Reader's Link - March 2014 Staff Picks Archive

Lifting the burdens

What it is like to go to war

Title: What it is like to go to war
By: Karl Marlantes

A work of courage and intelligence that challenges us to consider issues most of us would rather avoid. Karl Marlantes has thought deeply about the psychological impacts and lifelong burdens of killing in war, based on his experiences in Viet Nam and subsequent self-examination. He bravely exposes his own feelings of exhilaration in attacking, as well as the soul-numbing and shame he felt later.

Marlantes presents a critique of how our soldiers are trained to understand the concept and act of killing fellow humans. He makes suggestions to help them to better prepare for this tremendous moral responsibility and to deal with their emotions afterwards. He connects various aspects of serving in a war with mythic literature and Jungian archetypes, and argues for a spiritual warrior approach to killing. He does not imply that killing in war can or ever should be without emotional consequences for the warrior, but hopes to help future veterans heal and reintegrate into society more successfully than they have done in the past.

Bronson Pinchot does an excellent, nuanced reading. I felt he was speaking utterly sincerely, as if from his own experience.

View similarly tagged posts: non-fiction,biography
Posted by April on March 23, 2014 at 8:33 a.m.

Magic and loss, loneliness and escape

The ocean at the end of the lane

Title: The ocean at the end of the lane
By: Neil Gaiman

On impulse, I downloaded the new Neil Gaiman book from OneClick Digital onto my iPhone (ah, technology, you great multifaceted beast!). I was delighted to learn that the author was also the narrator, and this audiobook would not proffer any misrepresentations of tone or misinterpretations of characters. If anyone could get this right, it was Gaiman himself. My fears abated, I listened to a story of magic and loss, of loneliness and escape.

Neil Gaiman is a masterful storyteller, both in print and audio (he does some fantastic voices), and you can tell he really loves and understands his characters. Lettie Hempstock was my favorite: she was so wise and mysterious, just the kind of older kid you would've followed to the ends of the earth--or possibly into another dimension--to remove evil from this earth (no big deal). And the villain, one Ursula Monkton, is so vile, so nefarious, that you cannot imagine anything more horrifying to a seven year-old boy. It’s a quick read (listen), almost too short, and you’re left wanting more time with the characters. If you have a long drive coming up, I highly recommend the audiobook. But, if you prefer to provide your own voices, there’s nothing better than reading a SciFi book by Neil Gaiman.

View similarly tagged posts: fiction,science fiction,audiobook
Posted by aufdermaurm on March 22, 2014 at 10:50 a.m.


Claire of the sea light

Title: Claire of the sea light
By: Edwidge Danticat

I love the way Danticat starts this book by moving backwards in time, recounting each of Claire Limyè Lanmè’s* birthdays from age 7 to age 3 while simultaneously introducing the reader to some principal characters and ways of life in the town of Ville Rose. The book opens with Claire’s father, a widowed fisherman who wants to seek a better living elsewhere. He has decided to give his daughter to a woman who can take care of her. He has chosen Gaëlle, a person he thinks less likely to abuse his daughter as a restavek, a child sent to live with (“reste avec” in French) a household as a domestic servant--or slave.

The sea plays a major role in the lives and livelihoods of the residents and is ever present in the air, weather, stories and metaphors. In Claire’s voice: "Sometimes when she was lying on her back in the sea, her toes pointed, her hands facing down, her ears half-submerged, while she was listening to both the world above and the world beneath the water, she yearned for the warm salty water to be her mother’s body, the waves her mother’s heartbeat, the sunlight the tunnel that guided her out the day her mother died."

There is a strong backwards movement throughout the book, like an undertow. It would be interesting to draw the track of each story woven in; perhaps they would look like waves, surging in and rushing back from the beach as the tide changes. Danticat’s succinct prose captures many of the hard realities of life in Haiti while remaining alive to the beauty that is also present.

*Claire of the Sea Light (English) = Claire Limyè Lanmè (Kreyòl) = Claire Lumière La Mer (French)

View similarly tagged posts: fiction
Posted by April on March 20, 2014 at 8:26 a.m.

I foresee great things...


Title: Hild
By: Nicola Griffith

Hild is the story of the 7th century Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who became St. Hilda of Whitby. Very little is known about her early life, so Griffith had plenty of room to improvise. The result is a rich, compelling novel about a young, privileged woman coming of age in a time full of uncertainty and violence. Great Britain was made up of many small kingdoms, constantly warring with each other. Many parts of the island were inhabited by Celtic British peoples who were already converted to Christianity. Christian priests were working to convert the Anglo-Saxon leaders and their people. In the areas controlled by the Anglo-Saxons, the British populace were largely treated as slaves. Griffith recreates this world in vivid, sometimes gruesome detail.

Hild is an unusual, highly intelligent girl. She observes the world around her, both the natural world and the humans she encounters, and sees patterns that others overlook. Trained by her mother as a strategist who tells people what they want to hear, Hild becomes a valued counselor and “seer” to her uncle, the king of Northumbria. Her ability to make accurate predictions about the natural world and human politics gives her a reputation as an uncanny prophet. Lifespans were shorter in the Middle Ages, so girls were expected to marry from about age twelve. Hild does not follow the usual pattern for her gender, but rides with the king’s war band and sits with him in council.

This novel imagines Hild’s early life from the age of three until she is about eighteen. I was captivated not only by the story and the characters, but by Griffith’s detailed description of daily life and her use of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. She frequently employs alliteration, echoing Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition. The book is densely written, but rewarding. I was happy to read in the author’s note that she is working on a sequel. I foresee great things.

View similarly tagged posts: fiction
Posted by Logophile on March 19, 2014 at 7 a.m.

A tempestuous personality

River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the technological wild west

Title: River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the technological wild west
By: Rebecca Solnit

Instead of utilizing the traditional biographical format, Rebecca Solnit has chosen to delineate this remarkable man through his many self-taught accomplishments and innovations. British born in 1830, he left his homeland early on to set off to America to explore his interests and opportunities, working on the docks of New Orleans, then as a San Francisco bookseller, morphing soon into the first photographer of remote Yosemite landscapes and early SF panoramas. This latter talent brought him to the attention of Leland Stanford, for whom he shot time and motion studies of Stanford’s horses that in time became the precursor of early motion pictures.

The more famous photographer of Native Americans, Edward Curtis, studied and posed natives in full dress panoply in studio settings. Muybridge, on the other hand, captured the Modoc tribe (the inhabitants of the Lava Beds and Tule Lake area of Northern California) in their daily life and in their war with the US Army, thus making a more lively and immediate connection with the inhabitants of this little known area and moment in California history. These are just a few of his contributions to a turbulent and revolutionary time in our nation's history, most notably marked by the coming of the railroad and the camera, transforming forever our perceptions of space and time.
Eadweard Muybridge (born Muggeridge) was not only a great innovator and inventor; he was one of the most colorful characters California history has to offer. Along with the modest conceit of changing his name a number of times, he murdered his wife's lover and exhibit a tempestuous personality, very probably affected by brain injuries from a stagecoach accident. The wild west and technology met in this man and his era.

Rebecca Solnit has become my go-to writer for thoughtful insightful essays, critiques of artists and unique characters, as well as issues of the day. Her Wanderlust is a wonderful delving into the history and value of the walk, the peregrination, the pilgrimage. Her most recent, The Faraway Nearby, deals with the ravages of Alzheimers on families.

View similarly tagged posts: non-fiction,biography
Posted by libwolf on March 17, 2014 at 1:49 p.m.


The Alchemist's Daughter

Title: The Alchemist's Daughter
By: Katharine McMahon

In this novel set in 18th century England, Emilie Selden, the protagonist and narrator, is the daughter of a student of Sir Isaac Newton. Her father has decided to raise her in his own image, as he has no other children. He is descended from a long line of seekers, alchemists and philosophers. He sets out to train Emilie as the perfect alchemist, but things don't go entirely according to plan. The book is beautifully written, with great characters, wonderful attention to detail, fascinating science history; and, of course, some romance. The plotting was a bit melodramatic; I actually couldn't put it down. Truly a fun read.

View similarly tagged posts: fiction
Posted by Logophile on March 17, 2014 at 10:05 a.m.

A friend to wish for

Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief

Title: Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief
By: Wendelin Van Draanen

What would you do if you were stuck in your grandmother’s apartment for the day? People watch, of course. This is exactly what Sammy Keyes is doing when she spots a man taking money out of someone’s room at the Heavenly Hotel. Sammy knows she should call the police, but instead does something stupid—she waves at the man. Soon, knowing the police don’t take her seriously, Sammy gets involved in the investigation. Along the way, Sammy deals with her loving grandmother, her flaky wanna-be actress mother, her best friend, and the adventures of starting junior high school.

Sammy Keyes is a girl who doesn’t mean to get into trouble, but is smart enough to get herself out of it. She’s someone anyone would want as a friend; someone who'd help you with any kind of problem, from solving a robbery to dealing with family issues. Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief is a book you won’t be able to put down.

View similarly tagged posts: fiction,kids fiction
Posted by pughc on March 12, 2014 at 2:55 p.m.

Heartbreaking yet hopeful

On Sal Mal Lane

Title: On Sal Mal Lane
By: Ru Freeman

From 1983 to 2009, the people of Sri Lanka suffered a lengthy and vicious struggle between the Tamil Hindu minority and the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. On Sal Mal Lane is a heartbreaking yet hopeful chronicle of the families living on a quiet, multiethnic cul-de-sac in Colombo, the largest city on Sri Lanka. Freeman has a delicate and true touch in writing about the inner worlds of the children on Sal Mal Lane. Devi, the youngest, imaginative child of the Sinhalese Buddhist Herath family, is her next older brother Nihil’s especial concern and care. Suren is developing his significant talent as pianist and composer, while Rashmi is negotiating a transition from perfect daughter to her truthful self. We watch the Herath children, who have just moved to Sal Mal Lane, form friendships (or not) with the children and adults of the other families, while tensions and violence are rising in the city. There is a growing sense of doom, yet once the pivotal catastrophe occurs, opportunities for healing are created.

Freeman makes the island’s political history relevant by filtering it through the perspectives of Sal Mal Lane inhabitants of different ages, educational attainment, and cultural backgrounds. Her ability to describe relationships between characters is impressive. There are wonderful descriptive passages, as well:

"''Kala Akki’s rose vines are on fire!' he said, his memory tricking him into smelling not fire but the fragrance of the roses. Devi and Nihil watched the flaming bushes, transfixed by the way the fire, with its crepitant song, climbed from root, along each twisting limb to flower and on up to the roof of the veranda. It looked like someone was writing in an elegant script, a strange beauty marking the destruction as it went."

A book about the civil war in Sri Lanka needed to be written. I am glad it was written so beautifully by Ru Freeman.

View similarly tagged posts: fiction
Posted by April on March 5, 2014 at 7 a.m.

Unexpected strength


Title: Fangirl
By: Rainbow Rowell

Cath would rather be anywhere else except college, especially since her twin sister Wren doesn’t want to them to be roommates. The one place she feels safe is in the world of Simon Snow, where she writes fan fiction on Internet forums. Even so, Cath doesn’t know if she can handle college without Wren leading the way. How can she deal with her new roommate Reagan, who is more outspoken, and whose boyfriend is always coming around? Or the fellow student that who may or may not be just a writing partner? And then there’s Cath’s dad, who hasn’t been alone since her mother left when she was eight. As her freshman year progresses, Cath learns more about herself, and that maybe there’s more to life than Simon Snow. And maybe she doesn’t need Wren as much as she first thought.

Fangirl is a journey of self-discovery, of learning that there are more unexpected consequences in real life than there are in books, and that the least likely of people can turn out to be your greatest friends. You won’t be able to put this book down.

View similarly tagged posts: teen fiction
Posted by pughc on March 1, 2014 at 12:28 p.m.
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