Friday, September 19, 2008

Recent Reads - September 2008

Here are some reviews I've posted on during September and August. I've read more books than this since May, but I am still behind on reviewing.

The Tsar's Dwarf by Peter H. Fogtdal

As it was for me, Peter Fogtdal's "The Tsar's Dwarf" may be the first novel you've ever read translated from Danish. I hope that the book sells well and that some of Fogtdal's novels get the same treatment.

In a first-person narrative that reads a bit like John Irving channeling Charles Dickens on a trip through 18th century Russia, Danish dwarf Sorine Bendsdatter takes us on the journey of her life--a journey of survival in a world that treats dwarves as animalistic freaks of nature rather than as human beings.

Sorine battles with her owners, her so-called protectors, her lovers, demons from her past deeds, and her God, first living in her native Denmark and then in Russia after being given by King Frederick of Denmark to Russian Tsar Peter the Great. Along with being Sorine's personal tale of her fight for survival, identity and a small measure of happiness in mostly cold, gloomy and vermin-infested surroundings, "The Tsar's Dwarf" tells us a good bit of Peter's story. Some of the story could be interpreted as historical fiction. Other parts are presented through "dwarf eyes", imaginations built from cruel experience.

"The Tsar's Dwarf" isn't a thriller, but Fogtdal's fast paced writing style and short chapters, some just snippets, make it read like one.

As a tale of personal courage and a look at history in long-ago and faraway places, "The Tsar's Dwarf" is hard to beat. Five enthusiastic stars for adult readers and for well-read teenagers.

A Dog in a Hat: An American Bike Racer's Story of Mud, Drugs, Blood, Betrayal, and Beauty in Belgium by Joe Parkin

The recent focus on use of performance-enhancing drugs in various sports, but especially cycling, makes American Joe Parkin's cycling memoir "A Dog In A Hat" seem timely even though his career as an expatriate Belgian cyclist ended more than 15 years ago. There's little glamour and lot of the title elements of mud, drugs, blood and betrayal in Parkin's story of competitive cycling. Parkin writes colorfully enough so that you can almost feel the crashes, smell the cheap hotels, and taste the nasty road food eaten by cyclists on their multi-hundred kilometer rides. I expect that cyclists and serious cycling fans will really enjoy this inside look at their world. For the cycling lay person like me, Parkin could have provided a more satisfying reading experience by including a glossary to define the many technical terms associated with competitive cycling.

3-1/2 stars rounded down for the difficulty the average reader might have with the cycling jargon.

The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts by Louis De Bernieres

In his debut novel from 1990, Louis De Bernieres drops you straight into morass that is South America in the '60s and '70s, or at least as seen through his fevered imagination. So many characters, including the title's Don Emmanuel (who turns out to be a relatively minor figure), are introduced in the first 25 pages that I had to keep a list on paper. De Bernieres ambition is impressive as he tackles politics, terrorism, Communism, economics, the military, ecology, natural history, anthropology of any number of Indian tribes, theology, spirituality, geography (jungle to mountains and in between), agriculture and even dabbles in butterflies in taking us to an imaginary South American country (a conflation of several actual ones) that he astutely never names, lest be accused of libel (or so I'd hope - the political machinations and military strategies of DeBernierera (for lack of a better name) make what we know about the horror stories of America's analogous institutions look like child's play). To top it all off, De Bernieres presents the story in a tragicomic style, frequently causing the reader to literally "laugh out loud." The scene from which De Bernieres gets the title of the book is one of those moments. There's also romance, from the overtly and almost pornographic sexual to the literally spiritual and a rather jarring amount of torture, explained in exquisite detail.

De Bernieres writing doesn't flow with the grace he demonstrated in Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Birds Without Wings, which were more romantic works at heart, albeit each with significant political content. The style of Don Emmanuel fits the humid, noisy, colorful world of the jungle. It's an entertaining read for most of the trip, and even one that finds some redemption (albeit again, mostly of a spiritual nature) among all the internecine warfare being depicted.

Fans of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende will recognize and enjoy the setting (although De Bernieres' style is considerably more frenetic). Fans of Mark Helprin's tragicomic novels, A Soldier of the Great War, Memoir From Antproof Case, and Freddy and Fredericka will enjoy De Bernieres style in The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts.

Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy by Donald B. Kraybill (Author), Steven M. Nolt (Author), David L. Weaver-Zercher (Author)

The authors examine all aspects of the amazing grace demonstrated by the Amish people in tiny West Nickel Mines, PA after the ghastly killing of five school-age girls by a distraught "Englishman". The Amish's version of Christianity, focused sharply on the Lord's Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount, tells them to forgive others, lest they be forgiven by God for their sins. Centuries of thinking and living this way make other reactions to tragedy almost unthinkable within the Amish community, though forgiveness does not erase grief. Christians may think differently about their interpretation of Christ's teachings after reading this book. Description of the killings themselves are mercifully brief, though still poignant.

Very highly recommended to all readers.

Songs of the Humpback Whale: A Novel in Five Voices by Jodi Picoult

I understand Ms. Picoult's desire to present compelling stories of modern day family life in literary packages but she unnecessarily complicates her first novel, "Songs of the Humpback Whale", with multiple narrators (at least you learn this up front on the title page) including a character that tells her story on a reverse timeline. Assuming she did her research right, I did learn quite a bit about the behavior of humpback whales, which I'm sure has some relationship to the behavior of the humans in the story, though I didn't take enough time to sort it all out. My wife and daughter are big Picoult fans, but they struggled with "Songs of the Humpback Whale" as well.

Three stars for taking on a challenging structure and for interesting technical info on humpback whales.

A Great Day in Cooperstown: The Improbable Birth of Baseball's Hall of Fame by Jim Reisler

For me Reisler's book was a very timely story, as I read it just before visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in June 2008. He begins with the interesting public relations and (and almost religious) story regarding baseball's creation myth - that Gen. Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown in 1839, a myth that caused the Hall of Fame to be placed there. The Museum itself both honors the myth and discredits it in neighboring rooms. Also entertaining are Reisler's accounts of how the first enshrinees handled that first day of immortality in 1939. Even among those who'd spent their working lives before the public, there were some who didn't quite appreciate the throng that gathered in Cooperstown. A fun puzzle is to try to identify the Hall of Famers on the front cover, both before you read the book and as you go through.

Recommended to baseball fans, particularly to fans of the history and lore of the game. Others might wonder what all the fuss was about, as baseball has been elbowed aside by other sports (pro football in particular) for the adulation of American sports fans. Me, I like baseball.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Resonating against the backdrop of current-day events in The Sudan is remarkable young author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's engrossing story set during the brief history of Biafra, a breakaway area of Nigeria that had a short, bloody existence as a nation during the 1960s. In the post-colonial era when many new African nations were born, many native Nigerians saw their new government as little more than a black version of their white European oppressors. Achidie's lead character, Professor Odenigbo, an ethnic Igbo, lives comfortably, to the extent that he can hire a houseboy, 13-year-old Ugwu. These two main characters provide the adult, academic and child's-eye, non-academic view of both revolutionary rhetoric and action.

Adichie's story of revolution is also a family story as Odenigbo's beautiful girlfriend Olanna, her twin sister Kainene, and her boyfriend, white author/journalist Richard become involved. Peripheral characters also play an important role in the interpersonal plot development. Adichie does a wonderful job describing the lives of various classes in Nigerian society - haves, middle-class and the dirt poor inhabitants of refugee camps. For me, she struck her only wrong note with a series of chapter summaries from a book being written by Richard. I felt that these could have been expanded to real chapters or left out. "Half of a Yellow Sun" refers literally to the design of Biafra's national flag. Ironically it also represents the reality of this small country, on which the sun never truly rose.

Highly recommended to readers of historical fiction, and to those who want to learn more about life in Africa. Four strong stars.

The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett - I'm beginning to think that there are novels written by women for women. Ann Patchett's debut novel, "The Patron Saint of Liars" must be one of them. I felt nary a whit of sympathy for, nor gained a dram of understanding about protagonist Rose Clinton, whose behavior toward the men who love her defies either.

Patchett does provide an interesting look into the world of homes for unwed mothers (which in itself is an ironic setting), a no doubt declining industry in a world that has become progressively more tolerant toward what are now called single mothers. But even that connection is disappointing after a prelude that implies that the setting may have some ultimately redemptive qualities, which it didn't, at least for Rose.

Two-and-a-half stars, rounded up to three for the look at homes for unwed mothers.

The Tender Bar by J. R. Moehringer

Journalist J.R. Moehringer has written a rollicking coming-of-age memoir set on Long Island and centering around a small town version of the TV bar Cheers. The story opens with the author at about age six being raised by his mother and grandmother at his grandparents' house, his golden-voiced and leaden-souled father having disappeared into thin air. Before long he finds that his best childhood friends and father figures are a bunch of bartenders and drunks at the most popular bar in town, Dickens. Once he reaches drinking age, it's hard for J.R. not to become an alcoholic. One of the bartenders is his uncle and the bar's policy is that relatives drink free (but must pay for any drinks they give to others).

Obviously, the young protagonist becomes a successful writer. How he reaches that stage provides two great stories--that of the struggling student and journalist, and that of the rollicking young alcoholic. That you are reading the book removes some of the suspense about the outcome, but Moehringer and a cast of Dickensian characters at both Dickens and his grandparents' house makes the journey very entertaining. If you like Frank McCourt's various memoirs, particularly Angela's Ashes, or if your childhood included alcoholic caretakers (parents or otherwise), you'll love "The Tender Bar".

I'm now current reviewing all the books I've read in the last three months.

Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo

Russo’s latest novel about life in the rural Northeast promises much with its romantic title and cover art showing a country bridge merging into the famous bridge in Venice. Russo delivers a charming narrative on growing up in upstate New York, but little else in a well-written but ultimately disappointing effort.

As the story starts, protagonist Louis “Lucy” (Lou C. – get it?) Lynch and his wife Sarah are planning a trip to Venice to reconnect with childhood friend Robert “Bobby” Noonan, who has escaped rural New York to become a world-famous artist. Quickly the story flashes back to Lou’s childhood—an almost year-by-year account of life in a small New York company town from age six to high school that will resonate with readers who grew up in similar circumstances. Interspersed are “look-ins” at Noonan’s life in Venice and the Lynches’ life in present-day Thomaston, New York. Eventually the stories intertwine, but they lost me in the figurative and literal trip across the Bridge of Sighs and in a denouement that depends on the appearance of a completely new character to bring the tale to a close.

In spite of Russo’s obvious skill in recreating the feel of a boy’s life in a small town, I can only give his book three stars for an ultimately unsatisfying trip across its metaphorical bridge. Still it’s possible that other readers will get more out of the journey across the Bridge of Sighs.

Einstein: His Live and Universe by Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson's biography of Time's "Person of the 20th Century", Albert Einstein, welcomes us to the world of one of history's most famous scientists. So well known that his name is nearly a common noun synonym for genius, but still misunderstood on many fronts, Einstein emerges much more intact than most famous people subjected to a biography of this length. He wasn't a great father for most of his life, perhaps shockingly so in one case. At one time a revolutionary figure in his field, he became quite conservative in his views late in his career, with his major contribution coming tangentially as others answered his objections to more modern theories of uncertainty and reality. Often thought of as the father of the atomic bomb, Einstein played a very minor role, other than to recognize the awesome potential of E = mc2 and making the effort to communicate his concern to those who needed to know in the volatile days leading up to World War II. The story of the emigration of Einstein and other German scientists is chilling in its implication. Had they stayed and developed the bomb for Hitler, the world might be a much different place today.

A book about a theoretical physicist has a good chance to sail right over the general reader's technical ability to understand it. Isaacson does a good job of keeping that part of the story near the ground, presenting concepts and Einstein's famous "thought experiments", but essentially no higher mathematics. I did better with E = mc2 and issues of uncertainty and reality presented later in the book than with the theory of relativity. Isaacson does his best work examining Einstein's conceptual mind--his career-long search for a unified field theory that would explain all the major forces in the universe, and his long dedication to a unified form of world government that would mediate the risks inherent with nationalism and mechanized, even nuclear, weapons. The stories about Einstein's family life, while humanizing and revealing, were the least interesting to me, though they did convey Einstein's basic humility with his place in the cosmos.

It took me quite awhile to read this book, but I'll give it five stars, particularly for biography readers and those with a scientific bent.

A Golden Age: A Novel by Tahmima Anam

Ms. Anam tells the story of the 1971 revolution in East Pakistan that resulted in creation of the independent nation of Bangladesh. She focuses on how such a cataclysmic event affects the lives of just a few people--primarily a woman and her two almost-grown children with ties in both East and West Pakistan. Americans may think of the Indian subcontinent as being one giant overpopulated place, but the diversity of language, religion, and culture creates both animosity and shaky alliances. The drama and poignancy of the events during time of war bring to mind three other excellent books - A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Sophie's Choice by William Styron and the more recent The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. The relative obscurity of Bangladesh's battle for independence might prevent Anam's book from gaining the following of these classics, but the power of her story is hardly diminished.

My only quibble was how quickly Anam related the end of the war (which lasted less than a year) once the difficult choices at the heart of the story were made. Perhaps she thought that by doing so, she kept the focus on the family, and not on the larger story. Still, I would have liked to learn more about how such an apparently desperate and overmatched guerilla-based revolution succeeded in less than one year. Five stars for what is there minus a star for what is missing. Still, a highly recommended read for lovers of fiction about the subcontinent.

Now You See Him by Eli Gottlieb

Now You See Him served as an intro into my upstate New York period, as I followed it with Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo. Gottlieb's short novel, his second and first since 1997, reminded me of another recent read on death in suburban/rural America, Jeffrey Eugenides The Virgin Suicides. The "him" of the title, author and minor celebrity Rob Castor, is dead before the story starts, perpetrator and victim of a murder/suicide. Around to tell us more about Castor, and eventually why the death of this childhood friend has hit him so hard, is narrator Nick Framingham. Little by little we learn about the relationships among Nick, Castor and Castor's sister Belinda, while Nick's marriage disintegrates along the way. Surprises ostensibly abound, both regarding current relationships, and in revelations about the past, but none are too surprising until the final, jarring scene, which I'm not sure I bought into. A quick and moderately entertaining read, Now You See Him is still well short of being either a great story or great literature. Three stars.

So Brave, Young and Handsome by Leif Enger

So Brave, Young and Handsome, Leif Enger's second novel (he debuted in 2002 with the charming and spiritual Peace Like a River takes the top spot among all books I've read in the Amazon Vine program. It's the book about the last days of the Old West that Larry McMurtry could have written if he wasn't already so famous--instead he wrote the mediocre Telegraph Days.

The odyssey of Enger's protagonist, one-hit wonder novelist Monte Becket living in the second decade of the 20th century, rumbles on water, land and rail across the Midwest and Far West, all the way on a Grapes of Wrath-like journey to California. In a brisk 280 pages, divided into very short chapters, our "hero" and his newfound friend, outlaw Glendon Hale, encounter all matter of obstacles and assistance - the latter from a Billy the Kid-like auto mechanic named Hood Roberts (after one of Enger's father's friends), the former in the person of aging and violent ex-Pinkerton detective Charles Siringo (a historical character), who pursues both Hale and Roberts. Becket joins Hale on his journey for forgiveness from a wife Hale deserted years ago to take up a life of crime. All the major male characters - Becket, Hale, Roberts and Siringo, are exquisitely drawn as is a California citrus rancher who comes late to the story.

Through the voice of author Becket, Enger maintains the slightly formal writing style of his first novel, though at heart the story comes from the same part of his soul that created the wonderful character of 9-year old Swede Land and her epic poetry about lawman Sunny Sundown in Peace. Enger even includes a Swede-like character, albeit with different passions, in Becket's outdoorsy son Redstart, named after a bird.

I savored this story in small bites for awhile before surrendering and reading the last 200 pages on one day of a business trip.

Five enthusiastic stars for all readers - McMurtry lovers will rank So Brave, Young and Handsome up there with the master of the modern Western's early, poignant works, and likely become Enger lovers, eagerly anticipating his next tale.

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