First Women : the grace and power of America’s modern First Ladies by Kate Andersen Brower

First Women tells about the presidents’ wives from 1960 to the present: Jackie Kennedy, Ladyfirst-women Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama.  Brower drew much of her information from numerous interviews, including those with former White House staff and with members of these women’s families, and from the first ladies’ extensive correspondence.

I’d never considered that first ladies, after having many similar experiences, have a special ability to give one another understanding and support.  Deep friendships among some of them have crossed party lines.  On the other hand, the book includes less heartwarming encounters, as well as some of their catty comments about one another.  The book tells about the first ladies’ roles as wives, mothers, and working on issues that matter to them.  Their husbands could depend on them for emotional support and often for advice and assistance.

Whether many of these women are historical figures to you, or whether you’ve lived through all of their husbands’ presidencies, you’ll find much of interest in this book.

Brower’s earlier book, The Residence, is about White House staffers.  It’s also a good read.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)


Grandma Gatewood’s Walk : The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery

grandmaEmma Gatewood lived a hard life.  She married a husband who proved to be abusive, had eleven children, and worked her fingers to the literal bone.  At the age of sixty-seven, she took a walk as “a lark” that ended over 2,000 miles later, becoming the first woman to walk the Appalachian Trail.

Gatewood started light with a pack she pieced together, carrying some bare necessities.  Along the course of her travels, she met plenty of “trail angels” who sheltered and fed her.  There were also times when people were inhospitable, she was eating wild berries for sustenance, used a shower curtain that she’d brought for rain protection, and stayed warm by heating rocks in a fire and sleeping on them after they’d warmed up enough.

Her journey was arduous, as are all along this trail, but Gatewood’s was particularly heinous.  1955 was a year of vicious hurricanes that flooded the northeast without mercy; Gatewood reached New England right when these storms hit.  There were rivers that were nigh impossible to cross.  Some she crossed alone, others with help.  One of the luckiest meetings she experienced was sharing a trail shelter with a Catholic mission group that included some of Harlem’s most notorious gang leaders.  Everyone involved realized a common need, and Gatewood got through some of her worst crossings by help from this group.

The press soon got wind of Gatewood’s “lark” and as she progressed, journalists of all kinds were at any town of size along her way, quick to get in a picture or story, and Grandma’s legend grew.  And yes, Katahdin was hers, hard-won but attainable.

Gatewood was just getting started…

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk is a nice mix of trek account, family background, and social commentary of the 1950s, when society was changing and people were becoming more sedentary due to the convenience of the automobile.  The news of an older lady walking in the middle of nowhere was a novelty, and a necessary jolt in the arm for the general public to remind them of the benefits of exercise and the great outdoors.

Gatewood’s comments on poor conditions of portions of the AT raised more awareness of the trail and its importance to hikers; in the following years, there were improvements to shelters and accessibility.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Treehouse : Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See by Naomi Wolf

treehouseA decrepit house in rural New York beckons the author as a place of rejuvenation.  Many visits and much labor later, the property becomes a retreat for others, including immediate family, friends, and Wolf’s father, whose life and ideals set the tone for this book.

Leonard Wolf has led a colorful life.  Born in Romania in the 1920s, he immigrated as a small child to the United States.  During the 1940s onward, he was prominent in the American Bohemian community on the west coast as a writer and teacher.  Wolf never amassed a fortune, but stayed true to his ideals.  He continued to teach and publish long after other movements (the Beats, the Hippies) made their mark.

The author discusses her father’s unconventional method of education and how her own teaching approach evolved during the stretch of time they were renovating the country house.  Her father comes to visit there from time to time, offering his help in painting and building a treehouse for Naomi’s daughter.  The treehouse evolves as well; near the book’s end, you’ll find the final result as something far different from what they had originally planned.

Visitors to the house find that Leonard and the property are catalysts for change in their own lives.  Several of Naomi’s friends and students come at troubled times; they find, if not answers, then other avenues for creative and personal growth.  And even the neighbor that Naomi hired for clearing out the overgrown yard explores his own creativity, far beyond what they hired him for, and the property and treehouse are much improved because of his work.

The Treehouse is a worthy read for anybody hitting a dead end with a creative endeavor, or going through a trying emotional time.  It ultimately recounts the reconnection of a daughter with her father, but there is much more to the book than that.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


When in French : Love in a Second Language by Lauren Collins

An American woman marries a Frenchman and lives happily ever after – but first, it helpswhen-in-french to learn French.

Lauren is living abroad for the first time in London when she meets Olivier.  She’s fine with dating him and Olivier, after years of study and exposure, speaks English well, although their differing approaches to the language make for some headbutting.  It’s when they marry and Olivier is transferred to Geneva, Switzerland that Lauren realizes two things:  A long distance marriage won’t work, and if she moves with him to Geneva, it’s inevitable that she learns to speak French.

Along her journey to be a competent Francophone, Lauren has plenty of time to muse on the complexities of language itself and how speaking (and living) in a different tongue than her own will change her perceptions.

So Lauren meets her in-laws (who turn out to be fabulous people, actually), struggles through French classes, and meets lots of other people who are outsiders like her.  She also comes to terms with her limitations.

When in French alternates between family narrative and explorations of human speech and culture.  The family and personal situations are funny, as when the author describes her early failures with summer camp or recounts her fears of culture clash when her parents come to visit her French in-laws.  Her ponderings on other things tend to get heady, but these sections are still worth reading.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


The Big Tiny : A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee Williams

big tinySimplifying daily life is a varied journey.  For some, it’s whittling down possessions, so, as it’s said, they stop possessing us.  For others, it’s moving to the country, where things are at a slower pace.  And yet for others, it’s house size – the McMansions and their sheer magnitude don’t cut it anymore.

Enter the tiny house movement, where folks willing to pare down to the bare essentials are building houses the size of tool sheds.

Enter Dee Williams, who took the tiny house path years ago and became a big advocate for the lifestyle.

Dee had a very active life.  As she entered her forties, a serious heart condition got her to slow down and think about her reality – namely that of paying a mortgage on a big house that wound up defining her existence, with the constant repairs and expenses.

Dee met Jay Shafer, an early mover and shaker of the tiny house movement, and was hooked on the possibilities of building her own little castle.

Dee wasn’t afraid of power tools and wasn’t daunted (too much) by the prospect of her modified existence.  She was fortunate to have a great circle of friends, and some happenstance encounters with strangers who were happy to help her along her 84 square foot journey.  It also helped knowing people who didn’t mind Dee parking her little house in their yard when it was finished.

The Big Tiny is funny, boisterous, and unflinching.  Dee lets you know that she isn’t perfect, and that building a tiny house wasn’t a couple-of-weekends jaunt.

Dee is still active – check out (Portland Alternative Dwellings).  She also makes an appearance in the documentary Small is Beautiful, which is streamable via Netflix.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Obama’s eloquent, thoughtful memoir begins with his youth in Hawaii and Indonesia and51LCJdzcSNL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_ continues with stories about his job as a community organizer in Chicago’s African-American neighborhoods and about his visit in 1988 to relatives in Kenya.

A major focus of this book is Obama’s relationship with his Kenyan father, whom he knew only from conversations with his mother, his maternal grandparents, and his Kenyan relatives and from a one-month visit when Barack was ten years old.  From his father, the young Barack learned much about what he wanted to be like – and also about what he did not want to become.

Obama’s life story has been quite different from the biographies of other U.S. presidents, and, whatever your political views, I think you’ll find it fascinating!

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Eruption : the untold story of Mount St. Helens by Steve Olson

EruptionWhen visiting the Pacific Northwest three years ago, one of the most unsettling sites I saw while driving down Highway 5 was a rather large mountain in the distance with a chunk off the top.  It took a minute to recognize it as Mount St. Helens, the aftermath of the big catastrophic event which took place thirty-three years previously.

Eruption covers the terrifying time when this mountain blew up on May 18, 1980.  57 deaths were accounted for, and it could have have been worse, as the eruption came on a Sunday morning and not during a workweek, when logging operations in the area would have been occurring.  The lava and ash flows destroyed vast stretches of forest; the mud flow made it all the way to Highway 5.

Up to the time of Mount St. Helens eruption, it seemed inconceivable that the contiguous United States would have a real live volcano.  Earthquakes?  Sure.  Tornadoes and other weather happenings?  Of course.  Volcanoes?  Leave those to more exotic locales – until 1980.  Of course, after it happened, the local populace certainly became more aware of the geologic uncertainties of the Cascade Range and the Pacific Coast region in general.

The author also delves extensively into the historical background of the area surrounding Mount St. Helens, when the logging industry ran full tilt, specifically the Weyerhaeuser company and their role in the local economy.  At one time, the company owned a significant part of the woodlands closest to the mountain, and were logging it up until the time of the eruption.

The book is a detailed but fascinating story of this area of the Pacific Northwest, and gives the reader plenty of room for thought for the possibilities of natural catastrophes and how we can better act on them when they happen.

(William Hicks, Information Services)