Speaking American – How Y’All, Youse, and You Guys Talk by Josh Katz

America may be a melting pot, but we prize our individuality and differences. These often show up in our language which has been influenced by heritage, location and history. By region, by state and even by city, these quirks and differences are shown off in Speaking American by Josh Katz.

Some of the differences are in pronunciation (for instance, how do you pronounce “caramel” – with 2 syllables or 3? If you’re from the Midwest, you probably use two. Most of the South and New England use three syllables). Other differences are in the actual word we use such as “green onion” vs “scallions”, “yard sale” vs “garage sale” vs “tag sale” (When I first heard Martha Stewart use the term “tag sale” – which is unique to the area around Connecticut – I thought it was something very fancy. I didn’t realize it was a plain old garage sale!)

Some differences are broad – most of the country pronounces aunt as “ant”, but North Dakota, most of Minnesota and New England pronounce it “ahnt” (although I had a third grade teacher that humiliated me in class for saying “ant”. She was not a good teacher.) And some differences are very fine, for instance, most of America calls a sandwich on a long roll a “sub” but from New Jersey thru Maine there are five different names other than sub – “hoagie”, “hero”, “wedge”, “grinder” and “Italian sandwich”.

I found this book utterly fascinating. I’m a born and bred Iowan so I have that Midwestern speech pattern down pat. I lived in Wisconsin for a couple of years, where they made endless fun of my saying “pop” instead of soda (this from people who call drinking fountains “bubblers”!) and I was told I had a Southern accent. Having a sister-in-law from Virginia (where I visit often), I can assure you that my accent it not, by comparison, Southern!

Speaking American is a lot fun with quick, often humorous descriptions and full color maps that show the prevalence of each word or pronunciation. A great peek into what helps make America unique!

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

This is a book about two wars, of the price paid both by those who died and those who survived, of sisterhood and loyalty and immeasurable bravery. The Alice Network by Kate Quinn alternates between the two World Wars. The similarities are chilling with threads that tie the two together in more ways than one.

1915. Eve Gardiner is one of thousands of file clerks in London, unremarkable in appearance, quiet and demure, but because of her upbringing she speaks flawless French and German. She is bored and feels useless so when a Captain from British Intelligence recruits her to be a spy, she leaps at the chance. After a few short weeks of training, she is sent to Lille in occupied France and takes on the role of a shy, simple waitress in a restaurant that caters to German generals. The information she gleans from their overheard conversations is passed on to her contact, the “Queen of the Spies” Louise de Bettignies who becomes a bright and shining light for Eve in a dark and dangerous world. The work is exhilarating and treacherous, even more so when the owner of the restaurant takes an interest in her. One misstep and all will be lost.

1947. Charlotte (Charlie) St. Clair is young, unmarried and pregnant. Her wealthy parents send her to Switzerland to have her “Little Problem” taken care of and to preserve her (and their) reputation. Charlie is heartbroken over the recent suicide of her brother (a soldier who came home from the war but never left it) and the complete lack of information of what happened to her beloved French cousin Rose who she is convinced is still alive. In London, Charlie slips away from her Mother and contacts the one person she thinks might be able to help her – one Evelyn Gardiner. Evelyn’s hands are horribly disfigured and she is bitter and angry (the first thing she does to Charlie is to pull out a Luger and threaten to kill her) but eventually she agrees to go to France with Charlie see if they can find Rose. Accompanied by Evelyn’s driver Finn, they make their way to a France that is still torn and broken by the war. The horrors of World War II are very much still evident, but the shadows cast by World War I are still present too.

The book alternates between these two story lines, chapter by chapter. The connecting threads between the stories is gradually revealed, leading to an explosive final confrontation. It is one of those books that’s difficult to put down when you’re reading it and nearly impossible to forget about when you’re finished. I certainly found this to be true.

There are a lot of books about the World Wars, especially WWII, but The Alice Network manages to take a closer look at two lesser known subjects – the women who spied for the Allies during World War I, and the aftermath of the war in the countryside of postwar France. What really adds weight to the book though, is that many of the people and heart-stopping incidents depicted are true – there really was a network of female spies in German occupied countries during WWI and it really was called the Alice Network and was led by Louise de Bettignies, one of the most accomplished and successful spies the Allies had. Most of the things that happen in the book – the secrets the women uncovered, the danger and brutal punishments they suffered – actually happened. And in Charlie’s timeline, there is one episode that she comes across that is absolutely true (and absolutely chilling) but probably little-known outside of France. Evelyn and Charlie are fictional, but what they see and feel and experience are very real. Don’t miss the author’s notes at the end for more about these nearly forgotten heroines. And don’t miss this book.

 

 

 

Now Departing for – China

Welcome to the next month in our Online Reading Challenge! This month we are headed for China, a country that, for many of us, remains mysterious and unknown with a long, complex history and multiple cultures. A great book can crack open that door of mystery in the best possible way.

China as a subject offers a large number of intriguing and interesting books. Achee Min’s The Last Empress follows the last days of the Ch’ing Dynasty as overseen by Tzu Hsi. Maligned in the Western press as a ruthless, power-mad assassin, Min offers a different view of a powerful woman that did everything for her country and her family.

Under Heaven by Gabriel Kay is set in a imaginary kingdom in ancient China during the T’ang Dynasty. To honor the death of his father, Shen Tai spends two years burying the dead at a battle site on the kingdom’s border. When he receives a gift of 250 coveted horses, he realizes he is in terrible danger and seeks an audience with the Emperor. Detailed, nuanced, completely engrossing, this is a massive novel that you can easily (and happily) get lost in.

Lisa See has written many novels of China and of the Chinese immigrant experience in America. Set in 19th century China when women had little value except to produce male children, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is the story of a “laotong” (an arranged friendship of two young girls that is meant to last a lifetime) between Lily and her laotong, the beautiful Snow Flower. A misunderstanding between them has far reaching consequences. This is a fascinating peek into a secretive and hidden world but a warning – the part when the girls undergo foot binding is not for the squeamish (I still shudder when I think about it)

For an examination of the push and pull of between new and old that Chinese immigrants to America feel, you can’t do better than Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. The younger generation is eager to embrace the modern world but the past and the old country, as remembered by their parents, continues to shape and influence them. Four Chinese women who immigrated to America in 1949 are drawn together to share stories and play mah-jong. Through the years we follow their triumphs and losses and those of their American-born daughters.

There are lots more choices out there. Watch for our displays at each building for more suggestions. And then let us know what you’ll be reading this month!

Now Arriving From – London

Hello Fellow Reading Fans!

How did September go for you? Did you find something fabulous to read that was set in London? There certainly isn’t a lack of great reading material set in the English capital. With so much history and culture and so much influence on the world (an Empire that at one time spanned the globe), the possibilities for excellent reading material are nearly endless.

I chose to read a fairly new novel, Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. Set in London during World War II, it focuses on the home front during the London Blitz and the hardships suffered and bravery shown by those left behind. Typical dry British wit and stiff upper lip attitude contrast with the very real terror and danger of London under siege making for a tense and absorbing read.

When war is declared in 1939, Mary immediately leaves her school in Switzerland and races back to London, convinced that she will miss out on the “action” and volunteers at the War Office. Instead of becoming a spy as she has imagined, she is assigned a position teaching children who have not been evacuated. She is disappointed and frustrated, but then the Blitz begins and she is suddenly in the midst of the “action” and it’s brutality. A growing friendship with her boyfriend’s roommate, who is stationed in Malta, brings the horrors of the front lines to the story and shows that there are many ways to be brave both at home and in the field. A fascinating, bittersweet look at wartime London.

Now it’s your turn – what did you read in September? Let us know in the comments!

Hello Sunshine by Laura Dave

Sunshine Mackenzie is living her best life – a hugely popular YouTube cooking star, she has published several cookbooks and is about to get her own television show. She has a beautiful home, a loving husband and millions of fans on the verge of mega-stardom.

And then she gets hacked.

In a single day she loses her reputation, her home, her fortune and her husband when someone hacks into her Twitter account and starts revealing secrets that start showing the cracks in Sunshine’s perfect facade. She and her team scramble to contain the damage but it’s too late, the truth is out there and the media is eager to expose every lie and blemish. Finally, with nowhere else to go, she must return to her hometown and her estranged sister and confront what she has become and where she came from.

Hello, Sunshine by Laura Dave examines living authentic in an inauthentic age. Even us ordinary people present a carefully crafted image of ourselves and our lives through the many social media platforms that are so prevalent now. I know for myself, I only post beautiful photos of my garden or my cat doing something cute, not the pile of dirty dishes in the sink. Does that make our lives any less authentic? Is what we post “real life”, or just a facade? It’s an interesting debate to consider and Hello, Sunshine raises lots of interesting questions. Well worth a read.

This Beautiful Fantastic

A librarian with a garden – how could I possibly resist? And there’s no need to resist – This Beautiful Fantastic is a charming, modern fairy tale about friendship and trust and finding beauty in the ordinary.

Bella Brown is a shy, reclusive librarian (disappointingly, a bit of a stereotype, although Bella is young and does not wear her hair in a bun!) whose dream is to become a children’s book author. Lacking the confidence to show her work to anyone, let alone a publisher, she stays hidden in the shadows, avoiding her neighbors and other people, following a careful routine of work and home.

One day her landlord appears and tells her that she will be evicted in 30 days if she does not revive the badly neglected garden at her house (in British-speak, “garden” is what American’s would call a “yard” and in a city is usually quite small with lots of plants and a small grass lawn). Understandably, Bella is upset since she knows nothing about gardening and her first attempts are disastrous. Her grumpy neighbor watches in horror, makes unhelpful, scathing remarks and then, after Bella confronts him, agrees to help her (turns out he’s an expert horticulturist and had turned her in in the first place)

What follows is the blossoming of an epic friendship (yes! I went there! Bad pun!!), the meeting of two opposites that understand loneliness and isolation and tentatively learn to accept the other, blemishes and all and in the process, learn to let other people in as well.

This is a typical British comedy with eccentric characters, dry humor and quirky settings. The library that Bella works at is endlessly fascinating – and weird. I don’t know a lot about public libraries in England, but this library is obsessed with quiet (another stereotype!), is stocked only with very old books and has crazy hours. Also, Bella has apparently memorized the exact location of every single volume!

Bella is played by Jessica Brown Findlay who you might remember as Sybil in Downtown Abbey and the grumpy neighbor is expertly played by Tom Wilkinson; they are joined a cast of familiar British character actors. A delight for all.

 

Now Departing for: London

Fellow Fans of Books!

Don’t get your knickers in a twist – we’re heading to London this month! It’s going to be brilliant!

There is no lack of books set in London. In fact, there is a glut of books set in London. There should be no problem finding something of interest! Here are a few ideas to get you started.

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. In 1870s London, a prostitute known as Sugar sees a potential way out of the brothel she works for when she is taken in by William Rackham, the son of a wealthy businessman.

The Royal We by Heather Cocks. Adventure-seeking Bex goes to Oxford and meets dreamy Nick across the hall – and thus Bex who accidentally finds herself in love with the eventual heir to the British throne

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. In London covering the Blitz with Edward R. Murrow, Frankie Bard meets a Cape Cod doctor in a shelter and promises that she’ll deliver a letter for him when she finally returns to the United States.

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. Bridget Jones takes readers on a tour of a hilarious year-in-the-life of a confused thirty-something singleton who would have all the answers if she could just lose seven pounds, stop smoking, and attain inner poise.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Assuming the power recently lost by the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell counsels a mercurial Henry VIII on the latter’s efforts to marry Anne Boleyn against the wishes of Rome, a successful endeavor that comes with a dangerous price.

And, of course, there are dozens of mystery authors to explore – Arthur Conan Doyle, PD James, Laurie King, Anne Perry, Jacqueline Winspear and Elizabeth George to name just a few. From historical fiction to modern satire, just about every literary taste can be met. Watch the displays at each Davenport library location for lots more suggestions.

I’m going to be reading Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave which takes place during the Battle of Britain in World War II, a book that’s been on my “to-read” list for a long time. What will you be reading?

Now Departing for : Texas

Hello Online Reading Challenge Members!

Yee haw! We’re off to the Wild West this month! Well, we’re off to Texas and the American Southwest, a part of the United States with a colorful history that continues to be a favorite of writers and film makers alike. There will be no shortage of excellence this month.

I have to admit, when I first drew up this year’s list of subjects for the Online Reading Challenge I included the American Southwest with Texas because I didn’t think there would be enough books just on Texas. Wrong! I discovered lots of great titles, many of which are among my personal favorites. Here are some of them:

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Don’t let the various awards (including the Pulitzer Prize) for the this book scare you off as “too literary”. It is indeed a masterpiece of writing and a joy to read, but more importantly, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling. It is the story of one last epic cattle drive across open country, fiercely real, set against an unforgiving landscape and filled with tragedy and triumph,  You will never forget the characters or their stories. An excellent mini-series, starring Robert Duval and Tommy Lee Jones, is also highly recommended.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles reminded me quite a bit of Lonesome Dove although it’s a very different story. What they have in common is uncommon characters, epic adventure and tragedy and triumph. I blogged about it in more detail last year. Highly recommended.

If you have not read Tony Hillerman’s books then do yourself a favor and start! Set in the Navajo Territory, these books follow Lt Leaphorn and Officer Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police as they work to solve crimes in this beautiful but remote and isolated part of the country. While these are on the surface crime-solving mysteries, there is a lot going on beneath the surface including the push and pull of old vs new – Leaphorn is older but does not believe in the Navajo myths; Chee is a young man studying to become a Navajo shaman – and the frequent misunderstandings between cultures. Hillerman was a master writer, spare and evocative with great respect for the Navajo Nation. Amazing books. The Blessing Way was the first book; Skinwalkers is the first with Leaphorn and Chee working together; The Thief of Time is probably my favorite (although I love them all).

Finally, there are many tv shows and movies set in Texas and the Southwest. My favorite is Friday Night Lights and I will argue that it is one of the best television shows ever. Starring Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, this series features great writing, excellent characters and epic stories all beautifully filmed and with a pitch perfect final episode. Set against the backdrop of football crazy Texas, it’s actually about family and friendship, finding your own way and growing up. I wrote (enthusiastically) about the show here and here.

My plan for August is to go to the classics and read Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop I’ll you know how it goes.

Now, what about you? What are you reading this month?

Now Arriving from : Alaska

Welcome Back Online Reading Challengers!

How was your July? Did you find something wonderful about Alaska this month? Surely reading about all that cold and snow helped keep you cool here in Iowa!

I read The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, a story that is both hopeful and heartbreaking. Set in frontier Alaska where conditions are harsh and homesteading is hard work, The Snow Child is about a middle-aged couple who have come to Alaska for a fresh start. Their only child has died and they are unable to have another. Mabel, struggling with grief is considering killing herself and she and her husband Jack are drifting further and further apart. They are just barely hanging on. One day, impulsively, Jack and Mabel build a snow child and soon after they begin to see glimpses of a small girl in the woods. Who is she? Where did she come from? Is she safe alone in the woods?

Over time Jack and Mabel befriend the girl and welcome her into their home and hearts. She grows into a beautiful young woman, but there is something wild and otherworldly about her, as if she is only here temporarily. What follows is a story about family, both those we are born into and those we create, about surviving sorrow and finding joy again. The land of Alaska plays a big part in this book and is beautifully described – you can almost feel the cold winter winds or see the brilliant sunshine. Ivey is a native Alaskan and her love and respect for the land and wildlife are evident. Based on a traditional Russian fairy tale, this is a lovely, thoughtful book.

Now it’s your turn – what have you read this month?