Monday, August 13, 2018

Book Review: All the Pretty Things

All the Pretty Things: The Story of a Southern Girl Who Went through Fire to Find Her Way HomeAll the Pretty Things: The Story of a Southern Girl Who Went through Fire to Find Her Way Home by Edie Wadsworth

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I used to follow author Edie Wadworth’s blog years ago. I was drawn to her quick wit and beautifully decorated home. To this reader, fellow homeschooling mama Edie Wadsworth was intimidatingly perfect: gorgeous, smart, wealthy, and so talented.

After reading her memoir, I’m blown away by the “real” Edie, or rather, what it took for Edie to travel the path from always-hungry little girl to the redeemed but still struggling adult. Her story (as well as her sister's and cousin's) is a tribute to how kids can rise above their circumstances. And rise she did.

Edie Wadsworth is a class act. She is positively loaded with grit and determination, with a healthy helping of honesty, grace, and kindness. She’s the real thing. A lot of reviewers criticize her adoration of her father. I get that—it is hard to imagine idolizing such a deadbeat dad. But the bonds between daughters and fathers are strong. We readers just don’t see her father as she did. We don’t quite get how charismatic he must have been. He just seems sad. The real hero in this story, of course, is Edie’s mom. She worked unbelievably hard to raise and support three kids on her own. Her memoir would be truly compelling, no doubt.

This isn’t exactly a beautifully written memoir, thus my rating of actually 3.5 (3 for writing, 4 for storytelling). It’s a little choppy and stumbles around a bit, but the story is powerful and you can’t help but want to high five Edie for rising out of the ashes.



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Thursday, August 9, 2018

Book Review: The Alice Network

The Alice NetworkThe Alice Network by Kate Quinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Eve and Charlie: two women, a generation apart, both suffering from tremendous loss after World Wars— WWI for Eve, WWII for Charlie. The chapters alternate between the two stories, but they are connected early in the novel.

Eve was a spy during WWI, part of a real life group of women spies known as The Alice Network. These women, led by Louise de Bettignies, risked (and many lost) their lives for their country as they led double lives to uncover classified information. When we meet Eve, she is an angry alcoholic, nearly 30 years after her stint as a spy. She reveals her story to Charlie throughout the course of the book.

Charlie is a 20-year-old pregnant college drop-out. It’s 1947, just after WWII, and her parents fly her to Paris so she can get rid of her “Little Problem.” She ditches her mother, however, so she can search for her missing cousin, Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war. Charlie’s only clue to Rose’s whereabouts is the name Evelyn Gardiner, which leads her to Eve.

Eve appears to be a brusque, unpleasant old woman, but Charlie needs her help in finding Rose. Charlie rekindles something in Eve: a desire for revenge. They set off together, with Eve’s driver, Finn, in search of their separate stories.

I loved this novel once I got into it (although that took a long time, so keep reading). The alternating narratives were a bit confusing at first, and I kept questioning Charlie’s story; but once I immersed myself in the novel, I got through it quickly. Charlie’s narrative wasn’t nearly as compelling as Eve’s—sometimes it was quite annoying—but it got much better in the second half of the novel. I ended up really loving Charlie’s story, too.

Eve’s story is incredible. I’d love to see the women of the Alice Network portrayed in a movie. These women were the epitome of undaunted courage. What amazing bravery! I am inspired to read more about the Queen of the Spies and her entourage.




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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Book Review: Educated

Educated: A MemoirEducated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Phew. What a memoir!

First, let me say that I read this book with a bit of trepidation because I am a homeschooling parent, and this book is widely described as being about a girl who was homeschooled by survivalist parents. As most reviews emphasize, however, Tara was certainly not offered a "normal" homeschooling experience. In an interview with NPR, she says "there was not a lot of school taking place. We had books, and occasionally we would be kind of sent to read them. But for example, I was the youngest child, and I never took an exam, or I never wrote an essay for my mother that she read or nothing like kind of getting everyone together and having anything like a lecture. So it was a lot more kind of if you wanted to read a book, you could, but you certainly weren't going to be made to do that."

I quickly realized, however, that this book has little to do with academic education, with whether Tara should have been sent to public school or not. This book is about Tara's education as a human being, as a part of the world outside of her family.

Tara's parents were paranoid survivalists who completely manipulated and controlled her world (and that of her siblings). She had no access to reading material other than Mormon texts and the Bible. No newspapers, no history books, no television. Whatever her parents told her, was her reality. She believed entirely that the government was coming for them, that the world was close to ending, that everyone besides her family was hellbound. She believed that she was dirty, dumb, and a whore. She believed that the medical community was a pit of vipers. She believed it was her duty to cater to her father's every whim and, later, to her brother's. She believed she was worthless.

And yet she had something inside of her, a spark of brilliance and determination that even her father's cruelty, her mother's denial, and her brother's brutality could not keep down. Tara is not just a survivor but a victor. She overcame a horrific childhood full of danger, of physical, and emotional abuse (though she does contend that she had happy moments) to earn a PhD from Harvard. Her real education, though, comes as she begins to see the world through a different lens than her father's. Her real education comes when she sheds her former self, piece by painful piece, to discover not just who Tara is, but who this world is, and who Tara is in the world.

In some ways this memoir reminded me of The Glass Castle, but it is not as beautifully written as Walls' memoir. Walls was more than a decade older than Westover when she wrote her amazing memoir, and I suspect Westover's memoir has more of a raw, open wound feeling because of her proximity to her childhood.

I left this novel feeling sad and disheartened because I know there are so many children in our country who are raised on hate and fear, and so many of them don't have the willpower that Tara had to separate herself from them. And the cycle continues.

Happy for Tara that she climbed out of the pit, and hopeful that she may inspire others to do the same.



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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Book Review: Good as Gone

Good as GoneGood as Gone by Amy Gentry

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


This book is basically every parent's nightmare: their 13-year-old daughter is kidnapped from their house in the middle of the night. I mean, why did I keep reading? I certainly would not have if I still had a 13-year-old daughter at home!

So Julie is kidnapped, and her younger sister, Jane, sees the whole thing happen. She's too terrified to scream or even move until three hours later, and her mother holds this against her. (The mother. Ugh, how I despised this mother!) Anyway, Julie disappears without a trace, and then eight years later, she shows up at their front door.

Did I mention how much I despised the mother? Unfortunately, the chapters alternate between her and, well, Julie. Sort of. The mother, Anna, is just cold.

Regardless of the horror of a 13-year-old being kidnapped and a cold-hearted mother, I kept reading. I mean, it is a novel of suspense, after all, and frankly, I needed to find out what happened. I kinda wish I hadn't finished it. It got kind of ridiculous at the end, and it also devolved into stuff I don't want to read about in such detail, even if this horribly does happen to real 13-year-olds. Just ugh.

So, yeah. II could have done without this book. Did I learn anything from it? Was I enlightened in any way? Was I entertained? Was I wowed by the writer's craft? Was I made a more sensitive person? Nah, nah, nah. It was just kind of horrifying.



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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Book Review: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Two men, two stories, one great World’s Fair. It’s the 1890s, and the city of Chicago has just been given the honor of hosting the next World’s Fair.

Daniel Burnham was the lead architect of the Chicago World’s Fair, and H.H. Holmes was a serial killer who lived in Chicago at that time. Larson narrates these two stories in alternating chapters. Like most readers, I assumed the two stories would connect at some point, but they never do. Nonetheless, I found both stories intriguing and incredibly well researched.

The story Daniel Burnham of the creation of the “White City”—the World’s Fair Park—was interesting but not exactly riveting. While the minutia of all the ups and downs of building the fair got tiresome, I did get a fantastic history lesson. Also, I loved the appearances of famous people like Buffalo Billy, Annie Oakley, Theodore Dreiser, and Helen Keller at the fair.

Of course, the serial killer is always going to be the more compelling story. H.H. Holmes was known as a handsome, outgoing man— literally a ladykiller. While construction of the fair was going on at an incredible pace, Holmes was also working at a fast pace: collecting women, loving them, and then killing them in his specially constructed death building right in the center of town.

Again, the stories really have little to do with each other, but Burnham and Holmes might be consider polar opposites representing man’s capacity for good and his potential for evil. On one side, Burnham is creating this perfect, white Heaven-like city, yet nearby, Holmes has created his own hellish torture chamber. What lies beneath the veneer of whitewash?

All in all, this was a fascinating book, although I was, frankly, bored in some of the Burnham chapters. Photographs or drawings would have greatly enhanced these chapters. Sometimes I skimmed through the Burnham chapters just to get to the serial killer chapters—I’m not sure what that says about me as a reader or as a person, although I suspect that’s not uncommon.



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Saturday, February 24, 2018

Book Review: Every Last Lie

Every Last LieEvery Last Lie by Mary Kubica

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


The story: Clara, exhausted and overwhelmed with a 4-day-old baby and a preschooler, opens the door one evening to officers informing her that her husband has just been killed in a car accident. Maisie, their daughter, survived. Clara is devastated, naturally. She's in both a post-birth and a post-death haze, forgetting to shower and eat. She's barely in survival mode. Then one night, Maisie wakes up from a nightmare about the accident, and Clara suspects that someone, in fact, murdered Nick. The rest of the novel follows Clara as she searches for the truth, alternating with Nick's story leading up to the accident.

Me: I liked this okay. It was a fast-paced, read-in-a-couple-sittings kind of novel. But so many things about this drove me crazy. I heard way too much of Clara's inner thoughts —ramble, ramble, ramble as she suspected absolutely everyone as Nick's killer. Loose ends were left, well, loose. And what the heck? This woman has a newborn and she's out and about dragging herself and her kids all over town--and LEAVING THEM IN A HOT CAR! Who does that? Nick's inner thoughts were more interesting but his story was just so out there. Way too much going on. But that said, it was entertaining.



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Monday, February 12, 2018

Book Review: Hannah Coulter

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


“Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”

This is Hannah Coulter’s story, an ordinary woman who loves, loses, loves again, and loses again, gathering moments and memories along the way. Now in her seventies, she sifts through her life, taking out scenes and examining them, caressing them, sometimes finding joy and sometimes sadness, and then piecing them together.

Wendell Berry understands connection—the connection people have with each other and with the land. He understands the yearnings of the soul; the tender, quiet, beautify, ordinarily moments; the depth of love and feeling. Hannah is connected to a place—to the village of Port William, Kentucky—and to her farm there. (This is one of several novels that take place in Port William.) And she’s connected to people, both living and dead.

Berry's simple, poetic prose brought me to streaming-down-my-face tears—and that rarely happens to me while reading. Or at all, really. I was actually sobbing at the simple beauty of his words and the depth of his understanding. I felt mournful and yet optimistic, and incredibly grateful.

Absolutely one of my favorite books ever for its sheer loveliness and poignancy. I feel better for having read it, more cognizant of the small beauties of an ordinary life.



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