Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Recent Reads - November 2008

I've been busy reading during the last two months. Here are reviews I've posted on Amazon.com since mid-September.

Songs for the Butcher's Daughter

by Peter Manseau

Second Chances

Language, setting, history, religion and romance make Peter Manseau's new novel "Songs for the Butcher's Daughter" a natural for lovers of historical fiction. Playing himself as a recent college graduate with a not-very-marketable degree in ancient languages, Manseau takes a job sorting old Yiddish books. Sorting grows into reading and translating, and we enter the world of Itsik Malpesh, a Russian-born Yiddish poet, whose "Songs for the Butcher's Daughter" are written for a girl he's never met, but longs for as he grows.

At one level a story about language and words, Manseau describes the pull of Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew and English on Jews in their journey from the Old World of eastern Europe to new lives in American and Israel. He also does a great job of explaining the processes of putting words to paper - by the impoverished poet, and by printers in both Russia and New York.

Manseau also excels with setting, taking the reader from the industrial city of Kishinev to the port city of Odessa, and of course, on to America, primarily New York and to a lesser extent Baltimore and Boston. Part of the story takes place "off camera" in Jerusalem, but being that the book is a first-person account by either Manseau or Malpesh, we can only experience this setting third hand.

As for history, Manseau gives the reader a glimpse into key aspects of the Jewish experience in the first half of the twentieth century - life in eastern Europe, their relationship with Christians, emigration to and life in the US, and the Zionist movement.

Despite the essential "Jewishness" of the story, overt discussion of religion isn't a major aspect until the very end when the issue of fate vs. free will helps explain the actions of a major character.

I'll leave it for the reader to discover the role of romance in the story. The title offers a big clue.

The story requires an impressive number of coincidences to reach its endpoint, but given the frequent ghettoization of Jewish people and remembering that in fact, the story is a novel, they are easy to go along with.

Manseau weaves two narratives throughout - his own as he discovers and translates Malpesh's work, and Malpesh's story. He also provides some insight into the travails of translation - should the translator "crib" (a literal translation) or attempt to create a separate work of art in his own language.

Four-and-a-half stars rounded up to five for excellent customer service by Amazon Vine, who provided me with a second copy of this book free of charge when I reported having lost my first copy (it was later found at a grocery store, where they picked it up and put it on their sales shelf). I'm very happy I got a second chance to read "Songs for the Butcher's Daughter." Readers from age 10 to 100 will enjoy this book.

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

by Timothy Egan

Choked Up

Hurricanes come and go along America's Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Property and lives are destroyed, but often rebuilt. There's some comfort in knowing that indefatigable Mother Nature caused the damage.

But in the plains and panhandles of Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, an unprecented and unyielding natural disaster, rooted in the uprooting of native grasses in the name of progress, blew dirt into peoples' lives for almost the full decade of the '30s, killing thousands, ruining countless businesses, and emptying towns. It came to be known as the Dust Bowl, and Timothy Egan's book "The Worst Hard Times" tells the story via the recollections of a few octa- and nonagenarians who were there and lived through it.

Egan's narratives built around these recollections are heartbreaking. I could only read two chapters at a time without getting choked up emotionally as the denizens of the area, living in sod houses coughed up dirt, buried young children who'd died of dust pneumonia, and lived lives of grueling poverty. The Irish potato famine is the only agricultural disaster that I've read about that could top it. When the grasshoppers come calling, another outcome of the destruction of an ecosystem, the effect becomes biblical.

Part two of the story which recounts the federal government's effort to alleviate the disaster, is necessarily less compelling. Egan brings the story back to a more personal level in the last few chapters by sharing the diary of a Nebraska farmer who struggles to maintain a life with his wife.

A broader aspect of the tale is the lesson about understanding the fragility of ecosystems and showing respect for natural habitats developed over thousands of years.

"The Worst Hard Time" ranks with "Isaak's Storm" about the 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveson, TX, as the best history books I've read about American natural disasters. The involvement of people who lived to tell the tale makes Egan's book even more compelling. Highly recommended to all readers, although a little depressing for teenagers who aren't history buffs.

The Given Day

by Dennis Lehane

Lehane's Best

Lehane ventures successfully from his usual genre of crime fiction ("Gone Baby Gone" and other Patrick and Angie detective novels, "Mystic River" and the psychological novel "Shutter Island") to create a fascinating historical novel about life in his beloved Boston in the early 20th century. The narrative builds toward the Boston Police Strike of 1919, which took place at a time when the Red Scare which was gaining momentum following the recent Russian Revolution. Anyone organizing more than three people (including policemen) to do other than hold a patriotic parade was considered a potential enemy of the state. Aiden "Danny" Coughlin, a first-generation Irish-American and second-generation cop tries to become a plainclothes detective by taking undercover roles in both the worlds of police labor organization and dissidents (all of whom were considered potential terrorists). Eventually Danny "goes native" and becomes a pariah of sorts within his own family--his father is a Boston Police Department Captain, his brother Connor is an aspiring Assistant District Attorney.

Paralleling Danny's story is that of Luther Laurence, a 23-year-old African-American worker in Columbus, OH munitions factory, suddenly laid off to make way for returning white soldiers. Without real prospects in Columbus, Luther and his pregnant girlfriend Lila strike out for Tulsa, OK, where oil money has created an affluent black society in Greenwood alongside the white nouveau riche. Luther can't believe his good fortune, which doesn't last long, and the end of which propels him to Boston to join the story there.

As a bonus to the reader, Lehane weaves through both stories charming (and often vulgar) vignettes about the life of emerging baseball superstar Babe Ruth, in his last years with the Boston Red Sox during this time. The opening scenes recounting a pickup baseball game between a trainload of major leaguers and Laurence's industrial league team in Columbus would stand alone as one of the best baseball short stories I've read.

Ruth isn't the only historical character with a prominent role - theatrical producer and Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, held responsible by Sox fans for 87 years for the "Curse of Babe Ruth" appears to negotiate Ruth's way to New York; J. Edgar (then just John) Hoover appears as an ambitious young lawyer in the new Bureau of Investigation; Jack Reed and Eugene O'Neill are among the radical left; then Massachusetts governor and future U.S. President Calvin Coolidge plays a key role during the strike and ensuing riot. Historical events of the period are also featured - the Great Influenza of 1917 and the Molasses Tank Explosion of 1918, of which I wasn't aware, but which was a very big mess.

The Given Day was my most satisfying and exciting read of 2008. I blew through the 700 pages in less than two days as the book became my constant waking companion. Lehane's style born in detective stories keeps the action moving. The larger story resonates in the current day with the domestic surveillance and executive power given by the Patriot Act in the post-9/11 era occurring in the long shadow of the Red Scare. Lehane lays much of liberal Boston's ugly history bare--racism, classism, ethnicism, and sexism were all rampant in the early 20th century as groups worked to put as many people as possible below them on the power structure.

It is by far my favorite Lehane novel of the five or so I've read, comparing favorably with another of my favorites, "Paradise Alley" by Kevin Baker about the New York City draft riots of 1863, which it greatly resembles in scope and style. The book's timing and ending leave hope that Lehane might tackle a future novel about the infamous Tulsa race riots of 1921 in Greenwood, OK. Five enthusiastic stars, especially for lovers of historical fiction and of Boston. Although a bit long for a classroom assignment, "The Given Day" would also serve high school and college students of early 20th century history well, especially regarding labor struggles and the Red Scare. Fans of Lehane's other works may be expecting something different, but should still enjoy "The Given Day."

North River

by Pete Hamill

Forever's Missing Pieces Found in North River

In his followup to "Forever", a sprawling "magical history" of New York City, journalist/novelist Pete Hamill streamlines both scope and genre to produce "North River", a family story set in Depression-era New York. Dr. James Delaney, a general practitioner serving mostly indigent clients during a time where no one has money, unexpectedly takes on the new challenge of single fatherhood when his daughter Grace leaves his toddler grandson Carlito on the doorstep on the way to a worldwide search for her revolutionary husband. Delaney's efforts to raise his young charge, care for his patients, and negotiate his way among the mobster scene (he treats WW I war buddy and mob boss Eddie Corso in the opening scene) carry the story until immigrant housekeeper and child caretaker Rosa joins the household. Unlike "Forever", the story here is compact enough that to reveal more would be a spoiler.

Hamill also softens the punchy journalistic style he displayed in "Forever", achieving a much more lyrical feel to what is a human story rather than a vehicle to recount history. Still, I enjoyed that Hamill set this story in the 20th century, the one period he bypassed in "Forever", which otherwise spanned more than 250 years. Readers who balked at the suspension of disbelief (i.e. that a man could live forever if he held to a shaman's orders) required to accept "Forever", will appreciate the simple story that Hamill tells here.

My whole family - myself, my wife, my father and mother - read and enjoyed "North River". Sit by a fire for a few hours this winter and enjoy it yourself. Five stars.

Being Written

by William Consecu

Heard But Not Seen

In his debut novel, Consecu brings a new sense to the postmodern approach of bringing the reader into the writing process--that of sound, as character Daniel Fischer hears pencil being applied to paper by an off-camera novelist while Daniel lives his life. Will he be a minor character in someone else's story, or will he take charge and become the protagonist? Of course, he pushes for the latter, ultimately in a reckless manner that leaves the reader to predict the story's ending for him or herself. Daniel's group of artistic friends can seem inbred and confusing at times, but they sort themselves out well enough to allow for the climax. Daniel's challenge is a useful metaphor for all young people trying to make sense of their lives.

One scene from the pay-for-gay-sex world makes this one unsuitable for younger readers, though I'd make an exception for aspiring young writers so they can experience Conescu's unique approach. Otherwise, recommended for readers of literary fiction, particularly so for those with an interest in the writing process. Four stars.

Hunk City

by James Wilcox

Aging Baptists

Years ago my wife and I read with joy and laughter James Wilcox's wonderful "Modern Baptists", his first novel about the wacky denizens of Tula Springs, LA, a fictional town on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain not far from us in Baton Rouge, LA. Several follow-ups later we're still waiting to feel that magic again as Burma Van Buren and her pals and enemies, some of whom she's either in love with, formerly married to or "bunnying" with at one point or another, deal with the curious local culture and with the world at large. The "hunk" of Hunk City is gay landscaper Hunter Schein, whose sexual orientation is a great disappointment to Burma. For whatever reason, she moons over the desultory Bobby Perkins, her former boss at the Sonny Boy, now Redd's Department Store. The plot and minor characters are predictably zany, but somehow the only real surprise is the appearance of a tooth flosser, a service that I've never considered contracting, but Wilcox to his credit has. If you haven't already, head for "Modern Baptists" to see how it all got started in Tula Springs. Three stars for an pleasant enough continuation of the saga.

Requiem, Mass.

by John Dufresne

Family Matters

Dufresne's memoir/autobiographical novel (with a good bit of imagination thrown in, as he liberally warns the reader along the way) tells the sadly hilarious story of teenage Johnny Boy and younger sister Audrey's fight to save their family and their own sanity along the way while growing up in ironically named Requiem, Mass. Because mother Frances thinks that the two children living in her house are fiendish doubles for her real children, planted by foreign spies or interstellar aliens, Johnny and Audrey must communicate with her by phone, where she'll accept their "real" voices. Father Rainy, the lyin' long-haul trucker, maintains multiple identities and multiple families during his cross-country journeys, unconcerned because he's only married to one of the women. The kids react by adopting their own family out of the collection of oddballs living above and below them in the apartment building, and in one especially clever move, inventing neighbors - the Sandilands - for whom they can "babysit" to get away from the craziness. You'll ache thinking about what Johnny has to deal with. Precocious Audrey and her cat Deluxe are charming and as such provide a good deal of comic relief for both Johnny and the reader, a debt he works hard to repay later in life. As you can imagine, coming from this childhood, Johnny's path to adulthood as a writer living in Florida (not unlike the author) isn't straightforward. Neither is Audrey's.

Dufresne has a great way with dialogue, even from such widely disparate locations as central Massachusetts and northeast Louisiana. The end of the story is startling, but maybe less so given that Johnny tells the story as it will happen three years in the future. Overall, Johnny's adventures as an adult are somewhat less compelling than the coming-of-age story. Still, lovers of well-written comic fiction will enjoy this book. Four and a half stars, rounded up to five for Dufresne's excellent writing.

The Gulag Archipelago, Volume 3

by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Time's Top Non-Fiction Book of the 20th Century

This amazing volume chronicles Solzhenitsyn's years in a Siberian labor camp for political prisoners and later in exile, a limbo status, where the state's support of physical needs is withdrawn, but the prisoner's reentry into mainstream society isn't allowed because of his status as a former prisoner. The final section takes place after Stalin's death in 1953, when both those in power and in prison were trying to figure how what to do in the absence of the mastermind of the Soviet Union's system of internal terror.

Soltzhenitsyn describes with alternating wit, pain, sarcasm, challenge the life of a zek (this story is also presented in his much shorter "A Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich", which in the years after the death of Joseph Stalin was actually accepted by the Soviet government for awhile). For awhile common criminals were mixed with politicals - their sentences were generally shorter than the "quarters" (25 years) given to the politicals, and they were useful to prison management as stoolies.

Often soldiers recently released from German prison camps were imprisoned for political offenses. After his release from political prison, Solzhenitsyn surreptitiously collected information from other former prisoners about conditions in other camps and about ethnic cleansing programs around the Soviet Union. Their tales are harrowing. Detainees in one camp actually managed to take it over from its local management, who showed sympathy to their plight. Upper level Soviet officials visited the camp for "negotiations", after which they "agreed" to meet all demands. You can guess what happened next.

The Soviet Union may have lost 20 million citizens in combat, but Stalin's program of political terror must have killed at least as many more.

Of any man who lived, Solzhenitsyn probably did the most to expose the brutal nature of the Soviet regime, particularly that of Joseph Stalin, who in the rest of the world enjoyed status as Papa Joe, leader of part of the Allied forces that defeated Nazi Germany. His efforts to publish the Gulag Archipelago were always in jeopardy. As such he never had the entire manuscript in one place, making of the great political documents of the 20th century that much more remarkable.

Despite its length (Volume 3 alone runs to about 600 pages in hardback) and grim subject matter, I found Gulag Archipelago relatively readable. Solzhenistyn's personal style - much is written like he was telling you the stories face to face. Five stars for all readers, if only to highlight the dangers of a totalitarian government that spies and imprisons its citizens for their political and religious beliefs in name of ideology.

Forced Out

by Stephen Frey

Of Hitters and Hitmen

The worlds of minor league baseball and major league gangsters collide in Stephen Frey's new mystery. Frey handles the baseball content well in his first literary trip to the diamond. The gangsters are appropriately cruel and ruthless, and in one case introspective.

The plot regarding a young New York City-born athlete engaged in his own witness protection program as a talented, but moody minor leaguer in south Florida rolls along, led by retired and disgraced former major league scout Jack Barrett.

Gangsters want to take out "the Kid", whose talent and fake name echo the great Mickey Mantle. Barrett wants to take him back to the Yankees and superstardom and in the process rescue his own career and retiree finances.

Less compelling are many side stories about Jack's daughter and her social life.

As you'd expect, there are plenty of casualties at the climax, including one that leads to an over-the-top ending.

Also be forewarned that you may read more about torture techniques, in particular waterboarding, than you want to. If I wasn't before (which I was), I'm really against this technique after reading about its application in the world of gangsters.

Three stars for decent baseball content and some slimy gangster moments. If Frey decides to stick with Jack Barrett as a continuing protagonist, I'll probably stay with James Lee Burke and his alky cop Dave Robicheaux.


Logan Lamech said...

Some good reviewing there thanks. So I'm a fan of the gangster genre, should I give Hitters and Hitmen a chance?

Logan Lamech

dadlak said...

I suggest waiting for Forced Out to reach the bargain table or the public library. Not really good enough to buy in hard cover.