Books Read in August 2020

Reading in August was a bit of a challenge. Lots of things were going on within the family and I was distracted. Nevertheless, I did finish reading or listening to several books.

I think I shouldn’t push myself so much in the future. It’s gotten to the point that I feel guilty if I’m not reading! I want reading to be the pleasure it’s intended to be, so I’m adjusting my expectations. I reminded myself this isn’t a contest. The person who reads the most books doesn’t necessarily win.

With that introduction, let’s jump into the books I read or tried to read in August.

We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, by Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Frazier Page

#WeWearTheMask
We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, by Brando Skyhorse & Lisa Page

This is an enlightening book. It has nothing to do with the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s about a completely different kind of mask.

It’s 15 first-hand stories of the experience of “passing” in America as something one is not. To give you the overall flavor of the book, I’ll briefly give you the topic of each of the 15 stories:

A Mexican-American is forced by his mother to pass as an American Indian;

A Cuban Jewish lesbian tells how many of her fellow Cubans were surprised to be considered black (or “colored” in the vernacular of the early 1960s) when they arrived in the US;

A man’s half-Chinese great-grandfather changed his name twice in order to pass as white. It was more than 100 years before his descendants found out they had Chinese ancestors;

A black man was mistaken as a server at the National Book Awards banquet and realizes that one’s attire cannot counteract people’s prejudices and assumptions;

A brown woman started passing as a Puerto Rican at the age of seven when her family moved to Italian-dominant Staten Island, NY because the Italians were confused over her skin tone. She was called derogatory Asian names while her teachers made the assumption that she was Puerto Rican;

A man passed as white until he retired. Then, he moved back to his home community of darker relatives. He wasn’t totally accepted;

A white woman marries a black man and they have children; she moves to a nice retirement community in Mexico and keeps her bi-racial children a secret from her new friends… until those adult children come to her funeral; and

A transgender man passing as a woman and learning what it’s like to be an attractive woman and being hit on by creepy men and being subjected to everything from violence to unwanted catcalls to always having to be aware of one’s surroundings.

There are also stories of homosexuals passing as straight, poor people passing as wealthy, and even wealthy people passing as poor.

This is the kind of book you can pick up and read a small section of when you have a few minutes. I enjoyed reading just one story a day.


The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott

The CIA and Dr. Zhavago
The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott

This is a fascinating novel! It’s the story of how the United States set out in the 1950s to smuggle art, music, and literature into the Soviet Union and, specifically, how women typists in the CIA were instrumental in carrying out the mission.

President Eisenhower knew the US lagged behind the Soviet Union in the space and nuclear races. Here’s a quote from the novel that puts it in a nutshell: “They had their satellites, but we had their books. Back then we believed books could be weapons, that literature could change the course of history.”

The US wanted to emphasize to the everyday Soviet citizens how their government censored and persecuted the Eastern-bloc’s finest artists. They started by sending up weather balloons that would burst behind the Iron Curtain, raining down pamphlets.

Then, they started mailing books into the Soviet Union. Then, at the suggestion of one of the female typists, they started gluing the covers of non-controversial books like Charlotte’s Web and Pride and Prejudice to the covers of banded books. The ultimate objective was to smuggle in copies of Dr. Zhivago, by Russian author Boris Pasternak.

Reading Dr. Zhavigo would open the everyday Soviet citizens’ eyes to what had happened between the Russian Revolution of 1905 and World War II. The book had been banned in all Eastern-bloc countries because it was considered subversive.

This is a story of espionage that will have you cheering, especially for the women who are the unsung heroes of the CIA.


The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante

Book 2, follows My Brilliant Friend
The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante

After reading My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante in July, I looked forward to this second book in a series of four novels by Ms. Ferrante. Maybe it was just my mindset or my being distracted by wanting to work on my own novel, but The Story of a New Name did not hold my attention. I listened to almost half of the book (which is more of a chance than I normally give a book I’m not really enjoying) before I sent it back to the library. I found the two friends, Lila and Elena, more interesting as children than as adults.

This book has received good reviews, so I think it just wasn’t the right time for me to try to read it.


The Butterfly’s Daughter, by Mary Alice Monroe

#MonarchButterfly
The Butterfly’s Daughter, by Mary Alice Monroe

I’ve been intending to read a book by Mary Alice Monroe for years and finally got around to it. I listened to The Butterfly’s Daughter on Playaway while I walked every day. As I understand is true of Ms. Monroe’s novels, the reader could tell she did extensive research about the monarch butterfly before writing this book. Each chapter is prefaced with a sentence or two of monarch butterfly facts, and other information about the species is woven throughout the book.

I immediately liked the main character and I was really pulling for her on her cross-country trek through the US and into Mexico to her homeland of her grandmother where the monarchs overwinter. It was an engaging story. A bonus was that, at least on the Playaway edition I listened to, the author was the narrator.


Since my last blog post

Lightening fried our computer modem, which put a crimp in my style for several days. We’re getting into a routine for caring for our newly-diagnosed diabetic dog. 


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read.

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have productive creative time.

As the Covid-19 pandemic drags on in the US, please wear a mask out of respect for other people, even if you feel fine. Several of my cousins have been battling the virus for weeks already.

Covid-19 is real, in spite of what the current resident of the White House says.

Janet

Two Other Books I Read in July 2020

Today’s blog is about two very different novels I read last month. In case you missed last week’s blog post about the other three books I read in July, here’s the link to that post: Three of the Five Books I Read in July 2020.

I like historical fiction because it lets me escape to another place and time. One of today’s books transported me to Washington, DC and the Midwest in the second half of the 19th century, while the other novel took me to Naples, Italy in the 1950s.


Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters, by Jennifer Chiaverini

Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters, by Jennifer Chiaverini

I knew that Mary Todd (Mrs. Abraham) Lincoln had some mental illness problems, but this novel shines a light on her illness and how it affected her only surviving son and her four sisters. It demonstrates how family members can become estranged when there is mental illness in their midst and how siblings and children (even adult children) can be shut out and left feeling helpless to get the sick relative the help they need. It was true in the 19th century. Sadly, it is still true.

The Todd sisters had always been close and relied upon one another even as adults. The American Civil War caused rifts in their relationships, as one or more of their husbands were part of the Lincoln Administration while the husband of another sister was in the Confederacy.

Mrs. Lincoln attempted suicide in 1875. Her sisters try to let bygones be bygones, even though she has slighted each of them on occasion. After spending time in an asylum, Mrs. Lincoln is determined to never return. She was a very resourceful woman. She would walk out of one facility she was in, hail a taxi, and go to pharmacies to try to get drugs.

She had a volatile relationship with her son, and her mental illness was demonstrated in the way she gave and withheld things from him.

It is the second novel I’ve read by Jennifer Chiaverini, the first being Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker.


My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante

I heard that The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante, was good, so I got on the waitlist for it at the library. Then, I discovered it was the second book in her Neapolitan Series, so I got on the waitlist for the first book, My Brilliant Friend. It took a bit of juggling and pausing my hold on The Story of a New Name so I could read My Brilliant Friend first.

My Brilliant Friend is beautifully translated from Italian into English by Ann Goldstein. The prose is lovely.

My Brilliant Friend has been made into a TV series on HBO, but I have not seen it. The book follows two young girlfriends (Lila and the narrator, Elena) from their meeting at the age of 10 through their adolescent years. Elena sees Lila as more intelligent than herself. This prompts Elena to try to do everything Lila does to the extent of “copying” how she does everything. It is a complex story of women’s friendships and power. Lila and Elena’s lives reflect life in Naples, Italy in the 1950s.

There are four books in Ms. Ferrante’s Neapolitan Series of novels.


Since my last blog post

Yesterday morning at 8:07 a.m. EDT, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake occurred near Sparta, North Carolina and was felt here. I live about 100 miles from Sparta. I was sound asleep at the time and the shaking of my bed woke me up.  We don’t have a lot of earthquakes of that magnitude in North Carolina. In fact, this was the strongest one in the state since a 5.2 near Asheville in 1916.

A good thing that has resulted from the changes we’ve all had to make in our lifestyles due to the pandemic is the new opportunities people like me have to watch and listen to authors on Facebook Live and Zoom. A special weekly thing I’ve become addicted to at 7pm Eastern Time on Wednesdays is a conversation among five novelists. Look online (friendsandfiction.com) for “Friends and Fiction.”

Authors Mary Alice Monroe, Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey, and Patti Callahan Henry meet virtually every Wednesday evening to discuss reading and writing. Most weeks they have a guest author join them. From the website you can click on “Podcasts” and watch several of their earlier programs. It’s a great way to forget about the pandemic for an hour.

I’m still working my way through C.S. Lakin’s book and accompanying workbook that share the title, The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction as I continue to polish my historical fiction manuscript tentatively titled The Doubloon or The Spanish Coin.


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. If you’ve never tried listening to an audio book, I suggest you give that a try. I’ve surprised myself this year and found downloadable audio books to be my format of choice. You don’t have to worry about getting Covid-19 germs from another library patron.

If you are a writer or other type of artist, I hope you get to immerse yourself in your craft this week.

Be safe. Be well. Wear a mask out of respect for other people. We’re all in this together.

Janet