Wednesday, July 27, 2016


I was a wreck reading this book. I got halfway through and had to flip to the ending to find the conclusion of the Blythe sisters' story. No small feat, as this book shifts among Edie's story (1992) and the Blythe sisters' (1940-41) and even Meredith's (Edie's mom). But as I got close to the end of the book, and understood more about what I'd read when I jumped forward, I couldn't bring myself to reread the ending. (This makes me sound a wee bit over-invested, I know.) One of the things I loved about this book was how steeped in literature it is--and it feels quite intentional that Edie, an avid "readie," daughter of a woman who once longed to be a writer, tells the story (in first-person) in a way that calls to mind elements of King Lear and Great Expectations; the three Blythe sisters could be the three weird sisters from Macbeth ... or Lear's daughters ... there are elements of the oldest daughter Percy that felt like ruthless Goneril or Regan; central to the novel is the (fictional) best-seller about the Mud Man, ostensibly written by the father of the Blythe sisters but rooted in true horrifying events. The writing is at times a bit overwrought, but mostly it's exquisite, even in the briefest descriptions: "That short hairpin smile." "... a set of tall iron gates, once grand but listing now at broken angles. Leaning, one towards the other, as if to share a weighty burden." "[He] scraped against the shallow floor of his own limited experience." Toward the end, it seemed there was one turn of the screw after another--and it began to feel like almost too much heartbreak for even this long, expansive novel--though the ending, with the last-minute reveal of Juniper's act of kindness and Edie's reconciliation with her mother, offers a shred of redemption.

Saturday, July 23, 2016


This book doesn't argue that it doesn't matter where you (read: "your kid"; this book is aimed at parents) end up at college; it does argue against the notion that if your kid doesn't go to the Ivy League/Stanford/MIT, they're doomed to a lesser life. On the surface, that doesn't sound like much; but the anecdotes about the crazy things that happen during the college admissions process (Bruni has plenty of good ones, including one about a girl who wrote in her Yale admissions essay about urinating on herself rather than leave an engaging conversation with a teacher, to prove her passion for education) makes me think the premise is worth examining. He also reminds us that in the name of recruiting, universities do things that are misleading bordering on unethical to drive up the number of applications, in order to lower their acceptance rate, which increases their bond rating; and he exposes the flimsiness of the basis for the USNews rankings. Bruni (U of NC) provides plenty of examples of people who have not gone to the Ivy League and have done very well, including senators, Fulbright scholars, CEOs and your average famous folk: Condoleeza Rice (Denver); Joe Biden (Delaware and Syracuse); Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb (RI School of Design); Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks (Northern Michigan U), etc. What emerges from their stories (which he relates in detail) is that during the college years, they all had a solid work ethic--a desire to find mentors, explore new interests, develop their leadership skills, and so on, which is--perhaps--more likely when one is not quite so small a fish in a huge college pond. At the very least, it argues for at least considering colleges beyond the highly competitive ones. At one point he notes that this is all driven by fear--a quite illogical one--that without this ivy-green ticket, the kid won't be happy. And that's what we all want for our kids, right? Fair enough. But as he points out, happiness is often the way we conduct the journey, the *way* we attend college; and the focus on *getting in* to the exclusive college sometimes leads the kids to feel like, "Ok, I did it. I'm done." Bruni's story about how he taught at Princeton and was pressured to overlook a student's cheating, to give him a do-over, feels really bad to me. Of course it happens elsewhere, too; but what are we teaching our kids? That once your ticket is punched, you can sit back and wait out those four years? What a sad thing--when those four years can be a dedicated time to think and reinvent and get out of our comfort zone and grow.

Sunday, July 17, 2016


This is the first I've read by Julie Mulhern, and this mystery is different in tone than any I've ever read--and I'm trying to figure out exactly why. It's a quick-read cozy, with an almost-40, professional painter protagonist named Ellison; there are seemingly multiple attempts on her life that are outright violent--a bullet, a firebomb, a car accident, a poisoning--yet throughout the entire book, I found myself smiling at Ellison's wry one-liners. There is at once a lightness about the book and an intense pain--which to me came less from the attempted murders than from the characters in this fairly dysfunctional family--characters who are petty and selfish and self-sabotaging and full of secrets and yet still care about one another. The protagonist makes allusions several times to her first husband (dead) ... I'll be interested to read that one!

Friday, July 15, 2016


This is an important, well-written, and accessible book. I buy Duckworth's formulation that our culture's focus on "natural talent" potentially keeps us from recognizing that talent might count, but effort counts *twice* when it comes to achievement. I grew up believing that having to work at something was a sign of inferiority, that persevering was what you did if you weren't clever enough to succeed right away. I had to unlearn that idea, painfully, when it came to trying to get my own book published. Grit is, as Duckworth points out, about falling down seven times and getting up eight. It's about hanging onto the idea that if we haven't accomplished something, we just haven't accomplished it *yet.* Grit is something that can be developed--largely as a result of rewriting the stories we tell ourselves about the world and how it works. This book mingles scientific studies; psychological insights; practical guidelines for cultivating grit in ourselves and our children; and anecdotes from CEOs and West Point grads and football players and coaches.

I was somewhat surprised that Duckworth didn't engage with the work of Brene Brown, whose recent book RISING STRONG has a lot in common with GRIT. From the cover of RISING STRONG: "If we are brave enough, often enough, we will fall. This is a book about what it takes to get back up." Like Duckworth, Brown is a Ph.D. and an avid researcher into human behavior; they both lean on both science and personal anecdote in their books; both have presented TED talks and have published books to acclaim; they both run their own institutes. Brown's groundbreaking previous book DARING GREATLY draws its title from Roosevelt's "Man in the Arena" speech--which Duckworth quotes at length toward the end of her book. (It IS a knockout passage, worth quoting.) Duckworth's ideas stand on their own, of course; but I think it would be interesting to see what Brown and Duckworth might come up with, working together.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


I bought the book because my family had just returned from Italy, and I found it was just the right time to read Hales's conversational presentation of Italian history and culture through the lens of the evolving language of Italy--what she calls "the wiliest of Western tongues." The book itself--with chapters on religion, music, art, literature, food, film, love, and curses--reminded me of the stroll I took in Venice one morning, when the streets were still empty ... where I saw a man, cigarette cupped in his hand, walking his tiny dog past one of the old wells in a square; and street sweepers in their sea-green shirts wielding their long-bristled brooms over the stones; and where I smelled the bread for the day coming out of the ovens. It felt like the real city before the day's cruise-ships arrived. Hales's pages are full of anecdotes and curious factoids, the twists and turns to the language, that tickled me, surprised me, made me think. For example, "The manhole covers of Rome are still emblazoned with S.P.Q.R., the Latin abbreviation for the Senatus Populusque Romanus, the senate and people of Rome. Italians joke that it really stands for sono pazzi questi romani--These Romans are crazy." She emphasizes the uneven progress of what came to be "Italian" from Latin, through Greek, through the various waves of Germans and Saracens, and which was consolidated from (and despite) the various local languages: e.g., watermelon is "cocomero in the south, anguria in the north--and an insulting way to say 'blockhead' throughout Italy." She explains how "ancient Romans, such as Gaius Julias Caesar ... bore three names: a basic first name, a clan name, and also a family name that was handed down. By medieval times, the latter two names disappeared ... which became confusing ... Occupations inspired names ... such as Botticelli for 'barrel maker' (the nickname later given to the artist Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filpepi, better known as Sandro Botticelli, whose brother made barrels)." She takes us along on her discovery of new foods and friends, and it was a treat being in her company.

Sunday, July 3, 2016


I'm a sucker for a book that takes me to the seedier portions of mid-eighteenth-century Lisbon. I think *A Conspiracy of Paper* is my favorite of Liss's books, but I enjoyed this one. As a boy of thirteen, Sebastiao flees to save his own life, leaving behind his parents to face the Inquisition; when he returns, years later, he has changed his name and is bent on revenge. But it is complicated at every turn by misinformation and mistaken loyalties. Part of the reason he comes back is to seek out Gabriela, whom he'd loved before he left, only to find that she's married. And, in my favorite scene in the book, she speaks practically, skewering any romantic notion he had of returning and taking up where they left off. She speaks of the kindess shown to her by her husband, and finishes: "So stop pretending we're children. All of that is gone. ... You look at me and do not see what is there, but what you wish to be there." At one point, he says, "There are things more important than revenge"; but I felt like in some ways this scene with Gabriela provides the moral center of the book.

Donna Woolfolk Cross, POPE JOAN

I read this partly because my family was planning a trip to Italy; and I found the book interesting for several reasons. First, I grew up Catholic and never, ever heard about a female pope; but the historical evidence (the author synopsizes it in her notes; I always appreciate that!) is pretty conclusive. Second, I felt like the book (written in 1996) was ambitious and well-written but oddly dated. (I felt this way about Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth--another blockbuster success; did anyone else find this book had a similar feel to Follett's epic?) I'm trying to put my finger on why I wasn't swept up into the story. I agree with some of the other reviews that the number of last-second escapes by Joan-as-John is pretty unbelievable; and I think generally historical fiction written now is grittier and less melodramatic. But I think my biggest difficulty is that the secondary characters are fairly one-dimensional. There are plenty of baddies (my, the Dark Ages were dark and scary)--raiders who plunder and rape, thieves with no conscience, flagrantly corrupt members of the church, and men who are willing to set fire to Rome, kill people, and pay out fortunes in the unending grab for power. There are also (many fewer) unambiguously good folks. But there are very few characters in the gray zone. Joan herself doesn't really have any faults aside from outspokenness; but even that comes off as a sign of her spiritual superiority, her willingness to put herself at risk by speaking up for the wronged and the poor and the powerless. Perhaps as a result, my favorite parts, actually, were about the city of Rome itself--the building of the wall that brought St. Peter's inside the city, the repairs of the aqueducts, the way the pagan buildings were stripped and their materials recycled for the Catholic church. All of that was woven in very adeptly, without making me feel like I was getting a history lesson. That's a real accomplishment!

Saturday, July 2, 2016


Dessen's YA books are what I'd call "quiet"; there's no apocalypse or threat of death to the protagonist, or an evil villain to be destroyed. (Frankly, I tend to like this type of YA better than the other.) Dessen captures the pain and difficulty of contemporary teens; the dialog feels authentic; the narrator is observant and honest ("I was getting side-eyed all over the hallways"); the parents and coaches are usually neither completely clueness nor perfectly evolved; her secondary characters don't simply exist to fuel or foil the protagonist's plot. The situation in this book is one that could be pulled out of newspaper headlines--Sydney's older brother Peyton makes a series of progressively worse decisions, ending with him being convicted of drunk driving and nearly killing a boy who was out riding his bike. If the refuge provided to Sydney by the Chatham family, whom she meets soon after the trial, feels a bit too ideal, I still bought it, largely because the Chathams had their own internal dynamic that wasn't centered around Sydney. I usually enjoy Dessen's work, and I liked this one, too.


Entertaining and engaging. Molly is a plucky Irish heroine, dropped into the household of Senator Barney Flynn, to uncover the fraudulent spiritualists, the Sorensen Sisters (possibly based on the Fox sisters from upstate New York in the mid-1800s?). I love when the historical background unfolds organically rather than being plunked in for "atmosphere"; Bowen is wonderful at feathering in the details lightly, so they are part of Molly's daily existence rather than set out to "show" what life is like in New York circa 1900. Brava! (less)


I liked this one very much. Having read *West With the Night* (Beryl Markham's memoir about training race horses and flying planes), I was a bit leery of a fictionalized treatment. But McLain caught a good deal of Beryl's voice, and so much about Africa in the 1920s, plus aspects of Markham's life that are completely omitted from Markham's own account (including her husbands!) that I was very satisfied. Plus, many of her sentences just sing, in a way that caused me some serious writer's envy :). Many of her more poetic bits are reserved for the scenery of Africa or other characters; her dialog is brisk and brief. "It's not at all long before the last bits of light rinse from the ragged edge of the sky, and then there's only the rain and the smell of petrol." "High overhead, ribbons of stars swirled like milk and a sickle moon lay hard and bright on its side." Of Denys Finch Hatton: "There was an ease and a confidence in him too, that seemed to pull the room toward him, as if he were its anchor or axis." She reuses some traits--several women have feathery brows, and there is a bit too much "bolting." But these quibbles are tiny. I read the book in one day, on a plane home. Would recommend to most of the women readers I know.