Monday, March 28, 2016

Rose Under Fire

By Elizabeth Wein

Category: This is the first time I’ve read this. I decided to read it because it has the same author as Code Name Verity, and I really loved that book.

My thoughts: This was hard to read, but really good—although, not as good as Code Name Verity. It was engrossing, but difficult to read because it was so heartbreaking.

The heroine of Rose Under Fire is Rose Justice, a young American transport pilot working in England during the latter half of World War II. The events in this book take place after those of Code Name Verity—Maddie Broddatt from Code Name Verity works with Rose. In late 1944, Rose is captured by the Germans and sent to Ravensbrück, a German work camp for political prisoners. There are French Resistance prisoners, Russian prisoners, and Polish prisoners. The Polish women are called “rabbits,” because they are subjected to gruesome medical experiments. Their legs are horribly misshapen as a result. Some of the monsters who performed those “procedures” were tried for War Crimes.

I never really thought about how many nationalities occupied the German concentration and work camps. In addition to American Rose, there’s Roza, a very young Polish prisoner who was one of the Rabbits, and Lisette, a French novelist (this isn’t portrayed in the novel, but I read that there were also British prisoners there). This blend of nationalities reminded me a little bit of Casablanca , how people from several different countries gathered in Morocco for refuge. Specifically, the scene where Victor Lazlo leads everyone in a sing-a-long to "La Marseillaise" sometimes popped into my head whilst reading about Ravensbrück —because in the camp, people from other nationalities came together against a common enemy. A very heartbreaking sidenote: I read somewhere that when the Red Army liberated Ravensbrück in 1945, Soviet soldiers raped some of the women in the camp. How horrible is that?

Ok, one thing about this novel is how brutally realistic it is concerning the day-to-day life at the camp. One horrid thing that I’ve never read anywhere else in any account of life in a German work camp…is about what happened with their bodily functions. Elizabeth Wein doesn’t shy away from mentioning this. The toilets at Ravensbrück had long stopped working by the time Rose was there, and the ladies had to go to the bathroom in a ditch. And because of the diseases that ran rampant in the camps and ravaged the women’s poor bodies—diseases that cause runny diarrhea…well, some folks liked to sleep on the top bunks so they didn’t get “rained” on.

There’s an ongoing refrain in this novel: “Tell the world.” The other day, there was a conviction for genocide that happened during the Bosnian War, which I remember hearing about on the news in the ‘90s but, like so many things, only began to understand during adulthood. World history has too many stories about mass tragedy (Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda…). I am thankful for the fact that usually there are a few brave souls who do stand up and tell the world.

Great passage: Lift is made when the air pressure under a wing is greater than the air pressure over the wing. Then the wing gets pushed upward. That’s how birds fly. That’s how kites fly—a kite is basically just a solitary wing. That’s how airplanes fly.

But people need lift, too. People don’t get moving, they don’t soar, they don’t achieve great heights, without something buoying them up.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Adventure of the Speckled Band

Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Background: I am a huge fan of Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Recently, there was a “special episode” of Sherlock set in the Victorian period. It made me want to read the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

My thoughts: Good story! I kept reading until I was finished, because I had to know what happened—which is the mark of a good mystery, in my opinion. I read somewhere that this was ACD’s favorite Sherlock Holmes story. In “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” Holmes and Watson are chilling at 221B Baker Street. A woman named Helen Stoner comes and tells them about the bizarre and unexplained death of her beloved sister. When her sister was alive, the two of them lived with their stepfather, a doctor named Dr. Grimesby Roylott (that names sounds like that of a Harry Potter character). Their stepfather had been living in India, but after he beat an Indian man to death and went to prison for it, he returned to England with a pet baboon and cheetah (oh, the Empire...)

The ending of the story was satisfyingly creepy. It reminded me of something one would see on the show Forensic Files. I’ve read a couple of things about “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” and it seems as though there are parts that are not exactly rooted in biological truth. Oh well. It is a really good story. And, after reading the story (as happens after I watch the series Sherlock), I felt the need to be more observant of things. Like Sherlock himself.

Great passage: “So tall was he that his hat actually brushed the cross bar of the doorway, and his breadth seemed to span it across from side to side. A large face, seared with a thousand wrinkles, burned yellow with the sun, and marked with every evil passion, was turned from one to the other of us, while his deep-set, bile-shot eyes, and his high, thin, fleshless nose, gave him somewhat the resemblance to a fierce old bird of prey.” 

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Hoop Dreams

Author: Ben Joravsky

Category: First time I’ve read this.

My thoughts: Every few years, I become a little obsessed with basketball (I grew up watching my brother play). And 2015 was one of those years. It started with watching an excellent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about Christian Laettner , which brought back memories of watching early ‘90s basketball (I remember when Duke and UNLV were powerhouses in college basketball). Then I started listening to Jalen Rose’s podcast. All of this pretty much led me to read Hoop Dreams.

Full disclosure—I’ve never seen the documentary on which this book is based. Which is a shame, since I love documentaries. I will rectify this soon. But I really enjoyed the book. Hoop Dreams is the story of William Gates and Arthur Agee, adolescent basketball stars in inner-city Chicago who are offered enrollment at tony St. Joseph’s High School, the alma mater of Isiah Thomas. The background of the players’ families reminded me of the greatest book of all time—The Warmth of Other Suns. Both Arthur and William’s families have Southern origins. Hoop Dreams is ostensibly about William and Arthur, but Isiah Thomas is sort of a third protagonist. Like I said before, Isiah went to St. Joseph’s, and serves as an inspirational figure to William and Arthur. I vaguely remember Isiah Thomas’s basketball career—but truth be told, my brother was more into Michael Jordan, so that’s who I was more familiar with. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate scrappy point guards like Isiah Thomas, Bobby Hurley, John Stockton, and Memphis’ own Mike Conley. Actually, Isiah Thomas’ mother herself migrated to Chicago from Mississippi. Seriously, The Warmth of Other Suns rings so true in so many ways, literary and otherwise.

The fortunes of the two young men take different paths, and eventually Arthur has to leave St. Joseph because his parents failed to pay the tuition. William, however, shines at St. Joseph and at one point goes to a summer basketball camp with three members of the Fab Five —Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, and Jalen Rose. The city of Chicago also functions as a character in Hoop Dreams. In that instance, the book reminded me of the There Are No Children Here. Like There Are No Children Here, Hoop Dreams takes place in Chicago in the 1980s, when gangs struck fear in people and ruled with brutality and drugs ran rampant—Arthur’s father, Bo, was a drug addict at one point. William and Arthur both see basketball as a means to escape their bleak surroundings. At the time, their choices were limited—as the Notorious B.I.G. famously said about getting out of the ghetto, “Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.”

Speaking of documentaries, there are two great ones that I came across while reading this book. One is another documentary from ESPN’s excellent 30 for 30 series, about Isiah Thomas’ tenure with the Detroit Pistons. The other one is about the Robert Taylor housing projects in ChicagoAfter watching the former, I wondered how the Pistons got away with so much pushing and shoving. After watching the latter, I wondered what happened to the family in the film. 

Great passage (which explains William’s feelings when he found out he’d be a teenage father): William had the opposite reaction: instantaneous joy. He had intentionally stopped using condoms because he wanted to make Catherine pregnant. He wanted to create life. William knew so many people who had been murdered. Death was becoming routine as gang wars erupted again around Cabrini-Green. He had nightmares of his own death—another innocent victim caught in the line of fire. “If I die without leaving behind a baby, it’s like I never existed,” he told Catherine.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Dark Places

Author: Gillian Flynn

Category: Ok, after I read Sharp Objects, I wanted to read another Gillian Flynn book.

My thoughts: Dark Places was just as good as Sharp Objects, but way creepier.
Dark Places is narrated by Libby Day, who survived a brutal attack on her family that left her mother Patty and two sisters, Michelle and Debby, dead. Her brother Ben, who was fifteen-years-old at the time, was accused of murdering his family as part of some sort of Satanic plot, and convicted of the murders. As an adult, Libby is contacted by the Kill Club, a group of true crime enthusiasts. Libby needs the money, so she agrees to work with them. Many of them believe that her brother is innocent. As her work/investigation goes deeper, Libby discovers the events that led to the murder of her family.

This novel reminded me of the murders of three young boys West Memphis in 1993. I remember that case vividly. I remember at the time there was a strong belief that there was Satanic worship involved. Dark Places definitely creeped me out in the same way that Night Film did. A colleague who read Dark Places said that it had a “Lifetime movie” sort of ending. And it sort of did. At some point I’ll read Gone, Girl—to complete the Gillian Flynn trifecta. Also, there’s a movie version of Dark Places, with Charlize Theron (who definitely looks nothing like the way that Libby Day was described as looking…)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Sharp Objects

Author: Gillian Flynn

Category: I saw the movie version of Gone, Girl a few months ago. I thought about reading the book, then I figured it would be a good idea to read a Gillian Flynn book about which I was unfamiliar with the plot. So I picked Sharp Objects.

My thoughts: Oh. My. Goodness. This book was really good, but incredibly disturbing. I finished it in about three days because I just had to know what happened. And now that I know…

The main character of Sharp Objects is Camille Preaker. Camille developed a habit of cutting words into her skin, a habit she began when she was thirteen. Words such as castle, blossom, yelp, and freak are etched over most of her body. Camille works at a third-rate Chicago newspaper, the Daily Post, and is sent by her editor to cover the murders of two preteen girls in her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri. One little thing: Camille was released from a psychiatric hospital months just months prior to her return to Wind Gap. And Camille’s relationship with her hometown and her mother is complicated. But the more we get to know Camille’s family, we find out that Camille is the sanest one of them all.

There are some interesting characters in Sharp Objects. Upon her arrival in Wind Gap, Camille gets to know and becomes fascinated with her half-sister Amma, a popular thirteen-year-old who’s like Lolita with a very strong psychotic streak. Camille’s mother Adora is the kind of person who will smile in your face while stabbing you in the back. The specter of Camille’s dead sister, Marian, who died when Camille was thirteen, haunts the family. A detective from Kansas City, Richard Willis, is sent to Wind Gap, and he and Camille are intrigued by each other. The town of Wind Gap itself functions as a character in the novel.

The story is narrated by Camille, and the passages where she describes carving into her skin with a knife were hard to read—I had to grit my teeth while reading them. If I remember correctly, a character did this in Paradise (and I had the same reaction to reading that). At its heart, Sharp Objects is a mystery—a very disturbing one. This is why I had to finish it in a feverish bout of reading—I just had to know what happened to those girls. I’d like to read Gillian Flynn’s other novels, Gone, Girl and Dark Places. But I think I might space them out, and not read them back-to-back. Gillian Flynn is a great writer, but the stories that burst forth from her mind are disturbing.

Great passage: I didn’t mind the idea of spilling Wind Gap’s stories to Richard. I felt no particular allegiance to the town. This was the place my sister died, the place I starting cutting myself. A town so suffocating and small, you tripped over people you hated every day. People who knew things about you. It’s the kind of place that leaves a mark. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Peter Pan

Author: J.M. Barrie

Category: I got the desire to read this after seeing a great performance of Peter Pan at Playhouse on the Square. Bonus: I know the actors who played Peter Pan and Captain Hook.

My thoughts: I’m glad I finally read this book. I think most people in the Western world have seen some version of Peter Pan, so the plot is not unfamiliar. I really liked how Peter Pan (the character) is the essence and manifestation of childhood itself. He forgets things quickly and is more than a little selfish. He has a strong sense of fairness but doesn't think about the feelings of others—it makes you wonder when, during our development, we develop empathy (some, of course, never do). Reading about Peter, I thought about how children have absolutely no filter and are brutally honest in ways that you can’t help but laugh at (most of the time).

I wonder if this book was one of the first portrayals of childhood and children’s wonder as an important thing. That wonder is epitomized by the moment of the book (and my favorite moment of the play) where Peter asks children if they believe in fairies. I remember being a child and seeing Peter Pan on stage and believing in fairies with every fiber of my being. As an adult watching the play and seeing the children around me have that same reaction…well, I cried. It reminds me of the response to Virginia’s letter about Santa Claus. That makes me cry too.

And the book hints with the first sentence (“All children, except one, grow up”) at the loss of innocence that happens when children grow up and don’t believe in fairies anymore. The end of Peter Pan, when Wendy mentions that she’s forgotten how to fly, reminds me of the song Puff the Magic Dragon. The novel of Peter Pan is actually a little more violent than the play and the movies versions I've seen. Or maybe I've gotten too used to sanitized children’s tales.

J.M. Barrie’s writing style is really good. The voice of the narrator is very cozy to the reader, and is akin to the narrator in Washington Square. I love this sentence: “In fanciful stories people can talk to the birds freely, and I wash for the moment I could pretend that this was such a story, and say that Peter replied intelligently to the Never bird; but truth is best, and I want to tell only what really happened.” Yes, truth is best. One not-so-great thing about Peter Pan is its uncomfortable portrayal of Native Americans as savages. It reminds me of the stereotypical portrayal of Jewish businessman Sim Rosedale in The House of Mirth.

Great passage: Quite near the rock, but out of sight, two heads were bobbing up and down, Peter’s and Wendy’s. Wendy was crying, for it was the first tragedy she had seen. Peter had seen many tragedies, but he had forgotten them all. He was less sorry than Wendy for Tiger Lily: it was the two against one that angered him, and he meant to save her. An easy way would have been to wait until the pirates had gone, but he was never one to choose the easy way. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Poisonwood Bible

Author: Barbara Kingsolver

Category: I had wanted to read this for awhile. Then I saw it at a used bookstore for 50 cents. I had to get it. Also, I just could not get into The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

My thoughts: I really really liked this book. At the beginning of the novel, the Price family comes to Belgian Congo in 1959 at the behest of the patriarch, Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist minister who wants to save souls on the “Dark Continent.” He’s married to Orleanna Price, and they have four daughters: teenagers Rachel, Leah, Adah, and little Ruth May.

Things in the Congo at this time are at a tipping point. The residents are demanding independence from brutal colonizer Belgium. Nationally, revolutionary Patrice Lumumba is gaining followers. Locally, in the village of Kilanga, Reverend Price is struggling. The locals aren’t embracing Christianity—perhaps because Reverend Price (like so many before him) never asked if the Congolese would be interested in converting in the first place. However, he chooses to dig in his heels and try to force the issue of conversion—at the worst possible time, because the political situation in the Congo is about to explode.

The Price family is dominated by the will of Reverend Price, but the story is narrated by the Price women. Rachel, the eldest, is the self-centered one. Leah is the sensible one who wants to be like her father, and her twin sister Adah was diagnosed with hemiplegia as an infant. And then there’s Ruth May, who’s the first one of the Price family to make any sort of connection with the Congolese. Eventually, we find out why Nathan Price is so hellbent on getting his way. But as a character, he’s very much a mystery.

Reading this novel, I was reminded of When We Were Kings, which was set in Zaire, nee the Belgian Congo. The documentary mentions Mobuto, the ruler (dictator, really) of Zaire after independence, but I never really got a sense of how brutal his dictatorship was until reading this book (interesting how it took a work of fiction to bring this to light for me). The novel paints Mobuto as a heartless dictator who perpetuated colonial conditions in a way, and lived in luxury while the residents of his country lived in a state of near starvation.

Once again, I was reminded about how much I abhor the effects of colonialism on the continent of Africa by reading The Poisonwood Bible. Greedy European men decided to carve up the map of Africa, brutalize its residents, and completely plunder its natural resources. It reminds me of the quote from The Great Gatsby: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” As I stated in the post about Things Fall Apart, the continent of Africa is still reeling from the effects of colonization. But at least The Poisonwood Bible is something of a tribute to the rich history of an African nation.

Great passage: In their locked room, these men had put their heads together and proclaimed Patrice Lumumba a danger to the safety of the world. The same Patrice Lumumba, mind you, who washed his face each morning from a dented tin bowl, relieved himself in a carefully chosen bush, and went out to seek the faces of his nation. Imagine if he could have heard those words—dangerous to the safety of the world!—from a roomful of white men who held in their manicured hands the disposition of armies and atomic bombs, the power to extinguish every life on earth.

Up next: Peter Pan