Archive for January 26th, 2010

Book Reviews: Massachusetts Troublemakers by Paul Della Vale

Author: Paul Della Valle
Title: Massachusetts Troublemakers: Rebels, Reformers, and Radicals from the Bay State
Publication Info: Globe Pequot (2009)
ISBN: 0762748508

Summary/Review:

This book was an award given to guides at the end of the 2009 Boston By Foot tour season and made for a fun, interesting read.  The title is a bit misleading as almost every figure mentioned in this book worked for the betterment of society but  as they all veered in some way from societal norms, they were seen as “trouble”.  There are some familiar names in this book such as Samuel Adams, Henry David Thoreau and Robert Gould Shaw.  I also enjoyed learning more about characters familiar to BBF guides if not the general public such as Anne Hutchinson, Isaiah Thomas, and James Michael Curley.  But it was most fascinating to read about people I’d never heard of before such as:

  • Thomas Morton, an early settler who was not at all Puritanical – drinking, carousing and (worst of all) trading with the Indians
  • Deborah Samson, who disguised herself as a man to fight in the Revolution
  • Joseph Palmer, who wore a beard at a time when men were clean-shaven, was persecuted for it, and ended up involved in the transcendentalist and abolitionist movements
  • Margaret Fuller, an extremely talented journalist, activist, and feminist.

The short biographies don’t do justice to these fascinating figures of Bay State history, so fortunately there’s a great list of further reading at the back of the book.


Rating: ***

Book Review: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Author: Nicole Krauss
Title: The History of Love
Publication Info: W.W. Norton & Co. (2006)
ISBN: 0316013684

Summary/Review:

This book tells the interweaving stories of two people.  One an elderly Holocaust survivor Leo Gursky who escaped too late to find that his true love has married another man and is also raising his son. The other is a teenage girl who tries to find meaning in the book her mother is translating which contains the character Alma for whom she is named.  I always fall in the trap of summarizing books when I review them, but I shant do that here.  Frankly I’m not even quite sure what happened in this book.  But I do know that it has some lovely writing with many amazing passages.  If the narrative is complex and disjointed the novel goes straight to the heart at exploring love, loneliness, grief, and the need to connect.
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Author: Sherman Alexie
Title: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Publication Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (2007)
ISBN:0316013684

Summary/Review:

This young adult book tells the coming of age story of Junior, a Spokane Indian growing up on an Indian reservation in Washington.  Growing up  with medical problems and general all-around geekiness he is already an outsider in his community.  Shocked by the limitations for Indians to learn and advance on the reservation, Junior decides to attend high school in a white community nearby.  Junior finds himself becoming an invisible man – hated on the reservation for being an “apple” (red on the outside, white on the inside) and a curiosity among the white teens at his high school.

Junior is a great character and his quick wit as narrator makes this a funny novel.  It’s also heartbreaking as many tragedies – most of them alcohol-related – occur during the short time of the narrative.  It’s surprising to me how harsh Alexie through Junior is in criticizing the Spokane for alcohol abuse and general lack of achievement as well as writing approvingly of white people.  On the other hand, this book does not shy away from the historical and institutional truths that create the reservation and crush hope.   Junior also writes often about his love for Indian culture and his family.  So it’s a nuanced approach paired with the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence.

This is a funny, heartbreaking, eye-opening and well-written novel.  I suspect it’s a good read for teens, but it’s also good for adults.

Recommended books: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Sweden

Author: Henning Mankell
Title: Faceless Killers
Publication Info:  New York : New Press, c1997.
ISBN: 156584341X

Summary/Review:

An elderly couple are brutally murdered in their farmhouse near a provincial Swedish town.  It’s detective Kurt Wallender’s job to solve this crime, but shocking as the murders are, they are secondary (maybe tertiary) to this novel.  The woman’s dying word “foreigner” stirs up the local community against refugees who are pouring into nearby camps.  Violence against the refugees and ultimately another murder make Sweden’s refugee policy (circa 1990) central to this novel as well as providing more crimes for Wallender to solve.

This novel is also a psychological portrait of Wallender.  He’s aging, conservative, his wife has left him, he eats poorly, he drinks too much and he’s somewhat lecherous.  The only thing he’s good at is being a detective and even there he fails to heed the advice of one of his colleagues in the police department.  In short he’s every cliche of a police detective, and yet he comes across as a full-fleshed, complex, and sympathetic character.  He’s reminiscent of a less-whimsical Inspector Morse.

I’m not sure if it’s Mankell or his translator but the writing is very spare and artless.  It is evocative of the cold, open landscape of rural Sweden.  This book is interesting in that through my American eyes I’ve always seen Sweden is very progressive so the controversy and racism regarding refugees was something I was completely unaware of.

I learned of this book from The Hieroglyphic Streets which contains links to other reviews.

Recommended books: Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels.
Rating: ***1/2

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