Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Staff Picks for 2011

The librarians at the Glencoe Public Library have compiled a list of their favorite books from the last year. Read and enjoy!!

On Canaan’s Side. Barry, Sebastian
City of Thieves. David, Benioff
An Uncommon Reader. Bennett, Alan
The Lake. Yoshimoto, Banana
I am Half Sick of Shadows. Alan Bradley
Year of Wonders. Brooks, Geraldine
Caleb’s Crossing. Brooks, Geraldine
A Small Hotel. Butler, Robert
Once Upon a River. Campbell, Bonnie Jo.
The Grief of Others. Cohen, Leigh
Sarah’s Key. De Rosnay, Tatiana
Room. Donoghue, Emma
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. Durrow, Heidi
The Keep. Egan, Jennifer
When We Danced on Water. Fallenberg, Evan
You Know when the Men are Gone. Fallon, Shiobhan
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Foer, Jonathan Safran
Left Neglected. Genova, Lisa
Dead Souls. Gogol, Nikolai
The Cookbook Collector. Goodman, Allegra
When She Woke. Jordan, Hillary
The Typist. Knight, Michael
The Girl in the Green Raincoat. Lipman, Laura
The Oracle of Stamboul: A Novel. Lukas, Michael David
Sister. Lupton, Rosamund
From the Land of the Moon. Milena, Agus
1Q84 - Murakam, Haruki
Bound. Nelson, Antonya
Emily Alone. O’Nan, Stewart.
The Invisible Bridge. Orringer, Julie
The Buddha in the Attic. Otsuka, Julie
State of Wonder. Patchett, Anne
Trick of Light. Penny, Louise
The Leftovers. Perrota, Tom
Secret of the White Rose. Pintoff, Stephanie
Doc: A Novel. Russell, Mary Doria
The Story of a Beautiful Girl. Simon, Rachel
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Simonson, Helen
The Dog Who Came in From the Cold. Smith, Alexander McCall.
The Year We Left Home. Thompson, Jean
The Barbarian Nurseries. Tobar, hector
Rules of Civility. Towles, Amor
The Book of Joe. Tropper, Jonathan
Clara and Mr. Tiffany. Vreeland, Susan
Among others. Walton, Jo.
The Legacy. Webb, Katherine
The Lover. Wilson, Laura
The Uncoupling. Wolitzer, Meg

Endgame. Bio. Fisher
Unbroken. Bio. Zamperini
The Psychopath Test. 616.85 RON
Catherine the Great. Bio. Catherine II
The Tiger. 599.756 VAI
Genius of Place. Bio Olmsted
The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. 944.361 MCC

The Night Circus

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, is a magical first novel. The author's imagination is matched only by her ability to capture it on paper.

The book spans the years 1873-1936 and centers on the Cirque des Reves--a "Circus of Dreams" that opens at nightfall and closes at dawn. It travels via rail all over Europe, but appears without notice and disappears just as suddenly. The Cirque des Reves features trapeze artists, animal acts, fortune tellers, contortionists, and fantastic holograms. The acts are breathtaking and spectacular.

Yet the beauty of the circus is matched by the empathetic characters and the ingenious plot. The Cirque des Reves revolves around two figures, Celia and Marco, who are competitors in a game of skill and endurance. Each is trying to exceed the other in magical feats. The circus provides the venue for this. Celia's father and Marco's guardian have been training them in the art of magic since they were children, making them pawns in the power struggle of their elders. Echoes of Dickens resonate as we witness examples of childhood exploitation and physical and emotional abuse.

Still, the children grow into healthy adults, albeit lonely ones. It is not surprising that they are strongly attracted to one another from a young age, not knowing until much later that they are rivals. "Our instructors do not understand how it is," comments one of the characters. " To be bound to someone in such a way. They are too old, too out of touch with their emotions. They no longer remember what it is to live and breathe within the world. They think it simple to pit any two people against each other. It is never simple (p. 344)."

In many ways, the book is a 400 page fairy tale for adults. It uses romance as a binding thread, interweaving complicated characters and breath-taking performances.

If you are a lover of fantasy, romance, or imaginative prose, this book is a must-read. It would also be enjoyed by the high school and college set, and by anyone who loved Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games. Already, the movie rights have been sold.

Here's NPR's review.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Scenes from Village Life

Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz, translated by Nicholas de Lange is a beautifully written book. The use of language is exquisite. It has been translated from Hebrew by his long time translator and reviewers credit de Lange with a fine translation.

The book is a collection of short stories, set in the century old pioneer village of Tel Ilan. While each story focuses on a different character and resident of the village, many of the characters can be found in several of the stories.

One might expect a village and village life to be cozy and secure. Not so, in this book. As Claire Messud indicates in her New York Times review, "Each of the collection’s eight stories shows someone searching, either literally or metaphorically, and without success, for relief. " Further she says, "There is, in each story, a particular chord or strain; but taken together, these chords rise and reverberate, evoking an unease so strong it’s almost a taste in the mouth. "

Much of the beauty of the language and of the book is in the description of place and of person. Where each story is set and who the characters are who inhabit the stories is so clear that you can, indeed, sense it with the use of your senses - feel, see, and even taste.

Following are three brief quotes from the text. "The stranger was not quite a stranger." is the first line of the book. And the last line, in the final and most allegorical story, entitled "In a Faraway Place at Another Time"is "And that's all there is to it." One more quote from a story near the end called "Strangers", "And the distance from pity to love was like the distance from the moon reflected in a puddle to the moon itself." All three quotes are typical of the language and tone of the book, its sense of mystery, of unease, of lack of resolution, its tone of allegory and, at times, of the surreal.

The book may be read on many levels of understanding. It is not necessary to understand the references to other literature, to political situations, or to any other specifics of life in Israel in order to appreciate the book, although it may add to levels of understanding when reading this multi-layered work. Fundamentally, however, Scenes From Village Life can be read and understood as a very human set of stories and situations, primarily stories of loss and loneliness and disaffection, portrayals of an aspect of the human condition. Messud's review of the book is so fine, that this entry ends with the final quote from her review: “Scenes From Village Life is a brief collection, but its brevity is a testament to its force. You will not soon forget it."

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Friday, December 16, 2011

East of the Sun

Not necessarily an oldie but East of the Sun is a goodie. Originally published in 2009, Julia Gregson's novel tells the story of three women who travel to India in the late 1920's. Women (especially British women) were going to India in the 1920's to snag a husband from the crop of British men who were there as soldiers, diplomats and businessmen. The women were collectively referred to as the "fishing fleet."

The story opens with Viva Holloway being hired to chaperon 2 girls who are travelling to India. And one boy, Guy, who has been asked to leave his boarding school. One girl , Rose, is to marry a man in the British contingent of the Indian Army and her friend, Victoria, is accompanying her as her bridesmaid. Tor, as she is known is desperate to get married. Viva needs to get to India to pick up a trunk which is all she has left of her family. Her father, mother and sister all died when she was a child and she was sent back to England to live. She wants to retrieve the trunk and get some new insights to help her on her way to becoming an author.

The story continues through the voyage on the ship. The story takes off at this point. Tor becomes the life of the party and falls in love with the ship's doctor, Frank. Rose becomes more apprehensive as they get closer to India and her marriage and Viva has her hands full with Guy and her own demons. The story does not really go into the politics of India at the time. Gandhi was just emerging as a leader and the local population was starting to resent the British.

Gregson wrote a book dealing with the lives and loves of these three women. The setting may be India, which is of interest, but it's the characters and their choices that really make the story. Looking for love, finding it, losing it and then finding yourself is really what the story is about.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Mr. Chartwell

Mr. Chartwell is Rebecca Hunt's first novel and it is an intriguing mix of historical fiction and psychological fiction, of charm and melancholy, of humor and sadness. Sir Winston Churchill called his depression a "black dog". Mr. Chartwell, a huge black dog able to walk on his hind legs, rents a room from Esther Hammerhans, a young library clerk in the House of Commons library.

As Mr. Chartwell comes to know Esther he becomes Black Pat to her. He converses with Esther about complex subjects in an entirely human way, but, he also shows many of the traits of a dog.

Black Pat can be a charming companion for Esther, talking with her at length, sharing gin and tonic which he drinks from a large watering can, while she uses the more conventional glass. When Mr. Chartwell moves into Esther's room to let he retrieves his luggage, a box hidden in the bushes and his "possessions were fantastically odd: a clump of brown fur, one side crusted with blood; a rotting log; a hoof from a large deer...." At another time, when Esther and Black Pat are talking through the closed door to Esther's room, she asks him, "'Are you eating something?' 'I am not.' said Black Pat, filing his teeth on a sheep's pelvis he had rescued from a ditch." In one memorable scene, Black Pat prepares a barbecue surprise for Esther. You will have to read the book to learn of the surprise for yourself.

The black dog is not such a charming companion for Churchill, who is also a character in this novel. The story takes place over the six days leading up to and ending with Churchill's retirement from Parliament and from public life. Churchill struggles with his memories and with his depression, but he also writes a memorable farewell speech, with the help of Esther.

Additional interesting characters in the novel are Esther's friends, the married couple Beth and Big Oliver, Esther's new friend and possible love interest Mark Corkbowl, and the presence in the story of Esther's husband, Michael, who is no longer with her.

Rebecca Hunt succeeds on many levels in her first novel. In addition to an unusual dog as a main character, there are interconnected stories of love and of friendship - Churchill and Clementine, Esther and her colleagues at the library. There is much that is dark in this novel, but, it is also a story showing how humor, caring, and friendship can provide comfort and strength, even in the most difficult times.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

Flavia de Luce is back. This time it is near Christmas and her father, who is strapped for cash, has rented out the house as a setting for a movie. With all the costs of running the manse, it's either rent it out or possibly loose the house.

The actors and crew arrive along with a blizzard. As the weather worsens, the townspeople also arrive at Buckshaw for a benefit featuring the renowned actress Phyllis Wyvern. Phyllis will be doing readings from Romeo and Juliet. The show is a sellout, mostly because the locals want a glimpse of the famous actress. As fascinated with the actors as Flavia is, she is even more interested in whether Santa Claus is real. According to her sisters he is not, but how can Flavia be sure? She devises a plan using her copious chemistry skills.

Two days before Christmas, Flavia decides she needs to speak to Phyllis, but as she is creeping through the house and around the sleeping townspeople who are trapped because of the blizzard, Flavia realizes someone else is awake and it is not Phyllis. Phyllis is dead - murdered in her room, dressed up in a costume from another movie. Flavia is on the case.

The appeal of these books by Alan Bradley is Flavia. Precocious, 11 years old, Flavia is the youngest of the 3 de Luce sisters. Her mother died when she was very small, leaving her father in charge of the girls. Flavia, ever at the mercy of her 2 older sisters uses her interest in chemistry to her full advantage. In this story it's a device to trap Santa Claus so she can prove he is real. That same expertise also allows her to solve the murder. Flavia once again comes to the rescue, just in time.

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Friday, December 2, 2011

Acceptable Loss

The latest in Anne Perry's William Monk series has Monk on the trail of the killer of a local low-life named Mickey Parfitt. Parfitt was involved in the child pornography and blackmail trades. In fact, this book picks up where Execution Dock leaves off.

The usual characters makes their appearances. Hester, married to William is working at her free medical clinic with the help of Margaret Ballinger, who has married Oliver Rathbone -lawyer extraordinaire. Rumors are swirling around that Margaret's father, Arthur, is the money and brains behind the porn industry taking place on private boats on the Thames.

Hester's newest financial backer is Rupert Cardew, a local rich boy with an unsavory reputation. Parfitt has been strangled with a cravat belonging to Cardew. Originally arrested for Parfitt's death, Cardew turns out to be more than he appears.

The book ends in the climatic trial scene with Rathbone once again defending the accused that Monk has secured the evidence against. Surprises come out at the trail that change everyone's lives. The story is vintage Perry. It's interesting in its time frame and although this book picks up where Execution Dock leaves off, Perry provides enough background that it stands on its own.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, is an eloquent novella about youth seen from the vantage point of late middle age. It examines one's perceptions of events that took place long ago. The narrator, Tony Webster, is an average man who relishes being ordinary. He is now comfortably retired, has an amicable relationship with his ex-wife, and has a grown daughter and grandchildren. Ennui plagues him. At 60, he does nothing other than volunteer at the local hospital library. "I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and succeeded--and how pitiful that was."

But life was not always this way. As a young man in high school, Tony was one of four close friends. The most unusual of these boys was the shy and gifted Adrian Finn. He was a star student and went on to study philosophy and "moral sciences" at Cambridge. Adrian's life ended mysteriously in suicide while he was doing his post-graduate studies. Well into his later years, Tony believes his friend died a noble philosopher's death.

What really happened to Adrian during those university years, as well as to Veronica, the young woman who dated them both, comprises the essence of this book. When Tony is bequeathed Adrian's diary after the death of Veronica's mother, and subsequently denied access to it, the novella takes on a quest motif. Tony follows Veronica, uncovering not only the secrets of her former life, but that of Adrian. Most important, though, he meets his former self--a narcissist whose actions are redeemed only by his sense of current remorse.

You get towards the end of life--no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life. You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong? (p. 163)

The Sense of an Ending, winner of the 2011 Booker Award, is a powerful novella with surprising twists. It realistically depicts the callousness of youth and the falseness of our recollections. Julian Barnes presents us with a sympathetic but unreliable narrator who leads himself and the reader to a shocking conclusion.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

American Boy

Larry Watson's new novel deals with a boy's coming of age in the 1960's. The story opens with a revelation by Matt that he has seen a woman's breasts when he was 17. Matthew is a teenager whose father has left and is being raised by his hardworking waitress mother. He has been welcomed into the Dunbar family as far on the opposite social side as could possibly be in their little Minnesota town.

Matthew and Johnny Dunbar are inseparable. Johnny's dad, the town doctor has taken an interest in Matthew as well, almost as a volunteer project. Dr. Dunbar invites the boys into his office to learn something of the medical practice in the hopes that they will develop an interest in medicine. The story starts with a shooting accident on Thanksgiving night. Dr. Dunbar has the patient, a young woman, brought to his office which is attached to his home. The woman, Louisa Lindhal, is living on the outskirts of the town with her boyfriend who has shot her. Johnny and Matt are invited by Dr. Dunbar to view the gunshot wound.

Louisa remains in the Dunbar home after her recovery as Mrs. Dunbar does not want her to have to return to her former living conditions. The boys are smitten. Matt especially fancies himself in love with Louisa. Louisa on the other hand has different plans. Manipulative and opportunistic, Louisa keeps the boys at bay while she works on her plans to improve her life. Matt feels she is leading them on.

As the story develops, Matt and Johnny appear to be in different stages of maturity. Louisa seems to be playing into this. They turn into rivals. Dr. Dunbar begins to have a different view of Matthew. And Matthew's life starts to take a different turn.

Watson is spare with his text, but they story is well written. A poignant story of a boy who thinks of himself as a man and his struggles to get there.

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Friday, November 18, 2011

The Art of Fielding

When you write about a terrific novel that has baseball as one of its central themes, you feel compelled to toss in a phrase like “really hits a homerun.”

Trite as that may be, it applies to Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art of Fielding. But the book is about more than just the national past time. It is also about love, death, family, friendship, betrayal, forgiveness, passion, obsession, and Midwest values—with a little bit of Moby Dick on the side.

The book, beautifully written and not without humor, takes place on the campus of Westish College, a fictional private school located near Door County, Wisconsin. Get your pencils and scorecards ready for an all-star roster of unforgettable characters. The 60-year-old college president, Guert Affenlight, is also a Herman Melville scholar. His prodigal daughter Pella has recently left her husband in California with the intention of finally taking a college class or two at Westish. Other students at the school, as well as major characters in the book, are Chicagoan and all-around athlete Mike Schwartz, gay ballplayer Owen Dunne, and gifted shortstop Henry Skrimshander.

Against a literary backdrop, all these characters relate significantly to one another: Mike falls for Pella; Pella loves Mike, but she is jealous of his relationship with Henry, then sleeps with shortstop; Henry admires and rooms with Owen, whose mother is attracted to Guert; Owen becomes Guert’s obsession. Serving almost like an additional major character is a manual for baseball and life called “The Art of Fielding,” written by fictitious Aparicio Rodriguez, a Hall of Famer and St. Louis Cardinals shortstop, who is Henry’s ideal and whose record he is trying to break. Will he do it? Will his friendship with Mike be repaired? Will Pella finally connect with her father? Will her father’s passion for Owen be returned, and will it be discovered by the school administration? Will these characters haunt you? “Yes” to the last question, but enjoy the book to find out the other answers.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Turn of Mind

Alice LaPlante has written an entire novel told from the point of view of a woman suffering from dementia. The woman is a suspect in the murder of her best friend. Turn of mind, indeed.

Dr. Jennifer White was a well known orthopedic surgeon in the Chicago area when she developed dementia. Her long time friend, Amanda has been found murdered and 4 of her fingers have been surgically removed. Witnesses tell police that Jennifer was arguing with Amanda the day she died. But Jennifer, of course, has no memory of it. And so the story starts.

Jennifer's daughter, Fiona, and her son, Mark are trying to protect her. Mark has problems of his own - which is why he is always trying to get money out of his mother. Jennifer's husband, James has died leaving Mark and Fiona Jennifer's only family. They have some knowledge of what happened to Amanda but they aren't talking to the police either. They hire an attorney and try to have the police banned from the facility where Jennifer has been moved.

The story moves through the twisted mind of Jennifer. Time suddenly shifts. Conversations that occurred in the past become intertwined with present day conversations. The book is at once horrifying and intriguing. Think of it - a woman diagnosed with dementia is the prime suspect in a murder investigation. She is being questioned about events she cannot possibly recall. Even if she did commit the murder and dismemberment could she recall doing it? She is the perfect person to set up for taking the blame.

The story line unravels slowly. You wonder, just what is Mark hiding? What is Fiona keeping secret and what was the big revelation Amanda promised to make before she died? The book is like being in the middle of some one's stream of consciousness episode. Interesting and worth reading.

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Friday, November 11, 2011

Rules of Civility

Reading Rules of Civility is like stepping into the world of a 1930s movie--one featuring high society, grand parties, and lots of martinis. In particular, it brings to mind The Thin Man (1934), starring William Powell and Mirna Loy, the screwball comedies of Frank Capra (1934-1941) and the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (1933-1939). These were representative films of the Depression, when movies were an escape from the harsh realities that constituted the American scene.

In an article posted by the American Studies Department of the University of Virginia, the author writes:

Audiences gloried in spectacular fantasies of high society and easy living that they would never know...For an hour or two, one could pretend to be Katherine Hepburn or Cary Grant.

Another symptom of this fascination was the Society Papers. The lives and goings on of the rich and powerful in the city were considered news...Depression-era Americans were fascinated (not with celebrity, but with wealth). 

Amor Towles captures the very essence of this sparkling world in his first novel. Katey Kontent and Evelyn Ross are "office girls" working in Manhattan. The year is 1937. Katey (born Katya) is the daughter of Russian immigrants; Eve is a child of wealth. Both women are ambitious and looking for excitement. They are about to get more than they bargained on when they meet Tinker Grey at a nightclub on New Year's Eve.

The story is told by Katey from the vantage point of late middle age. She and her husband are at an exhibition of Walker Evans photographs shot in the 1930s. She spots a photograph of Tinker taken in 1938, and then in 1939. In the former, he looks wealthy and world weary; in the later photo, he is haggard but seemingly younger and more content.

With this preface, we are introduced to Tinker and Eve, as well as to the high society of Wallace Wolcott, Dicky Vanderwhile and Anne Grandyn. As the reader follows the budding career of Katey Kontent from Wall Street office secretary to assistant editor of a literary magazine, one is mesmerized by the interplay of these characters. Each is three-dimensional, provocative and sympathetic.

Rules of Civility, whose title is taken from an early book by George Washington, is a period piece that is equal parts romance, mystery, and morality tale. It echoes some of our literary greats, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot. Ultimately, the story of innocence lost in the wake of experience gained will resonate with all.

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Monday, November 7, 2011


Sanctus by Simon Toyne, a first time novelist, is the latest in a long line of church based conspiracy books that began with the Da Vinci Code. Set in Turkey in the present day, the book tells the story of the Citadel, a Vatican like city/state that occupies the ancient city of Ruin. The Citadel is the home of a secret religious sect that guards the "Sacrament." No one knows exactly what the sacrament is because in its more than 1,000 years of existence no one has ever come out of the Citadel. Novitiates enter and become Sancti but no one ever comes out and lives to tell the tale. And once the monks learn the secret of the sacrament, they stay inside until they die.

The story opens on 3 continents. In Ruin, a monk climbs to the top of the mountain the Citadel is built into. He assumes the shape of a cross - standing upright with his arms stretched out at his shoulders. In the U.S. Liv Adamsen, a reporter is transfixed by the acts of the monk, whom she believes might be her relative. In South America, an old man is also interested in the monk, only he believes the monk's behavior portends something momentous.

The story races through the lives of the monk, Adamsen and Kathryn Mann, a foundation worker and daughter of the old man. The three meet up in Ruin, each arriving for their own reasons. Conspiracies abound - with the Citadel on one side seeking to keep the secret of the sacrament safe and on the other side an international brotherhood, just as ancient, determined to let the secret of the sacrament become public.

What makes this book worth reading though is the ending. Yes, the monks are creepy and there are secrets to be discovered but what the monks have been protecting and how it relates to Adamsen and Mann was surprising. This is a good work by a new author and it's the first in a planned trilogy.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Endgame is a wonderful biography of Bobby Fischer, who became the youngest US chess champion at age 14. He went on to end the Russians' reign of world chess championships and then quickly descended into a sad world of conspiracy theories, and anti-Semitic and anti-U.S. hatred.

Fischer was a mess of contradictions. Born to a Jewish mother, he became one of the world's most infamous anti-Semites. A chess genius, he rarely played competitively after he won the world championship (he was not even 30 years old at the time). There were many attempts to lure him out of retirement but despite living a life of near homelessness he would reject matches with prizes of millions of dollars offered to the contestants.

How did Fischer become such a strong chess player at such a young age? There's no silver bullet - he spent a lot of time on his own with a chessboard and playing older and better players. He also had a head for the game and a great ability to visualize matches, even when there was not a chessboard in front of him. His mother, despite being poor, was strong and supportive and did everything within her means to allow Bobby to compete within New York, and eventually in other worldwide locales. It's interesting to note that Fischer was athletic, interested in sports and despite not having a traditional education, was interested in bettering himself. He could also be quite charming, which is especially apparent in this video from the Dick Cavett show, taken after he won the world championship.

Something appeared to be missing from Fischer's life though. He joined the fringe Worldwide Church of God (and later left it) before he started letting his anti-Semitic views be known in the 1970s. He also dabbled with other religions before settling upon Catholicism during his exile in Iceland. And despite an urge to have a child he was unable to enter a lasting relationship until his later years.

Fischer can perhaps be created with single-handedly raising the popularity of chess in the United States in the 1970s by defeating the Russian Boris Spassky (who became a friend for life, despite Fischer's combativeness over the chess board). Yet his mercurial demands over rules and settings for tournaments kept him from competing in any future sanctioned tournaments, including the defense of his world title. In addition, he spent much of his life obsessed with proving the Russian chess players to be in collusion with each other in order to secure Russian titles. His anti-Semitism seems more directed towards his perceived enemies in general, considering how many Jews he considered his friends.

Author Frank Brady, who had been an acquaintance of Bobby Fischer and as the founding editor of Chess Life magazine knows the game well, has done an excellent job at making the game of chess compelling. He doesn't get into too many move-by-move details as to how each match was played but does an excellent job of turning the tournaments into real page-turners. Also to his credit, Brady doesn't try to over-psychoanalyze Fischer, which can be a problem in biographies of strong personalities. I strongly recommend this story of a man who could have had it all, but became waylaid by some major personality flaws.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

The Legacy

In 1905 Caroline takes a small male child from the manor house and places him in the woods near a travelling 'tinker" family. She has wrapped him in an elaborately embroidered pillowcase. Caroline is pregnant with another child.

So opens The Legacy by Katherine Webb. The storyline about the Calcott family switches between the current time and the early 1900's. Today Beth and Erica, sisters, have arrived at Starton Manor. They have been left the manor, its contents and grounds by their grandmother on the condition they permanently reside there. Beth arrives reluctantly. She has a long history of depression stemming from her adolescence. While sorting through the house Erica runs into Dinny, a member of the tinker family that has been camping on the manor grounds since their mother was a child. Their great-grandmother Caroline hated Dinny's ancestors with a fury no one understood.

Beth's depression started the summer her cousin Henry disappeared. No sign of Henry was ever found, causing turmoil that resulted in the family being torn apart. Erica believes that Beth can be helped by confronting the facts surrounding Henry's disappearance. Beth and Dinny refuse to talk about the day they were all together and Henry disappeared. Erica pushes until the truth can be pieced together. And when the truth comes out every one's lives are changed.

I really liked this book. The story line moves back and forth until it comes together in a way I really didn't see coming. Well written, with interesting characters and interesting relationships between, them the story builds to its climax in a way that keeps you reading.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Language of Flowers

In the early eighteenth century, the Turkish secret language of flowers was introduced to Europe by Lady Mary Wortley Montague, wife of the British Ambassador to Constantinople. It was especially popular in Victorian England, providing a coded means of communication. In a period that discouraged overt display of emotions, flowers and flower designs allowed individuals a means to express their feelings. (http://www.joellessacredgrove.com/language.html and Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_of_Flowers)

Author Vanessa Diffenbaugh ingeniously weaves her plot around this concept, enabling the main protagonist, Victoria Jones, as well as her mentor, Elizabeth, to communicate in a language known to a select few. Victoria is a foster child, having lived in 32 homes by the time she is 18. When she comes to live with Elizabeth at age 9, she is already an angry child with severe communication and attachment issues. Elizabeth has a flower and fruit orchard--a beautiful, enchanting place which she tends with great care.

The Language of Flowers is told in first person narration by Victoria. It weaves back and forth through present and past. There is a component of mystery as we wonder why Elizabeth does not adopt Victoria. We also know that Victoria's destructiveness has inflicted great tragedy without knowing the outcome (until the book's end). Issues of family abound in this novel, as do themes of love and forgiveness.

The author explores what it means for a child to not know security within the folds of a loving family. Through Victoria, we come to understand the nature of group homes and multiple home placements. The book presents well-drawn characters that resonate with uncomplicated goodness, such as the florist, Renata and her nephew, Grant. Above all, it realistically portrays Victoria's growth as she struggles to trust those around her.

Diffenbaugh depicts a sympathetic portrait of a character that is not likable. This is a gift likewise exhibited by Elizabeth Strout in Olive Kitteridge. Both women are hurtful characters whose actions are driven by anger, jealousy and distrust. Yet in the hands of skilled writers, the reader is able to remain empathetic and non-judgmental.

The Language of Flowers
is an engrossing first novel by a talented writer. Be prepared to read it quickly. It is impossible to put down.

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Lost in Shangri-La

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff starts in May 1945. The war in the south Pacific is raging. For those stationed on New Guinea all is relatively quiet. The island is mountainous and the interior is largely uncharted. While flying over the interior a pilot makes a startling discovery. There is a large valley and it appears to be inhabited by natives who look right out of the stone age.

It becomes a rite of passage to go visit the valley. The army members who have been there even have a club called the "Shangri-La Club." A plane takes off on a beautiful day. Col. Peter Possen who has organized the flight as a treat for his staff, has left the cockpit and is in back chatting with his staff when the inexperienced pilot runs into trouble. The plane slams into a mountain, falls to the ground and bursts into flames. 3 people survive the crash. 21 people have died. When the plane doesn't return to the base search parties are sent out.

The plane had been painted a camouflage pattern so it would blend in with the jungle if it was being viewed from above. Unfortunately this same paint made it impossible for the rescuers to see the plane crash site. The only people who knew where the plane was were the 3 survivors and the rumored cannibal natives who were watching them. The natives turn out to be not hostile but curious. For the injured survivors they look like saviours.

The story continues through the search and the ultimate rescue of the survivors. It is the rescue that makes this story so interesting. I will not divulge how they are rescued but I'll say there was some ingenuity in the solution.

Zuckoff writes a good action story. He takes an interesting piece of history and lets the reader know exactly how interesting it was. This is a survival story that is well told. A story about modern age warriors meeting a stone age people who help each other out. An all around interesting read.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Carol Shields was a masterful writer who allowed the reader to see beauty in the most everyday acts of human life. The book revolves around a year in the life of writer Rita Winters (formerly Summers), a year where grief takes the place of happiness. Norah, her beautiful, nineteen-year- old daughter, drops out of school and chooses a life of homelessness. She sits on a street corner with a sign around her neck bearing a simple word--"goodness." No one knows why.

It is important to mention that at the time of writing this book, Carol Shields was battling advanced breast cancer. She was responding favorably to experimental chemotherapy but knew this would be her last novel. As Maria Russo writes in her article, "Final Chapter" (New York Times, April 14, 2002), "Working on Unless was Shield's first time writing from the other side of happiness and security, and she wanted the book to reflect her hard-earned new understanding of the fragility of happiness."

Yet the book is not without humor. Shields pokes fun at the publishing industry by creating a totally unlikeable and comic editor, Arthur Springer. His very name is indicative of his behavior, for he talks non-stop. Not listening to Rita, he insists that she send him a half-completed manuscript of a book she is writing--My Thyme is Up. He then wants her to re-write it, insisting that he can make a literary work out of light fiction.

When the reader finally learns the cause of Norah's breakdown, it is anti-climatic. The meaning of the book is contained in how Rita and her husband, Tom, learn to deal with the new normal. Chapter headings are significant. Take, for example, the chapter titled, "Unless."

Unless you're lucky, unless you're clear about your sexual direction, unless you're offered what others are offered, you go down in the darkness, down to despair. "Unless" provides you with a trapdoor, a tunnel into the light, the reverse side of not enough
(p. 149).

And then, there is the meaning of "goodness." Norah sits on the ground with this word around her neck. Arthur Springer comments that Alicia--the central character in Rita's book--possesses "goodness of soul, of heart" ( p. 160). Given Shields' illness, as well as the fact that Unless was completed in the wake of 9/11, her belief in goodness speaks to the remarkable woman she was.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

The Twelfth Enchantment

Lucy Derrick is an impoverished young woman who lives with her aunt, uncle and their creepy, mean housekeeper Mrs. Quince. Lucy has come to these circumstances since her sister and both of her parents have died. Her other sister, Martha is married to Mr. Buckles whom Lucy does not get along with.

Lucy has a somewhat tarnished reputation due to her ill fated love affair with Mr. Morrison. She continues to pay for this indiscretion with an arranged (and forced) engagement to Mr. Olson. Lucy comes to meet a Mary Crawford, who tries to get her to sharpen her sorcery skills - skills Lucy did not know she possessed. Mary is looking for pages to an alchemical book, called the Mutus Liber, that will allow the rightful owner to have an effect on the industrialization taking place across England. Luddites are attacking newly built machine shops including those owned by Mr. Olson.

The book moves fairly quickly and the characters are certainly interesting. Lord Byron and William Blake make appearances. They actually are in the same room and not one bit of conversation concerns their literary works. The story had a surreal quality for me. Dead people appear and sometimes you see them and sometimes you don't. You don't know which characters have been resurrected until more than 1/2 way through the book, making me wonder what I missed in the first half. And you actually need to know this because the story line depends on it.

I like David Liss as an author. I have read everything he has written but I had a hard time getting into this book. I liked the characters and the story is interesting. But some of the paranormal threads seem to get in the way. There are several plot lines: Lucy's abilities, her search for the man who stole her inheritance, her love for Mr. Morrison, Lord Byron's decadence and its effect on her life and her relationship with Mary and her brother-in- law Mr. Buckles to name a few. Still, it is a David Liss book and I always enjoy them.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Shock Value

If you have any interest in horror filmmaking in the 70s, you need to read the book Shock Value by Jason Zinoman, a theater critic for the New York TimesShock Value takes a look at the films and filmmakers who created modern horror and moved it beyond b-movie status.

In the 1950s and 60s, horror films consisted largely of men in rubber suits running around on cheap sets trying to scare bad actors. These movies were often fun, sometimes scary and usually relegated to b-movie status on double-bills. They were seldom taken seriously by critics and audiences. Certain directors, like Alfred Hitchcock, were able to parlay horror into box office success, with films such as The Birds and Psycho, but even Hitchcock films were starting to feel a little dated by the end of the 60s.

Rosemary's Baby changed everything when it was released in 1967. It was a huge success, was made by a skilled director, and had a downbeat ending in which evil seemed to win. It paved the way for other mainstream Hollywood horror releases, with major critical and audience successes such as The Exorcist and Carrie appearing in following years.

Shock Value looks at these films (and their filmmakers) and the other films that were nearly as influential, if not necessarily as critically accepted. George Romero is profiled as his Night of the Living Dead, a cheaply made zombie movie, is still influencing filmmakers. Wes Craven (Last House on the Left) and Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) also have substantial space devoted to them as does lesser-known Dan O'Bannon.  This book is not a deep read but if you are interested in what made your favorite horror filmmakers tick, you might want to take a look!

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fabulous, Small Jews

Fabulous Small Jews, by Joseph Epstein, is a poignant collection of short stories set in Chicago. It is his second collection, published in 2003. Epstein is best known for his essay collections such as Friendship: The Expose (2006), Snobbery: The American Version (2002) and Gossip: No Trivial Matter (2011). He is the former editor of The American Scholar and a regular contributor to such journals as Commentary and The Weekly Standard.

His essays are often conservative polemics with a good dose of sarcasm and wit. Given that, it is not surprising that the fictional protagonists in this collection are conventional, middle class bachelors, divorces or widowers, many of whom are basking in the successes of their youth.

The book takes its title from lines in a Karl Shapiro poem, "Hospital:" This is the Oxford of all sicknesses/Kings have lain here and fabulous small Jews/And actresses whose legs were always news. In her review of the book, Professor Daryn Glassbrook writes, "It is this emblematic image from Shapiro, equal parts irony and nostalgia, which clearly stands as the dominant motif of the collection." (Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Volume 23, Number 4m Summer 2005, pp. 139-142)

One of the most poignant of the short stories is "A Loss for Words." It details the relationship of a father and son as the father sinks into dementia. Although the opening story, "Felix Emeritus" also takes place in a nursing home, this one captures the pathos as none other. "It's an elephant graveyard (p. 271)," he tells his son. The father later befriends a former tennis champion, now suffering from Parkinson's. This kind man, who can no longer hold a fork, once won medals and played against the greats. While the father cuts this man's food, he finishes the dad's sentences. They become an inseparable couple. The conclusion of this story is a testament to friendship and familial love. Old age is depicted unsparingly, taking from us the very essence of our individuality.

Although many of the stories explore life's sad ironies, others end with a surprising twist. "Artie Glick in a Family Way" highlights a May-September romance in which the protagonist comes to terms with his neuroses and tosses caution to the wind. In "Moe," a man initially declines life-saving surgery only to learn that love comes with responsibilities, not least of all to oneself.

"The Executor," "Postcards," and "Freddy Duchamp in Action" all have writers as their protagonists and all use irony magnificently. To analyze these stories on paper would be to give away their endings. Let it be said that Epstein's insights into the human psyche reveal the wisdom of his own years as well as a writer's keen sensitivity.

Fabulous Small Jews is a well-crafted collection in the spirit of Philip Roth or Saul Bellow. The characters Epstein draws are identifiable-- straight out of West Rogers Park when The Bagel, Rosenblum's Bookstore and kosher meat markets dotted Devon Avenue.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Cold Vengeance

Cold Vengeance is Preston and Child's latest addition to the Pendergast series. It continues the story of Pendergast's hunt for his wife Helen. The book starts with Pendergsat being shot in the chest by his brother-in-law Judson Esterhazy. Esterhazy tells the police the shooting was a tragic hunting accident, but when he takes them to the shooting site, there is no body.

While this is taking place in Scotland, Constance (Pendergast's niece) is being moved to a mental institution after having claimed to have thrown her infant son off a moving boat. She is being housed in the same institution and secure room that her Great Aunt Cornelia was. Several other characters from previous books make reappearances: Corrie Swanson shows up at D'Agosta's office seeking Pendergast's whereabouts. He had an appointment with her and he missed it, something he has never done. D'Agosta knows nothing.

In Mississippi, a reporter is investigating the reappearance of the Brodie's - a couple who faked their own suicides and disappearance. The Brodie's are murdered shortly after an article appears in the local paper describing their escapades. Esterhazy thinks it may be something called the Covenant. A shadowy group he has had dealings with in the past. Esterhazy is not happy to hear the Pendergast may have survived the shooting and he hatches a plan to get back at Pendergast by using Constance.

Pendergast's search for his wife, whom he now believes is missing and not dead, takes him back to New York, a secret military institution and into the home of a Nazi hunter. Turns out that Helen ( and Esterhazy, her brother) are related to Wolfgang Faust - the "Dachau Doctor." The book contains the usual twists and turns and Pendergast's considerably skills are on display as usual. The story line leaves enough open ends that a sequel is certain.

What is not the same with this book ( and the previous one Fever Dream) is the delicious creepiness that accompanied the early books in the Pendergast series. I miss that.

But this is still a book worth reading, especially if you are a fan of Agent Pendergast.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

The Lantern

I tend to tread carefully when people tell me a book is just as good as some other book or that it is one of the best books ever written. The Lantern has been compared to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. And in some ways they are similar.

The Lantern starts off when a couple meets. She is a translator and he is a mysterious business man of independent means. After a whirlwind romance they move in together in a falling down mansion in France. Les Genevriers has been abandoned for years and was in total disrepair but Eve and Dom loved it. Dom bought the house and the surrounding lands and they began their solitary life together. They didn't marry - because Dom's first wife Rachel was a constant presence.

The story line moves between the present with Eve and Dom in the house and the past whose voice is Benedicte, one of the last of the family of the original owners. Benedicte is haunted by the ghost of her brother Pierre - who as a boy was a menace to himself and others. Benedicte tells the story of her life as a child and of the treasure that is supposed to be buried on the property.

Eve, who is blissful in her ignorance of Dom's previous life is increasing haunted by sights and sounds that she can't quite explain. Smells, breezes, strange lanterns left lighted on the path all have her concerned. At a dinner with some of their neighbors, Eve is introduced to Sabine. The conversation turns to the alleged ghosts and strange happenings that occur in the village and at Les Genevries. Sabine believes that she has met Dom before but he denies it. This encounter with Sabine has Eve wondering about Dom's previous life and his first wife. As Sabine and Eve become closer as friends, Eve becomes more insistent that Dom tell her about Rachel.

The story lines continue on their own paths, gradually coming together. The story is actually quite good. Eve makes for an interesting character. You never really know just what is keeping her tied to Dom. And Dom's own mysterious past follows him almost through to the end of the book. The story did have elements of Rebecca. A young girl falling in love with a mysterious older man, the first wife hanging like a shadow over the new relationship, the third person seeking to interfere with the new relationship. Add to that just a touch of the supernatural and you have a thoroughly enjoyable read.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

Set in post-colonial Trinidad, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle explores the boundaries of love in a marriage spanning fifty years. The book begins in 2006 and then goes back in time to 1956, switching narrators so that we, the reader, see the marriage from the perspective of both husband and wife.

Trinidad, in 1956, has just elected its first leader, Eric Williams, and the country is passionately in love with him. He is Oxford-educated and promises to help the poor with the basic necessities they are lacking. Many, such as Granny Seraphina, have no running water and live in former slave quarters. The poverty is shocking. The white residents, most of them English, are buying land cheaply and living like royalty.

Among these residents are George and Sabine Harwood. George is a civil servant in England whose life has been drab and uneventful. Taking his young wife, he comes to Trinidad to work. He soon falls in love with the land and its people.

Sabine, however, longs for England. She is oppressed by the heat and sensitive to the racial tensions plaguing the country. George sees only the sensuous beauty. When George discovers the cache of letters Sabine has written to Eric Williams, he mourns the erosion of his marriage.

"If only he'd known then. Eric Williams--of all people... Williams had died a broken man...He had (failed). George was like her, though; ...the same as Sabine, a cheat. He had cheated on Sabine all along, from the first day they arrived, stepping off the Cavina. It had been immediate, a strong physical attraction. He had fallen, and that was that. Head over heels, with the sounds and smells, with the smiles and shapes, with all the bewitching qualities of another woman called Trinidad (p. 73)."

Monique Roffey uses the country's disappointment in Eric Williams and its eventual dissolution into riots as a metaphor of the marriage itself. Violence breaks out around them, Molotov cocktails are thrown into their yard, the dogs are poisoned. Meanwhile, George and Sabine argue and call each other names; their sexual relations are laced with anger. "Stupid man," Sabine thinks. "His castle built on sand drenched in the blood of thousands of dark-skinned souls, those brought to Trinidad whether they liked it or not, forced to toil unpaid, all those who lived here before them hounded into extinction (p. 390)."

This book portrays the inequities of Trinidad's class system in rich, descriptive language. We see the home of Grandma Serephina in all of its squalor. Grandma Serephina, herself, is an engaging character who attracts and repels in equal measure. Her anger, hatred, and disappointment reflect that of the downtrodden on the island. Her sense of injustice resonates with Sabine, as it does with the reader.

In 2010, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle was a finalist for Britain's prestigious Orange Prize. It is a captivating depiction of the limits of love even as that love never dies. And it is the story of an island whose beauty and resources are ravaged by expatriates, much as they were by the colonial powers years before.

This is a powerful novel, written in first person narrative first by George, and then by Sabine. It is a unique style that brings the reader closer to the characters and the events that shape them. Roffey has written a haunting novel that remains in one's mind long after the final page.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Lady Blue Eyes

Celebrity tell-alls are not necessarily my cup of tea, but when I saw that Barbara Sinatra was coming out with the book Lady Blue Eyes, I was interested. Barbara was not only Frank Sinatra's fourth and final wife (staying married to him until his death in 1998) but she was married to Zeppo Marx as well for a number of years. I'm a big Marx Brothers fan and there are a number of fun Chico, Harpo and Groucho anecdotes through this book. Apparently Groucho (in his 80s at the time) was one of the few people who criticized Frank to his face when Barbara decided to divorce Zeppo and live with Frank.

Barbara Sinatra grew up in a small town in Missouri and was able to parlay her tall blonde looks into a modelling career in Las Vegas. She would eventually move to L.A. to marry Zeppo, who was actually her second husband (though her only child, a son, came from the first marriage). Zeppo was much older and Barbara tells us that this was a marriage for financial security, though she expresses very few ill feelings towards Zeppo. Frank Sinatra was a neighbor and over time the two of them became close, allowing Frank to woo her away from Zeppo and eventually marry her.

Obviously, the reason to pick up this book is for the anecdotes, and while Barbara provides plenty of them, they mostly focus on an older crew. Sinatra's buddy Jilly is a major part of the stories as is Frank Sinatra's mother (both of whom died in tragic accidents at an advanced age). Frank's supposed ties to organized crime are addressed as is his drinking and occasional foul moods, but for the most part this is a feel-good love story. Frank truly seemed to find the right woman at the right time.

The latter half of this book is essentially devoted to Frank's domesticity. After retiring from performing in the mid-seventies he was eventually lured back on the road, though you get the sense that his skills were declining in his last decade of performing. Barbara Sinatra has been focused on charitable activities in the latter part of her life and she details these, along with Frank's contributions. While the first half of the book certainly has plenty of drinking, fighting, carousing and practical jokes, you won't get to see the raucous mob-connected Sinatra portrayed in other biographies.

What I loved most about this book was it's portrayal of a bygone time when stars were stars. Dino, Sammy, Princess Grace, Cary Grant, Don Rickles, Gregory Peck and many other Hollywood and entertainment greats continually pop up as part of the entourage. It's fun to imagine what hanging out with Frank and Sinatra would have been like, although Frank's ability to stay up all night might exhaust a person in no time! This is a breezy and generally involving read for anyone interested in Sinatra and his associates.

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Thursday, September 8, 2011


When I finished Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken. A World War II story of survival, resilience and redemption. I actually felt guilty that I was sitting in a nice comfy chair with a stack of oreos next to me. And I was exhausted.

The story about Louis Zamperini is indeed one of survival. Zamperini was not a model child. He gave his parents a hard time, but his older brother Pete would not give up on him. Pete trained Louis to run. Trading on Louis' natural ability to run at great speed (mostly away from police) Pete turned him into a world class runner. At one point the world record belonged to Zamperini and it looked like he would be the first man to break the 4 minute mile mark. He competed in the 1936 Olympics and seemed to be on his way - then World War II intervened.

Louie joined the air corps and was trained to be a bombardier. His brother Pete was a naval chief petty officer stationed in San Diego. Louie's flight group was assigned to a B-24D known as the "flying coffin." Trained not only to sight bombs but survive a crash, Louie rapidly developed his skills. The plane, named Super Man was sent to Oahu for battle. After some fierce air battles the Super Man could no longer fly. Louie's group was given the Green Hornet a plane that had been patched together. 30 to 40 sorties was the expected tour for the flight crews. Louie's tour was much longer.

On May 27, 1943 Louie boarded the Green Hornet. The plane took off but never arrived at the agreed site. It had crashed. The plane was woefully under supplied. Not enough life vests, food or survival gear for the men who actually survived the crash and the sharks.

3 men survived. Louie, Phil and Mac. They had 2 rafts, some chocolate, little water, some fishing line and flares. Their survival depended on their own tenacity. Once the plane was discovered missing search teams were sent out. They searched for days but never found the men. In the mean time the men continued to drift with the currents. Relentless sun and no water they could drink took a toll on them. They tried to fish with little success, they ate raw sea birds they collected. They tried to collect rain water and still they drifted. 2,000 miles they drifted right into the Japanese.

Here is where the real survival tale begins. Hillenbrand details the horrors inflicted upon Louie and the other POWs. Filthy living conditions, enslavement in the industries used in the Japanese war effort, starvation and the relentless physical abuse. For years Louie and other POWs endured these conditions, leaving them living skeletons. Rescue finally arrived. The captors fled so they themselves would not be captured.

Louie and his fellow captives were rescued and finally sent back to the United States to recover. Louie's reappearance was a shock to his family - the army had declared him dead. Louie's life after the war was checkered. Plagued by flashbacks of the abusive guards he started drinking. He couldn't run because his leg had been shattered in the camps and never healed correctly. Louie was literally the walking wounded. Married, Louie couldn't even support his wife. Taken advantage by schemers he was always buying into one thing or another. Salvation came in the form of a tent sermon by Billy Graham.

That Zamperini survived to even hear Billy Graham is a miracle. The book is relentless in it's descriptions. Horror abounds in the Japanese prison camps, yet Louie seems remarkably resilient. He survives to live another day. And live he does.

I highly recommend this book. It is not a happy story but it is one that shows the strength of the human spirit. Graphic descriptions don't detract from the story they are simply part of it. Something to get past. Something to survive, like Louie did.

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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Dog Days of Summer...The New Yorkers

The New Yorkers, by Cathleen Schine, is a light and charming story about a group of single people in New York City's Upper West Side. It is an urban fable whose characters are linked by their loveable dogs. The cast includes Jody, a spunky music teacher who labels herself a spinster, takes up knitting, and worries her nights away. Believing she should own a cat (more in keeping with the spinster life), she none-the-less falls in love with an elderly pit-bull mix. Found by the ASPCA wandering the streets emaciated and covered with ticks, this gentle dog is adopted by Jody. She bestows her with the dignified name of Beatrice. Given Cathleen Schine's love of literary allusions, one wonders if she named the mutt after Dante's muse, Beatrice Portinari--the inspiration for his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy (1308-1321).

This novel abounds in funny characters. We have the handsome but stuffy, Everett. He is a 50-year-old chemist who falls, not for the 26-year-old Polly, with whom he is having an affair, but with her exuberant puppy, Howdy. While dog-sitting for Polly, Everett takes Howdy on walks through central park. He becomes a part of the dog-walking society around him and ceases to feel so alone.

It seemed almost incomprehensible to Everett. He had lived with this dog for five days. In five days, his life had come alive for him. His street was full of people, and his city was full of streets. His park, once nothing more than a grand exercise track, was now a landscape, a lawn, a garden, a thicket, a boulder, a swamp ( pp. 209-210).

Other colorful characters include George, Polly's brother; Simon, Jody's self-centered boyfriend, Jamie, owner of the Cheers-like restaurant where patrons and their dogs are welcome, and Doris, the woman who hates dogs and wants to bar them from public places. Part of the action involves Doris, with her orange skin and not-so-repressed anger, hatching schemes with the city councilman.

The New Yorkers would be especially liked by singles in their 20's or 30's, or by those seeking a book with wonderfully comedic passages. As always, Cathleen Schine's writing sparkles. You don't have to be a dog-lover to enjoy this book, but it helps.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts

 There was so much buzz about Erik Larson's new book, In the Garden of Beasts that I actually went out and bought it even thought the library owns more than 10 copies. It was money well spent. The story is about William E. Dodd, the United States ambassador to Berlin in the early 1930's. Hitler was just starting his rise and Germany was in a state of flux. The United States was still suffering from the depression and most of Europe was still recovering from World War I.

Dodd, a professor at the University of Chicago lobbied hard for an ambassador position assuming it would give him time to finish his opus, On the Old South. He could not have been more wrong. Dodd was not part of the "old boy network" of the diplomatic corps and was almost totally frozen out from this group from the very beginning. An academic and an unassuming man, Dodd arrives in Berlin in 1933 with his wife, son, daughter and his beat up Ford sedan. This was in sharp contrast to the previous ambassador and indeed from some of his aides.

The story is meticulously detailed through the use of both private and public correspondence. It shows a man who was somewhat out of his depth but had a better read on the political situation in Germany than did many of his superiors in Washington and that he did more than he was given credit for. The book hints that Roosevelt placed Dodd in Germany because no one else would take the position and that once Dodd was in Germany Roosevelt left him alone to deal with the situation.

There is very little in the book about Dodd's wife and son. His daughter is the most complete family member and she is something else. A consummate party girl, Martha, takes up with a series of men even though her American divorce is not finalized. She runs through an alarming array of diplomats, new reporters, Nazi officers and a Russian embassy liaison assumed (and rightly so) to be a Soviet spy.

The book reads like a work of fiction, a trait of Larson's. But what makes this book so riveting is that from our point of view we can actually see what is coming and how Dodd was really left twisting by a government that wouldn't believe him. The story moves quickly and I will tell you that the more I read the more sympathetic I was towards Dodd. This is one very interesting book. There are hundreds of books about the lead up to World War II and Hitler's rise to power. In the Garden of Beasts tells the story from a different angle. It is most definitely worth the read.

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Friday, August 26, 2011

The Filter Bubble

We live in an information age with nearly everything available at our fingertips, but are we no longer being exposed to contrary opinions? Eli Pariser, in his book The Filter Bubble, considers whether personalization and filters on the internet are having an unfortunate effect upon us as individuals and citizens. Pariser, a former Executive Director of MoveOn.org, argues that the Internet is on the path to providing us with opinions from only those who think exactly the same as we do.

Try searching a term on Google and then have a friend search the same term and you may see that Google is providing different results for each of you. This is because Google uses many factors, from cookies to click history, to determine which results are most relevant to an individual. While personalization is clearly useful (e.g., when searching movies you probably want to see what's playing near you, first) Parserer feels that by only serving up information that we like, we might no longer be exposed to some information that is potentially good for us. To remain responsible citizens we need to be exposed to contrary opinions and in-depth analysis. From news to Netflix, there is a chance that the systems are overfiltering what we are seeing, and only coming up with very narrow matches. We are potentially missing out on gray area information that is not a great personalized fit but which we may enjoy reading or seeing.

Facebook and Google are two of the major sites trying to determine what we "like" to see vs. what we "need" to see and one of Pariser's problems with these sites is that their method of filtering is not transparent. Google serves as an editor by providing certain results first while moving others farther back in the results list, and we often have no idea why. We have very little control over what we prefer that Google provides to us.

Another major concern that Pariser addresses is the fact that when we use free online products, information that is being captured about us is usually being sold. There are huge databases about us, our preferences and the people we interact with, and there are myriad ethical questions about how this information can and will be used down the line.

While part of this book meandered away from its main topic overall this was a breezy look at some issues that will affect us more and more as the Internet continues to integrate itself into our lives. The book reads like a long magazine article and is approachable by anyone interested in the current state of the Internet.

View Eli Pariser's TED talk on the filter bubble.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011


The second of Rory Clements' Tudor intrigue series, Revenger picks up several years after Martyr ends. Set England near the end of the reign of Elizabeth 1, Revenger is filled with great historical detail. The Spanish Armada attack is over and the colony in Virginia has failed. So what is the royal court to do for intrigue? Argue about succession that's what.

Cecil and Essex are still plotting against each other. Essex hires Shakespeare to find Eleanore Dare a woman who was supposed to have died along with all the other Roanoke, Virginia colonists. Cecil hires Shakespeare to spy on Essex and all Shakespeare wants to do is teach at the school he has set up after retiring from the intelligencer business.

Essex is the Queen's favorite, but Shakespeare finds that the Queen is in danger along with his family. Essex has ambitions for the throne and he is using Shakespeare to help him. Unwittingly Shakespeare seems to be doing just that. He finds Eleanore Dare and uncovers a secret that involves Essex's henchman McGunn. McGunn, a hired thug has murdered people and generally made Shakespeare's life miserable. He has his own agenda and is going to make sure it succeeds.

Some of the characters from Martyr appear in this book. Shakespeare and his wife Catherine, along with Essex, Cecil and Topcliff, who is still in service to the Queen and up to his torture routines in his hunt for catholics.

The story abounds with intrigue, deceit and murder. The historical detail is remarkable - from the back alleys of London's most sordid areas to the royal displays of the Queen's pilgrimage, Clements doesn't skimp. This is a great historical mystery.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

An Unfinished Season

An Unfinished Season, by Ward Just, is a coming of age story that highlights the conflicts of nineteen year old Wilson Ravan (Wils) as well as those of post-war America in the early 1950s. Wils lives with his family in a wealthy and rural North Shore suburb called Quarterday. His father owns a printing company and the family is well-off. Although Mr. Raven's family is solidly midwestern, Wils' mother is from the East Coast. She once harbored hopes that her husband would become a partner in her father's New York law firm.

The reader sees their marriage through the lens of their teenage son. When the workers of the printing company go on strike for better wages and benefits, an idealogical rift occurs between the couple. This is a time of strife between labor and management. Unions are gaining strength as workers wish to share in the new post-war economic boon. There is blatant racism as African American soldiers return from the front to face intense discrimination. Discord in the house is mirrored by labor unrest.

Wils' summer job is that of an intern for a Chicago paper. He has gotten the job because his father golfs with its publisher. Ward Just, a former journalist, portrays the news room in all its excitement and grittiness. The down-to-earth reporters secretly resent Wils and his social advantages.

At a debutant party, one of the guests thinks Wils' summer job is a form of "slumming." "Why would anyone want to be a newspaper reporter? It's so sordid, what you have to see and do. It's so--vulgar. That colored girl, for example. The stories about her throw such a bad light on things, accentuating the negative, makes us all feel rotten, as if we're being accused of something." (p. 111)

At one of these parties, Wils meets the alluring Aurora and her respected psychiatrist father. He is drawn into their world, which is intensely complicated. Dr. Brule is divorced, a veteran of WWII, lives with his daughter and South American lover, and suffers from what we recognize now as post-traumatic stress. His relationship with the enigmatic Dr. Brule, as well as his own code of honor, play a huge role in his affair with Aurora.

As Michael Upchurch writes in the Seattle Times (Sunday, July 18, 2004): "An Unfinished Season stays tightly wrought throughout, even as it hones in on 'a loose end that will stay loose' in Wils' life. For Just, as for Wils, the mystery of that "loose end" exerts considerably more fascination than any mere journalistic fact."

An Unfinished Season contains crisp writing and an engaging plot. It is a period piece which vividly depicts Chicago--its music, its politics, its sights and its sounds.

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