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review 2016-08-07 16:28
A BELL FOR ADANO by John Hersey
A Bell for Adano - John Hersey
  Sweet story of the American Army in Adano, Italy, as they push the Germans out of Italy. Major Joppolo is the adjutant assigned to restore order to Adano. As he meets the townspeople the one request made most often is for the return of their bell which was taken by the Facists to melt down for bullets. Major Joppolo does what he can for these people.

This was a wonderful story of a town and its people. The people were adorable and funny and pains at times. As Major Joppolo deals fairly and justly with these people, he also tries to find their bell. He is able to schmooze with the best of them to get what is needed and what he wants. Even when Americans are at fault he shows the townspeople that his justice extends to his men as well as the townspeople.

The ending is bittersweet. I would like to know what happens to both the townspeople and Major Joppolo. They are not characters I will forget for a long time.
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review 2015-11-06 20:55
A fascinating King David, warts and all.
The Secret Chord: A Novel - Geraldine Brooks

Thanks to Net Galley and to Little Brown Books UK for offering me a free copy of The Secret Chord in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve always thought that the Bible, the Old Testament in particular, is full of fantastic stories, and there are very few plots you won’t find there. Fratricide: check. Murder: check. Incest: check. Adultery: check. Epic disasters: check. Wars: check. Love: check. Magic and miracles: check. Battle of Good versus Evil: check. Prophecy: check. No matter what your beliefs are, as storytelling goes, it’s in a class of its own.

David’s story is a very good example of it. As the author observes in her comments, he is one of the first characters whose story we follow from beginning to end. It has all the elements a fiction writer could wish for: rag to riches, the weak confronting and winning the battle with the mighty, unjustly accused and outlawed makes a comeback and becomes King. He’s also elected by God. A great fighter and leader but a deeply flawed character. He has great joys, but through his own behaviour, brings tragedy and disaster to his family. Like the best heroes, he is also an antihero.

Brooks chooses a narrator, Nathan, the prophet, to tell David’s story. It all starts as Nathan’s attempt to distract the King, who is upset because he has been asked to remain in the palace after a near miss during a battle. Nathan suggests that buildings and palaces won’t make him live in the memory of people, but telling his true story will (a beautiful justification of the power of storytelling). David decides that Nathan should hear the story from others, not himself, and he does not hesitate in sending him to talk to those who might not have that much good to say about the King, including his mother, his brother, and his first wife. Although we go back and forth in time, through the different versions and witnesses, the action starts at a pivotal time in David’s story as he’s about to commit a series of crimes that will be severely punished.

I loved the book. I hadn’t read anything by the author before, but now I will. She writes beautifully, giving voice to the different characters and bringing them to life. The reader experiences Nathan’s visions, is a privileged observer at King David’s court, and although we know (the same as Nathan) what will happen, it is impossible to not get emotionally involved, and worry and suffer with them. Descriptions of David’s playing and singing, dancing to the glory of God are full of wonder and magic. The book pulls no punches either, and descriptions of some of the brutal acts are also vividly rendered.

For me, the book is the story of an extraordinary man, who did many wrong things, but also many great things, and who loved God and his people, even if sometimes he loved himself a bit too much. He is a warrior, an artist, a statesman, a father, a husband, and a faithful servant of God (most of the time). He acknowledges his wrongdoing and does not shy away from his responsibilities. He’s a human being.

Nathan is also a very interesting figure, at times unable to talk despite what he knows, only a passive observer of the tragedy to unfold. But that’s his role, and despite everything, he is loved and cherished by David and later by Solomon. And he is a great stand-in for the reader, knowing but silenced, frustrated and disgusted at times by the King’s actions, but also at time in awe and moved by him.

I couldn’t help but read some of the comments about the book and it seems that most of the people who’ve taken issue with the book, do not like the suggestion of a relationship between David and Jonathan, Saul’s son (and brother of his first wife). It is strange that in a story with murder, incest, rape, pillage and more, the one thing people find upsetting is the suggestion that David might have had a homosexual relationship. It proves that we all bring our own mind-set to our reading experience.

I am not an expert in Bible studies or that particular historical period so I can’t comment on how accurate the book might be in its detail, but for me it brought to life the times, the people and the events.

I finished the book with a greater appreciation for the figure of David (and particularly thankful that the author decided to end the book at that particular point, and on that note) and a wish to read more of Brooks’s books. If you have an open mind, love lyrical writing and are intrigued by the times and the people of that historical period, this is a unique book.

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review 2015-04-03 16:31
Nonfiction Review: Personal History
Personal History - Katharine Graham

One of my book groups recently chose Katharine Graham’s autobiography, Personal History. I don’t normally write a review of a book that I haven’t finished, but I spent almost three weeks reading through page 405 of this hefty tome, so I think I got a good perspective on both its positive characteristics and its flaws.

 

In case you aren’t familiar with her, Katharine Graham was the renowned owner of The Washington Post for many decades. Having inherited it from her father and her husband, Katharine took over the job of publisher of what became one of the nation’s top newspapers at a time when it was very rare for women to even be involved in business at all, let alone in such a powerful position. However, as an autobiography, Personal History covers her entire life, not just her time with The Washington Post.

 

In fact, the book begins well before her birth, with background and histories of both her mother’s and father’s sides of the family, going back many generations. Her father’s family was Jewish, with roots in France, while her mother’s family was Lutheran, originally from Germany. Their interfaith marriage was unusual for the time, but her parents were prosperous and popular public figures, first in New York state and later in Washington, DC, as her father became more involved with politics. Katharine had a privileged childhood, surrounded by wealth and opportunity, with her family splitting their time between multiple huge houses in the city and the country.

 

When Graham’s father first purchased The Washington Post, it was the smallest and least profitable of 5 major newspapers in the DC area, but he was determined to make it successful. Under first his leadership, then that of Katharine’s husband, Phil Graham, and finally, with Katharine herself at the helm, the family newspaper eventually became the top-notch, respected newspaper that it is today. Along the way, Katharine experienced a fair amount of tragedy in her life as well, including the death of her husband.

 

At 625 pages, Personal History is a very long book but also a very dense book, packed full of details, names, dates, and other minutiae. Despite its title, it is far more than just a personal history of Katharine’s life but also a chronicle of her family history, a detailed history of The Washington Post (and the family also owned Newsweek), and an intricate insider’s view of politics from the 1920’s through the 1980’s.

 

For my taste, there was just too much packed into one book. While I found much of it interesting, it was a very slow read, and I would have preferred more personal and less business. The best part of the book was when she wrote about her husband’s illness and eventual death because those sections were imbued with an emotion that was often lacking from the rest of the book. I’m not a fan of celebrity memoirs/autobiographies to begin with – I’d rather read about “regular” people – and the constant name-dropping in this book was tiresome to me. Finally, the book could have used a good editor to help cull and shorten it a bit to highlight the best of it. I had to wonder whether her editor was afraid to suggest too many changes to such a high-ranking, renowned journalist/publisher!

 

Not everyone agrees with me. For instance, the Pulitzer committee must have thought highly of Personal History because it won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography in 1998. Although I wasn’t able to attend our book group discussion, I heard that ratings on our 10-point scale ranged from 3 to 9.5! Most readers in our group agreed the writing wasn’t great but some felt the fascinating content outweighed that.

 

This book is fascinating, in many respects. Besides Katharine’s personal life story, you can see the entire history of modern politics in this book. The Grahams were very close to several U.S. Presidents, and that inside view is interesting – being in the hotel room when Jack Kennedy decided on his running mate at the Democratic National Convention, being whisked off to Lyndon Johnson’s Texas ranch for an impromptu weekend, etc. And, of course, The Washington Post was instrumental in breaking the news of Watergate. Katharine’s story also presents an interesting view of the changing role of women from the 1950’s to the present day.

 

All in all, I learned a lot reading (65% of) this book and found some of it very interesting; however, it was dense and overcrowded with details and not an easy read. I enjoyed it enough to spend a few weeks on it for my book group…but not enough to spend another couple of weeks finishing it! If you have a particular interest in U.S. politics, journalism, or the role of women in the workplace, then you will probably like this book more than if you are just looking for an interesting read.

 

625 pages, Alfred A. Knopf

Source: bookbybook.blogspot.com/2015/04/nonfiction-review-personal-history.html
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review 2014-01-25 06:25
The Brief Wondrous Life of Osacar Wao

Entering the world of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was like going for a ride on that extremely high and  swirling roller coaster ride at a theme park.  As the roller coaster bumps, grinds, and plunges us to the depth of fear, we recuperate while wanting more.  That’s the same intensity I felt while reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

So who is this Oscar character? Well he is a likeable, naive, obese, Latino nerd who’s looking for the purist love out there.  He just wants to be 4961777loved and to love someone else. His exterior doesn’t help find it in the beginning of the story, but true love can’t be someone loving you for your body and good looks only, right?  This is starting to sound like a fairytale, but it isn’t.  It ‘s almost reality.  Oscar spend his time playing video games, reading sic-fi and fantasy novels and writing them.  It’s almost as if he delves into fantasy and sic-fi to forget his own reality.  It’s like a sanctuary.

The novel centers mainly around Oscar, his sister and mother.  These three characters are developed from adolescence to adulthood and this is an astounding character development because usually as readers we aren’t allowed to see so many characters develop to such a degree.  In doing so, the reader is catapulted into the complex harsh reality of Oscar’s family.  I say reality because the story is structured in that way.  In spite of the novel being fiction, Diaz has the story be recounted by several narrators with one of the narrator’s telling the majority of the story.  Not only that but the usage of footnotes through the story gives it an overall look of a non-fiction book.  These footnotes give us a lot on the Dominican Republic history and is sometimes just funny.  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is very similar to having sneaked a peak into someone’s diary.  This may also explain the heavy usage of Spanish throughout the novel.  This technique may put off the readers that aren’t Spanish speakers because understanding some scenes of the book are difficult if you don’t speak Spanish.  However, for me personally not speaking Spanish, it didn’t bother me one bit.  I just went with the flow.  The Spanish parts just made me realise I was no longer in my world but in Oscar’s and that I was just going to have to contend with it.  Everything in his world was colourful, intense, and genuine.

Besides the characters of Beli, Oscar’s mother and Lola, his sister, there are an array of other characters who revolve around them that give the story movement and layers.  The settings added to this as well.  We switch between New Jersey and the Dominican Republic and the juxtaposition of the two provides the reader with many cultural differences.  The Dominican Republic is passionate, free, colourful, and dangerous.  New Jersey is contained, regulated, almost predictable.  The men in this book are detestable and either commit violent acts and/or treat women disrespectfully.  Some may even say that Diaz’s male characters are mere stereotypes.  I think these are men that represent maybe men from Diaz’s life or people he may have had contact with throughout his life.  If he made them all nice he would have been accused of making unrealistic male characters for such a setting.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has a variety of themes and levels to it that it’s hard to believe it only has 335 pages.  Some of the themes running through the novel are love, racism, superstition, sex, and foreignness among others, all wrapped up with a hint of magical realism.  It’s almost a perfect book.  Diaz took lots of risk structuring the book the way he did.  It could have been a disaster adding so many different storytelling elements together but it was the perfect combination.  So, if you’re looking for something different to read,  a new sort of American novel, pick up The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  It’s a worthwhile reading experience, will make you think about many things, and ill stay with you for a while.  Moreover, Junot Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2008.

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review 2013-12-04 05:39
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, read by Stephen Hoye
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer - Stephen Hoye,Siddhartha Mukherjee

I can only stand cancer in fiction to a very limited degree. Too many childhood memories of my grandmother on my mom’s side and the lung cancer and treatments that eventually killed her. However, nonfiction books about diseases interest me, and I figured that nonfiction might have more distance and be less emotional than fiction. I needed an audiobook to listen to while I worked, and this one was long enough to keep me occupied for quite a while.

Considering my requirements, the beginning of this book was not promising. Mukherjee started off with the story of a patient of his, Carla - her initial odd illness and eventual cancer diagnosis. This was not the emotional distance I was looking for, and I ended up connecting to this first portion of the book more personally and painfully than I expected to. Almost a year and a half ago, I was diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C, and this early bit about Carla reminded me strongly of sitting with my hepatitis doctor and discussing what that diagnosis meant and what my choices were.

Thankfully, although he continued to touch on Carla and other patients’ stories throughout the book, Mukherjee soon turned to the overall science and history of cancer. It was fascinating and often horrifying. Since I listened to the audiobook version and didn’t take more than a couple scribbled notes while I was listening, I can’t give too many details about the sorts of topics he covered. What I'll do instead is write about the things that stuck with me.

In the back of my mind, I think I had the idea that cancer was a modern disease. Mukherjee discussed many of the misconceptions people have about cancer, and this was one of them. Just because people didn’t have the vocabulary to discuss it didn’t mean it didn’t exist. And, just because we call all sorts of cancers “cancer” doesn’t mean they’re all one monolithic disease.

The sections on attempts to cure cancer were often cringe-inducing. Although Mukherjee wrote about cancer treatment history from a physician’s perspective, my mind kept interjecting “patient’s perspective” horror. Early mastectomies performed without anesthesia. Radical mastectomies that seemed like a contest between surgeons, to see who could successfully remove the most tissue (and, in some cases, bone). I had to stop the book a few times, so that the images in my mind could dissipate.

And none of those horrors even guaranteed that the patients would remain cancer-free. Mukherjee discussed the discoveries that allowed scientists to better understand various cancers and try to develop treatments that could destroy cancer cells more directly and, hopefully, cause less lasting damage to the patients. One of the things I marveled at was how interconnected diseases and their treatments can be. Lessons learned from the treatment of cancer were applied to the treatment of AIDS and hepatitis B. I remembered seeing some of those same connections when I researched the drugs I was going to be on to treat my hepatitis C.

It felt like Mukherjee covered some of just about everything related to cancer: its history, its science, its treatment, the people who studied it and raised money to research it, the politics surrounding it. For the most part, he explained things in a clear and easy-to-understand way, although I admit I got a little lost during some of the parts near the end on proteins and genetics. I was only really aware of how long the book was during the last three or so discs, which I felt dragged a little.

I’m not sure I could call this a reassuring read, but it was, overall, fascinating and incredibly informative.

 

(Original review, with read-alikes, posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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