Feeling all the feels: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Actual real-life small town in actual Iowa

3 words: stark, moving, somber

 

Oh, Marilynne Robinson… you make me so sad. And so happy-sad. But mostly so sad-happy.

 

If you’re reading a book by Marilynne Robinson, here’s what to expect: lovely writing, deep and quiet inner lives, and an in-depth examination of the ways we care for–and sometimes fail–each other.

 

She puts her characters, with their harsh lives, into a mean world and then comforts them with other characters. But then the mean world barges in and threatens to mess things up.

 

And since the characters have become people we care about… this is tough to take.

 

Yet: I keep coming back for more.

 

But only at measured intervals, because my heart can only take so much.

 

Like the other two Robinson novels I’ve read, Gilead and Home, this book revolves around the lives of the Ames and Boughton families in small-town 1950s Iowa.

 

In this book, Lila, the “old man” preacher’s young wife, is the central figure, and her story is a sad, sad, sad one. She’s probably an orphan, and she’s homeless, and she doesn’t know her actual last name. Dear heaven.

 

It’s the kind of book that made me specially grateful for the simple things, like my sturdy-roofed little house with running water. It’s even got electricity this house!

 

So there’s Lila’s resilience and self-reliance. And there’s the unlikely love story of Lila and Rev. Ames. And there’s the simplicity of the story, plus its complexity.

 

It leaves me feeling wildly melancholy yet hopeful.

 

What about you? Ever read a book that made you feel so emotionally conflicted?

 

Modern Midwestern Gothic

Arrowood by Laura McHugh
3 words: Midwestern Gothic, somberly suspenseful, uneasy
I’ve been hitting the “uneasy” books pretty hard lately.

Arrowood offered just the right amount of quiet suspense and creepiness to give the thing some good intensity and page-turner-ness, but not so much that I wanted to flee the book. (I’m a delicate flower when it comes to suspense novels. I was able to read this one before sleep, and that means it was suspenseful but not terrifying.)
Add to the mix that this sucker’s set in Iowa, and I was all super happy to be reading it.
The situation in the book is this: Arden, a twentysomething grad school dropout, returns to her childhood home when she inherits it. And it ain’t no ordinary childhood home. She grew up in a mansion along the Mississippi, and it’s haunted by the memory of her twin toddler sisters, who were kidnapped and never reappeared.
Not actually haunted, as in “ghosts,” but there are eerie reminders of the missing little girls. 
And the house makes scary sounds and seeps water in ways that are seriously frightening.
And there’s a caretaker who seems a little creepy, and a murder researcher who also seems a little creepy, and poor Arden is pretty much on her own in the world.
 
It felt lonely and disquieting, this book.
Darn good ambiance, guys!
And there were lots of ways it could have played out, but the way it went… The ending was satisfying and believable.
If you’re into Gillian Flynn, give this book a whirl.

Anyone else read a good neo-Gothic novel lately?

That’s where the tall corn grows

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson

OK, so audiobooks have many fine attributes: someone’s reading you a story just like when you were little; you can listen while driving/gardening/cleaning the house/exercising; and when it’s done right, the reader’s intonations add a whole new layer to the reading experience.

My quarrel with audiobooks has everything to do with blogging. When I’m reading a book-book (as I like to refer to those archaic things with hard or soft covers and actual pages), I jot down on the bookmark (a measly scrap of paper) the page numbers where there’s something I really liked. With an audiobook, this just ain’t feasible, people.

So if I want to capture a perfect quote, I’m reduced to checking out the book-book of the audiobook and flipping pages in a rather agitated and annoyed fashion, searching for the something I heard that completely cracked me up or pleased me beyond measure.

So, to a great extent, I’m here reduced to speaking vaguely about why this audiobook is truly entertaining.

Well, first off: It’s written (and read aloud) by Bill Bryson, so if you’re Brysonite, you’ll be happy.

And the guy grew up in Des Moines, about which he writes with such fondness that I like him even more than I did before—because poor Iowa doesn’t get much respect generally, and certainly not in the printed word.

But here’s Bryson:

“Iowa’s main preoccupations have always been farming and being friendly, both of which we do better than almost anyone else, if I say so myself.”  (p. 172)

Amen, brother.

And this true statement:

“Iowa has always been proudly middling in all its affairs… We were slightly wealthier, a whole lot more law-abiding, and more literate and better educated than the national average, and ate more Jell-O (a lot more—in fact, to be completely honest, we ate all of it), but otherwise have never been too showy at all.” (p. 171)

actual Jell-O recipe from the 1974 church cookbook my very own mom edited; only one of *many* such recipes

 

Bryson grew up in the weird and wonderful 1950s, and he skewers postwar American society, even as he gazes warmly upon it. He had a paper route, where he was terrorized by neighbors’ dogs; he also was terrorized by neighborhood bullies; he  skipped school with shocking regularity; his dad would eat his midnight snack in the
buff; and his mom once sent him to school in Capri pants.

This is one of those childhood memoirs that’s funny and entertaining and not at all horrid (we’re looking at you, A Child Called “It”). Bryson’s childhood was refreshingly normal, and the only reason it’s book-worthy is that Bryson’s the one writing the book. And this fact alone makes it beyond worthy.

If you like Bryson the way I do, give these a whirl, too…

In a Sunburned Country

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

Amish memoir

Growing Up Amish by
Ira Wagler
What a fine book.
Ira Wagler was born Amish, and Amish he remained, off and on, for
years upon years. Even though, from his teen years on, he’d escape to the other
world (the one the rest of us live in) to get some breathing room. And then
he’d return to his roots.
It’s utterly interesting to hear about his not feeling like he fit
in either world completely, and the way his family and his Amish origins tugged
him back, even though he knew it wasn’t the right fit for him.
From the start of the book, we know that he’s left the Amish, but
I tell you, there were moments in his life when I didn’t know how he could have
gotten from there to here. He just seemed so torn.
And that’s the kind of story that, in the hands of a gifted writer
(and he is one), is more riveting than one would expect.
And there are some wonderful lines, such as this:
“My father was a man of many gifts and skills. Farming was not one
of them.” (p. 43)
OK, so that’s pretty funny (or maybe not so funny, if you were
him), especially when farming’s the big thing they were supposed to be doing.
Turns out, his father was a writer, and a good one, who was widely
known among the Amish nationwide. So, if this was next statement was true, I’m willing to give the
man a pass: “We didn’t realize it then, but our farm was just plain
trashy.”  (p. 43) That made me smile. 
But the overall tone of the book is actually somber, since
it’s largely about the author’s feelings of not-belonging-here-or-there. There’s a lot of heart-wrenching stuff here. 
The fellow has a blog, and you can see examples of his fine
writing there. 
Also, during his youth, he lived in southern Iowa for a time, so that thrilled me to no end.
Small-town Iowa’s
a rare thing to find in a book, and it’s almost pathetic how excited I get when
I discover it there.
If you’re a fan of memoirs about ordinary lives told beautifully
well, or if you like subculture memoirs, this is a very fine example of both of
those things. 

The @BlueAngels aren’t books


No, they are pilots. Nevertheless, I’m a-gonna review them.
Since this here’s a book blog, we’re going to talk about the flight demonstration as though it were a book. (Books and Blue Angels. What more could a person want?)
Here goes:

Plot: While the flight demonstration has its own plotline, there is a back story to this particular airshow. This was the Blue Angels’ comeback show after a distressing thing that caused the cancellation of some previously scheduled appearances (one of which I had planned to attend—practice show and all; the fact that I was sadder for them than for me is a testimony to the depth of my adoration).
So there was some added drama to the thing because this was their first flight demonstration after the personnel change. Given that fact, and given that it’s still fairly early in the season, I was expecting the formations to be somewhat loose and the maneuvers perhaps a bit loose, also. But man, they looked darn good. There was only one maneuver in which my eye could spot a lack of symmetry. (Oh, it hurts me to say it, but there it was. They’re darn-near perfect, and what they’re doing is hard.)
Anyway, the plot of the flight demonstration itself leads us to the next topic…

Pacing: I’m really not sure how they do it, but it seems to me the Blue Angels just keep tightening up the show, so the time between maneuvers is very short indeed.

So what I’m saying here is: Fast-paced.
We got ourselves an event that just rages forward with a purpose. You shall not be bored. Even if some ingrate were tempted to tune out, the sneak pass would happen, and that’ll get their attention.
At this particular airshow, since the skies were severely overcast and the ceiling low, the Blue Angels did either the low show or the flat show, and I sure as the dickens wish I knew how to tell the difference between the two. So it seemed that we got to see the aircraft up-close a little more than you do when they perform the high show.

Character: It’s in this all-important category that I suffered a disappointment right there on a visit to my home state of Iowa. One of my most favorite things in all the world is to see the Blue Angels on the ground and in the air. And at this show, we didn’t get the full flight-line Blue Angels experience. They took off from another airport and flew in, which always bums me out.
I like to see the walkdown.
I like to see the ground crew.
I like to see the takeoffs.
I like to see the landings.
Doggone it, I like to see the pilots.
However, since my mood on airshow days (see “Tone/Mood” below) is positively altered by jet fumes and general elation, I focused on the characters I could see.
First off, you can, actually, see the pilots, sort of. Check out those gold helmets in those there jets.
That’s CAPT Greg McWherter upside down in #1, LCDR Jim Tomaszeski in #2, MAJ Brent Stevens in #3, and LT Rob Kurrle upside down in #4. The fellas are Double Farvel-ing there; I love it when they Double Farvel.
And here we got LT C.J. Simonsen flying #6 all up into the sky and LT Ben Walborn flying #5 straight and level so as to gain some serious airspeed.
Even if I can only see their helmets as they scream by, I’m still saying hello to them all by name.
And also, I could see the Narrator. On the ground. And that dude’s a pilot, even though he’s on talking duty for a year. He gets to fly the #7 jet, and he does the VIP flights.
(An aside: It is my fervent wish to somehow, someway, in this life, experience a flight in the #7 jet. I have this theory that my clarinet-playing school days have given me a ridiculously strong diaphragm muscle, which would keep me from passing out. Yes, I know I’m deluded. But really, “nearly-supersonic librarian” is a great concept, ain’t it?)
Anyway, so we got to see #7, LT Dave Tickle, the Narrator. And we got to see #8, LCDR Todd Royles, the Events Coordinator (and also a pilot). (That’s them there: LT Tickle on the left, LCDR Royles on the right.)
And the cool thing we saw is the way these two guys work together. I guess, since I’d never seen the Narrator during a show, I never thought about the fact that the guy has his back to the action, so of course he’d need someone to serve as his eyes. That’s #8’s job—he cues #7 when the jets approach, so he knows when to resume the narration (which he has full-on memorized, which is darn bookish; kind of makes me think of the Odyssey and the oral tradition).
Also—and I love this—#8 hands #7 a bottle of water (you can see the water bottles in the picture!) periodically throughout the show. And they do this in a way that you barely even notice—#8 placing the bottle in #7’s left hand, which is positioned behind #7’s back, and then removing it from#7’s hand after he’s taken a drink. (Which, I’m telling you, was necessary. It was about 90 degrees and Iowa-humid out there.)
So we got to see the teamwork, not only in the sky, but also on the ground, even though we missed seeing the ground show.
And it’s the teamwork that I love just as much as the actual glamour of the flight demonstration. The fact that the pilots don’t pre-flight their aircraft, because they trust their crew chief. (Even as a mere private pilot in my younger years, I know this is a huge leap of faith.) The way the ground crew is synchronized in their movements. The way the pilots lower the canopies on their aircraft at the same exact moment.

Tone/Mood: Since they’re complete professionals, the Blue Angels (the ones we could see on the ground, and the ones up there in the sky) don’t allow a person a sense of whether they’re having a wonderful or a terrible day. You gotta love ’em for that. My guess is that they were relieved to be back on the circuit, but perhaps still adjusting after the recent shake-up. But frankly, I ain’t got a clue.
For myself, I get weirdly calm and freakishly positive (“I know it won’t rain”—and guys, it didn’t) on Blue Angels days, so I recovered from the no-ground-show disappointment almost immediately. It helps to have 6 blue jets roaring above in all their splendor.

Language: The Narrator is pretty amazing. The guy’s got 3 different shows memorized, plus different intros, depending on whether there’s a ground show or whether the 6 jets appear out of the clear blue sky (or the cloudy gray sky, in this case). His cadence is distinctive, but it’s also the same cadence from year to year, even though the Narrator changes annually—as last year’s #7 (Narrator) becomes #6 (Opposing Solo) this year, and then becomes #5 (Lead Solo) the following year.
In Summary: If this were a book, I could read it again and again and again. Two days in a row just wasn’t enough.
So, if you, too, just need more, here’s what to do next:
1. Visit the Blue Angels website and click “Inside the Demo.” It’s freakin’ amazing what you can see and hear there.
2. Visit YouTube and look up “Blue Angels.” Clear your schedule, because you’ll be at it for several weeks.
3. Watch the fabulous DVD Blue Angels: A Year in the Life.

4. Read Blue Angels: 50 Years of Precision Flight by Nicholas A. Veronica and Marga B. Fritze (reviewed last year by yours truly).
5. Visit the Blue Angels website and click “Show Information” and get yourself to an airshow. (This is the only item on this list that will give you the thrill of having the insides of your ears vibrate.)

Camelot rages on


Portrait of Camelot: A Thousand Days in the Kennedy White House by Richard Reeves
While visiting the Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum (witness flipped-out-with-bliss, wind-blown weirdo above) I saw this book in the gift shop (damn, I love presidential library gift shops!) And the DVD included with the book was running on the little TV screen there, and I knew I had to experience this thing.
This book is one of those timeless numbers. It’s completely a look book (that’s coffee table book in Unruly lingo), with photos by Cecil Stoughton, the president’s photographer (who was born in Oskaloosa, Iowa! It’s true! He was an Osky boy).
Small digression: On PBS, there’s a fully great documentary called The President’s Photographer, which follows President Obama’s photographer Pete Souza. At the time I’m posting this, the documentary can be viewed online. (I love that.)
Back to JFK—Cecil Stoughton was a master of capturing real moments; it’s really quite a lovely thing. And he’d become enough a part of the Kennedys’ lives that he was able to capture images of them that probably are about as natural as you’re going to get.

If you’re a Kennedy geek like me, here’s the thing to do with this book: Open to a page, do not look at the caption, and scan the photo to see how many people you can identify. Then check the caption to see how many faces you correctly identified. If you can correctly identify JFK’s sisters by name, you get bonus points. I tell you, it’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys (which has always sounded to me like no-fun-at-all, actually; why’d you put monkeys in a barrel, anyway?) For some of the speech photos and bill-signing photos, not all people are identified. But a person eventually recognizes McGeorge Bundy well enough to know it’s really him.

(photo credit: John F. Kennedy Library & Museum)

This book has a picture—or several—on every page. It is a feast for the eyes, and a veritable smorgasbord for the JFK geeks among us.
If I were a book buyer, I’d have to own this book. I actually may eventually break down and buy it, which is nothing short of a miracle—and very high praise for any book.

(Hey look! We’re watching them watch Alan Shepard getting launched! [wild squealing commences] Look at how messy Evelyn Lincoln’s office was! Look at Schlesinger, geeking out as only he could do!])


(photo credit: John F. Kennedy Library & Museum)

I love a campaign

The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory by David Plouffe
Maybe it was growing up in Iowa that did it.
I can’t resist political campaign memoirs. I love, love, love them.*
And this one is fantabulous.
David Plouffe was Barack Obama’s campaign manager, and he’s got a great story to tell.
The first part of the book is the lead-up to the Iowa caucus, and it reads like a love letter to my home state.
And it was only then that the story really picked up… Of course, we know how it ends, but this book tells us what plans were being hatched (and foiled) to produce those results.
One of my absolute favorite lines from the book is this one, and I intend to borrow it for frequent use: “Something funky clearly happened here.” (p. 150)
That was a quote from David Axelrod, speaking with Obama after receiving the surprising results of the New Hampshire primary. For some reason, this line completely cracks me up. Though I realize it wasn’t funny to those present at the time.
Plouffe writes well, and he captures the moments that made the Obama campaign the phenomenon that it was. Even as he describes the lack of glamour—the sleep deprivation, the run-down hotels, the distance from family, the omnipresent concern about blindsiding political attacks—the very intensity of the campaign absolutely seems… glamorous.
Perhaps the appeal of these books is like the appeal of those scaling-Everest memoirs. Someone’s got to do it. Glad it ain’t me, but dang, it’s thrilling to read about. Here’s the guy himself, in one of the minimalistic videos (described by one of his friends as resembling hostage videos) that provided updates to the campaign’s volunteers:

* Other rip-roaring good campaign memoirs: All’s Fair: Love, War, and Running for President by Mary Matalin and James Carville, and All Too Human by George Stephanopoulos
Hey! Election day is Tuesday! Set your alarm clock just a little early, and go vote, dear people.

Depression

Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg

Poor Herbert Hoover. That’s what I’ve always thought.

But, as I struggled to get through this book (I have trouble reading books whose characters, real or fictitious, I do not like), I began to think I was wrong about that. Not only was Hoover personally disagreeable (while reading, I jotted the words “ill-natured cold fish,” but then wondered if I were being too harsh […nope]); he was a spotlight hog; he was a big government spender (but only when it suited him) disguised as a free market guy; as Secretary of Commerce, he took over the domains of other cabinet secretaries without presidential approval; and he had some truly peculiar social habits.

Of course, there are many positive things one can say, too. He famously coordinated shipments of food to those starving in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe after World War I, saving countless lives. He issued an executive order that created the Veterans Administration and wrote a “Child’s Bill of Rights.” He was quite brilliant, and he was a ridiculously productive worker in just about every endeavor he undertook. During his years as Commerce Secretary and his first year as President, he was pretty darn impressive.

I’ve tended to think of him as a victim of circumstance—being dealt the Great Depression, which was the one thing he somehow could not handle effectively. But after reading this book, it seems to me that he could have employed many of the tactics he used during his relief work for Belgium—spending government money to help those in need here in the U.S. But it seems he had a mental block and could not make it happen. And most certainly, it is easy for me to sit here in my comfortable little life and criticize the poor man. But really.

It truly pains me to speak such of a fellow Iowa native.* But I just cannot bring myself to include Herbert Hoover in my blanket statement that “I Love the Presidents.” Which makes me feel quite mean, and makes me think this statement actually stands:
Poor (unloved) Herbert Hoover.

* I am feeling particularly guilty because my tiny little hometown was once also the girlhood home of his remarkable wife Lou Henry Hoover for a short time. Though the fact that I never learned that in elementary school—and only came across the fact when in my 30s—is truly appalling. What the heck kind of Iowa history was I being taught in fourth grade, for the love of Mike? Why didn’t they traipse all of us earnest little souls out to the edge of town where her family lived, to ogle the site? I’d truly’ve been a little bit thrilled.

“Dearest” (Buddy Holly Reading Spree, Book 4)

The Day the Music Died: The Last Tour of Buddy Holly, the “Big Bopper,” and Ritchie Valens by Larry Lehmer

This book pretty much ticked me off from the start. Fortunately, we got along better after the first pages, but it was not a very good introduction.

Here’s the thing: The first part of the book is pure (speculative) fiction—the author suggests quite strongly that Roger Peterson, pilot of the Bonanza that carried Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson (the Big Bopper), was reluctant to take off that evening and that he was convinced by his passengers to do so. I get the sense that the blame for the crash is being transferred from the pilot to the passengers. And I’m here to tell you: The pilot in command is the pilot in command, doggone it! It’s his/her choice whether to take off. Not to mention that it’s well documented that Peterson had no business flying after dark—he was not considered adept at night flight. Good God!

OK. Let’s let that go for a moment. I’m cooling down now…

This book gives us the full itinerary of the Winter Dance Party, that dreadful saga. Those poor boys, traversing the upper Midwest in the dead of winter in a series of godforsaken old buses.

Here we get very much the Iowa perspective – via interviews with people who were present at the tour’s various Iowa locations. Author Lehmer was a journalist with the Des Moines Register, so he’s got the Iowa stuff down pat. And unlike some other authors, he’s not snotty about my little home state. He also traveled “abroad” to the surrounding states—Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois in particular—to fill in the story from the viewpoint of those who saw the show or met the performers in those states.

As its subtitle implies, this book is the story of the tour, so there are details about the various musicians who performed during the tour. It was in this book, of any in my Buddy Holly reading spree, that I learned the most about Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. It was good to hear some of the background that brought them both to the Winter Dance Party.

I actually had a bit of a difficult time reading this one, because I really don’t want the bad thing to happen—and this book is about those final days. When reading a full-length Holly biography, at least a person can delay the sense of doom for a bit, while things are going well and “Maybe Baby” is being recorded (twice). But here, it’s all about those last days, and it can be a bit glum. Blast it all.

“It’s So Easy”* (Buddy Holly Reading Spree, Book 2)

Remembering Buddy: The Definitive Biography of Buddy Holly by John Goldrosen and John Beecher

This book is a must-see, if only for the pictures: there’s a photo on nearly every page. Since I always am photo-hungry when reading nonfiction, I was well pleased by this book. One thing I noticed: this book doesn’t cover anything too personal, and it certainly doesn’t address anything that would put Buddy Holly in a bad light. If you’re looking for hagiography, this just may be your best bet.

Nonetheless, the authors interviewed many of the insiders from back in the day, so the text is sprinkled with wonderful anecdotes. This book also satisfies my reference librarian geek-out need for additional resources: there are appendices that list all known recordings by Buddy Holly, all recordings featuring vocals or solo instrumentals by Buddy Holly, all recordings by other artists featuring Buddy Holly as an instrumentalist or backing vocalist, and all tour dates and locations (many of them in Iowa!) I love this stuff!

*I grew up hearing Linda Rondstadt’s cover of this song, which I confess I never liked. However, the Buddy Holly & the Crickets original is fantastic! The way he sings the word “doggone” reinforces my view that this word is grossly underused and should be brought back into common parlance. I’m doing my part in the cause: Please see: “I Read It Against My Will” and “Booking Through Thursday: The Numbers Game.”