Two marriages

The Still Point by Amy Sackville
Here’s how we know how big of a liarhead I really am: I say I detest historical fiction because people back then lived in such discomfort, and I Don’t Want To Experience That.
But… I’m nothing but a sucker for the arctic exploration books. Those puppies are filled with suffering, and I mean lots of it.
(image credit: Library of Congress)
This book has that arctic exploration thing happening. And, to add to the suffering… it also has a current-day troubled marriage storyline.
I was entranced.
It doesn’t hurt that the author trots out sentences like this: “She has pegged the washing out on the line, so that the sheets billow fresh white at the edge of her vision like the sails of a ship; she is afloat in the summer morning.” (p. 26 of the eBook)
And, in addition to beautiful sentences, there’s a plot! With two storylines, actually—past and present. Yet the whole story is set up within a single day in the here and now.
The present day has that troubled marriage couple I mentioned: Julia and Simon. She’s the dreamy descendant of a semi-famous failed arctic explorer from the turn of the last century, and she and Simon have moved into her family’s house, which is also home to explorer Edward’s artifacts and journal. Simon’s thinking he just might have an affair.
While he’s contemplating this possibility throughout the day, Julia’s casting back to great-grand-uncle Edward’s life—and his gorgeously romantic marriage to Emily, who waited for his return all her life.
So we get excerpts from Edward’s journal and the story of his ill-fated mission to the Pole, plus the story on the homefront in 1900, as Emily waited.
And deceptions are revealed, and it’s good because you know something’s gonna happen, but you don’t know what. (At least I didn’t.)
And since I love this kind of thing, I’m gonna throw you some read-a-likes:
Antarctic Navigation by Elizabeth Arthur—has an Antarctic (rather than Arctic) thing going on, but it also features a current-day woman researching a tragically-fated polar expedition. 800+ pages of goodness
The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett—a gorgeous novel about a Victorian Arctic expedition and the women who waited for the explorer’s return. (Love that homefront stuff)
Exiles by Ron Hansen—has a tragedy (a shipwreck) at its heart, but also has the sensitive soul (a poet) who is haunted by it. Has the same sort of emotional pull as The Still Point
On a completely different note, here’s one way the Nook Color may be improving my brain: I actually use the built-in dictionary function (Just touch the word and then touch “dictionary”!) to look up words I don’t know, rather than skimming over them, figuring I’ve picked up enough context clues to get the meaning. In this book, I looked up “nacreous,” “alembic,” and “ambit.” I’m wondering: Am I simply dense not to know those words?

It’s not about the plane crash

Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival by Norman Ollestad
How did this book miss my radar for 2 years? It’s a remarkable story, gorgeously and simply told, and as an audiobook it’s simply stunning. And I’m rather appalled that I missed knowing about it till now.
We know I can’t keep away from plane crash stories. This is such a story.
But it’s really a father-son story, told by the grown son, who’s looking back at his childhood and the influence of his charismatic father. Ollestad’s dad really pushed his son to excel athletically—dragging him out of bed for hockey practice, taking him surfing in waves he found frightening, and skiing with him down icy mountains. And all that adventure travel and extreme sport stuff prepared him for February 1979, when the worst happened.
Eleven-year-old Norman, his dad, his dad’s girlfriend, and a pilot were flying in the mountains, and they crashed.
The plane crash story is interwoven with the story of Norman’s life in the year or so leading up the crash. Obviously we know Norman survived, but it’s still surprisingly suspenseful to read the passages about the crash and its aftermath. It’s pretty amazing that an 11-year-old could have the strength and the presence of mind to take the steps necessary for his survival, but he was kind of an extraordinary kid.
He’s grown up to be an extraordinary writer.

Other notes: The author reads the audiobook himself, and I can’t imagine anyone else reading it. His intonation adds so much to the story that I actually can’t even imagine reading it on the page. It’s rare that an audiobook is powerful enough for me to say that. (Audiobook: 7.5 hours)
BTW, Amazon has an essay the author wrote about enticing his young son into reading. I love it.

Kennedy. Again.

The Kennedy Detail: JFK’s Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence by Gerald Blaine with Lisa McCubbin
First off, if you’re looking for scandal, skip this book. This guy is not spilling any of those kinds of secrets. Also, if you’re looking for conspiracy theories (which I find oh-so-tiresome), skip it.
If, however, you’re looking for the behind-the-scenes story of what it was like to protect the Kennedy family, this is your book.
The fellows assigned to protect the Kennedys were the first and only Secret Service agents to see a president assassinated on their watch. And really, there probably wasn’t a doggone thing they could have done about it. Kennedy himself said, on the morning of November 22, 1963, that if someone wanted to kill him, it would be easy to do from an upper-story window.
And—the part that the Secret Service did not speak of at the time (because they did not want to sound as though they were blaming JFK for his death)— is that Kennedy had asked, earlier that month, that the agents remain further away from his car so spectators could see him. This request had been passed through the chain of command, so that day in Dallas, the agents were not as close to the president as they would have liked to have been. (And yes, there’s all kinds of discussion of whether or not this is true. All right, already!)
The amazing thing is that the agents never talked about the assassination in the days and years following Kennedy’s death.

Since so much already has been written about the assassination, the thing about this book that will stick with me most is the information about the protection of Mrs. Kennedy and the children. The fellows on the “Kiddie Detail” seem like truly remarkable humans. Blaine describes how Caroline Kennedy rolled down the car window during the funeral cortege so she could hold the hand of special agent Bob Foster.
Even though this is just one more take on the old story we know so well, it’s fascinating to read.

Young Men and Fire: favorite book of all time

Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean is easily my favorite book of all time. The first time I read it, I immediately began re-reading it. Because it’s simply that powerful.

And fortunately, it probably will never completely fade away, because it has two big things going for it:

1. Since Norman Maclean also wrote A River Runs Through It, which was made into a movie featuring Brad Pitt, he’s got that movie tie-in immortality thing.

2. Plus, Young Men and Fire is simply brilliant.

Nevertheless, I intend to be a one-woman promo crew, proclaiming the glories of this book for all my natural life. (And then, too, when I’m bumbling through the afterlife, pressing free copies into the hands of all my fellow readers.)

Written by Maclean in his final years, Young Men and Fire is an exploration of what happened during the 1949 Montana wildfire that claimed the lives of 12 smokejumpers and 1 ranger—but it’s also a meditation on death by a man who was facing the end of his own life.

Doesn’t that just make you want to read it?

But what I mean is this: Maclean’s experiences as a child growing up in Montana and as a forest fire fighter during his younger years, make the smokejumpers’ deaths very personal to him. It’s as though it could have happened to him when he was a young man. But now, though he was spared their fate, still death pursues him.

So he wrote this book, and he wrote it in plain, clear, stark, yet poetic, language that shines with honesty.

And I’m not going to lie and tell you it’s not devastating. It is.

This single sentence, near the end of the book, made me set down the book so I could suck in some air and blink a whole bunch:

“This is a tragic statement; it was very steep where they died.” (p. 263)

This book has the power to haunt a person.

To read an excerpt of Young Men and Fire, check out the University of Chicago Press site.

And listen to Richard Shindell (as part of the group Cry, Cry, Cry) singing “Cold Missouri Waters,” a song written by James Keelaghan and inspired by Young Men and Fire.

And then read Young Men and Fire.

And join the ranks of the haunted.

Sleep-depriving novel

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane
Holy Toledo. What a book.
I read this puppy in two days flat, which included one quite late night because I Could Not Stop reading.
Despite my general antipathy for historical fiction.
This one really pulls a person in.
First, it’s about a tragedy, so I’m a sucker for that.
But it’s also told in such a way that we know there’s more to the story, and it is revealed ever so gradually. So there’s a quiet suspense that builds. Not a big, dramatic, in-your-face suspenseful thing, but the dreadful feeling that the truth has been hidden, the truth is complicated, and the truth is not very nice.
This novel is based on an actual event that took place in London during the Blitz. During an air raid (during which no bombs were dropped), 173 people died in a crush in a stairwell at the Bethnal Green tube shelter.
The novel follows a small cast of characters whose lives intersect on the 30th anniversary of the tragedy: the man who ran the inquiry and wrote the report about the event, a woman who survived the crush as a child but who retains emotional scars, and a young documentary filmmaker with a personal connection to the event.
The story goes back and forth from the 1970s to the 1940s, and it’s breathtaking.
I absolutely cannot wait for more people to read this book so we can talk.
(Watch out if you see me coming your way; I may try to thrust this book into your hand, and there’ll be no escaping me.)


War by Sebastian Junger
Oh, this is not an easy book. It is every bit as dreary, frightening, and depressing as I thought it would be.
Yet, still, I am glad I read it. Even though it will haunt me.
But doggone it, we’re a nation at war; why the hell shouldn’t an American feel haunted?
Between June 2007 and June 2008, Junger (yes, the same guy who wrote The Perfect Storm and who writes for Vanity Fair) was an embedded reporter who lived with Army troops who were on the front lines in Afghanistan.
So he got as close to living their experience as anyone can, and thank goodness he’s one heck of a writer, because he makes it real to those of us who are reading in our comfy armchairs and living our cushy lives.
For even more of this reality, you can check out the documentary Restrepo, which Junger and Tim Hetherington co-directed and co-produced. The film’s web site also has photos of the soldiers who appear in the book.

As one would expect, there’s plenty of suffering in this book. Soldiers die, and soldiers are injured. And then the survivors wait around in a start of tense boredom, yearning for it all to start up again. That sentiment seems unfathomable, but Junger makes it make sense.

He writes that war (the big picture) is different from combat (what happens on the ground/air/sea), and that many of the soldiers grow to love combat. But, he says, for them, a love of combat does not equal a love of killing. Instead, combat comes to mean protecting, defending the tribe—which quickly becomes addictive.
The entire third section of the book, titled “Love” is a remarkable thing I’ll not soon forget.
And listen to this, from the section titled “Killing”:
“Society can give its young men almost any job and they’ll figure out how to do it. They’ll suffer for it and die for it and watch their friends die for it, but in the end it will get done. That only means that society should be careful about what it asks for.” (p. 154)
Anyone else just feeling like weeping?

Just one of the gazillion books about him

The Day Lincoln Was Shot by Jim Bishop
So here’s the thing about this book, and why it’s shocking that I like it: It’s a true crime book, people. And I am made hideously uncomfortable by books of true crime. I get a little bit twitchy even walking past such books. I’m not wild about society’s underbelly.
Why I can tolerate this book: Well, duh. There’s a president in it. So that pretty much says it all. And it’s got a big old nasty tragedy at its center, and I’m just wild about those tragic events.
But really, the thing I think makes this book work is that Bishop makes April 14, 1865, come to life. His writing is fairly simple, but there’s a grace to his style. It reminds me of the classic account of the sinking of the Titanic: A Night to Remember by Walter Lord (which actually was written in the same year, 1955). Both books provide a sense of immediacy, and that’s all too rare. (Cripe! The Titanic sank on April 14-15. Now I’m just freaking myself out.)
This book follows Lincoln and Booth (who shall, from here forth, be referred to as “That *&$>^%#^%#^%#

Loving… and Hating… Frank

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan
I selected this book for our book club, then assiduously avoided reading it.
Not sure what that was about.
Especially since, once I started the book, I tore through it in 3 days, so the author did something right. (Also, the book club was only 6 days away.)
This is that novel about Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the woman who left her husband and children to be Wright’s lover. (Note: Guess what? He left his spouse and children, too!) Scandalous, right?
Here, yes, but no, but really: yes.
The book, told from Mamah’s point of view (but thankfully, not first person—the book started out in her voice, and I was really not liking it one bit; the third person viewpoint was a very welcome shift), tries to explain how things happened between them. And OK, she was in a loveless marriage, and that sucks. I just really don’t get how she left her children.
Here’s the other thing: I really dislike Frank Lloyd Wright as a human. He was a womanizer, and he didn’t pay his workers. I really detest those things (though I somehow keep reading about JFK, and somehow he gets away with that womanizing crap).
And Mamah, even though we’re (I think) supposed to “understand” her from this book, was all messed up, too.
(Guess who’s in a judgmental mood this evening?)
So this one of those book club gatherings where we got all excited and kept interrupting each other. Meaning: this is one heck of a book club choice.

Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley: The Tour

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

I approached this book with trepidation. I know of Sarah Vowell from “This American Life” on NPR, a show everyone in the world seems to love—except for me.

But this book, I loved.

Who knew Sarah Vowell and I were fellow travelers on the road of presidential trivia geekery? It’s true.

Vowell even addresses the problem I often face:
“Once I knew my dead presidents and I had become insufferable, I started to censor myself. There were a lot of get-togethers with friends where I didn’t hear half of what was being said because I was sitting there, silently chiding myself, Don’t bring up McKinley. Don’t bring up McKinley.” (p. 13)*

Here Vowell tracks down well-known and the barely-ever-heard-of locations linked to the first three presidential assassinations: those of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. That sounds grim indeed, but she’s a delightful companion who brings levity to the subject, even as she addresses it with a respect that is almost touching.

For example, she writes of the suffering by James Garfield after he was shot and was dying, and she remarks that it’s tacky that we have forgotten him. True story. I’m a big old fan of Lincoln, but you really have to feel for Garfield and McKinley, who are not remembered well (to put it lightly).

Terrific book.

*The other day a friend was wondering, randomly, whether former presidents could hold office after leaving the White House. So she and her husband called, and I got to hold forth on the wonders of William Howard Taft (Chief Justice of the Supreme Court!) and John Quincy Adams (Congressman who collapsed on the floor of the House and died!) I think they may have regretted placing that phone call.