The Book Beat - March 21, 2021
Happy Spring, book friends! It's still a bit chilly here, but I'm loving seeing the flowers start to bloom and being able to read outside (wrapped in a blanket, of course)!
There are so many literary quotes about spring (trust me, I have a journal full of them!). I think spring endears such eloquent words because it reflects a very basic human idea: rebirth. And how many books focus on that? Whether it's the Bible, a romance about a woman finding love again after tragedy or divorce (Evvie Drake Starts Over), a literary fiction book about survival over horrific childhood circumstances (This Tender Land), a memoir (heck, ALL memoirs over this theme!), etc. This trope is, I'd wager, one of the most famous in literature AND life. Suzanne Collins says it so wonderfully in Mockingjay: "What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again."
And, if any experience has caused a need for a rebirth...a revamp...a refresh, it's a year-plus of a pandemic, right? Spring has sprung, and so has the opportunity for the rebirth of YOUR human spirit. I hope you grab it...and maybe, just maybe, you'll find some inspiration in a book.
Books By AAPI
(Asian-American and Pacific Islander) Authors
Speaking of reframing things--this week, I've also been thinking a lot about the power of words. As readers, we *love* words. Particularly when they're composed by a writer in such a way that they create an engrossing story with vivid characters in gorgeously described settings. Characters who are living through enlightening storylines filled with intrigue, conflict, romance, or humanity. Mere words, in the hands of a writer who can mold them into an engrossing story, are very powerful things.
Words also have an enormous amount of power in real life. We were tragically reminded of that this past week by the murders in Atlanta. Whether it was evil motivated by stereotype or by specific phrases or words that have proliferated in the American discourse with negative connotations--words and how people interpret and use them to communicate can lead to both good--and horrible--things. Think about it. How many actions (good or bad) by people in this country and across the world are motivated by their interpretation of the words of the Bible or their religious text of choice? SO many.
In the spirit of the idea of reframing, I offer this list of books by AAPI authors. It's two years old, but there are some great books on here. Here's another one, too, that's more recent and specifically geared towards narratives focusing on the Asian-American experience. I listened to the audiobook of All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung. It's wonderful and very enlightening. She describes her experience as a transracial adoptee. Put up for adoption by her Korean parents, she was adopted by a white couple from Oregon. She talks about her upbringing and how even, as lovely as her adopted parents were, she still felt out of place and curious about her Korean heritage.
As I've always said, reading books about themes or by authors outside your worldview, experience, or culture does wonders to help you put yourselves in other people's shoes. In the spirit of spring, let's refresh some stereotypes by learning about the very real and expansive differences inherent in all races, ethnicities, and cultures that make up our collective humanity. Or, as my fictional buddy Ted Lasso says, "Be curious, not judgmental."
Dolly Parton: Comic's Newest Star
Now, lest I get too preachy here, let's take time to discuss some down-home fun: Dolly Parton is getting her own comic book! Dolly, one of The Book Beat's Patron Saints of Books, will be the next female featured in Female Force comics, an imprint that features women who've had a strong impact on the world. She joins past subjects, including Tina Fey, Mother Theresa, Cher, and Gloria Steinem.
It's 22-pages long, which frankly seems too short to include all Dolly has done. Singer, songwriter, musician, actress, author, amusement park owner, book philanthropist, Covid vaccine investor, record producer, etc. She's amazing and it's about time she was immortalized in a colorful, fun showcase like this.
From Songwriting to the Nobel Prize in Literature: Kazuo Ishiguro
Beloved author Kazuo Ishiguro caused me to do a double-take recently when he said in an article, "Write what you know is the stupidest thing." What? The mantra EVERY writing instructor and author has told me to treat like Gospel? It's not how a Nobel Prize winner does it? The other piece of advice? He only writes when he wants to and sits down and gets it done. No laboring years over a story. No procrastinating madly like most writers are famed for doing. Instead, this author--who said he wrote Remains of the Day in one month--is a man who originally wanted to be a songwriter, but came upon writing award-winning novels when that goal didn't pan out. This article was a real eye-opener for me! I haven't read his new book yet, but it sounds terrific:
Klara and the Sun, the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her.
Klara and the Sun is a thrilling book that offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and one that explores the fundamental question: what does it mean to love?
In its award citation in 2017, the Nobel committee described Ishiguro's books as "novels of great emotional force" and said he has "uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world."
Women's History Month Spotlight:
Elizabeth Jane Cochran, better known as Nellie Bly, was a woman of many talents. Most importantly? Journalist.
Born in 1864 in a suburb of Pittsburgh PA, Nellie wore so much pink as a child that her nickname was Pinky. As she got older, she felt the nickname was too unsophisticated, so she ended up dropping it and changing her surname to Cochrane. After only one semester at the Indiana Normal School (later the Indiana University of Pittsburgh), she had to drop out due to lack of funds (she was one of 15 children).
After reading a column in The Pittsburgh Dispatch called "What Are Girls Good For?" (it said that girls were good for having kids, keeping house, and little else) she wrote a passionate rebuttal under the pen name "Lonely Orphan Girl." The editor, George Madden, was so intrigued he put out an ad trying to find out the identity of the author. After she contacted him, he asked her to write an article, again under the pseudonym, "Lonely Orphan Girl." Her article, "The Girl Puzzle," spoke to how divorce affected women and advocated for a reform to divorce laws. Madden was so impressed, he offered Elizabeth a job. At the time, women journalists wrote under pseudonyms, so Madden chose "Nellie Bly" for Elizabeth, since it was the character in a Stephen Foster song. Madden spelled it wrong--Nellie instead of Nelly--but the misspelling endured.
As a pioneer in her field, Nellie took journalism to new heights by being the first to engage in serious investigative journalism. While at the Dispatch, she reported on the horrific conditions and treatment that women factory workers were subjected to, so much so, that factory owners complained and Nellie was moved to a more palatable beat: fashion, society, and gardening. She then traveled to Mexico for six months as a "foreign correspondent," and reported on Mexican life, including the imprisonment of a local journalist by dictator Porfirio Diaz. Mexican authorities threatened Nellie with arrest and she fled back to the U.S.
After once again being put on a lifestyle beat, Nellie left the Dispatch and moved to New York City. She talked her way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and agreed to go undercover in the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island, now Roosevelt Island. Nellie did not shy away from immersing herself in the role of portraying a mental patient. After ten days of living in horrific conditions, she was released at the World's request. Her expose, Ten Days in a Madhouse, was a sensation, prompting reform at the asylum (and an eventual movie!).
Nellie wasn't finished making waves. She literally circumnavigated the globe (with one dress, one coat, a few pairs of underwear, toiletries, and some money) in 80 days as part of a reporting project for NY World. After marrying an older man who owned the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company, she ended up running it after he died, even instituting worker-focused amenities like health benefits and recreational activities. Unfortunately, her inability to handle the finances and embezzlement of funds by a manager, caused the company to go bankrupt. While working there, she invented both a novel milk can and the stacking garbage can.
She worked as a foreign correspondent during World War I and covered the Woman Suffrage Procession in 1913 for the New York Evening Journal. Bly passed away from pneumonia at the age of 57 in 1922. Wow. What a life!
What I Read This Week...
Carnegie's Maid by Marie Bennett - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
I enjoyed this book! I'll have a longer review later, but the "reimagining history" through fiction is one of my favorite genres and this one does a great job doing that.
The fictional Clara Kelley is the maid of Andrew Carnegie (a generous philanthropist, particularly for libraries). An immigrant from Ireland, she seems to find disagreeable people at every turn, except the Carnegie's butler.
Bennett weaves a fictional yet engaging tale about the women who could have been behind the inspiration for Carnegie's philanthropic endeavors.
It's Been a Pleasure, Noni Blake by Claire Christian - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
This gem of a book is funny, relatable, romantic, steamy, and inspiring. It features Noni Blake, one of those characters who grabs your heart and never lets go.
Devastated after her 9-year relationship with girlfriend Joan has ended, Australian Noni takes a six-month journey of self-discovery in Europe. On the menu? Whatever (or whomever) she wants. The only rule? Do what brings her pleasure, self-recrimination and the opinions of others be damned.
I loved this one. Noni is like Eleanor Oliphant, Bridget Jones, or Queenie Jenkins. A vibrant, human character who you relate to as you root for her to be happy. Someone needs to make this into a Netflix series, because I need to see Noni (and Lil and Beau and Lindell, and Naz and every other wonderfully engaging supporting character) in bold, living color.
What I'm Reading Now...
Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour
The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner
Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiney
Book Snaps of the Week!
Cover of the Week:
The Firekeeper's Daughter
by Angeline Boulley
Moses Lunham, acclaimed artist of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, created the stunning art on the cover of Angeline Boulley's debut YA novel, The Firekeeper's Daughter. I've spoken about Angeline in a previous column. How an inspiring tweet by her--celebrating her publication success at 54--invigorated me about my own writing ambitions. I was so thrilled to finally get my hands on this gorgeous book this week.
In a virtual book-tour event, Boulley revealed that she told her publisher she wanted a First Nations artist, preferably Ojibwe, to design the art for the jacket. This interesting article speaks about Moses's process for creating this bright, bold cover. The commission came just in time, too. As the coronavirus spread across his native home of Canada, his usual source of income-- school presentations and workshops--were all canceled.
Moses adapted elements of the Woodland School of Anishinaabe art, created by famed artist Norval Morrisseau, to design this image based on the book's narrative. Since the woodland art is a storytelling art, Moses felt it was the perfect form to adapt for a book cover. The story's main character, Daunis Fontaine, has father whose family name is Firekeeper. Moses started with the image of a Sacred Fire, from which a raven, bear and eventually, a butterfly emerge, all representing parts of Daunis's journey throughout the book (the article linked above has a more explicit description from the artist himself). The dual faces of Daunis in the butterfly's wings represent her American side, dueling with her Ojibwe side.
Again, it's so fascinating to learn the stories behind these covers! Additional articles about Moses and this cover, as well as a write-up on the novel, are below. To the left, I shared additional character artwork he created for an Instagram promotion for the book.
Also, one more thing, if you're an "adult," don't be scared to pick up a YA book! There are some AMAZING ones out there nowadays and you're truly missing out if you don't give one a try.
Eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. She dreams of a fresh start at college, but when family tragedy strikes, Daunis puts her future on hold to look after her fragile mother. The only bright spot is meeting Jamie, the charming new recruit on her brother Levi’s hockey team.
Yet even as Daunis falls for Jamie, she senses the dashing hockey star is hiding something. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into an FBI investigation of a lethal new drug.
Reluctantly, Daunis agrees to go undercover, drawing on her knowledge of chemistry and Ojibwe traditional medicine to track down the source. But the search for truth is more complicated than Daunis imagined, exposing secrets and old scars. At the same time, she grows concerned with an investigation that seems more focused on punishing the offenders than protecting the victims.
Now, as the deceptions―and deaths―keep growing, Daunis must learn what it means to be a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) and how far she’ll go for her community, even if it tears apart the only world she’s ever known.
Have a great, sunny week! Happy reading!