Thursday, August 9, 2007

Book Reviews - July with Morrie, Meyer and McCarthy

Here are the books I finished in July 2007. This was a diverse set--ranging from "historical" fiction at its most fictional (the Chabon book) to a non-fiction book from my own backyard, as it were (Horne's book on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans).

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

My introduction to McCarthy was this unforgettable short novel about a man and his son making their way on the road in a post-apocalyptic America of the near future. McCarthy's prose is spare, even Spartan, echoing the barren landscape that the main characters encounter. As you'd expect, survival is a theme throughout the book--survival in the face of starvation, and survival in the face of others who are dealing with the same situation in more brutal ways.

Along with the simple, almost poetic language (unadorned with even much punctuation) McCarthy brings the story to the reader with descriptions of the havoc a nuclear holocaust and nuclear winter would bring upon everyday life and the earth we take for granted. There's no "Mad Max" post-apocalyptic new world full of crazies--just "good guys" and "bad guys" doing heroic, brave and sometimes unspeakably ugly things to survive in a world that's at once both unimaginable and all too real.

What shines light into what otherwise would be an almost relentlessly bleak story is the developing relationship between the father and his son. To say more would ruin the story.

I watched the Italian movie Life Is Beautiful right before I wrote this review. It's about life in Italy before and during World War II for an Jewish-Italian waiter and his wife and young son. From their fairy tale pre-war existence they're transported to a concentration camp, where father and son are put in the men's wing and mother is sent to the women's wing. While more comic in nature, the story arc and the relationship between Guido and Joshua in "Beautiful" took me back just a month to the story of father and son in "The Road." I highly recommend both the novel and the film.

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent by Julia Alvarez

Ms. Alvarez writes about her two homelands, the Dominican Republic and the United States, with such believability that I kept checking to see if I was reading a memoir rather than a novel (it's the latter). Her most famous work, In the Time of the Butterflies, is her imagined account of the lives of historical people who gave their lives in resistance to General Trujillo's dictatorship in the Dominican in the first half of the 20th century. "Garcia Girls" covers some of the same period, but tells the story of girls who lived, eventually to emigrate to the U.S. to struggle in different ways.

The structure of the novel takes some getting used to as Alvarez writes from now to then--starting with vignettes about grown women and working her way back to stories about their early childhood in the Dominican. She also switches voices among the four sisters--each has a distinct personality and life, but their similarities had me checking back sometimes to remind myself exactly who was speaking.

Fans of Ms. Alvarez who haven't read this book should do so. Newcomers might better start with "Butterflies" and then try "Garcia Girls", given that the latter switches among both place and narrator ("Butterflies" does the latter as well), and works its way back in time. "Butterflies" also gives some historical perspective about life under Trujillo that is important to understand to appreciate the travels of the Garcia family. Both books are appropriate for teenagers as well as adults.

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

As a sports fan, I was already familiar with lbom's work before this phenomenal little book came along. I stayed away from it for all these years, afraid that it would be a Pablum-encrusted little self-help volume. My wife bought the book and recommended it so I decided to invest three hours and join its long list of readers.

What I found was a relatively unsentimental and humanistic look at dying. Morrie of the title is an former sociology professor of the author who is dying of Lou Gehrig's disease. A novelistic coincidence gets Mitch and Morrie back together after more than two decades for a series of Tuesday meetings to discuss important topics--family, marriage, faith, work, and of course dying (there were others, and I may not have these exactly right, working from memory). Morrie faces his predicament with amazing grace and courage. Or course, in sharing his soul with Mitch, Morrie helps Mitch find a bit of his own soul--a little sentimental, but okay in this context.

As a Unitarian-Universalist with an ambivalent view of what happens after death, "Tuesdays with Morrie" appealed to me with its message that life takes place on earth, primarily through our relationships with others. Career-oriented and otherwise driven people could benefit from taking three hours out to read this short and enlightening book about a man who lived and died on this own terms, making the world a better place in the process.

A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger

No, it's not the story of the filly Ruffian's breakdown at Belmont Park. Rather, investigative reporter Sebastian Junger takes on a piece of his family's accepted history--that when he was less than a year old, neighbor woman Bessie Goldberg, living in the upscale Belmont section of suburban Boston, was killed by Albert DeSalvo, the infamous Boston Strangler, who at time of the murder was working on a remodeling job in the Junger home. At the time, an African-American man, Roy Smith, who had been cleaning inside the victim's house on the same day, was accused, tried and convicted of the murder.

Junger brings the eye of a seasoned investigator to the task, scrupulously mapping a timeline for the man convicted of the crime, and compiling a trove of details about DeSalvo and the other "Strangler" cases. Still, his prose is quite readable, resembling a novel moreso than an investigative piece, although the almost clinical approach belies the passion you might expect from such a violent story hitting so close to home.

I'll leave it to you to find out both your and Junger's conclusions. The descriptions of various murders are pretty grisly, so I'd restrict this one to adult readers.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

When I read this book I was stunned by its imaginative premise--that the State of Israel failed in 1948 and the U.S. offered part of Alaska (the Sitka District) for settlement by Jews from around the world. I learned later that this idea was actually floated by FDR, but never acted on. With the support of then-U.S. President Harry Truman and the resilience of its people, Israel survived and thrives almost 60 years later. Still, while no longer amazed, I'm still very impressed at how completely Chabon imagines and describes this cold world of the Jews, inhabiting Sitka on a 60-year lease from the U.S.

While operating at the same high level of imagination as in his triumph, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay", Chabon writes a much different book here. The scope of time is something less than a week rather than 50 years; the action is all "confined" to the Sitka District, large but still smaller than Kavalier's world that stretched from Prague to Antarctica to New York City. Kavalier was historical fiction at its best. Yiddish is at heart a whodunit, wrapped up in a made-up history. The closest parallel I can think of Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" in which the U.S. elects isolationist Charles Lindbergh as President while war rages in Europe, with the kidnapping of Lindbergh's baby acting as the whodunit.

All this is not to say that the reader is somehow shortchanged by "Yiddish". Into the murder mystery, Chabon works in world class chess, Hasidism (which at some level resembles the Mafia), bush pilots, the Judeo-Eskimo community (there's one he probably had few live experts to consult with), espionage, Judeo-Arab tensions, protagonist Meyer Landsman's challenge of doing police work for his now supervisor ex-wife, along with a whole host of Yiddish cultural references that can't be enumerated without better understanding of that culture and more space. Lurking in the background is the "reality" that the 60-year lease with the U.S. is about to expire and only a small number of Jews with "useful" jobs will be allowed to remain. Now that I write all this, my evalution of the breadth of Chabon's imagination is working its way back toward amazing.

I'm not sure how the reading public will handle "Yiddish". Chabon fans will enjoy it, but will be making the impossible comparison to "Kavalier." Detective story fans make me disoriented by the imaginary setting and all its unfamiliar cultural references. Someone looking for historical fiction might be put off by both the made-up history and the seemingly simple-minded detective story about a murdered chess player.

"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" is not quite a 5-star book, but at 4.5 I'll round up for Amazon. I recommend the book to all Chabon fans and to the adventurous among readers of current American fiction. A work by such a special talent has to be given a chance. I don't think you'll be disappointed. Well-read teenagers might enjoy it too--there's nothing in here that's particularly offensive, but it's a long step from typical young adult novels to "Yiddish".

Breach of Faith by Jed Horne

A Washington Post reviewer took Horne to task for the detached style of this book, asking for more "gut" and less "head". I'm glad that Horne used the balance of head and gut that he did in recounting the damage and aftermath of Katrina. The stories of the survivors are so gripping--sewage, snakes, stinging mosquitos, searing heat while waiting to be rescued followed by squalid conditions at the various collection sites--the Superdome, the Convention Center and a variety of road overpasses--then the gruesome cleanup stories (the exploding hamburger story is guaranteed to make anyone's stomach flip). Had the accounts been any more personal, I couldn't have finished the book. But this is coming from someone who experienced the storm just 75 miles up the road, where the story is already personal enough. Our suffering was very limited--some hours without electricity; days without cable TV; working around and with the thousands of evacuees, but we know how profoundly the storm and flood have affected Louisiana in general and the New Orleans metro area in particular.

I salute the doughty Picayune for publishing throughout and Horne for publishing such a thorough account just a year after the disaster. I also thank Horne for presenting a comprehensive picture of Louisiana Governor Blanco's actions during and after the storm. The reputation of this dedicated and experienced public servant took a heavy hit from the storm, enough so to discourage her from running for a second term. Horne reveals that in the context of the event and the politics surrounding Washington's response, Blanco probably did about as well as anyone could, and better than many other political figures managing the response to the storm.

Horne also adds some structure to the story of the chaotic "planning process" (or lack thereof) that's taken place in New Orleans since the storm. This process goes on to this day as people and businesses make decisions about whether or not to return.

As fellow Louisianans, we do our best to support the recovery of New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina and the resultant flooding. Horne has helped us in that effort with his thorough and thoughtful account of the tragic events.

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