Tag Archives: Friday Reads

Friday Reads: “Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill” by Candice Millard

Candice Millard, author of River of Doubt (2005) and Destiny of the Republic (2011), is one of my favorite nonfiction authors. Her latest book, Hero of the Empire, is about Winston Churchill and, like many previous biographies of the famous Prime Minister, it focuses on a specific period in his life—his participation in the Boer War (1899–1902) instead of on its entirety. Examples of other focused explorations include last year’s Masterpiece Theater premier, Churchill’s Secret. This drama is set during Churchill’s second term as Prime Minister, when the 78-year-old leader (played by Michael Gambon) struggled, with the help of his wife, to conceal a debilitating stroke and an incapacity to govern. The popular Netflix miniseries The Crown cast 6’4” actor John Lithgow for its version of 5’6” Churchill during the early reign of Queen Elizabeth, revealing the private relationship between a PM and  a young Sovereign. Yet another biography is a 2010 documentary entitled Walking with Destiny, in which historian John Lukacs explains that “Churchill may not have won the War in 1940, but without him, the War most certainly would have been lost.”

In Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill, Millard describes the bravado of a young man who both wants and needs to go to war in hopes of gaining medals and fame as capital for his future political career. Churchill agrees to be a war correspondent in South Africa’s Boer War, where the British were both overconfident and under prepared.  When the train Churchill is traveling in is ambushed and derailed by Boer troops, Churchill calmly rallied British troops under enemy fire to clear the track and let the engine get away with the wounded. Most of the remaining British, along with Churchill, were captured. This was the first time in his young life he was not in control of his own destiny. It is his spectacular escape, with the help of several kind strangers along the way that helps him to become a hero who rejoins the British troops both as an officer and a war correspondent.  In a 2003 PBS Documentary entitled Churchill, this entire story is recounted in one sentence.

With my interest in Churchill piqued by Millard’s book, and inspired to learn more, I ran across this intriguing quote from Pamela Plowden, the woman he was in love with before he married his beloved wife Clementine and with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship. She described Winston this way:  “When you first meet Winston, you see all his faults. You spend the rest of your life discovering his virtues.”  This is where I find myself in the last pages of Millard’s text – having been introduced to a multitude of his shortcomings but also seeing glimmers of his many redemptive qualities. Certainly his charisma and masterful public speaking skills are shown throughout his life and his place in history is one to be both reckoned and respected.

What makes Millard one of my favorite authors is her ability to create a cinematic and fascinating description of events that ordinarily might not compel me and dialog that is on par with some of my favorite screen writers. One of her Amazon reviewers pleads for this text to be turned into a movie. As Hollywood frequently adapts books for cinematic creations, I would imagine Millard’s titles will most certainly be adapted and yet another actor will be cast to play this iconic man of history.

Millard, Candice. Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill. New York: Doubleday, 2016

 

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Friday Reads: The Handmaid’s Tale

Many of the books I read are populated by strong female characters. Biography, science fiction, literature, mystery – all feature intelligent, feisty and powerful women. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is no exception.

Set at an unknown point in time, The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of a woman named Offred.  The story alternates between Offred’s current day-to-day existence and her memories of a past life. One with a daughter, a loving husband, and a fulfilling career. Now, Offred is valued more for her functioning ovaries than her intelligence.

Offred’s life shifted drastically because the United States no longer exists. In response to declining birth rates and civil unrest, a group of fundamental Christian militants overthrow the government. The Republic of Gilead, as this country is known, institutes a rigid social hierarchy and enacts laws inspired by the Old Testament.  Young and healthy women, like Offred, are classified as handmaids and assigned to the homes of childless high-ranking government officials and their wives. Their job is to bear these men’s children.

Although the Republic of Gilead has stripped Offred of her rights, she refuses to give up. She finds ways to assert her independence by swinging her hips while walking or through unsanctioned interactions with men.  Often, Offred risks her limited freedom by looking for people who may be able to help her escape from Gilead.  Offred reminds us that rebellion doesn’t have to be loud. It can be quiet and slow-burning and still succeed in the end.

The Handmaid’s Tale is currently airing as a series on Hulu.

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York:  Anchor Books, 1986.

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Friday Reads: The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin

After watching I Am Not Your Negro, the Oscar-nominated documentary based on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript, I finally tracked down and read Baldwin’s much-referenced 1963 book, The Fire Next Time. This book contains two essays: “My Dungeon Shook—Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” and “Down At The Cross—Letter from a Region of My Mind.”

In the first essay, Baldwin endeavors to impart to his 15-year-old nephew the wisdom and advice he’ll need to survive growing up as a black man in America. Despite being “born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being,” Baldwin urges his nephew to trust his own experience, to resist internalizing messages of inferiority, and to continue to love. And in a more sophisticated exhortation than our contemporary “Make America Great Again” slogan, Baldwin writes: “Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become.” This essay actually served as inspiration for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 book, Between the World and Me, which took the form of a letter to his own teenage son. The tragedy, of course, is that such letters are still necessary.

The second essay, “Down At The Cross—Letter from a Region of My Mind,” is quite a bit longer than the first. In it Baldwin recounts his experiences with the Christian church during his youth and the Nation of Islam as an adult, seeing in neither a solution to the racial problems that infect America. Throughout, he offers an unsparing analysis of the problematic role race has played in the development of American civilization, “which compromises, when it does not corrupt, all the American efforts to build a better world…”

This essay is a demoralizing read because of how applicable Baldwin’s criticisms remain. “People are not, for example,” Baldwin writes, “terribly anxious to be equal (equal, after all to what and to whom?) but they love the idea of being superior.” And also: “It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.”

Baldwin’s writing is not without hope, but his is a bleak optimism–more philosophical choice than true faith. This perspective is powerfully captured in a 1963 television interview (“The Negro and The American Promise,” WGBH), in his response to a question about whether he is a pessimist or optimist: “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.” As he did in his letter to his nephew, in this essay he holds out love as the only way forward. But he makes clear that when he uses the word “love” he is referring to “a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. Ashland, Oregon: Blackstone Audio, 2008.

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Friday Reads: “The Dinner” by Herman Koch

The Dinner, published in 2009, involves the relationships among two brothers, their wives, and teenage children. The story centers on a dinner at an upscale Amsterdam restaurant. This dark and disturbing book unfolds steadily with unpredictable twists, pivots, and surprises. Paul Lohman, the narrator and one of the two brothers, offers caustic observations throughout the dinner. Here’s a sample:

“So when the bartender at the café put our beers down in front of us, Claire and I smiled at each other in the knowledge that we would soon be spending an entire evening in the company of the Lohmans – in the knowledge that this was the finest moment of that evening, that from here on it would all be downhill.”

The meal and conversation are frequented with disruptions and flashbacks. It is eventually realized that the purpose of the dinner is to discuss the two couples’ teenage boys and their involvement in a brutal and criminal act. The parents’ dilemma is the moral choices that must be made. The tragic incident has special consequences for one of the brothers, a popular and powerful politician with ambitions for higher political office.

Herman Koch, the author, is a Dutch writer and actor. His writing includes short stories, novels, and columns. His most recent book is Dear Mr. M: A Novel.

A movie based on the book was released in May 2017 with starring roles by Richard Gere, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, and Laura Linney.

Koch, Herman (2017). The Dinner. New York: Hogarth.

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Friday Reads: “The Excellent Lombards” by Jane Hamilton

Every time I think about this book, I have to smile. That must be why I decided to review it for this edition of Friday Reads. It certainly wasn’t because everyone I know that read it loved it. Quite the contrary, most of my book group was indifferent or somewhat negative. But it’s a book that really got a lot of conversation going. And since I’m not the writer of the book, I prefer that to overwhelming acclaim.

The story is told in the voice of Mary Frances Lombard, who at the beginning of the book is twelve years old and growing up on a family apple orchard. As the narrator, her voice rings loud and true for a precocious teen growing up in an increasingly endangered, changing rural area. Since she speaks in the voice of a teenage girl—not an adult looking back on her teenage self—she isn’t always the most pleasant character. But what teenager is? Mary Frances is full of ideas and plans. And for a young person, she is inordinately concerned about her future. Will she be able to stay on the farm? Will her brother be her business partner? Will a host of relatives and interlopers take over and push them out? And in the short term, will she win the Geography Bee and travel to Washington, DC to represent the state and bring glory to her family and her beloved teacher?

Since Mary Frances’ mom is the town librarian, librarian readers of this book will find that some of it is quite familiar. There’s plenty of realistic library customers, circulation desk kibitzing, and even a library book cart drill team drama in the story.

The land is a real character in this book—beautifully drawn and complicated, described as stunning and romantic yet brutally conflicted. In this book, the characters take center stage. I loved watching them grow and change over time. If you want a hard-driving storyline and plot, this might not be the book for you. If you can sit in a foreign film and just watch the visual beauty unfold on the screen, forgetting to read the subtitles, then you might like this book. One thing is certain, the writing is so good that you might just be stopped in the middle of the page to ponder what you just read (e.g., p. 46: “Time, we could see, was beginning to run as if it were leading somewhere, as it had not exactly done when we were very small, time occurring back then only in bursts.”). I highly recommend this book, especially if you want lots of discussion at your book club.

The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton, Grand Central Publishing, 2016

Review by Mary Jo Ryan

#FridayReads

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Friday Reads: Call if You Need Me

My original intention was to write about a big wave surfing book I recently picked up from my local library. This likely would have been more exciting than Raymond Carver. However, as I trekked successfully through 3/4’s of the big wave surf book (for me, this is an accomplishment), it soured. Maybe another day or another surfer. I’ve been looking for something on Kelly Slater, not only the most dominant surfer to date, but arguably the most dominant athlete ever. For those of you who like infographics, ahem, I mean data visualizations, check this one out – it’s among the best.

I picked up Call if You Need Me, a collection of short stories, essays, and book reviews by Raymond Carver, published posthumously, and finished the bulk of it on a rain suffused weekend, reading mostly while simultaneously standing and hopped up because of a neck injury. I skipped the book reviews within Call if you Need Me. Reading Carver is a lot like watching an episode of Mad Men. On the surface things seem quite normal and ordinary, but in reality that is far from the truth. Having read a few of Carver’s other works in the past, this is familiar territory, and the short stories in Call if You Need Me were interesting and easy to read. If anything, I’d say they were a little less miserable (and slightly less humorous) than Carver’s other works. The short stories are flooded with the imperfect, often despair ridden world we live in; a world many of us have experienced firsthand one way or another. There is a prevalence of alcoholism, divorce, and depression, but also humor, hope, and a sense of contentedness that we often lack. I enjoyed reading about the timeline of Carver’s life — writing short stories late at night out of necessity because he had two kids at a young age, being poor, his literary influences, childhood, and the eventual successful sales of his work. If you haven’t read any Carver, I recommend you give him a try. The fact that these are short stories (as most of Carver’s other works are) means that there is little investment on your part.

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Friday Reads: The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

I recently re-read The Grapes of Wrath, and it felt so appropriate for today’s current events. My more experienced eyes were able to read the novel on more levels, as well. You know the story: Dust Bowl farm family sets off to California for the American Dream, but something has happened to the American Dream. There’s a wide cast of characters with realistic strengths and honest flaws, and we get the perspective of all of them over the course of the book—and they’re so frankly written, their desires so plainly stated, that we can easily identify with them—we’ve all been some part of some of these characters, at some points in our lives.

This time around, I was much more able to appreciate the unusual structure of the novel—the narrative chapters alternating with the more lyrical, prose-poem chapters. (Try reading any of the lyrical chapters aloud—you’ll be stunned by Steinbeck’s mastery of language when you feel yourself convey the words.) Steinbeck’s use of the form reinforces the timelessness of the tale—the narrative goes on in a familiar linear fashion, but it exists in a shifting, multi-dimensional framework outside of time, which is just as authentic as the narrative it contains, or the narrative that contains it.

There is no space between the author and what the author wants to convey to the reader—Steinbeck is not holding back, or affecting disaffection, in an effort to entice you. He does not play it cool for one second in this book. You will never doubt where his head is at. This earnestness could come off as preachy or strident in less capable hands, but I never had that experience with this book.

And Steinbeck’s earnestness, about the Joad family and what they are going through, about their moderate dreams, and about why they can’t achieve them, struck me as very relevant to today. The novel is set at the crossroads of economic, political and technologic times that resonate soundly today. Stuff you thought we’d have figured out almost a hundred years later, you know. The idea that farming and food production had become so successful, so advanced, and that people still didn’t have enough to eat—it was shocking then, and it’s shocking today. Today it’s not mechanized farming that we are trying to absorb and normalize, but other scientific advances—like GMOs, and the question of who owns the machines farmers use in their fields, and who gets to decide what to plant, to name just a few.

The novel also addresses the dynamic nature of populism, and how it can be used for the power of the people, and how it can be used to divide people and keep them down. The parallels between political leadership and religious leadership are easy to see in the character of the doubting preacher. And we read how religion can be used to bring comfort and encourage love and acceptance—and also how it can be used as a tool to control others, or even to our own disadvantage.

You can see why the book won a Pulitzer Prize. (The Pulitzer is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, by the way.) Also by the way: we have this book in our book club kits, so if you’re in Nebraska, your library can check this book out for your book club. You’ll have some good discussions, I promise. Definitely last, but definitely not least in your discussions—what is up with that ending? There are a lot of ways to interpret it. It would be interesting to hear what different people in the group think about it.

I’ll sign off with an audio clip from YouTube of Woody Guthrie singing “Tom Joad,” because why not.

(There are a few other musicians with songs about Tom Joad—the character seems to have really struck a chord with pop culture. It’s a fun search to try and find all the songs.)

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin, 2002. Print.
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Friday Reads: Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

I first encountered Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s work when I was shopping for a baby book, back in those pre-kid days when I could still leisurely shop. The pale yellow book I chose was quirky and funny, with just enough sarcasm to balance out the preciousness that is the first year of your kid’s life.  (Amy created several guided journals, and she was also a prolific children’s book author; one of her better known titles is Duck! Rabbit!)

Her latest “grown-up” title, Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, came out on August 9th, 2016. On September 6th, 2016, Amy was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  She passed away just last month on March 13th, 2017.

I’d had this book on my to-read list for a while, and I wish I’d read it sooner. It is a follow up to her 2005 memoir, Encyclopedia Of An Ordinary Life; she comments that it was only appropriate to follow an encyclopedia with a textbook.  It is a short, fast read, with lots of white space. The book was meant to be “interactive”; Amy offers a cell phone number readers can text, so that at certain points in the book you can send her notes and photos and maybe even win a freshly-baked pie. Texts sent while Amy was alive were kept and added to the book’s website.

Amy writes of moments, of everyday occurrences.  She makes the mundane experiences we all have seem both hilarious and absolutely heartbreaking. She talks of how fleeting life is and how, even if she were to live to 80, the number of times she could cut up an apple, or look at her children, wouldn’t be enough. There was no way she could have known, as she was writing those words, how small that number would become. There is no way for any of us to know, and I’m trying to remember that every day and live by her words: “Make the most of your time here.”

If you are already an “AKR” fan, tomorrow (April 29th) would have been her birthday.  There is a Facebook group, #MoreForAKR, that you can check out if you’d like to pay tribute to Amy’s memory this weekend with acts of kindness.

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Friday Reads: Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes

Garvey is not interested in sports at all.  He is interested in reading, science, and jokes, which his father does not value. His dad keeps trying to pique his interest in becoming an athlete and is not able to drop the topic. Garvey knows he is not an athlete but is not certain who he is. He faces bullies at school due to his weight and awkwardness. Finally Garvey’s best and only friend since first grade guides him to Chorus at school, where he finds his place and a second friend. His wonderful voice is valued and his confidence grows.  Now his dad has something in common with him at long last, since many years ago he sang in a band.

This short, small book offers a heartfelt story about finding one’s place and uses a poetry form that may be new to many.  It is told in tanka poetry which involves five lines with a particular number of syllables for each, and is explained at the back of the book.  Spend a little time with Garvey and friends Joe and Manny to relive what it is like to be an adolescent again.  You will leave content.

Grimes, Nikki (2016). Garvey’s Choice. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong.

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Friday Reads: Just a Geek

For Christmas a few years ago, I received two biographies by Wil Wheaton. Yes, THAT Wil Wheaton. Wesley Crusher himself! I also discovered his blog. And then his Twitter…and then Facebook. Makes me look like a stalker, doesn’t it? But no, I’m not. He puts himself right out there, just like the rest of us!

So, I started with Just A Geek: Unflinchingly honest tales of the search for life, love, and fulfillment beyond the Starship Enterprise. Wow, that’s a freakishly long title. We’ll call it Just A Geek from now on. It’s a collection of some of the posts from his blog, but with updated info and commentary by him.

Now, you may only know Wil Wheaton as an actor. But I’ve discovered that Wil is also a great storyteller. I started just reading his blog, jumping around seeing what he has been saying over the years. He is funny and smart and he can definitely make you all teary-eyed when he wants to.

My favorite part of Just A Geek is when Wil looks back on his old blog posts with a new perspective. Time changes things. He looks back and see events very differently. Sometimes he had to wait until years later to understand what was really happening. And other times, you learn that the real story wasn’t really told in the first place. Looking back on his life helps him come to terms with what really happened and share the truth with his readers.

Yes, there are some Star Trek stories in there, which made the Star Trek fan in me squee. And yes, he is quite the geek, another plus from the geek in me.

If you want to continue reading more stories based on his blog, he has continued them in two more books – Dancing Barefoot and The Happiest Days of Our Lives. If non-fiction or autobiography isn’t your thing, he also writes fiction. I recommend starting with The Day After and Other Stories, a collection of his short stores. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next!

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Friday Reads: Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson

I am a boy-mom.  (Or at least I was until we welcomed a baby girl into our house almost 2 years ago.  2?!? How is she almost 2?  Wait… where was I? Ah, yes, boys.) I am inclined to fall in love with realistic fiction centered on boys, probably because I can see my own son living these adventures and learning those early-life lessons. I felt especially enamored recently with the 3 friends that narrate Ms. Bixby’s Last Day. Topher, Steve, and Brand are 6th graders, finishing out their last year of elementary school.

Ms. Bixby is one of those rare teachers that is a “Good One”. She has a pink streak in her hair and spouts endless inspiring quotes, or “Bixbyisms”.  She sees what’s special in each of her students and helps them to see it too. But Ms. Bixby suddenly takes ill and can’t finish the school year.  When she has to miss her good-bye party at school, our three heroes decide to skip school and take the party to her in the hospital.

Each boy’s perspective colors the nature of their scheme. Topher, the artist and story-teller, is playing out a military-grade mission in his mind.  Brand is determined to do for Ms Bixby what he never could do for his own injured father.  And Steve is just worried about how much trouble he’s going to be in for ditching school.

Their quest is fraught with peril, as good adventures are wont to be, and the boys find themselves, and their friendship, put to the test.  Will they be able to give Ms. Bixby the last day she deserves?  It’s an incredibly moving story, both laugh-out-loud funny at times, and sob-inducing at others.  This boy-mom highly recommends!

Anderson, John David (2016). Ms. Bixby’s Last Day. New York: Walden Pond Press.

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Friday Reads: The Motion of Puppets by Keith Donohue

A newly married couple move to Quebec for the summer where Kay works as an acrobat while Theo translates a French biography on Eadweard Muybridge (famous for his photographs of galloping horses and movement).

As the couple explores the city, they find an old toy shop with a wooden puppet under a glass jar that can be seen from the dusty window. Kay falls in love with the puppet and returns often to look at it, although the shop remains closed.

On her way home late one night, Kay hears footsteps behind her. Looking for shelter, she sees a light on in the toy shop and rushes inside without a thought.

The next morning, when Theo realizes that Kay never made it home, he starts contacting the police and the other members of Kay’s group of performers. Only Egon believes that something terrible has happened and together they search the city for any trace of Kay.

In alternating chapters with Theo’s desperate search, the point of view switches back to Kay. She’s been transformed into a puppet and now resides in the back room of the toy shop which is run by the “giants” who decide which puppets get to leave and perform. Kay and the other puppets, who have all been magically transformed over the years, can only wake between midnight and dawn. With her human memories fading more each day, Kay must learn to adapt to her new surroundings unless she can somehow escape with the one puppet, Noe, who still clearly remembers her past life or be rescued.

Based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, this story is more odd/magical than creepy/horror. Slower paced, but well written and still a fairly short read.

 

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Friday Reads: The Great Mistake, by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The Great Mistake

In the mystery series “Death on Demand”, by Carolyn Hart, several women authors of the golden age are mentioned: Agatha Christy, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and our own Mignon Eberhart. But one author I’d never heard of was Mary Roberts Rinehart. So when an e-book edition of The Great Mistake, one of her titles, popped up on BookBub,  I bought it.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Set in a small town called Beverly set near Town, it is large enough to have a hunt club, and Society. After some digging online, I discovered the book was published in 1940, but nothing of World War II, politics, or international tensions shadow this book. I was a third of the way through before I could clearly say, “well, we don’t do that anymore”.  The characters are from all sections of society, and for the most part are treated very fairly. If anyone comes off looking churlish, it’s the homicide officer from Town, and of course, it’s part of his job, as the outsider. The main characters are all definitely rounded. There is a love story, but surprisingly enough for the time, it is low-key.  The foundation of the mystery is built skillfully, adding to the suspense.

The main character, Pat, comes into “the big house on the Hill,” to be a secretary to the widow of the billionaire who built the house for her and her son.  Maude, the widow, is a vibrant, attractive personality, and busy hostess in need of help for her parties and social responsibilities. And Pat is fond of her.  Tony is the son,  who runs the family firm in Town  and at first they merely get on each others nerves.  Pat never sets out to be a detective of any type, unlike many other main characters of mystery fiction, particularly cozy mysteries. She is meant to be more of a way for us to be a part of the mystery. The events of the story tell on her, as her employer falls mysteriously ill. Then a dear friend’s runaway & divorced husbanded returns for nursing for a terminal illness, (he says.)  A mysterious figure is seen peering in a window, and a night watchman is mugged, stripped of trousers (& keys).  The entire mystery is framed by remarks about writing the entire story down for everyone, which serves as a fine way to find out how the dangling threads are tied up. It all flows so well, the language enhances the story and never shouts out the time period. A smoother read in that regard than Christie.

Mary Roberts Rinehart, (August 12, 1876-September 22, 1958) was often called the American Agatha Christie. While she is considered the source of the phrase “the butler did it”, from her novel The Door, 1930, the writer never used that phrase in the book. She is also considered to have invented the “Had-I-But-Known” school of mystery writing in her book The Circular Staircase, 1908. She wrote novels, plays, short stories, travelogues, and was a war correspondent. With her sons she founded the publishing house Farrer & Rinehart, and served as director.

More about Mary Roberts Rinehart and lists of her titles from Wikipedia

 

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Friday Reads: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Far away from bike paths that lead to grocery stores that sell kale is Appalachia.  It runs through West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, and some parts of Tennessee and the Carolinas, too.  It’s mostly dirt-poor and the things for which it’s known—family feuds, coal mining, moonshine—seem to have little connection with modern life in other parts of America.  These days, unless Appalachia is being mocked, it’s generally ignored.

Which is why it’s strange that this memoir has struck such a chord.  It has been sitting atop the bestseller lists for months and has received coverage in tons of major media outlets.  On its face, the story doesn’t seem to be widely relatable.  J.D. Vance’s family originated in the hills and hollers of rural eastern Kentucky.  He experienced the traumas that often shadow poor communities: drug abuse, outbursts of violence, and other self-defeating behaviors.  But, unlike many, Vance escaped and prospered, eventually attending Yale and joining a San Francisco investment firm.  Hillbilly Elegy reads like a gateway into the world of “Bloody Breathitt” County, Kentucky.  But it also details the process through which Vance found a better life outside the region.  The book is interesting as a depiction of an overlooked place, but it also works as a coming-of-age story.

And it’s getting talked up as a kind of Rosetta Stone that explains election results.  The Times calls it “a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election”.  I’m not sure that I totally buy that.  Appalachia is a pretty unique place.  I don’t know how much you can port over its attributes to cities in the Rust Belt and so on.  It’s worthwhile to examine a culture and community for its own sake, but if you’re just looking for national power brokers or explanations for electoral trends, Hazard, Kentucky might not be where you want to start.

Even if Hillbilly Elegy can’t provide pat answers to complex political questions, it’s still a good book that’s very affecting and ultimately inspiring.  If you would like to learn more about the region, I’d recommend this book, as well as two documentaries.  American Hollow focuses on the same area and lifestyle described in Hillbilly Elegy and Oxyana viciously captures the prevalence of drug addiction in Appalachian communities.   It’s great that attention is being drawn to a part of our country that’s often been forgotten—hopefully, it will lead to some real change for the region.

Vance, J. D. (2016). Hillbilly elegy: a memoir of a family and culture in crisis. New York: Harper.

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Friday Reads: Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Somewhere in Chicago right now there is a wizard named Harry Dresden.  You might know him because he is the only professional wizard listed in the phone book: “Lost items found.  Paranormal Investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, or Other Entertainment”.  If you ever run into a werewolf, vampire, demon or other nasty creature of the night he is your man!  Just don’t ask him to perform at your son’s birthday party because he is not a magician.  That you would think that is just offensive.

Jim Butcher knows Harry the best.  There is rumor that Harry is merely a product of Butcher’s imagination, but I refuse to believe that bit of blasphemy.  I also believe in fairies and nothing you say or do will ever erase the twinkle from my eye.

In any case, Jim Butcher has written a series of books called The Dresden Files detailing some of the more notable events from Harry’s life.  The first book in the series is Storm Front where we learn that “just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean there isn’t an invisible demon about to eat your face”.  Sage advice.  I must take moment here to point out that I have grown rather fond of my face and must thank Mr. Dresden for taking on said demon.  My face thanks him.

I also highly recommend listening to the audiobook version of The Dresden Files because James Marsters is magical.  Just in case you didn’t know this bit of trivia, James Marsters played Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  When I heard Mr. Marsters as Harry I am pretty sure I swooned and melted. In that order.  I was a full on puddle by the middle of the first book.

You may not be aware, but this review is in real danger of turning into a fangirl rave.  But I am a professional so I will just say that Harry Dresden is a clever private investigator who likes to break tension with a perfectly timed one-liner that will have you tittering into your morning latte.  If you like fantasy, P.I. stories, or have grown accustomed to your face, you will love Harry Dresden. Happy reading!

Butcher, Jim. Storm Front. Penguin, 2000.

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Friday Reads: Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

At the 2017 Screen Actors Guild Awards, Viola Davis said the following upon accepting her award for Outstanding Performance by a Female for the movie Fences: “What August (Wilson) did so beautifully is he honored the average man …and sometimes we don’t have to shake the world and move the world and create anything that is going to be in the history book. The fact that we breathed and lived a life … means that we have a story and it deserves to be told.”  I think writers who choose ordinary subjects can tell amazing stories. I think this is Kent Haruf’s talent–to tell everyman’s story, the story of those people we all know and recognize, who live next door if not in our own home.

Our Souls at Night was Haruf’s last novel before his death in 2014, and it takes place in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado, a small town created for three of his other novels. Addie Moore and Louis Waters have both lost their partners and have lived a long time in Holt knowing of each other rather than being well acquainted. One day, Addie pays a visit to Lois and asks: “I’m wondering if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me … I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you could sleep in the night with me. And talk … I’m not talking about sex, I’m talking about getting through the night … the nights are the worst don’t you think?” And this is where their story begins as this invitation turns into many evening conversations and the revelations of life, regrets, and love lost. It confirms how grief needs to be shared with others especially those for whom the loss is similar. When two people form a bond, onlookers will have opinions and often, not so quietly. I could relate to the gossipy town conversations that made me forever choose to live in a city with a population of at least 100,000 or more.

This is a spare read with uncomplicated and honest characters. There is a cadence to Haruf’s books – small town living and the daily minutia that are both familiar and regular. The conversations are ones you’ve had yourself. Spending time in Holt is downshifting to rural America; slowing down and looking people in the eye when you walk past them on the street.

A movie adapted from this book will be released sometime this year, starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, who first appeared together in 1967’s Barefoot in the Park. This will be quite a contrast.

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Friday Reads: The House of the Spirits

I first read Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits my junior year of high school.  At the time, I was taken with the elements of magical realism that permeated the story. In the twenty years since, I have lost track of the number of times I have read this book.  Each time, I gain new insight into this complex, multi-generational novel.

Set in Chile, against the backdrop of social and political upheaval, Allende focuses on the ever-changing fortunes of Esteban Trueba, his wife, Clara del Valle and their children: Blanca, Jaime and Nicolas. While Esteban concentrates on accumulating wealth and power, Clara endeavors to strengthen her clairvoyant talents.  Since childhood, Clara has been able to move objects and predict future events, such as the deaths of her older sister and parents. Although Clara cares for her husband, she leads an independent life because she abhors his conservative values.  Following their mother’s lead, the children, and later Esteban’s green-haired granddaughter, become swept of up in the socialist revolution and  subsequent military coup.

Despite its dark themes, The House of the Spirit is a story of hope and survival.  Allende’s characters often experience the worst, but retain an innate sense of right and wrong.  Until the bitter end, they continue to believe in the basic goodness of mankind.  The last time I read The House of the Spirits, I realized that despite the horrors she had just experienced, Esteban’s granddaughter continues to hope for a better tomorrow. Following her imprisonment, she encounters a woman whose spirit remains strong regardless of efforts to destroy it. Alba, whose name is Spanish for dawn, knows the conservative regime will end and life in Chile will improve for everyone.

Allende, Isabel. The House of the Spirits. Translated by Magda Bogin. New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

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Friday Reads: How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS, by David France

After watching Dallas Buyers Club several years ago, I wanted to learn more about the early treatment challenges that caused people with AIDS to criticize and bypass the FDA’s slow-moving and bureaucratic drug approval process. This led me to a copy of Randy Shilts’ classic 1987 book, And the Band Played On, which covered the AIDS epidemic through 1985. I hesitated to start it, however, because of the 25+ years of subsequent developments that wouldn’t be covered, including significant advances in treatment options in the mid-90s. So when David France’s How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS showed up on the New York Times “100 Notable Books of 2016” list, I jumped on it!

David France is an investigative reporter who has been covering AIDS since the early 1980s. He moved to New York City in June 1981, immediately after graduating from college and just weeks before a headline in the July 3 New York Times proclaimed “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” This put France at a major epicenter of the epidemic from its opening days—and from the very outset of his adult life. It is this embedded perspective that gives an intense intimacy to what is also a thoroughly researched and gripping account of the gay community’s mobilization to political and scientific activism and advocacy.

Although death and dying pervade France’s narrative, there is hope and inspiration in the formation of groups like Gay Men’s Health Crisis, ACT UP, with its rallying cry of “Drugs into bodies,” and TAG (Treatment Action Group). Members with an affinity for research, though lacking scientific background and in some cases without college degrees, educated themselves on the inner workings of government health agencies like the FDA, CDC, and NIH, and became experts on immunology and virology. This allowed them to challenge and ultimately collaborate as partners with a medical establishment used to patients passively accepting whatever treatment options were prescribed. They were able to press for an accelerated drug approval process, modifications in clinical trial protocol, reductions in drug costs, and more.

France’s account traces drug development through the January 1996 annual Conference for Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, where breakthrough results of two clinical drug trials were reported, heralding the arrival of new treatment options supporting long term survival of people with AIDS. Finally, AIDS no longer equaled death! While this is a victorious point at which to conclude his story, a happily-ever-after ending would have been inappropriate, and France avoids one with the final words of his final chapter: “It was not over. It would never be over. But it was over.” His epilogue also bears witness to the toll the plague took on surviving activists, often in the form of depression, drug addiction, underemployment and unemployment. Not only had they lost so many friends and lovers, they were now set adrift without purpose in a life they hadn’t prepared for, because they never expect to live to see it.

Although I still plan to read Shilts’ And the Band Played On, I’m glad I started with David France’s book; it provided me with the education I was looking for, in a compelling and thorough manner. If you’re interested in this topic but don’t want to tackle a 600+ page book (either Shilts’ or France’s), you may want to consider watching the 2012 documentary written and directed by France, also titled How to Survive a Plague. It is currently available to stream on Netflix.

France, David. How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS. New York: Knopf, 2016.

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Friday Reads: The Goldfinch: A Novel by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, published in 2013, was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I had read reviews and commentaries about the book, looked it over in a bookstore, and considered borrowing or buying a copy. I resisted because I was daunted by its length – the hardcover edition is 760 pages. I recently found a paperback copy in a Colorado library on the books for sale shelves. For a two dollar contribution to the library’s friends group the book was mine. It’s the second longest book I’ve ever read and it was a long haul, but a good one. During the course of reading it I also borrowed from Lincoln City Libraries the excellent digital audiobook version.

The Goldfinch begins with a terrorist act – a bomb explosion in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – and the resulting tragic destruction and loss. What follows is an evolving mystery about a missing painting – a Dutch masterwork called The Goldfinch. Included are theft, drugs, the art black market, the craft of antique furniture restoration, and the complex relationships among family, friends, friends of friends, swindlers, and much more. Art, in many forms, is central to the book. The characters are vivid, the settings are rich in detail, and the plot pulls the reader along toward a surprising end. For me, it is the kind of book you don’t necessarily want to come to an end.

Stephen King, in a New York Times Book Review commentary, said “The Goldfinch is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind…..” Donna Tartt has also written the novels The Secret History and The Little Friend.

Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch: A novel. New York: Little, Brown and Company. 2013.

 

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Friday Reads: “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen

When a fan approaches the autobiography of a rock star, the bar is set pretty high. And with Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, I thought the high bar was reached and sailed over. I didn’t really know what to expect. I always thought the real Bruce was probably a combination of the characters that shine out from his songs, but of course that’s an oversimplification. The character that comes off the pages of this book does have a lot in common with the characters that are seen in the narratives in his music. But Bruce Springsteen is a multi-layered guy and he is complicated. He is the real deal, for sure. He came up on the streets of New Jersey and early Greenwich Village, and his reflections on those early days (and what came later) take the reader into a slice of America that goes well beyond voyeuristic star gazing. When he says, “The grinding hypnotic power of this ruined place and these people would never leave me,” (in reference to his hometown) you can bet it won’t be leaving the reader soon either.

This book was written over seven years in several drafts and redrafts. Springsteen likens the process of writing the book to song-writing. That comparison isn’t lost on this reader. He writes the book in the same cool, clean voice that brought us “In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream / At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines.” The pages of this book ring just as true as the lyrics to the Springsteen songs that this fan listened to over and over on a front porch in Nebraska on hot summer nights.

I was also struck by the fact that for an autobiography there is a ton of rich, juicy detail about the others on this journey with him. His family is finely drawn and very interesting. And there is lots of intel on the cast of characters that made up his bands through the years. For me, Stevie Van Zandt (think stellar musician and one of the central members of the Sopranos cast) and the late sax great Clarence Clemons are tremendously compelling characters that really help paint the picture of Springsteen. Knowing more about his close relationships really rounds out the reader’s understanding of who “The Boss” really is. You’ll love this book if you ever sang along to “We gotta get out while we’re young / `Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run.” Even if you didn’t, this autobiography is worth your time.

Review by Mary Jo Ryan

#FridayReads

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

Simon & Schuster, 2016

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