Monday, September 29, 2014

Lost in Shangri-la

Lost in Shangri-la: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff (2011)

Near the end of WWII, a group of military personnel went for a sight-seeing flight that ended in tragedy when their plane crashed in a remote area of Dutch New Guinea (present-day Papua.) The three survivors then had to cope on their own among indigenous people who had never before encountered outsiders, while awaiting an uncertain rescue.

Most aboard the plane were WACs (Women's Army Corps), accompanied by just a few men. Of the survivors, two were badly injured. Ken Decker suffered a head injury and burns on his backside. Margaret Hastings had burns on both legs; her burns as well as Decker's soon turned gangrenous in the hot, damp jungle weather. Only John McCollom was in physically decent shape.

The area where they crashed was in a valley between steep cliffs with no place for planes to land, and the altitude made helicopter rescue impossible too. Hiking out would mean either going towards hostile natives, or toward Japanese troops, neither of which were feasible options. The two injured survivors were in no condition for a long hike anyhow. Luckily, the people they encountered weren't the head-hunters or cannibals they had heard stories about, because they were going to be stuck with them for a while.

This book has been on my To Read list for a couple of years now, and I just kept putting it off. It always sounded interesting and I definitely wanted to read it...but some other time. I had been afraid it would be long and dry, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Zuckoff's style was engaging and he told this exciting story well. There was just enough background without going off too far on tangents - a common pitfall of this type of book - and I felt like I got to know the major players in the story quite well.

The bravery of all three survivors was commendable, and I always especially like to hear stories of strong women in a time when women weren't appreciated for qualities unrelated to marriage and motherhood. Margaret Hastings was condescended to a bit (like when cargo drops included lipstick, of all things, when what she really needed was just some underwear), but she came across as strong and adventurous and quite admirable.

Because of language and cultural barriers, a number of misunderstandings occurred between the natives and the newcomers. One that stood out related to how the men dressed. The local men wore nothing but penis gourds, which are basically what they sound like. They kept touching the newcomers, and the white men grew irritated with this behavior and, thinking it was because they were wearing clothes, they stripped and just hung out naked for a couple hours. Turns out the natives were rather taken aback by their nudity (apparently they consider their gourds modest outfits) but had been touching the men because they had never seen clothes before and were intrigued by their second skins.

Zuckoff kept pointing out the prejudice of the white people towards the natives, but I actually thought they were pretty open to learning about these people who lived very different lives from them. The two groups did cultivate friendships of sorts, and seem well-intentioned. Learning about the Dani tribe through the eyes of their unexpected guests was fascinating, and the author helpfully added information learned later through interviews with members of the tribe. He also talked a little about how their ways changed after this visit from the outside world.

Lost in Shangri-La was a great adventure story. The aftermath of this crash was harrowing and exciting, but rather lost in time as it was overshadowed by the larger events of World War II. Zuckoff clearly did his research and made the story into a compelling page-turner. I'm so glad I finally picked up this book, and perhaps I wouldn't have if I hadn't chosen it for my TBR Pile Challenge. After putting it off for so long, I'll never understand why I chose the night before a vacation flight to suddenly begin reading this book about a plane crash, but I was captivated, even while up in the air.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Upcoming: War and Peace

Recently I made a list of classics I want to read, including War and Peace, which I've been vaguely wanting to read since college. It was only in the course of making this list that I found a fall class on it at a local adult ed program. It's nothing short of a miracle when there's a class I'm interested in that's not during the day or on an evening that I work. Clearly, this was a sign, so I took the plunge and signed up. And then I convinced two of my friends to also sign up! Because we are all nerds! The first class was originally scheduled for this week, when I'm out of town, but in another miraculous development, it has been delayed by a week so I won't miss a thing. Obviously it was meant to be.

As you may already know, War and Peace is quite lengthy and complicated. This is an 8-week class so I'll be reading it rather slowly and thoroughly, and I'm thinking of making it into a whole series of blog posts as other bloggers sometimes do. They usually do it as a read-along, so if any of you want to read War and Peace along with me, that would be most welcome.

Hopefully the blog won't get too boring for those of you less inclined towards Tolstoy. Giving the number of pages we'll likely be reading per week, I'm planning to read other books concurrently. Short, easy books. This may be a great time to catch up on young adult novels.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday Knitting

I haven't knit a thing in well over a week, but I also neglected to post about knitting last week so I do have something new to show you. Even if it's not really new anymore.

This is the beginning of Pianissmo, which I've mentioned before as a possible project. It appears to be a simple drapey sleeveless top, but then I actually purchased and downloaded the pattern. This pattern is 21 pages long. Twenty-one. Granted, photos take up some of that space, but not a lot. I'm not sure what makes it so complicated because I don't read entirely through patterns before beginning like I'm supposed to. It has caused a great deal of regret over the years, yet I continue to skip this vital step.

The project is already not going incredibly well. That scalloped looking pattern along the bottom looks nothing like the photo and I'm hoping it's something that blocking will fix, but we all know what a futile hope that usually turns out to be.

Still, the yarn is lovely so I'm enjoying the knitting.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2013)

Fowler's Booker-nominated novel begins in the middle of the story. Rosemary Cooke narrates what seems to be a pretty typical family drama full of dysfunction and estrangement. But about 75 pages in, we learn something about her family - specifically, about her sister Fern - that puts everything in a different light. Everything afterward revolves around this fact that we learn and creates most of what is fascinating in the story. But it's a spoiler, so you're just going to have to trust me on that.

Which is the central problem with reviewing this novel. You can't tell everyone the single most interesting thing about it, the thing that will actually make them want to read it. A couple of my coworkers recommended it to me, enthusiastically, which is what made me interested, but it was reading the spoiler in a review that made me actually pick it up. And yet, it would have been a better reading experience had I not known the spoiler, because I spent the first 75 pages wondering when I would learn this thing I already knew.

Spoilers aside, there are some great things about it that I can tell you. Rosemary grew up with a brother and a sister and has seen neither of them in many years, though the reasons why are only revealed later. She is just the sort of quirky narrator I like. As a child, she never stopped talking, and drove everyone around her bananas. They had to play a sort of game with her in which for every three things she thought of, she had to choose just one to say out loud. She kept changing this ratio until, as an adult, she kept pretty much everything inside. In college, which is where the story begins (though keep in mind it's the middle of the story), she befriends a woman named Harlow when they are arrested together. This unlikely friendship comes at a crucial point in Rosemary's life, and Harlow gets drawn into the drama of the Cooke family in a pretty serious way.

When Rosemary thinks back to her childhood - the beginning of the story - she is troubled by her faulty memory. It is true that our memories are inherently unreliable and Rosemary knows this and tries to decipher her memories and figure out which ones are true and which are just smokescreens hiding the real ones.

"Why are there so many scenes I remember from impossible vantage points, so many things I picture from above, as if I'd climbed the curtains and was looking down on my family? And why is there one thing that I remember distinctly, living color and surround-sound, but believe with all my heart never occurred?"

She is especially aware of the misleading nature of our memories because her dad was a scientist. In fact, there are many many references to scientific studies throughout her story. Even when thinking about the children's story Charlotte's Web, she associates it with studies in which spiders were drugged and photos taken of the webs they spun while under the influence.

Although this isn't an issue novel, it does bring up some particular issues that are not usually tackled in the mainstream media and focuses on a particular fringe in a way that is actually fairly sympathetic. It also happens to be something about which I have strong feelings, so I was especially intrigued and appreciative of how Fowler handled it. I'm sorry to be so vague, but again, spoilers. I just want to emphasize how thoughtful this novel is.

This would be a great novel for a book group discussion, if you can manage to convince people to read it without knowing the most interesting aspects of it. For me, it was enough to have some vague but enthusiastic recommendations from other people. Some may be convinced to pick it up because it was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. But don't be daunted - it's not one of those long, dry, inaccessible award-winners. It's an easy 300 pages that will hold your interest throughout. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes good fiction and especially to those looking for something unusual.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Miniaturist

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (2014)

Petronella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam in 1686, the new wife of well-established merchant Johannes Brandt. From the moment she arrives, the household seems strange. Johannes is not at home and his sister Marin seems to be in charge. She is cold towards Nella, and offers no explanations about the household or Johannes, who continues to be frequently absent. Employed by the household is Otto, the first black man Nella has ever known, and a maid, Cordelia, who is just as secretive and stand-offish as everyone else. On a rare visit home, Johannes presents Nella with a wedding gift - a cabinet-sized replica of their house. Nella employs a local miniaturist to furnish the home, but receives puzzling packages in return, some of which seem to mirror the most secret goings-on of the household.

I don't usually read brand new books by debut authors without first hearing a lot of good reviews (from friends as well as critics) but, well, this one had at me "17th century Amsterdam." I visited Amsterdam myself a few years ago and learned a little about the city's history, especially about the explosion in commerce and the arts during the Golden Age of the 17th century. Not only that, but I visited the Rijksmuseum where I saw the actual cabinet house belonging to the real Petronella Oortman. I knew that this novel centered around one of these elaborate doll houses, but it was only when I opened it to see a photo that I realized it was about a particular house owned by a particular young woman.

A modern view of Amsterdam canal houses.
Reading detailed descriptions of daily life in that time period was probably my favorite aspect of The Miniaturist. The very few reviews I heard referenced a slow start, but I found it very engrossing from the first page. Burton brought her setting to life and I could have gone on quite happily living Nella's life with her even without the intrigue.

In fact, I got just a bit impatient a little over halfway through because of the rate at which the action had ramped up. I found many of the plot points predictable, which isn't awful in itself, but it began to seem like maybe there was a bit too much going on. I also thought people who were so secretive and calculating would have been a little more careful about certain things which became their undoing. I wasn't convinced these characters would have acted the way they did.

Still, I liked getting to know all the characters and learning their secrets. What was considered scandalous then is nothing now, of course, but seeing the story slowly unfold was quite a delicious pleasure. There is a scene early in the book in which Nella sneaks into Marin's bedroom and sees many strange and foreign objects decorating the room, and realizes there is much more to Marin than her stern, black-clad exterior. She doesn't know what, but she becomes very intrigued and so did I. The whole book was like that to me - everything I read about just made me want more.

At the end is a glossary, followed by salary comparisons for that period, and sample household costs. This are unusual additions and would have been great to know about before I finished the book. I looked for an author's note too, since Nella was a real person, but the only mention is in the acknowledgements where Burton says Nella's biography is completely fiction. She was married to a wealthy merchant named Johannes Brandt, but it doesn't appear there's much more information available about her.

The cover art is lovely, though the first version I saw was the one discussed by the designer in this article, which I liked even more. Both versions capture the atmosphere of mystery that pervades the novel and makes it such an engrossing read. Despite its length, I found The Miniaturist so gripping I plowed through it in a long weekend.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Husband's Secret

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty (2013)

Ignore that the cover looks like a romance novel or a feminine hygiene product, because the design is misleading. Our main character, Cecilia, is a mother of three who sells Tupperware and is incorrigibly well-organized, efficient, and perfect. I get the feeling that many of the other mothers hate her. One day she finds a letter that her husband Jean-Paul has written to be opened only upon his death, but she reads it and learns a secret that will change her family forever.

Rachel is a secretary at the school Cecilia's daughters attend, and she is notable primarily because her daughter was murdered so many years ago. The killer was never caught. (You can see where this is going already, right?) Our third major character is Tess, who has just learned that her husband is in love with her cousin/best friend, and she returns from Melbourne to Sydney with her son to stay with her mother. Here, she runs into her ex-boyfriend, who also happened to be a suspect in the aforementioned murder. This, I think, is the only reason why Tess is even in this story.

This was a pretty engrossing book, and I consumed it over just a couple of days (I've been on a reading tear recently.) It was kind of a cheap thrill. It was predictable in many ways. Jean-Paul's secret is revealed about a third of the way through and it's exactly what I thought it was. But I don't think the point is to be surprised about the secret, but how the characters deal with it. Cecilia is put in an impossible position, and what you don't know is what she is going to do about it.

Meanwhile, Rachel and Tess star in their own dramas. Rachel is almost completely alone, having lost her daughter so many years ago, and her husband more recently. She still has her son Rob though, and his wife and their son. Little Jacob is the apple of Rachel's eye and when the novel opens, she learns that Rob and his family will be moving to New York. Focusing on all she has lost, and is continuing to lose, she turns her attention back to her daughter's unsolved murder.

Tess owns a business with her husband Will and her cousin Felicity, so they all work closely together and don't even really have any other friends. Felicity has always been rather overweight but recently has gotten skinny and looks gorgeous. This has apparently not gone unnoticed by Will. When he and Felicity tell Tess they have fallen in love, she is convinced it's a joke. But it's not, and she must work through her feelings of betrayal by the two people to whom she is closest.

Although the story takes place in Sydney, which I assume is rather a large city, it felt very much like a small town. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, and they were all connected. It also all wrapped up quite neatly and I can't decide whether or not I liked that, but I am clear that I hated the epilogue. And because that's what I was left with, I became unable to manage rating the book on Goodreads.

Aside from that, it was pretty enjoyable, though I wouldn't be nominating it for any literary awards. But it kept my interest throughout and I found the narration quite witty. The real strength of the book is in the issues it brought up, many of which are things I've been thinking a lot about recently and which I think will make great discussion fodder at my book group next week.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Sisters' Fate

Sisters' Fate (The Cahill Witch Chronicles #3) by Jessica Spotswood (2014)

Finally, the third and final volume of this series has arrived! When we left the Cahill sisters, the witches had just caused a mutiny at Harwood Asylum and rescued a large group of women who had been committed unjustly and horribly mistreated. But the witches were divided, and Maura was so angry at her sister Cate, she did the worst thing she could think of - she erased Finn's memory so he didn't remember her. I didn’t know how Jessica Spotswood was going to write us out of this horrible situation. Of course I shouldn’t have worried, and I wasn’t disappointed with the wrap-up of this series.

Now, not only are the witches still in danger, but a fever is sweeping New London and the Brotherhood is trying to keep it a secret. The witches want to prevent further spread of the disease without revealing themselves, but as Sister Inez gains more power the Sisterhood's internal rifts only increase.

Since the first book of the trilogy, we’ve known about the prophecy the Cahill sisters are meant to fulfill. One family of three witches, all with the ability to use mind magic: one sister will be an oracle, and one sister will kill another.  I wondered if that last part of the prophecy would come true at all, or whether fate would somehow be thwarted. Tensions increased between all three Cahill sisters as Tess's visions became more and more terrible and real, convincing her she was going mad, and Cate remained furious with Maura for erasing Finn's memory. The conclusion was both exhilarating and satisfying.

I love the world that Spotswood has created for this story. In this alternate New England, witches have been persecuted so heavily that all women are punished, and greatly oppressed by the powerful Brotherhood. The paranoia and secrecy remind me a bit of the Soviet Union or North Korea, though of course old New England has a very different feel from those places.

Although there is romance, the best relationships in the series are those between the sisters and among their friends. We learn a lot about their friends and their friends' families compared to other teen books, but it doesn't get too complicated. It was just enough to make their friends seem real and interesting, and I think it helps remind us that this is their story too, and not just that of the Cahill sisters. There is an awful lot at stake here.

Sisters' Fate is a strong finish to a series that deserves more attention than it has gotten. I realize there's a lot of competition, but not many trilogies are so consistently good from start to finish. But I do what I can as a good librarian and recommend the first volume, Born Wicked, at every opportunity. (Because librarianship is all about making people read the books you love most, right?)

I hate to place undue pressure of authors to keep producing - and I do think it's enough of an accomplishment to write three really good books (or even one) - but I do hope Jessica Spotswood has more in store for us.