Sunday, July 24, 2016

Reading RoundUp: Gyasi, du Maurier, Hemingway

2016 is turning out to be one of the best reading years I've had in some time. Creating a physical TBR shelf (what I call my TBR Action Center) has been working out very well. 

Here's a brief rehash of last handful of books that I've read:

Best novel so far of 2016

Homegoing (2016) by Yaa Gyasi:  The best novel I've read so far this year, in what is, as I said above, turning out to be an excellent reading year. I read about this novel in BookPage and was surprised to see it sitting on the new book display at the library, because around this same time I started seeing it all over the bookish internet and on social media.

Homegoing is a feat of storytelling. I was both energized and exhausted by it. In a nutshell, the novel begins with the stories of two half-sisters in 18th-century Ghana who end up living very different lives: one is married to the white English governor of a Cape Coast Castle and the other is taken as a slave and held in the bowels of the Castle until she's shipped off to America. The novel then follows their respective progeny through time, up to the present day. It touches on significant places and time periods in both Ghana and the U.S. Through dozens of characters, it shows both some Ghanian and some African American experiences. Each character gets only a couple dozen pages, but the images and feelings Gyasi is able to evoke in that space are powerful. As an aspiring fiction writer, this is a novel I plan on reading again to try to understand how she does it. (Source: library)

Finally off the TBR!

Rebecca (1938) by Daphne Du Maurier: This one's going to have to percolate a bit before I can figure out what I think of it. I have a feeling that my esteem will ripen over time, but based on the squeals of pleasure and glowing recommendations I'd heard from those who had read this novel whenever it was mentioned, I was surprised it wasn't more a page turner for me. I had to prod myself a bit each day to pick it up, but once I did the reading went well. It definitely made me think of Downton Abbey. There's even a character named Crowley. I caught parts of the Hitchcock movie on TV when I was a kid -- I think I flipped between it and a Cubs game -- and plan on watching the movie asap. I've heard from several friends that they prefer Du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel to Rebecca, so that one is going on the virtual TBR. (Source: bought it)

Hemingway: love him, hate him, will never leave him.

A Moveable Feast (1964) by Ernest Hemingway: I'm happy to finally have experienced this posthumous work by Hemingway, a writer with whom I have a love/hate relationship. Love his novels, but don't so much like the man, although I do have some sympathy toward him. I may be one of the last of my peer group to read this memoir about Hemingway's life in 1920s Paris. James Naughton did a fine job reading this book. I imagine another actor could have made Hemingway come across as a braggart or blowhard. It was nice to hear the French pronunciation of place names, streets, etc.

After finishing the audiobook version I cracked open the Restored Edition, which I purchased when it first came out in 2009 and apparently never opened; The binding was still tight. This text, edited by Sean Hemingway, the grandson of Hemingway and 2nd wife Pauline, is supposedly closer to Hemingway's last revisions of the manuscript than the 1964 version. That first published version was possibly edited by Mary, Hemingway's 4th wife, to conform to her prejudices. I know Wikipedia isn't a scholarly source, but is intriguing to read there that Sean Hemingway may have edited the manuscript to make his grandmother appear in a better light. Perhaps a third version is warranted, one by someone without the last name of Hemingway. (Source: audiobook from library, hardcover bought it.)


It was interesting to read these three books back-to-back.

After reading Homegoing and even Rebecca, Hemingway's white, male, middle-class privilege leaps off the page. I was struck by his romanticism of being poor and his glorification of the starving artist. At the same time, I do admire his tenacity to sit down at the page everyday and create something in his own voice. That is not something most people can do, no matter how much wealth and privilege they have. But you're not really poor when, 1) you could go back to journalism to make money and 2) you have your wife's family money to fall back on. That's a far cry from being a single white woman with no family in the 1930s or a slave or a black person in Jim Crow America.

Then there's the unabashed wealth of Maximilian de Winter in Rebecca. Max's problem, like Fitzgerald's, at least as presented by Hemingway, is that he married a selfish, mean woman who made life hell for him by sleeping with another man or saying snide things about his penis. Based on two of these titles, vicious, emasculating wives were the scourge of white upper class men in the 1920s and 30s.

All jokes aside, is it fair to compare such disparate books? What value can it offer?

Like all novels and memoirs, these three depict human life or at least the writer's ideas about life. They show the choices open to people, the decisions they make, and sometimes the consequences. Hemingway can tell himself any story he wants, but, in the end, he chose to have that first affair and then had to live with the consequences.

As for the characters in Gyasi's novel, I am struck by how they dealt with the choices available, as limited as they sometimes were. The novel is in some ways an illustration of the idea that the only choice we all have -- some say the only real choice we have -- is how we react: To the world around us, to things people say to us, to things that are done to us.

People die in war, in slavery, by murder. Others like Mrs. Danvers, Maximilian, and Hemingway seem to be broken by life. While others, like the unnamed narrator of Rebecca and so many of the characters in Gyasi's novel, may exist for awhile in a fog, but then--if they're lucky--they wake up and realize that what they do have is their life to live, as best the can, wherever they are.

It's this resilience that I find fascinating, both in books and in life.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Road Trip Recap and Book Haul

Just over a week ago I posted that I was going on a road trip and was so proud of myself for checking out audiobook versions of some titles that are on my current TBR Action Center. The Girl on the Train, A Moveable Feast, and My Reading Life.

I rented a car for this trip because my car has recently become unreliable. We're looking to eventually replace my car with a small SUV. On vacation earlier this year we rented a Jeep Patriot. It was nice to have such an extended test drive, so for this trip I rented a Fiat 500x. It was comfortable and handled well, but there was one tiny problem.

Fiat 500x white rental
Fiat 500x claims up to 34 mpg highway, but during my trip it never went over 27 mpg.
The drive started with bookish podcasts. Books on the Nightstand, The Readers, Literary Disco. It was smooth sailing through CT, NY, NJ. After I ran out of new podcast episodes, it was time to crack open an audiobook. I had the disc in hand, looked at the dashboard, and it was then that I realized there was no CD player. Whaaa? Doh! Technology.

My car is a 2004 VW with a cassette deck and a CD player. I know cassette players are a thing of the past, but I thought CD players were still standard. Apparently not. Hello smart phone revolution. Anyway, I gazed at the dashboard for a few seconds, rather at a loss, before laughing about the situation. So much for the audiobook plans.

Fiat 500x no cd player
No CD player here, grandma!
I listened to some music. Turning on the radio in NJ meant lots of Billy Joel and similar. When I got to the hotel that evening I revived my Audible account, but never got around to downloading a book for the next leg of the journey. I like podcasts and some radio, but I also like quiet, too. But, man, I wanted to listen to The Girl on the Train!

The primary reason for the trip was to attend Induction Day at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. This is the day that incoming freshman get sworn into the Navy and then go through a six week boot camp like experience called plebe summer. I have a young friend who invited me to attend the festivities of his induction. I-Day, as it is commonly called, is a day of events for family and friends while the plebes are being processed. The day ended with the Oath of Office ceremony at 6pm. There were some tears and lots of misty eyes as loved ones and parents said goodbye to their sons and daughters. (Women make up 28% of the class of 2020, the highest percent to date.)

At the museum bookstore I bought a copy of Reef Points, the midshipman handbook that plebes memorize over the summer. I admire the small size of this book--about 3.25" x 5"--which makes much more sense than the bulky 6.5" x 8.5" Guidebook for Marines that I lugged around in boot camp (and which I think is still the same size for Marine recruits). Makes me wonder if officers might be a tad smarter. Or, if I were to put on my enlisted cap, I'd say it's more evidence that officers do indeed have it cushier. ;)

Oath of Office, or swearing in, ceremony. Good luck, class of 2020!
Next I headed about 50 minutes down the road to DC to meet up with book blogger friend Thomas of Hogglestock. It was great to see him again and meet John and Lucy. If you read Thomas's blog you know he's been doing a shelf-by-shelf series about the books in his library, so it was neat to see his collection in person.
With Thomas in his library.
And I scored a few books from his library. (To clarify: Thomas gave them to me, I didn't steal them. Although it might have been fun to steal one and see how long it took him to notice. I had friends that did that to me once when I moved. They each snuck a book out of a box and were waiting for me to eventually start wondering aloud what happened to certain books. Back then I was hyper anal about organizing my books. Unpacking and shelving my books was traditionally the first thing I did when setting up a new apartment. That time I was too busy with a new job and broke from tradition. They started asking not so subtle questions about my books and soon the cat was out of the bag. It ended up being funny for all of us).

Anyway, the books Thomas gave me are:

The duck is from Politics & Prose...Thomas bought it for me...should I name it Thomas?
  • Shadow of a Man by Mary Sarton
  • Spiderweb by Penelope Lively
  • The Sure Thing by Merle Miller
We eventually headed over to Politics & Prose for a browse and lunch. We started off downstairs, in their excellent remainder section, where we both found goodies. Then headed upstairs to the fiction section. I would've loved to have spent a couple hours browsing, but also wanted to make it home before midnight.

My stack:

WildmooBooks book haul from Politics and Prose

I was planning to limit myself to 4 or 5 books, because, you know, space/time/money, and ended up with 7. Not too bad. Plans never seem to work out, exactly, when books are involved, do they?
  • Hotel De Dream by Edmund White -- top two recommended by Thomas.
  • Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron 
  • The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen -- for The Readers summer readalong.
  • Women Crime Writers, The 1940s by Sarah Weinman -- have had my eye on this two book collection from The Library of America since before it came out last year.
  • Women Crime Writers, The 1950s by Sarah Weinman
  • A Small Circus by Hans Fallada -- have wanted to read more Fallada since reading Everyman Dies Alone in 2010.
  • Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser -- for the Australian Woman Writers Challenge
Chris Wolak and Thomas Otto getting their summer reading on! The Sympathizer
Summer reading!

My drive from DC back to CT on that Friday before the 4th of July actually wasn't that bad. I took a route through rural Pennsylvania that Thomas recommended and enjoyed the countryside. Some torrential downpours in NY slowed me down, but the drive took about nine hours. I had feared it would be more.

I did read The Girl on the Train over Independence Day weekend and loved it! Looking forward to the movie, which comes out in October.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Disappearance at Devil's Rock by Paul Tremblay

I still haven't gotten around to reading Paul Tremblay's A Head Full of Ghosts, which seemed to be all over the bookish internet last year, but I plan on it. When I saw that his new release was going on tour with TLC Book Tours I hopped on board.

Disappearance at Devil's Rock is set in Massachusetts. Its a creepy novel that calls to mind the Puritan mythology of the devil living in the wilderness of New England's  forests.
From the publisher: Late one summer night, Elizabeth Sanderson receives the devastating news that every mother fears: her fourteen-year-old son, Tommy, has vanished without a trace in the woods of a local park.

The search isn’t yielding any answers, and Elizabeth and her young daughter, Kate, struggle to comprehend his disappearance. Feeling helpless and alone, their sorrow is compounded by anger and frustration. The local and state police haven’t uncovered any leads. Josh and Luis, the friends who were with Tommy last, may not be telling the whole truth about that night in Borderland State Park, when they were supposedly hanging out a landmark the local teens have renamed Devil’s Rock— rumored to be cursed.

Living in an all-too-real nightmare, riddled with worry, pain, and guilt, Elizabeth is wholly unprepared for the strange series of events that follow. She believes a ghostly shadow of Tommy materializes in her bedroom, while Kate and other local residents claim to see a shadow peering through their own windows in the dead of night. Then, random pages torn from Tommy’s journal begin to mysteriously appear—entries that reveal an introverted teenager obsessed with the phantasmagoric; the loss of his father, killed in a drunk-driving accident a decade earlier; a folktale involving the devil and the woods of Borderland; and a horrific incident that Tommy believed connected them all and changes everything.

As the search grows more desperate, and the implications of what happened becomes more haunting and sinister, no one is prepared for the shocking truth about that night and Tommy’s disappearance at Devil’s Rock.

The title page of the advance reader copy has a nice shot of a typical New England forest scene: thin trees, a bit of fog, boulders & stone, crispy leaves covering the ground. I love the forest and regularly hike in the trails behind my house here in Connecticut. But when you're alone and twilight is approaching...those crunchy leaves rustle and make you walk a little faster to get home. The two inch band of forest at the top of the cover page repeats at the top of each chapter page to re-invoke the fear of the wilderness. Each chapter also has a teaser heading that hints at what's to come: "Elizabeth, Out of the Corners of Her Eyes, and More Notes" or "Elizabeth and Felt Presences, the Last Entries, Kate and Josh Twice." It gives the book an old timey feel.

The heart of the story is about Tommy, a teenaged boy who went into the woods late one night with two friends and never came home. Tommy's parents divorced when he was a boy, his father later died in a car accident after a bit of a downward spiral. Tommy's mother thinks all is well at home. Her son's recent attitude changes were just typical teenage boy growing pains, right? Or was it something else? Stories start to emerge, some myth-like. Relationships between Tommy's mother and sister, as well as his grandmother, become strained. Nothing seems quite straightforward. Is Tommy's mother really seeing him or is she having a nervous breakdown? What are the friends hiding? What does his sister know? I don't want to say too much because, much like an investigation, there are some interesting unfoldings in the plot. Tommy's mother and sister are each doing their own investigations into various factors of Tommy's disappearance. And while Detective Allison Murtagh is on the case, she's also dealing with her own tough family situation.

There are a few truly creepy scenes in this novel, scenes that made me happy I don't live alone, but it is not straight horror, it's also a family drama novel and a crime novel. The ending left me unsatisfied and slightly annoyed in that horror novel way (thanks a lot, Paul), but now I want to read A Head Full of Ghosts more than ever.

Title: Disappearance at Devil's Rock
Author: Paul Tremblay
Publisher: William Morrow/HarperCollins, June 2016
Source: TLC Book Tours review copy in exchange for an honest review.
Recommend to: readers who like mixed genre books and family drama. Will make a nice summer read if you want to get creeped out, but not be completely terrified (unless, of course, you're a parent).

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Hurricane Street by Ron Kovic

Hurricane Street is the long awaited follow-up to Ron Kovic's 1974 Born on the 4th of July, which Oliver Stone faithfully adapted into an award-winning movie under the same name in 1989.
From the publisher: In the spring of 1974, as the last American troops were being pulled out of Vietnam, Ron Kovic and a small group of other severely injured veterans in a California VA hospital launched the American Veterans Movement. In a phenomenal feat of political organizing, Kovic corralled his fellow AVM members into staging a sit-in, and then a hunger strike, in the Los Angeles office of Senator Alan Cranston, demanding better treatment of injured and disabled veterans.

This was a short-lived and chaotic but ultimately successful movement to improve the deplorable conditions in VA hospitals across the country. Hurricane Street is their story--one that resonates deeply today--told by Kovic in the passionate and brutally honest style that led to over one million sales of Born on the Fourth of July.
The publisher's blurb above makes it sound like Kovic's accomplishment was the result of well-laid plans. It was anything but. While Kovic knew he wanted to agitate for better conditions in VA hospitals, he admittedly had no idea what he was doing. When he came up with a vague idea to occupy Senator Cranston's office, he lied to his fellow veterans about his intention and why they were going to the office:
“I know that I have not been completely honest with them and have purposely withheld information regarding tomorrow’s meeting. I am hoping that if I can just get them down there, everything will fall into place. I’m also convinced that if I tell them the whole truth, few, if any of them, will want to go. This is the only way it can be done” (84).
The small group of veterans occupy the senator's office, but they're not getting results. Enthusiasm wanes. The idea of a hunger strike wasn't planned, but someone proposes it and this idea borne of desperation is what eventually gets the attention Kovic and his group were hoping for. Reforms are promised.

The group returns to Hurricane Street riding a wave of success. After a few days the guys are ready to go back to their lives. Kovic panics:
“Maybe they are right and it’s finally time we all go our separate ways, but the thought of breaking up the AVM and ending up alone on Hurricane Street again frightens me. As my dream of the AVM being the catalyst for a greater uprising begins to fade, I plead, “We’ve got to stay together, brothers. We can’t quit now!
    Once again I know I have to do something fast if I’m going to keep everyone together, and I immediately suggest and even greater action. And just as I withheld some facts in order to get all the guys to come with me to Senator Cranston’s office and launch the sit-in, I begin doing the same thing all over again, refusing to tell them of my hidden agenda, knowing full well that few if any will join me if they know all I hope to achieve” (191).
This greater action is a march on Washington, which ends up being a bust. Kovic and his closest allies next attempt to take over of the Washington Monument and the White House, both of which are unsuccessful and end up making the AVM look a bit foolish. Shortly afterwards, Kovic is voted out as leader of the AVM, which is immediately disbanded.

And that's what success in real life looks like. Kovic got results even if it sometimes seemed like failure. Because of guys like Ron Kovic and the media attention they generated, veterans started to receive better care at VA hospitals. Fighting for better medical care is something each generation of American veterans has had to do.

The style of Kovic's writing is as simple and straightforward as the cover of the book. At times it seems graceful and at other times it seems as if you're reading the private journal of a ham-fisted teenaged grunt.

I wanted more details from Kovic in this book. Some sections seemed much too vague, such as when he was traveling around the country visiting veterans groups to gain support for the march. At least one detail was totally wrong--he mentions quietly opening a can of Diet Coke in 1974, a beverage that didn't exist until 1982. (Sorry, I was in high school when it came out and it was a big deal.)  And I'd like to know if there was a government spy in the AVM who worked to shut it down. But these are small beans compared to the overall story Kovic tells. It's not a story most people will bother to read.

One detail that caught me off guard, which is one of the most poignant moments of the book, is when Kovic mentions running into Donald Johnson years after the hunger strike. Johnson was head of the VA in 1974. Back then Johnson had been the enemy, but over the years Kovic came to learn that Johnson had served honorably in WWII, that the man's father died in WWI and his own son was a disabled Vietnam-era veteran. Kovic writes about Johnson,
"Never during the strike did I or the others take this into consideration. How could we? We were angry . . . obsessed with our own priorities. Back then there was no middle ground. The truth is, I wish I had been able to tell him that day that I was sorry for the way we had treated him" (233).
But it was a battle he was fighting in 1974 and because of "powerless" men like Kovic, men in positions of power like Johnson were made to work harder to truly take care of America's veterans (or quit if they weren't the right man for the job).

Title: Hurricane Street
Author: Ron Kovic
Publisher Akashic Books, July 4, 2016
Source: Free book with no strings attached from LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Recommend to folks interested in U.S. veterans, veterans rights, Vietnam era. Not recommended for general audience.

See my post on Born on the 4th of July.
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