Blog

Jennifer

The Radium Girls

Be prepared: this book is heartbreaking and infuriating. But it is so worth the read. The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women (2017) tells the true story of a tragic time in American history. In the early 20th century, advertisements touted radium as a miracle cure. During World War I, factories in the U.S. were employing women to paint watch faces. Their method? Lip, dip, paint.

The constant exposure to radium eventually led to workers' horrific pain and suffering—and the companies denied any wrongdoing. Author Kate Moore shares the personal stories of these women, their fight for justice, and the impact their perseverance had on workers' rights and labor laws.

There is a local thread about a radium plant in Ottowa, Illinois. Check out the NPR Illinois article for more details.

If you enjoyed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or The Girls of Atomic City, try this book. It has a mix of hidden history and compelling characters—and it's great for book clubs.



Jez

Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018)

Despite being published late in the year, Michelle Obama's Becoming was the bestselling book of 2018 and once you start reading, it's not hard to see why. Obama's first book is everything you could want from a memoir by the former First Lady. Starting well before her time in the White House, Obama describes her life living on the Southside of Chicago and having to work hard from a very young age in order to get ahead in her education, including testing into an elite school. Going through her early adulthood, readers learn about Obama's humanitarian efforts in various positions to help underprivileged students get a better education and fair chance in life, a value she carries into her life in Washington.

Perhaps the reason most readers will pick up this book is to read about the 2008, 2012, and 2016 presidential elections and President Obama's terms in office. Michelle Obama does an excellent job of showing both the political and personal sides of life in the White House and having to navigate the nebulous position of a First Lady. Beautifully written and deeply personal, Becoming is the memoir to read this year. I highly recommend picking up the audiobook, read by the author, who could easily have a second career in audiobook narration if she chose.



Heather

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (2016)

Trevor Noah has a gift for storytelling (which makes it no surprise that he is now a comedian). I would have liked this book more if it were told in chronological order, but ultimately, I assume the order in which it is presented goes back to the fact that he's a comedian and likely thinks anecdotally vs. chronologically. That said, Noah tells such fascinating stories of his childhood, teen years, and young adult life, all while intertwining the cultural setting of South Africa while he was growing up. I highly recommend the audio to fully appreciate both the variety of languages Noah references and the emotion and humor in his storytelling.

Check out Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood and other titles on this year's 2019 Lincoln Award (PDF): Illinois Teen Readers' Choice nominee list.

Mary S.

Betty Ford by Lisa McCubbin (2018)

bettyFormer First Lady Betty Ford thought her husband Gerald Ford was going to retire after his time in the U. S. House of Representatives, but instead he moved to a higher office, taking over the Vice Presidency when Spiro Agnew was forced to resign. He became president when Richard Nixon resigned, setting her husband up as one of the most powerful men in the world without even running for office. His demanding job made him a largely absent husband, forcing Betty to raise her four children almost as a single mother.

While her husband was in the White House, Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, it was like receiving a death sentence. She also suffered from an addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol. In 1978, her family staged an intervention. Ford was open with the American public about her health issues and would go on to co-found the Betty Ford Center. Her outspokenness about her personal experiences put the focus on women’s health issues, alcoholism, and addiction, prompting many to seek treatment themselves.

You don’t need to be a fan of President Ford or Betty Ford’s politics to enjoy Betty Ford: First Lady, Women’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer by Lisa McCubbin. This is an inspirational and sympathetic portrait of a woman dealing with many issues while living in the political arena.
Katie

RBG (2018) PG

81njbw6zvql-_sy445_It's no surprise to people who know me well that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of my personal heroes (and in the immortal words of The Notorious B.I.G. via Lin-Manuel Miranda -- "and if ya don't know, now ya know").  When I found out that there was a documentary coming out on her life, I knew I would be seeing that in the theaters—but now RBG is out on DVD for everyone to enjoy!  The documentary includes interviews with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her family members, political figures, authors of the book The Notorious RBG, and many more.  It covers her life from childhood to current service and includes footage from her confirmation hearing, as well as audio files from court cases.  What struck me as the best part of the film though were the moments that we, the public, don't always get to see -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg interacting with her granddaughter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg watching Kate McKinnon play her on Saturday Night Live, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg's life with her beloved husband. I also have to admit that I was delighted to see information on her pop culture influence, including one of the best baby costumes ever: Baby RBG.

I think this is an important documentary for anyone with a political interest to see.  U. S. Supreme Court Justice Bader Ginsburg's friendship with Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, despite their political oppositions, is something we can all learn from.
Jez

The Good Neighbor by Maxwell King (2018)

good-neighborIf you grew up any time between 1968 and 2001, there’s a good chance that Fred Rogers was your childhood. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a slow, peaceful show about friendship and learning, with a kindly gentleman and his friends and a world of make believe. There’s a certain amount of make believe surrounding Rogers himself, with rumors spreading quickly across the internet, especially one about him being a navy seal. The Good Neighbor by Maxwell King—the first authorized biography of Rogers—aims to set the record straight: Fred Rogers was precisely the man you imagined him to be, based off his television persona. But he was also so much kinder and maybe a little stranger than we thought.

King’s biography covers the entirety of Rogers’ life, drawing on television appearances; interviews with Rogers, his family, and his coworkers; and his own personal friendship with the man. In these pages, you’ll learn how Rogers contributed and changed the face of early childhood education, his past as an opera author, what he was like as a parent, and some great behind-the-scenes stories from the many shows he did over the years.

For an extra dose of nostalgia, pick up the audiobook, read by LeVar Burton. When you’re done with the book, check out the movie based on the book, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Jennifer

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home by Denise Kiernan (2017)

jacketI adored Denise Kiernan’s first book (The Girls of Atomic City) on a little known piece of history. Now, she turns her attention to the creation of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.

In The Last Castle, Kiernan details the lives of Edith and George Vanderbilt (grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt) along with the construction of the massive house and the development (and protection) of the surrounding forests and land. The author effortlessly weaves the threads of the stories of people, places, and events in American history from the Gilded Age to WWII. An engaging and fascinating slice of history.

 
 
 
 
Katie

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016)

51v55l2fxflWhen I checked out Born a Crime, I knew vaguely that Trevor Noah was a comedian. I even remembered sharing a post of his on social media since I thought it was funny. Yet somehow, I did not expect to have to pull my car over to the shoulder to finish listening to one of Noah's stories. I was laughing so hard, I was crying.

And if that's not a ringing endorsement of an audiobook, I don't know what is.

I highly recommend listening to the audiobook version of this book because you hear Noah speaking the different South African languages with accuracy. And you get to hear Noah's voice imitation of his mother, among other people in his memoir.

Oh? And the story I had to pull over to finish on the road? I've been telling it to everyone, convincing them to read the book. If you do read Born a Crime, stop by the K&T desk upstairs and see if you can guess which story made me laugh so hard I cried.
Jennifer

Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies by Ross King (2016)

In this engagingly readable mix of art, history, and biography, author Ross King details the later years of Claude Monet’s life. Set against the backdrop of WWI, Mad Enchantment documents Monet’s work on paintings both large and small as well as his life in Giverny, France (and his relationships with other artists such as Renoir and Rodin). The prolific artist, although hindered by grief and failing eyesight, produced the massive paintings found in l’Orangerie in Paris.

The Art Institute of Chicago plays a role in the book, too. Did you know its representatives tried to purchase the paintings that ended up in l’Orangerie? At least we have many other Monet works in Chicago. Whether you’re planning a trip to Paris or Chicago, or just want to learn more about one of the greats (who was not always admired during his lifetime), I recommend this book—I lost track of the number of times I thought, “I didn’t know that.”

 
Jennifer

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016)

At turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, Trevor Noah’s candid memoir is a powerful, moving story of his life as a mixed race child growing up during apartheid. Told in vignettes, Born a Crime documents his relationship with his mother, his childhood and teenage antics, and his struggle to fit into a world that considered him a crime (at the time of his birth, interracial relationships were illegal).

Perhaps best known as the host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, Noah does infuse humor into his stories, but this is not your typical comedian’s memoir. Listen to the audiobook: the author’s command of multiple languages and skill at impersonations shine in his engaging narration.
Joan

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel (2013)

astronautAnyone who grew up during the race to the moon era can identify with the mystery and mystique of the astronauts. This nonfiction account from the perspective of their wives may disenchant some, but readers will have a whole new respect and admiration for these great American women. In The Astronaut Wives Club, Lily Koppel does a good job of presenting the facts and opinions through extensive research and interviews in a story-like format. The epilogue ties everything up in a neat package explaining what happened after the space race was won and life returned to normal.
Jez

Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick (2016)

scrappyScrappy Little Nobody is everything I wanted out of Anna Kendrick’s first memoir: childhood stories, breaking into show business (on stage and on screen), behind-the-scenes memories, and funny anecdotes and asides. The stories range from unique and humorous—such as the time she and her brother went to NYC as young teens for an audition and her parents faxed over their credit card number to the hotel, promising that their children definitely weren’t unattended minors—to personal, as was the case with remembering her grandmother’s funeral.

Kendrick toes the line of “stars: they’re just like us!” presenting scenes from the Oscars, as well as a chapter on why she’ll never call herself a real adult. The author herself reads the audiobook and does so splendidly. This is a perfect read for fans of Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? or Felicia Day’s You’re Never Weird on the Internet.
Jez

Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris (2014)

nphbioNeil Patrick Harris’s autobiography is not your regular autobiography—it’s a choose your own adventure book. Written in second person, the book mimics the format of the Choose Your Own Adventure series he grew up reading, where the reader is given choices and asked to turn to a specific page to follow that choice to its conclusion. These include pursuing a career as a teenaged doctor, learning magic, and meeting the man of your dreams—but be careful, some roads lead to death by quicksand!

In this unusual autobiography, Neil covers his childhood, how he first got started in theatre and television, and his time on Doogie Howser, and later, How I Met Your Mother. The chapters on his personal life “behind the scenes” and about his family are my favorite and you can really feel the love Neil feels for his husband and children. The print version gives you the full experience of the format, but the audiobook makes up for this by including recordings of speeches Neil has given, one as a thirteen year old, and one as an adult, receiving a Tony award. The format does make the audiobook tricky, but it was handled well, asking the reader not to turn to a page number, but to “keep listening” or “wait awhile.” Included in both are drink and food recipes, as well as instructions for magic tricks.

Choose Your Own Autobiography is a fun and fascinating detour from the usual memoir fare and it’s done in a way that only NPH could do.
IPPL Staff

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon (2014)

index.aspx1930 was the year of New York Justice Joseph Crater's infamous disappearance (his body was never found). This novel tells the story as seen through the eyes of the three women who knew him best: his wife Stella, his mistress Ritzi, and the maid Maria. Their story, expertly woven around these events, comes from the author’s imagination and she builds a fascinating tale of what may have happened.

Author Ariel Lawhon saves the why of Judge Crater disappearance until a twist in the very last pages. The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress will transport readers to a bygone era of chorus girls, speakeasies, bootleggers, Tammany Hall corruption, gangsters, and irritating rich people.
Mary S.

Still Foolin’ ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? by Billy Crystal (2013)

Upon turning 65, Billy Crystal, a comedian, actor, and director, wrote this entertaining, humorous, and sometimes poignant book. It alternates between quips about aging and reflections on his family life and career. In the audio version of Still Foolin’ ‘Em, the chapters on aging seem right out of his stand-up act complete with laugh track. I especially enjoyed the sections on the making of the movies When Harry Met Sally and City Slickers and learning about his friendship with Muhammad Ali. Reading about his early marriage years with Janice through being a grandpa gave me a different perspective on this funny man.