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"Year Zero" By Ian Buruma

August 20, 2014 by PatLeach
I'm just now getting caught up on reviewing several books I recently finished. I had taken plenty of time reading "Year Zero: A History of 1945" by Ian Buruma, from the nonfiction part of the Notable Books list. I began it in May or so, read about three quarters of it, and set it aside until a few weekends ago, when I determined to finish it.

It's a sweeping look at the year after the end of World War II, a time when people began making organization out of the chaos of the war. Buruma addresses various topics in three general sections, describing the situation in Europe, in Asia, and in other parts of the world impacted by the war. Some chapters are primarily how individuals adjusted--how hunger, exultation, and revenge played out. Later chapters address institutions and cultures, such as how the allied countries went about re-educating the German and Japanese people. A theme that recurs is the complexity of relationships--few people, groups, or countries were entirely "clean" in motive and behavior. This is what will stick with me from "Year Zero."

Buruma introduces the book with the story of his Dutch father, who was kidnapped as a college student to work in a factory in Berlin. When the war ended, he nearly died of starvation, but eventually made it home. His story led Buruma to ponder all of the stories, all of the adjustments, all of the things that had to be set right.

As a reader, I found this information, and Buruma's approach, interesting. Its drawback is that his basic idea, to explore this chaotic time in regard to several aspects, and spanning continents, keeps him from developing a strong narrative thread. The view is awfully wide, and not especially deep. Certainly he explores interesting themes, but without the strong storytelling structure that would create a more compelling book.

Even so "Year Zero" addresses an era of interest to many readers. I expect that for those who are quite familiar with the time period, Buruma's rich information and perspective will add much to their own already-developed sense of the war's story.


Tagged in: Notables, nonfiction, World War II, "Year Zero",
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"The Skies Belong to Us" by Brendan I. Koerner

August 19, 2014 by PatLeach
"The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking" by Brendan I. Koerner continues my trek through this year's Notable Books list.

From the nonfiction side of the list, this book uses the story of one airline hijacking event in 1972 to explore the "epidemic" of hijacking in the 1960s and 1970s, before screenings and metal detectors became part of the airport landscape.

It makes for interesting reading, how Koerner keeps the thread of the 1972 hijacking intact as he weaves in additional information. In some ways it reads like true crime, this story of Roger Holder, a black Vietnam veteran struggling with mental illness and addiction, and Cathy Kerkow, his white "hippie" girlfriend. Koerner does a fine job describing their story in the social context of the time. That story extends long after the plane they hijack lands in Algiers.

A couple of quibbles--throughout the book, Koerner refers to "stewardesses" instead of "flight attendants." That would be the vernacular of the day, but it seemed outdated when he was writing from a contemporary viewpoint. Second, Koerner often writes as if he knew what Kerkow was thinking or feeling. Because she disappears years after the events of the story, Koerner could not have interviewed her, and none of his many notes shows a written record of her thoughts or emotions during the complicated hijacking or the chaotic period that followed.

Even so, I'll recommend this to people who seek social history, and to those who are especially interested in the era of the 1960's. I could see this being a strong nonfiction choice for book groups who usually read fiction. Holder and Kerkow's story illuminates many issues of their era, a number of which remain lively and relevant.


Tagged in: Notables, nonfiction, hijacking, "The Skies Belong to Us",
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"Johnny Cash: the Life" by Robert Hilburn

July 29, 2014 by PatLeach
Working my way through the American Library Association Notable Books list, I recently finished "Johnny Cash: the Life" by Robert Hilburn.

I enjoyed it immensely, and found myself losing track of time while I read it. Hilburn crafts a compelling story. From Cash's upbringing in Dyess, Arkansas, to his drug-drenched superstardom to his final days as a national icon, HIlburn keeps the story's thread strong.

Hilburn's reliance on extensive interviews brings many voices into the narrative. The people closest to Cash testify to his artistry, his addictions, the immense physical pain in his final years, and his remarkable love for June Carter Cash. A music critic, Hilburn gives frank assessments of Cash's performances, puts them into context, and keeps the music central to the story.

I grew up in a home where we seldom missed "The Johnny Cash Show." This book looks deeply into and beyond what was seen onstage.

My late husband played a quirky mix of music, and one of his oft-performed pieces was Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" sung in French, with his own accordion accompaniment. People--all kinds of people--loved that song. I kept humming it as I read this book.

I've recommended this to several readers who are interested in popular music generally, or country music more specifically. I see it having ample appeal beyond that, because Hilburn weaves plenty of insight  into this portrait of a complicated man who become an American icon.


Tagged in: JohnnyCash, nonfiction, biography, Notables,
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"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

July 01, 2014 by PatLeach
After a break to dip into the One Book One Lincoln finalists, I've returned to the Notable Books List, and "The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics" by Daniel James Brown.

It's the story of the 1936 Olympic rowing team, essentially the team from the University of Washington. Brown extensively interviewed rower Joe Rantz not long before Rantz died a few years ago, and it is Rantz who stands at the center of this story. Around him are his crewmates, his remarkable coach, Al Ulbrickson, and George Pocock, a boatbuilder and rowing guru. As as a group they exemplified how a successful team far exceeds the sum of its parts.

Brown creates the context of America in the Great Depression, and more specifically, the lives of working class people at that time. Rantz and several teammates worked back-breaking jobs to afford their classes, and Rantz was often teased about his ratty clothes. In addition, Rantz was abandoned by his father, learning to make his own way. Brown contrasts their situation with that of teams from the Ivy League or Europe.

The strong narrative thread of "The Boys in the Boat" helps it cross over for people who typically read fiction. Brown incorporates information about rowing, history, and politics without losing the thread of the plot. He builds credible characters from interviews and contemporary articles. This book employs a rhythm typical of sport stories, with background information framing descriptions of contests.

This team became magical at crucial moments, when all nine men in the boat pulled together, worked together, and won together. Brown explores Rantz's decision to trust, truly trust, that his teammates would do what needed to be done even though his own family life taught him reasonably to trust only himself.

I'll recommend this to a variety of readers, both of fiction and nonfiction. Fans of strong sports stories should dig into "The Boys in the Boat," especially readers interested in the storied 1936 Olympics in Berlin. This makes an excellent book group choice, with its universal themes of history, purpose, and success against great odds.


Tagged in: Notables, nonfiction, rowing, Daniel James Brown,
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"The Faraway Nearby" by Rebecca Solnit

March 13, 2014 by PatLeach
Rebecca Solnit's "The Faraway Nearby" exemplifies my favorite thing about the American Library Association's Notable Books List--I find excellent books there that I hadn't heard about previously.

"The Faraway Nearby" begins with apricots, picked from Solnit's mother's tree. The three boxes of apricots were too many to manage, her mother too far gone with Alzheimer's to know. Solnit's preservation of the fruit via jams, liqueurs, and other devices contributes one of the first metaphors in this rich book.

I was intrigued by the title, "The Faraway Nearby." Here is what she says about that, "After years in New York  City, Georgia O'Keeffe moved to rural New Mexico, from which she would sign her letters to the people she loved, 'from the faraway nearby.'" (p. 108)

Solnit employs thirteen chapters, the first six leading to the seventh, "knot." The remaining six mirror the first, going backwards to apricots once again, ending where she began. Within this firm structure, she rambles amid her mother's story, her own cancer scare, and an artistic escape to Iceland. How she works in Che Guevara, arctic explorers, Scheherazade, Frankenstein, Buddhists, and others, is a wonder. And yet it feels like excellent conversation over coffee, how she goes from one story to another, linked by ideas. Throughout, she reflects on how we tell our stories. She considers how we work over the material in our past to create a promising future.

I found particular resonance in this excerpt, as she describes how her friends took her in hand through a serious health scare. "People gathered from all directions, and I was taken care of beautifully...Afterward, during my convalescence, I occasionally wished that life was always like this, that I was always being showered with flowers and assistance and solicitousness, but you only get it when you need it. If you're lucky, you get it when you need it. To know that it was there when I needed it changed everything a little in the long run." (p. 122) This perfectly describes my own experience when my husband died, and she's right. It has changed everything a little.

At first, I was put off by MY wanting the action to move forward more quickly. I won't recommend this to readers who want to march through a plot. It was worth slowing down to savor the extras that she brings to her story of herself. I do indeed recommend this to those who enjoy a lusciously long conversation through unexpected imagery and reflection, as if the coffee pot would never run dry.


Tagged in: nonfiction, memoirs, Notable Books, "The Faraway Nearby",
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