Monday, July 30, 2012


British historian Ian Mortimer takes as his approach the idea that history begins with people, not events, and that to travel through history one must first delve into the lives of those who inhabited the time and place you wish to visit.

For me the definite strength of the book is its ability to breathe life into the long distant past, to draw out the commonalities between the lives of the people of that time and my own, and to make me see that when I read history and historical fiction of the time period, I need to view their lives through their era’s lens, not my own.  Ian Mortimer does a great job of stressing that, stressing the pride that they took in keeping clean homes-would they be clean from our standards?  No, but against another home of the time they were.  Or the fact that they washed hands and faces between five and eight times a day, but all we can focus on is the fact that they took baths so seldom.
This book subdivides into sections such as What to Wear, What to Eat, Where to Stay, among many others, covering all aspects of daily life, across all stratums of society.  Detailed lists are given, such as what furs were allowed to trim the hoods of your garments, depending upon your position in society.  Yes, in fourteenth century England there were actual written laws stating which animal fur you could use if you were a merchant’s wife as opposed to a duke’s wife.  It was fascinating to read through each subsection in turn and see the quality of and quantity of clothing, food, household goods, etc. diminish as the author moved from discussing the king on down to the lowest peasant.  Some things were loved in common by all, such as music, oral tales and poetry, and nature.  Also discussed were things that were common to society in general, although some could afford them more than others, such as medical care and traveling from place to place, and the law of the land.
At times the book became a bit too detailed for my taste, giving, for example, actual lists of household inventories, complete with values of items, or lists of specific kinds of fish that each level of clergyman would eat.  After section after section of list after list, this does tend to get a bit tedious, and I found my eyes beginning to slide to the end of tallies of fabrics or meats or whatever was being discussed.  If you are a serious history buff or really into historical fiction set in the Middle Ages, then you will find this book fascinating.  If, however, you have a passing desire to learn a little more about the time period, this is not the book for you.  It is far too detailed, and I doubt that you would give it more than two stars.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

WILD: From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed ✰✰✰

This was one of those weird, undefinable books for me.  How do you rate a book where the writing was quite good, the editing decent enough (it did get a bit redundant at times), but you just really, really disliked the narrator, and the book was a memoir?
I cannot say that the book was bad, because it wasn’t-Cheryl Strayed is an excellent writer.  Prior to getting into the story of her journey, the reader was given just enough background information to understand what led the author to undertake such a drastic undertaking.  From the moment she decided to set foot on the Pacific Crest Trail, she carried the reader along with her through every agony, mishap (there were many), humorous event, and joyful moment.  Interspersed throughout her account were stories from her Minnesota childhood, her mother’s battle with cancer, and her failed marriage; these stories wove very nicely into the trail narrative.  This brought us to the part of the book that caused my rating to take a nose-dive from a five star read to a three.
Allow me to say, before I write another word, that Cheryl Strayed was very aware of her own character weaknesses, and she was forthright and made no attempt at concealment whatsoever in the course of her telling.  There were two reasons that drove Cheryl to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, the first of which was that she felt unbalanced by losing her mother to cancer, but the second of which was more driving.  She had been unfaithful to her devoted husband, who had seen her through her mother’s illness, not once, but many, many times, and she felt that she needed to do something to cleanse and center herself.  Despite this, Cheryl had a very casual attitude towards sex-seeing nothing wrong with one-night stands along the trail, for instance.  This might not bother some readers, but it goes very against my personal values, and given that part of her own stated reasons for traveling the trail was to atone for ruining her marriage due to infidelity, it interfered with my rating the book higher.  Also, she went through numerous short periods of heroin use, sometimes just one or two days, not long enough to be addicted, yet she repeatedly committed the same mistakes over and over again, despite vowing not to do it again.  Much as I admired Cheryl’s candor, in her bald honesty she painted a picture of a person I didn’t like very much, and it made it a little difficult to root for her along the way.  I am not so certain that she was really all that “found” by the end of the trail either, although I do think she was making some positive headway.  
The audio of this book, which was the way I experienced it, was very good, and I would definitely recommend it.  It was put out by Random House Audio and narrated by Bernadette Dunne.
If my comments have put anyone off reading Wild, I do want to say that I can give two enthusiastic thumbs up for her writing, even if I did not connect with her personally, and thus I look forward to reading her novel, Torch, which I hope to get to in the near future.

DISPATCHES by Michael Herr ✰✰✰

Michael Herr spent eighteen months during 1967 and 1968, including the time of the infamous Tet Offensive, in Vietnam as a correspondent for Esquire magazine.  Ten years later he published Dispatches, in an effort to go beyond the sterilized reports that the American public was allowed to see and read from the hands of the standard broadcast media.
I listened to the audio of this book, and it is excellent.  Michael Herr’s writing is very dense at times, a veritable torrent of words, coming at you in waves, cascades.  Sometimes angry and seething, sometimes poignant and gentle.  Often full of more emotion than I could absorb.  I was completely unfamiliar with Ray Porter, the narrator of Blackstone Audio’s 2009 audio version of this, but his rendering of all of the various soldiers and journalists who people Herr’s tales is very good.
Herr does not attempt to give a complete history of the war during those eighteen months, more a sketch of what life was like on the ground, living among the soldiers, in the trenches, so to speak.  Despite the fact that he was a journalist, he was the first one to admit that there were times when he was forced to both carry a gun and act as a medic.  His story was a very up-close and personal one.  This book goes well beyond the graphic language of soldiers and far into the graphic nature of warfare, and where Vietnam was concerned, that got very gritty indeed-if the graphic nature of war is off-putting to you, then this is not the book for you.  For me, that is the only reason the book did not get more stars.
Honestly, this is one of the very first books that I have read about Vietnam.  I am pathetically ill-read on the subject, but I was able to follow where the author lead, and more importantly, he led me to the people, made me care about them, and want to know more about their war.  Thanks to Michael Herr, I finally have a desire to read some of those Vietnam books that have been languishing on my TBR mountain for a very long time.  I’d also like to thank my reading friend, also coincidentally named Michael, who’s review and subsequent encouraging words convinced me that I should read this one.  Thanks, Michael!


It has been a very long time since I have given a book only one star, and there has only ever been one book that has so disappointed me as to merit so little recognition.  For the curious, that book was a nonfiction title, Jerry Ellis’ Walking the Trail, which angered me with its self-serving narcissism.  I even try very hard to avoid the stigma of a two star rating.  But Looking for Alaska sits squarely in one star territory for me, no doubt about it.
If this book were marketed as an adult novel we would be having a completely different discussion, but the fact of the matter is that the book is marketed to young adults.  Honestly, that is the only reason I read it-there was controversy surrounding it, so I read the book, in the event that my eldest, a sixteen-year-old boy, wanted to read it.
Rarely have I read an adult novel comprised of as much sex, language, smoking, drinking, and general shenanigans as this novel.  Every relationship in the book is built around those things.  I have read reviews which applaud the author for his ability to meet youth where they are at.  Yes, the characters discuss issues that adolescents discuss, but never without the crutch of substance abuse.  I do not find that at all admirable on the author’s part; I find it enabling.
Finally, the one thing which I found absolutely unbelievable!  After all the guilt that Miles and The Colonel feel for not only letting Alaska drive extremely drunk, but actually causing a diversion for her to get off campus, they decide to investigate her accident.  What conclusion does John Green allow his characters to draw?  That she might have committed suicide!  I was very angered that the author allowed his characters to sidestep their responsibility in this way.  The Colonel was himself very drunk, but Miles was stone sober when he allowed his friend to get behind the wheel of her car and when he himself caused a diversion to get her off campus; he might as well have put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger.  I realize that the characters are sixteen and seventeen year-old kids, but if you are writing a novel that you hope will teach youth a lesson, this kind of wishy-washy ending is pathetic.
In the end I wish that Green had stuck to where I thought the novel was going in the first place.  I could  forgive a lot of the graphic debauchery, and even weigh the merits of exposing my kids to it for the benefit of the lesson taught, if in the end the characters had gotten their just desserts and learned the lesson that they so desperately needed to learn.  Unfortunately, Green chose his own path-perhaps he felt it made for a better storyline?  Less predictable?  Whatever his reasons for giving the novel the ending he chose, it is the reason that the book went from a possible two or three stars from me crashing down to one lonely little star.
Parents will definitely want to read this one before putting it in your teen’s hands.  I readily admit to being pretty cautious about what my kids read, but I do not think I am over-reacting on this one.    

Thursday, July 5, 2012

THE CROWN IN THE HEATHER by N. Gemini Sasson ✰✰✰ and 1/2

In 1290, Scotland was left without a king and at the mercy of a ruthless English monarch, Edward I, who would become known to history as Longshanks, a moniker used by the author, although it was not used at the time of the telling of her tale, to help differentiate him from his son, Edward II, another character in the novel.  More pertinent to the novel, Edward I is known to history as the Hammer of the Scots, and any reader of N. Gemini Sasson’s novel can begin to see why.
This book is the first of a trilogy and covers the early shifting among the clans of the Scots as they ally themselves with one of two claimant for the throne of Scotland: Robert the Bruce and John Comyn.  William Wallace, the legendary Scottish resistance fighter, is a peripheral character in the book, and James Douglas, another slightly later legend is a young man in this book, fast gaining respect and acclaim.  This novel spans from 1290 until 1306.
I have read many books on this subject, and while I think that Ms. Sasson is a good writer when one is discussing basic mechanics and prose style, I do not always think that she does a very good job presenting her history in a clear and orderly fashion.  If I were not familiar with the people and events, I think I would have trouble-particularly with regards to following the beginning of the novel, after which she settles into her tale and things become a bit more clear.  Another element which drove me absolutely crazy was her use of multiple first-person narrators, especially in the beginning of the novel when the book is also weaving around in time, as the reader is lost both in regards to time and teller.  One of the disadvantages of choosing to write a book in first-person narration is that it is limiting.  It used to be a cardinal rule that if you wrote a book in that viewpoint you could only have the one narrator; currently it seems to be in vogue with authors to break the rule, yet as I discuss it with readers, very few seem to like multiple first-person narration-it is simply too confusing to try to figure out who is speaking.
Despite the irritation I felt with the choice of way to narrate the story, it is nearly impossible to finish this novel and not continue on with the series, as the characters in the fight for Scottish independence were such compelling men and women and their cause was such a just one, and, as I stated above, Ms. Sasson is quite a good writer.  Also, to her credit, while her story was rather discombobulated in the beginning, she did pull things together in the latter half of the book, and I have confidence that the second book will be stronger.  Based on other books that I have read, I also believe that the author has done her research and that these books are accurate in their history.  For those interested in continuing the series, the second book is Worth Dying For, and the conclusion is The Honor Due a King.  Overall, this is a novel I recommend for those interested in learning more about Robert the Bruce, his bid for the crown of Scotland, and Scotland’s fight for independence from England.

Monday, July 2, 2012

THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD by Zora Neale Hurston ✰✰✰✰✰

From the very first verdant lines of this novel, delivered in narrator Ruby Dee’s chocolatey smooth tones, I knew that I was going to love Zora Neale Hurston’s way with words, and indeed, the prose stayed consistently strong throughout the novel, but what made this book a five star read for me was the unforgettable Janie.
Many novelists craft their tales around a strong female protagonist, but Janie has to be one of the most finely wrought characters I have ever followed through a book.  As the reader travels with Janie through three marriages, it is a journey of becoming-and not just of watching Janie become-as you begin to assess your own life and happiness, the way you feel about and live your life.  Janie endures two marriages, each of which she survives by wearing a certain personality and acting in a certain manner, until she finally finds true love and happiness with the one man with whom she can truly be herself and with whom she shares mutual respect.  Janie becomes so genuinely happy that everyone who reads of her cannot help but want to have a life like hers, despite its hardships.
Set primarily in Florida in the early years of the 20th century and ending in the 1930s, the novel paints a good picture of what life was like for black people during the Depression and shares some history of the area, but it aims primarily to be a portrait of a woman rather than an accounting of the era in which she lived. 
This book would be a fantastic book club read for a group of women who are not afraid to be very open and honest about the nature of their marriages, as that is the true crux of the novel-that people are never happy in marriage until they are able to love and be loved for exactly who they are.  I would think that it would be a difficult discussion for a group unwilling to openly discuss these issues, as the book draws the reader in and becomes very intimate.
Janie is a character that I want to share with all of my reading friends, as I cannot imagine anyone not being drawn in by her life.  If you are an audio listener, the Harper Audio version of the book, read by Ruby Dee, is absolutely wonderful and not only takes away the challenge of reading the dialect-it turns it into great theater.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

I, ROBOT by Isaac Asimov ✰✰✰

Written by Isaac Asimov in 1950, I, Robot is a set of nine related, consecutive short stories told as a journalist’s third person writings based on the reminiscences of robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin, given in the year 2057.
Each of the stories has its own unique plot but follows the same premise-that the behavior of the robots must be governed by The Three Laws of Robotics.  It is impressed upon the reader from the very beginning that these laws are incorruptible and that it is these laws which keep humans in command and safe in a world (and universe) where humans and robots coexist.  As the stories progress, the logic involved becomes increasingly more complex and the solutions require far more ingenuity.
It was fascinating to see where Asimov envisioned technology evolving to and what he believed regarding space and physics.  At the end of the book you also get a glimpse of what he foresaw on the horizon for global governance and economics-interesting stuff!
The reason I did not give the book a higher rating is only because I felt that after a time the similar theme grew a bit tiresome for me, as I am not a huge fan of logical thinking, or for that matter of science fiction books (I read this one for the book club I lead for a group of home schooled high schoolers).  If I were a bigger fan of either of the two main elements, no doubt the book would have garnered another star.