Retro Book Club
Sep 23, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I spent a lot of time thinking about what to focus on for this week’s feature. Usually my travels or thrifting adventures inspire my writing, but those times feel like a distant memory. Days as of late have slipped into a predictable routine, but as I pondered this reality – inspiration struck! Since the pandemic I’ve been reading. A lot. Two books at a time. Escaping within the pages of a good book has taken the edge off this trying season. With that in mind, I’ve hand-picked a trio of my recent reads. I hope these selections will encourage you to start your own retro book club! Let me know about your favorite authors or genres in the comments below…
For the reader who loves a good romance
“A Tale of Two Hearts” by Michelle Griep tops my list because it’s a book I come back to again and again. This story is the second installment in Griep’s “Once Upon a Dickens Christmas” series. While I treasure the entire collection, this book in particular spends the least amount of time sitting on the shelf. Set in the mid 1800s this quaint story checks all the boxes: romance, intrigue, a heroine who loves to read, and cozy holiday vibes all set against a Victorian English backdrop. If Princess Belle is your favorite Disney Princess, then you’ll love Griep’s protagonist, Mina Scott. The object of her affections, William Barlow, is a man determined to step into the light and overcome a dubious past. It’s a meet cute that meets a chance for redemeption!
Griep’s writing style transports you and when you read about chilly English winters be prepared to reach for your blanket. Her style feels conversational and the plot moves along at a leisurely, but never dull, pace. Under 180 pages in length, it’s an approachable read and a perfect pick-me-up. Reading it again now, I’m finding the Christmas setting especially joyful. History buffs will appreciate Griep’s attention to detail in her descriptions of the Victorian period. Her research also shows itself in the authenticity of the characters’ dialects. For the reader who wants to research on their own, the historical notes in the back of the book provide a great starting point. The best part about reading a series like this is if you like one of the books the story doesn’t have to end there!
For the reader with wanderlust
The Smithsonian is hosting an exhibit on Alexander von Humboldt and I wish I could be there. But if you, like me, can’t make it to Washington D.C. then “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World” by Andrea Wulf is the next best thing! I was first introduced to Humboldt when I saw his amazing Naturgemälde. A captivating combination of art and scientific data, I knew I had to know more about who created it. I’ll be the first to admit that biographies aren’t my top pick as far as literary categories go. Often they feel like a dry retelling of events, more academic than insightful. But Wulf’s work breaks free from that dusty stereotype. I found her approach thrilling and dynamic, a perfect complement to the man himself. When I first picked up the thick volume I felt a little uneasy, but Wulf captured my attention in the first sentence of the prologue and she never let go!
Alexander led an extraordinary life. He was forever on a quest to learn more, observe more, and experience more. Wulf makes you feel like you’re there beside him every step of the way. She takes his journey further, dedicating chapters to the friendships he formed and showing how vast the realm of his influence extended. If Alexander were alive today, with the benefit of social media and the internet at his disposal, his celebrity would outshine any of the modern “big names” you could think of. Knowing that his work laid the foundation for countless achievements, it’s crazy to think he’s all but forgotten today.
If you’ve ever wanted to crawl alongside a volcano, sail into the ocean blue to destinations unknown, or hobnob with the greatest minds, consider this book your invitation. Every aspect is thoughtfully conceived: the use of imagery is never distracting and always enhances the narrative. Wulf composed a biography that doesn’t feel like a series of chapters, but rather a celebration of adventures. A style that is befitting for such a Renaissance man. You just need to ask yourself – are you up for the challenge?
For the reader who likes their history with a side of humor
I really enjoy when authors make history relatable. And I really, really enjoy when authors take titans of the past down from their marble thrones and peek at their sillier sides. Sarah Vowell is one such author. Her book “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States” is a delight. Admittedly my knowledge of the Revolutionary time period is lacking. Often times I’ve wanted to study the era more, but then I get distracted by the glitz of Art Deco or the pomp of the Victorian era. But once I cracked open the pages of Vowell’s book I wondered how I ever got diverted in the first place!
This book focuses on the Marquis de Lafayette, a key figure in the American Revolution. Truthfully I hadn’t considered him in the pantheon of notable names, but this French teenager proved to be a critical ally for an army fighting against an empire. As a teenager, Lafayette naturally had some angst and rebellion coursing through his veins and Vowell doesn’t shield readers from these realities. Lafayette was eager to join the battle, bringing with him all the bravado and recklessness of youth. The crazy mixture of emotions and actions that accompany adolescence aren’t things that only the non-famous experience. This is a fact history books often ignore. Everyone is young. Everyone makes mistake. Everyone seeks approval (even brave figures from history). I find this honesty liberating!
As the chapters progress, Vowell easily glides through the twists and turns that transformed a ragtag group of patriots into a force on the global stage. She takes events that would normally seem archaic and intermingles them with moments of more recent vintage. This jazz-like writing style, combined with amusing illustrations, makes for an enjoyable read. What I enjoy most about this book is that it shows that honoring the past doesn’t mean we need to gloss over bits that we may not want to be own up to. A timely lesson for a time such as this, don’t you think?