Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Keep Your Eye on the Bouncing Blog

    The library blog has packed up and moved to a new location. Please visit "Reading, Reviewing and Ranting: passionate book talk with Linda and Kaitlin" at http://betheltulplibrary.wordpress.com/ After your visit, be sure to leave a comment or make a suggestion. We'd love to hear from you.
 
 
 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

I'm a bold grinch about The Goldfinch


  Last fall I saw lots of praise for The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The cover and glowing reviews dominated headlines in several  online book newsletters and reading websites that I frequent. It sounded like a novel destined for big things. And indeed it was. It won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction this spring, just about the time I first snagged it off the new arrivals shelf.
  Here's a quickie synopsis from the Pulitzer folks, just so you know what they thought:

 "Awarded to "The Goldfinch," by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown), a beautifully written coming-of-age novel with exquisitely drawn characters that follows a grieving boy's entanglement with a small famous painting that has eluded destruction, a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart."

   Considering the book is well over 750 pages, you could say the Pulitzer judges left a few things out in that blurb. They skipped over the deep, dark abyss that was the main character's life. But that's just my take.
    This was, most of the time, a difficult story to navigate. And not because it was poorly written. Oh no. Tartt is a gifted writer, and I marveled at her imagination and ambition to crank out a novel of this magnitude and complexity. How much research did this woman conduct beforehand? She knows about classical artwork, art theft, Americana furniture sales, reproductions and restoration. She knows about drugs and drug abuse and living in Las Vegas. She knows about the uber rich of Manhattan as well as the conversational styles of Latino doormen.
  She also made me care--madly and deeply--for Theo, our young hero/victim/reluctant art thief whose life we share for hundreds of pages. It was why I kept hungrily returning to the book, even though I knew each chapter in Theo's life would be rife with despair.
   Theo loses his mother in a terrorist attack while visiting a New York museum, and while he picked his way through the debris to escape, a dying man insists he grab Carel Fabritius's The Goldfinch from the destroyed gallery's wall. Dazed and desperately searching for his mother, Theo does what he's told without question.
   Later, his alcoholic--and estranged--father resurfaces and sweeps Theo from the comfort of a friend's home only to insert him into a barren, lonely existence in Las Vegas. Instead of a bomb, Theo is now the victim of epic negligence. His father and his father's girlfriend are absorbed in their lives and destructive habits while Theo ekes out a life with his closest friend Boris, a Russian transplant and product of a similar Vegas, absentee parent. They become brothers and scrounge for food, drugs, a kind word.
  And that's just the first third of the book. Theo ultimately returns to New York City with the painting and starts fresh. After what he'd been through, it is a euphoric moment in the book that moved me to tears. But Theo's tragic history and family tree squash every lucky break. Just when I hoped his situation would change, Theo elected to keep secrets. He distrusted those best suited to help. The painting, regretfully, stayed hidden. In the midst of his deception, Theo does learn a trade. He becomes a savvy antique furniture restorer and salesman. He even reunites with the family that offered him refuge after his mother's death. I held my breath from page to page, just waiting him out. I wanted Theo to come clean. To trust. To stay clear headed and sober. But wishing didn't make it so. Instead, Theo got Boris, and the world turned upside down again.
  I couldn't put the book down (when I had the time to read during this busy spring), but the story made me wince. I wanted to love this prize-winning novel, but I pushed to finish. Couldn't wait to finish. Yet I'm very, very glad I invested my time in The Goldfinch. In fact,  I have encountered readers who gushed over this book, like the woman at my salon who reported during her cut and blow-out that members of her book club hated to see it end!! So there you go. Yes, read this. But buckle up.
  The book is making me crazy. It's great, but it's a mess (a recent Washington Post headline claimed it was a "pretentious mess"). Tartt gives us a glimpse of the dirty underbelly of life, yet I couldn't look away. No one could.
Push From the Book: I'm still thinking about this book and what it all meant to me. I came out on the other side bothered by what I had encountered. At this second, my strongest motivation is to read something totally different. Kind, bright and optimistic. Sounds like the right time to hook up with the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. It fits the bill.  

Monday, April 14, 2014

Undercover Warriors


  I am pleased to share this interview with I Shall Be Near To You author, Erin Lindsay McCabe. Since finishing her historical novel last month, my head was buzzing with more questions about women in the Civil War who, disguised as men, lived and fought with husbands, lovers, husbands and brothers. I was seized by the need to know more, and the busy author graciously answered my questions--via e-mail-- with the copious details I craved. 
   Who were they? How did they do it? Why did they do it? Did they make a difference? McCabe told me everything I needed to know, and I thank her again for sharing her mastery of a little known slice of women's history. I still shake my head at the thought of it. Women, passing as men, in the thick of battle. Who knew?
  
1. Do you believe your novel is revealing lesser-known chapters of Civil War history? I can't believe many people, even Civil War buffs, know about these women signing on to the fight?

Most of the Civil War buffs I have encountered do know that women fought in the Civil War. When I visited a reenactment here in California as part of my research, it was made very clear to me that the regiments participating there were “equal opportunity” and I saw several female soldiers in the ranks. That said, most people I talk to are pretty surprised to learn that women fought, and they are even more surprised when they hear the numbers (250 documented, 400-1000 estimated). Their reaction is usually very much like mine, when I first learned of these women—disbelief, shock. Several readers have commented that they thought the premise for the book was implausible or even ridiculous, until they learned it was based on fact.  It’s such a great piece of history and I feel like it’s important, especially for girls and women, to know just how fully women have been involved in all aspects of this nation’s history. One of my hopes in writing this novel was that it would serve as a tribute to the real women who enlisted, and help their stories gain more exposure. There are several fabulous history books that focus on women’s service in the Civil War, but I feel like this topic was ripe for fiction because we really have so few details about most of the women, and so little of it is in their own words.

                                                      Sarah Rosetta Wakeman

2.  Rosetta disguised herself for love. Was that the motivation of most other women who took this drastic action? Rosetta Wakeman, a real woman who passed as a man and enlisted in a New York regiment, didn't seem to have that element in her life.

The real Rosetta didn’t have romantic love as a motivation to join up, but it’s very clear from her letters home that she did love her family very much. She frequently sent home small gifts for her siblings (a knife, a ring, a photo) and she asked about the farm in almost every letter. Her father was in debt and she sent quite a bit of the money she made home, so her main motivation seemed to be that she could earn better money and help her family more as a soldier. But she also says in one letter, “I like to be a soldier very much,” and in another “I have enjoyed my self the best since I have been gone away from home than I ever did before in my life. I have had plenty of money to spend and a good time asoldier[ing].” Maybe that was just a brave face she was putting on for her family, but I tend to think that she really enjoyed the freedom she had, living as a man. That said, most of the documented women who served did go with husbands, fianc├ęs, lovers, or even brothers and fathers. So love was definitely a big motivator. But there are also women, like Sarah Emma Edmonds, who served because they were patriotic and wanted to fight for something they believed in, or Jennie Hodgers who wanted to experience the adventure of being a soldier. Basically women had every reason men did for enlisting.

3. Many soldiers on both sides came from farms. I can see how a hardy young woman like your Rosetta could fool people. Is that why you portrayed her as strong, capable and unafraid—so she could more easily pass as a man?

I really wanted to be true to the voice of the real Rosetta, which shines through in her letters. She comes across as being all of those qualities—strong, capable, and brave— but also tender. Many of the other women who fought earned promotions or were remembered as being courageous and tough, and I felt like, in order to do what they did, and pull it off for years (some all the way through pregnancy even!), these women had to be incredibly determined. So, yes those qualities make it easier to pass as a man, but I think these were people who were accustomed to hard physical labor and having to work for their own survival. Living on a farm must have been a big help in being more prepared to do the job of a soldier.   

4. I presume physicals were not required to join up. How many of these women were detected during the war and what was the typical response?

The physical was often just a handshake, or a matter of having a potential soldier open up his mouth to check that he had enough teeth to tear open the cartridges to load his weapon. There was really no common or standard examination, and obviously it wasn’t very thorough. The fact that the army accepted children in the ranks (some drummer boys were as young as 9 or 10) and did not confirm the ages they were given by enlistees, made it easier for women to pass alongside teenage boys whose voices hadn’t changed and who didn’t need to shave.  There was also no official protocol for what to do when a woman was discovered in the ranks.  Some were imprisoned for, as Rosetta puts it in one of her letters, “not doing acCording to regulation.” Others were drummed out of the regiment and sent home. And some were allowed to stay. The men who learned after the war that some of their comrades had been women were almost universally supportive—they remembered their fellow soldiers for their actions and their gender just didn’t matter.

5. After reading the journals and letters, what do these women say was more difficult--keeping up with the physical demands of marching and battle or the total lack of privacy? How did they cope with menstruation? Can't even imagine.

There is absolutely no discussion in either of the first-hand accounts I read about the practical, day-to-day realities of how they managed to keep up their disguises. I was so frustrated by that! Some of the women were remembered as using tobacco, drinking, and gambling—perhaps activities they took up in order to help maintain their disguise. I’m sure many of the women were helped by the fact that they were used to doing farm work or other physical labor. It also helped that standards of modesty were higher at the time—it was not at all uncommon for men to choose to use the bushes instead of the latrines, which were notoriously disgusting. One theory is that the poor nutrition and the long marches may have caused many women to stop menstruating entirely or that with so many wounded and dead on the battlefields, it might not have been to hard to dispose of soiled rags. But how they did it remains one of the big questions I have.

6. Anything in your research surprise you--how they fared in battle, for example? Where they fought? Any women part of the action in Gettysburg?

There are five women known to have served at Gettysburg, including two women who participated in Pickett’s charge (one was wounded severely and the other was discovered dead by Union burial crews). The women were pretty much everywhere—at major battles and plenty of smaller engagements too. Aside from my initial shock that women had served in such numbers and I had never known, I think the biggest surprise was learning that women had served while pregnant and had gone undiscovered until the moment they gave birth—it seems impossible, and yet, it happened! I was also surprised in general by the moments of humanity that the troops would demonstrate toward the other side—Union troops cheering for a Confederate soldier who went out on the field to give water to the wounded in the midst of a battle, for instance. That soldier could have easily been shot, but he wasn’t. There are lots of stories like that, where the two sides treated each other with kindness and humor, although sadly, none of that made it into the novel. There were also plenty of horrific details that I was surprised by that did make it into the book—like the soldier who carved keepsake rings out of bones he found on the battlefields. That’s something I could never have made up. 

7. How were these women treated by their hometowns and communities when they returned?

There is even less information available about the female soldiers’ lives after they left the service than there is about their time in the army. The few women whose lives are documented after the war didn’t talk publicly about their experiences and only a few of them attempted to get military pensions, well after the war ended. Some of them were only identified as veterans in their obituaries. My sense is that most of the women didn’t talk about their experience much, and if they did, it was within the confines of their families, sharing their stories with their children. I think most of them probably just went back and immersed themselves in the work of daily living. I don’t know if it was because they didn’t want to talk about what they had done, or they felt they couldn’t. I imagine for many of them it would have been difficult after having been treated as equals—some of the women had even voted during their service—to go back to being unable to vote, own property, or even have their own bank accounts. It seems like it must have been very galling to give up those kinds of freedoms, to give up being considered a full-fledged citizen. Some women didn’t want to give up that freedom, for whatever reason. At least two women continued living as men after the war, one being discovered only after she died (and known only by her male alias, Otto Schaffer), and the other, Jennie Hodgers, being discovered toward the end of her life.

8.  I notice at your website there are photos of you at Antietam and Bull Run. How did those visits affect your writing? And your Playlist--how did that help you recreate the time?

The playlist was mostly about creating the right mood and tone for myself, although some of the music I listened to was music that the soldiers would have listened to and sung (The Battle Hymn of the Republic, for instance). But a lot of what is on the playlist is modern folk music, which I love because the songs are about deep emotional issues, but are sung in very simple, very beautiful, very earthy language. The kind of character that Rosetta is, and the soldiers who fought, so many of them were from agrarian backgrounds—I imagined they would filter their stories through what they had experienced of the land and nature and animals. That’s a huge part of why I ended up needing to go to the battlefields. By the time I visited them, I had written a complete draft of the novel, relying on battlefield maps to trace the route of my characters, and using field guides and historic photos to imagine the setting (and also memories of my first visit to Manassas in 1995). But I really felt like I needed to be in that physical space to really understand the landscape and what the soldiers might have seen and experienced and felt. I wanted to walk as much of the route the soldiers marched and find the places on the battlefield where key moments occur. Sitting in those places and knowing that hundreds of soldiers fought and died all around where I was walking was intense and emotional. Afterwards, I felt so much more confident working on those battle scenes, even though many of the revisions I made as a result of the trip were small details, really. The trip was probably most helpful in allowing me to feel like I had the authority to write those scenes. It was a huge challenge since I have no military experience whatsoever, but I so wanted to get the battles right and do justice to what the soldiers experienced. Hopefully I succeeded.



Monday, March 31, 2014

Civil War Masquerade


   Up until now my favorite Civil War novel was the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning March by Geraldine Brooks. While Brooks employed the fictional Mr. March from Little Women to create a Civil War masterpiece, Erin Lindsay McCabe relied on journals and letters of real soldiers to shape her tale of a wife who disguises herself as a man to fight alongside her husband.
   McCabe found about 250 accounts of women passing as men during the Civil War and used those writings to help create Rosetta Wakefield, a new bride who could not fathom life on her husband's family farm after he leaves to join the Union army. She was strong and capable, more comfortable with fieldwork or barn chores than the tidy women's work her mother-in-law insisted she perform. Before her marriage to Jeremiah, Rosetta was the son her father never had. Outdoor work among the animals and crops suited her, but it's a life long gone now that she's married and living at Wakefield Farm. Once Jeremiah leaves to join the 97th New York Volunteers mustering in Utica, there's only one thing for her to do.
   She grabs shears to cut her hair and needle and thread to cut down Jeremiah's old clothes to fit her five foot two-frame. With a map, some socks, flannel rags, hard boiled eggs and bread, she sets off.
   Rosetta becomes Ross Stone, Jeremiah's "relative" from back home and brings her hardscrabble, can-do attitude into the camps. She learns to drill and shoot and blend in among the men. Jeremiah insists she leave but eventually succumbs to his wife's determination to stay.
   Here's an excerpt from Rosetta's early days in camp that offers a glimpse of her connection to the land and the routine of the troops awaiting orders:
   "I never had so much of nothing to do before in my whole life. No cows needing milking. No chickens needing scraps. No troughs to fill. No garden hungry for manure or fences for mending or laundry for scrubbing. There is just mustering for drill, or roll, or inspections, all of which means getting up before the sun even though it seems to me there ain't a thing to be done in our company that needs such early rising."
   This is a women unaccustomed to idleness or time wasted. But in no time the guns arrive, and she's thrust into a whole new set of challenges. The weight of the gun and cartridge boxes will be a heavy burden. Aiming and then shooting while on the run? Even Rosetta can see she's in for mighty upheaval.
   Before the company sees action they move south into Virginia, and Rosetta accompanies the Captain's wife to a hospital for the most gravely injured. She is drafted into nursing chores but is nearly overcome by the sights and smells and sounds of the ailing soldiers. At one point she must dress the wounds of a soldier with no hands. Rosetta balks but then settles to the task: "I ain't got the knack.....But I can do a thing that needs doing."
    Rosetta had grit, and her resolve inspired me. Her devotion to Jeremiah touched me. Their love was deep and abiding. How they protected and nurtured each other during fleeting moments of privacy warmed my heart, and their tenderness was in stark contrast to vivid battle scenes McCabe recreated at Bull Run and Antietam. If Rosetta didn't get into the fray, she helped tend the injured and bring water to those close to death lying in the killing fields.
   I Shall Be Near To You is a great book and ideally suited to anyone interested in the Civil War or the untold stories of women who joined the fight. But at it's heart, in the midst of all the blood and violence and death, there is a love story that will burrow deep inside of you.
The Push From the Book: I'm now a bit obsessed about these women serving in the Civil War. So many questions. I really need to talk to Erin Lindsay McCabe........stay tuned.
 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Helping Hands in Africa


       My reading travels rarely take me to Africa, but this is one armchair adventure I'm glad I didn't miss. Josh Ruxin's memoir of his humanitarian work in Rwanda, which eventually led to the creation of medical centers, agricultural and business development and the unlikely creation of a hilltop restaurant called Heaven, is a book that I'm cheering and endorsing with vigor.
     To me it was an epic tale of good and evil, light and dark, bloodshed and forgiveness, poverty and prosperity. And if that wasn't enough, there's a touch of romance, family bliss, even a few recipes in the final pages.
   But first things first. This is a comeback story about Rwanda, a tiny land-locked country in east central Africa with an ugly chapter of genocide in its modern history. Before this book, I could not have given you too much information about it, other than a vague notion of tragedy that occurred there a few decades ago. The movie Hotel Rwanda rang a familiar note, but I never watched it because I couldn't take the violent story. So that image of the country simmered for many years, and I was never called upon to revisit or revise it until now.
  Before you can appreciate Ruxin's efforts to eradicate poverty and disease in the country, he's got to give readers some sense of Rwanda's history. In 1994, many years before our writer arrives, the country's divide between the Hutus and Tutsis finally erupts in unimaginable horror. For 100 days, Hutus hunted down their Tutsi neighbors, friends and coworkers and slayed them in the streets. They pulled them from homes and churches for impromptu murder. Many were shot or burned but many more were attacked with machetes. It's a horrible back story, but in order to understand the miracle of forgiveness and progress underway in Rwanda, we need to know what came before.
    Ruxin and his wife Alissa, another public health professional, arrive to fight poverty, AIDS, TB, malaria and malnutrition, and with governmental support and funding from U.S. individuals, businesses and agencies, the pair slowly helped transform the rural countryside. Using business and management principles, Ruxin and his team of local experts slowly made inroads in the delivery of immunizations, prenatal care and local food production. It was absolutely inspiring to read. The pair did amazing work and certainly defied the notion that no single individual can make a difference in a community. At the end of each chapter I was left wondering if I do enough to serve my fellow man.
   The final third of the book was about Heaven, Alissa Ruxin's pet project that now is a destination restaurant for tourists on their way to or from the northern Rwandan mountains to see their own 'gorillas in the mist.' Alissa's efforts to build the restaurant, recruit and train staff, source local food and sustain the highest standards were a tribute to her unique talents, spirit, and desire to leave behind sustainable ventures. Afterall, the Ruxins will someday leave Rwanda, and Rwandans will need to keep things running.
   A Thousand Hills to Heaven will make you happy. Don't be scared off by the early chapters of genocide. This is a joyful book, and there is so much goodness on display.
The Push From the Book: Help others. Help others. Help others.  
 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

What He Did For Love

 I didn't consciously select this book for a Valentine's Day post, but The Rosie Project was the ideal story to celebrate the season of love. First up--this book was funny, and I didn't see that coming. Within minutes of opening the cover--on page 10 to be exact--I laughed so hysterically that I had to lay the book down to satisfy my big, cackling, tears-in-my-eyes moment. It was aerobic laughter--out of breath, heart-poundingly good. All because of Don, my new hero.
     Don Tillman, a genetics professor, has Aspergers, which isn't funny. Yet author Graeme Simsion uses Don's challenges with social skills and awareness to create moments that just make you chuckle throughout the entire novel. Except on page 10, when I howled. Here's what Don said--and what he thought--while filling in for a colleague at a lecture:
   "A woman at the rear of the room raised her hand. I was focused on the argument now and made a minor social error, which I quickly corrected.
  "The fat woman--overweight woman--at the back?"
  Don thinks he just dodged a screaming bullet of insensitivy! Whew. Who wouldn't want to be recognized as overweight rather than fat, right? Well, that slayed me.
   Don is such a uniquely developed character. He's highly-functioning, rule-abiding and obsessively organized about his food, his exercise, his sleep, his work. And perhaps as a result, has only two friends. He had three, but his elderly neighbor is now in a nursing home and doesn't recognize him anymore. Even Don knows he's reached a time of his life where things need to change. He should find a 'female life partner."
  The hunt for a wife, via "The Wife Project," begins. His best friend Gene sends Rosie to meet Don as a joke because she was so obviously out of Don's target group. She drank moderately, declared herself a vegetarian, wore make-up and was late for their first date. So many flaws. But Rosie, a beautiful psychology student at the university where Don teaches, actually has a project of her own. She's trying to identify her biological father. Don's got the skills Rosie needs, so the two buddy-up. And before too long, Don starts to make an effort to relax a few rules and reprogram his instincts to plan and arrange and organize and obsess. Is he finding love as well? Is Rosie? You'll have to read the book to find out if "The Wife Project" and "The Father Project" find common romantic ground.
  The Push from the Book: For someone comfortable speaking to strangers and making new friends, reading about a character who struggles in the social arena made me stop to think about that particular dilemma. Friends are such a big part of my life. I cannot fathom them not being there. Simsion, I think, did a great service creating this character so we can better understand what life is like for a person with this disorder.
 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Easy Goin'

   A few days ago I posted a link to 50 essential mysteries. I had read only a handful and wanted to check off one or two more. Within days I received Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress from Reading Public Library. Published in 1990, it's the first of a dozen books featuring Ezekiel 'Easy' Rawlins, who put down roots in Los Angeles after World War II and just hoped to make his mortgage payments and hang on to a steady job. But life in 1948 LA is not so simple for a Black man, and the racial divide is always on full display in this novel. Even the first sentence puts you on notice that there are stark differences between blacks and whites that are about to be exposed: "I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy's bar."
   Seasoned mystery readers probably know all about Mosley and his war-weary protagonist Rawlins, but this first book in the series was new--at least to me--and quickly turned addictive. I loved Mosley's writing. His descriptions of  neighborhoods brim with gritty detail, and the characters appear instantly within your mind because he's painted them with bright, vivid colors. I bolted through the book, turning the final page before I wanted to give it up. There's no doubt that I'd travel with Mosley--and Easy--again.
  But be warned. You will encounter the violent, unsavory underbelly of Watts on these pages, and Easy's got to wade through it all while hunting down the whereabouts of beautiful, blond Daphne Monet. Daphne's gone missing (along with a lot of money) and all Easy's got to do to earn $100 is locate her for the cool, pale-eyed guy who walked into the bar on the first page. Considering Easy's just been laid off and has bills to pay, it's a job too good to refuse. His search takes us  inside bars, pool halls and nightclubs, and we meet the people who inhabit Easy's world--some of them more dangerous than others. And the longer he hunts for Daphne, the more trouble he meets--both on the street and inside police interrogation rooms.
   Dead bodies keep showing up and Easy seems to be around most of them. The bad guys don't like Easy's questions and the police are convinced he's a strong suspect in several of the murders that crop up each day. Easy can't catch a break until his best friend Mouse appears to provide some much needed back-up. Despite the cute, sweet sobriquet, Mouse is always ready to rumble and kill if he has to. But he's got Easy's back and arrives in the nick of time to protect our hero. And just to insure that you won't put down the book, Mosley throws in a neat little surprise about Daphne that I never saw coming. Nifty bit of deception.
 The Push From the Book: I'm ready for another installment with Easy Rawlins, and I'm going to read them in order. Next up: A Red Death.