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Tag Archives: good reads

“Citizens of London”

I’m continuing in my annual trek through the American Library Association Notable Books List. Over the Presidents Day holiday, I finished reading “Citizens of London: The Americans who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour” by Lynne Olson.

This book exemplifies what I love about each year’s Notable List–it brings forward splendid books that got little attention.

“Citizens of London” also allows me to get up on my soapbox to encourage America to read more nonfiction, or to read it at all.

Lynne Olson does a great job of creating a narrative thread in this book, even as she weaves in necessary information to create context. In this case, the story is about the Americans in London, primarily a small group of men, who worked long and hard to promote the British case for the United States to become involved in World War II.

Readers may recall that many in the United States held a strong isolationist stance in the late 1930s. President Franklin Roosevelt instituted the lend-lease program to assist Britain, but it was seen in Britain as not nearly enough, at too dear a price. Journalist Edward R. Murrow, Ambassador to the Court of St. James Gil Winant, and Lend-Lease representative Averell Harriman became “citizens of London” and promoted the position that the United States had to do more to support England against Germany.

Of course, much changed with the United States entering the war after Pearl Harbor. Olson takes this story through the end of the war and just past, showing how these three men continued to play a role in maintaining the relationship between the United States and Britain. The story begins fairly simply with the focus on the three men, and as the war progresses, more people enter the picture as joint military campaigns must be agreed to and staged, and finally a post-war world shaped.

I’m left with much respect for these three, and for Dwight Eisenhower, who was placed in the position of having to make a joint command work.

I’m also left with Olson’s gift of connecting these world-changing events to the everyday lives of common people in London during this time. Her ability to tell a specific story that illustrates a wider point is what made me enjoy this book so much.

I’ll recommend this to readers who enjoy history, and to that large group of people with special interest in World War II. I’ll also recommend it to fiction readers who are willing to dip into something a little different, into a nonfiction book that still follows the thread of a compelling story, and that develops interesting characters.

“Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen

Continuing my reading trek through the American Library Association Notable Books list, I’ve just finished “Freedom: a Novel” by Jonathan Franzen.

A wedge of a book at just over 560 pages, it’s the contemporary story of Patty and Walter Berglund, who begin their married life together in St. Paul, Minnesota. But all is not well. Patty was a star college basketball player who can’t stop wishing her parents had attended her games. As a parent  herself she sets limits that are pretty squishy. Walter’s an earnest man who eventually aligns himself with an environmental concern that itself is aligned with alarming mining interests. Walter’s best friend and Patty are obsessed with each other. Their son moves in with his girlfriend next door. Walter becomes involved with his assistant. He seems to walk toward the life of a misanthropic hermit. Franzen excels in detailing the ways in which each person here falls short. And yet, and yet…within this laundry list of dysfunction, every once in a while someone sees that glimmer of a better way to live and love.

My complaint–too many pages. Franzen’s gift for the absurd, the funny-but-sad ways in which people interact with each other and the world, gains too much momentum. The story sags in the middle, a shame because in the end it slows down to some satisfying emotional conclusions. Every so often, Franzen drops a nugget of drop-dead lovely insight or description.

I tend to retain one or two images from every book, and from “Freedom” I will remember Joey Berglund swallowing his wedding ring and seeking it in the toilet while on a vacation with another woman. I will remember that he gained great confidence from his success in finding it.

This novel has had so much press that many people will be reading it to stay in the literary loop. I’m pretty sure that book groups would find plenty to discuss here, and so I recommend this to groups who’ll take on a long novel. I also recommend it to readers of contemporary stories, people who seek out irony and absurdity, and yet who are not put off by true love–in all its crazy shapes.

Another Notable–“The Lonely Polygamist”

In my search for positive things about winter (a short list), I’ll note one good thing–there’s more time for reading. Although it seems like I just finished Edmund De Waal’s “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” last night I wrapped up “The Lonely Polygamist” by Brady Udall, all 599 pages of it.

My one-sentence assessment: This good book doesn’t live up to its immense potential.

“The Lonely Polygamist” is one of the American Library Association’s Notable Books for this year, from the fiction portion of the list. The premise is that Golden Richards, a man with four wives and 28 children, finds himself, essentially, lonely. He’s also in several kinds of mess, overseeing construction of a brothel in the next state (he tells the church and family that he’s working on a nursing home), becoming involved with the wife of his boss, and ignoring the simmering tension in his three homes.

Udall tells the story by alternating the focus between Golden, one of his sons, and his fourth wife.

Looking back on the novel, I observe three basic sections–the first introduces the people and their dilemmas, the second piles on the lack of love, respect, integrity, and compassion among the cast, and the third brings the story to some resolution. That second section was way too long. It became tiresome and felt hopeless. I don’t know why I plowed through it, since I’m a firm believer that no reader should feel compelled to soldier through an unrewarding book. Nevertheless, I did. And Udall did well with pulling the threads together.

I expected this to be a romp of a book, and certainly Udall creates incredible scenes that are drop-dead absurd or downright funny. The premise here is great–a lonely polygamist?! But Golden Richards seemed too much of a hangdog–he weighed down too many pages. What high hopes I had. If only that great idea hadn’t burned itself out so early, so far short of the 599th page.

“The Hare with Amber Eyes” by Edmund De Waal

Well, THAT was a lovely weekend–I started AND finished a book, “The Hare with Amber Eyes” by Edmund De Waal, the first full book I’ve read from this year’s Notable Books list.

It’s nonfiction, De Waal’s family’s own story of a collection of netsuke, small Japanese figurines, that were purchased by a great-uncle in Paris in the 1870s, presented as a wedding gift to a young couple in 1899, and then very nearly lost when the Nazis took control of Vienna in 1938.

The story is much more than just the netsuke, it’s the story of a fabled Jewish banking family, the Ephrussi’s. They rose to prominence beginning with grain futures in the mid-1800s and rose to wealth and prominence, to have businesses in Odessa where they began, then Paris and Vienna also. De Waal looks back on their social prominence, the impact of their being Jewish, and how it all came crashing down with the Nazis. He creates a lovely braid of family memory, cultural life, and history.  I felt such a sense of doom as the story approached the era of Hitler.

Looking back on what I will remember most from this book, three things come to mind. One is Charles Ephrussi, the young art collector, with an apartment jam-packed with Impressionist paintings and almost countless other art objects. De Waal contrasts that image of art-on-top-of-art with what we typically see in art museums now, one painting well-separated from another on a plain wall. The second, an image of the Ephrussi home in Vienna ransacked, priceless furniture dumped from one floor to another. Finally another is the return of the netsuke to an Ephrussi who makes his post-warhome in Tokyo, the collection restored to a lovely display case in the country where they were created.

What a great story. De Waal tells it well, though from time to time the pace seems to founder. De Waal, a ceramic artist, seems so practical and so down-to-earth in contrast to his wealthy ancestors. That alone provides a shot of energy at several turns.

I recommend this book generally, and especially to people who are interested in art, in history, or in collecting.

Willa Cather’s “One of Ours”

Today I’m returning a library copy of “One of Ours” by Willa Cather, her novel of Claude Wheeler, the Nebraska farmboy who joins the Army in World War One.

This novel earned Cather the Pulitzer Prize in 1922. Some observers have noted that the Pulitzer was awarded for this novel when it ought to have been given instead to “O Pioneers!” or “My Antonia,” earlier novels with a Nebraska setting.

I chose “One of Ours” because I recently visited the National World War One Museum in Kansas City, a remarkable place. I tend to have a short attention span in museums, but was held intellectual captive by this place for a good four hours. I’ve also set reading or re-reading books by Nebraska authors as one of my Reading Resolutions for 2011.

I’ll try not to give too much away about the novel in terms of its plot. In terms of character, Claude Wheeler suffers from a combination of a desire for a wonderful life, an intellectual life, a gracious life, a life bigger than the Wheeler farm, with an infuriating lack of grace in his own social skills.  When he’s confused among people, he blushes and becomes angry. His marriage isn’t satisfactory. He catches a glimpse of the life he wants when he attends college in Lincoln, but then is caught in his father’s snare that returns him to the responsibility of the farm.

In many ways his time in Europe before he actually enters the trenches of the war re-ignites his passion for something bigger. He meets new people and sees how they live. He senses a return to excitement in his life. His troops respond to his leadership.

Cather is such a beloved and well-known Nebraska author that I’m reluctant to criticize her work. I will say that the book seems a little like Claude–a glimpse of something grand that is held back by a lack of grace. Yet I love Claude, as I still love this novel, for that romantic hope for something beyond what seems ordinary and everyday.