Saturday, April 6, 2019

News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

In today’s world, we get our “news of the world” instantly, and literally, at the touch of our fingers—on computers, iPads, iPhones, TVs, car radios, and if you still read them, newspapers.  

But a century before all that sophisticated, fun and sometimes overwhelming communications technology worked its way into our modern world, citizens were hungry for news of their states and of the world.  

Enter Captain Jefferson Kidd, a grizzled elderly widower who has lived through three wars and  fought in two of them.  He made his living in Texas as a printer until he lost his business during the War Between the States.  In 1870, at the age of 71, the Captain finds a new way to make a living and enjoy the freedom of the road.  He travels from town to town and state to state, giving live readings from newspapers to audiences who are hungry for news of the world and who are willing to pay 20 cents to have him read it to them.   

He enjoys his rootless, solitary existence.Then in Wichita Falls, he is offered a $50 gold piece to deliver a fiesty, 9-year-old orphan girl to her family.  Four years earlier, a band of Kiowa raiders killed her parents and sister, but spared the little girl and raised her as one of their own.  She was recently rescued by the U.S. Army.  Now the grizzled old man and the lost little girl both have to learn to take care of each other and find their place in the world. Joanna tries to escape every way and every chance she gets, including throwing her shoes away. But slowly they begin to form a bond during their 400-mile journey, and begin to trust each other.

Jiles is a wonderful writer, telling an imaginative story. Her descriptions make both characters and their environment alive and believable.  I loved every creative twist and turn of this book and couldn’t wait to see what happened to the Captain and Johanna.  — Gail Stilwill   

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard

The book group took on this 2011 book with the reluctance of several members.  It deals, after all, with that somewhat distant period of American history between the civil War and World War I and focuses on the assassination of President James Garfield, one of the string of presidents thought of today as non-entities.  As we got into the book, however, all were taken by the immediacy of the political situation and assassination and by Candice Millard’s skillful weaving together of the political intrigues before and after Garfield’s election, the insanity of the assassin Charles Guiteau, the medical treatment of the President, and Alexander Graham Bell’s frantic efforts to perfect a device to locate the bullet.  

The years following the Civil War were marked by deep political divisions and rapid technological change.  On the political side, reconstruction was ended in 1877 leaving civil rights issues unresolved, as they would remain for decades longer.  It was a time of enormous industrial expansion, with railroads, electricity, telephones, elevators, photography, and many other life-altering technologies becoming commercialized.  Millard brings some of this to life in a way that made us feel at home in the 1880s.  

Garfield himself comes as a surprise.  From a log cabin background in frontier Ohio, he proved an able scholar and was president of a small liberal arts college in Ohio while still in his 20s.  He served with distinction in the Civil War, securing Kentucky as a part of the Union, and becoming a Brigadier General. Meanwhile, he had been elected to the Ohio legislature and the US Congress where he served until his compromise nomination by a stalemated Republican convention in 1880.  Millard presents him as a centrist politician, committed among other things to merit-based civil service appointments that would have ended the spoils system where a newly elected administration could replace the entire federal work force from top to bottom.  Garfield’s personal integrity and respect may have offered a bridge across political divides, and might have reconciled the post-reconstruction south, African-Americans, the conservative branch of the Republican Party (the “Stalwarts”), and Garfield’s own progressive branch of the Republican Party (the “Half-Breeds,” later exemplified by Theodore Roosevelt).  We can only speculate how the destiny of the Republic was altered by his assassination and whether later controversies might have been lessened or avoided had Garfield been able to complete his presidency.  

Millard also portrays very real personalities, including Garfield’s likeable family, the venal Senator Roscoe Conkling, the arrogant Doctor Bliss, the utterly crazy Charles Guiteau, and the hyperactive Alexander Bell.  There are other characters we would have liked to know better, such as Doctor Susan Edson, a woman physician who was allowed only a subordinate role in treating the wounded Garfield, and Julia Sand, whose letters gave remarkably salient political advice to Vice-President Chester Arthur as he assumed the presidency. 

Millard’s excellent telling of these interrelated stories won over all the members of the book group. A remote period became very immediate. Millard gives lucid clinical descriptions of the medical treatment of the wounded president by American practitioners who still resisted antiseptic practices that had gained acceptance in Europe, and that would probably have avoided the sepsis that ultimately killed Garfield after ten agonizing weeks of highly questionable treatment.  Though we know the outcome, Millard lets us feel the suspense as flawed characters pile tragedy upon tragedy to undo an admirable hero and change American destiny.  — Bill Smith

Monday, February 25, 2019

Glass Houses, by Louise Penny

For the thirteenth time, Louise Penny has written a number-one best selling mystery novel. And once again, Superintendent Armand Gamache (now promoted to Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Quebec) plays the leading role.  But this time Penny’s plot weaves two seemingly un-related stories together into an intricate mystery full of twists and turns, juicy details and humor. It’s a great read.  And, like all Penny’s Gamache mysteries, it is beautifully written.

The book opens on a steamy July day in an uncomfortably hot Montreal courtroom. Surprisingly, Gamache is the one on the stand.  We see a whole different side of his character as we watch and listen to his testimony about drug trafficking.  We learn that he is the courageous, behind-the-scenes leader of a secret, one-man very dangerous war against drugs.  It’s a war that could cost—or save—hundreds of lives. Including Gamache’s.

The second, seemingly un-related, story begins three months later on a cold, rainy November day in Three Pines with the sudden, mysterious appearance of a masked, cloaked figure.  He stands unmoving for hours, then days, on the Village Green thorough rain and sleet, staring at someone or something in the village. 

Villagers come to believe that the figure is a Cobrador, a debt collector. According to history, they act as a conscience for someone who has committed a terrible crime.Villagers are curious, but soon become wary.  Gamache suspects the creature has a “dark purpose.” But he can do nothing but watch and wait for days, as his fears continue to mount. Then the creature vanishes as quickly and quietly as it arrived.  But the villagers’ relief quickly turned to fear when a body is discovered. And another murder mystery begins. 

Penny toggles between the two stories, between the courtroom in Montreal and the village of Three Pines, putting her readers inside Gamache’s head as he slowly and meticulously unravels the mysteries.  She weaves an intricate plot, taking readers scene by tantalizing scene to the truth that finally solves the mystery.— by Gail Stilwill

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Island: The Complete Stories, by Alistair MacLeod

The words of the narrator in “The Closing Down of Summer”:

“[I]n the introduction to the literature text that my eldest daughter brings home from university it states that ‘the private experience, if articulated with skill, may communicate an appeal that is universal beyond the limitations of time or landscape.’ I have read that over several times and thought about its meaning in relation to myself. . . . I would like somehow to show and tell the nature of my work and perhaps some of my entombed feelings to those that I would love, if they would care to listen.”

And what follows is the narrator’s explanation of leaving university and the reading of literature to embrace the life of a deep shaft miner, traveling the world, abandoning his family at the end of each summer in a caravan of big cars full of large, strong, brave men, and going to places like Haiti, Chile, the Congo. Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico, Jamaica. Drinking moonshine as they drive non-stop, hard through the night.

MacLeod is brilliant in showing and telling the nature of their dangerous work and the fullness of their hearts in their isolation from the rest of the world. We can feeltheir physicality and courage. We can know them.

Like the narrator in “The Closing Down of Summer,” MacLeod wants us to understand and care and know about his corner of the world, his people, his roots. So he writes about the people who came to Cape Breton as part of The Clearances (the forced migration of people from the Highlands and western islands of Scotland in the mid-to-late 18thCentury). Most of his stories are set on Cape Breton, where the old Gaelic language, music, and myths are still part of life. 

MacLeod uses his amazing skills as a describer to make us feel how beautiful and compelling, but inhospitable and dangerous, Cape Breton is. How proud people are to be miners, fishermen, and farmers. How arduous such work is on the body and spirit. What pride the people take in their work.

There are sixteen stories in Island, the first published when MacLeod was thirty-one, the last when he was sixty-three. And the tenor of the stories, as they progress from 1968 to 1999 generally embrace the aging of the human spirit and psyche. 

Characters in the earlier stories are more innocent and aspirational (boys like Jesse in “The Golden Gift of Grey” who drifts into the pool hall, and like James in “The Vastness of the Dark” who believes leaving home will be simple).  With the middle stories like “The Closing Down of Summer,” narrators are in their prime, but mindful of the cycle of life. And with the last stories like “Vision,” “Island,” and “Clearances,” there’s disillusion, madness, German tourists, and pit bulls.

Stories are populated by children, young people, men, women, old people–and, of almost equal importance, by cattle, horses, sheep, dogs, and chickens.  The breeding of people and the breeding of animals is serious business in this world.

Most of the stories have a male narrator – thus the collection overall has a masculine perspective. In many ways, the stories are a study of masculinity. But we see women. And they are strong. The fierce mother in “The Boat” and the woman with the coral combs in “In the Fall.” The resolute grandmother in “The Road to Rankin’s Point.” The brave, lonely, ultimately mad woman in “Island.”

The skill of MacLeod’s writing makes Cape Breton and its people real. We know them. And by knowing them, we know ourselves. We know that life is ultimately a story of loss, but that loss can be faced with kinship, love, and courage.

My favorite anecdote about MacLeod is that when a writing student asked him how long a good story should be, MacLeod answered, “Just make your story as long as a piece of string, and it will work out just fine.”

And it does. —Sharelle Moranville

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Educated, by Tara Westover

Educated is a multi-dimensional memoir in which Tara Westover traces her voyage from an isolated and troubling childhood to the highest levels of academia.  She grew up in a religiously conservative Mormon family in remote surroundings in the Idaho mountains.  The family outlook is more than conservative – as Westover describes it, the ethic is survivalist, isolationist, and distrustful of outside influences, even those from mainstream Mormon sources.  Telling are her father’s extensive preparations for Y2K and his ultimate disappointment when those preparations were proved unnecessary. The isolation grew, such that the older children attended community schools for a few years, but Tara never attended school, and her home schooling included little beyond the Bible and the Book of Mormon.  

The dominant themes of her youth are dangerous work in the family junkyard and controlling and abusive behavior by an older brother.  The picture is more nuanced, however, as she was exposed to outside forces in several ways. One set of grandparents lived in town and provided some contact with the larger world.  She developed a singing talent and participated in church music and community theater.  She occasionally held jobs in town and developed some trusting friendships with other young people.  An older brother went to Brigham Young University and ultimately opened an awareness of that avenue to Tara.  

These conflicting forces built Westover’s growing awareness of her talents and opportunities.  This section of the memoir left some of our group unsatisfied; some readers would have liked more description, for instance, of how she prepared herself for college admission without the benefit (or burden?) of any formal scholastic training.  Other themes were just as important as academic preparation, however. Westover covers how leaving for college allowed her to deal with mental instability and abusive relationships, her own sense of integrity, and the values of family relationships compared to academic work.  Ultimately that is unfinished work and she is still wrestling with being part of family without being trapped by it.  She deals very honestly with the reality that some of her observations and memories differ substantially from those of other members of the family.  

Our group had an interesting discussion of memoir writing.  Westover writes from the perspective of the age of about thirty. This gives her an advantage of proximity to the events she writes about, but limits the perspective that may come with more distance and maturity.  We expect that the bulk of Westover’s professional and personal development still lies ahead of her and might lead to new reflections of her forming experiences. The etymology of “educated” suggests a drawing out.  Usually this implies drawing lessons from the past or work of others or drawing the best out of oneself.  This tale also evokes Westover drawing herself away from the complexities of her birth family into the world of higher academia as she studies at Cambridge and Harvard.  As education should never end, we await what will fuel Westover’s future memoirs.   — Bill Smith

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

“And so once more to the wandering Road,” declares Bryson in his 2000 book In a Sunburned Country. His previous excursions were along the Appalachian Trial in the national bestseller A Walk in the Woods, and rambles through Britain in Notes from a Small Island, and now to his visits to Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, the hottest, driest weather, and the most lethal wildlife found on the planet (the ten most poisonous snakes, sharks and crocodiles in abundance, cassowary’s with razor claws, venomous seashells, spiders galore, even fluffy caterpillars and knife-like plants).
To travel with Bryson is not to simply experience a locale, but rather to enjoy his special visions and his humor – self-deprecating, but with a well-developed sense of the ridiculous, the outlandish and sublime. I lost track of how many times I laughed until there were tears running down my cheeks.  He doesn’t try to be funny at all costs, it’s just the way he is. For example, he says: “Cricket is the only sport that shares its name with an insect”, and “the following are all real places: Wee Waa, Poowon, Burrumbuttock, Suggan Buggan, Jiggalong, and the supremely satisfying Tittybong.”
Australia is fascinating, and Bryson has done an excellent job of telling us why – touching on a little bit of everything – history, politics, people, geology, biology, flora and fauna. Wherever he goes, he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, obliging, and quirky. He says that Aussies spend half of any conversation insisting that the country’s dangers are vastly overrated and there is nothing to worry about, and the other half telling you how a snake bit Uncle Bob on his groin, but it’s okay now as he’s off the life support machine. Clearly, Bryson’s fascination and affection for Australia shines through.
On the other hand, Bryson tries to set the record straight about Australia's original people, pointing out that the Aborigines are the world's oldest continuously maintained culture and they were sophisticated enough to get to Australia from Asia by boat, long before Europeans even figured out how to sail. But he also writes about white Australians' racism and tragic treatment of the Aborigines, but acknowledges that, like most white Australians, he has had virtually no contact with the Aborigine population.
The result is a deliciously funny, fact-filled and adventurous performance by Bryson, who combines humor, wonder and unflagging curiosity. My only negative criticism is that the book would have benefited with the addition of better, more extensive maps.  Since Bryson was constantly on the move, I found myself frequently going back to the four maps at the beginning of the book. Pictures would have helped too. For example, here’s a panorama of Uluru (Ayers Rock), the world’s largest monolith.  Words alone don’t convey the beauty one of Australia's most recognizable natural landmarks around sunset, showing its distinctive red coloration. 

I highly recommend this enjoyable and delightful book. Bryson did a considerable amount of research before heading Down Under and his writing shows it.As the Aussies would put it, he's done a fair dinkum job.— Ken Johnson

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison says she intended her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel Beloved to be disorienting. And she succeeded.  She throws readers into the internal chaos faced by former slaves, who live in a constant state of grief, anxiety, and determination. This book is the ultimate definition of showing rather than telling. As we read, our minds try to make sense of a story that is non-linear to the extreme, that is usually unclear and unexplained. But Morrison wants us to experience, at least to a small degree, what it felt like to be a slave.

"Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another," says the main character, Sethe, late in the book.

The details of what happens in the book can be difficult to determine empirically, especially for people who want all the pieces of a puzzle to fit. In Beloved, Morrison leaves us with pieces we have to imagine ourselves. This is a sensual book, not a logical one.

The story begins with Sethe living at 124 Bluestone Road, on the outskirts of Cincinnati. She’d escaped the Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky with her two boys and the baby she was still nursing. She’d sent her children ahead and had a fourth baby on her way to Ohio, helped by a young white woman named Amy Denver; she named the baby Denver, after the mysterious woman.  With the help of another former slave, Stamp Paid, she made it to 124, where her mother-in-law Baby Suggs lived as a free woman, bought by her son Halle, Sethe’s husband.

Sethe has a month of freedom before Schoolteacher, who took over Sweet Home, finds her. In terror and rage, she kills her baby to keep her from slavery, slitting the child’s throat.  She is briefly jailed and then returns to 124, which is now overcome with the spirit of the dead baby. She has only enough money for the word “Beloved” to be placed on the baby’s gravestone--not enough to add “Dearly.”

The first line gives a solid clue about where we're going:

"124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom."

The house is a character in this complex work, a haven, a protector, but also a prison and a keeper of secrets. Baby Suggs has since died and Sethe and teenage Denver live in the house alone. The two boys have run away, pushed out by the house's violent spirit. Sethe works in town, cooking at a restaurant.

Paul D., who was a slave at Sweet Home with Sethe, shows up early on. He feels the mood of the house and calls it evil. “Not evil, “Sethe says, “Just sad.” Denver disagrees, saying the ghost “is not evil, but not sad either.” What is it? "Rebuked. Lonely and rebuked," Denver says.

Paul D. may or may not be the catalyst for the arrival of a young woman who calls herself Beloved, who emerges out of the river shortly after Paul D. shows up. It’s more than 20 years since Sethe escaped the plantation, where, as slaves, both faced horrors neither can forget, or live with.

Who is Beloved? Is she actually the spirit of Sethe’s murdered child, come back to seek revenge? The clues are there—she’s the right age, she speaks with a raspy voice because she had died of a slit throat, her feet are like a baby’s, and she behaves like a toddler—an angry, spiteful one.

To Sethe and Denver, who have lived with Beloved’s ghost, it’s a given that the young woman who showed up on their porch one summer day is the baby who died in the shed behind their house.  

But to Paul D., Beloved is a threat to his happiness with Sethe, whom he has loved for decades.  And she’s a vestige of what he left behind. But Sethe’s strong feelings worry him. It’s not safe:

Risky, thought Paul D, very risky. For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you'd have a little love left over for the next one.”  
Beloved's control over Sethe builds until it nearly kills her. Denver, originally under Beloved's spell, sees her as a danger and an aberration and finally leaves the house and goes to town, seeking help. She finds a community to support her, especially the women who come to 124, singing and praying in an attempt to rid 124 of the ghost. When the women see Beloved, they “surprise themselves by feeling no fear.” Mr. Bodwin, basically a good guy and protector of slaves, drives up. But he’s white, and Sethe thinks he’s coming after her “best thing,” her child, Beloved. This sets her into another rage. This time, Denver and the women constrain her.

Beloved disappears and a boy says he saw a woman walking into the river with fish for hair. Are we to make sense of this? We can try, but whatever it means, Beloved is gone.

Later, Sethe tells Paul D. that Beloved was her “best thing.”

“No,” Paul D. replies. “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” — Pat Prijatel