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I read eleven non-fiction books last year and would like to double that in 2012 because I found that I really love the Narrative Non-Fiction and Narrative biography. Anyway I read:
The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin - NNF
West with the Night by Beryl Markham - Memoir
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain - Autobiography
Every Man in this Village is a Liar by Megan Stack - NNF
The Trouble with Poetry by Billy Collins - Poetry
Let's Take the Long Way Home - Gail Caldwell - Memoir
Howard's End is on the Landing by Susan Hill - NF
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie - Narrative Biography
Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz - NNF
This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff - Memoir
And this book that I just got in at the end of December, a pretty darn wonderful Narrative Non-Fiction book that was an ER offering, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death and hope in a Mumbai undercity:
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity by Katherine Boo 4.3 stars
If I hadn’t won this book as an ER offering, I would probably read it anyway, as it’s written in the style of my new favorite genre, Narrative Non-Fiction. Annawadi is a crude slum on the outskirts of the airport in Mumbai, India. While the city is booming the resurgence passes these residents by. This is what poverty looks like when there are no government programs available to help the impoverished.
The author is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who, previously had done in depth stories about the poor in the U.S. as a staff writer for the New Yorker among other publications and is quite adept at drawing the reader into the lives of the people she uses to tell the story of life in the Annawadi slums. This is how the book maintains its “narrative” style. The dialogue and other narrative features that are predominant in the book were enabled by the author’s copious notes, tape recorded conversations, videotaped footage, and official documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The result is a smooth account, told by the people living this miserable life.
And miserable and heartbreaking it is. Abdul is a teenager who is trying to support his parents and eight siblings doing the only job available to him: collecting recyclables around the airport, which enables him to be able to maintain the hut the family is crowded into under deplorable conditions. Asha is a woman working her way up the political ladder in her area, very rare for a woman in a society where women have very few rights and are treated dreadfully by men. Asha’s daughter, Manju, is a college student and teacher of young children, who wants to be the first woman college graduate from Annawadi. Through these two families we meet other friends and relatives, each adding to the story of those on the invisible margins of society in India.
The corruption in India isn’t limited to the police. That’s a given. But the poorest of the poor have to be able to bribe on a regular basis. When the one-legged woman next door ends up in the hospital after self-immolation, they discover that the nurses, who want no contact with patients, ask the patients’ families to supply medication, and the doctors need to be bribed to care for patients. The courts require a bribe to conduct a speedy (fast-track court) trial. But even with that, if sufficient bribery hasn’t taken place, the results can be uncertain.
Unfortunately, the publisher asks that no quotations be used from the book until after it’s published in February. That would have helped me tremendously in illustrating the ways in which the author relates the story in glorious prose while, at the same time, not letting her language stand out. It’s the people’s story and their words need to be the ones to shine. Boo is tremendously clever at achieving this.
This is an unforgettable book, presenting an intimate portrait of the desperate lives being lived in the shadow of luxury hotels. As India’s most vibrant city continues its meteoric rise the slum-dwellers find themselves being left further and further behind.
I have quite a few potentially good ones lined up for 2012 including:
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isobel Wilkerson
Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund deWaal
Columbine by Dave Cullen
Triangle: the Fire that Changed America by David Drehle
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
A Time of Gifts: On foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Well apparently I have a lot of NF on my shelf, actually 30 unread NF books. So plenty to choose from, which I am happy to do:)
Glad to hear that's a good book! I received it as an ER book as well and am hoping to get to it shortly.
>2 Yes, just what we need Mark. Can you believe the absolute chaos that is the 75er group right now? Insanity! Who has time to read;-)
>3 There you go Katherine. We aim to please.
>4 I hope you like it japaul.
I read my first NF of the year.
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff 4.2 stars
There have been volumes written about Cleopatra VII, so why I was drawn to this particular one is a mystery. I love history but what I know about the time of the Egyptian queen could be written on the head of a pin. So it’s good that I chose a book that is so readable and so easy for a novice to follow and understand. But what Stacy Schiff set out to do was to set the record straight because to say that information about her subject is convoluted and questionable is putting it mildly. A myth has built up around Cleopatra, helped in no little part by Elizabeth Taylor so in building her narrative, the author went back to sources that were writing at the time history was being made (Cicero) and sources that wrote centuries after Cleopatra’s reign (Dio and Plutarch) and tried to filter out that which proved to be implausible.
Here was a woman who married twice (brothers both, who she ruled jointly with, briefly), but had only two lovers. They just happened to be Julius Caesar and Marc Antony and with them she produced four children. She also murdered her sister and brother to assure her place on the throne. She came from a long line of murderers so I guess we should cut her some slack. And her love affairs with the two Roman generals occurred when they were both married. You can draw your own conclusions from that.
Cleopatra’s many accomplishments far outweigh the bad behaviors she may also be remembered for. She acquired an empire that was in decline at the age of eighteen and managed to expand it so that she ruled over the entire eastern Mediterranean. She was highly intelligent and a savvy political opponent. Even in defeat:
She was neither humbled nor panic-stricken but every bit as inventive as she had as she had been when the first reverse of her life landed her in the desert. The word “formidable” sooner or later attaches itself to Cleopatra and here it comes: she was formidable---spirited, disciplined, resourceful---in her retreat. There were no hints of despair. Two thousand years after the fact, you can still hear the fertile mind pulsing with ideas.” Page 264
You can’t come away from this book without commenting on the true differences between Rome and Alexandria. The beauty, inventiveness, and uniqueness of the Egyptian city were staggering. The rights of Egyptian women were unheard of and surprised me:
Egyptian women enjoyed the right to make their own marriage. Over time their liberties increased, to levels unprecedented in the ancient world. They inherited equally and held property independently. Married women did not submit to their husbands control. They enjoyed the right to divorce and to be supported after a divorce. Until the time and ex-wife’s dowry was returned, she was entitled to be lodged in the house of her choice. Her property remained hers; not to be squandered by a wastrel husband.” Page 24
Thoroughly researched (but really, how would I know?), sparkling prose, not quite narrative non-fiction but very close in flow, this book both entertains and informs. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know a woman and an era of which I was woefully uninformed. Highly recommended.
Bonnie- Great review! I have this one in the audio stacks, so hopefully I can squeeze it in soon.
For me, this thread is redundant Mark.LOL. This is the same thing I posted on my regular thread. Thanks again.
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
This book has been recommended by so many here on LT I don't know why it took me so long to get to it. Simply a delightful book of essays about Fadiman's love of books and the role they've played in her life. And, surprise, it resonated with me just as much as any of the other wonderful books about books that I've read. Funny? Oh my yes.
Fadiman, who is hooked on books about polar explorations, on John Franklin's expedition:
"Who but an Englishman,Sir John Franklin, could have managed to die of starvation and scurvy along with all 129 of his men in a region of the Canadian Arctic whose game had supported an Eskimo colony for centuries? When the corpses of some of Franklin's officers and crew were later discovered, miles from their ships, the men were found to have left behind their guns but to have lugged such essentials as monogrammed silver cutlery, a backgammon board, a cigar case, a clothes brush, a tin of button polish, and a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield. These men may have been incompetent bunglers, but, by God, they were gentleman." (Page 25)
Oh my, she really knows how to turn a phrase. And who of us, has not found themselves in a similar situation and reacted exactly as she did here:
"I have spent many a lonely night in small town hotel rooms consoled by the Yellow Pages. Once, long ago, I bested a desperate bout of insomnia by studying the only piece of written material in my apartment that I had not already read twice: my roommate's 1974 Toyota Corolla manual. Under the circumstances (addiction, withdrawal, craving, panic), the section on the manual gearshift was as beautiful to me as Dante's vision of the Sempiternal in canto XXXI of Paradiso.(Page 113)
My husband has accused me of studying the phone book on more than one occasion. But my absolute favorite has got to be the essay about proofreading. My hubby has walked away from me in embarrassment as I pulled out a black marker and corrected a sign or three in the produce department at the local grocery store so I laughed out loud at this, as a pedant could only be expected to do, because it hit so close to home. Fadiman is lucky to be joined by her immediate family in the proofreading business:
"Of course, if you are a compulsive proofreader yourself---and if you are, you know it, since for the afflicted it is a reflex no more avoidable than a sneeze---you are thinking something quite different: What a fine, public-spirited family are the Fadimans! How generous, in these slipshod times, to share their perspicacity with the unenlightened!"
Why can't my hubby be more understanding? Anyway, if you want to laugh and pass a couple of hours in sheer delight, do pick up this little gem. Highly recommended.
Excellent review of Ex Libris, Bonnie. That's another book that I really should read soon (although I don't think I own it).
Inferno: The World at War 1939-1945 by Max Hastings 5 stars
I am not a reader of military history; not interested at all in deadly battle statistics. And do we really need another WWII book? Don’t we already have hundreds, maybe thousands of them? But early reviews of Max Hastings’ magisterial WWII epic piqued my interest because it was described as a book about the people, told in their voices through letters, diaries and other correspondence. So when it landed on the New York Times 100 Best Books of 2011 I knew it was going to be read…by moi. And when I got into the book, it became clear very quickly, that this was an exceptionally well written narrative that I would have a hard time putting down as I made my way through its 700+ painful pages. It was last summer that I read a booked based on another war and realized for the first time (consciously, anyway) that it’s children who actually fight all the wars, sent there, most often, by old men. And a feeling of isolation is a common thread through all wars.
”Combat opened a chasm between those who experienced its horrors and those at home who did not. In December 1943, the Canadian Farley Mowat wrote to his family from the Sangro front in Italy: ‘The damnable truth is we are in really different worlds, on totally different planes, and I don’t really know you any more. I only know the you that was. I wish I could explain the desperate sense of isolation, of not belonging to my own past, of being adrift in some kind of alien space. It is one of the toughest things we have to bear---that and the primal, gut-rotting worm of fear.’” (Page 406)
That isolation is a main theme in the book and is even expressed by John Steinbeck:
”Isolation was a towering sensation, even for men serving amid legions of their compatriots. ‘I see all these thousands of lonely soldiers here,’ John Steinbeck wrote from the British capital in 1943 about the GIs on its streets. ‘There’s a kind of walk they have in London, an apathetic shuffle. They’re looking for something. They’ll say it’s a girl---any girl, but it isn’t that at all.’ Although soldiers often talk about women, under the stress and unyielding discomfort of a battlefield most crave simple pleasures, among which sex rarely features.”
If that was the case, it’s hard to explain the occurrences of violent rape that occurred with almost frightening regularity by servicemen on both sides of the struggle. That was one of the many things I learned about the war. I knew about the rape of thousands of German women in Berlin when the Russians finally occupied the city, (mostly from A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous) but I didn’t realize that the Allies were also guilty of the crime.
I ended up with pages and pages of notes, many delineating topics of which I was woefully ignorant. It would take pages and pages to discuss all these topics but here are the main items I took from the book: most of the other countries involved in the war suffered much more devastating human losses the U.S. and Great Britain none greater than Russia and (very surprisingly) China. In unoccupied Western nations, some people prospered, especially U.S. farmers who saw their incomes rise by 156%. The Red Army was the main engine of the German defeat (as a matter of fact, they could probably have defeated the Nazi’s without the aid of the Americans and the British). The U.S. industrial might contributed more to victory than did its armies. Himmler diverted resources that could have been used for winning in Russia for the extermination of the Jews. There was a slow or no response to the Jewish extermination. Soviet victories were purchased at a human cost no democracy would have accepted. The blunders of the German and Japanese leaders led to defeat. Truman’s greatest mistake, in protecting his own reputation, was his failure to deliver an explicit ultimatum before dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And finally, WWII was the greatest and most terrible event in human history, involving citizens from every inhabited continent in the world.
This was a truly awe-inspiring narrative, surprisingly comprehensive and written elegantly. Told through the voices of those who fought in or stood by those who did this book is very highly recommended especially for those who are not readers of military histories.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption 5 stars
If Louie Zamperini had been in your high school class he would have been one of those bad boys that every girl wanted for her boyfriend and every boy wanted to hang out with. Athletically gifted, good looking, highly intelligent, full of himself and yet getting himself into trouble at every turn. He can run like the wind and goes on to compete in the Olympics. He could probably be the first person to run a four minute mile but it’s now 1942 and there’s a World War going on. Soon after Louie’s appearance in Berlin his plans to prepare for the next Olympics are shelved as the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and Louie is soon training for a different sort of endurance. As a member of the AAF, he is a bombardier assigned to serve his country aboard a B-24 (also known as “The flying coffin) in the Pacific.
The rest of the story, as they say, is history. What Laura Hillenbrand has done, much as she did in Seabiscuit, is to bring to life Zamperini’s story of tremendous courage against unlikely odds, as a castaway and a Japanese POW, and his struggle, after the war, to deal with the memories of his horrific experiences.
And what a story it is. As the narrative unfolds you can’t help but wonder how these young men coped with the shocking conditions they endured at the hands of their captors. But I won’t go into that because Hillenbrand is just so skilled at what she does and the story is so compelling that I’m sure that, like me, you will have a hard time putting this book aside even for a little bit. Very highly recommended.
12: I’m sure that, like me, you will have a hard time putting this book aside even for a little bit.
Indeed I did. Quite the pageturner.
Voyagers of the Titanic by Richard Davenport-Hines 4.2 stars
What a timely read! On exactly the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I was deep in the middle of the narrative of a new book on the subject. Admittedly, I haven’t read any other books on the subject but certainly I know the gist of the story. Who doesn’t?
Yet this book read like a cliff hanger. How is that possible when I already know the outcome? Maybe because Davenport-Hinds related the story from a personal level, devoting a chapter each to each group that had a part in the tragedy: shipowners, shipbuilders, sailors, first-class, second-class, third-class, and officers and crew. He delves into each group in great detail as he explores their role in what took place.
Above all else, the Titanic was a model of class warfare. From the wealthy tycoons, society matrons, and industrial magnates, to the poor immigrants in the cramped steerage quarters, the story of their lives is related in intimate detail. So much so, that at the end, as the ship goes down, the feeling of loss is very real.
Particularly interesting was the delineation of the mistakes that led to the loss of some 1,500 lives on that night in April one hundred years ago including the decision early on in the planning by the ship builders:
”At one day-long meeting, they talked for a total of five or ten minutes about life boat provision; and despite Carlisle’s misgivings, which he dared not express before Pirrie, the provision of lifeboats was cut from 48 to 20…This reduced clutter on the deck as well as costs, but meant that the liner would have lifeboat capacity for a maximum of one-third of its passengers and crew. The risk seemed minimal when the consensus held that the liner was invulnerable.” (Page 57)
That was one reason for the enormous loss of life but, actually, it was a perfect storm of natural occurrences and human error that produced the tragedy that has remained one of the biggest maritime disasters in history. And this book does a fine job of presenting the story in great detail. Highly recommended.
Thanks for the great review of Hasting's Inferno. It sounds like a perfect book for me--I want to read more about World War II, but have trouble with military history.
Thanks banjo, that book is my Book of the Year so far. It really resonated with me.
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman 4 stars
This book broke my heart. It made me angry. It enlightened me. I came out of the reading of it a different person. And it had me scratching my head, once again, at the inept handling of an immigrant issue by the United States government.
On the surface, the book is about the care that Lia Lee, an infant Hmong immigrant in the early 1980s, who suffers from severe seizure disorder, received at a California hospital. But, more deeply, it investigates and reveals the long history of the proud Hmong people. And what Fadiman does so brilliantly is to make clear how that history affected the plight of one family.
First, a little bit about that history. The Hmong originally hailed from the mountains of China, but over centuries of being forced out of the lands they settled in they finally end up in Laos. In the 1960s and early 70s they fight on behalf of the U.S. against the Communist regime. In exchange for bearing arms for the Americans specifically as agents for the CIA:
”Every Hmong has a different version of what is commonly called ‘The promise’: a written or oral contract, made by CIA personnel in Laos, that if they fought for the Americans, the Americans would aid them if the Pathet Lao won the war. After risking their lives to rescue downed American pilots, seeing their villages flattened by incidental American bombs, and being forced to flee their country because they had supported the ‘American War,’ the Hmong expected a hero’s welcome here.” (Page 201)
Needless to say, they didn’t get what they expected. Instead here’s what happened: the U.S. government removed people from Laos who spoke no English and who were self-sufficient farmers from mountain regions. They plopped them into urban areas where they had no way to make a living therefore, forcing them to accept welfare. American neighbors immediately resented these immigrants for “eating welfare.”
Enter infant Lia Lee and her parents Foua and Nao Kao. As welfare recipients, they are entitled to Medicaid for Lia’s care at the hospital. The fact that they don’t speak English and the hospital doesn’t employ any qualified translators spells trouble. Throw in the fact that Lia’s case is very, very complicated and add to that a clash of cultures: western medicine versus Hmong customs and mores. The storm that ensues leads to a tragedy that is heartbreaking.
Fadiman’s narrative makes it easy to empathize with these parents and the plight of the Hmong. Even dedicated, well-meaning doctors cannot overcome severe communication problems and the daunting challenge of bridging the culture gap. Highly recommended.
I have heard a lot of good things about the spirit catches you but haven't managed to read it. It's going on my list.
18: I read this in late 1990s, in a book group (I made them read non-fiction when it was my turn to choose). I'd forgotten about the political background.
>19. I've had this on my shelf for years banjo and finally picked it up.
>20. The political background was totally foreign to me but Fadiman did a terrific job presenting it and tying it to one individual family. So interesting, Katherine.
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books, Bonnie. I'm glad that you enjoyed it.
Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden 4 stars
How do you miss something you don’t even know exists? Blaine Harden’s searing story of the life of North Korean prison camp escapee Shin Dong-hyuk asks this and other provocative questions while exposing the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il, his father before him and his son, presently. Born in a prison camp known as Camp 14, Shin and other children learn early on what to expect from life and loving parents are not in the mix:
”In the years after he escaped the camp, Shin learned that many people associate warmth, security, and affection with the words “mother,” “father,” and “brother.” That was not his experience. Guards taught him and other children in the camp that they were prisoners because of the “sins” of their parents. The children were told that while they should always be ashamed of their traitorous blood, they could go a long way toward “washing away” their inherent sinfulness by working hard, obeying the guards and informing on their parents. The tenth rule of Camp 14 said that a prisoner “must truly” consider each guard as his teacher. That made sense to Shin. As a child and as a teen, his parents were exhausted, distant and uncommunicative.” (Page 18)
So Shin did not spend his captivity regretting the absence of love, happiness or security because he had never experienced such things. He came to view his mother as a competitor for food, nothing more.
The book consists, for the most part, of a shocking, anguished testimony of the every day lives of camp prisoners. Children forced to eat rats and insects to stave off starvation, public executions, beatings, being tortured over hot coals and on and on. The brutality of this regime is mind-numbing and horrifying. To think that these forced labor camps have existed far longer than the Russian gulags or the Nazi death camps, with no end in sight is frightening.
Coupled with the narrative of the camp, Harden details the plight of the North Korean people in general, who experienced starvation on an immense scale in the 90s and simply cannot feed themselves because of harrowing policies and corruption by the military and the elite class in Pyongyang.
Shin’s escape from the camp, as he pushes himself up and over the dead body of his friend and fellow escapee, which is splayed over the electrified barbed wire, is absolutely riveting. That he is able to forge ahead, on his own, with no knowledge of the outside world, and make his way to China, and eventually, South Korea, is a testament to his courage and tenacity. Those two qualities will be needed when he discovers that the transition to life outside of the camp is not as easy as he anticipated.
This is the third book I’ve read in the last twelve months about life in North Korea and a nice addition to Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy and Adam Johnson’s fictional account, The Orphan Master’s Son which offered the first indication for me, of the horror of life in the camps. Recommended for those concerned with human rights and able to tolerate the indignity of prison camp life.
24: That he is able to forge ahead, on his own, with no knowledge of the outside world, and make his way to China, and eventually, South Korea, is a testament to his courage and tenacity.
Really. How many of us could, or would even try, to do this?
Exactly qebo, it's quite an amazing story. He's drawn to escape by the friend who had spent time outside of North Korea and told him stories of eating meat, as much as he wanted really. This idea moved him to plan the escape and when his friend lay, dead, on the barbed wire, Shin just climbed over him and continued on, that ides of grilled meat still in his thoughts. Hard to imagine something we take for granted enticing someone to try something so risky. Of course, starvation will encourage all kinds of risky behavior.
Columbine by Dave Cullen 5 stars
”A fundamental nature of a psychopath is a failure to feel.” (page 415)
Dave Cullen’s ten year stint, meticulously researching the 1999 shooting massacre at Columbine High School produced the most chilling narrative non-fiction account of murder I’ve ever read. And that includes In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter. You just can’t help but be impressed by the thoroughness of Cullen’s research and his gift as a prose writer of non-fiction. No mind-numbing list of facts with end notes on top of end notes and little thought about the interest of the reader for this author. Despite the depressing subject matter, Cullen made the characters in the narrative very real.
I thought I knew the story fairly well but apparently I just bought into the propaganda put out by the police (and reported by main stream news sources), who flaunted the very laws they were sworn to upheld by covering up and trying to deflect criticism from the fact that they knew about the two perpetrators as early as 1997 and failed to follow simple police procedure in following up on an investigation. They not only stone-walled, making the relations of the murdered furious, but they destroyed evidence linked to their earlier inquiry.
Cullen’s descriptions of the killers, the psychological background of each, their deliberate and painstaking planning over a two-year period, their devious methods of getting guns and making pipe bombs is documented thoroughly and so well written that it took my breath away.
He quickly and thoroughly debunked the myths that have grown up around the massacre such as the idea that the murderers were bullied, that they targeted jocks, that they were racists. A fascinating section of the book was devoted to the effects of trauma on witnesses of a horrific event and how memories are affected by trauma.
”Investigators identified nearly a dozen common misperceptions among library survivors. Distortion of time was rampant, particularly chronology. Witnesses recalled less once the killers approached them, not more. Terror stops the brain from forming new memories. A staggering number insisted they were the last ones out of the library---once they were out, it was over. Similarly, most of those injured, even superficially, believed they were the last ones hit. Survivors also clung to reassuring concepts: that they were actually hiding by crouching under tables in plain sight. Memory is notoriously unreliable.” (Page 351)
Cullen documented the effects of the massacre on the survivors, those badly injured and the bereaved left behind. It took years for all of the information to be released and the public is fortunate indeed to have had this author to document the long painful process. Not an easy read by any stretch but important, and part of the history of our country. Very highly recommended.
I have to admit Laura, I wasn't sure it was a book I'd be able to
I find the topic difficult too. But Cullen did an amazing job. I thought he got a little too descriptive at the very end, but other than that it was amazingly tactful.
Agreed. I was absolutely struck by how comprehensive and yet thoughtful the book was. Just so well done.
What a joy to join Bill Bryson as he attempts to walk the Appalachian Trail. Part travelogue, part social commentary, always engaging and mostly very funny, Bryson lets you tag along as he and his overweight, out-of-shape friend Stephen Katz, start the hike in Georgia and head north. They soon discover that, even with a boatload of expensive, fancy camping equipment, the two inexperienced hikers faced a daunting task in tackling the 2,100 mile hike. There’s no way to underestimate the challenges from hot weather, hiking with a 40 pound pack on your back, cold weather, rain, deep snow, animals in the wild and an unending variety of quirky characters who travel along the AT. It soon becomes apparent that they are not going to manage to walk the whole trail and it was time for a scaled down hike.
But it was Bryson’s easy-going style and engaging manner that won me over as well as his commentary on the mismanagement of the trail by the National Forest Service; the under-funding of the National Parks system; the history of the rebirth, erosion and rebirth of the Appalachian Mountains, over and over again, over millions of years; the demise and almost total abandonment of the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania where a fire in an underground coal seam has the potential to burn for a thousand years; and the presence of the savage moose on the trail in Maine:
”Hunters will tell you that a moose is a wily and ferocious forest creature. Nonsense. A moose is a cow drawn by a three-year-old. That’s all there is to it. Without doubt, the moose is the most improbable, endearingly hopeless creature ever to live in the wilds. Every bit of it---its spindly legs, its chronically puzzled expression, its comical oven-mit antlers---looks like some droll evolutionary joke. It is wonderfully ungainly; it runs as if its legs have never been introduced to each other. Above all, what distinguishes the moose is its almost boundless lack of intelligence.” (Page 241)
I loved this book, its style, its happy-go-lucky author and all the history about the trail and its surrounding regions. Highly recommended.
>33 and 34 I just had this smile on my face the whole time I was reading the book:)
More Baths Less Talking by Nick Hornby 4.5 stars
Simply delicious! I mean what’s not to love? It’s a book about books for God’s sakes, everybody’s favorite kind of book. Or at least my favorite kind of book. And Nick Hornby has a wonderful way with words which left me guffawing on almost every page of the book. The book itself is a compilation of the columns he writes for Believer magazine, “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.” Each chapter begins with two lists: Books Bought and Books Read and as all of you understand, seldom is there any overlap between the two categories.
Hornby tells about how hard it is to fit in the books he wants to read. Shocking, I know. Whether he’s talking about the virtues of a slim Muriel Spark novel or the hunt for Martin Luther King’s killer (who was arrested in London, by the way) or extolling the assets of two very different celebrity bios or bemoaning the difficulty of squeezing in an occasional doorstopper, Hornby is absolutely dazzling in his ability extol the assets of just about every book he reads. I can’t forget Dickens, who played a large part in a couple of sections of the book. Mostly, Hornby laments the fact that most of the books are, well, really long and, therefore, not easy to fit in. But he couldn’t help adding that Claire Tomalin’s recent biography of the man is just about perfect.
So what am I going to be looking for as a result of reading this very, very good book about books? These books are likely to land on my shelf in the not too distant future:
True Grit and Norwood by Charles Portis
Ball of Fire: the Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball by Stefan Kanfer
Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken
I.O.U. by John Lanchester
Hellhound on His Trail by Lionel Sides
Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Nick Hornby’s book is highly recommended.
Did you ever read a book when your heart just wasn’t in it? Everyone you know has raved about the book and you are left wondering what it is you failed to see. This has happened to me a couple of times lately (The Beautiful Mysterycomes immediately to mind, and I might be Louise Penny’s biggest fan and had waited impatiently for an entire year for its publication!) When I started reading Doris Kearnes Goodwin’s mammoth book about how Lincoln chose a cabinet comprised of men he had run against or whose policies ran counter to his own, I was fully expecting to be completely absorbed in a compelling narrative. Instead I all too often found myself, (yawn) having a hard time maintaining interest and every time I sat down with the book I noticed that in the time I would normally have knocked off a hundred pages in any other book, I was horrified to find I’d only read twenty or twenty five pages in this one. Keep in mind, the book is 754 pages without the end notes. I thought I’d never get to the end. I kept waiting for…..something ….anything…to click. And then it got to a battle of wills: I will finish this book and I will discover the “thing” that everyone else loves about this book. I WILL LOVE THIS BOOK!
Sadly, it all escaped me and I was left feeling simply disappointed. Yes the story is told from the humble beginnings of Lincoln’s early life and leads up to his unlikely nomination, over more qualified and much more experienced, candidates, by the Republican Party for the presidency in 1860. I think I knew all this already. It told how he brought together improbable individuals, particularly his former rivals for the nomination William Seward, Edward Bates and Salmon Chase. The rest of his cabinet came from the Democratic Party. Unusual, especially as compared to the tense and vociferous divide we have between today’s political parties, but again, no compelling narrative. Mary Lincoln is portrayed as a very unstable personality, verifying all that I already knew about her. And it broke my heart when she and the president lost their sweet son Willie. As the war rages we meet the incompetent McClellan, who my partner was just swearing at on the TV several months ago as he watched a program on the Military channel. At that time, he explained to me, in detail, the uselessness of the Civil War general, spoiling it for me to read about now. It’s not until Grant takes on a greater role that the war starts to turn in Lincoln’s direction. Interesting that Goodwin gave such short shrift to the bloodiest battle of the war. Only a couple paragraphs for the Battle of Gettysburg where 51,000 soldiers gave their lives. That seems like a complete oversight for a book that almost drowns in tiny, insignificant details and minutiae.
The last hundred pages were the best part of the book. Well written, compelling, somehow suspenseful even though I (and everyone else) knows that Lincoln will be assassinated, and by whom, and how, and the collateral damage that will ensue, as well.
So I have no answers. I don’t know what made this book seem like a slog through knee-deep molasses with heavy rubber boots, but that’s how it came off to me, one lonely voice in a sea of over-exuberant admirers.
37: Oh dear. That's a long slog if you're not into it. I'm impressed that you finished.
Sorry that TOR didn't grab you... I too am impressed that you hung in there. Hopefully you came out with some new facts that will help you with Trivial Pursuit or something.
Read This! Handpicked Favorites From America's Indie Bookstores by Hans Weyandt 3.5 stars
The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe 4.3 stars
I wrapped up two books about books this weekend, as different as night and day. In
Read This! Handpicked Favorites From America's Indie Bookstores by Hans Weyandt several individual bookstore owners listed fifty of their favorite books, books that they would recommend to happy readers coming in to their stores. That sounds like a bounty of wonderful titles, right? Well yes and no. While I’m happy to read suggestions offered by Ann Patchett in her introduction, like the Icelandic title Independent People, which I have sitting on my shelf, I’m not so anxious to read titles offered by unknown bookstore owners scattered across the country. So the best I can hope for from these lists will be to offer some options when I spot titles I’ve already read and loved and assume some of the other titles will be just as good.
The End of Your Life Book Club, on the other hand, was a memoir that looked at the books read by the author and his mother while they sat together as she was treated for pancreatic cancer. I know what you’re thinking…hopelessly sad and maudlin; but no, somehow hopeful and uplifting and a loving tribute from a son to his mother. MaryAnne Schwalbe lead a full and active life, even after being diagnosed with Stage Four Pancreatic Cancer, and traveled the world on behalf of refugees the world over. You can tell as you read about their discussions around every kind of book from the ridiculous to the sublime, that this woman is much admired and loved by just about everyone who knows her. She’s devoted her life to helping others and her son has chosen to highlight her life through the books they read together during her last months on earth.
”I was learning that when you’re with someone who is dying, you may need to celebrate the past, live the present and mourn the future, all at the same time.” (Page 130)
Some of the books they enjoyed together:
Continental Drift by Russell Banks
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery*
People of the Book by Geraldine March*
The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly*
Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson*
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniel Mueenuddin*
Suite Francaise by Irene Menirovsky*
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout*
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner*
Kokoro by Natsume Soseki
* Books I have also enjoyed
This topic is not marked as primarily about any work, author or other topic.