Thursday, June 4, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Fighting Words: The Bold American Journalists Who Brought the World Home Between the Wars by Nancy F. Cott

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Fighting Words: The Bold American Journalists Who Brought the World Home Between the Wars by Nancy F. Cott is a collection of intertwined “mini-biographies” of journalists/foreign correspondents in the first half of the twentieth century. This was a booming time for journalists. Many young writers wrote for newspapers, which were in their heyday. Going abroad allowed many of these adventurous young men and women a chance to explore new places, learn about different peoples, and delve into the politics that were shaping the post-war world.

The four journalists featured in the book are Vincent Sheean, John Gunther, Dorothy Thompson, and Rayna Raphaelson. Each had a different idea about the way to do journalism. Each was enormously successful and yet they all have been largely forgotten.

The book traces a bit of their backgrounds and then launches into their careers, lives, and interpersonal relationships. This was a time of increasing sexual freedom for both men and women, and Fighting Words explores their sexual relationships as well.

They were all horrified by fascism rising in Europe and had contrasting opinions about communism. The book is less of a history lesson than a look into the lifestyles of foreign correspondents. It’s an interesting read. A little disorganized at first, the book settles into a more compelling narrative as the reader grows more familiar with the protagonists. This is a worthwhile read, if only to bring back into focus the importance of journalism and to awaken the memory of these four fine journalists.

Friday, May 29, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

I am a fan of Ruta Sepetys’ work. She writes serious YA historical fiction set in times and places that have not received enough attention. My favorite was her first: Between Shades of Gray.

The most recent novel is The Fountains of Silence, set in post-WWII fascist Spain. Francisco Franco is dictator and the people are living in fear and silence. Franco has begun “opening” up the country to foreign investment, particularly to U.S. oil interests. Although there is a good deal of skepticism about Franco’s supposed reforms, money is money, so U.S. companies are willing to do business with Spain and ignore any signs of oppression.

The novel follows eighteen-year-old Daniel Matheson, son of a Texas oil tycoon and a Spanish mother, who wants to be a photo-journalist if he can avoid being roped into the family business. On a visit to Madrid with his parents, Daniel meets a young local woman, Ana Torres Moreno, who works as a maid in the “American” hotel. They are attracted to one another. However, Daniel is a wealthy, privileged American. Ana is the daughter of murdered Republicans. She is poor, oppressed, and full of secrets.

There are a slew of other characters as well: Rafa, Ana’s brother and Fuga, his friend. They survived brutal torture as children. Fuga is determined to be a bullfighter and Rafa wants to be his supporter and promoter. Ana’s family also includes a sister and brother-in-law, who are struggling to make ends meet, especially now with a new baby. And she has a cousin, Puri, who works in an orphanage. In the hotel, Daniel meets Nick, the son of a diplomat, Ben, a reporter who is impressed by Daniel’s photographs, and some of the other staff. Everyone has secrets. Even Daniel’s parents. Even Daniel.

Despite being intrigued by the setting, I had a hard time getting into this book. It’s long, at about 475 pages, not including notes, photos, and a glossary. But long isn’t bad in historical novels and 475 pages isn’t terribly long for the genre. It just read very slowly. There were so many characters and bouncing viewpoints that it was difficult to feel close to any of them. And the brooding atmosphere and abundance of secrets made it feel like the plot didn’t go anywhere for quite a long time. Rather than ramping up tension, all the hinting at hiddenness dragged the book down. It wasn’t that it was confusing. The writing is clear. But it wasn’t until nearly page 300 that it felt like the story started to come together. Moreover, there was no solving of any of the problems. Essentially, everyone had to simply lie low until Franco died and enough time passed to move on.

I am glad to have read the book. It did bring to life a hidden time period. The rather depressing atmosphere of the book was appropriate to the subject matter. But I think the story itself would have been a more compelling read if it had been streamlined a bit.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence my review.

You don’t have to be a Jane Austen fan to love The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner, but if you are, you’ll love it even more.

In this gentle, sweet historical novel, set in the small English town of Chawton during the second world war, a group of six Jane Austen fans come together to preserve the legacy of the famous author.

Chawton is the one-time home of Jane Austen and of the Knight family, who adopted her brother Edward in order to have an heir. Austen’s works fell out of favor after her death. By the time interest in her life and works revived, many Austen artifacts and much memorabilia had been discarded or disbursed. Nevertheless, a trickle of diehard fans made pilgrimages to Chawton to try to connect, in some way, with the woman.

Dr. Benjamin Gray is the village physician, a man of young middle-age, who lost his wife to an accident several years before. Adam Berwick is a farmer, slightly younger, who lost his two elder brothers in WWI. Adeline Grover is a young schoolteacher, whose husband dies in the war shortly after their wedding. She’s pregnant, but miscarries the baby and nearly dies. Francis Knight is the last in the Knight line, living in the old house, waiting for her cruel, miserly father to die. Evie Stone is a whipsmart schoolgirl, forced to leave school when her father is injured in a tractor accident and can no longer support the family. She takes a job in the Knight home. And finally, Mimi Harrison is a beautiful Hollywood movie star, involved in a trainwreck of a relationship, whose love of Jane Austen brings her to Chawton first as a tourist and later as a member of the “Jane Austen Society.”

The lives of the Chawton villagers are intertwined. They’ve grown up with one another and know many, but not all, of each other’s secrets. Sometimes they understand each other better than they understand themselves.

As in Austen’s novels, the romances between various characters give the novel its heart. The goal, preserving Austen’s home as a museum, is secondary in importance to bringing hurting people together to heal. They will often break into discussions of their favorite characters or scenes, which grounds the book delightfully in its Austen-ian roots.

It’s a beautiful book. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Killer High. A History of War in Six Drugs by Peter Andreas

Pre-pandemic, I was browsing in a bookstore and this one caught my eye: Killer High. A History of War in Six Drugs by Peter Andreas.

The author weaves a narrative of drug abuse and warfare throughout history by looking at 1. War while on drugs; 2. War through drugs; 3. War for drugs; and 4. War against drugs. The six drugs that he looks at are: alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, opium, amphetamines, and cocaine.

While it was no surprise that soldiers throughout the ages have resorted to various drugs to help them bear the boredom, fatigue, terror, and horrors of warfare, it was nevertheless interesting to read the details of how each of the first five of the drugs were used and how this changed over time. (Although not specifically stated, these are additive. Soldiers still utilize alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine as more modern drugs are piled on.)  Interesting, too, was how complicit the military authorities were in supplying drugs of every sort to the soldiers.

The discussion of war through drugs was newer to me, though still not surprising. Taxing drugs was a crucial source of revenue. The more addicted the populace, the greater the revenue stream. The money was then used to wage war. Since war is expensive, drug use by both the military and the civilian population was implicitly encouraged. Although the argument is simplified, it is convincing.

War for drugs and war against drugs are two sides of the same coin. The attempt to stamp out cocaine use was the best example of how a “War on Drugs” stimulated violence, crime, militarization of the production and distribution of drugs, the rise of criminal warlords, and the profitability of drug trafficking, while doing little to address the actual problem of drug abuse.

A well-organized book that looks at an age-old problem from a different perspective, this book is well worth the read.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Mr. Malcolm's List by Suzanne Allain

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

After my banner reading month in January, I fizzled out. And then the pandemic hit. It’s left me apathetic about reading novels. (Odd, because I would have thought the escapism would be what I needed.) I’ve also been writing, so focused more on research than reading. But I finally decided that a light-hearted Regency Romance would be the distraction I’ve been looking for, so I picked Mr. Malcolm’s List by Suzanne Allain from my Netgalley queue.

Jeremy Malcolm, second son of an earl, is every ladies’ dream. Because he is wealthy and wickedly handsome, unmarried girls of the ton don’t seem to care much about the actual person. Tired of being considered nothing more than “a catch,” yet recognizing he has to marry eventually, Jeremy writes a list of ten qualities he needs in a wife. One of the ladies (Julia Thistlewaite), whom he escorts to the opera, fails almost at once. When, to her amazement, he doesn’t ask her out again, she complains to her cousin, who is one of Jeremy’s friends. She learns about the list.

Julia is a spoiled brat and a nasty schemer. Although she’s correct that a list of requirements is obnoxious and arrogant, she’s deluded to think he led her on. At any rate, she plans revenge. She invites a sweet (beautiful) ex-schoolmate to town and grooms her to attract Jeremy. The plan is, when he shows interest, to hit him with a list of her own.

The lovely friend is Selena Dalton. Selena would effortlessly meet every requirement. She doesn’t want to play Julia’s game, but is bullied into it. Plus, she meets Jeremy and it is pretty much love at first sight for them both. He begins a courtship. She is entranced. She wishes desperately for Julia to leave them alone and wants to come clean about the whole plot because she is inherently honest. But this is a Romance, so the game must play out.

The protagonists are good people and it’s enjoyable to read along as they get through their rough patch. The witty banter keeps everything fun. It fits into the category of “clean Romance.” And it is a charming distraction from the state of the world.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Woe from Wit by Alexander Griboedov

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Woe from Wit by Alexander Griboedov (translated by Betsy Hulick) is a short, fascinating book. The text taken by itself would be a cute and mildly amusing play in verse. But taken together with the introduction, it is much more.

I had never heard of the author, an early nineteenth century Russian playwright and poet who remains a very influential writer in Russia. Apparently lines from his plays, this one in particular, are quoted even today and it’s social commentary is still relevant after a fashion.

The play itself centers on Alexander Adreevich Chatsky, a young man who returns to Moscow after three years abroad, to court the young woman he left behind. The woman, Sophie, has moved on, falling in love with her father’s secretary, Molchalin. She has other suitors as well.  The father wants someone wealthier and higher in rank for his lovely daughter but her mind is made up.

The father throws a party to which numerous friends and acquaintances are invited. Chatsky is there. He has a sharp wit and is quick to criticize what Moscow was and what it has become. Sophie has no patience for his cynicism, especially when he turns it on Molchalin. She starts a rumor that Chatsky has gone mad.

The entertainment picks up as the guests make wilder and wilder claims about Chatsky’s loss of sanity. Eventually the news gets back to him. Shortly, Sophie overhears Molchalin hitting on her maid. She breaks off their affair. Chatsky, furious and disillusioned that she would make up a tale about him, no longer wants anything to do with her. He stomps off after a blistering tirade against everyone of the guests, leaving the father to conclude the rumor must be true.

Like most plays, I imagine this would be much more enjoyable to watch than to read. However, it did leave me wishing I could see it performed. 

Sunday, February 2, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The People's Act of Love by James Meek

I recently skimmed a review of James Meek’s new novel, To Calais, In Ordinary Time.  It sounded intriguing, but daunting, reminding me a bit of The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, which I loved. However, it isn’t released yet in the U.S.  So, while looking up the author in my library, I saw The People’s Act of Love. The superlatives used to describe it on the jacket blurb made it impossible to bypass. (They were so over the top I doubted the book could possibly live up to them.)

Set in Siberia during the Russian Revolution, I expected the book to be gritty and bleak, so I was prepared. Nonetheless, it was a hard book to read.

Told from many viewpoints, the anti-hero of the story is a young radical, intellectual, prison-camp survivor named Samarin. It’s clear from the start that he’s an unreliable narrator, but no one, including the reader, is able to quite put a finger on what parts of his narrative are true and which are false.

He comes upon a small town that is being ruled by the remnant of a Czech Army that knows whatever role it played in the war is no longer significant. The soldiers vary in their loyalties but all want mainly to go home. The leader, a man named Matula, is a sociopath. His lieutenant, a Jewish Czech who mourns the lost German civilization where he felt at home, is a good man, the one truly sympathetic character in the book. He is smart, good to his fellows, and in love with the wrong woman.

The woman, Anna, is a Russian widow who has moved to the town with her son. She’s a photographer, an artist, who claims she needed to get away from the city, but no one knows why she ended up there.

Also within the town is a sect of Christian mystics, castrate, who believe themselves to be angels. They hold all their goods in common, and so are better at being communists than the communists. They just want to be left alone.

Two more strangers have arrived simultaneously with Samarin. One is a local shaman who has lost his ability to “see” and is being held captive by the superstitious Matula. The other, a man no one has yet seen in the town but whose arrival is heralded by Samarin, is the Mohican. This fellow escapee from prison is a brutal thief who helped Samarin escape only so that he could use him as food on the long trek from camp to civilization.

Over the course of the next few days, with the threat of the Red Army about to descend upon the town, the various inhabitants try to come to grips with internal and external threats.

It is a powerful book, difficult to put down, but ultimately disappointing. Most of the people are awful in large or small ways. There is good, but it’s not rewarded. And the themes are muddied by the sense that nothing really matters in the end.

Even so, I will be reading To Calais, In Ordinary Time.