Category Archives: out of things to read

The Monday Book: THE COST OF COURAGE by Charles Kaiser

The Monday book comes to us courtesy of Paul Garrett this week. Enjoy!

courage Charles Kaiser’s work, The Cost of Courage (Other Press, 2015) focuses on one Parisian family during the occupation of France from 1941-45. Of the six family members, three fought in the resistance but all paid the price.

At the beginning of the occupation, the parents, Jacques and Helene Bulloche are upper middle-class professionals. Their two sons Andre and Robert work for the French government. Their daughters Christiane and Jacqueline are in school. The three youngest children all join the resistance. Andre pays for his decision by being shot, tortured and eventually put in a concentration camp, which he survives.  The two sisters play supporting roles; ferrying messages and contraband weapons around Paris.  As the war draws to a close, their parents and older brother are all arrested and sent to Germany to be tortured (Helene is eventually waterboarded). None of the three survive.

The surviving siblings rarely talked about their experiences. One example to the contrary was when Andre gave his only daughter Agnes chilling advice after she was beaten during a protest march.

“…If you carry a weapon it is always to kill. Do not think it is to defend yourself. If you draw your weapon never get closer than three meters from the person you want to kill, because otherwise he can take your weapon from you.”

Though he had a successful political career after the war, Andre never fully recovered. He always wore a crew cut and black necktie in memory of those who did not survive. He was brutal to his children and filled with rage which he took out on other drivers. Christiane never spoke of her war years until, as an elderly woman, she wrote a 45-page memoir which was part of the genesis of this book. The  work reminds us that often  in war even the winners lose, and the cost of courage is sometimes nearly too much to bear.  This is a great book for anyone interested in the unsung heroes of the war.

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The Monday Netflix Series: Anne with an E

I’m spending time with the parentals while Dad recovers from surgery, so not getting a lot of reading done just now. Which is how I discovered what fun the Netflix series Anne with an E is. anne

Now in season 3, the series is based on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s best-selling classic series Anne of Green Gables–and a thousand other places. Montgomery wrote 11 books about Anne and her family, plus a couple of spin-offs regarding other characters.

The books are so sweet you kinda need to wash your mouth out with dirt afterward. Think Sound of Music without the dancing. The series…. well, it’s been updated. And as much as that word usually signals movement in the opposite direction, upgraded.

Picture the producers’ meeting: we need to get this series into the 21st century while leaving its character in the 1800s. Whadaya got? Desperate to go to lunch, the hapless interns and newbies produce: a gay character who needs to move to the city, an Indian village that causes people to examine their attitudes toward others, child abuse and sexualization handled with more sensitivity than usual, black-white friendship in a rural area, and the emancipation of women before they could vote. They’re handled well, not stuck in to make the series work, but working within the boundaries of the series’ timetable and social mores.

Anne Shirley, the orphan child taken in by accident when a brother-sister duo running a farm decide they need help and can’t afford to hire it,  is the Canadian equivalent of Laura Ingalls Wilder in many ways. The Little House series produced one of my favorite TV land quotes ever. Michael Landon, who played Pa but was also one of the executive producers, was asked once why the series deviated so much into, well, child abuse and women’s rights and black-white friendships, when those weren’t in the books.

His answer was glorious: “There’s a whole chapter in On the Banks of Plum Creek called ‘Laura Catches a Frog.’ You think you can hold an audience with that topic for an hour?”

Anne with an E is charming, true to its time period in background and setting, filled with enough updates to upgrade it well, and a really nice escapist series. Highly recommended.

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The Monday Book: THE CLOTHES ON THEIR BACKS by Linda Grant

grant bookThis book was interesting to me less because of its characters than the conundrum it presented, a morality tale of “who’s the good guy and who do you as reader get to judge?”

Remember when Breaking Bad set everyone to talking about when people go bad versus when they’re just trying to survive? Grant’s novel supposes two brothers from Hungary, one who left before things got bad for Jewish people, one who got caught–in Hungary, and again in England. But caught for what – being Jewish, or being a criminal? It all starts going sideways once one asks that question. So Vivien (the daughter of the older brother) sets out to learn what secrets her parents have hidden under platitudes, and what truths her uncle has hidden under crimes.

Clothing becomes almost its own character in this story, as people struggle between what they were, what they are, and what they want to become, showing their riches and their hopes by what they wear. I’ve never seen such use of fabrics and design, even in some of the trendy movies lately. Fascinating.

And Grant has this interesting writing style – plodding along, telling the story, then flaming into poetry, and back to prosaic, practical writing. Here’s one example, when the uncle is in Harrod’s department store:

Sometimes he would spend a whole day just looking at all the beautiful things he had once owned before he went to prison, and had treated far too lightly, feeling that they were like water that fell through his fingers.

This is a slow, savoring read. Make yourself some tea and settle in.

 

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The Monday Book: The Story of the Tweed

Jack gets to do the book review this week –

The Story Of the Tweed by Herbert Maxwell

I’m not usually all that keen on travel books, but this one intrigued me as it’s about a part of Scotland with which I’m familiar. In fact I was there in June this year with my tour group, as I have been every other year for the last fourteen.

This is a facsimile reprint of a book first published in 1909, but it holds up well and could easily have been written more recently.

Maxwell traces the journey of the river Tweed from its source near Moffat to the North Sea at Berwick. But he takes a good few side turnings to explore the countryside, adjacent towns and other smaller rivers that feed into the Tweed.

river_tweed

The Tweed with the Eildon Hills in the background

Of course this is ‘ballad country’, and Maxwell was clearly well acquainted with many of them – many are quoted, including ‘The Dowie Dens o Yarrow’, ‘True Thomas’, ‘Johnnie Armstrong’ and more. Walter Scott’s famous ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ is the definitive collection and it would seem Maxwell had his own copy!

The writing is excellent, descriptive and humorous. Much of Scotland’s history was played out in this ‘debatable land’ covering the much disputed border with England. Again the author proves himself well up to the task of dissecting and explaining the history as he leads us along. Like most of my generation my schooling included very little Scottish history so it’s through books like this that I’ve had to re-educate myself.

Maxwell is clearly a big fan of Walter Scott, who lived the last part of his life in his mansion beside the Tweed. It’s clear also that he, like Scott was a big supporter of the union of Scotland and England. However I think the reason was more to do with the ending of cross border raids and the establishment of peace than for the economic reasons Scott espoused.

If you can find a copy then I highly recommend this to anyone with connections to the area or with an interest in Scottish history and balladry. Fans of Outlander will also recognize some familiar themes!

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The Monday Book: WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING by Delia Owens

I’d heard good things about this book for some time, and looked forward to reading it.

The short version is, I love the way Owens writes, but didn’t much believe in this novel’scrawdads plot.

The book is about Kya, a girl who raises herself when her mother leaves an abusive husband and one by one the other kids head out from the swampland to make their own lives. Kya doesn’t starve and sorta makes peace with her dad, until he dies, by which time she can more or less cook and make a few dimes here and there with assorted activities.

The local boys know there’s a marsh girl so there’s a few hide and seek scenes, but the nicest and smartest of the boys befriends her, falls in love with her, teaches her to read, and then abandons her in college because he thinks she won’t fit in. But the star athlete at the high school decides to take her on, and she gets taken in.

Kya starts writing books and illustrating them, she gets a little respect, some money, fixes her house, etc. Star athlete winds up dead, Kya gets blamed, she finally gets found innocent. She marries the nice guy who realizes how much he’s misjudged her.

And then years later he learns the truth about whether or not she killed the usurious high school athlete. Not gonna spoil that for you.

The writing is beautiful. The plot is rather Hallmarkian? A 14-year-old boy teaches a wild child to read, and she becomes a published author who goes from selling shells to drawing them and the toast of the academic world of marshes. Okay. Feel-good plot, fine. But I like character-driven books and this one turns on types and tropes.

This book was made to be a movie, so just wait for it. It might even be better as a film, being a very cinematographic plot.

That said (“I didn’t much care for this book”) I will say I’m going to hunt down some of Owens’ other works. She writes so well, maybe some of the other plots are less hokey.

A mixed thumb up/thumb down, in essence, for this bestseller. Lots of people loved it, and it’s really just that I like books where character drives plot. This isn’t one.

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Monday Book – The Rituals of Dinner – Margaret Visser

Jack gets to review the Monday book this week –

dinner

This book is both fascinating and frustrating.

Visser chose a strange way to progress her story, not chronologically as might be expected, but by topics. This results in a good deal of repetition – revisiting the Greeks, Romans, medieval Europeans etc in every chapter. Other reviewers have suggested the book could have been a good deal shorter and more readable and I’m inclined to agree.

On the other hand I found it hard to put down because of all the really interesting stuff scattered throughout. Although her specialty is literature, she is clearly a fine anthropologist as well. There are a good few references to folk motifs that I’m familiar with and was a bit surprised to find in a book about table manners. In fact, although the title suggests a fairly narrow focus, Visser ranges pretty widely around the central subject.

You could be forgiven for expecting this book to be about table manners and how to behave at the dinner table. It actually starts with cannibalism, goes through the development of tables and chairs, covers the invention of forks and spoons, deals with social attitudes in different cultures and a host of other loosely food related matters.

I think what was perhaps a bit startling for me was recognizing familiar dinner table and restaurant situations and for the first time understanding what lay behind them – everything from the placing of a knife (blade towards you and not your neighbor) to signaling the time to change courses.

The final chapter examines present day mores including the fast food culture – reflecting another book – ‘The MacDonaldization of Society’ by George Ritzer, but that’s another story – –

I have some reservations about Visser’s book, but if you don’t mind skimming here and there, it’s still fascinating stuff!

 

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The Monday Book: EDUCATED by Tara Westover

This week’s Monday book comes courtesy of Paul Garrett. Thanks Paul!

educated             Tara Westover’s memoir about growing into adulthood as the daughter of a Mormon fundamentalist is at times remarkable, at times horrifying, and in the end, bittersweet.

Growing up in Idaho one of seven children, her father was a prepper. Along with God, and Joseph Smith, his other hero was Randy Weaver whom he believed (wrongly) was murdered by federal agents at Ruby Ridge. Suspicious of the government and the Illuminati, whom he believes controls the world, he refused to allow his children to have any interaction with the outside. This meant no school, no birth certificates, no immunizations and no doctors, even when his wife and children suffered life threatening injuries working in and around the family scrap yard.

As his paranoia grew, he became more isolated and created vast stockpiles of food, weapons and gasoline in readiness for the apocalypse which he believed was always just around the corner. Of the seven children three, including Tara gathered the courage to seek a college education.

When Tara entered Brigham Young University with little knowledge of the world outside her cloistered circle, it was like landing on another planet. She recounts the time in one of her freshman classes when she raised her hand and innocently asked what the word “holocaust“ meant. She had never heard of it. The other students seemed like aliens. They drank diet soda, wore makeup and tight-fitting clothes, things her father warned were of the devil. They even insisted she wash her hands after going to the bathroom.

The decade she spent pursuing her undergraduate degree at Brigham Young and her graduate studies  (at Harvard and Cambridge) kept her suspended between two worlds; the world of civilization and that of her sadomasochistic tribe of a family that tried incessantly to pull her back into their orbit, where she was gaslit and frequently brutalized by her siblings, and where life threatening injuries, whether severe head trauma or near fatal immolation were welcomed as a gift from God. The cognitive dissonance between her new reality and her old one nearly drove her insane.

The billionaire H.L. Hunt once said of being successful; “Decide what you want, decide what you’ll give up to get it, then get to work.” Tara Westover knew what she wanted and set out to get it. By the end of the book, the cost of what she gave up was still being calculated.

Educated: A memoir by Tara Westover, Random House, NY, 2018

 

 

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