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Random, Catching Up Book Reviews… (part 2)

In my last post, I started catching up on books I had listened to in the car on my road trip.  Here’s the rest of what I worked my way through in the last six months!

The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

This novel is about a couple living on a remote island, where the husband keeps the lighthouse.  The wife is pregnant, but miscarries late in the pregnancy.  A few days later, a row boat washes up on shore with the body of a man, and a baby who is very much alive.  Where did they come from?  Where is her mother?  What do they do with her?  Is she a gift from God?  In their grief, and against more sound judgment, they decide to keep the baby and raise her as their own.  No one will ever know she wasn’t theirs…  Or will they?

The novel is excellent; exploring the fragility of grief and loss.  The reader can see both sides of the story, the tale of the couple as monsters who would steal a child who is not their own, and the desperate desire to have a child to call their own.  There is obviously a morally correct choice, but one can empathize with why they made the decision they did.  The problem is that everyone eventually suffers.  5 stars.

Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, by Steve Sheinkin

This is a brief book about that one time in November, 1876 when grave robbers attempted to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body from his tomb in Springfield, Illinois.  Why? Because they wanted to ransom it in exchange for the release of Ben Boyd, a talented engraver on the counterfeit currency market who was serving time in prison.  The plan might have gone off without a hitch, except for the fact that two of the men who were in on the plot were actually informants.  Oops.  Sadly, in addition to learning more about this strange event in Lincoln history, I also learned about just how poorly his body was treated after his death.  One more reason to be cremated…  I realized later that the book was written for the teen market, but it was still well written and well read.  3 stars.

Scrappy Little Nobody, by Anna Kendrick

Anna Kendrick was incredible in Up In the Air, a movie with George Clooney about consultants who travel the country implementing corporate downsizings.  I didn’t know that she was a child star, making her debut on Broadway at the age of 12.  She is witty and funny, telling her stories through a series of short chapters about life, trying to find love, and growing up as a child star.  She is really quite funny, and it shows through in her book.  She narrates the audio book version and does a great job with it too.  4 stars. 

Someday, Someday, Maybe, by Lauren Graham

I love Lauren Graham, the actress who played Lorelai Gilmore in Gilmore Girls.  She is whip-smart and witty, and can talk faster than one of my prior employees, which is really saying something.  But this first novel fell flat for me.  It is the story of Franny Banks, a young, aspiring actress trying to make it in New York City.  Unfortunately, the characters seem one-dimensional and false, and the writing style is choppy.  Add to it that Graham is the reader for this audio book version, and inexplicably, she is a terrible book reader.  I was shocked when I saw that this was a New York Times bestseller, which I can only imagine is due to Graham’s star power.  And just so you know, it pains me to write this, because I have so much respect for her acting work.  1 star.

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

The book – very good.  David McCullough is excellent.  He researches meticulously, and tells the story in a way that keeps his readers interest from beginning to end.  The Wright Brothers were incredible.  Neither one of them finished college, and were largely self-taught, yet they managed to get an airplane into the air to pioneer modern aviation!  The books follows their triumphs and their failures.  The adjustments that they had to make to their flying machine each and every time they tried to get it airborne would make all but the toughest in us quit; their resolve was very impressive.  It weaves in the story of their sister, who provided integral assistance, and the difficulties they sometimes had in getting their work recognized and marketed.  Everybody wanted a piece of the action and to claim the Wright Brothers’ accomplishments of their own.

I only had one gripe about this book (specifically the audio-book version).  David McCullough should not read his own work.  His monotone voice and flat rendition of the book threatened to put me to sleep, and I like history!  It needed someone more skilled in audio book reading…  4 stars.

 

I notice in this group of reviews, that the reader can really make or break a book.  Something for those publishers to really consider!

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Random, Catching Up Book Reviews… (part 1)

I read a lot on my trip, just not in the typical way…  That is to say, I listened to a lot of audio books, as I drove an awful lot of miles.  It was soothing, and easy, except when driving in city traffic, then I found myself unable to concentrate on both the road and the book.

That said, here is a partial list of books that I have read and not-yet-reviewed from the last six months…

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

The Awakening was written in 1899, and is considered to be one of the first novels to deal with women’s issues and feminism openly.  The main character, Edna, finds herself bored and unsatisfied in her role as a wife and mother, and longs for something more.  Eventually, he begins an affair with a man who is known for his dalliances with several women, and also falls in love with a younger man who understands that they cannot be together.  The novel explores Edna’s mental health, her examination of her role as a mother, and her feelings for the men in her life.  She strains against societal expectations while seeking her own happiness.  It is remarkable that this was written over 100 years ago, and it was certainly controversial at that time, for its depictions of female sexuality, her defiance of gender norms, and the depiction of depression and mental health issues.  Unfortunately, Chopin was ostracized after its release, and had trouble finding a market for her stories after this novel’s publication.

I thought it was excellent.  The novel is raw and real, and you can imagine yourself as Edna, trying to find her place in a world where she feels she doesn’t belong. The themes still resonate today.  5 Stars. 

Code Girls, by Liza Mundy

This is a book about the women hired by the Army and the Navy during World War II to break the codes that the Axis enemies were using to transmit coded messages.  There were several encryption machines in use by the Axis powers, so the ranks of women employees grew through time in an attempt to read the messages that Germany, Japan and other Axis powers were sending.  The book depicts the recruitment of the women from colleges and schools where they were teachers, their training, and their work, including the need for absolute secrecy.  Mundy does an excellent job of telling their stories, relying on interviews with many of the women, as well as from source documents at the time.  It is a little known piece of World War II, but these women were geniuses, and truly gave their time and talents to the country in an attempt to win the war. 5 stars.

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I read this in high school, and decided to give it another read.  I remember it being “deeper” then, I suppose because my high school English teacher wanted us to find the symbolism in the work.  The failure of the American dream, the divide and disconnect between the wealthy and the rest of us, the playground mentality of the wealthy without regard for the consequences.  Don’t get me wrong, it is still an excellent novel, still full of the moral bankruptcy that I remember from the first time around.  It is also incredibly sad.  Gatsby, the Buchanans and their friend Jordan Baker, for all their money and privilege, are still unable to find any sort of happiness or sustainable meaning in their lives.  They drift from day to day with no regard for how their actions affect anyone, but not even finding any joy for themselves.  For sure, money can’t buy you happiness, but I think I could definitely do a better job of it than they do.  4 stars.

The Life We Bury, by Allen Eskens

This novel was an unexpectedly good read.  It follows the story of a college student, who on a project for his English class to interview an elderly person, finds himself meeting with a dying man who was tried and convicted for the rape and murder of a 14 year old girl 30 years before.  The young man becomes convinced that the elderly man is innocent, and it becomes a race against time to try to clear the man’s name before his cancer takes his life.  It is a fascinating psychological examination of the human condition, as well as stoking the aspirations of every armchair, cold-case sleuth.  There are several interesting plot twists and turns, and I was interested even before it got to be more of a thriller.  Honestly, without giving away the plot, I would have been more than happy had it just continued on its original, quiet path.  Either way, still very worth the read.  5 stars.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel, by Heather O’Neill

Two children grow up in a cold, cruel orphanage in the freezing winters of Montreal, and establish a connection that will last through time.  There is a fair amount of suspension of disbelief that must occur to enjoy this novel, but I did enjoy it.  It’s also not for the faint of heart, as Rose and Pierrot go through every possible hardship that one person could possibly face in their attempts to find themselves, scrape by, and find a bit of joy in this world.  I will warn you now – it is not an uplifting book.  Child abuse, prostitution, drugs, gang violence, pornography, child loss, street fighting… You name it, this novel covers it.  Impossibly, this historical novel (although I have trouble with the “historical” label -see above suspension of disbelief) still held my interest.  4 stars.

We’re Going to Need More Wine, by Gabrielle Union

I didn’t know much at all about Gabrielle Union before I chose this book; she’s black, and she’s an actor – that about sums up what I knew.  She is fascinating though!  Growing up in a middle class and almost exclusively white community in California, and spending summers back home in an impoverished Midwest community shaped this woman into an incredibly thoughtful, intelligent, tough and funny woman.  She dishes about her insecurities about being black, having skin that was darker than is considered “beautiful”, her teenage crushes, her efforts to mentor black youth now, and her opinions on Hollywood and the cut-throat games that people play – she relates all her anecdotes in a way that is both raw and very real.  She is also incredibly honest about her experience being raped and almost murdered while working at a Payless ShoeSource; it takes a lot of courage to tell her story, and I applaud her for it.  Just be aware, she drops the F-Bomb – a lot.  And since I was driving while listening, I never got to listen with wine…  4 stars.

 

 

Book Review: A People’s History of the United States

I have had A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present, by Howard Zinn, on my reading list for quite some time.  It came recommended as a great overview of US history from the time it was first “discovered” by white people to the present day.  The book is several years old, so present day must be taken with a grain of salt, as the current edition covers through the war in Afghanistan.

Zinn makes it no secret that his perspective is that the United States was formed by a small group of wealthy elites, whose aim was to make the country a place that allowed them to exploit the masses for their own benefit.  Zinn’s history tells the stories of those masses who have been marginalized and taken advantage of, including the Native Americans, slaves, poor people working in factories, conscientious objectors during the various wars, the labor movement and victims of harassment by men in power.

He does tell some interesting stories and lesser known parts of history, and I did learn quite a bit about parts of American history that I haven’t read about extensively.  However, he does not present a balanced perspective, and his method of telling the other side of the story is just as flawed as the elites and media that he criticizes throughout the book.  Zinn believes in a socialist economic system and states that he believes the US needs a complete redistribution of wealth in the country, and his book reflects this philosophy.  At least he never claims to be impartial, but you do have to read all the way to the end of the book to get this information.  Zinn’s book is essentially the same as reading only the most liberal version of the news.  There is always another side of the story.

In short, if you read this after you have read other books on United States history, it will fill in some gaps and give you additional important information.  However, don’t expect this to be a definitive or anywhere-near-neutral book on American history.  In order to truly understand, you need to look at events from multiple perspectives and sources.  Read this along with other sources.  Do your research.

 

Note: I read the audio book version, which was read by Howard Zinn’s son, Jeff Zinn.  It was a major source of irritation, because Jeff Zinn mispronounced the names of multiple historic figures, including Cristóbal Colón (the true name of Christopher Columbus), Augusto Pinochet, and Salvador Allende.  There were many others.  The mispronunciations were so regular it took away from the credibility of the book, in my opinion. 

 

Book Review: Me: Stories of My Life

A few days ago I finished, Me: Stories of My Life, by Katharine Hepburn.  I wanted to like this memoir more than I did.  I have long admired Katharine Hepburn’s acting.  She is incredibly intelligent, and took Hollywood by storm in an era when female actors did not have a whole lot of control over their professional fates.

Her story is fascinating.  From her early career to her later roles, she tells her opinions on directors, producers, her personal assistants, and pretty much everything about the industry.  She talks about the roles she felt she was most successful in, the ones she felt were a flop, and the ones where she used her influence to have a movie made the way she wanted it made.

The support of her family and friends was incredible, and she is open about how much she received from them during her career.  She devotes a good portion of her book to her personal relationships, from her early career to her elderly years.  She talks about her marriage to her husband Luddy, a kind, supportive man who wanted nothing but the best for her, even if it wasn’t with him.  After their divorce, they remained friends until his death, with him attending family functions with her family even if she wasn’t there.

I have two gripes with the book.  First, her writing style is terrible, with choppy sentences, sentence fragments, and an odd train-of-thought style of flow.  It makes for a quick read, but it is pretty irritating.

My other gripe – let’s be honest, I wanted the dirt…  Hepburn dispatches her entire relationship with Spencer Tracy in a few short pages at the end of the book.  She was with him for 27 years, and he only gets a few short pages?  I wanted to know more about how they met, how they became a couple, why he decided to remain married, etc.  And nothing…

I can’t imagine that I’m the only curious one.  At the point the book was written, Tracy and his wife were both dead, so…  What’s the point of a memoir if you are going to leave out the most interesting part?

Anyway…  I still think Katharine Hepburn is fascinating, but I am glad I didn’t pay much for the book…  Some celebrities shouldn’t write books…

Book Review: Gone With the Wind

“After all, tomorrow is another day.”

I began reading Gone With the Wind in early February, after a late January trip to Atlanta put me at the Margaret Mitchell House, a house museum dedicated to the author and located in her old apartment.  My discussion with the guide at the museum piqued my interest about the book again, and so I wanted to read it with my new perspective in mind.

Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Margaret Mitchell was the granddaughter of two Confederate officers, so the nostalgia of the Old South ran deep in the stories she heard in her childhood.  In addition, she was a strong woman, a young adult during the roaring twenties, when women were testing the boundaries of freedom and women’s roles.  You have to consider that Margaret Mitchell was writing her novel shortly after the women’s suffrage movement, the Flapper era, and during Prohibition.  She had a unique perspective on the role of women in society, at a time when women were pushing the boundaries of traditional female roles.

Mitchell made her main character an incredibly strong female role model; you can love Scarlett or hate her, but you have to recognize that she was a woman who never bowed down to men, nor to society’s expectations of her.  You have to respect a woman who goes through the kind of trials that Scarlett goes through and still manages to continue to get up and fight another day.  And that is essentially the theme of the book – never give up, fight another day…

There is no doubt that Gone With the Wind depicts African Americans as simple-minded, inferior souls who need the protection of their white masters.  It is simplistic at best, and completely ignores the brutal reality of slavery.  It is challenging to read Mitchell’s linguistic portrayal of the way the black characters in her novel speak.  However, it does make sense given Mitchell’s upbringing, in an upper class white society, with a family who undoubtedly glorified the way the South was before the war.  She most likely didn’t believe that there was anything but truth in her grandfather’s patriarchal, fatherly depiction of the treatment of the slaves during the antebellum period.  Mitchell was very sophisticated in some ways (divorcing her abusive, alcoholic husband and working in the newspaper business at a time when few women worked outside the home), and very naive in others.

I’m not a fan of banning books, or shunning a book simply because it no longer fits within the societal norms of today.  I do believe that we should read books and try to understand the context from the era in which they were written, and the belief system of the author.  Sometimes understanding is the best way to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.

When looked at within the context of the time when it is written, Gone With the Wind is a very interesting portrayal of the South.  History is often seen through the eyes of the victors, and this novel obviously portrays Georgia from the perspective of the vanquished.  Although it does oversimplify parts, it also provides information that is often glossed over in the literature of the Civil War and Reconstruction.  There was a whole group of citizens who were mourning their way of life, and who had to fight to survive a brutal taxation and political system after the war.  There were hardships – even if the modern era doesn’t have a lot of respect for that way of life.

It took me a long time to read this book.  It is rare for me to be reading the same book for 10 months.  During this time, I have gone through over a dozen audio books.  This one took a while for a variety of reasons; it is long (719 pages), it has super tiny print, and I was traveling the country for part of the time I was reading it.  I didn’t have a lot of time for reading books on my trip; once I got settled for the night at a campground, it was time to make dinner, get my car ready for sleeping, keep up on my travels in my journal, etc.  Not to mention, as soon as the sun went down, my brain said it was bedtime!  Hopefully I will be able to get through my next book a bit more quickly.

Relaxing with a book on the patio

This novel is a classic for a reason, and it is still worth the read.

 

A Thing…

So… I decided to do a thing.  I have a bit of extra time right now, so what better opportunity is there?

I decided to write a book.  My thought right now is that it will be about my trip, commingled with the last couple years of my life.  The record of my experience; my emotions, my fears, my successes, my failures.  What the trip meant to me, and what the people in my life mean to me.  A memoir, I guess. There will likely be some overlap with this blog, but this blog has always been more about the things I do and see, rather than the emotional experience of it…

I have no idea if it will go anywhere, or be any good, or if it will just collect dust on my hard drive, but I will never know if I don’t write it.

I wrote some pages today.  You have to start somewhere.  Everybody starts somewhere.  Am I just crazy?

Atlanta 2018: Margaret Mitchell House

Day 5, Thursday, January 25, 2018

After the High Museum and lunch, I made my way over to the Margaret Mitchell Museum; if you don’t recognize the name, she wrote Gone with the Wind.  She was an affluent, very intelligent and ambitious woman who started writing the book as a distraction as she was recovering from a broken leg.

The “Dump” – Mitchell’s apartment was in the lower left corner of the house

My guide at the museum was excellent; he was a graduate student studying Mitchell for his thesis.  I was all alone on my tour (fortunately I got there right after the big bus tour departed), and we had some pretty interesting conversations about Mitchell and the book.  He encouraged me to think about Scarlett O’Hara, and imagine her coming of age in the flapper era, which of course, was exactly when Mitchell was writing the book.

Scarlett and Margaret Mitchell were both women ahead of their time, of course you know about Scarlett’s story, but Mitchell divorced an alcoholic, abusive husband at a time when divorce was uncommon, and later married her ex-husband’s friend (the best man at her first wedding).  She worked as a journalist, but actually talked her way into the job with no experience.

Mitchell’s second husband was a business manager, so she wasn’t really very affected by the Great Depression, which was occurring during the time as well.  The guide and I talked about the fact that Mitchell’s grandfathers were Civil War officers for the Confederacy, so of course her view of the Old South, the war, and slavery were deeply shaped by the stories that she heard growing up.  Gone with the Wind is one of the books that is often considered for book ban lists, but it is important to learn about all perspectives on history, not just the one that is politically correct now. Despite your viewpoint, it was a pivotal novel of the time and remains so today.

Interesting, the guide and museum exhibits shared that the US military took copies of Gone with the Wind over to Japan after the defeat of Japan in World War II. They thought that the story would resonate with the Japanese people – rising up from the ashes and overcoming obstacles to rebuild your life.  They suspected (and were right), that if he could give the Japanese people something to connect with, they would be more likely to maintain the motivation to overcome their hardships and rebuild their lives.  Gone with the Wind is extremely popular to this day with the Japanese market – and the bus tour I mentioned earlier was filled with Japanese tourists! I never knew that!  A quick internet search couldn’t corroborate this story, so who knows, but it seems plausible, given the popularity of the novel in Japan.

Mitchell’s writing process was interesting – she wrote the chapters of the book out of order and then stashed them all over the house in manila envelopes.  She stuffed envelopes in drawers, under couch cushions, and sometimes lost them.  She started her book at the end.

Mitchell’s living room (not her furniture)

 

Margaret Mitchell’s writing area (not her furniture)

The tour takes place in the apartment that Mitchell lived in after marrying her second husband.  She called it “The Dump”, but it was a fairly nice apartment for the time, and she did have a black servant.  The house it was in contained several apartments, and was abandoned after she lived there and later in was purchased in order to renovate it for the museum.  When the historical society was almost finished, someone set the building on fire, but fortunately the area of the house that contained Mitchell’s former apartment wasn’t badly damaged and they rebuilt it after the fire.

Mitchell’s Kitchen, looking into the bedroom

 

Margaret Mitchell’s Bedroom (not her furniture)

The furniture is period, rather than having belonged to Mitchell, but you still get an idea of what it would have been like when she lived there.  I thought it was actually a pretty decent, and pretty large, apartment.

Once I got back to the hotel, I went out to eat at Pitty Pat’s Porch, just around the corner from my hotel. I sat in the bar, and ordered a German Riesling, which I ended up getting for free because the bartender forgot about me for a while.  Oops.  I ordered the Shrimp and Grits, which came with their version of a salad bar.  There were all sorts of traditional southern “salad” foods – including pickled watermelon rind.  To be honest the pickled watermelon rind doesn’t taste like much, and was kind of weird.  The shrimp and grits were amazing though!