There’s something very comforting about Erica Bauermeister’s books — they’re sort of  “stop and smell the roses”  reminder.   For me, when she describes the smell of freshly baked bread, I swear I’m going to master making it from scratch, even though my past attempts at bread -baking have often yielded less-than satisfying results.  Indeed, at times I’ve been too embarrassed to throw it out for the birds!  (I mean, really, what if even they didn’t eat it?) But enough about me.

As in her first book, The School of Essential Ingredients, each chapter focuses on a different character.  In her new one, Joy for Beginners,  the characters are all women and all friends, even though they are different ages and at various stages in their lives.  These women don’t live Pollyanna lives — loved ones still die, couples still divorce, some parent-child relationships stay strained — but through it all, their friendships remain strong and continue to provide the support and encouragement each of them needs.

The book opens with a potluck dinner party, celebrating Kate’s recent victory over breast cancer.  Kate agrees to try something she’s always feared– white-water rafting– but in return, each of them must also promise to do something they find difficult, though Kate  gets to pick their challenges.  In some cases, the task seems surprisingly simple, such as baking bread or discarding books left by an ex-husband.  Still, Kate seems to have an innate sense as to what her friends need most.

I really enjoyed this book.  It’s a perfect gift for a good friend — or for someone who wants to make bread from scratch!

Bossypants by Tina Fey was released on Tuesday, April 5th, and I started and finished it on that very day.  Enough said.

Granted, I’m a big fan of Tina Fey and her critically-acclaimed show 30 Rock, and I’ve been anxiously awaiting this book.  It’s part memoir, part humorous essay collection, and part how-to guide on being a woman in show business.  And it’s hilarious.  She talks about everything from the more unpleasant jobs she had over the years to finding acceptance in a summer theater group to what it was like to meet Sarah Palin after publicly (and frequently) making fun of her on Saturday Night Live.  There are one-liners and hilarious anecdote in such abundance that you’ll be embarrassed to read the book in public because you’ll be laughing so much.  She also talks about some serious things, like being slashed in the face by a stranger when she was five years old (the source of the trademark scar on her cheek) and how hard it is to balance being a mother and a very busy woman in the workforce, but she still manages to keep it lighthearted.  What I really enjoyed about the book was how clearly her comedic voice came through.  This isn’t one of those books “written” by a celebrity (aka written by a ghostwriter with the celebrity’s name thrown into the byline); Fey’s sharp wit comes through in every sentence so that you can practically hear her reading it as though she were reciting lines she wrote on 30 Rock.

I tried really hard to pick out a favorite excerpt to share here, just to give you a taste of what the book is like.  But every time I tried I just kept typing and typing and pretty soon it was going to border on copyright infringement.  So I’ll just tell you that Bossypants is hilarious and if you like humorous memoirs or are a fan of 30 Rock, then you should check it out.

Remember Kabul Beauty School, the memoir by Deborah Rodriguez?  Well, the author is back, this time with a fictional account which seems likely to have been based, at least in part, upon her own life experience as co-owner of a coffee house in Kabul.  At least that’s my bet, as the dialogue and place description both have an authentic feel to it.

I enjoyed A Cup of Friendship on several levels.  First of all, it’s just a good story.  It’s got solid characterization with some humor and some romance to help balance out the more tragic episodes.  It’s also a reflection about relationships and lasting friendships with women of different faiths and cultures.   Finally, I think it helps those of us living in the West to better understand Afghan culture.  We may not agree with the way women are treated there, but knowing some of the “why” behind it certainly helps.

As one might expect, being an American woman running a business in Kabul these days is not the easiest job in the world.   However, the main character, Sunny, runs her coffee shop amidst bombs going off nearby, and still manages to create a welcoming haven for many ex-patriots.  She also finds a way to do some good in her little corner of the world.  This is a “feel good” book!

February was Black History Month, but  March marks the transition into Women’s History Month.  If you didn’t catch our displays last month, stop by and see what’s new. 

One book in particular that serves as the perfect segue from one theme to the other is Sister Days by Janus Adams.  Subtitled “365 Inspired Moments in African American Women’s History,” the book is written in diary style, with short anecdotes for every day of the year.  For example, Philippa Schuyler, who was declared a prodigy at age 3, is featured on July 29th, while Era Bell Thompson, who was inducted into the Iowa Hall of Fame, is the woman of the day on April 30th.   Personally, I had not heard about either of these remarkable individuals! 

Another book that’s received a  lot of press lately is the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  It’s a true story of a poor woman who died of cervical cancer.  Before her death in 1951, a sample of her cancerous tissue was taken, but without her knowledge or consent.  Her cells, known as HeLa cells, not only survived in the lab, but thrived, providing scientists with a building block for many medical breakthroughs, starting with the cure for polio.

This is just a small sampling of a wide variety of materials celebrating women of achievement throughout the years.  Come check some out!

Following her memoir, An Italian Affair, travel writer Laura Fraser shares an intimate peek into her private life, which includes traveling to exotic places and interviewing eccentric personalities in All Over the Map.

On one hand, I was at once envious, wishing I had the means to travel, seemingly at whim, to such intriguing locals (Italy, Provence, Peru, Samoa, etc.) but on the other hand, sympathetic to what dangers she may have faced (Rwanda) and to what her career and lifestyle choices have forced her to forego — a lasting marriage and children of her own.

She is open about her love affairs, poignantly honest about an assault in the South Pacific, and appreciative of her large network of friends.  In all, the book achieves the desired result and illustrates why she is successful in her field — readers may have seen her work featured in O, the Oprah Magazine, Gourmet, and many other publications.  Those who enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love will also enjoy this; plus it’s also an excellent example of how a non-fiction work can read like fiction.

The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson is the memoir of a young woman who makes the life-changing decision to abandon atheism and convert to Islam.  After being offered a teaching position at the Language School, Wilson moves to Cairo, Egypt, where she experiences what it is really like to be a Muslim woman in a Middle Eastern country.  Here she quickly discovers that she must learn all over again how to do simple things like greet someone and shop for groceries.  Her life takes an unexpected turn when she meets Omar, who defies the stereotypes of Muslim men she has always heard about.  As Omar teaches Willow how to get by in this new environment, the two fall in love and embark upon a new journey where two cultures come together and learn to relate to one another.

I absolutely loved this book.  I was a Religion major in college, so I had a little background knowledge of Islam, but I learned so much more about it from reading an actual Muslim woman’s perspective.  It was incredibly enlightening to learn about what it’s like for a real Muslim woman in the Middle East, rather than just focusing on the often sad images we see on the news.  Despite being in a place so different from where we live, the story is still relatable, and the author takes care to always explain Arabic words and cultural concepts to the reader.  If you’re interested in learning about about Islam but want something that reads like a novel rather than a textbook, I highly recommend The Butterfly Mosque.

This sequel to Adriana Trigiani’s Very Valentine continues to follow custom shoemaker Valentine Roncalli and her vibrant Italian family.  Brava, Valentine opens with the romantic wedding of her 80-year-old grandmother in Tuscany, then segues back to their shop in Greenwich Village where Valentine must learn how to deal with her brother as a freshly-ordained business partner.

The most interesting scenes, however, take place in Buenos Aires, where Valentine discovers a long lost cousin who coincidentally operates a similar business.  At first cousin Roberta appears reticent and a bit defensive, actions which appear reasonable once the full, scandalous story is told.  Plus, Buenos Aires is where she passionately reunites with sexy Italian tanner, Gianluca.  True to Trigiani’s usual form, this new novel is both heartwarming and humorous.

The author, earlier known for her Big Stone Gap series, has also written an entertaining cookbook, Cooking with My Sisters, which includes many memorable anecdotes and photos of her colorful family.

“Remarkable” can describe many things in this novel – the remarkable time period (the early 1800s) when the pursuit of science became the rage, the remarkable fossils being discovered and studied, and the two remarkable women – based on real people – who did so much to uncover the fossils that challenged the beliefs of the time.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier is set in Lyme-Regis, on the southwest coast of England. Spinster Elizabeth Philpot and her two sisters have been forced by reduced circumstances to leave their comfortable life in London and move to a smaller, less expensive house. Their new location suits Elizabeth; she has no hope of suitors and soon becomes addicted to searching for the fossils that can be found along the sandy beaches. It is here that she runs into Mary Anning and a friendship, spanning social status, age and circumstance is quickly forged. Mary has a gift for finding the half-hidden fossils – sometimes complete skeletons – and these remarkable discoveries eventually attract the attention of the scientific community at large. The attention brings much needed income and (some) credit to the women, but it also causes tension, misunderstandings and finally a falling out. This remarkable friendship, with it’s ebbs and flows and eventual  renewal, form the core of this fascinating story.

As expected, Chevalier does a wonderful job of setting the time period and creating a believable atmosphere. Her characters are also carefully drawn, each with their own complex motivations, from the various scientists that visit them to the townspeople who snub them, and she brings this fascinating story of the past alive again.

One decision can alter a life forever – turning left instead of right, stopping instead of going straight home, holding onto a piece of information. That a life can be saved or shattered by the smallest gestures is movingly illustrated in The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.

Set during the early stages of World War II when London is staggering under the relentless German bombing from the Blitz and America is teetering on the verge of entering the war, The Postmistress looks at how simple decisions change and connect the lives of three women. Frankie works for Edward R Murrow in London, reporting on how the bombing is affecting the people and their lives. Newlywed Emma Trask, just arrived in a small Cape Cod town, waits for her doctor husband, who has gone to London to volunteer. And the town’s postmistress, Iris James, holds onto a crucial piece of information that will impact all of them.

The scenes set in London and Europe are especially good; Blake brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of the Blitz where panic gradually gives way to resignation, and death is random and arbitrary. Frankie’s journey through Europe (as an American she is still able to travel through German-occupied countries) is tense and heartbreaking and terrifying. I felt that the parts of the book that are set in Cape Cod are not as strong – less action, less immediate – and that the ending suffered because of this. However, many readers felt differently; this book is worth reading to find out how you feel.

The title of this amazing book, full of incredible stories about women overcoming obstacles, is taken from an old Chinese proverb: “Women hold up half the sky.”  The authors, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, received the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, and I first saw their work featured on the Oprah show.  Their primary premise is that, “Throughout much of the world, the greatest unexploited economic resource is the female half of the population … Unleashing that process globally is not only the right thing to do; it’s also the best strategy for fighting poverty.”

Rather than tire the reader with boring statistics,  the authors wisely chose to illustrate their point by letting us “get to know” individual women.  Warning — the majority of these reports are very sad, even horrific at times, dealing with subjects such as sexual slavery, inequities in gender education, and maternal mortality.  However, each chapter is also followed by a success story, proving time and time again that one person can make a difference.

April 18-24 is National Volunteer Week; I can’t think of a better book to read for it than this.  Besides a plentitude of inspiration, the final chapter gives suggestions on “What You Can Do” with “Four Steps You Can Take in the next Ten Minutes.”  Step One?  Go to GlobalGiving or Kiva and open an account.