Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon
Book eight in the Outlander series is over 800 pages long. I didn’t really mind, because it’s been five years since the previous book, Echo in the Bone, was published, and I needed a while to catch up on the storylines and characters. Much of the book is set in and around Philadelphia in 1778. No one wants to be in the war, but Jamie Fraser is asked by George Washington to be a colonel. Lord John Grey might lose the sight in one eye after Jamie punches him, or he might be arrested as a spy. Jamie’s wife Claire, a time traveler from the mid 20th century, is practicing medicine with 18th century supplies. Jamie’s nephew Ian, part Scot and part Mohawk, is in love with Quaker Rachel, whose brother, a physician, loves John Grey’s niece. Jamie and Claire’s daughter Brianna is in Scotland with her family in 1980, until son Jem goes missing and her husband Roger MacKenzie travels back in time and meets Jamie’s father, and his own. Another family connection, William, rescues Jane and her little sister Fanny from a brothel. Most of the storylines end up with Jamie and family back in North Carolina, rebuilding their family home. At least one more book is planned. Adventure, romance, history, and time travel continue to enliven this series, which began with Outlander, soon to be a television series.
A hot summer day is the perfect time to read about this journey of polar exploration. 135 years ago, the North Pole was the great unknown. A popular theory was that a ring of ice surrounded an open polar sea. After a voyage to Greenland, George De Long became fascinated by the Arctic. Eccentric newspaper owner James Gordon Bennett agreed to fund a polar expedition for the U.S. Navy, and Lt. Commander De Long and a crew of 32 took the USS Jeannette through the Bering Sea between Alaska and Siberia. The Jeannette had been reinforced for the ice, and they took plenty of provisions, two scientists, and a doctor. Their goal was to explore Wrangel Island and the polar sea. They did discover three uncharted islands far north of Siberia, but were trapped in the ice, drifting for almost two years. Three other ships were sent in search, while the crew of Jeannette finally had to take to the ice, towing three boats in search of open water and then Siberia. Their adventures make for compelling reading. This book will be published in August, and will also be available as an audiobook.
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore
Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and is still famous today. He was a printer, an inventor, a diplomat, and signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. This book is about his little sister Jane, born in Boston in 1712. She is obscure, and would be unknown today except for her brother. Benny and Jenny were very close, and exchanged letters for over 60 years. They outlived their 15 brothers and sisters, and 11 of Jane’s 12 children. Many of Jane Franklin Mecom’s letters have been lost, but Jill LePore, Professor of American History at Harvard University, has used Benjamin’s letters to fill in the gaps and tell the story of Jane’s long, eventful life. The Franklin family was poor; their father made soap and candles. Benjamin was the only son sent to school for a while. He probably taught Jane to read and write, a little. She never learned to spell. No schools in Boston taught girls at that time. Marrying a saddler, Jane continued to make soap for her brother most of her life, and also made bonnets and caps. She also helped raise some of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Jane loved to read, anything she could, especially her brother’s writings. She loved news and gossip, religion and politics. Her letters show a woman with wide interests, frank and witty. In 1771, Benjamin Franklin sent Jane a box of 13 spectacles from England, with instructions on how to find a pair that worked for her. I think that must have been a wonderful present; she could keep reading and writing to her brother, and they stayed connected until his death. I found this book fascinating and a great way to learn more about life in 18th century America.
One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
The summer of 1927 in America was a momentous one, wonderfully recounted by Bill Bryson. Readers will be amazed, informed, and entertained. The most exciting event was the successful flight of Charles Lindbergh in the Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris in May. Many others attempted to fly across the Atlantic; most failed. Lindbergh, 25, became an instant celebrity; the last thing he wanted. His visit to New York City of his return to receive a medal was broadcast on radio nationwide.
In the most catastrophic flooding of the Mississippi River in history, over 700,000 American were displaced, but no federal funds were provided. Herbert Hoover was sent to oversee relief efforts, helping him get elected President the next year. “Silent Cal” Coolidge spent three month in the Black Hills of South Dakota, fishing and wearing a cowboy outfit, and declined to run for re-election as President. The carving of Mt. Rushmore began.
Sports and theater captured America’s attention in 1927. Large and elaborate movie and Broadway theaters were built, hundreds of silent movies were filmed and Broadway shows with huge casts were popular. Al Jolson spoke on screen in the first “talkie”. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig led the New York Yankees in a record-breaking season. The Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney boxing match was a huge event.
In 1927, crime also fascinated America. Anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were put on trial, Al Capone’s Chicago outfit brought in more than $100 million, and the Snyder-Gray murder trial got more publicity than the Mississippi River flood. All told, the summer of 1927 was quite memorable.
The audiobook is narrated by Bryson, an excellent narrator.
Here, There, Elsewhere by William Least Heat-Moon
A fascinating collection of the author’s travel essays and articles, from 1983-2011. The author writes of the Great Plains, the Missouri River, Lake Superior, Japan, the south of England, New Zealand, the Yucatan, Lewis and Clark, Alaska, and more. The sheer variety of topics and settings in dazzling, but the articles are meant to be savored, read one of two at a time. Some of his travels are retracing trips taken as a child, when the lure of the highways was as strong for his parents as it clearly is for the author. The author also travels by boat, and history, geology, and food are common themes. Parts of this book reminded me of The Longest Road, by Philip Caputo. Here is a conversation between the two authors.
The White Cascade by Gary Krist
February, 1910 was a very unfortunate month to be a passenger or an employee on the Great Northern Railway. A record-breaking blizzard trapped two trains high in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. A fast mail train and a passenger train were snowed in for several days at the small Wellington Station before disaster struck. On March 1, a huge avalanche swept both trains down the mountainside in the middle of the night. Through the stories of the survivors, telegrams, letters, diaries, and court records, Gary Krist brings the past to life, letting the reader get acquainted with the passengers, railroad workers, mail clerks, and even the railway management, and then hoping the people will escape before the avalanche or be rescued afterwards. A truly moving, fast-paced account of a major railway disaster and its aftermath, as well as a history of the Great Northern Railway.
The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel
Reporter Lily Koppel, who wasn’t born until after the last Apollo mission, became fascinated by a photo of the astronaut wives in Life magazine, and wanted to learn their stories, which have never been told. The wives of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts were suddenly thrust into the spotlight after years of living quietly on drab military bases. The astronauts had training, all kinds of it, but the Mercury wives didn’t even get any advice from NASA on how to handle their new roles. Life magazine had exclusive access to the astronauts and their families, but their photos and stories didn’t tell the real story; the emotional side of the space race. The wives strove to be supportive while raising their children and maintaining their homes almost single handedly while worrying about their husbands when they were training or on a mission. They did meet monthly, in an informal group, and were always there to be supportive during missions or after a death, but didn’t share all of their fears and doubts until years later. Many of the marriages crumbled under the stress. Today, many of the astronaut wives are still friends, and are now telling what they remember of those stressful, exciting years when they rode in parades, went to balls and the White House, and were married to men who became instant celebrities.