April 23, 2012 by Reader's Connection
In May we have a great Russian composer, a famous fictional love affair based on a real one, a Hmong family that comes from Thailand to the United States, and an American journalist who travels to Europe, studying economies in trouble. We conclude the month with a discussion of why vodka and marijuana (and learning) make us feel good.
But everyone may have read a different book. Maestro Mike Perkins has explained to me that at last month’s discussion, he was going to pass out 13 or more different books about Shostakovich. Members were going to pick the books that appealed to them. Questions? Ask for Mike at 275-4100.
Reeling from her husband’s abrupt departure, Kathy is living alone in the modest California bungalow she inherited from her father and has few material or emotional resources upon which to draw when a pair of sheriff’s deputies appear like creatures in a nightmare and evict her. It’s all a mistake, but before Kathy, a personification of fog, can straighten things out, Colonel Behrani, an exiled Iranian air force officer forced to work menial jobs to support his family, snaps up her home at auction for a third of its value, moves in, and prepares to resell it at a profit. Obdurate and full of fury and pride, Behrani is sand, and Dubus has set up a microcosmic conflict of profound cultural implication and tremendous dramatic impact. Narrating from both points of view, he renders each character utterly compelling and sympathetic. All Kathy wants is her home; Behrani cannot give up his dream . . . Dubus writes gorgeous prose with a noirish edge, holding his readers spellbound. — Booklist
The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL, by Eric Greitens, will be discussed at the Franklin Road Library on Monday, May 7th at 6:30.
This book, by Greitens, a senior fellow at the University of Missouri and founder of the Mission Continues charity, confronts the same dilemma as the American military, which strives to be a strong deterrent against the evils of the world while protecting the sick and powerless. The concept of a mighty warrior with a good heart is not an original one, but the humanitarian soldier epiphany comes to an idealistic Greitens after stints in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Gaza, and Calcutta where he sees unspeakable carnage and suffering without end. He takes the words of philosopher John Stuart Mill as his credo: “The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature.” The rigors of his Navy SEAL training are intensely depicted, as are his deployments in Kenya, Afghanistan, and Iraq, with Greitens slowly evolving into a balanced man with equal parts of compassion and warrior spirit. A glorious tale of humanity, resolve, and strength, Greitens’s book reminds us of how many things we take for granted in our well-ordered lives. — Publishers Weekly
Acclaimed Israeli author Grossman serves up a powerful meditation on war, friendship, and family. Instead of celebrating her son Ofer’s discharge from the Israeli Army, Ora finds her life turned upside down and inside out when he reenlists and is sent back to the front for a major offensive. Unable to bear the thought of sitting alone waiting for the â€œnotifiersâ€ to bring her bad news, the recently separated Ora decides to hike in the Galilee, where she will be both anonymous and inaccessible. Joined by her estranged best friend and former lover Avram, a recluse who never recovered from the brutality he experienced as a POW during the Yom Kippur War, she narrates the story of her doomed marriage to Ilan and her often arduous journey as a mother. As the tension mounts, she talks compulsively about Ofer, as if telling his story will protect him and keep him alive for both herself and for Avram, the biological father he has never met. As Ora and Avram travel back and forth through time via shared memories, the toll exacted by living in a land and among a people constantly at war is excruciatingly evident. Grossman, whose own son was killed during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict, writes directly from the heart in this scorching antiwar novel. — Booklist
Essentially an offbeat travelogue, Lewis’s latest examines the recent global financial crisis by visiting the locales that have faltered beyond reasonable expectation. Though journalistic, there is a distinctly anthropological approach to vivid depictions of how particular cultural values contributed to such a bizarre, devastating series of events. In his dynamic narrative, Lewis simplifies complex financial systems without condescension, applies a degree of rationality to absurd decisions, and presents key individuals’ profiles without denigration. Dark, deadpan humor is injected throughout: Iceland as a nation of fishermen-cum-hedge fund managers with “no idea what they were doing”; Greece’s “fantastic mess” of scandalous monasteries, tax-evasion and top-down corruption; Ireland’s busted banks and stratospheric losses debilitating a now “distinctly third world” country. Germany is singled-out for its “preternatural love of rules” and naiveté regarding the so-called “riskless asset” while California tops the list of “America’s scariest financial places” following their ratings downgrade and piling debts. Easily devoured in one sitting, Lewis manages to gracefully explain what happened with a unique regard for both the strengths and weaknesses of humankind. — Publishers Weekly
Zuckoff (journalism, Boston Univ.; Robert Altman: The Oral Biography) presents an engaging story about the survival and ultimate rescue of three American service people who crashed in the dense jungles of New Guinea toward the end of World War II. While that is exciting enough in its own right, what makes Zuckoff’s story an essential read is the interaction between these survivors and the indigenous tribe they encountered after crashing. Humorous and at times dangerous misunderstandings arose between the Americans and the indigenous people during the 46-day ordeal in the jungle. The tribe had never encountered white people before and assumed their “guests,” including a young female WAC corporal, were spirits whose arrival fulfilled a prophecy of the end of the world. In a sense, this prophecy was true as after the rescue and the war, the Americans, Europeans, and Indonesians returned and changed the way of life that these tribes had followed for centuries. VERDICT This excellent book will be enjoyed by anyone who loves true adventure stories of disaster and rescue. — Library Journal
De Rosnay’s U.S. debut fictionalizes the 1942 Paris roundups and deportations, in which thousands of Jewish families were arrested, held at the Vlodrome d’Hiver outside the city, then transported to Auschwitz. Forty-five-year-old Julia Jarmond, American by birth, moved to Paris when she was 20 and is married to the arrogant, unfaithful Bertrand Tzac, with whom she has an 11-year-old daughter. Julia writes for an American magazine and her editor assigns her to cover the 60th anniversary of the Vl’ d’Hiv’ roundups. Julia soon learns that the apartment she and Bertrand plan to move into was acquired by Bertrand’s family when its Jewish occupants were dispossessed and deported 60 years before. She resolves to find out what happened to the former occupants: Wladyslaw and Rywka Starzynski, parents of 10-year-old Sarah and four-year-old Michel. The more Julia discovers–especially about Sarah, the only member of the Starzynski family to survive–the more she uncovers about Bertrand’s family, about France and, finally, herself. [Sarah’s Key] beautifully conveys Julia’s conflicting loyalties, and makes Sarah’s trials so riveting, her innocence so absorbing, that the book is hard to put down. — Publishers Weekly
Twenty-one-year-old college student Alexis Nicole proves once again a talent and insight beyond her years, with an intriguing story of three best friends trying to make their dreams come true in New York City. Fashion editor Skye’s living the life, but she’s got more than she can handle when a wealthy businessman and romantic artist both vie for her affections. Hairdresser Devin works at the hottest salon in the city, but life gets complicated when he becomes infatuated with a lover keeping dangerous secrets. And Cheyenne’s been dating her boss for the past four years, but she doesn’t know he’s married…until she gets pregnant. It’s a good thing these friends have each other to get them through! — Publisher’s note
Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Airman’s Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption will be discussed at the Lawrence Library on Tuesday, May 15th at 10:15 a.m.
A second book by the author of Seabiscuit (2001) would get noticed, even if it weren’t the enthralling and often grim story of Louie Zamperini. An Olympic runner during the 1930s, he flew B-24s during WWII. Taken prisoner by the Japanese, he endured a captivity harsh even by Japanese standards and was a physical and mental wreck at the end of the war. He was saved by the influence of Billy Graham, who inspired him to turn his life around, and afterward devoted himself to evangelical speeches and founding boys’ camps. Still alive at 93, Zamperini now works with those Japanese individuals and groups who accept responsibility for Japanese mistreatment of POWs and wish to see Japan and the U.S. reconciled. He submitted to 75 interviews with the author as well as contributing a large mass of personal records. Fortunately, the author’s skills are as polished as ever, and like its predecessor, this book has an impossible-to-put-down quality that one commonly associates with good thrillers. — Booklist
A summary of this classic novel is available at enotes. com
Yang, cofounder of the immigrant-services company Words Wanted, was born in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand in 1980. Her grandmother had wanted to stay in the camp, to make it easier for her spirit to find its way back to her birthplace when she died, but people knew it would soon be liquidated. America looked promising, so Yang and her family, along with scores of other Hmong, left the jungles of Thailand to fly to California, then settle in St. Paul, Minn. In many ways, these hardworking refugees followed the classic immigrant arc, with the adults working double jobs so the children could get an education and be a credit to the community. But the Hmong immigrants were also unique–coming from a non-Christian, rain forest culture, with no homeland to imagine returning to, with hardly anyone in America knowing anything about them. As Yang wryly notes, they studied the Vietnam War at school, without their lessons ever mentioning that the Hmong had been fighting for the Americans. Yang tells her family’s story with grace; she narrates their struggles, beautifully weaving in Hmong folklore and culture. By the end of this moving, unforgettable book, when Yang describes the death of her beloved grandmother, readers will delight at how intimately they have become part of this formerly strange culture. — Publishers Weekly
David Linden’s The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning and Gambling Feel So Good will be discussed at the Spades Park Library on Wednesday, May 23rd at 6:00 p.m.
Conventional wisdom advises, “If it feels good, stop it. If it tastes good, spit it out.” But why? Because indulging pleasurable excess, whether of drugs, food, or sex, has an unforgiving downside. The biology of how we know this is the topic of Linden’s fascinating, by turns technical and entertaining effort. It turns out there is a “pleasure center” in our brains, a very specific locus that spreads joy when it is tickled by stimuli such as sweet, fatty foods or cocaine. Obviously, some things stimulate our pleasure center for a solid reason–survival. If sex didn’t feel good, we might not propagate the species. Likewise, the pleasure we get from eating encourages us to live long enough to reproduce. But what of vodka and heroin? What about addictions in general? These are a bit more complicated, but Linden is a proficient guide. He even concludes with an educated prediction of a future that promises round-the-clock, unbridled access to–theoretically, at least–guilt-free pleasure through a specially wired baseball cap. — Booklist