Sunday, March 22, 2015

Books for March

Dead Wake by Erik Larson
Any book lover who lives in the Pacific Northwest, knows Erik Larson.  The writer of spectacular non-fiction books on specific pivotal moments in history has written another fascinating book, this time looking at the sinking of the Lusitania in May of 1915.  I have been intrigued by his stories in the past:  Isaac's Storm - his look at the devastating Galveston hurricane at the turn of the century; Thunderstruck - the detailed journey of Marconi's invention of the wireless; The Devil in the White City - the juxtaposed stories of a prolific serial killer and the Chicago world's fair; and In the Garden of the Beast, the tale of the American ambassador and his family in Berlin during the rise of Hitler.  Each and every one of these books was meticulously well-written and deeply researched.  Larson does it again in Dead Wake.  He follows the story lines of some of the intriguing, and occasionally famous, passengers, as well as crew members, the British secret service, and the U-boat commander himself.  We are given details from captains' logs, passengers diaries, telegraphs, and letters, all placed together in a fashion to keep one turning pages.  Although we all know the torpedo hits and sinks the boats, I found myself breathlessly turning the last 100 pages, to see who lives and who dies, who is found responsible, and how America is reluctantly dragged into a war across the sea.  You will not only learn a great deal from this book, but you will be highly entertained.  (Warning:  it took me about 50 pages to get pulled into the story)

Evening of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne
Sticking with the non-fiction trend, this tale of the end of the Plains native tribes, most specifically the Comanche, was a shockingly fascinating read.  Perhaps because when I grew up in the Northwest, kids studied Native Americans pretty much all the way through school, especially Sacajawea with the Lewis-and-Clark expedition.  After elementary school, I became obsessed with the Sioux and the destruction of Custer at the Little Big Horn.  (I know - I was a weird kid).  Then, as an adult I read a book on the massacre at Wounded Knee, and eventually the book Lies My Teacher Taught Me, which really detailed the destruction of the native people in North America.  With all this background, I was intrigued by this Dallas reporter's book on the dying days of the Comanche tribe, the greatest horseback warriors this world has probably ever seen.  They were lead in their dying days by a man whose mother was a white woman, kidnapped as a child and adopted into the tribe.  Add in some noble soldier and natives, as well as some pretty despicable ones, as well as the dishonesty and lies of both sides, and you've got a great tale.  With that said, do not expect a novel-based book; this is definitely an historical text.  When first looking at the pages, realizing little to no dialogue existed, I was a bit nervous about the author's ability to pull me into the story, but the story itself is just so fascinating I read the book in just three days...and it is dense.  Gwyne has done his research and shows in great detail what happens in the space of just one hundred years, of what occurs when a stone age people such as the Plains tribes, who were still in the hunter-gatherer part of evolution, meets the agricultural people of another millennium.  Tough to digest in some places but an altogether great learning experiences. 

The Professor by Robert Bailey
Remember the time, many years ago, when you picked up John Grisham's first bestseller, The Firm, and you were completely incapable of putting it down until you got to the very last page?  It didn't matter that it wasn't written like Fitzgerald or Morrison; you weren't looking for 'pretty' writing, just a darn good story.  Well...Bailey's latest book about a new team of lawyers will make you feel that way again.  We first meet Tom McMurtrie, the renowned professor of evidence at the University of Alabama law school, as he prepares for a difficult meeting with the school board.  Having played on Bear Bryant's national championship football team and having literally written the textbook on evidence, this man is an entity unto himself.  However, throw an illness, a lie, and a treacherous friend, and the story gets going.  Next, mix in a young brash lawyer with a difficult past with Professor McMurtrie and his young beautiful clerk.  Then, stir in a terrible and tragic car crash with a nasty trucking company.  And voila - you have a page turner that is literally impossible to put down.  It's not perfect writing, but it's not bad.  It's not always politically correct, but it tries.  It's not the next Pulitzer prize winner, but it doesn't matter - it's just really good. 

The Secret Speech by Tom Robb Smith
The second in the Child 44 series, Smith seriously hit another home run.  Quite often, I find the second book not as good as the first, but occasionally (like the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series), an author can continue the momentum.  And if you haven't read Child 44, do so - however, this thriller can also stand alone.  Leo, the ex-KGB officer and current homicide detective, is back in Moscow, living with his wife who now finds herself in love with her newly-reformed husband.  Together, they are raising the two daughters of the falsely-accused criminal who Leo arrested and ultimately saw murdered.  Needless to say, the oldest daughter is less than thrilled to be with the man she considers a killer, creating a tense family life. However, Stalin is now dead and Kruschev has now taken over, with a 'secret speech' that pretty much throws Stalin under the bus and decries the past abuses by the secret police.  This opens the door to a new serial killer - a gang of previously imprisoned dissidents from the Gulag who are hunting down their former tormentors.  The story takes us into the streets of Moscow, to the gulag prisons in Siberia, and even the spring rebellion in Budapest.  The history of those early days of the Soviet Bloc is fascinating and Smith has created complex characters and no-win situations to heighten the suspense.  This book was another five-star for me, and yes, I will be reading the third and last installment soon.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
After falling in love with the End of Life Book Club last fall, I have tried to commit to reading at least one 'must-read, classic, prize-winner, good-for-your-brain" book a month.  This was the March pick - the autobiographical look at a year of tragedy in author Joan Didion's life.  As her daughter lies in the ICU, deathly ill from sepsis, her husband sits down to dinner and literally drops his head to the table and is gone in seconds from a massive heart attack.  This is the story of how she survives sudden widowhood, as well as how she recreates a life for herself.  It is interspersed with many details of her rather fabulous and famous life with her husband.  Both writers for novels and Hollywood, famous people inhabit some of their past days as you see how her life was shaped by her relationship with him.  It is a painfully honest book about how one grieves, and how the world expects one to act which is often two opposing directions.  It is not a long book, but it is a book that will stay with you for quite some time.  I would recommend this to someone who has lost a loved one, or has a close friend/relative who is grieving; it gives us a world into a bereaved soul that is powerful and poetically written.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
This is a 'throwback' story, one from forty years ago that some of us in 'middle-age' may recognize.  It is the story of a family who does not belong in their neighborhood due to race.  However, your first thought is probably issues of black and white and the civil rights movement, but you would be wrong.   Author Celeste Ng takes this idea and twists it around, to the story of a family with a Chinese father and a Caucasian mother, raising mixed race children in the middle of small-town Ohio back in the 1970's.  What is a seemingly simplistic story lines - oldest daughter drowns in lake and police do not know why - become far more complex as the author creates characters with demons and hopes and passions that you would never think possible.  First is the father, a child of immigrants who never quite feels like he fits in, and often doesn't fit in due to institutionalized racism.  His wife Marilyn has not spoken to her mother since her marriage, carries deeply bitter feelings about her own life choices, and has rather questionable parenting techniques.  The older brother merely wants to get away...but it is far deeper than that as one comes to find out.  The youngest child is a bit of a cypher not only to the reader, but also to the rest of the family.  As Ng strings out the details of their past lives and all the secrets inside their hearts that were never expressed, it paints a picture of a complicated family life that was doomed to lead to tragedy.  This is an intriguing book that I think would lead to some intriguing book club discussions.

Cant We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
Remember the book Being Mortal that I reviewed last month - the one that is life-changing, about aging and how we choose to die? Beautifully written, incredibly researched, and poignantly told by a doctor with aging parents himself...well, this is the funny side of that book, honestly.  Roz Chast is a renowned cartoonist, frequently featured in the New Yorker.  She has created a graphic novel/cartoon-ish type of book that invites us on her journey as her parents age.  As the story begins, we meet the parents - children of Jewish immigrants, residents of their NYC apartment for 48 years, parents of an only child (Roz), and stubbornly refusing to see their life change as their health fails.  Roz nails it as she recounts conversations about how often and how long she visits, what her parents think of the assisted living places they visit, and what it's like to take care of her addled father while her mother is in the hospital.  While I found myself laughing out loud, I also cringed inside frequently as I recognized myself.  Roz strives to find that balance between being a good daughter and having her own life, never an easy thing.  This book is a must-read for anyone dealing with aging parents; it will remind you to smile, to be be more patient, and to remember we are not perfect, just trying to make the last days a little better.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber
I saved this book for last, as I am still torn about my actual opinion of it.  It has received rave reviews everywhere as Faber's 'masterpiece' and I will admit, it is beautiful written.  As a lover of weird, futuristic type of books, I figured this one was right in my ballpark.  The main premise is that Earth is getting pretty messed up (what else is new with dystopic novels?) so a company has created a new civilization out in the solar system and is taking applications to go there.  Peter, a reformed drug addict/thief turned born-again Christian preacher, gets chosen.  However, his wife Bea does not.  While they run their London-based church together, they decide that it is worth the separation for Peter to bring the word of God to the creatures on this new planet.  And yes...that's where Faber lost me.  The company base has some interesting characters once we get to this new place, but Faber focuses so much on Peter and his need to preach and convert the natives, that I think he misses a chance for a more complex story.  As Peter continues to hear of truly horrible things happening on Earth, he never thinks to return and help out his now pregnant wife.  He stays completely obsessed with the conversion of the natives, to the detriment of many.  This is a looooong, well-written book that I admittedly did not enjoy due to my own personal beliefs on the harm missionaries can do. I constantly waited for Peter to learn something about himself, to question his mission, to allow other beliefs, but that never happened.  Thus, I ended the final page feeling disappointed in both Peter and the author.  

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