Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Sleepwalkers by Paul Grossman

I was interested in reading this novel because it is set in 1932-3 Germany, the end of the Weimar Republic and beginning of Hitler's Third Reich. This period and on through World War II in Germany's history is endlessly fascinating to me. How could Hitler and his Nazi Party seduce a whole country and commit such horrors as the attempt to annilate all Jews, gypsies, communists, handicapped people, and anyone else they didn't like? All this in an effort to form an unsullied blue-eyed, blond, strong Aryan nation, which of course if taken to the extreme would have taken out Hitler himself with his dark hair and eyes, and his Austrian childhood.

So, perhaps because I have read so much about Germany's history, this novel scared me half to death from beginning to breathless end. Grossman has taken some actual events from later in the 1930s and incorporated them into the story, but most of this actually happened during the 1930s.

The hero is Willi Kraus, a police detective in Berlin, who has achieved something of a celebrity status because his investigation had run down a serial child killer. That status opens doors and protects him in the first part of the book. Unfortunately in this time and place, though, Kraus is a Jew, a widower with two young sons which make him vulnerable. He also has ties to the government which put a target on his back with the growing Nazi Party.

One morning he is called to a crime scene by the river. The body of a pretty young woman has washed up on shore. Everyone is standing around horrified because her lower leg bones have been surgically reversed. This case will lead Kraus on a trip to Hell, and the story will include an evil man who really did medical "experiments" on people, Dr. Josef Mengele.

I couldn't read this book fast enough and yet occasionally I had to get away from it. I found myself warning characters under my breath as I read or breathing a sigh of relief when imminent danger was averted. I was so caught up in the story that I was nervous until the end. If that's the mark of a good novel, this one is very good. I'll be thinking about this one for a long time.

I won this book from LibraryThing and the recently released paperback version is available at Amazon.com or your bookstore.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Untying the Knot, Linda Gillard

Untying the Knot is a Kindle book, my first since I bought the Kindle, and though I'm not excited about the Kindle, I'm very excited about the book. Full disclosure here: although we have never met in person, I consider Linda Gillard a "virtual" friend and I have enjoyed all of her previous books set in Scotland, her home, so I bought this one fully expecting to be just as pleased with it. I was right.

Gillard has a talent for creating fully realized characters that the reader comes to care about very much. In this book the main characters are Fay and Magnus Gillivray. They have been divorced for five years but have never stopped loving each other. Now their daughter is engaged to a man who presents an awkward situation for Fay, and Fay and Magnus are united in their determination to make her wedding and marriage happy and fulfilling.

Another aspect of Gillard's books is that there is always a physical or mental handicap to muddy the waters so to speak. In this case, Fay is emotionally fragile and Magnus suffers from severe PTSD as a result of his service where his job was to disarm bombs. In Londonderry, in fact, he had been nearly blown to pieces by an IRA bomb. He occasionally becomes violent, other times frightened; he is startled into these mental lapses by loud noises, dreams, and other triggers.

As in her other books, Gillard lets us in on the inner turmoil of the characters and there is a fine plot to keep us turning pages. She understands the complex thinking and motivations of her characters. A very satisfying read in all, and I recommend it highly.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ironweed by William Kennedy

I mentioned a couple days ago that I was doggedly making my way through a book that won the Pulitzer Prize and that I couldn't understand why. I kept hoping something would happen or I would recognize beautiful writing that would justify Kennedy's renown in this part of the country but it just never came about. I know Kennedy was famous for writing about Albany, NY politics and that's why I was interested. Ever since I moved to the East Coast, New York politics have bewildered me but I was drawn to reading about the topic like a moth to a flame. (Hackneyed phrase I know but I've been sick, so give me a break.)

The closest this book comes to politics is that the story is set in Albany, but it's the Albany of bums and winos and losers in 1938. It's about a man named Francis Phelan, an ex-ballplayer who has become a drunken bum, literally. He had been well known for his skill as a baseball player for a local team; he had married and fathered three children. He still loved and thought about his wife, but he had gone on the run twice, once when he killed a scab in the middle of a trolley workers' strike, and again after he dropped his baby son and the baby died.

Phelan's life has been a continual tale of violence, drunkenness, pick up work and spend the money on booze, sleeping in weeds or flophouses. I'm still depressed after finishing the book. This book tells what I assume is the end of his life although it's so hard to tell I'm not sure. He is seeing the ghosts of all the people in his life and drowning in nostalgia, so he finally uses the money he earned working on a junk wagon one day to buy a 12 1/2 lb. turkey and go to his wife's house.

His wife (apparently a saint) welcomes him home but understands when he says he can't stay. He talks to his grown son and daughter, meets his grandson, takes a bath he's needed for months, dresses in old clothes his wife had saved, but when he leaves her house, he uses a ten dollar bill his son gave him to go off the wagon and into a binge. At the end all I could say was, "Whaaa?" I just don't see the point. The New York Times had said, "Rich in plot and dramatic tension . . . almost Joycean in its variety of rhetoric." Well, maybe that's my problem. I've never been able to read James Joyce either.

Unsurprisingly, I don't recommend this book unless you are unbearably cheery and want to discover what sadness and depression are like.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

I Didn't Really Disappear Off the Face of the Earth

Since I haven't been able to post anything for several days, I thought I should let you know I'm still alive and kicking, well alive anyway. Alive and coughing. I have bronchitis and I'm barking like a lonesome dog. Feel better today but I still could sing bass in the church choir down the road.

It finally stopped raining and dried up a bit around here so Dave and I have been trying to catch up with yard work again. Yesterday I rested while he worked but today I'll get back out there for a while. I still can't mow all the yard because it's too wet where the pond overflowed, but I can get it looking much better.

The leaves are turning here already. Hard to believe in a month we'll have the peak of foliage season here. I remember when we used to go to dirt track auto races, at one track the announcer insisted on talking about the fall "foilyage" spectacular race. He's probably still calling it that but we stopped going to the races thanks to my lungs. I'd be happy for Dave to go with a friend, but he lost interest.

In between coughing I've been reading an old book that had been sitting on my shelf for a long time, Ironweed by (can't remember his first name) Kennedy. Maybe I coughed my brain out? Anyway, I'm sticking with it, determined to finish, but I just can't see so far why it won a Pulitzer Prize. I don't think it's because I'm sick; it's just horribly depressing and so far doesn't go anywhere. I must be missing something.

I got my first Kindle book today so that will be next. It's Linda Gillard so I know it'll be good. Looking forward to that.

The newspaper today is full of pictures and personal stories from our flood. Many of the business people are ready to give up, but they're planning to reopen because of their employees. There just aren't enough jobs open for them to all find work. Some of those businesses were just drowned out five years ago, so I sure can't blame them for being too discouraged to rebuild. The bright side is the help they're getting. The communities involved have come together, including college students who are from places far away from here, to help people throw out what's unsalvageable, clean what is, and bring them food and water and cleaning supplies. When Mother Nature does a number on us, people shine.

I'll finish that book and then I'll be back to do a review, such as it is.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Only Time Will Tell by Jeffrey Archer

Only Time Will Tell (The Clifton Chronicles) Jeffrey Archer's latest book comes out this month. Only Time Will Tell is the first volume in a trilogy, the story of the Clifton family and therefore called The Clifton Chronicles. It begins in Bristol, England and at the end of the first book Harry Clifton comes to New York City.

The plot of this book is as old as storytelling and so it takes a master writer to make it fresh, new, different from all the other versions. Archer solves this problem with an unsettled time period and with the characters he creates to populate his story. His characters, after all, have to be real enough and interesting enough for the reader to care what will happen to them in the next volume of this trilogy.

As I finished the book yesterday afternoon I was anxious to know what will happen next, particularly since there is a fascinating twist at the end that throws everything up in the air.

The major character is Harry Clifton, a boy of only about five when the story begins and a young man at the end of the book. He is a character so believable and vividly drawn that I'm sure he will stay with me until the next book comes out. The poor kid goes through struggles that would make most people give up, but Harry struggles on showing he is truly his mother's son. She works as a waitress and has her own difficulties as she works to make enough money for Harry's schooling. His amazing voice helps him get ahead for several years, but puberty sends him to the drama department where his maturing voice and theatrical talent added to his determination to make good grades ensure his success.

The other character I love in this book is known as Old Jack Tar. He lives at the docks and befriends Harry, becoming a father to this fatherless boy. You'll be surprised at who Jack really is, as is most everyone in the town.

There are many other wonderful characters in the book, all of whom raise this story above the ordinary telling of this well-worn plot. I do recommend the book which I won from the blog "Tutu's Two Cents."

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sharyn McCrumb's Appalachia

Sharyn McCrumb's Appalachia I recently bought this little book from Amazon.com. It's a collection of essays about how McCrumb became a storyteller, her family background, the Celts who settled in Appalachia, and her thoughts on writing historical fiction.

I've been a Facebook fan of McCrumb's for a long time and had felt I was really getting to know her that way, but this book told me so much more. Now I feel like I know why she writes the kind of stories she writes; she comes by it naturally since it's a long family tradition. They told stories through songs frequently, and she still uses music to set her mood as she writes. In fact, she does a CD of appropriate music for the setting and the characters and the story before she begins to write. I find this fascinating.

McCrumb takes offense, and rightfully so, that her books are often shelved with mysteries. She doesn't write mysteries, she writes historical fiction that sometimes involves magical realism. Don't know what that is? She explains it beautifully in one of these essays.

Her books, especially the "Ballad" novels, are always best sellers. Now you can read this 65 page book and learn why they are so good and so readable and so much fun to read.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Floods All Around Me

In 2006 this area went through what everyone called "a hundred years" flood. Now five years later we are flooded again, and the news is calling this one worse than 2006. It's supposedly even worse than the catastrophic floods of 1972 when Hurricane Agnes went through.

In the winter I complain about living on top of the mountain because it's sometimes difficult to get out, or to get home for that matter. Today I'm very glad we live so high. While hundreds of people are evacuating near the Susquehanna River and its tributaries, we sit high and dry. Our basement is even dry, though the sump pump worked its little heart out for the past three days.

Sometimes tragedies bring me around from a slump. In Arizona a friend's sister's house burned; nothing left but ashes. Around here people's homes and businesses are under water. I have been so very fortunate that I haven't suffered a tragedy like these and I can't imagine how one would go on. I do know that my life has been a litany of "you gotta do what you gotta do," but I think there's a limit.

How can I feel downhearted or sad when my life has been so blessed? It's high time I picked myself up, brushed myself off, and got busy enjoying life again. I'm going to look on the sunny side of the street, if the sun ever comes out again that is. :D

An Exciting Thriller Coming Out Next Month

Cold Glory October 11, 2011 is the release date for a new thriller by B. Kent Anderson. Cold Glory is the story of a supremely well-organized organization, Glory Warriors, who believe U.S. Grant and R.E. Lee signed a document just prior to Lee's surrender that details a plan for takeover of the U.S. government if the Speaker of the House, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the President are all taken out by violence. The Glory Warriors, who include people in all stations and walks of life, would take over the country swiftly before anarchy could arise.

It begins with the discovery at a construction site in Oklahoma of a cache of weapons and a document. Dr. Nick Journey, a history teacher, is called on to study the document. Journey is a hero you can't help but love. He has a severely autistic son who he cares for as a single parent since his wife left him, unable to take the day-after-day stress. He eventually is helped by a government researcher, Meg Tolman, who is the only one that believes him when he realizes the document has put him in terrible danger.

The Glory Warriors have been looking for that document since the end of the Civil War and they mean to get it no matter what it takes. They pursue Journey and Tolman across the country, and it's one of those cases where you can't trust anyone, even someone who has supposedly been one of your best friends. They can't be sure who is part of the conspiracy, especially after the Speaker and the Chief Justice are assassinated. The president is next and they must stop the Glory Warriors.

It's an exciting story. After about the first chapter the tension begins to escalate and finally it gets to be sitting on the edge of your seat time. This is a book where you need to suspend reality, don't question much, and just take the ride. Very good escapist thriller but with questions about autism, friends, and love underneath.

I may be prejudiced because of my love of history, but I recommend this book.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


This is getting frustrating. My friend in Austin, TX has suffered through a terrible drought and now they have fires again. Her sister has been evacuated but fortunately has her sense of humor intact. She says she wanted to move anyway and now she won't have so much to pack. I'm not sure I could be so funny at a time like this.

A friend in Phoenix and another in Tucson are suffering through unrelenting heat so they're trapped in air conditioning or a pool. I would be a raving lunatic by now I think.

Meanwhile, we're drowning in the East. Everything in the house is damp, the towels never dry unless I put them in the dryer, the sheets feel clammy every night, and discouragement has set in for outside work. Our pond overfloweth. Sorry for the King James English but I'm starting to feel like Job here.

We've had 7+ inches of rain from Hurricane Irene, and now we're getting rain from a front and rain left over from Tropical Storm Lee, plus Hurricane Katia is keeping the dry air from moving into our area. I never thought living in Pennsylvania would put us in trouble from hurricanes. Sheesh! We should have moved to Vero Beach, FL like we considered.

I know, I know - heat and more heat plus humidity in Vero Beach but at least we would have air conditioning and a nice park by the river and the beach where if the breeze is coming off the ocean it's cool. We would also have a pool which I dearly wish we had here.

Do I sound happy? No? Well, it's just a phase, as my mom used to say. All the rain and overcast skies piled on top of other chronic problems sometimes get the best of me. It could certainly be worse and it will certainly get better, but for today I think I'll whine. Occasionally I just need to get it all off my chest and clear the air. No happy face today, maybe tomorrow.

One funny note though. Did you see the major league baseball player (didn't catch his name) on the news this morning? He was giving his bat a good talking to - and then he went out and hit two, count 'em, two home runs. He should be a motivational speaker. :D

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Magnificent Medills by Megan McKinney

The Magnificent Medills: America's Royal Family of Journalism During a Century of Turbulent Splendor The old saying that if you're rich, you're eccentric and if you're poor, you're insane, certainly applies to this large family. Joseph Medill, of Chicago Tribune famed spawned a magnificent family alright but nearly all of them were definitely eccentric. The fact that most of them died of cirrhosis of the liver from a lifetime of heavy drinking is just the beginning of their story.

Since this family was high society in Chicago, New York, and Washington, the reader learns interesting facts about other well known people of their time as well as tidbits that I would classify as gossip. One married Drew Pearson, for instance, so we get an entirely different look at his life than in other works.

Arguably the most influential in politics was Joseph Medill who was a founder of the Republican Party and was close to Abraham Lincoln. So close in fact that when Medill walked into his own office and found Lincoln sitting with his feet up on the desk, he yelled at him to get his feet off of it.

The Tribune was located in a "fireproof" building at the time of the great Chicago fire, and of course burned down. Afterward, Medill was mayor of that city. However, his two daughters were, though elegant and educated, known as "she-devils." They meddled incessantly in their children's lives until they died.

Perhaps the best known person in the family was Cissy Patterson, one of Joseph's granddaughters. She was a friend of Alice Roosevelt (Teddy's flamboyant daughter), the publisher of a Washington newspaper, and mixed with presidents, artists, and other famous people. Her love life was a scandal.

I could go on and on about this book and the Medill family. I found their story fascinating. I have a proof of the book so I'm anxious to see the finished product because I want to see the pictures that will be included. I highly recommend this one. (Source: Amazon Vine)