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Tag Archives: good reads

“Little Heathens” by Mildred Armstrong Kalish

I can’t remember who first recommended “Little Heathens” by Mildred Armstrong Kalish to me. But to that mystery person–thanks!

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.

“The Good Daughter”

The reading world is now my oyster–I’ve finished up my reading for this year’s Notable Books List! And a great list it was.

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.

A Notable Novel–“Matterhorn”

Last week I finished “Matterhorn: a Novel of the Vietnam War” by Karl Marlantes. It was my final fiction title from this year’s Notable Books List.

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.

Notables–“Room” and “Next”

I kicked off July with two novels from the Notable Books List–“Room” by Emma Donoghue and “Next” by James Hynes.

“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.

Yes! I Have Read the One Book One Lincoln Finalists

A good time was had by all on the dock of The Mill in the Haymarket Monday morning when the three finalists for One Book One Lincoln 2011 were announced. Yes, I’ve read them all.

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.