Review: A Good American by Alex George

good americanFormat read: print book provided by the publisher
Formats available: Hardcover, Paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: Historical fiction
Length: 400 pages
Publisher: Putnam
Date Released: February 7, 2012
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository

An uplifting novel about the families we create and the places we call home.

It is 1904. When Frederick and Jette must flee her disapproving mother, where better to go than America, the land of the new? Originally set to board a boat to New York, at the last minute, they take one destined for New Orleans instead (“What’s the difference? They’re both new“), and later find themselves, more by chance than by design, in the small town of Beatrice, Missouri. Not speaking a word of English, they embark on their new life together.

Beatrice is populated with unforgettable characters: a jazz trumpeter from the Big Easy who cooks a mean gumbo, a teenage boy trapped in the body of a giant, a pretty schoolteacher who helps the young men in town learn about a lot more than just music, a minister who believes he has witnessed the Second Coming of Christ, and a malevolent, bicycle-riding dwarf.

A Good American is narrated by Frederick and Jette’s grandson, James, who, in telling his ancestors’ story, comes to realize he doesn’t know his own story at all. From bare-knuckle prizefighting and Prohibition to sweet barbershop harmonies, the Kennedy assassination, and beyond, James’s family is caught up in the sweep of history. Each new generation discovers afresh what it means to be an American. And, in the process, Frederick and Jette’s progeny sometimes discover more about themselves than they had bargained for.

Poignant, funny, and heartbreaking, A Good American is a novel about being an outsider-in your country, in your hometown, and sometimes even in your own family. It is a universal story about our search for home.

My Review:

A Good American by Alex George is one of the quintessential, utterly and wondously American stories. It’s the schmaltzy Neil Diamond classic, Coming to America, played loud and proud in Fred’s Diner in Alex George’s Midwestern American town of Beatrice, Missouri.

A Good American is the story of one family, the Meisenheimers from Hanover, Germany who come to the U.S. in 1904. And yet, the cadence of the story is every family’s story.

And that’s what drew me in. James Meisenheimer is telling the story of his grandparents. Not just how they came to America, but why. The hopes and dreams they came with, and the dreams they left behind.

The dramas and the heartbreaks that faced the first generation who came to America, in search of a better life for themselves, or at least for their children, and how well that worked, or how much they had to give up when it didn’t.

How their compromises affected the next generation, and the next. Those “good Americans” they gave birth to in this new country that they found themselves in.

We like to say that America is a nation of immigrants. All of us have stories like these behind us. For some of us, those stories are close. James story felt like, not just the story of his family, or the story of America. It didn’t feel distant, or fictional, or historic.

It felt like my history and my history. Because, in a way, it is.

Escape Rating A: Part of my fascination with A Good American was that I could hear my own voice telling some of these stories. Not the exact same ones, but the same type of stories. Like the fictional James, all four of my grandparents were European immigrants, and they all came to the U.S. in the early 1900s. Unlike James, my family did not come for romance, they came to the U.S. for much more prosaic reasons.

But reading this story brought back memories of my grandparents and their lives, and family secrets that weren’t revealed until I was an adult–one almost as surprising as the one James discovers in the book. Sometimes it seems as if families are made up of their most colorful individuals, and the secrets in the dark.

History, on the other hand, is made up of all of us, living our lives, and all of our families contributing their bits to the tapestry. We don’t know what pieces the ones who come after us will find interesting or amusing.

We all have our parts to sing.

blogher logo***Disclaimer: I was compensated for this BlogHer Book Club review but all opinions expressed are my own.

Review: Reflected in You by Sylvia Day

Format read: Trade paperback provided by the publisher
Formats available: Trade Paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: Contemporary romance, Erotic romance
Series: Crossfire #2
Length: 432 pages
Publisher: Berkley Trade
Date Released: October 23, 2012
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository

Gideon Cross. As beautiful and flawless on the outside as he was damaged and tormented on the inside. He was a bright, scorching flame that singed me with the darkest of pleasures. I couldn’t stay away. I didn’t want to. He was my addiction… my every desire… mine.

My past was as violent as his, and I was just as broken. We’d never work. It was too hard, too painful… except when it was perfect. Those moments when the driving hunger and desperate love were the most exquisite insanity.

We were bound by our need. And our passion would take us beyond our limits to the sweetest, sharpest edge of obsession…

Most reviewers are going to talk about the sex. And yes, there’s a lot of it.

The main characters in Reflected in You, (and in the first book in the Crossfire series, Bared to You) are both survivors of sexual abuse. Eva was abused by her stepbrother for four years, from when she was ten until the age of fourteen, when she had a miscarriage. Nathan, shamed her into keeping it a secret from her mother and his father. She was ten, she was a child.

Eva still has nightmares and she’s still recovering. She probably always will be. But she’s healing.

Whatever happened to Gideon, we don’t know. But he was definitely sexually abused by someone in some way. He just won’t talk about it. He certainly has the nightmares to prove it happened. The one thing that is clear is that no one believed him at the time. Not even his parents.

Unlike Eva, Gideon was betrayed by the adults who should have stood by him without question.

This is the crucial difference. Eva does trust some people. She has a damn hard time trusting men in relationships. Those go wrong for her. And she sabotages them because her history confuses sex and trust and pain in a lot of understandable ways.  But she does know how to have other kinds of relationships that involve love and trust.

Gideon doesn’t.

Reflected in You is the angst book. Everything in their relationship seems to be going wrong. These two broken people are addicted to each other. Emotionally and very definitely sexually. They seem to need to be together to be functional.

Except that Gideon has always kept secrets. He can’t or won’t tell Eva much about himself, and certainly nothing about what happened to him. Then he pulls away from her. Almost completely.

And Eva spends a good bit of the book going not so quietly nuts. She learns to function. She does her job and starts healing all over again. But we see a lot in her head and it’s an extremely angsty place.

It’s only at the end of the book that we find out why Gideon pulled away, and what he was taking care of while he was emotionally offstage and driving Eva crazy.

And the story ends in the middle of Gideon just barely beginning to finally tell his story to Eva. Just barely beginning to tell. And then it ends.

Escape Rating B: Reflected In You spent way too much time angsting and not nearly enough time doing things. Most of the book followed Eva dealing with the shock of Gideon pulling away from her. While it was important for her psychological health, it wasn’t as fascinating as what Gideon was actually doing, which we don’t find out until the very end.

What bothers me is that the real action in this story is offstage, and wraps up in relatively few pages. It becomes anti-climactic by the way it’s handled, and it unfortunately needs to be, because of what it is. There is too much that can’t be confessed. Reflected In You would have been a lot more interesting (and suspenseful) to this reader if it had followed what Gideon thought, or particularly did, instead of just Eva.

And if Eva is really going to be the heroine of her own life story, and not the protected princess, she needs to hear about the actual dangers that surround her when they happen, not after the fact.

***Disclaimer: I was compensated for this BlogHer Book Club review but all opinions expressed are my own.

Review: Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

Format read: ebook from NetGalley
Formats available: Hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: Self-help, Psychology
Length: 256 pages
Publisher: Gotham
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository

Researcher and thought leader Dr. Brené Brown offers a powerful new vision that encourages us to dare greatly: to embrace vulnerability and imperfection, to live wholeheartedly, and to courageously engage in our lives.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; . . . who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” —Theodore Roosevelt

Every day we experience the uncertainty, risks, and emotional exposure that define what it means to be vulnerable, or to dare greatly. Whether the arena is a new relationship, an important meeting, our creative process, or a difficult family conversation, we must find the courage to walk into vulnerability and engage with our whole hearts.

In Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown challenges everything we think we know about vulnerability. Based on twelve years of research, she argues that vulnerability is not weakness, but rather our clearest path to courage, engagement, and meaningful connection. The book that Dr. Brown’s many fans have been waiting for, Daring Greatly will spark a new spirit of truth—and trust—in our organizations, families, schools, and communities.

This is a difficult book to review, because it doesn’t tell a narrative. Instead it deals with tough concepts like shame and vulnerability, and the need that all humans have to be connected to each other. About how easy it seems to disconnect, and how much it hurts us when we do.

Of course, reviewing could be said to count as “criticism” in that famous “Man in the Arena” speech from Theodore Roosevelt that Dr. Brown quotes from above and throughout the book. Except that by putting my name on my reviews, by being “out there”  and owning the writing of them, it counts as being “in the arena”. I set myself for being criticized in turn.  Reading the passages in the book about the self-talk that can weigh you down before starting any new venture sounded pretty darn familiar.

I was amazed that Brown managed to link that “Man in the Arena” speech to the even more famous (to me, at least) quote from Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit about “What is REAL?” (here’s the full quote, it’s worth a read) and make it work, because that negative self-talk isn’t real, and learning to get past it and get out there and “Dare Greatly” is part of Brown’s premise.

Another point that Brown was making was that our pursuit of perfection and overabundance is just another way of keeping us from connecting with the people around us, because we’re too busy comparing ourselves to others (and always falling short) to connect with them. Instead of feeling shame at what we don’t have or haven’t achieved, we should be seeking wholeness, or wholeheartedness to use her term. It reminded me of a little story on the net, “I wish you enough.”

Reality Rating B+: Daring Greatly will make you think. For a book of this type, that may be the most important thing. Many of the points the author made are still rattling around in my head, and all too many of the stories had resonance. I’ll be thinking about this one for a while.

If you’re interested in the social consequences of disconnectedness, you might want to take a look at Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. It may be a little dated, but it still has some important things to say in its conclusions. Brown deals more with the individual and Putnam with society, but I think the two complement each other.






***Disclaimer: I was compensated for this BlogHer Book Club review but all opinions expressed are my own.

Review: The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

The Chaperone is not quite a story about Louise Brooks, although she’s the device that makes the whole thing possible. So what is it?

It’s a fictionalized account of something that might have been, a journey that the now-legendary 1920s film actress might have taken to New York to audition for the famous Denishawn modern dance company in 1922. Brooks did join Denishawn that year. She was 15.

But young girls from Cherryvale, Kansas (transplanted to Wichita for the purpose of the story) did not spend summers in New York City on their own in 1922, no matter how mature and precocious they might be. And no matter how neglectful their fathers were and how determined their mothers might be to leave them to raise themselves. Sending Louise off alone just wouldn’t have been done.

Enter the fictional character of Cora Carlisle. A married woman willing to spend a summer in New York at the Brooks’ expense, chaperoning the Brooks’ incredibly willful daughter, all for the excuse to explore her own hidden past.

The title of the story is The Chaperone because it is Cora’s journey that we follow, not Louise’s. And what a journey it is.

When we first meet Cora, she seems like a staid, middle-class matron. A woman who has settled in to her boring and predictable little life, and who fears the modernity embodied by Louise (picture at right from Wikimedia Commons), who symbolized with her bobbed hair and very relaxed morals the flapper and the Jazz Age.

But Cora goes to New York to confront her past. She was one of the forced by lucky participants in a great social experiment of an earlier generation; Cora was one of the orphans who was sent West on the Orphan Trains. She intends to go to the orphanage that she came from, and search for her own records. She wants to know her roots. Her adoptive parents were good to her, but they are long dead. The past can’t touch them. But it might help her.

The future is what she finds. Louise may be taking dancing lessons, but it’s what she teaches Cora that matters. She opens up the world of the big city, and a window into the way that the world will be. As Louise’s chaperone, she goes to shows that she wouldn’t have seen, places she wouldn’t have visited. The world is bigger than Wichita. And what happens in New York, can stay in New York.

But Cora has a secret back home, too. Her marriage is not what it appears to be. Just as Louise’s privileged childhood is not what it appears to be. But living with Louise has taught Cora that if you maintain the appearance of things, what happens behind closed doors can be very different from the world sees.

Cora can have her private happiness if she is willing to reach outside of her moral corset and grab for it with both hands. Louise was never that lucky.

Escape Rating A-: Louise Brooks’ history is known, but Cora Carlisle’s fictional existence is woven so seamlessly into her biography that I had to check it again to make sure that she didn’t exist. The meld of fact and fiction was almost picture perfect.

At the beginning of the story, there’s a big dose of “why are we here?” going on in the reader’s head. Or at least this reader. Louise is not a sympathetic character. She is self-centered and self-absorbed to the point where it’s no wonder her mother wants to send her off with someone else for the summer. And Cora is, to use a word suited to the time, a prig. The hook was getting into Cora’s head about why she wants to go on this trip.

But there’s also a little mystery. Cora doesn’t ask her husband’s permission to go to New York; she tells him she’s going. That just wasn’t done in 1922. Either she’s very liberated, and her other interactions don’t bear that out, or there’s something unusual in her marriage, which turns out to be the case.

The 20s were a fascinating time, and Cora managed to be in the right place at the right time to see a lot of things that foreshadowed later historic events. She grows up a LOT during that summer, much more than Louise, which is what makes the story. Louise should be the one growing up, but Louise is already much older than she should be. Unfortunately so. Cora is the one who “gets a life” that summer.

Louise is the tragic figure. She’s already fallen, she just doesn’t know it yet. Cora, the older woman, is the larva who will break out of her cocoon and become a butterfly.

***Disclaimer: I was compensated for this BlogHer Book Club review but all opinions expressed are my own.

If you want to join this month’s discussion of  The Chaperone on the BlogHer Book Club, you can join the discussion by following this link to the Book Club.


You Have No Idea

You Have No Idea by Vanessa and Helen Williams  may be the perfect book for Mother’s Day reading. Why?

As the long, but very accurate subtitle says, it’s about “a famous daugher, her no-nonsense mother, and how they survived pageants, Hollywood, love, loss (and each other)”

This story is both autobiography and biography, as Vanessa and Helen take turns writing about their own lives, and then say what they did, and more importantly, how they felt, as they weathered the storms of their life together.

Because there were definitely storms. Some were the typical battles between teenage daughters and their moms. And college-aged young women and their moms.

And then, there’s the big, famous one. Which, when you read the Williams’ story, actually started because a typical college-aged young woman wanted to prove her independence. And it came back to haunt her at the worst possible time. Doesn’t it always?

Reading the events of Vanessa Williams’ life pre-Miss America, it’s easy to see the events from her perspective. A young woman looking for scholarship money, she entered the contest thinking she didn’t have much of a chance against the veterans of the pageant-circuit. Then she won, and her life changed forever. Fame, fortune and notoriety, all embodied in those words, “There she is, Miss America.”

The first African-American Miss America. The first Miss America to receive death threats. The first Miss America to resign after nude photographs of her were published in Penthouse.

The autobiography she wrote with her mother Helen is not just about her year as Miss America, and the aftermath. It’s about how she pulled herself up afterwards.

Vanessa Williams had always intended to be on Broadway. She never meant to be a pageant queen. The story is about picking herself up, dusting herself off, and getting her dream back. No matter how many detours it takes.

If you detour often enough, the wreckage isn’t even in your rear-view mirror any longer.

Reality Rating B+: I read this pretty much straight through, which isn’t something I often do for biography, so that’s a big plus. The parts where Helen and Vanessa (I can’t call them both Ms. Williams, it’s just confusing) gave different perspectives on the same events, was absolutely fascinating! Being a daughter and not a mother, I saw Vanessa’s side so easily, I wonder more what my mom was thinking about some of the things I did at those same points.

I really felt for both of them at the sudden loss of Mr. Williams. I lost my own dad in similar circumstances, and I teared up in those scenes.

There’s a lesson in Vanessa Williams’ story, one that made me think. When those photos were taken, she trusted the person who took them, and assumed they’d never come to light. If she hadn’t become famous, they would probably have been lost forever. They only had value because she became famous. She (and I) grew up at a time when one’s youthful excesses were not recorded. No Facebook, no cellphone cameras. You embarrassed yourself in front of your friends and they would probably remember, but there wouldn’t be any actual evidence to haunt you 5 or 25 years later.

Today, with Facebook and cellphone cameras the Wayback Machine, does anything ever really go away? Especially the stuff that you really wish would?

***Disclaimer: I was compensated for this BlogHer Book Club review but all opinions expressed are my own.

If you want to join this month’s discussion of You Have No Idea on the BlogHer Book Club, you can join the discussion by following this link to the Book Club. If you want to connect with Vanessa Williams, you can connect with her on Twitter at @vwofficial, or by liking her Facebook page.


What’s on my (mostly virtual) nightstand? 4-22-12

Before I start on this week’s Nightstand, which is going to be a traveling nightstand, two newsworthy items.

We’re famous! Or maybe infamous. Your mileage may vary. Very much. Reading Reality is the featured blog this week over at Curiosity Quills Book Blog Spotlight. Go check out all the blogger interviews. They are awesome. And don’t forget, there’s still time to review one of their books and enter their contest for a chance at an iPad3.

Speaking of giveaways, tonight at midnight, the Spring Fling Blog Hop will begin at Reading Reality over 80 other blogs. So come back tomorrow and fill out the Mr. Rafflecopter for your chance at a $10 Amazon Gift Card at Reading Reality, plus more fabulous prizes at all the other participating blogs.

About that nightstand of mine. As I said, it will be a traveling nightstand this week. We’re going to a conference. Well, my husband has a conference, and I’m going along as his “plus one”.

So I’ll be taking one or two print books as my “airplane” books. Probably either Julie Kagawa’s The Immortal Rules, or Karen Kondazian’s The Whip.

But what’s up on the reviewing calendar between now and May 1, next Tuesday? And is anyone else out there having a difficult time wrapping their heads around the idea that next Tuesday is the first of May?

I did get a new iPad3 for my birthday earlier this month. There were a certain number of trials and tribulations involved in transferring the contents of my old iPad to my new one. Enough that Galen was moved to write a guest post that will appear later this week.

But I do love my iPad enough that I requested Insanely Simple by Ken Segall from NetGalley. It’s a non-fiction business book, which is not the sort of thing I usually get. But it’s about Apple Corp. There are a couple of companies whose inner workings do interest me. Apple is one. (For anyone wondering, no, I don’t have a Mac. Galen has a Mac)

From a business that makes gadgets we go to gadgetry that makes a genre. I have Cruel Numbers by Christopher Beats, which is subtitled “A Steampunk Noir Mystery”. I hope it’s half as cool as it sounds.

I also have Zero Gravity Outcasts by Kay Keppler. As you might guess from the title, Zero Gravity Outcasts is science fiction romance. These are my two Carina indulgences from NetGalley for the week.

Because I loved Shona Husk’s Dark Vow, I snapped up her Kiss of the Goblin Prince when is appeared on NetGalley. The difference is that Dark Vow was stand alone, and Goblin Prince is book 2 in a series. So I have the prequel (The Summons) and book 1 (The Goblin King) to get through first.

Sadie Jones’ The Uninvited Guests is a book that looks like it’s going to get a lot of buzz. I picked up a paper ARC at PLA and I requested in from Edelweiss. It’s due out on May 1. At least when the Edelweiss egalley timebombs, the paper ARC will still be good! It’s about an Edwardian house party that goes sadly astray, it reminds me of the movie Gosford Park, and, of course, Downton Abbey.

I went through a period of picking up mysteries at NetGalley. Fatal Induction by Bernadette Pajer is the second in the Professor Bradshaw series, after A Spark of Death. These are historic mysteries, and they look interesting, taking place at the beginning of the 1900s and having to do with electrical engineering and academics, and, of course, murder.

My last book for next week is also a bit unusual for me. I will be participating in the BlogHer Book Club in May, and the book chosen for the Book Club next month is You Have No Idea by Vanessa and Helen Williams. So it’s an autobiography written by a famous daughter and her mother.

I’ll be visiting my mom in the middle of May. Maybe I’ll get some insights from the rich and famous…

So, what’s on your nightstand this week? What are you planning to read?