Search This Blog

Monday, March 22, 2010

Book Number 7 of the Big Book Read 2010; March by Geraldine Brooks

By Geraldine Brooks
280 pages

First, let me admit it right up front.... I loved "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott... I read it back when I was 10 years old and was immediately enraptured by all the characters in the story....especially Jo. I had a Great Aunt Josephine and after I had read "Little Women" for the first time (Of course I re-read it again and again), my mother confessed to me that she had almost named me Josephine for her Aunt. I was so furious that she had decided against it at the last minute... I was a "Jo-wanna be" .... I even had an attic hide-a-way where I read and wrote just like Jo... imagine even having her name! For some reason, my mother and father preferred Susan... and so I ended up being just one of up to 5 "Susans" in almost every one of my school classes as I grew up in the 50's and 60's.....

Why am I writing about "Little Women"? ... well the 7th book on my Big Book Read is entitled "March" and it focuses it's attention on a very minor, distant character in "Little Women", the father of the four March girls - "Mr. March", who was away at war doing his best to help the northern soldiers as a chaplain. In reality this character was based on Louisa May Alcott's own father, Bronson Alcott... a larger than life character who was a leading abolitionist, educator, and transcendentalist in Concord, Massachusetts in the mid-late 1800's.

Over-all, Mr. March's story is a stark one.... one that I imagine matches so many Civil war participants experiences... from the terror and death in the battlefields to the sad truths of the off-battlefield experiences... Mr. March marches into the war full of idealistic fervor. All too quickly the realities of war hit... the brusqueness of the soldiers of both sides, the utterly inhumane treatment of the Negroes by both the North and South..... He keeps writing his loving, sunny letters home even as he becomes more and more disillusioned, throughout a brief but deeply felt affair/relationship with a strong woman who happens to be a slave, culminating in a doomed partnership with a fellow northerner working on a cotton plantation with freed slaves.

March ends up near death in a Washington D.C. hospital and his wife, "Marmee", comes to care for him. He survives but is a changed man... damaged, disillusioned, guilt-ridden..... in many ways, a shell of of his former self. He returns home to Concord and his "little women" and slowly regains some of his former spirit ----- "You go on. You set one foot in front of the other, and if a thin voice cries out, somewhere behind you, you pretend not to hear, and keep going."

This book completely captured me. Ms Brooks writes beautifully and although, as I have said in this review , the story is dark and portrays some of the more disturbing aspects of life during the Civil War years, her simple yet eloquent prose makes the experience of reading this bookan uplifting one.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Book Number 6 of the Big Book Read 2010; "Loud and Clear" by Anna Quindlen

Loud and Clear by Anna Quindlen
Book Number 6 of the Big Book Read 2010
288 Pages

I've enjoyed Anna Quindlen's columns (which were featured on the back page of Newsweek magazine for several years) and was pleased to discover some compilations in book form... "Loud and Clear" is one that highlights her columns between 1993 and 2003 (which also includes some from her New York Times years as well) . Quindlen is a "fifty-something" like myself and someone on the same side of the political spectrum as well...she writes about things I can easily relate to..... from "Mom Quixote", describing her quest for a "must-have" holiday toy for her son , to "Life After Death" an ode to her sister-in-law dying of lung cancer at age 41..... pondering the impact of her death on her two young daughters. Considering this time period includes 9/11... there are of course several moving columns on this event as well.

Quindlen has written some fiction as well....I've read a couple of her books.... including; "One True Thing" which was turned into a movie with Rene' Zelwegger and Meryl Streep. I prefer her non-fiction. Her most recent book is a tribute to her departed beloved Black Lab, Beau......"Good Dog, Stay" which I haven't worked up the strength to read quite yet... love the line I read in the review though: "The life of a good dog is like the life of a good person, only shorter and more compressed"......

At any rate, I think Quindlen is at her best in her columns.......She divides them up in this book into sections labeled: Heart, Mind, Body, Voice, and Soul. I have a couple of favorites:

From the Heart section comes "No Privilege for Parents" .... in which she writes: "While the U.S. counts as commonplace privilege between attorney and client, priest and penitent, doctor and patient, and, of course husband and wife, there is no generally accepted protection for parent and child" ...and how, by not creating this protection: "we're suborning perjury" as she indicates that she would "be fully prepared to lie under oath if (she) considered it to be the best thing for my kid and I would consider that a more moral position than telling the truth." Wow.... this gave me something to think about.....

From the Soul section... "Imagining the Hansons" in which she focuses on a family of three on the flight from Boston to Los Angeles on September 11th.... mother, father, and two-year old daughter "sitting safe between them, taking wing" on the plane destined to be the second to hit the World Trade Center.... I love the paragraph when she talks about "when human beings allow their ideology to trump their humanity, when they elevate an idea above the lives of individuals. Anything can happen, and too often does." Thought-provoking stuff here... Most of Quindlen's columns really make you stop and think, or laugh, or shed a tear...

Finally, another from the Soul section, which brings me back to my re-immersion into poetry (see my review of Book Number 5 ) ... her column... "Poetry Emotion" which begins with the acknowledgement of recent (column written in 1994) Pulitzer Prize winner... poet Yusef Komunyakaa. Quindlen bemoans the lack of recognition in contemporary times for poetry in spite of the fact that we all grow up with the rhymes of: The Cat in the Hat, Goodnight Moon, and Where the Wild Things Are.

Her last line says it all: "Maybe it's (poetry) a need for us all and we just forget it, as we move past bedtime-story rhythms and into a world without rhyme or reason."

My grandmother once told me that she started every day with a poem..... In the spirit of my poetry-loving grandmother... I think I'll share a poem that I found while searching for poems to read at my mother's memorial service. Eventually we read a couple of poems by Robert Frost (a tradition at our family events) but in the midst of the search I found a poem by a poet my mother loved, Jane Kenyon called "Let Evening Come" It really spoke to me... in fact I have it on my desk at home and at work..... not a day goes by that I don't read it...

Let Evening Come

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

Jane Kenyon (1990)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Book Number 5 of the Big Book Read 2010; "Poets Corner"

Poets' Corner, The One-and-Only Poetry Book For the Whole Family
Compiled by John Lithgow with Commentary: 304 Pages, Unabridged Audio version
Read by John Lithgow and Very Special Friends; Eileen Atkins, Kathy Bates, Glen Close, Billy Connolly, Jodie Foster, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Lynne Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, Gary Sinise, and Sam Waterson.

Note: Once again, I have my mother to thank for this selection..... when she was in the hospital in the final months of her life, one of her oldest friends sent her a couple of books on CD (as a result of a fall, Mom had become a virtual quadriplegic...... she could no longer hold the books that she loved so she became a fan of audio books and read alouds ) She loved poetry intensely (a love passed down to her from her mother... both of them grew up among the generations of school-children who memorized poetry as a vital part of their education..... and for both of them, this fueled a life-long passion for poetry) I don't know too many adults who routinely read books of poetry... my grandmother and mother were two of them...

Ahhh poetry.......Lithgow rightly states in the beginning of this compilation that whether we acknowledge it or not... we have all grown up with poetry as part of our lives... from nursery rhymes to playground chants, to stage plays and musicals, to rap, and hip-hop...... it's all poetry, and with this compilation Lithgow invites us into his world of favorite poets.

I found the order of this book to be a bit jarring at first.... as Lithgow chose to list the poets in alphabetical order... so there's quite a bit of jumping from century to century... how does the leap from Edmund Spencer to Gertrude Stein sound? And then there's the culture shock.... imagine reading a William S. Gilbert "ditty" (from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta) and then moving right to the work of "Beat Poet", Alan Ginsberg - not to mention odd side-by-sides like Lord Byron and Lewis Carroll, Dorothy Parker and Edgar Allen Poe, Edward Lear and Edna St. Vincent Milay. But after listening for awhile I got into a rhythm (rather appropriate for a book of poetry) and grew to rather enjoy the ebb and flow of the recitations.

Lithgow starts the whole parade of poets by sharing a memory of he and his "sibs" sitting at the feet of his beloved "Gram" who had committed stanza upon stanza of poetry to memory and could burst forth with lively recitations at the bequest of her grandchildren. To illustrate the power of poetry he recounts the time he read aloud some poems by autistic children and adults at a Autism fundraiser and brought the entire room, including himself, to tears.

He begins each poet with a brief bio... then a guest reader recites the featured poem. Following the poem, Lithgow launches into an interpretation featuring a lot of personal color comments .... all enjoyable. Then he himself reads another poem of the poet aloud and ends with a list of the most well-known poems of the poet plus a quote by the poet.

I am convinced that hearing this book and its poems read aloud is the way one should "read" this book. The readers do a beautiful job and Lithgow's commentary is entertaining, moving, and at times thought-provoking. I heard poems that I know well and love by long-time favorite poets Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson as well as poems that I had no familiarity with at all - for instance, a mesmerizing poem by Gertrude Stein about Pablo Picasso, and an incredibly infectious ode "To a Mouse" by Robert Burns.

All this reminded me of a couple of the first poems I ever remember committing to memory and I think I'll end this review with both of them... they're short and sweet and never fail to bring a smile to my face:

"I eat my peas with honey,
I've done it all my life.
It makes the peas taste funny,
But it keeps them on my knife."

And finally (and this poem was read aloud by Lithgow in his book),

"I never saw a Purple cow,
I never hope to see one.
But I can tell you anyhow,
I'd rather see then be one."

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Book Number 4 of the Big Book Read 2010: "Game Change"

Game Change, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin; 436 pages

I had an "aha" moment in the middle of this book... I realized that 3 out of the first 4 books I've read for this challenge have been non-fiction, and 2 have been political. My usual genre of choice has always been historical fiction and fantasy with a little mystery and biography thrown in..... So why the non-fiction/political focus I found myself wondering? Here's where the "aha" part comes in..... I have taken on this challenge to honor my mother (those of you who have found my blog will probably know this) .... she died a year and a half ago and was the most serious reader I've ever known (and I hang around with quite a few intense readers)

My mom spent much of her life in a wheel chair and she was never, ever without a book.... she had a book for each room of the house (really!) so it wasn't unusual for her to be reading 3.... 4.... 5... books at a time. Her genre of choice? Political/Current Events.......Usually at least two to three of the books she was reading at any one time were of a political nature. In comparison, I have read very few books of a political bent.... but without conscious thought, I have begun my year of reading with two of them.......

My mother spent the last few months of her life in and out of hospitals, Intensive Care Units, ER's and a variety of Rehab/Nursing homes. It wasn't a good time (big understatement here)..... in spite of all this.... she maintained an enthusiastic interest in the world around her.... CNN or NPR was always on in her room.... she was absolutely fascinated with all the hoopla around the Presidential campaign of 2008 and had fallen completely in love with Obama ever since his miraculous 2004 convention speech.... a friend who was active in his campaign in Massachusetts had sent her a photo of a smiling Obama and it became a little tradition between Mom and me that no matter what new facility or room she was moved to, the first thing we did was get that picture up on her bulletin board.... Mom didn't quite make it to election day........ She would have been so pleased.....

With all this in mind......the book I read this week was: "Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime". Loved this book! ...... Everything you ever wanted to know about the behind the scenes stuff that goes on in a big campaign is here - plus much, much more..... the huge personalities and the dynamics between them....not only the ones mentioned in the title but so many others.... Joe Biden, John and Elizabeth Edwards, Ted Kennedy, Joe Lieberman, Jeremiah Wright...... and the lesser known movers and shakers on each side of the campaign.... an absolutely delightful mishmash of characters. There's not one boring page in the entire book and that includes the index. Do these characters have anything in common? Well....they all have, without exception, huge egos, and they all are incredible control freaks... in fact really every character in this book is a control freak.... the biggest control freak?... probably a tie between Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin.

I could barely wait for Sarah Palin to enter the fray and I was not disappointed. I can't tell you how many of my independent and conservative friends ended up not voting for McCain because they just could not believe he had chosen Sarah Palin as his running mate. Although the reasons the McCain campaign chose her are detailed (basically he needed a "game changer") it's still hard to get beyond what a huge mistake this choice turned out to be for McCain. Palin doesn't end up faring very well in this book but I actually think Hilary does.... her dedication, hard work,and loyalty (even to Bill and that's no easy task)... are well documented here...... It's easy to see why Obama is so determined to make her Secretary of State and this process is detailed in the book as well.

The most wacky character? (eliminating Pakub because she just won the control freak award although she's a major contender in this category too).... I'd say Bill Clinton wins this category with a lesser known character, John Robert's mistress, Rielle Hunter, and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright tied for second. Biggest surprise? ..... Probably Elizabeth Edwards..... not half as nice as I thought.....and, by the way......also a close contender in the control freak contest. Most "normal" couple?.... Barack and a landslide......

I don't think I'll ever forget the Presidential campaign of 2008 but if my memory grows a little hazy... I'm glad I'll have this book around to reread.....

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Book Number 3: "Withering Heights" by Dorothy Cannell (261 pages)

After a couple of rather "heavy" books, this week I opted for a much lighter-weight read. I enjoy mysteries... especially English ones. On my family's annual trip to Maine this year, we dropped into a sweet little bookstore in Searsport.... The Left Bank. While purchasing a couple of books, I noticed a sign promoting an evening with local mystery writer, Dorothy Cannell. I knew I wasn't going to make it to the reading but I couldn't resist picking up her latest mystery....this one. She's written quite a few books with titles like: "The Trouble with Harriet", "The Importance of Being Ernestine" and "Bridesmaids Revisited". A bit too cutesy.... yes... but exactly what I expected and needed.... likable sleuth (female), with her quirky side-kick, lots of amateur detective banter, and of course the mysterious death of an English gentleman.

A feature in these English mysteries that I simply can't resist is a quaint English village setting.... this one was deep in Yorkshire.... and, to top it off, the whole mystery was hosted in an intriguing old English manor house where the former owner had been murdered and a set of other questionable "accidents" was continuing to occur.

Through a rather odd set of occurrences, amateur sleuth Ellie Haskell and her trusty housekeeper Roxy Malloy..... end up in the manor house of a cousin of Ellie's husband who had recently bought the house after winning big in the lottery. Ellie's husband (a book-writing chef) is recruited to cater the tea the new owner of the house is giving for the village. The original owner of the house has died under mysterious circumstances.... in yet another favorite English mystery feature of mine, a seance is held where the murder victim appears and begs the participants to find his murderer.

This is not ground-breaking work but it is an entertaining bit of fluff. Everything you'd want in an English mystery is here..... attractive female amateur sleuth with her trusty companion in crime solving, beautiful English countryside, satisfying banter between characters - (especially Ellie and Roxy), and after a few little plot twists, (and another murder), a satisfactory conclusion with the mystery solved.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book # 2 of the Great Book Read Challenge of 2010

Book #2 for me is "Anastasia" by Vladimir Megre', 236 pages -

This is the first of 9 books in the Ringing Cedar series.... yet another "life-changer" book recommended to me by a good friend. This is an extremely difficult book to describe - part travelogue/documentary, part nature/environmental treatise and finally, a large part spiritual/religious.

It begins with the author, Vladimir Megre', a Siberian trader encountering Anastasia, a beautiful young woman, while on a river trip in Siberia. She takes him deep into the taiga (forest), to her home and then proceeds to share her amazing philosophy of life with him which includes the secret of the ringing Cedar trees. She then asks him to write a book to share with the rest of the world.... this book. From this book has sprung Anastasia groups around the world, poetry, websites, and of course 8 more books.

While I found the message of this book inspiring, especially the parts describing Anastasia's relationship with animals..... the writing itself was very stiff and surprisingly uninspiring.... perhaps this is partly due to this being a translation....Still, this was a thought-provoking read and one that I won't forget anytime soon.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Book Number 1: "Half the Sky"

Book Number 1:
"Half the Sky - Turning Oppression into Opportunity For Women Worldwide"
by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
278 pages (including a 26 page very informative appendix)

A good friend with whom I spent the week between Christmas and New Years, strongly encouraged me to read this book. (Her words to me were: "This book will change your life" In fact while we were at a bookstore together, she actually bought it for me.... so, for better or for worse, I was committed to this book as the first of my 52.

The authors are a married couple who received the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for their coverage of the Tienanmen Square democracy protests. Kristof is an op-ed columnist for the NY Times. I have been following his column on-line for quite a while now which made this book more intriguing to me.

"Half the Sky" comes from a Chinese proverb; "Women hold up half the sky" and, as one can tell from the subtitle, this book revolves around the plight of women in countries in Africa and Asia. The descriptions of the lives of these girls/women whose experiences range from sex trafficking/slavery, organized gang rapes, forced prostitution, maternal mortality, genital mutilation(cutting), and more....are both riveting and agonizing to read.

It would have been impossible for me to get through this book if it weren't for the amazing individual stories of these girls and women. Each chapter tells the story of a girl or woman who in some way challenges the culture in which she lives.

One of the stories that was especially meaningful for me was one about a Rwandan woman named Claudine Mukakarisa, who had been a victim of the 1994 genocide which killed her entire family. She and a sister had survived but were taken captive and repeatedly raped and beaten. Her sister was killed but she survived, became pregnant, delivered her baby at age 13 alone in a parking lot, somehow managed to survive, was taken in by an uncle who also raped her so that she had another baby and was then kicked out by the uncle.

Claudine somehow managed to survive by taking odd jobs, even managing to send her two children to school. At this point a woman from the U.S. who had joined an organization called Women for Women International, was matched up as Claudine's sponsor. Along with a regular exchange of letters, Claudine received $27 a month through the sponsorship and with this was able to start her own small business, along with keeping her children in school, and taking classes herself.

This is just one of the inspirational stories of this book which ends with a chapter giving specific ways that we the readers can help, always focusing on education, and grassroots efforts, acknowledging that ultimately the leadership and responsibility for these initiatives needs to come from the women themselves.

Has this book "changed my life" as my good friend said it would? Well, I can see how it could and I have definitely started to explore some of the websites suggested at the end of the book.... the sponsorship idea especially appeals to me so we shall see what becomes of that.......