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Tag Archives: notables

A Notable Book–The Lost City of Z

My second book in a year about explorers in the Amazon!

I picked up “The Lost City of Z” by David Grann because it’s on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books List. As you may know, each year I read most of the books on this annual list, and then make presentations on them. DO contact me if you’d be interested in such a presentation for your group.

Just last year, I read, “River of Doubt” about Theodore Roosevelt’s trek down a river in the Amazon basin early in the 20th century. It was a finalist for the One Book One Lincoln program.

Truth to tell, I chose this one for no other reason than because it happened to be checked in. But I’m glad that I made time for it. What it has in common with other Notables is that it’s a fine book that seems not to have received a lot of attention.

David Grann writes for The New Yorker. He became intrigued with the story of British explorer, Percy Fawcett, who disappeared in the Amazon rainforest in 1925. Fawcett was looking for “Z,” the ruins of a great civilization. Grann alternates chapters with what he learns of Fawcett’s story, with his own story of researching and then becoming obsessed by Fawcett. Eventually, Grann also sets out to see what he can learn of the lost Fawcett expedition.

He tells the story well. Fawcett becomes an interesting character, well placed in his time and people. My hunch is that people who say they don’t like history would like it told this way. Grann’s insertion of himself as the author into the story also works well. It’s easy for me to understand that a reporter would become wrapped up in a story.

What is it about exploring? What was it about the 19th and early 20th centuries that made Europeans want to explore the world? Why do people seek out such hardship? What is it about people who disappear? What is it about thinking that YOU might be the one who finally figures things out?

I’d recommend this to people who find the questions above intriguing, to those who enjoy a nonfictional history story told well, and to people interested in the Amazon.

Not sure this one’s Notable–The Dark Side by Jane Mayer

I’m coming to the end of my annual exercise to read most of the books on the American Library Association Notable Books list (for adults).

I’m disappointed in “The Dark Side: the Inside Story of how the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals” by Jane Mayer. I knew that this book was about torture, U.S. participation in torture, and the politics surrounding all that. I didn’t expect a pleasant read. I did expect sound journalism and nonfiction writing. Mayer fell short of my standard.

Mayer’s credentials are as a newpaper reporter, and a writer for the New Yorker. Too often, she included what struck me as hearsay information without following up on it.  For example, when she introduces Timothy Flanigan, a lawyer in the White House Counsel’s Office, she concludes, “A friend said he drove the family in his own school bus.”  (p. 50) Granted, this seems an insignificant detail, but did she not follow up by learning if a bus was registered to him? Did people observe Flanigan driving the bus?

I also see her language as often biased. One paragraph begins, “As the Bush Administration swept away the old rules, becoming unfettered and unchecked, it began to authorize the rendition of suspects for whom it had little or no solid evidence of guilt.” (p.125)  That language (“swept away,” “unfettered,” “unchecked”) leads me to question Mayer’s objectivity.

I understand that in the course of her investigation, Mayer came to believe that the Bush administration went widely astray in regard to torture and treatment of detainees. It’s fair for her to share that point of view. I would have preferred that she present the information she found in a way that lets the reader make his/her own conclusion.

To be clear about my own point of view, I probably agree with Mayer’sconclusions that the Bush administration was wrong here. But I still want her to present this information differently.  I want her to use less-charged language.  I want her to show that she’s followed up on information that could be considered hearsay. I want her to present the factual information in a way that both sides would consider fair.

I’d like to know what you think of this…what responsibility do you believe this writer has to her information and her readers? IS it possible for a writer to develop a strong point of view as a result of investigation, and not employ language charged to bolster that view? IS that what readers want?

What a Notable! Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Now THIS was the kind of book I’d been seeking, one that had me scheming about how to get back to it, even when I really should have been doing other stuff.

Unaccustomed Earth” is on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list. It’s a collection of short stories, set in contemporary America, about young people who are of Bengali descent. Typically, the stories explore issues of having two cultures to bridge, of finding love in those circumstances, of staying true to the best in one’s upbringing.

Apparently, I’m one of the last people to find out about Jhumpa Lahiri; she won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Interpeter of Maladies.” I was amazed by how many people to whom I’ve mentioned this book (and I’ve mentioned it to a LOT of people) have already read it, or have it on their bedside tables.

What makes these stories so good? One, the characters are so well-drawn. Two, the endings are hopeful in sometimes unexpected ways. Three, the language is so good that I didn’t even notice it. Four, she observes people so well. Five, the cultural issues are fascinating.

Thanks to the Notable Books committee for bringing this excellent book to my attention. I’m grateful.  Have you read it already?  What did you think?

Another Notable Book–The Hakawati

I’m continuing with my reading of this year’s Notable Books List from the American Library Association.

This morning, I finished “The Hakawati” by Rabih Alameddine.

It’s fiction, set in contemporary Lebanon as well as the ancient Middle East of storytellers. Alameddine stirs up a stew of story here, moving between two ancient stories and two lines of family history of Osama al-Kharrat. Al-Kharrat has returned to Beirut from LosAngeles. His father is dying. His heart and mind return to the prosperous Beirut of his childhood.

Osama’s maternal grandfather was a hakawati, or storyteller. Osama’s childhood, his grandfather’s life, and classic tales of the Middle East, take turns at our attention.

My issue as a reader of a book like this is that I usually prefer one story over the others, and find myself just enduring the others.  In this case, I loved the grandfather’s story, and was sorry when it came to its end.

Alameddine uses language wonderfully.  I kept a vocabulary list at my side.

Throughout this book, one keeps returning to this question–what does “story” mean? I’m distressed that I didn’t mark my favorite quote from this book. It’s very similar to, “Don’t trust the teller. Trust the tale.” I’ve got a fascination for authors who misguide us about their backgrounds–what does it tell about their tale? I find that topic delicious, every time I return to it.

Amy Tan wrote an extensive essay about this book for Amazon. I’m intrigued by her prediction of geat awards for this one. I’m not surprised that it was chosen for the Notable Books list. It is a classic choice for that list–an international setting, a complicated plot, and an author who’s nimble with language. I’d describe it as a challenging read, but I do believe that people who love storytelling, or are interested in the Middle East, or who love a family saga, will go for it.

Have you read it? What did you think?

Another Notable–In Defense of Food

A few months ago, I read “In Defense of Food: an Eater’s Manifesto” by Michael Pollan, one of the titles on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list.

Pollan explains how decades of nutrition science, as covered in the media especially, have confused us about how to eat healthfully. Pollan wants people to eat food, and by eating a variety of food, they will receive the nutrition that they need.

I probably agree with his advice overall. I parted ways with him when he veered toward advice that seemed illogically anti-science or anti-modern. For instance, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” My great-grandmother grew up in a sodhouse in rural Nebraska. I don’t believe that limiting myself to her range of foods constitutes a good way for me to choose what to eat.

Even so, something about this book was oddly compelling. Especially in the first half of the book, I had that “I can’t wait to get back to that book” feeling about it. Pollan held my attention. In the time since I read this, I’ve thought of it often.

This year’s Notables List includes a couple of titles about everyday things–eating and driving, for instance. I appreciate these books that lead me to know more about these things that I already ought to know well.