Book Review: City of Girls

City of Girls (2019)

Author: Elizabeth Gilbert

Title: City of Girls
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Riverhead
Publication Date: June 4, 2019
Pages: 470
Format Read: audiobook
Standalone or series: standalone
Where I got the book: Library Libby app
Date finished reading: December 16, 2019

Goodreads Description: Beloved author Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction with a unique love story set in the New York City theater world during the 1940s. Told from the perspective of an older woman as she looks back on her youth with both pleasure and regret (but mostly pleasure), City of Girls explores themes of female sexuality and promiscuity, as well as the idiosyncrasies of true love.

In 1940, nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris has just been kicked out of Vassar College, owing to her lackluster freshman-year performance. Her affluent parents send her to Manhattan to live with her Aunt Peg, who owns a flamboyant, crumbling midtown theater called the Lily Playhouse. There Vivian is introduced to an entire cosmos of unconventional and charismatic characters, from the fun-chasing showgirls to a sexy male actor, a grand-dame actress, a lady-killer writer, and no-nonsense stage manager. But when Vivian makes a personal mistake that results in professional scandal, it turns her new world upside down in ways that it will take her years to fully understand. Ultimately, though, it leads her to a new understanding of the kind of life she craves-and the kind of freedom it takes to pursue it. It will also lead to the love of her life, a love that stands out from all the rest.

Now ninety-five years old and telling her story at last, Vivian recalls how the events of those years altered the course of her life – and the gusto and autonomy with which she approached it. At some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time, she muses. After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is. Written with a powerful wisdom about human desire and connection, City of Girls is a love story like no other.

My Review: At the beginning of this decade, I read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, so it felt fitting that I would end this decade with a new Elizabeth Gilbert book. I loved Eat, Pray, Love, a book about loss, uncertainty, adventure, finding oneself and love. It was unique, heartfelt and contained a lot of depth and feeling. Unfortunately, I felt those qualities missing from City of Girls. It did contain strong female characters, but it really felt just like reading Sex in the City if that took place in the 1940s. I enjoyed trying to figure out who the main character was telling her story to, but I am not sure solving that mystery was worth reading that book in its entirety. It was too long and not very exciting.

Recommendation: If you enjoy reading historical fiction that takes place in New York City with strong female characters, I would recommend Park Avenue Summer by Renee Rosen over City of Girls. 

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ 

Book Review: Park Avenue Summer

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Title:
Park Avenue Summer
Author: Renee Rosen
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Berkley
Publication Date: April 30, 2019
Pages: 368
Format Read: Audiobook
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: Library Libby app
Date finished reading: May 24, 2019

Goodreads Description: Mad Men meets The Devil Wears Prada as Renée Rosen draws readers into the glamour of 1965 New York City and Cosmopolitan Magazine, where a brazen new Editor-in-Chief–Helen Gurley Brown–shocks America by daring to talk to women about all things off limits…

New York City is filled with opportunities for single girls like Alice Weiss who leaves her small Midwestern town to chase her big city dreams and unexpectedly lands the job of a lifetime working for Helen Gurley Brown, the first female Editor-in-Chief of a then failing Cosmopolitan Magazine.

Nothing could have prepared Alice for the world she enters as editors and writers resign on the spot, refusing to work for the woman who wrote the scandalous bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl. While confidential memos, article ideas, and cover designs keep finding their way into the wrong hands, someone tries to pull Alice into this scheme to sabotage her boss. But Alice remains loyal and becomes all the more determined to help Helen succeed. As pressure mounts at the magazine and Alice struggles to make her way in New York, she quickly learns that in Helen Gurley Brown’s world, a woman can demand to have it all.

My Review: I enjoyed this book far more than I was expecting to. It is a glimpse into the life of Helen Gurley Brown and her ideas to revamp Cosmopolitan magazine to a magazine that was geared more toward everyday women’s issues. Her story was told through the eyes of a fictional character, Alice Weiss, Helen Gurley Brown’s secretary. I had an immediate connection to Alice Weiss – more than just the fact that we share a same last name (my maiden name at least). She represented the type of intellectual, self-assured and independent woman that Helen Gurly Brown wanted to reach with her magazine, and she did.

Park Avenue Summer was intriguing from the very beginning and continued to hold my often distracted attention. I was never much of a reader of Cosmopolitan, but I really enjoyed learning about Helen Gurley Brown. She wanted to make huge changes for Cosmopolitan, including switching from depressing/stuff stories written by famous male authors to stories told by the likes of Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Nora Ephron and also covering a wide variety of sexual topics that might interest women but were shocking for that time. It seemed that the odds were against her and yet she still managed to do the impossible with Cosmopolitan and be a powerful woman in a man’s world. This story is one of inspiration. Alice Weiss may be a fictional character, but she represents many women who were directly touched and inspired by Helen Gurley Brown.

I highly recommend this book. It will make a wonder summer/beach read. If you are listening to the audiobook, don’t skip the extra Author’s notes at the end, where the author describes the scenes throughout the book that really happened.

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ½

Book Review: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

book woman of troublesome creek by kim michele richardsonTitle: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
Author: Kim Michele Richardson
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication Date: May 7, 2019
Pages: 320
Format Read: ebook
Standalone or series: standalone
Where I got the book: NetGalley ARC
Date finished reading: May 8, 2019

Goodreads Description: “Richardson’s latest work is a hauntingly atmospheric love letter to the first mobile library in Kentucky and the fierce, brave packhorse librarians who wove their way from shack to shack dispensing literacy, hope, and – just as importantly – a compassionate human connection. Richardson’s rendering of stark poverty against the ferocity of the human spirit is irresistible. Add to this the history of the unique and oppressed blue-skinned people of Kentucky, and you’ve got an un-put-downable work that holds real cultural significance.” – Sara Gruen, #1 NYT bestselling author 

In 1936, tucked deep into the woods of Troublesome Creek, KY, lives blue-skinned 19-year-old Cussy Carter, the last living female of the rare Blue People ancestry. The lonely young Appalachian woman joins the historical Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and becomes a librarian, riding across slippery creek beds and up treacherous mountains on her faithful mule to deliver books and other reading material to the impoverished hill people of Eastern Kentucky.

Along her dangerous route, Cussy, known to the mountain folk as Bluet, confronts those suspicious of her damselfly-blue skin and the government’s new book program. She befriends hardscrabble and complex fellow Kentuckians, and is fiercely determined to bring comfort and joy, instill literacy, and give to those who have nothing, a bookly respite, a fleeting retreat to faraway lands.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a powerful message about how the written word affects people–a story of hope and heartbreak, raw courage and strength splintered with poverty and oppression, and one woman’s chances beyond the darkly hollows. Inspired by the true and historical blue-skinned people of Kentucky and the brave and dedicated Kentucky Pack Horse library service, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek showcases a bold and unique tale of the Pack horse Librarians in literary novels — a story of fierce strength and one woman’s belief that books can carry us anywhere — even back home. 

My Review: I received an ARC copy of this book via NetGalley. I found this story both fascinating and heartwrenching. I had never heard of the blue people of Kentucky or methemoglobinemia, which I found interesting. However, these people with such a unique medical condition just fueled an already prejudicial and racist society in Kentucky. This story focuses on one such person, named Cussy Mary or Bluet, who won the hearts of many of the hill folk in Troublesome Creek by delivering reading materials as her job as a Pack Horse Librarian. She shared her love of literature, but also tried to teach the people how different reading material could be useful in their homes, that these reading materials could be methods of educating people how to hunt, garden, cook, sew, etc. Cussy Mary put her heart and soul into trying to enrich these people’s lives and also save them from starvation and other ailments that were common in those parts.

Impoverishment and starvation were not the only hardships. If the men had jobs, it was most likely in the mines. Cussy Mary would worry about her father’s safety in the mines, a job that contained long, grueling work hours and life-risking tasks.

(Trigger Warnings for violence and sexual assault.) Cussy Mary’s every day life was a terrifying one. She was mistreated both physically and verbally by many townsfolk because of the color of her skin. I feared for her safety through the whole book as she traveled the path delivering the library materials all alone. I absolutely adored her mule (the one blessing she got out of her miserable marriage), who did try to protect her on multiple occasions.

Without giving too much away, after an incident happened at the home of Cussy Mary and her father, her father made a deal with the town’s doctor that the doctor could run medical tests on Cussy Mary to try to understand why she was blue. This led to him diagnosing her condition. After experiencing so much pain and hurt, the doctor didn’t have to spend too much time convinced Cussy Mary to take some medication that would turn her skin white even though this medication would make her sick. She thought she could have a normal life if she was white, that the townspeople would accept her as one of their own, but they didn’t.

The books displays so many harsh realities of poverty, starvation, vanity, racism and hate, but it also shares a story of the power of literature, which brings hope to the suffering, and the loving bond that connects the librarian to her patrons and friends, who don’t see the color of her skin but see her simply as the Book Woman.  I loved this story so much. It was sweet and powerful. I would give it a full 5 stars, but it made me cry so much and had hoped for a happier ending. Despite this, I highly recommend this book.

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ½

Book Club Review: The Moon and Sixpence

9781604595659Title: The Moon and Sixpence
Author: William Somerset Maugham
Genre: Classic Literature, Historical Fiction
Publisher: Aegypan
Publication Date: 1919
Pages: 192
Format Read: ebook
Standalone or series: standalone
Where I got the book: Amazon kindle
Date finished reading: April 30, 2019

Goodreads Description: Based on the life of Paul Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence is W. Somerset Maugham’s ode to the powerful forces behind creative genius.

Charles Strickland is a staid banker, a man of wealth and privilege. He is also a man possessed of an unquenchable desire to create art. As Strickland pursues his artistic vision, he leaves London for Paris and Tahiti, and in his quest makes sacrifices that leaves the lives of those closest to him in tatters. Through Maugham’s sympathetic eye Strickland’s tortured and cruel soul becomes a symbol of the blessing and the curse of transcendent artistic genius, and the cost in humans lives it sometimes demands.

My Review: This book was picked for my IRL Great Books book club. Even though the Goodreads description says that this book is based on the life of Paul Gauguin, it is loosely based on his life – more like Paul Gauguin inspired the idea of The Moon and Sixpence.

This meetup was another good example of why I feel book clubs are valuable. I did not enjoy this book at all, but the book club still had an amazing discussion regarding it. The discussion often centered around the main themes we believed the book possessed:

  • What is art & what makes a work successful? What makes art art? It is discussed in the book that sometimes it just takes one critic to praise the work for it to be successful.
  • What drives an artist?
  • A great artist does not necessarily mean that he/she is a great person. There was a lot of discussion about beauty vs. goodness, as many of us did not find Strickland (the main character) or even the narrator redeemable characters.

I could not really see passed the fact that I disliked the main character, Strickland. At one point Strickland is talking to the narrator and says this about his wife: “My dear fellow, I only hope you’ll be able to make her see it. But women are very unintelligent.” Other times, there would be lines that were less insulting that made me laugh a bit, so I think there are many lines and interactions throughout the book that are supposed to be humorous.

The most interesting conversation during book club was how much the author may have put of himself in this story. In The Moon and Sixpence, the main character, Strickland, leaves his family, his source of income and his position in English society to move to Paris to pursue art. He didn’t care about anyone but himself and his art. We wondered if the narrator, who is fascinated by Strickland, was experiencing some self-hate and jealous of Strickland. That he may have been struggling with societal restraints just as the author was.

After this book club meeting, I do believe there is more depth to this book than I originally gave it credit for. However, I just could not see passed the horrible characters. I did not feel like there were any characters in the story to really like. I will admit that I am a bit more fascinated by William Somerset Maugham’s life than his literary works.

My Rating: ♦ ♦