Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Book Review: One Summer: America 1927

Author and Narrator: Bill Bryson
TitleOne Summer: America 1927
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2013
Other books read by the same author:

Summary/Review:

Bill Bryson’s talent is to delve deep into a subject, find all the minute details, and then tie them together into a bigger story.  For this work, the title explains it all: one summer in the United States when a remarkable number of historical events occurred, many with unexpected connections.

The main feature of this book is Charles Lindbergh and his historic flight from New York to Paris aboard the Spirit of St. Louis.  And then there is the aftermath in which Lindbergh deals with his celebrity, a level of worldwide renown perhaps unprecedented in history.  Other aviators who had hoped to contend for the Orteig Prize, are given their due as well, with descriptions of their less-famous flights (if they managed to get off the ground).

The book is balanced by the story of another hero, Babe Ruth.  In the 1927, Ruth would break his own remarkable single-season home run record and be joined in a race by teammate Lou Gehrig.  In fact, the entire Yankees’ lineup hit so well that they’re forever known as Murderers’ Row and one of the best teams in baseball history.  Bryson cheats a lot, leaving the summer of 1927 to fill in the back stories of Lindbergh and Ruth and other figures, and occasionally even peeking ahead.  But the meat of this book is stories of events from that summer, including:

  • the sensational Snyder-Gray murder trial
  • the apogee of Al Capone’s power as a mob boss
  • the government poisoning alcohol at the behest of Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League
  • the Federal Reserve makes decisions that sow the seeds of the 1929 stock market crash
  • radio comes of age
  • The Jazz Singer ushers in the talkie
  • television created
  • the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti
  • carving of Mount Rushmore begins
  • massive flooding of the Mississippi River
  • the Bath School bombing
  • Henry Ford transitions from the Model T to the Model A
  • The Long Count fight between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey

The whole book is fascinating and full of interesting details of a transitional time in American history.
Rating: ****

 

 

Book Review: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Colombia
Author: Gabriel García Márquez
Title: One Hundred Years of Solitude
Translator: Gregory Rabassa
Narrator: John Lee
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio (2014) (originally published 1967)
ISBN: 9781482939682
Other books read by the same author: Love in the Time of Cholera
Summary/Review:

I always find it difficult to review a book that is a recognized classic.  What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before.  I enjoyed this book a lot, and I was surprised it was so funny (it was meant to be funny, I hope?), at least parts of it.  I also couldn’t keep track of all the characters but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that is not as vital as the story of the town of Macondo itself with its sleepless sickness, civil wars with civil generals (but gruesome executions), and endless rain.  There’s also the books style and use of words and imagery that set it apart from your typical novel.  This novel is also rich in symbolism encapsulating an alternate history of Colombia.

So there you have it, my very short and very dumb review of a classic work of literature.  Here’s all you need to know: read it!
Favorite Passages:

“Fernanda was scandalized that she did not understand the relationship of Catholicism with life but only its relationship with death, as if it were not a religion but a compendium of funeral conventions.”

“Literature was the best plaything that had ever been invented to make fun of people.”

Recommended booksThe House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Book of Ages : the Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore

AuthorJill Lepore
TitleBook of Ages : the Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
Publication Info: Vintage (October 1, 2013)
ISBN: 9780307958341
Books read by the same author:

Summary/Review:

Jill Lepore, one of my favorite historians, addresses the question put forth by Virginia Woolf regarding about Shakespeare’s sister being equally brilliant but lacking the opportunity due to her sex through the history of Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane Franklin Mecom.  Jane was the youngest of the Franklin children, six years younger than Benjamin, and they were very close.  Benjamin recognized Jane’s intelligence and teaches her reading and writing until he leaves Boston at the age of 17.  From that point on the siblings would see one another very infrequently but remain close through correspondence. Jane marries young, has many children, struggles through poverty, and sees many of her children die, but she perserves.   There’s a heart-touching moment in their history when Benjamin brings Jane to Philadelphia to offer her a safe place to live during the Revolutionary Way.  Later, he would pay for a house in the North End of Boston where she would live her final year.

There’s only a small amount of Jane’s writing that survives, her correspondence with Benjamin and some other relatives as well as her Book of Ages where she recorded the births and deaths of family members.  Building on these, Lepore uses the writings of friends and relatives as well as women in similar positions at the time to build the story of Jane Franklin.  As the title states, Lepore also relates Jane’s opinions.  She was more devoutly religious than her brother, and chided him for that, but also relates some interesting perspective on the political debates of the time.  Her descriptions of the battles raging around Boston in April 1775 and fears that the fighting will come into the town are particularly chilling.

This is a brilliant book, which offers a well-sourced history and biography of an everyday woman of 18th-century American woman as well as the contrast of a gifted woman’s lack of opportunity compared to her famed brother.  I highly recommend reading this book.
Favorite Passages:

“Benjamin Franklin fought for his learning, letter by letter, book by book, candle by candle. He valued nothing more. He loved his little sister. He taught her how to write. It was cruel, in its kindness. Because when he left, the lessons ended.”

“The Book of Ages is a book of remembrance. Write this for a memoriall in a booke. She had no portraits of her children, and no gravestones. Nothing remained of them except her memories, and four sheets of foolscap, stitched together. The remains of her remains. The Book of Ages was her archive. Kiss this paper. Behold the historian.”

“Jane’s Book of Devotions was her Book of Ages. Her devotions were prayers that her children might live. And her Book of Virtues was the Bible, indelible. She explained her creed to her brother: ‘I profess to Govern my Life & action by the Rules laid down in the scripture.’  The virtue she valued most was faith. It had no place on Franklin’s list. She placed her trust in Providence. He placed his faith in man.”

“Gage had ‘sent out a party to creep out in the night & Slauter our Dear Brethern for Endevering to defend our own Property,’ Jane reported to her brother. ‘The distress it has ocationed is Past my discription,’ she wrote. ‘The Horror the was in when the Batle Aprochd within Hearing Expecting they would Proceed quite in to town, the comotion the Town was in after the batle ceasd by the Parties coming in bringing in there wounded men causd such an Agetation of minde I beleve none had much sleep, since which we could have no quiet.’ She expected that the colonial militia would march into town and continue the battle in Boston: ‘We under stood our Bretheren without were determined to Disposes the Town of the Regelors.’Instead, the militia surrounded the city.”

“‘Perhaps few Strangers in France have had the good Fortune to be so universally popular,’ he wrote her. ‘This Popularity has occasioned so many Paintings, Busto’s, Medals & Prints to be made of me, and distributed throughout the Kingdom, that my Face is now almost as well known as that of the Moon.’ She wrote back that the likenesses she had seen of him were so many and so different that his face must be ‘as changeable as the moon.'”

“I hope with the Asistance of Such a Nmber of wise men as you are connected with in the Convention you will Gloriously Accomplish, and put a Stop to the nesesity of Dragooning, & Haltering, they are odious means; I had Rather hear of the Swords being beat into Plow-shares, & the Halters used for Cart Roops, if by that means we may be brought to live Peaceably with won a nother.”

“Brown went further, arguing that history’s grossest distortion of reality stems not from its false claims to truth but, instead, from its exclusive interest in the great. In the eighteenth century, history and fiction split. Benjamin Franklin’s life entered the annals of history; lives like his sister’s became the subject of fiction. Histories of great men, novels of little women.”

“Also in 1939: Jane’s house was demolished. In 1856, the 150th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth, the house had even been decorated for the celebration. But so little was known about Jane that the claim that Franklin’s sister had ever lived there was eventually deemed dubious. In 1939, Jane’s brick house was torn down to make room for a memorial to Paul Revere. The house wasn’t in the way of the Revere memorial; it simply blocked a line of sight.  Jane’s house, that is, was demolished to improve the public view of a statue to Paul Revere, inspired by a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Jared Sparks’s roommate.”

Recommended booksA Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson and The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution by Alfred F. Young.
Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: The Race Underground by Doug Most

AuthorDoug Most
Narrator: John H. Mayer
TitleThe Race Underground
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2014
ISBN: 9780553398069
Summary/Review:

This fascinating study documents the race between Boston and New York to be the first city to have underground rapid transit.  Spoiler:  Boston wins the race, but the modest Tremont Street subway would soon be overshadowed by New York City opening an extensive network of subways covering hundreds of miles all at once.  This work includes a lot of tangents into the engineering, technological, and social changes of the late-19th century and early 20th-century in delightful ways.  Most frames the story around two brothers – Henry Melville Whitney of Boston and William Collins Whitney of New York City – who were behind the push for improved transit in their cities, but the stories of many politicians, engineers, financiers, dreamers, and ordinary people amazed (or frightened) by the changing world around them.  The story is not without tragedy as people died building both subways, not to mention a fair amount of corruption, but ultimately this is a triumphant story about the progress of humankind.

Recommended books722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York by Clifton Hood , A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900 by Stephen Puleo, Underneath New York by Harry Granick , Subway Style by New York Transit Museum, Change at Park Street Under: The story of Boston’s subways by Brian J. Cudahy, and Tremont Street Subway A Century of Public Service by Bradley H. Clarke.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Cousin K by Yasmina Khadra

Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Algeria
Author: Yasmina Khadra
Translator: Donald Nicholson-Smith and Alyson Waters
Title: Cousin K
Publication Info: Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 2013
ISBN: 9780803234932
Summary/Review: Yasmina Khadra is the female pen name for the male Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul, which he adopted to avoid censorship of the Algerian army.  His real identity was only revealed when he moved to France in 2001.  This thin, stark novel tells the story of a boy in an Algerian village whose father is killed is a traitor, whose elder brother is often absent with the army, and whose mother is dismissive and neglectful of him.  The titular Cousin K is a girl who comes to visit for the summer who becomes the object of the boy’s affection, but she in turn is cruel and mocks him.  The novel creates a sympathetic portrait of a wounded boy which unravels as he’s grows up with shocking results.

Recommended booksThe Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Rating: ** 1/2

 

Book Review: Life Form by Amélie Nothomb

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Belgium
AuthorAmélie Nothomb
Translator: Alison Anderson
TitleLife Form
Publication Info: Europa Editions (2013)
ISBN: 9781609450885
Summary/Review:

Amélie Nothomb was born in Japan to Belgian parents, lives in Paris, and writes about the United States’ war in Iraq.  That’s the kind of worldliness I like for an Around the World for a Good Book selection.  Nothomb creates a fictional version of herself in this novel (how true-to-life, I do not know) in which she carries on a correspondence with an American soldier in Iraq, Melvin Mapple.  The soldier is aware that Nothomb (the fictional one, at least) responds to letters from her readers and that she may be a sympathetic voice.  Over the course of the letters, Mapple reveals that he and other soldiers react to the war through eating and enormous weight gain.  Mapple sees it as a means of protest, forcing the military to pay for food and increasingly larger clothing.  As the correspondence continues, the absurdity increases so that Mapple’s obesity is treated as an artistic statement.   Nothomb creates in herself an unsympathetic sounding board for the pathetic and grotesque Mapple.  The book works well both as a satire of American foreign policy and obesity problem, but also is a gripping read with a number of interesting twists.  On a literary level it works with the ideas of language and reality.

Recommended booksThe Night Listener by Armistead Maupin, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, and Every Inch of Her by Peter Sheridan
Rating: ***1/2

World Cup of Reading

So, the FIFA World Cup ended over a month ago, but I still used this year’s tournament as inspiration to revive my ongoing Around the World for a Good Book project.  The basic gist is that I’m attempting to read a work of fiction (in English or English translation) from every country in the world.  So far I’ve been able to read literature from more fifty nations, but I’ve stalled out the past couple of years.

My goal for 2014 is to try to read a book for all 32 nations represented in this years World Cup.  Luckily, countries I’ve read abundantly – such as England and the United States – as well as other countries I’ve read for the project were represented in the tournament, so I will only have 12 books to read to complete the field.

Here are the books I’ve read, or plan to read, for the World Cup nations of 2014.  As always, I’m open to suggestions.

 

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