January 09, 2014 by PatLeach
This novel is narrated in dialect by Henry Shackleford, a young slave who is freed by John Brown, then taken in as a member of Brown's close band of followers, in the years leading up to Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. The twist is that Brown at first believes that Henry is female, and thus begin Henry's years of dressing and living as a girl.
Sunday's Lincoln Journal Star (January 5, 2014) included a review of this book by Los Angeles Times reviewer, Hector Tobar. He noted the awkward feeling of the droll, absurd, and funny story resting on the serious history of racism and the fight against slavery. I sensed this same irony, even as I enjoyed McBride's ability to turn a phrase and reveal sly humor. Describing a prostitute's flower dress, he writes, "that thing was so tight that when she moved, the daisies got all mixed up with the azaleas."
"Henrietta" exemplifies the slave necessary of seldom showing his/her true self. She has much to hide. Henrietta realizes the outsider she is, a very pale former slave with no status, yet considered a good luck charm.
The intriguing title is a colloquial reference to the ivory billed woodpecker, a remarkable bird of the southeastern American forests, now considered most likely extinct. Its distinctive feathers play a role in the story.
I recommend this to people who like to stay on top of annual book prize winners, and generally to those who enjoy rich language. Key to its enjoyment is the reader's willingness to set aside expectations about how a novel based on such serious events OUGHT to be, and go along for this ride of cleverness and apparent shallowness. Truth is, some pretty deep thoughts lie below that surface. McBride concludes this novel with a brief meditation by Henry on the trees eventually felled by creatures such as the good lord bird, "that it would someday fall and feed the others." Sounds like John Brown himself.
Tagged in: National Book Award, fiction, James McBride, John Brown,
December 30, 2013 by PatLeach
The title refers to a reunion event at Harriet's college (deliciously named Shrewsbury), modeled on the women's college at Oxford. It is just a few years since the notorious case involving Harriet's lover's death by arsenic. While at Shrewsbury, she receives a poison pen letter, and comes across another ominous communication. Later she is invited back to investigate ongoing alarming behaviors among the all-female faculty, students, and staff. Although Lord Peter's secret work for the British government has him away on the continent, eventually he joins up with Harriet and the mystery is solved.
The character of Harriet Vane is generally considered an autobiographical depiction of Sayers, who completed degree requirements at Oxford in the years before women were granted degrees there. In "Gaudy Night," discussions of women's education go on and on, as do reflections on the impact of education on women's fitness for marriage and motherhood, and consideration of of the degree to which a woman's scholarly rigor would hold up against her personal loyalties. Some consider this the first feminist mystery.
Sayers' own classical education is much on display, with Latin phrases sprinkled throughout, and quotes from classical authors introducing each chapter. Her writing is both lovely and lively; she seems to enjoy poking fun at convention. The incipient romance between Harriet and Lord Peter adds emotional energy to the already charged atmosphere, even as they conform to academic and societal proprieties.
A thin thread in the story refers to events in Germany at this time, particular eugenics and the role of women there, topics addressed in a book I recently finished, "Hitler's Furies."
As I was reading "Gaudy Night," I sensed the datedness of some of the discussions, and wasn't sure that it had aged well. But as I've reflected on it further, I've realilzed how unresolved and relevant many of the issues remain. I recommend "Gaudy Night" to mystery fans, and to students of popular writing or feminism.
Tagged in: fiction, mysteries, Dorothy L. Sayers, Lord Peter, Harriet Vane,
December 26, 2013 by PatLeach
I chose this book because I so enjoyed Lahiri's lovely writing in "Unaccustomed Earth" several years ago when it was part of the 2009 American Library Association Notable Books list. That collection of short stories captured so well how people want to do the right thing, want to love each other well, and so often fall short. Yet hope remains. Lahiri has mastered the art of revealing big issues through small observations.
What I recall from "The Lowland" is that same yearning, and the author's continued kindness in drawing attention to good intentions and honest personal assessment, even when the reader can clearly see that behavior falls short.
This is the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, born in Calcutta just before Indian independence. Subhash is more withdrawn and quiet, Udayan more adventurous and impulsive. Born barely a year apart, they seem separate parts of one personality. Subhash ends up pursuing an academic career in the United States. Udayan remains in India, living with his parents, engaging in dangerous politics, and marrying for love. Udayan's untimely death (in the lowlands behind their house) shapes the novel, both in the time leading up to it, and in the subsequent passage of time for Subhash, Udayan's widow, and others who follow. The background of Indian culture and the period following independence provide a distinct backdrop for the general themes of sibling bonds, family ties, finding one's way in a new country, forgiveness, and the balance of individual dreams with social responsibilities.
I recommend this heartily to fiction readers, with an especially strong nod toward book groups.
Tagged in: Jhumpa Lahiri, fiction, India, "The Lowland",
December 19, 2013 by PatLeach
In the book's opening scene, Ursula Todd enters a bar and shoots Adolf Hitler. In the second, she is born and dies immediately. In the third, she is born and lives. As Ursula's story moves along, she is reincarnated several times and is able to avert tragedies that happened in previous lives. She always feels somewhat apart from others, experiencing fierce deja vu and vivid premonitions.
In Kate Atkinson's capable hands, this works. Much of the story centers on Ursula's family and a small circle of friends. Her relationship to them seems not to evolve significantly with each new life. A second aspect of the novel involves Ursula and World War II, when she experiences some lives in London before and during the Blitz, others in Germany in Hitler's social circles.
An omniscient narrator tells the stories, ending each life usually with the phrase, "darkness fell." The distance of the narrator contrasts with the intensity of Ursula's unique experience.
Although I absolutely believe that this novel works well, I've been slightly reluctant to recommend it to others, partly because the whole reincarnation idea seems too fantasy-like, too made-up. Perhaps I'm not willing enough to follow a novelist down the path of "What if the world were different in THIS way...."
Even so, I see this as an excellent book group choice. It covers so many bases--family relationships, the World War II era, the role of women, and the meaning of mortality. "Life After Life" invites readers to reconsider a basic idea of how our world works, and then to ponder how countless ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, rest on that one idea.
Tagged in: fiction, reincarnation, Kate Atkinson,
December 16, 2013 by PatLeach
I'd just recently finished the novel, "HHhH" by Laurent Binet, also set in the Eastern European areas taken over by the Nazi government. With that still in mind, I learned a good deal from "Hitler's Furies" and found it readable despite its serous subject matter.
Wendy Lower is a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College, and a consultant for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Here she digs more deeply into the general understanding the the Final Solution depended on the participation or cooperation of the general German population. Half of that population was female, and yet the role of women has been seldom explored.
In "Hitler's Furies" she tells the stories of particular women who fall into the categories of witnesses, accomplices, or perpetrators. Typically, these women were teachers, nurses, camp guards or wives of German officials. Many of them had moved to the countries to the east, where Germany was clearing space for the German people to live.
Lower begins with a chapter called "The Lost Generation of German Women" to set the context for the behavior she describes. This was key--looking back on this time we wonder how it ever could have happened. Lower tries to put the reader in the period before the Nazis rose to power, before Germany was defeated, when the Nazis seemed to offer the redemption of the country.
The narrative is steeped in the ongoing role of anti-Semitism. Lower describes how the existing prejudice was drilled and shaped into a pattern of brutal behavior. Also not be to ignored is the contrasting societal expectation that all women should be natural nurturers who would unite in their opposition to this behavior. Lower probes the intersection of these forces.
Lower writes as an academic. She's careful to use reliable sources, and careful as well to draw limited conclusions. While she sometimes describes unbelievably violent behavior, she does so in exploration of understanding, not for sensation.
I'll recommend this to readers interested in this era, or in the role of women, or those seeking a sense for how a country can create such an effective and horrific organization of death.
Tagged in: Hitler,
December 09, 2013 by PatLeach
The intriguing title refers to the first letters of the German words in the phrase, "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich." Indeed, as Himmler's protege Heydrich had risen in power to be a man much feared. His brutal treatment of the Czechoslovakians, for whom he was named "protector," typified Germany's harsh conduct in the countries it took over to the east.
Binet details the steps in Heydrich's rise to power, which is quite well chronicled. He does his best to note how the group of assassins came to this place and time, where there is much less information. I found myself wrapped up in the suspense of their all coming together, knowing the stakes for the "guilty" as well as the "innocent."
As I read this, I often wondered by Binet didn't simply write an account that would be considered nonfiction. A distinctive aspect of this novel is that Binet often inserts himself directly into the story, describing quandaries of missing information, or how his book compares to others, or how to portray the reliability of someone's story. I sensed his concern for creating an account that was truthful, and found these insertions intriguing. What wasn't clear was the degree to which his reflections were actual descriptions of his thought process, or to which they were simply a writer's technique.
The story is told in 327 pages, 257 sections varying in length from a short paragraph to several pages. At the point when the assassins attack Heydrich, I expected several short descriptions of action. Instead, Binet provides a four-page paragraph of chronology.
The outcome is horrific--reprisals for this act were extravagantly brutal. It took several days for the assassins to be tracked down, and even longer to be nearly flushed out of their hiding place before they committed suicide. In the end, Binet seems to want to show that the act was worthwhile.
The Nazi era continues to provide fodder for thoughtful writing, and the size of its reading audience seems to hold steady. There's something about this book that had my thoughts returning to it much later, long after I'd moved on to my next book. I recommend this to those who are interested in the era, who appreciate unusual novel styles, and to people who tend to prefer nonfiction to fiction. Although it may not present the usual themes that many book groups seek, it begs to be read, and then it begs to be discussed.
Tagged in: fiction, Laurent Binet, Germany, historical fiction,
November 20, 2013 by PatLeach
Before he became a Supreme Court justice, and before he brought the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case to the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall's work at the NAACP took him all over the southern United States where race was a factor in court cases. A general pattern in his work was that the goal was to set up a successful appeal of a conviction. An acquittal was an impossible dream in nearly all of his cases.
Such was his strategy in the case of the Groveland Boys--four black men accused of raping a young white woman near Groveland, Florida, in 1949. King introduces a host of characters in setting the stage for this story--from the remarkable Sheriff Willis McCall to a woman reporter for a local newspaper to the four accused black men to the governors of Florida to members of the Ku Klux Klan to members of the local NAACP. King works hard to place the actions in the context of the time, where one foot is squarely in a system that as a matter of course denies justice to black people, and the other is stepping toward landmark decisions such as Brown vs. Board of Education.
He traces a chronology of beatings, shootings, and palpable danger for the men in custody, and for the outsider attorneys who arrive in Florida in their defense. In the end, what justice looks like seems pretty unimpressive. What does impress is King's ability to maintain the connection to context, and to weave a good deal of background information without losing the sense of story.
King's focus on Thurgood Marshall further highlights context, knowing what we do of his later Supreme Court career. In terms of how the story works, the immense scope of his personality and impact balance the intensity of what happened at Groveland. From my vantage point in 2013, continual questions arose regarding how things have changed--or not--since 1949.
I'm a nonfiction fan generally, and especially seek well-told stories of American History. I've been recommending this to others who seek such a book, and especially to people with an interest in justice. I think this could be an excellent nonfiction choice for book groups who typically choose fiction. There is much to learn, and to discuss, in "Devil in the Grove."
Tagged in: nonfiction, history, Thurgood Marshall,
November 12, 2013 by PatLeach
I've been using Pulitzer Prize lists, both winners and nominees, for my recent reading choices. This is how I happened upon "The Snow Child" by first-time novelist Eowyn Ivey.
Set in Alaska in the 1920's, it's the story of a married couple trying their hand at clearing land and farming. In their 50's, they're hoping for a new start, away from their New England families, and away from whispers and pity about their childlessness.
For the most part, the book is about Mabel, who fears that the move to Alaska has been a big mistake, that it simply reinforces the chill in the distance that has developed between her and her husband, Jack. Then a remarkable thing happens--a girl appears at their home. Mystery surrounds her. To whom does she belong? How does she survive in the brutal Alaskan landscape? Is she real?
The novel parallels the folk tale of the snow child, in ways that on the one hand seem exciting and hopeful, and on the other, strange and heartbreaking. The symbolism of the girl, and ice, and animals, creates a strong psychological undercurrent. Yet, Ivey crafts this story in ways that become compelling.
This is a great choice for book groups--I was dying to discuss it with someone--and thank my friend Shari for meeting me for coffee to talk it over, and for pointing out some aspects of style that provide intriguing clues.
I'm recommending this to a wide variety of fiction readers--its fascinating combination of marriage story, adventure, and magic, holds broad appeal. As we enter winter, this is a perfect choice for a cold-but-cozy evening.
Tagged in: fiction, Eowyn Ivey,
April 30, 2013 by PatLeach
One sentence summary--An adult Ojibwe man looks back on his youth, and his response to a brutal sexual attack on his mother.
One sentence evaluation--This is classic Erdrich, excellent writing and even better character development, all wrapped up in contemporary Ojibwe culture--a great book group book.
I find something especially compelling in novels about how crime impacts people. I recently finished another Notable, "Canada" by Richard Ford, with a similar construction of a man looking back on how crimes committed by his parents pulled his family apart.
In "The Round House," Joe tells the story of events that happened in 1988, his mother not coming home as expected, and then finally arriving home with awful injuries. Watching his parents floundering in response to the attack, he relies on his strong ties with friends and extended family. LIttle by little he comes to understand what happened to his mother; his father's role as a tribal judge pulls in further information, and interesting aspects of tribal law. When Joe puts in place his response, it's in the full context of all of the people who have surrounded him.
I'll recommend this to Erdrich's fans, and because it has few of the fantastic elements of some of her other books, I think it might work for people who haven't taken to some of her previous work. I think it'd also be of interest as an outlier for people who read traditional mystery series--a different slant on a crime novel, with an ending that isn't formula, but is expected in the best storytelling sense of tightening and sharpening the telling toward a dangerously pointed end.
Tagged in: Notables, fiction,
July 05, 2012 by PatLeach
I'm slightly sheepish in saying that I was happy about "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes because it's just 163 pages. As I work my way through this year's Notable Books list, a shorty is a relief.
Barnes is a British writer, and here presents a British story. It's told by a middle-aged man, Tony Webster, who looks back on his boarding school friendships and early love life.
Tony describes how his school group of three boys grows to take in a fourth, Adrian, who is especially smart and who sees the world a little differently than the others. When Adrian takes up with Veronica, a girl who Tony dated, Tony writes them an ugly letter.Tony heads off for an adventure in America, Adrian commits suicide. Eventually Tony marries Margaret, they raise a daughter, and then divorce. Tony feels himself going along and getting along. Then Veronica's mother dies, and leaves something to Tony, and this brings back the past. It also brings Veronica back into his life.
Tony wonders what his role was in Adrian's suicide, in the unhappiness that led to his death. HAD he done something terribly wrong as a youth? Was he responsible for...something?
I confess that when I got to the end of this book and to the revelation regarding this mystery, I had to re-read the ending, and I wished that I had the gumption to re-read the whole book. I went to amazon.com to read what people had written about the book, and was relieved that several had noted that the resolution seemed confusing and underwhelming, given the lead-up.
And that may be what is genius about this book--how remarkably realistic for Tony to look back from the distance of many years, and end up not quite sure.
And is that what makes Peter Barnes a genius writer? That he can get us inside of this man's head, for good and for ill, and engage us in these reflections? Barnes is known for elegant writing, directing the reader's attention to the correct place, using just the right word, and yet also shining a glaring light on people's weakness. I'll recommend this to my reading friends who are good with a literary novel, good with what is not expected, and good with Barnes' particular "sense of an ending."
Tagged in: fiction, Notables, Julian Barnes,
July 05, 2012 by PatLeach
Finally, I've read "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand. I've heard so many people comment on this nonficiton story of Louis Zamperini, a runner on the US Olympic team who became a World War II hero by surviving for weeks on a life raft, and months in Japanese Prisoner of War camps.
And it was good, one of the titles on this year's American Library Association Notable Books list.
Laura Hillenbrand (who has an interesting story of her own) follows up her stellar "Seabiscuit" with this compelling story. She tells it straightforwardly and chronologically. Hillenbrand has that gift for telling the story in a way that is clearly shaped and considered, for example, in how people are introduced and then brought back into the story, and yet her style gets out of the way of the story.
What I'll remember from this book is both the evil behavior of many of the Japanese captors, and the survival of the prisoners. How DO people maintain their dignity and selfhood in the face of so many attempts to break them? In Zamperini's case, he was made a target of beatings and cruelty because of his fame. Yet he survived. I knew that the sections set in the POW camps would be horrifying, but I found myself especially touched by Zamperini's return to home. He was beloved, a hero, and yet he was falling apart, drinking himself nearly to death, before he turned himself around at a Billy Graham event.
I noticed how HIllenbrand goes out of her way not to judge the behavior the men who were stranded, or were prisoners. She works hard to set a context where every rule and every expectation are turned upside down, where people survive by doing things they never thought they could do. She also makes a point of developing characters, not allowing all Japanese or all American people to be presented a certain way.
I finished this book on Independence Day. It seemed an especially fitting day to reflect on the people who have been called the "greatest generation." I'll recommend this to a lot of people--fiction readers will appreciate the strong story, history fans will find sound information, and people who enjoy "extreme" stories of survival certainly will find much to value. I think that many people have avoided reading this because they shy away from the depictions of the camps, and I understand that. And yet I'd still encourage people to read this with open eyes and mind. The book's subtitle, "A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption" reflects Hillenbrand's success in showing that even out of this horror, goodness survived.
Tagged in: nonfiction, Louis Zamperini, Notables, World War II,
June 16, 2012 by PatLeach
Last week, I finished "The Sisters Brothers" by Patrick DeWitt, a novel from the American Library Association Notable Books List.
Charles and Eli Sisters are hired guns from the Gold Rush era of the 1850s. Eli tells this story of their final job for a man called The Commodore. As the story progresses, Eli makes up his mind to leave the killing business.
I'm trying to find a way to describe the tone of this book--it's picaresque, in introducing a series of odd somewhat shallow characters. It's often droll. And it is full of killing. I had to move my mind into a place where I didn't take all that murder too seriously.
Eli clearly has a bigger heart than his brother. Eli reflects on how he might want to find a woman to marry and love, might want to return to see their mother. Charles seems not to reflect much at all, he thrives on heavy drinking and the adrenaline of taking a good shot.
Why is this notable? DeWitt creates clever scenes and dialogue, and he gives us a whole new sense of the Gold Rush. There's an inherent irony in a hired killer pining for love and a comfortable home. The stark heartlessness of lives lived solely in pursuit of gold remains visible behind the humor. Hired killers see many people face their final moments, DeWitt makes the most of that opportunity.
My reservation is this--I don't think that DeWitt's idea for the Sisters Brothers' story creates enough momentum to propel a whole novel. It'd be a brilliant short story, and perhaps overall more effective as a short story collection. I'm open to the idea that this may simply be a case of not matching my sense of humor. While I finished "The Sisters Brothers," it never deeply resonated with me and seldom had me laughing out loud. And yet, there's something about it that I respect. I expect that I'll recommend this to people who seek something that is unusual, edgy and clever, and that points up people's foibles while it reveals their behavior under pressure.
Tagged in: fiction, Good Reads, Patrick DeWitt, westerns,
June 12, 2012 by PatLeach
I finished "Swamplandia" by Karen Russell a couple of weeks ago. It makes me a little nervous to blog about a book that isn't entirely fresh in my mind.
Readers may recall that "Swamplandia!" was part of the drama of the Pultizer Prize for fiction this year. It was one of the three finalists for the prize, but the committee decided that none of the finalists was worthy of the prize itself.
I picked it up because it's on this year's American Library Association Notable Books List, and I continue to read my way through that list, having taken a brief detour through the One Book One Lincoln finalists.
In short, it's a contemporary story set on an island just off of Florida, about a girl whose left to fend for herself when her family and the family business fall apart. It's a fairly quirky story, with some hilarious parts, and some remarkably sad and troubling parts. I felt some queasy dissonance when quirky met evil in this book.
"Swamplandia!" is told by Ava Bigtree, a thirteen-year-old whose mother was a feature performer at the Bigtree business called Swamplandia!--in the nightly finale, she would dive into a pool full of alligators. But her mother dies, Swamplandia loses its audience to an inland theme park, her brother and father go inland on their own pursuits, and Ava takes a dangerous partner in her quest to find her sister.
When this book works, it's because the characters are so distinctive, and yet they yearn for the usual things--love, security, and identity.
I sense that this is one of those books that most readers either love or hate. I land somewhere in between. I enjoyed reading this, but finished it primarily to check it off of my list. It was toward the end when Ava is looking for her sister that I finally felt a stronger pull.
I'm reflecting on my typical response to novels that are usually described as "quirky." Many novels in this category read like a series of humorous images and characters without the glue of dramatic tension or intriguing relationships. I think that this accounts for my initial lack of connection to "Swamplandia!" Even so, I'll recommend this to readers of literary fiction who enjoy stories of unusual families or situations.
Tagged in: Notables, Good Reads, Swamplandia,
May 14, 2012 by PatLeach
Every few years I crave a true-crime book, and this one about the Boston Strangler came right out of that Dewey number, 364.152.
Junger is known as a nonfiction writer. He picked up this topic because his own family had a connection to the Boston Strangler. When Junger was a little boy in 1963, his parents had a studio built in their backyard in suburban Belmont. One of the subcontractors on that job was Albert DiSalvo, who was convicted of the murders attributed to the Boston Strangler. The day before the studio was finished, a photograph was taken of the Jungers and the men who worked on the job. Junger reflects on that snapshot showing his mother holding him on her lap, with Albert DiSalvo standing behind them.
Junger clearly places himself in this story, but he does a great job of backing up to describe the context, what Boston was like and how the murders impacted people.
He explores a murder done in Belmont at the time that Albert DiSalvo was working on the Junger project just a mile away. A black man named Roy Smith was convicted of that murder, proclaiming his innocence until his death behind bars. In many ways this murder was a typical Boston Strangler job, in others, not. But both Smith and DiSalvo die before full light can be shed on Smith's case. Junger leads one to believe that Smith was very probably wrongly convicted.
Junger manages to tell this story, graphic details and all, without seeming to exploit the victims or the situation. He introduces a wide variety of people at a perfect pace, setting up a sort of chess board of characters. Kevin Conway, the narrator, maintains an even tone in his reading that reflected Junger well.
I loved "A Death in Belmont" for a traveling companion. I've noticed that the books that I most enjoy in audio are those with a strong narrative thread. Junger maintains this well. I was sorry when the book came to an end just before I reached Ogallala. I felt like I'd learned some interesting history, had reflected on the role of race in the early 1960s, and been told a fascinating tale by a fine storyteller.
Tagged in: audiobooks, nonfiction, Boston Strangler,
May 08, 2012 by PatLeach
And then I had to wait awhile because there were (and are!) quite a few holds on it.
Cain's title tells it all--she supports and values the combination of traits that characterize introversion--needing solitude for recharge, preferring one-on-one conversations over cocktail parties, focusing on one topic at a time, and a tendency for active environments to be overstimulating.
She includes research, cultural aspects, advice for romantic pairs and advice for parents. Cain herself isn't a researcher, but has interviewed many who are, and she has done plenty of homework in seeking out a variety of opinions.
An introvert myself, I connected with many of her observations. In particular, I saw myself in her description of the need to gear up for certain kinds of social events, almost as if going into battle. On the other hand, I haven't sensed the scorn or disapproval of the extroverts in my life as much as she seems to have, and sometimes I felt like she "protested too much." A personal note--I do clearly recall my college boyfriend kindly pointing out that my quietness at parties could be interpreted as my being stuck-up. And he did say so kindly. And I still remember that--it stuck with me. I would guess that quite a few introverts have received similar observations.
I'll recommend this book to people who are interested in the many ways in which personality can be profiled, so that we understand ourselves better, and get along with others better. I'm finding myself having extended animated conversations with others who've read this--and so far, her audience seems mostly--introverts.
Tagged in: Good Reads, nonfiction, memoir, Lit,
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