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Book Review: Man with Wings

I read the audio-book version of Man with Wings, by Joseph Cottler recently on my commute.  It was written in 1942, although the audio-book is more recent; published in 2008.

I have long been interested in Leonardo DaVinci, but I have never really known that much about him.  He was truly a Renaissance man, with his talent as an artist, and engineer, a designer, and an inventor.  He had so many talents at his fingertips.  The Mona Lisa is the masterpiece he is most known for, but that was such a tiny fragment of his artistic talent and the work that he completed during his life.

This biography goes through the life of DaVinci, from his childhood and time as an apprentice, to his adulthood performing works of art and engineering.  It discussed his tendency to get lost in the discovery process, and frustrate his patrons by working too slowly.  Often, instead of painting or sculpting, he spent his time watching birds fly, dissecting human and animal bodies, studying gravity and the flow of water, and studying other aspects of the natural world.

I would have preferred this book to be more like a traditional biography, rather than what it is – essentially a historical novel with a cast of characters.  It was even more challenging because the audio-book version that I listened to was narrated like a play, with overly dramatic voices and accents.  It got annoying… I still learned more about DaVinci than I knew before, but the way it was presented was distracting…  I guess I will have to find another DaVinci  book I can relate to more, and that presents more information about the body of work he completed in his lifetime.

The verdict – at least if you are planning on the audiobook version, I would find something else on DaVinci…

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Book Review: The Pilgrimage

The Pilgrimage, by Paulo Coelho, was one of the audio-books I downloaded for my road trip last summer, but I didn’t make it to it.  I listened to it recently during my commute.

Coelho did a pilgrimage in 1986 of the Santiago de Compostela road, a major Catholic pilgrimage route, following the Way of St. James.  It has been a pilgrimage route since the 9th century A.D.; St. James followed the same route from the Iberian Peninsula to Santiago de Compostela.

The Pilgrimage is a novel; Coelho had a spiritual awakening during his pilgrimage and writes of that experience, however the book has an element of magic and mysticism that makes one wonder how many liberties Coelho took with drafting a tale of his experience.

I had some challenges with this book; as I wanted it to read as a truthful account of the spiritual process of awakening that one goes through while walking the Way of St. James.  I felt like Coelho incorporated too much adventure  story into the book; it reminded me a lot of The Da Vinci Code.  The fantastical elements, including a quest for a sword, a possessed, demonic dog, and other magic, seemed to take away from the lessons of the story.

His style of writing is very simple; there isn’t a lot of flourish in his description of his characters or the settings.  That was a bit incongruous given the magical subject matter.

Although it wasn’t my favorite book, it was a quick read and the elements of practice that he describes to awaken your spirituality were interesting.  Unfortunately, he didn’t provide enough information to determine if this is an actual studied tradition that one could explore, or simply something he made up for the book.  I even googled it and found nothing.  Perhaps its a secret society, like in the DaVinci Code.  Sigh…

 

2 stars.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon

I recently read Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann.

The book was an exploration of the murders in the 1910s and 1920s of Osage tribal members in Oklahoma.  I had NEVER HEARD of these murders – it was surprising to me that they have been so completely forgotten among the collective memory in the United States.

The Osage Nation were one of the tribes who were relocated first to Kansas, then to Oklahoma during the early to middle 1800s; previous to their time on reservations, they had moved around quite a bit over history and had been a dominant power in the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys.  This book does not delve into that earlier part of their history.  As it turned out, the Osage Nation earned millions at the turn of the last century when oil was discovered on their reservation land and they auctioned off mining rights to white speculators and oil companies.  The tribe also went to court to create some protections for its members, including stipulating that rights to land (and the oil wealth that lay beneath) could not be sold outside of the tribe; they could only be inherited by tribal descendants.

However, in the days of the patriarchal U.S. Government, which was still permeated with racism, the government appointed “guardians” to oversee the money that tribal members received from the oil extraction.  The government’s agents assumed that tribal members could not be trusted to effectively manage their money.  Unfortunately, this guardian system had an unintended consequence – murder.  Several Osage Nation members were killed and while rumors flew about who was responsible, they went years without being solved.  After the tribe requested assistance from the federal government, the newly formed FBI investigated and eventually uncovered the truth.

The author did a great job of telling the story, weaving in strong character development and excellent research.  I can imagine it was difficult to research this topic, as the news articles, primary sources and witnesses have been mostly lost to time.  To put it bluntly, in those days, few outside the Native American community cared about a “dead Indian.”  I appreciate that this book has brought these murders back out into the light, and gives us a chance to examine one of the shameful pieces of our history.  I would highly recommend giving it a read.

 

Book Review: The Perfect Horse

Back at Christmas time, I finished The Perfect Horse, by Elizabeth Letts.

During World War II, Europe was being decimated by both the Allies and the Axis powers.  Civilians were caught in the middle.  Even if you have read or watched a lot on World War II, one of the things you might not necessarily consider is the absolute upheaval that war brings.

The Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria had been breeding the prized Lipizzaner stallions for hundreds of years and training them in the highly elaborate art of classical riding.  The bloodlines were exquisite, and the training was exacting and took years to achieve.  During the war, the horses were prized by the Germans, not for their talent, but as breeding stock. The Germans wanted to create the perfect war horse and were willing to breed for the characteristics that they were looking for.  Given how many generations it takes to breed consistent traits into a horse, it becomes clear that the Germans believe the Third Reich would be around for a while…

As the Austrian managers ran from the destruction of the war with hundreds of prized horses, it became clear that desperate times were going to require desperate measures.  They reached out to the Americans, hoping to ensure the horses’ safety.  They knew that without the assistance of the soon-to-be victors, these beautiful animals would either be shelled to death somewhere, starve to death somewhere or be confiscated by the Germans who were by now desperate for livestock to pull equipment, and for food…

In a hugely lucky twist of fate, the man the Austrian contacted was an American officer who was deeply devoted to horses, having served in the Army Cavalry.  Hank Reed was able to secure permission for the mission from none other than George Patton himself.  It became a race against time to smuggle these gorgeous animals into Allied controlled territory, across Europe, eventually to the United States, and finally safety.

The book is impeccably researched and very well written, keeping me interested from cover to cover.  Admittedly, I do love horses, and the obscure topic of the book might be considered dry by many readers.  I thought it was fascinating though, and well worth the read.

5 stars.

 

Book Review: Dharma Girl

When I picked up Dharma Girl, by Chelsea Cain, at the library book sale, I didn’t know that author Chelsea Cain had spent a portion of her childhood in my hometown.  In fact, although I knew I had heard of this memoir, I had no idea where or how.

Dharma-Girl

Dharma Girl is the memoir of a girl growing up in Iowa, and years later decides to move home after living for years in the Pacific Northwest and California.  Her mother’s cancer diagnosis is a factor, as well as her desire to find her way home.  She and her mother road trip from Portland to Iowa, where they find what’s left of the “family” they left behind, a group of people who shared their home in a sort of hippie commune farm.

There was nothing earth shattering about this book.  I found it hard to relate to Cain.  Her upbringing, which on the surface seemed nothing like mine, clearly defined her, but aside from having hippie parents, there wasn’t a lot that made her life any different than millions of other kids.  The parents had hippie friends – check.  They had a lot of animals – check.  They grew their own vegetables and did odd jobs and hid out from the draft – ok.  Bu they also loved her, fed her and nurtured her.  On a deeper level, the only thing that seemed odd was that she didn’t seem to have any child friends, but I think she just didn’t write about that.

Her mom had cancer when she was a young adult – yep, I can relate to that.  But you make of it what you will.  You deal with it, you get through it, and you move on.  What other option is there?

The book wasn’t bad at all; I just found it – plain.  She is a good storyteller, but the elements of the story were lacking.  There was no defining moment, no climax, no real drama.  Just a vanilla childhood in a small town.  It was an easy, quick read, but otherwise it didn’t stand out for me at all.  Maybe others could get a lot more from this book than I did, but there you have it.

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!

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.