Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

I Want To Show You More / Jamie Quatro

This collection of fifteen stories was Jamie Quatro’s 2013 publishing debut. Her first novel is scheduled to be released this coming year. These short stories are set in and around Lookout Mountain, a community on the border of Georgia and Tennessee. She infuses them with a strong Southern ethos. Fearlessly addressed, her flawed protagonists deal with the entwined themes of religion, death, infidelity and God’s mercy.

Quatro’s stories are discomfortingly familiar as raw emotions are laid bare on the page. What keeps the book from seeming like “heavy” reading is the author’s comic and compassionate portrayals. Life’s complex and conflicted passions are the threads that join this collection together.

Jamie Quatro is a talent worth investigating. Be warned, however; beneath the placid, humorous surface of these stories, the cauldron of the human heart boils.


One Of Ours / Willa Cather

Following on the heels on My Antonia (1918), One Of Ours (1922) was Willa Cather’s fifth novel. It won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1923. It tells the story of Claude Wheeler, the son of a prosperous Nebraskan farmer. While his father expects him to remain on the farm, Claude dreams of escaping the drudgery of rural life to find his greater purpose. Not that he knows what that might be. In this pursuit and against his father’s wishes, he enrolls in the State University. Before Claude can complete this education, his father purchases another property and calls his son home to manage the family farm. Despite being disappointed and dissatisfied, Claude decides to put aside his dreams and marry a childhood friend. However, the marriage does not prove to be a happy one.

All of this takes place while the Great War is raging in Europe. And it is that war that rescues Claude from the cul-de-sac he finds himself in. With America’s entry into the conflict, he sees it as an avenue to escape. In spite of an influenza outbreak on the troop ship taking him across the Atlantic and the hardships and dangers encountered on the battlefield, Claude finds himself feeling reborn. He revels in the freedom of new experiences and responsibilities. Best of all, his world view expands as he is introduced to new cultures.

In reading this novel I was reminded of the World War I song, How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?). Riffing on the same theme, Cather shows how Claude, and many young men at the time, used the War as an escape from the predictability and restrictions of rural life. One Of Ours is often classed as a war story. However, only the book’s final quarter focuses on Claude’s enlistment and army experiences. For the majority of the novel, Cather concentrates on what she did best as a writer – she captures the rhythm and majesty of farm life in Nebraska, vividly bringing to life its landscape and disparate cultures.

Throughout his failed marriage and his constant struggle to find his life’s purpose, Claude Wheeler remains an idealist and a romantic, even when confronted by the War’s devastation in Europe. He embodies the spirit of the time as its young adults began to rebel agains the strict regimentation imposed upon them by family and community. Thanks to the advent of the automobile, rural inhabitants were just beginning to venture into distant cities and countries. While I enjoyed the book as a whole, I thought the portion set in Nebraska to be the best part of the story.

Hall Of Small Mammals / Thomas Pierce

This collection of stories often takes the reader into a future world just slightly ahead of our own. It is a place strangely familiar, where science has made great advances but human ordinariness persists. Pierce presents everyday life from a slightly skewed perspective. Extinct species are being resurrected, new infectious diseases defy scientific understanding, and the extraordinary has become commonplace. And yet, nonplussed, humankind deals with emotions and longings which have remained fresh for centuries.

And that is what makes these stories so interesting. The protagonists are people the reader instantly recognizes. They resemble neighbors, family members, and often ourselves. Though fantastical, the stories remain grounded in a world populated by familiars.

In these twelve stories, the author presents a cast of flawed individuals coping with situations that have veered into uncharted territory. While sometimes absurd, and almost always humorous, Pierce’s stories present characters who remain delightfully human…people who are simply trying to retain their dignity in astonishing situations.

Nostromo / Joseph Conrad

While most readers are familiar with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the book that many critics consider his magnum opus is Nostromo. It was published two years after Heart of Darkness, in 1904. The story takes place in the fictitious nation of Costaguana, loosely based on Colombia. It is a nation where political chaos is the norm. New governments rise and fall due to rampant corruption and military coups. As a result, poverty is rife and a discontented peasant class is ready to support any new dictator promising change. There is a remote section of the country, however, whose central city (Sulaco) has grown prosperous because of a rich vein of silver in a nearby mine.

Conrad’s presentation of the story is not linear. And its protagonist is not properly introduced until midway through. Nostromo is an Italian expatriate who has gained respect in the community for his bravery and daring exploits. While well thought of by the wealthy Europeans living in the city, he is considered too crass to be admitted into upper-class society. They simply view him as a tool they can bend to their wishes.

The book wrestles with important issues: capitalism, imperialism, environmental destruction, populism vs. business interests. While set in an era much different than our own, the situations described are ones that still dominate our headlines today. There is much to appreciate about this novel, yet I found its negatives outweighed the positives. One wonders where his editor was. It features a huge cast of characters, many who come and go in a blur without seeming to be of benefit to the story. And Conrad is very wordy which makes the book a chore to plow through. Worse still, its disparate storylines often do not fit together.

For those interested in reading post-colonial literature, Nostromo stands as an ambitious early example. However, for the average reader, it is probably not worth the effort it takes to make one’s way through this 600+ page tome.

Lucky Jim / Kingsley Amis

Lucky Jim, published in 1954, was Kingsley Amis’ first novel. It was hugely successful in Britain and won a Somerset Maugham Award. The protagonist is Jim Dixon, a junior lecturer in medieval history at a British provincial university. Hapless, he is the kind of person who seems to do all the wrong things for the right reason. Throughout the story, he is forced to contend with a surrounding cast of bores, crackpots, frauds, and an inept superior. Satirical and at times farcical, I found the novel amusingly engaging.

Amis’ targets in this book are the regimented college life as well as the stuffy British upper class attitudes of the time. While Jim hates his job, dirt poor, he is desperate to cling to his academic perch through hell or high water. After all, if he loses the position, he will be “reduced” to finding work as a school teacher. His desperation leads him into foolish acts where he is his own worst enemy. Though he is no angel and often commits petty acts of rebellion, Jim wins the reader’s sympathy because his suffering seems genuine, even if it is often self-inflicted.

In reading this book I was reminded of another novel I loved, Richard Russo’s Straight Man. Its protagonist is a reluctant chairman of an English department at a badly underfunded college in Pennsylvania. Although much older than Dixon, he too is a rebel who is continually getting himself in and out of trouble. I cannot help but wonder if Russo’s inspiration might have been sparked by Lucky Jim.

Lucky Jim deserves to be better known in this country. While set in a much different time period, its humor remains fresh, and the sorts of characters encountered along the way are still alive and well in academia today. This satire of irritants large and small will have readers cheering Jim Dixon on as he tilts against every windmill. And once they have finished reading the book, I would advis them to check out Straight Man as well.

The Geography Of Madness : Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, And The Search For The Meaning Of The World’s Strangest Syndromes / Frank Bures

In The Geography of Madness, Frank Bures investigates culture-bound syndromes and their causes. For instance, primarily in Asia but occurring worldwide, the title’s attention-getting disorder named Koro is an overpowering belief that one’s genitalia are retracting and will disappear. This is one of the many strange syndromes the author discusses with the hopes of explaining why they have continued to occur throughout recorded history.

If Bures had only addressed foreign culture-bound syndromes, most readers in this country would smugly assume themselves immune from such irrational afflictions. However, he also includes a chapter on common culture-bound syndromes well-known in the western world. His list is surprising and eye-opening. Included are anorexia nervosa, repressed memory syndrome, Type-A personality, and pet hoarding. Even depression and premenstrual syndrome are thrown into the mix. The author then proceeds to show that while these conditions are not imagined, one’s culture plays a big part in their transmission and symptoms reported. He believes they are as contagious as influenza.

Also discussed in this book are the placebo and nocebo effects in medicine. (“Placebo is when a positive effect is seen in the study group when giving a known ‘non-effector’ [meaning a substance already established as having no effect], whereas nocebo is an aggravation of symptoms or negative effect seen in the study group when giving a known ‘non-effector”). While both are psychogenic responses, they do induce measurable changes in the body and the brain.

Bures presents a convincing case on the important role culture plays in regards to health worldwide. In defining what culture is, he defines it broadly as the stories we share and pass down to future generations. The fact that these stories have a strong effect on one’s psyche and health is what makes this book fairly unique.

In his concluding argument, Bures contends that cultural syndromes all share key similarities. Without a doubt, the symptoms are real, they are contagious, and each has some perceived cause at their root. It is a shame that the book is not better written. I found the author’s prose often plodding. Nonetheless, the subject matter kept me engaged throughout. While most of us might believe we are too rational to fall prey to a culture-based syndrome, after reading The Geography of Madness, we may admit that despite being dismissed by modern medicine, beliefs and fear still play a big part in bodily illnesses.

Washington : A Life / Ron Chernow

In this in-depth biography, Ron Chernow seemingly leaves no stone unturned as he presents the breadth of George Washington’s event-filled life. The story he tells scrubs away the myths surrounding the man to reveal the fallible figure hidden beneath History’s veneer. Chernow follows Washington’s footsteps through his adventurous early years while assisting the British in their battles against the French, his experiences of leading the Continental Army, his presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and finally his tumultuous eight years as America’s first President.

As this biography shows, Washington had more than his fair share of flaws. He craved money, status, and fame. In his personal life he remained tightfisted, engaged in questionable land speculation, and was a hard-driving slave master. And yet he also learned to master his strong passions and ambitions to spend most of his adult life in the service of his country, often at a great cost to his own pocketbook. Even more importantly, he evolved into a statesman with the necessary skills to steer a fledgling country toward its future greatness.

While he was not a particularly gifted general, he possessed a charismatic personality that drew the support and devotion of the soldiers he led. Washington was a born leader, which explains why he was the only President to be unanimously voted into office by Congress. Being a slave holder is certainly a red mark against him. However, over time, he did begin to question the legitimacy of the practice. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, upon his death George Washington freed his slaves. This was not a common practice at the time.

For those who think that politics in this country today are virulent compared to the past, reading Chernow’s description of Washington’s eight years as President is eye opening. The battle between the Federalists and the Republicans was a knock-down, no-holds-barred fight in which “fake news” and personal attacks played a prominent role. At the start of his Administration, Washington tried to favor neither party, but over time he began to support the concept of a strong central government as opposed to the preeminence of states’ rights. In this effort he was assisted by one of the leading Federalists, his Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.

Chernow is a master biographer, and this work on George Washington will appeal to lay readers and students alike. For those wanting a better understanding of our country’s birth and infancy, I suggest they begin with this book, then follow it with Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. Together they provide an avenue to comprehend the passions and ideals of the time. The author’s descriptive prose brings these two leading “Founding Fathers” to life, peeling away the myths and gloss to show the flesh and blood beneath.