Online Reading Challenge – August Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Fans-of-Reading!

How was your August? Did you find something wonderful to read that was set during the Edwardian Era? Or maybe you watched a movie – tell us about you read or watched!

I started the month planning to read The Alienist by Caleb Carr, a book that has been popular for several years and now has a television series based on it on TNT. I tried to read it, I really did. But. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m a strong believer that, if a book isn’t working for me, I abandon it. I know some people will stick with a book to the bitter end, disliking it the whole time, but there are too many titles on my “to read” list. So I dropped The Alienist and instead picked up The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson. Much better.

The Summer Before the War starts in June 1914 and is set in the idyllic English countryside. Beatrice Nash, whose father has recently died, has come to Rye to be a Latin teacher. She soon becomes involved the lives of the people around her, learning about their secrets and dreams. When war is declared in late July, there is a burst of patriotic fervor and excitement with men and boys joining up to “advance their careers” and proclaiming that they’ll “be home by Christmas”. The reality of the war soon begins to creep into their lives, both on a national and personal level, and the old ways of thinking are slowly torn away.

I very much enjoyed this book. It wasn’t necessarily ground-breaking, but it is much more than a simple, quaint story. It was interesting to read about the very constricted lives women were allowed and how Beatrice had to fight for her job even though she was far more qualified than her (male) competition. I was also fascinated by how the strict codes of society dictated everyday life, such as who could dine with who, and how merely talking to someone considered disreputable could ruin your own standing. The war eats into these rules as death and pain impact everyone no matter your place.

Beatrice is a wonderful main character – witty, smart and confident in her abilities but struggling to make her way on her own in a world that scorns spinsters. She finds compassion from unexpected sources and strength from within to face a time when everything changed.

Now it’s your turn. What did you read this month and how did you like it?

Online Reading Challenge – Mid-Month Check In

Hello Again!

How is your month of Edwardian reading going? Have you found something that has grabbed your interest? If you’re still looking, maybe a movie would be the ticket – there are some gorgeous films set during this time period. Here are a few to consider:

A Room With a View – From the famous production team of Merchant and Ivory, this gorgeous film of love and romance stars Helen Bonham-Carter and Daniel Day-Lewis and is set in the idyllic Italian countryside.

Howard’s End – Another beautiful Merchant and Ivory production, starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, brings the rigid rules of Edwardian society into sharp focus.

Edwardian Farm – Find out how the other half lives when two archaeologists and a historian recreate farm life for a full year using practices from 1906 England. Fascinating!

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady – So beautiful! Filmed on location in England and Scotland, this drama follows artist Edith Holden through the changing seasons.

Murdoch Mysteries – Follow Detective William Murdoch as he solves murder mysteries in Edwardian Toronto using the latest scientific methods.

Parade’s End – From the end of the Edwardian era through World War I, this epic story of romance and betrayal stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall.

Mary Poppins – For something much lighter and happier, you can’t go wrong with Mary Poppins. It’s magical and fun and surprisingly thoughtful. Don’t miss it.

Miss Potter – The charming story of Beatrix Potter’s efforts to publish her first books and gain some measure of independence as a single woman in Edwardian England. Lovely and heartbreaking. Starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

What would you do to save your family? To break free of the narrow path set before you? Would you be able to make the sacrifice, stand against the terrible fear? What about the people affected by your actions? Would you have the courage to step forward and make amends?

In Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik we follow three young women as they face these difficult questions. Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders. While her grandfather is very successful, her father is not and she is forced to take over their business. Wanda is the daughter of a poor woodsman who takes out his anger and frustration on his surviving children, gambling and drinking away what little money they have and forcing her to work off his debt. And Irina is the daughter of a powerful Duke, disappointingly plain and awkward with no suitors and no future. These three lives, seemingly with little or no connection, weave and entwine as they each find their purpose and in the process save their country.

Events are set into motion when Miryem, who turns out to be very good at collecting debts and turning a profit, boasts that she can turn silver into gold. This catches the attention of the King of the Staryk, whose northern winter kingdom is slowly engulfing the surrounding lands, bringing poverty and hardship. The Staryk demands that Miryem turn a handful of silver coins into gold and in exchange, agrees (reluctantly) to make her his (also reluctant) Queen. And from that beginning, spins the tale.

Beautifully written, Novik creates a complex, convincing world that is part fantasy, part dark fairy-tale, part love story, part heroic quest with a dash of Game of Thrones (without the Red Wedding or incest, thank goodness) There are many “real” aspects (Miryem and her family are Jewish and experience much of the same history as in our world and the country, with it’s ever encroaching winter, feels like Siberia) but it is also uniquely it’s own. One caution – the narrator of the book changes frequently and other than a small symbol before each change, there is no indication of whose point-of-view you are now reading. It can be momentarily confusing but I found that it became clear quickly. Don’t let this slight challenge keep you away from this mesmerizing and suspenseful novel!

Online Reading Challenge – August

It’s August already, Reading Fans! Time to take a look at our next challenge!

This month we’re exploring the Edwardian Era. Technically, the Edwardian Era lasted from 1901 to 1910, which is the time that Edward VII ruled England following the death of Queen Victoria. However, it is popularly considered to run from the 1890s to the start of World War I in 1914.

The coming of war lends a certain bittersweet feeling to this time period, the last golden days of the English Empire and the innocence that would soon be shattered. The Summer Before the War by Simonson embodies this “on the brink” time beautifully, set in a small English village. Cavendon Hall by Barbara Taylor Bradford is a novel about the intrigues of a wealthy family and their servants (think Downton Abbey). Rutherford Park by Cooke is another English country house family drama set in this time period.

It’s not all about the landed gentry in England though. The Titanic sank in 1912 and there is lots of fiction and non-fiction about the sinking and its consequences. The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott is gives us a personal account of the disaster and the aftermath when an accomplished seamstress joins a famous fashion designer on the Titanic as her personal maid. Or try A Night to Remember by Walter Lord, a classic about the ships final hours.

Other notable events during this time include the first manned flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (The Wright Brothers by David McCullough) and the golden age of arctic exploration (Shackleton’s Heroes by Wilson McOrst). American classics by E.M. Forster (Howard’s End and A Room With a View) or Edith Wharton (The Buccaneers) are great choices. For mystery lovers, check out the Molly Murphy series by Rhys Bowen.

I am planning on reading The Alienist by Caleb Carr about the beginnings of forensic science set in New York City. This is a little outside of my comfort zone, so we’ll see how it goes!

What about you – what will you be reading this month?

Online Reading Challenge – July Wrap-Up

Hello Reading Challengers!

How did your reading go in July? Did you read something wonderful set during the time of Westward Expansion?

I set out to read Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose. Real world disclaimer here: I haven’t finished it yet. But – but! – not because I didn’t like it – in fact I’m loving it! It’s just that other obligations got in the way. I have every intention of finishing it and soon. I’m about a third of the way through, so here are my impressions so far and why I’m loving it so much.

Undaunted Courage is about Lewis and Clark’s “voyage of discovery” when they crossed the western half the North American continent, beyond the known frontier. Before their journey, most of the information about the land was made up of myths and legends and less-than-reliable reports of itinerant fur trappers.

The book opens with an in-depth look at Meriwether Lewis’ youth and upbringing in Virginia where he managed his family’s plantation. He also served in the militia and then worked as an aide to the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson who was a neighbor back in Virginia. I had not realized how well Jefferson and Lewis knew each other, and how much they worked together. At first, already pressed for time, I had planned to skim this part of the book, thinking it would be dull but it isn’t! It’s fascinating! It shows the unique circumstances that shaped Lewis, what they taught him, how they influenced his life viewpoint and how one day they would prepare him for this great adventure. It is also a eye-opening insight into how and why the Founding Fathers thought and operated. It’s like reading about the building blocks of this new nation that would become America.

Jefferson, President, diplomat and political strategist, was also an enthusiastic amateur scientist. He wanted to create friendly relations with the Indians and find a waterway to the Pacific Ocean, but he also desperately wished to find out what the land was like – the soil, the weather, the plants and the animals. Jefferson, like most scientists of his day, believed that mastodons still roamed the land, that there were active volcanoes and that the mountain range between the Mississippi River and the Pacific was no higher than the Appalachians.

Lewis was the perfect choice to lead the expedition and Jefferson undertook to teach him as much science as possible before he left including astronomy, rudimentary medicine, botany, preservation of specimens and map making. Lewis engaged an army friend William Clark (brother of Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark) as co-commander and, after a great deal of planning and several setbacks the Corps of Discovery set off.

I’ve just read to the part where they will make their first winter camp, about six months into the journey. They have encountered the Sioux and other tribes, have already discovered many new species of birds, animals and plants and have seen sights never before known to white Americans. Lewis writes about flocks of carrier pigeons so numerous they block out the sun, of the great migration of buffalo, elk and antelope – something not seen by a living person for 100 years now, plentiful game and fruit, endless rolling prairie under a sea of grass. I try to imagine what they must have seen, the wildlife, the endless prairie untouched by fences or roads and am awed (I also think about the difficulty of traveling where there are no roads, no hotels, no GPS and progress on a good day was 30 miles and am grateful to living in the present.)

It’s kind of a cliffhanger that I’ve left it at – after this winter camp they will venture into truly unknown territory – so yes, I look forward to reading the rest of this adventure. What about you? What adventure did you read about this month?

 

 

Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story on DVD

Guest post by Laura V.

After watching Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story, I’m left to wonder what Hedy Lamarr would have become had she been born 50 or 75 years later. Instead of being valued solely for her appearance, would she have been given the opportunity to use her genius to its full capacity? What could the world now be like with a compassionate and caring woman at the engineering helm of invention? Could she have been another Einstein or Edison? Her intellect seems to have been squandered and that’s a shame.

Along with an unearthed tape-recorded phone interview with Lamarr, the filmmakers interview her children, a friend, Hollywood notables, and her granddaughter to compile a portrait of this complex woman. Lamarr was an Austrian Jew with an inquisitive, mechanical-engineering mind from an early age. She was impacted indirectly by the rise of Adolph Hitler before making her way to the United States via London. Even on the strategically-booked boat ride to the US, she leveraged her captivating presence to land a Hollywood contract with MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and showed her fortitude by negotiating for higher pay.

In a time still under the slowly-loosening grip of the Victorian era, a film she made while a teen in Austria, and that was scandalous for its time, Ecstasy, continued to haunt her most of her career.  It appears she was rarely given roles she was capable of and was even cast in demeaning roles because of her “reputation.” Early on she was a devoted mother, but like so many other women who were treated as commodities by Hollywood moguls, she was given drugs for various reasons. This lead to her becoming moody and abusive.

Lamarr seemed to have a complicated relationship with her image. She certainly used it to her advantage but was also resentful about not getting the recognition she thought she deserved for her intellect also because of her image. She and musician George Antheil invented and patented “frequency hopping,” now called spread-spectrum technology and used in Bluetooth, GPS, and military applications but never saw a dime for her efforts. She seemed to ultimately buy into the world’s superficial perception of her, of her value only as the glamorous Hollywood bombshell, with her many plastic surgeries and refusal to appear in public at the end of her life.

Online Reading Challenge – Mid-Month Check-in

Howdy Readers! How’s your Westward Expansion reading experience going this month?

I am working away at reading Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage which recounts the journey of Lewis and Clark. It has been a bit of a slog so far – interesting but maybe too detailed – but I haven’t gotten to the actual journey yet. Things should pick up then.

If you’re still searching for a book to read be sure to stop by any of the Davenport Library locations and check our displays which have a variety of interesting titles. Or reach for a DVD – we have a wide range to choose from. You can go classic/nostalgic and check out a television Western which used to be so popular – Rawhide, Gunsmoke, Little House on the Prairie, Bonanza or The Virginian. We also have a huge collection of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood westerns.

If you’d like to look beyond the stereotypes, there are some excellent documentaries that are well worth watching. Lewis and Clark: the Journey of the Corps of Discovery and The West, both produced by Ken Burns, are beautifully done.

For a modern, often violent look at the Old West try There Will Be Blood or The Revenant or the remake of True Grit.

My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows

The Janeites (authors Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows) are back with a fix-it for another sad Jane story (after the lovely My Lady Jane) and that makes a lot of their fans very happy.

My Plain Jane takes on the fictional Jane Eyre and the very real Charlotte Bronte, except that here, Jane is a real girl. It opens in Northern England in 1834 where both girls are living in a less-than-comfortable boardinghouse where it’s always too cold and there’s never enough food. Both girls have big dreams, but their prospects are meager at best. The twist is that Jane can see and control ghosts. Of which there seem to be a great many.

The ghosts do not frighten Jane, nor do they harm her. In fact, the ghosts are very fond of Jane. However, no one else knows Jane’s secret and when she is seen whispering to what appears to be thin air, she is labeled as odd and awkward and is a social outcast. Charlotte (who is also something of an outcast) is her only (non-dead) friend. Everything changes when handsome Mr Blackwood from the Royal Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits arrives to perform some ghostbusting. Jane tries to help the ghost but in the process, Mr Blackwood (who can also see ghosts) realizes Jane’s talent and tries to recruit her to the Society. Jane wants nothing to do with them (believing they are cruel to ghosts) and flees the school to become a governess to a certain brooding Mr Rochester. Who is hiding something in the attic. Hmmmm.

Charlotte is busy observing and taking lots of notes all this time.

What follows is the adventures and mis-adventures of the girls as they struggle to find a path for themselves during a time when a woman’s choices were very limited. They are smart and loyal and very brave (although they don’t think of themselves as brave) Like the previous book, there are many asides to the reader, lots of funny commentary and lots of action. There is also a lot of literary references to many famous books which kind of took me by surprise. I did like the previous book more – I think that’s because the characters were actual, historical people and I enjoyed the clever ways the authors stuck with the facts but with a new perspective. Don’t pass on this one though – it’s a lot of fun to read!

 

 

 

The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett

The Lost Book of the Grail   by Charlie Lovett is a book lover’s dream, a celebration of the preservation of knowledge, a reverence for the past, an appreciation of tradition and loyalty. It’s also a cracking good story!

Arthur Prescott is very content with his life, thank you very much. True, he’s not thrilled with his job at the boring, modern Barchester University, but working here means he has access to the library at the Barchester Cathedral. Here he can indulge in his greatest love, the search for the Holy Grail, comfortably surrounded by the modest collection of medieval manuscripts. Founded by St Ewolda in 560 A.D., Arthur is convinced that the key to finding the Grail is hidden somewhere in the cathedral.

Into this idyllic, tech-free world waltzes a young American, Bethany Davis, who has come to digitize the ancient books at Barchester Cathedral. Digitize! Arthur is properly scandalized and horrified and deeply concerned that Ms Davis will discover his secret passion for the Grail. When he learns that Bethany is also an avid fan of the Grail and the search for it, things begin to change and when the future of the Cathedral and its library are threatened, this odd couple team finds a way to work together. Arthur begins to appreciate some of the advantages of technology, learns how to email, opens himself to new adventures and makes many discoveries, some profound and some personal.

This would be a great choice for anyone who was a fan of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code but without the murderous psychopath chasing them. The beginning of each chapter has a brief flashback to what was happening to Barchester in the past, from it’s earliest years to the Reformation to World War II, then back to the present – the contrasts are intriguing and it’s fun to watch how the actions of the past are interpreted today. Arthur and Bethany and the supporting characters are thoughtful and interesting and there is quite a bit of (dry, British) humor. And the ending is incredibly satisfying. Highly recommended.

 

Loving Vincent on DVD

Lovely, fascinating, mesmerizing are all excellent ways to describe the short film Loving Vincent. Unique also works – it is unlikely you’ve ever watched anything quite like this movie.

Loving Vincent takes place one year after the apparent suicide of Vincent Van Gogh in the French town of Arles. A postmaster insists that his son deliver Vincent’s last letter to Theo Van Gogh, his brother. The son is reluctant but soon becomes invested in discovering more about Vincent’s last days. Vincent was a social misfit and suffered from mental illness, but the mounting evidence indicates that he had been feeling much better and was not suicidal (in fact, he had just ordered more paint and canvases the day before he was shot) The people of Arles are divided on how they feel about the situation – some hated Vincent, some tolerated him and others truly appreciated him. Was it suicide? An accident? Or was it murder?

As intriguing as the story is, it is its presentation that will really grab your attention. More than 100 artists hand painted each scene, bringing Van Gogh’s paintings to life. Created in Van Gogh’s distinctive style and color palette, it is mesmerizing to watch one famous painting after another become animated. The story flows naturally, the paintings serving the story and adding depth and emotion to Van Gogh’s world. It is a journey well worth taking.