Intimate: An American Family Photo Album by Paisley Rekdal

Intimate Rekdal2012. Tupelo Press. Softcover. 261 pages.


After seeing Paisley Rekdal speak at the National Book Festival last year, I bought Intimate from the book sale area. I read it a few months ago, in two sittings. The book blends poetry, photographs, biography, imagined biography, memoir and essay. On one level, the book’s subject is the photographer Edward S. Curtis and his Apsaroke assistant and interpreter, Alexander Upshaw. Curtis famously photographed American Indians in the early 20th century, but only according to his ideas of authenticity: no contemporary clothes, no technology, no mixed-race children. At the Denver Art Museum, I saw a display which showed how Curtis erased an “errant” clock from one of his photographs.


The erased clock is the circular shape between the two men, on the floor.

Thematically, then, Intimate is largely about self-identity. Rekdal’s mother is Chinese and her father is of Norwegian descent, and Rekdal mulls her mixed-race heritage alongside of Curtis’ legacy and Upshaw’s life to great, cumulative effect. Her book embodies what Rekdal said at the Festival: that connectivity is the primary goal of non-fiction. Why does this idea go with that idea? Why is this relevant today?

Intimate is a contemplative but also incisive book. Passages echo phrases and thoughts from earlier in the book. Opinions are asserted, and then re-examined. Though describing the book as a blend of writing styles may make it sound like an academic exercise, I found Intimate to be an accessible read, and was excited to return to it after my first sitting.

A couple of excerpts:

What strikes me now about the Curtis photos is how their beauty makes the vanishing of the American Indians seem not only inevitable but impossible to protest. (This, Curtis writes, is one of the stages through which from the beginning the Indians were destined to pass.) Though his sitters may be starving outside the frame, they look so attractive inside it: To be moved by their beauty replaces having to be moved politically on their behalf.

But if I do not meet the requirements of Chinese authenticity, neither do I always meet the requirements of mixed-race authenticity, if appearance is that identity’s defining factor. Strange facts, which other mixed-race people may have noticed as well: the face changes shape, the hair changes color. Some start looking more dark, whereas I’ve become more white. Many people are surprised to hear about my mixed ethnicity, though many others aren’t. Either way, I cannot seem to think of myself without thinking of this slice of me that remains absent, persistent and obvious yet invisible. I cannot see myself without seeing first my audience, those who are seeing me.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Dao Strom on Goodreads –I read this book in one day, captivated by its form, its daring, its reaching, its beautiful writing and images…

Shin Yu on Goodreads – “I was not able to focus on any aspect of the multiple narratives at work and felt that the collage approach worked against her in this collection.”

Courtney McDermott on – “The beauty of the book’s form is that it so perfectly marries the content—fragments of writing about fragments of history.”


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Catching up with some mini-reviews! In order from the most recommended to the least recommended, with the last book rating quite far below the rest.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Smith’s wry, tumbling prose sucked me into this saga of two families living in England during the last few decades of the 20th century. It’s the writing style that I most loved – laughing as it blissfully skewered everything and everyone in sight and enjoying how it tossed around teeth metaphors like candy. I thought the plotting had its weak moments, particularly in the contrivances of the final climactic scene where everyone’s separate interests converge in one time and place. However, I would gladly read another book by Zadie Smith.

Crocodile on a Sandbank (Amelia Peabody #1) by Elizabeth Peters

Fun, compulsively readable mystery set in late 19th century Egypt. Loved Amelia’s take-charge attitude and the way she acquires a companion and friend in Evelyn. Though I don’t have a great track record for following up with mystery series, I hope to read more of the Amelia Peabody series in the future.

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

First Rainbow Rowell book I heard of, and the first one I’ve read. I liked Rowell’s choice to set the novel in 1999; it makes the small-town newspaper setting poignant, without being heavy-handed. The banter between the two friends over email is fun. The romantic plotline is sweet though far from untroubled. I rolled with it, but it’s vulnerable to astute analysis – as I’ve read in other bloggers’ reviews.

Skinny Dip by Carl Hiassen

Listened to this book on audio while on a long drive up to Maine. In brief: a woman plots an elaborate revenge on her no-good husband who thought he had successfully murdered her. Skinny Dip is darkly humorous, baring its teeth when it comes to the destruction of the Everglades, which is a central part of the narrative. It went on a little too long, but the ending was satisfying.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

This fantasy novel had some great world-building especially the debauched kingdom city recklessly using defeated gods as their slaves. I enjoyed the matter-of-fact way the protagonist dealt with the fact of her likely doom at the start of the novel. As much as I enjoyed a number of the elements, however, I didn’t love the novel overall. By the time it ended, I didn’t feel the urge to read more of this series.

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Budding cinephile Anna is sent to an elite boarding school in France for her senior year, to bolster her father’s conception of his own prestige. She is adopted by a small group of friends and falls in love with one of them. I enjoyed Anna’s inner monologue as she navigated the new school. The name-checking of translated fiction like Yoshimoto’s Kitchen was a nice touch. But the angst of Anna’s romantic adventures was more than I could take. The teenagers wander around making huge dramatic public scenes and my reaction was that they were embarrassing themselves and bothering strangers who were just trying to go about their day.


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Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

“It’s easy to forget that the harm done to a rape victim who is disbelieved can be at least as devastating as the harm done to an innocent man who is unjustly accused of rape. And without question, the former happens much more frequently than the latter.”

MissoulaKrakauer’s book Missoula, published this year, describes the course of several rape cases that occurred in the college town of Missoula, Montana. The book details the circumstances of the assaults as well as the response by police, university administration, the Missoula County Attorney’s office, the media, and the citizens of Missoula.

Missoula is a compelling but deeply upsetting book to read, not only because of the assaults on these women, but also the traumatic injustice of how their cases were indifferently and even hostilely handled by authorities. After one woman reported her rape to the police, an officer asked her if she had a boyfriend. She answered “No, I don’t. Why?” “And he said something to the effect of “Well, sometimes girls cheat on their boyfriends, and regret it, and then claim they were raped.”

This conversation is just one example of a seemingly omnipresent and reflexive response to rape: an immediate suspicion and in many cases, a persistent belief, that the rape accusation is false. Even in the case of Beau Donaldson, who confessed on tape to raping his longtime friend Allison Huguet, his family and friends still spread rumors that it was a false accusation.

Then there were those people who didn’t participate in that level of denial, but still resisted the idea of Donaldson serving real time for his crime. Witnesses testified at Donaldson’s sentencing hearing that what he did was “out of character” and a “mistake”, despite a second woman coming forward to testify that Donaldson had also sexually assaulted her (her friends had to break down the door to stop it.) In this case and in others in the book, there is a disgusting amount of community hand-wringing over the possible ruination of these men’s reputations and futures – disgusting because of the substantially lower amount of concern given to the traumatized victims.

Krakauer’s book focuses on both the university adjudication process and the criminal justice system’s handling of these rape cases. Although criticism is aimed at both the police and the university officials, I think the Missoula County Attorney’s Office possibly edged out the others for receiving the harshest criticism in the book.

According to the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, from January 2008 through April 2012 the Missoula Police Department referred 114 reports of sexual assault of adult women to the MCAO for prosecution. A “referral” indicated that the police department had completed its investigation of the case in question, determined that there was probable cause to charge the individual accused of sexual assault, and recommended that the case be prosecuted. Of the 114 sexual assaults referred for prosecution, however, the MCAO filed charges in only 14 of those cases.

Among the people working for the MCAO, Kirsten Pabst is particularly singled out for criticism. She was the supervisor of MCAO’s sexual assault division during all but two months of the above time range. Her first appearance in the book is a description of her agreement to testify in support of an accused rapist, Calvin Harris, during a University Court proceeding in November 2011. Pabst had declined to prosecute him in criminal court. In her testimony to the University, Pabst characterized the case as “clear-cut”, though she had never talked to the victim, and Pabst’s description of the case got many pertinent details wrong.

Pabst resigned from MCAO in March 2012 to start her own law firm, and about a month later, became co-counsel in defending Univ. of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson in a very contentious and public rape trial. Her and her fellow defense counsel’s court behavior is weaselly and low; Krakauer points out that the current justice system fosters such behavior. In the end, Johnson was found not guilty, and Pabst was later elected to be the Missoula County Attorney, boosted by citizens pleased by her defense of the quarterback of their beloved football team. She still holds that office. (And is none too pleased about Krakauer’s book.)

Krakauer makes it clear from the beginning that Missoula is not unusual in the amount of rape cases it has, or in its many failures in handling those cases. This book is not about an anomaly, but about a national problem. Because the public and the justice system still do not grasp the realities of non-stranger rape, serial sexual predators are able to assault a number of victims without fear of being caught, because they don’t fit the stereotype of the “man jumping out from the bushes.”

I still remember the shock and anger I felt when I first encountered the reflexive belief that false rape accusations are prevalent. I was a college sophomore and had just learned about the molestation of a teenager I knew. I told some friends about it, and my friend’s boyfriend’s immediate response was to pontificate about false rape accusations and how they can destroy men’s reputations. Neither the victim or the perpetrator was anyone he knew – it happened in a different part of the country entirely. I was furious. He treated a story of someone I cared about as an opportunity to highlight what he apparently saw as the more pressing concern.

I’m glad I read Missoula, despite the drain on my emotions and the rise in my blood pressure. I’m glad Krakauer used his authorial stature and his research acumen to address this area of injustice.

I do recommend this book, though I should add that I read it as someone who has never been sexually assaulted or witnessed a sexual assault. Anyone who has qualms about reading it due to personal experience should feel okay with skipping it. Maybe read some reviews of it, short interviews of the author, etc if you want to be informed without going through the intense retelling of the rape cases.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Amy’s Book Obsession – “What an important exploration of rape and the justice system, using Missoula as a case study! After working with sexual assault victims for many years, this book really resonated with the experiences that I saw with my own clients (and a few friends who experienced rape & didn’t have great experiences with the justice system).” – “Krakauer never shies from providing riveting accounts on the toughest of topics, attitudes towards acquaintance rape in Missoula are as scary as any of the other material he’s covered.”

The Well-Read Redhead – “While I expected Krakauer to take particular issue with Jordan Johnson’s case (as he was acquitted of rape), I was compelled by the fact that his book does not attack the verdict itself, but rather the way in which it was reached.  Krakauer does not attempt to play judge-and-jury . . . what he does do is dismantle the appalling tactics used by the defense throughout the trial, as well as the many problems with how the prosecution moved forward with the victim’s case.”


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Romance novel round-up

The NPR podcast, Pop Culture Happy Hour, had a great episode recently all about the romance genre. Just today, there was a bunch of Twitter discussion about the genre in reaction to an article posted to the Mary Sue. And all that reminded me that I should do a catch-up post on some of the romance novels I’ve been reading recently.

Author: Courtney Milan

I first started reading Milan last year, and loved her interesting characters, feminist and social justice sensibility, and especially her smart smart writing. This year, I read some more of Milan’s Brothers Sinister historical romance series including A Kiss for Midwinter, The Countess Conspiracy, and The Suffragette Scandal.

The Suffragette ScandalOf the three, The Suffragette Scandal is the one most likely to land on my all-time favorites of Milan’s books. The novel features Frederica “Free” Marshall, a Cambridge graduate from Girton College, and a suffragette who publishes a paper about women, by women and for women. Edward Clark has just returned from years in France to help a friend who is being hounded by Edward’s brother – a brother who deliberately cut Edward off from assistance during the Franco-Prussian war. It turns out Edward’s brother has the larger goal of shutting down Free Marshall’s press, so Edward seeks to ally with Free against a common enemy. In the course of events, they fall in love.

I was sorry when this book ended as I became so fond of this activist power couple. I loved the dynamic between Edward, who is disillusioned and cynical at the start of the book and Free, who is not naive, but who still sees hope in the small differences she can make for women’s lives through her work. As in her other books, Milan’s characters refreshingly take the direct course in moments when one expects them to beat around the bush.

For example:

“Which of my myriad flaws is making you uneasy, Miss Marshall?” He gave her a long, slow smile. “Is it my arrogant conceit or my wicked sense of humor?”

“Neither,” Free answered. “I rather like both of those. It’s just that you’re trying to use my attraction to you to set me on edge.” She smiled at him. “It won’t work. I’ve been attracted to you since the moment I laid eyes on you, and it hasn’t made me stupid once.”

I held back from including a longer excerpt, so you’ll have to take my word that the conversation continues to gets very interesting and wonderful from there.


Along with the Brothers Sinister books, I also read Courtney Milan’s first contemporary novel, Trade Me. Because I trust her as an author, I was willing to take on a book with this premise: after a blistering debate about income inequality in their college seminar class, Blake Reynolds, a tech billionaire’s son, offers to trade places with Tina Chen for a month. Chen greets this offer with the kind of incredulity that is normal – an early indicator that Milan is able to inject a surprising amount of plausibility to the plot.

Trade Me ends up being quite serious in some of the plot developments, but there’s enough humor in the banter to keep things light in the balance. The romance itself was good, though perhaps not as well-built as those in Milan’s historicals; there’s plenty in Trade Me to balance out any slight disappointment in that regard. Early in the book, Tina delivers this masterful set-down to Blake’s father that made me so happy. I hope I can do it justice with a short excerpt. Context: Tina is at dinner with Blake and Blake’s father. Tina and Blake are pretending to be boyfriend and girlfriend for reasons that are plausible but I won’t explain here. Blake’s father has offered Tina money to break up with Blake.

“You’ve admitted that you’d sell him out,” he snaps. “That at some point, money is more important than he is.”

You’ve admitted the same thing. If I’m a faithless whore because I’ll take a check to break up with Blake, you’re the asshole who values your company and lifestyle more than your son.”

“That’s not just my company. That’s my life. It’s his life. It’s -”

“Oh, and you think it’s just money for me?” I glare at him. “You think that you’d give me fifty thousand dollars and I’d spend it all on shoes and diamond-studded cat collars? Fifty thousand dollars would pay for the rest of my college tuition. It would buy my dad a lawyer so that the next time his knee acted up, he could finally get disability instead of scrambling to find some job he can manage. It would make it so I didn’t have to work for the next year and could concentrate on my schoolwork. That’s a really ugly double standard, Mr. Reynolds. When money exists to make your life more pleasant, it’s not just money. But when it’s my family and my dreams at stake, it’s just pieces of green paper.”

Blake smiles softly.

His father reaches across the table and flicks Blake’s forehead. “Stop grinning.”

“No way.” Blake is smiling harder. “She’s kicking your ass. This is the best day ever.”

So if you’re a Milan fan, and have been wary of reading Trade Me because it’s not a historical romance, don’t be. Jump right in.

Author: Julie James

It Happened Julie JamesSpeaking of contemporary, I recently read Julie James’ It Happened One Wedding, #5 in the FBI/US Attorney series. Back in May, Amber from Buried By Books tweeted a quote from Julie James where James said she likes putting Alpha heroes with Alpha heroines because it results in a lot of conflict and tension. I love that she puts Alpha heroines in her books because I enjoy reading about heroines who like their careers, and work hard in demanding professions. In an earlier book in the FBI/US Attorney series, I wasn’t sure which was more swoonworthy: the romantic scenes or the scene where the heroine successfully negotiates for a promotion. In It Happened One Wedding, the heroine is a director of a private equity firm. I like that Julie James always does her research so that the heroine’s job title is never just a short-cut way of saying she’s in a high-powered job. You get a fairly plausible idea of what’s involved in being a private equity firm director without it dragging the narrative down.

I do wish that the characters weren’t quite so uniformly, universally gorgeous and well-dressed, and generally well-off. It’s lot of pencil skirts and high heels and tony restaurants (nothing wrong with pencil skirts and high heels, but it’s basically the professional wardrobe description of every one of the heroines). But I forgive that for the series’ other merits – especially the humor that is sown throughout.

Author: Mary Balogh

The Escape BaloghI’m new to Mary Balogh, who writes historical romance. My library had The Escape available as an e-book. Julie James’ books aside, I often tire of Alpha heroes in romance, and The Escape has such a lovely beta hero in Ben. Ben is a disabled war veteran uncertain about his next stage in life. Reluctant to oust his younger brother from the family estate, he travels to visit with his sister in the north of England. There he meets Samantha, a widow who is also uncertain about her next steps, and whose in-laws have nearly cut her off from friendly society. Learning of Samantha’s plan to escape to some inherited property in Wales, Ben offers to escort her there.

There was a nice quiet quality to this romance, and the Welsh setting in the latter half of the book was an enjoyable aspect. (Mary Balogh grew up in Wales though she lives now in Canada.)

I went on to read Balogh’s Slightly Wicked and A Summer to Remember. The former was fine, but had some plot elements that were not my jam – though the heroine’s outwitting of her scheming relatives was an awesome moment. The latter book was sweet in the best way, and had a charming non-alpha hero.

The Pop Culture Happy Hour mentioned a few other authors I may try out, such as Eloisa James, Loretta Chase, Sonali Dev, and Beverly Jenkins. Have you read any of these authors? Let me know in the comments.


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The Nurses by Alexandra Robbins

Nurses Robbins

The Nurses: A Year of Secrets, Drama, and Miracles with the Heroes of the Hospital

2015. Workman Publishing. ebook. 368 pages.

In a nutshell:

The Nurses is a deep-dive examination of what it is like to work in the nursing profession today. Robbins’ book follows four ER nurses through the events of one year. The names of the nurses and their hospitals have been changed to protect their identity, and of course the city where all of the nurses work is never named. One nurse battles the temptation to relapse into narcotics abuse after the death of her mother; another nurse is newly minted and trying to find her place; the other two nurses have their own personal and professional challenges. These four narratives are balanced with chapters of well-researched discussion of the challenges facing nurses today.


When I was a freshman in college, I lived on a dormitory floor that held a contingent of students from the rigorous nursing program. I had a lot of respect for them as I witnessed the stress of their studies; on occasion, I helped them study for anatomy by flipping flashcards. On Thursday nights, the nursing students had a tradition of gathering in the lounge and watching the tv show ER. I don’t think they necessarily held it as a realistic example of the hospital environment, but I suspect it helped keep alive their inspiration as they waded through their studies. I remember all of them as being tough, kind and smart, exactly the kind of people you would want looking after you in your time of need.

As evident in The Nurses, Alexandra Robbins also holds the nursing profession in high regard. She doesn’t gloss over issues such as the practice of more experienced nurses often “eating their young” or the fact that nurses aren’t immune to workplace cliques, but her main goal is to educate the public about nurses and to tell nurses’ stories. Robbins’ journalistic career has mostly been in the realm of education, but nurses kept asking her to tell their stories, and once she heard the stories, she was hooked, as she says in this interview on BookPage.

One of the main misconceptions about nursing is an old one: the idea of nurses as “hand-maidens” to the god-like doctor. The reality is that nurses are a vital part of the medical team treating the patient, and the “hand-maiden” paradigm is detrimental as it can lead to doctors discounting nurses’ wealth of knowledge, or even doctors mistreating nurses. And the blame for something going wrong disproportionately falls on the nurses. In one account, a nurse verified a dosage with a doctor six times; she had misgivings on the amount, but was unfamiliar with the medication, and it was unlisted in the drug handbook available to her. On past occasions, when she knew the medication, she had no qualms of overriding the doctor. In this case, she did not. The dosage did turn out to be wrong and though the doctor took responsibility for the mistake, the nurse still was written up in her record because she was the one who administered the medication.

I really appreciated the inclusion of the ER nurse who had a past narcotics addiction. What started with a legitimate prescription for Percocet spiraled out of control as the stress of her job and life led her to take advantage of her easy access to morphine and other narcotics.  After hitting rock-bottom, she enrolled in a strict rehab program specifically tailored for medical professionals, which got her clean and eventually eased her back into the profession. Throughout the year covered by this book, she faithfully attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings several times a week. Her story is not unusual; the nursing profession is vulnerable to addiction due to the stress and access to powerful drugs, though many institutions have put in protocols that have made it less easy to get the drugs without being noticed.

Another shocking aspect to the nursing profession is the frequent lack of a safety support structure to protect nurses against assault by patients, patients’ family members, and even other staff.

This is precisely what a Massachusetts judge told a nurse when he threw out her case against her attacker: Getting assaulted is part of the job. This attitude, which I’ll call the “shrug-it-off culture,” can make nurses feel that reporting an attack will reflect poorly on the nurse as an individual, as if the violence is a result of their own negligence or weakness. Partly because assaults are so common, the industry has conveyed that being attacked is acceptable.”

Some institutions are taking appropriate measures. Robbins specifically praises the Veterans Administration Medical Center which decreased the number of violent attacks by 91.6 percent after installing a database to identify patients with a history of violence.

The Nurses casts a critical eye on patient satisfaction surveys, a piece of the Affordable Care Act that can affect Medicare’s funding to hospitals. For example, “the survey doesn’t ask whether the hospital resolved or improved the patient’s medical issue, which one would hope would be the primary determinant of a patient’s satisfaction with the experience.” In early version of the survey, a comment section highlighted how erratic patients’ ideas of “satisfaction” can be, as some patients complained about things like a lack of Splenda, or a dying roommates’ noisy breathing. And of course, there are obvious shortcomings to such surveys: “Molly clocked out and stayed for two hours holding a dying man’s hand because he did not wish to die alone. He won’t be polled about his hospital experience.”

The last chapter of The Nurses is called “What You Can Do: Advice and Inspiration for the Public, Patients, Families, Nurses, Aspiring Nurses, Managers and others.” A few of the take-away points for Patients/Families:

– Appoint one family spokesperson.

– Ask questions – instead of “why” which can put staff in defensive, phrase it more like “help us to understand why he’s getting this medication”.

– Bring hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes.

– “If you want to help the nurse, ask what you can do for the patient.” – family members can bathe patient, “brush their teeth, take them on walks, participate in therapies, and handle feeding”.

Not listed in this chapter, but something I gathered from the book overall, is to try and seek a hospital with a high patient-to-nurse ratio.

It’s funny, for all that this book highlighted the challenges and toughness of the nursing profession, it kind of does make you want to drop whatever profession you are in, and go become a nurse to care for people and save lives. And then, following on the heels of that thought, I admit to myself that I am probably not thick-skinned enough to succeed in that environment.

On that note, I will conclude with one of the most moving accounts in the book:

Juliette was hooking the woman up to the cardiac monitor when the patient took her hand and said breathily, “I just want to say good-bye.”

“What are you talking about?” Juliette said. The words sounded strange.

“I’m just going to say good-bye,” the woman repeated. Her eyes went vapid. The monitor showed the woman’s heart rate plummeting to zero. There was no time to press a code button. There was no IV to utilize.

Juliette didn’t even think. She did the precordial thump, a method of resuscitating a patient in cardiac arrest: She raised her forearm to her nose and brought it down hard on the woman’s chest. The woman opened her eyes and burst into tears. She seemed to know exactly what had happened. “Thank you,” she whispered, grasping Juliette’s hand. “Thank you.”


Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Book’d Out – “Written with heart, detail and honesty, Nurses is an eye opening look at the frustrations and joys of this undervalued profession. A must read not only for any one contemplating joining the field but also for those already embedded within it, and anyone interested in what really goes on behind the scenes.”

The Book Nurse – “I’ve been a Registered Nurse for 37 years and have practiced in many different settings in hospitals, clinics, EMS, education, publishing, and, now as a school nurse. I can’t think of another career that provides so many different avenues for change and self-fulfillment from one basic degree. As one quote puts it, “nursing isn’t just a job — it’s who I am.” I could relate to almost every scenario presented in this book, and only wish that it had followed the stories of nurses from other departments besides the ER.”

The Nurse Teacher – “I felt like someone had followed me around for my career and took notes.”


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Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

IMG_11291942. Tess Press. Hardcover. 210 pages.


In the early 1920’s, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough, freshly graduated from Bryn Mawr, took a transatlantic voyage to England and then to Paris. As far as travel memoirs are concerned, this does not fall into the camp of intrepid daring or visiting obscure corners of the earth. On the scale of adventure, it was perhaps the equivalent of the backpack-and-hostel trip my friend and I undertook in France when we were college students, except Skinner and Kimbrough’s trip was much longer and was without 21st century conveniences such as planes and internet cafes. Cornelia’s parents make appearances in England and in Paris, careful to let the young women have their independence, but thankfully on-hand for various health crises (a bout of German measles, bedbugs) and nice hotel meals.

The memoir is told completely from Cornelia’s first-person perspective – though Emily is credited for remembering most of it. Cornelia and Emily’s ship departs from Montreal, but it runs aground before reaching the Atlantic and they have to arrange for another passage. This is merely the first of a series of misadventures. The memoir is told in a voice of artful self-deprecation, and the authors have a fond indulgence for their younger selves. Most of the humor derives from Cornelia and Emily’s attempts to be worldly-wise, fashionable adults.

Our Hearts Were Young and Gay is definitely a very funny, very witty book. The tone is reminiscent of E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady (which I just saw was Simon of Stuck in the Book’s comparison too). When I was deciding whether to buy this book (having never heard of it before), I read a little of the first page and immediately knew that I was going to get along with it famously.

I, clutching and occasionally kissing our steamship passage, was arriving from New York, Emily from Buffalo. That is, I hoped Emily was arriving. Emily’s notions concerning geography, like some of her other notions, were enthusiastic but lacking in accuracy. Some weeks previous she had sent me a rhapsodic letter which ended with the alarming words, “I live for the moment when our boat pushes out from that dock in Winnipeg.” I had written back in a panic and block letters stating, somewhat crushingly I thought, that the C. P. O. seldom sent its ships overland, that we were sailing from Montreal, Province of Quebec, that the name of our vessel was the Montcalm and the date June 10th, the year of our Lord I shan’t say which, because Emily and I have now reached the time in life when not only do we lie about our ages, we forget what we’ve said they are.

Skinner has a talent for turning herself, Emily, her family and everyone she meets into lively characters who stumble merrily into comic set-pieces. These characters include famous people. Due to a connection with Cornelia’s father, a successful stage actor, Cornelia and Emily, and Cornelia’s parents are invited to H.G. Wells’ house in England and end up playing a sort of train-wreck badminton game with the other guests (Margaret Sanger plays on Emily’s team.)

For the most part, any dated aspects of the book came across as quaint or fascinating. I looked up some cultural references now and again, but the narrative didn’t rely overmuch on them. Less quaint, but important to acknowledge, were the reminders that Cornelia and Emily grew up accustomed to segregated society: the young women gulp a bit when they are seated next to two Senegalese dignitaries during dinner at their Parisian pension. Further ventures into Parisian society lead to a conversation where Cornelia’s mother “explains” homosexuality to the young women in such vague but somber terms that they leave “feeling that even if we had not quite grasped the essentials, this had all been extremely momentous.”

In and around all the misadventures, Skinner does allow for some more contemplative touches. While in Paris, Emily and Cornelia visit regularly with a maimed victim of World War I and help him sell crafts to American tourists. When the man is allowed to leave the veterans’ home for a week’s stay with his family, he invites Cornelia and Emily to visit him at his home, where they “suddenly realized that for this week he was a man of property, a citizen of a community, not just a number in a bleak government hospital.”

There is indeed a poignant layer to Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. Published in 1942, its initial readers must have contrasted the exuberance of Paris depicted in the book with the Nazi-occupied Paris, and the peacetime London with the London suffering through the Blitz. Or perhaps for its many readers (for it was a popular book), it served as some much needed entertainment and escapism. Skinner and Kimbrough’s book was selected as one of the titles packaged as Armed Services Editions to be distributed to the troops. As quoted in Molly Guptill Manning’s When Books Went to War, Emily Kimbrough said she was “more proud of that edition than of being selected Book of the Month.” In Steven Ambrose’s The Good Fight, he relates a private’s account of returning to Omaha Beach the day after D-Day:

I came across what was probably the most poignant memory I have of the whole episode. Lying on the beach was a young soldier, his arms outstreched. Near one of his hands, as if he had been reading it, was a pocketbook [paperback]. It was Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner. This expressed the spirit of our ordeal. Our hearts were young and gay because we thought we were immortal, we believed we were doing a great thing, and we really believed in the crusade which we hoped would liberate the world from the heel of Nazism.

I feel a little bad for ending this review on such a somber note for what is really a hilarious, laugh-out-loud book, but I definitely think that the context adds to the reading without diminishing its light-hearted spirit. Cornelia Skinner went on to have a career as an actress and writer. Emily Kimbrough had a career in journalism.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

A Penguin A Week – “One of the most endearing qualities of their humour is that there is nothing cruel about it; they have fun only at their own expenses. They celebrate what it is to be young, enthusiastic, and desperate to make an impression.”

Not really a review, but a piece reflecting on the book on The Toast

Danielle of A Work in Progress mailed the book to members of her postal reading group.


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The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Round-House2012. HarperCollins. Hardcover. 321 pages.

In a nutshell: The Round House is about Joe, a 13-year-old boy living on a North Dakota reservation in 1988. At the start of the novel, Joe’s mother is raped and nearly killed by a perpetrator she either won’t or can’t identify. Throughout the summer, Joe grapples with the emotional aftershock of his irrevocably changed family, and also seeks to find the person who attacked his mother.


Although the premise of The Round House is grim, I wouldn’t say that this is a dark-toned novel overall. Erdrich lets a lot of light and kindness and even humor thread through the story, mainly in her depiction of the various characters that populate the reservation’s community.

One of my favorite side characters was Linda, a white woman who was raised on the reservation by an Ojibwe hospital staff member after her parents rejected her at birth for a congenital deformity. I liked how Erdrich stopped Joe’s narrative a third of the way through for “Linda’s story” which is engrossing in its own right while also shedding light into Joe’s story. Erdrich also interrupts the narrative later for a folktale/history told by an elderly relative of Joe’s named Mooshum. I use the word “interrupts” but I don’t mean it negatively. Instead Linda and Mooshum’s stories show the importance of telling and listening to each others’ stories. As Teresa of Shelf Love said in her recent review of The Round House the book conveys the idea that “Our stories are our own yet part of others’ stories.” Joe’s mother, Geraldine, also gets a chance to tell her story, after a period of lengthy silence.

I liked that Geraldine – though usually off-screen for the events of this book – isn’t treated as a cipher, as just someone to be revenged. There’s a point where Joe, out of fear, tries to provoke her into leaving the bedroom where she has sequestered herself. She says to him: “Now you listen to me, Joe. You will not badger me or harass me. You will leave me to think the way I want to think, here. I have to heal any way I can.”

Back to the light and kindness and humor, much of the story involves Joe’s friendships with three other boys, who nerd out over Star Trek and get themselves into mild trouble by drinking beer and crashing church youth group events. This kids-of-the-summer vibe brought to mind the appealing kids of the movie Super 8. (In discussion of this book, Teresa compared it to Stand By Me, which is a much more classic reference, but alas not a movie I’ve seen.) The Round House includes the kind of tales that adults relish telling about their own childhood, as in, remember the time Cappy ill-advisedly felt compelled to confess a particular sin to the priest and the priest chased him around the reservation. This kind of ready-made tall tale is juxtaposed with characters’ uncomfortable decisions to keep secrets from each other.

The Round House also reminded me of Ivan Doig’s The Whistling Season. Both are coming-of-age tales told by an older version of the protagonist who drops minor hints about the future. Namely, these crucial events in their youth help decide their future career trajectories. Doig’s book is set about a century before Erdrich’s, but in the fellow prairie state of Montana. Doig and Erdrich both richly depict the dynamics of family and community.

What I also appreciated about Erdrich was her very slight supernatural touches, like a matter-of-fact acceptance of seeing ghosts on occasion. I also liked how the elderly relative of Mooshum has no known age and appears timeless, a tantalizing human bridge to an earlier era that was almost outside of history. That aspect reminded me of some of Lee Smith’s books about Appalachia, like Fair and Tender Ladies or On Agate Hill.

I will be sure to read more Erdrich in the future. This was the first book I’ve read by her, despite always meaning to read works like Love Medicine and the Master Butchers Singing Club. I discovered my co-worker Kim is a huge Erdrich fan and she highly recommended The Last Miracle at Little No Horse.

Excerpts from others’ reviews (found by searching the Book Blogs Search Engine – to be added, go to Fyrefly’s site):

Booklust – “I loved that Erdrich showed just how flawed everyone was, but also made clear the strong bond that tied them all together.”

The Boston Bibliophile – “What I found was a novel that was at once easy to read and difficult to fully assimilate . . . The smoothness of Erdrich’s prose belies the uncompromising toughness beneath the surface.”

The Mookse and the Gripes – “The summertime coming-of-age stuff was partially there to show Joe’s own tendencies toward women, but for the most part it isn’t done well enough to serve anything other than a conventional, rote story.”


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