Wednesday, January 30, 2013

DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC by Candice Millard (non-fic)

Whoever thinks of James Garfield these days?  In a year when Abraham Lincoln is so present and celebrated, it is worthwhile to devote reading time to another assassinated President, James A. Garfield.  Candice Millard has written a fascinating and brilliant read about a little-known President who served for such a short time before meeting a horrific death, caused just as much by inept doctors as by the bullet which cut him down.
Garfield was born in a log cabin in Ohio.  After his fathers early death, the family was desperately poor.  It was only through his mother's determination and hard labor that the family survived, and James's destiny was planted.  It was largely through the influence of his mother and brother that James finished his education.  After a short stint working on the Erie Canal, he matriculated from Western Reserve Eclectic (now Hiram) to Williams College.  He returned to Western Reserve Eclectic to teach and at the early age of 26 became President of the school.  When the Civil War broke out, he left teaching and rose to the rank of Major General in the Union Army.
After the war, Garfield found he enjoyed speaking and politics.  He never intended, nor did he wish to run for President.  It was by a fluke, when an impasse was reached at the 1880 Republican convention, that he was nominated to run for President.
These bare fact do not convey the warmth and intelligence of Garfield.  Millard does a stellar job of allowing us to see what a unique man Garfield was.  In his short term in office, he carried on the beliefs and programs that Lincoln had put in motion.
On July 2nd 1881, a madman with delusions of grandeur, shot Garfield at the Baltimore and Potomac train station where accompanied by his Secretary of State and good friend James Blaine, he waited to board a train to western Massachusetts, where he was to see his sons off to Williams College and join his family for a vacation.
At this time in history, Presidents had virtually no protection or bodyguards.  Anyone could wander in and out of the White House at will, and when Garfield traveled, he did so alone, driving his own horse and buggy.
The saddest thing of all is that the bullet that entered Garfield was not fatal where it lodged in his body.  What eventually led him to an appalling and frightful death, eleven weeks later, were the probings of his physician and subsequent massive infection caused by a lack of sanitation.  Despite the fact that Joseph Lister had already proved the value of proper sanitation when treating patients, Dr. Willard Bliss, Garfield's physician, chose to ignore and even denigrate these measures.
I highly recommend Millard's book.  It is a good choice for discussion groups as well as for anyone who would like to acquaint himself with the much loved in his time, and little appreciated now, 20th President.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

SAN MIGUEL by T.C. Boyle (fic)

San Miguel is desolate island 26 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.The contrast couldn't be more different, the treeless barren island defying the lush flowery paradise of Santa Barbara with its temperate climate and lovely homes.
T.C. Boyle has based his story on two real families who once loved in isolation on San Miguel. 
Boyle has divided the book into three parts, and although the island is central to the story and binds the three sections together, the stories are mainly about three women and the two men, searching for inner peace, who brought them there.
The first third of the book tells the story of Will Waters, a civil war veteran, his wife Marantha and step-daughter, Edith.  It takes place in 1888 and the hardships this family endures are horrible.  The weather is of two kinds, wet and cold, and dry and windy when the days are filled with sand.  The cabin they live in is little more than a shed.  Besides the sheep on which they depend for their livelihood, the only other occupants of the island are a couple of farmhands who come and go from the mainland, and a stalwart housemaid who seems to be the only one there with her head on straight.  Marantha is a consumptive and her struggles to survive are painful, and to this reader soon become tedious.
The middle section of the story tells what happens to Edith, a young schoolgirl of great promise who is forced to live and work in harrowing conditions by her increasingly angry and abusive stepfather. 
By the time I read to the final section of the novel, I was desperate for relief from the dreariness of this mean little island.  The time now changes to the 1940s.  By now the old home has been replaced by a comfortable ranch house, and the Lester family is living there.  Herbie, a shell-shocked veteran of WWI has brought his eastern educated wife to the island, hoping for an escape from the demons that plague him.  His wife Elise takes to the life of the island which by this time has greater contact with the mainland, and they have a loving relationship.  Their life takes on a rhythm that works well with that of the island.  Eventually two daughters are born.  This section of the book becomes less one of survival and more one of dealing with the personal issues that isolated living brings.  When WWII breaks out, the island becomes of interest to the Navy.  This interrupts their pastoral life in ways not foreseen.
T.C. Boyle is one of my favorite writers. His short stories are beautifully written; many have appeared in the New Yorker Magazine.  I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did, though the writing is superb.  Boyle's characters are so real they could be your neighbors. The dreariness of the island is as real as can be.  It seems like each of the three sections of the book could stand alone as a short story.  The only story I really liked though was the story of the Lester family. It almost makes the rest of the read worthwhile.  "San Miguel" is one of the Times notable books of the year, so it may be more to the liking of other readers.  Boyle still remains a favorite of mine.

Friday, January 18, 2013

WAIT FOR ME memoirs by Deborah Mitford (non-fic)

Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire is the youngest of the six famous Mitford sisters; she wrote this memoir in 2010 when she was 90 years old.  It is a toss up as to which of her sisters was the best known of the eccentric and wildly talented Mitford family.  Nancy the eldest, who wrote the most books, fiction and non-fiction is perhaps the most widely read.  Readers are still finding her uproariously funny books, about growing up in reduced circumstances with Favre and Muv, entertaining.  Favre and Muv were Lord and Lady Redesdale who like many British nobles, were home and land rich, with all their income going to maintain entailed property.  None of them exactly "own" their property;  they just keep it going for the next heir to come along. 
Everyone in the family had a pet name, and Debo may have been the last to come along, but she was and is filled with the same energy and creativity her sisters possess.
This memoir tells more tales of Decca, Diana, Unity, Pamela and brother Tom who was killed fighting in World War II. As Deborah has outlived the others, we also learn what became of them in later life.
The family property was in Oxfordshire and when the family fell on hard times, they moved to Old Mill Cottage in High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, which is familiar territory to me, as I worked there for a time.
Deborah came of age during the war, a time of rationing and hand-me-down clothes.  She duly came out, was presented, and met, fell in love and married Andrew Cavendish, heir to the Chatsworth estate and Duke of Devonshire. The latter half of the book talks of the managing of the Devonshire properties and how she managed to keep them going by opening Chatsworth House to the public and keeping a working farm profitable.  Along the way, many famous people such as Evelyn Waugh, Lucian Freud and the Kennedy Family make their appearances, bowing in and out as stories are told.  Some of the more interesting parts of the book appear in the addendum which chronicle the inauguration of President John Kennedy and then his funeral.  The Cavendishes were special guests at both of these events, along with other visits to the White House while Kennedy was President.
Like the other books by and about the Mitfords, this one is entertaining if you have some knowledge of the characters.  At times I found myself become bored with the many Lord and Lady This and That coming and going, eating dinners and chasing grouse.  The best bits are when Debo is telling us stories of her slightly dotty family.  There are a number of interesting photos in the book and the last is a lovely picture of the Duchess with her many great-grandchildren.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

CUTTING FOR STONE by Abraham Verghese (fic)

Abraham Verghese was born in Ethiopia, studied medicine in the United States and currently teaches at Stanford University.  Only a surgeon could have written such a realistic novel about doctors with such precise detail.  While most of the story takes place in Addis Ababa, there is also an excellent depiction of surgery residency in an inner-city New York teaching hospital.
Verghese's characters are well drawn, though the males are more rounded than the females of the story.  As each character is introduced, the reader realizes that each has a story of their own, which is followed throughout the book.  The characters may disappear for a while, but in the end they reappear never losing their connection with Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa and with each other. 
The novel tells the story of co-joined twins boys(separated at birth), born in the 1950s.  We follow them through their youth and adulthood as they live through a stormy period of Ethiopia's history.  The author takes some liberties with the time frame of the story, but the historical events are essentially accurate. During this time, Eritrea was in revolt for independence from Ethiopia and Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed by a dictator who ruled a corrupt state.  Missing Hospital remained a stable base for the sick and poor to be treated and plays a major role in the novel. All the characters' stories take place in and around this hospital which acts a vehicle for moving the story forward. 
The twins, Marion and Shiva Stone and their childhood companion, Genet have their lives and future shaped by the hospital.  The boys lost their mother at birth (a young Indian nun, who has an interesting story of her own), and their father Dr. Thomas Stone (an Englishman raised in India) left them behind in his grief.  They were raised with love by two doctors who marry and adopt the twins.  Kalpana Hemlatha, known as Hema and Abhi Ghosh are caring and strong characters,which we discover as their stories are revealed. Ghosh is the main influence in the life of the boys.
The story is mainly told through the eyes of Marion Stone who grows up to become a surgeon who completes his residency in the New York City of 1979.  The plot has so many intertwined stories that it is difficult to do it justice here.  The author, Dr. Verghese, tells a good story with accurate attention to medical procedures.  It is a book that will keep the reader involved and interested. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

WILD: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail" by Cheryl Strayed (non-fic)

Back in 1995 Cheryl Strayed set out to change her life.  She decided to do this by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, 1100 miles of it, from the Mojave Desert, through California and Oregon to the boarder of Washington.  Strayed was 26 years old and newly divorced from a man she continued to care for. She even changed her name, choosing "Strayed" which sounded right for the adventure on which she was about to embark.  Strayed was a neophyte to hiking, learning along the way about the supplies and equipment she should have carried instead of the formidable backpack she set out with, aptly nicknamed, "The Monster."  Like a penitent on a pilgrimage she was carrying more poundage than anyone else she met on the trail, eliciting surprised amazement from much stronger men who traveled with much lighter backpacks.
Strayed was escaping from the hardscrabble life she had let up to this point.  She was very close to her mother, who had raised Cheryl and her siblings as a single parent, after her abusive husband left when Cheryl was six years old.  The family was so poor they lived in an isolated area carved out of the woods above Minneapolis in a house without running water or electricity.  This kind of hardship shaped Cheryl into an independent and tough woman.  She managed to begin college even as her determined mother also began a degree program at the same university.  Then her mother was diagnosed with cancer at age 45.  Strayed began a downward spiral after her mother's death.  She left her husband, engaged in casual sex and had a fling with heroin before pulling herself together and beginning her journey.
Strayed writes graphically of the hardships she encountered along the PAC.  Along with the stories of blackened toenails and severely blistered feet, she writes of the majestic beauty she experienced in her trek and also the dangers she met from man and animal along the way.
I had the experience several years ago of hiking a small portion of the PAC in the North Cascades of Washington.  If there is anything more beautiful than seeing snow covered glacial mountains in every quadrant as far as the eye can see and downward to the occasional perfect turquoise lake or wildflower meadow, I can't think what it would be.  It is no wonder Strayed found peace and comfort as she walked her journey.
Cheryl Strayed writes an amazing story of a single woman meeting the challenge she set for herself.  It is difficult not to shed a tear at the end of her adventure.  I highly recommend this book to all readers.  It is a wonderful choice for a book group.