Friday, July 29, 2011

George Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

I recently finished Ron Chernow's massive Pulitzer Prize winning biography Washington: A Life - appropriately a couple of days after July 4th. Despite its hefty 900 page length, I found it readable and comprehensive and a good example of how a biography should be written. As Chernow puts it in the Acknowlegements, we ironically know much more about George Washington than most of his friends and contemporaries knew about this reserved man.

Despite being born into a family of only moderate wealth, Washington "lucked" into becoming an extensive landowner through deaths and marriage. One of the threads running through the book is the willingness of George and Martha Washington to take young relatives into their households after their parents had died. Despite never having children of their own (Martha had two children from a previous marriage) George Washington acted as a father to many young people, providing financial and moral support. A major theme is how he was able to serve as both father to his country and surrogate father to many young people.

One walks away from this book with a sense of how important as a personality Washington was to the formation of this country. Indeed, if one looks at his performance on the battlefield, both fighting the French and Indians as a British colonist and later fighting the British as a revolutionary, one is less than impressed. But Washington, despite initially favoring reconciliation with the British, took earlier military snubs to heart and saw no way to proceed besides declaring independence. His troops were ill-fed, barely trained, poorly dressed and often only signed up for six months at a time, at which point he would be forced to train new troops. There was only a weak federal government, requiring Washington to request financial help from often reluctant states. The only consistency in the army was Washington himself, who was often at the front of the troops on horseback. Washington was the symbol that kept the troops fighting for years.

Perhaps most striking of all about this great man is the way that his character defined "public servant". Washington's ideal would have been to remain at Mount Vernon and act as gentleman farmer but he was constantly being called into action. After spending five years on the battlefield he was drafted to be President of the Continental Congress before being unanimously elected for two terms as President of the United States (and even solicited as a possible monarch, a role which he refused). Just as he symbolized the American Revolution throughout the world, he would came to define the presidency with many of the decisions that he made, regarding everything from how he made his State of the Union addresses to his relationship with his Cabinet and the other branches creating a guide for all future presidents. Unfortunately, his presidency also helped create the two-party system, as he began to fall out with Thomas Jefferson and others regarding our country's relationship with France and England, and north and south philosophical differences.

The complex issue of Washington's true feelings about slavery is one that Chernow spends much time trying to explain. Washington was a slaveholder (though arguably a more compassionate one than many of his contemporaries) who depended upon slave labor to make a living. However, many who saw him as a symbol of freedom had difficulty reconciling his status as a slave owner with that of a revolutionary leader. Privately, Washington discussed his support for ending the institution of slavery (though he probably had economic reasons as well as moral reasons) but he did not allow his slaves to be freed until after he died, and actively hunted down escaped slaves while he lived.

Washington: A Life is a perfect example of everything a biography should be. George Washington was not the folk hero that Abraham Lincoln was or a colorful character like Theodore Roosevelt, so the Washington you see in textbooks often resembles a marble statue. This book does an exemplary job at bringing the man to life - a complex man with an overbearing mother and an eye for the ladies who was perhaps the premier figure in the creation of this country.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Secret of the White Rose

Detective Simon Ziele is back  this time investigating the murder of Judge Hugo Jackson.  Jackson is presiding over the trial of Al Drayson, an anarchist whose bomb killed several innocent bystanders instead of the intended target.

New York City was a dangerous place in 1906.  But was it dangerous because of the criminals or because of the people running the city?  Corruption was everywhere in New York which was filled with new immigrants trying to survive.   As the son of immigrants, Ziele is caught between 2 worlds.  A detective whose career is in jeopardy, he teams up with his friend Alistair Sinclair, a criminologist,who has been called to investigate the murder by the judge's widow.  At the same time Ziele is given a special assignment by the police commissioner to investigate the brother of his dead fiance.While both Sinclair and Ziele believe the anarchists are behind the murder, the police commissioner just wants any anarchist arrested, convicted  and out of the city.  And he doesn't care how.

As the murders begin to pile up, there are some strange connections between them.  A single white rose is left at each scene.  The men are positioned after their deaths to indicate that they heard nothing, said nothing and saw nothing.  But what didn't they see, hear or speak?  The murdered men all went to law school together and all belonged to the same societies.  But is this really the connection?  Alistair's daughter-in-law and Ziele's friend, Isabella,  once again provides valuable assistance.

Some of the same characters from Pintoff's previous books make appearances.  Isabella, Sinclair, Mulvaney, Ziele's police captain, and Frank Riley, a New York Times reporter.  With help from all of them, Ziele begins to piece the clues together.

Well written, the story is filled with historical detail.  The white rose that is found at the crime scenes historically signifies that the person is a traitor and will die.  Victoria Earle Matthews, runs a settlement house for young African women.  A suspect is allegedly connected to the home.  Both Matthews and her works are historical fact.  Even the name of her mission, The White Rose Mission is a fact. These facts blend seamlessly with the fiction making for a great who done it.  I recommend this book and all the others in the series.

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Friday, July 22, 2011

State of Wonder

In State of Wonder, Ann Patchett has once again astonished readers with her evocative prose. Set in the Brazilian Amazon, Patchett raises moral questions pertaining to scientific exploration and the choices we make as individuals and as a society. Moreover, she explores the nature of friendship and love, and the loyalties and betrayals inherent in both.

When the book opens, we are introduced to Marina Singh, a researcher for a pharmaceutical company. She and Anders Eckman are lab partners researching cholesterol drugs. Mr. Fox, an administrator at the company, has sent Anders into the Brazilian jungle on an investigative mission. He is to check on the progress of Dr. Annick Swenson in developing a fertility drug. She has been there, unsupervised, for over a decade. The reader learns on the first line of the book that Anders has died in that jungle. The question is why?

Marina is the vehicle through which we see both the jungle and Dr Swenson, much as Marlow is the means through which the Congo and Kurtz are viewed in the Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad). Her sojourn into the Amazon takes the form of a quest. With its poisonous snakes, thickets of insects and neighboring cannibals, Marina has entered a green hell.

Marina studied to be a doctor and did her residency in gynecology under Dr. Swenson. But a horrible mistake in the operating theater made her abandon her career. She struggles with this loss as well as the childhood loss of her father. Since his death, she has been troubled by recurring nightmares. Patchett allows the reader to enter her dreams seamlessly; we get a sense of the scared little girl who is now a fearful woman.

The most fascinating character in the novel is Dr. Swenson. A latter-day Kurtz (Heart of Darkness) , she has focused on studying a tribe whose women continue bearing children well into old age. Unbeknownst to Mr. Fox and the company, she is also doing research on an anti-malarial drug. She hopes to save millions of people for whom malaria is a cause of death, but for whom American companies care little.

Dr. Swenson has been in the jungle so long that she no longer feels comfortable elsewhere. She has even come to question modern medicine and the role it should serve for a native population. "The question is whether or not you choose to disturb the world around you," Dr. Swenson explains to Marina, "or if you choose to let it go on as if you had never arrived. That is how one respects the indigenous people....The point , then, is to observe the life they themselves have put in place and learn from it." (pp. 162-163)

Dr. Swenson applies this principal to her affections for an orphaned, deaf boy for whom she is mother and father. Although Eckman and Marina teach Easter western manners, Dr. Swenson draws the line at taking him back to the states "as a souvenir." She understands that to civilize him is to place a value judgment on the way of life of another culture.

State of Wonder is a beautiful, thought-provoking adventure story. Like Conrad's classic, it looks at issues of good and evil, exploring the boundaries of loyalty and the limits of love.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Ridge

The Ridge, the latest novel by Michael Koryta is another winner. Set in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, the story starts with the local sheriff, Kevin Kimble receiving a 5 am phone call from the town inebriate, Wyatt French. French is rambling talking about killing himself, but not willingly and just when exactly does a death become a murder? Wyatt has built a lighthouse in the woods because the dark was "not a good thing" cementing his reputation in the town as a nut case. At the time of the phone call, Kimble is driving to a women's prison to see Jacqueline - a woman who tried to murder him.

Roy Darmas is a local reporter whose parents were killed in a car accident on the ridge. Roy had also received calls from French, leading him to head out to the lighthouse. He finds French's body along with a note for the sheriff to personally investigate the death. There are maps and pictures taped to the walls of the lighthouse including pictures of his parents. Investigating, Roy finds out that all the people were killed at night near the ridge where the light house was built.

Audrey Clarke runs a large cat rescue service which has just relocated to property near the lighthouse. The cats don't like the new location - on the first night there they are agitated and growling at a blue flame like light that is moving in and around the lighthouse. Ira, a black cougar who simply appeared at the sanctuary, is especially agitated, so much so that he escapes by leaping a 14 foot tall fence. Black cougars hold mythical status in eastern Kentucky.

What is going on at the ridge? Strange things for sure. Ray discovers that people have been surviving what should be fatal accidents at the ridge for years. And then after their survival they murder someone. People who survive also report seeing a man or boy with a blue light. These strange happenings have been going on since the bridge trestle was built many years ago.

Koryta has written another great paranormal thriller. Kevin Kimble, the stoic sheriff is someone you would want protecting you. His main concern is to stop the strange happenings at the ridge and he gives it his all. All the characters are believable and actually likable, you would want to know even the creepy ones. Koryta once again blends just the right amount of tension and creepiness. This book is well worth the read.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Land Girls

Land Girls is a series commissioned by the BBC to mark the 70th anniversary of the start of WWII. While the men fought in the armed forces, women first volunteered, and then were conscripted, to work the land in rural England. This is the story of four women who, for diverse reasons, come to Pasture Farm.

Each girl has her own unique personal history. Nancy Morrell is solidly middle class. She is educated and well-dressed. In the first episode, she resents being drafted and is unaccustomed to the hard physical labor of tending crops.

Her character is sharply contrasted by the hard-working Joyce Fisher, whose husband is serving in the British air force. Although her family has been killed in a bombing raid, Joyce soldiers on in a spirited and upbeat way. Unlike the beautiful Nancy, Joyce is plain. It is gratifying to see her married to and in love with a handsome man--one who passionately loves her in return. Like her, he is serving his country, and his weekly letters are an inspiration for her.

The sisters Bea and Annie are equally engaging characters. Bea is a vivacious seventeen year old, rebelling against her sister's protective and sensible ways. Somewhat promiscuous, she is soon pregnant from a one-night stand with an American soldier. Meanwhile, we learn the truth about Annie's marriage and the sacrifice she has made to protect them from their father.

The farms owner, Frederick Finch, is a comic character and provides humor in an otherwise serious plot. He enlists a young hired hand in a series of misadventures to earn an illicit buck and skirt the wartime rations. Yet he is as kind as he is devious, offering his home to the pregnant Bea.

Other characters include Billy, the decent and guileless son of Finch. Esther Reeves is in charge of the land girls on the farm.

A foil to the working class girls and those they report to are Lord and Lady Hoxley, owners of the manor. This estate is adjacent to the farm, and the girls alternately work as maids there. The first season highlights their unhappy marriage while shedding light on the antiquated class system.

Like most productions of the BBC, Land Girls has fine actors, a well-written script, and is equal parts drama, humor, and romance. It tackles some larger issues, such as "segregation of the black and white American troops, the hunt for Nazi sympathizers and the use of prisoners of war as laborers." (Land Girls -TV Series, "Concept and Development," Wikipedia) But beyond its thematic content, the series is highly entertaining. 

Land Girls is beginning its third season this fall. Catch up by borrowing it from the library.

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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Irresistible North

I find old maps fascinating, so this book was perfect for me. In Irresistible North, Andrea Di Robilant tells the story of the search for information on the Zen brothers of Venice. In 1558 Nicolo (the younger) Zen wrote a book entitled: On Discovery of the Islands of Frislanda, Eslanda, Engrovelanda, Estotilanda and Icaria made by two Zen brothers under the Artic Pole. Nicolo was the great great grandson of Antonio Zen, one of the navigators referred to in the title. This book sparked what has been come to be called the Zen map controversy.

DiRobilant discovered the book while in Venice researching another topic. He was asked a question by another tourist and that led to his acquaintance with the Zen brothers and their travels. The book was delivered to DiRobilant from the rare book collection and as luck would have it, it contained a map. The map was drawn by Nicolo and showed the islands his ancestors had allegedly discovered. Nicolo wrote the book based on letters and scraps of diaries he found. Nicolo's book was originally printed by mistake. Nicolo had given the book to a friend, a printer, to proofread. The man printed it. It became an instant bestseller for the time. Nicolo, not happy edited the book himself and had it republished.

Nicolo the elder was a rich man in the 1300s in Venice. Antonio is his younger brother. Nicolo was a spice trader who wanted to see the world. Known as Nicolo Zen, Draconis (Nicolo Zen son of the dragon) he came from a sailing family so a sailing expedition was not something new to him. They set off. Sailing away from Venice, they are blown off course in a terrible storm and discover what is termed "Frislanda." This island is marked on Nicolo, the younger's, map. It appears that what was actually discovered were the Faeroe Islands. In any event the brothers met up with Zichmini, a warrior king who saved Draconis and his crew from the natives. The Zens stay with Zichmini as they travel through the Artic seas. According to the diaries and letters, the brothers went to Engronelind (Greenland), Islanda (Iceland) and Frislanda (the Faeroe Islands) among other stops.

Nicolo, the younger's book and map were used in several other map books most notably Gerardus Mersator's map of the world - which was the first complete map of the world. The Zen book is not without controversy. Scholars from the 1500s until current times have either panned the book and declared Nicolo a liar or believed that the book was truth and the earliest written documentation of the voyages.

I liked this book. A short book, less than 200 pages, it is full of information about countries in the north Atlantic and the history of their names. The lives of the Zen brothers are interesting in and of themselves, but DiRobilant's fascination with the Zen's and their story is the real reason for the book. Pages of notes and an index at the end of the book will give the interested reader more places to go. Short but interesting, I recommend this book.

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Friday, July 1, 2011

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

This Pulitzer Prize winning author does not disappoint with her newest wonderful work of historic fiction. 

The titular Caleb is based on the first Native American student to graduate from Harvard College in 1665. Documentation in the front and back of the book remind us that this is based on a real person. The story is narrated by Bethia Mayfield, daughter of an English minister who was among the first to settle the island we now know as Nantucket.  The Mayfields strove to co-exist with the Indians, and educate them in the Christian religion as well as academic subjects.  Caleb is brought into the Mayfield home so that he could be prepared for Harvard.

Bethia's voice is strong, and tells the story so well that you can't stop reading.  The author writes in the style of language that would have been spoken at the time, furthering the reader's immersion in the book .  (You will want to read a few chapters in a row at the beginning so that you get the feeling for the speech, rather than picking it up and putting it down.)

This book will appeal to men and women alike, and I highly recommend it.

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