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Nutcrackers & Handsprings: Books About the Cutthroat World of Ballet and Gymnastics

Swan Dive: The Making of a Rogue Ballerina by Georgina Pazcoguin (Henry Holt & Company)
The Turnout by Megan Abbott (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
The Happiest Girl in the World: A Novel by Alena Dillon (William Morrow)
Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein (Atria Books)

September 21, 2021

Dear Mr. Hemingway,

Like so many young girls, I wanted to be a famous ballerina AND an Olympic gymnast.  I was little, so both professions seemed like reasonable career goals even though I could barely touch my toes. Images of me gracefully dancing across the stage in a white nightgown clutching a wooden nutcracker or sticking a round-off back handspring on a balance beam filled my wandering mind.  I, of course, only saw what was directly in front of me.  Beauty, elegance, strength, and perfection were what graced the stage and gym mats for all the dreamers like me who dared to dream.  Little did I know what the making of an elite athlete indeed looked like.  Today I am sharing four books that capture the fierce passion and wild side of ballet and gymnastics.  Scandal, abuse, injuries, eating disorders, and love fill the pages of today’s reads.   The lineup is dripping in all of the blood, sweat, and tears that we love to read about.   And GUESS WHAT?  Legwarmers and leotards are entirely optional.   You can be captivated by these stories from the comfort of your living room couch wearing sweatpants and a baggy t-shirt.  How great is that!!!! 

Point shoes and tutus, anyone??? I LOVED Georgina Pazcoguin’s memoir, Swan Dive. Pazcoguin was the first Asian American soloist in the New York City Ballet.  Her story from leaving her small town in Pennsylvania at age 16 to train in New York City was mind-boggling.  Pazcoguin’s memoir is a backstage pass into the making of a true ballerina.  She is brutally honest with the highs and lows of the profession.  From bloody toes to dancing with injuries to the abuse and racism she experienced, Pazcoquin’s story of dancing in the ballet to performing in the Broadway musical CATS is exceptionally enchanting.  I could not put it down.

While we are still in the mood for tortured ballerinas and scandal galore, let’s move on to a work of fiction that takes place against the provocative backdrop of a ballet school and its yearly performance of The Nutcracker.  The Turnout by Megan Abbott is one heck of a page-turner.  Sisters Maria and Dara Durant run their family’s ballet school.  Things unravel when they hire a contractor to rebuild part of their studio that recently caught fire.  All I can say is that this man is more significant than he lets on. Nutcracker drama, family secrets, irresistible sexual encounters, razor blades in point shoes, and even a dead body fill the pages of this “un-put-downable” book.  I officially know what a “turnout” is and OUCH! The Nutcracker will never be the same again!

All you gymnastic fans out there will love Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein.  Avery’s Olympic dreams come to an end after an injury occurs during her Olympic trials.  To make matters worse, she is newly single and moving back to her hometown in Massachusetts.  In comes Ryan, Avery’s childhood acquaintance, and Olympic gold medalist.  When Ryan discovers that Avery is back home, he eagerly asks her to take the job as his assistant coach to Hallie, an up-and-coming gymnast.   As these two former gymnasts train the next Olympic star, sparks begin to fly on and off the mat.  Picture twists and turns, switch leaps and layouts, and maybe just maybe, some steamy fooling around on a sticky pile of mats.  Head Over Heels has it all…the love of gymnastics, the tension, the hot topics, and most of all, the romance.  Can you say perfect 10!

Alena Dillon’s book, The Happiest Girl in the World is a work of fiction reminiscent of the recent sexual abuse scandals in gymnastics.  Sera and her best friend Lucy are training for the Olympics.  Everything changes for these two when Lucy reports to the authorities that the team doctor sexually abused her during treatment sessions.  Sadly, Sera denies these facts to protect her career and destroys their friendship.  Dillon’s book is overflowing with dusty chalk and intense training but also takes a deep dive into the byproduct of sexual abuse and the ultimate drive for perfection in the cutthroat gymnastics world.  Reading this book felt very timely, especially with the 2021 summer Olympics still in the rearview mirror.  

Now that I have filled your To Be Read pile with pirouettes, flips, and spins, it’s time to get reading!

Until next time my friend!

Your Biggest Fan,

Kelly

P.S. When I was little, my sister and I used to pretend the black lane lines in our community pool were balance beams.  In between swimming around, we would put together gymnastic routines and perform them in the pool, making sure to always stick our landings on the lane lines.  So much fun!

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Rural 207

Downeast by Gigi Georges (Harper Collins)

“Over time, “Downeast” became a catchall phrase for the geography, culture and distinct accent of the northern reaches of Maine’s coast.  Guidebooks will tell you that there is no precise southern or midpoint in the state where Downeast Maine begins; indeed, locals often use the term colloquially to describe any point east of where they are.  But by the time you get far enough north to the coastal county marked in gray on the map-Washington County-you’re universally acknowledged to have arrived Downeast.”

September 3, 2021

Dear Mr. Hemingway,

Rural America!  Between recent presidential elections and the current pandemic, there has been no shortage of news covering this area in our country. I am not going to get into elaborate definitions of what constitutes a rural county in the United States, but for all intents and purposes…it is the opposite of urban (city) living. As you know, I have lived in Maine for over 15 years.  Even though I am not a “true” Mainer, I am intrigued by this magnificent state and how it ticks from county to county. I recently had the opportunity to read Gigi Georges’ book, Downeast. Georges follows the  lives of five young women who attended the same high school in rural Maine.  For four years, Georges interviewed, shadowed and immersed herself into these women’s past, present and future opportunities. She underlined the common hardships of living in a rural area in one of the most rural states in America while accentuating the hidden beauty that resides from within all through the lens of five women.  

Maine is often referred to as “vacationland” and “the way life should be”.  But let’s face it, it’s not all cozy cabins, lobster rolls and L.L.Bean. Rural Maine has its own set of challenges unique to its location that have impacted generation after generation.  In Downeast, Georges introduces her reader to Mckenna the softball star, Willow the photographer, Vivian the writer, Audry the basketball star and Josie the valedictorian.  All five of these young women went to Narraguagus High School in Washington County.  While Georges highlights drug and alcohol addiction, economic distress, and a variety of family dynamics that oftentimes serve as barriers for women living in rural Maine, she also showcases the true gumption and grit these five women possess that make their stories possible to tell.  

“The challenges faced by the rural swath of our nation run deep.  But hope is not lost in small-town America. Far from it.  True, places like Downeast Washington County are geographically isolated, continue to struggle with persistent poverty, and lose too many in their midst to opioid addiction.  But they also embody some of the strongest tenets of our American model-through their work ethic, closeness of community, deep social capital, devotion to the natural surroundings that help sustain them, love of country, and intense drive to improve their lot in life.  Not every girl will be a hero in the narrative of small-town America’s survival.  But the choices that rural girls make, and the paths they travel, lie at the core of what’s to come.  It’s time, at last, to allow these girls to speak for themselves.”

Georges opened my eyes to the sense of community,  family roots and values that have truly stood the test of time and are very much present to this day in Washington County.  These essential elements add simplistic beauty to the everyday trials that accompany the leading ladies in this work of nonfiction.  In Downest, Georges shares with readers the importance of being the messenger of these individual stories and what she hopes readers will take away when they finish. There is no shortage of details in her book and the number of people she talked to, interviewed and observed in order to write this is more than I can count. Her writing is crisp, well researched, full of compassion and captures the most personal moments with empathy, respect and heartfelt sensitivity.  Most importantly though, to all of the outsiders looking in…Georges’ book unveils the extraordinary sparkle that rural Maine has to offer. I hope you enjoy Downeast as much as I did.

Until next time!

Your Biggest Fan,

Kelly

P.S.  Be sure to check out Georges’ interview on Politics and Prose with Secretary Hillary Clinton.

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***I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.  My opinions are 100% my own. If I don’t like it…I don’t share it!

Guest Writer ~ Anna Crowley Redding

Author Edition

 

Guest Writer, Author Anna Crowley Redding

Dear Mr. Hemingway,

Happy Wednesday Book Friends! Not only are we halfway to the weekend, but it is Dear Mr. Hemingway Guest Writer day. Today, Author Anna Crowley Redding is on the blog and her letter to Mr. H. is quite magical. In case you didn’t know, Anna is the author of the YA book, Google It: A History in Google (Feiwel & Friends) and YA book, Elon Musk: A Mission to Save The World (Feiwel & Friends), which was named BEST STEM BOOK by the National Science Teacher Association for 2020. Her upcoming children’s book, Rescuing The Declaration of Independence (Harper Collins) has already received a glowing Kirkus Review. Before Anna began writing for children, she was an Emmy-Award winning (Yes, I said EMMY-AWARD 😯) investigative television reporter, anchor and journalist. Not only has she been recognized by the Associated Press for her reporting, but she was the recipient of multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. Impressive, right?

Though Anna loves her job as a children’s book author, her most beloved job in the whole world is being a mama to her two young boys and following in Jessica Fletcher’s footsteps (ie: Murder She Wrote) in her coastal Maine town. Only Anna has a lovely boyfriend us “marrieds” love to hear about (😂😂😂).

I know that you are going to enjoy getting to know Anna. And when it comes to her books, the proof is in the pudding!! I hope you adore Anna’s letter to Mr. H. I want to thank Anna from the bottom of my heart for contributing to this series. I am truly blessed to have her in my life (ummmm……forgot to mention that she is one of my close friends ❤️❤️).

Lots of Love,

Kelly

For more information, take a peek at her website!

P.S. Check out Anna accepting her Emmy-Award.




Dear Mr. Hemingway,

Write one true thing. That’s what you said. That’s how you said to start. And so if I’m being honest, I suffered through your books in junior high and high school. I craved independence and regularly slipped the ties to classics, to what was expected. It wasn’t until years and some trouble later, that I found myself living in Florence, Italy. Completely and absolutely in love with a place, a time, and all the magic it could hold.

And I would recount my tales to my stepdad on regular phone calls. And all of these conversations reminded him of something you’d written, during your own time in Europe, your own self-discovery in Paris and nearby, snowy mountains. It reminded him of your book, A Moveable Feast.  When I opened the cover of my copy, I found your truth and mine. And just as you, through your words, your writing, your thoughts, your presence in a Parisian cafe, just as you decided that you owned Paris and everything in it… well, in the same way, I owned Italy and everything in it. I owned every morsel of food, every sip of dark, creamy cappuccino, every rolled ‘’r’, even a kiss or two in the pouring rain in Piazza Signoria. Those tendrils, a deep love with a place and time, grew and wrapped themselves around my writing like a present, forever entwined.

And today… that moveable feast does not include a view of the Arno or a stroll across Ponte Vecchio. It’s more carpools, deadlines, little league sidelines, wild laughter with friends when we find time to sneak away from our responsibilities, and there was that kiss by the lighthouse hidden only by a blanket of fog! Things are more grown-up now (mostly) but all of it is still delicious–to be savored, and anchored with words.

It’s knowing that you are starring in your own story. It’s writing it down. It’s absorbing every bit of information about this world and your ever so slight, blink-and-it’s-gone life that you can muster. And it’s reading, reading to gather that moveable feast close. No, I cannot visit Gertrude Stein’s apartment as you did or hang out with James Joyce. But when I pick up a book…that’s how I gather a couple of female WWI spies around me. As the flames flicker behind me, they divulge every secret. It’s the sound of me saying “Yes, Girl, Yes!” As Bernadette descended into mid-life invisibility only to reinvent herself. It’s how I know the truth of fear, bravery, love, failure, loss, success, and boredom. Because these truths, whether written, lived, or read allow us to conduct our own moveable feast filled with just the perfect tales, toasts, and company for an afternoon by the fire.

Write one true thing.

I’ve got you, Mr. Hemingway. I’ve got you.

Anna

P.S. If you’d like to check out the tales of other risk-takers, and rule breakers, I’ve got two books out and more on the way.

Google It: A History of Google (Honestly, Mr. H. there is some lock picking, some almost naming the company Backrub, and other hijinks) and Elon Musk: A Mission to Save the World (You’ll relate to Elon’s unshakeable curiosity and drive) and then coming this April, a forgotten tale of a man who saved the words that built America. I’m talking about The Declaration of Independence, the original Constitution, and more. And then there’s the one about the man who fought to keep tomatoes out of his clam chowder! Chowder Rules! is hitting bookstores in October 2020.

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