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WHAT WE'RE READING

Sally’s Picks

Sally loves a good novel but has been reading a lot of memoirs, narrative non-fiction and books about politics and social issues. True crime has long been her guilty pleasure and she is happy to see that genre become more mainstream and her passion for it perhaps a little less creepy.

The Orphans of Davenport

Marilyn Brookwood
Hardcover/July 27, 2021
Liverlight

Sally says: A look at the nature –nurture debate and the challenge to eugenics movement of the early 20th century by researchers at the University of Iowa who established that IQ was not constant and could change significantly with environment. It’s not a light read but if you’re looking for a reason to take pride in Iowa, this book will do it. 

“Doomed from birth” was how psychologist Harold Skeels described two toddler girls at the Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home in Davenport, Iowa, in 1934. Their IQ scores, added together, totaled just 81. Following prevailing eugenic beliefs of the times, Skeels and his colleague Marie Skodak assumed that the girls had inherited their parents’ low intelligence and were therefore unfit for adoption. The girls were sent to an institution for the “feebleminded” to be cared for by “moron” women. To Skeels and Skodak’s astonishment, under the women’s care, the children’s IQ scores became normal.
Now considered one of the most important scientific findings of the twentieth century, the discovery that environment shapes children’s intelligence was also one of the most fiercely contested—and its origin story has never been told. In The Orphans of Davenport, psychologist and esteemed historian Marilyn Brookwood chronicles how a band of young psychologists in 1930s Iowa shattered the nature-versus-nurture debate and overthrew long-accepted racist and classist views of childhood development.

Transporting readers to a rural Iowa devastated by dust storms and economic collapse, Brookwood reveals just how profoundly unlikely it was for this breakthrough to come from the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station. Funded by the University of Iowa and the Rockefeller Foundation, and modeled on America’s experimental agricultural stations, the Iowa Station was virtually unknown, a backwater compared to the renowned psychology faculties of Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton. Despite the challenges they faced, the Iowa psychologists replicated increased intelligence in thirteen more “retarded” children.

When Skeels published their incredible work, America’s leading psychologists—eugenicists all—attacked and condemned his conclusions. The loudest critic was Lewis M. Terman, who advocated for forced sterilization of low-intelligence women and whose own widely accepted IQ test was threatened by the Iowa research. Terman and his opponents insisted that intelligence was hereditary, and their prestige ensured that the research would be ignored for decades. Remarkably, it was not until the 1960s that a new generation of psychologists accepted environment’s role in intelligence and helped launch the modern field of developmental neuroscience..

Drawing on prodigious archival research, Brookwood reclaims the Iowa researchers as intrepid heroes and movingly recounts the stories of the orphans themselves, many of whom later credited the psychologists with giving them the opportunity to forge successful lives. A radiant story of the power and promise of science to better the lives of us all, The Orphans of Davenport unearths an essential history at a moment when race science is dangerously resurgent.

The Lincoln Highway

Amor Towles
Hardcover/October 5, 2021
Viking

Sally Says: When I finished A Gentleman in Moscow, I immediately went back to read the author’s earlier novel, Rules of Civility. Then I began to wait patiently for his third book and this one was worth the wait. Plenty of unpredictable plot twists keep the story moving and the end left me not expecting a sequel but imagining different ways the story might continue.

In June, 1954, eighteen-year-old Emmett Watson is driven home to Nebraska by the warden of the work farm where he has just served a year for involuntary manslaughter. His mother long gone, his father recently deceased, and the family farm foreclosed upon by the bank, Emmett’s intention is to pick up his eight-year-old brother and head west where they can start their lives anew. But when the warden drives away, Emmett discovers that two friends from the work farm have hidden themselves in the trunk of the warden’s car. Together, they have hatched an altogether different plan for Emmett’s future.

Spanning just ten days and told from multiple points of view, Towles’s third novel will satisfy fans of his multi-layered literary styling while providing them an array of new and richly imagined settings, characters, and themes.

The Music of Bees

Eileen Garvin
Hardcover/April 27, 2021
Dutton Books

Sally’s thoughts: A series of unrelated circumstances brings three down-on-their-luck strangers together on an Oregon honeybee farm. Confronted by a series of ups and downs, they nonetheless come together and find unshakeable bonds. Plenty of interesting information about bees, beekeeping and pesticides adds to a sweet story of friendship among misfits. When I was looking for something with an upbeat ending, this book filled the bill.

Forty-four-year-old Alice Holtzman is stuck in a dead-end job, bereft of family, and now reeling from the unexpected death of her husband. Alice has begun having panic attacks whenever she thinks about how her life hasn’t turned out the way she dreamed. Even the beloved honeybees she raises in her spare time aren’t helping her feel better these days.

In the grip of a panic attack, she nearly collides with Jake–a troubled, paraplegic teenager with the tallest mohawk in Hood River County–while carrying 120,000 honeybees in the back of her pickup truck. Charmed by Jake’s sincere interest in her bees and seeking to rescue him from his toxic home life, Alice surprises herself by inviting Jake to her farm.

And then there’s Harry, a twenty-four-year-old with debilitating social anxiety who is desperate for work. When he applies to Alice’s ad for part-time farm help, he’s shocked to find himself hired. As an unexpected friendship blossoms among Alice, Jake, and Harry, a nefarious pesticide company moves to town, threatening the local honeybee population and illuminating deep-seated corruption in the community. The unlikely trio must unite for the sake of the bees–and in the process, they just might forge a new future for themselves.

Beautifully moving, warm, and uplifting, The Music of Bees is about the power of friendship, compassion in the face of loss, and finding the courage to start over (at any age) when things don’t turn out the way you expect.

In Five Years

Rebecca Serle
Hardcover/March 10, 2020
Atria Books

Sally’s thoughts: A premonition in stark contrast to the future she had so meticulously planned completely upends the life of Dannie, a driven millennial corporate lawyer. The vivid images of the New York of the hip, young and privileged grabbed me right away and the lessons Dannie learned about love, friendship and herself kept me turning the pages.

Dannie Kohan lives her life by the numbers.

She is nothing like her lifelong best friend—the wild, whimsical, believes-in-fate Bella. Her meticulous planning seems to have paid off after she nails the most important job interview of her career and accepts her boyfriend’s marriage proposal in one fell swoop, falling asleep completely content.

But when she awakens, she’s suddenly in a different apartment, with a different ring on her finger, and beside a very different man. Dannie spends one hour exactly five years in the future before she wakes again in her own home on the brink of midnight—but it is one hour she cannot shake. In Five Years is an unforgettable love story, but it is not the one you’re expecting.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

A Promised Land

Barack Obama
Hardcover/November 17, 2020
Crown Publishing

In the stirring, highly anticipated first volume of his presidential memoirs, Barack Obama tells the story of his improbable odyssey from young man searching for his identity to leader of the free world, describing in strikingly personal detail both his political education and the landmark moments of the first term of his historic presidency—a time of dramatic transformation and turmoil.

Obama takes readers on a compelling journey from his earliest political aspirations to the pivotal Iowa caucus victory that demonstrated the power of grassroots activism to the watershed night of November 4, 2008, when he was elected 44th president of the United States, becoming the first African American to hold the nation’s highest office.

Reflecting on the presidency, he offers a unique and thoughtful exploration of both the awesome reach and the limits of presidential power, as well as singular insights into the dynamics of U.S. partisan politics and international diplomacy. Obama brings readers inside the Oval Office and the White House Situation Room, and to Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, and points beyond. We are privy to his thoughts as he assembles his cabinet, wrestles with a global financial crisis, takes the measure of Vladimir Putin, overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds to secure passage of the Affordable Care Act, clashes with generals about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, tackles Wall Street reform, responds to the devastating Deepwater Horizon blowout, and authorizes Operation Neptune’s Spear, which leads to the death of Osama bin Laden.

A Promised Land is extraordinarily intimate and introspective—the story of one man’s bet with history, the faith of a community organizer tested on the world stage. Obama is candid about the balancing act of running for office as a Black American, bearing the expectations of a generation buoyed by messages of “hope and change,” and meeting the moral challenges of high-stakes decision-making. He is frank about the forces that opposed him at home and abroad, open about how living in the White House affected his wife and daughters, and unafraid to reveal self-doubt and disappointment. Yet he never wavers from his belief that inside the great, ongoing American experiment, progress is always possible.

This beautifully written and powerful book captures Barack Obama’s conviction that democracy is not a gift from on high but something founded on empathy and common understanding and built together, day by day.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants

Robin Wall Kimmerer
Hardcover/October 13, 2020
Milkweed Editions

Updated with a new introduction from Robin Wall Kimmerer, the hardcover special edition of Braiding Sweetgrass, reissued in honor of the fortieth anniversary of Milkweed Editions, celebrates the book as an object of meaning that will last the ages. Beautifully bound with a new cover featuring an engraving by Tony Drehfal, this edition includes a bookmark ribbon, a deckled edge, and five brilliantly colored illustrations by artist Nate Christopherson. In increasingly dark times, we honor the experience that more than 350,000 readers in North America have cherished about the book—gentle, simple, tactile, beautiful, even sacred—and offer an edition that will inspire readers to gift it again and again, spreading the word about scientific knowledge, indigenous wisdom, and the teachings of plants.

As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer has been trained to ask questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowledge together to take us on “a journey that is every bit as mythic as it is scientific, as sacred as it is historical, as clever as it is wise” (Elizabeth Gilbert).

Drawing on her life as an indigenous scientist, a mother, and a woman, Kimmerer shows how other living beings—asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass—offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices. In a rich braid of reflections that range from the creation of Turtle Island to the forces that threaten its flourishing today, she circles toward a central argument: that the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. For only when we can hear the languages of other beings will we be capable of understanding the generosity of the earth, and learn to give our own gifts in return.

Bear Town by Fredrik Backman

Beartown

Fredrik Backman
Paperback/February 6, 2018
Washington Square Press

By the lake in Beartown is an old ice rink, and in that ice rink Kevin, Amat, Benji, and the rest of the town’s junior ice hockey team are about to compete in the national semi-finals—and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Under that heavy burden, the match becomes the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown.

This is a story about a town and a game, but even more about loyalty, commitment, and the responsibilities of friendship; the people we disappoint even though we love them; and the decisions we make every day that come to define us. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world.

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt

Becoming Nicole: The Inspiring Story of Transgender Actor-Activist Nicole Maines and Her Extraordinary Family

Amy Ellis Nutt
Paperback/June 7, 2016
Random House

When Wayne and Kelly Maines adopted identical twin boys, they thought their lives were complete. But by the time Jonas and Wyatt were toddlers, confusion over Wyatt’s insistence that he was female began to tear the family apart. In the years that followed, the Maineses came to question their long-held views on gender and identity, to accept Wyatt’s transition to Nicole, and to undergo a wrenching transformation of their own, the effects of which would reverberate through their entire community. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Amy Ellis Nutt spent almost four years reporting this story and tells it with unflinching honesty, intimacy, and empathy. In her hands, Becoming Nicole is more than an account of a courageous girl and her extraordinary family. It’s a powerful portrait of a slowly but surely changing nation, and one that will inspire all of us to see the world with a little more humanity and understanding.