Sunday, May 5, 2019

EDUCATED

This book is the last of those that I considered special published in 2018.

Educated by Tara Westover is a memoir unlike any you or I could possibly imagine.  Tara lived in a family of survivalist Mormons in an isolated village in the mountains of Idaho. This book is not about Mormons, but the story of a dysfunctional family. Tara was the youngest in a family of seven and the only daughter. She had no birth certificate, had never seen a doctor or the inside of a school. Her father, with a bi-polar personality, believed that the world would soon come to an end, and he accumulated stores of food, fuel, guns and ammunition against that day. He also suspected the federal government could attack him at any time. He believed that his decisions and the often-disastrous outcomes were ordained by God. He made his living with an unlicensed junkyard where he, with several of his sons, collected discarded vehicles and converted them into saleable junk. Tara’s mother was an uncertified mid-wife and self-styled herbalist who sometimes tutored Tara. When Tara was five, her father demanded that she work in his junkyard where she underwent brutality from her father and one of her brothers. Another brother left home and went to college, encouraging her to do the same. When Tara was 16, she applied for admission to Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City against her father’s wishes.  She passed a test and was admitted with financial aid from the Bishop. She was shocked by the “immodesty” and behavior of her mostly Mormon classmates. Tara had a strong desire to succeed, and despite her lack of previous schooling, did well and graduated. She won a scholarship to Cambridge University, later to Harvard University, then back to Cambridge, and after many years earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy.  During these years her survivalist beliefs were gradually replaced by the realities of the world.  Tara returned to Idaho many times where she suffered tremendous conflict, vacillating between her realistic learning and the family fundamentalist beliefs.

The story of her academic achievement and the tortuous conflict she endured make fascinating reading and may provoke intellectual discussion.



Tuesday, April 23, 2019

THE TUSCAN CHILD

A few comments on the recently published books I selected starting with Where the Crawdads Sing, continuing with Beneath a Scarlet Sky, and Becoming. These books are special. I look for books with unusual personal relationships, perhaps in foreign countries, and unique stories with surprising endings.  They may be fiction or non-fiction. Most of all, they are not predictable and are truly unforgettable. 

What you will rarely if ever see on my Blog are other genres that make up the majority of Bestsellers. 

The Tuscan Child, a novel by Rhys Bowen, was published in February 2018. In 1944, Hugo Langley, a British bomber pilot, is shot down over German-occupied Tuscany in the middle of the night. Parachuting down with a bullet leg wound, he lands in great pain, unable to walk. Sophia, a young girl from the nearby village, finds him and helps him to hide in a ruined monastery. She secretly makes repeated visits to bring him food, medicine, and bandages. During their many months of hardship Hugo and Sophia fall in love. Hugo manages to escape to England leaving Sophia pregnant. Thirty years later in England, Hugo dies of natural causes, survived by his daughter Joanna, a law student. She finds an old unopened letter addressed to Sophia returned as undeliverable. The letter’s contents prompt Joanna to undertake a quest to Tuscany hoping to find Sophia and her child. What she learns in Tuscany reveals much about her father and herself.

This story describes unusual personal relationships and personas of the characters that you will never forget.



Saturday, April 6, 2019

BECOMING

Of the many current books I read this year, two of the ten outstanding ones are memoirs. Memoirs relate those episodes that have had a profound effect on the author’s life, which he believes would make an interesting story. Memoirs are not the same as autobiographies. An autobiography is the author’s recording of his entire life.  Today’s memoir is indeed remarkable.  Becoming by Michele Obama is immensely popular and more than 10,000 reviews have been written. I’m sure some of you have already read it.

If I had to describe this book in one word, it would be “honest”.

Michele describes her girlhood and womanhood as an unwavering desire to excel.

When she was a child, she wanted a dog, a house with stairs with 2 floors, preferably for one family, and a 4-door station wagon. Little did she realize that these wishes would someday come to pass on a grand scale.


Michele grew up in the predominantly black South Side of Chicago in a family of modest means. Her only sib was Craig, two years older and with whom she has a life long friendship.  Her parents encouraged her. Even as a young child she was ambitious. When the neighborhood school deteriorated, her parents sent both children to private schools.

She excelled and was able to enter Princeton and eventually Harvard Law.

I found this book remarkable for a number of reasons the least of which is that Michele was the first African American to spend 8 years in the White House as First Lady.

Michele is extremely frank in describing her thoughts and experiences.
What I found particularly enlightening was the insight into how most blacks feel towards whites. The book also gives details about the political interactions and infighting, her marital relationship with Barack as well as her tenure as First Lady.

Regardless of your political preferences, I believe you will find this book a rewarding read.


Friday, March 8, 2019

"WHAT FOOLS THESE MORTALS BE!"

One day Denise, an attractive young technologist, came into my office, “I recall you mentioned a while ago that you said Beethoven was one of your favorite composers. I play the cello in our town’s orchestra and next Sunday we will be playing Beethoven’s Symphony No.8. Would you and Connie like to come?”  I readily accepted. “ Please come for lunch,” she said.

On a bright Sunday morning in October, Connie and I drove in our little red sports car out on Long island to Port Washington. Denise came out to meet us and ushered us into her house where her father, a Swiss gentleman, welcomed us with a generous glass of single malt Scotch. Connie wisely declined. He led us into a dining area where we were introduced to Denise’s mother, and we chatted for a while. Her mother served us a delicious quiche and a salad. Her father opened a bottle of a white wine and poured some for everyone. We all toasted Denise’s coming performance. “This wine is good,” I said. “What is it?” Her father smiled and poured another glass for me. “It’s just Neuchatel, a Swiss wine. I will give you a bottle to take home.”

I must confess that I dosed off during the last two movements of the symphony. We thanked Denise and her parents and drove home with Connie at the wheel.

The next night I suggested that we open the gift bottle of Neuchatel with our dinner. I tasted it and said, ”This one is on the turn, and we  poured it down the drain.”

The following day, Denise asked me how I liked the wine, and I told her that it was spoiled. “That’s unusual,” she said, “I’ll bring you another bottle.”   A few days later, we tried the second bottle of Neuchatel. It was a repeat of the previous one. “Let’s see if we can find a bottle of Neuchatel in the liquor store,” I suggested. Connie found one and brought it home. We opened it and tasted with high expectations only to be disappointed again. “The whole shipload must have somehow gone bad,” I said. Let’s forget the whole thing.

The day after Christmas I sat in our apartment admiring Connie’s gift. It was beautiful coffee table book devoted to wine, and profusely illustrated. As I thumbed through the pages, I came upon a photo of a wine I recognized as Neuchatel. There was a complete description of the wine. “The Swiss refer to this wine as petillant, which means that is a almost but not quite as bubbly as champagne.”  I then realized, with a big mental ‘oops’, that I was too Scotch-impaired to recognize the true taste of Neuchatel at Denise’s and had discarded three good bottles!

Connie and I have developed a taste for Neuchatel. It pairs well with fondue and other Swiss dishes.

Are there any wines have you tried and would recommend to your friends?



The title quote is by Puck, the fairy, in Shakespeare’s Mid-Summer Nights’ Dream.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

BENEATH A SCARLET SKY


Last year I read (listened to) about a 175 books. Most of these were recent publications, but some were short pieces I like because of the unusual character or story concept like Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Homer Hears a Who. Others are those stories with surprising twists for endings like An Occurrence at Owl’s Creek Bridge and The Lady or the Tiger. 

On occasion I re-read a book the way one repeatedly listens to a favorite piece of music. For example, over the years I have read Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, almost 1500 pages, (66 hours), three times. 

During the past year, there were some recently published books that I thoroughly enjoyed. Among them are novels, two memoirs, and a biography. All are best sellers. One is Beneath A Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan, a novel based upon a true story. In my opinion, this book is every bit as good as Where the Crawdads Sing. 

Pino Lella is a normal teenager in Nazi-occupied Italy primarily involved with food, music and girls. After his home in Milan is destroyed by Allied bombs, Pino joins an underground railroad to help Jews escape over the Alps. He falls in love with Anna, six years his senior.  In a move to keep him out of combat, Pino’s parents force him to enlist in the German army, where he is injured. To his surprise, he is selected to be the driver for General Hans Leyers, one of Hitler’s most powerful commanders. Pino is now able to spy for the Allies risking his life for Anna and what he hopes will be their life together. 

This gripping tale describes how a young Italian adolescent is transformed into a dedicated fighter for the Allies, enduring the horrors of war and risking his life at every turn. Mark Sullivan’s writing makes this book standout from thousands of war stories. It is a story of heroism, compassion, love, and terror. 

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Beneath a Scarlet Sky to a reader or a book group. More in months to come.

Friday, February 1, 2019

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

On August 14, 2018, Delia Owens published her debut novel.  There are several unusual features about this novel, one of which is that the author is approaching 70, it is a best seller, and will soon be made into a motion picture.  I am tempted to write that you have to read this book, but that is patently ridiculous. Of course, you don’t have to read this book, but those who do not will miss the opportunity of experiencing a wonderful character-driven story.  Those of you who loved Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer will recognize a certain similarity of the rich descriptive writing of the world of plants and animals.

Delia Owens was born in 1949? in Thomasville, Georgia. As a child, she reflected her mother’s interest in nature. Her family spent summers in the Low Country of North Carolina exploring tiny seaside villages amidst the waterways and marshes, a place her mother called “Where the crawdads sing”.  Delia obtained a B.S. in Zoology from the University of Georgia. While there, she met and married Mark Owens. Delia went on to obtain a doctorate in Animal Behavior from U.C.L.A. Davis.

Delia and Mark traveled to Botswana, where they spent seven years virtually alone studying lions and hyenas. They then moved to Zambia helping to stop the slaughter of elephants. During this time, they observed a similarity in the behavior of lions and elephants in that the females stayed together in nurturing and protecting the young. Mark flew his small aircraft alone, searching for poachers leaving Delia in worried isolation.

After twenty-three years in Africa, they published three non-fiction books. The Cry of the Kalahari, The Eye of the Elephant, and The Secrets of the Savanna.  Mark and Delia purchased a 500-acre ranch in northern Idaho, where they worked for the Fish and Game Department to save endangered grizzly bears. While living in Idaho, Delia recalled the summers she spent in the Carolina Low Country and decided to write what would be her first novel. She wanted to write about someone who lived in isolation as she did, a study in human nature.

The novel takes place in the 1950s and 1960s in the Carolina Low Country. Kya, a six-year-old girl, is deserted by her mother and then abandoned by her father and six siblings to survive by herself in the marsh. Shunned by the villagers as a “swamp rat”, she retreats into the marsh where Nature provides refuge and sustenance. As she matures into womanhood, she experiences love, rejection, and is tried for first-degree murder. I’m betting that many book groups will select this novel.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

THE PLAY'S THE THING

In ages past before books or manuscripts were available, people got their entertainment by watching plays. The ancient Greeks wrote comedies and tragedies. For example in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the women of Athens and Sparta banded together to refuse all sexual favors to induce their men to stop constant wars. Playwrights provide the actors with a script describing the cast of characters, the setting, their lines, and when to enter or exit. With the advent of books, such scripts were published and became available to the reading public.

The point of all this is that anyone can choose to read the script of a play by a well-known playwright. Why would anyone want to read the script of a play as an alternative to reading a novel, a memoir, or other forms of fiction? A major difference between a play and a novel is that the former is almost entirely dialogue whereas the latter often has long pages of narrative, summarizing the character’s thoughts or actions along with dialogue.  Most novels require 17 or more hours to learn the characters and the plot with all its twists and turns. On the other hand, the scripts of most plays can be completed in 3-5 hours with all the benefits of a novel. Listed below are plays that I have enjoyed reading.

Samuel Becket      Waiting for Godot   A tragicomedy in two acts.
Anton Chekhov      The Cherry Orchard 
T.S. Eliot              The Cocktail Party
Henrik Ibsen         A Doll’s House   Norwegian Modernism
Arthur Miller         The Crucible   The Salem Puritan Witch trials
Eugene O’Neill      Long Day’s Journey into Night
Shakespeare         Hamlet, Macbeth, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet 
G.B. Shaw            Pygmalion  (basis for My Fair Lady)
Neil Simon           The Odd Couple
Thornton Wilder     Our Town
Tennessee Williams  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Try one of the above. You might like it. I’d like to hear from someone who did.