Book report: The power of the book

51WSWSDYnKLThe People of the Book

Australian archivist Hannah Heath has come to Sarajevo to investigate and conserve a priceless text, an illustrated haggadah. The small book relates the story of the exodus from Egypt and is a common part of the ritual at a Passover Seder.

“…The hagaddah came to Sarajevo for a reason. It was here to test us, to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us. That to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.”

This particular hagaddah is special because of its detailed illustrations. It has been sought by warring factions and preserved at great risk by individuals over centuries of conflict. But who made this unique book and why? How far has it traveled and by what means? What stories can be told through the analysis of inks, parchment, and butterfly wings? Through stains of blood, wine and salt? The reader is transported to every place and time that the book has traveled. The surprising stories of each person connected to the book–its creation and its rescue over centuries—make for a compelling read.

“A book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand.”

Geraldine Brooks’ research of this hagaddah also resulted in a 2007 article in The New Yorker. So yes, this is fiction, but VERY historical fiction. In fact the story of the Jewish girl protected by a Muslim family is true as are other characters Brooks employs to tell this story. There were and are good and heroic people of all faiths, just as there were and are monsters and murderers.

Because the audio-book was available through my library and the book-book was not, I listened to this book. While Brook’s writing alone is rich and evocative, the vivid voices and accents provided by narrator Edwina Wren worked well to place the me in the scenes. Brava!

“I had to remind myself that Islam had once swept north as far as the gates of Vienna; that when the haggadah had been made, the Muslims’ vast empire was the bright light of the Dark Ages, the one place where science and poetry still flourished, where Jews, tortured and killed by Christians, could find a measure of peace.”

Trust me, this is a good, profound book illustrating man’s historic cruelty to and mistrust of anyone perceived as “other.” However, the very survival of the Sarajevo Hagaddah also demonstrates that Christians, Jews, and Muslims have lived and worked together without fear and hate. Indeed, our shared humanity can and must outweigh the ideologies that divide us. Recommend.

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Author Geraldine Brooks
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Book report: The “good old days” weren’t all that great for women

51Ja3naWT8L._SY346_Frequently we hear folks of a certain age bemoaning progress and the passage of time. They wish for bygone days when life was simpler. Not me. Especially after reading  Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times  by Jennifer Worth.

The author first gives us a little history of maternal healthcare before 1948 and the advent of Britain’s National Health Service.

“It is hard to imagine today that until the last century no woman had any specialist obstetric care during pregnancy. The first time a woman would see a doctor or midwife was when she went into labour. Therefore, death and disaster, either for mother or child, or both, were commonplace. Such tragedies were looked upon as the will of God, whereas, in fact, they were the inevitable result of neglect and ignorance.”

“In the mid-nineteenth century, maternal mortality amongst the poorest classes was around 35-40 percent, and infant mortality was around 60 percent. Anything like eclampsia, hemorrhage, or mal-presentation, would mean the inevitable death of the mother.”

Worth graphically describes— in sometimes intimate and cringe-worthy detail—the conditions and very real life and death struggles of the residents of the London Docklands just after WWII.

“Children were everywhere, and the streets were their playgrounds. In the 1950s there were no cars in the back streets, because no one had a car.”

Many of those children were born into two-room tenements without a toilet–or even running water–where four or more other children were already present. Some lived in ruined buildings left standing after the Blitz. Domestic violence and mental illness were common and mostly untreated. A girl “in trouble” was ostracized and–after surrendering her child for adoption–was many times forced into a life of prostitution. And while races bumped into one another frequently and companionably in the streets and at work, a mixed-race baby was unthinkable.

Those were the “good old days.”

What difference did reliable birth control make?

“The Pill was introduced in the early 1960s and modern woman was born. Women were no longer to be tied to the cycle of endless babies… Women could, for the first time in history, be like men, and enjoy sex for its own sake. In the late 1950s, we had eighty to a hundred deliveries a month on our books. In 1963 the number had dropped to four or five a month. Now that is some social change!”

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Fans of the television series, Call the Midwife, will enjoy becoming acquainted with the real-life Jenny, Trixie, Chummy, and Cynthia, as well as Sisters Julienne, Monica Joan, Evangelina, Bernadette. Dr. Turner and Fred are here as well.

But mostly this book is a reminder that things have gotten better. We know that access to affordable healthcare—especially birth control—matters. And to the most vulnerable women and children among us–the poor and the sick–it is a matter of survival.

Book Report: Women in war

51jVzFgR9fL._SY346_The Alice Network

I told myself I wouldn’t go back to the dark and desperate world of WWII Europe’s deprivations. But it’s been awhile, and a friend recommended The Alice Network. Besides, this story takes place during WWI and just after WWII. I took the risk and was rewarded.

Quinn’s writing is intimate and compelling, alternating between the points of view of the two main characters. Eve is a young, intelligent British woman with a profound stammer who in 1915 longs to do something in the Britain’s war with Germany. She is thwarted by both her gender and disability. Charlie is a young, intelligent American woman of privilege in 1947 who finds herself pregnant and on her way to Switzerland for an appointment to relieve her of her “little problem.” Their stories connect when Charlie seeks Eve’s help in locating a beloved French cousin who went missing in France during WWII. Both Charlie and the reader need to know why Eve, now a cranky, damaged old drunk, refuses.

Thus begins the tale of Eve’s recruitment and service as part of a web female spies in France, “les fleurs du mal.” The flowers of evil.

“There are two kinds of flowers when it comes to women… The kind that is safe in a beautiful vase, or the kind that survive in any conditions…even in evil. Lili was the latter. Which are you?”

Lili was the head of this network. As such it was her “… job was to be anyone, to shift with a few tricks of posture or grammar from one persona to another, whether seamstress or laundress or cheese seller. And if Lili’s job was to be anyone, Eve’s was to be no one, to be unobserved and unnoticed at all times.” Eve’s assignment was to be a waitress and report on the conversations of the German officers who dined at the restaurant owned by the cruel collaborator, Rene’ Bordelon.

“Why did it matter if something scared you, when it simply had to be done anyway?”

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Author Kate Quinn

As I read the author’s notes at the end of the book, I discovered that many of the vividly portrayed supporting characters, including the colorful Lili, and many of the incidents described were taken directly from true accounts of the time. This is why I read and enjoy historical fiction. I learn about lives and times outside of my own. They make me quesiton myself. In the same circumstances would I have been able to do what they did? This story of war is bloody and brutal. The bravery of both those who fought in the resistance deserve to be remembered. These were no shrinking violets.

 

Book report: The Founding Father without a father

51X4L0OiziL._SY346_Whew. I finally finished the EPIC Alexander Hamilton. Ron Chernow did a masterful job here, however the sheer weight of the 818-page tome made me especially grateful for my Kindle. I started reading it after I’d become obsessed with the soundtrack ofHamilton,” the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical it inspired. I heard Miranda say once that hip-hop was the only genre that could have captured the story, simply because it gets more words per measure.  An example: “The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father / Got a lot farther by working a lot harder / By being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter.”

Years ago I read Gore Vidal’s Burr.  I knew of the legendary duel between these two Founding Fathers. I also remembered the irony of Hamilton being an illegitimate child born in the Virgin Islands. However, somewhere I’d missed (or forgotten) Hamilton’s profound influence on our country’s birth, especially our financial system. And remember the Federalist Papers? Those essays written to promote the ratification of the U.S. Constitution? Yeah, Alexander Hamilton wrote most of them. He was kind of a big deal. And his origin story is pretty compelling as well.

“He embodied an enduring archetype: the obscure immigrant who comes to America, re-creates himself, and succeeds despite a lack of proper birth and breeding.”

“He chose a psychological strategy adopted by many orphans and immigrants: he decided to cut himself off from his past and forge a new identity. He would find a home where he would be accepted for what he did, not for who he was, and where he would no longer labor in the shadow of illegitimacy.”

“Like other founding fathers, Hamilton would have preferred a stately revolution, enacted decorously in courtrooms and parliamentary chambers by gifted orators in powdered wigs. The American Revolution was to succeed because it was undertaken by skeptical men who knew that the same passions that toppled tyrannies could be applied to destructive ends.”

I will admit to skimming through chunks of the middle—I got a bit bogged down in the detail of the political and highly partisan infighting. Nonetheless, it did remind me that our leaders have always fought, always been driven by principle—not to mention ego. No one mentioned here (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Burr…) is without fault, least of all Hamilton himself.

Hamilton’s life was fraught with tragedy and scandal. He was passionate in all areas of his life Mrs._Elizabeth_Schuyler_Hamiltonand frequently his ego got the better of him. The one stabilizing influence was his wife Eliza Schuyler. From all appearances this was a love match. Eliza stood by him through scandals and long absences. His death left her in debt, still she worked to preserve her husband’s legacy as she built one for herself. Throughout her very long life, she served widows, orphans, and poor children. She established a school and an orphanage. Eliza even gave older orphans jobs in her home and helped one gain admittance into West Point.

Aaron Burr comes off especially poorly.

“For the rest of his life, he never uttered one world of contrition for having killed a man with a wife and seven children and behaved as if Hamilton’s family did not exist.”

If you–or someone on your gift list–loves history, I’d recommend this book. Otherwise, stick with the soundtrack to “Hamilton” and hope that Santa slips a ticket into your stocking (hint, hint).

 

Book report: War comes to a small town in Sussex

The Summer Before the War has been51eS2lPk4cL._SY346_ on my “to be read” shelf since I heard author, Helen Simonson interviewed on NPR some time ago. I’d enjoyed her debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I found to be simply charming and have recommended often.

Now I can recommend her second novel to you, especially if, like me, you were a fan of “Downton Abbey.” This book is not set on a grand estate, but rather in the town of Rye in Sussex, just before England enters World War I.

We meet liberally-educated and well-traveled, Beatrice Nash, whose father has recently died. She arrives in Rye, still grieving, to take a position teaching Latin as she seeks to gain independence from her family who controls what little money she has inherited. Already in her early twenties, she has resigned herself to spinsterhood. Moreover, as a woman in 1914, she is thwarted at every turn by convention, pettiness, hypocrisy, and prejudice embodied by landladies, solicitors, and small town gossips. Through Beatrice, we are also introduced to a cast of artists, progressives, and a few gypsies who challenge the status quo with their kindness, courage, intelligence, and heart. Beatrice even finds love.

I admire Simonson’s skill at immersing readers into the landscape and conflicts of this time and place. Every well-chosen detail does double duty, informing character or enhancing tension. Simply a pleasure to read. Recommend.

 

 

 

Book review: Between father and son

511ktu-msbl-_sy346_Between the World and Me

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book is an earnest and fervent warning from Coates to his son and in reading it, I felt his urgency in trying to protect the life–“the body” — of his teen-aged son. Three long essays detail why being black in America is dangerous in ways that those who are not black can never fully appreciate.

Coates understands the reality. He could spend years educating himself, developing a career, acquiring assets, being responsible, and one racist act could end it all. He cites examples from history, the news, and from his own life.

Rather than trying to summarize his thoughts, I’ll let Ta-Nehisi (tah-nuh-hah-see) speak for himself.

The big message:

“…you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know… Indeed you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you… You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”

Race is a social, not a biological construct:

“As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissident; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”

No sudden moves:

“Each time a police officer engages us, death, injury, maiming is possible. It is not enough to say that this is true of anyone or more true of criminals… It has nothing to do with how you wear your pants or how you style your hair.”

 “Should assaulting an officer of the state be a capital offense, rendered without trial, with the officer as judge and executioner? Is that what we wish civilization to be?”

No escape:

“When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing.”

  “We could not get out. The ground we walked was trip-wired. The air we breathed was toxic. The water stunted our growth. We could not get out. …my father beat me for letting another boy steal from me. Two years later, he beat me for threatening my ninth-grade teacher. Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not escape.”

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Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic.

I recommend this book as a brief walk in another person’s shoes. I think you’ll find it both troubling and enlightening, as I did.

Book review: Missing your “Daily” fix?

daily-showThe Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History

as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests

Chris Smith

If you love and still miss your nightly fix of Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, you will probably want to read this compendium of how Jon and his staff rebuilt “a little nothing cable show.” The format of the book is unusual. Author Chris Smith conducted interviews and presents those with only a smattering of context and connective tissue written by him. He also includes clips from the show. It’s a bit like reading a Ken Burns documentary.

Jon wasn’t the most likely person to replace Craig Kilborn. He’d had a few failures, a few attempts to find himself comedically. And when he took over, there were some ruffled feathers among some of Kilborn’s staff. You see, Jon had ideas of his own about the tone and direction of the show. Under Jon’s leadership, writers would refocus their attention from silly people on the fringes, to the people with power–namely politicians and the media.

“The tone of The Daily Show could be sarcastic and adversarial, but it generally wasn’t cynical or snarky…The humor was always from a point of view that held out a hope that the world could be improved, and I think that tone was essential to its success.” ~James Poniewozik, televison critic

Readers are also reminded of what was happening back then, culturally. “The anchors of the real news were still a trio of white male eminences… But the network news hegemony had been rattled by the arrival of CNN, especially its coverage of the 1990 Gulf War. Now Fox News and MSNBC—both launched, coincidentally within months of the Daily Show’s 1996 debut…And a wised-up, postmodern generation of viewers was hungry for what the Daily Show would soon deliver.”

In addition to the behind the scenes “how the sausage gets made” details, readers are also reminded of the personalities, tragedies, disasters, and political fights that Jon and his team of writers, producers, and correspondents helped viewers see more clearly through satire. Indecisions 2000 -08. 9/11. W. Mess O’Potamia. Sarah Palin. WMDs. The financial meltdown. Anthony Weiner.

In Jon’s words:

“We were serious people doing a very stupid thing, and they were unserious people doing a very serious thing, and that juxtaposition really landed.” 

 “…the show always did best when it existed in the space between what was presented as public policy and the strategizing that went into creating it. That was the defining thread of the show, that sense that we were being sold something.”

“If your world does not include enough access to different people, and their world does not include enough access to you, you are speaking from ignorance.”

Correspondents conducting field pieces interviewed real people who really believed the things they were saying. Interviewers confronted them with the contrary view in a humorous way, and then let the tape roll, giving full voice their (contradictory, hypocritical, sometimes scary, sometimes hilarious) perspective. Daily Show alums include Samantha Bee, Lewis Black, Steve Carell, Nancy Walls Carell, Wyatt Cenac, Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry, Ed Helms, John Hodgman, Jason Jones, Al Madrigal, Assif Mandvi, Olivia Munn, John Oliver, Rob Riggle, Mo Rocca, Kristen Schaal, and Larry Wilmore. All of them give credit to Stewart for his mentorship in building their careers.

“I found out…that I had a political point of view…I don’t think I would have done that if Jon hadn’t shown me a way to do it and still by joyful and inventive about it, rather than being finger-waggy.” ~Stephen Colbert

“…because now all I want is to part of something that’s smart, silly, and has heart at the same time. Why can’t everything have all three?” ~Al Madrigal

Sure, this is a book for fans of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, but it’s also a tutorial in how to build a team to do important work while having fun. It’s a bit long, but I never once thought of giving up. Recommend.

“He started out to be a working comedian, and he ended up an invaluable patriot. He wants his county to be better, more decent, and to think harder.” ~David Remnick. Editor in chief, the New Yorker