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

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.

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton

I couldn’t tear myself away from this novel.  It opens with Noa P. Singleton, inmate number 10271978 in the Pennsylvania Institute for Women, introducing herself and telling us that “…I pulled the trigger. Post-conviction, I never contested that once.”  She is on death row and nearing her execution date.

Noa is unnervingly calm as she begins to tell us the back story.  She is adamant about her guilt and sees the past ten years spent in prison and her impending execution as the logical outcome of her crime, the murder of pregnant Sarah Dixon.  She isn’t even particularly ruffled when high-powered attorney Marlene Dixon, Sarah’s mother, visits her to announce that she no longer believes in the death penalty and will be pursuing a clemency petition for Noa.   Marlene just wants to know why — why did Noa shoot her daughter?  Noa has never answered this question publicly, and does not intend to now.  Noa’s story is so knotted and convoluted that it takes the entire book to tease it out.

This novel is about identity– self-identity and imposed identity, and about all of the little (and enormous) factors that go into making us who we are, or, at least, the factors that propel us to a certain place and time and point of action.  The opening passage sets the tone beautifully:

In this world, you are either good or evil.  If not, then a court or a teacher or a parent is bound to tag your identity before you’ve had a chance to figure it out on your own.  The gray middle ground, that mucous-thin terrain where most of life resides, is really only a temporary annex, like gestation or purgatory.

In telling Noa’s story, author Silver does not tackle the morality of capital punishment directly.  She never asks us explicitly if Noa deserves to be on death row.  She doesn’t push us to judge.  Feel as you will about capital punishment, she seems to say, but consider the person; consider the process.  And then maybe consider it all a little further. Noa P. Singleton is subtle, complex and quite stunning.

Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing by Daphne Miller

Farmacology

This is one of those nonfiction books that delivers vitally important information in an engaging, can’t-put-it-down, readable format.  Miller’s examination into the parallels between farm (and soil) health and human health is fascinating. Her writing style is straightforward and authoritative, but large doses of warmth, inquisitiveness, and personal asides make the book as engrossing as any work of fiction.  Her hand drawn maps of each farm that she visited add visual appeal and a great sense of place. Read Farmacology and you too may find yourself with the urge to run to your nearest local farm to plunge your hands into the soil and root around in its microbiotic goodness.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Main character Rosemary has lost so much, and in the course of her narration she revisits episodes from her past, trying to make sense of that loss and reexamining her own role in her family’s tragedy.

When she was five, Rosemary lost her sister and still harbors guilt over events leading to that loss. Soon after, her only other sibling, brother Lowell, left home in grief and anger and never returned. Left alone with her scientist parents, her father drinking and her mother unhinged, raw, and remote, Rosemary grows into a self-conscious, directionless misfit.

When you learn that the sister Rosemary is mourning is a chimpanzee named Fern, brought to live with the family as an experiment in human-chimpanzee communication, you may wonder why Rosemary’s sense of loss is so profound. But Fowler develops these characters- including Fern- so thoroughly, and portrays their relationships in such glimmering lucidity, that by the end there is no denying that Rosemary and Fern bonded as sisters, twins. Rosemary did not lose a test subject, a friend, or a pet; she lost her sister, her other half.

As Lowell’s animal rights crusades garner FBI attention and Rosemary stumbles through college life in a haze of longing, the circumstances of Fern’s removal from the family are slowly revealed. Which leads to the question, so consuming to Rosemary and reader alike: where is Fern? Is she still alive? Communication from Lowell, now a fugitive, leads Rosemary to finally confront her past.

Guilt, family dynamics, ethics, animal rights, humanity and humanness all wind through the story, making it so compelling, so impossible to put down. It is a credit to Fowler that she does not romanticize Fern’s place in the family.

The Wisdom of the Shire by Noble Smith

The Wisdom of the Shire

This book had me utterly charmed at the dedication, which is a hint at all the goodness that lies ahead. There is no way to put the book down after reading that gem.

Much of the wisdom presented is common to 21st-century denizens with any civic conscientiousness and environmental awareness — reuse, recycle, eat local, make nice with your own personal Gollum — but presented through the lens of Hobbitness, the message has a freshness and appeal that is hard to resist. Do not, however, think for a minute that the Hobbit angle is simply a gimmick. Smith is a deep thinker with keen intellect, a big, generous heart, and a wicked knowledge of The Lord of the Rings. He has captured the essence of Tolkien’s lands and characters and seamlessly relates them to life in our stressed, hurried, consumer world. Each and every chapter gave me something to enjoy, to take away and ponder, to apply to my own life. From the big (challenge corporate and governmental corruption) to the simple (get more sleep!), Smith’s suggestions are inspired and inspiring.

The Wisdom of the Shire will be enjoyed not only by devoted Tolkien fans, but also by anyone with a passing familiarity with the books or films.

Flora by Gail Godwin

Flora

In the mid-1940s, ten year-old Helen lives in a rambling old house, formerly a convalescent home, on a mountain in North Carolina. Her mother is long dead, her beloved grandmother has just passed away, and her father is leaving for the summer to work in Tennessee. Her father recruits a distant cousin, 22-year-old Flora from Alabama, to stay with Helen for the summer. Helen considers Flora a country bumpkin and a twit. Flora has suffered losses of her own and is determined to connect with and care for Helen. Helen learns to tolerate Flora’s pink-cheeked guilelessness when she realizes that Flora is a source of information about Helen’s mother and grandmother. Helen pastes together the snippets of family history revealed by Flora and begins to see a different picture of the past than she had imagined.

Foreshadowing is thick and ever present as Helen narrates their story from a decades-later vantage point, beginning with the lovely opening line:

There are things we can’t undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life.

It is clear that this summer isn’t going to go well for Helen, and waiting for that pivotal moment when we finally learn why is a perfectly measured torture.

There are so many layers to this novel, and days after finishing it I am still turning each facet over in my mind, finding connections and consequences and entertaining “what-ifs.” This is one for my top 10 list. A must-read.