Saturday, November 26, 2011

Vonnegut Revealed: An Extraordinary Biography

In this painstakingly researched and loving biography of Kurt Vonnegut, Charles J. Shields paints a rich and balanced portrait of a very complicated author. Shields reveals Kurt Vonnegut as a conflicted and often contradictory human being, and sadly, in the end, a lonely and unhappy old man in this fascinating and highly readable look at his life.

I count Kurt Vonnegut among my favorite authors, since discovering Slaughterhouse Five in a college English course in the 1970's. Billy Pilgrim became my touchstone for understanding war-damaged friends and family, and Kurt Vonnegut became my guide to viewing humanity, progress and the insanity of war through new eyes. I had already discovered Twain and Thurber, but Vonnegut was in a class by himself. I became enamored with his world view, his cynicism and his sense of humor and read practically everything he wrote. His books made me laugh and cry and think, which is exactly what happened when I read Charles Shield's biography. I learned that Kurt Vonnegut was a very different man than his public persona, much more complex and flawed and human than I had imagined. Now that I have read this mesmerizing and educational look at Vonnegut's life and the history that shaped it, I owe it to myself start all over again, rereading his body of work through new eyes. Armed with context, I imagine the reading experience will be very different. I can't wait to find out.

Listen. The best endorsement I can give Mr. Shield's work is this:

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life will reside in a place of honor, on the top shelf of my bookcase, with all my other keep forever books, right next to my Vonnegut collection. It is that good.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Currently reading and loving...

Thank you LibraryThing Early Reviewer program!

I'm 81 pages in and 18 sticky notes deep. So far, a very, very good read.
Review in a few days.

Updated for Review:

Steeped in place and history, rich in characters, perspective and story, Nightwoods by Charles Frazier is a suspenseful, engaging and enlightening read. I admit to some bias as a reader very familiar and enamored with the mountains of North Carolina, and one who loves a strong female character, but I believe this novel is an exceptional piece of writing told in a unique and talented voice. I marked dozens of passages to reread the insightful prose and revisit the symbolism, philosophy and poetry in the author's words. Though not nearly as bleak as Cormack McCarthy's The Road, there is a similarity in sparseness in grammar and punctuation that contributes to the story, as well as a sense of inevitability comingled with hope and despair that permeates the pages. I was equally reminded of Amy Bloom's stunning novel Away, as both works feature exquisite style, an indifferent landscape that is as much character as setting, and a testament to the lengths a human will travel in the name of love. Bloom's Lillian believes that we live and we love the world, and we kid ourselves that the world loves us back. Luce's philosophy is sweet and simple: the natural world would go on and on just fine whether you watched it or not. Your existence was incidental. It is clear that Charles Frazier pays attention to the world around him, and in his writing he bears witness to its benign beauty.

I highly recommend reading Nightwoods for the story, the prose and the talented craftsmanship Frazier draws upon to create this work of art.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

LibraryThing Early Reviewer Reads

Forgive me book blog, for I have not been posting. I have been reading, although at a paltry rate, and I hope Summer brings me some time to do nothing but read, read, read. Here are the reviews of the LT ER books I've read since my last post.

Leaving Van Gogh

I finished reading Leaving Van Gogh days ago, and have struggled since then to find the right words for a review.  Carol Wallace crafts a deeply moving work of historical fiction that recreates the last year of Vincent Van Goh’s life in Auvers, France. The story is told through the caring eyes of his physician, Dr. Paul Gachet, who suffers his own sorrows as a widower unable to save his wife, or ease her suffering as she died years prior. At the request of Vincent’s brother, Theo, Dr. Gachet watches over Vincent and tries to diagnose his condition and offer what little help he can provide to ease Vincent’s suffering.

Dr. Gachet's tender voice brings this well-known story the unique perspective of a physician struggling to understand and treat mental illness, of an amateur artist, art lover and art collector's insight into the art world, and of a perceptive friend's witness to the struggles of the Van Gogh brothers. Leaving Van Gogh is a beautiful, sad story that took me inside the tortured mind of the mentally ill, and the sorrows of those who care for them. I was surprised at the emotional impact of this book, given my understanding of Vincent Van Gogh’s life story. The author manages to combine the details of these men’s lives into a lovely and devastating portrait that illustrates how reality is too much for some to bear, and how sometimes love is not enough to tether us to this world. I have stared at Van Gogh’s paintings for hours, and read countless books on his life, and I thought I had some understanding of his sadness and his daily struggles. This wonderful work of historical fiction taught me once again how little I knew, and allowed me to feel deeply the pain of these men, and to imagine what they might have said, or felt, or might have done in the days leading to Vincent’s suicide.

I have revisited my art books and my Van Gogh books and I am seeing them again through new eyes, especially Vincent’s raw and sorrowful portrait of the Doctor and Dr. Gachet’s heartbreaking sketch of Vincent on his deathbed. I found this book to be incredibly sad and touching, faithfully and lovingly researched and written and I recommend it very highly. It will stay with me for a very long time. 

Winged Obsession

Jessica Speart’s Winged Obsession offers a glimpse into the real lives of an international butterfly smuggler, Yoshi Kojima, and the Fish and Wildlife undercover agent, Ed Newcomer, who catches him after three years of hard work. Interwoven in this story is Newcomer’s undercover work to catch pigeon racers who kill hawks to protect their flocks. Both of these story lines provide a shocking and sad portrayal of human disregard for the lives of protected species for profit or for sport, as well as the frustrating lack of resources or meaningful laws to deter these criminals. Comparisons to The Orchid Thief are inevitable, from the quirky characters, the obsession to find and collect a rare thing, and the author's presence as a character in the story. 

The author is at her best when providing factual, background information on declining butterfly populations, the illegal trade of protected species, the beauty of the varied butterflies, the mania of the collectors who covet them and the dedication of the officials who try to catch the lawbreakers. She is particularly adept at describing the filth and horror inside Kojima's homes, and was able to make my skin crawl in several passages. The author is at her worst when using cliché-riddled passages to describe the interactions, dialog or thoughts of her characters, particularly in the early stages of the book. That said, the bizarre life and actions of Kojima and the dogged pursuit of him by Newcomer, and the story itself make this a book worth reading for anyone with a love of nature and butterflies, and anyone who enjoys a suspenseful mysterious read. I finished this book with a renewed appreciation for the hardships facing endangered species and a lingering curiosity about the mysterious and deceptive Kojima.

The Long Journey Home

As a fan of both Augusten Burrough’s and John Elder Robison’s books, I was eager to read their mother, Margaret Robison’s memoir, A Long Journey Home. I hoped to gain some understanding of her perspective and some insight into how their lives turned out as they did. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy reading this memoir, and found it both frustrating and sad. I was frustrated by the author’s writing style, which was more a list of recollections rather than the memoir of a poet. Maybe this is a generational problem, but I was constantly infuriated with her inability to stand up for herself against her husband or her father in law, and her failure to defend and protect her children or to find a way out of the messes in her life. I only made it halfway through the book before I began to skim through the chapters. But I read with great interest the last chapter, shocked that she could insist that her son’s book was filled with blatant lies, particularly in light of her mental instability. I’m sad to say that the author comes across as very passive and weak willed, confused and self-absorbed. She fails not only to take any responsibility for her part in their crazy lives, but fails to even allow for the possibility that her children suffered from her neglect. It is a terrible thing for a child to grow up abused or neglected, and an even more terrible thing for the adults in their lives to deny that the events took place. This book was not the revelation or the well written memoir I expected, and while I felt some sympathy for the emotional turmoil she suffered, Ms. Robison’s version of her life as victim upset me as both a woman and a mother. 

Happy Summer reading!

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison

I downloaded a free kindle copy of this work over a year ago. I have a keen interest in the history and colonization of North America, the American Revolution and the fate of the Native American Indians. I have read many historical archives online researching my relatives who settled Connecticut and Pennsylvania. My Grandmother's great grandfather fought alongside his father in the Revolutionary War, and was later captured by Indian Scouts and sold to the French after being marched from Pennsylvania to Prisoner's Island in Canada. His daring and remarkable escape, and walk back to Vermont to civilization is well documented. His hatred for the Indians and his subsequent years spent destroying Indian settlements in Sullivan's March is also well documented. Through his recollections, a deep fear and hatred for the Native Americans is evident. I had come across many references to Mary Jemison during my research, as her story crosses paths with those of my ancestors.

While on Spring Break, I read a few pages of James Seaver's interviews with Mary Jemison and was hooked. Her story is remarkable and sad, as she is the only member of her family not slaughtered and sold for scalps, instead sold for adoption to a Seneca tribe. She lives among the Indians as one of their own, marrying, raising children, hiding from Sullivan's raids, and lives to the age of 90 to witness the birth of this nation and the demise of her adopted tribe, suffering great personal loss along the way.

I could not stop reading this book. It is a quick read, fascinating from both the historical and the human perspective. Human nature has not changed much in the last 200 years, as countless stories of betrayal and murder and deceit are woven throughout the years, along with tales of strength, bravery and resilience. The details of tribal warrior ritual are very gory. There are detailed descriptions of torture rituals, but there is also context and explanation for them. I felt a greater understanding of the culture of the Indian tribes and gained a great deal of insight into how my relatives must have perceived these rituals without understanding them and seeing them only as savage barbarism, rather than retribution or redemption for lost souls. Mary was extremely lucky to have been chosen for adoption, and we are lucky that she not only survived, but chose to recount her life for historians in her old age.

I did not expect to enjoy reading this novel as much as I did. I kept thinking that real life is so often stranger than fiction. The torture rituals haunted my dreams for a few nights, but otherwise, I recommend this book which is available free on Amazon or the Gutenberg project, for a unique look at both sides of an amazing era in American and Native American history, and for a glimplse into the life of a remarkable, strong woman named Mary.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Someone Knows My Name

Finally, my book club picked a good one. A very good one.

Someone Knows My Name is an excellent piece of historical fiction writing. Aminata Diallo is abducted from her West African home at age 11, marched for months to the coast where she is sold by slave traders. Barely surviving the horrific ocean crossing, she is delivered to the Carolina Coast to work the indigo plantations. Her adventures and harships, as she travels the eastern coast of the Americas and Canada, back to Africa and ultimately to England, are mesmerizing. It is always a surprise to me when a male author creates such a believable, authentic, unique and memorable female character, and Lawrence Hill has done exactly that in this riveting book.

Meticulously researched, steeped in history and harsh reality, Someone Knows My Name entertains, educates and resonates. After finishing the book in a weekend marathon of reading, I scoured the internet for more details and facts surrounding this facet of slavery I knew little, if anything, about. British relocation of American slaves to Novia Scotia at the end of the Revolution, and their subsequent resettlement with other former slaves in Freetown, Sierra Leone was both fascinating and sobering. Observed through the intelligent eyes of Aminata, the irony of the American patriots' fight against British oppression is painful. Aminata carries herself with dignity, strength and pride through repeated and shameful acts of inhumanity, living to tell her story in her own words, on her own terms. This book is beautifully written, heart wrenching and deeply moving, and I recommend it highly.

For those who enjoy this era in history, and this genre, I also recommend The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to a Nation, another unforgettable character in a great piece of historical fiction writing.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

What Next?

LibraryThing lets me see the cover of every book in my library, and lets me sort them by tags. My To Be Read Pile is over 250 now. I realize that is a ridiculous number of unread books to have laying around, and I blame the used book sale I chaired for the elementary school for most of them. It's very hard to resist a paperback for 50 cents. I'm trying to stay away from Goodwill and limit my kindle downloads, but it's very hard to resist free books. But too many choices is never a good thing. I've started several dozen of them, but the timing was not right. With me and my books, timing is everything.

I scrolled through the covers today and half of them jump out as prospects for my next good read. I keep shuffling Poisonwood Bible to the top of the pile, but am not ready to commit yet. It's time to commit to something though, starting the third week of the new year, and not a book read yet.