Category Archives: Reading

October 2009 Books

The Tenderness of Wolves

The Tenderness of Wolves by Steph Penney and  One Thousand White Women – The Journals of May Dodd  by Jim Fergus were our two books for October.  Both take place in areas where white settlers are beginning to establish settlements on land where Native Americans live.  That these books were related in theme made the discussion about the books much richer.   Choosing two related books is something we aim for, but we don’t often succeed.   However, we’re so good that we can find relationships between any two books.  We all agreed that we would recommend both of these books, a rare occurence.

In both books, the main character is a woman who has been committed to an insane asylum because she doesn’t fit into upperclass white society but whoOne Thousand White Women is later released, because a place for her is found outside regular society.  I don’t know how often wayward women were actually committed to asylums, but it seems to be a theme in books we’ve read, including The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox  by Maggie O’FarrellIn both the October books, white women form relationships with Native American men.  There’s a whole genre of romance books devoted to this theme.  I haven’t read any of them, but it seems to have a broad appeal.  These two books were not romance novels, however.  Human society of all kinds was depicted in both books as harsh and violent with some tenderness giving comfort.  White settlements were sometimes seen as oasis, but were often revealed to be less welcoming and more rigid than the Indian societies. Yet, particularly in the May Dodd book, Native American society also had its rules and restrictions that Dodd chafed against.  Additionally, there were some acts of cruelty that were horrifying.

This is from the Author’s Notes of One Thousand White Women – The Journals of May Dodd: “In spite of efforts to convince the reader to the contrary, this book is entirely a work of fiction.  However, the seed that  grew into a novel was sown in the author’s imagination by an actual historical event: in 1854 at a peace conference at Fort Laramie, a prominent Northern Cheyenne chief requested of the U.S. Army authorities the gift of one thousand white women as brides for his young warriors.  Because theirs is a matrilineal society in which all children born belong to their mother’s tribe, this seemed to the Cheyennes to be the perfect means of assimilation into the white man’s world — a terrifying new world that even as early as 1854, the Native Americans clearly recognized held no place for them. Needless to say, the Cheyenne’s request was not well received by the white authorities — the peace conference collapsed, the Cheyennes went home, and of course, the white women did not come.  In this novel they do.”

The Tenderness of Wolves seemed the more realistically realized story of the two and was drawn on a smaller stage with fewer characters and a straightforward plot.   There was a mystery to be solved, a mother’s need to find and save her child and a some relationships to be worked out.

One Thousand White Women seemed cartoonish to me at first, but it was entertaining.  The author seemed to include every type of female stereotype he could find — wild Irish girls, noble black woman, haughty religious woman, prejudiced Southern woman, mannish upper class Englishman and so on.   The Indian characters seemed to be more realistic, although there was less time spent on describing them.  May Dodd was an attractive, smart, almost perfect woman with an independent spirit who had defied her strait-laced family, ran off with a man she loved, had two children with him and who then abandoned her and for her defiance of “normal” behavior was sent to an asylum.  Later, she fell for an Army officer who later turned out to be something of a cad, too.  In the arrangement of white women for American Indian husbands, May Dodd was matched up as the third wife of a chief, Little Wolf, who was a decent man, but May and Little Wolf never became close.

When I was reading this, I thought of the book and the movie Little Big Man about another character who is able to move between different societies and provide a unique perspective.  My family is from South Dakota, moving there in the late 1880s, so I grew up fascinated with pioneer life and those of the Indian tribes who lived in central South Dakota and in the Black Hills.  In One Thousand White Women, Fergus says that the locales are all fictional, but he does write about the Black Hills, an area I am very familiar with.  One of my great grandfathers arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1883, and later settled in Sturgis.  Other relatives lived in the area, too, including my great-aunt Esther Bovee whose family ranch included Bear Butte, a butte mentioned in the book that is a real location.  Their old farm-house is now part of a state park. I’ve climbed Bear Butte twice, once a child.  Signs tell that this is a place sacred to the Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux, and you see medicine flags and bundles tied to bushes and trees.    I took my interest in this area and its people further through my graduate studies in American History at the University of Kansas, specializing in “Trans-Mississippi West,” so I enjoy reading any book about the topic.  Click on Bear Butte to read about this sacred place.  The article also mentions the Bovee family.  By Catherine Sherman.

Below are book reviews.

 

One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus  (paperback)
From Booklist
An American western with a most unusual twist, this is an imaginative fictional account of the participation of May Dodd and others in the controversial “Brides for Indians” program, a clandestine U.S. government^-sponsored program intended to instruct “savages” in the ways of civilization and to assimilate the Indians into white culture through the offspring of these unions. May’s personal journals, loaded with humor and intelligent reflection, describe the adventures of some very colorful white brides (including one black one), their marriages to Cheyenne warriors, and the natural abundance of life on the prairie before the final press of the white man’s civilization. Fergus is gifted in his ability to portray the perceptions and emotions of women. He writes with tremendous insight and sensitivity about the individual community and the political and religious issues of the time, many of which are still relevant today. This book is artistically rendered with meticulous attention to small details that bring to life the daily concerns of a group of hardy souls at a pivotal time in U.S. history.

From Kirkus Reviews:  Long, brisk, charming first novel about an 1875 treaty between Ulysses S. Grant and Little Wolf, chief of the Cheyenne nation, by the sports reporter and author of the memoir A Hunter’s Road (1992). Little Wolf comes to Washington and suggests to President Grant that peace between the Whites and Cheyenne could be established if the Cheyenne were given white women as wives, and that the tribe would agree to raise the children from such unions. The thought of miscegenation naturally enough astounds Grant, but he sees a certain wisdom in trading 1,000 white women for 1,000 horses, and he secretly approves the Brides For Indians treaty. He recruits women from jails, penitentiaries, debtors’ prisons, and mental institutionsoffering full pardons or unconditional release. May Dodd, born to wealth in Chicago in 1850, had left home in her teens and become the mistress of her father’s grain-elevator foreman. Her outraged father had her kidnaped, imprisoning her in a monstrous lunatic asylum. When Grant’s offer arrives, she leaps at it and soon finds herself traveling west with hundreds of white and black would-be brides. All are indentured to the Cheyenne for two years, must produce children, and then will have the option of leaving. May, who keeps the journal we read, marries Little Wolf and lives in a crowded tipi with his two other wives, their children, and an old crone who enforces the rules. Reading about life among the Cheyenne is spellbinding, especially when the women show up the braves at arm-wrestling, foot-racing, bow-shooting, and gambling. Liquor raises its evil head, as it will, and reduces the braves to savagery. But the women recover, go out on the winter kill with their husbands, and accompany them to a trading post where they drive hard bargains and stop the usual cheating of the braves. Eventually, when the cavalry attacks the Cheyenne, mistakenly thinking they’re Crazy Horse’s Sioux, May is killed. An impressive historical, terse, convincing, and affecting.

The Tenderness of Wolves by Steph Penney
From Bookmarks Magazine
Long-listed for the Orange Prize and winner of the Costa Award (formerly Britain’s Whitbread Award), Tenderness of Wolves, Stef Penney’s first novel, has garnered acclaim in Europe and the United States. A screenwriter, Penney casts the harsh Canadian landscape in vivid, cinematic hues while portraying a small society born of isolation, corporate greed, and an unforgiving environment. Although a murder mystery with many plot twists, the novel most successfully reveals complex human desires, motivations, and relationships. Some critics faulted Penney’s “noble savage” stereotypes, cliched dialogue, and unremarkable ending. However, as the Minneapolis Star Tribune notes, “Sometimes the journey is just more interesting than the destination.”

More on “One Thousand White Women” from Barnes and Noble. This site contains several readers’ reviews, which are very mixed from those seeing it as a fascinating picture of life in the West among American Indians to others finding the book cliched and cartoonish.

THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES (Simon & Schuster, $25),  Marilyn Stasio, New York Times. 

This first novel that won the Costa (formerly the Whitbread) Award for Stef Penney, initially presents itself as a claustrophobic 19th-century murder mystery, set in the dead of winter and confined to Dove River, an isolated European settlement on the edge of the Canadian frontier. Or so it seems when Penney’s narrator, Mrs. Ross, one of the settlement’s hardy pioneers, discovers the scalped corpse of a local fur trader. But when her 17-year-old son, Francis, disappears on the same day, the novel abandons its whodunit component and expands into a more ambitious form. Once Mrs. Ross strikes out in search of her son, “The Tenderness of Wolves” becomes a wilderness adventure with heavy doses of romance and native history, handled in a graceful, almost delicate, style, but strangely devoid of the thrills you’d expect in such a savage place.

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The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson

Stieg Larsson

In February, our book club read The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (translated by Reg Keeland).  Everyone decided that it was “just what we needed.”  We usually read literary works — national book award winners, etc.  But sometimes you just need to read a mystery.  And this is a smart mystery.  We admired the writing, the subject matter and the setting in Sweden as well as the suspense.  It’s a book you can’t put down.  It wasn’t the prefect book, employing some cliched situations, and it certainly wasn’t uplifting, but we couldn’t wait to find out what happened next anyway. We also can’t wait for Larsson’s next two books. Sadly, these two books will also be his last, because he died in 2004.  (Below is a review from the New York Times.)

Here’s what Chris wrote:  I really did like it.  It kept me engrossed; sadism is not, however, something I enjoy reading about.  I hated the ending but it made great sense and any other would have been hokey.  I thought the relationships were well done, especially for a detective/suspense novel.  I’d bought that book for Bill as one of top 100 (crime/suspense) novels I researched on the web and knew he liked that author….he’s reading it now, too late, every night…..

Judy reported: In fact, I’ve recommended “Dragon” to several people, including our librarian. It should delight computer nerds. In fact, I found a news report that detailed a similiar action recently. And it’s well written. I found the cadence particularly interesting and concluded it must be a “Swedish thing”.
On another matter I have just read a fascinating paperback which is the original F. Scott Fitzgerald story of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and immediately following I read the screenplay for the movie. Since I have NOT seen the movie the juxtaposition is particularly interesting because the two are so different in tone and content. I  heartily advise reading this book front to back—-not two separate stories weeks or years apart. It shows so graphically what happens when a book or story becomes a movie and, moreover, why some changes are necessary for commercial success. Even to Fitzgerald!                                                                                                                               
Cheers—–

 

 

New York Times review by Michiko Kakutani, published September 30, 2008.

Combine the chilly Swedish backdrop and moody psychodrama of a Bergman movie with the grisly pyrotechnics of a serial-killer thriller, then add an angry punk heroine and a down-on-his-luck investigative journalist, and you have the ingredients of Stieg Larsson’s first novel, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” a huge best seller in the author’s native Sweden, and a sensation in France, Germany and the Netherlands too.

It’s Mr. Larsson’s two protagonists — Carl Mikael Blomkvist, a reporter filling the role of detective, and his sidekick, Lisbeth Salander, a k a the girl with the dragon tattoo — who make this novel more than your run-of-the-mill mystery: they’re both compelling, conflicted, complicated people, idiosyncratic in the extreme, and interesting enough to compensate for the plot mechanics, which seize up as the book nears its unsatisfying conclusion.

Mr. Larsson — who died in 2004, shortly after turning in this novel and two companion volumes — was himself a journalist and a magazine editor, and his knowledge of this world enables him to do a credible job of recounting Blomkvist’s efforts to investigate the two biggest stories of his career: corruption, embezzlement and money laundering on the part of a big-shot Swedish industrialist, and the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl named Harriet, who seemingly vanished without a trace during a family reunion.

At the same time, Mr. Larsson uses his reportorial eye for detail and an instinctive sense of mood to create a noirish picture of Stockholm and a small island community to the north, showing us both the bright, shiny lives of young careerists and older aristos, and a seamy underworld where sexual and financial corruption flourish.

When it comes to explaining the mystery behind Harriet’s disappearance and the big reveal about her family’s secret, however, Mr. Larsson stumbles badly, resorting to every bad cliché from every bad serial-killer movie ever shown on late night TV — a pity since he’s done such a credible job of showing how Blomkvist has been piecing together clues from police files, interviews and old photographs. It’s as if the author had shown us how an intricate jigsaw puzzle had been put together — from border outlines and chunks of the picture, down to the last few missing pieces — only to pull back at the end to show us that the completed puzzle depicts not an interesting photograph or painting, but a garish slasher cartoon.

Blomkvist, we learn, is a disgraced reporter, who — for reasons that become clear only later — has just lost a criminal libel case brought by a Swedish tycoon named Hans-Erik Wennerström. Blomkvist’s magazine is now teetering toward financial ruin, even as Blomkvist himself is pondering how to pay his legal bills.

In steps another prominent industrialist named Henrik Vanger, who makes Blomkvist an offer he can’t refuse: investigate the decades-old case of Vanger’s grand-niece Harriet, who disappeared one autumn day in the 1960s; in return, Vanger will pay Blomkvist handsomely, and he will also provide Blomkvist with some revealing information about Wennerström, who got his start with Vanger’s company many years ago.

Harriet’s disappearance is a variation on one of those locked-room puzzles constructed by mystery writers like Dorothy Sayers. The teenager was last seen on the small island that the Vanger clan calls home one September afternoon in 1966; a spectacular accident involving an oil truck had closed the one bridge to the island for 24 hours, and when family members noticed her absence the following morning, search parties looked for her everywhere: going through every building, chimney and well, scouring every field and cliff, dragging all the spots where she might have drowned.

Vanger is convinced that Harriet was murdered, and that her murderer has been taunting him ever since. Each year, on his birthday, he has received in the mail a pressed flower in a picture frame, the same gift Harriet gave him when she was a child; the flowers always arrive in padded envelopes with no return address.

After studying the available evidence and meeting many members of the Vanger family (many of whom seem to harbor ancient grievances against one another), Blomkvist manages to turn up three new pieces to the Harriet puzzle. To put them together, he enlists the help of Salander, a freelance investigator for a security firm who once investigated Blomkvist himself. Salander, a wraith-thin waif with a ferocious, take-no-prisoners attitude and history of anti-social behavior, seems less like a conventional detective than like a loaded gun, waiting to go off. She and Blomkvist make a very odd pair indeed — picture Angelina Jolie teamed up with a young Robert Redford — but their peculiar chemistry is what fuels this novel, particularly as Mr. Larsson loses control of his messy, increasingly implausible plot.

In fact, it’s clear as the story progresses that Mr. Larsson has no idea how to create a credible villain, for the two people most responsible for Harriet’s disappearance turn out to be patched-together bad guys with none of the malevolent originality of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter or the manipulative perversion of Catherine Tramell in “Basic Instinct.”

It’s the detectives who are the stars of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” and the reader can only hope that Salander and Blomkvist put in return appearances in the two other novels Mr. Larsson completed before his death.

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“Shadow Country,” book for January 2009

Published: April 27, 2008 in the New York Times

In 1898, 42-year-old Edgar J. Watson became a living legend when a book credited him with shooting the outlaw queen Belle Starr nine years earlier. The descendant of a prominent South Carolina family, the legal or common-law husband of five women, the father of possibly 10 children, a leading pioneer on the southwest coast of Florida and a man killed by a large group of his neighbors in 1910, the historical Watson has obsessed Peter Matthiessen for three decades. Between 1990 and 1999, the novels that grew out of that obsession — “Killing Mister Watson,” “Lost Man’s River” and “Bone by Bone” — were first published. In his author’s note to “Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend,” Matthiessen says his initial manuscript ran to more than 1,500 pages, which he was persuaded to trim and split into three books. “Shadow Country” is not a restoration of the original version but a substantial revision and the kind of rendering done in slaughterhouses, a reduction of the trilogy’s 1,300-plus pages to a more easily consumed 900 or so.

“Shadow Country” has three “books” that roughly correspond to the separate novels. Book I begins with a third-person description of Watson’s death and proceeds to the testimony of 12 first-person narrators, many of whom return several times. Except for Watson’s daughter Carrie, who writes a diary, they seem to be reciting their colloquial, digressive and sometimes unreliable memories for an oral historian. Most of these highly engaging tale-tellers are friends, employees, neighbors and relatives who knew Watson from the year — 1894 — when he first came to the region of Florida called the Ten Thousand Islands. They admire his gentlemanly manners and good looks, his hard and innovative work raising a sugar plantation from land that was little more than a mound of shells. They are also taken with his wit. He “looked and acted,” declares a woman named Mamie Smallwood, “like our idea of a hero.” But even his closest acquaintances fear Watson, sometimes for the qualities they admire, more often for his temper, his drinking and his ever present pistol.

Not long after Watson brings his wife and children to their new home at Chatham Bend, the community hears the Belle Starr story. Watson enjoys employing his reputation as a “desperado” to intimidate anyone he considers a competitor, but when a young couple squatting on his land are murdered, Watson’s history (or legend) works against him. The only suspect, he must flee his plantation, returning just for quick visits until, seven years later, he shows up with a new wife and children. Once again his past shadows him: while away from the Everglades, he beat a murder charge through the intervention of powerful friends. Now some relatives and friends shun him. Neighbors move away. Then three of his employees, one a woman, are found dead. Watson can’t prove his innocence, and when he aims his shotgun on his accusers they put 33 slugs into the man some call “bloody Watson.”

While providing smooth segues between speakers to form an essentially linear account of Watson’s rise and fall, Matthiessen uses his multiple narrators to create tantalizing ambiguities, not so much about the justice of Watson’s death or even about the facts of his life but about the contradictory attitudes of the poor “crackers” and mixed-bloods who called him “Emperor Watson.” Mamie Smallwood and her husband argue about Watson’s true nature; Mamie’s three brothers have shifting views of the enigmatic stranger. Add the Harden family and Watson’s relatives, along with the sheriff supposedly investigating him, and Matthiessen’s presentation of conflicting race, class, clan and personal loyalties is masterly.

With its historical and legendary uncertainties, this first book is a deeper South “Absalom, Absalom!,” possibly even an hommage. Like Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen, Watson is a red-haired, grand-planning outlander who creates a plantation from nothing, then carelessly destroys it and at least one of his sons. From boyhood, Watson carried around a history of ancient Greece. In Book I, the far-flung shadow of hubris is revealed by a chorus of individual voices. To the tragic dignity of Faulkner’s novel, Matthiessen adds the ironic indignity of seeing Emperor Watson’s body buried and his life recounted by the laboring folk that he, like Sutpen, dominated.

Matthiessen cut about a hundred pages from “Killing Mister Watson,” some of them unnecessary fake news items. “Lost Man’s River” has been reduced by 300 pages, many of them first-person narrations, so Book II of “Shadow Country” is much more conventionally plotted — the story of Lucius Watson’s obsessive quest for the truth about his father. A Ph.D. in history who travels the South in the late 1920s doing archival research and conducting interviews, Lucius joins up with his long-lost half brother, Rob. These two resemble the Harvard boys, Quentin Compson and Shreve McCannon, who try to put together the Sutpen puzzle. Lucius manages to get answers to some questions: Did Watson kill those two squatters? Did he murder black cane cutters he couldn’t pay? Was Watson shot first (and appropriately) by the mulatto Henry Short? When Matthiessen occasionally allows Lucius to “record” the old folks, Book II has the down-home authority and vernacular appeal of Book I. But too often this third-person narrative of the educated Lucius’ search for his father reads like the educated author’s research for his book.

At the end of Book II, Lucius breaks free from his past and his biographical project. But Matthiessen does not. In Book III he burrows farther back by imagining Watson’s own account of his whole life, which runs about the same number of pages as “Bone by Bone.” Because Watson narrates right up to the moment of his death and because he reads or refers to poems he was unlikely to have known, this final book feels like a literary contrivance. Since his “autobiography” isn’t a deposition — or any other kind of document — that Watson could use to deceive an audience, we can presumably trust his account of the facts, if not his interpretations and rationalizations. We learn that Watson was severely beaten as a boy and thinks he suffered brain damage because he has, you see, this split personality: Edgar, the family man, and Jack, the raging killer. It’s hard to know if it’s Watson or Matthiessen who makes Watson into a case study of pathology, a victim of child abuse. Either way, it’s a diminishment.

For readers who want all the earlier dots connected, the chronological back story offered by Book III — with its Reconstruction youth, Western adventures and North Florida misadventures — will be a welcome resolution. But as in Book II, Matthiessen often includes history lessons, presumably from research, that neither Watson the man nor Watson the fictional character would have needed to provide. And Matthiessen’s dead man talking sounds, unfortunately, like the sententious and oblivious Thomas Sutpen. Faulkner knew better than to let Sutpen tell almost half of “Absalom, Absalom!,” but that’s the share Watson gets in “Shadow Country.”

Watson lived in a massive swamp bordered by numerous islands. “Killing Mister Watson” and “Lost Man’s River” were appropriately tangled archipelagoes of fact-based storytelling. By reducing his Watson materials to one volume, Matthiessen has sacrificed qualities that gave those novels their powerful reinforcing illusions of authenticity and artlessness. Book I still has that Ten Thousand Islands quality, but “Shadow Country” as a whole is like the Tamiami Trail that crosses the Everglades. It offers a quicker and easier passage through the swamp, but fewer shades and shadows.

 

Tom LeClair has just finished the third novel in a trilogy. The first two are “Passing Off” and “Passing On.”

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Discussion about “American Lightning”

Terror, Mystery, Movie-making, and the Crime of the Century" by Howard Blum                                        What makes a book good?  That’s one of the questions we asked at book club last night (after we’d asked about what was on the menu at Yia Yia’s.)  We’ve asked this same question throughout the more than twenty years I’ve been in this book club, and I’m sure it was one of the first questions at the very first meeting years before I joined.  We’re still trying to decide.

Sometimes the majority of us really dislike a book and would never recommend it, yet the book provoked the best discussions.  Does that make the book good in some way?

The discussion was particularly lively over “American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, Movie-making, and the Crime of the Century” by Howard Blum.  Some didn’t like it because it read like a series of wikipedia entries for a variety of topics — labor unions versus capital, early detectives, D.W. Griffith and the birth of Hollywood, California politics, development, terrorism and bombings, Clarence Darrow, the beginning of media relations, socialism, journalism, the battle for water in California – a huge range of topics that still resonate today.   I liked the book because it combined so many fascinating topics between two covers (or, in Linda’s case, in one Kindle download.)  As a history student and journalist, this book focused on several of my interests.  I’m also interested in California history, because my grandparents moved there in the 1920s — and then moved back to the Black Hills of South Dakota because there was no water in California.  But I agree that the book wasn’t lyrical. 

We all appreciate a beautiful turn of phrase, a sensation evoked, a personality plumbed, relationships and motives examined.  We’ll forgive a lack of plot if we get to know and care about the characters.  One book that really moved me was Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain,” while strangely the movie did not.  The language in the book was achingly beautiful.  Frazier created words out of the ether and the soil and fashioned them into emotions, dreams and knowledge.  We found his second book “Thirteen Moons” just as beautifully written but without the soul of the first.

We usually read fiction  — contemporary literature.  Still, some nonfiction books have really moved us, such as “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Another nonfiction book I really liked was “Einstein” by Walter Isaacson.  Some of the fiction books we’ve read have been so hauntingly written they are more heart-breaking than reading the news, such as “March” by Geraldine Brooks.  

A terrifying book we read that I could never recommend to anyone is “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy.  I wouldn’t want anyone to have nightmares the way I did.  It was one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. I couldn’t put it down.  This is a recommendation of a sort.  But you have been warned!

Perhaps this is what some book club members meant when they didn’t find “American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, Movie-making, and the Crime of the Century” compelling.  There were many tragedies in the story, but perhaps we were too detached.   Still, I was very glad to have read it.  I definitely wanted to find out “who dunnit” and what happened to them.  I’m definitely interested in reading more about the subjects covered in the book. 

Jacki says that when she reads nonfiction like “American Lightning,” her “imagination brings the characters to life and they become as real to me as emotionally enhanced characters in fiction.  Maybe that’s why I like to occasionally read history and nonfiction.”

We decided last night we needed a rubric to help us to evaluate the books we read — a list of criteria that we can pass along to anyone who asks “Read any good books lately?”  We’ve read plenty of Pulitzer Prize winners and National Book Award winners that fell far short of our idea of a good book.  Why were they chosen?  What we were looking for that the winning books failed to fulfill? 

 Here’s a start:

  • Thought-provoking
  • Inspiring
  • Amusing
  • Lyrical
  • Provides Knowledge

Any more ideas? Cathy

Below is a review from the New York Times

Published: November 21, 2008

In the early-morning hours of Oct. 1, 1910, a huge explosion rocked the headquarters of The Los Angeles Times, killing 21 people and leaving the building in ruins. It soon became apparent that this was the work of a bomber, not the result of a match struck carelessly near leaking gas, and a national manhunt began. What followed — the arrests, the trial, the confessions — would grab headlines intermittently before sliding into the memory hole of history.

The more sensational press accounts from that era portrayed the bombing as “the crime of the century,” even though the century still had 90 years to run. Since that time, authors and headline writers have claimed this title for a host of other crimes (and trials) — think of Leopold and Loeb, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro boys, the Lindbergh baby kidnapper, Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, the Manson family, the Watergate crowd and O. J. Simpson. “American Lightning” is the latest entry in this bloated field, and Howard Blum, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, isn’t shy about stretching the relevance of his story. The 1910 bombing was a watershed event in our nation’s history, he insists, with dire consequences for the 20th century and a dark warning for the 21st.

Blum tells the story through the intersecting lives of three characters: Billy Burns, the detective who tracked down the bombers; Clarence Darrow, the lawyer who defended them; and D. W. Griffith, the filmmaker who had assisted the detective on an earlier murder case. Burns had built his career in the United States Secret Service, battling mobsters and corrupt politicians. By 1910, the year he formed his own detective agency, he was already a legend in the popular press, which called him “the American Sherlock Holmes.”With a knack for solving mysteries that baffled lesser men, Burns was hired by the mayor of Los Angeles to find the culprits.

The motive for the bombing seemed apparent from the start. The Los Angeles Times was a “fiercely conservative” newspaper, Blum says, and its publisher, an “unpleasant mountain of a man” named Harrison Gray Otis, had vowed to turn Los Angeles into “a bustling, nonunion metropolis.” Employing his army of detectives, Burns traced the conspiracy, as well as other terrorist acts, to the Indianapolis headquarters of the Structural Iron Workers union and its secretary-treasurer, John J. McNamara, whose accomplices included his brother Jim.

Business leaders praised Burns for saving capitalism from the clutches of ­working-class thuggery.

Even former President Theodore Roosevelt, who had fought hard to break up big corporations, congratulated the detective for his “signal service” to the nation. But the union movement rushed to the McNamara brothers’ defense. “I have investigated the whole case,” said Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor. “Burns has lied!” Some went further, maintaining that the charges, if true, showed the desperation of working people in the face of capitalist greed: “Justifiable dynamiting,” the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens cried. With aid from the growing Socialist Party, organized labor raised the war chest needed to give the McNamara brothers the finest defense. Enter Clarence Darrow.

Blum spends more time on Darrow’s romantic failings than on his courtroom successes, though he does note that Darrow had previously defended labor leaders accused of violent acts. What made the Los Angeles case different, he adds, was the prosecution’s airtight case: the evidence against the McNamaras was overwhelming. So Darrow, attorney for the common man, seems to have taken part in a conspiracy to pay off a potential juror.

(Charged with bribery after the trial, Darrow won himself an acquittal by delivering one of the more disingenuous summations of his career.) Meanwhile, Billy Burns was busily using the latest technology to illegally bug the jailhouse conversations of the defendants. In the end, the brothers pleaded guilty to murder in return for long sentences that spared their lives. Burns emerged as the hero, Darrow the beaten man. The blustering Harrison Gray Otis saw it all as further proof of organized labor’s villainy. Poor Samuel Gom­pers ran for cover, claiming to “have been cruelly deceived.”

And what of D. W. Griffith? In Blum’s hands he remains a transient figure, shoehorned into the story, one suspects, to tie the McNamara trial to the sexy culture of Hollywood. We learn a bit about Griffith’s moviemaking skills, his sympathy for the downtrodden and his influence on an awful two-reel film about the McNamara case, “A Martyr to His Cause,” which, Blum admits, had little “relation to reality.” But we also learn about Griffith’s weakness for teenage girls, especially the actress Mary Pickford, whose relationship with the filmmaker is described in turgid detail. (“D. W. . . . had left Mary seething with emotion. . . . His thoughts remained unarticulated, yet they were a torment.

They pounded through his consciousness with the force of a compulsion.”)

“In the end,” Blum says, “the book I’ve written is more a narrative, an expansive and hopefully dramatic and resonating story about the past, than a historian’s narrow, fact-laden tome.” Fair enough. But the best stories are still the ones that go beyond the nuts-and-bolts narrative, no matter how dramatic, to explore larger meanings and ideas. Although Blum makes repeated claims for the importance of the Los Angeles Times bombing and casually compares it to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he adds no historical bedrock to support either assertion. What’s missing from the book is both a feeling for the pulse of every­day life in Los Angeles in 1910 and an understanding of the enormous industrial, technological and demographic changes that had ignited the violent impasse between labor and capital in California, and beyond.

For Americans a century ago, the bombing offered a brief whiff of Armageddon — a society on the brink. This alone makes it a memorable story, one that still begs to be told.

 

David Oshinsky holds the Jack S. Blanton chair in history at the University of Texas and is a distinguished scholar in residence at New York University.

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Ghostwalk, the book for December 2008

ghostwalk


Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. British historian Stott makes a stunning debut with this hypnotic and intelligent thriller, the first fiction release of a new Random House imprint. The mysterious drowning death of Elizabeth Vogelsang, a Cambridge University scholar who was almost finished writing a controversial biography of Isaac Newton, leads her son, Cameron Brown, to recruit Lydia Brooke, his former lover, to complete the book. That request plunges Brooke into probing two ostensibly separate series of murders: one in the 17th century claimed the lives of several who stood between Newton and the fellowship he needed to continue his studies at Cambridge; the other in the present day appears to target those who have offended a radical animal rights group. Brooke’s work may be haunted by a ghost from Newton’s time who guides her to a radical reinterpretation of the role of alchemy and the supernatural in Newton’s life. Much more than a clever whodunit, this taut, atmospheric novel with its twisty interconnections between past and present will leave readers hoping Stott has many more stories in her future. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From The New Yorker
Drawing on alchemy, neurology, animal-rights activism, and supernatural visitations, this début novel is an ambitious, learned thriller. A Cambridge historian dies under suspicious circumstances, leaving behind the nearly completed manuscript of a book on the alchemical experiments of Isaac Newton. Her son, a research scientist, hires his former lover, Lydia, to finish the book. Meanwhile, a shadowy group of animal-rights activists escalate their violent attacks. As Lydia is drawn further into Newton’s seventeenth-century world, she begins to believe that his ghost is haunting her and, perhaps, directing the murderous events of the present. Stott, a historian of science, deploys her research effortlessly and demonstrates great attention to detail, but the proliferation of themes means that none are explored in much depth. Click here to subscribe to The New Yorker –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Book A Minute

This is our "avatar," which will appear whenever we make a comment.  I was tempted to use Edvard Munch's "The Scream," which is how we feel when we pay $25 for a book (less at Costco and amazon.com) and discover it's terrible, and we can't even pass it along in good conscience!  Cathy

Our blogging friend at www.19thcentury.wordpress.com, a blog about the Victorian era, told us about a website that summarizes a long list of classics in just a minute each!  Go to www.rinkworks.com/bookaminute/classics.shtml.  Okay, so you’ll miss a few details and all of the romantic or dramatic touches.  But think of how much time you’ll save! Cathy

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“American Lightning,” book for November 2008

"American Lightning" by Howard Blum

The book for November 2008 is “American Lightning” by Howard Blum.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In 1911, Iron Workers Union leaders James and Joseph McNamara plea-bargained in exchange for prison sentences instead of death after bombing the offices of the Los Angeles Times—killing 21 people and wounding many more. The bombing had been part of a bungled assault on some 100 American cities. After the McNamaras went to jail, Clarence Darrow, their defense attorney, wound up indicted for attempting to bribe the jury, but won acquittal after a defense staged by the brilliant Earl Rogers. The McNamaras were investigated by William J. Burns—near legendary former Secret Service agent and proprietor of a detective agency. Surprisingly, Burns’s collaborator in the investigation was silent film director D.W. Griffith. This tangled and fascinating tale is the stuff of novels, and Vanity Fair contributing editor Blum (The Brigade) tells it with a novelist’s flair. In an approach reminiscent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Blum paints his characters in all their grandeur and tragedy, making them—and their era—come alive. Blum’s prose is tight, his speculations unfailingly sound and his research extensive—all adding up to an absorbing and masterful true crime narrative. (Sept.) “”
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.”

From Bookmarks Magazine
Most critics were eager to learn more about this neglected event in American history and were glad to have Blum as their teacher. They were most impressed by the first half of the book, which covers the attacks and investigation and which was several times compared to a Hollywood thriller or an episode of the television show 24. Reviewers were less thrilled by the second part of the book, where Blum introduces Darrow and Griffith into the story. Several felt that these great American personalities were presented superficially, perhaps because Blum attempted too great a scope in the book. But on the whole, critics found American Lightning to be a satisfying work of narrative history.
Copyright 2008 Bookmarks Publishing LLC

Review
“An unforgettable tale of murder, deceit, celebrity, media manipulation, and film as propaganda, when the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building exposed the deadly ‘national dynamite plot’ by trade unionists to terrorize America with one-hundred bombings in a doomed attempt to force capitalism to its knees. The relentless pursuit, capture, trial, and punishment of the bombers made a national hero of America’s Sherlock Holmes, master detective Billy Burns, and entangled crusading defense lawyer Clarence Darrow in a reckless, nearly career-ending scheme to bribe witnesses and jurors and throttle justice. Gripping, surprising, often thrilling, American Lightning ranks among the most riveting works of narrative history.”
—James L. Swanson, author of the Edgar Award-winning New York Times bestseller Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase For Lincoln’sKiller

“This is a wonderful story, with a cast of characters out of a Cecil B. DeMille epic, told in a style that is lucid, lyrical, even electric. Narrative history at its very best.”
—Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Founding Brothers and American Creation

“In an approach reminiscent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Blum paints is characters in all their grandeur and tragedy, making them — and their era — come alive. Blum’s prose is tight, his speculations unfailingly sound and his research extensive — all adding up to an absorbing and masterful true crime narrative.”
Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

“The author’s eye for scene-setting and subtle explication perfectly mimics a Griffith-style camera. Blum is at his best when exploring the motivations, the genius and the deep flaws of his three principals, men who occupied the same room only once in their lives, but who are memorably linked in this book. Unfailingly entertaining.”
Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

“In American Lightning Howard Blum brings to life the tragic bombing of the Los Angeles Times in l910. Writing with narrative verve and finely-honed detective instincts, Blum fleshes out the real story behind this hideous act of domestic terrorism. Highly recommended!”
—Douglas Brinkley, New York Times bestselling author of The Great Deluge and Tour of Duty and Professor of History, Rice University
 
“Howard Blum has given us a fascinating–and hugely entertaining–glimpse into early 20th-century America. The burgeoning labor movement, the dawn of the movies, bomb-toting anarchists, ‘the crime of the century,’ gimlet-eyed private detectives, Clarence Darrow,  you name it and it’s here. And–eat your hearts out, novelists–it’s all true.”
—John Steele Gordon, author of Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power

“As good a true-crime tale as you could hope to find, well-researched, vivid, irresistible.”
—Andrew Solomon, author of the National Book Award-winning The Noonday Demon

“Howard Blum has performed a literary miracle. He has brought back to vivid and relevant life a forgotten act of terrorism in America’s past — and made it as suspenseful and crowded with unforgettable characters as any novel I have ever read.”
—Thomas Fleming, New York Times bestselling author of The Officers’ Wives, Time and Tide and The Perils of Peace

American Lightning strikes at the soul of Los Angeles the way Ragtime revealed turn-of-the-century New York. Like E. L. Doctorow, Howard Blum has captured a time and a place through masterful manipulation of true events, weaving an intricate tale of class war and intrigue that harks back to an era when L.A. was little more than a pueblo, frontier justice still prevailed and a fabulous cast of real-life characters dragged the future metropolis kicking and screaming into the 20th Century.”
—Dennis McDougal, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA, and the Hidden History of Hollywood and Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the LA Times Dynasty

“Master detective William Burns on one side and famed attorney Clarence Darrow on the other…A riveting account of 20th century homegrown political terrorism.”
Library Journal

Product Description
It was an explosion that reverberated across the country—and into the very heart of early-twentieth-century America. On the morning of October 1, 1910, the walls of the Los Angeles Times Building buckled as a thunderous detonation sent men, machinery, and mortar rocketing into the night air. When at last the wreckage had been sifted and the hospital triage units consulted, twenty-one people were declared dead and dozens more injured. But as it turned out, this was just a prelude to the devastation that was to come.

In American Lightning, acclaimed author Howard Blum masterfully evokes the incredible circumstances that led to the original “crime of the century”—and an aftermath more dramatic than even the crime itself.

With smoke still wafting up from the charred ruins, the city’s mayor reacts with undisguised excitement when he learns of the arrival, only that morning, of America’s greatest detective, William J. Burns, a former Secret Service man who has been likened to Sherlock Holmes. Surely Burns, already world famous for cracking unsolvable crimes and for his elaborate disguises, can run the perpetrators to ground.

Through the work of many months, snowbound stakeouts, and brilliant forensic sleuthing, the great investigator finally identifies the men he believes are responsible for so much destruction. Stunningly, Burns accuses the men—labor activists with an apparent grudge against the Los Angeles Times’s fiercely anti-union owner—of not just one heinous deed but of being part of a terror wave involving hundreds of bombings.

While preparation is laid for America’s highest profile trial ever—and the forces of labor and capital wage hand-to-hand combat in the streets—two other notable figures are swept into the drama: industry-shaping filmmaker D.W. Griffith, who perceives in these events the possibility of great art and who will go on to alchemize his observations into the landmark film The Birth of a Nation; and crusading lawyer Clarence Darrow, committed to lend his eloquence to the defendants, though he will be driven to thoughts of suicide before events have fully played out.

Simultaneously offering the absorbing reading experience of a can’t-put-it-down thriller and the perception-altering resonance of a story whose reverberations continue even today, American Lightning is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction.

About the Author
HOWARD BLUM is the author of eight previous books, including the national bestsellers Wanted!, The Gold of Exodus, and Gangland. Currently a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Blum was also a reporter at the New York Times, where he won numerous journalism awards and was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting.

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Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Jane Austen never goes out of style.  Several new books and movies about her and her books have recently appeared.  To help us sort these out, Arti at Ripple Effects has posted two great articles about two Austen biographies and one Austen biographical novel. One is a biography by Carol Shields, called “Jane Austen,” which I’ve read and enjoyed.  

Arti has also re-posted two articles about Jane Austen’s town of Bath, including many of his own gorgeous photographs of Bath, England. (Link below and on blogroll.)

Our book club read “The Jane Austen Book Club” by Karen Joy Fowler, and I recently saw the movie “Becoming Jane,” which attempts to fill in some of the blanks of Jane Austen’s life.   I’m not alone in confessing that I’ve seen every movie and television adaptation of Austen’s work.   She first published anonymously, but now she’s known and admired worldwide almost two centuries after her death.  She wrote about her own small world, but she speaks to the concerns of everyone, even if they only know her from the screen and not from the printed page.

To read Arti’s articles go to Ripple Effects   Arti’s blog is also on the Blatherblog blogroll. Currently, the Austen articles are at the top of Ripple Effects, but if you come to this late (What are you waiting for? Go there now!) you can use Art’s search box. Also, you can take a poll to vote on which of Austen’s heroines she was most like.  Post a comment here to tell me who your choice.  (I voted for E. D., but don’t that influence you, ha, ha.) Cathy

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“The Little Book”

Here’s a review of “The Little Book” from The Washington Post:  Back to the Future. This is one of our two books for October.

One fun aspect this book for me was that the main character, Wheeler Burden, is descended from Myles Standish, because my sister-in-law Janet is a “nonfiction” descendant of Myles Standish.   The thousands of Standish descendants have kept track of one another by way of elaborate charts.  The author apparently made the protagonist a Standish as a short-hand way of saying he was a blueblood.

Some Americans like to look for our own version of royalty, so they go back to the first settlers or to other famous people.  During political campaigns, geneologists trot out charts proving that one candidate is related to some other famous person or even an opposing candidate, such as the distant cousinship of Barack Obama and Dick Cheney.  We’re all related to one another in some way!  None of this directly pertains to the book except that “The Little Book” is full of relationship entanglements.  You might need a chart. Cathy

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The Story Behind Edgar Sawtelle

This field of a vast crop of sunflowers is a tribute to Henry Lamb, one of the characters in "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle."

This is a book mostly about dogs and their people, but I posted this photograph of this field of a vast crop of sunflowers as a tribute to Henry Lamb, one of the characters in "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle." Lamb's choice of sunflowers as a crop made Lamb unusual in a life he said many described as ordinary. (Also, I thought it was a gorgeous scene when I drove past this field on September 19 near Quapaw, Oklahoma.)

Here is the link to David Wroblewski’s the story behind “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.”  Our book club read this book as our September choice and we unanimously agreed we would recommend it.  Seldom are we all in accord!  Oprah now has decided to jump on our bandwagon and has recommended it for her book club, too.

David Wroblewski’s website is www.davidwroblewski.com, which has biography information and reviews.

David Wroblewski, author of "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle."

David Wroblewski.

 Janet Maslin’s review of the book from the New York Times: Talking to Dogs, Without a Word

 A story about the author in the New York Times: This Summer’s Dog Days Suit One Novelist Fine  It also includes links to other articles.

Oprah copies our book club:  Oprah Makes Her Pick  Cathy

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