Stewart O’Nan is quite simply one of the best authors writing today. His quiet prose captures ordinary feelings and lifts them up in a light that shows them to be both specific to his characters and universal to the reader.
West of Sunset could be a departure for him; it’s an exploration of the final years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life at a time when this icon of American literature had not yet attained the immortality that came with his creation of Jay Gatsby. (In fact, he was better known for Tender is the Night–and for his outsized lifestyle–than the work most people remember him by.) Brought down by his drinking and reputation he has fallen so far that he is relying on the charitable intervention of Hollywood friends to earn a living. At the same time, his wife Zelda is institutionalized in a North Carolina sanitarium, where her youthful free spirit has metastasized into destructive mental illness. Between the cost of her treatment, their daughter Scottie’s high class Eastern education, and his own profligate ways, Fitzgerald is consumed by worries about money.
There are bright spots in his life: his friendship with Humphrey Bogart (based on a mutual love of drinking and literature–surprise!), his friends Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, and a love affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. But his working life, although it paid more than he was ever to earn from his books, was less rewarding.
O’Nan takes this period and delves into the frustration and pain of a man faced with more troubles than he can surmount. Far from being sheltered by his status (and by an income that exceeded that of nearly all Americans at the time), he knows he is as close to ruin as any Depression-era assembly-line working stiff. But he also finds respite in his own work, and in his desire to be the man Sheilah wants him to be. In essence, O’Nan is still attracted to those ordinary feelings, and with West of Sunset he once again lifts them up to us through the life of a very public man.
Find West of Sunset in the WRL catalog
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Posted in Adventure, Andrew's Picks, Books, Characters, Coming of Age, Historical fiction, Quick read, Readers' advisory, Setting, Westerns, Young Adult on May 26, 2015 |
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Ah, jeez – as with so much else we know, it ain’t so. If Horace Greeley ever said, “Go West, young man,” it was in the context of quoting someone else who said, “Go West, young man,” and that may even have been an attempt to create a Greeley-sounding quote. Whatever the case, for some it was advice many young men had already taken on their own. Among them were the trappers and traders who pushed into the Rocky Mountains to forge relationships or fight with the Native Americans over the lucrative fur business.
In 1820, William Wyeth is determined that he is going to make his fortune in the West and prove to his father that he is a man of worth. He signs on with a trapping company in the frontier town of Saint Louis and heads out under the guidance of an experienced captain. Thus begins his adventure, and it is a wild one.
Wyeth is also coming up against the consequences of the fur trade. The companies he works for are pushing the boundaries of American influence against the settled Spanish and the British and French trappers who have long considered the West theirs for exploitation. With each tense encounter, the possible causes of war increase, and some of Wyeth’s companions would not necessarily mind the consequences. And the success of the trade means that more trappers and traders want to get in on it, so resources are disappearing even as conflicts are building.
Burke takes the tropes of the American Western and turns them into a literary jewel. His beautiful depictions of the landscape, exciting details of hunting, trapping, racing, and close observations of both the white men and the natives he encounters become opportunities for Wyeth’s self-examination on the meaning of manhood. There’s also a satisfying love story, a complex antagonist who helps Wyeth determine his own course, and men who open Wyeth’s eyes to the complexity of the native cultures. Into the Savage Country offers an old-fashioned Western feel and a wonderful coming of age story.
Check the WRL catalog for Into the Savage Country
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The assassination of the Romanovs is re-worked into an exciting period thriller in this series opener by Sam Eastland. The Eye of the Red Tsar is both the title of the book and the nickname for the lead character, a Finn named Pekkala. The novel opens in 1929, eleven years after the death of the Tsar. Pekkala, once Nicholas II’s right-hand man in matters of secrecy and security, has been held in a work camp, kept available to Stalin should the right opportunity present itself. As the book opens, it has: New evidence about that night has come up, and only Pekkala has the inside information to confirm or deny it.
To complicate matters, the man sent to fetch Pekkala from imprisonment is his own estranged brother, a ne’er-do-well now risen in the Soviet bureaucracy. With great reluctance Pekkala is lured to the case, partly by curiosity, partly through the possibility that one of the Romanovs may have survived. But is he just being used to lead Stalin to the Tsar’s never recovered treasure?
It’s a fascinating premise, and Eastland re-creates the atmosphere of the early Stalinist period believably. He alternates between a journey across a strange Russian landscape (one of my favorite bits involved a show town, built to show off the successes of socialism to visitors) and flashbacks to the story of how Pekkala fell out with his brother, came to Tsar Nicholas II’s attention, and then followed him until the fateful night.
Eastland has continued his series through five books to date, following Pekkala’s charmed but difficult life up to WWII times so far. It’s a consistently enjoyable exploration of a time and place in history where one didn’t have to look far for suspenseful twists of fate.
Check the WRL catalog for Eye of the Red Tsar
Or try it as an audiobook on CD
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Posted in Books, Historical Nonfiction, Jan's Picks, Microhistories, Nature writing, Nonfiction, Readers' advisory, Science writing, Setting, Travel on May 7, 2015 |
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Some volcanoes are world famous; everyone has heard of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii in the time of Pliny. Iceland’s volcanoes are less known, although they were in the news a few years ago when unpronounceable Eyjafjallajokull spewed out enough ash to disrupt European air travel for weeks. Eyjafjallajokull may be more present in modern consciousness but it isn’t the only, the largest, or even the most dangerous of Iceland’s many volcanoes. Recently, scientists and historians have been focusing their attention on Iceland’s fissure volcano Laki, which evidence suggests may have disrupted world climate for years after it started erupting in 1783.
Island on Fire’s long subtitle, “The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano the Changed the World” sums up the problem with its history: this eruption occurred in a sparsely populated part of the world before the advent of easy international travel or communication. Nonetheless new research using techniques such as ancient ice cores suggests Laki’s eruption affected the climate all over the world. This lead to crop failures and famine and, depending on how you calculate it, may have killed millions of people. In a long eruption that continued over months Laki spewed out enough toxic gases to poison the entire lower atmosphere, especially over Europe. From all over Europe numerous newspaper accounts from the summer of 1783 report a “dry fog” that made it difficult for people to breathe.
Much of the surviving eyewitness account from Iceland comes from Jón Steingrímsson the ‘fire priest’ who famously gave a sermon while lava was bearing down on his village church. His journal reports unbelievable devastation and destruction, including the horrific symptoms in people and livestock from months of exposure to fluorine gas.
A compelling, if sometimes disturbing read, Island on Fire includes plenty of maps and black and white photos. The interested reader can also find color visuals of Iceland’s wonderful landscape, and the story of Laki’s eruption in the documentary Doomsday Volcanoes. For those interested in volcanoes in general try the documentary series Mega Disasters.
For another fascinating book about the historic effects of a major volcanic eruption try Tambora, by Gillen D’Arcy Wood. And for a gripping teen trilogy about the worldwide effects of an apocalyptic eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano I heartily recommend Ashfall by Mike Mullin.
Check the WRL catalog for Island on Fire.
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Poet Jill Alexander Essbaum transits into the fiction genre with the precision of Swiss clocks and indeed Swiss trains — ushering in a new Madame Bovary, an Anna Karenina for the 21st century. Her name is Anna Benz, and she lives in Zürich with the Swiss banker she met in America.
“It’s not just an adage, it’s an absolute fact: Swiss trains run on time.”
Anna doesn’t know how to drive her family’s car. She barely knows a soul beyond her mother-in-law, three children, and a few acquaintances; she maintains no contact with American relatives. Anna barely speaks German, endures life with no fire of spirit, and performs her duties as spouse and parent through unvaried routine, weekly circuiting her usual shopping points. Following initial bewilderment nine years ago, she has mastery over the intricacies of Zürich’s rail network. The author shows us Anna’s clumsiness occasionally, making her so real. She dresses impeccably, even fashionably— her clothes seem to me like an attempt at self-preservation–yet usually has no place to go, no plans, no one to see.
Anna was a good wife, mostly.
Anna has slipped into infidelity, incapable of suppressing the least suggestion by each man in a series of extramarital trysts. She fails to sever these liaisons against her better wisdom. Erotic reverie is a drug that distracts and pacifies her. The narration gradually reveals Anna’s mind, what she’s read, heard or wonders, her moods, her perception of others’ moods. Essbaum invites us into Anna’s hollow soul where we are initially uncomfortable yet intrigued, appalled yet sorrowed, anxious yet horrified at her inability to accept, embrace, or even experience a life many might feel grateful to live. Clearly, Anna withholds details from her Jungian analyst Doktor Messerli; yet, the reader glimpses truth in Anna’s actions, in a diary entry:
The utter sameness just drags on….I am beholden to my own peculiar irony: to survive I self-destruct….
Anna’s insightful internal voice show her to be intelligent, discerning, never oblivious yet she finds no will to extricate herself. Then, Anna remarkably makes a genuine female friend. Mary represents for Anna an unexpected opportunity to confide in someone trustworthy, to explore possibilities, but does she avail of it?
The accurate phrasing of painful emotions will have many readers relating easily to Anna’s psyche despite the fact that they’ll wish to shake Anna into shaping up and reviving herself from the mess she’s made. I absolutely loved its style of presentation, and its use of Swiss words intrigued me and enhanced the setting. Once you read the end, you realize how exquisitely tuned the poet author has made it and immediately return to the first page and begin it again, with Anna. I look forward to more good things to come from Jill Alexander Essbaum.
Check the WRL catalog for Hausfrau
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Posted in Adventure, Booklists, Books, Characters, Coming of Age, Graphic novel, Laura's Picks, Plot, Quirky characters, Readers' advisory, Sense of place, Setting, Subculture, Superhero, Young Adult on April 9, 2015 |
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Refreshing and reinventing old superheroes has become somewhat fashionable recently, with rather mixed results. Some characters, like Batman, have seen so many iterations that it is difficult to separate them all, or find new ground to cover without being completely repetitive or utterly discarding canon. One good thing that has come out of this trend is the resurrection of old characters that never caught on, but were worthwhile for one reason or another.
The Green Turtle was a World War II superhero with a very limited run. He was created by a cartoonist named Chu Hing, who was one of the first Asian-Americans to enter the American comic book industry, a business with limited diversity, especially back in 1944. Hing obscured the face of his protagonist so that, even if he was not allowed to make his character officially of Chinese descent, there is enough obfuscation for the reader to make their own decision about his heritage.
It is this character that has been brought back to life in The Shadow Hero. Living in Chinatown are two immigrants and their son, Hank. Each parent brings with them shadows of their old life and unfulfilled expectations from their new life. Hank is the reluctant heir to a melting pot of their issues. There certainly isn’t any early indication of his superhero future, as he is quite content to work in his father’s grocery store, nursing the hope to eventually pass it on to his own son someday. But no superhero comes to being without some trauma, and his parent’s legacies eventually, violently, come to alter their offspring’s future in unimagined ways.
Gene Luen Yang, author of the Printz Award winning American Born Chinese, brings a strong sense of time, place, and culture in this story. I don’t think I’ve ever read a superhero story where family and cultural heritage is this central to the creation and continued development of the character. The people surrounding Hank encompass a wide range of types without sinking in to caricature. His mother is especially complicated, being infuriating and relatable in equal measure. Parents want what’s best for their child, but so often their view of what is best is founded on what they perceive to be missing from their own life.
Recommended for readers of graphic novels, superhero stories, and anyone with an interest in stories about family dynamics.
Check the WRL catalog for The Shadow Hero.
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