July 2018: Red-hot reads for a blazing summer
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As I erroneously extended last month's thread into the first three days of this month, I should put that right. And there is some appropriate symmetry about it, too, as I am just starting on Between the woods and the water, the second volume of Paddy Leigh Fermor's account of his pre-war progress across Central Europe. The story started in A Time of gifts, which was where I left my last post. This volume starts where the last one left off; on a bridge over the Danube that forms the border between Czechoslovakia (now just Slovakia) and Hungary at Esztergom.
Robert, that sounds like a wonderful read, do you generally like travelogues? Have you read anything by Bruce Chatwin?
My father just informed me that he is going to send me his collection of Thoreau's diaries - he had been working on his will and I joked that I wanted to inherit those, so he said no need to wait until then! He read them daily as a morning meditation exercise for many years. I am looking forward to doing something similar.
I am currently reading The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I am about done with my introductory guide to the Fatimid empire. I have a couple more books on that to get through.
Anna, I don't usually do travelogues unless they are places or writers that I have an interest in. Sometimes you find some really unusual things, such as Travels in the North by Karel Capek of 'Rossum's Universal Robots' fame.
'A Time of Gifts' really spoke to me quite personally because I've done most of that journey (though not on foot). My review can be found behind the touchstone.
Just read your review of Time of Gifts, and agree totally! As excellent as it is, imagine what it would have been like if that orginal diary hadn't gotten stolen with his backpack! Fermoor traveled extensively all his life and Im glad he decided to finally put it all together with his memories relatively intact.
I did read the posthumous 'The Broken Road'. I liked it well enough , didn't have quite the magic of the first two, but still marvelous to read.
I also read
Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure which disappointed me - this was not the man I invisioned while reading his books and found that I really didn't like him. , But I may need to rereadbit sometime, now that the rose colored glasses have been removed!
Think I might read soon
Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters I have that on my TBR stack/mountain.....
Finally there is another collection of letters
In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor which I thought would be good. The introduction was a marvelous look at the history of their friendship; the letters themselves I ended up not caring so much about. Still worth trying
>4 cindydavid4: There's a certain type of Englishman who has a slightly off-the-wall background and early experiences, then did military service and ended up in a literary career. During the war, my father's CO was, briefly, Nicholas Mosley, and many other writers such as Brian Aldiss had interesting wartime careers. That doesn't necessarily make them likeable people; but then again, no-one ever said that good writers have to be nice. Of course, if you take to someone's writing, you'd hope that you'd like the writer as a person, but it's never guaranteed.
One thing I've taken away from reading PLF is a possible format for a book I've been thinking about for some time. The now-forgotten post-war British novelist Bryan Morgan wrote a book abut disappearing rural railways in Europe, The end of the line, in the mid-1950s; as one reviewer said, "we find out more about the shape of the conductor’s moustache and the hardness of the upholstery than about where and when the rolling stock was built", and it was certainly in the same vein as PLF's work. In my travels, I've covered some of the same lines as Morgan, so I wanted to put my observations into the form of a sequel to his book; but now, because of the way 'A Time of Gifts' echoed my own reactions to the same places, I'm thinking of recasting my story along similar lines. (It'll probably be easier to sell to a publisher, too.)
I'd read that!
And yeah I don't expect writers, or any artist, to be nice people (which is why I don't have much of a problem separating work that I love with the person who created it) It was just a jolt to my system, because I had put him on a pedastle. I think it would be worth my while to reread it. I could very well change my perspectie.
Bitter Grounds - Sandra Benítez
This is a sweeping historical epic covering three generations of two families: the Tabors, who are aristocratic land-owners; and the Prieto clan, the servants/peasants employed by the Tabors. Through these families the reader learns something of the history of El Salvador from about 1932 to 1975, including the role of the Church, the military, and the influence of the United States on the politics of this nation. But the main story line of the novel remained focused on these two families and their interaction over several generations.
I really enjoyed the way Benítez showed these two classes interacting. As much as they felt they were different and as much as they were kept apart (or at least the upper class tried to separate themselves from the lower class), they were inextricably linked and their lives held many parallels. Mothers and daughters disagreed; husbands betrayed their wives; children refused to listen; secrets were kept; and everyone was addicted to the radio soap opera, Los Dos (and yet never recognized how that story line also paralleled their real-life stories).
This won the American Book Award in 1998.
The Forgotten Garden – Kate Morton
Audiobook performed by Caroline Lee.
In 1913 a little girl, only 4-years-old, is found alone on the wharf in Australia. She’s taken in by the portmaster and his wife, who are childless, and when no one comes to claim her they keep her and raise her as their own. Decades later her granddaughter tries to unravel the mystery of her grandmother’s origins.
What a magical story. The action moves back and forth in time, from the late 1800s to 1913 to 1975 to 2005. The four women central to the story are Nell, Cassandra, Eliza and Rose. Some of the sections are told from the perspective of a child, while others from the perspective of an adult. No one has the full story and anyone who has key elements is sworn to secrecy, so it’s a long, complicated and tangled tale that Cassandra tries to unravel and reveal.
I was engaged and interested from beginning to end. This is the first book by Kate Morton that I’ve read. It won’t be the last.
I don’t think I would have used the magical realism tag, but several other people have, probably because of the fairy tales that are a central plot point, and one brief mention of a ghost. (Eliza is an author and several of her fairy tales are related in the book; they are truly magical.)
Caroline Lee does a fantastic job of voicing the audiobook. She has a lot of characters to handle (most of them female) and I was never confused about who was speaking.
Finished A Dog's Heart by Bulgakov. Had never heard of the book but came across it by chance. I'm sure I'm missing a lot of the subtext. Still, it was short and entertaining.
Lilac Girls – Martha Hall Kelly
Audiobook performed by Cassandra Campbell (Caroline), Kathleen Gati (Kasia)and Kathrin Kana (Herta)
Using three different narrators, the novel tells the WW2 story of the women prisoners held at the notorious Nazi prison camp Ravensbrück. Kelly used two real-life women: Caroline Ferriday, a New York socialite and Broadway actress, and Dr. Herta Oberheuser, a German physician who became the only female surgeon operating at the prison camp. The third narrator is Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager who is sent to the camp along with her sister, mother, and several friends after her work in the Resistance is discovered. In the author’s note at the end of the novel, Kelly states that she Kasia and her sister, Zuzanna, are loosely based on Nina Iwanska and her sister Krystyna, who were both operated on at Ravensbrück. She further populates the novel with a variety of fictional and real characters supporting these three central figures.
I was most interested in the scenes that take place at Ravensbrück. I knew some of the story of this horrible place and the “experimental surgeries” performed on the women there, but Kelly made it personal and vivid. I also really like how she explored the PTSD (though it wasn’t called that then) suffered by Kasia and Zuzanna and the other “Rabbits” in the years following their release from Ravensbrück.
As for Caroline’s love story with Paul Rodier – it is completely fabricated. I understand why Kelly did this– she was trying to make Caroline more real and to give her a stronger connection to France and what happened in that country during WW2 – but I thought it was a distraction from the central plot. If I were her editor I would have cut it.
I also thought that of the three women, we learned the least about Herta Oberheuser. She was the only woman tried for war crimes at Nuremberg. I wish that Kelly has spent a bit more time fleshing out her character.
All told, this is a good historical fiction debut about a fascinating and important, but less-well-known, episode of WW2. I would read another book by Kelly.
Cassandra Campbell (Caroline), Kathleen Gati (Kasia)and Kathrin Kana (Herta) do a marvelous job narrating the audiobook. Using a different voice artist for each narrator really helped to keep the stories straight.
>14 cindydavid4: - This was her debut work and she's apparently working on a "prequel"
Left Neglected – Lisa Genova
Digital Audiobook narrated by Sarah Paulson
A high-powered, “Type A” professional woman is excellent at her job and at juggling the demands of her children, her husband and her career. That is right up until the moment that she suffers a major brain injury in an auto accident and wakes with “left neglect.” This is a real neurological condition brought on by stroke or trauma, that results in the patient’s inability to recognize anything on the left. Patients suffering hemispacial neglect can see, walk, talk, but their brains ignore any signals from the left.
As she has done for other neurological disorders, Genova crafts a compelling story that educates and entertains. I felt Sarah’s frustrations as she worked with occupational therapists to try to regain some of her lost functionality. I empathized with her inability to let go of the high expectations she set for herself. Her relationships with her husband, her mother, her children were all greatly affected by her changed circumstances. Something as “simple” as getting a Coke from the fridge became a complicated, frustrating and possibly dangerous adventure. I applaud Genova (and Sarah) for finding a little humor in some of these situations.
I know a person with some aspects of this (result of a stroke). His stroke was several years ago, and he has long since stopped any physical or occupational therapy. His wife (and now the caretakers at the assisted living facility he calls home) turns his plate around for him or he’ll eat only what is on the right side, totally ignoring the left side of the plate. When she was still alive, his wife frequently reminded him to use his left hand. Reading this book has helped me understand a bit more about his condition.
That being said, I thought the book was interesting and informative, but not as compelling as some of her other works.
Sarah Paulson did a fine job performing the audiobook. She has good pacing and enough skill as a voice artist to different the various characters. I particularly liked how she voiced Sarah and her mother; the emotions behind their words really came out in her performance.
The Road – Cormac McCarthy
Audiobook performed by Tom Stechschulte.
A man and his son wander a desolate and destroyed American landscape after some unnamed world-wide disaster has pretty much killed off most of the earth’s population and destroyed the environment. Neither character is ever named, though the boy does call the man “Papa.”
I did rather like the relationship between these two central figures. How the father tried to explain and instruct his son, to impart some life skills that might help the boy in the future, and the efforts he made to provide some measure of safety and well-being for the boy. But this is a pretty bleak landscape and it’s hard to imagine any sort of “happy” (or even hopeful) ending.
I don’t need such an ending in order to appreciate and like a book. But I do need to feel some sense of purpose to the story, and I couldn’t figure out what McCarthy was trying to impart. Is this a cautionary tale about man’s inhumanity to man? Or a warning of environmental disaster? Is it simply a story of parental love?
And there were things that I found inconsistent. Maybe it’s because McCarthy never explains what happened, but how can the world be nothing but ash and burned cities, and there still be apples in an orchard? How come some houses are still standing, virtually pristine (except for the layers of dust)?
And then there’s the ending itself. I don’t want to give anything away, but it just left me shaking my head and wondering “what the hell?”
Still, there is something about McCarthy’s writing that captivates me. I like his spare style. I like the way he paints the landscape so that I feel I am living in the novel (even if it’s a horrible place to be). I think he’s one of those author’s whose works I appreciate, even when I don’t particularly like them.
I listened to the audiobook, performed by Tom Stechschulte. Stechschulte is a talented voice artist and actor and he really brings these characters to life. 5***** for his performance.
My Cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier
Digital audio performed by Jonathan Pryce
Philip Ashley is the young heir to the great Cornwall estate owned by his cousin, Ambrose, who is his guardian and has been like a father to him. For health reasons, Ambrose goes to Italy in the winter months, but this time he does not return. He has married the lovely widowed Contessa and is staying for a time until her late husband’s affairs are fully settled. But then Ambrose dies suddenly, and Cousin Rachel shows up in Cornwall. Is she the bereaved widow? A temptress and gold-digger? Could she have poisoned Ambrose?
Oh, what a tangled web we weave …. Wonderfully atmospheric, gothic psychological suspense. Philip is a naïve young man who is seemingly easily manipulated by the worldly Rachel. Or is he? Is the mutual attraction a figment of his over-active imagination? Does he believe the cryptic notes cousin Ambrose sent him? Or should he shrug them off as the product of a diseased and fevered brain? Rachel, herself, is the soul of propriety one moment, and then seemingly giddy as a schoolgirl at her good fortune the next. She is flirtatious one moment, and standoffishly proper then next. She seems callously indifferent in one scene and then solicitous and concerned about Philip on the next page. She’s both captivating and infuriating!
I was second-guessing myself as often as Philip was. At the end I’m left wondering what really happened. And that’s a good thing.
Johnathan Pryce does a marvelous job narrating the audio book. He’s a talented actor and he gives all the characters, men and women, distinct voices that really bring them to life.
The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Rawlings’s 1938 Pulitzer-winning novel focuses on the boy Jody, his parents Ora and Penny Baxter, their neighbors the Forresters, and their hard-scrabble lives in central Florida in about 1870.
I first heard of this classic of children’s literature when I was about 10 years old, but I never read it. I hadn’t even seen the movie. I had only a vague notion about the plot – a boy and his pet deer, “the yearling” of the title. I’m so glad that I finally read it.
Rawlings tells the tale from Jody’s perspective. He’s twelve years old when the novel opens, and still spends much of his time roaming about the woods, exercising his imagination and connecting with nature. Yes, he has chores – what farm-child doesn’t – but he frequently gets distracted in the middle of hoeing a field, following a squirrel or just getting lost in his thoughts when he takes a brief break to get a drink from a nearby stream.
His father, Penny, grew up with stern parents and had hardly any childhood, saddled with responsibility at a very young age. As a result, he is willing to work twice as hard to keep his boy a “boy” for a longer period. This is a source of disagreement between Penny and Ma, who feels that Jody is past the age for greater responsibility. He is, after all, their only child, and if they are to survive (let alone prosper) Jody must take on a greater share of the work.
When Jody and his father meet disaster while out hunting, they are forced to kill a doe with a new-born fawn. Once they are back home, Jody prevails upon his father to let him retrieve the fawn, who, Jody argues, is an orphan only because of their actions. Jody dotes on Flag and treats the animal as a brother. But as Flag grows to a yearling, his natural instincts coupled with tameness and Jody’s indulgence, lead to troubling behavior. The difficult decisions that are required show how everyone has matured and grown over the course of the novel.
I could not help but equate Flag’s “growing up” to Jody’s. Both are indulged and left free to roam and both have to endure pain and suffering as a result of growing towards adulthood. I could not help but wonder if the title was more a reference to Jody than to the fawn.
What really shines in this novel is the connection to nature. I was reminded of the many times I was in the woods with my father, and the way he taught me and my brothers about plants, animals, hunting, and fishing. I feel sorry for modern urban children who have no such connection in their lives.
I particularly loved this passage:
The cranes were dancing a cotillion as surely as it was danced at Volusia. Two stood apart, erect and white, making a strange music that was part cry and part singing. The rhythm was irregular, like the dance. The other birds were in a circle. In the heart of the circle, several moved counter-clock-wise. The musicians made their music. The dancers raised their wings and lifted their feet, first one and then the other. …. The birds were reflected in the clear marsh water. Sixteen white shadows reflected the motions. The evening breeze moved across the saw-grass. It bowed and fluttered. The water rippled. The setting sun lay rosy on the white bodies. Magic birds were dancing in a mystic marsh. The grass swayed with them, and the shallow waters, and the earth fluttered under them. The earth was dancing with the cranes, and the low sun, and the wind and sky.
Rawlings uses the vernacular dialect of the time and place, and there are some uncomfortable uses of the “n” word. It’s appropriate to the time, place, and socio-economic status of the characters, and it’s not frequent (maybe six times in the 400-page book), but it is nevertheless jarring to today’s readers.
>19 BookConcierge: The movie had Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman as the parents. I cannot the remember the name of the son. Great movie but emotional.
The Professor and the Madman – Simon Winchester
Audiobook narrated by the author
The subtitle is all the synopsis you need: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
James Murray is the professor, a learned man who became the editor of the OED. Dr William C Minor is the madman, an American Civil-War veteran and surgeon whose paranoid delusions caused him to commit murder and resulted in his life-long commitment to an asylum for the criminally insane. Yet …
Simon Winchester crafts a compelling non-fiction narrative. I previously read his book on the explosion of Krakatoa, which was interesting, but I felt bogged down in detail. This is a much shorter book. Though it’s clear that Winchester did significant research and he includes details of how the OED was conceived, and the laborious efforts to get volunteers to submit citations to support word usage definitions, he never lost the story arc of these two remarkable men. He captured my attention on page one and held it throughout.
Winchester narrates the audiobook himself and he does a fine job. I could listen to his British accent all day, especially pronouncing the marvelously rich vocabulary he employs. As a bonus, at the end of the audio book there is an interview between Winchester and the OED’s current editor, John Simpson. THAT was equally as interesting to me as the main story.
Oh I loved that book! It was my first Winchester, and certainly not my last. Who knew that the history of a dictionary could be such a fascinatiung story! Its been ages - Might be time to reread it.
Currently reading The Sound and the Fury, my first Faulkner, and surprised to find myself both enjoying it and much impressed. I think I'll be reading more Faulkner...
>24 iansales:, my impression at the end of that one was that he's like a James Joyce who's willing to explain himself. It becomes more and more clear as you go.
>25 Cecrow: Yes, that's the impression I'm getting. The casual racism is offputting, but I can't see in the prose that Faulkner approves of it. But then the boko was written within living memory (just) of the ACW and slavery...
I just bought a second hand copy of As I Lay Dying from a local bookshop - looking forward to reading it. It'll be my first too.
Someone Knows My Name – Lawrence Hill
Digital Audiobook performed by Andenrele Ojo.
Originally published in Canada as The Book of Negroes, Hill’s novel tells the story of Aminata Diallo from 1745 to 1802. Born a free Muslim in Guinea, she is kidnapped and sold into slavery, transported to the province of South Carolina to work the indigo fields. Her skill as a midwife makes her valuable and when she is sold to a wealthy Jewish merchant, she moves from the plantation to a city life in Charles Town. Eventually she travels to New York and gains her freedom, moving first to Nova Scotia, thence to London and traveling back to Africa, before finally settling in London.
What marvelous story telling! I was engaged and interested from beginning to end. I loved Aminata (a/k/a Meena). She’s intelligent, resourceful, emotionally and mentally strong. She’s also a keen observer and a good judge of character. She has the advantage of having been educated by her parents, so she knows how to read and write (in Arabic), and helping her mother as a midwife, she learned some of the other dialects / languages of her area of Africa. On the ship she learns English, then quickly picks up the Goolah dialect when she is on the indigo plantation. She never stops working toward her freedom and takes advantage of every opportunity that presents itself to achieve her goal for herself and her family. She always conducts herself with dignity and a fierce determination.
Hill does not sugarcoat the atrocities of slavery, nor the ingrained prejudices against and mistreatment of people of color. Aminata is blessed by relationships with some whites who are sympathetic, but her place as a slave and/or “lesser Negro” is always evident. Her skill as a midwife, coupled with her ability to read and write and keep books are assets that will help her navigate this new world, but she will not have an easy time of it. There are sickening scenes of brutality, but there are also scenes that show a loving family unit.
Hill populates the novel with a cast of memorable characters: the plantation overseer, the Jewish Lindo family, a free black tavern owner in New York, British officers, a ship’s surgeon, abolitionists and many slaves.
The book is based on historical events. There is a “Book of Negroes” in the archives of Canada and the United States, that lists the African men, women and children who worked for the British or behind British lines during the Revolutionary War. They were promised freedom for their services to the crown, and were transported to various colonies, but most went to Nova Scotia. From there, after years of bad treatment, Black Loyalists gathered to sail to Africa, where they founded Freetown, Sierra Leone. I’m glad I had the text available to read through the author’s notes and list of references, which are not included in the audio
The digital audio was performed by Andenrele Ojo, who did a marvelous job. I really felt as if Meena was telling me her story.
Not great literature, but it's definitely a good thriller / mystery book....
Heat Lightning – John Sandford
Digital audiobook narrated by Eric Conger.
From the book jacket Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigator Virgil Flowers is only in his late thirties, but he’s been around the block a few times, and he doesn’t think much can surprise him anymore. He’s wrong. It’s a hot, humid summer night in Minnesota, and Flowers is in bed with one of his ex-wives when the phone rings. It’s Lucas Davenport. There’s a body in Stillwater, two shots to the head, found near a veterans’ memorial. And the victim has a lemon in his mouth.
This is the second book in the Virgil Flowers series, which is a spin-off of Sandford’s extremely popular Lucas Davenport series. I haven’t read the first book in the series, but I don’t think I was missing much by jumping in on book number two.
In his trademark style, Sandford gives us plenty of twists and turns in the plot, a few red herrings, and some subtle clues that are easy to miss. Flowers is an extremely likeable character – and the ladies certainly like him (witness his bedding one of his ex-wives), but he’s no pushover. He’s also smart, decisive, deliberate, and resourceful. I love the dialogue; Sandford definitely has a gift for writing believable back-and-forth exchanges. The action is fast and furious, and while I figured out the culprit some time before Flowers did, the ending is still satisfying for the thriller/mystery genre.
Eric Conger does a fine job narrating the audiobook. He keeps the pace up and the action moving forward.
Just started The Broken Road, the last of Patrick Leigh Fermor's reconstructions of his 1933-34 walk across Europe. This last instalment is the one he was working on at the time of his death at the age of 96; it has been brought into a published form by his editor and literary executor (but definitely not completed). He has now left Western and Central Europe behind, crossing into Bulgaria at the Iron Gates on the Danube; and Bulgaria was wholly part of the former Ottoman Empire. "I realised that everything had changed."
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