Wednesday, December 31, 2008

75. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I received this title in the Grinch Exchange of books at my local book club’s holiday party. This is an epistolary (letters/telegrams/notes written back and forth) historical fiction novel set in 1946 in London and Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France. Lead author Mary Ann Shaffer, a librarian, visited Guernsey in 1976. She became ill before the book was finished (passing away in February 2008, before its publication), and her niece, children’s author Annie Barrows, saw it through.

The protagonist is Juliet Ashton, a 30-something successful author looking for her next book subject. Out of the blue, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a resident of Guernsey who wound up with one of her secondhand books. He piques her curiosity when he mentions the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and it sparks a series of correspondence between Juliet, Dawsey, and other residents of Guernsey, as well as with her editor Sidney and his sister, Sophia, and others.

Juliet learns that the Society was formed while the Nazis occupied Guernsey during World War II. The literary part was the quick thinking of Elizabeth McKenna, who invents it when a group of islanders are caught out after curfew. It then becomes real, with a typical refreshment becoming part of the group’s name:

Since there was scant butter, less flour, and no sugar to spare on Guernsey then, Will concocted a potato peel pie: mashed potatoes for filling, strained beets for sweetness, and potato peelings for crust. . .this one became a favorite. (p. 51)

Juliet learns (as does the reader) about the hardships the islanders (and Todt forced laborers) faced during the war. She also learns about their courage and heroism, particularly that of Elizabeth, who has not yet come home from Nazi imprisonment when the book begins.

This book was a perfect read for the holiday season. Not quite fluff, but not great literary fiction either. There are over 20 characters corresponding, and it is hard to keep track of and distinguish between them all, especially the minor characters, particularly since some of them are stereotypes.

I also had some minor concerns with the book. It was hard to believe that letters (not telegrams) could be delivered so quickly post-war between the island of Guernsey and bombed-out London – sometimes in as little as two days. The romance also didn’t ring true (spoiler alert - highlight to read: on page 131, Juliet stalls one suitor by saying, “I’ve known you two months. It’s not long enough for me to be certain that we should spend the rest of our lives together,” yet she accepts another suitor after only a little longer.).

Some of the problems with the book are due to the letter format. It works well in the first half of the book, when Juliet is writing to the people on Guernsey, but once she actually goes there for a visit and the correspondence is mainly from her back to Sidney and Sophia and others outside Guernsey, the islanders lose much of their voice. In addition, when the islanders are writing, they all sound as though they were written by the same person.

Nevertheless, this is still an enjoyable read. The descriptions of Guernsey make me want to go there. A lover of classics will enjoy their mentions in the letters, and history buffs will enjoy learning a little more about the interesting wartime history of the Channel Islands. It was also nice to read a book that subtly promotes the art of letter writing (lost and replaced by abbreviated and often artificial email and text messages).

Some of my favorite lines in the book are in Juliet’s first letter to Dawsey: "I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers," as well as “That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive - all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.” (pp. 11-12) I also love it when Isola Pribby writes to Juliet, “Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books." (p. 53)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

74. Isaac's Torah

by Angel Wagenstein

Wagenstein, who spent time in a concentration camp, originally wrote this book in Bulgarian in 2000, and it was translated into English by Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova and published in 2008. Subtitled, “Concerning the Life of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld Through Two World Wars, Three Concentration Camps, and Five Motherlands,” that’s exactly what it is. Isaac is born in 1900 and grows up in Kolodetz by Drogobych, which was originally part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but later belongs to Poland, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and then the Soviets again (and is now part of the Ukraine). Each of the five “books” in Isaac’s “Torah” correspond to one of these “motherlands.”

Isaac is drafted into military service by each of the first three countries. When the Nazis invade at the end of the third book, Isaac pretends to be Polish and is sent to a Nazi labor camp, where he serves as a translator and is treated fairly well. Inadvertently revealing himself as a Jew (which saves him from a death as a Polish hostage), he winds up in a Nazi concentration camp. He is liberated by the Americans and moves to Vienna. The Soviets later exile him to Siberia for supposedly being a Nazi collaborator while pretending to be Polish! Throughout it all, Isaac manages to survive, partly by being the underestimated dupe. Isaac’s best friend and brother-in-law, Rabbi Shmeul Ben-David, winds up in most (but not all) of the places Isaac does, imparting wisdom.

The narrative is interlaced with Jewish jokes, and I think if I were Jewish I would appreciate them more. Wagenstein thanks in his Acknowledgements, “…creators, collectors, collators, and publishers of Jewish jokes and anecdotes, through which my people have turned laughter into a defensive shield, and a source of courage and self-esteem through the most tragic moments of their existence!” (p. 301) There is also humor in metaphors, such as this from the Third Book: “This pale professor-ophthalmologist turned out to be to an equal degree a decent and noble anti-communist, with a barely perceptible Polish streak of anti-Semitism – something like a good aged wine with a bitter aftertaste.” (p. 161)

I had expected a harrowing Holocaust novel, but as Isaac says about midway through the Fourth Book:
And now, please, save me from the memory . . . and allow me not to describe to you the hell in which we ended up! Many people before me have done it, and truly much better, too, than I would do it. . . . In short, save me, please, because of the requirement for the completeness of plot . . . from repeating to you things that are already painfully familiar to you . . ..(p. 204-5).

Nevertheless, there is tragedy in the book, but the humor uplifts it, making the story a tribute to the strength and courage of Eastern European Jews and all those who suffered through two World Wars and their repercussions. Not to mention, this is once again a book that makes me want to learn more about the historical period(s) it is set in. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 29, 2008

73. Rally Round the Flag, Boys!

by Max Shulman

This is the last of the Max Shulman books my university library has that I borrowed for Breathless. This one is not as good as Shulman’s Potatoes Are Cheaper or The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, but it's better than The Tender Trap.

This was Max Shulman's first "adult" comedy (in that two characters have an affair). It's a warped, intricate plot full of the most specious coincidences. When the military decides to build a Nike missile base near a chic Connecticut commuter town, passions flare, in and out of the bedroom, and then all hell breaks loose!

The book laughs at the 50's: the teenagers imitating Brando/ Dean/Elvis, their martini-guzzling parents, the army, suburban families with commuting husbands and volunteering wives, Little League, sex education, television, long-time residents of small towns (aka the Yankees), and a Nashville star/singer in the military. Shulman was a genius at satirizing his own time, but much of the humor is still appropriate today.

A movie was made in 1958, (very) loosely based on the book, starring Paul Newman as Harry Bannerman (one of the main characters), real wife Joanne Woodward as Harry’s wife Grace, and Joan Collins as local temptress Angela Hoffa. I haven’t seen it, but based on a synopsis, a lot of characters from the book are left out and the plot has major changes. Read the book instead (there’s an excerpt in this post).

Sunday, December 28, 2008

72. The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis

by Max Shulman

Another one I borrowed because Breathless wanted to read Potatoes Are Cheaper. This book, published in 1951 and subtitled “Eleven Campus Stories,” is a collection of short stories written by Max Shulman from 1945 through 1951 and previously published in such magazines as Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, and The Saturday Evening Post. In his opening note, Shulman notes that they “are, therefore, clean and wholesome narratives” (this was definitely the early days of Cosmopolitan!). All of the stories have college student Dobie Gillis as the main character, but his age and major vary from story to story, as do the girls he is chasing.

The book was the basis for the 1953 movie The Affairs of Dobie Gillis as well as the 1959-1963 CBS TV series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, with Dwayne Hickman and Bob ("Gilligan") Denver. I haven’t seen either, but from reading the description of the movie plot, it seems to be based on the book’s story called “She Shall Have Music,” with a little bit of “Love of Two Chemists” (a chemistry lab explosion) and “The Unlucky Winner” (a plagiarized English essay). Dobie is in high school when the TV series starts, and later briefly in the Army and then in junior college. Money-hungry Thalia Menninger from “The Sugar Bowl” is often Dobie’s dream girl, and the stories “You Think You Got Trouble?” and “Everybody Loves My Baby” form the basis of episodes in the series.

For me, the best story in the book (which is also the title and basis for one of the TV series episodes)is “Love is a Fallacy.” Apparently it’s often used in beginning logic classes as a humorous way to introduce types of fallacies. Despite the importance of a raccoon coat to the plot, this story and the others are so humorous that such dated references can be easily overlooked.

Monday, December 22, 2008

71. The Other Queen

by Philippa Gregory

Gregory’s latest Tudor historical fiction focuses on (and is narrated, diary style, by) Mary, Queen of Scots during her years of confinement in England (1568-1587), and her jailer/hosts, George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, and his wife, the redoubtable Bess of Hardwick.

I learned a lot I didn’t know about these people, as well as more about Elizabeth I and her trusted advisor, William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley. Gregory paints the latter as a scheming upstart. She is sympathetic to Mary, but does acknowledge her weaknesses, particularly in her relationships with men. George is also portrayed as weak and hopelessly in love with Mary.

Bess is shown to be a tough woman, ahead of her time in independence and accumulation of wealth. Some readers might find her to be a pennypincher, but I could sympathize with her background and motives (despite her being a greedy anti-Catholic!). I found both Bess and Mary to be fascinating and I want to read more about them, and visit Bess’ homes at Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall.

I found some of Gregory’s statements through Bess to be quite interesting:
We Protestants have a God who rewards us directly, richly, and at once. It is by our wealth, our success, and our power that we know we are the chosen. (p. 76)
[Bess asks,] “Does not God Himself command us to use our talents? Does not our own success show that God has blessed us?”
She [Mary] smiles and shakes her head. “My God sends trials to those He loves, not wealth, but I see that your God thinks like a merchant.” (p. 85)
I am a Protestant. I will live and die a Protestant. My enemies will think that is because it has been a religion to profit me; cynics will point to my gold candlesticks and my lead mines and my coal mines and my stone quarries, and even to these stolen painted saints in my gallery. But what the cynics don’t understand is that these are the goods that God has given to me as a reward for the purity of my faith. (p. 294)

As well as this one through George:
”The reward for the English Protestants is power and wealth; that is all they care for. They think that God so loves them that their wealth is evidence that they are doing the right thing, beloved by God…My confessor would have called them pagans…My mother would have called them heretics…I cannot believe, as Bess does, as Cecil does, that we have a private insight into the mind of God….That we know everything, all by ourselves, and that the proof if this is the blessing of our own greed.” (p. 273)

I know Gregory was contrasting Protestants and Catholics in the Tudor era, but these descriptions make me think of the televangelists and megachurch leaders of today!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

70. The Tender Trap

by Max Shulman and Robert Paul Smith

I checked out a number of works by Max Shulman when Breathless wanted to read his semi-autobiographical Potatoes Are Cheaper. The Tender Trap is the script for a short romantic comedy set in New York City in the early 1950’s. It was performed on Broadway and later made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds.

Charlie, the main character, is living the ideal bachelor life, or so it seems to Joe, an old married friend of his from Indianapolis. Charlie has a fine apartment in New York, a good job, and lots of girls -- all eager to bring him food and clean up his apartment, all good-looking ladies. Joe, who is in New York because he thinks he has found the cure to the common cold, finds himself becoming interested in Sylvia, the nicest and most mature of Charlie's girls. Meanwhile, Charlie finds himself falling for Julie, a girl fresh out of college who is determined to have a man on her own terms. Charlie juggles his girls until one frantic night when he finds himself engaged to both Julie and Sylvia. The ending is not quite what I expected, and was a bit disappointing.

It’s fun to read a piece like this that was contemporary at the time it was first performed, but has now become a bit dated. Many of the characters smoke (though these lines and actions could easily be deleted from a performance), and the women are typical of the era, interested mostly in marriage. Page 3 of this 1956 edition of the script indicates that it was first performed October 13, 1954, and the cast included Robert Preston (The Music Man) as Joe and Kim Hunter (The Planet of the Apes) as Sylvia (Sinatra plays Charlie and Reynolds Julie in the movie). It’s interesting too that a poster for the movie from the era says it’s “not suitable for children” (possibly because of married Joe flirting with Sylvia), when by today’s standards the play is quite clean.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

69. Heart-Shaped Box

by Joe Hill
read by Stephen Lang

I listened to this audiobook during my commute (30+ miles on a mostly two-lane state highway through the country and a couple very small towns, and often in the dark), and that might not have been such a good idea -- the creepiness added to my stress level! I can see why this audiobook won an Audie Award for 2008 Best Thriller! My only complaint with the reader, actor Stephen Lang, is that he makes all the women in the story sound the same.

The main character, aging rocker Judas “Jude” Coyne (aka Justin Cowzynski), has his assistant purchase online a dead man’s suit (in a heart-shaped box), and its accompanying ghost, as an addition to his personal museum of the macabre. Turns out the purchase was a set-up by Jessica Price, the sister of Jude’s former girlfriend Florida (aka Anna), who committed suicide shortly after they broke up. The ghost is that of Craddock McDermott, her stepfather, and he is out for retribution. Jude and anyone who helps him, including his current girlfriend Georgia (aka Marybeth), are the targets.

The combination of the ghosts and the mind control by Craddock was frightening, as was Georgia/Marybeth’s communication with Florida/Anna using an Ouija board. I love the way Jude’s dogs, Bon and Angus, were worked into the supernatural aspects of the story.

I thought both the characters grew, and that was an unexpected plus. Jude became a decent guy who took responsibility for his actions. I especially liked Georgia/Marybeth. Even though she was considerably younger than Jude, she had the ability to see who he really was and what he could be. She was tough but at the same time vulnerable. I liked her spunk. The characters were very vividly portrayed. I began to suspect early on the true nature of Craddock, but his final depravity was still a surprise. For a horror book, it had a quite pleasant ending, with all the ends neatly tied up.

Horror is not my genre of choice, but I might read some Joe Hill again. He made me feel the story could really happen. I've never read anything by his father, Stephen King, although I watched the scary It miniseries years ago (the one with Richard Thomas, John Ritter, and Tim Curry), as well as The Green Mile with Tom Hanks. Maybe I’ll listen to Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts, which won the 2008 Audie for Best Short Stories/Collection, next Halloween!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

68. They Called Them Angels

by Kathi Jackson

Disclaimer up front: the author is a friend of mine. I originally read her book when it was published in hardcover in 2000. Subtitled "American Military Nurses of World War II," it came out in paperback in 2006. I re-read it recently because Kathi adapted it for a performance by the Hill Country Community Theater in Marble Falls, Texas, and we went to see the play on December 7.

This is an incredibly-researched book about an often-neglected topic from World War II - the military nurses who served in it. Kathi discusses their recruitment and training, then goes on to write about the experiences of the nurses in the various theaters of the war, including in the air and on board ship. The book concludes with stories of fun and friendship (and romance), as well as what happened to the nurses at the end of the war.

Thoroughly documented with endnotes for each chapter, appendices and index, and an extensive bibliography, the book is appropriate for scholarly use. Kathi used many primary source materials, mainly interviews with and letters and other writings of the nurses who served. The use of excerpts from these firsthand accounts humanizes the book and makes what could have been a dry subject come alive. There are also 20 black-and-white photographs in the center of the book.