This blog is dedicated to the amazing staff at the New Canaan Public Library in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, 2010, * * * * *

Orringer's stunning first novel far exceeds the expectations generated by her much-lauded debut collection, How to Breath Underwater. In this WWII saga, Orringer illuminates the life of Andras Levi, a Hungarian Jew of meager means whose world is upended by a scholarship to the Ecole Speciale d'Architecture in Paris. There, he makes an unlikely liaison with ballet teacher Claire Morgenstern (ne Klara Hasz), a woman nine years his senior whose past links her to a wealthy Hungarian family.  Against the backdrop of grueling school assignments, work at a theater, budding romance, and the developing kinship between Andras and his fellow Jewish students, Orringer ingeniously depicts the insidious reach of the growing tide of anti-Semitism that eventually lands him back in Hungary and into forced labor camps and beyond, shedding light on how Hungary treated its Jewish citizens.  Throughout the hardships and injustices, Andras's love for Klara acts as a beacon through the unimaginable devastation and the dark hours of hunger, thirst, and deprivation . Orringer's triumphant novel is as much a lucid reminder of a time not so far away as it is a luminous story about the redemptive power of love." As Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay stated on the back cover, “To bring an entire lost world — its sights, its smells, its heartaches, raptures and terrors — to vivid life between the covers of a novel is an accomplishment; to invest that world, and everyone who inhabits it, with a soul, as Julie Orringer does in The Invisible Bridge, takes something more like genius."  Orringer has a gift for re-creating distant times and places from a Paris suffused with the scents of  food and sounds of American jazz, to the camraderies and cruelties of the Hungarian work camps. The ticking clock of history keeps the story urgent and moving forward, and the result is, against all odds, a Holocaust page-turner. I could not put it down.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My Life In France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme, 2006, * * * * *

Most Americans know of Julia Child via the parodies of her cooking show --- a frowsy, big-boned matron with a trill in her voice, hacking up a chicken with more zest than is called for, most likely because she's been chugging the cooking sherry. Well, that was, on occasion, a fair take on Julia Child, the jolly chef who taught her fellow citizens the joy of French cooking on public television. But Julia Child was much more than a precursor of Martha Stewart. She was a revolutionary who had the great good fortune to find herself living in Paris with no job and nothing more compelling than a tentative interest in cooking. She signed up for classes at Cordon Bleu, got hooked, and soon found herself, with two friends, working on a book we now take for granted but was then unimagined --- an authoritative guide to French cooking for Americans. Published 40 years ago, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One has never gone out of print and it never will. Julia Child died in 2004. Of her 11 books, none was a memoir but she kept scribbles and letters, and at the end of her life, she began to shape this book with her grandnephew. Like almost everything she touched, My Life in France is a triumph --- insightful, poetic, deadly accurate about people, and, above all, tasty.  But this is not a celebrity memoir. This book is called My Life in France for a reason --- the passages at Julia and Paul Child's home in the South of France lift off the page and surround you with laughter, wit and joy.  This is a book about life - a wise life, a life of beauty, art, invention, and love. You can learn a lot from a life like that.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Loving Frank: A Novel by Nancy Horan, 2007, * * * * *

Horan's ambitious first novel is a fictionalization of the life of Mamah Borthwick Cheney, best known as the woman who wrecked Frank Lloyd Wright's first marriage. Despite the title, this is not a romance, but a portrayal of an independent, educated woman at odds with the restrictions of the early 20th century. Frank and Mamah, both married and with children, met when Mamah's husband, Edwin, commissioned Frank to design a house. Their affair became the stuff of headlines when they left their families to live and travel together, going first to Germany, where Mamah found rewarding work doing scholarly translations of Swedish feminist Ellen Key's books. The novel is an intricate analysis of Mamah's emotional torments as an intellectual in her own right, wife, mother, friend, and member of society. It also touches on the human aspects of Wright in addition to his artistic talent and eccentricities. Throughout the novel, Mamah explains the artistic or philosophical underpinnings of Wright's extravagant views. Frank and Mamah eventually settled in Wisconsin, where they were hounded by a scandal-hungry press, with tragic repercussions. The novel also explores the development of the feminist movement in the United States and Europe and Horan puts considerable effort into recreating Frank's vibrant, overwhelming personality, but her primary interest is in Mamah, who pursued her intellectual interests and love for Frank at great personal cost. Drawing on years of research, Horan weaves little-known facts into a compelling narrative, vividly portraying the conflicts and struggles of a woman forced to choose between the roles of mother, wife, lover, and intellectual. Elegantly written and remarkably rich in detail, Loving Frank is a fitting tribute to a courageous woman, a national icon, and their timeless love story.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes, 2010, * * *

Intense, powerful, and compelling, Matterhorn is the timeless story of a young Marine lieutenant, Waino Mellas, and his comrades in Bravo Company, who are dropped into the mountain jungle of Vietnam as boys and forced to fight their way into manhood. Standing in their way are not merely the North Vietnamese but also jungle rot, leeches dropping from tree branches, malnourishment, drenching monsoons, mudslides, exposure to Agent Orange, and wild animals. Brigade members not only face punishing combat but grapple with racial tensions, competing ambitions, duplicitous superior officers, bitterness, rage, disease, alcoholism, and hubris. When the company finds itself surrounded and outnumbered by a massive enemy regiment, the Marines are thrust into the raw and all consuming terror of combat and it is visceral. However, while the story is well written and compelling, it feels false in the end, more like a screenplay for Platoon or Full Metal Jacket than a novel that would rank alongside Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead or Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Marlantes is a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, who clearly understands his playing field (including military jargon that can get lost in translation).  By examining both the internal and external struggles of the battalion, he brings a long, torturous war back to life with realistic characters and authentic, thrilling combat sequences but too much happens too quickly, and often with too much foreshadowing.  There is a lot to like in this book but a better editor could have slimmed it down and made it more focused.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World by Rita Gelman, 2001, * * * *

In a small cemetery deep in the jungle of Borneo, two men climb into a freshly dug hole and retrieve the bones of a long-dead grandmother. An American guest joins the procession from the cemetery to the elaborately decorated village square for a traditional ceremony that will properly send Grandma off on her journey to the next world.  A few years earlier the American guest, Rita Golden Gelman, a children's book author and the mother of two grown children, was living in a comfortable suburban home, dining in elegant restaurants, and attending glamorous parties and only dreamed of traveling to exotic places and experiencing other cultures. When her marriage failed, she decided to live her dream, sold all her possessions and, at  forty-eight, took off to see the world.   Although she's not athletically gifted or independently wealthy, Rita has climbed mountains, paddled up rivers, and subsisted for a year on what many people spend in a few months.  In Tales of a Female Nomad, Rita shares how she has created a spectacular life, filled with interesting people, enlightening experiences, and fascinating adventures.  She's observed orangutans in the rain forests of Borneo, served as an unofficial tour guide in the Galapagos, taught herself the Indonesian language, and forged many lasting cross-cultural friendships.  Dynamic, vivacious, and a marvelous weaver of tales, Rita celebrates her glorious transformation from an unfulfilled suburbanite to a liberated and incredibly self-assured woman of the world. More than a travel memoir, Tales of a Female Nomad is the story of a woman's rebirth which proves beyond a doubt that anyone can cast away the burdens of conventional life at any age and continue — or begin — to thrive.  I know most people rave about Eat, Pray, Love but for those, like me, who never gravitated to that book,  this is a truly remarkable read that deserves recognition.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall, 2010, * * *

A family drama with stinging turns of dark comedy, the latest from Udall (The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint) is as comic as it is sublimely catastrophic. Golden Richards is a polygamist Mormon with four wives, 28 children, a struggling construction business, and a few secrets. He tells his wives that the brothel he's building in Nevada is actually a senior center, and, more importantly, keeps hidden his burning infatuation with a woman he sees near the job site. Golden, perpetually on edge, has become increasingly isolated from his massive family — given the size of his brood, his solitude is heartbreaking . Since the death of one of his children,  Golden is not only lonesome but also many other things that, ideally, he would not be: indecisive, feckless, withdrawn and hesitant. Though it takes more than 200 pages to notice, the novel is set not in current times but in the 1970s. Golden’s children do not wrestle with technology, cable TV or the Internet; nor are they caught up in the culture wars nor are they cut off from modernity. This is a novel about family and modern America with a protagonist trying to balance home life, work, the demands of society, and the wayward tugs of the heart – he just happens to have four nuclear families, which makes his midlife crisis and potential affair a little more complicated than most. Udall is willing to tackle big issues and write a broad tale, and it is a good read. However, there is an edge that is missing – everything is a touch too neat and tidy, and maybe there's a little extra sugar on the bitter pills.

The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story by Richard Preston,1994, * * * * *

The Ebola virus kills nine out of ten of its victims so quickly and gruesomely that even biohazard experts are terrified. It is airborne, it is extremely contagious, and in the winter of 1989, it seemed about to burn through the suburbs of Washington D.C. At Fort Detrick's USAMRIID, an Army research facility outside the nation's capital, a SWAT team of soldiers and scientists wearing biohazard space suits was organized to stop the outbreak of the exotic "hot" virus. The grim operation went on in secret for eighteen days, under unprecedented, dangerous conditions. The Hot Zone tells this dramatic story in depth, giving a hair-raising account of the appearance of rare and lethal viruses and their outbreaks in the human race. From a remote African cave hot with Ebola virus, an airplane over Africa that is carrying a sick passenger who dissolves into a human virus bomb, and the confines of a Biosafety Level 4 military lab where scientists risk their lives studying lethal substances that could kill them quickly and horribly, The Hot Zone describes situations that used to be taken as science fiction. As the tropical wildernesses of the world are destroyed, previously unknown viruses that have lived undetected in the rain forest for eons are entering human populations. The appearance of AIDS is part of a larger pattern, and the implications for the future of the human species are terrifying.  Although this book was written in 1994 this book brings up an all-important point -- we are only an airplane ride away from the outbreak of a pandemic. It is very possible that a highly contagious disease may break out and cover the earth in a matter of days leaving a large portion of the population dead, making the premise behind Stephen King's novel "The Stand" not so far fetched after all.  Given the recent outbreaks of SARS, avian flu, and Swine flu, this book is extremely relevant for out times.  I need to thank my daughter, the scientist and future virologist,  for reminding me about this book.

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow, 2010, * * *

Durrow's debut novel draws from her own upbringing as the brown-skinned, blue-eyed daughter of a Danish woman and a black G.I. to create Rachel Morse, a young girl with an identical heritage growing up in the early 1980s. After a devastating family tragedy in Chicago. Subsequent to the event, she goes to live with the paternal grandmother she's never met, in a decidedly black neighborhood in Portland, Ore. Suddenly, at 11, Rachel is in a world that demands her to be either white or black. As she struggles with her grief and the haunting, yet-to-be-revealed truth of the tragedy, her appearance and intelligence place her under constant scrutiny.  Although I have heard people say that this is a "social consciousness" novel about being mixed-race, that is not what I felt. It seemed more to be a novel about a lonely, confused, girl seeking an identity--as an individual even more than as a mixed-race person--through idolizing the mother she lost before she was old enough to really know her. It's difficult to tell, or maybe to believe, what identity Rachel finally finds and the first part of the novel felt very slow and distant. The second half of the novel touchingly covers the nuances of Rachel's development: her feelings, her conflicts with her judgmental but well-meaning grandmother, and her relationship with a liberal white college boy. The novel explores the complexities of racial identity and relationships in general but still appeared to be more of a “young readers” book.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Run by Ann Patchett, 2007, * * * *

Bernadette and Bernard Doyle were a Boston couple who wanted to have a big lively family. They had one boy, Sullivan, and then adopted two black boys, Teddy and Tip. Mr. Doyle is a former mayor of Boston and he continues his interest in politics, hoping his boys will shape up one day for elected office, though none of them seems especially keen. Bernadette dies when the adopted kids are just four, and much of the book offers a requiem to her memory in particular and to the force of motherhood in lives generally. One night, during a heavy snowfall, Teddy and Tip accompany their father to a lecture given by Jesse Jackson and after the lecture, Tip gets into an argument with his father and walks backwards into an oncoming car. The car appears out of nowhere and so does a woman called Tennessee, who pushes Tip out of the car's path and is herself struck in the process of saving Tip.  When Tennessee is taken to hospital, her daughter, Kenya, is left in the company of the Doyles. Relationships begin both to emerge and unravel, disclosing secrets, hopes, fears.  Run shows us how worlds of privilege and poverty can coexist only blocks apart from each other, and how family can include people you've never even met. As in her bestselling novel Bel Canto, Ann Patchett illustrates the humanity that connects disparate lives, weaving several stories into one surprising and endlessly moving narrative. Suspenseful and stunningly executed, Run is ultimately a novel about secrets, duty, responsibility, and the lengths we will go to protect our children.

The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin, 2007, * * * *

It's not laws or constitutional theory that rules the High Court, argues this absorbing group profile, but quirky men and women guided by political intuition. New Yorker legal writer Toobin (The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson) surveys the Court from the Reagan administration onward, as the justices wrestled with abortion, affirmative action, the death penalty, gay rights and church-state separation. Despite a Court dominated by Republican appointees, Toobin paints not a conservative revolution but a period of intractable moderation. The real power, he argues, belonged to supreme swing-voter Sandra Day O'Connor, who decided important cases with what Toobin sees as an almost primal attunement to a middle-of-the-road public consensus. By contrast, he contends, conservative justices Rehnquist and Scalia have constitutional doctrines made irrelevant by the moderates' compromises. Toobin distills the issues and enlivens his narrative of the Court's internal wranglings with sharp thumbnail sketches (Anthony Kennedy the vain bloviator, David Souter the Thoreauvian ascetic) and editorials (inept and unsavory is his verdict on the Court's intervention in the 2000 election). His savvy account puts the supposedly cloistered Court right in the thick of American life. In 1979, Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong published The Brethren, an eye-popping look into the closed world of the Supreme Court under then-Chief Justice Warren Burger. Toobin captures the personalities, rivalries, politics and principles that drive the court's decisions.  With the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, this book should be required reading.

Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson, 2004, * * * * *

This superlative journalistic narrative tells of John Chatterton and Rich Kohler, two deep-sea wreck divers who in 1991 dove to a mysterious wreck lying at the perilous depth of 230 feet, off the coast of New Jersey. Both had a philosophy of excelling and pushing themselves to the limit; both needed all their philosophy and fitness to proceed once they had identified the wreck as a WWII U-boat. As Kurson, a writer for Esquire, narrates in his debut work, the two divers next undertook a seven-year search for the U-boat's identity inside the wreck, in a multitude of archives and in a host of human memories. Along the way, Chatterton's diving cost him a marriage, and Kohler's love for his German heritage helped turn him into a serious U-boat scholar. The two lost three of their diving companions on the wreck and their mentor, Bill Nagle, to alcoholism. (Chowdhury's The Last Dive, from HarperPerennial in 2002, covers two of the divers' deaths.) The successful completion of their quest fills in a gap in WWII history — the fate of the Type IX U-boat U-869. Chatterton and Kohler's success satisfied them and a diminishing handful of U-boat survivors. While Kurson doesn't stint on technical detail, lovers of any sort of adventure tale will certainly absorb the author's excellent characterizations, and particularly his balance in describing the combat arm of the Third Reich. Felicitous cooperation between author and subject rings through every page of this rare insightful action narrative. Readers energized by the suspense and adventure of The Perfect Storm and Into Thin Air will be captivated by this remarkable account of wreck diving and discovery.  Kurson narrates a compelling story in which lives are lost and history is rewritten.