Tag Archives: books

The Nightingale

At Mrs. Poolman’s suggestion, I picked up The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah after Mrs. P had finished it. I had some initial doubts, since I suspected it was “chick book.” In fact, it probably is, but there were enough other plot elements to keep me interested.

The NightengaleThe book is the story of two French sisters living in Nazi-occupied France during World War II.  Each in her own way resists the Germans. When they were young, their mother died and their father essentially dumped into the care of a guardian. The “chick” part of the plot deals a lot with the two sisters’ ambivalent feelings towards each other and towards their remote and mostly absent father. To be honest, it was this part of the story that kept me from finishing it sooner.

On the other hand, the author places the characters and their family angst into an interesting and active time and place in history. One sister is active in the French underground. Her adventures keep the story moving along. The other sister stays at home and mostly just copes with the occupiers and tries to survive and protect her daughter. About half way through the book a crisis involving her best friend forces her to take a more active role in resisting the Germans. Things pick up at that point.

There is no equivocating about whom the author considers the good guys and the bad guys. Although one Wehrmacht officer is depicted as a decent human being, the remaining Germans are painted as purely evil.

The entire World War II story is told as a flash-back as one of the sisters is remembering it in 1995. You don’t know which sister is the modern character, and I won’t spoil it for you.

I had one major complaint with the book, and it was one I repeated to Mrs. P several times. I wish the author had taken a little more care with the history in which she has planted her story. Time after time she describes war-related events that, if not totally impossible, were at least highly improbable.

She has characters discussing how the war was going badly for the Germans in North Africa before they really were. She has one of the sisters smuggling downed American fliers out of France months before Americans actually began any kind of aerial activity. (There were American fliers in the RAF, so this isn’t totally impossible, just unlikely.) She has an American Mustang (Hannah makes a point of saying it is a Mustang.) shot down while strafing a German airfield in the middle of the night She places this a good year before Mustangs were used in any numbers. And no one was strafing airfields at night any way. It’s night, so the pilots can’t see what they are doing. They also risk flying into the ground or into trees while making low-level passes.

In summary, The Nightingale isn’t bad. I’m not sorry I took the time to read it. However, I think it will appeal more to readers who enjoy stories about women’s feelings and relationships (Mrs. Poolman, for instance), rather than those who prefer a more action-focused plot.

“American Nations” — A very interesting book, but a bit snarky

American nations 1 I read an interesting book a few weeks ago, “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” by Colin Woodard.

Woodard takes a very interesting, historical look at North America, mostly the USA, and the various cultures that comprise us. It goes a long way to explaining the cultural and political differences among our national regions, such as the significant differences between the Deep South and New England.

Woodard’s approach is historical and not overly technical. It’s a fascinating story.

My only issue with Woodard is towards the end of the book, as his narrative starts to approach the present. A New Englander himself, he makes no secret of his contempt for the South, where I spent most of my adult life. He allows himself the satisfaction of making some snarky comments that undercut his credibility. For example, he suggests the South needs research universities that don’t look to the King James Bible as a primary science text. I trust he meant that comment a little tongue-in-cheek and not literally. However, it does make you wonder how much his personal prejudice influenced other descriptions in the book. That having been said, I still found the book very interesting.

In case you are curious, here is a map of Woodard’s, 11 nations of North America.

American Nations 2

Books, books and more books

Both Mrs. Poolman and I do a lot of reading for pleasure. In the past, a book or a bookstore gift certificate was considered a pretty good birthday or Christmas present around our house. Lately, however, that has changed, or at least it feels like it has changed. The problem? Between downloading e-books on her Nook and the availability of getting new releases from the Village Library, a present of a new book doesn’t seem any more special than picking up a gallon of milk at the grocery store.

The library in question is a small community library that serves the community near my workplace. It is chock-full of popular writers. It generally has a good collection of new releases, which they rent for 30 cents per day. Considering that Mrs. P goes through two to three books a week, that is a bargain compared to a $25 new-purchase price new.

Mrs. P typically gives me a list of books and authors she wants to read. I stop by the library a few times a week and check to see what they have. It’s a good system that usually keeps Mrs. P in fresh reading material, but it takes the shine off of giving her a book or gift card as a present. All the same, I still gave her a Barnes & Noble gift card for Christmas.

Speaking of books, I read two interesting ones recently.

The Panther“The Panther” is one of a continuing series of thrillers by Nelson DeMille that feature one of his main protagonists, sarcastic, wise-cracking John Corey (The Lion, The Lion’s Game, Night Fall, Plum Island, Wildfire). In this book, Corey is still a member of the Anti-Terrorism Task Force. He and his wife, FBI agent Kate Mayfield, are sent to Yemen to track down the latest Islamic terrorist, nicknamed “the Panther.” Actually, Corey and Mayfield are selected because the higher-ups believe they will serve as bait to draw the terrorist out of hiding. DeMille teams Corey up with another of his previous protagonists, Paul Brenner (The General’s Daughter, Up Country). On top of being served up as bait for the Panther, Corey suspects that some members of the American team would not be unhappy if he and Kate were to return to the US in body bags.

You can pretty much figure the story from there. While the destination is predictable, the ride is a good one.

I do have just one criticism. Much of the book is narrated in the first person by Corey. While the wise-cracking is an integral part of his character, the sarcastic comments come about every other line. It gets a little old after awhile. It was just over-the-top. DeMille could tone that down just a little in his next gook and the book would be a little more readable.

Paris in love“Paris in Love” by Eloisa James is an entirely different sort of read. College professor and romance writer James moved to Paris to live for a year with her husband and two children. I am still fascinated with anything to do with Paris. Her book is a memoir of sorts or their year there. James is a clever writer. The book is interesting, especially to someone who just visited Paris a couple of months ago. There is no plot or theme to speak of. The book is broken up into a long series of short anecdotes and thoughts – snapshots of her experiences. It feels like a year-long series of Facebook posts. I enjoyed sharing James’ enjoyment of her year in Paris. The stories about her children will give you a grin. I’m not sure her precocious 11-year old daughter is really that precocious, but James’ stories about her are worth a chuckle. “Paris in Love” is a light and short read, and one worth the effort.

 

“The Age of Miracles” — interesting read

AGE OF MIRACLESMy most recent read – “The Age of  Miracles” — by Karen Thompson Walker – is a long way from my usual read-for-fun fare. This short novel is half a “coming of age” story and half a science-fiction end-of-the-world story.

The story is told in the first person by 11-year old Julia, who lives in Southern California with her parents. The world awakes one morning to discover the Earth’s rotation is slowing down. While Julia is working her way through the perils and pitfalls of being a bright, thoughtful, but socially inept adolescent, she and the rest of the human race are dealing with a series of calamities associated with the “slowing” as they call it.

The Julia half of the story is pretty much standard young-adult material. Best friends drift away. Julia has issues with her parents. There is a boy who interests Julia, but he doesn’t know she exists. And so on.

What makes it different is the setting in the world that is changing rapidly, and not for the better. Days and nights become longer. Gravity increases, killing birds and causing “gravity sickness” in some humans. Plants die. Entire ways of living change. No one knows what the world may look like tomorrow. In this book tomorrow may be 50 hours away.

The entire book is filled with angst. Julia deals with the usual young adolescent uncertainties. At the same time, the reader watches the changes happening on Earth with impending doom. The author intersperses Julia’s narration with comments like “And that was the last pineapple we ever ate.”

The ending is not what I expected, but I won’t spoil it by telling you what it is.

“The Age of Miracles” is a different kind of story, and one I would recommend.

Winter of the World

I just finished the second part of Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy, “Winter of the World.” I have been a big Follett fan since I read “Eye of the Needle” back in the 1970s. His two books on medieval England, “Pillars of the Earth” and “World Without End,” are two of my favorites. Follett seems to write best when he tackles an “epic” that encompasses many characters and many years.

The latest book is a follow-up to “Fall of Giants.” In the trilogy, he tells the story of several families, American, English, Russian and German, from pre-World War I onwards. “Winter of the World” starts in the Great Depression and follows the families through World War II – through historical and personal crises. Follett writes a good story and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Somewhat surprisingly, it wasn’t too difficult to keep track of the multitudinous characters and story-lines. A list of the cast of characters in the front of the book was a help.

You don’t have to read “Fall of Giants” first, but it might help. Both are very good, so by reading it first, you can double your pleasure.

Two interesting reads — owls and Indians

I finished two fairly interesting books recently.

The first, I actually listened to as an audiobook. I spend a little over an hour a day commuting to and from work. Local radio is so bad, so usually have an audiobook going. The local library here near my work has a pretty good collection and rents them for 40 cents per day. It’s money well spent.

The audiobook was “Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl” by Stacey O’ Brien.

The title pretty much tells you the story. This is a first-person account of the author’s experience raising and caring for an injured barn owl from infancy to his eventual death at 19 years of age.

I think maybe I was expecting an avian version of “Dewey” the library cat, a fairly light, amusing story of an unusual pet.

Stacey and Wesley

However, O’Brien’s experience raising a wild owl was much more intense. O’Brien and Wesley developed an intimate bond, far beyond what you would expect in a typical human-pet relationship.  O’Brien didn’t just adopt a pet. She entered into a very close relationship in which Wesley viewed her as his life-long mate.

Their story is extremely interesting. Although some of the details of their interaction might make you squirm a little.  I’m glad I read/listened to it and would recommend it highly.

More information on Stacey and Wesley can be found here.

The second book is also non-fiction  – “The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance In Early America” by Scott Weidensaul. The book focuses on the various interactions between Native Americans and the early British settlers from the founding of Jamestown to the French and Indian War. This is not a subject that has received a lot of attention in popular historical literature. I was only partially familiar with much of the material.

The book is well-written and interesting. It was especially fascinating to read the accounts of the colonists and Native Americans in areas where I have lived.

Weidensaul provides a particularly good insight into the lives and thought processes of the Native Americans and the way they attempted to deal with the Europeans. It is vastly different from the popular image of blood-thirsty savages raiding, killing and scalping  that seemed so prevalent on TV and in the movies when I was a child..

My only criticism, if I have one, would be that Weidensaul focuses almost exclusively on the developments in the early English colonies. He glosses over the Spanish. However, the Spanish had been active in Florida and the rest of the Southeast US for a century before John Smith showed up at Jamestown.

That shortcoming aside, I found it to be a very interesting account of a usually-neglected part of American History. It is definitely worth the time and effort.

Teen love, cancer and an unfinished sentence

I stepped way outside my normal pleasure reading comfort zone with “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green. However, it was a good trip and one I recommend.

The book is narrated in the first person by Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16 year old girl with thyroid cancer who is being kept alive by a new miracle drug. Her parents think she is depressed and  force her to attend a support group with other young cancer patients. That is where she meets Augustus, a bone cancer patient/amputee in remission. Initially, she doesn’t want to get involved, but (as you can probably guess) the inevitable happens and they become a couple.

Hazel is also obsessed with a fictional book “An Imperial Affliction,” about a girl with cancer. “An Imperial Affliction” ends in mid-sentence with many plots unresolved, because, it is assumed, that Anna either dies or becomes too sick to write. Hazel is determined to track down the reclusive author to find out how the various fictional stories played out.

The story is a little bit of a romance story and a little tragedy. Green does a good job telling  a story about a depressing subject without the story being depressing itself.

I thought it was a little odd for a middle-aged man to be writing a first-person account through the eyes of a 16 year old girl. His writing seemed very believable, but then again, I’m a middle-aged guy so I don’t have any real reference to judge it.

It’s not all giggles and fun, but “The Fault in Our Stars” is an interesting read and well worth the effort.

Great stories from Sweden

I haven’t posted recently, because, among other reasons, I’ve been reading. I just finished Steig Larsson’s  “Millenium Trilogy” (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.)

I have to tell you, I really enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure I was going to, especially after starting The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It takes a long time for Larsson to get down to the “good stuff” in the first novel. Once he gets the main plot rolling, it’s great, but it just takes him awhile to get there.

As I wrote in an earlier post, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is basically a murder mystery involving a family with many dark secrets. The main protagonists are Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist and Lizbeth Salander, a socially odd girl-genius with a mysterious past.

Book two, The Girl Who Played with Fire, involves the same main characters, including Blomkvist and Salander. It focuses much more on the compelling Lizbeth Salander;  her mysterious past; her evil, Soviet defector father; and the acts and plots by the secret police that explain a lot of why Lizbeth is who she is. It grabbed me from the first chapter and didn’t let go.

And if you like The Girl Who Played With Fire, the third book in the trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is nearly a seamless sequel. The same plot and characters just continue to the third book without missing a beat.

In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Lizbeth is hospitalized from injuries she sustained in the climax of the previous book and is charged with a number of crimes. The story revolves around Mikael’s and others’ efforts to free her and uncover the conspirators who are trying to get her recommitted to a mental hospital.

The entire series is great. The plots and the characters are fairly complex, but that is part of the attraction of the stories.

Two suggestions…

1.) Don’t worry too much about the Swedish geography. I guess it would be nice to know where all the various locations actually are, but not knowing does not diminish your appreciation of the stories.

2.) ­­It wouldn’t hurt to stick a note card or sheet of paper in the book you are reading and jotting down the names of some of the main characters. There are a bunch of them, and they all have Swedish names that tend to look and sound a lot alike to this American eye and ear. It might help keep track of the good guys and the bad guys.

There are a few scenes in the trilogy that are fairly graphic. Just beware.

Bottom line – It’s a great three-book series. It will keep you up at night because you won’t want to put it down. I recommend it strongly.

One good movie and one very bad one

After our expedition to the shot clinic on Saturday, it was really too late in the day to accomplish anything useful, so Mrs. Poolman and I watched two movies. One, at the theater, was really good. The other, a DVD rental, may make the list of the worst movies of 2012 (or maybe it was released in 2011.)

Mrs. P has been wanting to see “The Hunger Games” since it was released several weeks ago. She had read the three-part trilogy by Suzanne Collins and encouraged me to do the same. Although “young adult fiction” is not my normal reading material, I enjoyed all three books (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay)  The trilogy is considered “young adult fiction,” which simply means the characters are teenagers and there is no sex involved. There were plenty of scenes in the books where, had the books been aimed at an adult readership, there would have been some hot and heavy action. In The Hunger Game Trilogy, the teens just snuggle together and go to sleep.

I will admit that, by the third book, the main character, Catniss’s, teen-aged self-involvement and indecision were starting to become annoying, but even with that, the books are good and I recommend them strongly.

And that brings us to the movie, which we saw Saturday afternoon. The movie follows the book almost exactly. Obviously, there is some condensation of material, but the characters and the plot development follows the book very well. Nearly everything in the movie matched the visual image I had when reading the book. The teen characters were very good. The adults, especially Woodie Harrelson as Catniss’s drunken mentor and Donald Sutherland as the evil President Snow, were terrific.

“The Hunger Games” is one of the few movies that is as good in its form as the book is in its.  It’s worth the price of admission and popcorn.

We watched “The Hunger Games” at a late afternoon showing. When we got home, we rented “The Three Musketeers.” We went from one extreme to the other. This movie was as bad as “The Hunger Games” was good. The main reason we rented it was because we liked the earlier treatments of the story – even the 1993 version with Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Chris O’Donnell, Oliver Platt, Tim Curry and Rebecca De Mornay, but especially the 1971 version with Richard Chamberlain, Oliver Reed, Michael York, Faye Dunaway, Charlton Heston and Raquel Welch.

This latest incarnation is more of an absurd fantasy. It makes no effort at all to follow the book or to produce a film that even vaguely reflects early 17th century France.  One of the musketeers is introduced writing “tickets” for horses that dump on the street. The big break with reality came with the introduction of some kind of airship that was essentially a naval warship of the period lifted aloft by a blimp-like balloon.  There two of them and at one point they had a big aerial combat scene with the two airships trading broadsides with each other.

The bottom line is the filmmakers took a pretty good story and turned it into a farce.

Not only is The Three Musketeers is not worth the $2 rental fee; it’s not worth the two hours of your life to watch it. Ugh.

Two good books

I recently read two pretty good books that are definitely worth a mention.

Liar’s Poker – Michael Lewis

I have been a Michael Lewis fan ever since I read his “The Big Short” that explained the way several people got rich during the housing-mortgage crash of several years ago. Since then, I have also read “The Blind Side” (which, I think everyone is familiar with via the movie) and “Boomerang,” in which he examines why the economies of countries like Greece, Iceland and Ireland crashed over the past several years.

“Liar’s Poker” was published in the 1980s and, in it, Lewis tells the story of his brief foray into the world of bond trading. As with Lewis’s other books, it is both enlightening and hysterically funny. Lewis has the ability to explain complex issues and be very entertaining at the same time. It’s a good story about some really crazy times.

Kill Shot – Vince Flynn

I’ve enjoyed Flynn’s novels since my cousin turned me on to him several years ago. Flynn’s main protagonist is CIA assassin Mitch Rapp. The books are almost a 21st century American version of Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels, but without Bond’s worldly sophistication or Fleming’s sometimes off-the-wall bad guys. Flynn initially wrote 10 Rapp novels that brought the story to the present day. Then for books 11 and 12, Flynn went back in time and wrote two (“American Assassin” and “Kill Shot”) that tell the story of Rapp’s recruitment, training and his first few assignments.

Flynn novels are pure adventure. There isn’t a subtle bone in his protagonist’s body. There are the good guys and the bad guys, and very little in between. Rapp is one of the good guys, and his stories pit him against his obvious enemies, usually Islamic terrorists, and sometimes the not so obvious — like American politicians.  And in Rapp’s world, the bad guys almost always get what they deserve.

In “Kill Shot,” Flynn tells the story of one of Rapp’s early “hits” that went bad and all the subsequent fall-out.

Flynn doesn’t write an intricate, slowly developing story like a Fredrick Forsyth.  But his novels are exciting, fun and difficult to put down. “Kill Shot” and the rest of Vince Flynn’s books won’t be remembered as great literature, but they sure an entertaining read.