Friday, August 31, 2012

Countdown to National Book Festival


It is 22 days until I attend the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.  To say that I'm excited is much understated.  In the past month, I have attempted to read some books by attending authors, and I will continue to do so up until the festival itself and after.  With every week now presenting new publications from favorite authors, it is rather a daunting task to fit in the books for the festival and those favorite authors.  However, there are some titles that overlap, as in the example of Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, both a festival read and a favorite author.  I suspect that overlapping will be the norm.  Two books I've just finished are indeed both favorite author and festival choices, The Fault in Our Stars and, previously mentioned, Caleb's Crossing.  I'm including the reviews for both books below and also on my review page. 

Caleb's CrossingCaleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another "wow" from Geraldine Brooks!  There's a level of writing and storytelling that consistently sets the bar high, and Brooks sets this high bar with every stroke of the key.  She continues to find the obscure thread of history and create a story around it that completely enthralls the reader.  As with her previous novels, I became ensconced into the time, places, and people of this tale.  There is always a higher calling to the stories, a David vs. Goliath struggle that finds you passionately pulling for the underdog and exasperated with the ignorance and intolerance of those in power. 

Caleb's Crossing is a tale inspired by the first Native American graduate of Harvard, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a member of the Wopanaak tribe from what is now Martha's Vineyard.  In 1665, he accomplished this extraordinary feat, having learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew in the process.  Brooks was able to take scant information about this amazing scholar and spin a plausible and intriguing story that vividly recreates the era of history in which Native Americans were usually referred to as salvages (savages) and women were routinely denied control of their destinies.  The narrator of the story is Bethia Mayfield, daughter of Great Harbor's, as part of the island was called then, minister.  Her grandfather had purchased the land from the Indians, attempting in his own way, a fair settlement.  Bethia and Caleb become friends at a young age, unbeknownst to their families and friends, and exude some influence over each other.  She teaches him English, and he teaches her his native tongue and the riches of the island's natural beauties.  Life is hard on the island, and indeed in the late 17th century America, and Bethia and Caleb must overcome many prejudices and tragedies to claim a piece of the budding new world for themselves.  Both clash with controlling family members, Bethia with her brother and Caleb with his uncle, and their relatives' ideas of what is best for them in contrast to what the two friends secretly covet.  The novel is as much about breaking free of the chains that bind one as it is about Caleb's rise to Harvard graduate.  The treatment of Native Americans and women had much in common in the 1660's age of white man's suppressive authority.  Some would allow that the struggle still continues.

As with her previous novel, People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks has given readers a fascinating historical fiction read in Caleb's Crossing.  Her writing is superb and her subjects are unparalleled in their captivating ability to transport the reader to another time and place.  Perhaps, Brooks' novels should more  accurately be listed under time travel.

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes, not nearly often enough, a book comes along that you must finish reading no matter what the time of night, or morning, and in spite of a full day facing you after your dearth of sleep.  I only halfheartedly tried to put the book down once last night/early this morning, and then I gave in to the power of the need to finish it.  I originally balked at reading this book, as I wasn't sure when I would ever be in the mood for a book about teens dealing with cancer.  All I can say now is, don't judge a book by what you think its subject matter is. Yes, Hazel and Augustus are two teen who struggle with cancer and all that entails, including loving parents who want so desperately to banish the evil monster that has imprisoned their children.  But, this gripping book is not about cancer; this book is about people, two people who are amazing.  As Augustus tells Hazel early on when he ask what her story is and she starts to remind him of her cancer diagnosis, "No, not your cancer story. Your story.  Interests, hobbies, passions, weird fetishes, etcetera." 

The first book I read by John Green was Looking For Alaska, and I was impressed by his ability to get inside the teenage mind, the one that is questioning the rules and wisdom of the ages, as teens should and actually do.  Then, when I read An Abundance of Katherines, I fell in love with Green's witty characters.  Wit is very much valued by me in writing, and Green is a master with it.  In The Fault in Our Stars, the wit is a continual feast of delight.  Yes, cancer kids can be wonderfully witty and passionate about life, just like, well, just like any kids. 

Don't misunderstand, there is the dreaded disease of cancer always there in this book.  How could it be otherwise?  It is treated by Green as it is, ugly and humiliating.  That teenagers can have fun, find love, and share favorite books while talking about death suits and last wishes is nothing short of miraculous, normalcy against all odds. 

I will probably at some point reread this moving book to embrace all the wit and wonder that it contains.  It's a book that you just know will maintain its power for the rest of your reading life. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Paperbacks, A Beginning

For those readers who have great patience and can stand to wait for a book to appear in paperback form, they can enjoy a great read that is more affordable and easier to carry.  There are even two sizes, the mass paperback (the smaller and uniform in size) and the trade paperback (the larger and not always the same size).  Some authors, who are particularly popular in general or with a specific title, are published in both the mass and the trade.  I much prefer the trade paperback (when I can wait and not demand the expediency of the hardback), as the print is larger and there is more white space between sentences.  It's partially an age-related preference, but I actually like the feel of the larger books, too.  My least favorite type of paperback in either mass or trade is the movie-cover paperback.  I like my reading served up with a little less direction and more imagination.  What steered me toward thinking about paperbacks is the article I read today on the origin of the paperback book.  Originally called pocket books, for obvious reasons, the mass paperback still follows that form.  Of course, the current trend of e-reading is analogous to the advent of the paperback, and it is mentioned in the article, too.  I am including the article from Mental Floss Magazine so that others may also enjoy a little history lesson in reading.


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Polio, Terror and Panic in America

If you are of a certain age in the United States, you will remember at least some of the rampant fear caused by the disease poliomyelitis, often called polio or infantile paralysis.  Born in 1954, the year a vaccine was discovered by Dr. Jonus Salk (followed the year after by Dr. Albert Sabin), I can still remember it being a major concern of my parents when I was a very young child.  Parents were still warning their children against public swimming pools and drinking fountains in the carefree days of summer.  It was a worrisome time for parents, as polio most often struck the young.  Dr. Salk's vaccine dealt with a dead virus.  Dr. Sabin's dealt with a live virus.  The Sabin vaccine given on a sugar cube was the norm when I received my dosage.  I remember being in a school in a long line and going up on the stage to receive it.  Summer and early fall seemed to be the time for the worst outbreaks of this notorious predator of youth, and the most dreaded kind of polio was the paralytic polio, which could rob one of the use of one or all of their limbs.  As if there could be an even more feared outcome, the virus would sometimes paralyze group muscles in the chest that controlled breathing, in which case the patient would be encased in an iron lung ( ).  Too often, death followed this severe stage.  I viewed the "Whatever Happened to Polio" exhibit at The Smithsonian National Museum of American History during its 2005/2006 tour, and I was able to examine an actual iron lung, an daunting apparatus indeed.  Of course, many students have learned of this disease through their history books, where one of the most famous polio victims, 32nd President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who contracted poliomyelitis in 1921 at age 39, an age considered well past the prime age target of the disease, is acknowledged for his vast contributions to our country's past and future.  FDR was aslo a major force in the research and treatment of polio.  There was and is no cure for polio, only convalescent care and supporting therapies.  My only real up close and personal experience with a polio victim was the acquaintance of a neighborhood girl, who was three years older than I.  I can still picture the braces on her legs and her difficulty in maneuvering her environment.  It was so amazing what a few years meant in the danger of polio and the vaccine to combat it.  "In the immediate pre-vaccine era (i.e., early 1950s), between 13,000 and 20,000 paralytic cases were reported each year.  After the development of the inactivated (Salk) injectable vaccine in 1955 and the live (Sabin) oral vaccine in 1961, the number of polio cases dropped dramatically.  In 1960, there were 2,525 paralytic cases reported, but by 1965 this number had fallen to 61.  Due to a concentrated effort to eradicate polio from the world, there have been no cases of 'wild' (i.e., natural) polio acquired in the United States since 1979, and no cases of wild polio acquired in the entire Western Hemisphere since 1991." (

The following site, fueled by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and based on their 2005/2006 exhibit, is an excellent one from which to learn about polio in the United States: 

“The fear of polio was a fear of something you had no defense against, something that hit without logic or reason. Yesterday, it was the man down the block. Today it could be you or your children.”
—Larry Alexander, 1954

The above information provides only a modicum of background in relation to the two books I recently read about polio.  I am including my reviews of the books, one non-fiction and one fiction, below.  Also, I'm including the cover of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in history, Polio: An Americana Story, written by David M. Oshinsky.  I have read bits and parts of this much acclaimed book while reading the two reviewed books.  I, of course, plan on completing such an important historical account.

Warm Springs: Traces of a Childhood at FDR's Polio HavenWarm Springs: Traces of a Childhood at FDR's Polio Haven by Susan Richards Shreve

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first reason that I read this book is because the author, Susan Richards Shreve, is to be an attending author at the 2012 National Book Festival in D.C., which I also plan to attend.  While the author has many fiction titles unrelated to polio from which to choose, I wanted to read her non-fiction account of her struggles with polio and her time spent at FDR's famous Warm Springs.  I have only known one person in a personal sense who was struck with polio, but it has always piqued my curiosity.  I was a child born in 1954, when the polio vaccine was brand new, and I remember the sugar cubes we received coated with the vaccine.  I have found that in most non-fictional accounts, which are usually memoirs, which I have read about polio that I learn a little something new and different with each book.  Such was the case with Ms. Shreve's book. I enjoyed reading about FDR's history with Warm Springs and its subsequent use as a polio haven.  Susan Richards was 11 years old when she arrived at Warm Springs and stayed for two years.  In writing the book, Shreve helped to refresh her memory by referring to an account of her stay written in her youth entitled Wooden and Wicker.  She states that it was a huge help in refreshing what her 11-year-old/12-year-old self thought and felt at that time, and I think her access to this account helped lend an authenticity to the book otherwise unattainable.  Don't read this book expecting to obtain an all-encompassing history or view of polio in the 1940's and 1950's.  As I have already stated, reading different memoirs and some fictional accounts each give you important insight upon which to build a knowledge and understanding of the dreaded disease of polio, which struck so much fear into the parents of young children in America.  For more comprehensive reading, I would suggest Polio: An American Story by David M. Oshinsky, a history from which Ms. Shreve drew information for her book and which I have read in bits and parts, too.  So, read Warm Springs for a glimpse into the world of polio and add it to your collection of sources on the subject.  

NemesisNemesis by Philip Roth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had just finished reading a non-fiction, memoir account of a polio victim, and I came across, to my surprise, a fictional book dealing with polio by Philip Roth.  I was curious how it would stack up to the recent and other non-fiction books about polio that I'd read.  Well, as with much historical-fiction, I feel as if I learned a great deal about the scourge that was polio and its affect on communities.  Roth's protagonist, Bucky Cantor, is a 23-year-old college graduate who is a PE teacher and summertime playground director at Chancellor Avenue School in Newark, New Jersey.  Bucky had a rough start in life, but he was fortunate to be raised by his hard-working, honest grandparents who believed Bucky could succeed.  His poor eyesight kept him out of WWII, but his athleticism allowed him to be a leader for the boys on his playground that summer of 1944, the summer that Newark would suffer a terrifying polio outbreak.  Bucky's best attribute is his devotion to helping others; his worst attribute is his taking responsibility for the blameless.  His decision on whether to join his girlfriend in the Poconos as a summer camp counselor and leave the ravaged streets of Newark and his boys is a crisis of faith for Bucky.  The fallout from that decision will determine the paths of many.  As with the non-fiction titles about polio that I've read, I came away from Roth's slim novel with new and intriguing information about polio.  Roth's masterful power of description greatly enhanced the experience of learning.  My only real complaint about the novel is the narration format.  It's not that I minded another character, other than Bucky, being the narrator, but that the character was alluded to in a rather thinly veiled reference early in the book and not clearly revealed until the last of the book.  I would have preferred that the book opened up with an undisguised narrator.  Having said that, I do think that Roth created an excellent venue to tell not only of the fear and horror of that summer of polio, but he created a character that revealed a struggle with perfection in an imperfect world.  


Sunday, August 5, 2012

50th Anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's Death

To mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe, this past week I read one fiction and one non-fiction work dealing with the subject matter.  This death has puzzled and fascinated the American public for five decades now, and it's doubtful whether we will ever have all the answers.  However, I was most satisfied with the Jay Margolis non-fiction read, which answered many of my own questions.  I'm including reviews for the Margolis book, entitled Marilyn Monroe: A Case for Murder and the fiction book, too, which is entitled The Empty Glass by J.I. Baker.

Marilyn Monroe: A Case for MurderMarilyn Monroe: A Case for Murder by Jay Margolis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are so many books about Marilyn Monroe and Marilyn Monroe's death that it can make you dizzy trying to decide which one to read.  Not only are there serious researchers who have dissected and examined Marilyn's life and death, but anyone who remotely knew her has written a book, too.  So, why did I read Jay Margolis' book?  First off, it was recent, published in 2011, which appealed to me in the far from the heat of the moment publications.  Secondly, Margolis researched the subject for five years, a respectable amount of time to sift through the facts and fiction.  Last of all, the presentation of the information or format of the book suited my reading style, especially with non-fiction.   Information is presented in short bursts, pertinent to detailed subject headings.  There is a concise, clear timeline of Marilyn's last day and her death.  Also included is an extensive bibliography and intricate footnotes.  Jay Margolis puts forth the facts in a fully readable fashion, and they fall in place into a most probable case for murder indeed.  The inconsistencies and lies, of which there were many, are examined and explained.  Who had what to gain and what to lose is pulled loose from the quagmire, and the tragic truth rises to the top of the pile.  Marilyn Monroe was a casualty in the careers of the politically powerful, a sustainable loss in the bid to be great.  A talented and beautiful actress, she could not save herself from a fate into which she dangerously wandered.     

The Empty GlassThe Empty Glass by J.I. Baker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel is in the format of a noir film and told from the perspective of Deputy Coroner Ben Fitzgerald, who quickly surmises that the facts just aren't adding up to the story being put out to the public about Marilyn Monroe's death.  One of the first on the scene when the death is reported, Ben observes that there is no water in the room with which pills could have been taken and that Marilyn's body appears to have been moved.  The scene had not yet been staged to reflect the public story.  When the coroner's report shows no trace of pills or residue in Marilyn's stomach, Ben's suspicions cannot be contained within his delegated role.  The story that Ben is telling is being told to a "doctor," but the reader doesn't know who this doctor is until the end of the story.  With the suspense and danger of Ben's discoveries and the uncertain setting of his summary of this events leads to a highly engaging read where fiction does reveal much truth.