2015 in Books, October

I love October. It’s the perfect month for getting cozy under a blanket with a book while drinking a hot mug of tea. Heavenly, actually.

  • Specials by Scott Westerfeld
    • Specials is the third book in Westerfeld’s Uglies series. My best friends and I have a thing for young adult dystopian literature, and we pass series among ourselves as we discover them. It’s our thing, and the fact that we are squarely in the realm of “adults” now does little to dissuade us. I enjoyed reading the rest of Tally’s story, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy the fourth book just as much.
  • A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot that Shook the Nation One Year after the Civil War by Stephen V. Ash
    • And here we have another book that I read at the museum. One of the gallery redesigns that I am working on is about Memphis street life from 1915-1930. The background for this period is squarely found in the Memphis race riots of May 1866 and the Radical Reconstruction decade that followed (as well as the yellow fever epidemic). I knew the riots happened and that they were important in the city’s history, but I didn’t realize how much the issue of whiteness–who was and wasn’t white–came into play. Several members of the mob who attacked the black population were Irish, and Ash does an excellent job teasing out why that matters. If you like local history or are interested in Reconstruction, this book is an excellent addition to the historiography.
  • Seriously, You Have to Eat by Adam Mansbach
    • I received this children’s book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. Mansbach writes what many parents find themselves saying on a daily basis. The humorous take on a regular frustration was welcome, and my toddler enjoyed hearing the book read. Some of the rhymes are forced, but I enjoyed the spirit of the book nonetheless.
  • Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
    • I found this short collection of essays in my neighborhood Little Free Library. The one I liked the most was about “compulsive proofreading,” which I am guilty of doing. It’s partially an occupational hazard and mostly because I like catching written mistakes. Her reflections on books and reading also reminded me of the importance of being unashamed of your literary choices. Eclectic reading habits make for interesting readers.
  • Architecture: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Ballantyne
    • Another read for the museum. I’m working on panels about the mansion’s architecture and found myself in need of a very short primer.
  • A Widow for One Year by John Irving
    • John Irving is an interesting writer. I always know that a twist is coming, but his genius lies in not letting you know when it is going to happen or how completely you will have been misled.
  • Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
    • Rowell is the author I am most excited to have found this year. Her stories are fun and well written without trying to hard. This book was about wizards and gave me some Hogwarts nostalgia while being completely its own universe and story. What’s not to like?

2015 in Books, September

  • The Art of Museum Exhibitions: How Story and Imagination Create Aesthetic Experiences by Leslie Bedford
    • We somewhat jokingly have “Theory Thursday” in my department when my boss and I have our philosophical discussions about museum theory. I also try to read a couple of museum books a year both to stay current in my field and also to pull new ideas into my Introduction to Museum Studies class. I had a hard time getting interested in Bedford’s book, but the last chapter made the philosophical underpinnings of the other chapters worthwhile. Basically she suggests that exhibitions are both education and art, and visitors will re-imagine the story line in a way that resonates with them. Therefore, using exhibitions as aesthetic experiences is not about being didactic, it is about facilitating.
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
    • This behemoth of a novel is about the long tradition of English magic, the Napoleonic Wars, personality clashes and a really misguided and vindictive fairy. It took me about a hundred pages to get into the story because Clarke had to lay a lot of groundwork for her alternative history/fantasy to work. Once I made it that far in, though, I was thoroughly hooked. I highly recommend this novel to anyone who is a fan of thoughtful fantasy.
  • Walking on Air: The Aerial Adventures of Phoebe Omlie by Janann Sherman
    • Dr. Sherman’s work on Phoebe Omlie, an aviation pioneer and adoptive Memphian, is astounding. In her afterword, Dr. Sherman lays out just how much investigative research went into piecing together Phoebe’s remarkable life. I would guess that almost everyone knows about Amelia Earhart while very few remember her contemporary female fliers. I happened upon a newspaper article from 1936 that said Phoebe helped organize an exhibit at the Pink Palace about herself and her late husband Vernon, which is what got me down the path of learning more about her and figuring out how we can include part of her story in our new exhibits. This book is a well-researched biography that places Phoebe Omlie and the history of female aviators in a national context.
  • Pretties by Scott Westerfield
    • Pretties is the sequel to Uglies, the YA dystopian novel I read last month. It was an equally entertaining and fast read.
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
    • Rainbow Rowell has the wonderful ability to capture what a period of growing up feels like in a way that makes me remember being there myself. I am a giant nerd who found my people, and I know the relief that comes from knowing that you can be exactly who you are and be loved for that. This novel is a quick read that made me momentarily nostalgic for Harry Potter book release parties.

2015 in Books, July

Alright, the real reason I haven’t been reading as much these days is because I’m pregnant and have a toddler. The time I would normally spend reading–toddler’s nap time–is spent taking naps of my own. This first trimester is straight knocking me out. Still, as ever, I read.

  • Serenity: Better Days by Joss Whedon et al
    • I don’t usually read graphic novels. Not for any real reason, I just find that I generally gravitate towards other genres. However, as a massive fan of Firefly, I basically devoured this book. I loved getting to see my favorite characters in new story lines. If you were a fan of this sadly too short TV series, I highly recommend that you check out the graphic novels. They’re shiny.
  • Memphis Afternoons: A Memoir by James Conaway
    • “And once Harley left me sitting in the dark parking lot outside the Pink Palace, Memphis’s fusty old museum, while he climbed a drain pope, opened a window he had unlatched during visiting hours, and stole a nineteenth-century dueling pistol.” I can’t confirm that this actually happened, but I’m looking into it. Conaway also grew up across the street from my house, which made his memories of my neighborhood interesting to read. I expect to mine some of his material for my history column for our neighborhood newsletter. Could I be more of a historian?
  • Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
    • This novel is fantastic. I like fiction that is set during World War II, and this work is the first one I’ve read that took place in Greece during that period. What amazed me the most was how my perspective of the war changed along with the characters’ experiences. I never spent much time thinking about the differences between Nazis and Fascists or the individuals caught on the wrong side of history. I know this book is going to stay with me because of the questions and emotions it raised.

2015 in Books, May

Another month’s worth of reading:

  • Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America by John M. Berry
    • It took me from mid-March until the beginning of May to finish this behemoth. Berry wrote an exhaustive history of flooding on the Mississippi River, focusing his attention on the engineers who unwittingly created a problem, the 1927 flood, and the relief efforts. He shines specially attention on Greenville, MS, and New Orleans to show how the two cities were profoundly affected by the disaster. I knew that the flood was bad, but I did not understand the massive scale of the fallout or its profound impact on African American migration and national politics. I read this one at work in preparation for next summer’s Nature Unleashed exhibit.
  • Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
    • I’ve watched the Disney version of Peter Pan a few times and Hook a few times more than that, but this was my first time reading Barrie’s classic. It was sadder than I expected with children falling out of perambulators, tertiary characters dying and the focus on how the Darlings felt about their children disappearing. None of those elements come across in Disney’s takes, but I found that they are what make the story a classic.
  • Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis by Preston Lauterbach
    • Let me preface this review by saying that I met Preston in the archives at the public library when I was doing some Piggly Wiggly research and he was going through newspaper microfilm. He helped me track down some information about 1915-1930 Beale, which I have been researching for the new permanent exhibits at the Pink Palace. This book gave me everything that I needed to understand how this relatively small area came to be the base of African American culture and politics in the Delta. It is well researched, interesting to read and full of anecdotes that make the reading fun. If you’re from Memphis or want to learn about a large piece of the city’s soul, read it. You won’t be disappointed.
  • Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett
    • I thoroughly enjoyed Barnett’s take on rain, a topic I usually only consider when I desperately want it for my garden or to avoid it at an outdoor event. She approaches the subject with a mixture of science, environmental activism and cultural history. I think that she was at her best in her chapters on the recent drought in California and Colorado and the consequences of building in floodplains and historically drought-prone areas. Much like Mark Kurlansky, Barnett takes a broad topic and examines it in relation to multiple facets of science and human history. I received this book for the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.
  • The Water and the Wild by K.E. Ormsbee
    • This book was another from the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. The Water and the Wild is aimed at ages 8-12, but it is an entertaining fantasy read for adults as well. Ormsbee creates a world parallel to Earth that is inhabited by sprites, will o’the wisps and fanged beasts. Lottie, the main character, has to learn the rules of Albion while going on a quest with her new acquaintances to retrieve a cure for her best friend back on Earth. Many of the characters are multi-dimensional; however, Adelaide, one of the young sprites, quickly begins to sound redundant with her focus on refinement. Overall, Ormsbee’s book is a well-written world for young readers, which is why I passed it on to my appropriately aged cousins.

2015 in Books, February

I’ve been asked if I actually enjoy reading or if I just consume books. Frankly, I love everything about reading–the initial promise of the cover, the feeling of being wrapped in another person’s philosophy and emotions, the satisfaction of learning where these characters are going, and closing the book with the knowledge that it’s there if I ever want it again. I also go through phases with my reading. Sometimes I intersperse nonfiction and novels, other times I lean heavily to one side and abandon the other. On occasion, I will read one book at a time, but I usually have more than one going. Often I have a research  book underway at work, a novel that I left in the nursery, another book that I started so that I could have something to read and not wake up the toddler, and then one that I just got off of the library’s wait list on my Kindle. I also read very, very fast. Usually, I don’t skim or speed read, but I left graduate school with an incredibly fast reading pace. I had to unlearn how to “gut” books (read for the thesis and major supporting arguments and skim the examples), but I was ultimately left with the ability to read faster and deeper. Valuable skills, I can assure you.

I got poison ivy on my face this month, so I had a few days of binge reading while I tried desperately not to scratch my face. The steroid fueled read-a-thon also coincided with bad weather, which created a perfect storm of word absorbing.

    • Yes Please by Amy Poehler
      • Frankly, not as good as Bossypants by Tina Fey, but it was still a fun read. Poehler’s all over the place, but there are some great quotes that I had to highlight, among them, “I love my boys so much I fear my heart will explode. I wonder if this love will crack open my chest and split me in half. It is scary, this love.” Also, “A story carves deep grooves into our brains each time we tell it. But we aren’t one story. We can change our stories. We can write our own.” I can empathize.
    • Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng
      • I really enjoyed this novel set between the 1927 Mississippi River flood and the early 1940s. Cheng’s sentences are beautiful, and his story invokes a world that is at once distant and yet relatable through characters’ emotions. He also handles ingrained racism deftly. I will definitely pick up Cheng’s next novel, which I hope is not too long in coming.
    • Fever Season by Jeanette Keith
      • Sometimes I take forever to read a book. I’m pretty sure I started this one at least eight months ago as my eating-lunch-alone-at-work book. Thankfully, I don’t have to do that very often. Keith wrote about the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, and (like the best historians can do) she turned the historical actors into multidimensional people who helped or fled the city for a variety of internal and external reasons. She also does not shy away from gender or racial analysis. This book is a great compliment to Mary Caldwell Crosby’s American Plague about the larger scope of yellow fever epidemics. Speaking of Crosby…
    • The Great Pearl Heist by Mary Caldwell Crosby
      • What I like best about Crosby’s writing is the way she is able to make well researched facts read like the twists of a detective novel. She gives a glimpse of what 1913 London was like on the eve of World War I and tells a good story at the same time. Little Free Library win!
    • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
      • My LibraryThing secret santa sent me this novel in December. Since I had been hoping to read it ever since my coworkers gave it glowing reviews, I was pleasantly surprised to be gifted it. I loved it. Read it. You’ll be happy.
    • In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
      • I once again struck gold in the Pink Palace’s Little Free Library. This one was armchair travel at its finest; Bill Bryson combines tourist traps, history, trivia and endless amounts of driving into something more than I thought possible. There’s a reason people pay him money to go far away and write about it.
    • Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett
      • Meh.
    • The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
      • This book takes on North Korea as a setting with complicated results. Sad, but with staying power.