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Archive for the ‘Sense of place’ Category

hamblySummer is a great time for a good mystery book. I always look for something with a bit of action, an interesting setting, and characters with whom you enjoy spending time. This is the sort of book I like to while away a lazy summer evening or weekend. Barbara Hambly’s  A Free Man of Color, the first in her Benjamin January series, certainly fits the bill here.

Hambly’s protagonist, Benjamin January, the free man of color of the title, lives in New Orleans, where he teaches music and performs with an ensemble of mixed races. January is also a doctor by training, having studied as a surgeon in Paris, where he lived prior to returning to New Orleans after the death of his wife. January is a fascinating character, thoughtful and ethical, but with an understandable anger beneath the surface. Much of the tension in the stories comes as January walks the precarious racial lines of the city in the years before the Civil War.

Hambly ably portrays life in 1830s New Orleans, showing interactions among all levels of society, especially pointing out the distinctions between white, black, and colored, and she clearly depicts how New Orleans society is changing with the arrival of increasing numbers of Americans. In this first book in a superb series, January is drawn into solving the mystery of the murder of the colored mistress of a recently deceased plantation owner.

With its mix of history, mystery, and social commentary, Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series is a great summer read.

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Also available in ebook format

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AbovetheEastChinaSea

Above the East China Sea is a profound statement about the sorrow of war. It is both an eerie ghost story and a story about the love in families, especially between two sets of sisters, alive seventy years apart and both torn from their closest sibling by war.

Modern day Luz is a military child, stationed on Okinawa and emotionally pummeled to the point of suicide by the recent death of her sister, Codie, in Afghanistan. Her family now consists only of her and her mother, who has left on a TDY (temporary duty). Luz is alone in a new place and has no family or friends around, a very plausible illustration of how isolated military families can be.

Parallel to Luz’s story is the wrenching tale of Okinawan Tamiko, who was a teenager at the time of the World War II battle of Okinawa. In the litany of horrors of World War II, the Battle of Okinawa isn’t well known, but it killed more people than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs combined and caused unimaginable destruction and deprivation for the Okinawan people and the permanent destruction of their traditional Okinawan way of life.

As the book starts Tamiko seems to be a hostile, even evil, ghost bent on Luz’s destruction for her own ends, but as Luz learns more about her past and forges a connection with local Jake, the reader receives hints about the mysterious connection between Tamiko and Luz. Okinawa is portrayed in its lush tropical beauty with its proud past, uneasy relationship with Japan and current heavy U.S. military presence.

Like Sarah Bird’s other book about U.S. military family life, The Yokota Officers Club, many details of military life ring true. For example: clothes from the BX are lame (a claim my children have made all their lives), “we’re not racists, but we are rankists,” and military kids have the “CGI ability to constantly splinter and then reconstitute on a spot halfway around the world” and even the claim that “military kids enlisted at birth.”  Like The Yokota Officers Club, Above the East China Sea emphasizes the importance of siblings for children who move every few years and can’t form lasting friendships — “the question that military kids hate the most…Where are you from? Where is your hometown?” Luz says,  “Codie was my hometown.”   She was “my sister who always took care of me” and “the only person on earth who really knew me, who would really, truly care if I vanished.”

Try Above the East China Sea if you like compelling historical novels about young women’s lives in a time of war like Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. I also recommend it for people interested in the lives of contemporary military families, who may also be interested in a recent Association of Library Services to Children blog post about serving military families in the public library.

Check the WRL catalog for Above the East China Sea.

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InheritanceofBeauty

Something happened in Levy, South Carolina when Magnolia was seven years old. She is now in her eighties living in a nursing home, possibly with Alzheimer’s.  In her own words she is “trapped somewhere deep behind my eyes, waving… calling… but no one can hear me.” Her husband George is dying, but with his trademark dry humor, he knows that they have enjoyed a good life and he still adores his beautiful wife “even though [we're] on the first floor where dementia lives, even though we are older than dirt, she is lovely and sweet and she is my bride.” But they are both learning that the past is never lost when people who lived through it are still alive.

When a life-size photograph of Magnolia and Joe, a stranger from their past, arrive at the home on the same day, we start to learn of a tangled web of lives, in the present and in the distant past. Each character, from Annie, their kind, but disappointed caretaker, to Ash, Magnolia’s long lost brother, tells his or her own story, some in the first person, some in the third person. Most of the characters have long buried secrets to hide and may not even admit the truth to themselves, so beware: everyone may not be a reliable narrator.

The Inheritance of Beauty can be read on several different levels. First it is a straightforward novel, with a leisurely revelation of the 70-year-old mystery, while it describes the sadness of families split by terrible circumstances who never get back together because no one wants to be the first to make contact. The characters are well-drawn, memorable and mostly thoroughly likable. It can be enjoyed as a touching love story of Magnolia and George’s relationship that lasted from childhood into old age. It also has touches of magic realism that are harder to spot: when my book club discussed it, only one of us noticed that a journey to a pond and a wetting symbolized a character’s baptism and rebirth.

The Inheritance of Beauty will appeal to lovers of Southern fiction, particularly for caretaker Annie’s lovely speech patterns. It is a good book for readers of Still Alice by Lisa Genova, which also deals with Alzheimer’s Disease, but on more practical everyday level.

Check the WRL catalog for The Inheritance of Beauty.

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SystemLooking at the cover of The System, you see a striking image of college football – an enormous stadium filled with cheering crowds awaiting the contest to begin on that emerald green field.  As you zoom in on that field, that crowd, that contest, the reality gets dirtier and dirtier, until it seems that field is the Astroturf covering the edge of an open grave. Benedict and Keteyian have climbed into that grave, and The System is the report they’ve sent back.

Football has long been the hallmark of college education in the United States. It is the rare institution of higher learning that doesn’t field a team. At the top of that pyramid, where iconic names like Notre Dame, Alabama, and Oregon reside, football is a big part of the college experience, and a successful program can seemingly make or break a school. And it shows in enrollments, donations, and construction.

Benedict and Keteyian seemingly had complete access to every aspect of the schools they covered. Meetings between coaches and players, athletic directors and boosters, students and inquisitors, victors and victims are recounted in incredible detail. And every detail seemed to come down to money.

The contrasts are staggering: a booster can give $185 million to support an entire program, but a player can be sanctioned for a $3.07 (yes, that’s three dollars and seven cents) accidental overpayment on a summer job. Coaches are routinely the highest paid state employees (even before the product endorsement deals and speaking engagements) when teachers, cops, and librarians are losing their jobs and pensions.  T-shirts, jerseys, hats, and memorabilia bring millions in revenues, while student athletes supposedly earn nothing. An athlete accused of criminal activity can get legal advice from top-tier law firms, while their victims must rely on poorly paid prosecutors, and face threats and shaming for jeopardizing the program. And over it all is the mantle of the NCAA, which screams about teams offering cream cheese on bagels but misses the flagrant violations of their arcane regulations.

The authors present each chapter as a story in and of itself, but the overall narrative is connected by the story of Mike Leach, the coach who created the stellar program at Texas Tech, but was fired for his tactics in disciplining a weak player. After an extended absence from football, he was hired by Washington State University, where he once again laid the foundations of a successful program, but also underwent another abuse investigation, in which he was exonerated. From the coach recruitment process to the creation of a team, through the discovery and recruitment of players to the relationship with the school administration, readers see Leach in every aspect of his professional life. We even get a glimpse of the difficulties Leach’s wife Sharon faces as a coach’s wife.

Even for people who don’t care anything about football (and I count myself among their number), The System is a penetrating look at a dominant part of American culture. Whatever you feel about the game, you are sure to come away rethinking your position. There’s a lot that needs to be scrapped, some things that can be fixed, and some profound positives that deserve highlighting. Let’s hope real change can come from the discussion The System ought to start.

Check the WRL catalogue for The System

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spyIt was a cause celebre in France and much of the liberal Western world, a scandal that exposed cultural divisions thought to have resolved years before.  It discredited a government, tarnished the honor of an entire army, and inflamed relations among already-antagonistic neighbors. It elevated some men and broke others.  It brought infamy on an obscure little island off South America, and led to the creation of a new country.  And it was, and is, a drama suited for a novelist such as Robert Harris.  It was the Dreyfus Affair.

Harris begins his telling of the story with the degradation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer who was convicted of espionage and treason.  In it’s immediate aftermath, Georges Picquart is elevated to the decidedly sordid world of French counterespionage. Picquart’s new department had just achieved an astounding success, ferreting out Dreyfus’ plot to sell secrets to the hated Germans, and providing the evidence which convicted him. The antisemitism whipped up by leaders in all areas of French life would cool as Dreyfus was shipped off to serve his life sentence on Devil’s Island, and the Army could return to planning their next attack on Germany.

But Picquart begins uncovering inconsistencies and hidden files, and even more frightening, evidence that there is another spy in the French Army – or that the wrong man was convicted. His efforts to investigate are stymied, until it is plain that something more than a botched trial has happened.  When he is disgraced and transferred to a dangerous colonial post, he becomes convinced that corruption at the heart of his beloved institution now threatens the ideals of France, and he embarks on a dangerous course.

Harris uses all of the staples of the spy thriller to unpack this story. The secret codes, forgery, surveillance, plots and counterplots, paranoia, and red herrings could easily have been created out of whole cloth. But Harris does not deviate from historical accuracy; the drama of the story stems from the inner workings of Georges Picquart’s mind and from his growing conviction that justice and balance must be restored by one courageous person. In the background is his knowledge of Alfred Dreyfus’ plight – the lone prisoner on Devil’s Island, with guards forbidden to speak to him, his tiny hut surrounded by a wall, his every letter censored or withheld at whim, the Dreyfus’ family’s unshakeable faith that his innocence will come to light – and the urgency of freeing the wrongly convicted man.

So how did the Dreyfus Affair accomplish all that I claimed in the first paragraph? It was the openly anti-Semitic fervor of the Catholic Church that led to the definitive separation of Church from the French government. The affair caused several parliamentary governments to fall, and the senior officers of the Army were forced to retire. And for one journalist covering the breaking of Alfred Dreyfus, it led to an inescapable conclusion – for Jews to be safe, they had to have their own home. Thus was born Theodor Herzl’s push for a Zionist movement, which led to the creation of Israel.  All this because a few men decided that it was easier to persecute a Jew than take a few simple steps to solve a real crime.

Check the WRL catalogue for An Officer and a Spy

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crashedI’ve been looking a long time for someone who approached that special place Travis McGee holds in my heart.  John D. MacDonald’s boat bum blasted his way through 21 colorfully-titled stories, taking down bad guys, healing broken women, and judging the modern world through his uniquely moral lens. Timothy Hallinan’s first Junior Bender mystery raises the faint hope that Travis’ successor is alive and well and living in Los Angeles.

Some differences: Trav, off the grid before anyone else had even heard of the term, only went outside the law on one of his salvage missions. Sex, surprisingly delicately described but still steamy, was a big part of his life, though he managed to hold deeper relationships at arm’s length. And his cases were always capped with detailed, though not graphic, violence. Plus, he lived in Florida.

On the other hand, Junior is a career burglar, proud of his spotless record and skill at breaking into any target. Since he lives on the wrong side of the law, he maintains an extensive network of crooks who can supply him or take things off his hands as needed. There are beautiful women around Junior, but he still longs for his former wife and wants to maintain his close relationship with his young daughter. And while Junior is capable of violence, he does his best to minimize it. Like McGee, Junior lives off the grid, but doesn’t have so much as a boat slip, moving through seedy motels and paying cash for everything. And Los Angeles is his beat.

In Trashed, Junior takes a commission to steal a painting. While the job hardly goes smoothly, it gets worse when he escapes. Junior, it seems, has been set up. He’s got two options: let the high-res video of his activities get to the victim, a man known for feeding enemies to his Rottweilers, or take on a quick undercover job for a Mob kingpin. If he fails, it’s a tossup whether the Mob or the Rottweiler guy gets him first. So he takes on the quick job of investigating the crew of an “adult film” to find the saboteur costing the producers tens of thousands of dollars a day.

Tens of thousands a day for a porn movie? This one has a special twist, because it’s going to star an American sweetheart who has fallen on hard times. Child actress Thistle Downing, whose incredible acting skill made her a fortune, lost it all to litigious family, corrupt accountants and lawyers, and a spectacularly bad business decision. Somewhere along the way, Thistle started snorting, popping, injecting, and swallowing every mood-altering substance she could find. Now, at age 22, she’s unemployable, living in a dump and trying to score day to day. Maybe it was one of those days when the producers got her to sign an ironclad contract to do a trilogy of hardcore movies in exchange for a small advance. But someone is taking increasingly desperate measures to stop her. Will it go as far as murder, or will Junior somehow keep her alive? And for what – the ultimate humiliation and the payday that will put her on a slab?

As in any good mystery, Junior must sort through a variety of supporting characters to find out who is on Thistle’s side, how to protect her, and how keep himself alive at the same time. Hallinan navigates him through the web and to a final resolution that puts both Junior and Thistle in front of a camera. Along the way, Junior covers the city of LA from the depths of Hollywood Boulevard to a surprising site atop Mulholland Drive, observing the range of humanity that peoples the city of a million dreams. If he isn’t quite as philosophical as Travis, it’s because the pacing of this story doesn’t give him quite as much leisure to think. He is more thoughtful than Poke Rafferty, Hallinan’s expat American travel writer, but then Hallinan is more thoughtful than most of the mystery writers who can write this kind of fast-paced story.

Check the WRL catalogue for Crashed

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Ayana Mathis’s poignant debut novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is set against the backdrop of the Great Migration during the 1920s, when African Americans began moving in large numbers from the southern United States to the North. The reasons behind the Great Migration of African Americans to the North were twofold: to escape the racial terror of the Jim Crow South and to pursue the supposed better opportunities in the North.

The titular fifteen-year-old Hattie moves from Georgia to Philadelphia in 1923 with her family. Soon thereafter, young Hattie marries a man named August and gives birth to twins. Hattie then loses her newborns in 1925 when she is just seventeen years of age. Hattie’s tragic loss sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

Following the death of her newborn twins, Hattie gives birth to nine more children, but finds neither the time nor the emotional wherewithal to outwardly express love for them. Hattie feels that it is more prudent to withhold her love so as to prepare her children for a world that will not love them.

The tragic cycle of life continues as Hattie’s children go on to suffer tragedies and hardships of their own, at least in part due to the emotional absence of their mother and the sometimes physical absence of their father. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie prompts us to think about the ways in which our parents affect who we become.

The novel also asks us to consider the effects of the Great Migration on African Americans and the ways in which the promise of a better life in the North became for many, to borrow a phrase from Langston Hughes, a “dream deferred.” For Hattie, the promise of a free and more prosperous North seems to die along with her twins Philadelphia and Jubilee. Hattie struggles with an unfaithful and disappointing husband and finds herself and her family in dire financial straits.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is organized unlike any novel I have read prior in that each chapter focuses on one or more of Hattie’s children (the last chapter focuses on a grandchild), at different points in their lives. Each chapter could stand alone as its own short story and only occasionally will characters reappear in later chapters.

I enjoyed the uniqueness of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie; the various “stories” kept my interest. Admittedly, I found myself wanting to know more about certain characters in the book after their chapters had ended; and I was left questioning what happens to Hattie’s last child Ella after Hattie makes a heart-breaking decision regarding her future.

Hattie’s children include Floyd, a traveling musician with a “wild” lifestyle and a burdensome secret. Six is an angry young man who reluctantly embarks on a preaching tour of sorts after a traumatic childhood accident seems to leave him with some divine gifts. Bell, resentful of her mother’s ways, enacts revenge against Hattie that will leave you shaking your head.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is an important book that explores race, class, gender, sexuality, war, religion, mental illness, addiction, disability, and more. Although full of heaviness and heartbreak, there are moments of hope, humor, and levity that help to break up some of the harder stuff. All in all, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a satisfying read. I look forward to reading more works from the promising Ayana Mathis.

Check the WRL Catalog for The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is also available as a Gab Bag

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http://contentcafe2.btol.com/ContentCafe/jacket.aspx?UserID=EBSWL87077&Password=CC38621&Return=1&Type=L&Value=9781781162644Stephen King has been particularly prolific in the last several years, putting out one or more novels annually. As a relatively new Stephen King fan, I had to check out 2013’s Joyland, King’s second novel after 2005’s The Colorado Kid for the Hard Case Crime imprint. As usual, King was full of surprises.

I was expecting a rather straightforward murder mystery, but found myself consumed by something larger — an often sweet, sometimes weepy coming-of-age story whose characters have stayed with me long after finishing the book. I didn’t expect to be so touched, but of course, this is Stephen King so I should have anticipated the unexpected.

Devin Jones is a broke 21-year-old college student who takes a job at a carnival in North Carolina during the summer of 1973. As Devin gets to know the colorful regulars who work at the park, he learns of the tragedy that happened some four years earlier. A young woman named Linda Gray had been killed in the park’s Horror House, a haunted house ride. Ms. Gray had been thrown onto the ride’s tracks by an unidentified man. Carnival employees claim that they see Gray’s ghost, at various times, hanging around the Horror House. Devin is intrigued by the story and embarks on an investigation to uncover Linda Gray’s killer, who may still be alive and lurking around.

This is the set-up for the book; however, the most intriguing parts of the story, the real meat of the book, had very little to do with the Linda Gray murder mystery. Rather, the most intriguing parts of the story had more to do with Devin’s journey to adulthood. You see, Devin Jones is nursing a broken heart. Still pining for his college sweetheart who dumped him – a woman who no longer has feelings for him, if she ever did – the Linda Gray murder mystery provides Devin with a welcome, albeit disturbing, distraction.

Along the way, Devin meets Mike (an outgoing young boy who is dying from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy) and Annie (young Mike’s reclusive mother who may be hiding some kind of secret). While Mike’s enthusiasm for squeezing the most out of a life that is slipping away prompts the depressive Devin to consider his own life anew, Devin discovers with the thirty-something-year-old Annie a deeper attachment than he’d ever had with the college sweetheart who broke his heart.

Devin’s relationship with Mike and Annie dovetails with the Linda Gray murder mystery in interesting ways. Even so, the murder mystery itself is almost pushed to the background until the very end of the novel. That’s okay though, because what we grow to care most about is Devin’s relationship with Mike and Annie and Devin’s growth as a person.

The power of Joyland the novel derives, in part, from its strong sense of place. Joyland the carnival feels so real because Stephen King immerses you – the reader of Joyland — in the language of “carnies” (carnival workers). For example, “wearing the fur” means donning the costume of the park’s mascot Howie the Happy Hound and entertaining the visiting kids, an act Devin becomes intimately familiar with. And a “conie” is an unsuspecting visitor, one who can be easily conned or manipulated.

Joyland is a tearjerker, so get the tissues ready. Joyland is also oddly uplifting, and the pay-off at the end is well worth the ride. If you’d prefer to check out the audiobook version of Joyland, don’t hesitate, because Michael Kelly does an excellent job of narration.

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doigWhen we last saw Morrie Morgan in Butte Montana, he had turned down a job with Anaconda Copper and instead was working at the town library and becoming increasingly caught up in union activities and in the life of Grace Faraday, a miner’s widow who runs a boarding house. See Andrew’s review of Work Song for more details. Now a year and a bit has past, and Morrie and Grace are wed and coming back to Butte from their honeymoon.

While on that trip, Grace and Morrie received word that Morrie’s former boss, Samuel Sandison, “cattle king turned vigilante turned bookman turned city librarian,” has deeded the pair his mansion, only Sandison comes with it. In other news, Morrie’s job as assistant librarian has fallen victim to budget cuts, and relations between Anaconda and the miners’ union have continued to deteriorate. The job part is eased somewhat when Morrie takes a position as editorial writer for the new union paper, the only one not controlled by the copper company. With a team that includes a longtime newsman, one of Morrie’s students from his early days as a teacher in Butte, and a bunch of newsboys from the reform school, Morrie leads the charge against Anaconda.

In all of his fiction, Doig writes with great sympathy about characters that he clearly loves. That is nowhere more clear than here in his portraits of the miners and their supporters, the newspaper men and women, and the townsfolk of Butte. So if you have an interest in western history, the labor movement, newspapers, or just an affection for great characters and lovely writing you will find something of interest here. Make sure to add Sweet Thunder to your summer reading list. After all, any book that ends up with the hero being named city librarian is worth a read.

Check the WRL catalog for Sweet Thunder

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stuckDensely illustrated and narrated, Stuck Rubber Baby follows the life of Toland Polk, a white carpenter’s son living deep in the restless South during the 1960s. The story is introduced by the modern day Toland, who is gently amused as he recounts this stormy portion of his life. The ’60s were a time of electrifying change, both social and political, and it was an exhilarating time to be coming of age.

Toland has a deep love of music, which leads him to hang out at bars with other people from town around his age, black and white, male and female. Without really consciously intending to, Toland gets drawn into the fight for Civil Rights in his town, compelled by his friendships and his rejection of the inequality woven into the fabric of daily life in the South.

But Toland has a secret. His entire life he has known that he is attracted to men, but he also realizes how homosexuals get treated. He endeavors to either hide or convert his feelings if possible. He meets a girl named Ginger, who is even more forceful in her support of integration, and is able to nurture enough of a crush on her to start dating. The story draws an intricate parallel between society’s rejection of blacks and gays. Toland knows he’s lucky that he can appear to be part of the majority by putting up a false face and having a relationship with a woman, but his black friends don’t have that luxury. Those friends of his who are both black and gay face exponentially more animosity.

The adult Toland is unflinchingly honest about his past experiences. He knows how his battles against his personal demons caused him to be insincere to those around him, but he also realizes that he was forced into many of those deceptions by the expectations of a society that could not, would not accept him as he was. The story brings in a wide cast of characters as people come in and out of Toland’s life and shies away from caricatures. This makes for a rich world that believably portrays a turbulent time in our recent history without stooping to lecture or browbeat.

Recommended for readers of graphic novels, historical novels, and social history.

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signatureAlma Whittaker is born into a life of privilege just outside of Philadelphia, PA in 1800. Her mother is a wealthy, practical, highly educated Dutch woman. Her father is an uneducated, unrefined Englishman who rose from poverty to become one of the wealthiest men in the United States. Together they raise Alma as a highly educated, practical, scientific, and lonely woman. Both fiercely independent in her thinking and loyal to her family, Alma continues in the family trade of botany with her own unique focus of studying mosses. Alma doesn’t sound too interesting, does she? Don’t be deceived.

Alma both anchors and drives The Signature of All Things and as a reader I was vested in her well-being. However, this book is so much more. It is a book about science and faith. It is a glimpse at history in England and the United States in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is a fascinating travelogue of Tahiti and adventurous ocean voyages. It is a story of how the world can change so quickly and so slowly all at the same time. It is a story about love, grief, and personal growth. It is a story that is well worth the time to read and moves so swiftly you’ll wonder how you breezed through 499 pages (or listened to 18 discs) so quickly.  I’ll admit that in the middle of the book the plot took a turn that I didn’t expect, and I almost quit reading. I wondered how anything could possibly be resolved in a satisfactory way. But if you persevere, it will all come together, just have a little faith.

Juliet Stevenson narrates the audio version of The Signature of All Things, and her narration brings to life the myriad of characters with authenticity. The characters had distinct voices, and the animation in her voice made you feel like you were right in the midst of the vigorous debates that take place in the novel. I loved her accents and especially appreciated how well she brought the men to life without making them sound too feminine or artificial. Whether you read or listen to The Signature of All Things it will be an experience that you are sure to enjoy.

Check the WRL catalog for The Signature of All Things

Check the WRL catalog for The Signature of All Things audiobook on compact discs or downloadable audio.

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danceacademyLike many little girls I took dance class as a child. Dressed up in my pink tutu, tights, and soft leather shoes, I would pirouette around the room until I would collapse in giggles on the floor from dizziness. Dance was a fun way to move around but never blossomed into a desire to be a dancer, plus I never had the passion or natural skill to commit to the endless hours of practice. Nevertheless, I remained fascinated by dancers and their dreams to pursue dance professionally, especially ballet. So when I came across the Australian television show Dance Academy, I had to check it out.

Tara Webster’s first dream is to fly, but since gravity gets in the way she takes up dancing instead, because in the moment dance feels like flying. So at age 16 Tara auditions for and is accepted to the prestigious National Dance Academy in Sydney. Little does she know that her education isn’t just about how to be a ballerina but also how to live away from home, work, love, and bounce back from disappointment. She’ll have to assess her dedication to her craft versus her desire to be a normal teenager.

Tara and her friends love to dance for various reasons and work hard to pursue their dreams. They are also typical teenagers living in a metropolitan city, testing their boundaries and their mettle to be professional dancers. The show includes the requisite girl next door, the bad boy, the catty nemesis, and the rebellious best friend, and they have the experiences of the first crush, first love, and first betrayal. But the show also illustrates the hard work and dedication it takes to succeed in dance, incorporating hours of repetitive practice and the drama of competition. Dance Academy doesn’t rely on profanity or shock tactics to navigate the challenges of adolescence. It’s a show that manages to be wholesome without being saccharine and dramatic without devolving into diabolical soap opera machinations. Enjoy this show with the dancers in your life or enjoy it for being a fun glimpse into the world of a professional dance school.

Check the WRL catalog for Dance Academy

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CallTheMidwifeCall the Midwife is a fascinating mix of social history and medical memoir, as well as a vivid portrait of a time and place, but that description (glowing as it is) hardly does justice to a book that made me laugh out loud one minute and sob in sorrow the next, and even look forward to my commute so I could enter the book’s world and hear what happened next.

Jennifer Worth (known as Jenny) was a young nurse in the 1950s and she became a midwife with a order of nuns in the slums of the East End of London. Her memoir was published in 2002 so, from the distance of five decades she is in a good position to talk about how medicine and the world have changed. Some of the changes are bad, like the breakdown of families that she has seen among poor people in London, but so many things changed for the better, like medical knowledge and standard of living (plumbing for one thing!). When she started as a midwife most births were at home, attended only by a midwife and as a 23-year-old nurse who was often the only professional present. This was a great step up from no antenatal or birth care, which she says was common prior to 1950 for the poor people of London.  If you are squeamish, this may not be the book for you: many births are described in detail. A glossary of medical terms is included at the end to help the uninitiated.

The humor throughout comes from the hijinks of young nurses and foibles of the nuns, several of whom had nursed through World War I. Worth expresses deep sorrow at the devastating conditions of the workhouse or the fourteen-year-old Irish runaway who is manipulated into working as a prostitute. Jennifer Worth is a memoirist who doesn’t put herself at the center of her story, but tells the stories of others who she came to as an outsider: a non-Catholic living with nuns and a middle-class woman among the Cockneys. She always strives to understand their lives on their terms, rather than imposing her views and even creates a 14-page appendix “On the difficulties of writing the Cockney dialect.” Her talent is capturing the diverse characters on the page, and making the reader care about them.

This book should appeal to watchers of Downton Abbey for the historical domestic British connection. For those like to hear about the lives of real and everyday people it will grab readers of Below Stairs, by Margaret Powell; Nella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming; or a new book, Minding the Manor: The Memoir of a 1930s Kitchen Maid, by Mollie Moran. I also recommend it for anyone who is interested in memoir, medical history, women’s lives or social problems.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife on CD read wonderfully by Nicola Barber.

I haven’t had a chance to view the BBC series adapted from the book, but it has great reviews, so it is on my list. Check the WRL catalog for the BBC adaptation of Call the Midwife.

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East of EdenI’m a big fan of John Steinbeck. He’s a great blend of philosophical content, strong storytelling, intriguing characters, and an awareness of the effect of the natural world on people. He’s a great and important novelist, with all that implies, but he’s also still entertaining to read. Until recently, my list of favorite Steinbeck would have been 1) Cannery Row; 2) Of Mice and Men; and 3) The Grapes of Wrath. Now I have a new favorite: East of Eden.

East of Eden re-tells the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, but moves the action to California. It starts in Connecticut just after the Civil War, where young Adam Trask goes through a difficult childhood with a domineering father and a violent brother. He eventually marries Cathy, a woman whom he wrongly idealizes. Something isn’t right in Cathy–a modern person would call her a psychopath.

Adam takes Cathy, against her desire, to northern California’s Salinas Valley. There she gives birth to twins, Cal and Aron, but then deserts the family and assumes a much different life, working in and ultimately running a brothel. His fantasy marriage obliterated, Adam flounders, but is ultimately saved by contacts with a neighboring family, the Hamiltons, and particularly with Lee, a Chinese-born man of high intelligence who hides behind a facade of the stereotypes people want to see in a Chinaman. The boys grow up, at first believing their mother dead, then each slowly discovering the family history in their own ways. Cal is the stand-in for Cain, and Aron is Steinbeck’s Abel.

That’s enough plot. Ultimately, one can overstate the allegorical nature of this story. It’s certainly there, but one could enjoy the book without knowing the bible story. Steinbeck adds additional elements to the tale, but is more sympathetic to Cal and his struggle to do good things than he is to Adam or Aron and their sometimes unconsidered idealism. The result is an epic moral tale, but a fun book too, with elements of romance, suspense, and humor.

I loved the characters in this novel, especially the neighboring patriarch and inventor Sam Hamilton and the slyly wise servant Lee, who becomes such an important part of the Trask family. Cal’s internal struggle is fascinating, and even Cathy, for all her evil, becomes something different to a modern reader, an intelligent woman trapped in a world made for men.

Another strong point here is Steinbeck’s love for the natural world of California. It shines through in his writing, even as he recognizes that the natural world can be cruel.

The library owns two film versions of this story as well, both entertaining, but neither quite as good as the book. The 1955 James Dean film is a classic, and still great fun to watch, but it condenses the story somewhat to make it fit into the length of a feature film. There’s also a 1981 miniseries, which does cover the entire book, if less vividly.

Check the WRL catalog for East of Eden

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JeevesReading PG Wodehouse’s original Wooster and Jeeves stories is like eating a lemon meringue pie – underneath some light, fluffy, insubstantial sweetness, there’s a hint of acid which livens the palate.  So it is with Sebastian Faulks’s homage to Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells – with the exception of a couple of eggshells in the meringue.

This isn’t the first such recreation Faulks has had a hand in.  I wrote earlier (FSM, has it been five years?!) about his Devil May Care, a James Bond adventure that went straight back to Ian Fleming’s original style and sensibility.  This time around he approaches, with proper reverence, the world of a comic genius and nails the breezy tones that Wodehouse seemingly cast off without thinking.

For those who aren’t familiar with the original stories, they revolve around Bertie Wooster, scion of a family whose bank accounts have thrived as their gene pool has evaporated.  Bertie is a decent chap, though, with lots of time and few demands placed on him.  He spends much of that time evading the matrimonial clutches of the various women of his circle, or helping his friends slip up to the altar despite the disapproval of their parents and guardians.

Wooster’s gentleman’s gentleman is the unflappable Jeeves, the very model of a discreet servant.  Jeeves is also a master practitioner of psychology, and it is he who guides Wooster’s madcap schemes to their inevitable happy endings.  With marriage averted or achieved, angry aunts soothed, and some truculent old man reduced to a buffoon, Wooster and Jeeves blithely return to Bertie’s London home for tea, cocktails, and dining at the Drones Club.

Wooster is surrounded by similar young men with surnames so sophisticated and schoolnames so childish they become a mockery of privileged genealogy – Cyril Bassington-Bassington, “Catsmeat” Potter Pirbright, Gussie Fink-Nottle, and Bingo Little are the usual suspects.  In Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Peregrine “Woody” Beeching is the stymied lover, and Wooster must plot to help him conquer the hand of his beloved, Amelia Hackwood.  Being a young though gifted lawyer, Woody has more prospects than assets, thus earning the disapproval of Amelia’s father.  At the same time, Amelia’s best friend Georgiana is Sir Henry Hackwood’s ward, and the impecunious baronet wants to marry her off to a wealthy man who might save the family manse, a circumstance that renders Bertie unaccountably jealous.

Due to unforeseen circumstances (and Wooster always encounters circumstances unforeseen), he and Jeeves must reverse roles at a country weekend with the Hackwoods.  Jeeves takes up the part of one Lord Etringham while Bertie becomes his manservant Wilberforce.  Too bad Bertie has never polished a pair of shoes, boiled a shirtfront, or served from the left.  Added to Bertie’s attempts to convince Amelia that Woody is faithful to her, his efforts to drive the wealthy suitor from Georgiana’s side, and to raise a cricket eleven for Sir Henry, it is small wonder that Bertie collapses into his servants’ quarters each night.  As always, Bertie’s plotting goes delightfully astray, Jeeves saves the day, and in this story accomplishes a little more than the reader expects.

Wodehouse somehow created a timeless feel to his stories, a kind of eternal English summer where the fields were planted, the trees in bloom, young lovers gazed adoringly into each others’ eyes, and the most damage the aristocracy could do was to the furnishings at their clubs.  There are cars, telephones and telegrams, jazz and  flashy theater which all signify the Roaring Twenties, but a kind of self-satisfied innocence that predates August 1914.  It seems to me that Wodehouse deliberately avoided bringing events from the outside world into the eggshell that encompasses his stories.  Faulks makes a couple of historical references that crack that shell and momentarily turn Wodehouse’s tartness into bitterness, but steers the rest of the story back to the bucolic.  All in all, Faulks does a masterful job bringing Wooster and Jeeves back to life for one final spin in the old two-seater.

Check the WRL catalogue for Jeeves and the Wedding Bells

And for a masterfully done light comic television series featuring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, check out the PBS show Jeeves and Wooster

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hardyIn Ten Years in the Tub Nick Hornby mentioned a number of books that sounded like ones that I would like. First on that list was Claire Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy. WRL had a copy, so I took it home and dove in. While Hardy is known to most readers as a great novelist, I am more partial to his poems. In either case, readers will come away from Tomalin’s superb book with a better understanding of Hardy’s life and writing.

It is always interesting to see how much a writer’s personal life is evidenced in his or her fiction. Tomalin does an excellent job of pointing out both how Hardy’s relationships with his family, his friends, and his geographic circumstances not only informed his writing, but sometimes appeared directly in the stories and poems. It is often the case when reading a biography of an artist whose work you enjoy that you run the risk of disappointment in their personal life. Does it really matter to your enjoyment of his writing that Hardy and his wife had a difficult relationship, and that he was hardly blameless for their problems? I think that the further away in time that you get from the person the easier it is to separate out the personal and the artistic lives. So for me, the revelations about Hardy’s prickly personality set the poems and novels in a new context, but did not reduce my pleasure in them.

Thomas Hardy’s life and his creative work were both shaped by the Dorset countryside that he loved. Tomalin is an excellent biographer of place as well as of person and she leaves the reader with a clear picture of the villages, farms, and wild places that Hardy enjoyed. She also easily kept my attention from wandering throughout a long (Hardy lived from 1840 to 1928) and character-filled story. Anyone who loves Hardy’s novels or poetry, or who is interested in the writing life, will find a great deal to enjoy in this delightful biography. As a sample, here is how Tomalin ends her book:

[Hardy's poems] remind us that he was a fiddler’s son, with music in his blood and bone, who danced to his father’s playing before he learnt to write. This is how I like to think of him, a boy dancing on the stone cottage floor, outside time, oblivious, ecstatic, with his future greatness as unimaginable as the sorrows that came with it.

Check the WRL catalog for Thomas Hardy

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levA few months ago, on the recommendation of a friend, I read The Magicians. After finishing it, I picked up the sequel, The Magician King. This book picks up immediately after the previous story ends, although you don’t necessarily need read the first book to follow the second one. In The Magician King magic is real, but mostly kept hidden, at least on Earth. That sounds like the world of Harry Potter, but it is not. For starters, the characters in The Magician King are much edgier, and the dark places Harry Potter characters delve into are shallow in comparison to where this book goes. This is modern fantasy fiction, set in the present day, featuring 21st century people.

Here, author Lev Grossman revisits many of the main characters from his earlier novel, including protagonist Quentin, his Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy classmates Eliot and Janet, and his public high school friend Julia. The author also centers this book on the world of Fillory, a delightful land written about in a series of children’s books that any reader familiar with C S. Lewis will recognize as Narnia-esque. It turns out Fillory exists; you just need to know how to get there. Quentin and his friends have found out how. In fact, as The Magician King begins Quentin, Eliot, Janet, and Julia are the royalty of Fillory. Keep in mind that Fillory is to Narnia as Brakebills is to Hogwarts, which is to say, both of the former places are much less safe, secure, and pleasant than the latter locations. Fillory is not as idyllic as it seems on the surface. There is turmoil, terror, and evil with which to contend. In Fillory, quests are a part of life. Quentin recognizes and embraces this fact and is determined to discover and pursue his quest to the end.

I hesitate to give more away about the plot, since this is a book that is enhanced with each turn of the page. The basic story is simple: A man has a worthy quest and follows it to its conclusion. Grossman takes that simple thesis and forces the reader through some scary, unappealing, and challenging machinations. His characters are both flawed and powerful and the combination has serious consequences.

The Magician King also provides the reader with numerous underlying philosophical, or perhaps metaphysical, questions about power, life, elitism, what is important, love, death, and responsibility. These topics are not directly explored, but are, nevertheless, present throughout the story. A reader can try to grapple with them or simply set them aside.

Grossman has written The Magician King in an engaging and fluid manner. At times I put the book down because the story was a little too intense for my mood. But, I always picked it up again. Pieces of this book are haunting, other portions are illuminating. Either way, reading The Magician King is a kind of dark magic all it own.

Check the WRL catalog for The Magician King

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Jacket (1)I’ve written before about a Civil War novel that explores the effects war has on the survivors, but from the Confederate point of view. Although “nostalgia” knows no faction, race, or even gender, authors can explore how time and place affect the treatment sufferers face. Dennis McFarland has chosen to focus on the experiences of a Union private. In doing so, he brings to life such diverse topics as military hospitals, baseball in the Civil War era, and the sacrifices made by one man for the wounded veterans of the Army of the Potomac.

Summerfield Hayes is nineteen years old when he enlists in the Union Army. It is Christmas 1863, and the casualty lists have reflected the appalling toll—after battle deaths at Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Chickamauga and countless others, and losses from disease, there is no false sense of glory. Summerfield’s sister Sarah is distraught when he makes his announcement. The two have relied on each other since the deaths of their parents three years before and are closer than most brothers and sisters. She isn’t the only one unhappy with his enlistment. Summerfield is a star player for the Eckford Club base ball team in that championship year, and the team’s fans want him to continue his pitching and hitting for the club. But Summerfield is disturbed by the way his home life is progressing and determines that enlisting is the only cure.

Within five months of his enlistment, Summerfield is cast into the Battle of the Wilderness, a chaotic clash that marked the first battle between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. The dense woods and narrow roads did not allow large units to maneuver, so the battle devolved into a never-ending series of hand-to-hand clashes. Many of the wounded were lost when the woods caught fire and they could not escape. Comrades were separated and wound up fighting alongside strangers. Summerfield endures the battle but wakes up to find himself alone and wounded, his last memory of a man on horseback ordering him left behind. He stumbles through the woods in search of help but wakes a second time in a military hospital outside Washington. The hell of battle is replaced by the hell of bodies destroyed in every conceivable way, suffering men treated with varying levels of competence and compassion.

Worst of all, no one seems to know who Summerfield is—he is unable to speak, unable to hold pencil and paper. Every attempt to make him speak fails and aggravates his wounds. He has many torments, but few consolations—one is the soldier in the bunk next to his, but who suffers from Soldier’s Disease in addition to his amputated arm. Another is a grey-bearded man who visits him almost daily, reading to him from Dickens, talking to him, and caring for him when the nurses can’t. As Summerfield heads to a crisis—what will the medical staff do with him when he’s cured, will he be treated as a deserter?–the old man becomes his advocate and comforter.

From vivid descriptions of camp life and battle and of New York’s bucolic urbanity, to Summerfield’s internal struggles with his battle injuries, to the way base ball was played—no limit on pitches!—McFarland brings 1864 to life. Innocence sits alongside experience, and compassion goes hand in hand with cruelty, but few people have the clarity to tell which is which.  McFarland does a wonderful job of making that a universal and timeless struggle.

Check the WRL catalog for Nostalgia

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