Category Archives: ReadingChallenge

The Book Whisperer Enjoys a Memoir

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Nine years ago, one of my book clubs chose a series of memoirs. One of those books was Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl. In Tender at the Bone, Reichl describes her early life and learning to cook as a defense mechanism because her own mother was a terrible cook. Eventually, readers learn her mother was bipolar which accounts for her mood swings and her inability to stick to one thing for very long.

In her most recent memoir, Save me the Plums, Reichl describes being offered the job as editor of Gourmet magazine. She describes being courted to take the job despite her reluctance and even belligerent answers of “NO!”

Eventually, Reichl does take the job as editor of Gourmet; Save me the Plums details her beginning at the magazine through to its closing. She had to learn how to be the boss, how to make decisions that affected others, and how to turn Gourmet into a magazine a wide variety of people wanted to read. When Reichl’s young son learned that if his mother took the job at Gourmet, she would be home each evening, he encouraged her to take the job. He missed seeing his mother in the evenings because as a food critic, she was out most evenings.

In Save me the Plums, Reichl gives readers additional glimpses into her early life with her parents.  She describes a winter day when she returned home from school to discover her mother had purchased a “large dead birch tree” which workmen were hoisting up to their eleventh-floor apartment.  She made other extravagant purchases the family could not afford: a house in the country, a boat, a fur coat, and a large painting. When the items had to be returned, Reichl’s mother was heartbroken. She would often take to her bed and stay there for months.

Reichl’s father was the anchor who held the family steady. He loved his wife and stood by her with whatever scheme she devised. Sadly, he could not give her all the money she wanted for fine things.

Reichl moves into her job as Gourmet’s editor by describing the people she works with and the terror she feels at taking over such a massive job. She has an office which she is allowed to decorate with the bright colors she loves. She has a budget she could only have dreamed about and a car, clothing allowance, and travel money.

Save me the Plums is a vivid account of Reichl’s ten years with Gourmet. In the end, as the magazine lost revenue, Reichl knew there would be changes. She writes, “I’d fortified myself against the pain of being fired, but this was worse: They had murdered the magazine.”

Readers can feel Reichl’s pain over the loss especially as they look back over the beginning of Save me the Plums where Reichl recounts her first encounter with Gourmet. That story, in itself, is enough to get readers interested in the rest of Reichl’s memoir. A few recipes sprinkled throughout the book also add to the story.

Ruth Reichl is host of PBS’s Gourmet’s Adventures with Ruth. At her Web site, http://ruthreichl.com/, discover more about Reichl, her books, and her other work.

From Reichl’s Web site: ” This is one of America’s best-loved fall desserts. And for good reason. Originally published in the New York Times by Marion Burros, it has been tweaked by any number of people. Including me.”

The Book Whisperer Discovers a True Story About Slavery

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Never Caught is a captivating story of Ona Judge, a slave owned by Martha Custis Washington and brought to her marriage with George Washington. Erica Armstrong Dunbar, the author, is the Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History at Rutgers University. Professor Dunbar has received fellowships from Ford, Mellon, and SSRC. Her first book is A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City.

Watch a YouTube video book talk with Professor Dunbar on Never Caught: https://youtu.be/b39sm0WjIf0. She maintains a Web site at this link: https://ericaarmstrongdunbar.com/. There, readers will find information about Professor Dunbar’s work as a writer, historian, and lecturer.

Dunbar provides a biography of Ona Judge, a dower slave, owned by Martha Parke Custis, brought to her marriage with George Washington. Dower slaves were held in trust for Martha’s children or grandchildren. Technically, they did not belong to Washington, but he owned slaves in his own right.

When George Washington became President of the newly formed United States, he had to move his family first to New York City and then Philadelphia from their beloved home at Mount Vernon. The Washingtons chose a small number of slaves to take with them as servants in both NY and PA. Ona Judge was one of those who moved with the family. Betty, Ona’s mother, was a favored slave in Martha’s household.

Ona became very much like a lady’s maid, dressing Martha and combing her hair. Ona also had to repair any damage to Martha’s clothes, so she became an expert seamstress. Martha depended upon Ona a great deal. Ona would even make social calls with Martha, staying in the background both at home and on visits to other homes in case Martha needed Ona.

Dunbar describes Ona’s duties well and also reminds readers of the perils young female slaves faced. Apparently, the Washingtons treated Ona well, giving her new clothes and treating her kindly, but she was still enslaved and at their beck and call.

Once the family moved to Philadelphia, the Washingtons had to take the slaves back to Mount Vernon or to the neighboring state of New Jersey every six months or the slaves could be declared free. The Washingtons wanted to keep this knowledge from the slaves, but, no doubt, the information did leak out.

When Martha’s granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis, also called Betsey and Eliza, married Thomas Law, a man twenty years her senior, Martha bequeathed Ona Judge to the granddaughter. Elizabeth was known to have a stormy temper and to be unpredictable. Ona definitely did not wish to become her property even though it meant returning to her family in the South.

At that point, Ona made up her mind to run away. Runaway slaves had a difficult time and were often caught. Rewards from $5 to $10, a lot of money in those days, were offered for the capture and return of the slaves.

Ona found passage on a ship with Captain John Bowles who took her to Portsmouth, NH. The passage was difficult and Ona was seasick on the ship. Once she got to Portsmouth, she had to find a job and lodging. She managed both of those tasks, taking a job as a domestic.

Below is the first newspaper ad posted seeking Ona Judge’s return:

In living with the Washingtons, Ona had had an easy life in terms of work, but she was on constant call. As an escapee, she had to do very hard work as a laundress and housekeeper. In those days, the jobs were not only difficult, but also dangerous.

One day in Portsmouth, Ona is on her way to work when she comes face-to-face with Senator Langdon’s daughter. Ona does not acknowledge the young woman, but she recognizes Ona and tells her father that she has seen Ona. At that point, readers imagine that Ona will be taken back to the Washingtons or that she will flee to another city.

In effort to find Ona Judge, Washington wrote a letter to Oliver Wolcott: “I am sorry to give you, or any one else trouble on such a trifling occasion. The ingratitude of the girl, who was brought up & treated more like a child than a Servant ought not to escape with impunity if it can be avoided.” Clearly, he missed the points that Ona was not a child and was not free.

Ona remains in Portsmouth and she remains free of capture, but she does experience some terrifying moments. Washington’s nephew Burwell Bassett is sent to retrieve Ona, but he fails. Others also try to return Ona to the Washingtons, but without success.

In Portsmouth, Ona met Jack Staines and they were legally married in 1797. Staines was a free black man, seaman who was often gone at sea. Unable to marry in Portsmouth, Ona and Jack went to the nearby town of Greenland where they were married. Ona later found refuge in Greenland with a free black family when Jack Staines died.

Dunbar gives readers background on the times, the ways people began looking at slavery and groups which formed to abolish slavery. In NY, for example, the New-York Manumission Society was founded in 1785 by John Jay and others “to promote the gradual abolition of slavery and manumission of slaves of African descent within the state of New York.”

In Pennsylvania, the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully held in Bondage was the first American Abolition society, founded April 14, 1775. Later, it was reorganized and became the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage with the short name of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Benjamin Franklin became the president of the organization and took the matter of slavery to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

The yellow fever epidemic of 1793 in Philadelphia killed almost 5000 people between Aug 1 and Nov 9. No one knew that mosquitoes transmitted the fever until that fact was verified in the nineteenth century. The yellow fever epidemic ended with the frost that killed the mosquitoes. Doctors thought African-Americans were immune to yellow fever, so many were recruited to care for the sick and bury the dead. Of course, they were not immune and many became ill and died.

Washington did struggle with the morality of slavery, but he did not free his slaves during his lifetime. Washington’s will “stipulated that aged slaves, those who were unable to work or support themselves, receive assistance and that they be ‘comfortably clothed and fed’ by the Washington heirs after their liberation took effect.” He also decreed that the slaves be taught to read and write and taught a useful occupation in preparation for their freedom.

Dunbar provides readers with a well-rounded look at slavery through the life of one slave: Ona Judge.

The Book Whisperer Reads Another New-to-Her Author: Cleeton

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About a year ago, I joined a book club at my branch of the Tulsa City-County Libraries. Kelli McDowell, library manager, chooses the books and leads the discussions. I am finding this book club a welcome respite because my responsibilities are to read the books chosen and be prepared for the discussions —and occasionally to bring refreshments.

Over the time I’ve been in Beyond the Book, Ms. McDowell has chosen books I’ve already read, books I would not have chosen on my own, and books I’ve been eager to read. I’ve read all of them regardless of whether I had already read the book—a refresher is always good. The books I would not have chosen have been intriguing and fun to read. Since I choose books for another book club (or two?), I like having someone else choose for this one.

The book for September is Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton. I knew that Reese Witherspoon had chosen it for her book club and had the book on my TBR list, so it is a welcome choice. I looked up information on Chanel Cleeton since I am not familiar with her work.

She has written a number of romance novels and a thriller and now this semi-political novel set in Cuba, Next Year in Havana. As I read about Cleeton, I discovered that she wanted to explore her own heritage since her family had escaped from Cuba in 1960 and landed in Florida. She has listened to her grandparents reminisce about their lives in Cuba, but they are reluctant to talk about some of the deprivation they suffered after Castro took over. Cleeton says her grandfather, similar to people who grew up in the Great Depression, cannot bear to see food wasted because food was in such short supply.

Like many writers, Cleeton gives her readers the Perez family’s story told in two parts: then and now. She also tells the story through two characters, Elise Perez and Marisol Ferrera, Elise’s granddaughter.

Marisol’s parents divorced when she and her sisters were small and their mother moved away, leaving the girls in their father’s care. His mother Elise, the girls’ paternal grandmother, steps in to help her son with his daughters. Elise and Marisol share the closest bond and are much alike. When Elise dies suddenly in her 70s, she leaves instructions for Marisol to take her ashes back to Cuba. In the instructions, she says that Marisol will know where to leave the ashes once she is there.

Thus, Cleeton sets up a mystery for Marisol to solve so that she knows the right place to leave her dear grandmother’s ashes. Marisol is a freelance journalist, so she has a reason to visit Cuba now that restrictions are somewhat relaxed and Americans can visit there. She does not know when she sets off on her journey that she will discover family secrets and a love.

Ostensibly, Marisol is in Cuba to write about tourist spots for a magazine, and she does plan to do that too. She has to smuggle her grandmother’s ashes into Cuba in a cosmetic jar and she hopes the jar won’t be opened during her entrance into Cuba at the airport.

Marisol has made arrangements to stay with Ana Rodriguez, Elise’s neighbor and childhood friend. Ana still lives in her family home next door to the old home where the Perez family lived, now occupied by Russian diplomats.

Luis Rodriguez, Ana’s grandson, picks Marisol up from the airport and takes her to his grandmother’s home where he also lives with his mother and his ex-wife. Luis is a history professor at the University of Havana. Immediately, sparks fly when the two meet, but Marisol is wary. She is in Havana for a few days only and she has much to do.

In Elise’s story, readers learn about the revolution and the factions trying to defeat Batista. Elise and her family live the lives of the very privileged. They are wealthy and feel untouched by dangers around them until all comes crashing down. Their father has supported Batista, so that puts the family in immediate danger when Castro takes over.

The Perez family manages to leave Cuba for the US as if going on vacation. Elise and her three sisters can take only one suitcase each and must leave valuables behind. Elise buries a box containing items precious to her in the backyard and enlists her friend Ana in the middle of the night to witness where the box is buried. Ana later digs that box up and keeps it safe without opening it until she gives it to Marisol.

Elise’s treasures in the box lead Marisol into some danger and Luis is right beside her. Readers also learn that Luis blogs under an assumed name and his blogging could get him into serious trouble with the government. He reminds Marisol that as an American and someone staying with the Rodriguez family she is being watched.

The Malecon in Havana which plays an important part for both Elise and Marisol

To discover all the political and romantic intrigues, read Next Year in Havana. One of my reading quirks is that I like to discover that the writer has used the title of the book somewhere in the book. The caveat is that it must appear naturally; it can’t be forced or just dropped in inexplicably. Cleeton meets my expectations in that regard. Cubans who fled Cuba after Castro took over, end their toasts with “Next year in Havana.”

Cleeton maintains a robust Web site at this link: http://www.chanelcleeton.com. Readers can also sign up to receive her newsletter: http://www.chanelcleeton.com/mailing-list/.

The Book Whisperer Discovers a Lovely Debut Novel

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When I finish a book, I usually head to the computer (I still like working at my desk top despite having a small laptop) to write out and share my thoughts about the book. September 5, 2019, I finished reading Ellie and the Harp Maker by Hazel Prior. For some reason, I did not immediately write my review. I am correcting that oversight now because I truly enjoyed the book.

Hazel Prior, https://www.hazeltheharpist.co.uk/, has been playing the harp for a long time. She has performed at the Ferrara Music Festival in Italy, at the Tobacco Factory Theatre in Bristol, poetry readings, and Medieval banquets. And she has played the harp at a number of weddings including her own. On her Web site, Prior gives several examples of her harp skills: https://www.hazeltheharpist.co.uk/blank-cjg9.

Ellie and the Harp Maker is a debut novel; Prior is already at work on her second book and has also written short stories, poems, and children’s stories. Her writing is warm and inviting. She creates characters that readers care about and wish to see successful in their endeavors. In Ellie and the Harp Maker, the story plays out simply, unfolding slowly as readers come to know Dan Hollis, the harp maker, and Ellie, the Exmoor housewife.

On Hazel Prior’s Web site, readers will see this proclamation about Ellie and the Harp Maker:

”This heart-warming, funny and quirky love story features . . .

86 plums

69 sandwiches

27 birch trees

a 17-step staircase


a pair of cherry-coloured socks

and a pheasant named Phineas.”

After reading that description, how could I not wish to read the book?

The story begins simply enough when Ellie, the Exmoor housewife, takes an impulsive trip down a wooded lane and discovers a barn where Dan Hollis makes Celtic harps. Dan most likely has Asperger’s; he says of himself that he does not always understand social situations. He prefers working on his harps in the solitude of his barn where he can let the wood tell him how to make the harp.

When Ellie finds the barn, she goes in and views the beautiful harps all over the barn, some completed and others Dan is still working on. As she admires the harps, Ellie tells Dan she wishes she could play the harp, a goal before she turns forty.

Dan admires Ellie’s bright, cherry-colored socks, so he gives her a harp of cherry wood. At first, Ellie protests and tells Dan she cannot possibly accept the harp as a gift. Dan insists that she take the harp and helps her load it into the back of her car with a blanket to cushion it for the trip to her home.

Once she is at home, Ellie still feels she should not accept the harp and her husband echoes that sentiment insisting that she return it. Her husband is sure Ellie misunderstood Dan and tells her they cannot afford to pay for the harp or harp lessons.

Sadly, Ellie returns the harp to Dan who tells her the harp belongs to her, Ellie, the Exmoor housewife. He assures her he will keep the harp in a little room up the seventeen stairs to his living quarters and that she can come there to play. He even tells her of a harp teacher, his girlfriend, who will teach Ellie.

Dan’s gift of the cherry wood harp to Ellie marks the beginning of a friendship between the two. The story is heartwarming and full of kindness. Oh, yes, there is strife and discord which we hope will be resolved. To discover the warmth of a kind soul and an act of generosity that turns into a friendship and more, read Ellie and the Harp Maker by Hazel Prior.

Ellie and the Harp Maker would make a delightful choice for a book talk for Books Sandwiched In with a harpist who could talk about the book and play the harp!

The Book Whisperer Chooses 4 Picture Books for Crime Stoppers

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During the month of September, the Tulsa Press Club is collecting books for readers age 8 – 14. The Tulsa Press Club, https://www.facebook.com/pg/TulsaPressClub/posts/, will give the books to Tulsa Crime Stoppers for distribution through revamped Tulsa World dispensing boxes; the boxes will be in various places around Tulsa. Children are then encouraged to take a book from the box and read. Also, Tulsa Police officers will be reading to children in a variety of places around the city. People are invited to donate new and gently used books for readers age 8 – 14. These locations are accepting donations of books: Tulsa Press Club, Tulsa Crime Stoppers, and City Vet.

Since I have always enjoyed reading, I like to promote reading among all ages. When I learned of the book drive, I wanted to contribute. I purchased four picture books from the South Broken Arrow Library’s book sale to donate.

The middle picture is of Diana Cohn and the third picture is of Amy Cordova.

Namaste! by Diana Cohn and illustrated by Amy Cordova is a beautiful book about Nima Sherpa, a little girl who lives in Nepal where Mt Everest looks down on her village. Nima’s father is a tour guide for many foreign visitors who come to see Mt. Everest, called Chomolongma by the villagers.

Namaste! follows Nima on her journey through the village. As she meets people, she “brings her hands together with her fingers almost touching her chin, bows her head slightly, and says ‘Namaste!’”  Namaste means “the light in me meets the light in you.”

Through Nima’s journey, readers see other villagers and learn about life in Nima’s village. Amy Cordova’s illustrations are colorful and delight the eye.

At the end of the book, readers will find information about Nepal, the Himalayas, the Sherpa people, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, and preserving mountain cultures. Namaste! is truly a book to savor and from which to learn.

Diana Cohn has published seven books for children and has received awards for her work. She continues to have a strong interest in social justice and environmental issues.

Amy Cordova is an artist and art educator. She has won awards for her work as well.

John Stadler’s Catilda takes readers on a journey to find a lost toy, a stuffed bear. Father tucks Catilda into bed and leaves her singing “a song about Ollie,” her bear lost on a trip to the city. Stadler illustrates the book as well. The drawings are whimsical and inviting. The colors are muted shades on one page and darken on another.

Catilda misses Ollie and wants to find him. Unbeknownst to her mother and father, she goes on a night-time journey to find the lost bear. Through the story, we see Catilda being bandied about by a giant wave only to land on a flagpole. She finally reaches The Statute of Liberty and then we see her clutching Ollie to her heart and smiling as she floats on a cloud. See more about John Stadler at this link: http://www.johnstadler.com/.

Haircuts at Sleepy Sam’s by Michael R. Strickland and illustrated by Keaf Holliday portrays three brothers off to get a Saturday haircut. Mother gives them money and hands them written instructions for the barber: “Trim. Keep the hairline natural. Clean back of neck. And please – not too short on the top!” Mark and Randy beg for a different cut saying, “We’re tired of Afro cuts.” Mom is not budging, though.

Before the boys reach the barber shop, they look across the street at the candy store and debate the merits of going there first. They decide, however, they should get to the barber shop first.

Sam calls Mark to sit in the barber’s chair. Sam wants to give the boys a different cut, but they remind him of their mother’s instructions.  However, “Sam smiles to himself and goes to work.” When all three boys have had their haircuts, they return home.

Mom looks at her sons and “a slow smile appears. She laughingly says, “That Sam…. He gave you guys just what you wanted!” The boys have “a bald fade” hair cut and all of them are happy.

Keaf Holliday has created realistic pictures of the three boys and the people they meet on their way to the barber shop. The colors are soft. Each boy is distinctive, but share features as brothers would.

Do All Bugs Have Wings? And Other Questions Kids Have About Bugs by Suzanne Slade and illustrated by Cary Pillo will thrill young readers with information about bugs. The format is simple. On each page, we see one or more questions posed by children whose first names and ages appear with the questions. This touch add realism to the questions.

The pages are full of facts, but not so overwhelming that readers will become bored. For example, in answer to the question “how many insects are on Earth today?” readers will discover this answer: “Too many to count! Scientists think there are about 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) insects in the world. There are about 6.8 billion people on Earth. This means there are 1.5 billion insects for each person!”

The book is one to be read and reread. Cary Pillo has illustrated the book with drawings of a wide variety of bugs. The drawings are fun and yet fit with the information on each page.

Suzanne Slade has written a number of children’s books—more than 100! Her background is in mechanical engineering; she wishes to share her passion for science with young readers. See more of her work at this link: https://www.suzanneslade.com/.

Cary Pillo is an award-winning illustrator.

The Book Whisperer Reviews a Favorite: Penny’s Latest Gamache Novel

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On a recent visit to Central Library for a meeting, I stopped to check the Quick Pick (QP) table just to see what was available. Imagine my surprise to find six copies of A Better Man, Louise Penny’s latest in the Armand Gamache series. It was published in August, 2019!

Not surprisingly, A Better Man has already received accolades from a number of reviewers. The Times of London named it a book of the month while The Christian Science Monitor named it one of the best books of August.

Louise Penny’s fans expect her to provide a good story. A Better Man certainly has a strong storyline.  All of our favorite characters from Three Pines are included along with the police agents we’ve come to know.

Besides investigating a murder, Gamache and Beauvoir and the police crew must deal with several other issues: Gamache’s return to homicide after a suspension and a catastrophic potential flooding across the province.

After a nine-month suspension, Gamache returns to the Surete’ demoted to second in command of homicide under his son-in-law, now named Chief Inspector Beauvoir.  Of course, long-time Penny fans will remember that Beauvoir will soon be leaving Quebec for Paris and a safe job, no longer a police officer. How will Gamache act when he is no longer in charge? What about the other officers, the subordinates?

The other difficulty that will involve police and other first responders is the potential for flooding caused by the April thaws and continuous rain. Rivers are threatening to burst dams and flood the province.

Gamache has mentored Beauvoir through his career and his rise to Chief Inspector. In the process, the two have become related through Gamache’s daughter’s marriage to Beauvoir; even more than being related, the two have developed a mutual respect and love for one another as brothers in arms and human beings.

As the story moves forward, I enjoyed seeing Beauvoir engage in many of the behaviors he has observed in Gamache over the years. Gamache is a calm man, a man given to defusing situations with a quiet word and a calm demeanor even when he faces a man holding a gun on him. Beauvoir finds himself thinking like Gamache and quoting lines of poetry or literature—if only in his own head.

The main investigation involves a missing pregnant woman who happens to be Agent Lysette Cloutier’s goddaughter. Several years earlier, Gamache had brought Agent Cloutier from accounting into homicide so she could help with tracing money as part of criminal investigations. Superintendent Isabelle Lacoste is also back following her recovery from a shooting in a drug operation of nine months earlier.

Annie, Gamache’s daughter and Beauvoir’s wife, is about the same age as Vivienne, the missing woman. Annie, too, is pregnant, so Gamache and Beauvoir think about how they would feel if Annie were missing.

While trying to locate Vivienne, the team encounters resistance from Carl Tracey, Vivienne’s abusive drunken husband. Thus, Tracey becomes the prime suspect in Vivienne’s disappearance.

The threatening weather conditions also play a vital role in the investigation. Other issues that intrude on the investigation include tweets denigrating Gamache and saying he is unfit for service. I found those tweets to be disturbing because they clearly are being sent out by people who do not know Gamache and have no respect for him because they do not know the full story.

Another side story concerns Clara, the artist resident of Three Pines. Her latest exhibition has been savaged by art critics. She feels personally attacked and deflated because of the terrible reviews.

In the end, Gamache and Beauvoir determine what has happened to Vivienne and who is responsible. The results are surprising. A Better Man is certainly a satisfying read.

Louise Penny’s Web site, https://www.louisepenny.com/books.htm, gives readers insight into the characters and the setting of the Gamache novels. Readers can also subscribe to her newsletter which keeps them updated on Penny’s work.

I learned on the Web site that Penny is a great supporter of literacy programs. In addition to being actively involved in literacy organizations, Penny has written a grade 3 novella: The Hangman. The story is set in Three Pines and features Chief Inspector Gamache. The book is designed to engage “emerging adult readers.” Anyone who works with adult learners knows that finding appropriate reading material at a level that the readers can understand as they are learning, but also appeal to an adult audience, is difficult.

The Book Whisperer Reviews a Stunning Debut Novel

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Once again my friend Theresa has steered me to a book I have found fascinating and can recommend wholeheartedly: The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt by Andrea Bobotis. The story is set in Bound, South Carolina, in the present-day with narrator Judith Kratt, 75, harkening back to her youth in memory to give readers the complete story.

If I am pressed, I will admit that Southern authors are my favorites. In no particular order, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Carson McCullers, Margaret Mitchell, Alice Walker, and Kate Chopin come quickly to mind. These authors tell stories that remind me of family stories and of the way of telling the story. Rarely straightforward, each story ambles on its way with tidbits thrown in to explain or further enhance the main story. Or sometimes to go completely off track onto another path only to wander back to the original story after all.

Jim Hartz interviewed Eudora Welty for the Today Show on 6 Feb 1976. Welty “describes growing up in a culture that ‘relished’ storytelling.” She further explained that “growing up in Mississippi, in Jackson, is good for any writer because we are a nation of talkers, listeners, and storytellers. And when you live in a small town where you know everybody you get it all.” She continues by saying storytelling is “unique to the South maybe.” She hedges a bit there, but we know Southerners do love telling stories. Of course, other areas of the country and other cultures do too.

Pat Conroy, a South Carolina native, weighed in on Southern storytellers: “Every region has their oddballs, for sure. But in the South, we embrace our oddballs and listen to their tales.”

My heart is still pounding fifteen minutes after finishing the last page of The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt. While I will not include spoilers, it will not surprise readers to learn that long-kept family secrets will come to light as Miss Judith faces the past her family has lived.

Having grown up in a very small town populated with many of my relatives, I am aware of secrets long-held. One of those family secrets came to light last year when I had my DNA analyzed through Ancestry.com. I discovered my cousin’s daughter who had been adopted at birth sixty years ago in a closed adoption. That discovery resulted a cousins’ family reunion and an opportunity to meet our newly-found cousin. Sadly, her mother has died, but she did get to meet her two aunts and a whole passel of cousins.

This review will include no spoilers. Let me say, though, that I hate Daddy Kratt even though he was long dead when the story opens. He is a thoroughly despicable character and I still feel a visceral hatred and repulsion when I think of him. He is the archetypal bully, villain, and miscreant all rolled into one person. Caring only for himself and what he can amass in money and goods, Daddy Kratt rolled over everyone and everything in his path exactly like a bulldozer without caring about the consequences as long as he got what he wanted.

And Daddy Kratt succeeded—for a time. He owned cotton gins, many acres of land, a fine home, a store, and a gas station. He even pushed Mr. Delour, his own father-in-law into bankruptcy and never looked back. Mr. Delour had mentored Daddy Kratt when Daddy Kratt was a young man working toward amassing his fortune. None of that means a thing to a miscreant, however.

In the present-day, Judith lives in the family home, now in some disrepair as fortunes have fallen long ago, with Olva, a Black woman only slightly older than Judith. The two have been together all their lives. Judith’s brother Quincey, age 14, died from “a fatal gunshot to his person in the early hours of Friday, December 20, 1929.” This news is related to readers at the beginning of the book.

Then Bobotis works backward and forward to complete the story. Judith and Quincey’s younger sister is Rosemarie, named for their mother, also Rosemarie. Other important characters include Dee, Rosemarie’s only sibling, Charlie who works at the store and repairs all things including mechanical ones, Marcus, and Amaryllis. A few other townspeople enter the story as well.

Bobotis writes with a delicate use of the language. Olva, holding a shotgun on a nasty white man from Bound, says, “I will tell you a thing or two about tension. I will tell you that we did not create it. You did. You merely have not felt it until now. Understand this—for me, for Marcus—for [Amaryllis], tension lives under the surface of everything. We feel the itch of it under our skin. But we sill rise from that tension. Agitation is what sheds the snake of its skin, what shucks the moth of its cocoon.”

One cannot read those lines and not feel the passion. To whom is she referring when she uses we?

Near the end of the book, Miss Judith Kratt asks Marcus to take her to her lawyer’s office. What Judith takes in “an old, distinguished piece of Daddy Kratt’s luggage,” will surprise readers. The suitcase contained the following items: “pickled okra (one jar). Wray Little’s rum apple butter (one jar, already opened), a sleeve of saltines, four butterscotch candies, my social security card, and an antique brass teacher’s bell, which I thought would be useful in an emergency.”

Andrea Bobotis has received a number of awards for her debut novel, The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt. After reading it, I can see why it has received such acclaim. Discover more about Bobotis at her Web site: https://www.andreabobotis.com/.

The Book Whisperer Invites Readers to the 2019 Books Sandwiched In series at Central Library

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Today’s blog takes a new turn in that I am not reviewing a single book, but I’m promoting the Books Sandwiched In fall 2019 series. The book reviews are held at the Central Library, downtown Tulsa in Aaronson Auditorium. The reviews begin at 12:10 PM on Mondays and end at 12:50 PM. This year, there are two exceptions. The first review will be at Marshall Brewery, 6th & Utica, at 6:00 PM because Central Library (and, in fact, all libraries) is closed for a day of staff development. The second exception occurs on Nov 12 which is a Tuesday since the libraries are closed for Veterans’ Day on Monday, Nov 11. The time remains the same for this review: 12:10 – 12:50 PM. The complete schedule is listed at the end of this blog.

Guests are encouraged to bring their lunch and listen to the book reviews. Bring a friend or two along to enjoy the reviews as well. Starbucks, located on the first floor of Central Library, is the only library-owned Starbucks in the US. Money made over expenses goes to help fund library programs. Thus, purchasing food and drinks from the Central Library Starbucks helps support the library system.

Mon, Oct 14, 6:00 PM, Marshall Brewery: John Carreyou details in Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup the story of Theranos and its founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes. Holmes promoted a radical idea that a single drop of blood could determine any number of diseases. Through the use of a machine installed in pharmacies, people could have a drop of blood drawn to give them quick, accurate test results. Sadly, the idea does not work, but Holmes raised more than $9 billion to fund her project until the whole company collapsed. Carreyou has written a true story that reads like a fast-paced thriller.

Mon, Oct 21, 12:10-12:50 PM: The Book Whisperer reviewed The Library Book by Susan Orlean on 25 Nov 2018. See the complete review there. Susan Orlean has written a captivating book about the Los Angeles Library fire in 1984. To explain the full extent of the fire and its aftermath, Orlean also provides a history of the library system in Los Angeles and how critical the library is to the well-being of a city and its people.

Mon, Oct 28, 12:10-12:50 PM: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is another book the Book Whisperer reviewed; this one on 15 Mar 2019. Owens has written a coming of age story combined with a mystery and wrapped in nature. Where the Crawdads Sing is a must read.

Mon, Nov 4, 12:10-12:50 PM: Marie Benedict’s The Only Woman in the Room will be reviewed. Again, the Book Whisperer reviewed The Only Woman in the Room in this blog on 13 Apr 2019. Hedy Lamarr has long been known as a beautiful Hollywood star. In truth, she was a scientist.

Tues, Nov 12, 12:10-12:50 PM: Because the libraries are closed for Veterans’ Day on Monday, Nov 11, the review of Becoming by Michelle Obama and The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty by Susan Page will take place on a Tuesday. The review of two books by and about First Ladies is unprecedented. Michelle Obama and Barbara Bush both contributed much to the US during their tenures as First Ladies.

Mon, Nov 18, 12:10-12:50 PM: Meet me at the Museum by Anne Youngston is the kind of novel to read and reread. Told in the form of letters between Tina Hopgood, an English farm wife, and Anders Larsen, a museum director in Denmark, Meet me at the Museum chronicles the growing friendship between two strangers through the letters they exchange. The Book Whisperer reviewed Meet me at the Museum in this blog on 1 Feb 2019.

Mon, Nov 25, 12:10-12:50 PM: Recipient of the 2019 Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award is Stacy Schiff. A review of her body of work will include an overview of such books as The Witches: Salem, 1692, Cleopatra: A Life, and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. Such acclaimed authors as David McCullough, another Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author recipient, praise Schiff’s writing as “brilliant from start to finish.”

2019 Books Sandwiched In Book Reviews

12:10-12:50 PM, Aaronson Auditorium, Central Library (two exceptions, noted with **)

Bring your lunch and bring a friend or two to enjoy these book reviews.

Oct 14**: Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou (held in the evening at Marshall Brewery, 6th & Utica. The library is closed for staff development that day.)

Oct 21: The Library Book by Susan Orlean  (Monday marks the beginning of National Friends of the Library Week, so the review celebrates libraries.)

Oct 28: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Nov 4: The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

Nov 12**: (TUESDAY because the library is closed for Veterans’ Day Nov 11): Becoming by Michelle Obama and The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty by Susan Page 

Nov 18: Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngston

Nov 25: Overview of the work of Stacy Schiff, the 2019 Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author recipient

The Book Whisperer Re-examines The Orphan’s Tale

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I had read The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff some time ago for a book club. Another book club chose The Orphan’s Tale for the August book to discuss. It had been long enough that I needed to reread the book, and I am glad I did. I had forgotten some important details. I thoroughly enjoyed The Orphan’s Tale the second time around.

Jenoff leads readers on an interesting journey by beginning in the prologue with the present day and a 90-year-old unnamed woman who slips out of her nursing home in Florida to fly to Paris to see a circus exhibit: Two Hundred Years of Circus Magic. Now, why would this woman risk such a daring escape from her nursing home, telling no one?

Chapter One takes readers back to Germany, 1944. Each chapter is narrated by either by Noa, a sixteen-year-old girl cast out of her Dutch home, or Astrid, a Jewish circus performer from a long-time circus family now hiding in plain sight in a German, non-Jewish circus.

Noa has been sent away by her family because she became pregnant by a German soldier who was long gone from the area when Noa realized she was pregnant. Most likely, the pregnancy would not have mattered to the soldier anyway. Noa’s furious parents send her to a home where she lives until she gives birth to a baby boy. She is allowed to hold the baby only once before he is snatched away, never to be seen again.

Knowing she cannot return home, Noa finds a job as cleaner at a railroad station where she receives a tiny cubical in the attic fitted with an old mattress as a place to live. One snowy evening, she walks past a railroad car and sees it is full of infants, some of whom have no clothing, some are already dead and others are clearly nearly dead. On an impluse she cannot explain, she plucks one of the babies from the train, a baby boy.

Noa’s action of taking the baby sets her on a journey that will endanger her and the infant. She knows she must flee the railroad station in the freezing cold and snow. She has nothing but the clothes on her back which includes a thin coat. She wraps the baby as best she can, discovering when she cleans him up in the railway station bathroom that the baby is Jewish because he has been circumsised. Thus, she will be in even greater danger with a Jewish baby even though she is the ideal Aryan with blonde hair.

Noa falls in unconscious in the snow with the baby. When she awakens, she finds herself taken in by the German circus in the area. There, she meets Astrid, another castaway the circus has taken in. Everyone must earn his/her keep in the circus, so Astrid reluctantly sets about teaching Noa the high wire acrobat act. Noa is quite as reluctant to learn since she has never even thought about being an high-wire acrobat.

Astrid and Noa enter into a wary relationship, each distrusting the other. Circumstances, particularly danger for both of them and for Theo, the little boy Noa has rescued, change turning the two into friends. Even then, the two have some misgivings about the other.

With the Nazis being ever-present, everyone who works in the circus must be on alert. Danger exists around every corner.

Jenoff weaves the tales told by the two narrators seamless so that readers discover the full picture. Readers will also realize a surprise at the end of the story if they have not already determined who the narrator of the prologue is.

Pam Jenoff has published 11 books. At her Web site, http://www.pamjenoff.com/, readers will find information on all of the novels along with questions to use in book clubs for discussion.

German circus ringmaster, Adolf Althoff, https://circustalk.com/news/how-a-german-circus-saved-a-jewish-family-of-circus-artists, saved Jewish performers by hiding them within his circus. Pam Jenoff researched Althoff’s circus and used some of that information in her novel. The picture below is from the article found in Circus Talk; see the URL above.

The Book Whisperer Reviews Visible Empire

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Many novels are based on real events. Hannah Pittard has taken the tragedy of a plane crash, 3 June 1962, in Paris that killed 103 of “Atlanta’s wealthiest residents” and created Visible Empire, a novel. The plane crashed on takeoff. The Atlanta residents on board were art patrons who had been on a month-long tour of art galleries across Europe. They had returned to Paris and following an evening of partying they were on their way home the next day. In all 130 people died in the crash which was caused by a mechanical failure. At the time, it was the worst single airplane crash recorded.

For The Atlanta Journal Constitution, on 5 June 2018, Mandi Albright wrote “Atlanta Arts Patrons Die in 1962 Paris Plane Crash,” an article looking back on the terrible accident. Read the full article at this link: https://www.ajc.com/news/local-govt–politics/ajc-archives-atlanta-arts-patrons-die-1962-paris-plane-crash/7h5pQ6sYWOvxrkkOGph7OM/.

Pittard has published four other novels. Visible Empire has received a number of honors including the following: an Amazon Editors’ Pick for Summer Fiction, an IndieNext List Pick, a New York Times “New and Noteworthy” Selection, an O Magazine Book of Summer, and one of Southern Living‘s Best New Books of Summer. Her previous novels also received high praise and awards. Discover more about Pittard and her work on her Web site: http://www.hannahpittard.com/. Currently, she leads the MFA program in creative writing at the U of KY.

Visible Empire employs the use of different voices to tell the story. This ploy annoys some readers, but I like the added perspective it gives readers. Instead of an omniscient narrator or a single narrator, Pittard gives readers five characters who tell the story of the crash’s impact and the deaths of those on board on those left behind in Atlanta.

The book opens with Robert’s story. Immediately, I found Robert to be an unsympathetic character. He learns his in-laws have died in the Paris crash. His mind, however, is on the death of another passenger on board, a young woman named Rita. Rita, a journalist, works with Robert and they have been having an affair for over a year. Meanwhile, Robert’s wife Lily is seven months into what is becoming a difficult pregnancy. Robert is also in debt and drinking heavily. So what does Robert do—and this information is no spoiler since it occurs in the first chapter—but leave his pregnant, vulnerable wife on the day she learns her parents have died in Paris.

Other narrators include Piedmont Dobbs, a young Black man; Lily, Robert’s wife; Anastasia, a grifter; Coleman, a wealthy n’er-do-well and drug addict; and Skylar, Anastasia’s newly reunited twin brother. Additionally, short chapters of one or two pages feature Ivan and Lulu, Atlanta’s mayor and his wife. Those short chapters are interspersed throughout the book.

All of these characters find themselves interwoven into a story beyond their control. Piedmont, Anastasia, and Skylar are unknown to the other characters until the accident. Their addition to the story completes the narrative. Without them, Visible Empire would be the story of wealth and privilege as well as loss. Yet, 1962 is a critical time in Atlanta and the US because of integration and racial unrest.

All of the narrators have stories to tell. Their stories all relate in one way or another to the plane crash because without it, all of these people would not come together. I found Visible Empire compelling enough to complete in a single sitting.