26 July 2015

Book Review: Water for Elephants

Water for ElephantsWater for Elephants by Sara Gruen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interestingly fun read that brought circus life in the 1930s glaringly and intriguingly to life. But I found myself wishing that all the gratuitous sex was absent so that my kid could read it (yes, I just turned into my grandmother, who used to bemoan that The Love Boat told some good stories but always had people hopping in and out of bed)

In the author's acknowledgments, she wrote of famous elephants that inspired this story's leading, Polish-speaking pachyderm. Again, I found myself wishing; wishing that Gruen would write a book JUST about circus elephants. That would be an awesome--and, hopefully, gratuitous-sex-free--read.

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07 July 2015

Book Review: Life After Life

Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sliding doors. What ifs. Do overs.

Ursula lives several times. She makes different choices resulting in different results. Or is a victim of slightly different circumstances, resulting in different results. But she is only marginally aware of her power to change her fate; intuition. Deja Vu. The 1918 flu was damned hard for her to avoid. She finally pushes their maid down the stairs and survives it. Much later in the book, when you'd forgotten the several times and ways the flu got her, she tells her maid that the boyfriend she was going to accompany to London, where she will get the flu and die, killing off several members of the family as well, is cheating on her. So the maid breaks up with the boyfriend and he's the only one who dies of flu. "At least no one got pushed down the stairs this time," she tells the maid. Not knowing why she says that.

Atkinson presents the timeline without a timeline. She hopes back and forth over the milestones of Ursula's life. We don't get one life and a totally alternate life. We get snippets of all her alternate lives in one of those slide puzzle games. The whole picture is there but damn if I can figure out how to slide it into place.

However, the most intriguing what-if is never fully fleshed out. Atkinson opens the book with Ursula shooting Hitler in November 1930. She spends most of the rest of the book avoiding return to this reality. There is a reality where Ursula goes to Germany pre-WWII and marries a German and is in Hitler's inner circle. There's a reality where Ursula stays in London and dies in a bombing raid. Several bombing raid death realities. There's a reality where Ursula survives the war and lives to retire. But there's no reality where she kills Hitler, before Hitler became Hitler, and stops a whole century of history. She just kills HItler on the first page of the book. Then darkness falls.

But in one of her realities, one where she survives the war, she has a flight of fancy. It is 1967 and the Six Day war is flaring in the middle east. She is having lunch with one of her nephews and launches into this conversation.

"But if Hitler had been killed before he became Chancellor, it would have stopped all this conflict between Arabs and the Israelis, wouldn't it?  I mean, I do understand why the Jews wanted to create an independent state and defend it vigorously, and I always felt sympathy for the Zionist cause, even before the war, but, on the other hand, i can also understand why the Arab states are so aggrieved. But if Hitler had been unable to implement the Holocaust..."
"Because he was dead?"
"Yes, because he was dead. Then support for a Jewish homeland would have been weak at best..."
"History is all about what-ifs," Nigel said.
"I heard someone say once that hindsight was a wonderful thing, that without it there would be no history."
"They're probably right."
"But think how different things would be," Ursula persisted. "The Iron Curtain would probably not have fallen and Russia wouldn't have been able to gobble up Eastern Europe."
"Well, it was just pure greed. And the Americans might not have recovered from the Depression so quickly without a war economy and consequently not exerted so much influence on the postwar world..."
"An awful lot of people would still be alive."
"Well, yes, obviously. And the whole cultural face of Europe would be different because of the Jews. And think of all those displaced people, shuffling from one country to another. And Britain would still have an empire, or at least we wouldn't have lost it so precipitately--I'm not saying being an imperial power is a good thing, of course. And we wouldn't have bankrupted ourselves and had such an awful time recovering, financially and psychologically. And no Common Market..."
"Which won't let us in anyway."
"Think of how strong Europe would be! But perhaps Goering or Himmler would have stepped in. And everything would have happened in just the same way."
"Perhaps. But the Nazis were a marginal party almost up until they took power. They were all fanatical psychopaths, but none of them had Hitler's charisma."
"Oh, I know," Ursula said. "He was extraordinarily charismatic. People talk about charisma as if it were a good thing, but really it's a kind of glamour--in the old sense of the word, casting a spell, you know? I think it was the eyes, he had the most compelling eyes. If you looked in them you felt you were putting yourself in danger of believing..."
"You met him?" Nigel asked, astonished.
"Well," Ursula said. "Not exactly. Would you like dessert, dear?"

It is after this conversation that Ursula, for the first time, seems to take fate by the horns and almost make a decision to kill Hitler in 1930. The wave isn't carrying her, she's controlling the wave. Atkinson takes us back to Ursula's birth, in 1910, which resulted in several of her deaths but this time she lives, of course, and seems to control the course of events that results in shooting Hitler. She does it. Darkness falls.

Then we return to Ursula's birth again. This time her mother, Sylvie, is prepared with surgical scissors to cut the umbilical cord that has choked Ursula to death many times before.

"Shush," Sylvie said and held aloft her trophy--a pair of surgical scissors that gleamed in the lamplight. "One must be prepared," she muttered. "Hold the baby close to the lamp so I can see. Quickly, Bridget. There's no time to waste." Snip, snip. Practice makes perfect."

If Atkinson ended the book there, I would have rested easily with the conclusion that both Ursula and Sylvie were aware enough of their sliding doors to make a choice to take fate by the reins.  There's a great quote in Eat, Pray, Love that captures what I felt at this moment; "We gallop through our lives like circus performers balancing on two speeding side-by-side horses--one foot is on the horse called "fate," the other on the horse called "free will." And the question you have to ask every day is--which horse is which? Which horse do I need to stop worrying about because it's not under my control, and which do I need to steer with concentrated effort?" Ursula and Sylvie had figured out which horse was which.

But Atkinson didn't end the book there. She tacks on two more sliding doors. First she goes back to 1945 and brings Ursula's brother Teddy home safely from the war. Then she returns again to 1910 to tell the story of Mrs. Haddock, who was supposed to go help Sylvie deliver the baby but got caught in the snowstorm.  This was a word-for-word repeat of an earlier version of reality. I confess myself completely bamboozled. What does it mean? Am I missing something?

Well, I'm sure I'm missing a great deal. And I'm sure I could read, and re-read and study and parse this book to death. I don't think it's worth that. It isn't a staggering work of genius, after all. But it is intriguing. And makes one think about how small choices become big realities. What if I hadn't chosen to write this book review right at this very moment and had taken my dog for a walk instead? Would I be dead? A millionaire? Just the same?

Who knows?

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15 June 2015

Book Review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm only to section three. But I'm already so confused and tired, I'm not sure I'm going to make it much farther. And I love this era of history. I once went to the National Portrait gallery in London and cried a little in front of the portrait of Anne Boleyn.

But this book seems to be failing to capture any of the magic I've found in that time period and its people through reading "boring" history and biography.

Also, Ms. Mantel (or perhaps I should address this complaint to Ms. Mantel's copy editor) please consider replacing the pronoun "he" with a name once in a while?  The refrain going through my head the entire time I read now is a line from the play A My Name is Alice; "He did it. He did it. HE did it! And he knows who he is."

Except I don't know who "he" is most of the time. Dammit.

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Book Review: The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden

The Girl Who Saved the King of SwedenThe Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Charmingly quirky romp. Though perhaps the romp lasted a little too long with a few too many twists. But in the end, did the story really matter? Or was it how the story was told?

I admit it was nice to read an immigrant story and be able to laugh a little. Though I was not totally without the heavy feeling of how we, in the West, fail the rest of the world while I read, Jonasson presented the despair through a lens of Scarlett OHara-ness; tomorrow is another day. When the poor black South African women kill a poor black South African man in Soweto, Jonasson writes, "The women were seized and transformed into a thirty-year cost item in the South African correctional system." When the 10 year-old girl starts to come into what will have to pass as her own in a hopeless world, Jonasson writes, "As Nombeko got older, she was able to empty more latrine barrels each day, and the money was enough to buy more than just thinner. Thus her mom could supplement the solvent with pills and liquor. But the girl, who realized that things couldn't go on this way, told her mother that she had to choose between quitting or dying. Her mom nodded in understanding. The funeral was well attended." Hopeless. But not without hope. Thanks for that, at least.

The gist of the book and its quirk can be best summarized in a summary Jonasson kindly provides about a third of the way through what passes as a story. "A condemned building gets its name because it should be and will be torn down. Only in exceptional cases do people reside in condemned buildings. So one could say that it was noteworthy that a single condemned building in Gnest, Sormland, now housed the following: one American potter, two very similar and dissimilar brothers, one angry young woman, one escaped South African refugee, and three Chinese girls with poor judgment. All of these people found themselves in nuclear-weapons-free Sweden. Right next door to a three-megaton atomic bomb."

Jonasson twists Nombeko's story with real history, tossing in real people like pepper in a thick stew. He turns his humorous cynicism in all directions and makes fun of just about everything.  Take the 2000 election in the US; "An exciting followup to this event was the many ups and downs when the most developed country in the world made such a mess of its own presidential election that it took several weeks for the Supreme Court to decide 5-4 that the candidate with the most votes had lost. With this, George W. Bush became the president of the United States, while Al Gore was reduced to an environmental agitator whom not even the anarchists in Stockholm paid much attention to. Incidentally, Bush later invaded Iraq in order to eliminate all the weapons Saddam Hussein didn't have."

Or the idea of divine right of kings; "It all started when his father was shot at the Royal Opera House. The king's son had two weeks to get used to his new role while his dad lay there dying. This turned out to be far too little time. In addition, his father had succeeded in hammering into the boy that the Swedish king was given his post by the grace of God and that the king and God worked as a team. A person who feels the Lord watching over him finds it to be a minor thing to go to war in order to defeat both the emperor Napoleon and Czar Alexander--all at once. Unfortunately, the emperor and czar also claimed to have divine protection and acted accordingly. Assuming they were all correct, God had promised a little too much in too many directions at the same time. All the Lord could do about that was to let their true relative strengths settle the matter."

Equal opportunity lampooning. Kind of like the Daily Show, woven into fictional historical biography. And without Jon Stewart's mugging for the camera.

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11 June 2015

Book Review: A God in Ruins

A God in RuinsA God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my first Kate Atkinson so her style of non-linear chronology is new to me. I liked the way her structure allowed me to discover characters almost as if I was getting to know them in real life; when you meet someone, they don't just lay out their lives from day one in concise chronological order. The problem with memory is that chronology is the first thing to go so how we tell our stories to others often has the wandering, disjunct feel that this book has.

Disjunct is not a fair adjective, though, as I made the leap fairly easily from one time to another. I raised my eyebrow every time the omniscient narrator mentioned the future while telling the story of an earlier version of a person but, again, like when you tell a story, sometimes you throw in what will happen.

Fans of "Life After Life will recognize Teddy and Ursula (which version of Ursula this might be could be great fodder for conversation) but I won't delve into plot. Plot isn't what makes this book readable for me. It was the writing. The observations. The cogent asides.  All of which created moments of clarity about life and human nature. Finding clarity in a pull quote is one of the main reasons I read and Atkinson gave me that in abundance.

Things like:

"Good manners, the armour that one must don anew every morning."

"Teddy's idea of Utopia would not have included the Kibbo Kift. What would it have included? A dog, certainly. Preferably more than one. Nancy and his sisters would be there--his mother too, he supposed--and they would all live in a lovely house set in the green countryside of the Home Counties and eat cake every day. His real life, in fact."

"'Like' was hardly the word Teddy would have used for a time in his life when every day was fragile and seemed as if it might be his last on earth and the only tense was the present one because the future had ceased to exist even though they were fighting so desperately for it."

"It was true, in the last year or two he had begun to lose the thrifty habits he had once had, growing tired of the relentless culling and resolution that the material world demanded. Easier to let it pile up, waiting for the great winnowing of goods that his death would bring."

"A whole life could be contained in a dinner-service pattern."

"She was always looking to be given things, a cuckoo rather than a predator."

"He was currently living in a sordidly unruly flat with several members of his peer group, all too self-centered to qualify as friends."

"Every cloud has a silver lining. Conversely, every silver lining was in a cloud."

"Love had always seemed to Teddy to be a practical act as much as anything--school concerts, clean clothes, regular mealtimes."

Of course, later in the book, the good pull quotes were often roaming through the head of Viola, the writer, and her aside would be "A good phrase. She tucked it away," which pointed out the trite surfaceness of finding meaning in a pull quote. Almost as if Kate Atkinson is making fun of me. Which maybe she is. And rightly so.

I could have chosen to get angry about that. Just like I could have chosen to get angry about "THE LAST 15 PAGES."  But I didn't.

And don't keep reading if you don't want spoilers. But...

The title "A God in Ruins comes from an Emerson quote; ""A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be ... as gently as we awake from dreams."

That, and the first pull quote on the front cover flap, "He had been reconciled to death during the war and then suddenly the war was over and there was a next day and a next day and a next day. Part of him never adjusted to having a future," was a clue, if a clue in hindsight to what Atkinson was going to do to me as a reader. Trickery, Ms. Atkinson. Pure trickery! How dare you?

Teddy couldn't exist because the war devoured his innocence. It's as simple as that.

Atkinson says in her Author's Note, that if you asked her what this book was about, she'd say that "it's about fiction (and how we must imagine what we cannot know) and the Fall (of Man. From grace.)"

And there you are.

In the end, I have to admit that it's kind of silly to get mad about an author of fiction pulling a blind like this. After all, I was mad that these characters, who aren't real, aren't real. What sense does that make?

Fiction is always a lie that hints at a truth we have trouble finding by looking at our own lives. This book simply slaps you in the face with that.

And that's why it will be memorable. Good trickery, Ms. Atkinson.

08 June 2015

Book Review - One Summer

One Summer: America, 1927One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love proletariat hodge-podge histories; an interesting point in time treated to an exploration that goes just deep enough to intrigue but not so deep that the reader becomes mired.  Histories that are like reading an extended New Yorker profile because they feel less like histories and more like current event feature stories.

One Summer is one of those histories. Bill Bryson wanders his reader through the summer of 1927. Though Bryson divides his book into five sections, each named for a month and titled with a major happening or person of that month, he doesn't stick to his construct, but rather ambles from subject to subject and back again, almost as if he is living it without the benefit of hindsight.

1927 was a big year; Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, Al Capone, the Mississippi flood, Prohibition, Sacco and Vanzetti, Jack Dempsey...

Bryson peppers us with details like, "The statistics of the great flood were recorded with chilling precision: 16,570,627 acres flooded; 203,504 buildings lost or ruined; 637,476 people made homeless. The quantities of livestock lost were logged with similar exactitude: 50,490 cattle, 25,325 horses and mules, 148,110 hogs, 1,276,570 chickens and other poultry. The one thing that wasn't carefully recorded, oddly, was the number of human lives lost, but it was certainly more than a thousand and perhaps several times that. The tallies weren't more scrupulous because, alas, so many of the victims were poor and black. It is a shocking fact that a closer count was kept of livestock losses than of human ones. It is perhaps only slightly less shocking to note that outside the affected areas the flood received less coverage on most days than the murder trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray."

This shows Bryson at his best and worst. The details that a closer count was made of lost cows than lost people and that a trial that is now lost to history was bigger news are enlightening. But Bryson's use of words like "oddly" and "alas" and his almost judgmental "shocking" and "slightly less shocking" gets a bit heavy-handed. I'd like it better if he presented the facts and let me reach my own conclusions.

Bryson also tends to repeat himself and has an annoying habit of presenting something and giving you a sense of timeline by referring back to something he's already presented. His most used point of reference is the attempted Atlantic crossing of the French pilots Nungesser and Coli, which was frustrating because I could never remember when they tried to cross so knowing something else was happening at that time was not terribly helpful to me. I wished for a timeline, rather than constant editorial finger-wagging about what I should have already learned.

But let's overlook my occasional quarrel with Bryson's editorial presence because it was more like a tiny pebble stuck in my shoe than a large rock; I could usually wiggle my foot around a little to move it and keep enjoying my walk.

And I'm glad I did. So much of what I read was instructive about the time he was writing as it was about our current time.

Take Herbert Hoover, the hero of the Mississippi flood. Why did we think he was a hero? Because he told us he was. "He traveled through the South in a private train, which included a car exclusively devoted to press operations. From this issued a stream of press releases mostly devoted to Hoover's vision and hard work. He also made sure that every Republican senator received a copy of a magazine article praising him. To any newspaper, however small, that questioned or criticized his efforts, he wrote a personal letter of rebuke." Hoover made himself into a very public hero. Imagine what he could have done with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Or the fact that the government of the United States poisoned alcohol so that the random deaths would inspire the rest of America to stay sober. See, alcohol was still necessary for many things besides drinking and because it still had to be produced for those purposes, the government "denatured" it to prevent it from being diverted into the bootleg trade. Denaturing alcohol simply means putting strychnine and/or mercury in it. According to Bryson, "Figures vary wildly on just how many people died wretchedly from drinking denatured alcohol," and then quotes a source at 11,700 (though some people claim many less). He then goes on, heavy-handedly but accurately, to say, "However small or large the total, it is surely the most bizarrely sinister episode in American history that officialdom was prepared to deliver to its own citizens an agonizing death for engaging in an act that had until recently been an accepted part of civilized life, was still legal nearly everywhere else in the world, and was patently harmless in moderation."

Bryson suggests that the labels we have for the 1920s, the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties, the Age of Ballyhoo, the Era of Wonderful Nonsense, do not tell the whole story. He suggests that the 1920s might be labeled the Age of Loathing. "There may never have been another time in the nation's history when more people disliked more other people from more directions and for less reason. Bigotry was casual, reflexive, and well nigh universal. At The New Yorker, Harold Ross forbade the use of the term toilet paper on the grounds of taste (it made him queasy), but he had nothing at all against nigger or darkie." This is the era that created the Ku Klux Klan. "The Klan hated everybody, but it did so in ways strategically contrived to reflect regional biases, so that it focused on Catholics and Jews in the Midwest, Orientals and Catholics in the Far West, Jews and southern Europeans in the East, and blacks everywhere." Sadly, I see shades of this type of savvy, organized bigotry happening right now, in our enlightened 21st century.

The whole book is full of interesting tidbits of history, some fleshed out beautifully, some only a passing mention that sparks an interest to read further.

For example, who knew that Time magazine used to have an odd habit of clunky, almost Germanic word-order? "As Wolcott Gibbs put it in a famous New Yorker profile of Luce, "Backward ran the sentences until reeled the mind."

Or that "flapper" was a word that originated in late 19th century England, an offshoot of the term "bird," still in use to describe females, and originally signified a prostitute?

Or that Lindbergh was one of the first individuals to use a transatlantic phone line, so he not only flew across the Atlantic, he spoke across it, too?

Or that the King of England was extraordinarily interested in how Lindbergh peed during his solo flight?

Or that Henry Ford thought the American Revolution was fought around 1812 and claimed that he had voted only once, for James Garfield, who had in fact died three years before Ford was old enough to vote? (This evidence of ignorance came out during the proceedings when Ford sued the Chicago Tribune for libel; he won but the jury awarded him only 6 cents in damages, which the Tribune never paid).

Or that Jerome Kern was supposed to be on the Lusitania but he overslept so he survived to change the course of musical theater with the most successful and influential show ever written, Showboat?

Then there's Philo T. Farnsworth and Mabel Walker Willebrandt. I want to read whole books about them. If you've never heard of them, look them up.

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28 March 2015

Book Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire HunterAbraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I liked vampires and gore, this would have been good fun. As it is, I don't like vampires and gore, so I struggled with it. "Why did you read it?" you might ask, gentle reader.  "Did not the title and the graphic cover art give you ample clues as to what you were in for?" Well, yes. Yes they did. But my 11 year old kid wanted to read it, so, like all good parents, I sacrificed myself to a pre-read of something I would never have picked up to read on my own.

And I'm kind of glad I did.  Kind of.

I am always intrigued when people create alternate realities with our standing history. I remember seeing Capricorn One as a child and wondering how much of our history might have been staged. Conspiracy theories. What ifs.  They are interesting to consider and I'm always in awe of someone who can imagine the sliding doors. Who can imagine the alternatives. Who can think of a story I never thought of. Or ever dreamed of thinking of.

This is one of those stories. And the reviews that get all up in arms about playing fast and loose with history, shhhhhhhh.  It's like taking The Onion seriously. All good satire is based in fact and reality.

I did wish for an afterword, or annotations, that tracked what was real and what wasn't. I have read a lot of history of Lincoln and the Civil War, so I was somewhat able to look at a speech or a journal entry and guess. But I would have liked to know for sure.

My three stars is for my distaste for the gore but also for some missed opportunities. The introduction inserts the author but never explains why it was so important to tell the story. The book actually stops before I wanted it to. I wanted it to go past 1963, up to the day the author was brought in. I wanted a clear vision of the reasons ..."reasons" ... the book needed to be written. Are we in danger now? Why come clean with our vampiric-infested history now? Are they back? Have they always been here? I wanted more depth. From my fake history. Hmmm.

"Without death. Life is meaningless. It is a story that can never be told. A song that can never be sung. For how would one finish it?"

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