Sunday, May 31, 2015

Adeline - Norah Vincent

Sub-title: A Novel of Virginia Woolf

This is the story of the last years of writer Viriginia Woolf's life before her suicide at 41 by drowning. The author, Nora Vincent, was unknown to me though when I researched after finishing the book, I remember hearing of her early work, "Self Made Man" where she had posed as  a man for 18 months in an immersion journalism style of research.

Her research for this book appears extensive as she weaves the lives of Virginia, who's given first name was Adeline, and her Bloomsbury group of intellectuals of the late 1800's into an interpretation of how and why Woolf ended her own life.

I had read and applauded Virginia Woolf's essay A Room of Her Own years ago but had never delved into her other books.  This story makes me want to read more of her writing to see what she produced from a tortured mind.  

Vincent's prose is lyrical, written I'm sure with a thesaurus by her side.  It can be distracting admiring the writing without remembering the flow of the story but not to where I quit reading.  I knew what happened in the end but how the characters got there and what they thought and felt kept me engaged. 

The relationship between Virginia and her former child self, who she refers to by her given first name, Adeline, is a technique that gets a little awkward at points, over-stressing the impact of childhood abuse on the future mood swings of the adult Virginia.  

I enjoyed the book for the beautiful use of words, the portrayal of this famous group of people through believable dialogue and descriptions, and the admiration of the genius of Virginia Woolf.

A couple quotes: 
[Virginia explaining to her husband her thoughts on writing]
"She [Virginia] said that perhaps every writer is meant to express only one idea, one mood, one version of what this strange human experience is about, and that he spends his life and work repeating it over and over.  If he is fortunate, once or twice he gets it absolutely right."

[Virginia contemplating suicide and bemoaning the difficulty of death]
"When a fetus comes alive in the womb," she'd asked, "what tells its heart to start beating?"..."and when it does begin," she'd added..."why then?  Why exactly then and not a moment before or after?" ... "And why cannot death be a painless as that?  Or as timely?  The music simply ending, as it began, without struggle, without knowledge, without thought.  Why must the life be shaken out of us when it has been so softly, so smoothly put in?"

Published: 2015  Read: May 2015  Genre: Biographical fiction

ISBN:  9 780 544 470200

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Lesson Before Dying - Ernest J Gaines

This book was another used bookstore find.  A young black man is convicted of a murder that happens during a convenience store holdup.  He was just along for the ride but the real robbers are killed along with the store owner and Jefferson has no one to back up his claim that he was not involved.

The story begins with his conviction where the defense appeals for mercy by describing him as "a be put in the electric chair" and with that twisted logic, not worth sentencing to death.  The conviction is pronounced and he's taken to jail.  His family appeals to Grant, a man who got out of the poverty of their lives, went to college and returned to teach in the town where he grew up.  Jefferson's godmother appeals to Grant to teach him to be a man as he goes to his execution.  Grant is a reluctant teacher, almost cowardly.  He sees himself as a realist and dismisses her wishes as pointless. Nevertheless, he goes to the jail, bullied into it by his aunt, the godmother's best friend, and finds Jefferson convinced his life is not worth any more than a hog's.  Grant keeps visiting and a trust develops that brings Jefferson dignity in death.

I liked how the story unfolded slowly and kept me wondering if Grant would be able to reach Jefferson.  The characters are real people, trying to do the right thing.  Twenty years after being published the treatment of African-Americans in the South has been portrayed in many other stories. This one makes the heartbreak painfully real.

Published:  1993  Read: May 2015  Genre: Fiction

ISBN: 9 780375 702709

World Gone Water - Jaime Clarke

This was a strange book, I don't know what to think of it.  I picked it up in the library, intrigued by the jacket description and reviews.  It's a continuation of a previoius novel, Vernon Downs but it stands on its own.  The protagonist, Charlie Martens, describes his friendships in the present and harks back to those in the past.  He seems dull and clueless and then suddenly he reveals streaks of violence.  He seems to yearn for the "normal" life -- a wife, family, job, home and just doesn't get why he can't have it.  It's edgy in a calculated way.  For Arizonians, it's interesting because the author lived here and graduated from UofA.  He weaves a lot of landmarks and names from Phoenix into the narrative that kept me reading.

Published:  2015  Read: May 2015  Genre: Fiction

ISBN: 978-0-9858812-8-3

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Bipolar Disorder - A Guide for Patients and Families

Bipolar disease has affected people I'm close to and its a confusing, disheartening condition.  This book is the latest (3rd) edition to discuss the ongoing studies being done by John Hopkins University. I found it encouraging and easy to read and understand and recommend it to anyone wanting to have a greater knowledge of the subject.

The diagnosis and symptoms are presented clearly and helpfully and explain how difficult it can be to get a clear diagnosis that is followed by the appropriate treatment.   The explanation of the drugs used in treatment, their interactions and side effects are understandable, clear, and complete.    The importance of appropriate, patient specific medication combined with essential counseling therapy really helped me understand the benefits.  There is a chapter on dealing with bipolar and other physical conditions and different life situations.  The best part I felt is the advice for families and patients for dealing with the day to day frustrations and challenges in the chapters on getting and staying well.  This is a complex condition and the ongoing research in genetics is offering promise in providing more specific treatment and greater understanding.

Published: 2014  Read: May 2015  Genre: Science (Medical)

ISBN: 9 781421412061

The Boys in the Boat - Daniel James Brown

This is the story of the young college men from Washington State who won the 1936 Olympic rowing championship held in Germany during Hitler's rise to power.  But only the last 25 or so pages is about that triumphant race near Berlin.  The rest of the book is about the boys themselves; their early lives and exhaustive detail of their rowing training during college.  Their are brief interludes that keep us up to date on what is going on in Germany while they prepare for the race back home in Washington.

I felt the story was way too drawn out with repetitive portrayals of the main rowers.  The book could have easily been half the length.  I appreciate that the author did lots of research but he didn't have to cram every piece of it into the story.

Published:   Read: May 2015  Genre: biography

ISBN: 10-1-59413-775-X

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

My goodness, it looks like I haven't done any reading in over a month!  I took a trip to my birthplace in March and was completely absorbed in researching my ancestors, exploring the towns where they lived and experiencing the area as it is today.  I did pick up a couple books and will try and catch up on logging my reading for the past several weeks.

This book was a gem.  Told as a series of letters between a newspaper columnist who wrote upbeat pieces during WWII in London and the inhabitants of Guernsey, an island off the coast of England, it educates and inspires.  During the war, the island was occupied by the Germans for several years and the people there were isolated from news with dwindling food and supplies.

We're treated to a friendship, a courtship, a community of survivors that are slowly revealed in the exchange.  I delighted in the way the characters unfolded and how their quirks and personalities were so pointedly portrayed in their quick retorts and poignant stories.

Some examples:

"He's got that way of believing his opinion is the truth, but he's not disagreeable about it.  He's too sure he's right to bother being disagreeable."

"Emily [Bronte] had to make Heathcliff up out of thin air!...Men are more interesting in books than they are in real life."

The author does a masterful job of letting people reveal themselves as they tell stories of others.  I marked many pages that were tender:

"[People] thinking to comfort me, said 'Life goes on.' What nonsense, I thought, of course it doesn't, it's death that goes on."

"Have you ever noticed that when your mind is awakened or drawn to someone new, that person's name suddenly pops up everywhere you go?  My friend Sophie calls it coincidence, and Mr. Simpless, my parson friend, calls it Grace.  He thinks that if one cares deeply about someone or something new one throws a kind of energy out into the world..."

The journalist ends up going to the island to gather their story, thinking it might be her next book that her publisher and friend is waiting to be drafted.  We know the trip will lead to a book and more.

A highly recommended read.

Published: 2008  Genre: Fiction
ISBN: 780385341004

Moby-Duck - Donovan Hohn

In January 1992 a container ship rocked in a violent storm in the sub-Arctic ocean and dumped 12 containers the size of 18 wheeler semi-trucks into the ocean.  At least one burst open and spilled thousands of yellow plastic ducks, intended for children's bath toys.  The author, intrigued by the story, set out to find out where the ducks ended up.  His journey and education on the ocean, shipping, and the people who study it is the story of this book.

It's a strange mixture of hard science, quirky character portrayals and a personal odyssey, introduced in each chapter with quotes from Moby Dick, Thoreau's writings and environmentalists.  I learned about the Pacific Garbage Patch, which isn't a huge concentrated dead zone of debris but an area of the Pacific where the currents swirl and idle, where plastics that make there way to the ocean may linger.
I learned to how complex the oceans are, more like a liquid atmosphere with its own climates and storms raging below the surface.  I learned about "The Tragedy of the Commons", a concept that "in a finite world of diminishing resources...the freedom of individuals will not lead hopefully to progress but fatalistically to destruction".  The environment, shared by all, will be exhausted by the rational pursuit of individual prosperity.  Only a decline in population or consumption can avert it.

The author shares detailed facts and his novice experiences while traveling with oceanographers, environmental clean up crews and commercial ship captains and becomes dabbles philosophically in the impact of the spill and its meaning in our world.  He reveals too an adventurous recklessness that takes him from his family for weeks at a time from shortly before his son's birth, making him seem sometimes as irresponsible as the polluters he's investigating.  In all a different read.

published:  2011  Genre: Non-fiction
ISBN: 780143120506