By May

I thought May was going to be a disaster. The first two and a half weeks were nothing but rain and way cooler temps. I worried about my garden. I didn’t feel like running. It felt like a downward spiral. I ended up running only 28 miles and running away to Monhegan for a week so it ended better than it began. But…it’s still raining.

“…when May is rushing over you with desire to be part of the miracles you see in every hour” ~ Natalie Merchant, These are Days.

“I wanted to be there by May, at the latest. April is over. Can you tell me how long before I can be there?” ~ Natalie Merchant, Painted Desert.

Here are the books:

Fiction:

  • H by Elizabeth Shepard (read in one day)
  • Nerve by Dick Francis (read in two days)
  • A Gay and Melancholy Sound by Merle Miller

Nonfiction:

  • Good-Bye to All That by Robert Graves
  • Age of Gold by HW Brands
  • Lusitania: an epic tragedy by Diana Preston

Series continuation:

  • “Q” is for Quarry by Sue Grafton (finished the series)
  • As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee (okay, so I didn’t know this was part of a trilogy).

Early Review for LibraryThing:

  • At the Broken Places by Mary and Donald Collins

Good-Bye to All That

Graves, Robert. Good-Bye to All That: an autobiography. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, Inc., 1929.

Reason read: Memorial Day is May 29th this year. Read in honor of remembering World War I veterans. Robert Graves is one to remember.

Robert Graves decided to tell his autobiography when he was a mere 34 years old. After experiencing the horrors of World War I he must have felt he had lived a lifetime by the time he was in his 30s. His descriptions of early trench-warfare and as one example, the crude, ineffective gas masks are haunting. Despite it all, Graves was able to keep some decency about him. This is evident when he was unable to shoot a German soldier who was bathing. There was something about the man’s nakedness that unnerved Graves. And yet, he had a job to do…
Authors usually don’t take the time to describe their picture in a book. Robert Graves explains why his nose is large and crooked (broken twice & operated on once) and why one shoulder dips lower (courtesy of a lung wound). He makes modest statements about how the world sees him (like how he broke two front teeth when he was thirteen) as if to offer apologies for his face. Despite these descriptions the most obvious is that World War I was not easy on Robert Graves. One look at his 1929 photograph on the frontispiece of Good-Bye to All That and one can tell he was a broken man by the time the picture was taken. His haunted staring eyes speak volumes.
But, probably the biggest surprise about Graves’s autobiography was the humor. I don’t know if he meant to be funny but if not, he succeeded without trying.

Two lines that left me dumbstruck, “My dedication is an epilogue” (dedication page) and “The objects of this autobiography, written at the age of thirty-three, are simple enough: an opportunity for a formal good-bye to you and to you and to you and to me and to all that…” (p 1).
The definition of courage: “I had a bad head for heights and trained myself deliberately and painfully to overcome it…I have worked hard on myself in defining and dispersing terrors” (p 48).

As an aside, I am currently reading another book that takes place during World War I simply called Lusitania. Graves mentions the tragic events surrounding the torpedoing of the ocean liner in Good-Bye to All That but admits, “As for the Lusitania, the Germans gave her full warning, and if it brings the States into the war, it’s all to the good” (p 247).

Author fact: I don’t know when I first read anything by Robert Graves, but I do know when I really heard him and absorbed his words for the very first time. I heard him with ears wide open when Natalie Merchant decided to put his poem “Vain and Careless” to music. Incidentally, this was the first time I heard of the game Bob Cherry, too.

Book trivia: Good-Bye to All That has trench maps which put Robert’s ordeal into perspective for me.

Nancy said: Nancy said Graves wrote about his “disillusioning experiences” (p 154).

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


Birdsong

Faulks, Sebastian. Birdsong. Read by Peter Firth. New Hampshire: Chivers North America Audio Books, 2000.

Birdsong is broken into seven different sections covering three different periods of main character Stephen Wraysford’s life, 1910, 1916 – 1918, and 1978 – 1979 (the last being through the eyes of his granddaughter, Elizabeth). When we first meet Stephen in 1910 he is a young Englishman sent to France to observe operations at a textile mill in Amiens. It is there that he meets the beautiful and lonely Mrs. Isabelle Azaire. From the moment they meet, their attraction to one another is instantaneous and unavoidable. Even an innocent activity like pruning in the garden speaks volumes of what is to come. It isn’t long before the two give in to their carnal desires and commit adultery. If you are shy about sex scenes, there are a few you may want to skip. The second encounter in the library is pretty racy! The attraction between the lovers is so strong that Isabelle runs away with Stephen, only to be wracked by guilt causing her to leave him a short time later. We don’t know what happens to this couple after Isabelle’s leaving. This is a mystery that hangs over the next section of Stephen’s life.
When we meet up again with Stephen it is six years later and he is a soldier, sent to work in the tunnels below enemy lines. This section of the book, covering World War I, is incredibly graphic and haunting. Faulk’s portrayals of battle are as realistic as they are heartbreaking, especially in the claustrophobic tunnels. Interspersed between Stephen’s World War I experiences is the life of his granddaughter, Elizabeth. When she becomes curious about his life she sets out to learn all that she can. She ends up learning more about herself in the process. History repeats itself and comes full circle for Wraysford’s legacy.

PS ~ I like the way Peter Firth reads. His voice is really pleasant. But, unlike Kirsten Potter, who read The Locust Eaters, Firth doesn’t even attempt a French accent! He does an Australian one pretty well, though.

Reason read: Austria started World War I on June 28, 1914.

Author fact: Faulks is also a journalist.

Book trivia: Birdsong is actually the second book in a trilogy. I didn’t find that out until I entered it into LibraryThing. Bad news and good news. The bad news is that the first book is not on my list. However, the good news is that the third book, Charlotte Gray, is…so I’ll read two-thirds of the trilogy. Pearl makes no mention of these two books being connected.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “World War I (fiction)” (p 250).

As an aside, I always think of the Grateful Dead when I hear the word “birdsong” and I am filled with nostalgia. When my husband and I were first dating I took him home to Monhegan. He brought along a video camera and made a music video of the island with Birdsong playing in the background. The video starts with me sitting on the floor in the old apartment trying to pack. So long ago!


Deafening

Itani, Frances. Deafening. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003.

This story is filled with such tragedy. In Part I Grania O’Neill is just five years old when she loses her hearing after a bout with scarlet fever. Her family is desperate to make her normal, to help her fit in the the hearing world. Her grandmother and sister devote themselves to helping her cope. When it is obvious she can’t, Grania, at nine years old, is sent away to a boarding school for the deaf. Part II covers one year. The year is 1915 and Grania is now 19 and working at Gibson Hospital. She meets and marries a hearing man, Jim Lloyd. In Part III Jim has gone to help in the war effort as a medic. The violence he encounters at this time assaults his senses to the core, but it is the thought of Grania and their love that sustains him. Part IIII (that is deliberate) covers 1917 – 1918. Jim has been gone for two years and Grania remains vigilant for his letters and watchful of the changing war efforts. The book ends with Part V, 1919 and the end of the war.  So much has changed during this time. So many people have died and relationships are forever changed. I won’t spoil the end except to say it was beautifully written. A book I couldn’t put down.

Telling lines, “What she can’t see she can’t be expected to understand” (p 14), “Words fly through the air and fall, static and dead” (p 43), “He had never known a language that so thoroughly encompassed love” (p 132), and “War ground on like the headless, thoughtless monster that could not be stopped” (p 237).

Reason read: October is National Protect Your Hearing Month.

Book trivia: Deafening was written as a tribute to Itani’s grandmother who was became deaf at 18 months.

Author fact: Deafening is Frances Itani’s first book.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Other Peoples Shoes” (p 182).


August ’12 was…

August was a little of this and a little of that. Some people will notice I have made some changes to the book challenge – some changes more noticeable than others. For starters, how I review. I now add a section of why I’m reading the book. For some reason I think it’s important to include that in the review. Next, how I read. I am now adding audio books into the mix. I am allowing myself to add an audio book in “trapped” situations when holding a book and keeping my eyes on the page might be an inconvenience (like flying) or endanger someone (like driving). I’m also making a effort to avoid wasting time on books I don’t care for (like Honore de Balzac). One last change: I am not as stringent about reading something within the month. If I want to start something a little early because it’s right in front of my face then so be it.
What else was August about? August was also the month I lost my dear Cassidy for a week. I spent many a night either in an insomniac state or sitting on the back porch, reading out loud in hopes the sound of my voice would draw my calico to me. The only thing it yielded was more books finished in the month of August. She finally came home one week later.
Anyway, enough of all that. I’ll cry if I continue. Onto the books:

I started the month by reading and rereading Tattoo Adventures of Robbie Big Balls by Robert Westphal. This was the first time I read and reviewed a book after meeting the author. I wanted to get it right. I also wanted to make sure I was an honest as possible about the situation. Everything about this review was unusual. For the challenge:

  • After You’ve Gone by Alice Adams ~ I read this in three days and learned a valuable lesson about Adams’s work: read it slowly and parse it out. Otherwise it becomes redundant.
  • Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin ~ I read this in ten days, tucking myself in a study carrell and reading for an hour everyday.
  • Fahrenheit 541 by Ray Bradbury ~ an audio book that only took me nine days to listen to.
  • Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum ~ read with Wicked by Gregory Maguire. I took both of these to Maine and had oodles of car-time to finish both.
  • We Took to the Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich ~ this was probably my favorite nonfiction of the challenge. Rich’s Maine humor practically jumped off the page. I read this to Cassidy.
  • The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder ~ I read this in three days, again hiding myself away in a study carrell.
  • Ten Hours Until Dawn by Tougis ~ another audio book. I’m glad I listened to this one as opposed to reading it. Many reviewers called it “tedious” and I think by listening to it I avoided that perspective.
  • The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson ~ I read this in two days (something I think I thought I was going to get to in June).
  • All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque ~ I read this in honor of World War I ending. I also read it in one night while waiting for Cassidy to come home.
  • The Lives of the Saints by Nancy Lemann ~ also read in one night. In honor of New Orleans and the month Hurricane Katrina rolled into town.
  • Kristin Lavransdatter: the Cross by Sigrid Undset ~ finally put down the Norwegian trilogy!

For the Early Review Program with LibraryThing:

  • The Most Memorable Games in New England Patriots History by Bernard Corbett and Jim Baker. This was supposed to be on my list a year ago. Better late than never.
  • Sex So Great She Can’t Get Enough by Barbara Keesling. This took me an inordinate amount of time to read. Guess I didn’t want to be seen in public with it.

All Quiet on the Western Front

Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. Translated by A.W. Wheen. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982.

Do people consider this a classic? I think I have been aware of this book for the past 35 years but have never read it before now. If someone said “all quiet” I would finish with “on the western front.”

Throughout All Quiet on the Western Front there is the theme of a lost innocence. Soldiers as young as 18 or 19 reflect on a childhood lost. The main character of Paul Baumer is constantly thinking about how, if he were to survive the war, he could never relate to the peacetime world around him. He scoffs at the word “peace.” I saw All Quiet as a commentary on survival in its purest form. Doing anything and everything you can to live another day. When one soldier is obviously on death’s door another wants his boots and starts planning a strategy to get them…even before the dying man has drawn his last breath. This is not callousness personified. This is survival. He knows the boots are of no use to the dying soldier. They would be to him, if only he could get them before someone else does. Ironically, the boots are later passed along to Paul eventually.
Another aspect of Remarque’s work that bears mentioning is the detail he pays to describing death. While the images are unforgiving, violent and grotesque, it is war in its truest state and at its worst. Some of the images that stuck with me: a butterfly flitting around a field of dead men and finally settling to rest on the teeth of a corpse; a screaming horse that can’t be put out of his misery because he will reveal the hiding place of the soldiers.

Lines that moved me one way or another, “The army is based on that; one man must always have power over the other. The mischief is merely that each one has too much power” (p 44) and “At the same time he ventilated his backside” (p 83).

Book Trivia: This was made into a movie twice – once in 1930 and again almost 50 years later in 1979. It won an Academy Award in 1930.

Author Fact: Remarque served as a soldier on the western front in World War I. I can’t help but think All Quiet on the Western Front is almost autobiographical.

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in two chapters “100 Good Reads, Decade by Decade: 1920s” (p 176) and “World War I Fiction” (p 250).


Zimmerman Telegram

Tuchman, W. Barbara. The Zimmerman Telegram. New York: Viking Press, 1958.

I can only imagine how popular this book must have been in its day. The First Great War was not a distant memory at the time of its publication. In fact, the events of World War I were probably still fresh in everyone’s mind having just survived the Second World War. I know The Zimmerman Telegram was required reading for at least one political science course at my college.

Probably the most compelling thing about Tuchman’s writing is her ability to make even well-known history as compelling whodunnit mystery. Written as smoothly as a novel The Zimmerman Telegram recounts the events leading up to the United State’s involvement in World War I starting with a telegraph written by Arthur Zimmerman to Imperial German Minister in Mexico Von Eckhardt. This telegram was  proposing a partnership between Germany, Mexico and Japan to form an allegiance against the U.S. Intercepted by the British, it is important to point out that the U.S. was reluctant to join the war until provoked by this telegram.

The line that summed it all up for me (and was ironically enough on the first page),”Mute and passive on the paper, they gave forth no hint that a key to the war’s deadlock lay concealed in their irregular jumble” (p 3).

Disclaimer: I wasn’t supposed to read this until 2013 but I felt so bad about abandoning A Distant Mirror that I wanted to read something else by Tuchman before the month was over.

BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust in the chapter called “Barbara Tuchman: Too Good To Miss” (p 225).