What do you think?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Where's the water for the elephants..

I finished reading Elephants yesterday afternoon. I'm still trying to figure out if there is a deeper meaning to the title. Water for elephants is only mentioned in one conversation and no where in the book does anyone actually water the elephants nor does the lone elephant in the story ever take a drink of water or take a bath. Like everyone else in the story, Rosie the elephant prefers liquor, or an occasional lemonade. The story is told from the perspective of a graduate student at Cornell University who is about to take his exams so he can practice veterinary medicine. A few days before the exam his parents are both killed in a car accident. The story takes place in 1931. He learns that his parents have mortgaged their lives in order to send him to the university and consequently they owned nothing. The bank takes the house. Alone and destitute, he walks out in the middle of his exams and jumps on a train that happens to be transporting a circus troupe. We are introduced to an interesting and bizarre cast of freaks, mostly drunken drifters, but also a clowning dwarf and his dog, a fat lady, an abusive ring master, and his "damsel in distress" equestrian acrobat wife and a greedy, villainous owner. Jacob, the narrator is the only "normal" person in the bunch. And then there is of course Rosie the elephant, who only responds to commands when they are in Polish. Although this cast is colorful and has lots of potential, I think Gruen fails to really develop them. As I said before, its like a second rate film intended for a mass audience. Apparently the masses don't care about character development. They just want to know what happens next. There are some interesting albeit unlikely scenes, like when Jacob leaps from car to car on a moving train in the middle of the night with a knife in his mouth. (Gimme a break.) He intends to slay the dragon but chickens out and for his trouble he gets a small cut on his face from the knife. Another unlikely episode: when the show collapses and local sheriff begins to auction off the animals to other passing shows, the damsel bursts out of her sleeping car, races to the scene and proceeds to threaten, both verbally and physically, the guys who are attempting to sell her horses. She manages to bully them into leaving the 15 Arabians out of the deal. The guys appear to be genuinely intimidated. In reality, I think they would have laughed at her, pushed her aside and sold the horses. Anyway, I'm glad I read it, but I won't bother to see the movie.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Been a busy summer...

Well, its been a while since my last installment. Since then I have read the following:
The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Dewey the Library Cat by Vicki Myron & Bret Witter, Life Among the Lutherans by Garrison Keillor, The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller, an Historical Atlas of the Vikings by John Haywood and Mexico by James A. Michener, all of which are fine books. My favorite was of course the Michener novel, but The Help was a close second. Keillor was charming and funny. The Viking atlas was informative. Dewey was written for a young (elementary school) audience, but if you love cats you can't help but love this book. Bridges was passable. It's one of those sappy, romance, artsy kind of novels that middle aged women swoon over. I don't swoon over anything, least of all this novel. My husband bought it at a souvenir shop in Winterset, Iowa. We were on our way to see John Wayne's birthplace and decided to stop and see the Roseman Bridge and well, we saw the bridge so we had to buy the book to see what all the fuss was about. Biggest surprise to me was that it is pure fiction. I thought they made a movie out of it because it was a true story. It's not, and now that I've read the book, I'm not interested in the film, even though Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood are outstanding actors. Mexico was excellent, but I grew a little weary of the violence and gore of bullfighting. I guess Michener thought it was necessary for understanding Mexican history. The novel was written/published late in Michener's career in 1992, just five years before his death. My current read is Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. It was a gift, so I have to read it. I'm not liking it. It's depressing. It's almost as if Gruen wrote the screen play before the novel because it has all the elements of a second rate film: profanity, sex, violence, cruelty and abuse of people and animals. If you like reading about human beings at their worst, read this book. Alas, I'm just 20 pages short of having read half the book, but I hope it gets better soon. I was thinking about the book this afternoon and I wondered: just what does it mean to be a New York Times Bestseller ? Just because something sells doesn't mean it's good. After all, lots of people spend lots of money on things that have no useful purpose or redeeming value. So what is the criteria? I don't read the NYT, so I don't know why they need to endorse or recommend books. I've read enough books to recognize good fiction when I read it and, so far, this one doesn't even rank in the top 50%.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Another notch in the Michener belt.

Its been so long since my last entry I couldn't remember how to get to my blog. Finished another Michener novel last night: The Covenant, an epic tale of South Africa. This must be one of his longest novels; seemed like it took me forever to get through it. It was worth every minute. I always learn a lot from Michener. On a recent visit to Minneapolis, Steve and I visited The Mill City Museum. As we were waiting for the next tour up the Flour Tower, we were chatting with the guide about Cadwallader Colden Washburn, founding father of the Minneapolis Milling Company (a.k.a. General Mills). The guide mentioned Washburn's pioneering work in the livestock feed industry (using wheat byproducts for cattle feed vs. dumping it in the Mississippi River), and I commented that Michener talks about Washburn in Centennial. "Michener!", the guide exclaimed, "that's a long time ago!" As if reading Michener was passe or somehow out of fashion. I was a little offended. Good thing there was no one else around to listen to this guy blather about flour. Centennial was first published in 1974, which is not exactly "a long time ago". (This guide was no spring chicken.) I believe that Michener's novels will be, if they aren't already, hailed as timeless classics, in the company of Austin, Dickens and Hardy. Anyway, enough about that....
The Covenant was first published in 1980 when the battle to abolish apartheid was finally getting the world's attention. As customary for JM, the story begins at the beginning, when the indigenous animals ruled and the indigenous humans, wandering around in search of water and hunting grounds, were only small players in the grand game of survival. The story chronicles the lives of three influential families: the Nxumalos (don't ask me how to pronounce that) of Zimbabwe, the Van Doorns of Holland and the Saltwoods of England. Their histories date back 14 generations and nearly 5 centuries. No wonder my copy is over 1200 pages. These three families, crossing paths throughout history, shape South Africa for better and for worse. On a recent visit to Michigan, my Dad gave me a few copies of National Geographic. One of them just happened to be June, 2010 and when I had time to look through them when I got home I discovered this issue contained a feature entitled Mandela's Children: Redemption in South Africa. The timing couldn't have been better and this article provided an interesting "update" to the novel. Apartheid ended in 1994, but change lags far behind. Indigenous customs persist: Xhosa boys still practice ancient initiation rites, Caucasian Afrikaners still own 80% of commercial farmland even though Caucasians represent only a small portion of the total population and almost all "non-white" Afrikaners are farmers. SA has the highest GDP on the continent, yet maintains the greatest disparity between rich and poor. Unemployment among blacks is 29%, whites, 5%. Soccer and rugby are the new "gods" and their players are demigods. The people worship and pay tribute to these gods in spectacular stadiums that seat 94,000 spectators. That's 15 times the population of Maquoketa in one "cathedral".
Next on my reading list: The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Steve read it last winter and liked it so much he bought me a copy. I've heard lots of good things about it. Think I'll start it today.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


My apologies to my followers (both of you) for my long delay in blogging. I hate to admit defeat. I gave up on Five Germanys. Sorry, Dr. Stern. Honestly, I tried to finish reading the book but I just lost interest in it. I thought it was going to be a kind of eye-witness account of war time Germany, and it was until Stern and his family moved to the U.S. when he was a teenager and his story became less historical and more conjectural. So...I've started another Michener novel: Hawaii. It begins in typical Michener fashion with the formation of the land out of the boundless deep. Did you know that the Pacific Ocean covers almost 1/3 of the earth's total surface? This is 64 million square miles. Its average depth is 14,000 feet, or about 2 1/2 miles. About 25,000 islands are scattered throughout its expanse, most of them south of the equator. Michener gained intimate knowledge of the south Pacific during his service as a lieutenant commander in the USN during the 2nd World War, hence his breakthrough novel Tales of the South Pacific published in 1947. Once the islands are formed, a tortuous process of birth, destruction and rebirth encompassing "millions upon millions of years" (page 3), the human story begins with a small band of Maori tribesman on the island of Bora Bora sometime during the 9th century C.E. The tribal leader and divinely appointed "king", Tamatoa and his rebellious, hot-headed brother Teroro are engaged in a power struggle with the neighboring tribesman of Tahiti. The spiritual leaders of Tahiti have introduced a new god, Oro and are attempting to enforce strict observance of this new god over the worship of the islander's traditional god, Tane and thus secure their territorial influence. Both traditions engage in the brutal Kapu system of human sacrifice, but the worshipers of the new Oro have embellished the practice with added cruelties. The Bora Borans have grown increasingly opposed to these sacrificial rites and rightfully suspicious of the Tahitians use of such tactics to intimidate the villagers. Tribal warfare ensues and eventually Tamatoa decides that the Bora Borans must flee their home island in order to avoid extermination by the worshipers of Oro. From here, Michener chronicles their migration from Bora Bora to the chain of volcanic islands north of the equator that we know as Hawaii. Tamatoa, Teroro and about 60 islanders embark on a harrowing, 2,000 mile trek on the open sea in a waka taua: a double-hulled, twin mast canoe named Wait-for-the-West-Wind. Michener makes it clear in his dedication of the book that all of this is pure fiction, but it "remains true to the spirit and history of Hawaii". His version of the Maori migration may be loosely based on the island folk tale of Kupe, or other Polynesian mythologies. Teroro, captain and navigator of the West Wind uses only the constellations to guide the refugees to their future home. They nearly starve to death in route, but miraculously arrive at Havaiki-of-the-Manifold-Riches (page 105), establish a settlement and prosper. Then strangely, the story jumps to the 19th century, bypassing 1000 years of history and not even mentioning the landing of James Cook in Hawaii in 1778. I thought this was a bit uncharacteristic for Michener who was such a meticulous historian. This novel was first published in 1959, fairly early in Michener's career so it was probably his editor's fault, thinking the book would sell better if it were shorter and thus carving out the more tedious parts of the story. That would be unfortunate. At any rate, chapter 3 takes up the saga in the farm village of Marlboro, Massachusetts and a young, Yale divinity student named Abner Hale. I don't know if this is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Revoluntionary War spy and Yale prototype ideal Nathan Hale, or not. Abner certainly doesn't come from an aristocratic family, nor is he handsome or especially gifted, but will he emerge as a hero? We shall see...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Last week I started reading Five Germanys I Have Known by Fritz Stern (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006). Winds of War kind of piqued my interest in European history of the time, so I picked up some nonfiction works from abebooks.com. Stern is a German born, mostly American educated author of European history. Five Germanys is a memoir. Stern was born in 1926 in Silesia, then part of Germany, now part of Poland inhabited by Poles, Germans and Czechs. He and his family emigrated to the United States in 1938 and settled in Queens, New York. He attended Columbia University. As the title indicates, he describes the five tumultuous periods in modern German history: the German Reich (what we now call the Weimar Republic), the Third Reich, the divided Germany (East and West) and Germany after unification in 1990. Stern was born into an educated, not necessarily wealthy but reasonably comfortable family of Jewish ancestry. He and his sister were baptized as infants, but he does not mention attending church or synagogue at any time. His father was a physician and his mother a teacher. I've read the first two chapters: Ancestral Germany and Weimar, covering roughly 1919 to 1933. Indeed this was a turbulent time in Germany and all over the world. The planet was awash in militant revolution: Russia, Argentina, Ireland, Estonia, Egypt, the Punjab and probably other places less well known, spiraled into general anarchy. Workers were striking and rioting all over the place, crippling railroads, shipping docks and steel mills. These were the days of Pancho Villa as well as Albert Einstein. In 1919, Theodore Roosevelt died and Sir Edmund Hillary was born. Toward the end of this period of course was the great economic depression. Things were bad everywhere, but especially so in Germany. Apparently the German currency was so devalued that people used stacks of German marks as scratch paper. And we think we've got problems. So far, I am enjoying the book. I was afraid it might be boring. It's not.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Tale of Two Cultures

I finished reading Caravans last night. This novel is different from all the previous Michener novels I've read. First of all, it is considerably shorter: only 336 pages. While it has many of the usual elements--relationship of the people to the land, the forward march of history through time, the triumph of ordinary people--it is a complex, psychological drama that develops through the relationships of a handful of characters at a specific time in history. The year is 1946 and the setting is a remote, isolated yet critically important region in Central Asia. The terrain is harsh: enormous, jagged mountains and brutal dessert plains that stretch for miles. In 1946, Afghanistan is at the crossroads of history, literally and figuratively. The protagonist is a young American named Mark Miller (a.k.a. Marcus Meuhler), a Yale graduate and U.S. navy officer, assigned to the State Department for a reconnaissance mission in Afghanistan. (Does this sound familiar? I had to remind myself that I was reading Michener and not Wouk!) The story is told from Miller's perspective, another departure from Michener's usual format. Miller's superior at the American embassy, Captain Verbruggen is impressed--"You've got brains." (p. 6)--and gives him a special assignment. Miller is to locate and retrieve Ellen Jaspar, a 24 year old, gifted American college student who has "disappeared" after marrying an American-educated Afghani engineer who takes her to Afghanistan. Her prosperous, influential parents who have connections to a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, want her back. Ellen is the epitome of the American beauty: tall, blond, flawlessly beautiful and poised. I imagined she resembled Grace Kelly. How could a woman like this disappear in a country where most of the population is ethnic Pastun or other Persian ancestry? Miller, assisted by an Afghani aid to the embassy named Nur Muhammand, or "Nur", embark on an agonizing journey through the Dasht-i-Margo or "plain of the dead" in search of Ellen. When Miller finally gets a chance to interview Ellen's estranged husband Nazrullah, the Afghani is mysterious and evasive, as are all of the Afghan people that Miller has to work with. This is a chronic source of frustration for Miller (and the reader!). Caravans is a story of an epic clash of cultures: the unabashed, myopic, provincial American vs. the enigmatic, methodical and often dogmatic Asian. All of the major characters in this story are complex and emotionally conflicted as they attempt to cooperate in the search for Ellen. To the American, the Asians are a race of violent brigands; to the Asian, the Americans are just "hopelessly stupid" (p. 328). There are two incidents of unimaginable violence that occur early in the story, one of which Michener claimed to be an eye-witness and the other he claimed to have viewed photographs taken of the incident. As horrific and grotesque as it is, corporal punishment is not exclusive to remote and primitive societies like rural Afghanistan, but is blatantly condoned even in sophisticated, civilised cultures in the west. This paradox is personified in the character of German physician and Nazi operative Otto Stiglitz (with no intentional reference to the famous American photographer Alfred Stieglitz). Altogether, I would not consider Caravans to be my favorite, nor one of Michener's best novels, it is Michener, so it's still a pretty darn good book.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The end of the beginning...

I finished reading Winds on Thursday evening. It's a great story and I've learned a lot from reading it. The fateful day arrived. The suspense was killing me. Janice is a witness to the attack at Ford Island (Battleship Row) from her Pearl City suburban home and she has a tough time convincing her Chinese housekeeper that it is not a drill. I said previously that I found the character of Janice to be sort of one dimensional. That was back in Chapter 12. Now, forty-seven chapters and 777 pages later, we finally get to see what she is made of. She does not disappoint. She remains remarkably composed throughout the ordeal. Even when her husband Warren shows up at the front door, bloodied from crash landing his SBD Dauntless dive bomber, she remains calm and dutifully tends to his wounds while he recounts the Enterprise's interception of the attackers and the subsequent aerial "dog fight" that ensues. Curiously, Warren seems only minimally disturbed buy the death of his crew mates DeLashmutt and Plantz. "Poor DeLashmutt..." he says, "I yelled but he didn't answer...he was certainly dead." Perhaps it was the adrenaline that kept these two from falling into panic; then again, perhaps military families are trained for this sort of thing. As for Byron, that restless, underachieving middle child, he is fighting for his own and his submarine crew's lives in a similar attack at Clark Air Base, on Luzon Island in the Philippines. This installation was also destroyed by the Japanese on December 8, 1941, just 12 hours after the infamous attack at Hawaii. We don't hear much about Clark Field in the history books. As Wouk acknowledges, the destruction at Clark was at least as catastrophic as at Pearl Harbor but the incident is virtually ignored by historians because "Clark Field was half a day late for immortality." Meanwhile, Pug is taking every form of transportation available in order to get out of Moscow and to Hawaii for his new assignment. I won't say what that assignment is (because I want my readers to read the book!), but I will say that while the bombs were falling on Oahu and Luzon, other kinds of bombs were falling on Pug, even though he was safely thousands of miles away from the action. My heart aches for this guy: a fine, honorable man who just can't get a break. Later in conversation with Warren, Pug describes Tokyo, Japan as a pathetic shantytown that "smells from end to end of sewage and bad fish." This image of "the ugliest city in the world" runs contrary to my perceptions of pre-war Japan. I don't know why I should think so, but I thought that by 1940, Tokyo was a thoroughly sophisticated modern city. Evidently, it was not. As for Natalie and Uncle Aaron, that's another nail-biter. They are still stuck in Italy when the bombs start falling on the other side of the world and Mussolini stupidly declares war on the USA. Natalie has to make some agonizing decisions. I caught myself shaking my head in disgust when she finally realizes her recklessness (rather, foolishness) in trying to fetch her uncle out of Italy. Then, when she makes what seems to make a safe and sensible decision (for the first time in a long while) regarding their plans for departure, it turns out to be a mistake! I won't even begin to share my frustrations about Rhoda! By chapter 57, The Bouleversement (in English: The Reversal), the story moves very quickly, as if Wouk is tying up lose ends in preparation for the next installment of the saga, War and Remembrance. Winds of War, a mere 1047 pages, packs a lot of historical detail into the story of Pug Henry, and I must say that I never once grew weary or bored while reading it. In fact, my experience was quite the opposite. Steve says that Remembrance is much more graphic and descriptive of the crimes and atrocities that when on during this war. This makes me cautious about reading it. I abhor violence and cruelty, and even the one or two incidents described in Winds tend to haunt me. I may skip reading Remembrance for now. Steve got me a whole stack of Michener novels that I'm anxious to start on. I started reading Caravans last night. Its about Afghanistan and I already think its awesome!