Monday, May 25, 2009

98 (2009 #23). Every Boat Turns South

by J. P. White

I received an advance copy of this yet-to-be-published book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. It's the tale of 30-year-old Matt Younger, who has returned to his parents' home in Florida after an adventure in the Caribbean, just in time to tell his dying father his story.

The main tale, of Matt's harrowing adventures at sea and in the Turks and Caicos and the Dominican Republic, was intriguing. Some of the plot twists caught me by surprise. The secondary family-trouble tale, with his father's slow death as background, was not so interesting, but became important as it tied to the main tale by the end with an interesting twist.

I had two problems with this book. First-time author J. P. White writes lovely prose; his background as a poet is evident with his copious use of similes and metaphors. I've been sailing and to the Caribbean, and his writing made me feel I was there again. At times, however, there is too much description, and it draws attention from the plot.

I also had difficulty with both narrative lines being told in first person present tense. I think it would have been easier to make the shifts between the plot threads if the sailing adventure story had been told in past tense, as befits telling a tale to one's dying father. Using past tense for the main story might also have allowed Matt to do a little more reflecting on his actions and develop his character a little more.

Every Boat Turns South is a good - but not great - first novel, enough to make me interested in reading a future work by J. P. White.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

97 (2009 #22). "The Good War"

by Studs Terkel

Subtitled "An Oral History of World War Two," this was the selection of my local book club this month. I've always meant to read one of Terkel's books, because oral history fascinates me. I only wish the book selected had been Terkel's Hard Times - partly because the Great Depression would have been a more relevant topic today, and partly because it was shorter - 462 pages instead of 589. If my husband hadn't been in the hospital with a duodenal ulcer, I probably would not have finished the book in time - it was a slow read.

Terkel interviewed over 120 people for this Pulitzer Prize winner, with most of the interviews occurring in the early 1980s, about 40 years after the war. The interviews are not verbatim, as can be determined by comparing the text to the recordings available at this Chicago History Museum web site. Terkel edited the interviews, deleting and rearranging material, so one has to wonder if he sometimes did so to emphasize his own left-wing political views. It's quite a contrast to Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation. But then, one has to wonder if Brokaw's interviews were also edited, and if both authors cherry-picked their interviewees to present the message the authors wanted to give.

Nevertheless, "The Good War" is very interesting. Although there are interviews with some famous people - among them former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, Maxene Andrews of the Andrews Sisters, Chicago columnist Mike Royko, and cartoonists Milt Caniff and Bill Mauldin - most of the interviewees are common folk, including a few from Russia, Japan, and Germany. Some soldiers' stories are told (although only two from top brass - an admiral and a general), but the women and men back home are also included. By his choice of interviewees, Terkel is not afraid to point out some of the dark side of "the good war, " such as discrimination against blacks and the emergence of the Cold War.

The title of the book is supposed to be inside quotation marks. In a short foreword note, Terkel says, "The title of this book...is a phrase that has been frequently voiced by men of...my generation, to distinguish that war [WW2] from other wars, declared and undeclared. Quotation marks have been added, not as a matter of caprice or editorial comment, but simply because the adjective 'good' mated to the noun 'war' is so incongruous." Many of the interviewees, although they recognized the need to fight in World War Two, express regret about lives lost and city damage in bombings, and concern about the Vietnam War.

My library has a vinyl recording of the original tapes on which Hard Times was based - I'll have to listen to that. I wish all of Terkel's interviews were readily available to listen to - I would love to hear the interviewees' original, unedited responses to Terkel's questions.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

96 (2009 #21). A Flickering Light

by Jane Kirkpatrick

I hesitated before requesting this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The premise of the book – the story of a 15-year-old female photographer’s assistant in 1907 Winona, Minnesota, based on the life of the author’s grandmother – was intriguing. My husband is an excellent photographer; I consider myself a pretty good one, and we have everything we need (except the energy!) to set up a darkroom in our laundry room. But the book was published by a self-described “evangelical Christian” press, so I was a bit leery. I figured the lack of Christian fiction in my LibraryThing account would probably mean I wouldn’t get the book anyway. I guess the prevalence of historical fiction and biographical novels tipped LibraryThing’s algorithm my way.

On the bright side, I am pleased to report that the story does not push Christian themes on its readers. The main character, Jessie Gaebele, and her family are definitely conservative Christians – they don’t dance or drink or want to associate with people who do, for example. Jessie fights her attraction to her married boss, the older photographer FJ Bauer. Yet Jessie is spunky enough to pursue a profession at a time when few women did, in a field even fewer females occupied. She often “slants truth” with lies of omission, when she knows her thoughts or actions will disappoint her parents.

Jessie, her family, the Bauers, and a number of other characters are based on real people. The author includes a map of Winona from the early 1900s and locates the homes and businesses of these real people on it. Even better, the book includes five photographs taken of or by the real Jessie, from her glass negatives. According to the author’s blog, “My grandmother is the narrator for these photographs but the rest of the story is told in third person through her eyes, her employer's eyes and the eyes of his wife.”

The only complaint I have about the book, and the reason I only give it 4.5 stars, is that there could have been more information about photographic methods and processes of the era. For example, Bauer suffers from recurring mercury poisoning, which is never really explained. In those days, apparently mercuric chloride (formerly called corrosive sublimate, perchloride, or bichloride of mercury) was used as a bleaching agent to increase density or contrast (called intensification) in negatives, according to a reprint of the 1911 edition of Cassell's Cyclopaedia of Photography.

All in all, I really liked this book. I didn’t feel like the author or her characters were trying to be preachy or shove their faith down my throat. In an interview, the author says “there is a sequel to A Flickering Light called An Absence so Great that will be out next April and will finish my grandmother’s story as far as I decided to take it.” In her blog, she says this book will again include actual photographs by/of Jessie.

A Flickering Light was well-written and fascinating. It can be enjoyed by fans of Christian and inspirational fiction as well as fans of historical fiction such as myself. I look forward to the sequel (even though, based on some hints in this book and a little research, I think I know some of what happens).