Book Reviews

Daniel James Brown
Viking

 

You can buy The Boys in the Boat  on Amazon here.

 

He came to understand how those almost mystical bonds of trust and affection, if nurtured correctly, might lift a crew above the ordinary sphere, transport it to a place where nine boys somehow became one thing—a thing that could not quite be defined, a thing that was so in tune with water and the earth and the sky above that, as they rowed, effort was replaced by ecstasy. It was a rare thing, a sacred thing…
                                                                                                     

                                        from  The Boys in the Boat

 

If you liked the film, Chariots of Fire, you’re going to love The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown’s riveting account of the U.S. rowing team who beat the German and Italian teams at Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics. Like fellow Seattle writer Erik Larson, Brown writes history as if it were a novel.

This saga is about nine youth from the University of Washington—“they were farm boys or lumberjacks or fishermen, the products of foggy coastal villages, damp dairy farms, and smoky lumber towns all over the state.”

They had come of age amid a crippling worldwide depression and Brown tells their stories, especially that of Joe Rantz, who Brown met as Rantz was dying 70 years after that moment in Berlin.

All the boys were poor, but Joe had had a particularly hardscrabble life. His mother died when he was four. Unfortunately, his stepmother didn’t like him, so Joe was sent to live by himself in their mining town’s one-room schoolhouse. He was ten years old.

Later, his father moved the family to Sequim and tried farming. Relations didn’t improve between Joe and his stepmother, and Joe returned home from school one day to find the family car packed with all their belongings. His father explained they were moving to California to find work; Joe would have to remain behind by himself. He was fifteen. It is hard to read these accounts and wonder at how callous parents could be, and certainly makes a strong case for CPS.

If Joe is the determined, self-reliant heart of the book, its spiritual center is George Pocock, who handcrafted the sleek 64-foot boats (“shells”) and became Joe’s mentor. He considered rowing less a sport than an art, “a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why it’s nearing perfection. And when you near perfection, you’re touching the Divine.”

The Washington underdogs began to take on the eastern elite schools who considered rowing to be their sport, setting up “a clash of eastern privilege and prestige on the one hand and western sincerity and brawn on the other. In financial terms, it was pretty starkly going to be a clash of old money versus no money at all.”

In the prologue, Brown relates how, when interviewing Joe Rantz at the end of his life, the only times the old man became emotional and would weep was when he talked about “the boat.” We understand. It had been the shining and defining moment of his life.

 

 




This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (October 15-November 14, 2013.) Reprinted with permission.

You can buy The Boys in the Boat on Amazon here.


Max Barry
The Penguin Press

 

You can buy Lexicon  on Amazon here.

 

…Like the gunmen who went around assassinating people with military-issue sniper rifles in 2003. Like the anthrax in the mall in 2006. For a few weeks everyone freaks out, we need more security, we need scanners, we need to take people’s photograph when they enter a government building. Then a month later everyone’s calmed down and yet we still get these incredibly intrusive new processes and technologies, which would have made zero difference to the incident that inspired them. This isn’t an accident; this happens because to people at the top, the scariest thing is how many people there are below. They need to watch us. They need to monitor what we’re thinking. It’s the only thing between them and a guillotine. Every time something like this happens, anytime there’s death and fear and people demanding action, to them that’s an opportunity.                                             

                                    From Lexicon

                                                                                  
                                                                            

 

Wil Parke has been abducted for some important information that he possesses, though he has no idea what it is. He and his abductors are being pursued by a vast and powerful organization that also wants him and this knowledge. Along with the reader, Wil tries to make some sense of all this: What is this information that he supposedly possesses? Why can’t he remember it? Who are his abductors—and, by the way, are they the good guys or the bad guys?

Meanwhile…

Sixteen-year old Emily Ruff is a youth living by her exceptionally sharp wits on the streets of San Francisco. Smart, independent and gutsy, Emily is recruited to attend a school for exceptional kids, but a school like none other, where the students are trained to control other people’s minds through the skillful application of words. Those who oversee the school are called Poets, and they and the instructors have adopted names like Yeats, Brontë, and Eliot.

Emily is at first intrigued by this school and enjoys its benefits, and she excels at the curriculum; but being a natural rebel, she begins to chafe at the rules and limitations imposed on the students. Eventually, she is expelled…with some dangerous skills.

The narrative seesaws between these two seemingly unrelated stories, going down parallel tracks, until they suddenly converge.

Lexicon is being touted as a “cerebral thriller”, and it certainly has all the requisite thrills, chills and implausible situations of the thriller genre.

The dialogue is crisp and fast-moving:

“Persuade them to stop chasing us…Offer them something. Make a deal. Give them something they want.”

“But what they want is you.”

“Something else.”

This is one of those books whose reading induces paranoia and makes you regret ever having given out your social security number and mother’s maiden name. Or even having a social security number.

We’re talking mind control here, far more sophisticated than Orwell ever imagined in 1984, with its clunky totalitarian attempts at suppressing individual thoughts and desires. But then we have gone far beyond 1984 in so many ways.

The message we are left with is that words are powerful. Words are magical. Words can be dangerous. But then, we already knew that.

 

 

 




This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (August 15-September 14, 2013.) Reprinted with permission.

You can buy Lexicon on Amazon here.


Jamie Ford
Ballantine Books

 

You can buy Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet  on Amazon here.

 

Henry stared in silence as a small parade of wooden packing crates and leathery suitcases were hauled upstairs, the crowd marveling at the once-precious items held within: a white communion dress, tarnished silver candlesticks, a picnic basket—items that had collected dust, untouched, for forty-plus years. Saved for a happier time that never came.

The more Henry thought about the shabby old knickknacks, the forgotten treasures, the more he wondered if his own broken heart might be found in there, hidden among the unclaimed possessions of another time. Boarded up in the basement of a condemned hotel. Lost, but never forgotten.

From Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

 

Those novels that entertain us, we like; those that move us, we love. Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet will be loved by many.

The story opens in 1986, when the new owner of the Panama Hotel in Seattle’s International District discovers suitcases and boxes that have been stored in the basement for more than 40 years. They were left there by Japanese-Americans who were interned during the Second World War. A crowd assembles outside the hotel as the owner holds a press conference in an attempt to return the belongings to the descendants of those families. In the crowd is Henry Lee, a Chinese-American and recent widower. As the hotel owner displays some of the items, Henry is transported back to 1942, when he was a twelve-year old boy, living in Seattle’s Chinatown, and where he fell in love with Keiko, a Japanese-American girl.

On one level this is a star-crossed lovers’ tale with an ethnic twist, for there is centuries-old enmity between the Chinese and the Japanese communities, made deeper now by Japan’s brutal conquest of China.

Ford’s story slides smoothly between 1942 and 1986 with the fluidity of memory. He captures what it was like to live in that time in small, telling details: Henry’s father makes him wear a button to his all-white elementary school, declaring “I am Chinese.” (This is several months after Pearl Harbor.) In Nihonmachi (Japantown), Henry notices American flags decorating every home and storefront. His father also forbids him to speak their native Cantonese, even in their own home. He must now speak only English—which his parents do not understand.

There are some very sweet moments in the book (on the whole, it is more sweet than bitter): Henry practices a Japanese phrase to tell Keiko that she is beautiful, only to discover that she doesn’t speak Japanese. She is American.

It may be a little too sweet for some readers’ literary palates, and there are some coincidences that may strain readers’ credulity, but Henry’s story will move people.

Hotel has been chosen as the “Community Reads” book for this year’s Celebration of Literacy, and the organizers are to be commended for their choice, for this is a book that will speak to middle school students as well as senior citizens, capturing the indelible imprint on one’s soul of first love that can last and color a lifetime.

 

 




This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (February 15-March 14, 2010.) Reprinted with permission.

You can buy Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet on Amazon here.


Gabrielle Zevin
Algonquin Books

You can buy The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry on Amazon here.

 

Despite the fact that he loves books and owns a bookstore, A.J. does not particularly care for writers. He finds them to be unkempt, narcissistic, silly, and generally unpleasant people. He tries to avoid meeting the ones who’ve written books he loves for fear that they will ruin their books for him. Luckily, he does not love Daniel’s books, not even the popular first novel. As for the man? Well, he amuses A.J. to an extent. This is to say, Daniel Parish is one of A.J.’s closest friends.

                         from  The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

 

Benjamin Alire Saenz
Simon & Schuster

You can buy Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe on Amazon here.

 

Feeling sorry for myself was an art. I think a part of me liked doing that….I had all kinds of tragic reasons for feeling sorry for myself. Being fifteen didn’t help. Sometimes I thought that being fifteen was the worst tragedy of all.

 from  Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

 

Garth Stein
Simon & Schuster

You can buy A Sudden Light on Amazon here.

 

Growing up in rural Connecticut, I had been told the name Riddell meant something to people in the Northwest. My paternal great-great-grandfather was someone of significance, my mother explained to me. Elijah Riddell had accumulated a tremendous fortune in the forest industry, a fortune that was later lost by those who succeeded him. My forefathers had literally changed the face of America—with axes and two-man saws and diesel donkeys to buck the fallen, with mills to pulp the corpses and scatter the ashes, they carved out a place in history for us all. And that place, I was told, was cursed.

                                             from  A Sudden Light

 

Christina Baker Kline
Harper Collins Publishers

You can buy Orphan Train on Amazon here.

“So is it just human nature to believe that things happen for a reason—to find some shred of meaning even in the worst experiences?” Molly asks when Vivian reads some of these stories aloud.

“It certainly helps,” Vivian says.

from Orphan Train

 

Tom Robbins
Harper Collins Publishers

You can buy Tibetan Peach Pie on Amazon here.

This is not an autobiography. God forbid! Autobiography is fueled by ego and I could make a long list of persons whose belly buttons I’d rather be contemplating than my own. Anyway, only authors who are household names should write autobiographies, and not only is my name infrequently tumbled in the lapidary of public consciousness, but those rare homes in which it’s spoken with any regularity are likely under police surveillance.

                                           from  Tibetan Peach Pie

For Tom Robbins, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

Robbins burst onto the literary scene in 1971, with the publication of Another Roadside Attraction, which quickly became a cult favorite, a made-to-order book for hormonely inspired college kids, eager to see how far they could stretch the boundaries of authority.

This was followed by Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Still Life With Woodpecker, Jitterbug Perfume, and other imaginative serio-comic novels with philosophical undercurrents.

So it comes as no surprise that his memoir is written in the same style: wacky, quirky and irreverent, mischievous but without malice. If it doesn’t read like a normal memoir, “that may be because I haven’t exactly led what most normal people would consider a normal life.” This is called an understatement.

He grew up in Virginia during the Depression. From early childhood he had two deep and lifelong passions. One was for the opposite sex (“Her name was Bobbi. She was eleven—an ‘older woman.’”) His other passion was for words and writing: “I started writing fiction at the age of five. Hardly an overnight success, however, I didn’t get published until I was seven”—in the school newspaper. Becoming “a literary lion in the second grade,” Robbins knew that he wanted to be a writer.

As in his novels, he comes up with madcap metaphors that often hijack his sentences, such as describing the summer he reached puberty “when testosterone first barreled into my plasma, piloting a red speedboat and scattering large pieces of childhood in its wake.”

He recounts experiences from eighty-plus years—his stint in the air force, his several marriages, his travels and his friends—but without reflecting much on them. An exception is when he writes about his experience using LSD, fulfilling “a vague yet poignant desire to experience, up close and personal, the fundamental essence of reality.”

From a life filled with so much merriment and mayhem, it was that experience that would prove to be “the most rewarding day of my life, the one day I would not trade for any other.”

Robbins wrote his memoir, he tells us, without referring to any notes or journals (he never kept them), but believes he has “a pretty good memory and can at a moment’s notice name the lineup of the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers and all but one or two of my ex-wives.”

Ah, well, we remember the important things.

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (October 15-November 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.

You can buy Tibetan Peach Pie on Amazon here.


Edward St. Aubyn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

You can buy Lost for Words on Amazon here.

“Personally I think that competition should be encouraged in war and sport and business, but that it makes no sense in the arts. If an artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent. Only the mediocre, pushing forward a commonplace view of life in a commonplace language, can really be compared, but my wife thinks that ‘least mediocre of the mediocre’ is a discouraging title for a prize.”

                                           from  Lost for Words

Ever wonder how books are chosen for those prestigious literary prizes—the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Award, the Pulitzer, the Hugo, the Edgar?

In his novel, Lost for Words, Edward St. Aubyn, author of the popular Patrick Melrose series, delightfully skewers the personalities and the politics that decide the winners.

Malcolm Craig, an obscure opposition MP with little to do on the backbench and no literary credentials is appointed to head the Elysian Prize committee, a clear reference to the Man Booker Prize—Britain’s highest literary award—for which, it just so happens, St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk, was shortlisted, and lost.

To join him on the jury selecting the year’s most worthy novel, Craig gathers an Oxbridge academic, a retired officer from the Foreign Office, a popular actor, and (well, why not) even a writer.

They argue vehemently over the nominated books they haven’t actually read (200 titles—how could they?) and fight passionately for the one book they have.

The shortlist is pared down to: The Mulberry Elephant, The Frozen Torrent, wot u starin at, The Greasy Pole, and a cookbook, submitted by mistake from the publishing firm of Page and Turner.

Some members of the committee immediately recognize The Palace Cookbook as “the boldest metafictional performance of our time.” A collection of Indian recipes, it also contains brief family stories (Think Suzanne Martinson’s The Fallingwater Cookbook.)

Ever since Swift and Gulliver’s Travels, satire has been a staple of British literature. Certainly, other cultures also employ satire, but the British do it with a certain wicked glee—Yes, I know I’m being naughty, but isn’t this fun?

In that fine British tradition, St. Aubyn has his fun, making sharp observations on everything, from how committees operate (“Malcolm favoured a collegiate approach: there was nothing like proving you were a team player to get your own way”) to our selfie-obsessed modern society where “the collective unconscious has become the collective self-conscious”; even on falling in love (“…it had all gone terribly wrong, but that, after all, was the point of romantic folly. If it hadn’t all gone terribly wrong, it wouldn’t have been the real thing.”)

Along the way, the committee struggles to decide who will receive the coveted Elysian Prize. I won’t give away which book wins because, well, really, who cares?

A footnote: Lost for Words won the 2014 Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction. Just as well, since it’s not likely to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (September 15-October 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.

You can buy Lost for Words on Amazon here.


Anthony Doerr
Scribner

You can buy All The Light We Cannot See on Amazon here.

It strikes Werner just then as wondrously futile to build splendid buildings, to make music, to sing songs, to print huge books full of colorful birds in the face of the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world—what pretensions humans have! Why bother to make music when the silence and wind are so much larger? Why light lamps when the darkness will inevitably snuff them? When Russian prisoners are chained by threes and fours to fences while German privates tuck live grenades in their pockets and run?

                                from  All the Light We Cannot See

What the war did to dreamers, laments a character at the end of Anthony Doerr’s new novel, All the Light We Cannot See.

It’s 1944 in occupied France, a few weeks after the D-Day invasion. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a sixteen-year-old French girl who is blind. Werner Pfennig is an eighteen-year-old German soldier. Their lives are about to converge in the historic walled town of Saint-Malo.

The story then jumps ten years earlier, and in brief, alternating chapters, we follow Marie and Werner through their childhoods and adolescences as they make their way to the approaching rendezvous in a future they cannot discern.

Marie loses her sight at six, but her devoted father, who works at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, finds creative ways to help her compensate for the loss, and she develops a curious and active mind.

Werner and his younger sister, Jutta, are orphans in Germany as Nazism rises around them. Werner has a fascination and aptitude for mechanical things, and he builds radios from discarded junk. With these, he and Jutta entertain themselves listening to programs.

Because of this technical aptitude, Werner is sent to an elite school for Hitler Youth, where he devises the equipment and methodology to “triangulate” and identify the location of another radio transmitter’s signal.

With the outbreak of war and the Germans advance on Paris, the museum attempts to safeguard its greatest treasures. Marie’s father is entrusted to take with him and hide a large exquisite diamond, called the Sea of Flame. He and Marie depart for the small seaside town of Saint-Malo in Brittany, where they stay with Marie’s eccentric great uncle Etienne. Hidden within his house, Etienne has a radio that he uses to send messages for the French resistance.

The Wehrmacht has successfully used Werner’s skill to locate and destroy the radio transmitters of the resistance fighters in Eastern Europe. As the Germans prepare for the Normandy invasion, Werner is sent to France to locate the French resistance’s radio signals.

And the scene is set.

When Marie and Werner’s lives at last converge, we see what they cannot: their personal stories trailing behind them like the tails of two comets.

What we call destiny may be sensing the way one has come before it happens, and glimpsing the trajectory of the soul working backwards in time.

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (August 15-September 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.

You can buy All The Light We Cannot See on Amazon here.