1927 was some kind of year

  • One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, 2013; Random House Audio narrated by the author)
  • In 40 words or less: 1927 was chock-a-block full of events that changed history. From May to September, Bryson weaves together economic, political and cultural upheavals that shaped the world as we know it. It can be comforting when contemporary events leave us shaken.
  • Genre: History
  • Locale: Primarily U.S.
  • Time: May to September 1927
  • This book has something for everyone. There’s sports, aviation, politics, industrialization and, yes, more politics. When one questions whether so much had ever changed so quickly, a well-written panoramic view of the times is very helpful.

I’d been meaning to read Bill Bryson’s book on the summer of 1927 for a while. The timing seemed ideal, this being the 90th anniversary of the events of that summer. On a personal note, my father was just days old when the book opens. What better way to get a sense of the America into which he was born. And for those of us trying desperately to temper today’s cataract of news with other information, listening to Bryson’s calm voice laying out the history was a fine choice.

Calvin Coolidge was president. The economy was strong, and industry was growing. Taking advantage of the good times, he chose to spend three months on an extended trip to South Dakota, channeling his inner cowboy.  At the same time, Herbert Hoover was dealing, on his behalf, with the results of catastrophic Mississippi River flooding that displaced thousands and disrupted river commerce. Hoover proved himself equal parts skilled manager and self-promoter in directing the relief efforts.

For many, 1927 is of note for Charles Lindbergh’s historic nonstop flight from New York to Paris.  Lindbergh was focused on the technology and the task at hand. Temperamentally a loner, he was ill-suited for the fame and interest his achievement brought. Bryson’s careful research synthesizes the information about the man, his single-minded attention to the flight, and the forces that shaped his later life and brief entry into politics.

This was summer that brought Al Jolson to the screen in the first broadly released talking picture. It transformed the entertainment business and made and broke many stars, and studio owners in the transition.
The newsreels of the day featured the New York Yankees, the dominating force in baseball.  This was the year that Babe Ruth set the mark for home runs with 60. While his feats on the field were famous, his off-field activities were also unmatched.

Based on these events alone, the book would be worthwhile. This was the summer that the Model A was introduced by Henry Ford, changing the automobile industry in America. Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death after a trial focused as much on their anarchist politics and immigrant origins as it was on the murder. And a titillating true crime story of adultery and murder was also in the headlines. The Dempsey-Tunney fight captured America well beyond the boxing world.

Finally, in a measure of hubris, the central banks of the US and its major allies put into place monetary policies that paved the way for the stock market crash that heralded the Great Depression.  It was a very busy summer.

Whether your preferred method of reading is paper, e-book or audiobook, Bill Bryson’s ability to interconnect all these events will carry through. Having an escort through all these aspects of history is rare indeed.  It is the kind of education most can only appreciate long after leaving the classroom.


Authors on the importance of writing and the worlds they create – Book Expo Part 2

After a day of travel and 5 miles on the conference floor, it took some energy to arrive back at McCormick Place in time for the 8 am Adult Book & Author Breakfast. I am so glad I did.

One lesson learned – humor that may fly at 8 pm with a glass of wine can fall flat at 8 am when the caffeine has yet to do its job.  Faith Salie,  a TV and radio journalist, and panelist on “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”, hosted the event and spoke first about her humorous memoir Approval Junkie. Her opening monolog was a mix of  intentionally bad publishing jokes and one-liners about her pursuit of a baby-daddy as she reached forty. When she finally segued to the importance of reading and writing throughout her life, Salie set the tone for the serious content to follow.

Colson Whitehead spoke next about The Underground Railroad, his upcoming novel that imagines this path to freedom as a physical railway traversing the country. It’s a book he’s been imagining for years and finally put to paper.  He described his journey, from a lowly staffer at The Village Voice more than two decades ago. And he told of how he “giggle-tested” the story line to see if the project was worth pursuing. In The Underground Railroad Whitehead confronts the issues and danger of that time in a story that may remind readers of Swift’s writings. I can’t wait to read my copy.

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I’ve been a huge Louise Penny fan for years. Her books are one of my go-to choices when I need to refresh my reading palate. A Great Reckoning is Penny’s latest mystery about the small village of Three Pines and Armand Gamache. She spoke about her childhood and the magic of books, showing her that anything was possible and that bravery, strength, and love could be found within. She shared that Gamache has been modeled on her husband, the former head of hematology at Montreal’s Children’s Hospital, a very caring man who had to see patients and their parents under the worst of circumstances. And then she told that over the last three years the husband she has known for decades has suffered from severe dementia, unable to walk, speak or recognize her. Each day begins with her reminding him he is strong, brave, handsome and loved. Louise Penny is clearly all those things as well.

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Were this not enough, the final author on the panel was Sebastian Junger. He came to fame most almost twenty years ago after writing A Perfect Storm. In 2010, his war documentary, Restrepo, about a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan came to the screen with widespread acclaim and awards. Out of this began a further study into PTSD, the importance of connections and belonging, the result of which is Tribe. The subject and his conclusions should bring about many conversations in the coming months.

It was a very good morning – informative and thought-provoking. From the four, I have literary fiction, mystery, nonfiction, and humor choices for any particular mood. And as I read them, I’ll keep you posted!



To review or not to review – here’s how I decide


If all someone knew about my reading habits is my posts, they’d think I like all the books I read.  Nothing could be farther from the truth. There are tens of thousands of books published each year and no one can read every book that may appeal.  Reading time is very precious to me and I’d rather read more and write less, so I need to be selective.

What I will review:

  • Titles that beg to be discussed with a group, both fiction and nonfiction.
  • New titles from a favorite author.
  • Quirky books that defy easy classification.
  • Books about readers and bookstores, a particular weakness of mine.
  • About-to-be published titles that I’ve read (and enjoyed) before reviews have appeared.
  • Backlist titles that deserve another reading.
  • Any book that I am ready to share with a stranger, let alone a good friend.

(For a quick look, check out the BOOKS page.)

What I usually won’t write about:

  • Books I finished but didn’t particularly enjoy. I’ll share my opinion if you ask about a specific title but it may be my attitude, not the quality of the book. After all, who am I to bash a popular debut novel just because I found it pedestrian?
  • Most of the books I read to cleanse my palate. Often these are mysteries or thrillers that I do enjoy but don’t stick with me once I’ve closed the book.
  •  Nonfiction where my underlying knowledge is limited.


So how do I find my books?

Long before major new titles hit the shelves, information begins appearing in trade newsletters and emails. There are many regular emails for readers as well, many of which offer the chance to win advance copies or to read a sample chapter online. For something different, I often read the book reviews and awards announcements from British or Canadian newspapers in addition to a number of US papers. Only a portion of well-received titles come across the borders. And wherever I am, I seek out independent bookstores and the professionals that work there. Each community has some of its own “hot reads” and often quality books by local authors. The local library and the library’s used bookstore also fill my plate. And I ask everyone I meet, “What are you reading?”

As a book group facilitator and blogger, I periodically receive upcoming titles that may be of interest. They arrive with no specific obligation on my part. Certainly, the publishers’ marketeers are thrilled to get an email or see a post that will put my small band of followers on the lookout for an upcoming book. And when a gem lands on my doorstep, I am happy to share the find.

Once published, it is difficult to judge a book entirely on its own merit. Often there have been newspaper/website/radio/blog reviews or ads. Your best friend/work colleague/book group buddy/significant other loved (or hated) it and can’t imagine you’d think otherwise. Word of mouth on the new “hot” book can spread far faster than the flu.

Often as not, an advance copy may just keep moving down my “to-be-read” pile, displaced as the time gets closer for a calendared book group selection or an author/topical favorite that appeared in the mail. Sometimes, it is just a matter of the right book at the right time. Recently, work with a new book group provided the perfect opportunity to finish and discuss My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet.

So, my to-be-read pile continues to grow and with it books I may write about someday. But what is most important to me is that we continue to read and share books, over coffee, in a group or across continents via the web. In the beginning there were stories. And through stories we can better understand our world and imagine worlds beyond.





2017 UPDATED: A Book + Dad + You = A Great Gift

happy-fathers-day-facebook-timeline-cover1When I was growing up, books and reading were always very important. Like many other fathers, my dad spent long hours at work and volunteered in the community.  He read the local newspaper daily but much of his other reading was reports and minutes and quotes and diagrams.

While he still spends lots of time volunteering and reading reports, Dad dedicates time each day to reading for pleasure. An engineer by training and methodical to a fault, his reading tastes are now rather eclectic. Dad reads memoirs and mysteries, histories and titles with a touch of fantasy. His willingness to read outside the box is delightful and gives us many opportunities to talk about topics that otherwise wouldn’t come up.

With my father in mind, here are some titles that your father or another important person in your life might like to receive this Father’s Day. No need to worry about size or color, and there’s no ugly tie involved. Love you Dad!

If you don’t have a local independent bookstore, consider choosing to support one in another community when you shop online. Many will also give advice and take orders over the phone. Find one at www.indiebound.org. Continue reading 2017 UPDATED: A Book + Dad + You = A Great Gift

History, One Character at a Time: Nonfiction

Flyover commemorating the 70th anniversary of VE Day, May 8, 2015. View from the grounds of the Washington Monument.

Seventy years ago on May 8, 1945, the European portion of World War II finally came to an end. By the time I was in a high school history class, twenty-five years later, the presentation of this period was relegated to a series of alliances and dates. That the fathers of classmates were genuine heroes was never mentioned – they moved on to start careers and build families.  Others’ parents, grandparents and relatives had fled Europe as the Nazis rose.  Some came to the US after the war, bearing emotional and physical scars.  That, too, remained unspoken for the most part except possibly in whispers outside the earshot of the children.

So I admit with some embarrassment that it has taken me decades to develop a richer understanding of this period, with all its complexities. The lengthy enumeration of dates and battles that marks many a history tome was a real turn off. It’s the explosion of character-driven historical narratives and well-researched historical fiction that have piqued my curiosity. Continue reading History, One Character at a Time: Nonfiction