January 13, 2012 by PatLeach
The book is a P.D. James mystery in a Jane Austen setting, a kind of sequel to "Pride and Prejudice." While skeptical that anyone, even the fabulous P.D. James, could do justice to Jane Austen, I was intrigued. Over the holidays I began "Death Comes to Pemberley."
James creates the setting just a few years after Elizabeth Bennett marries Mr. Darcy. As the story opens, Elizabeth's sister Lydia arrives at Pemberley on a dark and stormy night, to announce hysterically that her husband, the notorious Wickham, has been killed in the Pemberley woods.
From there, a classic mystery evolves. P.D. James writes well, and she crafts a mystery just as well. I enjoyed reading this story. I liked the references to "Pride and Prejudice" and even to other Austen novels. But I missed two critical pieces--Austen's light touch, and her focus on the women.
Alas, I'm married to someone who doesn't appreciate Jane Austen's sense of humor. I'll often read aloud from what I consider a hilarious excerpt, and he just doesn't laugh. But really, that humor is all over Austen. It's in her clever conversation and observed gestures. The central act of this book, a death, squelches any chance of the light touch. The sense of appropriate solemnity at Pemberley hangs heavy throughout the story.
Much of the action revolves around Mr. Darcy, a stand-in for Adam Dalgliesh perhaps. I found myself wishing that P.D. James had instead woven the story around Elizabeth.
I don't like what I've written because I wanted to love this book, and hoped to have only good things to say about something written by P.D. James.
I'll still recommend this book to mystery readers, and even to fans of Jane Austen as an interesting accessory. I just won't go overboard in my enthusiasm, and I'll be clear that this is definitely a P.D. James book. And as I should have known from the start, if I want Jane Austen...then I need to read Jane Austen.
Tagged in: Good Reads, fiction, mystery, Jane Austen,
January 12, 2012 by PatLeach
Dubus III, his two brothers and sisters grew up primarily with their mother, living in blue collar neighborhoods in worn out Massachusetts cities of the 70s and 80s. Early on, he sensed that he was basically a chicken who allowed others to push him (and his family) around. He hated that about himself. Their neighborhoods saw plenty of violence and crime. His mother worked hard and was away from the house a lot. He and his dad, by then a faculty member at a small college nearby, saw each other on weekends, and sometimes for dinners together during the week.
Eventually, Dubus III became someone who threw punches at others. Much of this book chronicles the various fights in which he engaged. Because of the extensive focus on fighting, I found this to be a book about another world. I've never thrown a punch, and never been punched. I've never been friends with people who did so. The fighting began to seem tiresome. I kept waiting for him to find another way to live. Eventually, he did.
At a certain point, things stabilize. Dubus III decides to be an educated person. He gets to know his father, spends time with him. His mother and her long-term boyfriend remain in his life. Dubus III has an epiphany, an experience where he writes, and it is rewarding in ways he hadn't predicted.
But a certain anger remains about how alone and afraid he was as a child, and how much he missed. A couple of images that I'll keep from this book include one where Dubus III, maybe 12 or so, plays catch with his dad, and his dad is baffled that he doesn't know how to throw a baseball. He never taught his son, and apparently it hadn't occurred to him that he might not know how. Nor did he recognize that his son lived in a place where children weren't engaged in sports. Similarly, when the elder Dubus referred to the Red Sox, his son honestly didn't know what he was talking about.
As an adult, once he established a strong bond with his father, Dubus III tries to find a time and a way to tell his father how awful it was for him, his brothers and sister. A couple of opportunities slip through his fingers, and maybe it isn't as critical as he thought.
What stays is that sense of loss and fear, expressed most often as explosive physical anger.
Dubus III writes well--he conveys what was bad about his upbringing, but he's also a fine observer of the time and place where he grew up. There was room for fun, room for friendship. That he was such a sensitive observer probably explains both the fighting and his talent for writing.
Many readers of literary fiction enjoy the story behind the stories of their favorite authors, and certainly I'll recommend this to people who loved "House of Sand and Fog." I'm having a hard time putting my finger on the other audiences for this book and its themes of anger, transformation, physical violence, courage, and art--somehow that list reminds me of Hemingway. There is a whole sense of adventure here underpinned by intelligence--and that suggests that a wide audience indeed.
Tagged in: Good Reads, memoir,
January 04, 2012 by PatLeach
I finished it between the holidays, and while I enjoyed reading it, I didn't ever feel "book lust" for it. I've been reflecting on that.
The novel has three basic strands. One is of a contemporary doctor, Natalia, living in an unnamed Balkan country. She and a friend travel to another country to treat orphans of the recent war. Natalia's grandfather recently died, and during her trip she explores the somewhat mysterious circumstances of his death. The other two strands are based on stories her grandfather told her, of a deathless man, and of woman who befriended a tiger that escaped the zoo during World War Two.
I know that I tend to become frustrated with stories told in strands. I usually find one strand compelling, while the others seem like distractions. This is how I felt with "The Tiger's Wife." I wanted to stay with Natalia. The other strands began to seem too big, too distracting. I didn't sense the kind of completion that I craved. I kept waiting for the three strands to come together in a compelling way.
I didn't dislike the book, in fact, I liked it. I just didn't find it as wonderful as others have.
What I enjoyed particularly were Obreht's way with words, and many of the images she creates. For instance, when she was a child, Natalia often walked with her grandfather to the zoo, where they spent time watching the tigers. The story opens with a scene where they witness the tiger turning on a zookeeper who has been careless. The contrast between the warm grandfather with Natalia, and the attacking tiger with the zookeeper, stayed with me through the novel. Who IS the tiger?
I'll recommend this to my friends who enjoy literary novels, who enjoy elements of magical realism, or who have an interest in the Balkan countries. I'll also recommend this as a title with immense book club potential.
Tagged in: fiction, Good Reads, "The Tiger",
January 03, 2012 by PatLeach
I enjoyed it immensely, this story of a Chinese farmer in pre-revolutionary China.
The novel opens with the wedding day of Wang Lung. His bride is a slave in a rich household. She is all that a man of his small means can afford. O-Lan turns out to be a faithful and hardworking wife. Her dreams parallel those of Wang Lung, to have sons, to farm successfully, to acquire land and wealth.
The story is told from Wang Lung's view. Although his fortunes rise and fall, he ends up on top, owning vast amounts of land. He has three sons. He takes on a beautiful second wife, a former prostitute.
When his life goes wrong or awry, he realizes that to return to an even keel, he must return to the land.
The novel closes with Wang Lung telling his sons that the land must remain with them...and their conspiratorial glance indicates their other intentions.
Hillary Spurling, in her biography of Pearl Buck, "Pearl Buck in China," points to Buck's profound respect for Chinese people, especially the rural peasants, as the foundation of this book's success. Buck's familiarity with Chinese speech is clear in the rhythm of the words. At the time of the writing, Buck's willingness to talk about sexuality was startling--I barely noticed it.
I was struck by Wang Lung's seeming disregard for O-Lan. Buck does so well with presenting his point of view about her, and about women and girls generally. I wanted to hate him for his point of view, but Buck places him in the context of his time and place. She led me to take a less judgmental view. I see that I got a clearer view through her telling than I would have from my own 21st century viewfinder.
Why does this book remain popular? I have talked to so many people who love this book, who have re-read it many times. I see its appeal in the simplicity of the telling, mixed with the rhythm of the language.
"So many books, so little time." How DO we decide when to go back and pick up a book that we "should" have read long ago? I confess--there are remarkable holes in my reading history. I'd hate to even start a list of what I should have read, but haven't. In this case, I feel a rewarding sense of having filled a gap. I enjoyed the story and I have a better sense of everyday Chinese people before the Revolution. And I appreciate my new familiarity with a book that in so many ways made literary history.
Tagged in: Good Reads, fiction, China, Pearl S. Buck,
December 20, 2011 by PatLeach
Spurling describes the evolution of Buck as a writer, spending ample time during Buck's childhood as the daughter of missionaries in China at the turn of the 20th century, detailing the development of her thinking through her time in college and early return to China, describing the impact of Buck's remarkable success with "The Good Earth" and landing at her final home just before she died in 1973. She tells the story in a readable way, keeping it moving, weaving in important information.
A theme that Spurlling develops here is that because Buck grew up in China, speaking the Chinese of common people and being surrounded by Chinese people, she was able (almost) to think like a Chinese person. That is, even though she was clearly an outsider, she had a sense for how Chinese people thought and reacted. Where other American writers couldn't quite get past their shock over certain behaviors, Buck wasn't shocked herself, and could portray the behaviors in ways that made sense to her audience. She fundamentally respected the people about whom she wrote.
Buck came to disagree vehemently with the approach of the missionary community in China.
Spurling addresses some issues that were very similar to some that arose in the library's recent One Book One Lincoln panel discussion of medical missionary work in Africa and elsewhere. How DO outsiders learn to help? How do they learn to listen? How do they learn to respond in ways that make sense for the culture and situation?
When I reflect on what I will remember about this book, it is really WHO I will remember--Buck's father, Absalom Sydenstricker, an American Presbyterian missionary to China. Spurling's portrait of this man, his isolating persistence and righteous conviction, his seeming disregard for his family, and his ultimate separation from his work, show how Buck's vision was shaped.
I will also remember that Buck chose her own way. She divorced her first husband to marry the second. She found a good place for her disable daughter when often disabled children were simply hidden. She lived fairly lavishly toward the end of her life.
I nearly returned this to the library without finishing it, because it was due. I'm glad that I took the time to finish it out--the final fourth of the book is especially interesting.
I'll recommend this to people who read a lot, who have probably read "The Good Earth." I'll also recommend it to people who are generally interested in China, and in the issues that arise when people of very different cultures come together.
Tagged in: Good Reads, nonfiction, biography, authors,
December 15, 2011 by PatLeach
I haven't watched "Saturday Night LIve" for years, and I don't watch "30 Rock" so I wasn't familiar with many of the people and events that Fey describes here. I know her because of her spot-on portrayals of Sarah Palin. Even so, I found this book interesting and amusing.
Fey tells her story fairly chronologically, including mostly the bits that are funny on their own or funny when she gets her hands on them. She plays fair, in that she laughs at herself plenty. This isn't the place to go for who-what-when-where-why information. This is more a series of stories that might be shared over coffee or wine with a group of friends, stories that create connections whether they happened in Nebraska or New Jersey.
When she does turn a more serious eye on her life story, it's often in situations where sexism arises, or where power is exploited, or when pressure about attractiveness becomes overpowering (or just silly). These observations keep her book from being more than just a romp.
Her rise in Chicago's The Second City improvisation theater led her to submit material to "Saturday Night Live." There she became a writer and appeared on the "Weekend Update" news parody. Her observations about those work environments are interesting partly for their celebrity tidbits. What comes before actually is also plenty of fun--her descriptions of working at the YMCA checkin window when she was just out of college.
Fey doesn't take much of the celebrity life for granted, and so her observations of photo shoots, of being recognized, and of receiving both hate mail, stay fresh. It seems like she just can't keep herself from being funny.
I'll recommend this to plenty of people. In fact, it's taking me a moment to think of which people wouldn't like it. It's clear going in that this is a funny book by a woman who's made it big acting and writing in TV comedy. She hits her stride, and even while inspiring plenty of laughing out loud, reveals enough to show that success didn't come all at once and that she recognizes that it could have gone much differently. But what's funny (and not funny ha-ha) about humor is that some people can't see the humor when someone else is doubling over in laughter. It's not a sure thing. So this could be an adventure in reading for some, and in the interests of tasting from many pots, I'm recommending "Bossypants."
Tagged in: Good Reads, nonfiction, Tina Fey,
December 08, 2011 by PatLeach
I started it over an Oso Burrito lunch, and was amazed when I'd reached page 40 with burrito remaining. I ditched many evening tasks to keep reading at home. I got up at 4:30 Wednesday morning and finished it off, all the way to the final paragraph on page 246. Thank you, Larry Watson, for writing a fairly short novel.
Matthew Garth narrates this story, which happens in Willow Falls, Minnesota, in 1963. Anyone who grew up in a small town will recognize Watson's sense for the rhythms of small town life.
Matthew's an only child, his father died when he was eight, and his mother waitresses in town. She takes a pretty hands-off approach to parenting. Matthew realizes that as long as he stays out of big trouble, she's okay with it.
He has attached himself to his best friend's family, and been taken in by the Dunbars. Dr. Dunbar has cachet--he's a doctor, he's from out of town, and he's handsome. Matthew looks up to him, and pictures his own future in medicine because of him.
The equilibrium of the Dunbar home gets upset when Louisa Lindahl, a young woman who comes into Dr. Dunbar's care when her boyfriend shoots her on Thanksgiving, moves into the Dunbar home. Matthew becomes obsessed with Louisa, and when he realizes that she doesn't have her eyes on him, his own eyes are opened.
There are several aspects of "American Boy" that remind me of "Montana 1948." They include a narrator looking back on his experience as a rough-edged young man, an experience that includes a degree of isolation, remarkable observational skills of how men behave, and how others, especially women, respond to them. In particular, there's a sense of how men in power use or abuse their situation. There's engagement with physical violence.
Watson tells the story in a chronological straightforward manner. I attribute some of the speed in my reading to his excellent writing--he gets out of the way. And yet he develops characters. He lets the story roll out at a pace that makes sense. He reveals depth in what could have been simply a tawdry story.
I'll recommend this to readers who love fiction, who appreciate stories about America's heartland, and to people who especially enjoy a coming-of-age story. This is a great book group choice--there's plenty to discuss. I look forward to talking this over with others, and so am eager to get the word out about it.
Tagged in: Good Reads, fiction, Larry Watson, "American Boy",
November 29, 2011 by PatLeach
Over the Thanksgiving weekend I finished "In the Garden of Beasts" by Erik Larson, who Lincoln readers may recall as the author of the 2006 One Book One Lincoln selection, "The Devil in the White City."
"In the Garden of Beasts" describes the tenure of William E. Dodd, the United States ambassador to Germany from 1933 through late 1937. These were horribly interesting times, standing so closely by as the Nazis rose to power.
Dodd wasn't a member of the upper-crust diplomatic corps. He was an academic, a historian with emotional ties to Germany dating to his student days in Leipzig. This made him an outsider among the diplomatic set from the start. He planned to live within his (relatively small) means, and to avoid the excesses in spending that he detested in other diplomats. He wanted to represent the best of the United States.
The truth of the Nazis became more and more clear to Dodd. And here is where Larson has a difficult task--how can he place us as readers in that time, before the horrors of the Nazis were obvious? One of Dodd's tasks was to lean on the German government to pay their debts to the United States. This seems absurdly minor in light of what eventually came of the Nazi government. Larson seems to convey that the expectation was that Dodd would maintain friendly relations with that government, and yet as Dodd became more aware of Nazi intentions, friendly relations seemed impossible.
Larson must stir into this mix the remarkable behavior of Dodd's daughter, Martha. An attractive young woman who was separated from her husband, she carried on many liaisons, including many with members of the Nazi party. The amount of sexual behavior in which she engaged, often within the ambassador's home, was known in many quarters. I don't think I'm the only person who wrongly believes that until the 1960's, Americans were entirely straitlaced sexually. Her behavior seems so out of step with the time. It reminded me of the affairs carried on in wartime London, especially among the Churchill family, described in Lynne Olson's "Citizens of London." The story of Dodd's tenure as ambassador would have been incomplete without including this aspect.
In one sentence, I would describe this book by saying that it's a quick-reading and fascinating view of an incredible time in our history, the rise of the Nazis in Germany.
A one-sentence evaluation would be that Larson focuses his efforts on the energy of the Dodd family's story, and from time to time the story needed to establish broader historical foundation. I sense that he too often left it to me to place pieces of the plot in context. I needed to know more about how other countries were responding to HItler, for instance, to understand Dodd's behavior better. I needed to know more about how an ambassador typically operated. Larson comes awfully close to exploiting the scintillating aspects of Martha Dodd's sexual behavior and the well-known horror of the Nazis--I would have preferred him to teach me a little more. What I found he did well was to draw the characters as fully as possible.
In the end, I learned a lot, and I'll likely seek out additional reading. I agree with many of my reading friends who found this an excellent book, it's just that I'm reserving a little space for wishing that Larson had been a little more scholarly. I will recommend this to people who enjoy history (but maybe not to more serious students of history), to those who like nonfiction, and to the many people with a general interest in the World War Two era.
Tagged in: nonfiction, Good Reads, "In the Garden of Beasts",
November 20, 2011 by PatLeach
This is the third of Mary Karr's memoirs. I was introduced to (and loved) her "The Liar's Club" when it made the ALA Notable Books list in the mid 1990's. I confess that I didn't finish the second, "Cherry."
Karr is a well-regarded poet and professor. But it didn't come easy. "The Liar's Club" tells about her crazy childhood in Texas, with a mother suffering from mental illness and an alcoholic father. But one-sentence summary doesn't begin to convey the richness of language, story and affection that her parents provided. Her storytelling seems always to reflect that intense Southern background, well-chosen words rollicking with energy.
In "Lit" she turns to her own demons of alcoholism and depression. Karr married a fellow writer, the son of a wealthy East Coast family, and when they had a son together, things seemed destined for happiness. Karr finds herself drinking steadily as she cares for her colicky baby, and eventually she sees that she can't just give that up. Quite a bit of the book happens amid the tension of her knowledge of her problem and her unwillingness to give up extreme self-medication. When she does give in, she bolsters her resolve with a turn to religion, to Roman Catholicism.
The scene I'll remember from "Lit" is Karr up in the middle of the night carrying her crying baby, her unfinished drink from earlier in the evening pulling her into the kitchen, where she craves what she'll feel when she swallows what remains. That's not the "madonna and child" that we expect.
Karr addresses the skepticism that she expects many of her writing friends will heap on the 12-step process, and on religion. Early on, she seems almost apologetic that she's finding the language of recovery helpful, even effective. As she continues, she conveys greater comfort there.
I'll certainly recommend this to friends who enjoy memoirs--and Karr continues to be one of the best memoirists around. I'll be interested to hear what friends who've struggled themselves with addiction and mental illness will say about "Lit." But I don't want to convey that this is limited just to narrow segments of readers. Karr excels in memoir. She crafts her story in such a way that it is much more than just her own.
Tagged in: Good Reads, nonfiction, memoir, Lit,
November 14, 2011 by PatLeach
I picked it up off of our "Books to Go" shelf because I'd heard its title come up in conversation about mysteries to read that might be similar to Stieg Larsson's "The Girl Who..." series. Not that I'd ever judge a book by its cover, but this one is eye-catching, a snowman made of torn white paper on a black background.
Its star and detective is Harry Hole, a nonconformist detective in Oslo, an expert on serial killers (of which there have been almost none in Norway). Typical of any mystery, its plot confounds a brief synopsis. As the story progresses, Harry contends with the murders and all of the red herrings and clues therein, the love of his life who is moving on to another man, and a new detective in his department who he's supposed to take under his wing. Throughout, he has a sense that he is being watched, followed, and maybe fooled.
Initially, each murder happens with the first snowfall of the year. The book opens with one such scene. Nesbo carefully introduces each character and places each within the mystery. He weaves in a sexual/medical mystery. Deftly, Nesbo explores social views of sexual behavior within a plot-driven novel. At various points, Hole believes that he knows who "The Snowman" is. Nesbo carefully crafts this plot to hit a few dead ends, and then pick up again. As I've noted previously, I tend not to read mysteries with the intention of solving the crime. In this case, the killer became clear to me.
I will recommend this to mystery readers who are accepting of some pretty forceful violence, sometimes combined with sex--the plot relies on sexual infidelity. The Norwegian setting adds a particular atmosphere, so readers who crave a "dark" setting may find themselves happy with "The Snowman."
Tagged in: mysteries, Scandinavian mysteries, Jo Nesbo, "The Snoman,
October 31, 2011 by PatLeach
My college roommate suggested I read it, well, actually, she sneered me into it, suggesting that a public librarian who hadn't heard of "Wolf Hall" needed to get out more often.
I enjoyed this novel of the life of Thomas Cromwell, the man who arranged so much behind-the-scenes for Henry VIII to marry Anne Boleyn.
The book opens with a harrowing scene of a teenage Thomas, eyes even with the pavement, being beaten nearly senseless by his own father. His flight from his father leads him to France and elsewhere as a soldier and wool merchant. Mantel essentially skips those years, and when Thomas returns, he knows several languages, has developed an uncanny ability to make money, and works closely with the eminent Cardinal Wolsey. After Wolsey's fall, Cromwell attaches to the royal household. His persuasiveness combines with wiliness in the services that he provides to the royal court and to those who surround it. People learn to be afraid of Cromwell.
Cromwell develops a vibrant domestic life, even after the death of his wife and beloved daughters. His taking in of young people and caring for outcasts shows his softer side.
The book ends with the death of Thomas More, several years before Cromwell himself falls out of favor.
I wasn't so sure that I would enjoy a book set in sixteenth century England.I found that it worked best if I could devote a few hours of reading to the early parts of the book while I acquainted myself with the characters. Mantel's ability to tell a story, and especially to reveal the details of speech and manner, set my attachment. She drew the characters into lively people. What seemed unusual in the telling was the lack of a central conflict or threat. There was a natural trajectory in Cromwell's rise from a nobody to a somebody (even without noble blood), but then he seemed to plateau. I wished for some suspense. And this may be the challenge of well-researched historical fiction that is true to its time--the chronology may not result in dramatic effect.
At 500 pages, this book requires some commitment. I see it as a good winter book...one that may require the investment of hours-at-a-time reading sessions. I'll recommend it to Anglophiles, to those who appreciate clever language, and to fans of serious historical fiction.
Tagged in: fiction, Good Reads, "Wolf Hall",
October 21, 2011 by PatLeach
Right up my alley--a memoir, in this case about growing up in Iowa during the Great Depression.
Kalish begins by recording the big mystery of her childhood--her father was banished from the family when she was five. She never hears from him again. She never learns why he went away.
Yet what I recall of her story isn't a sense of sadness, or of dismay at the conspicuousness of having a divorce in the family. What I recall is that despite their lack of money and the absence of a father, Mildred considered her childhood to be full of interest and energy.
She details food, animals, school, swear words, bathroom behavior, and other aspects of life that were most interesting to children. She conveys the sense that I hear in my own parents' recollections of that time, a sense of one's own efforts being important to the family's economy, and further, a sense that there was no shame in being poor at a time when just about everyone was poor.
I wouldn't say that Kalish romanticizes that time, but she conveys how much she values that she grew up on a farm where day after day something interesting happened and where she learned to work hard. That background served her well when she set out on her own.
Kalish notes that it could be hard to be a child in a home such as her grandparents', where fun took a far back seat to work. She doesn't often seem to feel sorry for herself, but I was deeply struck by this passage that concludes the chapter on town school, "At home I couldn't do anything right; at school I seemed to do everything right. So, school is where I wanted to be."
I've recommended this book to many friends as a quick read that connected with me because Kalish's young life in Iowa was so similar to that of my parents' childhood in Nebraska. I think it would make for a good book group selection because plenty of serious themes arise even in stories of a happy childhood--fairness, whether we are loved, and how we find our place in the world.
Tagged in: "Little Heathens", Mildred Armstrong Kalish, Good Reads, memoir,
October 11, 2011 by PatLeach
But now I can read whatever I want--and I chose "The Good Daughter" simply by searching on "memoir" as a keyword in our catalog, and sorting by date for a recent one.
This is Jasmin Darznik's story of her mother's life, and a whole part of that life that was unknown to Jasmin until she came upon a photograph in her mother's belongings, clearly a wedding picture of her mother (then very young) and a man who was not Jasmin's father.
Jasmin knew that she had come to America from Iran when she was three, with her mother and German father. She grew up an American girl.
Although her mother at first refused to respond to Jasmin's questions, eventually she sent Jasmin a series of cassette tapes telling about her childhood and young womanhood.
This period of time in Iran, the 1950's and 1960's, saw great change and transition. Some families remained very conservative in their expectations of women, insisting on veils and staying mostly at home, while other women wore Western dress and held career jobs. What Darznik does very well is use her mother's story to describe that period of uneasy "progress."
But in the end, it is her mother's story, and I enjoyed it immensely despite her sometimes bleak circumstances. Darznik tells the story well, filling in information where necessary, letting her mother often speak for herself. I came to both love and hate the characters she drew.
I came away with a better sense of the social history of Iran, and with much admiration for her mother, who endured so much, and who continued persevering in America.
I'll recommend this to many of my reading friends--the rewarding story, the interesting setting, and the issues of families generally and families reacting to social upheaval in particular, will gratify many different readers. This would be an excellent choice for a book group, too.
Tagged in: Good Reads, nonfiction, "Jasmin Karznik", "The Good Daughter",
September 11, 2011 by PatLeach
I wasn't looking forward to "Matterhorn." This was party due to its length at just under 600 pages, and partly due to the setting of Marines' combat during the Vietnam War.
I'd checked it out and taken it home once before, and found myself without the time to dig in. This time I gave it my best shot, and eventually I found myself connecting with it.
Lieutenant Waino Mellas arrives in Vietnam with no experience of commanding others, and with plenty of fear for what lies ahead. At first he seems mostly confusion and diffidence, unwilling to ask questions because he's afraid to look stupid, and unsure of his likely courage under fire. Eventually, though, he becomes accustomed to the sights and sounds of war, and begins to see where his own talents can make a difference for the men with whom he eventually bonds.
I was struck over and over by the physical discomfort of the war--jungle rot, hunger and thirst, damp feet, leeches, and that short list doesn't even touch the injuries and death that follow combat engagements.
The parallel story to that of the Marines in action is the politics behind the action--officers far behind the lines making decisions, politics that enter in to placement of troops, and the ability of the field officers to make their case. Another aspect to the politics is the politics of race, with overt hostilities between some white and black Marines.
Eventually, Marlantes led me to care about Mellas and his troops, and to find his situation compelling. Mellas clearly improves as an officer, does better in accepting responsibility, works the system effectively and finds himself no longer isolated from those around him.
The title is a code name referring to a mountain that becomes a base of operation.
Merlantes served in the Marines in Vietnam, and he took years to write this novel. I'll recommend his book to people interested in the social history of war, especially Vietnam. I know that not everyone is willing to devote the time and difficult attention that this novel requires, but I will recommend it to those who recognize good fiction--sound pacing, strong character development, and literary construction of another place and time.
"Matterhorn" teams well with another Notable fiction, "The Lotus Eaters" by Tatjana Soli, which while also set in Vietnam during the war, takes a much different approach. Reading those two within the last month leads me to add the modern classic "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien to my reading list. Each year's Notables List brings some of these lucky combinations of titles related by setting or theme, adding value to my reading of the List.
Tagged in: Notables, Good Reads, fiction, Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn,
September 09, 2011 by PatLeach
Rebecca Skloot tell the story of Mrs. Lacks, who became immortal when shortly before her death in 1951, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took tissue samples from a tumor on her cervix. Researchers were able to get the cells from that tissue to reproduce phenomenally. The cells, known as HeLa Cells (the first two letters of her first and last names) became a kind of medical commodity, since researchers needed human cells on which to perform all kinds of research. The family didn't know, and were never compensated for them.
Skloot's book is as much about the Lacks family as about the cells. At the time the cells were taken, doctors wouldn't have thought twice about taking cells without permission, and especially wouldn't have given consideration to taking cells from an African American. Lacks entered the hospital through a separate door, drank from a separate fountain, and probably got less care, than white people did.
The Lacks family didn't know about the cells until much later. They received a lot of misinformation, that coupled with their own lack of scientific understanding to interpret what they were told. Much of Skloot's story centers on their attempts to understand what happened. In particular, Lacks's daughter Deborah takes center stage, in middle age when Skloots began the book.
This book meshes well with another Notable nonfiction, "The Warmth of Other Suns" about the Great Migration. Henrietta Lacks ended up in Baltimore because the men of the family found work there, moving north from Clover, Virginia.
Skloot successfully weaves together the scientific information with the story of this family. She creates a strong narrative thread.
I'm recommending this to many readers, those who enjoy a good story, nonfiction readers who especially appreciate a good story that actually happened, and to students of our American culture.
Tagged in: Notables, nonfiction, Rebecca Skloot,
August 30, 2011 by PatLeach
In short, "The Lotus Eaters" is the story of Helen Adams, who becomes a war photographer in Vietnam in the 1960's and 1970's. She becomes addicted to the rush of taking pictures in dangerous situations. She falls in love with two men, a grizzled photographer who takes her under his wing, and a Vietnamese man who is his photographic assistant and guardian angel.
It's told in chapters with various locations and years; the location and sometimes the year given at the start of each. The story opens with Helen in Saigon as the country is falling in April of 1975. She encounters a little girl who seems to have become lost from her family. The story gets picked up in various places and times, filling in the story of Helen, her career, her loves, and the war.
This isn't an easy read. As with any book about war, there are difficult scenes. Sometimes Soli's way of moving from place to place and year to year is disconcerting, but I had a sense that that's what she intended.
My complaint about this story is that Soli tends to tell instead of show. The most egregious example of this is her description of a lovely Christmas dinner that is interrupted when Helen's lover arrives just from a battlefield, dirty and bloody, to say that one of their colleagues died that day. He says, "Jack was killed tonight. We were ambushed in a jeep patrol in Gia Dinh." Soli then writes, "The holiday mood destroyed, the host clapped a hand on his back then poured him a drink." Did she need to tell us that the holiday mood was destroyed? I realize that a lot of context must be provided to explain cultural and historical details, but too often I sensed her writing an informational sentence instead of creating a way within the story to convey the information.
This book just won the James Tait Black Prize for fiction, so I have to believe that others found the writing excellent. I did enjoy the characters as Soli developed them. What I came to love about the story was how the country itself became almost a character. I felt myself far away.
I'll recommend this general literary fiction readers and certainly to book groups--its historical context, ambitious female character, and interesting relationships will provide plenty of discussion fodder.
Tagged in: Tatjana Soli, The Lotus Eaters, Notables, Vietnam,
August 24, 2011 by PatLeach
There I picked up "How to Read Literature Like Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines" by Thomas C. Foster. I was drawn to this because although I read a lot, I recognize that I read on largely a surface level. I wanted reminding of how to pay better attention to symbol and metaphor.
This book was exactly what I wanted. It's a quick walk through how certain things, like spring (the season) or travel, nearly always point to an abstract idea, one that the author might employ straightforwardly, or possibly engage ironically. This book reads quickly, and Foster takes pains to be light and humorous. The book's chapters include, "When in Doubt, It's from Shakespeare...." and "It's More Than Just rain or Snow" and "If It's Square, It's a Sonnet."
I'm quite sure that I learned these things in high school or college English courses, but I badly needed the reminders. Indeed, I have been spending time reflecting on recent fiction I've read, in light of what Professor Foster (of the University of Michigan at Flint) shares. This book enriched my reading.
While our library doesn't own this book, I certainly recommend that if it sounds interesting to you, you may want to explore our Interlibrary Loan service.
July 28, 2011 by PatLeach
The Last Stand presents a daunting narrative--the history of US treatment of Native Americans, especially those of the Northern Plains, of Chief Sitting Bull, of General Custer, of the officers under Custer's command, of the thousands of people who were in Sitting Bull's village along the Little Big Horn, of all of the movements of officers and Native people.
I'm not familiar with the details of the Last Stand, and found it difficult to keep up with descriptions of the military movements. My guess is that those who've studied it previously would not have difficulty here.
As a general reader, my main complaint is that I didn't sense a strong enough narrative thread. Philbrick has so many people and actions to describe that it was hard sometimes to stay connected to the story.
That said, I learned a lot. Among Philbrick's themes are the remarkable jealousies in Custer's officer corps, the clear sense of an impending "last stand" for Sitting Bull's people given the demise of buffalo herds, and the overall impact of a flamboyant personality such as Custer's at the helm. While Philbrick includes the narratives of Sitting Bull and many Sioux people, I sensed the story as primarily Custer's. And even in the middle of the battle, people were beginning to shape how that story would be told.
I was reflecting on what Philbrick said in regard to writing this book, and I was especially struck by his descriptions of studying the battlefield from horseback, getting a sense of how a person of the time would have seen the land.
I'll recommend this to people who enjoy American history, especially history of the Plains, of Native Americans, or of the nineteenth century.
Tagged in: Notables, nonfiction, "The Last Stand", Nathaniel Philbrick,
July 21, 2011 by PatLeach
"Room" is narrated by Jack, a five-year-old who has spent his life with only his mother in one room, actually a storage shed converted to a living space. She was kidnapped several years before by "Old Nick" who still visits her regularly for sex (while Jack is tucked away in the wardrobe), and to deliver food, clothes, and other necessary items. She has raised Jack to believe that their room is pretty much the whole world. He's beginning to ask questions, and she realizes that the charade must end. Spoiler alert--Jack escapes.
I was reminded of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" as I read this due to Jack's distinctive sensibility and voice. He doesn't have concepts for talking with others, for vehicles in motion, for navigating in a world full of people. He reveals his mother's courage and cleverness in protecting and nurturing him. He does his best to understand what's happening, especially in the media frenzy surrounding his and his mother's escape. In some ways, using Jack as the narrator is genius. In others, it limits the depth of the telling. Ultimately, even though it's a fine novel, I don't believe it lives up to its promise.
Even so, I think this will have a lot of play among book groups--there are nearly infinite discussion possibilities.
I'm adding it to my mental list of novels with great set-ups that don't quite live up to their potential.
On the other hand, "Next" by James Hynes had me almost quitting in the middle, only to have the story take a sharp (and sharply effective) turn in the middle, leading to an engrossing second half.
I would have said that it was narrated by its protagonist, Kevin, but looking back, I see that an unknown narrator is at work here. The story happens all in one day. Kevin is on a plane landing in Austin, Texas, where he has a job interview. He hasn't told his girlfriend in Ann Arbor that he's seeking such a move. He becomes obsessed with the attracive young woman who sits next to him on the plane, and thus begins his series of reveries on old girlfriends, sex, and how he's ended up where he is, a 50-year-old in good physical shape, but emotionally unattached. He ends up following this young woman throughout downtown Austin, until an accident on the sidewalk knocks him out, and she disappears.
Then, an interlude with a woman who rescues him, patches up his minor injuries, takes him to the store to replace his torn clothes, and then engages in an emotionally revealing conversation over lunch.
He arrives for his interview, and a terroristic event, something foreshadowed throughout, actually happens. Kevin is left with only his wits and will to live. His reveries move from sex to his family, especially to death, and to how he hasn't lived up generally. And then there's what's next....
I LOVE a novel with a second half that exceeds the first.
This is almost a tailor-made book group book, as long as the group is cool with sexually graphic descriptions, and ongoing sexual thoughts.
I'll recommend this to general fiction readers--Hynes packs an awful lot in to this one day. As an added bonus, one of my reading friends noted that one of the sex scenes in this book was named the best sex scene in a book this year by Salon.com.
Tagged in: Notables, Good Reads, fiction, room, Next, James Hynes, Emma Donoghue,
June 30, 2011 by PatLeach
I find that I need a different kind of concentration for reading nonfiction. I do best with them when I have early mornings free on weekends--and those were rare in June.
"The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration" by Isabel Wilkerson reads quite quickly for nonfiction, due to Wilkerson's storytelling ability. She follows the paths of three African Americans who move from the South to the North in the early 20th century. The three stand in for millions who made this trip. Using extensive interviews Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Foster, she tells what they left, why they left, and what happened after that. She rarely loses the narrative thread. I found each person to be as interesting as the others.
The larger themes emerge, of triumphing over adversity, of mustering courage beyond expectations, of feeling like an outsider everywhere, of taking pride in surviving. The remarkable danger and indignity that everyday life represented for African Americans in the South colors each journey. Each person's various choices in career, in marriage, in leisure, shape their migration story.
Wilkerson is a professor of journalism whose own parents were part of the Great Migration, moving from Georgia to southern Virginia to Washington, D.C. She adroitly combines interviews with other information, setting each context well without losing a sense, ultimately, of story.
I finished this book with a sense that I knew my country's history better. I'll recommend this to others who enjoy social history and readers who seek out others' stories.
Tagged in: Notables, nonfiction, Isabel Wilkerson,
June 01, 2011 by PatLeach
And thanks to the fine people at the Mill who hosted this event as a benefit for the Foundation for Lincoln City Libraries, one of my favorite organizations, after all.
I'd written about "Zeitoun" by Dave Eggers earlier. It's nonfiction, about a Syrian immigrant to New Orleans, a man who decides to stay in the city through Katrina. I confess--I really liked this book when I read it, and I've recommended it to a variety of people who also enjoyed it. And regular readers of this blog know that I am on a campaign for America to Read More Nonfiction. So "Zeitoun" was a natural for me.
I finished "Cutting for Stone" by Abraham Verghese on Sunday May 29, sitting in the car during a rainy spell while we were camping at Victoria Springs up by Anselmo, Nebraska. And...I liked this one, too. A novel, not that we'll hold that against it. Told by a man named Marion, who looks back on a life in Ethiopia, one of twins born to an Indian nun who dies during childbirth, fathered by a white doctor of British Indian background who abandons them. Marion and his brother, Shiva, are raised by loving adoptive parents and become medical men themselves. Swirling about this story are the dangerous politics of Africa, the impact of grinding poverty, betrayal by a woman he loves, success in medicine, and always, being a twin. I'm afraid that many general readers will be put off by some fairly graphic medical procedures, but I also think that the novel holds rewards that overcome those difficult scenes.
And two weeks ago, I enjoyed a Passionate Reader Jackpot--starting and finishing "The History of Love" by Nicole Krauss all in one weekend. A little like "People of the Book" by Geraldine Brooks which was a One Book One Lincoln selection in recent years, this novel is about a book. The story's a little complicated, on the one hand about a Jewish man who escaped from Europe during the World War II era, ending up in New York. On the other hand, there's a girl whose father has died, whose mother has found meaning in a book called "The History of Love." That girl, Alma, goes in search of the book's author. Eventually the stories intertwine. There are some absolutely lovely aspects to this book, in the ways that Krauss uses small gestures to show big things, and in her constant return to the power of hope.
So...read them! And tell me what you think. And be sure to vote for your favorite before voting ends on July 31.
Tagged in: "One Book One Lincoln", fiction, nonfiction, Good Reads,
May 17, 2011 by PatLeach
It's interesting to read what nonlibrarians write about libraries, especially so when the writer is a dynamic and future-oriented thinker. I'd probably argue about some of his points, but right now, to think about the big picture....
Where I think that Godin is right on is where he puts the focus on the PEOPLE in libraries. What we have means nothing if people aren't using us, whether in person or online. And when people tell me what the libraries have meant to them, almost always they mention the PERSON at the library who connected them. I'm proud that I receive lots of positive comments about Lincoln City Libraries, and I can trace nearly every compliment to someone at Lincoln City LIbraries who did a great job and made that connection.
I agree with Godin when he writes that "What we don't need are mere clerks who guard dead paper." I'd also point out that we never needed those.
I agree with him as well that this is the chance of a lifetime. I worry that years and years of tight budgets and fewer staff might permanently narrow our focus to just the task in front of us. We've got to keep our heads up and focus wide so that we're living this image of dynamic libraries and passionate librarians.
Tagged in: Seth Godin,
May 15, 2011 by PatLeach
I've ranted elsewhere about the unnecessary length of some of the books on this year's list. I'm still evaluating this one, both overall and in terms of its length...I can't seem to come to a final sense of it.
It's a novel set in a contemporary Irish boys boarding school. The novel begins when a student named Skippy indeed dies during a doughnut-eating contest. It backs up to place Skippy in that critical event, and then does a little follow-up afterward.
Here's the blurb for "Skippy Dies" from the Notable Books list website, "Filled with warmth and humor, this coming-of-age novel set in a Dublin boys school is a sprawling homage to adolescence, string theory, donuts, and unrequited love." That makes this sound like fun reading, but while it had some hilarious scenes, overall this is a sad sad story. It's full of young people who can't figure out how to be true to themselves AND connected to others. I'm wondering now if I took it all too seriously.
In brief--Skippy falls in love with a girl who's in love with a violent boy who takes advantage of her sexually in return for providing her with drugs. Skippy's part of the swim team, but hates the team even though he's always enjoyed swimming. One of the priests at the school is fighting his own crush on Skippy. Spoiler alert--the swim coach takes sexual advantage of him. His mother is seriously ill and his father isn't coping well. The girl ends up acting as if she likes Skippy to deflect her parents' concern about her involvement with the other boy, He uses his phone to make a sexually graphic video of her that he sends to several students. In Skippy's upset over her, he takes an overdose of the unprescribed drugs his swim coach provided him. And then, he's off to the donut shop.
I didn't sense enough warmth and humor to overcome the tragedy in all of that.
I'm not saying it isn't a good book. It is. But please don't dive into this without realizing that at its core is a sense of emotional and physical danger. The ways in which people try to band together to address the danger is one source of hope here.
In conclusion, I'm thinking about to whom I'll recommend this. I can think of a few reading friends who are fairly cynical and will find the school's principal a perfect example of what's not right in education. They might also enjoy the forays into the places where scientific thought seems to border magic realism. I would love the chance to have some conversation with others who've read this, so that I can develop a more firm opinion of "Skippy Dies."
Tagged in: Good Reads, Notables, "Skippy Dies",
May 03, 2011 by PatLeach
The book--"Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter" by Tom Franklin. It's from the fiction portion of the American Library Association Notable Books list.
First--the title. An introductory page tells, "How southern children are taught to spell Mississippi-- M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I."
I might describe this book as a literary mystery. Two men from rural Mississippi were friends as boys, one white, one black. As they grow up, their lives intersect and intertwine. The white man, Larry, is accused while in high school of the murder of a girl who disappears. He endures his role as a scourge of the community. That her body is never found keeps the tension alive. The black man, nicknamed 32 but named Silas, is a constable in the area. When another young woman goes missing 20 years after the first, 32's attention turns to his old friend.
I don't want to spoil the story, so no more about the plot.
Looking back on the book, I felt somewhat "underwhelmed" by the conclusion. I expected something more dramatic. But on further reflection, I think that Franklin did right by his story. He's a master of revealing the story slowly, adding tantalizing ideas and details one by one. I knew that each scene was placed for a reason. He steps right up to the brink, but doesn't go over.
There are many issues swirling around race, reputation, family ties of love and hate, and maybe even redemption. Those are part of the lives of these fairly everyday people. Franklin draws them realistically.
When I read novels, I usually look for the person that I want to trust, and I wanted to trust 32. I could sense that he wanted to do right by Larry.
I'll recommend this to many of my reading friends because most of them appreciate novels that reveal the drama behind our everyday lives, and that sometimes reveal the everyday-ness behind the drama. There's something compelling, too, about the Southern setting with race as a decades-old factor in individual lives. I see a wide audience for "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter."
Tagged in: Notables, fiction, Tom Franklin, "Crooked Letter, "Crooked Letter,
April 17, 2011 by PatLeach
It made an excellent companion to "The Tiger" by John Vaillant, my most recent Notable, also nonfiction. "The Tiger" happens in far eastern Siberia, and as I wrote previously, captures the entire geography and history of that particular region within the story of one tiger.
Frazier, one the other hand, is all over Siberia. And it's an awfully long way across. This book describes several trips he makes into Siberia, the largest by far a trek with two guides along the route of the Trans-Siberian highway.
I hadn't read Frazier before, though many of my reading friends recommend him highly. I expected that the book would be as much about him as about Siberia, which was fine. I appreciated his often self-deprecating humor, and his ability to recognize when he was inserting just a little too much of himself. I also enjoyed his "birdwalks" of distraction into details or stories about the places he was visiting. Just when I lost track myself of why we were going down a particular narrative path, he would once again connect his story to the place at hand. It seemed effortless, but is a mark of a strong writer.
Frazier refers to a kind of "Russia fever" that he caught, a condition that kept him from ever feeling quite finished with the country. Even after the primary journey of the book, a months-long journey across Siberia, he has to go back.
A question I usually ask myself when I finish a book is--what image will I keep from this? And in Frazier's case, it's his description of the smell of places, especially Russian airports and restrooms. I think this explains part of his popularity--he plumbs the depth of his travel experience, and employs every sense.
The key to my enjoyment of "Travels in Siberia" was to relax and enjoy the telling, and not be in a hurry to get to a destination. I did enjoy the reading, but I never felt that luscious compulsion to return to this, the compulsion that I always hope to sense when I crack open a new book.
I'll certainly recommend this to people who enjoy travel books, who have a particular interest in Siberia, or who enjoy stories of cross-cultural experiences.
Tagged in: Notables, Good Reads, nonfiction, "Travels in Siberia", Ian Frazier,
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