Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Real Story of a Real Family

Book Review: The Distancers by Lee Sandlin

According to the commercials put out by a certain genealogy website, your family secrets are only a mouse-click away.
If only that were true.

While some public records ARE available online, they are often filled with misspellings, incorrect dates, and other errors. And even if that were not the case, they are still public records. The real family stories, the ones that really matter, are the ones that are not in plain sight.

In The Distancers, Lee Sandlin exposes some of his family's untold and unseen stories and brings his own past to life. Life for an immigrant family in 19th century America was full of challenges - some rose to meet them, others took the path of least resistance. One family member might diligently work at the opportunities that presented themselves, while a sibling might decide to coast on the work of others. In other words, times (and people) then were not much different than today.

Sadly, not everyone's family has made a mark on the history of this country that can be found in history books. The people that built the railroads and the highways and the factories were not the knighted individuals that made the fortunes and whose names are known to all; the people that built this country were (and are) the ones that did the every day business of working and living. What we see in The Distancers are the people that went the distance, and still do, keeping the wheels of progress turning. Every family has left a legacy, if not in the history books, then in those who still bear their name, and their heritage. That is what real families, and real family history are made of.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Gulag, Chinese Style

Book Review: For a Song and a Hundred Songs by Liao Yiwu

This year marks the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Tienanmen Square protests. It seems a very long time ago that the newscasts showed the images of unarmed Chinese students facing armed soldiers, of a solitary man facing down a line of tanks.

In truth, it has been a a very long time - an entire generation has grown up without first-hand knowledge of the events of May and June 1989.

The simple fact that so many people are unaware of or have forgotten these events make a work like For a Song and a Hundred Songs critically important. In the effort to make China (and it's 1.3 billion potential customers) a business partner, the world has turned a blind eye to the political abuses of the recent past, and the present. Liao Yiwu has crafted a work that forces one to look beyond the facade of business as usual, into the lives of the dissidents and political prisoners whose crime was one of ideas.

Much of Hundred Songs is reminiscent of another tale of political prisoners: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Like the prisoners in the Soviet labor camps, Chinese dissidents were held without benefit of trial for vaguely defined crimes like 'hooliganism', or of being 'counter-revolutionaries' Just as in the Gulag, political prisoners are held side-by-side with violent criminals and were often victimized by them. Like Shukov in Ivan Denisovich, Liao Yiwu struggles to maintain his sense of individuality in a system whose sole purpose is to erase it. Toward the end of his imprisonment, when a friend questions his indifference, Yiwu replies "I feel like I have no past". Surviving day-to-day crowds out considerations of both the future and the past.

Hundred Songs gives us much to think about, both in terms of our relations with China, and with the freedoms that we take for granted as Americans. In light of recent events in the United States, perhaps this needs to be considered a cautionary tale. As Liao Yiwu says, "true freedom lies in the heart". Whether as Americans or citizens of the world, we forget that at our own peril.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Slow Slide into the Surreal

Book Review: Stoker's Manuscript by Royce Prouty

Joseph Barkeley leads a somewhat predictable life, grounded in reality and based on facts. He knows old books and manuscripts, he is an expert in his field.

Then, slowly but surely, he finds his life taking a different track into unknown territory. In the hands of novice author Royce Prouty, Stoker's Manuscript has going Barkeley veering off the rails entirely as he pursues the mysterious clues hidden within the first draft of Bram Stoker's ground-breaking novel.

Prouty moves his protagonist into the surreal environment of vampire-ridden Romania with care, gradually adding equal parts history and horror until the atmosphere is thick as blood. And the blood flows thickly as Barkeley struggles with his own past while trying to find a way out of his dilemma.

Through it all, author Prouty makes the transition from civilized reality to the horrific seem almost natural. The reader moves smoothly through the story, only to suddenly find himself surrounded by vampires. It is like taking a casual walk around the block, following well-known steps, only to look up and find oneself in another city, or another time, or another reality.

An excellent first novel, Stoker's Manuscript will have you turning pages through the night. You might want to save your reading for the daytime though.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Russian Crime Novel

Book Review: The Case of the General's Thumb by Andey Kurkov

This was my first exposure to Andrey Kurkov, and my first exploration of modern Russian literature more recent than The Gulag Archipelago. [Note: although he writes in Russian, Andrey Kurkov is Ukrainian] It was interesting to see what I have been missing.

Everyone is more or less aware of the English and American crime and espionage genres (spies and crooks oft go hand in hand); they are well established and have their particular trademarks. The Case of the General's Thumb introduced me to a new cultural and literary milieu - and after some adjustment I have to say it was a pleasant surprise.

Some of the adjustment was cultural. Character dialog patterns were unfamiliar, and the settings unknown. It was truly foreign territory in many regards. An American reader of an American novel will understand often unspoken cues to events and cultural commonalities; I had to work sometimes to put pieces together.

The writing style and pacing of General's Thumb were also different than I was used to. Part of this may have been due to translation into English, but I believe it was mostly a stylistic difference, and it was simply that -- different.

Different can be good, and General's Thumb is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Kurkov gives us a story that is fast-paced, with enough plot intricacies to keep the reader on his/her toes. The characters may be foreign to American readers, but they live and die by the same human aspirations and failings we all do. If you want a new spin on crime novels, check this out.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

In a Word: Exceptional

Book Review: I Can't Complain by Elinor Lipman

When reading a book, I usually find myself coming back to what I call the "Three Cs" - Clarity (how well it is written), Consistency (do the characters behave in character), and Cohesiveness (does the whole thing stick together). I have found over a lifetime of reading (and I am past the half-century mark, thank you) that these measures pretty much apply to any book, in any genre.

Elinor Lipman's I Can't Complain hits all three and throws a few bonuses as well. Of course, since these are personal essays, the main character stays in character - it's Elinor after all. Her writing is concise [an undocumented C], clear, and simply a joy to read. And the whole thing sticks together like Silly Putty.

More than that, Elinor Lipman takes the everyday and makes it ... more than that. Events do not need to be extraordinary to make them meaningful. I think the present generation has lost sight of the simple fact that the simple things and the basic emotions that go with them are important in their own right. Everything does not have to be an adrenaline pumping heart-pounding YouTube event to be important in a person's life. To expect otherwise is, I believe, missing the point of life entirely.

Thank you, Ms. Lipman, for writing about what it is really like to live life, and to be aware you are living it.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Josephine Marcus Earp - Untold

Book Review: Lady at the O.K. Corral by Ann Kirschner

In her attempt to write a biography of Josephine Marcus Earp, author Ann Kirschner gives us a mix of history, folk tales, and family lore, with a touch of educated guesswork. The result, Lady at the O.K. Corral, ends up equal parts history and historical fiction, with a not altogether satisfying portion of either.

The book is strongest in the Tombstone chapters, where the legendary Wyatt Earp is heavily documented. The wealth of historical information on Wyatt makes the character of Josephine sharper by association, although the factual basis for her is weakest here. To be fair, the documentation of women's role in the Old West is sparse to say the least; they were regarded as little more than bit players on the Western stage.

As Wyatt's role in the story starts to be less important, Lady begins to lag -- supposition and third party accounts do not a biography make. The author frequently remarks how Josephine was closed-mouth about her own story, but the scarcity of information makes the story a little too threadbare. There is a great story here, but it never fully emerges.

In the end, Lady of the O.K. Corral is more of a fictionalized biography, without the cohesiveness of either a straight biography or historical fiction. The genre CAN work; I thought that the fictionalized biography of Irene Nemirovsky, The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter, was an exceptional book. Lady seems to want to hide behind the facts rather than build on them, and fails to embrace the intriguing personality of Josephine as a result.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Tale of Two Women

Book Review: Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman

The story of not just one, but two historic trips around the world, Eighty Days is much more than a travelogue. In following the two protagonists, Nelly Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, in their race around the globe, Matthew Goodman gives us a close-up view of the challenges facing women at the end of the nineteenth century.

Not just ANY two women either. Nelly Bly was a small town American girl, who fought her way into the position of journalist through hard work and determination. Her room in New York was on an unpaved road far from the newspaper offices in Manhattan. "Her grammar was rough, her punctuation erratic", but she persevered.

Elizabeth Bisland also lived in New York; although her apartment was only a few blocks away from Nelly's room in physical distance, it was miles away in social standing. In addition, she was "highly literary, with refined tastes", with a family background to match.

These two women, dissimilar in so many ways, had one thing in common: they had both managed to find their way into that bastion of masculinity, the newsroom. And by "find their way" we mean they persisted in the face of incredible resistance to the very presence of "the weaker sex" in their chosen profession.

Eighty Days is more than the story of two women cutting a path around the world - it is the story of two women from vastly different backgrounds who, each in their own individual way, together cut a path for generations of women to come.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Smuggler Nation: How the Bad Boy Made Good

Book Review: Smuggler Nation by Peter Andreas

"America is a smuggler nation", posits Peter Andreas. As a nation we seem to take a perverse pride in our checkered past, starting with flipping the British Empire the proverbial bird by dumping a load of tea into Boston Harbor (yes, I over-simplify). No other country struts the failings and foibles of our Founding Fathers as much as the good 'ol USA. Personally, I think that is a good thing to some degree.

In Smuggler Nation, Peter Andreas gives us a guided tour through the history of the underground economy in the United States, peeking into historical closets that many Americans may not have been aware of. As a book about American history, Smuggler Nation excels. Where it falls, in my opinion, is in establishing the extent that smuggling has helped fuel our "evolution to a pre-eminent superpower".

The exchange of goods and services, whether on the black market or the open market, is exactly that: an exchange. Our imports of Canadian booze, or French condoms, or Mexican workers have been offset by direct payments and indirect costs of one sort or another; in the long run it is a zero-sum game.

At the same time, the exporters of these goods profited (often illegally on their own side) from the artificially high prices commanded by the contraband nature of their product. Why have these countries not been advantaged in the same way -- are we just better black-marketeers?

I don't think so. I believe America has succeeded due to our unique geographical location, our vast human and natural resources, occasionally exceptional leadership, and a fair amount of luck. While it is ironic that the world's pre-eminent nation of smugglers now seeks to stem the tide of the underground economy, smuggling has been a side effect of our success, not it's driving force.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Information vs Communication

Book Review: Dialogue Gap by Peter Nixon

"Where is the life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" - T.S. Eliot

In Dialogue Gap, Peter Nixon defines communication as the exchange of information, and dialogue as the active sharing of ideas and knowledge. Terminology aside, the idea is that there is a difference between simply relaying information and actually gaining knowledge and wisdom. A surfeit of information -- much of it unreliable or just wrong -- is as close as your computer, tablet, or smart phone. Knowledge and wisdom are not so readily accessible, requiring action and interaction.

At a certain level,Dialogue Gap reads more like a textbook than the standard management "how-to" book, (for example, The Truth About Managing People) so it may put off readers who are used to a more practical than theoretical approach. Admittedly, Nixon can come off a little preachy at times, perhaps forgetting who his target audience may be. But this does not negate the importance and relevance of his message: that in our seemingly endless quest for increasing amounts of information, our ability to communicate (or dialog) is decreasing to a 140 character limit.

"The two words 'information' and 'communication' are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through." - Sydney J. Harris

Peter Nixon gives us a prescription for getting through - put down the cell phones, turn off the computer, and TALK. Revolutionary ... and simple. All it takes is a complete change of mindset. Give it a try.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Art is in the Eye of the Beholder

Book Review: Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age by Jonathon Keats

Jonathon Keats' Forged explores the boundaries of what we commonly define as Art, and in the process forces us to question that definition. What appears to be very straightforward on the surface becomes more complicated when obscured by layers of paint.

When is a copy just a copy, and when is it a forgery? Or even more, when is a copy (a la Andy Warhol), art in itself? Many artists began by copying the work of others. And if you are going to copy someone else, wouldn't you copy from the best? Where do we draw the line? Are all copies, however innocent, mere forgeries?

While it may seem that we are merely begging a question of terminology, it goes much deeper than that. As you begin digging into the works of any particular artist, there inevitably are those that even the experts will mark as "attributed to". Not all artists signed all their work; very few actually cataloged it. Art experts often have to rely on questionable provenance and comparisons to known works in order to attribute a work to a particular artist, and it is not unknown to have a work historically ascribed to one artist be later changed to be the product of another.

If you begin researching the recent "renovation" of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper", you will find out that the painting was in fact restored using copies of Da Vinci's master work that had been painted by his assistants. Centuries of misguided and poorly done preservation and restoration had left very little of Da Vinci's work intact. The restored painting that we now see is little more than a copy of a copy, or shall we say, a forgery? Or is that merely in the eye of the beholder?

These are the types of questions that Jonathon Keats makes us consider. The answers are left for us to decide.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

What Literature Isn't

Book Review: How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields

Before David Shields makes any declaration about literature's impact on his life, methinks he should first learn what literature is.

How Literature Saved My Life is yet another in a series of recent books that seems to be no more than a series of randomly connected blog posts strung together. In fact Mr. Shields actually states that a blog IS literature - stating that he simply does not have the time to read more. I suppose that explains this disconnected series of 'tweets' about books that he has written, or purportedly read.

Literature consists of "writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features" Assembling sound bites from other authors, no matter what THEIR credentials may be, does not make one an author.

The stream of consciousness method has been utilized to exceptionally better and more telling effect than Mr. Shields manages to produce. If the intent behind How Literature Saved My Life is to exhibit a lack of sophistication in modern readers, it succeeds.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Craftwork of H.P. Lovecraft

Book Review: H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction by H. P. Lovecraft, edited by S. T. Joshi

I received H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction as a gift from my son; it is truly one of those gifts that keeps on giving.

My previous exposure to Lovecraft was limited to a short story here or there in a horror anthology, so obviously I am not a hardcore Lovecraft (or horror fiction) aficianado. Whether or not this is truly the 'complete' fiction of Lovecraft (this seems to be a matter of disagreement by fans) I am likewise in no position to judge. However there are some truly stellar aspects of this collection that I would like to share.

The brief introduction at the beginning of each piece by editor S.T. Joshi was a nice addition. Generally a short paragraph giving a bit of background on the piece, it helps place the work in the continuum of Lovecraft's writing career. I did not feel that they contained any major 'spoilers', but rather discussions of stylistic forms, date of first publication, and notes of interest such as rejection by a certain publisher. As a novice Lovecraft reader I found them helpful.

The book takes you more or less chronologically through Lovecraft's work, rather than grouping the stories by style or subject. I enjoyed being able to see how the author evolved over the course of his apprenticeship into the craftsman he was to become. You can see how other authors influenced him, and how he truly learned by doing, integrating ideas from his previous works into what became the Cthulu mythos.

This is a heavy book, in subject as well as mass, so it's not one to read nonstop in the course of a few days. This has held the place of honor on my nightstand for months, to be tasted in discreet and enjoyable morsels, mulled over and digested, then tasted again. It has certainly brought some interesting color to my dreams.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Twisting Reality like Taffy

Book Review: Bushman Lives! by Daniel Pinkwater

Bushman Lives was my first exposure to the work of author Daniel Pinkwater, and overall it was an enjoyable experience. I was reminded of the work of Louis Sachar (Holes, the Wayside School series), not an unflattering comparison, with that same 'dropped down the rabbit hole' feeling to it.

What happens is that the author introduces us to a fairly normal character in a fairly normal situation - and then begins to pull and stretch it in different un-normal ways. Reality takes on the consistency of Silly Putty; malleable, elastic, and taking the imprint of things which it is pressed against. The result can be both amusing and enlightening, although requiring suspension of disbelief to increasing depths. When is a house not a house? When it's covered in whitewash of course!

However much I enjoy this sort of thing, Bushman Lives didn't quite fulfill my expectations. It feels incomplete-there were infinite possibilities, but I felt like I had been left hanging. I was not expecting a 'happily ever after' conclusion, but neither was I looking for the book to just sort of trail off ...