Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas

Our book club chose this "old school" book. Alexandre Dumas is most famous for having written The Three Musketeers. This book is much shorter than that one.

It's set in Holland, and the title is referring to an actual flower. The government offered a large prize to anyone who could produce a truly black tulip, and the quest to get that prize is central to the plot.

The beginning of the book is quite exciting. Two men are fleeing for their lives from a mob who thinks they are traitors and liars. To be honest, I wasn't quite sure what the two men did but some papers they had hidden with a friend led us into the actual story. That friend, Cornelius Van Baerle (Dutch enough for you?), is the main character.

Cornelius has not read the hidden papers, and has actually almost forgotten them. He took on a quiet life, devoting himself to gardening and breeding tulips, trying to produce that pure black tulip. Because of the papers he is arrested and put in jail. In prison he falls in love with the guard's daughter and entrusts her with the 3 bulbs that he is sure will produce a black tulip. His fiendish neighbor, though, is watching and determined to steal the bulb. He does, but his evil plans are foiled in the end.

This is a good story. It's a little old fashioned but not enough to bother you. The story moves along like a rollicking movie. I felt like I could see the characters, scenes, landscape and action in my mind. According to Wikipedia, it has been made into a movie and BBC miniseries. It'd be fun to see a movie version.

I'm glad to have read this. If you want a good, historical adventure, I recommend The Black Tulip.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

I didn't think I was going to like this book. I thought it might be old fashioned or boring or something but it turned out I did like it.

The book is set in Vietnam, in the 1950's, I believe, when the French were fighting there. The main characters are a British reporter, Fowler, and an American man, Pyle.

There's a sort of love story/love triangle but it's probably not fair to call it love. Fowler is living with a Vietnamese woman named Phuong and Pyle falls in love with her. Phuong wants to marry a man who will take her out of Vietnam. Once she feels that won't happen with Fowler, she goes with Pyle. That's why it might not really qualify as love.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Whole World Over by Julia Glass

I enjoyed this book. The main character is Greenie, wife of Alan, mother of George. They live in a small apartment in New York. Greenie started her own business as a baker, and Alan is a psychoanalyst. George is 4 years old.

Greenie gets a call from the assistant to New Mexico's governor who has tasted her coconut cake and fallen in love with it. He asks her to come to New Mexico and be his chef. She decides to do it, as a kind of adventure. She takes George and goes out to New Mexico. Alan stays in New York. Greenie ends up loving New Mexico and encourages Alan to join them so he begins to "wean" his patients (which are very few anyway) and prepares to move.

But that move doesn't happen. Greenie meets an old boyfriend and falls in love with him. She decides to separate from Alan. Some things happen that end up with Alan taking George back to New York with him. Then September 11 happens and everything changes again.

It sounds kind of shallow as I describe it, and I was kind of disgusted with Greenie for leaving Alan. But she still was a likeable character. There are a lot of other characters, too. The governor, his assistant, the restaurant owner next door, the bookstore owner across the street, a woman named Saga who has brain damage from an accident, memories of Greenie's mother. Somehow it all works. I liked the characters and the writing. It was a good story that kept me turning the pages. I enjoyed being in New York and New Mexico, especially New Mexico. I thought it was a good presentation of what marriage can feel like, too.

It was interesting to read a novel with September 11 as an event within it. That's a first for me. The author described one of the characters in New York looking out her window and seeing paper falling like snow. I suppose that happened. I had not thought of it, although I saw the photos of all the debris at the towers and on the people there at the scene. It sounds like paper fell in a similar way to ashes falling when a volcano happens.

I recommend this book, and I think I'll try another book by Julia Glass. The book references "the National Book Award-Winning" Three Junes. That sounds familiar; I'm not sure if I've read it or not.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell

I liked this book a lot. At first I thought it was kind of confusing. There were a lot of characters, and their names were either Japanese or Dutch, both kind of strange to remember, although the Dutch ones had a ring of familiarity. But it wasn't long before I was caught up in the story and enjoying it very much.

Jacob De Zoet works for the Dutch East Indies Company in Japan, in 1799. I didn't (and still don't) know much about this period of Japan's history, but the book talked about it being after Japan had thrown out all the Christians, and killed many, then tried to keep themselves isolated from the Western world. But they did allow the Dutch Indies Company to have this one port and conduct trade.

The Japanese were so anti-Christian that they actually had a holiday where the people stepped on a picture of Jesus and gave an oath to declare their hatred of Christianity. There were "Hidden Christians" who were killed if discovered. The people of the Dutch East Indies Company were not allowed to bring any religious material into the country. Jacob, though, smuggled in a Psalter, of the Dutch Reformed Church, which had been his great grandfather's. It had a bullet hole where the book had stopped a bullet while being carried by his great grandfather during a war. Jacob felt he could not be so disloyal as to give up that Psalter so he hid it among many other books and hoped it would not be discovered.

It turned out his translator did see it but did not inform on Jacob. This translator had loved and wanted to marry a woman named Aibagawa, but his family would not let him marry her. Aibagawa is a midwife and, rare for a Japanese woman, was studying medicine with a doctor from the company. Jacob becomes infatuated with her, but they cannot pursue a relationship either and Aibagawa is sent to what is almost like a convent run by a secret society.

The author goes back and forth between Jacob and Aibagawa as the story unfolds. He does a good job of telling enough from one character's perspective before changing to the other. I did not get at all frustrated at the switches. There are even a few places where other characters are telling the story and that works, too.

I thought it was interesting to be in another time and country like that, and to get to know these characters. I would definitely recommend it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

So very British. That's this novel -- Anglophiles, you'll love it.

I was trying to underline very British-sounding sentences but, of course, I got caught up in the story and only remembered once or twice. Here are a few.
And yet there was that fine line across which one might be betrayed into womanish fretting over details...He decided that perhaps he would undertake a brief, manly attempt at carpentry...
...the color seemed incongruous, thought the Major, in a woman who preferred mushroom-brown tweeds. Today's dull burgundy and black blouse and dark green stockings would have rendered her invisible in any mildly wet woodland. 
"My dear lady, what is there to fear?" he said. "Except putting the other ladies quite in the shade."
"Oh, it's simple pragmatism, Dad. It's called the real world. If we refused to do business with the morally questionable,...then where would we all be?"  "On a nice dry spit of land known as the moral high ground?" suggested the Major.
The Major wished young men wouldn't think so much. It always seemed to result in absurd revolutionary movements or, as in the case of several of his former pupils, the production of very bad poetry.
The story is about Major Pettigrew who lives in a small British village. He is a widower with one grown son. When the story begins, the Major's brother has just died. He and his brother each have a "Churchill gun," a pair of valuable guns which their father had given them with the dying promise that they would be joined back together as a pair when one of the brothers died. The other main character is Jasmina Ali, a woman of Pakistani background who owns and runs a shop in the village. She, too, has lost her spouse and her nephew is helping her to run the shop, which sounds kind of like a 7-11, a convenience store where they have a little bit of everything but no one does their full shopping there.

The Major and Mrs. Ali start to enjoy each others' company. They both love books and they like to talk and spend time with each other. This is a little extraordinary because there is some prejudice against the two of them having a relationship, including from Jasmina's nephew and family.

There are several other characters who play a part in the story -- the Major's son, Mrs. Ali's nephew, a young woman who has a child who turns out to be the nephew's, a nice woman in the village who seems like a more perfect match for the Major, and the Lord of the manor in the village.

An exciting climax happens when the nephew threatens to kill himself. Everything isn't tied up into a completely happy ending for all concerned, but it definitely is wrapped up well & tidily at the end.

I highly recommend this book. I felt it was charming and just a joy to read.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

I finished The Postmistress this week. I liked it a lot. It definitely kept me turning the pages. In fact, I finished it very late at night because I didn't want to stop reading.

The book starts with a kind of prelude where one of the characters is seemingly at a dinner party and asks, "What would you think of a postmistress who chose not to deliver the mail?" Those first couple pages are written in first person, by one of the main characters, Frances Bard, a woman who'd been a reporter with Edward Murrow, in England, in the years before the US joined World War II.

Then it switches to third person and gets into the full story. Most of the characters come from a small town in Maine. There's Iris, the postmistress (except the author says it is incorrect in the US to say postmistress even when the person is female); Emma a young wife of the town doctor; and Henry, Iris' boyfriend. The author begins with these Maine characters -- Iris realizing she's falling in love at  rather a late age with Henry, Emma ecstatic at being loved by her husband Will, the doctor, after a fairly unloved childhood.

We pick up with Frances, called Frankie, the reporter, in London. It doesn't state it explicitly but you get the feeling that Frankie is thrilled to be working with Murrow, living in such exciting times and reporting on it all.

The lives of the characters in Maine progress, and it's fun to read about it. Because of a crucial event in his career, the doctor decides to go to London to help in the war effort. When he and Frankie end up together in a bomb shelter, the stories and characters become connected.

I won't give away any more. I recommend the book. I felt like I got a little better feeling of what it felt like to be in that time, which seems kind of limbo-like to me just because the US wasn't in the war yet -- and how strange is that since I wasn't even alive then? Anyway, good writing, excellent storytelling, characters you like getting to know.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A note - Stars & Ebooks

I've decided to try to go back in the blog and use the labels to indicate a star rating, from 0 to 5, kind of like grades A through F. That way these ratings will be listed under "Labels" and it will be possible to find books by their rating.

On another subject, I've felt almost guilty that the last several books I've read have been on my iPad using Kindle. I love physical books. I love their smell and feel and look. I love sitting surrounded by them in my library. I feel conflicted about not purchasing them or going to the library for them. My plan is that if I think I'll re-read a book because I think it's so good, I will purchase it. And I know that I won't purchase all my books that way. It's a changing world. Even a big chain bookstore like Borders is going bankrupt. I wonder how it will all turn out.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken is by Laura Hillenbrand, who wrote Seabiscuit. I like both these books. Hillenbrand is a good writer who can make non-fiction interesting. I don't read as much non-fiction as fiction but I've always liked biographies because they are still a story.

My brother and father both mentioned reading this book, which is why I picked it up. It's about Louis Silvie Zamperini. I'd never heard of him but it turns out he was quite a famous runner. He came close to breaking the 4-minute mile record back in the days when everyone was trying to beat that mark.

The book tells about his childhood. It sounds like he was a naughty boy and got into more serious trouble in his teenage years, but his brother encouraged him to put his energies into running and that turned out to be something he could do well at. He went to the Olympics and would have continued competing in running except the war started -- World War II.

Louis joined up and became a bombadier. I never knew that the saying "bombs away" came from such a literal source. As a bombadier Louis would sit by the bomb doors, open them, and when the bombs had gone out he'd yell, "Bombs away!" so the pilot knew he could start climbing higher.

Louis was in the Pacific arena in the war. It was interesting to read about the way the war went over there, some of the strategies and reasons the U.S. was fighting for these islands, and also the way the mechanical abilities of the planes had a lot to do with those strategies. That may sound dry but, trust me, it wasn't, which is why I say that Hillenbrand is good at making non-fiction interesting.

Louis' plane was shot down and he was one of 3 survivors. The tale of their survival for more than 3 weeks on an inflatable raft is amazing. One of the 3 died during that time and then Louis and the other, the pilot, were captured. Japanese prisoners of war had a horrible time, much worse than those taken in Europe, another thing I had never known. Louis' experiences in prison were horrible and unforgettable.

After the war Louis' body had been so wrecked by prison that he couldn't go back to running. He bacame a kind of celebrity for the military but started drinking and went into a downward spiral. He also started to be obsessed about killing a particularly horrible Japanese officer who had singled Louis out for torture during the war. Hillenbrand also chronicles that officer's life.

Louis' wife persuaded him to attend a Billy Graham crusade. What Graham said affected him so much and reminded him of his childhood plus the promises he'd made to God during the war and he absolutely turned his life around. He opened a nonprofit boys camp where he helped boys learn how to turn their lives around, too. He also went on speaking tours and was given many awards. He lived a long, active life, even skiing at the age of 90.

As you read the book you get to know other people important in Louis' life, such as the pilot who survived the plane crash and prison with him, his brother, and others. I just found it very interesting to get to know Louis and these others and to hear how they lived and changed.

Never in My Wildest Dreams by Belva Davis

I read this book for a book club. My overall assessment is that it was good, rather more interesting because it is about a "local girl" but I didn't feel like it was extremely well written or compelling.

Belva Davis is a journalist/reporter in the Bay Area. She was born in Louisiana but nearly immediately was given to her Aunt Ophelia and her husband, who had no children, to be cared for by them. When Belva was 3 her aunt died and Belva then went back to her mother & father's home and for the rest of her childhood was shuffled around from one part of the family to another. She wasn't always badly treated, but she was pretty much unwanted, there was a period where she was molested by one of her male relatives, and when her father was under the influence of drugs and alcohol she was abused, so her childhood was an unhappy one. It got to a point where Belva was ready to commit suicide. She didn't do that but she did decide to escape somehow.

By high school they were living in Berkeley and she attended Berkeley High. They were integrated but Belva experience many instances of discrimination, at places of business refusing to serve her and many other things.  She got married at 18  and had two kids. Belva worked throughout her marriage and eventual divorce. Eventually she started to write and became a reporter. She had many jobs around the Bay Area and ended up with a career at NPR.

It was interesting to read about the experience of growing up as a black woman, especially as she was experiencing the changes that happened in the '60's and '70's. When I try to figure out why I didn't particularly love the book, I think it's because I didn't feel like I got to know her well enough. When I read of all that she went through, it is a marvel that she turned out so strong and successful, but I feel like I didn't really learn how that happened.

So, a pretty good book.