Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Along with Hilary Mantel's "Bring Up the Bodies," I was rooting for Tan Twan Eng's book, "The Garden of Evening Mists," to win the Booker Prize this year.  This is such a different and interesting book; it is quietly mesmerizing. 
The art of a Japanese garden is personal and private, a reflection of the inner soul of the gardener which brings a sense of spirituality and quietude to the viewer.  There is no riot of color, just the drawing on nature in its simplest form providing the solace of self-reflection in its form and discipline. 
Judge Yun Ling Teoh diagnosed with the fearful certainty of memory loss returns to a Japanese Garden in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia where she spent some years after World War II recovering from her imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Japanese. This return rekindles the memories of her recovery while she is learning the art of the Japanese garden from Aritomo, the ex-gardener of the Imperial Gardens of the Japanese Emperor.  Aritomo is a fascinating and mysterious character.  He should represent all that she hates and fears from her war experiences and the loss of her sister at the hands of the Japanese.  In a strange way these two characters, so very different in their experience, are strangely alike.  Both have pasts to escape, both remain a mystery until the climax of the book.  Both communicate with others bluntly and curtly, and both find their humanity through the exacting work of maintaining the symmetry and beauty of the garden.
At the time of Teoh's return, Aritomo has long been dead.  She finds the garden in disrepair and sets about to restore it to its former glory.  At the same time, she is recording her story and Aritomo's story before all memory is gone. Aritomo was also famous for his wood block prints. An art historian arrives to catalogue and prepare a book for the publication of the prints.  His arrival brings other revelations which may surprise the reader.  There are other characters who enter the tale all having a purpose and meaning in Teoh's life. 
I highly recommend this book as an interesting story, beautifully written. The characters are interesting and well-drawn.  It is also an excellent book club pick for discussion.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

CHAMPLAIN'S DREAM by David Hackett Fischer (non-fic)

How very different our North American history would read if only France had given full support to the settlement and development of America.  One man, Samuel de Champlain, had a dream and devoted his entire life to the building of French colonial Canada. What a magnificent dream it was, and what a wonderful, informative historical look into that dream has David Fischer written.  His book is daunting in its length, over 800 pages.  I know that will put some readers off, but if you have any interest in a story that we in the United States have largely ignored in our school books, than I am sure you will enjoy this book.  The actual story takes place in some 500 pages, and the remainder of the book is source material and very interesting notes and first hand accounts from contemporaries of Champlain and past historians.  Fischer writes so well that before you know it,  you are several hundred pages into he book and completely hooked on the narrative of Champlain's adventures.
Champlain date of birth is disputed, perhaps 1570; he died in 1635.  He was born in Brouage near the coast of France.  It was a time of great turmoil between the Catholics and the Huguenots.  Champlain's family who were Protestant changed faith when it seemed expedient.  Samuel was an expert seaman having grown up in a fishing village where the men were used to long voyages for deep sea hauls.  He fought as a soldier for Henri IV (it is thought by some that he was, in fact, and illegitimate son of Henri).  He was also a talented mapmaker, an artist and a writer.  For whatever reason, Champlain was mentored by Henri, and it is in his reign that Samuel began the first of his many voyages of exploration to the new world.
Champlain's dream was to build a nation, town by town, where all religions were tolerated, where all people were accepted and Native Americans given the same status and respect as the Europeans.  He was given his most support by Henri IV.  When the throne passed to Louis XIII and his advisor, Richelieu, there was much less interest in exploring and settling America.  By that time in history, the French were embroiled in European wars and the 100 Year's War was on the horizon.  France's attitude toward the America's was very different than Spain, Britain and the Netherlands.  The French were satisfied to just reap riches from the furs the trappers returned with, and colonization was very low in importance.  In fact, the French citizens did not have the same incentives to leave their country as many of the religious dissidents in Britain had. 
Champlain soldiered on with his ideal through the two regimes.  He was able to keep small colonies going in Quebec and Trois Rivieres.  The people he attracted for the colonies came largely from Normandy and later from the northern provinces of the Loire River.  These people lived in harmony with the Algonquins, eventually intermarrying with Mohawks, Mi'maq, Huron, Montagnais, and Mohegan.  The Iroquois were the enemy, but Champlain was able to live in peace with them through his lifetime.  The real enemy were the raiders from England, Netherlands, pirates, privateers, and other Europeans who did not respect the traditions and ways of the Indians.
Encased in all this history is the story of an amazing man, who is the Father of Canada.  While much of his life is documented, it is difficult to know the personal life of Champlain.  What was he like emotionally?  He had a strange marriage to a woman much younger than he.  What was wrong in that marriage remains a closed door, but eventually his wife left him and entered a convent.  Champlain himself seems almost monk-like in his devotion to God and his ideals.
I highly recommend this book to all who love history and wish to learn a wealth of information about the settling and early days of French Canada.  How very different the philosophical and governmental history of Canada would have been if Wolfe had not defeated Montcalm in 1759 in the last of the French and Indian Wars, long after Champlain's death.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

THE BEAUTY AND THE SORROW by Peter Englund (non-fic)

"The Beauty and the Sorrow" is the most memorable book I have read this year.  Peter Englund is a Swedish writer who has gathered together memoirs, letters and diaries of a diverse group of people who lived and died during the horror that we call World War I.  Their stories are woven together by Englund 's commentary which keeps the reader aware of world events. It is interesting to see what on one day a soldier in France is doing, while a German family may be picnicking and enjoying a summer's afternoon.  Or you might see a young New Zealand soldier arriving at Gallipoli, while his counterpart on the coast of Belgium or in the mountains of Italy is writing to his girlfriend.
 Once you have immersed yourself in this book, you will not forget its characters as they do their best to retain their humanity in the most difficult of circumstances.  The people are from each side of the war: British, Russian, Australian, Italian, Brazilian, American, French, Hungarian, German and Belgian.  There are 20 of them.  Some made it through the war, some died, some disappeared, some broke down, some were wounded and lost limbs, all were brave and honest.  You see warfare in the trenches, in the air with fledgling pilots with little training; you see the dedication of the nurses, and everyday life in Germany through the eyes of a young teen.  You begin to understand the mess created in Mesopotamia which we are still enmeshed in today.  You will learn why young British adventurers would want to go to East Africa to fight the Germans over presumed riches and the challenges both faced in the tough terrain and prevalent diseases. 
Most of all you will begin to understand the complexities of World War I, and you will wonder how 20 years later we could become trapped in another War of the same magnitude. 
At the very end of the book is an envoi which will send a chill of horror through the reader who has the hindsight to know what is to follow.
I highly recommend this book, not only to those who love history, but also to those who seek an understanding of humanity.  You will not forget the people whose stories are told through their own writings.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

LULU MEETS GOD AND DOUBTS HIM by Danielle Ganek (fic)

This book, passed on by a friend, languished at the bottom of my reading stack, until I picked it up looking for something amusing to read.  It fit the bill nicely.  "Lulu....." is a quick and entertaining rainy afternoon treat.  It is chick lit, but with a punch to it.  The author, Danielle Ganek, is active in the New York art scene and writes with an insider's knowledge.  The book does a good job of skewering certain types that people the art world: gallery owners, agents, pseudo-artists, art groupies, etc. 
The title of the novel is the name of a painting by Jeffrey Finelli, an ex-pat Italian artist who is having his first show in a Chelsea gallery in Manhattan. Unfortunately for Finelli, he expires early in the story, leaving his art to soar in value.  The story is told by Mia McMurray, one of the eye catching young women hired by art dealers to add to the ambiance of the gallery.  The book was written in 2007 when there was a lot of money available to be invested in art and avaricious collectors hover and prance through the narrative.  Mia is reminiscent of one of the characters in the current hit "Girls," though without the blatant sex of the t.v. show.  The story is at its best when satirizing the hoi-poloi.  A parallel story of Mia's and her romance with an art agent doesn't work as well and falls into the chick-lit genre.  All in all, "Lulu..." is dishy read and a good break from heavier tomes.

Monday, October 1, 2012

NO EASY DAY by Mark Owen and Kevin Maurer (non-fic)

This book has been in the news and has been widely commented on.  Most people know it is a Navy Seal's first-hand account of the killing of Osama Bin Laden.  While Mark Owen is a pen name fabricated to protect the author, the real name of the author is now a matter of public knowledge.  This information is pretty easy to find, although the anonymity was designed to protect his family. By the way, the author give no information on whether he is married or has children.  Owen does mention that these men, who appear superhuman in the book, arrive home from dangerous missions and still have lawns to take care of as well as tending to other mundane suburban tasks.
I wanted to read this book because I was interested in finding out what factors would cause a person to live such a dangerous life. The book is neatly divided into two sections.  One tells the story of Owen's background and youth growing up in Alaska.  It includes his intense training with the Navy Seal Team 6.  The other is a detailed account of the raid on the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad in Pakistan.  While the details of the preparation are interesting including an actual mock up of the compound in South Carolina and a kill house, the account of the mission is as exciting as an action movie.  Even though the reader knows the outcome of the mission, one is still on edge as the Seals land and begin their assault.  The details of the assault are brutal.
Having no experience with this kind of activity, the reader may find the book no more real than an action movie might be seen at the local cinema.  These kind of films abound in the States in movies and on t.v. and when you begin to realize that what seems to be fantasy in  a movie actually happened in real life, it is difficult to absorb that this mission was very very real.  That the deed was done in a little over an hour doesn't seem possible.  Even to the men involved, the idea that the mission was accomplished is real only when they are on the way back to Afghanistan with Bin Laden's body in tow.
The account is well written and dramatic.  What to make of warfare and violence of this kind is a personal response based on ones own beliefs.  I am currently reading a book on World War I and it hardly seems possible that warfare could have such differing faces.