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Book review: “The Long War” by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

When Roberta Golding first shows up in The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, she’s described as “a dark, unsmiling girl of about fifteen.” Nothing too unusual in that, but there’s more. She is a student at a boarding school in Valhalla where Dan Valiente, the curious and alert eight-year-old son of Joshua and Helen, may soon be enrolled. During a tour, the headmaster asks Dan if he knows how Valhalla — a sort of neo-Chicago — survives as a major transportation link even though it isn’t surrounded and supported by a hinterland of farms. “Maybe you’re all robbers,” Dan quips. To which, Roberta says, “Valhalla is a city supported by combers. Hunter-gatherers. The logic is elementary. Intensive farming can support order of magnitude more people per acre than hunting and gathering…” And on she drones for half a page. “Joshua thought the kid spoke like a textbook,” Pratchett and Baxter write. the-long-war-by-terry-pratchett-and-stephen-baxter For me, Roberta is the most intriguing character in a book fully littered with the odd, the eccentric and the downright alien. The context Before I explain, though, I need to provide the context, and there’s a lot.

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Book review: “Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song” by David Margolick

margolick --- strangefruitIn early 1939, at Café Society, a rare integrated New York City night club, Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit.” It was, writes David Margolick, a shocking, stunning, visceral song for the singer and her audience — a unique, courageous and bitter song about the lynching of blacks in the American South. And so it remained, arresting and horrific, for anyone who heard the battered and self-destructive Holiday sing it during the two decades she had left in her life, and for anyone who listens today to an audio or video recording of her singing the song. It was written by Abel Meeropol, a school teacher and songwriter with strong leftish sympathies. (Indeed, in later life, after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for spying, he and his wife, who never met the Rosenbergs, adopted their two young sons.)  “Strange Fruit” by Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol)   Southern trees bear a strange fruit,  Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,  Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,  Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.... Strange Fruit is Margolick’s short book about the song. It began as a Vanity Fair article, and is subtitled The Biography of a Song. In many ways, it’s a kind of oral history since the bulk of his text is taken up with quotes from Holiday and others At a party in Harlem in late 1938, Holiday asked in the early morning hours if she could sing a new song for those still around. Charles Gilmore, then a young salesman, recalled that it brought the party to a jarring halt: That was all she sang; nobody asked her to sing anything else. There was a finality about the last note. Even the pianist knew. He just got up and walked away. It was an odd thing. Nobody clapped or anything.

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Book review: “Shalako” by Louis L’Amour

Louis L’Amour died in 1988 at the age of 80. In his long life as a writer, he published 105 novels and other books, almost all of them westerns or set in the West. He has more than 320 million copies of his works in print, and I’ve just read one of them, his 1962 novel Shalako. My expectations weren’t high, given that L’Amour’s books are genre westerns. Still, many have been turned into movies. In fact, that’s why I was reading Shalako — because, recently, I’d seen the 1968 film with Sean Connery in the title role and Brigitte Bardot as the love interest, a European noblewoman Irina. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PIgAL_KryIU Shalako has some of the negatives of genre fiction of all sorts. For instance, none of the characters is very complicated, particularly the baddest of the bad guys, Bosky Fulton. At one point, the reader is told there is “something unclean about the man.” Later, he is described as an “ill-smelling, hatchet-faced gunman.” And, toward the end, we learn that he has “yellow eyes.” To top it all off, Bosky strips the valuables from one of his dying friends, the second baddest guy, and leaves him to the Apaches. l'amour --- shalakoNear the end, though, Bosky gets his comeuppance when a merciless Apache finds him wounded and immobilized among some mountain rocks — and gives him a slow, tortured death. Okay, so L’Amour lays it on thick about Bosky. A real page-turner On the plus side, though, Shalako is a real page-turner.

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Book review: “Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink” by David Margolick

Sports books tend to be bland reading. They can’t hold a candle to watching an athlete ply his or her trade. In Beyond Glory, David Margolick does a good job of describing the key fights of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, particularly their two against each other. Yet, as evocative as his writing is, it is nothing to a YouTube clip showing a totally befuddled Schmeling stagger across the canvas and along the ropes as Louis beats the crap out of him in their second bout. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJGOADcmwS4 Beyond Glory, though, isn’t a sports book. It’s a book about a moment in time when a single sporting event — that second Louis-Schmeling fight — brought front-and-center the sins and aspirations of a world community. • Adolf Hitler and the Nazis saw Max Schmeling as a means to over-awe the culture of the globe, as Hitler had over-awed the political leaders. • African-Americans saw Joe Louis as a means to live out their fantasies of winning in a white man’s world — and literally beating a white man into submission. • American Jews saw Louis as a means of getting a small bit of revenge against Schmeling’s Nazi backers for their treatment of German Jews. • Racist whites saw Schmeling as a means of keeping African-Americans in their place. Have two athletes ever borne such a weight of sins and aspirations?

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Book review: “But Come Ye Back” by Beth Lordan

I wonder if anyone has written about the waning years of a happy (and, at times, sharp-edged) marriage with as much sensitivity and nuance as Beth Lordan in But Come Ye Back. Published in 2004, But Come Ye Back is what’s called a novel in stories. There are seven stories, averaging around 25 pages each, and a novella of a little over 100. It’s a form that serves Lordan’s narrative well since it provides her a wide latitude in terms of tone, pace and point of view. Even so, at the heart of every section, no matter the literary techniques, beats the relationship — the love — of Mary and Lyle. As the book opens, Lyle has retired from his accountant’s job in Ohio, and the couple is moving to Ireland, Mary’s homeland and the native soil of Lyle’s parents. He is 65. She is 60. She wants to be back with her sister and other relatives. He goes along, only a bit grumpy. This is a book about stories not told. About how life is lived, experienced, and how memories are kept, savored, almost unknowingly. Even if you wanted to tell a story, how would you put it into words? Mary, at one point, considers an aspect of this:
She’d said so little, it seemed now — told him so few things, never mentioned how she took pleasure in seeing his head, the shape of it, or how she thought his hands were beautiful, even if he was a man — beautiful hands. And other things: she’d seen his eyes full of tears when the boys were baptized and never said a thing about it, and she’d seen how he would put the newspaper to the side for a long time after he read something sad, about children or poor people, for all that he went on about the politics. She’d never told him that his smell was a joy, a rich wheaten smell that was almost a taste, and that when he was away, she’d take his pillow for her own just to have that smell of him close…

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Book review: “Young Stalin” by Simon Sebag Montefiore

While reading Young Stalin, I was struck by the very human and, at times, very attractive portrait that Simon Sebag Montefiore paints of Joseph Stalin. Montefiore- stalin At various points in the narrative, Montefiore describes Stalin as someone who could be (a) gentle with children and (b) the singing-laughing life of a party and (c) irresistible to women and (d) an intrepid hunter in the winter wastes of Siberia and (e) a self-taught philosopher and (f) a vociferous reader and (g) an anthologized poet. The lavish use of photos in this 2007 book adds to the perception of Stalin as someone who could fit well into a circle of friends — even the mug shots. stalin on cosmoIndeed, the mug shot used on the book jacket has been circulated around the Internet under the words “Young Stalin was hot,” and sparked one webpage of parody images of the young Communist that included a faux Cosmopolitan cover and an image titled “He’s fabulous…but he’s evil.” A Facebook image The most arresting image, for me, is opposite page 302. It shows a 26-year-old Stalin with dancing eyes and a wide smile, standing next to Soren Spandarian, his best friend. Spandarian is described as “a well-educated Armenian playboy,” but, in this photo, he looks to be a bit of a slob. Or maybe just a tad drunk. Stalin is probably also somewhat in the bag. Yet, change the clothes on these guys and get rid of the cigarette, and this is one of those party photos that are routinely posted on Facebook. Stalin and Spandarian --- no caption So, here’s this attractive, fun guy….who just happens to have been one of history’s monsters.

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Book review: “A Perfect Spy” by John Le Carre

I am surprised that, having finished John Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy a few days ago, the image of Rick Pym that remains in my mind is this one: …Rick turned away to bestow a resigned smile on his subjects feasting around him. Then with his good hand he lightly pinged the edge of his Drambuie glass to indicate that he required another nice touch. Just as, by unlacing his shoes, he used to let it be known that somebody should fetch his bedroom slippers. Or by rolling on his back, after a lengthy banquet, and spreading his knees, he declared a carnal appetite. Rick is a con man extraordinaire, and I would have thought that my mind’s eye would see him running a con. There are certainly many, many, many examples of that in this novel. lecarre - perfect spyBy the way, this is a novel about a spy — Rick’s son Magnus, the “perfect spy” of the title — but it’s not a spy novel. Le Carre, who has always written of espionage with high literary skill, essentially leaves the reservation with this 1986 book. This is the story of the wracked, warped, false, deep, rending, manipulative, counterfeit lives and relationship of Rick and Magnus. The spy stuff is just the setting. There’s something Faulknerian going on here — and, at the same time, I sincerely believe that any fan of chick lit would resonate with the parent-child horror-show on display. Deep elemental nature So why isn’t the image that comes to my mind some interaction of Rick and Magnus?

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Book review: “Meet Me at Pere Lachaise” by Anna Eriksson and Mason Bendewald

This is an unfair review. I’ve been to Paris twice, and, both times, I’ve made a trip out to the Pere Lachaise cemetery. I’m a fan of cemeteries, and, for someone like me, going to Pere Lachaise is like an art lover going to the Louvre, or a Catholic going to the Vatican. Meet Me at Pere Lachaise is a guided tour of the cemetery, with text by Anna Eriksson and photos by Mason Bendewald. I ordered the book because it’s been a couple years since my last visit and I’ve been getting nostalgic about strolling along the cemetery’s avenues and stumbling amid its gravestones. erickson -- meet me.--- 1 Meet Me at Pere Lachaise is fine as a guidebook. But, alas, it isn’t the book for me.

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Book review: “Steel Barrio: The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940” by Michael Innis-Jimenez

innis-jimenez --- steel barrioOn July 7, 1931, Thomas A. Green, a municipal judge in Chicago, caused an international incident when he tossed the acting Mexican consul into jail for six months. Adolfo Dominguez went to Green’s courtroom in support of an unemployed Mexican immigrant arrested on vagrancy. But, after hearing Green make insulting comments about Mexican “idlers” who were a “burden” on the city, the consul approached the bench to protest. Green didn’t want to listen. Dominguez wouldn’t back down. So the judge sent him to Cook County Jail. “It took a State Department letter to the Illinois governor to force Green to retract his decision regarding Dominguez,” writes Michael Innis-Jimenez in Steel Barrio: The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940, just published this month. (Dominguez served only four hours behind bars.) Decades later, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the South Chicago neighborhood were still talking about Green, not only for his jailing of the consul but also for his general mistreatment of their compatriots. Yet, the anti-Mexican prejudices expressed by Green are only part of the complex account that Innis-Jimenez provides about the early years of the Mexican community in South Chicago. It is an account of living in two cultures, of negotiating the tricky question of language, of being citizens without citizenship papers and of creating a home away from home. South Chicago Although Steel Barrio is steeped in the growing scholarly literature on the Mexican experience in the United States, Innis-Jimenez tells a very specific story about a very specific community in a very specific place. South Chicago is like many other U.S. areas where immigrants from Mexico have settled — and it’s not.

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