The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

Wonder Woman book jacketAfter you take in this summer’s new Wonder Woman movie, read the crazier-than-fiction backstory on the creation of America’s favorite female superhero.  Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman traces Wonder Woman’s creation by William Moulton Marston, who also invented the lie detector test (lasso of truth, anyone?). Marston’s unusual family arrangement is a story unto itself, and following the ups and downs of his personal life and career makes for a fascinating summer read.

In exploring the pre- and post-WWII American cultural landscape and examining Marston’s connection to major feminists of the period, including Margaret Sanger, Lepore nicely frames Wonder Woman’s rise and examines the various parties who competed over—sometimes for control, sometimes to censor—this rising icon. Request a copy.

Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke

I hadn’t before read a graphic novel (or in this case, a graphic memoir), so Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This was new territory for me.  I was drawn to this book because of its topic, rather than its format.  In it, Radtke explores her fascination with architectural ruins, relating them to her own sense of the impermanence of life and her grief over losing a close relative.  Never feeling rooted or settled, she travels the world visiting abandoned towns and structures as they are slowly reclaimed by nature.

Radtke tells her story in direct, unfussy language and compelling black and white drawings.  In some pages, she conforms to the traditional three to nine frame comic format, and in others her drawings overlap the frame or incorporate collage or drawn-over photographic elements, giving the book a lot of life, and the reader plenty of incentive to keep turning the pages.  Radtke’s story is poignant, her illustrations lovely.  This book quickly hooked me and I read it in one sitting.  I now consider it a favorite.  This is a great entry point into the graphic book format, and I recommend it to new graphic book readers (and experienced graphic readers won’t want to miss it).  Request a copy.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

The Queen of the Tearling

I really enjoyed The Queen of the Tearling.  It has a heavy basis in fairy tale—the young princess hidden deep in the woods, the evil queen, the magical jewel—but it is fairy tale in a Snow White and the Huntsman meets The Hunger Games kind of way.  The adventure rolled along from page one, and I had trouble putting it down.

Amidst revolution and political strife, Princess Kelsea is hidden away in the woods until she reaches the age of nineteen, when she is to ascend the throne as Queen of the Tearling.  But first she has to reach the castle alive, then overthrow her nasty uncle, the prince regent.  On her nineteenth birthday, the Queen’s guard, formerly sworn to protect Kelsea’s mother, arrives to escort her to the land of the Tearling.  Kelsea endures the guards’ disrespect, treacherous travel conditions, and the constant threat of ambush and assassination to reach the castle and face her uncle, the fawning puppet of the powerful and nasty Red Queen of neighboring Mortmense.  With the help of some allies (and the aforementioned magic jewel), but mostly by her own wits and courage, Kelsea comes into her own.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist

This gothic-tinged historical opens in 1687 with a mysterious woman secretly observing a funeral.  Her identity is the first of many compelling mysteries that propels the reader through The Miniaturist.  The story then backshifts a few months to 1686, when young Petronella (Nella) Oortman Brandt arrives, for the first time, at the doorstep of her new husband’s Amsterdam home.  He isn’t present, and she is greeted by Marin, his chilly, imperious sister and their servants.  When Nella’s merchant husband, Johannes, finally arrives, he treats Nella with an almost brotherly respect, eventually even affection, but with no trace of the passion for which Nella has braced herself.  Layers of chiaroscuro mystery obscure Nella’s—and the reader’s—understanding of her new life and role in her new household.  Why doesn’t Johannes consummate his marriage?  What is Marin’s past and who is she really?  What is the Brandt family’s connection to Johannes’s associate Frans Meersman and his wife Agnes?

The next mystery is the grand arrival of Nella’s wedding gift from Johannes.  It is a miniature house, an exact replica of their own home in dollhouse proportion.  Nella feels belittled.  But she is fascinated by the precision of the replica, and commissions a miniaturist to furnish the house.  When her pieces arrive, she is surprised to receive several unrequested items: a baby’s cradle, and miniatures of Johannes’s two dogs, rendered in detail that could only come from close, keen observation.  Who is this strange craftsman to know such detail, and to make such presumption as to include a cradle?  Did the miniaturist know how that item would sting Nella, who is receiving clear messages from Johannes’s avuncular behavior?  Nella is astounded to then receive an uncommissioned package from the miniaturist, containing an impossibly realistic set of figures: herself, Marin, Johannes, the servants, and the Meersmans.  Her discomfort grows, but she’s unable to reach the miniaturist for an explanation.  As Nella’s miniatures begin to take on peculiar characteristics and as dangerous missteps and misfortunes befall the Brandts, dread over their fates grows, and an inevitable question rears: whose funeral is described in the opening epigraph?

I loved how well Burton evokes 17th century Amsterdam— its architecture and furnishings and fashions as well as its political and religious climate, its racism, sexism, and intolerance.  Nella is a compelling heroine whose growing maturity through the course of the story is deftly portrayed . I didn’t always like Nella, but by midway through the book she had earned my respect; by the end my unreserved admiration.

As much as I loved Nella’s miniature house—the description of it as well as its symbolic power in the story—and the mounting suspense over the identity of the miniaturist, in the end, the miniaturist’s presence and role didn’t gel for me.  Still, many parts of the novel kept me enthralled, and there is much to enjoy in this suspenseful, engrossing, historically authentic novel.  Very highly recommended for historical fiction readers.

The Boy in His Winter by Norman Lock

The Boy in His Winter

Norman Lock skillfully reworks Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn, allowing Huck a more intimate narration of his and Jim’s journey down the Mississippi River, which, as Huck tells it, actually spanned 1835 to 2005.  The timeless duo drift languid decades at a clip on the sempiternal river, witnessing history’s milestones from afar as they pass — the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination, Indian removals, electric lights, the Great War, jazz music.  They re-engage the world on the occasions when they pull ashore.  And sometimes the world engages them, as when, in 1903, a Western Union messenger hails them from shore yelling “If you’re Huck Finn, as I suppose, and you want to see Tom Sawyer before he departs this world for the next, then you’d better hurry.”  To which the young-old Huck follows the boy ashore to his elderly friend’s apartment for a final goodbye.

Huck is conscious of the strangeness of his atemporal voyage, and of Twain’s version of his story.  He narrates his adventure in 2077 as an old man, having begun aging again only after his river journey ends in 2005.  His narration is often interrupted by asides to the reader:  “You want to know where this is leading,” or, “You’re about to object that it didn’t happen this way. . . Does anyone really know how it happened?  Do you?  Did Mark Twain?  Did it really happen at all?”  It must have, because Jim, now long gone, and the river infuse the remainder of Huck’s existence — as a boat salesman, as a husband, as an Internet surfer, as an old man.

Hazy, beautiful, soul-filling.  I loved this book.

The Soil Will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson

The Soil Will Save Us

Soil can absorb carbon from the air — who knew?  It turns out quite a few agriculturalists, scientists, and environmentalists across the globe knew, and are working on cultivating soil health not only for the good of their crops, but also potentially for the health of our atmosphere.  Thank you to Kristin Ohlson for bringing this hopeful news to the lay environmentalists of the world in a fascinating, readable way.  I really enjoyed this book!

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

To Rise again at a Decent Hour

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is one of those books that is so fun to read that you don’t realize just how weighty it is until you’re turning the last few pages and find that a little bit of yourself, a tiny little cell or two, has been changed.

Main character Paul is an annoying, neurotic dentist.  Only it turns out he’s not.  He’s a dentist, anyway, but maybe not so neurotic.  He’s been through a lot in his 30-odd years, but he’s not complaining.  Instead, he’s seeking his place in the world, a sense of belonging, a family, a purpose.  He has a weakness for women with large, religious families.  First Sam, of the devoutly Catholic Santacroce family, and more recently Connie, his office manager and member of the large Jewish Plotz clan.  Paul’s longing for love, family, and purpose manifests in an obsessive fascination with his girlfriends’ religions, and he finds himself stepping over boundary lines in his quest to get just a bit closer, to understand the privilege of a religious heritage just a little better.

We first join Paul when his post-breakup pining and analyzing and mooning for Connie’s family is interrupted by his discovery that someone is impersonating him online.  Eventually his online doppelganger begins to post comments that could be construed as anti-Semitic, and Paul is aggrieved and itchy with the discomfort of knowing the Plotz’s may be attributing these comments to him.  But when fake-Paul offers real-Paul an almost irresistible chance to belong, to claim a heritage of his own, what will real-Paul do?

Much of the action here takes place in Paul’s head, or in his Manhattan office, or in his apartment.  Paul’s journey is existential, and by its end, “neurotic” Paul has revealed himself as an engaging, thoughtful, vulnerable, full fledged human being. Who just happens to be a dentist.

The Plover by Brian Doyle

Declan O’Donnell is escaping a messy life (we only learn bits and pieces of the mess, but like most good messes, it involves family) by sailing “west and then west” off the Oregon coast into the Pacific Ocean on his fishing boat, The Plover.  He intends to bob along aimlessly and alone, but right off the bat he is joined by a seagull who follows him out onto the ocean.  Declan doesn’t mind the company, but he doesn’t feel nearly as accommodating when, several weeks later after a quick stop at an island to refuel, he finds himself hosting another two passengers, a father and daughter whom he knew from Oregon.  Declan gets used to his small crew and makes the best of the company, but then, as more passengers are picked up under an assortment of remarkable circumstances, Declan finds his solo journey has transformed into, in Declan’s own words, “a fecking ferry service.”

Declan and all of his various passengers are good people who, sometimes grudgingly, elicit the best in each other; they are by no means perfect, but they are portrayed, in all their quirks and imperfections, as worthy of love, grace, and forgiveness.

There is a beauty and a wholeness to this work that defies easy categorization or description.  The whole world is in or about The Plover.  It is the center of a radius that includes all, from the deepest point of the ocean under the boat up into the sky as far as the eye can see.  Notice is paid to each creature in this bubble — the seagull following the boat is a character in its own right, as are the two timid castaway rats and the warbler with an injured wing who is hiding under the boat’s water tank.  The ocean is treated with its own wholeness — Doyle’s tale doesn’t limit itself to the human-reachable surface, the waves and storms and the sparkling reflection of the sun as they are experienced by Declan and his crew.  The deep crevices and unseeable creatures, the reach of the ocean from shore to shore, the underwater topography — it is all a part of this tale, which is infused with an aura of mysticism or enchantment.

There are moments here that could be considered quite dramatic, as when Declan dives into the ocean on a moonless night to rescue a kidnapped passenger, but even these moments are told in an understated lilt that makes them feel like the stuff of fable. The overall impression is rocking on the waves of the story, drifting where it leads, the world spread out around us, welcoming and whole, and above all, good.

A Guide to Being Born: Stories by Ramona Ausubel

A Guide to Being Born

You CAN judge a book by its cover. Perhaps that’s not fair to Ausubel, whose book stands on merits far beyond its colorful, fantastic cover. But that’s what first attracted me to this book, and happily, the contents within proved to be every bit as fantastic and engaging.

I was enchanted by the opening tale of a ship carrying a cargo of puzzled grandmothers. Where were they? How had they gotten there? Where were they going? The dream haze of the story slowly clears as one of the grandmothers recognizes and embraces her journey.

I also loved Magniloquence, which features an auditorium of professors waiting for a speaker to arrive. They wait and wait, and as they wait, inhibitions are shed and speeches are improvised and many cookies are surreptitiously eaten.

Love is at the core of each of these stories, and in most cases, that love is sure and calm and gentle. And sometimes it is odd, and sometimes oddly compelling, as in Poppyseed, when two parents employ unorthodox means to honor their disabled daughter.

Ausubel’s writing is exquisite. Enter this book with an open mind and enjoy the strange and moving beauty.

Perfect by Rachel Joyce


Perfect opened my eyes to the phenomenon of “leap seconds,” which are periodically added to coordinated uniform time to account for minute fluctuations in the earth’s rotation.  When enough milliseconds of variation accumulate– which typically only happens every few years– a one second addition to the clock is required to maintain the integrity of our time keeping system.  Rachel Joyce’s novel takes place in 1972, the only year so far in which two seconds were needed.  For 11-year-old Byron Hemmings, those two seconds are a confounding anomaly that will alter the course of his life.

Following young Byron as he tries to make sense of an event that has occurred– he believes– because of the two second expansion of time, and as he tries to shelter his family from its consequences, is heart wrenching.  Layered atop is a pervasive sense of foreboding that, for Byron, there is worse yet to come.

I love books with 10- to 13- year old protagonists– those years are so vital in shaping the teen, and later the adult, that one will become.  Byron’s tale is satisfyingly poignant, and though it is also tinged with tragedy, it is ultimately uplifting.