Monday, March 30, 2015

Aquarium by David Vann

 David Vann is an internationally acclaimed author whose oeuvre has garnered fifteen awards, including best foreign novel in France and Spain. His book have been on 75 Best Books of the Year lists in 12 countries.

Aquarium is a coming-of-age story told through the eyes of a 12-year old girl. Caitlin is a sensitive and resilient child for whom the local aquarium becomes both sanctuary and her place for scientific exploration. Her environment is bleak. She lives surrounded by factories and concrete. Only a few trees line the subsidized development where she lives with her mother, Sheri, a dock worker at a container port who works long hours. As a result, Caitlin must fend for herself and she makes the aquarium her after-school destination. It is there that she meets a mysterious old man who shares her love of fishes and whose past nearly shatters her life.

Caitlin is a very lonely child who feels safest in the aquarium's cave-like atmosphere that mimics the ocean. She is comforted by the anonymity the darkness gives her; the uniqueness of the fish mirrors her own sense of being different. The fish, caged as they are, also mirror her own feeling of entrapment.

What distinguishes this book from other bildungsromans is that it builds on the many personal secrets of its characters. Sheri never discusses her painful childhood with Caitlin but it soon becomes clear that it has damaged her badly. Just how badly drives the novel and is the foundation of the co-dependency she and her daughter share.

Aquarium is a spellbinding novel that analyses the lasting impact of childhood trauma. Ultimately, it is a redemptive work that explores the limits of love and the healing aspect of forgiveness. Its crystalline prose and three dimensional characters make this book a must-read for everyone--young adults included.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk has already garnered two literary awards in Britain, where it was first published last year. The book has received the Costa Prize for book of the year and the Samuel Johnson prize for best work of nonfiction. It is a captivating memoir combining literary history, a treatise on falconry, nature writing, and an analysis of personal grief. Macdonald's prose is crystalline; the reader is transported into her world and into her sense of loss.

When Macdonald was a doctoral student at Cambridge, her father died suddenly of a heart attack. He was a photo-journalist and a man equally sensitive to nature and his surroundings. As Macdonald describes him, it is easy to understand her great sense of loss.

Yet her process of mourning is unusual. Captivated by the author T.H. White (The Once and Future King) and inspired by White's own tragic attempt at training a goshawk, Macdonald procures and sets about the task of training the hawk she names Mabel. As she explains:

Falconry for me was about revelling in the flight of the hawk, never in the death it brought...But that was not why I needed (Mabel). To me she was bright, vital, secure in her place in the world. Every tiny part of her was boiling with life, as if from a distance you could see a plume of steam around her, coiling and ascending and making everything around her slightly blurred, so she stood out in fierce corporeal detail. The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away. There could be no regret or mourning in her. No past or future. She lived in the present only, and that was my refuge. 

Intermingled within the book's chapters are references to White's memoir, The Goshawk, that details his struggle, and eventual failure, to train his own bird. Macdonald had read this book as a child and been captivated by it. Re-reading it as an adult, and having had experience with raptors, she is upset by his ineptitude. Yet she also empathizes with him in his desire to escape his sorrow through an animal. Macdonald's digressions into White's tormented soul, along with passages from The Goshawk, are masterfully woven into her own story. Having loved The Once and Future King and all the Arthurian legends, this reader greatly valued Macdonald's insights into the author and the book that made him famous.

Barbara Brotman, writing in the Chicago Tribune Printer's Row Journal, captures the essence of H is for Hawk:

The story begun in grief returns to it, as Macdonald brings her observer's eye and poet's voice to the universal experience of sorrow and loss. As deeply as she bonds with her hawk, in the end, she must decide what wildness can and cannot do for the suffering human heart.

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Explorers

"Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit"
Frank Borman, Apollo Astronaut

The Explorers is a book about the hunt for the headwaters of the Nile River, except when it is a book about the quirky people who personify the word "explorer." It is September 1854, Jack Speke, 27 years old, has just finished a 10 year tour with the British Army in India. Born to a family with an ancient estate in rural England he was a loner who had not done well in school. He loved to hunt and collect game specimens and killed "anything new and unique that wandered into his path" shipping the heads and pelts back to his ancestral home.

Speke left the army one day and the next day boarded a ship for Calcutta. He was going to give big game hunting in Africa a try. The problem was he was woefully unprepared and totally ignorant of the African continent. Forbidden from setting off on his journey, he met Richard Francis Burton. Burton was an experienced adventurer and famous in England. Burton spoke multiple languages, had traveled to Mecca, and translated the Kama Sutra into English.  He was also one man short on his expedition so he asked Speke to join. They received permission and set off. Their fate twined together. By the end of this journey after being taken hostage, tortured, suffering from medical ailments no one had ever experienced before, they hated each other.  So it was a surprise when they teamed up again to find the source of the Nile. Their relationship did not improve.

In a conversational tone the book tells of other explorers, their mistakes (lucky and otherwise), and the seven traits that all explorers must possess. Each chapter deals with one trait, applying it to Speke, Burton and others. The history of exploration is looked at, as well as where exploration stands today. The book contains a lot history and some information didn't know about, always a plus! I love a book about explorers, I love sagas. This book was both.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford

Let Me Be Frank With You is Richard Ford's fourth book with Frank Bascombe as its main character. "The Bascombe Trilogy" begins with The Sportswriter (1986), when Frank is 38 years old. He is adjusting to having lost his son, his marriage, and a career as a novelist. Introspection--the trait needed to be a fiction writer-- is one Frank currently avoids. Now a sportswriter, he uses his fine skills of observation without analyzing his own grief. In that first book, we come to see Frank as a man who is not to be defeated--someone who firmly believes that optimism is an essential part of existence.

Independence Day (1995), book two of the trilogy and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1996, continues the saga as Frank makes his way from his home in Haddam, New Jersey to his son Paul's home in Connecticut. Frank's destination is the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., which he hopes will be therapeutic for his teenage son. Frank is no longer a sportswriter. Instead, he lives in the home he shared with his former wife and sells real estate. He seems particularly suited to this job, enjoying the tangential companionship of the client/realtor relationship.

In The Lay of the Land (2006), the third book of the trilogy, Frank is 55 and still working as a realtor. The year is 2000. Frank has moved to a very expensive house overlooking the ocean. Sally, his second wife, has left him and he is recovering from treatment for prostate cancer. Once again, "life" has hit him squarely in the face.

Thus, when we meet Frank again in Let Me Be Frank With You, he is in his late 60s and clearly dealing with issues of late middle age. In the first story, "I Am Here," Sally and he have sold their home by the ocean. They have returned to Haddam in what turns out to be a propitious move. Frank is retired and filling his time with some volunteer work. Hurricane Sandy has struck and Sally is busy doing grief counseling in the worst hit areas. He is downsizing his life--getting rid of non-essential words, belongings, and so-called "friends."

Juxtaposed with his own physical decline (poor guy is suffering from neck and back pain) is the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Sandy. As Frank observes:

Sea-Clift, when I drive south on Central, gives to the world the sad look of having taken a near fatal punch in the nose...Roofs, windows, front stoops, exterior walling, garages, boats--all look as if a giant has strode out of the gray sea and kicked the shit out of everything.  (Loc. 309, Kindle edition)

But this is a humorous book. Frank's complete irreverence and dark wit endear him to the reader.  He also exhibits much compassion, albeit reluctantly.Whether visiting a dying friend or agreeing to meet a former real estate client at his now-destroyed house, Frank's essential humanity shines through.

Similarly, in the short story, "The New Normal," Frank drives out to see his ex-wife in a nearby "state-of the art, staged-care facility," (Loc 1229) aptly named, "Carnage Hill." His mission is to give her an orthopedic pillow for Christmas--one that will "homeopathically 'treat' Parkinson's..." (loc 1235)

The description of the facility and its residents is replete with black humor-- including that of Ann, his feng shui obsessed ex-wife. The walls of her beautiful apartment display pictures that border on the pornographic and are embedded with sensors measuring her vital signs. As Frank looks dispassionately at Ann's new surroundings, he assesses his own recent move to "downsize." He reflects:

Our move to Haddam, a return to streets, housing stocks and turbid memories I thought I'd forever parted with, was like many decisions people my age make: conservative, reflexive, unadventurous, and comfort-hungry--all posing as their opposite: novel, spirited, enlightened, a stride into the mystery of life, a bold move only a reckless few would ever chance. As if I'd decided to move to Nairobi and open a Gino's. Sadly, we only know well what we've already done. (Loc 1315)

If you enjoyed reading the earlier books by Richard Ford featuring Frank Bascombe, you will not want to miss this book of interlocking short stories. But you need not have read the trilogy. Let Me Be Frank With You can stand on its own merits. It is a wry, and sadly, realistic portrait of aging in America.

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Friday, March 13, 2015

How We Got to Now by Steve Johnson

Did you ever wonder how sometimes something leads to something else that appears to be totally unrelated? In this book, Steve Johnson a New York Times bestselling author and host of the PBS/BBC series How We Got to Now will explain just how that happens.

Johnson terms the book " a work of history written sometime in the future by some form of artificial intelligence, mapping out the history of the preceding millennium." Doesn't that explain it? But what the book does talk about is how 6 ideas and innovations have triggered changes that seem to have nothing to do with the original idea. Johnson's 6 ideas: glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light.

He starts by explaining that innovations usually begin with an attempt to solve a specific problem but end up triggering changes that have seemingly nothing to do with the original problem (think Velcro). A new innovation is really a network of new ideas. For example, the printing press. The printing press created a demand for eyeglasses so people could see the printed word more clearly which led to experiments with lenses which led to the microscope. Johnson calls this the hummingbird effect.

The focus is on North American and European ideas and innovations and the book doesn't deal with the relative value of the idea. His example is air conditioning which has allowed people to live in the desert and that negatively affects water supply. Johnson starts with glass, starting with an event 26 million years ago in the Libyan desert and continuing right up to today's fiber optics.

The whole book is like this and it is fascinating. Short, each innovation chapter is less than 50 pages in length and chocked full of interesting tidbits. Not only interesting, the book gives a little bit of history and science in the deal.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Driving the King by Ravi Howard

In 1956, Nat King Cole was assaulted on stage during a concert in Birmingham, Alabama by three members of the North Alabama White Citizens Council. The three male attackers ran down the aisles of the auditorium towards Cole and his band. Although local law enforcement quickly ended the invasion of the stage, the ensuing melee toppled Cole from his piano bench and injured his back. Cole did not finish the concert and never again performed in the South.

This description of the assault at a concert which is the focus of Driving the King is quoted directly from the website:

Driving the King is a fictional memoir told by Nathaniel Weary. The fictional Weary was born in Montgomery, Alabama and grew up with Nat King Cole, who actually was born in and lived in Montgomery as a young boy. In the novel, Weary saves Cole from an assault at a concert in Montgomery and spends 10 years in prison for his actions.  Following his release from prison, at Cole's request, Weary moves to Los Angeles, at the time of Cole's TV show, to be chauffeur and bodyguard for Cole.  Weary rebuilds his personal life, including new friendships and love.  He is also at the center of civil rights history - bus boycotts, bombings, and the entertainment industry's treatment of Nat King Cole. Weary and Cole return to Montgomery for a second concert, despite the tension and fears for their safety. 

Again, some facts from
In October 1956, Nat started his own TV show. Cole's popularity allowed him to become the first African American to host a network variety program, The Nat King Cole Show, which debuted on NBC television in 1956. The show fell victim to the bigotry of the times, however, and was canceled after one season; few sponsors were willing to be associated with a black entertainer.
Cole fought racism all his life and refused to perform in segregated venues. In 1948, Cole purchased a house in the all-white Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The Ku Klux Klan, still active in Los Angeles well into the 1950s, responded by placing a burning cross on his front lawn. Members of the property-owners association told Cole they did not want any undesirables moving in. Cole retorted, "Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I'll be the first to complain."

Driving the King is a fictionalized account that details some historical facts and interprets others. Details of time and place and characters are excellently done.  Driving the King allows the reader to live through historic moments with someone who is there.  It is a story of history and of courage.

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Friday, March 6, 2015

No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead by Peter Richardson

The biggest concert news this year for Chicagoland and perhaps the entire United States was that the remaining members of the Grateful Dead will be reuniting for the last time ever at Soldier Field. Tickets are now being sold for (this is not a typo) over $100,000, after the entire batch sold out in mere minutes. There is hardly a vacant hotel room to be found in downtown Chicago that weekend. How is it that this band that didn't manage to place a single into Billboard's Top 10 until 1987's Touch of Grey (their only song to reach the Top 40 in Billboard's Hot 100 chart) has managed to build such a cross-generational following? Author Peter Richardson tries to answer this question by looking at the Grateful Dead in the context of their times.

Formed as The Warlocks in 1965, The Grateful Dead soon became the quintessential San Francisco band, with their initial self-titled album released in the March preceding the Summer of Love. Despite this album setting a precedent of poor sales, their appearances at Ken Kesey's acid tests and other events and theaters in northern and southern California earned them a reputation as THE live band for the drug culture. Eventually, they moved their operations outside San Francisco to Marin County in order to get away from the scene that they had helped create, which was now being overrun by outsiders.

Richardson focuses on the creation of the Haight-Ashbury scene from its early roots in art school students, folk musicians and writers and and shows how the members of the Grateful Dead fed off of these early ideas in the creation of their sound. While their albums never sold particularly well, the Dead were present at both Woodstock (where they refused to sell their movie rights, thus ensuring that they would not be seen in the successful film of the same name) and Altamont (where they refused to play, after hearing about the conflict between the crowd and the Hell's Angels - incidentally, a group with whom they had many close connections). Somehow their music continued to touch a nerve despite changes in its sound and the community of Dead Heads that followed them across the country grew.

One of the cultural threads running through the book is Reaganism, as he was Governor of California during the sixties - a position from which he decried the youth and drug culture - and then later as President he launched the War on Drugs, which ran contrary to a scene in which drugs were encouraged by both band and audience members. The Grateful Dead were never a political band though, instead trying to nurture a community that existed outside politics.

Also interesting are the Grateful Dead's link to early cyberspace, as Dead Heads would launch one of the first online communities, The WELL. The Dead's attempt to continue to nurture community even as they played larger venues was a challenge, but early newsletters, the trading of fan-made cassettes and cyberspace all allowed fans to connect, even when The Grateful Dead took their occasional touring sabbaticals.

Ultimately, while this book spends much time trying to sort out the cultural reasons behind the continued existence of the Grateful Dead's immense fanbase, it ends up being enjoyable simply as band biography. It's not a perfect book, as the balance between telling the story of a band and its followers and analyzing the world around sometimes coexist awkwardly. But if this summer's shows have got you salivating for anything Grateful Dead then this book is certainly a good one to visit before you pack your patchouli.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

One of the key elements in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, the Booker short-listed novel by Karen Joy Fowler, is the depiction of chimpanzees in captivity and their affect upon their human caregivers. Similarly, in Leaving Time, Jodi Picoult analyzes the nature of mothering and grieving in elephants, substantiating the existence of emotions and cognitive thought. And she creates the complicated character of Alice Metcalf, elephant researcher and mother, who is completing her PhD by studying the grieving process in these majestic creatures.

The book is written in the first person and our narrator is a precocious 13-year-old named Jenna Metcalf. Jenna is searching for her mother--the scientist Alice Metcalf--who disappeared ten years ago when Jenna was a toddler. At that time, Jenna lived with her mother, father, and 3 related staff members in a New Hampshire elephant sanctuary. Then, a horrific accident occurred. The elephant, Maura, trampled a caretaker and knocked Alice unconscious. After she regained consciousness in the hospital, Alice disappeared and was never found. The caretaker's death was marked accidental. But was it? Where was Thomas when the incident occurred? He is now psychotic and living in an institution. Why has Alice not returned for her child? Is she guilty of murder? Is she still alive?

Jenna is haunted by these questions. The novel continues in the first person as various characters give an accounting of the incident and those events preceding and following it. Alice's journals, which Jenna has practically memorized, and a blue scarf are the only remnants she has of her mother.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Jenna cannot believe her mother abandoned her. She does online searches and looks for her name in scientific articles. She tracks down the detective who worked on the case ten years ago - a detective who was so disturbed by the closing of the case that he resigned from the police force. He now has his own agency. Jenna also finds an inexpensive psychic to help in the search.

Both Virgil, the alcoholic detective, and Serenity, the has-been psychic, are empathic characters. They provide humor to what would otherwise be a tragic novel. Cynical and world-weary, they reluctantly team up with the wise-cracking Jenna. The adventure that ensues will provide a page-turning experience filled with suspense and awe.

Aside from rich, believable characters, Picoult's extensive research on elephants will enthrall any person interested in wildlife. Her juxtaposition of elephant and human grief is a major theme in the book. Indeed, by the novel's end, the reader will wonder whose evolution is greater - that of the elephant or that of man.

Leaving Time is both a mystery and a contemporary morality tale. It combines realistic fiction with the occult. Exploring the many facets of love and loss, the book examines the price we pay for being human.

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