Tag Archive | book

Book Review: Lost at Sea

The bad thing about insomnia that goes on and on and on, is that obviously, you can’t sleep and get (and stay) exhausted…  But in trying to find the silver lining, you sure can plow through a lot of books when you are consistently awake at 3 in the morning!

Lost at Sea, by Patrick Dillon

Lost at Sea, by Patrick Dillon, is the true story of an American tragedy.  On Valentine’s Day 1983, two crab boats from the same company in Anacortes, Washington, were lost in the Bering Sea. The hull of one of the boats was discovered completely overturned, floating in the ocean, before soon sinking below the water forever. No trace of the other was ever found.  There were scant clues available about why both boats could possibly have been lost on the same day, in seas that had not yet turned stormy.

Lost at Sea explores the sinking of both boats, and the subsequent investigation to determine the truth behind the mystery. You might expect it to be a rather dry read, as it goes quite into depth on the subsequent investigation and Coast Guard hearing to determine the cause of the sinkings.  Dillon also details the Congressional process, negotiations and hearings that occurred over the course of the next several years to enact more stringent safety regulations into the commercial fishing industry.  However, he manages to tell the interweave the stark facts and statistics with the stories of the men who died aboard these boats, as well as the stories of the families they left behind.  The result is a powerful read.

If you have ever been to the Anacortes waterfront, you have seen the Fisherman’s Memorial with these 14 mens’ names inscribed on it.  After reading this book, I felt that I knew more of their story.

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Book Review: The Swan Thieves

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

A man walks into The National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and tries to attack a painting with a knife. Fortunately, Robert Oliver is restrained before doing any damage to the painting, and ends up being involuntarily committed for mental illness.

His psychiatrist, Dr. Andrew Marlow, begins to treat Oliver and in doing so, embarks on a journey to solve the mystery of the beautiful old-fashioned woman whom Oliver is obsessed with painting. His journey takes him to Oliver’s former wife and former lover, as well as halfway around the world. What he uncovers is a tragic love story; while along the way he finds a love of his own.

The Swan Thieves was written by the same woman that wrote The Historian (I recommend it highly), and Kostova weaves an intricate tale of love and relationships, and the nuances of the human mind. Her character development is superb, with each character possessing their own strengths and flaws; their own triumphs and tragedies.

I was captivated from beginning to end, trying to anticipate what was around the next corner, hating to put the book down to go back to the real world. The conclusion leaves questions, and just like life, things don’t always get wrapped up neatly. As is always the case with true love, the story will stay with you long after the end.

Note: I listened to the audiobook version, which was wonderfully narrated by different voices.

Book Review: Cane River by Lalita Tademy

Have you ever felt that your family history is the stuff of novels? Perhaps Aunt Gertrude was that one-of-a-kind woman who fought in the French Resistance? Maybe your Grandfather Jacob was a CIA spy during the Cold War in Cuba? Or maybe your family was just made up of hard working people who did what they had to do to survive, caught up in the laws and social norms of an era. They survived and loved in the ways that they knew how, warts and all.

Cane River, by Lalita Tademy

Cane River, by Lalita Tademy

Lalita Tademy’s family was more like that – the ordinary kind of family.  Although living for generations in bondage made the family’s achievements more extraordinary. The story begins with her Great-great-great Grandmother, a slave sold from Virginia to the Louisiana bayou, a place called Cane River, where the culture was predominantly French Creole. She fell in love, raised a family, and lived, all while owned by another. Generations of strong women, with all different personalities, doing what they could to fight for some semblance of control and authority in a culture that gave them none.

The novel is fiction, but based on the genealogical record of her family. Tademy researched for about two years, piecing together the births, deaths and marriages of a family over 150 years ago. Her work was challenging, as records were not as thorough for slaves, if they existed at all. And the gaps, the information that could not be gleaned from court and church records, and deeds of sale, were filled in with Tademy’s imagination, weaving a rich story of the women that preceded her.

Tademy doesn’t gloss over her slave ancestry; instead she confronts head on the complexity of a system that created relationships that mirrored marriage in every way but name, yet often didn’t allow a couple to live together, or even keep their own children. She also fills the tale with rape, social customs, racism, and subservience that existed in the slave-holding south. She explains how her family members inherited progressively whiter skin as white men fathered children. She explained how some family members chose to move away – where they could “pass.” How education and enrichment provided a better life; how rare those chances were in a society built upon slavery and filled with racism.

The result is a wonderfully written narrative, with characters that explode off the pages of the book; their emotions, their defiance, their intelligence and their desire to work for a better life all evident in the descriptions of their personalities and lives. I was intrigued until the very last page.

Book Review: Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher

I first found out about this book through our local library, which was sponsoring a book talk by the author, Timothy Egan. Jon wasn’t super excited about going – but after I explained what the book was about, he agreed to go with me. Note to self: At some point, someday, I’ll start reading the books before going to the book talk – but maybe it doesn’t matter.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher is a biography of Edward S. Curtis, the famed Seattle portrait photographer and creator of the turn of the last century masterpiece, The North American Indian. If you haven’t heard of it, you aren’t alone, but I can all but guarantee you have seen at least one of Curtis’ photographs. He is the Ansel Adams of the portrait world.

Kickisomlo, also known as Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Sealth, for whom Seattle is named. Curtis photographed Angeline in 1896.

Kickisomlo, also known as Princess Angeline.  She was the daughter of Chief Sealth, for whom Seattle is named. Curtis photographed Angeline in 1896.

The North American Indian was Curtis’ crowning achievement; his life’s work. It was a 20 volume set of books, documenting in words and photographs the way of life of over 80 Native American tribes. The books were originally supposed to be published within five years, but the wealth of information he collected and his meticulous documentation of songs, spiritual ceremonies, foods, and biographies on tribal leaders stretched the project out over 20 years.

He was not without his critics, some of whom thought that Curtis’ desire to capture a historical view of Native American life was simplistic and ignored the real issues. However, Curtis wanted to capture what life was like before their culture and traditions were destroyed by the encroachment of the white man. Therefore, he wasn’t above doing a little bit of manipulation to the settings, or the final photos.

Surprisingly, Curtis did not receive a salary for the project, and became ever more deeply in debt as a result of the costs incurred during his travels documenting the tribes. In the end, between 220 and 280 full sets of The North American Indian were created, and Curtis sold his rights to his work to the son of J.P. Morgan, who had originally agreed to finance the project. He lost many of his original glass plate negatives in his divorce from his wife, choosing to shatter them instead of turn them over to her.

After the publication of all 20 volumes, Curtis grew old and died in relative obscurity. It was a sad end for a man who had so much passion for such a monumental project. Like many artists, his work was rediscovered in the 1970s, and has enjoyed an increasing popularity since that time. A complete set of The North American Indian sold for $1.44 million in 2012. Not too shabby…

Egan does a wonderful job with this book. He captures Curtis’ obsession with the project, and candidly discusses his shortcomings. He makes Curtis into a multi-dimensional man, explaining his love for his children and the difficulty he had with being separated from them during his long absences for fieldwork.
I knew barely anything of Curtis when I began the book, but I feel like Egan painted a picture of the man: stubborn, charismatic, driven, and at times possessed by a deep melancholy.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, by Timothy Egan

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, by Timothy Egan

Egan’s words make you feel like you are there, watching, experiencing the things Curtis experienced. I felt protective when hearing about the divorce proceedings, and how they played out, although I know Curtis was not without fault in the matter. I got a glimpse of the lifelong friendships that he made, and the true grief he experienced when his friends passed away one by one, leaving him ever more alone.

Edward S. Curtis lived a truly unique life, and created a masterpiece that will be a treasure for generations to come. Egan captured it in a way few writers can. Brilliant.

For those of you who now are curious about Curtis’ life’s work – The North American Indian has been digitized and is available for viewing.

Book Review: April 1865 by Jay Winik

At long last, I was able to finish a book!  I’ve had a lot taking up all my time lately – work, helping out family, half marathon training, the deck and sometimes just vegging out in front of the TV.  But it feels like this one has been a long time coming.

The book is April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik.  And true to its title, it is a non-fiction exploration into the events of… April 1865!  The April 1865 when the Civil War ended (mostly) and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.  Prior to becoming an author, Winik had a distinguished government career in foreign policy (working in Yugoslavia, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Cambodia during their civil wars).  His experience on the ground during these conflicts gives him a unique perspective.

April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik

April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik

The book examines in detail the events that occurred that month, beginning with the lead up to Lee’s surrender on April 9th, continuing with Lincoln’s assassination on April 14th, Joe Johnston’s surrender on April 26th, and John Wilkes Booth capture and death, also on April 26th.  Winik discusses events candidly and without bias.  He describes the respectful way that Grant treated Lee and the Army of Virginia and the grace in which Lee returned to his civilian life and provided a role model to Southerners.  Lee’s way of encouraging soldiers and civilians alike to set aside the differences of the last four years in order to make a lasting peace must have made a huge difference in the days after the war.

Winik details an incident in a church, where a black man goes to receive communion in Richmond, VA, and does not wait until whites have finished.  The congregation is stunned, and while the minister to trying to decide what to do, Lee stands up and quietly kneels to accept communion with the man.  I never knew this before, but it fits with everything I have read about Lee.  Although he was a defeated General, his character was unequaled.

Lincoln’s assassination will be old news for most readers; there really isn’t anything new there.  But Winik doesn’t gloss over the rage that overwhelmed the public sentiment, and President Johnson’s shortcomings with the reconstruction process.  The reader certainly picks up on the impression that Winik conveys; the aftermath of the war and the reunification of the nation would have been dramatically different had Lincoln lived.  We will never know quite how, but the struggles that blacks faced during slavery and the black codes of reconstruction still have an impact to this day.

Joe Johnston’s surrender and Jefferson Davis’ retreat through confederate territory are also well documented in the book.  While Davis was on the run from Union officials, going deeper and deeper into the South, he had given orders to his Generals to prepare for a guerrilla war.  Thankfully, Johnston defied Davis’s orders and surrendered to Sherman.  After hearing of Lee’s surrender, Nathan Bedford Forrest, a genius of guerilla warfare, also chose to surrender.  The outcome could have been very different if these two Confederate Generals had decided to continue to wage war from the woods and swamps of the South.

I have to admit, parts of the book are a bit slow – that probably has something to do with why it took me so long to finish it.  Winik’s style can be a bit disjointed – each time he introduced a new character, he would stop and introduce the character with several pages of biography.  While it is helpful to have the background, it really interrupts the flow of the book.  It would have been better to weave those details into the narrative.  But overall it is a well-written perspective on a small slice of American history.  It will be too focused for people who aren’t very interested in the Civil War, but Civil War enthusiasts should appreciate it.

Have you read it?  What did you think?