Thursday, September 13, 2007

August Book Reviews - Now Complete - Plain Truth, Clemente, Harry Potter 7, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

September 13

Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult

Of the three of Ms. Picoult's family novels that I've read, I enjoyed "Plain Truth" most of all. Perhaps it's because I spent a few years of my youth living near the Pennsylvania Dutch country, giving the book a comfortable feel. More likely it's because of the research she did in advance of writing the book, living among the Plain people and learning their ways, so that the story would seem so genuine. Picoult also gets high marks for her ongoing comparison between "English" and "Plain" concepts of truth and justice, retribution and forgiveness, and family and female fulfillment.

One small quibble is that the "English" attorney's backstory is perhaps a little too diametrically contrasted to the Plain lifestyle. Still it sets up the drama in the relationship between attorney and client, an 18-year old Plain woman accused of killing her newborn child, and in how the case is handled in court, as half-understandings and misunderstandings drive the twists and turns of the plot.

Exploring complicated relationships is clearly Ms. Picoult's strength, and as in "The Pact" (about teen suicide), even the ultimate resolution isn't cut and dried. "Plain Truth" also benefits from being less self-consciously literate (as in "The Tenth Circle", which was modeled after Dante's "Inferno"), rather, it's a plainly told tale with enough going on to keep the reader's attention to the last page.

I started reading Picoult's books thinking they were young adult fiction, but I've come to appreciate them for her ability to cross the generational line between adult and teenage characters. I'm surprised that none of her novels have been adapted for the screen. **** and a 1/2 to "Plain Truth", again recommended to all readers of family-driven fiction.

September 12

Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero by David Maraniss

Did you ever have trouble reading a book (particularly biography) because you knew that it would end tragically? This was my problem with David Maraniss's excellent biography of the late baseball star and Puerto Rican icon, Roberto Clemente. You see, near the end of his fabled career, Clemente rode on a plane carrying relief supplies from Puerto Rico to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua. The charter flight didn't make it half a mile off the runway before crashing into the shark-infested waters off the island. I knew of the tragic death, and still felt that by delaying reading about it, I could somehow delay its reality, or at least its renewed emotional impact on me.

One of the most gifted, dedicated and competitive athletes ever to play the game, Clemente was often tormented by the lack of recognition given him in the days of stars like Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson, and made no bones about his displeasure. His strong Hispanic accent was lampooned in the press, and his dedication to playing only in top form was ridiculed as "jaking" by some, creating a prickly relationship between writers and Roberto in most cases.

But in his private life, Clemente was a charming and generous man, dedicated to improving the lives of children on his home island, and to reaching out to a variety of fans/strangers, who became friends and then like part of the Clemente family. Maraniss describes well Clemente's growth into this persona from the often embittered young man who one time slugged a bystanding fan out of frustration.

Clemente's growth from a talented, but somewhat immature youth to baseball elder (and heroic MVP of the Pittsburgh Pirates 1971 World Series championship) and Puerto Rican statesman (one friend said after Clemente's death that he knew that Roberto's life would consist of "playing baseball as long as he wanted to and then becoming governor of Puerto Rico."), makes the historical certainty of his tragic death all the more distressing. To pile on even more pain, the airplane crash was essentially inevitable, the combination of greed and oversight on the ground in Puerto Rico with the plane, its operators and its pilot, and the corruption of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, who commandeered a majority of imported relief supplies for their own enrichment. Clemente boarded the doomed plane so that his presence in Nicaragua could insure that the supplies would reach the needy.

By the time of his death, Clemente was so revered on his home island that locals believed that he would walk tattered out of the sea to safety. But all that was found of him was one sock. Having read Maraniss' detailed account of these events, I feel worse about Clemente's death than I did when it happened (I was still a callow 18-year old American League fan at the time.) What a loss to humanity and for all the wrong reasons--greed and sloth ending a philanthropic act and the life of a great man. I wasn't around when Jesus supposedly died on the cross for the sins of all mankind, a tragedy that I still have trouble relating to, but I was alive on New Year's Eve in 1972, when Roberto Clemente died trying to relieve the suffering of people in Nicaragua.

Did I mention that I had a hard time finishing the book? I did all right until the last section, as Maraniss includes plenty of baseball action, including Bill Mazeroski's famous home run that beat the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series (I was six at the time and didn't know or care). He also includes a retrospective on baseball in Puerto Rico, and the pioneers that first played in the U.S major leagues--Hiram Bithorn, for whom the main stadium in San Juan was name (I visited there in the late '80s) was the godfather of Puerto Rican baseball. Maraniss also handles the twin subjects of black racism (unknown in Puerto Rico) and Hispanic "ethnicism" in the U.S.

There is an bittersweet upside to story, as indicated by Maraniss's subhead "The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero". It's enriching to read the story of a such a deep and giving soul in the world of baseball at a time when most of what we read about outside the foul lines relates to contract negotiations and allegations regarding use of performanc enhancing drugs. I emotionally recommend this book to Clemente's fans (who've probably already read it), to baseball fans in general, and to all readers who want to learn more about what makes up a great man.

September 8 - I actually completed reading only two books in August, but I'll cheat and review two more that I finished on September 1.

I started the month reading and blogging the publishing phenomenon, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows". Because of travel commitments, my reading got ahead of my blogging, so I started "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" by Lisa See, an airport purchase. I finished it first and will review it first.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See - More and more I find myself reading and enjoying what I would consider "women's books". The pattern goes back aways. Khaled Hosseini's "A Thousand Splendid Suns", a women's perspective on life in Afghanistan, was the most recent example until I read See's novel about life in 19th century China, told from the perspective of two remarkable women.

As young girls, Lily and Snow Flower become "old sames", akin to identical twins, in a relationship more profound than husband and wife. Living with their respective families, they communicate via the "secret fan" of the title in the language of "nu shu", a form of Chinese script kept entirely among women for centuries. See skillfully integrates the primary features of her story--the relationship between the two women, and a description of the structured lives of women in rural China during the 19th century. The former reminded me of Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha," while the latter echoes Pearl Buck's classic "The Good Earth"--very select company.

See also composes some beautiful poetry along the way, which is transcribed onto the fan. Like most relationships, the one between Lily and Snow Flower has its ups and downs; the downs are heartbreaking, as is the anguish suffered by young Chinese girls as they are made marriageable.

Many thanks to Ms. See for sharing her research and perspective on the lives of Chinese women in the 19th century, a world so different from our own, but somehow still universal. Highly recommended for all readers, even teenagers, and especially for readers of historical fiction and of books with strong female characters.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling -

The success of the Harry Potter series made this book the most anticipated publication in my lifetime, and perhaps of all-time, at least in gross numbers of copies. With Year Seven: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows", author J.K. Rowling, now England's richest woman, satisfies her fans while maintaining the story in its initial realm as a children's book.

For me, the resolution of Severus Snape's story was very satisfying--perhaps the best feature of the book. Now dead, Dumbledore's character took on new nuances as his backstory was revealed. Rowling also did a fine job taking Harry to the very bottom before allowing him to find his way. She also introduced a couple of interesting new characters--my favorite was Luna's father, Xenophilius Lovegood, who was pretty odd even as wizards go. Continuing characters met a mixed fate--some were heroes, others victims as it always is in war. Rowling kept the story moving so as to complete the search for the Horcruxes and the newly-introduced Deathly Hallows in 750 pages--I was expecting about 1,200 for the Horcruxes alone. For the most part the action was fast and furious--I counted at least eight hairbreadth escapes for Harry, in all manners of situations and conveyances.

On the downside, the interplay between Horcruxes (the pieces of Voldemort's soul), introduced in Book Six, and the Hallows, introduced in this book, was confusing at times. So much of the story took place outside of Hogwarts that we lost much of the charm of that place, although it apparently wasn't a very charming place in Year 7. The ending had some good twists and turns, but failed to take my breath away or leave me shaken. A rather tepid epilogue bled the book of some of its emotional power, but it was short, minimizing that effect.

All in all, I'd say that anyone who's read this far should certainly complete the series. You'll be pleased, saddened a little along the way, and saddened a little more by the thought that Rowling plans to retire her beloved characters. On the other hand, there's nothing here that's so magical as to convince anyone who hasn't read Books 1-6 to pick up at the beginning just to get to the amazing conclusion. Non-Potter readers will have trouble jumping into the story and might want to watch the movies to catch up. Four solid stars for Potter readers of all ages.

Looking ahead to September, I'm reading "Landsman" by Peter Charles Melman, a Civil War novel with Jewish protagonist from New Orleans. My stepson went to grad school with the talented author. At the same time I'm reading "Cold Sassy Tree" by Olive Ann Burns. My daughter read this novel about live in small town Georgia as part of her school's summer reading assignment. Next up is "Mysteries of Pittsburgh," the first novel by one of my favorite current authors, Michael Chabon. And I'm greatly anticipating receiving Terry Pratchett's "Going Postal" from Amazon. The Amazon reviewing community loves his work.

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