Tuesday, August 4, 2020

In The Garden of Beasts:Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, by Erik Larson

This solidly researched account of Germany and the U.S. before World War II reads like a novel full of intigue, love affairs, disloyalty, honor, dishonor, evil, and power. Erik Larson tells the story from the unique perspective of the American ambassador from 1933-1938, William Dodd, and his family. Dodd was a scholar who was looking for an ambassadorship simply because he wanted to finish his three-volume book on the Old South. He ended up in Berlin because nobody else wanted the job—a fact he didnt realize until he was committed to the job.

Dodd was a Jeffersonian Democrat who chose to live on a budget and walk to work instead of being chauffered about in a giant gas guzzler, as was the custom of ambassadors.He remained a misfit during his entire time in Germany because he was not one of the wealthy elites who normally fill such posts. Initially, he argued away the threat of Hitler and the Nazi party, but ultimately he tried to warn the Roosevelt administration of the reality of Hitler's danger to Germany and to the world. He was deemed an alarmist by his "colleagues" in Washington, and his warnings were dismissed as the work of an academic unqualified for diplomatic work.

Larson demonstrates how America and the German people might have stopped the pure evil that descended on Germany, but they chose to leave it to others, thinking it would get better on its own. Worse, many Americans at the time excused Hitler's most despicable acts, reasoning that Jews caused their own problems.

Larson researched hundreds of books, artices, and newsreels, but relied heavily on Dodd's papers and on his and his daughter's autobiographies. The daughter, Martha Dodd, was a notorious partier who had affairs with Germans, Russians, and anybody in between. She was blindsided by Nazi charm, until their crimes became too obvious for her to ignore. Her story is a juicy counterpoint to her father's more staid approach.

Larson shows the complexities of the era, creating in Dodd a character who has the guts to publicly decry Nazi policy, but who remains somewhat naive about the political web he's caught in.  Likewise, Larson makes clear that, while many Germans remained complacent and complicit in Hitler's evil, some even within the Nazi hierarchy tried to work against Hitler.

After Dodd was replaced as Ambassador, he toured the country, warning Americans of the true evil of Hitler's regime. Even then, he was often seen as exaggerating. —Pat Prijatel

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Fiction to Consider, July 2020

It's 1950, and as the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer. She devises a plan get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street. 

Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test. 

With characters as captivating as those in her internationally bestselling novel Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys skillfully creates a rich story of secrets, lies, and the haunting reminder that decisions can shape our destiny.


The Overstory is a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of - and paean to - the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, Richard Powers’s twelfth novel unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. There is a world alongside ours—vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.


The first novel in ten years from award-winning, million-copy bestselling author Leif Enger, Virgil Wander is an enchanting and timeless all-American story that follows the inhabitants of a small Midwestern town in their quest to revive its flagging heart.

Midwestern movie house owner Virgil Wander is "cruising along at medium altitude" when his car flies off the road into icy Lake Superior. Virgil survives but his language and memory are altered and he emerges into a world no longer familiar to him. Awakening in this new life, Virgil begins to piece together his personal history and the lore of his broken town, with the help of a cast of affable and curious locals--from Rune, a twinkling, pipe-smoking, kite-flying stranger investigating the mystery of his disappeared son; to Nadine, the reserved, enchanting wife of the vanished man; to Tom, a journalist and Virgil's oldest friend; and various members of the Pea family who must confront tragedies of their own. Into this community returns a shimmering prodigal son who may hold the key to reviving their town.

With intelligent humor and captivating whimsy, Leif Enger conjures a remarkable portrait of a region and its residents, who, for reasons of choice or circumstance, never made it out of their defunct industrial district. Carried aloft by quotidian pleasures including movies, fishing, necking in parked cars, playing baseball and falling in love, Virgil Wander is a swift, full journey into the heart and heartache of an often overlooked American Upper Midwest by a "formidably gifted" (Chicago Tribune) master storyteller.


Career Day at Guadalupe Middle School: a day given to innocent hopes and youthful dreams. A day no one in attendance will ever forget. 

New York Times bestselling author Laurie R. King is an award-winning master of combining rich atmospheric detail with riveting, keen-edged mystery. Now, in her newest standalone novel of psychological suspense, King turns her sharp eye to a moment torn from the headlines and a school under threat. 
A year ago, Principal Linda McDonald arrived at Guadalupe determined to overturn the school's reputation for truancy, gang violence, and neglect. One of her initiatives is Career Day--bringing together children, teachers, and community presenters in a celebration of the future. But there are some in attendance who reject McDonald's bright vision.

A principal with a secret. A husband with a murky past. A cop with too many questions. A kid under pressure to prove himself. A girl struggling to escape a mother's history. A young basketball player with an affection for guns. 

Even the school janitor has a story he dare not reveal. 

But no one at the gathering anticipates the shocking turn of events that will transform a day of possibilities into an expolsive confrontation. 

Tense, poignant, and brilliantly paced, Laurie R. King's novel charts compelling characters on a collision course--a chain of interactions that locks together hidden lives, troubling secrets, and the bravest impulses of the human heart.


In their youth, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall passionately in love. When Fermina eventually chooses to marry a wealthy, well-born doctor, Florentino is heartbroken, but he is a romantic. As he rises in his business career he whiles away the years in 622 affairs—yet he reserves his heart for Fermina. Her husband dies at last, and Florentino purposefully attends the funeral. Fifty years, nine months, and four days after he first declared his love for Fermina, he will do so again. Marques won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. Love in the Time of Cholera was published in 1988


Sunday, July 19, 2020

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein

In Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein began with a theme that resonated strongly with the liberal arts folks in our group.  Our schooling was based on the traditional notion that diverse strands of a broad education strengthen each other.  For some of us, that theme has been borne out by diverse and even checkered work histories.  We were pleased to have Epstein explain why our bias may be valid.

Epstein begins by contrasting Tiger Woods’s early specialization in golf with Roger Federer’s dabbling in many sports until he settled rather late on tennis.  Specialization and repetitive practice leads to positive results in what Epstein calls “kind” learning environments.  In these environments, patterns repeat and feedback is usually rapid and accurate.  Quick recognition and response is enhanced by practice.  Examples he cites are flight crews and surgical teams.  By contrast, “wicked” learning environments have a greater number of variables and are less predictable.  These environments value more intuition and judgment, which are developed better through a broader range of experience.  

Epstein dissects the learning process, showing that our learning skills have evolved to keep up with the shifting nature of the problems we deal with.  Over generations, we have become better accustomed to abstract and conceptual problems, “wicked” learning environments, as shown by improved IQ test scores.  He shows that slower learning may be deeper learning – with implications for both kind and wicked environments.  He expands this thought through varied examples of musical and artistic development and unconventional career paths in other fields such as video game design, economic forecasting, and work team configurations.  

He also shows how the accumulation of wider-ranging experiences can lead to changes in work directions and ultimately to better vocational “fit.”  Military service academies provide a well-documented basis for this discussion.  The early specialization of the academies does not lead to officers with longer service tenure, but rather produces mid-level officers ready to try other professional directions.  Other recruiting sources bring people into the officer corps with more diversity of experience and whose later choice of this career path often leads to longer tenure.  Epstein gives a related discussion of how “grit” adds or subtracts from performance.  Persistence can be a virtue, but so can jumping to a new career track which other experiences now support.  These “sampling” experiences also change problem-solving skills, with consequences in invention, incident management, and other areas.

Epstein’s writing is based on extensive review of scholarly work on learning and development, but presented in highly readable prose and laid out in engaging flow.  His conclusions are more like realizations that emerge from a review of the academic research and historical examples he marshals to demonstrate the points.  I never felt he was pushing me to agree, but simply showing me his way of view and inviting me along.  — Bill Smith

Monday, July 13, 2020

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel’s novel, Station Eleven, begins with famous actor Arthur Leander’s real-life death as he plays the role of King Lear on stage. At the same time, outside the theater, people are beginning to sicken and die of the Georgian flu as it sweeps the planet. 

In the opening pages, the reader is tossed into a compelling post-apocalyptic world. Who will have the luck, grit, and skill to survive? How will they survive? How will they travel? Eat? Find shelter? Keep their sanity? Form communities? Move on? 

The novel has an ensemble cast (a nod to The Traveling Symphony and the troupe of Shakespearian actors): Arthur, Clark, Miranda, Elizabeth, Tyler, Kirsten, and Jeevan—with Arthur as the connection among all the other characters. Clark is his best friend. Miranda is his first wife. Elizabeth is his second wife, mother of their young son, Tyler (who becomes the cruel, Calvinistically-bent Prophet). Kirsten is a child actress, cast as one of Lear’s young daughters. Jeevan is the person who rushes the stage in an effort to save Arthur. 

Mandel pairs Kirsten and Tyler in a very Shakespearian way. They are both eight years-old when the flu wipes out almost everybody. Both are children of Arthur (he is Kirsten’s stage father). Both have copies of Miranda’s comic book, Dr. Eleven—which is a graphic expression of the pull between good and evil, awake and asleep, life and death, love and hate, beauty and ugliness that runs throughout the story. 

As a grownup, as the Prophet, Tyler has become a cruel and terrifying cult leader in the name of God. Kirsten, on the other hand, before the company’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, describes the world thus“What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining a half mile away.”

Near the end of the novel, inevitably, Kirsten and the Prophet must face off.

To weave her tale, Mandel uses a rich and flexible narrative structure sort of like crochet, where there is a string of linear yarn, but the story is told in a series of interlocking loops that often go back to the beginning and start again—growing richer with each pass. She does playful, clever things to make connections. Lots of Shakespearian allusions; four different dogs named Loki; a paperweight which is a hostess gift to Miranda at a dinner party years before Arthur’s death, which Miranda gives back to Arthur, which he gives to his lover du jour, which she gives to Kirsten, which she gives to Clark for the Museum of Civilization. And everything, big and small, supports in some way awakening into a brave new world.

Jeevan, in the old world, was a paparazzi in a relationship with a shallow, indifferent woman. In the new world, twenty years out, he lives in a settlement in Virginia practicing primitive medicine. The end of the day finds him drinking wine amidst “the gentle music of the river, cicadas in the trees, the stars above the weeping willows on the far bank. . . . He was overcome at his good fortune at having found this place, this tranquility, this woman, at having lived to see a time worth living in.”

Mandel shows us a new world which is a slow and painful work in progress. We get our parting look through the eyes of Clark who “has no expectation of seeing an airplane rise again in his lifetime, but is it possible that somewhere there are ships setting out? If there are again towns with streetlights, if there are symphonies and newspapers, then what else might this awakening world contain?”

And the Traveling Symphony is going on the road again, taking a new route, perhaps to find the far southern town with the electrical grid. The first horse-drawn truck in the procession, as always, bears the creed: Because survival is insufficient.— Sharelle Moranville

Friday, May 29, 2020

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko is largely a game of chance, a combination of a pinball and a slot machine, with balls subtly manipulated behind the scenes by owners of the parlors in which it is played. It’s an onomatopoeia, a word that sounds like what it defines—pachinko. Popular in Japan after the Second World War, pachinko parlors were often run by Korean immigrants who had no other choice and were often called mobsters, no matter how honest they might have been. But, considering the prejudice against them, being considered Korean might have been just as bad as being considered a criminal.

Author Min Jin Lee titled her multigenerational novel Pachinko and, like much of the book, that was a stroke of genius. The book chronicles four generations of a Korean family who become immigrants in Japan and whose lives are like games of chance, one person’s actions sparking a reaction in another, then another, with powerful forces always maintaining some level of control. 

But it’s also a book about human strength, family bonds, love, determination, and hope. It’s the type of book that makes a reader just want to settle down and soak up each page, reveling in the vivid character development, story, and sense of place.

The book begins:

History has failed us, but no matter.

Min Jin Lee is speaking of Koreans, and her story starts at the turn of the twentieth century, with a fisherman and his wife, who are never named, and their son Hoonie, born with a cleft palate and a limp, who comes of age just as Japan annexes Korea. And, for the rest of the book, Hoonie and his daughter, grandsons, and great grandson are pachinko balls, creating their personal history as they have to leave Korea but are never allowed to assimilate into Japan. Shoved into a ghetto, denied passports or the ability to work in any other than low-level jobs, the family nevertheless survives and never loses their spirit.

The thread holding the family, and the story, together in Sunja. Hoonie’s daughter, whose brief affair with a handsome stranger she meets in the market, forces her to marry the sweet, educated, but impoverished minister Isak. Their son, Noa, takes after the biological father he never knew exists, but reveres the loving man he thinks of as father. Yoseb, his uncle, and Kyanghee, his aunt, who have to children of their own, are like second parents. Sunja and Kyanghee become as close as sisters. A second son, Mozasu, completes the little family. 

But always in the wings in Honsu, the stranger, an extremely wealthy gangster, who watches over Sunja and her family, like something between a godfather and a sinister uncle. Manipulating their lives to suit him. 

Through war, death, birth, and the vagaries of fate, sexism and racism, Sunja and Kyanghee build lives for themselves and those they love. Minor characters—some Korean, some Japanese, some American, show that history and culture shape us but only confine us if we allow it

The book took her thirty years to write, and her dedication is apparent in every page. It’s a thick read—479 pages in the paperback version—but it’s a book you really don't want to end.    — Pat Prijatel 

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Burn Scars, by Patricia Prijatel


As I read this beautifully written memoir, it was like having my own sense of loss affirmed by someone who truly understands. When a landscape we love and are intimate with (whether it's splendid mountains and valleys or our own backyard), is destroyed by the freakishness of our changing climate, it hurts. It changes us. We stop trusting nature. We feel stress. Maybe we get sick. We need to recover. Patricia Prijatel's beautifully written account of the burn scars on "her" mountain and on herself is a must read if you care about climate change. It's well researched and informative, fast paced and vivid. And perhaps surprisingly, in places it's laugh-out-loud funny. — Sharelle Moranville

This is a beautiful book. The author has infused the opening chapters with descriptions of this land and its people she so loves. But there is a clear sense of suspenseful foreboding for a catastrophe that you know is coming. Her descriptions of the fire and the response of the human beings who are affected by it gain weight the farther we get from the event itself. Far from going back to normal, she chronicles the work of the people to prevent land erosion, how difficult and sometimes impossible it is, and the emotional toll it takes. What grows in the wake of the fire is not a regeneration of what was there before but in some cases harmful plant life that will change the landscape forever. We watch human emotions as they deny, accept, grieve and try to move on. What we learn in the process of reading this book is how precious our earth is and, in taking it for granted, how much we have endangered it. — Jeanie Smith

"Burn Scars" tells the true personal story of a Colorado family’s love for the land and the mountains. They enjoyed a wonderful life near the East Spanish Peak. Then fire erupted. They fled for their lives. Courageous firefighters saved most of the homes but the trauma lasts to this day. Prijatel talks about the personal grief. She tells the impact of fire, wind and flood on the plants and animals. She describes the increasing danger. Each year spawns higher temperatures and dryer forests. Each year sees more and bigger fires. Her well researched story flows easily. Read this book. — Ray Gaebler

The author did an extraordinary job of giving us a personal account of climate grief and educating us. Very readable, relatable and touching. — Karen Peters

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Pigs in Heaven, by Barbara Kingsolver

Pigs in Heaven (1994) is a sequel to Kingsolver’s debut 1988 novel The Bean Trees—in which Taylor, a young woman whose driving ambition is to graduate high school without getting pregnant, finds herself traveling alone cross-country in a car with serious needs. She falls into sudden, unexpected, and unwitting possession of a Cherokee toddler who has been badly abused. Taylor names the toddler Turtle and sets about forming a chosen family to raise Turtle and help her heal from the abuse she suffered. This involves getting “legal” adoption papers with the collusion of a young central American couple who are in the U.S. illegally. Readers can’t help but love adorable Turtle and spunky Taylor and the whole supporting cast. And the novel ends happily with Turtle having been saved by a bunch of white people (plus Esperanza and Estevan). 

But. And there needs to be a but.

What happens in The Bean Trees is good, but perhaps needs a second, more nuanced look. Is it in Turtle’s best interest to separate her from her Cherokee roots? Could Turtle endure the second trauma of being taken from the white mother with whom she has bonded?  Pigs in Heaven is a moving and beautifully written “second thought” about The Bean Trees.  

Young, smart attorney Annawake Fourkiller decides early on that a tribal injustice has been done, and she resolves to undo it –which naturally strikes terror in Taylor’s heart. So she goes on the run with Turtle, living on the edge, meeting fascinating characters like Barbie and the goose man and Jax. Taylor’s mother, Alice, with largely unacknowledged—up to this point—Cherokee roots, gets drawn into a quest to find her own happiness and broker a peace for Taylor and Turtle. 

Kingsolver shows the differences between the expansive tribal family structure and the constricted nuclear white family structure brilliantly. And through all the characters, but especially through the character of Alice, who has a foot in both worlds, the reader is given a more thoughtful look at what might be best for Turtle. What might be best for everybody.

I quote the novel’s ending because it is such a perfect example of Kingsolver’s inimitable style. Cash, who is conveniently both Alice’s soul mate and Turtle’s grandpa—and now Turtle’s legal guardian—as a token of his deep and true love of Alice, leans the TV against a stump and shoots it.

“The woods go unnaturally still. All the birds take note of the round black bullet wound in the TV screen, a little right of center but still fatal. Alice’s heart performs its duties strangely inside her chest, and she understands that her life sentence of household silence has been commuted. The family of women is about to open its doors to men. Men, children, cowboys, and Indians. It’s all over now but the shouting.”

A truly righteous ending of sweet Turtle’s story. — Sharelle Moranville