Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett

In The Magician’s Assistant, Ann Patchett tells a wonderful story of real life. She shows us love, cruelty, joy, grief, reinvention, and revelation. The narrative is a delightful mashup of the dead and the living; the past and the present; Los Angeles and a tiny Nebraska town where the Walmart is a wonderland. As always, Patchett’s characters are notable in their particularity, and her settings (especially that rice paddy in Vietnam ☺) feel viscerally real. 

The book was published in 1997 and takes place in the nineties—a time when aids was a deadly scourge, homosexuals were often hated and feared, and the country was still dealing with fallout from the Vietnam war. Sabine, the main character, is paralyzed with grief because her beloved Parsifal (who married her only so she could be his widow) has died of an aneurysm in the footsteps of his Vietnamese lover, Phan, who died of AIDS. The Magician’s Assistant is a novel about grief. It also takes on homicide, domestic abuse, and family dysfunction. And by allusion, the holocaust and the Vietnam war. 

And yet. And yet, it is a remarkably loving story told with lots of glam, glitter, and hyperbole. 

The characters are kind to each other, with the notable exceptions of Guy’s father and Kitty’s husband, who become catalysts for transformation. The horrors of domestic violence motivate Guy to transform himself into Parsifal the magician. Howard’s meanness drive Kitty into Sabine’s bed. And Sabine and Kitty (we assume) will eventually find true love with one another. 

The story is realistically told, but with just enough razzle dazzle to make it feel like it’s about . . . well . . . magic. The opulence of Sabine’s house in Los Angeles; the incredibly fine detail of her architectural models, the huge, beautiful, pricey rugs. All those teeny beads Phan sews on Sabine’s wedding gown. The unsettling similarity in appearance of Parsifal and Kitty. The gorgeous androgyny of tall, thin Sabine wandering around in Phan’s silk pajamas. Plump, placid, omnipresent Rabbit. All a bit over the top, but so compelling—especially the dreams that feel more like travel in the afterlife. 

And then there’s Sabine’s card trick at the wedding. The morning before the wedding, “she found she could give the deck four extremely careless taps under any circumstance of noise with an utter lack of concentration and the aces still raced to the top of the deck like horses to the barn. That very morning, she had leaned out of the shower and tapped the deck four times with a soapy hand. Bingo. 

When she, in an act of faith that a magic trick with no trickery will actually work, performs this at Bertie and Haas’s wedding reception, the guests are underwhelmed. They would have preferred something flashier with baby chicks instead of a quiet card trick. But the bride intuits something special has happened. Perhaps the “trick” that is not a trick is a quiet but profound sign to Sabine. The Parsifal she adored for so many years—never suspecting how little she knew him, what a total trickster he was—has led her to his sister. He has made a miracle for her and Kitty. 

The Magician’s Assistant is the human condition revealed with pizzazz and affection. 

-- Sharelle Moranville

Monday, October 11, 2021

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan


Peter Frankopan, an Oxford historian, sweeps us through the last 2,000 years of world history, showing us how it looks from an Asian perspective rather than from the European perspective that dominates our educational experiences. He posits that the Middle East, Central Asia, call it what we will, is the focal point of the world's trade in ideas, commerce and wealth. For most of these 2,000 years, Europe was a backwater, not the driving force we imagine. He gives us example after example of how European events reacted to events in Asia -- from the crusades to colonization of the Americas, the industrial revolution, and the world ward of the 20th Century.

Frankopan's perspective intensifies as he nears the present; forty percent of the text deals with the period from World War I to the present. As we were reading this book during the final days of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the immediacy of Western cluelessness about this part of the world was poignant. If only Frankopan's broader worldview had been a part of our foreign policy considerations over the last century!

This book is a long, hard read. At over 500 pages thick with unfamiliar names and places, if feels encyclopedic. Most of us felt the effort was rewarded with a new outlook on world affairs and international relationships. It is the textbook to the world history course we wish we had taken. For those looking for the Cliff Notes version, two related books are available. Frankopan has published The Silk Roads, and Illustrated New History of the World (2018), aimed at young adult readers and found in the children's section of our library. It was a welcome companion for several of us. Another member was sent Frankopan's The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World (2019), which extends his discussion into the world he sees unfolding in Asia today. We have added it to our list of possible future books.

-- Bill Smith

Thursday, September 9, 2021

The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich

Biblical in nature and scope, The Last Report is replete with floods, snakes, sin, and forgiveness. Father Damien Modeste has lovingly served the Ojibwe settlement of Little No Horse for eight decades, forming his life around their needs. He may well be a saint. But he’s also a woman. Behind his priestly garb he’s actually Agnes, who transformed herself into a Catholic priest after living a full life as a Catholic nun, farm wife, and general adventurer, with random interactions with outlaws, floods, dead cows, and Chopin.

The epic tale of Agnes’s early life requires a total suspension of disbelief as she faces one passion after another, often losing herself in Chopin to such a degree that she ends up ecstatic and naked on the piano bench. This, not surprisingly, gets her kicked out of the convent. She finds love with a German farmer who dies defending her but leaves her his prosperous farm. Then Agnes gets caught in a disastrous flood, which sends her down the river in her wispy white nightdress, hanging on to her grand piano. When she lands, she finds a dead priest hanging in a tree, so she takes his dry clothes and his identity.

As one does.

This novel follows Agnes until she is over 100 and deeply entrenched in being Father Damien, while maintaining vestiges of her real, feminine self. She wraps her breasts tightly to hide her feminine identity and learns the rules of being a man, as she defines early in the book:
1.Make requests in the form of orders.
2. Give compliments in the form of concessions.
3. Ask questions in the form of statements.
4. Exercise to enhance the muscles of the neck?
5. Admire women’s handiwork with copious amazement.
6. Stride, swing arms, stop abruptly, stroke chin.
7. Sharpen razor daily.
8. Advance no explanations.
9. Accept no explanations.
10. Hum an occasional resolute march. 
Despite her subterfuge, the Ojibwe know she's a woman and are just fine with her pretending to be a man, although they don't understand the necessity.

In one delightful section, Nanapush, an elder Agnes has learned to admire and love, questions her during a game of chess. He knows Agnes wants to keep her femininity a secret, so Nanapush chooses to address her during an especially tricky move because, quite simply, he wants to win the game:
“What are you?" he said to Damien, who was deep in a meditation over his bishop's trajectory.
"A priest," said Father Damien.
"A man priest or a woman priest?"
Agnes panics until she realizes Nanapush is really only curious.
"I am a priest," she whispered, hoarsely, fierce.
"Why," said Nanapush kindly, as though Father Damien hadn't answered, to put the question to rest, "Are you pretending to be a man priest?”
Why, indeed? Because the Catholic church doesn't allow women to be priests and, throughout the book, when asked who she really is, Agnes consistently answers: “I am a priest.” A lover asks it, a papal investigator asks it, Agnes asks it of herself. Why: Because I am a priest.

The book encourages comparisons with other classics, from Death Comes for the Archibishop, by Willa Cather, to Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, with a little Faulker and Shakespeare thrown in, plus a bit of the Bible.

Erdrich's reprises her most memorable Ojibwa characters—Fleur and her daughter Lulu, plus the Nanapushes, Kashpaws and the Puyats—which she introduced in previous novels (Love Medicine, Four Souls, Tracks). The book stands on its own, although it makes you want to read more to get the backstory on these people working hard to live a life of truth.

Chapter 18, La Mooz, Or the Death of Nanapush, is a classic, worth reading by itself. Perhaps more than once. And the sections on Mary Kashpaw, from the very beginning (her aggressively terrible coffee) to the end and her final, silent care for Agnes/Damien, are heart-rending yet beautiful, a picture of true love.

What’s the miracle? There are many: the people, the land, the priest. 

Friday, August 13, 2021

Classic Restaurants of Des Moines and Their Recipes by Darcy Dougherty-Maulsby

I moved to Des Moines in 1970 and have always enjoyed eating out in Des Moines restaurants, so was very pleased to get a copy of Darcy Maulsby's new book. What a fantastic gift for food-loving residents in Iowa. It was such fun to flip through these pages and reminisce about past dining adventures in Des Moines and see recipes for favorite local dishes. So, after reading a few chapters, and enjoying it so much, I recommended it to my book club, which agreed to read it.

In the early 70's most of the restaurants in Des Moines, it seemed, were Italian. We tried them all: Johnny's Vets Club, Fatinos, Tursi's Latin King, Noah's Ark, Chuck's, Gino's, even Alice's Spaghettiland (even though it was a long drive). Later in years, we went frequently to Ajno's as it was nearby our house. But, after a while other types of restaurants also became popular.

When I worked for Iowa Hospital Association in the early '70s, I officed on Ingersoll, not too far from Colorado Feed and Grain. We often stopped there after work for drinks, and occasionally at dinner there. We were so regular that the waitresses all knew what we meant when we ordered our "usual". We also ate lunch regularly at close by Maxie's. I remember smelling like french fries after returning to work. I still eat at their West Des Moines place and always enjoy the Maxieburger.

Also in the 70's and 80's my wife and I ate at Bishop's Cafeteria, as our good friend (and best man at our wedding) was the manager there and often joined him and his wife for dinner there. About the same time, the top of the Holiday Inn was a favorite place, as it rotated once every hour, giving a great view of Des Moines.

Without my wife knowing, I used to sneak out to get an occasional drink at Ruthie's, who was famous for balancing a beer glass on each of her 48DD's. Another place I went to without my wife (as she hated it) was George the Chili King. It was handy for lunch and I loved their chiliburgers.

Later, in the 90's and beyond, Court Avenue was a favorite place in the evenings. Spaghetti Works, Kaplan Hat Co.,  The Metz, Gringo's, and Julio's were regular evening haunts for my wife and I and our kids. I also officed downtown and spent many lunch hours there.

For many years (not so much recently) we regularly attended the State Fair. We even camped out there a couple of years with good friends. Our favorites were corn dogs, pork tenders, and turkey legs. Although Darcy mentioned that the food there never changes, the DM Register published an article on July 13 that specified that there are 63 creative new dishes at the Fair this August.

For many years, I regularly ate breakfast with a business partner at the Drake Diner, and since then, our grandchildren love to go there for dinner in the evenings. We also used to go regularly to Stella's Blue Sky Diner (at both the one in the Skywalk and in Clive), but stopped going there after finding a bandaid in my dinner.

Darcy included a large chapter about Babe Bisignano and Babe's, his famous restaurant. What a life he led, and she covered it from his early life and well beyond. I remember often going there to eat and he was always going around, visiting with all the customers and often offering them a free drink. After I bought a downtown restaurant in 1988, I found that the previous owner had taken a lot of the restaurant equipment. But Babe took me down to his basement and gave me a dishwasher and other equipment -- for free. He had a colorful personality, tough exterior, but a kind heart.

Now for a review of the book:

Author Maulsby serves up a "feast" of Des Moines restaurant classics, mixed with their history, complete with iconic recipes. She brings back many fond memories for anyone who has visited or lived around Des Moines.

In addition to writing about many restaurants in the Des Moines area, she also covered a number of famous people, including Ronald Reagan, who lived in Des Moines in the 30's, and Roger Williams, who as an 18-year old kid majoring in music in Des Moines, got his first professional job playing piano at Babe's, and went on to become one of the world's most famous pianists. She even covered the life of Edna Griffin, who, on July 7, 1948, was denied service at the downtown Katz Drug Store. Her actions preceded Rosa Parks' bus ride, and resulted in civil actions every bit as important in attacking racism.

And, Darcy covered a number of other restaurants I have enjoyed over the years, including Taste of Thailand, Younkers Tea Room, Big Daddy's BBQ, The Pier, King Ying Low's, Maid Rite and The Machine Shed. And well beyond restaurants and recipes, she also gives savory stories of race relations, women's rights, Iowa Caucus politics, the arts, immigration and assimilation.

In conclusion, it was such a "delicious" book of local history and food -- and such fun to scan through the pages, bringing back so many special memories of Des Moines eateries. I highly recommend it.

Ken Johnson

Saturday, July 17, 2021

The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende’s novels often take place during a time of war and its aftermath when characters are forced to tap unknown reservoirs of strength and find creative, unorthodox ways of forming families to protect the vulnerable.  

Her novels are invariably well plotted and often include a thread of magical realism. And they tend to be beautifully written—though in The Japanese Lover, likely the translation does not do justice to the original manuscript.


The time of war in this novel is World War II, with the concentration camps in Germany and the Japanese internment camps in America. And the long tail on the war likely made places like Moldova (where Irina’s story begins) a place to leave. 


Early in the war, young Alma, with her Jewish parentage, is sent from Poland to live with the wealthy Belasco family in San Francisco. In her loneliness, she is befriended and comforted by her older cousin, Nathaniel Belasco. And she is utterly captivated by young Ichimei Fukuda, the Japanese gardener’s son, whose family is one of many sent to an internment camp. 


As the years pass after the war, Ichimei’s life takes its own path, and Alma grows up and marries her cousin Nathaniel and has a son with him. And the son grows up and has a son, Seth, who grows up to be one of the main chroniclers of his grandmother’s life—including the undying love story between her and gentle Ichimei.


In the time present of the story, Alma is elderly and Seth is trying to complete a history of the wealthy and well-known Belasco family before his grandmother dies. Of great puzzlement to Seth is why, “early in 2010 his grandmother’s personality underwent a complete change in the space of two hours. Although she had been a successful artist and someone who always fulfilled her obligations, she suddenly cut herself off from the world, family, and friends, shutting herself away in an old people’s home that was beneath her and deciding, in her daughter-on-law Doris’s opinion, to dress like a Tibetan refugee.”


The overall movement of the novel is to discover why. Why does she do his sudden, outrageous, and inexplicable thing? What happened to cause such a dramatic turn?


Seth and Irina (a young woman who works at the old people’s home and hides a huge secret of her own) come together to love and support Alma, and to find out why she made such a dramatic change. 


To tell the story, the narration begins with a few steps forward in the characters’ lives, reaches back in time to reveal something important, takes a few more steps forward, reaches back in time to reveal something else important. Over and over again—until the reader finally and satisfyingly understands why Alma’s whole life changed in the space of two hours.  


Allende, through Alma, as seen by Irina—who is a kind of acolyte in the complicated ritual of dying—presents an evocative, compelling picture of aging unto death. Yes, aging is troublesome. It involves unrelenting loss. And it is inevitable. But Alma moves toward it with passion, discipline, imagination, and a touch of whimsey. Her soothing ritual of long weekends away with Ichimei help her linger on the bridge between life and death with her true love.


The Japanese Lover feels singular in the way it depicts growing old and dying as a heady distillation of life. — Sharelle Moranville




Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague, by Maggie O’Farrell

As the author tells us in her opening Historical Note: “In the 1580s, a couple living on Henley Street, Stratford, had three children: Susanna, then Hamnet and Judith, who were twins.  The boy, Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven.  Four years or so later, the father wrote a play called Hamlet.”  And in her closing Author’s Note, O’Farrell writes, “This is a work of fiction, inspired by the short life of a boy who died in Stratford, Warwickshsire, in the summer of 1596.”  


But the book is so very much more.  The story is not much about this boy, Hamnet, nor about his father, who is never named in the book, only referred to, first, as “the boy,” and later “the Latin tutor,” or “the husband.”  This is a story of Agnes, Hamnet’s mother, Shakespeare’s wife.  It is about her strangeness among women of her time; about her knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants; about her fierce love for her husband and her family; about her ability to sense what is wrong under the guise of the normal; about her ability to manipulate the patriarchal system to make happen what is best for the people around her.


The flyleaf on the book jacket describes Agnes as “a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people.”  I would disagree – While her gifts as a healer and in understanding plants and potions are undeniable, I would argue that she has a profound understanding of herself and the people with whom she lives.


At every turn, we see a woman so in touch with herself and with her community that she is able to defy community mores and truly be her own true self.


This is a beautifully written work, full of such descriptions of sixteenth century English life that we can feel and smell and almost touch the streets, the houses, the farms.  But again, so much more.  These relative simply sentences capture better than anything I have ever read the reality of labor:  “She feels another pain coming, driving towards her, getting closer, like thunder over a landscape.  She turns, she crouches, she pants through it, as she knows she must, holding tight to a tree root.  Even in the throes of it, when it has her in its clutches, when it drives everything from her mind but the narrow focus of when it might end, she recognises that it is getting stronger.  It means business, this pain.  It will not leave her be.  Soon it will not let her rest or gather herself.  It means to force her out of herself, to turn what is inside outside.”  


And surely, the grief that comes with the death of her son is so magnificently written that we too are overcome.


I wish I had the words to recommend this book as highly as I’d like to.  Alas, I don’t.  But it is among the best books I have ever read, a book that holds you so tightly that you don’t want to put it down, much less begin reading another.  It is a gem.- Jeanie Smith

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Who Ate the First Oyster? By Cody Cassidy

How did humans get the way we are? Pants-wearing, horseback-riding, disease-fighting jokesters, some of whom eat oysters? Cody Cassidy has a few answers, in a book that’s far more well-researched and thoughtful than its quirky cover suggests. Who Ate the First Oyster? The Extraordinary People Behind the Greatest Firsts in History is inventive and clever, which makes it appeal to a mass audience and to those of us who yearn for a little light, but not dumb, reading. It is supported by substantial research in evolutionary biology, archaeology and anthropology, and makes innovative connections that stitch together three million years of human development. Cassidy starts at our pre-human stage, but places the most emphases on the past 300,000 years, since the arrival of the first anatomically modern Homo sapiens.

When did we begin wearing pants? As far as scientists can tell, that happened 164,000 years ago—a date that is measurable because it matches the arrival of the body louse, which evolved from the head louse. Why? What? Huh?  Apparently the louse jumped from the head of one of our ancestors and onto his clothing, which means he had clothing. Probably not pants, more likely some sort of adornment, but duds nevertheless. Cassidy calls this person Ralph, after Mr. Lauren.


We can trace horseback riding to 5,600 years ago, when anthropologists date the first known bridle, which allowed a rider to control a horse. Before that, horses were used as meat and milk (kudos to people who have the guts to milk a horse) but were too wild to consider riding. No doubt many broken bodies preceded the first successful ride, which, Cassidy notes, changed history and became the dominant from of transportation until the 20th century. It also changed economics, because those without horses could not compete for resources with those who had the beasts and could control them. Cassidy names the first rider Napoleon “in honor of Napoleon Cybulski, the Polish physiologist who first isolated adrenaline, a molecule that played no small role in this moment of inspiration.”


The first oyster? That came because Oyster Gal—not one of Cassidy’s best choices of names—figured out how the moon affects the tides, so she could know when it was safe to go to the sea for her oysterfest. Why eat them in the first place? Because she saw other animals doing it, and surviving. Also, she was probably hungry and darn tired of eating roots. 


In a sobering and eye-opening section, Cassidy explains how the tools of warfare typically evolved from toys, and how the bow and arrow was the first weapon not to mimic nature. It was invented by a man he calls Archie, for obvious reasons.


Cassidy personalizes his characters throughout, explaining that most early Homo sapiens could have handled a contemporary discussion or task just fine, given preparation, although they might have been shorter, with larger brows.  His names, while often witty, show an understanding of history and culture. The woman who invented fire is called Martine after a French geologist who was “jailed for witchcraft, which you can imagine is an accusation our Martine, after striking the first fire, would almost certainly have risked as well.” The first person whose name we know is Kushim, a bookkeeper who lived along the Euphrates River and signed his name on his tallies.  


Noting that Columbus was the last person to discover the Americas, he introduces us to the first, whom he calls Dersu, after the Siberian explorer Dersu Uzala. Why? You’ll have to read the book. I’ve probably told you too much already.


This is an easy read, but it offers much to think about. Chapters are digestible and short, and you can read one at a sitting, never worrying about losing the storyline. The book comes with maps and a timeline that help illustrate what is essentially a highly accessible history of the development of human civilization. Sometimes Cassidy’s conclusions feel like a stretch, but they make you think of what might have been and how it might have happened.—Pat Prijatel