February 2019 Book Marks
It may be the shortest month, but February’s haul of good books should warm the cockles of every reader’s heart. And while the recent global weather extremes (polar vortexes, mudslides, ice storms and raging fires) are a reminder that Mother Nature has her own mind, nothing beats waking up on a quiet February snow day in the northeast. (Okay, lie, maybe waking up overlooking a Hawaiian beach ain’t so bad.)
Snowfall ignites my memories of childhood; the weather forecasts that exceed expectations, the leisurely reconfiguration of the day, building snowmen with carrot noses and rocks for eyes. The gift of a snow day is the unexpected slice of time that gets handed back.
With no children in the house, I no longer anticipate that 6:30 AM call from the school superintendent (ours sets his school closing announcements to music.) But I still get a thrill opening the curtain onto a world of white.
Growing up in northern New York, old man winter wasn’t quite as fickle as he is today. He used to come and stay. We built snow forts with flashlights and candles, climbed giant piles of snow at the edge of the road that melted, froze and blackened with age. We slid plastic bread bags onto our feet and shoved them in hand-me-down boots. Snow shovels were porch fixtures until the first crocus heads pushed up.
You may live far from the frost line now. You may travel to winter to ski or hike or simply experience fondue in its natural setting, but wherever you are today around the world, may the sense of adventure for the unexpected day bring you joy. And may you never be without a book… in your hands, on your kindle, or in your ear buds.
This month’s indie bookstore shout out is brought to me by my friend Sam Davis, resident of Richmond, Virginia where we lived for two years.
I recently pulled my copy of “The Artist’s Way” off the shelf, inspired by a New York Times article on author Julia Cameron. Out fell a note from my friend Sam, who had given it to me 25 years ago. “I hope this book will inspire you to even deeper creative discovery…” he wrote. Re-reading it recently, I am happy to report that it did.
And for anyone passing near Richmond, Virginia there is much to discover (beyond blackface scandals) including the Fountain Bookstore fountainbookstore.com in the historic Shockoe Slip area.
The Polar Bear Expedition: The Heroes of America’s Forgotten Invasion of Russia by James Carl Nelson
This long forgotten chapter of WW1 history holds particular significance to me as the spouse of a Michigan boy. It was the winter of 1918-19 and roughly 5,000 soldiers, most hailing from Michigan, had expected to be sent to the Western Front to fight in France. Instead, they ended up 600 miles north of Moscow, locked in bloody combat with the anti-Bolshevik forces fighting the Red Army. Temperatures plummeted to 60 degrees below. Flesh froze to gun metal.
By 1919 there were 45,000 Communist fighters against 6,000 allied troops. More than 200 of the American “Polar Bears” would perish on the icy battlefield. A decade later, comrades would return to bring home the bodies.
In the brutal, sub-arctic north, this heartbreaking story of hardship and bravery was forgotten for many years. Now told through an untapped trove of first hand accounts, this book rewrites the story that Russian and American troops never fought one another in that bloody civil war. Today, a giant marble statue of a Polar Bear stands in Michigan to honor the fallen. Exhaustively researched and full of vivid detail, this is their story.
Merchants of Truth by Jill Abramson
As the executive editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson was on the front lines of journalism as the fault lines were appearing in the old world order. With a reporter’s eye for detail, Abramson chronicles the trials and financial tribulations of both the NYT and the Washington Post as they missed opportunities afforded by the internet and digital age. New media darlings Buzzfeed and hard-partying Vice Media, became billion dollar companies in a matter of years as they forged new business models and shredded the old. With Facebook and Google also disrupting the news and advertising space, Abramson had a front row seat to the landscape of radical change. She reports on the events with color, fact and nuance (she has pledged to revise certain sections where she was challenged to have lifted quotes without attribution.) Can the establishment media holds its own with eroding revenues at a time when journalistic ethics and the truth are both endangered pillars of our free society and more important than ever? It’s a smart read.
On Being 40 (ish) a collection of essays from some pretty awesome writers, edited by Lindsey Mead
Full disclosure. I contributed an essay to this collection and it’s an honor to be included with this illustrious group of 15 writers pondering aging, life, what matters and what’s next. In these writers’ hands, forty is both a milestone and just another year. As you’ll see from this wonderful, witty, poignant and wise collective take on what used to be considered “over the hill,” it’s just another decade of notching the belt with all the crazy things that we call “life.” From Sloane Crosley, Veronica Chambers, Julie Klam and so many more, this is a collection that every woman should keep by the bed for a little insight and a good chuckle. And it makes the perfect girlfriend gift for anyone within shouting distance of that fourth decade and beyond.
The Familiars by Stacey Halls
Women, witchcraft, power and 17th century England’s horrific real life Pendle Witch Trials form the basis of this novel. After three miscarriages, Lady Shuttleworth is under intense pressure to produce an heir. By chance, she meets a healer outside the palace grounds named Alice Gray, who comes from a family of illiterate women. Alice has some unorthodox medicinal methods that eventually lead to a healthy birth. But when Alice stands accused of witchcraft, putting both women’s lives at stake, they must risk everything to escape the worst. Peppered with real life historical characters, this book is a reminder not just of the barriers and difficulties women have faced, but also the dangers of being perceived as different. It’s a cautionary tale for all of us in modern times.
American Pop by Snowden Wright
There’s nothing like a Southerner’s ability to spin yarns and epic tales with wry humor and an eye for detail. The Fosters are a fictional Southern dynasty who invented the world’s first major soft drink brand. But no dynasty would be complete without twists and turns, generational struggles and colorful characters. Chronicling the rise and fall of the Fosters through 19th and 20th century America, the book weaves a tale of society, wealth and culture from the gossipy salons of Mississippi to New York, Hollywood and Paris. Hello Hollywood? Someone needs to snap this baby up for a mini-series.
The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin
A pivotal event takes place in the Skinner family that will forever shape the lives of the four siblings who had been living comfortably in suburban Connecticut. The implications of “The Pause,” as this period of time is referred to, ripple out over the next five decades. It will cause each sibling to re-evaluate the bonds of family, love, the meaning of responsibility and how we respond to betrayal. The story opens with one of the sisters, Fiona Skinner, now grown and a poet of note. When she is asked about the inspiration behind one of her poems, we rocket back in time to a yellow house, a tragedy and a funeral. If you are a fan of Meg Wolitzer’s “The Interestings,” you’ll enjoy this second book from Conklin.
The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley
Reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians,” this murder mystery is a modern update of a classic story. A group of old college friends from Oxford, most of them coupled up and some already parents, have a decade long tradition of getting away to celebrate the new year. And then a blizzard bears down on their posh lodge in the Scottish Highlands. The vacation begins simply enough, with champagne dinner and long chats about the past. But simmering resentments and old histories bubble up in the confines of the storm and something snaps. The weather cuts the group off from the rest of the world, and when one of them is found dead, mayhem ensues. This quick read will keep you guessing who dunnit and what’s really happening. Like any well-crafted thriller, be prepared to look up at the clock and find you’ve lost a few hours.