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Tag Archives: Firefly

It’s Good! It’s Fast! “American Boy” by Larry Watson

Due to unforeseen events, I ended up on my own for lunch on Tuesday, so I did what many downtown workers do. I found a book on the Bennett Martin Public Library new books display. I chose “American Boy” by Larry Watson because I’d so enjoyed his “Montana 1948” several years ago.

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.

“In the Garden of Beasts”

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.

Mary Karr’s “Lit”

I finished “Lit” by Mary Karr just over a week ago. I’m nervous when writing about a book more than a few days after finishing it. I’m the kind of reader who tends to forget whole portions of even the books that I enjoy the most. In my defense, I do retain strong mental files of particularly riveting scenes.

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.

Jo Nesbo’s “The Snowman”

I hit the Readers’ Jackpot over the Veterans Day weekend–started and finished a whole book, “The Snowman” by Jo Nesbo, a mystery set in Norway. I enjoyed it immensely.

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.”

“Wolf Hall” by Hillary Mantel

Sunday evening I finished “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel, winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize.

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.