Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Nevermore: Flower Moon, Blizzard, Octopus, Burntown, Tennis Partner, Liberia

Reported by Ambrea

This week, Nevermore kicked things off with Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann.  During the 1920s, some of the richest people in the world belonged to the Osage Indian nation of Oklahoma after oil was discovered beneath their land—and then many members of the tribe began to die under mysterious circumstances.  When local investigators attempted to intervene, they were killed.  When the death toll cracked 24, the FBI picked up the case and, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, used some of the latest investigative techniques to uncover a blood chilling conspiracy of epic proportions.  Our reader said she considered Killers of the Flower Moon to be captivating book.  She was equally enthralled by the crime narrative and the history of the Osage people, both of which Grann portrays to great effect.  She noted the book contained many, many names, which might make it a bit confusing; however, she highly recommended it to her fellow Nevermore readers.

Next, we took a look at Blizzard! by Jim Murphy, a short book that detailed the history of the 1888 blizzard that swamped the northeast United States.  Our reader enjoyed reading Murphy’s book.  Although she’d originally found it in the juvenile section of the library, she said the book isn’t just for young readers.  It’s incredibly detailed and precise, offering glimpses into history through the use of newspaper articles, personal accounts, photographs, and illustrations.  She was most fascinated by the effects of the 1888 blizzard, which resulted in monumental changes to how people observe, track, and record weather and how individual cities reacted to massive storms.  She said she greatly enjoyed Murphy’s book, noting it had an impressive bibliography paired with an easy-to-read format that made it enjoyable and accessible.

Nevermore also explored Sy Montgomery’s latest book, The Soul of an Octopus:  A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness.  In her latest book, Montgomery immerses herself in the world of the octopus by visiting aquarium tanks in New England and reefs in French Polynesia and the Gulf of Mexico.  According to the jacket cover, “She…befriended octopuses with strikingly different personalities—gentle Athena, assertive Octavia, curious Kali, and joyful Karma.  Each creature shows her cleverness in myriad ways:  escaping enclosures like an orangutan; jetting water to bounce balls; and endlessly tricking companions with multiple ‘sleights of hand’ to get food.”  Our reader was particularly impressed by the intelligence of octopuses.  (And, yes, it is octopuses, not octopi, our reader assured us.  Octopus is Greek, so it get the –es at the end.)  She said they were fascinating creatures, and she noted that Montgomery provided so much information.  She highly recommended The Soul of an Octopus to our fellow readers, calling it interesting, informative, and entertaining.

We followed The Soul of an Octopus with Burntown by Jennifer McMahon.  Eva grew up watching her father invent strange, wonderful things; however, his greatest invention was one that he claimed came from Thomas Edison, a little machine that allowed one to speak to the dead.  But her father’s inventions can’t protect them for long.  In just one night, Eva loses her home, her father, and her brother and, together with her mother, she flees into the night.  Now hiding under the name Necco, Eva is still trying to put her past behind her—until her boyfriend is murdered and her mother disappears.  For Eva, the past can’t stay buried forever.  Our reader said she enjoyed reading Burntown.  The novel skipped around quite a lot, which sometimes confused her, but it had a good, psychologically complex story that kept her hooked from the first chapter.  She recommended it to her fellow mystery/suspense readers, saying it was well worth reading.

Next, Nevermore revisited The Tennis Partner:  A Doctor’s Story of Friendship and Loss by Abraham Verghese.  In this memoir, Verghese tells the story of his relationship with David Smith.  Verghese, who is weathering the implosion of his marriage, and Smith, a medical student recovering from drug addiction, begin a tennis ritual that gives them the unexpected freedom to share their deepest, most personal struggles.  Despite their intimate friendship, Smith and Verghese’s relationship is stretched to the limits when the addictions of David’s past rear their ugly head.  According to our reader, The Tennis Partner was a “very good book.”  Intimate, thoughtful, and insightful, Verghese’s memoir was beautiful heart-breaking and unexpectedly searing.

Last, Nevermore read Mighty Be Our Powers:  How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War by Leymah Gbowee.  In 2003, Gbowee was trapped in a nightmarish marriage and caught in the midst of a violent Civil War that tore Liberia apart.  But Gbowee and other women refused to back down, organizing and leading the Liberian Mass Action for Peace, a coalition which organized Christian and Muslim women to sit in public protest against Liberian’s ruthless president and rebel warlords.  Our reader read Gbowee’s memoir in conjunction with Madame President:  The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by Helene Cooper, diving right into the tumultuous history of Liberia.  She said both books were wonderful, but Gbowee’s memoir was heart-wrenching, hopeful, and incredibly interesting.  It was, our reader agreed with the cover, a “gripping chronicle of a journey from hopelessness to empowerment…”

Monday, May 29, 2017

Decoration Day in the Mountains by Alan Jabbour and Karen Singer Jabbour

An Appreciation by Jeanne

While listening to NPR yesterday, I heard a serviceman interviewed about Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember those who had died in service.  He spoke of the day as a time for reflection for veterans and explained why it isn't a celebration.  You can hear the piece or read the transcript here.

It reminded me that some years back I had reviewed a book about the way I remembered Memorial Day being observed, so I decided to re-run that review today, with some minor edits.

I recall when Memorial Day was May 30,  but in 1968 Congress made it one of the "Monday holidays," moving it to the last Monday in May.  It was originally a day to remember those who had died in military service, and many date the observance to the years following the Civil War. It was a state holiday, not a federal one, until 1967.

For years I assumed that everyone went to the family graveyard over Memorial Day weekend to decorate the graves of family and friends. Many families in the area would gather en masse to clean the cemetery and have dinner on the ground. Family members who lived out of the area were at least expected to send flowers; families who graves left unadorned after the holiday were the subject of gossip for neglecting family.  After all,  Memorial Day was the modern name; earlier it was called Decoration Day, referring to the flowers and tributes left graveside.  I remember my mother telling me that she and her siblings would spend hours making flowers from crepe paper.

Which brings me to the book Decoration Day in the Mountains by Alan Jabbour and Karen Singer Jabbour which discusses this very topic. Although the particular area they surveyed was in North Carolina, many of the things they discuss are customs similar to the ones I knew. They include Church Homecomings, grave inscriptions and decorations,  This book describes the history and culture surrounding the day, including photographs and interviews.  It's a fascinating look at a way of life which is fast disappearing along with the family graveyards. It's a lovely piece of nostalgia for those who remember, and a wonderful introduction to those who don't.

Family graveyards still exist, but as families move away from the traditional "homeplace" and descendants scatter more and more people are opting for perpetual care cemeteries. These cemeteries are owned by companies which will see to it that the graves are properly maintained, relieving family members of the burden. Along with this trend,   I've been seeing fewer grave decorations when I make the trek back to my home county these past few years. More and more people in the area see Memorial Day more as the start to summer than a day to remember the past.

Additional note: many years ago, a co-worker shared an old document from a school district-- Michigan, I believe, but at any rate it was from one of the regions on the "Hillbilly Highway," where mountaineers traveled to find work.  One of the notes was that teachers were to expect pupil absences around the time of Memorial Day, because it was some sort of reunion time for those from the Appalachian region. My reaction was surprise that Memorial Day apparently was NOT so observed in the North.

Friday, May 26, 2017

My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart

Reviewed by Jeanne

Camilla Haven, a young Englishwoman, is taking a long anticipated vacation in Greece when a man approaches her about a car she has hired “for Simon” in Delphi. The problem is that she hasn’t hired a car, but the man drops the keys on the table and disappears before she can explain his mistake. Camilla had just been lamenting in a letter to a friend that she wanted to see Delphi but was running low on funds, so she decides to take the car to Delphi in hopes she can locate this Simon and perhaps do some sight-seeing in the bargain.  The only Simon she finds is also English, and a man on a mission.  His older brother Michael was killed in Greece during the war and he has come to find from Michael’s Greek friends the place where his brother died. It soon becomes apparent that while the war may be over, there are those who still have scores to settle.

Mary Stewart was one of the pioneers in the romantic suspense genre during the 1950s. As a long time mystery fan, I was ashamed to say that I had not read any of Mary Stewart’s work except for her Arthurian novels.  I set out to remedy that oversight, albeit with some trepidation.  Would the books seem hopelessly dated?

I found that her reputation as an author of romantic suspense is well deserved.  The romance is strong while understated —more attraction than action—but she keeps the balance between the two aspects, romance and suspense. The suspense builds slowly, but there are some breathtaking scenes that actually had me holding my breath. The fact that Stewart can create so much tension with so little carnage was a welcome surprise; and proof, if anyone needed it, that gory descriptions aren’t necessary to make a thriller. 

Stewart's novels tended to feature modern thinking, intelligent, and brave young women who were able to take care of themselves in a crisis. They didn’t seek out trouble but held their nerve when trouble found them.  Her characters would be perfectly at home in any novel written today, and would be a good bit more level-headed and less neurotic than most.

Another of Stewart’s hallmarks is her ability to evoke an exotic locale, and My Brother Michael is an excellent example.  She describes the bustle of the streets, the sounds and smells of the market, the wild landscapes, and the ruins in vivid detail, and it all serves to enhance rather than bog down the story.  Even though the book was written some sixty years ago, the story is still vibrant; the details that fix the time period (WW II is only a few years in the past, there is much unapologetic smoking and drinking) don’t date the story for modern audiences. Any geopolitical details aren’t specific enough to make the plot seem archaic.

One thing I loved is that several of the characters have had a classical British education: they can quote from the Greek playwrights and philosophers, discuss architecture and poetry, and take note of the natural world, naming flowers and trees.  They can also drive cars really fast and hold their own in a fight, so don’t think it’s all Homer and heliotropes.

I still have several of her books to read, including what is arguably her best known suspense book, The Moon-spinners.  I’m looking forward to them!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon by Kelley and Thomas French

Reviewed by Kristin

How do you decide whether or not to take extraordinary measures to save a baby born at twenty-three weeks and six days gestation, right at the very edge of viability?

Do you look at the statistics that say the overwhelming majority of babies born at this stage of development will either die or live with immense disabilities?  Do you pin your hopes on the small possibility that the child will have some kind of a normal life?  Do you wonder if the strain of taking care of that baby will tear apart your marriage, your finances, and your heart?

Kelley and Thomas French had to face all those questions and more.  After going through a wide range of fertility treatments, Kelley finally became pregnant via an egg donor.  At only twenty weeks, she began showing signs of pre-term labor.  Her doctors managed to slow down the process for four more weeks, but all too soon the baby had to be delivered by an emergency caesarean.  Kelley and Tom were heartbroken, but searched for a thread of hope that their child would live, would continue to grow, and eventually would thrive.

This is such a story of hope and of defeating the odds that I was kept breathless following the baby’s struggles for life.  It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that the baby did survive, is named Juniper, and her smiling face is shown between her parents inside the back flap of the book.

However, before I even got to the part of Juniper’s conception and birth, I had serious doubts about her parents.  Tom and Kelley first met when she was a high school student attending a journalism camp, and he was a speaker at the camp.  Seeing as Tom was over thirty years old and was married with two children, I was glad that he was merely a teenage crush for Kelley at that time.  Almost fifteen years later the two met again.  Tom was divorced but was in a serious relationship with another woman.  Still, somehow Kelley and Tom had a connection.  As I read about how they continued to crash up against each other, bickering and sniping, I wondered how in the world these two people had ever gotten to the point of having a child, much less writing a book together about the difficulties of bringing a micro-preemie into the world.

If Kelley and Tom had been fictional characters in a novel, I might have given up on them.  But as their story developed, I became more and more immersed.  I began to care about their journey through infertility and the struggles they faced.  I began to respect them for being willing to tell their whole story without sugarcoating their behavior.  They faced difficult ethical choices about medical intervention while grieving the potential loss of their child.  With touches of levity between the anxious moments, Tom and Kelley’s journey to parenthood is full of hope and love. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Reviewed by Kristin

Rosemary is glad to head out into deep space with the crew of the Wayfarer.  While the Wayfarer is not the largest or flashiest of spacefaring ships, its assignment is extraordinary.  Ashby, the Captain, has taken on the task of punching pinholes through subspace in order to create shortcuts for travel through the universe.  Wanting to get out of the solar system, Rosemary jumps at the chance to join the multispecies crew as Ashby’s records clerk.

From grumpy Corbin, the algaeist who takes care of the fuel for the ship, to engineer Jenks who has a special attachment to Lovey, the ship’s Artificial Intelligence program, the crew works together.  Rosemary is fascinated by Sissix, the reptilian feathered Aandrisk who is enthusiastic and much less inhibited than most humans.  Dr. Chef with his multiple arms, well, what is he?  A doctor?  A chef?  Trained to be both?  Rosemary clearly has a lot to learn about the various cultures represented on the Wayfarer.

Not everything goes smoothly, but what kind of boring book would that be if everything did?

This is a fresh new look at the possible ways that humankind might launch out into the universe in future generations.  What if we do overcrowd the planet?  What if we do destroy our atmosphere?  Who knows, maybe there are feathered Aandrisks out there somewhere, already interacting with shimmering Aeluons.  Perhaps extraterrestrials are out there observing—as did the Vulcans in the Star Trek universe—waiting to see when humankind might demonstrate the capability of traveling between the stars.  Or, perhaps not.  But as a science fiction fan, I’d like to think that life exists beyond our visible horizons, out in the unknown.

Chambers’ characters face big moral and ethical questions.  They grapple and fall down, find their footing, make life changing decisions, and go in new directions.  Even though there are inter-species differences and confrontations, the Wayfarer crew members seem to care about each other.  Perhaps they care too much, some to the point of interfering when their efforts might cross boundaries that cannot be reclaimed.

Beyond The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers has also written A Closed and Common Orbit.  Taking a couple of characters from the first book in another direction, the second also could be read as a standalone, but I encourage you to read them in order.

*Recommended for readers who also enjoyed the “space western” television show Firefly.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

Reviewed by Brenda G.

Grace is a 24-year old wife in a loveless marriage with two small children, who finds herself pregnant with a third. The story opens with a wet spring that is followed by a lingering drought of a summer and fall. Nature provides the setting for the first major event of the story, a wildfire that occurred in 1947, burning through eastern Maine to the coast. The men are called away to build firebreaks, which the fast-moving fire jumps as it moves on toward the shore.

Awakened by her young daughter’s screaming horror of the approaching fire, now only a block away, Grace is determined to save herself and her children. Taking the children and little else, she heads directly for the ocean. There she finds her friend and neighbor Rosie with a canoe and her own children. Grace takes charge, directing Rosie to shove the canoe out into the water, wet her own hair and that of the children, and finally to dig into the sand at the water’s edge, remaining partially submerged, to save themselves and their children. It works! But it is Maine in October, and they are not found until the following morning. 

After recovering from hypothermia and a resultant miscarriage at five months, Grace must learn to cope on her own. No one knows the whereabouts of her husband Gene or if he survived the fire. She has two young children to feed and house. All insurance papers were lost in the fire, and she knows nothing about the insurance they held. Friends take her in initially. She must learn to drive, find a job, and find a place for her mother and children. She proves to be impressive and resourceful, now that she is on her own.

The story cannot help but remind one of the wildfire in the Gatlinburg area in 2016 and how rapidly it spread. The 1947 wildfire in Maine claimed 16 lives; Gatlinburg’s fire claimed 14. Heroic tales of escape and survival emerged from both fires, as did tragic tales of loss. Though this tale is fictitious, the setting and the real wildfire provide a quick point of relevance for area residents, a touchstone of a sort.

The writing style is similar to that of the late Maeve Binchy, being rather spare but wholly satisfying. Shreve writes from third person limited, with Grace as the main character and narrator. Grace, who finds vast reserves of strength and resolve once she is forced from her traditional role of a dutiful homebody by the impact of a wildfire, is a satisfactory and convincing heroine.

Shreve, Anita. The Stars Are Fire. New York; Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. 241 pages.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Nevermore: Fur Person, Tennis Partner, Strong Leaders, Reader, Shoe Dog, & Ice Ghosts


First up this week was a feline classic:  Fur Person by May Sarton.  First published in 1957, the book tells the story of Tom Jones, cat about town, who decides to find himself a house and, of course, a housekeeper. The story is based on Sarton’s experiences with her own cat and has delighted generations of cat lovers with its observations.  Sarton was a journalist, novelist, and poet, and the quality of the writing reflects that.  Our reader loved it and recommends it highly.

Abraham Verghese is a doctor who first made his mark as an author with In My Own Country, a beautifully written book about his experiences practicing medicine in Johnson City, Tennessee during the early days of the AIDS epidemic.  Our reader was impressed enough that she picked up second book, The Tennis Partner.  After moving from Tennessee to Texas, Verghese becomes friends with an intern who used to be a pro tennis player.  Verghese is passionate about the game and enjoys playing against the young man, but soon realizes how troubled he is.  Much of the book has to do with alienation and isolation, according to our reader, both without our communities, our professions, and even our own families.  The writing was wonderful, but our reviewer was haunted by the sense of loneliness that permeated the book.

Archie Brown takes a thorough look at leadership in The Myth of the Strong Leader.  Our reviewer warned that this isn’t a casual read, but is geared more toward the academic.  A former professor at Oxford, Brown surveys a number of modern world leaders (he counts Theodore Roosevelt as the first of the moderns) and presents evidence that “strong” is not the same as “effective.” He examines the governing styles of a number of leaders, including several U.S. presidents, Charles de Gaulle, Neville Chamberlain, Josef Stalin, Nelson Mandela, and Deng Xiaoping. Described as thorough, solid, and dense, our reader felt Brown made the case that sometimes the best results are achieved when a leader commands from the middle of the pack instead of in front.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink is set in post -World War II Germany and begins as a teenage boy, Michael, becomes ill in the street.  A woman names Hanna comes to his aid, and the two begin a relationship that ends when Hanna disappears suddenly.  The next time Michael sees her, she is standing trial in a courtroom.  Our reader said it was wonderfully written and heart-breaking.  She recommended it highly.

Phil Knight, who created the Nike brand, also wrote his own memoir.  Shoe Dog is the story of how a mediocre runner had a vision of creating a shoe for athletes.  The book has received much praise, but our reviewer said she didn’t like Knight as a person so she didn’t particularly enjoy the book.  She felt he was particularly unkind to his wife.

After John Franklin and his crew disappeared during their 1854 voyage to the Arctic, his faithful wife was relentless in seeking help to search for him. She financed several expeditions and offered rewards, but at her death in 1875, the crew and ships still had not been found. In 2014, photographer and journalist Paul Watson was on board an icebreaker which finally found one of the ships, the HMS Erebus. Our reader thought the story fascinating and the pictures amazing, but felt Watson was a better photographer than he was a writer. However, she invited others to judge for themselves by reading Ice Ghosts:  The Epic Hunt for the Franklin Expedition.