Category Archives: what’s on your bedside table

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 Book: THE LEISURE SEEKER by Michael Zadoorian

leisureTwo senior citizens hit the road for a last hurrah. She has cancer. He has Alzheimer’s. They’ve been married almost sixty years. They’re sharing a Leisure Seeker Van, and a lot of memories.

She packed the slide carousels featuring their lives, and a gun. He didn’t pack enough clean underwear, because he doesn’t care about hygiene much anymore. In fact, he’s having a hard time remembering her name, although he always calls her the love of his life.

This book made me laugh and cry. There is little dignity in American aging, but then again, dignity is where you find it. Like when a flat tire strands our two seniors alongside a deserted road, and the two men who approach them with a tire iron aren’t there to help. That’s when Ella gets her purse out of the camper and her gun out of the purse, and threatens to blow the boys away if they don’t leave them alone.

That kind of dignity.

Also, there’s the dark humor that Ella can’t drive their 1978 camper, so her dementia-driven husband does. When she forgets to take the keys, he drives away.

Zadoorian writes snappy dialogue and sarcastic sentences with style. They’re short, they’re smart, they’re fun. Sometimes you go from sob to laugh halfway through one.

And there’s the lovely symbolism running through the book of Route 66 versus the highway, and how they choose convenience or high life, or adventure over convenience, as we have all been doing all of our lives.

The ending is inevitable. Trigger warnings may apply. If you live life on your terms, that includes how you decide to go out. Disneyland may be a good destination, but it’s not the final one.

Highly recommended – these characters aren’t just driving the plot; the plot is driving. I loved this book. (Do yourself a favor and DO NOT watch the film. Trust me on this.)

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The Monday Book: THEIR HOUSES by Meredith Sue Willis

their housesI got sent this book as I was leaving the Book Editor position for the Journal of Appalachian Studies. It was a wild ride (the book, although so was being editor).

Wells sets up a bizarre but plausible set of circumstances, and rides the wild waves from there: an old guy who struck it rich as a conspiracy theory revolutionary wants to reconnect to sisters he knew in childhood. All of them had weird childhoods, in the Jeanette Walls sense. The girls used to build little matchbox houses for their toys and called them “safe houses,” and kept them in a trunk–the same trunk where the younger sister hid drug money she stole from her older sister when she started running them….

That’s partly how the old rich guy got rich, and partly why he has a panic room. And partly why he loves the sisters, particularly the older one, so much. She turns in later years to religion and marries a preacher with a shady past that reaches into the present every now and again, with no complaints from him. (Every character in this novel is complicated, but not deep, is the best way to put it?)

Each chapter in the novel features one of the six main characters, and you will find this featured in the book group questions at its end: how do these different perspectives give the reader any sense of what’s going on inside all this chaos?

Good question. This book is chock full of things that don’t make sense, except, well, contextually they do. If you like Vonnegut, you’ll like Wells. Anything goes. Including the rather satisfying ending.

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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: THE PEARL THAT BROKE ITS SHELL by Nadia Hashimi

pearlIt’s been awhile since I devoured a novel so thoroughly as this one. Hashimi writes in a simple, straightforward way. (And be warned, a couple of times the point of view shifts because the copy editor didn’t catch it.)

The book follows two women, Rahima the young daughter of a drug addict, and her great-aunt Shekiba (maybe a few greats in there) a century earlier. Rahima has only sisters, so by Afghani law she can be turned into a son until she is “too old.” That time comes all too quickly for Rahima, who like two of her sisters is married off to sons of the warlord her father serves (and owes for his opium).

Rahima tries to draw strength from Shekiba’s story, told by her unmarried aunt, who grows increasingly impation with Rahima’s mother when she follows her husband into opium despair. But that’s after several more tragedies pretty much rip out her heart.

Told with not as much sentiment as one might expect, and showing the unique ways in which women can find power in the strangest places, the story parallels Rahima’s brief life as a schoolboy and Shekiba’s man-guarding of the palace harem. (The king couldn’t trust men there, so he got ugly women to do it. Shekiba had been harmed by a fire, before the plague carried off her family. She managed to live independently for a bit, too, before her father’s brothers figured out the land was available. Nothing goes too well after that.)

Although the book is intense in its depictions of violence and toxic masculinity, it also shows the ways in which women work together or gang up against each other to work their will. And it is a gripping read, moving quickly through the action with just the right amount of characterization. Dressed in period clothing and speaking Afghani to one another, you still feel like you know these people. Nothing new here, just the usual family jealousy and economic troubles revealing what’s in people’s hearts.

Hashimi combines words in an interesting way, unique almost. Prosaic yet lyrical, as in this quote: “The human spirit, you know what they say about the human spirit? Is is harder than a rock and more delicate than a flower petal.” And for all the cultural awareness of the work, there are some lovely character moments that transcend setting, as in when someone tells Rashima she must accept her destiny, or naseeb: “The hell with naseeb. Naseeb is what people blame for every thing they can’t fix.”

Heartily recommended.

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The Monday Book: The Last Days of the Sioux Nation.

Jack gets to do the book review this week –

The Last Days of the Sioux Nation – Robert M. Utley

sioux nation

My interest in this subject was sparked by a song. My old singing friend John Watt and I, both from the same small town in Scotland, knew that Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show had played there during its final European tour. He was intrigued enough to do a lot of research and wrote the song.

He discovered that among the performers was a group of Sioux who had been ‘paroled’ from a South Dakota reservation by Cody. I started singing the song a few years ago and when Wendy and I decided to plan a road trip we wanted to include the Black Hills and the Badlands. On that trip we also took in Wounded Knee and the Crazy Horse monument.

More recently we repeated the journey with a couple of Scottish friends and this time added in a visit to Little Big Horn. Along the way, on both trips, we naturally picked up a good few books that filled out our knowledge. In addition, I found an excellent book by the Scottish writer James Hunter called Glencoe and the Indians that added another layer of fascinating hidden history.

Utley’s book is probably the best I’ve come across covering this whole sad period. The period he covers is about ten years around 1890 and takes us from Little Big Horn to after Wounded Knee. His excellent research describes the tensions within the different Sioux sub-divisions as well as the rivalries between the US army and the Department of the Interior. The Sioux were reeling from the many broken promises, particularly around their sacred Black Hills and Badlands. Their final attempt to revive their lost way of life was to embrace the ‘Ghost Dance’ and this was grossly misunderstood by the Federal authorities and particularly the army.

Utley includes a collection of photographs from the period including the main actors as well as notable places such as Wounded Knee creek.

In Hunter’s book he points up the similarities between the experiences of the Sioux and those of the Highlanders who were cleared off their Scottish land. The real irony is that some of those Scots ended up in America and took a leading part in the Sioux clearances!

There’s a well known story that a few of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Sioux left his show in Glasgow and settled there. What we do know is that a popular Glasgow museum recently returned a ghost shirt to the US that they had had in their collection for over one hundred years.

I can thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in this dreadfully sorry period in US history – five stars!

 

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Monday Book – My Song is my Weapon

My Song is my Weapon – Robbie Lieberman (1995)

Reviewed by Jack Beck

Once upon a time (actually about eighteen years ago) Wendy and I were booked to perform at the Orkney Folk Festival off the north coast of Scotland. The festival took place in various venues in Stromness and we were accommodated in a lovely old hotel overlooking the harbor. Not surprisingly the hotel bar was a favorite gathering place late at night after the official concerts and ceilidhs were finished.

stromness-hotel

One night we found ourselves chatting to a young American lassie who said she had published a book we might find interesting! I immediately bought a copy and have now read it for maybe the fifth time –

As a young man in the late 1950s and early 1960s I was developing my left of center political views as well as a strong interest in folk songs. So I was well aware of Pete Seeger, the Weavers, the Almanac Singers, the connections to Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson.

What I didn’t know was what had preceded this in the US and where all these people had in their turn served their apprenticeship, both politically and musically.

my song is

Lieberman’s book was a revelation to me in many ways –

First of all I had no idea how large and popular the US Communist Party was in the 1930s and how well accepted that generally was. Then again, I knew nothing about the ‘popular front’ and was fascinated to see how that had helped generate the ‘folk revival’ of the 1950s and 1960s.

There was much that was familiar too – the ‘redscare’, McCarthyism, the blacklist and so on.

I have to admit that on first reading I found the book pretty dense and hard going. However each time I’ve re-read it I’ve found it not just easier but more enlightening. Each time I find more gems I’d missed before!

I can thoroughly recommend this to anyone with an interest in 1930s US politics, the roots and routes of the 1950s folk revival or all three!

 

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