Archive for September, 2008

Don’t Know Much about History

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

When it came to history, I was an “A” student from grade school through college. But I really didn’t gain much knowledge. Dates, treaties, political figures stayed with me long enough for testing then slowly evaporated.

Since then, I’ve read many histories and even more historical novels (which send me running to the Internet for historical confirmations). I’ve come to the conclusion that my formal education in history was largely a waste of time: we were taught for easy testing not for real understanding the powers at play during any historical era. I suspect the situation has not improved with today’s even stronger emphasis on test scores.

That is just a terrible shame. With no knowledge of the complexities shaping our past it’s practically impossible to truly understand what’s going on now.

For example, take our Pilgrims. From school days you might recall the Mayflower Pact, Plymouth Rock, hardship, Thanksgiving,  and maybe even Squanto and corn. That’s probably about it. Too bad. The true story of the Pilgrims as revealed in Nathaniel Philbrick’s fascinating book, Mayflower, is disturbing as well as inspiring.  Just making the Mayflower voyage happen is an adventure in itself. Squanto becomes merely one native player among a dizzying number of tribes the Pilgrims both need and fear. Pilgrim leaders are sometimes heroic, sometimes foolish, and sometimes outright cruel.  Philbrick’s fully fleshed out history gives you a better understanding not just of the 50 or so years it covers, but of American history since then.

His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis brings amazing revelations as well. Did you know that Washington virtually started the so-called French-Indian War by himself? He certainly had no winning record before he was chosen to lead our Revolutionary armies.  It’s just incredible to learn about the real man behind the legendary  (and not true) wooden choppers.  He had the charisma of a rock star wrapped up in the dignity of a… well, President.


Of course, when it comes to world history, most of us had zero exposure to anything that didn’t happen in the Middle East or Europe. Fortunately, there’s an easy and even fun way to take care of that, thanks to Larry Gonick.  His Cartoon History of the Universe 1, 2, and III (I don’t know why the change from Arabic to Roman numerals) literally covers  everything from the Big Bang onward, including  historic events on every continent.  Written with wit and humor, you gain a true world-view that gives you a much better understanding of today’s complexities and conflicts.  If you don’t want to go back to the beginning, at least try Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 1: From Columbus to the U. S. Constitution. It puts American history in context with what is going on in the rest of the world. I bet your high school teacher never did that! And, it’s a real eye opener. Frankly, I would like to see Gonick’s comic books used as basic high school history texts, and have students supplement his work with research of their own. His extensive bibliographies provide ample starting points.

George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I would say it’s not enough to just remember the date something happened. It’s the “why” that really matters. That’s why we need authors like Philbrick, Ellis, Gonick and more to fill in the mighty chasms our history teachers left in our education.



Saturday, September 20th, 2008

By David Fuller

The Short Take:

This remarkable novel is actually a revealing character study of slavery and one particularly exceptional slave, structured around the murder investigation of a free black woman against the background of the Civil War.


This book’s dust cover blurb leads one to expect a typical murder mystery with a very atypical cast and setting: a slave detective in the middle of the Civil War. Maybe that will entice more buyers, but it sure sells this excellent novel short.

The murder and its resolution simply form the framework for a much richer and important story – how the institution of slavery damaged both the owners and the owned in the old South.

Don’t expect the usual evil plantation owners and noble yet downtrodden slaves, however. Fuller’s work is much more complex and nuanced. He creates real human beings with all their strengths, flaws, and inconsistencies.  The eight years he spent in research shows, as well as his experience as a screenwriter. Even minor characters with cameo appearances show depth and motivation. The book captures the all-pervasive tension and uneasiness running through the plantation, where any small change of mood could turn an ordinary day into tragedy.

Sweetsmoke doesn’t need extremes to make you gasp – daily reality is horrifying enough.

The central protagonist, Cassius, presents a persona as rich as any literary figure. Fuller brings in references to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Homer’s Illiad with no fear of having his own creation pale in comparison.  Cassius’ motivation and resourcefulness are exceptional – as is the pain and anger he tries to overcome. I hope Fuller finds yet another story in his classically heroic Cassius.

The part of the book that dealt with the Battle of Antietam was almost a story within a story. With Cassius as your eyes and ears, you gain a new insight into the wasteful death and destruction. Cassius has no preference for who wins as he knows he’ll always be a slave. His dispassionate observations make the war that much more heartbreaking.

I’ve got to say, as much as I loved this book (and I really did love it), I can’t wait to see the movie. Please, someone, make it so! (Weinsteins, have you read it? Ang Lee, are you listening?)

Want Some Plot?

Cassius is only a slave on a Virginia tobacco plantation, but that doesn’t stop him from desperately wanting to find and punish the murderer of a free black woman who once did him an enormous favor.

As Cassius knows, there will be no investigation into her demise – unlike a slave a free black has no value to anyone – so he takes great risks in his investigation. Due to a close yet complicated relationship with is owner, Hoke Howard, and through dangerous devices of his own, Cassius is able to pursue leads all the way to the Civil War battle at Antietam and back.

However, the main thrust of this book concerns Cassius’ growing awareness and resentment of the true meaning of slavery alongside an exceptional and deeply moving portrayal of the relationships, rivalries, and everyday fears of everyone from field hand to masters involved with Sweetsmoke.

To learn more about David Fuller and his first novel, click here.

The White Mary

Monday, September 15th, 2008

By Kira Salak

The Short Take:

Finally! A woman gets to do the brave adventurer thing and traipse through the uncharted jungles of Papua New Guinea on a search mission. But this adventure novel also explores the themes of loss, acceptance, and redemption. While not exactly a thriller, it is a real page-turner.


Combine Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, then swirl in some of the Stanley and Livingston saga and you have an idea of the scope of Salak’s first novel. Well, maybe that’s overstating it just a bit – with regard to Oz. But off hand I can’t think of another book where a woman undertakes a serious adventure journey.

The White Mary of the title refers to main character Marika Vacera, a successful war reporter who keeps her emotional life bottle up while risking death to expose human suffering.

Author Salak actually was the first woman to journey through the jungles of Papua New Guinea, so she knows what she is writing about as she sends her protagonist on a jungle trek. The swamps, thorns, leeches, unfriendly locals, and other dangers all have a firm basis in reality that possibly only Salak could accurately convey.

But this is no mere adventure. Marika is a damaged soul, willing to die for others but incapable of personal attachment. Her journey through the jungle with no supplies and a single guide reflects the personal journey she must make to open herself to love and possible happiness.

As in Conrad’s book, this journey is also a search of a legend – Marika’s Kurtz is a famed reporter who may have faked his suicide and is now living in the remote mountains of PNG. What she finds at journey’s end is also a new beginning.

While some might object to the back-and-forth through time structure of the book, I like the way it slowly revealed Marika’s relationship with her lover, Seb, as she headed deeper into the jungle. I do have quibbles with the reality factor of that too-perfect-too-be-true love interest, however. Regardless, this book was practically impossible to put down. How great to find a female protagonist of this nature! Not some super woman but a real, conflicted human with inspirational endurance and drive. Whether or not Marika finds what she seeks, if you seek TheWhite Mary out, you’ll find one good read.

Want Some Plot?

War reporter Marika Vacera thrives on danger – but her new relationship with Seb is danger of a different kind. After returning from a nearly fatal reporting trip in the Congo, she finds it particularly hard to allow the intimacy Seb pursues.

Marika finds distraction in writing a book about her personal hero, Robert Lewis. In his papers she finds a letter suggesting Lewis is not dead but living in Papua New Guinea. She decides to venture to PNG and find Lewis, at the same time avoiding the damage she has inflicted on her relationship with Seb.

The treacherous journey through PNG comes close to killing her. If not for the wiles of Tobo, the witch doctor who guides her, she would never have made it. But not even Tobo can save her from what she finds when she reaches the Walwasi village where Lewis may be.

Find out more about Kira Salak by clicking here.


Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

By Ursula K. LeGuin

The Short Take:

This book is absolutely beautiful – a dream to read. The title character makes a brief and voiceless appearance in Vergil’s (LeGuin’s spelling) Aeneid. LeGuin gives her a life worth reading and treasuring.


I had never read LeGuin before. I knew she was a highly respected writer in the science fiction genre. I had no idea what a treat was in store for me.

This thoroughly enjoyable novel tells the story of Lavinia, a minor character in the poet Vergil’s masterwork, The Aeneid. However, in that epic poem she never utters a word.

LeGuin takes care of that. Beautifully. Her Lavinia is a fully realized character, very much the young Latin princess of her time: quiet, demure, a dutiful daughter to be given in marriage as her father decides. But she has a mind of her own and a subtle strength that serves her well in shaping her fate. Lavinia possesses all the qualities of a thoroughly admirable heroine.

That is as it should be. The point of Vergil’s book was to reveal that the bloodline of gods and heroes led to their descendants, the Augustan Caesars; as well as to pay homage to traditional Roman values of family, honor, and country. Lavinia and Aeneas were the founders of that Augustan line.

The first chapter of Lavinia dwells on the very condition of being: whether Lavinia exists outside the poet’s mind; how even though the poet made her real, she is also real outside his poem. It creates the perfect introduction to this far away time, when omens and prophecies seriously mattered and history and myth are so thoroughly intertwined.

LeGuin keeps her novel firmly grounded in the traditions and religion of 12th century BCE Italy, but eliminates the interference of Roman gods found in the original poem. Even though her book’s basis is a poem about a myth, her work feels more like a historical novel than a fantasy thanks to this change. LeGuin even made a serious effort to match the mythical and actual landscape of the towns and battles in Lavinia to strengthen the book’s realistic feel.

The story’s arc extends far beyond the realm of The Aeneid, creating a full and fascinating life for Lavinia. LeGuin stays true to Vergil’s core message, but this is no mere continuation of his poem. This is Lavinia’s story, filled with passion and pain.

Want Some Plot?

While in a sacred place, Lavinia encounters the spirit of the poet who created her. He tells her something of her future, Aeneas, and the wars he will bring with him. This knowledge influences her subsequent actions. She subtly resists efforts to marry another Latin king, which helps to trigger the foretold war and all its disasters.

These events are in The Aeneid. But that is just the first part of this book.

Lavinia also knows just how long she an Aeneas will live together – again an influence on her actions. After his death, she is torn by the unruly behavior of Aeneas’ son who came with him to Italy, even as she strives to protect the son she herself bore Aeneas. She is conscious of her own position in history – though she knows her poet left her voiceless and in the shadows.

In many ways, Lavinia acts as a stand in for all the unsung and unknown women of times both ancient and modern. But that does not make her life – or story – any less meaningful.

Click here to check out LeGuin’s website for information on this and her many other books.

The Monsters of Templeton

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

By Lauren Groff

The Short Take:

An intriguing family portrait that everyone can enjoy, but a James Fenimore Cooper fan will truly delight in this nicely paced novel.


Willie Upton hopes to regain her future by researching her past to find her unknown – and unknowing – father. Author Lauren Groff wisely lets Willie’s ancestors speak for themselves throughout the novel, mixing chapters set in the past with those of the present. In doing so, she provides a sense of action as well as a story of discovery.

The author’s hometown of Cooperstown inspired her to write this novel. As she researched the town’s history, Groff realized that she wanted her characters to be somewhat different. So, she turned to James Fenimore Cooper for help. Just like him, she rechristened Cooperstown as Templeton and has even included some of his characters for good measure.

The many family scandals Willie uncovers don’t seem to dismay her in the least – which is good news for readers. After all, who wants to read about someone’s boring, squeaky clean ancestors?

Alongside Willie’s search, her hometown is caught up in the discovery of a dead sea monster in its lake. This magical addition brings a plaintive yet fulfilling touch to Groff’s work.

This is not a girly book though many of the main characters are women. It’s a book about the search for identity, renewal, friendship, and self-awareness. Those topics make good reading for anyone.

Want Some Plot?

Willie Sunshine Upton retreats to her childhood home of Templeton to heal from the results of a round of bad luck and even worse judgment. At the same time, a dead Loch Ness style monster floats to the surface of the lake by her house.

To regain her sense of self and discover the identity of her unknown father, Willie puts her archeology and research skills to work digging through family history. Family legends and secrets not only provide revelations about the past, they also help Willie to face her future.

To say any more would ruin a good read, something I’m not willing to do.

Lauren Groff has a really nice website for this book. Click here to visit. Her next book is due out in January, Delicate Edible Birds, a collection of short stories.

Books I Want to See on the Big Screen

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

Seeing a loved book made into a movie can be a tragedy, a comedy,or a love story. Peter Jackson did a brilliant job with The Lord of The Rings, a book I practically lived in during high school and college. I, Robot, on the other hand had absolutely nothing to do with Isaac Asimov’s book by the same name. In fact, it blatantly broke Asimov’s Rules of Robotics.

That said, here are some books I’m would like to see at the movies:

The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum. Yes, I know it’s a really, really famous movie already. But can’t we do a non-musical version, please?

The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov. Paging Peter Jackson. This saga deserves your touch. And, what a great time for the message of solving problems with wits instead of might.

Knight’s Castle, Edward Eager. This great kid’s book from the 50s would be so easy to update. It’s filled with magic. I  keep hoping the Harry Potter craze will resurrect Eager’s books. They certainly deserve the attention. Bonus — there are built in sequels!

A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe. Maybe people are afraid to go there after the Bonfire of the Vanities mess. Too bad. This is truly an epic story. If not a movie, can it be an opera?

Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz. Odd is arguably the most engaging character Koontz has ever created. A spooky, touching, and heartbreaking book. Not to mention loaded with action. And ready made sequels are available. Maybe this one is in the works somewhere? 

Five Quarters of the Orange, Joanne Harris. This beautiful novel set during WWII has Indy hit written all over it. Friendship, disaster, love, betrayal — it’s all here. All it needs is to get made!

Undaunted Courage, Stephen E. Ambrose. The true story of the Lewis and Clark expedition is as exciting as any made up adventure. Someone, be a good American and put it on film.

Those are a few of my picks. What books do you want to see at your local multiplex?


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September 2008