Tag Archives: Book reviews

The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray

“The Women of Chateau Lafayette” (2021) by Stephanie Dray follows three women through four wars. One thread that connects the novel’s characters is Chavaniac, or the Chateau Lafayette, the marquis de Lafayette’s childhood home. Another thread is the women’s commitment to Lafayette’s ideals of freedom. The three women of Chateau Lafayette include Adrienne, a noblewoman, Beatrice, a former dance-hall girl, and Marthe, an orphan.

Adrienne and Gilbert Lafayette married in 1774 when she was 14 and he was 16 years old. Three years later, a pregnant Adrienne sent her husband to fight in the American Revolutionary War. While in America, Lafayette made a name for himself as a hero. He then brought his ideals of freedom for everyone to France where they were met with mixed results. Dray’s book then follows Adrienne through the turmoil of the French Revolutionary period.

Socialite Beatrice Astor-Chandler worked to support France before the U.S. entered WWI. She used her connections to raise large amounts of money to purchase supplies for the French soldiers. Eventually she and her husband purchased Chavaniac, turning it into an orphanage.

Marthe was raised at the Chavaniac orphanage during the latter part of WWI, then went on to teach at the orphanage. She used her artistic talents to make her corner of France a better place in spite of WWII and the Nazi presence in France.

If you don’t like reading a book that moves through different time periods, this is not the book for you. The chapters are short, and rotate through each woman. Sometimes the women are tackling similar issues through the rotation, including relationship trials and facing down enemies. Each woman has her own distinct personality. 

I found all three of the women’s stories equally interesting, so I didn’t enjoy one storyline more than another. However, I did read “The Women of Chateau Lafayette” with a Wikipedia tab open. I discovered Chavianic is a real place, and further explored the history of some of the more remarkable characters.   

The author was kind enough to include an Author’s Note explaining which characters were real (most of them were), and which events actually happened. “As in all my historical novels, the most outrageous bits are true,” says Dray.

I would recommend “The Women of Chateau Lafayette” by Stephanie Dray to anyone who enjoys women-centric historical novels, particularly those that happen during war-time. You can find this title at the Gering Public Library on the shelf next to “America’s First Daughter” which Dray wrote about Patsy Jefferson Randolph. Dray joins a number of authors writing about women during war-time, including Lauren Willig, Martha Kelly, and Kate Quinn.

Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

I am not sure when Walter Isaacson started researching “The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and the Future of the Human Race” but it takes a lot of research to fill a 500 page book. Jennifer Doudna (and Emmanuelle Charpentier) received the Nobel Prize for developing a genome editing tool called CRISPR.

Isaacson did a lot of research. He spoke to most of Doudna’s colleagues, her competitors and some detractors as well. “The Code Breaker” is thorough, covering chemistry, scientists, patents, biotechnology, biohackers, genetic editing and ethics among other topics. Isaacson took the time to understand the science behind CRISPR well enough to explain it to the general reader.

CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. It has to do with DNA. This phrase will be like RADAR, an acronym where most people understand what it means without remembering exactly what it stands for.

It started with the discovery that single cell bacteria had developed a way to protect themselves from viruses. Bacteria can alter the DNA in viruses, leaving a virus unable to infect the bacteria. Learning how bacteria can fight off viruses helped researchers in Doudna’s lab develop a gene editing tool called CRISPR. “Just as bacteria have spent millennia evolving ways to develop immunity to viruses, perhaps we humans should use our ingenuity to do the same.”

With the human genome mostly decoded by 2003, genes for specific diseases could be isolated. CRISPR has been used to “correct” DNA for debilitating diseases like sickle cell disease. Researchers are currently developing ways to use CRISPR to cure many other diseases.  “The evolutionary process cares little about what happens to us after we have children and get them to a safe age, so there are a whole bunch of middle-aged maladies, including Huntington’s and most forms of cancer, that we humans would want to eliminate, even though nature sees no need to.”

CRISPR was waiting for a chance to shine when a novel coronavirus hit the scene. It was immediately obvious that this technology could be put to use to develop a vaccine for Covid-19.

I enjoy reading science-y books. There is a lot of complicated science involved with the development of CRISPR. Isaacson goes to great lengths to break down each concept into understandable language. He starts at the beginning and each idea builds on the one before. I understood each concept long enough to see how it supported the next concept. I don’t remember a lot of the science now- it’s been nearly a month since I read the book. I understood it while I was reading it and that is what was necessary.

One thing Isaacson stresses throughout the book is how science builds on itself. A discovery by one person makes a discovery by another person possible. While Doudna and Charpentier won the Nobel, their work was made possible by many other scientists. 

You can find “The Code Breaker” by Walter Isaacson at the Gering Library. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in understanding how the Covid vaccines were rapidly developed using science discovered in 2011. CRISPR is what the future of medicine will look like. It’s a big book, but it’s a big subject. If you enjoy “The Code Breaker,” Isaacson has written biographies of several people, including Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo daVinci, Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein. He followed up his biography of Jobs with a book on the digital revolution. All of these books are available at the Gering Library.

The Midwest Survival Guide by Charlie Berens

I have been giggling my way through “The Midwest Survival Guide” by Charlie Berens since it came in. You might have seen his videos shared on Facebook- he’s the host of the Manitowoc Minute. The guy who talks through his nose and does all the funny videos about living in the Midwest. He’s the opposite of camera-shy. If you haven’t seen him, you should Google him. He’s funny. 

The dedication reads, [sic] “For Grandpa Bob If all perch go to heaven, it’s a little awkward for Grandpa Bob right now…” Berens begins the book by explaining how Ohio and Nebraska are both in the Midwest, something I have long been skeptical about. To be honest, I am still not convinced. Chapters cover topics like Midwest Language, People, Driving, Goings-On, College Life, and Food and Drink. The final chapter is called Junk Drawer- it contains a jumble of things that didn’t fit elsewhere in the book. He also includes a handy lexicon at the end. 

Berens’ writing is as distinctive as his speaking. If you have heard Berens talk, it will take you longer to read this book, because he speaks slowly. He celebrates fly-over country and is happy to discuss anything that crosses his mind. I learned that ranch dressing was invented by a guy who was born in Thayer, Nebraska. I also learned the difference between a hot dish and a casserole. 

Charlie Berens presents useful information, including a list of helpful pastimes to try when waiting for trains. He explains how to tell the difference between plaid and flannel, and where it appropriate to wear each one. “The Midwest Survival Guide” includes a recommended playlist for Midwest traveling (or to jam to while waiting for a train). He also curated a list of iconic Midwest movies and books.

He misses some things from this end of the Midwest. He includes several pages about euchre, but doesn’t mention pitch, although his euchre suggestions will work in a pitch game. He totally forgot to mention Carhenge as a vacation destination, although he mentions Scottsbluff often enough to make me wonder if he’s been here. 

Throughout the book, Berens relates several personal stories. “I want to tell you the story of how I got my first car in the distinguished Midwest fashion: I Dick Cheney’d my dad’s minivan. That’s right, I shot it. With a shotgun. But only once. Because it was an accident…. This wasn’t just any minivan. It was a certified preowned Silver Dodge Grand Caravan SXT. SXT stands for SEXY XT. This was the Cadillac of minivans. It had everything! A CD player. Bucket seats. Polyester. The only thing it was missing was wood paneling. I’m from a big family; we weren’t used to a life of such luxuries.” I won’t spoil the story for you, but it’s funny.

Anyone who is ready for a giggle would enjoy this book. Charlie has put together a comprehensive guide to all things Midwest. If you grew up here, you will enjoy reading it. If you moved here, it might explain some things.  You can find Charlie Berens’ first book, “The Midwest Survival Guide: How We Talk, Love, Work, Drink, and Eat . . . Everything with Ranch” on the new book shelf at the Gering Public Library.

Jonis Agee

Have you read “The Bones of Paradise” by Jonis Agee? What did you think of it? Every year Nebraskans are encouraged to read a specific book to facilitate a common topic of discussion. We are fortunate enough to have this year’s author visit the Lied Scottsbluff Public Library August 25 at 1:30 p.m. to share in our community discussion. Everyone is welcome to come listen to Agee speak.

Jonis Agee’s book “The Bones of Paradise” was chosen as the 2022 One Book One Nebraska selection. Agee is the Adele Hall Chair of English at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and has written several books. Her works include fiction, nonfiction, poetry and short stories. Agee received the Nebraska Book Award twice and authored three different titles honored as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

“The Bones of Paradise” begins with two murders which don’t seem to be connected. As the story continues, it moves in and out of the present day at the family’s ranch in the 1900s through recent history at 1890 Wounded Knee. It also delves into some of the characters’ pasts. The main characters in “The Bones of Paradise” are complex and sometimes make choices that readers may find confounding. 

The timeline moves through various characters and a number of storylines. This style of writing is necessary to reveal the backstory so the reader can fully understand the current events. The characters include ranchers and ranch hands as well as some Lakota folks. The plot hinges on how they all came to be in the story.

Agee teaches creative writing, and it comes through in her books. Her writing is descriptive and more literary than plot-driven, “She stooped to pick a wild pink rose, avoiding the tiny spines that slivered like unseen glass hairs onto one’s fingers. There was little scent, but the creamy softness of the petals like the insides of a dog’s ear more than made up for it. She placed one on her tongue, and imagined she could taste the hills, the bittersweet tang of life.” 

Agee’s specialties are lyrical description and a firm sense of place. This book takes place in the sandhills, somewhere south of Valentine, Nebraska. She has a knack for vivid description. “To the right was a vast blue lake, the surrounding marsh alive with birds feeding and mating. The air bore the moist scent of water, so blue it put the distant white-blue sky to shame. She shaded her eyes to stare at the lake where pelicans floated peacefully. Nearby a pair of  swans stretched their long necks searching the waters for food, and farther on, ducks dove and flapped, green necks glistening in the sun.” 

At the heart of this lyrical book is a mystery, but western fans might enjoy it as well. If you like a book that keeps you turning pages, this one might not be for you. “The Bones of Paradise” by Jonis Agee  would not pass the grandma test, due to some coarse language. Agee has written a number of books. We have four novels and a collection of short stories on the fiction shelf at the Gering Public Library.

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Before Ree Drummond, even before Julia Child, Elizabeth Zott had a cooking show in the 1960s. “Lessons in Chemistry” by Bonnie Garmus was highly recommended by several friends. It’s a poignant look at a professional woman’s life in the 1960s.

Elizabeth Zott has a one-track mind with a laser focus on science; chemistry in particular. The male chauvinist climate in the lab is holding her back, so when she has an opportunity to teach chemistry through cooking on an afternoon TV show she takes it.

Garmus infused Zott with a dry wit of which she is wholly ignorant. When she was discussing a particular employee she said, “No surprise. Idiots make it into every company. They tend to interview well.”

Garmus adds a lot of wisdom in her own voice as well. “Every day she [Elizabeth]found parenthood like taking a test for which she had not studied. The questions were daunting and there weren’t nearly enough multiple choice.” 

“Having a baby, Elizabeth realized, was a little like living with a visitor from a distant planet. There was a certain amount of give and take as the visitor learned your ways and you learned theirs, but gradually their ways faded and your ways stuck. Which she found regrettable. Because unlike adults, her visitor never tired of even the smallest discovery; always saw the magic in the extraordinary.” 

I laughed out loud several times during this book, and I cried too. It felt like an honest look at the struggle for women’s rights in the workplace through the eyes of someone who refused to accept the status quo. Was it realistic? Probably not. A realistic look at that time would not be an interesting fiction read. Based on her first book, I would read Bonnie Garmus’ next grocery list. 

Looking back on “Lessons in Chemistry”, I can see Peggy Olson’s struggle to be taken seriously in the TV show Mad Men. This would be a great book group pick, with lots of opportunities for discussion, and foods to bring! You can find this on the new book shelf at the Gering Public Library. 

Behind the Wire by Andrea Myers

“Behind the Wire” by Andrea Myers takes place in Scotts Bluff County as World War II rages across the ocean. After the death of the author’s grandmother, the family discovered a stash of WWII era letters her grandmother had kept. Letters from several men, including Thomas, Charles and Bob. None of these men were her grandfather. Who were these men her grandmother corresponded with during the war, and why did she save their letters? Sounds like a great idea for a novel.

Building her novel around the many questions these letters call to mind, Myers introduces us to  a group of college friends at the cusp of a war that will change their lives in many ways. Three men write to Margaret (the main character) throughout the war. Myers said she didn’t change a word of any of the letters she used, but the novel is not necessarily based on actual events.

As the novel opens, Margaret is studying business but her heart is in journalism at the University of Nebraska. After the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, she and many other students left school, either to enlist or go back home to live with their parents in 1942. Margaret struggles under the overbearing thumb of her mother in Gering. She takes a job at the prisoner of war camp in Scottsbluff where she gets to know Italian and German prisoners as well as the military officers stationed there.

Myers writes about PTSD, which I haven’t noticed mentioned in the WWII fiction I’ve read. Soldiers coming home from war with mental and emotional scars is not new. PTSD was called Shell Shock in WWI and Battle Rattle in WWII. Informed through her personal experiences, Myers highlights the aftermath of the trauma soldiers faced as they tried to navigate life after war.

Myers has created a cast of likable characters in her book, Margaret, June and Bea form an isosceles triangle of friends, supporting each other. The soldiers who write Margaret become fully developed characters through their letters. Myers’ novel follows a nice pace throughout the book, and it’s an entertaining read. She includes shout-outs to area sites that locals will appreciate.

In this quote Margaret is speaking about her plans after the war, “‘I truly hope that when I’m back in Lincoln I can focus on school without putting on an act for everyone that I’m more interested in men than my studies. I want a fresh start.’

‘If you want fresh, Bob’s probably your guy. He’s not holding back on that innuendo.’…Bea waggled her eyebrows at her.”

I would recommend “Behind the Wire” by Andrea Myers to anyone who enjoys WWII books, and anyone who likes to read about the history of the North Platte Valley. It will be available soon at the Gering Library, but you can find it for sale in local stores. It’s also available through online booksellers.

None of this would have happened if Prince were alive

February 7, 2023

The title of Carolyn Prusa’s book caught my eye, “None of This Would Have Happened if Prince Were Alive.” Ramona has a lot on her plate. It’s 2016 and Hurricane Matthew is headed towards Savannah, Georgia.  She is juggling a new job and family responsibilities. When shows up at home early, she discovers her husband with another woman.

With Matthew looming and her heart and mind in chaos, Ramona packs up her two children, a neighbor kid and the class hamster, Clarence Thomas, and evacuates. From there she makes the kind of decisions someone who is in shock would make. While her decisions may seem ill-advised, that is how your brain works when your life has turned upside down.

The main story happens in present time, but the timeline shifts back through Ramona’s college memories and the early years with her husband as well. This serves to give the reader more perspective on Ramona’s relationship with her husband as well as what she was like before the book takes place. Here Ramona reflects on her job as project manager:

“I don’t miss painting. I’m not resisting a desire burning under my skin to create; sitting at a computer doesn’t feel like wearing a straitjacket….

What I do miss, maybe: the way making art made me feel-capable, resourceful, peaceful.

Without art, I feel like I can’t make anything happen. Like I can’t make something beautiful.” 

I don’t have any way of knowing if the details about Savannah are accurate, but the author lives in the area, and the details feel real.

While this book tackles heavy subjects, it was a quick and light read. I think readers of Sophie Kinsella, Jennifer Weiner and Laurie Gelman might enjoy “None of this Would Have Happened if Prince Were Alive” by Carolyn Prusa. You can find this book on the new book shelf at the Gering Library.

The Library: a fragile history

February 7, 2023

When I go on vacation, I like to visit libraries. It’s interesting to see how different communities provide this service to their constituents. Knowing this, a friend loaned me a book called “The Library: a fragile history” by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen. I learned a lot in this book, and I wanted to share some of it with you. 

Fernando Colon (son of Christopher Columbus) had an extensive library. He was one of the first to put books on shelves with the spines facing out. Prior to that (and because the idea didn’t catch on, for quite a while afterwards) books were often stored flat in trunks or cupboards.

When writing about the large book collections that private citizens like Thomas Jefferson accumulated, the authors said, “One man’s passion project would be nothing but a burden to those to whom the responsibility of curation was passed on.”

Many precious books and libraries have been destroyed in wars, starting even before Caesar burned Alexandria, Egypt. Although Belgium was neutral during WWI, the Germans burned the university library at Louvain. The Treaty of Versailles required Germany to replace the books they had destroyed in Louvain, and the Germans did so within three years. Less than 20 years later they destroyed the Louvain library again. WWII was hard on libraries, not only were the Nazis burning books in the streets, both the Allies and the Axis bombed libraries throughout Europe. Many libraries and private book collections on both sides were destroyed.

I also learned why “Middlemarch” by George Eliot is so doggone long. England in the 1800s didn’t have any state-supported public libraries, but lots of literate citizens who couldn’t afford books. Entrepreneur Charles Mudie formed a private circulating library in the 1850s. He stocked a large number of books then charged an annual subscription of one guinea per year. A single book at that time cost around a guinea. Mudie would then charge a penny per checkout. 

Through this business model, he created a near monopoly in the fiction market. He would purchase 1,500 copies of a new book by a popular author to lend to his customers in London. By the end of the 1800s Mudi’s collection contained over seven million books. Because he purchased so many books, publishers catered to him, and sought authors who could meet his writing requirements.

Popular fiction authors of that time included Dickens, Eliot, Thackery and Disraeli. Mudie looked for books that were 200,000 words in length, which adds up to around 700 pages. (Think “Moby Dick.”) Most popular novels today are around 300 pages. These titles were published in a three-volume format, so to read the entire book, you had to check out three separate volumes, at a penny a checkout. According to Pettegree and der Weduwen, authors struggled to fill the second volume and often resorted to inserting “a convoluted (though chaste) love story between two marginal characters in the novel’s middle passage.” 

This is just a tidbit of the information I found in the 400 pages of “The Library: a fragile history.” The Gering Library does not have this particular book- but you can find “The Library Book” by Susan Orleans on the shelves, and it covers some of the same material. If you would like to read “The Library: a fragile history” we can order it through interlibrary loan.

We think of libraries as free, but through the ages, libraries have rarely been free to the public. Early libraries were restricted to the owners, either religious orders or wealthy private citizens. Books were expensive to make but useless to those who could not read and those who had different political or religious ideas. Without community champions, libraries can fall prey to political pressures, apathy, and societal conflict.

“It is the randomness of books, of taste and curiosity that ensures that libraries remain a place where a broad cross-section of society can drop in, wander, browse, and leave when they like. It is the randomness that marks out the library from other public shared space; and the search for something uplifting, whatever it may be.”

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

March 21, 2023

“Before the Coffee Gets Cold” by Toshikazu Kawaguchi caught my eye because several other libraries had requested it from us. This book has been translated from Japanese and is a total of 272 small pages. It got good reviews and the author has gone on to write two sequels. As I finished the book, I could see several little plotlines that could be explored further.

There is a tiny cafe in Japan where you can go back in time- for just as long as it takes for your coffee to get cold. You can’t change anything that happens, but it offers the coffee drinker a chance to make peace with their regrets. This process involves several rules and hurdles that make it impractical for many people to actually complete the process. 

I overheard a patron saying they had a hard time with the unfamiliar names, so when I started reading I made notes for each character. There are only nine characters in the book, so it isn’t much of a problem to do this, but I can see how the unfamiliar names could be confusing.

The translation is well done, I feel the culture of the book has been well preserved. Kira called this a slice-of-life book. It doesn’t have a lot of plot or character development, but you get to see a tiny window of how each of the characters tackle their regrets. For such a small book parts of it were really repetitive, but the author uses beautiful language:

“Water flows from high places to low places. That is the nature of gravity. Emotions also seem to act according to gravity. When in the presence of someone with whom you have a bond, and to whom you have entrusted your feelings, it is hard to lie and get away with it. The truth just wants to come flowing out. This is especially the case when you are trying to hide your sadness or vulnerability. It is much easier to conceal sadness from a stranger, or from someone you don’t trust.” 

“Before the Coffee Gets Cold” by Toshikazu Kawaguchi is a literary novel that makes you consider regrets you might have and how a short conversation could change things. I would recommend this book to people who are interested in Japanese culture, or a chance to explore the connections people make in their day to day lives.