Books: On the Island

On the Island by Tracey Garvis-Graves

This book has had a lot of buzz.  It was self-published and through word of mouth has had significant sales.  It is highly rated and I guess the reason I read it was because it was dirt cheap on Bookbubs and there were many positive reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.  I should have known better.  It is not my type of book but it may be the perfect thing to curl up in your beach chair with this summer

At the heart of the story is a 30 something year old English teacher (Anna) who was hired by a family to tutor their teenage son (T.J.) for the summer.  He had missed a great deal of school due to cancer treatments.  The two of them are on a small plane to an island in the Maldives (doesn’t every American family spend their summer vacation in the Maldives rather than the Hamptons?) when the pilot has a heart attack, the plane crashes and the two of them are stranded on a desert island for several years.

The whole idea of a love affair between a teacher in her thirties and a teenager creeps me out and reminds me of Mary Jane Letourneau and Vili Fualaau.  While the author carefully constructs her story to try and make it less icky, she didn’t fully succeed in my opinion as it always nagged at me.  The actual sexual relationship conveniently doesn’t occur until T.J. is almost 19 so it is officially legal and when they do get back to civilization, Anna, recognizing that they are at different stages of life, leaves T.J. so he can have the normal life experiences of a twenty-year-old.  I guess there are plenty of relationships out there where the male is 13 years older than a young teenage female that folk consider ok but I don’t care for those either.  It was difficult for me to buy into the love story because of the age gap.

If you can get past all of this, there are other challenging issues with the novel.  While the pair struggles to survive on the island, Anna’s suitcase miraculously washes up on shore containing all the personal products they will need for years as well as earrings that they can use to fish.  Friendly dolphins save T.J. from sharks (Island of the Blue Dolphins anyone?).  T.J. survives a devastating viral attack with nothing other than Tylenol.  Once they get off the island, Anna is fired from her teaching job due to the relationship but she gets a settlement from the charter plane company that basically sets her up for life without lifting a finger. The list goes on.  Every little problem just seems to have a short pat solution.

After finishing the novel, I was left wanting a lot more but it was an easy read and won’t require any intellectual effort on the part of those looking for a book at the beach.

Books: The Sound of Gravel and T.V. (the Book)

The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner

This is a great book.  It is the autobiography of Ruth Wariner,  the daughter of a Polygamist cult leader shot to death by his brother when she was only three months old.  Her mother Kathy married another polygamist, this one an abusive sociopath. Kathy ultimately had 10 children between her two husbands two of whom died during their childhood and a third one was institutionalized with various issues.  Ruth grew up in abject poverty shuttling between despicable living situations in multiple cities in the Southwest and Mexico.  Most of her time was spent in the polygamist enclave of Colonia LeBaron in Mexico founded by her father where she had 39 brothers and sisters across several families.

Ruth’s recounting of her early life is a difficult read but riveting.  Every adult fails her and her siblings.   However, at her core, Ruthie was a survivor and was ultimately responsible for saving her siblings and getting them out of a miserable and dangerous situation.  This story is compelling from the very start and the book is hard to put down.  I don’t know what it is about stories describing cults but this one is fascinating and a page turner.  While she endures one horrific event after another, there is still an enduring love for her mother and siblings that transcends the day to day difficulties.  The fact that Ruth could ultimately receive an education and write such a heartfelt chronicle of her childhood is a testimony to the strength and resilience of her character.  You’ll want to read this book.

TV (the Book) by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz

This is the latest book by prominent TV Critic Sepinwall and this one is co-authored by another well-known critic Matt Zoller Seitz.  It chronicles the best 100 TV shows ever using a series of somewhat subjective criteria but complicated enough that it takes an entire chapter to describe it.  There are also lists of shows that they liked that didn’t make the final cut either because they weren’t eligible due to the fact they are still in production or because the critics still loved them despite not making the top 100.  This is a book that is only for the die-hard TV fan.  I did not read all of it.  Each show had a description and explanation for why the critics liked it but if it was a show that I will never watch, I didn’t bother to read what was said about it.

I follow Alan Sepinwall closely and have a great deal of respect for his reviews.  He always influences which TV shows I decide to watch.  I do wonder, however,  whether a more diverse voice as his co-author would have made for a different list.  Specifically, a great female critic (like Maureen Ryan) might have had a very different perspective on the rankings.  I found the rankings to be heavily populated by shows that I find to be more “male-oriented” like violent cop shows and some animated ones.  For example, I’m not sure the Simpsons would have been voted the top TV show of all time had a female voice been counted.  Other shows like “Big Love” might have cracked the top 100 and Sports Night may have been ranked higher along with countless other shows that appeal more to women.  The top five shows were:  The Simpsons, The Wire, The Sopranos, Cheers and Breaking Bad.  These would not have been my five shows but it is hard to argue that they aren’t deserving of a high score.

Everyone can argue the order of the rankings based on their personal favorites but the book is an exhaustive read with lots of thoughtful insights into many shows of the past 50 years. The arguments the authors used for their selections are solid and not particularly controversial.   For TV lovers, it will give you ideas for what you might like to binge watch in the future.  For others, it is likely a pass.  I’d love a book from a couple of female critics to see how their rankings might play out.  Until then, I’ll keep this around as a useful reference book.

 

 

 

Books: Who Knew the Little House Books could have been written by Ayn Rand? “Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books”

 

Libertarians on the Prairie:   Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the making of the Little House Books by Christine Woodside 

I adored the Little House on the Prairie books growing up.  They provided many an hour of joy as I immersed myself in the amazing story of this pioneer family and the trials and tribulations they faced trying to survive in the American West.  Although these books were instrumental to my love of reading as a child, I never pursued information about the author, Laura Ingalls Wilder as I grew older.  Perhaps if I did, the information contained in “Libertarians” would not have been such a surprise.  It never occurred to me that the story of Wilder’s early years would not be absolutely accurate and that her daughter manipulated the course of the narrative to support her own political philosophy.

Christine Woodside has done extensive research to prove that the books written during the 1930s and ‘40s were heavily influenced by Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane and that the original manuscripts developed by Ingalls were substantially altered by Rose.  Woodside is able to compare the “before and after” to show how the finished copy bears the Libertarian philosophy of self-reliance and anti-government intervention in a direct reaction to New Deal reforms and the growing reliance on the Federal Government to solve problems.  In fairness to Rose, Woodside also makes it clear that she is by far the better writer and that the end result of her editing produced  better books than had she not been involved.

Although Laura held conservative views, it was her daughter Rose who grew to become one of the greatest proponents of modern Libertarian thought.  Laura was no writer when she undertook to write her story in her early ‘60s but her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane was a famous author and journalist and it becomes quite clear early in the Woodside’s book just how much influence Rose had while “editing” the books. A fact that was well hidden from the public at the time.  In fact, the strain placed on the relationship between mother and daughter became permanent due in part to the heavy edits Rose made on her mother’s work in order for the story to support her increasingly strong political views.

As Lane became more conservative, she interacted with other conservative thinkers including H.L. Mencken, Ayn Rand, and even the Koch brothers.  If nothing else, “Libertarians” gives us a peripheral view into the rise of conservative thought in this country.  This isn’t the easiest book to read.  It jumps around and repeats things but if you loved the Little House books and are interested in American history, I suspect you will find this read time well spent.  If you are already well versed in Ingalls’s history and her daughter’s political views and role bringing the books to the public, there probably isn’t much new for you in this book.  As for me, I plan to go back and reread these the Little House series to watch for the subliminal (and the more obvious) messages that Rose Wilder Lane was able to incorporate into her mother’s writing.

 

Books: Two Dystopian Novels that could take place now: “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Water Knife”

 

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I wasn’t reading any books in the mid to late 1980s being too busy birthing children and working so I missed Margaret Atwood’s eerily compelling story of a completely male dominated society.  Because I wanted to watch the new HULU series based on the book (and am a firm believer of reading the book before the TV show/movie), I picked up this classic and wasn’t disappointed.  Like 1984 and Brave New World, the Handmaid’s Tale warns us of what might occur if we continue along the path we are on and it is terrifying.

In the case of the novel, some sort of event has created a United States with radioactive “colonies” and safer religious centers ruled by men with the female population having been subjugated.  Women can’t vote, have jobs or a bank account and are divided into several classes.  The Handmaidens who dress in red are assigned to wealthy couples to have sex with the male, get pregnant and hand over the child to the wife. The Wives dress in blue and seem to spend their time at home gardening and knitting.  The “Martha’s” dress in green, are infertile and assigned to be servants.  Other “Unwomen” are sent to nuclear decimated “colonies” to help out until the radiation kills them.  Gays and Lesbians are executed.  There is a great deal of praying.

The book takes place in Gilead which is Boston and it is suggested that the reason society has changed is because of the feminism that arose in the 1970s.  The religious right has taken over and infertility is an issue due to environmental issues created by whatever event changed the political landscape.  The event that caused the catastrophic physical changes to the United States is never explained but the it doesn’t matter as the novel has enough to cover exploring the aftermath.  How each of these characters try to survive in this environment along with the hints of a rebellion are enough to make this book intriguing.

The Handmaid’s tale is not the most well written book you’ll read nor are all the characters sufficiently flushed out but it has had a resurgence in the last few months due to the current political climate and the story being brought to the small screen.  Many readers, including myself, will be horrified by the concept of this novel but it is well worth reading and then seeing the TV show.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

For those of use living in Arizona, the Water knife is not a far-fetched dystopian novel.  We only hope it doesn’t describe something that will take place in our lifetime.  Picture the Southwest after a long drought and a fight between California, Arizona and Nevada to get what little water is left in the Colorado. Politicians and their private armies control water access and allow certain cities just to dry up.  This is the world of the “Water Knife”,  Angel Velasquez who works for Catherine Case, the Las Vegas woman who controls the water for her area.  Angel’s job is to get water no matter how it happens.  A former gang member with tattoos covering his entire body, Angel is a star at his job. In the course of his duties, he seems to either be murdering people or having them trying to eliminate him. He meets Lucy, a female journalist and Marie, an immigrant from Texas along the way and these characters become instrumental in Angel keeping one step ahead of death.

I’ll be honest, I was listening to this book on CDs in the car and found it to be confusing.  Granted, I had to focus on driving but I always have an audio book playing so am reasonably adept in paying attention to the books and driving at the same time.  It wasn’t until the last couple of CDs that I seemed to be on top of the various plots.  I thought the book bounced all over the place and the multitude of characters and story lines at the beginning didn’t matter much by the end.  I guess the Water Knife is a combination Sy Fy, thriller, mystery but there is a lot of violence and hoping around that I didn’t care for.  I also felt the end was contrived and disappointing given the events leading up to the final chapter.   Despite all that, it is a scary potential reality for a large section of the US and worth reading for anyone living in this area.

Books: Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel and a couple from 2008: The Sleepwalker, Dreamers of the Day and the Story of Edgar Sawtelle

 

The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian

If you are a fan of Bohjalian, you will know that he often sets his novels in Vermont and that some of them have very twisty mysteries.  The Sleepwalker, his latest novel, has both.  It is the story of a beautiful woman, Annalee Ahlberg, who is a sleepwalker (later we find out she is a sleepsexer) who disappears one night when her husband is away at a conference.  Her daughters, Lianna (the narrator of the story and a college student) and twelve-year-old Paige are devastated as they try to find out what happened to her.

At first, it appears as if she walked into a river and drowned while she was asleep and that is what most people in the town assumed happened.  It is not until later that questions arise around that theory.  Along the way, Lianna becomes involved with a police detective investigating the disappearance of her mother.  He was also a close friend of Annalee and twelve years older than Lianna which borders on the very creepy.  How the family copes with grief as Lianna becomes increasingly skeptical of her new boyfriend and what he is hiding is also a theme.

This book reminded me somewhat of “Double Bind” Bohjalian’s masterpiece which was also set in Vermont and super twisty.  The author is very good at delivering surprise endings and this latest mystery is no exception.   Along the way, you will learn more about sleepwalking than you ever wanted to know.  I probably now need to reread the book to catch all the clues  Bohjalian leaves along the way because I’m sure they were there and I missed them the first go around.  Sleepwalker will be popular with Bohjalian fans.  It isn’t the best of his novels, nor the best mystery out there but it is perfectly satisfying and worth a read.

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

What makes this 2008 novel something to check out is not the quality of the novel (it is lightweight and sometimes borders on the absurd) but how it gives us glimpses into a period of history that created the basis for much of the instability in today’s Middle East.  The main character and narrator of the novel is Agnes, the only member of her Ohio family to survive the flu epidemic of 1919.  A spinster-like character who had lived with her mother, she buys an expensive wardrobe with her small inheritance and sets out to visit Egypt.  Her motives are a bit unclear but her sister’s family had been missionaries in the Middle East and so that seemed to be the connection.

Agnes arrives in Cairo with her dog (not exactly welcome in Muslim society) at the time of the Cairo Conference which established the boundaries for the modern day Middle East.  She meets up with T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) who had been friends with her sister.  She also encounters Gertrude Bell, one of the most influential women of the 20th century.  Winston Churchill takes her to see the pyramids and she also has a somewhat one-sided relationship with a German spy Karl who is likely based on an amalgamation of Germans who were spies in the area at the time.

Dreamers of the Day doesn’t have enough history in it for my liking and the novel is at times a bit silly but it will cause many readers to further research the Cairo Conference and Gertrude Bell.  There are several great biographies of Bell to read  as well as T.E. Lawrence (including the well regarded “Lawrence In Arabia” by Scott Anderson).  If you have never heard of the Cairo Conference or Gertrude Bell, it is well worth your time to check out this novel.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

I first read this novel in 2008 when it came out and didn’t remember a lot about it except that it was (a) depressing (b) about a lot of dogs, (c)  well reviewed and (d) there was a big fire.  I have this novel on audio CDs and as there is always  an audio book going in my car, I figured I’d reread it.  This was probably a mistake. This story of a handicapped boy and his family’s dog kennel is modelled after Hamlet and we all know how Shakespearian tragedies end.

The story takes place in a small town in Wisconsin where Edgar, who is unable to speak, lives with his parents.  They own a dog kennel where they breed and train extraordinary dogs that are sold across the country.  Beware, you will know more about his family’s dog breeding techniques than you’ll ever want or need to know.  Despite not being able to speak, Edgar has his own sign language and is able to train dogs.  The first tragedy strikes early in the book when Edgar’s father dies.  His uncle Claude (think Claudius) comes to help Edgar and his mother Trudy (think Queen Gertrude) and of course, there is a ghost.

Along with the Shakespearean characters and the ghost, Edgar runs away for what seems to be one of the longest sojourns into the wilderness ever.  I won’t spoil the ending other than to say it is representative of what happens with Shakespear’s tragedies but, the dogs do survive – this could only be more depressing if there were dead animals.  This novel is compelling, well written (although overly long) and if you are in the mood for something really heavy and depressing, go for it.

Books: The Tumbling Turner Sisters” and “The Aftermath”

 

The Tumbling Turner Sisters by Juliette Fay

I listened to this book on CDs in the car.  When I do audio books while driving, I’m not looking for anything “heavy” and the Tumbling Sisters was certainly light enough as to not distract me from the crazies on the road.  It is the story of several sisters who form an acrobatic troop in the 1920s and start out on the East Coast Vaudeville circuit.  They are forced to do this because of their father injures his hand in a brawl and is no longer able to work.  The family is always one paycheck from eviction in upstate NY so their mother decides to have the girls learn to tumble in order to try and make money.  We have Nell, a widow with a small boy, Gert, an independent soul who wants to be out on her own, Winnie, a nurse’s aid who loves science and wants to go to college and Kit, the youngest (her character is never flushed out in the book).

The plot is predictable as the chapters alternate between Winnie and Gert and their perspectives on life.   Slowly but surely, the Turners climb the rungs of Vaudeville moving from small towns to larger ones with bigger venues and greater purses.  Of course, the older girls find love, one in an interracial relationship, and their mother flirts her way through the many towns they travel through.  Along the way, there are historical references including “Blackface” acts; the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire; Boston’s Great Molasses Flood; Woman’s suffrage and the Seven Sister’s colleges.  The novel’s last big scene involves the Seattle Lincoln Hotel Fire.  While these references are interesting, there is not enough depth to them or Vaudeville for my liking.

This is a straight forward novel and the ending won’t be a surprise to readers.  It is a relatively fast paced and reasonably interesting story.  You won’t be any worse off for reading it, will learn a little about life in Vaudeville and if you are looking for this type of fiction, you should enjoy the book.  If you would like some more depth for your novels, look elsewhere.

The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook

The Aftermath provides a glimpse into life in Germany, specifically Hamburg, in the period immediately after WWII.  The author is British as are the main characters (a British colonel and his family) who are assigned to the British zone in the war’s “aftermath”.  The author’s own grandfather was the British governor of the Hamburg district so he knows of what he writes.  Like the character in the book, Brook’s grandfather allowed the German family in whose house he resided to stay.

I found the book predictable in terms of the various romances although the ending was a bit disjointed.  The author seemed to do slightly better with the male character development than the female.  I never thought the female lead, Rachel Morgan, the Colonel’s wife, acted in a way that made sense given what we knew about her.  I also thought that a third major plotline about the orphan boys who roamed Hamburg trying to survive using black market cigarettes was not as well integrated into the story as it could have been.  The author apparently wrote the book with a movie in mind and it shows in the writing.

The Aftermath is a good introduction (or reminder) of life in post-war Germany in an area that not many readers are probably aware of.  The book cried out for a prologue that could have explained more of the background so that when the reader embarks on the 1946 “aftermath”, they have some knowledge of what led to the destruction of the city.  Hamburg was bombed in 1943 in a raid which caused the loss of 40,000 lives and the displacement of over one million people.  It was often referred to as the “Hiroshima” of the West.  I ‘m glad I read the book and I’m looking forward to the seeing the movie which stars Keira Knightly as Rachel Morgan and Alexandar Skarsgard as the German architect and owner of the home the Morgans are staying in.

Books: Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Conner and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World

 

Sisters in Law:  How Sandra Day O’Conner and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World by Linda Hirshman

Sisters in Law is a bit of a misnomer as the reader discovers over the course of this book which chronicles how each woman achieves her respective Supreme Court seat.  The two women sat on the Supreme Court together and respected each other but weren’t particularly close. The author traces the history of each woman to the highest court in the land.  Sandra Day O’Conner graduated from law school to find that the only opportunity offered to her was a job as a legal secretary because no law firm believed that their clients would want a woman representing them.  She ultimately rose to become the first woman on the Supreme Court by being a master politician; first becoming a powerful state legislator and later a Federal judge.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a brilliant woman who faced a great deal of the same type of discrimination coming out of law school as O’Conner did.  She taught law at Rutgers and worked cases for the ACLU, making an impact on many gender discrimination cases slowly making her way up the legal hierarchy until she could obtain a judgeship and later became the second woman on the Supreme Court.  At every step along the way, both women faced discrimination in a male dominated profession.

For those who are interested in Supreme Court and/or modern American history, the book has a lot of fascinating legal cases and is certainly relevant given the current political environment. In fact, one of the cases talked about in detail (the Hobby Lobby case) is a case that the current Supreme Court nominee was involved with.   It must be said that Ms. Hirshman’s liberal political views transcend the pages and it is obvious she is a strong feminist and aligned with the judicial philosophy of Ginsberg.  She is not an advocate of most of O’Conner’s positions and gives almost begrudging support to the Justice.

Despite the author’s obvious biases, she is able to show how the two justices   respected and supported each other and when O’Conner retired, Ginsburg was lonely as the only female on the court.  Both women are depicted as strong individuals who broke one of the last great glass ceilings.  While the O’Connor’s and Ginsburg’s were not close friends outside of work, the Ginsburg’s and Scalia’s spent a great deal of time together – arguably the courts most liberal and conservative justices.  It would have been interesting for the author to explore why the bond with Scalia was so much stronger than with O’Conner.  If you are interested in these two female justices and their impact on history, you will likely enjoy this book despite some if it’s flaws.