Thursday, March 29, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

I’ve finished another book for the Mount TBR challenge hosted by My Reader’s Block : Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.

I bought this book last year because it was the selection for one of my book clubs. I read the first few pages and was blown away. I don’t think I’ve ever read such an adventure-filled, compelling preface. But it turned out I wasn’t going to be able to attend the book group meeting, so I set the book aside, intending to get back to it. Other books took precedence for one reason or another and Unbroken sat unread in a basket by my bed.

Finally, we chose it for my history/historical fiction book club, giving me a chance to rescue it from the pile.

For anyone unfamiliar with this NY Times bestseller, Unbroken (subtitled a World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption) is the story of Louis Zamperini. As a teenager, Zamperini competed in the Berlin Olympics. It was widely expected that he would soon break the four minute mile. But war broke out and he joined the Army Air Forces instead.

Hillenbrand builds the character up from a delinquent and defiant youth, defined by petty thievery and pranks, to an only semi-reformed adolescent track star. Zamperini’s backstory is necessary to understanding the type of person he is and what strengths he draws upon in times of trouble.

So, Zamperini joins the military. Life in the Army Air Forces is terrifyingly dangerous. The men are just as likely (if not more likely) to die in training than in combat. Zamperini’s missions are recounted in elaborate detail. His crew (he is the bombardier) is luckier than most, but even his crew’s luck eventually runs out. While on a search and rescue mission, they crash land in the Pacific. This is the beginning of Zamperini’s ordeal.

Three survivors of the crash are adrift in two small rafts on the open ocean. This is point where the reader was first introduced to the story in the preface, so this much is not a spoiler. The remainder of the book follows Zamperini (and a few other men) through the remainder of the war. It makes for fascinating, grueling reading. Like most WWII books, it leaves you appalled by how brutal humans can be to one another and astonished at the human capacity for survival.

The depth of Hillenbrand’s research is impressive. The story-telling is straightforward and intense. And while this is Zamperini’s story, I was left thinking that there were quite a few remarkable, resilient men in the book, not just Zamperini. If you’re in the mood to be inspired, Hillenbrand’s book fits the bill.

Monday, March 26, 2012

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Song of Achillies by Madeline Miller

Some stories are just so beautifully tragic that I can read them over and over again in their endless variations. One example is the tale of King Arthur and Camelot. Another is the Trojan War. Writers have tackled the Fall of Troy from many different angles. Even though I know how the story is going to end, and that it’s going to be heart wrenching, I’m still drawn to the books. Each of the characters in the drama will experience the tragedy in a unique way, and I find each different interpretation compelling. (Some examples are Ransom by David Malouf, Penelope’s Daughter by Laurel Corona, and Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley.)

One recent addition to the genre is The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. This time it is Patroclus’s turn to tell his side of the story. Patroclus was, on his own, a fairly insignificant young Greek prince. The story tells us that he accidentally killed another young boy and so was sent into exile to Phthia to be fostered by King Peleus. This was a life-changing event because it was here that he met Achilles.

Achilles is the hero (or anti-hero) of most accounts of the war. The son of King Peleus and the sea-nymph/goddess Thetis, Achilles is half-mortal, half-God. He is fated to be the greatest warrior of all the Greeks.

In The Song of Achilles, Patroclus and Achilles grow up together and a childhood friendship blossoms into a passionate love. They defy Achilles’s mother in order to be together. And when the order comes for the Greeks to sail to Troy to retrieve Helen, King Menelaus’s wife, from Paris of Troy who has stolen her, Achilles attempts to defy this summons as well. He sees no need to fight for Menelaus’s honor. Thetis has warned him that if he goes to Troy, he will die there. But Odysseus warns him that if he does not go, he will never become famous. His name will be forgotten. He will grow old and wither away as a nobody. Achilles decides he would rather be a hero. As for Patroclus, he will go also. He cannot let his love go alone.

The story of the Trojan War is well known. The Song of Achilles puts a slight spin on it, making it more of a love story between Achilles and Patroclus and bringing Patroclus’s contributions to the fore. But the arc of the story is inevitably the same.

Madeline Miller writes beautifully and puts the reader squarely in sympathy with Patroclus, who grows from an awkward and awestruck youth to a dedicated young man, wholly in love and yet increasingly his own man. As the war drags on, Patroclus emerges from Achilles’s shadow to become the more mature and sensible of the two. Achilles is so blinded by pride, so wrapped up in his own legend, that his choices lead to his own downfall. (Or maybe not. His destiny was predetermined by the gods, after all.)

If you’re a fan of the Iliad and are looking for a new retelling, Miller’s book is well worth the read.

I'm adding this book to my list of reads for the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestries. Come check it out and find some great historical novels to add to your TBR lists!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

MAILBOX MONDAY: Two books to make me think about the real world.

Mailbox Monday is a weekly meme created by Marcia from A girl and her books (formerly The Printed Page) where book lovers share the titles they received for review, purchased, or otherwise obtained over the past week. It is currently on tour, and for the month of March it is being hosted by The Diary of an Eccentric. Visit the link to see what other bloggers are reading!

It has been awhile since I've participated in Mailbox Monday - I've been slacking off. But I just bought two books that are not my usual fare, so I'm interested in sharing the word about them and to get any input from anyone who has read them. My go-to reads are historical fiction. These are nonfiction and deal with contemporary problems. They won't be escapist at all, but I hope they'll be inspiring.

The first is Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond by Lilly Ledbetter with Lanier Scot Isom.

Here is the summary from the jacket copy:

The courageous story of the woman at the center of the historic discrimination case that inspired the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act--her fight for equal rights in the workplace, and how her determination became a victory for the nation.

Lilly Ledbetter was born in a house with no running water or electricity in the small town of Possum Trot, Alabama. She knew that she was destined for something more, and in 1979, Lilly applied for her dream job at the Goodyear tire factory. Even though the only women she’d seen there were secretaries in the front offices where she’d submitted her application, she got the job—one of the first women hired at the management level.

Though she faced daily discrimination and sexual harassment, Lilly pressed onward, believing that eventually things would change. Until, nineteen years later, Lilly received an anonymous note revealing that she was making thousands less per year than the men in her position. Devastated, she filed a sex discrimination case against Goodyear, which she won—and then heartbreakingly lost on appeal. Over the next eight years, her case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where she lost again: the court ruled that she should have filed suit within 180 days of her first unequal paycheck--despite the fact that she had no way of knowing that she was being paid unfairly all those years. In a dramatic moment, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read her dissent from the bench, urging Lilly to fight back.

And fight Lilly did, becoming the namesake of President Barack Obama's first official piece of legislation. Today, she is a tireless advocate for change, traveling the country to urge women and minorities to claim their civil rights. Both a deeply inspiring memoir and a powerful call to arms, Grace and Grit is the story of a true American icon.

The second is: Rescuing Regina. The Battle to Save a Friend from Deportation and Death by Josephe Marie Flynnn, SSND

Here is the summary from the jacket copy:

What is it like to be a young mother threatened with deportation to the country whose government has imprisoned you and whose soldiers have raped and tortured you? You don't want to leave your children behind, but how can you take them with you, knowing that your homeland, ruled by chaos and violence, is notorious for murdering failed asylum seekers?

Regina Bakala found herself in just this situation ten years after escaping the Congo and settling in the United States. Upon arrival, Regina had worked with an immigration lawyer, then joyfully reunited with her husband, also a Congolese torture survivor, and had two children. Life was challenging but full of hope until the night there was a knock on the door and immigration agents burst in. They forced Regina from her home as her family watched, then locked her in prison to await deportation to certain death.

In Rescuing Regina, author Josephe Marie Flynn tells Regina's powerful story -- and how her husband, a pit-bull lawyer, a group of volunteers, and a feisty nun set aside political differences to galvanize a movement to save her. Revealing what she uncovered about US immigration policies and the dangers faced by those escaping war crimes, Flynn exposes an America most never see:  a vast underbelly of injustice, a harsh detention and deportation system, and a frighteningly arbitrary asylum process. In their battle for justice, Regina and Josephe not only confronted dangerous obstacles but also reawakened emotions and traumas from the past. Rescuing Regina is also a tale of friendship , faith, hope, and the transformative journey of two friends.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

BOOK REVIEW- The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson is not the type of book I usually pick up off the bookstore shelf – contemporary dysfunctional family fiction. But it was receiving rave reviews a few months back and I was intrigued by the descriptions. I put my name on the library wait list and this past weekend it was finally my turn.

Annie and Buster Fang (or Child A and Child B as they are less than affectionately called by their parents) are the creation of performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang. Caleb exists only for his art and he has very strict criteria for what constitutes true art. Camille, his one-time student, originally wanted to be a painter but she is now committed to Caleb and his vision. Pregnancy could have been an unfortunate bump in their road, but they decided to make their children part of their art. They were "The Family Fang." Unfortunately for the children, the parents were always more concerned about the art than the family.

Annie and Buster are now adults. Annie is an actress, a good one, but her career is careening out of control. Buster is a writer. He wrote one good book and one bad one. Now he freelances and things are not going well. In desperate straits, the adult children move home. They have no intention of being sucked back in to their parents’ "art," but Caleb and Camille have one more piece in the works and it’s necessary that the children do their part, one way or another.

Scenes from the current day are interwoven with flashbacks from the past. The past consists of anecdotes – painful images of performance pieces that leave no doubt why the kids are so messed up. In fact, that they are doing as well as they are can only be attributed to the loving, supportive relationship between the siblings. That relationship gives the book heart and makes the read worthwhile.

It’s a quick book, interesting, and to me, an original one, although the originality could be due to the fact that I don’t usually read books in this genre. It did put me in mind very slightly of Franny and Zooey by Salinger – but only because I read Franny and Zooey recently enough for it to be sticking in my mind and it also featured close-knit messed up siblings who reunite in their parents’ home and help each other through rough times. Franny and Zooey was more moving. This book was more ironic. It was a little too over the top for me to feel any real emotional investment in the characters, but it was something different and every once in a while, I like to read out of my box.

Monday, March 19, 2012

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The King's Mistress by Emma Campion

The King’s Mistress by Emma Campion is an absorbing, sympathetic look at the life of Alice Perrers, the lowborn mistress of King Edward III. I’ve caught glimpses of Alice before in historical novels of the times, and she has always been treated with disregard. She was a gold-digger, a young woman who latched on to the aged king and extorted riches and favors from him to the detriment of the treasury. The kindest thing that could be said about her was that she didn’t abandon him at the end.

But who was she, really?

Campion presents Alice to us first as a thirteen-year-old girl being prepared for the marriage market. Her father has decided who she should marry—the wealthy merchant Master Janyn Perrers. He is significantly older than she is and a widower, but he is kind and generous to her. The only difficulty is that her mother is dead set against the marriage, but even that can be overcome.

They are married, happily at first, but Alice becomes increasingly aware that Janyn and his family harbor dangerous secrets. These secrets allow them to run in high circles, even to be acquainted with the king and queen. But the danger grows greater than the benefit. To protect her, he arranges for her to become a servant to the queen. And then, one day, Janyn disappears.

Alice is devastated. She takes some comfort from the kindness of the queen. But even more, she enjoys time spent with the king. Eventually, she becomes the king’s mistress. She then must live with the consequences, good and bad. She falls in love with the king and their time together is precious, but she becomes an object of scorn, envy, and hatred at court and throughout England.

Campion does a wonderful job of bringing Alice to life as a three-dimensional, fully developed character. She is not a particularly strong protagonist. She falls back on obedience at each of the major decision points in her life and her choices are therefore made by default. However, Alice is resilient and luck is with her. She’s fortunate in that whenever disaster strikes, someone is there to help her.

The King’s Mistress is also a richly detailed foray into fourteenth century England. It sweeps you along from the merchant’s homes and shops, into the streets and churches, and through the palaces of the king. The author’s knowledge of the setting and politics of the period helps pull the reader into the protagonist’s world. You may end up with a different view of Alice after seeing the world through her eyes.

This is my fifth book read for the Historical Fiction Challenge, hosted by Historical Tapestries.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

eBook Review: Blood on the Tracks by Cecelia Holland

I’ve already confessed that the limited availability of The Wedding Shroud by Elisabeth Storrs was one of the main reasons I was so anxious to get my hands on an i-pad. The "real" book was not available in the US, and the e-book was not available for Nook, but I could order it on kindle. To push me father along the road of must-have-kindle, Cecelia Holland published an Amazon short (only 99 cents!) that sounded fascinating, and there was only one way to get it. So, I hinted strongly that I wanted an ipad for Christmas.

Blood on the Tracks is a 79 page work of nonfiction that details the events of The Great Upheaval of 1877. It is a time of massive transformation in America. Industrialization with increasing mechanization has led to high unemployment, increasing poverty, and a stark inequality in the distribution of wealth. The small minority of wealthy individuals, particularly the owners and high ranking managers of the railroads, are in bed with politicians at every level.

In 1877, in an effort to increase profits even more, the railroads decide on a 10%- across the board pay cut for their employees. At the same time, they indicate they will begin running more double-engined train. Trains with two engines can pull far more cars but require only one set of operators. This substantially increases the work and creates dangerous working conditions for the remaining crew, but brings in a lot more money. Of course, the workers would still see their paychecks cut.

Railroad workers are not the only disgruntled laborers. Increased production with higher unemployment means that there are fewer people able to buy the goods that are made. This has led to more lay-offs/firings and a generalized downward spiraling of the economy—a hole that no one knows how to dig themselves out of.

This set the stage for a massive strike that began in Martinsburg, West Virginia and quickly spread throughout the U.S.. Mobs swarmed train depots. Local governments called in first the regional milita and then the Federal Troops at the request of the railroad magnates. The strikers had the support of the populace. While the violence was contained in some cities, in others there was horrifying bloodshed on both sides.

Cecelia Holland is a meticulous historian and a gifted storyteller. Her historical novels consistently rank among my favorites and that same skill is applied here. Holland delivers a compact and clear account of a complex, geographically far-flung  event with far-reaching consequences. When I saw this short narrative, I knew I had to read it, even though labor history is not really my thing. The parallels with today are so blatant that one would imagine we should be able to learn something from it. Unfortunately, I suspect that in many cases, the wrong conclusions would be drawn.

I should, hopefully, get back on track with review writing. I’ve been reading. But two of the books were for the Historical Novels Review (the quarterly publication of the Historical Novel Society.) I may post at least one of them here after the print review comes out. I’ve also been writing, trying to finish up a draft of my work-in-progress. The first draft is now complete! So here comes the fun part. The rewrites.