News of the World by Paulette Jiles

The title appears against a painting of a green landscape and blue sky with white clouds, with a silhouette of a girl leading a horse and cart in the bottom left

By Jean B.

I love a book with a map, so News of the World captured me even before page one. Throughout my reading, I pored over the sepia endpaper map of Texas circa 1870, with its bright red line tracing a path from Wichita Falls along the northern border with Indian territory, all the way down to San Antonio and the Rio Grande. As you might guess, given the map, this is a book about a journey – across both rough territory and psychological barriers. As the characters made their way along the bright red line, Giles’ beautiful prose transported me into this time and place and into the lives of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, age 71, and Johanna Leonberger, age 10.  

It’s the Reconstruction era in Texas, a time of political turmoil and uncertainty, random violence and unexpected kindness, across an incredibly varied landscape. Captain Kidd, a survivor of three wars, has dedicated his life to connecting people through information. He is alone, having lost his wife and his printing business in the Civil War. Kidd now makes his living by traveling through small towns, performing live readings of newspapers from around the country and the world to isolated residents hungry for stories of faraway places and remarkable events. Suddenly, his nomadic routine is disrupted by an unsought responsibility – he must deliver Johanna, a traumatized orphan who has lived as a captive of the Kiowa tribe for six years and knows no other family, back to her relatives near San Antonio. Traversing that 400 mile path, the characters must overcome challenges small and large and, in the process, build mutual trust and companionship.

I would not call myself a fan of Westerns, in either novels or movies, but Paulette Jiles’ exquisite descriptions of the plants, weather, and settlements of this landscape drew me in. Her writing made me want to ride a horse through the hills, canyons, and prairies of Texas (minus the deadly threats along the way). Maybe I’ll do that someday, but in the meantime, luckily, we can get the visual experience by watching the 2020 movie based on the book! Starring Tom Hanks as Captain Kidd, the movie garnered four Oscar nominations, and you borrow the DVD from HCLS.  

While both the book and the movie open a window into a beautiful yet treacherous moment in Texan history, News of the World goes much deeper than a travelogue. Across the miles, the tragic characters discover the power of empathy to leap differences in age, language, experience and loss. Although the book is barely 200 pages, it paints a picture of great historical and personal complexity. If you’re looking for some armchair traveling this summer, News of the World is a journey worth taking – and it comes with a map!

Available in print, large print,audio CD,  ebook, and eaudio, as well as DVD.

Jean B. is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch. A fan of historical fiction and nonfiction, she also enjoys exploring the natural world through books and on foot.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The cover shows the title and author's name against a background of brightly colored, wavy stripes in blues, greens, yellows, purples, oranges, and reds.

By Jean B.

The summer camp directories are out, and though summer will still be COVID-impacted, these camp listings have me thinking about the freedom and fun of summers past. Do you have any cherished (or miserable?!) summer camp memories? Do you think of s’mores or lakes or mosquitoes? While there are all kinds of camps and camp memories, one universal camp experience, it seems, is the intensity of friendships that form in that time-bounded space. When kids are briefly brought together from various places and situations and thrown into the intimate, shared life of a camp routine, something special happens.  

That powerful camp-created bond lies at the core of Meg Wolitzer’s engrossing novel, The Interestings. Six teenagers become friends at Spirit of the Woods camp in the summer of 1974, and the relationships they form with one another shape the rest of their lives. Spirit of the Woods is an arts camp, a place designed to foster talent and passion. Julie Jacobsen isn’t sure she belongs in this place but is thrilled when the self-named clique “The Interestings” enfolds her into their circle of specialness.

As the six kids grow, age, and build their lives and careers, Jules continues to measure her life against those of her camp friends and to use their experiences as a guide to what makes a life successful. Their diverse talents – so glittering in their camp days – play out in many ways in adulthood, and though the bonds of friendship provide a lifeline through crises, they also drive wedges as Jules’ and her friends’ fortunes diverge.  Through Jules’ eyes, readers can consider the question: what would you do for a friend?  

This beautifully written story made me think about my own friendships and how they’ve evolved over time. It swept me into the juicy world of these characters’ lives and relationships but also gave me lots to chew on – it’s both ice cream and salad, a perfect summer feast!  If you’re looking for something fun and, well, interesting, check out Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings.

 Available in print and audio CD, or as an ebook and eaudio on Libby/OverDrive.

Jean B. is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch and loves reading books for all ages when she isn’t enjoying the outdoors.

Grant by Ron Chernow

The photograph in black and white, by Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, shows Grant standing, wearing the frock coat of his Union uniform.
Ulysses S. Grant, circa 1864, photographed by Matthew Brady

Review by Jean B.

Biographies, especially those by Ron Chernow, can be a heavy lift – literally. At more than 900 pages, Chernow’s acclaimed 2017 book examining the life of Ulysses S. Grant can be exhausting to hold for more than 30 minutes of reading. So now is a perfect time to tackle this large but highly satisfying tome, when you can read or listen to it electronically on a lightweight device and maybe have extra reading time in your day! Available through OverDrive in both ebook and eaudiobook formats, Grant offers a fascinating, detailed look at both the man and his era.  

I love to read history, biography, and historical fiction, but I’m always discovering how many episodes in history I really know nothing about. The Civil War era has been recorded in myriad ways, and yet, with Grant I gained new perspective on the war — learning details of the Western front that, as a Pennsylvanian whose education focused on Gettysburg, I hadn’t appreciated. More startling, I discovered how little I understood about the Reconstruction Era and the immense challenges that faced President Grant in securing the rights of newly freed slaves to work, vote, and be full citizens in the re-established Union.  

Ron Chernow sets out to correct the one-dimensional and largely negative portraits of Grant by earlier historians which portrayed him as an ineffective political leader tainted by scandals, corruption, and a chronic drinking problem. Though Chernow clearly admires his subject and goes above and beyond to compile contemporary opinions and statements to bolster his case in Grant’s favor, Chernow’s portrait has such depth, complexity, and humanity that I was persuaded, too, by the end, of Grant’s impressive leadership, moral courage, and devoted service to the ideals of a united nation and racial equality.  

And along the way, I enjoyed getting to know so many of the supporting (and often traitorous!) characters in Grant’s life, from his overbearing father, to his society-loving wife, to the infamous General William Tecumseh Sherman, to conniving Gilded Age businessman Jay Gould. It’s all here — family intrigue, dramatic changes of fortune, battles and blood, comradeship and bitter betrayal. Download and dig in!

Jean is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at the HCLS Central Branch who enjoys participating in book clubs with both kids and adults.