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This historical fiction novel has two timelines: one in 1913-14 New York City and one in 1993 New York City. In 1913, Laura Lyons lives with her husband Jack, her son Henry, and her daughter Pearl above the New York City Public Library where Jack works. Though she cares about her children and her husband, Laura finds herself wanting more out of her life. She pursues a degree at Columbia University’s journalism school even though her professors won’t let female students write about serious topics.
In 1993, Sadie Donovan works as the curator for the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection. The Berg Collection consists of rare manuscripts and other items that belonged to famous authors. Sadie is Laura Lyons’s granddaughter but her mother Pearl never talks about living at the library. Through Sadie we learn that her grandmother became a famous essayist, and Sadie is looking for more material on Laura Lyons to include in an exhibition of the Berg Collection.
Both timelines have a string of rare book thefts in common. The New York Public Library’s Fifth Avenue location doesn’t lend out books to patrons, so only a few people can access its books at any time.
Fiona Davis introduces the reader to some of the library’s most precious objects through the thefts. During the 1913-14 timeline, a first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass goes missing, along with Tamerlane by Edgar Allan Poe. In 1993, the last volume of Virginia Woolf’s diaries as well as a first edition of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne disappear.
As the mystery behind the thefts continues, Fiona Davis shows what it meant to be an independent woman in 1913 and in 1993.
A friend encourages Laura to join the Heterodoxy Club, a real women’s club that met every other week in Greenwich Village. The club embraced some ideas that were radical for the time, such as access to birth control for women. Laura notes that the women’s “stories were so varied, the family origins fascinating…yet somehow they’d all ended up in this one place, united not for a common cause, but simply to be able to speak their minds freely without the disapproval of husbands and fathers.” Laura has to decide how she will balance her desire for independence with the responsibilities of having a family.
Sadie is living the independent life that Laura dreams of. Instead of her husband working at the library, Sadie holds the prestigious position of curator of the Berg Collection. She is divorced with no children, though she has a beloved niece. She has more free time than Laura to devote to the library thefts and works with a private investigator to try and recover the lost items.
Although the dual timeline has been somewhat overdone in recent historical novels, it felt natural for Laura and Sadie’s stories to be connected because they were close family members. Much of the book is difficult to discuss without spoilers. The mystery of the thefts was well done, especially since Davis is not a mystery writer. Some of the characters’ actions, particularly in the Laura Lyons timeline, felt sudden. Certain topics like suicide should be treated with more care or not included at all.
My favorite parts of the book centered around the New York City Public Library’s books and other rare objects. While the author’s note makes it clear that Laura Lyons and her family are fictional, the Berg Collection is real. I highly recommend looking up the collection online. I’ve included more information about the collection and a video of its rare objects below.
Overall, I enjoyed The Lions of Fifth Avenue and will likely read more books by Fiona Davis.
Although the 1621 Pilgrim celebration at Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts is usually regarded as the first Thanksgiving, other states disagree. Maine claims to have the held the earliest Thanksgiving fourteen years before the Plymouth holiday. The celebration had much in common with Plymouth’s, since English settlers shared a large meal with local Native Americans near the Kennebec River. Virginia held a religious service in 1619 after colonists landed safely at a place called Berkeley Hundred, located up the river from Jamestown. Neither the Maine nor the Virginia settlements survived, which is likely why the Plymouth Colony gets credit for the first Thanksgiving.
The colonists at Plymouth didn’t plan on making Thanksgiving an annual holiday, however. Instead, they held days of thanksgiving whenever they felt especially grateful to God. For example, in 1623, Plymouth’s crops withered. When rain fell, the colonists held a day of thanksgiving prayer. Basically, in bad times the Pilgrims fasted, and in good times they gave thanks.
Even in the…
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When I heard that a movie adaptation of Nella Larsen’s Passing was coming to Netflix on November 10, 2021, I had to share my review of the 1929 novella. I also had a rare urge to acquire a Netflix subscription.
Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry are two light-skinned African-American women who played together as children in Chicago. They are so light skinned that one of them–Clare–decided to pass as white. Clare got what she thought she wanted: marriage to a wealthy white man, a seemingly white daughter, and the status conferred upon attractive and successful white people in American society.
Yet as the novel opens, Irene has just received a letter from Clare, begging Irene to reintroduce her to African American friends and to attend their social gatherings. She reminds Irene of the time they ran into each other in Chicago as adults. When they meet, Clare invites Irene back to her hotel where she introduces Irene to her husband Jack Bellow. Bellow makes his hatred for all African Americans clear, even jokingly calling his wife Nig because of how brown her skin gets in the sun.
Though she doesn’t give Clare’s secret away, Irene is appalled by the encounter. Irene is married to a darker skinned man and one of her two children would also not pass for white. She decides not to answer Clare’s most recent letter and tears it up. But Clare reappears in Irene’s life, coaxing Irene to help her renter African American society. Both Clare’s and Irene’s reactions to this second encounter have consequences for them both.
I thought I read the complete novella in college but when I reached the ending I realized I had only read part of it. I won’t discuss the ending, except to say that it is both brilliant and surprising. I read Passing months ago and still can’t stop thinking about it.
Larsen’s story shows the advantages of passing as white along with the disadvantages. Clare has more status as a perceived white woman, but Irene is her authentic self and remains part of black culture and society.
Nella Larsen is an underrated author who dealt with issues of identity that continue to effect the African American community in the 21st century. I hope that the new movie will encourage more people to read Larsen’s work.
Dana is an African American woman living in the present day, which when Butler was writing her novel was 1976. On June 9th, the day of Dana’s birthday, she and her husband Kevin unpack books in their new house in California. Dana suddenly feels nauseated and dizzy. Kevin disappears from her sight.
Though she doesn’t know it on this first trip, Dana is pulled back into the nineteenth century, specifically antebellum Maryland. She discovers that she gets pulled out of the 1970s and into the 1800s every time a white ancestor of hers is in danger. Since this ancestor is a troublemaker, Dana is called to him several times. She witnesses what it was like to be a slave on the Waylon plantation. Though she’s treated somewhat better than the others because of her healing abilities (she knows basic things like CPR and how to keep a wound from getting infected that doctors in the 1800s don’t), she still faces her share of danger. As a reader I wondered if she would have a chance to live with her husband in the 1970s and if she would come back to him in one piece.
I listened to this book on audio. The one criticism I had is that sometimes the narrator doesn’t make the voices of the characters distinct enough. Butler’s writing had me riveted, though. Kindred was described to me as science fiction for people who aren’t sure they like science fiction. I knew that I enjoyed books that travel back in time, so I thought this book would be a good choice. Kindred was a good choice for me, though I won’t use the word enjoyable to describe it. Dana and the reader witness the evils of slavery. African American characters are whipped, sold away from family members and sometimes contemplate suicide, among other horrors.
As I read Kindred in the year 2021, I felt like I was witnessing two historical time periods: the antebellum South and 1976. I laughed when Kevin and Dana couldn’t use the Internet to look up information, though they did pretty well with books. Also, although race relations were obviously better in 1976 than the 1800s, more progress has been made in the twenty-first century. For example, the South African apartheid that Dana hears about on the radio no longer exists. That’s not to say that we don’t need to make more progress on issues of race today, however.
Kindred reminded me of what an African American character on the TV show Timeless said. He said that he couldn’t think of a time in history that would be safe for him to go back to visit. He was right, but I also think that one of the worst times in history to return to for an African American would involve a time in which slavery existed.
Kindred will introduce readers to the realities of slavery in the nineteenth century as well as a bit of the 1970s. I wanted Dana to describe a bit more of her surroundings on the plantation, but I think her understandable terror explains the sometimes lackluster descriptions. I definitely recommend Kindred by Octavia Butler for ages 14 and up.
This book offers a brief look at the lives of various con women throughout history. It’s divided into four sections: The Glitterati, The Seers, The Fabulists, and The Drifters. Each section contains brief essays about women who fit those descriptions. For example, Jeanne de Saint-Remy is in the Glitterati category. In the 1700s she convinced a jewelry company that she was Marie Antoinette’s best friend and the company’s owners handed her a decadent but ugly diamond necklace for Marie Antoinette to wear. Interestingly, Marie Antoinette had previously rejected the necklace and disliked wearing necklaces.
For the category of Seers, Telfer talks about spiritualists who could supposedly help their customers communicate with the dead for a fee. The Civil War helped these women become especially successful since so many people wanted to contact loved ones who died during the war. Though not an honest profession, it did help nineteenth century women to make money independently, which was rare.
In the Fabulist category, the author includes women who either made money off of tragedies or gained notoriety. One woman, Tania Head, claimed she survived 9/11 in one World Trade Center tower while her husband died in the other. She even formed a survivors organization which she was kicked out of when a New York Times reporter discovered the holes in her story.
The Drifter category introduces readers to Lauretta Williams, aka Loreta Janeta Velasquez. She disguised herself as a Confederate soldier and claimed in her book that she fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. There is no proof of her claims and the book’s contents are wildly inconsistent.
I was familiar with a few of the women in this book, including Lauretta Williams, but the the majority were unknown to me. I enjoy learning about little known aspects of history and I enjoyed the book. The explanation in the introduction and conclusion about why con women fascinate us and how they manage to con people who are otherwise intelligent was interesting. In part, they manage to con people because they are likable. Many people, including men, get conned because the women are so charming. They also speak to something in us that wants to be important or liked or to believe that we can control our lives.
The one major disadvantage to Confident Women is that it doesn’t go into depth on the women featured, but it’s a useful introduction to con women and readers can do more research if interested.
I recommend Confident Women to readers who enjoy women’s history. Tori Telfer is also the author of Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History which I’m looking forward to reading at some point.
Evelyn Hugo, one of the biggest movie stars of all time, has decided at the age of 79 that she wants someone to tell her life story. The person she chooses for this task is Monique Grant, who has been working for Vivant magazine for less than a year and mostly writing puff pieces. Monique is ambitious–nearly as ambitious as Evelyn was during her career, so she negotiates what she thinks are the best possible terms for the book with Evelyn. Since Evelyn Hugo’s seven husbands are now dead, Monique hopes to find out which one was the love of Evelyn’s life. Though she gets the answer to her question, she also finds out why Evelyn Hugo, Hollywood icon, specifically wanted Monique to interview her.
After the first few chapters, the sections of the book Reid is writing are set up in order of Evelyn’s seven husbands. As a Cuban immigrant, Evelyn Hugo’s mother believed that the way out of the family’s poverty involved becoming a movie star. So when Evelyn’s mother died and her father abused her, Evelyn decided to use her good looks to get a ride with a guy in her neighborhood who was going to Hollywood. At age 15, she married him and worked at getting small and then bigger parts in movies in the 1950s.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo has been on my to be read list for a while now and I regret not getting to it sooner. It has great representation–Monique is bi-racial, Evelyn is Cuban American, and there are LGBTQ characters. I marveled at how far LGBTQ rights have come in the years since the fictional Evelyn worked in Hollywood. First of all, the term LGBTQ didn’t exist, and secondly these people had no rights. If they had careers they risked being fired if anyone found out. They also risked getting arrested or being sent to a mental institution simply because of who they loved.
Evelyn’s character is at the center of the book and before I picked it up I assumed she would be shallow. She certainly was unconcerned about who she hurt on her way to becoming famous. If she truly cared about someone, however, she was fiercely loyal. For those people she tried to do the right things, even if she sometimes failed. She also gained some wisdom with age, and I enjoy stories in which the main character grows. As Monique says toward the end of the novel, “I hate Evelyn, but I think I like her very much.”
Another thing I enjoyed about the book were the similarities between Evelyn and Monique. Both are ambitious women who for different reasons don’t quite fit into society’s expectations. Spending time with Evelyn changes Monique in significant ways, some negative, some positive. I found myself caring deeply about both of these women. Sometimes I almost forgot that Evelyn Hugo didn’t really exist because of the tabloid and newspaper articles sprinkled throughout the book.
I gave 5/5 stars to The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. If you enjoyed this review, please visit my podcast website https://www.whatheatherisreading.com for more great book reviews. Episodes of What Heather Is Reading are also available wherever you get your podcasts.
Trigger warnings for domestic violence, homophobia, cancer, and alcoholism.
I’ve started a podcast called What Heather Is Reading and it’s now available wherever you get your podcasts. It will include both fiction and nonfiction–basically, whatever I’ve read lately. I discuss the books and give spoiler-free book reviews. I hope you’ll check it out!
When I read Julie Andrews’ second memoir Home Work I noticed that one of my favorite parts was the introduction, which caught readers up on what happened in her first book, Home. Home is definitely my favorite of the two. She makes you feel like you are experiencing the events of her life, such as living in London during the Blitz or being onstage, along with her. This book is so much more personal than the second one.
For example, whereas she says almost nothing about her costars in the second book, this one is filled with what it was really like to work with people like Rex Harrison in the play My Fair Lady and Richard Burton in Camelot.
Her funny stories about Rex Harrison make me want to buy the book (I borrowed a copy from my library), so I can reread them. During their rehearsals for My Fair Lady, Rex often criticized Julie’s lack of dramatic acting experience. On the night of the first preview, however, Rex insisted that he could not go onstage because he was terrified by having to sing in front of a large audience! Fortunately, Rex’s agent persuaded him that it would be disastrous for his career if Rex didn’t go onstage. Julie also did everything possible to encourage him since she had much more experience singing to live audiences.
In contrast to its humorous moments, the book also details the difficulties Julie overcame during her childhood. Her parents divorced and she lived with her mother and her stepfather. Young Julie missed her dad very much. Her stepfather’s and eventually her mother’s alcoholism made family life unbearable at times. The one thing the world can be grateful to her stepfather for, however, is that he procured singing lessons for Julie.
Home will make you laugh and cry. If like me you only read her most recent book, or if you’re a Julie Andrews fan, be sure to pick this one up.
Trigger warnings for: family members with alcoholism, child neglect/mistreatment and a couple of incidents in which her stepfather is sexually inappropriate with her.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a debut novel that has both significant pluses and minuses.
The novel starts strong. We are introduced to Hiram Walker (called Hi throughout the novel), a house slave on the Lockless plantation in Virginia. Hi is the mulatto son of his master and his slave mother who was sold years ago. When we first meet Hi, he is driving his white half brother Maynard in a carriage over a bridge. Suddenly the bridge disappears and both Maynard and Hi are plunged into the water. While Hi is struggling to save himself, the selfish Maynard cries out for Hi to help him. Hi isn’t able to do so. Oddly, when he is out of the water, he’s nowhere near the collapsed bridge. Instead he finds himself on the dry land of the Lockless plantation.
Hiram spends much of the middle of the novel doing two things: trying to get his magical power back, and trying to free himself and the people he loves. The Underground Railroad is also interested in Hiram’s powers and how they might be used to transport slaves from one spot to another.
I thought much time was wasted in the novel’s midsection as Hi works to get his power of conduction back. As a history lover, I’ve always thought that the most amazing thing about the Underground Railroad was the fact that its work wasn’t done by magic, but by people using real-life resources to save lives. Coates’s inclusion of magical realism in the Underground Railroad’s operations diminished the accomplishments of those workers for me.
I also lost interest in Hi’s story as more and more characters were introduced. I realize this is Coates’ first novel, but most fiction readers want to feel a consistent connection with a book’s main character. I was unable to recover my interest until the novel reached the end.
Despite its flaws, The Water Dancer has some undoubtably good points. As I’ve said the book has a strong beginning, and the ending was equally good, though I won’t discuss that here. Coates’s narrator Hi also has very profound things to say about slavery. For example, he describes the dependence of whites on their slaves as follows: “The masters could not bring water to boil, harness a horse, nor strap their own drawers without us. We were better than them–we had to be. Sloth was literal death for us, while for them it was the whole ambition of their lives.” Lines like that come from writers with real insight and talent.
Still, at slightly over 400 pages The Water Dancer is not a short book, so readers need to decide whether the excellent quotes combined with a strong beginning and ending are worth their time. If Ta-Nehisi Coates writes another novel, I will give it a try because this one had so much potential.