Reviews

To See Every Bird on Earth

To See Every Bird on EarthMicrohistories are a subgenre of non-fiction books which take a particular subject or single event and through intensive historical research try to contextualize the chosen subject within the broader picture.  Both Simon Winchester and Mark Kurlansky are well known microhistorians.  Kurlansky in particular is known for Salt: A World History, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell.  As a history nerd, I find that a well written microhistory uncovers a previously unthought-of subject or event and breathes life into the history cannon as a whole.  Curious?  Check out titles like Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug, Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, or Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.  Several years ago I read and enjoyed a microhistory called Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel.

Blue Nights

OK. I confess. This book sat for most of its check-out period on my night table. I had read Didion's excellent book The Year of Magical Thinking but I knew that this new memoir covered another territory  of loss--not that of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, but of her daughter who had the wonderful name of Quintana Roo (a state in Mexico.)

And yes, Blue Nights is sad. As would be any book about losing your only child. But it's also amazingly human, full of insights and many questions, some of which go unanswered.

First the title. It comes from those late June, early July nights where twilight seems to linger for hours until darkness finally comes. The light is soft; the world is warm and alive. Didion speaks of them as occurring only in the north, not far south in LA where she spent much of her life as a screenwriter, essayist, and novelist and where Quintana grew up. No, the blue lights happen in New York City where Didion now lives now and where Quintana died young at the age of thirty-nine from a massive infection. To make matters even more tragic, she first got ill only five months after her wedding.

The book covers other things as well adoption, meeting with biological family for the first time as an adult, parenting, the failures of parenting, and, in particular, aging.  Didion writes with brutal honesty especially about this last topic.

War Books

MatterhornMy question of the week - Do women read war novels?  I don't mean to ask this in a polarizing and dramatic way, but out of genuine interest. 

I recently finished the excellent Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, a novelization about the Vietnam War.  Marlantes is a highly decorated Marine who served in Vietnam and this 600 page book was 30 years in the making.  The book is technical and almost solely set in Vietnam.  There isn't room for families, girlfriends, or real life.  This book is intense - filled with racial tensions, horrifying wounds, tigers, leeches, jungle rot, thirst, hunger, diarrhea, boredom, bad language and inept military structure.  I probably lost some of the technicalities of the military maneuvers, but in the end you really care about the characters.  At times, reading this was stressful but the pain and longing seems universal and touching.  

Because I Am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas

Told in brief (one or two page), intensely personal poems, this novel manages to be both fast-paced and agonizingly slow. Anke's character bounces between a life on the volleyball court that makes her shout for joy and a home life where keeping her father from noticing her is the difference between feeling unloved and being beaten (or worse, as she begins to realize her sister knows all too well). The contrast between the two Ankes makes the transition from school life to home life at times almost violent, and Chaltas manages to do this by using a quiet, tense voice for Anke at home and a loud, exuberant voice at school.  Two very different romantic interests and the choice she makes between them add insight into how her relationship with her father is influencing her first interactions with boys.

Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness

Alexandra Fuller writes beautifully about Africa. This is her second memoir set there. Both Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness and Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight also give homage to her parents, particularly her mother, Nicola, or Nicola of Central Africa, as her mom playfully nicknamed herself.

Nicola loves books and reading and wanted her first daughter to become a writer but Vanessa held firm about spurning books and taking up art. So Alexandra became the writer in the family, but not one that her mother could not control.  For Nicola, Alexandra's career as a writer is a mixed blessing.  She constantly calls her daughter's first memoir that "awful book" probably because Alexandra tells the truth in it about her Mom's drinking.

Me and You

This short novel describes a teen's experience not fitting in at school.  What makes Me and You different is that it's set in Rome, so you get a feel for the modern Italian family. Lorenzo has trouble making friends. Observing other kids at school closely, he sees what they do to fit in--what clothes they wear, how they talk, where they hang out, etc. and he tries to blend in but pretending to be someone he's not goes against his basic being. Nobody hangs out with him at school; he has no friends. But it's driving his overly-doting Mom crazy.

So one day he informs her that he has been invited on a ski week with several of his most popular classmates. It's a bold-faced lie to make her happy and to get her to leave him alone. But then he must improvise a place to stay as well as provide chirruping conversation on his cell to convince his mom that he has gone to Cortina and is having a grand time.He sneaks back into the basement of their house where the former owner's furniture is stored. Apparently, his father bought the house on a reverse mortgage plan, and even though the woman has died, they have never gotten rid of her belongings. Lorenzo has set up a cot and stored enough food and sodas for the week. Also, carefully gathered are piles of books.

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