Saturday, June 30, 2012

IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS by Erik Larson (non-fic)

You may know Erik Larson from his best seller "The Devil and White City."  As a witness to history, this book is even better.  William Dodd, a Chicago academic, was tapped by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 to be the Ambassador to Germany.  Dodd, a dry, forthright, honest (seemingly unimaginative) man was way way down the list of Roosevelt's choices.  Dodd and his family go to Germany, and he serves for the five years of Hitler's rise to power.  Through Dodd and his his daughter Martha we see the inevitable outcome of Hitler's demagoguery.  Martha is the most interesting character in the book.  How she evolved from such staid and conservative parents is a study in itself.  She was a liberated woman well before the term was invented.  She conducted herself like a daughter of the 1960s when sexual freedom was considered a right.  Among her lovers were Carl Sandberg, Thomas Wolfe, Rudolf Diels, Boris Winogradov (a committed communist), not to mention a number of others she was somewhat involved with.  Oh, and did I mention, she had a soon to be divorced husband back in the States.  Because of Martha's social contacts, along with her father's diplomatic contacts, and their copious correspondence and diaries, we are the richer in being able to see through this window into the past.  If only, if only we would learn from the past.  Over and over, world shattering events that touch us all, march along gaining strength, while most of us stand by mutely until it is too late.  This is a wonderful book to set one thinking.  It is so well written that it reads like a novel full of suspense and horror seen through first hand accounts.  I highly recommend "The Garden of Beasts," it is an excellent choice for a book group.  There is copious material for many good discussions.

MAINE by J.Courtney Sullivan (fic)

"Maine" is a decent summer read, a book to be taken to the beach, while keeping one eye on the kids.  Sullivan writes about the Kellaher women, a Boston Irish family.  There is a familiar feel to books about the Boson Irish.  There is usually a priest involved, strong women, men conducting shady business on the side, the good cop, the bad cop, the detective, etc.  Despite this formular, "Maine" is largely concerned with four women of different generations.  The matriarch is Alice, and she is a complex bitter character, who becomes interesting in her intereactions with the family.  Her daughter Kathleen who has a wealth of baggage of her own, Ann Marie who is up-tight and terrified of making a wrong move (her fantasies are amusingly naive), and Maggie, a grandaughter, round off the main characters.  The action takes place at the family summer home on the coast of Maine where the women come together.  While their dislike for each other is blatantly presented in on-going family quarrling, there is the deeper bond of family responsibility and bonds forged through years of closeness that are not easily broken.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


What a book!  If you have read David Mitchell before, you know you are in for some masterful writing.  His most noticed book was "Cloud Atlas" which is very different from "Autumns of JDZ."  Mitchell is not an easy or effortless read.  There is a lot to think about in his work, and in this novel in particular, you will have to pay attention to the dialogue so as not to miss its richness and meaning. 
The book is set in the self-isolated country of Japan in 1799-1800.  Most of the action takes place on the man-made island of Dejima, and in Nagasaki which is largely closed to foreigners.  The Dutch East India Company has the sole trading rights here, and they operate like a small independent nation, being cut off themselves from the rest of the world and more or less imprisoned on Dejima.  Our hero is a De Zoet a clerk who is serving time with the company while waiting to be granted the hand in marriage of his Dutch love.  Jacob's history is immensely interesting and his adventures at this outpost are one thread of the story.  In the part of the book taking place on Dejima, I was plunged into a Bruegel painting full of color, humanity, perfidy, vulgarity and injustice.
The second thread of the story centers on Miss Aibagawa a highly educated Japanese woman who has shown such promise in midwifery, that she has been allowed to enter Dejima to study medicine under the Dutch physician stationed there.  When the reader steps onto the mainland, he or she enters into the world of Samurais and line and brush drawings. 
The book's climax is precipitated by the arrival of a British warship, intent on opening up Japan to its own imperial ambitions.  Here the reader is placed on board in a setting familiar to those who are fans of Patrick O'Brian's sea sagas.
Mitchell skillfully weaves the stories of Miss Aibaganwa and Jacob de Zoet together in a tale of unrequited love and adventure.
I loved this book and highly recommend it to any who are willing to invest their time to following its winding path.

Monday, June 11, 2012

ALICE by Stacy A. Cordery (biog.)

Alice Longworth Roosevelt was the first super-star celebrity in the modern sense to live in the White House.  Her every move and fashion choice was followed avidly by the press and most Americans who couldn't get enough of her.  Her mother, Alice Lee of Chestnut Hill died giving birth to Alice.  Her father Theodore Roosevelt, was so bereft, he disappeared from her life for three years.  Her aunt Bye doted on her and then turned her over to her father and his new bride, Edith.  From that point on, Alice's life was formed and dominated by politics.  She also had to share her father with his second family, although she was close to them all throughout her life.  Alice was a rebellious teen who lived her life in the spotlight.  Her diary entries at this time are touching as she tries to find herself.  She mistakenly thought her happiness would lie in a marriage to the older Nicolas Longworth, a leading Congressman, who became Speaker of the House.  He was a womanizer and alcoholic, and her happier times were away from him.  She had a daughter by William Borah, a senator from Idaho. 
Alice was a brilliant woman with little formal education.  She was an autodidact, with an interest in everything modern and forward thinking. She was a superb raconteur. She was a prime mover in politics throughout her life.  She was always true to her father's progressive ideas.  It is an interesting sidelight to read about the Republican party and what it stood for under Teddy Roosevelt, and how it has changed into the conservative party of today.  Despite being a loyal Republican, Alice was not beyond crossing party lines, as she did to support the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, as she felt their philosophy was closer to her father's. 
Another interesting section of the book centers on her relationship with the other Roosevelts, Franklin and Eleanor.  There was no love lost between these two branches of the family. 
Stacy Cordery has written of a fascinating and vibrant woman who dominated the news and politics for her 96 years.  It is recommended reading.