Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning” by Leslie Odom Jr.

When I recently sat down and looked through my to-read pile, I wanted to choose something that would set the correct tone for the year. Like many people, 2020 wasn’t my best, and I wanted a book that would infuse me with hope and determination, something that might just stick with me for the rest of the year, shoring me up when life started to get me down.

That book was Leslie Odom Jr.’s “Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning.”

Normally, a book titled failing-anything wouldn’t inspire any hope or confidence in me, but I was intrigued by what Odom had to say on the matter. Musical fans may recognize his name from the hit Broadway show “Hamilton: An American Musical,” in which he played Aaron Burr. Like many others, I have listened to the soundtrack and, when it premiered on Disney+ this last year, eagerly watched the production.

Aaron Burr is one of my favorite characters from the play, largely due to how Odom portrays him — full of passion, nuance and tenderness. Aaron Burr wouldn’t be Aaron Burr without Odom, and I wanted to know who Odom was and what he had to say.

I am very glad I did.

“Failing Up” is one of those unique books in which you can turn a page, read a sentence and then have to sit in stunned silence while you collect your thoughts. Odom writes simply but from the heart, admitting to his own faults and flawed thinking while also never giving up.

He acknowledges that life can be difficult and sometimes we’re all beset by issues we can’t necessarily combat — racism, misogyny, poverty, for example — but contends that we can all take personal responsibility to create a better life for ourselves.

One of Odom’s most oft-repeated phrases in “Failing Up” is: “If you’re willing to take one humble and meaningful step toward making a dream come true, the universe will take two,” which was a philosophy that struck a chord with me. He believes that if you try each and every day, the universe will reward you.

Perhaps the reward won’t be exactly what you want, but it will be what you need, and it will be impossible to achieve without taking that “humble and meaningful step.”

Another common refrain is: “You’ll win or you’ll learn,” which is a wonderful bit of encouragement. Even in failure, Odom believes that the risk is worth taking because you can learn from the effort. Often, we think of life as successes and failures and stridently work to avoid the failures, believing them is a waste of time and effort, but Odom repeatedly shows how those risks and that failure can be a learning experience that guides you to your next, greater step.

Although I finished “Failing Up” some time ago, I still think about it quite often. This quiet little book offered me encouragement and contemplation and gave me a directive for the coming year.

It inspired me to re-evaluate my goals and motivations, and it was a wonderful balm to the turmoil I’d been feeling. It’s a book I unreservedly recommend.

— Review by Cindy Butor, Paul Sawyier Public Library

I Shall Be Near to Youby Erin Lindsay McCabe

Rosetta does not want her new husband to enlist in the war between the states, but he joins up anyway thinking it would be a quick way to earn money to purchase land in Nebraska to farm and begin a family. Soon, he’s off to fight for the Union and Rosetta is left behind to attend to “womanly chores.” After a few days of trying to please her mother-in-law, Rosetta has enough. Cutting her hair and disguising herself in men’s clothing, she too “joins up” to be with her husband.

Rosetta, now Ross, prepares for battle, and the reader is drawn into the horrors of war through the day to day activities of the characters. Rosetta’s husband, Jeremiah, clearly does not want her there, and the scenes between them, as they fight over her presence, are quite believable. 

There were more than 250 women who pretended to be men in order to fight in the Civil War. McCabe researched hundreds of letters between these women and their family members for this novel. 

In fact, Rosetta’s character was based on Sarah Rosetta Wakeman who served with the New York State Volunteers. A stunning debut novel!

— Review by Paul Sawyier Public Library Staff

“Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette” by Sena Jeter Naslund

The Kentucky Governor’s Mansion was modeled after Marie Antoinette’s castle, the Petit Trianon. “Let them eat cake,” is the phrase most frequently attributed to Marie Antoinette. But that phrase hardly describes her brief life.  

Naslund has written one of the most detailed accounts of Antoinette, an Austrian bride of 14 betrothed to the 15-year-old King of France. She was not allowed to bring anything familiar with her when she was passed from the Austrian ship to the French vessel in the Rhine River — no momento of her former life. Even her name, Maria Antonia, was forsaken as she became Marie Antoinette.

Antoinette came of age without the guidance of her family, but under the toutelage of the fickle toadies of the court. She was isolated in the court and paid no attention to the struggles of the common folk. Loneliness and disappointment were slowly replaced with alcohol and gaming.

While economic and political crisis in France were enhanced with poor harvests and war debts. Revolution was brewing everywhere except in Antoinette’s intimate circle.

Naslund traveled with art historian, John Martin of Louisville, to the French Museums that house Antoinette’s gowns and jewels. She could imagine the attendants that must have been necessary to dress the queen, and the heartbreak Antoinette experienced not bearing an heir to the throne. She studied Marie’s letters to her family to become acquainted with her emotions.

Naslund is the author of many novels including “Ahab’s Wife.” It was while touring for that book that she stayed at a bed and breakfast with a shelf of books about famous women. She decided to write about Antoinette’s life “from the inside out.” From the deck of the delivery ship to the planks of the guillotine, Naslund’s novel is ingenious and brilliant.

— Review by Lizz Taylor, Poor Richard’s Books

“Miss Benson’s Beetle” by Rachel Joyce

One of the hardships of this time is being unable to travel. Do you miss seeing a different part of our state, country or world? Do you wish you could get “out of dodge?” 

The architecture might be quite different, the landscape, the weather, even the colors. Perhaps you never considered that the insects would vary from place to place. Miss Margery Benson knew this to be true. She had been postponing her search for the “gold beetle” most of her life. But, with a small inheritance, she decided it was now or never.

However, she assumed she would need an assistant to help carry all of her equipment and escort a single woman to New Caledonia. She selected a lively, young, fun and attractive woman with a strange name, Enid Pretty.

Complications arise when Enid halfway through their sea travels, informed Miss Benson that she no longer wants the position, that she’s decided to go to Australia and have a baby. “Finding the beetle is your life’s work and mine is having a baby. If we don’t do it, we’ll die of sadness. Giving up isn’t an option.”

Both women have a past that they are not sharing, but each is connected to the other by a growing friendship that will be tested in a strange land with many hardships. Funny and yet heartbreaking, we cheer and hope that both women can achieve their dreams before another cyclone strikes or the bizarre man following them catches up to them.  

Joyce has created a travel novel as well as an adventure that altered both women. But, more than that, she has demonstrated the transforming power of friendship.

— Review by Lizz Taylor, Poor Richard’s Books