40 Days of Book Praise – Reading List

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I chose books by and about women from my personal book shelf and wrote brief reviews with a plot summary, plus why it was a good reading choice for women.

Below is a full list of the 40 books I reviewed. Each includes a short description–a log line–to tell each title’s genre and capture what it is about.

40 Days of Book Praise – Reading List

Joan Blos’ A GATHERING OF DAYS is a middle grade epistolary novel chronicling the hardships and joys of fourteen-year-old Carrie and her farm family in 1850s New England.

Anne Carroll George’s THIS ONE AND MAGIC LIFE is a Southern novel about a family that gathers for a funeral where the deceased’s last wish uncovers a terrible secret.

Elinor Lipman’s THE DEARLY DEPARTED is a women’s novel about returning home, and how the sudden death of two parents allow two children to discover one another.

Karen Joy Fowler’s THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB is a novel about a group of women and one man who study six Austen novels and learn about themselves.

Peg Kehret’s SMALL STEPS: THE YEAR I GOT POLIO is a middle grade autobiography beginning in 1949, the year 10-year-old Peg was stricken with polio.

Geraldine Brooks’ YEAR OF WONDER is an historical novel about a small village that succumbs to plague, and the incredible choice made to keep the disease from spreading.

Ruth Rendell’s THE BRIMSTONE WEDDING is an English village tale of secrets and illicit love, from the voices of two women in different places in society.

May Sarton’s THE HOUSE BY THE SEA is a journal and memoir by the poet/novelist/essayist describing her move to a house on the coast of Maine.

Jaclyn Moriarty’s FEELING SORRY FOR CELIA is the first of several novels set in Sydney, Australia, about the intertwining of students from a raucous public school and a toney private one.

Pam Conrad’s PRAIRIE SONGS is a middle grade novel set among the prairies of Nebraska and shares the wonder, heartbreak, and isolation of pioneer life.

Nancy Mitford’s THE PURSUIT OF LOVE and LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE are twin novels about the daughters in an eccentric English gentry country family and their quest to marry well.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s NO ORDINARY TIME is a sprawling historical overview of the home front during World War II as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt guide the country through war and peace.

Kaye Gibbons’ ELLEN FOSTER is a Southern novel about 11-year-old Ellen, who is shuttled around after the death of her mother until she finally chooses a family of her own.

Luanne Rice’s CRAZY IN LOVE is a contemporary novel about the foibles of love and family, told through three generations of sisters and daughters living in a small family compound on the Connecticut shore.

Jacqueline Woodson’s BROWN GIRL DREAMING is a memoir told in verse, sharing the author’s childhood experiences in South Carolina and Brooklyn and an adolescent’s view of moments in the Civil Rights Movement.

Debra Puglisi Sharp’s SHATTERED is the true story of a Delaware woman who survived abduction and assault to become a vocal advocate for victims of sexual violence.

Jane Smiley’s 13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE NOVEL is a study of how fiction works and a deconstruction of the novel form, plus critical essays by the author of 100 novels.

Margaret Atwood’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE is a modern speculative novel about a repressive, ultra-conservative republic where only a few women can bear children and so become concubines to the powerful men in charge.

Amy Hatvany’s BEST KEPT SECRET is a contemporary novel about a woman who starts with a few drinks to help her sleep, and ends up drinking so much, she loses her son.

Kate Chopin’s THE AWAKENING & SELECTED STORIES is a collection of the surprising short work by the Louisiana author, plus her classic novel about a woman’s quest for fulfillment beyond motherhood and marriage.

Kate Braestrup’s HERE IF YOU NEED ME is a memoir by the widow of a state police officer who becomes a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service’s search and rescue teams.

Alice LaPlante’s TURN OF MIND is a crime thriller narrated by a retired surgeon who can’t tell the police—because she doesn’t know—if she murdered her best friend.

Ann Rinaldi’s OR GIVE ME DEATH tells the story of Patrick Henry’s family and the bouts of madness suffered by his wife that ultimately made the family lock her away in the cellar.

Margaret Troy’s HELEN OF TROY is a sprawling retelling of the myth of Helen, a mortal woman blessed and cursed by the gods with a beauty so great, nations went to battle to possess her.

Rumer Godden’s AN EPISODE OF SPARROWS is set on a post-World War II London street and tells of the children who steal earth to plant a garden and the adults who try to stop them.

Susan Orlean’s THE ORCHID THIEF is a story about obsession set in the swamps of Florida and centered on people searching for the elusive Ghost Orchid.

Dodie Smith’s I CAPTURE THE CASTLE is a coming of age story about an intelligent and observant young woman and her eccentric family living in a tumbling down castle in England.

Joyce Carol Oates’ BLACK WATER is a short novel about a naïve young woman who went on a drive with her hero, The Senator, and ends up abandoned after their car plunged off a bridge into a pond.

Elizabeth Strout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE is a collection of stories set in a small coastal town in Maine and connected through Olive, a retired math teacher who is blunt, observant, and enigmatic.

Karen Cushman’s CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY is a middle grade novel told in diary form, about the bright and rebellious daughter of a country knight in England and her rocky path to finding a suitable and pleasing mate.

Daphne du Maurier’s THE REBECCA NOTEBOOKS AND OTHER MEMORIES is a multi-form collection by the prolific English author of short stories, memoir, poetry, and the original outline and opening of her famous gothic novel.

Lee Smith’s GUESTS ON EARTH is a fictional account of real events and inhabitants—including Zelda Fitzgerald–at a progressive mental institution eventually destroyed by fire in 1948.

Elizabeth’s Gaskell’s CRANFORD is collection of stories about ladies, life, and the unstoppable march of progress in a small English town, told through the eyes of an affectionate visitor.

Katie Estill’s DAHLIA’S GONE is a country noir thriller about a seemingly innocuous promise to check in on a neighbor’s children, and the aftermath of a crime in a close community.

Ellen Gilchrist’s NORA JANE is a life in stories, focusing on the quirky and surprising title character who goes from a sketchy youth in New Orleans to living in a mansion on a San Francisco fault line.

Erika Robuck’s HEMINGWAY’S GIRL invents a fictional housemaid who is torn between desire for the famous writer and a World War 1 veteran working to build a railroad in 1935 Key West.

Gail Husch’s THE BUTTON FIELD blends fact and fiction to tell the story of Bertha Mellish, a real student at Mount Holyoke College who vanished from campus without a trace in 1897.

Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes” is one of her many poems that uses nature and man’s relation to it, in this case to see the end of life as encouragement to live with boldness.

George Eliot’s MIDDLEMARCH is a classic study of provincial life and the travails of a young woman with intelligence, money, and a good name, but whose expectations of marriage are higher than the social norms of the time.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK is a young adult novel about Melinda Sordino, whose first year in high school is marked by ostracism, mockery, and shame, until she overcomes her fear to voice what drove her to silence.

40 Days of Book Praise, Day 40

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good book.

Day 40, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

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Melinda Sordino is a freshman who begins her first year at Merryweather High School with a reputation—she’s the girl who ruined a popular summer party by calling the cops. Why Melinda called the police, why she won’t speak of what happened at the party, why she freezes up with she sees a senior named Andy Evans, are all hints, but no one is taking the hints. Students bully or ostracize her. Friends abandon her. Teachers don’t understand why a formerly good student is failing her classes. Her parents are impatient with her moodiness, her poor grades, her non-existent social life, her refusal to just plain talk to them. Where, everyone wonders, is the Melinda who was the normal teenager?

Melinda tells her story herself in Speak, in short diary entries that relay the struggle she endures each day at school and the comfort she does not receive in her disaffected home. Many of the entries relate the peculiarities of high school, and many are sharply amusing. Before the trauma of the summer, Melinda was a regular girl, and her memories of this—her desire to be that girl again—flavor her observations. But as much as she wants to go back, she can’t. It’s not that she doesn’t try. She befriends an awkward new girl. She works on art projects. She tries to bridge the divide between her overworked, distant parents. But nothing works, and her depression and isolation grow until her former best friend Rachel starts to date Andy Evans. Melinda is so terrified that what happened to her will happen to Rachel that she breaks her silence to reveal the unspeakable: at the party, Melinda was raped by Andy Evans.

Why is Speak a good read for women? Melinda is silenced by her own fear of Andy, by weakness, embarrassment, shame, and all the other hallmark emotions that further harm victims of sexual violence. The diary entries provide the reader with an entry into the private world of someone so blatantly crying for help, and it is frustrating to both Melinda and the person reading her story that no one person can find the key to open her up and make her talk. When she does speak, it takes an act of great courage, and the enormity of that step makes Melinda Sordino regain her personal power in a remarkable and timeless story.

A note as I end this series of reviews: Of all the books in all the world, Speak is the book I would recommend that all girls read—and young men as well. Laurie Halse Anderson created a powerful story about a single girl’s trauma and trial by society, but it speaks for women and girls everywhere who, for whatever reason, cannot find a voice. Because it deals with rape, Speak is regularly banned by schools and school boards, sadly proving that silencing victims of sexual violence remains a problem in real life as well as in fiction.

40 Days of Book Praise, Day 39

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good book

Day 39, Middlemarch by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)

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Middlemarch is a provincial town in the Midlands, in central England. The novel begins around 1830 in this fictional community of poor people, tradesmen, middle class, and gentry. Mary Ann Evans, under her pen name George Eliot, wanted to create an entire small world in the rising town of Middlemarch, and so she wove together a huge cast of characters, a lively landscape, and four distinct narrative storylines to create a classic work of literature. Long and challenging, Middlemarch the novel touches on assorted themes—marriage, political reform, education, idealism, religion, the status of women—and by doing so, allows a reader to see different perspectives through characters and roles in Middlemarch’s social structure.

At the heart of Middlemarch is the admirable and memorable Dorothea Brooke, a young woman blessed with wealth, intelligence, and a good family name. Though awarded many advantages by the luck of her birth, Dorothea has the heart of a philanthropist. She makes a match with an elderly clergyman, with the idealistic expectation that he will allow her to help in his scholarly work and become a helpmate as well as a mate in marriage. Dorothea’s hope that marriage will be a partnership is a mistaken one, and her marriage is a failure. She establishes a friendship with Will Ladislaw, a poor young cousin of her husband’s, and the relationship that grows between Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw is a great literary romance that examines desire, patience, respect, honor, and honorability.

The novel’s subtitle is “a study of provincial life.” Because of its massive size, Middlemarch was published in eight installments. Other important storylines include a young doctor and his new wife trying to fit into Middlemarch’s society; a foolish young man hopelessly in love with a steady young woman who rejects his proposals unless he matures; and a pious banker who wants to enter politics but has a shady past that threatens his plans.

Why is Middlemarch a good read for women? In modern terms, Dorothea’s emotional journey would be called a woman’s search for agency and control over her own life. Her poor choice in marriage could have broken her spirit; an affair with a younger relative could have ruined her reputation; giving up her desire to help others could have made her life meaningless. Though limited in power and not always secure in herself, Dorothea nevertheless is a literary woman to be admired. Against the norm of the time, she maintains hope that her thoughts are valuable and her plans are practical. Middlemarch is set in a particular place in our historical past, but Dorothea has Everywoman qualities that apply to girls and women of today who seek to mark their value and place in a sometimes unappreciative society.

40 Days of Book Praise, Day 38

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.

Day 38, “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver

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April is National Poetry Month, and so today’s review is devoted to Mary Oliver.

Mary Oliver is a popular and prolific American poet whose work has earned her both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Like Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, Mary Oliver’s words observe the natural world and her ideas ponder man’s place in it. Oliver is a native of Ohio who relocated and has lived for many years in New England. As a teenager, she visited Edna St. Vincent Millay’s home,  now an artist colony in upstate New York, and later returned and befriended Millay’s sister. Whitman, Thoreau, Millay were all influences on Oliver as a young poet. Like those artists, a strong focus in her work is place. Her poems are infused with memories of her childhood years in Ohio, plus her adopted home in the East–particularly Provincetown. She’s considered by some as a regionalist, but her thoughts on home, nature, people, life, are universal. She writes of simple and deep emotions–walks in the woods that inspire enthusiastic joy, or words of solitary grief and loneliness. She shares soulful questions and sharp observations, and reading her poems is like a small visit to a touching emotional landscape set along rough pathways or calmer, peaceful forests.

“When Death Comes” combines nature and man in a topic that is somber and frightening, but also curious and hopeful. She compares death to a hungry bear, a pox, an iceberg, a cottage of darkness, but she also regards the end of life on earth with an eager and inquisitive eye. What will death be like? In pondering this question, she must think about life and how she wants to spend hers. She decides she wants to be able to say, “I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”   Ultimately, she wants to have lived in the community of the world, and not just passed through as a visitor.

Why is Mary Oliver’s poetry a good read for women? I viewed this poem with my own writer’s eye, but also as a human considering how I am living my own life. Do I have the lion’s courage Oliver mentions, to write, to share my work and expose myself, and leave this world as more than a visitor? Good writing–poetry or prose–leads to good questions like these. Exploring Mary Oliver’s poems is an exploration of place and nature, of people and their kindness and flaws, and so finally of the world around and of the human heart.

40 Days of Book Praise, Day 37

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.

Day 37, The Button Field by Gail Husch

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A paper mill once stood near the town of South Hadley in western Massachusetts. The mill used old rags to make the paper, and sometimes buttons remained attached to the rags. Waste from the paper mill was washed out over area fields, and in that waste were thousands of buttons that spread out and settled into what became known as the Button Field. Students from the nearby college walking through the field could pluck buttons from the ground as if the buttons were flowers….

This odd detail is one of many in this artfully crafted novel based on the true disappearance of a student from Mount Holyoke College. Mount Holyoke was established as a “female seminary” in the first half of the 19th century as part of a movement to create institutions of higher learning for women. In 1897, Bertha Mellish–a real person–spends the summer between semesters working at the local mill. The daughter of a minister, Bertha was mostly raised by her older sister, a spinster twenty years Bertha’s senior. Her upbringing impressed upon Bertha that she is special, and she believes herself destined to rise above her family’s genteel but modest circumstances. But college, and her fellow students, are not what she expects, and she is not as special there as she has been raised to believe. And then one day, a perfectly ordinary day in every other way, Bertha Mellish cannot be found anywhere on campus. A search is undertaken, without success. As with any missing person case, surely someone knows what happened, but who that person is and why they won’t come forward to ease the agony for Bertha’s family and the Mount Holyoke community is a conundrum.

Why is The Button Field a good read for women? This fictional account of what happened to Bertha provides all the hallmarks of a mystery that can be reasonably explained, if not solved, with the combination of good research and informed guessing. In the capable hands of author Gail Husch, we see Bertha as more than the centerpoint of an investigation. Bertha was real, and in this novel, she comes back to life, and so does the pain of those who missed her. Bertha has hopes, dreams, and flaws; she suffers from ego and endures rejection, but nothing in her childhood or early adulthood hints that one day, out of the blue, she will simply be gone. This book provides a possible solution to Bertha’s fate, while at a deeper level it explores how young people thrown together by circumstance embrace people who are like themselves, and how they treat those who are not. Most of all, it is written with style and sensitivity about a young woman who mattered, but not only because she was the girl who disappeared, but because she was a young woman with promise.

40 Days of Book Praise, Day 36

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.

Day 36, Hemingway’s Girl, by Erika Robuck

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If the world was a just place, the men who endured trenches, biological warfare, and the other horrors of the World War I would have returned home to prosperity and respect. Instead, a little over a decade after the Great War ended, the Great Depression began. In 1935, a group of veterans were sent on a work program to build an Overseas Highway to Key West to mainland Florida. Living in Key West while the veterans worked on the highway was famed author Ernest Hemingway. This novel brings together two contrasting men—a reliable veteran named Gavin and the volatile Hemingway—and one woman named Mariella Bennett. Half American and half Cuban, Mariella lives a sketchy life and only by chance does she meet both Gavin and Hemingway. Mariella bets her wages on local boxing matches, and it is this foolish but fateful habit that brings her to the attention of these two very different men.

Her friendship with Hemingway eventually leads Mariella to a job. She is hired as a maid by Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline, and their life full of parties and celebrities is far removed from her own hardscrabble youth. While it is a glamorous life, it is not a peaceful one; Mariella discovers through continuing friendship with Gavin that he may not be rich or famous, but he’s a strong and honorable man. Her passions and what she wants wavers between the two men who want her, but an outside force bigger than any romantic or social conflict is bearing down on Florida. On Memorial Day weekend in 1935, with little warning or preparation, a massive hurricane approaches, aimed straight for the Overseas Highway and the veterans hired to build it.

Why is Hemingway’s Girl a good read for women? Erika Robuck vividly describes a place of wealth and poverty, an exotic set of islands always at the mercy of weather, and so provides a compelling look at Depression Era life at two extremes of society. The trio of primary characters are passionate, imperfect, and complex. This is a story about fate and choices and helplessness, about larger than life figures who are adored, and heroic ones who are forgotten. Like Key West, Mariella and the two men in her life share a connection to one another– and to the world—that is tenuous and vulnerable.

40 Days of Book Praise, Day 35

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.

Day 35, Nora Jane by Ellen Gilchrist

nora jane

Nora Jane is a “life in stories” and the collection of connected short stories and one novella begins with a death. Nora Jane is fourteen, living in New Orleans, when her beloved grandmother dies. Nora’s father was a Vietnam hero and her mother is an alcoholic, so Nora Jane now is adrift without any steady and loving influence. She wanders the city encountering a cast of people, from chefs who attend church and judges who hang out at bars, reflecting the upheaval of post-Vietnam society. At nineteen, Nora Jane falls for a charming anarchist named Sandy. He leaves her to go to San Francisco. To follow him, Nora Jane uses a prop gun to rob the bar and disguises herself as a nun to elude capture. She heads out to California, but Sandy is AWOL. This time, Nora Jane tries to rob an independent bookstore, but the owner is a TS Eliot-quoting rich guy named Freddy. Freddy falls in love with her because Nora Jane is also a raving beauty. When Nora Jane discovers she’s pregnant, she is not sure which of the two men is the father, but Freddy stands by her and raises her twin daughters in a big house next to a fault line.

In the stories that follow, an array of intriguing and bizarre people are drawn to Nora Jane and Freddy. There are visits from family and visitations from spirits, friends who hang around uninvited, and moments of fear and danger. Binding the story is the ever-surprising Nora Jane. She has two gifts: a beautiful singing voice and her grandmother’s wisdom. She is also gifted with Freddy, who is diagnosed with leukemia in the collection’s novella, and so it’s Nora Jane’s turn to stand by him. She does it in true Nora Jane style.

Why is Nora Jane a good read for women? This book is described as “intelligent comedy” and its excesses are its charm. Nora Jane is a reflection of the freewheeling times: she is a morally ambiguous but strangely grounded adventurer who takes a journey of self-discovery with her mind, soul, and body wide open. Ellen Gilchrist is a novelist of acclaim for good reason, and Nora Jane shows all that an author can do with a quirky character, a quirkier cast, and a concept that intrigues. Only the impetuous—or maybe only an optimist–would live in a mansion on a fault line.