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Author Archive for Katherine Habley

Grandma Lives in a Perfume Village

by Katherine Habley on September 29th, 2015
Grandma Lives in a Perfume Village Cover Image

This gorgeous new picture book is written by Fang Suzhen of Taiwan and illustrated by Sonja Danowski of Germany.  In the story, a little boy, Xiao Le, and his mother travel by train to visit his maternal grandmother who is sick.  At first the little preschooler is shy when he sees his grandmother in bed looking older than he remembered.  Although he brought his truck to show her, Xiao Le isn’t ready to part with it yet.  The adult reading this book to a child will understand quickly that Grandma is dying and this will be their last visit together.  Little Xiao Le runs to get his mother’s help when Grandma needs some water.  He pets her cat, Shadow, on the bed.  While the mother goes outside to hang clothes in the yard, Grandma gets out of bed to enjoy some sunshine and play a game with the wood sorrel leaves outside with Xiao Le.  The three enjoy tea in the garden and finally his grandmother goes back to bed to sleep and Xiao Le gives her his truck for company.  Back home the little boy and his mother learn from Aunt Zhou that Grandma has “left Perfume Village and moved into heaven.”  The loving comfort depicting the mother’s grief and her son’s concern is tender and realistic.  What makes this book about death so special is the artwork.  Danowski’s exquisite watercolor paintings are reminiscent of the artwork by Paul O. Zelinsky and Gennady Spirin.  The illustrations are warm and gentle, and lovingly detailed.  Capturing the Asian family so beautifully in the artwork gives us a very special book to share with youngsters who may have encountered a death in their own family.  The quality of the book is also obvious in the heavy paper used.  There is further information about the author and the illustrator at the back of the book.  Gorgeous pictures and the touching text make for a wonderful picture book.  Take note of this title; I loved it!

Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin

by Katherine Habley on September 29th, 2015
Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin Cover Image

Okay I admit it….I’m a Midwestern girl through and through.  Born in Cleveland, moved to Chicago as a young child, then to Kansas City where I grew up, then off to college in Columbia, Missouri, then to my first professional library job in Normal, Illinois (where I met my husband), next to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where our two children were born, and finally to Coralville where our kids grew up (now 32 and 34 years old). The point is, I am proud of my Midwestern upbringing and the work ethic and sense of values inherent in being part of a friendly and down to earth region of the country.  So I found the book, Primates of Park Avenue, quite a stretch in subject matter from what I can relate to as a woman, wife, and mother.  The author has a PhD. from Yale and does writing and social research.  Her background in anthropology is evident as she compares mommies who live on the Upper East Side to primates and to women from other countries. This book is a memoir about Martin’s life moving from downtown NYC to Park Avenue with her wealthy husband, a native of Manhattan.  The customs and social life of the women in her uber rich neighborhood are absolutely foreign to me, and thus, very interesting and appalling at the same time. Trying to fit in as a new mom in a new neighborhood, wanting a good school for your son, and wanting to meet new friends are definitely things I understand; but the high society social climbing that apparently happens in the Upper East Side is something I’m glad I’ve never encountered in Iowa.  Martin feels like a social outcast in her new lifestyle.  The stress of getting a kindergartner into the best school in the city, wearing only designer clothes and carrying a Birkin bag, always being dressed to the nines whenever you leave the apartment to buy milk at the local store, taking Xanax to ward off a nervous breakdown, being snubbed when trying to set up a child’s playdate, owning a second home in the Hamptons, and vacationing in Vail are all discussed in this funny and erudite novel written from an interesting slant.  The comparisons between mother baboons and mommies on Park Avenue is just amazing. Talk about looking at cultural mores and animal behavior in a whole new way! I didn’t want to put this book down.  Hope you enjoy it as well!


Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War

by Katherine Habley on September 16th, 2015
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy:  Four Women Undercover in the Civil War Cover Image

The New York Times best-selling author, Karen Abbott, who wrote Sin in the Second City and American Rose, published another book that readers will love.  My Book Group read Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy for our September gathering.  It was a great evening because we got to Skype with Abbott for about 30 minutes and she was just so funny and personable.  We felt like she was right there with us having a great evening drinking a glass of wine and talking about her work of non-fiction that reads like a novel.  The four heroines in the story, two Union supporters and two Confederate sympathizers, each made a unique contribution to the war effort.  Young Belle Boyd shot a Union soldier in her home and became a spy for the Confederacy by using her feminine charm with soldiers on both sides of the war.  Emma Edmonds disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Union army as Frank Thompson while infiltrating enemy lines. The widow, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, had affairs with powerful politicians and then sent information she learned through her daughter to assist the rebel cause.  And Elizabeth Van Lew, a rich spinster lady from Richmond who supported the Abolitionists, organized a spy ring with successful results.  Each of their narratives is a true story based on the author’s meticulous research using primary source materials and interviews with the spies’ descendants.  These four courageous women risked everything by becoming involved in espionage during the Civil War and yet we’ve never heard of them!  For an unconventional angle to further understanding of this bloodiest of wars, take a look at Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War.  The black and white photos and 3 maps add to the reader’s enjoyment of the text.  For more information, go to Karen Abbott’s website:  She would be a great addition to the 2016 Festival of Books authors.

What Pet Should I Get? by Dr. Seuss

by Katherine Habley on September 11th, 2015
What Pet Should I Get? by Dr. Seuss Cover Image

Theodore Geisel, the real name of Dr. Seuss, passed away in La Jolla, California, in 1991, at the age of 87.  He left behind a treasure trove of beloved picture books and Beginner Books published by Random House.  He wanted to make reading fun for children and succeeded mightily in that goal.  Shortly after Ted died, his second wife, Audrey, found a box of his materials for future books–sketches, ideas, and snippets of humorous text, and the manuscript for what would become What Pet Should I Get?  With the help of his former secretary and friend, Claudia Prescott, and Ted’s art director, Cathy Goldsmith at Random House, this latest picture book has seen the light of day.  How wonderful is it that Ted’s creative stories and zany illustrations can delight a whole new generation of children!  Ted was a perfectionist who wrote draft after draft of his stories.  The editors for What Pet Should I Get? sometimes had to use their best judgement on which version would work best for this book published posthumously and believe that the good Dr. Seuss would be happy with the final results.  The age-old question for many families is what kind of pet they want.  In the story, we see Kay from The Cat in the Hat stories, and her brother in a pet store trying to choose a pet from the dozens of choices.  Their father has given them money for one pet and their mother has told them to come home by noon, so the rush is on to select the best pet….But it’s so hard to choose between a dog, cat, fish, rabbit or a new kind of pet!  The illustrations at the end of the book show the brother carrying home a basket on his head with two eyes peeking out from under the lid.  The reader can decide for herself what pet the children decide to call their own.  This book is shorter and less complicated than many of the Dr. Seuss books, but no less delightful. The large format picture book is one I am looking forward to sharing with preschoolers in a storytime about pets at my outreach sites or at Wednesday morning storytimes at the library. ICPL has ten new copies of What Pet Should I Get? for bedtime reading to your child or for a young reader to tackle on his own.  Look for them on the New Picture Book shelves in the Children’s Room. You won’t be disappointed.

All the Single Ladies by Dorothea Benton Frank

by Katherine Habley on September 10th, 2015
All the Single Ladies by Dorothea Benton Frank Cover Image

Okay, I admit it, I picked up another quick “summer read” over Labor Day weekend….nothing too taxing for my brain.  I found All the Single Ladies on the adult New Book shelves and the cover image of the red and white life saver on a sea blue background caught my eye.  I’ve read a couple of Frank’s other books and really enjoyed them, so I thought I’d indulge in one more chick lit title.  Because I’ve been to the South Carolina low country and walked the beaches, I can easily picture the setting in my mind.  The characters are also interesting, funny, and somewhat eccentric.  The story is about three middle-aged women who form a bond after a friend dies of cancer.  Lisa St. Clair is a caring nurse who struggles financially, is lonely socially, and worries about her grown daughter’s marijuana business venture in Colorado.  She lovingly takes special care of her patient, Kathy Harper, and after she dies, Lisa becomes good friends with the two girlfriends always by Kathy’s bedside.  Carrie is one sassy beautiful woman always flirting and looking for a new husband.  Suzanne has inherited Kathy’s possessions and a mystery is involved as the three try and discover more about Kathy’s past.  Supporting characters include the elderly, indomitable Miss Trudie and whose beach house where Suzanne lives provides a temporary home for Lisa who is booted out of her apartment by a greedy property owner.  This ninety-nine year old lady is a hoot and dearly loved by her granddaughter, Suzanne.  Lisa’s surprising new love interest, Paul, is a wonderful guy who gives Lisa a better perspective on dealing with her daughter, Marianne.  And Harry is the director of the senior care facility where Lisa works.  The lives of the characters intersect and the reader is left pondering friendship, marriage, loss of a child, and aging, just as the women in the novel are struggling with the same issues.  This novel was an easy read that went down smoothly like a good mint julep enjoyed outside on the porch.

Dead Wake : The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

by Katherine Habley on August 31st, 2015
Dead Wake : The Last Crossing of the Lusitania Cover Image

Erik Larson, best-selling author of In the Garden of Beasts and The Devil in the White City, has written a new book of narrative non-fiction about the luxury ocean liner sunk by a German U-boat in May, 1915, off the coast of Ireland.  I knew a lot about the sinking of the Titanic, but realized that I really didn’t know that much about the Lusitania.  Larson’s unfolding of the maritime disaster that took 1195 lives at the beginning of World War I is chronological and from various points of view.  He draws on primary sources such as letters, log books, memoirs, telegrams and other documents to present a very detailed account of the fastest liner then in service and its captain, William Thomas Turner.  We also learn about the calculating German captain of Unterseeboot-20, Walther Schwieger, who gave the order to fire a torpedo at the Lusitania that ultimately caused such a devastating tragedy.  The ship left New York for it’s home port of Liverpool with many famous people aboard and the captain never imagined the danger that lay ahead.  The passengers heard about traveling through a war zone near England, but they made light of it as they enjoyed their first class passage on such a magnificent cruise liner.  We learn the stories about passengers such as Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat, female architect Theodate Pope Riddle, and suffragette Margaret Mackworth.  Larson also writes about such figures as President Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, and Kaiser Wilhelm and their roles during this critical time in history.  What I found most interesting were the stories of the people involved in the catastrophe; what I found tedious were the parts of the text that discussed submarine technology and other maritime facts that slowed the narrative down for me.  So many factors played a part in this epic tragedy that you close the book wondering, “What if…?”  Enjoy this 100th–anniversary chronicle of the sinking of the Lusitania.

The Rumor by Elin Hilderbrand

by Katherine Habley on August 4th, 2015
The Rumor by Elin Hilderbrand Cover Image

Summer reading for me tends to be less worthy of book group discussions and more about just being lost in a good story that doesn’t tax my brain.  The Rumor by Elin Hilderbrand was a light fun read set on Nantucket that satisfied my curiosity about the title and cover of the book.  Definitely chic lit., where gossip is paramount, best friends Madeline and Grace are the envy of the island with their perfect husbands and children.  But rumor has it that Grace has been having an affair with her gorgeous landscape architect, Benton; that her husband, “Fast Eddie” Pancik is in over his head with a new real estate development; that Grace’s daughter, Allegra, and Madeline’s son, Brick, are not the storybook young couple everyone thinks they are; and that Madeline is struggling with writer’s block and isn’t meeting her editor’s deadlines.  These story lines are explored along with the relationship between twin sisters, Allegra and Hope.  Rumors and realities converge when Madeline starts writing a novel based on what’s happening to the people on the island.  Things escalate and the denouement isn’t a perfect ending for the lives involved.   Strong female friendship wins out in the end and what would a good summer read be without a little sex to spice things up?  Too bad I’ll be missing my Book Group’s August selection, H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, when I’m vacationing with my family in Estes Park for ten days.  Now what shall I take with me to read?  Hmmm….

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

by Katherine Habley on August 3rd, 2015
At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen Cover Image

I really enjoyed Gruen’s New York Times Bestselling book, Water for Elephants, so when I saw At the Water’s Edge on the New books list at ICPL, I put a hold on it.  When a copy arrived I started reading and quickly got caught up with the characters and the story.  Maddie Hyde, a Philadelphia socialite, her husband Ellis, and his best friend, Hank, travel to Scotland on a lark in search of the Loch Ness monster.  Ellis’s father purportedly took photographs of Nessie years earlier, and Ellis wants to get back into his father’s good graces and fortune by confirming the monster’s existence.  The Colonel has never forgiven his son for not joining the fighting overseas even though Ellis’s reason is that he was turned away because he is color-blind.  Once the three are ensconced in a nearby small village, the men go adventuring with their gear leaving Maddie to fend for herself for days on end.  She gets to know the locals and breaks out of her isolation exploring the beautiful Scottish Highlands.  Set in 1945 toward the end of WWII, Maddie and the others deal with the air raids while they are sequestered at the inn with the brooding big innkeeper, Angus.  Soon Maddie becomes disgusted with Ellis and Hank’s drunken behavior each time they return; she finds friendship with the staff at the inn and ultimately, romance with Angus.  At the Water’s Edge is a compelling novel, even with its flaws, about the reawakening of a beautiful privileged young woman set against the backdrop of war.

The Residence; Inside the Private World of the White House

by Katherine Habley on July 27th, 2015
The Residence; Inside the Private World of the White House Cover Image

Kate Anderson Brower spent four years covering the Obama White House for Bloomberg News and is a former CBS News staff member and Fox News producer.  In her well-researched book of stories, conversations, and secrets about the presidents and their families from Kennedy through Obama, I found details shared by the people who keep the White House running smoothly a fascinating look behind the scenes of the famous people who have lived there.  Though I rarely read the gossip magazines unless I’m waiting in a doctor’s office, I did feel like the gossip shared in Brower’s book was an interesting and intimate look at White House occupants in my lifetime.  I’m old enough to remember exactly where I was when I learned the news that John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas.  The author shares details of Kennedy’s philandering and Jackie’s chain smoking, of their closeness in the loss of a son, Patrick, and the directions for JFK’s funeral that Jackie gave so stoically.  Brower describes the work the White House staff do to ready the residence for the next family to move in with less than a day to do so.  LBJ comes across as the bawdy, loud bully married to Lady Bird who acquiesced to his every mood.  His angry criticisms of his bathroom shower and the fun his daughters and other president’s children had in the White House entertaining their friends are all fair game for the author’s reporting.  Covering the resignation of Richard Nixon and his stiff and formal presence in the residence, we learn about a few of his more private thoughts and conversations with staff.  I chuckled when the Fords made it clear that they didn’t want separate bedrooms. Clearly Ronald Reagan is portrayed as a friendly gold ol’ boy but Nancy is shown to be a rigid perfectionist and a very difficult person to work for who dominated her husband. I particularly enjoyed hearing about the affable George Bush and wife, Barbara, who was completely down to earth and popular with the staff. The author shared stories about the Clintons including Bill’s fall from grace and Hillary’s reaction in the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky affair.  Shouting matches and things being thrown unsettled the residence staff.  All the workers commented about what a sweet girl Chelsea was how carefully the Clintons protected her from the press. George W. Bush is discussed in light of 9/11 and learning about how Laura Bush spent the hours after the attack was surprising.  Finally, Barack Obama and Michelle are giving their space in the book in mostly flattering stories.  Michelle’s insistence about their daughters not being spoiled and having a relatively ‘normal’ life while living in the White House is shared.  So are the lavish state dinners for foreign dignitaries described and feuds between the chefs are mentioned. Found on the New Non-Fiction Book shelf, The Residence; Inside the Private World of the White House was a quirky and interesting summer read.

A Lucky Life Interrupted

by Katherine Habley on July 27th, 2015
A Lucky Life Interrupted Cover Image

A Lucky Life Interrupted: A Memoir of Hope by Tom Brokaw was a quick read that I enjoyed.  I remember watching Brokaw as the anchor of the NBC Nightly News for years and also appreciating his thoughtful coverage of Presidential elections.  To me, he was always intelligent, articulate, and reassuring in reporting the news.  Then I got to hear him in person at the University of Iowa a few years ago after his book, The Greatest Generation, was published.  Once again, his presence was so warm and familiar, his sense of humor very apparent, and his Midwestern values obvious.  In his latest book, quite different from his others, Brokaw talks about the 2013–2014 year he spent battling multiple myeloma, a treatable but incurable blood cancer.  After the diagnosis, Brokaw the journalist decided to keep a diary of his time dealing with the ups and downs of cancer treatment.  His journal recounts his frustrations with the medical team in not communicating with each other well enough in coordinating his treatment.  He talks about the importance of patients taking an active role in their own treatment, and the critical role of caretakers, nurses, and rehabilitation specialists. But he also takes a broader look at health care and aging in America and how fortunate he was to have the financial resources to pursue the best doctors at Mayo Clinic and elsewhere.  The question I ask myself frequently, “what do other people do who don’t have health insurance?” is one posed by the author as well.  His memories of important world events and interviews he’s done with famous world leaders are scattered throughout his memoir.  For someone with a very charmed life to talk about his illness and ultimately offer hope to others facing devastating news about their own mortality, his book says a lot about the man himself who counts each day reading, writing, fishing, and time spent with his beloved family and friends, a precious gift.