Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie inspired countless children to dream of hopping on a wagon train or churning some butter. But as it turns out, frontier life wasn't quite so idyllic for Wilder.
Her memoir, Pioneer Girl, which she wrote in the mid-1920s, will be released in the fall, and it casts her life on the Midwest plains in a bleaker light. Touching upon domestic abuse, an ill-fated love triangle and the overarching reality of living in an isolated territory with few provisions, Pioneer Girl was actually Wilder's first manuscript, and it's definitely for adults. But when no one would publish the gritty autobiography, Wilder transformed it into the children's series we know today.
Published with annotations by South Dakota State Historical Society Press, Pioneer Girl is sure to be an illuminating look into the life of one of America's most beloved children's authors.
I cut my activist teeth in the Southern Civil Rights movement, so I've long been interested in how we humans respond to institutionalized evil. Given this, I considered it majorly serendipitous that I read these two books one after the other: Strange Glory as preparation for interviewing Charles Marsh; and Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, because I saw Francine Prose had a new book out and couldn’t imagine not reading it. Both these books are studies of people up against the institutionalized evil of Fascism.
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose, sprang (according to Prose) from a Brassai photograph she saw at a museum show in Washington. It begins in Paris, is told in different voices, and progresses through the Second World War. Hitler sits solidly at the center of the action (he actually appears briefly) like an evil, all-powerful toad. Lovers is driven by each character's response to the Fuhrer's expanding power. To resist or to join in: that is the question. Prose's novel is a study in how, in the end, each of us can only do that which we are in our wounded and damaged hearts.
As someone raised agnostic in the southern Bible Belt who got prayed over in elementary school for my beliefs, I have long been a fan of Mr. Bonheoffer, a Protestant theologian and Nazi-resister, and his theologically-inspired courage. But I didn't really get a feel for the man himself until I read Strange Glory. Charles Marsh had access to boxes and boxes of Bondhoeffer's personal stuff, out of which he lifts a strangely endearing and complex human being who evolves from a stiff intellectual into a pretty wily subversive. I mean, who knew that Dietrich Bonheoffer, martyred for his faith, was also quite the dandy?
My gym buddy, Mike Riordan, Professor of Accounting at James Madison University, has long managed my Netflix selections, but The Son was the first book he ever told me to read. Suffice it to say, I will be following Mike's literary orders in the future.
The Son tells the story of one Texas family across many generations. Yes, its scope is sprawling. But what blew me away—and no, that is not too strong a descriptive—is how much I missed Meyer's characters once I had (dadgum it!) finished his novel. Bless Ecco Press for publishing an 800-plus page novel and so giving Meyer's enough space not only to tell his great big story, but to populate it with people detailed enough to allow me to miss them. Philipp Meyer's character development is flat-out delicious.
Do any of Woodroof's suggestions pique your interest?
(Author photo by Charles Woodroof)
Magic and reality combine in award-winning short-story writer Josh Weil's first novel, The Great Glass Sea. Set in an alternate present-day Russia where a city is kept under the titular glass greenhouse in a world of perpetual daylight in order to maximize crop production, it follows twin brothers Yarik and Dima. Once inseparable, the brothers are now on opposite sides of a controversy: Yarik is working to support the government that placed the citizens of Petroplavilsk under the sea, while Dima dreams of a return to their childhood farm and the freedom of a day where the sun rises and sets. When circumstances force the brothers even further apart, they must decide just how much family means.
Click here to read our full review.
Not all of us can follow an author from the very beginning—sometimes it takes a breakout with book #2 to prove an author's mettle. These four authors made a splash with their second novels in 2014, so why not go back to where it all began and check out their debuts?
Fans of this year's remarkable Astonish Me shouldn't miss Shipstead's 2012 debut, Seating Arrangements, perhaps the smartest book ever written about the leadup to a wedding. As our reviewer put it, "Like J. Courtney Sullivan in Maine or Galt Niederhoffer in The Romantics, Shipstead places deeply flawed characters in an idyllic setting and creates an unforgettable world."
Readers who were swept up in Rachman's worldwind world tour of a second novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, might be surprised by the smaller stage he set for his first novel, The Imperfectionists, a story of journalists working at a struggling paper in Rome. Our reviewer said, "Perhaps the unnamed paper is deserving of the destiny that looms over it in these stories. But by the time its fate has become clear, it’s hard not to greet it with a touch of sympathy engendered by Rachman’s vivid tales."
Did you love the dysfunctional family dynamics in Straub's summer hit, The Vacationers? You might be intrigued to learn that her debut novel, 2012's Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, was a completely different sort of book. A historical novel set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, it followed a young Wisconsin woman's quest for fame and fortune. Our reviewer called the book "a marvel," going on to say that "Her silken writing conjures images of old Hollywood, all red lipstick and Glenn Miller, but even more impressively, Straub paints a vivid portrait of a woman torn between her desire for fame and what she must leave behind to win it."
Makkai's second novel, The Hundred-Year House, is an ambitious story of one very unusual home and the lives of its residents over the last hundred years. It's a sort of literary scavenger hunt, where the seemingly diverse tales come together in a satisfying way. Her first novel, The Borrower, was one of the most acclaimed debuts of 2011, earning praise from the likes of Richard Russo. Our reviewer described the book as "a wonderful celebration of books and friendship, brimming with literary references and plenty of laughs." A book about books? Something we can totally get behind.
Sabrina Jeffries' latest book in her Duke's Men series, How the Scoundrel Seduces, catches the heroine, Lady Zoe, in the midst of a bit of an identity crisis. Raised as the only child and heir to her family's Yorkshire Estate, Zoe is shocked to learn that she might actually be the daughter of an unknown Romany woman. Desperate to discover the truth and avoid the marriage her father is intent on arranging, she hires Tristan Bonnaud to help her track down her supposed mother. In this guest post, Sabrina Jeffries writes about the inspiration behind How the Scoundrel Seduces.
A few years ago, I realized that all my novels have at least one character pretending to be something he or she is not. Apparently, issues of identity are a big deal for me.
It shouldn’t surprise me—I grew up in Thailand as part of an American Protestant missionary community plunked down in the midst of an Asian, predominantly Buddhist community. Meanwhile, my high school was filled with kids who were military brats or diplomat’s kids or children of parents who worked for foreign companies with offices in Bangkok. None of us knew quite where we belonged or who we were. How could we?
That’s probably why my books often have masquerading heroines, spy heroes, or just plain men and women who aren’t what they seem as they struggle to figure out how much of their façade is real. Because I can relate. When you grow up in a mix of cultures and communities, you learn to blend in anywhere, and it makes it hard to figure out who you really are.
At first glance, the heroine for How the Scoundrel Seduces, Lady Zoe Keane, should be very secure in who she is. She has been raised with the expectation of taking up her father’s mantle. She’s that rare thing in the English peerage—a peeress in her own right, a woman who can inherit land and a title from her father (or mother, if her mother was the previous title holder). That should make her feel comfortable with her identity, right?
Except that it doesn’t. Bad enough that her situation has already made her different from all the other ladies, who are peeresses by reason of being daughters or wives to a peer. But Zoe’s father, who was an army major before he inherited the title, has raised her to be his heir. So she acts a bit like a man and not like the other ladies, who are waiting around for a husband.
I got to have her question some of the same things I questioned growing up. Which culture is mine? What do I believe? Who am I?
Plus, she doesn’t resemble her parents—she’s olive-skinned and exotic-looking. And her aunt has just revealed to Zoe that she may secretly be the child of gypsies (the Romany). That would mean Zoe couldn’t inherit a thing if anyone found out, since England didn’t have a legal construct for adoption during the Regency.
So Zoe is truly confused about who she is . . . or who she should become. And I had great fun with that. It’s always more interesting when a heroine (or hero) is in a period of flux. It gives the author a chance to capture the character emerging from the cocoon, unfolding her wings and learning to fly.
In Zoe’s case, she has to figure out what she wants. Marriage to her father’s cousin and second heir, to solidify her claim to the estate? Independence, even if it means losing her inheritance? Love with a man who might keep her from getting what she’s been bred to have?
By throwing in the possibility of Zoe being from another culture entirely (Romany), I got to have her question some of the same things I questioned growing up. Which culture is mine? What do I believe? Who am I? After all, it’s hard to figure out what you want when you don’t know who you are.
Which brings us back to why I create characters who are trying to work out their true identities. Because with every one, I get a little closer to figuring out my own. And what more can a writer ask for?
(Author Photo by Jessi Blakely for Tamara Lackey photography)
A mere mention of preserving and canning can cause the most confident of home cooks to run in the opposite direction, but Katie & Giancarlo Caldesi break down the surprisingly simple steps behind pickling, brining, smoking, salting, canning, fermenting and more in The Gentle Art of Preserving.
This recipe for Summer Fruits in Brandy doesn't even require a stovetop! Who knew preserving at home was so easy? Get ready to knock out a chunk of your Christmas gifts in one fell swoop.
Summer Fruits in Brandy
This method is suitable for preserving all sorts of summer fruits, including berries, plums and apricots. The boozy fruit should be ready to eat within 2 weeks, but you can leave it to mature for longer if you wish—we make this using late summer fruits to give as Christmas presents. Our favorite way of serving the boozy fruits is with ice cream, yogurt or cake. The fruity brandy is delicious served hot in shot glasses, or mixed with red wine for a variation on mulled wine. Alternatively, purée the fruits with their liquor and use as a sauce for desserts or with game dishes.
Makes approx. four 12-oz jars
Wash the fruit and pat dry on paper towels. Pit and halve the fruits. Divide the fruit and sugar among the sterilized jars and top up with brandy. Seal and set aside in a cool, dark place for at least 2 weeks, turning the jars upside down every day until the sugar dissolves. Store for 3 months before sampling, although it can be matured for up to a year in a cool, dark place.
Sunday, August 24 will mark the 200th anniversary of the night British troops set fire to the White House, the only time other than 9/11 when the U.S. capital city sustained a direct attack. First Lady Dolley Madison had fled the building just hours before the redcoats arrived, famously exclaiming "Save that painting!" and ordering that a precious Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington be removed from the wall and carted off to safety, along with the red velvet curtains from the White House drawing room.
British journalist Peter Snow gives a stirring account of that fateful night, as well as the days before and after, in When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington. The book was published in the U.K. last year to glowing reviews and was released this week in the U.S. by Thomas Dunne Books.
Snow keeps the action moving and adds immediacy by citing the letters, diaries and other accounts of those who witnessed (or participated in) the attack. As the British advanced, Americans on horseback sounded the alarm to the fearful residents of Washington, D.C. "Fly, fly! The ruffians are at hand. If you cannot get away yourselves, for God's sake send off your wives and daughters, for the ruffians are at hand." Under the command of Admiral George Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross, British invaders set fire not only to the White House, but to the U.S. Capitol building as well. "Never shall I forget my tortured feelings," one resident recalled, "when I beheld that noble edifice wrapt in flames, which . . . filled all the saddened night with a dismal gloom."
If you've always been a bit hazy about what led to the War of 1812 (and why it was still going on two years later), Snow's excellent account of these crucial events in U.S. history will sharpen your understanding—and make you surprised and grateful that the U.S. today counts Britain among its staunchest allies.
I hate to break it to you, but summer break is over. Luckily for all of us, September is chock-full of fabulous reads to beat the post-summer blues. Librarians around the country have voted, and LibraryReads has put together a list of the incoming September titles that librarians are most excited about reading and sharing with their patrons.
Coming out in front of the pack is our Top Pick in Nonfiction, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, by the quick and clever mortician Caitlin Doughty. If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the crematorium doors, this one's for you. Rounding out the list is our Top Pick in Fiction, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, a Shakespeare-infused exploration of life after hope. Other highly-anticipated novels on the list include The Paying Guests by Sarah Walters; Ian McEwan's quietly moving The Children Act; and Tana French's revelation of the chilling secrets teenagers keep, The Secret Place.
You can see the full September LibraryReads list here. So readers, what books are you most excited about picking up next month?
Nobody does interactive picture books like French artist Hervé Tullet. Following the success of his 2011 bestseller Press Here, Tullet has become a bit of a picture book sensation, encouraging the littlest readers to poke and shake books that seem to respond to their command. The dots from Press Here return on September 16 in Mix It Up!, but this time they've got something to show us about mixing and creating colors.
Tullet's Help! We Need a Title! came out in May of this year and took his interactive elements to a metafictional level, subtly provoking questions about what a book is. What's an author, and where do ideas come from? The scribbly, mixed-media characters in Help! seem to come straight from a child's mind, but when the book opens, they're all completely unprepared. Surely the reader expects a story . . . so what do you do when it hasn't been written yet? (Who's in charge around here, anyway?)
This fall's crop of picture books includes several more metafictional titles, encouraging fearless and unfettered creativity while challenging the relationships between readers, listeners, authors and characters.
Before snuggling down with this book, I highly recommend fixing yourself and your lap listener some PB&J sandwiches, then sit back and let the giggles begin. Everything starts out as planned in Louie's story—"Once upon a time, little Louie went skipping merrily along."—but a messy reader ruins everything. First a glob of jelly plops right in Louie's way, and then peanut butter lands on his face . . . and as the book gets dirtier and dirtier, Louie gets more and more upset with the reader/offender. Fortunately Louie and the reader come to an understanding. Perfect's boring anyway. Coming October 7.
This time, the reader is hero, not villain. The gutter of this unexpected adventure has a mind of its own, and when Bella's dog disappears between the pages, she finds herself in an escalating conundrum reminiscent of the events in Jeffers' Stuck. Soon the gutter has sucked up everyone in the book, and it's up to the reader to set them free. We're asked to shake the book—keep shaking!—until everyone reappears . . . almost as good as new. Coming September 30.
Just as you'd expect, Novak's debut picture book has absolutely zero pictures—not even an author photo on the jacket flaps. This innovative story is not really a story so much as a challenge to parents, to drop the ego and get silly. The concept works, though, as it calls into question the real balance of power in the relationship between reader and listener. When a reader has to read what is written—no matter what is written, no matter how ridiculous or how little it makes sense—things can get very, very silly. Coming September 30.