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Thursday, November 29, 2012

thoughts on: The Big Burn

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved AmericaThe Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan

The Big Burn begins with a highly readable account of the founding of the National Forest Service in 1905. Fighting against political opponents allied with timber magnates, President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the Forest Service, set aside as much western land as possible as Congress was passing a bill preventing the president from ever doing so again.

Their belief in conservation, unpopular though it was, never faltered, and the underfunded Forest Service soldiered on with young recruits who struggled against powerful business interests who wanted to profit from the resources on the newly declared public land.

In 1910, the Forest Service was dearly tested by a massive fire in the Bitterroot Mountains which ultimately burned 3.2 million acres of forest and several towns in its path. Many foresters fought bravely and lost their lives or suffered lifelong injuries from the fire.

The human drama of both the fire and political machinations makes The Big Burn a compelling story. Egan shows the fire, and its outcome, through the experience of foresters and volunteer firefighters on the ground, homesteaders in its path, townspeople in panic, and politicians thousands of miles away.

More than any other individual, however, this is the story of Gifford Pinchot, who tirelessly advocated for conservation of our nation's forests for fifty years.

thoughts on: Two Rings: A Story of Love and War

Two Rings: A Story of Love and WarTwo Rings: A Story of Love and War by Millie Werber

Millie Werber spent her teenaged years surviving slave labor camps and Auschwitz. She endured its brutality and witnessed more, but in the midst of it all, she fell in love. Her memoir is all the more poignant because she kept her first love and marriage a secret for most of her life, fearing that her own children would not understand how a fifteen year old girl could experience love while surrounded by such horror.

In sharing her story, Mrs. Werber shows us beautifully how that can be. Even living in constant fear could not diminish her desire to love and be loved, and the extreme danger of their circumstances, rather than holding back such feelings, gave them an urgent need to be expressed.

This first romance is only part of her story, but it is the heart of it. Although Werber says she lost her faith during the Holocaust, she never lost her capacity for love.

thoughts on: Expecting Adam

Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday MagicExpecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday Magic by Martha N. Beck

Expecting Adam was not at all what I was expecting. Thinking this month's book club selection was a memoir of the emotional journey of a mother who learns the baby she is carrying has Downs' Syndrome, I eagerly began reading.

What followed was Martha Beck's account of supernatural experiences during and after her pregnancy. She describes out of body experiences, transporting her across the globe, and numerous encounters with beings whom she describes at times as bankuru puppeteers, angels, and as her unborn son.

Beck clings to the truth of her personal experiences, but resists ascribing any part of her own beliefs to her upbringing or religious affiliation or academic background. She seems especially determined to reinvent herself apart from her religion, and this makes her writing unwieldy at times as she attempts to describe her religious feelings and spiritual experiences without referencing her faith or beliefs.

thoughts on: Logavina Street

Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo NeighborhoodLogavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood by Barbara Demick

I remember the events of Sarajevo, but if I ever knew the causes, I had forgotten them. Barbara Demick, at the time a young foreign correspondent living and reporting from Sarajevo throughout its civil war, beautifully captures both the spirit of the people of Sarajevo and the nightmare they endured.

For centuries a city where religions coexisted peacefully (30% of marriages were of mixed religious backgrounds), fashionable and affluent Sarajevo became a war zone when Serbian nationalists besieged it in an attempt to expand Serbian territory.

Demick's reporting and book focused on the residents of Logavina Street, located in a predominantly but far from exclusively Muslim neighborhood. On Logavina lived imams, doctors, hairdressers, members of the Croatian military, orphans, etc. A microcosm of the residents of the city, rich and not, Muslim, Serb, Croatian, neighbors who before the war had seen their differences as minimal and were shocked that anyone would use religion as an impetus for war. Not in Sarajevo. Not their home.

The horrors of the war, the deaths, the deprivations, the dignity of those who endure - these are easy to remember, but they are not the most important lessons. We need to learn that no place is immune to such violence, that the hatred of even a small minority can destroy peace, that radicalism arises not from true religion but from avarice and lust for power.

thoughts on: Son

Son (The Giver, #4)Son by Lois Lowry

Many years have passed since I read The Giver, and I was concerned this might diminish my enjoyment of Son. I need not have worried. Lois Lowry includes just enough references to characters in the earlier books to jog the memory, without dragging the story down with excessive exposition.

This final installment was written in response to her many readers who have asked, "What happened to the baby from the Giver?" Son is his story, but more so, it is the story of his young mother.

Opening in the tightly controlled community of The Giver, young Claire, assigned to the occupation of birthmother, gives birth to baby #36, whom she later learns is assigned the name Gabe. Divided into three distinct parts, each set in a different society, we see the difficulties and pains in each community, as we watch Claire search for her son, and, in the final segment, watch Gabe search for his mother.

thoughts on: The Glitter and the Gold

The Glitter and the Gold: The American Duchess---in Her Own WordsThe Glitter and the Gold: The American Duchess---in Her Own Words by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan

Consuelo Vanderbilt was part of the later wave of wealthy American debutantes who married English titles. Still in her teens, she married, against her wishes, the Duke of Marlborough in 1895, and was witness to the major events of the first half of the 20th century.

Her memoir, however, lacks the candor that would have made it fascinating to the modern reader. She is very discrete in speaking of her family, which is admirable, but not interesting. Although she is frank about having been forced into marriage by her ambitious mother, she refrains from discussing her marriage or any other relationships in depth.

Nor does she offer details of the events of her lifetime. The Glitter and the Gold contains glimpses of a fascinating life, touched by two world wars and at times dedicated to social issues. However, most of her memoir is mere name dropping and descriptions of many, many parties and dinners attended.

thoughts on: Fidelity

FidelityFidelity by Wendell Berry

A slender collection, Wendell Berry's Fidelity offers five short stories of life in rural Kentucky. Arranged chronologically, each episode explores a different facet of human relationships while depicting the progression of time on the rural community itself. Interweaving his characters throughout each others' stories enhances Berry's portrait of a small, but strong, interdependent community.

thoughts on: The Woman Who Died a Lot

The Woman Who Died a Lot (Thursday Next, #7)The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde

I've never liked Thursday more than in The Woman Who Died a Lot.  Militant librarians, parenting teens, pain killers, clones in tupperware, and, of course, the end of the world = another brilliant Jasper Fforde novel.

The pace of this seventh installment is slower, and so is our aging heroine.  There's less action, but plenty of the humour ffans so dearly love, and a poignancy, too.

I could go on, but I don't want to spoil the pleasure of watching the story unfold.

thoughts on: World War II London Blitz Diary

World War II London Blitz DiaryWorld War II London Blitz Diary by Ruby Side Thompson

Ruby Side Thompson was a lifelong diarist.  She poured her heart out in her diaries, the one place she felt safe revealing her unhappiness with her life, and, primarily, her husband.

Her great-granddaughter has published the volumes from World War II.  Yes, they were written during the war.  Yet she writes infrequently of the effect of war, and usually, it is only to rail against men (as a sex), whom she blames for the war.  Men, in fact are blamed for all of society's ills.  Unhappily married, and the mother of seven sons, Ruby's view of men is quite hostile.

Women fair little better.  Ruby detests the silliness of her neighbors and complains relentlessly about them taking up her time by visiting her.  In fact, in her diary, Ruby shows very little kindness towards anyone.  She is entirely absorbed by her own unhappiness.

The diaries are interesting as a character study of Ruby, but they will disappoint if you are looking for a detailed account of life during the Blitz.