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A Few Good Books: January 2016

by Emily M | Jan 16, 2017

Looking for a good book recommendation? Look no further!  Here are a few good books I’ve enjoyed recently:

ExcellentDaughtersExcellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World

Katherine Zoepf was twenty-three years old and a new employee at The New York Times when the terrorist attacks of September 11th forever changed our world.  Trying to make sense of the senseless, Katherine found herself reading and learning as much as she could about Islam and the Arab world.  A little less than three years later, while studying Arabic at the London School of Economics, Zoepf found herself with an opportunity to take a journalist assignment in Syria.  She stayed in Syria for three years and went on to spend over a decade on assignments in various parts of the Middle East.  In societies strictly divided along gender lines, as a young woman, Zoepf found herself with access to young women in their late teens and twenties, with whom male journalists often could not speak.  Excellent Daughters is a compilation of some of their stories.

If there is one overarching storyline throughout this book, it is actually the author’s.  While learning to adapt to new cultures (Zoepf is quick to acknowledge that Lebanon is not the same as Syria is not the same as Saudi Arabia), she finds similarities between the strict religious upbringings of these young women and her own upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness.  And while contemplating how rapid change in the Arab world in recent years is perhaps most drastically affecting the young women who are coming of age in it, the stories in this book are framed by Zoepf’s experiences and interpretations. 

Nevertheless, the stories themselves are utterly absorbing – young Saudi women studying law even though they are legally prohibited to practice it, arranged marriages, spirited debates as to whether or not it is proper to talk to your fiancée – even via the telephone, engaged Lebanese women undergoing hymenoplasty surgery so their husbands will not discover they are not virgins, religious devotion, and honor killings, to name a few.  I found Excellent Daughters to be a fascinating glimpse into lives vastly different than my own.


TheKitchenHouseThe Kitchen House by Kathleen Grisson

Slavery in the American antebellum south is hardly an uncommon topic for a novel, but Grissom’s The Kitchen House adds a unique twist.  Lavinia is seven years old when she is orphaned on the journey from Ireland to America and the ship’s captain, to whom she is indentured, hands her over to the house slaves on his plantation for care.  Ill and heartsick, Lavinia quickly becomes attached to the slaves who care for her as she is trained to serve alongside them in the big house. When unforeseen circumstances result in a change of Lavinia’s status on the plantation, the delicate balance of the accepted social order is knocked off kilter, with tragic consequences.

 The Kitchen House is a tense and gripping story exploring the complexities of race, social class, family, and the cycle of abuse.  The protagonists are flawed, the villains are also victims, and the story never falls into the mistake of unrealistic happy endings.   


Deep Summer by Gwen Bristow

A few years prior to the American Revolution, 15-year-old Judith Sheramy travels with her parents and brother down the Mississippi River by flatboat.  After three years of failed crops, they've left their Connecticut farm behind to claim the 3000 acres granted to Judith’s father by King George in return for services during the French and Indian War.  On the journey, Judith is captivated by Philip Larne, a man making the journey down river alongside them, also looking to lay claim on the 3000 acres earned by his military service.  Larne brings a boatful of stolen slaves in tow.  Judith’s Puritan father proclaims Philip Larne a pirate and scoundrel and forbids Judith from interacting with him.  Philip is not to be deterred, however, and a few weeks after landing in Louisiana, he whisks Judith away in the night and the two elope. 

Deep SummerTogether, Philip and Judith will build a dynasty.  They will clear the forest and plant crops, overcoming disease and the threats of wildlife, transitioning from a one room cabin to a sprawling plantation mansion.  While hard work and ingenuity certainly contribute to their success, it is also clear that King George’s largesse, Philip’s stolen goods, and slave labor are essential to their ascension to the top of Louisiana’s economic and social ladder. 

Deep Summer was written during the 1930s, and it shows.  Bristow’s prose is heavy with melodrama and lavish descriptions, but these descriptions are part of what makes Deep Summer work, transporting the reader through place and time, experiencing what 18th century Louisiana was like for European settlers.  Deep Summer is well researched, evidenced by the fascinating details included while describing food, clothing, housekeeping, farming, and politics.    

A word of warning: several reviews I read of Deep Summer chided the novel for its racism.  Yes, racism is rampant in this book.  Any book about the development of a plantation in the American South during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, told through the eyes of a woman whose husband is a slave owner, is going to contain racism; anything else would not be historically accurate.  Knowing that, Deep Summer may not be the book for you, and that’s okay, but if you can stomach the realities of the time period, Deep Summer makes for an interesting read. 

What about you?  What good books have you read recently that our readers might enjoy?

EmilyLong before becoming a librarian, Emily was an avid library patron. She enjoys reading fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, biographies, and classic children’s literature. Her favorite book is Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.


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