Life By Kristen

Go, and embrace your liberty. And see what wonderful things come of it. – Little Women

Archive for the category “Books”

American Girl

Awhile back I read this article about how many women don’t get rid of their American Girl dolls.

As a gal who grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, I was of course introduced to American Girl pretty early after their arrival on the book and doll market. I can’t recall how I was introduced to the lovely world of Felicity, Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly (the original 4- Addy and Josefina were added as I was ), but since I was a huge reader, the books came first for me and I plowed through them.

As the creators of American Girl also smartly created the dolls and a whole line of stuff to play to the hearts of the girls who fell in love with them, I had to have one of my own. I was enamored with the Kirsten doll because her name was so close to my own, as well as the fact her family was Swedish which was close enough to my ancestral background of being half Dutch. I was jealous of other friends who had more than one doll, but I didn’t love the stories of the other characters as much, though I’m sure the stories of Molly, the World War II era doll, likely influenced my later interest and studies in the period.

Since I work in the museum world,  I have found that many of my female colleagues who are in my age bracket had an American Girl doll or at least had read all the books. A few definitely thought their interests were related to their love of the brand, and I’m sure that’s at least a little bit true for me too.

As the company expanded its line of dolls and offerings, I got their magazine and other doll accessories, but aged out of the books and dolls by the time they started introducing more historic characters and books. When the original makers, The Pleasant Company, sold to Mattel, they became part of the doll powerhouse it is today with American Girl stores, increased line of doll offerings, and movies. I even applied for a job with Mattel a few years back to be a researcher for them as they were developing new historic characters, but sadly, didn’t even get an interview! I met a lady who worked for American Girl line within Mattel at a conference a few years ago and she confirmed for me it’s a really awesome job.

I have my Kirsten doll up in a bin in my attic and I don’t know if I’ll ever get rid of her ( though I think she could use a spruce up to get her braids done again properly). When ever I get around to the KonMari method of decluttering, the doll will definitely still “spark joy” and make me recall one of the loves of my childhood.

Advertisements

Debbie Macomber Books

If you don’t read light romance/feel good books, feel free to skip this post entirely while I get on my soap box for a minute!

I started reading and/or listening to Debbie Macomber books a few years ago when I wanted to feel a little holiday cheer at a time of year that’s usually pretty tough for me. The first year I read one of her books I also think I was trying to make my reading challenge number and her books usually clock in the under 200 pages range so are an easy 1-2 day read.

After reading 2 books of hers in a row this past holiday season, I think I’m done with Debbie.

First off, for a woman writing about women, I find some of her character choices to be judgmental against women. I remember in one from last year (Christmas Letters maybe?), there was this whole bit about how the main female character had put on pounds and needed to lose weight. I get that she’s likely trying to make her characters relatable to the main demographic who read her books, but little things like this really get to me because it was a pointless plot point that didn’t have anything to do with the narrative.

Some of the ways she portrays women and men in very stereotypical ways makes me wonder about Debbie and her lifestyle, views, and opinions. I read an interview where she talks about how being Christian informs her writing, which explains the ‘cutesy’ vibe of most of the romances–I think the most a “love scene” is a few kisses and hand holding. This makes most of the romance seem superficial to me- it’s fluff reading, but I find it hard to believe true love blossoms within a 3-day drive in the snow– or am I being cynical? Of course, some of this is because of the shorter format of many of her books, but she could definitely use the space to develop a relationship more instead of talking about superficial things like weight loss!

Obviously, millions of readers love her as she continues to turn out stories and tops the charts for sales. And of course, I don’t need to read her books and have already made an effort to note similar holiday-themed books and authors to check out next year.

Book Review: The Hollow Middle

Synopsis: The Hollow Middle follows Albert Lesiak, an aging English teacher in Connecticut, who receives a windfall in delayed acknowledgment of the government’s complicity in his father’s cancer death and decides that it is time to live a different life on land he owns in Maine.

When his wife Mary suggests that they could foster or adopt autistic twin boys she fell in love with on a website and could use the stipend money in furtherance of Albert’s vision, Albert gradually perceives himself as possibly adapting to the role of patriarch.

A meditation on the curiosity of making sense and the dilemma of becoming true, The Hollow Middle ambles, mostly, and goes still for periods of various duration, acting like it’s not beholden after all to the rhetorical.

My review: 3 stars.

I was interested in this book because it’s a man’s point of view on the musings of life, becoming a father, and living life on your own terms, even if they seem way out there. I also enjoy novels that look at the male perspective in making sense of various bits of life, so this seemed right up my alley.

I almost wish I’d read this book at a different time of year. It’s not a fast read and is chock full of musings and long chapters. During the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, combined with pregnant brain/feeling sick, I found it hard to settle in with the book and immerse myself in it.

The flip side of the novel being full is that you get a really nice understanding of the main character Albert and how he sees the world, makes decisions, and so on. I didn’t find him super likable at first, but as the plot evolved and changes come into his life, you really see how he evolves as a person. This is one of my favorite elements of reading- when a book has great character development and a narrative that pulls that in so that the people you’re reading about seem like someone you know, and often think about after you finish reading.

It was really interesting to read this book as I’m preparing for own big life change, as another great indicator of a book I like is how much it makes me think about my own life. This definitely had moments that gave me pause and a few phrases I even read aloud to Q that I thought pertained to us. Author John Popielaski has a great mastery of language and writing that I definitely enjoyed.

Buy the book! Learn more about the author here.

As part of the TLC Book Tour for this book, I was provided an advanced copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own. 

Book Review: Tony’s Wife

Set in the lush Big Band era of the 1940s and World War II, this spellbinding saga from beloved New  author Adriana Trigiani tells the story of two talented working class kids who marry and become a successful singing act, until time, temptation, and the responsibilities of home and family derail their dreams.

Shortly before World War II, Chi Chi Donatelli and Saverio Armandonada meet one summer on the Jersey shore and fall in love. Both are talented and ambitious, and both share the dream of becoming singers for the legendary orchestras of the time: Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman. They’re soon married, and it isn’t long before Chiara and Tony find that their careers are on the way up as they navigate the glamorous worlds of night clubs, radio and television. All goes well until it becomes clear that they must make a choice: Which of them will put their ambitions aside to raise a family and which will pursue a career? And how will they cope with the impact that decision has on their lives and their marriage?

From the Jersey shore to Las Vegas to Hollywood, and all the dance halls in between, this multi-layered story is vivid with historical color and steeped in the popular music that serves as its score. Tony’s Wife is a magnificent epic of life in a traditional Italian family undergoing seismic change in a fast paced, modern world. Filled with vivid, funny and unforgettable characters, this richly human story showcases Adriana Trigiani’s gifts as a storyteller and her deep understanding of family, love and the pursuit of the American dream.

 

My review: 4 stars.

Adriana Trigiani has done it again! Another masterful book that, through great detail and research, immerses you in a time and place that draws you in and leaves you wanting more. Trigiani is one of my must-read authors for new releases and I’m slowly making my way through her back list.

As a historian, I appreciate the way the author creates a narrative and characters that are appropriate for the time period they write- it’s clear Trigiani takes time to research the appropriate clothing, events, and music- which was especially important with this novel since the two main characters are aspiring (and then successful) musicians.

The reason I enjoy books like this is not just because of the historic settings, but because they books cover an expanse of time so you can truly get to know the characters, see how they develop, and understand the decisions that are made. This book starts in the late 1930s and ends in the early 2000s. This does make for a long book (this one clocks in at 320 pages), but since the dialogue always helps push the narrative forward, it rarely feels slow or that it drags on.

Tony’s Wife is a delight- I loved the music references, the love story, and of course, the big Italian families. It portrays the experience of so many women in the mid- 20th century very well ( and really now, despite changing society)– the struggle between career and ambitions against family and obligations. Chi Chi is a strong woman from the beginning and I appreciated how Trigiani helps the reader to understand her as a character, especially as she gets older and is forced into decisions she may have never thought she’d make 10 or 15 years earlier.

Buy the book!

As part of the TLC Book Tour for this book, I was provided an advanced copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Book Review: French Letters: Children of a Good War

Synopsis: Four decades after World War II, 1986 is a year of terrorist hijackings, of personal computers and CD players, of AIDS and Miami Vice. It also is a year in which a beloved doctor falls to his death, a Pan Am pilot is shot while trying to foil the takeover of Pan Am flight 73, and when four bitter French widows use their medicines as bets to play poker in their retirement home while a lonely nun observes her vows of silence in an Irish convent. And it is the year when a cache of faded letters is discovered in a cellar, causing Frank Hastings to realize that he is not who he believed he is, and to go in search of his mother.

***

My review: 3.5 stars.

This likely would have been a higher review for me but with life and work happenings ( including being at an exhausting work conference for 3 days), it took me longer than usual to read. I had a few days in between readings so found myself having to go back and remind myself what was going on- this isn’t a critique of the author, his writing, or the book, but more about where my brain was at for the past couple weeks.

The French Letter series is a new one to me, as is this author, but I agreed to review the book because of my interest in World War II.  Children of a Good War is the third book in the series, but I didn’t feel like I missed anything or was confused by characters, plot lines, etc. by not having read the previous two books ( though I did add them to my to-read list).

Without giving up too much of the plot, the story centers around Frank Hastings, a writer who is estranged from his brother Peter, a pilot. The two brothers come together after the death of their father (the doctor), and it is revealed that Frank’s mother is not the same as Peter’s. Letters from World War II are found and the mystery surrounding Frank’s mother, and his father’s time in France during the war are made known. There are other revelations about Peter too, and again without giving a lot away, both of the brothers are changed by what they learn of their parents and how they view themselves and their relationship with each other.

Part of the 3.5 stars for me aside from the time it took me to read was that there were a lot of different characters to keep track of, which didn’t help with my slow reading. The author is definitely creating a distinct and clear ‘universe’ in both the modern and historic timelines– it’s clear a lot of research and time went into crafting the novel with its details, subplots, and development. Some of the background helps inform the main narrative, but there were a few that left me feeling a bit clueless like I’d missed something. That being said, I appreciate novels where you can see the personal development, realizations, and self-discovery of a fictional character, so this book gets good marks for that.

Buy the book!

 

I was provided an advanced copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Julia Child, J.K. Rowling & Toni Morrison

Julia Child, J.K Rowling, Toni Morrison. Any guess what these women have in common?

Other than being huge for their contributions to society and culture, all three women earned their success, achievements, and fame later in life.

All three of them are my beacons of hope for achieving my dream of publishing a novel.

Julia Child (whose birthday today inspired this post) was only 32 when she went to French cooking school. Her groundbreaking cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking was not published until 1961 when she was 49 and her PBS show started just 2 years later.

J.K. Rowling was 36 years old when the first Harry Potter was released. Toni Morrison’s first book (The Bluest Eye) was published in 1970 when she was 39. She’s gone on to write many important novels and won a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize for Literature. Rowling and Morrison both wrote much of their first novels in the hours before they went to their day jobs.

I’m not saying I’m anywhere near close to the greatness of these three women. But they remind me that dreams never go away as you age. That things you want are worth fighting for and making priorities. I think of them when I even just spend 5 free minutes jotting down a plot idea or researching something for the novel ideas I have (which are many at this point).

In all the career exploration and deep thinking I’ve done as I try to figure out what’s next for my career, so many articles and pieces of advice say to think about what you wanted to do when you were a child. My answer, even for the short period of time when I wanted to be a doctor (until I found out I have a weak stomach for blood), always involved books and writing. I’m 35 and more clueless than ever about where I want to go in life with my career, but I know writing and publishing a novel is in me and that there is no time limit on achieving it. That’s where my mind wonders during the day and what I need to make time to do.

 

 

Summer Reading

There really isn’t a lot different for my reading in the summer than there is in the winter, except I try to keep it light and not too involved since I often read outside and get easily distracted.

My goal for reading this year is 80 books and as of today I’m just over halfway to my goal. I took Thursday and Friday off this week after the Wednesday holiday, so hoping to enjoy some lazy days reading.

This past month was a total of 8 books– almost made it 9, but I didn’t read as much as I thought I would this past weekend, so didn’t finish it before the calendar turned to July. For this month, I’m going to focus on reading from my Kindle and my personal bookshelf. Funny that even with Kindle, I’m not reading books I own!

Here’s a rundown of the books from June!

Educated– Tara Westover (audio)

Matchmaking for Beginners– Maddie Dawson (Kindle)

All We Ever Wanted– Emily Giffin (advanced reader copy)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (hardcover)

Number the Stars– Lois Lowry (Kindle)

Calypso– David Sedaris (audio)

The Dressmaker– Kate Alcott (hardcover)

Uncommon Type: Stories– Tom Hanks (audio)

The Sun is Also A Star– Nicole Yoon (hardcover)

Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows– J.K. Rowling (hardcover, borrowed from friend)

Little Women 150 Years Later

It’s hard to believe Little Women was written 150 years ago, and even harder to believe that so many of the issues that Louisa May Alcott wrote about are still things society is grappling with today. This AP article touches on some of these ideas, especially the idea of feminism and possible how Alcott would take the modern-day #MeToo movement.

I don’t remember the first time I read Little Women but it was definitely well before the 1994 film with Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon (among others) came out. It’s a book that’s resonated me throughout my life at different times and one of the few books I’ve re-read. In fact, I re-read the book in 2011 shortly after deciding to end my marriage, which is also the time I began blogging. The quote on my blog masthead from the book found me at the perfect moment in my life when I was trying to figure out what I wanted for my life and it’s something that has stuck with me ever since.

I think some of my affinity for Little Women is the independent spirit of Jo March, a quality I value and a characteristic I think applies to me in many part of my life. I also feel a bit of a fierce local pride for the Alcott family and other writers from Concord, MA. I was born at the hospital in Concord and we visited the town several times when I was growing up, taking day trips to canoe on the Concord River, visit historical sites related to the American Revolution, and walked around Concord’s adorable downtown. I’ve been to Orchard House, the Alcott family home, a few times, though it’s been many years since I’ve visited so I think a summer day trip is in order. I’m sure my perspective will change now that I work in the history field, but it will always hold a special place in my heart.

I still pick up my copy of Little Women to read from time to time, though I’m well overdue for a complete re-read of the book. While Jo will likely always remain my favorite character, I have come to have a new appreciation for the older sister Meg and feel more emotional over the death of Beth than I did as a young person reading the book. The 1994 film is still my favorite and I always watch during the holiday season, though it isn’t your typical Christmas film. The 1933 Katharine Hepburn version is quite good as well– and filmed at Orchard House. I’m ashamed to say I still haven’t watched the most recent PBS Masterpiece adaptation, but that will be remedied very soon!

 

A few of the actresses who have played Jo March

 

5 on Friday: Book Recommendations

Friday the 13th! Be careful for ladders, black cats, and other signs of superstition today!

4 months into 2018 and I’ve read 23 books out of the 80 reading goal for this year. Here are 5 books I’ve read this year I’d definitely recommend.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Not historical fiction in the traditional sense of the genre, but historical in that it follows one famous movie star over the years as she tells the story of her life and career to a journalist. I picked this up because I love depictions of old Hollywood, but this book is so much more than that. The main character Evelyn Hugo is complicated and dynamic, and it was not predictable in any way. I could barely put it down! 5 stars.

Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World by Ann Shen

A free Amazon Prime Kindle book that I grabbed while Q watched a horror movie that I knew I wouldn’t enjoy. As a person in women’s history, I was pleasantly surprised that there were so many women in this book that I had never learned about before. So many of their stories are fascinating, and it’s got me thinking about the many historical fiction ideas for my own writing based on some of these amazing females. I only gave this 4 stars because I thought the book could have included more diverse women.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

An audiobook listen, I chose this book because science/nature/space are mesmerizing to me, but also so outside of my realm of understanding it’s a little embarrassing. I never did well with science in school ( especially physics and chemistry) so I decided to listen to this to try to have a better understanding. Tyson’s documentaries and work with astrophysics is centered on trying to make it more palatable for the average person, and I so appreciate that. This short audiobook ( I listened within one commute week, so I think it was under 8 hours total) is narrated by Tyson, who has a great speaking voice. I will admit it gets 4 stars only because there was a whole section explaining protons, neutrons, and so on that totally made my head hurt and confused me more, but that’s my own personal shortcoming in the science realm and not a dig to Mr. Tyson!

Coming Clean: A Memoir by Kimberly Rae Miller

Another free Kindle book that I can’t remember quite when I downloaded it, but this memoir about living with parents who were hoarders was both fascinating and horrifying. 5 stars.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Is there anything more wonderful to a book lover than a book about a bookstore owner and the world he lives within? I devoured this book in almost one sitting and it was so heartwarming, charming, and lovely. 5 stars.

Book Review: A Piece of the World

Synopsis:  From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the smash bestseller Orphan Train, a stunning and atmospheric novel of friendship, passion, and art, inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s mysterious and iconic painting Christina’s World.

To Christina Olson, the entire world is her family farm in the small coastal town of Cushing, Maine. The only daughter in a family of sons, Christina is tied to her home by health and circumstance, and seems destined for a small life. Instead, she becomes Andrew Wyeth’s first great inspiration, and the subject of one of the best-known paintings of the twentieth century, Christina’s World.

As she did in her beloved bestseller Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline interweaves fact and fiction to vividly reimagine a real moment in history. A Piece of the World is a powerful story of the flesh-and-blood woman behind the portrait, her complicated relationship to her family and inheritance, and how artist and muse can come together to forge a new and timeless legacy.

***

My review: 4 stars.

I LOVED Orphan Train so I jumped at the chance to read this new title by Kline ( I have yet to read any of her backlist). As a museum curator, I like art, though am super picky about what I enjoy and seek out when I’m visiting museums on my own. Modern art is something I do enjoy and the work of Andrew Wyeth is quite interesting to me, especially since so many of his great paintings were done in Maine, so I feel a regional kinship to them.

I love the premise of this book- an imagining of a life and relationship between Wyeth and one of his frequently painted sitters, Christina Olson. It’s clear Kline did a lot of research on Olson and Wyeth, and the copious amount of googling I did while reading proved that she made sure actual facts were accurate and her creative spin on other aspects of Christina’s life were not far fetched or unbelievable.

I also think the book is a bit of a story of life in Maine as well- the descriptions of the seasons, farming, fishing were so beautifully written that I felt Kline was making the place another character too. I especially loved the references to ice harvesting as it something that was a big deal in New England that people often forget about ( I also did a lot of research on this for a previous job project).

What kept this from being 5 stars? I didn’t love the back and forth timeline between Christina’s back story and the current time period of the 1940s with Andrew Wyeth. I can see why the author used this technique as a way to build empathy and layered understanding for Christina’s life, but it didn’t quite work for me. Overall, I would definitely recommend A Piece of the World.

Buy the book!

As part of the TLC Book Tour for this book, I was provided an advanced copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Post Navigation