Saturday, May 23, 2020

THE GIVER OF STARS

This novel, The Giver of Stars by JoJo Moyes published in 2019, was brought to my attention by cousin Pam.

Jojo Moyes is a British journalist and novelist. She has published twelve novels, some of which have been made into movies. She has obviously researched the background for this novel very well.

Southeastern Kentucky, where the story takes place, is mountainous and drained by the Ohio River. It is part of a region known as Appalachia. In colonial times, the area was known as “the bloody ground of Kentucky” because of the frequent and violent confrontations with Indians. As the years passed and Kentucky became a state, its reputation for violence was undiminished. Feuds between families often lasted for generations with dead on both sides.

Kentucky is a coal mining state and wealthy men have been mining for years. Many of the mines were dangerous and tragic collapses occurred in the shafts often with fatalities. Clashes occurred between the mine owners and miners seeking unionization.

The story begins during the Depression and Roosevelt’s “New Deal” efforts like the WPA to ameliorate the hardships. The time was ripe with racism, ignorance, and corruption. What makes this novel unique is that there are five protagonists, all women. Some of were trained librarians. They form a group which came to be known as the “Packhorse Librarians” since the only way to reach their distant readers was by horseback. The experiences of these women provide a fascinating tale.

The intended recipients of the books were small families living in isolated log cabins who subsisted by hunting, gardening, working in a mine, or moonshining.  Some could not read but clamored for more books. The varied reception of the librarians by these families and other challenges they endured makes for exciting reading.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

THE STORYTELLER'S SECRET

I am grateful to cousin Pam Townshend for bringing this book to my attention. Today’s recommendation is a novel entitled The Storyteller’s Secret by Sejal Badani in 2018. The author, a retired attorney, has a paperback to her credit before publishing this wonderous story.

This tale of love and anguish, loyalty encompassing several generations, is threaded with mystery. The protagonist Jaya, a young journalist, is living in Brooklyn, New York with her husband Patrick, an attorney. Her happiness begins to fade when her first pregnancy ends with a miscarriage. She becomes increasingly miserable when she endures two more miscarriages. She is desolate. Deserted by Patrick and finding little solace with her mother, she decides to go to India to accept a gift intended for her mother from her dying father.  In India Jaya is introduced to a culture thousands of years old. She meets Ravi, an untouchable, who had been elevated to be a family servant by her grandmother. Ravi turns out to be her best source of family history. She gets perspective on her life through the story of Amisha, her maternal grandmother, as related by Ravi. Jaya learns that Amisha made important decisions that affected future generations.

In addition to being an exciting story, this book will give the reader some insight into Indian life under the strict control of the British occupation called the Raj.


Sunday, April 12, 2020

CHILDREN'S BOOKS FOR ADULTS

Today I’m thinking about fiction, specifically the novel, a product of the writer’s imagination. I must confess that I cannot abide current novels where a single voice describes the entire story. It is like seeing actors walking onto the stage and standing there while a loudspeaker describes to the audience what the actors are doing.  No child would sit through that.

Children’s books appeal because there is always action and dialogue as adults discovered when Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland in 1865. Really good children’s literature has always been enjoyed by adults. Many of you may recall reading with pleasure E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.

J.K. Rowling published and sold millions of her Harry Potter series. Starting with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997, her books are avidly read by adults as well as children.  The stories describe Harry Potter, a young English boy, who is unhappy living with his adoptive parents. With the help of a friendly owl, Harry escapes into a magical world and has many wonderful adventures.

Why bring up children’s literature now?  The action and dialogue in certain children’s stories, even though fantasy, may provide temporary relief from the present grim reality of the pandemic.  I don’t hesitate to recommend them to you.



Monday, March 30, 2020

PLEASURE FROM A PLAGUE

When I was a boy in Brooklyn, horses were still used to pull delivery wagons, and the gutters were spattered with the droppings of those animals. It always amazed me to see songbirds alighting on the fresh manure to extract oat grains that had passed through the equine intestinal tract.

You must find it difficult to believe that anything good could possibly emerge from a disaster like the coronavirus pandemic we are presently experiencing, but I will tell you how something positive came out of a pandemic like the present one when a germ that normally sickens animals made the jump to humans. In the 14th century, a disease called the Black Death or Bubonic Plague invaded Europe and killed about 25 million people -  25-50% of the population.

The city of Florence was overwhelmed with the disease, attracting the attention of Giovanni Boccaccio, a prominent writer. He decided to write a story that would help alleviate the distress of the plague.  His story, The Decameron, describes how seven young women and three men departed the stricken city for a safe location in the countryside a few miles away.

One of the women was elected Queen for the day. She used her authority to determine what the rest of the party would do to remain happy. Some of their hours would be spent in wandering around the pleasant pastoral surroundings. Later, after dinner, all would gather together and each would relate a brief tale for the amusement of the group. All were pleased with her decision and each new Queen behaved in a likewise fashion. The subjects of these tales involved every type of character- monks, abbots, and bishops to miscreants of all sorts including lovers, faithful and un. Some of the tales were ribald and involved descriptions of sex. The group was delighted with this arrangement and so each day was spent with joy in a pastoral setting.  In this manner, over a period of ten days about a hundred tales were told to the delight of all.

Thus, we have an example of how days of tragedy were lightened. I wouldn’t be surprised if some creative forms of entertainment utilizing current technology appear in the days that follow, and of course, there’s reading.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

THE PRINCE OF TIDES

We are spending our seventh season here on Hilton Head Island in the Low Country of South Carolina to escape the snow, ice, and low temperatures of Connecticut.

Hilton Head is a huge (69 square miles) island separated from the mainland by the Intercoastal Waterway. Originally it was occupied by Yemassee Indians and later by escaped and freed slaves known as Gullah who still remain in isolated communities. Over the years the island morphed from a producer of cotton and lumber to a manicured resort development with hotels, grand homes, condominiums, marinas, tennis courts, and golf courses with no resemblance to the genuine Low Country surrounding it.

The South Carolina Low Country was the home of Pat Conroy who became one the South’s prominent writers still endeared in this locale. He wrote many novels including Beach Music, The Citadel, The Great Santini, and The Prince of Tides published in 1986.  Although I read this book when it was first published, listened to it, and saw the movie, I decided to listen to it again.

What prompts someone to reread a book? I believe it is a combination of unforgettable characters with whom the reader identifies and a unique story. I have reread many books. For example, I read Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers three times in print and twice in audible format. I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer once in print and three times as an audible book. And so, I decided to listen to The Prince of Tides again. Like listening to a favorite piece of music, rereads often reveal something new each time.

The Prince of Tides is not an easy book to read. The story line is not chronological, which is particularly disturbing to those who saw the movie. Each chapter is a piece of the whole and does not follow sequentially with many flashbacks. The family includes the grandfather Amos, the father Henry who was a pilot in WWII shot down in Germany who returns to become a shrimper, and his wife, Leila, and their three children Luke, and the twins, Savannah and Tom. The story describes the children’s escapades when they are young, several of the grandfather’s and father’s unusual performances, and a major tragic event that affects the lives of the family members.

I doubt if many of you will read or reread The Prince of Tides, but for those dedicated booklovers who might, it will be a rewarding experience.


Thursday, December 5, 2019

THE DUTCH HOUSE

The Dutch House by the best selling author Ann Patchett is truly a fairy tale with elements of Cinderella, The Little Princess and Hansel and Gretel. 

Patchett may be one of the most beloved authors known for her novels The Patron Saint of Liars, Bel Canto, and This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. I must read some of these.

Cyril Conroy, a poverty-stricken real state agent, makes a lucky investment and becomes wealthy. He enjoys buying old buildings and collecting monthly rent from the tenants.  Cyril buys The Dutch House, a 1922 grand mansion in a Philadelphia suburb as a gift for his wife Elna. Their children Maeve and Danny, seven years younger, are the central characters in the story related by Danny and form a close bond from early childhood. Elna hates the house and abandons the family, disappearing for parts unknown. Cyril eventually divorces Elna and brings in Andrea as a stepmother. Like Hansel and Gretel, Danny and Maeve are driven from The Dutch House, returning to a life of poverty and maintaining a close relationship that continues throughout the story.

Don’t let the fairy tale concept turn you off. This story is one of human relationships with unexpected twists and turns. It is a page-turner and if not already a best seller it almost certainly soon will be. I highly recommend it.

Monday, October 7, 2019

THE LAST THING YOU SURRENDER

Until I read The Last Thing You Surrender by Leonard Pitts, I never realized the depth and degradation of Jim Crow.  Pitts has skillfully crafted a novel describing the futility of Negro existence under the Nazi-like laws of Alabama, which prohibit the misogyny of the blacks with whites and the contempt of the whites for the Negro. When George Simon, a white Marine from Mobile, is trapped in his ship in Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack, Gordy saves a black mess man who dies in the effort. George is returned to Mobile and visits Thelma, Gordy’s widow hoping to console and explain the details. Rejected initially by Thelma, we read how definitive changes occur in both.  The novel describes in gruesome detail the lynching of Thelma’s parents and horrible battle scenes in both the Pacific and European theaters of war where Negro units distinguish themselves by their bravery. Most of all the author describes the hate, mistrust, and contempt between the races. Although desegregation and the Negro rights movement would not begin for another 10 years, the idea was brewing in the minds of a few Southern whites.

This book is truly a page-turner, and I highly recommend it.