New Book Podcast: What Heather Is Reading

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!

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/what-heather-is-reading/id1534489919?uo=4

Book Review of Home By Julie Andrews

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.

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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.

Book Review of The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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.

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Painting, The Underground Railroad by Charles T. Webber, 1893

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.

Book Review of 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz by Heather Dune Macadam

Across the country of Slovakia in March 1942, town criers announced that unmarried Jewish girls between ages 16-36 had to register at the high school (or some other community center) for government work. They would have to leave their families for three months to do this work. What the girls and their families didn’t yet know was that the “government work” really meant that they would be taken to Auschwitz concentration camp. Many never saw their families again.

Though books like Elie Wiesel’s Night are often taught in schools, the perspective of women in the Holocaust is taught less often. In extensive interviews with survivors from the first transport of girls taken to Auschwitz, Macadam’s book shows the reader how women’s experience of Auschwitz differed from that of men.

All prisoners entering Auschwitz had to give up luggage and jewelry before having every hair on their bodies shaved. Girls from the first transport were additionally subjected to “gynecological exams” that amounted to rape. Survivor Bertha Berkowitz eventually got a job as a leichenkommando, which meant that she moved the dead bodies of other girls. One small advantage of this job was that Bertha got to grow her hair back, but Bertha had hers shaved again when she was caught stealing. The experience brought back the horror of the first day when she was shaved and raped. It was “the only time I really wanted to commit suicide,” Bertha said.

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Entrance gate at Auschwitz concentration camp, June 2005 by Muu-karhu

Men and women battled diseases like typhus which is carried by lice and fleas. However, Commandant Rudolph Hoss stated that “conditions in the women’s camp were atrocious and far worse than the men’s camp.” Prisoners were “piled high to the ceiling. Everything was black with lice.”  When family transports arrived, any women who had children were immediately gassed.

Girls, like men, might die from the work they were forced to do. Construction work was especially dangerous. Girls demolished houses by hitting walls with heavy iron rods and tried not to get killed by falling debris.

Other women had jobs that gave them a better chance at survival than men. Girls doing secretarial work got better clothes and food than even the other women. It was important for them to look good because they worked directly with the SS. As more prisoners arrived at Auschwitz, sorting clothes was another job often given to women. Trying to smuggle clothes for themselves or their friends could lead to the gas chamber, however.

One girl from the first transport, Helena Citron, caught the attention of SS Franz Wunsch. Although at first Helena wanted nothing to do with him, she started to fall in love with him. Their relationship meant that Wunsch did what he could for Helena, including saving her sister who had children from the gas chamber. He walked into the chamber’s changing room, separated Helena’s sister from her children, and marched out with her.

Both male and female prisoners needed help from friends and family to survive. Women without family needed a lagerstrasse sister–the term prisoners used to describe friendships that were as close as blood ties. When Edith Friedman lost her sister Lea to typhus, she also lost the will to live. Elsa Rosenthal became Edith’s lagerstrasse sister, making sure she ate the meager food and repeatedly telling her how much Elsa needed her.

The book 999 is a valuable addition to Holocaust research. I recommend it for ages 14 and up.

 

Book Review of Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep

I had never heard of the crimes of Reverend Willie Maxwell, who was suspected of murdering five of his family members in order to collect on the insurance policies he had taken out on them. I had also not known that he was shot and killed at the funeral of his adopted daughter. As a result, I was excited to read this book.

The prologue starts out promisingly, dropping the reader into the 1977 trial of Reverend Maxwell’s murderer, Robert Burns. We see Tom Radney, the defense lawyer who formerly represented Reverend Maxwell and is now defending Robert Burns. We also get a glimpse of Harper Lee, quietly watching the proceedings so she could get information for the book she planned to write about the Reverend. Though there were some interesting bits of information after the prologue, my interest tended to wax and wane as the book progressed.

The major problem I had with the book was its structure. It is divided into three parts: The Reverend, The Lawyer, and The Writer. Each of the parts are mini biographies of the Reverend Maxwell, Tom Radney, and Harper Lee, respectively. Author Casey Cep describes the lives of these three individuals from birth to death, so there is quite a bit of information that has nothing to do with the Burns trial or even the Reverend’s crimes. In The Lawyer, for example, the reader is forced to read about Tom Radney’s political career, when all he or she really needs to know is that he was the lawyer for Reverend Maxwell and also represented the man who shot him because he believed that everyone deserved representation.

The first part, The Reverend, has some interesting aspects. The most astonishing things about the Maxwell murders are not that he committed them–that is made clear in the summary of the book. What is astonishing is the rate at which he was able to take out insurance policies on his family members. For example, by 1970 the Reverend had policies out on his wife, mother, brothers, aunts, nieces, nephews, and infant daughter. The initial payment on these policies was less than a dollar. Another astonishing fact was that the Alabama authorities were unable to prove that the Reverend was responsible for his crimes, despite having a first-rate crime lab at their disposal. Therefore he went unpunished, at least until Robert Burns shot him.

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Harper Lee receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom, November 5, 2007.

The third part, The Writer, was most interesting to me, mainly because I’m a writer and was fascinated by the difficulties Harper Lee had when trying to write. Obviously, Lee never wrote about Reverend Maxwell despite her extensive research. Casey Cep speculates on why Lee did not write her true crime book. Perhaps Lee thought that she had too many unreliable sources. She stated that she had “enough rumor, fantasy, dreams, conjecture, and outright lies for a volume the length of the Old Testament.” Perhaps she worried that the book would not be as good as her famous novel To Kill A Mockingbird. Whatever the case, after spending several “furious hours” reading this book, I wished Harper Lee had written Reverend Maxwell’s story.

Book Review of The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s latest novel The Nickel Boys is set during the civil rights movement in Florida. Though his work is fictional, Whitehead says he was inspired to write it after learning about the Dozier School for Boys which operated in Marianna, Florida from 1900-2011.

Elwood, the book’s main character, is an idealistic black teenager. His prize possession is a record of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches. Even though Elwood tries to do the right things–get good grades, stay away from troublemakers in the neighborhood–it seems that society is out to get him.

Besides his grandmother who raised him, almost no one else in the black community wants Elwood to succeed. The staff at the hotel where his grandmother works resents him sitting around reading comic books and the Hardy Boys so much that they trick him into “winning” a dish washing competition. His prize is a set of encyclopedias a salesman left at the hotel. After lugging the volumes home, Elwood realizes that except for the first volume, all the others have blank pages.

The ultimate betrayal of Elwood by another black man occurs when he tries to hitchhike on his way to his first college class. Though Elwood doesn’t know it, the driver stole the car and when they are stopped by a white policeman Elwood is also assumed to be guilty. He’s sent to Nickel Academy, a so-called reform school for young men.

At Nickel Elwood learns that the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. mean nothing in society’s corrupt justice system. Listening to Dr. King, Elwood has come to believe that he is “somebody” and that he “must walk the streets of life everyday with this sense dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” At Nickel, the boys, especially the black ones, are nobody.

Elwood’s attempts to treat others with dignity makes him step in when he sees a smaller boy being beaten by two bigger ones. All the boys involved are sent to the “White House,” a shed on the academy grounds where one of the supervisors, a white man named Spencer, beats each boy. Elwood is beaten so badly that the beating embeds parts of his denim pants in his skin and he’s sent to the academy’s hospital. Elwood tells one of the other boys in the hospital that he still thinks blacks can stand up for themselves thanks to the civil rights movement. The other boy, named Turner, replies, “that sh-t barely works out there– [in the outside world] what do you think it’s going to do in here?”

Despite the injustice the boys at Nickel experience, author Colson Whitehead also shows that friendship and community can survive in horrible circumstances. Spencer and Elwood become friends while in the hospital together, where Spencer cheers Elwood up with jokes. He also helps Elwood out by recommending him for a job that allows the two boys to get out of Nickel for a while to deliver supplies that are supposed to go to the black boys but are resold. Spencer describes Elwood as “sturdy,” and trusts him far more than the other boys. He shares things he’s heard with Elwood, like the fact that Spencer has fixed a fight with a white boy against a black one so the white boy has to win. Unfortunately the black boy Griff forgets to throw the match and is taken to a special spot for black boys only where two oaks have iron rings stabbed into their bark and boys are horsewhipped. Griff never returns. Whitehead emphasizes the sense of community the black boys have for each other: “He [Griff] was all of them in one black body that night in the ring, and all of them when the white men took him out back to those two iron rings.”

In addition to the novel’s great themes of injustice and community, I really admired Whitehead’s writing style. I loved how he managed to convey an important story without wasting one word. Many authors seem to feel like they have to write 500 pages whether or not all those pages are necessary. The Nickel Boys is an example of what I want my own writing to be–both succinct and profound. The ending was so powerful that I needed tissues. I highly recommend this book for ages fourteen and up.

 

 

Book Review of Anna of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait by Alison Weir

Anna of Kleve is the fourth book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series, and the most controversial. In the novel, Weir suggests that Anna had a child before her marriage to King Henry VIII. The author bases her conclusion on the words of Henry VIII, who told his advisors “I have felt her belly and her breasts, and thereby, as I can judge, she should be no maid.”

Yet Anna professed to have no knowledge of how children were conceived. We know also that Henry became displeased with the portrait upon which he based his decision to marry Anna. He claimed that the portrait (see below) flattered her too much. Did he suspect that she had borne a child and used this as another reason for setting her aside? There is no way to know for certain. What is certain is that whatever he may have suspected, Henry VIII placed more emphasis on a precontract of marriage Anna’s father had made with the Duke of Lorraine’s son. He claimed that the contract was not resolved, so the marriage had to be annulled.

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Portrait of Anna of Kleve by Hans Holbein, 1539

Although there have been protests about Weir’s choice to make Anna a mother before her marriage, I feel that Weir exercised a historical novelist’s prerogative to speculate on what might have happened in the past. I would not use this interpretation of Anna as absolute fact. As Weir states in her author’s note at the end of the novel, she wondered what Henry VIII’s comments meant and decided to use her imagination.

Even without the controversy, Anna is a fascinating character. Growing up in Germany, she received no formal education except reading and writing. Most of her time was spent with devotions and needlework. Unlike some of Henry’s queens who spoke multiple languages, Anna spoke only German. Obviously, this put her at a disadvantage at the English court.

Despite her lack of education, Anna displayed remarkable intelligence throughout the novel. When the king fell in love with Katheryn Howard, Anna privately grieved that she would no longer enjoy the privileges she had as queen, but she publicly agreed that the marriage was invalid. By going along with what Henry VIII wanted, she literally kept her head and protected her homeland which might otherwise have warred with the much richer country of England. Anna was richly rewarded for her cooperation. She received 4,000 pounds per year and four houses of her own from the king. In addition, she was referred to as the king’s sister.

Anna enjoyed a certain amount of freedom for a sixteenth century single woman. She delighted in playing hostess to visitors, including the king, at her various residences. When rumors circulated that Henry might remarry Anna after discovering Queen Katheryn’s adultery, Anna was dismayed. “She did not want to be restored as queen, especially after what had happened to Katheryn Howard, or be be the wife to a prematurely aged man who was not in the best of health, fond of Henry as she was.” Of course, Anna was not made queen again and the king married Katharine Parr instead.

After the death of Henry VIII, Anna became much more preoccupied with money. Neither King Edward VI nor Queen Mary I were nearly as generous with her as Henry VIII was. Until the end of her life, she had to cut back on expenses and sometimes struggled to pay her staff.

I recommend Anna of Kleve to fans of the Tudor period. Anna is an interesting and relatable character. Even though I knew that she would be cast aside by Henry VIII yet manage to live, the writing was so compelling that I was on the edge of my seat whenever a major event occurred. Author Alison Weir provides a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of one of the wisest Tudor queens.

Note: English sources refer to Anna as Anne of Cleves. Yet she signed her name Anna and Kleve is the German name of her hometown. Katheryn Howard is also referred to in other sources as Catherine Howard.

 

 

The Childhood of Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott is famous for her children’s novels, especially Little Women. Without certain events in her childhood, however, Louisa might not have become a writer.

Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1832. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was headmaster of a school there, but left when the school’s patron died. He founded another school in Boston, Massachusetts. The family moved several more times due to Bronson’s inability to support his growing family. Louisa had an older sister named Anna and two younger sisters, Elizabeth and May. After Bronson’s failure to make money from a communal living experiment in 1843, he had a nervous breakdown. Louisa’s mother Abigail took charge of the family and taught her girls to work from a young age.

As soon as young Anna and Louisa could safely hold needles, they helped their mother with her work. In addition to sewing for neighbors, Abigail also become one of Boston’s first social workers. Food was often scarce and the Alcott family ate many meals of vegetables and apples.

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Louisa May Alcott at age 20

Despite being poor, Louisa Alcott’s childhood was not entirely gloomy. As a toddler, Louisa played with her father’s books and scribbled on any blank pages she could find. Louisa said since she was little “books have been my greatest comfort, and scribbling a very profitable amusement.” When her father had a school, Louisa went there, and afterward had lessons at home. She disliked math and grammar but enjoyed reading, composition, and history. Even tasks like sewing were more enjoyable because Louisa’s mother read stories to the children as they worked.

Bronson Alcott was a friend of writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the family lived near him for a time. Louisa relished the opportunity to browse Emerson’s library. Her favorite books included Pilgrim’s Progress, fairy tales, and she read Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters. When she grew older, Louisa tutored Emerson’s daughters and made up stories for them.

Abigail Alcott encouraged her daughters to journal to express their feelings. She thought it would help them work through some of the frustrations of having little money and moving frequently. When she noticed that Louisa enjoyed writing even more than the others, she supported her daughter’s interest. On Louisa’s tenth birthday her mother wrote, “I give you the pencil-case I promised, for I observe that you are fond of writing, and wish to encourage the habit.” At age thirteen Louisa was writing stories in addition to journaling. She dreamed of becoming a famous author so her mother wouldn’t have to worry about money any more.

Some of Louisa’s early stories appeared in the Saturday Evening Gazette under the pseudonym Flora Fairfield. Louisa was encouraged by the fact that her stories made some money, even if it was a small amount. In 1854, Louisa May Alcott’s first book, Flower Fables, was published. It was a collection of short stories she wrote for Emerson’s daughters. From these small beginnings, Louisa financially supported her parents and sisters by writing books.

Sources:

The World of Louisa May Alcott by William Anderson.

Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother by Eve LaPlante.

Louisa May Alcott by Ruth K. MacDonald.

Book Review of The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

The Island of Sea Women is a story of friendship, heartache, and forgiveness. Young-sook and Mi-ja are childhood best friends. As they grow up on Jeju, an island that is now part of South Korea, Young-sook’s mother teaches them to dive. The girls became haenyeo–female divers who catch sea creatures like abalone, sea urchins, and even octopus to sell and help feed their families. Experienced haenyeo have no oxygen tanks but can stay submerged in the sea for twenty or more meters.

Lisa See’s novel covers both the friendship of the two girls and the history of Jeju from 1938 to 2008. Young-sook is the daughter of a respected haenyeo chief, but Mi-ja is an orphan. Though Young-sook’s mother shows Mi-ja kindness, others in their village do not. In 1938, the Japanese occupy Korea, and Mi-ja’s father worked for the Japanese. Thus Mi-ja is marked as a collaborator–a curse that haunts her throughout her life.

Early on, the girls learn the dangers of the sea. As Young-sook’s mother explains, “Every woman who enters the sea carries a coffin on her back. In this world, in the undersea world, we tow the burdens of a hard life. We are crossing between life and death every day.” Both Mi-ja and Young-sook will lose people they care about in the sea.

In the late 1940s, however, the young women learn that being on land can be equally dangerous. Young-sook and Mi-ja are now both married and have children. As they are living their lives, the Japanese are replaced by American occupiers. Eventually the desire for Americans and the Koreans they’ve placed in charge to root out communism causes unimaginable tragedy for the people of Jeju, and the friendship of Young-sook and Mi-ja is tested like never before.

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Photo of a haenyeo April 17, 2007 by karendotcom127 https://www.flickr.com/photos/karendotcom127/463077860/

I enjoyed learning about the non-traditional gender roles on Jeju. Men stayed home with the children while women dove or worked in the fields to gather food. As Young-sook’s daughters points out later in the book, in some cultures Jeju men would be called wives. I had not heard about the haenyeo before reading this book and have so much respect for their skills. Lisa See’s beautiful descriptions of the world underwater made me feel as though I was right there with the divers.

If you’ve read any of her other books, then you know that See is an expert at depicting female relationships. Young-sook and Mi-ja stand by each other through sorrows, such as the death of Young-sook’s mother early in the novel. Yet the events of history and their own actions/inactions begin to tear them apart. See explores the importance of forgiveness and what each woman loses without it.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Jeju and its history of strong women, I would not recommend this as a relaxing read. Pick up The Island of Sea Women if you are interested in the subject matter, but keep in mind that history is often ugly.