Tag Archives: historical fiction

Book Review: Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures 
by Emma Straub

When Elsa Emerson, the youngest of three sisters, is cast in one of her father’s plays at their family’s Cherry County Playhouse in Wisconsin, she is given her first taste of the limelight. This sets into motion her life’s trajectory — shooting like a rocket out of Wisconsin and into the warm allure of Hollywood. Here, she begins her transformation from small-town blonde to a sultry brunette named Laura Lamont — an Academy award-winning movie star.

What I loved most about this book was how authentic it felt. Elsa/Laura was largely fictitious (based loosely on this actress), her story an invention of Straub’s mind and careful historical research. However, having recently read a few memoirs of Hollywood starlets from this same era (Katharine Hepburn’s “Me: Stories of My Life” a couple years ago and Esther Williams “Million Dollar Mermaid” a couple months ago), I felt as though Miss Lamont could have been shooting on a sound stage just down the hall from either of these real-life ladies!

An interesting similarity I found in reading about Hepburn and Williams was the loss of a beloved sibling early in their lives. Both women experienced the death of a brother and in turn felt a heightened sense of responsibility and drive. Esther Williams explains in her book how her brother was the one who was supposed to “make it” in life and in Hollywood. After his death, she felt as though she was two people in one body — her brother Stanton and herself. Hepburn threw herself into her studies after losing her brother and even celebrated her brother’s birthday as her own.

Similarly, the eponymous Lamont loses the sister she deems to be the most talented and beautiful of the Emerson brood. I think this is a fascinating look at the sacrifice and loss that sometimes sits lurking behind a person’s fame and success. How many of Hollywood’s elite might point to a dark cloud they used to buoy themselves? How many have a tragedy that compelled them to succeed in place of, because of, or in spite of this missing piece?

The book also delves into intergenerational mental illness and suicidality as multiple branches sprouting from Laura’s family tree find themselves facing loss and depression. It’s no secret that mental illness, addiction, and all sorts of family problems (divorce, death, MONEY) have gone hand in hand with Hollywood since film started rolling. But looking at these issues over the course of an entire life, and within multiple generations of a family, is a more fitting lens for exploring the effects of our favorite tabloid fodder.

Who should read this book – Anyone interested in The Golden Age of Hollywood, film making during the studio system era, and intergenerational mental illness.

Add to your list if you loved – Any memoirs of Hollywood stars; like Me: Stories of My Life  by Katharine Hepburn and Million Dollar Mermaid by Esther Williams.

Other books by Emma Straub – Modern Lovers and Vacationers !

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Book Review: The Binding Chair or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society by Kathryn Harrison

The Binding Chair or A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society
by Kathryn Harrison

In this historical fiction novel, we meet our main character May-Li at the turn of the last century in China. Early on in the book she experiences the trauma of foot binding at the hands of her grandmother. From here, the book charts May’s path from abusive marriage to her escape to Shanghai. Although she must turn to prostitution as a means of income, her astonishing beauty, bound feet, and quick study of languages allow for speedy upward mobility. Ultimately landing her a husband from Australia.

May becomes a fixture in her husband’s Jewish family and forges a special bond with his niece Alice. The expertly researched novel covers the pair’s journey from Shanghai to a boarding school in England and back to China. Along the way, readers are introduced to other women who have all, much like May, experienced some sort of physical or mental defacement. While at times I felt like the book was trying to cover too many characters, too many stories that didn’t help move the narrative along; this cast of women did serve as a relatable reflection of May’s bound feet to a Western audience perhaps unable to conceptualize the rituals effects.

Even so, The Binding Chair felt broad, both in setting and emotion, in a way that I thought unnecessary and left the narrative feeling incomplete. However, in reading some reviews and articles about the book, others have argued that the enormity of what Harrison takes on in this novel speaks to feelings of diaspora. In a story charting the path of a Chinese woman in a family of Jews this reading would make sense. Conceptually I applaud it but stylistically I found it challenging. 

At the end of the day, while the story was cluttered and the fetishistic scenes regarding foot binding felt a little gratuitous, Harrison does afford readers an amazing investigation into a different world.

Who should read this book – Anyone interested in Shanghai at the turn of the last century and the Chinese ritual of footbinding.

Add to your list if you loved – Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See or Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende.

Other books by Kathryn Harrison – The bestselling memoir The Kiss about her incestuous love affair with her father.

Books to Read This Fall

Mourning those Summer months? Me either! I’m too excited about wrapping up, burrito-style, in a fluffy blanket with a good book and something pumpkin spice close at hand.

But for real, what better reason than a temperature turn-down to share a few favorite books I think would be perfect for your Fall reading list.

So, in the midst of all your other autumnal activities (Think: swapping out all your flip flops for riding boots and Snapchatting from the pumpkin patch.) — here are 5 books to read this Fall…

bossypantsBossypants by Tina Fey

Tina Fey’s book is short, messy, and impossibly funny (an apt description of the comedian herself). From her humble roots growing up in Pennsylvania to her days doing amateur improv in Chicago to her early sketches on SNL, Fey gives us a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain of modern comedy with equal doses of wit, candor, and self-deprecation.

There’s always something to be learned from the life experiences of fascinating (and funny!) people. This book provides a peek into the worlds of improv, SNL, and 30 Rock–all with Fey’s famous humor.

 

the-painter-from-shanghaiThe Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Down the muddy waters of the Yangtze River, through the raucous glamour of prewar Shanghai and the bohemian splendor of 1920s Paris, and back to a China teetering on the brink of revolution: this is the epic story of Pan Yuliang, one of the most talented—and provocative—Chinese artists of the twentieth century.

Historical fiction so researched and rich in details that you will find yourself completely immersed in another time and place.

 

 

a-secret-kept A Secret Kept by Tatiana de Rosnay

Antoine Rey thought he had the perfect surprise for his sister Mélanie’s birthday: a weekend by the sea at Noirmoutier Island , where the pair spent many happy childhood summers playing on the beach. But the island’s haunting beauty triggers more than happy memories.

A French family, a fascinating story, and an unraveling secret at the heart of it all that will keep you reading well past your bedtime. Beware: you may finish de Rosnay’s mystery novel in one go!

 

 

the-namesakeThe Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Namesake takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. Son, Gogol Ganguli, knows only that he suffers the burden of his heritage as well as his odd name. Lahiri brings great empathy to Gogol as he stumbles along the first-generation path, strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs.’

Rather than follow a plot, this book follows a life. The resulting prose is breathtaking in it’s beauty.

 

behind-the-beautiful-foreversBehind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

In this book by Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo, a bewildering age is made human through the dramatic story of families striving toward a better life in a makeshift settlement near the Mumbai airport. Based on years of uncompromising reporting, it carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds—and into the hearts of families impossible to forget.

True to the style of “embedded journalism,” Boo embedded herself in a slum so readers could see, hear, and understand the residents and their challenges.

 

What are YOU reading this Fall? Share below! 

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Book Review: Diamond Ruby by Joseph Wallace

diamond rubyI often joke that my fourth favorite film genre is Sports CinemaCall it a guilty pleasure if you like, but I love those rags-to-gold medal movies about teams beating the odds and gaining the glory. And this love is also reflected in my literary leanings. Especially when you throw in a dash of girl power and a sprinkling of American history.

Diamond Ruby by Joseph Wallace seemed to fit this bill perfectly. My mom, knowing that I harbor a strange love for sports-tales, gifted me this novel a few years back and I’ve been saving it for a rainy day. Wallace tells the story of “Diamond” Ruby Thomas, a fictional character based on the real-life Jackie Mitchell who threw a baseball hard enough to strike out two of the greatest sluggers to ever play the game–Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Here’s a synopsis–

Seventeen-year-old Ruby Thomas, newly responsible for her two young nieces after a devastating tragedy, is determined to keep her family safe in the vast, swirling world of 1920s New York City. She’s got street smarts, boundless determination, and one unusual skill: the ability to throw a ball as hard as the greatest pitchers in a baseball-mad city.

From Coney Island sideshows to the brand-new Yankee Stadium, “Diamond Ruby” chronicles the extraordinary life and times of a girl who rises from utter poverty to the kind of renown only the Roaring Twenties can bestow. But her fame comes with a price, and Ruby must escape a deadly web of conspiracy and threats from Prohibition rumrunners, the Ku Klux Klan, and the gangster underworld. 

If you too enjoy a good ol’ fashioned coming-of-age Sports film then I highly recommend you give this book a read. Two movies in particular that it called to mind were A League of Their Own and Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. I ADORE those two movies and Diamond Ruby was a perfect mixture of both. There was, of course, the “girls can’t play baseball!….oh wait, YES THEY CAN!” element from A League of Their Own but also some Coney Island side-show elements from Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. (Ruby even befriends a woman who went blind as a result of a diving accident! Um, HELLO!?)

Not to mention, Laura Lippman says, “Comparisons to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are not made lightly. Wonderful…memorable…perfect.” And the historical accuracy, especially as it pertains to New York City and it’s infamous love of baseball, can’t be beat. While Diamond Ruby is Joseph Wallace’s first novel he’s written four previous books on baseball history. He certainly knows his stuff!

The book FAR EXCEEDED my expectations and I would recommend it to lovers of baseball and historical fiction alike!

Have you read Diamond Ruby? What did you think?

Manhattan–nuclear. family.

manhattan still

Have you seen this fantastic tv drama about The Manhattan Project? It aired over the summer on WGN but I just plowed through the whole first season on Hulu. I would HIGHLY recommend it. Mad Men-ish. Lost-ish. House of Cards-ish. I can’t believe I had never heard of it until a commercial for it popped up while I was watching something else on Hulu. I seriously think it’s one of the best written and acted series I’ve seen in awhile. So glad they just announced it got picked up for a second season!