Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review: Ida M. Tarbell

Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business--and Won! by Emily Arnold McCully. Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2014. Library copy.

It's About: Ida M. Tarbell, born in 1857, who became one of the first American journalist and also helped found investigative journalism. Her noteworthy articles included a biography of Abraham Lincoln, and an expose of John D. Rockefeller and his company, Standard Oil Trust.

The Good: I really enjoyed learning about Ida M. Tarbell, whose name seemed vaguely familiar from history class.

I was impressed with Ida's many accomplishments and the things she did -- starting with her love of the sciences, attending a co-educational college, her start in journalism, traveling to Paris, freelancing, and then joining the staff of McClure's Magazine, where she wrote her most memorable articles.

One of the things that struck me is how matter of fact it was, how "of course this is what Ida is going to do" it was. While Ida was a pioneer, her story is also a reminder that her life, while not typical of the time, was also just that -- her life. She, with other women, did go to college. She, as others did, created a career, lived away from her family, traveled to Paris, working, having her own home.

I confess: that part of Ida's life, the pre-McClure part, fascinated me the most. I wanted to know more about those things, and those people in her life.

Of course, then, there is Ida's actual journalism, a career she came to sort of sideways. She began loving science, thought she'd be a teacher, and found herself working as an editor at a magazine. It wasn't until her early thirties and her trip to Paris that her work as a journalist really began. So, you can see all the reasons I kept turning the pages -- here, a women in the nineteenth century, having multiple careers. Pursuing her dreams. Living her life on her terms.

One cannot make generalizations about people: for all of Ida's accomplishments, which resulted from drive and determination, she had what seems to be mixed feelings about women's suffrage and equality. McCully explores this area in detail, noting that Ida's being against women getting the vote is probably one of the reasons she is a bit forgotten. What struck me was how modern, actually, Ida's beliefs were: I could easily imagine her in the present, being someone explaining how she didn't need feminism and wasn't a feminist because look at what she accomplished, on her own, and if she did it anyone can so stop with the feminism already.

I would like to learn more about Ida, and her life -- always a good sign in a biography, being left wanting more! I wonder if the things I want to know more about are things that McCully didn't cover because of length (this is a long, detailed biography) or if it's because there aren't the source documentation to answer the questions. For example, I wanted to know more about Ida's unnamed roommates during her 20 but imagine that was left out because of space. I also was curious as to Ida's relationships with her family and those family dynamics. Ida loved her father dearly, and ended up being the main provider to her mother, sister, brother, and brother's family. And yet certain things here left me asking for more and wondering things like whether her father was as wonderful as she painted him, for example. Is that not explored more because of space? Or because there is very little surviving from that time that would fill in the gaps about Ida's family?

Being left with questions, wanting more -- excellent. Learning more about Ida M. Tarbell, and also about what it was like for a woman pursuing a career over a hundred years ago? Even better. I'm so happy that this is a finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award! I read it because it was a finalist, and I'll be chatting it up because it's a finalist.




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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Review: Home Cooking

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (Vintage Contemporaries) by Laurie Colwin. Illustrations by Anna Shapiro. Personal copy: Vintage, 2010. Originally published in 1988.

It's About: Part memoir, part cook book.

The Good: I read Colwin's Happy All the Time around when it first came out -- and it's stuck with me all these years. Since I was only in early high school at the time I read it, I thought that Happy All the Time, and Laurie Colwin herself, was my book, my discovery. While I bought a new copy when Vintage did its 2010 reissues, I still haven't brought myself to read it: would it be as perfect as I remember? Would it be as meaningful?

For how I read then, in high school and later, and well, for various reasons, despite loving that book I didn't read other Colwin titles. The good news about that is that now I can read them.

Home Cooking is a like a wonderful visit with a friend, making dinner and having laughs with a bottle of wine. It makes me hungry from the recipes; it makes me feel capable, because Colwin presents them as if they were easy to make. Her first kitchen, her first resources, are small and simple, making it that much more accessible to any reader. There's also an emphasis on fresh ingredients - seriously, it's as if were written today.

I also want to track down a copy of The Taste of America by John and Karen Hess.

Of course, the best way to show how this book is like hanging out with a friend is to highlight a few passages:

"Some diehards feel that to give a dinner party without a starter is barbaric. Mellower types want to get right down to the good stuff and not mess around with some funny little things on a small plate. Some hosts and hostesses are too tired to worry about a first and a second course and wish they had called the whole thing off."

"After you have cooked your party dinner six or seven times, you will be able to do it in your sleep, but your friends will be bored.You will then have to go in search of new friends..."

I now have to read More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen -- but I don't want to, not yet, because I still want to be looking forward to reading it.

Links about the amazingness of Home Cooking:

Laurie Colwin: A Confidante in the Kitchen by Jeff Gordinier, The New York Times; "there is something about her voice, conveyed in conversational prose, that comes across as a harbinger of the blog boom that would follow."

Decades Later, Laurie Colwin's Books Will Not Let You Down by Maureen Corrigan, NPR.

Because my "favorite books" list is about when I share it on the blog, not when it was published or when I read it (technically, this was during vacation last September), this is a Favorite Book of 2015.





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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Review Round Up

I'm behind in reviews, so I'm doing a few round ups of titles -- better a couple paragraphs than nothing!

Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper. Little, Brown. 2014. Reviewed from ARC.

Salt and Storm is set in an alternate 1860s, where witches and magic are real. Avery is the granddaughter of the witch of Prince Island, and should have been trained and raised to be the next witch. Except, her mother -- who refuses to have anything to do with magic or witchcraft -- drags Avery away from her grandmother and forbids her to see her. At sixteen, Avery is trying to escape her mother's control and claim her inheritance.

What I liked most about Salt and Storm is that Avery wasn't aware of the full picture. She knew what she knew, believed she had the full picture, believe she knew the real story about the witches of Prince Island. She thought she knew herself, but it turns out things aren't what she thinks they are. Which means what she wants isn't what she thinks it is. I also like the historical information in here, about life on nineteenth century islands.

The Raven Cycle #3: Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic, 2014. Review copy from publisher. Sequel to The Raven Boys (Book 1) and The Dream Thieves (Book 2).

This continues the story of the search in Virginia for a missing Welsh king. The searchers are prep school students Richard Gansey III (the driving force behind the search), his friends Adam Parrish, Ronan Lynch, and Noah Czerny, and local girl Blue Sargent.

By the events of Blue Lily, Lily Blue, I'm not going to lie: it's complicated. There are a mess of characters, plus the search, plus the issues that the characters are dealing with in the present. Gansey is driven by his search; Ronan discovered dangerous family secrets, including his own ability to pull things out of dreams into the real world; Adam is a scholarship student with the drive for more and a serious, well earned chip on his shoulder. Noah has his own issues.

And Blue: Blue is from a family of psychics, without any real power herself, and with a curse upon her: her kiss will kill her true love. And since she's falling hard for Gansey, and since one of her aunts foresaw Gansey's death, it's, well, messy. Like life. Now take life and add in magic and history, myth and legend.

Readers know that I like when teen books have interesting adult characters: well, this has them and then some. The enigmatic Mr. Gray -- I mean, how often is a hired killer so sympathetic and likable? (And yes, I keep picturing him as Norman Reedus). Blue's mother has disappeared, but this allows other adults to move center. And Mr. Gray's boss also enters into the picture. It's not just magic and myth that is a danger.

The only frustration with Blue Lily, Lily Blue is there is still one more book in the series. So while the adventure moves forward, and questions are answered, there's still so much more to find out!


The Iron Trial (Book One of Magisterium) by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. Scholastic. 2014. Review copy from publisher.

The Iron Trial starts a series set in the modern world, where magic is real -- but hidden. Twelve-year-old Callum's father has done everything possible to keep Callum away from this world. Call is supposed to do everything possible to fail his entrance tests to the Magisterium, a school of magic hidden in the United States. Instead, Call finds himself in the Magisterium, studying magic, and finding out his father hasn't been totally honest with him. Magic isn't the big, dangerous, evil he's been told about.

Most of this book is the "forming" part of an adventure story: Call discovering the truth about magic, that it's not a simple matter of good or evil, and Call forging friendships and allies (and sometimes enemies and frenemies) with his fellow students. He also has to study magic, and it's not all fun and games -- it's also hard work. (And, well, fun. Because magic!)

Part of what Call learns about are some epic battles from over ten years before, including those who fought on the good side and the bad side. (Magic is neither good nor bad, but those who practice it -- they fall on those two sides.) Call is sometimes frustratingly ignorant about magic and his own family's connection to it, but it works for the book -- the reader learns as Call learns.

The ending of the book -- oh, the ending! Personally, I felt as if the story was just truly beginning with the ending, and that the real story will be next year, now that the reader, and Call, has the full knowledge of what is going on. Or do we know as much as we think?



















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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Nonfiction Reviews

Two of the finalists for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin. Roaring Brook Press. 2014. Review copy from publisher.

The Port Chicago 50 tells a story that I was not familiar with -- actually, many stories I was not familiar with. The Port Chicago 50 are fifty African American sailors accused of mutiny in the aftermath of the Port Chicago disaster. I don't want to go into the details of the disaster or the mutiny accusations or the aftermath -- read the book!

The story of these fifty men is not just about allegations of mutiny and these fifty individuals; it is also bout the segregation of the Navy and other armed forces before and during World War II and the efforts to end it. It's about just what it meant, to have segregated troops, and institutionalized racism both within and without the armed forces. Segregation and racism, and the actions at Port Chicago and by the sailors, cannot be viewed in isolation of each other.

Laughing at My Nightmare by Shane Burcaw. Roaring Brook Press. 2014. Review copy from publisher.

Burcaw's memoir, based on his tumblr of the same name, is a humorous look at his life with spinal muscular atrophy. It's told in short, episodic chapters -- while it's roughly chronological in order, it doesn't have to be read in order or even all at once. This structure is both a weakness and a strength: those wanting an in depth, detailed examination will be disappointed. But, that's looking for this bok to be something it isn't. It is, instead, a funny, hilarious look at life. And that is it's strength: the short chapters means it's easy to read, and also easy to read over an extended period of time. A few chapters here, a few chapters there, is, a think, the best way to approach Laughing at My Nightmare.

While Burcaw's memoir is uniquely about his own experiences, it's also universal. Starting middle school, worrying about making friends, anxious about a first kiss -- Burcaw isn't the first person to worry about these things. Burcaw is funny and blunt: he knows teen readers will wonder "but how does he go to the bathroom?" and so he addresses those questions. And the humor is such that will appeal to a lot of teen readers.






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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
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