Tag Archives: America

Anton DiSclafani – Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (2013)

yonahlosseeSet in the Southern United States at the height of the Great Depression, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls follows Thea Atwell, a teenage girl sent away from her family to attend the prestigious Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls for reasons that don’t become clear until the end of the novel. This mix of young adult fiction and historical romance work.

The book opens with Thea Atwell being taken to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls after causing her family to fall apart through unknown actions. Despite the fact that Thea is an avid rider and Yonahlossee is a prestigious place, she knows that this is a punishment. The story alternated between Thea’s life at Yonahlossee and flashbacks to her life in Florida where details are gradually revealed. It’s a compelling story and DiSclafani is a vivid and beautiful writer. There were also small parts of the book that were unexpected given the portrayal of Thea but which only served to make her more complex and layered.

The only problem with telling the story this was is that you fall into the same trap that Sarah Water’s did with The Paying Guests. The story is so compelling up to a point. It gets very predictable and it’s hard to keep the reader engaged after providing them with all the details, It feels like DiSclafani struggled a bit with how to end this in a satisfying way and played it safe with Thea. There was so much build up and I loved reading this so much, but sometimes the follow through just isn’t there.

Hazel Rowley – Franklin and Eleanor (2010)

FranklinandEleanorIt’s pretty well agreed upon that there is a sense of romanticism that settles around FDR, as well as his wife Eleanor. FDR managed to lead a country through wartime while battling debilitating illnesses and Eleanor has been an inspiration to generations of women. It should not be surprising that two such extraordinary individuals had an extraordinary marriage, but it does as a President’s private life is often treated as just that, private.

In her novel, Hazel Rowley provides an intimate look at Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s partnership from the day that they met to the day of his death. She details the number of affairs that both, either formally known or suspected, engaged in and how the pair made their marriage work. Franklin was a notorious flirt and enjoyed the company of young women, while Eleanor also had her fair share of “special companions.”

I for one have always been a great admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a strong silent presence in Franklin’s life and always stood by him. While this may have caused her to have a bit of a martyr’s complex, having to play the role of a put-upon wife, she was always willing and ready to put the needs of others, especially her husband’s before her own. Franklin relied on Eleanor and in turn supported her causes where he could even when certain issues, such as Eleanor’s support for Civil Rights, could hurt Franklin’s popularity.

Even though the couple spent a great deal of time a part, especially during the later half of their marriage while Eleanor was traveling supporting her own causes and Franklin was constantly visiting other world leaders during the Second World War, their letters to one another show a level of tenderness and love. While they may have taken other lovers, it is very clear that Franklin and Eleanor were life partners and needed, and loved each other vey much.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche – Americanah (2013)

americanahI don’t think there are enough words to accurately describe how much I loved this book. I wasn’t familiar with Ngozi Adiche until I heard about this novel and now I cannot wait to read more of her work.

Essentially Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze who are young and in love when they leave their home in Nigeria and head west. While Ifemelu ends up in America, Obinze, finding post 9/11 America closed to him, takes up a dangerous life in London as an undocumented immigrant. While the story is about the relationship between these two characters, Ifemelu’s journey is by far the more compelling.

The story of Obinze sheds important light on racism and the danger that undocumented immigrants live in every day, but the plot involving Ifemelu, who is despite her academic success is forced to grapple with what it means to be black, is by far the most important part of this novel.

The title itself refers to Ifelemu’s journey from Nigeria, to the hallowed halls of Princeton, and back. Once back in Nigeria she looks at everything through the eyes of an American leading her friend to call her an Americanah.

Ngozi Adiche grapples with the issues of race, love, and identity in such a brilliant and beautifully written way, grasping the nuance often involved with tackling such issues. As an African Americna female herself, she is probably able to draw on her own experiences to make this novel as rich as it is. I really don’t have much else to say, this was definitely one the best books I’ve read all year.

Louisa Locke – Maids of Misfortune (2009)

MaidsofMisfortuneWhen I bought this, I had originally thought it was a non-fiction book about the lives of domestic maids living in Victorian San Francisco. Instead I found myself reading a, quite sloppy, murder mystery set in Victorian San Francisco. I am all for historical fiction and murder mysteries, but this was just bad historical fiction.

Personally, I consider subtlety to be a marker of good historical fiction. The reader should know where they are in time and space, but should not need constant reminders. Locke however feels the need to constantly remind her readers that they are in San Francisco in the late 1880s by cramming every single stereotype associated with the Victorian period into her work. I will give you some examples:

Annie (the main character) is a clairvoyant and constantly remarks about how her customers as obsessed with the unknown. (The steryotype that everyone in the Victorian era was obsessed with the spiritual realm)

Annie goes to a dance and wear a dress showing her ankles and is therefore mistaken as a prostitute

Annie makes a male character, Nate, blush when she says the words “legs”

Everyone in San Francisco hates the Chinese expect for Nate and Annie because naturally, as the heroes of the story they cannot be racist or sexist.

The plot of this story was not bad. It is a murder mystery and has enough suspense that I wanted to know what happened. It turned into a bit of a romance however (and a messy one at that), and wading through the info-dump of Victorian clichés was a bit more than I could handle. This book is part of a whole series, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the rest anytime soon.

Linda Przybyszewski – The Lost Art of Dress (2014)

“Practice the art of dress. You may be self conscious because you are far better dressed than the people around you, but maybe you can inspire them”

TheLostArtofDressAs someone who has always loved vintage fasions and has recently learned how to sew I really appreciated what Linda Przybyszewski has done with her book. She looks at the history of women’s fashion in America from the beginning of the 20th century specificially focusing on a group of women called the “Dress Doctors” who aimed to teach women how to dress.

Przbyszewski begins her book with a history of, and a dissection of the term “home economics.” Now, we tend to view home economics as a frivolous pursuit, but at the time it was considered to be a legitimate science and was often its own department within different universities. Przybyszewski writes that 303 of the 479 women faculty teaching science at the leading American universities at the time were working in Departments of Home Economics.

She then moves on to detailed discussion of the Dress Doctor’s philosophies, including preaching the virtues of thrift, simplicity, functionality, and finding flattering clothing. Przybyszewski also touches on historic trends that impacted the fashion industry including the evolution of hygiene practices (the innovation of the washing machine revolutionized doing laundry), and the introduction of ready made clothing, department stores, and credit cards, (which were originally offered by department stores as a way of appealing to customers).

While I loved reading the history that Przybyszewski provides, she does get a bit caught up in the romanticism of it. She laments the state of the fashion industry today without noting that fashion trends are constantly changing. Even though the Dress Doctors may have preached a simpler stylish way of dressing, their advice has not completely fallen to the way side and many women today, especially professional ones still play by their rules.

Gelnn C. Altschuler – All Shook Up (2003)

AllShookUpLooking at how Rock ‘N Roll changed the world, Glenn C. Altschuler, in his book, focuses exclusively on the 1950s, the decade in which he deems Rock N’ Roll music was born. I think that he is correct in this assessment, although I did have some issues with his narrow view.

This is a relatively compact read. Each chapter tackles a different social issue including race, sexuality, and the generational gap. He writes that Rock ‘N Roll entered directly into Cold War controversies ongoing at the time and appealed to the new generation of baby boomers growing up in America. I enjoyed his discussions of various musical personalities including Elvis and Perry Como, to inspirational artists like Fats Domino and Willie Mae Thornton. Even though Altschuler talks about how Rock ‘N Roll was both a form of sexual expression and sexual control, he doesn’t explicitly tackle the nuances of gender. How Rock ‘N Roll was a heavily male dominated sphere and women could only enter into it by playing virginal maids, a la Diana Ross and the Supremes. He briefly mentions the Ronettes, but says nothing about the backlash that occurred over the lyrics to “Be My Baby”

I do think that the 1950s may have been the most important decade for Rock ‘N Roll, but I also wish that Altschuler had extended his range past the 1950s and into the 60s, 70s, and beyond. Even though the Rock ‘N Roll’s formative years may have ended, it certainly did not and continued, as it continues today, to be a vehicle for protest and social change.

Ken Follett – Edge of Eternity (2014)

EdgeOfEternitySo mixed regarding how I feel about this book. I liked it, but I liked it because I like the history behind it, not because I think Ken Follett is a good writer.

This is the third book in Follett’s trilogy and for me, after the first one, they kind of went downhill. The first book was great, the characters were somewhat original and the idea of tracing five different families through the First World War was compelling and done well. The second book was OK, but I think its harder to write about the Second World War without falling into the same tired clichés and character types.

I heard a rumour that Follett didn’t even want to write this book, and it really showed. He started off strong telling the story of a young Black lawyer on a Freedom Ride through the Southern United States, and his chapter detailing the events of JFK’s assassination was done really well, as you see how every character stationed in different areas around the world reacts to the news. He should have just ended there, but obviously couldn’t, needing to tie up everyone’s stories with the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991.

Following the JFK assassination the book becomes almost unbearable, the dialogue is so banal and so many of the events are just unbelievable. It makes me wonder if Follett himself has ever actually experienced anything! I’ve written before about how I don’t like his female characters as they all come off as very one-dimensional, and this book was no different. The female characters all serve the goals of the men, and none of them have their own interesting storylines.

Despite the fact that I did not love this book, for some reason I still cried during the epilogue when Follett describes the African American family, the family of the Freedom Rider protagonist, sitting around a TV watching was Barak Obama is sworn into office. That’s more about me being a suck though, than Follett’s writing, as overall, the book was not memorable.