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Behind the Beautiful Forevers

by Hal on July 10th, 2012
Behind the Beautiful Forevers Cover Image

I was almost a third of the way through Katherine Boo’s book about life in a Mumbai slum before I realized that what I was reading a non-fiction account and not a novel. Despite its disturbing subject matter, this book was a pleasure to read. With immersive prose rather than distant description, Boo tells the stories of the people of Annawadi, an outcast neighborhood separated from the gleaming hotels of the Mumbai International Airport by a concrete wall plastered with the slogan for a popular floor tile, BEAUTIFUL FOREVER, BEAUTIFUL FOREVER. The juxtaposition of rich and poor is constant throughout the book and a source of Boo’s most powerful writing:

Now it poured, a stinging rain. On the high grounds of the liquid city, rich people spoke of the romance of monsoon: the languorous sex, retail therapy, and hot jalebis that eased July into August. At Annawadi, the sewage lake crept forward like a living thing. Sick water buffalo nosed for food through mounds of wet, devalued garbage, shitting out the consequences of bad choices with a velocity Annawadi water taps had never equaled. People, also sick, stamped the mud from their feet and said, “My stomach is on fire, my chest.” “All up and down this leg, all night.” The sewage lake’s frogs sang sympathetically, but you couldn’t hear the frogsong indoors. Rain banged on the metal rooftops as if slum zebras were stampeding overhead.

Despite writing about people born into an unfair and inflexible social structure, many of whom will only leave Annawadi upon death; Boo does not romanticize or shrink from reporting the human pettiness, jealousies and cruelties that exist within the slum social structure.

Instead, powerless individuals blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked. Sometimes they tried to destroy one another. Sometimes…they destroyed themselves in the process. When they were fortunate,…they improved their lots by beggaring the life chances of other poor people.

India is a fascinating, beautiful and intriguing country, but I encourage you to read this book, tuck it away in the back of your mind and use it if needed to look Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths

by Hal on February 6th, 2012
Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths Cover Image

Ok, you’ve read your Bulfinch and your Edith Hamilton and feel that you have a pretty good foundation in Greek and Roman mythology; or perhaps you are new to mythology and just want a sampling before fully committing. Either way, you will enjoy Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths by Philip Freeman.

Freeman, a Qualley Professor of Classics at Luther College, pulls together bits and pieces from many scholarly sources to give shading and dimension to the greatest hits of Greek and Roman mythology. With a compact but appreciative writing style, Freeman relays the Trojan War, Odyssey, and Aeneid in single chapters! Gone is the flower of larger works, but Freeman’s gritty nuggets of love, cruelty, incest, jealousy, fear and redemption gives gristle and bite to these well worn tales. Few of these stories end well. If you are familiar with the classics there will likely be “triggers” of emotion such as when King Priam pleads with the mighty Achilles to return the body of the King’s son, Hector “of the shining helmet”; or possibly, when Oedipus puts out his own eyes upon learning the horror of his deeds.

All is not bleak however, for balancing the tragic are tales of touching humanity, reminding us that all these stories have passed through countless storytellers, leaving only those that strike a human chord to survive. As I read this book I imagined grains of sand sifting into the cracks and fissures of myth, making it solid, making it human, making it last.

A genealogy, glossary and index at the back make this an excellent sourcebook, both for myths and crosswords.

With the Old Breed

by Hal on June 22nd, 2011
With the Old Breed Cover Image

E.B. Sledge has written what might be the finest memoir of combat in World War II, and perhaps any war. In honest, straightforward prose the author recounts in sometimes surreal detail the savage fighting between men of the 1st Marine Division and Japanese soldiers on the islands of Peleliu and Okanawa. The Old Breed was the basis for the HBO mini-series The Pacific by Steven Spielberg. As gritty as many of the scenes in that production were, they pale against the impact of the book, with its smells, sounds, emotions, and overlayed scenes of heartbreaking beauty and unimaginable horror :

“As daylight waned, I looked out to our front through the drizzling rain falling through the still, foul air. A wisp of smoke rose straight up from the pack of the Japanese soldier ‘Kathy’ had killed. The tracers had set something on fire. The thin finger of smoke rose high and then spread out abruptly to form a disc that appeared to rest on the column. So delicate and unreal, the smoke stood there in the stagnant, fetid air like a marker over the corpse. Everything out there was motionless, only death and desolation among the enemy bodies.”

By the time of the battle of Peleliu, the Japanese had for the most part abandoned the use of the banzai charge and adopted the tactic of fighting from heavily fortified mutually supported fixed positions that were near impervious to naval and air bombardment. Fighting was up-close, personal, and without quarter. An avid hunter before the war, the author abandoned that activity upon his return. Amidst the tropical beauty of the Pacific he had witnessed enough “youthful human wreckage” to ever kill again.

Essex County

by Hal on March 16th, 2011
Essex County Cover Image

The first graphic novel to be a contender for the CBC “Canada Reads” competition, Essex County compiles three novels by Jeff Lemire, telling the tale of three generations of the LeBeuf family living in  a farming community in Ontario, Canada.  Love, grief, filial estrangement and reconciliation, buried family secrets; and of course, the integral sport of hockey find their way to the reader through emotions conveyed in spare yet rich drawings of black & white.  Unlike the descriptive power of the novel or the visual display of film, a good graphic novel provides a little of both, leaving enough room for the reader to enter and pace the story to their own heart. This is a good graphic novel.

The Things They Carried

by Hal on July 30th, 2010
The Things They Carried Cover Image

Often mentioned as essential reading among books about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien is far, far more than a collection of wartime experiences. It can be read for the narrative: rice paddies, claymores, jungle, fear, lost buddies; but it hits hardest when it reminds the reader that we are all made up of the things  we carry, both real and imaginary. This is a book about the power of storytelling, both to ourselves and to others, and how the stories we tell shape the lives we choose to live. In addition to the title story, my favorite entry in the collection was the last one, “The Lives of the Dead” where a childhood sweetheart dies of a brain tumor. Here, the author unabashedly uses imagination, willpower, and the strength of story to make his love be “not quite so dead.” Because of story, she is with him still,  as are his companions in Vietnam.  He shares them all with us. And we carry them along.

Let the Great World Spin

by Hal on November 18th, 2009
Let the Great World Spin Cover Image

Nominated as a finalist for the 2009 National Book Awards, Colum McCann uses Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers as a tangential connecting point for the lives of its central characters.  Rich and heartfelt, the stories of Petit, an Irish monk, a Bronx hooker and her daughter, a Park Avenue mother who mourns the loss of her son who was killed in Vietnam, and many others swirl and impact each other on the streets of New York.  More than a shared common experience, the wire walker serves to remind the reader that what ties together the indifferent steel and concrete of the City are thousands upon thousands of interconnected people, all strung together by the human conditions of suffering, resilience, tragedy and compassion.

My ultimate compliment to this book is that when I started it I was trapped inside of an airplane surrounded by two screaming babies. I have to assume that they cried the whole flight, because they were crying at liftoff when I started reading and crying when I finally stopped at touchdown; what they did in between I haven’t a clue, as I was deep in the heart of New York.

Omaha Beach by Joseph Balkoski

by Hal on November 17th, 2009
Omaha Beach by Joseph Balkoski Cover Image

Using numerous interviews made by Army historians soon after the battle for Omaha Beach as well as maps and medal citations, the author constructs a raw, first-hand recounting of one of the most costly one-day combats of World War II.  Focus is almost exclusively on the single day of June 6, 1944, taking the reader from the failed pre-dawn bombing campaigns to the devastating fire encountered by the first assault units, to the close infighting within small hamlets and dense hedgerows at the end of the day.  Two things I take away from this account are the resiliency, courage and resourcefulness of the troops, and the pervasive constant foreboding they felt that the Germans would counter-attack and push them off the beach before it  was secured.   Sixty-five years after the fact, this book is a stark reminder that to the soldiers on the beach the final outcome of this assault was far from pre-ordained.

Unknown Soldiers by Joseph Garland

by Hal on September 12th, 2009
Unknown Soldiers by Joseph Garland Cover Image

In Unknown Soldiers, Garland couples extensive use of primary source material and impeccable research to convey the terror, boredom, serendipity, stupidity, comradery and mud that the “dogface” soldier faced in the European campaign of World War II. Using photos, interviews and notes from his field journal (unauthorized, of course) the reader is gradually introduced to the author’s platoon members of the Intelligence and Reconnaissance (I&R) Platoon of the 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division.  Accounts of fighting in Italy at Anzio and the Winter Line are particularly harrowing. The incessant pounding from German 88mm cannons, the terror of attacking Panzer divisions, and the swift deadliness of machine gun fire goes on for day after day after wet, soggy, mud filled day. By the end of the book one can easily relate to the platoonmate of the author who describes being back in the States after the war and walking down a street when “a load o’coal went down one of those sidewalk chutes, WHOOSH like a shell comin’ in, and I picked myself up out of the gutter but didn’t feel too bad because down the street about twenty-five yards another guy was doin’ the same thing, and we looked at each other. He’d been there.”

Not only does the book look at the war through a soldier’s eyes, but it also includes third-party accounts that describe the how the soldiers appear to the eyes of others. Included is a memoir of a French Resistance fighter who actually joins the platoon when it reaches France. It also includes an interview with a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp who relates the liberation of the camp by soldiers of the 157th.

Personally, what I will always remember is the insertion of the heartbreaking poem, “Vale” (Latin for “farewell”) written by the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Peter Viereck in tribute to his brother George who was a member of the author’s platoon and who was killed by mortar fire on the Anzio beachhead, near Rome. The poet relates how he was standing among Roman tombstones in Carthage when he learned of his brother’s death.  The term “Vale” was often inscribed on Roman tombstones and is used in the poem for the two wars to “mix their dead”.  Incidentally, if you look at the book jacket, two of the three men pictured did not come home.  “frater, ave atque vale

A Prisoner of Birth by Jeffrey Archer

by Hal on April 24th, 2008
A Prisoner of Birth by Jeffrey Archer Cover Image

Before starting this novel of revenge and treachery, you will want to make sure that you own or have access to some of those rubber finger tips, as you will assuredly need them if you are going to keep up with this page turner. Chapter breaks act only as mild speed bumps in this 500-page tomb of escapist fiction. Loosely patterned after Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, the story centers around the redemption and  revenge of an illiterate London East Ender who is framed and falsely imprisoned for the murder of his best friend, who is actually killed by four well connected, upper-class louts. It was only after I finished the novel that I learned that Jeffrey Archer had spent two years behind bars on a perjury conviction. His first-hand knowledge certainly gives added legitimacy to the prison scenes. Indeed, it is not much of a stretch to imagine Archer himself using the novel’s characters to exact his own revenge on those who imprisoned him. If you are heading to the beach, a long airport stretch, or you simply "just want to get away" for a while, pick up this book, and be gone.

Telegraph Days by Larry McMurtry

by Hal on September 20th, 2007
Telegraph Days by Larry McMurtry Cover Image

After their father “hung himself to death” Marie Antoinette "Nellie" Courtright and her brother, Jackson are left orphaned in Rita Blanca, a small dusty town located in what will eventually become the Oklahoma panhandle, but for now is simply known as No-Man’s-Land. Nellie describes herself as "twenty-two, kissable, and of an independent disposition", attributes that when mixed with luck and opportunity put her next to, or in bed with just about every legendary figure of the Old West.  Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp (plus his brothers Warren and semi-sweet Virgil), Doc Holliday, George Custer, Wild Bill Hickock, and Billy the Kidd find their way into a chapter or two. Even General William Tecumseh Sherman pays a brief visit.

Like the dime novel genre that makes its literary debut in this rambling epic, Telegraph Days is short on character and plot, but long on action. As a fan of McMurtry, my first impression was one of disappointment, feeling that this was a simple piece of contrived fluff, dashed off to please the publishers. I still think it is fluff, but the darned thing continues to tug at me.

What strikes me the most is the realization that all of these larger than life characters really did flash and burn within a possible single lifetime. Through this twenty-two year old heroine we briefly meet in human form men and women who are now permanent residents of Old West mythology. To me, the most poignant character in the book is the town of Rita Blanca which at the end of the book lives on as a recreated movie set, even as the original town fades into oblivion.

Hal at the Library

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