Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

In reviewing my 2014 year in books, I found that while I read many women authors, most of the writers I read are white women. My goal for 2015 is to diversify my reading with more works by people of color and more nonfiction.

So far this year, I’ve read 50 books. Of those 50,

  • 41 are by women, 9 are by men
  • 34 fiction, 16 nonfiction
  • 3 are short story collections, 3 are essays or essay collections
  • 9 are by people of color

While my reading still skews toward fiction written by white women, I’m not going to be discouraged, or quit trying to diversify my reading. Stepping out of our comfort zones takes work, and when we don’t actively think about it, we default to what we know. I’m glad I did this midpoint review. It’s a good reminder to be more aware of my reading choices and continue to actively seek out more works outside my default genres and authors.

What are my next steps? Right now, I’m reading Re Jane by Patricia Park and I’ve requested Misty Copeland’s autobiography from the library. What are some of your favorite books by women of color?


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Four QueensNancy Goldstone’s entertaining, highly-readable history chronicles the lives of four sisters from Provence who became queens in 13th century Europe. The eldest, Marguerite, marries Louis IX, King of France, and her sister Eleanor marries Henry III, King of England.

Goldstone writes mainly about Marguerite and Eleanor. Younger sisters Sanchia (who marries Henry’s younger brother Richard and becomes Queen of Germany) and Beatrice (wife of Louis’ younger brother Charles who becomes Queen of Sicily) have fewer chapters devoted to them in part because they were still children for the first half of the book and also because less is known about them.

I enjoy history and biographies, though sometimes the texts can be dry. Goldstone’s writing is not. Four Queens is entertaining and fast-paced. Aside from the sections on Louis IX’s crusade (aka foolish men get lots of people killed), I was never bored. Goldstone’s chapters frequently end with cliffhangers (e.g. in the end it would cost them the kingdom; the hook was baited but would the fish bite?) and her subtle wit is sprinkled throughout the book:

    • “Charles would arrange for his grandson Charles Martel (eldest son of Charles’s eldest son, Charles, prince of Salerno; the family was not imaginative when it came to naming boys)” (301).
    • “and somewhere along the line the realization gradually dawned that [his] much-vaunted financial strategy had simply been to pledge the same castles to everybody” (108).

Alison Weir blurbed the book and her novel and biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine are on my to-read list. While she doesn’t appear in Four Queens, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s legacy lingers: Eleanor of Provence and Sanchia married Eleanor of Aquitaine’s grandsons and Marguerite and Beatrice married her great-grandsons.

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In 2010, Reshma Saujani challenged Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney in a primary. Even though she lost, she calls it the most successful campaign ever lost. She took a risk, didn’t wait in line until it was her turn, and is now encouraging other women to do the same in Women Who Don’t Wait in Line. Here are five goals I’m setting for myself after reading her book:

1. Apply for the job I think I’m not qualified for

I remember reading in Lean In that women aren’t likely to apply for a job unless they meet all of the listed qualifications. And my first thought was that I owed my father an apology. At various points in my career when job hunting, my dad would send me job listings and if I didn’t meet every single one of the qualifications, I would tell my dad I wasn’t qualified and wouldn’t apply. He would always say a variation of “of course you can do that job! Apply!” In my current job search, I’m finally taking that advice.

2. Do a self cost-benefit analysis for my jobs

From Saujani: in one column, write what you get from your job; include salary and nonmaterial benefits like a nice title, access to interesting people, etc. In the second column, write the amount you spend on your physical, mental, and emotional well-being because you hate your job.

I’ve had “good” jobs that weren’t good for me. In weighing the cost of staying or finding a new job, I never considered all the additional costs associated with the job that made me unhappy. Not anymore.

3. Own my leadership style

It’s not male leadership or female leadership, it’s my leadership.

4. (Continue to) advocate for policies and laws to level the playing field

Affordable child care. Work-life balance. Closing the STEM gap. Pay equity. Supporting women entrepreneurs and women immigrants. Saujani’s goals echo Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Opportunity Plan: paid family and medical leave, raising the minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, quality affordable childcare, and universal pre-K.

These are all policies I do and will continue to support–whether by organizing and advocating, working to elect candidates who share my values, and petitioning elected officials. And by being the change I want to see. First step to closing the STEM gap? Increasing my own skills.

5. Learn to code

I started by signing up at codeacademy.com and am in the process of building a website (the first skill). I remember the basics of HTML that I first learned to blog at livejournal for a college class!


Check out Saujani’s book. It’s a quick read and will likely inspire you to set some new goals for yourself.

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Here’s a perfect reading challenge for me: Jazz Age January!

Courtesy of Leah at Books Speak Volumes, the Jazz Age January challenge is simple: read one Jazz Age book during January and blog about it.

My own bookshelf contains a couple books I’ve not yet read that fit the bill:

Other books I’ve read and recommend for the challenge:


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Excluding rereads, I read 61 books in 2014, exceeding my goal of 40. It was a fiction-heavy year: 51 pieces of fiction and only 10 nonfiction, biography/memoirs, and essay collections. In this year of #readwomen2014, 44 of my reads were written by women, three were co-written by women, and one was an essay collection edited by a woman. #readwomen? Yes, I do.

However, I realized most of the women writers I read are British or American white women, so I sought out some non-white women writers. I finally read Americanah and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, loved Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, and adored Mambo in Chinatown. I’m adding more Jean Kwok and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to my to-read list for 2015.

Though they aren’t on my favorites list, my 2014 year of reading belongs to Kerry Greenwood and Phryne Fisher. After falling in love with Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (thank you Netflix), I started reading Kerry Greenwood’s stories of the fashionable and incomparable 1920’s Australian detective. Twelve of my 60 reads are Phryne Fisher mysteries, and I have another 8 to go.

2014 Favorite Reads

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai is amazing and inspiring. She has a remarkable spirit and an incredible outlook. Her (first?) memoir should be added to school curriculums across the country.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I finally read Americanah and adored it. This wonderful engaging novel makes me want to read more of Adichie’s work and makes me wish Ifemelu’s Raceteenth blog was real. As I was running out of pages, I worried the story would abruptly end. In a way it does; I’m not ready to leave Ifemelu and Obinze. But the ending is satisfying and it makes me happy. I don’t rank my favorite reads, but if I did, Americanah would be in the top three.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

I switched jobs and was driving for nearly two hours every day that first month. The Outlander audiobook saved me. (Yes, I was in love with Jamie fairly quickly.) To call this a romance doesn’t do it justice as there is much more meat and plot than a typical romance story, although there is a fabulous romance. Call it romance, call it historical fiction, call it fantasy, call it whatever you like, but no matter what you call it, add it your to-read list.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

I heard Ms. Kline speak at my local library and quickly borrowed a copy of her book. When I finished it in May, I knew it would be one of my favorite reads of the year. The two protagonists, Vivian and Molly, are compelling, empathetic, inspiring heroines and I loved both their stories. If you enjoy historical fiction, contemporary fiction, strong female characters, happy endings, good writing, or moving novels, I highly recommend Orphan Train.

The American Mission by Matthew Palmer

I like a good spy novel and while the CIA agents are minor characters in Palmer’s tale of a foreign affairs officer in the Congo, The American Mission is fast paced and meaty, weaving mining, diplomacy, K&R, the US Foreign Service, and the politics of developing countries like the DRC into an engrossing and entertaining novel. Half way through, I added Palmer’s next book to my to-read list.

First Impressions by Charlie Lovett

Subtitled “a novel of old books, unexpected love, and Jane Austen,” this is clearly a novel for me. Part historical fiction, part literary thriller, part romance, part Jane Austen adoration, Lovett’s novel is magnificent. And it spurred me to finally read Persuasion.

Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

Ballroom dancing! A young woman coming into her own! A little romance! I adored it. And I started taking dance lessons again. Charlie, our heroine, is a protagonist you immediately root for. My one critique is the subplot of Lisa, Charlie’s sister, and her illness; it seemed obvious to me and other readers.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

I picked this up at my local library after I recognized the cover, likely from NPR’s book concierge, and was intrigued by the jacket copy. A retelling of the twelve dancing princesses fairy tale, I started reading this one evening and just kept reading and reading and reading–until nearly 2 a.m. when I finished. I’m drawn to books set in the 1920’s and this one has dancing, happy endings (yes, plural–there are 12 sisters), and women taking control of their own lives. Valentine did a fantastic job creating the atmosphere of 1920’s dancing spots and the personalities of the sisters. I already want to reread it.

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Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline 

orphan trainThe Grade: A

Why I Picked It: The author came and spoke at my public library

Quick Take: Molly, a Penobscot foster child, begins her community service at Vivian’s home in Bar Harbor. Vivian was sent on one of the orphan trains from New York city in the 1920’s and the novel alternates from the present to Vivian’s childhood.

My Thoughts: This will be one of my favorite reads of 2014. I adored this book. Both Vivian and Molly are compelling, empathetic, inspiring heroines and I loved both their stories. Sometimes with novels that alternate between time periods or narrators, I find myself bored with one and skipping through those chapters to get back to my preferred narrative. That wasn’t the case with Orphan Train.

As a Mainer, the Maine setting created a personal connection for me: I’ve  been to the Abbe Museum, my aunt curated the “Four Mollys” exhibit which included Molly Molasses, and Women of the Dawn is on my bookshelf.

I also want to believe that we find our way back to the people we love and that there are all kinds of families, not just the ones in which you are born, and there are echoes of both themes in this novel.

If you enjoy historical fiction, contemporary fiction, strong female characters, happy endings, good writing, or moving novels, I highly recommend Orphan Train.


Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

BSBThe Grade: B

Why I Picked It: Recommended in Bookmarks Magazine and for #ReadWomen2014

Quick Take: In the 1950’s, a young woman runs away from her abusive father and marries a widower. When she gives birth, she discovers a secret his family has been hiding.

My Thoughts: A week later, I’m still puzzling over this book. I liked it, but I don’t think I will read it again. It’s billed as a Snow White story, and there are some echoes of Snow White, but I wouldn’t categorize this as a fairy tale retelling.

Of course, an underlying theme of the book is how people can’t be categorized by race or color. So maybe that’s the point.

It’s not a spoiler to say that when Boy marries Arturo Whitman and gives birth to their daughter Bird, she discovers that the Whitmans are light-skinned African-Americans living as whites. But Bird has black skin. As Bird herself later says, “I accidentally brought truth to light, and bringing truth to light is the right thing to do” (150).

In previous generations of the Whitmans, the children who couldn’t pass for white were sent to live with other relatives. But when Boy calls her sister-in-law, she asks her to take Snow, Arturo’s light-skinned daughter from his first marriage, instead.

There are interesting questions about race and identity, but we don’t get to know enough about the characters to know why they act the way they do. Why does Boy send Snow away for so long? Why is Aruturo okay with this? Snow can pass for white but grows up with black relatives. How does this affect who she is?

Then there is a new subplot introduced in the final chapters that raises more questions and casts new light on previous events.

There’s good stuff here, but it doesn’t quite connect for me.


The Message: The Reselling of President Obama by Richard WolffeThe Message

The Grade: A-

Why I Picked It: I’m an Obamaniac, a political junkie, and I work in communications.

Quick Take: Wolffe covers the messaging and communications strategy of the Obama reelection campaign

My Thoughts: This was an “A” book until the final chapter when Wolffe gets grand and lofty and moves beyond the scope of the reelection campaign’s messaging.

Overall, I loved it. Communications strategy and messaging fascinate me and I liked the limited focus of this book.

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The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Grade: A-

buddha in the atticWhy I Read It: I was inspired by Lilit Marcus’s decision to read only women writers for a year and Joanna Walsh’s #readwomen2014

Makes Me Want To: Read Otsuka’s first book, When the Emperor was Divine

Quick Take: Otsuka’s novella shares the experiences of Japanese picture brides, women who immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century to marry Japanese men.

My Thoughts: Otsuka uses first person plural narration, a rare narrative device that works wonderfully. She begins the story on the boat from Japan and the final chapter covers the forced relocation to internment camps during WWII.

I loved Otsuka’s prose. It’s evocative and lyrical. This is from the first chapter, when the picture brides are on the boat and some have left daughters behind in Japan:

We wept for her every night for many nights in a row and then one morning we woke up and dried our eyes and said “that’s enough,” and began to think of other things…Because we were on the boat now, the past was behind us, and there was no going back (12).

Others had ended affairs with married men, knowing there was no happy ending, but also knowing “we would do it all over in an instant, because being with him was like being alive for the very first time, only better” (16).

I can see why the novella is being added to curricula and reading lists. It’s powerful and compelling; a quick read, but one that lingers with you after you’ve finished the last page.

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