A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005.

Reason read: I needed a book for the Portland Public Library 2022 Reading Challenge in the category of “A book that makes you feel hopeful for the future.” I don’t know why, but this one does.

It was pointed out that in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn nothing happens. There is no over-the-top drama involving sex, violence, or rock and roll. Instead, A Tree is a simple and honest story about what it means to be human. Harsh realities about poverty, crime, alcoholism, life, and death are not ignored or sugarcoated. I would argue that something does happen in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. A little girl comes of age. In the summer of 1912 Francie Nolan was a scrappy eleven year old. At the time, her best friend was a tree that seemed to like poor people. By the end of the story, Francie has lost her father, gained a baby sister, managed to find her way to college, and started to date. It is a story of hope.
One of my favorite moments was when Francie understands for the first time she can read and the fact she would never be lonely again. Books would be her companions for any circumstance. Another favorite scene was when Francie graduates and she receives roses from her deceased daddy. It broke my heart.

Confessional: The scene when Katie is playing the piano with the children bothered me. Neely starts to sign and it is noted his voice is starting to change. It is then that Francie remarks, “You know what Mama would say if she were sitting here now?” Where did she go? She was just playing the piano. I think Smith meant Johnny. Johnny was the one who was missing from the scene.

Signs of the times, “He was a boy, he handled the money.” The candy store was a boys store and Francie had to wait outside while her brother bought her candy.

Phrasing I adored, “ground-down poor” and “helpless relaxation.”

Author fact: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has such clarity it is impossible to ignore its autobiographical nature. Rumor has it, Smith originally wrote the story as a memoir but her publishers urged her to fictionalize it to reach a wider audience. Could they not handle the truth?

Book trivia: My edition had a foreword by Anna Quinlan. She compared Francie to Jo March, Betsy Ray, and Anne of Green Gables. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was also published in an Armed Services edition. The wartime copy was specially sized to fit in a soldier’s rucksack.

Playlist: because Francie’s father is a singing waiter there were lots of great tunes mentioned in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: “There are Smiles That Make You Happy,” At the Darkstrutters’ Ball,” “When You’re a Long, Long Way From Home,” “My Wild Rose,” “Hello, Central, Give Me No Man’s Land,” “You’ll find Old Dixieland in France,” There’s a Quaker Down in Quaker Time,” Ted Lewis’s “For When My Baby Smiles at Me,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” (a song I can remember my mother singing while she vacuumed), “Molly Malone,” “The Soldier’s Chorus,” “When I Get You Alone Tonight,” “Sweet Rosie O’Grady,” “She May Have Seen Better Days,” “I’m Wearin’ My Heart Away for You,” “Ave Maria,” “Beautiful Blue Danube,” “At the Devil’s Ball,” “Sweet Adeline,” “My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon,” “Kerry Dancers,” “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” Harrigan, That’s Me,” “The River Shannon,” “Holy Night,” “Star Spangled Banner,” “Schubert Serenade,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon,” Handle’s “Largo,” Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” Verdi, Walter Wildflower, “O, Sole Mio,”

Nancy said: Pearl called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn a “classic coming-of-age” story.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Girls Growing Up” (p 101).


Shtetl

Hoffman, Eva. Shtetl: the Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

Reason read: in honor of Hannukah.

Inspired by a documentary Hoffman saw on Frontline, this is the biography of Bransk, a Polish town that no longer exists thanks to the thoroughness of the Nazis under Russian rule. One of the most difficult segments to read was the recounting of young Bransk boys conscripted into the Russian army. They were religiously converted away from their birthright and upon returning home, shunned by their own people.
As an aside, I am afraid of cult figures and the power they can wield over seemingly intelligent people. I was surprised to learn of a man in the 1750s by the name of Jakub Frank who claimed he was the Messiah. He wanted to rule all of Poland and had a strong sexual appetite for young girls and orgies.

Quotes to quote, “I believe that if we are to understand what happened in Poland during the war, we must begin by acknowledging, from within each memory, the terrible complexity of everyone’s circumstances and behavior” (p 6).

Author fact: Hoffman grew up in Cracow, Poland.

Book trivia: Shtetl was written after Hoffman saw a documentary by the same name of Frontline in 1996.

Nancy said: Pearl admires Hoffman’s writing and reads everything she publishes, but for the Challenge I am only reading Shtetl. Pearl would have bought Shtetl for someone exploring Jewish roots.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Polish Up Your Polish” (p 181) and from More Book Lust in the chapter called “A Holiday Shopping List” (p 114).


A People’s History of the United States

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: HarperPerennial, 2003.

Reason read: Justice John Jay, former governor of New York, was born in December. Read in his memory.

Zinn sums up A People’s History of the United States perfectly in his first chapter, “My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of the states as our own” (p 10). He is willing to look at the whole truth of our nation, as ugly as it may be. There is a lot of dirt to be dug as Zinn is heavy on the quotes and extensive in his expansive research. But, fear not. This is a not a dry textbook account of our people’s history. Zinn is just as quick to insert humor and small amusements such as, “when a[n] [Iroquois] woman wanted a divorce, she set her husband’s things outside the door” (p 20). Interesting characters from all walks of life grace the pages of Zinn’s extraordinary masterpiece. More than a textbook, this should be on everyone’s reading list…even today.

As an aside, I want to ask Mr. Zinn this one question: could you ever imagine our sorry state of national affairs, as they are today, when you first penned the question “Is it possible for whites and blacks to live together without hatred?” I just have three little words: Say. Their. Names.

Author fact: Zinn lived in Massachusetts at the time A People’s History was published.

Book trivia: most people consider A People’s History of the United States a textbook.

Nancy said: Pearl said people rave about Zinn’s A People’s History and Pearl called it revolutionary.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “American History: Nonfiction” (p 19). As an aside, If you had two chapters called “American History” in the same book and the subtitles were Fiction and Nonfiction, which would come first in an alphabetized book?


First World War

Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

Reason read: November 11th is Armistice Day. Read for the veterans.

World War One rocked our planet to its core. There wasn’t a corner of the globe that didn’t feel its effects in some way or another. Historians like John Keegan call it the Great War because it left over ten million people dead and countless others shattered both mentally and physically beyond recognition. As Keegan explains, it was the first time world powers used ferocious modernized brutality to subdue their military enemies along with innocent women, children, and livestock. No living creature stood a chance against this new age of warfare. Keegan pushes you into the muddy trenches, onto the blood soaked battle fields, and into the intimate lives of courageous but doomed soldiers. Against this bloody backdrop Keegan also brilliantly sheds light on secret political and religious negotiations, heated war-room strategies, and closed-door council room debates. With Keegan you travel to the Western front, East Africa, the Carpathians and beyond. This is a comprehensive history of one of the most polarizing events known to man.

Confessional: I am usually not a history fanatic, especially when it comes to war of any kind.
Second confessional: I am not a proofreader by any means, but this seems a little too obvious a mistake to overlook, “The French did not speak English, French scarcely any French; General Henry Wilson, Deputy Chief of Staff, translated” (The First World War p 103).

Author fact: Keegan is the master of historical warfare. I am also reading The Second World War for the Challenge.

Book Trivia: The Frist World War offers three sections of photographs and a bunch of maps, all in black and white.

Plat list: “Sambre et Meuse,” and “Le Chant du depart”

Nancy said: Pearl said there are many good general military histories and Keegan’s is one of them.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “World War I Nonfiction” (p 251).


Unsheltered

Kingsolver, Barbara. Unsheltered. New York: HarperCollins, 2018.

Reason read: I needed a book for the Portland Reading Challenge in the category of “A book you have yet to read by an author you love.” Kingsolver is it.

Contrary to the title of the book, this is the story of one particular shelter – a house called Vineland that sheltered two different families over 140 years apart. A house that stood the test of time until it couldn’t.
Modern day: Willa and Iano’s marriage is unsheltered from harsh realities. Behind Willa’s every thought of Iano is a trace of disappointment. He doesn’t respect her privacy. He is hardly the breadwinning husband even though she is the out-of-work journalist. As a professor with adoring students and a history of infidelity, Willa cannot trust him. Adding to the stress Iano’s very ill father has come to live with them in their condemned (no longer sheltering) house. Then there is Willa’s son. Zeke has his own share of trouble. His live-in girlfriend has committed suicide, leaving him with a newborn son and a pile of debt. Helene was the one with the income while Zeke was a student at the Harvard Business School. Guess who is left to care for the newborn? This is the opening shot across the bow for Unsheltered. Kingsolver delves into so much (so much!) more as the story unfolds. Historical plot follows the life of real-life naturalist Mary Treat and her quest to study the world around her. Charles Darwin has page time and even the nomination of a tyrant for a President of the United Sates gets a mention. I don’t want to say anymore except that Kingsolver is a master of words.

Lines I loved, “The silence has extended beyond her turn to speak” (p 2), “Marriages tended to harden like arteries, and she and Iano were more than thirty years into this one” (p 37), “The dangerous allure of novelty might have sparked this torment, but in the eye of the storm they held on hard to the world they knew” (p 242).

Author fact: I follow Kingsolver on the insty and she takes breathtakingly beautiful pictures.

Book trivia: Despite loving this book it took me a really, really long time to read.

Playlist: Nikki Minaj, Beyonce, Steely Dan, David Bowie, Keith Jarrett, “Tea for the Tillerman,” “Into White,” “Moonshadow,” “Hard Headed Woman,” and “Wild World” by Cat Stevens.


Testament of Friendship

Brittain, Vera. Testament of Friendship. New York: Seaview Books, 1981.

Reason read: I dropped the ball on finishing Brittain’s trilogy. I was supposed to read this in August. Woops.

As both Carolyn G. Heilbrun and Vera Brittain noted in her introduction and preface respectively, the recording of a friendship between women is rare. Both Heilbrun and Brittain cited the Biblical relationship between Ruth and Naomi as being one of the few female friendships not only documented but widely accepted. Brittain set out to record her sixteen year friendship with Winfred Holtby and produce a detailed biography of a woman who died too soon, “She seemed too vital and radiant a creature for death to touch” (p 1). Indeed. It is stunning to think what Holtby could have accomplished when you think she was writing poetry by the age of eight and by age eleven was published. [Okay, okay. So her mother paid to have the poems published.] She was the Charlotte Bronte of her time. On a personal note, I think women should celebrate their friendships more often. This prompted me to reach out to friends I’ve known for nearly 40 years.

Author fact: Brittain was the author of 29 books. I am only reading the three Testament books for the Challenge.

Book trivia: Testament of Friendship does not contain any photographs. Too bad.

Setlist: “Fight the Good Fight,” “Give Me the Moonlight,” “Because,” “Until,” and “K-K-K-Katy.”

Nancy said: Pearl didn’t say anything specific about Testament of Friendship except to say that it continues the trilogy Brittain started with Testament of Youth.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Living Through War” (p 154).


Lindbergh

Berg, Scott A. Lindbergh. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998.

Reason: Charles Lindbergh died in the month of August – read in his memory.

From the moment Charles Lindbergh watched the Aeronautical Trials at Fort Meyer in June of 1912, he was hooked on planes and flying. Watching the maneuvers sparked his young mind’s imagination. Fast forward fifteen years and May 21st, 1927 is a date for the record books. It is the date Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, nonstop between America and Europe.
As an aside, I think it’s fantastic that Lindbergh made the Spirit of St. Louis trip in 33 hours, 30 minutes and 30 seconds. That’s one for the numerophiles. From that moment on Lindbergh became a global sensation. Like a folk hero, dozens of songs and poetry were written for and about him. A dance was created in his name. People wrote books and plays about his achievement and clamored to have a piece of his fame for their very own. For men and women alike, touching him was like experiencing nirvana. To talk to him was like seeing the face of God. He was that famous.
But Charles Lindbergh was not just a pilot. Flying aside, he became interested in finding a way to transplant body organs safely. He became interested in Anne Morrow, enough to marry her and have a son. Thus began Lindbergh’s second bout with unwanted notoriety. When his first born son was kidnapped and killed the entire world was rapt with the horrific drama. Every update had people sitting on the edge of their seats. How could this happen to a famous colonel? When the tragedy had come to its terrible conclusion Lindbergh wanted to give up all aspects of aviation. It all led to publicity. The fame and notoriety got to be too much. Then came the Louise Brooks-like slide into scandal. The world was positioned for another Great War and this time Lindbergh was making headlines for all the wrong reasons. He had been enamored with the Germans for their ingenuity for a long time, but siding with them at this tumultuous time was the absolute wrong move. Berg’s biography of Lindbergh is thorough and compelling through the good, the bad and the ugly.

As another aside, Berg reports Anne’s mother, Elizabeth Morrow, was a “prime exemplar of someone who devoted her life to public service through volunteerism.” That’s all well and good, but if my annual income from only interest and dividends from stocks and bonds was approximately $300,000 (in 1930s dollars), I too would be spending a great deal of time volunteering. If I didn’t need to punch a time clock to pay my bills what else could I do with the hours of my day?

Author fact: Berg was the first and only writer to have been given unrestricted access to the Lindbergh archives.

Book trivia: Lindbergh includes three sections of black and white photographs.

Playlist: “Star-Spangled Banner,” “Marseillaise,” “When Lindy Comes Home,” “Der Lindberghflug,” “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” and “Eternal Light,”

Nancy said: Pearl points out Lindbergh contains a beautiful and moving chapter on Lindbergh’s flight.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Flying Above the Clouds” (p 89).


Abraham Lincoln: the Prairie Years, Vol II

Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Yeas, Volume Two. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1926.

Reason read: to continue the series started in February in honor of Lincoln’s birth month.

When we delve back into Sandburg’s volume two of Abraham Lincoln: the Prairie Years Lincoln is now in his forties. He is a family man. His political life is becoming more and more entangled with his career as a lawyer. His direct, plain-speaking, and honest approach has people trusting him and he soon has a following of stump-speech fans. In the courtroom, his ability to deliver calm closing arguments that sway even the toughest juries has people wanting him to run for President of the United States. As Sandburg eloquently put it, “His words won him hearts in unknown corners of far-off places” (p 155). His role as a leader of our country is starting to come into shape.
[As an aside, it was interesting that I was reading about town gossip while at a salon getting my hair cut. There is no better place to hear tongues wagging than in a salon (except maybe in a bar).]

Author fact: Carl and his wife were married just shy of 60 years.

Book trivia: Best part of the book was when Lincoln was having a conversation with a goat. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud, thinking of tall, gangling Abraham bending low to converse with an animal.

Nancy said: Pearl did not say anything specific about either volume of Abraham Lincoln: the Prairie Years.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “100 Good Reads, Decade By Decade: 1920s” (p 176).


The Trees

Richter, Conrad. The Awakening Land Trilogy: the Trees. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1991.

Reason read: Ohio became a state in the month of March. Additionally, The Trees was published on March 1, 1940. Finally, I needed a book for the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge in the category of a group working towards a common goal. This is a family working towards surviving and establishing a homestead in the wilds of Ohio.

The Luckett family: Father Worth, Mother Jary, and children Sayward, Genny, Achsa, Wyitt, Sulie, and hound Sarge, find their way to the deep woods of Ohio after being driven out of Pennsylvania by famine in 1795. Hoping for a new life, they discover they are in a foreign land of multiple misunderstandings. The family has trouble cultivating the soil so food is scarce. Hunting even the smallest of animals keeps them fed. Worth values this lifestyle and admires the “woodsy” people. Illness hovers over them constantly until finally mother Jary is taken by consumption. The Luckett family misunderstands the neighboring native tribes and as a result, distrust and fear them in equal measure. [As an aside, I had to admit it broke my heart when Wyitt spies on them violently skin a wolf alive for his pelt. When they let the poor creature flee into the woods it was difficult to read of such cruelty.] Other tragedies befall the family but somehow Sayward, the main character, shows true grit and that “woodsy” spirit her father so admired.

Author fact: in his forward Richter thanks “scores of helpful librarians” for helping him research his book. Yay for my profession!

Book trivia: The Trees is the first book in a trilogy called Awakening Land Trilogy.

Nancy said: Richter’s series needs to be read in order, starting with The Trees.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Big Ten Country: the Literary Midwest, Ohio” (p 25).


In the Time of Butterflies

Alvarez, Julia. In the Time of Butterflies. New York: Penguin, 1995.

Reason read: On November 25th, 1960 Patria Mercedes Mirabal (36), Minerva Mirabal (31), Maria Teresa Mirabal (25), and Rufino De La Cruz (37) were murdered. True story. Read in their memory.

Julia Alvarez framed In the Time of Butterflies around one truth: On November 25th, 1960 three sisters, known as “las mariposas,” died under very suspicious circumstances in the Dominican Republic. While their Jeep was found at the bottom of a steep cliff, their injuries told of a much different and violent death. Before their murders these courageous women were no ordinary citizens of the Republic. After being radicalized at University three of the four sisters defiantly joined an underground movement to overthrow the country’s tyrannical leader, Rafael Leonides Trujillo. Imprisoned for their activities, the women failed to see the warning signs when they are suddenly freed without fanfare. They don’t think anything amiss when their imprisoned husbands are moved to a more remote prison, forcing the sisters to travel a deserted mountain road to visit them. The story begins with Dede, the surviving Mirabal sister, who feels almost a sideshow freak. Every year on the anniversary of her sisters’ murders, some reporter comes calling to hear the sad tale. Because the narration of In the Time of Butterflies is told from the perspective of each sister, character development happens seamlessly. They take turns releasing their passions and convictions, sometimes in first person, sometimes in third.
In the Time of Butterflies is an extremely exquisite and tragic tale. As Dede says, “If you multiply by zero, you still get zero, and a thousand heartaches.”

Lines to linger over (and there were a bunch), “It took some doing and undoing to bring me down to earth” (p 120), “The kissing was bringing on waves of pleasure she feared would capsize her self-control” (p 204), “Even so, my voice threw sparks” (p 261) and lastly, “But if she had a ghost in her heart, she didn’t give out his name” (p 271).

Author fact: Alvarez also wrote How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents which I thought was on my Challenge list, but the only Alvarez I am to read is In the Time of Butterflies. Bummer.

Book trivia: While the deaths of the Mirabal sisters and their driver is a fact, Alvarez admits to filling in their personalities with her imagination.

Nancy said: Pearl called In the Time of Butterflies “heartrending.”

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called “Historical Fiction Around the World” (p 113) and in Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Cavorting Through the Caribbean: Dominican Republic” (p 52).


Rifles for Watie

Keith, Harold. Rifles for Watie. New York: Harper Collins, 1987.

Reason read: Veteran’s Day is November 11th, 2020. Read in honor of Civil War veterans long dead and gone but never forgotten.

One of the most interesting aspects of Rifles for Watie is that it is told from the perspective of multiple groups in and around the American civil war of April 1861 – April 1865. Keith visited actual battle locations to get a sense of the varying conflicts and not just the well known ones related to violent battle. Poverty, wealth, prejudice, pride, religion, gender, tribal feuding, slavery, freedom. Right or wrong, all of these issues collide.
Keith used diaries, journals, and personal letters to give Rifles for Watie first person authenticity. To personalize it even further, he used interviews conducted for his thesis. Between the years of 1940 and 1941 he visited with twenty two veterans and listened to their nostalgic reminiscing. These oral histories captured the large and small personal sacrifices of war. Ever in their debt, Keith was careful to give all twenty two individuals credit saying, “my obligation to all their memories is very deep” (Introduction, Rifles for Watie p 12). While General Watie and James G. Blunt were a real-life historical figures, the character of Jeffrey and the other soldiers in Rifles for Watie are Keith’s imagination; I would like to think of them as a creative combination of all the men Harold Keith interviewed.
My favorite segment was when Jefferey was having a passionate argument with Lucy. Every side of the conflict is laid bare; because there are more than two sides to every truth. Good guys aren’t necessarily all that good. Bad guys aren’t that bad. Dogs are just dogs.

An aside: My sticking point. Early on in Rifles for Watie Jeffrey’s family is violently attacked by rebel bushwhackers. The family manages to fend off the raiders, but not before the bushwhackers threaten a much more violent return. I was confused as to why Jeffrey would leave his family knowing they barely survived the first vicious attack. Yes, it gave Jefferey the impetus to join the war to fight the rebels, but what about his defenseless family back in Kansas? No matter. When he is home on furlough all seems fine and there is no mention of bushwhackers ever returning.

Author fact: Keith was dedicated to the state of Oklahoma where he was born, raised, lived, and died.

Book trivia: Rifles for Watie won a Newbery Award in 1958.

Nancy said: Pearl didn’t say anything specific about Rifles for Watie except that it explores one of the least well-known aspects of the Civil War.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Historical Fiction for Kids of All Ages” (p 114).


Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba

Gjelten, Tom. Bacardi and the Long fight for Cuba: the Biography of a Cause. New York: Viking Press, 2008.

Reason read: January 1st is Triumph of the Revolution Day in Cuba.

Think about this for a second. The Bacardi business started in 1862. When you think “rum” what brand comes to mind first? Exactly.
My favorite takeaway from Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba is how brilliant the Bacardi Moreau family has been at business marketing and self promotion. Early on they knew how to tap into supply and demand during Prohibition. They understood the importance of moral advertising in Puerto Rico, removing women from their posters, for example They knew when to exploit the World’s Fairs happening around the world in places such as Charleston, St. Louis and as far away as Paris. They were involved in any major event that would draw attention. [As an aside, I just finished watching the Tim Burton movie, “Big Eyes” and I couldn’t help but think of mastermind Walter Keane as he exploited his wife’s artwork anyway that he could.] Bacardi treated their employees well with profit sharing as early as 1916. When they couldn’t go to the marketing, the marketing came to them in the form of public figures, such as Ernest Hemingway who put the name Bacardi in his book, Islands in the Stream.
Deeply tied to the Cuban cause, as patriots the Bacardi struggled to make a real difference, but as producers of high quality libations, they flourished. Their drink, the daiquiri was a nod to Cuba Libre. But Cuba was not its own. In 1898 it was either Spain or U.S. flags that were flown. When Spain was no longer in control it was like making deals with devil. The U.S. swoops in and changes everything. Infrastructure is improved but the locals are confused. Then along comes Castro…even he cannot ignore the Bacardi name which causes major trouble for the Bacardi name. Let me stop there. Read the rest of this biography of a beverage.

Last comment: my favorite trivia is the fact that Emilio and Elvira wanted to bring back a mummy from Egypt for the Bacardi museum. It needed to be taxed as “dried meat” in order to make the journey back to Cuba.

Line I liked, “Then he would be left alone with his own soul” (p 79), “the people of Santiago had never before seen a Cuban flag flying over their own city hall” (p 91).

Author fact: Gjelten, at the time of Book Lust To Go’s publication was a reporter for NPR. According to NPR’s website, he’s still there.

Book trivia: I always love it when an author can include the pictures they describe in the text. Gjelten does this a few times and it is always wonderful to see what he captures his attention, to see the pictures through his eyes. Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba includes a good number of black and white photographs.

Nancy said: Pearl called Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba “fascinating.”

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Cavorting Through the Caribbean” (p 52).


Catastrophist

Bennett, Ronan. The Catastrophist: a Novel. New york: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Reason read: Bennett celebrates a birthday in January.

The underlying theme of this political thriller is the mistiming of love. One is already more ready than the other to give into the insecurities of love…until they are not. Compared over and over to Graham Greene, Bennett’s Catastrophist is character driven and full of political intrigue. Irish novelist James Gillespie tells the story of his journey to the Belgian Congo to follow his Italian girlfriend, Ines. As an ambitious journalist, she is covering the Congolese struggle for independence. Once the passion of her life, now she has little time or patience for James. Meanwhile, his romantic pendulum has swung in the other direction, clinging to a newfound adoration obsession for Ines. I found their relationship to be shallow and self-serving. But, no matter. James gets caught up in the politics and befriends all the wrong people, pushing Ines further away. When she takes up with another man, it appears all hope is lost for reconciliation with James…and yet, James is blindly willing to go to unbelievably remarkable lengths to show his devotion.

Line I really, really liked and just had to quote, “The apartment reeked of our estrangement” (p 160). One more, “He was too absorbed in disguising his own failure, from me, from himself” (p 206).

Author fact: Bennett has written a plethora of other books, but I am only reading The Catastrophist for the Challenge. Additionally, I read somewhere that Bennett had trouble with the law throughout his life, including accusations of murder, armed robbery, and conspiracy.

Book trivia: this should be a movie. There is certainly enough sex and violence to make it a thriller. There was talk of making a movie, but I’m not sure it ever got off the ground.

Nancy said: Pearl called The Catastrophist a “political thriller” and suggested it should be read with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “African Colonialism (fiction)” (p 15).


Farming of Bones

Danticat, Edwidge. The Farming of Bones. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Reason read: Danticat’s birth month is in January. I may have mentioned this before, but she is barely a month older than me.

Danticat has one of those voices that just spills over you in a warm ooze. Be warned, though. She does not shy away from the harsh realities of extreme violence spurred on by dictatorial blind hatred. It begins slowly and subtly; almost a foreshadowing. A Haitian man, walking down the side of the road, is struck and killed by an automobile driven by a man rushing to get to the birth of his grandson. Consider this – the Haitian’s corpse is unceremoniously thrown into a deep and dark ravine to cover up the accident. The Dominican Republican man continues his hurried journey home without a second glance. Days later said-same grandson dies in his sleep and is given an elaborate vigil, an orchid painted casket, and ceremonial burial of grandeur. These two families, the hit and run victim and the newborn babe, share the same level of shock and grief but only one is allowed to fully demonstrate their pain. The Haitian man doesn’t even get a pine casket.
This is just the beginning of Danticat’s tale as we follow Haitian servant Amabelle Desir as she works in a wealthy Dominican Republic household. Life seems to be perfect considering the circumstances and her position in life. She is passionately in love with a cane worker she plans to marry and her employer was once a childhood playmate. They get along and Amabelle is treated well. Enter Domincan Republican dictator Rafael Trujillo and his plan to wipe out the entire Haitian population by mass genocide. Those who can not flee fast enough are subject to horrific torture before being hacked or burned to death. Amabelle’s world is turned upside down when she is separated from her love as she tries to escape the massacre.
The ending was perfect. I won’t give it away, but in order for this book to mean something there was no other ending possible.

Quotes I just have to quote, “Wherever I go, I will always be standing over her body” (p 205), “But some sorrows were simply too individual to share” (p 252), and “You may be surprised what we use our dreams to do, how we drape them over our sight and carry them like amulets to protect us from evil spells” (p 265).

Author fact: Danticat won the American Book Award for The Farming of Bones.

Book trivia: The Farming of Bones is Danticat’s second novel.

Nancy said: Pearl called The Farming of Bones “very political.” Because of the nonfiction elements to the story I would definitely agree.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “The Contrary Caribbean: Paradise and Pain” (p 55).


December Ends

December was the whirlwind it always is. Exams, hiring, and personnel evaluations at work. Christmas cards and wrapping gifts at home. Celebrations with families and friends. The bestie and I had a great time on the last weekend before Christmas shopping. Yes, you read that correctly. We braved the stores on the Sunday before Christmas and had a blast. Kisa and I traveled to South Deerfield, Peaks Island, and Rockland for the holidays. Rockland was an unexpected twist, but it gave us more time with the mom. I didn’t get to all the books on my list. I couldn’t get a hold of the Seuss book to save my life. I should have known better. And, I wasn’t in the mood for Milne. Imagine that. The November Early Review never arrived. No big surprise there. That makes three for the year that didn’t show up. Here are the other books:

Fiction:
Aguero Sisters  by Cristina Garcia
Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak
Long Way from Home by Connie Briscoe


Nonfiction:
Art of Travel by Alain De Botton (AB)
Before the Deluge: a portrait of Berlin in the 1920s  by Otto Friedrich
People’s History of the Supreme Court by Peter Irons
Saddest Pleasure: a journey on two rivers by Moritz Thomsen
Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (AB)

Series Continuations:
The Master of Hestviken: In the Wilderness by Sigrid Undset
Without Fail by Lee Child