Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Failures of the Presidents: From the Whiskey Rebellion and the War of 1812 to the Bay of Pigs and the War in Iraq

Provided free from Amazon Vine

Though written in a textbook format with sub-headings and sidebars, this reads more like a "light" history. I categorize light history as anything where the writers compile information from secondary sources and organize it into an easy-to-read format with a theme and no citations. In this book the author(s) (I'm not quite sure who did what here as there are several co-authors listed in the acknowledgments who aren't listed on the cover) review what they consider to be the greatest failures of certain--not all--of the presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush. (Interestingly, Bush the Father doesn't have a separate chapter but was included in the Iran-Contra chapter). There are no footnotes and no bibliography, only "additional reading" for each chapter, which, I assume, comprises their source material unless these authors knew it all of the top of their heads.

As someone who prefers her histories a little less broad and a lot deeper, on occasion a sampling of this type can provide a good review of things I haven't studied since high school, like the Whiskey Rebellion, and those parts of history we like to gloss over like the occupation of the Philippines and attempts to annex Santo Domingo.

Of course, anything of this sort will be extremely subjective, however, in this case, I was at a loss to determine the authors' method of choice. In the introduction it is noted that the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Clinton's impeachment are not included because the co-authors "...could not agree definitively that the ...scandals...actually inflicted damage on the United States at the time." In fact, there is no chapter on Clinton, implying, I suppose, that he had no major failures. However, (and I'm a Democrat), if Carter's botched attempt at rescuing the Iranian hostages was included, why not the Battle of Mogadishu (Black Hawk Down)? Conspicuous in their absence are some of the best-known scandals like Teapot Dome.

There are also some inclusions I question. For example, what has become known as "The Trail of Tears," the relocation of the Cherokee under Andrew Jackson. A qualifier here. I am a huge advocate for American Indian rights and know more about America's treatment of the Indians than most professional historians. However, I can't say I see how it falls under the rubric noted above. While it was certainly a moral shame, I don't see how it could be seen as "inflicting damage on the US at the time." The US, as opposed to the Cherokee, wasn't damaged at all.

I would also question the inclusion of the Energy Crisis under Jimmy Carter as a presidential failure. Too bad if it caused some economic woes at the time. In retrospect we'd have done better to stick with gas rationing and lowering our thermostats.

I did appreciate the inclusion of Iran-Contra, the now all but forgotten illegal dealings of the Reagan administration which are far too complicated to outline here. At a time when both Republicans and Democrats feel the need to pay lip service to the late president, it's good to remember what that administration got away with and how it began the line of thinking that the president is above the law and all things are allowable as commander-in-chief. However, I would have liked to see other inclusions under Reagan, like the firing of the Air Traffic Controllers and the banking deregulation that led to the Keating scandal (of which John McCain was a part).

Then again, you can't include everything or it would be a tome. All-in-all a good read, especially for those who avoid history because they think it is too boring. This is an easy read, covers a lot of important history, and, at its best, may entice people to read more about these events.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Secret Life of Bees: Now that it's a movie

Reprint Edition August, 2008

I was a little late coming to this novel, but now that it's been made into a movie starring Queen Latifa and Dakota Fanning I guess a review is still timely. In a world caught up with ever narrower "genrefication" I suppose I'd categorize The Secret Life of Bees as literary women's fiction as opposed to commercial women's fiction (which is what I would call Time Is a River). Reason being, the former spends a little more time on capturing sensations and sunsets, introspection, and follows through on most of the plot lines. There's the de rigueur female bonding, and a love interest, but at least it's of a loftier nature and conversations have less of that slumber party feel.

Still, I found the novel no more than mediocre. Okay, color me sick of female bonding––in fact strictly female anything––which may have affected my reading. The plot was somewhat contrived, but that didn't bother me as a good author, and I believe Kidd qualifies, can make the contrived believable. What bothered me the most was that, about two-thirds of the way through, Kidd seemed to run out of reasons to delay the inevitable climax of Lily revealing to August the secret about her mother (this is not a plot give-away), and threw in what felt to me like "filler", just to make the novel long enough. What happens to Zach (I don't want to give that part away), could have been very effective had the author carried it to the conclusion I expected, but as she wrote it, it felt empty and inconsequential, and certainly not significant enough to have the effect it did on May.

I never read the Sue Monk Kidd short story on which this novel is based, however I'm going to guess this could have worked as a short piece. Perhaps that's why the novel feels stretched like a bit of taffy. All in all, I'd give it a C+ to B-.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Time Is a River: Tell Me Something I Need To Know

Pocket Books

July 2008

Provided free from Amazon Vine
Here I was expecting a poignant and insightful novel about breast cancer survival, and what I found was formulaic women's fiction where the protagonist just happened to be recovering from breast cancer. I have real problems with so-called women's fiction on two levels. First, I'm tired of fiction written by women for women, where the protagonist is jolted into a journey of self-awareness by the loutish behavior of one guy with the end-prize turning out to be––what else?––the love of another guy. Oh, there's plenty of bantering among the "sisterhood" in between, but the love of a man is, obviously, the only real reward in life. Second, it shows the ultimate disrespect for women readers to assume we will ignore stock characters and poorly developed plot lines just for a "happy" ending. Though, since this stuff obviously sells, I guess it's true––for some women at least, but not for me.

In Mary Alice Monroe's novel, it takes protagonist, Mia, exactly the length of one summer––during which she is divorcing her first husband whom she found with another woman so soon after her cancer treatments that her hair has barely grown back––to fall into the arms of yet another man. And we wonder why divorce rates are so high. Yes, I'm sure that body image and sexual desirabilty can be a major issue for breast cancer survivors, and I can understand throwing in a sexual encounter, but was that really the best time to begin a long-term relationship? Shouldn't one of her women friends bring this to her attention instead of acting like giggly school girls?

For me this novel represented a wealth of missed opportunities. Part of the strain on Mia's marriage was the strain her illness put on their finances. Were they among the 14 million Americans without healthcare coverage? Or was she one of those who pay a fortune for paultry individual plans with high deductables? When she receives payment for her half of their condo, we learn she had been down to her last $200, but we never felt the tension of this woman, still reeling from her illness, trying to get by on such little income. And what about thoughts on her mortality? Her profound loneliness lasts about two days. Next thing you know, she's got the cabin cleaned up, has a bunch of friends, and is just happy as a clam.

And then there's that mouse issue I mentioned on zine writer.

To some these issues may sound picky, but if women truly believe there is value in writing specifically for other women (other than the obvious monetary one), then they should try writing books that tell what it's really like. Sure, the woman can triumph over adversity in the end, but that should be real adversity, not simply what women's fiction writers obviously consider the worst of all states––living without a man.

Snow White was a fairy tale ladies. It's time to grow up.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Guernica: This Is Not For Whom the Bell Tolls


Provided free from Amazon Vine
Most readers today, if they know it at all, would associate Guernica with the painting by Pablo Picasso and not the bombings of the Basque town that inspired him and became a metaphor for the worst horrors of war. I, on the other hand, was fascinated by the Spanish Civil War back in high school (nearly 40 years ago), prompted not a little by my grandfather, the immigrant activist who had supported the Loyalists, even though too old at the time to volunteer to fight for them. So when I saw this title I jumped at it.

An author writing about the Spanish Civil War in the 21st century faces three major challenges. One is the inevitable comparisons to Ernest Hemingway's, For Whom the Bell Tolls, the great American novel about the era. Another is a lack of the historical knowledge necessary to make the story resonate. Third is that the history of the various factions who made up the Loyalists on the one side and the Fascists on the other is difficult enough to explain in a history book let alone a novel. Unfortunately, while not bad, Guernica manages to come up short in these three areas.

Dave Boling made a conscious decision, as noted in his "Author's Notes," to not explain the history at all. This makes for a strange novel, indeed, even for me who had a general idea what was going on. One minute all seems well in the Basque country, with only one character showing any concerns for the growing strength of the Fascist rebels; the next minute brothers Dodo and Miguel Navarro are accosted by the Guardia Civile and forced into exile. For most of the novel, the people of Guernica happily go about their lives, then, suddenly, we learn that food is scarce and they are nearly starving, with no real explanation of what was happening around them to make this occur. Guernica also fills with soldiers and refugees. From where and why? If the lack of background made little sense to me, I can imagine what it would be like for readers with no knowledge at all of the times.

The high point of the novel is Boling's description of the bombings of this civilian population with no warning–-a precursor to the ubiquitous civilian bombings of WWII. The horror is almost as palpable as in the Picasso painting and I found myself unable to put the book aside at that point, wondering which of the characters would survive and which would not. But the grief and pain recede too quickly to feel realistic.

Strangely, in an odd disconnect to the theme, this is more of a "happy" story with everyone in Guernica singing and dancing and eating right up the the holocaust, followed by a quick recovery, even by those who lost most of their loved ones. Given that Basques separatists remain a force in Spain even today, long after the death of Franco and Fascism, it seems odd that the author would portray the wounds as healing so quickly. Yet, in the end, everything is tied up neatly, in an almost Dickensian style.

Needless to say, this is no For Whom the Bell Tolls, though it has its moments. All in all, it lacked the depth to make me care, no matter how much I tried.

Friday, August 15, 2008

City of Refuge: Katrina, Up Close and Personal

Harper Collins
September, 2008

Provided free from Amazon Vine

Where were you when the levees broke? For those of us not in the eye of the storm, that reference to newscasts from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina stays with us like 9/11 or, for an earlier generation, the Kennedy assassination. Reading City of Refuge, about the events and aftermath of Katrina, just a few weeks shy of the third anniversary, I clearly recalled newsmen hanging onto columns with coifs gone astray, the relief that maybe it wouldn't be as bad as expected, then the images of Americans stranded on rooftops with no food or water, begging for help, and the bodies floating.

By focusing on two families, Craig and Alice Donaldson, an upper middle-class white family, and the extended African-American family from the Lower Ninth, SJ, his sister Lucy, and her son Wesley, Tom Piazza personalizes the catastrophe in a way newscasts and documentaries could not, at least for me. In heavier hands, the white folks who got out and the black folks who didn't could have come off as cliche, if not somewhat opportunistic. But Piazza applies a light touch that contrasts perfectly to the weight of the subject. A black man enters into conversation with Craig Donaldson in the hotel where they both landed after hours in traffic, camping on lounge chairs if they were lucky, any space available if they weren't. We see white families at the Superdome. Pointing out that the difference was more rich vs poor than black vs white, or native New Orleanians vs transplants with someplace else to go, and sometimes simply folks who rode out other storms and figured on doing it again vs the more cautious. I also understood for the first time why people wouldn't leave: It's inconvenient and expensive, you can't leave your job, you have nowhere else to go, and most of the threats never materialize anyway.

Never having visited NOLA or The Big Easy, two names by which the city is known, may actually make me a good choice to review the book because I came with no preconceived notions of the city's unique culture. Tom Piazza had to create it for me, and he did an excellent job. He also steps back from time to time to show the huge dimensions of the loss and the government failures that allowed it to happen. Again, in the hands of a different writer, this might interrupt the flow, and again, Piazza handles it with a perfect touch.

I will say that I found the details of the Donaldson's marital issues that raged mostly around their differing feelings for the city, the least interesting part of the story. At first I attributed it to "author creep"––the way many literary authors today write about loosely disguised versions of their own lives––but soon saw the value of it in the context. As compared to the problems of SJ's family that included poverty, ill health, drug addiction, kids constantly in danger of taking a wrong turn, the Donaldson's problems seemed light. But having nothing else to compare them to, they exaggerated small things out of all proportion.

The best part about this novel is that, as in life, things don't always take the course you'd expect, and the end does not tie everything up in a package with a neat little bow. Tom Piazza's City of Refuge has the makings of a classic and the ability to become to Hurricane Katrina what The Grapes of Wrath was to the Great Depression.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Expeditions, A Novel by Karl Iagnemma

Read a review on
Roses & Thorns

Amazon makes this available on Kindle and therefore it cannot be purchased from this blog.