Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Last Animal by Abby Geni

The Last Animal is a collection of thematically linked short stories - a debut collection by a young and promising Chicago writer. In it, the relationship between humanity and the natural world come together in elegant prose.

In the first story, "Terror Birds," Lory Geni uses an ostrich farm as the background for the human drama that slowly unfolds. The story is told in first person narration by Jack, a nine-year-old boy, and his mother, Sandy. The story is simple: Jack has seen his father making love to a young woman who tends the ostriches - a woman he once adored. He also knows this woman phones his father when his mother is out and that they argue. The child does not understand what he is witnesses, yet he understands its destructive nature. Similarly, the wild ostrich, a dangerous, unpredictable animal capable of killing a human if aroused, serves as a metaphor for unleashed passions. As Jack remarks: "I loved the ostriches - and all the other monsters - for what they were: sheer brute force, untempered by either conscience or consciousness." (p. 27) Although "Terror Birds" deals with themes of adultery and deception, it has no real villains. Geni is merely depicting the emotional damage wrought when love dwindles and restraint fails.

Another story, "Captivity," explores a daughter's relationship with her mother as she grieves the disappearance of her brother.  Lucy clings to hope that he is alive; her mother believes him to be dead and wishes for closure. Both women are held captive by the confusion their grief causes. "I missed my mother more," Lucy confesses, "than when we were on opposite ends of the same city...It broke my heart that two such interesting women found silence easier than speech, standing side by side in the kitchen as she grated cheese into the pasta and I chopped the vegetables, or watching television with our heads cocked at the same angle." (p. 73)

Lucy works at the aquarium (presumably Shedd Aquarium) and soon takes refuge there.  She hides at closing time and begins to roam the empty rooms at night. One of her daytime tasks is to dive into the octopus tank and feed the octopuses before live audiences. Now she seeks solace with the octopus, Falco. Geni's passages of the museum at night are among the finest in the book. The sense of loneliness the animal might be experiencing is juxtaposed with Lucy's ability to empathize with it.

"Captivity" employs humor as well as sadness. When an administrator remarks that Falco is becoming aggressive, that he almost bit someone, Lucy defends him.

They bite their prey, she says. I've never been bitten. I don't know of any divers who've been bitten.
They're poisonous, the manager remarks. I had the feeling she'd just learned this. She had degrees in marine biology, and I had field experience, so friendship was impossible between us. This discrepancy was common among the members of the administration and staff at the aquarium. The managers grouped together at lunch, no doubt grumbling about our stubbornness and absence of hard data, while we, the aquarists and underlings, bonded after hours at the dolphin pool to complain about our bosses' lack of common sense. (p. 88)

All ten stories capture the experiences of growing up, of loving people and of losing them. Each story substantiates how redemption is often found in nature - in caring for animals (domestic or wild) or in creating and tending a  garden. Ultimately, our relationship to the natural world defines our essential humanity.

The Last Animal is packed with emotionally charged and evocative stories. You need not be an animal lover to be captivated by them.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Mr. Selden's Map of China by Timothy Brook

John Selden lived in England in the 1600's. Born in 1584 he died in 1654 leaving his considerable collection of books and papers to the Bodleian Library at Oxford. There were approximately 8,000 items including a map of China drawn by a Chinese cartographer. Selden was an orientalist and legal scholar specializing in the laws of the high seas. He was born the son of a fiddler and rose to join the House of Commons in 1621. He was also imprisoned in the Tower of London twice.

The map (now known as the "Selden Map") was filed away with his other papers and not looked at for years until 2008 until it was found in a storage room. Timothy Brook, the author,was asked to take a look at the map which had been deemed "just too perfect." At 63 inches long and 38 inches wide the map was made up of sections that were glued together because paper that large was not possible to make at that time.

Brook found some anomalies in the map. It covered more space that similar maps from the Ming Dynasty, so it was not a copy of any previously known map. China is not at the center of the map and all map making traditions from that time didn't allow for this. It also shows lands other than China. It has a compass rose and only European maps had those. Plus it is astoundingly accurate - it is very similar to what a map of the China coast would look like today. The Selden map is at least 500 years old, so these differences from the "normal" maps of the time are not insignificant.

This book is Brook's attempt to explain a map that doesn't fit in with the mapmaking standards of the time it was crafted. Brook's starts with a history of Europe at the time. The spice trade was in full swing by this time and the East India Company was trying to get more trade partners, especially in China. There were an estimated 10,000 trade ships circling the globe in the 1600's. Since Selden's international law expertise involved the  laws of the seas, it is not unusual that he would have acquired a map like this. There are gaps in the history of the map, but references to it surface throughout history. 

The map is truly unexplained. Although Brooks takes  the reader through an examination of the map, its history, the world history of the time and Selden's life, the bottom line is that this map is a mystery. A fascinating one as this book so carefully explains.

I love old maps. They show the world at a time unbelievably different than current times. The history of the Selden map gives the reader insight into a time and place that we can only imagine.

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Identical, by Scott Turow

My mother loved a good murder. She devoured anything by Dorothy Sayers, Sue Grafton, Ruth Rendell, and so many others who wrote about death by unnatural causes, disappearances, and other sorts of mysteries. But Mom especially enjoyed reading about such things in the Chicago newspapers. She had her theory (involving a meat grinder) early on about what became of candy heiress Helen Brach, but she was stumped by the vicious slaying in the Kenilworth mansion of Valerie Percy, one of the identical twin daughters of millionaire Charles Percy, then a Senate candidate. To this day, that murder remains unsolved.
In his latest book, Identical, author Scott Turow borrows some of the basics from the Percy tragedy, but spins them a little differently. There is an heiress, brutally murdered in the mansion of her father, a Greek millionaire named Zeus. She, however, is not an identical twin, but Cass and Paul, the two prime suspects, are. One was her beau, whom she intended to jilt, and the other is a state senator.
In addition to the Percy murder, Turow’s latest novel finds inspiration in the Greek myth of twin brothers Castor and Pollux, born to Leda after she was raped by Zeus. Turow also offers the reader a lot of information about the forensics of fingerprinting and DNA matching, and, in addition, his story includes a lawsuit for defamation of character and a lot of dirty politics. So, yes, there’s a lot going on in Identical, some of it pretty darn interesting, but, alas, some plot twists border on the ridiculous. I think Mom would have figured out who the killer was in the first 30 pages.

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Friday, April 4, 2014

A Circle of Wives by Alice LaPlante and Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

A Circle of Wives by Alice LaPlante

Wow, this is a fast page turner/psychological novel/ thriller/almost mystery from the author of the very popular Turn of Mind (2011). Dr. John Taylor is a trusted, respected plastic surgeon who devotes his life to reconstructing the faces of damaged children.

When he is found dead in a hotel room, the detective reaches out to his wife for help and discovers that he has several...wives that is. Deborah, his wife for several decades, is the one everyone knows: a local society figure. She knew about - and gave her tacit approval to - wife #2, MJ, an accountant. Then there is a third wife and each wife is in a different city. All three wives are suspects in the mysterious death of Dr. Taylor because...(I can’t tell you! Read the book!) The narration moves from wife to wife with each chapter, building suspense.

I really enjoyed reading this, and I could not put it down.

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Shotgun Lovesongs by Nicolas Butler

This debut novel is a treat for those of us who want to read a really good story with good writing, a compelling plot and great characters, but don’t want to read about anything that will give us nightmares.

Shotgun Lovesongs is set in fictional Little Wing, Wisconsin, a small town of 1,500 without a stoplight outside of Eau Claire. The main characters, guys, have been friends since childhood; attended the same school and church, sang in the same choirs, dated the same girls. As teens, they dream of getting out – to a big city like Minneapolis or Madison or even…Chicago. But those who do leave - the rodeo rider, the rock star, the commodities trader - all come back, to reunite with their friends, recharge, and find their bearings again. At the center of the book is Henry, one of the original group of guys who has stayed in town to farm the family land, marry his sweetheart Beth, and father two children. Henry and Beth are happy, stable, and serve as the touchpoint for the rest of the group.

The author, a graduate of The University of Wisconsin and The Iowa Writers Workshop, is a skilled story teller who excels at characterization. Men and women have enjoyed reading Shotgun Lovesongs, and I plan to use it for book discussions. Highly recommended.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste (2014), by Valerie Martin, is a historical and psychological thriller incorporating different mediums - newspaper accounts, court records, ship's logs, and diary entries. It is written in both first and third person narration. The disparate voices all revolve around one event - the discovery of the ship, the Mary Celeste, apparently abandoned in the North Atlantic near the Azores on December 4, 1872. According to the ship's log, she had been floating unmanned for three weeks. There was no sign of violence aboard the ship, her cargo was untouched, and the ship's sails were up. What became of the captain, his wife and two-year-old daughter, as well as the small crew, has been an unsolved mystery for the last 142 years.

The Mary Celeste's master was Benjamin Briggs, an experienced captain from a respected, seafaring family. But the book does not open with his story. Instead, it begins in 1859 with the ill-fated voyage of another ship - that carrying his aunt, Maria Gibbs, wife of the captain. The spell-binding description of the turbulent, unpredictable ocean and what it means to be the lone woman on a ship of men, is rendered in captivating prose. The reader is hooked from the first page.

The author then draws us into the life of the future wife of Benjamin Briggs - Sallie. Sallie is one of two daughters - the rational and cheerful one. Her younger sister, thirteen-year-old Hannah, has become the substitute mother of the child left orphaned by the 1859 tragedy. Hannah is plagued by visions of ghosts, including that of Maria Gibbs. She believes the ghost wishes to reclaim her son and that she eventually does. The reader, from the very first chapter, is left to wonder if the ghost she sees is real or a figment of an unstable mind.

Later, the story shifts to the investigations of  Phoebe Grant, a female journalist and skeptic researching Spiritualism. Through her work, she meets Hannah (now called Violet Petra) and the writer, Arthur Conan Doyle, an ardent Spiritualist. Now a young woman, Hannah has become a medium, living in the homes of wealthy families and sponsoring seances for them. Over the years, Phoebe becomes her only true friend, albeit an unbelieving one. As she watches a group of people paying money to a "spirit photographer" who promises to capture the spirit of their deceased in the picture he takes of them, Phoebe's distaste for the charlotanism reaches its peak. She writes:

A powerful sensation of revulsion rose up in me. Who were these bizarre, complacent people, these obstinate monomaniacs fixated on the patently absurd" Amid all this natural beauty, what most enlivened them was their conviction that death was not momentous, that life, as they put it, was continuous. The spirits they peddled had no mystery; they were ghosts stripped of their otherness. In their cosmography, the dead were just like us and they were everywhere, waiting to give us yet more unsolicited advice. That and the news that they were happy being dead, that life as they now lived it was better than it had been when they walked the green earth disporting themselves in flesh and blood. (p. 167)

Valerie Martin's depiction of these two women, Phoebe and Hannah - both of whom share an outsider status in society - substantiates central themes of the book. Martin explores the role of women in Victorian society as well as the place of faith vs. science, reason vs. superstition. To paraphrase Christobel Kent of The Guardian in his eloquent review: At a time when the spector of death was everywhere and Tennyson's depiction of grief and mourning in his poem, In Memorium, becomes the apogee of the era, Martin "evokes a world suspended between faith and reason, in which 'the other side' is quite real--and always beckoning."

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Oleander Girl

Oleander Girl (2012), by Chitra Divakaruni, is a Bildungsroman that combines many themes.  The story is set in the year 2002 - a year in which Hindu/Muslim violence is occurring in parts of India (Gujarat Province) and ethnic intolerance is evident in post 9/11 America.

The book begins in Kolkata, India - the birthplace and childhood home of the author. Here we meet the chief protagonist, Korobi Roy. Her mother, she is told, died in childbirth and her American father died shortly thereafter in an auto accident. Nineteen year old Karobi has been brought up in a traditional Hindi home by her beloved grandparents. Indeed, the mansion she grows up in is a character in itself, housing a century old temple and surrounded by beautiful grounds.

Karobi has led a sheltered life. She is both doted on and held to high standards of conduct by her grandfather, Bimal. He is depicted as a loving tyrant determined to maintain Karobi's childlike qualities. Not surprisingly, she falls in love with the handsome and worldly Rajat. Rajat is a complicated and tormented young man whose family is among the nouveau riche. Like many young men of his class and generation, he has been associating with a fast and non-too-savory crowd. Attempting to get away from a passionate affair with the duplicitous Sonya, he proposes marriage to Karobi. He loves her for the very things he does not have - innocence and a revered family name. 

When a family tragedy occurs - the death of Bimal - her grandmother confesses a dark secret about Karobi's past. As a result, Karobi embarks on a month long exploratory trip to the United States to discover the truth. Using the mythic journey motif, Divakaruni weaves an engaging mystery around Karobi's adventures. Along the way, she learns the meaning of friendship, forgiveness, and love.

Oleander Girl blends mysticism with mystery as it examines the class system in a changing India.The characters, even minor ones, play a significant role in the story. Divakaruni's writing is evocative as she weaves this tale of young love and familial bonds.

To listen to an interview with the author and learn more about this book, click here.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter by Alyn Shipton

You might not be be able to place Harry Nilsson's name but you'll definitely recognize some of the music that he created. He wrote songs that were hits for the Monkees (Cuddly Toy) and Three Dog Night (One) while also producing his own successful covers of other artists in Without You (his first number 1 hit) and Everybody's Talkin' which was the theme song of the film Midnight Cowboy. He became good friends and drinking mates with multiple Beatles and was in fact referred to by some as "the American Beatle". Unfortunately, at the height of his fame he squandered his talent by giving in to his alcohol and drug vices.

Alyn Shipton's new book Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter does a commendable job at shining a spotlight on this incredibly talented musician. Nilsson's childhood was a troubled one in which his father left the family, a fact that Nilsson constantly alludes to in some of his earlier work. His family moved around, giving young Nilsson plenty of opportunities for mischief, though ultimately he started writing songs on the side while working as a computer programmer in a bank. After the Monkees recorded his song Cuddly Toy he was able to quit the bank job and concentrate on writing songs for himself, many of which were also recorded by other artists. While his first few albums and his soundtrack to the movie Skidoo were not chart successes, the Beatles declared him their favorite artist and his cover of Fred Neil's Everybody's Talkin' was a big success, leading to his more successful albums Harry and Nilsson Sings Newman (on which he covers another up-and-coming singer-songwriter, Randy Newman).

However, it was 1971's #3 album, Nilsson Schmilsson with its hits Coconut, Jump Into the Fire and the #1 Without You (a cover of a Badfinger song) that showed Nilsson at his recording peak. He changed producers, brought in a rock band and moved away from the more piano-based sound of his earlier recordings. Unfortunately, while this album was a massive success it also seems to have sent Nilsson on a personal downward spiral, with heavy usage of drugs and alcohol leading to weekend long benders with friends such as John Lennon (living in L.A. as part of his "lost weekend" spent away from Yoko Ono). The Pussy Cats album, recorded with Lennon, while a great album also seems like the work of a desperate man.

Much of Nilsson's post-Pussy Cats work seems uninspired, with songs rescued from the dumpster and Nilsson's sweet voice of his earlier years only a distant memory. His late album Knnillssonn was an unheard masterpiece that was unfortunately released around the time of Elvis Presley's death, causing the label to focus on Presley's back catalog instead of Nilsson's album. Nilsson's later years were spent fighting for gun control following John Lennon's murder, as well as occasional musical projects such as the soundtrack for the film Popeye. He would die of a heart attack at the young age of 52.

Author Shipton gives us all the facts of Nilsson's life, with particular focus on the effect of Nilsson's father's abandonment of and later return on Harry's treatment of his wives and children. It is probably impossible to reconcile the two sides of Nilsson that were on display depending on whether or not he had been drinking but we do get a sense of this as well as the talent that was squandered in his later years (although Shipton's defense of some of Nilsson's material is admirable). As a big Nilsson fan I didn't find myself always agreeing with Shipton's take on what was Harry's best material but obviously that is up to the individual. I also found Shipton to be humorless when it came to certain material that I enjoy (see Pussy Cats) although some of this might be due to an English author taking on a very American personality. Ultimately, I'm happy to see Harry Nilsson's story out there. With a recent movie (Who is Harry Nilsson and Why is Everybody Talking About Him?) and box set of his complete works available there is really no reason for Nilsson's name to wallow in obscurity anymore.

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