Maira's Books

In January of 2005 I started this blog as a record of books I’ve read as I was afraid I would forget what I have read. I have often referred back to my own blog to remember a book's contents or see what I have read by an author. I have enjoyed passing my books on to friends or recommending books to read. I know I have missed recording some, but in general I try to keep up with what I have read or listened to.

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Location: Kalamazoo, MI, United States

I am a librarian at Waldo Library at Western Michigan University.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Grace and Grit by Lilly Ledbetter (2012)

Found one I had not recorded. Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond by Lilly Ledbetter with Lanier Scott Isom was this year's book to be read and discussed by the Gender and Women's Studies department. Again, a very good choice, that opened my eyes to how hard many individuals have had to fight for equal rights, and that the fight is still not over. Lilly Ledbetter was one of the first women hired in as manager in Goodyear and many years later found out that she was being paid much less than her male counterparts. She filed a sex-descrimination suit which she initially won, but then had to take it all the say to the Supreme Court for the final ruling, which was against her. She continued to fight until Obama signed The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act as his first official legislation.

Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman (2014)

Another amazing book by Alice Hoffman. I couldn't place her until I realized that she had written The Dovekeepers, a very heavy book from Jewish history. This too was about Jewish history, but a bit more recent and on this continent. 

This is an interesting glimpse into early 20th century New York City - Manhattan and Coney Island. I knew Coney Island more as a place my parents use to go in the 50's. I think I took a train out there once with a friend, or maybe it was Rockaway Park, a bit further east. I knew there was an amusement park there, but never knew the history. In 1911, the Museum of Extraordinary Things was a small private museum providing entertainment next to Dreamland - the huge growing amusement park. The extraordinary things are anomalies of nature - animals with two heads or different coloring, skeletons, bodies of malformities in glass jars,  etc. And there are extraordinary humans - man with hair all over his body, a girl without arms, etc. I know I have read about these unfortunate people being able to make a living only by showing off their extraordinary features, but I hope that most can live more normal lives today, with the help of modern medicine and changing attitudes. At county fairs you can still see huge animals or maybe even some deformed animals, but I hope that humans are no longer showed off in that way. 

Coralee lives in this house/museum with her father, who is training her to use her anomaly of webbed fingers to pretend to be a mermaid of sorts. She is a good swimmer and learns to tolerate cold water. [Sorry I never finished the description, but I would rather have this up as is.]

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (2014)

Sue Monk Kidd is one of the authors who I try to read, whenever I see a new book by her, and she did not disappoint - another amazing book. I did not realize until I was at least half way through, that this was based on real historical figures - Sarah Grimke and her sister Angelina, the first women to speak on behalf of abolitionists. I have to admit I had never heard of them, or if I had seen them mentioned, their names did not stick in my mind. Now they have become part of my quilt of understanding the history of the U.S., blacks and women.

Kidd stitches together another rich tale of whites and blacks (remember she is the author of The Secret Life of Bees) and covers the time of the early 1800's to mid 1830's - a half century before the Civil War. The story begins in Charleston, SC, where the Grimke's are an upper class slave owning family. It later moves up north, mostly to Philadelphia.

Sarah Grimke is given a slave girl for her 11th birthday - Hetty or Handful, as she is know in her family. Sarah tries to refuse the gift, as even at that early age she abhors slavery, but is not allowed to refuse her, so she and Handful become friends of sorts and Sarah teaches her to read, for which they both get punished. Angelina is born when Sarah is 12. Sarah asks to be the godmother, which turns into raising Angelina, so she is able to impart her anti-slavery ideas to her younger sister.

Kidd explains at the end that most of the white characters are historical, and she has moslty tried to be true to the facts know about them, but the slaves were created from slave stories she read. There was a Hetty, but she died young. Both worlds are richly described - from the way each class spent their days to their inner thoughts. The thoughts are the invention of the author, though she tries to use the words and ideas she has found in letters and other writings.

One of the things I have never quite been able to understand, is what upper class women were supposed to do. It seems their main purpose was to attend social gatherings to get husbands and then run households and spend their husbands' money. They were taught things ladies should know, but to what purpose? If embroidering doilies or pillows or some such was supposed to be such a skill, the museums must be full of the highly established crafts, but I don't remember seeing them. I will have to ask my colleague who knows about textile art history. 

Handful and her mother Charlotte were good seamstresses. They made all the clothes for the household, including the fancy dresses for the white women. Charlotte also made quilts - with black triangles on red - symbolizing blackbird wings - as in the "wings" from the title of the book. She also tells her life story in quilt squares. I enjoyed this whole sub-story of quilting and sewing and it turns out Kidd researched African American quilting too for this book.

It was hard to listen to the parts where the slaves were punished, but I need to understand the reality, as I recently did with the Holocaust in Picault's The Storyteller. I did not know about the attempted slave uprising led by Denmark Vesey. The treatment of slaves and all blacks, including free ones, bothered Sarah and a few other whites in the south, and the Quakers and abolitionists in the north. Sarah and Angelina were able to bring stories of the true horrors of slavery to the northerners, having witnessed the cruel and inhuman treatment - and at the same time argue for the humanity and equality of the blacks, which spilled over into speaking and writing about equality and rights for women. I read in When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, that the women's movement rose up out of and learned from the civil rights movement. I did not realize the connection went back to the early 19th century.

I love Kidd's explanation at the end of the book - how she was inspired to write it, the research she did and where she tweaked facts and timelines to fit her story. I continue to love historical fiction, especially well researched stories. I won't remember the details anyway, but I do get a better sense of one period of time. Looking at Latvian history, the 19th century was a time of slavery for them too. German barons owned large estates that were worked by the Latvian peasants. They too had religious orders that spoke out against the conditions. Interesting parallels.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Sweet Spot by Stephanie Evanovich (2014)

One of the free Advanced Reader Edition books I picked up at ALA. It was a mad rush when the exhibits opened up, so I didn't pay much attention. I occasionally like the humor of Janet Evanovich and didn't notice this was Stephanie not Janet. A lot edgier and with less humor.

Amanda Cole runs her own restaurant Cold Creek in I believe it was Hoboken, NJ - anyway, just across from NYC. Her mother is the Essex County DA - the county I grew up in, so I liked the few New Jersey references. Amanda enjoys being busy, a good manager, talking with her guests and she has loyal employees. All is well until a smarmy agent comes in to make dinner reservations for some big superstar. Turns out the superstar is Chase Walker, a famous baseball player. He is intrigued by Amanda, hangs out at her restaurant for weeks after his games until she says yes for a date. They hit it off, she is still a strong business owner, but then things get weird, and paparazzi get involved, but everyone lives happily ever after. Not quite my cup of tea.

Almost every book makes me think about something. Since I do not follow sports, I guess I don't see the allure of a sports star. I am trying to think of one baseball star I would recognize. I don't think I could recognize Derek Jeter in a line up, and he is from my area. I would recognize a few Olympic stars, but no one from football, basketball, hockey - the big sports.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

A Plague of Unicorns by Jane Yolen (2014)

I picked up this advanced reading copy for free at the American Library Association conference exhibits, because I tend to like Jane Yolen books. Plus, I went through a phase of liking everything to do with unicorns, even used one as a symbol for my bookstore in Logan, Ohio many years ago.

An abbey's orchard is beset by a plague of unicorns, that eat up all the golden apples that make the best cider. The monks and heroes cannot get rid of them. James is a precocious boy who asks so many questions, that everyone around him get tired of them - except his sister. Finally he gets sent to the abbey where he learns Latin and writing and helps them solve their unicorn problem. Fine, simple young, young adult book. Interesting to read an advanced copy, with a few typos (thought those have been creeping into printed books too) and at least in one place a few paragraphs were repeated.

The Storyteller by Jodi Picault (2013)

I hope I remember that Picault's books are heavy ones and to not take one on lightly. I was almost ready to give up on the story, when it moved into the personal story of a Holocaust survivor. Though it was fictional, I felt it my duty to listen to this to the end out of respect for their story - being much harder to live through than read or listen to. It did take up at least half of the book.

There were actually three stories going on. The first, which I actually liked, was contemporary - Sage, has a lot of issues, not the least of which is that she suffered in a car crash that killed her mother and left her face scarred. She does not want to face people, so she works as a baker, a skill she seems to have inherited from her great grandfather. She bakes breads and pastries during the night, for an ex-nun boss. Sage has a lover Adam, but he is married, so unavailable ultimately. The fact that he is a funeral director adds an interesting twist. She befriends an elderly man, Joseph, who frequents the bakery. He starts telling her that he is really a former SS man, and he wants her to help him die. Though she does not follow the Jewish traditions, she is of Jewish descent and at some point she realizes her grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. Though she likes the old man, she feels she has to turn him in for war crimes and contacts the office in Washington that follows these things. Here it gets a bit personal, as I had an uncle who was pursued by the OSI, as the office was known back in the 1970’s or 80’s. He was not found to be responsible for any wrong doing, but they made his life hell for a while, and he spent a lot of money and energy defending himself. I get that unforgivable crimes were perpetrated against Jews, gays, gypsies and other minorities. It was interesting to hear Leo's arguments for continuing to follow up these stories, even when the person involved is in his 90’s. Leo is the guy in the Washington office. He has to follow leads that are called in, and almost always turn out to be false leads, but this one sounds legit. He is intrigued by Sage and travels up to New Hampshire to coach her to get Joseph to tell his story. They need some corroberation and so they turn to Grandma Minka for her story.

The second story is the one told by Minka, of her family in Poland, how they were moved to the Jewish ghetto, and from there to Ausschwitz. So many of her family and friends die, but she survives. It is a long, grueling story, but not without hope and not simply black and white. There are good Germans that she meets along the way, starting with her German language teacher, who perfects her language skills, which in a couple of cases save her. Then there is the accountant at Ausschwitz who takes her on as a secretary - because she speaks and writes German. He takes her on also because of her story - the third one in this book. 

The third story is a tale written by Minka as a girl about a Polish mythical being somewhat like a vampire who lives forever and feeds off live beings, including humans. Minka was a bright girl with an active imagination, so she started writing this story about Anya, the daughter of a baker, who learns to bake from her father and takes over when he is killed. Anya falls in love with Alex, and it is a complicated story that occurs during a war, when there are shortages. Minka has been writing this for a while. she brings her journal with her, but of course it is taken away at Ausschwitz. At the camp her first job is to sort through the belongings of people, looking for valuables, putting useful clothing aside, other things get thrown out - like photos. She starts collecting the photos. In her barrack, at one point she starts calming a hysterical woman by starting to tell her story of Anya. Then she starts writing it down on the backs of the photos. One day these are found on her, and she is to be punished, but the accountant starts reading the story and hires her. For some reason he is very intrigued by Minka's story. Minka later wrote it down again, when she got to America, so Sage has it. This story gets intertwined with the other two - as if myth, the world of today and the world of the past were all one story - as they are.

I have to admit, it was worth getting to the end. I did guess the final plot twist, as the clues were given, but still a good story. Though I know the story of the Holocaust, it does not hurt to be reminded of it again, and to look at the moral issues around it even this many years after the events. It also ties in with my attempts to  undestand the complexities of the Middle East. Plus, I just saw Cabaret on a local stage and forgotten that it is about Berlin right before the war breaks out, and also addresses the Jewish question.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Fallen Angel by Daniel Silva (2012)

I have only read one other Daniel Silva book, but I really like the Gabriel Allon character, and I should try reading about him in the right order. At this point I am going backwards. I really like the combination of art restorer and high level spy from Israel. This story starts out at the Vatican,as he is restoring a Caravaggio, and of course there is a murder. Then it evolves into a major international crisis taking us to Israel, France, Switzerland, U.S., Germany, Denmark, Austria and back to Israel, mostly Jerusalem.

The plot is a complex one involving illegal antiquities, money movers, spies, terrorists, old affairs, the pope and his entourage,  and Gabriel, who just wants to restore art and live peacefully with his wife, but he keeps getting pulled into these major international affairs that he seems to be the best person to solve.

Silva explains in a note after the novel what is based on truth and where he stretches it. I got a sense of the conflicts between the three main religions in Jerusalem and feel I need to read up more on this historical city. It mus be a treasure trove for archeologists and I really don't know what has and has not been found. I feel like I am filling in little pieces of my understanding of the Middle East conflicts. I am just finishing another book about the Holocaust, reminding me why Israel was created. Plus the confusing and terrifying events occurring in Iraq right now make me want to understand this area better.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Last Boyfriend by Nora Roberts (2012)

The second in the Inn Boonsboro trilogy was somehow one of the slowest moving Roberts' books. No surprise that Avery, one of the three women friends, who runs the Pizza joint across from the old inn that is being restored gets together with Owen, who is restoring the inn with his brothers. Maybe one needs a nice calm story every once in a while. The ghost in the inn pushes these two old friends together, and makes them realize they have been best friends forever and could take their relationship to a romantic level. There had to be some incident, some tragedy, some secret that would solidify the relationship or help them get over the last hurdle when they realize they really belong together. So Avery's mother, who had deserted her when she was little, comes back into the picture to fill this role.

I continued to enjoy the restoration process, but it sounded like a lot of money sunk into something that was going to take a lot of time to return the investment and pay a decent salary to Hope, the manager of the inn and the next one to fall in love with the third brother in this trilogy.

Monday, June 16, 2014

One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus (2010)

Subtitle: The Journals of May Dodd.

Fantastic book. I did not realize that this was going to be about exactly about the area I was going to visit.If I understood the premise correctly, this book was based on a small historical fact. I believe that the Cheyenne Chief might have really come to the US President with the proposal to send a thousand white women to get married to the Cheyenne and then the children would be US citizens and would help integrate the cultures. The author went on to imagine what it would have been like, if this really happened - at least with a few women.

May Dodd is the main character, who has been put in an insane asylum for being promiscuous, because she chose a man that was not in the same class as her family, though she had two kids with him and was monogamous. When the government offers her a way out by going out west to marry a savage and bring the white culture to the heathens, she takes it. There is a trainload of women, who are escaping something to take on this adventure - two Irish twin sisters who get an out of jail free card, an English bird watcher who has run out of money, a former slave, a southern belle who has been jilted by her fiance when her father loses everything after the Civil War. They volunteer to be wives to the Indians and to bear a child with them.

I wish I had more time to do this book justice. In a sense it was one of those white person gets raised by the Indians story and takes on their wisdom, but this was a whole group of women, who became part of the Cheyenne tribe and most integrated quite well. Though they were supposed to "civilize" the Indians, they learn that the Indian way of life makes a lot of sense. Of course this story doesn't end well, as the US government renigs on the promises it has made the Indians, and they are all forced to live on reservations. I saw the current reservation outlines in the map of Montana, when I visited last week, and some of the Crow and Cheyenne history at a museum in Billings, MT.

Very touching, a good sense of Indian daily life, the historical time period and the injustices of the white US government. It included the role religious teachers played and the difficulty of women to adjust to the wild west. Custer was the only historical figure who's name I recognized, though I later found out May's husband - Chief Little Wolf was also a historical figure.

Definitely a candidate for gifting to others.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Next Always by Nora Roberts (2011)

This is the first of the Inn BoonsBoro trilogy. I liked hearing the details of renovating an old inn, which Beckett is doing with his brothers and mother. The audio version was narrated by a man, so the story is told more from Beckett's point of view than Claire's, though we get her side too. Roberts seems to be capable of doing this, though this guy seemed to be too good to be true, as also happens with Roberts.

I always like the different professions Roberts chooses for her characters and I always feel like I learn something about the profession, though I am never sure how right she gets it. Well, this time I can critique Claire's profession - bookstore owner in a small town. I, of course, love books and bookstores, and am glad the author chose this setting and profession, but since I had a bookstore in a town of 7000, I know the reality of it. Books have a very low mark-up, so you have to sell a lot of them, like Barnes & Noble, to make any money. Small towns usually have a handful of avid readers, and it sounded like Boonsboro, MD was a small town. (I just looked it up - 2010 population 3336 - definitely not big enough to support a bookstore.) And I had my bookstore before Amazon and the big chain bookstores took over. All the independent bookstores in my area of 250,000 have folded except those dealing in used books. You can possibly make it, if you get a deal with the local school system or college to provide them with books, but from customers in town, and even tourists, it is hard. I related to Claire's joy the moment when a customer that usually buys books walks in. She had reading hours, author readings and also sold coffee - but again, you have to sell a lot of coffee to make a solid income. So I did not see how Claire could not only maintain a family of three boys, but also have two other employees. The story still worked, I just had this little quibble.

I liked that Claire already had three boys - always a game changer in romantic relationships, as the woman comes as a team with the kids. Beckett had grown up with two brothers, so he really got the three boys and knew how to play with them, how to talk to them. Roberts even gave us the personalities of the boys - as each child is different. Claire's husband had died in Iraq - good current reference. Most of us in America forget we are in a war, but for some families it is always on their minds. I am glad this was brought out. and is relevant as I write this on Memorial Day.

This was also a romance where there was a rich set of characters - the townspeople, old college friends, parents and grandparents. And the creepy Sam. Sometimes romances seem to be set in a vacuum, but this definitely was not. Of course it is obvious that the two brothers and Claire's girlfriends will get matched up in future books, but I like these trilogies.

Then there is the inn itself. I like the idea that they named each room for a historic couple. I used to fantasize about decorating rooms by themes, or I would drive by a broken down old house and think it would be fun to restore it - loved This Old House, but in reality, I can barely maintain my 60 year old house and I do not do decorating. But it was fun to read about it. I loved that the mother was responsible for ordering all the furniture, and that brother Owen was the organized one that kept everyone on track.

I don't care for the books where the story centers around some magical, mystical theme, but I like it when Roberts throws in just a bit of other worldly. So the inn has a ghost. They have named her Liz, but we don't know much about her yet, except she smells like honeysuckle when she is happy about something the live humans are doing.