1927 was some kind of year

  • One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, 2013; Random House Audio narrated by the author)
  • In 40 words or less: 1927 was chock-a-block full of events that changed history. From May to September, Bryson weaves together economic, political and cultural upheavals that shaped the world as we know it. It can be comforting when contemporary events leave us shaken.
  • Genre: History
  • Locale: Primarily U.S.
  • Time: May to September 1927
  • This book has something for everyone. There’s sports, aviation, politics, industrialization and, yes, more politics. When one questions whether so much had ever changed so quickly, a well-written panoramic view of the times is very helpful.

I’d been meaning to read Bill Bryson’s book on the summer of 1927 for a while. The timing seemed ideal, this being the 90th anniversary of the events of that summer. On a personal note, my father was just days old when the book opens. What better way to get a sense of the America into which he was born. And for those of us trying desperately to temper today’s cataract of news with other information, listening to Bryson’s calm voice laying out the history was a fine choice.

Calvin Coolidge was president. The economy was strong, and industry was growing. Taking advantage of the good times, he chose to spend three months on an extended trip to South Dakota, channeling his inner cowboy.  At the same time, Herbert Hoover was dealing, on his behalf, with the results of catastrophic Mississippi River flooding that displaced thousands and disrupted river commerce. Hoover proved himself equal parts skilled manager and self-promoter in directing the relief efforts.

For many, 1927 is of note for Charles Lindbergh’s historic nonstop flight from New York to Paris.  Lindbergh was focused on the technology and the task at hand. Temperamentally a loner, he was ill-suited for the fame and interest his achievement brought. Bryson’s careful research synthesizes the information about the man, his single-minded attention to the flight, and the forces that shaped his later life and brief entry into politics.

This was summer that brought Al Jolson to the screen in the first broadly released talking picture. It transformed the entertainment business and made and broke many stars, and studio owners in the transition.
The newsreels of the day featured the New York Yankees, the dominating force in baseball.  This was the year that Babe Ruth set the mark for home runs with 60. While his feats on the field were famous, his off-field activities were also unmatched.

Based on these events alone, the book would be worthwhile. This was the summer that the Model A was introduced by Henry Ford, changing the automobile industry in America. Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death after a trial focused as much on their anarchist politics and immigrant origins as it was on the murder. And a titillating true crime story of adultery and murder was also in the headlines. The Dempsey-Tunney fight captured America well beyond the boxing world.

Finally, in a measure of hubris, the central banks of the US and its major allies put into place monetary policies that paved the way for the stock market crash that heralded the Great Depression.  It was a very busy summer.

Whether your preferred method of reading is paper, e-book or audiobook, Bill Bryson’s ability to interconnect all these events will carry through. Having an escort through all these aspects of history is rare indeed.  It is the kind of education most can only appreciate long after leaving the classroom.

 

‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ coming to a big screen near you

Ten years ago, Diane Ackerman brought the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski before the public in The Zookeeper’s Wife. Next Friday, March 31, the heroics of the Zabinskis will receive even greater exposure as the film The Zookeeper’s Wife comes to neighborhood theaters. I’ve been a cheerleader for the book for all ten years. It combines narrative nonfiction, nature writing and a little-known story of genuine heroes of the Holocaust in one tight package.

I’ve not had the opportunity to see the film as yet. Those who have seen it in preview have found it moving and frightening – both reactions completely appropriate to the subject at hand. The book is based in large part on Antonina’s journals.  Jan Zabinski was the head of the Warsaw Zoo when the Nazis invaded Poland. He and his young family lived on site, taking care of the animals as conditions worsened. For scientific reasons, several Nazi officers were keenly interested in the animals and spent considerable time at the zoo.

Of greater note are the extraordinary lengths Jan went to secreting Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto and hiding them within the zoo. Jan was the head of a cadre of resistance members that moved more than 300 Jews, partisans and other opponents of the Nazi regime out of and through Warsaw to safety in the countryside.

As is often the case, the screenplay for this movie was written by someone other than the author. Books and movies have very different ways of treating the same story.  When a screenwriter takes on the task of turning well-written nonfiction into a film the most important thing should be whether the truth remains in the telling. The cast for the film, headed by Jessica Chastain, is international and should help capture the range of people that were caught up in Warsaw during the war.

Make no mistake, this film will not gloss over the horrors of the war and just show cute animals. As in the book, there will be moments of humor and tenderness. It should also show the individual and collective depravity of the Nazi regime.  For this reason, it is rated PG-13. Anyone considering taking somewhat younger children who have had exposure to Holocaust material before should keep in mind that there may be very different reactions to pictures and sounds than to words on a page.

Without broad critical reactions, it is hard to know if the movie will have a wide distribution. If you can, see it.  Regardless, both the story Ackerman has to tell and her writing would make reading The Zookeeper’s Wife time well spent.

 

Texas, 1870 in ‘News of the World’

  • News of the World by Paulette Jiles (Harper Collins, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A 70-year-old former soldier and itinerant news reader is asked to return a young girl kidnapped by the Kiowa Indians to her remaining family. Jiles beautifully paints a picture of the land, their growing relationship and the challenges they face.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Texas
  • Time: 1870
  • This book, based on actual historic figures, captures the hardship and beauty of life in Texas at the cusp of statehood. It was deserving of National Book Award consideration.

One of the most difficult things a writer can do is tell a straightforward story simply and with beautiful language. News of the World is such a success.

Texas in 1870 was a very rough and unforgiving land. Paulette Jiles’s poetic skills are everywhere in the sparse yet descriptive language she uses to bring the story alive. In a surprising small novel, Jiles tells the story of a young girl taken to live with the Kiowa Indians after they murdered her parents and sister. Rescued by the army, she is entrusted to a seventy-year-old former military officer who commits to bringing her back to her surviving relatives.

While this is historical fiction, both of the primary characters are grounded in fact. Knowing this gives the reader a platform to better understand the dynamics of life during this period.

Both are outsiders. He is an itinerant news reader, paid to read selected stories from newspapers around the world to audiences in saloons around the country. He has a keen awareness of schisms in the country and picks and chooses what he shares to avoid creating additional unrest. She no longer speaks English and is completely acculturated to the Kiowa way of life. He becomes her teacher and protects her from men who wish to victimize her further. She, too, feels a responsibility towards him and uses the skills she gained to save them both.

This is a turbulent time in Texas. There is great lawlessness with predatory alliances, some as an outgrowth of the Civil War, others familial or opportunistic. Few women live in the towns and many of them are in brothels. The Captain and Johanna are forced to travel under cover of darkness for their own protection. The land itself is a major character in the book. Jiles language is so precise you can see the terrain and feel the dust as they travel.

Despite the seriousness of their circumstances, this is not a doom and gloom novel. As they come to know and understand one another, there is a genuine affection that develops. There are cultural differences that must be bridged and there is humor.

It is rare to find a book that tells its story so well in such a compact package. For that reason, I hesitate to divulge any additional elements of the plot. As Captain Kidd’s and Johanna’s journey together draws to an end it is difficult to read because these are characters I would like to spend much more time with. This is a book I can recommend without reservation.

 

Howard Jacobson’s ‘Shylock’ is contemporary and biting

  • Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson (Hogarth Shakespeare, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Commissioned as one in a series of Shakespeare’s plays reconceived as contemporary novels, Jacobson skewers the “reality TV”  rich while Strulovitch, a wealthy Jewish philanthropist, questions his Jewish identity and worries about his daughter, all under the eyes of Shylock.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: England
  • Time: now
  • This book showcases the timelessness of Shakespeare’s characters and themes with Jacobson’s keen language and sardonic wit.

Simon Strulovitch lives in the countryside near Manchester, England. On a winter’s evening, he visits the grave of his mother, Leah, only to meet Shylock, still in mourning and speaking to his wife, Leah. Strulovitch invites him home and thus begins a contemporary recasting of The Merchant of Venice. Howard Jacobson is well-known for his biting assessments of his characters and their social standing.

Venice plays a major role in the story. On his honeymoon with his first wife, Strulovitch quickly realizes her idealized vision of him doesn’t mesh with his conflicted Eastern European roots. Strulovitch was angry and saddened at his father’s disownment of him for marrying outside of the faith. Upon his second marriage, there was a reconciliation and Strulovitch became a great collector of Jewish artists though his ambivalence about his Jewish identity remained.

Tragically, Kay, Simon’s second wife was felled by a stroke when their daughter Beatrice was young. Kay was left a wordless invalid and Strulevich effectively became a single parent. Shylock and Strulovitch have much in common in dealing with their daughters and as outsiders in the communities in which they live.

A mash-up of reality television elements – food and advice tv – along with a Kardashian-like figure and her acolytes are satirical devices that draw Beatrice, an aspiring performance artist, to her rupture with her father.

Woven throughout the novel is overt anti-Semitism in the community and among those Beatrice has chosen as her associates. When Beatrice, just turning 16, runs off with a football player suspended for his Nazi hand motion, Strulovitch wants him to pay.

Shylock is the classic foil to Strulovitch as he wrestles with his values and where he draws the line on taking action. It does take a leap to accept Shylock’s presence in 21st century England. However, the essential issues that these men, both as fathers and as Jews, face have changed little over the centuries. For this reason and because Jacobson can turn a phrase, that this reimagining of The Merchant of Venice is well worth reading.

This is the second of these novel riffs on Shakespeare I have read. I may give another a try.

(My earlier read was Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl based on The Taming of the Shrew and here is my write-up. My take on recent theatrical riffs on The Merchant of Venice is here.)

Making amends, making friends

  • My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman (Atria Books, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: Seven-year-old Elsa and Granny are best friends. Precocious and a misfit among her peers, Elsa gains strength from the magical stories Granny weaves. After Granny’s death, Elsa is sent on a quest connecting people Granny met throughout her life.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Non-specific Sweden
  • Time: 2012
  • This book is for you if you enjoy quest literature. Some characters are reminiscent of those in the Harry Potter books. Be aware that suspending belief about the sophistication of a seven-year-old is necessary. It is definitely NOT like A Man Called Ove.

Fredrik Backman made a splash on the literary scene when A Man Called Ove was first published in the U.S. in 2014. His third title, Britt-Marie Was Here, was released last summer. When I had the chance to speak with Backman at Book Expo America last May, I asked which of his books he’d suggest for some book groups I facilitate. His recommendation was My Grandmother… precisely because people seemed to either love or hate it. And he was right.

I am a sucker for a quest. I recommend Markus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger at every chance I get. Backman does an admirable job of connecting the reader to Granny and Elsa. While it is very hard to imagine that seven-year-old Elsa really has read all the Harry Potter books multiple times, it is no stretch to understand why her eccentric, anti-establishment Granny is her anchor in her confusing family. Elsa’s mother works constantly and is pregnant with Halfsie, soon to be Elsa’s half brother. Everyone seems to adore her stepfather but they have no special connection.  And her father and his new family are not very involved in her life. When Granny isn’t getting into scrapes with the local police and businesspeople she devotes all her attention and imagination to Elsa.

Granny’s unexpected death leaves Elsa bereft and adrift. The small apartment building that Granny and Elsa lived in is filled with characters. Some are a part of daily life, whether Elsa likes it or not. Others are disconnected and often far from view. Delivering an envelope written by Granny to a neighbor sends Elsa on a journey to learn about them all.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is alternately humorous and touching. The imaginary world Granny created to ease Elsa’s night fears is complex with memorable elements. Some of Backman’s descriptions of Elsa’s neighbors are reminiscent of people met in the pages of J.K. Rowling’s novels.

As Fredrik Bachman told me, some love the book, others really not. Having Elsa be a seven-year-old is a real sticking point for many. Backman used the timing of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia to bring Granny back home to care for her granddaughter, a choice that created unnecessary hurdles. For those who can buy into the intellectually precocious Elsa, Granny’s imaginary world, and the quest to find Elsa’s true family, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry may be a worthy undertaking.