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"Life After Life" by Kate Atkinson

December 19, 2013 by PatLeach
Recently two or three friends whose opinions I trust recommended "Life After Life" by Kate Atkinson. It's been a popular book group selection, a novel about a woman is reincarnated several times, set in the first half of the twentieth century in England and Germany. For me, it's the third book I've read in a very short time span that addresses the Nazi era.

In the book's opening scene, Ursula Todd enters a bar and shoots Adolf Hitler. In the second, she is born and dies immediately. In the third, she is born and lives. As Ursula's story moves along, she is reincarnated several times and is able to avert tragedies that happened in previous lives. She always feels somewhat apart from others, experiencing fierce deja vu and vivid premonitions.

In Kate Atkinson's capable hands, this works. Much of the story centers on Ursula's family and a small circle of friends. Her relationship to them seems not to evolve significantly with each new life. A second aspect of the novel involves Ursula and World War II, when she experiences some lives in London before and during the Blitz, others in Germany in Hitler's social circles.

An omniscient narrator tells the stories, ending each life usually with the phrase, "darkness fell." The distance of the narrator contrasts with the intensity of Ursula's unique experience.

Although I absolutely believe that this novel works well, I've been slightly reluctant to recommend it to others, partly because the whole reincarnation idea seems too fantasy-like, too made-up. Perhaps I'm not willing enough to follow a novelist down the path of "What if the world were different in THIS way...."

Even so, I see this as an excellent book group choice. It covers so many bases--family relationships, the World War II era, the role of women, and the meaning of mortality. "Life After Life" invites readers to reconsider a basic idea of how our world works, and then to ponder how countless ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, rest on that one idea.


Tagged in: fiction, reincarnation, Kate Atkinson,
Comments: 0

"Hitler's Furies" by Wendy Lower

December 16, 2013 by PatLeach
The National Book Award finalistsprovide excellent reading suggestions, which is how I came across "Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields" by Wendy Lower.

I'd just recently finished the novel, "HHhH" by Laurent Binet, also set in the Eastern European areas taken over by the Nazi government. With that still in mind, I learned a good deal from "Hitler's Furies" and found it readable despite its serous subject matter.

Wendy Lower is a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College, and a consultant for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Here she digs more deeply into the general understanding the the Final Solution depended on the participation or cooperation of the general German population. Half of that population was female, and yet the role of women has been seldom explored.

In "Hitler's Furies" she tells the stories of particular women who fall into the categories of witnesses, accomplices, or perpetrators. Typically, these women were teachers, nurses, camp guards or wives of German officials. Many of them had moved to the countries to the east, where Germany was clearing space for the German people to live.

Lower begins with a chapter called "The Lost Generation of German Women" to set the context for the behavior she describes. This was key--looking back on this time we wonder how it ever could have happened. Lower tries to put the reader in the period before the Nazis rose to power, before Germany was defeated, when the Nazis seemed to offer the redemption of the country.

The narrative is steeped in the ongoing role of anti-Semitism. Lower describes how the existing prejudice was drilled and shaped into a pattern of brutal behavior. Also not be to ignored is the contrasting societal expectation that all women should be natural nurturers who would unite in their opposition to this behavior. Lower probes the intersection of these forces.

Lower writes as an academic. She's careful to use reliable sources, and careful as well to draw limited conclusions. While she sometimes describes unbelievably violent behavior, she does so in exploration of understanding, not for sensation.

I'll recommend this to readers interested in this era, or in the role of women, or those seeking a sense for how a country can create such an effective and horrific organization of death.


Tagged in: Hitler,
Comments: 0

"HHhH" by Laurent Binet

December 09, 2013 by PatLeach
The New York Times' "100 Notable Books" list each year remains one of my favorite reading sources. The 2012 list included "HHhH" by Laurent Binet, a novel originally written in French, describing the actual events leading up to the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, known as "the Butcher of Prague."

The intriguing title refers to the first letters of the German words in the phrase, "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich." Indeed, as Himmler's protege Heydrich had risen in power to be a man much feared. His brutal treatment of the Czechoslovakians, for whom he was named "protector," typified Germany's harsh conduct in the countries it took over to the east.

Binet details the steps in Heydrich's rise to power, which is quite well chronicled. He does his best to note how the group of assassins came to this place and time, where there is much less information. I found myself wrapped up in the suspense of their all coming together, knowing the stakes for the "guilty" as well as the  "innocent."

As I read this, I often wondered by Binet didn't simply write an account that would be considered nonfiction. A distinctive aspect of this novel is that Binet often inserts himself directly into the story, describing quandaries of missing information, or how his book compares to others, or how to portray the reliability of someone's story. I sensed his concern for creating an account that was truthful, and found these insertions intriguing. What wasn't clear was the degree to which his reflections were actual descriptions of his thought process, or to which they were simply a writer's technique.

The story is told in 327 pages, 257 sections varying in length from a short paragraph to several pages. At the point when the assassins attack Heydrich, I expected several short descriptions of action. Instead, Binet provides a four-page paragraph of chronology.

The outcome is horrific--reprisals for this act were extravagantly brutal. It took several days for the assassins to be tracked down, and even longer to be nearly flushed out of their hiding place before they committed suicide. In the end, Binet seems to want to show that the act was worthwhile.

The Nazi era continues to provide fodder for thoughtful writing, and the size of its reading audience seems to hold steady. There's something about this book that had my thoughts returning to it much later, long after I'd moved on to my next book. I recommend this to those who are interested in the era, who appreciate unusual novel styles, and to people who tend to prefer nonfiction to fiction. Although it may not present the usual themes that many book groups seek, it begs to be read, and then it begs to be discussed.


Tagged in: fiction, Laurent Binet, Germany, historical fiction,
Comments: 0

"Devil in the Grove" by Gilbert King

November 20, 2013 by PatLeach
Over the weekend I finished "Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America" by Gilbert King. I came across this title in the list of Pultizer Prize nominees--a goldmine of reading ideas.

Before he became a Supreme Court justice, and before he brought the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case to the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall's work at the NAACP took him all over the southern United States where race was a factor in court cases. A general pattern in his work was that the goal was to set up a successful appeal of a conviction. An acquittal was an impossible dream in nearly all of his cases.

Such was his strategy in the case of the Groveland Boys--four black men accused of raping a young white woman near Groveland, Florida, in 1949. King introduces a host of characters in setting the stage for this story--from the remarkable Sheriff Willis McCall to a woman reporter for a local newspaper to the four accused black men to the governors of Florida to members of the Ku Klux Klan to members of the local NAACP. King works hard to place the actions in the context of the time, where one foot is squarely in a system that as a matter of course denies justice to black people, and the other is stepping toward landmark decisions such as Brown vs. Board of Education.

He traces a chronology of beatings, shootings, and palpable danger for the men in custody, and  for the outsider attorneys who arrive in Florida in their defense. In the end, what justice looks like seems pretty unimpressive. What does impress is King's ability to maintain the connection to context, and to weave a good deal of background information without losing the sense of story.

King's focus on Thurgood Marshall further highlights context, knowing what we do of his later Supreme Court career. In terms of how the story works, the immense scope of his personality and impact balance the intensity of what happened at Groveland. From my vantage point in 2013, continual questions arose regarding how things have changed--or not--since 1949.

I'm a nonfiction fan generally, and especially seek well-told stories of American History. I've been recommending this to others who seek such a book, and especially to people with an interest in justice. I think this could be an excellent nonfiction choice for book groups who typically choose fiction. There is much to learn, and to discuss, in "Devil in the Grove."


Tagged in: nonfiction, history, Thurgood Marshall,
Comments: 0

"The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey

November 12, 2013 by PatLeach
I'm happily in the midst of my "open season" for reading, now that I've finished up with the 2013 American Library Association Notable Books List.

I've been using Pulitzer Prize lists, both winners and nominees, for my recent reading choices. This is how I happened upon "The Snow Child" by first-time novelist Eowyn Ivey.

Set in Alaska in the 1920's, it's the story of a married couple trying their hand at clearing land and farming. In their 50's, they're hoping for a new start, away from their New England families, and away from whispers and pity about their childlessness.

For the most part, the book is about Mabel, who fears that the move to Alaska has been a big mistake, that it simply reinforces the chill in the distance that has developed between her and her husband, Jack. Then a remarkable thing happens--a girl appears at their home. Mystery surrounds her. To whom does she belong? How does she survive in the brutal Alaskan landscape? Is she real?

The novel parallels the folk tale of the snow child, in ways that on the one hand seem exciting and hopeful, and on the other, strange and heartbreaking. The symbolism of the girl, and ice, and animals, creates a strong psychological undercurrent. Yet, Ivey crafts this story in ways that become compelling.

This is a great choice for book groups--I was dying to discuss it with someone--and thank my friend Shari for meeting me for coffee to talk it over, and for pointing out some aspects of style that provide intriguing clues.

I'm recommending this to a wide variety of fiction readers--its fascinating combination of marriage story, adventure, and magic, holds broad appeal. As we enter winter, this is a perfect choice for a cold-but-cozy evening.


Tagged in: fiction, Eowyn Ivey,
Comments: 0

It's Notable--"The Round House" by Louise Erdrich

April 30, 2013 by PatLeach
I'm a few titles in to this year's Notable Books List from the American Library Association, and just finished "The Round House" by Louise Erdrich.


One sentence summary--An adult Ojibwe man looks back on his youth, and  his response to a brutal sexual attack on his mother.

One sentence evaluation--This is classic Erdrich, excellent writing and even better character development, all wrapped up in contemporary Ojibwe culture--a great book group book.

I find something especially compelling in novels about how crime impacts people. I recently finished another Notable, "Canada" by Richard Ford, with a similar construction of a man looking back on how crimes committed by his parents pulled his family apart.

In "The Round House," Joe tells the story of events that happened in 1988, his mother not coming home as expected, and then finally arriving home with awful injuries. Watching his parents floundering in response to the attack, he relies on his strong ties with friends and extended family. LIttle by little he comes to understand what happened to his mother; his father's role as a tribal judge pulls in further information, and interesting aspects of tribal law. When Joe puts in place his response, it's in the full context of all of the people who have surrounded him.

I'll recommend this to Erdrich's fans, and because it has few of the fantastic elements of some of her other books, I think it might work for people who haven't taken to some of her previous work. I think it'd also be of interest as an outlier for people who read traditional mystery series--a different slant on a crime novel, with an ending that isn't formula, but is expected in the best storytelling sense of tightening and sharpening the telling toward a dangerously pointed end.


Tagged in: Notables, fiction,
Comments: 0

"The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes, another Notable

July 05, 2012 by PatLeach

I'm slightly sheepish in saying that I was happy about "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes because it's just 163 pages. As I work my way through this year's Notable Books list, a shorty is a relief.

Barnes is a British writer, and here presents a British story. It's told by a middle-aged man, Tony Webster, who looks back on his boarding school friendships and early love life.

Tony describes how his school group of three boys grows to take in a fourth, Adrian, who is especially smart and who sees the world a little differently than the others. When Adrian takes up with Veronica, a girl who Tony dated, Tony writes them an ugly letter.Tony heads off for an adventure in America, Adrian commits suicide. Eventually Tony marries Margaret, they raise a daughter, and then divorce. Tony feels himself going along and getting along. Then Veronica's mother dies, and leaves something to Tony, and this brings back the past. It also brings Veronica back into his life.

Tony wonders what his role was in Adrian's suicide, in the unhappiness that led to his death. HAD he done something terribly wrong as a youth? Was he responsible for...something?

I confess that when I got to the end of this book and to the revelation regarding this mystery, I had to re-read the ending, and I wished that I had the gumption to re-read the whole book. I went to amazon.com to read what people had written about the book, and was relieved that several had noted that the resolution seemed confusing and underwhelming, given the lead-up.

And that may be what is genius about this book--how remarkably realistic for Tony to look back from the distance of many years, and end up not quite sure.

And is that what makes Peter Barnes a genius writer? That he can get us inside of this man's head, for good and for ill, and engage us in these reflections? Barnes is known for elegant writing, directing the reader's attention to the correct place, using just the right word, and yet also shining a glaring light on people's weakness. I'll recommend this to my reading friends who are good with a literary novel, good with what is not expected, and good with Barnes' particular "sense of an ending."

 



Tagged in: fiction, Notables, Julian Barnes,
Comments: 0

What a Notable--"Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand

July 05, 2012 by PatLeach

Finally, I've read "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand. I've heard so many people comment on this nonficiton story of Louis Zamperini, a runner on the US Olympic team who became a World War II hero by surviving for weeks on a life raft, and months in Japanese Prisoner of War camps.

And it was good, one of the titles on this year's American Library Association Notable Books list.

Laura Hillenbrand (who has an interesting story of her own) follows up her stellar "Seabiscuit" with this compelling story. She tells it straightforwardly and chronologically. Hillenbrand has that gift for telling the story in a way that is clearly shaped and considered, for example, in how people are introduced and then brought back into the story, and yet her style gets out of the way of the story.

What I'll remember from this book is both the evil behavior of many of the Japanese captors, and the survival of the prisoners. How DO people maintain their dignity and selfhood in the face of so many attempts to break them? In Zamperini's case, he was made a target of beatings and cruelty because of his fame. Yet he survived. I knew that the sections set in the POW camps would be horrifying, but I found myself especially touched by Zamperini's return to home. He was beloved, a hero, and yet he was falling apart, drinking himself nearly to death, before he turned himself around at a Billy Graham event.

I noticed how HIllenbrand goes out of her way not to judge the behavior the men who were stranded, or were prisoners. She works hard to set a context where every rule and every expectation are turned upside down, where people survive by doing things they never thought they could do. She also makes a point of developing characters, not allowing all Japanese or all American people to be presented a certain way.

I finished this book on Independence Day. It seemed an especially fitting day to reflect on the people who have been called the "greatest generation." I'll recommend this to a lot of people--fiction readers will appreciate the strong story, history fans will find sound information, and people who enjoy "extreme" stories of survival certainly will find much to value. I think that many people have avoided reading this because they shy away from the depictions of the camps, and I understand that. And yet I'd still encourage people to read this with open eyes and mind. The book's subtitle, "A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption" reflects Hillenbrand's success in showing that even out of this horror, goodness survived.



Tagged in: nonfiction, Louis Zamperini, Notables, World War II,
Comments: 0

"The Sisters Brothers," from the Notables List

June 16, 2012 by PatLeach

Last week, I finished "The Sisters Brothers" by Patrick DeWitt, a novel from the American Library Association Notable Books List.

Charles and Eli Sisters are hired guns from the Gold Rush era of the 1850s. Eli tells this story of their final job for a man called The Commodore. As the story progresses, Eli makes up his mind to leave the killing business.

I'm trying to find a way to describe the tone of this book--it's picaresque, in introducing a series of odd somewhat shallow characters. It's often droll. And it is full of killing. I had to move my mind into a place where I didn't take all that murder too seriously.

Eli clearly has a bigger heart than his brother. Eli reflects on how he might want to find a woman to marry and love, might want to return to see their mother. Charles seems not to reflect much at all, he thrives on heavy drinking and the adrenaline of taking a good shot.

Why is this notable? DeWitt creates clever scenes and dialogue, and he gives us a whole new sense of the Gold Rush. There's an inherent irony in a hired killer pining for love and a comfortable home. The stark heartlessness of lives lived solely in pursuit of gold remains visible behind the humor. Hired killers see many people face their final moments, DeWitt makes the most of that opportunity.

My reservation is this--I don't think that DeWitt's idea for the Sisters Brothers' story creates enough momentum to propel a whole novel. It'd be a brilliant short story, and perhaps overall more effective as a short story collection. I'm open to the idea that this may simply be a case of not matching my sense of humor. While I finished "The Sisters Brothers," it never deeply resonated with me and seldom had me laughing out loud. And yet, there's something about it that I respect. I expect that I'll recommend this to people who seek something that is unusual, edgy and clever, and that points up people's foibles while it reveals their behavior under pressure.

 

 



Tagged in: fiction, Good Reads, Patrick DeWitt, westerns,
Comments: 0

"Swamplandia" from the Notables List

June 12, 2012 by PatLeach

I finished "Swamplandia" by Karen Russell a couple of weeks ago. It makes me a little nervous to blog about a book that isn't entirely fresh in my mind.

Readers may recall that "Swamplandia!" was part of the drama of the Pultizer Prize for fiction this year. It was one of the three finalists for the prize, but the committee decided that none of the finalists was worthy of the prize itself.

I picked it up because it's on this year's American Library Association Notable Books List, and I continue to read my way through that list, having taken a brief detour through the One Book One Lincoln finalists.

In short, it's a contemporary story set on an island just off of Florida, about a girl whose left to fend for herself when her family and the family business fall apart. It's a fairly quirky story, with some hilarious parts, and some remarkably sad and troubling parts. I felt some queasy dissonance when quirky met evil in this book.

"Swamplandia!" is told by Ava Bigtree, a thirteen-year-old whose mother was a feature performer at the Bigtree business called Swamplandia!--in the nightly finale, she would dive into a pool full of alligators. But her mother dies, Swamplandia loses its audience to an inland theme park, her brother and father go inland on their own pursuits, and Ava takes a dangerous partner in her quest to find her sister.

When this book works, it's because the characters are so distinctive, and yet they yearn for the usual things--love, security, and identity.

I sense that this is one of those books that most readers either love or hate. I land somewhere in between. I enjoyed reading this, but finished it primarily to check it off of my list. It was toward the end when Ava is looking for her sister that I finally felt a stronger pull.

I'm reflecting on my typical response to novels that are usually described as "quirky." Many novels in this category read like a series of humorous images and characters without the glue of dramatic tension or intriguing relationships. I think that this accounts for my initial lack of connection to "Swamplandia!"  Even so, I'll recommend this to readers of literary fiction who enjoy stories of unusual families or situations.

 



Tagged in: Notables, Good Reads, Swamplandia,
Comments: 1

"A Death in Belmont" by Sebastian Junger

May 14, 2012 by PatLeach
A couple of weeks ago I drove by myself to and from Denver for a short library conference. Along with Diet Coke, pretzel M&Ms, and Twizzlers, I kept myself company with an audiobook on CD, Sebastian Junger's "A Death in Belmont" originally published in 2006.

Every few years I crave a true-crime book, and this one about the Boston Strangler came right out of that Dewey number, 364.152.

Junger is known as a nonfiction writer. He picked up this topic because his own family had a connection to the Boston Strangler. When Junger was a little boy in 1963, his parents had a studio built in their backyard in suburban Belmont. One of the subcontractors on that job was Albert DiSalvo, who was convicted of the murders attributed to the Boston Strangler. The day before the studio was finished, a photograph was taken of the Jungers and the men who worked on the job. Junger reflects on that snapshot showing his mother holding him on her lap, with Albert DiSalvo standing behind them.

Junger clearly places himself in this story, but he does a great job of backing up to describe the context, what Boston was like and how the murders impacted people.

He explores a murder done in Belmont at the time that Albert DiSalvo was working on the Junger project just a mile away. A black man named Roy Smith was convicted of that murder, proclaiming his innocence until his death behind bars. In many ways this murder was a typical Boston Strangler job, in others, not. But both Smith and DiSalvo die before full light can be shed on Smith's case. Junger leads one to believe that Smith was very probably wrongly convicted.

Junger manages to tell this story, graphic details and all, without seeming to exploit the victims or the situation. He introduces a wide variety of people at a perfect pace, setting up a sort of chess board of characters. Kevin Conway, the narrator, maintains an even tone in his reading that reflected Junger well.

I loved "A Death in Belmont" for a traveling companion. I've noticed that the books that I most enjoy in audio are those with a strong narrative thread. Junger maintains this well. I was sorry when the book came to an end just before I reached Ogallala. I felt like I'd learned some interesting history, had reflected on the role of race in the early 1960s, and been told a fascinating tale by a fine storyteller.


Tagged in: audiobooks, nonfiction, Boston Strangler,
Comments: 0

"Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking"

May 08, 2012 by PatLeach
I took a break from my Notable Books reading for "Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" by Susan Cain. I'd heard some interviews with her earlier this year, and found her comments intriguing.

And then I had to wait awhile because there were (and are!) quite a few holds on it.

Cain's title tells it all--she supports and values the combination of traits that characterize introversion--needing solitude for recharge, preferring one-on-one conversations over cocktail parties, focusing on one topic at a time, and a tendency for active environments to be overstimulating.

She includes research, cultural aspects, advice for romantic pairs and advice for parents.  Cain herself isn't a researcher, but has interviewed many who are, and she has done plenty of homework in seeking out a variety of opinions.

An introvert myself, I connected with many of her observations. In particular, I saw myself in her description of the need to gear up for certain kinds of social events, almost as if going into battle. On the other hand, I haven't sensed the scorn or disapproval of the extroverts in my life as much as she seems to have, and sometimes I felt like she "protested too much." A personal note--I do clearly recall my college boyfriend kindly pointing out that my quietness at parties could be interpreted as my being stuck-up. And he did say so kindly. And I still remember that--it stuck with me. I would guess that quite a few introverts have received similar observations.

I'll recommend this book to people who are interested in the many ways in which personality can be profiled, so that we understand ourselves better, and get along with others better. I'm finding myself having extended animated conversations with others who've read this--and so far, her audience seems mostly--introverts.


Tagged in: Good Reads, nonfiction, memoir, Lit,
Comments: 0

"Inside Scientology" from the Notables List

April 29, 2012 by PatLeach
I continue in my reading of the American Library Association Notable Books List with "Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion" by Janet Reitman.

Reitman is a journalist/writer who was inspired to write this nonfiction book after she began writing a feature article on Scientology for the "Rolling Stone" in the summer of 2005. Her interest had been piqued by the actor Tom Cruise, a prominent Scientologist who often speaks out regarding Scientology.

Local readers may recall that Scientology's founder, L Ron Hubbard, was born in Tilden, Nebraska, in 1911.

Reitman describes the evolution of Hubbard's concept of "Dianetics" to the church of Scientology that exists today. I hesitate to attempt a brief description of the framework of Scientology. Foundational ideas include a belief that people are immortal souls who come back to the earth over and over. A practice known as auditing leads people to move past traumatic events that keep them from reaching their full potential. Scientology holds strong positions against much psychiatry and the prescription drugs it uses; they consider their own processes as much more successful. As people progress through auditing into upper levels of the church, they typically pay more and more money to move forward. Reitman sees money as central to the story.

Reitman seems less interested in the belief system behind Scientology, and more interested in the structure of the church, the personalities who run it, and how it raises money.

The view that she presents is primarily from outside--Scientology's leaders did not speak with her. She relies heavily on former Scientologists, those who have left the religion, to get inside views of the structure of the church. She describes people who left the church having been treated shabbily or worse, detailing in particular the death of Lisa McPherson in 1995.

She gives an overall picture of a "church" in quotes, which she implies is actually a business that uses the cover of religion to shelter money. Further, she reveals how the personalities who head Scientology, first Hubbard, and now David Miscavage, shape the church in sometimes bizarre ways. She presents Miscavage as a sheltered young man who came to lead the church in his 20s, ill prepared for the job. She details many ways in which his direction seems irrational.

Yet she concludes with optimistically-toned interviews with young people currently engaged in Scientology.

I expect that the Notable Books committee chose this title because it brings forward information on an important topic of interest to many readers. I would point out that Reitman sometimes employs language that seems biased, describing Hubbard as a huckster, and using terms such as "concoction" that carry laden meanings. I would have preferred more measured reporting.

Even so, I'll recommend this to readers who prefer nonfiction and who like to read about current events and issues. I was struck by the parallel stories of a belief system on one hand, and the personalities behind it on the other. That is where much of the energy in this book lies--in the end, it is a story about people.





Tagged in: Notables, nonfiction, "Inside Scientology",
Comments: 0

A Notable Memoir, "The Memory Palace"

April 23, 2012 by PatLeach
"The Memory Palace: A Memoir" by Mira Bartok falls into the category of "memoirs by women with mentally ill mothers." Others in this category include "Liars' Club" by Mary Karr and "The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls. I picked it up because it's on this year's Notable Books List from the American Library Association. And--I'm a sucker for a memoir.

Here are the basics--Mira Bartok and her sister ended up changing their names and moving to cities away from Cleveland to separate themselves from their mother, who was seriously mentally ill. Bartok became an artist and writer. After a serious car accident and traumatic brain injury as an adult, she decided to take a few steps toward reconnection with her mother who by then was homeless as well.

This book stands out from the others because Bartok includes excerpts from letters that her mother wrote, and she includes pictures of her own art. These deepen her story. Her telling isn't chronological, but it does make sense somehow, as she describes the reconciliation, and then backs up to tell what came before.

Bartok employs the image of the memory palace partly because she had to reconstruct her own ability to remember. She suffered a traumatic brain injury in 1999 at age 40, and lost much of her short term memory. She describes the memory palace as a way of remembering by creating an imaginary space where each item within the space represents something one wishes to remember, an apt description of her writing here.

As I look back on the reading and reflect on what images I will keep of this book, I will recall Bartok's description of when she first saw her mother behaving oddly in a way that was seriously wrong, and her immediate understanding that it was something to hide. The saddest to me was that Bartok seemed to show great talent at the piano; her mother had been a prodigy. But the disorganization of the entire household kept Bartok from continuing with lessons just as she was progressing to serious music.

Bartok struggles with guilt and shame. Yet there is also a sense in which she and her sister keep their eye on the light at the end of a tunnel, knowing that their only hope is that light. Nothing here is easy, but much of it is richly focused on life and hope.

I confess that as I read this, I often silently thanked my parents for being so by-the-book in getting me to bed on time, feeding me three square meals each and every day, and insisting on a sense of order. I chafed at that, but "The Memory Palace" reminded me that there's nothing lovely about the kind of mental chaos that puts children in true danger. I'll recommend this to readers who love memoirs, who seek stories of resilient children, and who want to know more about families without bedtimes.


Tagged in: Notables, Good Reads, memoir,
Comments: 0

A Notable Novel, "The Cat's Table" by Michael Ondaatje

March 31, 2012 by PatLeach
I'm continuing my annual trek through the American Library Association Notable Books List, having recently finished "The Cat's Table" by Michael Ondaatje.

This novel takes place on a ship traveling between Sri Lanka and England in the early 1950's. Its narrator, Michael, is eleven and traveling without supervision. He befriends two other young men on the ship and the three of them engage in the kinds of adventures one would expect--sneaking into the first class areas, filching food, sneaking a dog aboard.

The book's title refers to the table in the ship's dining room where the passengers with the lowest status were assigned. That is, of course, where one would expect to find the most interesting people--and Michael does.

About a third of the way through the book, I began to wonder where it was heading. At that point, it seemed much like a romp of a book, the mood overall light, a quirky cast of characters introduced in succession, with no sense of a narrative trajectory--no problem to solve.

And then Ondaatje introduces some evil and mystery. That dog that one of the boys sneaks aboard bites and kills a seriously ill passenger. A prisoner tries to mount an escape. Michael takes all of this in, only later figuring out how some of the pieces fit together.

At about the same point, the narrator moves away from the voyage to tell some of what happened after. He remains friends with one of his ship buddies and eventually marries that boy's sister though the marriage doesn't last. Decades after the voyage, he meets up with a cousin who had been aboard, a pretty young woman who at the time seemed to be involved in some mystery all her own. These time shifts continue until the novel ends with the ship's arrival in England.

I sensed that the novel lost energy when it left the ship itself. There's something about a ship story, a group of people confined together, that when written well becomes a delicious soup of humanity.

Each time that I read a book from the Notables list, I reflect on why it was chosen. In this case, Ondaatje is the master of elegant writing, of the effective turn of phrase. The narrator that he creates here strikes a perfect balance of a youngster's point of view with an older man's wisdom and regret. Reviewers often use the word "elegant" to describe Ondaatje's writing--fine choice of words, observations that are spot on, and that sense of writing so well done that it calls no attention to itself. Applying such elegance to so quirky a group of characters as in "The Cat's Table" is a lovely irony.

I'll recommend this to readers who often choose more literary novels, seeking the qualities that Ondaatje weaves into this fine sea story.


Tagged in: Good Reads, Notable Books, novels, fiction,
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A Notable Novel, "Say Her Name" by Francisco Goldman

March 18, 2012 by PatLeach
Just this morning I finished Francisco Goldman's "Say Her Name," an autobiographical novel about the death of his young wife, the writer Aura Estrada. The book has won many accolades, and is included on this year's American Library Association Notable Books List.

The basic story is that Goldman was an established writer in his early 50s when he fell in love with and in 2005 married the emerging Mexican writer, Aura Estrada, who was in her mid 20s. Just short of their second anniversary, she died following a swimming accident on a beach in Mexico.

Goldman casts the story of their courtship and marriage, her death, and his life since then, in sections that move in time and in place. It has the sense of how one would expect such a story to be told, with one memory providing a nudge that reminds the author of something else that seems unrelated and yet highlights or foreshadows what will come. This backing and forthing continues until finally at the end of the book, Goldman describes what happened on the beach that day and just after.

I was interested in why Goldman chose to tell this story in a novel instead of as a memoir. What he said in an interview in the Paris review, "I have never liked the memoir form because I tend to think that memory fictionalizes anyway. Once you claim that you are writing a narrative purely from memory you are already in the realm of fiction."

What a perfect book for book groups--there is the marital relationship made more interesting with the difference in their ages, the intense relationship between Aura and her mother, the striving of Aura as a writer with a dream of success, her balancing of Mexico and America, and of course the exploration of grief and loss. I doubt I'm the only reader who takes a little too much interest in what writers are like, and so book groups can add the added incentive of looking into these closets and cupboards.

I'm reflecting on my own internal score for this book--Goldman writes so well, well enough that this tribute to Aura is worthy of her, and I sensed that he was honest about himself, even when being honest meant revealing things that I didn't much like. Thinking a little more about it, I see that this book grew on me in a way that I admire. I wasn't instantly pulled in, but Goldman managed to make me want to know more, to continue to read about Aura, and to fathom and face his loss.








Tagged in: fiction, Good Reads, "Say Her Name",
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An Especially Good Nonfiction Notable--"Destiny of the Republic"

March 04, 2012 by PatLeach
"Destiny of the Republic" by Candice Millard is subtitled, "A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of A President." In this American Library Association Notable book, Millard tells the story of President James Garfield, who was elected in 1880 and died in 1881.

Some readers may recall Millard as the author of "The River of Doubt" which was a One Book One Lincoln finalist a few years ago. That focused on an episode in the life of Theodore Roosevelt. She excels at writing history as story.

Millard opens this story with a prologue that introduces us right away to Charlies Guiteau. Guiteau survived a collision between two steamships in 1880. His own survival when others died led him to believe that he was saved for an important purpose, and when that belief combined with his mental illness, it twisted itself into his intention to kill President Garfield.

Chapter One picks up at the United States' Centennial Exhibition in 1876, where James Garfield, a congressman, strolls the grounds with his family. Millard uses this event to introduce two key angles that will be highlighted when Garfield is shot--the work of Inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, and pioneering work regarding antiseptic procedures in surgery.

Millard spends enough time with Garfield's remarkable rise from poverty to presidency to set the context of the time, and to tell the parallel story of Guiteau's descent. The events following the shooting take up a good deal of the book, yet she doesn't lose the narrative's momentum.

I appreciated how much I learned in the course of this book. This takes several forms. The sense of the United States shortly after the Civil War, the personalities engaged in politics, the dirtiness of the politics, and the lack of cleanliness as it impacted Garfield, are staying with me.

This may not be the book for serious students of American history, but for readers who have a general interest in the time and who are unfamiliar with James Garfield, Millard unrolls a fine story. I'll recommend it both to those with that interest in American history, and also to fiction readers who are willing to try nonfiction "when it reads like a story."

You can read an additional review of this book in the library staff review section of our website, with thanks to Alyse at Bennett Martin Public Library.


Tagged in: Notables, nonfiction, history, "Destiny of the Republic, " James Garfield,
Comments: 0

A Notable Novel, "The Art of Fielding"

February 29, 2012 by PatLeach
Here's my short assessment of "The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach. It's a fine book with a fabulous first half. As a reader and evaluator, I'm so overwhelmed by the unfulfilled promise of that first half that I may be underestimating the second.

But to back up--this is a baseball novel combined with a coming-of-age story. Its focus is Henry Skrimshander, a remarkable shortstop. Henry's fielding ability is witnessed by a catcher who is able to wangle Henry a place at Westish College. Henry's magical talent transforms the team...until he loses it. And then his friends, his teammates, and all who have been introduced in this novel adjust their orbits around his misery.

Other aspects of the story include the life of a small liberal arts college, the first motions toward a gay relationship by the college president, the return of the president's prodigal daughter, and the coaching brilliance of that catcher.

Harbach is a wonderful writer, combining a sense of Henry's transcendent talent with the everyday details of college, of roommates, of part-time jobs. He takes an often wry approach, even as he describes scenes artfully, maybe wistfully. I thought to myself that he strikes the tone that I sense Jonathan Franzen going for, of telling a story with a clever voice, from a perch that allows the teller to know an awful lot, when the teller honestly likes the characters, warts and all.

I absolutely loved the first half of this book, with Harbach introducing characters in lovely order and a perfect pace. This part of the story seemed so clean, so lusciously straightforward and true. What happens after that just didn't live up to the promise. The drama of sexual betrayal, the ongoing suspense of Henry's inability to play, the awkward introduction of a counselor who untangles Henry's issues, they seemed like too many condiments on a perfect hot dog.

I can't bring myself to dislike "The Art of Fielding," and I do think it's fair to describe it overall as a good book, a fine baseball story. I'll recommend this to fiction readers, to people who enjoy contemporary settings, to baseball fans, and certainly to book groups. It's easy to see how it earned its place on this year's Notable Books list.


Tagged in: Notables, fiction, Good Reads, "The Art of Fielding",
Comments: 1

From the Notables List, "Turn Right at Machu Picchu"

February 19, 2012 by PatLeach
I just finished "Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time" by Mark Adams, one of the nonfiction titles on this year's American Library Association Notable Books List.

Adams alternates chapters of his own recent trek to Machu Picchu with chapters describing the travels of Hiram Bingham, the Yale professor who "discovered" Machu Picchu in 1911.

Adams travels to Machu Picchu via the ancient Inca Road, using routes that allow him to see what Bingham saw. He includes himself very squarely in this story, offering many personal opinions, observations, and conversations with his guide and the Peruvians who manage the donkeys, food and gear. This works. As a travel writer, Adams achieves that delicate balance where his own personality enlivens the story with overpowering it.

There's something about Machu Picchu that remains eternally interesting. Recent developments regarding the ownership of many Inca items that Hiram Bingham transported back to Yale have added an additional measure of interest to Bingham's portion of the story.

Adams explores several theories about the function of Machu Picchu, describes well the mountainous area where it is, and draws connections among stories, geography, and personalities. He deepens his own experiences with deft study of others, including those who have always lived in the area, the early white explorers who sought the Lost City of the Incas, and the thousands who visit the site each year.

Although this is not a deep academic study, I'll recommend it to people with an interest in this area. In particular, I will mention it to those who have visited or intend to visit Machu Picchu, to readers who enjoy travel books generally, and to fiction readers who will enjoy a nonfiction book of it's "a good story."


Tagged in: Good Reads, Notable Books, nonfiction,
Comments: 0

First Notable of 2012--"We the Animals"

February 01, 2012 by PatLeach
The 2012 American Library Association Notable Books List was announced last Sunday--and that made January 22 a Recognized Holiday at my house. I've got several notables checked out, a few more on hold, and I have finished my first--"We the Animals" by Justin Torres.

After last year's rants about LONG books dominating the list, I can ease up this year. In fact, "We the Animals" is only 128 pages.

It's a series of short stories told by the youngest of three brothers in a contemporary family. Their father is Puerto Rican, and their mom is anglo, both from Brooklyn originally, although the family lives now in upstate New  York.

The stories reminded me of Andre Dubus III's "Townie" in their mix of profound family chaos, fierce love, and edginess.

In one story, the boy is alone left too long at a Niagara Falls museum. To keep himself occupied, he ends up dancing in front of a film that nobody else is viewing, enjoying the movement and the lights on his body. He realizes that his dad has finally returned, and has been watching him, perhaps for some time. His dad realizes how "pretty" his son is. That begins the movement toward the book's end, as the young man realizes he's gay, and engineers his first sexual encounter.

When I finished this, I noted that I felt like I was either in the presence of genius, or needed a shower. The scenes in this book so often put the narrator and his brothers in situations that were dirty or grimy or slightly dangerous or mean. And yet there remained that sense of love and solidarity. How did Torres manage that?

Torres writes in a deceptively simple way that seems just to describe, but that also sets a tone.

I will recommend this to people who appreciate spare writing, who seek varieties of experiences, and who can tolerate edginess. I'll also bring it to the attention of book groups.


Tagged in: Notables, fiction, Good Reads, "We the Animals",
Comments: 0


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