Archive for September, 2012

Sutton

Monday, September 24th, 2012

By J. R. Moehringer

The Short Take:

I would never have thought that a novel based on a real bank robber would have any appeal for me. Boy, was I wrong! This book fascinated not only due to its portrayal of the elusive and charismatic Willie Sutton but also for its subtext of how banks through history have caused economic depressions that impact everyone else.

Why?

Willie “The Actor” Sutton is said to have robbed 100 banks and gotten away with some two million dollars, all while never firing a shot. This is his story in novelized form. But it is also a story of romance, family ties, loyalty, persistence, and the hatred of banks.

The plot is built around two time lines. One follows Sutton’s first day of freedom in 1969, when he is required to give an exclusive interview and uses that interview to visit the New York City landmarks of his life. The other is the linear story of his life, told in context with those landmarks.

This juxtaposition works very nicely, as it allows the reporter and photographer of the 1969 “present” to comment on Sutton’s past. Plus, the use of italics for the 1969 story keeps everything nice and clear.

Moehringer’s Sutton is fascinating, but not in that horrible, can’t-look-away fashion of many mobster tales. Nothing is glamorized, but you can feel the heart of a real person — with all the flaws and good qualities that go along with that. This is quite an achievement since with Willie Sutton it is difficult to separate fact from fiction — he certainly didn’t do it himself. Even Sutton’s two autobiographies aren’t in agreement.

Nevertheless, Moehringer’s depiction is rich in texture and certainly feels like the story of a real person.

This novel also shows how the actions of banks can ruin the lives of many. In Sutton’s lifetime there was depression after depression, keeping tens of thousands (or more) from finding  employment. Banks failed and wiped out savings this was before FDIC insurance). Everyone suffered, except the bankers whose speculative habits caused these downturns.

That’s one reason bank robbers like Willie Sutton became folk heroes — they were the only ones punishing the banks.

But don’t think of this as simply a gangster’s life, it is also the story of a life-long love.

A Little Plot:

Pardoned for his crimes and released from prison on Christmas Eve, Willie Sutton spends the next day revisiting landmarks that represent turning points in his life with a reporter and photographer.

A child of Irish town and poverty, with no job opportunities — actually none of this is why he became a criminal. It was all because he loved a woman.

The repercussions of that love started him down a path of crime, extensive jail time, and brief interludes of an almost normal existence. Yet, through it all, his love persisted.

I didn’t easily spot a website for Moehringer, but you can see  an interview that focuses on this book by clocking here.

Bring Up the Bodies

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

By Hilary Mantel

The Short Take:

Mantel follows up her exceptional Wolf Hall with the next chapter in the life of the infamous Tudor councilor, Thomas Cromwell. This book revolves around the downfall of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell’s role in bringing it about. It’s riveting and an easier read, too.

Why?

Mantel turns the historical novel into true literature. Her writing is absolutely brilliant. This volume is a bit shorter and more accessible than her first book about Cromwell. The fact that it spans a short period of time and contains a more limited cast of characters explains that.

Cromwell is an amazing character: a self-made man in a time when family class meant everything, he was generous, cruel, and brilliant. Everyone was his enemy, unless they wanted his friendship for their own gain. Mantel is more than equal to telling his story. She takes you inside his magnificent brain as well as his battered heart. This book is simply stunning. Plus, it’s nice to read a book centered on the short reign of Ann Boleyn that puts her to one side and focuses on the powers that set her downfall in motion and made in, ultimately, inevitable.

By the way, that rather frightening title is actually a quaint of way of saying “bring in the accused” at a trial.

A Little Plot:

Henry VIII is unhappy with Ann, his queen. She has not produced the male heir he desires and he’s wondering if it’s because his marriage to her isn’t valid. Plus, he has a growing interest  in the shy Jane Seymour.

Since he proclaimed his first marriage to the still-living Katherine of Aragon invalid and set himself up as Head of the Catholic Church in Britain, it’s a sticky legal problem as well as a matter of religion, family connections, and personal affection.

It’s up to Cromwell to sort the whole thing out to (almost) everyone’s satisfaction.

I could not find a web page for Mantel, but you can find out more about here from her Facebook page or by a simple Google.

The Prisoner of Heaven

Monday, September 10th, 2012

By Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Short Take:

This third entry in Zafon’s cycle about writers and books, set in a magical Barcelona, is far gentler and more straightforward than The Angel’s Game. Best of all the loquacious and highly entertaining Fermín takes a center role. As always, the writing is exceptional and the atmosphere moody.

Why?

The Angel’s Game was so dark and complex it left a lot of readers scratching their heads. This volume is much closer in style and tone to the first book in this cycle, The Shadow of the Wind.  That is good news indeed.

Though set in the late 1950s, a great portion of the book is a reminiscence of things that take place almost a decade earlier. It’s Fermín’s story and, as far as I’m concerned, anything that centers on this brilliantly humorous man is quite enjoyable.

Characters from both previous books appear, and others are mentioned in passing. A note at the beginning of the book claims each novel is meant to be a stand alone story, however, I would not recommend reading this one without reading Shadow first. You’ll simply enjoy this story so much more if you do, plus you’ll get all the joy that comes with reading that previous book. The Angel’s Game, however, is not as necessary in my opinion.

A Little Plot:

Sempere and Sons Bookstore needs to punch up it’s Christmas business. While Papa Sempere goes in search of seasonal window dressings, a dark and forbidding man enters the store, buys a very expensive edition of The Count of Monte Christo, and writes a dedication in it, leaving the book at the store for Fermín, who works there. Daniel, the son in the store’s name, is both curious and concerned. He follows the man but learns little.

When Fermín finally sees the book, he goes white. Eventually he tells Daniel the story of his years in prison and the mysterious Prisoner of Heaven who changed his life — and who will still have an impact on both him and Daniel.

For more more on Zafon and his works, visit his website by clicking here.

The Age of Miracles

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

By Karen Thompson Walker

The Short Take:

The earth’s rotation is slowing down and a lonely young girl is turning into a woman. This book has gotten raves and it is a nice read. I bet book clubs across the country are or will select it. However, I found it profoundly depressing.

Why?

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with books that have depressing themes. Some of them are wonderful. This one just didn’t quite do it for me, however I strongly suspect I am in the minority.

The writing is nice. The plot moves along at a quick pace. The pre-teen Julia is an engaging  protagonist. The premise that the earth’s rotation is continually slowing (so that a single day reaches 40 hours and more) is certainly unique as far as I am concerned.

Possibly, as a casual science buff, I was impatient with the lack of science in the book. Plus, I found it hard to believe everyone would simply soldier on, with very few signs of panic or despair. Perhaps the reason so many like this book is because it is low key, while we live in a time when every day seems to bring new promises of eminent destruction or ruin, that can be enheartening.

A Little Plot:

It’s an ordinary day in a southern California suburb when the announcement is made that the earth’s rotation is slowing, and it will continue to slow. After a few weeks of confusion and some (just some) panic, the decision is made to stick with “clock time” and ignore when the sun is up or down.

Only child June continues to go to school, like most of the kids. She continues to admire from afar the brooding young man she longs for. She is shunned by her former friends who are rushing into adulthood.

Life goes on. But, how can it really continue?

For more about the author and her book, click here.

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