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Posts tagged as Notables

"Year Zero" By Ian Buruma

August 20, 2014 by PatLeach
I'm just now getting caught up on reviewing several books I recently finished. I had taken plenty of time reading "Year Zero: A History of 1945" by Ian Buruma, from the nonfiction part of the Notable Books list. I began it in May or so, read about three quarters of it, and set it aside until a few weekends ago, when I determined to finish it.

It's a sweeping look at the year after the end of World War II, a time when people began making organization out of the chaos of the war. Buruma addresses various topics in three general sections, describing the situation in Europe, in Asia, and in other parts of the world impacted by the war. Some chapters are primarily how individuals adjusted--how hunger, exultation, and revenge played out. Later chapters address institutions and cultures, such as how the allied countries went about re-educating the German and Japanese people. A theme that recurs is the complexity of relationships--few people, groups, or countries were entirely "clean" in motive and behavior. This is what will stick with me from "Year Zero."

Buruma introduces the book with the story of his Dutch father, who was kidnapped as a college student to work in a factory in Berlin. When the war ended, he nearly died of starvation, but eventually made it home. His story led Buruma to ponder all of the stories, all of the adjustments, all of the things that had to be set right.

As a reader, I found this information, and Buruma's approach, interesting. Its drawback is that his basic idea, to explore this chaotic time in regard to several aspects, and spanning continents, keeps him from developing a strong narrative thread. The view is awfully wide, and not especially deep. Certainly he explores interesting themes, but without the strong storytelling structure that would create a more compelling book.

Even so "Year Zero" addresses an era of interest to many readers. I expect that for those who are quite familiar with the time period, Buruma's rich information and perspective will add much to their own already-developed sense of the war's story.


Tagged in: Notables, nonfiction, World War II, "Year Zero",
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"The Skies Belong to Us" by Brendan I. Koerner

August 19, 2014 by PatLeach
"The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking" by Brendan I. Koerner continues my trek through this year's Notable Books list.

From the nonfiction side of the list, this book uses the story of one airline hijacking event in 1972 to explore the "epidemic" of hijacking in the 1960s and 1970s, before screenings and metal detectors became part of the airport landscape.

It makes for interesting reading, how Koerner keeps the thread of the 1972 hijacking intact as he weaves in additional information. In some ways it reads like true crime, this story of Roger Holder, a black Vietnam veteran struggling with mental illness and addiction, and Cathy Kerkow, his white "hippie" girlfriend. Koerner does a fine job describing their story in the social context of the time. That story extends long after the plane they hijack lands in Algiers.

A couple of quibbles--throughout the book, Koerner refers to "stewardesses" instead of "flight attendants." That would be the vernacular of the day, but it seemed outdated when he was writing from a contemporary viewpoint. Second, Koerner often writes as if he knew what Kerkow was thinking or feeling. Because she disappears years after the events of the story, Koerner could not have interviewed her, and none of his many notes shows a written record of her thoughts or emotions during the complicated hijacking or the chaotic period that followed.

Even so, I'll recommend this to people who seek social history, and to those who are especially interested in the era of the 1960's. I could see this being a strong nonfiction choice for book groups who usually read fiction. Holder and Kerkow's story illuminates many issues of their era, a number of which remain lively and relevant.


Tagged in: Notables, nonfiction, hijacking, "The Skies Belong to Us",
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"Claire of the Sea Light" by Edwidge Dandicat

August 18, 2014 by PatLeach
Oh, to be in the hands of a master storyteller. That is where I spent a recent weekend, reading Edwidge Dandicat's "Claire of the Sea Light."

Set in the author's native Haiti, this contemporary novel begins with Claire at seven, visiting her mother's grave on her own birthday. Her mother died giving birth to Claire, and so this day establishes the pattern of the story, life and death side by side. Eventually her father makes the difficult decision to give Claire up to a woman in town, and that is when Claire disappears.

It is also when Dandicat's storytelling genius emerges, backing away from the intensity of the disappearance, using each of the next six chapters to tell the story of someone whose life connects eventually to Claire. After that series of flashbacks, the story returns to Claire herself.

Dandicat's writing includes just what it needs to, homing in on the most important details, elegantly including just what is needed, and almost nothing more.

When I started this book I knew it was about a girl's disappearance, and I worried that it would be too dark, too intense, and too hopeless. Without stooping to cheap hopefulness, Dandicat weaves in the sea light of Claire's name. Hope is not too bright, and despair not too dark, when they remain so close to each other.

I'll recommend this to people who love a good story, well told. No wonder it's on the American Library Association Notable Books List.


Tagged in: Notables, fiction, Edwidge Dandicat, "Claire of the Sea Light",
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"Johnny Cash: the Life" by Robert Hilburn

July 29, 2014 by PatLeach
Working my way through the American Library Association Notable Books list, I recently finished "Johnny Cash: the Life" by Robert Hilburn.

I enjoyed it immensely, and found myself losing track of time while I read it. Hilburn crafts a compelling story. From Cash's upbringing in Dyess, Arkansas, to his drug-drenched superstardom to his final days as a national icon, HIlburn keeps the story's thread strong.

Hilburn's reliance on extensive interviews brings many voices into the narrative. The people closest to Cash testify to his artistry, his addictions, the immense physical pain in his final years, and his remarkable love for June Carter Cash. A music critic, Hilburn gives frank assessments of Cash's performances, puts them into context, and keeps the music central to the story.

I grew up in a home where we seldom missed "The Johnny Cash Show." This book looks deeply into and beyond what was seen onstage.

My late husband played a quirky mix of music, and one of his oft-performed pieces was Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" sung in French, with his own accordion accompaniment. People--all kinds of people--loved that song. I kept humming it as I read this book.

I've recommended this to several readers who are interested in popular music generally, or country music more specifically. I see it having ample appeal beyond that, because Hilburn weaves plenty of insight  into this portrait of a complicated man who become an American icon.


Tagged in: JohnnyCash, nonfiction, biography, Notables,
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"Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

July 23, 2014 by PatLeach
I read much of "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie while on a brief family trip to Forth. I admit to bowing out of some family time to dip back into this novel of a contemporary woman's journey from Nigeria to the United Sates, then back.

Much of the story is framed as flashbacks while Ifemelu is having her hair braided for her return to Africa. She reflects on her early days in Nigeria, and her friendship with a young aunt who becomes mistress to a general. When power changes hands, that aunt leaves quickly, ending up in America. Ifemelu follows soon after. Ifemelu's initial depression, and resorting to performing sex acts for money, contrast with her later success. To her great good fortune, she lands a nanny job with a rich family. She becomes involved with rich and educated men. Thus she has much experience with race and class, and she pulls all of that into a blog that becomes remarkably profitable.

Meanwhile, Obinze, the love of her young life, experiences his own migration story, entering England legally but staying long after his visa expires. After living and working without documentation, he is deported. His fortunes rise in Nigeria as a successful businessman. He comes to see that his marriage, his family, even the way in which he makes money, do not reflect who he wishes to be. He seems not be living by the values his mother nurtured in him.

Adichie reveals and explores a remarkable variety of issues here--race, color, class, shame, and trust. I keep returning to the image of hair braiding as I consider how she does it, weaving together people, places, and politics. I tend to prefer novels that are pared down to just a very narrow chute. Adichie introduces all kinds of minor characters to push the story along. They leave as quickly as they appear. She also provides remarkable detail about clothing, about hair, especially African hair, and about food. It all seems a little messy, maybe too untidy, and yet it works.

I'll recommend this to book groups who don't shy away from 500-plus pages. I finished the book with the satisfying sense of a story well told, a better appreciation for the adjustments that immigration requires, and a distinctive view of race and class in America. I'm not surprised "Americanah" landed on this year's Notable Books list.


Tagged in: Notables, fiction, Chammanda Ngozi Adichi, "Americanah",
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