Category Archives: what’s on your bedside table

The Monday Book: NEWS OF OUR LOVED ONES by Abigail DeWitt

newsI met Abigail at this year’s Festival of the Book, where we were both featured authors. She sent me a review copy on request for the Journal of Appalachian Studies, since she’s an author from NC, part of our jurisdiction. I’m the book editor for the Journal, although I am relinquishing the position in 2019. (If you’re a member of ASA and interested, please contact the Journal editor!)

Before passing the book on for review, I gave it a read myself. A novel in the form of multiple short stories among characters tied together by war experiences in France and in America after World War II, Loved Ones tends to focus on the family women. The first story is intense and even violent, not in keeping with the gentler, more measured and internally-exploring tones of the rest. Altogether, they trace from the loss of the family home to why the granddaughter raised in America continues to fixate on tragic events from family history.

Witt uses some lovely poetic language, but it is her women, from a small child to a grandmother, who bring to life the experiences of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. A gentle, breezy quality suffuses her descriptions with a one-step-removed sense of what horrors the stories may encompass or even hide between the lines.

In Mathilde, for instance, a girl is as much in love with the mother of her lad gone for a soldier as she is the boy himself, perhaps even more as the mother notices and returns affection, accompanied by advice in beauty tips and attracting men. Witt’s description of Mathilde as is lovely in itself, the kind of woman almost translucent in her paleness, made of steel beneath the skin.

I enjoyed News of our Loved Ones as a set of short stories, telling the story of one family and its scattered members, primarily because of Witt’s light touch on a dark time in human history.

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The Monday Book: Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown

Jack’s doing the Monday book – so, of course it’s on Tuesday – –

Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them; Nancy Marie Brown

Wendy brought me this book back from one of the bookstores she’s been visiting, promoting her book Fall or Fly. She was correct that it would interest me. It actually has little to do with the chessmen per se, but I don’t mind!

vikings

Brown uses the famous Lewis Chessmen as the mechanism for what is really a geopolitical and historical examination of the Nordic countries in medieval times. I already had some knowledge of the Viking connection to Scotland, Ireland and Northern England, and I even knew that the French Normans were originally Norse men.

But this book was a real eye-opener and introduced me to a world that was much more connected than I had thought. I obviously knew about the Vikings sailing around the north Atlantic but not just how much or how far. I knew nothing about their land journeys including taking part in crusades and hob-knobbing with English nobles!

“Ivory Vikings” can be a challenging read at times. The story of these ivory armies is woven through speculative historic tales of kings Harald Blue-Tooth and Svein Fork-Beard, with diversions into the 13th-century sagas of Iceland’s Snorri Sturluson and the early 19th-century literature of Sir Walter Scott, as well as accounts of the climate and topography of Iceland, the importance of walrus ivory from Greenland financing Viking raids and the origins of chess in India.

Margret the Adroit of Iceland turns out to be Brown’s favored candidate as maker of the chessmen. She was a carver of walrus and other materials and was famous for her craft in her time. One of the kings regularly sent gifts made by Margret to other rulers, one of the reasons the chessmen may be attributable to her. But I think my favorite of all the memorable characters in this book is perhaps Earl Erling Skew-neck who got his name after being whacked in the neck by an adversary in battle and carried his head at an angle ever after!

I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Norse history and their connections to other northern European countries – particularly Scotland and Ireland.

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The Monday Book: THE HIDING PLACE by Corrie Ten Boom

hiding placeI thought about blogging this book in the wake of the Tree of Life Synagogue shootings, but wanted to wait a week.

Aside from the easy tease that tomorrow is a mid-term election and we’re all tired of politics and looking for a place to hide from it, this book is no joke. It is intense yet accessible.

For those unfamiliar, it is about sisters in a watch-repairing Dutch family, happy people with a strong Christian ethic. When WWII breaks out, they hide Jewish people. This brings them close to The Resistance–which they don’t work with, other than hiding and moving Jewish people as best they can. There is a poignant scene when Corrie is asked to pass along intelligence that she realizes will get a German officer killed, and refuses to do so. The young Resistance worker in her kitchen is gobsmacked and furious. They become suspect–despite considerable sacrifices.

The scene has come to me again and again in these turbulent times where no one can be neutral and expect to be left alone. If you’re not for, you’re against. You can’t stand in your kitchen and refuse to condemn one man to death while saving six more people in a closet upstairs. Both sides would kill you.

The Hiding Place also asks ethical questions about what it means to be light in a dark place. The family is eventually betrayed, and while the Jewish people they are hiding escape, Corrie, her father and sister do not. The latter two eventually die in a concentration (prison) camp. The women are in their fifties when the Nazis round them up. Betsy is not in excellent health. Yet she insists on standing at the edge of morning roll call, taking the brunt of the cold wind, so she can protect younger women. This infuriates Corrie. When a woman is beaten to death in front of them, Betsy and Corrie have very different reactions.

Corrie also talks about two Somali Jewish women who distrust everyone else in the hospital where she is meant to be a patient, but instead winds up bringing bedpans to others. When she attempts to help the women, who are isolated in language and race, they throw their gangrenous bandages at her. Corrie has to come to terms with what help means, when, and how.

I loved this book as a child too young to understand some of it subtleties. I loved it as a college student enough to write about it for a literacy project, igniting an interesting argument with a professor. I love it now because, in a storm of words bent on winning, it tells the story of a family that redefined what “winning” meant on their own terms. They paid for it, but they also left a legacy that allows Quakers and moderates, and quiet bunny rabbit peaceniks to find a place to stand when people all around scream “If you stand there you’re ______ (insert bad thing here).”

On Christ the solid rock I stand, best as I can interpret him in the whelming flood, alongside the Ten Boom Family, who did an amazing job of not being on anyone’s side while helping everyone they could.

 

 

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The Monday Book

Jack gets to write the Monday Book post – so it’s a day late – –

Bringing Columbia Home – Michael D. Leinbach, Johnathan H. Ward

columbia

I stumbled upon this book in Greensboro NC where Wendy was doing a promotional event in a bookstore. Being a bit of an air and space freak I couldn’t resist it.

This is the whole story of the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle disaster, and Leinbach is probably the best person who could have written this book as he was at the center of the mission.

The book chronicles the whole tragic story from the first contradictory clues and suspicions all the way to the gathering of wreckage and crew remains. Along the way we encounter the interactions between rural Texans, Federal agencies, State organizations, NASA professionals, fellow astronauts and the family members of the doomed crew.

The things that stood out for me were –

The very sensitive handling of everything to do with the crew, their families and the inevitable evidence relating to their last minutes. The amazing ‘ownership’ by locals of responsibility for laborious searches for the tiniest fragments in pretty terrible conditions. Then the equally laborious technical work to try to establish what caused the catastrophe.

The book doesn’t shirk placing blame where needed but also lays bare the sheer risks that inevitably accompany space travel. I have visited the air and space museum in DC a number of times and always marvel when I look at the Apollo capsules. How anyone could sit in that atop a rocket and be blasted into space is completely beyond my comprehension!

Just last week I wrote about my memories of the PanAm 103 bombing over Lockerbie in Scotland and I couldn’t help drawing some parallels with the Columbia disaster. I suppose the biggest difference is that the crews of the space shuttles knew the risks involved!

Finally – it was shown after the cause of the crash was established that there would have been no way to rescue the crew even if the damage to the wing had been known. So, as they were carrying out their scientific work they were already doomed.

The book is written for the layman, is easy to read and I found it completely gripping from start to finish.

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The Monday Book: WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES by Karen Joy Fowler

contentYes, yes, I know it’s Tuesday. YOU try making the buses run on time the week after vacation. *grumps*

Sad thing is, although I really enjoyed reading it, this book didn’t cheer me up at all. I got it from Rachel, our shopsitter, when I went rushing through the bookstore the day before we left on holiday.

“Something to read, something to read,” I muttered, and Rachel almost without looking hauled this baby off the shelf.

“You’ll love it. It’s amazing,” she said, and I grabbed it from her hand and packed it.

And almost lost my mind night after night in the lodgings as I entered a world where chimp and human babies were raised side by side in an experiment that was subject the vagaries of funding, public pressure, and human fickleness. You can see from the beginning (and also the back blurbs) that this is a heartbreaking book. You know from the beginning what’s going to happen; in fact much of the book is tracing back from what happened. I like the way the author says, “I’m going to start my story in the middle, then go back and fill in, but on the way we’ll stop at the ending.” That’s not an exact quote but that’s what she does.

Her depictions of life through the eyes of a narrator you can’t quite trust, of events that seem surreal, among characters you feel you know (remember I’m a sucker for characters, and it is true they drive plot)… amazing work. I kept reading EVEN WHEN I KNEW A KITTEN WAS GOING TO DIE because Fowler writes so matter-of-factly about hearts and feelings and fear and hope. It’s just life, she seems to say. Get on with it.

My guess is that tender-hearted people and CEOs read this book on two different levels, which really interests me. It is hard to get a story going that holds humor and lessons that vary by reader, but Fowler has created a “He said/she said” that doesn’t answer questions so much as ask them: What does it mean to be human? What is our responsibility to each other? Who’s in charge here?

Two opposable thumbs up for We are all completely beside Ourselves.

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Jack’s Monday Book on Wednesday

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

Just to confuse everyone, Jack’s Wednesday blog post is the Monday book – –

The first thing to say before I get going is that we already knew that this book is set in the offices of the agency that handled the launching of Wendy’s best seller, ‘The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap’. Although the agency isn’t actually named in the book it’s a very open secret which New York literary agency it is. We are both, therefore, familiar with the rather old fashioned but cozy interior and the amazing collection of books lining the walls.

This is really at least two intertwining stories and I’m not sure that’s done terribly well. One is very much about the culture and characters of the agency itself, while the other is focused more on what’s going on in Rakoff’s life.

The first half of the book is mainly about her success in finding a job at what she refers to simply as ‘The Agency’, discovering how hard it is to live frugally in New York, getting to know her co-workers and being groomed by ‘The Boss’. I have to admit that I found that strand of the book unnecessarily gloomy and dark, as that’s certainly not what we experienced on or visits to the place. Something else that emerges in this early part of her book is the impression that the only famous author represented by the agency is JD Salinger, which is simply not true.

Her main job is to send form letters to fans of Salinger, who refuses to engage with them and is somewhat reclusive. She eventually strikes up something of a relationship with him on the phone and is finally on first name terms with him (Jerry and Joanna).

For me, the book really only takes off about halfway through when we begin to discover what’s going in Rakoff’s personal life. This strand is all about the self-discovery that anyone over the age of thirty will find excruciatingly familiar. It’s all about growing, maturing and making difficult decisions about what you want to do with your life.

The book ends with a jump forward to a married Rakoff with a husband and kids and a successful career as a novelist, poet and journalist.

I didn’t find this book disappointing overall, but I did find the beginning a bit heavy going.

6 out of 10 from me!

PS – it’s The Harold Ober Agency and Wendy’s agent doesn’t work there any more – – –

 

 

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Jeanne Powers’ Monday Book

Billy Feather BrainedFeather Brained:  My Bumbling Quest to Become a Birder & Find a Rare Bird on My Own by Bob Tarte

Let me start out by saying I am a not a birder.  I can identify cardinals, robins, blue jays, and woodpeckers—providing the latter are pecking on wood when I see them.  That’s about it.  I thought birders must be born, not made.

Then I read Bob Tarte’s book Feather Brained. Bob was not a natural birder.  At the tender age of nine in an effort to be cool, he set out for the park armed with a second-hand book on birds and a set of opera glasses. Let’s just say that first foray was less than successful.

A mere twenty five years later, Bob was ready to strike out again.  This time the impetus was due to an even rarer find: a red haired lady named Linda with a love of life in general and nature in particular.  He gets identification books, listens to recordings of bird song, and joins online birding groups where alerts are posted so members can rush to an area and maybe, just maybe, spot a bird for their life list. It becomes Bob’s mission in life to spot such a bird so he can alert the group and be the hero for once.

The phrase “easier said than done” springs to mind at this juncture.

As with his earlier books (Enslaved by Ducks; Fowl Weather; Kitty Cornered), Bob writes with a self-deprecating humor.  Comparisons to Charlie Brown and his little red haired girl will not go amiss, although Bob also has to deal with Churchill’s black dog of depression.  His eye for detail and description is as keen as ever, even when prowling around a sewage pond for rare birds.  He’s accompanied on many of his expeditions by Bill Holm who, as Bob explains, “didn’t particularly like birds, but he liked them more than he liked people.” Bob’s strength as a birder is to identify birds by their songs, so he depends on Bill to spot the birds, point out his errors, and make unmerciful fun of him for being so wrong.  Even though some of the episodes border on slapstick in Bob’s recounting—I laughed out loud as he and Linda risk life and limb to check out an osprey’s nest built on a train trestle—the book was a wonderful look at how birders can indeed be made, not born.  I found it reassuring as Bob misidentified wrens, grew frustrated at distinguishing calls, and sulked at birds that wouldn’t show up where they were supposed to be.

But above all else, Feather Brained is a romance. Oh, sure, Bob learns to love birds and birding, but it is his love for Linda that shines through the pages.  They would seem to be polar opposites:  Linda is the free spirit who lived happily in a small trailer in the woods while Bob enjoys creature comforts like electricity and running water. Where Linda sees rainbows, Bob sees dark clouds with tornado potential.  Love conquers all, however, and throughout the book Bob’s devotion never waivers, not through feeding mealworms to orphaned starlings, chipping away ice for the ducks, or being pelted with soggy monkey chow by a cantankerous parrot.  It must be true love.

And, hey—maybe I’ll take another look at that bird book I have in the basement.

 

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