Thanks to all the readers who posted reviews on our first Summer Reading blog. Don’t forget to pick up your prizes!
Archives for August 2010
I am rarely one for nonfiction travel narratives, but I am always happy to make an exception for Bill Bryson. Notes From a Small Island follows Bryson as he takes one final tour around Great Britain before he moves with his family to his home country of the United States. This book gives us history, culture, and personal anecdotes, both “present” and remembered to make us feel that we are there with him on his trip. But even with his great ability to capture the people and the landscape of wherever he is traveling to, I will read anything by Bryson because I know he will make me laugh out loud. Small Island was no exception. From his nightmare first landlord to the Manchester society for animals to the perils of Scottish Brogue, every point of Bryson’s travels is told with a dry humor that is absolutely irresistible. This is an easy read, and well worth the trip.
I have found that after a while, Austen’s works show similar characteristics again and again with plots that are often simple enough to make any summary seem quite dull. For instance, Emma follows its heroine as she sets up matches through the town, falls in and out of love herself, until eventually settling with the man she loves most. But even though the plot does not scream adventure, this Austen novel is well worth the read because of the characters.
From Mrs. Elton, the mysterious wife brought to town by the clergyman, to Miss Bates who literally talks for pages, to Mr. Knightly, one of my favorite Austen hero’s, to Emma herself, whose naïvety to the world and blunders would seem off-putting in many, but charming in her, this novel is full of characters that you will fall in love with, or love to hate. Emma’s world at Highbury is brought so much to life, that you really hate to leave the people after the last page.
Although I have not warmed to Alexander McCall Smith’s other fiction series, I relish each new installment in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In fact, after reading the first few books in the series out of order I purchased all of the books then on the market and read them in order, even rereading the ones I had already completed. I keep them all with the expectation that I’ll want to read them again some day.
The Double Comfort Safari Club follows McCall Smith’s usual framework of unfolding a handful of dilemmas for Precious Ramotswe to resolve with her usual blend of common sense and insight into human nature. Although Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni does not figure prominently in this installment, wicked Violet Sephotho is back and again up to no good. Grace Makutsi (and her talking shoes) finds herself facing a potentially-tragic development regarding her fiance Phuti Radiphuti. The title references a detective agency case where Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi find themselves a bit at odds with nature once they leave Gaborone and travel to a rugged area of Botswana to locate a safari guide.
In this volume, as with all the previous installments, McCall Smith intersperses his story lines with simple observations about the strengths and foibles of humanity and life in general. I suspect that if McCall Smith ever released a “Precious Ramotswe’s Guidebook for Life,” it would be an overnight best-seller.
Review Submitted by: Mary Hall
Rating: Highly Recommended
Operation Wandering Soul takes place mostly in a Los Angeles hospital. It’s located in a poor section of the city, where most of the patients coming in have no money and were brought in due to injuries received while committing crimes. The main focus is on the pediatrics ward. The doctor is a man named Richard Kraft who takes care of a small group of patients that range from a child born without a face, to a girl who is losing her leg due to a mysterious disease, to a 12-year-old boy aging 3x faster than normal. Dr. Kraft is slowly becoming disenchanted in the world around him. He lived all over the world when he was a child and, to be honest, he hasn’t been happy since he moved to America.
In Dr. Kraft’s opinion, this is a world in which adults do more harm to children than good, including himself. It’s a world which would have been better if children were led away to live by themselves rather than living the lives they have now. Powers emphasizes this point by including moments in history and in stories in which adults harmed children and how they were better off without them. It starts off with the evacuation of all the children in London during WWII where a lot of the children were taking to “safe places”: temporary homes in which they were forced into labor, assaulted, and even beaten. A short chapter by chapter summary of Peter Pan was included to show how peaceful the world might be if there were no adults. He even included the Children’s Crusade and wrote about their unfortunate fate at the hands of the Turks.
The book climaxes when the children of the pediatrics ward want to put on a play. In this play, a pied piper leads all the children from a village away to a better place. All the children, that is, except three: the fast-aging child, the boy without a face, and the girl without a leg. The most emotional part is that all the children involved play themselves.
I recommend this book with reservations because you have to be willing to put effort into this book to understand and enjoy it. You can’t just fly right through without thinking about what you are reading or you will miss key points. I had a hard time finishing it because it was long and it was just overall difficult to read. I may give this book another try later on.
With the Old Breed is not only the best of all the war memoirs I’ve read this summer but it’s also the only one that I’ve ever read that belongs in the same league as William Manchester’s Goodbye Darkness. Sledge, who was a mortarman with the 1st Marine Division, is terribly graphic in portraying the reality of combat at Peleliu and Okinawa, where Marines fought in the midst of rotting maggot-infested corpses and atrocities were committed by both sides. But sugar-coating the true nature of those campaigns would have done a disservice to those who fought them.
With the Old Breed is on the required professional reading list issued by the Commandant of the Marine Corps. I was initially puzzled as to why the book, which is revered in the Corps, was on the section of the list recommended for senior enlisted personnel and captains rather than the section recommending books for junior enlisted and lieutenants. I think the answer is because of the book’s focus on leadership in the crucible of combat: those whom Sledge respected (particularly his company commander, Captain Andrew Haldane) and those whom he felt failed their Marines.
I’m intrigued by one observation that Sledge makes about Japanese strategy on Peleliu. He notes repeatedly that Peleliu was where the Japanese, who previously had tried to repel American landings at the waterline, changed their strategy and withdrew to interior defensive positions which forced American troops to carry the fight inland. However, earlier this summer I reviewed a book on the U.S. Army campaign at Biak, New Guinea, where the Japanese commander had withdrawn his troops to defensive positions in ridges and coral caves and turned what was expected to be a several-day campaign into one that lasted about three months. I’m curious as to whether Marine planners were aware of what the U.S. Army units had experienced on Biak only a few months earlier.
Sledge, who became a college professor after he left the Corps, writes well and his observations about humanity and combat seem as timely today as they were in 1944 or in 1981 when the book was first published. Once you finish With the Old Breed, you may also wish to read the sequel, China Marine, detailing the several months that Sledge spent in China disarming Japanese troops after the Japanese surrender. I read China Marine prior to reading With the Old Breed and I wish I had read them in the correct chronological sequence.
Marissa Parlock has won the monthly prize drawing for July.
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The scant number of memoirs and war novels based on the Korean War seems only to reinforce the belief that Korea was America’s “forgotten” war of the 20th century. Arguably there was no better candidate to write a combat novel of Korea than Brigadier General Ed Simmons, a noted military historian and author of numerous non-fiction books and articles about the Marine Corps. General Simmons, like Captain George Bayard, his protagonist in Dog Company Six, was a Marine infantry company commander who fought at both Inchon and Chosin Reservoir. That may be why this book reads so much like a memoir, despite some cosmetic changes in detail such as portraying Dog Company as a rifle company rather than a weapons company.
General Simmons does a superb job conveying small-unit combat operations in Korea and his Marine characters seem genuine. I was engrossed by his description of what it was like to fight in the bitter cold at Chosin Reservoir. The only flaw I found in the book was a distracting plot line involving Captain Bayard’s fiancé, a Senator’s daughter who complicates his commitment to the Marine Corps. Otherwise, this is an excellent combat novel.
For those curious about the title, “six” is the radio call sign for a company commander, in this case D (“Dog”) Company in a Marine infantry battalion.
General Lucian Truscott Jr., the only American officer to command a regiment, a division, a corps, and an army in WWII, began his storied Army career as a cavalry officer during World War I. The Twilight of the U.S. Cavalry contains his recollections about life in the cavalry as it started to transition from horses to mechanized units. However, it is not a narrative of General Truscott’s life; indeed, one learns more about the General from the preface written by his son (himself a combat veteran of Korea and Vietnam) than from the General’s own book.
General Truscott describes individuals and events at his cavalry posts, which included forts in Hawaii and on the Texas-Mexico border. He writes of being stationed at Fort Myer during the veterans’ Bonus March on Washington in 1932 and his early interaction with George Patton (indeed, Truscott is featured as one of the major characters in the movie Patton). In addition to providing vivid descriptions of the riding demonstrations and polo matches, General Truscott also provides such obscure information as the method used to guard gold shipments as they were transferred from train to the U.S. Gold Depository at Fort Knox, KY. I especially enjoyed his lengthy chapter on Fort Leavenworth KS, where I lived as a child – it was quite a jolt to read a description of my own house.
For those interested in reading more about General Truscott, H. Paul Jeffer’s Command of Honor appears to be the only full-length biography available. But for those interested in learning about cavalry life between the wars, I highly recommend The Twilight of the U.S. Cavalry: Life in the Old Army, 1917-1942 by Lucian K. Truscott Jr.; edited and with a preface by Lucian K. Truscott III.
This novel follows the lives of two fortune-less sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Elinor represents the times picture of sensibility: polite in all society and able to keep her emotions to herself when around others. Marianne, on the other hand, is headstrong, loves freely and openly and lets the entire world know it. The difference between the women, as Marianne says, is that Marianne conceals nothing and Elinor reveals nothing. As both women go through love and loss, Elinor must act as the social front for Marianne’s emotional roller-coaster, concealing her own pain and suffering. But, like all Austen novels, both women get what they truly need in the end.