The Feather Thief–Kirk Wallace Johnson

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I heard this book reviewed on Fresh Air and was intrigued.  Micro histories have had a surge in popularity, perhaps because the truth is so often stranger than any fiction.

Kirk Wallace Johnson became interested in the theft of over 200 tropical bird specimens while fly fishing.  He was intrigued by its puzzle, but also attracted to the idea of a distraction from his draining work with Iraqi refugees who had helped US troops.  Johnson takes us into Papua New Guinea with Alfred Wallace, into the scientific community with Charles Darwin, and into the fate of the obsessive bird collector, Walter Rothschild, and his Tring Museum.  He also takes us into the world of Victorian feather collecting and its resurgence with fly tiers, then to the childhood of Edwin Rist, whose obsession with Victorian fly fishing leads him to the Tring Museum and the theft of priceless bird specimens, among which were birds collected by Alfred Wallace.

I listened to this book on Audible, in part on a long drive with my 11-year-old daughter, who at times said she thought the book was going into too much detail, particularly about the intricacies of tying flies.  Why the detail?

Like his subjects Wallace, Rothschild and Rist, Johnson discovers his own obsessive streak as he hunts for the missing bird specimens across the western world and across years.  He dives into this story, these histories, and buries himself in the layers of intricacy, inoculations against the failures he experienced in trying to help the Iraqi refugees.

Focus is a highly heralded attribute, but Johnson’s histories become morality tales of the dangers of obsession.  Johnson also asks us to reconsider the value of dusty old museums for the present day, how we value crimes and criminals, and our own role in breaking the law through any number of rationalizations.

Finished 7/17/18

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White Houses–Amy Bloom

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Occasionally, you have the misfortune to write a book on the same topic as someone else and have them published in the same season.  Such is the case for White Houses, which is one of two books about Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickock, a reporter who covered the Roosevelts and who became Eleanor’s lover.

White Houses is a novel told as a first-person narrative by Lorena.  Her view of the famous Eleanor Roosevelt is untarnished by all of the great quotes and gives us a peek at the stalwart woman as a woman, an object of love as well as the cause for sadness.  Lorena’s own story is the backdrop.  Her ‘autobiography’ provides a picture of the country at the time and reminds us how very far we have come even while the image of FDR as leader may make us nostalgic for a heroic if human president.

The casual bisexuality of the first lady and her classmates and the open secret of her affair with Hickock pushes any assumption that progress is a unidirectional arrow and that ours is the age of enlightenment after a long period of sexual Dark Ages.

White Houses is an easy and engaging read, particularly for those fascinated by the Roosevelt era or the Roosevelt story.

Advanced copy compliments of netgalley.com

 

The Lido–Libby Page

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The Lido is the kind of book that makes you feel good about humanity and makes you want to be a better person.  It is the kind of story that makes you look at your community with fresh eyes and think maybe it is time to come away from your little screen and the world curated through social media.  That being said, I read The Lido on my Kindle app on my little screen while traveling, which is one of the many applications for the Kindle app that make modern life a blessing to readers.

Kate is a reporter for a community newspaper in a small London neighborhood.  She suffers panic attacks, lives in a boarding house with roommates she does not know, and feels disconnected from her parents and sister.  All of this changes when she meets Rosemary, an elderly woman whose life story is intertwined with the local lido, which is slated for closure and redevelopment as a posh fitness center for the residents of the new apartment complex built on its grounds.  Rosemary introduces Kate to swimming and through swimming to herself, to the neighborhood and its characters, and to the neighborhood’s history through her personal history.  Rosemary grew up in the neighborhood and at the lido.  World War II and post-war London provide a romantic backdrop for a portion of Rosemary’s story, which becomes centered on her romance with her late husband, George, for whose memory Rosemary wishes to save the lido.  Ordinary people taking action to shape their lives and their communities.  Good stuff.

The story is engaging and the characters are likeable.  It’s a great summer or travel read–even on the tiny screen of the Kindle app.

Advanced copy provided via Netgalley.com.

 

A Twist of the Knife–Becky Masterman

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I am addicted to British crime stories, whether in print, audio, or on Netflix.  Brigid Quinn, the Floridian retired FBI agent, is, then, a departure for me.  Her description as strong and quirky, however, intrigued me.  So many detectives in these series are men.

Brigid lives in Arizona, but returns to Florida to visit her father in the hospital and, while there, checks in with a former colleague, Laura Coleman, who has become involved in helping exonerating inmates on death row.

Like any good detective whose abusive father was in law enforcement and whose brother is also in law enforcement, Brigid has issues, which push their way to the forefront as she tries to help her colleague and what she perceives as her issues.  Crime is the plot excuse, but father/daughter relationships are the heart of this novel, which is what makes it so compelling.  What we say, what we hold in silence, what we assume, and how all of it motivates our choices.

The crime is an old one–the murder of a mother and the disappearance of three children, presumed murdered, the conviction of a husband/father after the betrayal of the lover/alibi.  Laura Coleman is convinced the husband/father, Marcus, is innocent, and enlists Brigid and her connections to assist in proving it.

What does it mean to be convicted by scientific evidence–what science, interpreted by whom? Where are our loyalties–partners, siblings, parents, children?  What does it mean for the state to murder, even to murder those believed to be murderers?

When a crime novel can push such weighty questions, I call it a success.  I hope to read more about the strong and quirky Brigid Quinn. I’ve just ordered the second in the series.  Working backwards.

Finished 7/18

Once Upon a River–Bonnie Jo Campbell

 

I heard about Bonnie Jo Campbell at an AWP panel this March.  I looked up her once upon a rivernovel while I was in the panel and it was on its way to my home before I was.  Campbell is from Kalamazoo, which is three hours south of me in Michigan, so not a neighbor, but, given there are not that many Michigan authors, and then limit that to women Michigan authors, I wanted to see what she had.  The story is set near Kalamazoo.  The time seems at some not-too-far-away past, but past because there are no cell phones (a marker of contemporary teen life).  Margo is a beautiful sixteen-year-old who was abandoned by her mother at fourteen (later we learn her mother chose this age because she stopped physically growing, so was able to be on her own).  She lives in a shack with her father, who has stopped drinking, but who still has a temper problem, although not with her.  She is a sprite, drawn to the water and uncomfortable in groups and indoors.  She watches her aunt and uncle and their family, who live across the river, and imagines their warm domestic life, of which she partakes in a limited way, or did until her uncle raped her.  Margo is a sharp shooter who admires Annie Oakley.  Her aim is so good she was able to shoot the end of her uncle’s penis off.  That decision, that teenaged-rationality that said this would make her and her uncle even for the rape, led Margo on an odyssey that keeps her to the river and into the arms of a series of men, some of whom she welcomes and some of whom she does not.

Much of the novel is Margo’s internal dialogue.  She goes in search of her mother and finds herself.  The novel is a bit like a river.  In some stretches, it flows along rapidly.  In others, it becomes turgid and dark.  Its vision of the fate of women is depressing if realistic.  The book is seven years old, but it has particular valence in this age of awareness campaigns on the issue of human trafficking.

Although I nearly gave up on this book because it was taking me to such dark spaces, particularly mid-way through, I am glad I did not.  Margo is a character that I will carry with me.

Finished 4.9.

18

 

I Love Dick–Chris Kraus

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I fell in love with the Amazon Prime series starring Kevin Bacon and Katherine Hahn.  Each episode left me slightly uncomfortable and seen.  When the season ended and Katherine Hahn (Chris) was walking away from Kevin Bacon (Dick) with blood streaming down her leg, I needed to know what happened next, what was missing, as something is always missing in the transition from text to screen.

Kraus’ book, not a novel, not memoir, is even more chaotic than the Amazon Prime series.  Kraus divides the book into two parts–“Scenes from a Marriage” and “Every Letter is a Love Letter.”  In the opening pages, Chris falls in love with Dick over dinner and explains why she begins writing him letters.  “What sex is better than drugs, what art is better than sex?  Better than means stepping out into complete intensity….It’s about not giving a fuck, or seeing all the consequences looming and doing something anyway.”  And she does.  She is 40, her most recent film has been rejected, she has not had sex with her husband for over a year, and she steps into an epistolary relationship with Dick and herself.  She loses herself in lust, in her sexuality.  From her sexuality she rediscovers her intellectual power.  She moves from writing about her desire for Dick to her analysis of paintings, reflections of desire of other women, the plight of all women.  As she speaks to herself via Dick, her diary, she asks “Who gets to speak and why?….is the only question.”  Through a Dick projected onto an authoritative art figure, Chris finds her voice.  Towards the end of the book, Chris turns to schizophrenia and semiotics.  In a neat loop back to the beginning of her affair with herself via Dick, she writes, “I think desire isn’t lack, it’s surplus energy—a claustrophobia inside your skin.”  Once Chris began writing, her desire flowed despite rejection from its muse, despite her own flights of hesitation.  Her desire led her to create something new, even while she writes that “no matter where you go, someone else has been before.”

Having read the book on which the Amazon Prime series was based, I’m left hoping for a second season that moves beyond her desire for Dick into her discovery of herself.  The broken, rejected Chris walking away from Dick is not the end of Chris’ story. I hope it will not be the end of the series.

Finished 10/1/17

Submission–Michele Houellebecq

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The author is a French novelist, poet, and literary critic, which says much.

Submission is set in 2022 Paris during election season. The narrator, Francois, teaches at the Sorbonne IV, not as prestigious as III, but still the Sorbonne, and still a good place to meet young female students, with whom he has relationships that generally last one academic year.  He has no connection to his parents, lives alone, dabbles in writing articles about the subject of his doctoral dissertation, a 19th-century author, but has given up a serious research agenda.  His sexual drive is waning, as is his appetite for nearly everything in life.

Life in 2022 seems much like life in 2017 until page 21, when Francois first mentions the Muslim Brotherhood. From that point forward, Francois’ struggles with his midlife ennui alternate with academic rivalries and French political troubles.  These political troubles see nativists allying with a new Islamic party led by a charismatic Parisian Muslim and an election in which the socialists and the new Islamic party ally to oust the sitting party.

The novel is satirical, but it is difficult in the age of Trump to read, particularly as a middle-aged female academic. When the Islamic party comes to power, they take over the Sorbonne and release all of the female academics.  They reform education, step one being to eliminate coeducation and move to limit girls’ education to domestic arts and to move them out of the system just before puberty.  Male academics who can be bought with three times the salary and promises of young wives (up to three based on their newly inflated salaries) readily sell out their female colleagues and the cultural ideals they presumably upheld.  Partisan politics disappear as the charismatic new leader moves to unite Europe and move its center back to the south, not in a renewed caliphate, but in a revived and expanded Roman Empire.  Medieval Europe, again frighteningly non-satirical given recent debates in medievalist circles about the field’s implications in white supremacist movements, is upheld as a time of European strength brought down by the rise of secularism and the belief in the value of the individual stemming from Christianity’s insistence on the incarnation.

The novel is bleak, but in today’s political environment, not outlandish. Satire, to be safe enough to garner a laugh or at least a smile, needs to be at least in part unlikely.  In the time between 2015, the novel’s first publication, and 2017, Submission may have lost its ability to be counted as satire.  I found reading it uncomfortable to the point of nearly stopping at several points.  I persisted because I was curious to see if Houellebecq would give western culture a win.  I persist in reading the news each day for the same reasons.

Finished 7/27/17