Great American Read – Part 2

We’re about halfway to finding out which book will be named America’s favorite by PBS in the Great American Read. I don’t know about you, but I have been inspired to check more books off this list in the past couple of months. Rather than just reading them on my own, I asked my mother if she would like to have our own little book club for two. I thought it would be a great bonding experience and give us something fun to talk about on our weekly phone calls. We decided to take turns picking books neither of us had read yet and allow two weeks to read it, discussing it both at the halfway point and again when we finished. Mom likes listening to them on audio, and I tend to read the print version.

We started with Mom’s choice: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. She had seen the 2010 movie starring Jack Black, but hadn’t read the book. I had neither seen the movie or read the book, although I did recall possibly seeing bits and pieces of the 1996 TV miniseries starring Ted Danson. I love how this book helped me see what a sense of humor my mother has.  This book gave us plenty of laughs (admittedly, we’re a little warped). At one point the main character is on an island inhabited by tiny people. A fire breaks out in the wing of the tiny royal castle where the princess resides. Giant-size Gulliver “helps” by urinating on the fire. He was disappointed that his “help” wasn’t as appreciated as much as he thought it should be. On the whole, I think Swift meant for it to be more of a political satire than a comedy. However, it is clear he had a sense of humor. Although written almost 300 years ago, much of the subtext is still relatable today. I think that is a mark of a truly great novel.

When we finished with that, I chose for us to read Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. It was an apt one for me to discuss with my mother, because it is centered around mother-daughter relationships: specifically, four Asian mothers living in San Francisco and their their American-born daughters.  I was also planning a family vacation to San Francisco, so I wanted to read as many books set there as I could before going. The book’s themes center around family, culture, and class and how these things shaped the experiences of these eight particular Asian women. I would recommend reading this if you have not already. I also checked out Joy Luck Club on DVD and watched the movie on my own, which I enjoyed.

The third book we read was an Agatha Christie novel. The Christie novel on the Great American Read list is And Then There Were None, but somehow Mom and I got it in our heads that it was Murder on the Orient Express. Maybe it was because I have a tendency to get excited when I can read a book and then watch the movie made based on that book, and I knew that the Murder on the Orient Express movie had just been made in 2017. (I have since learned that there are also movies based on And Then There Were None.) So we read Murder on the Orient Express, then watched the movie together. We both found it to be a quick read. We also loved the unexpected ending. The movie was a little different than the book (as most movies based on books tend to be) but overall true to the story in an enjoyable way. The movie boasts an all-star cast including Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad and Daisy Ridley. But enough about that one. It’s not even on the list.

I think we are going to read the Vonnegut novel next. I better double-check the list to make sure we get the right one!

In my last blog post, I asked readers to comment with their favorite book from the list. I also set up a display at each of our three locations with a voting box. When the Great American Read announces America’s favorite book in late October, I will tally our local votes and announce Davenport’s favorite. If you haven’t voted yet please do so by either commenting on this blog post or writing your favorite title from the Great American Read list on a slip of paper and leaving it for us in the turquoise box at one of our locations.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I listened to this book on my last road trip and after I returned to work, I discovered that it was one of PBS’s Great American Reads! (Check out the Library for a display of these books or look online for a printable list of all 100 books. You can also vote for your favorite at any Davenport Library location.) I was already trying to read my way through as many of those books as I could,  so I was happy that I had stumbled upon Americanah  and that I could check this book off my list!

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the story of race, identity, and struggling to find yourself both away from home and at home. Ifemelu and Obinze fell in love when they were very young, living in military-ruled Nigeria. Both Ifemelu and Obinze were attending a Nigerian university when a series of university strikes began. Without a solid education and no other real plans in motion, Ifemelu and Obinze decided to leave the country.

Ifemelu decides to leave Nigeria and head to America. She and Obinze work out a plan. Once he finishes school, he will leave Nigeria and come to her. In America, Ifemelu has academic success, but struggles to fit into black America. This novel wonderfully describes the African experience and how it differs between the USA, England, and Nigeria. Ifemelu may have found her way at an American university with academic success, but she struggles with understanding the differences between what is accepted in America vs what was/is accepted in Nigeria. To help her cope, Ifemelu decides to start a blog that talks about race issues in America. Obinze’s life is complicated in a different way. Not being able to head to America, he instead moves to England and ends up becoming an illegal immigrant. His journey is complicated like Ifemelu’s and he struggles to find himself amongst a country that wants to send him back home.

Flash forward years and Ifemelu and Obinze find themselves in the same country again, trying to deal with past resentments, hurt feelings, and denials. Their current lives are under scrutiny as they each try to juggle their foreign selves with accepted culture and identity standards in place in Nigeria. Reuniting in newly democratic Nigeria after years abroad, both Ifemelu and Obinze have issues to work through as they deal with their new selves, the new Nigeria, and the unique relationship/reunited passion between each other and their native homeland. Some issues are spoken, while others lie under the surface only called out when they directly influence others in the open. These cultural subtleties make up a vast swath of this book and the author is adept at bringing them to light. This is fiction with a message, yet the message is conveyed in an appealing and socially conscious way.

This book takes a deep look at race and immigration, specifically the intricacies of race and how that experience is different between the USA and Nigeria. In frequent conversations throughout this novel, readers are given a glimpse into what it means to be black in Africa and what it means to be black in the USA. The author takes readers on a tour of various countries as seen through the eyes of Ifemelu and Obinze. Their life stories play out over many years and many countries as they both struggle to find themselves amongst countries who value the same culture in different ways.

I recommend listening to this book. While it may take you a little bit to understand the accents like it took me, I ultimately felt like it was worthwhile. The accents allowed me to fully engage with the book and realize that I was gaining a glimpse into a culture entirely different from mine. When I finished listening to this book, I realized that if I had read a print copy, I would have lost the accents completely, would have probably given the characters an incorrect accent, or would have imagined the characters with only slight accents. There really is something positive to be said about listening to books with narrators who really know how to correctly portray the characters.


This book is also available as:

The Great American Read

What is your favorite book of all time? If a cross-section of Americans voted on their favorite book and made a list of the top 100, would your favorite make the list? Time to find out!

PBS has launched a program called The Great American Read which producers say is “designed to spark a national conversation about reading and the books that have inspired, moved, and shaped us.”  The first of eight episodes aired on May 22, 2018.  It featured some famous people like George R.R. Martin, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Venus Williams, Wil Wheaton, Chelsea Clinton, and Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Bush sharing what they love about their personal favorites – The Lord of the Rings, Gulliver’s Travels, The Chronicles of Narnia, Dune, Where the Red Fern Grows and The Book Thief,respectively. If you missed it – don’t worry. You can watch it here.

The final episode is scheduled to air some time in October 2018, according to the show’s official website. Until that time, Americans are encouraged to go online and vote for their favorite book. One vote per day is allowed.

If you are curious about how many books from the list you’ve read, download the checklist and start counting! (I’m at 23 so far.) My personal favorite is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I first read it in 9th grade English class and have loved it ever since. If you, like me, are eager to check more titles off that list, be sure to look for the displays we have at each of our three locations where you can easily find and check one out.

As the show’s host Meredith Viera says, “The Great American Read is happening all across the country, all summer long. So invite your friends to share in the celebration!” I urge you to post a comment to tell us which book is your favorite of all time. We at the library are curious to see how QCA voters will compare to the nation as a whole when the book with the most votes is revealed later this fall!

The Crimson Field

the crimson fieldIn The Crimson Field, viewers are introduced to the daily lives of doctors and nurses in a tented field hospital right on the front lines of France during World War I. Right at the start, you are introduced to three volunteer nurses, Kathleen, Rosalie, and Flora as they make their way to a field hospital on the coast of France close to the front lines of fighting. At this field hospital, they are the very first volunteer nurses; a fact that rankles the established medical team already in place. Kitty, Rosalie, and Flora must find ways to deal with the new world that they have been thrust into where they quickly realize that the training that they have received is nowhere near adequate for the job they must do. With their addition to camp, everyone’s lives start to shift and clashes quickly crop up between the way that things have always been done, the hierarchal structure within the camp, and a new way of thinking. While the girls quickly find out that they are underprepared for this new way of life, they also discover that they, just like the others around them, are able to use this as a new start and to break away from everything that held them back in their hometowns.

PBS and the BBC have found ways to make interesting a subject that would have been dreadful to read about in a history textbook. By illuminating such topics as World War I, the day-to-day life of people in front-line field hospitals, and the tensions between the Allied and the Central Powers, viewers realize just how tumultuous life was during World War I and how people had to be aware of even their smallest actions. This PBS television show has a unique way of pulling people into the lives of the characters while simultaneously making the events that they are going through a wide and layered character unto itself.

Get Ready to Shake your Beaded Tassles!

When I grow up I want to be a Lady Detective just like Miss Fisher—elegant, scrappy and clever (words that also describe my other favorite Lady Detective, Jessica Fletcher!) Phryne Fisher has been dancing around the book world for a while (see my review of the first in that series here: Phryne, Rhymes with Briney), but now we can actually see her shake her beaded tassels in a new gorgeously filmed television series by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, shown in the United States on PBS.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries begins just as Kerry Greenwood’s book series does, with the Honorable Phryne Fisher, played by the seductive Essie Davis, returning to 1920’s Melbourne after being away for a decade or so. While she was away in Europe, Miss Fisher had modeled nude for artists, partied with dancers, worked as WWI nurse, and suddenly came into a title and money. Now that she is returned, Phryne decides that her charm and intellect are perfectly suited to solving murder mysteries around her old hometown. She enlists the help of her gentle butler, her communist chauffeurs/handymen, and her new maid, Dot, who finds herself constantly struggling between good Catholic values and the not-quite-legal-or-virtuous things that Miss Fisher persuades her to do. And of course, the local Detective Inspector Jack Robinson does not find Phryne’s frequent interference in his work amusing (even if he does find her annoyingly companionable.) I loved every episode of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, but what most puts a sparkle in my eye is Phryne’s marvelous wardrobe! The silk kimonos! The slinky wide-legged pants! And the hats oh THE HATS!

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is so charming, fun and sexy while still addressing many historically controversial issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and terrorism—all while giving us a cracking good whodunit. I highly recommend this series to fans of Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, and those who love history and mysteries 😉

Prohibition on DVD

Do you get psyched about the prospect of panning over black and white photos while a narrator describes what is going on in those photos? If you said, “Yeah, buddy!” then Ken Burn’s brand new Prohibition is for you.

With a total running time of 6 hours, it is relatively digestible as the equivalent of watching three movies. And in all seriousness, these black and white photos featuring denizens of the Jazz Age are truly intriguing. Even more so is the occasional bit of footage of flappers dancing, heaven knows the source.

It is not the documentary for you if your heart bleeds at the sight of innocent glass jugs being blasted apart by Volstead enforcers or the occasional bullet-riddled pinstriped gangster.

Fun Prohibition facts:
“Bad guy” Al Capone financed the soup kitchen that fed thousands on Chicago’s south side as the Great Depression took hold. The best charge the feds could level against Mr. Capone (other than keen business acumen in a market they created) is income tax evasion. Shockingly he didn’t declare all his profits on his 1040-EZ form.

Small cities of Bahamanian freighters would drop anchor three miles off the Atlantic coast to make deliveries to local boats. No one cared.

Many “Dry” congresspeople drank, some even accepting deliveries at the Capitol.

Alcohol consumption increased in some cities.

Some milkmen would deliver hooch to your doorstep in innocuous bottles to streamline the purchasing process.

Numbers exponentially surged for medical whiskey prescriptions and synagogue memberships.

I’ve never watched a documentary from the renowned master, Ken Burns. This was time well spent.