Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings

     Noted British historian Hastings has written extensively on the second world war.  For the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, he presents this fascinating history of the opening months of the war to end all wars. Extensively researched, and making liberal use of primary sources from military personnel of all ranks and civilians, Hastings sets out to explode a number of well-worn myths about the war: that it was inevitable, that all sides were equally culpable, that the outcome made no real difference.  Instead, the author is unapologetically critical of the diplomacy of the politicians and military leadership of the generals – or lack thereof.  Hastings places blame for instigating the war squarely on the shoulders of the Germans and Austria-Hungarians and reserves special criticism against the Germans for atrocities against civilians. This war that ended European military aristocracy once and for all was viewed by soldiers of the time as a new form of warfare on the European continent.  But the author points out that the war had a precursor in the US Civil War.  An enlightening book for anyone with an interest in military history. 

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

When his 73 year old mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Will Schwalbe, author and former editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books, frequently accompanied her to doctor’s appointments and chemotherapy sessions.  To while away the interminable hours, mother and son agreed  that they’ll select a new book to read before each appointment, and discuss it in the waiting room. The books they read, from Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety to Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, from Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge to Steig Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, helped them to share their strongly held feelings and opinions and to broach difficult topics, including death, in deeply meaningful conversations.  Schwalbe’s book is a loving tribute to his mother, who was an advocate for refugees and a human rights activist.  It is also a sincere, illuminating examination of the role books can play in facilitating human connectivity.  Bibliophiles will especially enjoy the booklist at the end of the memoir.  A beautiful book to share and discuss.

Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life by Tom Robbins

     If anyone was born to be a writer, it’s Tom Robbins.  Even before he was able to write, Robbins would dictate imaginative tales to his mom; when as a schoolboy he won a coveted radio in a raffle, he traded in his prize to purchase books.  This delightful book (it “isn’t a memoir” the author insists) by the bohemian author whose life could serve as a guide to the later half of the 20th century is laugh-out-loud funny.  Written in roughly chronological order, Robbins relates how, at the age of eight, he and his best friend attempted to rob a bank, (well, it was the depression) and numerous other youthful shenanigans. He also discusses his year in a military academy, his service in Korea, his experimentation with LSD, his years as an arts critic for several newspapers, his wives and lovers, the counterculture scene, and his travels.  Most of all he discusses his books.  Noted for his strong female protagonists, Robbins reveals that those characters were strongly influenced by his girl cousins, who were his early playmates and whose spirits were every bit as adventurous as his own. He writes about the inspirations for his books,  his approach to writing (slow and painstaking, using yellow legal pads and pen), and his many amusing encounters with his readers.  Robbin’s love of music, art, and literature comes alive in all his books, and in Tibetan Peach Pie he writes, “when it comes to coolness, nothing the human race has ever invented is more cool than a book.” This one is proof positive.  For anyone new to Robbin’s work, I urge you to dip into one of his novels, particularly Even Cowgirls Get the Blues or Jitterbug Perfume. 

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

     The plot of what is arguably Woolf’s most famous novel is simple: Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey, along with their large brood of children, give a dinner party at their seaside summer home.  Mrs. Ramsey promises her young son an outing to the lighthouse, but weather interferes with her plans.  A decade later, a much diminished group makes the excursion.  This brief synopsis belies the significance and complexity of Woolf’s philosophical novel, which moves from consciousness to consciousness to reveal the story through the eyes of several narrators.  To the Lighthouse examines the big questions: what is our purpose in life, what legacy will we leave behind, how do we judge others, as well as exploring the nature of marriage, connectivity, and art.  Mrs. Ramsey (like Mrs. Dalloway a dinner party hostess) is a lively embodiment of love and optimism; Mr. Ramsey is a scholar and a realist.  Through these two characters Woolf presents a portrait of a marriage with all its strengths and weaknesses, its failures in communication, and its enduring love. Through the thoughts, actions, and conversations of the Ramsey’s and their guests, the author explores the nature and significance of the arts and presents life itself as a beautiful but ephemeral work of art. Our lives, Woolf seems to say, may be in one sense works of art, but they are all too brief; time and nature will continue without us.  This is a beautiful and thought-provoking classic, and Mrs. Ramsey is a wonderful, indelibly written character.

Ancient Light: A Novel by John Banville

   When Alexander Cleve, an actor past his prime, is offered a starring role in a film, he begins to reflect upon two pivotal moments in his life: the death of his troubled   daughter a decade ago under mysterious circumstances, and an affair he had at the age of 15 with the mother of his best friend.  Irish writer John Banville, winner of the Man Booker award for The Sea, illuminates in this novel how one is shaped by memory as well as the unreliability of even the most searing remembrances.  The narrator, haunted by the ghosts of his past, states, “the dead are my dark matter, filling up impalpably the empty spaces of the world”.  Banville’s rendering of the sexual awakening of adolescence is vivid and poetic.   Pain, longing, and regret are evoked in precise, beautifully wrought prose. Descriptions of the physical world are gorgeous. The author describes “an ironing board standing tensed and spindly as a mantis” and “the water, high and motionless, had a thin floating of oil from the moored coal-boats, that gave it the look of a sheet of red-hot steel suddenly gone cool, aswirl with iridescent shades of silver-pink and emerald and a lovely lucent brittle blue, shimmery as the sheen on a peacock feather.” 
    A startling and beautiful novel for all fans of literary fiction.

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of The Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan

  During the second world war, the city of Oak Ridge sprang up in the midst of rural Tennessee.  Its purpose was such a secret that the overwhelming majority of the 75,000 people who lived and worked within its confines were ignorant of its mission: to refine the uranium that would be used to develop the atomic bomb.  This engaging book relates the story of just a few of the many women who lived and worked in Oak Ridge. Most came from rural backgrounds; many were still teenagers.  Many had brothers fighting overseas and were passionate about their involvement  in a project they were told would hasten the end of the war.   They were scientists, nurses, statisticians,  secretaries, laborers, cleaning staff.  Some were recruited to serve as  spies.  Several experienced gender or racial bias.  All have fascinating stories.  By keeping the focus of the narrative on a handful of women, Kiernan delivers an intimate look at her plucky, hardworking young subjects.  Kiernan’s winning combination of the scientific and the deeply personal will have particular appeal to anyone who enjoyed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

George R. R. Martin and the Disabled in Clash of Kings

Reading the second volume of The Song of Ice and Fire series and watching the second season of Game of Thrones has caused me to reflect on Martin’s portrayal of his disabled and disfigured characters.  First and foremost among these characters is Tyrian Lannister, the Imp or dwarf.  The second son in a proud and rather Machiavellian noble family, Tyrian is marginalized by his family and shunned by most others.  Martin allows the reader to feel the pain of this rejection and of the many humiliations and indignities – large and small – Tyrian experiences on a daily basis.  He also makes clear the physical pain Tyrian often feels as a result of simple exertion, such as walking or climbing stairs, that would be taken for granted by anyone who is not disabled.  Yet Martin gifts Tyrian with many qualities lacking in most of the other members of his family.  Tyrian is fiercely intelligent, wise, and has a strong sense of justice.  He has the cunning of his father without the cruelty. As one who is frequently marginalized, he has empathy for other outcasts in his society: women and children, prostitutes, and other disabled people. When he offers young Bran Stark a design for a saddle which would allow the boy to ride despite his disability, Tyrian demonstrates his empathy and generosity to a family who considers him an enemy.
     Bran, who has been paralyzed in a fall, is another major character who is disabled. Martin allows the reader to feel the active young boy’s anger, frustration, and gradual acceptance of the fact that he can no longer walk, and demonstrates that the resulting coping skills Bran develops allow him to grow in wisdom and judgment.  When the older members of his family go off to war,  9 year old Bran is left to run the castle and dispense justice.  He rises to the occasion.  Even more than wisdom and a sense of responsibility, Bran is empathic and intuitive. Where these qualities will lead Bran in the future is anyone’s guess, but they are obviously of importance.
     Hodor appears to be mentally disabled. He is only able to speak his own name, which he says repeatedly, especially in times of stress.  Martin gives this gentle giant an almost superhuman strength. Like the other two more major characters, Hodor appears to be a force for good.
     Lastly there is the Hound, Sandor Clegane. The Hound is a complex character.  His face has been severely disfigured in a fire set by his brother. In volume one of the series, the Hound is little more than an executioner and a tool of Prince Jeoffrey. In volume two he begins to demonstrate some more humane qualities, especially in his protectiveness of the imperiled young Sansa Stark.  I’m not sure what Martin has in store for the Hound, but he is developing into an interesting character.
     Martin is not unique in ennobling his disabled, crippled, and disfigured characters.  Author Wallace Stegner, whose wife was disabled by polio and was in need of a great deal of care, frequently gave his kindest, most empathic characters some sort of physical handicap.  But the number of physically disabled characters, their complexity, and their impact on and importance to this series, is remarkable. Particularly in the characters of Tyrian and Bran, Martin appears to compensate physical disability with a strong moral character.