December 09, 2013 by PatLeach
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,
November 20, 2013 by PatLeach
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,
November 12, 2013 by PatLeach
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,
April 30, 2013 by PatLeach
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,
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,
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,
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,
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,
May 14, 2012 by PatLeach
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,
May 08, 2012 by PatLeach
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,
April 29, 2012 by PatLeach
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",
April 23, 2012 by PatLeach
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,
March 31, 2012 by PatLeach
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,
March 18, 2012 by PatLeach
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",
March 04, 2012 by PatLeach
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,
February 29, 2012 by PatLeach
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",
February 19, 2012 by PatLeach
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,
February 01, 2012 by PatLeach
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",
January 23, 2012 by PatLeach
Basically, it's a book about Joseph Priestley, the 18th century scientist/pastor/political writer who is credited with discovering oxygen. Priestley was born and lived most of his life in England, moving to the United States in 1794 after a mob angry about his writings burned down his home.
I liked it partly because it reads quickly--I've been working on a suitable descriptor for a book that moves along at a fast pace--and is relatively short, at 215 pages. As a reader, I prefer a fast pace. I know plenty of readers who love a slow-moving long book. They might have felt cheated by this one. I mention that pace because one might expect that a book about a historical figure who was a scientist/pastor/political writer might move along slowly.
That said, Johnson diverges fairly often from Priestley's story to take a broader look at his times, and often also the filter of certain themes from which to consider the 21st century. For instance, Priestley was part of a group of London men who often had coffee together, a group called "The Club of Honest Whigs." They talked into the evening on all sorts of subjects, and with them, Priestley was able to articulate and develop his own points of view. This ability to share ideas, to stay in close communication, to build on each others' work, was new to the times. The broadmindedness of the group certainly played into its role in developing ideas, but that ability to communicate was key. Johnson compares that to what the Internet offers to scientists and thinkers to day--unparalleled access to each others' thoughts.
There's something about this era of "amateur" scientists such as Priestley that so clearly is a thing of the past. Johnson reflects on the impact that leisure time had. Priestley was well-educated, curious, and had time. Others, for example, Thomas Jefferson in the United States, showed similar lifelong avocations of science combined with political pursuits. Johnson laments the way that politicians now leave science to others...and perhaps are proud of their lack of scientific understanding.
Johnson places much more emphasis on Priestley's scientific work than on his religious thinking (he's prominent in the history of the Unitarian church) and political writing, but Johnson certainly sees the breadth of his interests as key to Priestley's success.
From time to time, I wondered if Johnson might be standing on some fairly thin ice when pulling the big ideas from this one life and applying them to our time. And yet there is a compelling sense in which it would be easy to imagine Johnson himself around the coffee table with the Club of Honest Whigs, building one idea on top of another, sometimes getting a little beyond himself.
For that reason, I may not recommend this to serious and well-read students of the science of history. But I will recommend it to my reading friends who enjoy history, who want to ponder the big ideas that connect one time with another, and who may not know enough about this intriguing man.
Tagged in: nonfiction, Good Reads, "The Invention of Air",
January 19, 2012 by PatLeach
"Silver Sparrow" by Tayari Jones begins with a fabulous first sentence, "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist."
The novel is told by Witherspoon's two daughters, both growing up in Atlanta in the 1980s.
The first section is told by Dana Lynn Yarboro. She is the "outside daughter." Her mother knew from the start that Witherspoon was married to someone else. As she approached Dana's birth, she and Witherspoon went across the state line and married. Dana grows up feeling herself second best, watching her mother work hard to ensure that Witherspoon provide well for Dana, sometimes "surveiling" the other wife and daughter. Dana begins to engineer ways to interact with her half-sister.
The second section is told by Chaurisse Witherspoon, that half-sister who is just four months younger than Dana. Chaurisse grows up not knowing about the other family. In contrast to Dana and her mother, Chaurisse and her mother consider themselves plain. Chaurisse's story begins to include Dana, who Chaurisse describes as a "silver girl," someone who is pretty and presents herself stylishly, someone different from Chaurisse. Inevitably, trouble happens with the two, and the secret family comes into the light.
The third and final short section returns to Dana, as an adult with a baby girl of her own. Chaurisse has "surveiled" her, and they have a brief conversation that reveals that the two are no longer connected. And yet it is clear, they will always be connected.
I enjoyed this as an old-fashioned story, told in a straightforward way. I liked how Jones included much about the working lives of the adults in the story, and her picture of African American middle class culture of the 1980's. She develops these characters well, makes them distinct from each other, even as they all revolve around the one man, James Witherspoon. She explores themes of friendship, family, secrets, and love.
I've noted previously that often I'm impatient in "braided story" novels because I end up finding one person much more compelling than another. In this case, I found both girls equally interesting.
I'll recommend this to people who enjoy novels about regular people reacting to crazy events. It's a perfect book group choice, with so many secrets to explore and people to analyze.
Tagged in: Good Reads, fiction, "Silver Sparrow",
January 18, 2012 by PatLeach
It's format was a tad off-putting to me at first. It's told as if in notes regarding the calls that the veterinarians receives. For instance, from page one:
Call: A cow with her dead calf halfborn.
Action: Put on boots and pulled dead calf out while standing in a field full of mud.
Result: Hind legs tore off from dead calf while I pulled. Head, forelegs, and torso are still inside the mother.
Thoughts on Drive Home While Passing Red and Gold Leaves on Maple Trees: Is there a nicer place to live?
Once I got used to the rhythm of the format, I enjoyed the story, and even began to like the distance that this structure provided. The entries are a mix of mundane, emotional, wry, and intense. When the veterinarian's son is shot, the format keeps the action from being overwhelming, somehow. The obsession he develops for learning who shot his son is entirely believable, even as it mixes in to his wry observations about the households and animals he visits. Events turn once again when a young man shows up who is his son, via a sperm donation he made in his college days.
The one quibble I have is that when the son must be in the hospital following the shooting, I felt an inadequate connection to everything medical--all of the decisions, the instruments, the machinery, the weirdness of time in the hospital. His thoughts didn't leave his son often, but I didn't sense the way that a hospital often becomes a family's hearth when a child is in a coma.
Looking back on this story, it strikes me as "old fashioned" in these ways--the veterinarian is someone who wants to be a good man. He loves his family. He works hard. He's a regular guy. The things that happen could happen to anyone. They shake him up. He does a few silly things, but all in all, he behaves in ways that make perfect sense, and that underscore a basic decency about him. His ability always to see something a little differently and often without judgment, to find humor and happy irony, create a distinctive tone. And make a clear contrast with his focus on the shooter.
I'll recommend this to people as a quirky but satisfying read. It probably requires a slightly quirky reader, too, but I predict that once people get accustomed to the rhythm of the language, they will take to the people and the place.
Tagged in: fiction, "The Call", veterinarians,
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,
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