What I Read in 2018, Part 3

Happy 2019 everyone! I wish you all good things in the new year.

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To finish up reviewing my 2018 year in reading, I turn to my favorite nonfiction books. Remember, these are books I read in 2018, though they may not have been published that year. Mostly absent from this list are the books I read for discussions on Nonfiction Fans on Facebook. (If you read a lot of narrative nonfiction, please join us over there. It’s a great group.) I have to learn to keep better track of those books.

Most of the nonfiction listed below is historical and most are written by women. Here they are, in the order in which I read them:

Gay writes beautifully about difficult topics.

A page-turning historical mystery.

A first-rate historical biography.

I hate cold weather but can’t get enough of stories about polar exploration. And in case you’ve missed Shapiro’s book, it’s now out in paperback.

A fascinating story, though I wish it had been more tightly edited.

The historical story of Barbara Follett was particularly interesting.

Reading this is the best way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Little Women.

This is a beautiful book. Anyone who loves books and libraries will want to read it.

A highly readable account of the history of Jamestown.

Another fascinating book for book lovers, this one focuses on the history of paper.

Now, on to more books.

 

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What I Read in 2018, Part 2

I read twelve books in 2018 that I really liked. Female authors are heavily represented in this list. I know I said in the last post that one male author would make an appearance on this list, but I decided at the last minute to add a few more books, so there are actually two and a half men. The half is because of Charles Todd, who is actually a mother/son writing team.

So here they are, in kind of an eclectic arrangement.

The two novels that had the most interesting structures to go along with their stories were

I loved the way Louisa Hall got into the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

and

I know everyone was talking about this book last year. I avoided it for a while because of all the hype, worried that it wouldn’t live up to it. I liked it, especially Saunders’s style.

Two other works of historical fiction I really liked were

A lovely take on the civil rights movement.

Transcription: A Novel by [Atkinson, Kate]

Nice World War II spy drama, though the twist didn’t quite work for me.

My two favorite family stories were

Stunning characters.

and

I have to admit I picked up Lee’s book for its brilliant cover, but I stayed for the story.

The rest of my favorites were the latest installments in mystery series that I follow.

Paretsky is still at the top of her game.

The most chilling title of the year.

The Maisie Dobbs series keeps getting better because of Winspear’s excellent work with character development.

Ian Rutledge is still a favorite character.

I never not want to know what Peter Ash is up to.

Ah, that little village.

Up next, nonfiction of 2018.

 

 

What I Read in 2018, Part I

2018 proved to be an interesting year for reading. For me, it was not a year of lots of totally amazing books, but I did read lots of good books. My 2018 books are the ones I read in 2018, though they may not have been published that year.

Today’s post is about the novels I rated with 5 stars on GoodReads. That means I found them exceptional and continued to think about them long after I finished reading.

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A few observations about these 5-star novels. First, all the authors are women. This isn’t unusual for me. Many years ago I began making a conscious effort to read more women, and now it’s a rare thing for me to pick up a book by a man. I haven’t been doing all that great with racial diversity, though I’m trying to be more conscious of that, too.

Second, all but one of the 5-star novels is a work of historical fiction. This also isn’t unusual. I love historical fiction, and it’s always my go-to choice for reading.

Third–and this is unusual–I gave 5 stars to only four novels this year. Most years I’ve struggled to keep it to a manageable ten, but there was a real dearth of novels I truly adored this year. But as you’ll see in the next post, I liked many novels.

So, what are those four great books? Here they are, in the order in which I read them.

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New York Times bestseller, Oprah’s book club–Tayari Jones’s stellar novel deserves every accolade it garnered. Brilliant characters, expert plotting. A lovely, haunting novel about the possibilities and limits of love and marriage.

I don’t know why it took me so long to find this book. Maybe I noticed it because of this year’s big anniversary of the publication of Little Women. Kelly McNees did a wonderful job of re-imagining a part of Louisa May Alcott’s life without turning the historical Alcott into an ahistorical character. I’m very, very picky about historical fiction that features a recognizable historical person, and McNees hit all the right notes.

White Houses by Amy Bloom

Ironically, Kelly McNees also published a novel this year about Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, called Undiscovered Country. I haven’t read it yet because I want to put a lot of distance between that and Amy Bloom’s incredible novel that delves into the same relationship. I didn’t want this book to end. After all the nonfiction accounts I’ve read of Roosevelt, Bloom’s fictional version makes her come alive.

I had no intention of reading this novel. All the hype made me suspicious, and I’m not a big fan of dual timeline plots. But it was on the new book shelf at the library, so I figured I might as well give it a try. It is marvelous story about the far-reaching consequences of the AIDS crisis, and it’s sad and a bit sentimental without being sappy or mawkish.

Next up, a longer list of novels that I liked. (One male author makes an appearance.)

 

 

150 Years of Little Women

One hundred fifty years ago, Louisa May Alcott published a charming, heartfelt story about four sisters growing up in the mid-1800s.

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Alcott was one of dozens, maybe even hundreds, of women who put pen to paper in an attempt to earn a living. In 1855, Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to them as a “damned mob of scribbling women.” He worried about the competition from popular female novelists like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fanny Fern, Catharine Sedgwick, and E.D.E.N. Southworth.

Yet, with the possible exception of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, none of the works of these authors remains as relevant or as well known as Little Women.

Literary scholar Anne Boyd Rioux’s new book explains, in clear and accessible prose, exactly why.

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Published earlier this month by W.W. Norton in advance of the anniversary, it has been widely reviewed and highly praised, and deservedly so. Rioux begins with the history of Little Women, explaining how Alcott came to write it and how readers reacted to it in 1868. (Spoiler alert: it was extremely popular.) In the second part of the book, Rioux discusses the various stage and screen (both large and small) adaptations. It was also dramatized several times on radio.  The third part covers Little Women‘s continuing importance today. Two of my favorite chapters in the book come from this section, where Rioux examines girlhood and character types, then compares the novel to contemporary stories aimed at girls, like Gilmore Girls.

So treat yourself. Reread (or experience for the first time) Alcott’s classic. But don’t forget to pair it with Anne Boyd Rioux’s thoughtful and entertaining analysis of 150 years of Little Women.

 

Depictions of D-Day

As a historian who has written quite a bit about World War II (okay, three books), nothing looms as large as D-Day, Operation Overlord, launched on June 6, 1944. Allied forces stormed the Normandy beaches and fought their way east to Germany. The war ended in Europe in May 1945.

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(NARA)

What a lot of people today know about D-Day probably comes from Steven Spielberg’s 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan, which is lauded for its realistic depiction of the landing on Omaha Beach. And in 2001, fans of the movie likely tuned in to HBO’s limited series, Band of Brothers, to follow the exploits of Easy Company, the men who parachuted into Normandy. The series was based on Stephen Ambrose’s popular 1992 book of the same name.

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While both of these projects benefitted from updated, modern filming techniques, the structure of their stories is decades old. Assemble a motley crew of men, give them a mission, and watch what happens. Sure, these newer film versions have vivid color and up close violence. But they don’t have the gritty black-and-white moodiness of the 1962 Darryl Zanuck epic, The Longest Day. And they don’t have John Wayne as Lt. Col. Ben Vandervoort, a real-life hero.

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All of these are Hollywood, and no matter how many claims film and series creators make for authenticity, they cannot be regarded as accurate history. Scads of books have been published about D-Day. One of the most recent–and one of the best–about soldiers’ experiences in Europe is Mary Louise Roberts’s What Soldiers Do.

What Soldiers Do

According to the book’s synopsis: “Roberts tells the fascinating and troubling story of how the US military command systematically spread—and then exploited—the myth of French women as sexually experienced and available. The resulting chaos—ranging from flagrant public sex with prostitutes to outright rape and rampant venereal disease—horrified the war-weary and demoralized French population. The sexual predation, and the blithe response of the American military leadership, also caused serious friction between the two nations just as they were attempting to settle questions of long-term control over the liberated territories and the restoration of French sovereignty.”

This view of D-Day and its aftermath isn’t likely to make it to the screen, big or little. But for those interested in a deeper understanding of World War II, Roberts’s book is essential reading.