Category Archives: Authors

Reading Lolita in Tehran

One of our two books for June 2009 was “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi.  The riots over the election results keeping President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power were happening as we read this book. The passage quoted below from the book struck me as particularly enlightening about Iranian culture.

When reading this book, I thought time and time again of the repression and brutality of George Orwell’s “1984” against anyone who differed from those in power, and that power was maintained by violence and murder.  The revolution was a popular movement against the western-backed Shah, but soon it lead to repression of many of the people who supported it.  Women were greatly and still are suppressed, which is detailed in the book.

I’ve included a news story at the bottom of the post.  It describes funeral and mourning events that were repeated regularly.  People would be killed at these events, and then more mourning demonstrations would be staged to mourn those people. Even more deaths would occur. More funeral demonstrations. More deaths. And so on.

From “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi, copyright 2003, The Gatsby section, Chapter 3.

In this section, Ayatollah Taleghani, a young, very popular, important and also controversial figures of the Iranian Revolution has died.

“Today is the day of mourning! Taleghani has gone to heaven today.” 

Over the next two decades, this particular chant would be used for many others, a symptom of the symbiosis between the revolution’s founders and death.  That was the first time I experienced the desperate, orgiastic pleasure of this form of public mourning; it was the one place where people mingled and touched bodies and shared emotions without restraint or guilt.  There was a wild, sexually flavored frenzy in the air.  Later, when I saw a slogan by Khomeini saying that the Islamic Republic survives through its mourning ceremonies, I could testify to its truth.

Additionally, I enjoyed this book because it gave me a new appreciation and a fresh perspective on books I have read, such as “Lolita,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “The Great Gatsby.”   Cathy

  Wikipedia Description of the Iranian Revolution.

By MICHIKO KAKUTANI (April 15, 2003)

“READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN”

A Memoir in Books

By Azar Nafisi

347 pages. Random House. $23.95.

Azar Nafisi’s remarkable new book, ”Reading Lolita in Tehran,” is a memoir of the author’s life in Iran from the late 70’s to the late 90’s, but it is also many other things.

It is a visceral and often harrowing portrait of the Islamic revolution in that country and its fallout on the day-to-day lives of Ms. Nafisi and her students. It is a thoughtful account of the novels they studied together and the unexpected parallels they drew between those books and their own experiences as women living under the unforgiving rule of the mullahs. And it is, finally, an eloquent brief on the transformative powers of fiction — on the refuge from ideology that art can offer to those living under tyranny, and art’s affirmative and subversive faith in the voice of the individual.

For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Ms. Nafisi, who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University, held a reading group at her house for seven of her former students. In the past, she and her students at the University of Tehran, the Free Islamic University and Allameh Tabatabai University had been attacked by the authorities for many offenses: for not wearing the veil, for not wearing it properly, for refusing to espouse a hard-line ideological stance, for studying decadent Western texts and for embracing the ambiguities and conundrums of fiction. While the members of the group, who came from different religious and political backgrounds, were initially shy about sharing their views and experiences, they gradually came to see their weekly meetings as a kind of sanctuary, as a place where they might share confidences both literary and personal.

Though this might sound to the American reader like some kind of Oprah Winfrey tea party, it quickly becomes clear that for these Iranian women, who had so little freedom in their daily lives, the group provided a rare opportunity to converse freely, to talk and laugh about their relationships with men and to refract their own daily hardships through the prism of classic works of literature.

They soon formed a special bond, Ms. Nafisi recounts, with the works of Nabokov, most notably ”Invitation to a Beheading,” with its lonely, imaginative hero whose originality sets him apart in a society ”where uniformity is not only the norm but also the law,” and ”Lolita,” which Ms. Nafisi reads as a chilling story about ”the confiscation of one individual’s life by another.” Her students’ identification with this Russian émigré’s works, she notes, went deeper than their identification with his themes, to a shared sense of the precariousness of life. ”His novels are shaped around invisible trapdoors, sudden gaps that constantly pull the carpet from under the reader’s feet,” she writes. ”They are filled with mistrust of what we call everyday reality, an acute sense of that reality’s fickleness and frailty.”

She and her students find an analogy between Gatsby’s thwarted efforts to repeat the past and the Iranian revolution, ”which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream,” and they discuss the Jamesian heroines Daisy Miller and Catherine Sloper as women who ”both defy the conventions of their time,” who ”both refuse to be dictated to.”

As for Jane Austen’s characters, Ms. Nafisi writes: ”Austen’s protagonists are private individuals set in public places. Their desire for privacy and reflection is continually being adjusted to their situation within a very small community, which keeps them under its constant scrutiny. The balance between the public and the private is essential to this world.”

Ms. Nafisi and her students themselves discovered — often after being warned, arrested or in some cases beaten and jailed — that there were no boundaries between the public and the private in the Islamic Republic of Iran: the government and its morality police told people what they could read, what they could wear, how they should behave. ”The colors of my head scarf or my father’s tie were symbols of Western decadence and imperialist tendencies,” Ms. Nafisi writes.

”Not wearing a beard, shaking hands with members of the opposite sex, clapping or whistling in public meetings were likewise considered Western and therefore decadent, part of the plot by imperialists to bring down our culture.” She adds that being accused of being Westernized in Iran in the 1980’s could result in years in jail, even execution.

Having grown up in Iran before the mullahs came to power, Ms. Nafisi writes of living in ”two different time zones simultaneously.” She had grown up in a prominent family (her father had been mayor of Tehran; her mother was one of the first six women elected to Parliament, in 1963), she had been educated in Switzerland and England, and she had lived in the United States. She returned to Iran in the late 1970’s, just as the revolution was cresting, and by the time her daughter was born several years later, ”the laws had regressed to what they had been before my grandmother’s time”: the age of marriage was lowered to 9, adultery and prostitution were to be punished by stoning to death, and ”women, under law, were considered to have half the worth of men.”

Unlike her generation, Ms. Nafisi says, her students did not have a past to compare with the present. ”Their memory was of a half-articulated desire, something they had never had. It was this lack, their sense of longing for the ordinary, taken-for-granted aspects of life, that gave their words a certain luminous quality akin to poetry.”

In these pages, Ms. Nafisi, who had been part of the Iranian student movement in her youth, describes watching the revolution gather speed and run amok, and she blames ”the Iranian people and the intellectual elites” for ”helping to replace the Pahlavi dynasty with a far more reactionary and despotic regime.” She describes the purging of faculty members and students at universities and her own realization in the spring of 1981 that she had become irrelevant as a teacher.

Why did Ms. Nafisi stay in Tehran for another decade and a half? In part it was her devotion to her native country, her family and friends; in part it was the devotion of her husband, Bijan Naderi, ”to the idea of home.” In time many of her students also left, one going so far as to have herself smuggled out of the country overland through Turkey. Others stayed on in Iran and became teachers themselves. In this resonant and deeply affecting memoir, Ms. Nafisi pays tribute to all their lives and to the books that sustained them during some of the darkest days of the Iranian cultural revolution

 

Hundreds of Thousands Demonstrate in Iran; Mourn Dead
 
By ALI AKBAR DAREINI and NASSER KARIMI, Associated Press Writers Ali Akbar Dareini And Nasser Karimi, Associated Press Writers  June 18, 2009

TEHRAN, Iran – Hundreds of thousands of protesters wearing black and carrying candles filled the streets of Tehran again Thursday, joining opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi to mourn demonstrators killed in clashes over Iran‘s disputed election.

The massive protest openly defied orders from Iran’s supreme leader, despite a government attempt to placate Mousavi and his supporters by inviting the reformist, and two other candidates who ran against hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to a meeting with the country’s main electoral authority.

Many in the huge crowd carried black candles and lit them as night fell. Others wore green wristbands and carried flowers in mourning as they filed into Imam Khomenei Square, a large plaza in the heart of the capital named for the founder of the Islamic Revolution, witnesses said.

Press TV, an English-language version of Iranian state television designed for foreigners, estimated the crowd at hundreds of thousands and said the people listened to a brief address from Mousavi, who called for calm and self-restraint.

A Mousavi Web site said that the crowed exceeded 1 million.

Independent witnesses said that, based on previous demonstrations at the site, the size of the crowd appeared to be in the hundreds of thousands. Foreign news organizations are barred from reporting on Tehran’s streets.

The demonstrators had marched silently until they arrived at the square, where some chanted “Death to the dictator!” one witness said. Press TV showed protesters making V-for-victory gestures and holding pictures of Mousavi and signs that say “Where’s our Vote?”

A participant told The Associated Press by telephone that the rally stretched for more than three miles (5 kilometers) through downtown Tehran from the square.

Photos posted online showed Mousavi talking through a portable loudspeaker, dressed in a black suit and dark blue shirt as he raised a hand to address the massive crowd. The participant confirmed the authenticity of the images.

He described watching “a sea of people” march across a bridge in a constant stream for three hours.

“I remember one old man talking about how the will of the people has started and no one can stop it,” he added.

The participant and the witnesses spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation.

On their way home, some demonstrators held a candlelit gathering in front of Tehran University, where Mousavi supporters have accused pro-government militia of attacking students in dormitories.

On Monday, hundreds of thousands turned out in a huge procession that recalled the scale of protests during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Seven demonstrators were shot and killed that day by pro-regime militia in the first confirmed deaths during the unrest.

After dark Thursday — as they have done on other nights this week — people went to their roofs and chanted, “Mir Hossein!” in support of Mousavi, and “God is great!”

Ahmadinejad released a largely conciliatory recorded statement on state TV, distancing himself from his past criticism of protesters, whom he has compared to angry soccer fans and “dust.”

“I only addressed those who made riot, set fires and attacked people,” the statement said. “Every single Iranian is valuable. The government is at everyone’s service. We like everyone.”

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has urged the people to pursue their allegations of election fraud within the limits of the cleric-led system. Mousavi and his followers have rejected compromise and pressed their demands for a new vote, flouting the will of a man endowed with virtually limitless powers under Iran’s constitution.

Trying again to satisfy the protesters’ demands, the main electoral authority invited Mousavi and two other candidates who opposed Ahmadinejad to a meeting. Iran‘s al-Alam Arabic television channel said the three candidates would meet with the Guardian Council on Saturday.

The unelected body of 12 clerics and Islamic law experts close to Khamenei has said it was prepared to conduct a limited recount of ballots at sites where candidates claim irregularities.

Mousavi, who has said he won the election, says the Guardian Council supports Ahmadinejad and has demanded an independent investigation, as well as a new election.

The council’s spokesman, Abbasali Khadkhodaei, said Thursday that it received a total of 646 complaints from the three candidates who ran against Ahmadinejad in the June 12 election.

The council provided few other details, but the large number of complaints raised the possibility that even a limited recount could turn into a far larger and messier exercise than the government desires.

The regime has blocked communication channels, such as Web sites and mobile phone networks, to make it more difficult for Mousavi supporters to organize protests. The mobile phone network in Tehran appeared to go down at the start of Thursday’s demonstration, as it has intermittently since shortly after the election results were announced. Text messaging has been blocked almost constantly since Friday.

There have been widespread accusations of nighttime attacks on Mousavi supporters by pro-government militiamen, and protesters attacked a militia building after one rally, but both sides have been restrained, with uniformed police and other security forces standing by as protesters march calmly.

Monday’s massive gathering was followed by three days of marches along main Tehran avenues, presenting one of the gravest threats to Iran‘s complex blend of democracy and religious authority since the system emerged out of the Islamic revolution that brought down Western-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The ruling clerics still command deep public support and are defended by Iran’s most powerful military force — the Revolutionary Guard — as well as a vast network of militias.

But Mousavi’s movement has forced Khamenei into the center of the escalating crisis, questioning his role as the final authority on all critical issues.

The wild card is former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who heads the Assembly of Experts — a cleric-run body that is empowered to choose or dismiss Iran’s supreme leader. Khamenei is Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini‘s successor, and the assembly has never used its power to remove Iran’s highest authority.

Rafsanjani was a fierce critic of Ahmadinejad during the election, but has not publicly backed Mousavi. It is not known whether Mousavi has actively courted Rafsanjani’s support or if they have held talks.

But Iranian TV has shown pictures of Faezeh Hashemi, Rafsanjani’s daughter, speaking to hundreds of Mousavi supporters, carrying pictures of Khomeini.

A group of hard-line students rallied outside the Tehran prosecutor’s office Thursday, accusing Rafsanjani’s daughter and his son, Mahdi, of treason, state radio reported.

Protesters have focused on the results of the balloting rather than challenging the Islamic system of government. But a shift in anger toward Iran’s non-elected theocracy would sharply change the stakes and become a showdown over the foundation of Iran’s system of rule — the almost unlimited authority of the clerics at the top.

The Iranian government directly accused the United States of meddling in the deepening crisis. A statement by state-run Press TV blamed Washington for “intolerable” interference. The report, on Press TV, cited no evidence.

“Despite wide coverage of unrest, foreign media have not been able to provide any evidence on a single violation in the election process,” state radio said.

State TV on Thursday broadcast the purported confession of a man accused of conspiring with U.S. forces in Iraq to bomb targets inside the country.

U.S. officials shrugged off the allegation of interference. President Barack Obama said he shared the world’s “deep concerns” but it was “not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling.”

The two countries severed diplomatic relations after militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran following the Islamic Revolution.

The government has blocked certain Web sites, such as BBC Farsi, Facebook, Twitter and several pro-Mousavi sites that are vital conduits for Iranians to tell the world about protests and violence. Many other sites, including Gmail and Yahoo, were unusually slow and rarely connect.

Mousavi has condemned the blocking of Web sites, saying the government did not tolerate the voice of the opposition.

In a statement, Google Inc.’s video-sharing site, YouTube, reiterated that its guidelines do allow clips depicting violence in Iran because of their journalistic merit. YouTube generally bans clips with graphic or gratuitous violence, but has made exceptions for video with educational, documentary of scientific value.

“The limitations being placed on mainstream media reporting from within Iran make it even more important that citizens in Iran be able to use YouTube to capture their experiences for the world to see,” the company said. “Given the critical role these videos are playing in reporting this story to the world, we are doing our best to leave as many of them up as we can.”

Iranian Press TV said Khamenei would lead the weekly prayers ceremony on Friday. There was no immediate word whether Ahmadinejad would attend, but attends the service whenever Khamenei gives it. Al-Alam said the three presidential candidates also confirmed they would attend.

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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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Book Club List for 2008

american-lightning Every year, Linda compiles a list of the books we’ve read in the previous year, in case our memories and notes are faulty when someone asks, “What have you been reading lately?”

In alphabetical order: (Reviews and descriptions are from various sources.)

  • Almost Moon (Alice Sebold) Explores the complex ties between mothers and daughters, wives and lovers, the meaning of devotion, and the fine line between love and hate.
  • American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, The Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century (Howard Blum) The October 1910 bombing of the offices of the Los Angeles Times, which killed 21 people, seemed to portend that the vicious battle between capital and labor would escalate into the United States’ second civil war. Howard Blum, bestselling author and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, examines the crime and its aftermath from the perspective of three legendary men of the period, each of whom would “permanently transform the nature of American thought, politics, celebrity, and culture.” The first, detective William Burns, led a painstaking investigation that revealed a conspiracy by the Iron Workers Union to set off bombs around the country — the Times was targeted for its fierce anti-labor campaign. The second, famed attorney Clarence Darrow, reluctantly agreed to represent the defendants despite his belief that an acquittal would be impossible; in the low point of a distinguished career, Darrow, seen passing money to an associate who then bribed a juror, was subsequently tried for jury tampering. The third, director D. W. Griffith, had no real connection to the case, but Blum argues that his epic Birth of a Nation was informed by the events in L.A. While he doesn’t provide ample evidence for that assertion, Griffith’s inclusion still seems somehow fitting: Blum’s true-crime drama plays out like an old movie, complete with complex heroes, mustachioed villains, and lusty dames. It doesn’t always read like history, but it is great fun nonetheless. —Barbara Spindel
  • Candy Girl (Diablo Cody) Why would a healthy, college-educated young woman start stripping for a living, when she could work in a nice, clean office?
  • Desert of the Heart (Jane Rule) is a 1964 lesbian-themed novel, which was adapted into the 1985 film, “Desert Hearts.”
  • The Double Bind (Chris Bohjalian)  The idea of the invented self hovers over F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.   Jay Gatsby, we remember, begins an unpromising life as James Gatz and is murdered for a crime he does not commit. Bohjalian, too, is interested in the gray area between hope and delusion, in how people are shaped by the events of their lives and the efforts they make to hold the self inviolable against fate and harm. As Nick Carraway concludes, the past is powerfully present in the future, and Laurel’s investigations into Bobbie Crocker’s life lead her inevitably into her own history. Some readers may reach the end and feel blindsided rather than enlightened, but The Double Bind describes just how circuitous that inescapable journey can be. 
  • Ghostwalk (Rebecca Stott) The mysterious drowning death of Elizabeth Vogelsang, a Cambridge University scholar who was almost finished writing a controversial biography of Isaac Newton.
  • Glass Castle (Jeannette walls) A nonfiction story in which Walls chronicles her upbringing at the hands of eccentric, nomadic parents.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows) This books, told in letters, is the story of an English author living in the shadow of World War II—and embarking on a writing project that will dramatically change hguernsey-societyer life. Unfolding in a series of letters, this enchanting novel introduces readers to the indomitable Juliet Ashton. Through Juliet’s correspondence with her publisher, best friend, and an absorbing cast of characters, readers discover that despite the personal losses she suffered in the Blitz, and author tours sometimes marked by mishaps, nothing can quell her enthusiasm for the written word. One day, she begins a different sort of correspondence, responding to a man who found her name on the flyleaf of a cherished secondhand book. He tells her that his name is Dawsey Adams, a native resident of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands recently liberated from Nazi occupation. Soon Juliet is drawn into Dawsey’s remarkable circle of friends, courageous men and women who formed the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as a cover to protect them from the Germans. With their appetite for good books, and their determination to honor the island’s haunting recent history, this is a community that opens Juliet’s heart and mind in ways she could never have imagined.
  • The Gravedigger’s Daughter (Joyce Carol Oates)  In 1936 the Schwarts, an immigrant family desperate to escape Nazi Germany, settle in a small town in upstate New York, where the father, a former high school teacher, is demeaned by the only job he can get: gravedigger and cemetery caretaker. After local prejudice and the family’s own emotional frailty result in unspeakable tragedy, the gravedigger’s daughter, Rebecca, begins her astonishing pilgrimage into America, an odyssey of erotic risk and imaginative daring, ingenious self-invention, and, in the end, a bittersweet—but very “American”—triumph. “You are born here, they will not hurt you”—so the gravedigger has predicted for his daughter, which will turn out to be true.   In The Gravedigger’s Daughter, Oates has created a masterpiece of domestic yet mythic realism, at once emotionally engaging and intellectually provocative: an intimately observed testimony to the resilience of the individual to set beside such predecessors as The Falls, Blonde, and We Were the Mulvaneys.
  • The House on Fortune Street (Margot Livesey) The book opens multiple perspectives on the life of Dara MacLeod, a young London therapist, partly by paying subtle homage to literary figures and works. The first of four sections follows Keats scholar Sean Wyman: his girlfriend, Abigail, is Dara’s best friend, and the couple lives upstairs from Dara in the titular London house. While Dara tries to coax her boyfriend Edward to move out of the house he shares with his ex-girlfriend and daughter, Sean receives a mysterious letter implying that Abigail is having an affair, and both relationships start to fall apart. The second section, set during Dara’s childhood, is narrated by Dara’s father, who has a strange fascination with Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) and shares Dodgson’s creepy interest in young girls. Dara’s meeting with Edward dominates part three, which mirrors the plot of Jane Eyre, and the final part, reminiscent of Great Expectations, is told mainly from Abigail’s college-era point of view. The pieces cross-reference and fit together seamlessly, with Dara’s fate being revealed by the end of part one and explained in the denouement. Livesey’s use of the classics enriches the narrative, giving Dara a larger-than-life resonance.
  • Last night at the Lobster (Stewart O’Nan) Explores how the closing of one chain restaurant profoundly affects many lives.
  • The Little Book ( Selden Edwards) First-time novelist Selden Edwards here conjures up a light fable about the birth of modernism — a frothy bit of time-travel that makes literal Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return. In this case, we’re given to understand that Edwards’s all-American hero, Frank Standish Burden III, and his father, Frank II, were able to change the course of modern history and culture by traveling back to Vienna during its golden age. With cameos by Freud, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and a host of Viennese luminaries, Edwards compounds his historical conceit by comparing the radical politics and artistic tumult of the fin de siècle to America in the ’60s. Frank III, known to friends as “Wheeler” for his devastating baseball pitch, shows up Zelig-like at all sorts of crucial moments in his own time as well. A hip refusenik in the Bartleby tradition, he walks off the mound at the Harvard-Yale game — one pitch shy of a perfect game; and off the stage at Altamont — he’s also a kick-ass rocker who learned his licks from Buddy Holly himself. But Wheeler, “a stranger in a strange land” wherever he is, rises to greater challenges when he wakes up one day in the past — a past inhabited also by members of his own Boston Brahmin family, who figure greatly into the future of politics and culture. The plot twists can be dizzying, with some weird suggestions of incest, but Edwards’s mythic quest and liberal notions will delight fans of Jack Finney and John Irving. His New Age-y ideas about a “symmetric reality,” “state of flow,” and “life force” serve him well for this improbable romp through time. —Thomas DePietro
  • Martin Dressler (Stephen Milhouse) Martin Dressler is a turn of the last century New York City entrepreneur who begins in his father’s cigar store, but creates a much bigger empire.
  • Out Stealing Horses (Per Peterson) Trond Sander, a man nearing 70, dwelling in self-imposed exile at the eastern edge of Norway in a primitive cabin, deals with his complicated past.the-little-book
  • Song Yet Sung (James McBride) Escaped slaves, free blacks, slave-catchers and plantation owners weave a tangled web of intrigue and deceit.
  • On Chesil Beach  (Ian McEwan) The year is 1962. Florence, the daughter of a successful businessman and an aloof Oxford academic, is a talented violinist. She dreams of a career on the concert stage and of the perfect life she will create with Edward, the earnest young history student she met by chance and who unexpectedly wooed her and won her heart. Edward grew up in the country on the outskirts of Oxford where his father, the headmaster of the local school, struggled to keep the household together and his mother, brain-damaged from an accident, drifted in a world of her own. Edward’s native intelligence, coupled with a longing to experience the excitement and intellectual fervour of the city, had taken him to University College in London. Falling in love with the accomplished, shy and sensitive Florence – and having his affections returned with equal intensity – has utterly changed his life.Their marriage, they believe, will bring them happiness, the confidence and the freedom to fulfill their true destinies. The glowing promise of the future, however, cannot totally mask their worries about the wedding night. Edward, who has had little experience with women, frets about his sexual prowess. Florence’s anxieties run deeper: she is overcome by conflicting emotions and a fear of the moment she will surrender herself.From the precise and intimate depiction of two young lovers eager to rise above the hurts and confusion of the past, to the story of how their unexpressed misunderstandings and fears shape the rest of their lives,  the novel shows us how the entire course of a life can be changed – by a gesture not made or a word not spoken.
  • The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (David Wroblewski) explores the deep and ancient alliance between humans and dogs, and the power of fate through one boy’s epic journey into the wild.Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar’s lifelong companion. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar’s uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelle’s once-peaceful home. When Edgar’s father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm – and into Edgar’s mother’s affections.Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father’s death, but his plan backfires, spectacularly. Edgar flees into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm. He comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him. But his need to face his father’s murderer, and his devotion to the Sawtelle dogs, turn Edgar ever homeward.Wroblewski is a master storyteller, and his breathtaking scenes – the elemental north woods, the sweep of seasons, an iconic American barn, a ghost made of falling rain – create a family saga that is at once a brilliantly inventive retelling of Hamlet, an exploration of the limits of language, and a compulsively readable modern classic.ghostwalk
  • The Story of Lucy Gault (William Trevor)is set in provincial Ireland in the early 1920s at the height of the civil turmoil and anti-English violence.  Everhard Gault, a retired Anglo-Irish army captain married to an Englishwoman, shoots and wounds one of  the boys who has come in the night to set their house on fire.This act sets in motion a chain of events that has serious consequences for the Gault family.  Convinced that their attackers will return, Everard and Heloise plan to leave Ireland. Their daughter Lucy, heartbroken at the idea, runs away.  When some of her clothes are found by the sea shore, her parents assume she has drowned.  In their grief, they decide to travel, losing touch entirely with Ireland.They are unaware that Lucy didn’t die, but has lived out the years waiting for their return, unable to forgive herself for her recklessness.
  •  Three Cups of Tea (Greg Mortenson)   Some failures lead to phenomenal successes, and this American nurse’s unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain, is one of them. Dangerously ill when he finished his climb in 1993, Mortenson was sheltered for seven weeks by the small Pakistani village of Korphe; in return, he promised to build the impoverished town’s first school, a project that grew into the Central Asia Institute, which has since constructed more than 50 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Coauthor Relin recounts Mortenson’s efforts in fascinating detail, presenting compelling portraits of the village elders, con artists, philanthropists, mujahideen, Taliban officials, ambitious school girls and upright Muslims Mortenson met along the way. As the book moves into the post-9/11 world, Mortenson and Relin argue that the United States must fight Islamic extremism in the region through collaborative efforts to alleviate poverty and improve access to education, especially for girls. Captivating and suspenseful, with engrossing accounts of both hostilities and unlikely friendships, this book will win many readers’ hearts.
  • Thunderstruck (Erik Larson)   Larson’s new suspense-spiked history links Guglielmo Marconi, a developer of wireless telegraphy, with Hawley Crippen, a mild-mannered homeopathic doctor in turn-of-the-last-century London. While Larson tells their stories side by side, most listeners will struggle to find a reason for connecting the two men other than that both lived around the same time. Only near the end does the logic behind the intertwining of the stories become apparent and the tale gain speed. At this point, the chief inspector of Scotland Yard sets out after Crippen on a transatlantic chase, spurred by the suspicion that he committed a gruesome murder. Larson’s account of the iconoclastic Marconi’s quest to prove his new technology is less than engaging and Crippen’s life before the manhunt was tame. Without a very compelling cast to entertain during Larson’s slow, careful buildup, many listeners may not make it to the breathless final third of the book when it finally come alive.

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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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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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