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Staff Picks: Books

Remembering Ivan Doig

Ivan Doig has been one of my favorite writers since I first discovered his books 10-15 years ago. I was sad to read he passed away earlier this month.

Doig wrote primarily of the western landscape and people, usually with a Montana setting where he was born in 1939 and grew up, often accompanying his father on ranch jobs along the Rocky Mountain Front. His use of language, development of the characters, and description of the land stayed with me long after I’d finished each book.

He wrote both fiction and nonfiction; three Montana novels – English Creek, Dancing at the Rascal Fair, and Ride With Me Mariah Montana, form a trilogy covering the first century of Montana’s statehood from 1889 to 1989.

Tributes to him mention his final book to be published later this year: Last Bus to Wisdom. I’ll be watching our new books for it and in the meantime plan to reread some of my favorites.


Siege Winter

I am a fan of historical fiction, so when Ariana Franklin’s newest title Siege Winter arrived, I looked forward to reading it. And with good reason, as it turns out.

The story takes place in 12th century England, around 1140, when King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Matilda, are fighting over control of the country. Their armies and supporters battle it out, and a castle located on the Thames is considered to be a strategic location for both Stephen and Matilda. The castle, Kenilworth, belongs to 15 year old Maud, married against her wishes to a much older man. The story revolves around a long, brutal winter of siege, when mercenaries, soldiers, and a truly evil monk all scheme to achieve their own ends.

Sadly, author Ariana Franklin died while writing Siege Winter; the book was completed by her daughter. Franklin is also the author of a wonderful series set in medieval Cambridge, where an Italian woman doctor acts as a sort of medical sleuth. The first in that series is Mistress of the Art of Death, and I highly recommend that series.


How We Got to Now

This 2014 book by Steven Johnson is subtitled Six Innovations That Made the Modern World. Those six are each described in chapters which are entitled glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light. Various inventions are recalled under each heading. For example, the chapter on cold discusses the development of refrigeration and the chapter on clean covers advances in public health. The illustrations and photographs by themselves make this book worthy of examination. One of my favorites is the reproduction of the old Clorox ad on page 153. Available in four formats: e-book, digital audiobook, compact disc, and print.


The Collapse

I was in grade school when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961 and very clearly remember the crisis that this act by the Soviet Union and the regime in East Germany engendered. It was the subject of many class discussions over the next several years, and of course, it was all over the news. I also remember how elated the world was when the Wall came down in 1989 and the people of East Berlin could be free again. Author Mary Elise Sarotte, visiting professor of government and history at Harvard University, indicates in this 2014 book that the breach of the Wall was neither planned nor the result of negotiations, but was an accident. This is a dramatic account of the events that changed Berlin, Germany, Europe, and the world.


For Lizzie freedom means learning

 In Lesa Cline-Ransome's book Freedom's School, one day mama told Lizzie and her brother Paul that they “went to sleep ‘slaves’ and woke up free”. Mama said that being free means you have to work harder. “Real freedom means ‘rithmetic and writing.”

Lizzie was eager to learn but it was hard for her and Paul to leave their mama and daddy working so hard in the crop fields. Getting to school was not easy and sometimes they had rocks thrown at them. The first school was burned down. Daddy remarked that “at least they got a little learnin”. Lizzie and mama didn’t answer “Cause they knew that halfway to freedom feels like no freedom”.

Well, Lizzie got her wish. One day mama woke them up and said hurry up and get dressed and we’ll go check on Mizz Howard. They got there to see men working on rebuilding the school and Mizz Howard was ready to start lessons. 


The Invention of Wings

One of my favorite reads during the long winter was Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings, which follows the relationship between Hetty "Handful" Grimke, a Charleston slave, and Sarah, the Grimke daughter who is given ownership of Handful for her 11th birthday. Told in alternating points of view between the two, the book follows each girl's individual growth into adulthood as well as their ever-changing relationships with each other and with their families, all in the setting of the 19th century South. Both antislavery and women's rights movements play prominently in this fast-moving but captivating narrative that chronicles an important time (and an important figure) in our country's history. 


West of Sunset

It has been many years since I have read one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books but I have read several historical novels in the past few years about him and/or his wife, Zelda. The most recent one, West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan, was published in January.

O’Nan focuses on the last three years of Fitzgerald’s life, 1937 – 1940, as he is trying to make it as a Hollywood screenwriter. These were troubled years; his literary success is well behind him, he was abusing drugs and alcohol, Zelda was in and out of a hospital being treated for mental health issues, his finances were in ruins, and the world was on the brink of World War II.

Although the focus is on Fitzgerald, there is also the romance of Hollywood and the movies, the relationship with Ernest Hemingway and movie stars of the times, and his affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham.

One reviewer referred to it as a “bittersweet portrait of the once-great novelist.” In the end it is almost heartbreaking to see Fitzgerald slip away.

This is a strong addition to the Fitzgerald historical fiction literature.

 


Reading About the 60’s

I wrote a few days ago about my unplanned reading emphasis for 2014 on books about World War I and II, generally with a European setting, and both fiction and nonfiction.

I enjoy looking back over the list of books I read during the year and see another unplanned emphasis: the 1960’s. It is not surprising that there have been many books published about that decade as we “celebrate” the 50th anniversary of the mid-point of that decade AND a formative time for me.

I read and would recommend

Ready for a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Streets” Became the Anthem for a Changing America by Mark Kurlansky

The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America by James T. Patterson

Tomorrow-land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America by Joseph Tirella

1963: The Year of the Revolution by Robin Morgan

You don’t have to have grown up in the 60’s to appreciate these titles, but it helps! I’m betting we’ll see more titles about this decade published in 2015.


I Pledge Allegiance

This story touches my heart. I picked it up to read because I met Pat Mora one Fall when she made an author visit to Kalamazoo. I always enjoy her work, so it was natural for me to read this book.

The story is about Libby’s great aunt (Lobo) who is eighty years old. She has been studying very hard, learning all about America so that she can take her citizenship test. Libby and her Mom will go with Lobo to the ceremony when she becomes a citizen of the United States.

Libby’s class practices the Pledge of Allegiance just as her great aunt does. Libby’s teacher explains the meaning of it as they recite it. Libby and Lobo practice saying the Pledge of Allegiance every night so that on Friday, the big day, they will both be ready. While they wait for Friday to come, Libby’s great aunt tells her about her country and coming to the United States. They came here to protect the family.

At the ceremony, the Judge tells everyone what a happy day it is. She has all the new citizens stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

When my mother-in-law was eighty years old, she too became a citizen of the United States. We were lucky enough to be able to have the Judge come to her home and perform the ceremony. My daughter was in kindergarten at the time and we talked about how Grandma had to learn the history of our country and how important it was to her. It was a touching ceremony and we all recited the Pledge of Allegiance with her, there was not a dry eye among us. We were every bit as proud of her as Libby was of Lobo. It is something our family will never forget.


Top 10 Books of 2014

I always look forward to the New York Times Book Review that reveals their editors’ picks for the top 10 books of the year. I have rarely read any of them, because I have spent that year trying to catch up on the best books from previous years. So I add some more to my list. 

For 2014, I had read one of them – On Immunity by Eula Biss. That one caught my eye early because I loved her book Notes From No Man’s Land about race in America.

One of them, The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, was considered as a possible Reading Together selection for 2015.

Here’s the list:

Fiction
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Euphoria by Lily King
Family Life by Akhil Sharma
Redeployment by Phil Klay


Nonfiction
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
On Immunity by Eula Biss
Penelope Fitzgerald: a Life by Hermione Lee
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright


May your reading lists prove fruitful in 2015.


Happy New Year!