Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Nevermore: Pres. Garfield, Atticus Finch, photography, introverts, and presidental elections

Reported by Ambrea

In a recent Nevermore meeting, our readers broached a variety of subjects—James A. Garfield, introverts, photography, and presidential campaigns—and even investigated some new fiction with Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

First, our readers jumped back into Gone Girl.  After Amy Dunne disappears from her home in North Carthage, Missouri, her husband, Nick, is put under close scrutiny as the media and the police start to dig into his life to find out whether he really is a killer.  Filled with suspense and mystery—and, more importantly, sociopaths (a favorite subject for our Nevermore readers)—Gone Girl was definitely a treat for our latest reader.  According to her it was “wonderful, a great book.”

Next, our readers looked at Into the Kill Zone:  A Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force by David Klinger.  As a former police officer and a university professor, Klinger has interviewed dozens of officers who have used deadly force in criminal encounters.  He presents an in-depth look at the way officers are trained, the conditions they face and the violence they experience on the job, and the effects of deadly force in the lives of American police officers.  For our Nevermore reader, who has friends working on the police force, Into the Kill Zone was an excellent depiction of on-the-job hazards that police officers face every single day.

Our reader also discussed Destiny of the Republic:  A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Miller.  James Garfield was born into poverty, but he became a scholar, a Civil War hero, a renowned congressman, and a presidential candidate; however, after four months in office, an assassination attempt and botched medical treatment resulted in his death.  Our Nevermore reader said Destiny of a Republic was “a fabulous book”—and what made the novel even more fascinating were the interviews with the author on CSPAN.  Miller explores all the different facets of Garfield’s presidency and demise:  his administration, his assassin, and his doctors.

Continuing the exploration of the American presidency, one of our readers discussed Believer:  My Forty Years in Politics by David Axelrod.  Axelrod, a journalist and political strategist, has spent years in politics and cultivated a twenty-year friendship with President Barack Obama, even contributing to his elections in 2008 and 2012.  His memoir provides an in-depth look at politics and presidential campaigns.  Although our Nevermore reader had only read two-thirds of the memoir so far, she thought it was an intriguing book.  “It’s fascinating to realize what goes into a presidential campaign, [specifically] Obama’s first presidential campaign,” she said.

Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain followed.  Cain, a corporate lawyer, explores the qualities of introverts and extroverts throughout the world, exploring the repression of introversion in the United States—how extroverts are rewarded more readily in society and the workplace—and nature versus nurture in the development of introverts.  Cain makes a very careful, very accurate depiction of information and possesses a textbook-like depth, presenting facts with clarity and accumulating knowledge which our Nevermore reader found absolutely fascinating.

Additionally, our readers looked at a brand new book to the library:  Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.  Continuing from Lee’s original classic, Go Set a Watchman follows the return of Jean Louise Finch (Scout) to Maycomb County from New York and chronicles her emotional turmoil as she’s confronted by changes in her hometown that changes how she sees everything and everyone—including her father, Atticus.  For our Nevermore readers, Lee’s new novel seemed typical of any book done in the south during this time; however, it was definitely a shock to see Atticus in a brand new light, because, like Scout, our readers were given a new perspective on Atticus Finch, “[he] was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being.”

Monday, December 28, 2015

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

Reviewed by Ambrea
Isabella, Lady Trent, is famous the world over as a dragon naturalist.  She has helped bring the study of dragons to the forefront of modern science, uncovering startling new truths about these enigmatic and, more often, frightening creatures, and she has explored the world from Scirland to Eriga and beyond.  However, very little is known about the illustrious Lady Trent—until now.  In her own words, she describes her childhood in her father’s library, her budding interest in dragons and natural history, and, later, her expedition to Vystrana where she makes her first discoveries that would forever change how the world viewed dragons.

I will say so now:  dragons hold a special place in my heart.  Like Isabella, I’ve always loved dragons—from reading Eragon by Christopher Paolini to The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, or my more recent encounter with Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina or Uprooted by Naomi Novik—and I have a suspicion that I always will.  So, as you might expect, I absolutely adored A Natural History of Dragons.

Finely crafted and thoroughly “researched,” Marie Brennan’s novel is a thrilling (and enjoyable) beginning to a new series.  I especially loved Brennan’s attention to detail in her Natural History of Dragons.  Brennan is careful to craft her characters—and dragons—with believable qualities, making them seem unexpectedly real.  She makes the existence of dragons seem like a possibility.  Like smart, adventurous Isabella could truly exist outside of these pages.

And speaking of Isabella, I adored her character.

As a scientist, Isabella makes insightful observations and carefully documents the facts as she knows them—and, more importantly, as she looks back, she’s careful to inform her readers of her new knowledge without giving away too much or killing the suspense of the novel.  She has a thoroughness that makes it easy to become immersed in her world, whether she’s living in her native Scirland or adventuring in Vystrana.  She has such a unique voice, alternating between a young lady first making historic discoveries and an old woman reminiscing about her past, that it actually feels like a memoir.

Although Isabella is a scientist, her narrative isn’t bulky or unwieldy or weighed down.  She doesn’t make readers wade through scientific gibberish or unfortunately long anecdotes about the history of dragons, she doesn’t over inform readers; rather, she explains without inundating her readers or intimidating them.  She allows you to join her in her discoveries without getting bogged down—and her intelligence and sharp wit shines through her work.  It makes her account of Vystrana that much more enjoyable.

And if I’m being honest, I absolutely loved the illustrations included in Isabella’s account.  It gave her “memoir” a genuine feeling, like a field book or a diary, and it gave a face to the characters—as well as the dragons—that I came to know and love, and it made them that much more memorable and tangible for me.  Her illustrations rounded out an already exquisite book, making A Natural History of Dragons a book (and a series) that I’ll be sure to add to my collection in the future.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Nevermore: Gardens, Pilgrims, Grisham, Mankell, McMahon, and Wambaugh

Reported  by Jeanne

This week’s Nevermore opened with The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert, a first novel about love, loss, and war.  The book opens with a line from Ellen, the narrator:  “I had a cousin, Randall, who was killed in Iwo Jima.  Have I told you?” Ellen becomes infatuated with her cousin, a bookish young man who confides in the shy, sensitive girl.  After his death, she receives some of his possessions, including a book entitled The Gardens of Kyoto. Her devotion to Randall influences all of her other relationships, including a romance with a soldier serving in Korea.  Our reader felt the book shared some similarities with the children’s classic by Burnett, The Secret Garden.  She described it as a fun book with a secret room that served as part of the Underground Railroad.

Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko is set around the turn of the last century, when the Ghost Dance was used to try to bring the Messiah to earth.  Native American sisters Indigo and Salt live with their grandmother, but soon they are taken away by the U.S. government and sent to an Indian School.  Indigo is adopted by a free-spirited white woman who is married to a botanist.  The characters travel from the American Southwest to South America and Europe, where the vivid descriptions of gardens help illustrate a number of literary themes. Our reader couldn’t stop praising this powerful book about plants, the environment, women, Native peoples, and society.

Another reviewer highly recommended William Bradford’s account of the Plymouth Colony.  Known variously as Of Plymouth Colony, William Bradford’s Journal, and A History of Plymouth Plantation,  the book details the voyage from England, arrival in the New World, and the subsequent hardships faced there.  It is the source for the description of the first Thanksgiving, and inspired the creation of the current holiday.  Our Nevermore member found it to be very readable and while she’d intended to only browse a few pages, she ended up reading much more.  

The Broker by John Grisham also got a nod, with our reader saying that while it was improbable but engrossing. Washington powerbroker Joel Blackman was sent to federal prison for attempting to sell a spy satellite system to various countries.  Blackman is released from custody early and sent to Italy where the CIA waits to see which of his various associates will try to kill him first.

Henning Mankell remains a favorite author among club members, as do many of the Scandinavian crime writers.  This week’s book was Before the Frost, in which Kurt Wallander’s daughter Linda has just graduated from the police force.  She becomes involved with a case involving a childhood friend who has disappeared, and soon it appears that her case is related to something her father is investigating.  This was intended to be the first book in a trilogy featuring Linda as the main character, but Mankell became upset when the actress playing Linda in the Swedish version of the TV series died and he abandoned plans for the other two books. Our reviewer was disappointed, because she found the book to be very well done and invigorated the series.

Another fun book featuring a police officer was Fugitive Nights by former police officer Joseph Wambaugh. Our reviewer felt the plot was thin, but the book more than made up for it with great characters and wonderful repartee.  He said he felt as if he were “in the know,” with police jargon and procedures.  It’s a feel good book and is definitely recommended.

The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon is set in a hotel in Vermont where three little girls once played together.  Then a frightening discovery drove them apart.  Years later, one of the girls is accused of a crime and her friends come back to try to clear her name.  McMahon is known for her suspenseful, supernaturally tinged novels.  Our reader said it was a good story.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II, by Wil S. Hylton

Reviewed by William Wade

The book begins with the story of Tommy Doyle, born during World War II, but never knowing his father who was a serviceman killed in the conflict.  The curious thing was that his mother never said anything to the boy about his father’s death.  Did he die a hero?  As Tommy grew up he came to hear disturbing whispers that his father was not dead, but had survived the war, returned home, married someone else, and was then living in another state.

Tommy knew that his mother  had an old trunk, and he came to suspect that it held answers to guarded family secrets.  Even after she died and Tommy was married, he could not bring himself to open the trunk.  Its presence seemed to dominate the family household and to threaten black revelations best left undisturbed. But Tommy’s wife Nancy was of a different personality, and she asked permission to open the trunk.  He agreed, and it was found to contain many personal items, including loving letters to his wife that Tommy’s father had written from outposts in the Southern Pacific.  But why it had remained locked for so long remained a mystery. Nancy encouraged Tommy to seek more information about his father and the circumstances of his death. And this search becomes the theme and core of the book.

They began with the obvious and known facts. His father, Jimmie Doyle, had been a gunner on an American bomber known as the B-24 “Liberator” that was shot down during a mission against the Japanese-held island of Palau in the Southern Pacific.  The body had never been recovered, the plane’s wreckage had never been located, and Jimmie was officially “missing in action.” Government sources had little additional information, but Tommy and Nancy soon made contacts with relatives of other MIAs who were ready with friends and suggestions who would help.  The search led to Palau, where aging tribesmen described the crash of an American plane.  Confusion about their accounts led to the discovery that on more than one occasion American bombers had crashed on the island; indeed, there were three.  Search efforts were conducted on the island and in the surrounding waters; technical information about the B-24 “Liberator” was extracted from Ford Motor Company archives, which had built the plane.  Families of the other crew members joined in the effort.  The quest led in many varied directions, including the life of Charles Lindberg and his participation in the American war effort in the Pacific.  The entire strategy of the Pacific War was explored in order to understand why fighting came to that lonely little island of Palau.

At this point the temptation is to say nothing about the ultimate results of the search and let the reader dig out the facts himself.  But we will leap ahead to the conclusion and say that the day finally arrived when the correct wreckage was identified, its contents were removed, including body parts, and among the items a dogtag with the name DOYLE.  More recent DNA analysis led to the conclusion that in the wreckage the remains of five men could be identified and the remaining body parts were buried in April 2010 in Arlington National Cemetery in an appropriate service.

Today Palau is an island country with close ties to US.  It consists of about 250 islands, with a population of 20,000 and is located SE of the Philippines and N of New Guinea. The natives are related to the Filipinos. Palau’s chief economic resource is tourism plus some fishing. The currency is the dollar. Palau’s history has been rather chaotic.  It became a Spanish colony in 16th century, but it was sold to Germany after 1898. During World War I, it was seized by Japan; then during World War II it was taken by US and made part of US Trust Territory in 1947.  It became fully independent in 1994 and is a member of the United Nations.