Look What I Found at the Gaithersburg Book Festival

I was lucky enough to have attended and survived the Gaithersburg Book Festival for although it was held on May 21, it was 95 degrees and you had to be a super book lover to handle that heat.  But it was definitely worth it. Here are some author talks that I attended and if their books are as amazing as their talks, then go out right now and order these books. Ironically for me, they are all Non-Fiction. I must confess that I haven’t read these books yet. These are my impressions as I listened to the authors.

There She Was: The Secret History of Miss America by Amy Argetsinger —Remember when we were young and impressionable, and we couldn’t wait to watch The Miss America Pageant every year? Television and women’s roles were certainly different then. Argetsinger, a Washington Post Style reporter has written a cultural history of American women through the lens of the Miss America Pageant.

And the pageant itself has reflected American life through all its turmoil. The infamous Rule 7, enacted in 1948, stated “Contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” It was not until 1970 that Cheryl Browne became the first Black woman to participate. Bess Myerson, who in 1945, became the first Jewish Miss America, was asked to change her name to something less Jewish…she refused. And in 2017, misogynistic leaked emails from the all-male CEO and board of the Miss America Organization led to their firing, after which the board was taken over by women. Gretchen Carlson, formerly of Fox News became the next CEO and her first decision was to remove the swimsuit competition, which created some more backlash. This is a fascinating look at an institution that is now just barely surviving and if you read the book, you will understand why. Great idea for a book discussion!

Ann Hood, author of several fiction and non-fiction works, began her career at the age of 21 as a stewardess (not yet called flight attendant) for TWA Airlines. Fly Girl is her story in the air as a witness and participant in the early “Fly Me” years from 1978-1986 about the time that women were finally given the respect that they should have had years before. But this is not a polemic. It is simply a memoir of the best time of her life and the difference between then and now, both for passengers and crew. I attended her and Amy Argetsinger’s presentation as they discussed both their books, comparing life in the air and life on a pedestal. I must tell one of her stories: A very famous writer was a passenger on one of her flights and by that time, Hood had already started writing books. She mentioned this to the author, and he looked at her with a dead pan expression and said, you’re too stupid to write. It was only her flight training that got her through that conversation. We tried to get her to reveal his name, but she never did.

There is Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century by Fiona Hill —I’m sure you remember Fiona Hill’s riveting testimony at President Trump’s impeachment trial. But do you know her origins as the coal miner’s daughter from Northern England? As mines were shutting down and no jobs to be had, her father told her that “there is nothing for you here”, the sentence that spurred her to seek higher education and even to get out of England. She studied in Russia and finally the United States at Harvard, where she felt anyone could start anew. And indeed she did, specializing in Eastern Europe. She served under three presidents, Bush, Obama and finally Trump…and you know the rest.  But this is not only a memoir, it’s a cautionary tale of what could happen in America, just as it did in Russia under Putin.

Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could by Adam Schiff—As we have watched the January 6th Hearings, Midnight in Washingon could not be a more pertinent book. Schiff takes us from the former president’s first impeachment trial through the 2020 election and especially the January 6 Capitol riot and his memories of living through that awful day as rioters attempted to break into the chamber. His bitterest comments though, are reserved for the “insurrectionists in suits and ties” who he is sure knew that the election was not rigged but “slowly surrendered to the immorality of the former president.”

The Family Roe: An American Story by Joshua Prager As one does at book festivals, when there are famous writers that are going to speak at a certain time, it’s important to arrive and get a seat at the previous writer’s talk. This often leads to discovering a new author (new to me anyway) and I certainly did. The Family Roe could not have arrived at a more propitious time, now that Roe V. Wade has become history. The story behind Jane Roe is as complicated as Norma McCorvey herself (the real Jane Roe). She gave birth to three children, from three different men, two of whom she gave up for adoption. Her first was raised by her mother. Norma often changed her story, changed her mind and finally switched her position to an anti-abortion stance.

Prager tried to approach this very controversial topic in as neutral and human tone as possible. He felt it was politicized enough.  He discovered “Baby Roe” who was adopted but did not find out about her birth mother until she was 18. And Prager was instrumental in getting all of Norma’s children together. This is a fascinating look at a moment in history that has changed our lives.

And one more book to introduce…As I stopped by the Maryland Writers Association booth, I was asked “Are you a writer?” Well, sort of was my answer. I do publish a blog about books. One of the women in the booth was very excited. She handed me a copy of her book 50 Things to Know About Birds in Washington DC by Dana Burton and asked if I could review it on my blog. Well, now I guess I’ve become an influencer! So here goes…

If you are a bird lover or even if you are not, this slim, handy 70-page book may get you started. It’s not slick or fancy or even in color, but it lists many places in DC where you are sure to find birds including Roach’s Run Waterfowl Sanctuary, Dunbarton Oaks, Hains Point, Rock Creek Park and many more. And she knows lots of interesting facts about birds in this area. She even included a paragraph on  Presidential Pets with Calvin Coolidge at the top of the list. So if you are interested in birds, or Washington DC trivia, this might be the book for you. It could have been checked for spelling errors a little more thoroughly though. Look for 50 Things to Know About Birds in Washington DC by Dana Burton, available on Amazon.com.

The Gaithersburg Book Festival, begun in 2010 has become a place for authors and readers to meet and discuss books. It’s a free all-day event with free parking…but be sure to arrive early! And it’s right here in Gaithersburg! Make sure you attend next year and hopefully it won’t be so hot.

See you next month and happy reading!

Sliding Into Summer and You Need Books to Get There

As I was searching through my list of favorite books, I found Ella Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable by Mark Dunn.  In a small fictitious town on an island off the coast of South Carolina, the birthplace of Nevin Nollop, supposed author of the typing phrase “The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog”, there is a memorial to Nollop containing this phrase. Well one day, a letter falls off and the town council decides to eliminate that letter from all speech. And then as more letters fall off, they are eliminated from this book as well…which makes it a very interesting read…probably not a good book to listen to though.

The novel itself is about freedom of expression as Ella (our heroine) along with her likeminded friends, fight to be able to regain the letters before they are all gone for good. It is hilarious and sobering at the same time. And although this book was written in 2001, it is still just as relevant now.

Louise Penny’s new novel, State of Terror is unlike any of the others in her mystery series. It’s possible because Hilary Clinton was her coauthor and Clinton writes about what she knows: a woman Secretary of State involved in a political crisis like no other. And all the usual suspects are involved: Iran, Pakistan, Russia, The Taliban, the former president…or all of them could be the villains.

Bombs go off in two cities in Europe and her job is to figure out who, why and when are they going to be set off next.  Probably in the US and possibly in the White House. But “when” is the key question.  And does she leave these questions to her underlings…absolutely not, because she does not trust anybody in the White House, nor should she. Everyone is a suspect, and it is not until the last few pages that we find out who the mole is. Backed by her counselor, her daughter, her son and a young woman with secrets of her own, they proceed down every blind alley. The answer may lie in an unlikely place…Three Pines, Quebec!

Would I recommend this political thriller? Sure, why not…I’m in it for the thrill, the characters and the fact that a woman Secretary of State is the heroine along with the other women in her life. I’m suspending disbelief on all other counts.

One of my favorite books by Alice Hoffman is Practical Magic published in 1995 (and of course the movie in 1998) about sisters, Gillian and Sally Owens, and Sally’s daughters, Kylie and Antonia who all live with their two aunts Franny and Jet. They are part of a family of witches trying to cope with life in modern day Salem, Massachusetts. When Gillian’s boyfriend proves to be a very, very bad person, Sally rescues her and the two must decide what to do with him…they don’t make the wisest choice. And then they need to be rescued themselves.

Many readers want to know the back story of the Owens family. Maria Owens, the matriarch of the Owens family, was tried for witchcraft in the 1600s. In Magic Lessons we meet Maria, who never meant to fall in love, indeed, she even cast a spell to prevent herself from it. But she met and had a baby with the wrong man, John Hathorne who later becomes one of the leading judges in the Salem witch trials. Her life and that of her daughter Faith, provide the framework for future generations of Owens women. Hoffman’s writing is a combination of love and witchcraft, with lots of practical witchy kind of tips and real history, especially about women and the suffering that they endured. I loved it and if you love it there are several more novels in the Owens family saga.

Hoffman fills in some history that will help you understand the modern-day Owens family and that is where The Rules of Magic comes in. Franny, Jet and Vincent, three siblings growing up in the 1960s, all understand that they are different, but they don’t know why until they visit their Aunt Isabelle who guides them through their family history. They all learn the pitfalls of falling in love.

And now the last in the series, The Book of Magic. Some twenty years after Practical Magic we revisit the Owens family.   Although the curse that has been in the family for generations remains, everyone in the family has fallen in love and the men have all paid the price. The latest is Kylie’s boyfriend who is run over by a car, and lays in a coma and it is then that Kylie decides to end the curse no matter the consequences. And the consequences are steep. Carrying “The Book of Ravens” which will give her instructions on ending curses, she flies to London and runs into the wrong man and the wrong kind of magic. The entire family follows her, except Antonia who is very pregnant. What happens there and for Antonia as well, changes everything for the family. They all learn the sacrifices they must make to break the curse.  If you are an Alice Hoffman fan, a magic fan, or especially a fan of love, you must read The Book of Magic. It is a series well worth following.

But I must quote the beginning line: “Some stories begin at the beginning and others begin at the end, but all the best stories begin in a library.” And that tells you how Hoffman feels about books and libraries! At the end there is a list of all the books mentioned in this novel.

Well that’s it for now my friends and as always, let me know what you think…to a degree of course.

Stay safe, remain vigilant and keep reading.

Let’s Read More Books…on your porch, in your garden…or if you’re in Minnesota…under a blanket

What I love most about Joshilyn Jackson’s books is that they are never about what they appear to be.  It is always more complicated, more nuanced, and she writes in such a way that it is welcoming to the reader, whether she (yes probably her readers are women) is expecting Chick Lit or a psychological page turner. They often get both. In Someone Else’s Love Story, Shandi and her brilliant 3-year son Natty are preparing for a change in their lives and on the way to Atlanta, they stop at a convenience store and become involved in a stick-up. It is there they meet William, a very damaged scientist who becomes their savior and when she falls in love with him, their life gets even more complicated. This novel is so much more so keep reading through the plot twists.

And then, read Almost Sisters, my introduction to Jackson, about a pregnant woman who returns to her family in Alabama to care for her aging grandmother and discovers a secret that upends all her perceptions about her family. It’s not only about family, but race and southern small-town culture, and in addition of course, love.

Lisa See is known for her many novels based on the strong bonds of women, primarily Chinese women. This novel, The Island of Sea Women, however, is set on Jeju Island off the coast of Korea. Against the historically accurate portrait of an all-female diving collective, Lisa See highlights the friendship of Young-sook and Mi-ja, best friends since they were young divers in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of Korea. This is a tricky situation for them because Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, hated by most islanders. Young-sook’s mother is the head of the all-female diving collective, who invites Mi-ja to be part of the “baby divers”, young girls learning how to dive.

The novel follows their friendship throughout their young lives, as they travel to foreign lands diving for their collective and planning their future together. Their lives take different turns as Young-sook marries a young progressive teacher and Mi-ja marries a rich, strong, often violent, businessman allied with the Japanese government. The sad and violent history of Korea from the Japanese occupation, throughout WW2 and the Korean War colors their lives and drives them apart. And one terrible day, their friendship is ripped apart and there is no turning back. Each woman must find her own way separately. As Young-sook learns to deal with tragedy and heartbreak, can she learn to forgive Mi-ja for what she feels is an unforgivable act?

Much of this novel is based on fact. The all-female diving collective, known as the Haenyeo, has been active since the 17th century and has created a semi-matriarchal society where women dive, and men take care of the family. If you are interested in the history of Korea, this novel is actually a good source of information. And please read other novels by Lisa See.  Another fascinating novel about the effect of the Japanese on Koreans is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is at the face of it, a novel about African American identical twin girls, one of whom passes for white and disappears from the family. But it is much more than that. It is about identity, knowing who you are and who you want to be and what you will give up to achieve it.

The girls were brought up in Mallard, LA where, although it is populated by African Americans, everyone is light skinned. When the 16-year-old girls escape to the wider world, Stella passes for white and disappears from her family while Deseree marries a dark-skinned man and gives birth to a girl who looks like her father. She returns to Mallard after several years, with her dark-skinned daughter, Jude.

The novel switches to Stella’s life with her unknowing white husband and daughter in California and then to Jude’s life when she moves to Los Angeles. And finally, to the intersection of their lives. This is a fascinating novel, written with such care and lack of judgment on all the characters’ life choices. Watch for it on HBO as a series.

One of the privileges of writing a blog is that my friends suggest their favorite books…books that literally live on their bookshelves. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger is one of them.  Part odyssey, part adventure, a little love story thrown in, a classic western plot with an inspirational theme. What a lovely book. And what a fascinating family. My favorite character though, has to be Swede, with an imagination and literary talent that is as wide as the west itself.

North Dakota, 1951, the Land family, father, Jeremiah, 11-year-old asthmatic son Reuben, 17 year old Davy and 7 year old daughter, Swede find themselves in a terrible predicament when Davy shoots and kills two teens that have been harassing the family and break into their home. Davy is tried for murder and before he is convicted (and he certainly would have been) he escapes to parts unknown. Jeremiah resorts to prayer and decides to take the family and head west where Davy could possibly be headed. Reuben narrates the novel, and we see the odyssey through his eyes. As an 11-year-old he does not always make correct decisions. Do they find Davy, is there divine intervention, does Davy return to prison, there’s only one way to find out, and it is worth the read.  This would be a great book club choice.

That’s all for now. Keep reading and tell me about your favorite reads! Happy Spring!

But Wait, There’s More

So you thought those books were all I’ve read…here’s more!

I listened to Katie Couric’s memoir, Going There and am so happy that she is narrating her book. Listening to her trademark voice is like listening to an old friend, because Katie is what she appears to be…America’s sweetheart, the girl next door and someone you can trust. She is honest to a fault, about herself and about her colleagues. She was a close friend of Matt Lauer and could never reconcile the man she knew with his dark side. She now has no relationship with him.  Generally, it was very interesting to listen to her views on women in broadcasting, her life before and after her husband’s death and they ways she constantly had to reinvent herself. I found this memoir fascinating.

For those of you who have read and loved A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, I know you’ve been looking forward to The Lincoln Highway. Although the setting and plot could not have been more different, the Lincoln Highway characters, Everett, Billy, Wooly and Duchess each in their own way have the same morality as Count Rostove (from A Gentleman in Moscow). Everett and his younger brother, Billy, are planning to drive to California from their farm in Nebraska to find their lost mother and that would have been a story in itself. Instead, they end up travelling to New York to retrieve their stolen (or borrowed) car, taken by Everett’s former jail mate, Dutchess. Much as the drive itself, the plot is not straightforward. We find the characters at the heart of the novel and fall in and out of love with them. Do Everett and Billy ever reach California? Does Dutchess find the money? You must read it! It’s a journey for us all.

Oh William! By Elizabeth Strout—Continuing her “Lucy Barton” series features a writer who grew up in a small town to a very poor family. William is her ex-husband and Strout’s exploration of their relationship is never black and white. Yes they were divorced and yes Lucy has remarried to “the love of her life”, and is now a widow, but there are parts of their relationship with William that she loves, that she hates, that she needs to keep, that she needs to release. And his mother is a big part of their connection as well. When he asks her to accompany him to sort out a family secret, she accepts and the two explore another part of William’s life, bringing them closer together yet farther apart. This is not a page turner; it is a relationship journey.

In the past when I have brought up Stephen King, I get the “look”. Years ago when I breakfasted with a prominent author and he asked me what author I’m reading, I brought up King. I said he doesn’t get the respect that he deserves. His answer was that he gets as much respect as he deserves. A great comeback but I disagree. Stephen King can tell a story. It doesn’t have to be horror or Science Fiction or even scary, although it often is. Billy Summers is none of those. Billy is an aging hit man who only kills bad people. He has decided to accept one last job…a too good to be true “hit” with enough money for him to retire. And he is correct…it is too good to be true. Nothing works like he thought it would, even when he saves a young woman after she is dumped outside his door. Their journey together is part friendship, love and ultimately, revenge. Every character in this novel is as memorable as is the plot. I have never been disappointed in a Stephen King novel.

If you are a fan of Elizabeth Taylor and/or Marilyn Monroe, then The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reed may be the ultimate beach read for you. Evelyn Hugo, the aging celebrity has a story to tell, and she only wants to tell it to Monique Grant, a young magazine writer. No one is more surprised than Monique but is assured that she will be more than compensated and will learn why she was chosen, when the time is right. What she learns is about the real Hollywood behind the glitz and how Evelyn, the poor girl from Hell’s Kitchen became the most successful star of four decades…and the secret she kept for all that time. Although the plot certainly turned the pages, Evelyn was not the perfect heroine, nor was she meant to be. But if Hollywood interests you…go for it.  

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab–Addie LaRue, born in a village in France, was 23 years old in 1714 and was determined to live a free life. But her parents were more determined to marry her to a widower. She prayed to the dark gods at night (she was never supposed to do that) and finally one, who she would later name Luke, answered her. But nothing comes without a price: she could live forever, but no one would remember who she was, not even her family or closest friends. For the next 300 years she lived a very independent life. But since she could never have a job or any way of writing or even saying her name, she became adept at living in the shadows.  Luke would appear occasionally, offering her a quiet death, but she always refused. Her life was not necessarily moral, but she managed just fine, finding her way to NYC in the 20th century. It was 2014 when she met Henry, the first person in 300 years to remember her. And there begins the next part of her life.  Part fantasy, part romance, this novel would make a great movie with Addie, Henry and the ever, mysterious Luke in a never-ending triangle.  Yes, it is long, perhaps a little more editing might have been prudent, but it’s worth the read. 

What is Lisa Reading?

An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi—If you like young adult drama sprinkled with the hardships of growing up Muslim in post 911 New York City, then you may find this novel an interesting read. Shadi is 16. Her name means joy but she is anything but. Her brother is dead, her mother is falling apart, her father is dying, her best friend has deserted her and she seems to be in love…with the wrong boy.  Politically Mafi paints a stark picture of a family trying to struggle through the prejudices of life in 2002 and 2003 and the fact that Shadi wears a hijab makes it worse.  But this is not a story of a girl trapped in a religious life. She actually likes her life, when she isn’t bemoaning all her problems. I have a lot of questions about this book and I’m not sure of the ending, but it is an interesting take on being Muslim from a young girl’s perspective.

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The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Adams. If you are looking for an uplifting read or just something to make your life a little calmer, then listening to these two men discussing happiness will certainly help you get through your day. It’s not that I haven’t heard all of this before but learning about their lives and the connection between them, was fascinating and inspiring. I urge you to listen rather than read!

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz—When is a plot of the story your own and when is it stolen. There is a fine line. In this part literary novel and part thriller and very much plot twister, Jake Bonner is an author, 3 books under his belt and no prospects for the future. At a writer’s program, he meets Evan Parker, a young man with a “sure thing” for a novel. When he tells Jake the plot, Jake unhappily waits for this amazing novel to be published, but it never is. He does some research and finds out that Parker has died. With such a great plot just hanging there, Jake takes it and writes the best seller that he felt he always had in him. His life becomes what he had envisioned, until he receives an email from someone who seems to know this was not his own plot and threatens to expose him. Jake is determined to find and expose the emailer. From then on the plot twists and turns and twists again.

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Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty—67-year-old Joy Delaney, wife, and mother of 4 grown children is missing. After what appeared to be a serious argument with her husband and some incriminating evidence found, police are called in and the family is interrogated. But what are they holding back? We learn the history of this very interesting family whose lives seem to revolve around tennis. Yes, it is a mystery, but it is also the story of a family, both functional and dysfunctional, of sibling rivalry and of a very strange young woman who somehow insinuates herself into their lives. Who is responsible for Joy’s disappearance? Pay attention because everything you read in this 480-page book is a clue. It may seem long, but it is worth it. Stick with it.

Have you ever read any novels by Elizabeth Berg? One of my resolutions after I retired was to read authors that I have never read before and because I’ve heard such good things about this author, I read 2/3 of a trilogy, backward and I must say I loved it. The trilogy takes place in Mason Missouri, a small town where everyone knows everyone else, both for the good and bad. Each of these novels can be read on their own, but reading all together enriches them. In The Confession Club, the 3rd part of the trilogy several women of different ages get together monthly and instead of talking about books, they confess something that’s been on their minds, whether it’s embarrassing, humiliating or just annoying. Iris is a middle-aged divorcee who meets a homeless man and takes him into her life. Will her friends approve? Will he stick around long enough for them to build a life together?  And Maddy, who returns to Mason after moving to NY, tries to find the answer to her problems with her husband…or is the problem with her husband or with herself? Whatever the confession, these women will figure it out, and all the readers will want to move to Mason and become a part of this caring and loving community. I loved it.

The 2nd part of the Mason trilogy is Night of Miracles which focuses on Lucille, an elderly curmudgeon who teaches baking but decides to hire an assistant which turns out to be Iris, newly arrived in Mason and trying to flee her unhappy marriage. Lucille’s next-door neighbors are a family that needs help and Lucille becomes involved in their lives. It is a bittersweet story that affirms the meaning of friendship. If you are looking for life-affirming inspirational reading without any religious connotations, then Elizabeth Berg is for you.

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I’ve recently discovered William Kent Krueger, a Minnesota based author who often writes historical fiction. This Tender Land is an odyssey which takes place during the Great Depression. Odie and brother Albert, along with their best friend Moses and little Emmy, break free of a Dickensian run Indian school to find their relative in St. Louis by way of the Mississippi River. To say their travels are fraught with peril is an understatement. They are kidnapped and escape, they join a faith healing troupe, and they are continually hunted by the evil Mrs. Brickman, superintendent of the Indian school. Moses, the only real Indian in this crew discovers his roots, Odie falls in love, Albert is bitten by a poisonous snake, and Ellie becomes a soothsayer. This is a fascinating journey, a combination of Tom Sawyer, the Odyssey and The Grapes of Wrath.