Book Report: To read or not to read

lincoln and george

Acceding to all the buzz about this book, I put it on reserve at my local library. Twice. The first time I returned it without reading because I fell victim to a case of “Overdrive overload.” All the books I’d been waiting for showed up on my Kindle in the same week. Aack! The second time I settled in for a challenging, yet beautiful ride.

In 1862 Abraham Lincoln is not yet a beloved icon. The Civil War has just begun. Lincoln is widely believed to be inept and certain to be a one-term President. When his young son dies of typhoid, Mr. Lincoln recognizes the grief that other parents are suffering in the still young war—a war that would eventually claim more than 600,000.

“So we have the dilemma put to us, What to do, when his power must continue two years longer and when the existence of our country may be endangered before he can be replaced by a man of sense. How hard, in order to save the country, to sustain a man who is incompetent.

But those historic events only set the stage for George Saundersnovel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Yes, I had to google “bardo” and learned that it is “(in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.”

The entire novel takes place in a Georgetown Cemetery where young Willie Lincoln has been laid to rest in a borrowed crypt. That cemetery is also populated by numerous and diverse spirits who while quite chatty, aren’t exactly certain of their condition.

This novel is stylistically challenging. Each of the fictional and historic characters speaks or relates the speech of another without much connecting tissue. Their contributions may only be a word or a few lines long, like listening in on the conversation at a large cocktail party. Or perhaps it’s more like a pointillist painting or a patchwork quilt. You may need some distance to appreciate the big picture. That being said, you’ll either get on board with the way the story is told, or you’ll give up. Author Saunders says that’s fine.

Here are a few snippets of the text that give voice to the Lincolns’ grief at the loss of their boy.

“Everything nonsense now. Those mourners came up. Hands extended. Sons intact. Wearing on their faces enforce sadness-masks to hide any sing of their happiness, which—which went on.”

“He is either in joy or nothingness. (So why grieve? The worst of it, for him, is over.) Because I loved hm so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the from of fussing and worry and doing, Only there is nothing left to do. Free myself of this darkness as I can, remain useful, not go mad. Think of him, when I do, as being in some bright place, free of suffering, resplendent in a new mode of being.”

“Mary Lincoln’s mental health had never been good, and the loss of young Willie ended her life as a functional wife and mother…Some blows fall too heavy upon those too fragile.”

our town


The whole “dead men talking” thing reminded me of the cemetery scenes in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking, but with a much darker, deeper, more poetic edge. If it were a movie, I imagined Tim Burton might direct it because of his darkly comedic style. However Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally have secured the rights and no director has yet been named.

Vanity Fair Oscar Party, Los Angeles, USA - 26 Feb 2017
Offerman and Mullally

Draw your own conclusions about reading it. It’s certainly not for everyone. The audio-book was available at my library this week, so I’m having another go. Now that I know the story, I’m enjoying the vivid voice portrayals on my morning walks and appreciating it much more.

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.

Author Geraldine Brooks

Book report: It ain’t over till it’s over

confedsConfederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

By Tony Horwitz

Think you understand the Civil War? Think you understand its causes and the influence it still holds on America? This book may cause you to think again, especially about why some folks can’t let it go, 150 years later.

As a boy, the prize-winning war correspondent Tony Horwitz was fascinated by the Civil War, particularly the books of old photos he studied with his Jewish immigrant grandfather. That passion is rekindled when, after returning from assignments in Bosnia and the Middle East, he is awakened one morning by the musket fire of Civil War re-enactors just outside his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Those shots signaled the beginning of a quest.

Throughout his travels, Horwitz demonstrates his curiosity and courage, his sense of humor and of history as he introduces readers to a host of characters including a band of “hardcore” re-enactors who diet just so they can look like starved Confederates and who spoon to keep warm on long cold nights. At every stop, he chats up bartenders, bikers, store-clerks, elected officials, teachers, home-schoolers, park rangers, as well as the staff at small museums and visitors centers. He even embarks on a marathon odyssey (dubbed a “Civil Wargasm”) from Antietam to Gettysburg to Appomattox with the super hard-core Robert Lee Hodge (pictured on the cover) as his guide. Horwitz covers a murder provoked by the display of a Confederate flag. He searches for Tara and meets a young woman who makes a living as a Scarlet O’Hara look-alike. He spends a day with Shelby Foote, as well as time with the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

What emerges defies easy description.

“In the neo-Confederate view, North and South went to war because they represented two distinct and irreconcilable cultures, right down to their bloodlines. White Southerners descended from freedom-loving Celts in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Northerners—New England abolitionists in particular—came from mercantile and expansionist English stock.”

“For the past several weeks people had been talking to me about ‘heritage.’ But like the flag, this obviously meant very different things to different people. For the Sons of Confederate Veterans I’d met in North Carolina, it meant the heritage of their ancestors’ valor and sacrifice. For <others> it was the heritage of segregation and its dismantling over the past forty years. Was it possible to honor one heritage without upholding the other?”

Tony Horwitz

The result of Horwitz’s inquiry is a complex mosaic–sometimes funny, sometimes frightening–full of irony and contradiction. He sees a hardening of attitudes on both sides from the mid-1980s onward. They are more contentious and less interested in facts. While this book is nearly twenty years old now, the conflicts Horowitz exposes resonate even louder today. Modern battlefields are “classrooms, courts, country bars” where the past and the present rub up against each other, in sometimes deadly ways.

“While I felt almost no ideological kinship with the unreconstructed rebels, I’d come to recognize that in one sense they were right. The issues at stake in the Civil War—race in particular—remained raw and unresolved, as did the broad question the conflict posed: Would America remain one nation? In 1862, this was a regional dilemma, which it wasn’t anymore. But socially and culturally, there were ample signs of separatism and disunion along class, race, ethnic and gender lines. The whole notion of a common people united by common principles—even a common language—seemed more open to question than at any period in my lifetime.”

After this last election, the half of us on the losing side can perhaps feel at least a little empathy for those who can’t let it go. Americans again face a bitterly divided country. Friends and family members find themselves at odds. And once again our survival as a free nation is at risk. That alone is worthy of our consideration and a look back at what happened last time.

Book review: Just who do you think you are?

51ctthh6v4l-_sy346_The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion

Fannie Flagg

I’ve been a Flagg fan for years and have always enjoyed the Southern charm, heart, and humor with which she writes. This book is no exception.

Sookie Simmons Poole is approaching sixty and has just married off her third daughter. She’s looking forward to a little time to herself—to tend her beloved birds and maybe read a book or take a trip with her darling husband. Lenore, her “delightfully eccentric” and domineering mother lives two doors down in the tiny Gulf town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Sookie worries that she carries the gene that has made many of her ancenstors “as batty as hell.” When Sookie receives a phone call followed by a registered letter it shakes her to the core. “Identity crisis” hardly covers the impact of the news she receives.

“Growing up with Lenore, she had always felt like a little brown wren, hopping along behind a huge colorful peacock.”

Meanwhile, readers are also getting acquainted with the Jurdabralinski family who ran the Phillips 66 station in Pulaski, Wisconsin in the years between two World Wars.  Their oldest girl, a free spirit named Fritzi, falls in love with flying. She learns to wing walk and fly as she barnstorms in shows around the Midwest in the early 1940s. When World War II arrives and all the men join the fight, Fritzi and her three sisters successfully run the filling station. Fritzi learns that the Airforce is looking for experienced women fliers to ferry airplanes around the country in order to free up male pilots for combat. Fritzi is one of the first to sign up to be a WASP (Women Air Force Service Pilots) and becomes one of the more that 1000 female pilots to complete seven months of training. These brave women flew sixty million miles of operation flights including ferrying aircraft from factories to bases, flight instruction (both basic and instrument), towing targets for antiaircraft and aerial gunnery, among other duties. You can find out more here:

“It makes me so mad when all the newspaper reporters that come here only want to show the gals putting on lipstick or posing like models…all this phony baloney stuff.  If anybody thinks this is a glamorous job and that we are just in it for the fun, they haven’t watched them pull a friend out of a burning plane and die right in front of them.”

Sookie and Fritzi’s stories are woven together and resolve in a warm and surprising way. I  recommend not only this book, but also learning more about the WASPs, a forgotten chapter of women’s history that is only now being discovered.

What did you do in the war, Mom?

nightingaleThis book put me right back in occupied France during WWII. I told myself I wouldn’t go back there after reading Sarah’s Key, All the Light We Cannot See, and In Enemy Hands. And yet here I am. Again.

This was my parents’ war. Is that the draw? I knew their stories of lost loved ones and rationing. A recipe for butterless, sugarless, eggless cake. No silk stockings. Hemlines raised to use less fabric. My mom worked as a Rosie the Riveter. My dad joined the Amphibians and served in the South Pacific. But still, the war wasn’t here at home. Enemy soldiers weren’t living in our homes. History classes, television documentaries, and movies provided the rest of my knowledge. For the most part, it was the leaders’ stories I learned.  And mostly it was the story of men.

What all the novels here do is tell the very personal stories of the women forced to cope with the circumstances and deprivations over which they had little control. Their very survival was an act of courage and determination.

In Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale are two estranged sisters, one of whom has survived to old age. She is telling the story for the first time. It is particularly a story of how two very different young women coped with the brutal Nazi occupation of their small village in France. There were few men left, because they’d all gone off to fight. When France surrendered (or reached an “agreement” with Germany) they were imprisoned elsewhere. One sister’s day-to-day interactions with Nazi officers forcefully billeted in her home are intimately and vividly contrasted with the other sister’s choice to join the resistance, leading downed pilots over the Pyrenees to safety.

“Men tell stories,” I say. It is the truest, simplest answer to his question. “Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.”

Secrets and intrigue abound here as Hannah tells of the heroic and many times ignored or misinterpreted efforts of women to provide for and protect their loved ones, not to mention to fight against their own Vichy government and Germany. Recommend.

A message to that orange-haired monster

manzanar 1You know who I mean. The guy who thinks internment camps were a good idea. But you know what they say…

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  George Santayana-1905

My column, Don’t repeat the Manzanar mistake, appeared in the Nevada Appeal on Christmas Day, 2007.  I believe it speaks for itself.

You should know that Manzanar is one of ten so-called “War Relocation Centers” to which over 100,000 West Coast Japanese Americans were sent after being given 48 hours to leave their homes, forcing them to sell or abandon belongings and property. Although it was called a “War Relocation Center,” military police armed with sub-machine guns in the eight guard towers, the searchlights and barbed wire told a different story. Manzanar was a prison camp.


It’s a long story

edge of eternityAah, the final book in Ken Follett’s epic Century Trilogy. The audio version of this one sustained me through several long car and plane rides this summer. In it, Follett continues to follow members of the same five Welsh, English, German, Russian and American families beginning in the turbulent 60s and culminating with the election of President Obama. This is a huge, compelling, global story, covering the rise and fall of communism, women’s rights, civil rights, political upheavals and scandals. If you are American and were a fan of Nixon and Reagan, you may not agree with some of the Welsh author’s views. I found them enlightening. Nonetheless, while I appreciate the scope and arc of this series, I found the length of this final chapter grew tedious with too many detailed descriptions of cars, guns, clothes, music and food. But this is the era that the Follett knows best, having lived through it. I just don’t think it needed the extra padding. I recommend the series to anyone interested in the roots of the social, economic and political issues facing us today.

Waiting for Papa

waiting for papaI wrote this as a gift for my parents in 1998. I think it’s appropriate to share on Memorial Day.

I don’t remember the day my dad came home from the war. But my parents remember. And they have told me the story so often I almost believe I can remember. I can see it all that clearly.
The year was 1951. The month was August. I was not yet two years old. Grandpa held me in his arms as we waved to the Santa Fe train rushing past. The tracks ran no more than seventy-five feet behind our house: a house that used to be a barn sitting at the edge of an orange grove in Anaheim, California.
My grandparents lived across the driveway in a farmhouse on this remnant of a ranch: an acre and a sixth. My mother and I shared a room in what had once been a barn, but was now a clean and cozy home. It was just my mother and me that year because my dad, a Marine Reservist, had been called to the war Korea.
As Grandpa held me in his arms in the clearing behind the house we would smile and wave at the engineer, hoping he’d blow his whistle. We’d wave at the man who sits in the caboose, hoping he’d wave back. We’d wave at the men in uniform coming home from a war in Korea.
With my dad away at that war in Korea, Grandpa was the man in my life that year. I was only six months old when my dad left and he’d been gone for a year. Mom says that I knew that my daddy was the picture of the smiling man in a uniform. A letter. The mailbox. Although strangely, when he finally arrived home, I looked up and called him Papa.
The night before, Papa had boarded a train in Oakland near San Francisco. He sat up in the old, silver chair car on the Santa Fe train and closed his eyes. His mind raced along the tracks, which would carry him home, past familiar place names. San Joaquin Valley. Tehachapi. Mojave. Barstow. Cajon. San Bernardino. Corona. Santa Ana. San Diego.
Papa tried to let the clickety-clack lull him to sleep, but sleep wouldn’t come. His mind was too full of memories from a year at war in foreign country and thoughts of home and what he’d missed most.
He and my mother had only been married for three years when he left. He smiled as he remembered how he’d met her: a blind date, arranged by his aunt, to which he had reluctantly agreed. They had become engaged within six weeks. Now they teased that since he’d been gone for a year, they’d have to wait until their 51st anniversary to celebrate their Golden Wedding.
Papa had written that Korea was a cold and wet place. First there would be mud and then there would be ice. One morning he had poured hot syrup on his pancakes but by the time he sat down to eat, the syrup was frozen.
Papa said that sometimes the letters and phone calls would make him and Mom feel better. But sometimes they would feel even worse— even further away from each other.
Finally the year was over and Papa got his orders to come home. He was told to report to a ship in Itami, Japan. That was the start of his journey back home.
Papa knew there would be little to do on board the ship. Most of the men would read or play cards or just look out to sea. So as soon as he checked in he reported to the Ship’s Baker. Not only would this duty keep him busy, but also he would be guaranteed plenty to eat. Each time he took the trash up on deck to dump it over the fantail, he would also sneak cakes, cookies, or sweet rolls to all his friends. Bakery duty guaranteed plenty of friends as well.
After two weeks at sea the ship finally docked at Treasure Island in San Francisco, right under the Bay Bridge. Papa learned he would be released from the Marine Recruit Depot in San Diego. He called my mother to let her know where to meet him.
That night as Papa boarded the Santa Fe troop train in Oakland, Mom was giving me a bath and putting me to bed. She worried about what to wear to meet the train. She wanted to look pretty.
As I slept in my crib, hundreds of tired, anxious, happy Marines sat up all that long night and ate the sack lunches they had been given. “Sack lunches,” Papa jokes, “’cause every day was a picnic in the Marines.”
From Oakland and Stockton the Santa Fe train headed south and east to Fresno and Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley, the big central valley of California. Papa remembered the family trips and vacations that had taken him to these places.
It was dark as the train continued east to the Tehachapi Loop and the town of Mojave. The train changed lines at Barstow and was now headed southwest toward Victorville and the Cajon Pass. He looked out the window but could only see his own reflection there.
Neither Papa on the train nor Mom at home had much success in getting to sleep that night.
Finally, after a long, uncomfortable night the sun was coming up. The Santa Fe train reached San Bernardino, just east of Anaheim. Papa knew he was really close now. Everything was beginning to feel so familiar. The weight and smell of the air. The San Bernardino Mountains. The palm trees and orange groves of Riverside and Corona. The clear blue sky. The Santa Ana Canyon.
Papa even vaguely remembered the Santa Fe route. One branch would take him to Fullerton before heading to Santa Ana. The other would take him directly south, right past our little ranch. He’d know for sure when the train reached the tiny town of Atwood.
Meanwhile Mom was making my breakfast and getting me dressed. She brushed her brown hair and put on lipstick. She dabbed a bit of her favorite Chantilly perfume behind each ear and checked the mirror one last time. “Not bad,” she thought. Maybe she was a little nervous.
At mid-morning Papa’s train was pulling through the Santa Ana Canyon while Mom was putting her overnight bag into the back seat of the car. She handed me over to Grandpa and pulled the car out of the gravel driveway for the two-hour drive to San Diego.
I fussed a bit at being left behind, reaching for Mom as she drove off down the road. Perhaps that’s why Grandpa, with me in his arms, walked toward the railroad tracks. Maybe he thought he could distract me.
“Train should be along here any minute” Grandpa assured me. “Maybe they’ll blow the whistle for us.”
Finally Papa’s train reached the tiny town of Atwood. The tracks branched off toward Santa Ana just as he’d hoped. Suddenly he knew that in just a few minutes the train would pass right by our house: the house that used to be a barn sitting at the edge of an orange grove. A lump rose in his throat.
“It will be good to see the old place again,” Papa thought. “Too bad the train can’t just stop right here. Then I wouldn’t have to ride all the way to San Diego.”
Papa’s heart beat faster. He edged closer to the window. He was almost home. Safe. Just a glimpse of the little ranch would let him know it was real.
Orange trees rushed past the train windows. More and more trees until finally, yes, there it was! The little crossing at East North Street. The barn red house in the little clearing. And as Papa’s train sped past bound for San Diego…
…there we were, standing in the clearing: an old man and a chubby, round-faced girl, smiling and waving at the engineer, hoping he’d blow the whistle, at the man in the caboose, hoping he’d wave back and at the men in uniform coming home from a war in Korea, not knowing Papa was waving back.