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Archive for January, 2016

Full disclosure — I know Brady Carlson and his family, he thanks me and a colleague in charge of interlibrary loans and the rest of the library staff in his acknowledgements, and his publicist sent me a copy of Dead Presidents: An American Adventure Into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders. Regardless of these facts, I feel I can fairly review the book, because as a reviewer and a librarian, I’m patently opposed to people reading bad books.

And this is not one of those. Brady is a kick ass writer, which you can see for yourself by checking out his pieces on NHPR, a few of which have made the national NPR broadcast lately. Or by reading Dead Presidents, which I highly recommend. His tone reminds me a little bit of A.J. Jacobs — informative and funny, but in a very humane rather than biting or snarky way.

The thing I love most about Dead Presidents is how much Brady is into his subject. I knew this — for awhile several years ago we attended a meet-up of local media makers, and even when this project was in its formative stage, I had a sense that he was going to create something cool, because he has been interested in the presidents since childhood. In fact, in his introduction he notes that a book — Mr. President by George Sullivan — and a teacher who allowed him to conduct an “impromptu lesson” on presidential trivia in fifth grade were keys to his lifelong interest. I am a big fan of people pursuing what they love, and as a fellow member of the book tribe, I love this origin story.

(Aside: this is why cookie cutter curriculums are inferior. Imagine if Brady’s teacher was hamstrung teaching to the test or to “core competencies,” and couldn’t accommodate his budding interest?)

That genuine enthusiasm makes a topic that let’s face it, most of us probably don’t think sounds super exciting — dead presidents — come, dare I say it, alive. I couldn’t resist. Seriously though, the stories of places famous (like Grant’s tomb) and obscure (Grant’s cottage, where the former president finished his well known memoirs) are equally fascinating in Brady’s book. Did you know, for instance, that Grant was nearly moved from New York to Illinois, because the tomb site in Manhattan was so poorly cared for? Or for that matter, that several presidents’ remains have in fact been moved, sometimes a good distance?

Two of my favorite stories: in Plymouth, Vermont, you can see — and sample — one of the oldest cheesemaking operations in the U.S., where artisanal cheese is made just as it was when Calvin Coolidge’s father co-founded the place in the 1890’s. President Coolidge is buried nearby, in “the hilltop cemetery where his family had been buried for four generations.”

And there is a gathering of presidential descendants: “the Marshfield, Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival and Presidential Family Reunion and Missouri Walk of Fame Celebration.” One of the people Brady meets there is George Cleveland, a grandson of Grover Cleveland who lives only about an hour from here. In his travels, Brady had seen photos of George in various other sites related to presidential history, like on the wall of the Founding Fathers Pub in Buffalo, where the proprietor was unable to stump Brady on presidential trivia (he didn’t know Brady taught his fifth grade class this stuff, after all).

The thread that ties all of the stories together is Brady’s admiration for the presidents — even those who didn’t do such a great job in office — and his illuminating, thoughtful insights into their work habits, interests, values, and post-presidential pursuits, as well as their deaths, burials, and legacies. I especially loved the way he debunked the popular opinion of Taft as “the Fat President” and his commentary on how our culture’s views of obesity influenced public opinion of Taft unfairly. It’s the way Brady combines the weird and the wonderful that makes Dead Presidents both entertaining and truly interesting.

 

 

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I’ve been weeding damaged & stained fiction in our storage stacks at the library, and then shifting. So I’m literally touching every fiction book in storage, which is reminding me of authors I want to read. That’s how I came across and checked out Lapham Rising. I wrote the following review for the “book of the week” feature in a local weekly arts and culture paper. See? I can be brief!

The hero of Roger Rosenblatt’s satire is Harry March, a well-known author, who lives on a tiny island in Quogue, in the Hamptons. His wife has left him for a Hollywood events planner, he hasn’t written anything in some time, and he’s been jettisoning his belongings. He lives – and converses with – his West Highland White Terrier, Hector. Eschewing banks, he keeps his savings in the “The Money Room” of his house. Which, like Harry, has seen better days.

Harry’s focus is the enormous mansion rising across the creek. The owner is an extremely wealthy but grammatically challenged opinionater named Lapham, proprietor of the website Laphams Aphms. The novel takes place on the day when Harry’s effort to stop the monstrosity’s construction is about come to fruition. Hector tells him, “You’re such a cliché. A recluse on an island, railing against his times.” To which Harry replies, “I’m a cliché? And what do you call a talking dog?” A hilarious sendup of the excesses of the one percent and the aging intellectual alike, Lapham Rising is humor with heart. Even at his crankiest, Harry is a hero you’ll want to root for.

I enjoyed this book and I plan to seek out more of Rosenblatt’s work.

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I found this book as I find many — I was checking in returns at the library. I’m interested in Tolkien, and have read a number of books by C.S. Lewis. Both offspring the Elder and the Younger have to read Lewis for courses this semester. And the Elder has told me repeatedly, no other fiction satisfied him once he read The Lord of the Rings books in his early teens. I’ve also long been interested in WWI. My grandmother brought Vera Brittain to my attention when I in college, and I have always been fascinated by the literary response to war.

But let me get back to the book at hand, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. The point of my digression is that I was primed to really enjoy this book. I found myself marking pages as I read, which is usually a good sign. For example, I was interested in this: “The conceit of the intellectual elites of the day was that science, and the technology it underwrites, could solve the most intractable of human problems.”

Which is where we are again today — I touched on that a bit in my review of It’s Your World. We believe we can solve poverty, illness, and even conflict. And we can — potentially. We are to some extent. The Computer Scientist quoted some of the latest Harper’s Index last night, which notes, “Estimated percentage change in the rate of extreme poverty worldwide over the past twenty years : –66 Chances that an American believes the rate has “almost doubled” over that period : 2 in 3.” We humans are a complicated lot — we believe we can do anything if we set our minds to it and we also believe we’re screwing everything up. Perhaps because for every person working on ending human suffering there seems to be another who is profiting from it, and it’s hard to tell which is prevailing in the daily stream of bad news.

Loconte goes on to explain however, that Tolkien and Lewis saw in trench warfare “the horrific progeny of this thinking,” about science’s potential, and thus endowed their fictional characters more realistically with “a tragic mix of nobility and wretchedness” which they related to “the Fall,” which Tolkien claimed “lurked behind every story.” But, it seems a bit of a leap of logic to me to suggest that because science was supposed to be man’s salvation, WWI’s betrayal of that idea caused a loss of faith in mankind, and Tolkein and Lewis, because of their exposure to this, created characters who are both heroic and flawed. I’m not sure all of that follows, necessarily, and even if I agreed with the logic, it’s a very incomplete picture.

Also while Loconte correctly notes that many Christian denominations went awry in supporting eugenics and nationalism and endorsing WWI, I think it’s also over-simplifying to say that the war “instigated a new season of religious doubts.” As this British Library article notes, there were many social and cultural causes for the decline in organized religion both before and after the war. But organized religion is not the same as faith, and while I am sure it’s true that many people struggled with faith in the face of such horrors, others discovered it, or found it strengthened. Churches changed over the ensuing decades, sometimes for the better (like not preaching eugenics anymore), sometimes for the worse (like supporting white supremacy). But religion didn’t die, nor did faith.

And many religious thinkers, or writers influenced by faith, born before, during, or after WWI, continued to focus on how we should live  — Tolkien and Lewis, yes, but also (in no particular order, and not meant to be a comprehensive list) T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoffer, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Rumer Godden, James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dorothy Sayers, Paul Tillich, Wendell Berry, Donald Hall, Jane Gardam, Alan Paton, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr. Loconte declares faith rare among “the literarti” which is an overgeneralization. Sure, there were a lot of secular writers in the early to mid-20th century, but those for whom faith mattered are hardly lightweights or unknowns.

The most interesting parts of A Hobbit A Wardrobe and a Great War are the sections where Loconte talks about Tolkien’s and Lewis’s friendship, and other friendships that sustained them as writers and thinkers. I wish those sections had been longer. Also, the book is so heavily footnoted that I began to wonder what Loconte himself thought; was this book simply a review of others’ theories or his own?

So, I’m glad I read it, but I didn’t love it. However, it made me think and got The Computer Scientist and me talking about how combat impacted his thoughts on faith, and any book that sparks conversation can’t be all bad.

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It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired, Get Going! is a children’s book (I’ve seen it suggested for grades 5-8) which I read as part of our library’s teen & adult winter reading program, Book Bingo. Here’s my card so far:

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Clinton was also the final speaker at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Boston last week, where I was giving an Ignite talk on our customer service initiative, so the book caught my eye there.

Clinton writes about two main inspirations for writing It’s Your World. First her parents and grandparents, who taught her to be interested in and engaged with the world to appreciate her own good fortune, and second, a book some of you may remember, Fifty Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth. Clinton peppers her explanations of issues relating to economics, human rights, health, and the environment with personal anecdotes about her own early activism. She shares things she thought and felt as a child, like worrying about the plastic rings on six packs, helping her grandmother quit smoking, and being alarmed when she learned about the plague.

Clinton makes being curious and engaged seem not only cool, but normal, which is a nice touch. I did some letter writing as a kid (I was very concerned about the fate of the Snail Darter after reading in Ranger Rick that a dam was threatening its habitat) but I recall feeling like it was a pretty geeky thing to do. I did appreciate that I could get grown up information about this kind of thing and act on it, and Clinton’s book takes a similar tone — kids are capable of getting the facts and deciding where they stand, and of doing something positive. Each chapter ends with “Get Going!” suggestions.

I also like that she presents different ways people come at problems like poverty or hunger and then tells readers, “You’ll have to decide what to think,” or “You’ll have to make up your mind.” A book suggesting kids get the facts, think, and decide seems like a very good idea to me. She also suggests kids thank people who are making a difference, referring to this as “the discipline of gratitude” that her mom and grandmother taught her. And to share what they’ve learned with other people.

One small style issue: Clinton repeats certain points (and even notes she is doing so) throughout the book. I wondered if this was necessary, but studies do show that people need to hear things repeatedly before they sink in. More on that in a bit  . . . .

Even though I’m a grown up who volunteers and keeps up with issues that concern me, I still learned some things as I read It’s Your World, or thought about them in new ways. I did not know George Washington had his troops vaccinated against smallpox, or that pangolins are among the most endangered mammals on earth.

One thing that is both heartening and confounding is how many nonprofits Clinton cites in this book. I couldn’t help think that if I were a kid reading this, I’d wonder why the heck all of these problems are still happening, if we have facts and information about them and there are so many smart, capable, and kind people working to solve them.

So that’s my main quibble, and it’s a pretty cynical one. Is it right to give kids such an optimistic view of things when humankind has historically continued to harm each other, ourselves, and the planet whether we know better or not? Clinton’s belief that “small things matter” and suggestions of what kids can do every day (eat breakfast at school so no one who has to feels awkward, get your family to take walks) and over their lifetimes (recycle, give, use less energy, shop intentionally) may give kids the impression they can make more of a difference than they really can. There’s evidence that recycling sometimes uses more carbon that it saves, and that not all nonprofits are effective or ethical, for example. Granted that’s not the point of the book, but it bears mentioning.

Ok, I suppose criticizing a book for giving kids too much hope is really pretty grinchy. And some people —like Bill Gates, for example — who regularly talk to those working on the world’s problems see reasons for hope. And maybe the more individual people act responsibly, fairly, and peacefully the more likely  a global increase in civility and a decrease in inequality become.

But probably not, because  . . . humankind has historically continued to harm each other, ourselves, and the planet whether we know better or not. Still, I guess that doesn’t mean we should quit trying.

I’ve already admitted that I write letters, volunteer, and advocate for causes I believe in, so don’t worry, or flood me with comments about being cynical with kids. There is an important factor that Clinton sort of hints at behind all altruistic behavior — we do it because it feels good. There’s nothing wrong with that, nor with wanting to feel less helpless in the face of huge global challenges. So I’d recommend this book if you have a kid in your life. Just a suggestion though? Occasionally let them know that bad things happen, and not everything works as intended.

 

 

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The digital world is smaller than the physical. Annika Milisic-Stanley contacted me via Twitter in December, to let me know about her new novel The Disobedient Wife. I don’t usually pursue unsolicited author enquiries, but it turned out we had Cinnamon Press in common. I’ve long admired the work of Jan Fortune and her family, who run this very fine small press in Wales and bring interesting books to the world, and my poetry has appeared in Envoi a few times. So when Jan got in touch with a review copy, I trusted this was going to be a good read.

And it was. I’ve never read a book set in Tajikistan and I’ll bet most of you haven’t either. Milisic-Stanley is a terrific writer, and she brings the beautiful and the bleak alive in equal measure, as in the opening line of the novel, “In the early hours snow fell, covering grey high rises, broken pavements and potholed roads, transforming the city into a winter fairyland.”

More importantly, she vividly portrays the lives of Nargis, a widow and mother of three working as a nanny, and Harriet, her expat employer. Harriet is a young Englishwoman and mother of two, married to a wealthy Belgian diplomat, Henri. Through her journal entries we learn that she feels useless and lonely in Dushanbe. Henri is never around, he expects her to entertain when groceries are scarce and power cuts are frequent, and he berates her for showing any interest in Nargis’s life.

Nargis, meanwhile, appears to be the disobedient one. She was married at sixteen to a man who loved her and treated her well, bore him two children, and watched him die of a cancerous throat tumor when only in his twenties. Her parents made her remarry and her second husband beat her son, ordered his mother to feed the children only bread, and eventually attacked Nargis. She left, but he took their infant son. She visits the child at her in-laws apartment, and mostly doesn’t have to see her husband, because he works in Russia a good part of the year like many other young Tajiks.

When the book opens we learn that Nargis is the only adult working in her household for the time being, and is supporting herself, her parents, her brother, and her children. Stretched thin, she wants to buy a small shop to increase her income. Just reading about her life was painful. Her family and neighbors consider her to be in the wrong for leaving her husband because most Tajiks seem to think that an abused wife deserves it. So she’s scorned both in her neighborhood and in Harriet’s world, where locals are seen as potential servants or criminals.

But Nargis is not the only disobedient wife. Harriet begin to sense that her life isn’t all it’s chalked up to be. In fact, even though she’s not physically abused and she’s wealthy, there is an imbalance in Harriet’s marriage that is odious in its own way. The more she gets to know Nargis and to empathize with her, the more she considers what she really wants for herself and her children. Harriet also wants to help, and that’s another interesting part of the book — Nargis doesn’t want to have to humble herself or be indebted but she desperately wants a better life, and Milisic-Stanley makes that easy to understand.

The book doesn’t paint the expat, missionary, and NGO communities in the best light, although again, Milisic-Stanley doesn’t make anything too cut and dry — there are some people who are better than others. There’s a definite ugly American, which was a little painful to read, but there are ugly Europeans too. The same goes for Tajiks — some are good people, some are not. Milisic-Stanley lived in Tajikistan and several other placed after graduating from SOAS in London, so she probably based her characters on people she’d met. There are definitely a lot of socio-political aspects to the story as well as economic, so it’s both an entertaining novel and a book that will make you think.

I won’t tell you what happens to either woman, but to Milisic-Stanley’s credit, there isn’t a pat ending for Harriet or Nargis — we get an idea of what direction things are going, but she doesn’t tie everything up in a neat bow. The Disobedient Wife is a thought provoking, mind-expanding book that offers views of lives so fundamentally different and yet at heart, exactly like ours; people everywhere just want to be safe, have enough food and health care and education for their kids, and security for their families. How we can get there is such a mess, and this book really shows how complicated and precarious it is, especially when the balance of power and wealth in the world is so lopsided.

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Katherine Pancol‘s book The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles was quite popular at my library when it came out; we actually needed a second copy to meet demand. For some reason I never took a close look at it at the time. But our adult & teen winter reading program is book bingo, and one of the squares is “a book with a color in the title,” so I thought of it again.

It was an entertaining read.  It’s the story of Josephine Cortes and her sister, Iris. Josephine takes care of her daughters and works part time on medieval research, and she’s never been able to get out from under the shadow of her beautiful, stylish, wealthy sister. When her out-of-work husband Antoine leaves her for his mistress and goes to Africa to tend crocodiles for a Chinese firm, she’s left to take care of everything on her own for the first time. The situation is made worse when he can’t send any support and even drags her into his debt.

Feeling frumpy and stressed, she muddles along, doing some translation work for her lawyer brother-in-law that he asks her not to mention to Iris, and trying to love her little girl Zoe and Zoe’s precociously flirtatious older sister Hortense. She is attracted to a fellow scholar she sees at the library but can’t bring herself to approach him. Josephine’s mother, Henriette,  quits speaking to her when they argue after Antoine leaves. When it’s all too much Josephine turns to her neighbor, Shirley, a single mom raising her son Gary completely alone.

But Iris comes to her with a proposition that appears perfect for getting Josephine back on her feet. Iris has flirted her way into a book deal, and she asks Josephine to write the novel she’s described to her publisher as a 12th century story, offering to give her all the proceeds if Iris can pretend to be the author. Josephine agrees, never guessing how how much she’ll enjoy writing it, how over-the-top her sister will become, how successful “her” book will be, and how hard it will be to keep the secret.

As it turns out, nearly everyone in the book has a secret. There’s an entire subplot about Marcel, Iris & Josephine’s stepfather, and his mistress Josiane. Shirley’s backstory is another source of intrigue. And Iris has a history of bending the truth. Josephine is a good person, but she is so easily manipulated at first that it’s hard to get involved in her story. To Pancol’s credit, her character does grow, and throughout the novel, being a jerk costs people and being decent pays off. I won’t spoil it by telling you specifically what happens, but I will say some of the characters seemed meaner than was strictly realistic (maybe I’m just lucky not to know anyone like that), and a few celebrities appear just off-stage, which felt a little forced to me.

If it sounds relatively light, it is (although there’s some amount of musing on what it takes to be happy, and what success really is) but that’s ok. After something as intense as Station Eleven I was ready for a change of pace. I enjoyed The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles. But what is it with Princess Diana showing up in French novels? This is the second one I’ve read. Granted the other, An Accident in August, features her death fairly prominently, while she plays a much smaller part in this one. Anyway, if you’re looking for a fun read, and have some tolerance for annoyingly narcissistic and selfish characters, or characters who take a little time to stand up for themselves, or random insertions of celebrities into the plot, this is a decent book to spend a few evenings with.

 

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Every year I keep my eye out for gift-condition books on the library book sale shelf to put in my family’s stockings for Christmas. This year I gave The Computer Scientist Station Eleven and then a couple of days later, swiped it off his nightstand so I could read it myself.

It is, as so many other reviewers have noted, a terrific book. Unfortunately, I never had a really good long chunk of time to savor it, but even in 15-20 minute dips, I really enjoyed it. The premise, on the off chance you haven’t heard, is that a virulent strain of swine flu wipes out 90% of the population. It arrives in Toronto by plane and in the opening chapters of the book we meet a few residents of that city who are at a performance of King Lear. The famous actor playing Lear has a heart attack; by the time the performers and audience have left the theater the pandemic is already spreading.

The rest of the book is about those people and their family and close friends before and after the pandemic and the subsequent collapse of civilization. Kirsten, a child actor at the time of the collapse who later joins the “Traveling Symphony,” a group of survivors performing classical music and Shakespeare; Jeevan, a former paparazzi & celebrity reporter who was training as a paramedic when the world ended; Arthur, the famous actor playing Lear; Arthur’s best friend Clark. Station Eleven is the title of a comic book Arthur’s first wife Miranda spent years creating, which turns out to be important to Kirsten, and to play a role in the outcome of the story.

Both the characters in Station Eleven and the writing are wonderful. Passages like this abound: “She imagined Clark hanging up the receiver in his office in Manhattan. This was during the final month of the era when it was possible to press a series of buttons on a telephone and speak with someone on the far side of the earth.”

I enjoyed James Howard Kuntsler’s A World Made by Hand a few years ago, but in that book, although there are epidemics, the world has come to a halt primarily because of human heedlessness, greed, mismanagement, and aggression and that’s an undercurrent of the entire novel. In Station Eleven the crux of the story is what St. John Mandel‘s characters are thinking and feeling and doing, what makes them tick before and after the catastrophe. Each of them wonders at some point how they should live, what they should do. Looking at their lives before and their lives after makes the questions that much richer.

One of my favorite things about fiction is that it can provoke us into examining reality differently. When I read something that makes me look around and think, “wow,” because I was deeply in the world of the book, and the contrast with my own world feels a little like waking up, I know I’ve read something good. Station Eleven makes me look around and think, “wow,” even now, twenty-four hours after I finished it.

 

 

 

 

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