RIVER OF DOUBT, Theodore Roosevelt's darkest journey, and his last great adventure, by Candice Millard, was fascinating. I couldn't put it down, even though I knew how it would end (he doesn't die, for example).
Roosevelt's poor choice of aides, (his main quartermaster had only been to the Antarctic,)and lack of attention to detail led to near disaster in the Amazon. The chief planner went amok in the purchasing department and much of their heavy equipment and supply boxes included things like gourmet condiments, marmalade, olive zest, three dozen pipes and 24 rolls of toilet paper. They had the wrong kind of canoe (kind of basic problem) and the descriptions of the Amazon jungle would give you nightmares.
The most striking contrast is how primitive the conditions were for the explorers compared to the technological, communicative innovations explorers have today. Oh, wait a minute, do we have any explorers today? Is there any place not explored?
Anyhow, great book.
MARK TWAIN, a life, by Ron Powers is one of the best biographies I've read in a while. Samuel Clemens was intense and his full life reflects that. For one thing, he never had a real home. He was always on the move, dragging his ever suffering family along. His love for Livy, his wife, was also intense and never waivered. They traveled literally around the world, sometimes living for years in Paris, Italy , wherever. And yet, as the author shows, Twain's life was inexorably entwined with America, going through what was a tremendous progression of social and technological advances. Doomed to spend his money unwisely, like his father and brother, somehow he manages to bounce back from financial failure and become a living icon, revered, honored and loved like an irascible old grandfather.
Powers maintains a nice balance between literary analysis ("Huck Finn, one hell of a book!") social history (the development of the typewriter and linotype machine) the Clemens family and Twain's own complex character. Very readable, emotionally moving and interesting.
RED HOUSE, Being a mostly accurate account of New England's oldest continuously lived-in house, by Sarah Messer is a pleasantly honest and detailed history of a house in Marshfield, MA. What research went into the telling of the stories of all the inhabitants, all members of the same family until the author's! The book is kept suspenseful by means of fires, storms, fights, intrique and clear and readable writing. A good read.
There is much love and goodness, decency, compassion, politeness and just plain good will in Alexander McCall Smith's latest installment of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series, IN THE COMPANY OF CHEERFUL LADIES. Yet the author avoids the saccharine sweetness of a Pollyanna and manages to invoke excitement, intrigue and outright drama in the lives of the now familiar Precious Ramotswe (of traditional build) and her assistant Grace Makutsi (of difficult complexion). Smith keeps the plot moving with pumpkins, gambling houses, errant apprentices and dancing lessons and maintains the theme of moral decency without being preachy. The author is at times almost lyrical and I'm looking forward to the next book.
THREE NIGHTS IN AUGUST by Buzz Bissinger, Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
I never fail to wonder at the incredible complexity of a sport that has the longest season in professional sports and a history as rich and American as, well, baseball and apple pie. Buzz Bissinger, who also tackled high school football in FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, is as full of awe as well, and his richly detailed, dramatic and suspenseful depiction of a Cardinals/Cubs three game series shows his total love for the game. Even the most adamant baseball hater will love this book, if only for the candid exploration of the mind of a manager. Batter up! It's great!
DON'T GO THERE!
MOLVANIA, A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry, by Cilauro, Gleisner and Sitch. Overlook Press, 2004
A very funny book,a perfect parody of any travel guide ever written. It can best be described by a selection from the Introduction;
“Despite being one of the smallest countries in Europe, the Republic of Molvania has much to offer the discerning tourist. Panoramic scenery, magnificent neoclassical architecture and centuries of devotion to fine culture are, admittedly, all in short supply. But the intrepid traveller will still find plenty to enjoy within this unique, landlocked nation state—from the capital Lutenblag to the heavily forested Postenwalj Mts. where visitors can share a glass of locally brewed zeerstum (garlic brandy) while watching a traditionally dressed peasant labourer beat his mule.”
STALKING THE HUNTER
THE LONELY HUNTER, a biography of Carson McCullers, follows this writer around from friend’s house to house, to hotel to Europe, to New York, always smoking and drinking and writing prose and poetry. At once selfish and generous, Carson McCullers is pitiable yet admirable, defeated by illness one day, fighting back another. This well documented and very readable biography is sympathetic to its subject while being objective and exhaustive. A good book even though you may not like McCullers herself. 583 pages!
LYDIA CASSATT READING THE MORNING PAPER, a novel by Harriet Scott Chessmanm2002, The Permanent Press and the Seven Stories Press.
What a treat for Mary Cassatt fans! The imaginary musings of Lydia, Mary’s older sister and sometimes model, bring the reader into the lives of the late 19th century women. The inclusion of frequent French expressions remind the reader of the Parisian life of the Cassatt family. The references to Degas and the Impressionist colony of artists brings authenticity and detail of the artist’s milieu.
Best of all, Lydia’s remarks and Mary’s responses bring the reader to the paintings themselves, again and again, and the pending death of Lydia, which we know will happen, makes this little visit with the Cassatt sisters especially poignant.
KATE REMEMBERED by A. Scott Berg, is one of the few memoirs I could finish with pleasure. I don’t read autobiographies (Hepburn’s ME was awful, written in an exhaustingly conversational style) because they are obviously biassed and non-objective. This book, although obviously biassed and non-objective is unique. The young man had unusually close ties to his subject, having written about people of her era and profession -- Sam Goldwyn, Max Perkins, Charles Lindberg. His textbook knowledge of her career and friends and the twenty year friendship are testimony to his genuine admiration.
Often moving, sometimes funny and always perceptive (the Michael Jackson dinner is a scream!) KATE REMEMBERED is a worthy tribute to a memorable woman.
A REAL CORKER
CORK BOAT by John Pollack(Pantheon Press, 2004) is one of those personal odysseys that makes you wonder what drives people to do THAT! Here is a fairly sane man who collects corks (Yes, from POP! wine bottles) and finally builds a boat out of them and then sails it down the Douro River across Portugal. Obviously adventurous (he manages a trip to Antartica in between) and an experienced writer (speechwriter for the Clinton administration), Pollack adds plenty of personal drama and sentimentality to make the book readable, romantic and suspenseful. Can I mention CORK BOAT doesn’t sink?
A Real Fludd?
FLUDD, a novel by Hilary Mantel, (Henry Holt 1989), is a charming story in a Bronte-esque setting: a northern English village of dark moors, deteriorating convent, dispirited and dour people. Arriving in a rainstorm, the young cleric Fludd cheerfully goes about his business, aiding and abetting the miserable parishoners; the cleric Angwin, full of angst, Mother Perpetua, always the Wicked Witch of the West, and Philomela, suffering and then metamorphosizing, much like her mythological counterpart(who became a nightingale).
Despite the mysterious atmosphere, this book is funny, satiric and universal, and the ending is priceless.
Review of THE DESERTER, Murder at Gettysburg, a Homer Kelly Mystery by Jane Langton. St. Martin’s Press, 2003
BEHIND THE TINTYPE
This is the best Homer Kelly mystery so far. Richly detailed, those somber tintype soldiers of the Civil War really come to life in a suspenseful, read- to-the-last-page mystery. Searching Harvard Yard, Memorial Hall, the archives of Gettysburg and Washington among others, Homer and Mary Kelly go after a family scandal. Adroitly moving from one era to another, Langton weaves present and past into a rich tapestry of memorable characters and breathtaking action. One of the best.
Review of GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING by Tracy Chevalier
BE HAPPY YOU LIVE IN THE 21ST CENTURY
One of the rewards of reading is being able to go to places and experience worlds otherwise inaccessible. Chevalier deftly transports the reader to seventeenth century Holland, to the working man’s world and the oppressive life of lower class women. But the heroine fights back; her indomitable spirit, her appreciation of form, space and color (not to mention the art of a great artist),and her desire to learn put her in a class of her own.
The other reward of reading is the pure pleasure of good writing. Remember your composition teacher admonishing, “Show, don’t tell”? GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING is a classic example of writing that shows; the rough, raw hands of the laundress, the upper class men’s attitude toward the maid, the groping, the leering, the butcher’s fingernails. The author tells us about society through her unforgettable and unadorned prose.
This book is a multi-leveled experience and a joy.
Review of OUR LADY OF THE LOST AND FOUND by Diane Schoemperlen
OUR LADY OF THE BOOK REVIEW
Just as we have a plethora of Football Bowl Games which is bordering on the ridiculous (I can picture a bowl of Roses, a bowl of Peaches, but a bowl of Continental Tires?) so, it turns out, when you read OUR LADY OF THE LOST AND FOUND by Diane Schoemperlen, you discover Mary comes in a bewildering number of guises; Our Lady of the Girdle, Our Lady of the Milk, Our Lady of the Bowed Head, Our Lady of the Swoon, Our Lady of the Eraser, Our Lady of the Crib, Our Lady of Dull Students, Our Lady of a Happy Death, just to name a few.
If your name is Mary and you are Catholic to boot, you will love this book. I’m pretty sure this is a woman’s book as it is filled with comfortable, feminine descriptions of home, tea and warm fuzzy cardigans. But it is also filled with enthralling tales of Mary’s Miracles and actually uncovers Mary from day One to the present. As much a book of history as whimsy, Mary or not, everyone will find this book entertaining, enlightening and engaging enough to make you a believer.
Review of THE PURSUIT OF ALICE THRIFT by Elinor Lipman
If you have been at any moment in your life, a loser, or if you sometimes feel like life is one huge hill and you’re at the bottom, you’ll love THE PURSUIT OF ALICE THRIFT. The heroine, Alice Thrift, M.D. will keep you laughing, Sylvie, the girl across the hall, will be wonderful company, Leo,the loveable male nurse, will be a kindly supporter, and Ray, the ardent pursuer and fudge salesman, well, you’ll see.
Making Alice’s life more complicated is the obnoxious President elect of the American College of Surgeons, Charles Hastings, M.D. and J.E.R.K, Joyce and Bert, the very correct parents from Princeton and other delicious characters too numerous to mention.
THE PURSUIT OF ALICE THRIFT is a feast, a fast read, a true romp, and like the fudge, there’s no stopping until until it’s all gone.
Review of JESSE JAMES by T. J Stiles
Will the Real Jesse James Stand Up!
If you ever had a romantic image of Jesse James and his band of Robin Hood type outlaws, galloping through the West in a carefree, idyllic adventure, dispensing money to the poor and excitement to the people of Missouri, this book will, sadly, explode that bubble like Jesse exploded people’s brains. JESSE JAMES is a biography, not only of one misguided man, but of a southern family with all its prejudices, a biography of a state divided by the Civil War and a country bewildered in the war’s aftermath. JESSE JAMES is a well researched, fascinating narrative, complete with shoot ‘em up bank robberies and exciting rides into the sunset. For me, who grew up with Roy Rogers as Jesse James,it was quite an eye-opener.
Yet in spite of the historical truths and the graphic descriptions of murder and crime, Jesse James emerges as a sympathetic character, and the reader, probably like the author, can’t help but ride along with him, hoping for his escape and safe return. Welcome back, the real Jesse! Ride ‘em cowboy!
review of AMERICAN MASSACRE by Sally Denton
A detailed, fascinating account of a terrible massacre of innocent American citizens by other American citizens, this book is an indictment of the early Mormons and all religious fanatics. The author carefully builds her case, tracing the history of the Mormon church in Utah as well as the lives of the Mormon leaders. Using various sources, Denton follows the wagon train from Arkansas carrying men, women, children, cattle, gold, and much more to the open valley called Mountain Meadows where they meet their fate. An interesting and chilling book.
review of UNIFORM JUSTICE by Donna Leon
A mystery equal if not better than Simenon’s Inspector Maigret series, UNIFORM JUSTICE lives up to the author’s well deserved reputation. Set in modern Venice, it is replete with translatable Italian (telefonino, Carabinieri, Signora, si), well rounded characters and a plot that moves, though a little slowly, with riveting intricacy.
Commissario Brunetti becomes involved with a young cadet’s suicide and he finds himself up against a military obstinacy equal to Jack Nicholson’s character in A FEW GOOD MEN. This mystery brings the reader into the Italian home, takes you to lunch (yum!) and lets you suffer the frustrations of a modern police officer in a very political world. I couldn’t put it down.
review of JOHN WINTHROP, AMERICA’S FORGOTTEN FOUNDING FATHER by Francis J. Bremer.
John Winthrop Remembered
Thanks to an absent minded John Winthrop falling into a foul smelling peat bog and surviving (which he took as a sign that he should emigrate to the colonies) the settlers of the Massachusets Bay Company were blessed with a practical and efficient administrator. Elected Governor many times over, John Winthrop is portrayed as an honest and god fearing a man as any patriotic American would want.
Although a good third of the book describes Winthrop’s life in England, it is justified and necessary to see the religious and social preparations for his career in America. Once he came to America, his life was devoted to the preservation of his religion, his family and his colony.
Those readers familiar with Boston and surroundings will enjoy the detail in this biography; the streets he lived on, the configuarion of the city, its growth during Winthrop’s lifetime.
And how easy it is to forget how little in the way of goods and services was available to the settlers in the 17th century. John Winthrop was not in the first wave of New Englanders in Plymouth, but even 10 years later he had to bring with him wheat, barley, oats, beans and peas for cultivation, potatoes, hop roots, hemp seed, tame turkeys and rabbits, linen and woolen cloth, bottles, ladles, spoons and kettles, among a long list of other essentials.
In spite of harsh conditions and personal tragedies, Winthrop prevails and the reader will learn much about this “forgotten” Founding Father in this compelling and interesting biography.
review of BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, AN AMERICAN LIFE. by Walter Isaacson
This biography maintains a beautiful balance between the political, scientific, philosophical and personal Benjamin Franklin. And what a task! He was the only man to actively contribute to and to sign all four great documents that were instrumental in forming the United States of America; the Declaration of Independence, the alliance with France, the treaty with England and finally the Constitution.
He never stopped looking at natural events and making lists, keeping statistics, finding ways to make practical the scientific theories he discovered; electricity with the famous key and lightening experiment, the effects of color and heat, leading to the dark clothes in winter, light clothes in summer syndrome, depth of water and degree of warmth, the famous stove, the bifocals. The list goes on.
His philosophical writings were also practical. He tried to have his life mirror his moral code; be frugal, speak the truth, be industrious and speak ill of no man, and his success in his personal and political actions can be attributed much to his following these precepts.
Walter Isaacson’s research is wide and deep (Franklin would have been proud)and because it deftly goes from the political to the personal to the scientific, it is never boring and indeed, quite revealing of a national figure you probably thought you had heard everything. You will be surprised and end up loving this patriarch of democracy as much as the author seems to.
A summa cum laude award for this excellent biography!
THE DA VINCI CODE by Dan Brown
Have you ever left a movie, limp, exhausted and just wrung out? Were you on the edge of your seat the whole time? The Da Vinci Code left me that way. Everytime I relaxed a little, “Okay, they made it through THAT crisis”, up would come another.
Author Dan Brown takes his major characters, symbologist Robert Langdon and cryptologist Sophie Neveu through a harrowing search/journey that leaves you with more information than you probably want to know about art history, symbolism, ancient religions, cults, architecture and much more.
Although the flashbacks are too long, wordy and at times intrusive, the plot, the use of modern technology and the sheer speed of the action make this a book you will find hard to put down.
review of GETTYSBURG by Stephen W. Sears
The End of the Beginning
Sears points out that Winston Churchill said of another decisive battle, “ Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” So it was with the battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War and this one volume with its detailed descriptions will certainly be the end of such histories for some time.
Not only do we read of the principal leaders in the battle, but Sears lets the reader hear from a broad spectrum of 19th century society as well. We learn what the townspeople did during the battle (most stayed in their cellars) and that many women acted as nurses and cooks. We read the letters of Lee, Meade, Lincoln and many of the generals and hear from a Pennsylvania Corporal who writes to his wife, “My gun got so hot I could scarcely hold to it. . . but I was just as cool and composed as I ever was butchering hogs.”
“Butchering” is the predominant impression I get from reading of this battle. What a heart-wrenching waste of human life! How barbaric is it to line up rows of rows of young men and send them to their deaths? The pictures are graphic, the prose, clear and lucid, and the ending, emotional. War is hell.
Review of THINGS MY MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME by Blake Morrison
P.S. I LOVE YOU
This is a memoir of the author’s mother, told in clear, direct prose, embellished by letters found in a bundle after his mother’s death. It is a love story from the Fifties, complete with romantic music, prejudice (against the Irish, Jews, Catholics and just about anybody not English) and social mores now abandoned (women are nurses, not doctors, you wear hat and gloves to church and there is NO premarital sex).
That Kim O’Shea breaks with all of these traditions is a testimony to her will power. But the price she pays and the continual battle she wages for independence is heartbreaking.
This is a lovely portrayal of a kind, determined woman and the World War II world she lived in. A nice book for feminists, historians and just about everybody.
Review of THE PRINCE OF PROVIDENCE by Mike Stanton
The Prince of Sleaze
You might think that a book about sleaze, cheating, lying, bullying,
stealing, bribing and simple bamboozling would be depressing, but instead it's
fascinating. Mike Stanton's THE PRINCE OF PROVIDENCE is a jaw-dropping account of Buddy Cianci, the terrible bad boy of politics in Providence, Rhode Island.
Typical of Cianci's abuse of power was his attempt to be admitted to the
prestigious University Club. Stung by rejection, he fought back with some well
placed calls. The University Club found themselves unable to get building
variances, their liquor license threatened and word that police would be out front
ticketing every parked car. Incredibly, the mayor was offered a lifetime
The author is well acquainted with the mayor, his office, his cronies and the
city of Providence. He describes the "good Buddy", effective administrator,
tireless promoter of Providence, with the "bad Buddy", wheeler dealer, bribe
taker, but it's obvious the "bad Buddy" prevails. Only the scrupulous reporting
and the ebullient personality of Buddy Cianci can keep the reader from
wallowing deep in the corruption and dirt of Providence politics. I personally
would have like to see more of Cianci's early life and how the influences of
family and school could create such a phenomenon.
If you ever need a reference book of big city politics, this is your how-to
Guide to Political Power using methods legal, illegal and every gray area in
Review of SUDDEN SEA by R.A.Scotti
Another Perfect Storm
Not unlike the best seller A PERFECT STORM, this description of a runaway
hurricane is different because of the time - 1938. Without radar, weather
balloons or satellite pictures, the fledgling U. S. Weather Bureau was caught almost totally unaware when the 180 miles per hour winds, rain and sea surge skipped Florida, teased the Carolina coasts, ruffled the edges of New York and then slammed into southern New England. My personal experience is hearing my parents talk about it years later (I was only one) "And the pear tree went right over!"
SUDDEN SEA abounds with personal interviews, eye witness accounts,
mountains of research in newspapers, magazines and archival records. Author R. A. Scotti conveys a good sense of the Great Depression, pre-technology 1938 world, draws on the emotional experiences of individuals, and keeps a suspense going at the same time. Although you have to wait to the last few pages to find out what happens to the kids on the school bus, in the meantime you learn about meteorology, the hurricane process, and what Katherine Hepburn was doing at the time (would you believe golf?).
Nicely narrated. I'm sending it to my mother.