During the Byzantine Empire, the Greek district of Arcadia was famous for being a simple pastoral place where people, mostly herdsmen, lived at peace in nature. Later writers described it as a kind of Utopia. In Lauren Groff’s intriguing second novel, Arcadia becomes a place of both good and evil: a New York state commune where people share idealistic dreams but never fully translate them into reality.
Bit Stone, a tiny scrawling kid, is the first child born on the commune after visionaries and druggies complete a nomadic journey across the country from the west coast. This group decides to create an intentional community of shared work and dreams. And what an intelligent, enquiring boy this protagonist is.
Although the author was too young to experience the late 60s and early 70s, she does an amazing job of capturing the feel of the era (except for those cassettes which had not become popular yet.) Read more »
I hope everyone on the east coast is staying safe after the destruction of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Sandy. Today’s storms are met with an overload of information: pictures on social media, non-stop news coverage, live reporting and high tech computer models of the storm’s projected path. But if you are in the mood for a more in-depth read about storms, check out a few of these titles.
The 1900 Galveston Hurricane was one of the deadliest on record. Over 6,000 people died in this massive storm, which was complicated by the lack of technology and a complete understanding of weather patterns. Erik Larsson is an excellent non-fiction author and in Isaac's Storm he tells the detailed story of the storm, but also of the meteorologist, Isaac Cline who failed to make the best use of the information he saw. The historical details of weather prediction combined with the suspense of the building storm make for an excellent read. Read more »
Unbroken tells the amazing true story of Louie Zamperini, a rascally little boy who grows up in Southern California to Italian immigrant parents. As a child, Louie is constantly in trouble and has a restless energy. His saving grace is being introduced to long distance running by his older brother. Louie ends up running in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and is focused on the 4 minute mile and another chance at the 1940 Olympics.
Back home, he enrolls in USC and continues running when the War interrupts. Louie joins as a gunner in the Army Air Forces. He is eventually sent to the Pacific theater and after a few successful missions, his plane crashes in the Pacific during a search mission. Three members of the aircraft team make it to two small liferafts and his unbelieveable story continues. Louie's 40+ day survival on a life raft seems impossible. Then he is shot at and captured by the Japanese and unofficially is held in horrible war camps. Here too, his survival is seemingly impossible.
Louise does survive, his spirit is damaged, but also hopeful. Louie's story will stay with you. I kept thinking of him and his story well after I finished the book. Read more »
Rhoda Janzen has a gift for describing an ordinary life in ways that make it seem extraordinary. Humor is key as in this chapter opener, "How do you tell your PhD friends, far-flung across the world at their various academic postings, that you are attending church on purpose?" And it's not just any church that this feisty ex-Mennonite has joined, but a Pentecostal one.
What's scary about ghosts? Just like a white-sheet as a lame excuse for a costume, ghosts in horror fiction might seem to be past their prime, what with the ravenous hunger for flesh of zombies or the inexplicable appetite for torture of slashers and serial killers. Ghosts don't even have bodies – what, I'm supposed to be scared of something that can flicker the lights, or at best toss a pillow at me? Read more »
“On the boat we were mostly virgins” begins Julie Otsuka’s gem of a book, The Buddha in the Attic. One of the noticeable things from that first sentence is the unique narrative mode. The whole book is written in the first person plural style. This type of narration can be awkward – most fiction is written in either first person or third person. Convention can be comforting, we know immediately how to read the story and relate to those characters. In first person plural, the story is told from the group’s perspective, and with no main character, the rules are different.
Otsuka said in an interview that she wanted to tell the story of Japanese picture brides – not just one bride, but that as a group. And in this case, the narrative mode makes perfect sense. Between 1908 and the 1920s, thousands of young Japanese women came over to the United States after an arranged marriage agreement. Instead of focusing on one story, this book introduces the reader to many stories, some devastatingly sad, some happier, but all of them are sympathetic. And by not focusing on just one story, we read the book with a fuller picture and are moved by their collective experiences and struggles. The stories begin on the boat, and follow them through marriage, manual labor, child raising and the heart wrenching internment following the attacks on Pearl Harbor. I can imagine that this book might appeal to a wide range of fiction readers – fans of historical fiction, women’s fiction, immigrant stories, Asian-American experiences, World War II home front, and readers of fiction set in California and the West. Read more »
Henry Skrimshander is a slight shortstop with a love and strong appreciation for baseball. Henry isn’t a great player, and not very strong at bat but he does have potential. When his sister writes the message “Call Mike Shorts!” by the phone, Henry’s life changes forever.
Mike Schwartz is the captain of the baseball team at Westish College in Wisconsin. Mike is addicted to painkillers (also the captain of the football team, he has bad knees), hardworking and spends a lot of his time helping his teammates become the best players they can be. He is hard on them, pushing them through more squats, more lifts, and more runs than seemingly possible.
Just as Henry is about to break the NCAA record for most error free games, an errant ball slips out of his hands and flies into the face of his roommate Owen Dunne who is sitting in the dugout reading a book. This seemingly innocuous error sets into motion a series of events that become life changing not only for Henry, Mike, and Owen but also the President of Westish, Guert Affenlight, and his daughter Pella who has just returned to Wisconsin after some personal problems of her own. Read more »
Science has always appealed to me, but it’s hard to carve out enough time to keep abreast of all the new science books; that’s one reason I really enjoy the Best American Science Writing series. It’s always fun to discover trends and reconnect with intriguing topics in the field. One good aspect of contemporary science writing is that the authors really write well and can summarize complex subjects in easily understandable language. So what’s on science writing’s 2012 burner? Medicine, for one. The first four essays explore medical themes, among them: new heart vessels for babies born with weak hearts, and immune systems trained to kill cancer cells. As Denise Grady’s article about the latter reveals, after an experimental treatment one man suffering from leukemia lost over two pounds of cancer cells. And a year later is cancer was in total remission.
My favorite essay in this collection is Evan Ratliff’s “Taming the Wild.” It’s about a Russian research team that has been breeding foxes for over fifty years. Their foxes are now so tame that not only are they adopted for pets, but they share many puppylike traits such spotted coats, wagging tails, floppy ears and curly tails. A contrasting group of foxes has been bred for aggression and, believe me, you'd want to stay clear of their cages. Read more »