued honing her acting skills, appearing on stage and in Hollywood films. In 1972 she released the now-classic album and book, Free To Be…You and Me that addressed issues of individuality and identity for boys and girls. She worked with the Ms. Foundation for Women. By about 1976, she had created two prime time television specials for ABC in 1973 and 1975 and was looking for a new project.

Marlo Thomas thought the time was right for a retelling of It’s A Wonderful Life, but with a gender-role reversal. She would play Mary Bailey, the daughter who gives up her dreams of international travel and writing to stay home and run the family’s building and loan. She cast the personable, charming Wayne Rogers as George Hatch, her builder husband. Thomas convinced Orson Wells to play the evil Mr. Potter, and Cloris Leachman came on board as the kooky angel Clara.

It should have worked. It could have become a modern Christmas classic. But it didn’t.

As I watched it again, I realized the problem was historical. Marlo Thomas kept the same time period, 1920s-1940s, for her remake, but failed to consider what it would mean for a middle-class, white, married woman to take a position as the head of a local financial institution. It also didn’t help that Mary Bailey Hatch talked and dressed like a woman straight out of the late 1970s. The lines that Jimmy Stewart delivered so well as George Bailey sounded artificial coming from Mary Hatch, like she was reciting them because she had to. And her fashions were just so distractedly wrong.

If Marlo Thomas had set the story in her current time–in 1977–she may have felt freer to explore the gender issues she was clearly so interested in, to invent better, sharper dialogue more in keeping with a liberated woman. And she would have created a more compelling, complex heroine.

Though ABC ran the Marlo Thomas remake at least two more times, it was quickly overshadowed by rebroadcasts of the original. Lots of viewers concluded that It’s A Wonderful Life was much better. Thomas had a great idea and the time was indeed right. Her inattention to history sunk It Happened One Christmas.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone! I’m looking forward to watching Elf and A Christmas Story, which have recently become my two favorite Christmas movies. I may dip into White Christmas again, too.

Dr. Mary Walker, the Civil War, and Thanksgiving

Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor, was born on this day, November 26, in 1832. This year, 2020, the anniversary of her birth falls on Thanksgiving, a holiday in the United States that has ties to the Civil War.

Raised as a free thinker by parents who valued education for both boys and girls, Walker graduated from the Syracuse Medical College in 1855 and went into private practice.

Mary Walker
(National Museum of American History)

A few months after the Civil War started in 1861, Dr. Walker closed her practice and went to Washington, D.C. seeking a commission as a surgeon in the United States Army. She was denied that commission because she was a woman. So she volunteered in military hospitals, both in the capital and in the field.

As historian Heather Cox Richardson wrote in a recent installment of her “Letters From an American” series, “We celebrate Thanksgiving because of the Civil War.”* To mark recent victories in the war that would end slavery and to keep up morale–assuring people their sacrifices were not being made in vain–President Abraham Lincoln designated August 6, 1863 as a national day of thanksgiving. Magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale encouraged him to do so. Two months later, he issued a proclamation identifying the last Thursday in November for the 1864 observance. Lincoln assumed Americans would have as much to be thankful for then. The president wrote:

“In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.”

Dr. Mary Walker admired President Lincoln and she likely approved of his Thanksgiving plans. But she was too busy to mark holiday celebrations. The summer of 1863 found her first in Pennsylvania, providing medical care in the wake of the battle at Gettysburg. Then she and Dr. Hettie Painter traveled together through parts of Virginia, stopping at makeshift hospitals to offer their services. In November 1864, Dr. Walker was in Louisville, Kentucky, hired by the U.S. Army as the head of the medical department of the Female Military Prison there. She had already survived a stint in a Confederate military prison in Richmond, Virginia, but refused to stop working for the army until the war ended.

According to Richardson, “Lincoln established our national Thanksgiving to celebrate the survival of our democratic government.” Dr. Mary Walker would go on to honor that survival by working to secure women’s voting rights and bring the adult female population into a fuller participation in that democracy.

*This historical information about Lincoln and Thanksgiving comes from Richardson’s November 25, 2020 letter. For the full text of Lincoln’s proclamation, see http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/thanks.htm.

Well-Behaved Women….An Update About a Work in Progress

On Election Day, I’ve moved on to the penultimate chapter of my biography of Dale Evans. It’s going to be a real struggle to finish it by the end of the year. I always have trouble with deadlines because I can never convince myself a manuscript is quite ready. But I have to let it go at some point.

So I bought myself a treat yesterday, just a little something to keep me moving forward.