6 Books I Read in March 2021

I didn’t think March could match February in the books I got to read, but I was wrong. Good books just keep being published, and I’m having a wonderful time reading them.


The Four Winds, by Kristin Hannah

The Four Winds, by Kristin Hannah

What a wonderful historical novel! In my opinion, The Four Winds is even better than Ms. Hannah’s 2015 novel, The Nightingale.

The Four Winds plunges the reader into the Dust Bowl and The Great Depression and never lets go. It’s been decades since I read The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, but The Four Winds put me in the dust, grit, and terror of that time even more than the Steinbeck classic. Maybe that has something to do with my age when I read each book, but somehow The Four Winds made a stronger impact on me.

This novel follows Elsa, a young woman starved for love. She throws caution to the wind, for once in her life, and it turns out to have dire consequences. I don’t want to give the story away, so I’ll just say it follows Elsa through the Dust Bowl in Texas and a desperate journey to California in hopes of a better and a healthier life. The book illustrates the difficult lives of migrant workers and how promises and dangers of unionization in the 1930s. There are strong secondary characters in the book.

I blogged about The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah in my June 2, 2017 blog post, You Need to Read These Books! and The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah in my March 26, 2018 blog post, Some March Reading, in case you want to know what I thought about them.


Daylight, by David Baldacci

Does Atlee Pine find her sister?
Daylight, by David Baldacci

If you’ve been following David Baldacci’s Atlee Pine series, you’ll love this book. This novel reveals many details about Atlee’s parents and childhood. She continues to search for her twin sister, Mercy, who was abducted from their bedroom when they were six years old. Her journey takes her into some very dark places and danger lurks at every turn.

Will Atlee find Mercy in Daylight? You need to read it for yourself to find out! This is Baldacci at his best.


52 Small Changes for the Mind, by Brett Blumenthal

52 Small Changes for the Mind, by Brett Blumenthal

This is a self-help book that probably should be read a week at a time over 52 weeks, but I had checked it out from the library. I read it over several days and took notes so I can slowly absorb the points it makes that I can benefit from. Many of the recommendations are things I’m already doing, but several really stepped on my toes and got my attention.

Here are a few examples from the book:

Week 9 – “Kick indecision.” Don’t waste time trying to make the perfect choice.

Week 14 – “Silence your inner critic.”

Week 15 – “Go beyond your comfort zone.”

Week 27 – “Minimize screen time.” (I thought this just applied to teens and young adults who spend too much time on their cell phones, but this segment made me realize that I’m guilty of spending too much time on the computer and using my tablet.

Week 39 – Recognize your fears and confront them.

Week 49 – “Deal with [your] demons.”

There are helpful tools and resources at the back of the book.


Soul of a Woman, by Isabel Allende

The Soul of a Woman, by Isabel Allende

This turned out to be a surprisingly short book. I checked it out as an MP3 from the public library and listened to the entire book in an afternoon.

Ms. Allende begins the book with some experiences from her childhood and life in several countries, but the bulk of the book is about the status of women throughout the world.

She addresses all manner of abuses women endure at the hands of men and sometimes at the hands of other women. She writes about how tradition perpetuates the practice of female mutilation in parts of the world, how women are invisible in some regions due to Islamic law and practice, and how female babies are not valued and are sometimes killed in some cultures and countries simply due to their gender. She addresses human trafficking. She writes about how women the world over must struggle for every inch of progress they make in the business world.

Ms. Allende established The Isabel Allende Foundation in 1996 to pay homage to her daughter, Paula, who died at the age of 29 in 1992. The foundation works for the empowerment of girls and women through nonprofits in Chile and the San Francisco Bay Area. To read more about the foundation, go to https://isabelallende.org.


In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson

I think I’ve read all of Erik Larson’s books now, until Thunderstruck is released later this year. Yes, I’m on the waitlist for it at the public library.

My earlier attempt to read In the Garden of Beasts didn’t work out. I just couldn’t get into the book. Although the premise of this book should be equally as gripping as his other books, even the second time around it didn’t hold my interest quite as well as Isaac’s Storm (Three Books Read in December 2020) or Dead Wake: The Last Crossing the Lusitania (4 Books I Read in February 2021.)

In the Garden of Beasts is the story of William Edward Dodd, US Ambassador to Berlin from 1933 until 1937, during the rise of Adoph Hitler. His mid-20s daughter, Martha – who is estranged from her husband — accompanies him and becomes quite a liability as she soaks in the nightlife of the city and forms a romantic relationship with a Russian.

Dodd was a professor, a thrifty, unassuming man – much the opposite of his daughter. He was the butt of jokes among his peers in Berlin because he insisted on driving his old car and wearing the clothes he’d worn as a professor back in the Midwest. Martha inherited none of her father’s personality traits.

This is a nonfiction book, meticulously researched, as are all of Erik Larson’s books. I learned a lot from the book. It was interesting to get a glimpse of the rising of the Third Reich from the perspective of an American living in Berlin.

 


The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only

Family Internment Camp During World War II, by Jan Jarboe Russell

FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II
The Train to Crystal City, by Jan Jarboe Russell

You may recall that in my February 8, 2021 blog post, 4 Books I Read in February 2021, one the books I wrote about was the novel The Last Year of the War, by Susan Meissner.

As soon as news broke that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, the lives of all Japanese immigrants and Americans of Japanese descent were at risk. The FBI started arresting the men for no reason other than their ancestry.

I learned a lot from this book. One thing I hadn’t known about was the Asian Exclusion Act, passed in 1924, which made it illegal for Japanese immigrants to become US citizens.

Here’s a quote from pages 28-29 of the book about the steps President Franklin D. Roosevelt took to create a vehicle through which a hostage exchange program could be put into place in the event the United States entered World War II:

“On September 1, 1939, the day German tanks, infantry, and cavalry invaded Poland with 1.5 million troops, Roosevelt created a highly secretive division within the Department of State called the Special Division. He ordered this division to identify American civilians… who were currently in Japan and Germany and who would be in danger when the United States joined the war…. More than 100,000 American civilians were in harm’s way. A few months later, Roosevelt authorized the Special War Problems Division to find Japanese and Germans in America and in Latin America who could be used as hostages in exchange for the more valuable of the Americans…. In 1940, [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover installed the first group of FBI agents in Latin America. Based on the FBI reports, Roosevelt was convinced that Germans and Japanese in Latin America were a direct threat to hemispheric security.”

In addition, FDR formed an agreement with Peru that paved the way for 1,800 Japanese Peruvians with no ties to the U.S. to be brought to internment camps in Texas and other states. Pressure was put on other Latin American countries to do the same. All except Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil complied and deported Germans. Those three nations had internment camps of their own.

The men held in the internment camps were given an ultimatum. If they wanted to be reunited with their families — and these reunions had to take place inside the camp at Crystal City, Texas – they had to sign papers stating that they would relocate to their ancestral home country after the war. Imagine living for decades in the United States and then having to relocate to Germany or Japan as soon as World War II was over. Families were forced to make unimaginable choices in order to stay together.

I could go on and on, but perhaps I’ve given you enough detail that you will want to read the book for yourself. It was a real eye opener for me!


Until my next blog post

How is D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything and Read) Month going for you? I hope you have one or more good books to read this month.

Spend some time enjoying a hobby this week.

Keep wearing a mask, even if you’ve been vaccinated against Covid-19, so we can get back to doing all the things we like to do – like seeing relatives we haven’t seen in almost 18 months.

Note: National Library Week in the USA started yesterday. Support your local public library!

Janet

4 Other Books I Read in February 2021

Last week I blogged about four of the books I read last month. Today, I write about the other four books I read in February.


The Unwilling, by John Hart

The Unwilling, by John Hart

John Hart being a southern piedmont North Carolina writer, I looked forward to his new novel, The Unwilling. It did not disappoint. I listened to it on CD. It is a slice of American history when we were divided over the Vietnam War.

It is a riveting story about three brothers. Two were in the military and served in Vietnam. One didn’t survive the war, and the other one came home with problems for the rest of his life. Their youngest brother, Gibby, is the main character. At 18 years old, he is struggling to find his way in life. His mother is over-protective, and his father is a police detective in Charlotte. His parents want him to stay away from the middle brother, Jason, but Gibby can’t help but idolize him and is drawn to hang out with him. This leads to untold trouble.

The seedy, corruptive underbelly of the prison systems comes into play in a gruesome way. This novel is not for the squeamish, but the story really drew me in, and I couldn’t stop listening to it because I wanted to know what was going to happen next to Gibby and Jason. If you like a coming-of-age story wrapped in a police thriller, set in the winding down years of the Vietnam War, with some troubled family dynamics and prison time thrown in, this should be your next read.

Mr. Hart’s inspiration for this novel was Hugh Thompson, the US Army helicopter pilot credited with stopped the My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968. It is not a war story per se but is the story of what a soldier sees and does that follows him or her home — the things those who have not been there cannot imagine; but more than that, it is a story of a small city in which the evil one fears isn’t always faraway but sometimes just up the street.


Southern Writers on Writing, edited by Susan Cushman

Southern Writers on Writing, edited by Susan Cushman

This delightful book is a collection of 26 essays by Southern writers, each giving their unique take on writing and how The South influences their writing.

One of my favorite essays in the book is “Southern Fiction: A Tool to Stretch the Soul and Soften the Heart,” by author Julie Cantrell.

Ms. Cantrell hails from Louisiana and writes vividly in her essay about the extremes of life in her home state. I love what she writes about Southern fiction about halfway down page 53 in the book:

“In literature, the South works as a lure by tapping all the senses. When we set a story here, we not only deliver a cast of colorful characters, we share their sinful secrets while serving a mouth-watering meal. We draw readers in with soul-stirring music and landscapes that would make anyone want to disappear beneath the mossy oaks. The South offers a fantasy, a place where time slows and anxieties melt like the ice in a glass of sugar cane rum.”

On page 54, Ms. Cantrell writes: “Many in life say the earth is our mother. If that’s the case, then the South is the lap into which we all crawl to hear her story…. The South is nothing less than a sanctuary for story. It is the porch swing, the rocking chair, the barstool, the back pew. It is everything that made me and shaped me and saved me. As a southern writer, I aim only to invite my readers to enter this sacred space.”

And then I read “The Burden of Southern Literature,” by Katherine Clark. She concisely explained how Southern literature came to be – how the South was looked down on after the Civil War and why would anyone want to read about such a place? Southern writers were weighed down by the region’s history. Writers like William Faulkner struggled to “strike a chord with a national audience.” Then, Faulkner and other southern writers learned to embrace the South and their southern-ness.

Ms. Clark writes on page 56, “Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the writer in the South is not plagued by the burden of southern history, but by the burden of southern literature. Our literary tradition is revered all over the world and has produced many of the best writers to come out of our country. Southern literature is the strongest tradition in American literature, and one of the greatest gifts that American culture has given the world.”

What the southern writer is left with today is the burden not so much of the history of the South, but the wealth of literature that has come out of the South. To paraphrase Ms. Clark, it is inspiring and intimidating. I can vouch for that!

I also liked what Ms. Clark writes about not wallowing in what she calls, “southern-ness.” Here’s a little of what she writes on the topic:

“Whereas 100 years ago, writers had to learn to embrace the differences of the South, nowadays the tendency can be to positively wallow in the eccentricities and grotesqueries of the southern experience, usually of an earlier era. We shouldn’t be wallowing in southern-ness, and we don’t need to embrace it either, because that’s been done. That’s a given now, thanks to our great literary ancestors. Our job today is not to stick to the foundation they laid for us, but to use it as a springboard launching us in the new and different directions demanded by a changing culture.”

River Jordan, another author contributing to Southern Writers on Writing, writes the following about how she can tell when she’s reading the work of a southern writer and when she’s reading the work of New York writer: “…when I read a writer from say New York I think, oh, they are so smart. I could swear I actually hear their brain ticking. But when I read a southern writer I can feel their heart beating. That’s how I know it’s southern. By the heartbeat.”

Ms. Jordan also writes the following about the danger of southern writing disappearing as our lifestyles change: “When the porches all finally disappear, when the backyard steps are replaced with the kind of yards manicured to perfection, then the days of real southern writers will shift and slip away. Assimilation will be complete and southern will be no more.”

I hope she’s wrong, but I worry about the assimilation. I worry as I hear aspects of southern accents disappearing. I worry when I notice that my great-nieces in metro Atlanta sound much less southern than I do.

Speaking of southern accents, the next contributor in Southern Writers on Writing is Lee Smith. I love to hear her talk. Her contribution to the book is from her book, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading five or six years ago. Ms. Smith is southern through-and-through, and her writing oozes “southern.”

About writing, Ms. Smith writes, “Whether we are writing fiction or nonfiction, journaling or writing for publication, writing itself is an inherently therapeutic activity. Simply to line up words one after another upon a page is to create some order where it did not exist, to give a recognizable shape to the chaos of our lives.”


30 Short Stories, by Laleh Chini

30 Short Stories, by Laleh Chini

My blogger friend, Laleh Chini, just keeps writing books. You may recall in last week’s blog post (4 Books I Read in February 2021) I told you about her new novel, Soroosh. Also, I’ve blogged about her book Climbing Over Grit in my November 5, 2018 blog post, Many Good Books Read in October!

Laleh is a fantastic storyteller. 30 Short Stories is her new picture book. I don’t often read picture books now, but I just had to purchase and read Laleh’s. Although written for children, this book can be enjoyed by people of all ages. Each of the 30 stories teaches a life lesson. My favorite was the last story in the book, “Racism.” In it, Laleh relates a story of how as a Muslim from Iran she experienced racism in a store in Canada, where she has lived for decades. It’s heartbreaking.

In the spirit of cultural acceptance and respecting and valuing people, no matter their ethnicity or religion, I recommend this book to everyone who is open to seeing that people are just people. We need to take a step back and stop making snap judgments about people just because they are of a different culture than ours.


Greenlights, by Matthew McConaughey

Greenlights, by Matthew McConaughey

From TV interviews, I know that actor Matthew McConaughey is a good storyteller. Wanting to hear his book in his own voice, I got on the waitlist for the CD edition of Greenlights at the public library as soon as it showed up on the online catalog.

I must admit that listening to Greenlights on CD was probably not the best way to read the book. Mr. McConaughey is an enthusiastic storyteller, and he relates many very entertaining stories in Greenlights; however, as a good storyteller is prone to do, Mr. McConaughey varies the volume of his voice greatly as he spins a yarn. This can create discomfort while listening to the book on CD.

I read a review on Goodreads.com that gave the book a very high rating and recommended listening to it instead of reading it but with the caveat that it should be listened to in a quiet environment. That’s good advice. I would also say you shouldn’t attempt to listen to it with headphones or earbuds. Also, trying to listen to it in one room while someone is trying to sleep in the next room is not a good idea. Just sayin’.

I also admit that I have moderate hearing loss, but I don’t think that was the root of the problem I had in listening to Greenlights. If I set the volume to a comfortable level for the shouting, I could not hear much of the rest of the book. This meant I couldn’t hear the near-whisper parts at all. I had to constantly adjust the volume, so the CD edition of the book was a great disappointment.

Early on, the book talks about Mr. McConaughey’s home life as a child and teen. His parents had a volatile relationship, which couldn’t help but have a profound effect on him. He relates some very funny experiences he had as an exchange student in Australia. In fact, that was my favorite part of the book. He tells interesting and humorous stories about his world travels and how he more or less fell into the occupation of actor.

The overriding theme of the book is that we should learn from all life’s experiences. Don’t let the obstacles in life keep you down. Learn from them and keep going.

If you’re a Matthew McConaughey fan, you’ll enjoy reading the book. Listening to it? Maybe not so much.


Since my last blog post

I’m still reading good books and working on my historical novel manuscript for a partial critique by a professional editor.

I got my second Moderna Covid 19 shot on Saturday. I’m grateful that I live in a country where such things are available, and I’m grateful to all the people who worked to develop and distribute the vaccine. I had some unpleasantness for about 48 hours after the shot, but it surely beats contracting a bad case of Covid-19.

On Wednesday night, I enjoyed participating in the third virtual gathering of a group discussing Janet Givens’ book, LEAPFROG: How to have a civil conversation during an uncivil era. We had an interesting conversation about racial prejudice and our common humanity. I mentioned Ms. Givens’ book in my blog posts on January 18, 2021 ( Fictional Characters Can Take on Lives of Their Own), on December 14, 2020 (Favorite Books Read in 2020), and on April 13, 2020 (LEAPFROG and The Immoral Majority.)


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m listening to In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson, and I’m reading Cicely Tyson’s memoir, Just As I Am. Other library books are piling up and calling my name. What a wonderful “problem” to have!

I hope you have some time for creativity and hobbies this week.

Wear a mask and get vaccinated as soon as that’s possible for your age and location so we can rediscover “normal.”

Janet